Alox looked over the ledge and smirked, keeping his eyes open despite the sting of the mist. Behind him a group of boys near his own age of seventeen watched impatiently, some excited, others nervous, but none appearing as concerned as Tab Sorrenson, who tried again to talk his friend down.

“Don’t do it, Alox,” he said in a low voice, just audible above the rumble of the falls. “You don’t have to prove anything. It won’t matter none if you don’t go through with it.”

It was well past midnight and the full moon illuminated the rushing water of the river Cri, at its highest point now from all the spring runoff. The boys’ boots and pant legs were soaked through with mud and their breath clouded before their faces as they recovered from their hike up to the top of the falls. No one had ever jumped from the top before, except for poor Molly Tanner who hadn’t wanted to come back up and didn’t, but as Alox hopped from stone to stone out toward the center of the current, he pictured himself swimming to the edge of the pool below, still invincible.

“I’m takin’ bets!” another boy, Clarence, shouted with a grin. “Ten pieces says he doesn’t do it!”

Some of the boys laughed, shivering in the night air.

“I’ll take your money,” Alox said with a smile, and Clarence whooped.

“Ten pieces then! You’re on!”

Tab just shook his head, his lips pursed. Alox shrugged out of his coat and threw it to his friend, following it up with his tunic, his boots already littering the shore. “I’ll be wanting those when I get out.”

He stared down at the pool, barely able to make it out through the mist and darkness, and then up at the full moon to which he was that much closer. He drew a deep breath and said a quiet prayer to the One Mother that he’d miss the rocks below, then leapt from the edge without so much as a farewell nod to his friends. Their ruckus was snatched from his ears as the rumble of the falls and the rush of cold air engulfed him. He fell through the dark toward the water below in a moment that was over too quickly.

The shock of the water awoke every particle of his body, and in that one instant he felt truly alive. He stayed beneath the surface—the roar of the churning water blocking out all but his own inner voice, the cold wet pressing in on his open eyes—until his thirst for air became impossible to ignore. Trying to take in every sensation, he moved his hands deftly through the water, kicking toward the surface so far above, certain of the direction despite the disorienting darkness.

He broke through the turbulent water and gulped for air, then paddled toward the edge of the pool, unable to keep from grinning. He slogged out of the water and stood shivering, squelching his toes in the muddy bank as he shook out his hair, then headed toward the trail with water cascading down his trousers. He could see the shadowy form of his friends in the distance, drawing nearer. Alox let out a laugh like a crow and ran up to meet them, feeling unbeatable.

Tab led the group and tossed Alox his coat as soon as he was close enough, still looking nervous and disapproving. The boys were talking animatedly and it took Alox a few moments to realize that some of the voices were angry. Phrases like “didn’t see him jump” and “who’s he think he’s fooling” began to stand out among the jumble of words. Alox slipped into his coat and waited, his posture tall but his face stoic.

“Of course I’m gonna pay up!” Clarence said to a boy Alox didn’t recognize, who seemed to be the center of the conflict. “Just ‘cause you had your damn eyes shut don’t mean­─”

“He probably bewitched himself,” the boy retorted. “Nobody should have been able to walk away from that! He’s used some sorcery like his father has.”

“No way!” Tab said. “Alox doesn’t play like that.”

But Alox noted silently that, with the exception of Clarence, the boys all looked doubtful. The one Clarence had been shouting at snorted and crossed his arms, rolling his eyes at Tab.

“And who’re you?” Alox asked.

“He’s my cousin,” Clarence said angrily. He seemed pained to admit the relation. “He’s visiting from Didgery. Sorry, Alox.”

“And you know so much about my family, do you, being all the way from Didgery?”

“Actually, no,” the boy said, coming up to face Alox despite the cautionary rumble among his peers. “I only ever heard of The Flewr. I didn’t know the Mage had a family at all, let alone two sons. You and your brother must not be very noteworthy.”

There was a simultaneous intake of breath among the group. Alox looked at the boy who seemed intent on a fight and made a decision.

“Well, I know I’m not noteworthy in the slightest,” he agreed with a jaunty grin. “My brother, maybe. He at least magics. But I’m not much like my brother, as any of these blokes could tell you.”

Clarence grabbed his cousin by the shoulders and yanked him out of Alox’s way as Tab handed him his boots and tunic. No one spoke as they walked back to the Hollow to sneak back in the heavy doors and darkened windows from which they’d come. Alox took a deep breath, shivered, and continued on alone to the house deepest in the hills. The eerie sound of wind chimes greeted him on the night breeze, and he stopped a few paces from the front step to peer up at the attic window where he could just make out the flickering of a candle.

No, he thought, trying to curb his plummeting spirits. I’m nothing like Nathan at all.

. . .

Nathan Flewr hunched over the wooden crate that served as his desk and pored over a piece of parchment in the candlelight, a bar of charcoal clenched in his right hand. The entire length of the page was filled with line after line of tiny, precise scrawl, and some of the characters and symbols held meaning only to him. He paused and glanced up at the blank wall in front of him, searching for something unseen. Masked in shadow, the walls offered no inspiration, but Nathan preferred it that way. They also caused no distraction. For the same reason, he faced himself away from the window, even in darkness, as not to be preoccupied by the views of the outside world.

Six years Alox’s elder, Nathan looked as unlike his father as his brother looked like him, similar to the men in his family only in height and countenance. Too often holed up in the attic, he appeared as a ghost next to Adrian and Alox with his pale skin, blond hair, and nearly colorless blue eyes. They were solid, tanned, with dark brown eyes and hair; they looked like they might have grown from the fields of the earth, while Nathan had been dropped from the sky.

Champing on his lip, Nathan finished the formula with a dramatic sweep of the charcoal and smiled to himself, the pleasant feeling of completion resonating within his chest. He took up his wand and focused it on the candlestick in front of him, trying not to doubt that the spell would work this time, and then recited it carefully under his breath. The flame stuttered in protest, but as he reached the end of the incantation the candlestick remained unchanged.

“Damn it.”

Deep lines creased his forehead and he flicked his wand at the candle again, muttering a choice spell in retribution. The flame went out in a puff of smoke, but this tiny display of magic did nothing to ease his previous failure.

“Damn it. Damn it,” he grumbled at the dark, glaring at the parchment and then at his wand. He had carved it from a maple branch many years ago to replace the broken spoon handle he’d first used as a child. He was unable to perform magic without such an instrument, so it was with equal amounts of frustration and pride that he kept the wand always upon his person.

Nathan rubbed his eyes. Another sleepless night had nearly passed. A knocking at the front door startled him, and he could hear his father’s bedroom door open and Adrian’s steady footfalls on the floor below. Nathan closed his eyes, straining to hear the voice of the herald at the door, once again summoning his father to the court. He could just imagine the boy standing on the porch, clutching his Idellian tabard out of nerves, giddy to be delivering a message to the famed Mage, Adrian Flewr. Indeed he heard the boy’s voice stutter slightly as he spoke.

“G-good morning, Master Flewr. It is my humble duty to inform you that His Royal Majesty, King Rudyard, the Noble Ruler of Idellia, will be expecting you at the palace at dawn,” said the voice floating up through the floorboards.

“That’s a bit early for him, isn’t it? Must be important,” Adrian said.

“I imagine it is, sir,” agreed the herald.

“What is your name, lad?”

“Bryon, sir.”

“You look frozen. Come in and warm up a bit. But please step lightly, my sons are still sleeping.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Please, just call me Adrian,” said he. “I never have been one for titles.”

“Yes, sir, … Adrian, I mean. Sorry, sir.”

Nathan sighed and shook his head, eyes still closed. He tried to interpret the uncharitable feelings welling up in him, and he realized with some disdain that it was jealousy. But whether he was jealous of his father for garnering such admiration or of the young herald, Nathan was unsure.

With renewed ambition, he returned his attention to the parchment before him and began furiously crossing things out. When he was satisfied that all of the offending lines had been rendered illegible, he perched it on his sheaf of failures and then began scrawling anew, his wand gripped tightly in his left hand as his right labored to fix its previous mistakes. He didn’t even pause to relight the candle, his eyes straining to see through the weak morning light that had begun to sneak through the window behind him.

. . .

Alox had never been more thankful for the arrival of a herald. He paced his room, his bedcover wrapped tightly around him, unable to control the shivering. He wanted nothing more than to thaw out by the fire and heat some water for tea and a compress, but he wasn’t about to go out there in front of his father, soaked to the skin and pale from the cold, no matter how likely it was that Adrian already suspected him. The words “irresponsible” and “reckless,” spoken in his father’s voice, resounded in his head as though they’d already been uttered. Alox moved to the window by which he had made his escape and return and watched Adrian disappear around the bend, on his way to the stables at the mouth of the Hollow.

“Finally,” Alox muttered, teeth chattering, and he sprinted to the main room to start a fire, his leg muscles seizing up in protest. There was already wood on the grate, barely blackened. Adrian had lit and extinguished the fire within a short time span, probably all from the comfort of his armchair. Alox took down his kindling box from the mantle and struck a spark, then bent down on hand and knee to blow on the tiny flame, urging it. Who needs magic? he thought. This was magic enough, that the cooperation between his hands and these simple objects could create something as amazing as fire. The feeling of control his brother worked so tirelessly for Alox found in every task, from the swinging of an ax to conversing with a friend. Affecting our world through action, that is true power, Alox thought. In fact, anything not made by his own two hands felt strangely like cheating to him.

A healthy flame writhed in the fireplace now, and Alox moved as close to it as he dared, enjoying the warmth as it spread through his hands and up his arms. When his muscles had relaxed a bit he hung the kettle to boil and then turned his back to the heat. He thought of his father, traveling once again to the castle, and he couldn’t help but chuckle. Ol’ King Rudy, always sending for advice. It surprised him that the king hadn’t had done with it and asked Adrian to conjure him some sense. Of course, Alox would never say such a thing in front of his father, who never spoke ill of people and had been a loyal servant to King Rudyard, and King Simon before him, since he’d come of age. It seemed to Alox to be a thankless job.

There was another knock at the door and Alox begrudgingly stood and wrapped his bedcover around his waist, his bare feet plodding reluctantly across the cold wood floor. The knocking persisted, though he was there within seconds, and when he opened the door mid-beat the girl’s fist still hung in the air, poised to keep knocking. Her surprise as she took in his attire momentarily overpowered the look of determination on her face.

“Morning, Mikka,” Alox said with a grin, one hand on the door and the other on the frame, leaving the bedcover to hang precariously from his hips.

The girl stared at him speechlessly and then looked quickly over her shoulder to make sure no one had seen him. Then, recovering herself, she shoved past him roughly and didn’t pause until she reached the mantle on other side of the room.

“Of all the improper things to do! Answering the door barely clothed…” she hissed, her freckled cheeks flushing as she wheeled about to face him. “It could have been anyone calling!”

Alox closed the door casually and flopped down into the armchair closest to her. “You don’t have to whisper,” he said. “My father’s gone off to the palace and I highly doubt Nathan is sleeping. You can even yell at me if you like.”

She seemed to consider this a moment, crossing her arms and shaking her dark untidy hair off of her shoulder. Her hazel eyes narrowed as she remembered why she had come, but when she spoke her voice was level and soft.

“Tab told me what you did.”

Alox bristled a little, though he tried to look unaffected. It wasn’t so much that his best friend had told on him, but that he had gone calling on Mikka at all.

“Were you worried about me?” he asked, suddenly caught up in an image of her tending to his bedside. A smile and a faraway look spread across his face. Too bad he’d made it out without a scratch.

“Don’t smirk at me,” Mikka said. “How can you play dice with your own life like this? I know you steal out most nights, off to who knows where, but I never suspected this. Risking your neck for the entertainment of others…”

Alox looked up sharply, shocked at her conclusion, and his eyes bored into hers with rare intensity.

“I didn’t do it for anybody’s entertainment,” he said. “I would have done it just the same had nobody known about it. It was for no one’s benefit but my own.”

He couldn’t read her expression, which was nothing new, but he was surprised when she didn’t press him further.

“How do you know I steal out most nights?”

She shrugged and wouldn’t meet his eye.

“I’ve seen everything within half a night’s ride of the Hollow twice over by now, but no one’s ever called me out on it,” he said.

“When are you leaving for the Freedom Feast?” she asked, swiftly changing subjects.

Alox stared blankly. “What?”

She met his eyes now. “You’re kidding, right? It’s the Day of Freedom today, Alox! You know, celebrating the end of the Thirteen Year War and all that?”

How could he have forgotten? No wonder Clarence’s stupid cousin was visiting from Didgery. What was supposed to be their village’s annual homage to their fallen warriors had, over the past ten years, somehow become the last stop of a nationwide pilgrimage to meet the hero-Mage, Adrian Flewr. On this day more than any other, Alox would have to endure the spotlight while, at the same time, exist only as a shadow behind his father. He shook his head slowly, now dreading the day.

“I don’t know when we’ll leave. Whenever my dad returns, I suppose,” he said.

Mikka fidgeted with her floor-length skirts, glancing at him and then at the fire. “I know it’s a bit improper for me to ask, but do you think I might accompany you?”

“Oh yeah! Definitely. I mean, if you want to.”

She smiled in relief. “Very much.” Then her look darkened and her eyes turned fiery. “The palace isn’t letting workers off for the holiday this year, can you believe that? Not even in the mines. I’ll bet the king has even forgotten it, as you have.”

Alox wrapped his bedcover tighter around himself guiltily. “So your dad is stuck at the mines…”

She nodded. It was nearing a month since he’d last returned, the only man from the Hollow who chose to work the mines, so far away to the north. There was work to be found closer by, but nothing but the dark of the underground seemed to suit him since his wife had passed. Alox understood all too well how Death could change the living, having lost his mother to the same bout of fever that had taken Mikka’s mom, sweeping the Hollow only a year after the war. His stomach knotted up thinking about it; he had never before and never again seen his dad look helpless.

Alox jumped slightly when Mikka laid her hand on his shoulder.

“Yikes, your hands are cold!” he said, instantly regretting it as she drew her hand away. He stood and caught it before she could hide it in her pocket, then drew her hand to his lips and exhaled against her palm, rubbing warmth gently back into her fingers. He was afraid to meet her eyes, intently studying her graceful but hard worked hands instead. She quietly cleared her throat and he glanced up nervously as she withdrew.

“I suppose they are a bit… thank you,” she said, then smiled. “But please don’t go so far as to offer me your blanket.”

He smirked and looked unselfconsciously down at his bedcover then back to her, his eyes softening. “I’ll have to find another way to warm you up then.”

Mikka looked around nervously, color rising again to her cheeks. “I should go.”

“Why? I didn’t mean─”

“I know, Alox,” she hurried to say, already moving to the door. “I’ll see you in awhile, yes?”

He gripped the back of the chair as he watched her go, unable to stutter a reply before the door shut with a thud. He continued to stare at its rough grain, unwilling to move until he had a direction. As he had many times before, he felt the frustration of wanting to make his future happen right now but not knowing how, and the only goal that he had had just walked out his front door. He touched the spot on his shoulder where her cold fingers had lain and a moment later jumped up to get dressed. He had a mission. It was nothing grand, but then these were not times of greatness, and he would have to settle for tiny heroics as he always had.

. . .

The sun had cleared the horizon, illuminating the tops of the hills and spilling its warm light into the Hollow by the time Nathan laid down the charcoal and rolled up the parchment in quiet celebration. Palming his wand, he was struck with the rare desire to work outside. It was still early, so he was unlikely to be bothered, and even if someone was to see him at work he had already completed a successful test. Where the candlestick had stood a moment before, there was now only empty space. Nathan tapped the roll of parchment on the edge of the desk in satisfaction. His latest formula had done the trick.

Moving over to the hatch in the attic floor, he unlocked it and let it drop open, then lowered himself down the rope ladder with his wand clenched in his teeth. His back creaked when his feet hit the ground and he straightened to his full height, rubbing his eyes both to chase off the tired and for relief from the light. He hooked the ladder to the inside of the trapdoor and shoved them both back up into the ceiling, then grabbed his cloak and headed outside.

Nathan stopped a few paces from the house and looked out on the Hollow, past the little houses nestled on the hillsides, out toward the Valley of the Cri. He needed something large to test the spell on, but not anything that someone would miss. Nothing here would do. He went around the side of the house and headed into the hills, where it promised to be quiet and secluded. Though these were two things that he generally had in abundance, Nathan never tired of them. After walking several minutes though, they appeared to be false promises, as a strange rhythmic sound like the crack of a whip began to punctuate the morning stillness. He mounted the crest of the next hill and found himself looking down at his own brother chopping firewood from a felled tree with impressive speed. Only a small portion of the tree remained, while a neatly stacked pile of timber stood nearby. Nathan shook his head with wonder. He could never understand Alox’s obsession with doing things the hard way. However, this time it did provide him with the perfect subject.

Nathan sat down on top of the hill and unfurled the parchment, taking out his wand and beginning to recite the words.

. . .

Alox sliced his ax through the broad trunk in a single motion. It felt good to be working, and he glanced over his shoulder in pride at the large pile of firewood that he had already amassed. A strange shape in the hills caught his notice, and he spotted his brother reading a short distance away. He took another swing at the tree and a deep breath.

“Did you finish another one, Nate? Good for you,” he called pleasantly, adding some more wood to the heap.

He looked at his brother expectantly and when he didn’t reply swung the ax again, harder this time. It struck through to the ground with a shocking force, causing the handle to jolt in his fingers. “Nice to see you outside. Finally remembered how the door works, huh?”

Still Nathan said nothing; he stared down at the parchment and mumbled under his breath, beginning to let his wand sway slightly as Alox’s grip on the ax handle tightened.

“Real talkative this morning, aren’t you, Nate. I’m so glad you came out to say ‘hi,’” he growled, wondering why of all the hills to choose from Nathan had picked this one to loiter on. He dropped the ax and stooped to pick up the rest of the wood.

Alox’s jaw clenched irritably as he loaded his arms, and he was just resigning himself to ignore his brother when he turned and saw that his entire woodpile was gone. The timber he was carrying fell heavily to the ground as his hands rolled into fists. The whole stack of firewood—his last hour’s work—had disappeared. Blood rushed speedily to his cheeks as he turned to face his brother. Nathan however looked ecstatic.

“Ha-ha! It worked! Did you see that? Perfect!” he laughed, jumping to his feet. He spoke more to the parchment than to his brother, and failed to notice Alox quickly approaching. “I think that… Ouch!”

Alox struck him hard in the face.

Nathan stumbled backward holding his jaw, his expression one of disbelief as he lost his balance and fell back into the grass, the parchment still clenched in his fist. Alox stood over him, heart pounding, surprised at his own aggression. They remained there for a moment, both a bit stupefied, until the silence in the air was so dense that it seemed to hold them in place. The effect shattered when Alox laughed out loud, and then Nathan lunged at him, sending them both off the side of the steeply sloped hill. They rolled down in a tangled heap, where they landed amid a flurry of fists.

“Don’t you ever…!” Nathan snarled, landing roughly on top of his brother and driving his knee into Alox’s stomach in his haste to stand again.

The wind knocked out of him, Alox grabbed the hem of Nathan’s cloak and pulled him back to the earth. They rolled about on the damp ground, punching and kicking each other madly as if all of their past disagreements had resurfaced to fuel them on.

“Why did you have to do that?” Alox shouted wildly, amid the swirl of mud and grass, skin and cloth. “You messed up everything! Why couldn’t you just stay in your little rat hole?”

Nathan let out a growl, the pit of his stomach burning with anger. He could hardly distinguish whose limbs were whose as they each lashed out their rage. But Alox by far had the upper hand, and he quickly had Nathan pinned and exhausted in the dirt.

“Why did you do that?” Alox demanded again, holding his brother’s forearms to the ground and grinding one knee into his chest.

“Me?” Nathan shouted as he struggled to free himself. “I advanced the art of magic! I contributed something to this world! That may be a foreign concept to you…”

“I am not your test subject!” Alox snatched the wand promptly from Nathan’s pocket and stood, pointing it threateningly down at his chest.

“What do you plan to do with that, Alox?” Nathan asked, his bleeding lip turning up a little at the edges. “You don’t know how to use it.”

Alox stared at the wand blankly and then down at his brother. He would not be made to feel powerless. A sly smile spread across his mussed up face as he backed away from Nathan and then turned and ran toward the hills, chucking the wand with all of his might. It spun head over tail in a wide arc through the sky, away out of sight. He felt an indulgent chuckle rising in his chest as Nathan stared on terrified.

“Guess you’re not the only one who can make things disappear, huh Nate?” he said, brushing off his hands.

“What an impressive display,” said an unexpected voice.

Alox turned to see his father astride his old stallion and instantly went pale. He glanced warily at his brother and then looked down at the earth in shame.