Note: This is part 6 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. If you missed last week’s letter, read it here. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on last year’s letters, click here.
Matt and Jer chased down the street after Brian. But a team of penguins with hockey sticks over their shoulders wedged between them. Jer got pushed to the right, down an alley toward a red-tile court. A group of elves and gnomes was playing some kind of game with paddles, passing a ball back and forth before slamming it over a net.
Seeing an unused paddle and ball, Jer got an idea. He could whack the ball at the fairies to scare them into dropping Bri. Hopefully somewhere soft. He grabbed the paddle. But when he did, it rumbled. Tiny gears whirled and smoke puffed from the top of the paddle. Before he could drop it,brass wires looped around his hand down his arm. Motors grinding, it dragged Jer onto the red tiles as the players argued over whose team he was on. Whatever this game was, Jer was playing.
On the left side of the street, Matt sidestepped his way through the crowd while keeping his eyes toward Brian. He bumped into something that dropped him to the ground. That something was big, but slightly squishy.And fuzzy. Looking up, a curtain of white fur ran to a dark snout filled with teeth. A polar bear. In the middle of the street. And it reached a dinner-plate sized paw toward Matt.
If Matt had been paying attention, he would have noticed a whistle around the bear’s neck, and a “Stop” sign in its other paw. But he was too scared to do anything but scamper to his feet and tense his muscles.
So when the bear asked, “Are you okay, young man?” Matt screamed and ran, not stopping to wonder how a bear just spoke to him. He dodged along snowy side streets, ducking past elves and hopping over raccoons until he was safely on the other side of a mossy-stone bridge.
Catching his breath, Matt noticed a glittering overhead.Brian and the fairies. Before he could start after him, something else stepped in front of him. A reindeer this time. Still jumpy from the polar bear, Matt backed away with his arms in the air. But instead of talking,1 the reindeer pawed the cobblestone, and gestured its snout toward Brian. Matt’s stomach dropped. The reindeer was offering to carry him up to Brian. Matt stuttered, but the reindeer cut him off with a growl. Too shocked to do anything else, Matt climbed on its back. Before he could even get his arms around its neck the reindeer sprang into the air.
If the reindeer had simply flown straight, everything would have been fine. But unbeknownst to Matt, reindeer have a penchant for hotdogging–especially when they have a rider to impress. Matt was soon spinning and barrel-rolling his way to Brian.
Matt’s arms and legs viced against the reindeer to stay aboard. Like Brian, he was too scared to scream. Despite all this, Brian was soon within reach. Ever so carefully, Matt reached out his hand. But at that moment, the reindeer did a twirl in the opposite direction, sending Matt flying into the air. Flailing, Matt clung onto Bri’s ankle. The added weight caused the fairies to lose their grip, and both boys dropped from the sky.
While all this was happening, Jer’s game of römmeljebållen had reached match point. The opposing gnome whackers set the ball as Jer jostled with an elf skirmisher along the net. But when Jer reached to block the shot, the ball pelted him in the forehead before careening out of reach. The other team cheered. Jer’s team groaned, and lined up along the net while the other team all grabbed balls with a triumphant gleam in their eyes.
Jer did not want to see what happened next. He also noticed that the paddle’s wires had finally unwound from his hand. He threw the paddle down and ran, ignoring the cries of shame from the players. But before he made it five steps, Jer turned at a loud buzzing behind him. The paddle was chasing him and, with a looping arc, whacked him in the rear. Then it looped around and whacked him again. And again.
While the paddle chased Jer through the city, he noticed Bri and Matt fall through the air, and land in a snowbank with a powdery poof. Seeing his chance to escape the paddle, Jer sprinted toward the snowbank with all his might, diving in head first.
For a moment, the brothers sprawled in the snow and panted.Eventually, they started laughing. They were about to swap adventure stories when a shadow fell over them.
It was an elf. Dressed in his Christmas finery, he had a sharp nose, pointy ears, and a distinguished, handsome face. He carried a giant ledger and quill pen. His name was Erno.2
“Who, may I ask, are you?” Erno’s voice was crisp.
Before the boys could answer, Kanute bounded toward them. “They’re with me.”
“Human children at the North Pole? Highly irregular.” Erno said.
“I didn’t have a choice. They captured me and used their wish to come here.”
Erno sighed. “Just tell me you got the Heart of the North.” Kanute played with his beard, and Erno’s face slowly turned. “What happened?”
“It landed at these boys’ house. By the time I got there,they’d brought it into their yard where it was . . .” Kanute gulped. The boys ducked their faces behind the snow bank. “Taken by a troll.”
Erno’s face was ashen. “This is horrible. Awful.Catastrophic. I shall tell Santa Claus immediately.” The boys, now frozen and miserable, hoped the elf would forget about them. Instead, he turned and stared.
“Did you boys touch the Heart of the North?”
“And when you did this, did you have in your hearts feelings of greed, avarice, or other twisted desires?” The boys’ squirming was all the answer Erno needed. “Show me your palms. Come now, be quick about it.”
The boys complied , and Erno gasped.
“How could you bring them here, Kanute?”
“I didn’t think to–I mean, with the jewel gone and the wish it slipped my mind that . . .”
“What is it?” Jer asked, and looked down at his and his brothers’ hands. On their palms, fainter than a faded bruise, was a circular pattern. It looked almost like a wreath or weeds.
Erno’s voice was heavy. “You boys have the Mark.”
1 While other North Pole creatures (such as raccoons, penguins, seals, foxes, and mice) have the ability to reason, only Polar Bears are capable of human speech. This, of course, is because the Saami hunter Juho taught them to speak around the time of the North Pole’s founding. But that’s a tale for another day…
2 Yes, that’s me! And sorry for the “distinguished, handsome face” line. I know that’s the sort of thing you humans view as conceited. We elves view it as truthful. Our breathtaking beauty is such a burden sometimes…
Illustration by Brian Mellema