Note: This is part 7 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.
Erno hailed a raven and whispered something in its ear before sending it off. Kanute flipped a gadget on his wrist. This started a forest of tree-sized organ pipes. Their rumble resounded through the North Pole and made the boys’ chests tingle.
“The Council starts in ten minutes.” Erno told Kanute. “Drop the boys at Holly Cottage and meet me there.”
Trailing Kanute through the cobbled streets, Jer asked, “What happens at the Council?”.
“The North Pole’s leaders will decide how to proceed in light of these….developments.”
“Will Santa be there?” Brian said.
“He’s still delivering presents.” Kanute replied. “But it wouldn’t be possible anyway.”
“What’s the Mark? Is it serious?” Matt asked.
“Very serious. And very dangerous. In fact, it–oh, here we are.”
Kanute led them around a corner into a glade of spruce with what looked like a giant gingerbread cottage in the center. Walking toward its oak door, they crossed a field of poppies. Fairies danced and darted among the flowers, giggling at the visitors.
Kanute checked his pocket watch. “I have to go. The house fairies left food in the cupboards, and a change of clothes in the closet. You can draw water from the well, and the outhouse is over that hill. Be sure to check for fairies before you use it.”
And he was off, leaving the boys blinking in the poppies.
The first thing they did was change out of their wet pajamas. The North Pole clothes were weird. With their tunics, leggings, and feathered caps, they felt like they were in a Shakespeare play. What’s more, each tunic was different. Matt’s was blue, with a silver unicorn across the front. Jer’s was green, with a bronze griffin. Brian’s was red, with a golden phoenix.
After eating a smorgasbord of pies and puddings, the boys went about their own business. Matt took a leather-bound book from the shelf and sat by the fire. Brian went outside and, forgetting all his prior lessons, joined a game of tag with the poppy fairies.
Jer sat at the table and stewed. Matt was the one who took the jewel from the fireplace. Brian was the one who carried it outside. How had his crazy brothers dragged him into this?
Hours passed. Brian waived the fairies goodnight, and Matt wondered aloud if they should get ready for bed. Then a harsh tapping came from the door. Jer threw it open to find a squirrel. But not just any squirrel. It came up to Jer’s waist, and wore a rich mantle and Norse helmet.
“Uhhh….” Jer wasn’t sure how to address a viking squirrel.
The squirrel smirked. “I can see you’re the brains of the group. The name’s Ratatosk. I’m taking you to hear the Council’s decision.”
“What did they decide?” Matt asked.
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be bringing you there.” Ratatosk replied, eyeing Matt. “I’m surprised your tunic even fit over those lady hips.” Matt stuttered a comeback before blushing. Jer and Brian laughed.
Ten minutes–and half a dozen insults–later, they approached a pine-covered hill with an amphitheatre cut into its granite. Torches danced along the edges, and distant voices murmured.
“The entrance is straight ahead.” Ratatosk gestured to a stone archway. “Try not to say anything stupid. So don’t say anything at all.” Ratatosk left with a hearty laugh.
Matt was about to remark how big a jerk the squirrel was when Jer pulled him and Brian through the archway.
“It’s resolved.” Erno announced at the front of the stage. “The team will have our ten largest polar bears, our twenty best elven archers, and five gnomish engineers. They will depart tomorrow to recover the Heart of the North.” The Council attendees in the amphitheatre nodded assent: gnomes and elves and polar bears, with foxes and badgers and other creatures sprinkled in. Jer even saw a walrus toward the back. But they all fell silent when the boys stepped on stage.
“Good, the Me-LEE-ma brothers are here.” Erno said briskly. “The Council will now present you our proposal.” Jer glanced at his brothers and wondered if his own face was the same stone white. He also wondered at the gnomes working feverishly to install some giant frosted orb at the side entrance.
“First,” Erno began in his most judicial voice, “the Council finds that you boys did, with covetous intent, grasp the Heart of the North for your own, specifically . . .” Jer was so furious he didn’t hear the rest. The Council shouldn’t punish him for something that wasn’t his fault. This wasn’t fair. He would speak up and defend himself…..
Then Jer looked at his Mark. In the short time since he first noticed it, it had grown darker. And it seemed to pulse in rhythm with his angry thoughts. He shuddered, and held his tongue.
“We cannot send you back to your home, because you would infect your whole town by the end of the week. And although we North Polians are not as susceptible to the Mark as humans, we would eventually catch it as well. The Council therefore proposes . . .” Erno began describing a plan for the boys to stay in quarantine in a gingerbread house just outside the North Pole.1 The full horror of the plan was just sinking in when silvery bells resounded off the hill. The amphitheatre went silent.
A torch lit behind the frosted orb, and a large shadow stepped behind the glass. Jer’s heart lept and sank at the same time. Santa. Or at least, his shadow.
“Master Clause,” Erno stammered. “I’m glad the raven has briefed you. Why, err….”?
“Why did I come?” Santa said. His voice was like hot chocolate after a day of sledding.
“Well, yes. Even behind the quarantine glass you are dangerously close to the infected, and if you caught the Mark it would be–”
“The end of the North Pole as we know it.” Santa said as if he were telling a joke. “I’m aware of the risk.”
“Do you agree with the Council’s proposals on recovering the jewell and protecting ourselves from the Me-LEE-ma brothers?” The boys waited with held breath.
Instead of answering, Santa laughed. A deep, joyful laugh. The boys looked at each other, perplexed.
“I disagree on two points: recovering the jewel, and a solution for the Mellemas.” Santa paused to chuckle. “The solution to both problems is the same. The jewel will indeed be recovered . . . “ The boys leaned toward Santa’s shadow. The Council did too.
“By the Mellema brothers.”
1 Before you judge me on trying to quarantine your father and uncles, please understand that it really was a complicated plan.
Illustration by Brian Mellema