From the blog

Advent Letter: Year 4, Letter #1

Note: This is my first letter of Advent 2020, but part 13 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on past letters, you can check out this video recap. Or you can, you know, read the letters.

My Dearest Mellema Cousins,

Hello from the North Pole! I hope that, despite this year’s many hardships, you are still having a merry first day of Advent. We are doing reasonably well up here—a benefit of the North Pole is that we are already socially distanced. 

Kanute, however, had to spend two weeks quarantined in Santa’s ginger bread house. He had the misfortune of visiting your Uncle Jeremy in New York City when the first lockdown began. The poor gnome went a bit batty in quarantine. He emerged with a sock on each hand, performing a sock opera he wrote about the invention of rice pudding. But I’m happy to report that Kanute is now back to normal, and he sends his greetings. And his sock opera was actually quite good.

Now, let’s get back to your dad and uncles. As our story picks up, they are once again following their enchanted map toward the Heart of the North…


Illustration by Brian Mellema, 2020

“What about unicorns? They’re basically stallions with a sword growing out of their heads. That’s cool, right?”

Jer and Brian burst into laughter. They’d been arguing about whether griffins or phoenixes were cooler, and Matt decided to chime in. That turned out to be a mistake.

Matt stomped off ahead. Jer stared at the bronze griffin stitched onto his green tunic. There had to be a reason why Santa had given Jer a griffin tunic, Brian a phoenix tunic, and Matt a unicorn tunic. But he couldn’t imagine what it was.

Jer checked the enchanted map before following his brothers over a hill. The magic arrow still told them to follow this path. The hilltop showcased the emerald hills and apple orchards stretching out around them. He hoped the map wouldn’t lead them into the ragged mountains encircling the valley. 

Jer was so distracted by the map that he bumped into Matt and Brian. They were both stopped on the path, and staring ahead. Jer shielded his eyes against the sun and followed their gaze.

A high stone wall ran along the path. The only entrance was an arched gate. In front of that gate stood a girl who almost looked human. Almost. She was an elf, with a simple medieval-style dress and flowers in her hair. She stared at the gate, her hands wringing the handle of an empty basket. Suddenly, she threw the basket at the gate and yelled, “I can’t do it! I won’t!”

The elf maiden’s violet eyes rose to the Mellema brothers. Brian stepped forward. “What’s the matter?”

The elf blushed. “Nothing. I just…” She eyed the Mellemas’ tunics and weapons, and sighed in resignation. “My name is Ida. I live over that hill with my uncles. They sent me down to fetch apples from the oldest tree in this orchard.”

The brothers exchanged confused glances. Ida continued. “I asked them why the apples had to come from that particular tree. We have many apple trees of our own. They wouldn’t answer, and I know why. They wouldn’t send me to this orchard unless they…”

Ida bit back tears. The Mellemas leaned forward.

“This orchard belongs to a troll. I fear the instant I pick an apple, the troll will come for me.”

“Troll?” Matt’s eyes darted along the wall. “Sorry to hear that, but we’d really better get…”

“Why don’t you pick apples from one of these other trees?” Jer asked.

“They would know the difference. I know they would.”

“Then why don’t you just say no?” Brian asked.

“They would put a spell on me! My uncles are powerful magicians.”

At the word spell, Matt started backing down the path.

“We’ll go with you!” 

Three pairs of eyes turned to Brian, who stood with his war hammer.  “We’ll escort you into the orchard. If the troll comes, we’ll defend you.”

Matt covered Brian’s mouth. Jer walked over, and the brothers huddled.

“What’s wrong?” Brian asked.

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” Matt hissed. “You want to follow some strange elf into the forest to fight a troll.”

“She needs help,” Brian said.

“Remember the last time a strange girl asked us to go somewhere?” Matt retorted. “We almost got turned into swans.”

Jer looked back and forth between his brothers. But Ida interrupted his thoughts. 

“Thank you, brave knights,” she said, and dabbed her eyes. “I never dreamed I would encounter such valiant champions. I can’t begin to thank you.”

Before Jer could respond, Brian charged forward through the gate. Ida followed. Realizing he had no choice, Jer shrugged and tightened the strap on his arrow quiver. He was almost through the gate when he looked back at Matt.

“This is crazy. You’re all crazy,” Matt said.

“You don’t have to go if you’re too scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Matt replied. “I’m just being realistic about…”

Jer rolled his eyes and started after Brian and Ida. A few footsteps later, Matt came jogging up behind.

Jer walked for some time, his feet swishing through the lush grass, before he finally looked around. The apple trees, tall and green, rolled along the hills in all directions. The apples themselves sparkled in the sunlight like giant rubies. He breathed the fresh crisp of the air. Matt grumbled about how crazy this all was, and how they were all doomed.

Matt did have a point. Brian’s only plan was his unwavering confidence in his war hammer. Admittedly, the war hammer was awesome. It could magically grow to any size, but Brian could still swing it as easy as a whiffle ball bat. Controlling the hammer, though, was a work in progress. 

For all his griping, Matt had cool weapons too. As far as they could tell from their tentative trials, Matt’s shield could stop anything that hit it. And Matt’s sword could cut through anything—even though Matt’s test swings had been pretty weak.

Jer’s weapon was still a mystery. He knew that his quiver of arrows was endless—he could shoot arrow after arrow and never run out. But since he couldn’t hit anything, the arrows didn’t do much good. The only time he’d hit his target was back at the Faerie castle, when he shot the door lock in a moment of desperation. But he had no idea how he’d done it.

“Here it is,” Ida said. Ahead of them was an open field with a conical hill in the center. On top stood a tree with branches that gnarled and bent in all directions. Golden apples hung from its twisted branches. They all gazed at the tree as wind whispered through the branches.

“Well,” Matt said at last. “We may as well get this over with.”

“Yeah,” Jer said, nodding at Ida. “We’ll stand guard here. But honestly, I don’t see any sign of a troll.”

“Aw man,” Brian sighed.

Ida nodded, and started up the hill. The boys held their weapons tight, their eyes darting along the many shadows of the tree line. Ida reached for an apple and, with effort, plucked it from the branch. A pulse rippled from the tree. Birds called, animals screeched, then silence.

Matt went pale. Brian grinned. Jer kept looking around.

Then it happened.

Massive wind gusts swirled around the tree, knocking Jer to the ground. Ida clutched the trunk and screamed. A shadow fell over the field. Jer peered up into the cloudless sky, and his heart fell into his stomach.

High above, the winged outline of a bird blocked the sun. In swooping circles, it got closer and closer, its outline growing monstrously larger.

Jer looked frantically for cover in the open field. He finally spotted a rotting log. Ida spotted it too, because they jumped beneath it together. 

Matt seemed frozen in place, while Brian patted his war hammer and smiled. “Come on!” Jer hissed to his brothers. “Hide here before it’s too—”

Neither one listened. The giant bird made a swooping final approach before landing with an earth-shaking thump. It was an eagle. And it was the size of a tyrannosaurus. It gave a blood-boiling shriek as its red eyes darted around the field. Jer and Ida curled behind their log.

Brian brandished his war hammer, which grew to the size of a pick-up truck. He gave his loudest battle cry and charged the eagle. Matt, meanwhile, lost every trace of nerve. He dropped his sword and shield and ran madly for the trees. Jer notched an arrow onto his bow with a shaking hand. With a deep breath, he looked up from the log.

Brian swung his giant hammer, but the eagle dodged it easily. Before Brian could regain his balance, the eagle knocked the hammer aside and grabbed Brian in its massive talons. It then flapped toward Matt, who was still sprinting away. The eagle scooped him up as well. Jer forced himself onto one knee, and tried to aim his arrow in the eagle’s general direction.

“Don’t,” Ida whispered. “You’ll attract him over here.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Jer gulped and let the arrow fly. It sailed far wide. Jer ducked behind the log, and tried mustering the willpower to notch another arrow. But before he could, another swirling wind arose. The eagle was flying off into the sky—Brian and Matt trapped in its talons. 

Illustration by Brian Mellema, 2020