Note: This is my second letter of Advent 2020, but part 14 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.
The eagle’s giant form shrank into the sky. Jer was too stunned to move. Both his brothers were gone—carried away by a flying monster. He stood alone in Faerie, perhaps the last human in the world.
As thought after panicked thought pounded against his brain, the panic receded and something else took hold. Jer couldn’t just stand there. He had to do something. Anything.
Jer notched an arrow and fired at the eagle, though it was now a mere speck in the distance. He ran toward Santa’s bag, which Matt must have dropped along with his sword and shield. He stuffed both of Matt’s weapons in the bag before striding to Brian’s war hammer and rolling it in.
Jer flung the bag over his shoulder and peered for the vanishing traces of the eagle. Taking a deep breath, he prepared to run after the eagle for as long as he could. And next time, he wouldn’t hide behind a log or miss his bow shot. He opened his lungs for his loudest battle cry.
“Stop!” Ida grabbed Jer’s hand. “You’ll never catch them—it’s hopeless.”
“I don’t care. There’s nothing else to do.”
“Come back with me to my uncles. They can help.”
“Your uncles? The ones who tried tricking you into being kidnapped?”
Ida waived that aside. “They’re learned in magic. They also know everything about this valley. If anyone can help, it’s them.”
Jer looked back at the empty sky. “Okay,” he said. “But we’ve got to hurry.”
Jer followed Ida as she ran back toward the gate, up the path and over two hills before turning toward at especially tall hill with a rocky outcrop. Ida ran up the hill without missing a beat. Jer gulped for air behind her. By the time they reached the top, Jer’s legs and lungs seemed ready to burn up. The only thing that kept him going was his memory of the log.
The hilltop was a lawn surrounded by a crown of great red rocks. A fire pit sat in the center, and cottages and pine trees dotted the spaces between the rocks. Jer doubled over to catch his breath.
“Uncles!” Ida cried, “I’ve returned from the orchard.”
Doors from the surrounding cottages burst open, and three elves bumbled toward them. These elven uncles were different from the North Pole elves. Their expressions were dour, and their faces cracked with wrinkles that were not smile lines. Each had mouse-colored hair that was flecked with grey. Their stained tunics and capes were identical except for the colors: one was red, the second blue, the third green.
“Ida!” the red-caped elf scowled. “How dare you disobey our instructions! We told you to come back with apples from the oldest tree, and you—”
“I have obeyed, Uncle Dado.” Ida uncovered her basket, and the apples shimmered gold in the evening light. The uncles gasped.
“I don’t understand,” the blue-caped elf said. “You went up to the tree and…picked the apples?”
“Yes, Uncle Jado.” Ida met his gaze.
The green-caped elf rolled his eyes back as if gathering words. “Did anything…happen when you picked them?”
Jer couldn’t stand it any longer. “Yeah, something happened! A giant eagle crashed down beside us. It took my brothers and flew away!”
“Who is this stranger? Is he…human?” The green-caped elf said human as if it were a dirty word.
“His name is Jer, Uncle Pado,” Ida replied. “Yes, he’s human. And he’s telling the truth: when I picked the apples, a giant eagle came and took his brothers.”
Dado, Jado, and Pado passed glances and shrugs back and forth. Finally, Dado said, “Gets us to the same place, I suppose. Thank you for gathering the apples, Ida my dear. They have certain magical properties, and may be worth keeping. And now you’d best start preparing dinner.”
To Jer’s shock, the three uncles turned back to their cabins.
“Wait!” Ida shouted. “What about Jer’s brothers? What about the eagle?”
Jado chuckled. “Oh, of course. Sorry about your brothers and all that, young human. If you’d like, you’re welcome to stay for dinner.”
Jado turned to leave again, but Ida stopped them. “Not good enough. Tell the truth about why you sent me after the golden apples.”
“And tell me how to get my brothers back,” Jer said. The uncles laughed and walked. White hot with rage, Jer whipped out his bow and notched an arrow. “Now!” he roared.
Pado’s laughter faded when his eyes narrowed on the bow. “That’s a blessed bow of St. Nicholas,” he muttered. “North Pole, I expect? Easy, young human. We’ll tell you what we know. Just put that bow down.”
Jer lowered the arrow. The uncles sat on stumps around the fire. Pado began: “Yesterday evening, while Ida was gathering herbs for supper, the three of us were working on an experiment. I won’t bore you with specifics, but it involved a potion of dragon blood and Greek fire. Highly volatile. As we poured it into a stone basin, it exploded. A column of fire shot into the air. That was what he we’d expected. What we didn’t expect was for the giant eagle to land by our basin. I could smell its singed tail feathers, and see the red murder in its eyes.”
“If I could only communicate the terror we all felt at that moment,” Pado said dramatically. Jer scowled. He had a good idea.
Pado continued: “The eagle said our fire had nearly killed him, and he demanded payment in return. Well, the three of us begged and pleaded and pleaded and begged for the eagle not to eat us. To our relief, the eagle considered it. He asked if we were the ones with the elf maiden. We replied that she was our niece. The eagle said that, if the niece went into the troll’s fields and picked the golden apples the next day, the eagle would spare our lives.” Pado looked at Ida with satisfaction. “So as you can see, we had no choice.”
“No choice?” Ida yelled. “You agreed to sacrifice your own niece to save yourselves!”
“We didn’t view it as ‘sacrificing’ per se,” Dado replied. “We had no definite way of knowing why the eagle wanted you.”
“It was going to eat me!” Ida screamed. “Don’t pretend that you don’t know. And now it’s going to eat Jer’s brothers!”
“Don’t be so selfish,” Jado said with a tut tut. “Think how we felt having to send our beloved niece to the eagle. But we had to do it. Think of—” Jado looked away from Ida’s withering glare—“think of our many great magical experiments. Our potential contributions to magical learning. Surely, dear niece, you’d not be so selfish as to deprive Faerie of all that magic?”
Jer spoke instead. “Did you say the eagle has eaten my brothers?”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” Pado said. “I’m sure your brothers are fine. For the time being.”
“The time being? What do you mean?” Jer asked.
“It’s still an hour until sun-down. And we all know that trolls never eat anything until after nightfall,” Dado replied.
“Troll? I thought we were talking about a giant eagle.”
Jado gave an exasperated sigh. “Humans. We try to be nice, but they really do know as little as the stories say. The two monsters are one in the same, young human. The troll took your brothers in the form of a giant eagle. I’m sure he’s turned back into a troll by now.”
Jer tried untangling this new information. Only two pieces were important: his brothers were still alive, and he had to get to them before nightfall.
Ida was one step ahead. “If the eagle was the troll, then surely he brought the boys back to his cave. Jer would like to save his brothers because, unlike some uncles I know, he cares about other people.” Ida paused to let her uncles squirm. “Uncles, you must give Jer the Falcon Form so he can reach the troll cave. It’s the least you can do.”
Jer had no idea what a Falcon Form was, but requesting it made the uncles huff and gasp about how a human had no business with it. It wasn’t until Jer reached for his bow that the uncles relented.
“Oh, all right,” Pado sighed. “We’ll give you the Falcon Form. But only on the condition that you bring it right back.”
“And don’t touch it too much. Human fingerprints are awfully hard to clean,” Dado added.
Jado, meanwhile, trotted back to his cottage. He came back a moment later holding a giant sapphire pendant on a silver chain. As Jado got closer to Jer, his steps slowed. Ida snatched it before her uncle could change his mind. She handed it to Jer.
“Open it up,” Ida said.
The Falcon Form was built like a locket. Jer opened it to find two silver rings.
“Give those rings to your brothers when you reach them. No time to explain.” Ida pointed to the horizon. “See those mountains along the edge of the valley? The troll lives in a cave at the top of the tallest mountain. The cave’s only entrance is on the far side, overlooking the lake. If you hurry, you can get there before nightfall.”
“I still don’t get it,” Jer said. “How does this locket thing help me?”
Ida smiled. “Put the chain around your neck.”
Jer complied. The instant the chain fell onto his shoulders, the sapphire glowed blue. The glowing blue turned into rings which went up and down the length of him. Jer’s last thought before the blinding flash of light was how strange his new feathers felt.
Illustration by Brian Mellema, 2020