From the blog

Advent Letter: Year 4, Letter #3

Note: This is my third letter of Advent 2020, but part 15 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.

Illustration by Brian Mellema, 2020

Jer stood with his arms stretched apart, blinking. He glanced at his hands and realized they weren’t hands. They were wings. Long, beautifully-feathered wings. He tried to yell, but it came out as a raptor shriek.

“It worked!” Ida declared.

Jer tried to step forward, but tripped over taloned feet. As he flailed to regain his balance, Ida held a small looking glass to his face.

He was a falcon. Though still his same height, he was an actual peregrine falcon. Jer tried to speak, but only managed another falcon-ish shriek.

“You can’t talk while you have the falcon form,” Ida explained. “You don’t have the vocal cords. Or lips. But that’s not important. You need to fly toward the troll’s cave.” She pointed toward the tallest peak on the horizon. “The Falcon Form will only work when the necklace is around your neck—so make sure you don’t lose it.” An image popped into Jer’s mind of the necklace sliding off mid-flight. Ida continued, “And remember to give your brothers the two rings inside the Falcon Form. But their magic will only work if you’re actually wearing the Falcon Form.”

Jer had no idea what she was talking about. But he had no way to ask questions, so he just nodded. Ida guided him to the edge of the hill. “One more thing,” she whispered in Jer’s ear. “After you’ve rescued your brothers, come back here. I’ll build a fire to guide you back. A special fire. Fly right toward it.”

Jer arched his falcon eyebrow into a question.

“Be careful with the Falcon Form! It’s a priceless magical object,” Dado cut in.

“Good heavens, yes,” Jado agreed. “If the troll eats the human, how will we get the Form back?”

“Uncles!” Ida snapped. “When will you think of anyone other than yourselves? If you want to be helpful, find your vial of Greek fire. And Jer, if you want to reach the troll cave before dark, you have to leave now.”

Without warning, Ida shoved Jer’s back. The next thing he knew, he was tumbling through the air toward the forest below.

 “Good luck, Jer!” Ida shouted.

Jer gasped as he rolled and pitched on the wind. What was Ida thinking? He’d never flown before. He was about to crash into the ground and—

A kernel of calm lodged in Jer’s mind. He’d seen birds fly countless times. Heck, he’d even seen falcons fly. All he had to do was keep his wits, stretch out his wings and…

The wind caught his great wing feathers, and his fall became a gentle glide. A couple wing beats, and he was actually gaining altitude. Jer chanced a look behind him. Ida was yelling something at her uncles, and the uncles were shuffling back to their huts. Jer turned back to the matter at hand: flying to the mountain on the other side of the valley.

It took some falters and near-tumbles, but Jer finally found the right rhythm. Soon, he was flying in a straight line, and in the right direction. He even did this with Santa’s bag balanced on his back.

Jer almost started enjoying himself. The air was sweet and crisp in his beak. The breeze tussled his feathers. And up ahead, the sky behind the mountains grew orange as the sun set into the Faerie lake. The setting sun snapped his mind back to the troll who would eat his brothers after dark. He lowered his head and flapped his wings even harder.

Finally, just as the last rays were leaving their smudge against the horizon, Jer circled around the troll mountain. He was surprised how desolate it was—a smatter of rocks and ice lifeless above the clouds. Jer scanned his falcon-sharp eyes for the cave entrance. At the far side of the mountain, he spotted it. A gaping black maw lined with stalactites like fangs of rock. 

Jer swooped for his approach, and his eyes caught movement down at the lake shore. A humanoid figure leaped out of a canoe hollowed out of a tree trunk. The troll. Its form was hulking and boulder-ish, and it carried a net full of fish over its shoulder. A club hung from a crude belt. As we watched the troll, Jer realized the canoe was the size of a California redwood. The club was longer than a basketball hoop. That meant the troll was the size of… 

Jer didn’t have time to think about it. After anchoring its canoe, the troll started trekking up toward the cave. If Jer was going to rescue his brothers, he would have to hurry.

Jer landed in the cave with a scratch of talon on rock. He squinted into the new dark. He wanted to call out, but his voice would only be a falcon screech. Picking his way through piles of bones, he hoped that none would look familiar. Just as he was about to remove the Falcon Form and call out, a sound floated over the cave’s dank air.

The sound was shrill and pathetic. Jer had heard it a million times before, but this was the first time it ever made him smile.

It was Matt complaining.

“Cut it out, Brian. We’re both goners, so we may as well accept it.”

“But we can still escape! Here, boost me up and I’ll see if I can grab that rock above your—”

“There’s no point. The troll will be back any minute, and there’s nothing we can do except make ourselves comfortable, and hope that we taste good. I’m telling you, there’s absolutely no hope of—”

While Matt was complaining, Jer flew low over the cave floor, following their voices to a pit dug against the cave’s far wall. Jer circled down as fast as he dared, and landed with a beating of stale air and a triumphant nod.

Brian’s eyes widened in wonder. Matt screamed and dropped into the fetal position. Jer removed the Falcon Form and turned back into himself.

“I’m here to rescue you, but we have to move quick,” Jer said. He took the rings from the sapphire and handed them to his brothers. “Put these on.”

Matt’s face was a kaleidoscope of emotions. “That giant bird that just flew in. That was—”

“Yeah it was me. No time to explain—just put on the rings.”

“But what will they—”

“Do it!” Jer shouted.

Matt and Brian slid the rings over their fingers. At first, nothing happened. But when Jer put his Falcon Form back on, that same blue light encircled both Matt and Brian. When the blinding flash faded, Jer was a falcon again. He looked for his brothers, but they seemed to have disappeared. Jer was just imagining some Frodo-Lord-of-the-Rings scenario when a squeaking from below drew his attention. Two mice waved their paws frantically at him. If falcons could laugh, then Jer would have laughed hysterically—the rings had turned his brothers into mice.

Carefully, Jer opened his talons for his brothers. Brian hopped in immediately. Matt scampered backwards, his beady eyes bulging. Jer almost felt sorry for him. But a troll was coming, and Jer didn’t have time for subtlety. He snatched his claw forward and locked Matt safely inside. Then he started the long ascent out of the pit.

No sooner had Jer flown out of the pit than the cave’s dim light completely vanished. For a panicked moment, Jer flapped blindly in the dark. His head crashed into a stalactite. He crumpled to the cave floor as his brothers squeaked in surprise. But as Jer slid to a stop, his brothers’ squeaks turned into normal yells. Jer and his brothers had turned back into humans. That meant the Falcon Form had fallen off in the crash.

After a panicked moment, Jer spotted the Form near the cave entrance. But that wasn’t the only thing at the entrance. Jer suddenly understood what had blocked the cave’s light.

The troll was home.

Illustration by Brian Mellema, 2020

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