Note: This is my fourth (and final) letter of Advent 2020. Thanks for reading this year! The story will continue on the first Sunday of Advent 2021.
The troll stepped into the cave with footsteps that resounded through Jer’s chest.
Jer’s mouth went dry and his guts slithered. For one wild moment, he wondered if he and his brothers could hide. But before he could form a plan, the troll lit a torch the size of a bonfire, and the cave flooded with orange light.
The troll’s inky black eyes narrowed on the Mellema boys. The troll was a two-story boulder of muscle that was tensed in anger. Steam snorted from its bullish nostrils as its mammoth foot pawed the ground.
Against the swirl of fear, Jer felt the rope of Santa’s bag around his shoulders.
“Your weapons,” Jer hissed to Brian and Matt. “Take them quick.”
Brian grabbed his war hammer, and Matt grabbed his sword and shield. Jer, one eye on the troll, took out his bow and quiver.
The troll set its feet like an NFL lineman. The brothers stood in a ragged line, clutching their weapons and waiting for a plan.
“Not like last time in the grove,” Jer said.
Brian and Matt nodded. Jer notched his first arrow, and started firing. None of his arrows pierced the troll’s granite skin, but they did distract the troll from charging.
While Jer fired his first arrows, Brian looked ready to charge the troll himself. Matt looked ready to retreat back into the pit. Both stopped, and looked at each other.
“I’ll go up first from the right. Then you come in on the left,” Matt said.
“On three,” Matt whispered, forcing his feet to stay firm. “One…two…THREE!”
Matt charged the troll’s right side in a sweeping arc. The troll grinned and reared its club back. It hit Matt’s shield with enough force to fell a redwood. The clang of wood against steel shook the stalactites.
The troll lifted its club. But rather than the splattered remains it was expecting, Matt popped back to his feet, unhurt. His magic shield had come through.
While the troll gawked at Matt, Brian made his move. He charged forward as his hammer grew to the size of an elephant. With his best six-year old battle cry, he hit the troll square in the chest. It tumbled toward the cave entrance.
The troll soon recovered, and rolled back onto its feet. But not before Matt closed the distance and swung his sword at it foot. A roar like crashing stones filled the cave as the troll reeled backward. It left a bleeding stump of a toe behind. Brian gave another swing of his giant hammer, and knocked the troll against the cave wall. It slouched down against the cave floor, its breathing labored.
Jer, who had been volleying arrows this whole time, finally stopped. He eyed the Falcon Form, which was just beside the troll’s bleeding foot. Jer was just wondering if they had won when the troll burst back up. It swung its club at Matt and Brian with raging fury. Brian barely jumped out of the way. Matt blocked the club swing, but lost his balance and fell backward. The troll’s eyes blazed in triumph as it decided which Mellema to pulverize first.
Jer realized this was his last chance, and then banished that thought from his mind. He focused only on his target, and his ability to hit it. He raised his bow toward the troll’s head, and took a final breath to steady his shaking arm. A calm came over him—the calm he’d felt in the Faerie castle. The arrow was still thrilling off the string when Jer knew that it would find its target.
The arrow lodged deeply in the troll’s eye. The troll fell to the ground and flailed, its meaty hands clawing at the gushing wound. Jer went straight for the Falcon Form, sliding to pick it up before sprinting toward the cave opening.
“Put your weapons in Santa’s bag, then hold on,” Jer told Matt and Brian. He slipped the Falcon Form over his head, and he and his brothers transformed in the now-familiar flash of blue light.
Matt and Brian jumped into his talons. Jer risked a glance at the troll’s body, which was writhing dangerously on the floor. He took off from the cave as fast as his wings could flap. He was still gaining altitude when a rumble and groan emerged from the cave, followed by an unbridled roar.
Jer determined not to look back. All he had to do was fly to Ida’s fire as fast as his wings would take him. He tried to get his bearings. The sun was gone, the moon was rising silver, and the stars were a dazzling swirl. But he could not spot Ida’s fire. With no other plan, he pushed forward in the direction he thought he’d come from.
Matt squealed, and Jer reflexively looked back. He instantly regretted it. The troll had turned back into its giant eagle form, and was emerging from its cave. With wing beats strong enough to uproot trees, the eagle flapped in pursuit. Even by the moonlight its enormous size made Jer shudder.
Jer turned back to his flying. He looked frantically at the surrounding foothills for Ida’s fire. He considered dropping below the trees to take his chances dodging the eagle through the pines when he spotted it. A nobbled hill stuck out from the horizon. At its center was an orange prick of fire.
Ida. Jer’s flapping gained new strength.
He flapped with an effort he didn’t know he had. Soon his lungs burned and his wings felt ready to fall off. Though he’d told himself not to look back at the eagle, his brothers had no such scruples. Matt squealed and wriggled as if he wanted to jump out of Jer’s talons. Brian, meanwhile, strained to climb Jer’s leg toward his war hammer in Santa’s bag. Unable to say anything, Jer gave each a squeeze of his talons to calm them down. To his relief, they both did.
But now Jer felt a whoosh behind him as a backwash of air rose all around. Unable to help himself, Jer risked another look. The eagle had closed nearly all the distance. Jer was close enough to see the eagle’s eyes—one blood red, the other red with blood.
The wild panic returned, and for a moment Jer lost his rhythm. He flapped in a summersault before regaining himself. One more slip-up like that and they’d all be goners. Jer once again forced away every thought except flying, and his ability to fly. He focused on the wing beats—on ensuring maximum power with each stroke, and resetting his wings in the fastest rhythm. He pushed all thoughts of exhaustion into the abyss.
Finally, after who knows how long—time grew meaningless amidst the flight—Jer was close enough to the fire to see Ida and her uncles staring into the night. One of the uncles loaded a jar onto some wooden contraption. Though Jer had slowed the eagle’s gains, its talons were still practically at Jer’s back.
Ida waived Jer down toward the fire. Afraid to let himself think, Jer started to dive. He folded his wings and, with the mightiest falcon scream he could manage, plunged toward the fire.
Even as Jer’s eyes watered and his stomach tumbled to his throat, he could feel the Eagle gaining. He could sense the talons extended and ready to grasp. Jer leaned his head forward into a perfect streamline and waited for the last possible instant. Finally, he flapped open his wings when he was inches from Ida’s fire. His tail feathers singed as he rolled off to the green beyond. As he tumbled to a stop, he heard the firing of the contraption, and a glass bottle breaking against flesh.
Jer looked back: the eagle was on fire.
Ida and her uncles shot bottle after bottle at it, and each erupted in flame. The eagle flew straight into the air like a wild reverse comet. It flapped higher and higher and the flames grew larger until a final explosion of gold vermillion. The eagle’s form vanished from the backdrop of stars, replaced by the troll. It hung motionless for an instant before plummeting to earth. It landed in the woods beyond the cottages with a crash that felled trees and formed a crater. The uncles would later confirm it with a careful inspection, but Jer already knew that the troll was dead.
Jer removed the Falcon Form and dropped to his knees. His brothers tumbled over each other behind him. They had done it. All of them.
The uncles broke into dance. They called for their best cordial and a roasted pig to mark the occasion. The troll who had hounded and harassed and threatened them for ages was dead at last.
Around the fire, food and drink in hand, Ida finally told the Mellemas what had happened. She had asked her uncles to set a trap for the troll by rigging their catapult with the Greek Fire and dragon blood potion. After their first experiment, the uncles realized the potion was a powerful magical weapon. But they weren’t certain it could kill the troll, so they were afraid to try.
“I’m glad you three changed your minds,” Jer said, and took a big swig of cordial.
“Well, Ida had something to do with that,” Dado said. “Some advice for you boys: if you ever have a niece, don’t try tricking her into being captured by a troll. The guilt trips she’ll play on you afterward are unbelievable.”
On Ida’s insistence, the Mellemas spent a comfortable night in her uncles’ guest cottage. The next morning, they ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, and bacon. Then they wished Ida and her uncles farewell, and started back on their journey to the Heart of the North.
As they continued along, Matt wondered if he was finally cured of his fear of birds. He wasn’t. Brian wondered if he’d finally learned to stop himself from charging headlong into battle. He hadn’t. Jer wondered if he had finally learned the secret of aiming his magical bow.
Thus ends Year Four. I want to close by urging you not to worry. We at the North Pole are determined to deliver toys in compliance with each country’s health mandates. Santa still intends to pilot the sleigh from house to house. But getting the presents into the house has proven tricky.
Kanute experimented with a brass cannon that shot presents down chimneys. But enough chimneys exploded during trials that we had to change course. So Santa assigned present delivery duties to the only North Pole citizens who are immune to human diseases: talking animals.
So if you find a talking polar bear in your living room on Christmas Eve, please don’t be alarmed.
Have a blessed and merry Christmas. And please let your Uncle Jeremy know that Kanute will not be able to attend any more NYCFC games with him this season.
Illustration by Brian Mellema, 2020