Note: This is my first letter of Advent 2021, but part 17 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on past letters, go to my Advent Letters page to see them all.
Dearest Sam, Noah, Susannah, Piper, Shepherd, Henry, Holly, Jane, and Sunny,
My, you’ve become quite the crew! I nearly ran out of ink just writing everybody’s name. Because there are two new Mellemas this year, I trust the older cousins will dutifully catch the younger ones up on the story. I also trust the older cousins will help comfort their younger cousins, because this year’s tale is rather on the frightening side.
But before we get into all that, I have a word of warning. You may have noticed that this November has been warmer than usual. This has caused consternation to us at the North Pole, because Santa prefers landing his sleigh in the snow. So on Christmas Eve, we plan on sending ground teams ahead of Santa to scout for good landing spots—grassy lawns, open fields, maybe even a patch of snow. And I have just been informed that the ground team in charge of Colorado Springs will be Avvu and Kanute.
So on Christmas Eve, if you happen to see a gnome riding a polar bear behind your back fence, please don’t be alarmed. They are merely doing their jobs. And don’t be surprised if your dad and uncle head out to see them and discuss old times.
Now, let’s get to this year’s story. As I said, it’s more frightening than most, so you children should hold onto your parents’ hands. Your parents will need all the comfort you can give them.
The line on Brian’s forehead deepened as he stared at the map.
“What’s going on—have we taken a wrong turn?” Matt asked.
“It’s this arrow. Ever since the sun set it’s almost been…glowing.”
Matt and Jer peered over Brian’s shoulder. The map’s arrow had pointedly faithfully toward the Heart of the North ever since the boys entered Faerie. It had always been bright crimson. But now, the arrow emanated a soft red light.
“Maybe it’s glowing because enemies are near,” Matt suggested. “I read about that once. Only instead of a map, it was—”
“No way,” Jer cut in. “We’ve been around loads of enemies, and the map’s never glowed before.”
“Maybe it means we’re getting close,” Brian said.
It was as good a guess as anything. And at the moment, it was a nice thing to believe. This Faerie path had taken a turn ever since the sun set.
Earlier that evening, their lakeside path had been pleasant. The lake was long and narrow, and wound among craggy hills rising sharply on either side. The sinking light reflected orange on the rippling waves, and the pine trees swayed gently in the breeze.
But now after dark, the lake was an inky abyss. The crags vanished into nothingness. And a mist crept along the trees. A mist thick enough to hide anything.
Jer grabbed a torch from the bag of Saint Nicholas, which Matt was wearing like a backpack. He lit the torch with a match. But the orange light did little to illuminate more than a step or two in front of them.
“We should camp for the night,” Jer announced. “We might wander off a cliff in this fog.”
Matt and Brian nodded. But as the boys stopped, they gaped at the misty forest all around them. Branches swayed. Some creature—a raven?—shrieked. Sticks snapped in the distance. And always there was the lapping of the lake. The black, bottomless lake that could hold any terror imaginable.
“You know,” Jer said. “We could press on a bit farther. Until we’re out of these woods.”
“Yeah, totally,” Matt replied. “I mean, a tree branch could fall on us or something. Only sensible.”
The boys kept walking, guided only by the orange torch and the crimson arrow. As the mist grew thicker, the boys walked faster. By the time they reached a break in the trees, they were practically running. Across the clearing, two bridge pillars stood along a river that fed into the lake.
For a moment, the mist lifted and they could see across the river to the other side. The boys’ shoulders all dropped in relief. On the other side was a path that wound gently up and out of these crags. Whatever was over those crags, it couldn’t be creepier than where they were now.
But as they drew nearer, those hopes evaporated. The bridge was destroyed—split down the middle and lying in bits. Only the pillars remained.
Matt and Jer walked along the bank to see if they could ford the river. Unwilling to keep his back to the woods, Brian kept watch.
“So I’m not an expert or anything,” Matt began.
“Yeah, you just pretend to be one,” Jer said.
Matt ignored the laughs, “But see the rough edges of these broken stones? They haven’t worn down in the stream. It’s almost like whatever happened to this bridge only happened recently. Like something—”
Beneath the branches of the border trees, something moved. A something even darker than the surrounding shadows.
Brian gripped his war hammer. He forced his feet to take a step forward. Then another. He craned his neck toward the shadow. Nothing. Maybe it was—
The voice came from the woods. It was sharp and scratching, like a nail against lumber. It chilled the blood in Brian’s veins.
Matt and Jeremy sprang to their feet, weapons ready.
“Why, there’s no need to be alarmed,” the voice laughed. A dry, cackling laugh.
Out of the shadows, a darkness took more and more form until it finally broke into the light of Jer’s torch.
The old man was withered and hunched. Deep wrinkles cragged his face. His hair and beard were dirty gray, hanging limp against his tattered rags. He leaned against a gnarled wooden cane as he approached the boys.
“What brings three strapping young men into my woods so late at night?”
The man smiled. His few teeth were yellow and crooked.
“Just passing through,” Jer said. “We don’t mean to trespass or…anything.”
“I see,” the old man said, a crooked finger twirling his beard. “Well, that’s quite all right. I suppose you’re wondering why the bridge is broken?”
The brothers nodded.
“Destroyed just last night. By the lake’s wild mermen.”
“Mermen? You mean like mermaids?” Matt asked.
For a moment, Brian imagined helpful Ariels coming to lend them aid.
“Oh, there’s nothing maidenly about them,” the old man wheezed. “The size of a man, but with webbed fish hands. Eel tails propel them through the water. Their skin’s a scaly blue, their eyes a glassy yellow. They swim faster than a falcon can fly, and are stronger than a dozen men. And those teeth. Those serrated, barracuda teeth which are always looking for flesh.”
“They live in the lake?” Matt asked.
“Some. But they mainly gather in this river. I’d wager they’re listening to us right now. Their heads just below the surface, waiting for the next simpleton to approach the water.”
“Whatever,” Jer replied. “The river isn’t too wide, and I’m a decent swimmer. Heck, I could hop across half the river on those rocks.”
Jer stepped toward the bank.
But no sooner had his boots touched the water than a sound rose from below the current. Almost like music. Then a voice, almost human. Then another. And another. Soon a chorus echoed across the surface in ghastly harmony. The chorus started resolving into words.
Jer was transfixed. Blank-eyed and slack-jawed, he took another step toward the water. Matt grabbed him around the torso and pulled him back. A hand shot up from the river, just missing Jer’s boot. The hand was blue and scaled, with webbed fingers and sharp claws.
“What was that?!?” Matt yelled.
“The wild mermen,” The old man replied. “Having their sport with unwary travelers. They like to lull their prey asleep with their beguiling songs. Then they leap from the water to devour them.”
“I could swim across the river pretty fast,” Jer said. “Before their song could lull me to sleep. If I try hard enough.”
“Willing to bet your life on that?” The old man said.
Below the river’s mirrored surface, shadows flickered in ghostly blue.
“Is there any way around?” Matt asked.
“Only one,” the old man replied. “See up there?”
The boys had to squint. But high above, on top of the tallest crag, the moon gleamed silver off a bridge.
“How do we get up there?” Jer asked.
The old man’s eyes sparkled. “There’s only one path up. A winding, hidden path. You’d never find it on your own.”
Brian started to sigh.
“But luckily,” the old man continued. “I know where the path is. I could tell you.”
“That’s great!” Matt said. “Thank you so much for—“
“But first, you boys have to do a favor for me.”
The Mellemas exchanged glances.
“What kind of favor?” Jer asked. He tightened the grip on his bow.
The old man pointed to lamplight from a distant cottage. “A maiden lives there. A deceptive, thieving maiden. She stole my, my,” the old man seemed ready to cry. “My chicken.”
“Your chicken?” Brian asked.
“My only friend in the world. My source of eggs, feathers, and—before too long—chicken sandwiches.” The old man sniffed.
“You want us to take your chicken back?” Jer asked.
The old man’s teeth twisted back into a smile. “I want you boys to do one better: steal her enchanted horse!”