Note: This is my second letter of Advent 2021, but part 18 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.
“See that fence line? Looks like it goes all the way up to the cottage.”
Matt followed Jer’s gaze along the fence line, and nodded. The two older boys hopped over the fence, their chain mail rattling as they landed.
Brian stayed behind, finger on his chin.
“Hurry up,” Jer said. “We’ve got to find that horse.”
“Yeah,” Brian said. “It’s just—I’ve been thinking.”
Jer and Matt groaned.
“So this lady in the cottage—”
“Maiden,” Matt said. “We’re in Faerie, so use the proper term.”
Brian glared. “So this maiden stole a chicken. Now the old man wants us to steal her horse. Is that really fair?”
Jer shrugged. “Things in Faerie are weird. Maybe it’s a local convention or something?”
“But I think stealing is always—”
“Just come over the fence,” Jer sighed. “And keep your voice down.”
Brian chewed his lip, but eventually crossed over the fence. Dense groves lined the rolling pastures. Even in the moonlight, the grass was emerald green.
“So now we just…start searching,” Jer said.
The brothers wandered across the hills, scanning for signs of a horse. After a lot of swishing through the grass, Jer stopped.
“Hoof prints!” he called. He pointed to an impression in a muddy patch.
Brian and Matt bent over it. Calling it a “hoof print” was generous. More of a smear in the mud that, if you turned your head the right way, might resemble a place where a horse had stepped.
Matt touched the mud delicately with his fingers, bending so low that his eyeball nearly grazed the grass. “This is definitely a hoof print. And what’s more, it’s headed toward the cottage.”
“How can you tell?” Brian asked.
Matt puffed his chest. “Because of the shape. As you can see from this side’s crescent formation, it’s the front of the hoof.”
“I don’t know,” Jer said. “Look at the way the grass is bent. And the mud is bunched up on this side. I think it was walking down toward the lake.”
Matt chuckled. “Jer, I just watched a NOVA special about an expert tracker. I know what I’m looking for.”
Before Jer could respond, Matt charged up the hill.
The brothers followed the prints along a glade of big-leafed trees. Matt and Jer kept bickering over where the prints led, while Brian kept thinking. They climbed the final hill before the cottage. It sat nestled into the hill. Roses danced up its trellises, and firelight flickered in its windows.
Brian couldn’t take it anymore.
“Jer, I don’t think what you said earlier is right. If stealing is wrong on Earth, then it’s wrong in Faerie. Otherwise, I could just—”
“But we’re not stealing,” Jer said. “At least, not really.”
“We’re taking a horse that doesn’t belong to us!”
“But we’re only doing it because the horse owner stole from the old man.”
“That’s just the thing!”
Matt shushed Brian. “Not so loud—the maiden might hear us. Here, duck behind this.”
Brian crouched behind a hedgerow before starting again. “That’s just the thing! The maiden only stole a chicken, and we’re stealing a whole horse! That isn’t fair.”
“It’s not about being fair,” Jer said. “It’s about teaching a lesson. Didn’t you just say that stealing is wrong? That means the maiden did something wrong. So we’re taking her horse to teach her a lesson. She’ll think twice before she steals again.”
Brian scrunched his face. Matt stopped his brothers at the end of the hedgerow. The hoof prints led into a large red barn beside the cottage.
Jer looked back at Brian. “Matt and I will go into the barn and get the horse. You stay here and keep lookout.”
Watching his brothers disappear into the barn’s deep shadow, Brian was glad he didn’t have to go with. Anything could be hiding in that gaping abyss. Brian stared into the distant tree line as the wind blew and the leaves rustled.
A low cooing made Brian jump. He drew his war hammer, ready to swing wildly at the night. He heard the cooing again. He strained his ear and followed it toward a small building behind the cottage. The moon broke through the clouds, shining onto a chicken coop. Brian tiptoed over and lifted the hinged roof. Inside were a couple rows of chickens. All perfectly ordinary, and ready to be restored to the old man. Why couldn’t they just do that?
A cottage window lit up. Brian crept toward it and peered in. A young woman with rosy cheeks and golden hair sat beside the fire. She was embroidering animals and Faerie creatures onto a piece of cloth. The colors were vivid and the creatures seemed almost to dance. Brian’s mouth dropped in awe.
The frail voice came from the cottage’s inner room. The maiden, Nixie, stood to meet an old woman in the doorway. She bent against a cane, and her eyes were wild with confusion. Nixie gathered a blanket and wrapped it around the old woman’s shoulders. She wrapped an arm around the woman and led her back to bed. When she finally returned to her embroidery, tears ran silently down her cheeks.
“There you are!”
The harsh whisper made Brian jump. But it was only Jer.
“Come on. The horse isn’t here,” Jer said.
Brian gave the weeping maiden one final glance before following his brothers.
“Maybe the horse was in there, but its enchantment made it invisible?” Matt suggested.
“Or maybe you were wrong about the hoof prints,” Jer countered. “Let’s follow them the other direction.”
“We can if you want. But that goes against everything they taught on NOVA.”
Jer and Matt went back to following the prints, and Brian had to run after them.
“Guys,” Brian said, huffing to keep pace, “I saw the maiden while you were in the barn. Her name is Nixie, and she seems really nice. Plus, she’s making this embroidery that’s really amazing, and I don’t—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Matt replied. “It doesn’t matter if the maiden’s nice. If we don’t get this horse, the old man won’t show us the way to the second bridge. And if we can’t find the second bridge, we’ll have to cross the river and get eaten by mermen. We don’t have a choice.”
Matt used his condescending tone to prove he was being logical. But the logic didn’t add up to Brian.
Finally, the hoof prints led to one last hill beside the dark lake. There, silhouetted by the moon, stood a horse. It was silver and shimmering, its graceful neck bowed toward the grass.
“Guess I was right about the hoof prints,” Jer muttered.
Matt scowled. “Look at the hooves—they’re turned backwards. So really, I was right.”
Jer rolled his eyes before striding toward the horse. Matt followed alongside. Once again, Brian followed behind.
The horse wore a full saddle and bridle. Matt and Jer walked slowly the last few paces, careful not to spook it. The horse twitched its ears and lifted its head, its amber eyes appraising the boys. The horse gave them a sort of nod.
“Remember how to ride?” Matt asked.
“Well enough,” Jer replied.
That past summer, their family had gone on a horseback riding trip through the mountains. Ever since, Jer thought of himself as a cowboy in training.
The two older boys helped each other step into the stirrups and straddle the horse. Jer took the reins. Matt tightened the straps on Santa’s bag.
“Come on, Bri!” Jer said. “There’s plenty of room.”
Brian hesitated. This was it. They were really going to steal this beautiful horse from that nice maiden and her sick mother. But maybe his brothers were right. Somehow. Still lost in thought, Brian patted the horse on its flank. The coat was soft and lustrous.
But when Brian tried to move his hand, it stuck to the horse. Brian pulled again, and then again. His hand would not budge.
“Guys,” Brian said, “Something’s wrong with—”
The horse bolted for the lake. Jer yanked the reins and dug his heels, but it was no use.
“Wait a—we’re trapped on the saddle! We can’t get off!” Matt yelled.
Hand stuck, Brian was dragged along the grass as the horse prepared to lunge into the dark water.