Note: This is my second letter of Advent 2022, but part 22 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.
Before the brothers could respond, the head gnome, who said his name was Tanuke, dropped their net by pressing a button on his wrist. The boys landed in a heap on the sand. By the time they got to their feet, dusted themselves off, and blamed each other for the awkward landing, the gnomes were leading them into the forest.
As they walked, the sand dunes and bristly pines gave way to lush vegetation. They came up to a small meadow surrounded by green hill riddled with burrows and tunnels. A stream of gnomes flitted in and out of these tunnels, each fussing with some gadget or arguing with a neighbor. The sun had just set, and the village was lit glow worm green by lanterns strung from hill to hill.
The brothers were still blinking in the scene when Tanuke ushered them into the center of the meadow.
“You all doubted us,” he bellowed into a brass bullhorn, “But here they are: human boys who will win the chariot race for us!”
The gnome village cheered, and the brothers eyed each other warily.
“Excuse me,” Matt said. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but…”
Jer cut in, “What in the world are you talking about?”
Tanuke nodded. “Ah, yes. Have a seat, human boys.” The gnome gestured toward a row of giant mushrooms. The boys all sat down. Matt cringed at the mushroom’s warm sponginess. A few gnomes, meanwhile, poured something hot into brass mugs and handed them to the boys. It smelled of earth and daisies. Brian took eager gulps. Jer took a couple experimental sips. Matt poured his drink on the grass when nobody was looking.
Tanuke called for silence, and the gnomes all sat in a circle around him. Tanuke made a show as if searching for the right words and, with a great puff of his chest, began:
“We gnomes of the salt forests keep to ourselves, and leave others to keep to themselves. But years ago, an ancient enemy emerged from Krampus Island. The snake people.”
Matt gulped. He didn’t like where this was going.
“They rowed across the bay in long boats, their spears and javelins and sharp teeth glistening in the sun. They threatened to destroy our village unless we agreed to their terms. In our desperation, we agreed. Both sides signed a Faerie contract, which can never be broken. In exchange for their pledge never to attack our village, we would pay them an enormous yearly tribute.”
“All the gold and silver we can mine!” shouted one of the gnomes in the crowd.
“Plus all our prized mushrooms!” shouted another.
“I haven’t so much as tasted a prized mushroom in years!” another wailed.
Tanuke lowered his head. “The years have passed, and we have had no hope of ever reclaiming our freedom. Except for one glimmer. The Fae contract provides that if we pay the snake people 10,000 florins, we can reclaim our village and end the tribute forever. However, that sum is more than any of us could earn in a hundred lifetimes. Except…”
Tanuke got a twinkle in his eye, and the Mellema brothers leaned forward despite themselves.
“Every ten years, there is a great chariot race. Faerie’s finest riders travel to test their mettle against each other. The champion’s prize is precisely 10,000 florins. As such, we have spent the past ten years building the finest chariot in all of Faerie. We have also been breeding the finest steeds. And, because we gnomes lack the, ahem, stature to properly steer a chariot, we hired three riders from the dog-faced village. It was a perfect plan…”
Tanuke sighed deeply. The rest of the village seemed to sigh with him.
“But only today, the dog-faced charioteers abandoned us for another chariot team. We begged and pleaded, but it was no use. We were ruined. It seemed we were doomed to another ten years of servitude. That is, until we saw you boys.”
The boys blinked while Tanuke’s words processed in their brains. Matt spoke first. “Wait, you want us to drive your chariot?”
The gnome village cheered in response.
“But we’ve never even been in a chariot before!” Matt wailed.
“What about that time at the zoo?” Brian said. “I was great at keeping my balance.”
“That was a carousel,” Jer retorted. “This is a little different.”
Matt raised his hand. “Could my brothers and I have a moment?”
The gnomes started grumbling, but Tanuke reluctantly agreed. The brothers leaned their heads together.
“This is crazy,” Matt whispered. “Chariots are really dangerous. Ever seen Ben-Hur?”
“We have to help the gnomes!” Brian replied. “They’re really nice, and this is the best drink I’ve ever had.”
“Besides,” Jer added. “How else are we going to get across the bay?”
Matt bit his lip. “We keep walking down the shore. Maybe someone else will be willing to…”
Matt glanced up. The whole gnome village was leaning forward, hanging on every whispered word. With a great sigh, Matt said, “Fine.”
The celebration was instant and raucous. The gnomes started dancing, singing, and playing music on complex whirling gadgets. It was so loud that the brothers had to strain to hear Tanuke.
“There’s no time to waste: let’s select your steeds.”
As Tanuke led the boys out of the village, he explained the rules. “The race has three laps: the first on land, the second in the sky, and the third in the sea. Each of you will drive for one lap. We’ll start by selecting your land mounts, and—”
“Wait,” Matt cut in. “One of these laps is flying through the air?”
“Of course,” Tanuke said. “But first things first. Look at these beauties for the land race.”
They were at a stone fence along a wide meadow, the leafy trees painted silver by the moon. Tanuke let out a long, low whistle. After a moment, five large shapes emerged from the trees. They had long spindly legs, bodies almost like a horse, and long necks crowned with soft horns. They moved silently, almost gently, toward the boys.
Jer raised an eyebrow. “Are those…giraffes?”
Tanuke laughed. “Ah yes, that’s what you call them in the human world. Here, we use their proper name: cameleopard. Some have escaped into the human world, but they’re natives of Faerie. That’s why they’ve always seemed so magical to you.”
As the giraffes made their way to the boys with their smooth strides and their hazel eyes, the boys had no trouble believing they belonged in Faerie. The giraffes bent their heads toward the boys, who patted their muzzles and told them what good giraffes—err, cameleopards—they were.
Tanuke asked which boy would like to be the land driver, and Brian volunteered immediately. For his steed, he picked the giraffe that was clearly bigger and stronger than the others.
“But don’t worry,” Brian told the other giraffes, “I like you all equally.”
Tanuke nodded in satisfaction, and led them toward a rocky hill.
After picking their way along a winding path, the boys reached a cave near the top. A large chain net hung over the entrance. Tanuke unlocked the net with a golden key, and led the boys inside.
Spurts of orange and yellow light erupted from deep in the cave. Again, Tanuke whistled. And again, five creatures emerged from the shadows. For a frantic second, Matt thought they were ten-foot roosters. But rather than feathers, the creatures had golden scales. They walked on two clawed feet, with leathery wings folded against their backs.
Matt squinted into the dark. “Are they…dragons?”
“Not properly,” Tanuke explained. “Dragons have four legs and a set of wings on their backs. These are wyverns: the true masters of the sky. Friendly, too. But careful not to spook them—fire breath and all that.”
Jer and Matt each invited the other to step toward the wyverns. Jer shook his head no, and Matt shook his head harder. Jer raised his eyebrow, and Matt started backing out of the cave. Sighing, Jer stepped forward.
The biggest and strongest wyvern walked up to Jer, smoke smoldering in its nostrils. With a gulp, Jer extended his palm toward the wyvern. The wyvern rubbed its leathery snout against Jer’s hand, and Jer broke into a broad smile. Jer chose this wyvern to pull his chariot.
As Tanuke led them to the final pen, Matt’s stomach did barrel rolls. He would have to pilot whatever creature awaited him—no matter how horrifying. He should have just taken the giraffes when he had the chance. He was so lost in regret that he almost walked into the lake.
Even with all his tumbling nerves, Matt had to gasp at the scene. Rolling hills surrounded a crystal lake reflecting the moonlight. Tanuke whistled, and five sets of bubbles emerged from the depths. These bubbles soon resolved into five approaching shadows beneath the surface.
“What are they?” Matt asked.
Matt’s shoulders finally relaxed. Dolphins were fine—smart and friendly and helpful to lost children on tv. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Then the dolphins rose from the water, and Matt nearly fell backwards. Although about the size of dolphins, they could hardly look more different. Their bodies, covered in blue and green iridescent scales, shimmered in the starlight. Tall webbed sails ran along their backs. Their heads were shaped like giant melons, and tusks curved out from their pointed snouts.
Matt backed away. “What…I mean, how…”
Tanuke sighed. “These aren’t your world’s dolphins. These are proper Faerie dolphins. The sort of thing you’d see on human heraldry.”
The lead dolphin lifted its great head above the water and looked directly at Matt. Its bottle green eyes blinked at Matt with clear intelligence.
“That one’s named Prudentus. He’s the most experienced dolphin in Faerie,” the leader said with pride. “Knows every current and ripple along the entire coast. Not as fast as he used to be, though. Now pick your dolphin.”
Matt realized he’d been scratching the head of Prudentus like he was a big scaly dog. With regret, he stood up and surveyed the other dolphins. After a moment’s pause, he followed Jer and Brian’s example and picked the one that looked the strongest and fastest.
“Excellent,” Tanuke said. “Let’s get you three back to the village.”
They walked in silence through the moon-dappled forest path. Finally, Matt couldn’t keep his worries to himself any longer.
“We’re three kids with no experience. Do you really think we can win this chariot race?”
Tanuke said nothing for a long time. But as he walked, a smile grew across his face. “Do you have the courage to stand in place when chaos swirls around you?”
“Yes,” Jer said.
“Can you act with just regard to your steed and your fellow racers?”
“Yes,” Brian said.
“In the heat of competition, can you temper both your anger and your exhilaration?”
“I guess so,” Matt said.
“Then you’re all as ready as you’ll ever be. And that’s good news, because the chariot race is first thing in the morning.”