Tom Thumb and his mentor, Merlin, travel the world in search of other tiny folk in the origin tale for The League of Homunculi.
, Body Exploration
, Mouth Play
, Violent Characters:
Minikin (3 in. to 1 in.)Size Roles:
This story is for entertainment purposes only.
The League of Homunculi
April 15 2011 Updated:
May 19 2011
This is a somewhat unusual story but the idea has been kicking around my brain for some time now. It features a gathering of the famous "little people" of literature, an idea inspired by Alan Moore's graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which featured a similar grouping of literary characters.
This story explores how my team of miniature heroes first got together. It's inspired by fairy tales, legends, and crossover fiction. This is heavy on fantasy but with plenty of tiny people, fair damsels, and sexy stuff along the way. Hope some of you enjoy it.
2018 Update: I've posted a slightly revised version of this story with a few new scenes, some rewritten ones, and a name change for Thumbelina's husband (so as not to copy the Don Bluth movie as much).
1. Chapter 1 by Pixis
2. Chapter 2 by Pixis
3. Chapter 3 by Pixis
4. Chapter 4 by Pixis
5. Chapter 5 by Pixis
All characters are, to the best of my knowledge, public domain. And at any rate, I make no money off of this.
The League of Homunculi Book 1: Tom Thumb’s Blues
The Legend: In the days of good King Arthur, the magician Merlin summoned to Britain a collection of the smallest individuals known to man. These he offered to the king as spies, a secret network of miniature heroes undertaking missions against the Round Table’s enemies. Merlin called this strange menagerie…the League of Homunculi.
And this is how they came to be.
* * * * *
The League of Homunculi
Sir Thomas Thumb sat in the palm of the queen’s hand. All around him were the enormous forms of knights, nobles, and peasant-folk, gathered on the green for the spring festival. At his vantage, the little man could hardly see anything but there was an air of excitement and activity. He could barely contain himself as he heard the blare of the trumpeters announcing the beginning of a joust. Once more, he could live vicariously through his heroes and forget, for a time, the strange and unfortunate circumstances of his life.
At three inches tall, Tom was by far the most unusual of the fabled Knights of the Round Table, defenders of the kingdom of Britain. Boyishly handsome (if one could see him in detail), Tom wore a tiny hand-stitched tunic, a doublet of thistledown, apple-rind stockings, mouse-pelt boots, and a small feathered cap worn at a rakish angle. At his side was a sewing needle that served as his sword. He was the very image of a noble knight, yet one cast in miniature, no bigger than a human thumb.
Tom was a relatively new addition to the court of Camelot. He had been found in the belly of a fish that was served up to King Arthur Pendragon himself. This monster of the deep—actually a salmon, though Tom felt the name did not do the beast justice—had swallowed him up while he was swimming in the river near his parents’ cottage. The following hours were a blur of impenetrable darkness, disorienting motion, sizzling heat, and finally, light once again as the king sliced into his supper. Arthur and his entourage had cried out in alarm when a tiny human-like figure emerged from the fish’s abdomen, blinking in confusion.
“Wh-where am I? What’s happened?” Tom had babbled as his eyes readjusted to the sunlight. “I’m free? Heaven prosper you, good sir, for your assistance! What is your name? I would know my savior.”
“I am Arthur, King of the Britons,” the man stated.
Tom stared at him in astonishment. For a moment, he was silent. “Ha!” he exclaimed at last. “That’s a good one. A fine jest. Now, who are you really?”
Arthur laughed heartily at this. Whatever this tiny creature was, the king developed a liking for him immediately.
Tom was quite relieved to be rescued from the fish and the king and queen were instantly taken with the strange little man. But more intrigued by far was the king’s advisor, Myrddin Emrys, known to many as Merlin.
Tom was, in fact, Merlin’s creation. The aged magician had given life to the tiny being through magic and alchemy many years ago, growing him in a test tube and allowing him to gestate in secret formulas Merlin alone knew. He had offered him as a son to a childless couple that once showed the wizard kindness. In truth, Merlin had spared no further thought on the little creature after this incident, leaving him to the care of his foster family. That Tom should find his way back to his maker all these years later was seen as a sign of providence. Merlin was still pondering the significance of this.
“The gods bring us together once again, young Thomas,” the sorcerer had once told the wee manikin. “To what end, I cannot guess. But I believe you may have a role to play in what is to come.”
“Yes, sir,” Tom said obediently, not truly understanding. This was often the case, for the wizard was prone to speaking in cryptic prophecies. “I shall endeavor to do my part.”
A role was indeed assigned to him, though not the one he may have desired. King Arthur made Tom the official court dwarf and tasked him with entertaining the nobility. It was a logical choice for one so small but hardly more dignified than the status of the foppish court jester, Dagonet. Tom’s only purpose was to provide amusement through the novelty of his size and he found himself often gawked at by the royals and their courtiers or performing tricks upon the tabletop. However small his contributions to court were though, the little man still made an impression. Tom’s bravery and good-hearted nature soon impressed the king and won him an honorary knighthood. In Arthur’s Britain, even the smallest of men was valued for the quality of his heart.
Tom still looked back on that day with fondness. Rather than using the flat of his sword, as he would in a normal knighting ceremony, Arthur lightly tapped Tom’s little shoulder with a bread knife.
“For your noble and admirable spirit and the many hours of merriment you have brought us,” the king said to the little man, “I dub thee Sir Thomas Thumb, Knight of Camelot.”
Of course, his knighthood was in name only. Tom could not accompany the warriors into battle with the Picts or Saxons or other foes of the realm, lest he be trodden on in the tumult of war. He could not defend fair maidens or liberate the oppressed. Slaying dragons or ogres was out of the question, for even squirrels proved formidable enemies to Tom. Occasionally, he was allowed to accompany the knights on hunting expeditions, riding upon a field mouse steed. But this was the extent of his involvement with their activities.
Despite his misgivings, his life at Camelot was an honorable one and Tom felt blessed. He was even paid a stipend that allowed his human foster parents to live quite comfortably. But even so, he could not shake the pangs of melancholy that occasionally plagued him. Tom had spent his whole life in a world of giants, seemingly the only person of his diminutive size. Although he had friends at court, the minuscule knight still felt very alone.
This particular day, with crowds of towering peasants and nobles gathered for the festival, Tom felt more out of place than ever. “Look, Sir Tom,” Queen Guinevere said, holding him higher over the heads of the spectators. “The match is about to begin!”
The king and queen were seated in their royal box near the jousting green behind the castle. Guinevere had carried Tom with her so that he might entertain her in between the festival’s events. She was rarely found without the tiny knight these days. The miniature man had become like a beloved pet to her, often held in her palm, sat upon her lap, or stashed safely in a pocket of her gown. For his part, Tom enjoyed the fair lady’s company, but he grew weary of being asked to dance in her hand or display his climbing prowess on household items.
“Who are the first competitors, your majesty?” Tom asked, cupping his hands to his mouth. He had to shout at the top of his tiny lungs to be heard over the din of the crowd.
“What’s that?” inquired Guinevere. She swept her hand closer to her ear and Tom clutched himself tightly against her thumb to keep from falling.
“Oh, the jousters?” the queen said. “The first two are Sir Gawain of Orkney and Sir Tristan of Lyonesse. See over there, where they’re donning their armor? Why, from this distance, they look as small as you, Tom!”
Guinevere tittered girlishly, closed one eye, and held a thumb and forefinger before her face. She squeezed them together, pretending to crush the small faraway figures.
“Look, I’m squashing Gawain’s head!”
“Er, yes,” Tom muttered. “Very droll.” He failed to appreciate the joke, wondering instead if his own head would pop like a grape between the lady’s fingers. He would have to make sure not to get on her bad side.
A few dozen yards away, Sir Gawain and Sir Tristan had mounted their horses and were guiding them into position for the joust. A maiden ran out onto the field and offered a silky scarf to Gawain as a token. The burly red-haired knight took the item and tied it carefully around his arm. He reached down to take the lady’s hand and kissed it. She blushed and giggled, then ran back to join her friends.
Tom watched this scene with a wistful expression. How he wished that could be him out there! The mouse he rode could never hope to keep pace with the horsemen of the king’s guard, nor could Tom attempt to lift a lance. And at his size, participation in jousts and games of skill were right out, save perhaps his battle with a stray cat the other morning. He’d managed to slice off a few whiskers before the queen arrived and shooed the animal away.
“Gawain is undefeated thus far but they say Tristan is a skillful rider,” said Guinevere. “Oh, this will be most exciting!” She clapped her hands together in delight, forgetting her petite passenger for the moment. Tom cried out as he was pressed between two massive palms. She hadn’t slapped hard but it was sufficient force to knock the wind out of him.
With an embarrassed gasp, the queen set him down on the table before her. “My apologies. Perhaps you should sit here. I get ever so worked up at tournaments.”
Tom tried to protest that he could no longer see the match but the woman could not hear him. The crowd roared as the knights rode out onto the field and the wee man could only use his imagination. He heard the thunderous hooves, the clang of metal, and the sharp snap of a splintering wooden lance. But he knew not which knight was the victor.
The little man wandered across the tabletop, seeking to relieve his boredom and frustration. Nearby, a silver plate was spread before him, piled high with a Cornish game hen, fresh-cooked bread, and a stack of steaming vegetables. Tom’s stomach growled and he considered climbing up onto the lip of the plate to steal a few bites. But he feared that, in her distracted state, the queen might mistake him for a parsnip and gobble him up.
Suddenly, the lady jumped to her feet, bumping against the side of the table. Tom lost his footing and fell forward, almost cracking his head on the edge of the plate.
“Gawain wins again?!” Guinevere cried. “How does he do it? Tristan almost had him!”
Angrily, she pounded the table with her fist. Tom had to scramble to the side lest he be flattened by this monstrous five-fingered juggernaut. The tabletop quivered with the impact. Such mishaps were commonplace for the little man, though his helplessness hurt his pride. Guinevere gazed down at him absently, unaware of how close he’d come to harm.
“Forgive me, Sir Tom. Where are my manners? You can’t see the joust from down there, can you?”
Gigantic feminine fingers closed about Tom’s body, hoisting him into the air with dizzying speed. Before he knew it, the woman had placed him atop her head. Tom stood knee-deep in strawberry blonde hair while his hostess giggled below. As the colossal queen shifted occasionally under his feet, he clung to a few silken strands for security. His head swam and he feared a possible drop down the length of her person. Even with the queen in a seated position, this was a significant distance for the tiny man. Far away, Tristan’s entourage attended to his wounds while a new challenger rode out to meet Gawain on the field.
“Ah, Sir Sagramore of Constantinople!” the lady exclaimed. “He’ll cut that big, Gaelic brute down to size!”
Tom gulped slightly, tried not to look down, and attempted to enjoy the match.
* * * *
After the day’s festivities, the king and queen retired back to the castle. Yet even then, Guinevere was loath to release her treasured pet knight. Seated on her throne, she idly rolled Tom back and forth in her hand, manipulating him as one might a small toy. Normally, the wee man would laugh or playfully fight against her fingers, as if dueling with tiny enemies. But this time, Tom’s only response was a sad little sigh. The queen ceased her game and lifted her hand higher until Tom was level with her bright blue eyes.
“What’s wrong, Sir Tom?” she asked. “You seem in an ill humour.”
“Forgive me, your majesty,” answered Tom, looking up at her lovely yet gigantic visage. Ringlets of strawberry blonde curls hung down upon Tom as she leaned closer. Their weight nearly knocked him over but he casually pushed the lady’s locks aside.
“I was merely thinking how grand it would be if I were not so small. Or, barring that, I dearly wish there were other folk my size. Then I would not feel so freakish and odd and alone.”
“You must not say such things about yourself. You are a wonder,” Guinevere insisted, kissing the top of his head affectionately. Enormous lips pressed down on the little warrior, enveloping half his head. As she pulled away, his hat affixed to her upper lip. Tom reached up to retrieve it but the giant face retreated too swiftly. A tiny, feathered cap was stuck to Guinevere’s mouth like a stray crumb. After a moment, she sensed its presence and returned it to Tom, far more dampened than previously.
King Arthur chuckled at this comical scene from the adjoining throne. “Aye, the lady speaks true,” he said. “You are a remarkable little fellow, Tom. And quite amusing.”
Tall and strong with a trim, regal beard, a commanding presence, the heart of a warrior, and the admiration of many, Arthur was everything Tom wished to be. He was the chivalrous ideal that his knights could aspire to, but which the tiny Tom could never achieve. The small manikin sighed once more.
“I suppose you’re right, my lord,” said Tom from Guinevere’s hand. “In any case, I should not wish for the impossible.”
“It’s not as impossible as you might think, Thomas,” added Merlin as he approached the dais where the king and queen were seated. The click of his staff against the tiles punctuated every word. The old druid was nearly lost beneath his thick white beard and flowing blue robes, yet he too had an air of strength and power that Tom envied. Golden, hawk-like eyes practically bored into the little man as his mentor and creator addressed him.
“I sensed your troubled thoughts today,” the enchanter said. “And I have been consulting my scrying pool for a solution. It might interest you to know that there are others like you.”
Others? Tom’s heart leapt at the idea. How could this be?
Merlin continued. “Magicians and alchemists the world over have perfected the creation of homunculi—miniature humans of artificial origin. Much like how I created you. Many others have attempted the craft and new life forms have been born through their arts. Even now, we are seeing the beginning of a new and distinctly minute race of man. I have been giving it some thought and I believe I have hit upon a use for these beings’…unique talents. Talents that might yet serve the isle of Britain.”
“You speak in riddles as ever, old friend,” said Arthur. “What are you getting at?”
“Madness perhaps,” Merlin admitted to his former pupil, “but an experiment worth pursuing. If you can spare Tom and me for a few days, I know where we can locate a few of these homunculi. Then we shall see if my ideas are mere folly. If nothing else, it would do Thomas some good to see others of his kind.”
“Oh, can I go with him, my liege?!” Tom cried excitedly, jumping to his feet. In his eagerness, the wee knight lost his balance and tumbled out of the queen’s hand. Guinevere tried to catch him but Tom slipped through her fingers and plummeted headfirst down the front of her dress. At this, the lady shrieked in surprise. Desperately, she fished about in her bodice for the vanished Tom, trying to maintain as much queenly dignity as was possible. Arthur stifled his laughter, lest he offend his wife.
Merlin pointedly cleared his throat and drew the king’s attention back to him. “Have we your leave to depart on this quest?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Arthur. “I should like to see what scheme you’re hatching this time, Merlin. Go with my blessing.”
“Soon, Arthur,” the magician vowed, “you will have the smallest and most unusual champions that e’er served any king.”
Arthur gazed back at his wife and saw tiny hands emerge from the neckline of her gown. These were soon followed by an embarrassed and bewildered little face. Tom frantically tried to climb free, but lost his grip and soon tumbled back down into the dress.
The king tried not to smile at Tom’s misfortune. He had heard of knights succumbing to the charms of fair damsels but this was ridiculous. Arthur wondered what possible use a group of such helpless little creatures could be. Yet he knew that Merlin had never steered him wrong.
Tom was finally freed from his predicament and hastily handed over to Merlin. Guinevere, her face flushed a deep crimson, vowed never to speak of the incident again.
* * * *
The following morning, Merlin brought Tom to the shore of a small stream that ran through the woods near Camelot. The little knight was puzzled as to their mode of transport. Merlin’s shoulder was sufficient for him but how was the old mage to make the journey? His question was soon answered for his mentor began to mutter an exotic incantation under his breath. The words were in Old Brythonic, the language of their ancestors, though Tom knew not what they meant.
In moments, a thick, impenetrable mist descended upon the woods and an eerie craft emerged from this miasma. It was a small wooden boat with the head of a swan at its prow. Tom could have sworn that no such skiff was visible on the stream seconds earlier but he knew better than to question Merlin.
As the narrow barge made landfall on the muddy bank, its occupant gradually came into view. Long, straight black hair framed a fair face that exuded calm and serenity. The lady wore robes of blue and a thin, golden circlet rested on her brow. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that this was no young maid. She was closer to middle age than the bloom of youth and her face was lined and somewhat careworn, her hair streaked with strands of grey. Yet her maturity had not dampened her beauty nor lessened the aura of power that surrounded her.
“Lady Viviane,” Merlin said, bowing to the leader of his druidic order. Tom recognized the name at once. This was the Lady of the Lake, the High Priestess of the sacred isle of Avalon. The king valued her counsel and aid almost as much as Merlin’s. It was she that had gifted Arthur with his enchanted sword Excalibur and who had raised Sir Lancelot, Camelot’s champion, as a foster son.
The lady took the old man’s hand as he helped her down from the boat. “Myrddin, my dear friend,” Viviane answered. It seemed she preferred his given British name rather than its Latinized form.
“It is good to see you,” she said with a beatific smile. “How do you fare these days?”
“Ach, we’ve finally gotten most of the subject-kings and barons in line,” the enchanter told her. “But King Lot is still scheming against the crown. It’s only a matter of time before the Saxons gear up for another invasion. And I don’t have to tell you of the threat posed by Avalon’s fallen sister, Lady Morgan. Even now, she is–”
“I meant you personally,” said Viviane. “How are you?”
“Oh,” Merlin stammered, taken aback. “I’m…fine, I suppose. Yourself?”
“No complaints,” she answered. Viviane reached out to touch Merlin’s arm compassionately. “Really, Myrddin, you must learn to relax now and then.”
“A wizard’s work is never done, my lady,” Merlin said wearily. “Things on Avalon are good then? How…how is your apprentice, Nimue?”
Viviane gave a knowing grin. “She is well. And still too young for you, you dirty old man.”
“Cailleach the hag-goddess would be too young for me, Viviane,” Merlin muttered. “Sometimes I think I’ve lived too long.”
Tom sensed his friend entering one of his dark moods and quickly interjected. “Lady Viviane,” the little knight said. “It is an honor to meet you at last.”
The woman turned towards Merlin’s shoulder, finally noticing the tiny figure perched there. “Ah, so this is he? Your wee homunculus? Let me get a good look at him. May I?”
As Merlin nodded, Viviane reached out a pale, slender hand that was several times as large as Tom. Her fingers were delicate yet deceptively strong as they wrapped tightly about his torso and lifted him into open air. Tom found being manhandled and passed about slightly off-putting, but being so small, he was often forced to endure it. At any rate, the softness of the lady’s skin was quite pleasant and he found himself brought closer to her pretty face. Viviane opened her fingers and allowed Tom to stand in her upturned hand. Sea-blue eyes as big as his head regarded him curiously and his hair and feathered cap were ruffled by the air from her nostrils overhead.
“How simply adorable,” the Lady of the Lake mused. “You’re quite the handsome little gentleman, Sir Tom. I could just eat you up!”
Tom winced slightly. At his size, this was very much a possibility. He’d be little more than a mouthful, gone in a gulp or two. His eyes drifted warily to her plush red lips, smiling almost as wide as he was tall.
“Oh, mercy me!” cried Viviane. “The boy is taking me at my word!” With an impish giggle, she held Tom closer to her mouth and snapped huge, white teeth an inch or so from his face. The miniature man nearly fainted. Tom’s presence seemed to bring out the playful side in people, much to his chagrin.
“Fear not, Master Thumb,” the priestess insisted, pulling a safe distance away. “I make it a point not to devour Round Table knights. Bad for troop morale.” She smiled and winked at the little man. Rather than immediately pass him back to Merlin, she continued to hold him, seemingly amused by the novelty.
“I thank you for the loan of the Barge of Avalon, my lady,” Merlin said, indicating the small boat.
“Think nothing of it.” Viviane dismissed him with a gesture but her eyes never left the tiny being straddling the lifeline of her palm. Mischievously, she shifted her hand back and forth, beaming as Tom stumbled from one side to the other and almost toppled into the air. She suddenly leaned forward, pursed her lips, and blew on him, giggling as he fell backward onto his rump against her fingers. She then started to gently toss him up and down like a toy ball. Tom was becoming slightly annoyed and more than a little motion sick but there was little he could do. He was helpless in the towering woman’s grasp.
Merlin interrupted impatiently and Viviane at last snapped back to reality. “My lady, forgive me, but we are in haste.”
“Yes, of course. I regret that I cannot accompany you,” she said, allowing Tom to come to rest in her palm. “But I have pressing matters to discuss with the High King. Unrest between the pagans and Christians of the kingdom is worse than ever. And as you so noted, my former pupil Morgan lies at the heart of that conflict, stirring up mischief and sowing the seeds of war. Something must be done before her madness threatens all that we have created.”
“That it must,” agreed Merlin. “Young Thomas may yet play a part in that struggle.” Tom listened curiously to the magician’s remark. With Merlin’s gift of foresight, one could never be certain if the old man was speaking hypothetically or pronouncing a prophecy of events to come.
“In any case,” Viviane continued, “we cannot divest Arthur of both his counselors while you and the little one take a holiday. I must remain here.”
“Indeed,” Merlin said. “I leave the kingdom in your capable hands.”
“Ah, if only these hands could enfold and protect the Island of the Mighty as easily as they do your wee protégé,” the enchantress mused, gazing down at Tom one more time. She lifted him higher and kissed his tiny face, enveloping his entire head in thick, rosy lips.
“May the grace of the gods and the Divine Mother Dôn go with you,” the High Priestess whispered, holding him just inches from her mouth once more. Tom’s vision was filled with flashes of red flesh and the occasional reflection caught in the shiny surface of perfect teeth. By this point, he was reasonably certain she did not intend to eat him, but he couldn’t help being a bit distressed by his proximity to that deadly cavern.
“I hope you find what you are looking for,” Viviane finished. Gently, she lowered Tom into the boat and set him on the wooden crossbeam that served as a bench. Merlin soon followed, sitting across from him on the other side.
“Take care of this one, Sir Tom,” Viviane added, placing a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Myrddin may be able to advise kings and perceive the secrets of the future, but I fear he’d lose his head were it not attached to his shoulders.”
The wizard began to stammer an offended retort but the priestess merely laughed and kissed his forehead.
As they set sail, Viviane raised her hand in a sign of farewell and spoke the incantation to summon the mists. Seconds later, the barge was gone.
To be continued...
Tom gazed into the hazy grey murk that surrounded them. He could no longer see Viviane, the woods, or even the stream through the thick mists. In fact, he could not see anything at all. The supernatural fog seemed to stretch into infinity and Tom felt disconcerted by the loss of all things familiar.
“So…” the wee warrior said awkwardly, “that was the Lady of the Lake.”
“Aye,” answered Merlin. “A more good-hearted woman you will not find in all of Britain.”
“She’s lovely,” Tom continued, though in truth the lady’s whimsical games had somewhat frightened him. “And she seems very fond of you. Forgive my impertinence, sir, but have you and she…that is to say, the two of you…?”
“Were we ever lovers?” the magician finished, guessing his mind. “We had a flirtation in our youth but it was not to be. Viviane is the leader of my holy order. In colloquial terms, one might even say she is my—what is the peasants’ term for it?—my ‘boss?’ An untenable position for a romance. No, I’m afraid the gods have decreed another love for me. And another fate.” He stared off into the misty void absently, and would apparently say no more.
After a moment, Tom sought to break the silence. “Where are we going, sir?”
“Our first stop, Thomas,” Merlin told him, “is the Dan-mark, a kingdom of the Northlands.”
“The Northlands?” Tom cried incredulously. “But that’s hundreds of leagues from here! You said we would only be gone a few days. I—I packed light.”
“Calm yourself, my lad,” the wizard chuckled. “We travel via the Barge of Avalon, which can sail the waters of the Otherworld itself. By traversing the mists between worlds, the Barge can access any body of water on Earth. Why, our journey is already complete. See for yourself.”
As the mists cleared, Tom saw a vast field of wildflowers that stretched out beyond the shore of the river they now sailed upon. Half-melted ice floes drifted past them in the water and a sudden chill had entered the air. A majestic range of hills was visible on the horizon. The two travelers exited the boat, marveling slightly at their suddenly visible breath in the cold air. They were most definitely in the Northlands. And though the flowers indicated that spring was newly returned, the climate was still far cooler than the two Britons were accustomed to.
“The kingdom of our first potential recruit lies in that flowerbed,” Merlin informed Tom. “I’m afraid you must press on alone from here. Humans are not welcome in the domain of the Flower-Folk. I would no doubt trample the plant life and anyone within it.”
Tom was puzzled. “Flower-Folk?”
“A branch of the Tylwyth Teg or Sidhe-people,” Merlin said simply. This received only a blank stare from the little man at his feet.
“Oh, for the gods’ sake, Thomas! Pay attention to my lessons once in a while! Faeries. You would know them as faeries. It is their princess that you seek. Now then, off with you! And take this with you!”
Merlin tossed an infinitesimal pendant to him. It was formed from a mere shaving of a larger gem but was as big as a millstone to Tom. At his mentor’s urging, he wandered into the wildflowers, each taller than he was and spread about in a random pattern. It was the equivalent of entering a dense and disorienting forest but the little knight pressed on. After all his years of dreaming, he was within moments of finally finding someone like himself. Giddy with anticipation, he quickened his pace.
It did not take long for his presence to be noted. Vague shapes flitted in Tom’s peripheral vision and unseen watchers rustled the lofty flowers around him. Nervous and unsure, the little man placed a hand on the hilt of his needle-sword. But faster than he could react, shadowy forms burst into a clearing and surrounded him.
Tom blinked in shock as his attackers came into focus. They had the appearance of men, save for their sharply pointed ears, translucent golden wings, and a miniature height which matched Tom’s own. The warriors—at least five or six, he noted—were pale and fair-haired and clad in brightly colored tunics. Spears built from sharpened twigs and bits of flint were aimed directly at him.
Tom’s heartbeat quickened in mingled excitement and fear. He had heard legends of the Fair Folk but had never actually seen one of them. These strange little men were as small as he was! Yet, for all the joy this brought to Tom, he was also a trifle uneasy in their presence. Despite their human-like appearance, there was something eerie and other about them. Their features were somewhat alien, their cheekbones high and sharp. Their eyes were narrow and set close together, seemingly drilling into Tom’s head with their gaze.
The faeries scolded Tom accusingly in their musical language. When this received no response, they tried the tongues of the Jutes and the Danes, the human folk of that land. Alas, Tom was not fluent in either. He glanced down at the pendant in his hand and quickly slipped the string around his neck. At once, he understood the faeries’ words and they, his.
“So that’s what this does. Instructions would have been nice, Merlin,” Tom muttered.
“Who are you?” a fae soldier barked, waving a spear at him.
“What are you?” another added, puzzled.
“My name is Sir Thomas Thumb,” the wee knight began. “And I—”
“Where are your wings, boy?” a third faerie asked. “Are you some kind of cripple?” The group soon began to debate amongst themselves as to his nature.
“He hasn’t got ‘em. I’ll bet he’s from one of the wingless tribes. A Cornish pixie or a house-brownie perhaps.”
“Too pale for a brownie and more finely dressed than any pixie I’ve ever seen.”
“Look at his ears! Round as a human’s!”
“Just like the princess!” one of them gasped. The others began to mutter quietly to each other. They huddled close together and cast suspicious glances at Tom. “Let’s take him to her!” said the faerie responsible for the previous outburst. “Maybe she’ll know what to make of this.”
Before Tom could explain himself, the faerie soldiers grabbed him roughly by the arms and took to the air, dragging the bewildered knight with them. Like maddened bumblebees, they skirted along the tops of the wildflowers at breakneck speed, darting across the length of the field. Tom’s shins bumped against the flowers’ petals as his captors pulled him ever onward.
Finally, they arrived at the trunk of a massive ash tree, a fearsome giant of the forest with gnarled roots, majestic branches, and aged bark that was nearly black. Tapping three times on a knot in the wood, the faeries were allowed passage through a door that Tom hadn’t even known was there. They continued down a narrow corridor lit by strange glowing lamps of brilliant blue that seemed to be formed from luminescent fungi or lichen. Tom’s feet had not touched the ground once during this whole ordeal.
At last, they emerged into a chamber richly decorated with tapestries and runic symbols. The same eerie blue light illuminated the room. The soldiers finally set him down and Tom looked about in bewilderment. Two individuals, a man and a woman, sat upon tiny thrones before him, dressed in the silken finery and golden crowns of royalty.
Tom’s breath caught in his throat for the woman was the most striking vision he had ever seen. She was beautiful and delicate as a flower petal with long crimson hair that offset her pale skin. Her hourglass figure was exquisite, like the most finely crafted porcelain doll. The lady’s emerald green gown shimmered in the torchlight. Like his captors, she sported golden wings, though hers appeared to be false ones. They were formed from a silky, synthetic material wrapped about a metal framework and attached via a harness worn around her torso.
“What’s all this commotion?” exclaimed the handsome, blond-haired male beside her. His athletic physique was clad in a tunic of exotic fabrics and his regal bearing and elaborate crown clearly identified him as a nobleman. “Who is this that you bring to us, guards?”
“Prince Cornu. Princess Maia,” the leader of the soldiers said, pushing Tom forward with his spear. “We caught this stranger invading our land.”
“Oh, now, really,” protested Tom. “Invading is such a strong word!”
“He is flat-eared and wingless,” the guard continued. “Like the illustrious princess once was. My lady, have you any guess as to his origins?”
The princess stood up silently and approached Tom with proper solemnity. Soon, she was standing quite close and inspecting him up and down, which caused the knight to shift nervously where he stood. Beautiful green eyes seemed to pierce right into his soul.
“You are no faerie,” she stated, surprised.
“Neither are you, my lady,” said Tom, gazing at her clearly artificial wings. They stared back and forth for a few more moments, both astonished and guardedly elated to have found each other. A thousand questions ran through each little person’s head.
“Come,” the woman said at last, taking Tom by the hand and leading him to an adjoining chamber. His heart nearly stopped at her touch.
“We have much to discuss.”
* * * *
“I hatched from a magical barleycorn given to my mother by an enchantress,” the princess informed Tom after the knight revealed his own beginnings. The two of them sat side by side on a divan couch in some sort of parlor or sitting room just beyond the throne room.
“She named me Thumbelina and raised me as her daughter. It was a blissful existence until the day a wicked she-toad hopped up on the windowsill and took me prisoner. Apparently, I was to be a bride for her son.”
Thumbelina frowned, thinking back to distressing memories. “This was a recurring theme of my life actually. I had no end of suitors in those days—toads, moles, beetles… None of them concerned about my feelings or if I even wanted to marry them. Thankfully, a friendly swallow brought me here to this valley where I could be among people my own size.”
“There’s not much more to tell,” she admitted. “I met Cornu shortly after and we fell in love. The Flower-Folk have been most accepting of me. Made me their princess and built this enchanted wing-harness for me after Cornu and I were wed.”
Tom’s hopes sank when he heard that this lovely creature was already spoken for. But he had a mission to focus on.
“It’s incredible to finally meet someone else like me. Truly it is,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re the only ones. My maker, Merlin, says that there are others out there. Homunculi, he calls us. He wants to form some sort of elite team of us in fact.”
Thumbelina arched a pretty eyebrow. “Whatever for?”
“To…well…I…” Tom stammered. “That’s inconclusive at this time. But no doubt he has some grand adventure in mind.”
“Adventure,” the princess repeated. “I should like to have another one of those—a real one this time, not just a series of stalkers and marriage proposals. I love this land with all my heart but I regret that I have seen so little of the world. It would be joy itself if I could join you, Sir Thomas. But I…I cannot abandon my husband or my people. I am a princess, I have responsibilities now! It would not be fitting.”
Tom saw the sadness in Thumbelina’s eyes as she spoke these words. He wondered who she was trying to convince, her guest or herself.
“I understand, your highness,” the knight said, his spirits sinking. “I suppose this must be goodbye then. Merlin and I have other stops to make. I can’t tell you how wondrous it was to meet you though. You don’t know what this has meant to me, how many years I’ve longed to meet another with my…condition.”
“It means a lot to me as well,” Thumbelina agreed, taking his hands. Tom’s heart began palpitating once more. “For so long, I thought I was the only one like this. I would sit upon my mother’s shoulder, watching the towering figures around me, and feel so alone. The Flower-Folk have accepted me but…it’s not the same. I am not truly one of them.”
She ran a finger idly along the false wing over her shoulder before returning her attention to Tom. “At least now I know that you exist. Another…what was the word? Homunculus? If nothing else, I have a brother.” The princess leaned forward and wrapped her arms about Tom in a tight embrace.
“Brother,” Tom thought bitterly. Not the role he would have chosen if he’d known such a tiny beauty existed. But to have family, to no longer be the only one of his kind…for now, it was enough.
“I say, what goes on here?” a voice exclaimed nearby. Tom turned and saw Thumbelina’s husband, Prince Cornu, standing in the doorway. At once, the knight released the princess from his arms and pulled back in embarrassment.
“Young sir,” the faerie prince said, giving him the evil eye, “are you trying to steal my wife?”
“N-no, your highness! Certainly not!” Tom said.
“No? And why not?” the prince continued. “Not good enough for you, is she?”
“No! I mean, yes! I mean—” Tom stammered incoherently. Cornu scowled for another moment, then burst into laughter. The prince stepped forward and put a hand on Tom’s shoulder.
“Calm yourself,” he chuckled. “I merely jest.” He turned to his wife with a smile. “Quite an excitable fellow, isn’t he?”
“You shouldn’t tease him so,” Thumbelina chided.
“Ah, ‘tis only sport,” said Cornu. “Have you determined our mysterious visitor’s true nature, my love?”
“Yes, he’s not of the Flower-Folk,” Thumbelina said excitedly. “He’s a wee knight from the land of Britain!”
“Indeed?” her husband answered. “I had thought the Britons were a trifle…bigger.”
“Cornu, he’s like me!” Thumbelina announced. “I finally know what I am!”
“Oh, darling, that’s wonderful!” said the prince. “What are you then?”
“Homunculus,” Thumbelina repeated proudly.
“Bless you,” said Cornu, confused.
“No, that’s what we’re called!” the princess continued. “Miniature people created by magic. And there are more of us! Thomas and his friend are traveling the world seeking other homunculi! They’re going to be a team! Can you imagine it? A team of tiny champions having grand adventures! It sounds wondrous! Oh, Thomas!” Thumbelina ran to Tom and wrapped her arms around him once again. “How I wish I could accompany you, my brother! I would give anything to see the world and find the rest of our kin!”
Cornu watched the joyous expression on his wife’s face and her unbridled excitement at finding another of her kind. He had never seen her so happy, not in all the years of their marriage. Thumbelina seemed like she finally knew her purpose and place in the world—but it was not there in the Flower-Folk’s valley. He knew what he had to do, though he feared what it might mean.
“And who am I to deny a brother in need?” said the prince.
His wife released Tom and turned in surprise. “Cornu? What are you saying?”
“This is what you have been wishing for all these years, Maia,” he explained, using her faerie-granted name. “Your dearest desire. To know what you are and what you were created for. My beloved, if your heart lies with this quest, you must go with Thomas. Find others like you and see the world. The kingdom will keep.”
“But—we will be parted,” Thumbelina said, flying to her husband’s side.
“For a little while,” admitted Cornu. “But Britain is not so far away that it cannot be reached by fae magic.”
“Come with me,” the princess said, an imploring look in her eyes.
“You know I cannot,” Cornu told her with a sigh. “I am prince regent now. I must attend to the kingdom while Father’s health is fading. But this is the chance of a lifetime for you, Maia. I would not want my barleycorn bride to wilt in sadness when the answers to her questions are so near. Now that you and Sir Thomas have found each other, you shouldn’t let this opportunity pass you by.”
“But,” the tiny girl protested, “what if–”
“Go,” Cornu said softly, stroking the side of her face. “We will see each other again.”
The faerie prince swept his wife into his arms and kissed her passionately—a farewell kiss before a great journey. After a moment, the lovers began to float into the air, lips still pressed together. They hovered there, locked in each other’s embrace above the earth, and a powerful glow began to emanate from their bodies. Soon, the whole room was illuminated by brilliant light. Tom averted his eyes politely and wondered if there were other homunculi of the female persuasion. He dearly hoped so.
To be continued...
They were three now, a little knight, a tiny princess, and an ancient druid, sailing the misty waters between mortal reality and the Otherworld. Merlin had produced another minuscule pendant for Thumbelina to help combat any language barriers they encountered.
The miniature girl was in a tizzy of excitement. “I have so many questions!” she said. “How many homunculi are there? Are they all as small as me? Why are we like this? Are we pygmy-sized humans or another race entirely? What is—?”
“Calm yourself, lass,” Merlin laughed, as he rowed the barge through the supernatural waters. “I am still determining how many homunculi have been brought into being. I have identified four of you so far, including Thomas, but more are likely out there. And yes, they are as small as you, some even smaller.”
“As for why you were made,” he continued, “you are the culmination of a long-sought goal for practitioners of the secret arts: the creation of life. This was thought to be the province of the gods alone, but man has ever been an ambitious creature.”
“So the enchantress who gave my mother the barleycorn,” Thumbelina began, “she was simply trying to play god and create new life?”
“I cannot say for certain,” the wizard answered. “Mayhap her motives were altruistic. Your mother was childless and desired a daughter. This enchantress you speak of had the means to deliver this, while also plying and perfecting her craft.”
“And this life I’ve been given—what does it make me?” the princess asked hesitantly. “Am I human? Do I…do I have a soul? Or am I just an empty shell, a walking automaton of magic and flesh?”
Merlin smiled cryptically. “Ah, my child, even the wise cannot answer these questions. The mysteries of the soul and what makes us human are subjects that many struggle with in this life. What does your heart tell you? You think, you reason, you feel. You have dreams and ambitions, passions and fears. Is that not human? Beyond this, you must search within yourself for answers, princess.”
Thumbelina sat back, taking this all in. Tom also was deep in thought as he listened to this exchange. The little knight had wondered many of the same things over the years. This had all happened so fast, he’d barely had time to consider the implications of it. A mere day ago, he had not even known there were others like him; let alone what that might mean.
“Where are we going next, sir?” Tom finally inquired.
“According to my scrying pool,” Merlin said, “a homunculus exists in the kingdom of Germania.”
Tom nearly fell off his seat in the boat. “Merlin, have you gone mad? Germania is the Saxon homeland!”
For many years, barbarian tribes of Saxons and Angles had been invading the island of Britain, bringing unrest and violence to the land. The British High Kings had fought long and hard to stem the bloodshed. Arthur had won a decisive victory over the invaders early in his reign but it was only a matter of time before the Saxons retaliated.
“I do not choose our targets, Thomas,” declared Merlin. “And I do not like it any more than you do. We have all lost much to the Saxons. But shall we condemn this potential new ally before we even meet him? We cannot judge an entire race by the actions of its more unsavory members. I thought I taught you better than that.”
“You’re right of course,” Tom said, begrudgingly. “But I still don’t like it.”
The barge was moored along a riverbank when the mist cleared and Merlin set his tiny allies upon the shore. They found themselves deep in the heart of Saxony, the veritable lion’s den from the Britons’ perspective. Before them was a vast and ominous-looking forest and a small, humble cottage nestled beneath the trees.
“The one you seek lives in that hovel in the distance,” Merlin said. “Be on your guard. Forget not that we are in enemy lands.”
“Are you not accompanying us, Master Merlin?” Thumbelina asked.
“Alas, no. I must meet with the Saxon chieftains,” answered the magician. “Since their defeat at the Battle of Mt. Badon, they’ve curtailed their invasion of Britain. For the moment. But raids continue along the coastline and more Saxons will eventually follow their kinsmen to our shores. My hope is to arrange a treaty and prevent further violence against the British people.”
“Besides, if this team of wee warriors is to be effective,” he said, “then you must learn to function as an autonomous unit, my little friends. You can’t always rely on me. Now, fare thee well and exercise caution.”
The druid was gone in an instant, disappearing down a winding forest path to accomplish his diplomatic errand. The two tiny folk looked at each other with uncertainty but started towards the wooden cottage.
After a moment, Thumbelina depressed a button on her harness. Golden faerie wings unfolded majestically from a compartment strapped to her back, spreading outward from their formerly collapsed state. They were accompanied by a sparkle of twinkly dust. Tom marveled at this ingenious mixture of engineering and magic.
“Forgive me, Tom,” she said, “but we’ll make more progress this way.”
Before Tom knew what was happening, she had grabbed his arm and lifted them both into the air. Tom was used to being carried at great heights but never like this. Swift as a butterfly, she flew them over the bushes and underbrush to the front of the cottage. They lighted gracefully on the threshold and Thumbelina’s wings folded back into the harness silently. As she slipped under the door, Tom was still somewhat dazed by the experience of flight, staggering slightly and appreciating solid earth below his feet as never before. After a second or two, he followed her.
The cottage, as it turned out, belonged to a master craftsman. The hiss and clang of his forge could be heard from another room. In the front room of the little house they saw a blonde-haired woman, presumably the craftsman’s wife, standing before a table. Like all humans, she towered over the little people enormously. This was magnified all the more by her stout, somewhat heavy build. She was not fat, but was no wilting waif either. A plain brown peasant dress hugged her curvaceous form, which seemed positively mountainous to the two tiny creatures approaching her sandaled feet.
Tom and the princess turned their gaze from this full-figured Saxon wench towards the individual she was speaking to. High above them, they could just make out a small human-like shape on the tabletop. They guessed that up close, he’d be no bigger than they were.
“Lamb stew again, mistress?” the little man called. Tom and Thumbelina were thankful for the translating power of their pendants for neither of them spoke the Saxon language. “That’s the twelth time this month! I’m sick to death of it!”
The lady of the house stomped forward, causing the tiny people to duck for cover behind a table leg. “My little Thumbling, what am I to do with you? Always complaining, this one! The stew is good! It will help you grow strong!”
“You and I both know I’m not growing any more than this!” said the wee man. “Have you nothing else to cook for supper?”
In an instant, the woman snatched him up, giant fingers dangling him in mid-air by the collar of his tunic. The little knight and princess were startled by this and sneaked back out from under the table. They nervously eyed the massive feet several times their size and kept a cautious distance. But they simply had to see what was happening.
“Perhaps a Thumbling stew then?” the mistress snarled at her tiny captive. “Would that stop your chattering complaints, you ungrateful little mouse?”
In a huff, the woman dumped the tiny creature into the bubbling stew pot. Thumbling gave a sudden shriek as he hit the boiling water. The furious wench took up a wooden spoon and began to roughly stir the mixture, spinning Thumbling about as the stew became a swirling maelstrom. She dunked him under the surface a few times with the base of the spoon and tossed slices of carrots and cabbage and handfuls of spice on top of him for good measure.
The little people below her were appalled. Thumbelina made ready to release her wings again and fly to Thumbling’s rescue. But before she could act, the lady dipped the spoon in and scooped out the shaken little man. Thumbling lay in the hollow of the spoon, soaked to the bone with a strip of lamb-meat strewn over his midsection and chunks of salt clinging to his clothes.
“Well, my little morsel?” the woman asked, certain that the impudent manikin had learned his lesson. “What do you think of my cooking now?”
Thumbling coughed and sputtered a bit but was not turned from his trickster ways. “I-- *hack*-- I think it smells even worse up close, mistress!”
At this, the woman was positively enraged. Acting rashly, she thrust the spoon—and Thumbling—into her mouth. This elicited horrified gasps from the tiny observers below. Thumbling, however, was quite amused by the “game” and began to leap about inside the lady’s jaws. He bounced wildly on her tongue and dodged huge teeth that could easily bite him in half. His puckish laughter echoed inside the woman’s head, defying her once more.
Finally, the mistress of the house had had enough. She had endured months of mockery, complaints, jeering pranks, and a general lack of gratitude from her husband’s miniature apprentice. Hoping to rid herself of the tiny pest forever, she tilted back her head to swallow him in a single, decisive gulp. She would think up a story to tell her husband once the horrid little imp was in her belly where he belonged. That was all that such an insignificant little creature was good for. And after all, food was scarce in the troubled Saxon lands.
Thumbling slid down the slippery surface of the woman’s tongue as it lifted, plummeting towards the black depths of her gullet. He grabbed hold of a back tooth and dangled there over the yawning chasm.
Still he mocked her, even with certain doom at hand. “Are you sending me to my new quarters, mistress?” he called. “Most unaccommodating. It looks so dank and dark down there. Do you treat all your guests this way?”
“Why, you miserable little—” the woman mumbled through a mouthful of homunculus. She took hold of a wooden cup filled with water and lifted it towards her lips, intent on washing Thumbling down like a pill.
Thumbelina had seen enough and was by now in mid-flight with Tom being dragged behind her. The faerie princess launched herself at the lady’s face and the two little people desperately tried to pry open her mouth. The Saxon wench was completely startled by this and offered no resistance. As her lips slid open, Tom planted his feet on her lower teeth and pushed against her upper ones with his hands. He was soon supporting her jaw on his shoulders like mighty Atlas holding up the heavens. As he strained to hold this position, the princess dove inside to retrieve Thumbling.
The tiny winged girl flew into the giant mouth, nervously eying the strands of sticky saliva and rows of massive teeth on each side of her. She knew she had to move fast for with a mere flick of that quivering tongue, this irrational giantess might swallow both her and Thumbling alive. Quickly, she grabbed the little trickster and pulled him from the deadly cavern back into open air. Thumbling took a bewildered look at his savior and smiled.
“Thanks for the assist, beautiful,” he said, planting a sloppy kiss on Thumbelina.
The little woman’s eyes shot open in alarm and she pushed away this unwelcome advance. By mistake (at least that’s what she told herself later), she let go of Thumbling and let him fall. The wee man dropped like a stone and aimed for a safe landing. In seconds, he bounced onto his hostess’s shoulder and scrambled for cover down the back of her collar.
The lady gave a bloodcurdling shriek as he tumbled down her back, which subsequently dislodged Tom from his perch on her molars. The tiny knight went flying from her face and was sent hurtling directly at Thumbelina, who had doubled back to try and save him. The two collided in mid-air and plunged into the stew pot with a splash.
Meanwhile, the mistress continued caterwauling and shaking out her dress, trying to get Thumbling out. He tumbled down to the floor and quickly scrambled away from the jumping feet of the agitated woman before they could crush him utterly. Laughing hysterically, Thumbling climbed up the table leg and onto the side of the stew pot. He leaned over the edge and waved to the soaking wet figures below.
“You two are fun,” he said, as the lady of the house continued to shriek angrily in the background.
A door burst open and the woman’s husband, the smith, came bursting into the room, clutching a large iron hammer. “Here now, what’s all the commotion?” roared the burly bearded Saxon. Huge muscles rippled on his bare arms as he searched the room for invaders.
“Thumbling was saucy to me,” his wife declared. “He mocks me and takes advantage of our hospitality. And now he has brought his tiny verminous friends to eat us out of house and home!”
“Excuse me?” Thumbling chuckled. “You were the one about to do the eating a few moments ago, you great ugly ogre!”
“What did you call my wife?! Why, you ungrateful wretch!” the smith roared. “After all I’ve done for you!” He swung his hammer in Thumbling’s direction but the little man leaped gracefully away.
“Out!” the woman bellowed. She grabbed a rolling pin and began brandishing it like a club. “I want all of you little monsters out of my home!”
Furiously, she struck the pot with a crushing blow. Though rattled by the vibration, Thumbelina grabbed Tom by the collar and flew them out of the stew. The mistress and her husband chased the three of them across the tabletop, slamming the rolling pin and hammer down here and there for emphasis. The wooden surface splintered and broken objects scattered about the room but the duo narrowly missed their tiny targets.
“You heard me!” the wife screeched. “Get out of here now before I gobble up the lot of you for supper!”
“Hold still so I can squash you!” the smith added, making another futile swing with his hammer.
“Not a very good incentive to hold still then,” Thumbelina answered as she buzzed about his head. Tom held fast to her hand and tried not to look down.
“Come and get us, ya big bullies!” Thumbling called back. He spun around and wiggled his fingers beside his head, sticking out his tongue at the couple.
The mistress gave one final scream and flung the rolling pin across the room at him. Thumbelina swooped down and carried off her two companions as the pin struck the table and bounced away.
* * * *
Elsewhere, Merlin sat pensively in a candle-lit longhall, face to face with a tall, broad-shouldered Saxon chief. Around his neck, the magician wore a large pendant gem that served as the source for the smaller models worn by his tiny charges. Through its power, Merlin understood every word that was spoken by his host. They had been conversing for some time and with every passing moment, the enchanter liked the man less and less.
“Tell me again why my people should stay away from your island, old man,” the chieftain asked. He took another swig of mead, wiping the foam from his thick yellow beard with the back of his hand. “As I recall, we were invited there. Your old King Vortigern hired Saxons as mercenaries to fight his wars. My father’s fathers were promised lands and wealth for their services.”
“I remember,” Merlin said. “I was there.”
“Were you now?” laughed the Saxon lord. “That was two generations ago. Just how old are you, wizard?”
“That is immaterial, I assure you.”
“Then you will also remember that it was you British dogs who broke the agreement. My people did not receive their compensation.”
“Your people went wild and began pillaging the countryside after Vortigern’s death,” Merlin countered.
“Only because the new Bretwalda, your British lord, declared the pact dissolved and vowed to banish us from his land,” the chieftain sneered.
Merlin sighed, dreaming of old memories. Ah yes, Aurelius Ambrosius. A fine king he had been, if a bit too eager in his efforts to undo Vortigern’s mistakes. He could have been Britain’s savior if he’d lived but a poisoned wound had claimed Aurelius and his brother Uther inherited the throne. Uther was not half the man Aurelius had been, though Merlin had done his best to advise him as well. Now Uther too was gone and his son Arthur ruled. How many kings had Merlin seen come and go? How many had he failed? The magician hoped not to make the same errors with Arthur but his visions of the next few years were troubled.
The Saxon shook him from his reverie. “I ask again why we should stay away from Britain and our just reward.”
“King Arthur recognizes your grievances,” Merlin told him, “but the raiding and murder of British citizens must stop. We offer you peace terms and a trade agreement that could be beneficial to both our peoples.”
“It’s not trade we want, old grandfather. It’s land,” the chief insisted. “Britain is green and fertile. Good for farming and the raising of livestock, rich in precious ores and metals. Why should you British keep it all for youself? Why should we not take what we were promised and kill every last one of you?”
“If the violence continues, sirrah, we will be forced to return it in kind,” the wizard said darkly.
“Big talk from an old greybeard armed with only a stick.”
All around him, Merlin could sense the chieftain’s guards and soldiers gathering. Hands fingered sword hilts or reached for quivers of arrows. Tensions ran high. One word from their leader and Merlin’s life was forfeit. The druid breathed deeply and steeled himself, readying his magicks and preparing a defense. But the gods of his people from whom he drew strength were far away from here. He was alone, a sheep among wolves.
Not a sheep, he told himself. A ram with horns, ready to fight. He prayed that even here, where the voices of the Mother Goddess and the Sun-God were faint, he had power enough for such a task.
* * * *
The miniature trio was finally able to catch their breaths as they gathered at the river bank a safe distance from the cottage. Tom and Thumbelina took a good look at the new addition to their company. As his name suggested, Thumbling was indeed the same size as they were. He was clad in a dark green tunic and breeches, a pair of miniature boots, and had a close-cropped mop of dark, sandy brown hair that framed his usually grinning face. They explained who they were and what their mission was, then implored the little Saxon to detail his own origins.
“Dunno,” he said. “My parents always wanted a son, even a really little one. They prayed each night to the gods and, well, here I am.”
“So you think it was divine intervention?” Thumbelina asked.
“Could be,” Thumbling shrugged. “They say that All-Father Woden has a wry sense of humor.”
Tom, a devout Christian, doubted this pagan notion at first. But he had always respected Merlin’s faith, even if their gods were not the same. And, in any case, such explanations were no less likely than anything else he’d seen in his adventures.
“Had you ever wondered if there were others like you?” said Tom.
“Not really,” Thumbling admitted. “I kinda liked being the only one. I got into all sorts of trouble—duping travelers and robbers, getting eaten or almost eaten by cows and wolves and foxes and such. And angry hostesses. Heh. But I always came out on top. Nobody’s as crafty as the Thumbling!”
The princess gasped as a thought occurred to her. “Please tell me that beast back there in the cottage isn’t your mother!”
“What, her?” Thumbling burst into laughter. “’Course not! I was apprenticing with her husband, trying to learn a trade. Guess that’s over with now though. My pa is a tailor so maybe I could fall back on the family business. Ooh, yeah…wouldn’t mind taking the measurements of some pretty wenches.”
“You could come with us,” Tom suggested. “We’re seeking others of our kind.”
“Heh, why not?” said Thumbling. “You seem like a nice bunch. And if there are more back home like you, doll…” He winked at Thumbelina and gave a low, suggestive growl in his throat. She merely scoffed in disgust.
“I’m married,” she told him, daggers in her eyes.
“Darn shame,” he said. “You’re missing out.”
Before their conversation could continue, Merlin burst back out of the woods, staff in hand. The old man was running faster than anyone thought possible, hiking up his robe above his ankles.
“To the barge, my friends!” he shouted. “At once!”
“Is something wrong?” Tom called up to him.
“Diplomatic relations did not progress as anticipated, Thomas,” the wizard said, climbing into the boat. A great clamor of voices could be heard within the forest behind him, as well as the tramping of many boots. The need for haste became all too clear.
“I knew this was a bad idea!” Tom squeaked, as he and the others clambered up into the skiff. Feverishly, Merlin began rowing the barge into the river and stammered out the words to summon the mists.
“Bloody Saxons!” Tom spat.
“Hey now,” Thumbling shot back. “Them’s fightin’ words, kid.”
“Merlin, can’t you use your magic?” called Tom, ignoring Thumbling’s remark.
“I’m not sure if I could defeat them all. This land is foreign to me,” the enchanter explained. “Different gods, different magicks. It would take time for my abilities to adjust. Time we do not have!”
Behind them, a large troop of Saxon warriors emerged into the clearing bearing swords, bows, spears, and battleaxes. They did not look happy. The Saxons bolted to the shore and began flinging spears and arrows at the little boat furiously. As a hail of weapons fell from the sky, Tom and the others took cover while Merlin increased the pace of the craft as best he could. Arrows sank into the side of the boat and the wood of the wizard’s staff as he lifted it to shield himself.
“Take your devil-magic away from here, dog!” a warrior bellowed.
“And tell your Bretwalda there will be no peace!” another shouted, derisively sneering at the Britons’ king.
An archer took aim with his longbow, letting loose an arrow that sped directly for Merlin’s head. Thumbelina buried her face in Tom’s shoulder, fearing the worst, but the wizard never lost his stoic calm. By now the mists had fully descended and the boat and its passengers were becoming incorporeal, vanishing into the space between worlds. The arrow passed directly between Merlin’s eyes harmlessly to plunge into the water of the river.
Thumbling’s voice echoed through the misty void. “Wow, gang. You sure know how to show a fella a good time.”
To be continued...
The boat sailed on through the otherworldly mists and the reality they knew faded once more. Tom glanced behind them at several Saxon arrows lodged in the back of the barge.
“My God,” he said. “That was a close one.”
Merlin leaned forward and pulled the arrows out of the wood. He sighed at the large, ugly notches this left behind. “Viviane will never let me hear the end of this.”
“Could you not foresee the Saxons’ reaction?” Tom wondered. Merlin’s gift of foresight gave him a perception of the world that few shared.
“My visions come and go, Thomas,” said Merlin. “I cannot summon them at will. But yes, I guessed that this might be their response. They have never desired peace. Old King Vortigern invited the Saxons to our land as merecenaries many years past. He promised them land and wealth but did not deliver. In the Saxons’ minds, they are taking from us what they are owed. I fear they will not cease until they have claimed all of Britain.”
Thumbling gazed back and forth at this exchange in puzzlement. Thus far, he had only understood Tom’s side of the conversation, translated by the knight’s pendant. Thumbelina handed him the third of the tiny pendants so that he could understand Merlin’s words as well.
“We never should have come,” Tom muttered. “We’ve made the situation worse. And now we have one of those barbarians traveling with us! For all we know, he could be a spy!”
“Excuse me?” Thumbling balked. “Listen, pal, you came to me!”
“Be calm, Thomas,” Merlin instructed him.
“I will not be calm!” the little knight declared, leaping to his feet on the bench. “I bit my tongue earlier but now we see what sort of men these Saxons are. You offered them peace and they spat in your eye! The Saxons have been killing our people, Merlin! We should have expected no less. All they respect is brute force!”
“Hey!” Thumbling cried out. “I’ll have you know I respect a great many things. Good food and wine, songs and merriment, the silhouette of a beautiful woman. We’re not so different, Tom. If the chiefs of my homeland are at war with your Bretwalda, don’t blame it on me!”
“Enough!” Merlin commanded. “If this endeavor is to succeed, you two must work together. Do not make me regret this quest.”
The two little men sat on opposite sides of the bench, facing away with arms folded angrily across their chests. Merlin sighed with weariness.
“Where are we going next, sir?” Thumbelina asked, trying to change the subject.
“To the kingdom of Wa, my little princess,” the magician answered, “an island in the Far East of this world. An ingenious folk, these people of Wa. One day, they will construct the most wondrous electronic devices.”
“Elec-what now?” inquired Thumbling, looking up for a moment from his offended huff.
“Oh,” Merlin said. “You don’t know anything about that, do you? Forgive me, my friends.” He tapped his forehead. “Foresight can be a most inconsistent ability. I sometimes forget what century I am living in.”
The mists parted to reveal that they were now in a harbor. The Barge of Avalon came to rest at a dock beside a number of ships with elegantly ridged sails. As Merlin lifted the little ones from the boat, they marveled at the strange and exotic architecture of the structures around them. Many of the buildings had multi-tiered roofs that extended up towards the heavens. Fearsome dragons of carved stone were seemingly everywhere and lion-like guardian statues lined the entrance of every temple.
The people were the most astonishing to the little folk however. They had jet-black hair and eyes with a strange, exotic slant. Growing up in the kingdoms of Europa, Tom and the others had never seen their like.
Merlin brought the homunculi to a large, opulent mansion. “Our final recruit resides here,” he told them. “A miniature samurai – that is what they call knights in this land. He is smaller even than the three of you, a mere inch tall. Issun-boshi is his name, ‘Little One-Inch.’”
“Wait here,” he instructed them, setting the group down in a garden. “After our last misadventure, I feel I should go on ahead and announce us to the local warlord. Perhaps we can avoid further conflict.” The wizard departed and began conversing with a pair of armored guards who stood at the entrance of the mansion. The larger parent gem that had produced the little folk’s pendants allowed him to communicate with these warriors. After a moment, he was allowed within.
Thumbling leaned restlessly against a small banzai tree. “Why do we need to wait for him?” the tiny tailor asked. “We can slip past those fools with ease!”
“Merlin told us to stay here,” said Tom, glaring at him with annoyance.
“Do you always do what Merlin tells you?” challenged Thumbling.
“Yes,” Tom admitted.
“Well, I don’t play that way,” his companion said. “The Thumbling is his own master.” With that, he took off towards the entrance of the building.
“Wonderful,” Thumbelina muttered. “Working with him is going to be loads of fun, I can tell. I suppose we should follow him and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.”
Just as he’d claimed, Thumbling was able to sneak into the mansion without the guards even noticing him. The ground at their feet was not where they expected intruders to be found. Tom and Thumbelina followed his lead, slipping under the massive iron door and scurrying down the hallway to catch up with him.
Thumbling was looking the place over when he suddenly did a double take. Rounding the corner was a beautiful woman, something which immediately caught the attention of the lascivious little trickster. The woman was clad in long garments of colorful silk with loose, oversized sleeves and a sash around the middle. Her face was painted a ghostly white and her hair was done up in a bun, held in place by decorative sticks. Beside her was a young man in a simple grey tunic and sandals, obviously a servant of some kind.
With an impish laugh, Thumbling approached their sandal-clad feet. “Well, hullo there, my beauty,” he called up to the lady. “I’m fresh off the boat and seeking companionship in your fair city. Care to show me around?”
The woman (a courtesan of the warlord’s household) looked down at Thumbling and giggled. She whispered something to her companion before crouching down to get a good look at the tiny creature.
“Greetings, honorable little master,” she said with a bow. “How very small you are.”
“It’s not the size, my lady,” Thumbling assured her. “It’s how you use what the gods give you.”
The concubine giggled once again. She reached down and scooped Thumbling into her hand. The young man leaned over to get a better look at her catch. “What a marvel. We had thought the daimyo’s inch-high samurai was unique.”
“Issun-whatsisname?” asked Thumbling, getting comfortable in the center of her palm. “My allies and I are looking for him actually. Have you seen him?”
The courtesan smiled mischievously and leaned down close to Thumbling. Her pretty face soon filled his horizon. “Maybe I’ve eaten him up and want you for dessert, little man,” she told him breathily. She ran her tongue slowly over her painted, blood-red lips.
“You wouldn’t be the first, doll,” Thumbling said. “But I’m game for anything.”
At this point, Tom and Thumbelina had caught up with their teammate and stared up at the humans with caution. “Saxon,” Tom called curtly. “Quit messing around. We’re on a mission.”
Thumbling peered down at him over the edge of the lady’s hand. “I’ll do as I like. You’re not my chieftain…Briton.”
The courtesan’s face lit up as she saw the miniature newcomers. She and the servant boy pounced upon them. Soon, they had grabbed them and held them tightly in their fists. As the knight and princess struggled in their grip, the humans stood back up to their full height.
“More of you!” the courtesan exclaimed. “How wonderful!”
“Indeed,” said the young man. He held an intimidated Thumbelina up to his face. “This one is a tiny mistress! What a lovely toy she shall make.”
"Oh, now wait a moment!” Thumbelina shrieked. “Just what are you getting at?!”
“My lady. Good sir. We do not have time for this,” said Tom, trying to break free of his captor’s fingers. “We are seeking the one called Issun-boshi.”
“I think she ate him,” Thumbling said, taking the courtesan at her word.
“He is off-limits to us,” the woman said simply. “But you shall be all ours, little ones.”
“Oh, the games we will play,” said her companion, giving Thumbelina a light squeeze. “We’ve all been so jealous of Princess Haru and her tiny samurai.”
“Yes,” said the concubine. “Why should she alone have a doll-sized lover to explore her?”
“Lover?” Tom cried. He began squirming more vigorously for freedom. “Madam, we’ve only just met!”
“Lighten up,” Thumbling called to him from the woman’s other hand. “Just roll with it. The lady wants to show us a good time.”
“All well and good for you,” Thumbelina protested, wriggling in her abductor’s grip, “but I’m a married woman!” The servant leered at her and attempted to lift up the tiny woman’s dress.
“Oi!” Thumbelina shouted, slapping ineffectually at his fingers. “Cut that out!”
“That will be quite enough of that,” a man’s voice interrupted. All present turned and saw a tall, handsome samurai clad in distinctive plate armor, tabi footwear, and a horned helmet with a ridge encircling the back of his head. An intimidating katana sword was sheathed at his side.
“I respectfully request that you leave our honorable little guests alone,” the samurai said.
“You want them?” the courtesan asked, dangling Tom and Thumbling in the air before him. “Then come and get them.”
The samurai sighed. “I have no wish to play games, Ayame-chan. Please release them.”
“Make me,” Ayame teased. She began to squeeze Tom tightly in her fist. “I wonder how much he can stand before his little bones snap. Hee hee!”
Swift as lightning, a katana flashed and was soon pressed against the woman’s throat. “Release them or I release your head from your shoulders,” the samurai told her in a low, calm voice.
Reluctantly, Ayame handed them over as the samurai extended his hand palm upward.
“Awww,” Thumbling whined. “This was just getting interesting!”
With just as much disappointment, the servant boy handed over Thumbelina. All three little people looked up at their armored rescuer.
“My eternal thanks, good sir,” Tom said. “Prithee, do you know an individual of your brotherhood by the name of Issun-boshi?”
“Quite well in fact. I am he,” the towering champion said, setting the trio back on the floor.
The homunculi did a double take. “Bit taller than I expected,” Thumbling quipped.
“There must be some mistake then,” Tom continued. “We were told that the Issun-boshi we seek is of dimensions more diminutive than our own.”
“And so he is,” the samurai informed them. “When the hour is right. In fact, I believe the spell begins to wear off even now…”
The man convulsed slightly where he stood and gave a sharp cry. Before their bewildered eyes, he began to rapidly dwindle in height. Down, down he shrank like a grape withering in the sun. In mere moments, the dashing six-foot samurai had been reduced to a single inch tall. When the transformation was complete, Issun-boshi only stood waist-high to the three homunculi. The little people goggled in surprise.
Before they could process this, a dark shadow eclipsed them all. The mountainous form of Ayame loomed over the group, a sandaled foot placed on either side of them. Her hands were on her shapely hips as she smiled down at the wee folk triumphantly.
“Not so bold now, are you, Issun-boshi?” she boomed. “You dare to threaten my life, you worthless speck? Look at you! I have flecks of toe-lint bigger than you are now! Oh, I’ve waited weeks to have you at my mercy!”
Ayame lifted a massive foot into the air and held it ponderously above the minuscule group. The other homunculi fled for their lives but Issun-boshi merely peered up calmly at the monstrous appendage, a stoic expression on his face.
The servant began to panic. “Ayame, don’t kill him! He’s married to the daimyo’s daughter! You’ll doom us both!”
“And if he should disappear, who could prove anything?” Ayame asked, wild-eyed, her foot still dangling. “One quick stomp and he’ll be reduced to a mere stain on the rug. He is nothing! Less than nothing!”
“He is my husband,” said another female voice. A petite, oval-faced beauty with long black hair and a purple kimono now stood behind Ayame, arms folded.
“Princess Haru!” Ayame stammered. She quickly swung her foot to the side and set it down gently beside Issun. The ground rumbled slightly with her footfall but the samurai didn’t even flinch. He had not moved through the entire confrontation.
“What is the meaning of this, Ayame?” Haru demanded. “I don’t care if you are my father’s favorite. If you harm my husband, I will have you executed.”
“I—we were—it was only a game, I swear it, princess!”
Haru knelt down and gathered Issun into her hand. He was dwarfed by each delicate finger. Even her pinky was twice his height. “Is this true, Issun?” she asked.
Issun turned and saw the abject fear on the courtesan’s face, a face that to him was now as vast as a building. Yet for all her monstrous size and power, the woman seemed more vulnerable than ever. Ayame bit her lip and awaited judgment to be passed.
“It is true,” Issun’s faint voice declared. “We were reenacting my famous battle with an oni.”
Ayame’s terror was replaced by confusion and finally, relief. Haru frowned suspiciously. “At a mere inch tall, my husband is still a bigger person than I. And far more forgiving. Begone from this place, Ayame, and never return.”
The concubine turned at once and fled from the mansion. The young man nervously departed down a hallway in silence, hoping to escape any blame in the day’s events. Satisfied, Haru turned to leave the corridor as well, causing the three homunculi to scatter from her shifting feet.
“Mind your step, beloved,” Issun called to his colossal wife. “We have guests.”
The princess lowered her gaze and her eyes widened in awe. Gingerly, she lowered herself to the floor beside the tiny creatures.
“My apologies,” she said. “I had no idea there were others with Issun’s condition.”
“Nor did I,” the samurai agreed.
“You are most welcome in our home.” Haru set a hand palm upward before the trio of little people and smiled.
After being grabbed, swatted at, manhandled, besieged by arrows, and almost devoured by various parties, the homunculi found Haru’s conscientiousness refreshing. They gladly climbed aboard her hand and were soon lifted into the air. Haru placed her husband and the new arrivals in her lap, flattening the folds of her kimono to create a smooth surface for them.
The quickly burgeoning League explained their mission to the immense princess and her infinitesimal love. But with these formalities past, they were dying to know how Issun had achieved his earlier height. A miniature life was all they had ever known. Could there be hope for normality?
“The form which I present to you now is my natural one,” Issun-boshi said. “Years ago, my mother and father prayed to the kami—the household spirits—for a child, no matter how small.”
“I seem to be picking up on a theme here,” Thumbling muttered.
Tom hushed him at once. “Don’t interrupt!”
“I was born less than an inch in height and have grown little since,” Issun proceeded. “When I reached manhood, I set out into the world to find my place in it. I sailed downriver in a soup bowl with chopstick oars and found myself here at the daimyo’s palace. Naturally, I offered him my services as a samurai.”
“I remember that day,” Haru added. “Father nearly fell from his chair with laughter.” Teasingly, she poked her husband with a fingertip. Issun stumbled slightly. Rather than accept her abuse, he leaped onto the finger and began to walk up its length, holding out his hands for balance like a circus performer. As he climbed, he resumed his story.
“Instead, the daimyo offered me as a playmate for his daughter, the blushing flower you see before you. We were inseparable from the start. I adored her gentility, her beauty, her grace. And she thought that I—”
“—was as cute as a bug!” Haru finished. Issun had by now scaled her hand and was making his way up her slender arm. The purple fabric of her sleeve gave him plenty of handholds in his ascent. “Sorry, I don’t mean to cut in, beloved,” Haru said. “Do continue.”
“One day as we played in the forest—” the samurai said.
“He’s usually a man of few words,” Haru explained. Issun paused at her elbow and looked up at her with a sigh. “Oops. Proceed.”
“One day as we played in the forest,” Issun began again, “we were attacked by a ferocious oni—a demon, I believe your people call them. It tried to devour me but I fought it valiantly, finally stabbing the beast in the eye. As it fled, it dropped its prized weapon, an enchanted Uchide no Kozuchi—a mallet of miracles and wishes.”
“Three guesses what I wished for,” said Haru, grinning.
“And thus I was granted the height of a normal man,” Issun explained as he pulled himself up onto her shoulder.
“They were supposed to guess!” his wife protested.
Issun took hold of a strand of dark hair and continued climbing. “Apologies, dear heart. Needless to say, the mallet’s miracles were not to last. Its effect wore off a few days later, the oni’s final revenge upon us. But we have learned to compromise. Periodically, we recast the spell and make do. A few days as man and wife…”
“…And a few days as giantess and her tiny toy,” Haru finished. She pursed her lips and blew upon the lock of hair Issun was ascending. The samurai held on tight as it flew into the air then swung back towards the lady’s face. Undaunted, Issun continued his climb.
“Amazing,” Tom stated. “Issun-boshi, you simply must join us! Your skills are most impressive.”
“If he goes, I follow,” said Haru. Issun reached the top of her head and disappeared into a sea of silky tresses. Haru peered upward curiously.
“We will not be parted. But I’m certain my father can rule his territory without me.”
Carefully, she ran her fingers through her hair, seeking her husband. This search turned up no results and she continued to sift through the raven-black jungle atop her head. Stealthily, Issun emerged from a section of her hair and dove away from the fingers. He slid headfirst down the smooth hill of her forehead and came to rest on the very tip of her nose.
“I accept your offer,” Issun called down to the group. He gripped the edges of Haru’s nostrils to keep his balance. “Your shogun, Arthur, sounds like a most honorable man. I would be proud to serve him.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Merlin, his voice catching everyone by surprise, “for the daimyo has agreed to release you from his service.” The old wizard was standing behind them, observing the scene with amusement.
“Hey, how long have you been lurking there?” Thumbling accused.
“Long enough,” was all that the magician said.
“Excellent,” Issun-boshi declared, still perhed upon his beloved’s nose. “Then let us see this land of Britain you speak of.”
A strange, distracted look came over Haru’s face and she took several quick intakes of breath. “Issun, darling, you’d best get down from there,” she muttered. “I fear I’m going to sneeze.”
To be continued...
Here's the conclusion of the League's origin. It contains some foreshadowing for what may turn into League Book 4 (this dang thing's turning into a novel, LOL). As always, I really appreciate anyone who reads and comments on these stories. I know they're not the usual fare for the GTS scene.
With the group assembled, Merlin and his new allies began the journey back to Britain. Princess Haru, not wishing to be parted from Issun, got leave to accompany them from her father, the daimyo. This presented an issue, for the full-sized princess required use of the bench that the little people had previously inhabited in the Barge of Avalon. Rather than risk being sat upon, they found themselves once again in her lap, which proved a much softer and more pleasant way to make the trip.
“Now, this is traveling in style!” Thumbling declared, settling down and getting comfortable—perhaps a little too comfortable. Issun frowned at him and placed a hand threateningly on the hilt of his katana.
They arrived back in Camelot that evening and the four little people stood on the edge of the Round Table where they were presented to King Arthur. Queen Guinevere and Lady Viviane, however, had pushed past the king to get a better look and were now crouched down and cooing over the tiny creatures.
“How simply precious!” Viviane cried.
“Hullo, little ones,” Guinevere said. “Gracious, this one is even smaller than you, Sir Tom!” She reached out and tickled Issun-boshi. Princess Haru shifted uncomfortably nearby. As a guest in a foreign land, she did not wish to offend the ruling monarchs. Nonetheless, she stood ready to snatch Issun away if these women stepped out of line.
“Aww, they have tiny little swords,” the queen observed. “How sweet!”
“We’re all adults here,” Thumbelina muttered to her companions. “Must they fuss and baby-talk like that?”
“I don’t really mind,” said Thumbling, allowing Viviane to scratch under his chin with her fingertip.
“Yes, very amusing,” Arthur said, seemingly unimpressed. “You found the individuals you sought, Merlin. Now, what is it that you plan to do with them?”
“Think, Arthur!” the wizard told him. Arthur flinched slightly, for this phrase brought back memories of his days as Merlin’s pupil. He half-expected to be turned into a bird or a fish as the magician continued.
“Think what can be done with beings this small yet possessing the full intelligence of a normal man. They are the perfect candidates for espionage. With such minute dimensions, they could infiltrate the camps of our enemies, unseen and unnoticed, and report back to us on their activities. Imagine it, a League of Homunculi—Camelot’s personal spies, invisible to all!”
Arthur stroked his beard thoughtfully, considering this proposal. “Yes, I begin to see the advantage. But if they were discovered, I fear our wee friends would be killed with relative ease.”
“These homunculi are by no means defenseless,” Merlin insisted. “Thomas has been trained as a knight. Issun-boshi has the skills of a samurai, the great warriors of the East. Princess Maia has the magic of the Fair Folk at her disposal. And the Thumbling is a crafty trickster.”
“All well and good,” said Arthur. “But a three-inch man is still a three-inch man, skills and abilities notwithstanding. A well-placed foot could be the end of him, if you will excuse my bluntness, small ones.”
“Your concerns are understandable, your majesty,” Tom admitted. “But I beg of you, allow us to prove ourselves before you dismiss the idea. We have already faced and overcome dangers to arrive here.”
The king could see the fire of determination in the tiny knight. Tom, it seemed, was most eager to command a unit of similar beings, to finally feel useful to his lord in a manner other than dancing in ladies’ palms or performing tricks on the royal banquet table.
“Very well,” the High King said. “But I will require a trial run before I am convinced, a mission for these wee folk to carry out. Let me see…”
“I may have a suggestion, my love,” Guinevere told him. “Princess Elaine of Corbenic is staying at court this evening for tomorrow’s spring festival. I believe that she has in her possession a stolen ruby ring which rightly belongs to me.”
“Why would she have such a ring?” Arthur inquired. This made the queen visibly uneasy.
“That is…unimportant,” insisted Guinevere. “Suffice it to say that I would dearly like it returned to me. We could send these little ones to confirm my suspicions and perhaps retrieve the ring via stealthy means.”
Arthur thought about this for a moment. “Very well. That seems as good a proposition as any. Sir Tom, you and your allies will infiltrate Elaine’s chambers without alerting the lady to your presence. Find this ring, if indeed she has it, and fetch it for the queen. If you can do this, I will consider employing your League of Homunculi.”
“It shall be done, my liege,” Tom announced, beaming with pride. The League had their first mission.
* * * *
Elaine of Corbenic hailed from a distant and mysterious kingdom about which many legends were told. Its ruler (Elaine’s father) was old Pelles, the so-called Fisher King. Many tales were whispered of these two for it was believed that they were guardians of some ancient and sacred relic. Some claimed it to be the Grail, the cup of Christ himself. As such, King Pelles’s realm was affected by many strange enchantments which vexed knights questing within its borders.
As the homunculi walked down a shadowy hallway, they listened wide-eyed while Tom related these rumors. “Why would a lady entrusted with a holy artifact stoop to stealing someone’s jewelry?” Thumbelina asked.
“I don’t know,” said Tom. “But I suspect it has something to do with Sir Lancelot.”
Elaine was deeply in love with Sir Lancelot, though to all appearances, he did not return her feelings. The rumor at court was that the brave knight of Gaul was hopelessly smitten with Queen Guinevere herself. If Elaine held a ring belonging to the queen, her romantic rival, that was surely no coincidence. She was left to pine for Lancelot in silence, and would likely resort to anything to win his love.
In truth, this was a wretched condition that she shared with another Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat, who had also fallen in unrequited love with the knight. For that matter, Elaine was also the name of Lancelot’s mother, the Queen of Benwick far across the sea. As such, Lancelot had to resist running for the hills whenever a woman introduced herself as “Elaine.” And for whatever reason, there were a many of them in that era – Elaines of Corbenic and Astolat, of Benwick and Garlot, of Listenoise and the Fens.
“What is with this name?” Thumbling threw up his hands in exasperation after Tom had finished. “Do people in Britain have no imagination?”
“Hush now,” Tom ordered him. “We’re here.”
The four little figures slipped under the door of Elaine’s guest suite. It was late at night and they assumed that the princess had already retired to bed. As they crept through the blackness of the chamber, this assumption was sorely challenged for all at once, the ground began to rumble. Again and again it shook with the footsteps of an enormous form. The homunculi could still see nothing and began to panic, unsure of which direction to flee. Finally, Thumbelina removed a phial of faerie potion from her belt. The tiny beaker glowed slightly with an inner light, allowing the little folk limited vision in the dark room.
It was not a moment too soon. High above, they saw the shape of a large, bare, feminine foot. Its wrinkled sole hovered over them and each dainty toe was bigger than their heads (or, in Issun’s case, bigger than his whole body). As the foot descended, the team scattered, narrowly escaping before it touched down with a crash. Oblivious, Princess Elaine continued across the room and lay down on the bed.
Tom’s heart was pounding in his chest and it took a moment to catch his breath again. “A well-placed foot indeed,” he muttered, echoing Arthur’s words.
The wee folk hid themselves until the sounds of rhythmic breathing and the occasional snore reached their ears. Satisfied, they began to search the room, clambering up atop the furniture by the light of Thumbelina’s potion. Elaine had no jewelry boxes and the queen’s ring did not seem to have been left lying about. There was no sign of it on the bedside table, nor in any of the drawers which they managed to pry open with difficulty. Feeling a sense of dread, they gathered at the edge of the table and confirmed their worst fears—the ring was still on the princess’s finger.
Silent as mice, they hopped across the gap from the table to the bed, landing on the soft field of a massive blanket. The vast body of Elaine stretched out before them like a human mountain. Her figure formed the occasional hill below the covers and they could see silken curtains of golden hair draping down across the pillow. In her unconscious state, Elaine’s hand was draped absently across her chest.
With shrugs of acceptance, the homunculi began to scale the bedding. A moment later, they found themselves atop the blanket, standing on the princess’s belly. The ground rose and fell gently beneath them and they tiptoed cautiously up the length of her torso, balancing precariously.
With care, they set about trying to slide the ring off the sleeping giantess’s finger. While their teammates pulled, Issun and Tom had boldly clambered onto the top of the lady’s hand to push at the ring from behind. The bump of her knuckle proved an obstacle however, for the ring was designed for another woman and fit too snugly on the princess’s finger. The wee folk pushed and pulled with all their strength but only succeeded in moving the golden band a fraction of an inch. Issun in particular was straining mightily. The large ruby of the ring was nearly as big as he was.
All of a sudden, they felt the living landscape beneath them begin to stir. The homunculi fled as Elaine’s hand started to lift but Issun found that he’d gotten his foot wedged under the band of the ring. As the hand rose and tilted ever so slightly, Issun clutched himself against the jewel, both for balance and to try and remain inconspicuous.
Still half-asleep, the princess reached up and scratched her nose. Issun was immediately dislodged and fell onto the surface of her face, landing right between her closed eyes. In the pitch blackness, he couldn’t see where he was or how to navigate his way to safety. Fearing for their comrade, the others were ready to climb up and assist him. But so many tiny feet upon her face would surely awaken the woman. Motioning for the others to stay put, Thumbelina lifted the glowing phial and quickly took to the air. She glided gracefuly over Elaine’s face and grabbed Issun’s hand, pulling him to safety. But the sudden breeze had awakened the princess.
“Eh? What on Earth was that?” Elaine mumbled, sitting up.
Fearing to be spotted, Thumbelina hid the potion back in her belt-pouch. Elaine looked about fruitlessly in the dark, hearing the flutter of tiny wings. Clearly, Camelot had a pest problem of some sort. As she fumbled to light a candle at the bedside table, she reminded herself to speak with the king about it in the morning.
A faint, flickering light soon illuminated the chamber and Elaine turned back towards the bed to check for further creatures. The League froze in fear, exposed at last. Elaine gasped as she caught sight of the tiny figures at the foot of the bed.
Thumbelina swooped away with Issun as swift as an arrow while Tom and Thumbling jumped down to the floor. Elaine threw off the covers and gave immediate pursuit, her richly embroidered night gown swaying at her ankles.
“Wait, please!” the colossal princess called.
In but a few steps, she had overtaken the fleeing little men. Elaine placed a dainty foot in front of them, blocking their path. Tom slammed right into the side of this appendage and fell over backwards while Thumbling simply vaulted over it. His mischievous pranks had given him plenty of practice escaping from angry giants.
Dropping to a crouch, Elaine swept Tom into her hand and reached out after Thumbling. Though fast, Thumbling’s little strides had not yet taken him beyond the reach of her arm. Seconds later, he too was the princess’s prisoner.
“Sweet Jesu,” Elaine breathed, staring with disbelief at the tiny human-like forms struggling in her hands. “What are you?”
“Let them go!” Thumbelina shrieked, swooping about Elaine’s head like an angry hornet. Issun was still in her arms, shutting his eyes to their imposing height in the air. Elaine shifted her captives to the same hand and reached out to grab this flying figure as well. After a few tries, she succeeded, closing her fist around Thumbelina. Soon, all four of them were enclosed in the woman’s delicate fingers.
“I repeat…what are you?” Elaine said, staring down at them. “I’ve never seen such little people before. And believe me, one sees many strange things in my father’s enchanted land.”
Tom eventually stopped struggling and looked up into the lovely blonde noblewoman’s eyes. “We are the League of Homunculi, duly designated agents of Camelot. As loyal servants of the Pendragon, we demand that you release us at once!”
Elaine’s lips curled into a smile and she gave a slight giggle. She squeezed her hands tighter around her hostages, provoking groans and renewed squirming. “I hardly think you’re in a position to issue demands, little one. Especially not to the Lady of Corbenic. But let’s say I believe you. What then were you doing in my bedroom?”
Tom looked questioningly at his teammates but the others nodded their ascent. The game was clearly up.
“We were sent for your ring,” the tiny knight said at last.
“My ring?” said Elaine, turning her hand to the side to look at the ruby. Thumbling and Tom were tilted sideways as she did this and began to feel a bit dizzy.
“The High Queen believes it belongs to her,” Thumbelina explained.
“Ah,” Elaine said, understanding at last. She turned her hand back and righted the little men (much to their relief). “I suppose it does. I had forgotten. My serving-woman fetched me something of Guinevere’s as part of…an elaborate deception.”
“Did it have to do with Sir Lancelot?” Tom inquired. Elaine’s eyes grew wide
“I’ve said too much,” she muttered. “But it seems you’ve already guessed part of it. I feared so. One cannot keep a secret forever.”
The little people became somewhat nervous at this. They were still (quite literally) in the princess’s clutches. If she felt they knew too much, would she simply stomp the four of them flat?
Thankfully, Elaine was too demure to even consider such an action. And in truth, her guilty conscience made her glad to get the secret out in the open at last. She sat down on the bed and set the homunculi on the bedspread beside her. The lady placed her hands around them in a semi-circle until she was certain they wouldn’t run away.
“No scurrying off please. We trust each other then?” she asked. “Excellent. Then here is the truth of it: the scheme was that my servant would bring Lancelot to me by cover of night. Hampered by the dark and addled by wine, he would see only the light reflecting off of Guinevere’s ruby. Thinking me the queen, he would at last be mine, if only for one night.”
The princess lowered her gaze in shame. “I know it was wrong to trick him. But that night…holding him in my arms, kissing his sweet lips, giving him my love…that was the best night of my life. I would not change it for the world. And even if I can never be with Lancelot again, I still have a part of him with me.”
Elaine placed a hand upon her belly, which the homunculi noticed at last was slightly distended. The young woman was pregnant.
“My Galahad,” she whispered, rubbing her stomach with affection. “Please understand, I did not do all this purely out of selfishness. My father is sometimes given to prophecy. He believes that the child of Sir Lancelot is destined to achieve the Grail, which so many knights have sought for.”
“Sought for?” repeated Thumbling. “I thought you and your father were guarding it or something. What’d you do, mislay the darn thing?”
Elaine smiled. “We are its custodians, yes, as our forefathers were, all the way back to Joseph of Arimathea. But even we are not privy to its secrets. And we’re certainly not going to hand it over to just anybody. One day, it is said, a champion will bring the Grail’s glory to the land, healing great wrongs with divine grace. Father is convinced that the son of Sir Lancelot will be—”
Tom rubbed his temples, clearly distressed. “This is all too much, my lady. This must be between Lancelot and yourself. The League will not get involved. We ask only for the ring so that we can complete our quest.”
“Yes, of course,” Elaine said, sliding the ring off her finger. She handed it to Tom, who clutched it with both hands and stooped slightly from the weight of the jewel. “Promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone. I will tell Lancelot in my own time.”
“Of…course…your highness,” Tom agreed, still straining to hoist the ruby.
“But in return,” Thumbelina insisted quickly, “you must not tell the king or queen that we were here. This was meant to be a stealth mission, after all.” She smirked up at the towering damsel. The League now had leverage and the tiny princess was prepared to take advantage of it.
Elaine smiled down at them. “My lips are sealed, little ones.”
* * * * *
“Job well done, gang,” Thumbling announced as the League carried the ring down the hallway.
Issun shook his head. “What began this night is clearly not over,” he said. “There was more behind this than a simple lost ring.”
“You can say that again,” agreed Thumbling. “Holy Grails, divine prophecies, enchanted kingdoms—I’ll say this much, Briton…” He turned to Tom and nudged him in the side with his elbow. “…your life here sure isn’t dull.”
Tom remained silent and lost in thought, hardly noticing Thumbling’s teasing comments. Thumbelina turned to their leader with concern.
“What’s on your mind, Tom?”
“If what Elaine claims is true,” the little knight said, “Lancelot was only too eager to leap into bed with Queen Guinevere. Or someone he thought was Guinevere. Such an easy betrayal from one of Arthur’s champions is cause for concern. I fear what this may mean for the kingdom.”
“Then we shall have to keep an eye on him,” the faerie princess reasoned.
“A fine idea, ‘Lina!” Thumbling remarked.
Thumbelina raised an eyebrow in annoyance. “’Lina?”
“Would you prefer Sweetcakes?”
“’Lina it is,” she said with a scowl.
“Merlin proposed this League to learn the secrets of Camelot’s enemies,” Tom continued. “But it seems there is treachery within the castle’s walls as well. This then is our charge, my friends—to be the ever-watchful eyes and ears of the realm. We shall be unseen, undetected, an invisible presence seeking signs of threat to the kingdom. We will learn the strategies of Arthur’s foes and keep his allies honest. The League of Homunculi will be ever-present, supporting the efforts of the High King.”
“Quite a flair for the dramatic you have, Tom,” said Thumbelina with a smile.
“Never mind all that,” Thumbling scoffed. “Where are the serving-wenches’ quarters? If all British girls look like that Elaine, I think I’m going to like it here!”
* * * *
In the tallest tower of the castle, Merlin stood hunched over his scrying pool, deep in thought. Faint images shimmered and danced in the small bowl of water, showing the miniature League’s activities. They’d achieved the ring, as the druid knew they would. Elaine was a gentle soul and would never have harmed them. No, this mission was mere prelude. The homunculi’s true challenges were still to come.
As a vision overtook him, Merlin could see the little creatures’ adventures as plain as day. His precognitive gift allowed him to perceive all possible outcomes and identify the connecting threads that would produce them. As such, every man, woman, child, and homunculus in the kingdom were like chess pawns to the wizard. All could play a potential role in his crafting of a kingdom.
His reverie was disturbed when the water suddenly rippled and the images reformed themselves into a new pattern. Where four tiny manikins had been, there was only the face of an achingly beautiful woman. Piercing green eyes met the magician’s gaze and long, dark hair as black as a raven’s feathers flowed in an unfelt wind. Though lovely, the lady’s expression was cold, haughty, and filled with scorn.
“Hullo, Myrddin,” the vision said. This was momentarily surprising, for the enchanter’s visions were not usually accompanied by sound.
“Morgan,” he answered curtly, inclining his head to Viviane’s former apprentice. “Co-opting my scrying pool, eh? An impressive feat. Your power is growing.”
“What is this new game you’re playing, old man?” the woman demanded. “Tiny doll-men to carry out your whims? Surely, this is a joke.”
Merlin smiled mysteriously. “You’ve caught me, my lady. They’re of utterly no use. Why, whatever was I thinking? I must be reaching senility at last.”
Morgan glowered at him below the liquid surface. “Fine then,” she muttered. “Keep your secrets. I know you’re planning something. The actions of the great Lord Emrys are never needless. These wee pixies have some role to play in your schemes.”
“Think you so?” the wizard smirked. “They are clever little things, aren’t they?”
“I will allow you your amusements,” said the sorceress. “For now. But I warn you, Myrddin…if these creatures cross me, I’ll annihilate them utterly. Grind them to offal under my feet. Just as I will to my brother, Arthur, and his precious knights.”
“It need not be war between us,” Merlin stated. “Lady Viviane is here at court. She misses you, Morgan. You were her finest pupil. Give up this foolishness now and you could come back to us.”
The woman’s features contorted with rage and the water of the small pool began to boil. “I did not strike the first blow of this war, Emrys! You saw to that when you ensorcelled King Uther! He raped my mother, slew my father, and placed his bastard son on the throne that should be mine! Now Arthur and his pious hypocrites fight for their martyred god. His priests deny the Mother Goddess and condemn my people—OUR people, you traitorous wretch—as heretics and heathens!”
“No, Myrddin,” she hissed. “This war has already begun. And to win it, I’d slaughter you, Viviane, the druids of Avalon, and half of Britain itself if I must!”
The image of Morgan abruptly vanished, taking the water of the pool with it in a cloud of blazing steam. Merlin stepped back, lest his face be scalded by the heat. He collapsed into a nearby chair, clutching a hand to his temples and feeling the weight from every one of his many years and regrets. After a moment, the aged magician shook off this melancholy and returned to his plans for the kingdom. Four tiny beings, unassuming and supposedly harmless, were never far from his thoughts.
The End (of the Beginning)
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.