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...