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...