The League of Homunculi Book 2: Belly of the Beauty
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.
Tom Thumb: Arthur’s court dwarf, an honorary Knight of the Round Table.
Thumbelina: The smallest woman in the world and Princess of the Flower-Faeries.
Issun-boshi: An inch-tall samurai from the distant East.
Thumbling: A tiny tailor seeking his fortune in a very big world.
In the months since their founding, the League had taken part in many dangerous assignments for the court of Camelot. With their unobtrusive size and stealthy skills, they had been sent to spy on the scheming King Lot of Orkney and his sorceress queen Morgause, the cruel Prince Malagant, the upstart Roman Emperor Lucius Tiberius, and other foes that resisted the notion of a united Britain. Yet as holy quests and advancements in social law began to command Arthur’s attention, the king lost interest in his tiny spies. In time, he turned over their command to Queen Guinevere, her very own miniature “honor guard” to amuse her at banquets and tournaments with their clever tricks and gambols.
It was an uneasy arrangement for all parties. The queen resented being placated with a troop of warriors no bigger than her thumb. And the League members themselves were decidedly uncomfortable with being offered like toys to her royal majesty. They craved adventure and more meaningful work…and were about to receive it in spades.
In the waning days of summer, the court was gathered in the great hall, enjoying a feast and some entertainment. As the royal minstrels played a raucous tune, Tom and Thumbelina danced a jig in the palm of the queen’s hand. On the table below, Thumbling walked the edge of a bowl of pudding, balancing precariously like a circus performer. Issun remained as stoic as ever, standing guard beside the queen’s elbow, his hand on the hilt of a tiny katana.
Without warning, a young boy of about fourteen burst into the hall, stumbling slightly over the stone floor as he ran to the table. The music ceased and all eyes fell to this youth.
“Horror! Oh horror, your majesty!” the boy cried. “Oh, it’s too terrible!”
“I know you,” Arthur said, standing to face the child. “You’re Lancelot’s squire, are you not?”
“Yes, m’lord, I am in Sir Lancelot’s service,” the boy replied. “But for how much longer, I know not! My liege…Sir Lancelot has been captured!”
A hushed gasp spread through the room and the people began to whisper among themselves. Guinevere went limp with shock, spilling Tom and Thumbelina into her lap. The two tiny creatures landed roughly but unharmed in the folds of her dress. Startled by this development, Thumbling lost his balance and fell headlong into the pudding.
The king remained unfazed, acting the part of the unflappable ruler. “Captured by whom?”
“A horrid witch, your majesty,” answered the squire. “A heathen sorceress who consorts with devils! A monster that fills all the land with dread at the very mention of—”
“Spit it out, lad,” Arthur coaxed. “Whilst we’re young.”
“Morgan le Fay, my lord!” the youth finally declared. More murmurs and whispers circulated through the chamber. Arthur hung his head wearily.
“I see,” he said. “So my sister returns once more to plague my Table. I feared as much.”
“You should have had her put to death when you had the chance,” Guinevere muttered.
“Nay, Jenny,” said Arthur softly. “She is my blood. I must hope that there is yet good in her.”
“Your majesty!” the tiny Tom Thumb bellowed, as he climbed from under a roll of fabric in the queen’s dress. “Muster the League! We shall free Sir Lancelot!”
At this, the assembled knights and courtiers laughed. “What, those little poppets fighting le Fay?” Sir Gawain chuckled. “She’d squash the lot of them in one step!”
Arthur glanced down at the little figures fighting to stand in his wife’s lap. “I doubt not your heart, Sir Thomas,” said the king. “But I’m sure my knights can remedy this situation. You must help comfort the queen.”
Distraught, Guinevere pushed her food away and set her two tiny dancers upon the table. A lady in waiting instantly rushed to her side, clearing the plates and allowing the horrified queen to rest her head. The young serving woman spirited the bowl of pudding away, unmindful of the frantic squeaks from the assembled little people at the queen’s elbow.
The serving girl hurried toward the kitchen, joining one of her compatriots in the hallway. “Bad luck for Lancelot, eh, Mary?”
“’Struth,” her friend replied. “Not so good for the queen either, I’d wager. You didn’t hear it from me but they say she’s boinking ol’ Lance on the side.”
“Shhh!” the first girl hissed. “Don’t be talkin’ treason!”
“Oh, everyone knows it!” Mary insisted. “You think she’d get all weak and lose her appetite if it was that scarecrow Sir Kay wot been kidnapped?”
“True enough,” the other girl answered. “Well, more for us at any rate.” She dipped a finger into the pudding bowl and hit a small, oddly shaped obstruction.
“Afternoon, ladies,” Thumbling said, poking his tiny head out of the pudding. “Not that I mind your company but I don’t recall being placed on the menu.”
The girls shrieked and dropped the bowl at once, shattering it on the floor and running off to the kitchen in fright.
* * * *
For weeks, the Knights of the Round Table assaulted Morgan le Fay’s stronghold in the kingdom of Gorre. Yet none could get past the sorceress’ mystic defenses or breach the castle walls. An impenetrable shield, invisible to the eye, enclosed the fortress and a deadly power seemed to infuse the surrounding area, driving them back. Arthur’s warriors each fell wounded or retreated in shame.
The atmosphere at the court was tense. Arthur was wracked with guilt for the fate of his friend and the rift between him and his sister. But Guinevere was practically beside herself at Lancelot’s absence. The queen spent many an hour in her boudoir, weeping for the captured knight. In their dollhouse quarters, the League listened to their troubled mistress and felt they could stand no more.
“If she keeps bawling like this, we’ll never have a moment’s peace!” Thumbling shouted over the din, fingers in his little ears.
“’Ling!” Tom chided. “Where’s your sense of empathy?”
“Must have left it in my other tunic, boss,” Thumbling replied.
“He’s right, ‘Ling,” said Thumbelina. “We’ve been charged with comforting her. We should attend to the queen.”
“A cheerful countenance brightens a heavy heart,” Issun stated simply.
“Good luck,” Thumbling scoffed. “The state she’s in, she’ll probably roll over on top of us during a good long weep or mistake us for comfort food or something. They say women eat compulsively when they’re depressed.”
“We do not!” Thumbelina shot back.
Nonetheless, the little warriors exited the dollhouse and scurried to the queen’s bed, clambering up a linen sheet. Guinevere lay stretched out before them on her stomach, the landscape of her body quivering with the occasional sob. The tiny creatures walked the length of the bed in the shadow of her torso, dragging a handkerchief the size of a tent behind them. Tom cautiously approached the queen’s face and touched the wall of her cheek.
“My lady, is there anything we can do?”
The woman looked up from the pillow at the miniature figures. She sniffled once, blew her nose on the handkerchief, and considered something. “Yes, Tom, I believe there is. I have a request for you. All of you. Where…where is Thumbling?”
Their companion called from somewhere behind them and all turned to see Thumbling standing on the peak of the queen’s backside. “Look, fellows! The royal seat!” he cried, laughing at his own joke.
Despite her grief, Guinevere had to smile at the brazen little imp climbing her arse. Anyone else might have risked beheading with such an action but somehow, she did not mind the familiarity from her little pets. She reached back and plucked Thumbling from his perch, gathering the others with him in her hand. The queen set the miniature League on her bedside table and loomed above them majestically, though her big blue eyes were red with tears and her golden tresses disheveled.
“Brute force has failed, my little ones,” she informed them. “Lancelot remains a prisoner. You once said that you would fight to free him. Perhaps stealth and guile can succeed where a frontal assault cannot.”
“I promise you, my lady,” Tom announced solemnly, doffing his feathered cap. “We will find a way.”
“Oh, my tiny champions,” Guinevere said, scooping each one up and kissing their minute faces with thick, trembling lips. “So brave. I may be a fool but I believe you will. Please…bring him back to me.”
Thumbelina elbowed Tom in his side and whispered subtly through the corner of her mouth. “Are you mad? What hope do we have against that witch?”
“I think Tommy’s sweet on the queen,” Thumbling whispered, jabbing Tom’s other side.
“Shut up, ‘Ling!” Tom hissed. “We can do this! It’s the last thing le Fay will expect.”
“When hunters the lioness foresees,” Issun-boshi said quietly, “unnoticed goes the grasshopper to her lair.”
“What does that even mean?” Thumbelina said, slapping her face.
“It means the League is back in business, ‘Lina!” said Tom with a grin.
To be continued...