The Challenging Handful (Part One)

Author’s Note: This novella has a relatively simple concept.  It’s somewhat similar to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen… but tiny.  Be ready for Lilliputians, fairies, gingerbread soldiers, and a host of other classical small things as they band together to protect their home from the dawn of a whole new type of war.

handfultitle

The midnight oil had burned, so light poured into his windows and prevented sleep. His peanut brittle curtains were not up to the task of keeping it out, only managing to dye it amber. Still he guessed it was morning, as he heard the bonsai dryads begin to go about their work, pruning and watering the thousand miniature trees that turned Minimil into a land.

There was another sound though, the unmistakable hinge of his saltwater taffy mailbox. When he pulled one slat of the curtains aside he saw the candy cane flag raised as the postal carrier walked on to the neighbor’s dollhouse. The last time he’d gotten mail was more than a year ago, as everyone he cared to know lived close enough to make it unnecessary. If it was the same sender as before, a quick reply was likely needed.

Hershel Pflaumen Snaps pushed his cheesecloth bedspread away and stood. Even before getting the mail he did his morning stretches and examination, as ordered by his physician and pâtissier. Failing to do so might cause him to dry out, which risked all sorts of dermatological horrors like cracking, flaking, or even crumbs. The last thing he wanted was leaving a trail of mice bait everywhere he went. Underarms seamless but moist. peppermint buttons shining. Icing mustache and beard looking fresh from the pastry bag. Intact. Another day intact.

When he stepped outside he had to give his curtains a little more credit for the work they’d done, as the oil lamp far above blazed more brightly than usual. With oil being one of his nation’s few outside expenditures, there must have been something significant rumbling around for them to use that much, something that couldn’t spare there being a single confusing shadow.

His gingerbread abode was much humbler than the luxurious dollhouses on either side, but the red-leafed bonsai trees on the sides of his property rose high enough to hide them from view. The only people he could see were the dryads in their green civil uniforms, climbing in and out of the branches, even pruning leaves that couldn’t be seen. Their work was always more about the health of the trees than any patriotic aesthetic instinct. Being forest fairies, wings cruelly clipped, they were quiet and surly, getting along quite well with the asocial Snaps. They even planted red trees around his house so they would match his licorice eaves.

They didn’t even try to sneak a glance at the letter he pulled from the box, sealed with beeswax and the emblem of parliament: a crown upon a thimble. The same sender after all. It should be no surprise; who would even know to send him a social letter? There was Clara, but if all was well in her life she had forgotten all about her nutcracker and the others. That was the healing power of growing up. Snaps snapped out of the memory and got to reading, as letters from parliament were always actually two letters with some tortured blank space between them as if they didn’t acknowledge the other was there.

To one Forward Commander Herschel Pflaumen Snaps,

We, the better half of the Minimil parliament, humbly request your presence at a session to be held on the seventeenth of October at three o’clock, 402 Loftplace. The matter is of the utmost importance, and may concern your near future, so we suggest attire that appreciates the gravity and dignity of the situation.

You may be asked to wait, as scheduling has proven difficult. If so we apologize for any inconvenience. It is our sincere hope that you are well enough to join us, as we’ve always appreciated your contributions to the Minimil way of life, which may be under threat again, and this time from forces more insidious than last year’s thunderstorm.

Respectfully, Angelic Marguerite Vien

Herschel Snaps,

We, the mightier half of Minimil parliament, order you to show your face, specifically on October seventeenth at three. Usual place. Don’t be late. Wear your regalia so you don’t embarrass us around our visitors.

This is big. We’re going to war if the goody-goodies don’t get in the way. We need you here since essentially no one else in this lousy barn has any real battlefield experience. I’d be pleased as pineapple pie to crack a few skulls myself, but you know our circumstances. No matter how much I sharpen my horns all they get to do is look pretty.

See you soon, Devilish Caster Katan

Between the two of them he almost had enough context to understand what they wanted. The combination letter more than implied warfare, but that couldn’t be fully true. Minimil had no capacity for warfare, and even more essentially, no nation to war with. The majority of its citizens expatriated from either the fairy realm or Lilliput. The former had no reliable connection by which to send armies back and forth and the latter was a distant island, so caught up in inane internal arguments over such issues as breakfast etiquette that it was an absurd miracle they even managed to take over their neighbor Blefuscu.

Minimil itself was established originally as the Minuscule Militia, a protective alliance of the small but witty with no places to call home, but quickly needed to find such a place in order to avoid being broken up by internal discord, angry host nations, or very large and hungry stalking birds like the heron.

It had gone strong for nearly twenty years now, an anniversary that would be celebrated in one month, on November 1916. Snaps looked at the letter again, checking both dates to see if they matched. They did, agreeing that the meeting was on this very day. He went back inside to change and apply has daily glazing lotion.

When he emerged he looked fresh from the oven, teal uniform immaculate and helmet topped by a pewter coated thorn like a shark’s fin polished to a shine. On his hip sat his saber, the original baked one long replaced by a fine piece of fairy forging. With no idea if he would even be returning home at the end of the day, he also took with him his rifle and a large knapsack.

It contained everything he needed for an extended trip: glazing lotion, shaving icing, replacement eyes, buttons, and teeth, flour, yeast, baking soda, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. In addition metal limb molds were tied to the top, bouncing and clinking against each other as he headed for Loftplace.

Quickest would be to go through the tunnel in the old horse stalls, even though the hay was sure to undo his sweet morning scent. Parliament would forgive him any odor he thought, as long as he didn’t show up with any hay stuck to his beard. His own abode was far off the ground, on an extension of what used to be a windowsill, a convenience he was allowed so that any rats or roaches that had infiltrated the barn that day were not too eager to climb up to his edible home.

In taking the elevator down to the hay floor he did run into an insect of sorts, but one he was always pleased to see. The doors were closing, but the fellow slipped the green edge of his own saber, expertly crafted from a serrated leaf folded and then glued with saliva, between them. They opened up again and in he came, quickly wrapping his arms around Snaps and patting his back, careful not to muss his beard.

Herschel, my friend, how are you?” he asked. The insect-man’s sniff was impossible to miss, as was the shuddering titter from the mandibles on his cheekbones. He couldn’t help it, as gingerbread was an incredibly intoxicating scent to sugar-hunting vermin like himself. Still, Snaps wasn’t worried at all. It was the basis of their friendship that, no matter how starved, Solenos Pestidicé could be trusted not to take a bite out of him.

Feeling very fresh today,” Snaps said honestly. He looked the myrmidon up and down. The man’s carapace, a burnt orange-red like fired clay, looked freshly polished. His small fog-white eyes, perfectly round, revealed much less about his mood than the enthusiastic twitching of his single-segmented antennae. He wore his finest as well, something like a toga probably made from a monogrammed napkin, held together with more crafted leaves. “You’re dressed as if you also received one of these.” Snaps held up the invitation.

I ate mine already, but yes,” the upright ant confirmed. “They want to recruit us for something. If it’s not too dire I should like to say yes. You and I haven’t fought together in a long while.”

We haven’t done anything together! Weren’t we meant to volunteer as chess pieces over at the pub?”

I checked with those drunks a while back, and they insisted we be the kings,” Solenos said with a wave of his three-clawed hand. “They never get much action. Besides that would put us on opposite sides of the board.” Their childish snickering was drowned out by the chugging of the elevator’s machinery, and then by the numerous street sounds of the old stalls as they stepped out.

Minimil’s current shell was a large barn in the east of Scotland, the horse ranch it was originally part of abandoned when its owner lost all his money gambling on his own stock. Protected by treaty with the local government, the citizens had little to worry about when it came to the Scottish people wandering by and finding their stronghold nation. If any had, they would be amazed by what the combination of a skilled interior decorator, an experienced city planner, and a miniature construction force were capable of.

Every wall had shelves and every shelf had a row of buildings either crafted from scratch or converted from fine dollhouses. Each wall was painted a different modest color, indicating the different neighborhoods where certain varieties of citizen preferred to live and congregate. The floor, tiled in some places and dirt in others, was always a hotbed of excavation, construction, and commuting.

In addition to their architects, a toy maker did incredible work for the nation, modifying her tin trucks and trains into vehicles that could actually be operated by miniature pilots. One such train, cherry red, steamed by the two men. They grabbed handles on it and stood on one of its outer grates, borrowing its speed as it passed through the tunnels in each stall wall. Far above them was the ornate oil lamp acting as their nation’s sun when natural light was insufficient.

They rode the locomotive through Bonsai Park, Quiltfort, and Fishingbarrel, until they reached the elevator wall: a mechanism with cars of all sizes that supplied the old hayloft. Now the elevated platform held Minimil’s government facilities, including the converted steamer trunks serving as parliament.

Snaps and Solenos couldn’t get any information out of the elevator attendant, busy as they were squeezing twenty people into a car meant for ten. Stepping out after the ride found them still cramped, as the area surrounding parliament was swarmed with Minimil citizens of all types. Snaps kept one hand On Solenos’s shoulder as he waded through the crowd so they wouldn’t lose track of each other.

A music box ballet dancer spun by on the left, wishing them well in a singsong voice. A frog, originally a human prince, waddled by on the other side, having grown so accustomed to his new body that he could make it walk on two legs and had even grown a strange-looking beard on its inflatable chin. Exaggerated Venus figurines, faceless women with giant hips carved in the age of troglodytes, creamy or purple stone skin polished, sashayed together in groups, some so abstract as to have flattened rings instead of torsos and heads.

Even being an example of it, Snaps was always amazed at the tiny things that could be imbued with life. One never knew what they would find in cracking a Minimil, as the world tended to call them even though it was technically the name of their nation, open: clockwork, voodoo doll stuffing, pixie dust, or even chocolate cream.

Someone in the multitudes was a little too curious about Snaps’s innards, as their clawed finger swiped across his chin and took a dollop of his iced beard with it. By the time he whirled around the offender was lost in a sea of shoulders, perhaps having slipped between the legs of the Venus lumbering by on her nub feet.

Who was that!? Have you no decency?” he shouted, but there was no answer. Solenos heard and pulled him through parliament’s revolving doors, taking him aside and examining the damage. “How bad does it look?”

You’ll need a shave if you want to look presentable,” Solenos admitted. “Do you mind if I?” Snaps hated being groomed in public; it tended to draw questions about free samples. Nevertheless he relented, forced to cast his chin up rather than down so his companion had a good angle to work from. The myrmidon dutifully went to it with an ant’s proficiency, neatly skimming off the sugary substance until the stolen divot was no longer visible. Then he used his mandibles to create new lines in it, matching the style as closely as he could.

Do I still taste the same?” Snaps asked in a whisper.

Of course Herschel… You’re still Herschel. You’re still the sweetest man I’ve ever known.”

Yes, well, thank you Solenos… Shall we go in before this mob reduces me to crumbs?” He led the way after that, something that got easier as they went. While the building was a madhouse, the actual chambers were guarded at the entrances, and fewer and fewer Minimils were allowed through each one. The trunks’ leathery smell intensified as they reached the best preserved part of its interior: the debate chamber. Curved rows of seats rose before a central stage, clearly divided into two sections, one red and one white.

They were the same colors as the Minimil flag which hung in numbers behind them: the crowned thimble. A lilliputian guard directed them to an audience box off to one side and had them sit, telling them that the session would begin any moment and they would be called up to answer questions and make their applications. As to what they were applying for, the woman scurried off without answering.

With the involuntary shave having dampened his mood, Snaps sat quietly, staring at his own knees until he heard the many metal wind chimes, hanging from the flagpoles, announce the arrival of parliament. The wind came from their wings as they descended down through the hole in the trunk’s ceiling, silently landing in their assigned seats. Not a fairy’s dragonfly wing among them, theirs came in two kinds: white dove’s and red bat’s.

The human brain was massive to a Minimil, like a swimming pool, but it could hold even more than that. The spirit it contained was like a hundred tiny people existing at the same time, often cooperating, but causing suffering when they didn’t. Sometimes two representatives were split off from the rest to act as arbiters, to help the rest cope with indecision.

These representatives were the shoulder angel and the shoulder devil, only visible to the spirit they were born from initially, but always perched next to an ear with a clear opinion antithetical to the one the other ear would get. Many a magnate had made his fortune by heeding the words of his dandruff-dancing devil, while many a saint had saved lives with the song of an angel echoing in the folds of their ear.

Only two representatives were freed from the mind under normal circumstances, as terrible consequences could come from losing one while it was exposed. Birds were known to snatch them off the shoulder, their simple animal minds unconcerned with identity-based invisibility. Once gone they could not be reproduced, leaving their owner forever incomplete. People who had lost their shoulder angels became terribly cruel and selfish, while those losing their devils became so insufferably priggish that they could only become school headmasters.

There were also several instances of the opposite occurring, of a person being deep in thought, considering the advice of their deployed angel and devil, when fate struck them with a surprise death. Sometimes they were too distracted and wandered off a steep incline or down some stairs. Occasionally it was a stray bullet or even a bolt of lightning. All that really mattered was that there was no longer a place for the shoulder-dwellers to return to. They were stuck wandering, bickering but never leaving each other’s side for some reason, until a predator snapped them up or an errant boot squished them.

Until, that is, the mass moral quandary in the small farming town of Erret, Pennsylvania in 1896 changed that. Thirty people gathered for a festival stood on a wooden bridge overlooking their river. The local drunk, a scoundrel even when sober, had stolen a prized bottle of wine that was supposed to be awarded to the owner of the county’s largest acorn squash. He was chased by that crowd of thirty to the bridge, where he leapt in to escape them, forgetting in his drunken haze and general stupidity that he was not a capable swimmer.

Separated from his prize, man and bottle were taken by the current in two separate directions, and everyone present considered their responsibility. Was it better to save a man who’d never done a positive thing in his life, enabling him to continue not doing those things, or to save a fine piece of craftsmanship meant to reward a productive member of society? Everyone’s angels and devils were deployed to consider what they should jump in after, but they would never get the chance.

The aged bridge was in dire need of repair, and while it could handle thirty strolling across it, thirty standing clustered on one side was beyond its ability. The collapse resulted in the drowning and crushing of seventeen, fifteen of which were survived by their shoulder angels and devils, who used their spread wings to float to safety.

The group, one of unprecedented size, stuck together and sought a means of survival, but their nature prevented them from fighting their own battles. Intrinsically they could only be decision makers, and nothing else, so they needed associates to do all the heavy lifting in their lives. Thus they formed the Minuscule Militia; later, after debate heated to half the temperature of hell itself, it was shortened to Minimil.

They took on the burden of governance, employing other beings of similar size, which in their general inhuman nature could look upon them, to protect them, house them, and seek opportunities for their collective.

Parliament on the day of the gingerbread man’s and the myrmidon’s visit consisted of forty-six angels and forty-six devils, looking like as many sets of identical twins, since each bore the face and body of their creator in miniature. They were all born in robes, but once set loose from their masters they opted for far more professional dress. The devils still bore their horns like mustache twirls, their bat wings, and their forked tails while the angels retained halos like little rings of golden pasta and feathered wings.

Kunk! “This session is called to order,” one of the angels said as she banged her gavel.

Ting! “A little less chaotic for the time being,” a devil rephrased after. His gavel was metal and had more of a point to it, for a much more irritating sound. Snaps braced himself, as these sessions always took twice as long as they needed, for angels couldn’t be allowed to pontificate endlessly and devils couldn’t have the last word.

Kunk! “I apologize for dragging many of you out of bed, but you’ll find that the issue could not be allowed to idle. Isolated and self-sufficient as we are, there is still a world out there, and we can’t always ignore it, especially when someone drags the good half of our name through the mud.”

Ting! “There was exciting talk of a world wide war brewing, but all that’s been derailed. Some arch-doohickey or other-”

Kunk! “Archduke Franz Ferdinand.”

Ting! “Yes, Archdoohickey Franny got himself dead. We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Sweet revenge becomes bigger revenge, and then everyone’s up their own in arms. Quite a show. This was going to be the biggest one yet. Boys and I had popcorn at the ready, only there’s a screw loose in the works.”

Kunk! “A little respect for the dead please.”

Ting! “What are they going to do with it?”

Kunk! “The assassination was carried out… by a miniature individual. As far as we know they are not one of our own, but they somehow have incredible resources at their disposal. Enough to sneak messages to dignitaries around the world taking credit for the death. This individual refers to themselves as the Challenger.”

Ting! “He or she or it has an army, or at least a company, of other teenies, all set for more stealthy throat-cutting, so they boast. Seems their plan is to put it to waste, saying they only killed the doohickey to get everyone’s ears leaned in.”

Kunk! “They are claiming that their actions have prevented a worldwide conflict, and they have the means to do so moving forward. They want all nations to send a representative, to be received by ship, in order to view a presentation in international waters. A presentation that sets out an end to unnecessary loss of human life in warfare.”

Ting! “They’re lying of course. Men without war are like birds without wings; they’ll just fall over and beg you to fry them in cornmeal. Our money, good and bad, is on it all being a ruse.”

Kunk! “It is the opinion of parliament as a whole that the Challenger plans to assassinate these dignitaries all at once, perhaps by sinking their own vessel and escaping unnoticed in a miniature vessel. The humans are not wise to the talents and tactics of the small. They are vulnerable to this deception, and in need of our protection. We must also consider the consequences of the Challenger’s actions on our overall mission. The individual might poison the waters for our future hopes of both avoiding persecution and participating in a global democratic process.”

Ting! “If they actually pull it off, somebody’s going to bust down this barn door with a vendetta against anything that fits in the tread of their boot. We’re not going to let that happen; some of you are going to make it real clear that we’re up to any challenge.”

Kunk! “Yes, that is our purpose here today. As you all know, we cannot act effectively as anything other than guidance. Those of you with differing origins will present your qualifications for this endeavor one at a time, and then we will vote on a team of six to accompany the Scottish representative inside his personal luggage to the Challenger’s ship.”

Ting! “You didn’t tell them why six you feather-brain. Our Challenger has already laid a ground rule that nobody can bring more than one bag of a certain size, probably so no fancy weapons can get in. We’ve got some special doohickeys of our own though, just for you lucky mercenaries, that’ll get you smuggled in clean as a train whistle. Only six fit in the Scot’s bag.”

Kunk! “If any wish to withdraw immediately and return to their homes, they may.” None moved. This was the only way many in Minimil had to earn their keep, and some were even proud to serve. Most just jumped at chances to get out of the barn. No matter how much it was repainted it still smelled like horse. “Wonderful. Let us begin.” Snaps counted; twenty-one were there to be interviewed. He knew many of their stories already. There was an iron-skinned homunculus born from the mind of a human cannonball, shot out of his nose as he was shot out of his final barrel.

He wasn’t sure who brought it, but there was a camel tied to the side of the audience box as well, chewing something unidentifiable. Snaps checked his underarms and shoulders to see if there were any pieces missing, but luckily the bite had not been taken out of him. The animal was a fixture around town, used to carry loads here and there, and word was its origin had to do with the old proverb: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of god.

Which rich man had used which scientific or magical process to shrink that camel, just to earn himself a place in the beyond, no one in the barn knew. Obviously the process was wearing off, as it was far too big even now for that, but many locals swore it had fit in the palm of their hand when the nation was established.

Excuse me Mr. Cookie,” someone shuffling in front of Snaps whispered. They were a fairy, still winged, so their attempt to slide by got a few others slapped in the face by transparent dragonfly tips. Snaps dodged them artfully, refusing to muss his beard a second time. The fairy stalled in front of him regardless, sniffing at his trim with her somewhat exaggerated nostrils. “You smell scrumptious,” she complimented before giving up on the polite way of exiting and taking flight.

She almost got him again on the way out, unexpected as fairies didn’t usually have swishing donkey tails. When she landed center stage, lowering her wings and folding her arms behind her back, everyone got a full look.

Broad chested with biceps like pistachios refusing to open, she looked extraordinarily strong for what was famously a slight and spritely people. Minimil must have been her home for some time, as she’d abandoned the simple foliage her kind used as clothing in favor of baggy workman’s pants and a gray striped shirt that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a circus strongman. She did however have a circlet of yellow flowers around her head, held in place by her extremely odd ears.

Tall and fuzzy in the extreme, like a stuffed animal ripped open, white downy heart throbbing outward, her ears were like those of an an alert donkey groomed for show. Traits of the ass were peppered across the rest of her, from her large nostrils that flared like a ladybug lifting its wing cases, to her gray-furred three-fingered hands, and to the silky, swishing, black tip of her long tail.

Not at all bothered by her own appearance, the lady fairy rocked back and forth on her feet, awaiting appraisal. She was all smiles, buck teeth bright white. She had a naturally beaming face with round cheeks and small eyes full of shimmer. She was first addressed by an angel.

Many of us know you dear, but for the benefit of the newer members of parliament would you please state your name and country of origin.”

I am Mustardseed,” the fairy answered cheerily. “I am a fairy from the fairy realm, subject of King Oberon and Queen Titania. I am come to you from the Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was some time ago I think… I’m not sure, as we don’t much bother with time over in the realm.” Snaps knew of the night of which she spoke, one of only a few incursions of the fairy royalty into the world of men. It had been reported by the bard himself, more than three hundred years prior.

Why are you such an ass?” a devil hollered, her peers snickering.

Oh there was a silly spell,” Mustardseed answered. If she was aware she was being mocked she didn’t show it. “One of the humans the king and queen were playing with got his head turned into a donkey’s. I was told to bring him to Titania’s side, so I tried to drag him by the ears. Spells are very dusty though, and sometimes they get all over you. I’m sure my queen would’ve fixed it, but that was a hectic night, and I got left behind. A little while later I found all of you lovely people!”

Hundreds of years,” the angel muttered, perhaps disturbed by the idea of someone so unfixed in time being asked to catch a boat before it left the dock. “These donkey traits grant you incredible strength yes, as well as your retained flight?”

That’s right. I’m not quite as strong as a full donkey, but I can lift a dictionary!” There were a few gasps from the angels and whistles from their counterparts. Snaps didn’t doubt her abilities; her intact wings were evidence enough of that. Most fairies lost theirs quickly in the world of men, irreparably torn by attacking bugs, bats, and birds. Once they were shredded they had them clipped for appearance’s sake, coincidentally becoming much better at judging time when their feet were on the ground. Mustardseed looked as if she could knock out a raven with a single punch.

She was thanked and dismissed. Snaps worried she was a touch oblivious, but she knew enough to stand to the side of their box rather than try to sit back down and disturb everyone with her wings and tail again. After her came a Lilliputian with a trained earthworm used as a bullwhip. Snaps already hoped they wouldn’t make the cut, along with any other crawling things that might be tempted by his sweet self. When they were dismissed a short person, even by Minimil standards, took their place, standing silently in a too-large drab robe.

The only parts of her exposed were the lower half of her head, her neck, and her bare feet, with all characterized by incredibly pale skin soft as moonlight on snow. Her lips were thin, almost as pale, and little more than a seam thanks to her indifferent expression. Perhaps her eyes made it a little less indifferent, but they were covered by a bell-shaped tin helm. When Snaps saw the rounded joint atop it he realized it was actually the end of a candle snuffer.

That one’s a ghost!” a shoulder devil hooted. “What good’s a ghost? Can’t touch a hair on anybody’s head!”

I am a spirit,” the pale figure corrected. “I can touch things as you can, for I have a purpose I must fulfill.”

Yes, you are a…” the speaking angel flipped through a few papers in his lap, “…spirit of Christmas past. Conjured from the beyond, from shreds of proper ghosts, in order to impart wisdom. I’m sorry, but your name isn’t listed here.”

I don’t have one,” the spirit claimed. “I am one part of a trinity… though I am alone now.”

Right,” a devil said with a snap of their fingers. “You messed with that Scrooge character. Turned him into that charity case that was always in the papers. There was a Christmas present and a Christmas future too. Do we have the future one around here?” The devil leaned forward and looked around. “The way I read it he was way more intimidating.”

I am not a part of Scrooge’s life,” the spirit explained. “Those were different spirits. There is a trinity for every man, woman, and child, and for every Christmas they are blessed with.” Her voice was monotone and steady, like a candle flame in a sealed room. “I am the spirit of Christmas past for one Winifred Pebblebear 1903.”

Who the hell is Winifred Pebblebear?”

Language, please!”

She was a nine year old girl during that year,” the spirit continued. “Sadly she passed of the measles four years later.”

So… what are you doing here?” a devil asked.

I’m… really not sure. I shouldn’t have manifested if she didn’t need my wisdom: the lesson from that snowy night that she missed. My other two thirds never appeared, and I was left to wander. My feet grew tired of touching solid ground for so long, so I rested here.”

And you are willing to assist us in this endeavor?” an angel asked. The spirit said yes. “And it says here that as a spirit you are capable of ghostly feats like walking through walls and vanishing.”

I can also tell you everything, down to the trajectory of each individual snowflake outside the frosted window with the one crack shaped like a rocking horse, every detail of Winifred Pebblebear’s 1903 Christmas in her sleepy little Belgian town.”

Yes, well, thank you, but it’s the other aspects we’re more interested in. If you would be so kind as to step aside and await our deliberation.” The spirit bowed and did as asked, her little feet slapping. Snaps watched her go, envious. He would give up his left arm, and his ability to bake its replacement, to remember a peaceful nondescript Christmas. To have the background of one’s memory be only the night’s snowfall and the haze of cinnamon, pine, and furry socks sounded like paradise.

He would’ve dwelt on the fantasy longer, but he was pulled out of it by the next candidate, whom the gingerbread soldier had an immediate distaste for, solely because the man had a taste for Snaps.

Excuse me, but you’ve got something on your face,” an angel alerted the male being. He reached up and felt around his chestnut muttonchops, thick brown fingernails, like some scabrous ore, finding the offending patch of white icing. He pulled it out of his whiskers and sucked it off his fingers. It had to be him, Snaps realized, who had slipped by in the crowd and stolen the sugary dollop.

He wasn’t even hungry,” Solenos leaned in and whispered, “just jealous that you know how to present yourself.” The myrmidon was certainly right about one aspect, as it would be hard to imagine any society that would consider the man’s appearance presentable. Black leather coat full of cracks. Wild hair, wiry on the cheeks but swept back over his head and ears like a lion’s mane. Hands for digging up graves. Orange-amber eyes like the hardened sap-filled wounds of a tree executed by firing squad. Little fangs that made his smile look ready to eat anything.

What a yahoo,” one of the devils said.

That’s right,” the man responded, lips smacking as he swallowed the last of the icing.

Yahoo,” an angel read from a large volume in her lap, tilting her halo down to illuminate the page better. “A yahoo is a breed of man often likened to an ogre and scientifically classified as an oaf. It says here your people are also quite strong, with hands suited to digging through rock for the precious gems and metals that you treasure.”

Right again, pigeon.”

It doesn’t say anything about them being miniature.”

I’m Lilliputian.”

Much of our populace is, but they’re not yahoos.”

I thought you were supposed to be the sensitive ones,” one of the devils mocked, to the uproarious laughter and armrest-slapping of the others. “Lilliput is the Earth itself in miniature. If big people have them, then Lilliputians have them too. We’ve got Lilliputians with European skin and African skin, don’t we?”

On the money,” the yahoo said, digging in his pointed ribbed ear with the same finger he’d been sucking on a moment prior.

Your name isn’t listed either,” another angel noted.

Call me Yahoo.”

Doesn’t that get confusing? How do you know which yahoo is which?”

Well what do you do when you’re talking to somebody?” the yahoo asked.

…Look at them?”

Then that’s the yahoo you’re talking to!” He rolled his eyes as if he’d just explained day and night to a toddler.

Says here you did some bounty hunting and private investigator work in the United States. New York,” a devil noted. “What kind of things did you investigate?”

This one time I was…” The yahoo snapped his fingers and pointed at the devil, then snickered. “Oh you almost had me! Good one. It was private.”

He’s vital,” another giggling devil insisted. The red half of parliament seemed in complete agreement on this, even applauding the yahoo as he stepped aside for others to take their turn. Snaps was happy to see that the next few actually seemed like decent people. There was a falconry ranger who had a well-trained robber fly perched on her arm, a water nymph who knew how to surf on skipping stones, and a voodoo doll with an off-putting stitched face but the politest bow he’d ever seen. The next two after that were both notable and equally far from objectionable.

First was the Vitruvian man. People around the world were familiar with his image, even though his actual existence was an open secret among the small. With an exterior carved from light creamy wood and seams at every joint, he strongly resembled one of the wooden models artists often posed to get the proportions for their work right, except where those had round featureless heads the man had a beautifully detailed face with flowing wooden hair down to the nape of his neck.

The sketch that led to his design was one of the more famous works of Leonardo da Vinci, depicting a man stood at the center of a circle with his limbs outstretched, each arm and leg shown at two angles.

The man, who asked to be called Vitruvian, was an automaton, his inner workings largely a mystery. The world thought his maker merely tinkered with such devices, but in truth he was a master, keeping his most successful creations a secret in order to protect them from exploitation.

Even the four limbs of the sketch were part of his design, as Vitruvian could split the seams all along each limb and pull out the inner armature, effectively giving him four extra limbs whenever needed. What powered his ornate clockwork was not known, but when Snaps met him personally he guessed it was simple decency, as he was ceaselessly polite and never spoke out of turn. Snaps thought him a shoe-in.

The following candidate had an even greater percentage of metal parts; there wasn’t a spot on her not made of pure gleaming gold. The miniature woman stepped up for questioning, and there wasn’t a devil that could keep themselves from drooling over her, for she was like the muse to greed itself.

Of indeterminate age and strikingly beautiful, she wore simple professional dress that nonetheless stood out because of its material. With measured but sonorous voice she reminded them of her origin in the employ of the legendary King Midas. The pantheon that had given him his famous ability, to turn anything he touched into gold, was long gone from the world, but gold was forever.

The woman had long acted as the king’s treasurer and chief economist, freeing him to spend his time fawning over the gold rather than understanding its consequences. In their mutual experiments they discovered that life, given and taken by gods, was not directly subject to any mortal’s power, so people and animals touched by the king, while converted to treasure, did not perish as statues.

So he had touched her, with her consent, to immortalize her and her services. The king himself eventually met a gruesome fate that she didn’t like to repeat, and that hadn’t made it into the legends, but his power never faded and she never grew old.

Named Mygdenia, her life only became more complicated after her employer’s passing. One unforeseen consequence of the transformation was its inclusion of value as an inherent property of substance. When King Midas touched a rose and turned it to gold, he turned it into an exact value of gold equivalent to its contemporaneous one. So, if the value of gold itself in the eyes of men shifted, so too did the size of the rose.

Mygdenia was no exception. When the king passed his vast hoard was raided, and tons upon tons of gold, enough to build a city, were distributed into the surrounding marketplaces. The flood of supply rapidly devalued the gold, and as she had to physically retain the same value from the moment of the king’s touch, found herself to be a powerful giant. Unable to live this way, being normally a very private woman, she used her immense strength to gather up all the gold she could and hide it away or sink it in the sea. Over time her efforts worked too well, and gold once again became scarce, to pre-Midas levels. This left her diminished, for now it only took her current height in gold, roughly the same as any Lilliputian, to equal her old monetary value.

Her inclusion was almost certain, and not just because she was largely invulnerable unless faced with the melting point of gold. Mygdenia was, too this day, extremely well-versed and connected with the larger financial world. She told parliament that she had multiple contacts associated with the stock market as well as several national banks. With one precise word they could create temporary panic, shifting the value of gold one way or another for several minutes, enabling her to achieve a giant’s power as needed.

Finally it was the gingerbread soldier’s turn. He took his place under the judgmental eyes of parliament and stood crisply at attention, fully aware that many present would be imagining the satisfying crunch of his snapped spine.

Forward Commander Herschel Pflaumen Snaps, reporting for duty,” he greeted them, adding a salute.

Commander Snaps!” an angel chirped. “Always a pleasure, especially when you bring that stirring ginger aroma with you. Tell me, are you well?”

Yes I am,” he answered reflexively. He was well, at least technically. His yeast was properly tamed. His new icing formula didn’t dry out and crack. There was no shortage in the barn of any baking staples. As a cookie, he couldn’t look or feel fresher from the oven. As a man however, he couldn’t shake everything off like a dusting of cinnamon, and the devils knew to make him recall those things, to really test what might make him crumble.

We don’t want any new devils nibbling on you,” one of them said as he twirled his tail around a finger. “So tell them how you got here, and why they shouldn’t mess with you.”

Yes sir,” he answered. Drying out was his worst enemy, yet he tried to recite his own history as dryly as possible. Tried not to picture strawberry jam streaked across the floor, the crawl marks of his comrades. “There was an incursion not unlike the Midsummer Night’s Dream mentioned earlier by Ms. Mustardseed. In this instance it was not the fairy royalty, but one of their regional advisers: the Sugar Plum Fairy.

She was drawn out to do battle with the Christmas-ruining fiend known as the Mouse King. From whence he was spawned I never knew, only seeing that he had great difficulty getting all seven of his heads in and out of those little holes in the wall. He had an army of vermin at his disposal, so the fairy needed one in turn.

All about her were the decorations and gifts of Yule time, so that was what she enchanted to life. Myself and twenty-nine other gingerbread men and women were called into both life and service. We aided a battalion of toys in fending off the mice and rats, keeping them away from the tree as ordered by our leader.

He… was a brave nutcracker. His snapping mouth could make short work of any rodent tail, and it was my pleasure to see him fight so passionately. My people could not match his wooden fortitude however. We found it impossible to even hide, thanks to the ginger aroma you all appreciate so much. The Mouse King made short work of my company.”

Yet you survived,” the devil pointed out, aiming the tip of his arrow tail right at Snaps.

Yes, I was the only one. We won the night, but by morning the Sugar Plum Fairy was gone and she had left us no instruction. I found myself quickly disintegrating, but the young lady of the house was kind to me, and eventually we developed a system of baking that allows me to replenish myself.”

So you’re a crackerjack soldier and if need be, rations for your fellows.”

I have,” Snaps started, glancing at Solenos, “in the past served as emergency rations for my comrades. It is simple enough, and physically painless, for me to remove an arm or a leg and bake a replacement later.” He turned around so they could see the limb molds clanking on his pack. “But I must stress that my involvement in any mission does not necessarily entitle the others to a bite of me. Only those I respect may partake. I’m happy to watch the insolent and foolish starve.”

Such a harsh statement was not typical of the man, and it left an awkward silence over parliament, the angels coughing and rustling their way through it. The devils, who, as usual, mostly sat with their feet propped up on the seat in front of them, simply crossed one foot over the other nonchalantly. Snaps quickly corrected course by telling them that he was more than willing to be a part of the team they were assembling.

Before he could make it back to his seat Solenos was called up for his application. The two crossed paths, with the gingerbread man gently getting in the way to stall the myrmidon for a moment. Snaps scooped at the underside of his beard, a part invisible, with one finger, offering the sugary dollop.

For luck,” he whispered. Solenos’s insect-infused face wasn’t quite capable of a normal grateful smile, but Snaps recognized the approximation. The myrmidon plucked the icing off his finger with his mandibles and swallowed it quickly, antennae quivering at the concentrated sweetness. Out of the corner of his eye Snaps saw Yahoo standing with a few of the others, staring back. The glisten on his lips suggested he had just licked them.

Solenos Pestidicé reporting,” the myrmidon trilled as he gained parliament’s attention. The angels and devils didn’t greet him immediately, instead looking at each other, catapulting looks of blame back and forth. Solenos noticed, but went on with his introduction anyway. “I am a myrmidon. My people were created from ants in ancient times to serve as noble subjects, but that kingdom has dissolved. As we go on each generation is closer to our ant roots than the last, thus giving me my size and insect resilience.” There was no response. “I can craft a fine blade using only a leaf and my saliva, and when it comes to swordplay there are few who can-”

Yes, we know,” a devil interrupted. “You’re wasting your time.”

Manners!” an angel chastised. “If we’re being honest, it’s us who wasted your time Mr. Pestidicé. There seems to have been a clerical error; you were not supposed to be called here today. Someone in mailing must have figured that since all the usual candidates were getting invitations that it was an oversight that you did not, but that was intentional.”

May I ask why?” the myrmidon queried, his disappointment already obvious in his low-hanging antennae.

There’s no braver man to have by your side!” Snaps protested, shooting up out of his seat.

It’s not brave to dive into an anthill of your own people!” a devil hollered back.

Kunk! “Quiet please!” an angel requested when the whispers picked up. “What my colleague means to say is that, while we have limited intelligence when it comes to the Challenger, we do know that the main body of their force is composed of myrmidons.” Solenos winced. If his antennae hung before they now looked about to snap off.

Ting! The devil didn’t need his gavel to get their attention, but the angels had used theirs. “We can’t risk you being biased toward your own kind,” they explained. “You’d be a liability. Whoever invited you is about to be terminated, I’ll tell you that much. We’ll stick them in an envelope and mail them to the seventh circle.”

I’m sure it was a simple mistake,” Solenos said, the pep gone from his voice. “I certainly understand parliament’s concern. I will… leave you to it.” The obviousness of his dejection didn’t stop the angels from showering him with cooing thanks and apologies as he walked off. Snaps stepped out of his box, annoying almost as many people as when Mustardseed had slapped a whole row, and quietly chased the man down.

Solenos,” he said, grabbing him by the shoulder. “It’s an absurd decision. I know that you’d face the flyswatter before turning traitor. I have half a mind to-”

It’s alright old friend. I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am. My people are… opportunistic. We don’t care where our supplies come from, as long as they fit in storage and keep well.” He leaned in. “It’s why I’ll never have children; I can’t bear the thought of looking in their eyes and seeing souls colder than my own. The ant part of us is always getting stronger.”

Your soul could burn me to a crisp,” Snaps insisted. “I should pull myself out of the running. I don’t want to be stuck out there with some yahoo and no you.”

Don’t do such a thing on my account. It’s just one excursion; I’m sure there will be more. Go on back. I think they’re about to vote.” The men embraced and then went their separate ways. By the time the commander got back to his seat the two halves of their governing body were reaching their characteristic standstill.

Kunk! “That’s forty-six for and forty-six against for the angelic team selection,” a frustrated angel announced. “We will now vote on the devilish team selection. All those in favor?” Forty-six devils whistled, shouted, and banged their hands on the table. “All those opposed?” Forty-six silent angel hands raised.

Ting! “It’s official. We stopped the goody-goods from ruining another venture. Drinks on me tonight, and in me of course.” It took a full minute for the ill-behaved applause to die down. “Alright, put a lid on it. Let’s get the tiebreaker over with.” Unseen machinery whirred and spun, causing the two halves of parliament to split right down the middle, pulled apart by a clockwork track set in the floor.

A pedestal rose from under the floor in the space between, brisk-smelling seawater flowing off its central structure and back into its tank below. To a newcomer it might have looked like some abstract monument: a single elegantly curved and banded black stone shaped somewhat like a shoehorn. The shoehorn might’ve been one of the first things to come to mind, for the base of this stone was split into two pieces, with each filling a fancy black dress shoe. The laces were undone, strewn about like fronds of seaweed tossed on the beach.

The stone popped open down the middle, but more dramatically than parliament had, with a puff of fog that lingered on its lips. There was a muscle inside, but the only thing to emerge was its voice: deep and cool like a chilling current on treading feet.

I have been listening,” the oyster informed them all. Its obsidian shell was polished to the smoothness of volcanic glass, but the voice ensured there would be no mistaking its age. The shellfish was very old, and in fact it had never offered them a name. Only a title. The eldest oyster.

Snaps didn’t know who had brought it, he very much doubted it ever actually walked in those shoes, especially since it didn’t have the means to tie them, but he knew the creature’s story. It had told anyone willing to listen the parable of its kind.

An age ago, but not so long that there weren’t carpenters, a walrus and a carpenter descended on a bed of peaceful oysters, all magically gifted with intelligence and the ability to walk by a mermaid’s spell. Why a rotund marine mammal and a human artisan would be friends was never made clear, but they did have one thing in common: their appetite. Using kind words and grand promises they managed to lure the oysters away from the safety of their pool, with only the eldest warning them not to go.

Sometimes the retelling was tearful, though that was just a guess based on the oyster’s excretions. The audience’s eyes were rarely dry, as it was very good at conveying the image of the young brownish shells clicking and clacking as they waddled away in their little white shoes. The eldest never saw them again, but it smelled tartar sauce on the breeze shortly after.

The wise creature was considered a neutral party, as it was wholly reliant on the stability of Minimil for its own safety. With the angels and evils diametrically opposed on most issues, their votes came down to pointless deadlock. In the end it was the eldest who made seven of every ten decisions, just as it would now pick the exact composition of their handful of warriors.

The small are no strangers to the difficulty of trust,” it began. “Trust is not a bargaining chip as it is with the large. For us it is hope, our final ward against the indifferent large. We must trust that they will not burn down our barn or skewer us and roast us over a campfire with lemon and parsley.”

Get on with it!” a devil urged.

So when a fellow small is our foe, we do not need to grant them trust. If they wanted it they would join us here. No, their desires are nefarious. We will earn the trust of the large by protecting them, and in so doing guarantee its effectiveness in the future. For this task I have chosen six. First is a man who keeps the purse strings of trust tight: Forward Commander Snaps.” The gingerbread man came forward and stood at attention.

Second is the master of the traditional purse strings: golden Mygdenia.” The glittering treasurer came and stood by Snaps’s side. They shared a respectful nod.

Third is the man whose large creator gave him an appreciation not just for life, but for the big and little of it: Vitruvian.” The automaton took his place in the row.

Fourth is the fairy, whose intact wings will allow her to escape and report to us should the ship sink and drown all of its occupants.” The angels and devils sighed; it was a touch embarrassing to have their ultimate authority sometimes be as blunt as its shell. “Mustardseed.” The winged ass confidently took her place, though her wings moved more gingerly to avoid knocking the others over.

Fifth in our handful is a quiet voice. A lesson to be learned, I think, at sea rather than under the Christmas tree. The spirit of Christmas past.” The small figure came forth without walking, simply appearing in line like a breath of fog on a window.

Sixth-”

Handfuls don’t even have six fingers!” a devil mocked, though they were so bored they couldn’t be bothered to lift their head for the pronouncement.

The humans sure could use extra, blowing them off as they do with fireworks,” another devil countered. “Now quiet! You’re making this longer! The boat’s going to leave before we even shove them in the bag!”

Sixth is the being that will not get caught up in politics, as I don’t believe he is even fully capable of understanding them. Yahoo.” Snaps clenched his fists, tightly enough for a few crumbs to fall. The ninny with no manners sauntered up, but didn’t take his spot next to the spirit. Instead he walked behind them all and stood next to Snaps, smiling at him with impish fangs. Yahoo took a deep breath, and Snaps simply knew that his aroma was being taken in, used as pleasure for that miscreant.

Now go forth,” the eldest oyster declared. “Trust in each other the way you trust in Minimil. Make peace, but know when to use our acts of war. They are but stings and scratches to the world at large.” Klack! The oyster shut unceremoniously, the sound its own gavel. The angels and devils took a moment to more formally end the proceedings, offering their gratitude and expectations. The six members of the handful were led away, applause behind them.

The fanfare was over quickly, as they were escorted out of the trunk and back into a barn full of miniatures simply going about their lives, many of them with no desire to hear about an absurd excursion. The barn was safety, which to the small was the height of civilization. The world of men was one of unfathomable terrors like the darkness of outer space.

Lilliputian guards escorted the six down one side of the loft, to the one window that could still be opened from the outside. All manner of vehicles were kept there, mostly converted tin toys and domesticated squirrels, but when their bag arrived it put the rest to shame. The individual that had simply been called ‘the Scot’ arrived fifteen minutes after they did. He was of average height for a human, and old enough that only the roots of his hair were still red.

The bearded fellow didn’t seem eager to engage with them, made even clearer by his fine dress unsuited to any barnyard. He looked down every few seconds to see if any blades of grass had inched onto his shoes or pant legs. Other than that he stared straight ahead until a shoulder angel flew over to him and started whispering in his ear.

That angel is sharing with him our secret weapon,” Mygdenia announced to the other members of the handful, breaking a long silence. Most of them had been staring out into the treeline, priming for a return to the differing scale of the outside world. A light breeze whipped by, pulling Mustardseed by the wings. She managed to steady herself.

You’ve arranged it then?” Snaps asked. He’d been on assignment with her before, though he wasn’t sure how safe it was to use her prearranged power in the middle of the ocean.

Yes,” she confirmed, checking her golden pocket watch. “According to the invitation the ship will be leaving in five days. Eighteen hours after it leaves the dock my associates in London and Wall Street will plant stories about an incoming gold surplus. The value will plunge momentarily, and I will increase in size to an estimated ten meters.”

You might sink the ship if it’s too small,” Vitruvian noted with his reedy voice, likely produced by some device like a pan flute behind his collarbone.

A risk, yes, but we may need some kind of leverage. We can use it as a threat or as a brief opportunity to battle our foe or shift large objects. Better to have it in place than not. The Scot’s being instructed right now on how to handle it. If we don’t have need of it when the time comes he’ll need to throw me overboard so I don’t disturb the proceedings.”

Whumf! Their vehicle was on the windowsill: a leather shoulder bag with ornate silver clasps, red as the Scot’s beard used to be. His giant callused hands opened it wide, causing a series of six metal structures to pop out on their wire track. A moment later the angel that had whispered in his ear glided down to them and landed atop one of the structures.

These canteens will be your accommodations,” the angel said. “fabulous work by our engineers. Please observe, so you know how to get in and out.” There were several switches on the back of the rack that when thrown caused one of the canteens to roll out in front of the others and turn. Part of its wide side then rotated and opened like a safe’s door.

The interior looked cozy: a narrow circular room with space enough for the curved cot and several nets in which to store belongings. The walls had packs of rations and other useful materials like nails and stationary pinned to them in neatly organized rows. There was also a small sliding door behind the bed, allowing all the canteens to open into each other when they were on the rack together.

Each canteen exterior was labeled with an engraving, and each was a well known brand or variety of liquor. The disguise was completed by a glass tank over the bed, just under the mouthpiece. Each one held exactly two full swigs of its appropriate spirit, more than enough to convince an investigating guard that it contained what it claimed to.

How much of that am I allowed to have?” Yahoo shouted at the angel.

Not a drop. Stay sober during your mission,” they answered.

I get it; it’s for when we win. I’ll think of a good toast.”

Continued in Part Two

3 thoughts on “The Challenging Handful (Part One)

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