by Melanie Goldmund
Reaching into the box, Kimnor sifted through all of the smooth, glowing stones, then pulled out one and held it in his palm. They were all similar in shape and size, but this one was smaller than the others, and Kimnor felt a kind of kinship with it. His ancestors had crossed the great water with these stones lighting their way, one in each end of their barges, and nobody had rejected any of the stones for being too small or too weak. They'd all had their place and had all been useful, no matter what their size. Certainly the other stones had not united themselves against the smallest one and told it to stay behind, not like Kimnor's brothers had done with him.
It was true that Kimnor was the youngest, and the smallest, and – though he hated to admit it – the weakest of his father's sons. It was also true that his right leg was one fingerwidth shorter than his left, and that his right foot was deformed enough to make walking and running difficult for him. But he could still ride a horse, shoot with a bow, and aim a slingshot with deadly accuracy. Surely some of his skills would be of help in the mission to rescue their father, the true king! However, his oldest brother, Kib, had dismissed him as being of no more worth to their plans than the women and young children of the royal household, and the implication hurt, deeply.
Kimnor sighed, and put the smallest stone to his forehead, hoping it would enlighten his understanding and show him how he could be useful and help rescue his father. Even now, generations after crossing the great deep, the stones retained their glow, and surely that meant that Kimnor could coax another miracle out of them! But then his hand slipped and the stone fell to the floor. Disappointed, Kimnor picked it up. If that was the answer no, then he really should leave the stones alone and go ride out instead, go visit his favourite spot where a huge boulder jutted out of the side of a nearby hill.
Kimnor put the stone back in the box and closed the lid. He'd been about ten when his father, King Shule, had brought him into the windowless room and shown him the stones for the first time, telling him their story. He'd never objected, either, whenever Kimnor had come back time and again "just for one quick look," although he'd always cautioned that the stones were not playthings. Now, five years later, it was the first time Kimnor had come alone and opened the box by himself, but although the stones were still shining, it was obviously not a time for new miracles.
If their wicked kinsman, Noah, truly did kill King Shule, would he come here and take the stones away? Did he know about them? And would they shine for someone as wicked as Noah must be? He'd rebelled against King Shule, and during the ensuing battle, he'd captured him, taking him as a prisoner back to the land of Moron. Kimnor had heard many stories about kings being kept in captivity, all too often by their own sons, but now Noah was threatening to actually kill King Shule on the day of the full moon. Murder of this kind was unheard of! If Noah was capable of such a thing, who knew what else he might do? Kimnor promised himself he'd keep the stones safe from such a wicked man if the worst happened, if Kib and his other brothers weren't successful in their attempt to rescue their father. He could take the stones away and hide them – his favourite spot would be a good place.
Kimnor opened the door just enough to peer out and make sure that nobody was in the next room, his father's library, then crossed to the window and climbed out. After getting his horse from the stables, he set off for the hill, meaning to look around and see if there were any natural hiding places there. As they approached the rock, however, Kimnor's horse stopped and snorted uncertainly. Kimnor was immediately alert for anything out of the ordinary, but though he looked and listened, he could not discover the source of his horse's unease. Gently, he urged it on again, and after some initial reluctance, the animal continued up the path.
Kimnor checked again before he dismounted, but all was quiet, and his horse was no longer spooked. Leaving it to graze, Kimnor climbed up to the top of the rock. Once, the climb had been a real test, an obstacle that required every bit of his strength and determination, but now its difficulty was slowly diminishing. At last, Kimnor gained his objective, and looked out through the trees and across the city in the the valley.
Seeing his father's palace among the other, smaller buildings reminded him of the stones, and his purpose for coming up, and Kimnor stepped from the rock onto the hillside again. He was halfway to the bottom of the boulder when something huge and black jumped at him, knocking him down with its weight and momentum. As it sank its teeth into his neck, Kimnor screeched in shock and pain. The beast had pinned his right arm under its massive paw, but he flailed savagely with his left, trying at the same time to roll himself out from under it.
The Creator sent me. I will be useful to you.
Thinking that somebody had spoken, Kimnor shrieked, "Help! Help me!"
The animal lifted its muzzle and stared directly into his eyes. Two of its teeth dripped with blood, teeth longer than Kimnor had ever seen, but suddenly, they shifted in the beast's mouth, retracting until they were as short as the others. Licking its lips, the beast then turned its head and looked at where Kimnor was hitting it with one hand.
Surprised, Kimnor did. He could see the animal better now; it had dark markings over even darker fur, and the markings reminded him of the skin of a jaguar that he'd once seen. But this jaguar was much bigger, and there was intelligence in its eyes as it turned back to look at him again.
I thank you for the blood.
"What?" Kimnor asked, and the jaguar stepped off him. Kimnor sat up, probing frantically at his neck, expecting to find that it had been chewed away and his head left scarcely attached to his body. Except for two tiny spots, however, there were no wounds, and nothing hurt. His fingertips found moisture and then went numb; Kimnor looked at them in alarm. They were wet, but not with blood.
I can change now. Then I will heal your wound.
Kimnor looked around to see who was speaking, but could only see the black jaguar, sitting much too close and watching him as though expecting an answer. A little cloud of thick black fog oozed directly out of the beast itself, covering him from sight, and then it disappeared. The jaguar had disappeared, too, and in its place was something else. Kimnor saw huge ears, strangely shaped nostrils, and forelegs that weren't forelegs at all, but – wings! Extending them slightly, the creature waddled forward on its two hind feet, then leaned its long snout forward towards Kimnor's neck. Kimnor pulled away, and the creature flapped its wings to regain its balance.
I will lick the wound. Then it will heal.
There was no mistake. Somehow, the creature – this thing that had been a jaguar before and was now the biggest bat Kimnor had ever seen – was speaking to him. He hadn't seen any movement of jaws or lips, and yet he'd definitely heard a voice. The bat leaned forward again, supported itself by carefully placing his upper wing-claws on Kimnor's shoulders, then licked the spots on Kimnor's neck three times before waddling away again.
Kimnor fingered his skin, but the two punctures had disappeared and there was nothing to indicate that anything had ever happened.
It is healed.
"How did you do that?" Kimnor asked. "What are you?"
I am cumom.
Kimnor looked at the animal. It gazed back at him. Kimnor said, "You're speaking, right? To me?"
"You're not making any sound – how can I hear you?"
This is a great gift from the Creator.
"So, if you can talk to me, why didn't you say something before you jumped on me?" Kimnor demanded.
We drink man blood. Then we can talk to man.
"Oh." Kimnor considered this. "Why did you want my blood? Just because you wanted to talk?"
We are cumoms. Cumoms must change, then we can mate. Cumoms must drink man blood, then we can change. We do not drink all blood in man. We take some. We change. Then we heal wounds. We fertilize man's fields. Food from those fields is better for man. Then man has better blood. Then we need less blood from man. Then we heal man better. Then man and cumoms grow stronger, mate better. Cumoms and man have more children. Bigger children. Stronger. Faster. Cumoms are useful to man. Man is useful to cumoms.
Skipping over growth and reproduction, Kimnor got to the interesting part. "Do you need to drink blood every time you want to change?"
A little man blood is enough for many changes.
"Can you fly? Can you carry me when you fly?" Kimnor had forgotten all about the shining stones and was thinking instead of other ways to help his father.
I am strong, and useful to man. I will carry you.
Kimnor limped around to the other side of the cumom and approached it with curiosity. The cumom leaned forward until it was crouching on the ground, using its lower wing claws like hands, and Kimnor could see immediately that he wouldn't be able to straddle it like a horse. Its wings were connected to its body all the way down its torso, and there was no mane for him to hold onto. He gripped a shoulder in each hand, and arranged himself across the cumom's back as best he could, his feet sticking out over its tail. When the cumom flapped its wings, however, he could feel its shoulder joints moving, and as it took off, it went up at such an angle that Kimnor lost his grip and slid right down to the ground again.
The cumom landed in front of him. Are you hurt?
"No," Kimnor said with a sigh. "I just can't ride you like a horse, that's all."
I am not a horse, the cumom said.
"I know," Kimnor said, and watched the cumom fold its wings. "I was hoping that if I could fly you, I could help rescue my father. But it's not going to work like that."
Unwilling to give up, he thought for a moment. "Is there some other way you can carry me? Can you hold me in your claws?"
He stretched his arms up and looked questioningly at the cumom. It launched itself into flight, swooped around, and caught Kimnor's wrists in its claws. As it yanked him off his feet and into the air, Kimnor shrieked with surprise, and the cumom said, Stop that. I cannot hear where I am going.
Kimnor shut his mouth and didn't dare ask what it meant, although it sounded too important to ignore. The tops of the trees were much too close to his feet, and the ground was dangerously far away. All too soon, his shoulders and wrists began to ache unbearably, and he finally had to whisper, "Can you put me down now?"
He worried that even his quiet request would cause the cumom to crash, but though it didn't, the landing was still somewhat rough. Kimnor's momentum forced him to take several steps once he touched the ground, but his deformed foot couldn't keep up with the speed demanded of it, and he tripped, landing on his face. "Umph!"
After landing nearby and hobbling back, the cumom said, Even a cumom cannot learn to fly in a day, baby man.
"My name is Kimnor, not 'baby man'," Kimnor announced indignantly and sat up. "And I'm practically full-grown!"
I am named Strongclaw, the cumom said. And I am full-grown.
"You have a name?" Kimnor asked, surprised. "Do you have a family, too? Brothers or sisters?"
One mother. One father. One sister. No mate. No children.
"I've got more brothers than I've got fingers on my hands," Kimnor mused. "They've gone to help rescue my father, everybody except me. They didn't think I could keep up, because of my foot, but I could help them in other ways!"
After folding his wings and using his wingtip claws to help him balance, Strongclaw asked, Where is your father?
Kimnor explained about Noah and King Shule, and finished his story by exclaiming, "If I could just figure out some way for me to fly you, then I could be really useful!"
He stared at Strongclaw, who looked awkward in his upright position, and wondered if the cumom wouldn't be more comfortable hanging upside down from a tree branch. Thinking of branches, and things that hung from them, reminded Kimnor of the rope swing near the palace, and suddenly, Kimnor knew how Strongclaw could carry him.
"A swing!" he exclaimed. "All we need is a rope, a branch or something to tie it to, and a board for me to sit on! Then you can grab the branch, and I can hang onto the rope! Come on, let's go get it, and then if we hurry, we can catch up with my brothers!"
They found Kimnor's brothers just outside the city of Moron. Kimnor had made a new swing, instead of disappointing his younger sisters by cutting down the old one, and he and Strongclaw had tried a practice flight before setting out. Although the swing worked well, Kimnor was already thinking of improvements. Except for the addition of an extra rope harness under his arms and around his chest, however, he hadn't taken time to implement any of them.
While flying Kimnor most of the way, Strongclaw had also insisted on landing every so often and assuming his four-legged form to sniff around. Kimnor had been amazed to learn that Strongclaw could distinguish by smell all the other humans on the road.
Brothers smell like you, Strongclaw had explained, and led Kimnor directly to their camp. The not-quite-full moon was rising, and Kimnor could see them sitting around the fire. When they got closer, he could even hear their voices as they discussed various rescue strategies. Then the horses caught a whiff of cumom and whinnied in alarm, and the men heard the flapping of Strongclaw's wings. Leaping to their feet, they drew their swords or drew their bows in defense.
"It's me!" Kimnor shouted, putting his feet down and skidding to a stop. He reached up to catch the thick branch that held the swing, and Strongclaw let go. "It's me, it's Kimnor!"
"Kimnor!" His oldest brother, Kib, stared first at him and then at Strongclaw as the cumom landed behind Kimnor. "What? Is? That?"
"This is Strongclaw, he's a cumom, he's come to help us rescue Father! Don't hurt him!" Kimnor extended his arms protectively. "He's a friend!"
"A giant bat?" Kib grunted.
"No, he's a cumom, look! Strongclaw, change!"
Strongclaw folded his wings, then disappeared into a column of black fog, emerging in his four-legged form. The men gasped, and Kimnor grinned proudly. "That's not all he can do! He can talk to me in my mind, and he can heal wounds just by licking them!"
"What?" Kib gaped at him.
"If I could just sit down by the fire, I'll explain everything," Kimnor said. "Flying is cold!"
The men moved to make room. Kimnor urged Strongclaw to come sit next to him, and the men made even more room, until they were all crowded on the opposite side of the fire. Most of them had lowered their weapons, but none had put them away completely. By the time Kimnor had finished explaining, the men had forgotten all about their swords, and simply gaped.
"It drinks your blood?" Kib was horrified.
"Not very much," Kimnor defended him, and when Kib repeated his sentence again, he added, "My blood has something in it that he needs to change! And when he's changed, he can fly me – he's carried me all the way here. And like I said before, he can heal wounds with his tongue!"
"Show me," demanded Shared, one of the other brothers. He came over to Kimnor's side of the fire, then sliced the blade of his sword across the back of his own arm and held it out. "Can he heal that?"
"Can you, Strongclaw?" Kimnor asked. Without replying, Strongclaw assumed his winged form and extended his tongue, licking the shallow cut three times. Shared probed the skin where the wound had been, then exclaimed, "Not even a scar!"
He showed it around, and the men jostled for the chance to take a closer look, muttering in astonishment.
"This is wrong," Kib stated as Strongclaw changed back. "Drinking blood is wrong. Changing like that is wrong. I say so, and when we get Father back – without the help of this thing – Father'll say so, too."
"How can it be wrong if it helps us?" Kimnor pleaded. "And how do we know we can rescue Father without Strongclaw's help?"
"The Lord will provide a way," Kib said, folding his arms across his chest and glaring at Kimnor.
Kimnor folded his arms in the same way and stared back. "But He has! He sent us Strongclaw! Strongclaw, tell him what you told me, that the Creator sent you, and that the Creator gave you the gift of being able to talk to us!"
I can talk to you, Strongclaw said. I drank your blood. I can drink his blood. Then I can speak to him.
After a moment, Shared asked, "Did he say anything?"
"He said he can talk to you if he drinks some of your blood," Kimnor repeated.
"He got some of my blood on his tongue when he was licking me," Shared said. "Why can't I hear him?"
It was not a proper drink, Strongclaw explained, and when Kimnor relayed his words, Shared looked disappointed.
"I am not letting that thing anywhere near my blood!" Kib announced. "This is not the answer to our prayers."
"Yes, it is," Kimnor insisted. They glared at each other until Shared sighed and said, "Why don't we let Kimnor come along with it anyway, then see what Father says after we've rescued him?"
Eventually, Kib gave in, but only, as he pointed out, because they didn't have much time left. Once he'd accepted that Strongclaw was going to be part of the rescue team whether he liked it or not, he even suggested that Strongclaw fly Kimnor up onto the city wall with a rope for the rest of the men to climb up. The only guards were at the main gate, and the brothers chose a stretch of the wall where the moon shadow of the temple would conceal their activities. Then Strongclaw lifted Kimnor up and lowered him onto the walkway that ran around the inside of the wall. Once Kimnor was sure of his footing, he slipped off the wooden seat and uncoiled the rope from around his middle. The uppermost part of the wall was made of wooden posts, with gaps between them at regular intervals, where guards could stand and shoot arrows at any attackers. After tying the rope to two of those posts, Kimnor tossed it over the side, not surprised to see Kib grab it first.
"This city is huge!" Kimnor whispered when Kib had joined him on the walkway. "Where would they keep Father?"
"Probably in the palace," Kib said, indicating a building that looked exactly like their own residence at home.
Kimnor turned to the cumom. "Strongclaw, can you find my father there?"
I will smell, Strongclaw said. He assumed his four-legged form, jumped from the walkway, and ran off. When he returned, he said, He is there.
"Did you hear that?" Kimnor asked, excited. "He said Father's there!"
Kib gave him a disgusted look and strode away. Coming closer, Shared asked, "Can he tell where?"
When all the brothers were inside the city, Strongclaw led them to an outside wall of the palace. If it had been their own residence, Kimnor thought, the room would have been the library with its annex. There was even a shuttered window in exactly the same position.
The scent is strongest here, Strongclaw reported. Kimnor told the others, then added, "I'll open it from the inside!"
Just as at home, there was an interior courtyard right outside the room, where Strongclaw set him down, and when he'd opened the window shutters, Kimnor could see that this room was also used as a library. The door to the annex had been boarded up, and Kimnor had a feeling he knew why. His brothers were still climbing in, one at a time, when light filled the room and a group of men appeared at the doorway, holding torches and swords
"As loud as a herd of unhappy donkeys," said the first man.
"Noah," Kib growled, and pushed Kimnor behind him. Staggering to catch his balance, Kimnor gritted his teeth, knowing that Kib was right to protect him, but still hating it. He had weapons, but his bow was slung across his back, and there wasn't room to use his slingshot. Watching them, Noah sneered. "So desperate to get your father back that you had to bring your crippled brother, too?"
The insult stung, and Kimnor was grateful when Shared stepped up next to him and said, "He's got his uses."
Noah shrugged. "I'd still hate to have to kill him. Be like slaughtering a defenceless woman or child."
"I'm not defenceless!" Kimnor exclaimed, looking beyond Noah to catch a glimpse of Strongclaw, but the men blocked his view of the courtyard.
"Wouldn't be any honour in it," Noah continued. "So … I'll offer you a duel, Kib. Our best fighter against yours, to the death. I win, we let the cripple go and kill the rest of you. You win—" he sounded distinctly doubtful—"we let you all go, even Shule."
"Right," said Kib without hesitating. He and Noah shook hands, then stepped back, and the men spread out into the courtyard to give them room. Again, Kimnor searched for Strongclaw and finally spotted a familiar dark shape behind one of the pillars. Relieved, he turned his attention back to the fight, willing Kib to win. Kib was younger and stronger, but Noah had more experience, and managed to wound his thigh. With rage fueled by pain, Kib threw Noah to the ground with such force that he skidded into Strongclaw. The cumom spread his wings to keep his balance, Noah screeched in fear, and Kib took advantage of the moment to ram his sword into the older man's heart.
"What is that?" one of Noah's men gasped, and they all moved towards Strongclaw with their swords.
"Stay back!" Kib said. He'd been leaning on his sword, now he pulled it out of the body and brandished it. Noah's men hesitated, and Kib went on, "That thing's with us."
Shared pointed his own sword at the man who'd spoken. "Where is King Shule?"
The young man gulped, still staring at Strongclaw, then said, "There," and led Shared and a few of the other brothers back to the library. Another brother went to Kib's side to check his wound. Kimnor remained behind, in case Noah's men thought about attacking the cumom, but they kept their distance, watching Strongclaw warily and not even daring to carry Noah's body away. From the library, Kimnor could clearly hear the sound of grunting, then wood splintering, and a cry of triumph. When his brothers returned, Shared had a limp form draped over his shoulder.
"Father?" Kimnor asked. "Is he dead?"
"He's alive," Shared said, laying him down carefully. "But he's been flogged."
Kimnor glanced worriedly at the bloody mess that had once been his father's back, then said. "Strongclaw can heal him, right, Strongclaw?"
"Don't let that thing touch him!" Kib cried. He took a step in Strongclaw's direction, but his leg buckled and he went down on one knee with a strangled cry. The brother that was helping him pulled off his own tunic and placed it over the sword cut, holding it in place.
Kimnor ignored Kib's outburst and urged Strongclaw on. Waddling over to where King Shule lay, the cumom extended his long tongue and licked the wounds methodically from shoulders to waist. The blood disappeared, the flesh became smooth again, and at long last, their father's back was as perfect as though it had never been injured. Noah's men gaped in amazement, Strongclaw sank back, and King Shule opened his eyes.
"Kimnor? Shared?" he asked. "What—?"
"We came to rescue you!" Kimnor announced. King Shule sat up and looked around quizzically, then caught sight of Strongclaw.
"This is Strongclaw," Kimnor said. "He's a cumom – he healed you!"
"Cumom?" King Shule asked.
"They drink your blood!" Kib exclaimed. "It's wrong, it's all wrong, Father! Something like that can't be right! Shared, get Father out of here."
"Strongclaw can fly him back. It'll be easier," Kimnor said, and Shared agreed. Kimnor glanced around, found the rope swing where he'd left it, and picked it up. "Father, you can sit on this, and Strongclaw will carry you."
"I feel so weak," King Shule admitted. "I can't hang on. Could he carry us both?"
Kimnor listened to Strongclaw's answer and said, "He can, but just a short distance."
"Please?" King Shule asked, including Strongclaw in his request, and the cumom agreed.
Kimnor sat down on the swing and awkwardly held his father in his lap. Just before Strongclaw lifted them up, Kimnor glanced over to where Kib had sunk to a sitting position, and offered, "We can carry you back, too."
But Kib merely grimaced and looked away.
During the entire flight to the camp, Kimnor could fcel his father trembling, and didn't know whether it was weakness, cold, or fear. They tumbled to a landing, and his father remained where he was. After finding a blanket for him to wrap up in, Kimnor built up the fire, then helped him to move closer to the flames. When his stomach growled, it occurred to him that his father might also be hungry, and he checked the packs until he'd found food and drink.
Shared's horse gallopped into camp soon after, with Shared holding Kib's limp body in front of him.
"He's fainted," Shared explained as he dismounted and pulled Kib off. "He's losing a lot of blood. I've got some medical supplies in my pack …"
Kimnor brought the pack that Shared indicated. "Strongclaw can heal him."
Shared hesitated. "You know what Kib thinks about ... him."
Glancing at his father, Kimnor saw that King Shule had fallen asleep, and he had to make the decision on his own. "If it's a bad wound, he needs all the help he can get, and he can take it up with me later, when he's healed. Strongclaw?"
I need more man blood. Then I can heal more, the cumom replied.
"I'll lay down," Kimnor said. "Make it easier for you."
When he'd settled down next to Kib and was watching Strongclaw change to his four-legged form, he suddenly remembered the first time the cumom had drunk from him, and clenched his fists in silent apprehension of the pain to come. But when the cumom sank his teeth into Kimnor's neck, it was nothing worse than pricking his finger on a thorn, and Kimnor was so relieved that he almost laughed aloud. He must have made a sound, because Shared asked quietly, "Does that hurt?"
"No!" he scoffed.
I thank you for the blood. Strongclaw sat back and assumed his winged form, and Kimnor shot upright in his eagerness to prove that everything was fine. Dizziness and darkness threatened to overwhelm him, however, and he fell back. When his vision cleared and his head stopped spinning, Kimnor rolled carefully onto his side to watch the healing. It seemed to Kimnor that the process took longer than it had for King Shule's back, but at last the wound disappeared completely and Strongclaw moved away.
Kib opened his eyes, sat up and inspected his thigh, then shot Kimnor a look of disappointed betrayal.
"You can hit me if you want," Kimnor said. "I only wanted to help you."
Kib got to his feet and tested his leg, his frown growing deeper all the while. At last he turned to Shared and said, "If I change into one of those things, I want you to kill me."
"Who better to stab you in the back than your own brother?" Shared joked, but Kib nodded as though he'd said something serious, then stalked away into the darkness.
"He won't turn into a cumom, will he, Strongclaw?" Kimnor asked, running his hand down the cumom's furry back.
Cumoms change, Strongclaw replied. Man remains man.
Kimnor told Shared what Strongclaw had said, then added, "Why would Kib think such a thing?"
"Kib doesn't want anybody to know, but he's always been a bit strange," Shared said, pausing dramatically, then added, "Especially when it comes to seeing his own blood, though he doesn't care when it's someone else's. Mind you, though, it could have something to do with those wings growing out of your back."
Kimnor glanced over his shoulder in panic, then joined in Shared's laughter at his own gullibility.