The pale moon’s light barely penetrated the forest’s thick canopy as a woman darted between the trees. Her feet pounded the trail as she sprinted, giving percussion to the woodland’s nighttime whispers. Garbed in cape and cowl, the only part of the woman’s body visible were her hands, which were wrapped around a tiny bundle she had cradled against her breasts.
Her footfalls came to an abrupt stop as she approached a rim of trees surrounding a meadow. There, she stood for a moment, surveying the clearing. The moonlight shined brightly here, its rays exaggerating the variances between light and shadows.
The woman tiptoed to a cluster of flat boulders that lounged in the center of the meadow. She ran a gaze across the edges of the clearing before she laid down the bundle.
A tiny coo sounded from the blanket as it stirred.
The woman jabbed a toe against the side of the bundle and an infant’s cry filled the air.
With a hard yank, the woman removed her cowl. Then, she shouted, “I call your con.” Her eyes settled on the crying baby at her feet. “Now fetch him back,” she said, her voice low and threatening.
She gave the baby a solid kick before she marched out of the meadow and disappeared into the tree line headed in the direction she’d come.
The baby’s crying ceased for a long moment, shocked by the pain of the woman’s kick, before it resumed wailing. The blanket around it fell free as the child pathetically writhed upon the rock, bare to the air’s nocturnal chill. Its crying continued until the moon slipped passed its nightly summit, quieting then into a soft snivel.
On the other side of the meadow, the undergrowth shook and a badger-sized creature slunk from the foliage. It lifted a pointed nose and sniffed the air before silently creeping across the grass toward the child. The shadows of the boulders hid the creature until it stood upright to study the squalling baby.
Fur covered the creature’s bent back and haunches while its head, limbs, and protruding belly were hairless. Its face was man-like but for its overly pointed features and the sharp angles that toiled over its surface.
A short but cautious climb brought the creature up even with the babe. Its thin lips pulled back from a set of serrated teeth and a low growl rumbled through its chest as it gazed down at the child’s tender flesh. With one of its jagged claws, it snagged the blanket and brought it to its nose for a smell. Then, it turned its eyes back on the baby.
The baby let out a gentle sigh and a hiccup before its body began to vibrate. The creature took a timid step backward as the baby’s features morphed. Chubby arms and legs stretched into scrawny ones. Meanwhile the child’s rounded cheeks pulled back tightly across a sharp terrain of bone and cartilage. Soon, another creature, similar to the first, stood where the baby once lay.
The first creature squinted at the second. “Say, Fornk,” it said, its words dripping each syllable as if they were wrapped in mucus, “Ya back so soon?”
“Leaves me alone, Shnives,” Fornk snarled in answer. He shoved the other creature out of the way, stomped to the edge of the rock, and hopped off.
The first creature, Shnives, jumped off the rock and landed beside Fornk.
Fornk growled at Shnives before he started marching across the meadow toward the tree line. “The mortal called con.”
“Whats gaves ya away this time? Huh, Fornk? Huh?” Shnives asked, trailing behind Fornk.
“She saws my eyes.” Fornk glanced up at the moon. Its light flashed a yellow glow against his retinas. “It’s always the eyes.”
“Let’s keeps hims though anyway,” Shnives said. “Besides, I likes hims better than ya already anyhows.”
With a grunt, Fornk spun on the other creature. “You knows we can’t do thats, Shnives,” he said, poking him in the chest. “She called con. Remembers? Now we must fetches hers back the wee one.”
Shnives’ head drooped. “But I loves hims.”
“And I loved hers—the mother,” Fornk said, his shoulders slumping. “Almost hads me somes forever kin at last.” He wiped a long-fingered hand down his face before turning back around and continuing toward the woods. “But it’s law. We must returns the wee one.”
Shnives followed, kicking at the ground as he went. “Whats does we does after thats, Fornk?”
“We snatches us another wee one,” Fornk answered. He stepped from the meadow and under the comfortable cover of the ancient forest, Shnives close behind him.
“And if thats one calls con?”
“We snatches us another. You knows this Shnives. We’re changelings. It’s whats we does.”