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 visible part of the woman’s body were her hands, which were wrapped around a tiny bundle she had cradled against her chest.
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 shadow.
The woman tiptoed to a cluster of flat boulders spread out in the center of the meadow. Her gaze slid across the edges of the clearing before she laid down the bundle on top of one of the stones.
A tiny coo sounded from the blanket.
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 the hood from her head, tilted her head up toward the bright night sky, and shouted, “I call your con.” She looked back down at the crying baby at her feet. “Now fetch mine back,” she said, her voice low and threatening, “or befall faes’ curse.”
She gave the baby a solid kick, which shocked the infant into a momentary silence, then marched out of the meadow. She disappeared into the tree line headed in the direction she’d come.
The baby caught its breath and resumed wailing. The blanket around it fell free as the child pathetically writhed upon the rock, now bare to the air’s nocturnal chill. Its crying continued until the moon slipped passed its nightly summit, only then quieting to 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 as it gazed back. It let out another soft coo before its body began to vibrate.
The creature took a timid step backward as the baby’s features began to morph. Short, chubby arms and legs stretched into long, scrawny ones. Its round cheeks deflated and pulled back tightly across a sharp terrain of bone and cartilage. Soon, another creature, similar to the other in stature and appearance, 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, the one that had been the baby, snarled in answer. He shoved the other creature away, stomped to the edge of the rock, and jumped down onto the grass.
The first creature, Shnives, followed, hopping off the boulder and landing next to Fornk.
Fornk growled before he began stomping across the meadow toward the tree line. “The mortal called con. There’s nothing we cans do now.”
“Whats gaves ya away this time? Huh, Fornk? Huh?” Shnives asked, trailing behind Fornk.
“My’s 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-the wee one that is,” Shnives said. “Besides, I likes hims loads better than I likes ya already anyhows.”
With a grunt, Fornk spun on the other creature. “You knows we can’ts do thats, Shnives,” he said, poking him in the chest. “She called con. Remembers? Now we must fetches her back the wee one or we faces the faes’ curse.”
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. If we don’ts follows the law we turns mortals. Nobodies wants that. We must returns the wee one to the mother.”
Shnives followed, kicking at the ground as he went. “Whats does we do-es after thats, Fornk?”
“We snatches us another wee one,” Fornk answered, his tone low and sad. 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 ares changelings. That’s whats we do-es.”