I WAS IN A TEMPER fit to blow the lid off a kettle of boiling water. And who wouldn’t be? Since sunup, I’d been doing chores. I’d milked the cow, hauled two buckets of water from the well, fed the chickens, and then fought the hens for their eggs. Now I was down on my knees, sweat-soaked and bug-bitten, yanking weeds from the vegetable patch. My hands were caked with mud, and my nose was burned as red as a strawberry. Midges hummed around my face and bit my ears.
Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I yanked a thistle out by its roots, only to see two more hiding in the beans. I scowled at my baby brother, Thomas, who lay nearby on the grass.
“You,” I muttered. “If it weren’t for you, I’d be down the lane, skipping rope with the village girls. But, oh no, I must watch you and do chores as if I were a servant. You’ve ruined my life, that’s what you’ve done. It’s a wicked thing to say, but sometimes I wish you’d never been born!”
Thomas smiled at me and cooed as if I’d praised him. Ashamed, I clapped my hand over my mouth and hoped Mam hadn’t heard me, but she was in the cottage, singing at her loom, weaving soft blankets to keep Thomas warm when winter came.
I watched Thomas playing with his toes and chuckling to himself. Truth to tell, he was a sweet baby. I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t. He never fussed, never cried, he ate what he was fed, and slept the whole night through.
And he was beautiful, even though no one said so. When visitors came, they leaned over the cradle and frowned and scowled and shook their heads.
“’Tis a pity he’s so ugly and puny,” they’d say.
“Oh yes, he’s a sickly one. He’ll not live past his first year.”
“And such a nasty temper he’s got.”
“No good will come of him.”
“If I caught a fish half as ugly as that poor babby, I’d throw it back.”
It was as if each visitor tried to come up with a worse insult than the one before.
And all the while, Mam and Dadoe and I smiled and nodded in agreement, for all of us, even the youngest, knew it was bad luck to compliment a baby. Since the day my brother was born, I’d been warned not to speak of his pretty curls or his blue eyes or his dimples. I mustn’t boast of his sweet nature or praise him in any way.
It was the Kinde Folke we feared. Although no one in our village had seen them for many a year, they could be far away or just outside the cottage door. They were sly and full of tricks, and no matter what we called them, they were far from kind, though no one ever dared say that aloud either. If we spoke of them at all, it was to say they were wise, they were beautiful, they were brave and noble and honest in their dealings.
When in truth, if we offended them, they burned our barns and cottages, stole our livestock, sent plagues to sicken us, cursed our fields with thistles, lamed our horses, and dried up our cows’ milk.
Worst of all, if the Kinde Folke learned of a beautiful baby boy’s birth, they’d steal him away and leave one of their own sickly creatures in his place. And what misery the changeling would bring to its new mother. As if it weren’t bad enough that her own sweet baby was gone, changelings screamed and cried and bit and pinched and broke things. She’d have no rest, that poor mother, no joy.
And so we did our best to keep Thomas safe. I watched him while Mam did her housework, and she and Dadoe watched him at night. We never even whispered sweet things to him for fear the Kinde Folke would come for him.
Their spies were everywhere. Long-eared rabbits listened in the hedges, and sharp-eyed crows watched from chimney tops. Toads in ponds, fish in streams, foxes slinking by, any and all might carry messages to the Kinde Folke.
I stabbed my trowel into the dirt and dug out a stubborn thistle. I shouldn’t have spoken so crossly to Thomas. He was too young to understand my words, but he must have heard the anger in my voice.
A crow cawed, and I looked up to see him perched in a tree over my head. He ruffled his black wings and stared down at me. His dark eye reflected a sliver of light. Keeping watch on me, he cawed again. It sounded as if he were laughing at me.
Suddenly anxious, I glanced at Thomas. He’d just learned to sit up, and he was looking at me to make sure I’d noticed. The small chain he always wore around his neck lay in the grass. Its silver locket sparkled in the sunlight.
Dropping the trowel, I ran to fetch the locket. “Old Granny Hedgepath gave you this, Thomas. You’re not to take it off. You’d best do what that old witch says, or she’ll eat you for dinner.”
Thomas laughed and clapped his hands. What did he know of witches and their ways?
I tried to slip the necklace over his head, but he grabbed the chain and held it out for me to take. Giving things to people was his new game. Most people, including me, gave them back, but Matthew down the lane had run home with the wooden cow Dadoe had carved for Thomas. I’d gone to his house and asked him for it.
“Babby give it me,” Matthew wailed. Luckily for Thomas, but not for Matthew, his mam snatched the toy cow, handed it to me, and gave Matthew a smack.
I took the chain from Thomas and smiled. Without thinking, I said, “Oh, Thomas, you’re so sweet. How could I ever be vexed with you? You’re the best baby in the world. And the prettiest.”
When I tried again to slip the chain over his head, he ducked away laughing.
I held the necklace out, but instead of continuing the struggle, I sat in the grass and admired the necklace. The silver chain was finely made, and the heart-shaped locket was decorated all over with a cunning pattern of vines and flowers. I sighed. It was much too pretty to waste on a boy.
In truth, I’d wanted the locket from the day Granny Hedgepath fastened the chain around my brother’s neck. “Make sure Thomas wears this always,” she’d told Mam. “Never remove it. He must eat and sleep with it around his neck. Even when you bathe him, make sure the locket stays fastened. It will protect him from mischief.”
Placing her bony hand on Thomas’s head, Granny added, “May the Kinde Folke of the forest find joy elsewhere and ignore this poor ugly baby.”
I was watching Granny from my shadowy corner, neither mov...