This time it was me, who took the little children. Six of the peat turfers’ daughters, and four of their boys.
They always thought I would do this.
“Child thief!” they called me, fingers pointed. “Witch!”
I was still a young lad myself when they drove me out here, to the edge of the wetlands. I’ve lived in this clay hut for the past thirty years. It’s damp and cold, but now I have these little ones to warm my heart.
A little one had died back then, thirty years back, and the people of the Marshlands decided that it was my fault. When I looked at my own reflection, I knew that my skin was green, even in those muddy waters. That the blisters on my face oozed, that my left eye drooped and that I was hideous.
“You are a monster!” they said. I knew that that was not true.
They took out their pitchforks. One of their burning torches got so close. It ate away at my skin until it no longer hurt. I can see its bite when I look into the water.
I came to this clay hut, then. It’s right next to the castle. The people wanted me dead, but the earl would not stand for it.
“He is not your child thief,” the good earl said to the crowd. “This man’s only crime is ugliness. Go find your monster. I promise you that he is still at large.”
He gave me this space then, and his protection. Came to see me a few times, when even the lowliest turf worker would not. He wanted my help, because he had a bad leg, and my mother used to make him a balm to relieve his pain. I did not know anything about medicine, but he never seemed to mind.
He is dead now, that earl. His son and heir too, I believe. The castle is quiet.
My former co-workers are dead as well. The fields of turf are abandoned. Shovels still in the wet ground. A body here, a body there. Ooze drips out of their likeness now, too. Terrified looks on their petrified faces. Blood from coughing, splattered all over their shirts.
But the little children are safe. The ten that I have. I survived the plague once, in infancy, and now I am immune. They will not catch sickness in my little clay hut.