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Authors: Franny Billingsley

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The Folk Keeper

BOOK: The Folk Keeper
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She is never cold, she always knows exactly what time it is, and her hair grows two inches while she sleeps. Fifteen-year-old Corinna Stonewall--the only Folk Keeper in the city of Rhysbridge — sits hour after hour with the Folk in the dark, chilly cellar, "drawing off their anger as a lightning rod draws off lightning." The Folk are the fierce, wet-mouthed, cave-dwelling gremlins who sour milk, rot cabbage, and make farm animals sick. Still, they are no match for the steely, hard-hearted, vengeful orphan Corinna who prides herself in her job of feeding, distracting, and otherwise pacifying these furious, ravenous creatures. The Folk Keeper has power and independence, and that's the way she likes it.
Franny Billingsley
The Folk Keeper
To my daughter Miranda, who found me the book that got me into the caves, and to my editor Jean Karl, who showed me the way back out.
Many thanks to all my readers, whose generous criticism helped me make this the best book I possibly could.
To the members of my wonderful writing group, who read an excruciating number of drafts: Esther Hershenhorn, Phyllis Mandler, Harriette Gillem Robinet, Myra Sanderman, and Linda Schwab.
Also to Julie Billingsley, Pat Billingsley, Ruth Billingsley, Toni Buzzeo, Julia Halpern, Suzanne Lewis, Dian Curtis Regan, and Natalie S. Wainwright. Belated thanks to Natalie for the gift of the title
Well Wished.
to the
Feast of Saint Lancet
February 2 — Candlemas
It is a day of yellow fog, and the Folk are hungry. They ate the lamb I brought them, picking the bones clean and leaving them outside the Folk Door.
The lamb was meant for Matron’s Sunday supper. She’ll know I took it, but she will not dare say anything. She can keep her tapestries and silks and Sunday dinners. Here in the Cellar, I control the Folk. Here, I’m queen of the world.


February 4 — Feast of Saint Lancet
I won’t go, not upstairs, not yet.
A Great Lady has sent for me, says Matron, but what do I care for that? No one will fetch me from the Cellar. They’re all too afraid of the Folk.
So I delight in slowly turning the crisp pages of my new Folk Record. I delight in very slowly recording the activities of the Folk. I will keep the Great Lady waiting as long as I please. The Folk have consumed:
One bucket of milk, with plenty of cream
One barrel of salt pork.
They’ve worked no mischief for months. The hens go on peacefully laying, the tomatoes happily growing. I wager I’m the only Folk Keeper in the city of Rhysbridge — in all of the Mainland, for that matter — who sits with the Folk for hour upon hour in the dark, drawing off their anger as a lightning rod draws off lightning. I am like the lightning, too; I am never injured. I know how to protect myself.
With every word, I keep the Great Lady waiting. Now she’ll never want to take me from my Cellar. This is where I belong, me, Corinna Stonewall, on the chilly floor, keeping my Record by flickering candlelight. This is my only home — these stone walls, the Folk Door, the Folk in the Caverns beyond.
The Great Lady is now pacing the floor perhaps, asking Matron,
Where is Corin, Corin Stonewall?
Corin, indeed! They don’t know my secrets.


February 5
It’s not a feast day, and the Folk have made no mischief, but yet I write. My astonishment spills into this Record as I wait for the Great Lady to call me. It will soon be time to go.
I shall miss this Cellar, my very own Cellar. I press my hand to the stone, loving the way moisture oozes to the surface. The Folk devoured the eggs and dried fish I left for them last night, and my last act for the Folk of the Rhysbridge Foundling Home will be to steal Matron’s breakfast sausage.
It feels odd to write of myself, not of the Folk. Odd to take the pages of this Record above ground, to yesterday, when I slipped out the Cellar door and Matron grasped my collar. “You’ve kept us waiting!” She would have shaken me, but she was too afraid. I make sure of that.
The landing was dark; Matron’s black silks seem always to absorb the light. She pointed to my Folk Bag, but did not quite touch it. “You don’t need that!”
I stared at her. A Folk Keeper may carry his Bag wherever he pleases. She dropped her eyes at last. “Come along!”
There is power in silence, I have always known that.
I stumbled up the curling stone steps, into the smell of Matron’s cheap tallow candles. Does she never notice her drawing room smells faintly of sheep?
“Make your bow to the Lady Alicia.” Matron tapped the small of my back.
At first all I saw was smoky yellow light and blue velvet and topaz; then the Lady herself came clear. I don’t care for beauty, not in the ordinary way, but she was something quite out of the ordinary. Rich chestnut hair, snapping black eyes, a creamy neck rising from a circlet of golden jewels. I was tempted to reach out to see if they would burn, but that would have been childish. I am never childish.
“Your bow!” cried Matron.
“We won’t insist on the bow.” Lady Alicia gazed at me as though I might be just as interesting to her. “They say you’re fifteen, but you can’t be more than eleven, can you, child?”
“I am small for my age,” I said. “And weak. Moreover, I am clumsy and have a bad disposition.”
“Quiet!” said Matron in a dreadful voice. “I can’t help it, My Lady, if he doesn’t eat. I’ll have you know our foundlings take three good meals.”
Matron neglected to mention that not all the meals are taken on the same day, but I didn’t care about that. “I don’t need to eat.”
“An economical addition to our household,” said a third voice, and a man stepped from the curtained recess of the window. He was perhaps as old as forty, with an ivory angel face and glossy black curls. The rest of him was black and white, too, all satin and lace. Rather a dandy, which I despise, but at least Matron must know how tawdry she looked beside him.
“Even supposing he’s the right age,” said the man, “there’s another, bigger problem. We came expecting to find a girl.”
“My husband instructed Sir Edward and me to fetch a Corinna Stonewall,” said Lady Alicia. “
sound alike but turn out to be quite different things.”
What a dreadful sinking feeling came over me then. After four years of passing as Corin, I thought I’d never be caught. No one ever suspects a Folk Keeper could be a girl.
“We have only a Corin,” said Matron. “You wouldn’t want him, lazy good-for-nothing. He lets the Folk spoil the milk and rot the cabbage.”
“I do not!” I snapped my lips shut. Matron didn’t want me to leave; I was the best Folk Keeper she’d ever had. But I didn’t want to leave, either. I remembered too well the endless carrying of water buckets and scrubbing of floors and humiliations of Corinna before I burned my skirts and turned into a boy, and a Folk Keeper.
Lady Alicia put out her hand. “Won’t you come see my husband? Only he can say if you’re the child he’s seeking. We’ve come all the way from Cliffsend, and he’s very ill.”
“What is that to me?” But I couldn’t help thinking of the stories of Cliffsend, the largest of the Northern Isles, running with miles of underground caverns. The Folk there are said to be fierce and wild, drawing great strength from the stone all around. The Isles have more than their share of the Otherfolk — Boglemen and Sealfolk and Hill Hounds — as well as the Folk themselves, which are to be found everywhere.
“You’ll get nothing but trouble from the lad,” said Matron.
“I’ll see your husband,” I said to Lady Alicia, although I’d make sure I wasn’t the child he wanted. Matron would learn she couldn’t lie about me. But I never spoke my anger; no, you must never give your anger away.
Lady Alicia’s carriage was crimson with a gold coat of arms on the door. Everything belonged to her, I gathered. Sir Edward, for all his fine clothes, was but His Lordship’s cousin, related to the Lady by marriage. I slid about on the hard seats as the carriage rattled first through the familiar press of houses, each rubbing shoulders with its neighbors, into an unfamiliar world of grander homes and fewer shops. We drew up before an inn, entered through a red and silver parlor. A soft carpet wound up the stairs, and we wound up along with it.
“Hartley!” called Lady Alicia softly as we entered a dim room. She drew aside the velvet hangings of a massive bed. “We found a Corin for you, Hartley. There was no Corinna.”
Lady Alicia was married to that old man! So old, and so disagreeable to look at, too, with a sharp watchful face and lips the color of bruises. The Lady drew me into the bitter smell of herbal plasters and bade me stand very close. Lord Merton’s pale eyes hung on my face. It took him only a moment.
“Got you! And not a minute too soon.”
“But he’s not a girl!” said Lady Alicia.
“I’d recognize that face anywhere,” said His Lordship. “I was misinformed about his sex, but girl or boy, this is the face I want. Leave us alone together.”
Got you!
I kept thinking as the door clicked shut.
Got you!
That had given me a nasty shock, but nothing like so nasty as when his arm shot out and his fingers circled my wrist. “Corinna!”
“It’s Corin!” I said, pulling back. “Corin Stonewall.”
But his grip was like death. Perhaps it was death, starting in his marble hands, working inward from bluetipped fingers, leaving a pattering of bruises as it went.
“Now that I’ve got you,” he said, “I will keep you! You shall come with us to Cliffsend.”
“I won’t! I’ll never leave my Folk.” I refuse to become a curiosity in some grand Manor. I know the gentry collect Folk Keepers and show them off, like jeweled snuffboxes. But a mere showpiece has no power, and without power — well, even in rocky Cliffsend, there’s still scrubbing to be done; and daily doses of humiliation are to be found everywhere.
“I always get my own way,” he said.
“So do I!”
I don’t know if I glared at him, but he certainly glared at me. Twenty long seconds passed, and as though he could read my mind, he said, “I know you well enough to know you’re counting out the time. Tell me the hour, Corinna, what’s the time?”
“I’m Corin, I tell you!” I jerked back, but those hideous fingers held tight. “You said yourself you were misinformed. Are you blind? There’s no Corinna here!”
“Blind, no,” he said, “but the darkness is coming for me fast. I did you the favor of playing your game with you. Now you do me the favor of telling me the time. You always know the time, Corinna.”
How can he know that? That is one of my secrets.
“Corinna, the time!”
I looked into myself, into that inexplicable built-in clock that ticks off the seconds running through my blood. “Sixteen minutes past four o’clock.”
“You shall come with us to Cliffsend.”
“I will bring you such trouble,” I said. “You wouldn’t want me there.”
“Oh, but I would,” he said. “All the trouble will belong to my good Lady and my cousin, for by then I’ll be dead and gone. Corinna, what’s the time?”
“Seventeen minutes past the hour.”
He turned my hand, then stared at my wrist. “Yes, the same skin. There can be no doubt.”
“The same skin as whose?” My skin is the most striking thing about me — since I cut my hair, that is, which now merely puffs out from my head like a silvery dandelion. My skin is very white, and if you were fanciful (which I am not), you might say it was translucent, a window of milk glass skimming a blue filigree of veins.
“I knew your parents. You resemble your mother remarkably. I remember how in a dim room those green eyes of hers turned silver, like mirrors.” The old man hesitated as though he might say something more, then swallowed his words back down, where I hope they poisoned him.
“What do you want of me?” I said.
“Your father was very ill,” said the old man. “Just before he died, he told me of your existence, of his shame that he placed you in a foundling home. He entreated me to rescue you, bring you up as a lady. How did you become a boy, Corinna, and a Folk Keeper?”
“I changed my name on the Foundling Certificate. It’s been four years now.”
But I said no more. He needn’t know I was sent to the Rhysbridge Home with a shipment of other orphans, including one boy who had apprenticed to become the Home’s new Folk Keeper. He needn’t know I took advantage of being unknown to them all to steal a pair of breeches, cut my hair, and turn myself into Corin. I will never tell anyone how I frightened the new Folk Keeper so dreadfully his very first night in the Cellar that he fled. I do not like to think of what I did — of how he screamed! — but I force myself to write it. I cannot let myself go soft.
BOOK: The Folk Keeper
13.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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