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Authors: Franny Billingsley

Tags: #child_prose

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BOOK: The Folk Keeper
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Finian wrapped my arms around my Folk Bag. “Everything you brought is safe here.”
“I still won’t sleep!”
I didn’t, either, although I could not quite stay awake. I was caught in a dim, cobwebbed place, my mind helpless against apprehension, fears breeding freely and multiplying.
I remember those days as a series of separate sketches. Finding myself lying on the dressing-room carpet for some reason, looking through the legs of the rosewood dressing stand. My memory is etched with an image of Cardomy Castle painted on the washing-up basin. And they had actually gilded the chamber pot!
Leaning against pillows, seeing my reflection in the mirror opposite. Broad, flat cheekbones, huge eyes set at a slant, a gray-yellow bruise on my temple, my hair grown a bit during unguarded fits of sleep.
Opening my eyes, thinking I’d been quite awake, but seeing that Finian had magically appeared. “Sleep, Corin. I’ll save you from an attack of the Mrs. Bains!”
Rummaging in my Folk Bag during one lucid moment. It was undisturbed. I still had the candles, the tinderbox, this Record and my bit of writing lead, all properly wrapped in oilcloth. Also the bits and crusts of bread and the smoked meat from that Mainland tavern. Out came the shears, off came the hair, back I went to dandelion fuzz. I dragged myself to the fireplace and tossed in the cuttings. There was a bright flare and sizzle, the acrid smell of burning hair, and I was safe once more.
Almost safe. Once I am in the Cellar, proving myself indispensable to the safety of Marblehaugh Park, they’ll never send me away. I will be safe then, absolutely safe.


February 14 — Feast of Saint Valentine
At last I am where I belong. It is still early morning, but I have already been on a long journey. It was raining when I awoke, and very dark. The grand staircase forked from itself at the landing and met itself in the great hall below. The sconces were unlit. I made my way down by a thin, watery starlight.
It should be easy for a Folk Keeper to sink to the Cellar, water finding its own level. But the Manor was tricky, sending me down corridors, round corners, with nothing but more corridors and corners ahead. There came finally the sound of someone laying a fire.
My feet followed my ears, past a half-dozen doorways breathing cold sighs on my shoulders, to a doorway through which hundreds of eyes shone from bodiless heads. There was a deer with branching antlers; a fox with bright, sad eyes; a fish longer than I, smiling grimly.
Guns and loud bangs,
Finian had said.
An amusement worthy of a lord.
Then another, most peculiar trophy. My eye glanced over a tall-backed chair to a mirror above the mantle. In the glass was reflected Sir Edward’s face. His lips opened. “Come in.”
The fire crackled; a glow slid round the chair and along the walls, illuminating other trophies. Here were the bodies without heads. Some I recognized — that shaggy skin was surely a bear! — but what could that enormous blue-black one have been? What about that silvery skin, the size of a small goat, or a large dog?
“That will do,” said Sir Edward, and the person lighting the fire shuffled round the chair and into sight.
Such a face I have never seen. One side of his mouth opened, stretched, smiled as mouths do, addressed me as Master Corin and said he was at my disposal. The other side was frozen, and the terrible paralysis didn’t stop there but ran up his face and into his eye, trapping it neither open nor shut. It must have been difficult to lay the fire, for his left arm hung limp at his side.
I knew him at once: the Folk Keeper before me. Old Francis.
He had not grown old, he had been made old.
“Breakfast is not laid until seven o’clock,” he added. The words fell from his stiff mouth like wooden blocks between us.
“I don’t eat,” I said, which is not quite what I meant, but close enough to the truth. “I’m looking for the way to the Cellar.”
“Old Francis will show you,” said Sir Edward, rising at last, his mirror image turning into flesh and blood as he, too, appeared around the chair. He clapped sharply. “Come, lads. Liquorice, Honeycomb, make your apologies to Master Corin.”
Two hounds slid past Sir Edward and sat at my feet, fawning in the contemptible way of dogs. Their heads rose past my waist; their eyes were yellow, their ears red.
“They won’t attack once they know you,” said Sir Edward. “Sniff him well, lads, take good note of our new Folk Keeper.”
I lifted my hands from the hounds’ warm breathing. I hid my fright, I think, hid how my heart leapt like a rabbit and staggered against the bony walls of my chest. “You didn’t tell me you keep Hill Hounds.”
“Finian likes to call them so,” said Sir Edward. “But he also likes to exaggerate. Their ancestors bred with our hounds, and this generation is rather less than more of the Otherfolk.”
But I wasn’t sure. I remembered the savage melancholy of their voices. I remembered they are subject to the power of The Last Word.
“They’re still wonderfully fierce,” said Sir Edward. “See here.” To my astonishment, he drew a pair of gloves from his pocket and flung them onto the carpet. “At it, lads!”
The hounds leapt upon them, savaging them silently. It seemed such a waste of good gloves, just as putting gold coins on Lord Merton’s dead eyes had also seemed a waste, when coppers would have done just as well.
A third hound came to stand by me, as though to replace the others. He was very old, with a grizzled muzzle and watery eyes. “Fall off, Taffy,” said Sir Edward. “You’ve no need to apologize.” The dog lay down, very stiff in the hindquarters.
“It is a feast day,” I said. “I cannot delay finding the Cellar.” It was already eleven minutes past six.
“Old Francis knows the way well enough,” said Sir Edward, which seemed rather cruel, but Old Francis merely bowed and said he’d be honored to escort me.
I could have found it on my own if I’d known to follow the smell of baking bread. The Cellar stairs were just outside the Kitchens. But Old Francis shuffled dutifully before me, then lit a candle from another candle, burning opposite the Cellar door. “This one’s always kept burning. Our Folk Keepers sometimes need to reach the Cellar in a hurry.”
The Cellar seemed like an old friend, although I was just now meeting it for the first time. The light from my taper illuminated the familiar rounded ceiling, the familiar wooden barrels — port, wine, brandy — the familiar whitewashed walls. The inner Cellar was smaller still, smelling damp and deep. Now I was home! I pressed my hand to the walls, felt the familiar homey chill, and also something peculiar etched into the stone.
I shone my light about. The walls were broken by words carved over and over again.
Over and over, they said the same thing:
Poor Rona: take pity on her.
Poor Rona: take pity on her.
Poor Rona: take pity on her.
Again and again.
Poor Rona.
Perhaps the Lady Rona was more than a boat. Not even the most clever boat built by Finian could have written these words. How long had it taken this mysterious woman? Months? Years? What did she use? A nail?
I touched my own necklet of nails.
The carvings had been made long ago, for they’d been whitewashed over, and the whitewash was not recent. But you could see them easily when you knew to look.
Poor Rona.
I felt sorry for her, whoever she was. But her passion to make her mark on these Cellar walls must have been a great inconvenience to the Folk Keeper.
The curving top of the Folk Door reached the middle of my forehead. Its crosswise bands of iron were clean and free of rust, likewise the hasps and handle. Not that it matters. The Folk will resist passing the sign of the cross, whether rusted or no.
I laid bits of old bread and biscuit in a circle before opening the Folk Door. Inside the circle, I would be safe. The Folk cannot cross a circle of bread, the Bread of Life. I left my candles and tinderbox in my Folk Bag, for Old Francis had given me a whole candle! I set the smoked meat in front of the Folk Door, then opened it a crack. And there came something I’d never felt in the Rhysbridge Home, a hum of dark energy shivering from behind the Door. It must be a strong energy to reach me in the Cellar, for the Folk would have to have drawn far back into the Caverns where my light could not shine.
I was not afraid. I am never afraid.
I have finished writing. I will soon snuff my candle and release the Folk from the Caverns. My thoughts float above ground, first to a room of shining eyes, then sail out to sea, to the boat ride with Finian. He said he would take me sailing again. I feel almost sorry I haven’t the time.
The darkness is stirring behind the Door. The Folk are straining at the boundaries of my candlelight. I shall put it out now and meet the Folk of Marblehaugh Park.
Feast of Saint Valentine
Through Mischief of All Sorts
February 14 — Feast of Saint Valentine
The Folk consumed:
All the smoked meat
A smallish bit of Corinna Stonewall.
But I am one of the lucky ones. I am not paralyzed, I am not wasting away. No one need know, for my clothes hide the clusters of bruises, and I am armed with a new protection.
I have this newest charm from Cook. Pale, silent Cook — except when he curses — his eyes red-rimmed as though he’s forever peeling onions. He tried to pour my charm into a cone of paper. “Damn sea air!” he muttered when it stuck and he had to go at it with a spoon. The cone is small to hold so vast a substance. Salt, Salt of Eternity, workaday stuff to us, agony for one of the Folk.
I told Mrs. Bains I am not yet well enough to take supper with the others. I shall spend my evening in the Cellar instead.


February 15
My mouth turns bitter when I read yesterday’s words. I thought I had all I needed, and more. Delicacies from Cook that would have made the Rhysbridge Folk swoon dead away. Why would these Folk not be content with smoked pheasant and turkey eggs and a tub of milk? I even stirred the milk a long while, blending in the cream. That’s how they like it best.
But I opened the Folk Door to the same simmering energy, waiting only for darkness to allow it into the Cellar. I sat myself in double concentric rings of bread and salt. Damp seeped through my breeches. With my fingertips, I snuffed the candle.
The Door slammed against the wall. A tidal wave of power boiled across cold stone, then sucked itself back at the ring of salt.
The salt couldn’t hold them off, I knew that even then, knew it couldn’t contain that terrible force straining over the thin crystalline Ring of Eternity. I could perhaps have fled, many another Folk Keeper would. But in order to keep your place, you have to do your job well, drawing the anger of the Folk upon yourself, diverting it from the livestock and the crops.
There was a rush of power, crossing the salt with screams so shrill they bore into the webbed netting of my bones. Was this what Old Francis had felt, the cramping that doubled my toes to my heels, that pushed my shoulders to my lap? It mixed me all together with myself, my insides turning outward to meet my own translucent skin.
I did not cry out. I poured my screams into silent curses, blasting the Folk with my rage. Me, why me? I, who feed them and stir the milk and sit countless hours on the damp floor!
Foolish girl, Corinna. What are you thinking? The Folk have no hearts; they do not care for kindness.


February 16
I am finding the Lady Rona everywhere!
I found her again today at dusk when I visited the Marblehaugh Park churchyard. There was not much to visit, as it was no larger than a handkerchief, only a handful of gravestones and a little chapel, shoved against the seaward wall of the Manor.
I was looking for churchyard mold. I’d once heard it whispered that graveyard earth may ward off the anger of the Folk, provided it’s taken from a grave no more than twenty-one years old. Provided, too, that the occupant of the grave was descended from, or married into, the family that established the churchyard.
I came in at an iron gate. In the middle of the churchyard was a fresh slab heading a slash of raw earth, now very muddy, as it was still raining. That would be Lord Merton, just recently buried. According to the inscription, very clean and crisp, His Lordship had been sixty-four years old.
I walked round the graveyard. There were old headstones, all older than twenty-one years; too old to help. Then a grave lying at a little distance from Lord Merton’s. I pulled aside the ivy to read the stone, and there was the Lady Rona again.
THE LADY RONA. That was all it said, and as I let the ivy fall back into place, a dark cloud caught the corner of my eye. It came streaming from a circular shaft at the far end of the cemetery; and I thought at first it was smoke, very strange to see in the rainy air.
But no smoke ever made that faint fluttering. I spoke aloud. “Not smoke, bats!”
I’d heard of these shafts in the ground, opening directly into the Caverns and walled off for safety. The Folk were closer than I’d known, but if the bats could turn their backs on them, so could I. There was a last grave, tiny, tucked under the chapel eaves. The carved Saints set into the wall looked down on it with empty stone eyes. It, too, was covered with lichen and ivy, and here again there was no name, but an epitaph:
Unnamed from the darkness came.
Unnamed to the darkness returned.
Born and died: Midsummer Eve.
Who was buried in these last two graves? If only they were Marblehaugh Park descendants, and not more than twenty-one years buried, the mold from their graves might serve me against the Folk.
BOOK: The Folk Keeper
5.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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