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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.

1 

From Candlemas 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. “Corin and Corinna 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

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