The Storykeepers by Mir Foote: book excerpt
The Storykeepers: Summary
There are stories not told to the children, stories that must not be told to the children, of times when evil won. Four orphans must make sure their story isn't one of them.
There is power in stories, power in storytellers, power in the listeners, the storykeepers, who make the stories real. When an evil sorcerer seeks that power and kidnaps the source of all stories, happily ever after is in danger of becoming never. A young storyteller must find her voice, a boy must find his family, and children must find their courage. For if they don't, if they can't find their own happy ending, then the world may be ruled by darkness. Forever.
by Mir Foote
Kristen was an orphan. There was no doubt about that. There was not a chance that she was only misplaced and that a grieving, bereft relative would soon happen upon her by chance. Her mother and her father had died only the year before, and she had seen quite clearly their bodies laid to rest. Neither mother nor father had any siblings, and their own parents were dead as well. Kristen was quite alone in the world.
Colin was not an orphan, and anyone who called him that could expect a glare and rude words. His mother and his father were both quite alive, if not well, for they were a family on hard times. They didn't have the money to take proper care of a little boy. So, on the very day that a weeping Kristen was led for the first time through the doors of St. Mary's Orphan Asylum, Colin was standing on its steps and saying a very stiff goodbye to his mother. His mother was all teary-eyed and weepy, but quite stern that Colin would be better off in a place that could give him proper food and clothing. Colin did not agree. But if his parents so obviously did not want him, he was not going to weep over it, and though his eyes watered a bit he didn't cry. His mother and father promised they would come back to get him, just as soon as their fortunes changed. A year passed and they did not come.
On this day, one year to the very hour that both children had been left behind, each was hard at work but in very different circumstances. Kristin was in the nursery to help watch over the infants. At that very moment, she had half a dozen young ones sitting in a circle around her while she rocked the baby in her lap. The oldest in the group was five, and the youngest but for the baby was two, and every single child stared at their elder with wide, intent eyes. Kristen herself was only twelve, but within the nursery she seemed of a great age.
“And the sorcerer cried out the magic words, and with a bang as loud as thunder, a beast appeared!” the girl was saying, her voice magical in itself. With the arrival of the beast, she struck against the arm of her chair with her free hand and everyone jumped, then giggled. The baby gurgled. “This beast had claws, sharp as knives and as long as swords! And it had teeth like diamonds, and black fur stuck out from its body in great greasy spikes. It was as large as a dragon, and it prowled towards the knight with a growl deep in its throat.” Here, her voice grew low, drawing in her audience with giddy horror.
“What are you at now, child?” a shrill voice interrupted, and all of the children jumped and gasped, as though expecting the beast to arrive among them. But it was only the nurse, who was supposed to be in charge but usually went off on her own as soon as her helper arrived. “You'll give them all nightmares!” the woman declared, her lips drawn in a disapproving line. Then the baby began to wail from Kristen's lap, and though she rocked with soothing noises, it wouldn't be quiet. The nurse looked quite put out by the noise, and in the end decided to leave again, much to the children's delight. As soon as she was out the door, the baby quieted at once.
“Clever thing,” Kristen said, “As though you did that on purpose.”
“He doesn't like Nurse,” one of the children said, and Kristen was inclined to agree. Alone once more, the children gathered close to hear the rest of the story.
Colin, meanwhile, was outside with an ax in hand. He was quite a sight, holding the ax high above his head with a gleam in his eye that said he was about to cleave some person in two. But it was only wood that he attacked, splitting it for the fire. He, too, was meant to be supervised while he worked with such a dangerous object, but the woman he was working for was inside enjoying the fire of his labors. Colin didn't mind. In the first place, the woman was old and it seemed unkind to expect her to stand waiting, and in the second the boy preferred to be alone. He finished splitting the last log and banged at the door.
“Goodness child, you are strong,” the woman said, when she came to the door and saw his work. She had him carry the wood to a pile inside, where it was boiling hot because of the fire. It was a hot day outside as well. The old woman, however, had a blanket about her shoulders as though it were midwinter. Then Colin started back towards the orphanage. It wasn't far; the woman's house was right up against the brambles that bordered the forest, and the orphanage was only a little ways beyond that, just on the edge of town. Colin walked quickly, happy to escape the dark shadow of the trees. There were stories about that forest and the mountain beyond.
He walked quickly into the orphanage and towards the nursery, walking in just in time to hear the last of Kristen's story.
“And the sorcerer burst into flame, his spells broke, and all the land was freed from his shadow. The knight lifted the little girl high into the air, and took her home with him and they all lived happily ever after.” The little children clapped their hands happily, delighted with the ending. Colin only wrinkled up his nose.
“Where is the nurse gone off to?” he asked, “Work time is almost over.”
“Not for another half hour,” Kirsten answered, nodding towards a small clock above the door, “You must have finished early.” Then one of the toddlers tugged at Colin's leg, wanting to be taken to the toilet.
“Can't Kristen take you?” Colin asked, but the tiny boy didn't want a girl, he wanted Colin, so finally he agreed. Kristen, in the meantime, was joined by the nurse with a tray from the kitchen. It was dinnertime for the young ones. Kristen fed the baby and, when Colin came back, he somehow ended with the toddler in his lap, showing him the proper way to hold a spoon. The entire scene was so domestic, just the two of them with the children (the nurse had disappeared again) that Kristen couldn't help but comment.
“Just suppose we were a real family,” she said dreamily, “I the mother, you the father, and all of the young ones our children.” The children in question giggled happily to themselves. The wonderful dream of having a real family was almost too serious for play, but somehow Kristen made it sound real. Colin thought it utterly silly.
“I won't ever be a father,” he answered abruptly, “And no mother would have so many children all at once.”
“I might,” Kristen insisted, “When I'm all grown up and everything. I'll adopt twenty children.”
“Then it will be no better than here, because you can't possibly love all twenty properly,” Colin insisted, “And you won't be able to pay for them all either.”
“I might find a hidden treasure someplace,” Kristen insisted stubbornly, “Or meet a prince. And loving twenty children is easy. I could love fifty if I had them to myself.” Every young child's eyes grew wide at the thought of having fifty children.
“A prince!” Colin cried with a snort, “What prince? We live in a democracy, everyone knows that. There are no knights or princes anymore.” Kristen ignored him in favor of cleaning up the baby's face. Finally, the children were fed and left to the nurse's care and Kristen and Colin were free to go as they pleased. Already, some of the older orphans had wandered into the nursery, searching out a game or a book. Kristen and Colin wandered the halls together, not really set on doing anything, until the dinner gong rang and they went to eat their own supper.
It was stew again, the lumpy gray kind with bits of green floating here and there in a parody of vegetables. Before they ate, the children were made to wash their hands and faces and smooth out their hair and then to say grace. At the head of the table sat the matron in charge of the entire orphanage, a plump friendly woman called Miss Mush. Never was there any name more fitting of the face behind it, for Miss Mush was just as soft and squishy as the name would imply. She was also as kind as she was soft, and well liked by most everyone, though she had fierceness to her that none dared to cross. Woe to anyone who dared to harm one of her charges, and woe to any child who failed to follow her rules.
“Now,” she said, as they finished their stew, “You are free to move about a bit, but mind you don't leave the yard. Inspection is at eight, same as always, and then to bed.” She said this, or something like it, every day after supper, and as soon as she nodded her head everyone scattered. Colin went outside immediately, setting up a ballgame with some of the older children. Kristen followed, for a while, but was not much good in the game because she kept zoning out.
“Kristen!” Colin cried when she let the ball go right by her, “Get your head out of the clouds!”
“Sorry,” she called back, not knowing what had come over her. Usually she was very good at the game. “It's just, I keep hearing something. Like singing, and I can't figure out where it's coming from.” Colin only shook his head. There was no music that he could hear. Kristen lasted five minutes longer before she left the game completely and wandered back inside.
Once she had left the startling sound of children screaming and laughing at play, she was certain she'd be able to hear the singing more clearly. Somehow it wasn't, though she was certain the voices were coming from in the house. She followed them slowly, as though half asleep, up the stairs and down the hall to the library.
As far as libraries go, it was not particularly impressive. Nor was it a place the children willingly ventured often. Most of the books were textbooks or for lessons; all of the fairytales and adventure books were kept in the nursery with the games. Yet this was where the singing led her. She pushed open the door, half expecting to find some hidden persons practicing. There were, after all, choir books among the math sums and history tomes. But the room was quite empty. Suddenly, Kristen was no longer even sure what she was hearing. It was as though the tune were inside her own head, not outside of it, something she remembered from long ago. Perhaps a lullaby sung once by her mother. The thought made her feel strangely happy and sad at the same time. It was not a pleasant feeling, but not so deep or shadowed as grief.
Kristen looked about the library with half a mind to leave. She was not the sort of girl to study long hours during her free time. But even as she turned to go, she thought she might take a look in some of the few books in the room that she found interesting. She liked the books on faraway lands or olden times, the times when knights still rode, and she had a few favorites among the shelves.
She walked over to them, running her finger along the spine. Though she seldom studied without someone making her, she was no stranger to books. In fact, she often would take a story from the nursery and bring it here to read, surrounded by shelf upon shelf of ancient knowledge. Sometimes, she swore the pages were whispering, remembering their masters who penned them; people long dead, but for their words left behind like a footprint in time.
It was among her favorites there, that she saw it. The lullaby in her head silenced.
End of Excerpt