Rose grew up on a small farm, on a small planet, in a small part of the universe. Her herb garden and her small flock of barnyard fowl made up her world. Her entire memory consisted of this small place. Some vague shadow in the recesses of her mind of a sweet old woman named Ma-sha intruded from time to time but she could not really say if it was a dream or a blip from a past reality.
Small herself, standing at just under five lengths of the current Emperor’s boot, her lack of stature and her nescience of a world beyond her own, did nothing to hinder her happiness. Rose was perfectly content (most times, anyway.) Some nights around the full moon, she felt a restlessness. The tingling on her skin at night when the silver rays of the moon touched her went away fast enough in the bright light of the sun, replaced by the sweat of hard work.
Rose passed her days plucking weeds from between the delicate stems of ruffled parsley, fragrant mint, sharp lavender and intoxicating rosemary. Her herbs grew throughout the year, either in her open garden during Spring, Summer and Autumn or on the sills of her kitchen windows during Winter.
The five copper chickens in her yard provided her with plump brown eggs, each of which always contained two yolks. She assumed magic floated in the air to give her such bounty.
The girls followed her around the close, clucked at her when she washed in the morning and roosted on her bedposts at night while she slept. Each had a name which they answered to when she called them.
The big auburn one, whom Rose always thought of as the oldest, she called Sienna. The reddest one, she named Scarlet. Poppy, slightly orange in color, preened when shining objects reflected her image. The one with the fiery temper, Phoenix, made the most noise. The smallest and youngest one, Flann, always followed last in line. The propinquity between them and her should seem odd to her but she knew it existed just the same.
A little old lady from Wooded Glen came to Rose’s garden once each new moon to collect a basket of herbs Rose gathered for her. In exchange, Rose received a silver sickle coin, cheese, tree sugar and grain flour. The crone would deposit her payment on Rose’s table, pick up the basket, touch her finger tips to Rose’s cheek and then leave without a word spoken.
No one else visited Rose.
It was almost time for her to come again. Rose took her time choosing only the best stems and leaves from her plants. Some were in flower, so she nipped a few heads off to add as a special treat for the woman. Kneeling in the afternoon sun, Rose noticed a susurrus over her left shoulder. When she looked, she saw nothing. She bent back to her work. This time, a whisper in her right ear disturbed her. A light breeze blew threw her hair. She rose to her feet. She looked into the woods, the direction from which the sounds had come.
The beldam tottered her way through the fields to Rose’s garden fence. She hunched her shoulders. She watched her feet shuffle the dirt into small clouds of dust. She looked older than ever before, with gnarled knuckles, spotted skin and a dingy dress.
Rose’s clutch of chickens pecked at the gray dam’s skirt hem. She did not kick at them as usual. Rose shooed them away. She took the hag by the elbow, led her to the stool under the eaves and sat her in the shade. Rose fetched her a ladle of cool, fresh, well water. The woman barely lifted her head as she sipped the liquid. A sob escaped her lips between sips. Her shoulders shook. The hens clacked at the enfeebled biddy.
Rose lifted the woman’s chin and saw the tears pooling on her lashes. Rose saw something she might be missing reflected in those sad eyes. Pity and compassion overcame her. She kissed the old woman on the mouth. A clap of thunder rang out. Rose fell on her ass in the dirt. Her head hit the ground.
When she looked up, a handsome young man sat in the place of the ancient. He cried into his hands.
“Forgive me,” he said, “forgive me.”
Five, red-headed sisters stood around the man. They poked and prodded him.
Rose looked behind her. There stood Ma-sha. She helped Rose up.
“Be still,” said Ma-sha. The quintet cowered at a look from her.
“I see the arrogant, young, Prince Brendan, is arrogant no more,” said Ma-sha.
“No, mother,” he said, “These many years in your shoes have taught me many lessons I will always value.”
“Then, you may leave to start your life anew.”
He stood. He kissed Ma-sha on each cheek. He bent down on one knee in front of Rose and took her hand.
“Your kindness broke the spell,” he said, “I pledge my life to you for eternity.” He brushed his lips on her fingertips, stood and walked into the woods.
The fivesome followed him.
“I see they have not changed,” said Ma-sha. She shook her head. “They need a few more years with a new perspective.” She flicked her wrist. Rose had five, fine, fawn-colored cows in the pasture.