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Clever Rosebriar

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This happened a long time ago.

Once there was a girl called Rosebriar. She was neither fair, nor beautiful; but she was quick and clever. She had hair brown as bark, eyes black like buttons, twelve freckles, and white teeth that were crooked on the bottom like an old fence. Her fingers were long and nimble, her legs strong and fast, and her heart was open like a new-born child's.

She lived with her father in a holding with two rooms. Her mother had died long ago, and her father's hair turned white overnight. They had one chicken, one cow, and one goat. They grew potatoes and turnips and had a tree that gave small sour green apples. They lived for many years on milk from the cow, eggs from the chicken, and cheese from the goat.

Then there was a harsh winter followed by a dry summer. The cow gave no milk, and Rosebriar's father wailed "We shall starve. We shall die. There is no hope for us!"

But Rosebriar killed the cow, and made soup from its organs, jerky from its meat, and three stout leather bags from its hide. She took one of the bags and went into the forest, returning with it full of wild mushrooms and onions.

They lived for a year on beef broth with mushrooms and potatoes and onions, eggs from the chicken, and milk from the goat.

Then there was another harsh winter, followed by a wet spring, and the chicken stopped laying. "We are doomed. We will starve. Oh my daughter, I have failed you."

But Rosebriar killed the chicken and made a pillow from its feathers to sell at the Market, soup from its skin and bones and meat and organs, and took the second leather bag to the river. She returned with the bag full of fish and eels, mussels and clams, and this they ate for six months, with cheese from the goat.

Then the summer burned all the grass dry, and the goat died from starvation. "Rosebriar, Rosebriar, what will we do?" said her father.

And Rosebriar stewed the goat for a week and a day, and gave her father the thin gruel from the tough meat. Then she took the third leather bag, and went to the town, to seek their fortune.

The butcher would not have her, for he had sons and daughters to work in his shop.

The weaver would not have her, for she had only one loom, and three granddaughters to dye the wool.

The baker would not have her because she could not bake bread that would rise, and he already had six boys to sell rolls in the street to passers-by, and girls would only eat his wares, or steal from him.

Finally, Rosebriar went to the Innkeeper who gave her an apron and said she could work in the kitchen and the stillroom because she was neither fair nor beautiful, freckled by the sun, and her teeth were crooked as an old fence. No man wanted ale served by a plain girl, but her hands were clever, and she could learn to bake bread that would rise.

Rosebriar slept in the ashes of the kitchen fire, and rose before dawn every day, working until the last ember cooled and even the dog slept in the street. In summer, she helped Cook make all the jams and preserves to last the inn all winter. In winter, she cut and peeled potatoes, to make the stews more filling. In Spring and Autumn, she took her leather bag to the forest, and brought back herbs and berries, honey from hollow trees, and as always, wild mushroom and onions.

Three years passed, with Rosebriar walking to her father's holding every sennight, six copper pennies tied in the corner of her skirt so he could buy bread and milk. But Rosebriar knew that without a cow, and chicken, and a goat, her father would starve and join her mother in the grave.

So Rosebriar took her leather bag, and bid the innkeeper's cook farewell, and went to the City. She was now sixteen summers and seventeen winters. Her hair was still brown as bark, her teeth were still crooked as a fence, but she was tall and strong and her hands were still clever. She could skin a rabbit and make boots from its skin and fur; she could sew a straight hem in pitch darkness and embroider flowers that were so lifelike you could smell their perfume, and she had learnt to bake bread that rose and would bake brown and crunchy on the outside and soft and white on the inside.

Beneath her smock she had a woman's curves. Beneath her hair she had a brain that could do figures and mimic the birdcalls of the forest, and with her hands she could make baskets woven so tightly they could hold water without spilling a drop; she could carve whistles that would play any tune; she could remember every story she had ever been told and tell them back to you with rhymes and songs from every traveller that had ever come to the Inn.

In the City, Rosebriar hoped to find either work, or a husband, or in the best of circumstances, a husband who could provide work.

But the butchers were married, the bakers were widows, and though there were many innkeepers, none had need of an alewife. So Rosebriar slept on the steps of the Church and spent days in the market, weaving baskets from branches and stories from scraps of dreams.

One day, the King's Messenger came to stand on the steps of the Church and read from a brightly painted scroll. The King's daughter would pay one gold piece, three silver pieces, and nine copper pennies to anyone who could tell her a tale they had never heard before.

Rosebriar knew many stories, and so she took her leather bag and her baskets and walked to the palace at the top of the hill. Crowds had gathered, as storytellers from all over the city each took their turn with the Princess, to try and tell her a tale she had never heard before.

One by one, they were dismissed. The Princess knew the ballads and sagas, from The King Who Sleeps, to the Girl Who Married The Wind. She could recite The Ash Girl from memory, and six different versions of The Gypsy Brothers. She was bored by songs of heroes, whose names she could already carve on her slate. She knew of dragons and princes, Selkies and swans, and at last there was no-one left but Rosebriar, with her bag and her basket and her eyes as black as buttons, with her clever hands.

At dawn, Rosebriar told the Princess the story of the Mouse Who Stole Fire. The Princess sat taller on her throne, and clapped her hands in delight, for she had heard many tales of fire-stealers, but never of a mouse. At midday, Rosebriar told the story of the Boy Who Flew, and the Princess gave her a sip of wine from her cup, because she knew many stories of men and boys, but none with wings. And as the sun slipped behind the palace walls and the shadows grew purple and the air chill, Rosebriar told the story of The Dog Who Walked On Two Legs, and the Princess fed her meat from her platter and asked Rosebriar to stay with her in the palace and never leave her side.

The King gave Rosebriar three gold pieces, nine silver pieces, and filled her basket with bright copper pennies. She sent for her father, and he was given a holding with a herd of cows, a dozen chickens, and three nanny goats with their kids.

And if they have not died, then they are still alive today.