ROSES IN A RING
A historic fantasy-style short story based on a nursery rhyme
You could see where others had walked by the tracks left in the grass, their shoes and skirts absorbing the dew and leaving a darker green path to show the way they’d gone.
The sounds of the animals lead the way, too, as sheep and cows murmured their discomfort at being somewhere new, separated from the safety of their flocks and herds.
Brianne carried her basket full of beeswax and fresh rose petals, covered with a coarse wool blanket. She chose a spot under a broad chestnut tree downwind of the animals but close to the town gates, and laid the blanket down, carefully setting out her wares.
She put the beeswax blocks on small pieces of leather so that they stayed as clean as possible, and the rose petals were in small cloth bags set in the tree’s shade to keep them fresh.
She hoped that she would be able to sell the rose petals early, before the edges turned brown and dry. They could still be used, of course, but they would be less pretty and she would have to take a lower price.
At sunrise, the town gates opened. Buyers and sellers who had not entered the town before the gates closed at sundown the night before streamed in steadily, some looking for a good place to set up their wares, some looking for good deals.
Running her hands on the grass next to her, she sprinkled dew on the cloth bags holding the petals to help keep them fresh, smiling at the buyers who walked past.
She had just sold four blocks of beeswax for a good price when a man came running through the gate. While all were welcome on fair day, this man was clearly running from something. When the gatekeepers stopped him, he gibbered at them, his eyes huge, his mouth strained.
There was one quiet moment; the moment between when he calmed down enough to relay his message and when his message caused panic.
The gatekeepers dropped him like he was on fire. Two closed the gates in the face of confused fair latecomers. A third blew a horn.
It was the horn that caused the panic as it sounded the plague warning.
Visitors to the town began running toward the gates only to be rebuffed by the gatekeepers. There was shouting and crying. Buyers stopped their haggling, murmuring in fear like the sheep and cows. Frightened sellers began collecting their wares in haste.
Brianne packed her wares as well, but more slowly. She was ready when the town leaders approached her.
“The man reports plague has struck Bretherton. Many are ill. We must Ring the Roses.”
Brianne nodded. “I know what to do.”
The leaders left her to find the others they needed.
Soon, Brianne was standing with several others pouring rose petals into large baskets. It didn’t matter now that the petals were curling and browning, they had a more important job to do now.
Another group was carefully combining special herbs with the elixir only Mistress Woods knew how to make, while a third was stacking wood for bonfires near the town walls. The gatekeepers opened the gates long enough to let the last stragglers through, though no one was allowed to leave. Then the gates were closed for the Ringing.
After emptying all her rose petals into the basket, Brianne went to the bonfire stacks, precisely placing a block of beeswax in the center of each one. Then, taking one of the baskets of petals, she and others began walking the perimeter of the town.
First, they dropped the rose petals along the town wall, carefully measuring how many they dropped so that they would not run out. It was imperative that there would be no break in the ring.
The next group dropped the herb compound, creating a new ring inside the rose petal ring. Agitation and fear were soothed by the mixed perfume of the roses and herbs, and the calm routine of the ritual. Those who had never seen the ritual before were less calm than the locals, who knew from experience to trust the magic, and Brianne could hear the locals reassuring their out-of-town guests in low murmurs.
When the rings were complete, they stood in a row in front of the gates, and the bonfires were lit. The few remaining petals and herbs were then thrown into the flames.
No one spoke. Crackling wood and the sizzling of melting beeswax were the only sounds.
When the flames of each bonfire reached the height of the walls, there was an audible sigh which seemed to arc over the town.
Whether the sigh came from the relieved people or the magic that had been invoked, all that mattered was that there was now a dome of protection over the town. The evils of the plague would not touch them so long as the fires burned.
Inspired by a writing prompt developed by Amanda Edens: “Rewrite your favorite fable or nursery rhyme but with a twist”
I chose the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie,” a nursery rhyme which may describe plague symptoms:
Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posie
We all fall down
I decided to change it to a positive rhyme focused on protection from the plague and developed a scene from it:
Roses ringing all around
Herbal guard surround the town
Bonfires clean the air
No more plague at the fair