The novel begins in the Fall of 1666. The main character, Anna Frith, is a servant to the village priest, who she tries to get to eat some apples, but he is despondent and broken. Everyone looks weary and Anna thinks back to happier times when she married Sam Frith at age fifteen and left a drunken father and stepmother who overworked Anna. Sam dies, but she has two sons. She cares for Michael Mompellion, the preacher, because his wife, Elinor, is dead. Anna is lonely at night when her empty house gives her no comfort, her children having died in the plague.
The next morning, she milks her cow and carries some milk to Michael. At the rectory, she encounters Elizabeth Bradford, whose family fled the village and the plague. When Anna announces Elizabeth's presence, Mompellion tells Anna to tell her to go to hell. Elizabeth forces her way into the house to plead for Mompellion's attendance on her ill mother. Mompellion says that the Bradford family deserted the village in their time of need so he wants nothing to do with them. Elizabeth tells Anna about her father's abuse of the family. When Anna goes to Mompellion, he sits with an unopened Bible on the desk.
Anna reads a comforting passage in the Bible and he recites one back to her about a home and a wife and children and then roughly grabs her arm, bringing tears to her eyes. Shocked, she departs. Ring of Roses Summary There is a flashback to the spring of 1665 when Anna is a widow at only eighteen. She is glad to take in a lodger, George Viccars, a tailor. She feels he is heaven sent, though that would prove to be quite wrong. She is thrilled when Geroge offers sixpence a week. Her sons, Jamie and Tom, are very little with Tom still nursing.
Anna's children enjoy George's company and Anna enjoys his stories. That summer, a box of cloth arrives from London. George makes a beautiful dress for Anna. George wishes Anna felt something for him. He is flushed and staggers a bit. When she tries on the dress, George gives her a kiss, and Anna realizes he is flush with fever. The next morning, she goes to the rectory, leaving George asleep. Anna greets Elinor, who is teaching Anna, a willing pupil, many skills. Anna is afraid to learn about herbs because herblore is often associated with witches.
Many villagers are suspicious of Mem Gowdie and her pretty niece, Anys. Anna's stepmother, Aphra, is convinced Anys is a sorceress and often gossips to other villagers about her. Anna checks on George midday and is shocked to find him extremely ill. He tells Anna to leave so she doesn't catch the illness and asks for the priest. Michael Mompellion spends two days at George's side when he finally dies. The Thunder of His Voice Summary Before leaving, Michael tells Anna she should follow George's advice "burn everything. " Soon, George's customers begin arriving.
The first is Anys Gowdie. Anna describes her as a calming force during birthing when helping her aunt Mem Gowdie, the midwife. She tells Anys about George's advice, but Anys will not have her dress burned. George's other clients feel the same. Anna burns his clothes and, sadly, the dress he made for her. Anna is consumed by thoughts of George and Anys and decides to stop by the Gowdies. Anna remembers with shame how she and other children used to tease Anys for being a vegetarian, but when she was pregnant, Anna used herbs Anys recommended which had helped greatly.
Anys tells her that she "lay" with George, but it was Anna he wanted for a wife, and Anys had advised him to win Anna's heart through her sons. Anna asks why Anys did not want George for a husband. Anys replies that she loves her work and will not be chattel to any man, plus she likes a little variety, not just one plant. Leaving there, Anna stops to chat with her friend Lib Hancock. Later, she helps with a dinner at the Bradford manor; none of the family is particularly endearing to anyone. At the dinner, though, the talk is of the plague in London.
They talk of the rich who leave London to escape and Mompellion suggest that the honorable and courageous thing would be to stay so as not to spread the disease. Anna worries about her sons having been around George and runs home to find them sleeping peacefully. Rat-fall Summary The fall following George Viccars' death is one of the loveliest Anna recalls, with warm, sunny dry days. She is so relieved her children aren't ill. Anna and James tend the sheep and then sit on the riverbank. Michael Mompellion stumbles upon them and Tom cries, but Mompellion settles him down.
Mompellion is good with the children and Anna is glad to have a kind, open pastor. At home, Jamie surprises Anna by showering her with roses. One day Mary Hadfield finds some of the boys playing with dead rats. Soon after, Edward Hadfield is ill with a high fever. A surgeon uses leeches on him, but when he learns about George's death, he tells Anna for the villagers not to call him. Edward dies before sunset, soon followed by his brother and stepfather. Little Tom is ill and that night, Anna goes to bed with Tom in her arms, knowing it will be the last time.
In the morning, he is lifeless. Sign of a Witch Summary Jamie is also struck by the plague. Anna spends her time trying new treatments. Elinor is by her side much of the time, and Anys also helps. Jamie suffers for five long days before dying. The days that follow are a blur as more villagers succumb to the plague. Anna goes back to work but spends any spare time at the church cemetery. One day, Anna hears a drunken group of people and sees Mem Gowdie on the ground, hands bound, being beaten and accused of causing the plague. Anna pleads with them to stop, but the group ignores her.
They drag Mem to the mine water to see if she sinks or swims, the test for a witch. Anna is pushed knocked unconscious when she tries to intervene. When Anna comes to, Mary Hadfield is screaming that Mem is drowning and is not a witch. Anna tries to go down to save her but looses her footing. Anys appears and pulls Anna up, then swings down to brings Mem up unconscious, and Anys begins administering CPR. When Mem revives, the villagers accuse Anys of being a witch by raising the dead. Anna begs Lib Hancock to stop the madness, but Lib reminds Anna that Anys had slept with Viccars, the "Devil," who brought the plague.
Anna tries to help Anys but is knocked away as they tie a noose around Anys' neck. Anys starts telling stories about the other women there and they hang her. Michael Mompellion appears and yells at the crowd saying the only evil present is theirs. He tells them to pray and hope that somehow they will be forgiven their sins. The villagers pray and lament. Venom in the Blood Summary Mem does not attend Anys' funeral as she is sick with the fever in the rectory, where Elinor insisted she be brought. Five days after Anys' funeral, Mem dies. The village has lost its only healers and midwives.
The law will not enter the plague-struck village, so no one is tried for their murder. Some of the mob die from the plague; others do penance in the hope of forgiveness. In church, Mompellion speaks passionately about the love of God saying the plague is a test. Many may be tempted to flee the village infecting even more people. He says they must stay in the village to isolate the disease. Supplies will be delivered to the edge of the village on a regular basis until the plague has ended. He warns that those who flee will suffer from "loneliness, shunning, and fear. Mompellion implores everyone to stay in the village so if they are sick, they will have neighbors and friends and, as long as he is alive, will not die alone. He asks the villagers to reflect and pray before making their decision. All the villagers agree not to flee except the wealthy Bradfords, who slip quietly out of church. Wide Green Prison Summary Anna's spirits are higher after Mompellion's sermon and is surprised to find Maggie Cantwell, the Bradford's cook, at her gate. Maggie's been dismissed without a moment's notice and she asks Anna to help gather her belongings.
Michael Mompellion enters and appeals to Colonel Bradford to do his duty, but the Colonel is says it's foolish not to flee the plague. Mompellion warns the Colonel that his reputation will be forever ruined in the village and that God's wrath will be greater than any plague. As the Bradfords leave, some servants beg for help and find homes in the village. Maggie and Brand did not swear in church to stay, so they travel to stay with kin. Later, Anna and other villagers watch as goods are delivered at a distance. A list of the dead are given to the delivery person to share with kin and friends in nearby villages.
At the rectory, Elinor rushes Anna out the door to help with a woman in labor. Anna is terrified, but Elinor insists, so Anna help births the child, though inside she is trembling. However, she remembers how Mem and Anys Gowdie helped her and tries to model them. Anna thinks the baby is not positioned correctly, so she encourages Mary to walk. Hours later, the child is still sideways, and Anna can almost hear Anys' voice guiding her to feel inside for the child to understand the best way to help it out. She manages to get hold of a foot and pulls the baby through. Anna and Elinor laugh with relief.
Amid all the death, they celebrate over a new life. Anna knows she is returning to an empty house and finds the poppy vial in Elinor's basket and slips it into her sleeve. So Soon to be Dust Summary Maggie, the Bradford Cook, and Brand return covered in rotten fruit. Mompellion carries the almost unconscious Maggie into the cottage of Jakob Merrill, a villager who had found Maggie and Brand on the road. They were recognized as coming from the plague village and were pelted with fruit and then stones. Maggie collapsed and Brand got her into a barrow and hauled her back.
Mompellion tells him he did well not to desert Maggie, and that he is the hero of the plague, which will make heroes of them all whether or not they ask for this. Brand will stay with Jakob's children and Maggie move to Anna's cottage. Anna searches for a horse and cart for Maggie's transport and encounters her drunk father. They get into an altercation, and he asks the men to bring some "branks," an iron head cage he once used on Anna's mother, with a bit to muzzle the tongue. Anna remembers her fear of seeing her mother suffer with that contraption, and her father humiliating her mother by dragging her around the village.
Fear makes Anna wet herself and she rushes home and scrubs her soiled clothing and body, shaking and upset. Suddenly a boy arrives saying she must go see Maggie, who dies before midnight. Anna wonders why one with special gifts, like Maggie's for cooking or Viccars' for sewing, were "so soon to be dust," when they had so many productive years left. The Poppies of Lethe Summary Anna makes her own "tincture" using honey and the poppy resin for the pleasant dreams. When Anna wakes, she is much calmer than before. She is glad shehas more with which to face the despair in her life.
Sally Maston, her neighbor's five-year old, appears bloodied from plague sores. At Sally's cottage, her mother lies dead, her father is close to death, while a baby cries. By sunset, four families are affected by death. Mompellion tends the dying, while Elinor and Anna help the orphaned children. Anna learns that Lib Hancock is dying and goes to see her, but Lib is too far gone and dies without an exchange of words. Anna drinks the last of the poppy mixture and has another magical dream and wakes feeling serene until she realizes she has no more poppies.
She ventures out and notices Blacksmith Talbot's house is silent. Anna finds Kate Talbot pregnant and her husband using his hot irons on his plague boils. Anna discovers that Kate is using a charm on her husband and asks where it came from. Kate says the ghost of Anys Gowdie whispered to put a shilling in a log in exchange for the charm. Anna tells her that someone was playing a greedy trick. Anna milks the cow and prepares a meal for Kate, then heads out on her poppy errand. Anna finds Elinor at the Gowdie cottage searching for herbs that might help fight against the plague.
Anna confesses she took the poppy, but Elinor already knows and says she, too, has tried it when wanting to forget. Elinor tells Anna that as a privileged child Elinor was sheltered from real life and at age fourteen believed a young man who convinced her to elope, but he abandoned her. Her father and brother took her home, but she was pregnant. Elinor violated her body with a hot iron. A physician managed to save her life but not her womb. He gave her poppy to ease the pain. Elinor imagines she would still be in a lost, drug-induced state if not for Michael.
When Michael found Elinor ill, he offered his friendship and then his love. Elinor asks Anna if she will still work with her, knowing all this and Anna loves Elinor more than ever. They trace the spread of the plague and realize that the oldest in the village seldom got it, so they will concentrate and saving the youngest. Among Those That Go Down to the Pit Summary Mompellion is digging six graves, including one for the sexton. Anna often visits the sick with Mompellion. One man they visit is Jakob Merrill, who confesses being a poor husband and worries for his young daughter and son.
Mompellion assures Jakob that God loves him and Jakob took in Brand when Brand was homeless and, if he makes the young man part of his family, Brand can farm the land and look after the children. Jakob makes a will for such an arrangement. Anna bribes her father with two lambs to dig the graves. Anna hopes his children will get some of the meat. Weeks pass and only on Sundays do they take a break. Mompellion tells the villagers the plague thrives in warm weather and there will be more testing of their wills. He says they will meet at Cucklett Delf instead of church so that the healthy can stand well enough away from the ill to not get sick.
The dead must be buried as quickly as possible under any ground. Mompellion collapses. Mr. Stanley, a new minister in town, delivers a sermon and assures the people that their loved ones will be saved even if not buried in the church cemetary. Merry Wickford, a Quaker, is unable to mine the minimum share of lead required to keep her mine, so a neighbor, David Burton, puts a nick on it. Anna pleads with other miners to help the poor orphan, but their loyalty is with Burton as he is of their own faith. With one day left, it seems Merry faces the poor house. Elinor says they will get the lead for Merry.
Elinor and Anna dress in mining clothes and find the necessary tools. Merry is to help with cleaning the lead and letting them know when they have an ample dish to be measured. They set to breaking the rock and soon realize they will never be able to accomplish their task. Anna suggests they do "fire setting" that combines extreme heat and cold water to create an explosion, though it is a dangerous undertaking that cost Sam his life. Anna sets it up and runs as rocks fly everywhere. The task is successful, and Merry has many dishes worth of ore in the mine.
The Barmester declares Merry's mine safe and all the miners except David Burton cheer Merry and the women. Anna sleeps well that night, feeling for once she has accomplished something that turned out right. The Body of the Mine Summary For nine days, Anna is so sore it is difficult to do the simplest tasks. One morning she sees her father who thanks Anna for helping him get the grave digging job. Anna has heard gossip that he has been demanding an unfair share of household goods from the sick and weak and is careless about contagion. Anna chides her father for thieving, but he makes no reply.
On Sundays, the villagers meet at Cucklett Delf, with families standing at least three yards from each other to avoid infection. Anna's father never comes. Anna goes with Mompellion, who tries to reason with her father to change his ways, but he is drunk and the words are wasted. Anna's father commits an act so vile, the villagers rise to action. A young man, Christopher Unwin, is the last survivor in a family of twelve and has had the plague for so long he he might be one of the rare ones to survive it. Christopher believes he is near death, so Anna goes with Mompellion to see him.
Anna's father is there digging a grave, probably anticipating plundering the house after Christopher dies. Mompellion fights with Anna's father. Later, Christopher has an appetite. Mompellion jokes they both beat more than the reaper. The next morning, Anna finds Christopher Unwin, muddied and bloody, and who says Anna's father tried to kill him whacking him with the shovel and stealing his clothes and goods. Christopher was buried alive and had to dig his way out. The villagers turn into a mob. Anna thinks of all the beatings and his cruel ways and carries on with her chores.
Anna is summoned to bear witness at her father's trial for attempted murder. He pleads guilty to the thefts he committed at the Unwin home. All eyes turn to Anna, but to her father's dismay, she remains silent. Punishment is to have his hands impaled by knives to the stowes of the Unwin mine. A man so punished is left alone and it is assumed kin will come for him. Anna assumes Aphra will go despite the storm raging through the night. Aphra was not able to go because all her children but one were struck by the plague, and she dared not leave them.
Aphra's rage turns to madness as three days pass before Aphra arrives at Anna's cottage, getting into a rage when she discovers no one has brought down her husband's body. Aphra says she has just buried all her sons. Anna agrees to go to the Unwin mine with Aphra, where they find Joss' corpse horribly mangled by animals. The Press of Their Ghosts Summary Anna starts crying for her father and Anna shares the misery of both her and her father's childhoods. Afterward, Anna feels at last free of her father. Anna believes her father did not flee the village because Aphra convinces him she has lucky talismans to protect them.
Mompellion tells them that he has also seen talismans. Anna investigates one family who claim they received a protective talisman for just a tuppence. Anna tells them they have been tricked. Anna trips on her way home and that act made her think that perhaps the plague is just nature, like her tripping on a rock. Perhaps instead of thinking it is a curse from God, they should be trying to discover how it is spread and they could work on it as a farmer rids his fields of unwanted scrub. The key is having the right tools with which to work.
May festivities bring a mixture of hope and fear. More and more villagers succumb to the plague. By June 140 people are dead. Many skilled craftsmen have died so the village is quickly turning to ruin. Each person responds differently--Jane Martin, who used to baby-sit Anna's children hangs out at the tavern, drinking and having sex. John Gordon, the man who beat his wife at Anys' hanging, has a leather strip with nails which he scourges his back with every five steps or so. Mompellion explains that hundreds of years ago, during the Black Death, their flagellations were many.
Anna and Mompellion visit the Gordons and on the way, Anna finds a drunk Jane Martin having sex. Mompellion rails against them. Anna cleans up Jane and mount her between them on the horse and take her to her croft. Mompellion asks Anna not to share any news of these events with his wife. Gordon's wife reluctantly lets them in. She tells them John started this behavior after receiving a tract from London. He has burned all their clothes and beat her with the leather and nails as well as himself. Mompellion goes in search of John. Mompellion does not find John.
Brand finds his corpse on the rocks near a sheer ridge. Some of the villagers wonder if John Gordon had been right and begin to fashion their own scourges. Mompellion fluctuates between anger and self-reproach about this. One day, Anna see Michael standing over Elinor tenderly. Anna has a moment of jealousy and smashes their tea cups against the stone. A Great Burning Summary Anna and Elinor do not understand why the disease affects some and not others living in the same household. When Elinor coughs, Anna pretends she doesn't hear it.
The second time, there is no ignoring the cough as Elinor hacks for several minutes. Elinor tells her it's just a little cold. Anna can't hold back her tears. Elinor takes a handkerchief to wipe Anna's eyes, but does not, stuffing it back in her whisket. Anna knows then that Elinor is afraid of passing on the plague. The next three days, Elinor's fever rises and her cough worsens. Anna stays by her side as much as possible. Anna thinks of all the things that Elinor has become to her - a mother figure, a teacher and a friend. Whenever Mompellion comes to be at Elinor's side, Anna feels the old waves of jealousy.
Elinor tells Anna how fortunate she (Elinor) is to have such a good husband in Michael and good friend in Anna. She asks Anna to be a good friend to her husband as he will need one. Elinor is soon delirious and speaks at first as a child, then intimately to her husband. Mompellion rather coldly sends Anna on her way. As Elinor returns to health,she obviously was not struck by the plague but by an ordinary fever. One Sunday, Mompellion shares what God has shown him; he asks all the villagers to burn all their things that might be contaminated and to then scrub their houses.
Everyone is reluctant but he convinces the villagers to partake in a great burning. They sing a psalm but with hardly the same rigor as in the past as their numbers are so small and tired. Brand and another young man drag forward a woman dressed in black and wearing a veil; Michael lifts it to reveal Aphra. It is she who has been cheating the villagers for shillings by pretending to be the ghost of Anys Gowdie. The villagers become angry and Mompellion says she will be dealt with the next day Michael charges Brand and Robert to guard Aphra.
The young men throw her in a deep pit of manure for the night. If she slept, she would have drowned in it. Aphra has obviously suffered so much, the villagers consider her punishment done, but Mompellion tells her she must repay the money. Aphra refuses to let Anna in during the next few days until Anna forces her way in and sees Aphra's daughter dead from the plague hanging from the rafters and Aphra naked with a shaved head dancing with a snake. Mompellion says they will have to wait until Aphra collapses from exhaustion in order to bury the daughter.