Sally, of the Brigantes tribe, is renowned for her miraculous
healing skills. At the same time, she is feared and misunderstood
and accused of witchcraft. When she becomes ill with Plague
then manages to cure herself, she is forced to flee from their
During a storm, she meets Tom, of the Pictii tribe, who helps her
to survive. Sally does not know it yet, but although she has
recovered and is now immune to the disease, she has become a
carrier of the plague. By the time she realizes it, Tom is infected.
She puts the completion her intended journey on hold and distills
a cure potion to treat him with, hoping it will work. Thankfully it
does. As Tom recovers, she realizes she is making others ill with
her presence, and decides to take passage to Ireland, to a less
populated area and protect her new friends from possible
infection. Unfortunately, the disease is also rife there. Witchcraft
or not, her services are sorely needed at the court of the High
King at Tara, in the hopes that she will be able to cure him and
save herself at the same time.
She picked up her travel bag and prepared to move off.
Suddenly, Tom froze and stared hard at a clump of bushes about twenty paces
downhill from the cave. Sally was puzzled. Fending for herself for so many years
had made her sensitive to any sound or movement that might suggest danger, or
at least something not quite right. She hadn't seen or heard anything out of the
ordinary, but as she glanced once again at Tom, she was convinced his nostrils
were quivering. Could he have smelled danger?
"Back away, slowly! Return to the cave, and don't turn your back."
"What have you seen? What's wrong?" Sally crabbed toward the cave entrance,
switching her gaze from Tom to the bushes and back.
"Rats! And plenty of them, too—scores, if not hundreds! They run in packs,
cowards that they are. Out here on open ground we have no chance against so
many!" Suddenly, he sprang from his semi-crouched, defensive position and
aimed a boot at the remains of the fire, scattering embers and coals into the
bushes. High-pitched squeals and a thrashing of branches confirmed that most of
the salvo had found a mark. Tom snatched one of the remaining logs from the fire
pit and joined Sally at the entrance to the cavern. "Help me secure these screens
against the bushes. We need a solid wall between us and them, even if it's only
reeds and grass. When they attack, we have to slow them down any way we can to
have a chance of driving them off!"
"They also feed on anything they find!" Sally cried. "Dead and rotting flesh,
animals that have died of an illness, spoiled fodder no other creature would touch.
They spread disease with their sharp fangs. I have treated many who have been
bitten by them, and not all have survived, even with my most powerful medicines!"
The screens were grimy on one side and shiny on the other. Sally guessed Tom
had used them as sleds to drag cut turf back to his temporary shelter. The barrier
was quickly in place, and there were no sounds to indicate the return of the rats.
"Now we make as many torches as we can. In order to fight our way out of here, we
need to be able to see the enemy when they arrive!"
Long, dry grasses, probably intended as sleeping mat-tresses, were swiftly bound
to tree branches with thin strips Tom cut from his stock of animal pelts. He hefted
one and gave a satisfied nod. He turned and stood close to the wall of screens
with a murderous-looking tree root in the other hand.
Sally tightened one final knot, lit the torch, and jammed it into a crack on the wall.
She picked up one of the smaller torches and hesitated a second, torn between
the knife she was familiar with and the somewhat clumsy alternative of using a club.
Tom seemed to sense her thoughts. He grinned. "Take the tree branch! A knife is
better for close-range combat, but you want to keep a safe distance if you possibly
can. They're too small and too fast for you to be sure of stabbing them."
As he spoke, a few leaves rustled close to his feet. His club blurred through a
short, vicious arc, and three small bloodstains appeared on the cavern floor.
Startled, Sally spotted movement at the very edge of her field of vision, but she
was slow to react. Her club came down on nothing, but the intruder retreated
rather than run into the cave.
Tom inspected the business end of his club, shrugged, and tossed it onto the fire.
"I hit that one a bit harder than I meant to," he growled. "But at least we've plenty of
branches to use." He chose a replacement and gave it a couple of swings.
"Wait, Tom! Let me look at that weapon." Sally took it and examined it more
closely. It still had a few small, half-curled leaves on it. "As I thought, this is from a
"Yes. Strong, and still slightly green. It will last a bit longer than the first couple of
"I've got another use for it. You've given me an idea!"
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