In exquisite prose, Crace captures the hopes, dreams, loss and grief of a lifetime over a few days in a remote English village. The rituals, contours and shared enterprise of community are narrated by Walter Thirsk, a widower, both village farmer and childhood friend of Master Charles Kent of the Manor House. The villagers would be choosing a Harvest Queen after gathering a season's crops but for a fire that breaks out in the night at Master Kent's barn. Hoping to divert the pointing finger of blame, villagers focus on three newcomers who have arrived to claim a place to settle, traditionally staking poles for a shelter and building a fire. Eager to avert suspicion, a chorus of young male voices place the fault for the blaze on these newcomers. Two men—one older—heads shorn, are dragged to the stocks. Their companion, a young woman wrapped in an embellished velvet cape, is also shorn of her long black tresses. Though the Harvest Queen is chosen, the celebration belatedly begun, disquiet settles over the village, the breaking of ritual a harbinger of more to come.
Further casting a pall on what is a greatly anticipated day of rest and celebration, Master Kent draws all together to speak of coming changes—plans to raise sheep, not crops, to fence in fields that animals might not wander. He introduces his mapmaker, the crook-bodied Philip Earle (already christened "Mr. Quill" by observant villagers), who has been commissioned to draw the parameters of the new enterprise. Not to worry; nothing will change right away, even though the fire has already unsettled the villagers. The carcasses of doves lie charred, a burnt odor permeates the air, and strangers are locked in the village stocks. Another outrage: when Kent's beloved horse is slain in the night, it is believed the work of the shorn woman, whom all have taken to calling Mistress Beldame, as it suits their suspicions.
The arrival of Edmund Jordan puts paid Kent's assurances to the village. Jordan, Kent's deceased wife's blood relative, has legally inherited the estate. It is his property, his plan to bring sheep to decimate the once agrarian village. Quick to establish his authority, Jordan wastes no time initiating a search for the person responsible for killing Kent's horse, his men savagely scouring the village for evidence. A simple community that coexists through mutual effort under the loose guidance of Master Kent—men wedded to plough and crops, finely attuned to any threat from nature—have found the harmony of their lives destroyed by a series of events in a short period of time, a situation they cannot but perceive as sinister: "Master Havoc and Lady Pandemonium have already set to work."
The shocks continue. Two women and the little Harvest Queen disappear into the Manor. Three young village men leave at night with their belongings; whispers of "witchcraft" rend the air; others prepare to flee, to start again elsewhere—and Mistress Beldame, still at large, is perhaps capable of more mischief.
For twelve years, Walter Thirsk has lived among the villagers, farmed beside them, married one of them, in spite of his brown locks in a sea of golden hair: "I never could prove blonde or have enough to stay." He has known Charles Kent as a boy, thought him a friend. Ordered to assist Philip Earle on his rounds, suddenly Walter is conscious of being left out of conversations. Secrets whispered by Earle and later Master Kent reveal the extent of Jordan's plan, a scheme that does not take into account the welfare of men and their families. Walter is caught in limbo, neither villager nor noble.
Crace defines a world in flux, its rich, fertile bounty usurped by greed, land formed over centuries and honed by seasons defaced for profit. The frightened, suspicious villagers are blindly complicit in their own betrayal, clinging to the expedience of superstition to avoid a certain fate. Last man in the village, Walter marks the procession of men on horses from Manor House, led by the spoiler who will return to crow over his new enterprise: first, Privilege, followed by Suffering, then the Guilty and the Innocent. Next Malice, and, afterwards, invisibly, "Despair is riding its lame horse." Thirsk is left to ponder his farewell to this village, the life he has created and the message he leaves behind.