The village wakes up to two fires. One comes from a shack set up by some strangers on the edge of the village land, who are following the age-old custom decreeing they will have the right to stay if they erect a structure and build a fire before they are discovered. The other comes from Master Kent’s dovecote, and the villagers are worried they will be reprimanded for sleeping through it. Walter, the narrator, suspects that the Derby twins and Brooker Higgs are to blame; he caught them returning from the forest with hallucinogenic mushrooms the night before, and deduces they set the fire.
The previous day, the villagers were finishing the autumn harvest. They were surprised to see a stranger in the fields, whom they nicknamed Mr. Quill for his ever-present pen. Mr. Quill said he was surveying Master Kent’s land. At first, this wasn’t important enough to distract the villagers from the work of harvesting grain to sustain them through the winter. However, as the day progressed, the villagers began to wonder aloud if Master Kent was planning on selling their lands.
Walter now supposes that the three young men, angry at the prospect, set the fire as a prank. Such a crime would get them hanged in a larger town, but there’s no formal government in the village, and Master Kent is too kind to exact such harsh justice.
Eager to divert suspicion, the Derby twins and Brooker Higgs suggest that the strangers are responsible for the fire; the entire village seizes on this convenient excuse and hurries to the shack, except for Walter, who burned his hand trying to put out the fire. At the shack, the villagers find a woman, a young man, and an old man. Master Kent decrees that the men will be punished by a week in the pillory. He nicknames the woman Mistress Beldam for her brash and unfeminine demeanor.
In the evening, the village celebrates a successful harvest, feasting on meat and ale provided by Master Kent. There’s a lurking sense of unease, however, because the pillory, which hasn’t been used for years, is now occupied by strangers. The pillory is in the shape of a cross, and since the village is too small to have a church, Master Kent conducts marriages and baptisms in front of it, including Walter’s own.
At the end of the meal, Master Kent formally introduces Mr. Quill, whose real name is Philip Earle; he announces that the mapmaker has been drawing up plans to shift the village from communal agriculture to sheep farming, which Master Kent says will be an “organization to all our advantages.” When he finishes speaking, the strange woman appears at the edge of the barn, surveys the festival for a moment, and vanishes.
Master Kent tells Walter to go find Mistress Beldam and offer her shelter in the farm. Walter has known Master Kent since they were children, when Walter’s father served Master Kent. When Master Kent married and took over the village, his wife Lucy’s property, Walter accompanied him as his manservant until he met his own wife and joined the village as a farmer. Walter walks through the forest looking for Mistress Beldam but can’t locate her.
In the morning, the villagers glean the fields, gathering by hand all the grain that is left after the harvest. The annual process is accompanied by a ceremony in which the villagers choose a Gleaning Queen from among the young girls. Master Kent gives Mr. Quill the privilege of choosing. He selects Lizzie Carr, the village’s youngest child.
Because of his wounded hand, Walter is excused from threshing and assigned to assist Mr. Quill for a week. Mr. Quill asks Walter to show him around the village so that he can understand the lay of the land. Mr. Quill has a limp and moves slowly, but he’s thoughtful and attentive. Walter takes him to the Bottom, a marshland used by the villagers as a disposal ground for animal carcasses and sewage. Mr. Quill says the village’s beauty is “humbling,” and his naïve wonder reminds Walter of his own reactions upon first arriving. Next, he takes Mr. Quill to the boundary stones, which mark the end of the village territory. Mr. Quill asks Walter to tell him the names of all these places, but Walter responds that they don’t have any—even the village itself doesn’t have a name.
Mr. Quill confides to Walter that, since the death of Master Kent’s wife, the land actually belongs to a distant cousin, Edmund Jordan. It’s Jordan who wants to bring in sheep, and he’s arriving today to see that his wishes are enforced. When they return to the town, they find Master Kent saying prayers at the pillory; the old man has died, likely from exposure.
Master Jordan, a well-dressed and arrogant man, arrives while Mr. Quill and Master Kent are carrying the corpse into the manor house. Master Jordan takes no account of the dead man, but only remarks that the once-fine manor house has become dilapidated. Walter follows the men upstairs and spies on them from the landing. Master Jordan explains his plans to shift the village towards sheep farming, which will be much more profitable to him; he’ll cut down the forests for timber and enclose the common land for private pasture. Master Kent points out that the village has to be fed off the land, but Jordan only says there might not be room for all the villagers under his new scheme.
Worried, that night Walter visits Widow Gosse, with whom he has a long-standing sexual relationship. She can’t replace his loving relationship with his deceased wife, Cecily, but they each allay the other’s loneliness. Walter sometimes wonders what she sees in him, a graying middle-aged man; he couldn’t even recognize his own reflection now, since the village doesn’t have a mirror. He says the villagers only know what they look like from the way other people, especially their romantic partners, perceive them.
In the morning, the villagers find that Willowjack, Master Kent’s horse, has been clubbed to death. Master Jordan announces that he will investigate and that the culprit will be executed. The villagers are worried to see Master Kent deferring to this stranger. Walter is assigned to guide Jordan’s henchmen through the village cottages, which they ransack in search of any bloody clothes or incriminating evidence. In an abandoned outbuilding, Jordan himself uncovers a blood-soaked shawl, which everyone recognizes as Mistress Beldam’s. In order to protect the woman, Master Kent says the shawl was his wife’s and must have been stolen from the manor house by a passing thief.
That afternoon, Walter assists Mr. Quill again, preparing vellum for his final sketches. He’s eager to work well, because he’s hoping to find employment with the man if Jordan tries to drive people out of the village. Both men agree that they must warn Mistress Beldam of impending danger and assert that they will look for her that night. Mr. Quill shows Walter his work, which is a beautiful multi-colored representation of the town, and of the proposed sheep farm. Walter is amazed by his artistry but says Mr. Quill can never capture the rhythms of village life in his drawings.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s men have detained young Lizzie Carr, Widow Gosse, and Anne Rogers, accusing them of witchcraft and culpability in Willowjack’s murder. The villagers present themselves at the manor to defend the women, but they don’t take Walter with them—he’s been spending too much time with the outsider Mr. Quill, and they don’t trust him anymore. Instead, Walter and Mr. Quill hide out near the pillory, hoping Mistress Beldam will talk to the young man, who, Mr. Quill has ascertained, is her husband. The young man has told Mr. Quill that his family’s village was destroyed by enclosure, which is why they’ve had to seek shelter in this one. Eventually Mistress Beldam appears, bearing a sack of food, but when she hears the noise of villagers returning from the manor, she runs away, followed by Mr. Quill.
Walter coaxes John Carr, his neighbor, into talking with him. John says that Jordan’s henchmen wouldn’t allow them to enter the manor or talk to the women. Frustrated, the villagers became angry and asserted that it’s Walter and Mr. Quill, the two outsiders, who are guilty of sorcery, not the women. He encourages Walter to flee the village, as the Derby twins and Brooker Higgs have done recently.
Master Kent comes to see Walter. He says he spent the night imprisoned in his room by Jordan’s men; he could hear them torturing, and probably sexually assaulting, Kitty and Anne until they confessed to witchcraft. The women have implicated a number of other villagers and said they were all following Mr. Quill’s directives. The men have gone to hunt for Mr. Quill, but he’s nowhere to be found.
One of Jordan’s grooms wanders down to the village cottages. Lizzie’s father, Gervase, accosts him and asks where his daughter is. The groom taunts him that Lizzie could be burned for witchcraft. Furious, Lizzie’s parents attack the groom and the whole village joins in. When the furor subsides the villagers realize that, having attacked a powerful man’s servant, they have to flee. All the families leave the village, and Walter is alone.
Master Jordan is happy with this development, as it leaves him free to proceed with his plans unhindered. He tells Walter that he’s leaving today with his men, Master Kent, and the accused women, whom he’ll drop off in a nearby town; he offers Walter the position of steward over his estate, and Walter accepts since it will allow him to stay in the village. The day after Master Jordan leaves, Walter frees Mistress Beldam’s husband. He gives him food and says he can take supplies from the village if he helps Walter plow the recently harvested fields. The man agrees, and he and Walter plough one furrow. Walter intends this as a gesture of loyalty to the village, but as he looks at his work it seems like a feeble effort.
Dejected, Walter spends the night drinking and consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms. In the morning, he wakes up in the manor house surrounded by two packed bags; he can’t remember if he prepared them or someone else did. Hoping that this is a gesture of kindness from Mistress Beldam and her husband, and that they will take him with them when they leave the village, he enters the house to look for them. He finds that everything has been upended or destroyed, from pots to curtains to portraits.
Walter climbs into the dilapidated attic, hoping to find the Beldams there. From the window, he sees the husband cutting down the pillory while Mistress Beldam sets fire to all the cottages. He’s about to leave before they set fire to the manor house, when he notices blood smeared on the floor and finds Mr. Quill’s body stuffed inside a chest. He’s been stabbed to death, but Walter will never know if Jordan’s men or Mistress Beldam did it. Walter runs out of the house, and it burns down.
After the Beldams have gone, Walter packs his bags and prepares to leave the village. At the boundary stones, he takes a last look at the land around him. Instead of being surrounded by a tight-knit community, he knows he has to proceed alone until he arrives “wherever is awaiting me.”