Soldier Ralph Delchard and lawyer Gervase Bret lead a group of the King's finest commissioners into the war-torn lands of Yorkshire to settle land claims and compile the Domesday Book, a record of England's holdings. The battle-scarred country reminds Delchard of his own guilty part in pillaging the shire years before to put down a revolt against the Conqueror.
However, one island of wealth and luxury remains in Yorkshire: the castle of merchant Aubrey Maminot. There the commissioners learn of two great terrors: the rogue Olaf Evil Child, a hero of the poor and conquered Saxon people, and the ravenous lions Aubrey Maminot keeps as pets. The lions make a feast of an anonymous young man who tries to sneak into the castle, and Gervase Bret begins to wonder why someone would commit such an act of suicide.