The succession to the crown of England is left in doubt after the heir apparent to the throne dies in theWhite Shipdisaster in 1120. Eighteen years later, in 1138, this lack of heir causes Henry I's daughter, Maud, and nephew, Stephen, to compete for the throne. Church politics see Philip, a monk, elected as the new prior of Kingsbridge, which leaves him indebted to Archdeacon, and soon to be Bishop, Waleran. Lady Aliena of Shiring rejects the marriage proposal of William Hamleigh, and Tom Builder and his family are left destitute when William Hamleigh dismisses them from building his house. While in the forest, they meet Ellen and Jack, a mother and son living free in the woods. After the death of Tom's wife, Agnes, in childbirth, and the abandoning of the newborn, the group end up at Shiring Castle just as it is attacked by the ever ambitious Hamleighs.

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