In thirteenth-century England, Adam Quartermayne is attending the Abbey of St. Alban, a school for boys run by monks. He is anxiously awaiting the return of his father, a minstrel, or traveling story-teller, who has gone to France to minstrels' school to "learn new romances to tell to the lords and ladies of England". Adam has been his father's helper on his journeys, and loves life on the road, carrying his father's viol, singing with him, and playing the harp. Three things comfort Adam at the Abbey while he waits for his father to come fetch him - "his harp, his friend Perkin, and his dog Nick".
Adam sometimes plays his harp and sings for the boys at the Abbey, but the masters disapprove, since the church prefers that any tales told should be about the saints. Adam's friend Perkins, who is the son of a plowman and very intelligent, is a loyal boy who doesn't mind getting into mischief with Adam now and again. Adam's dog Nick is "a red spaniel with long silky ears and a tail that never stop(s) wagging", who stays with a woman across the river, since no dogs are allowed at the Abbey. Adam visit Nick "every saint's day and holiday...to play with him and take him for walks over the fields".
Adam can hardly wait for his father to come back from France.