The vicar, Richard Berkeley, is charged with saving Alice’s soul before she dies on the gallows. During the twenty-four hours before the execution, he cross-examines her and teachers her how to confess her sins so she might be saved. Refusing to eat or sleep, depriving himself as she is deprived, the vicar goes mad as he discovers the full extent of the accused’s involvement with the town. Alice admits to her practice of witchcraft and confesses that she caused the tragic deaths of the vicar’s wife and only son.
Alice’s story, told in vignettes as recollections by various townspeople, is interwoven with the vicar’s questioning. Major characters include her daughter Margaret, now in peril of the law because a witch who is not burned passes her powers to her daughter; Bridget, the churchwarden’s wife, who is Alice’s niece and called the witch Mother; Bridget’s husband Robert Tarry, who sold the offering coins at twice their value because of the luck associated with them; and Sarah, Alice’s friend, who became lame after stealing Alice’s bees and refusing to return them.
Disinterring dead bodies figures repeatedly in the story. The witch dug up a hanged man’s skull from near the gallows to use in her potions. Margaret digs up her mother’s body to bury it again in sacred ground—an act for which Margaret could be hanged. The vicar agonizes over whether Alice had dug up his small son’s body to use in her witchcraft.
Told against the backdrop of English Civil War and set in a time and place where witchcraft trials were rife, fantasy intertwines with possibility in this tale of the occult.