Kira's first problem is one of survival. As she is both handicapped (she limps) and orphaned, she is excluded from the community. One woman even tries to force her to give up the small shelter where she lives (her mother's"cott"), threatening to stone her to death. From one day to the next, however, Kira is convoked before the elders and allotted a room to live in within the main civic building (formerly a church or cathedral). This is because she is an expert weaver and her skills are needed to restore a sacramental robe worn yearly to commemorate the community's history and survival of "the Ruin."
Kira's immediate crisis is over, but little by little she learns that her value to the community is purely utilitarian, and that her own parents were "sacrificed," first her father, then mother. Kira befriends a young boy living in the Fen and a boy living in the same building whose gift is woodcarving. Together, they discover the presence of a third person, a little girl, imprisoned and trained to sing the incantations of the yearly ritual because of her exceptional voice.
Kira also visits an old woman living in the Fen (forest) to learn how to make dyes from various plants. She transmits to Kira the knowledge of an almost lost art, and she also tells her that the rumoured beasts of the forest are not real. Two days later the woman is found dead, apparently killed for having betrayed this secret.
In the meantime, Kira learns that her father, though left for dead, survived his injuries, being rescued by members of another community. She also learns that her would-be mentor, Jamison, is the person who tried to murder her father and is the main person who manipulates their circumstances to his advantage.
Although the plot shifts in focus, Kira still must deal with both alienation and betrayal. She is also caught up in the conflict of supporting a cause in which she no longer believes. However, she gains strength and determination by simply identifying her adversaries and in making alliances with her few trusted friends.
The next crisis is deciding between two alternatives - escaping with her father to join his community far away or "staying put" to help the people of her village overcome the abuse of their leaders. The focus here is not so much on Kira's survival but rather a conflict of loyalties. The resolution of the story not revealed until the sequel 'The Messenger,' in which Matt, Kira's friend from the forest, has grown up and serves as a go-between for the two villages. His own particular gift and the choice he makes will determine the fate of the whole forest and the surrounding villages.