M’rain, on the cusp of womanhood, while gathering food in the desert, stops to rest in the mouth of a cave. She is captured and held by a mad man claiming magic power who holds a small band in thrall. He forces them to mine black rock that burns for him.
Glick, a lizard with real magic, guardian of the caves, helps her escape. He charges her with rescuing all those held in the labyrinth of caves and restoring them to their home village. But M’rain only wants to go home.
The people she must rescue, mostly women, come from a society at the other end of the cave maze - an early agrarian people very unlike M’rain’s primitive desert one. Part way through her quest she meets P’puck, a young man who has just undergone his rite of manhood. He is smitten with M’rain but she is not interested. Nor is she free to decide her future until she completes her quest.
The caves, a labyrinth of tunnels so complex that no one can pass through without getting lost, are forbidden to both peoples. But Glick, with his magic, gives M’rain threads of light to follow, and limited sight in the darkness. By the time the prisoners are rescued and restored to their home village M’rain believes she has changed too much to return to her own people; nor will she fit with the new ones. This leaves her despondent.
But Glick has further plans for her, which involve establishing trade between the two societies. And P’puck still wants M’rain. Glick arranges for him to be M’rain’s companion for the first forays back through the caves. Glick challenges him with accepting M’rain as leader, a role not given to women in either society.