Mera woke in her room in the castle sure in the knowledge that today was the day she would leave the valley behind. Her first step is to sneak out of the castle. After a near run-in with her father, and some fast talk with the washer women, she makes it to the woods and is on her way.
Nyx, on the other hand, spends her morning as she spends every morning, having breakfast with her mother, wondering why Mera hasn’t appeared. Today, when she goes to search for her, she realizes things are different. Many of her sister’s outdoor clothes are missing, and just yesterday Mera was talking about running away. Nyx panics and goes to tell her father. The King calmly assures Nyx that everything will be fine. He, himself, will go track down the errant Mera and return her only slightly late for her wedding dress fitting.
As Nyx waits for her father’s return, the Wilden, Coverdale, arrives for his meeting with the king, his future father-in-law. Instead, he encounters a panicking Nyx. Sharing her concern, Coverdale agrees that they should go search for Mera. After finding out that she did not take a horse, they remember Mera mentioning the swamp witch in her far-fetched tales about leaving the valley. Nyx remembers a book about the swamp witch where they find a map to her home in the swamp. Coverdale and Nyx take horses and set out after Mera.
Meanwhile, Mera’s path has taken her to the monastery. Adso, an intiate of Aosgar, spots her as he hoes his cabbages. Seeing the heavy burden that the princess is carrying, Adso decides to offer his assistance, but strangely, as he starts to cross to her, the princess seems to speeds up. Puzzled, Adso watches her hurry away before heading back to his cabbages.
Gabriel, who also lives at the monastery, offers to help the kitchen by getting more cabbages. In the garden he chats briefly with Adso who tells him about his strange encounter with Princess Mera. As they are talking, Nyx and Coverdale arrive on their horses. Nyx brings Gabriel and Adso up to speed on the situation. She tells them that Mera has said that she wouldn’t leave if she were married to Coverdale and so she believes that if Adso accompanies them and performs an emergency marriage ceremony, Mera won’t leave. Adso and Gabriel agree to assist in the search for the wayward princess.
From her research into the swamp witch, Mera knows that the game trail will lead her into the swamp. Hoping to avoid detection, she plants a few of her socks off the trail to lead followers astray, and then continues on her path. After a few hours, she spots the collapsed bridge mentioned as a landmark. Jumping across to the bridge, she spots a wisp of smoke and follows it to the home of the swamp witch.
The swamp witch, naked and with blue tattoos, invites Mera into her home saying “You are seeking what you want and this I can help you with.” Mera, following the traditions she’s read about in her research, gives the witch a gift of food and blackberries she gathered during her trip. The witch pours the blackberries into a bowl and begins to eat one of the sausages. She invites Mera to recline on her furs and then tells her how to leave the valley.
“There is a dark passageway. Travel back the path you came until you see the tree with a face. Turn and leave the track going due north through the swamp to the mountains. In the mountains, look for the stone shaped like a falcon which will mark the entrance to a cave deep in a crevasse. In the cave it will be dark,” she hands Mera a mahogany colored wax candle. “Use this to light your way. The cave path is long and arduous. You’ll have to climb and scale. But there you will meet the guardian of gold. Once you pass the guardian, I don’t know what you’ll face.”
Intent on her goal, Mera sets off, following the witch’s directions. But as she heads back down the path, she hears voices arguing and so she tries to hide.
The voices, of course, belong to her rescue party who have been wandering about in the woods and swamp for a while. They easily spot Mera and try to convince her to give up her quest. Mera refuses to be deterred and continues following the witch’s directions. After much debate, the rest of the party decides to accompany her, to keep her from harm.
The journey follows the witch’s directions exactly, from the tree with the face to the falcon rock. Eventually they find the cave and meet the golden guardian, a very tall humanoid with golden skin who sits in a fine study at a reading desk. When he turns his brilliant, blinding eyes on them he tells them they may each ask one question, but if they do they have to continue on the path.
Mera goes first asking, “How do we get out of the valley?” The guardian replies, “Take the passage way to the right, out of the caves, out of the valley.”
Coverdale is next, asking, “Once we leave the valley, how do we get back?” The guardian answers, “For every lightness, there is a dark.”
Nyx is third. “How can we communicate to those left behind once we’re gone?” The answer: “Seek the birds with wings of dust. Their path through the sky and beyond can transcend boundaries.”
Adso asks the unfortunately vague question, “What sort of things can we expect outside the valley?” The answer, of course, is equally vague, of substantially more upsetting, “Sadness, loss, and pain.”
Gabriel is last and asks, “How do we avoid danger on our path to the outside?” “the path through the caverns, the difficulty is lessened with your remainder underground.”
The five of them head down the right-hand passageway which gets darker but is less steep than their previous path, though it is covered with bats. Eventually, they see a light ahead and emerge from the cave at the base of another mountain. In the distance they can see a lake and a forest.
They set off for the lake, hoping to find some residents of the area. Mera notices that this place has no sun, even though the passage of time is still marked by day and night. They travel for several days but encounter no one. Mera is able to feed them, using plants and fish, but they are all tired and cold, and after the rain, mostly miserable. For Adso, things take a terrifying turn, he gets a strange feeling in his head and soon a clear, sticky liquid begins flowing from his nose. The party worries that his brains are dripping out.
That night, they are attacked by a group of strange, unfriendly creatures who look like lizards. Mera tries to fight, but realizes that the creatures clothing is particularly hard, much like the strange decorative suits of metal at home in the castle, and so her attack is unsuccessful. In the end, they are all captured and tied up, and Mera’s wonderful journey into the unknown takes a terrifying turn for the worse.