A young girl named Damaya wakes up to the sound of voices. She has been asleep in a pile of straw in the loft of a barn, and the warm, scratchy straw reminds her of an old blanket that her great-grandmother Muh Dear once sewed for her. That blanket is still in Damaya’s bedroom, while Damaya herself is now locked in the family’s barn. She hears her Mother and a strange man enter. The man’s voice is accented and sounds “smart,” and she knows that he must be a child-buyer here to take her into slavery.
The narrative is now told from the third-person perspective, though with the same narrator’s voice as before. The book is purposefully hesitant in revealing details here, building the mystery as to why Damaya is locked in her family’s barn instead of in her own bedroom, and then why she is seemingly being sold as a slave to a mysterious man. It also soon becomes clear that Damaya’s timeline is not parallel to Essun’s, as no apocalyptic event has begun in Damaya’s world.
Damaya hears the strange man comment on the corner of the barn that she has been using as a bathroom, and he subtly reprimands Damaya’s Mother for not even providing her a bucket to use. Damaya almost laughs aloud to hear this, thinking about how much she hates her parents. The man next comments about how cold it is in the barn, and Mother sullenly defends herself again. As they approach, Damaya notes that she cannot “sess” the footsteps of the strange man, though this is something she usually can detect, and has been able to for years.
The man is ostensibly here to buy Damaya as a slave, yet he already seems more concerned for her welfare than her own mother is. The mention of Damaya “sessing” something (that is, using her sessapinae) suggests that she is an orogene. This is implied to be the reason that she has been locked in the barn to be sold, as the novel gives more examples of the discrimination that orogenes face—they are mistreated even by their own parents. That Damaya can sess human footsteps speaks to her power even at this young age, but the fact that the strange man is undetectable to her also suggests that something is fundamentally different about him.
The strange man starts to climb the ladder to Damaya’s loft, though Mother angrily calls for her to come down. The man tells Damaya (using her use-caste name, “Strongback”) that she doesn’t need to be afraid, that he has come to help her, and that he won’t let her mother hurt her anymore. At these words, Damaya finally emerges from the straw and examines the man. She can tell that he is not from Palela (her own town): he is very tall, lean, and muscular, with extremely pale skin and long, straight black hair. Damaya tries to decipher where he is from using these traits, but they make no “racial sense” to her. The most noticeable thing about him is his eyes, which are pale silver in color, or “icewhite.”
The name of Damaya’s use-castes, Strongbacks, implies that people in this caste perform manual labor. Damaya has decided that her mother is an enemy, and so she is more likely to trust the man when he seems to defend her from her mother. Damaya’s examination of the man is the first of many examples that show how people in the Stillness are racially classified. Their features are supposed to show their geographical origins and also how desirable their traits are according to the ruling classes, thus immediately placing them in the Stillness’s complex social hierarchy. Even at a young age, Damaya has learned to classify people in this way, so she is confused that she cannot discern the man’s race and status from his features.
The man smiles at Damaya and offers his hand to her, asking if she will join him. Damaya knows that she has no choice whether or not to go along, but she likes that he at least tries to make her feel like she does. Finally, she takes his hand. The man then presses two of his fingers to the base of Damaya’s skull, holds them there for a moment, and lets go. She asks what this action meant, and he says that it was a “ritual” that will make it easier for him to find her if she should ever get lost. Damaya is confused by this, but the man tells her that she will be leaving with him.
The man presents himself as gentle, caring, and respectful of Damaya’s freedom, and she is immediately drawn to him as a parental figure in place of her own mother, who has seemingly turned against her. The “ritual” that the man performs here is unexplained, but it likely has something to do with Damaya’s sessapinae, as these organs have already been described as being located in the brain stem and would be accessible through the base of the skull.
Damaya follows the man back down the ladder, where the man asks Mother to give Damaya some food, clothing, and a coat for their travels. Mother is flustered and says that they gave away Damaya’s coat. The man sighs and finishes Mother’s explanation for her—she believed the myth that orogenes don’t feel the cold, and she thought Damaya must have been lying when she complained about it. Damaya then briefly remembers the day that she was revealed as an orogene: she came home to find her mother weeping angrily, accusing Damaya of being a monster masquerading as a child.
The man’s conversation with Damaya’s mother reveals more of the myths about orogenes and the way that most people in the Stillness think about them. Damaya was treated as a normal child until her mother discovered that she was an orogene, at which point her mother suddenly began to see her as a hateful monster. The small cruelties of giving away Damaya’s coat or not even leaving her a bucket to use as a toilet highlight the harsh realities of this kind of discrimination, not to mention the trauma of a young girl being imprisoned by her own mother.
The man says that Damaya will still need protection from the cold on their way to Yumenes, and Mother seems surprised that he really is taking Damaya there. The man then comments that Mother would have given Damaya away even if she thought Damaya was going to be killed, and again Mother tries to defend herself, saying that she was just doing her duty as a good citizen. Turning to Damaya now, the man tells her that he is taking her to the “Fulcrum” at Yumenes to be trained. Damaya now understands that she isn’t being sold—she’s being given away—and that her family actually fears her.
The Fulcrum will be more fully introduced later, but at this point it is at least understood by the characters to be a place in Yumenes where orogenes are trained to use their power to serve the Stillness. The depth of Damaya’s mother’s prejudice is revealed again here, as the man makes it clear that she would have given Damaya away even if she thought the girl would be killed. Damaya’s mother’s response then shows how people are taught to think about orogenes—she doesn’t really want her daughter to die, but she has been indoctrinated to think that orogenes are monsters and that she is doing the moral thing by treating Damaya as she does.
Damaya realizes that the strange man is a “Guardian,” and he affirms that he is now her Guardian. Mother leaves to get a blanket for Damaya, and then the man, who is dressed in an all-burgundy uniform, takes off his short cape and wraps it around Damaya. He introduces himself as Schaffa Guardian Warrant and explains that Damaya will be trained at the Fulcrum to use her orogeny to serve the world. He says that she is now the sixth orogene under his care, and that he finds his wards in various ways. Damaya’s parents reported her to their comm’s headman, and the news eventually made its way to Yumenes and to Schaffa.
Guardians are a mysterious group whose origins and motives remain ambiguous throughout the novel, but as a “use-caste” they are understood by others to be the people who control and look after Fulcrum orogenes and are distinguishable by their burgundy uniforms. Schaffa’s introduction also shows how the Stillness’s naming system works: people have a unique first name, followed by their use-caste name and then the name of the comm that they belong to. This system is another way of immediately organizing people according to their supposed roles and rankings.
Schaffa says that Damaya is actually lucky that her parents reported her and kept her isolated, as many orogenic children end up murdered by mobs after they reveal their powers. Damaya wants to know why she couldn’t just stay at home and keep hidden, and Schaffa explains that it is illegal to harbor an unregistered orogene. Furthermore, without training, she will be unable to control or repress her powers and will only cause great danger to herself and others. Orogenes react instinctively to the earth’s movements, he says, and this can lead to disaster and death.
Schaffa’s talk with Damaya gives the reader more information about the nature of orogeny, and how people in the Stillness view orogenes. An orogene’s power over seismic events is instinctual even as a baby, and it is only through training that they can learn to control and focus this power—until they do learn such control they can be dangerous, which explains to a small extent why other people fear them. The way that Damaya’s mother has treated her seems cruel, but Schaffa explains that it could have been much worse considering the laws of the Stillness and the violence that she might otherwise have faced.
The day that Damaya discovered she was an orogene, she was sitting with two of her friends after lunch when a boy named Zab approached them and asked if he could cheat off of her work on their test that afternoon. Damaya didn’t like Zab, and she refused. The next thing she knew, Zab had pushed her onto the ground. Realizing that she was all muddy and that her uniform was ruined, she became suddenly enraged and “grabbed the air.”
Damaya’s memory here gives an example of how orogenic children might accidentally discover their abilities. They are clearly not monsters disguising themselves as children, but simply children surprised to find that they have powers they didn’t expect. By showing this from the orogene’s perspective, the book highlights how the Stillness’s treatment of orogenes is actually based in fear and lies.
As Damaya remembers this, Schaffa continues speaking, describing Damaya as “firemountain-glass” and a “gift of the Earth.” But he reminds her that “Father Earth hates us […] and his gifts are neither free nor safe.” Back in her memory, Damaya recalls the air going suddenly cold, ice forming on the grass around her, and the look of terror on Zab’s face.
Orogenes can draw energy from the life around them to use it as their own, but this means “icing” a region around themselves and killing anything within its borders. This is what Damaya inadvertently did in her anger, and nearly killed Zab by “icing” him. The people of the Stillness personify “Father Earth” as a godlike figure, yet one that hates humanity and tries to destroy it through seismic activity. In this passage, orogenic power is explicitly linked to Father Earth, offering more information as to why other people hate and fear orogenes so much. “Firemountain-glass” is likely obsidian, a kind of stone that is beautiful, incredibly sharp, and created by volcanic activity.
Schaffa reassures Damaya that none of this is her fault, and she shouldn’t blame herself or her parents. Damaya realizes that he is right and starts to cry, but Schaffa takes her hand and tells her to stop—she must never cry where others can see her, because it isn’t safe. She doesn’t understand, but she makes herself stop anyway. Just then, Mother returns to the barn with the blanket, along with Father. Neither of them will look at Damaya, and Father speaks tersely to Schaffa about the journey ahead of them. Schaffa says that they will travel a long way on the first day, and he hints that this is because they must outrun anyone from Palela who might try to find and kill Damaya.
In order to survive, orogenes must adapt to many harsh realities, even from a young age—there is no comfort for Damaya as she is taken away from the family that now rejects her, and she is not even allowed to cry as this happens. It later becomes clear that this is because people fear when orogenes show emotion, as it might mean that they will unleash their power without self-control. Schaffa’s comment about escaping Palela again highlights the violent discrimination that orogenes face, as even her former neighbors might murder Damaya once they learn the truth.
Schaffa hands Damaya the blanket that Mother brought, and Damaya realizes that it is the one Muh Dear sewed for her. Damaya wants to cry again, but she remembers Schaffa’s warning and keeps her face expressionless. As Schaffa leads her away, Mother and Father say nothing, and Damaya sees her brother Chaga peek out through the curtains for an instant and then disappear. Schaffa lifts Damaya onto his horse and tells her to not look back as they ride away. She doesn’t, but later she will wish that she had. The chapter ends with a brief and partially obscured quotation from a tablet of stonelore: “[obscured] the icewhite eyes, the ashblow hair, the filtering nose, the sharpened teeth, the salt-split tongue.”
Damaya now understands a little better why her family treats her the way that they do: they fear her power and don’t understand it. They also fear what their neighbors will do to her and to them if they treat her too kindly. Similarly, the fact that Damaya’s mother gives her Muh Dear’s blanket shows that she does indeed still care for her daughter on some level, though she is afraid to show it in public. The stonelore quotation at the chapter’s end is obscured, introducing the idea that this ancient wisdom (which is supposedly the foundation of all civilization in the Stillness) might be fallible or open to misinterpretation.