Chapter One ONE
I gaze into the clouds, but there’s no sign of dragons.
Papa says they’re most likely to start their morning hunt at dawn, so I always scan the skies at this time of day, when the sun is low on the horizon and the first rays of pinkish light shimmer on the surface of the sea. Spying the dragons on their morning hunt, when they leave the safety of the island to fly over the ocean, is the only way to catch a glimpse of them outside of the Realm. But aside from the occasional shadow, I never see much of anything.
“Staring at clouds again?” teases a familiar voice.
I grin at Runa. “Looking for dragons.”
“Of course you were.” Runa smiles. “But we have to hurry if we’re going to get everything done. Didn’t you say your mama gave you a long list?”
She’s not wrong. It could take the whole morning to pick up all the stuff Mama asked for from the village. Which is why I always talk my best friend into accompanying me on these boring errands. Runa makes everything more fun.
“Well, in that case…,” I say. “Race you!” I take off down the dirt path before she has a chance to respond.
“You cheater!” she calls, her footsteps pounding after me.
Runa’s parents’ farm is outside the village, all the way to the end of the lane and over the hill, so we have a long ways to go to reach the center of town. The soft earth and wet grass stick to my bare feet as I run, and the wind whips my hair from my face. The morning air is chilly, even this late in the summer, and I almost wish I’d grabbed my coat.
I crest the top of the hill and stop to catch my breath. In front of me, our little village is nestled in the crook of the bay. The ocean spreads out to the south, glimmering in the sunlight. The fishermen’s boats are just visible out on the water, pursuing the day’s catch. Rising hills surround the other three sides of our village, gradually giving way to even steeper plateaus and soaring mountain peaks. There, in the highlands, lies the Wild Realm.
Papa has told me all about it, of course. The mountains, the waterfalls, the forests. The crystalline lakes and spouting geysers. Not to mention the massive glaciers that lie to the north and the lava fields spread in the shadows of the volcanoes that bisect the island in a diagonal line. There’s a whole world up there in the Realm, one that’s uninhabitable for humans but makes the perfect home for the world’s most magical creatures. One that’s accessible only to Seekers, who can fly to its heights on the backs of dragons in order to collect the magical treasures that lie within.
Seekers are the only people on the island who get to access the Realm; it’s forbidden to everyone else. I’ve never seen it, of course, but my papa was a Seeker, back before he hurt his leg, and he’s told me everything about his adventures. Until I can become a Seeker myself, I’ll have to be content with scanning the skies for dragons and praying I catch a glimpse of one.
“I’m going to catch you!” Runa calls. She’s gaining on me. I take a quick gulp of air and launch myself down the hill.
The dirt path winds past my family’s hut and the neighbor’s before widening at the edge of the main village square, where the bells are announcing dawn. It’s bustling—fishermen heading down to the shore, shopkeepers opening their doors, the men heading to work while the women rush to trade goods. Runa and I are neck and neck as we race toward the large tree that marks the center of the village square. We both tag it at the same time.
“I think we have to call that a tie,” Runa says when she catches her breath.
“Fine,” I say, panting hard. “So where do you want to go first?”
“Not the fishmonger,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “Then we’d have to smell the fish all morning.”
“Good point. Let’s try the bakery.”
Before we continue down the path, she brushes off the hem of her skirt as if there’s some dirt on it, though I don’t really see anything. Even after running all this way, Runa still manages to be neat. We do look alike in some ways—we both have light-brown skin and dark-brown eyes, like everyone else in the village, and we also share raven-black hair. But where mine is an unruly mop of curls, Runa’s is always in orderly braids without a single strand out of place. She never gets mud on her hems, and only gets dirt on herself when she’s riding her horse or mucking out the stable. I, on the other hand, am always dirty and don’t have a horse or a stable.
But despite our differences, we’ve been friends since before we could walk, and she knows me better than anyone, except maybe Papa. When I get distracted halfway to the bakery by a sprig of moss growing outside the blacksmith shop, anyone else would think it was weird, but Runa just laughs. “From staring at clouds to staring at the ground,” she says.
“This is laekning moss,” I say, ignoring her teasing. “It can be used in healing tonics to treat fever.”
Runa’s eyes light up. “Really?” she says, stepping closer. I grin. She might tease me about my fascination with plants and magical creatures, but she’s just as passionate about her healing gift as I am my nature gift. “How does it work?”
“No idea,” I say. “But Papa says it’s rare in the summer. I should help it grow a little, and we can tell Elder Ingvar to come collect some for his tonics.”
Runa steps away from the moss, and I reach for my magic. The plant’s life force is soft but strong, and I seek it out with my gift. I give it a gentle nudge with my magic, feeding the spark of its life force, and feel it grow, the energy softly swirling. The moss spreads, climbing higher up the wall.
“Come on,” Runa says when I’m done. “Let’s find Elder Ingvar.”
We cross the village square and head toward the squat hut that houses all of Elder Ingvar’s medicines and tonics, right next door to the doctor’s. Inside, the hut is packed with tight rows of shelves, all covered in bottles and jars filled with healing ointments and salves and powders. The little shop feels too claustrophobic to me, but Runa loves to wander along the shelves and read all the little labels on the jars.
Elder Ingvar is talking with a customer at the back of the shop, and we wait patiently for them to finish. I recognize the customer as Olga, the elderly lady who lives near the docks.
“I can’t believe they would let them come back,” Elder Olga is saying. Her voice sounds strained, like she’s worried about something, and Elder Ingvar frowns.
“But surely the Seekers wouldn’t agree unless it was safe.…”
“I think they’re still arguing about it. Disgraceful. You’d think the council could agree among themselves.”
Even though Mama says it’s rude to eavesdrop, I can’t help perking up. The five people from the village who are chosen as Seekers also serve as the village council, making many of the decisions about the way things run and settling disputes. Not that there are many decisions or disputes in such a small village. In recent memory, their biggest decision was whether Elder Frida’s potatoes were encroaching on the neighbor’s rutabagas. Still, I can’t help but be fascinated every time someone mentions the Seekers. If I’m going to be one someday, I want to know everything.
“Never should’ve resumed communication with them in the first place, in my opinion,” Elder Olga is saying. She starts to add something else, but Elder Ingvar, who has just noticed Runa and me, clears his throat, and Elder Olga turns around to see us.
“Good morning, girls,” Elder Ingvar says. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
That’s the end of their mysterious conversation—Elder Olga finishes her purchase and turns to leave. But as she passes us, she stops. “Stay away from the docks, girls. You hear? Nothing but trouble.”
“What trouble?” I ask.
Her face darkens. “The Vondur, of course.”
Runa gasps, and my eyes widen. But before we can ask anything else, she shuffles away and leaves the shop.
I turn immediately to Elder Ingvar. “What did she mean?”
His mouth is a tight line. “Nothing for you to worry about. Just talk.”
“Are the Vondur back?” I ask.
Elder Ingvar looks reluctant to answer. “Rumor has it that the Seekers have given the Vondur permission to dock again at the next trading day,” he says. “But it’s just a rumor, nothing more.”
Runa and I look at each other. The thing about living in a small village is that there are lots of rumors—but many of them are true. Conversations about the Vondur always make me a little nervous. All the mainland clans come to our island periodically to trade, except the Vondur, who have been banned. Our history with them is rocky at best. Papa says that many years ago, a ship of Vondur magicians tried to conquer our island and force the villagers out, because they wanted to take over the Wild Realm for themselves. Luckily, their magic was no match for the Seekers, who drove them away. They haven’t been to the island since.
The Vondur don’t have magical gifts of their own, the way us islanders do; instead, they perform dark spells by using items or creatures imbued with magic. Papa says they’d rather butcher a dragon than protect it, so that they could use its parts for their strange potions and spells. That’s why the Seekers guard our island’s creatures so closely. The Vondur might kill every creature on the island if they get the chance.
I can’t imagine why the Council of Seekers would give the Vondur permission to trade here again. Seeker Oskar, who is the oldest and therefore head of the council, was a Seeker back when the Vondur tried to conquer the island and helped to drive them away. Could they really have become peaceful enough to trade with in such a short period of time? They’ve always been known for waging war, invading their neighbors, and killing dragons.
I want to ask Elder Ingvar more, but he quickly changes the subject, asking us what we’ve come in for. We tell him about the moss, and he thanks us profusely before sending us on our way.
Outside the shop, I blink in the suddenly bright sunlight as Runa leads the way to the bakery.
“Do you think they’re right?” I ask. “About the Vondur?”
“There are always rumors about the Vondur,” Runa says. “It’s probably nothing.”
“But they don’t usually dock here on trading day,” I say. “Why would the council let them?”
Runa opens her mouth to respond, but a shout makes both of us jump. Elisa runs toward me, yelling my name.
My little sister hardly ever runs—she gets bad coughing fits that make it hard for her to breathe, and Mama strictly forbids her from running anywhere. So seeing her barreling toward me through the village square means that something’s happened. Something big.
“Elisa?” I say. “What’s wrong?”
She stops beside me, panting for breath. She’s small even for six, and her hand-me-down skirt nearly drags the ground. “Seeker Oskar,” she says when she catches her breath. “He came over this morning to talk to Papa. He said he’s retiring.”
Runa frowns, not getting it, but a grin slides across my face. “You’re sure? He definitely said that?”
“Yes,” Elisa says, crossing her arms in indignation.
“What’s going on?” Runa asks.
“Don’t you see?” I say, grinning even wider. “There are always five Seekers. So if Seeker Oskar is retiring, that means there will have to be another competition in order to replace him.”
“A Seeker competition?” Runa asks, finally catching on.
“Yes! And since I’m twelve now, I’m old enough to enter! Don’t you see what this means?”
“Let me guess,” she says, smiling. “You’re going to compete.”
“I’m going to compete, and I’m going to win.” I feel like dancing across the village square and shouting the news for all to hear.
This is it. The opportunity I’ve been waiting for.
I’m going to become a Seeker.