Chapter One ONE
It’s finally time to see the dragons.
The moment the sun peeks through the window of our hut, I leap out of bed and rush to help Mama prepare breakfast, skipping through the kitchen with excitement.
“What’s wrong with you?” Elisa asks, giving me a suspicious look as she sits at the table. Her dark, braided hair is messy from sleep. “What are you so happy about?”
“It’s dragon day!” I announce, ladling oatmeal into her bowl so enthusiastically that it sloshes over the side.
“Mama, Bryn’s spilling breakfast!” Elisa yells instantly. She has recently entered the tattletale stage of being six years old. And, of course, her favorite target is her older sister—me.
“Careful, Brynja,” Mama says without looking up. She’s preparing a cup of tea steeped in starflower leaves for Elisa, who drinks it every morning to keep her coughing fits away.
Papa’s uneven footsteps suddenly fill the room as he enters the small kitchen. “Well, someone’s up early this morning,” he says cheerfully. “What’s the occasion, Bryn?”
“Dragon day!” I announce, grinning up at him. Papa, a former Seeker himself, is the only person in this hut besides me who properly appreciates dragons. Elisa goes through different phases of fascination with magical creatures, but I think she’s back to unicorns at the moment.
“Ah, that’s right,” he says, leaning his cane against the wall and settling into his seat. “They’re giving you the whole tour, eh?”
“Don’t you ride on a dragon, like, every day?” Elisa asks. “What’s so special?”
“I’m going to meet all the dragons today,” I say proudly. “The Seekers have finally given me and Ari permission to go into the Valley of Ash, where the dragons live. I’ve been dying to see it.”
“Oh.” Elisa ponders this for only a moment. “Finally,” she declares. “You’ve been a Seeker for forever.”
Actually, it’s been only a month, but I don’t disagree with her sentiment. After Ari and I were appointed Seekers, I thought we’d begin the job right away and start entering the Realm frequently—but that hasn’t exactly been the case.
The other three Seekers on the Council, who have all been doing the job for ages, have insisted that Ari and I need more training before we’re allowed to enter the Realm on our own. Which is ridiculous, because I thought the whole point of the Seeker competition was to train us before we started the job.
Of course, I have a sneaking suspicion that I know why the Seekers are doing it. I didn’t exactly win the job in the most conventional way. In fact, I didn’t have any formal training at all, the way Ari did. But you’d think that defeating our oldest enemies, the Vondur, and driving them off the island would’ve been proof enough that I can handle things. It’s particularly absurd given the fact that I’d been in the Realm by myself before becoming a Seeker, but it didn’t seem wise to mention that to the Council, since I was definitely breaking the rules at the time.
So far Ari and I have seen only bits and pieces of the Realm, as the Seekers have given us a gradual tour, insisting that one of the older Seekers accompanies us at all times to show us the ropes. But we’ve encountered only the tamer creatures so far—until today.
Mama sets the cup of starflower tea down in front of Elisa and glances at me. “Bring back some more flowers when you get a chance, Brynja. We need more tea.”
I sigh. “I can only go when the Seekers give me permission.”
“But you are a Seeker,” Elisa says, slurping her tea.
I couldn’t agree with her more. I thought being a Seeker meant being able to go into the Realm whenever I wanted—not having to wait for one of the older Seekers to tell me it’s okay. They claim this training period is only temporary, but they also haven’t said anything about when it will end.
Surely it must be soon, though. Once they’ve introduced us to dragons, which are the most dangerous creatures in the entire Realm, then what else is there for us to learn?
Papa senses my dejection and gives me a pat on the shoulder. “Have patience, Seeker Bryn. Your time will come soon enough.”
I sigh again. I hate patience.
I hate it so much, in fact, that I rush through the rest of breakfast, say quick goodbyes to my family, and hurry out the door before Mama can insist I help with the dishes. Outside, the air is crisp and cool, a breeze from the sea stirring the leaves of the garden. I tug my official Seeker cloak over my shoulders and set off down the path toward the village.
Even though it’s early, the village square is already bustling with activity. The fishermen are heading down to the docks, the shopkeepers are opening their doors, and many of the children are gathering at the wells to collect water for cooking breakfast. Few people look up as I walk through the crowd, my cloak flapping in the breeze.
A shopkeeper bumps me as I pass and mumbles, “Morning, Brynja,” before quickly moving away. He’s supposed to say Seeker in front of my name now, but none of the villagers do. No one else even bothers to greet me.
I hold back a sigh. I’ve lived in this village my whole life, yet everyone treats me differently since I was appointed Seeker—and not in the way I thought they would. Since I’m the first girl to be appointed Seeker, and since I got the job in an unusual way, some of the villagers seem openly resentful of me now, and the rest acknowledge me grudgingly. But once I start bringing more magical artifacts from the Realm into the village to trade, things will get better. They’ll want to talk to me once I have briarwood to repair their buildings and phoenix feathers to heal their ailments. I just need the other Seekers to actually let me into the Realm first.
“Morning, Seeker!” someone calls brightly, and I spin around to see who’s greeted me—only to find Ari instead. He waves to the villager who spoke to him, a little shyly, and fastens a loose button on his Seeker cloak.
“Hey, Bryn,” he says, smiling as the wind ruffles his curly hair. Like me and everyone else in the village, Ari has light-brown skin and dark-brown eyes, but his curls are more corkscrew than mine, which are always messy. “Excited for dragon day?” he asks.
“Of course. I can’t wait to—”
“Good morning, Seeker Ari!” another villager says cheerfully as they pass him.
I hold back a groan, and Ari glances at me, frowning. As an empath, he can magically sense my emotions, an ability that is sometimes cool but also sometimes annoying if you’re the person whose emotions he reads all the time.
“Why so frustrated?” he asks.
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s get going so we can meet some dragons!”
We rush up the path to Dragon’s Point, the sunlight warming our backs as we ascend. The land surrounding the village to the north slopes gradually upward, giving way to hills, plateaus, and eventually towering mountain peaks that ring the Realm and create a natural boundary. The only way to cross the mountains is to fly over them on the back of a dragon, which is why Seekers have to use this means of transport every day.
Dragon’s Point, the large plateau, which serves as the most natural landing spot for dragons close to the village, is deserted when we arrive.
“Guess we got here a little too early,” Ari says, wrapping his cloak more tightly around his shoulders as the wind picks up. Jokingly, he adds, “I’m going to have a word with the other Seekers about this whole early-morning thing.”
I snort. Since Ari and I became Seekers a month ago, he’s barely said two words to any of the other Seekers. We’re both still a little intimidated by them, I guess. We’re not only new to the job but also only twelve, while the others are adults who’ve been Seekers for ages. But since I grew up knowing them as Papa’s friends, they seem less scary to me. One of the perks of being a Seeker’s daughter, I suppose, is realizing that Seekers are ordinary people first and foremost. Which is probably why I believed I could become one. Good thing I was right.
“Do you think this will be the last day of our completely unnecessary training?” I ask. “Surely dragons have to be the final lesson, right?”
Ari shrugs. “I wouldn’t say completely unnecessary. It was helpful when Seeker Larus showed us how to find saellons and when Seeker Freyr taught us how to check sea wolves for injuries without getting bit, and—”
“True, but they could’ve also let us explore the Realm a bit on our own. I mean, we raised a baby dragon by ourselves! Do we really need all this supervision?”
Ari’s eyes widen. “Someone’s coming up!” he whispers.
I turn and glance down the path. Sure enough, another figure cloaked in green is making his way to the top of the plateau. Hopefully he’s still too far away to have heard me complaining.
“Ah, our young Seekers are here bright and early! Excellent!” calls a cheerful voice that can belong only to Seeker Ludvik.
“Good morning, Seeker Ludvik,” Ari and I call.
Seeker Ludvik huffs a little as he reaches us, then claps his hands together brightly. “So, who can tell me what we’ll be seeing today as we journey into the Valley of Ash?”
“The valley is at the foot of the Realm’s largest volcano,” I say immediately. “It’s covered in a layer of hardened lava from multiple eruptions, and it’s the place where dragons are born.”
“Where dragons build their dens,” Ari adds.
Seeker Ludvik smiles. “Correct, Seeker Ari! We’ll be visiting the dragon dens today and meeting the Realm’s largest occupants!”
I frown. Both Ari and I were correct, yet Seeker Ludvik only said Ari’s name. Did I say something wrong?
“What are we waiting for!” I declare, perhaps louder than necessary. But Seeker Ludvik is always enthusiastic, so I should be too if I want to impress him. “Let’s get going!”
Seeker Ludvik chuckles. “That’s the spirit!”
Ari and I whistle for our dragon, Lilja, and Seeker Ludvik does the same for his dragon, who is a big brown adult named Snorri. Snorri arrives first, with Lilja following close behind and looking very excited to see another dragon here. Her pearlescent silver scales glimmer in the sunlight as she lands, her thin, batlike wings folding at her sides. She greets us by tapping our shoulders with the end of her massive snout. She’s going to have to stop doing that, though, because pretty soon she’ll be big enough to knock us over. She’s still a baby, but she’ll be full grown in no time.
Seeker Ludvik leads the way as we fly the dragons directly toward the valley. Mountains rise on all sides, their jagged gray peaks disappearing into the clouds. As we pass over them, the varied landscapes of the Realm come into view: sprawling forests, winding rivers, flower-laden meadows. Glacier peaks and sheets of ice lie to the north, jagged cliffs span the coastline to the south, and a rough line of ashen volcanoes runs diagonally through the middle. We aim for the large valley in the center of the volcanoes and land on a layer of hardened rock, ash flying into the air as the dragons settle onto the ground.
“Now,” Seeker Ludvik says, turning on Snorri to face us, “you’re both quite familiar with dragons, of course, so I don’t think we need to go over general dragon behavior. But every dragon, like every human, is an individual, and each of them has traits that you need to be aware of. Take Snorri, for instance.” He gives the brown dragon a pat on the neck. “Snorri here absolutely loves to be rubbed right on the ears.” He demonstrates, scratching the tips of Snorri’s ears, and the dragon slaps his tail to the ground happily. “But do not try this anywhere near his mouth. Most dragons love being scratched along the jaw, but Snorri will bite off the hand of anyone who tries it!” He states this cheerfully, like it’s a fun fact instead of a warning, but I suspect he’s being serious about Snorri’s bite. “That’s why, for your first trip into the valley, we wanted to introduce you to each of our resident dragons and share some of the traits you need to be aware of when interacting with them. I’ll also show you each of the dens, so you know how to find them when you need them. Sound good?”
Ari and I nod fervently. Lilja perks up her ears.
“Excellent,” Seeker Ludvik says. “Let’s begin the tour!”
First we fly to one of the largest dens at the far end of the valley. We peer inside, only to see a golden dragon curled in the corner, fast asleep.
“You already know Gulldrik, of course,” says Seeker Ludvik. “He’s been Seeker Larus’s chosen flight companion for many years now. He shares this large den with his mate, Groa, and his sister, Helena.”
“Is that common?” Ari asks. “Do dragons usually share dens with family members?”
“Sometimes,” Seeker Ludvik says. “Dragons are very social creatures and will often choose to share space with at least one other.” He glances at Lilja, then leans forward and whispers conspiratorially, “I suspect that Lilja may be related to this particular family of dragons. None of them are silver, but metallic hues seem to run in this line. Alas, we can never know for certain which nest Lilja’s egg was taken from, but I’d guess this is the home of her blood relatives.”
Ari’s eyes widen. “Has she interacted with them at all? Do they get along?”
“Yes, and yes, as well as can be expected,” Seeker Ludvik says. “Keep in mind that, because Lilja was away from the Realm for so long, she’s still a bit of an outsider here—they don’t know that her egg originated in this valley, since she was born outside of it. It will take some time for Lilja to be fully integrated into the group. But the other dragons have reacted tolerably to her, if not warmly, which is a promising first step.”
I give Lilja a pat. “Don’t worry,” I whisper to her. “The other dragons will love you in no time.”
“Now,” Seeker Ludvik says, “let’s work clockwise, shall we? The next den is just over here….”
The next few minutes pass in a blur as Seeker Ludvik introduces us to dozens of dragons in a wide variety of hues. He shares random facts about each one and clearly knows them all well. There’s a berry-red one whose fiery breath “reaches farther than any other,” a soft-yellow dragon with a whiplike tail and a “weakness for chocolate,” and a plum-colored dragon Ludvik says is nearsighted.
“Well,” he says finally as he pats the side of a rusty-orange adolescent dragon. “There’s only one dragon left to meet.”
“Seeker,” I say carefully. I’ve been wanting to ask this, and Seeker Ludvik seems more approachable than the others, but… I’m afraid of the answer. “When do you think Ari and I will be able to enter the Realm on our own?”
I might be imagining it, but I think Seeker Ludvik’s smile falls slightly. “Let’s speak about that at the next Seeker meeting with the others, all right? We’ll let the whole Council decide when the best moment is.”
“But, Seeker, how long does it normally take for new Seekers to be fully trained?”
“Well, we’ve had some, er, unusual circumstances, and there are two of you this time, so fewer Seekers to help train you, so I’m not sure I can say….”
“That’s why I think Ari and I should begin real Seeker duties,” I say quickly. “You and Seeker Larus and Seeker Freyr must be so overworked, handling all the duties of the Realm with just the three of you, plus all the extra boundary spells you’ve been setting because of the Vondur…. I just think Ari and I really need to help.”
He shakes his head slowly. “Don’t you worry, Bryn.” He lays a hand on my shoulder as if to comfort me. “I’ve put a lot of work into maintaining the boundary over these last few months, and I can assure you that the Vondur won’t be able to break through. There’s no need to worry yourself. Just stay focused on your training instead, eh?”
He smiles as he passes me, returning to his dragon, but I don’t. It feels like he’s treating me like a baby, essentially telling me to let the grown-ups handle it. Seeker Ludvik seems nice enough, but I don’t think he sees me as a Seeker yet. Aren’t I supposed to be his equal now, not his student?
I open my mouth, about to say something else, but Ari shakes his head at me, climbing onto Lilja’s back to follow Seeker Ludvik. I know what Ari’s thinking—he doesn’t want to cause a scene, doesn’t want any of the Seekers to be upset with us. He wants to make a good impression, but I don’t think sitting quietly and letting them treat us like babies is the best way to do that.
With a sigh, I hop back onto Lilja, and we take off for the final den. This one is small, tucked into an almost-forgotten corner away from the others.
“Now,” Seeker Ludvik says as we land, “I’d like you to be particularly cautious here. This dragon is our newest arrival, and we’re still developing trust with him.”
“Newest?” Ari asks, hopping off Lilja’s back. “You mean the red one? The one that came with the Vondur?”
Seeker Ludvik nods. “The very same.”
Ari and I exchange glances. When the dark magicians from the mainland came onto our island a month ago, they planned to fly into the Realm on a stolen dragon—a baby red one they’d been keeping in chains ever since a former Seeker, Agnar, stole its egg from the Realm. It was injured and mistreated by the Vondur, so I don’t doubt that it’s mistrustful of humans. I’m a bit ashamed to realize I’d completely forgotten about it. I didn’t think to wonder how this dragon’s been doing now that the Vondur have been exiled and it’s been returned to the Realm.
“Let’s keep Lilja and Snorri outside,” Seeker Ludvik says as he and I dismount. “Wouldn’t want to scare the poor thing.”
“Does he have a name?” I ask as Ari and I give Lilja the signal to stay put, and we proceed into the darkened cave after Seeker Ludvik.
“Not yet,” Seeker Ludvik says. “Larus and Freyr and I have all been visiting this little fellow regularly, but not too often. We don’t want to overwhelm him.”
A low growl issues from ahead of us, and Ari freezes. “He heard us,” Ari says, “and he’s afraid.”
I shiver as the dragon lets out a fierce, echoing roar.