While thousands of people travel to Meecham to seek the legendary Crimson Orb, teenage Nissa Day is more concerned about her missing magic teacher, the wizard Madoc, who failed to return after a journey to care for his ailing father. Together with her older brother Blane, she rides east from Holm Manor to look for him, taking two strange books they found in Madoc's chambers. They secure passage from East Harbor to Fairhaven, the capital of the East Islands. At the Citadel in Fairhaven, they are joined by Madoc's brother Gareth and sister Carys, and two of Gareth's men.
Their perilous journey back across the sea, then south on horseback and west through the Frozen Tundra of Sorn eventually brings them to Meecham, a town teaming with Orb seekers. There they learn Madoc is being held by four miscreants, who believe he can lead them to the red crystal before anyone else.
Through their adventures, Nissa learns how little she knows about her world. She is able to develop unexpected skills, including the ability to mindspeak with Madoc.
Will Nissa and her companions be able to use their combined skills to rescue Madoc? Is the Orb really in Meecham?