He had thought they would be safe here.
He had thought they had come far enough.
But as the snowflakes swirled down around him, melting on the hot sand and covering the tent in a white shroud, Vaziri knew he had been wrong.
There was no safe haven for their kind, nowhere on earth they could hide where she wouldn’t find them. Deep in his heart, he admitted, he had always known this. Even accepted it.
Still, he couldn’t help but wish for more time. Tarya wasn’t ready yet. Not ready for the perils of the journey that awaited her, not ready for the testing she would endure. She was too young, too small, and though he had taught her much, she still had so much to learn.
And he wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
Vaziri leaned on his staff and hobbled back toward the tent. The old wound in his leg was hurting again, the way it used to whenever the weather turned cold. It made him think of his wife. He had lost her in the same battle that gave him his wound.
Soon he would see her again.
His thoughts turned to his daughter as he began to gather the supplies she would need. Tarya was still untouched by grief. His heart ached for what she was about to go through, but he knew there was more strength in her than even she knew. He could see it in her posture, in her brilliant smile which was just like her mother's, in the fiery glint of her eyes, which were the same vibrant shade of crimson as her hair. Sunset eyes.
Despite the cold wind that whipped the sides of the tent, despite what was about to happen, Vaziri felt strangely at peace. He had walked his path and walked it well. Now it was Tarya’s turn. Young and inexperienced as she was, he had faith in her.
He closed his eyes, reached out, and called to her.
* * *
Tarya had never seen snow before. It was even more magical than she imagined. The sun-heated sand was still hot under her bare feet, but the air around her had turned frigid cold as the pale flakes came down. Like a swarm of white sandflies, whipped by an icy wind. The flakes settled on the sand and danced over the water of the oasis where she was filling up the water-skins.
She had been born in a snowstorm, her father told her. In the lands far, far, far away in the north. Before her mother had been killed, before her father took her on a long voyage to the desert at the end of the earth.
Why was it suddenly snowing, here in the desert, in the middle of summer?
Her father would know. He always knew.
Just as she was thinking of him, her heart burned with a sudden, urgent fire. She turned her head toward the call. Something was wrong.
“I’m coming," whispered Tarya. She loaded the water-skins onto the sand-sled and took off in the direction of home. It occurred to her that if her father had not called to her, she might have gotten lost. In the snow, the world she knew so well was veiled and strange, and it would be too easy in this unfamiliar world to lose her sense of direction. But the call pulled at her heart, like a compass needle pointing her toward her father.
At the top of the dune, she gave her sled a push and jumped onto it, holding onto the water-skins so they wouldn't fall off. The falling snow, thick and wet, beat at her face as she sped down the long slope.
She arrived at the bottom, jumped off, and set off at a run, pulling the sled behind her. Still the summoning call pulsed within her chest, anxious, insistent. Something was very wrong.
Did it have to do with the snow?
The white flakes flew thicker and faster, and she could barely make out the shape of the vast dragon skeleton that was her home until she was almost there. The dragon had lived thousands of years ago, and died sprawled on the sand with its wings outstretched. Now the skeleton’s ribcage, sunbleached and half-buried in sand, was covered in colourful canvas and made a cozy and spacious tent for Tarya and her father. Inside, they were protected from the harsh sun and the sandstorms that swept the desert. It was the only home she had ever known, and she loved it. She loved to run, balancing, along the dragon's long, winding tail. She loved to climb up its long, spiny neck and stand on the flat space on top of its skull. The skull faced west, and it was the perfect place for Tarya and her father to watch the sunset together.
Tarya did not think it strange to live inside the skeleton of her ancestor. The skeleton was the best place for them. Even after thousands of years, wild dogs and vicious desert cats never dared to come near the remains of the colossal creature. At night, curled up inside the ribcage-tent on her woven-palm mat, Tarya listened to the sounds of the wild animals hunting and imagined the days in ages past when the dragons ruled the desert, the greatest predators of all. I am in the heart of the dragon, she thought. And the heart of the dragon is in me.
The cold wind tore at her lungs painfully by the time she reached the tent. She pushed aside the tent flap and found her father putting dried date cakes into a bag. Beside him was a small pile of baggage, including packages of food, a rolled-up palm-branch mat, and the small collapsible tent they always slept in when they journeyed across the desert to one of the trading posts in the north.
“Papa, what’s happening?” asked Tarya. “Are we leaving?”
Her father looked up at her. It was strange how calm he looked, when his call had burned with such urgency. If anything, he looked more bent than usual, as though weighed down by a heavy burden. The wrinkles on his face stood out, and his blue-green eyes were full of sadness.
“The Frost Queen is coming.”
Tarya felt a weight drop in her stomach, and her heart began to race. The Frost Queen was a name from stories, a spectre of evil that haunted lands far, far away. Too far away to matter. “The Frost Queen?” she whispered fearfully, as if the terrible enemy was just outside the tent and might hear her. “Here? Why?”
Her father leaned back on his heels, half-closed his eyes, and spoke in his storytelling voice. “Ages and ages ago, when the land was free and our people still wore their true form…”
“One of the great beings of power came and established herself as ruler of the world,” completed Tarya. She had heard the story too many times to count.
“The Frost Queen permitted the free races to go about their affairs as before, but she demanded an oath of unconditional allegiance. That oath the dragons were not willing to take. Why?”
“Because we serve the Dragonmaster and no other,” answered Tarya.
He nodded. “So the Frost Queen waged war on the dragons to utterly annihilate them. The dragons fought valiantly, but they were no match for the Queen and her army. Finally, only a remnant remained, and it was clear that the days of the dragons were numbered. A secret Council of Dragons was assembled, and they weighed their choices.”
“Papa,” interrupted Tarya, “I know the story. If the Frost Queen is coming here, shouldn’t we be going?”
“Listen,” said her father sharply. “What were the Dragon Council’s three choices?”
“To take the oath and serve the Frost Queen, to defy her and fall in battle until none were left, or to go into hiding.”
“And what did they choose?”
Tarya sighed impatiently and began to speak quickly. “They went into hiding. The dragons took on human form in all but heart and hid themselves among the humans. For many years the dragonborn lived a fugitive existence, hiding from the queen until- ”
Her father held up a hand, and Tarya stopped. Fear pulsed through her like lightning. Every minute the Frost Queen was coming closer. Why weren’t they leaving? Why couldn’t her father tell her the story on the way?
“But the Council knew, even then, that the dragon’s heart was not meant to cower in the face of evil,” he said. Tarya looked at him in surprise. She had never heard this part before.
He met her eyes with an intent gaze and leaned forward, speaking slowly and deliberately.
“When the time comes, when the choice comes again, they will choose to fight.”
Tarya understood that he was teaching her a new lesson. She repeated it back to him.
“When the time comes, when the choice comes again, they will choose to fight.”
He nodded. “Remember this, Tarya. Remember all the stories. They are the best guidance I can give you.”
“But – aren’t you coming with me?” Tarya was shocked. She had never gone anywhere further than the oasis without her father.
His blue-green eyes were full of sadness as he smiled at her. “The pilgrimage to the fire mountain must be taken alone,” he said.
“The pilgrimage? But I'm still too young! I thought that wasn’t supposed to be for years and years!”
“It is sooner than I thought,” he admitted. “I had hoped to train you more. You will have to do the best you can.”
“But if the Frost Queen is coming, you need to come too!”
“I am old and crippled, Tarya. I would only slow you down, and then both of us would die.”
“I’m not leaving you alone! What will you do?”
He smiled sadly. “I will fight.”
“Will you kill her?”
“No dragonborn can defeat the Frost Queen in combat, except perhaps the Dragonmaster himself.”
“Then you’ll die!”
“Yes, Tarya. I will die.”
“No!” Tarya’s eyes filled with tears. This couldn’t be happening. “Then I’ll stay with you! I’ll fight too!”
He gave that sad smile again and put his hands on her shoulders. “You have the courage of dragons, Tarya. Your time will come. But you cannot fight ice except with fire. Follow the path of the dragonborn to to Mount Ignis. Find the Dragonmaster, complete the ordeal, receive your fire. Then with the Dragonmaster’s help you may come against the Frost Queen.”
He began to load the supplies onto the sled, tying them down with string. Tarya stood still, stunned. How could he be so calm when the world was ending?
As he loaded the sled, her father spoke in the same even, measured voice he used whenever he taught her a lesson. “What is the way to Mount Ignis?”
“Follow the Blue Star west toward the mountains. Make for the left of the mountain shaped like an arrowhead. Take the oak path through the bog to the crossroads. Ask the Pathkeeper for ancient dragon road.” The words came out of her mouth automatically. Her mind was still reeling, unable to process what was happening. Her world was changing too suddenly, too quickly. She was about to say goodbye to her father. Forever.
He nodded, and tightened the last string around the sled. “You will have to go as quickly as you can. She will be pursuing you. I will give you as much time as I can.”
“But you said you couldn’t defeat her!”
“I never said I couldn’t do a bit of damage, did I?” He put the sled-pulling string in her hands and picked up his staff, gesturing to his injured leg with a wry smile. “At the very least, I must repay my debt.”
Numbly, Tarya allowed her father to lead her to the tent opening. The snow swirled around them with a malevolent force, and the cold wind howled. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face west.
“Stop at the trading post on the edge of the desert. You can trade the sled for more food and warmer clothes. It won’t help you in the mountains.”
“Papa, I can’t do this! I can’t cross the desert alone! I can’t leave you here to…to…” Tarya’s voice broke and she sobbed, throwing her arms around her father. He returned her embrace. The snow flew fiercer than ever, and for a long time neither of them spoke.
“I'm sorry,” said Vaziri slowly. “This is not what I would have chosen either. But she has found us and she is coming. The only choice we have now is whether or not we will be brave.”
“I’m not brave,” said Tarya through tears. “Not like you. I don’t want to leave you. Oh, Papa, let’s run away together. Let’s hide somewhere. Please. I can't do this alone.”
“Tarya, daughter of dragons,” said her father. “You are young, but you are the heir to all the nobility and wisdom and courage of our ancient race. The heart of the dragon lives in you. Never say you are alone.”
Gently but firmly, he pulled himself from her grasp and held her hands. He looked into her eyes, those beautiful sunset eyes.
“The Dragonmaster can protect you better than I can,” he said. “Go now and find the path he has laid for you. I do not fear for you.” He planted a kiss on her forehead. Tarya wiped her eyes and looked at him. She was still trembling, but there was a new resolve in her eyes.
“I won’t ever forget you or anything you taught me,” she promised.
“I know,” he said with a tender smile. “Tarya, dearest daughter. I love you.”
Only the raging snowstorm and the threat of the approaching Frost Queen made it possible for Tarya to turn away from her father. She grabbed the sled’s rope, set her face to the west, and began to walk. After she had gone twenty paces, she turned around for one last look at the only home she had ever known. Her father was standing motionless in front of the ribcage-tent, leaning on his staff, watching her. The falling snow was a veil between them, and she couldn’t make out his face. For a long moment they watched each other. Then, with a searing ache that seemed to split her heart wide open, Tarya wrenched herself away and plunged ahead into the storm. She didn’t look back again.
As she passed the dragon's skull, she brushed her hand against the cold bone. "Goodbye," she whispered. Then she dragged the sled up the dune as fast as she could. Her father’s call burned in her heart again. Only this time, instead of the summoning call pulling her toward home, it was a sending call that pushed her in the direction of the mountains, like a steady wind at her back. She reached the top of the dune and jumped onto the edge of the sled, holding onto the pile of luggage as she slid down the other side. Then she dragged the heavy sled up the next dune. She would not think about her father or her home or the pain that threatened to tear her apart. She would think only of taking one more step, of getting over one more dune.
Without warning she came to the edge of the snowstorm, and the hot sun beat down on her again. Hours went by and soon Tarya was exhausted, but she didn’t slow down. She knew her father was still alive because his call still pulsed inside her, strong and steady as a heartbeat.
As the sun was beginning to set, she stopped to rest briefly at the top of a sand dune. She couldn’t resist the urge to look back towards her home. In the distance she saw the thick grey storm clouds assembled over the spot where she knew her father must be. As she watched, she saw a rising wisp of grey that was not a cloud. Her heart gave a lurch as she realized it was smoke. What kind of terrible battle was her father fighting at this very moment? Images raced through her mind, each more terrible than the last. And yet, his call continued as calm and steady as ever.
Tarya turned back to the way ahead, squinting as she faced the setting sun. Once the sun went down, she would be able to find the Blue Star and correct her course. For now, she walked toward the sun, as quickly as her tired legs would take her.
Then, without any warning or change, her father’s call stopped. It was as if a rope she had been hanging onto had snapped. She stumbled forward, landing on her knees in the sand. Tentatively she sent her call to him. It was like reaching into a void. There was nothing there.
A sob escaped her. She was utterly alone in the world.
She wanted to curl up on the sand and cry and cry until she fell asleep. She wanted to wake up in her tent next to her father, in a world where there was no danger and the Frost Queen was just a story and there was nothing that could ever, ever separate her from her father. She wanted it more than she had ever wanted anything in her whole life.
But her father was gone, and the Frost Queen was coming for her.
When the time comes, when the choice comes again, they will choose to fight.
Tarya got up. Wiped the tears off her face. Turned to face the west once again.
Behind her, a deadly enemy approached, cloaked in an icy storm. Ahead of her, the western sky blazed with crimson fire, and the desert was drenched in deep gold light.
She took a deep breath and began to walk forward toward the setting sun.