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Moonlight and Sunshadow

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It was sunrise when the dragon came.

Katara had risen in the early morning half-light to skin her brother’s kills. Sokka spent many nights now hunting for the tribe, since their father left. He should have hunted during the day, but Sokka’s inner desire to keep his people safe outweighed logic. No matter how many times Katara told him she could protect the tribe while he hunted regardless of the time, Sokka refused, keeping close to the village and only leaving if he thought there was no threat.

There was always a threat, but Katara wouldn’t tell him that.

Sokka looked up as she emerged from the hut, pulling her hood up over her braids. “Good,” he said, stepping back from the tiger seal lying on the ice. “You can help me with this.”

Katara yawned, covering her mouth with one gloved hand. “How long have you been awake?”

Sokka shrugged. “Not long. I got lucky.”

Good. Sokka needed to be lucky more often if he was going to keep them all fed. Not that the women couldn’t hunt, it was just Sokka thought they couldn’t. Like many men of the tribe, he underestimated the mothers and grandmothers. And, most of all, his own sister.

Katara knelt next to the seal. Sokka had already gutted it — intestines lay in a steaming pile beside the body. Drawing out her own bone knife, Katara got to work, slipping her blade into the tissue connecting the hide to the thick blubber beneath.

“This should help,” Sokka said quietly. “With the fish Koki and the other women pull up, we’ll stay fed for a while yet.”

“If you keep bringing home tiger seals, we won’t have to worry about much.” Katara ran the skin through her fingers. It would need to be stretched and tanned before anything could be done with it, but it was a beautiful section. “Thank you, Sokka.”

He huffed.

“But you need to start bringing the kids with you.” Katara didn’t try to press the point that he should bring her . That argument had been lost years ago. Now the arguments had moved from “But you’re a girl!” to “Someone needs to keep an eye on the little kids, Katara, and who better than you?”

Katara would argue that their mothers could look after them, but she was tired of the discussion.

The first fingers of cold, pale light drifted over the horizon, illuminating Katara’s hands against the sealskin. A wind fluttered up from the south, teeth biting, and Katara raised a hand almost unthinkingly to erect an inelegant wall of ice and snow between the seal carcass and the cold.

“Still practicing that bending, huh?” Sokka asked.

“I’m getting better.” Katara didn’t mean to sound so defensive, but it was difficult not to be upset by the laughing tone of voice. “It’s hard to learn when there’s no one here to teach me here.” She sighed. “Maybe someday.”

Sokka snorted. “Yeah, and maybe someday bison will fly, but right now, we have to get this done before the sun comes up.”

He gestured off to the east, where the light strengthened. Even now the colors shifted from gray and white to blue and white, a sure sign of true daylight.

Katara huffed. “Why? The tiger seal will still be here once the sun rises.”

Sokka rolled his eyes. “And so will the kids. Remember the last time we let the kids help skin something?”

“That’s because you gave Ronrin a knife and no direction!”

“I thought he’d be better at this!” Sokka said defensively.

“He’s six !”

Sokka grumbled something. “Just work faster, okay?”

Katara made a face and kept working. The blubber was good and thick in the seal and would light the collection of tents and the igloo for long enough to make Katara’s efforts worth it. She paused in her cutting to pop the tiger seal’s eyes out of their sockets, severing the optic nerves with quick slices. Gran-Gran loved the eyes. Katara would bring them to her later.

Silence fell on the ice. In the distance, the other tiger seals bellowing calls began as the light emerged. The sun rose red today, blood and cold. A tiny fingernail crescent of scarlet peered over the horizon.

“Sokka,” Katara asked in a small voice, “what are we going to do if you can’t keep this up?”

“Don’t think about that,” Sokka said. “We’re doing fine. I don’t know why you always have to worry about things.”

Katara worried because Sokka was the only man over ten in the tribe and he refused to teach the boys. Katara didn't know why. Pride? Stupidity? The women could hunt too, given the opportunity. And yet, Sokka was stubborn. He expected their father and the other warriors back any day. But Katara was more realistic. If it hadn’t happened yet, it might not. Ever. They needed a contingency plan.

Wiping her hair out of her face and ignoring the blood on the snow around her, Katara looked up at the sky. The sun was half risen now, a great half slice of red. Clouds pooled along the horizon, stained crimson.

“Sokka,” Katara said. “What’s that?”

She pointed. Sokka followed her gloved hand, squinting into the brightness at the small, undulating shape silhouetted against the sun. He opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“What the … ?”

It came closer, a sinuous line in the air, approaching fast. Katara kept thinking the size was wrong, that it had to be closer than she’d originally thought, but no. It kept growing. Estimating the size was hard, but it was bigger than an igloo. Bigger than the warrior’s ships. Like some kind of eel or …

“Dragon,” she whispered.

Sokka leapt to his feet, bloody spear held at the ready. The dragon was nearly overhead, a slithering shape descending towards them. Katara stood, knife in hand, staring as the dragon flew over them. Golden belly scales flickered in the bloody sun.

“What’s it doing here?” Sokka yelled as the dragon circled over them, coming closer and closer to the snow. “They’re not supposed to be this far south.” He paused. “And aren’t they all dead?”

“Clearly this one isn’t!” Katara shouted back.

But then there wasn’t time to talk as the dragon landed in the middle of the village, its massive body cluttering up the areas between tents. The scales on its back and wings glow the same color as the sun and Katara held a hand over her eyes.

Sokka shoved her behind him, but she forced her way back to his side. People screamed in the tents, the cries of children echoing across the ice.

The dragon swiveled its massive head and lock its golden gaze on Katara. It opened its mouth, dark crest and mane expanding around its canine face.

“There are ships coming,” the dragon said.

It sounded remarkably human, though the flash of teeth  as long as her forearm didn’t put Katara at ease. It craned its massive neck to look out to sea. “Fire Nation ships. You must hide your people.”

Sokka looked at Katara in horror. There hadn’t been ships here in years. Who cared about some primitive Water Tribe village in the south when the North still stood strong? And where would they put the people? There was nowhere to hide on the flat ice except for the village.

“Katara.” Sokka grabbed her by the shoulders, the dragon forgotten. “Do something.”

“What?” Her gloved hand flew to her face. “What do you expect me to do?”

Sokka waved a hand. “Bend it. Freeze the ships into the ocean or make a snowstorm or something.”

She brushed his hands off, shaking her head. “No! I can’t! I’m not powerful enough, and I don’t have any training. I can’t do anything that big!”

“You don’t have a lot of time,” the dragon said. It dropped its huge head so it stared right at Katara — from the bottom of its jaw to the top of its head was taller than Katara, without counting its horns. The dragon’s huge eyes were the color of molten gold. The left one was surrounded by broken scales, blackened and cracked as though they’d been burned.

The voice … Katara couldn’t get past it. It sounded so human, so young , a dark rasp covering jangling nerves. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine it as belonging to a man around her brother’s age, barely out of childhood. If it hadn’t been so large, rumbling through the dragon’s massive chest.

“Katara!” snapped Sokka.

The dragon looked at her. “Are you a bender?” it asked.

“Y-yes.” She shook her head. “But I’m not trained.”

“Then you’ll have to learn fast,” the dragon said.

She should be scared of it, but she was more scared of the ships. Memories of the last time the ships had come wrapped around her heart and squeezed — her mother, the men with the fire. Not again. Never again.

But how?

“I can’t do this,” Katara whispered.

“You can.” The dragon dropped its head down beside her, voice a deep grumble more heard than felt. “You have to. If you can’t, your people will be discovered and rounded up. Their safety will be in the hands of the fire nation. Is that what you want?”

“No.” Katara stood straighter. She shook herself all over like a wet polar bear dog and closed her eyes.

Around her, the wind howled, cold even though her parka. She spread her feet apart and breathed in that chill, listening to the creak of the ice, the crunch of snow beneath the dragons shifting feet. This was her home, her place in the world. And if she couldn’t bend this, she’d never bend anything.

Katara breathed.

Then she reached down with both hands, almost to the snow itself, and lifted with all her might.

Ice creaked and squealed. Cracks formed beneath Katara’s boots and healed immediately. The ground heaved, but she kept her feet.

And then the ice moved.

A massive wall, half liquid, half solid, rose from the tundra at one side of the village, looming over it, shadowing the tents and igloo. It froze as it grew, becoming a solid sheet, whole but rough and rugged, not unlike the other icy eruptions across the otherwise flat ground.

“Good,” the dragon murmured. “Another.”

Gritting her teeth, Katara finished and started the second, opposite the first. This one came in at a lower angle, wider and more gently sloping, a hill rather than a mountain. But she pulled just as hard and the second ice wall bumped up against the first, forming a sort of lean to.

Sweat rolled into Katara’s eyes. Her arms trembled.

“One more,” the dragon said, not unkindly but with growing urgency. “They’ll be in sight range soon.”

Katara raised her aching arms and pulled from the depths of her soul. The third wall slotted into place with a groan, surrounding the village on three sides, leaving only a hidden entrance away from the sea as egress.

But it looked too new. There was no snow to blend the opaque blue ice into the landscape and Katara couldn’t even lift her hands to bend.

“Let me,” the dragon said as though reading her mind. It lifted into the air, snake-like body coiled beneath it, and reared back. When it flapped, wind slammed into Katara. She braces herself against the onset of cold. Snow blew past her, catching against the new ice walls and half-burying them.

They could have been there for years, a solid, rocky outcrop, snow studded and, most importantly, deserted.

“Come on.” The dragon swished its tail, nearly as long as the rest of its serpentine body. “Get around to the back before the ships come.

Katara seized Sokka’s hand, dragging him behind the new fortification. The village had been cast into sudden shadow by the walls. Children and women watched Katara’s entrance with wide eyes glowing in the dim light.

When the dragon piled in behind her, someone screamed.

“He’s on our side,” Katara called, unsure if she believed it. Despite the size of the icy shield, the dragon made it seem cramped as it pulled its long tail in and curled around tents and igloos, blocking much of the entrance.

“Katara!” Gran-Gran hurried towards her grandchildren, casting one nervous eye towards the dragon. “What’s happening?”

Katara’s knees trembled and she stumbled, catching herself against the dragon’s hide. Tiny scales rasped against her mitten and she pulled away.

“Fire nation patrol,” the dragon rumbled, amazingly quiet for something so big.

“They never come this far south,” Gran-gran insisted.

“They have.”

Sokka sprinted across the shadowed village to the wall Katara had created. He pressed his hands against the ice and peered through a thin gap between the slabs. Katara watched him intently. A pause. Then his back stiffened.

Pulling himself away from the wall, Sokka wove his way through the tents to Katara’s side. “The dragon’s right, Gran-Gran,” he said, face pulled into somber lines. “Three ships. Moving slowly. They’re probably not expecting to find much, but we should lay low, just in case.”

Gran-Gran nodded. Then, to Katara’s shock, turned and bowed to the dragon. “Thank you,” she said. “We are a simple people trying to live a life of freedom, and you have saved us from this threat.”

“I haven’t saved you yet,” said the dragon, though it inclined its great head in response to her bow. “And you should be thanking your waterbender here, not me.”

Gran-Gran turned her steady gaze on Katara, who blushed. “She is a miracle,” Gran-Gran said as though agreeing with the dragon. “Please excuse me. I must help keep the children quiet.”

As Gran-Gran bustled away, Katara let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. The dragon curled its head down to watch her but she was too tired to be scared of it anymore.

“You must be exhausted,” hissed the dragon.

Katara nodded and only then realized exactly how tired she was. Her legs trembled and she slumped against the dragon’s warm side. Its scales rasped against her parka and caught in her braid as she slid down to sit, her back against the dragon’s hide and her bottom in the snow. Cold seeped into her sealskin parka.

As she dropped, the dragon settled with her. The heat coming from it was enormous and overwhelming, more heat than she’d ever felt in her life. Wherever dragons came from, Katara thought as sleep pulled at her, it must be very warm indeed. Or perhaps very cold.

The dragon’s tail curled around her, almost protective, and Katara quite contentedly passed out.

When she woke later, it was past midday. The cold sun burned above her head, a point of pale light against the unending blue sky and equally blue ice. The dragon hadn’t moved. Its head rested on the ground, eyes slitted by not closed. A translucent third eyelid drew halfway across the golden iris, but despite that, the dragon was still awake. It flicked its huge eyeball towards her as she moved.

“Don’t go too fast,” it told her. “That’s more bending than I’m sure you’re used to. Your body won’t like it.”

Katara huffed. The broken memories of the morning returned to her in slow blossoms as she looked around at the now shadowed village. “I’m perfectly capable of bending, and I don’t need you to tell me how much I can handle,” she snapped, and then remembered what she was talking to. Horror ran through her and she shied away. “I’m sorry.”

The dragon’s darkened eye twitched to her. “I’m not trying to offend you,” it said in a tone that sounded very offended. “Your brother wants your attention.”

Katara looked up. It was true — Sokka stood about ten feet away, watching her, hunting spear in hand but held upright as though making a desperate attempt not to threaten the massive beast wrapped around Katara’s tiny form.

“Sokka.” She got up, pushing herself to her feet using the dragon’s side. Sokka didn’t come any nearer so she went to him, stepping over the end of the dragon’s tail on her way. She reached out and wrapped her mittened hand around Sokka’s so both of them gripped the spear. “Is everyone all right?”

Sokka nodded. He didn’t take his eyes off the dragon. “No one wanted to get near you,” he whispered back, clearly trying and failing to be quiet. “What were you thinking, staying so near that thing?”
Katara turned and looked over her shoulder at the dragon, which watched them with its huge eyes, unblinking. “I passed out, you dumb-dumb,” she told her brother as though he was a child of three, not a man of nineteen. “I didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter.”

The way Sokka kept eyeing the dragon — a creature so large it could have swallowed him without chewing — told Katara he didn’t believe her, but she didn’t have time. Now that she’d stepped away from the dragon’s warmth, she too was terrified at the risk she’d taken. It could have killed her, killed them all. But she didn’t feel like it was going to. For whatever her feelings were worth.

“The ships,” Katara said, changing the subject. “Are they gone?”

Sokka nodded. “They sailed off over the horizon an hour ago. Gran-Gran said to leave you be, that you’d worn yourself out.” He looked up at the ice covering them. “How’d you do that anyway?”

Katara shrugged. “Desperation?”

Sokka snorted. “Should have done that years ago.” He sighed and leaned more heavily on the spear. “I guess we all owe your new friend a thank you.”

“I accept,” said the dragon with a hint of amusement in its voice.

Sokka sketched a respectful salute to the beast. “Thank you, oh eminent dragon,” he said in the tone of someone searching for words not his own. “Your benevolence has saved us from … uh …” His eyes flicked to Katara and found no help on her face. “Fiery disaster. We owe you a great debt.”

“No debt,” the dragon said, stretching and rising to its feet, though it stayed crouched enough to remain eye level with the siblings. “Just an offer.” It looked around the village, at the children peering at it and Gran-Gran coming close enough to hear the conversation if not quite joining in it.

“What kind of offer?” Sokka asked before Katara could say anything.

The dragon’s forked tongue slipped out of its mouth and disappeared.

“Your tribe is struggling,” the dragon said, looking Sokka’s spear up and down. “You don’t have enough hunters, food, or protection.”

Sokka opened his mouth but the dragon hissed and he bit back his response.

“I’ll provide for you,” the dragon said. “Food. Protection. I can keep the ships away from you, especially now that they can’t see you. But I’ll lead them away or ward them off if they come near. I’ll keep your people safe. I promise.”

A dark silence fell over the village.

Katara licked her lips.

“And what do you want in return?” asked Sokka.

The dragon’s eyes flickered over the villagers and stopped on Katara. The dark slit pupils expanded. The tongue flickered out again, breath steaming in the cold.

“I want her,” it said.


 

“You can’t,” Sokka said, smacking his hand against the ice block wall of the communal igloo.

Katara didn’t say anything. After the dragon’s staggering pronouncement, she didn’t know what to do, what to say, even what to think. She just kept its golden gae, watching those huge slit pupils widen like black holes as they watched each other. That is, until Sokka seized her hand and yanked her hard behind him, insisting to the dragon that no one was going to touch his sister, that the dragon could to something anatomically impossible with its offer.

So now they were in the igloo to fight about it where the dragon couldn’t hear.

Katara still found herself somewhat in shock. What did it mean, it wanted her? Did it want to eat her? Or just … keep her. Like a pet.

She wanted to ask, but Sokka had been about to explode from apoplectic rage, so she figured she should keep silent. For now.

He’d even kept Gran-Gran out, dropping the hide curtain door in her face as he stormed into the space. Now he paced around the eating area, avoiding the furs strewn on the floor. Katara planted her feet and folded her arms, glaring back at Sokka as he paced and ignored her.

“I can do what I want,” she told him, though she was still unsure what she was agreeing to. Or even if she was agreeing at all. She just didn’t want Sokka to boss her around, or allow her to do things.

She just wanted answers.

Sokka whirled on her. “So what, you’re going to give yourself up to a giant dragon to do who-knows-what with?” His eyes narrowed. Punctuating each word with a forceful pause, he spat “It’s going to eat you .”

“We don’t know what it wants with me because you didn’t bother to give me time to ask!” Katara ran her hands over her hair. “Sokka, it’s right. You can’t feed the whole tribe. If it’s willing to help us — and if it’s not going to eat me — then we have to at least think about it.”

“We need you here too,” Sokka said. He waved his hands as though indicating everything around them. “You saved us too, just as much as that dragon. You’re important here.”

“I’m not as important as eating,” Katara said. “I’m not as important as not having to watch my people starve. What if you get hurt, Sokka?”

“I won’t.”

“What if you do?” she insisted. “This could give you time to teach some of the kids enough to help you. It could make us self-sufficient instead of all putting it on you.”

“It’s gonna eat you !” Sokka yelped.

“You know what, hold on.” Katara pushed her way out of the igloo, past Gran-Gran who hovered around the door with eyes like steel, and past every other member of the tribe lurking behind her. Katara didn’t look at them. She stomped her way across the ice to the dragon, who regarded her with cool interest, head cocked to one side.

Her hands shook. She put them on her hips to hide the movement.

“Are you going to eat me?” she said peevishly, glaring up at the dragon.

It jerked its head back. “No,” it said and the shock and disgust in its voice made it sound even younger than it already did. “No, of course no. I’m not going to hurt you at all, I promise.”

“You promise a lot,” Katara said.

If the dragon’s face was more malleable, she thought it would be scowling at her, but the scales and thick hide didn’t bend the way human skin did. Regardless, the annoyance was clear in its voice. “I want you to come and live with me. I have somewhere. It’s … you’ll be safe there. Maybe even happy.” It coughed, a puff of smoke. “Maybe not. But you won’t be harmed. It’s not some cave full of skulls if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Katara shaded her eyes against the sun as she stared up at the beast. “No skulls?”

“Not even a spare femer.”

She almost cracked a smile then, but the fear was still too present. “And in return, you’ll care for my people?”

“Yes.”
“All I need to do is live with you?”

“Yes.”

Katara bit her lip. “For how long? Forever?”

The dragon broke her gaze, huge eyes focusing on its clawed toes as though it was somehow embarrassed or ashamed. “No, of course not. I’d never take you away from your family forever. For a year. A year and a day.”

That was nothing. It would hurt Katara to leave her people for even a minute, she knew that. But a year? For their protection? That was nothing.

She didn’t look back at Sokka or Gran-Gran. She couldn’t. This was her choice and the horror and pain in their faces would take that choice from her.”

“I’ll go,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “I’ll do it.”

“Katara, no!” Sokka’s footsteps crunched in the snow as he ran towards her. “You can’t.”

She whirled on him. “I can, and I will. I’m doing this for you, Sokka. For all of you. Let me do this. I need to.”

She didn’t know why, but it was important. They were important.

In a whisper of snow on scales, the dragon leaned down to her and said, quite softly for such a monstrously large creature, “Are you sure?”

That shocked Katara more than anything else had today — more than the ships, or the dragon’s appearance in the first place, or its strange offer. The worry in its voice. The way its scales shifted around its eyes almost like eyebrows but not quite. Despite the fact that it had teeth the size of Gran-Gran, the dragon was … cautious. Maybe even afraid.

And it was giving her another chance to back out.

Somehow, that made her decision easier. Keeping her eyes on the dragon, she nodded once. “I’m sure.”

The dragon’s eyes closed. Katara found its animal expressions hard to read, but she thought this might be relief, or perhaps despair.

Abruptly, it turned away from her, tail swishing. “Pack your things and say your goodbyes,” it said, voice harsh and cold once more. “We leave at dusk.”

Numb, Katara turned away and walked into the tent she shared still shared with Sokka — despite his snoring. She pushed aside the tent flap and stood in the center of the small, warm space, the only home she’d known for all seventeen years of her life. Everything around her felt strange and alien now, smelling familiar and yet distant all at the same time. The smell of polar bear dog fur and tiger seal skin pressed against her.

Tears welled in her eyes but she pushed them away.

Sokka shoved aside the flap, as she knew he would. “Katara!” he said and then stopped, as though the shock was too much for him to find the right words.

She didn’t turn, just walked to her bedroll and began rolling the hide and fur into a bundle. She didn’t have that much. Just her clothing and some trinkets from her parents, or things Sokka had made for her years ago before he was so stressed about feeding the tribe. It wouldn’t take her long to gather everything together.

“Katara,” Sokka said, more softly this time.

She paused and let her head droop. “I have to,” she told him.

“You don’t.”

Katara sighed. “Maybe I don’t. Maybe we could survive without help. But Sokka.” She turned and looked over her shoulder, unable to keep the fear and pain out of her voice. “I don’t want to hang our lives on a maybe.”

Sokka knelt beside her and put an awkward arm around her shoulders. Unable to handle the contact and stay strong, Katara leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his chest and burying her cold face in the front of his parka. The hunting and fighting had given Sokka heavy muscles in his shoulders and chest, but he still had some of that childhood skinniness around his ribs that he hadn’t lost despite growing up.

“I love you,” she told him, her voice strangled.

“I love you too.” Grudging, but sincere, just like everything Sokka did. “I don’t want you to have to go.”

“I don’t either.” She took a wavering breath. “I don’t want to leave you and Gran-Gran, but if I can take care of you by going, I’m going to do it.”

“I know,” Sokka said softly. “I’d probably do the same thing.”

She snorted. “You’d try to fight the dragon.”

“I’m considering it now. You want me to? I’ll do it.”

Katara shook her head, unable to stop herself from smiling. “Don’t be stupid.”

Sokka didn’t say anything.

“Help me pack.” Katara pulled away, wiping her eyes. “I have to get my things so I can say goodbye.”

Sokka helped without speaking, handing her things that she didn’t think she would need, or even things that weren’t hers — their father’s beaded bracelets, made by their mother years ago, along with a handful of skinny bone knives Sokka had made for himself, spending months carving their hilts into seals and penguin otters.

“I can’t take these,” she told him.

“Take them.” Sokka pressed his lips together. “You’ll need to protect yourself.”

Katara tucked the knives into her bedroll without any more discussion.

By the time the sun streaked red on the horizon, Katara had packed all her things and said her goodbyes. Gran-Gran took her into the igloo and had her kneel before the altar to the spirits and ancestors. There, her grandmother asked the spirits to bless her, singing to them in her low, warm voice until tears rolled down Katara’s face. Afterwards, Katara offered her own prayers and offerings, and said her goodbyes to her mother.

“Mom,” she whispered, even though the igloo was empty — Gran-Gran left her alone for this final goodbye. “I have to go away. In order to protect the tribe, I have to leave and … and take my chances with this deal. It’s the only way we’re going to make it. Sokka works so hard, but he’s only one person. Hopefully with me gone, he’ll teach the younger kids to hunt. To take the work off himself.” She sucked in a long breath. “I’m so scared, Mom. I don’t know where I’m going or what’s going to happen to me. But I know this is what’s best. I’m protecting my people. Our culture.” Another shaking breath, tears filling her eyes and blurring the alter with its small statues — walruses and fish, a sinuous eel whale, almost like a dragon — “You were so brave, Mom. You did the same thing. You gave yourself to help me and protect me. Now I have to do the same thing.”

By the time she left the igloo, her tears were under control and her cheeks dry. She hefted her pack on her back. The sky, dark red and stained with deep purple clouds, stared down at her.

The dragon, curled at the edge of the village, raised its head as she approached. “Are you ready?”

Katara nodded.

“Don’t you hurt my sister!” Sokka yelled, shaking his fist at the dragon.

The dragon cocked its head. “I would never.”

Gran-Gran, more polite but no less stubborn, bowed to the dragon, but stood her ground. If the situation wasn’t so dire, Katara would have said she was giving the dragon the stink-eye. “Please care for my granddaughter as you’ve promised to care for us,” she told the dragon, a demand rather than a request. “She’s also part of this tribe. Perhaps the most important part.” Her eyes flicked to Katara. “She is our last bender, the only connection to our cultural heritage. Katara is precious.”

The dragon nodded its head, almost a bow in response to Gran-Gran’s. “Yes, my Lady,” it said, sounding even younger than usual. “I will treat her with all the respect, dignity, and caution she deserves.”

“You should,” Gran-Gran said, glancing at Katara, “because my granddaughter is formidable in her own right, as you’ve seen. If you hurt her, I have no doubt that she’ll destroy you.”

“Gran-Gran!” hissed Katara, mortified.

“I believe you,” said the dragon. It turned to Katara and lowered its head. “Please,” it said.

Katara took a deep breath and climbed onto the dragon’s neck, settling itself just behind the head. The fur of its mane flowed around its legs. Nervously, she reached up and grasped the dragon’s horns to keep her seat.

“Are you ready?” the dragon asked.

“Yes,” Katara said, feeling anything but.

The dragon rose into the darkening sky. Below them, the village shrunk until the gathered tribe was no more than a grouping of dark dots against the blue of the ice.

Katara pretended she wasn’t crying as the dragon turned and flew north, away from everything Katara had ever known. The dragon didn’t notice. Or maybe it was pretending as well. Either way, Katara was glad for it.