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Tara, Who Could Turn Into a Dragon

Tara, Who Could Turn Into a Dragon
by C. E. Hyun


Ashley meets Tara in a sun-lit meadow—a sea of gold and green—a detail he will later remember because of the manner in which she saves him. They are from two different worlds, separated by a mountain range whose strange shadow forest makes it impossible for most travelers to cross. They meet after Ashley is tricked and transported by magic into Tara’s world, into a fortress that is loyal to his enemy, Minnie Agnes.

* * *

It’s been four days since Ashley escaped his captors. Needing to stay on the run and with no other place to go, he has been moving in the direction of home—toward the mountains. Soldiers pursue him and he moves swiftly through the tall grass, the blades scratching and smooth against his face and neck.

He escaped with a sword and knife, but food and water he snatches in precious bits as he moves. Ashley wipes the sweat from his face. The sweet smell of the grass, the heat from the afternoon sun; it is getting to him. The tall grass opens up and he spots a brook: fresh water.

He kneels down to drink, the water cold and wet against his mouth. When he lifts his head, he spots her crouched behind a bush watching him, less than thirty paces away.

Ashley starts in surprise. As for Tara, her eyes widen almost comically, like a child caught in the midst of some embarrassing act. But she doesn’t run. Already getting over her embarrassment, Ashley sees curiosity in her face rather than fear.

It surprises him because he looks like what he is—an escaped prisoner—and she has no reason to believe he is someone who wouldn’t harm her. His first impression is that she is young, perhaps fifteen or sixteen. Hesitantly, as though worried that he might run, she moves around the bush and steps toward him.

She has black hair cut to her chin and wears a pale pink dress. An everyday dress, but with enough pretty braiding and embroidery to give Ashley the impression that someone who loves her—a mother or a doting family member—has taken special pains to make it for her.

She is very pretty, though it isn’t just her pretty face, her lithe young girl’s body. There is about her the naïveté of one who has not yet experienced a reason to be on her guard. She is young, that is true, but he can’t imagine Gillette—the woman he loves—ever regarding the world with such wide, open eyes.

“I’m Tara. Who are you?” she asks.

“Ashley.” He looks around, unsure how close the soldiers are. He wants to ask her where he is, if she knows who he could go to for help, but he doesn’t want to put her in danger.

“Are you-,” Tara starts to say, but is cut off when soldiers enter the clearing.

“Run!” Ashley draws his sword, glances back to see Tara retreating into the bushes. He rushes to meet the first soldier. The sound of sharp metal clangs, the gruff breathing, it is all strangely out of place. The blades of their swords flash silver and gold as they catch against the light.

Ashley hears a scream, and from the corner of his vision glimpses a soldier being knocked down by a golden tail. Other soldiers shout as they see the head that is attached to the tail. A dragon.

The dragon is covered all over in pale gold and strawberry-tinted scales. Wingless, it swims through the air like a sea snake. It rears back to strike one soldier with its head, swipe aside another with its tail. Ashley backs away and holds his sword at the ready. But after it knocks down the last soldier, the dragon merely turns and regards him, its tail slowly swaying back and forth.

The dragon blinks its large, brown eyes. Eyes which remind him remarkably of: “Tara?” Ashley lowers his sword.

The dragon seems to smile. Rising in the air, it performs what Ashley could best describe as a pirouette, and in a twirl it turns back into Tara, the pink skirt of her dress wrapping around her legs.

“Thank you,” Ashley says. “You saved my life.”

Tara dusts off her skirt. “It was nothing.” She looks around at the fallen soldiers. “Why did they attack you?”

“They were holding me prisoner at their fortress.” He isn’t sure how to explain how he has come to be here. “These soldiers, why did you protect me over them?”

Tara shrugs. “Six against one. You seemed to be the one in trouble. Where are you going?”

“I need to cross the mountains. I’m not from this world.”

“You have to go through the forest.”

“The shadow forest, but I don’t have the magic to go through. Perhaps you know someone--.”

“No, the forest under the mountain. Hayanmül, the Forest of White Water and Sand.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a secret.” She smiles. She has perfect teeth, and in the light they gleam a bright white. “I’ll take you.”

* * *

Ashley learns that Tara lives with her older sister in a nearby village called Jeju. She was on her way to the Hayanmül Forest when she came upon him.

They enter the forest through a series of underwater caves fed by rivers that lead into the mountain. The water is cold and the current is strong. Tara turns into her dragon form and Ashley clings to her back as she swims her way upstream. It is pitch dark inside the caves, with sections of them completely submerged. Tara has to search for air pockets so Ashley can breathe, and at several points Ashley gasps for breath as his lips brush against the tops of pebbly wet rock.

When they finally emerge from the caves, the water temperature immediately warms. The current slows and becomes still and there is light. Ashley is pushed to the water’s surface and he pants gratefully as he lies across Tara’s strawberry and gold-scaled back.

He looks up when Tara’s dragon head comes out of the water, shooting water and steam from her nostrils. She shakes her head, and as she shakes she transforms back into herself, her black hair clinging wet against her head. She turns to smile at him, her eyes bright and water droplets clinging to her eyelashes. Then she gives a startled “Oh!” and her surprised face splashes into the water.

Ashley belatedly realizes he is still holding onto her and that his weight now greatly outweighs hers. He lets go and she resurfaces, coughing and sputtering.

“I got you, I’m sorry, just catch your breath.” Turning onto his side, Ashley takes Tara so that she floats against him. Wrapping his arm around her chest, he swims them toward the shore. They clamber onto the riverbank. White sand sticks to Ashley’s wet hands and knees. The texture is gritty and smooth.

Tara is on her feet first. “We’re here!” Water drips from her hair and dress, but the cold doesn’t seem to bother her. She notices Ashley shivering, and sets about preparing a campfire.

Ashley soon sits huddled with a blanket wrapped around him, sipping the tea Tara has made him. The cold swim and the days of running and evading the soldiers have exhausted him. The cave is stocked with firewood and provisions from previous trips, and Tara has changed into a dry dress—a faded black one with white braiding and embroidered flowers. Her face glows pink, her drying hair reflects the firelight. Ashley watches Tara as she bustles about, admiring her vitality.

She finally sits down to share a meal of dumplings with him, unwrapping them from the small bag she carried.

“Did you make these?” he asks. The dumplings are filled with seasoned meat and some kind of tangy fruit, delicious after days of living on prison rations and foraged food.

“Nope. Neda made them for me.”

Tara tells him that it’s about a seven-day journey through the forest, that they will make their way by canoe. After they finish their meal, Tara drags her canoe from a nearby cave and fills it with the things they will need. She tells him to sit up front while she paddles. She talks excitedly, clearly happy to be playing the role of guide. She admits he’s the only other person she has come here with besides her sister.

“Have you heard stories about the mountain?” Tara asks.

“Only about the shadow forest, and how dark magic supposedly grows there. I know it’s dangerous, but that the magic is inherently good or bad?” Ashley shrugs. “I’ve never been persuaded.”

“That’s what Neda says.” Tara smiles. “This place is definitely magic. It’s said that the mountains are held up by the trees. When you look up, you’ll see how the branches of the trees crumble into sand. If you fell from up top, you would be trapped here forever. But the water is pure and plentiful here, better than you can find anywhere else.”

So far they’ve passed only white sand, rock caves, and boulders. “Are there really trees?” Ashley asks.

“You’ll see.”

And Ashley sees when the cave they’re paddling through suddenly opens up into something vast, its ceilings suddenly un-seeable. On either side of the river, what had been narrow strips of white sand spreads into something long and forever spreading. And then there are the trees.

They paddle past smooth, great trees whose trunks extend up to the cavernous tops. Their branches intermingle with the white sand above them, and through the cracks pour down white light. It is beautiful and it is still. Around some of the light shafts the sand glitters down like snow.

“How did you ever find this place?” Ashley asks.

“My family.”

She’d said she lived with her sister. “Where are your parents?”

“They’re dead,” Tara says shortly.

Ashley turns to face her. “My parents died at a young age too.”

“Really?”

“They were both in the war. There was war,” Ashley explains, “where we lived. My brother and I, we were brought up by our grandparents.”

“My family’s originally from your side of the mountain.” Tara frowns, considering. “I don’t remember any of it, I was only a baby. I just know there was a war going on at the time and that it wasn’t safe for us to stay. Maybe it’s the same war your parents were in.”

“It’s possible.” There is still war now.

“My father died. Neda took me through this forest. We came to Jeju. We’ve been there ever since.”

“What about your mother?”

“You can only enter the forest from your side through magic. The spell that gave Neda and me entrance cost my mother her life.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tara wants to know how he ended up on her side of the mountain. He must have been a prisoner of worth, with the level of magic needed to spirit him such a great distance.

“Are you a prince?” she asks.

“No.”

“Some special lord?”

“No, no relation to any great house.” Ashley explains how he fights against Minnie Agnes, queen of the northern kingdom and lord of the House of Rosewood.

“You’re a hero.”

“Some people see it that way. When it started, I was just a small town farm boy, had never even seen a real sword. We would’ve all been killed if it wasn’t for Gillette.”

“Who’s Gillette?”

He smiles at the memory. “She rescued me.”

Tara is watching him closely. “You love her.”

“Yes.” Gillette, descended from the House of Obsidian Flowers. “When I saw her, just the way she carried herself. I knew she was special.” He watches Tara paddle. “Why don’t you let me?”

Tara shakes her head. “You should rest.”

“I feel much better.” There is something healing about the forest, whether it is the sheer novelty or some kind of magic.

So they switch. Tara turns in her seat to watch him. There is a hungry expression on her face. “So Gillette taught you how to fight?”

“She did. Her house, they trained and protected me.”

“Is it fun?” she asks. And he knows she isn’t asking about his paddling the canoe.

The question has never been posed to him in this way. But the way she watches him, waiting for his answer, he sees that his answer is important to her, that it might confirm or deny her own thoughts about things she has not experienced herself. “It’s never boring,” he says.

* * *

The Hayanmül Forest is majestic with its column-like trees, the shafts of light, the glittering sand. It is quiet, with little life besides the trees. But in the water, life thrives.

Ashley peers into the water to see colors and shapes, entire self-contained worlds filled with exotic plants and the most curious creatures. There are strange fish that dart through the water like hummingbirds. A jeweled octopus they find clinging to the side of their canoe. There is an underwater tree that produces fruit that tastes of pomegranates. They canoe through a grove of them, the ripe fruits bobbing on the water’s surface like red balloons.

Tara knows the forest well, is full of stories about the curious things she has discovered in her years of coming here. Ashley couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic guide. He is grateful for her help—beyond grateful, he would be stumbling half-starved through unfamiliar lands if she hadn’t come along. He’s still marveling at how she easily takes a week out of her life to help a virtual stranger, how much she seems to delight in his company.

She asks him a lot of questions, is curious about his adventures. The way she looks at him sometimes, it reminds him of how he first looked at Gillette. How to his small-town eyes, Gillette appeared as someone larger-than-life and out-of-his-league.

So it quickly becomes apparent to him that Tara is attracted to him. He senses her curiosity, her trepidation, and keeps himself at a careful distance. He knows it is just as much, if not more, due to the novelty of his presence in her life than anything about him personally. He knows because in her place he too would be curious, even enamored.

Tara wants to hear about the war and he explains how it started in the south—his parents fought in a prelude to the greater war—and spread to involve the three kingdoms and western islands. Some call it the War of the Thirteen Flowers, some the War of the Dragons. Others say the war is another prelude for an overthrow of the great houses, a revolution the likes of which the region has never seen.

To Ashley, they’re just glamorized names, reminding him of the less than glamorous war he must go back to. He was seventeen when the war first touched him. Almost ten years have passed, but he remembers how it is to romanticize the fighting when it seems a far-off fiction rather than reality.

Ashley asks Tara about her life in Jeju. “How long have you and your sister been coming here?”

“Since I could walk. Neda’s a healer, where we live. Sometimes she finds things that help her with her work.”

“She lets you come here by yourself?” Tara was on her way to the forest when she met Ashley; her sister has no idea she picked up a stranger along the way.

“It’s difficult for her to say no.” Tara’s smile is little sister guilty and pleased. “We come here so often and she knows I can take care of myself. There isn’t much to do where we live, and there aren’t many people my age. The nearest city is six or seven days away.”

“So how do you spend your days?”

“I read, I help Neda. I spend a lot of time outside.”

“Can both you and Neda turn into dragons?” he asks. He is curious about Tara’s power, has never met anyone able to turn herself just by will. The thirteen houses claim they’re descended from the dragon gods—harpies and phoenixes, nagas and manticores—though none demonstrate an ability to transform into one. He knows wizards who can temporarily spell themselves into a different form.

“No, just me. We’re not sure where it comes from. Our parents never told Neda anything about it when they were alive.”

“Have you ever met anyone who can change their shape the way you can?”

“No.” She shrugs. “It’s also why Neda lets me come out here so often. That I can turn into a dragon, it’s just not something to tell people. Not that magic is considered bad where we live, exactly, but it’s different.”

* * *

One afternoon, Ashley and Tara canoe through a section of the river that widens into a pool. Light emanates from the center. Ashley is paddling and he peers down, fascinated, into the water. Because of the light’s intensity, he can’t make out its source. “What’s down there?”

“Hayanmül, what the forest is named after. It means white water.” Tara scoops up a small bag at the bottom of the canoe. She turns to Ashley and opens it, pulls out a white stone about the size of a walnut that gives off the same watery light. “I picked this one off in the shallows. The pool’s much deeper than it looks. Even when I dive down in dragon form I can only touch the very edge. It’s like a giant well.”

Ashley takes the stone between his fingers. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s beautiful.”

“You can find Hayanmül in other parts of the river, but they’re usually just stray stones. The brightest ones come from here. Some of the ones I’ve found give off a dim light or glow only at night.” She smiles. “Keep it. I’ll find more.”

“Thanks, Tara.”

“My sister told me this pool saved our lives when she first came through the forest. After our mother…Neda had directions on how to travel through the forest, but it was her first time and this place can seem like a maze. She didn’t have a boat then and no means to make one, so she walked, holding me, following the river. She was just a year older than I am now.” Tara’s voice is far away.

“She thought she made a wrong turn, that she followed the wrong river fork. And even though enough light comes down through the trees that there’s day and night, there’s no sun so you can figure out east and west. And there was no one here but her and me. She thought we would be trapped down here, until she came here. We named it the Nightlight Pool.”

Ashley looks around them and thinks how the light would appear, especially at night and to someone who was lost. “It fits.”

* * *

On the sixth day, they tie off Tara’s canoe and continue their journey through the forest on foot. It’s an uphill trek, and they scramble past waterfalls and rivulets, wend their way around the trunks of the great trees. Broken off sections lie in the white sand. They gleam a crystalline gray, having petrified into stone.

That night, they make camp on one of the petrified trunks, eat a dinner of nuts and roasted tubers. He makes Tara laugh when he tells her about the time he rescued a farm girl’s pet pig. He’d been with Gillette and several companions, and their reactions had ranged from amused exasperation to a dry, running commentary. The girl had been happy though, and Ashley had argued that a hero’s duty was to help anyone that needed it, not step back and worry about what his friends might think.

Afterwards, Ashley sits reflective in front of the fire. Tara is some distance away, bathing in one of the rivulets. He is remembering the later details of the story, the details he didn’t share with Tara. How he and the others came back to the village two years later and found it burnt down and pillaged. He doesn’t know what happened to that girl, her pet pig, or her family.

Ashley looks up when Tara approaches, fresh in an apple green dress. He stands up to take his turn at the baths. While washing, he sees a batch of silver ducklings playing upstream. Their parents stand on the shore, plumed in snowy white. On his way back, Ashley picks up a piece of petrified wood. He turns it over in his hands.

By the fire, he shows Tara how to sand the wood into a shallow bowl, explains how she can polish it to bring out the stone’s luster. It’s a simple thing, a simple skill, but it’s the most tangible thing he has to give her.

Tara holds the finished bowl in her lap. It’s a pretty thing, its crystalline edges reflecting the firelight, and Ashley wishes he thought of showing her how to do this sooner. If they had the time, there are many things he could show her. They’ve been skirting around the issue of his leaving, but he knows it’s on both their minds, now that they’ve left the river behind.

Instead they talk about their parents. “Do you miss them?” Ashley asks.

“I didn’t know them. I only know what Neda has told me. We talk about it sometimes. She wishes she could’ve known them as people, not just her parents. She said they were always there for her, but at that age, she resented them for it, for being so protective.” Tara rolls her eyes. “She has to rationalize their actions, now that she’s pretty much turned out the same way.”

Ashley smiles. “I can relate.”

They sit quiet around the fire. Tara sets aside the bowl on a blanket.

She surprises him when she asks: “Does it get easier, killing people?”

Ashley pauses, considering his answer. “That’s an odd question.”

Tara shrugs. “I think about it. My father was killed. So was my mother. I wonder what the other person is thinking, when they do it.”

“It never gets easier,” he says. “People want to live. No matter the reason, you’re taking that away from them.”

“Do they stay with you, the people that you kill?”

“It stays with you,” Ashley says. Not necessarily as individual faces, but it stayed.

The first time he killed, he was properly horrified and regretful at the loss of life. Then with the war surrounding him and soldiers constantly coming after him, killing became a part of his everyday life. It didn’t matter that the people he killed were his enemies, that the other person was just as ready to kill him. Some faces haunted him, some he quickly forgot. In the beginning, he never took pleasure from it, just learned to steel himself for what he needed to do.

Then over time—as his idealism wore down, as his reasons for fighting seemed increasingly futile—there were times where in the heat of the moment, he took sadistic pleasure in it. How afterwards he didn’t regret what he felt, that the feelings were his entitlement. It isn’t a feeling he would wish on anyone who hasn’t experienced it.

Ashley looks up to see Tara is steeling herself to ask something. Her eyes are round when she speaks. “When we get to your world, let me come with you. I can help you.”

Ashley looks at Tara. It’s not a question of ability. She is resourceful. She is strong. She has proven herself able to fight when she is in her dragon form. He thinks, given time, she could adapt to his type of life. And while there are certain dark parts of his life, what about the innumerable rewards? Maybe she would be happier in it. Still:

“I can’t.”

She tries to keep her face expressionless, but he can see that he has hurt her.

“I can’t take you from your home. You have your sister. You’re not of age. Your mother gave her life so that you could leave my world and be safe.” He says other things, even though he sees Tara doesn’t want to hear his explanations. His answer is enough. “Tara…”

Her chin trembles, but her voice is steady when she speaks. “I understand.” She looks away. “We’re almost to the end of the forest. You’ll be back on your side of the mountain tomorrow.”

* * *

Ashley later lies awake and listens to Tara as she pretends to be asleep. He swallows. He wants to say something to her, but what? He has no good argument as to why he should say no. All he can think is that following him means going into war. And going to war will change her.

He knows it is entirely selfish, that his desire to protect her is more for his benefit than hers. But he fears to see her change. He remembers how he changed, and it is in his journey with Tara that Ashley realizes the healing balm it is to be close to one whose sense of youthful wonder and appreciation is intact. It is with sadness he recognizes that this sense is no longer a fundamental part of his own self.

In his dreams, he relives memories of their journey through the Hayanmül Forest. He is paddling through a swampy, jungle-like section of the river when he notices water droplets that slowly rise into the air. They bob about him, tracing themselves in vein-like lines along some invisible current.

“Oh!” Tara says when he points it out to her. “We’re close to the water rise.” Her face brightens. “I can show you, if you want to see it.”

Ashley has seen a water rise only one other time in his life. He knows they should continue on their journey. As much as he wants to explore all the forest’s wonders, he is on a mission, not a vacation. But he can’t ignore the hopeful expression on Tara’s face, nor the fact that she made this long trip without asking anything of him in return.

So they tie up the canoe and trek into the forest, following the line of floating droplets. Further in the forest, the water droplets begin to merge, flowing through the air like silver ribbons. They eventually come to a tree whose middle bulges sphere-like and wide. The water gathers around the tree’s base like a swirling skirt, spinning swiftly to build momentum, before shooting up the tree’s length to meet the mountain’s very top.

Tara turns into her dragon form and Ashley climbs onto her back. They rise into the air, following the rise of the water. Stray droplets and grains of white sand rise with them, and Ashley reaches out to feel the magic that lifts them far and away from the forest floor.

Where water rise meets mountain ceiling, Ashley sees how the water dribbles up into the white sand and crystalline branches, perhaps to feed some river on the mountain above. From the cracks grow enormous flowers. Their vines are delicate and furled, and white light leaks from the ceiling like water. Snow white butterflies flutter about the fragrant blossoms, and Tara’s dragon scales glitter peach and pink and gold.

Suddenly, Tara reverts back into her human form. One moment Ashley clutches her scaled back, the next he clutches empty air. At first he thinks Tara lost control of her powers—perhaps the magic from the water rise affected it in some way—and that they will drop like stones to the forest floor. Then he sees Tara a little ways below him, floating primly as though sitting on an invisible cushion. A mischievous smile plays on her lips.

“Tara, you could have warned me!”

She laughs. “I’m sorry.” She doesn’t sound sorry at all, clearly enjoying his surprise. “It’s the magic. It lifts you up so you can float here. I couldn’t fly up this high if I didn’t have the magic to help me.”

They end up staying by the water rise for longer than they should. Tara lies on her back. Ashley floats on his stomach, staring out at the still and glittering forest below. “It is really beautiful here,” he says.

“It is,” Tara replies dreamily. Her eyes are closed and her hair is spread out like a halo. A butterfly flutters about her nose. “I could stay up here for days.”

They truly could, just bathing in the magic and the light.

* * *

Ashley wakes up with a start, the memory of that day jarring with the chilled, early morning. He sits up slowly, disentangling himself from his bedroll. The fire is mere embers and he looks across the petrified trunk to see Tara curled up in her blankets like a cocoon, snoring softly.

He is picking water cherries from the rivulet when Tara walks over to join him. “Good morning,” she says.

“Hey, Tara.” Ashley shows her the patches of ripe cherries he has found.

They pick quietly, neither mentioning the previous night, until Ashley pushes aside a branch to notice a spider web sprinkled with pale, dust-like seeds.

“Tara, look.” He points to the web’s owner, a pale gray spider about the size of a corn kernel. It scrambles about, extracting the tiny seeds with determined yanks before hurling the seeds into the water.

“I think he’s a little angry,” Ashley remarks, and Tara giggles.

The moment helps lift their subdued moods, and they walk back to their camp with the cherries, eating them from the new bowl that Ashley helped Tara make. It isn’t until they’re packed up and walking that Ashley brings up last night’s conversation:

“Tara, you know it’s not that I don’t want you or that I don’t think well of your abilities. What I do… it changes you. Some of the things I’ve done, the choices I’ve made… It’s not my decision to make, I realize that. But I couldn’t watch it happen to you.”

“I know,” she says quickly. “And I couldn’t really leave, not without Neda knowing why I left. I just-, I knew we were almost at your side of the mountain and was sad that you were leaving.” Tara jumps over a rivulet. “Be careful. This spot is slippery.”

* * *

The sun is setting when they emerge from the Hayanmül Forest. Ashley follows Tara as she squeezes behind a waterfall. Suddenly they’re standing on a stone outcropping at the mountain’s base. Below him are the forests and hills that are familiar to his world. Unbidden, his heart swells.

He turns to Tara who smiles, reading the relief on his face. “Welcome home.”

She tells him she can’t go any farther because of the way the magic works, that there’s a settlement about an hour’s walk away. He can find a place to sleep there and send along a message to Gillette.

“I can’t thank you enough, taking me all this way,” he tells her.

“It was nothing.”

“It was everything to me. And everything to the people I’m fighting with.”

“I’m glad I could help you. I wanted to.” She looks down at the ground, suddenly shy. The sun lights up her hair and yellow-checked dress. Watching her, Ashley feels his throat tighten.

“You’ll be all right going back by yourself?” Ashley asks gruffly.

“I know my way.” She smiles. “Don’t forget about me?”

“Never.”

She hugs him. He hugs her back, feeling the rapidity of her heartbeat against his chest. “I’ll miss you,” she whispers.

Ashley strokes the back of her hair. “You’ll be fine.” She would be more than fine, and he wishes he had the words to fully articulate his meaning. He eventually lets go and Tara pulls away, smoothing her dress.

“I’ll be the first person you visit, when you come my way again,” Tara says. There are tears in her eyes, but she smiles for him.

“Always.” He shoulders his bag. “Bye, Tara.”

Ashley makes his way down the waterfall ledge. At the bottom, he looks back at Tara and waves. She waves back, her hair framing her face, her figure like a small arrow against the setting sun. Ashley turns and begins to walk.

* * *

It is dark when Ashley reaches the settlement. He gets a room at the local inn, asks for materials to send a message. He is up late writing to Gillette, wanting to let her know that he is safe. His mind is full of the things he wants to tell her. About how he found his way through the Hayanmül Forest. About the girl who delivered him home: Tara, who could turn into a dragon.

* * *

C.E. Hyun’s stories have appeared in The Northville Review, Foliate Oak, Swamp Biscuits and Tea, and the British Fantasy Society’s BFS Journal. She currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and at www.cehyun.com.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

For this story, at its heart, the idea was to celebrate the power of youth. I think that everyone, to some degree, has been in Tara’s position (enamored by someone older and more experienced) and later in Ashley’s position (recognizing that his desire to protect Tara is just as much, if not more, for his benefit than hers). In meeting Tara, Ashley essentially meets a younger version of himself. I wanted to convey (and hope this came through in the writing!) that a lot of the things he would have viewed as limitations at that age (sheltered, untested, idealistic) are now from his older viewpoint also advantages. The very fact that Tara is untested and has all her possibilities open to her gives her a certain power that Ashley no longer has.

As for the world Tara and Ashley inhabit, the Hayanmül Forest was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, specifically the scene where the main characters fall into a forest under a forest (it was so pretty and I wanted them to never leave!). Besides that, I was quite into Legend of the Seeker and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series for a while, so some of the background war and history is inspired from that.

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