A playful ray of sunlight tickled her eyelashes and she opened her eyes with a yawn. She stretched like a cat and shook her head. The bushy, fiery strands of hair sparkled in the morning light, creating a small halo of glitter around the head of the young girl. A faint tap on the door and the whispering voice from the other side brought her back from day-dreaming.
-Cora! Baby…are you still sleeping?! Wake up! It’s getting late!
Oh, yes…It was a big day for the family and Cora was in the centerfold of what was to come. Her eyes met the pile of gifts on the table: the flying suit crafted by her father and the colorful drawing of her little sister Amita. Sure, this was not the day to be late at the ceremony. Cora jumped off the bed and set herself in motion, while her mind was leafing through the book of memories.
They called themselves Arberians- the People of the Tree and that was an accurate depiction of the diligent little nation inhabiting from roots to the last stick a Tree that was reaching far beyond the top of the highest mountain. They lived inside it, serving and protecting it, in a perfect harmony that lasted from immemorial times. No one remembered how their history have had started, except for their Queens. These amazing women were the only beholders of ancient wisdom and secrets. And only the Queens were born with wings, their birth being regarded as miraculous and of high importance.
Cora’s father, Galaor was then a recently married young carpenter anxiously waiting for the birth of his first child. His wife Bella was both beautiful and gifted; her hands used to work magic weaving colorful silk threads into wonderful textiles. She was cheerful, loving and ambitious and Galaor was madly in love with her. Right now, he was pacing up and down the hallway, glancing at the door of the bedroom. Women were entering and coming out, ignoring him over and over again. Then he heard a small cry and moments after, the door swung open and the midwife charged out enthusiastically shouting:
-Galaor! It’s a miracle! A miracle amidst us!
-What?! What happened?! How is my wife?!! What is with the child?! Tell me, madam!!
The elderly woman smiled and shook her head joyfully.
-They are both fine, my good man. But it’s nothing short of a miracle because your daughter is a Queenie and that never happened to simple folks like us! You can go inside now.
At that moment, Galaor was simply unable to process the information. Queenie or not, all he wanted was to embrace his wife and hold his newborn child. He stepped inside and rushed to Bella, embracing and kissing her.
-Thank you, my love-he whispered in her ear. Thank you.
She was beaming.
-You can hold her-she said pointing at the artful cradle that Galaor has made for the baby.
The young man bent over it and watched the baby comfortable nested inside a fluffy blanket. He saw a small round face with funny little nose and cherry lips. The hair of the baby was fiery red, a very rare color amongst the People of the Tree. Galaor took up his daughter with much gentleness and care; the little body seemed so fragile in his big hands. It was then that he felt for the first time with the tip of his fingers the small buds of wings on the baby’s shoulders.
-Welcome to the world, little Cora-he said. You are my shining star.
The news of the miraculous birth of a Queenie amidst the lower classes spread like wildfire and soon a respectful delegation from the Queen herself was knocking at the door of the young family, asking permission to see the baby and inviting the parents to move with her in the specially designed quarters of the Court. That spring brought the birth of a number of Queenies, signaling that the time of the actual ruler was slowly approaching to its end. The winged babies were gathered in the upper side of the Tree in order to be raised and educated properly and then, when time would come, to give a new Queen to the People of the Tree.
So Cora spent her childhood and adolescence split between the stern education of the Court Ladies and the joyful roaming up and down the Tree, playing with other children or following her beloved father in his daily work. Right from the beginning it became clear to Bella and Galaor that their daughter would be an independent girl. She was a true free spirit, a real tomboy, much to the annoyance of Madam First Lady who was trying to turn the fiery girl into a solemn Queen-candidate. But Cora was having a mind of her own; she continued to learn and do her chores, then slip away to wander freely. Her best moments were those spent with Galaor on the top of the Tree, helping him to craft new paths and bridges in the canopy.
From there, the world seemed infinite and the contours of the land blurred into the bluish haze far faraway. The giant roots of the Tree were visible from time to time, crisscrossing the land like huge veins and between them green pastures, sprinkling rivulets and blue-eyed lakes were completing the colorful puzzle of the known world. Cora love them all but she was more and more attracted by what she couldn’t see: the world beyond the haze.
-What is there, father? Who lives beyond our lands? -she used to ask father.
-I don’t know my dear. They never taught that in school. All I know is what my great grandma was telling us when talking about stories of the past: that land unknown to us is a place of great danger and those inhabiting it are alien to us, Arberians. Fantastic monsters roam those lands but we never got that far. Our land is safe and rich, we live here in peace. This is all I know. I hope you don’t intend to get yourself and me in trouble?-said Galaor raising his eyes from the work. Your Mom is already pestering me for allowing you to work with me.
-Don’t worry, Dad-she said, shaking her newly sprouted wings. I won’t do anything stupid. I’ll go back home and exercise a bit my threading skills. That would make Mom happy. See you at dinner!
Before Galaor could answer, the girl took flight and delved into the greenery below.
Bella watched her daughter from the corner of her eyes; Cora has matured a lot recently. She was tall, lean and confident, maybe too confident for the role she was supposed to play. Despite the best efforts of Madam First Lady in educating her, Cora never gave up on her boyishness. And her 18th birthday was quickly approaching….
Bella sighed; she had to admit that her husband was right. They were losing their daughter to an uncertain future. The Flight of the Queenies could become a dangerous quest even inside the area of their own land. Though none of them had witnessed such an event during their lifetime, they have heard lots of tales and stories about girls lost on track, becoming victims of unknown beasts. And even if they safely returned to the Tree, only one of the girls was to become Queen. It was also true that the other contestants were highly regarded and rewarded, becoming Ladies of the Court under the new Queen. Both Galaor and Bella hoped for Cora to become one of them. The life of the Queen herself was a solitary existence that required strength and stamina and Cora’s parents worried that their freedom loving daughter might not like the limitations. Before Bella could go further with her thoughts and worries, a crystal clear little voice shook her up.
-Mommy, mommy look! Cora brought me a leaf from the top of the Tree!
The 4 years old stormed into the room with eyes shining in excitement, holding up heart-shaped green leaf. The room filled with its spicy scent and Amita run up and down between her Mom and her big sister, giggling. Suddenly Cora grabbed the little girl and flew around the room with her. They landed laughing with tears and Bella quickly forgot all her dark thoughts.
But soon after Cora’s 18th birthday the time for the Flight of the Queenies was set and the families started the final preparations. Each girl needed a special flight suit to protect her and to carry some supplies for the beginning. They also needed a ceremonial suit to wear it when they would be introduced to the Queen. For a hardworking family it was a great challenge to meet all the requirements. While Bella was weaving the textiles, Galaor and Cora were working together in making the flight suit.
-I have made some secret pockets for you, Cora -said Galaor with a wink. You can hide a few useful tools inside. Something tells me that you won’t land in the neighboring village….
-I knew you would understand me, Dad. I cannot help wishing to know what lies ahead.
Galaor shook his head.
-I know , my dear. I know. But try to avoid unnecessary troubles and come home safely. Don’t break your Mom’s heart!
-I won’t. I promise. You’ll see, Dad. Next year we’ll be up here together, talking about my adventures.
A few days later, it was Bella’s turn to have a talk with Cora, while they were making the finishing touch of the beautiful ceremonial dress.
-I never thought you’d grow up so quickly….-she sighed as she fixed a gold rimmed blue leaf on the left side of the tunique.
Cora gave a short peck on her Mom’s cheek.
-Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be fine. A year it’s not such a long time.
Bella muffled a sigh.
-I know, baby. You’re a great girl. But before you get yourself in trouble think of your father and Amita. Don’t break their heart.
-I’ll do my best, Mom, promise. And I’ll bring something beautiful to Amita! Now could you please shorten a bit my skirt ? You know me; I don’t want to trip over it in front of Her Majesty….
Deep inside her private chamber, the Queen was lost in thoughts. She knew that she was becoming more and more fragile with each day but she couldn’t take a rest yet. There was still a year ahead till the new Queen could be elected from the group of hopeful Queenies. For the Queen that would be one hard year as she was sensing something dark and frightening lurking near her kingdom. Travelling through the finest roots of the Tree, the warning was coming from faraway and the elderly woman was feeling the chill deep inside her bones.
On the outside, there was no worrisome sign. It was mid-spring and the weather has turned warm, with a playful sun caressing each and every new leaf of the Tree. The thickening seep was running up and down the huge columns inside the trunk, singing a glorious song of life. The morning air was fresh and the early breeze was carrying the scent of blossoms that were adorning the orchards of the valleys and hills. Birds were singing their hearts out and the flowers were teaming with the buzzing honey bees. This was the time when the young queen-bees were taking flight, followed by a group of workers that would establish a new home under their reign. This was the time of young queens and it was the same in the case of the Arberians; soon, the Queenies would take flight to prove themselves, before one of them would be crowned as new Queen of her people.
The Queen glanced with a frown to the pile of papers left by the First Lady of the Court on her table. Those were the final assessments about the ten Queenies so she picked them up and decided to read them carefully.
-Let’s see , my darling girls, how did you manage ? Which of you will relieve me from my duties? I can hardly remember each of you as babies.What an excitement your birth created! What joy! I wish I could’ve left you better times….-she sighed.
During the next hours, the Queen turned the pages of the minute reports sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning and she made some mental notes. Then she sat to her desk and started to write a small personal letter for each candidate. That letter would be attached to the Royal Act of recommendation that each Queenie would receive before the flight. The young contestants were sent to discover and support for a year the farthest communities of the Arberiens and then return with a recommendation from those communities. Dusk descended upon the land while the Queen was still writing in her room….