-Cora! Are you ready? Can I come in?
The voice of Galaor was slightly nervous. Coming back abruptly from her reverie, Cora opened the door and embraced her father.
-I’m ready, Dad, don’t worry. Look!-she said and turned round. The sunlight was dancing around her, sparks bouncing off the slender figure dressed in a blue-green dress and tunic, embroidered with gold rimmed leaves. Cora’s fiery hair was combed into an intricately tressed tail held together by blue and green hair-pins. She took her father’s arm and left the room, walking confidently towards the Ceremony Hall, followed by her beaming mother and excited little sister. The rest of the family and friends were walking behind them, whispering to each other about their beautiful Queenie.
The high doors of the hall opened, letting in the ten young girls and their escorts into the spacious chamber where the most important Court members were waiting for them. Soon as everyone gathered inside, the sound of the Soul Bell started to ring, announcing the arrival of the Queen. It was a deep sound, seemingly coming from the body of the Tree around them, enveloping the audience in waves of soothing music,serene yet solemn. The hind wall of the room opened and the Queen stepped forward.
Cora watched her, mesmerized by the majestic gracefulness of the elderly woman. She was tall and lean, her face preserving the original beauty, despite the marks of so many ages. She was wearing a long, amber colored dress decorated with emerald vines and miniature blue butterflies. Her white hair was flowing freely around her shoulders, creating a halo around her face. The wings of the Queen were glossy and translucent, with purple-blue iridescence. But the most striking feature were her eyes: deep blue with a gaze that could see behind any pretense.Still, the appearance of the Queen was exhaling benevolence and kindness. People around her bowed respectfully as she walked towards the circle of blushing and nervous Queenies. The young girls bowed deeply and the Queen gestured them to rise so that she could see each of them. The First Lady joined her, carrying the silver tray containing the Royal Acts of recommendation.
Wise Matriarch of her little nation, the Queen stopped by each Queenie and handed out the enscripted roll, saying a few words of personally tailored wisdom and encouragement. She gently touched their forehead with her hand, sharing protective magic that was coming from the Tree. When the Queen finally stopped in front of her, Cora sensed the powerful aura surrounding her. They looked each-other for a moment and Cora felt her heart opening like a flower under the scrutiny of those eyes. The Queen put the roll in the hands of the girl and then she gently touched her forehead. Cooling sensation ran through Cora’s whole body and for a fraction of a moment, she felt a total communion with the Tree. She was the Tree from its intricate web of roots embracing the land, to the last trembling leaf up in the highest branch. The flow of magical sap was rushing through her veins and her heart was filled with emotions. There was awe and joy but also concern and surprisingly, there was fear. Something malevolent and menacing was lurking beyond the boundaries of their land….But what could that be?
“ Follow your fire, my child-she heard. Follow your fire….”
The whispers of the Queen brought the girl back to reality.
“I will-she murmured.
Music exploded around her as the ceremony resumed as the Queen left the Hall. Families, friends, people surrounded the Queenies, congratulating them, sharing their good wishes and hopes for their safe and victorious return. Cora regained her composure and smilingly joined her loved ones. After all, this would be their last family afternoon together for a while.
-Amita! Come, let’s take a flight!- she said and picking up her little sister, she flew out of the room, up to the top of the Tree. The giggling of the little girl filled the air.
When she opened her eyes she found herself standing inside a glowing, reddish orange mist. The only firm thing was the ground under her feet. No sound, no directions. Nothing, just the faintly pulsing mist. Then, a deep sigh and muffled sobs broke the silence and she turned abruptly towards the source of the sounds.
-Hey! Who are you?! What happened?!
In response a sudden vortex appeared inside the orange mist and it seemed like something was coming towards her.
“ Me and my big mouth…”-thought Cora.
Up before her stood a huge bulge of white fluff, hovering above the ground. The face of that ghost-like creature was childlike, with sad little dark eyes.
-My Tree is dying….-it veiled in a small voice. Nobody helps it and I’m frightened and lonely….
Cora’s heart sank.
-What Tree? Where is it?
But before the creature could answer her, a strong draft of bone-chilling wind push them apart and all she could hear was a faint cry.
-Help meeee……Don’t leave me alone…..!
-Don’t be afraid! I’ll find you!!-she shouted.
-Who do you want to find?-asked Bella. Did you have a nightmare? You were shouting in your dream.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed with a worried expression on her face. Cora shook her head with a reassuring smile.
-No, no Mom, it was just a silly dream. I am little nervous about the flight-she chuckled.
Bella sighed. She was nervous to. All of a sudden, she wished her daughter was an ordinary girl, not a Queenie. But it was too late for that, so she better helped Cora to get ready for the flight. She helped her dress up and served her favorite meal for breakfast. Galaor joined them, checking each strap on the flight suit and giving his final pieces of advice. Amita rushed in and jumped in Cora’s arms, covering her face with smacks. Hugs, kisses, tears and goodbyes shared, at the sound of the Core Bell, the Golden Doors of the Tree opened wide and the row of Queenies took flight in the crisp air of the morning, followed by the loud cheer of the gathered Arberiens.
-This will be a long year-whispered Bella, leaning close to Galaor and holding Amita in her arms.
-This will be a long year-thought the Queen, watching the colorful flying squad diminishing in the horizon.
The Golden Doors closed with a thud behind them, marking the beginning of a journey into the unknown.
Somewhere faraway, under another sky, a young woman was hurriedly preparing her confused and frightened son. The child couldn’t understand the reason why his mom woke him up at night and why she kept silencing him, why was he dressed up and why was she wiping her eyes on and on. He saw his mom taking a small bottle from a hiding and slip it in her pocket , then turning off the faint light. She took his hand and spoke to him in a muffled but firm voice:
-Avik, listen to Mommy. Don’t say a word outside. Just hold my hand and follow me in silence and if I say “run!” then you run and don’t look back! You understand?
-Yes, Mommy!- came the answer in a little voice.
The young woman unlocked the hind door and slipped into the night with her child. She wasn’t going to let him suffer the fate of the other Changers; nothing could frighten her off and she couldn’t care less for the so called fate of the Tree. If the survival of the Tree was coming at the price of the life of an innocent child then something was wrong. Very wrong. Avik was her son and she was determined to save him no matter what the White Guardians were saying. Her child was not going to become an Invisible, he wasn’t going to starve in the streets of the Silver City, unseen by the others, unable to get help, food, shelter. Her child was not going to be found lying lifelessly in a corner, pushed aside like a piece of garbage. The mind of the young mother was swirling with heavy questions.
How did they end up giving in to such horrors? She held the little boy closer and they hurried down the dark street. It was a long way to the northern wall and she wanted to get there before dawn.