Dim light, a dull pain in her skull and voices arguing somewhere close…She tried to move but realised that she had been strapped down to a bed. Oh well, so much for her adventure in an alien land….What happened to the little boy?-she wondered. Cora sighed, concerned. She turned her attention to the heated debate in the next room.
-How do you know she’s not a threat ?!- shouted a woman’s voice. You can’t even say she’s human! Who had ever seen a human being with wings?!
-Temper yourself, Petunia!-came the response in a deep, calm voice. Just listen to yourself: these are the exact accusations we hear against the Changers. And no, I have not seen a winged human before but I won’t fall to prejudice out of fear and ignorance.
-It’s easy for you to speak, Satoru! You can always return unharmed to the Citadel! But I fear for the life of my children and I cannot afford such trust!
-Come, come, Petunia! You’re plain unjust. Satoru has never jeopardized our lives. On the contrary! The third voice was clearly upset.
-Let her speak, Ogren. She has her point and I must take that into account. Petunia, don’t worry. I have not forgotten my duties as your leader. Go in peace and please, take care of little Avik! We don’t know yet what happened to his mother.
-Thank you, Satoru-said the woman in à much calmer voice. I’m sorry for being harsh but it’s not always easy to deal with the endless flow of orphaned children and distressed youth.
There was a moment of silence as the woman left the room. Cora held her breath, listening to the two men left in the room next to her.
-What do you intend to do with her? -asked the man named Ogren.
-She might be a stranger to our land and someone totally unexpected, but we cannot act like those who had turned us into outcasts. I will keep in mind your wife’s concerns, my friend. I value her selfless work and effort with all our children. But I need to make my own assessment before I can take a decision. Till then, she will remain confined to this perimeter and she will be closely guarded.
Cora decided that she has heard enough.
-May I speak for myself, please?!-she shouted, hoping to get their attention. She succeeded; someone came and lifted the shades from the windows, letting the morning light in. The person approached the bed, bent down, starting to unstrap her.
Blinded by the light, Cora closed her eyes, opening them gradually to adjust to the luminosity.
-I have unstrapped you but please, don’t try to run away-said the man with the deeper voice. You have no chance to leave the room without my permission.
As her eyes became accustomed to the daylight, Cora looked with unhidden curiosity to the two men facing her ; after all, these were the first people belonging to a different nation. To her slight relief, they were very much human, just like the distressed child she had picked up the previous night.There was a young, slender one, sitting in a chair facing her and a bit sturdy one, standing in the doorframe.
-Hi!-said the young man sitting in the chair. His voice was deep and soft. My name is Satoru and him – he continued pointing towards the man at the door,he is my friend, Ogren. Who are you and what are you doing here?
The girl tilted her head pensively, trying to assess the situation. Judging from his posture and the way he was addressing the question, Satoru seemed to be the leader of this place.It was also the position acknowledged by both the woman and the other man, during the previous discussion. With his pleasant features, dark eyes and shoulder-long black hair, he was quite handsome. He had two streaks of silver strands and the look in his eyes was serious and inquisitive. Ogren, on the other hand, looked more relaxed and with his light brown hair and gentle hazel eyes, he reminded her of a big bear. Cora took a deep breath and decided that the truth was the best answer:
-Hi! My name is Cora, I’m on a personal quest and I ended up here after being caught in a storm and being hauled by a whirlwind.
-Hmmm….Satoru was half-smiling, hearing such an incredible story. “This girl had guts” -he thought. -And where do you come from?
-I come from Arberia, a neighboring country and I’m a Queenie. You can find my letter of recommendation from my Queen in the backpack.
Ogren and Satoru exchanged glances. This story was becoming increasingly weird. But before anything, a voice called from outside:
-Satoru! Ogren! Are you there?! I have news from the Citadel!
In the fraction of the moment when no one payed attention, Cora sprang from the bed to the ceiling and then turned sharply to the door, flying out above Ogren and heading for the exit. She heard a feral growl behind her and something strong and heavy caught her mid-air, pushing her face down on the floor. The beast kept her immobilized until Satoru ordered to release her. Ogren helped up the girl and escorted her back before Satoru. A huge black, cat-like creature with sharp white fangs and yellow eyes was sitting at the feet of the young man, fixing Cora with suspicion. The girl sat back silently.
-I’ve told you that you cannot leave without my permission. Why were you running away?
-Because I am a free person and I did nothing to be held captive!- she replied defiantly.
-Fair enough! -chuckled Satoru. But before we fix that, allow me to speak to the messenger. I’ll be back in a moment. Till then, Ogren will give back your belongings!
The young man slipped with ease from the chair and left the room, riding the big cat. Cora was befuddled. As the door closed behind the young leader, she turned to the man left in the room. Ogren handed her the backpack and mumbled, visibly uneasy:
-He was born this way….But his spirit is bright and fearless and he is highly respected by everyone.
-I see…-murmured Cora. I can understand that; he seems to be a fair person. May I ask you something?
Ogren nodded agreeingly; despite his strong appearance, he was a bit shy and Cora’s openness made him nervous.
-What happened to the child I’ve picked up last night? How is he?
-Oh! He’s fine. His name is Avik -said Ogren with a broad smile. My wife, Petunia is taking care of him and of the rest of the orphans. In fact, he was asking about you this morning: “Where’s the lady with the cookies?” If Satoru will allow, you could come to visit him.
-I would love to! -sighed Cora happily. Thank you, Ogren.
Petunia was holding her baby, rocking her gently. She glanced to the window, watching the children play outside. Avik, the new boy was still standing alone in a corner; it was too soon to expect him to join the others. Petunia tucked her sleeping daughter in bed; of the five little ones in the house, only her child was born in freedom and had loving parents by her side. The young woman’s heart sank, thinking of all the other mothers and children separated from each-other….Not that the fathers would not suffer just the same; Ogren, her husband was adoring their little girl. Petunia sighed and tidied the children’s beds in the room. She took the half eaten cookie hidden under Avik’s pillow, then decided to put it back. This was not an ordinary cookie; it was a piece of those given him by the winged girl.
Huh….Suddenly, Petunia felt ashamed for her outburst at Satoru’s place. Maybe their young leader was right. Oh! Ever since she has become a mother, she’s got highly emotional. But considering all the aspects of their life in the forest, it was understandable. The former Invisibles were living in freedom outside, but the Citadel was a constant reminder that the nightmare was not over and that the crimes against the Changers were continuing…
A loving bear-hug brought her back from the moment of reverie. It was Ogren.
-Darling, I’m afraid I have bad news: the White Guards closed the northern exit after Avik’s escape. They caught his mother but we don’t know what happened to her. It will take time till we can find another breach in the wall. I’m sorry. Don’t tell the boy; at least not yet.
The laughter of the children reverberated in the heavy silence of the room. Crisscrossing between the moments of hardship, life was boldly pursuing its way..
After the messenger left and Ogren to returned home, Satoru knocked on door. The girl jumped from the bed and opened the door.
-Would you join me for breakfast? You must be hungry-said the young man.
-Only if you let me help and if you dare to taste my cookies. I still have a few left.
-I will; I’ve heard that Avik likes them- said Satoru with a pleasant smile.
They moved to the other room, setting the table and sharing a simple meal together. The forest was providing the necessaries for the community of outcasts.
-It tastes almost like home-said Cora. Most of us, we live a simple and happy life in Arberia. My father is a carpenter and my mother is weaver. What is the name of your land?
Satoru watched her for a moment before answering. With her bright copper hair and the sparks in the eyes, he found her attractive. Her natural openness was comforting and the young man felt he can trust her.
-I don’t know if our land has any name at all. We were all born inside the walls of the Citadel and that was the known world for us till we were forced to leave it.
-But why? What’s happening inside that amazing city? Why was a small child like Avik running away in the middle of the night?!
-Because of what happened many years ago inside the walls, when the Silver Tree, our protective Spirit was damaged.It’s a long story…
-Then I am in the right place….-murmured Cora, remembering her dream.
Satoru was surprised by her words.
-What do you mean?-he asked.
-The night before starting my journey as a Queenie, I had an unusual dream. I woke up in a blurry place and I’ve met a spirit that kept saying “My tree is dying. My tree is dying”. It was a lonely and frighten spirit and I made a promise to find it and save it. Then I’ve heard that voice once again before the storm left me in your land. Do you think this is just a coincidence?
Satoru was taken aback by the girl’s recounting. Maybe she was just a good storyteller, someone with a load of imagination… But if she was telling the truth, it means that the Silver Tree was in grave danger and that it reached out, beyond the Citadel’s boundaries, for help. And this fiery girl had picked up that call not entirely unexpectedly.
-You call your land Arberia. Is there any particular reason for that?
-We have many trees in our land but we have one that is standing out of all. That particular Tree is our cradle and our home and we are all connected to it. We can feel its benevolent presence all over our land. And as a would-be Queen (or Queenie as we are called), we were taught and trained to gain a higher level of spiritual contact with our Tree before we started our quest. I’ve lost contact only when I landed here. But your land is also speaking to me. I can feel its spirit.
-What do you feel?
-Loss and sadness, fear….The spirit of your land is broken for some time. I find hard to detect the signal of the tree you are speaking about.
Pain washed over Satoru’s face as he listened to the girl before him. What she was telling confirmed his fear. Things were getting worse inside the Citadel each day. Asterius was endangering everyone’s life. Sooner or later, they must confront him!
Cora watched in silence this deliberation, sensing the deep emotional flow coming from him. She felt a strong communion with this outstanding young man. Her personal quest has led her in this land to join forces in saving a Tree of life and despite the scarcity of information, she knew that she was in the right place, with the right people. She wished Satoru would trust and accept her….
She leaned over the table and placed her hand on his hand, looking straight in his eyes.
-I don’t know about your history and I never knew that your land and people even existed. But I know why I am here: to help you save your Tree. If you think you can trust me, let me do it. Please, Satoru. I want to help.
He gazed inside the translucent pools of her eyes, pondering the answer. They’ve met in unusual circumstances, they were strangers to each -other, they knew almost nothing about each-other…Still, she felt like an open book, straight and trustworthy. And there was even more in her presence, something like a soothing summer breeze. He took her hand and in that split of a moment, the spirits of the two distant Trees connected through them.
-Let me show you around-said Satoru. I want you to meet my people.
The moment he stood up, the Shadowcat materialized at his feet. Cora yelped. She has almost forgotten of the impressive feline.
-You’ll get used to her; as you see, my legs are not much of help to me. Without Gondwana-said Satoru, calmingly caressing the cat’s head-I can’t take lengthy walks. We teamed up together when I came here and tamed her. It’s all about trust-he added with a smile.
-I hope she’ll accept my presence-replied Cora, returning the smile. So, where do we go?
-I want to introduce you to Savian. He’s the founder of our Colony and the one who can answer all your questions. He’s our living history book, one of the most revered Changer artists. He’s a bit of a recluse so we have to travel deep in the forest. You can ride with me if you feel it’s too much for you, though I’ve seen your admirable skills.
-Thank you, but I think I can manage. Extensive flight is part of my training and it was one of the very few things I loved to do being educated as a Queenie!-chuckled Cora.
-Let’s go then!
They plunged in the forest, heading for Savian’s tree-house.