The approaching winter sped up the preparations inside and outside the walls of the Citadel. Some of the ex-Invisibles moved back with their families, while people of the city took a bold step outside the walls, moved into the forest camp and started a new and exciting life in the open. This mutual exchange between the city and the forest smoothed the healing process and helped build a new spirit among the nation of the Silver Tree. After her return from the hilltop where she had planted the seed of the new Tree, Cora joined the process of rebuilding and she became a full time mother for Avik.
With the support of the Elders, the former Invisibles raised a monument inside the Sanctuary in the memory of all who lost their lives foughting against the injustice imposed upon them by Asterius. It was there, that the life and the name of both Leanna, Avik’s mother and Satoru, leader of the Invisibles was inscripted for remembrance for the future generations. As for Commander Rolf Asterius, he was appointed Chief Guardian of the Citadel and, to his own surprise, he became close friend with Ogren, leader of the Foresters. Liberated under the shadow of his uncle, the young commander discovered the value of trust and true friendship.
Winter descended upon the land. Buried deep inside the hill, the Silver Seed was sleeping peacefully, dreaming about the moment of sprouting. On the other side of the world, the Tree of Arberia was watching upon it, guarding the balance of life on both sides of the line separating the two lands. For eons, the Trees had kept protecting life, communicating between each-other, supporting each-other. Under their benevolent surveillance, the colorful nations of humans struggled and thrived, built complex and creative cultures, pushed forward and expanded their horizons. Winter was a season of deep thinking and moments of melancholy. It was the season of storytelling and a time when new myths were born to be told and retold, over and over again, in friendly gatherings and families, near the fireplace, while chilling winds were swirling around the chimneys.
Cora and Avik were living in Satoru’s house, near Petunia and Ogren,the two families spending most of their time together. Even if they were not saying, they were all missing Satoru.
-I can’t be thankful enough for having you here, Ogren-murmured Petunia, leaning against her husband.
-Cora is a brave girl-he replied, kissing the top of her head. She keeps a brave face and I’m happy that she has found solace in Avik. But I saw her lost in thoughts, with shadows crossing her face and I know she’s badly missing Satoru.Their love was just starting to blossom…
-They were made for each other-said Petunia. It was unmistakable. I’ve never seen Satoru so happy and radiant…
-True- murmured Ogren. I wish he was here with us. Now, soon as winter ends, she’s due to fly back to Arberia. I wonder if she’ll ever come back….
A small knock on the door brought them back to reality. Cora was standing there, holding Avik’s hand. She was smiling.
-I apologize for intruding but I made a load of my well known cookies and it’s no fun to eat them alone! Besides, we have a lot to talk before winter ends. And of course, Avik was nagging me to bring him to play with his friends.
The evening brightened up in laughter and cookie-eating and Cora shared her plans for the future with her close friends.
-I’m not sure how my home coming will end up. When I left a year ago, I wasn’t giving much thought to the perspective of becoming Queen. My mind was filled with dreams of exploring the world beyond the horizon. But now….My heart is buried here but I feel responsible for my people at home to. I’m sure that Mom had already exhausted my dear Dad with her worries and I miss my little sister, Amita too.
-Are you travelling with Avik, Cora? He could live with us until you sort out your life at home…
Cora shook her head.
-No, my dear Petunia. I already told him that we would travel together. Thank you both for your kindness but I want him to meet his other family too. Satoru and I, we made him a promise and the untimely death of my beloved left me in charge. I won’t fail any of them. And we’ll be back, both of us, as soon as possible.
-So be it! -said Ogren with a nod. Now, there’s only one cookie left on the plate. Can I have it, or we’ll fight for it?
They all laughed and the evening went on in good mood.Outside, the nightwind swirled, scattering icy star-flakes upon the world….
Cora and Avik departed as soon as the snow melted and the the first signs of Nature’s renewal were showing on land and skies. The grey of the winter dome changed into bright azure and fluffy white clouds were chasing each other in the skies, pushed by the playful breeze of Spring.
Cora was flying by the side of her child who was riding his father’s faithful Shadowcat ,so she needed more time to reach the Arberian Tree. On their way, they stopped at the site where the Silver Seed was planted. To Cora’s great surprise, the crust of the land had cracked, making way to the graceful young Tree emerging from below. They both embraced the Tree, connecting with him. For a fraction of a moment, the young woman felt the echoes of a familiar heartbeat coming from the tree….They took farewell from the Silver Tree and soon, they crossed the line and took up the path leading to the Arberians.
Perched on the windowsill of Cora’s room Amita was scrutinizing the horizon, waiting for her sister’s return. Ever since the Queenies started to come back one by one, she hoped that Cora will be among them. She was missing her sister and she knew that her return will put an end to their parents’ distress.
Having no signs of Cora’s whereabouts proved to be too much for them. Though Galaor was trying to keep his wife calm and optimistic, lately, that has become almost impossible. Bella had asked some of the returning Queenies about their daughter and when she heard that they have lost her sight after a terrible storm, she broke down in tears.
-She won’t come back, you’ll see!-she cried, while her husband was trying to comfort her.
-She will come back, my dear, believe me! I know her and I know that she’s the best Queenie of all!
But when they reached the final day and Cora was still nowhere to see, his own confidence disappeared. They joined the homecoming of the rest of the Queenies with heavy heart. Galaor and Bella watched the girls; they have changed a lot during the year that has passed. The complexity and even the hardship of their task has helped each of them to develop in a unique, personal way. Right now, it was hard to say which of them would be the chosen one as future Queen. They both sighed, thinking of how their daughter might have looked if she was there….
Emerging from her chambers, the Queen greeted her people, eyeing the line of Queenies waiting before her.
-Is everyone here today, my children?-she asked.
-No, My Lady- said the leader of the Queenies. We seem to have lost Cora, daughter of Galaor and Bella.
At that moment, there was a small commotion at the doors of the Ceremony Hall.
-Everyone is here, My Lady!- said the newcomer loud and clear.
All eyes turned and a tall, slender young woman, with fiery hair cut short above her neck, entered the room, walking confidently to the center of the Ceremony Hall. She was holding a brown bunny rabbit in her arms. Making her way through the people gathered in the room, her strong aura brushed over them. A yelp and a relieved sigh followed her and Cora smiled, knowing that her parents were finally at ease. She joined the ranks of the Queenies and the Queen acknowledged her arrival with contentment.
-My children, it’s wonderful to see all of you coming home!-she said, stepping forward to greet them. It’s been a long year for all of us and looking at you, I can see it was a fruitful one. A year ago, ten teenage girls left our Tree and now ten beautifully matured young ladies returned to it.
Slowly passing by each of them, the Queen embraced every Queenie, touching foreheads,while Madam First Lady was collecting the Recommendation letters. When she finally stopped before Cora, she asked her, pointing at the small bunny:
– Who is he?
-He is my son, My Lady but he’s got a bit overwhelmed by so many strangers. Come, Avik-she said softly to the bunny- you’re safe now. Remember that I’ve told you about our Queen? She wants to meet you.
There was a rumor of amazement when, with a small tremor, the rabbit changed back to his shape of a little boy with hazelnut eyes and curly, black hair. He looked up to the woman smiling him and said:
-Hi! My name is Avik. Are you the Queen?
-Yes, I am the Queen- she said gently.
-You have beautiful wings!- said the little boy. Just like my Mommy.
-Thank you, Avik! That’s very nice of you to say- replied the Queen. Glad to meet you! Cora, I look forward to hear your story!
-Thank you, My Lady!-said Cora with a bow.
The Queen returned to her throne, followed by the First Lady.
-My dear people! I want you to greet and celebrate our Queenies while I will spend my time reading the Recommendation letters. We’ll meet here again when I’ve reached my conclusions!
She left the room while Bella and Galaor rushed to embrace their daughter. Cora picked up Avik and made her way through the swarm of jolly people. When they finally saw each other, she literally flew in their arms.
-I’ve told you she’s the best and that she won’t get lost!-said Galaor to his wife, swallowing the lump in his throat.
-Oh, shut up, Galaor. You’re an awful liar. Do you think I am blind? I have seen your face these latter days…-she teased him between tears. Oh, Cora, this was such a hard year!
Bella embraced her daughter while Galaor, waiting for his turn, tried to make friends with Avik. It proved easier than anyone would’ve expected but for Cora it didn’t came as a surprise. She knew her father was a gentle giant with a natural gift for tending children. But the most excited about Avik proved to be Amita. After covering her sister’s face with the sweetest kisses of all, she took the little boy by the hand and they quickly disappeared in her room. Hours later, when Cora and her parents peeked through the door, the two children were playing together happily.
-You have to tell us all that happened-pleaded Bella. We were so upset, hearing that you got lost in that heavy storm. Only the strong trust of your father kept us afloat these days.
-I’m sorry, Mom and Dad but I had to follow my guts. I know that I have promised not to get in trouble…-she said with a wink. But the dream I had the night before the flight and the words of encouragement from the Queen pushed me forward…and I did it! My quest was worth all the efforts…but I’ve missed your cooking, Mom!
They all laughed and Cora took a mouthful of her favorite dish.
-So, what’s beyond our boundaries, my dear?-asked Galaor. I assume you have reached that place. Avik doesn’t look like an Arberian child…
-You’re right, Dad. He’s not an Arberian. His land is that of the Silver Tree and the White Citadel. Let me finish this wonderful meal and tuck the children in bed and I will tell you the story of my journey.
That night, after rocking Amita and Avik to sleep with a funny story and lots of kisses, Cora sat with Bella and Galaor, opening the book of memories, telling the story of the love and fight for a new dawn in the land of the Silver Tree.
The Queen was in her chambers, reading the letters brought back by the Queenies. They were extensive recounts of the deeds and decisions taken by each girl in the community they had joined during a year of time. Each story had its own value and flavor and on the whole, the Queen couldn’t be more satisfied. But of all stories, Cora’s journey stood out by far. The letter had been written by both the Council of Elders and the Leaders of the Foresters and they were speaking of her selflessness and bravery. The tragic story of Leanna and Avik was part of the recount and the Queen was deeply saddened, reading it. What Cora had achieved was very impressive. Still, the Queen needed a private talk with each outstanding Queenie, before making her choice.
She sent for them, one by one, listened to them, talked with them and carefully assessed her impressions. Most of them were determined to step up the throne and take the lead of Arberia. Cora was her final guest. She came on her own; Avik was in her parents care and he was enjoying Amita’s company. The two kids were getting along so well that you would’ve thought they were siblings. Life in Arberia was joyful and the Tree was an excellent playground for the inquisitive little ones.
When she entered the Queen’s chamber, Cora looked preoccupied. She had spent a lot on thinking what to do. She didn’t want to get stuck here and lose her personal freedom. She couldn’t bear the thought of being far from the Silver Tree. Her heart was there and she would’ve died missing her connection with it. She said nothing about this to Galor and Bella but she felt she owe the Queen the truth. So when the Queen asked her about the decision she made, she poured out her heart.
-My Lady, just like my little Avik, I belong to both lands. I cannot make a choice that would leave out any of these two nations and Trees. I don’t want to disappoint you or anyone of my fellow Arberians but I want to keep my freedom , I want to travel from one land to the other, to keep alive my connection with each Tree. If that means that I cannot be Queen of Arberia, I beg to step aside and I apologize for letting you down!
-You don’t have to apologize for anything, my child-said the Queen. I’m happy to see that you have used wisely my piece of advice and you have followed your fire. Go, join your family and say hello to your son from me. Soon, I will make public my choice!
Cora bowed respectfully and left the chamber. The Queen walked slowly to the window and leaned against the wall.
-I’m ready for a long vacation, my friend….-she whispered and the Tree understood.
Three more days passed and the excitement of the Arberians was on the rise. The day the Soul Bell rang, summoning them at the Ceremony Hall found them buzzing like a bee hive. Queenies, families, friends, Court people, adults and children, old and young, they all joined to witness the coronation of a new Queen.
The hind wall opened and the Queen stepped in. She looked radiant and this time she was wearing the crown of blue leaves and golden sticks that she would give to her successor. She sat on the throne, looked around, benevolently smiling and she spoke to her audience:
-My dear people! As all of you know, my time as Queen is over and today. A new Queen will step up the throne of Arberia.These days I have examined carefully each candidate and I must say that all of them could become a good Queen. This was not an easy choice. I have spent the last year thinking a lot about our world and the future it might hold for us. My choice reflects the conclusions I’ve reached during this lonely year.
Times are changing and we need a Queen that would be both thoughtful and bold, opened to new challenges, ready to face them and to make the most difficult choices. This year, the boundaries of our world have been extended and we’ve learned that we are not alone. There is more to come in the future, so from our wonderful winged daughters I have chosen the one that has already proven that she’s able to deal with such challenges.
Come forward, Cora and take this crown! It belongs to you, as new Queen of Arberia!.
In the deep silence that followed her words, the Queen stepped down the throne, took off her crown and held it out to the young woman.
-Mommy?! This means you are the Queen now?-asked Avik.
The clear voice of the child reverberated around the room and broke the tension. People burst into happy laughter, in cheering and applauses.
-See? -said one of the Queenies, kicking her neighbor with the elbow. I’ve told you that she could become the Queen. She was flying higher than any of us!
Cora bowed before the Queen and let her place the crown on her head. The old Queen took the new one by the hand and guided her to the throne, then she stepped aside, sitting in a chair placed next to it. For a moment, Cora was overwhelmed by emotions but then she spoke in a loud and clear voice:
-My dear Arberians! One year ago, we left our home as a group of girls caught between childhood and adult life. Little we knew about the world and our horizon was stretching to the limits of land encompassed by the roots of our Tree. From all the girls in the squadron, I was the one lucky enough to be pushed beyond that line. For me, it was a life changing experience. I have discovered another land, inhabited by beautiful people like us, caught in a sad,sad situation. It was their tragedy that opened my eyes upon the fragility of our peaceful, joyous life. It was their struggle that has shown me the power of goodness, courage and selflessness . I have returned home determined to protect the things we all value in our life. I have returned determined to connect our worlds and to restore the balance of the lands living under the benevolent protection of the Trees.
I’ve buried my heart at the feet of the new Silver Tree, so I belong to the people there. But my heart was born here so I came home to put myself in the service of my people as well. I am a person of my words and I will live my life to fulfil the promises I made in both lands. Your love, your kindness and support will help me become the Queen you all expect me to be!
The room filled with cheers as the echoes of Cora’s words faded. People rushed to greet her, while the new Queen walked through the hall and stepped out in the large balcony, to salute the Arberians who gathered outside. Bella and Galaor found themselves showered with attention, while Amita and Avik ran after Cora and joined her in the balcony.
So here comes to an end a chapter of history and a new one begins. Its story is still to be written. Right now, everyone is celebrating. Grab your cup of wine, my friends and cheers!
The new Queen was leaning against the trunk of the Silver Tree. Still a young tree , it was already soaring high and holding a magnificent crown of branches and leaves. Its bark was smooth and felt like skin under her touch. Cora embraced the Tree and closed her eyes, her thoughts drifting away. The light touch of two hands, lovingly holding hers, reached from the other side of the Tree and brought the young woman back from the reverie.
“I’m here…..-whispered the well-known voice. And I am here to stay….”
In the history of the Tree people, Cora remained under the name of Travelling Queen. She spent her entire life reviving the long forgotten connections of the Trees of outer lands and bringing together their nations. Under her loving protection, Avik and Amita grew into beautiful young people, becoming ambassadors of the Tree connections. They eventually became a couple, strengthening even more the connection of Arberians and Silverians.
When her time came and a new Queen took the reign of the lands, Cora said farewell to everyone and visited for the last time the Silver Tree. She stopped before it, placing her palms on the large, leathery trunk. The Silver Tree opened and Cora stepped into the arms of her beloved Satoru. The Tree closed behind her…..
If you’re passing by in a misty summer morning, turn your eyes to the hilltop. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Cora and Satoru, sitting in the grass, talking quietly about the times that had passed and those that are about to come…Or maybe it’s just the wind whispering in the meadow…..
PS. I dedicate this story to everyone who dares to dream and who has not lost the hope that goodness, courage, love, acquiescence, thoughtfulness prevail in Humanity.
I dedicate this story to those who dare to be themselves, to be different, to embrace their own beauty and uniqueness when odds are against them.
I dedicate this story to my wonderful LGBTQI+ friends around the world, the ones who constantly refuse to become Invisibles.