-We have to use this summer to train for the assault against Asterius. His guards are powerful and loyal to him and they have also ferdogs that can inflict lethal wounds during the fight-stated Satoru at the meeting of the community.
-I could train more Shadowcats till then!-offered Galen, a tall and lean Changer, with feline features. They are not afraid of the ferdogs.
-I will pick a team of helpers and we will teach the fight techniques to anyone willing to join-added a bulky man. My friend Ogren has already volunteered!
Satoru nodded approvingly.
-Great! I agree with these action plans but we must keep in mind that things might end up nasty t and the ones left here in the forest camp must be protected. For now, the training will be the first stage of the preparations. But we need to find a way to get inside the Citadel unnoticed. I need every person to come forward with its idea, no matter how improbable-sounding one and share it. There has to be a weak point in the protection of the city even after the measures ordered by Asterius!
Up in the Citadel, the High Commander of the White Guards was overjoyed by the success of his play put in action. It reached a shocking, bloody end, delivering a hard blow to both his enemies: those who were helping the Invisibles and the Silver Tree. It muffled even the discontent inside the Council of Elders where Asterius knew that he had some opponents. But no one knew that he was slowly damaging the Silver Tree to determine it to grow a seed, one that he would then plant and manipulate for his purposes. His loyal followers, the Guards under his command and his nephew, Rolf Asterianus, they all looked up at him as to the savior of the Citadel.
He smirked at the thought of his future power and poured himself a glass of heavy red wine.
-Cheers…to me!-he said to his reflection in the window glass. Beware, you crippling and you, monsters! Your days are soon to be cut short….
But while Asterius was celebrating his victory, Satoru and the outcasts were busy in creating the plan of the attack. Savian’s thorough knowledge of the Citadel was of great help and they were searching every inch of the white walls to find the weak points. The data gathered through the air mail brought by the pigeons was used to create the map of the White Guardians’ shifts. The pressure of time was almost tangible; the great damage suffered by the Silver Tree was raising the question of how much it will resist and how its demise might affect the land and every living thing. There was nothing similar described in their known history and people were fearing the worst. Cora was keeping in touch with the Silver Tree in her dreams, the only time when the Tree, being alone, was confident enough to communicate with her.
And even then, the dark shadow threatening its life was present somehow.
“It’s killing my Tree…”-cried the little, fluffy Spirit. It came today and poured some horrible thing in the water! He said: -You have no escape! This is killing you bit by bit but not before you finish your work! Then the seed will be mine!”
“But who is he?!” -exclaimed Cora.
“Oh, he’s a horrible, horrible person….My Tree is so afraid…You must hurry! I don’t know how much it can resist!”
“Tell the Tree we are almost ready but we need to find the way to get in!”
“ Hurry up…….Pleeease…..-veiled the Spirit, fading inside the red mist.
Cora woke up exhausted and thoughtful. So much to do, so little time for it!
The Silver Tree took the message and decided to help with its last remaining strength. All it needed was to finish the silver shell for the Seed and then, dig deep into the ground, find the buried roots of the Moon-thorn bushes and revive them. After Avik’s escape, Asterius ordered people to set the bushes on fire and clear the space next to the walls. But these ancient vegetal monsters had roots far deeper than anyone expected and the Tree sent his last drops of life-giving energy to them. Waking up from their sleep, they responded to the appeal and began to dig their way upward. They grew and grew, extending their strong roots under the walls, until they formed a vegetal network under the Citadel’s protection. All they needed was a moonless night and the signal of the Silver Tree. This was the final message, Cora received in her dream and this was the breakthrough they were waiting for. Soon, it would be the long awaited night and the army of Invisibles and their allies was ready to face the enemy.
The night before the attack, Cora and Satoru found themselves teeming with things unsaid, emotions unshared and confessions delayed for too long. The air was dense around them as they sat on the steps outside the house, hands clutched on the cup of linden flowers tea. Finally, Satoru broke the silence.
-I don’t know how things will work out tomorrow….so I wanted to say something-he said, his voice stranded by emotion.
He stopped for a moment turning to Cora and gently ran his fingers through her hair.
-You are the most beautiful and amazing girl that I have ever seen. I look at you and I can’t believe I am not dreaming. I think I’m in love with you….So, if we manage to safely return tomorrow, would you stay with me…forever?
Overwhelmed, Cora swallowed hard before answering. She set aside the cup and put her arms around the young man’s neck.
-I cannot see myself otherwise but by your side….-she whispered.
He held her close, lovingly…. Up in the skies, night unfolded its wings of stars, shimmering in the magical rhythm of love.
When his duties as leader of the community allowed, Satoru spent the evenings, listening to the stories with the children. The little ones loved to crawl in his lap or to sit on the back of Gondwana and the young man mellowed offering them the love he had so much missed as a child. Cora’s warm voice, her deeply emotional or sometimes very funny twists of the stories were balm for his soul. She has grown to his heart in a way no one ever had, reaching the softest depths of his soul.
“Is this love?”-he wondered sometimes. He sighed inwardly. What were the chances that she would feel the same and that she would remain by his side? She had a homeland of hers and a duty to fulfill towards her own people….Satoru dismissed the thoughts and let his mind relax for the moments in the sound of the magic carrying voice.
Cora loved the evenings when Satoru joined them. His presence was always comforting and reassuring and in was in these evenings when his warm and loving inner side was emerging without restraint, generating an emotional flow that enveloped her in magic.
“ Is this love? “-she wondered sometimes. She has never known love before. The years of education as a would-be Queenie prevented her from having a close relationship with young men of her age. Was Satoru feeling the same about her? She couldn’t tell…He had so many responsibilities and he was always considerate towards others. “Oh…whatever.”-thought Cora. We’ll see. I’m glad he’s here and that Avik loves him so much. Maybe the child knows something we still wonder about”…
So while love was slowly but steadily developing between Cora and Satoru, up in the Citadel Asterius was sending out orders.
-Tomorrow I want to speak in the Central Square. Rolf, send the Guardians with the message around the city and gather as many people as possible. See that those who are our strong supporters to be in the first rows, next to the stairs. I will deliver my speech from the promontory of the Sanctuary.
The young man looked at him questioningly.
-Are you reopening the Rebirth Celebrations?
-No, not at all! Those lustful parades are no longer part of our customs. But we need to strengthen our fight against the monsters lurking among us and my speech will serve as a reminder. See that everything would be in place! Dismissed!
Rolf Asterianus left the room with a bow. Time was short and the Leader was short tempered. He hurried down the stairs, shouting orders to his men. Standing at the window, Asterianus was smirking at the thought of his plans. A strange green light was flickering in his eyes as he muttered:” Tomorrow….I’ll show you tomorrow!”
When the sun of a new day reached its peak in the skies above the Citadel, the center of the city was teeming with people waiting for their leader to come. It’s been awhile since they’ve heard him speaking and they were full of expectation. Those fearing what might come were ducking in the hind rows, hoping that their lack of enthusiasm would go unnoticed. Finally, the place fell silent as Asterius made his appearance on the top of the stairs leading to the Sanctuary. He looked stern and preoccupied and he had visibly aged lately. Though he was still good looking, the expression wrinkles of his face had deepened, his hair had turned silver-white and his eyes were bearing a strange, disturbing light. He stood there motionlessly,his eyes scrutinizing the gathering like a bird of prey.
-My fellow Citadelians!-boomed his voice. I have asked you to come today because I need your support . For years I have tirelessly protected this city and you, my people from the monstrosities that were undermining our society. As I look around I can see that you are thriving and I feel joy and gratitude. But lately, the number of concerning happenings had increased and I have found out that some of our citizens had decided to give help to the enemy, jeopardizing the lives of everyone. The health of our beloved Silver Tree is at stake and along with it, our as well.
-Who are those traitors, Asterius?!- shouted someone from the crowd. Bring them before us!!
-Yes! Yes! Bring them here! Let us see them!!!
The number of angry voices from the crowd was slowly mounting.Asterius raised à hand.
-Very well, I will bring here the most recent example. Let’s see what she has to say in her defense!
He made a quick sign to the White Guards and soon, a woman was dragged in and presented to the people. It was Leanna, Avik’s mother. She looked frail after the time spent in jail but she has kept her dignified posture. She faced Asterius without fear. The man grabbed her arm and turned her to the crowd.
-Look at this woman! She was hiding a Changer and she even helped him escape through a hole in the wall. We caught her in the last minute thanks to the vigilance of the White Guards and the keen sense of our ferdogs. But the Changer escaped and became another threat lurking outside our walls!
-I was protecting my child and I am glad that he escaped!-shouted Leanna defiant.
-Then look at the consequences!!!-shouted Asterius, opening with a sudden move the gates of the Sanctuary.
Living for so many years in the dim light seeping through the ceiling of the Sanctuary, the Silver Tree was shocked by the intensity of the full sunlight. To the fragile entity, this invasion of glow was like a dagger in its heart. The Tree shrieked in pain and its trunk split in half, part of it falling to the ground with thundering noise. The intense pain reverberated through space and it reached Cora, leaving her breathless. Overwhelmed by pain, she fainted and fell to the ground before anyone could catch her.
Hell broke out inside the Citadel as the maddened crowd seized the woman they thought to have caused the incredible damage. Asterius stepped aside and left the square unnoticed. Up in the sky, the sun was hiding its face, unable to face the wickedness below. Somewhere, in the attic of a house, a deeply shaken man was sending a desperate message outside the walls. The small letter was carried by a bird that knew exactly where to land. Later that night,the White Guardians shut the gates of the Sanctuary, leaving the Silver Tree frightened and broken.
She opened her eyes and saw Satoru sitting by her side, head buried in his hands: the image of deep concern.
-What happened?-she asked in a husky voice. Her head was still throbbing with a dull pain.
-Hi!-Satoru was clearly relieved hearing her voice. You’ve scared us all when you fainted. How do you feel now?
-Uhm…a bit dizzy and I seem to have difficulties in remembering the events….Wait! Wait….It was a sharp pain….a scream in my mind…..the Tree….Oh! The Silver Tree! It was its pain! I remember now! Something , someone hurt the Tree and it was crying for help!
-It makes sense…-whispered Satoru. Listen, Cora, something horrible happened in the Citadel. We’ve got message from a friend; Avik’s mother is dead. The masterplan imagined and set in motion by Asterius delivered a hard blow to the Changers, to their allies and irreversibly damaged the Silver Tree.
-What?!! Oh….poor Avik….
For the first time, Cora burst into tears and cried bitterly. She cried of shock, she cried of anger.When she finally regained her composure, all it was left inside her was a strong determination.
-I’m sorry…-she said. I’m fine now and I’m ready for whatever you decide. You can count me in.
-You are part of the team, you know it, Cora. I’ve sent already a call around the forest; the others will soon be here and we can work out a plan. This madman has to be stopped!
The Silver Tree was shivering in the darkness of the Sanctuary. It was broken and fragile while the future of the Citadel looked grim under Asterius. The Tree was sensing its strength slowly diminishing, fading in the darkness of the loneliness and confinement. There was only one hope: to grow a seed that would preserve the living spirit of the people entwined with that of the Tree. It was a delicate process that needed time and care. The Silver Tree knew that Asterius would do anything to lay his hand on the seed. The only hope was in that girl with flaming hair coming from another land; she has brought with her the connection with another Tree, a mighty, powerful one and the Silver Tree was gathering the necessary strength from it, in order to give birth to the Seed.
With this comforting thought,the Silver Tree reached below, inside the intricate web of roots and started to build another layer of silver shell around the tiny cocoon nested inside….There was no time for delay.
Up in the Citadel, Asterius was rabid with rage.
-I want every inch of the wall searched and I want you to find the tiniest crack that can serve as escape route for these monsters!-he shouted at his nephew, Rolf Asterianus who was serving as his aid. I cannot believe that they keep getting off , avoiding our surveillance!
-It’s been increasingly difficult to stop them, even to uncover them lately.-grumbled the young man in response. I’m not sure anymore who’s surveilling who. Since Sa…
-Don’t speak his name!!!!
Asterius slammed his fist on the table, cracking its top. His son’s departure to join the Changers outside the Citadel had been a hard blow to his pride. There was no love lost between them but the foolish boy was still bearing his name. And to make things even worse, others followed him, supporting the escapees. Even the Silver Tree seemed to mock him, withering and losing vitality despite the best efforts to keep it alive.
-Leave me alone! -he growled, sending Rolf away. I have to make a plan to crush these vermins once and for all!
He turned his back on the young man and stood before the high window, scrutinizing the dark expanse of the forest.
“ I’ll find you! I’ll find you!” he thought, gritting his teeth.
They’ve reached the tree house late in the afternoon after crossing much of the forest, passing by the various small communities of Citadelians and Changers living there. People greeted Satoru with much sympathy and followed the winged girl with unhidden curiosity. Savian’s house appeared before them in a small clearing. It well adjusted to the shape of the tree and it was cleverly camouflaged by the crown of branches and leaves. Memories of her own home surfaced in the mind of the Queenie and she muffled a sigh. The Shadowcat stopped and Satoru signaled their presence with a whistle. Opening the tree-crown above, a special ladder unfolded till it reached the ground. It was built to accommodate the feline and its rider. Cora followed them closely.
Behind the curtain of leaves, the door opened to a room lit by glowing yellow globes, pending from the ceiling. The walls were full of books and colorful pieces of arts and crafts. There was a thick , soft carpet on the floor and low chairs to sit.
-Good afternoon, Master Savian!-said Satoru. I came with a guest, if you don’t mind.
-Good afternoon, Satoru! Good afternoon, young lady!-replied a deep, velvety voice.
Savian entered the room to greet them, leaving the Arberian girl speechless. A man in his early fifties, he was tall and majestic, wearing an ink-blue robe embroidered with silver feathers. His kin was dark brown with a copper gloss and his long, black hair was braided in numerous thin tails. His eyes were incredibly blue and their gaze was piercingly clear. He bowed courteously before Cora, but he assessed her in a blink of an eye.
-Your coming was signaled already, Satoru along with the presence of your graceful companion. Welcome to my humble home, Miss Cora! What a pair of beautiful wings! It brings back happy memories of my youth. I used to fly a lot but now, I am more an earthling….
Cora blushed but to replied quickly:
– Thank you for receiving us, Master Savian! I am on a personal quest here and I think I could be of help in your effort to bring back the balance of this land.
-Hmmm…You seem to be a very determined young lady. How much do you know about us?
-Not much, Master Savian ; but Satoru told me that you’re the beholder of knowledge.
-Then let me share with the two of you my modest place and while having dinner, I’ll try to shed some light on our recent history.
Sipping the warm, fragrant tea poured in colorful cups, Cora and Satoru were listening to Savian’s recount of memories. His voice was full of emotion as he was telling about the tragic days twenty some years before….
-My most powerful memory of all is that of a young woman, facing the “disappearance “ of her beloved husband. They were recently married and madly in love. This Curse of invisibility was a harsh and long forgotten penalty, used hundreds of years before only in the worst cases like vicious murder or treason. Those days were largely forgotten so the impact of the revival of the curse was even more powerful. This woman had watched the entire act, eyes in eyes with her husband and the moment his last visible piece vanished, she broke the line and rushed to embrace him. She held him close and she didn’t want to let go, no matter how hard others tried to drag her away! This image stayed fresh in my mind and gave me the strength to continue the fight.
-So…are you a Changer?
Cora and Satoru were sitting on the steps of the house, days after visiting Savian. The encounter made a great impression on the Queenie and she grew even more determined to be by the side of the outcasts. As for Satoru, he came back strengthened in his trust towards her; he could see Savian opening before the girl like never before. Maybe this was the sign he had been waiting for…Satoru turned his attention to Cora:
-No, I am not-he said. One doesn’t have to suffer to become aware of others’ pain and to step in to help those who are suffering. One simply has to act upon its true self. By the way,you’re not a Changer either and here you are, ready to get involved in our fight.
She shook her head with a smile.
-Hmmm, yes….You’re right. So…what if I fly over the walls and rescue people like I did with Avik?
-Avik is a small child. Hauling an adult would be hard and dangerous. The White Guards are all over the place. We’ve got messages from inside that Asterius has sent them to check every corner of the wall. He is a madman, Cora. I wouldn’t put you in his way!
It was a passionate outburst from this calm and balanced young man, bringing back a small detail Cora recalled hearing in that previous discussion between Satoru and Petunia, Ogren’s wife.
-You seem to know well Asterius….-she said quietly.
There was a moment of silence then Satoru murmured in a low voice:
-He is my father. Growing up separated from him helped me see clearly who he really is.
The pain was clearly audible in the restraint of Satoru’s voice and Cora decided to go further tactfully.
-What happened?-she asked softly.
-He couldn’t accept that I was born crippled-sighed the young man. I never thought that I would be scorned for something that wasn’t my fault. No matter how hard I would’ve tried, I couldn’t change the fact that I was born impaired. But for my father this was the ultimate humiliation. Not only that the woman he sought refused him, but his son was crippled, a failure, good for nothing. The moment he realised that I will never be able to follow his footsteps, he moved out from home and left my gentle mother in shame and despair. He was sending her money to live and to raise me, but forbid her to get in touch with him. When my cousin was born, he took him under his protection and raised him with all the attention he should’ve given to me…
– That must’ve been awful…-sighed Cora, remembering her joyful connection with her father.
– No. Not so much….I was a child, I had friends of my age who weren’t disturbed by my limitations and I always loved to read, to learn and to dream. But I saw my Mom slowly fading like a withering flower and many times I caught her wiping her tears or muffling her sobbs. She loved me dearly and the pain my father inflicted on us, shortened her life. This is something I can neither forget, nor forgive.
-I can understand that, Satoru….-whispered Cora.Something dark and very dangerous must inhabit your father’s heart.
-It’s cold ambition and vanity, nothing more. His heart is devoid of love and warmth-said Satoru bitterly. Oh, well! Enough sadness ! Come with me, Cora! I want to show you something.
The Silver Tree was dozing in the dim light filtering through the ceiling. For the first time in countless years, it was sleeping peacefully. Deep inside its core, a seed of hope was growing. The flash of message it received recently, brought the Tree back to life. In these rare moments of comfort, the Tree was dreaming of happy times, of love, of joy, of freedom. Cuddling inside its silver shell, the Spirit of the Tree was dreaming too. Somewhere close, a girl with fiery hair was coming to save them.
Riding his shadowcat, Satoru lead Cora to Goren and Petunia’s home. A safe enclosure provided playing ground to the orphans. The children were playing in the warm sun, watched by two women. One of them was Petunia, holding her baby who seemed to enjoy the happy noises and the fresh air. Cora’s eyes were searching for Avik inside the group of children.
-Did you spot him?-asked Satoru, guessing her preoccupation.
-I cannot find him- she answered. I can’t believe that I’ve already forgotten how he looks…
The girl was visibly upset.
-You cannot recognize him because he is hiding. He’s a Changer. Look under the tree in the corner. What do you see on the ground ?
Cora looked carefully and saw a small brown rabbit hiding in the shade. She turned questioningly to Satoru. He nodded affirmatively.
-He’s changing because he’s upset. He’s a sensitive little boy; he needs time to adjust, even if he’s well taken care. Petunia is a great mother to all of them but she’s not his mother.
Cora felt a lump in her throat. She turned to Petunia who was coming to greet them.
-Good morning, Petunia! Satoru brought me to see the children. Could you introduce me to them? I don’t want to frighten them with my strange appearance but I would love to see Avik!
-Good morning, my friends-said Petunia warmly. I’m glad you came; this might ease the boy’s anxiety. Come, Cora! I’ll introduce you to the kids.
She handed her baby to the other woman and took Cora to the playground, presenting her to the children. They surrounded the Queenie, they asked her lots of things about her wings and she allowed them to touch. The kids giggled and after a while, they returned to their games. Cora headed to the tree and carefully sat down next to the bunny rabbit. She felt awkward for a moment; it was hard to believe that this little animal was in fact a human child. What if they are making fool of her? She quickly dismissed the thought. Trust is a two way street; one has to trust in order to be trusted. She gently caressed the bunny.
-Hello, Avik….It’s me, the lady with the cookies. Do you remember me? Look, I’ve brought you another one.
She took a cookie from her pocket and placed it in the grass,right under the nose of the bunny. It worked. The little rabbit shook and reversed appearance. The little boy hopped in her lap, cuddling in Cora’s arms, holding her strong. She embraced him lovingly and kissed the top of his head, rocking him gently.
-Don’t worry, Avik. I will always be here for you.
-I must admit she’s working miracles-said Petunia, watching the bonding outside the playground.
-She does -said Satoru.
He was feeling it to. The following days and weeks, Cora spent as much time as possible with Avik. The little boy has grown to her heart and she was determined to help him leave his cocoon. Having a little sister at home and missing her, helped Cora to build the love and trust Avik needed to regain his innocent joy. Cora was often spending the evening reading stories from the book Avik had from his mother or simply improvising funny stories about her own land, Arberia. The children loved the stories and Petunia was grateful for the help. She could rest more and spend time with her baby and her family. So from the rough beginning, Cora and Petunia ended up as good friends and the Queenie won a well deserved respect inside the community of the outcasts.
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.
The Silver Tree was dying. It wasn’t the fire of that tragic day causing it. No, it wasn’t that. Those flames had barely touched it,as Tigra had taken upon her the destructive power, sacrificing her life. But losing her as the One connected to its spirit, the Tree was left alone and deeply saddened. He missed the love she always brought, the joy that she constantly collected and transmitted from the people of the Citadel.
Not that Asterius was neglecting his newly assumed duties. No, he was diligently checking on the Tree, day by day, round and round up to the top, climbing the scaffolding built around it. Made at the order of Asterius , it was like a golden cage and the Tree felt trapped. The Opal Gates were never again opened and light was coming only through the luminatory from above. Asterius’ visits were bringing no relief or warmth to the Silver Tree. The touch of his hands was chilling like the cold of winter. There was no love lost between them. They both held secrets and the Chief Guardian was weary about anyone connecting to the Tree. It was too much at stake to take such risk.
Without love, the Tree found no joy and reason to thrive and live on. Outside the Sanctuary love had seemingly died , being replaced by fear, hatred, silence. Dead silence. Just like the green of the leaves turning to yellowish shades, the people of the Citadel had lost their colors. In the passing twenty years, the once joyful, diverse and sizzling community turned into a quiet, down-toned conformity. Of course, they were alive and following their daily routine. They were falling in love, marrying and having children. They were building, creating and sustaining the life of the Citadel. They were listening to the words of Asterius spread by his followers and they were respecting the rules enforced by the White Guardians. They have long since stopped being preoccupied about the Silver Tree. Asterius was in charge of it so they had no reason to worry anymore. Life of the Citadel was going on well and in order.
Or maybe not? It’s not in the nature of human beings to give in to pressure for long, so it wasn’t only the Silver Tree hiding a secret. In that tragic day, Savian and à group of Changers made à narrow escape from the White Guardians and moved into the dark forest outside the Citadel. They knew no one would dare to follow them. That was a territory shrouded in legends and mystery.
It wasn’t always like that, but gradually, the people of the Silver Tree build their home around the life-giving entity and slowly, they separated themselves from the rest of the land, encompassing the Tree into their city and secluded, yet thriving culture. The decision changed the balance of the land, concentrating most of the strength of the Silver Tree inside the walls and leaving the outside world to thrive mostly on its own. Losing contact and knowledge about that world, people filled the gaps with imagination and stories about fantastic beasts. Little they knew that the darker world of the forest outside was indeed home to some exceptional animals.
The group of Changers lead by Savian soon discovered that outside the walls of the city their abilities were diminished so they had to rely on their average human side. Nonetheless, the forest proved to be an acquiring place and they’ve set foot and made a safe camp easier than they expected. So they’ve built a new life and kept close to the city to help escape their Invisible brothers and sisters.
Inside the white walls of the Citadel Asterius kept an iron grip on people and hunting down the Changers remained one of his favorite activity. There was seemingly no escape from him, his army of Guardians and the ferocious ferdogs. The Invisibles were left to lead a miserable existence, stealing food, sleeping in hidings, pushed aside by the rest of the people. Helping them was strictly forbidden and treated as an act of treason so there were a very few daring to do it.
Yet they were the ones helping the Invisibles or the uncaught Changers to escaping from the city. People couldn’t leave the city without approval and even then, it was considered a foolish act by most of the citizens. And yes, the White Guardians were patrolling the walls, followed by their ferdogs, preventing people from doing such things. But when your child in under threat inside the walls, the world outside doesn’t seem so frightening anymore. Leanna learned about the escape route by chance.
The northern wall of the city was the oldest ever built and it was hidden behind the dense shrubbery with thorns meant to scare away anyone from inside or outside. Even the guards were keeping their distance while patrolling the area. That vegetal growth was impenetrable. Well, not exactly. Once in every moonless night, the shrubbery would open a narrow passageway to the outside but finding it in the darkness was not an easy thing to do. Neither was finding this piece of knowledge as it was shrouded in myth and legends. People dismissed it as à tell-tale, but for those desperate to save their lives or that of their loved ones, even a legend could bring a ray of hope.
Myths and legends Leanna knew a lot. A large collection of ancient stories was all she had, left from her late mother. Her gentle father used to read her stories from that book when she was small and soon after she had learned to read, it became her favorite reading. Going through these stories was like walking hand in hand with her Mom in worlds beyond imagination. Leanna never learned her real name and she stopped asking when she saw the pain in her father’s eyes. Now the legacy of her mother was opening the way to save her little boy.
The young mother was all alone in her hardship. As soon as it became clear that their child was a Changer, her husband left them. He didn’t want to get involved in such a disgrace. All he could promise was to keep the secret for a while. Now mother and child were trying to reach the northern wall under the cover of the moonless night. They were lucky not to meet anyone on their way. The nights were still cold this time of the year, giving a chill to those venturing out. Chased by the boisterous early spring winds, clouds were running in the skies, filtering the light of the scattered stars. The two ducking shapes reached the premises of the shrubbery. Leanna touched the tip of the entwining of branches and surprisingly, it opened a bit before them. She pushed the child forward and followed him, listening to the noises behind. They’ve soon reached a narrow opening in the wall. Right under it, a steep slope was leading into the valley ,its rim guarded by the dark mass of the forest.
-We have to descend and get to the trees, my dear-whispered Leanna. But when she wanted to move, something caught her leg from behind and she heard the growl of the ferdog. She pushed her child forward, screaming:
-Run, Avik, run!!!!
Scared, the child tripped and rolled down the slope. He ended up dizzy and pained, with the voice of his Mom ringing in his ears:
-Run, Avik, run!!!!
He stumbled and ran and stumbled again in the darkness, sobbing…
A sudden swoosh and something or someone picked him up, flying into the skies, holding him close, keeping him warm. A gentle voice was whispering in his ears:
-Shhhht, don’t cry little one! You’re safe with me….
The sudden appearance created a commotion inside the small group hiding at the rim of the forest.
-What was that?!-exclaimed some of them.
-I don’t know-responded another voice-but we must hurry to find out. That child might be in grave danger.
The Season of Rebirth was spreading upon the land, releasing the eternal life-giving energies from the depth of the earth. The radiance of the sun was pushing seeds into life and crusts were cracking to unleash the green force of the plants. Caught by the sizzling of the new light, animals, birds and insects were getting into loving frenzy, singing, dancing, nest-building….The Citadel was buoying with life and its inhabitants were preparing for the annual celebration of this magical season. As the turn of the stars in the sky was marking the crossing of the line between winter and springtime, the Opal Gates of the Sanctuary were ready to open and mark another rebirth of the Silver Tree.
Outside the temple people were busy with all kind of activities. Some of them were building small temporary shops and stands for arts, crafts and goodies, others were crafting various forms out of wires and handed them to girls and women to decorate them with colorful flowers. The marble tiles of the large place around the Sanctuary were swept clean and benches were placed around for the viewers of the celebrations. In the showering sunlight the Sanctuary itself was wrapped in a golden haze and it looked like huge column of glow rising from the center of the place. A row of concentric stairs were leading to the gates from where the graceful Changers were expected to emerge and greet the opening season and the people of the Citadel. Everyone was happily working to add its own touch to the festival of love and light.
Well, maybe not everyone was looking forward this moment. Stern and aloof, a handsome young man was hiding in the shadows of a house in the square. His name was Asterius and he was the Chief Guardian of the Sanctuary. His mood was not exactly cheerful. Something was definitely bothering him and he wasn’t keen to show it . He was seemingly waiting for something or someone…
The busy crowd split for a moment to let a group of Changers pass towards the Sanctuary. They were men and women, boys and girls dressed in light, colorful clothes, with faces painted with intricate patterns and wearing complicated coiffures according to the role they would play in the ceremony. Leading them proudly was a slender young woman with feline features and agile moves. Her skin was deep gold with black stripes and her eyes were burning green fires. Her black hair was braided in one long tail reaching below her waistline. Tigra was chatting and laughing with her companions , oblivious of the pair of steel blue eyes following her from the shadow. The group reached the Sanctuary, climbed the stairs and disappeared inside the building.
It was cool and almost dark inside, only a faint bluish glow marking the presence of the Silver Tree. The little spring watering the roots was joyfully bubbling as its ice armor has melted under the warm sunlight. The tree was stretching its limbs, the thin sap murmuring in the arteries of the high trunk. Tigra stepped up and gently embraced the tree, her cheek touching the smooth, leathery crust.
“Hello my friend!-she whispered. I’ve missed you! “
The tree responded with a flute-like happy sound that only she was able to hear. As High Priestess of Rebirth, she shared a special connection with the Tree.
-Savy! Please check the branches and the buds! Take your team up there with you!-said Tigra, turning to a young man wearing a blue tunic with wing-like sleeves.
Savian nodded and with a swift somersault he changed into a large bird that flew upwards, followed by others. They’ve checked minutiously every branch and stick, every bud to see if the Tree has suffered any damage during its winter sleep. All looked fine and ready to reborn. They descended and joined the team that was busy creating protective mandalas all around the sanctuary floor. The final one was a long braided rope-like design leading from the Tree to the main entrance of the sanctuary. That particular one was done single handedly by Tigra as she was the One connected to the Tree, the One meant to release the new energies and channel them to fulfil the Rebirth. It was a great honor and an even bigger responsibility. The Silver Tree was the source of everyone’s well being inside the Citadel. Outside the white walls of this magical city the world was thought to be wild, dark and dangerous.
The team of Changers resumed their work and headed for the main entrance; Tigra made a final bow towards the Tree, strengthening the renewed connection between them. She was the last one to exit the Sanctuary and she sealed the door with her personal seal, worn on the necklace. She never separated from that magical piece of jewelry that was carved out from a piece of wood coming from the Tree itself. Outside the building it was already night and the streets were deserted. The people of the Citadel were sleeping in their homes, dreaming about the celebration next day.
A group of White Guardians patrolling the streets passed by and respectfully greeted them.
-Peace and good rest to you, Changers!
-Peace and quiet night to you, Guardians! -answered Tigra in the name of her team. As the patrol disappeared, the team split, each of them hurrying towards home to catch a bit of sleep before dawn. Left alone,Tigra looked around for a moment; there was a strange tension in the air, a sense of unease….but she couldn’t find a reason for it.
“Maybe I’m just tired and imagining things”-she murmured for herself hurried towards home with graceful, feline steps. From the cover of the darkness the steel-blue eyes were following her silhouette diminishing in the distance.
She woke up early, shivering. She had been chased in her dreams by a pair of steel-blue eyes and she knew well her stalker. It was Asterius. For years he was following her, trying to force himself on her. Behind his cool and balanced appearance lied a resentful and temperamental man who couldn’t take no for an answer. Tigra was the woman he wanted but she kept refusing him; his cold, selfish personality frightened her. With him around, she always felt naked and vulnerable.
She married secretly and she gave birth recently to a little girl. Luckily for her, the powers of being a Changer helped to keep her little family safe and hidden from the eyes of this dangerous man. Asterius was respected and highly regarded by the people of the Citadel; the members of the Council of Elders were always consulting him. He was a shrewd man, clever and persuasive so with Tigra’s exception, no one had a hint of his true nature.
Tigra sighed and leaned over the cradle where her daughter was peacefully sleeping. Little Leanna was a beautiful, ordinary baby; she didn’t inherit her mother’s status. She wasn’t a Changer and that somehow came as a comfort for Tigra. Though only one in a hundred babies were born Changers and they were considered as bearers of a special gift, having that status was sometimes a burden. All Tigra wanted for her child was to be free and happy. She kissed the baby’s soft cheeks and tucked her well under the blanket. She then left the room to prepare for the chores of this special day.
The morning was gloriously beautiful: the air clear and fragrant, the sun showering the land below with benevolent light, people gathering in excited expectation. As the Elders of the Citadel declared the ceremonies open, music burst from all over and artists filled the square, dancing and singing to the mesmerized audience. Their various performances were followed by the long awaited scenery of the Changers. It was a long rehearsed play representing the cycle of Nature and throughout it, they were earth and wind, water and fire, animals, birds and magical creatures of old myths. As the images were changing, excitement was rising towards a peak represented by the opening of the Opal Gates and the revealing of the Silver Tree coming back to life. In this eternal play the final performance included the wall of the Guardians of the Sanctuary in their pristine white capes, aligned before the main gate, symbolizing the last challenge of winter.
Leading them was Asterius, standing in the center of the last step, with his back against the huge door and defiantly facing Tigra, the priestess of Rebirth. Turned into a graceful but ferocious feline, she approached him hissing and growling. The supple muscles were moving like snakes under the black striped golden skin. Her eyes were sparkling emeralds and her powerful aura sent a shiver down everyone’s spine. Asterius crouched and faced her, eyes like daggers of ice. The two powerful elements confronted each other with great determination but in the end, Asterius stepped aside with a grunt and Tigra regained her human shape. She stopped in front of the Opal Gates and touched the locking seal. She froze for a fraction of a moment; something was wrong but it was too late to find out what. The tension in the central square was at its height so she broke the seal and set in motion the huge doors.
Opening like the wings of a Phoenix, the gates let the sunlight inside the sanctuary….and disaster struck! Fire erupted from the colorful sand mandalas and in a blink of an eye they’ve reached the Tree. The most powerful flames were those of the braided line that was connecting the Silver Tree and Tigra. Flames were dancing on the surface of the spring washing the roots and both the Tree and the young woman cried out in pain and terror. She made a desperate effort to protect the Tree, attracting the flames upon her. The last image she saw was the pair of steel-blue eyes; it was coming through her inner connection with the Silver Tree….
Tigra never regained consciousness and days later she passed away, closely watched by the White Guardians. That tragic day, as havoc broke in the central square, Asterius ordered the arrest of Tigra’s team and the gathering of all Changers of the Citadel to stand before the Council of Elders. Young or elderly, adults and children were herded and held prisoners till the day of judgement. The Sanctuary was closed and Asterius took charge of the healing and protecting the damaged Silver Tree. Dazzled, shaken and frightened by the possible consequences of the tragedy, the people of the Citadel followed Asterius’ instructions without questioning them. They handed him powers no one ever had in the recent history. He promised them to restore peace and order, punish the culprits and most of all, he woved to heal and protect the Tree at all cost. He was a passionate speaker so his words easily reached the audience, strengthening the public support for his actions.
The judgement of the Changers was swift. From the height of the Elders’ Board, Asterius unleashed his accusation upon the whole assembly of Changers.He accused them of plotting to slowly poison the Silver Tree in order to gain power upon the people of the Citadel. He called them “abominations” as they were beholders of powers unknown to the other humans. He said that their simple presence inside the city walls was a danger to the healthy development and proper future of the Citadel Nation.
-You have no place among decent people!-he shouted-But since you were born inside these walls, we cannot throw you out into the wilderness. We are better than that! So the only way to separate ourselves from your sinful existence is to turn you invisible. From now on, you and every child born a Changer will be considered enemies and will be shunned from our community. The citizens of the Citadel will chase you from amidst us and you will no longer able to harm us!
A deep silence followed these words; though some of the people found this sentence excessively harsh, they didn’t dare to speak up. It wasn’t the moment then…..and it never would be later. Families were torn apart as the Changers were publicly made invisible. One by one , children, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbors were disappearing under the eyes of the bystanders. From legs to waist then the face to the pleading eyes, they vanished silently under the spell cast upon them….In the following years, the White Guardians kept chasing any new Changer, using the keen senses of special trained ferdogs.
Tigra’s baby grew up without knowing who her real mother had been. Many years later, Leanna was ducking on the dark streets of the Citadel, trying to save her child’s life.