The chorus of a thousand birds gently prodded Andrea awake. Squinting, she rubbed her eyes and dropped her feet to the grassy floor. Her mind felt foggy, still wandering in the land of dreams. Today was the day.
All her life, Andrea had lived in a little cabin outside the town of Lyne. Even when her father died and her mother remarried, she still stayed. Just a month ago her life had been simple, a boring wheel constantly turning. One day changed all that.
About a month ago, her mother, Deyanira, had decided to give her in marriage to Humphrey. Andrea choked with horror and terror. To have to marry that awkward, lazy, cruel oaf seemed unbearable... but thankfully, there was Thomas. Although he was only her step-brother, the two had grown close over the years. Even his father, the town mayor, had tried to be a good step-father to Andrea, despite her reclusive tendencies. When Deyanira tried to give her in marriage, Andrea went straight to Tom. Taking her under his wing, he had moved Andrea and all her things into a hideaway in the boundary hills that protected the town from the cliff. He had brought her food everyday and made she sure was doing well.
As time continued, her mixed up family dynamics got even worse. The whole town was shocked as Humphrey’s father revealed a long love affair between himself and Deyanira. He had promised to keep the affair secret as long as Deyanira married Andrea to Humphrey. Tom’s father kicked Deyanira out of his home, and she was forced to move back into a little old cabin. This made matters even worse for Andrea. She had been considered strange before, an outcast living on the edges of society, but now she wasn’t welcome at all. A week ago when she tried to come into town, Deyanira had beaten her, blaming her for her demotion from mayor’s wife to the town harlot. The mayor, however, was able to extract Andrea from the hands of Deyanira and get her back to her hideaway.
Andrea’s heart ached. All she wanted was a home...a purpose...belonging. None of these were here. It was then the idea hit her. Tom didn’t like it, in fact he actively persisted in trying to stop it, but she was still going forward. She was leaving. She was going over the cliff.
Getting dressed, she carried her pack outside her hovel and waited. Finally, Tom emerged from the hills lugging a huge spool of rope.
“Good morning, Tom.” she called out, going over to help him.
“Andrea...” he groaned, his eyes pleading with her.
She ignored him.
Wordlessly, they carried the spool to the edge of the boundary hills. Before them was the edge of the plateau. She’d heard of this place often, a place where young men would dare themselves to go near. She slowly inched forward on her hands and knees. Just a few feet in front of her the earth ended. A cliff plummeted hundreds of feet to a whole different place. At the bottom, a thick forest continued on almost to the horizon. The morning sun, however, revealed a shimmering line of movement...the sea! Andrea’s mouth opened as she drew in the wonder of the nature before her. The world grew so much larger up here!
“Ya sure ’bout this?” Tom asked.
“After all our preparation, you think I’d back out now?”
“I guess not. Do you think we’ll ever meet again?”
Andrea waited before she answered, unsure what to say.
“I’m too pessimistic to give you any hope, but too optimistic to think that I won’t come out fine.”
“If you must...” Tom didn’t have anything to say. Nothing could make this better. “I will help you.”
With a final hug, Tom tied a rope around her waist and helped strap a large pack on her back.
“As you descend, try to get good hand holds. We have this rope to bear some of your weight and keep you from killing yourself, but it isn’t strong enough for me to just let you down. Understand?”
“Be careful. This cliff is impossibly tall. I have no idea how far this rope will even take you...but it’s all that I have.”
The cliff never seemed so tall as when Andrea slowly slipped over the ledge. There were a few times she slipped, but as long as she didn’t look down…
At about midday, Andrea gave a tug at the line to tell Tom she needed to rest. Here, there was a shelf big enough to sit on. She gladly relaxed her arms and legs, happy to have a chance to eat and drink. Soon, however, she was on her way again. She didn’t want to be stuck on the cliff come nightfall. As the sun set, though, Andrea still had a considerable distance to go. Reluctantly, she found another shelf off to her left and made her way towards it. She then gave Tom a special pull on the rope to signal a stop and tied herself off. Curling up, she tried to rest. It was a horrible night. The rock was quite uncomfortable, and Andrea was terrified of falling asleep and crashing down the cliff. She was almost relieved when she saw the streaks of dawn edging the horizon.
Soon after that, with a signal tug on the rope, she once again continued down the rock. Andrea was much fatigued from her lack of sleep and sore from sleeping on stone. Slowly, she progressed. She noticed that her slips became more frequent than before. Her hands started to shake. She was so exhausted. Andrea wondered how long she could stay up there. Joy coursed through her, however, as she saw she was almost there! In disbelief, she took the last step off the cliff and into the soft grass at its base. She gave the triumphant series of tugs on the rope. Taking her knife out of her belt, she cut herself free from the tight knots that had kept her safe. The next instant she heard a whistling noise, and far off to her left fell a package. Andrea immediately rushed over and began eating its contents. As she ate, a stag came walking out of the forest. It jumped in shock from seeing her, and then bounded back through the trees. Too exhausted to notice, Andrea lay down and slept for many hours.
She was suddenly awakened by the creepy feeling of being watched. She hardly dared open her eyes. Was it her imagination, or could she feel the warmth of a body near her? Could she hear the sound of gurgling water? She didn’t remember seeing a stream... She forced herself to open her eyes.
Looking over her was the kind face of a girl close to her own age. She smiled sweetly and in a soft, rippling voice said, “Good evening. You have slept quite soundly. That journey down the cliff must have been quite terrible. You are a brave one...”
Andrea did not reply, her mind screaming at her to answer.
“Come, you must eat. I have already prepared dinner.”
Beside her was a fire roasting a square of some sort of mush.
“Eat, you need strength.” the lady said bringing her the mush. Andrea ate it and was surprised at how good it tasted. Rolling over, she fell asleep again.
Andrea awoke with a shock. She was in a completely different place. Tall, golden grass was waving around her, and she heard a faint dripping of water. Sitting up, she saw the girl standing nearby. She turned.
“I’m so sorry, but I had to move you. It’s not safe by the cliff. I hope you will forgive me.”
Once again Andrea was speechless. Who on earth-
“My name is Aña, but I’m called Marianna by the Queen.”
Her voice came out like gravel but at least she could talk now...hopefully.
“Yes, the Queen of the Forest. I am her ambassador to the Queen of the Sea.”
The lady sensed Andrea’s confusion and sat beside her.
“The Forest Queen is called Valfreen, and the Sea Queen is called Freñella. Life is different here than above the cliff. It is much more dangerous than the land of the Hanins (as we call all those above the cliff).”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Andrea blurted out. How could she even remember it.
“You must understand our ways if you are to play your role in our history.”
“The one who can conquer the cliff will change the lives of everyone in the two kingdoms.”
“You must know that Queen Valfreen and Queen Frañella have been enemies for...awhile. I am the daughter of Frañella, but I was taken by Valfreen when I was a baby. It was agreed that I would act as peacemaker between the two Queens. I never saw my mother after that. I was raised in the court of Queen Valfreen.”
“How can you act as peacemaker if you’ve never seen your mother?”
“Through letters. Now hurry, you must come. Queen Valfreen wishes to see you, and we have far to go.”
With that, Aña held out her hand and helped Andrea up. They walked through the tall grasses till evening. Slowly the edge of the forest drew near.
As soon as they had entered the forest, Aña drew a whistle from her pocket.
“We’ll need fast transportation if we are to reach the Queen by tonight.” She whistled and two leopards emerged from the dark foliage. In awe Andrea mounted the beast, clinging to its neck as they galloped through the forest.
When evening had fully come, the leopards slowed. Finally, Aña told her to dismount. Walking forward, they came to a line of foxes and other dogs who, after smelling Aña, let them pass. Next came a line of horses, then bears, and lastly wild cats. After this last guard, they came to a clearing posted with many sentries and a circle of animal courtiers. All eyes faced a little rising of earth on which stood an obsidian throne, smooth as a mirror. On it sat a woman with sharp eyes, raven black hair, and a a bright red mouth. Her only clothing was the cloak of a huge black bear. At first Andrea thought the Queen’s head was wreathed with a dazzling green crown. On second look, however, she came to the startling realization that it was not a crown that encircled the Queen’s head, but a snake. Its head lay between her two eyes, and its eyes were red like a flame. They stared deep into Andrea with a intensity that took her breath away.
“Marianna, you have graced us with your presence at last.” the Queen rose. “This is she who came over the cliff. Welcome to my Kingdom, Hanin. What is your name?”
Andrea forced her voice not to quiver, “My name, Your Majesty, is Andrea.”
“I hope you will enjoy your stay. My son, Antony, will show you where you will live.”
At that, the snake uncoiled itself, dropped to the ground, and changed into a young man.
Andrea’s mouth fell open, and she tried not to gasp. The Prince smiled at her surprise. At that moment Aña exclaimed, “A short stay it will surely be, Queen Valfreen, for I plan to call a Bikingdom council tomorrow morning. If she is truly the one prophesied, then as peacemaker, I rule that she must not stay in either kingdom. ”
The Queen’s eyes flashed with a furry barely quenched. “Marianna. You will not call said council. I forbid it. The Sea Kingdom shall not know about this girl. They would obtain an advantage.”
“My Queen, you shouldn’t even know of her whereabouts. In either kingdom she poses an advantage. That is why she must be sent either far into the grasslands, or we can search for the third kingdom and give her to them. ”
“The Hanin is going nowhere, my fair peacemaker. I know about her by my skill and prowess. Let the Sea Queen be alerted to Andrea’s presence by hers. Your only job is to grow up and marry my son so that the two kingdoms can combine. Keep to that.”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, but I think you’d have put it better as the prowess of your son.”
Aña gave Antony a meaningful look. He returned a mocking bow and in an instant, transfigured into a stag.
“You were the stag that came to me when I was eating... after I came off the cliff.” Andrea murmured in disbelief.
“No matter, Marianna, she will stay, and you cannot stop me.”
“Your Majesty, I-”
Antony transformed back into a man and stepped forward. “Aña, Aña...please. No matter if our fair guest stays an hour, or the remainder of her life here, she must stay till morning. There is no use arguing now. The fair Andrea must be exhausted. Please, my Lady, let me take her to a bed.”
Andrea was surprised at how much his words impacted Aña. His words were quiet and smooth, but he might as well have chastised her. Aña’s shoulders slumped and her head lowered. She sank into a curtsy and murmured, “As my Lord wishes.” Aña then slipped into the darkness.
The Prince stepped forward offering his arm to Andrea. “May I?” The girl graciously accepted his arm, and he led her out of the clearing. Soon the darkness had grown so thick that she could not see. Still, the arm that she gripped seemed to be rushing ahead.
“Wait, your Majesty, I can’t see.” Andrea gasped trying not to stumble.
Suddenly she felt the flapping of leaves around her face, and they broke from the tree cover. Looking above her, she saw the arm that she grasped was now the leg of a mighty bird. It was as regal as an eagle but so much larger. She held on with all her might as they flew through the star spangled heavens. By moonlight she caught sight of the sparkling sea to her right, and as she turned to the left she caught her breath, for from this height she could see the lights of Lyne. It seemed so far away....like a different world.
She felt them dropping altitude and with a jerk, the bird shook her off. Screaming, she free fell. Flump! Andrea sank deep into a nest filled to the brim with soft grass and feathers. The bird perched on the edge of the nest, gawked his head for a moment, and then with a warbling chuckle, flew away. The nest was deep. Andrea was up to her shoulders in “bedding” and could still not feel the bottom. She was shocked to notice that the opening of the nest was quite narrow. She shuddered to think what would have happened if the bird hadn’t shook her off at just the right moment. With a sigh, she relaxed, her eyes slowly closing. Completely exhausted, she curled up for a good night’s rest.
Actually...she tossed left, she tossed right. The sound of croaking frogs, singing crickets, chirping squirrels, the swooping of monkeys, and the shadows that flit across the opening of the nest drove her crazy. In exasperation she yelled out, “Will you just be quiet!” The silence that followed was eerie. Andrea could hear the pounding of her heart in her ears.
“Nest, close up your top.” she commanded.
Slowly, the top of the nest closed together leaving her in total darkness.
“What is this place?" but a more concerning question followed, "What’s happening to me?”
The next morning she awoke to the top of the nest opening up. The bird was again perched on the rim, but it hopped inside. As the bird fell, it transformed back into the Prince.
“Fair maid. Has your lodging been of sufficient comfort?” he asked.
“Yes, Your Highness. But-”
The Prince threw back his head and laughed. “Please, call me Antony. No need to make me sound all high and mighty...were you about to say something else?”
“Do I have special powers now that I’m in a different world? I mean, last night I asked all the night creatures to be quiet, and they did...”
The Prince’s eyebrows shot up amused, “You’re in a different world? My Lady...” Grasping her hand, he gently helped her out of the nest and onto the branch. You could see for miles. “What do you see over there?”
Andrea looked and she could clearly see the cliff’s edge and slightly beyond it... “I see the walls of Lyne, Your Ma-...Antony.”
“This is the same world, only here the species of plants and animals listen. Besides, you are the one prophesied.”
“Prophesied? I was prophesied.”
“Yes, you, Andrea the Hanin from above the cliff’s edge. The prophecy says that earth and sea will fight until the coming of the Hanins. They will bring us peace.”
“Hanins? That’s plural...”
The Prince looked puzzled for a moment but then continued. “This is why Aña is so worried. Her job is to keep peace. My mother, the Queen, isn’t the most peaceful woman, which has made Aña’s job hard. Now with you here, i's making her job even harder.”
“How? I don’t understand...”
“You are prophesied to make peace. Why do we need a peacemaker? My mother will find it much easier manipulating you than Aña. Aña’s life is in danger. My mother isn’t raising the daughter of the Queen of the Sea out of charity. If Aña wasn’t my fiancé...she’d be dead. That is why Aña wants you out of the hands of Queen Valfreen. It will keep her in a better standing.”
“Is Aña jealous of me?”
The Prince cocked his head, “Possibly...but I doubt it. Don’t think badly of her. She’ll protect you...but she’ll try to protect herself as well. I mean, politically it would be easier to make peace if you were in the country outside of these two kingdoms, just so they couldn’t pressure you. Aña’s wish to have you leave isn’t perfectly selfish...but she has some hidden motives. My mother knows this and so is even more determined to keep you here. She wants to rule supremely.”
“Aña’s your fiancé?”
The Prince smiled, “Yes. That was part of the whole peacemaking agreement that happened when we were both babies. It has made life rather interesting...growing up with the one who is to be your wife. Queen Frañella has been upset for sometime now that the two of us haven’t wed. My mother is taking her sweet time. She doesn’t want me to marry Aña. That would make fighting the Sea people more awkward."
The Prince sighed.
"Sometimes I think we’ll never get married. To be perfectly honest, that doesn’t really bother me...but I know it bothers Aña. Sometimes it seems as if we really will get married, but my Queen Mother is afraid that even when we are wed Aña won’t get the Wand of Power.”
“Wand of Power?”
“It is what gives the Queens the power over earth or water. As Frañella’s heir, Aña should receive it, but if the Queen of the Sea has another child... then she could pass it on to her second born instead of her first born. This would keep the power far out of the hands of my Mother.”
Andrea looked out on the landscape before her. The air was fresh and clear, but the wind blowing from the ocean gave it a slightly salty smell. The forest far below seemed to twitch and sway like a living creature. A multitude of birds were singing, and the golden sun cast its shadows onto the green carpet of trees.
“Prince Antony? What do I do now? I have no idea how to make peace between these two countries. Should I try to stay here, or should I push for being taken to some wilderness away from here? I have no clue who to trust or who to follow...”
“Don’t worry. When the time comes, the way will be made clear. Oh, and... I want you to learn to trust me.”
Andrea looked him curiously up and down, “You are worthy of my trust? You will not pressure me into choices that will benefit either your Mother or Aña?”
His dark eyes, those eyes mixed with fire, fixed hers firmly, “Of course. We’ll do this together.”
He then morphed back into a bird, and after helping her onto his back, he flew down into the forest below.
They landed not far from the “throne room”, and even from where they were standing they could hear the raised voices of the Queen and Aña in a stiff debate,
“Hold her back, guard! Marianna! You are a constant thorn in my side. She will be kept here. I shall make arrangements for her to stay within the circle of my guards, and within my beck and call. She shall become my servant and together we will make peace. We have no need of your councils. Stay out of this.”
“Your Highness, in all due respect, you are a biased party. To make this sort of decision we need a group of people. Not just a single person, such as yourself.”
“Do you think I care what you think? You are just here to marry my son...or do you wish to align yourself with your accursed mother!”
They paused in their rants when they saw Andrea come into the clearing. Andrea saw two large kangaroos and a bear surrounding Aña, keeping her from coming any closer to the Queen. The Queen was standing over Aña, her face stiff with stubborn pride. In the daylight, Andrea realized that the Queen was taller than most people and very muscular underneath the folds of her cloak. Her long black hair swished back and forth as she paced like a lion in front of Aña. There was something grand and mysterious about her, about the fire that shone in her eyes. Despite her being the Prince’s mother, she seemed only a little older than him.
The Prince stepped boldly up to his mother, an unimpressed, cocky expression on his face, “Your guest is here, Queen Mother.”
The whole place fell silent. The Queen stepped back, and the kangaroos and bear fell back from Aña.
“I believe that our fair Hanin is a thinking being. She can make the decision for herself. Do you not agree, my Lady Mother?” The Prince’s voice was sharp and clear, and his presence dominating the throne room.
The Queen gazed at her son for a long moment. Her chin went up, but she swept back to her throne and sat down without a word.
“What is your wish, fair Hanin?” the Prince asked.
Andrea took in the scene before her. The Prince calm and composed, Aña’s face pleading with her, the Queen’s face hard and haughty, the stares of the many courtiers...all seemed to press into her mind.
Desperately getting her wits about her she murmured, “I will give my answer at sunset.”
Immediately Aña was at her side and opened her mouth to speak, but Andrea raised her hand, forbidding her.
“I will not hear what either of you have to say. I want my decision unbiased by your words.”
With that, she walked back into the forest.