The sun's last rays stretched across the sky, edging purple clouds with gold.
A small group of people had gathered at the river’s edge, near the end of a narrow, wooden bridge. Two inexperienced foot soldiers accompanied the town’s aging doctor and a couple of sturdily-built midwives, who were deemed more useful at home than in battle. They all circled around several horses and their riders, waiting stoically. The stone castle and its moat lay far behind them. From the river crossing, a rocky road led eastward, towards the location of the devastating battle where the last defending army had been massacred.
A few survivors had escaped on horseback to tell the tale. The last one had reported a rumor that several prisoners of war were now on their way home, and from what the sorceress knew of the prince, the impending reunion of the released prisoners with their loved ones would not be a happy one. She had assembled this little group to meet the returned prisoners quietly, to honor them, to provide healing - or a quick, merciful end - or to fight, if need be.
In the village to either side of the eastbound road, the grieving townspeople wondered which lucky family would be receiving their missing husbands, wives, daughters, brothers. They had seen for themselves the evidence of the prince's brutality, however, and their hopes were tinged with anguish. Their preoccupation with the unknown led them into distraction. More than one soup pot that night was boiled without the customary turnips or potatoes. Mothers put squalling babes to bed in soiled diapers. Daughters repeatedly scrubbed the same pair of leggings over and over again, in buckets of water with no soap. Sons too young to go into battle played swords with kitchen knives, while grandmothers set bowls out for the evening meal, then returned them to the cupboard, without ever serving any food.
The horse under the sorceress stamped its hooves impatiently and shook out its mane. She leaned forward, a brown hood hiding her face and hair from view, and patted the creature's neck, murmuring words of reassurance. She felt impatient, too. At last, one of the footsoldiers called for their attention, and the little group craned their necks and stared into the distance until the covered cart became visible, accompanied by a lone pedestrian.
Suddenly silent, they waited until the cart reached the bridge. The beast hesitated to pull it over, and its chaperone seemed unable or unwilling to intervene. Several soldiers sprang into action, moving to the vehicle and guiding it across. For a moment, everyone stood still, unwilling to come closer to the truth of the Tyrant Prince's latest horror.
Then the Sorceress herself strode to the canvas flap serving as the door of the cart, and flung back the fabric. Her face contorted, but then a look of stern compassion covered her features. She reached into the dark interior and began to assist someone out. In a flash, two men were at her side to help ... just in time, too.
She faltered, then commanded sharply, “Slowly! Gently...” A second person began to emerge from the cart, apparently attached, if she could believe her eyes, to the first, by a metal link welded through their left and right hands. A third person came forth in the same manner, then another and another, until at last 9 young men and women stood, shivering from exhaustion and hunger, but holding themselves up, both out of pride and out of compassion for their neighbors, who were so painfully linked one to another. The younger soldier rushed behind the cart and was ill.
Then the observers gasped, for in the light of the setting sun, they saw the letters, spelling “Surrender,” carved cruelly into each young person's torso. Almost as suddenly, however, a confused pause ensued, as it became clear that there was additional writing on the first young man's chest, above the “S”. It appeared that someone had drawn in blood the words “Do Not”. The Sorceress raised her hand to silence the chattering speculation, glancing sharply at the silent figure who had accompanied the returning captives. She looked at the young people before her.
“Can you speak?” she asked softly. They nodded wearily. One of the taller women explained in halting phrases, how they themselves had decided to alter the message the Prince had forced them to carry. The woman at the end of the chain, with her free hand, had used her own blood – and the blood of some of the others - to trace the additional words onto her comrade's skin.
“Because,” another young man spoke up, “we didn't want him to have the last word.”
“And who was he to decide what our bodies should say,” another voice added in tired indignation.
“We don't want you to surrender on our account,” protested another.
Tears filled the Sorceress's eyes, but she controlled her voice as she gravely thanked the returning wounded for their sacrifices, both voluntary and forced. She praised their stamina, their devotion, and their determination not to be used as tools by the enemy. She made sure to send them first to the physicians, while sending cautiously worded reassurances to their families. The blacksmith arrived promptly at her request, and was sent to work with the doctors to determine the best way to remove the metal links embedded in the returned captives' hands.
“And now for you.” She turned to confront the silent figure who had shadowed them all the way to the castle, unnoticed except by her. “I have a feeling that you, too, have somehow managed to keep your voice,” she remarked mildly. The stooped creature froze, then lifted dark, despairing eyes.
“Yes,” the slender form responded. “I can talk. But I can no longer call my voice my own.”
“Do you wish to return to your master, then?” the Sorceress inquired, wondering what to make of this pitiful creature.
A flash of terror crossed its face, and its tapered ears twitched violently. It must be an elf, she decided, although a sorrier elf she had not seen on this world. “I would rather not,” the elf responded quietly. The Sorceress nodded and gestured for a guard to accompany him. For now, she had weightier issues to consider than an elf who might be a spy. She shuddered at the memory of the mutilation she'd seen that evening, and retreated to her personal chambers to consider her next actions.
The sorceress sat at a small decorative table before a large, oval mirror. Her hair, unbound, fell over her shoulders, a few random strands framing her face. She felt certain that she knew what the tyrant prince would demand. He wanted complete dominance, so would require total submission. Male or female, his vanquished foe would be forced to suffer the same humiliating fate. The prince would believe this would ensure that his new, reluctant subjects witnessed his utter power over them, and would not rebel.
A sorceress of her talents, of course, had ways of preventing any man from subjugating her against her will. She pulled her hair back from her face and peered into the ice-blue depths of the eyes that gazed back at her. Could she make the prince believe she relinquished her will? Could she force herself to go through with it? That was the key, of course: she had to let go of her own will in order to save her people.
If only it were that easy, she thought, sitting back. Out of spite, perhaps, the prince had already initiated a chain reaction that was denuding her planet of all vegetation. Before long the entire world would be uninhabitable, whether she gave in to him or not. She could only imagine that he thought their fate would serve as a lesson to future worlds that might oppose him. She might be able to save this village, even her kingdom in the short term, but in the end, the entire planet would be a wasteland.
Did he think that she was ignorant of the situation? She shook her head in annoyance, her cascading silver hair shimmering in the lamplight. Just because she used Magic did not mean that Technology was beyond her comprehension. What eluded her now was a way to save her people - this whole world's population - both in the short term as well as in the long term.
A rapping at the door roused her from her thoughts. "My Lady," a guard informed her skeptically, "the Tyrant's messenger requests an audience with you."
"Send him in, please," she responded.
The downtrodden elf entered hesitantly and stopped just inside the door, dropping into a low bow. She eyed him surreptitiously while rearranging the thick folds of her gown. Obviously, the prince had broken his spirit, so much so that the monster hadn't bothered to silence him like the others before. She wondered that the elf had the initiative to seek her out at all.
Something had flared in his eyes, however, when he'd witnessed the small rebellion of the group of young men and women sent by his master. Perhaps their determination to fight on, despite having no apparent reason for hope, had awakened his long-subjugated will? She would see what he had to say... if he ever spoke at all!
"You wished to see me?" she prodded.
"Your ... your m-majesty ..." the pitiable creature began. "I - I know I have no right to - to come to you ..." His trembling voice faded into silence.
The Sorceress took in his thin hands, clasping and unclasping the edges of the cloak hanging from his shivering frame, and his bowed posture, no doubt a position he was accustomed to assuming when dealing with his Master. Or was it his former master? she wondered.
Abruptly she stood and moved away from him, to the large window. In the daylight, she could look from here over half the castle grounds, a good deal of the village, and the lands beyond out until the mountains. Now the view consisted of a few bobbing torches and fields of starlight, disappearing into blackness at the mountains' ridgelines.
"Come stand beside me," she ordered, and the elf quickly obeyed the sound of command in her voice. Belatedly, she realized that this was no way to find out where his allegiances lay.
"Please," she continued in a softer tone, "look past the darkness to what you know is there. This is our land, our home. These may be my people here, but -" she gestured out towards the mountains’ shadows - "your people, if you still call them such, are not so far away. You know better than I what his plans are ..." She paused, glancing at the elf's pinched expression, his hooded eyes blacker than the night sky. For a moment, she thought his chin lifted, but then his head dropped in defeat.
"What I know doesn't matter," the elf admitted tonelessly. "There's nothing we can do now." The sorceress nearly stamped her feet in a rare display of immature impatience.
"Don't tell me that! I'm well aware of what he's done to the plants - and what will happen to the planet without them!" The elf flinched, and his surprised gaze jumped to her fierce expression. "Yes, I know about that," she reaffirmed more calmly. "And I know I have to give in to him, in order to save the village now -"
"He won't keep his word," the elf interrupted unexpectedly.
"That had occurred to me," she responded with dry humor. "I can create a spell that will temporarily protect the castle even from his technological abilities. But what I need is a way to save the planet... we need to save the vegetation somehow, or this is a dead world."
She allowed the silence to stretch for a moment. "I have searched my memories and have found spells that almost work for us. But I am missing something."
"The elves ... Aren't they ... Didn't they once ... ?" She floundered, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. If this poor creature could not help her, she feared all might be lost. Surely, she could find another way even if this hope failed, but ....
"The practice of Magic ... is not unknown among ... my people." The words fell slowly, like flowing sap, from the elf's barely-moving lips. He lifted his eyes to meet her intent gaze. "I used to have - no, I still have - that knowledge." The sorceress held her breath. "There is a magic - a forbidden one - for extracting and transferring the life force of two willing donors..."
"Can we use it?" the sorceress demanded eagerly, grabbing the elf's arm.
Startled, he dropped his eyes and stepped back, shaking his head negatively and waving his hands diffidently. "N-No, I don't... That is, probably not..."
The woman released her grip on him and thrust her hands into her hair, yanking the long strands in frustration. "In the name of -! Why did you come here, then? Why did you ask to see me? You knew, didn't you, that there was a possibility for hope, right? Don't back out now, don't offer me hope and then take it away - That's just..." her eyes narrowed in suspicion, "That's just what that tyrant prince would do! Did he put you up to this? Did he? Aaargh! I shouldn't be surprised!" She turned away in frustration, angry that she'd been manipulated after all.
The other cringed as if he'd been slapped, then fell to his knees, pleading. "No, no ... Please don't - don't compare me to him!"
"Oh, just get up already," she growled.
"Really, please believe me... I want to help. I just don't know if ..." The elf hesitated, then drew a scroll from under his cloak. "Here, look. See what I mean?"
The sorceress looked over the ancient writings and nodded thoughtfully. Here was the magic she needed, costly though it may be. Now if she and this elf could weave their spells together in time, their world might yet survive.