Bind Them On As a Bride | Verso.ink
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Bind Them On As a Bride

By Christopher Jones

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It is a truth generally acknowledged that a kingdom in desperate need of a suitable heir must be asking for trouble.

Florin was asking. Begging. Pleading for trouble, and it was getting it good and hard, if you know what I mean. The old king wasn’t a bad sort, as long as his wife the old queen was there to correct the worst of his stupidities, but they were long enough in the tooth that their correcting days were behind them. Especially because the very worst of their stupidities was in his mid-thirties, vain as a rooster with seventeen hens, crooked as a warped floorboard, and three times as knotty.

Having him in charge of the kingdom would essentially make this a terrible place to live. The Prince loved war, he loved torture, and he loved himself, and not in that order. Florin had been my home for as long as I could remember, and I didn’t want to leave it. But if the Prince took the throne, I was going to, one way or the other. As would a whole lot of others.

The Prince had his excellent qualities, of course. One of them was his judgment of women. As the old king’s health began to fail, and it became obvious that before long the Prince was going to be sitting his own spreading backside on the polished witchwood throne, the succession made its way to the top of the discussion topics around the well-bucket. Ordinarily, this sort of thing got solved by some alliance or other, but the nearest kingdom, Guilder, had succession problems of its own--nothing but boys over there, across the strait--and no other kingdom was willing to entrust its nearest and dearest to the uncertainty of the Prince’s whispered character, the Prince was forced to choose from among the common folk.

He chose wisely. Maybe too wisely. And therein hangs a tale, but not the one you’re thinking of.

The Prince chose a milkmaid, a gal from out of the sticks, blonde and tall but not willowy, not reed-like. There was meat on her bones and her eyes were the color you see in the sky on a late summer day. She was kind, too, cheerful--though always with a sadness in there somewhere, like a dark shadow at the bottom of a clear spring--and we were thrilled, as a group of castle guardsmen, when she came to live in the twisting stone walls of the palace.

It gave us a momentary hope. With the princess on the throne--or, say, standing next to it--it was possible the Prince wouldn’t give in to his excessive appetites. And he seemed, sort of, to love her, in his own somewhat twisted way. It wasn’t hard to see why.

She brightened the place. And she could ride, which is always a fine thing in a woman. Used to go out for hours, riding her brown stallion, hair streaming out behind her like the tail of a kite. Until one day she didn’t come home.

Naturally, we scrambled over every part of the nearby pastures and forestland. Nothing. Not only no princess, but no horse. Nobody wanted to tell the Prince. So nobody did. I wonder now if things would have been different if we had.

The search was a full day old when the horse came back in the late afternoon. Brown and groomed going out, shaggy, twig-infested and foaming when it arrived. Bits of it had been chewed on, as if the wolves had been at it. I was on the battlements when it came over the hills, running like the hounds of hell were on its heels.

“Get the gate open,” I told Rickard, and he scurried over to the gatehouse and got the portcullis up. The horse ran through and headed directly for the stables, which ended any question for me as to whose it was. Though it didn’t look much like it when I got down to inspect.

The page girl got some oats in the trembling thing while I checked it over. The saddle was loose but there wasn’t any question about whose saddle it was, nor whose horse, neither. On one flank was a patch in red with a stylized design I recognized immediately. The page girl kept to herself and ran a brush over Butch’s withers and left me to take the patch upstairs.

Upstairs. Through the inner gate, into the main hall where the wedding was going to be, in a month, threading through the passageways to the staircase that led up to the royal chambers. I hoped the old king wasn’t still up, wandering the passageways and asking if I’d seen his crown, which was usually on his head. I didn’t see him. The Prince--the actual king, if I’m being honest--wasn’t in his chamber, either, which put him either in the Pit or in his ready-room. I really hoped he wasn’t in the Pit. I don’t like that place.

I found him in the ready room working through some more pointless paper. He saw me in the doorway and his face registered surprise. He’s not much of an actor, the Prince. It’s pretty easy to tell what he’s thinking. He didn’t know what I was bringing him. Either that, or he didn’t really expect it to be brought.

He looked good, though, sitting behind the polished wooden table, with the fire behind him and the high-backed scrollworked chair underneath his toned backside. The crown gleamed in the torchlight. He waved me over, that big ring glittering on his hand.

“You have something for me, captain?” he said.

So it was the second of the two--he knew I was bringing something, and he hadn’t expected it to arrive. But wheels within wheels. Nothing derails his plans. He’s always three or four deep. My goal is to make sure I’m not a significant part of them. People that are tend to end up dead, no matter what side they’re on.

“Yes, my prince. I found this on a horse that just arrived, running hard from the eastern fields.” I held out the patch.

He hardly glanced at it. “Guilder,” he said. “Please tell me this was not found on the princess’ horse.”

“I would love to tell you that, my lord, but it was. And you know I never lie.”

“It’s one of my favorite things about you, Yellen.”

Within an hour he had a troop of horse assembled and we were riding for the frontier. The Prince is a terrible guy, but there’s one thing he can do, and that is hunt. They say he can track a falcon across the sky on a cloudy day. To my eye, there wasn’t anything on the ground at all but grass, sticks, and here and there patches of mud, but the Prince led us out straight as a ruler. We reached a spot near a grove of elm trees, and the Prince dismounted, sniffed the ground, and said, “It smells like Guilder. We’ll have to cross the strait. I will track her to the ends of the earth, no matter what opposes us! Onward!”

He makes speeches like that from time to time. We all pretend to be impressed. But he wasn’t wrong, because if the princess really had been taken by Guilderians, we had a responsibility to go and get her. We all wanted to. And was easy to follow the Prince when he was doing something you wanted to do anyway.

Because the truth was, we liked the princess quite a lot. She was kind and good to us, if always a little sad. She came from nothing, like most of us, and that made us hope for good things for her. Pity the only way she could stay alive was to marry the Prince. And now this. We’d have swum the strait for her, never mind the things in the water.

But there were things in the water. I saw them cruising, long and sinuous, as we pushed on through the night on the little ship. At first we sailed east, heading straight for Guilder, but we all knew that wasn’t going to end well. There are cliffs there that drive men mad. They can’t be climbed. When we reached the bottom of the cliffs, though, we found two ships there, empty. No crews. They must have been eaten by summat, was my thinking. Either way it didn’t matter, because we couldn’t get up the cliffs without rope, and there was none to be had.

So the Prince bore a little south of east and took us around the point to a shallow harbor where all we had to do was scramble ashore and unload the horses. But we had lost time, and everyone knew it. We rode hard.

A couple of hours later, as the sun rose, we reached the top of the cliffs and a wide pan of sandy rock, with boulders strewn about like a giant’s game of marbles.

I’m no tracker, but I could see there were footprints everywhere, and no one should have been in that part of the frontier. The capital city of Guilder was two days’ ride, past the swamp and sure death, so what had happened here was anyone’s guess.

Or, in this case, the Prince’s spectacular gift for tracking.

He climbed down off his horse and stood exactly in a pair of footprints. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he rocked back and forth and then shuffled forward. I wondered if he had lost his mind, but then I realized he was imitating fencers. “There was...a mighty duel,” he said. “It ranged all over.” He climbed up a spot where the boulders made a flat space. “They were both masters.”

With him prancing about, I could practically see the swordfighting. If they could fight on terrain like that, they must have been masters, as the Prince said. For terrain like that, I’d have chosen Bonetti’s defence, or perhaps Cappaparo, but I hadn’t done enough study to be able to bring that off in a real duel. I’d have been cut to ribbons. I was still working on my Agrippa, and my fighting master was beginning to think I’d never learn it.

Some people are fencers. That’s the Prince. Some people just kill people when necessary, messily and sloppily, if it gets the job done. That’s me.

The Count spoke up. “Who won? How did it end?” I wished he hadn’t been with us. The Prince kept him around because he has one of those odd birth defects that got everyone excited. Also, he had some sort of research project going on that the guys in the barracks whispered about when they got seriously scared. And his question was stupid. If it had ended the way most duels do there would have been a body on the ground, or at least blood. You don’t have a fight like that without grievous bodily harm.

As I said, I’m no tracker, but blood is blood. It would have shown up on the light tan sand as a wound in the earth itself. The ground, though, was clean. No blood--not even the light spatter that comes from nicks. Curious.

"The loser ran off alone. The winner followed those footprints, toward Guilder," the Prince said. He pointed East, toward the swamp.

"Should we track them both?" the Count said. Apparently, it was too much for him to process that our mission was to rescue the princess, not to go chasing off after the losers of duels.

The prince, for all his faults, at least had a handle on that. "The loser is nothing," he said. "Only the princess matters."

Once again, I was struck by a curious sense of duality. I had never seen the prince care about anyone but himself, and yet, every time he spoke about the princess, I got the distinct sense that he truly did care for her. I could make no sense of it.

The Prince continued, “Clearly this was all planned by warriors of Guilder.” With one smooth motion, he mounted his horse, a beautiful white thing I had coveted for years. Throwing a glance over his shoulder, as if he actually cared what happened to the rest of the party, he said, "We must all be prepared for whatever lies ahead."

And then the count said something smart. I almost fell off my horse. But, in retrospect, I guess this was a particular thing that fit with his devious personality. "Could this be a trap?" he said.

But no one is more devious and sadistic than the prince. "I always think everything could be a trap," he said. "Which is why I'm still alive."

Off he rode, with the Count on his heels. Most of the rest of the company followed, but for me, there were too many loose ends. What kind of duel ends without any bloodshed? I couldn’t make any sense of the battlefield, but the Prince had conveniently pointed out the direction he’d gone.

At the tail of the procession, Zola reined up and said, “What? You look like you’re thinking again.”

“I try not to do that,” I said, “but there’s something about this. I’ll be along directly.”

“Heading for Guilder,” he said. “If you’re late, the Prince will have you barbecued.” He rode off, following the pack.

I trotted my mare Bubastis between a couple of boulders and onto a flat stretch, where I could let her into a canter. We had to be closing the ground on whoever it was, and sure enough, before we reached the first copse of trees, we rounded a small stone outcropping and there was a Spaniard.

He whipped out his sword, a little reluctantly it seemed to me, and held the point out at my breast. The sword was beautiful, long, straight, with an ornately forged basket hilt unlike anything I’d ever seen. I held still--if this fellow was as good as the Prince said, he could probably cut me down from my saddle before I could draw steel.

“Let me see your right hand,” he said.

“Do you always begin conversations this way?” I said, holding it up.

.He slumped in on himself. “I am a disgrace,” he said.

“Hardly. The Prince said you were a master, and he doesn’t say things like that for fun. But my question is, why are you still alive?”

“I don’t know. One moment I was kneeling before the greatest swordsman in the world, and the next the lights went out.”

“Where’s the princess?”

“I don’t know that, either. Fezzik and Vizzini took her.”

“What’s a Fezzik?” I said. “And Vizzini, is this a name I should know?”

“One day everyone will know the name of Vizzini. He is the greatest assassin in the world.”

I doubted that. Very much. “And he’s the one that hired you? To steal the princess? You don’t sound like a Guilderian.”

“I am a Spaniard. I spit on Guilder.”

“Don’t we all.” I swiveled Bubastis sideways, to bring the point of that sword a little more to the side rather than right on my breastbone. “I’m with the Prince’s tracking party. We’re trying to get the princess back.”

He stared at me, and dropped the point of his sword. “Get her back? Why?”

“Because the Prince loves her.”

He shook his head. “I would not say such things if I were you.”

“Why not?”

But he didn’t answer, just sheathed his sword and said, “Good luck.”

“Listen, pal, what am I getting myself into here? This whole thing stinks.”

“There I cannot help you. Vizzini never say much to us, only what to do now. Plus he abuse us, remind us that we are no good.”

“You are no good. You kidnapped the princess.”

“I like her. Very pretty. I see why the Prince chose her. You should get her back, if you can. Only don’t fight the man in black. He can’t be beaten. And don’t trust your Prince. He is not the man he seems.”

“I have that feeling, all the time. Who is the man in black?”

“I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me.”

“That must have been disappointing.”

“I get used to it.”

He clearly didn’t know anything more. I wheeled my horse and prepared to go. “Where are you going now?” I said. I don’t like loose ends at my back.

He scratched his head, where a sizable bump had formed. “Back to the beginning. Vizzini said if it went wrong, to go back to the beginning.”

“Where’s that?”

“The Thieves’ Forest. I have a place there. Is just a place to be while I find work to pay the bills. My main purpose is something much more important.”

“Undoubtedly. Well, if I have need of a good swordsman, maybe I’ll look you up.”

He seemed a little bit brighter. “That’s good. There’s not a lot of money in revenge.” He jumped off the outcropping and jogged toward the grove of trees.

I spurred Bubastis and we rode hard toward a hilly section with a lot of loose rock, overlooking a long, straight ridge that ran along above the grassy descent into the swamp. From twenty leagues away, I saw one of the rocky outcroppings detach itself and come walking down the greensward to meet me.

Bubastis shied when he was still three paces away, pulling me to the right. The mountain just stood there, watching me and rubbing his head.

“What are you?” I said. I had no idea what I was looking at. If it was a man, he was the tallest I’d ever seen by a head or two. His chin and mine were level, though I was mounted, and I wouldn’t have sworn that Bubastis and I together didn’t weigh as much as this man did.

“I’m jus’ a man,” he said, as if disgusted with himself.

No, friend, you're more like three men. “I’m not looking for a fight,” I said, just to get that on the table.

“Neider am I. I jus’ had one.”

Who had he been fighting, the mountain range? “What happened?”

“The man in black. He’s very quick.” The man in black again. Who was this guy?

“And huge?”

The mountain shook its head. “No. Scrawny. Like you. Like Inigo.”

“Inigo? A Spanish fellow, with a beautiful sword?”

“You saw him?”

“That way, ten leagues or so,” I said, and pointed. “But he’s on the run.” I thought back for a moment. “Fezzik?” I said.

“Everybody says it,” rumbled the mountain, in some kind of weird rhyming echo.

“Why did you kidnap the princess?” I said, ready to bolt in case he took offense.

He shrugged, a bifurcated avalanche. “Vizzini is really very short on charm.”

“He likes to fuss?”

“I think he likes to scream at us.”

That didn’t help me. “I need more than that. I need to know how high this goes.”

“Nothing goes higher than me. But I don’t know anything.”

I eyed him cautiously. “If I ride off toward the swamp, are you going to hit me with a rock or something?”

“No. I have to get back to Florin.”

“Maybe you could join the brute squad or something,” I said, but he was already ignoring me and thumping off in the direction I had pointed when he asked me about Inigo. The ground shuddered at every step.

So we had a swordsman and a giant. This Vizzini must have been some character, to keep these two in line, though truth be told, I didn’t detect a lot of menace from the giant, for all he was the size of a castle keep and even less pretty.

I rode up just as the Prince was finishing his speech. “There will be great suffering in Guilder if she dies,” he said, and threw himself into the saddle.

This time, the pace was a lot stiffer, as if we were genuinely trying to make up for lost time. I rode next to Zola, and asked him what I missed.

“Not much,” he said. The Prince did his tea-leaf reading and said, ‘Someone has beaten a giant.’ Then we rode off.”

I told him what I’d found out. He said, “Who defeats someone like that and leaves them alive?”

“All I know is, this Vizzini must be some fella. To mess with the princess in the first place--he must have known the Prince would come after him, and it’s not like he’s been disguising his trail. You think he wants the Prince to catch him?”

“Nobody could want that. Not if he was sane.”

“Who says he is?”

Zola just grunted. But it didn’t matter what we thought, because when we hit the top of the rise there was a table spread out for a picnic, just like we was all sociable. And there was Vizzini, dead as a rotting tree, lying next to it.

No princess, of course. We couldn’t be that lucky.

The Prince got down off his horse and picked up a small brown tube as if it were a snake ready to bite him. He sniffed at it.

“Iocaine,” he said. “I’d bet my life on it.”

If it really was Iocaine, I was hoping he actually would bet his life on it. Even the smallest taste of that stuff will stop your heart like winter kills a flower garden. But the Prince merely handed the little cylinder to the Count and began studying the ground. He ignored Vizzini--it had to be Vizzini--as if he weren’t even there.

He nodded. “And there are the princess’s footprints. She is alive--or was, an hour ago. If she is otherwise when I find her, I shall be very put out.”

The Count chuckled. Zola and I exchanged the sort of glance you do when you catch your crazy Uncle Reginald staggering out the door in his underwear.

Very put out? What the hell sort of comment was that?

The Prince mounted his horse and charged off along the ridge. Galloping. Like he was chasing something and intended to catch it. There was that dichotomy again. One second he acted like the princess was a runt puppy, and the next as if she mattered more than the whole kingdom.

Zola and I let the pack string out. When we were the last two, I jumped down and checked the figure on the ground. Balding. Short. Unremarkable, except for being dead. This was the guy the giant and the swordsman held in such high regard? What for?

It had to be Vizzini, because the only other suspect was the man in black, whoever he was. This guy was in muted browns. His face was frozen in a weird grin, as if he’d been laughing when the poison hit. His cup sat on the rock, half full. Another one was across the picnic table, similarly half full. Did they both drink? If so, where was the other body?

None of this made any sense. The party of three, now a party of zero, had kidnapped the princess, but they were not from Guilder, or I was the Easter Bunny. So the Guilderian patch was a sham. A ruse. An...excuse?

But now that was exploded, because the kidnappers were dispersed and defeated by this man in black. Who was clearly interested in the princess. Why?

Well, I was interested in her, too. In keeping her alive, if at all possible. Because there seemed no shortage of people trying to kill her. And frankly, she was the only hope I had for the kingdom.

“He’s on the scent,” Zola said, shading his eyes against the sun. The grass on the ridge, and down toward the bottom of the vale, was deep and thick, wavy in the wind like the ocean seen from the deck of a ship. It smelled fresh and verdant, but there was now, riding on that wind, the stench of singed hair and putrefaction. The swamp. They wouldn’t dare go in there, would they?

We rode up to the back of the party just in time to hear the Prince say, “Disappeared. He must have seen us closing in, which might account for his panicking into error. Unless I’m wrong--and I’m never wrong--they’re headed dead into the fire swamp.”

And, in fact, there they were, the princess and the man in black--who was definitely all in black--just edging their way between two trees and disappearing into the stinking, malodorous, and invariably fatal bog. Was the princess a captive? Because she seemed willing enough to go with this murderous scoundrel.

Although, it had to be admitted, she was escaping from a different murderous scoundrel, but I didn’t really think she was aware of that. As the flame of her red dress disappeared, I strangled a “No!”, lest I call attention to myself. But my heart cracked in two. She was lost, now, no matter what. And my homeland with her.

The Prince, however, didn’t seem even modestly cast down. He dithered for only a moment.

“They’ll never survive,” the Count said.

“Nonsense, Tyrone. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.” The Prince tugged the reins and scanned the ground as if tracking something. Could he track something that wasn’t there?

The swamp’s gigantic trees rose up to eye level though we were hundreds of hands above the bottom of the ravine. Westward, toward the now-declining sun, they made a carpet of green that was, I had to admit, quite lovely. Beyond them twinkled the sea, sparkling like jewels spread on velvet. Ten, twelve leagues off?

But what did it matter, because we were never going to see the princess again. No one came out of the fire swamp.

“There,” the Prince said, pointing along the ridge toward something I couldn’t see. “That’s the path for us. If we ride hard, and we have luck on our side, we will reach the far end of the fire swamp before the princess’ captor emerges. Then, men, I trust you will do your duty and dispatch this rogue with all speed. The princess, or our lives!” he shouted, and spurred his horse forward.

There was nothing to do but follow. It was pointless. The swamp from the outside was impenetrable--we could no more have ridden in there than swum to Florin--and from the inside? We heard screaming. Feral growls from monsters unnatural. Everyone knew the terrors of the fire swamp. No one spoke of them, not even to scare the children at the campfire. Some things were too horrible for joking about.

At the edge of the ridge, at the spot the Prince pointed to, a narrow cleft in the rock showed a thin, almost invisible track leading downward on the opposite side of the ridge from the swamp. It was steep, but the rest of the troop had already started down it, and if their sorry mounts could take it, Bubastis could. She shied, but allowed me to lead her down a length or two, to where the track widened.

We put on speed then, and overtook the front of the pack. The Prince and the Count rode together, leaning over the necks of their horses, hair flying out behind them. This was no jaunt. It was hunting, and no mistake.

It took us some hours, but we made it in the end, to the league or so of ground between the western edge of the swamp and the open sea. The last rays of the sun slanted through the branches above and made merry patterns on the floor.

Of course, there was no one there. The princess was dead. She couldn’t have been otherwise. The Prince would probably still say this was the work of Guilder.

That would mean war. Maybe I would try my luck in the fire swamp myself.

And then a miracle happened, and two figures came running out of the fire swamp and into the wide, leaf-strewn vale that led to the sea.

They hadn’t seen us. At once, the Prince laid on spurs and we charged down the hill toward them.

This was more like it. Most of the men were my company, so I waved them right and left, some of them circling to get beyond the two figures, and others winding toward the very anus of the swamp, to cut off any possible retreat. They’d come out of there, somehow, which meant they could get back in. That couldn’t be allowed to happen. My men cranked quarrels into their crossbows and fanned out through the woods.

When the Prince rode into the clearing, the man in black drew his sword. Clearly, based on what we’d seen to this point, he knew how to use it. I hoped the Prince wouldn’t underestimate him--this was a man indeed.

There were five of us still mounted, the Prince, the Count, and myself, with Tuck and Bortle, two large-ish but not overly bright bruisers I liked to employ as guards of the castle gate. The man in black didn’t seem intimidated at all.

“Surrender!” called the Prince.

He didn’t flinch. Dirt smeared one side of his face, and there was sand in his hair. The princess’ dress was scorched and torn. Blood stained the man’s left shoulder--he’d been chewed on, it looked like. How could he still be standing, after all this? But he was bold enough. “You mean you wish to surrender to us?” he said. “Very well, I accept.”

The Prince didn’t even pause. “I give you full marks for bravery; don’t make yourself a fool.”

“Ah, but how will you capture us? We know the secrets of the fire swamp, and we can live there quite happily for some time. So, whenever you feel like dying, feel free to visit.”

Holy drowning cats, this guy had guts. But displaying them in front of the Prince was like waving a red hanky at a bull.

“I tell you once more, surrender!” the Prince said.

“Will. Not. Happen,” the man in black said.

Now was where a smart man would have dashed for the swamp again, but the man in black kept his eyes on the Prince. The princess, however, was clever enough to check her surroundings, and her eyes widened. I could guess that she’d seen Zola on one flank and Pieter on the other, crossbows leveled. I had trained those men. They weren’t going to miss at this range.

The shouting match continued. “For the last time--SURRENDER!” shouted the Prince.

“DEATH FIRST!” replied the man in black.

The princess had had enough. Stepping between the two posturing cocks, she called out, “Will you promise not to hurt him?”

The Prince cocked his head sideways a bit. “What was that?”

The man in black was just as surprised. “What was that?”

“If we surrender, and I return with you, will you promise not to hurt this man?” the princess said.

The Prince considered. Crossbow bolts can pierce women as well as men, and this man was quick. There was some danger to her. He nodded and said, “May I live a thousand years and never hunt again.”

Which was a pretty good oath. For a guy like him, that was like offering to cut off his own hands. With a spoon. Of course he was going to break the oath. But there are rules to this kind of thing, and there was one person there that did not know what sort of man the Prince was. Appearances had to be maintained for the princess, who still somehow believed this Prince would always come for her, no matter where she ran. Maybe she believed he loved her.

She said, “He is a sailor on the pirate ship ‘Revenge’. Promise to return him to his ship.”

“I swear it will be done,” the Prince said. He turned to me and gave a toss of his head. I waved my men in, hoping the man in black would consider himself bound by the deal the princess had made. Apparently he did, because he let Zola disarm him and Pieter tie his hands behind his back. He winced when his arm was tugged on--that was a bad wound. It would fester, I thought, if he lived long enough.

Which I personally wouldn’t have bet on.

The princess turned to the man in black and said something I couldn’t hear. But I was three feet from the Prince, and what he said was perfectly audible. “One we’re out of sight, take him back to Florin and throw him in the Pit of Despair.”

“I swear it will be done,” the Count said. Sadistic he may be, but he knows a funny line.

The Prince, without further ado, rode forward and swept the princess up onto his saddle and rode off with her gripping him around the waist, her long blonde hair trailing out behind her. Her face, though, was turned to the man in black, and stayed there until they were well and truly out of sight.

Zola frogmarched the man in black over to the Count. I tried to figure out what was so impressive about this man, now that I knew he was a pirate. The first thing, though, was obvious. This was no sailor. He was tanned enough, surely, but his hands were not burnt from rope or calloused from hauling on capstan bars. He might have been on the ship, but if he was...oh, seven howling saints.

Not a sailor. THE sailor. The Revenge was the most famous ship in the Four Sacred Waters. It was crewed only by the worst sort of scum, and led by a man so heartless, so successful, and so ruthless that no one dared oppose him on the high seas. The Dread Pirate Roberts.

It couldn’t be. But who else could he be?

And why was the Dread Pirate Roberts chasing down and eliminating--but not necessarily killing--the princess’ abductors? What was she to him? Daughter? But no, that was impossible. This man here wasn’t even as old as I was. He and the princess were of an age. Brother, then? But how was that possible, when the Revenge had been prowling the waters off Florin Channel for twenty-five years?

One thing was sure, if we were carrying this man back to Florin, I wanted him on my horse. I had things to ask him.

I never got the chance.

The Count said, mildly, “Come, sir. We must get you to your ship.”

For a moment I thought he would buy it, but he was shrewder than that. He stood there a moment, looking up at the Count, and finally said, with a wry smile, “We are men of action. Lies do not become us.”

He had missed the mark a little with the Count, but he wasn’t to know that. “Well spoken, sir,” the Count said, and seemed genuinely pleased that his little secret had been guessed.

Then came the moment where everything went sideways. The man in black glanced down at the Count’s right hand. His face changed. Some kind of recognition washed over his features, as if he realized something.

“What is it?” the Count said. I recognized that tone. It was not friendly.

“You have six fingers on your right hand,” said the man in black. “Someone was looking for you.”

A look of terror blossomed on the Count’s face, and he drew his sword. For a brief moment, I thought he would decapitate the man, but instead he used the butt of it and slammed it down on the man’s head. He dropped like a sack of barley and lay there unmoving.

“Pick him up,” the Count said. “You, put him on your horse and tie him there. If he falls off, you’ll join him in the pit.” He was looking at me.

So I did get the man on my horse for the return journey, but it did me no good, because the man in black didn’t stir any more than a marble statue all the way to the ship. We tossed him--none too gently--into the hold, and he slept on. I wondered if he was dead, so that night I sneaked down and checked, my fingers against the beat of his heart in his neck. Steady. Strong. But the man did not stir.

The boat ride back gave me a lot of time to think. I had far too many questions and far too few answers, but one thing was clear to me--the Prince, once he was married and the succession safe, was planning to take over the throne so he could start a war. That simply couldn’t be allowed to happen. Unfortunately, the one person I knew who was capable of stopping it was unconscious. I’d have loved to discuss it with him.

When we reached Florin, the Count had him loaded into a wheelbarrow and his albino assistant carted him off into the woods. I wanted to follow, but there were other duties to attend to and I couldn’t, not without making myself obvious. Obvious and dead were synonyms, where the Pit of Despair were concerned. The man in black vanished.

I never expected to see him again.

I wondered if, with the wedding coming up and the princess back safe, the Prince would ease up a little, but the opposite occurred. We weren’t back two days when the Prince called me into his chamber and told me he had grim news.

“As the Chief Enforcer of all Florin, I trust you with this secret: killers from Guilder are infiltrating the Thieves’ Forest and plan to murder my wife on our wedding night,” he said.

I was not a skilled liar, then or now. I was a simple soldier with a lucky streak and a heart loyal to my kingdom. This was, absolutely, the rankest falsehood. There was no plot from Guilder. Did he not know that I knew this? But I couldn’t pretend--he would smell that in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t last out the afternoon. So I simply told the truth, Heaven help me.

“My spy networks has heard no such news,” I said. It was as close to a rebuke as I dared.

I thought he would probably stab me with his letter opener, which was right there and sharper than any knife in the kitchens, but just at that moment the door opened and in swept the princess.

Grief--I could see the traces of it on her face--had only made her more beautiful. She was tall and regal, a princess indeed, and she would have made a fine queen. She spoke to the Prince as if I weren’t there at all. “Any word from Westley?”

The Prince and I stood. “Too soon, my angel,” he said, as if she were the dearest thing in the world.

“He will come for me,” she said, obviously attempting to convince herself this was true.

“Of course,” the Prince said. A foregone conclusion. Guaranteed.

She swept out, chin high, trying to be brave.

The Prince sat down abruptly, and to keep my head from being higher than his, I found myself kneeling at his side. “She will not be murdered,” he said, as if we had both agreed that his message made good sense. “On the day of the wedding, I want the Thieves’ Forest emptied and every inhabitant arrested.”

Which was more or less impossible. But it gave me an idea. “Many of the thieves will resist,” I said, keeping my face as neutral as possible. “My regular enforcers will be inadequate.”

“Form a Brute Squad then!” he said, temper getting the best of him. “I want the Thieves’ Forest emptied before I wed.”

“It won’t be easy.”

He smirked, that insufferable smirk of his. “Try ruling the world sometime.”

You don’t rule the world, sire, I nearly said. You don’t even rule this kingdom--or did you forget? But instead I said nothing. I had what I wanted.

Back in the guardhouse, I called Zola to me and told him we were ordered to form a Brute Squad. He rolled his eyes. “To do what?”

“Empty the Thieves’ Forest.”

“Empty it?”

“That’s what his royal pain-in-the-buttocks has ordered, and I must obey.”

“It can’t be done,” Zola said, slumping down onto a chair as if his bones had gone to rubber.

“It probably can’t. But it has to be, so we’ll do it, because that’s how we stay alive. However, there is one thing I want you to do first.”

“What’s that?”

“Find the giant.”

His face was blank. Then he remembered. “The giant? As in, that giant?”

“That’s the one.”

“But...how?”

“I doubt you’ll have trouble. Go to the village and walk around for a minute. He’ll stick out. Look for...I don’t know...a fair. Charity event. Something where you have a big guy fighting half a dozen guys like us. That’s the first guy to hire for the Brute Squad. If we get him, we might actually be able to do what the Prince asked.”

Zola saluted with disgust, then made another gesture toward the castle that wasn’t so respectful, and went out. I hoped very much that the giant was where I thought he was. I had questions for him, questions I hadn’t thought to ask before. I hadn’t known enough.

Westley, the princess said. So that was the name of the man in black. But the man in black was the Dread Pirate Roberts. His name was really Westley? No wonder he kept that a secret. No one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley. It actually made me laugh. The sound was so unusual coming from me that Pieter poked his head into the guardroom to make sure I wasn’t having a seizure.

There were mysteries within mysteries here. But what if...what if Westley wasn’t the Dread Pirate Roberts at all? What if he was just a farm boy? What if the princess tried to save the man by lying? It was almost inconceivable.

And then...she said something about hearing from him. He was dead, almost certainly. No prisoner came out of the Pit of Despair except in a box. If he wasn’t dead yet, he was probably praying to die. So he was no help.

But the princess didn’t know he was there, did she? She thought...oh! She thought he was on the pirate ship. She might even think he really was a sailor. Had they sent a message to the pirate ship? Asking him to come for her? As if--only if he was a great fool would he walk into Florin and ask for the princess. He was not a great fool, so he would clearly not reach for what he was given.

He wasn’t coming. She thought he was. The Prince knew he wasn’t. And now I did, too.

“Pieter!” I called out. “Come in here. Bring something to write on. I need you to take a message for me.”

#

Zola came back that afternoon, two days before the wedding, with a self-satisfied smile on his face.

“You found him,” I said.

“I found him. He’s not terribly articulate, so whatever you want him for, it better involve fists more than tongue.”

“Leave that to me. Where is he?”

“In the brute camp. I’m getting the rest of the gang together.”

“Where are you getting them?” I knew there weren’t a lot of loose men wandering the village, and what men there were were hardly equal to the task of taking on the thieves of the forest.

“I’m getting them from the Thieves’ Forest, of course.”

I let my shock show on my face. Then I burst out laughing. “I knew there was a reason I hired you. Carry on.”

“Two birds with one stone, I say.” He went out whistling.

I followed and tromped through the keep gate out to the camp just beyond the walls. It was late morning, and the dew was off the grass. The smell of woodsmoke and bacon floated toward me, and my stomach growled.

The giant stuck out like an obelisk, even though he was sitting on a log, eating what looked like half a ham, right off the fork. Every minute or so, he’d decide it wasn’t warm enough, and reach out an arm like the trunk of a tree and hold the ham over the fire until it suited him. Then he pulled it back and munched some more.

“Fezzik, isn’t it?” I said.

He turned his head slowly and saw me. Sitting, he was still a hand or two taller than I was. “You,” he said. “I know you.”

“I’m glad. I have a couple of questions for you.”

“I don’ like to answer questions,” he rumbled, and turned back to his ham.

“What if I could tell you where Inigo was?”

That got his attention. He shot to his feet. It was like watching Jack’s beanstalk erupt from the soil and reach for the heavens. “Where?”

“All in good time. I need some answers.”

“Whatever you want.”

“Good man. Did you ever see the man in black before that day?”

He shook his head and tore another hunk out of the ham.

“He wasn’t part of your group?”

“No. He made me feel like poop.”

“Who hired Vizzini?”

“He turned out to be a weenie.”

“Is that an answer?” What kind of weirdness was this? His answers didn’t make sense sometimes.

He sighed. “No. Vizzini was hired to start a war.”

Bingo. “And who hired him?”

“I’ll get in trouble,” he said, and looked over his shoulder as if that trouble might be coming for him right now. For all his hugeness, he lacked confidence. The man in black had really shaken him. Well, maybe I could put that genie back in the bottle.

“You won’t. In fact, you don’t have to say anything. I just want you to nod if I get this right.”

He fixed his huge dark eyes on me. I said a name. He nodded, like a boulder falling off the side of a mountain.

“Thank you. Now, in two days, we’re going to send you into the Thieves’ Forest to round up some scary characters. Hit whoever you have to. But keep your eyes peeled, because Inigo is in there, and if he’s still any good with that sword, you’re probably the only one that can get him to come out.”

Pieter came back to the castle that afternoon, and passed by as I was giving some instructions to the newest recruits. He just dipped his head, once. I didn’t even bother to smile. But my insides got a bit warmer.

The day of the wedding came, and into the forest we went. There weren’t nearly as many thieves in there as there had been. Zola had lured them out and deputized them, so it was really about even numbers, and we didn’t have much difficulty. Midmorning, though, one of the men came and told me they were having some trouble with a Spaniard.

At last. “Well, you give him some trouble,” I said. My cart rolled on out of the forest toward the makeshift jail we had set up for the day. Once the Prince was married and off on his honeymoon, I was letting every one of these men back out. Meanwhile, though, there were wheels to grease. On the way out of the forest my cart passed Fezzik and I told him about the Spaniard. I’ve never seen anyone that large get that excited.

What it was going to accomplish, I didn’t know. But putting those two back together created an unstable element. I needed all of those I could get.

There was a message waiting for me back at the keep, that the Prince wanted to see me. I could only guess what about.

I found him in his study, sharpening his dagger. Perfectly normal behavior for a man getting married in a little over three hours. I knelt as I entered. Safer.

“Rise, and report,” he said. He was jolly. He had every right to be. Nothing could stop him now. I knew what he was up to, but what could I do about it?

“The Thieves’ Forest is emptied. Thirty men guard the castle gate.”

“Double it! My princess must be safe.”

With pleasure. “The gate has but one key, and I carry that,” I said. I drew from underneath my doublet a leather pouch on a string that hung from around my neck. He liked that. It was theatric.

I didn’t see the princess come in, and she didn’t see me. She was heartbreakingly beautiful in a blue satin dress that dragged the floor. The hope was still in her face. For another moment, anyway.

“Ah, my dulcet darling!” the Prince said, coming around his desk to take her hands. “Tonight, we marry! Tomorrow morning, my men will escort us to Florin Channel, where every ship in my armada waits to accompany us on our honeymoon.”

“Every ship but your four fastest,” she said.

The Prince was a good liar. He was very good. But he had been confident, too confident, and this statement didn’t compute for a second. He recovered quickly, but the damage was done.

“Every ship but the four you sent,” she said.

“Yes. Of course. Naturally not those four.”

Four ships, one in each direction. He hadn’t sent them, because he knew he didn’t need to. But she hadn’t known.

Now, though, she did.

Time for me to go. Another unstable element was introduced, and all I was going to do was muck things up.

“Your majesties,” I said, clearing my throat, and marched out of the room.

I found Zola drilling the men at the gate, remnants of the Brute Squad. Pieter was with him, observing and swearing at the recruits. I whispered in his ear, and he left at a run. A moment later he rode out through the keep gate and disappeared in the direction of the harbor.

I went up onto the keep battlements and kept watch. Sure enough, not half a minute later, the Prince emerged from the castle and streaked toward the nearby woods like he was being chased by wolves. I watched him go until he was out of sight, then followed as best I could. He was too fast, but his haste was such that even I could follow his footprints. At least as far as a clearing, but there the ground was too hard. Another dead end.

Halfway back to the castle, I heard the screaming.

It was unearthly. Low, guttural at first, like the growling of an animal, it rose in pitch and intensity moment by moment, grating over nerves and sinews. It pierced stone walls, windows, rang off the mountains and over the rolling hills, and still it grew, until I thought it would uproot the very trees. I covered my ears with my hands, but I might as well have tried to push back the wind. The sound penetrated my skull and rattled around like dice. I dropped to my knees in the mud, holding my head, my eyes shut tight and my bones vibrating. The pain in that sound was more than anything I could imagine.

After a while, it died away. I stayed on my knees, swaying, from time to time wiping a cold sweat from my brow and trying to catch my breath. I leaned against a handy tree, shaken to my core. I couldn’t imagine what that had been. I closed my eyes and tried to compose myself. I still had a job to do.

When I finally had possession of myself enough to stand, I opened my eyes and there were Inigo and Fezzik.

“I found my friend,” Fezzik said.

“So it’s not the end,” I said.

Fezzik hugged me, for some reason, and I felt lucky my bones didn’t come apart.

“We seek the man in black,” Inigo said. “Do you know where he is?”

“In the Pit of Despair,” I said. “The entrance must be around here somewhere, but I have never found it.” I swallowed. My mouth remained dry as sand. “You heard that screaming?”

Inigo nodded. “The man in black. It was him, making the sound of ultimate suffering.”

“In that case, he must be dead.”

Inigo smiled indulgently at me, as if he were talking to a small child. “He cannot be. I need him to help me avenge my father.”

“Your father?”

“He was murdered by Count Rugen, the six-fingered man.”

Oh. Was he indeed? Well, how about that. “Do you know where he is?” I said.

Inigo shook his head.

I pointed back toward the castle. “He’s in the Prince’s dressing room, helping the Prince put on some gaudy bauble or other. He’ll be right there at the wedding--I think he’s the best man. After that, he’ll be gone overseas for a good while. You don’t have much time.”

Inigo took only a second to understand what that meant. “Then we must find the man in black. Excuse me.”

“I’m going to the castle gate,” I said. “I’ll be there with sixty men. If you think of something, come and find me.”

It wouldn’t matter if he found the man, because he was dead for sure. But maybe that would make him angry enough to do something truly stupid. My job was to make sure that stupidity worked. Just in case.

When I returned to the keep, Pieter had returned from the docks with thirty men. They were the absolute dregs, no question about it. Scars on cheeks, filthy, hair unwashed. They smelled like a stable. But they were perfect. I gathered them to the top of the keep, and shut the door.

I stood on a little bench, where they could see me. “Thank you for coming, men. I know you want to know where your boss is, but I can’t tell you that. I can tell you that if you stick with me tonight, you’ll have a shot at more booty than you can carry. And if you don’t get your boss back, you’ll get revenge. Is that acceptable?”

There were mutters of disgruntled agreement. “What’s the job?” one of them brayed.

“Guard duty. That castle gate right there leads to the throne room where the Prince is getting married in about two hours. We already have thirty men, but the Prince wanted insurance. You’re the insurance.” This got a grumble of amusement out of them. “Well, he wasn’t specific as to quality. He just said, ‘men’, and you’re all men.”

“‘Cept Johnson here,” one of them said, pointing.

I saw he was right. She was brawny like a wrestler, bigger than most of the men, tall and striking, with swords crossed at her back in an X. I wouldn’t have tackled her in a fight for all the money in Florin.

“Pardon. Ms. Johnson. No offense.”

“None taken,” she said.

“Your job is to wait here until something happens. Then you can go, if you like. And take what you like on the way.”

The grimy one in the front, bent like a piece of driftwood, said, “See, thing is, we should have like a code word. Something so we know when it’s time to get.”

It wasn’t a bad idea. But what was I going to yell? “Run for it?” What if things didn’t come off, and I was hauled before the Prince for treason. But, wait. Here was something. “I’ll call out, ‘stand your ground’. When you hear that, run. Got it?”

They all nodded. It was all I could do.

We waited an hour. An hour and a half. It wasn’t going to happen.

The door was thick and iron-banded behind me. Ahead of me, the keep gate was open and the portcullis up. It was a celebration, right? Not a raid.

The organ sounded behind me, and a low murmur carried through the stone to where I stood. Not long now. Only if the priest was excessively long-winded was there any chance.

I thought about all the pieces still in play. All the things I had tried to do. And what I was going to have to do if this didn’t come off. If the Prince managed his marriage, and--I was sure of this now--the murder of the princess--I couldn’t stay here. I never liked the sea, but I was going down to the harbor and see if the Revenge had room for one more.

And then, through the gate, rolled my fondest wish and my greatest nightmare, all in one.

The apparition was probably nine feet tall, black robed, and spoke with the voice of the crumbling of ancient stone. An earthquake. The men shrank back from it instinctively.

“The Dread Pirate Roberts is here, but soon you will no’ be here!” it boomed out.

That was my cue. “Stand your ground!” I shouted, loud enough that they could hear inside.

Whoever had planned this little show was a genius. Fezzik boomed out a bunch more threats, like the pronouncements of a vengeful god, in that horrid accent of his that made the whole thing unintelligible, but it didn’t matter. The thirty newest recruits, pirates themselves, and well acquainted with Roberts, would never have run from this, but since they’d been told to, off they went, whooping and hollering as if they were terrified.

That did it for the rest, as well, who broke and ran even before the supreme coup de grace, when they lit poor Fezzik’s holocaust cloak on fire. Maybe there was someone in the group that might have tried for bravery before that, but not afterward. It frightened me a little, too, even though I knew right away this must be the work of the man in black.

I retreated to the castle gate. One of my good men tried to drop the portcullis, and that could have been awkward, but Fezzik caught it and hauled it upward like he was raising blinds. Then it was just me, and the three of them.

“Give us the gate key,” Westley said. Or was he Roberts? How was he alive? How did this miracle happen? I wanted to ask, but it wasn’t the time. The scene had to be played all the way out.

“I have no gate key,” I said. I kept my face so blank, my own mother wouldn’t have known I was lying. I was actually really proud of myself.

“Fezzik, tear his arms off,” Inigo said.

That was the first time I was really afraid. What if they figured they shouldn’t leave loose ends? But Westley hadn’t killed Inigo, or Fezzik, when he certainly could have. I swallowed. “Oh, you mean this gate key,” I said, and pulled out my leather pouch.

In they went. I grabbed Inigo as he went by. “The Count has guards,” I said. “Please kill them all.”

“He’s really in there?” he said, as if he couldn’t believe that his search was about to come to an end.

“He’s really in there. Go get him.”

I locked the gate behind them.

The grounds of the castle were awash in chaos, as a sinking ship takes on water. My own guardsmen tried futilely to put some kind of order together, but it was hopeless. Not only were we outnumbered by thieves and pirates, the guards-turned-castle-stormers took no notice of us. They didn’t fight. They didn’t try to intimidate us into letting them do their plundering. They just ran on by us, hollering and calling out to one another, ignoring our existence.

I got to a position on the keep, above the gate, and called down to what was left of my men. “To the keep, men! Assemble!” And they came, because they were well trained, and we hunkered down in the keep and defended it against Guilder, just as we had been told to.

The rampaging mob inside? According to us, they were simply exuberant, celebrating Floriners. Exulting over the marriage of the Prince and princess.

We had a couple of casks of ale ourselves, stored in the basement.

One of them did not survive.

After an hour or so, I went out onto the grounds. Most of the chaos had died down by then, with only pairs and trios skulking in the shadows, lugging sacks. One of them squawked as it went by, and I realized they had raided the livestock as well. Fine by me. The debacle was total, and they might as well take what they could.

I still knew nothing about the ultimate issue, but my soul was somehow at peace. I had done all I could. The kingdom would never be the same again. And those three loose in the castle must have done something.

I found Fezzik at the stables, looking carefully at the horses. Four of them, the Prince’s prize possessions, white stallions that gleamed in the moonlight, stood there nickering softly. The horses had been left alone, so far.

“You,” he said, when he saw me.

“You,” I said. “Mission accomplished?”

“This time,” he said. “I hope. I don’t know where Inigo is. Or the lady.” he leaned his head back and bellowed “Inigo!” so loudly Inigo would have answered had he been dead.

“The lady?” I asked, but just then that question was rendered moot, as three heads poked out a window and called down to him. Westley, Inigo, and the lady. The princess.

A moment later they were on the ground, mounting the horses.

“Thank you for your help,” Westley said. “I’m sure we could have managed it without you, but it was certainly easier this way.”

“I take it there’s an opening on your ship,” I said. “I’d like to apply for the job.”

“Too late,” Westley said. “I already offered it to him.” He jerked his head in Inigo’s direction. Inigo shrugged, and gave the glimmer of a smile.

I must have let my disappointment show on my face, because he said, “And anyway, I don’t think you want to come with us. You’re a Floriner, and there’s work to be done here.”

“The Count?” I said.

Inigo’s face lit up. “He killed my father. He is avenged.”

Well. That was worth it all to start with. “The Prince?” I said, hoping against hope.

He shook his head, and laid a hand on my shoulder. “No. He lives. But you will find him in a repentant mood, if you go up to his room.”

“In fact, I’m sure I heard him ask for you,” the princess said, with a smile and no attempt to pretend that she was telling the truth.

“Your kingdom awaits,” Westley said, and put spurs to his horse. They were gone in a trice.

I found the Count’s guards lying dead in the hallway. The Count himself was impaled through the heart and lying on the floor of the banquet hall. I grabbed a bunch of grapes and spit the seeds on him before making my way up to the princess’ chambers, where I found the Prince struggling--not too hard--with his bonds.

We regarded one another for a long moment. The old swagger, the bravado, the arrogance, all were missing. This man was alone with his cowardice.

His princess was gone. He had been humiliated by his greatest enemy. His castle was looted. His right-hand man lay with all six fingers inch-deep in gore.

Finally, he said, “Release me, and I’ll make you richer than you can imagine.”

I sat on the bed, unsheathed my broadsword, and laid it across my knees. “I don’t know, your majesty,” I said. “I can imagine quite a bit.”

Negotiations were long.

But fruitful. And in the end, I didn’t have to become a sailor. That was good enough for me.

Ella Zundel

I love this so much, Mr C!!

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About Christopher Jones

Christopher JH Jones (alias Mr. C and Cj Lehi), after decades without success, quit writing in 2013. After trying repeatedly to grow up—without discernible success—he repented, and has gone on to publish several books in multiple genres. He is known for his business book, From Poop Into Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers, and other nonfiction titles; for his true-crime historical thriller series Trinity Flynn; and for Twelve Upon a Time, his collection of original fairy tales. A prolific writer of short fiction as well, Cj has published two short-story collections and been featured in six anthologies.

His latest labor of love is founding Drabatic Press. We’re all still waiting to see how that turns out.

Cj resides in Lehi, UT, with his wife Jeanette, their eight children, three children-in-law, one murderous cat, and a stray hummingbird. He loves Twitter, (@cjhjones), Instagram (@iamchrisjones) and visitors to his website (iamchrisjones.com).

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