The princess bride, p.16
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       The Princess Bride, p.16

           William Goldman
 

  Vizzini had to smile. "For the Princess?"

  "You read my mind."

  "It just seems that way, I told you. It's merely logic and wisdom. To the death?"

  "Correct again."

  "I accept," cried Vizzini. "Begin the battle!"

  "Pour the wine," said the man in black.

  Vizzini filled the two goblets with deep-red liquid.

  The man in black pulled from his dark clothing a small packet and handed it to the hunchback. "Open it and inhale, but be careful not to touch."

  Vizzini took the packet and followed instructions. "I smell nothing."

  The man in black took the packet again. "What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless and dissolves immediately in any kind of liquid. It also happens to be the deadliest poison known to man."

  Vizzini was beginning to get excited.

  "I don't suppose you'd hand me the goblets," said the man in black.

  Vizzini shook his head. "Take them yourself. My long knife does not leave her throat."

  The man in black reached down for the goblets. He took them and turned away.

  Vizzini cackled aloud in anticipation.

  The man in black busied himself a long moment. Then he turned again with a goblet in each hand. Very carefully, he put the goblet in his right hand in front of Vizzini and put the goblet in his left hand across the kerchief from the hunchback. He sat down in front of the left-hand goblet, and dropped the empty iocane packet by the cheese.

  "Your guess," he said. "Where is the poison?"

  "Guess?" Vizzini cried. "I don't guess. I think. I ponder. I deduce. Then I decide. But I never guess."

  "The battle of wits has begun," said the man in black. "It ends when you decide and we drink the wine and find out who is right and who is dead. We both drink, need I add, and swallow, naturally, at precisely the same time."

  "It's all so simple," said the hunchback. "All I have to do is deduce, from what I know of you, the way your mind works. Are you the kind of man who would put the poison into his own glass, or into the glass of his enemy?"

  "You're stalling," said the man in black.

  "I'm relishing is what I'm doing," answered the Sicilian. "No one has challenged my mind in years and I love it. ... By the way, may I smell both goblets?"

  "Be my guest. Just be sure you put them down the same way you found them."

  The Sicilian sniffed his own glass; then he reached across the kerchief for the goblet of the man in black and sniffed that. "As you said, odorless."

  "As I also said, you're stalling."

  The Sicilian smiled and stared at the wine goblets. "Now a great fool," he began, "would place the poison in his own goblet, because he would know that only another great fool would reach first for what he was given. I am clearly not a great fool, so I will clearly not reach for your wine."

  "That's your final choice?"

  "No. Because you knew I was not a great fool, so you would know that I would never fall for such a trick. You would count on it. So I will clearly not reach for mine either."

  "Keep going," said the man in black.

  "I intend to." The Sicilian reflected a moment. "We have now decided the poisoned cup is most likely in front of you. But the poison is powder made from iocane and iocane comes only from Australia and Australia, as everyone knows, is peopled with criminals and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as I don't trust you, which means I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you."

  The man in black was starting to get nervous.

  "But, again, you must have suspected I knew the origins of iocane, so you would have known I knew about the criminals and criminal behavior, and therefore I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me."

  "Truly you have a dizzying intellect," whispered the man in black.

  "You have beaten my Turk, which means you are exceptionally strong, and exceptionally strong men are convinced that they are too powerful ever to die, too powerful even for iocane poison, so you could have put it in your cup, trusting on your strength to save you; thus I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you."

  The man in black was very nervous now.

  "But you also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied, because he studied many years for his excellence, and if you can study, you are clearly more than simply strong; you are aware of how mortal we all are, and you do not wish to die, so you would have kept the poison as far from yourself as possible; therefore I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me."

  "You're just trying to make me give something away with all this chatter," said the man in black angrily. "Well it won't work. You'll learn nothing from me, that I promise you."

  "I have already learned everything from you," said the Sicilian. "I know where the poison is."

  "Only a genius could have deduced as much."

  "How fortunate for me that I happen to be one," said the hunchback, growing more and more amused now.

  "You cannot frighten me," said the man in black, but there was fear all through his voice.

  "Shall we drink then?"

  "Pick, choose, quit dragging it out, you don't know, you couldn't know."

  The Sicilian only smiled at the outburst. Then a strange look crossed his features and he pointed off behind the man in black. "What in the world can that be?" he asked.

  The man in black turned around and looked. "I don't see anything."

  "Oh, well, I could have sworn I saw something, no matter." The Sicilian began to laugh.

  "I don't understand what's so funny," said the man in black.

  "Tell you in a minute," said the hunchback. "But first let's drink."

  And he picked up his own wine goblet.

  The man in black picked up the one in front of him.

  They drank.

  "You guessed wrong," said the man in black.

  "You only think I guessed wrong," said the Sicilian, his laughter ringing louder. "That's what's so funny. I switched glasses when your back was turned."

  There was nothing for the man in black to say.

  "Fool!" cried the hunchback. "You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia,' but only slightly less well known is this: 'Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.'"

  He was quite cheery until the iocane powder took effect.

  The man in black stepped quickly over the corpse, then roughly ripped the blindfold from the Princess's eyes.

  "I heard everything that happ--" Buttercup began, and then she said "Oh" because she had never been next to a dead man before. "You killed him," she whispered finally.

  "I let him die laughing," said the man in black. "Pray I do as much for you." He lifted her, slashed her bonds away, put her on her feet, started to pull her along.

  "Please," Buttercup said. "Give me a moment to gather myself." The man in black released his grip.

  Buttercup rubbed her wrists, stopped, massaged her ankles. She took a final look at the Sicilian. "To think," she murmured, "all that time it was your cup that was poisoned."

  "They were both poisoned," said the man in black. "I've spent the past two years building up immunity to iocane powder."

  Buttercup looked up at him. He was terrifying to her, masked and hooded and dangerous; his voice was strained, rough. "Who are you?" she asked.

  "I am no one to be trifled with," replied the man in black. "That is all you ever need to know." And with that he yanked her upright. "You've had your moment." Again he pulled her after him, and this time she could do nothing but follow.

  They moved along the mountain path. The moonlight was very bright, and there were rocks everywhere, and to Buttercup it all looked dead and yellow, like the moon. She had just spent several hours with three men who were openly planning to kill her. So why, she wondered, was she more frightened now than then? Who was the horrid hooded figure to strike fear in her so? What could be worse than dying?
"I will pay you a great deal of money to release me," she managed to say.

  The man in black glanced at her. "You are rich, then?"

  "I will be," Buttercup said. "Whatever you want for ransom, I promise I'll get it for you if you'll let me go."

  The man in black just laughed.

  "I was not speaking in jest."

  "You promise? You? I should release you on your promise? What is that worth? The vow of a woman? Oh, that is very funny, Highness. Spoken in jest or not." They proceeded along the mountain path to an open space. The man in black stopped then. There were a million stars fighting for prominence and for a moment he seemed to be intent on nothing less than studying them all, as Buttercup watched his eyes flick from constellation to constellation behind his mask.

  Then, with no warning, he spun off the path, heading into wild terrain, pulling her behind him.

  She stumbled; he pulled her to her feet; again she fell; again he righted her.

  "I cannot move this quickly."

  "You can! And you will! Or you will suffer greatly. Do you think I could make you suffer greatly?"

  Buttercup nodded.

  "Then run!" cried the man in black, and he broke into a run himself, flying across rocks in the moonlight, pulling the Princess behind him.

  She did her best to keep up. She was frightened as to what he would do to her, so she dared not fall again.

  After five minutes, the man in black stopped dead. "Catch your breath," he commanded.

  Buttercup nodded, gasped in air, tried to quiet her heart. But then they were off again, with no warning, dashing across the mountainous terrain, heading...

  "Where ... do you take me?" Buttercup gasped, when he again gave her a chance to rest.

  "Surely even someone as arrogant as you cannot expect me to give an answer."

  "It does not matter if you tell or not. He will find you."

  " 'He,' Highness?"

  "Prince Humperdinck. There is no greater hunter. He can track a falcon on a cloudy day; he can find you."

  "You have confidence that your dearest love will save you, do you?"

  "I never said he was my dearest love, and yes, he will save me; that I know."

  "You admit you do not love your husband-to-be? Fancy. An honest woman. You're a rare specimen, Highness."

  "The Prince and I have never from the beginning lied to each other. He knows I do not love him."

  "Are not capable of love is what you mean."

  "I'm very capable of love," Buttercup said.

  "Hold your tongue, I think."

  "I have loved more deeply than a killer like you can possibly imagine."

  He slapped her.

  "That is the penalty for lying, Highness. Where I come from, when a woman lies, she is reprimanded."

  "But I spoke the truth, I did, I--" Buttercup saw his hand rise a second time, so she stopped quickly, fell dead silent.

  Then they began to run again.

  They did not speak for hours. They just ran, and then, as if he could guess when she was spent, he would stop, release her hand. She would try to catch her breath for the next dash she was sure would come. Without a sound, he would grab her and off they would go.

  It was close to dawn when they first saw the Armada.

  They were running along the edge of a towering ravine. They seemed almost to be at the top of the world. When they stopped, Buttercup sank down to rest. The man in black stood silently over her. "Your love comes, not alone," he said then.

  Buttercup did not understand.

  The man in black pointed back the way they had come.

  Buttercup stared, and as she did, the waters of Florin Channel seemed as filled with light as the sky was filled with stars.

  "He must have ordered every ship in Florin after you," the man in black said. "Such a sight I have never seen." He stared at all the lanterns on all the ships as they moved.

  "You can never escape him," Buttercup said. "If you release me, I promise that you will come to no harm."

  "You are much too generous; I could never accept such an offer."

  "I offered you your life, that was generous enough."

  "Highness!" said the man in black, and his hands were suddenly at her throat. "If there is talk of life to be done, let me do it."

  "You would not kill me. You did not steal me from murderers to murder me yourself."

  "Wise as well as loving," said the man in black. He jerked her to her feet, and they ran along the edge of the great ravine. It was hundreds of feet deep, and filled with rocks and trees and lifting shadows. Abruptly, the man in black stopped, stared back at the Armada. "To be honest," he said, "I had not expected quite so many."

  "You can never predict my Prince; that is why he is the greatest hunter."

  "I wonder," said the man in black, "will he stay in one group or will he divide, some to search the coastline, some to follow your path on land? What do you think?"

  "I only know he will find me. And if you have not given me my freedom first, he will not treat you gently."

  "Surely he must have discussed things with you? The thrill of the hunt. What has he done in the past with many ships?"

  "We do not discuss hunting, that I can assure you."

  "Not hunting, not love, what do you talk about?"

  "We do not see all that much of each other."

  "Tender couple."

  Buttercup could feel the upset coming. "We are always very honest with each other. Not everyone can say as much."

  "May I please tell you something, Highness? You're very cold--"

  "I'm not--"

  "--very cold and very young, and if you live, I think you'll turn to hoarfrost--"

  "Why do you pick at me? I have come to terms with my life, and that is my affair--I am not cold, I swear, but I have decided certain things, it is best for me to ignore emotion; I have not been happy dealing with it--" Her heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high. "I loved once," Buttercup said after a moment. "It worked out badly."

  "Another rich man? Yes, and he left you for a richer woman."

  "No. Poor. Poor and it killed him."

  "Were you sorry? Did you feel pain? Admit that you felt nothing--"

  "Do not mock my grief! I died that day."

  The Armada began to fire signal cannons. The explosions echoed through the mountains. The man in black stared as the ships began to change formation.

  And while he was watching the ships, Buttercup shoved him with all her strength remaining.

  For a moment, the man in black teetered at the ravine edge. His arms spun like windmills fighting for balance. They swung and gripped the air and then he began his slide.

  Down went the man in black.

  Stumbling and torn and reaching out to stop his descent, but the ravine was too steep, and nothing could be done.

  Down, down.

  Rolling over rocks, spinning, out of all control.

  Buttercup stared at what she had done.

  Finally he rested far below her, silent and without motion. "You can die too for all I care," she said, and then she turned away.

  Words followed her. Whispered from far, weak and warm and familiar. "As ... you ... wish..."

  Dawn in the mountains. Buttercup turned back to the source of the sound and stared down as, in first light, the man in black struggled to remove his mask.

  "Oh, my sweet Westley," Buttercup said. "What have I done to you now?"

  From the bottom of the ravine, there came only silence.

  Buttercup hesitated not a moment. Down she went after him, keeping her feet as best she could, and as she began, she thought she heard him crying out to her over and over, but she could not make sense of his words, because inside her now there was the thunder of walls crumbling, and that was noise enough.

  Besides, her balance quickly was gone and the ravine had her. She fell fast and she fell hard, but what did that matter, since she would have gladly dropped a thousand feet onto a bed of nails
if Westley had been waiting at the bottom.

  Down, down.

  Tossed and spinning, crashing, torn, out of all control, she rolled and twisted and plunged, cartwheeling toward what was left of her beloved....

  FROM HIS POSITION at the point of the Armada, Prince Humperdinck stared up at the Cliffs of Insanity. This was just like any other hunt. He made himself think away the quarry. It did not matter if you were after an antelope or a bride-to-be; the procedures held. You gathered evidence. Then you acted. You studied, then you performed. If you studied too little, the chances were strong that your actions would also be too late. You had to take time. And so, frozen in thought, he continued to stare up the sheer face of the Cliffs.

  Obviously, someone had recently climbed them. There were foot scratchings all the way up a straight line, which meant, most certainly, a rope, an arm-over-arm climb up a thousand-foot rope with occasional foot kicks for balance. To make such a climb required both strength and planning, so the Prince made those marks in his brain: my enemy is strong; my enemy is not impulsive.

  Now his eyes reached a point perhaps three hundred feet from the top. Here it began to get interesting. Now the foot scratchings were deeper, more frequent, and they followed no direct ascending line. Either someone left the rope three hundred feet from the top intentionally, which made no sense, or the rope was cut while that someone was still three hundred feet from safety. For clearly, this last part of the climb was made up the rock face itself. But who had such talent? And why had he been called to exercise it at such a deadly time, seven hundred feet above disaster?

  "I must examine the tops of the Cliffs of Insanity," the Prince said, without bothering to turn.

  From behind him, Count Rugen only said, "Done," and awaited further instructions.

  "Send half the Armada south along the coastline, the other north. They should meet by twilight near the Fire Swamp. Our ship will sail to the first landing possibility, and you will follow me with your soldiers. Ready the whites."

  Count Rugen signaled the cannoneer, and the Prince's instructions boomed along the Cliffs. Within minutes, the Armada had begun to split, with only the Prince's giant ship sailing alone closest to the coastline, looking for a landing possibility.

  "There!" the Prince ordered, some time later, and his ship began maneuvering into the cove for a safe place to anchor. That took time, but not much, because the Captain was skilled and, more than that, the Prince was quick to lose patience and no one dared risk that.

  Humperdinck jumped from ship to shore, a plank was lowered, and the whites were led to ground. Of all his accomplishments, none pleased the Prince as did these horses. Someday he would have an army of them, but getting the bloodlines perfect was a slow business. He now had four whites and they were identical. Snowy, tireless giants. Twenty hands high. On flatland, nothing could catch them, and even on hills and rocky terrain, there was nothing short of Araby close to their equal. The Prince, when rushed, rode all four, bareback, the only way he ever rode, riding one, leading three, changing beasts in mid-stride, so that no single animal had to bear his bulk to the tiring point.

 
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