The princess bride, p.18
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       The Princess Bride, p.18

           William Goldman
 

  Buttercup stared at the Fire Swamp. As a child, she had once spent an entire nightmared year convinced that she was going to die there. Now she could not move another step. The giant trees blackened the ground ahead of her. From every part came the sudden flames. "You cannot ask it of me," she said.

  "I must."

  "I once dreamed I would die here."

  "So did I, so did we all. Were you eight that year? I was."

  "Eight. Six. I can't remember."

  Westley took her hand.

  She could not move. "Must we?"

  Westley nodded.

  "Why?"

  "Now is not the time." He pulled her gently.

  She still could not move.

  Westley took her in his arms. "Child; sweet child. I have a knife. I have my sword. I did not come across the world to lose you now."

  Buttercup was searching somewhere for a sufficiency of courage. Evidently, she found it in his eyes.

  At any rate, hand in hand, they moved into the shadows of the Fire Swamp.

  PRINCE HUMPERDINCK JUST stared. He sat astride a white, studying the footsteps down on the floor of the ravine. There was simply no other conclusion: the kidnapper had dragged his Princess into it.

  Count Rugen sat alongside. "Did they actually go in?"

  The Prince nodded.

  Praying the answer would be "no," the Count asked, "Do you think we should follow them?"

  The Prince shook his head. "They'll either live or die in there. If they die, I have no wish to join them. If they live, I'll greet them on the other side."

  "It's too far around," the Count said.

  "Not for my whites."

  "We'll follow as best we can," the Count said. He stared again at the Fire Swamp. "He must be very desperate, or very frightened, or very stupid, or very brave."

  "Very all four I should think," the Prince replied....

  WESTLEY LED THE way. Buttercup stayed just behind, and they made, from the outset, very good time. The main thing, she realized, was to forget your childhood dreams, for the Fire Swamp was bad, but it wasn't that bad. The odor of the escaping gases, which at first seemed almost totally punishing, soon diminished through familiarity. The sudden bursts of flame were easily avoided because, just before they struck, there was a deep kind of popping sound clearly coming from the vicinity where the flames would then appear.

  Westley carried his sword in his right hand, his long knife in his left, waiting for the first R.O.U.S., but none appeared. He had cut a very long piece of strong vine and coiled it over one shoulder and was busy working on it as they moved. "What we'll do once I've got this properly done is," he told her, moving steadily on beneath the giant trees, "we'll attach ourselves to each other, so that way, no matter what the darkness, we'll be close. Actually, I think that's more precaution than necessary, because, to tell you the truth, I'm almost disappointed; this place is bad, all right, but it's not that bad. Don't you agree?"

  Buttercup wanted to, totally, and she would have too; only by then, the Snow Sand had her.

  Westley turned only in time to see her disappear.

  Buttercup had simply let her attention wander for a moment, the ground seemed solid enough, and she had no idea what Snow Sand looked like anyway; but once her front foot began to sink in, she could not pull back, and even before she could scream, she was gone. It was like falling through a cloud. The sand was the finest in the world, and there was no bulk to it whatsoever, and, at first, no unpleasantness. She was just falling, gently, through this soft powdery mass, falling farther and farther from anything resembling life, but she could not allow herself to panic. Westley had instructed her on how to behave if this happened, and she followed his words now: she spread her arms and spread her fingers and forced herself into the position resembling that of a dead-man's float in swimming, all this because Westley had told her to because the more she could spread herself, the slower she would sink. And the slower she sank, the quicker he could dive down after her and catch her. Buttercup's ears were now caked with Snow Sand all the way in, and her nose was filled with Snow Sand, both nostrils, and she knew if she opened her eyes a million tiny fine bits of Snow Sand would seep behind her eyelids, and now she was beginning to panic badly. How long had she been falling? Hours, it seemed, and she was having pain in holding her breath. "You must hold it till I find you," he had said; "you must go into a dead-man's float and you must close your eyes and hold your breath and I'll come get you and we'll both have a wonderful story for our grandchildren." Buttercup continued to sink. The weight of the sand began to brutalize her shoulders. The small of her back began to ache. It was agony keeping her arms outstretched and her fingers spread when it was all so useless. The Snow Sand was heavier and heavier on her now as she sank always down. And was it bottomless, as they thought when they were children? Did you just sink forever until the sand ate away at you and then did your poor bones continue the trip forever down? No, surely there had to somewhere be a resting place. A resting place, Buttercup thought. What a wonderful thing. I'm so tired, so tired, and I want to rest, and, "Westley, come save me!" she screamed. Or started to. Because in order to scream you had to open your mouth, so all she really got out was the first sound of the first word: "Wuh." After that the Snow Sand was down into her throat and she was done.

  Westley had made a terrific start. Before she had even entirely disappeared, he had dropped his sword and long knife and had gotten the vine coil from his shoulder. It took him next to no time to knot one end around a giant tree, and, holding tight to the free end, he simply dove headlong into the Snow Sand, kicking his feet as he sank, for greater speed. There was no question in his mind of failure. He knew he would find her and he knew she would be upset and hysterical and possibly even brain tumbled. But alive. And that was, in the end, the only fact of lasting import. The Snow Sand had his ears and nose blocked, and he hoped she had not panicked, had remembered to spread-eagle her body, so that he could catch her quickly with his headlong dive. If she remembered, it wouldn't be that hard--the same, really, as rescuing a drowning swimmer in murky water. They floated slowly down, you dove straight down, you kicked, you pulled with your free arm, you gained on them, you grabbed them, you brought them to the surface, and the only real problem then would be convincing your grandchildren that such a thing had actually happened and was not just another family fable. He was still concerning his mind with the infants yet unborn when something happened he had not counted on: the vine was not long enough. He hung suspended for a moment, holding to the end of it as it stretched straight up through the Snow Sand to the security of the giant tree. To release the vine was truly madness. There was no possibility of forcing your body all the way back up to the surface. A few feet of ascension was possible if you kicked wildly, but no more. So if he let go of the vine and did not find her within a finger snap, it was all up for both of them. Westley let go of the vine without a qualm, because he had come too far to fail now; failure was not even a problem to be considered. Down he sank then and within a finger snap he had his hand around her wrist. Westley screamed then himself, in horror and surprise, and the Snow Sand gouged at his throat, for what he had grabbed was a skeleton wrist, bone only, no flesh left at all. That happened in Snow Sand. Once the skeleton was picked clean, it would begin, often, to float, like seaweed in a quiet tide, shifting this way and that, sometimes surfacing, more often just journeying through the Snow Sand for eternity. Westley threw the wrist away and reached out blindly with both hands now, scrabbling wildly to touch some part of her, because failure was not a problem; failure is not a problem, he told himself; it is not a problem to be considered, so forget failure; just keep busy and find her, and he found her. Her foot, more precisely, and pulled it to him and then his arm was around her perfect waist and he began to kick, kick with any strength left, needing now to rise the few yards to the end of the vine. The idea that it might be difficult finding a single vine strand in a small sea of Snow Sand never bothered him. Failu
re was not a problem; he would simply have to kick and when he had kicked hard enough he would rise and when he had risen enough he would reach out for the vine and when he reached out it would be there and when it was there he would tie her to it and with his last breath he would pull them both up to life.

  Which is exactly what happened.

  She remained unconscious for a very long time. Westley busied himself as best he could, cleansing the Snow Sand from ears and nose and mouth and, most delicate of all, from beneath the lids of her eyes. The length of her quietness disturbed him vaguely; it was almost as if she knew she had died and was afraid to find out for a fact that it was true. He held her in his arms, rocked her slowly. Eventually she was blinking.

  For a time she looked around and around. "We lived, then?" she managed finally.

  "We're a hardy breed."

  "What a wonderful surprise."

  "No need--" He was going to say "No need for worry," but her panic struck too quickly. It was a normal enough reaction, and he did not try to block it but, rather, held her firmly and let the hysteria run its course. She shuddered for a time as if she fully intended to fly apart. But that was the worst. From there, it was but a few minutes to quiet sobbing. Then she was Buttercup again.

  Westley stood, buckled on his sword, replaced his long knife. "Come," he said. "We have far to go."

  "Not until you tell me," she replied. "Why must we endure this?"

  "Now is not the time." Westley held out his hand.

  "It is the time." She stayed where she was, on the ground.

  Westley sighed. She meant it. "All right," he said finally. "I'll explain. But we must keep moving."

  Buttercup waited.

  "We must get through the Fire Swamp," Westley began, "for one good and simple reason." Once he had started talking, Buttercup stood, following close behind him as he went on. "I had always intended getting to the far side; I had not, I must admit, expected to go through. Around, was my intention, but the ravine forced me to change."

  "The good and simple reason," Buttercup prompted.

  "On the far end of the Fire Swamp is the mouth of Giant Eel Bay. And anchored far out in the deepest waters of that bay is the great ship Revenge. The Revenge is the sole property of the Dread Pirate Roberts."

  "The man who killed you?" Buttercup said. "That man? The one who broke my heart? The Dread Pirate Roberts took your life, that was the story I was told."

  "Quite correct," Westley said. "And that ship is our destination."

  "You know the Dread Pirate Roberts? You are friendly with such a man?"

  "It's a little more than that," Westley said. "I don't expect you to quite grasp this all at once; just believe it's true. You see, I am the Dread Pirate Roberts."

  "I fail to see how that is possible, since he has been marauding for twenty years and you only left me three years ago."

  "I myself am often surprised at life's little quirks," Westley admitted.

  "Did he, in fact, capture you when you were sailing for the Carolinas?"

  "He did. His ship Revenge captured the ship I was on, The Queens Pride, and we were all to be put to death."

  "But Roberts did not kill you."

  "Clearly."

  "Why?"

  "I cannot say for sure, but I think it is because I asked him please not to. The 'please,' I suspect, aroused his interest. I didn't beg or offer bribery, as the others were doing. At any rate, he held off with his sword long enough to ask, 'Why should I make an exception of you?' and I explained my mission, how I had to get to America to get money to reunite me with the most beautiful woman ever reared by man, namely you. 'I doubt that she is as beautiful as you imagine,' he said, and he raised his sword again. 'Hair the color of autumn,' I said, 'and skin like wintry cream.' 'Wintry cream, eh?' he said. He was interested now, at least a bit, so I went on describing the rest of you, and at the end, I knew I had him convinced of the truth of my affection for you. 'I'll tell you, Westley,' he said then, 'I feel genuinely sorry about this, but if I make an exception in your case, news will get out that the Dread Pirate Roberts has gone soft and that will mark the beginning of my downfall, for once they stop fearing you, piracy becomes nothing but work, work, work all the time, and I am far too old for such a life.' 'I swear I will never tell, not even my beloved,' I said; 'and if you will let me live, I will be your personal valet and slave for five full years, and if I ever once complain or cause you anger, you may chop my head off then and there and I will die with praise for your fairness on my lips.' I knew I had him thinking. 'Go below,' he said. 'I'll most likely kill you tomorrow.'" Westley stopped talking for a moment, and pretended to clear his throat, because he had spotted the first R.O.U.S. following behind them. There seemed no need yet to alert her, so he just continued to clear his throat and hurry along between the flame bursts.

  "What happened tomorrow?" Buttercup urged. "Go on."

  "Well, you know what an industrious fellow I am; you remember how I liked to learn and how I'd already trained myself to work twenty hours a day. I decided to learn what I could about piracy in the time left allotted me, since it would at least keep my mind off my coming slaughter. So I helped the cook and I cleaned the hold and, in general, did whatever was asked of me, hoping that my energies might be favorably noted by the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. 'Well, I've come to kill you,' he said the next morning, and I said, 'Thank you for the extra time; it's been most fascinating; I've learned such a great deal,' and he said, 'Overnight? What could you learn in that time?' and I said, 'That no one had ever explained to your cook the difference between table salt and cayenne pepper.' 'Things have been a bit fiery this trip,' he admitted. 'Go on, what else?' and I explained that there would have been more room in the hold if boxes had been stacked differently, and then he noticed that I had completely reorganized things down there and, fortunately for me, there was more room, and finally he said, 'Very well, you can be my valet for a day. I've never had a valet before; probably I won't like it, so I'll kill you in the morning.' Every night for the next year he always said something like that to me: 'Thank you for everything, Westley, good night now, I'll probably kill you in the morning.'

  "By the end of that year, of course, we were more than valet and master. He was a pudgy little man, not at all fierce, as you would expect the Dread Pirate Roberts to be, and I like to think he was as fond of me as I of him. By then, I had learned really quite a great deal about sailing and hand fighting and fencing and throwing the long knife and had never been in as excellent physical condition. At the end of one year, my captain said to me, 'Enough of this valet business, Westley, from now on you are my second-in-command,' and I said, 'Thank you, sir, but I could never be a pirate,' and he said, 'You want to get back to that autumn-haired creature of yours, don't you?' and I didn't even have to bother answering that. 'A good year or two of piracy and you'll be rich and back you go,' and I said, 'Your men have been with you for years and they aren't rich,' and he said, 'That's because they are not the captain. I am going to retire soon, Westley, and the Revenge will be yours.' I must admit, beloved, I weakened a bit there, but we reached no final decision. Instead, he agreed to let me assist him in the next few captures and see how I liked it. Which I did." There was now another R.O.U.S. following them. Flanking them as they moved.

  Buttercup saw them now. "Westley--"

  "Shhh. It's all right. I'm watching them. Shall I finish? Will it take your mind off them?"

  "You helped him with the next few captures," Buttercup said. "To see if you liked it."

  Westley dodged a sudden burst of flame, shielded Buttercup from the heat. "Not only did I like it, but it turned out I was talented, as well. So talented that Roberts said to me one April morning, 'Westley, the next ship is yours; let's see how you do.' That afternoon we spotted a fat Spanish beauty, loaded for Madrid. I sailed up close. They were in a panic. 'Who is it?' their captain cried. 'Westley,' I told him. 'Never heard of you,' he answered, and with that they opened fire.
r />   "Disaster. They had no fear of me at all. I was so flustered I did everything wrong, and soon they got away. I was, do I have to add, disheartened. Roberts called me to his cabin. I slunk in like a whipped boy. 'Buck up,' he told me, and then he closed the door and we were quite alone. 'What I am about to tell you I have never said before and you must guard it closely.' I of course said I would. 'I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts,' he said, 'my name is Ryan. I inherited this ship from the previous Dread Pirate Roberts just as you will inherit it from me. The man I inherited from was not the real Dread Pirate Roberts either; his name was Cummberbund. The real original Dread Pirate Roberts has been retired fifteen years and has been living like a king in Patagonia.' I confessed my confusion. 'It's really very simple,' Ryan explained. 'After several years, the original Roberts was so rich he wanted to retire. Clooney was his friend and first mate, so he gave the ship to Clooney, who had an identical experience to yours: the first ship he attempted to board nearly blew him out of the water. So Roberts, realizing the name was the thing that inspired the necessary fear, sailed the Revenge to port, changed crews entirely, and Clooney told everyone he was the Dread Pirate Roberts, and who was to know he was not? When Clooney retired rich, he passed the name to Cummberbund, Cummberbund to me, and I, Felix Raymond Ryan, of Boodle, outside Liverpool, now dub thee, Westley, the Dread Pirate Roberts. All we need is to land, take on some new young pirates. I will sail along for a few days as Ryan, your first mate, and will tell everyone about my years with you, the Dread Pirate Roberts. Then you will let me off when they are all believers, and the waters of the world are yours.'" Westley smiled at Buttercup. "So now you know. And you should also realize why it is foolish to be afraid."

  "But I am afraid."

  "It will all be happy at the end. Consider: a little over three years ago, you were a milkmaid and I was a farm boy. Now you are almost a queen and I rule uncontested on the water. Surely, such individuals were never intended to die in a Fire Swamp."

 
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