The further they got from the castle, the wilder the rumors became. "Countess Rugen has been murdered," they said in a tavern near the capital. One of the laborers made the sign against evil.
"Four men murdered Countess Rugen," they said at the next place. "Four men and a vengeful ghost," someone added with relish.
The four of them left quickly and pressed their conspicuous white horses to a faster pace, soon abandoning the main road for less traveled ways.
They stopped for the night in a tiny hamlet, the sort of place that didn't even have an inn because it never got visitors. The locals were drinking beer on the porch of the largest shack. "A whole bunch of nobles died," they said, agog with knowledge. They raised their mugs of beer in drunken respect. "And the prince that was to be. The Princess, she's in hot pursuit of the murderers. Doing us proud, Princess Humperdinck is, with her tracking."
"How did you hear about this?" Buttercup asked, fearing the worst.
"Her outriders, they passed through Exingham, this afternoon, and those blackguards won't get away with it."
"Where's Exingham?" Westley asked.
"That way half an hour," they said, pointing.
The four of them bedded down in the forest that night, and in the morning Fezzik dyed the horses black -- black as pitch, black as a witch's cauldron -- which didn't make them much less conspicuous.
"It was a good try," Buttercup said kindly, and sent the other two off with instructions to rendezvous at her ship, in the port town of Porton. She put on a skirt and rode in front of Westley on the most mottled of the black horses.
"Just an ordinary couple on the way to town to consult with the miracle man," Westley told the first two patrols they met. He'd ripped all the decoration off his fancy clothes, and they'd pried the jewels off his dress sword and tossed the useless blade into a thicket, but he still had that air, the one that said 'I am rich and important and I don't even need a weapon because nothing can touch me.' The patrollers eyed him with grudging respect.
"My wife is sick," Westley said, expecting to be believed. After being mostly dead and then riding two days, Buttercup didn't have a problem looking the part. She smiled weakly, and the deception got them through, twice.
The third time, they had to run for it. Only Westley's horsemanship got them through the chase that followed, through the tangled woods at full speed, ducking branches and leaping fallen trees and finally ending alone in a forest glade. Their pursuers crashed away into the distance, calling out their confusion.
Westley leaned forward, around Buttercup, and patted the side of their horse. "Good horseflesh tells," he said to her.
"I...must rest," Buttercup said, trying to smile.
She slid down the side of the horse and collapsed when she hit the ground. Miracles don't last forever, she thought as blackness took her.
She dreamed of water. Water rushing, weighing her down as she struggled, and Westley was nearby, she knew, but she couldn't get to him. Her body arched like a bridge, and the world blurred around her, like it was viewed through the tumbling waves that propelled a pirate ship forward, always forward. She reached toward the surface, but the water--
She moaned and woke up with infinite relief. She felt like a wrung out wash cloth, but as she'd learned when she was a pirate's apprentice, it doesn't matter what you feel like, so long as you have something to do.
She took stock. The bed had clean white sheets, and light came in through the window, and she could hear Westley talking in the next room. Some protective instinct wound up very tight inside of her started to unfurl when she identified his voice, light and unconcerned.
"...out of touch," Westley was saying. "What news?"
The voice that responded to Westley was male, deep and sure of itself.
"Florin and Guilder are at war. Troops are being gathered from all corners of the country -- and all because of some common farmer. It's wonderful."
"Wonderful?" Westley asked. Buttercup would have asked a different question.
"You should have heard the Princess's speech. They were cheering her all the way to the provinces, death and glory and all of that. Bread and meat to a mercenary such as myself."
Buttercup pushed herself into a sitting position. Her sword was in the corner, out of reach.
"Didn't you recognize the uniform?" the mercenary continued. "I'm recruiting, by the way. You look like a likely lad. Interested?"
"I will never go to war," Westley said. "I'm a lover, not a fighter."
"Really?" There was something about his tone that made Buttercup swing her legs over the side of the bed. Bare feet touched the floor and she found that she had just enough strength to stand, if she held on to the bedpost.
"I'm not lying," Westley said, faintly puzzled.
"Now that's a funny thing. You wouldn't say that if you'd heard the Princess's speech. She talked about the Countess's death, and how it cried out for vengeance. But the Countess was never very popular, so that didn't go over well. But then she talked about how her husband had been kidnapped just after the wedding by the same agents of Guilder, before they'd even had their wedding night. She vowed to get him back, and make Guilder pay. She was really into getting Guilder to pay, and how the crowd cheered!"
Westley made a tiny noise.
The voice lowered, became insinuating. "So which do you think she'd pay more for? A live husband returned to her, or a dead one to display, tastefully, to prove the need for war?"
Buttercup picked up her sword and balanced carefully. The door wasn't very far away now.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Westley said.
"I think you do," the other man said. "I was in the capital the day the prince was introduced to the country, handsome and martial in a Florin cavalry officer's uniform. The princess probably chose that too, am I right? I'm telling you, the princess's enthusiasm for this war is inspiring."
After a moment of silence, the mercenary prompted, "I was there to see the prince. And that's why I know that you know exactly what I'm talking about."
"I promise you, I have no idea," Westley said. "But if I did, I would say that the princess is not the only person who might be able to pay."
Buttercup stopped with her hand on the doorknob, and pressed her ear to the door.
"You interest me," the mercenary said.
"I have some valuable gems that might interest you even more," Westley said, and Buttercup heard his footsteps approaching.
She stepped back, out of the line of sight through the door. When Westley came through, his gaze jumped first to the empty bed, then to the empty chair beside the bed, then wildly around until he found the woman in the nightgown with her sword at the ready, silently gesturing him to close the door. He closed the door.
"I brought you some soup," he said. Buttercup hadn't even noticed the bowl on the table by the bed.
"Westley, what are we doing here?" Buttercup said urgently. "What are you doing?"
"I couldn't take care of you in the forest," Westley said. "Let me help you back to bed."
"No," Buttercup said. "I need you to explain the man you were talking to in the other room." When Westley hesitated, she asked reasonably, "Do you truly trust this man to keep his word if you pay him? You don't have a princess backing you up any more."
Westley looked crestfallen.
"Go pay him off, and then we'll sneak out," Buttercup said.
Westley grinned suddenly. "But I do have a princess backing me up, so far as that man out there knows. He told me that the princess is lying about me, and turnabout is fair play. Give me some paper."
He scrawled some lines on it, signed it with a flourish. The name he signed started with an H. Buttercup raised an eyebrow.
"She never had time for the unimportant little things I wanted. She'd just tell me to write down what I wanted and sign the order for her," Westley said. "No one ever noticed."
Buttercup sighed. "No one's going to believe--"
"That Princess Humperdinck lied to start a war? That she sent someone out to spy on her own troops?" Westley asked.
Actually, when he put it that way...
"I know what the nobles said about me. Humperdinck's creature through and through. She married me because she wanted someone she could control, she valued that more than any alliance. I thought...I thought if I couldn't be happy, at least I could be useful. I was everything they said, but that's useful now. Isn't it?"
He looked so hopeful. Buttercup sighed. And swayed.
"You need to rest," Westley insisted. "Don't worry, I'll take care of everything."
He folded the letter, grabbed the pouch of jewels, and strode out confidently. "We were talking about the princess," he said to the man in the other room. "This information is completely secret, but you're clever enough to be helpful, just the kind of man the princess said I should keep an eye out for. In fact, she provided me with these jewels as payment in case I was able to find someone like you..."
Buttercup listened to Westley. It was a thin story, but Westley managed to pull it off...probably. He'd always been amazingly persuasive as well as ridiculously beautiful, and the story he told just might hold for long enough for her to get some sleep.
But first, she scouted out an escape route over the roof. If they had to leave that way, she'd need help for the last part, but she did have Westley for that. She was just coming back in through the window when Westley came back in through the door. He was smiling -- until he saw her.
"I took care of it," Westley said, his voice dripping with disappointment.
She dropped back onto the bed. "So did I," she said. "If we have to leave, there's a rope in place on the roof."
"You didn't need to do that," Westley said. "Don't you trust me?"
"I've learned a lot about how to survive in the world since we've been apart," Buttercup said. "That man is a threat. I'm just using what I've learned to protect us."
"The Dread Pirate Roberts takes no prisoners," Westley said, Buttercup wasn't sure why. He seemed sad.
"I'm going to get out of the pirate business as soon as I can," she said. She tugged at the covers, which had gotten tangled under her when she flopped down.
"Let me help you," Westley said, tucking the covers around her. "I'll keep watch while you sleep."
It was strangely comforting, knowing he was awake, watching while she slept. Almost as strangely comforting as the feeling of being helped.
Over the next few days, Buttercup got a lot of experience with that feeling, because she spent those days resting, storing up energy for the inevitable discovery and subsequent chase. Westley took care of her, brought her soup and flowers and covered her in "healing kisses", until Buttercup almost began to take love for granted again. Her tongue never tired of the taste of his mouth--
"Stop!" The little boy glowered. He was grumpier today, feeling worse. "They're kissing again. You said this one wasn't about kissing."
"I said," grandfather corrected, "that it didn't end with kissing this time."
"No kissing," the boy said, crossing his arms. "You promised a sword fight."
"Okay. Okay," grandfather said. "We'll get to the sword fight. Are you sure you're feeling all right?"
"I feel like a washcloth," the boy said. "All wrung out like Buttercup."
Grandfather felt his forehead until the boy squirmed away. "Read the part where Buttercup gets better," he demanded.
Grandfather gave his grandson a doubtful look, then flipped forward a page or two.
After four days of rest, Buttercup had had enough. Westley, however, had not had enough soup-making and pillow fluffing. He did it with the earnestness of someone trying to make up for everything, and Buttercup accepted it in the same spirit. But she also got out of bed and did sword drills every day while Westley was taking his daily ride. She had to build up her strength.
Two mercenaries escorted Westley each day, protecting their employer -- or perhaps something more sinister. Buttercup had set up traps in their room and scouted out two more ways out of the inn, one through the attic and the other from a nearby balcony into an overhanging tree. When the worst happened, she'd be ready.
Meanwhile, Westley reported that the roads were filled with soldiers, and their own personal mercenary band confirmed it. There were other mercenaries flocking toward the capital, as well as the levies of nobles and the occasional band of free citizens.
It was not the best situation for a pair of fugitives -- no one but soldiers were travelling, with the army overrunning the roads, and the royal guards were everywhere. They set up random road blocks to catch spies out of Guilder, and patrolled the forest from the sea to the borders of the swamp.
Princess Humperdinck was moving forward like a ship running before the wind. Word of her actions filtered in as the days passed. She was leading the war effort with active vigor, reviewing the troops as they arrived in the capital, cajoling the nobles and inspiring the commoners with speeches.
"She's just a girl," Buttercup overheard one day in the common room of the inn. "The king should have appointed another commander."
A few days later, reports of Humperdinck's latest speech included a rebuttal. "My father has appointed me to lead you, and though I am but a woman, I will lead you to victory. My people, I will not shirk from my clear duty. I was born to lead this war, and my spirit is eager for battle. We will not be mocked by knaves of Guilder. We will show them what Florin can do!"
"That's well said," Westley's mercenary captain remarked. "I'll be happy to follow her."
"I'll be happy when the soldiers get off the road," the innkeeper's wife said tartly.
She had even more to say the next day. Humperdinck had sworn celibacy until the war was won, even if the kidnapped Prince Westley was returned to her.
"It's plain foolishness," the innkeeper's wife said. "I never held with that commoner prince she married, but at least he was young and virile. Now how are we supposed to get an heir?"
"The princess has given birth to a war," the innkeeper said.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
Apparently, the innkeeper wasn't sure. "We'd better defeat them right quick?"
"That's what we're all hoping for, some of us for more personal reasons than others." The mercenary captain winked at Westley, who grinned and winked back. Buttercup didn't know how he managed to keep the mercenary captain satisfied with that story, but it was well cemented by now, and the mercenary seemed happy to satisfy his greed by working for the princess's jewels. After four days, Buttercup barely worried when Westley went out riding any more, just picked up her sword and imagined the next enemy.
As Buttercup twisted away from an imaginary attack and simultaneously thrust en quarte (changing the tempo in the manner described by Fabris), she paid attention to her body. Muscles moved smoothly. The weakness was almost gone. If it came to a fight, her blade would find its target. No man could stand against her, no princess could reach out her long arm and snatch away her happiness.
When she heard Westley's footsteps on the stairs, she slid the sword back into its sheath and sat down facing the door, sword across her knees. It was time to talk to Westley about leaving.
Westley burst into the room, red-faced and breathing hard.
"Westley?" Buttercup asked. Her grip tightened on the hilt of her sword.
He slammed the door and turned on heel, pacing from one side of the room to the other. "He threatened you. That mercenary swine threatened you."
Buttercup laughed. "Better men than he have tried," she said. "Don't worry, my darling. I'm not easily threatened. In fact--"
Westley was not appeased. "How dare he? I told him you were my sister. I told him that the princess has a marriage in mind for you. But today, he wouldn't shut up about what a beautiful couple you and I make. Then he started talking about the dangers of a...a woman, in an hostelry full of soldiers, and insinuating that you needed protection, and protection costs money... I could have killed him."
Oh Westley, Buttercup thought, you wouldn't know how to start.
He caught her amusement -- he was getting better at reading her -- but misunderstood it. "I tell you, it was insufferable. The Princess would have--" He shut his mouth abruptly.
Maybe it's time you learned how the other half lives, Buttercup thought.
"That can be arranged," she said calmly. His mouth dropped open. "Greedy men all have the same weakness," she said. "I think it's time we took advantage of that."
"He took the bait," Buttercup said. "And we're getting everything we want. Free passage past the royal guards, all the way to Porton, and then we get the treasure and he gets the pointed end of a sword."
"This is not the kind of plan I thought you'd have," Westley said.
"This is the kind of plan that will work," Buttercup said. She held back a sigh; Westley was such an innocent sometimes.
The mercenary captain had been enthusiastic when they came to him with tales of pirate treasure that they needed his help to retrieve, but he set his terms carefully: "I work for pay, and I've got no objection to an off the books affair," he had said. "But if we're going unofficial now, going behind the Princess's back, then the terms change. We'll split the treasure half and half--" the gleam in his eyes told a different story-- "But until the treasure is in our hands, you do what I say. Do you agree?"
They'd agreed, but then in the morning as they were about to mount up, the captain brought out a little bit of rope he thought could hold Buttercup. "A hostage for good behavior," the captain said.
Westley wanted to back out, but to Buttercup, finally getting back to her ship was worth a little time acting like she'd let them tie her up securely. "It will work as long as we're in it together," Buttercup said, only a little bit pointed, and Westley conceded. They tied Buttercup to the pillion behind Westley's saddle, and she made sure she could get loose if she needed to. With two other mercenaries along as additional guards, Buttercup and Westley were surrounded and well watched, but those guards weren't expecting tricks; they never noticed that she had them.
"How much pirate treasure did you say?" the mercenary captain huffed, reining his horse back to fall in beside Westley and Buttercup. He rode a mean horse, and both him and his horse had been looking for a fight for the last ten miles. The black horse -- more of a dirty gray now, the dye faded quickly -- shuffled uneasily, until Westley steadied him.
"It's a full chest, with every kind of valuable you could imagine," Westley said. "Gold bars, pieces of eight, and silks fit for a prince. The very finest pirate stash, buried by the Dread Pirate Roberts."
"Pieces of eight," the mercenary captain gloated. One of his men snorted, and the captain eyed Westley. "If your treasure map turns out to be a fake, I'll have your head, boy," he growled. "And your girl's too."
Westley was admirably calm, but Buttercup could feel the tension in his back. "It's no fake."
"Just remember, either way I win," the captain said, and spurred his horse forward to bare his teeth at another group of soldiers coming in the other direction. There was a steady flow of traffic away from Porton, so the mercenary captain had a lot of posturing to do.
This band was all archers, their longbows brightly ribboned like they were going to a party, not a war. They acted like they owned the road. Laughing and joking, they forced a merchant's wagon off the road as Buttercup watched.
The mercenary captain, however, was not intimidated. His warhorse forged ahead, and the archers took one look at that ill-tempered pair and filed to the side of the road.
"That's right," the captain shouted. "Coming through!"
"Captain's in a rare good mood," one of the mercenaries said.
"Pieces of eight!" the other said, and they both sniggered.
"Is there something amusing about pieces of eight?" Westley asked.
"Nothing except that the captain is a collector of rare coins, and there's a certain coin he's always talking about, same size as the eight reales coin, but with a special design on the reverse. He always gets excited about pieces of eight."
"I see," Westley said.
"Eight reales coin, is it?" the other mercenary said, and now he was laughing at the first mercenary.
The mercenary captain thundered back, scattering archers in front of him. "I've found the trail!" he shouted. "Hey, what are you doing?" Like an overeager sheepdog, he circled behind his troop, herding them forward.
"Pieces of eight," one of the men muttered, disgusted.
The treasure was buried near a giant oak tree with branches that spread out above, thick and massive and leafy enough to make a shady clearing underneath where nothing else grew. But the tree looked sickly, bark dull and leaves not as green as the surrounding forest. Some of the thick branches were dead. That's how Buttercup knew it was the right tree.
The captain had to squint at the map she'd drawn, and then at the tree, and then at the rock shaped like a deformed crocodile, three paces from the dead tree stump and four from the bend in the dry stream bed. He paced his paces, and then nodded.
"Put the girl down on the rock where we can keep an eye on her, Martin," he instructed, and threw a shovel to Westley. "Dig, boy," he said. "And don't be all day about it."
Westley used the shovel awkwardly, barely lifting any dirt on his first couple of strokes. The soil was thickly clotted with clay and tree roots, and Westley hit them all.
Stopping to catch his breath, Westley looked at Buttercup as if to say "Really? You had to bury it here?" She just smiled a tiny smile and let her shoulders twitch in what might have been a shrug.
"A little honest work won't kill you, lad," the mercenary captain said impatiently.
Buttercup hid a smile. She wouldn't have said it, but she might have thought it.
Westley attacked the tree roots with renewed vigor, and Buttercup's smile broadened. It wasn't often that she got to watch Westley work.
Even when he was younger... She remembered a younger Westley persuading a younger Buttercup to rub down his horse, paying her with a smile. He'd stolen apples from the orchard next door and excused himself with that same infectious grin. In those days, the sun itself would come out from behind the clouds just to view his smile. She remembered him always bathed in golden light.
She hadn't realized back then how much innocence could cost, not until she'd had to leave. She'd been innocent too.
After taking care of the horses, one mercenary flopped down on the ground in front of Buttercup, while the other perched behind her. Buttercup shifted uncomfortably on the cold rock until she could see both of them out of the corners of her eyes. The sloucher -- the one who'd been laughing at everything earlier -- was watching Westley too, a sardonic expression on his face. He was the one who'd be doing the scut work if not for Westley, Buttercup imagined.
The mercenary captain leaned against the trunk of the oak tree, taking the position of overseer, but every time Westley hit a rock instead of a tree root, he leaned forward, until he'd wandered away from the tree and was standing directly over Westley.
No one was worried about Buttercup; she was tied up. She wasn't going anywhere.
Buttercup began working on proving them wrong, one strand of rope at a time.
About three minutes in, Westley hit metal. It was far too soon to be the treasure, but the mercenary captain crowded in as Westley cleared away more dirt.
"It's just a dented metal pitcher," the mercenary captain complained. "Where are my coins, boy?"
"They wouldn't be safe, buried this shallow," Westley said. He added casually, "I heard you collect coins. Pieces of eight?"
"Pieces of eight? The Spanish churned them out like a baker churns out loaves of bread. Couldn't get enough of them. They're nice enough coins if you like that sort of thing..."
Westley made an appreciative noise. He was starting to get a rhythm going, shoveling.
The mercenary captain continued, warming to his subject. "The coin I'm really interested in isn't Spanish. It's about the same size as the Spanish coins, but it's from Florin."
"From Florin?" Westley asked, friendly and interested.
What was he doing? In half an hour at most, this man was going to be at their mercy. Nothing but a captive -- and you don't make friends with captives, there was no future in it. Westley glanced at Buttercup and his shoveling rhythm faltered.
"About three hundred years ago, Florin issued a special coin to pay mercenaries with. They were at war with Guilder then too, and you wouldn't think that a coin would have anything to do with winning, but it did."
Westley smiled disarmingly. "One coin, no, but a lot of coins..."
That smile. Buttercup remembered that smile from just outside the fire swamp. She'd been ready to fight and die, and Westley had smiled that blithe I-can-get-out-of-anything smile and bowed his head to Humperdinck and surrendered. But it was different here. This time, they were together, they had the same plan...didn't they? That smile made Buttercup nervous.
"It's got to do with trust, you see," the captain said. "There wasn't enough silver in Guilder's silver coins, but the Florin silver florin, that was the real thing. Mercenaries flocked to Florin, and they won their war."
"Is that why you're interested, the mercenary link?" Westley asked.
The captain chuckled and slapped Westley on the back. "No, but there's more to the story." The two other mercenaries were listening desultorily, leaving Buttercup completely unwatched. Maybe that's what Westley doing, distracting them? Buttercup tried not to listen. She didn't need to be distracted too.
"... Guilder started forging florins..." The mercenary captain gestured and talked, saying nothing of consequence. If he was on Buttercup's ship, she'd ignore him.
"...attacked the trust in the florin..." Not an artist in his field, not useful or valuable. He wouldn't stand out in the line to walk the plank. He wouldn't even plead passionately.
"...put their mark..." Westley, on the other hand... Digging industriously and listening to the story about silversmiths testing florins with apparent pleasure. The way he moved was artistry, wasn't it? He was beautiful enough to attract the attention of a princess. He'd stand out in a line of captives. And he wouldn't fight the way Buttercup had fought, uncompromising and passionate enough to get Roberts' attention. He'd surrender, he'd acknowledge that he was outmatched, but he wouldn't mean it, because he would never surrender his love.
Buttercup had learned everything she knew about survival from the fight to survive a day at a time. She'd learned how to become more than just a captive, how to take her fate into her own hands.
For the first time, she considered the idea that Westley had learned something about survival too, living at court, with Humperdinck. He'd learned how to survive as a captive.
"So every coin tells a story. Hand made, and then marked over time with a history of where it's been...they're a coin collector's--"
Westley's shovel struck a stone with a loud crack.
"Ah," Westley said, and Buttercup winced. There'd been pain in his voice. He stopped to examine his hands, red and blistered, a tiny smear of blood where the skin had split.
And by the size of the pile of dirt, he was only half way to the treasure.
The mercenary who was lounged against the rock laughed raucously, and the other two mercenaries snorted too. She imagined Westley cursing her for burying the chest so deeply, but when he glanced up, she read embarrassment, and it struck her hard. He wasn't used to manual labor. It should have been Buttercup digging.
Just at that moment, the lounger leaned back, saying something about florins or Florins, but all Buttercup could see was that he was completely unready for action. They were making it too easy. Why wait to spring the trap, when the boobies were already so distracted? Buttercup let the loops of rope drop from her arms.
The lounging mercenary's sword was easy to pluck from its sheath. It didn't fit her hand as well as her own -- the one that had been her reward for getting through her third battle not just alive but aware enough to register a sword that would fit her hand -- but it did the job. She used the flat to hit the lounging mercenary on the head. Time for a nap.
She backed up a step, out of reach of the mercenary captain's lunge.
"What's this? The girl has teeth?"
She pressed him back with a quick series of feints and attacks that didn't leave him time to say any more, and then glanced back at Westley.
Westley was using the shovel as a club to fend off the remaining mercenary -- the quieter one, who was cleverly letting Westley swing wider and wider, getting more and more off balance. Buttercup saw it in a glance, and rolled under Westley's swing and came up in front of him, blocking the lunge that would have pierced his heart.
"Get your back to the tree!" Buttercup said. "And don't get in my way, stay out of it like we talked about."
"But you didn't wait--"
"No time," Buttercup said, ducking so that the captain and the remaining mercenary thrust through the space she'd been in, towards each other. They missed, but it gave her time to follow Westley back to the tree.
After that, she just had to stay in front of Westley and let the tree defend their backs. Her sword flashed in defense, quick controlled parries. She was flexible enough to duck and weave even when her two opponents attacked simultaneously, but she had no chance to attack with two to defend against.
She would have been willing to play the long game, her defense was strong enough that she could happily wait for a perfect opening, but after a few minutes of that strategy, the mercenary Buttercup had knocked out twitched. That wasn't good. Two against one, she'd win in the long run, but three against one started getting chancy.
Behind her, she sensed more than saw that Westley was shifting, gripping the shovel. The mercenaries watched him when they should be watching her, and she scored a cut to the clever mercenary's leg when his eyes flickered away from her for a second.
Counting Westley for distraction, that made it two against two, then. And if--
Sword fighting was all about instinct for Buttercup. She was in motion before the plan was fully formed, dashing through the gap between the two mercenaries, over the sprawled body of the third, and up to the top of the rock in the middle of the clearing. The two mercenaries both turned to follow, then turned back toward Westley, then gestured at each other for a few precious seconds, while Buttercup grabbed a tree branch with one hand and converted her momentum into an arc with her sword aimed at the mercenary captain--
As she leapt, Westley moved forward and hit the second mercenary on the head with the shovel.
"No, Westley," Buttercup shouted as the second mercenary collapsed, because that left an opening for the captain, who took it and moved in and blocked Westley from returning to the tree, which wouldn't have been so bad except that the twitching mercenary took that moment to twitch up, tangling Buttercup as she landed. She knocked him out again, but by then, the captain had Westley.
Westley struggled, uncoordinated flailing, until the captain cut off his air. Buttercup said quickly, "He's worth more alive."
"To whom?" the captain asked precisely.
"To me," Buttercup said.
"And who are you?" the captain asked. He was interested enough to let Westley breath.
"A pirate," she said. "One who knows where more coins are buried."
"A lady pirate," the captain said. He smiled.
Buttercup smiled sweetly. This man didn't know much about pirates. "I can give you what you want," she said. And when the captain didn't look convinced, she added, "I swear on...Westley's life, there is a treasure buried here. Coins. Silver."
A wise man would have realized that there was more going on here than he knew about, and cut his losses. The mercenary captain was not a wise man.
"No matter what happens, I win," he warned her, his dagger very steady at Westley's throat. "Now drop your sword." He made her lay out the two unconscious mercenaries in more comfortable positions and then it was Buttercup with the shovel, digging through clay and tree roots.
Buttercup finished in half the time Westley had taken, and without any blisters.
"It's a hard life, the pirate's life," the captain observed. "You've had your share of raising the jib boon and tacking the hard tack, haven't you? Not like this princely fellow here."
Talking to hear himself talk, Buttercup thought. "Hard enough," Buttercup said. "You get used to it." She gestured the mercenary captain forward. She stood behind the chest and opened the lid, hiding how heavy it was.
The captain was not a complete fool; he kept Westley in front of him, but that wasn't the right precaution. Buttercup stood there, with gold and silver and brightly dyed silks at her feet.
A high pitched whining noise was joined by a deep groan, as if something large was shifting...
And part of the oak tree, about half of the trunk, fell forward and knocked him on the head. (It was amazing what traps you could construct when you had a whole pirate crew at your bidding.) As the mercenary captain staggered, Westley broke loose and ran, leaving the fight to Buttercup. In very short order, three mercenaries were laying in a line of unconsciousness.
And when Westley saw that, his smile was radiant.
Buttercup and Westley took turns digging up the treasure, and then loaded it onto the long-suffering gray horse and set off for Porton along a tiny trail that would lead them around the town itself and to a smaller harbor along the coast where they could signal Buttercup's ship.
Less time kissing and more time riding, Buttercup thought in chagrin when they heard hoofbeats behind them. When they heard hoofbeats in front of them, Buttercup knew it wouldn't have mattered. They weren't being chased, and Buttercup wasn't the only one who knew how to set up a trap.
The princess's guards surrounded them.
"We will never surrender," Westley said, and Buttercup felt a surge of pride.
Then the mercenary captain rode out from amidst the guards. "I told you I'd win either way," he said, and Buttercup laughed, because she refused to cry. They had been so close.
"So you did," she said. "Have you come for your treasure?"
And that was the last thing she remembered. She never saw what hit her on the back of the head.
Buttercup had seen worse dungeons. Westley didn't have her wide experience; he stared at the walls dripping with fuzzy mold, he startled at the scurrying rats, and eventually he gingerly approached the torture devices along one wall.
The gears and dials looked eerily familiar, but Buttercup tried not to think about that.
"But why does Humperdinck want me back?" Westley asked. "She has her war. She never loved me, any more than I loved her."
"Revenge," Buttercup said. "I have no doubt it will be very poetic."
"I will hang," Buttercup said. "No miracles this time, just a broken neck. Pirate scum, you know. She'll probably make you watch."
"So much death," Westley said. "No prisoners."
"The Dread Pirate Roberts never takes prisoners," Buttercup said, dread churning her stomach. Turnabout is fair play. "I killed to survive. I killed so that I could return to you, and be everything that you wanted."
"I wanted you," Westley said, grabbing her hand and looking into her eyes. "I have always wanted you."
Buttercup shook her head, drowning in eyes like the sea after a storm. "You've always wanted everything. Even before you were a prince, that farm was never enough for you. One maid to boss around? Not enough."
"It ... should have been," Westley said. "I was a fool to let you go. After you left, everything was so empty. Five empty years... And then Humperdinck. I was so glad to get away from the farm, and the memories, and what might have been."
"We're different people now," Buttercup said. "But when we get out of here, maybe we can find another farm."
"Yes, when," Westley said, smiling. She was glad he could smile.
"Never doubt it," Buttercup said.
They comforted each other for hours, until the dungeon door swung open and a troop of the Princess's guards filed in, followed by the Princess herself in a pristine gown that just served to show how ragged even Westley had gotten.
He straightened under the Princess's gaze.
"I don't have a lot of time, a war to run, you know how it is," the Princess said. "So if this is quick, it's not because I don't care." She nodded and ten guards moved forward from the rest.
When Buttercup saw the suction cups, she attacked. She had feet for kicking, and fists for punching, and nails for scratching and teeth for biting, and none of them did her any good against eight guards. She ended up bound in black leather, chained to the wall covered in gears and chutes.
"Porton," the Princess lectured, "is in the province of Rugen, and it was home to the dear late Countess when she was developing a machine that Buttercup apparently remembers quite well."
"It's an earlier version of the machine. It's not as efficient as the one you--" Humperdinck smiled thinly at Buttercup-- "are familiar with, and there's also one little bonus. It doesn't take, it transfers."
Buttercup glanced at Westley, chained to the wall beside her. He hadn't fought; he didn't know how bad this was going to be. Do something, Buttercup wanted to scream at him. You don't understand, but you've got to do something. Persuade. Surrender. I don't care, just do something. But Humperdinck was watching, and this was revenge. There would be no surrender. So Buttercup pretended to be brave.
"So here's how this will work. I will leave the door open. I will turn on the acid waterfall. The only way to get out will be to go through the acid, and the only way to do that is if one of you drains the vitality from the other."
Buttercup closed her eyes so she wouldn't have to look at Humperdinck's smirk.
"You are tied to the machine. Whoever moves will start it off, and they will be the one to live, draining the other. If I return in the morning and both of you are alive, I will kill you both."
Westley said, "I will never--"
Something thunked the wood of the complicated structure. Buttercup could feel the faint vibrations through her bonds.
"Don't INTERRUPT me!" Princess Humperdinck screamed.
Buttercup peeked. It was a knife. It had whistled past Westley's ear and hit a beam a foot or two behind him, on purpose no doubt. There was a reason her subjects called her Artemis, and it wasn't just because she was good with a bow. Any kind of projectile would do.
"As I was saying." Princess Humperdinck cleared her throat. "True love dies here. But either one of you can live. Think about it." She paused. "I'm afraid I can't stay and watch you agonize just now. Wars don't wage themselves, you know. I'll be back in the morning."
She pushed a small switch from one side to the other before she went, and the acid waterfall began raining acid down.
She left the door open.
They could hear the guards marching away. Then silence.
"I hate her," Westley said.
Buttercup shivered. The suctions cups felt cold against her skin. There was a little give in the ropes; she could move, but she didn't know how much would trigger the machine, so she didn't. It would be better to die than to introduce Westley to that pain.
"Buttercup?" Westley said. "Are you okay?"
"Please...don't..." Buttercup said. That's not what she'd meant to say, it was just what came out.
"I would never hurt you," Westley said. "Even if we play her game, she'll have guards outside."
"I'm glad you know that," Buttercup said. She was helpless again. Another night to get through, with the promise of death in the morning. She'd faced years of such nights, but death had never seemed so close. And what was worse, pain.
To the pain, she'd threatened Humperdinck, and Humperdinck was a clever woman. She'd seen Buttercup in pain. She knew exactly what Buttercup feared the most. To the pain, to the death, and going to her death with laughter in her ears because she hadn't been good enough. She'd failed the test.
In the morning, Humperdinck would provide the laughter.
"Buttercup?" Westley said.
"Mmm?" Buttercup said.
"I think I can reach the dagger."
Buttercup tried to think.
She realized that several seconds had passed, and she realized that she was shaking. "It could be a trap," Buttercup said.
"It could be," Westley agreed. "I'm not sure I can reach it. And if I reach too far..."
Buttercup gritted her teeth, then spoke before she could change her mind.
"Do it," she said.
Westley hesitated. "Are you sure? You didn't even look. I don't want to hurt you."
"I don't want you to hurt me either," Buttercup said. "But you have to do it."
"But what if--"
"I trust you," Buttercup said. "Do it for us. For true love to win, we have to risk everything."
Silence. "I'm reaching," Westley said. He didn't sound nervous, but he probably was.
As Westley stretched, Buttercup closed her teeth over her lip. Hard. It was only a tiny pain, and if the machine started, she couldn't scream. Humperdinck might come to gloat if she screamed.
Time stretched like a prisoner on the rack. Sheer torture.
"Just a little further," Westley said. He was breathing hard. "Are you--"
"I do not want to die in the morning," Buttercup said.
"I've got it," Westley said some amount of time later.
"What?" Buttercup said. She'd been expecting pain for so long that the absence of pain seemed inconceivable.
"I've got it!" Westley said. She looked over and saw Westley cutting himself free. Then he cut Buttercup free, and for five minutes she conveniently forgot that she'd promised less kissing and more escaping.
The escaping happened in due time. Buttercup threw the knife through the acid waterfall, and it hit the switch that turned the waterfall off. There were guards in the corridor outside the dungeon, but Buttercup defeated them with the force of sheer elation.
Buttercup knew what it felt like to win. But being in Westley's arms after winning -- that was a feeling beyond compare.
Months later, they heard the news of Humperdinck's glorious death when they put in to port. Her party had been ambushed by Guilder. They said she'd died well.
"They'll say anything about Humperdinck," Buttercup said to Westley. "I bet she died trying to run away."
Westley didn't say anything.
"I knew someone was gonna get Humperdinck," the little boy said with relish. "Who was it?"
Grandfather ruffled the pages.
"You don't know, do you?" the little boy asked. He pouted.
Grandfather cleared his throat. "The war she started killed her," he said. "She earned her own death, just like Countess Rugen."
The little boy stared. "Is that a moral?" he asked suspiciously.
"You don't agree?"
The boy shifted restlessly. "I don't know, I guess," he said. More strongly, he added, "And I guess don't really mind not knowing, as long as someone got her."
"Someone got her," Grandfather confirmed. He waited a moment, expectantly. "Shall I continue? Or do you have any other pressing questions?"
The war raged on without Princess Humperdinck. But Buttercup and Westley never looked back. They sailed away into the sunset, finally together for good. And one day they sailed past a beautiful island filled with little farms and friendly neighbors.
It was everything they'd ever hoped for. Westley said it first. "It's perfect. Buttercup, let's live here."
And Buttercup said, "As you wish."