How we think the fight will go
The steady creaking of the ship played a melody that scratched over his skin. The bass of the waves sloshing against the wooden hull dug deep into his ears and sat there, a finger flicking incessantly at his head. Inigo sat in a chair that was more splinters than wood, staring at a book he didn’t know how to read. The letters scrawled around the page, dancing like a fever dream. The glass of the wine bottle had grown warm under his hand. Never, he thought, as the boards above him creaked with the sounds of festive footsteps, will I find the six-fingered man.
He had traveled half the known world by know, looking for the man who’d taken his father’s life over a bad payment. Inigo may have become the best swordsman in the world since then, but he was still a peasant and the killer a noble. But of what country? He knew not. Of what house, or coat of arms? That too was a mystery. All he knew was that he had six fingers on his right hand, and a sword for that hand was what Inigo carried. That would be the sword with which he would slay him.
And then what? He could have a life, he supposed, whatever that meant. He could have that now, if he’d give up the hunt. But what kind of life would that be? One marked by failure and grief. He would have to grieve, and move on, and realize he was as powerless now as he was when he was a child. He had spent twenty out of thirty years on a dream that would never happen.
That was no life, and certainly no life for him — neither the one he had nor the one he could have. He still wanted what he always wanted: vengeance, and for it to heal him. He was ready for that. The only trouble was that the trail had gone cold, and gone cold years ago. So now he traveled from city to city, a dog without teeth, vaguely and vainly sniffing around for six-fingered nobles. He was drunk more often than not, so even if he was near the man, who would tell him?
All Inigo could do now was fight. And that, he did quite well. He was a wizard, the only fencing level higher than Master, and one which had not been achieved since a generation before. But no one knew that of him. No one cared. No one will remember my name.
He was still just the boy who’d lost his father. The swordsmith’s son who knew nothing of crafting, so he had learned only destruction. And that sat deep in his soul, worse than anything.
Inigo went from town to town, continuing his search when he had enough sweet alcohol to get him out of bed. He fought local masters, but most who styled themselves this were not actually masters at all; or, they were at the top of the local game, but were not a master by an international standard. They were little challenge.
The brandy in the bottle sloshed, as the ship took a particularly heavy wave. The cheers of the party above wavered for a moment, and silence reigned. But then the dancing continued, as did the shouts and laughter and music. Inigo Montoya was a man who only had his desire and his fighting. But now, there was no one worthy to fight, and his desire knew no flame.
The crew left him alone. He was, after all, a paying passenger with a sharp sword and a bad brandy habit. It was winter on the northern coast, too, which meant wounds festered more slowly, but fevers were almost always deadly.
The feet above him stomped. The warmth of dancing bodies, and the sharp, cool air swirling around them … Inigo closed his eyes and imagined, not for the first time, not for the thousandth, and certainly not for the last, what his footsteps would be like when he danced the killing dance of his revenge. Clutched to his chest, the insides of the heavy glass bottle slid back and forth, timed to his heart.
The cabin door opened behind him. Its hinges’ sudden screech added a new note to the natural symphony. It clicked quietly shut, and Inigo waited.
“So the man is here,” said a female voice. “Vagrant though he is.”
“So it is you who comes,” he said. Of all the people at the party, all the passengers across the frigid waters, it was her: the icy Queen. “Do you know of the six-fingered man, then?” He did not turn his head.
“I might.” Her voice was soft, smooth. Not smooth like his brandy, but smooth like snow: From afar, it seemed inviting, but up close, it was a collection of coarse grains. Grains ready to melt under the slightest bit of heat? Or are you permafrost?
He did not hear her footsteps. The only warning that she was upon him was the shifting of her dress along the floorboards: They liked to catch. It seemed her clothing was not enchanted as she was — and wasn’t that a shame? Perhaps it would do to remove it all. A master, he knew, lay under all the fluff of dead animals. Perhaps a wizard-level master, since she styled herself a “witch.”
The temperature had already dropped from her presence: The open door had brought cold in with it. But it was her hands, as they slid down over his face, that were ice.
Slender and long of finger, her hands were. White, too, against his tan, with blonde hairs to his wiry black. They were cold as ice-water, but supple too — not the sort of hand that held a sword day in and day out. He had not met a lot of female fencers, but the ones he did were dynamic. What style was it, then, that she took to?
Palms-down, her hands traced over his scars: two raised tracks that told of quick, clean strokes of a sword point, many years before. Complementary angles, they were embedded in his face from temple to chin, one to each cheek. Her middle fingers traced the hills, over broken memory and missing hairs that never had the chance to grow, but her others enjoyed whatever they reached too. Inigo stared ahead at the wall, at a particular scuff mark that stuck out from the rest. But white fur rippled into his vision, encasing him like a particularly velvet snowstorm.
Then came the woman. Her weight was next to nothing, but she was big. He had grown to six feet somehow, while he trained away the remainder of his childhood and early twenties in whatever town had a master that could teach him something new, but her shoulders well eclipsed his; he could feel them on his back.
He hadn’t realized how warm he had gotten, until she touched him. Her cold trickled into him, like need.
Her head rested on his shoulder; her arms crossed over his chest, loosely folded. She turned her head, and opened her mouth at his ear.
The ship creaked. The music of the dancers above sifted over them on its way to the lower floors. He could feel his heartbeat. “I have use of you,” she whispered. He could feel her smile, from the way she breathed.
It was a long time before Inigo let himself take a breath. All the while, the air was palpably cold, prickling his skin; her weight cut across his chest.
The floor creaked, somewhere off to the right. The glass of the bottle was growing frosted.
“Me?” He licked his lips. “Or my sword?”
“Both.” A little puff of white air escaped her lips at the hard syllable, like a dying cloud. The hand that happened to lie highest in her folded arms lifted its fingers. It slid down her own arm, and then onto his. Black hairs raised along with gooseflesh, as she descended.
Delicate, like thin layers of ice over a puddle, the fingers laid upon his. They did not rest inside the grooves and clasp his hand, looking for comfort like most girls’ did. No, these were roughly the size of his, if not a little bigger, and they decided to rest lying on his own, while his sat atop the bottle. She waited, purring into his ear.
When he made no move, her hand lifted with his, and set it upon the hilt of his sword, glinting darkly with its many metallic inlays. It lay upon the table, tucked into a groove between the planks so that it wouldn’t roll. “I have many six-fingered men in my lands. You could dispose of them all, one by one” — she raised her fingers, and set the tips down onto his, to the cadence of her slow words — “until you’ve found the one you need.” She moved a foot away from him, so that she could look in his eyes, though her large hands found their place on his shoulders. “And then you could keep fighting as you will. And killing. There are several ways I can think of to compensate you for that.”
She smiled. Finally, Inigo turned to look at her. Just as when they had crossed paths before on the ship, she was all white: white clothing, white skin, white hair; even her eyes were a pale blue that lacked color rather than flaunted it. Her lips were pale, as if blood had never touched them. He drummed his fingers.
“I do not kill for the sake of killing. It is not a pleasurable thing for me.”
“That can change.” I can make it change, her smile said.
“I do not want it to.” Inigo petted down her arm, enjoying what he could of such a cold touch, and then plucked her hand off. He took up his sword, and stood, facing her. “Dear Queen,” he bowed, in what little space the cabin allowed. Both of them had to stoop, as it was. “I would gladly come with you, however, to survey the men you speak of.”
She shook her head. “Only death will do.”
“Then so be it. We are done here.”
Her mouth twisted down. “We are not.”
“A duel, then,” Inigo offered. The sword hung at his side, grip familiar in his left hand. There was barely room to maneuver it to his side in the tiny cabin. The poor book lost a corner even so. “If I win, you tell me from where you hail, and how to get there. If I lose, I work for you for a year.”
“If you lose, you die,” she said, in a quiet so low he’d wondered if he’d really heard it. “I have no need of men who will not obey me.”
“I have no need to follow anyone who cannot defeat me,” he countered.
She narrowed her eyes. “You would make a fine block of stone from which to cut a vase. ”
He shrugged. “I do not like to fight women, but I will. Tell me, what do you know of the sword arts?”
“More than you,” she snapped.
“Pick your weapon,” he said, “and I will meet you on deck.” He opened the door and walked out. It opened inward, so it went between them, blocking all attack, but not a growl of protest. Inigo closed the door behind him, taking his only possessions with him: his sword, his brandy, and his broken heart.
* * *
The stars were out, and the ship was cold. The galaxy arm, full of color, spread over them in an arc, illuminating the water with shimmer and the ice in it with pale pink undertones. The party at the midship deck was now beneath his feet; the music played up through the floorboards, and was carried away by the angry wind. And it was angry: sharp, bitter cold, biting at the nostrils and the lungs. Inigo was from the mountains so very long ago, so he knew what cold was. But all in all he much preferred Spain’s sandy, sunny beaches than this tiny island in dark water.
Ice surrounded them, silent watchers. It had encroached as the night progressed, and any sensible captain would be heading south. But they seemed to be heading straight into it. He didn’t recall this vessel having an icebreaker prow.
This was her doing, somehow. He knew it was. From where they stood now, fifteen feet apart on deck, he saw her as less a Queen of men, and more a siren of frozen rock. Behind her, on the second deck — above the captain’s quarters, and where the wheel stood — sat her polar bear, lying just at the top of the starboard stairs.
“Don’t you want to put down your bottle?” the White Queen called. She was as still as stone. Even the wind did not affect her as much as it did him.
“I only need one hand to finish this battle.” Inigo’s right hand played across the neck of the brandy. It felt like a shield.
“That is not a sword that can be used when the other hand is full,” she pressed.
“Like I said.” Inigo tipped his head back and took a long drink, in case, by some mishap, it was his last. “Only need one.” He waved as he drank.
She raised her arm. At the end of it was a rapier-thin white blade, that looked no longer than a dagger. It was almost invisible against the backdrop of her white clothing.
“You’re really going to fight in a dress?” he called.
Light exploded across the deck. A ball of it, dense like lead, zipped past his face, over his bottle-carrying arm, and crashed into the railing. There came the sound of crackling, like breaking ice. Frost spread across his elbow where it had nearly hit. But Inigo’s eyes were fixed only on the Queen, and her … wand.
“So not a wizard after all,” he whispered. “But really a witch.” He raised an eyebrow; her expression did not change. Her arm stayed taught, aimed at him.
“Reconsider?” she snapped.
For the first time on this voyage, it was then that Inigo smiled. “Never.”
The polar bear roared from its place, and the match began.
Inigo turned sideways, sword out, bottle behind. Light zipped past him, and then the other side as well. Left, right, ever moving his feet to swivel. The sound of the crowd below stomped and laughed and cheered.
The White Witch pursed her lips. Inigo drank. The woman pointed to the bear, and motioned it forward with a flick of her wrist.
It bounded down the stairs. It was slow enough to give Inigo time to stare at the wild beast. How did his code feel about big animals? He didn’t know. But if he killed it, at least she would go away with a new coat.
When it was two feet from him, it roared and swiped. Bird-quick, he jumped, feet darting like spears in the way he practiced on rocky mountains. Over two-ton rope coils he jumped, until he was on the other side of the mast and behind its rigging. For a moment, the man and the bear stared at each other.
Inigo jerked right, a feint. But bears did not much understand feints, it seemed. It merely ran at him from the left, so he was forced to fulfill his promised path. He jumped into the rigging, but with the bottle in his hand, he couldn’t climb.
In the split second it took him to realize this, the bear caught up with him. With an angry growl, it reared on its hind legs and reached out a clawed paw the size of a dinner plate to rake his flank. Inigo jumped, pulling his feet out of reach just in time. He hit the deck with a zing up his legs and darted forward, but light smacked in front of him. It hit the ropes of the rigging, and that crackling sound came again.
Inigo darted back, but the half-ton bear was there, snapping its jaws. He spun, short steps, over and over until the rigging disappeared and his back hit the mast. He circled it, quickly, crack after crack after zap following him, and the magic’s cool aftershock of sizzle. When he looked back from a sequestered spot behind rolled canvas, he found the polar bear was stuck in the rigging, and the rigging locked in place. It didn’t sway, the way ropes usually did.
The boat lurched suddenly, spilling them all to the side. Inigo found the bottle closer to his face, so he took a swig, bracing with his legs in a fighter’s stance. Only as he was tipping his head back did he look up to find the source of the problem: The mast was no longer wood. It had turned to stone.
Granite, from the feel of the sinking ship.
The next wave that hit pushed the vessel several degrees sideways, and the next, several more.
“There is a lot of good brandy on this ship, and you are going to SINK IT?” he found himself shouting.
But the Queen was not where he had left her: She had stumbled to the midship railing at the far side. The entire ship was listing now, enough so that all he could hear from below were screams, and all he could see was that he was above her. But he could not handle a lack of good brandy. Not when there was to be dead woman on his conscience.
Though he didn’t have to kill her, and he didn’t have to win. How would his father feel if Inigo met him in the afterlife one day and said, “I brought your vengeance, but at the cost of a woman’s life I took myself?” It would not do. It would not do at all. But she was going to get all these people killed, and that would not do either.
Inigo jumped, bottle in front, sword behind. There were several seconds between him and her, in which he noticed the silence: the wind, whipping by his arms and legs and filling his ears. The cold, kissing his exposed skin. The way the bottle glimmered in the light of lamps that were about to extinguish.
She lifted her wand, and white appeared.
It was snow.
It swirled out of the tip with such ferocity that it pushed him back; there was such volume to it in just a moment’s time that all he could see was white. He heard the growl of the polar bear, and the great groan of the ship, and then he heard nothing but wind — until he heard the crack of ribs as he hit the mast.
At least, he thought it was him. Because after that came the distinctly larger crack of a massive amount of stone.
Above him, the mast was breaking. There was a second, and then two, of awful, inevitable realization. And then came the song: the groan of a stone tree eighty feet high, as it fell into the water, canopy-first. Water, dark with night, splashed in a great rush out from under the once-canvas sails. It sounded like rain or the shore; so much water was displaced when it struck. But there was also the odd sound of ice breaking out at sea: sheets of it, splintering like spider webs.
And all the while, the woman persevered. Below him, frigid water laced with ice the size of tables rushed the decks; she caught one of those floating stones of white and rode it up-ship on a wave as the ship suddenly righted itself.
It swung the opposite way, much too much, at first. Inigo stumbled to his feet; the woman raised her weapon. The ship returned to its original list, but less so, to the symphony of screaming and crying from below. Ice water poured over his boots, drowning his feet. He didn’t even realize they were numb until he tried to make a stance to balance, and couldn’t use his muscles’ feedback to tell if he’d done it correctly. Light zipped by his head; by his bottle.
The ship returned to center, and rocked within limits. They stared each other down.
He huffed. She panted. They were both bedraggled. Her coat was gone, and so was her bear. It seemed to be swimming happily in the water, toward the coat.
Inigo drank. It was almost gone, and it was chilled now, but it still kept his belly warm, and gave him the memory of warm feet. He had saved the rest of the wine stock … so far.
And the people were saved, of course, he’d almost forgotten about them. But they wouldn’t be singing about much else unless he died — or she was defeated.
He heard the White Witch growl before she struck again. A fierce snap of the wrist, one- two-three, and three bolts of liquid spell sped at him. He dodged the first with a step; dodged the second with bent back. But the third he stepped right into.
He lifted his sword. His arm stung with the force of the impact, but the light shot off into the night, high above his head to join the other sinking lantern-stars. There was an aftertaste to it, a smell that lingered in his nostrils and clung to his mustache. It was a light and acrid scent, half perfume, half rancid death.
She was glaring at him, and he returned the favor, blood rushing. “Take that!” he shouted.
The woman fumed. Closer, he thought, I must get closer. This is the game of gun against sword, a bullet I cannot afford to take.
He stepped forward.
The ship lurched. There was a splitting crash, like an entire forest falling at once.
It was an iceberg, just over the woman’s starboard shoulder.
Inigo didn’t have time to think before she came at him again. She snapped her wand in the direction of the titan and yanked. Her wet, disheveled hair flew out with the force of it; her exposed shoulder tightened, and the muscles of her neck bulged out.
Inigo ran at her.
A chunk of ice the size of a cottage cleaved from the iceberg’s top. A cascade of broken bits hailed down, obscuring the way between him and her.
And then she threw it.
It launched forward, big and slow and utterly inescapable. Fractions of moments went by, passage marked only by the sound of his steps, which sounded distant and muted. With each foot gained, more of his vision was lost to gray-white granite. Inigo tossed the bottle and his sword, and caught them in the opposite hands. And then he dove.
As the ship hit a wave, he used its energy to roll. End over end twice, and then a frantic side-over-side. He knew exactly when the killing ice would impact him, if it was going to. And in that moment, the world quieted: all the wind around him disappeared. The scent of the sea was murdered; all he could taste, and touch, and feel, and hear, was the cold of ice.
His stomach flew up into his throat as he fell into the great square hole that led belowdecks. He tumbled down the ladder, into a cushion of humanity, and watched the snow fly over.
Just beyond his feet, the boulder hit. A solid wall of sound washed over him, over them, over everything; the decking broke into splinters with the force of the thing, raining down onto the unsuspecting and adding screams to the mix of thuds. The great boulder tumbled, fractured, tumbled more, and exploded. From the window that he had, he could see a rolling dune of white wash the deck that was already slick with seawater, ice, and snow.
A pile of ice chunks fell onto the lower level from the several manholes; it sloshed over him, painting him momentarily snowy. It made him jerk with cold, but he already couldn’t feel his hands anymore; he’d given up on that. So while others huddled, Inigo drank.
“What’s going on?” the people cried. “What should we do?” They pulled at him, scraped and clawed. The ones he’d fallen on threw him aside, deeper into the ship.
A great flash of light embedded into the crowd where he’d just been, and left a dozen of them still as stone.
Screaming. That’s what he remembered, as the tide pulled him along. But there was nowhere to go: Up? Down? Half went one way, half went the other. He was in the half that went up.
He was taller than most of them, so he had to duck among them at first when he regained the deck. The White Witch was throwing her magic every which way, trying to part the crowd. It was inciting people to jump off the nearest side they encountered. But through slits in arms, he saw her: looking the other way. She hadn’t seen him yet.
So he climbed.
He could have climbed down, yes, down into the rowboats with the others. But that would leave half the people with her still, and their duel unfinished. Inigo was a smart man, but he was not always the smartest man, and not when drunk.
Up the stairs he went, up to the second top-deck, behind the rear rigging and the steering column. The wheel went up to his chin; it was shielded from the fore part of the ship by a large wooden stand, as a defense from cannon balls. It was the perfect thing to hide behind. The wind up here was even more stiff. He let it kiss his body, acutely aware of its touch because of how wet with sweat and seawater the battle had made him. He took the last drink of the liquid warmth, and enjoyed the burn.
He ran out from behind the wheel, completely blowing his cover. He leapt over the railing. He leapt over the crowd. The White Witch turned to him, just in time for him to descend upon her.
The bottle blocked her wand, knocking it aside. The sword slashed, and hit. It opened skin like a zipper, from collar downward.
She gasped, yelled. Inigo’s legs were too numb to hurt from the fall. They wavered, but they held him. He kicked ice out of the way, and stabbed.
He hit clothing. She hit him.
Her fist punched into his gut, and then grabbed him. Gasping for breath, he was abruptly yanked forward by the throat. His feet left the ground, and his sword arm was held out. She couldn’t use her wand, since it was pointed away from him in the hand that held his wrist. But he couldn’t hit her with his sword, even as her hand was crushing his wrist.
He kicked. She hissed, but didn’t falter. She shook him and squeezed. It was as the stars cleared from his eyes that he found himself gazing into those light eyes, shining in the moonlight.
“Fool of a man,” she said, smiling.
He gritted his teeth against the pain. There wasn’t much to say to that. So he hit her over the head with the bottle.
It shattered, and she reeled. He was dropped, brandy-barren, on top of the snow and ice and freezing water that littered the deck.
They scrambled for their weapons. The fleeing passengers let them be. A moment of terror passed through Inigo as his eyes were off the woman, but for all his aches, and all her size, they came around at about the same time.
Uneasy, breathing heavily, they faced each other. Torn and ripped and cold, furious and frantic, they watched each other, in the same places as they had begun.
“This will not end, will it?” Inigo yelled. “I need more brandy for this, and you took it all! And the ship!”
“The pretty ones are always fools,” was all she said. But she did not raise her wand again. She was tired, he could sense it. The same way she could see it in him.
They began to circle. Slow, decisive steps, but shaky with adrenaline and fatigue.
“One last go,” Inigo called across the broken ship. “I’m prettier than you.”
“One last,” she agreed, jaw tight. “And then you die.”
He ran. She lifted her wand. A shot went off, but Inigo was ready. He ducked to the right; she corrected, and shot again. He ducked to the left. He raised his sword, at his right hand. She aimed at him. He was close enough –
– and then he stopped.
It was not because he had told himself to. Nay, he did not want to. It was because he could go no farther.
Her wand was not just a wand. It had grown into a lance. A lance that was stuck into his gut.
She had grown it in an instant’s time, and he could not sidestep it at such a ramming speed.
Gasping for breath, Inigo fell to the deck, body falling on various chunks of ice and getting cuts for his trouble. Red painted the little stones, and washed away into the seawater on the deck, no more than silt trails of tiny, bloody rivulets. He curled inward, and she stepped over him.
She stabbed him again, and he cried out. No one but her and the cold sea air were there to hear it.
She put her boot on his pelvis and ripped out the bloody lance. Grumbling and cursing, she used the lance as a walking stick up to the steering column, where she checked the stars. Not far, Jadis thought, were they off course. The polar bear could ride the ice fields home.
She grabbed the wheel and turned. Even in the ice, it turned like butter under her strength.
When the boat was righted, she came back to the balcony, to survey her prize and the ship that lacked a center mast. What position did she want him in when she finally turned him to stone? Hm.
But when she looked, the man, his six-fingered sword, and the last of the lifeboats were gone.
Predicted Winner: THE WHITE WITCH
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Friday, March 29th, 2013, AT 5 PM, EST
The White Witch is from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Inigo Montoya is a character from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.
The White Witch image courtesy of Disney Enterprises. Inigo Montoya image courtesy of MGM.
Cage Match fans: We are looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”