The stallion known as the Dread Pirate Ne'er-Do-Well rolled over and groaned. His all-black ensemble was caked with mud and torn in places where he had caught against stones on the way down, but other than a tender contusion in his side, he was miraculously unharmed. He struggled to his knees, looking around with bleary eyes. A flash of vermillion dress and violet mane had caught his attention during the tumble.
Not far, Princess Rarity had also skidded down the muddy slope and now lay in a crumpled heap, under the leeward side of a boulder. The pirate crawled over to her and gently lifted the mare into his forelimbs, checking her over for wounds. Rarity's sapphire eyes fluttered open and the look in them was not fear or fury, but recognition and love.
Davenport's mouth could barely form words. "Can you move at all?" he asked at last.
"Move?" Rarity whispered. "You're alive. If you want, I could fly!" She embraced her long lost love.
"I told you I would always come for you. Why didn't you wait for me?"
"Darling, you were dead."
"Death cannot stop true love," Davenport replied. "All it can do is delay it for a while."
"I will never doubt again," Rarity swore.
The stallion smiled. "There will never be a need." He leaned in and kissed--
"Oh, no, no, please!" Scootaloo muttered around a mouthful of grilled cheese sandwich.
Applebloom and Sweetie Belle looked up from the book, the latter halfway to tipping a bowl of tomato soup into her lap. When Granny Smith had left and returned with lunch for the three sick fillies, the Cutie Mark Crusaders had barely paused in reading to thank her. But now the little orange pegasus was completely yanked out from the narrative by disgust.
"What is it now?" Applebloom asked in exasperation.
"They're kissing again," Scootaloo complained. "Do we have to hear the kissing part?"
"I think it's romantic," protested Sweetie Belle.
"Whatever! Can we skip ahead to the forest, Applebloom? Pleeeaaase?"
"Oh, awright!" The yellow earth pony flipped ahead a page. "You complain now, Scoots, but I seen the way you look at Lickety Split sometimes." Applebloom giggled, ignoring the embarrassed shove from Scootaloo, and resumed the story...
Davenport and Rarity raced along the ravine floor. The silhouette of Gilda the Griffon circled overhead like an impatient scavenger, but made no motion to dive -- she had been engaged to track, not attack. On the escarpment above, Prince Blueblood neighed in frustration.
"Ha! Your pig fiance is too late," Davenport crowed. "A few more steps and we'll be safe in the Everfree Forest."
"But, darling! No pony whom enters that forest ever comes out," said Rarity, her voice quavering.
"Nonsense. You're only saying that because no pony ever has."
Entering the Everfree Forest was no gentle trek through a grove. One moment, Davenport and Rarity were churning the mud of the open ravine and the next, scrambling over tree roots and through thorny brush. Midday at once became dusk, for little light penetrated the tangled canopy.
The landscape was dominated by ancient trees with trunks so large around that three stallions with hooves clasped couldn't encircle them. Their bark was rough and black, sometimes adored with many-colored mosses and diseased-looking fungi. Sinewy vines were strung between the trees like a careless spider's web and knotted roots rose out of the mud, snatching at one's hooves.
It was humid and claustrophobic. Mist slithered over the ground with a mind of its own. Shadows danced in the distance, ever out of clear view. Strange bird and insect sounds came from all sides. There was growling, gurgling, and chirping. And beneath it all was the deep groan of the earth itself, belligerent and omnipresent.
Rarity shivered, clinging to Davenport's side. He may have been guiding her into ever more danger, but such was her trust in her beloved that she would never willingly leave his side again.
"It's not that bad," the pirate determined, taking in the view. The mare gave him a disbelieving look. "I'm not saying I'd like to build a summer home here," he clarified, "but the trees are actually quite lovely."
Davenport lead the way, perhaps following some route that Rarity herself could not divine.
A loud popping sound, like hot bubbling oil, echoed off the trees and made them both pause to look around, but nothing seemed to come of it. Then an instant later, a bright orange mushroom with a cap as large as a barrel lid burst in a brilliant shower of sparks.
The two ponies stumbled away, trying to shield themselves from the glowing hot embers. A few caught fast at the hem of Rarity's dress and the vermillion fabric immediately ignited. Feeling the sting on her legs, she shrieked, ready to bolt. But Davenport smartly laid her down and swaddled the folds of her gown, damping out the minor conflagration.
If the autumnal gown hadn't already been ruined, it was beyond repair now, a large section eaten away by the fire. Aside from a bit of ash, however, the white coat of Rarity's supple limbs remained unblemished. The moment of danger past, the princess became aware of Davenport's admiring gaze. She tucked her legs and blushed prettily.
"Have you been at the winds so long, O Pirate, that you forgot how to behave around a lady?"
"Just thinking that the short skirt look suits you, Your Highness," he flirted.
The duo pressed on, now alert and able to avoid further encounters with the incendiary mushroom. After a time, it became almost routine; Daveport slashing down vines with his rapier to clear a path, Rarity prancing in his wake.
"I've had occasion to hide Ne'er-Do-Well's ship in this forest before," remarked the stallion. "As long as you're wary, there's little to fear, in my experience. The Revenge is anchored on the other side, at the Pegasopolis frontier."
"And you really are the Dread Pirate?" Rarity asked. "This is not some ruse to bluff my captors?"
"I really am the Dread Pirate, yes."
"But how is that possible? You left me only fives years ago, but Ne'er-Do-Well has been marauding for twenty!"
"Ah! Therein lies the tale, my sweet. What I told you before about saying 'please' was true. My sincerity and resolve must have impressed Ne'er-Do-Well, or at least my description of your beauty did, because he made a decision then and there. He said: All right, Davenport. I've never had a valet. You can try it for tonight. I'll most likely kill you in the morning. This went on for three years! Good night, Davenport. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning. In all that time, I wasn't just a servant. I was learning to fight, to sail; anything anypony would teach me. Ne'er-Do-Well and I eventually became friends. And then it happened."
Davenport paused, looking contemplative. The ponies had come to a wide river of black water coursing through the forest. It did not look terribly deep or swift, but looks could be deceiving.
"Don't stop there, darling," Rarity urged, more occupied with her beloved's tale than a little thing like survival. The normally understated Davenport had never said so many words at once to her in the past and she was getting drunk on the sound of his voice.
The stallion was shaken from his reminiscence. Davenport helped Rarity climb upon his back and he nimbly picked his way across the river, stepping from one slick algae-coated stone to the next, but never slipping.
"Ne'er-Do-Well had grown so rich he wanted to retire," Davenport finally continued, "so he took me to his cabin and told me a secret. I am not the Dread Pirate Ne'er-Do-Well, he said. My name is Silver Star. I inherited the ship from the previous Dread Pirate, just as you will inherit it from me. The stallion I inherited it from was not the real Ne'er-Do-Well either. His name was Breezy. The real Ne'er-Do-Well has been retired fifteen years and living like a king among the Sea Ponies."
Davenport reach the other side of the river and pushed through the reeds. He knelt to allow Rarity to dismount and she thanked him with a ladylike curtsey, eliciting a chuckle from the pirate. He resumed his tale:
"You see, it's the name that inspires the necessary fear. No pony would surrender to the Dread Pirate Davenport. So, we weighed anchor at a remote settlement, took on an entirely new crew, and Silver Star stayed aboard for a while as first mate, all the time calling me Ne'er-Do-Well. Once the crew believed, he left the ship and I have been the Dread Pirate ever since." Davenport stopped and took hold of his beloved, looking deep into her eyes. "Except now that we're together, I shall retire and hand the name over to somepony else."
Rarity fluttered her thick eyelashes at him. "So, what was that about each Dread Pirate Ne'er-Do-Well retiring when he's filthy rich?"
"I think 'Filthy Rich' was the real name of the first Ne'er-Do-Well, come to mention it," Davenport mused, playfully evading the question. Rarity pouted cutely and slapped him on the chest. "Yes, yes! I do have quite a bit ferreted away already. If blood money isn't too troubling to you," the pirate said, that last bit almost under his breath.
The mare gave it a moment of serious thought. "Did you have to kill a lot of ponies?" she asked soberly.
"I cannot deny there's blood on my hooves, but probably not as much as you'd think. At its core, piracy is about being efficient. Take what you can and give up nothing. Any gain is a profit, so there's really no incentive to go slaughtering ponies all willy-nilly."
"But the rumors--"
"The rumors say that the Dread Pirate Ne'er-Do-Well takes no captives alive, isn't that right? Well, we don't. Those who resist vigorously sometimes must die, yes. But once we've boarded, most will quickly surrender and those that do are released -- shaken, but alive and with a frightening tale to tell."
"Well," Rarity began slowly, "It's not as though you had many better options, I suppose. We do what we must to survive."
Davenport nodded and smiled. "I feel much the same. Is everything clear to you?"
"Like fine crystal, darling. For the first time in years, I feel completely certain!" Rarity's sapphire eyes raked the primordial forest and she gave a contented little sigh. "I think I'm even starting to see some of the beauty in this dreadful place. Look here, what a lovely flower!"
She moved to sniff at a tall and drooping stalk adorned with many bright purple blossoms. The strange flora was surrounded by a veritable carpet of thickly-veined leaves. At the center, and from which the stalk grew, was a curious bulb that pulsed and glistened in the dim light. Rarity stepped closer.
"Rarity, don't--!" Davenport choked out, too late.
The mare's nose brushed a blossom and the whole stalk quivered, triggering a nastic response in the plant. The thick carpet of leaves curled up and surrounded Rarity before she knew what was happening.
Davenport drew his rapier and began hacking at the leaves, but the thick veins proved resistant to his narrow blade. The whole wrapped up plant shook violently from Rarity's struggles. Driven mad by his beloved's muffled cries of alarm, the pirate dropped his sword and scraped desperately at the vegetation with his hooves, even gnawing at it with his teeth.
The struggling slowed. At his wit's end, Davenport charged into his floral foe again and again. He reared back one more time, when Rarity's horn poked through the leaves from the inside. A viscous ichor began to dribble out. Davenport seized the opening and tore at it with all his might. Between the two of them, the leaves were finally pried apart and the princess fell out, riding a flow of the carnivorous plant's digestive juices.
Laying torpid in Daveport's grasp, Rarity coughed and sputtered, even more bedraggled than ever. The pirate brushed away the strands of mane that were plastered to his beloved's face.
"Well, that's using your head," Davenport quipped.
The mare gave a shaky laugh, but it quickly turned into wracking sobs. "We'll never succeed. We may as well die here!"
Davenport meant to comfort her, say anything that sounded reassuring. But what he now saw over the unicorn's shoulder silenced his voice.
The trees all around were watching with baleful yellow eyes blinking in the half-light. The shadows shifted and Davenport could make out shapes, vaguely lupine, branches and bark twisted together in a mockery of animal form. They were emerging from the trees all around, some falling like dead limbs before righting themselves to land, others clawing out of the mud beneath the roots. The groaning of the earth grew louder and Davenport realized it was a growl, a chorus from the whole pack.
The pirate found his voice, pulling away to look in his beloved's eyes, hoping to find strength as much as to impart it. "No! No, we have already succeeded," he insisted, helping Rarity to her hooves.
He tried to lead her away without appearing too hurried. The silvan predators followed at a leisurely pace.
"I mean, sure, the Everfree Forest is dangerous. But we've already bested the worst of it, don't you think? The Firecracker Shroom is noisy enough to hear coming and the Giant Angler Flower is quite conspicuous itself. Besides, it's not like a plant can chase us, right?"
"Darling," Rarity interrupted. "What about the Timber Wolves?"
Davenport swallowed hard. "Golems of animate wood that supposedly roam the forest, seeking to chew any hapless pony they find into fertilizer? I don't think they exist."
With a snarl, one of the Timber Wolves finally grew tired of stalking and pounced on Davenport, throwing him to the ground. He held it at bay, barely, keeping the snapping maw of thorns from his face. It twisted around and chomped down on his forelimb, drawing a shout of pain from the pirate.
Thinking quickly, Rarity whirled around and delivered as fierce a buck to the wolf as she could muster and succeeded in knocking it off her beloved. Davenport rolled to standing and retrieved his rapier, but now the whole pack was closing in... and they weren't the least bit dissuaded by a bit of sharpened metal.