The Pony-in-Black and Princess Rarity ran along the edge of the grassy escarpment overlooking the Everfree Forest. Sun-dappled leaves in the canopy winked in and out of shadows, like eyes following their every move.
With a sleeve of the reluctant princess' gown clamped between his teeth, the black-clad stallion led his captive at a breakneck pace. Brush and stone flew by in their haste. Despite his exertions in his pursuit and subsequent conquests over Trixie's minions, the Pony-in-Black seemed tireless. Rarity, meanwhile, struggled to endure as the long sleepless night and mounting stress took their toll.
The duo stepped into a dried-up watercourse, where some ancient stream had once flowed from the mountains down to the forest. The Pony-in-Black pushed Rarity to the ground, keeping his eyes on the surrounding hills.
"Gently, please!" she whimpered, bracing herself on the dusty bank.
"Catch your breath," he said brusquely. "We shan't tarry long."
"If you're in such a hurry, perhaps you should go on without me?" Rarity offered. "I mean, really, why go to all the trouble of dragging a princess out to the wilderness like a piece of fashionable luggage? Should you desire ransom, then however much, I assure you it will be paid."
The Pony-in-Black laughed without humor. "You are quite generous, Highness. But the assurances of a pretender -- a fraud -- mean little to me."
That stung Rarity more than she cared to admit. She had never asked for this life or this fate and here was a thoroughly disreputable pony whom dared to judge her. The unicorn swallowed the sudden urge to cry. Back rigid, she glowered imperiously at the stallion like the princess she didn't want to be.
"I was giving you a chance," countered Rarity. "It does not matter where you take me. Prince Blueblood has the means to find anypony. His agents are everywhere and his reach is long. It is only a matter of time."
"Time may be a luxury you do not have, Highness. Yet you think your dearest love will save you?"
"I never said he was my dearest love," she denied, "and yes, he will save me. That I know."
"You admit to me you do not love your fiance?" the Pony-in-Black wondered, sounding curious. He stepped closer until he loomed over the unicorn, the lips under his pencil-thin mustache set with a knowing curl.
Rarity shrank into the shadow he cast over her. This conversation had taken an unexpected turn that set her aback. "He knows I do not love him," she clarified with complete honesty.
The stallion's face took on a grave mien. "Are not capable of love, is what you mean."
Rarity swung a hoof at the Pony-in-Black, but he caught the slap before it connected. His grip on her forehoof was like an iron vice, but the pain barely registered, such was the intensity of the mare's loathing for him. She glared daggers. The black mask around the stallion's eyes might as well have been a shield, for all that her ire affected him.
"How dare you!" Rarity hissed. "I have loved more deeply than you could ever dream! I have loved and lost and suffered!"
"Perhaps you have not suffered long enough, Highness," the Pony-in-Black responded.
Prince Blueblood and the Unicornian Guards puffed like a chorus of bellows as they climbed up the hill. Blueblood had a solid build, but not the endurance for cross-country travel, and the guards in their heavy black armor were little better at keeping up with the griffon tracker Gilda.
At the summit of the hill, they found Countess Gilda at a stone table set with provisions. She was lounging indolently upon the body of a blue-coated unicorn mare. "Bought time you showed up, dude," she sneered. "I thought the princess was important to you or something."
"Mind--your tongue--Countess," the prince wheezed between gasps. "I would never--trade my horn--for wings--but that doesn't mean--I'm not still--in charge here." He took a deep breath and composed himself, flipping back his blond mane. "Now, I trust you've made some breakthrough or are you just taking a break?"
Blueblood reached out for a half-empty bottle of apple cider on the table, intending to refresh himself, but Gilda lightly slapped his hoof away. The prince recoiled, aghast, and his guards formed up around him menacingly, but the griffon paid no heed.
"I wouldn't touch that if I were you, dude. Thought I'd stop and have a bite to eat myself," Gilda explained, patting the mare's flank, "when I discovered this little filly ain't dead yet; only paralyzed. Probably a neurotoxin in the food, like manticore venom. Just a tiny prick of the stuff can induce lameness, which is always good for a laugh. But this babe must have ingested a whopping dose."
The unicorns gathered around Gilda's find, now seeing that the mare's apparent rigor mortis was betrayed by a slight tremble here and there. Her watering eyes darted around the assemblage and the barest squeak of fear escaped her lockjaw.
"Can we wring any answers from her?" Blueblood inquired.
"No can do, boss-pony. This one won't be saying anything anytime soon, but I can probably still find some use for her," Gilda said, running a talon down the mare's frozen features.
"Amuse yourself later, Countess. Tell me about my princess!"
"Well, I can tell you that her tracks around here are no more than an hour old, tops."
"Then she is alive! Or was, recently. If she is otherwise when I find her," Blueblood swore, grinding a hoof in the dirt, "I shall be very put out."
The Pony-in-Black was leading Rarity steadily down the escarpment and into a narrow valley. The princess realized he was trying to circle around the northern edge of the Everfree Forest, rather than cross it into Pegasopolis, as was Trixie's plan. The escarpment ended sharply on their right, giving way to a muddy slope into a rubble-filled ravine.
Rarity knew with absolute certainty that if she allowed the black-clad stallion to spirit her away, there would be no going back. The mare summoned her strength and pulled away from her captor, collapsing against a fallen log.
"Do not play games with me, Highness," the Pony-in-Black warned.
"I know who you are now," she began, hoping to buy more time for the Unicornian guards to catch up. She had to believe they were following, she simply had to, or the despair alone might kill her. "Your cruelty reveals everything. You're the Dread Pirate Ne'er-Do-Well. Admit it!"
"With pride!" the stallion said, bowing. "What can I do for you?"
"You can die slowly, boiled into glue," Rarity answered hatefully.
The pirate pony clucked his tongue. "Hardly complimentary, Your Highness. Did I not save you from certain doom? Why loose your venom on me?"
"You killed my love."
"It's possible," Ne'er-Do-Well conceded. "I kill a lot of ponies. Who was this love of yours?" He began circling her like a hungry predator. "Another prince like Blueblood? Ugly, rich, and mangy?"
"No! A carpenter. Well, a carpenter's apprentice. Poor," she admitted. Rarity's voice softened at the mention of her lost love.
Unbidden, the face of her beloved Davenport wavered before the unicorn's eyes. The wind tousled her mane and for a fleeting second, Rarity imagined it was his caress. She had always kept her coiffure prim and proper, but longed to feel his snout at her neck again, mussing her mane, inhaling her scent. Breathing in every trace of her as she had him.
"Poor and perfect. With eyes like a meadow warmed by the Sun." Rarity came back to the now, feeling the pirate's eyes on her. He seemed to be staring right into her. It was perverse. Her tone hardened once more, "My love was aboard a merchant vessel when your ship attacked, and the Dread Pirate Ne'er-Do-Well never takes prisoners."
"I can't afford to make exceptions," Ne'er-Do-Well replied. "I mean, once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, ponies begin to disobey you, and then it's nothing but work, work, work all the time."
"You mock my pain!" she cried.
"Life is pain, Highness!" he shot back. "Anypony who says differently is selling something."
Rarity couldn't bear to look at the hateful stallion a moment longer. She craned her neck around, looking out over the ravine below, but only to avoid his probing eyes. Sorrow was like an itch spreading across her delicate features and threatening to tear free.
Ne'er-Do-Well walked around in front of the mare again, still speaking, fishing for another outburst.
"I remember this apprentice of yours, I think. This would be, what? Five years ago? Does it bother you to hear?"
"Nothing you can say will upset me," she insisted dully.
"He died well. That should please you," the pirate continued. "No bribe attempts or blubbering. He simply said 'please'. Please, I need to live. T'was the 'please' that caught my memory. I asked, him what was so important for him? True love, he replied."
Rarity's breath caught in her throat.
"And then he spoke of a filly of surpassing beauty and faithfulness. I can only assume he meant you," Ne'er-Do-Well added, taking another spiteful dig at the unicorn. "You should bless me for destroying him before he found out what you really are."
"And what am I?" Rarity demanded suddenly. She had had quite enough of this, damn the consequences.
"Faithfulness, he talked of, madam. Your enduring faithfulness!" The pirate slammed one hoof down on the fallen log. "Now tell me truly: When you found out he was gone, did you get engaged to your prince that same hour, or did you wait a whole week out of respect for the dead?"
"You mocked me once! Never do it again!" Rarity's sapphire eyes shone like blue flames. "I died that day!"
Ne'er-Do-Well looked like he was about to retort, when the sound of galloping hooves in the distance drew his attention back the way they had come. On the grassy ridgeline above, he could make out the silhouettes of many armored unicorns.
In a moment of cold clarity, Rarity realized his attention was complete off of her for the first time. An opportunity had presented itself. She had plenty of motive, to be sure. Giving in to the urge was too easy to resist.
"And you can die too, for all I care!" Rarity snarled... and pushed Ne'er-Do-Well over the edge of the escarpment.
Tripping on the log, Ne'er-Do-Well flipped head over hooves and began to roll down the muddy slope towards the rubble below, with no hope of stopping or even slowing the deadly descent. Rarity looked on, feeling something bordering on vile pleasure, and the pirate's last words drifted up to her.
"Aaaassss yooouuu wiiiiisshh..."
All of Rarity's preconceptions shattered like glass. The smooth voice, the penetrating gaze, the curl of his lips like a woodcarver's little embellishment. How could she have not seen it before?
"Oh, my sweet Davenport!" she gasped. "What have I done?"
The mare gathered her skirts and, without a moment's longer hesitation, leapt after him.
Blueblood and his escort reared to a halt. His eyes swept the escarpment, looking to see where the two figures of his princess and her captor could have gone to so suddenly. "They disappeared! The scoundrel must have seen us closing in and he's panicking, getting sloppy."
"Bad news, Your Majesty," Countess Gilda said. She had one talon held flat to shield her eagle eyes from the Sun, and was able to make out gnarled old trees growing in the ravine below. "They're headed dead into the Everfree Forest. And I mean dead, dude. Nothing that goes in there ever comes out."
"Then for Celestia's sake, get into the air and keep an eye on them!" Blueblood ordered. He rallied the troops. "Onward, Knights of Unicornia! The fate of your Princess hinges on our success!"