It’s hard out there for an evil overlord. Oh, sure, being a supreme villain may seem like a cushy job with plenty of perks, where all you have to do is deliver a monologue once in a while and then show up at the right time to run the hero through with your sword, but in fact, it’s remarkably stressful. Vladimir the Marauder knew just how stressful it could be. The trouble was, when one has a violent idiom attached to their name, like “The Marauder”, it’s generally expected that one should actually do some marauding on occasion. Sadly, most of Vladimir’s soldiers couldn’t even spell “marauder”, let alone decide where to do it, how to get there, what tactics to use, when to fall back and regroup, how to keep themselves supplied…and all these tasks fell inevitably to their glorious leader. When he’d murdered his father, Stefan the Pudgy, and assumed command of Stefan’s massive horde of soldiers and minions, Vladimir had woefully underestimated the amount of work in store for him. He was beginning to wish he’d left his father alive.
The stress had gotten so bad, and he’d grown so irritated with the constant interruptions from his underlings, that Vladimir didn’t even pitch his tent with the main camp anymore. He had set up his palatial quarters on the top of a pine-covered hill that overlooked the camp, far enough away that the noise of the soldiers drilling or singing barely disturbed him. That explained why, on that inordinately eventful night, Princess Caitlin was able to march right up to Vladimir’s tent without any of his soldiers noticing. Of course, they probably wouldn’t have noticed even if she led a horseback parade with balloons and a marching band right through the center of the campground. Vladimir’s soldiers, as Caitlin had already noticed, were exceptionally stupid.
She dispatched the squad leader who had reluctantly led her to Vladimir’s tent, knocking him over the head with the hilt of her sword and sending him off to blissful dreams of minion women. Caitlin flicked a glance over her shoulder and saw Colin lurking in the shadows of the pines. Whatever his failings at miming, Colin could certainly lurk with the best of them. Caitlin smiled, that same slow half-smile that she had shown before defeating her would-be assassin not so long ago. Then she turned back to the tent, raised the flap, and ducked inside.
She saw him at once. Vladimir the Marauder, destroyer of a thousand towns, besieger of castles and slaughterer of villagers beyond count, sat there on a pile of blankets trying to make his way through a stack of horrifically misspelled reports from his captains. Caitlin had expected him to be an old man, powerful and a daunting warrior maybe but still old, which meant she would have a physical edge on him when they came to blows. It came as rather a shock to her when she saw that he was only a few years older than she was. That meant he must have been only about twelve or thirteen when he…but that thought only made Caitlin hate him all the more. For a second, she couldn’t speak, as all the fury she’d hidden behind her slow smile for the last five years came roiling up inside her. Then Vladimir glanced up and saw her as well. “Ah. You must be Princess Caitlin. Thank heaven; if I have to read another of these reports I’ll go mad. So, shall we get on with the swordplay or would you rather make your little speech first?”
Caitlin’s eyes blazed. “Two questions. Why did you send that idiot to kill me when you must have known I’d beat him easily, and what on earth do you want with my socks?”
Vladimir laughed unpleasantly. “Oh please, do you really expect me to tell you all the details of my evil plan? You don’t think I know what’ll happen? I’ll start in with the monologue, then when I’m distracted you’ll pounce and run me through, or maybe your miming friend will do it for you, or your army will charge over the ridge, or whatever. I intend to tell you nothing.”
“It’s just as well,” Caitlin said, “because I didn’t need to know your plan anyway. I don’t care what you’re going to do in future; I’m more concerned about your past.”
“My…” Vladimir laughed even louder, as if Caitlin had just cracked an insanely corny pun. “Oh, don’t tell me, let me guess, I killed your father and now you’ve come to avenge him in true heroic fashion. Excellent! Of course, you’ll have to remind me who your father was; I’ve killed so many fathers in my illustrious career that I’ve completely lost count.”
“No, my father’s alive and well,” Caitlin said, and her hands gripped the hilt of her sword so hard that they turned white. “You killed my mother, you spawn of a goose monster!” With that, she flew at him, her blade slashing in an explosion of fury, but then Vladimir’s own sword flashed in his hand, expertly blocking her every blow.
“Ah, I see you’ve begun with the Westley Opening, very good!” he said as they fought, their swords flickering and dancing like chain lightning, the clash of steel ringing through the tent. “You’ll realize of course that such an opening can be easily countered by the Falk Defense, yes?”
Caitlin fought as she had never fought before, using all the skills, all the stances, all the combinations of thrust and parry that she had been practicing every day since her mother had fallen five years ago on a distant field, so far away that Caitlin had not been able to reach her in time to say goodbye. And Vladimir maddeningly blocked every strike, and punctuated it with an ongoing commentary on her mistakes and how she might improve. He was no Charles, no clumsy giant, no dim-witted squad captain. Vladimir was, possibly, just as good as she was. “Crap,” she thought, not daring to risk even a second’s distraction by saying it out loud.
Desperately improvising, she snatched a nearby soft cushion and flung it at him, then darted away and tried to dash in on him from the side. But Vladimir deflected the cushion with a flick of his hand, not even bothering to look at it, spinning as he did and blocking her move with his sword. “Ah, the Spanish Inquisition Trick,” he said approvingly. “Good one. But of course you must have known that I’d expect that. Most people don’t expect the Spanish Inquisition Trick, but I’m better than most people. You may have noticed.”
Then he yawned. “Well, I’ve had my fun, and you’re looking a little peaked yourself. Time to wrap this up, yes?” His blade lashed forward and gave a funny sort of twist, and suddenly Caitlin lost her hold on her sword. She watched in horror as it flipped away beyond her reach. Vladimir saluted her with his blade. “That was fun. I’d offer to do it again sometime, but that’d be hard to do, seeing as I’m going to kill you now.”
He advanced towards her in a rush of speed, little knowing that the princess still had one trick left. As Vladimir’s sword slashed in, Caitlin’s hand flicked to her belt, where she had hidden a small, gleaming dagger for emergencies. Distantly she felt a cold, lancing pain, but she dismissed it to a back part of her mind, whipping out the dagger and stabbing it at just the right spot. Vladimir’s face was right before her, a look of absolute shock in his eyes. He didn’t even have time to say a last smart remark before the life ebbed out of him. Caitlin stepped over his fallen body, picked up her own sword, and returned his salute. Then she made her way on unsteady legs out of his tent.
Colin, standing guard in the shadows all this time, ran swiftly to meet her. “Did you get him, y’r majesty?” he asked.
“Yeah…” she said, her voice sounding oddly vague. “You know, Colin, I wish…I really wish Charles hadn’t been an assassin. He seemed nice. I would’ve liked…I would’ve liked someone to go home to, once I finished this. And a tiara. I lost my tiara years ago…never did find it…never…” she giggled woozily, her laughter ringing too loudly amidst the dark trees on the hill.
A worried look came into Colin’s stolid face. “Now, princess, don’t you go all happily ever after on me now. We’ve got to get out of here before-”
Then he stopped, his breath catching in sudden fear. A slow pool of dark red was welling out across Caitlin’s tunic. “I never…” she repeated, her eyes fluttering, her face going sickly white. “I thought…”
Her unstained sword dropped to the ground with a faint ring of steel. Down below in the camp, shouts of alarm rose and horns blew insistently. Far above in the night sky, the stars shone coldly on, unaware and uncaring what was happening beneath their silver light.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Jennifer's Story Pick, Week 6.2
And because I'm growing a little addicted to the Caitlin stories . . . (Thanks a lot Michael)