The opening pages of A Carpathian Campaign, the alt-history/ secret history WWI Novel.
Chapter One: A Shot in the Afternoon
“Crack!” The rifle shot echoed through the deep woods. István worked the bolt, keeping the muzzle on the boar. The huge beast squalled, then fell over, eyes glazing. The man suddenly remembered that he needed to breath and inhaled the scent of crushed plants, blood, and his own fear. By St. Hubert’s horn, that was close!
He lowered the rifle and walked across the small glade to look at the black boar. Its yellowed, curving tusks had to be at least twenty centimeters long, and István shook his head, impressed. He thought he saw a lingering hint of piggy hate in the dead eyes, and he saluted the old woods king. “Your reign’s over, old man,” he told the animal’s spirit, if it had one. “Well done.” It had almost killed him, and deserved the respect due a worthy foe.
He felt his father’s touch against his shields. <<I’m here, Pater. Unharmed,>> and he sent a mental image of the boar.
<<Blessed St. Anthony! I’ll send Hans to help you clean the beast.>>
István lit a cigarette and noticed that his hands had begun shaking a little. He smiled at the tremor and took a deep, welcome drag on his smoke. He’d finished for the day, after all, and had earned a little treat.
Well, burning tobacco would not get the boar cleaned. István finished his smoke, ground the last bit of ash out against some damp soil, confirmed the safety on the rifle and set it against a tree along with his shell bag, and checked that he’d loaded his service revolver. “Never, ever, be unarmed in the woods with wild pigs and wolves loose,” he heard in his memory. After seeing what pigs had done to one of the peasant children, Stephan took the warning to heart. He drew his hunting knife and began work.
Hans, the assistant huntmaster arrived not long after István had gotten the carcass ready to hang and clean. The green and brown True-dragon’s whiskers went rigid with surprise as he helped rope the beast and haul it up to hang from the thickest tree-branch at the edge of the clearing. Hans measured the beast against his own seven feet length, his round ears twitching. <István, that’s a woods’ king if I ever saw one.>> His sharp talons made quick work of gutting the boar while István dug a hole for the offal they’d not keep.
“Agree,” István panted. I hate digging. I’m an officer. Officers don’t dig. That’s what enlisted and servants are for. Except he had no enlisted men to pass the task onto, and his father would skin him if he tried to order Hans to do the work. The reptile dumped the kidneys, lights, large intestine, and stomach into the hole, after checking the health of the organs. Neither hunter saw any sign of excessive parasites or disease, not that they expected such a big beast to have more than usual. It didn’t have many ticks either, István had noticed, although the cold snap the week before may have helped with that. He walked over and studied the carcass. “We need more help.”
<<Yes, my lord, we do. Your honored father got a deer, very nice one, and—>> The sound of snuffing and a branch breaking sent both males lunging for weapons. István grabbed his rifle just as a small bear strolled into view, black snout poking out of the bushes to the right of the hanging boar. István slid the safety off the rifle as he eased it to his shoulder. He didn’t want to kill the bear if he didn’t have to.
Hans moved and the bear’s head jerked up. It sniffed, growled, and charged for the True-dragon. Oh shit! Hans leaped almost four feet, flat-footed, and scrambled up a tree, his tail curled up his back to get it clear of the sick animal’s teeth. The bear tried to follow and István fired, catching the bear just behind the shoulder. It staggered and turned, intending to attack the human. Hans got one forefoot free, drew his heavy revolver and fired, snapping the beast’s spine. Its back legs folded and the bear screamed. István finished it off, then sat heavily on a log. “A rabid bear. Just what we need.” After a minute of relative silence, Hans climbed back down and holstered his revolver.
The True-dragon approached the brown body with slow steps, sniffing the air around the animal but not touching it. István heaved himself to his feet, found a thick stick, and poked the bear, turning it so he could get a good look at the head. He relaxed. “Thoughts?”
<<I still wouldn’t keep the body, my lord. Perhaps the hide, but it could still be rabid.>> Hans picked up another stick and they prized the jaws open. He pointed with one forefoot talon to the festering wound and missing teeth. <<Or perhaps not.>>
“And this hind leg is badly healed.” The man used his stick to trace the crooked bone. He straightened up. “But you are right, all I want is the hide.”
Hans sent a mental call for more help and István worked on skinning the small bear while Hans concentrated on the boar. It was too bad, he thought. He’d always wanted to hunt a big bear, and this one looked as if it had been on the way to grow into a good-sized beast, if the paws told truth. But not anymore. Maybe I should just go to North America like everyone else and get one of those gory bears.
“Blessed St. Hubert, that’s huge,” he heard his father exclaim. “I can see why you need help.”
István straightened up from his task as Herzog Janos Joszef Eszterhászy, head of House Eszterhászy-Kárpátok strode into the clearing. His father took after his grandmother, tall and pale with chiseled features and almost turquoise blue eyes. The odd color and slit-pupils marked him as a HalfDragon, much as István’s own amber eyes did. “And that was before this fellow arrived and chased Hans up a tree, Pater.” He sent his father the scene as he returned to his work.
“Good decision, Hans. I’ve heard stories about rabid bears and wolves, and I’d just as soon they remained stories.” He looked at the bear as István finished freeing the head. “This was mad with pain, but not rabid. He probably wanted the offal,” Janos guessed, leaning on his hunting stick to better study the animal’s mouth.
Two more servants appeared and helped Hans quarter the boar. They had an easy walk back to the lodge, relatively speaking, although it was a bit of a distance. They’d gone south along one of the flatter trails, instead of hunting the rugged ground to the north and east. Even so, they’d be carrying the loads uphill, at least until they reached the wagon. A mental relay had sent word ahead, as usual, and they’d not have to haul the meat all the way to the lodge. “Archduke Rudolph would be disappointed in you,” Janos teased. “Only two large animals for an afternoon’s hunt.”
“Not as disappointed as Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be,” István retorted. “Or the English king, Willi’s cousin. Four hundred birds in a day, wasn’t it, Pater?”
Janos frowned and shook a reproving finger. “Kaiser Wilhelm and even if we are alone you need to be respectful. Do not get into bad habits.” He left unsaid, “the upstart Hohenzollern,” because everyone in the group knew where their loyalties lay. The only Kaiser was Franz Josef Habsburg, even if the stroke three years before had left Franz Ferdinand as heir and War Lord, and Rudolph Josef the defacto head of the Austrian Empire and House Habsburg. “So, let us return to the lodge before your mother finishes cleaning out the last blackcock in the woods.”