"The children! Hold fire!"
It was too late. The gun roared and kicked back against the huntsman's shoulder. It was a long shot, a hundred and fifty meters or more. He had almost not seen the boar, nearly swallowed as it was by the shadows and the sunlight dancing on the leaves of a distant thicket. Everyone else's eyes had been on the sky, on the count's hawk, but the huntsman had seen a movement, and there it was, scrounging for acorns: a huge boar, a prize boar, a malevolent devil of a boar. Rare in this forest. He decided at once to take it.
Another man would have advanced for a better shot, to avoid the possibility of missing or, worse, merely wounding the animal. The extreme distance made the difference between a good shot and a spectacular shot, a shot all the more exciting because of its uncertainty, a shot to ensure tavern bragging rights for months. He knew he could do it because he knew his weapon. It was new, a bolt-action military rifle. The long barrel gave it a degree of accuracy never before known. He'd honed the sights to perfection through a thousand rounds of practice.
He raised the weapon and found his mark. The shout from the count startled him, but only for an instant. He steadied his aim and fired. Even then, even before the bullet left the gun, he knew he'd done it. He didn't need to see or to hear the impact, he just knew. A second later his certainty was justified as he heard a smack and a mad squeal of pain. There was a flurry of motion, and the animal disappeared into the brush.
The huntsman whooped in excitement. To hell with the count! By God, he'd bagged it! A boar! He would have his trophy, and it would not be some piddling grouse. Without turning to see the others, and particularly not wanting to face the count, he raced forward through the clearing.
Count Henri deVries was hosting a group from the Societe Geographique, there to observe the ancient art of falconry. The count's family had kept hawks for generations. They were hunting on land adjoining his estate.
Henri had seen the boar even before the huntsman did. He had reacted with disbelief as he watched the man raise his rifle. Didn't the fool realize the children played nearby? When he heard the pig squeal and saw it move, his worst fears were realized.
Now there was death on the run.
Without a word he left the hunting party—and his own hawk in the air-and dashed for his horse. A wild boar was always dangerous, but a wounded one was unpredictable, lethal. No one was safe, not even an armed man on horseback. Not while a boar was alive and hurt.
He swung up onto his horse, which knew its rider and felt the danger and surged forward even before the count was fully mounted. They took off at a right angle to where the boar had disappeared and raced for a distant clearing. Rider and horse thundered through the forest, under the golden oaks and elms of the great Bois de Boulogne that had once been the hunting grounds of the Valois kings.
Henri's wife, Serena, sat in the shade of a large tree. She had been paying no attention to her surroundings, none at all. Normally she would have been hunting with Henri. But she was Tuareg, a woman of the desert, and had secretly begun learning to read French, her husband's native tongue. She had not yet told him. On her own she had found a tutor, a teacher at the Lycee in Paris, with whom she had spent long secret hours, followed by more hours of practice alone. Gradually, a newfound love had awakened inside her. Each story had increased her enchantment. The subjects didn't matter. Henri's library was rich with scientific journals. The words and meanings in most of those eluded her, but there were also novels and articles and essays. The words were music and brought her an almost mystical pleasure as new worlds opened to her.
She had an inspiration. Henri would have a birthday soon. The two of them would leave Moussa at home and together they would ride into the forest to a secluded waterfall on the edge of the estate. She would bring a picnic lunch, pick a soft sunny spot, spread a blanket on the ground—no, lots of blankets in case it was cold—and pour him a glass of wine. He would lie back on her lap and then she would read to him, treasuring the surprise and delight she knew she would find in his eyes. Later they would make love. She took great pleasure in working out the tiniest details of that day. She had redoubled her studies to be ready, and so it was that this day she had been captivated, reading Victor Hugo.
The count's abrupt approach shocked her from her reverie.
"The boys!" he shouted as he drew near. "Where are the boys?"
She had no idea what had happened, but there was no mistaking the urgency in his voice. She looked around desperately. She had last noticed them playing nearby . . . when? A quarter of an hour ago? More? She couldn't be sure. It was a quiet fall day. They'd been just there, by the fallen log, and there was no reason to have been particularly concerned for their safety. They played in the woods all the time. But in a moment of awful panic and guilt she realized that she had no idea when she'd last seen them, or where they might have gone.
The great wild pig crashed madly through a thicket of scrub oak. The bullet had broken a rib and punctured a lung. Somehow it had missed vital arteries, but the lung was filling with blood. The animal's breathing was hot and labored, and the exertions of flight would bring the end more quickly. But the end would not come now—not for a long while yet. The boar gathered itself and trotted forward, crazily forward in a zigzag, away from its pursuer.
After a few moments it came to a stop, chest heaving, heart racing. It was a massive and hideous animal. Even in its agony its senses were still alert. It listened, sniffed, and watched, its posture full of menace. Its ears lay flat against its head and its snout was down, close to the ground. Through long habit and reflex it clashed its top and bottom tusks together, to sharpen them. No man could tell what a boar in these circumstances might do. It might lay in wait for its pursuer and force a deadly duel. If there were no dogs or horses it might run. Or, badly wounded and deranged by pain, it might do the unpredictable—turn on another boar or anything else in its path.
The hunted listened, and heard the hunter. The man rushed headlong through the woods, footfalls heavy on the pad of leaves lining the forest floor in autumn. He picked up the bloody trail, his excitement high, his gun at the ready. On a dead run he broke through a low hedge. A bit of brush caught his boot and he stumbled. A tremendous effort kept him from falling, but just as he reached that critical point between fall and recovery he saw the boar. He'd known it was close, very close. And in that one instant he knew he had lost, for his gun was down and extended out from his body, where he'd swung it to recover his balance.
The boar rushed to meet him. The huntsman brought his gun up and fired without aiming. It was a fraction of a second too soon. The bullet caught the boar in the shoulder but the beast kept coming. With a single mighty stroke it ripped the man open from navel to neck. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Out of breath, the boar stopped to recover. The new wound pounded and bled. The animal panted, moving its head up and down as it sought to still the fires inside. After a few moments it began to run again, to get away, anywhere. It stepped on the steel barrel of the rifle, which bent under its weight. Favoring its wounds, the boar ran haltingly but still with power.
In a clearing it stopped again. It heard something new, something troubling. Through mad red eyes it glared in the direction of the noise. Its sight was poor, unlike its hearing or smell, but through the haze and the pain and the torment of dying the boar made out the figures of two boys, playing at the base of a tree. The animal lowered its head and charged.
Excerpted from Empires of Sand by David Ball. Copyright 3/6/01 by David Ball. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.