THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN CONNECTION – snippet 21:
Chapter 10. The sword
By the time Denise got done hauling Lannie out of the wreck, she was exhausted. Getting Keenan out hadn’t been too bad, even though he’d been in the cramped rear of the cockpit. But Keenan had just been dazed and bruised, not pinned by some of the equipment that had been broken loose and all but completely unconscious.
Denise was strong for a girl her age and build, but the fact remained that the age was almost-sixteen and while the build was great for making girls jealous and boys drool—not that she appreciated either one—it wasn’t that good for frantically trying to free a normal-sized man from wreckage and haul him out by bodily force. Not for the first time in her life, she wished she’d inherited more of her dad’s bulk and muscle and less of her mother’s appearance.
But, finally, it was done. Probably hadn’t taken more than a few minutes, actually. With the last of her strength, she lowered Lannie onto the ground and half-spilled herself out of the fuselage. Fortunately, the meadow was pretty soft ground. On her hands and knees, she saw that Keenan was sitting up and holding his head. He was groaning a little, but so far as she could tell he didn’t really seem to be hurt.
In the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a pair of legs. Looking over, she saw Noelle, with a very strained expression on her face.
“Hey, look,” she said defensively, “I’m sorry. We didn’t know it was you.”
Belatedly, she realized that Noelle wasn’t actually looking at her. She was looking over Denise’s head at something off to the side.
Denise swiveled, flopping onto her side in the process, and propped herself up on one elbow.
The something Noelle had been staring out turned out to be two men, with two horses not far away behind them.
Both down-timers, obviously. Neither of them were smiling—hey, no kidding—so she couldn’t see their teeth. That was usually the simplest indication, especially with a man somewhere in middle age like the one holding the very nasty looking and oh-so-very-up-time pump action shotgun, if not the younger one who was standing a little closer with a sword in his hand.
But it didn’t matter. Leaving aside the clothes they were wearing and the hair styles, she would have known just looking at the way the young one held the sword. She didn’t know any up-timer who held a sword like that. Maybe somebody like Harry Lefferts did, by now, with all of his escapades. But Denise hadn’t seen much of Harry in a long time, and on the few occasions she had seen him Harry had been carousing in one of Grantville’s taverns with the wine, women and song that seemed to accompany him like pilot fish did a shark. The wine and women, with complete ease, the singing a whole lot less so since Harry had a nice natural voice and could even carry a tune but somewhere along the way had picked up the silly conviction that he was one of those old-style Irish tenors who could make nasal sound good but he couldn’t.
Her thoughts were veering all over the place, she realized, and she commanded them back to attention.
Concentrate on the fucking sword, idiot.
The damn thing didn’t look any better when she did. This wasn’t one of those fancy swords that a lot of down-time noblemen and wannabe noblemen carried about when they were trying to look impressive. Pretty, lots of decorations—even jewels, if they were rich enough—and looking as if they’d seen as much actual use as the kind of fancy china that people kept in a cabinet and didn’t eat off of except once in a blue moon.
No, this sword looked like her mother’s favorite kitchen knife, allowing for a drastic increase in size. Solid, plain, sharp as a razor and so often honed that the blade wasn’t a completely straight line anymore. And the bastard was holding it just the way her mother did, too—or the way her dad held a welding torch or a tool he was using to work on one of his bikes.
Casually. The way no up-timer except maybe a few wild-ass screwballs like Harry could possibly hold a sword. The man wasn’t flourishing it, wasn’t brandishing it—didn’t, really, even seem more than vaguely aware that he had it in his hand in the first place. A weapon so familiar and comfortable that it was just any other tool, used more by instinct than conscious thought.
Some tools chopped onions, some tools chopped metal, and this one wasn’t any different except it chopped off heads and limbs and from the look of the miserable son-of-a-bitch any part of a human body he felt like chopping off.
She tore her eyes away from the sword and looked higher up, at the man’s face. For a moment—one wild moment—she almost burst into laughter.
He looked for all the world like a rock star!
Dammit, it was true. Good-looking, in that sort of older-than-he-really-was way that indicated either dissipation or too much familiarity with the wicked ways of men—music recording executives in the case of rock stars; probably not in this guy’s—and judging from the easy athleticism of his stance he didn’t seem dissipated in the least, so scratch that theory.
Long, curly, dark hair. Flowing fucking locks, fer chrissake. A flaring mustache and a neatly trimmed full beard that’d looked silly on almost anybody except genu-ine rock stars and guys who could hold a sword like that.
Just to complete the picture, soulful brown eyes. The kind of eyes with which rock stars sang to the world of their sorrow at the faithlessness of women and guys like this bastard looked down upon the corpses they left behind.
“Well, fuck,” she said. “Just what it needed to make the day complete.”
In German, she added: “And who are you?”
The swordsman had been staring back at Noelle the whole time Denise had been assessing him. Now he looked down at her.
“My name is Janos Drugeth. From the family with the estates in Humenné. Homonna, as we Hungarians would call it. I am a cavalry officer in the service of the Austrian emperor.”
Hungarian. Denise didn’t know much about Hungarians, but she knew they liked to call themselves “Magyars” because they were descended from a tribe of nomadic conquerors. Like some biker gangs liked to call themselves “the Huns.”
Perfect. Just perfect.
To her surprise, he added: “We may speak in English, if you prefer.”
His English was good, too, if heavily accented.
Noelle stood very straight. “My name is Noelle Stull. I am an official for the USE government. Well, the State of Thuringia-Franconia. And I—me and my partner, Eddie Junker, over there—”
She pointed toward the demolished wagon, some distance away. “—are in pursuit of the criminals whom we believed to have been in possession of that vehicle. Please either assist us in that task or, at the very least, do not impede us in our duty.”
Bold as brass. Mentally, Denise doffed her hat in salute. Not that she ever wore a hat.