THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN CONNECTION — snippet 22

 

THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN CONNECTION – snippet 22:

 

 

            The Drugeth fellow gave Noelle a sorrowful smile. “I will not dispute your characterization of the individuals in questions. But I am afraid I cannot respond as you wish to either of your requests. Not only may I not assist you, I am afraid I shall have to detain you myself.”

            He slid the sword back into its scabbard. The motion was swift, easy, practiced. He hadn’t even looked at the sword and scabbard as he did it, just letting his left thumb and forefinger guide the blade into the opening. The fact that he’d chosen to sheathe the weapon while explaining what he was going to do just emphasized his complete confidence that nobody would think to dispute the matter.

            Which…

            In point of fact, nobody would. Sure as hell not Denise. That sword could come out just as quickly and smoothly as it went in.  And leaving that aside, the other guy still had the shotgun in his hands and didn’t seem to be in the least inclined to emulate his leader’s example and put it away. True, he didn’t have the barrel pointed at anybody, but it was obvious he could in a split-second. That was just good gun-handling, not carelessness.

            He didn’t look like a rock star, either. More like a record producer. Shoot you as quick as he’d shell out payola or cheat singers out of their royalties.

            To Denise’s alarm, she saw that Noelle’s hand had moved to the vicinity of her holster.

            That was crazy. First, that was no quick-draw holster. It was a safe-and-sound holster with a flap, and the flap was buckled. By the time Noelle got the pistol out, the older guy with the shotgun could kill them all. Assuming the Hungarian nomad-cum-rock-star hadn’t sliced them up already.

            And even if Noelle had been a quick-draw whizzeroo, so fucking what? The pistol was a dinky little .32 caliber and her marksmanship was something of a legend, in Grantville. The anti-Julie Sims. There were two schools of thought on the subject. The optimists insisted Noelle could hit the side of a barn. The other view was that she could only do it if she were inside the barn to begin with.

            “Uh, Noelle….”

            Fortunately, Noelle reconsidered. Her hand moved away. “This is an outrage!” she snapped. “You are on USE soil here, not Austrian. You have no right—”

            “Please,” said Drugeth, holding up his hand. “You are wasting our time, and I believe you know it perfectly well. Although there have been no open hostilities in some time, Austria and the USE are enemies. I have been given the task of escorting the individuals in question to Vienna, and I intend to complete it successfully.”

            Noelle glared at him. “And you won’t stop at outright abduction.”

            “Hardly ‘abduction,’ I think.” He shrugged. Like the dark eyes, the gesture was sorrowful. Not really-sad sorrowful, just what you might call philosophically sorrowful. Exactly the same way, Denise imagined, the guy contemplated the bodies of his foes after he sliced them up.

            “I will set you free, unharmed, as soon as we have reached a place where I can be confident you cannot bring troops in time to prevent our escape. If you will give me your parole, I shall not even disarm you. And please do not delay the matter any further. I point out”—here, he nodded toward Lannie and Keenan, and then toward the wagon—“that you have injured persons in your party, who should get medical attention. And I will also point out that none of the injuries were caused by me and my men.”

            Noelle shifted the glare to Denise.

            “Hey, look, I said I was sorry. And he’s right, Noelle.”

            For a moment, she even thought Noelle might start cussing. But she didn’t, of course.

 

****

            By the time they got back to the wagon, Keenan and Denise propping up Lannie along the way—he turned out to be okay except for a sprained ankle—Eddie Junker was up and moving.

            Well. Sitting up and fiddling uselessly with his busted arm. There was another shotgun-toting sidekick of Drugeth’s there, watching Eddie carefully but making no effort to assist him. Drugeth had probably told him to do that, and by now it was clear enough that anybody who worked for Drugeth followed orders.

            “Cut it out, Eddie,” said Noelle crossly, kneeling next to him. “It’s broken. Denise, give me a hand.”

            “Why me?”

            “Because you broke it, that’s why.”

            “I don’t know squat about setting a broken arm. Have Keenan do it.”

            Noelle looked at Keenan. Keenan looked alarmed. “I hate the sight of blood.”

            “There’s no blood,” Denise pointed out.

            “I hate the sight of suffering. I’m not going to be any good at this.”

            “Enough,” said the Drugeth fellow. He motioned Keenan toward Eddie. “All you have to do is help hold him down. You ladies as well. This will be painful, for a time.”

            Eddie looked alarmed. More by the sight of Drugeth approaching him with that sword on his hip than anything else, Denise thought.

            “It doesn’t need to be amputated!” he protested.

            “Of course not,” said Drugeth calmly. “Now do your best not to thrash around. Hold him, everyone.”

****

            Drugeth set the arm just as swiftly and smoothly as he’d sheathed the sword. It seemed like zip-zip-zip and it was done. By then, his shotgun-toting cohorts had found a couple of pieces of wood broken off from the wagon that would serve as a temporary splint, along with one of Suzi Barclay’s flamboyant costumes that, sliced up, would serve to bind them.

            One of the cohorts did the slicing, not Drugeth, using a simple knife he had in a scabbard. Clearly enough, the Hungarian’s sword did not come out for any work less lofty than hacking flesh, still on the bone and twitching.

            By now, Drugeth didn’t remind Denise of a rock star at all. Just a good-looking nomad barbarian, who’d never once lost that serenely-sorrowful expression even while Eddie had been screaming bloody murder. And who’d obviously set more than one broken limb in his day; which, given that he wasn’t old enough to have seen all that many days, would indicate the days themselves had not been spent in the pursuit of serenity.

            “It’s done,” he said, coming back up to his feet. “Good enough for the time being, at least. It’s a clean break, so it should heal well.”

            Eddie was gasping, his heavy face pale and sweating. “You—you—” he said weakly, apparently searching for suitably vile cognomens to heap upon Drugeth. Then, he tightened his jaws. Then, looked up and nodded. “Thank you.”

            That was classy, Denise thought. She hadn’t known Eddie was that solid. Of course, she barely knew the guy.

            Drugeth nodded in return. “Let us be off then. Gage, retrieve that rifle over there.” He indicated a spot not far away. Denise hadn’t seen it until Drugeth pointed at the thing, but she recognized an up-time lever action rifle. Must have been Eddie’s.

            “Then,” the Hungarian continued, “you ride ahead and make sure the party we are escorting is ready to go when we arrive. Gardiner, you ride alongside Ms. Stull. Ms. Stull, I would appreciate it if you’d lead my horse.”

            He even said it that way, too. “Miz,” not “Miss.” This guy knew Americans, somehow, even down to the subtle quirks of what you called career girls like Noelle.

            “For the rest of us,” Drugeth continued, “I recommend walking, since we have injured persons.”

            It was all done very courteously, but Denise didn’t miss the fact that Drugeth’s dispositions also meant he had all the USE loyalists under control. If Noelle tried to ride off, Cohort Gardiner could go in pursuit. He wasn’t encumbered by having to lead another horse, and Denise didn’t doubt for an instant he could ride better than Noelle as well as shoot better than she could.

            And by remaining on foot, Drugeth was there—with the damn sword—in case any of the others decided to try something tricky that might throw off a horseman for a time. Like…

            Who knows? Finding a hole dug by something bigger than a gopher—they had badgers in Europe—and trying to hide in it. Not likely, but Drugeth didn’t seem like a guy who’d leave much to chance.

            Eddie’s horse was still thrashing a little. Cohort Gardiner went over and looked down at the poor animal, then looked at Drugeth.

            The Hungarian officer nodded. Clickety-BOOM, and the horse was out of its misery.

About Eric Flint

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