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 Société Géographique, 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 all the way up. 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 Lycée 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, listening, sniffing, watching. Its posture was 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. 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 not keen, 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.
To the vast amusement of his cousin Paul, Moussa was peeing on an anthill. A mass of black ants scurried to avoid the stream, disappearing down holes or hiding under leaves, running away as fast as they could. Quickly Paul joined in and together they scattered an entire army, watching in delight as order and purpose turned to muddy chaos. Some, Paul noted with glee, were not nearly fast enough.
"The lout!" he cried, trying his best to drown one. "He should learn to swim!"
Moussa laughed. "He should get a parasol!"
"Or a boat!" They giggled and aimed and peed until they ran dry.
The boys were six years old and had sneaked away from Moussa’s mother. They knew these woods well and had come to their private kingdom. No adult knew about it except Gascon, the count’s retainer. A massive oak held their secret tree house. It wasn’t a tree house, actually, but a fine castle with lookouts and windows and parapets where they could spy on carriages passing by on the road across the lake. Sometimes the emperor himself could be seen, the mighty Napoléon III, coming so close they could make out the fine waxed points of his mustache. He would be surrounded by a grand escort of Cent Gardes in blue tunics and plumed helmets and flashing jackboots, everyone in fine carriages or riding magnificent horses. Or they might see Empress Eugénie, with her equerries and lords and ladies of the court, an elegant procession of tassels and feathers and velvet and lace.
It was all quite exalted. In this, their sovereign land, the boys looked down upon emperors and ruled the known world.
Gascon had built the castle for them with bits and pieces of wood scavenged from the estate. The boys decorated the interior with velvet draperies they’d found hanging in the bedroom of Paul’s mother, Elisabeth. She never knew what happened to them and Gascon wasn’t saying, which was just as well because by the time the boys and the squirrels had finished, the draperies were no longer suitable for domestic use. Paul and Moussa improved upon things with a chair, then two chairs, and then an end table, and a brass lamp from the count’s library that Gascon wouldn’t let them light. They were struggling up the tree with a box of the count’s books when Gascon drew the line. He knew the count’s limits.
There was no ladder up to the castle, only hidden handholds and footholds that you just had to know about. Moussa and Paul knew as, of course, did Gascon; and together they made up the entire membership of the Club des Grande Armée. They had clandestine meetings and secret codes and their fortress was well armed. Gascon had spent fifteen years fighting in the First Regiment of Lancers in Algeria. He knew all the weapons and how to use them, and had seen to the provisioning of the castle arsenal, a fine collection of wooden swords and bark-covered shields, and daggers made of oak. He showed them how to wrap the sword handles in twine for a good grip, and how to layer the bark so that blows from the mightiest sword would fall harmlessly to one side. They had pouches for their daggers and helmets made from milk cans.
He told them stories while they worked on the castle, stories of olden days, of knights and dragons and far-off places and great battles of kings and popes and emperors. They sat hushed and wide-eyed as he told of the Sahara, of dervishes and devils and genies. They laughed at his magic tricks. He could make shiny coins appear from behind their ears, or grasshoppers from their belly buttons.
Gascon taught them how to climb and how to swim. He spent hours with them digging a moat around the castle. The boys helped; and over the summer the moat became ever more elaborate, winding in a grand circle around the tree, with bridges made of branches where one had to give the password. And on the bottom of the moat were carefully arranged patches of rocks that—if you looked just the right way at them—became crocodiles that ate trespassers, tax collectors, and knights of the evil kingdom. Sometimes they covered the moat with branches and leaves and dirt until it was transformed into the castle maze, a series of tunnels with secret escape hatches and passages leading off this way and that. From the surface it was all but invisible. Just last week Gascon had given them a new prize: a rope hanging from a branch of the tree. The rope had a stirrup that allowed them to swing out over the lake and scout for pirates. Gascon said that one day soon they’d be able to swing out and let go, and fall all the way to the water.
It wasn’t all as casual as it might have seemed. There was method to the games and the make-believe, a plan behind the dungeons and the rogues. The count had carefully laid out his objectives for this phase of the boys’ education with Gascon, who was only too pleased to oblige his lord, for he loved the boys and enjoyed himself immensely as they played. He skillfully interwove forest lore with the magic, and during a hundred dangerous missions scouting for monsters and thieves worked at developing the boys’ agility and sense of responsibility. Perhaps Gascon enjoyed it most of all, for it stirred memories of his own boyhood in the southwest of France, where he had not been so fortunate as to have a father like the count or an estate like this.
All in all, agreed the initiates of the Club des Grande Armée, the world was perfect, and their kingdom was better.
Moussa and Paul finished blasting the ants and turned to cross the moat and scale the castle wall.
Paul heard it first, a low distant rumble like thunder. He turned and saw it, hair and hooves and tusks, grunting and shuffling through the leaves. It was headed directly at Moussa. Paul thought it was a dragon. In his imagination he saw it flying and saw the fire in its eyes and the murder in its mind. He shrieked and shrieked. It was a dragon.
Moussa was between Paul and the boar. He saw Paul pointing, a look of horror in his eyes. And then Moussa looked too, and froze.
Full-grown men could train for years to hunt boar, learning lessons that came at a terrible price. They could prepare themselves with weapons and surround themselves with comrades and horses and all the defenses that man could muster against beast. And at long last, when the moment came, when all the preparation and training was finally put to the test, even the best man could feel his guts turn to jelly as the boar came to settle up. More than one man had died at that instant when fear and training came together in a test of the ability to act.
It was too much to expect two boys to do anything but stop and stare in dread at the animal rushing down upon them and wait for whatever was coming. They had never imagined such a creature except in the wildest stories told them by Gascon, and even he had never described a vision so horrible as this.
So it was with extraordinary presence of mind that Paul did what he did.
"Run!" he shouted.
Moussa stood there, dumbstruck.
"Run!" Paul shouted again, but to no avail. And as the beast bore down upon his cousin, Paul sprang forward and pushed Moussa as hard as he could, to knock him toward their moat, into which Paul himself then jumped.
The push saved Moussa’s life. Without it the boar would have hit him head-on, goring him full in the stomach. Instead it ripped him in the side with a glancing blow. There was still enough force to propel Moussa through the air, completely over the moat. The boy landed in a heap, unconscious and bleeding.
Abruptly the boar stopped its charge, having come to the edge of the ditch. At the bottom lay Paul. The boy looked up and saw the terrible jaw and teeth and tusks. He’d run out of courage. All he could do was curl up in a ball and whimper.
The boar’s injuries grew steadily worse, yet a formidable animal remained, with deep reserves of strength bolstered by adrenaline. It would not die, not yet. Frustrated by the moat and unable to continue its attack, the boar ran frantically back and forth, its eyes narrow and angry, looking for a way to get into the moat to Paul, or around it, to Moussa.
On the far side of the tree the pig saw solid ground, a path that led straight to the focus of its rage.
It lowered its head and began to run.