The Winter Soldier

Northern Hungary, February 1915


They were five hours east of Debrecen when the train came to a halt before the station on the empty plain.

There was no announcement, not even a whistle. Were it not for the snow-draped placard, he wouldn’t have known they had arrived. Hastening, afraid he would miss the stop, he gathered his bag, his coat, his saber, pushing his way out through the men who filled the corridor of the train. He was the only passenger to descend. Farther down the line, porters unloaded a pair of crates onto the snow before jumping back on board, slapping warmth into their hands. Then the carriages began to move, chains clanking, stirring his greatcoat and swirling snow around his knees.

He found the hussar in the station house, with the horses brought in from the cold. Their ears flicked against the low ceiling, their long faces overhanging a bench where three peasant women sat, hands clasped over their swaddled bellies like fat men content after a meal. Feet dangling just above the floor. Woman, horse, woman, horse, woman. The hussar stood without speaking. Back in Vienna, Lucius had seen regiments on parade with their plumes and colored sashes, but this man was dressed in a thick gray coat, with a cap of worn, patched fur. He motioned Lucius forward and handed him the reins of one of the horses before he led the other outside, its tail whisking across the women as it passed beneath the Habsburg double-headed eagle on the door.

Lucius tugged on the reins, but his horse resisted. He stroked her neck with the back of one hand—the broken one—while he pulled with the other. “Come,” he whispered, first in German, then in Polish, as her back hooves broke from the ice and frozen dung. To the hussar at the door, he said, “You’ve been waiting long.”

It was the last thing he said. Outside, the hussar lowered a leather mask, cut with slits for eyes and nostrils, and heaved himself onto his horse. Lucius followed, rucksack on his shoulders, struggling to wrap his scarf over his face. From inside the station house, the three old women watched them until the hussar wheeled his horse around and kicked the door shut. Your sons aren’t coming, Lucius wanted to tell them. Not in any state you’d wish to see. There was scarcely a man with two legs who wasn’t trying to lift the Russian siege of Przemyśl now.

Without a word the hussar began to ride north at a trot, his long rifle across his saddle, his saber on his waist. Lucius looked back to the railway, but the train had vanished. Snowflakes had begun to cover the track.

He followed. His horse’s hooves clattered on the frozen earth. The sky was gray, and in the distance he could see the mountains rising up into the storm. Somewhere, there, was Lemnowice, and the regimental hospital of the Third Army, where he was to serve.

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