The day was cold, snowy and gray. The road in this rural section of Hungary was deserted. Well, not quite. A figure in a gray trench coat and hat, hunched against the biting wind, the driving snow forming a white shadow around him, was making his way through the drifts. He seemed lost in thought, unaware of the cold. His hands were shoved deep in his pockets and his hat was pulled low over his eyes.
Suddenly, his head jerked up, like a puppet’s when it’s strings are pulled. He stopped walking and listened for a moment, then shook his head as if to tell himself that it was only the wind. He resumed walking, head bent.
A few steps farther his head jerked up again and this time he stayed still for a long time, listening. At length, he edged a step forward, removed his gloved hands from his pockets and plunged into the drift at the side of the road.
He clawed his way through the snow, fighting to keep abreast, struggling against the wind. His hat was swept off his head, revealing a shock of thick brown hair and a pair of startling, clear grey eyes. He floundered through the snow for a few more feet, then stopped short.
At his feet, curled up in the snow, was a little girl blue with cold. She was wearing only a thin, threadbare coat and her feet were covered in boots that were full of holes. Her pinched cheeks showed the signs of hunger and she was moaning and crying, a ball of misery in the vast whiteness. He bent over her, speaking to her. She looked up, and for a moment her terrified eyes met his. She jerked and started shaking. He reached to pick her up but she crouched away from him, horrible to see. He held back and spoke again, I’m not going to hurt you, he seemed to say. I’m just here to help. His grey eyes were kind, but hers were shut tight and the moaning continued. Only then did he notice that her arms were bruised and cut and that she seemed to have a swollen discoloration under one eye.
He straightened and glanced around. There was no one. He took off his coat and stepping forward, wrapped it around the girl. She uttered a hoarse little cry, then convulsively fell into his arms. He picked her up. She was saying something. He held her close to his ear and strained to catch the words amidst the howling wind.
The words were a jabber, punctuated by sobs, but he managed to catch a few words:
“Help……they’re…..get me…….they’re coming……me…….help……..coming….”
Startled, he looked around again, his eyes narrowing, surveying the terrain for hidden pockets, but everything looked the same in the snow.
Then he heard them. A shout, then a louder one close by, then another farther away, which was answered by another in the opposite direction. They were all around and suddenly the man was afraid.
He looked at the girl in his arms and then at the vast whiteness around them, at the very edge of which he could see black figures approaching. He looked at the girl again. She was clutching the trench coat with thin, white hands and her lips were blue with cold. She had snuggled up against him and her eyes were shut.
The man took a step forward, his broad frame tense with the effort of keeping her above the snow and keeping his balance. He took another step, then another, then looked back.
The black figures had advanced and were very close. He wondered if they’d seen him.
What could he do? He couldn’t run, not in the snow. The girl’s weight, small though it was, would be enough to slow them to a snail’s pace. They would be shot or taken before they could move. He knew about it. He knew what would happen if he stayed.
What was the right thing to do? He could leave and live or stay and die. He could attempt to make it with her and be shot or he could leave her and take a chance for himself. He wavered, taking another step, then looked back again. Suddenly his eyes narrowed, from fear of other emotions it was hard to tell. He stared hard at the approaching figures, then at the girl and suddenly he put her down and jerked his way through the snow, away from her. Fear appeared to seize him in its irresistible clutches as he fled.
Her pitiful cries were lost in the wind and soon he was lost to sight. Only the black figures could be seen, though they strangely seemed one less in number, and then suddenly, they were there.
They surrounded the girl, grasping her, pulling her to her feet roughly. She screamed and fought with what little strength she had when a shot rang out. One of the men holding her fell heavily into the snow, writhed for a moment, then was still.
The others were startled, wary, frightened, amazed and suddenly very angry. They fired random shots with their machine guns, trying to locate their ambusher. Another single shot rang out, another man fell.
Furious now, they started spreading out, looking for cover, but the strange shots came faster now, mercilessly dropping men. Their fury vanished in terror at an unseen enemy. When only a few were left, when their leader was dead in the snow, they turned and fled.
The man waited a moment, then slung his gun over his shoulder and plowed his way through the snow to the girl. He re-wrapped her in his trench coat and picked her up. He felt her small heart beating wildly against his and he held her close. He looked around again, with that strange narrowing of eyes. Then he started his slow way through the drifts back to the road.
But the battle had only begun…….