A/N: Written for the WCC September 2012 hosted by the Review Game Forum. The prompt was: All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you." - Watership Down by Richard Adams. Vote for your favourites between the 8th and the…14th (I think) of September here: topic/1867/726853/44/#2598452.


Before Dawn

A blur of colours and sounds defined the world outside. She could make out the shadows of dashing forms through a crack in the wall. People fleeing from the fire that rained upon their heads. Children cringing away from the stench of blood and burnt flesh. Adults attempting to shrink into the shadows. All of them attempting to escape certain death, escape the gunpowder blasting the air.

She cowered in her corner under the table. The sagging cloth concealed most of her form; the wooden tabletop provided a shelter. Her hands clutched the shirt she wore; she had been one of the unlucky ones – or perhaps lucky; it depended on the view. The first blast had caused the eastern portion of their roof to collapse in shambles. The table protected her – the west wall still stood – but the fallen beams left her in utter darkness save the crack that was her only visual connection with the outside world.

The sounds though could not be muffled. Shrieking, screaming, and the ever-present clicking of rounds being fired were permeated with flashes of ear-splitting bangs. The earth shuddered violently under numerous feet – but it was a far-cry from the tremors that wracked her form.

She wanted Mama. But her mother was outside.

She held her breath – an action of fear, or defeat – and waited. Waited for the noise to cease. For the final grenade of light to extinguish. For the flimsy shell to crash upon her –

And then there was a crash that shook the table overhead, and scuffling. Lots of scuffling. Like rats scavenging for food. Or, more accurately, dogs searching for victims to maul.

Her stomach churned; her bladder felt uncomfortably tight. She curled herself tighter, holding her breath while ignoring the futility of such an action. One second. Two. The seconds stretched into minutes. One. Started getting more painful.

And then silence. Horrible silence screaming into a bloodied and burning light. She released her breath, fighting to keep it calm as the ragged bout echoed insanely about her. The darkness pressed: imprisoning her, protecting her.

Her mouth automatically opened in a silent gasp as light flooded into her prison. The tabletop – her safe – was removed; a soldier held the wooden board. Young: younger than the girl had expected. This boy, dressed in grey and green and with a gun in hand, could only be a few years older than her.

The table legs, now supporting nothing, collapsed.

They were both trembling. Girl and soldier. Victim and executioner. The gun had immediately trained upon her; she could have been a corpse and the weapon would still have been pointed at her head. A reflexive action; it was almost as if the other expected her to fight back.

She clutched her legs tighter. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest; the cage constricted. Before him, the rifle wavered. Wide green eyes trembled; he was young, new and naïve.

But this? This was war. And war was indiscriminate.

The safety clicked back; the arm shook far too much for a clean aim, but the rifle was of a high enough calibre to blast an entire head off at close range. The soldier knew. The girl did not.

It didn't matter. She was going to die. The mantra rolled itself out in her mind. She was going to die.

A trembling finger twitched. Hearts thumped in a wild symphony, each deaf and yet painfully apparent to the other's ears. In that world, there was only the two of them. A single gunshot echoed elsewhere. Far away from them.

Her mind froze at that. Her grip unravelled, became limp. Pieces of wood dug into her body. She saw the free hand came up to steady the rifle –

– and turn its point down.

Their breaths came out in gasps, tangling together in the silence. The girl waited. The soldier boy lifted his chin, higher than the arrogant walker ever could – for the sight would not reach the ground.

The soldier uttered one word before the rifled snapped back and fired.

'Go.'

The debris exploded; dust and slivers of wood rose into the air like a thickened veil. The silence fled as if a fire had been lit upon its tail; the tablecloth fell atop her shoulders, offering a little coverage. Her eyes still burned though, little orbs glittering in the dim rifle light.

The rifle hung limply in the soldier's hand. 'I – I can't – you're…a child!' Each word was forced. Hoarse. Laced with fear. 'Please. Go!'

Shadow descended. Night was falling. The soldier boy gave the survivor one last look before fleeing; if he was caught leaving a villager undead, his corpse would pave the way for her own. She knew little of what had occurred, but she knew that. The laws of old, when the first wars had been fought a hundred years ago. Legends passed down from generation to generation; folklore she had thought would never become reality.

But now her world was dead. And she could simply wait for her executioner to come, or she could move. Her safe nook in the corner had been found and destroyed. She was now, without conscious though, a few feet away from that point. She trembled still; the strength could be put to use. She could crawl – or walk: escape. But to where? For what? How far would she get before she was found?

Mama – she knew her mother. Where she was. Her father? He was on the road, yet to return.

A tiny hope flared in her heart and she clung to it with all her strength. She could go to him. He would stop in a few days at his old home. She could meet him there.

She crawled further, hands enclosing around the disembodied head she sought. Her eyes glittered strangely as she clutched it close to her heart. That head: a replica of her save the years in between. Her mother's head.

'We will go to Papa,' she declared, a child's joy laced upon an adult's nightmare. He could fix this: their village, all that screaming and burning and terror. At least it was too dark to see the blood. Too full of burning ash and phosphorus to smell the blood.

She would go. Because if she stayed, she would certainly die.

The remains would burn at dawn. She pulled the cloth over her hair, clutched the head tighter, and crawled on under the cover of darkness.

Papa. She would go to Papa.

And she would not get caught. Not at least until she could crawl no more. Walk no more. Run no more.

Papa was all she had left.

Blood ran from her knees, then her feet as she mustered the strength to stand and plunged on. A lone figure framed against the night, walking towards a horizon too far to reach on foot. Shadows milled about her; she kept to the posts and bits of walls that still stood, leaning on their cover. The night made it difficult to see.

She left the smell of burning behind as she stepped upon the smooth ground. The desert stretched before her – a long stretch of nothing.

When the dawn came, there would be nowhere to hide.

She took another step forward. Many things could happen before the dawn.