The Trench Rats: Part 1
Bring the children near, they must now be told the truth
Old and young, and those of foreign tongue
Are you ready to fight?
--Mike + The Mechanics, "A Call To Arms"
THE STOLEN DOGS trotted as silently as possible through the undergrowth, slipping through the woods, mere shadows moving between trees. Their riders--an older male rat upon one, a young female rat upon the other--cast frightened glances over their shoulders as the dogs moved. It was bad enough that they had stolen the creatures, when they were already on the run. They hadn't been captured yet, but with the way things were looking it was only a matter of time.
They didn't even have any friends or relatives left to turn to. They had all either denied knowing them or had been killed. There was nothing to do now but try to escape the country--in whichever way possible.
Her father had been reluctant to steal the dogs but she'd finally convinced him: "We are thieves who live or we are innocents who die. I doubt the owner even needs them as much as we do. When we escape, we can always try to spread the word of what's going on. I don't know if anyone knows just how dangerous it is here. Wouldn't that be a good trade for becoming thieves?"
To which he'd merely replied, "We set them free when we're done."
Good enough; that had been enough to get them going. But now, night had fallen, and they were in the woods alone...it had been easy enough to steal the dogs and make off unnoticed, but it would be only a matter of time before the missing canines were noticed...and then who would be sent after them?
Neither wanted to find out, yet find out they knew they would...
As the night wore on, as seemingly endless as the woods, they grew more apprehensive. It was quiet. Too quiet. They hadn't heard any pursuit yet...it was taking far too long...what was going on, anyway?
Her father turned to her and whispered as they rode. "Keep your ears open, little Mir. They're tricky--they might come up from behind, or in front, or even from above us..."
She nodded, mouth thin. He tried to sound unafraid but she knew the truth.
It's too quiet...they must be out there, somewhere...
They had crested a small hillock and started down the other side when she found out she was right.
From the bushes and undergrowth all around them, giant dogs suddenly leapt snarling, teeth dripping and eyes blazing. Dobermans and German shepherds, every last one of them, their riders with blood-red swastikas emblazoned on their upper arms and deadly guns clenched in their hands. She heard her father yell once before they were off, speeding deeper into the woods in a futile effort to outrun the enemy.
It was hopeless--the dogs they had stolen weren't as well trained or as fit as the ones their pursuers rode. So in short order they were panting heavily, stumbling over roots and smacking into low branches, scratched and foaming. She didn't like the rasping sound her own made at all. And to make it worse, a blast shattered the air, nicking a tree just to her right as she passed it; apparently, it no longer mattered whether they were taken in dead, or alive.
"Go! Go faster, little Mir!" her father shouted.
"I'm trying!" She kept tight hold of the leather reins on the dog, hands also digging into its fur. They moved so fast she could barely see where they were going. Pine needles stung her face. Another shot rang out, slamming into her arm; she cried out and clasped onto it, feeling the blood running between her fingers.
"Go, Papa, go! I'm fine!"
"Halt!" someone behind them yelled.
Small chance now, she thought to herself, grating her teeth and whipping the reins, trying to get the dog to go faster. An old German shepherd, it foamed and heaved, looking ready to collapse at any moment, feet moving too fast for it to keep up with itself.
She glanced over her shoulder. Their pursuers had moved much closer. One lifted a gun, one eye squinting, aiming it--
BANG--another one tore through the air, only at first she thought it had missed her because she felt no sting. Only to see her father lurch forward, eyes going wide, before blood ran from his mouth and his hands let go of the dog's reins, body going limp, sliding from its back and falling hard to the ground, the dog leaving him behind as it continued running--
"Papa!" she screamed, reaching out one arm as if to catch him. He rapidly disappeared from her sight, the dog running off in some other direction. Tears stung her eyes, making it impossible to see; she turned forward again, gasping for breath, the pain in her throat hurting more than her wounded arm.
One down...only herself to go. And there was nowhere left to run. An ambush--they'd been waiting for them to come through here. There should be more ahead, once she exited the woods. If she exited the woods. Why would they not be able to finish her off, then?
She wouldn't let them. She knew she would die, but perhaps, if she did it her way, she could take a few of them with her.
For you, Papa.
She reached down to her side, fumbled around for the gun she knew should be there. Found it, grasped the handle, pulling it out and twisting around, doing her best to aim at the one who'd shot her father. The tears blinded her; she pulled the trigger and fired blindly. He ducked, but wasn't hit; he only spurred the dog on faster.
She screamed furiously and pulled the trigger again, only to hear--nothing. The gun jammed, useless as a hunk of metal in her hand. She stared at it in disbelief--how could this happen, now of all times? Did God want her to simply die, then?
She tossed it at him, missing, of course, and turned to face ahead of her again. Just in time. The woods ended ahead, and instead of more soldiers, she saw a steep dropoff down toward the riverbed below. With a gasp she grabbed the reins and pulled back as hard as she could. The dog yelped and dug its feet into the ground, skidding, trying to stop; it managed to do so just before plunging over the edge, back feet slipping in crumbling earth. She lifted her head and looked up. Her pursuers had slowed, seeing her helpless situation; one of them smiled, eyes cruel, gun aimed casually at the sky. It wasn't necessary anymore; she wouldn't be able to fight them all off. It didn't mean she was going to give in without a fight, but she knew she would soon be dead.
Her lips curled back and she snarled at them as if she were a dog herself, fingers digging into her palms, an unspoken threat that they just try.
The dropoff was just behind her. Not a cliff, but steep and far enough, and she knew she wouldn't be able to make it to the bottom alive, not with the jagged rocks awaiting below. Just one backflip and off she would go. Leaving them emptyhanded and without an amusing little plaything to entertain themselves. All of this went through her head as she watched them laugh at her expression and come forward. I'm coming, Papa, she thought, steeling herself and slowly standing up. Your little Mirela will be with you soon.
Seeing her standing up defiantly, the first one laughed even louder. "Look," he yelled to his companions in German. "She doesn't want to be friends, she wants to play target practice. Doesn't she make a lovely target?"
"Come on," a second one retorted. "I thought we were going to have some fun."
"And this isn't fun? You need to get out more. I'm saving you the trouble of bothering with the trashy little thing. This'll be a lot more fun, I promise. Then we can all go out on the town, mission accomplished, what do you say?"
The second one muttered to himself but offered no argument. The others hooted and catcalled when the first smiled again and aimed the gun between her eyes.
She stood up as straight as she could and shook her fists at the air in a defiant gesture. "You want to shoot? Go ahead, big man, show me that your gun's really got some bullets in it after all!"
A burst of laughter from the others. A surprised, then furious look crossed the soldier's face. "Mouthy little whore," he hissed, cocking the gun, finger pulling back the trigger.
Something suddenly slammed into the back of his head, sending him flying from the dog, headfirst into the ground. The others gasped and glanced upward. Whatever had happened to him happened to another one as well, and then a third and a fourth gasped a second time as bullets blasted through them. Mirela had enough time to open her eyes before something had grabbed onto her arms, yanking her up into the sky. She let out a short scream; bird talons dug into her skin--the ground grew further away beneath her, but she could see another large bird emerge from the trees, caped figure on its back armed with a machine gun, spraying the others below. She looked above her to see the underbelly of the bird that had caught her, wings pounding the air as it rose higher. The breath left her, just for a moment.
She knew she'd been rescued.
Still, she flailed her legs and screamed again just the same, furious. She wanted to have been the one to cheat that bastard out of his final prize!
Her scream only echoed uselessly through the air as her rescuers flew off for someplace safer.