Chapter One ' Awake
Awake: to another morning.
At least I know I'm still alive. My hands are half frozen; as if they've been in an icebox all night. But; at least I'm alive.
Slowly, I gather my things, and shove them into my tattered, frayed rucksack. Compass. Maps, tinned food, matches, canteen, bandages, and a few rounds of ammunition. Slinging the rucksack onto my back, knife into a side leg sleeve, and rifle onto my shoulder; I'm ready.
It's time to get going.
Quietly, I make my way towards what used to be, a house entrance. Carefully; stepping over blasted bricks, an upturned table, and other odds and ends that had seen much better days. Days before the bombings had turned them into nothing more than objects of war.
I pull my jacket tight. Or, what's left of it, anyway. It's a mess of holes and frayed cloth, yet it helps keep some of the cold out; a cold I could still feel - trying to gouge its way into my bloodstream; freezing it over, like a river.
I carefully peek outside - making sure the coast is clear, no soldiers to be seen. I place my hand on the entrance wall; the chill of the brick attacks my hand, and sends pins and needles through me. I take a second to listen to the rumbling of planes overhead. The most I can hope for, is that they fly straight over. So, I take one step outside, and, as if on cue, the tell-tale sound cuts through the morning cold - the gentle whistling sound of bombs falling towards their target, to destroy all that lies below. Damn; it seems that, this morning I've no luck. I need to get out of here. Soldiers will sweep this area, soon after the bombing is over.
I push off the wall, and launch into a half-paced run. The rucksack on my back is bouncing from side to side; I should have positioned the tins better. They scrape along my back with each step - sending shots of pain down my cold back, and into my legs; which were mind numbingly cold. My legs feel like dead weights, it felt as if I was trying to run with concrete feet.
But I can't stop.
The bombs start hitting; fragments of wood and brick everywhere. The explosions, amplified by the brittle air of the morning, sets up a ringing in my ears. I manage to pick up speed, adrenalin flowing through me ' which, at least, helps break the clutches of cold shackled to my legs, thawing them out.
I turn down a small street; jumping over a trash can, and weaving my way through debris. Round the corner at the end of the street - just as a shell hits to my right, sending fragments every which way. Shards of wood, and glass; shattering away from the bombed house, sending shrapnel flying. I try to shield myself, but stray glass and wood slice my face, and burrow their way into my leg. I fall, crawling along the ground trying to get to cover, hands pressed to the ground, glass digging into my flesh.
The shells keep falling; buildings around me are being brought to the ground in grand style. The noise is intense; terrible. Glass shattering. Bricks crumbling, fires growing - sending a billow of smoke up and into the sky as if it were one giant smoke signal. If only it were a smoke signal - one that would get me out of here.
I scramble to my feet and keep running. Blood is trickling freely down my face and hands onto the ground below. I really need to get out of this city. Then it hits me - like being hit by a car at two hundred kilometres an hour. A shell lands no more than eight metres away from me
And for a short moment, I could fly.
I land hard, my rucksack splitting open, and sending tinned food rolling out like bowling balls, and leaving my other supplies scattered. A sudden sharp pain rips through my leg and up my body, and I look down and notice my knife has come loose and lodged itself into my leg.
I realize that that must have been the last of it. The whistling had stopped, and the rumbling of planes had gone. For a while, it's silent. Or, maybe, it just seems silent, because of my temporary deafness. Soldiers will be here soon.
Using the last ounces of energy I can muster, I pull myself under some nearby crates, hoping it will provide enough cover, so as to not be seen. That would be the worst thing possible - even worse than glassed hands, face, and a knife in the leg.
A few minutes or more pass slowly. Pain begins to set in, as the adrenalin fades from my body. Slowly, I pull the knife blade from my leg; biting down hard, so as to not make a sound. Blood oozes from the cut; not even the cold of the morning could ease the flow. I tear the arm off my jacket, leaving it now looking even more like a rag - but I need a bandage. I couldn't risk going out into the open to retrieve my bandages once the bombing stopped. So for now this will have to do.
I wipe the blood off my face first, and then proceed to wrapping the cloth around my leg, making a knot and pulling it tight. Somehow, I was lucky enough to keep my gun slung over my shoulder during the blast. I take it and position myself so that I'm concealed in cover, but still have a line of sight out into the open.
I check my ammo; five rounds left. The rest was scattered; it had fallen out of the rucksack, during my brief attempt at flight. Not enough to hold them off, but shooting is a last resort.
It's been about thirty minutes now, I guess, since the shelling stopped. But, I can't be too hasty in leaving. A few more minutes pass. I start to feel drowsy; fatigued - and then there is that sound.
The crunching of dirt and rocks, beneath dirty combat boots. They inch into sight - a small squad of soldiers dressed in their worn grey uniforms and helmets, and not-so shiny badges on their shoulders, showing their rank. Some are sporting bruised faces, and bandages on their arms or legs. Some were missing fingers or teeth.
'Spread out. Search everything!' Yells one. He must be in charge of this squad. I set my sights on him, following every move.
Shooting is a last resort.
Gently, I wrap my finger around the trigger. Have to be prepared.
From the corner of my eye, I notice a soldier making his way in my direction. I shuffle back; just enough to get my sights on him. Beads of sweat run down my face, and mix with dried blood - some getting on my lips; a salty taste.
I'm sure he is onto me, otherwise why would he come this far? I grip the gun tightly.
'Don't shoot!' I keep telling myself.
He keeps walking ' he's less than ten metres away now. He stops about two metres away from me; next to the half wall to my right, and proceeds to take a piss on it, before walking casually away.
I ease off the trigger, and let the tension roll out of me. That was too close.
I really need to get out of this city.