The cacophony of the mortar shells and small arms fire had stopped and in the silence, all the soldier could hear was the ringing in his ears.
He found himself kneeling in the mud, his left hand supporting his weight, while his right hand was clutching his carbine to his chest.
Initially, there was only numbness, but he knew he had been injured as, looking down, he could see the blood seeping through the jagged gash in his right thigh, visible through the tear in his pants.
Pushing off with his left hand he managed to get to his feet, and for a moment, stood, swaying unsteadily. It occurred to him that no one was shooting at him, and that was a good thing.
He looked about at the destruction that lay before him. The village they had entered earlier – had it been a few minutes, hours or days – had been a collection of wooden shacks and small concrete structures, was mostly destroyed. Smoke rose, almost vertical in the still air of the late afternoon. As the ringing in his ears subsided, he could hear the sounds of wailing, and moans, and cries of pain.
He sent mental feelers through his body. The wound in his thigh was stinging, but appeared to be no more than a graze. His chest hurt, and he looked down to see that his body armour had been pockmarked by shrapnel. Whatever had hit him, fortunately, had not penetrated the kevlar.
As his hearing began to return, apart from the wailing and moans, the only other sound he could hear was the crackle of flames. He knew that others had survived the fighting, but where they were he had no idea, and cared even less.
To his left, he saw the forest, miraculously untouched by the flames and destruction, and started in its direction. The pain in his thigh flared and he grimaced, clenching his teeth until they hurt. His only thought was to enter the forest. He had no idea why, but he knew he would find a safe haven amongst the trees.
He made his way across the scorched field, passing the bodies of soldiers, dead or dying, unaware that he was leaving a trail of blood in his footsteps. Finally, he came to a barrier of bushes, chest height. He thought to push his way through them. Then he realised that he was still carrying his carbine in his right hand.
He let it fall to the ground, and to his amazement the bushes parted, as if blown by a strong gust of wind. He started forward, ignoring the pain in his thigh. He did not look down, he knew the wound was bleeding, and that the legging of his pants were soaked with his blood.
He pushed past the bushes and found himself in a small clearing. Tall trees formed a green wall around three sides and towards the end of the clearing, he saw a latticework of branches.
Desperately tired now, he wanted to lay down in the soft velvety undergrowth beneath his feet, but, something pushed him to continue. There was something better, something…more peaceful…waiting for him, beyond the latticework ahead of him.
He approached it, and reached out with his hand. The branches were unyielding and would not give an inch. He looked back the way he had come and realised that he could not see the bushes where he had entered the clearing. Tall trees now lined the perimeter.
A sharp pain in his chest brought him back to the reality of his injuries. He released the heavy Velcro straps securing the body armour and let it fall to the ground at his feet. He undid the webbing that held additional ammunition for the carbine he had discarded, and let that fall. And as he did, he noticed the latticework of branches before him seemed to tremble. He reached out and pushed gently, and felt it give way.
Moving forward, he felt small branches brush gently against his face. He looked down to see a thin vine move, as if with a life of its own, and encircle his wounded thigh. He stood very still, and as he watched, it caressed the injury and fell away.
Before the soldier was a green canopy, flecked with flowers of every colour. In the centre were bright red blossoms that seemed to stand out above all the rest.
There was no longer any pain in his chest and the wound in his thigh was forgotten. He walked into the green world where leaves, vines, and thin branches brushed gently against his face, welcoming him to their world.
He could feel the leaves beneath his feet now and looked down to find that he had removed his combat boots and socks. When had he done that? The grass felt cool and soothing against his flesh.
Desperately tired now, he lay down on the soft green undergrowth, and closed his eyes, and soon fell asleep.
And as he slipped into unconsciousness the forest silently came alive and gently covered him with warm leaves.
He was home.