Warning: This story includes scenes of graphic violence
A songbird’s cheerful melody penetrated the still morning. Light pastel patches of yellow and purple wildflowers brightened the landscape on that spring day, but the soldier barely registered the tranquil scene. It was his twentieth birthday and in normal times it would have been a day of celebration with his family. But these were not normal times. It was probably going to be the last day of his life. As he pictured his parents and his two sisters, tears trickled down his cheeks.
Their orders were unambiguous. There would be no retreat or surrender. The soldier and his comrades were to hold their defensive position at all costs, down to the last man, against an enemy that vastly outnumbered them. Soon, he knew, the stillness of the morning would be destroyed by a cacophony of explosions.
The previous afternoon the last of a torrent of ragged civilian refugees had passed by. Thin and haggard, carrying a few meagre belongings, they looked at the soldiers with hopeless expressions as they shuffled past.
In the far distance he could hear the sounds of the approaching enemy. It was the faint rumbling of tank engines. Soon afterwards he spotted the first signs of movement. Hundreds of enemy soldiers were approaching, followed closely by their tanks and artillery.
With a sinking heart he waited. The sergeant would give the order to fire when the enemy was closer. Then the artillery on both sides would also blast their way into action.
The rumble of tank engines grew ever louder. The soldier became increasingly tense and a fog of despair overwhelmed him. Even though it was an icy winter’s morning he was sweating profusely.
He aimed at one of the approaching figures and pulled the trigger. Behind him the artillery also opened fire. He kept on shooting, seeing one after the other of the enemy soldiers crumpling, only to be replaced by an inexhaustible supply of others. His senses were dulled. He felt as though he were observing the scene from afar.
Soon bullets fired by the enemy began whistling through the trees where the soldier was lying. There was a series of massive explosions and the earth rocked and trembled. He saw one of his comrades being hurled into the air. The soldier’s body started trembling and he could barely hold his rifle steady.
A chip of wood from a tree that had been hit by a shell struck him just above his right eye and blood trickled into the eye, causing the scene to take on a hellish red glow. Nearby one of his comrades started howling in agony and cursing the gods who had abandoned him. He could see the man, blood spurting from a large shrapnel wound in his upper torso.
As the soldier gasped for air the nauseating smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils.
A terrific explosion close to the soldier deafened him. He could no longer see the enemy and he had lost all sense of direction. Clods of earth were hurled into the air by further explosions. All around him rifle fire and the crash of artillery shells continued unabated.
He glanced around. Tangled in a nearby tree branch he saw someone’s arm which had been ripped from the body. Blood dripped from the shoulder where it had been severed. It was still wearing a uniform sleeve onto which a sergeant’s three chevrons were stitched.
The soldier tried to get up, but lost his balance and fell onto his back. Dazed and disoriented he looked up into the sky. So this is what hell feels like, he thought.
Up above him he thought he could discern some movement in the sky. He wiped the blood from his eyes with his sleeve. Squinting, he could now see that it was the gods tumbling slowly from the sky. They were scorched, and wisps of smoke drifted from their bodies as they fell.