A mosaic made up of shards of sunlight lay on the beaten track created by the last rays that glinted through the canopy above.  They seemed to make a pattern on the forest floor, stretching across the clearing, as if trying to linger there as long as possible.  Nothing disturbed it, not until footsteps could be heard, pounding the hard ground as if attempting to cause their own earthquake.

Closer.  They were getting nearer and nearer, joined in their urgency by the wind suddenly blowing through the forest. The violent gale tore through the clearing, creating sound when a moment ago all had been silent.  The leaves began to shake, rustling against one another and it was almost as if the clearing itself gave a dramatic sigh at being disturbed.

Then came the bursts of gunfire.  The shots echoed all around the clearing, until it was impossible to tell from what direction the enemy was coming.  The miniature explosions surrounded the foliage hanging down from the branches. It almost resembled a wall, as if the forest was defending itself, as if nature itself was struggling in an effort to hide from the horrors of the outside world.  For a moment all was silent again giving the impression that it was over, fooling nature into thinking it was safe. Then as suddenly as it had stopped it began again, the wind becoming a roar and howling around the nearby trees, threatening to break their already creaking branches.

The noise in the forest built up, even louder, to a crescendo, in which a slender arm stretched itself through the leaves, fingers splayed out, as if about to grasp for something, before being followed by the rest of a figure dressed in khaki clothes; so that, in the space of a moment, the clearing was swiftly invaded by a man.  His appearance was shocking: tattered clothes, dirty from battling through the rough terrain of the forest, and sweat was glistening on his forehead and the back of his neck. He radiated warmth from the exertion of his struggle, and he promptly doubled over breathing heard, exhaustion making his body shake. He tried to stand upright but dizziness overcame him, and he leant against the nearest tree on the outskirt of the clearing, his palm pressing into the dry, cracking bark.  His breaths were strained, harsh, as if he had been running for miles at full tilt and had only now been able to stop. They resounded around the trees, who were the only witnesses of his moment of weakness.

After a few seconds, or maybe an eternity, the man stood up.  He had recovered enough to breathe easier and take in his surroundings, and now he gazed up through the canopy, the showering beams of light blinding him momentarily.  As he took in the world around him a certain amount of wonder shone in his eyes. The beauty of the place was captured forever in his memory, the green of the forest had never seemed so vibrant, and the golden rays of the sun so bright.  But it could not last. Another burst of gunfire ripped through the forest and this time it reached the clearing, tearing through the leaves. Once they had been like a defensive wall but now they were shredded with ease as the noise pierced the atmosphere of the clearing.

The bullets flew across the clearing, striking everything in sight, including the man.  He let out a cry before stumbling a couple of paces forwards. Blood soaked into his khaki top, making it an even darker shade, as if darkness itself was staining the cloth.  The man fell forward into the remaining patches of sunlight which were disappearing all too quickly now as the sunset rolled in. The beauty of the place was draining away. He reached out his right hand across the ground, grasping at the glittering spots of light on the floor, clawing himself up onto his knees, almost as if he were kneeling in supplication to a deity, begging for his life to be returned to him.  As his last breaths came he saw the final tiny spots of light on the ground extinguished, as darkness from the sky seemed to descend all around him. Once more he fell to the floor. This time he was still.

The clearing was quiet again, the wind had died down, and the only footsteps that could be heard were the ghostly echoes of those fixed in memory.  Everything was slowing down. Yet nature herself was not finished. Men had invaded her domain, and a price had been paid. A life. Now, as in the ancient myths of heroes eventually finding their place in the stars, likewise she allowed this to occur, so he could join her in watching over the beauty of the clearing, and indeed nature, forevermore.

by Megan Cradock

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