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I drifted back, back. Out there where I served, the climate seared. Out there, the memory of winter scourge was the dream of a soothing goddess. And dreaming was dangerous when padding through hours of uneventful patrol.

Recall: abroad.

The staccato punching of shots had us suddenly leaping for cover. Despite peril a bizarre notion flashed through my head, of puppets jerked by a huge and petulant child.

Two o’clock, from the tumbled remains of walls. But was there a line of crossfire? Would be strange if not. I signalled Lewis and Lissaman to flank right, Fitzgerald and Boden to probe left, swiftly adding over the encrypted headset that the latter be very cautious until we established patterning and enemy dispositions. I wriggled forward to the grudging cover of a sizeable block of stone. Carved, I noted. Once part of an impressive portal, most likely. Greatness had been housed here, centuries ago at least, maybe further back still.

I peeked over fallen grandeur and first noticed the woman, hunched up behind a thin veil of bleached dead stalks. Why hadn’t I seen her before? Dun rags partly covered a soiled dress of dark burgundy. Wisps of lead-grey hair escaped a frayed ochre headscarf. Clear turquoise eyes gazed out from nests of nut-brown wrinkles. I beckoned to her. She was only metres away though might as well be on the moon.

A row of tiny eruptions leapt from the hard-baked mud near her sandaled feet and ended at my position. The block sang as though struck by a chisel. A burning line stung my cheek. Probably a sliver of stone. A drop of my blood stained the ancient handiwork.

The old woman seemed oblivious to the battle around her. An expression of permanent surprise was painted across her weather-worn features, but not, apparently, because of the gunfire. She didn’t flinch at the shots or take evasive action, she didn’t look directly at me or the enemy. Perhaps a simpleton. Those eyes though. Those eyes were startling.

“Tamin, get up here.” An affirmative came back over the headset. Blinding lights flickered from the enemy position; they were reflecting sunlight from mirrors, trying to confuse our vision and targeting devices, a technique I’d come across before.

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