Plumes of smoke drifted across the clear summer sky, carrying with them the acrid smell of still-burning fires. Below, narrow streets winded among facades riddled with holes, pavement stones upturned by tank treads wherever the lumbering mechanical beetles had struggled to turn some corner. Here, a lamp post leaned against a partially collapsed house, where an artillery shell had pierced the wall and exploded, scattering blackened bricks every which way. There, water gurgled out of the exposed pipework of what had been a lovely public fountain, forming pools in the tattered shadow of an awning.
There was no sound but for the crackling of flames; at least, not until the rapping of boots echoed among the endless files of three-story buildings. Two dozen soldiers marched as orderly as the torn ground allowed for, peeking nervously at the gloom behind broken windows while they fingered the straps of rifles. But there was nothing to see, not even the flapping of a pigeon's wings.