1. Stealth and Survival

June 2086

Cairngorms Mountains

Scotland

Sylvia lay flat in the lush grass atop the hill. From her commanding position she overlooked a vast expanse of countryside but immediately to her front, from left to right was a wide valley. One mile to the west a broad waterway created a natural boundary running from north to south. The water course reduced in width at one point due to raised rocky areas on both banks. A narrow beaten path could clearly be seen on each side where a regular crossing point had been used. Half a mile to her right, or east, in the valley was a massive herd of omnivores, mainly bison, but with a few zebra, horses and cattle, grazing peacefully.

Farther to the right, a few hundred metres away from the dark mass of the herd was a smaller group of animals. The wolf pack had trotted in single file until, at a given point, their leader paused, turned and moved forward and to the right. The next member of the pack followed. Number three went left flanking and was followed by the fourth animal. Six more wolves made up the hunting patrol and they moved forward slowly in a crescent formation, the tips of which were outermost. It was a big pack, well-practised in their technique.

Sylvia smiled with admiration as she observed the patience and skill of the predators. She had learned many things from her mother regarding an existence in the wilderness but importantly, she was aware that many lessons could be learned by watching animal behaviour. Wild creatures drank when thirsty, ate when hungry and rested when tired. Crucially, they only killed when necessary.

The two pairs of hunters on the flanks made up a lot of distance before going to ground, in both cases, two hundred metres distant from the huge herd. A light breeze was blowing from west to east, so the grazers’ nostrils were teased by the scent of fresh vegetation and the nearby water source. They were blissfully unaware of any immediate threat.

On the crest of the small hill, Sylvia caught the strong bovine scent and knew the chase was imminent. If the breeze had blown south towards her it could only be a few seconds before one of the bison or cattle was alerted to the large lupines crouching in the longer grass.

An older animal on the distant side of the herd stopped feeding and raised its massive head, turning left and right, nostrils flared as it registered the familiar scent—danger loomed. The bull snorted and within seconds the grazing community became a mass of stampeding beef.

The wolves in the crescent formation took their cue from the initial panic and raced forward holding their positions, ready for the first omnivore to lose its footing or fail to keep the pace.

Sylvia had watched this scenario unfold many times but she still observed every aspect.

When the multitude of animals arrived at the waterway the frontrunners launched themselves in and swam. Within seconds the channel was blocked by the seething mass of bodies and the rushing water was pushed ahead, behind and over as it tried to continue on its journey. Some animals fell in their headlong rush and others turned away left or right before the crossing. At this point they were in a blind panic but in either direction they were unwittingly offering themselves to the predators.

On the northern and southern flanks of the stampede the pairs of wolves stood up in the long grass which caused further alarm and separation of the herd. Again, on both flanks there were bison that sealed their own fate by breaking free to go it alone. An individual bison was selected by the right flanking pair of wolves and harried until three members of the pack joined from the crescent, ready to pounce on the hapless victim. Simultaneously three bison had broken from formation on the side nearest the hill. One was selected and hunted down. Thus, in one carefully choreographed manoeuvre the pack had two bison and without further ado the wolves fed.

Sylvia observed the fight for survival down below, appreciating it from the view of both the hunter and the prey. Close to the base of the hill in a small clump of trees there were two bison, tired from running in the open, but they’d found shelter and slowed to a walk among the trees.

After a final assessment, Sylvia got to her feet and with the agility of a mountain goat ran down the side of the hill, her bow in her left hand, an arrow nocked ready for use in an instant. She reached the most dense area of woodland and crouched.

She pointed with her right hand. “Thor—go!” Next her left arm raised. “Storm—go!” The two wolves raced to right and left respectfully like well-trained sheepdogs, albeit much larger and fiercer than any domesticated animal. Their ears flattened as the two powerful bodies streaked through the heavy undergrowth left and right flanking. Alone, Sylvia was a supreme hunter but with her two lupine companions they made a formidable team.

Five minutes after the departure of her friends, Sylvia heard the distinctive snorting and bellowing of something large thundering towards her between the trees. While keeping her bow and arrow ready to fire with her left hand, she used her right hand to take another arrow from her quiver. She carefully placed the thin shaft between her lips and then pulled back on the first arrow.

The bison was no more than two years old but in full flight looked awesome. Sylvia loosed the arrow when the terrified animal was within thirty metres. The shaft whistled though the air, and sliced through the tuft on the beast’s chin on its way to the chest. The forward momentum of the bison assisted the arrowhead as it buried itself deep. The bison was within twenty metres when Sylvia’s second arrow found its target less than two finger’s width from the first.

Sylvia stood firm and had already nocked a third arrow by the time the large beast tumbled headlong to land within two paces of her firing point. Thor and Storm, the two wolves trotted to the spot and waited at a respectful distance, looking from the huntress to the prey and back again like domestic pets expecting a treat or dinner in a bowl.

“Good Thor … good Storm … wait … wait.” She eased the pressure on the bowstring, replaced the arrow in the quiver and placed the bow on the ground. She drew the large hunting knife from her scabbard and went forward to prepare the animal. In practised strokes Sylvia butchered the carcass in such a way that the innards were left in one area while she dragged the main body a short distance away. “Feast.”

The wolves descended on the pile of still warm internal organs and gorged themselves, ignoring the carcass that their leader had moved away.

Sylvia lifted her bow and ran a few hundred metres, before returning with her lightweight litter and towing rope. While the two animals continued to feed, Sylvia unrolled the litter and dragged the main carcass onto it. She secured her load and extended the rope ready for the journey home.

Less than an hour from observing the wolf pack at work, Sylvia was on her way, her broad leather harness draped over her shoulders as she dragged her load. Minus the internal organs and body fluids, the remains of the bison were heavy but manageable by the fit and strong woman.

Following the command, “Home,” Thor led the way, pausing occasionally to sniff the air and twist his ears alert to anything untoward. Storm brought up the rear, walking slowly a few paces behind Sylvia and her load. Like his brother, he too paused occasionally to observe.

Some people might have expected the wolves to be harnessed to the litter for such a journey, but to Sylvia’s way of thinking, the two big animals were of greater value as guardians. This allowed her to concentrate on taking home what would be enough food for all of them for a few days.

In the late afternoon, Sylvia continued with the skinning and skilful butchery of the carcass. While she worked, a short distance away, Thor and Storm had a hind leg apiece which they cleaned to the bone before contentedly gnawing and licking the remaining bone. 

By the evening, Sylvia had removed and prepared the various parts of the slain animal to use it for food, clothing, footwear, tools and more besides. Nothing was wasted and she never killed animals needlessly.

Large portions of the carcass were hung indoors by Sylvia to be smoked as taught by her mother. She used one of the rooms in the small house which nestled in the woodland. It was efficient and secure storage and a short distance from the teepee in which Sylvia slept. Her companions rested in a natural and warm den which Sylvia had built in a style which suited the animals.

*

Eagle’s Nest Farm

Aviemore

The darkness of the nuclear cloud had long ago receded so that many days were bright and warm. On the occasions when it rained it was not feared. The natural world was recovering.

Before the apocalypse, Eagle’s Nest Farm had also been a successful bed and breakfast hotel. Being situated a couple of miles from the famous ski resort town of Aviemore, had made Eagle’s Nest a popular destination. At least it did until that fateful day, Saturday 26th May, 2065. It was the day that countless millions of people lost their lives, whole continents were all but destroyed and the world changed forever.

When the earth shook from the violence of nuclear explosions, the resulting earthquakes, tsunamis and electrical storms it left the few survivors traumatised and in utter disbelief. How could leaders in a modern, hi-tech world lose control and almost annihilate the entire planet?

On that day, Helen McKenna, a college tutor, and eight of her teenage pupils were on a working visit to Eagle’s Nest Farm. They were some distance away from any buildings when they saw a mass exodus of vehicles on the distant tourist route out of town. The woman and her pupils ran across fields in terror to reach the farm. On arrival there was another shock in store. They had been deserted by those others who had lived and worked the farm and lodgings.

It was to be the start of a strange new life for those left stranded. The teacher and her small group of sixteen-year-old pupils soon realised that survival was within their grasp, but from the outset they would be dependent on each other.

The small community established itself and gradually learned to live with the idea that they were the only survivors in the region, possibly the country, or even the world. They had no way of knowing otherwise, and having all they needed, it was logical to continue in their isolated existence. As the teenagers grew older they paired and a new generation evolved.

Six years later, on Monday, 4th July 2071, their world changed once again, but for the better. A small reconnaissance party from a larger group of survivors arrived at the farm. The explorers had trekked over one hundred and twenty miles from the hydro-electric power station at Auchcarn. 

After several trips back and forward by various people the two disparate groups got to know each other. Two people who got on particularly well were Helen and ‘Sandy’ Beech, an ex-serviceman who was with the Auchcarn survivors. Among all the other things going on at the time and amidst the cooperation between the groups, Sandy elected to live at the farm with Helen and her now grown up pupils. Sandy was the single parent of a four-year-old boy, Peter. The lad was so named to carry his father’s true first name. The child quickly settled in to the new surroundings and made friends with the other children. 

*

June 2086

The years passed quickly and at nineteen, Peter Jnr, or ‘PJ’ as everyone called him, was an adventurer. He’d known for some time that his father made a secret journey every so often—always alone. Living with the others at Eagle’s Nest Farm was good but for many months PJ had a yearning to explore farther than the routine areas. He would occasionally arm himself as everyone at the farm had been taught to do before venturing out. He would then set off for a day-long trek carrying food and water in a backpack.

On one of his previous days out, he’d gone inside the old police station at Aviemore, and then went upstairs to gain access to the flat roof. It was the highest building in the nearby small town and with a good pair of binoculars it made an excellent viewpoint. On that occasion he’d spotted his father, in a canoe, paddling upstream, but he turned off into a narrow tributary and disappeared.

PJ had seen enough—he was going there one day to investigate and that day had arrived. Into his backpack went a water bottle, fruit and homemade snack bars. He told his mother he was going on one of his long treks to investigate some areas of woodland. A loose shirt, open to the waist, a pair of well-worn, khaki shorts, and leather moccasins were all he wore which accentuated his muscular physique. The minimal outfit gave the impression of a backwoodsman who’d found the items.

He walked into Aviemore with his bow and quiver slung over his shoulder. On his belt he wore a scabbard with a hunting knife and in his right hand he carried his throwing spear. He was aware of the stray dogs which had proliferated over the years but they’d become less of a threat because there was plentiful wildlife to hunt.

When PJ reached the now dishevelled railway station he crossed the footbridge and climbed over the embankment to reach the river. He settled into one of the canoes tethered to the bank and two minutes later he was paddling upstream. PJ, like the others, had been told many times not to venture into the region on the opposite bank of the River Spey but the idea of this adventure had become an obsession with him.

He worked hard against the currents and when the time came he passed the small inlet to the tributary on the other side. He quickly turned his canoe with the current and paddled rapidly to enter and follow the narrow waterway. Away from the river it felt intimate and secluded as he paddled steadily and quietly. PJ had a keen eye for tracking and he watched for traces of where a craft might have been tied off. He soon found an area which showed those signs. He went past and secured his canoe under some overhanging foliage before unloading his weapons and pack.

PJ had been taught like all the others how to navigate and track, so although he was comfortable with the skills required, it was exciting because he was alone and in a prohibited area. He followed the bank of the stream back again until he was close to where he’d seen the signs of damaged branches, and then he picked up footprints. This was going to be easier than he first thought.

For an hour, PJ followed the trail left by his father and though it seemed easy enough he remained alert to danger. He followed the boundaries of what must have been cultivated fields—easily recognised by the difference in vegetation and regularity of the divisions between fields.

PJ saw a dishevelled old building, or at least the remaining walls. There was no roof but several rafters had fallen in against each other and refused to collapse completely. Nature had taken its course over the years and greenery now welded the remaining old beams at strange angles. The walls were standing in good order but the windows and door were long gone, leaving behind gaping holes which had allowed various wildlife to use the place as a shelter. All the wooden frameworks of the dwelling had now become the base for a mixture of greenery and microscopic life.

A while later, PJ lost what he believed were his father’s tracks but noticed something unusual. It was a different set of footprints—unlike any he’d seen. The footwear had no ridges but it wasn’t the print of a bare foot—there was a covering of some sort. He knelt and teased the earth with his fingertips as taught and the texture suggested that these prints were recent.

What had been an exciting one-man patrol to explore had changed in one regard. PJ realised that he might not be alone. If careless, he could easily trigger a boobytrap—something his father had explained at length, demonstrating types which could be used to capture or injure the unwary.

PJ followed the prints easily and in his eagerness it was several minutes before he realised his error—it had been too easy. On high alert he held his spear in the ready position and continued with more stealth. Among the trees in the nearby woodland was a rectangular or cube-shape, but surely it couldn’t be a house? He ventured closer. Sure enough it was a house, in the middle of nowhere amidst an area of woodland. Unlike the ruin he’d found, this place had a thatched roof and the building gave the impression of being in a good state of repair. Various climbing greenery adorned the walls so that the house was almost camouflaged until an observer were up close.

 PJ crept up onto the narrow porch and the nearest window to peer inside. “Who the hell …” he moved from side to side trying to see if there were any people around.

“Stand still.” A young woman’s voice, clear and commanding. “Place your spear on the ground and turn slowly.”

He stared at the window but couldn’t see a reflection of the person. “I don’t mean any—”

“Do as I told you or suffer.”

PJ squatted slowly, placed his spear on the wooden surface. He stood slowly before turning to face whoever had spoken. “Oh … wow.” He gazed at the young woman a few paces away.

She was a natural beauty with long fair hair and a curvaceous figure. Her dress was short and looked like animal hide, and her boots were laced up to her knees. Apart from wearing a knife in a leather scabbard, a quiver full of arrows hung from a broad belt around her waist. More importantly, and concentrating the intruder’s attention, she was holding a powerful-looking bow with an arrow in place—aimed directly at PJ’s chest.

***

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