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If it hadn’t been for a bad prawn, I wouldn’t have missed the ceilidh and, incidentally, the end of the world.

 

I’d managed, with my usual culinary élan, to give myself food poisoning, and had gone into semi-hibernation until it went away. As a consequence, I never heard the last, panicked reports on the radio, never bothered to check my email or watch the TV; it was as much as I could do to stagger back and forth to the bathroom and make sure Raven was fed and watered before collapsing back into my own private Armageddon. The weather was as filthy as I felt, low cloud and mist blotting out the surroundings, rain lashing the windows of the lighthouse. I pulled up the covers and waited out the storm.

 

Outside, the rain eased off slightly, and a pale light filtered through the small window of my bedroom. I woke up and found that the thought of food didn’t make me nauseous so I decided to be brave and try a small bowl of cornflakes. Throwing back the duvet, and staggering upright, I pulled on jeans and a thick fleece sweater, stuck my feet into my warm sheepskin boots and staggered down to the cold kitchen. Turning on the radio resulted in nothing but static; I switched it off with a grunt, and chomped my way through my cold cereal in silence. It stayed down, so I switched on the kettle for some coffee. After a few minutes, I realised nothing was happening. Of course, the bloody generator was off. For some reason, it needs resetting every so often (I think there’s an occasional airlock in the fuel line, which I haven’t yet fixed), and I hadn’t done it in my state of nausea. What else had I neglected? The tiny battery-powered refrigerator was still ok, not that there was much in it. Oh hell, I thought, the freezer. Still, if the weather had been cool enough, maybe it wasn’t too awful - it was well stocked with winter coming on, and if it had only been a day or so… I stood up too quickly, head whirling, and had to grab the edge of the sink to stop myself falling.

 

Slowly, Malin, one step at a time, get your life back in line.

 

I hauled on my jacket and made my way out through a steady downpour to the generator shed. Nothing too far amiss there, as far as I could see, so I went through the usual ritual of pumping and priming, hit the starter with a short undirected prayer, and was relieved to hear it kick into life. I checked the tank - plenty of fuel. And so to the freezer….

 

Cautiously, I lifted the lid and prodded the top layer of contents. Slight thawing, but not much - the genny can’t have been off for too long. One pack of mince seemed to be somewhat flexible, and after my recent adventure I didn’t fancy re-freezing it, so took it back to the kitchen to be thoroughly cooked.

 

Right, what next?

Raven - better check on him; after all this time indoors he’d be keen to get out into the field despite the wet. Too right - he’d heard me moving about in the yard and was huffing at the stable door, not kicking but making his presence felt.

‘Ok, my lad, hang on a minute!’ I slid the bolts back on the upper door, which was quickly thrown open as he shoved it with his nose, narrowly missing taking my head with it.

 

‘Come on then.’ I grabbed his head-collar, clipping on the lead rope, opened the lower door and was shouldered aside as my Highlander skittered out into the yard, flinging his hairy feet up like a dressage horse.

I slapped his neck, ‘Settle down, daftie, I know you want out. Patience!’

 

I shut the door, noticing Cat lurking in the hayrack, green eyes blinking. He curled up, obviously determined to stay well out of the rain.

 

Half leading, half dragged, I manoeuvred Raven out to the field-gate, and let him off the lead rope. He took off across the grass, kicking up his heels in delight at being outside again. Two circuits of the field later, he huffed back up to me where I leaned weakly on the gate, and nudged my arm until I dug in my pocket for a few pony nuts. Leaving him cropping the grass in the rain, I went, still somewhat unsteadily, to muck out and then back to the kitchen, to light the stove and get some warmth back into the place, and to finally make my coffee.

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Two hours later, I was banging my head on the table in frustration. No phone, no internet, no radio, no TV. Just static on all the lines. I’d done all the usual fault-finding, but everything seemed to be fine – it just wasn’t connecting. Nothing for it, I’d have to check it out piece by piece and, in the meantime, go to the village, use the payphone, and also make my apologies for missing the autumn ceilidh in person. Which meant a twenty mile drive, over the rough track to the nearest road, and then to the village.

 

Which reminds me, I suppose I should introduce myself…

Malin Gregory, fifty-odd years on this planet, hair grey-going-white and cut short when I can be bothered to find the scissors, eyes grey-green. No figure to speak of, all my own teeth… guess that’s about it. I’m a writer - you may even have read some of my books - though you wouldn’t realise it. I don’t use my real name professionally. I like my privacy, and there are some people I’d rather not meet again…

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Hence the lighthouse. I live on the north-west coast, where the prevailing wind comes straight off the sea, and the scenery is - let’s say - rugged. Mountain, moorland and grey rock outcrops falling down to the shoreline, where rocks and caves make for a hazardous landing place. In the sheltered parts - and there aren’t many of those - a mixture of oak, birch and alder woodland straggles down the hillsides to the water’s edge, thick with mosses, merging into dark Forestry plantations as you go further inland. It’s often grey and raining, and to stray off the track guarantees wet feet at the very least. The lighthouse, redundant since the Lighthouse Board put in the automatic beacon on the rocks offshore, stands at the top of the cliff; one short, square tower, a range of steadings and a high-walled yard making a bigger square. The yard is mostly given over to vegetables, when the rabbits don’t eat them. I’ve converted the tower and part of the steading to make the house, plus there’s Raven’s stable, the generator shed, and a couple of other sheds I use for storage and to keep the salt off my ancient Land Rover. I have solar panels (which do make a difference despite the weather, and at least keep the fridge going) and I was in the process of assembling a small wind turbine when I managed to make the acquaintance of that unfriendly prawn. My aim is to become as self-sufficient as I can, as much for financial as ethical reasons. That said, I haven’t yet got my own distillery, so I still need to make the occasional trip to ‘civilisation’. I guess that gives you an idea, anyway.

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The rain was still coming down solidly when I climbed into the Land Rover and started up the engine. It clattered into life, and I headed up the muddy track towards the road. Maybe I’d meet the Lighthouse Board guys halfway - feedback from the beacon wouldn’t be getting through, so they should be checking it themselves. I bumped slowly over the ruts, the wiper blades clearing the mist from the screen, the ancient heater fighting to keep up with the condensation. I wondered how long things had been off-line. I don’t like civilisation in general, but I needed the internet at least, to research details for my next book, and to keep in contact with my publishers. There was a time when I’d considered sending messages on data sticks carried by pigeons, but my editor had drawn the line at that, claiming she was allergic to feathers. Oh well.

 

I figured I could save myself some trouble later anyway, if I stopped to pick up some extra feed for Raven, and some non-essentials from the store in Rubha. By the time I reached the road, I had found no signs of damage to the phone line, and was still half expecting to come across a landslip or some other physical cause of the disruption. Nothing seemed amiss though, and I chugged along the single track road, avoiding the inevitable sheep, mind wandering as I thought about how to structure the next chapter.

 

As I rounded the shoulder of the hill and entered the shelter of the thick woodland, a group of red deer burst out from the right, practically under the wheels of the Land Rover; I slammed my foot on the brake, sending the Landy sliding on the mud and wet leaves and sheepshit on the road. I steered into the skid, tapping the brakes briefly, fighting to keep control as the vehicle tried to spin. It slowed, and came to a shuddering halt sideways across the pitted tarmac as the deer scattered into the trees. Shaking, I caught my breath. As I straightened up, something large and white hurtled over the bonnet. I caught a glimpse of a wide rack of antlers, a rolling eye, and it was gone, vanishing into the trees. A white stag? I knew they did occur in the herds sometimes, but not in this area, as far as I’d heard. I sat a while, getting my breath back, steadying my breathing and the shaking of my hands.

 

***

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I made it to the outskirts of the village without further incident. I say outskirts - it’s one of those highland villages that are really more a scattering of small crofts, the in-bye lying near the coast where the machair land has been made into small fields, and the village centre nothing more than a couple or three houses, the church, village hall and an all-purpose shop and garage. The school closed some years back and now stands deserted. There had been some talk about it becoming a craft centre; the usual southerners coming up to make a living from the credulity of tourists and the disinterest of the local population. It never came to anything, to everyone’s relief; there was still the vague hope that one day there might be enough kids for the Council to open it again.

 

As I pulled up outside the shop, I began to get the feeling that something was wrong. The day was grey and heavy, but no lights showed in any of the houses. Maybe a power-cut, I thought, pulling up my collar and sliding down from the Landy. The door of the shop swung in the eddying wind, setting off the ‘customer coming’ bell each time it hit the contact. Odd. Mhairi must be busy out back. I pushed the door open, and shut it firmly behind me.

 

‘Hello?’

 

There was no reply. Oh well. Maybe nursing sore heads after the ceilidh? I gathered the small things I wanted in a battered wire basket and took them to the counter, wondering.

 

‘Hello? Mhairi?’ Louder this time. Still no response. I lifted the flap of the counter and went to check if she’d fallen in the stockroom. No sign of anyone. The light switch worked, though, harsh fluorescents flicking on to reveal the usual mix of hardware, food, practical clothing and farm supplies. Returning to the main part of the shop, I bent down to look behind the Post Office counter, and nearly hit the roof when something cold and wet was stuck in my ear.

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The collie had the grace to look slightly apologetic, and rolled over, tail thumping on the lino.

I rubbed my head where I’d bashed it on the counter, and straightened up. I recognised the dog, one of Cameron MacLeod’s pair, usually seen either glued to their master’s side or flowing like water over the uplands in pursuit of the sheep. The white face and wall-eye meant it was Skye, Jess being the dark-eyed, smaller female.

 

‘So where’s your boss, boy?’ I scratched him behind the ear and he followed me as I went to the door to look. He whined softly, nudging my hand. ‘Don’t tell me you’re going to do a Lassie on me, dog.’ I warned him sternly, ‘if Cam’s fallen down a hole, it’s your look out.’ He sat, watching me, and I tried to ignore the stare.

 

‘Where the hell is everyone?’

 

Normally, there would have been at least one or two people around - Mhairi, newsing over the shop counter, maybe someone hanging around the bus stop, but the place was as still and silent as the grave. Maybe there was something on at the church? Generally, nobody bothered with locking things up… we’re fairly informal up here… but the Post Office section of the shop was an exception. And that was wide open. Seriously weird.

 

I went back inside, left the right money on the counter and gathered my purchases. On impulse, I lifted the nozzle of the fuel pump, and was surprised when it whirred into life. May as well top up the Landy’s tank while I’m here, I thought. That done, I went back and left an IOU with the cash.

 

‘Now what?’ I asked the dog. He stood, shook himself thoroughly, and trotted off towards the church. ‘Sure you’re not channelling bloody Lassie?’ I muttered, and followed.

 

The church doors were barred from the inside. I checked front and back; all battened down. The dog whined, and scratched at the woodwork. I knocked loudly, bruising my knuckles in the process. No response.

‘Hello? Is there anyone there?’

 

I waited. No response. I thumped the door again.

 

‘Is there anyone there? It’s Malin - where is everyone?’ I thought I heard a scuffle from inside, and pressed my ear to the door. Definitely something there.

‘Hello? Anybody? What’s happening?’ my throat was getting sore from yelling.

 

The dog barked, one short, almost peremptory sound, and sat down, staring at the door. There was a bumping and knocking from within, and I heard the key turn in the lock. It swung open a fraction, and a bloodshot blue eye peered at me through the gap, then looked down at the dog, who wagged his tail.

‘Cam?’

‘Inside. Quick.’

 

MacLeod opened the door just wide enough for me to slip in, followed closely by the dog, and slammed it tight shut behind me, turning the key and swiftly replacing the wooden planks across the frame.

When he turned back to me, he was holding a shotgun.

 

I stood very still.

 

The dog, Skye, licked my hand, and went to stand by his master.

‘Dog thinks you’re all right. We’ll see. Sit down. Over there.’ He gestured with the barrel of the gun.

I sat in the back row of the pews. The church was dark and cold, shadows lurking in the corners. I kept my eyes on MacLeod, and the gun.

‘Sit on your hands.’

I complied. He brought the shotgun up to the side of my head. I could smell black powder and gun oil.

 

‘What’s happened, Cam?’

‘Don’t tell me ye don’t know.’ I swallowed uncomfortably as the gun jabbed me in the cheekbone.

‘OK, I won’t. But… I truly don’t.’

‘If ye don’t know, how’s it you’re still here? They’ve all gone.’

‘You’re still here,’ I pointed out, ‘Where else should I be?’

‘Wherever they all went. When the lights came down.’

‘Lights?’

‘All over the country. Lights.’

I shook my head, carefully. ‘I saw nothing - I’ve been ill. I’m only here today because the phone line is down.’

There was a strange look in his eye. I noticed that he looked shabbier than usual, as if he’d been sleeping rough, or not at all.

‘Cam, please… what’s happened?’

 

He stared at me for a few heartbeats, then stood back and put the safety on the gun. I tried not to breathe too loud a sigh of relief. He propped it up against the end of the pew, and slumped into the seat in front of me, rubbing his face with hands suddenly gone shaky.

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It took a while for him to compose himself enough to continue. Even so, he was twitchy, checking over his shoulder, touching the dogs and the gun for reassurance.

 

‘I was up on the hill late, with the weather so bad and all, bringing the sheep down. It was a foul twilight - most of the time I couldnae see a hand in front o’ma face. Just as it got true dark, there was… well I cannae call it a sound, for there was nae noise, but - more a loud nothing, like everything stopped and I couldnae even hear the breath in ma lungs.. It felt like the whole world shuddered.’

 

The shepherd was a small, wiry man, maybe ten years my senior, but now he looked ancient. He was grey under his weathered tan, stubble standing on his hollow cheeks, coarse and pale as winter barley. He got up, tucking the shotgun under his arm, and walked a circuit of the small church, checking windows and doors, pausing at the lectern to rest a hand on the open book. Then he went on.

 

‘I tell ye, I was flat on the ground, wi’ the dogs howling like the dead were rising. Then there was an awfu’ glow in the sky - low and away towards yon military place. It got brighter and bigger, and then it all went black.’

 

My stomach churned. Explosives, or, gods help us, a nuclear accident? I opened my mouth to ask, but shut it as he went on.

 

‘Ye’ll be thinking the sailor boys had a wee accident?’ he shook his head. ‘Aye, an’ maybe they did, but I dinnae think it was the cause of aa’ this. Happen it all went up, though. I called the dogs and ran for hame… switched on the radio to see if there was any news. Sounded like the world had gone mad - all over the country, blowing up, breaking down, aye, they were gabbling on about terrorists, but they didnae ken anything really. Folks were vanishing, I did hear that, vanishing clean away, and lights coming down. I had to keep fiddling with the radio – the signal kept dropping out, until there was nobbut static.’

 

He pushed his ancient tweed cap back, and scratched his head, sandy hair standing every which way. The dogs flopped in front of the altar, heads on paws, watching. MacLeod frowned, and made another check of the doors and windows. I kept quiet, still wondering what the hell was going on.

 

‘I thought I’d better come down to the hall, see if Mhairi was all right.’ It was generally known that he had a tacit understanding with the postmistress. ‘..but as I came down Back Brae, the lights came.’ His eyes gazed unseeing as he tried to describe the scene. ‘Like nothing on earth, it was, all swirling and twisting above and through the village, like ribbons, or the Dancers come down, shapes moving in the light, in and oot o’ the houses and the Hall. Beautiful. And nae sound at aa’… cold and pale and silent, and it fair gave me the chills.’

He paused, shivered. ‘I ducked down behint the dyke, ye ken. Nae bluidy hero. When the lights went awa’, I came down, went to the hall where everyone was, tried to find Mhairi, but there waur naebody here. Naebody at all. Nae sign. And aa’ the lines were dead.’

‘But the electric’s still on.’ I ventured, inanely.

‘Aye. But a’thing feels wrong, and now there’s been odd folks around. Naebody frae here, ye ken, they were odd folk, uncanny. Didnae look right. I kept hidden, didnae let them see me. I could nae thole it at the cottage, it didnae feel safe, so I took maself here. The Good Lord will protect me.’

 

And the shotgun, I thought, but didn’t say. My brain was racing, trying to make sense of what had happened. I needed to find a rational explanation. Obviously, an explosion up at the military base, some 40 miles away. Pray it wasn’t the worst case scenario…at least the wind direction was in our favour and rain would help with the fallout. It would account for the breakdown in communications if there had been an electromagnetic pulse…but then, all electrics should have been affected. Lights in the sky… what had he really seen? Something like the aurora, by the sound of it - maybe St Elmo’s Fire? But none of this accounted for the vanishing people. Had they been evacuated, perhaps by helicopter - I’d known cases where night-flying helicopters had been mistaken for UFOs…? But that left the ‘odd folk’. Wearing protective clothing, maybe? And that didn’t explain the widespread panic on the radio…whatever it was, it had totally un-nerved the normally phlegmatic MacLeod.

 

‘Should we try to get to Inver? Maybe there’s someone at the police station that knows what’s going on?’

‘Try if ye like, lassie, I’m nae moving fae this place. An’ ye’d be wise to stay here too. Uncanny it is, and there’s nae safe place but in the care o’ the Lord.’

 

I thought of Raven, and Cat. They’d manage for a while, but…

‘I can’t stay here, Cam. I need to get home. Why not come with me?’

He shook his head fiercely. ‘I’ll nae set a foot out o’ the kirk.’

 

I walked back to the Land Rover through the rain, hearing the church door slam behind me, and the rattle as it was barred again. There was still no sign of anyone, normal or uncanny. Loading the sacks of feed into the back, avoiding the puddles where rain had come through holes in the ancient canvas, I kept trying to figure out what to do next. I could do as I’d suggested, and drive over to Inver, but that was in the direction of the base, and it might not be the best idea if there had been a serious incident. To be honest, I just wanted to go home and wait for it all to clear up by itself.

 

I went back into the store, and loaded up with extra supplies.

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two

 

Daylight was almost gone by the time I got home. Even the hardy Raven seemed quite pleased to be out of the rain when I led him in and brushed the mud from his thick coat; as usual, he’d rolled in the muddiest part of the field and although the rain had washed much of the stuff out, he was still a mess. Cat took refuge on the rafters, and busied himself inspecting the cobwebs. I glanced up at him as I unclotted the pony’s tail.

 

‘Not your sort of weather, eh?’

 

He blinked enigmatically. He was standoffish, definitely not a house cat, maybe even partly wildcat; he’d appeared out of nowhere shortly after I had moved in, and had promptly taken up residence in the stable. Still, he was company for my pony, and kept the place efficiently free of vermin. Just now, he seemed restless, prowling around the roof space, suddenly tensing, and staring intently into the straw in the adjacent storeroom.

 

‘What’s up, Cat?’

 

The thick black tail lashed from side to side, haunches wriggling as he readied to pounce on something amongst the bales. Efficient, as I said.

I finished up, slapped Raven’s broad black rump, and left them to it.

 

Supper over, I took myself off for a long bath, and some serious thinking. There was still nothing on the radio but static. Maybe if I got hold of a ship’s radio transmitter, I could raise someone. So, tomorrow, down to the marina at Caol Haven, and see if I could get one working. Not much of a plan, but a plan, nonetheless.

 

* * *

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Another grey morning dawned, and I rolled out of bed wondering if I’d dreamed yesterday. At least it had stopped raining. I hauled on my jacket and headed out to the stable.

 

‘What the fuck?’

 

Raven stood with his head down, covered in mud and sweat, his mane and tail full of heather and twigs. I could feel him trembling as I reached out to touch him, comfort him in his obvious distress.

‘Oh pony, oh my poor lad, how the hell did this happen?’ I could feel tears running down my face as I gentled him, plucking the mess out of his mane. He pressed his long nose against my shoulder, and I hugged him as best I could, wondering what had happened to my poor pony.

 

There was a hiss and a yowl from the hayrack, followed by a high- pitched shrieking.

 

Raven threw up his head, backing away from the rack and rearing up, beating at the air with his front feet. I was knocked sprawling across the stable into a pile of straw, rolling out of the way of the flailing hooves. He landed again on all four feet, head back and eyes rolling widely, ears flat to his skull.

 

Cat emerged from the hayrack with something in his jaws, something that whimpered and shrieked. He leaped gracefully to the floor, and put his victim down, batting at it with a paw as it continued to scream.

 

‘Oh for… kill the bloody thing, Cat, don’t play with it!’

 

Raven stamped his hoof, still trying to back further into the corner.

 

I staggered to my feet, and was making towards Cat, determined to despatch his victim swiftly, when the high-pitched screaming suddenly resolved into words.

 

‘Call it off, call it off!’

 

Cat slapped down a paw, claws extended. The screaming stopped.

 

‘What the hell have you got there?’ I bent over the crouching cat, grabbing the scruff of his neck and hauling him off, hissing and spitting in protest, as I picked up the small, still form.

 

‘What the fuck?’

 

It was about the size of a small frog, brown as a fallen oakleaf, weighing next to nothing in the palm of my hand. The face was wrinkled as a forgotten winter-store apple, the size of my thumbnail, and the whole was dressed in close-fitting soft leather trimmed with short brown fur – vole or mouse, I guessed. What was I doing, trying to identify the fur? The whole creature was totally unbelievable. And very, very dead.

 

I took it back to the kitchen, put it in a plastic box, and went back to sort out things in the stable.

 

* * *

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It was midday by the time Raven was cleaned up, and his stable mucked out. I wondered whether I should let him out into the field, but he was flighty and nervous, and I’d previously had to recover him from the hill on a couple of occasions when he’d hurdled the wall after being startled by the foghorn, or an unexpected curlew. Now he was reasonably settled, and nose down in his feed, with Cat lurking on the rafters, still affronted by the loss of his prey, and my rough treatment.

 

I sat at the table, and considered the small, still figure in the box before me, trying to retain some scientific detachment.

 

If you ignored the size – about four inches tall – it was a human-ish figure, with scruffy, spiky brown hair and a jolly-ugly face – well, I guessed it would have been when alive, broad across the cheeks and with a pointed chin. The large ears were also distinctly pointed, the nose broad and snub. The hands and fingers were surprisingly long and delicate; I hadn’t undressed the creature out of some odd sense of decency but I thought the feet and toes would prove the same from the shape of the soft leather boots. The chest was barrel-shaped, but it was narrow in the hip, and the arms and legs were rather elongated. Its blood was red, and stained the front of the leather, fur-trimmed jerkin where Cat’s claws had torn its guts out.

 

I took photos, as much to convince myself that I wasn’t hallucinating as for a record. After a while I gave up speculating, and took the box and its strange contents up to my study, and the library.

 

The study is almost at the top of the tower – above my bedroom and the bathroom, and below the original light (now ostensibly the sitting room - and incidentally the only round room in the place - but in reality just a place to sit and simply watch the sky and sea). One comfy chair, my computer workstation and chair, a low table, the curving stair rising to the upper room, and walls covered in bookshelves. Most of my book collection is here, lining the walls floor to ceiling, and covering a vast range of subjects. Including fantasy creatures.

 

The best match I could come up with was a Pixie.

 

According to the book, they were reportedly ‘responsible for riding ponies in the night and leaving them worn out and with tangled manes the following morning’. It went on to explain how horses could be protected from such activities. Fair enough…

 

A bloody Pixie?

I felt like all the wind had been knocked out of me and the world turned upside down. I’m a rational person, I like science and sense. Pixies and their ilk had no place in my reality, much as I enjoyed fantastical fiction.

 

But there was no denying what was in the plastic box on the table.

 

A small voice in my head commented that, if this thing was responsible for Raven’s distress, Cat had done a Good Deed, and I had been Grossly Unfair. I put the lid on the box, went down to the kitchen, opened a tin of tuna and took it over to the stable.

 

Eventually, I carried the body back to the kitchen, and put it in the fire box of the range. I couldn’t figure what else I could do with it, and it was starting to stink. I made a small mental apology to the creature, but added that it shouldn’t have hurt my pony. Then I tied a red ribbon to Raven’s mane, hung a stone with hole in it over the stable door, and nailed a piece of rowan wood to the wall.

 

That evening, I opened a new bottle of scotch, and worked my way well down it.

 

* * *

I didn’t go to the marina the next day.

 

* * *

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Caol Haven lies around 30 miles south of Rubha, and we normally ignore it. It’s a place for the wealthy to keep their boats, flaunt their winter tans in spring, and spend their money on anywhere but in the local community. It’s also full of high-priced, high-spec gin palaces. If one of these didn’t have a decent radio transmitter, I’d eat my woolly hat.

 

The place was empty of people, and full of what a tall-ship sailor of acquaintance once referred to as ‘white trash’. Gleaming white fibreglass, mostly battened down for winter, many out of the water on props, others rocking gently at the pontoons. I could almost smell the high-end equipment. I stuck a heavy-duty screwdriver in my back pocket and strolled over to the gate.

 

The gate to the pontoon was padlocked, and I’d forgotten my lock-picks. So I climbed the fence, and headed down to the boats, hoping that at least one would have charged batteries.

 

Somewhere, a dog barked. It sounded big.

 

Oh shit.

 

Heart hammering, I jumped aboard the first cruiser I came to, ducking under the tarpaulin cover and making my way to the bridge. Okay – no power. I hunted around until I found the battery compartment, and (with a little leverage from the screwdriver) found that – as I’d suspected – they had been disconnected. Someone had conveniently left the right size of spanner in the compartment, so I hitched it up, and went back to the bridge. On the dockside, the dog barked again. I looked out through the screen.

 

Rottweiler.

 

Great.

 

I wondered if I would have to feed it my arm before I could escape. Well, maybe I could call the coastguard and get them to send a helicopter to rescue me. I switched the radio (nice, looked brand new) to Channel 16 and listened for a while. Zilch.

Okay, so it wasn’t the normal time of year for pleasure craft – there should still be a trawler or two out there. And if they were small stuff, they should still be listening out. I tried calling. Nada.

 

Nothing in range? Surely there must be something, somewhere, out there. Try again.

 

I spent a couple of hours, flipping through the channels, calling all ships, coastguards, anyone, and all to no avail. I think I was getting a little hysterical by the end. It was as if radio silence had been imposed. I had another thought, and went in search of the emergency position-indication radio beacon. If I fired that off, it would be picked up by a satellite, and surely trigger a reaction. Should I do it here, or take it home? I could do it here and leave a note, maybe? On the other hand, if it came from a marina, maybe they’d think it was accidental. I decided to take it home. In fact, I decided to take several home, and hopped from boat to boat, collecting beacons and stowing them in a duffel bag I found on the first boat. I would fire them off in sequence and make like the biggest wreck since the Titanic, and if that didn’t get a reaction… well, I didn’t want to consider that. I wondered about taking a radio, but that would involve messing about with aerials, and lugging some sizeable equipment along the dock. I did pocket a shore-party handset and charger that just happened to be lying around. Well, in a locked cupboard, but near enough.

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Time to go home. And still the small matter of a rather large dog to deal with. I’m not Crocodile Dundee. Distraction? It occurred to me that I could fire off a flare or two and drive it off, so I stuck several into the bag as well as the EPIRBs.

Looking out, the dog was still barking, standing at the end of the pontoon. I decided a head-on approach would be best – or at least quick – and hopped onto the decking, bag over my shoulder and flare in hand ready for action. Taking a deep breath, I walked towards the dog.

 

Good move. It was obviously expecting me to run away, and sat down, apparently confused. As I got closer, I couldn’t help but think what a shame it was, poor dog trapped here, no food, perhaps no fresh water. As I got nearer, it stood up, growling. It did look hungry. Not a good thought, Malin, not good. But it looked a nice dog. Bitch, rather. And not much more than a puppy. Let’s try being nice.

 

‘Good girl…’

Growl, but uncertain.

 

‘Good girl. Where’s your boss, then? Where is he?’

Whine.

‘Good girl. C’mon then. C’mon,’ squatting down to her level.

She looked uncertain, cocked her head, ears pricked.

‘That’s okay, girl. C’mon.’ softly, more confidently than I felt.

Belly down, crawling forward.

I held my breath, slowly put out my left hand, fingers curled. (I’m right handed. Not entirely daft.) The dog’s blocky head insinuated itself under my hand, whining softly. I rubbed her behind the ear.

 

‘Poor lass. All alone, are you? Where have they all gone, then? Are you a good dog, then?’ she rolled over, and licked my hand.

 

Well, I couldn’t leave her, could I?

 

The tag on her collar said her name was Rosie. I didn’t think she was a guard dog, more a pet left alone, and she was hungry and thirsty. By the time I’d got into the service building, found her some water and the bag of dog kibble in the manager’s office, she was my new best friend. She steamed up the cab of the Land Rover in one minute of heavy breathing. I wondered what Cat would make of it all.

 

 

***

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The sheer outrage on Cat’s face as Rosie bounded down from the Landy was wonderful. He drew himself up to his not inconsiderable full size, tail like a bottle brush, back arched, and hissed his displeasure from his perch on the corner of the slate roof. Stump-tail waggling her entire rear end, the dog bounced up, barking loudly. I left them to negotiate, and unpacked the kit I’d acquired. When I’d finished, Cat had vanished, and Rosie followed me into the kitchen, stretching out in front of the warm range as if she’d been there all her life. For some reason, I found the idea of having a large, boisterous dog around the place rather appealing. I made coffee and a sandwich, and took my rather late lunch up to the top of the tower.

 

From the top of the lighthouse, the view can be spectacular. In the height of summer, I can take a chair outside onto the balcony and enjoy the sunshine for about 22 hours. In winter, the gales lash the sea into a frenzy of foam which can coat the glass with salt spray; spring sees a major bout of window cleaning. In late autumn there are wild days and lazy days, fog and golden sunsets, rain, wind, and perfect calm. This day was calm but very chilly; unusually, there had been a frost when I went to Caol. From my eyrie, I could see no signs of human life in any direction. This was normal, but there were no boats to be seen either, which was not. Though after my attempts with the radio earlier, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I sipped my coffee, scanning the horizon through the telescope. Far out, a minke whale broke the silver-grey surface, a short burst of sprayed-out breath followed by a long black back which soon vanished below the water.

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Shearwaters skimmed the slow swell, turning black and white and black again as they tilted in flight. I slid open a window to listen to the seals. In autumn, the Atlantic grey seals come ashore to have their pups, and to breed. The remote rocky beaches and caves are ideal, at least until the gales sweep in, battering everything in their path. It’s a hardy seal pup that makes it through to next summer. Their calls are strange music, a low resonant crooning, halfway between humpback song and wolf howl. I love it.

 

But this day, I couldn’t settle back and relax. My brain was racing with the implications of what had – apparently – happened. If it was for real, there must be others out there like MacLeod and myself, who hadn’t vanished, but on the whole we were on our own. At the moment, there was still power, and fuel, and food, but after a while these would go. I shook my head ruefully, half-regretting watching ‘Survivors’ when it was on TV. And I could always read ‘The Stand’ again… maybe not. I found pad and pencil, and started making notes.

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So…how would I manage? Even if I only ran it a couple of hours a day to top up the batteries, the generator would run out of fuel, eventually, though it was not long since the last oil top-up, plus I had a tank of red diesel that would keep the Landy going for while. I could eke it out if I was careful, maybe find a depot. But then, there was no guarantee that I could get the fuel out of the storage, or the tanker.

 

If someone hadn’t got there first, wherever ‘there’ was.

 

Mains electricity might last a while, if the hydro-electric plants kept running without supervision, and the nuclear reactors stayed on-line. Unlikely. The solar panels would keep going, and if I finished setting up the wind generator, that would help. Make that a priority. Oil lamps I have (note to self: get fuel), and candles – stock up.

 

Pixie in the stable.

 

Fuel for heating and hot water… well the range burned just about anything, there was a ruddy great forest up the hill and a chainsaw and axe in the shed. And I could always try peat cutting. To save fuel for the Land Rover, there was Raven and a set of wicker creels in the back room of the village hall, where Iain Donald had started a collection for a museum. Go and fetch.

Water. My supplies came from the local spring, filtered and pumped into a tank in the steadings. Need to make sure the pump stays powered. Filters…need to look into that. But the water was pretty clean, as long as no sheep dropped dead or shat into it. Showers or baths – may need to cut down though the range did all the heating, and if the electrics for the pump went, I might need to think about tin baths in the kitchen. Oh joy. Check it all out thoroughly.

 

Dead pixie.

 

Food. I was pretty well set up for growing vegetables, though I might need to turn more ground over to them. Get more seeds. Milk and eggs…oh gods, was I going to have to round up a cow, or better, a goat, and chickens… I hate cleaning chicken sheds. Ducks? Still horribly messy.

 

Meat? Deer, sheep, fish and shellfish - if the prawn hadn’t spoiled that for me … I’d manage. With luck. I’d need a rod and line. And a couple of crab or lobster pots.

 

Rifle, shotgun – yes, no problem with that (don’t ask) and I was pretty good with bow and arrow. Which brought a darker thought - some defence plan might be a reasonable idea. I didn’t know who else was out there, and they may not all be friendlies. Think that one out later.

 

Staying alive. Hmm. Injury or illness would be a much more serious matter. Stock up the medicine chest. And be bloody careful with the chainsaw.

 

Cat had killed a pixie in the stable.

 

Looking after my growing menagerie. Cat was pretty much self-sufficient, but Raven would need food for the winter, and straw for bedding, though his was a hardy race and he wouldn’t suffer from being a little less cosseted. Rosie… I’d need dog food in the short term, and meat long term. And then the potential additions… it could get crowded around here.

 

For the immediate future, if I put in a bit of work, it didn’t look too bad, though I’d need to start preparing for the long haul. It all felt ridiculously unreal. I finished my now cold coffee, and curled up on the squashy sofa.

 

Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about publishing deadlines for the moment.

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three

 

Next day was…different, and left me feeling even more confused, to say the least. And a lot of other things, some of which…well, let’s not go there right now.

 

It was one of those late warm days, with some heat in the sunshine, so I spent the morning working on the wind turbine, and by lunchtime was reasonably content that it was going to work just fine, despite Rosie’s attempts to help. I left her sprawled in front of the range and went upstairs with my coffee. I slid the windows open, and perched on the wide sill to listen. The sound of gulls, the soft rush of the waves on the stones, the high pitched ‘peeuw’ of a distant buzzard… the seals were oddly silent. Curious, I went out onto the balcony to see if they had left the beach. The view over the cliff is spectacular, all the way down to the rocks a hundred feet below, and I could clearly see the long recumbent sausage shapes of the seals hauled out on the rocks.

 

Still no sound.

 

There were a lot of them – maybe fifty or so – and they all seemed to be looking out to sea. I could see nothing to attract their interest, but decided to scramble down the path to see if there was something amiss.

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I reached the shore just out of sight of the colony, and picked a cautious path through the slippery rocks and weed. Crouching low, I peered between two large boulders and could see a group of seals not far beyond, still watching the water with great interest, heads moving up and down as they stretched whiskery muzzles towards the surface. I shifted position to where I could see the sea. The waves moved sluggishly on the shoreline, barely breaking, as calm as I’d ever seen it. There were no seals actually in the water, as far as I could see, no ripples on the surface to show where one had dived, no bubbles marking their underwater course.

 

Behind me, there was a clatter of rocks. I turned quickly, thinking Rosie had got out of the house and wanting to catch her before she caused havoc, but there was no sign of her, or anything else. Maybe I’d dislodged some chunks on the way down, I thought, and turned back towards the seal colony.

 

Ever had one of those moments when it feels like your heart’s stopped?

 

He rose up directly in front of me, over a head taller than me. Broad of shoulder, narrow in the hip, fabulous muscle definition…which was very evident, as he was completely naked.

 

In fact, a lot of things were very evident.

 

I shut my eyes, and forced myself to take a breath. When I opened them again, he was still there. I dragged my eyes to his face, feeling the blood rush to my cheeks and the uncomfortable beginnings of a hot flush ran through me. I tried to make my mouth move in some form of words, but only managed a strangled sort of squawk. He raised his hand to the side of my face, and stroked it gently; his fingers were partly webbed, which jolted some sense back into my reeling brain, and I noticed a network of scars running over shoulders and arms. He smiled, white teeth with prominent canines. I felt the beginnings of panic, and tried to back away, but my backside collided with the boulder I had been hiding behind, and there was nowhere to go. His eyes were very dark, difficult to tell pupil from iris, only a small amount of white showing. Shaggy dark hair hung to his shoulders. Broad shoulders. Good muscles. Six-pack. Thin line of hair running down the midline to…What the hell was I thinking? The hand caressing the side of my face traced a line down my neck, to the open collar of my shirt and further down, flipping the buttons open as it went, and he leant in closer until I could smell the salt tang of the drying ocean on his skin and the faint scent of fish on his breath. The hand moved lower, sliding inside my shirt and over my skin, leaving goosebumps. A sensation I hadn’t felt in many years stirred somewhere south of my beltbuckle. His lips brushed my cheek and moved to the corner of my mouth. I closed my eyes, the blood pounding in my ears.

 

A heavy chunk of driftwood caught him on the side of the head and sent him staggering back onto the rocky beach.

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