Previously in ‘Survivors: Genesis of a Hero’
In this post-pandemic world, after Peter Grant had accidentally killed his mother, he joined up with self-styled President Arthur Wormley’s communistic National Unity Force where he rose rapidly through the ranks.
Wormley’s ‘Queen’, Sarah Boyer, became pregnant by Peter after she seduced him at the army HQ at Windsor Castle.
In a power struggle, Wormley was assassinated and Simons, an ambitious fascist general, assumed the presidency.
Warned by Sarah that Simons intended his death, Peter and a few loyal followers defected to the Red Dragons in Wales, the only remaining active opposition. Here he became accepted as a war leader and married Branwen, a fiery warrior and clan chief.
Simons pursued Peter into Wales, intending to finally exterminate the Red Dragons. However, his army was destroyed at Llyn Edno in a brilliant and devastating strategy devised by Peter Grant.
The Survivors Saga continues:
It is fifteen years since the pandemic first struck.
Ten years since Peter Grant killed his mother.
Five years since he led the massacre at Llyn Edno.
He is 26 years of age.
Tortured by his bloody past, he struggles to make sense of his roles as war leader, father and husband in this fractured, conflicted world where everything has changed yet people have not.
Despite their existential plight, the survivors on both sides still fight to the death for control and the power to protect their own self-interests.
Yet they will soon have to put aside their animosities because, just over the horizon, is a threat of horrendous proportions that could lay waste to friend and foe alike.
The massive wall of fire leapt up and reached out towards him.
He felt the solid blow of the heat but was unable to move.
He knew that any moment his blood would boil and his eyes would melt but fear and guilt rooted him to the spot.
He stood on the ridge overlooking Llyn Edno as the village and all those trapped in it succumbed to the inferno. Some tried to run but the flames hunted them down and set them alight. They ran haphazardly, colliding with others who were already enflamed, before collapsing in screeching agony.
Their screams rent the shuddering, super-heated air and, as the conflagration swept ever closer to him, houses collapsed and percussive explosions fuelled the flames’ lust. His nostrils flared against the heat-born stench of burnt diesel and charred human flesh.
It was hell on earth. And he was to blame.
Panic overcame him. His heart pounded in his chest as he felt the seductive pull of the flames urging him to let them take him, absolve him of his sins.
He took an unwilling half step forward. The woman, born out of the deepest part of the conflagration, ran towards the ridge, her arms held out to enfold him, her hair dancing with flames, her whole body burning.
Burning but not being consumed.
Suddenly freed, he leapt forward to save her.
He landed face first and naked on the slate floor. The shock and pain brought him suddenly and rudely awake.
‘Peter!’ Branwen slid out of the bed and knelt beside him.
‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, levering himself up to a sitting position
Once a month or more he was afflicted with the same vivid dream which returned him to nightmare realities he would rather forget, blending the horror of killing his mother with the massacre he had so efficiently planned and overseen at Llyn Edno.
‘Let’s get you back into bed before you wake the girls,’ Branwen whispered with one eye on the door. Her sister was in the room next door, guarding the year old twins. ‘You’re going to have a fine old bruise this time.’
Peter Grant clambered laboriously back onto the bed as the pain and muscular tension gradually receded.
Branwen pulled the elderly blanket over them and held him close, warming him with her body as the shivering started.
‘I’ll be okay. It’s nothing,’ Peter muttered, relaxing against her.
‘Sleep,’ she ordered, holding him even tighter.
Soon the shivering stopped, eased by the shared warmth and the sensual contact with her body.
He knew she was right. Sleep would be a good idea. He didn’t really want to lie awake thinking; he needed to be mentally and physically refreshed for the morning. The morning that would bring a headache of problems to be faced, any of which could destroy this precious intimacy, this dangerously weakening happiness.
Daylong there would be people coming at him armed with questions, relying on him to provide answers and make decisions. And he found the unquestioning belief they had in his ability to deliver solutions an increasingly weighty burden.
The safety of his family and the hundreds of people now reliant on him and Branwen for leadership depended on the answers they gave, the decisions they made. Defeating your enemies was one thing, surviving the aftermath of such a bloody victory was quite another.
Fighting he understood, but now he had to adopt the mantle of politician and accept the level of obligation that came with this additional role. That transition did not come naturally to him. He needed this time to consider carefully how their future should unfold.
These nightmares he suffered would never leave him, he knew. They were the penalty he paid for that one moment of gross, utterly painful error when he had gunned down his mother on that southern beach, an act that had made him into the soulless killing machine he was.
Now there were Branwen and the twins and others who relied on him. Somehow he had to re-make himself, put aside the ghosts of the past, drink that old poison as if it were nectar.
If such a thing could be done.
Immediately, he needed to anticipate some of the questions he knew he would be asked the next day. He needed to stay awake so he could work on possible solutions.
Branwen felt his body gradually relax. It was well, he needed to sleep. He was a man who took the weight of the world on his shoulders and had yet to recognise that in these times she had more authority and leadership responsibility than he did. But it would help neither of them to ram that truth down his throat. It had to seem to him that he was still in charge, as he was used to being.
Peter Grant had a well-honed fighting mind, the mind of a street brawler, the mind of a survivor. If there was to be a safe and secure future for their children and her people then she needed him beside her. But she had to admit to herself, it wasn’t just for his practical value that she wanted him. What drove her need for him was raw, heart-thumping lust. And she knew the same primal drive affected him. It was clear from the way he looked at her, from the urgent heat of his touch.
They were a matching pair, ferocious fighters and tenderly fierce lovers locked together for life, unable to break free even had they wished to.
She gently removed a stray lock of hair that had fallen across his face. He was beautiful to look at; of medium height, well-muscled, with deep-set, grey-blue eyes that on rare moments sparkled with warmth and laughter. He was full-bearded and wore his dark hair long and tied back with a leather thong, in a manner now copied by his men and many of her own Red Dragons.
He spoke softly and walked with a hunter’s wary grace. Peter Grant had charisma, no doubt about that. So of course she was not the only one drawn to him. She had seen the way other women and some men looked at him, appraising him and wondering. Well, let them wonder and do no more than that if they wanted to stay unbloodied.
She brought her mind back to more mundane matters. There were increasing numbers of desperately needy refugees with fear in their eyes camped on the outskirts of Cardiff, rightly hesitant to move into the city and risk armed repulsion or disease.
There was also bitter dissent within the leadership of the Red Dragons, an unseemly fight for control of resources that had previously been shared without rancour. There was no agreement about what to do with the refugees, let alone what kind of society they wanted to create for themselves now that they could choose without fear of invasion.
Then there was Chad, their spiritual leader, who had become withdrawn and uncommunicative, and Daniel the dwarf, the musician and seer who had taken such delight in singing the twins off to sleep with ‘Suo Gan’ and other old Welsh lullabies, but who had been worryingly absent of late.
It was barely dawn. A wan light was sneaking into the room through the holes in the ragged curtains. A busy wind rattled the loose slates on the roof and a cockerel crowing his superiority brought them both reluctantly from deep slumber.
There was a rasping cough from the watcher on patrol outside. Peter’s men, his comrades in arms, did not trust this supposedly peaceful environment. They were still not completely sure about their new colleagues, Branwen’s Red Dragon fighters, who outnumbered them and shared the watch duties. If you have spent most of a lifetime at war, then peace comes as a shock to the system.
Sergeant Burley especially would not leave them unprotected day or night and had set up a roster to watch his Commander’s back whilst Peter Grant, as Burley bluntly put it, ‘was busy watching Branwen’s front’.
They had selected this ancient, stone-built farm property on the outskirts of what had once been the city of Caerleon because it had for generations been the home of Branwen’s family. It was easily defensible and held a strategic location in the foothills that marked the Welsh border. It was also prized for its proximity to clean river water, sheltered location with forage for the animals and ample storage facilities.
The extensive outbuildings provided weatherproof accommodation for the horses and farm animals whilst the old farmhouse and workers’ cottages between them had sufficient rooms to put a roof over the heads of the men and women of their followers. As lodgings went, it was far from comfortable but it was better than any of the overgrown, rat-infested hovels closer to the city centre.
Along with Cardiff and the other major urban centres, Caerleon had been ransacked by units of President Arthur Wormley’s nominally socialist People’s Defence Force and, after his downfall, by the hardly more civilised fascistic Counter-Revolutionary Guard of President Simons.
They, like the Roman Legions a thousand years before them, had struggled to make any further progress into the hinterland of rural Wales with its tangle of bleak mountain tops, steep gullies, treacherous bogs and gushing streams; and since the sickness struck, the roads and paths, without maintenance, had become overgrown with vegetation, shrubs and young trees. The Red Dragons’ defensive line had an implacable history, raw nature and a dour, grim geography behind it.
Sergeant George Burley was not a deep thinker, nor was he overly burdened with intuition but he did have a reliable nose for trouble. And he had been catching a whiff of it for a while now.
He was a worried man. So, to a lesser extent, were the fifteen men under his command. The men who, like him, had followed Peter Grant, now Commander of the Red Dragons, from one battle to another, changing allegiance as their leader changed his. Peter Grant had never failed them. He knew how to win. He put a premium on keeping his men alive. Burley knew full well the value of a leader like that.
But now he was concerned that his leader was getting soft, losing his fighting edge, losing contact with the men who had risked their lives to stay loyal to him. Yes, he spoke with them every day; supervising field skills, overseeing weapons training and deciding work rotas, but he seemed preoccupied. It was as if his body was with them but his mind elsewhere.
And the fact was, Burley had no idea what the future might hold for him and his men, no idea what Peter Grant was planning, if indeed he was planning anything.
The rooster that roused his leader had woken him from his bedroll in the storeroom which he had chosen as his bachelor quarters. He splashed his face in his overnight water bowl, then wandered out to the courtyard to piss in the stone drinking trough that was now used to soak animal skins before preparing them for use as winter clothing. It was all they would have once the last of the scavenged clothing from the old times was gone.
Micky Bone, known to his colleagues for good reason as ‘whippet’, came round the corner of the farmhouse, completing the last hour of his watch. A good man, Micky. Didn’t talk a lot, but a good man. Burley acknowledged him with a nod and a grunt. Had there been anything to report Bone would have woken him before now, so no conversation was called for. Bone swiped at the rooster on the woodpile as he passed and the bird flew off in a resentful flurry of squawks and abused ego.
Two young women, refugees who had been allowed inside the border and were accommodated in return for work, were making their way across the yard to the main house to light fires and prepare food for the household. Elsewhere, in the barracks, others were already doing the same for the fighters. George was not happy with this arrangement. The ones who had been allowed in to work had too much freedom of movement for his liking, they seemed to come and go as they wished.
Only women so far: none of the men seemed keen to sign up as farm workers or accept a soldier’s discipline in the Red Dragons even had they been allowed. In George Burley’s mind they were all freeloaders. And untrustworthy ones at that. These innocent looking girls might or might not feel some gratitude for the food in their bellies but who knew what was in their hearts?
True, those two did not look dangerous as they scuttled across the yard from the women’s quarters, huddled together against the wind and the morning chill; both were thin and pinch-faced and one had a distinct limp. Not the stuff of which assassins were made.
Even so, George had taken it upon himself to order his men to keep a close eye on the immigrant workers.
They were not his only concerns; five of his men had coupled up since they arrived in Wales and this level of domesticity bothered him. Camp followers were one thing but wives were another, even when the wives themselves were Red Dragon fighters.
The last chittering of the morning chorus was dying away; smoke and cooking smells were wafting across the yard.
The resident dog pack ambled into the yard from the direction of the stables where the horses barely tolerated them as co-habitants in return for the protection they offered them and their foals against foxes, wild cats and wolves looking for a meal or a warm bolt hole.
Tails up and noses questing, the pack followed the scent of food. There were two brown and white Welsh sheepdogs, already resident before Peter and Branwen decided to move back in, a pair of small black and white terriers who were world-class ratters, and Branwen’s two massive wolfhounds. Mostly the pack hunted for themselves but a free handout was always welcome. The sheepdogs wagged their tails in enthusiastic admiration as the male wolfhound stopped en route, raised a lazy leg and added his contribution to the water trough. He was amply tall enough for that.
In the stables behind the barracks the horses were nickering at each other as if in response to some mildly amusing equine joke.
Men were wandering out from the barracks to piss in the trough and women to empty their night buckets. George sighed. It was all so bloody slack and domestic and what made it worse was that Commander Grant was doing nothing to tighten up discipline. He seemed to have forgotten Sarah Boyer was still sitting in her palace untouched by the defeat of that bastard Simons. She still had an army that outnumbered the Red Dragons several times over and the means to supply them.
And some of her men he and Peter Grant had trained themselves.
Did his Commander really believe she had no ambition left? Of all people, he should know her better than that. Playing at being Queen in Windsor Castle would not be enough for that woman.
He headed for the kitchens, grumbling to himself. Deep in his soldier’s heart he knew this nervous, unsettling peace they were living through could never hope to last. Peace was simply hidden war, war fought with weasel words, fancy ideas and lying deception. Peace was not to be trusted.
But that was life, and life for George Burley had always been a bastard.
Clive had fancied himself as a tank commander when he first set eyes on the four great metal beasts that were permanently parked halfway up the two and a half-mile long, tree-lined ‘Long Walk’ that led up to the main entrance to Windsor Castle.
They had not moved in years; the tracks were rusting, the engines had seized, grey-green mould grew on their flanks and anyway they had always been too thirsty to actually use. But they had big guns with revolving turrets that looked as if they might still work and, fully operational or not, they were powerfully impressive. Unfortunately for Clive, he was ill-suited to commanding anything bigger than a bicycle; he had poor hand-eye coordination and limited intelligence. He still had dreams though.
Behind the parked tanks and closer to the castle was a rundown gatehouse somewhat ineffectively blocking the road. Starting and ending at the gatehouse was a six-foot barbed wire fence that completely enclosed the castle and its immediate environs. It included what remained of the once highly desirable houses that occupied the space between the castle and the River Thames, now used as barracks and storage. Beyond the barbed wire, Windsor Great Park had been largely left to nature, apart from the stables and the kitchen gardens, the pig pens and chicken enclosures that provided for the castle kitchens.
A twenty-foot wide track had been kept completely clear beyond the wire as a killing ground for the machine gun emplacements on the castle roof.
To the uninitiated and from a distance, the security might have looked sound but the fact was, these defences had never been tested. They were established by Arthur Wormley when he first cobbled together what remained of the armed forces after the first impact of the contagion had passed. He had then established himself and Sarah Boyer as first Lord and Lady of a New Britain, a socialist utopia with himself as demagogue. And of course, he saw no dichotomy in that.
So doing dawn duty at the gatehouse was the closest Clive was ever likely to come to commanding the dead objects of his dream-time ambition. Even so, he was not dissatisfied with his lot. There was always an officer in charge and other soldiers more capable than him so he did not have to make any decisions.
He had his own pedal cycle and got to circumnavigate the castle grounds on patrol; he had a corporal’s stripe which everyone ignored but which made him feel a part of the army that fed and clothed him, and he had a girlfriend of sorts. Gwenda was not the best looking girl at the castle. She was flat-chested and she had a bit of a limp but that was okay because the other men left her alone.
It could have been so much worse.
Ten years ago when the pandemic had run its course, three of them had banded together: Dennis, who was the leader because he was the biggest; Richard; and Clive himself. They scavenged to keep themselves alive and just went along with whatever Dennis said. It was easier that way.
Then Peter Grant had turned up and joined the group. Before long Dennis had made the mistake of trying to bully him.
Peter hadn’t said a word before blasting him with a shotgun. From then on he was the leader. Who was going to argue with a kid who killed so casually? Not Clive or Richard.
There were still people alive who must have known that Clive was once with Peter Grant. He had never seen Peter or Richard since the day when they stopped one of President Wormley’s NUF patrols and volunteered themselves for service. A risky move because not long before that Peter had killed two NUF soldiers who had shot a smallholder and were about to rape his wife Peggy.
Peggy had soon found herself a place at the palace and she couldn’t talk without implicating herself, so for Clive, she wasn’t a problem. But everything and everyone else in his life was.
His tactic for survival had been to keep his mouth shut, do as he was told and pretend to be even more slow-witted than he actually was.
After his initial interrogation, nobody ever asked him about Peter Grant or his life before he joined up. Being considered poor quality army material, he was put to work in the gatehouse where all he had to do was look the part.
He had listened to the mess gossip about Peter and Sarah Boyer and marvelled at the risks Peter was taking, more than content to stay away from him and watch his rise in the ranks from what he hoped was a safe distance. And it was safe because, despite the death of Arthur Wormley and the assumption of power by the even more frightening Commander Simons, Clive was so far down the pecking order that no-one would ever have considered involving him in any of the political machinations or palace politics that seemed endemic within the military elite.
So Clive began to believe he was safe.
Then Peter Grant and his patrol defected to the Red Dragons and once again fear became Clive’s ever-present companion. He felt like abandoning hope and running for the hills. Gwenda knew his secret but she was away on some sort of job for Sarah Boyer which she wouldn’t talk about so he couldn’t ask her what to do and he was too frightened to do anything on his own.
So he did nothing.
Just when Clive felt that things could hardly get any worse, rumours of the defeat of the army and the death of Simons at the hands of the Red Dragons led by Peter Grant filtered through to them. The word was Peter had burned Simons and hundreds of his men to death. Clive believed it. He had seen first-hand Peter Grant’s ruthless capacity for murder.
Within days the traumatised remnants of the army, barely three hundred of them, began straggling back to the castle, confirming the worst of the rumours first-hand.
Gwenda was not with them.
There was no heating in the Queen’s relatively small first-floor apartment in a corner tower of Windsor Castle, so there was a chill in the air despite the lavish furnishings and piled bedclothes.
These days Sarah Boyer slept armed and fully clothed in the combat gear she had adopted since she learnt of the destruction of Commander Simon’s Counter-Revolutionary Guard at Llyn Edno.
Her son, Grant Boyer, now a robust four-year-old, was soundly asleep beside her. These days she hardly let him out of her sight. Also in the room were two heavily armed women fighters from the personal unit she had formed for her protection as soon as she had confirmed that Simons was dead. They were taking it in turns to doze in armchairs but they were reliably vigilant. They knew if Sarah died then the future for them was problematic. Another six guarded the hallway outside.
If Sarah could not trust these women then she and her son were as good as dead. There were a thousand rooms in Windsor Castle and any one of them could house a would-be assassin. It was not just a mother’s natural protectiveness; she knew full well that he was in real danger. As was she.
She had moved swiftly to assume the role of Commander but not everyone had accepted her elevation from bedmate to Wormley and then Simons, to army commander with the power of life and death over them all. To many of the men, especially the remaining officers, she was just ‘the Windsor whore,’ ready to sleep with anyone to satisfy her lusts and secure her safety and an indulgent life. They were barely able to hide their disdain as she set about trying to re-organise the military and prepare for the future.
Above all, she knew she had to secure the unequivocal support of the army rank and file. Democracy was an historical luxury and there would be no elections to decide leadership. For her, it would be absolute dictatorial rule or nothing and without a credible power base she was lost.
So she had discarded her precious remaining makeup, the jewellery Wormley had looted for her from the royal collection and the ultra-feminine wardrobe that had served her so well thus far. She adopted military uniform and, against all her natural instincts, took no lovers. She did what she could to ingratiate herself with the men and surreptitiously fed the historic resentment they held against the officer class, hinting at a more egalitarian future for her army.
It was not enough. She had known that even before her network of ‘little mice’ had told her what was being planned and who was doing the planning. Someone was going to die and she was utterly determined it was not going to be her or her son.
She had briefly wondered if there was a middle way, a compromise that would placate them and leave her safely in power. However, it soon became obvious that was not going to be an option.
As time went by, the schemers, three disillusioned officers who had returned from the disaster at Llyn Edno, led by Captain Charles Overton Craske, re-organised their relative positions within what was left of the army hierarchy without reference to her.
Craske’s major problem from the start was that he was universally disliked and distrusted, and had had to engage in a lengthy charm offensive to garner support.
Eventually Sarah heard that the conspirators, now confident of success, had started talking amongst themselves about opening a brothel and installing her as a working madam. It might have been their idea of a joke but she suspected not. Either way, they had made the classic mistake of underestimating their target.
Sarah was already awake and on her feet when Peggy, one of her most trusted ‘mice’, was escorted in to report. Sarah knew Peggy had once been Peter Grant’s lover but she forgave her that since she had done such a good job of tutoring the virgin Peter. It was not talked about but they had a common bond, a lover who was special to both of them.
Her bodyguards moved to leave but she stopped them with a raised hand. ‘No secrets you can’t be trusted with,’ she assured them.
She turned to Peggy. ‘Is it today?’ she asked.
Peggy shook her head. ‘They’ve organised a muster parade for all ranks the day after tomorrow. They want to get all the officers together and the majority onside with their plan before they confront you.’
‘They’ll turn it into a Court Martial. They’ll accuse you of tipping off Peter Grant and letting him run to the Red Dragons, betraying your own people. Responsibility for every dead fighter will be laid at your door.’
‘You will be found guilty and taken into custody.’
Peggy hesitated for a moment. ‘Shot,’ she said.
‘Not the brothel then?’ Sarah said wryly.
Peggy shook her head. ‘That was just them mouthing off. Some of them think you’re a witch. Some of them would secretly like to fuck you. Craske and the other leaders surely hate you and they know they can’t afford to keep you alive.’
‘Or my son.’
‘They didn’t say but I suspect that once you’re dead, little Grant will have an accident.
‘Are there any on our side?’
Peggy shook her head slowly. ‘Difficult to tell. There might be one or two sitting on the fence, waiting to see who comes out on top.’
‘One or two.’
‘So even if Craske stood down we couldn’t really trust any of the officers?’
‘I think we need one. Someone we could work with. Who would you pick?’
Peggy shrugged. ‘Probably Major Dawkins. He’s the oldest, his men seem to like him and, unlike the rest, he manages to keep his hands to himself. He wouldn’t be a problem on his own, he’d go with the flow.’
Sarah nodded, then indicated her bodyguards. ‘Aren’t the others concerned what my girls might do?’
Peggy shook her head. ‘’Course not. Our lot may have guns but they’re just girls, aren’t they?’ she said sarcastically.
Sarah stepped forward and took Peggy into her arms in a fierce hug. ‘You’re sure they’re not on to you?’
‘If they were I’d be dead. One advantage of this place is it’s like a rabbit warren, servants’ corridors run everywhere. It’s just made for spying. Besides they’re used to seeing me wandering around clearing up after them. I’m Peggy the dumb skivvy. And they do like my homebrew. They’re stupid bastards. Stupid but dangerous.’
‘Thank you, my friend,’ Sarah said releasing her, ‘if we come through this you can name your price.’
In the background little Grant Boyer started to grizzle as he woke to the day.
Peggy grinned ruefully. ‘A decent pair of shoes that actually fitted would be good,’ she said.
Sarah gave her a thumbs up. ‘Whatever it takes,’ she said, with a confidence she did not feel. ‘Now, time we started work. It’s going to be a long day.’
Peggy looked uncertain. ‘What are we going to do then?’ she asked.
‘We’re going to lay on a banquet to celebrate the work of our brave officers,’ Sarah replied, straight-faced. ‘I think they deserve that, don’t you?’