It was still quite a view. The cooling towers in the distance may have finally collapsed, presumably from the slow erosion of freezing rainwater in cracks in the concrete, but the Trent valley was still broad and green, and the cloudless sky, clear and translucent as water, allowed the sun to smile benevolently on the scene, strengthening the colours and shadows and heightening the resolution. The moors and crags of Charnwood surrounding her were still bleak, as befits such a wild region, but there was beauty to be found there too. The gorse and ferns were swaying in the stiff breeze – the earliest sign of autumn – and the sun glinted from specks of mica in the granite that breaks from the earth like splintered bone in that part of the country. She shifted her weight onto her good leg as the wind tore her scarf from around her head. She grasped the end of it swiftly before it had the chance to escape, and tucked it well into her collar. Her eyes adjusted to the distance, she could now see a hint of cloud on the horizon. She estimated it may be five hours before this storm hit, so she resolved to head home. Lifting her bag, she turned and went downhill towards a small town that lay at the foot of the hills.
The tarmac of the road she crossed had almost vanished entirely, assaulted from below by plant life and above by rain and snow. The few remaining chunks of black tar still spoke of their former function; one piece still had a large ‘STOP’ painted upon it in a fading grey. But no vehicle could use it now, and hadn’t been able to for almost a decade now. As she moved further down the slope, past large school buildings, the sun was hidden by the remains of a gymnasium that towered over her, and she found herself in shadow. Relieved by the sudden cool, she moved more quickly, along another cratered and pocked road that continued to be shady, cloaked by large mature trees. The houses around her were in various states of decay, and the rate of their collapse was due to their age and building materials. Brick houses still maintained their shape, though their roofs may have collapsed. Stone houses (there were a few remnants of pre-Victorian architecture scattered along this old road) were in better shape, some even still clinging to their roofs and windows. The cheaper buildings dating back to the 1970s and 1980s were barely recognisable – with no chimney stack to hold the frame firm, they had fallen into utter ruin, piles of shingles and rotten wood. Agatha ignored these buildings – ignored them all; she had walked past them many times before on her hunting expeditions up in the Forest. Once one had completed its slow collapse right as she passed it – the roof timbers had failed with a groan and a crash, and damp plaster had coated her. There had been worry about asbestos, but then what could be done? This had been years ago and her lungs were as good as ever.
The clouds that had been on the horizon were closer now – they were emerging from behind the hills of the Forest behind her. They were moving faster than she’d expected, and were thick and lumpen, suggesting very heavy rain: it would be no fun to get caught in weather like this with a heavy sack of game weighing her down. She contemplated waiting it out in one of the houses on her route (she knew of one or two that were pretty structurally sound and would serve in a crisis) but was eager to get home and arrange things for the evening, and she did not relish the possibility of spending the night out here with few supplies and little light. As she passed one of the potential shelters she resolved to keep going. It should only take another hour of steady walking, over the tracks, round the old quarry and then amongst the crops. The route was burned into her head, as were several dozen other resource routes that she took regularly, some of which were over twenty miles. These walks were her life, her livelihood, and a little rain would be of no real consequence. Still, she remained alert as she walked. The expected sounds, such as birdsong and the scurrying of small mammals, were ignored as she subconsciously filtered them out. It was other more purposeful noises that she was listening for. Footsteps, perhaps. The crack of a weapon, or the sound of shouting. Nothing had been heard all day, but this did not calm her nerves.