Chapter one    

Another Stone Age. 
 M.E. King.  16 Apr 08   

 Can you lose hope while skylarks sing?
 High o’er the mist, can they see spring? 
 from the Song of Faraken.
    Above a remote valley in the north of Britain it was a clear April morning on the high heathlands, when the skylark Harkin was disturbed by the presence of an invader. He arrived out of the blue, just as the Norsemen had, some twelve centuries earlier, and he was shattering the peace of her secluded hills and moors. During the past hundred winters those lands had been almost abandoned by the humans. With a fierce determination the lone marauder was breaking through the ancient and partly ruined walls of Harkin’s favorite nesting meadow. For a hundred heartbeats she had been hearing the crashing of rocks coming from the edge of the field, eighty wingspans away. Like any wild thing she had frozen in fear, still as a stone. There was a pause in the first wave of sounds, and she regained the courage to look out from her nest. Beyond the tangled young grasses, and the yellow flowers which she knew as sunseeds, she could see that the man had broken through the wall, but fortunately he turned and now had his back to her, so she dared to stay on the ground. Her nesting was at the stage where the warmth of her body was critical for the awakening of life within her eggs.   
         She heard a thud, much louder than the others, and felt the ground beneath her begin to shake.   She glanced up again and saw that the wild man was now throwing the biggest stones off the top of the wall, widening the gap he had made. What could he possibly want to do that for; the space he had cleared was already far wider than the man himself? Surely no army could be in his wake. Until now, the only enemy these walls had known was time itself, so Harkin had occasionally witnessed a section of wall collapsing from old age; and sometimes, during a storm, one of the topstones would be dislodged by a gust of wind, for these old stones had never known the luxury of cement. Topstones are partly rounded, so they are apt to roll and bounce down a slope. Now, many of them were being deliberately thrown to the ground, and one was fast bearing down on her, threatening her life and all her hopes. It grieves any mother to abandon her young to death, but as that great boulder hurtled down the field, heading directly towards her nest, she knew that she was helpless to save them. 
        She flew out from under the tufted grass where she had bravely stayed on guard.  As she rose into the sky, she was relieved to see the topstone collide with a molehill and shudder to a halt. But as she fled her nest she was being watched, and in her panic she had broken one of the fundamental rules of larklore. By flying directly from her nest, instead of first scurrying away from it through the undergrowth, she had revealed its location. The intruder now knew where her eggs were hidden.
       This was Harkin’s second season of nesting, and yet she was still neglecting to follow the Ancient Teachings.  Last summer she had lost her first clutch of nestlings, and she was beginning to see how foolish it was to throw out the old rules, simply because they were not relevant most of the time.  These days, on countless occasions, the fall of a human foot might be completely harmless; yet one man riding the smoking machines of iron, or breaking through a wall, could bring new and far greater dangers. As so often happens, it was the innocent young who were about to suffer; Harkin had found, to her peril, that however sweet the humans seemed to be when their stomachs were full, there was still a large proportion of them who thought that eggs were for eating. 
       As Harkin watched, from a hundred wingspans above the earth, her heart nearly stopped as she saw the invader eagerly grab three long jagged rocks from the pile he had pulled from the wall.   Now he was striding straight towards her cherished offspring, raising one of the rocks with just one hand, like a caveman’s weapon. The fall of his thick skin boots shuddered through the pasture to her nest, and must have triggered some primitive warning signal within the brain of the infant lark which was curled tightly inside the first egg; a tiny beak was trying desperately to break out of it. That year they had been so near to making it out into the spring sunshine.  The previous year all her young ones had been eaten by a cat from the Travelers Rest Inn.     
       The stranger’s hair was the color of the winter sun, and deep within Harkin’s race memory, images were recalled of other men with the same fearsome physique and fast skilful movements as this man. Yes, there had been times before when invaders had disturbed the peace of these dales. They had traveled in longboats from the Winterland beyond the great Northern Sea. Faraken, the Sage-elder, once told her that in the Fifth Age those boatmen had killed and burnt the friends of all wildlife, the gentle monks of Lindisfarne Island in the North Humberlands. 
    And now this man was using his awesome strength to lift the first rock high into the air as he leaned over Harkin’s little ones. She dropped halfway to the ground, and hovered, with song and breath frozen in her throat, for the man was now stabbing the pointed end of the rock downwards with all his might.  If Harkin had been a lapwing or a gull, she could have swooped down on anyone tampering with her nest, but who heeds a lark? In terror she climbed skywards again, and from that vantage point she saw that the attack had missed her nest by a wingspan. But heaven help her, for the man was moving round to the nearer side of the nest, and with renewed determination, he went for it again with his second rock. Her view was now obstructed, yet she saw the shock waves which shuddered through the man’s sinews as he stabbed it into the earth. She could no longer bear to watch what was happening to her offspring, and she fled away over Blackwood Common.
      All through her carefree fledgling time, three summers ago, she had been so ready to tell the elder birds that the humans could now be trusted. “Look at those dark clattering mills in the valley,” she had said, “on those days when the smoke and noise stop, I see some of the pale humans coming up onto these moors. Forgive me for arguing, but my eyes and my hith sense show me that these are gentle people,  and you know that in these latter days,  not one of them has hunted for eggs or tried to trap us.”
     “Dear Harky,” had come the reply, “you cannot yet know how tiny a part of humanity you are seeing in that little stream of tired workers flocking onto these moors to find air and sunshine.   Do you remember how, before your first taste of the thunder rains, you kept telling us that the dew ponds must be ‘the greatest amount of water in all the world’? Those few humans who come out of their covered stone nests and into the light of nature do indeed seem to be less likely to kill us. But Harky, your experience is as yet so very short, and all the Elders sense that we are only living in a peacetime because we happen to have slipped through a loophole in what is still a dark age for the humans.”
     “But you told me that if I dared to keep my hith guidance beyond fear and appetite, it would always be true.”   
      None of the flock had been able to give a proper answer to this paradox, and it was too soon for a fledgling to be told of the things which the humans did to those forms of life which did not have human speech, and were not shielded by the high moorlands.   “I think, Harkin,” said one of the Elders, “that it will take one who is wiser than any of us, to answer your strange questions.”  So a few days later she and the Elder had flown for nearly six sunspans, to Robin Hood Rocks above Holderness Woods in Cragg Vale, where the Sage-elder, Faraken, had been only too happy to help:
      “Harkin!  How good to see you after hearing so much about your far-ranging thoughts and growing hithsight.”
     “Thank you for taking an interest in me,” replied the younger bird.
     “And do you realize,” continued Faraken, “how important and respected this gift could one day make you?”
      The young Harkin had sensed that this greeting was something of a test, and that false values were being offered to tempt her. “Thank you Elder, for being interested in me. I know that the choice of fame is mine, but I sense that if ever I use the hith gift in order to get fame or attention, I will lose the power to help the Lost Ones.”
     “Well spoken,” continued Faraken, “and so now we can tell you that all the special abilities you will slowly gain are indeed not for you to win or lose anything for yourself. They are to give you the power to be of service to life beyond Larkworld.  The Starminders have selected you for an unusual task: They need you to make your future nesting grounds just to the south of here, within sight and hearing of one of the human children whom they need to contact.”  Faraken had then passed to Harkin a number of old teachings, most of which seemed tedious and irrelevant in the Age in which she lived: don’t do this; don’t do that; don’t nest within ten tens of a wingspan from the field walls. Walls? That was a joke thought Harkin. If Faraken were to look beyond his rocky haven, he would find that half the field walls were only relics now, and undermined by the black-furred tunnel diggers, known to the humans as moles. Where those walls had collapsed, they were hardly any taller than the hungry cloud mammals who clambered indifferently over them. Towards the end of his lecture, Faraken said, “Now you must fly back to your homeland on the Haworth moors, and then rest. Tomorrow I will send young Willaken over to you, to guide you here for a few more instructions, and to answer the paradox which first brought you to me.”
        The next day had dawned as lovely as any that Harkin had known. She had only just opened her eyes when something shot like an arrow into the tuft of grass beside her.  Panting from what must have been a record flight, her bright-eyed visitor said, “Willaken’s the name. Do you care for an adventure? I’ve gained nearly two spans of the sun on this outward journey, so I’d like to make a detour on our flight into Cragg Vale. We’ll go over an old packhorse trail and down through Bell Hole Clough. It’s a place of incredible beauty, and a haven for the fox and badger. There are very few humans who have ever discovered it.” 
       This was Harkin’s first opportunity to fly free with a companion, and a lark can go far and see much while the sun moves through a space equal to its diameter. Never before had she flown with a star flyer and an apprentice to the Elders: “Watch out!” she had called to him; “be careful!”; “mind that tree!”   But soon she realized that Willaken knew exactly what he was doing, and she needed all her energy just to keep up with him. She thrilled as he curved and flit between the small friendly trees of silver birch, holly and rowan. His slipstream drew her breathlessly downward as he dipped daringly into the shady hollows abandoned long ago by the human quarry delvers.  Suddenly, near the end of their flight, he dived into the damp rushes by Dauber Bridge, and Harkin found herself pressed close to him.
    “We need to regain our breath,” he had said. “If we arrive in this state, I don’t think Faraken will trust me to accompany you again!” Harkin was glad that she had nowhere else to rest, except against the warm feathers of this her guide. If he were the outcome of Elder training, she would in future pay more attention to what Faraken had to teach.   
      They managed to arrive at Sloping Rock as calmly as a pair of pigeons, and Faraken had continued his lectures of the previous day as if he had merely paused to scratch his neck: “Now, to solve your paradox, Harkin. Yes, your hith power is indeed accurate and reliable, but as yet its reach is only local. During your training, you thought it an achievement when you sensed the place where tractor wheels would have crushed a nest in the Low Meadow at the agricultural research center in Haslingden. What you completely failed to hithsense was that flowers and insects died from a strange mist, even where they had not been crushed by wheels. But don’t be too disheartened at that failure; even to us Elders, the cause of the dying is still unknown, it has never happened before. What we do know is that the killing mist was made deliberately, and by the humans.” 
     “But how can it be true,” asked Harkin, “that most humans grow into adulthood without ever growing into kindness; for I hith the light they are born with?”  
      The old bird paused and scratched a wing with his beak while he thought how to answer this difficult question.  “It is true, the Lost Ones are suffering much at the hands of the humans; but the tragedy of what the humans themselves have lost through what they are doing, that is sometimes too much for me to bear.  When I can see no way out, either for them, or for those they eat,  I fly off and sing of the gentler humans who still take time to roam the high country tracks.”
    “Yes,” replied Harkin, excited that the Elder bird had thought about the human track-walkers, “whenever those minds are close to me, my hith sense has felt a sort of joy and a reverence for life being transmitted through their tangle of conflicting thoughts.” 
      Harkin could not be blamed for closing her ears as Faraken had explained the loophole which was currently enabling larks to live in peace. “A tangle it is,” he continued, “and so often we ourselves have been deceived because the humans give the appearance of being so harmless. It may only be a rumor, but it is said that the eating of wild birds only stopped when the humans put the double legged cloud mammals onto these moors. Those peaceful white beasts, which they call sheep, seem to have no hithsense at all, which is a blessing if the rumors are true about what the humans eventually do with the bodies of those poor trusting animals.
       “Now, Willaken, it’s time to give our pupil a tour of these woods and rocks, and then do you mind if I ask you to make a small detour?” The canny Elder seemed to have a quiet chuckle at Willaken’s embarrassment when the word ‘detour’ was mentioned; and Harkin got the distinct hith that Faraken had once enjoyed being young. He continued: “I want you to show Harkin the high nesting meadow at Wildwood Farm, below Crow hill.”
      On the short flight to the meadow, Harkin had noticed her guide becoming serious and somewhat withdrawn.   But he did share with her something which made her feel that he cared about her, and which told her that he already knew that she was to be given a mission:  “There is a place nearby which you may one day need to know of.”  They had then flown from the meadow to the abandoned quarry of Nab End, beyond Blackwood Common. It was the biggest that Harkin had ever seen, with dozens of sheer rock faces, gaping fault lines and overgrown ledges.  No sooner had they alighted on one of the ledges, than Willaken vanished from sight. Then, with a flurry of feathers and bilberry leaves, he seemed to re-emerge from nowhere, and signaled for her to follow him through a tiny gap between two clumps of heather. They had entered a small mossy cavern, with tiny droplets of dew still glistening on the gritty walls.   
    “Willaken!” said Harkin, “This is the loveliest place I have ever seen, how ever did you find it?”   
     “I didn’t find it, nor did any of our kind. It was found nearly a century ago by a child bringing lunch to his father at the quarry.  He had rescued a lark from one of the cage-traps which were sometimes set on the moor to capture wild songbirds. They used to sell us as caged singers for those humans who had become trapped in the great smoking cities.  The boy had wrapped the bird in his cloak, and when he scrambled down the side of the quarry, he hid it in this very place.”  
     “How did he get back to the bird without the quarrymen finding out?” asked Harkin.
    “The boy lived nearby at Moorside Farm, Thomas was his name.  After his supper that day, he slipped out and took the rescued bird to where she would be safe, far over the other side of Crow Hill. That bird became the Elder, Cliffken. Ever since then, the secret of this refuge has been known only to ourselves, and to a few of the humans who are helping to free the Lost Ones.” 
    Those days of Training with Willaken and the Elders had been two winters ago. Now every word was coming back to Harkin, for it was she herself who was in danger now that the invading wall-breaker had discovered the location of her nest. As she was fleeing over the common, she remembered the refuge in the old sandstone quarry and veered a few degrees to the northwest. Half way down the south face of the quarry, Harkin found the old hiding place. The narrow ledge of stone was still covered in moss and shielded by the veil of heather and bilberry. Without that shelter, she would be too easy a target for any predator.  Not that she cared now, for she was about to fall into the same desolation of spirit which had followed her previous loss.
       As Harkin huddled against the cold back wall of the cavern, believing that yet again her offspring had been lost, she remembered something which Faraken had told her about a human being who was to come to the rescue of the wildlife in that locality. Hadn’t Harkin been told to nest in that particular field at Wildwood Farm?    Could that meadow be the place where the first rescue was to happen? She knew that it was only a faint hope, for she had nested closer than the required hundred wingspans from the field edge. What right did she have to hope, when so many of her kin had died whilst hoping in vain that they would be rescued? As a chilling gust of damp wind found the cave entrance, the helpless bird began to shiver and descend into despair. Who would know or care if she never came out of her hidden chasm? Why not blot out all past and future pain, and die in this cleft of sacred earth?  
        She might have done that, but for the fact that a glimmer of tarnlight was clamoring to be heard deep in Harkin’s mind.