He waited impatiently for darkness to fall over the fells. The nights were growing shorter, and there would be few hours in which to seek out his food. These were the lean times, the lonely times, the times of fear.
Last year had been easier, the skies had been grey right through the summer, the cloud cover had deepened the nights, and he’d fed well, even making time to gather with others, share his news and comfort the young ones. But this year, after a hopeful beginning – the winter had been longer and colder than for many years – the weather had cleared, and now the nights were bright and the skies star-filled. It took so long for the last light to fade from the sky, and as midsummer approached the first intimations of dawn came a bare three hours later. Hardly enough time to absorb one half-sized meal.
This part of Cumbria was one of their last strongholds, they had cousins in Derbyshire and Northumberland, but the southern counties were too tame and tidy, and there were far too many humans out and about at all times of night and day. Scotland was too cold; although the winter nights were long, they couldn’t keep on the move through the snow. Here they could remain secret for the majority of the year, and if they were lucky they’d not be noticed by the walkers and climbers, who came in ever increasing numbers to fill the land with their garish colours, their destructive boots and their chatter.
The humans who spent the days building walls and mending paths were always the last to leave, but finally the slopes emptied, and since this would be a moonless night there should be no night walkers. As his muscles were released, he stretched, yawned and looked around. Here and there, other stiff forms moved slowly, stretching and slithering towards the screes, the debris at the feet of the bluffs, or the rock-strewn beds of the becks, in search of food.
Then Grarrund’s heart lurched in dismay as he saw that Shennil was missing from her usual resting place just above the edge of the wood. Could she have moved sooner than the rest of them? It was always darker there under the shade of the trees, but though he looked around there was no sign of her. He wasted valuable time searching for her, but came to the dreadful conclusion that she’d been seen, noticed and, dreadful thought, taken away. It happened sometimes, the workers on the walls and paths were the usual perpetrators of these disappearances.
He had no idea what the fate of these his comrades was, though he’d little hope that any of them survived. To be noticed in daylight was the fate his kind feared most, for once that had happened they were rarely left in peace, and it condemned them to stay in that one place and position every single day until a storm gave them an excuse to move to a less obvious resting shelter.
Shennil had been hoping to produce young this autumn, and he’d promised to partner her in the attempt. Now there would be no new stonesuckers on this flank of the fell. Filled with grief and anxiety, Grarrund made his way to one of his favourite feeding places where the old, dry, bed of the beck met the new path. It was dangerous, but there was water there, and he needed to drink as well as eat, and he’d often found the best stones just at the foot of that slope.
He drank his fill before beginning his search for food, but distracted by his distress he took much longer than usual to make a choice. It all seemed so pointless without Shennil. He knew he had a responsibility to ensure the future of their kind, but she’d been his motivation for continuing the struggle. He didn’t know if he could go on without her.
At last he found what he wanted, but hardly had he lifted the stone and begun to taste it, than the first gleam of light appeared on the eastern rim of the dale. As it touched him his muscles stiffened into immobility and he swore to himself. He’d made the unforgiveable mistake of being caught out in the open in a position which could hardly be mistaken for anything else than a rare, mature stonesucker. No chance now to make himself look like any random piece of wood.
Oh well, at least he could suck on the stone. No-one would notice that, and it would give him enough strength to get through the day. Let’s hope the walkers would be as blindly oblivious as usual today.
He did well until almost midday. They came and went in groups of various sizes, and didn’t even glance at him where he stood a bare yard from the path. But then he saw a walker come out of the wood and begin the ascent towards the shoulder of the fell. She was trouble, he sensed it at once. Lone walkers had no one to distract them from what lay around them, and this one didn’t trudge with her head down, she strolled, she turned around, she looked at the rocks, took photographs of the cliff face and the trees growing out of the cracks in the rock. He was doomed! To be captured in a picture was a death worse than any other, the very act condemned a stonesucker. The camera would steal his life!
Yes, she’d seen him. She stopped in her tracks, astonished and delighted at her discovery. Worse, she pointed him out to other walkers. In the few moments left to him while she fiddled with her camera, he tried to accept his fate, to give thanks for the years he’d shared with the others of his kind, and to hope that beyond this existence there might be something more for him.
Stiffening his horn in defiance, he stared directly into the killing eye of the camera as the shutter opened and stole his life away.
The stonesucker was spotted on the path from Grange in Borrowdale up to Castle Crag. If you go there I hope you will be lucky enough to see him for yourself.