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Excerpt #5

We end this series of excerpts at the beginning. Before Sebastian embarks on his journey with Brand Redtail and Professor Plotoniucs, he attends the Fox’s Harvest Feast, a memory of light he takes with him into the gathering darkness . . .

By the time the hour of the Feast arrived, the sun was setting, casting long shadows in the amber light. The moon, which had been veiled all day, now revealed itself, bright red and full.

The Foxes gathered in a wide meadow ringed with willow trees, named the Willow Mead. There the Sacred Willow stood, where Mab and Eniri Redtail were wed more than a thousand years before. The original tree had died long ago; but a cutting had been taken from it and from each of its descendents, always planted in the same place, down to the present day.

In and out of the mixed colors of lantern lights, musicians wove through the feasting grounds, filling the crisp autumn air with a veritable battle of melodies. Fox children, wielding clappers and noisemakers, darted here and there in their games, excited peals of laughter echoing between the trees.

Brand appeared after the Feast had started, dressed all in green, a crown of red berries and golden leaves upon his brow. He was lord of the Feast this year, in the likeness of Mab Redtail, father of all Foxes, the most venerated of all their ancestors. Brand was borne in upon a wicker seat decked with flowers, and he held in one paw a tall staff of wood, sprouting blossoms, the Bough of Mab, taken from the first Sacred Willow tree.

The Ald-Amita was seated in a tall white chair, under a flowered canopy, attended to by her kin. There also was Ana, lady of the Feast, who wore a trailing gown of blue, stitched with living white flowers, in imitation of Eniri’s bridal gown.

Sebastian and Plotonicus were seated with Brand at an elevated table under a string of white lanterns. Sebastian craned his neck; the tree they were seated beneath rose up into the clear night sky until its highest branches were no more than a dark lace pattern, through which Sebastian glimpsed stars.

The Feast itself was something Sebastian would remember all his life. At the center of each table there was an overflowing cornucopia of fruit, the ripeness and flavor of which Sebastian knew no comparisons for. Then the main courses were carried in by servers in mummer’s costume, followed by a drum and pipe band. It was rich food, and it filled Sebastian with a warmth and comfort that edged out the memory of his strange encounter at Warden-Tor.

Long after Sebastian had eaten his full and lost count of the songs he had heard, or half heard, or imagined hearing, a space was cleared away at the center of the feasting grounds. The Foxes ringed around it with joined paws. Plotonicus dragged Sebastian from his seat and pushed him into the chain of Foxes.

The circle broke for a moment to admit Brand and Ana. From somewhere in the trees a harp, flute, and fiddle sang together in bittersweet harmony. Brand and Ana danced. Their steps were as ancient as the Fox race itself. Mab Redtail himself and his bride, Eniri, had danced them at the first Harvest Feast, or so the Fox tales told.

The dance was long, and even as he watched, it seemed to Sebastian like a memory out of time. He found himself thinking of his own mother and father. He wondered if they had ever danced together like that. His thoughts strayed further back, all the way to Agamemnon Stoutburrow. And he thought of Ave and Jarev, the Human saints, holding hands above the church, above the world.

Sebastian never could remember how the Fox dance ended. In his memory of Harvest Feast, the dance went on forever—long after he, Brand, and Plotonicus had left Tod-Boro and made their long journey into danger, and darkness.

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