Tales Of The Foxtaur Clans #3

Harvest Ceremony

by Bernard Doove © 1999

Halona calmly drew back her bowstring, a young buck clearly in her sights. She had been tracking it half the morning and had been rewarded with this opportunity. It had paused to graze in a meadow and she had arrived at the edge of the forest downwind from it. It was a middle distance shot, one which she was almost certain to make a clean kill. Her satisfaction turned to dismay when, with a loud snap, the bowstring broke. The buck's head jerked up alertly and moments later it had bounded out of the clearing into the cover of the forest again. Halona cursed and raged against unfair Fates. "Why did it have to happen now?" she demanded of the forest, but of course it didn't answer. She fumed for a few moments longer before shaking herself. "Calm down, vixen, you aren't achieving anything by this.

Halona stepped out of the shadows of the forest and into the full sunshine of a brilliant Autumn morning. The sun highlighted the gorgeous red fur of the vixen foxtaur. Creamy belly fur with white and dark brown markings made her a very attractive member of her species. Her hair was long and full, but held loosely in a leather tie decorated with a couple of feathers which kept it out of her way while she was hunting. She was a youth still, but the medium-sized breasts that were only partly restrained by her hunting jacket revealed her maturity. A quiver full of arrows was slung over her back and the strap parted her breasts. Shin guards over the black fur on her four legs plus some unique sandals completed her ensemble. The sandals were made especially to suit foxtaurs and they protected the footpads from the harshest terrain whilst still allowing the toes and claws to extend to give purchase where needed. Many foxtaurs didn't use footwear, but they didn't need to cover the large amounts of territory that she did.

Halona dug into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a spare bowstring. Swiftly and expertly, she replaced the broken one and was ready to begin the hunt anew. She trotted over to the place where the buck had been standing and put her nose to the ground, picking up its scent. Tracking by smell wasn't one of the foxtaurs' strongest abilities, but with a trail this new, she could use that weak talent to good effect. She took off in the direction she saw the deer leave the meadow and was quickly on its trail again. It was very important to her that this hunt be wound up quickly. Although she was confident of eventually bringing back its carcass, today was special. This day would see her rise from the status of apprentice to a fully independent hunter. Other vixens and tods were also taking their final tests today, but it was the lure of a special prize for the female hunters of the clan that made this day's hunt so important. The first to come back with a buck would be proclaimed Daughter of the Hunt and enjoy special status during the celebration of the Harvest Festival.

Halona had been learning more than just how to track and use a bow during her apprenticeship. She had a very thorough education in herd management, biology and land care. Being out in the field constantly, they were responsible for making sure that the food animals were tended as best as wild animals could be. Sickly beasts were separated from herds and left for the natural predators, thus ensuring the safety of the main herd while allowing the wolves and cougars in the area to find easy prey. Injured beasts were chosen as prime targets for slaughter. The hunters were also obligated to report signs of disease or natural disasters to the resource management specialists. No, being a hunter was not the simple vocation of the pre-industrial era, and it took years of learning to achieve the official title of Clan Hunter. After all, the entire community depended on the abilities of its hunters to provide meat and poultry for their tables. Domesticated animals were mostly out of the question for this area, and the clan took pride in its ability to feed its people and care for the forest at the same time.

The deer didn't have much of a chance for a head start before Halona was hot on its heels. The foxtaurs had been bred for a purpose and this shone through when put to the task. Halona followed the buck swiftly and tirelessly. Her four-pawed form was sure-footed and she could keep this pace up for a long time. Her eyesight was sharper than that of non-morphic foxes and caught subtle signs of the deer's passing. Her nose occasionally gave her a whiff of its scent and she used these indications and her knowledge of the land to make a decision. She suspected that it would soon come to a nearby lake and move down its shore. She knew of a spot where the forest opened up a little which would afford her a clear shot at the beast. She had been keeping an eye on the deer in this area and learned some of their habits, hoping to increase her chances of bagging her prey quickly. It was time to see if she had got it right. She cut away from the buck's trail and headed for the clearing. Years of training and a good sense of direction led her unerringly to her goal. She found herself a concealed spot downwind of her prey and waited. She didn't have to wait long and felt a thrill of satisfaction at judging it correctly.

The buck had been slowing down, the urgency of its flight having been dulled by the apparent lack of pursuit. Since the sound that had startled it back at the meadow, it hadn't sensed any danger, such had been the careful pursuit of the huntress. It looked around, its nose testing the air, but failed to detect the foxtaur who was waiting for it. Halona had braced her four feet to stand utterly still. She had already readied her longbow and had an arrow nocked in the string. Her pelt was lost amongst the flickering shadows of the forest and the creak of the bow being drawn was lost amongst similar sounds from the surrounding trees. The deer never sensed a thing and presented itself as the perfect target. Halona decided to go for the chancier but more impressive shot. At the perfect moment, she released the bowstring and the arrow flew to its target. The shaft penetrated the buck's throat and severed the spinal cord. The animal collapsed, instantly killed by the superbly skilful shot.

The vixentaur couldn't help herself. She leapt from her hiding spot and danced around and yipped for joy. She had surpassed herself and was immensely satisfied with her shot. This was going to be something to boast about to the other apprentices when she got back. She wasn't terribly vain about her abilities, but this was one hunt that she was going to brag about for a long while. She finally calmed down and brought her mind back to the task at hand. Killing the deer was only one step. She now had to gut the beast and bring it back to the Mountain Glade Community butchery. Only then would it be considered that the hunt was complete. She pulled out a razor-sharp hunting knife and proceeded to open up the carcass and disembowel it. After cleaning up, she bound the body to make it easier to carry. This was the hardest part. She had to carry the deer all the way back to the village with no assistance. Fortunately, foxtaurs were also bred to be able to carry heavy loads, their taur-forms being far better adapted to the task than two-legged morphs or humans. Getting it secured on her lower torso was the trickiest part, but once having done so, she moved off quickly and easily in the direction of the village.

Glancing at the position of the sun told Halona that it was almost noon. That was plenty of time for another female hunter to have bagged a buck and returned to claim the prize. She resigned herself to not getting her expectations up and was prepared to be content with the retelling of her hunting tale. It was half an hour later when she reached one of the paths that led to into the town and it wasn't long before she reached the Hunter's Hall. In the typical foxtaur minimalist style, this place served many purposes such as the offices for the Chief Hunter, the training facilities for the apprentices, specialist equipment and supplies storage and simple manufacturing equipment. The butchery was located conveniently next door, but Halona had to report to the Chief Hunter first. She met an older tod along the way though who smiled at her in welcome.

"Hi there, Halona! I see you've completed your test. How'd it go?" he asked.

"Had a bowstring snap, but otherwise it went very well. Tell me, Zandek, have you seen any other hunter vixens come in yet?"

Zandek shook his head. "Sorry, but I haven't been around here for long, so I don't know if anyone has beat you in. I'm afraid you're going to have to find that out from the chief."

"Damn! I've tried to be calm about this, but now that the crunch is here, I'm as nervous as can be."

"Then don't stand there yipping at me," he laughingly replied. "Get into her office and find out!"

Halona knew he was right. She was just putting off the possibility of disappointment. She said, "Thanks, I'll catch you later, Zandek." She gave him a cheery wave of her tail as she walked towards the Chief Hunter's office. The door was open and, as foxtaurs always do when doors are left open in tacit invitation, she walked in unannounced. Thea, the current Chief Hunter, was a middle-aged vixen who kept her office decorated with trophies of her accomplishments. All the apprentices who came in here were always impressed and knew that they had a lot to do to match the achievements of their craft master. She looked up and smiled as Halona entered.

"Welcome, Halona! I see that you have completed your hunt." She had been squatting behind her desk, but she got up immediately and walked over to her apprentice to check the carcass. "A fine buck, well prepared. Hmmm, arrow through the throat, I see. A fine shot. Congratulations on a fine hunt. You have completed you final test in style."

"Thank you, Chief Hunter, but can you tell me if I was the first?"

Thea grinned. She had deliberately neglected to mention that point, spinning out the tension. She relented and said, "Yes, dear, you're the first one back. You get the honour of representing us as Daughter of the Hunt at tonight's festivities."

Halona couldn't help herself. She yipped and pranced in joy. Thea watched her indulgently. She remembered the time many years ago when she had been told the same thing and fully understood the emotions of the moment. After letting the young vixen rejoice for a short while, she put a calming hand on her shoulder. Halona took the hint and restrained herself. "Time to take the carcass to the butcher, Halona. Then go home and prepare for tonight's ceremony. You'll have a big audience to face this evening."

That sobered up the new hunter. What if she forgot the dance steps? Or stumbled over her own paws? Thea smiled to herself and swatted Halona lightly on the rump. "Get going, girl!"

Halona jumped, then trotted out of the office and headed for the butcher. She dropped off the buck as she had done with so many other kills before, but this time requested that they save a trophy for her. She then virtually ran back home to tell her family. Her parents were both overjoyed at her accomplishment, especially her father who was also a hunter and in whose footsteps she had decided to follow. She excused herself to clean up the dirt and blood that inevitably stained any hunter's fur. She indulged in a long luxuriant bath and spent some time drying and brushing her fur to make it look its best. By this time, dinner was ready. Her mother served up a special meal cooked to celebrate the completion of her apprenticeship. They ate it in high spirits, even more excited for the honour that she had earned.

Halona had long ago decided what she would wear to the ceremony if she was the lucky one. She couldn't wear just anything because there was a certain amount of symbolism in it all. She also pulled out some of her favourite ornaments and spent some time arranging them in her fur. Lastly, she took out the ceremonial short bow that was to be used for the dance. Finally she was ready and she joined her parents in the living room. They complimented her on her outfit and they all then left for the festival grounds. By this time, twilight had set in and the bonfires on the grounds could be seen lighting up the surrounding trees and the crowd gathered there. Occasionally a familiar voice would call to her and congratulate her on winning the hunt. She had never felt so proud.

She was a little early for the ceremony yet, but she was too excited to participate in the minor entertainments. Instead, she sought out friends to have a chat and to hopefully settle her nerves. Then she was surprised by a new arrival, a vixentaur that she knew but she had not yet met. This was hardly surprising; everyone in the village knew of Malena Redfox because of her mate, the chakat named Goldfur. She had recently been thrust into the public eye when some racist elements had stirred up trouble because of this. Halona had never understood what the fuss was about, but she was nevertheless still a little overwhelmed when the chakat in question appeared moments later. Up until now, the vixen had never met one of hir kind. They were becoming an increasingly common sight about the village though. Halona was impressed by the power and the grace of the felitaur and rather fascinated to find that, despite the obvious feminine aspects of the chakat, shi also came across with a masculine appeal. At that moment, Halona better understood why Malena had chosen to mate outside her species.

Suddenly she realised that Malena and Goldfur were headed in her direction and she wondered why. Malena stepped up to hir and smiled.

"Hi! I'm told that you have been chosen as Daughter of the Hunt this year?"

Halona merely nodded, unable to think of anything to say to this.

"I suppose you know who I am," continued Malena. "May I introduce you to my lifemate, Goldfur. I've been trying to explain some of the ceremonies to hir and I thought it best if shi heard some of it from you, if that isn't inconvenient."

"Oh! Sure, I'd love to!" Halona blurted out. She put her hand out, palm forward, the ritual greeting of the foxtaurs. Goldfur, familiar with the practice, did the same and they put their palms together, entwining their fingers. "I am Halona Brushtail and I'm pleased to meet you."

"I am Chakat Goldfur, child of Longstripe and Desertsand. It is my pleasure too," shi replied.

They released their hands and Halona said, "I suppose I should start with the name. This ceremony is called The Dance of Mother Harvest and the Daughter of the Hunt and is a ritual that both celebrates the achievements of the people in the food-providing services and imparts a lesson to the people in the village. I represent the Hunters who provide meat, fish and poultry. Mother Harvest represents the Gatherers who grow the vegetables, grains and fruit. More than that, each of us provides other materials that the community needs. For example, see the vest I'm wearing? It's all leather with fasteners made of bone. Other animal products such as oils are also supplied by the efforts of the Hunters. On the other hand, the Gatherers grow cotton and flax for other materials. The point of the ceremony is not just to celebrate our successful Harvest, but to emphasise that no means of food harvesting is better than the other and that both are important to the community."

"How did you get to be chosen as Daughter of the Hunt? And where's the representative for Mother Harvest?" Goldfur enquired.

"The graduating class of vixen hunter apprentices compete to be the first to retrieve a particular species of food animal, a buck being the target this year. The Gatherers choose their representative completely differently, but I don't know who was picked this year, or why."

"I think I do," interjected Malena. Both Goldfur and Halona looked in the direction that Malena was pointing. A middle-aged vixen was approaching the ceremonial dance area. She wore no top, but she had a ribbon of cloth wound about her and glossy green leaves decorating her hair and tail. She carried a woven basket filled with fruit and vegetables.

"I think you're right, Malena. I recognise her. That's Petra Strongpaw, the farmer who had a bumper crop this year but gave away half of it to a family whose crops were lost in a mudslide. I guess she's being honoured for her generous act."

Malena nodded in mute agreement and Halona continued her explanation. "You see how she's not wearing any clothing? That's to represent her closeness to nature and also emphasise the "Mother" part of the Mother Harvest title. The cloth and leaves represent the products of the Gatherers as much as my leather and bone items represent the Hunters'. Anyway, I think it's time to start the ceremony. I hope that I made things clearer and I also hope you will stay for the ceremony."

"Thank you, Halona. It was most informative. Of course I'll watch the dance." Shi smiled in genuine appreciation and once again Halona was struck by the depth of the reaction it inspired. The vixen grinned back, then walked away, waving.

Halona approached the dance area. Petra noticed, smiled at the young vixen and also approached from the other side. The sky was now completely dark and stars shone in the clear sky. The whole festival grounds were strung with ornamental lamps that gave a warm light to illuminate the dancers who were now as ready as they would ever be. The crowd sensed that the ceremony was about to start and quickly gathered around. A couple of drummers positioned themselves at the edge of the circle as one of the village elders padded to the centre of it. She held up her hands and the crowd hushed.

"Vixens, tods and visitors, tonight we celebrate another good harvest. However, this particular ceremony points out that we need our hunters and our farmers equally. Join with me in singing the praises of our food gatherers." The elder moved to the side as the dancers took the stage. Halona felt another bout of nerves. She knew the dance steps thoroughly, but this didn't make her any more confident. Then Petra gave her a wink. Halona realised that she must be feeling just as nervous, and somehow that made her feel better.

The elder gave a signal to the drummers and they started a beat. She then sang the first verse: "The Sun beats down upon the earth..."

The crowd as one joined in with the next line:

"Foxtaur farmers till the fields..."

Petra and Halona began their dance. On the beat they stepped forward and began the steps of a dance that was decades old. They side-stepped, pranced and wove about each other, ritualisticly going through the motions of farming chores while the singers finished the verse.

"Our hunters stalk the beasts and birds..."

As the new verse began, the dancers stepped up to each other, turned aside and circled each other, this time symbolically enacting a hunt.

"Nature's bounty we make our own..."

Halona raised her bow above her head and spun about. Petra raised the basket and did the same.

"The meat we eat, the skins we cure..."

Halona mimed using her bow to take down prey.

"The fruit we pick, the cloth we weave..."

Petra went through the motions of harvesting her produce.

"All things we need, they provide..."

Halona and Petra bowed to each other, one offering her basket, the other her bow.

"Neither greater than the other."

The two vixens exchanged their gifts. They then turned and presented them to the crowd. The song was done and they cheered the dancers. The harvest was officially complete and ceremonially shared amongst all. Petra and Halona gave each other a big hug of congratulations, grins of delight on their muzzles. Their moment of glory was not ended yet though as they were the guests of honour at the feast and, quite frankly, both felt as if they were starving now that the pre-dance nerves were lifted.

The sounds of a large gong announced to all the revellers that the feast was about to start and there was a surge of foxtaur forms towards the area that had been set aside for the banquet. Thus it had been done for decades and, tradition willing, would continue to do so for many more to come. However, this was one festival that would stand out forever in the mind of one young huntress.

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Next story in chronological order is Tales Of the Foxtaur Clans #5: Obligation.

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