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A prologue


Nearing the edge of Black Abbey Wood, where a bristling line of oaks meets stout rows of maize, the old vixen halted, unsure. New noises, borne through the crop on a freshening breeze, caused her to feel wary, inclined to remain among the trees rather than to brush through this field, and the next, and the farthest, arriving on the banks of the large pond in the eastern part of Candlebrook Farm. Rather than assisting her passage merely, the light of the full moon would serve also to expose her to whatever was lurking just beyond her ken. For a while she waited for the sounds to fade, but the wind began to strengthen and so they came closer.

Above, a set of scrapings ricocheted among the trees as a barn owl alighted on a high branch, adjusting his perch before finishing his midnight meal of a dormouse, still warm in relentless talons. The vixen had startled briefly despite the familiarity of this sequence, then, enticed by the smell of prey, turned back into the woods to continue her own nocturnal foraging.

Swallowing the final morsel of flesh, the owl stretched out his russet-patterned wings and prepared to resume his feasting. He had heard the noises too; now, from his elevated vantage point, their source became visible: figures, each illuminated slightly, surrounded the elliptical grass mound behind the pasturelands, farther south than the vixen had registered, at some distance from the farmhouse. Initially the farmer’s border collies had released a series of warning barks, but their master’s hearing had declined significantly in recent years and he had supposed their clamour to be silliness due to the strong gusts that swept across his land. A few harsh words in their direction sufficed to quieten. No doubt a few months ago his wife, Ellen, would have felt cause for alarm, rousing him to venture outside with the dogs to investigate, but she lay at peace now, he liked to think, under her favourite roses in the village cemetery. He, however, slept fitfully.


Closest to the source, sheep stirred uneasily under their horse chestnut canopy, unable to settle. The youngest members of the flock were particularly skittish, seeking murmurs of reassurance from the older generation. These calmed a little, yet even the farmer’s eldest ewe felt some distress as, just before dawn, several strange cries arose, forcing crows to call a raucous alarum, taking flight from their nests and soaring across the valley towards the hills in the next shire. Even the farmer started up momentarily, as his collies growled, the owl shuddered, the old vixen froze, blood dripping from her whiskers.


Yet just as suddenly as the cries had echoed across Candlebrook, they were overtaken by the wind, howling as a single lightning fork cracked a jagged path to earth from sky; clamours of thunder concealed a flurry of thuds and whispers as the gathering retreated from the farmland; sheets of rain swept rapidly through the valley and the animals remained in shelter. At last, the sun began to rise, and with it a chorus of birdsong.

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