Liz felt someone tug at her almost transparent pink silk gown. She tried to ignore it as she worked hard to recall the young woman’s name, she had it on the tip of her tongue.
The tug got stronger and Liz feared that whomever was doing it they were going to tore her silk veil. She turned around, her irritation colouring her high cheekbones with a nice tint of pink and gasped.
“What I do with the spiders,” asked a small woman with dark skin and wearing a rainbow sari. “They’re so big big, and SOOOO hungry. They’re going to eat the guests only.”
“What spiders?” she asked. The maid pointed behind Liz with her chin. When Liz looked she almost dropped her glass. A swarm of colourful giant jumping spiders were running and jumping near the swimming pool, frightening the human guests, while Roberto was riding one of them in his sparkling cowboy costume, laughing like a teenager.
“So?” asked the maid insistently. “What I do?”
Liz was confused.
“Why are they here?” she asked, “I don’t understand. Where’s Godfrey?”
“They are the daughters and sons of Narani from the giant spiders island,” said a man with a beard in a WWII uniform. A ghost dog barked silently at his feet.
“Of course,” Liz said. But it was too much for her and she gulped, all at once, the remaining fifteen jewels of condensed information floating in her cocktail. She shoved the glass in the maid’s hands and said: “Bring me another,” before she collapsed under the afflux of so much knowledge.
The wind was playing with the fine grained ash that had been the enchanted forest and Margorrit’s cottage. Fox felt empty, he sat prostrated like an old jute bag abandoned on the ground. He was unable to shake off the inertia that had befallen on him since his arrival.
He was caught in an endless cycle of guilt that rolled over him, crushing his self esteem and motivation until it disappeared in the ashes like his friend and the whole world.
After a moment, his stomach growled, reminding him that he was still alive and that he hadn’t eaten that well during the last few days. His nose wriggled as beyond the decay it had caught the smell of a living creature that was passing by. He heard a crow caw.
Fox wailed, he didn’t want to be taken out of his lamentations and self pity. He thought he didn’t deserve it. But this time, like all the others before, hunger won the battle without that much of a fight and Fox was soon on his feet.
He looked around, there was cold ash everywhere. It smell bad, but he couldn’t really tell where it came from. It seemed to be everywhere.
The crow landed in front of him and cawed again. It looked at him intently.
It cawed. As if it wanted to tell him something. The black of its feathers reminded him of Glynis’s burka. Glynis. She had told him something. They count on you, as if there was still time. The last potion, cawed the crow. And it took off, only to land in what would have been the cottage kitchen. It rummaged through the ashes.
“The kitchen!” shouted Fox, suddenly recalling what she had said. The crow looked up at Fox and cawed as if encouraging him to join it in the search.
“The last potion that can turn back time!?”
Fox ran and foraged the ashes with the crow. He found broken china, and melted silverware. He coughed as his foraging dispersed the ashes into the air. Suddenly he shivered. He had found a bone under a piece of china. He shook his head. What a fool, it’s only chicken bone.
The raven, which Fox wondered if it was Glynis, showed Fox a place with its beak. There was a small dark bottle. He wondered why they were always dark like that. He felt a rush of excitement run through his body and he was about to open it and drink it when he saw the skull and crossbones on the label. In fact it was the only thing that was on the label. Fill with a sudden repulsion, Fox almost let go of the bottle.
“I’m not drinking that,” said Fox.
The bird jumped on his arm and attempted to uncork the bottle.
She picked at the cork.
Fox looked at the dreaded sign on the bottle. He hesitated but opened it. When the smell reached his nose he was surprised that it was sweet and reminded him of strawberry. Maybe it was by contrast to the ambient decay.
At least, he thought, if I die, the last thing I taste would be strawberry.
He gulped the potion down and disappeared.
The bottle fell on the floor, a drop hanging on the edge of its opening. Certainly attracted by the sweet smell, the crow took it with his black beak. It just had time for a last satisfied caw before it also disappeared.
“I fink I heard somefing,” said Liz feeling a tad nervous when underground. She looked around, squinting her eyes.
“What are you doing?” asked Godfrey.
Liz squinted more.
“I can not distinguish anything,” she said. “Are those books?” She pointed at a twisted column with her crooked finger. “Oh! bloody hell, my back hurts.”
“I think they’re written in latin,” said Godfrey after skimming through some of the covers.
“I heard it again!” said Liz.
“Ain’t that tinnitus?” asked Finnley louder.
“I’m not deaf,” replied Liz. I tell you it’s like a very small person talking. She looked at her feet and almost had a heart attack when she saw a mouse waving at her. The little creature ran swiftly up the book column and stood on its legs.
“Quis estis? Mus sum,” it said with a very high pitched voice.
“It says it’s a mouse and asks who we are,” translated Godfrey.
Liz frowned, which accentuated the relief of her old face.
“You speak mouse language now?” she asked.
“Not at all. It speaks latin.”
“Of course you would know latin,” said Finnley.
Shawn-Paul exited Finn’s Bakery on the crowded Cobble street with his precious cargo of granola cookies. They were wrapped in a cute purple box pommeled with pink hearts. He put on a disdainful attitude, adjusting his scarf for better effect, while already salivating in anticipation of the granola melting in his hot chocolate at home. He was sure that would revive his fleeting inspiration for his novel.
It was hard not to swallow as saliva accumulated in his mouth, but he had had years of practices since he was eight. His aunt Begonia had just given him a snicker bar that he had swallowed in one gulp, spreading some chocolate on his face in the process. She had accused him of being a dirty little piglet and he was so upset of being compared to the animal, that he had vowed to never show his love for food again. Instead he developed a public dislike of food and a slender frame quite fitting his bohemian lifestyle, while always having some cookies in store.
Shawn-Paul turned right on Quagmire street. It was bordered with Plane trees that kept it cool and bearable in summer. He was thinking about the suggestion of his writing coach to spend some time with his artist self, thinking that he had not done it for quite some time, but immediately felt guilty about not writing and firmed his resolution to go back home and write. He walked past a group of two elder woman and a man arguing in front of Liz’s Antique. One of the woman had a caved in mouth and used her hands profusely to make her point to the man. She was wearing pink slippers with pompon.
Italian tourists, Shawn-Paul thought rolling his eyes.
He swallowed and almost choked on his saliva when he glimpsed an improbable reflection on the Antique’s window. A woman, smiling and waving at him from a branch of a plane tree behind him, balancing her legs. He particularly noticed her feet and the red sandals, the rest of the body was a blur.
As Shawn-Paul turned, the toothless Italian tourist whirled her arms about like an inflated tubewoman, frightening a nearby sparrow. The bird took off and followed a curve around Shawn-Paul. Caught together in a twirl worthy of the best dervishes, the man and the bird connected in one of those perfect moment that Shawn-Paul would long but fail to transcribe into words afterwards.
There was no woman in the tree. A male dog stopped to mark his territory. A bit disappointed and confused, Shawn-Paul felt the need to talk.
“Did you see her?” he asked the Italian tourists. They stopped arguing and looked at him suspiciously for a moment. “She was right there with her red sandals,” he said showing the branch where he was sure she had sat. “I saw her in the window,” he felt compelled to add, not sure if they understood him.
The other tourist woman, who had all her teeth, rolled her eyes and pointed behind him.
“There’s a woman in red right over there!” she said with a chanting accent.
Shawn-Paul turned and just had the time to glimpse a woman dressed all in red, skirt, vest, hat and sandals before she disappeared at the corner of Fortune street.
Moved by a sudden impulse and forgetting all about his writing, he thanked the tourist and ran after the red woman.
Maeve liked to make dolls. They were all quiet, and full of an inner life that would transport her in wild imaginary adventure while she was making them. She liked also to collect strange people and make them into her dolls.
She would often go to the mall, take a table at the coffee shop, and observe the daily life show for inspiration…
In the apartment next to hers, lived Shawn-Paul, a handsome bearded bachelor, who was a writer he’d said. She had not made him into a doll, not that he wasn’t doll material, he seemed weirdo plenty, but she noted there were subtleties to the character she wanted to explore more.
“Are you ready?” Ailill, had a blue suede hat this time. He liked to change his headpiece regularly to fit his mood, but somehow couldn’t or wouldn’t change it to any other color than blue.
Granola wasn’t sure she would be ready to pop-in properly. She still had to build her character a little bit. She would have only mere seconds each time to make an impression, a glance was all it took at times. Something had to attract attention.
“I think you’re plenty ready” Ailill smiled as he pushed her in the downward spiral that had appeared at their feet. He jumped right after her.
The memories of the strange vision had faded away. Only the feeling of awe was lingering in his heart.
Fox was walking in the forest near Margoritt’s cottage. The smell of humid soil was everywhere. Despite it being mostly decomposing leaves and insects, Fox found it quite pleasant. It carried within it childhood memories of running outside after the rain whild Master Gibbon was trying to teach him cleanliness. It had been a game for many years to roll into the mud and play with the malleable forest ground to make shapes of foxes and other animals to make a public to Gibbon’s teachings.
Fox had been walking around listening to the sucking sound made by his steps to help him focus back on reality. He was trying to catch sunlight patches with his bare feet, the sensations were cold and exquisite. The noise of the heavy rain had been replaced by the random dripping of the drops falling from the canopy as the trees were letting go of the excess of water they received.
It was not long before he found Gorrash. The dwarf was back in his statue state, he was face down, deep in the mud. Fox crouched down and gripped his friend where he could. He tried to release him from the ground but the mud was stronger, sucking, full of water.
“You can leave him there and wait the soil to dry. You can’t fight with water”, said Margorrit. “And I think that when it’s dry, we’ll have a nice half-mold to make a copy of your friend.”
Fox laughed. “You have so many strange ideas”, he told the old woman.
“Well, it has been my strength and my weakness, I have two hands and a strong mind, and they have always functioned together. I only think properly when I use my hands. And my thoughts always lead me to make use of my hands.”
“Breakfast’s ready”, she said. “I’ve made some honey cookies with what was left of the the flour. And Glynis has prepared some interesting juices. I like her, she has a gift with colours.”
They left the dwarf to dry in the sun and walked back to the house where the others had already put everything on the table. Fox looked at everyone for a moment, maybe to take in that moment of grace and unlikely reunion of so many different people. He stopped at Rukshan who had a look of concern on his face. Then he started when Eleri talked right behind him. He hadn’t hear her come.
“I think I lost him”, she said. “What’s for breakfast? I’m always starving after shrooms.”
“I had another vivid dream last night, Sunny. I dreamed of a man I met when i was selling my potions in the market place in town. He was chasing a little red fox and I gave him some potion … “
Glynis smiled reluctantly.
“No, that’s what happened. I’ve not got to the dream part yet.”
“My apologies,” said Sunny, nudging her ear gently from his perch on her shoulder. “Please continue.”
“Anyway the man from the market came to me in my dream and thanked me. He said his wife was well now. He said to look for a gift in the heartwoods.”
“Excellent dream!” said Sunny. “I adore gifts. I will keep my eyes open and hope we find it poste haste. How much further is it now, anyway?”
“Another few days travel to the fringe of the heartwoods. According to the map, that’s where the first X is.”
They continued in silence, glad of each other’s company on the journey.
Glynis had been sad to leave the Bakers and more than a few tears were shed on parting They tried to get her to stay but it was without much conviction for Glynis had shown them the map and, though plain folk, they had sound instincts and knew when something had to be.
“Any time you want, Girl,” said Mr Baker gruffly, “you’ll find a home here. You hear me? And make sure you keep in touch.”
And Glynis nodded, unable to find the words to thank him for his kindness.
And Mrs Baker had made her a new burka. She’d stayed up nights sewing to surprise Glynnis. It shimmered, sometimes green and sometimes blue depending on where the light fell and it felt like silk to the touch. Glynis thought it was the most pretty thing she had ever seen.
“You’ve a lovely heart, Lass, and anyone who’s worth a penny will see that and not those scales on your face.”
It was the first time either of the Bakers had mentioned her appearance and for a moment Glynis was rendered speechless.
But not so, Sunny.
“Knock, knock!” he cackled loudly. “Oh come on! It’s a good one!”
“Who’s there?” said Glynis softly.
“Dragon your feet again?”
In the kitchen, Fox beheaded the chicken in a swift move. He tried not to be horrified when the creature’s body kept on running around, headless like a peaslander. He felt vaguely aware that’s what he’d been doing all that time. Running around without a very clear idea about what he was doing.
“Don’t let it run around bloody n’all!” said Margoritt, “Who do you think is going to clean that mess?” The old woman, huff and puff, limped rhythmically after their dinner. Someone had heard her scream and came into the kitchen. It was that tall Fae guy, Rukshan, who looked so successful and handsome. Fox felt depressed. The Fae had caught the dead body, which had eventually stopped moving, and put it in the basket Margoritt had taken on the table.
“Thanks my dear,” she said with a giggle. “Would you be so kind as to pluck it for me?” She then looked at Fox. “Sorry, lad, but with a name like yours I’m not sure I can trust you on this one.” The old lady winked.
Fox couldn’t be annoyed at Margoritt, he wouldn’t trust himself with a chicken, dead or alive. And the old lady had saved him from the blizzard and from that strange curse. He attempted a smile but all he could do was a grimace. Margoritt looked at him as if noticing something.
“And send me that Eleri girl, I’d like to have a word with her while she clean the blood on the tiling.”
Outside it was noisier. Fox found the woman arguing with her male friends, one of whom looked like a statue with big wings. She seemed relieved to have a reason to get away from the crowd and her own problems and left with a smile. He wondered how she could stay happy while being surrounded by conflict. Maybe she liked it. Fox shrugged again.
He walked to the small courtyard, sat on a log and watched the handsome Fae removing the feathers. Rukshan’s hands looked clean, the blood was not sticking on his fair skin and the chicken feathers were piling neatly on a small heap at his feet.
“Aren’t Faes supposed to be vegetarian,” he said. He cringed inwardly at his own words. What a stupid way of engaging a conversation.
Without stopping, Rukshan answered: “I think you think too much. It’s not doing you much good, and it deepens the shadow under your eyes. Not that it doesn’t suit you well.” The Fae winked. Fox wasn’t sure of how to take it. He stayed silent. He saw the bag the Fae was always carrying with him and wondered what was inside.
“I need help to complete it and better understand the characters. Would you like to help me?”
Fox wasn’t sure what made him answer yes. Did it matter if it was for the welcomed distraction from his dark thoughts, or if it was for the promise of more time spent with the Fae?
The garden was becoming too small for Gorrash. With time, the familiarity had settled down in his heart and he knew very well each and every stone or blade of grass there was to know. With familiarity, boredom was not very far. Gorrash threw a small pebble in the pond, he was becoming restless and his new and most probably short friendship with Rainbow had triggered a seed in his heart, the desire to know more about the world.
Before he’d met the creature, Gorrash could remember the pain and sadness present in the heart of his maker. He had thought that was all he needed to know about the world, that mankind was not to be trusted. And he had avoided any contact with that dragon lady, lest she would hurt him. He knew that all came from his maker, although he had no real access to the actual memories, only to their effects.
Gorrash threw another pebble into the pond, it made a splashing sound which dissolved into the silence. He imagined the sound was like the waves at the surface of the pond, going endlessly outward into the world. He imagined himself on top of those waves, carried away into the world. A shiver ran through his body, which felt more like an earthquake than anything else, stone bodies are not so flexible after all. He looked at the soft glowing light near the bush where Rainbow was hiding. The memory of joy and love he had experienced when they hunted together gave his current sadness a sharp edge, biting into his heart mercilessly. He thought there was nothing to be done, Rainbow would leave and he would be alone again.
His hand reached in his pocket where he found the phial of black potion he had kept after Rainbow refused it. He shook it a few times. Each time he looked at it, Gorrash would see some strange twirls, curls and stars in the liquid that seemed made of light. He wondered what it was. What kind of liquid was so dark to the point of being luminous sometimes ? The twirls were fascinating, leading his attention to the curls ending in an explosion of little stars. Had the witch captured the night sky into that bottle?
Following the changes into the liquid was strangely soothing his pain. Gorrash was feeling sleepy and it was a very enjoyable feeling. Feelings were quite new to him and he was quite fascinated by them and how they changed his experience of the world. The phial first seemed to pulse back and forth into his hand, then the movement got out and began to spread into his body which began to move back and forth, carried along with this sensual lullaby. Gorrash wondered if it would go further, beyond his body into the world. But as the thought was born, the feeling was gone and he was suddenly back into the night. A chill went down his spine. It was the first time. The joy triggered his sadness again.
The dwarf looked at the dark phial. Maybe it could help ease his pain. He opened it, curious and afraid. What if it was poison? said a voice of memory. Gorrash dismissed it as the scent of Jasmine reached his nose. His maker was fond of Jasmine tea, and he was surprised at the fondness that rose in his heart. But still no images, it was merely voices and feelings. Sometimes it was frustrating to only have bits and never the whole picture, and full of exasperation, Gorrash gulped in the dark substance.
Nothing was happening. He could still hear the cooing of Rainbow, infatuated with it eggs, he could hear the scratches of the shrews, the flight of the insects. That’s when Gorrash noticed something was different as he was beginning to hear the sharp cries of the bats above. He tried to move his arm to look at the phial, but his body was so heavy. He had never felt so heavy in his short conscious life, even as the light of the Sun hardened his body, it was not that heavy.
The soil seemed to give way under his increasing weight, the surface tension unable to resist. He continued to sink into the ground, down the roots of the trees, through the tunnels of a brown moles quite surprised to see him there, surrounded by rocks and more soil, some little creatures’ bones, and down he went carried into hell by the weight of his pain.
After some time, his butt met a flat white surface, cold as ice, making him jump back onto his feet. The weird heaviness that a moment before froze his body was gone. He looked around, he was in a huge cave and he was not alone. There was an old woman seated crosslegged on a donkey skin. Gorrash knew it was a donkey because it still had its head, and it was smiling. The old woman had hair the colour of the clouds before a storm in summer, It was full of knots and of lightning streaks twirling and curling around her head. Her attention was all on the threads she had in her hands. Gorrash counted six threads. But she was doing nothing with them. She was very still and the dwarf wondered if she was dead or asleep.
What do you want? asked the donkey head in a loud bray.
It startled the dwarf but it didn’t seem to bother the old lady who was still entranced and focused on her threads.
Nothing, said Gorrash who couldn’t think of anything he would want.
Nonsense, brayed the donkey, laughing so hard that the skin was shaking under the old lady. Everyone wants something. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want something.
Gorrash thought about what he could want, what he had been wanting that night. He remembered his desire to get out of the garden.
And there you are, brayed the donkey head, that’s a start. What do you want then?
Getting out of the garden?
Noooo! That’s a consequence of a deeper desire, but that’s not what you want.
I have never thought about desires before, said Gorrash. It’s pretty new to me. I just came to life a few weeks ago during a full moon.
The donkey head tilted slightly on its right. No excuses, it spat, If you’re awake, then you have a desire in your heart that wants to be fulfilled. What do you want? Take your time, but not too long. The universe is always on the move and you may miss the train, or the bus, or the caravan…
As the donkey went on making a list of means of transportation, Gorrash looked hesitantly at the old lady. She was still focused on her six threads she had not moved since he had arrived there.
Who is she? he asked to the donkey.
_She’s known by many names and has many titles. She’s Kumihimo Weaver of Braids, Ahina Maker of Songs, Gadong Brewer of Stews…
Ok! said Gorrash, not wanting the donkey go on again into his list enumeration pattern. What is she doing?
And, what is she waiting for?
She’s waiting for the seventh thread, brayed the donkey head. I’m also waiting for the thread, it whined loudly. She won’t leave my back until she’s finished her braid. The head started to cry, making the dwarf feel uncomfortable. Suddenly it stopped and asked And, who are you?
The question resonated in the cave and in his ears, taking Gorrash by surprise. He had no answer to that question. He had just woken up a few weeks ago in that garden near the forest, with random memories of a maker he had not known, and he had no clue what he desired most. Maybe if he could access more memories and know more about his maker that would help him know what he wanted.
Good! brayed the donkey, We are making some progress here. Now if you’d be so kind as to give her a nose hair, she could have her last thread and she could tell you where to find your maker.
Hope rose in Gorrash’s heart. Really?
Certainly, brayed the head with a hint of impatience.
But wouldn’t a nose hair be too short for her braid? asked the dwarf. All the other threads seemed quite long to him.
Don’t waste my time with such triviality. Pull it out!
Gorrash doubted it would work but he grabbed a nose hair between his thumb and index and began to pull. He was surprised as he didn’t feel the pain he expected but instead the hair kept being pulled out. He felt annoyed and maybe ashamed that it was quite long and he had not been aware of it. He took out maybe several meters long before a sudden pain signalled the end of the operation. Ouch!
hee haw, laughed the donkey head.
The pain brought out the memory of a man, white hair, the face all wrinkled, a long nose and a thin mouth. He was wearing a blouse tightened at his waist by a tool belt. He was looking at a block of stone wondering what to make out of it, and a few tears were rolling down his cheeks. Gorrash knew very well that sadness, it was the sadness inside of him. Many statues surrounded the man in what looked like a small atelier. There were animals, gods, heads, hands, and objects. The vision shifted to outside the house, and he saw trees and bushes different than the ones he was used to in the garden where he woke up. Gorrash felt a strange feeling in his heart. A deep longing for home.
Now you have what you came here for. Give the old lady her thread, urged the donkey. She’s like those old machines, you have to put a coin to get your coffee.
Gorrash had no idea what the donkey was talking about. He was still under the spell of the vision. As soon as he handed the hair to the woman, she began to move. She took the hair and combined it to the other threads, she was moving the threads too swiftly for his eyes to follow, braiding them in odd patterns that he felt attracted to.
Time for you to go, said the donkey.
I’d like to stay a bit longer. What she’s doing is fascinating.
Oh! I’m sure, brayed the donkey, But you have seen enough of it already. And someone is waiting for you.
The dwarf felt lighter. And he struggled as he began levitating. What!? His body accelerated up through the earth, through the layers of bones and rocks, through the hard soil and the softer soil of years past. He saw the brown mole again and the familiar roots of the trees of the garden in the enchanted forest.
Gorrash took a deep breath as he reintegrated his stone body. He wobbled, trying to catch his ground. He felt like throwing up after such an accelerated trip. His knees touched the ground and he heard a noise of broken glass as he dropped the phial.
“Are you alright?” asked a man’s voice. Gorrash forced his head up as a second wave of nausea attempted to get out. A man in a dark orange coat was looking down at him with genuine worry on his face.
“I’m good,” said the dwarf. “But who are you?”
“My name is Fox. What’s yours?”
Yorath led the way down the forest path. Eleri followed, feeling no urge to rush, despite the sense of urgency. Rather, she felt a sense of urgency to linger, perhaps even to sit awhile on a rock beneath an old oak tree, to stop the pell mell rush of thoughts and suppositions and just sit, staring blankly, listening to the forest sounds and sniffing the mushroomy mulch beneath her feet.
The compulsion to be alone increased. Unable to ignore it any longer, Eleri told Yorath that she would catch him up, she needed to go behind a bush for a moment, knowing quite well that there was no need for the excuse, but still, she didn’t feel like explaining. Talking, even thinking, had become tiring, exhausting even. She needed to sit, just sit.
She watched his retreating back and breathed a sigh of relief when his form disappeared from view. Much as she loved her dear old friend, the absence of other humans was like a breath of air to the drowning. The rustlings of the living forest, the dappling shadows and busy missions of the insects was a different kind of busyness, far from still and never silent, not always slow or sedate, not even serene or pleasant always, but there was a restful coherence to the movements of the living forest.
Leaning back into the tree trunk, her foot dislodged a rotten log from its resting place among the leaves ~ crisp and crunchy on the top, damp and decomposing beneath the surface ~ revealing the long slim ivory of bone contrasting sharply with the shades of brown.
Bones. Eleri paused before leaning over to touch it gently at first, then gently smooth away the composting detritus covering it.
Bones. She held it, feeling the hard dry texture peculiar to bones, loving the white colour which was more than white, a richer white than white, not bleached of colour, but full of the colours of white, and holding all of the colours of the story of it.
The story of the bone, the bones. She knelt, carefully brushing the leaves aside. Bones never rested alone, she knew that. Close by she knew she would find more. She knew she would take them home with her, although she knew not why. Just that she always did. A smile flitted across her face as she recalled the horse bones she’d found once ~ an entire, perfect skeleton of a horse. What she wouldn’t have given to take the whole thing home with her, but it was impossible. Perfectly assembled, picked clean and sun bleached, resplendent in the morning sun, it was a thing of unimaginable beauty that morning, reclining on the hilltop. So she took as much of the spine as she could carry, and later wished she’d taken the skull instead. And never really wondered why she didn’t go back for more.
But that was the thing with bones. You don’t go back. You take what you want, what you can carry, and leave the rest. But Eleri had to admit that she didn’t know why this was so.
Eventually Eleri fell back to sleep, warmed by her memories. She was awakened by the sound of a flute and the sun streaming in the window. Realizing she had overslept and that it would now be impossible to slip away unseen at dawn, she lay there watching the dust particles dancing in the shaft of light. The motes swirled and jigged as if to the lilting tune and the temptation was strong to drift off into another reverie, but Eleri roused herself. Stretching, she inched the blankets back. The tile floor was chilly on her bare feet so she inched over to the sunlit square, pleasantly surprised to find her body felt rejuvenated somehow, supple and limber. She made a mental note to remember to appreciate that, while simultaneously mulling over the ensuing inevitable encounter with Leroway.
Maybe she had avoided him too long, and it was no longer necessary. It had become a habit, perhaps, to keep out of his way, automatic. She dressed quickly, for it was a chilly morning despite the sun, and slipped down the attic stairs in search of a hot drink. Hippy tea they used to call it, back in the days when everyone preferred coffee but felt that herbal teas were more beneficial, but coffee was hard to come by these days, and the various hippy teas were welcome enough.
Pausing before entering the kitchen, Eleri frowned. Surely that was Yorath’s voice? What was he doing here? They had parted ways the previous morning, Yorath heading for the city and then on to other places, his rucksack of elerium replaced with dried mushrooms. She had hugged him and thanked him, and set off up the hill towards the mountain village to see her friend, wondering when he would return.
Eleri remained standing behind the kitchen door, listening. Leroway and Yorath were deep in conversation. Her mouth was dry and she badly wanted to visit the outhouse, but she didn’t want to interrupt their flow. They were talking about the bamboo forest.
She continued to eavesdrop, wondering where the rambling and seemingly aimless discussion was going.
Eleri shivered. The cold had descended quickly once the rain had stopped. If only the rain had stopped a little sooner, she could have made her way back home, but as it was, Eleri had allowed Jolly to persuade her to spend the night in Trustinghampton.
Pulling the goat wool blankets closer, Eleri gazed at the nearly full moon framed in the attic window, the crumbling castle ramparts faintly visible in the silver light. The scene reminded her of another moonlit night many years ago, not long after she had first arrived here with Alexandria and Lobbocks.
It had been a summer night, and long before Leroway had improvised a cooling system with ventilation shafts constructed with old drainage pipes, a particularly molten sweltering night, and Eleri had risen from her crumpled sweaty bed to find a breath of cooler air. Quietly she slipped through the door willing it not to creak too much and awaken anyone. The cobblestones felt deliciously cool on her bare feet and she climbed the winding street towards the castle, her senses swathed in the scents of night flowering dama de noche. Lady of the Night, she whispered. Perhaps there would be a breeze up there.
She paused at the castle gate archway and turned to view the sleeping village below. A light glimmered from the window of Leroway’s workshop, but otherwise the village houses were the still dark quiet of the dreaming night.
Eleri wandered through the castle grounds, alternately focused on watching her step, and pausing for a few moments, lost in thoughts. It was good, this community, there was a promising feeling about it. It wasn’t always easy, but the hardships seemed lighter with the spirit of adventure and enthusiasm. And it was much better up here than it had been in the Lowlands, there was no doubt about that.
Her brow furrowed when she recalled her last days down there, when leaving had become the only possible course of action. Don’t dwell on that, she admonished herself silently. She resumed her aimless strolling.
Behind the castle, on the opposite side to the village, the ground fell away in series of small plateaus. At certain times of the years when the rains came, these plateaus were green meadows sprinkled with daisies and grazing goats, but now they were crisply browned and dry underfoot. Striking rock formations loomed in the darkness, looking like gun metal where the moonlight shone on them. One of them was shaped like a chair, a flat stone seat with an upright stone wedged behind it. Eleri sat, appreciating the feel of the cool rock through her thin dress and on her bare legs.
It feels like a throne, she thought, just before slipping into a half sleep. The dreams came immediately, as if they had already started and she only needed to shift her attention away from the hot night in the castle to another world. Her cotton shift became a long heavy coarsely woven gown, and her head was weighed down somehow. She had to move her head very slowly and only from side to side. She knew not to look down because of the weight of the thing on her head.
Looking to her right, she saw him. “Micawber Minn, at your service,” he said with a cheeky grin. “At last, you have returned.”
Eleri awoke with a start. Touching her head, she realized the weighty head dress was gone, although there was a ring of indentation in her hair. Her heavy gown was gone too, although she could still feel the places where the prickly cloth had scratched her.
Suddenly aware of the thin material of her dress, she glanced to her right. He was still there!
Spellbound, Eleri gazed at the magnificent man beside her. Surely she was still dreaming! Such an arresting face, finely chiseled features and penetrating but amused eyes. Broad shoulders, flowing platinum locks, really there was not much to fault. What a stroke of luck to find such a man, and on such a romantic night. And what a perfect setting!
And yet, although she knew she had never met him before, he seemed familiar. Eleri shifted her position on the stone throne and inched closer to him. He leaned towards her, opening his arms. And she fell into the rapture.
It was the smell of the cedar incense that brought him back to consciousness. All was still very confused in his head, his muscles aching, sore from the run.
He remembered the sudden cold that stopped the rain in mid-air, blanketing the bamboos in snow in a snap.
Something had disturbed the spirits
“Ah, I see you’ve woken up! About time! You’ve slept the sleep of the dead” the voice of an old woman —he remembered her too, vaguely,… stout and strong, finding him and…
“Tak?” his voice croaked, his throat was parched with thirst.
“There, there, have a hot drink here, it will give you back your strength.” He almost recoiled at the strong smell.
“Don’t be a child, or Emma will think you don’t like her.” She pointed at something at the back of the lodge. A small hairy goat bleated knowingly. “A gift from Mr Minn. She’s cute, gives good milk, and lets me weave her lovely fur, what’s not to like? She’s for the company he said. He helps me settle here Mr Minn. Quite a funny fellow, you’ll see.”
“Tak? Where is he?”
The old woman looked surprised for a moment, then almost immediately smiled. “Oh, you mean your monkey?”
“Not monkey…” he said before she cut him “I know, an ape, don’t lecture me on the difference, I was a philosophy professor before I turned weaver-author. He’s here, come, little one! I must say it’s the strangest monk… ape I’ve seen,… I like the outfit by the way. I guess without him, you’d be still freezing to death in that forest. He was quite stubborn.” She seemed not to have spoken in ages, and was never out of subjects.
“I’m Margoritt by the way. All my friends call me Margo.”
“Rukshan” he croaked.
“You’re a fae, right. I could tell. You were lighter than you seem, made carrying you easier. Even with Emma helping, my knees were killing me. Anyway, you fae were a long way home. You probably have fascinating tells to share. I’ve seen your book. Oh don’t get all upset, it’s safe, I didn’t open it, just saw the leather-bound spine. You’ll tell me all about it if you want when you get back on your feet. For now, you should rest.”
I feel so old… he said in a whisper before falling back to sleep.
He could hear Margoritt’s unstoppable litany continue in the background “No complaining about that again! Old, old,… bah, I’m old. I was not meant to live centuries like you, and that cold…”
Gibbon stretched his long arm and touched Fox’s forehead. The hand was warm and soothing. Fox felt his heartbeat slow down, and as his thoughts dissolved into nothingness the rain gradually stopped. Soon there were spots of sunlight coming through the naked branches of the trees.
What did I tell you? asked Gibbon. His white beard shaking like the one of a Easter sage. He cupped his mouth like apes do and touched his chest where the heart was. Have you forgotten what I taught you?
Fox whined but said nothing. There was nothing to be said while his master was talking.
Go into your heart and quiet that nonsensical quest of yours. You know you need the human form to do that. When you’re in your fox form, your senses are easily fooled and caught by all the traps of Dam Sarah.
Fox knew very well the story of Dam Sarah, the Goddess of Illusion. He knew that in order to be free he had to use the form of a human, not only because they had duller senses, but also for other reasons that his fox self couldn’t very well comprehend. He had to be in his human form to make sense of all those gibbonish talks.
He focused on his breath, lulled by his master’s voice. It was like the whisper of the forest, whispering endlessly about ancient forgotten wisdom that only the soul could fathom. And soon the aromas of the nature around him seemed to fade away. Fox knew it was only because his sense of smell was changing closer to that of a human.
The only thing that could be an obstacle at first was the cold air. Fox really didn’t like being cold, and humans didn’t have much fur to protect them against it. But once the change had taken, the cold was helpful to anchor you into the present state of humanity. Fox caught it with all his heart to help him finish the transformation. It was strange to use the very trap that you wanted to flee.
He felt his spirit suddenly clear and empty as the bright blue sky above the forest. His previous wandering around, following the smells seemed quite silly. He had been influenced by that burning smell and got gradually caught into reverting back to his fox self for longer than he dared to admit to himself. His anxiety and constant wondering about it was the trap of Dam Sarah for the humans.
—Good, said Gibbon. But don’t forget that burning smell.
Gibbon had also took on the shape of a fully clothed human. Still his presence was unmistakably powerful and natural. He blew a warm breath on Fox’s puzzled face, which helped a lot with the shivers, and dropped some clothes at his pupil’s naked feet. Fox would have to ask his master how to bring your clothes into the transformation.
—Now, get dressed, Gibbon said. We don’t want you to catch cold. I have something to tell you.
Fox put on his clothes before the warmth of his master’s breath wore off. The familiarity of the fabric on his skin was another way to get deeper into the human form. The form is like a fishnet, keeping you tight into your reality. You can use it, or be used by it, he remembered now.
The sky had darkened ominously as Yorath and Leroway stood chatting beside the toll booth, thunder rumbling in the distance. Yorath nodded politely as the old mayor described the contraption he was currently working on, a team of mechanical Bubot’s capable of cutting quantities of bamboo swiftly, for the construction of sunshades and pleasure rafts and the many other things that could easily be made out of the versatile plant, for the pleasure, leisure, comfort and entertainment of his townspeople.
With one eye on the approaching storm, Yorath asked where Leroway had in mind for the harvest. Surely the bold innovator wasn’t thinking of sending the Bubot’s to cut swathes of the bamboo forest down.
“What’s that you say, public approval?” Leroway beamed, missing his point. “They’re going to love it!” He went on to describe at length his plans for making use of the canes for the public good.
The first fat drops of rain plopped down. Yorath made peace with the idea of a thorough soaking as it was entirely inevitable at this juncture, and continued to listen, showing no indication of impatience. There were more important things at stake here than wetting ones jacket, even if it was a rare igglydupat silk in a shade of iridescent primrose yellow ~ that was, incidentally, a good match for the tundercluds flowering at his feet, not to mention the encroaching eerily sunlit thunderclouds rapidly approaching. For a brief moment his attention wandered from the inventors monologue, engulfed as he was in the effervescent yellow sensation.
“This is all so very interesting,” Yorath interrupted, having a brainwave, “That I am going to make a detour, and come and visit your town. Lead on, my good man!”
Leroway beamed, once again misinterpreting the travelers meaning.
The trip to the city would have to wait.
Hasamelis stood immobile, his stony gaze seeing nothing but the relentless passing of time indicated before him on the contraption they called the Town Clock. How we would love to detach himself from his plinth and look away, and what a fate for the god of travel! It was too cruel, too wicked, too great an undeserved punishment to inflict on such a great, though long forgotten, traveler. Did any of them, those who sat beneath his feet on the park benches, eating their sandwiches and drinking from paper cups, even know who he was? No, they did not! Just another statue for the pigeons to soil, that’s all he was to them. Did anyone look up at his face and wonder? No, they did not! They took photos of themselves and each other, cutting him half out of the picture, as if he was nothing, just background scenery. Some particularly vile specimens of human nature had even pissed up his legs in the dark drunken nights, and stubbed their cigarettes out on his feet.
His feeling of humiliation grew over the years into a raging desire for revenge. One day, one day! he would find the means to movement again, and by golly he would hunt down the creature that turned him to stone. One day he would find that woman who immobilized him and crated him like a shipment of spare parts and sent him away. One day he would find her. Oh yes, he would find that woman.
After the Elders were gone back to the Capitol City of the Seven Hills, Rukshan was left pondering for awhile about his duties.
The visit had been pleasant enough, thanks to his deft organisation, and he had the skills to let just enough imponderables and improvising spots so that the whole thing didn’t look too artificially prepared.
The Sultan was pleased, and Rukshan was aware that some behind the curtains politics were are play, where he, somehow also was involved, although he couldn’t yet see how. It seemed his capacity for solving or clarifying complex matters was in high demand. One of the Elders of senior attainment had talked to him briefly, in a very amenable tone which was best suited when asking favours. “How odd” he’d thought, as the discussing dynamics would usually be the other way around.
“Rukshan, I wanted to talk to you about your future” — was how he introduced the conversation. After a few minutes, the intent was clear that there were other places where they had planned to send him.
The next few days had him struggle to appease his own feelings. As usual in the cities, people where dealing in abstractions, and abstractions had the inconvenient side-effect of stirring the sea of the mind in all sorts of directions, none of which related to what was happening in the present moment.
His family was for that matter very dismissive of his way of life, living as he had for many years in the city. Fays used to live in the forests flanking the mountains, deep inside the sacred groves, where they were in accordance with old rites and the natural time, the breath of life in the trees. They argued that men cities were an insane world of abstractions, that made you forget were you came from, and what sustained you.
Ages ago, one of his ancestors, CJ Soliman had written after a visit of the first city (a mere hamlet at the time) “It is quite possible that the Forest is the real world, and that men live in a madhouse of abstractions. Life in the Forest has not yet withdrawn into the capsule of the head. It is still the whole body that lives. No wonder men feel dreamlike; the complete life of the Forest is something of which they merely dream. When you walk with naked feet, how can you ever forget the earth?”
He wouldn’t have disagreed actually. He’d found the pull of nature was strong, soft but steady and immovable. But as far as his life was going, he’d come to realise that cities were in need of a fine balancing act, otherwise, leaving them unchecked would probably hasten the pace at which they ate away acres of forests in their developments. Already, the sacred woods were threatened, and with them, his family and ancestors’ way of life.
After that discussion with the Elder, he’d found the need to clear up and make space for the new. He’d spent a whole day throwing away stuff, amazed at how much even himself would gather of unnecessary things. In the new space, he’d let the birds songs enter through the window, despite the biting cold and the grey fog.
A resolve was birthed in his mind and made clear at the time, as clear as the morning chirping in the thick air.
He would soon go back to the mountains, in the Dragon Heartwood, visit his family and look for the old Hermit for counsel.
As the crow flies, Glenville is about 100 miles from the Forest of Enchantment.
“What a pretty town!” tourists to the area would exclaim, delighted by the tree lined streets and quaint houses with thatched roofs and brightly painted exteriors. They didn’t see the dark underside which rippled just below the surface of this exuberant facade. If they stayed for more than a few days, sure enough, they would begin to sense it. “Time to move on, perhaps,” they would say uneasily, although unsure exactly why and often putting it down to their own restless natures.
Glynis Cotfield was born in one of these houses. Number 4 Leafy Lane. Number 4 had a thatched roof and was painted a vibrant shade of yellow. There were purple trims around each window and a flower box either side of the front door containing orange flowers which each spring escaped their confines to sprawl triumphantly down the side of the house.
Her father, Kevin Cotfield, was a bespectacled clerk who worked in an office at the local council. He was responsible for building permits and making sure people adhered to very strict requirements to ‘protect the special and unique character of Glenville’.
And her mother, Annelie … well, her mother was a witch. Annelie Cotfield came from a long line of witches and she had 3 siblings, all of whom practised the magical arts in some form or other.
Uncle Brettwick could make fire leap from any part of his body. Once, he told Glynis she could put her hand in the fire and it wouldn’t hurt her. Tentatively she did. To her amazement the fire was cold; it felt like the air on a frosty winter’s day. She knew he could also make the fire burning hot, if he wanted. Some people were a little scared of her Uncle Brettwick and there were occasions—such as when Lucy Dickwit told everyone at school they should spit at Glynis because she came from an ‘evil witch family’—when she used this to her advantage.
“Yes, and I will tell my Uncle to come and burn down your stinking house if you don’t shut your stinking stupid mouth!” she said menacingly, sticking her face close to Lucy’s face. “And give me your bracelet,” she added as an after thought. It had worked. She got her peace and she got the bracelet.
Aunt Janelle could move objects with her mind. She set up a stall in the local market and visitors to the town would give her money to watch their trinkets move. “Lay it on the table”, she would command them imperiously. “See, I place my hands very far from your coin. I do not touch it. See?” Glynis would giggle because Aunt Janelle put on a funny accent and wore lots of garish makeup and would glare ferociously at the tourists.
But Aunt Bethell was Glynis’s favourite—she made magic with stories. “I am the Mistress of Illusions,” she would tell people proudly. When Glynis was little, Aunt Bethell would create whole stories for her entertainment. When Glynis tried to touch the story characters, her hand would go right through them. And Aunt Bethell didn’t even have to be in the same room as Glynis to send her a special magical story. Glynis adored Aunt Bethell.
Her mother, Annelie, called herself a healer but others called her a witch. She concocted powerful healing potions using recipes from her ’Big Book of Spells’, a book which had belonged to Annelie’s mother and her mother before her. On the first page of the book, in spindly gold writing it said: ‘May we never forget our LOVE of Nature and the Wisdom of Ages’. When Glynis asked what the ‘Wisdom of Ages’ meant, her mother said it was a special knowing that came from the heart and from our connection with All That Is. She said Glynis had the Wisdom of Ages too and then she would ask Glynis to gather herbs from the garden for her potions. Glynis didn’t think she had any particular wisdom and wondered if it was a ploy on her mother’s part to get free labour. She obeyed grudgingly but drew the line at learning any spells. And on this matter her father sided with her. “Don’t fill her mind with all that hocus pocus stuff,” he would say grumpily.
Despite this, the house was never empty; people came from all over to buy her mother’s potions and often to have their fortunes told as well. Mostly while her father was at work.
Glynis’s best friend when she was growing up was Tomas. Tomas lived at number 6 Leafy Lane. They both knew instinctively they shared a special bond because Tomas’s father also practised magic. He was a sorcerer. Glynis was a bit scared of Tomas’s Dad who had a funny crooked walk and never spoke directly to her. “Tell your friend you must come home now, Tomas,” he would call over the fence.
Being the son of a sorcerer, Tomas would also be a sorcerer. “It is my birthright,” he told her seriously one day. Glynis was impressed and wondered if Tomas had the Wisdom of Ages but it seemed a bit rude to ask in case he didn’t.
When Tomas was 13, his father took him away to begin his sorcery apprenticeship. Sometimes he would be gone for days at a time. Tomas never talked about where he went or what he did there. But he started to change: always a quiet boy, he became increasingly dark and brooding.
Glynis felt uneasy around this new Tomas and his growing possessiveness towards her. When Paul Ackleworthy asked her to the School Ball, Tomas was so jealous he broke Paul’s leg. Of course, nobody other than Glynis guessed it was Tomas who caused Paul’s bike to suddenly wobble so that he fell in the way of a passing car.
“You could have fucking killed him!” she had shouted at Tomas.
Tomas just shrugged. This was when she started to be afraid of him.
One day he told her he was going for his final initiation into the ‘Sorcerer Fraternity’.
“I have to go away for quite some time; I am not sure how long, but I want you to wait for me, Glynis.”
“Wait for you?”
He looked at her intensely. “It is destined for us to be together and you must promise you will be here for me when I get back.”
Glynis searched for her childhood friend in his eyes but she could no longer find him there.
“Look, Tomas, I don’t know,” she stuttered, wary of him, unwilling to tell the truth. “Maybe we shouldn’t make any arrangements like this … after all you might be away for a long time. You might meet someone else even …. some hot Sorceress,” she added, trying not to sound hopeful.
Suddenly, Glynis found herself flying. A gust of wind from nowhere lifted her from her feet, spun her round and then held her suspended, as though trying to decide what to do next, before letting her go. She landed heavily at Tomas’s feet.
“Ow!” she said angrily.
“Okay! I promise!” she said.
That evening there was a gathering of Uncle Brettwick and the Aunts. There was much heated discussion which would cease abruptly when Glynis or her father entered the room. “Alright, dearie?” one of the Aunts would say, smiling way too brightly. And over the following days and weeks there was a flurry of magical activity at 4 Leafy Lane, all accompanied by fervent and hushed whisperings.
Glynis knew they were trying to help her, and was grateful, but after the initial fear, she became defiant. “Who the hell did he think he was, anyway?” She left Glenville to study architecture at the prestigious College of Mugglebury. It was there she met Conway, who worked in the cafe where she stopped for coffee each morning on her way to class. They fell in love and moved in together, deciding that as soon as Glynis had graduated they would marry. It had been 4 years since she had last seen Tomas and he was now no more than a faint anxious fluttering in her chest.
It was a Friday when she got the news that Conway had driven in the path of an oncoming truck and was killed instantly. She knew it was Friday because she was in the supermarket buying supplies for a party that weekend to celebrate her exams being over when she got the call. And it was the same day Tomas turned up at her house.
And it was then she knew.
“You murderer!” she had screamed through her tears. “Kill me too, if you want to. I will never love you.”
“You’ve broken my heart,” he said. “And for that you must pay the price. If I can’t have you then I will make sure no-one else wants you either.”
“You don’t have a heart to break,” she whispered.
Dragon face,” Tomas hissed as he left.
Glynis returned to Glenville just long enough to tell her family she was leaving again. “No, she didn’t know where,” she said, her heart feeling like stone. Her mother and her Aunts cried and begged her to reconsider. Her Uncle smouldered in silent fury and let off little puffs of smoke from his ears which he could not contain. Her father was simply bewildered and wanted to know what was all the fuss about and for crying out loud why was she wearing a burka?
The day she left her mother gave her the ‘Book of Spells”. Glynis knew how precious this book was to her mother but could only think how heavy it would be to lug around with her on her journey.
“Remember, Glynis,” her mother said as she hugged Glynis tightly to her, “the sorcerers have powerful magic but it is a mere drop in the ocean in comparison to the magic of All That Is. You have that great power within you and no sorcerer can take take that from you. You have the power to transform this into something beautiful.”
“It’s simple,” said the clerk, “The dragon under the mountain has a bad tooth—hence the smell. We’ve already been alerted to that. Rest assured we’re making everything in our power to intervene rapidly.”
Fox couldn’t stop looking at the mole above the man’s left eyebrow. He was making great efforts not to snatch it from the man’s forehead. It was quite big, at least one centimeter, and seemed to have a life of its own, wriggling randomly with every word spoken.
“So you are sending someone ?” asked Fox. He was quite uncertain if what was in their power included dental surgery on a mountain dragon. Or anything pertaining to dragons in general for that matter.
“Mr Fox,” the clerk said with an insisting voice, “Rest assured we’re making everything in our power to intervene rapidly,” he repeated imperturbable. The man added a smile that would render Mona Lisa quite plain in her frame.
“Mr Fox,” said the clerk again but with a woman’s voice this time.
“What,” he said, trying to free his hand. The ground suddenly opened under his feet. The fall was short but was enough to awake him from his dream. He was in the waiting room of the City’s Desperate Request Service office. A young woman was shaking his arm gently.
“Oh,” said Fox, “I’m sorry, I must have been dreaming.” He wiped the corner of his mouth with his sleeve, he had been drooling again. He felt a bit embarrassed she witnessed that. But the young girl seemed not to care at all.
He followed her down the corridor lit by glowworms. The girl was of average height but still taller than him, her hair neat and well groomed. Fox could feel the perfume she wore, it made him dizzy. To many fragrances and information were coming from her. The corridor was narrow, and he tried to add some distance but each time he slowed down she would wait for him. He tried not to breath too much until they reached a red door.
The girl knocked and opened the door. She turned to Fox and said : “Mr Mole will listen to your request.” The she left, her perfume lingering around the place she occupied a moment before.
Fox entered cautiously in the room. He cringed internally. The place smelled of onion and garlic. Not really an improvement. And Mr Mole, the clerk, had a big one on his right eyebrow.
Glynis rose at dawn to gather herbs for her potions—it is the best time to collect the flowered herbs, just as the dew evaporates and before the heat of the day. And usually she loves the freshness of the early morning but her night had been long and restless, full of strange dreams which had left her with an uneasy feeling.
The grass is cold on her bare feet and so she treads lightly and with haste. She stops though to pat the statue of a dwarf on his small concrete head. “Hello, Mr Cutie-Pie,” she says, as she does every day when she passes by. The dwarf is the only statue in the garden and she often wonders how he came to be there; he seems a lonely little chap.
When she first came upon the house, although house is not really a grand enough word for the beautiful mansion it must once have been, she spent hours exploring its many rooms. It seemed the occupants had left in a great hurry without ever returning for their things. This seemed strange to Glynis, for only one wing was badly damaged by fire. The rest was largely intact although over the years had fallen into disrepair and now was home to all manner of small critters.
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