In an age when people lived off the land and the Wild was still wild—when a young Queen warmed the throne and her Bulwark Knights patrolled the unruly borders—the edge of civilization was a place where dreams went to die.
Welcome to Southwind.
When a salamander poisons Asher’s best friend Finn, he only has three days to live. Suddenly, Asher is pulled off his father’s farm and into a suicide quest for the only known cure: the horn of a unicorn.
Accompanied by the Bulwark Knight Sir Victor and a contentious Healer, Asher must venture into the wild depths of Dragoncliff Cove, home to the most fearsome creatures in the Queendom. And as Asher races to save his friend, a mysterious past comes to light that could doom the quest and leave more than one boy dead.
Book #1 in a series of fantasy novellas.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I wanted to play with classic fantasy tropes–knights, dragons, unicorns–while keeping it fresh and interesting by inserting uncommon fantasy elements such as salamanders, corocotta, condors, setting the story in a Queendom, and providing major plot twists. These stories are supposed to be fun more than anything.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I generally begin with an overall concept and then develop characters to fit. Overtime those characters grow. Since this is a relatively standard coming-of-age story, Asher is a typical farm-boy about to face some serious trials. He’s got a good heart, and it is tested on the adventure. The more entertaining characters are Galen and Victor, two of Asher’s companions. They have a mysterious past and a lot of serious tension that unravels as the story goes on.
Chapter I: The Healer
Once upon a dawn in the far-flung village of Southwind, Asher stirred from sleep. There was a hammering on the frail cottage door, and it dispelled the boy’s dreams, returning him from green, distant lands to his reality: heavy eyes, a hard, straw mattress, and a savage desire to redirect the knocking from the door to the visitor’s head.
The racket continued until George Farmer, the boy’s father, roused from his own bed across the room and confronted the caller. Asher recognized the shrill voice of the Baker, but the two men spoke in a hush, and the boy couldn’t make out their words. Cursing life, he blinked open his eyes.
Through the makeshift window in his wall, a dark sky melted into shades of blue. The dawn meant that it wouldn’t be long before his father pulled him out of bed and into the miserable wheat fields. He wondered what the Baker could possibly want, so loud, so early. When Asher’s groggy memory assembled the answer, he hissed.
Last night, he and Finn Tailor had raided Baker’s shop—and not for the first time. They’d made a habit of breaking into the bake house after sundown and taking their favorite pastries. But Baker had never noticed before. They were always careful to cover their tracks and consume the evidence immediately, and Asher knew Finn would’ve died before betraying him.
The voices went quiet, and the Baker left. The weight of bread lingered in Asher’s stomach from the night before. As his father shut the door and turned back inside, he closed his eyes and resolved not to betray Finn. He could take the lashing for them both.
The floor creaked under Farmer’s steps. The creaks neared Asher’s bed. Farmer eased himself onto the corner of the haystack mattress, and Asher feigned surprise as his father’s hand squeezed his shoulder.
“No way you slept through that,” Farmer said.
Braced for a beating, Asher turned over and squinted innocently. Farmer’s leathery face was kind, however. His eyes were sad.
“Get up,” Farmer said. “A thing’s happened.”
“What?” Asher said, sitting up.
“Tailor’s dead. And Finn’s not long for.”
“Oh,” Asher said. His cloudy mind struggled to untangle his father’s words. Only a few hours ago he had waved goodnight to an obnoxiously loud Finn, drunk off their success.
A rooster crowed at the rising sun.
“Up,” Farmer said.
Suddenly nauseous, Asher rolled out of bed and belted on the nearest tunic. He stuffed his feet into boots and followed the Farmer out the cottage and into the village, hoping he was still dreaming.
In an age when people lived off the land and the Wild was still wild—when a young Queen warmed the throne and her Bulwark Knights patrolled the unruly borders—the edge of civilization was a place where dreams went to die.
Southwind marked the southernmost point in the Queendom of Grass and Tree. Originally a military outpost, it was now just a dusty, forsaken village. Even Merchants rarely came so far, and no one went farther. The only visits were en masse invasions by giant Emperor Ants of the eastern desert, and even those ceased when the Ants realized that Southwind had no gold. It was a refuge for the poor and the mad—people with nothing and nowhere to go.
Asher and Farmer rushed up the cool, dirt paths. The two never spoke much, unless they were in the fields and Farmer was barking instructions. Before Asher began his apprenticeship, more of his life had been spent with Finn and the Tailors than with his own father, who was ever occupied with coaxing a living out of the stingy Southern earth.
The boy checked his pace, allowing Farmer to keep up. The man’s short, stout legs were good for moving earth but bad for moving himself. In contrast, Asher was long and athletic. If he was good at one thing, it was speed. Farmer had assured him more than once—always with a hungry glint in the eye—that his legs came from his mother. Asher liked that.
They wound through the scattered village. Each house they passed was a slight variation of the same timber structure, all rotting under long, thatched roofs. The lanterns were lit in the Smith’s, but the usual clamor of metal was absent. Even the stables were eerily quiet save for the snoring of a ragged man hunched against the barn with his head in his lap.
Asher had spent many loud mornings at the stables with Finn, heckling riders and dreaming up names for the horses upon which they hoped to one day escape Southwind. That was before their fourteenth birthdays, after which they were forced into apprenticeships and lost their days to learning the dull work of their fathers. Neither boy wanted to inherit the family mantle. “I’d sooner be a Failor than a Tailor,” Finn liked to say.
Tailor, who was dead now, Asher thought. Finn, who was dying as he walked.
He raced through the streets, hopping fences, barrels, and fecal mounds until he came to the Tailors’ home on the other end of town. It was dark. The fire that Tailor obsessively kept stoked had fizzled, and the usual smoke was no longer spewing from the chimney. Asher hesitated at the door. A faint, rotten smell tickled his nose.
“No,” Farmer panted, catching up. “Baker said they were taken to that Healer.”
“Healer?” Asher said.
Southwind’s latest refugee, a man named Galen, had appeared a month before claiming to be a Healer. No one welcomed him or sought his services. As for himself, Asher hadn’t met the man, who proved to be a recluse.
The Healer’s hut was across the street from the Tailors’. It was another old, dingy house, laden with moss and begging for an extra buttress. Asher got the impression that a slight breeze might topple it. As he and Farmer approached the door, voices sounded within. Father nodded to son, and they entered uninvited.
Inside, the hut smelled like sulfur and dung. Asher and Farmer were momentarily stunned; the stench was vicious, and it reeked of death. A small crowd of villagers was already present with noses pinched, and—despite the dim candle-lighting and his watering eyes—Asher recognized the backs of several heads: Missus Miller’s gray mop; Smith, taller than the rest, his left ear gone; the neck fat and polished bald spot of Southwind’s little Mayor.
Baker emerged from the group and greeted them, cupping his nose. He was a regular brioche, round and golden brown. With his free hand, he waved them in and parted the crowd. Farmer took Asher by the shoulder and steered him into the hushed room, through the people and the stink.
In the center of the hut they found the Tailors. Farmer’s grip tightened, and Asher’s legs locked. Gill Tailor’s body was stretched across the floor under the shaking form of his widow, Maggie. His skin had turned scarlet from head to toe. Most disturbingly, there was no doubt that he was the source of the odor. Asher could taste it.
Shock addled the boy’s brain. These two broken adults had done as much for him as anyone in the world. Unsure how to respond, he pushed his attention to Finn, who lay still as stone on a bed beside his parents.
Hard-faced, Asher scanned him for some sign of life. There was the same ginger hair and pale skin, no blood or bandages. Finn’s chest rose and gently fell. The only change was on his bare right foot. On its sole, an inch apart, were two black specks, and the surrounding skin was swollen and burning red like his father’s.
Maggie Tailor’s sobs echoed in the small space, offset by a busy scratching of wood against wood.
On the far side of Finn’s bed, safely away from the crowd, Galen the Healer sat on a footstool, mashing a lumpy orange paste around a wooden bowl.
Asher, watching Finn, said, “Is he—?”
“Alas!” Mayor’s nasal voice called out. He stepped forward with one hand on his nose, the other over his heart. “One cannot mistake the smell of death.”
Galen interjected, “Skunk piss.”
The Mayor hesitated. “Excuse me?”
“The smell of skunk piss,” Galen said, scraping paste. He didn’t look up, and his face was obscured by shoulder-length black hair. “Young red isn’t dead. Yet. The piss is on the father.”
Asher suddenly understood why everyone hated the Healer. Word was that he’d grown up in Southwind but left ten years ago, parting on bad terms. That was before Farmer had moved himself and Asher south, so the boy only had stories to go on—and not many. People didn’t like talking about the Healer.
Asher looked to his father for help.
Farmer’s eyes lingered on Tailor. “What happened?” he asked through his hand.
“Poison,” Galen said.
A wave of murmurs swept the room. Maggie looked up at Farmer, but he avoided her eye, and she tucked her face back into Tailor’s inflamed neck. The implication of poison, Asher knew, was murder.
“Poison?” Farmer said.
Mayor held up a hand. “How do you mean, poison?”
“Salamander poison,” Galen said, and shrugged as he stirred.
Baker stepped forward. “Was me who found them, Mister Mayor. I was out for a stroll when I heard Maggie screaming. Found the bodies just as you see them now, smell and all, and a little red lizard by the boy, smushed flat as crust. Wasn’t no murder, unless old Tailor did some offense to the lizard.”
Galen looked up for the first time, and Asher gawked for a moment before averting his gaze in a rush of nerves. Half of the Healer’s face was in ruins. Two long, wormy scars ran down his head from temple to chin. The surrounding skin was red and wrinkled with burns, purging him of any youth or charm. He scrutinized the Baker with cold, dark eyes. “Salamanders are amphibians,” Galen said. “And they don’t take morning strolls into other men’s homes.”
“You saying I had something to do with it?” Baker said, turning red. “Want to talk coincidence? I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Curious that as soon as young Mister Galen deigns to come back home, people start dying again!”
The crowd, now a few curious faces larger, mumbled agreement.
“Easy, Baker,” the Mayor said. Galen returned to mashing out the orange lumps in his bowl.
A throat cleared, and the Smith stepped forward, his massive hands trembling. He clasped them behind his back. “Begging your pardon, but it’s all my fault.” All eyes pointed to him, including Maggie’s. The Smith was well-liked throughout town.
“You may remember a season back when my forge went weird. The fires couldn’t warm your hands much less steel. Well, it was Tailor here”—he bowed his head—“came over to have a look-see. I told him, I said, what I needed was a Wizard not a Tailor, but he came in and straightways went digging through the coals with his bare hands! I thought he must’ve cracked. But happy as I ever seen him, he plucked this little beastie—little red amphilabean, like you said—right out of the fire. Like he knew it was there! And soon as he did, the fire got properly hot again.
“Said he’d like to keep the creature and course I said yes and anything else he needed. He asked me to fashion a cage and never to mention it, so that’s how it was. I did terrible wrong, didn’t I?” Smith’s stiff, hairy face wrinkled in pain. “I didn’t mean it.”
Red-eyed, Maggie croaked, “How could you?”
“There, there,” Mayor said, reaching up and patting Smith’s back. “He couldn’t have known the creature was dangerous.”
“I’m his wife,” Maggie moaned. Asher had never before seen her be anything but sweet and calm. It was a sign of caring that the villagers let her go on. “I’m his wife!”
“Huh,” Farmer said. “Why would Tailor want to keep a—a salamander? Specially a poison one.” He’d known the Tailor as well as anyone, though evidently no one knew of Tailor’s secret pet.
“Finn’s been tailoring a while now,” Asher said. “He never said anything about a salamander.” Asher hadn’t thought there were any secrets between them. A sprig of betrayal blossomed in his gut.
“Salamander Wool,” Galen said. He looked meaningfully at the assembled villagers, but they blinked back with pinched faces, so he began reciting. “Salamander, order Urodela, enemy of the skunk. Is to fire as the frog is to water. Naturally produces a thread, like a spider’s, but stronger and—of course—fireproof. Salamander Wool.
“Drop a salamander in your hearth,” he said, “it’ll spin a cocoon and sleep the years away, long as the fire’s going. Harvest the cocoon, it’ll spin another. So you can see”—he scanned the crowd—“maybe—why a Tailor would keep one, risk or no.”
Maggie’s sobs renewed.
The gathering drank in the story, the sobbing, and the stench. If salamanders were as powerful as the Healer said, Asher couldn’t blame the Tailor. The creature was valuable. It was a ticket out of Southwind and into a better life. Asher knew that he would’ve done the same. Finn would have, too.
“Yes,” Mayor said. “I can see how that would be enticing. Where is the creature now?”
“Dead, like I said,” said Baker. “I think the boy stomped it.”
“But where are the remains?” Mayor said. “I should like to see it.”
“I brought it over,” Baker said. “The Healer had it.”
“Oh,” Galen said. He held up his bowl. Most of the orange lumps had been smoothed out into paste. “It’ll slow down the poison. Also makes a decent spread, in a pinch.” The Mayor grimaced. Galen took a swab of salamander paste with his finger and smeared it over the bite marks on Finn’s foot. “Kid must be quick to stomp a salamander.”
“He is,” Asher said.
“Is he going to die?” Asher said.
“Yes,” Galen said.
Asher hadn’t expected such a frank response. “But you’re a Healer. Heal him.”
Asher glanced at Finn again, who could have been dead by the look of him. Panic squeezed Asher’s throat. He turned on the Healer, stomaching the tortured face. “You can’t? You’re not even trying. How are you going to just sit and watch him die?” He clenched his fists, ready to beat a cure out of the Healer.
“That’s all he does!” Missus Miller wailed.
“He’s likely the one who done it!” someone added.
“You’re a Healer,” Asher said.
Galen shook his head. He set the bowl down on the bed and looked at Asher. “There’s one chance. But not really.”
“If there’s a way to fix the boy, say it,” Farmer said. “It’s your job to say it.”
“Fine, I’ll say it,” Galen said. “Alicorn.”
The word alone was meaningless to the pinched faces in the room. They again showed no recognition.
“Alicorn,” Galen sighed, “is what makes up the horn of a unicorn.”
When understanding sank in, the villagers reacted violently. There was groaning and cursing and a mix of jeers lost in the uproar. Asher couldn’t have said why. He’d never seen a unicorn before, but alicorn sounded like progress to him.
Galen ignored the crowd and addressed the boy. “The poison will spread from your friend’s foot. I’d say he’s got three days before it reaches his heart. Alicorn is a panacea. That means it can cure anything.”
“Okay,” Asher said. A magical cure: perfect. “Where do we get some?”
“Oh, yes,” Baker said. “Have the Marshal send over a unicorn at once!” Snorts of derisive laughter spread through the hut.
But Farmer said, “Unicorns? Really?”
“Don’t bother, Farmer,” Baker said. “We heard this half-baked yarn years back, before you came round. Go on, Healer. Tell him where he can find your so-called unicorn.”
“I’ve seen one,” Galen said, hesitating. “In a forest.” He closed his eyes. “In the Cove.”
The Healer’s last word triggered an explosion from the villagers, who all exclaimed at once as if on cue. The Mayor held an arm out against the crowd and begged for order.
Cove was short for the Dragoncliff Cove, which was just a day’s march south from town. The Dragoncliffs were said to be nesting grounds to the almighty Behemoth Dragon. While there was no official approximation of the number of monsters living there, it was an unspoken agreement that even one dragon was too many.
Telling a boy to go to the Cove and hunt unicorn was like telling a mouse to fly into cat country and steal a keg of milk. No one outside of myths had ever stood against a dragon and survived. Asher was open to the possibility of alicorn, but even he knew that going to the Cove was a suicidal notion at best. The people of Southwind had learned this the hard way, and a healthy fear of the place was ingrained into their culture. Asher was taught early on not to even speak of the place.
“While we’re at it,” Baker shouted, “ask a dragon to spare a cup of blood to bathe the boy in. What nonsense!”
Galen stood up. “Dragon’s blood only heals flesh wounds.” His voice was even, and he moved toward Baker. “Let me give you an example.”
Baker’s hand fell from his nose, and his eyes watered. “How dare you,” he said, stepping back.
“Galen!” the Mayor said. As much as the villagers disliked the Healer, and though they outnumbered him, something about the man made them all back down.
He pointed his spoon at Baker’s face. “Know not, speak not, you stupid fish. Unless you have a cookie that can cure poison or raise the dead, don’t make another sound. I’ve faced things whose smell alone would make your heart stop. And,” he said, addressing the room, “I’m not a liar.”
The crowd hushed. Maggie gazed up at the Healer, torn between hope and loathing.
“You all know I’ve been to the Cove,” Galen said. “There are unicorns there. Dragons too, but believe me, they’re not half as bloodthirsty as you all. Want to know how to save Finn Tailor? Get your hands out of your faces and bring me alicorn. But if you find yourselves not quite able to face a dragon, spare me your judgment. This boy’s blood is on you.”
Silence—not even a sob. He returned to his seat.
That was enough for Asher. Fed up with the spineless adults, he stepped forward. “Okay, the Cove. How do you get there?”
Farmer bowed his head, and the men of the room blushed in the shadows.
“Boy,” Farmer said.
“It’s not so simple.”
“I don’t understand,” Asher said, and he didn’t. “What are you afraid of? Finn’s going to die. If we do something about it, he might live. That’s it.”
“This isn’t some errand to the Grocer,” Farmer said. “You’re young; you don’t know. The world out there is bad, even before it gets to the Cove.”
Asher decided that he hated his father. He was done being dismissed as young, and he was done being condemned to this miserable town. He wouldn’t die here, and neither would Finn.
“Do you smell that?” He pointed at the corpse and looked straight at Farmer, aiming to wound. “That man was practically my father, and he’s dead.” He took a breath to keep control of his rising emotions. “I won’t let it happen to Finn.”
Farmer turned to Galen with a violence that Asher hadn’t seen in him before. “If my boy does some foolish thing by your words, Healer, I swear—”
“Now, now, now,” a strong voice called. “There is no need for that, my dear Farmer.”
A tall man emerged from the shadows by the door, where he had watched unnoticed. It was Sir Victor, Southwind’s Bulwark Knight.
Galen’s face fell, and Asher spun around. The villagers parted and lifted up onto their toes in elation as Sir Victor stepped into the light. His nose was straight and proud, uncovered and unplugged. The soft candlelight played on his silky white robes, and a straw-colored ponytail hung between his shoulder blades. Asher had never seen him up close. The man was handsome.
Farmer made a dumb sound.
“Sir Victor!” the Mayor said. “Welcome!” The crowd purred.
Victor raised a hand, and there was silence. He took a knee by Tailor’s body. Asher, standing near on shaky legs, saw the Knight’s pretty face flash a moment of genuine distress, an expression that was different from the obvious grief he presented when he stood back up. The villagers watched with adoration. Victor was a Southwind native, though he had moved his family north after achieving Knighthood.
“People of Southwind,” Victor said, turning to them. “My people.” He shook his head and gave them a moment to witness his sorrow. Missus Miller covered her open mouth.
“I knew Master Tailor,” Victor said. He pinched the corners of his robes and displayed them. “Just last week, in fact, he made these for me. A fine craftsman. Too soon do we lose the best among us.”
“But the boy is right,” Victor said. He cut in front of Farmer and placed his hands on Asher’s trembling shoulders. “If there is only one way to save Finn Tailor, my friend’s son, then it must be done. As a Knight of Southwind, I take it as my sacred duty to retrieve the cure.”
There was a smattering of applause. Only Galen, forgotten by the crowd, looked at Victor with anything less than pleasure. He ground the salamander paste more roughly.
“I will ride to the Cove,” Victor said. “If there is a unicorn there, trust I’ll find it. And the boy will come with me.” He lowered his gaze to Asher, who looked confused. “Of all the men present, he was the only one prepared to take on this quest headfirst. He has a hero’s courage, and this is his quest in every sense. Together, we will go south.”
Asher stared aghast at the faces around him, mirroring his surprise. He landed on Farmer’s conflicted expression and didn’t know what to say or think.
“He’s a boy,” Farmer said.
“It is his friend’s life at stake,” Victor said. “And they say the unicorn can only be found by the pure of heart. So it must be him.” He smiled at Farmer like a parent comforting a child. “Don’t worry! I’ll watch over him. And to ensure our quest, we’ll enlist the best and bravest of Southwind’s garrison. We go into danger but shall emerge victorious with the alicorn to save young Finn!”
Farmer was visibly uncertain, but he didn’t protest. Asher’s heart pumped excitement into his limbs, and the mood in the room lifted—almost above the lingering stink.
“Of course,” Victor said. “For the support of Southwind soldiers, I’ll need the sanction of Southwind government. So, Mayor!” He turned. “Her Majesty has charged you with keeping these lands. What say you?”
The Mayor froze, and his eyes searched frantically for an answer. Absolutely no one ventured toward the Cove lightly, and a governing man didn’t sanction and never invested in such a journey. However, the legendary prowess of the Knighthood made the mission almost seem viable, and everyone looked hopefully to their Mayor. He trembled under the pressure.
Maggie Tailor turned her red eyes on him. “Please,” she said, and he broke.
“Well, uh, of course!” Mayor said. The crowd cheered. “Whatever you need, Sir Victor.”
“Come then!” Victor said. “It’s a full day’s march to the Cove. I will need everyone’s help with the preparations as I gather my company. We depart at noon!”
Hope and excitement had replaced the worry and mystery, and it seemed to Asher then that Finn was saved already. Such was the reputation of the Knighthood: the most elite soldiers; masters of nature, exploration, and combat. There wasn’t a more revered occupation. Asher and Finn had long dreamt of going north to the capital of Riverdale, joining the Institute, becoming Knights, and earning more glorious surnames. Asher couldn’t help imagining that this was his chance.
As villagers lined up to shake Sir Victor’s hand, Asher’s mind raced. Victor had called him a hero and brave. He was going to ride south to find a unicorn. Finn wouldn’t believe it once he’d woken up.
And then Asher saw Galen and the loathing etched into his damaged face. The Healer stood up.
Victor, acknowledging each of his admirers, had Galen in the corner of his eye but was doing his best to ignore the man.
“Now I see where the smell came from,” Galen called out.
Blinking away irritation, Victor resigned himself to the confrontation and narrowed his eyes at Galen. “How may I serve you?” Victor said.
“I will ride with you, Sir Victor,” Galen said, “if you would be gracious enough to accept my aid.”
Many, including Asher, looked with surprise at Galen, others with disgust.
“Galen,” Victor said. “Haven’t you disgraced yourself enough for one lifetime?”
“Yes,” Galen said. “But I promised your father I would keep an eye on you. Remember?”
Victor’s face turned salamander red, and Asher could see the fury locked behind his eyes. “Stay here, Healer. I don’t have use for cowards, and I’m sure you’re a far better nurse than soldier.”
“Okay,” Galen said. “Then, for the Mayor’s sake—he’s risking quite a lot—tell us about the terrain inside the Cove.” Victor stared back at him. The Mayor looked on nervously. “Tell us how you plan on getting past the Cliffs and into the woods.”
Asher looked back and forth between the men. All eyes locked on their faces or their hands, waiting for one to lash out against the other. The Mayor was sweating.
“No?” Galen said. “Do you even know what woods I mean? I guess not. Because I’m the only one living in this Queendom”—he took a breath—“who’s been past the Cliffs. So if it pleases the Mayor, I’ll be your guide. And your Healer. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to nurse you.
Victor’s jaw clenched and worked, but he produced no answer other than the hatred in his eyes. “Fine,” he said at last. “The southern meadow. Noon.” And, clutching his robes, he swept from the hut.
The villagers glared at the Healer as though he’d bitten the Tailors himself. The hopeful mood was poisoned, and the weight that Victor had lifted sat back on Asher’s shoulders. Without another word, everyone filed out of the hut, one by one after the Knight. Asher risked a backwards glance at Finn and found Maggie over her son, stroking his head. Behind them, Galen’s cold, dark eyes caught Asher’s. The boy turned away and followed Farmer back into the relief of fresh air. They went off to prepare for the journey south.
Ronny Khuri is a Lebanese-bred, Tennessee-born, New York-educated, San Francisco writer who currently resides in his mind.
Ronny became an avid reader at age 9, when—in order to research the construction of a lightsaber—he was forced to turn to books. Seventy-odd Star Wars novels later, he gave up becoming a Jedi in favor of becoming a Writer.
Growing up, Ronny was also inspired by the likes of Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle, Frank Herbert, J.M. Barrie, Charlie Kaufman, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
In 2009, he earned a BFA in Writing from Pratt Institute and has spent the subsequent years finishing his homework: a singular piece of fantastical long-fiction that pays homage to his influences and presents a classic story through an original concept.
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