"Assemble the men!" shouted King Stephan, against the downpour of the rain. From the back of his large, strong, black stallion, Beltran, he stood beneath the breezeway to the courtyard, watching his men march in formation behind the trumpeters and drummers at the forefront of the assembly. They arranged at the end of the cobblestone esplanade, and awaited him to bid farewell to his family.
Under the archway, he looked down as his beloved Queen Edythe as she held their young son, Gabriel, close to her chest. The boy's eyes, confused and scared, continued to glance up at the tears on his mother's face, and the uncertainty upon his father's.
"Gabriel, my love, go with the servants, will you?" asked Edythe, running a hand over his hair and looking into his eyes. Handing off the one-year-old child to the hands of one of her hand-maidens, her voice was reassuring, and smiled as she could see his eyes never once glanced back at her - they were fixated on his father, the somber expression he bore as he gave him a potentially last look of his life, and the feeling of death deep within his heart. At the age of one, he couldn't seem to quite grasp the concept of life, however the overwhelming feeling of dread emitting from his mother changed the mood entirely.
Edythe stroked back the growing brown hair upon his head, finally getting his attention, and nodded, his hand lingering with curiosity at his bottom lip. As Gabriel was taken inside, so she could beg her husband to stay with her, the servant quickly pressed her back against the wall, hiding from the sight of the Queen. They were both inquisitive, the hand-maiden and Gabriel, and thus just as quickly as they were out of sight, did the pair duck behind the wall, huddled behind the closed door, and listened to the Queen and to the argument at hand.
The horse's hooves of the army splattered against the stone of the walkway from the stables, whinnying from the uncomfortable closeness each steed shared with the other, and the rain splashed against the armor of the King's men; the clanging of metal suits shaking in unison.
"Please, Stephan," Edythe started. His broad chest was covered by a black chest plate, among shoulder guards, grieves, armored gauntlets, and boots. He bore his gold and ruby embedded crown atop his head, against his short, ebony black hair. His gray eyes turned to glance back at her against the weathered expression of his face. He was young; nearing the age of thirty-five, however the stress of ruling and monitoring a dangerous criminal was beginning to age him faster every day, and his patience was growing even thinner. "Do not put yourself in danger of this madman. We can take a different course of action!" she said, anxiously twisting her hands together. It had always been a task to change his mind once it had been made.
"Edythe!" he hushed softly. "He's dangerous…and not only to us, but to our people, to King Wolfe's citizens, and to my son. He needs to be taken care of. We have given him enough time of imprisonment, enough guards to check in on him for a single lifetime, and still he practices that dark magic! No amount of kindness I show matters towards his disposal any longer!" Her eyes averted his, and thus he looked onward at the men who occasionally would look back to see his decision. An impending silence grew over them, until he heard his wife again.
"What of his dark magic, Stephan? What if he is too powerful?" she asked. Pausing again for a moment, she found her plea growing with desperation. "We need you, my love. Gabriel needs you most of all, please do not do this! Let the captain seek him out, but please do not leave us behind…"
King Stephan finally dismounted his horse and approached his darling wife, resting a single hand on her face, thumbing her tears from her cheek. Sighing, he said, "I do not wish to leave you both, and I know it is the Captain's duty to protect me…but these men also have families, and children of their own. I am King, but I am not above any other man or their willingness to risk their life for me. Especially when we all have loved ones we must ensure safety for. I hope you understand, my love…we can no longer afford to be selfish with our titles." Tears welled in her eyes as she exhaled softly, feeling her husband's warmth slowly floating away as he remounted his horse.
"I love you, Edythe," he said softly. "Tell me son the same…whatever should happen." Quickly, Stephan whipped the reigns of his whinnying beast, sending it into a flying gallop at the front lines of his brigade. Behind the drummers and the trumpeters, who began to sound the announcement of the King's coming, the rest of the men thundered closely behind him to meet King Wolfe's forces at the edge of the Graycopse Forest.
Hurrying to a secluded tower, Edythe ran past the door where the maid sat, holding Gabriel in her arms, going unnoticed. Her steps were quick, stumbling, until she finally reached the top; an old, secluded room made just for her, with a single chair, a single latticed window, and one nearly burned out candle, melted all along the side of the window ledge. It was there she watched him every time he left her arms, and in the time they rode throughout the town, did their figures become smaller and smaller, until they completely vanished amongst the buildings.
The horse's hooves stayed in rhythmic beat of the single bang on the drums, and their thighs pulsed as each leg stomped against the stone, and the trumpets aired a different tone, alert, and precise to warn villagers to scatter from the streets so not to be stampeded by the army. The kingdom tapestry flags, of black, gold, and crimson whipped through the harsh stormy winds, ripping at the ends, however brilliant and regal to the eyes of those whom looked to the King for guidance and protection. Those flags stood for the very freedom he went riding after, from tyrants who sought to take it.
As the side streets crowded with villagers, pressing their bodies against the walls of the thrift shops and blacksmiths hut, soon, small flowers were thrown in their path, trampled by the beasts, waving, yelling, and cheering, as each peasant showed their pride in King Stephan, and thus ensured him he was doing the right thing.
Stephan knew it would be a harsh battle - and the riskiest one yet. There, the sorcerer Rothbart, sick, evil, and twisted, lurked deep within the Graycopse Forest; a haunted place, cursed by his magic. A forest that swallowed men whole, and lured in curious strangers to never be seen again. In the front sat the adjoining graveyard of King Stephan's and King Wolfe's lands, where the dead from either region were buried. Where fog rippled and gripped at the headstones both short and tall, whilst in the background sat the black, dead tree line of the beginning of the forest. The branches would take hold of you, the roots would upturn and drag you into the earth, the animals would attack you, and even bridges build by nature could fall out from under a traveler, only to rebuild itself moments later, and Rothbart controlled it all.
With the ability to summon lightning, control and warp nature to his advantage, turn men to stone and ash, the ability to curse, shape shift, summon flames, and swordfight, he was a man to never take lightly in the event of a confrontation; this time, for King Stephan, the threat became too personal to not address. A threat on the life of his son was the same as a threat on his own life, and he sought vengeance to rectify his words.
After hours of traveling by horse, the trumpeters and drummers had backed off to let the army advanced forward, and soon they joined King Wolfe's men atop a large, grassy hill just before the graveyard and the woodland beyond it. Riding up against Wolfe's ivory-white stallion, named Oblivion, Stephan's eyes were entranced by the forest below.
In a bitter tone, Stephan became disgusted with the mention of Rothbart. "He's in there…somewhere. Hiding, like a rat," he said. His voice was commanding, deep, and steely to accompany his harsh behavior when it came to punishing those who disrupted the peace.
"We'll find him," King Wolfe replied. His blue eyes panned the ground, feeling the tension growing behind him as they waited for the opportune moment to advance into the unknown. His short, light chestnut colored hair still shined in the overcast sky beneath his gold and sapphire embezzled crown, and he scratched the stubble upon his chin before his uncovered hands finally gripped the reigns of his horse. Although younger than Stephan, King Wolfe was wiser, kinder, and could keep his composure far better than Stephan ever could. At the age of thirty-one, King Wolfe had been ruling for a little over fourteen years, and had never once executed a criminal in his kingdom; even this attack he participated in, stretched his limits.
Raising a hand against his crimson-red robes and gold chest-plate, Wolfe signaled the men to begin advancing with his towards the woods as Stephan took the forest from the side with his men. The ground was encased with buried rubble from years of rain and destruction. The tips of coffins protruded the mud in some areas towards the back, amongst upturned roots at the ends of the trees, boulders caked with black dirt, and the cawing of large, sharp-beaked ravens perched at the tops of each branch. The flutter of bats sounded nearby with their small chirps giving the men goose bumps as they slowly stepped their way through each line of trees, finding the forest growing darker with each step inward.
"If you see any sign of him, men, speak his name!" Stephan called, hearing acknowledged words back. Unsheathing his sword from its holster, Stephan found himself close to Wolfe and his dormant horse, while his was wild, fearful, and seething as the mouth. "He threatened my son - I'll kill him if I find him, I swear it!" he sneered through clenched teeth.
"Keep calm, Stephan, or Beltran will throw you from his back. Remember to stick to me, we cannot separate-"
"He's there, Sire!" shouted Stephan's Captain. "It's him, Rothbart is there!" Quickly the fury in Stephan's eyes bolted to the end direction of the pointing finger. Whirling around to see Rothbart, cloaked in black, his face shaded by his long pulled over hood, he suddenly heard his echoing chuckle amongst the trees, against a howling wind, and trembling branches.
"Charge him men!" Stephan shouted at the back of his horse. Raising his sword in the air, he shouted again, "With me!" A commotion of battle cries rang out, disturbing the ravens above, as he and his soldiers ran deep into the clearing where Rothbart stood, unmoving, and uncaring that he had been seen. A sheer smile crossed his lips, which terrified Wolfe as he tried charging after Stephan.
"Wait! It's a trap!" he screamed. Just as they passed into the clearing, Rothbart's eyes flickered for a brief moment, and the middle of each tree was blocked with thick, thorny bushes, impenetrable by any manmade blade Wolfe or his men held, and his body exploded into a cloud of black smoke, disappearing from sight. With every slash they cut at the blocking brush, it grew back taller and stronger than before, like stone vines.
Soon, through slits in the gathered thorn bushes, which had reached a height of nearly six feet, swarms of ravenous bats and ravens came swooping down and savagely attempting to eat and peck Stephan and his men to death.
Rothbart's cackle could be heard echoing through the trees, yet all he was after was Stephan. Swarms of vampire bites began biting the horses and harvesting them in mounds, causing them to kick and rear in terror, throwing their riders to their death, by trampling them. As the same happened to Stephan's stallion, each of them fought, and charged into one direction, escaping through the forest as large, black wolves were summoned to bite at their heels.
Wolfe stood outside the torture ring that had been created by the forest, panicking in horror of what would happen to his closest friend. "Men! Grab the oil from our caravan, burn this forest down if you must!" he screamed.
Rolling onto his stomach, coughing as strands of hair fell over his eyes, mixed with the trickling blood from the gashes at the base of his scalp, his dizzy eyes looked everyone, seeing his men dying before him, and some completely pulled apart. However, as he looked south, there in the distance sat Rothbart's ruined castle, disheveled and dark gray, he knew he had seen what they had been looking for all along. Gathering the last bit of strength he held left in his heart, he reached forward a torn hand, pointing in the direction of the castle in hopes that someone would see, and cried at the top of his lungs, "Wolfe! It's there! The castle is there!" His cries however were only to be quickly silenced with a few arrows to his back, and blood gurgling in his throat.
The steps of leather boots approached vaguely in the fading listening ability of Stephan's ears, as he was kicked to his side to look into Rothbart's eyes. The sorcerer knelt down to him, picked up the collar of his royal cape around his neck, and pulled the King to meet his face. His dark, auburn hair remained pulled back beneath his hood, and his deep brown eyes gazed deep into the dying soul of his enemy. He had light skin, a large upper-build, and a malicious, hoarse voice that resembled the haunting stories of what death sounded like if he came for you. Smiling, Rothbart's eyes suddenly change to a bright yellow with slit pupils like that of snakes, and his teeth suddenly mutated to sharp, pointy, white fangs. Stephan gasped nearly his last breath in fear as he now realized that the sorcerer was only part human.
"I'll get everything, Stephan," he whispered. "Your wife, your son, and I will take both yours and Wolfe's kingdoms by force if I must!" He looked around, seeing his magic was short from holding on much longer. "You pay the price now for making me the outcast and running me out of your city. It will be a fogged memory years from now, and I hope you smile down on your boy kissing me boots from heaven, you scum-sucking pig!" Shoving his body back to the ground, he grimly stepped aside as an old, ancient-looking beggar woman, with a vacant expression came forward, pouring liquids down his throat and paralyzing him as she harvested his heart for Rothbart's dark magic. From the lining of the forest, Rothbart could hear Wolfe growing hopeless.
"Find a way inside! Do everything you can!" Wolfe shouted.
"We cannot, Sire," shouted Wolfe's, Captain of the Guard. "It's him, Sire! Not even the oil will take to flame, the forest is bewitched!"
Wolfe watched as they attempted to douse the trees, and yet not even a spark took to the oil. Nothing worked, until finally, the thorn bushes began to crumble away, leaving the massacre of Stephan and his men in plain view for the others to see. They were pulled apart, muscle from bone, skin from skull, and Stephan lay on his back, utterly lifeless and pale.
"No!" Wolfe shouted, rushing to the side of his dearest friend. "No! God, no…" He picked his body up, cradling him in his arms against the rain as the open and empty chest cavity filled with water. He clenched his fists as he hunched over his body, trembling with loss, until he was met with the boots of his Captain - a man who always kept Wolfe at his senses, even in the darkest hours.
"Shall we pursue Rothbart, Sire?"
Shaking, Wolfe looked up at him with revenge in his eyes; "Tonight, ambush him. I want you and your men to wait out here - he's fled for now to regain his power, he'll be expecting a fallback. You wait until the opportune moment…and take his castle by force!" he ordered. He slowly backed away from his friend's body, seeing the men had fetched both of their horses from the lake nearby. "I need to get to Edythe…and bring him back to my castle until his funeral is ready. I cannot let her view him like this…"
With a small company to follow King Wolfe, they passed by his Kingdom to surrender Stephan's body to his servants to clean him up and dress him in appropriate black robes for his planned funeral. They placed him in a coffin to be adorned with flowers on his behalf, and loaded his coffin into the back of a wagon secluded in a dry, cold area of the Kingdoms stables. However, he knew he still had one further place to venture to. King Wolfe grabbed Oblivion by the reigns, tying Beltran's rope upon his bridle at the side of his own saddle, and solemnly rode back to the castle he had once called home, before his friend's untimely death.
King Wolfe sat atop his steed, and his castle advisor Jep, walked the horses in front through the paths of the peasant town, those who had gone back inside with countless hours of no sign of their king had their faces soon beginning to fog every window in every pub and shop alongside the streets. Without any cover from the rain, King Wolfe slowly shifted in his saddle as it walked calmly along the walkways, drenched from head to toe, and his crown glistening as his eyes caught the pupils of townsmen who came outside in utter shock and grief. The grand, long-mane stallion, Beltran, his head hanging, the saddle stained with blood, his body nicked with the gashes of beak wounds, gave the clear sign that King Stephan had been lost.
In due time, they finally were making the uphill stretch to the breezeway of Stephan's castle; an outstanding edifice of old, weathered stone, lightly grazed with moss at the ends that touched the earth, and dirt that stained beneath the windows, and under the rooftops from rain. The grass grew brilliantly out front, and in the fields behind; it was the only trait that made the kingdom appear lived-in, and well kept. The two circled around a parterre, weaving around a grand oak tree that was centered between two pathways after entering under the archway, and approaching the courtyard of the kingdom. No trumpets sounded for King Wolfe's arrival, only shouts from the guards and hand-maidens inside the castle, and a shrill cry came from the secret room in the tower as Edythe saw the outcome in the small, single window high above.
He dismounted Oblivion, as Jep took the horse and guided it to the Queen's guest stables, and Wolfe held the rope in his hand that held the young, strong stallion that was Beltran. He waited for what seemed like an endless amount of eternity, until Edythe showed herself in the opened doorway; her handmaidens crying behind her as one of them held the young Prince Gabriel in their arms.
Her fair skin was drained of all color, pale and saddened, and her mousy-brown hair seemed even more washed out and less full of life than how he had seen her nearly a week prior to discuss how to take Rothbart's fortress. She wore a grand ball gown, as she always did, of her Kingdom's colors; large sleeves, rounded at the shoulders, a close-fitting bodice, and a white, frilly covering over her chest, and up around her neck.
Wolfe bowed his head as she moved forward, silently tearing, just to reach out and rub the snout of her husband's poor, abandoned horse. Though he was a beast, he was a part of her family, handed down since he was a young colt, for her to nurse, shelter, and care for when his mother was killed by wolves, a few neighboring cities away. "It's alright, love," she whispered, rubbing his snout. "You did your best to protect him…I know you did."
Finally, her eyes turned to Wolfe, and suddenly her body seemed to crumble to the sadness. After her weeping, and catching Edythe in his arms in the courtyard, her screaming reaching the heavens, they had finally moved inside where her drained face met his across the grand hall table, and the stable boys had taken Beltran to mend his wounds.
The one table that was fit for council meetings amongst the royals when an execution was being considered or battle plans of war were made, King Wolfe stood tall at his end. "We were ambushed," he told her. Shaking his head, he could hardly look into her eyes as the memory of Stephan's screaming entered his train of thought. "I'm so sorry Edythe. My men are taking him by surprise tonight, to ambush him just as he did to us, to catch him before he can retain more strength. He will be imprisoned in my Kingdom's dungeon until I see what to do with him."
Suddenly, her attention was caught as she glanced bewildered in his direction. "What to do with him? Put him to death, he murdered a King and his company! He was Stephan's citizen to banish and do with whatever he pleased, and I as his widowed wife should retain rights to his punishment!" Her chest heaved with anger, and in disbelief, she looked down at the table she had so frankly stood up and slammed her fist upon. Catching her own anger, she stopped and regrouped herself, checking on her trembling hands. "Please, Wolfe…he should pay the price."
Nodding his head in agreement, he said, "I understand. Yet, we have destroyed whatever materials he's retained inside the old, ruined fortress of his, but I am no tyrant. Not like him, and neither was Stephan. This sounds to me more like vengeance…not reason, Edythe. Shall we not simply banish him from both lands? Where else will he have to go but to the noose, or bear a soldiers death by blade? If he wishes to not seek death, then he will gladly leave, and I will send my men and inform other rulers to watch the borders."
"Giving him the opportunity to rise up again while out of our reach?" she questioned. "If anything at all, Wolfe, keep him in chains in that dungeon for as long as he lives. He's too dangerous to let out again, think of my Gabriel, and think of Fleur! Your child has not even been born into the world, and already you let tyrants run loose!"
Wolfe grew discouraged at the mention of his heavily pregnant Queen and their unborn child. "Queen Fleur has nothing to do with this Edythe, nor does my child. We've ripped him of all possible utilities," Wolfe protested, beginning to pace his end of the table. "With that, he will likely die a hermit in another land. I've never condemned a man to death, and I will not now. Not for him. He deserves a long, lonely road of solitude somewhere else. My guards will send him on a ship to a secluded place outside our knowledge. I can promise you that."
Folding her hands, and bowing her head, she sighed in displeasure. Standing up again in eyelevel, she softly rested her hands at her sides and stood straight and true as Queen. "Very well, Wolfe." She knew her words were powerless to men with the title of 'King'. However, perhaps he was right all along. "Do what you feel is the right path. Blood taken in revenge will not heal my heart from the loss of my husband. If we do execute him…it may cause for an uprising from followers we may not be aware of."
Smiling at her ability to reason, he approached her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "I knew you would understand," he said. "I am leaving my advisor, Jep, here with you to help you - not to rule over you. I know life without Stephan will never be the same, but perhaps he can help with what you may need. He's always served me well." She watched her nod, and smile as Jep bowed to her from outside the doorway. Taking a hand in his, he rubbed the top carefully, and looked sincerely into her eyes. "I'm sorry I could not protect him. He was the brother I never was graced with, but I am pleased with the time I was given to know him. A few short years were enough to fill a lifetime."
With a short sob, she raised the other hand to cover her mouth, and nodded quickly as the tears came rushing back to flood her eyes. Taking her hand from his, she grabbed the ends of her dress and left his sight without a goodbye, and without any words of comfort.
Saying nothing and refusing to follow her, King Wolfe took a deep breath and bid his only advisor farewell. "Take care of her, will you?" he asked.
"You know I will, Sire," Jep replied. He was very tall, lean, and angular in build. He had high cheekbones, and a slightly upturned nose, with green eyes, and contracted eyebrows. His dark brunette hair lay against the base of his neck, and in his robes, he kindly bowed to Wolfe as he departed. He was a kind, simple man, who loved Wolfe, and loved anyone who the King called friend - a true loving and loyal man; he would do anything anyone asked of him within reason, and was up to the task of helping Edythe raise her fatherless son.
Nodding as Wolfe looked back at the doorway on the back of his horse, he led his horse into full gallop as he yearned to get back to his Kingdom by nightfall. With the moonlight overhead, King Wolfe finally trotted into his courtyard as the stable boy greeted him to take Oblivion, and the Captain of the Guard awaited him at the doorway.
It was news he knew he wasn't exactly ready for; to face his enemy after such a short time after the murder of his friend, Wolfe approached the Captain and remained silent, with a stone-face look.
"How is the Queen Edythe?" he questioned. "Was her verdict on his punishment as you had predicted?"
"Yes - almost exactly what Stephan would have wanted, but to take blood for blood means nothing," he told him. His gaze seemed disappointed, however reluctantly looked back at his greatest knight. "I couldn't let her kill him…because I knew later she would regret it, as I certainly would have."
"He's here, Sire. Shall I take you to him?" he asked.
"Did the siege go as planned? Did we lose any men?" he stopped to question.
"Exactly as planned - Rothbart was so drained that by the time we had gotten into the broken down wall of the fortress, he was on the floor, barely alive. He seemed…hungry, almost, though that wasn't his condition when he was in the forest. Malnourished, and writhing," said the Captain. "I suspect it is due to the deprivation of his dark magic, or at least the elements needed to keep him strong. Also, the resources we had used were gone by the time we saw him - tables and tables of alchemy regiments, schematics, apothecary bottles, all but empty with remnants of ingredients. Perhaps he was so ill, he ate and ingested everything…and it still wasn't enough."
"Or someone stole everything whilst we retreated…," King Wolfe suggested.
"Do you suspect he had any…help? Followers to help aid him in his time of need?"
"No…not that we could be sure of," he admitted, unfortunately. Rubbing his stubble, and weary young face, he finally was ready to meet him. "Take me down." Together they descended into the kingdom basement, and below that, three flights of stone-carved stairs jetting from a rock wall, winding down in a spiral to a specific holding cell, deep within tunneled caves in the underground. It was the only dungeon for men like Rothbart who were dangerous, unstable, and a threat to those innocent. He would need a lot of time to escape, and even then, the door at the top of the stairs was locked and guarded just as heavily as the area around his holding cell. A large wooden door impregnated the front stone-encased wall, where eight of his best men surrounded the outside, as he could hear the insane cackle of Rothbart's laughter beyond them.
The steps of King Wolfe's boots, along with the Captain's, echoed all the way down the staircase, bringing Rothbart's curious face to the small cell window of bars in the door. Eleven torches were lit down either side of the single narrow hallway, which dripped with moisture, and gave off a warm, however eerie buttery glow. His hands were shackled together, as were his ankles, and one around his neck to connect them all too a few posts embedded in the stone walls behind him, as he began to laugh at King Wolfe's appearance closing in.
"I always knew someday, Willy, that we would finally meet," he sneered, returning to sit on his haunches, with his elbows resting on his knees. "Shame it was not how I had hoped."
"What did you expect, may I inquire?" King Wolfe's tone was amused, however unwilling to reason if the menace made a move for him or his knights. He moved closer, peering down at him from the small cell window as they stared at one another.
"That I would be standing over you, watching you die," he said in a hoarse whisper, spitting at him, and laughing. "However my dreams have an unusual way of coming true - we are still young in this world and time is my favor to plot your ending, as I did Stephan's."
"No, Rothbart," King Wolfe objected, "you are going to be a demented old beggar. You have no magic left after burned your castle, and everything inside - and nothing to return to once I ship you off this land. Your terror has met its end."
"For now," Rothbart hissed.
"Forever," Wolfe ended. "I warn you, that if you return to banished lands, I will have men seeking you out along all the borders for years to come until I know of your death, so if you set feet on the sand at the docks, I will have you killed on sight." Shaking his head, he turned in disappointment, and began walking away, wishing to hear no more of Rothbart's ranting, until he began calling after him.
"I did not peg you for someone so…ruthless, and cold-hearted," Rothbart said. He watched Wolfe's back tense at the sound of cold and ruthless. "I thought you were the kindest of all Kings - it is a shame to be misled." However, Wolfe continued alongside his Captain, and began to exit towards the stairs, and again his malicious voice echoed down the hallway.
"No matter where you are Wolfe, or where you go, or who you are with! I will hunt your heart until the end of time! And when I am successful," he said, watching King Wolfe turn around to him, he pointed from beyond the bars, "I swear to you by my life and yours, I will hunt your children's, children's, children to let them suffer as I have suffered by your expense, and that of Stephan's! Mark my words! Gabriel will die, your wife will die, your child will die, and you will never be rid of me!"
Listening to his words, King Wolfe and the Captain finally emerged above ground, leaving the basement with the Knights to guard the entrance to the dungeon, and stopped in the Grand Ballroom. "Keep him down there - no food, no water, and when the ship arrives, take him away from this place once and for all."
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