They traveled through the night, the muffled sounds of the horses and riders echoing off the solid wall of blackness that lined their path through the forest. Pressed up against Xenas warm back, lulled by the rocking of the horse beneath her, Gabrielle alternated between dozing and watching the canopy of twinkling stars passing overhead. She wanted desperately to find out the details of what had happened to her partner since they'd parted in the Amazon village, but the stillness of the cool night air seemed to magnify the slightest sounds and she was unwilling to share their conversation with the eager ears of their fellow travelers.
So, instead, she pulled her arms tighter, and pressed her cheek against the smooth leather, closing her eyes against the dull throbbing that had started up in her head.
While they traveled at a steady pace, she could tell that Xena wasnt really pushing them and was thankful for that. She knew part of the reason was the danger of the night ride itself, the flickering torches barely illuminating the wavering circle of light around the silent riders, but she suspected Xena was also making allowances for both herself and Andrus, who spent most of the time hunched over in his saddle, clutching his chest. She'd noted when they had left the clearing that the Princess had taken up a position beside him, and kept alternating her attention between the road ahead and the large form breathing heavily beside her.
They continued the ride in silence and as the stars disappeared and the blackness of the night was replaced by the first pale touches of dawn, she became aware that the lush growth of the oaks and maples theyd spent the last few days camped among had been gradually replaced overnight by sparse beech forests. Shed been feeling the steady rise of the road for several candlemarks as the dirt tract began the trek up into the highlands of the Rhodope Mountains.
Xena spent the night alternating between planning their strategy over the next few days and just letting her mind luxuriate in the feelings of what peace? contentment? maybe even security, that the warm body pressed up against her brought.
It was a struggle to keep her thoughts focused as she'd gone over what she knew of Metzovan, trying to remember all the stories and rumors shed heard about the small kingdom.
Isolated by high mountains, its people had lead a comfortable life for centuries, their culture and traditions based around a simple agrarian lifestyle of raising sheep and turning the soft wool into hand-woven fabrics that were considered by many as some of the finest in the region. The people had grown prosperous over the years; well fed on the constant flow of dinars making their way back into the kingdoms treasury.
But that had all changed when the old King had died and his nineteen-year-old son, Kirilus, had assumed the throne three years earlier. The first of the royal family to attend the university in Athens, the rumors were that he'd had trouble adjusting to the constant teasing directed at him by the other students The fine clothes and expensive jewelry he'd worn having failed to mask his simple county manners and habits. It was said that this was the reason he had vowed to take the wealth that lay gathering dust in the Kings treasury and convert it into the power and prestige that he felt was his due as ruler of a kingdom.
So it had been less than a year after his fathers death that Kirilus had hired a mercenary army and launched an attack against his neighbor to the west. The Andorians had had little trouble defeating the badly led troops and had forced the boy into a peace settlement. Unfortunately, there had been an accident during the signing of the treaty. The King's mother and younger sister had been killed when one of the Andorian wagons had gone out of control and rolled over the tent they'd been sleeping in.
It was said that Kirilus had vowed to take revenge over the loss of his family and it was obvious that he had picked now to carry it out.
As the morning progressed, the small band traveled higher and higher, following the road paralleling the Nestos River as it spilled from a wide gash in the mountains, continuing its long journey down from the highlands of southern Macedonia to the Aegean Sea.
They stopped briefly several times to rest the horses and stretch tired muscles, Xena taking advantage of the opportunities to check on Gabrielles head wound and change Andrus bandage. It was mid-afternoon before they reached the foot of the valley snaking its way between the base of two snow-capped mountain ridges.
This pass was much different from the one that Xena had scouted two nights earlier. Instead of a narrow trail between high granite walls, here the waterway had cut a deep swatch between the pale limestone rocks rising thousands of meters on either side of it. The narrow road that hugged the base of the valley followed the rivers floodplain as it kept pace with the steep gorge confining the raging water itself.
Passing through a broad alpine meadow and entering the mouth of the pass, the riders were suddenly surrounded by barren rock walls that climbed steeply on either side as they followed the winding road.
It wasnt long before they pulled to a stop before a collection of small wooden huts huddled along the side of the tract. Weathered to a dull gray, the vertical plank walls were topped with thick, moss-covered roofs; the stout wooden doors and shuttered windows offering some protection against the violent storms that often tore through the mountains. Constructed as a temporary sanctuary for travelers, the huts were used mostly as a refuge by local hunters and sheepherders, the only permanent inhabitants being two Andorian border guards stationed there to keep watch over their side of the pass.
As the small band pulled to a halt and dismounted, they took a few minutes to stretch and have a quick look around before getting organized. Eponin and the other five Amazons quickly claimed one of the larger huts while the ten Andorian soldiers took possession of two others. The smallest of the huts was converted into the command center.
Letting out a resigned sigh when Xena asked her to take charge of transforming the largest hut into the infirmary, Gabrielle reluctantly admitted to herself that they would probably need it before the next five days were over.
It was a candlemark later when the bard left Jess, Philana and Amara cleaning out the cobwebs and mouse nests while she joined Xena, Eponin, Cynara and Andrus as they walked further up into the pass.
Following the dirt road around the first sharp bend, they all suddenly stopped at what lay before them. The gray, snow-capped mountains seemed to take a step back from the side of the river, affording the small group a magnificent view of the long valley itself. From this point, they could see for quite a distance as the road passed over several small bridges, snaking its way between the two ridges rising steeply on either side.
All five resumed walking slowly as they argued various strategies and discussed the obvious ambush spots and places where they could block the route of the invading forces. Before starting, Xena had asked to borrow a piece of parchment and a quill from the bard and now as they walked, Gabrielle carried the portable inkpot while the warrior made quick sketches of the canyon.
Having calculated that the Metzovian army would reach them sometime tomorrow afternoon, they figured they would have plenty of time to do maximum damage to the pass. The keys to delaying the invading forces would be the two bridges spanning the river itself.
The one closest to the camp was ancient; constructed out of large blocks of limestone cut from the surrounding mountains centuries before. The gorge became less deep here but a lot wider. The road had been built on top of two massive stone slabs that met in the middle of the river, supported by a broad column of limestone blocks rising from the center of the waterway.
The second bridge, further up the valley, had been fashioned out of large timber beams placed where the road was forced by the steep mountainsides to cross a much narrower part of the gorge in order to continue. Here the chasm was deeper, channeling the Nestos River into a churning, roaring whiteness.
It took them almost a candlemark and much heated discussion to reach the other side of the second bridge as they plotted their tactics for the next few days.
Kicking his heavy boots into the dirt and scraping away the earth to uncover where the ends of the wooden beams had been set on a narrow ledge carved into the top of the river gorge, Andrus took a moment to run his eyes along the length of the structure.
"Well, taking this out wont be too difficult," he glanced over at the others. "My men should be able to do the job by nightfall. But, I dont know about the first bridge. Being closer to the water, its been built to withstand the spring runoff. Having survived a couple of hundred years of heavy flooding, it's not going to be easy to destroy."
Xena absently nodded as she stared back down the valley, running through their options but coming up with nothing. She paused for a moment before meeting his raised eyebrows. "Well, lets get working on this one. Weve probably got at least a day to figure out how were going to take out the other one."
They returned to the huts and joined the rest for a quick meal of trail rations before they broke into small groups. Tools used by the local villagers to maintain the pass had been discovered in one of the huts and were distributed to everyone before they moved out.
The soldiers took up shovels and axes and headed up the road to the wooden bridge. Eponin and the rest of the Amazons spent what little was left of the afternoon light moving carefully around the steep slope that ran down to the side of the road, beginning to dislodge large rocks and boulders perched there and using horses as well as block and tackle to shift them into the roadway.
Xena, Gabrielle and the Princess joined the soldiers as they focused their efforts on dismantling the wooden structure.
First, they pried up planks that formed the roadbed of the bridge; then teams of horses were brought in, and ropes fastened around each underlying beam. As, one-by-one, each heavy piece of wood was maneuvered up onto the remaining ones and pulled off the bridge, it was dragged to a position five meters back from their side of the gorge. They were then lifted on top of each other, in a position perpendicular to the river, forming a long, shoulder-high wall. The plan was not to leave anything on the other side of the river that the invading army could use to reconstruct the bridge.
By the time the sun disappeared behind the snow capped peaks, the road down the pass from Metzovan ended in a gaping chasm over the river.
Late in the afternoon, Eponin had sent Philana and Amara down the road to the spot where the river left the steep walls of the canyon, broadening and slowing as it spilled onto the alpine meadow below. When the bone-weary troop returned to the camp after dark, they found a roaring fire and a mess of river trout cooking around the edge of it.
As they tucked into the hot meal, the conversation revolved mostly around the plans for the next day and specifically, suggestions on how to take out the stone bridge.
Various strategies were argued, but as the meal wrapped up, they were no closer to coming up with a plan. There'd been lots of suggestions, but no one was able to come up with a way to destroy the massive limestone slabs with the limited time and equipment they had available.
Finally, empty plates were put aside and the Amazons and Andorians settled down to make themselves comfortable, moving closer to the warmth of the crackling fire as the night brought with it the cold mountain air.
Xena, who'd been sitting with her back to a log, Gabrielle pressed up next to her, took a moment to survey the small group as she reached forward with a notched stick and lifted the handle of a large blackened pot balanced on the side of the fire. Taking a moment to tip it over and fill two mugs with the steaming cider before returning it to its place, she decided that the best thing for everybody right now was to try to relax and get a good night sleep. Settling back once again against the log, she handed one of the mugs to her partner as she met the bards grateful smile.
"Gabrielle, why dont you tell us one of your stories?"
Surprised by the request, the bard's smile broadened as those within hearing added their enthusiastic support for the idea.
Now, why would she...oh, I get it!
Gabrielle studied her partner for a long moment before coming to a decision.
"Hmm okay. Lets see." She turned to face the others. "Did you hear the one about how one man, David, defeated a whole army?"
One of the soldiers spoke up, disbelief evident in his voice. "Yeah, right. How could one man stop an entire army?"
Gabrielle exchanged a quick grin with the warrior before turning back and looking around to make sure all eyes were on her.
"Well, it all started when Xena went to meet this giant "
Leaning back and stretching out her long legs, the warrior tried not to wince as sore muscles protested. Deciding to ignore them, she focused instead on her companions, quietly observing those around the fire as they settled back, tired eyes now locked on the bard as the young woman began to draw them into her story. Quickly ducking her head at the unexpected smile, she'd noticed that the men and women had started to nod their heads, adding their own comments to the bard's tale.
Sending her partner a silent thank you, she once again marveled at the young woman's skill with words as seasoned warriors pressed close together, forgetting where they were and just letting the strong voice take them to another land, and another time.
As Gabrielle worked her audience, the warrior observed tired backs begin to straighten, one face after another taking on the growing conviction that they might just be able to succeed in holding back the army they all faced tomorrow.
A loud round of cheers greeted the bard as she finished but that was quickly drowned out by shouts of the soldiers and Amazons as they began arguing good-naturedly among themselves about what they would have done if they had been in the Israelites shoes.
Pleased with her audience's reaction, Gabrielle eased back next to Xena and felt a broad grin spread across her face. It faltered, however, as she glanced up and saw the dark expression; the hooded blue eyes now staring deep into the fire. She felt her stomach drop as she recognized the look that particular story always brought. She didnt like to tell it in front of Xena, knowing that the warrior had lost a good friend in the battle, but she felt a little better as her partners eyes shifted to meet hers and Xena's face broke into a warm, proud smile. She let herself relax as the strong arm resumed its place around her shoulders and drew her in close.
And smiled at the low growl in her ear.
"I've missed your storytelling. You're good. You do know that, don't you?"
Shifting around slightly to face Xena, she took a moment to notice how the glow from the fire highlighted the strong lines of her friend's face before letting her eyes search out Xena's intense dark ones. Then she had to look away, because for some reason, she suddenly felt embarrassed. It was a bit of a surprise when she heard her own soft voice reply, "Really? I thought you got tired of hearing me talk all the time."
She only resisted a moment when Xena's strong fingers tucked under her chin and applied a gentle pressure that lifted her head to meet the intense stare.
"Never, Gabrielle. That's one of the things I've missed most these past few days. And, listening to you tonight, I realized you don't tell your stories much any more. Why?"
Gabrielle had to swallow a few times before she found her voice. It had been a long time since she got much joy from sharing her stories. Not since Britannia.
"I guess I just haven't felt like it lately. What with everything that's happened and all..." Her voice trailed off as she shrugged her shoulders.
Xena continued to stare at her for a long moment more before releasing the bard's chin and wrapping her arm back around the small shoulders, pulling the young woman back down beside her.
"Well, just so you know, I do miss them."
Gabrielle felt a warmth begin deep inside and spread outward and she took a moment to luxuriate in the feeling. Then, mentally shaking herself, she took a deep breath as she let her gaze scan the faces of those sprawled around the dying fire, noting that every man and woman there now seemed to be lost in his or her own thoughts about what they faced together tomorrow.
Everyone started as Andrus' deep voice cut through the silence. Holding his arm protectively to his chest as he heaved himself to his feet, he took a moment to clear his throat before raising his mug in salute.
"To the brave men and women right here who, tomorrow, will do whatever it takes to hold this pass for as long as it takes. I know I dont need to remind you that were all that stands right now between our families and Kirilus army. To us and to victory!"
Silently standing, they all raised their mugs and quickly downed the contents, leaving behind an unspoken vow. It didnt take long before everyone drifted off to their respective huts, the long ride through the previous night and the late afternoons heavy physical labor finally catching up with them.
The two Amazon guards took the first watch at the site of the demolished bridge as the others found their beds. Gabrielle had stopped to talk to Eponin and Cynara and had lost track of Xena but she noticed a light coming from under the door of the command hut and, bidding goodnight to the two women, headed over.
Sticking her head in and spotting the dark figure leaning over the table, the rough map drawn that afternoon spread before her, the bard pulled the door open all the way and entered, welcoming the warmth of the interior as she closed it quietly behind her.
Taking a moment to lean back against the rough wood, she just stood and watched as Xenas eyebrows dipped in concentration, She watched as the warrior bent deeper into the pool of light cast by the single candle in the center of the table; the warm glow of its small circle illuminating both the drawing and the strong features of the woman standing over it.
Letting her eyes drift over the body of her partner, she noted a stiffness to the warrior's movements that most would have missed. But then again, most people didn't have the benefit of four years of careful observation of the warrior either.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself away from the door, hesitating only briefly before speaking. "You about ready to turn in?"
Xena didnt look up as she replied in a distracted voice, "Hmm in a little while. Just want to go over a few more things. You go ahead."
Fixing now determined eyes on the warrior, Gabrielle padded across the floor, drawing to a stop beside her and peering up intently into her face.
"Xena, when was the last time you got some sleep?"
The warrior paused at what she was doing and then smiled as she straightened and turned to meet the concerned gaze of the bard. "I seem to recall sharing a cot with you yesterday afternoon."
The frown didnt leave. "And before that?"
Xena had to stop and think about that one.
Gabrielle let out a long sigh. "Xena, if you have to think about it, its been too long."
Glancing back down at the map, the warrior unconsciously raked her fingers through her hair as dark eyebrows dipped in a frown. "Gabrielle, we dont have time "
The bard interrupted, reaching up and gently pressing a finger against the surprised womans lips.
"No sale, warrior. You know that tough Warrior-Princess attitude doesnt fool me any more. Look at you, Xena, youre exhausted. And youre not going to do any of us any good if you dont get some rest." Looking around, she spotted a bed in the corner and turned back, using her most pleading look. "Please, whatever you have to do can wait 'til morning."
She planted her hands on her hips, her voice gentle, but inflexible. "I mean it. I insist you get some sleep. Now."
Raising an eyebrow at the determined look on her friend's face, Xena paused before laying a hand on Gabrielles shoulder, reluctantly admitting to herself that the bard was probably right.
She let a grin take over the side of her mouth. "You do, do you?"
Gabrielle's voice held a challenge but her eyes now twinkled. "Yes! And you dont want to disobey a direct order from an Amazon Queen, now do you?"
Xena held up her hands in defeat, chuckling. "Well, when you put it that way, Gabrielle...but only if you join me."
Gabrielle liked that idea very much and her smile broadened. "Okay."
They both moved over to the bed and Gabrielle let Xena stretch her tall frame out before climbing in beside her and snuggling close, resting her head against Xenas shoulder as the warrior pulled a blanket over them both.
Gods, she missed this.
"There, hows that?" Xena smiled down as she wrapped her arm tighter around the bards shoulders.
Gabrielle tilted her head up to meet the warriors warm gaze. "Hmm, great. Now close your eyes and go to sleep." She paused for a moment before adding, "Do you want me to tell you a bedtime story?"
She felt a slight shaking under her cheek as the warrior let out a soft, low chuckle. "No, but I would like to hear what youve been doing since I left the Amazon village."
Gabrielle used her most soothing voice to recount the details of her time in the village, deliberately downplaying her efforts to track Xena as she surreptitiously watched the blue eyes' valiant struggle to stay open. She smiled to herself in victory as at last, they closed for the last time and the warriors breathing slowed.
When she was sure Xena was asleep, she finally allowed herself to relax; letting her mind begin to drift as she closed her eyes and breathed in the familiar salty tang of Xena's leathers. It wasn't long before Morphius claimed her as well.
At first, Xena wasnt sure what had awakened her.
The candle on the table had burned out some time ago and the interior of the hut was in total blackness, the windows shuttered earlier against the cold night air. She felt the soft, warm breath of the bard sprawled across her and was about to try to go back to sleep herself when she heard the ominous crackling and picked up the first traces of smoke.
"Gabrielle, wake up!"
She made sure the now half-awake bard had heard her before shifting the small body to one side and quickly getting to her feet. Concentrating, she let her senses begin to search the blackness, alarmed now as the smell of burning wood became stronger.
Crossing the floor, her arms held out in front of her, she let go with a string of curses as her hip banged into the side of the heavy wooden table. Wasting no time in tossing it aside, she pressed forward quickly, feeling the adrenaline kick in as she registered that the acrid fumes were now becoming thicker; catching at the back of her throat and stinging her eyes.
Finally, her fingers encountered the rough planks of the door, and she let them skim its wooden surface as she felt for the latch, yanking it up and pushing.
Nothing. The door didnt budge.
Turning sideways, she took a step back and slammed her shoulder against the wood. She felt it shudder but there was something wedged against the other side that resisted the full weight of her body.
Stopped as a series of racking coughs doubled her over, she glanced down through watery eyes and spotted several tongues of orange flame as they appeared from under the gap at the bottom of the door and began to lick their way up the inside.
Still coughing, she quickly stepped back out of their way as they disappeared behind clouds of thick, black smoke.
The bards panicked cry came from behind her.
Swinging around, she could barley make out the silhouette of her partner, doubled-over by the seizing coughs now racking her body as the small shape was framed against the orange glow that had begun to spread up the wall behind her.
"Gabrielle, hit the floor!"
As the bard dove for the center of the hut, Xena looked around wildly, panic beginning to set in. It was starting to get very hot in there and she could barely make out the ominous glow of the flames appearing between the cracks in all four walls now as the smoke billowed around them. She'd heard voices outside yelling Fire! as the alarm was raised but the sounds of the snapping and crackling of the wood and their barking coughs soon drowned that out.
"Xena! Wh...where...are you?"
"Hang on, Gabrielle!"
She closed her eyes for a moment and focused before backing up a few paces and launching herself feet first against the burning door. Connecting solidly with the blazing timbers, she felt the door resist for just a second before it was knocked flat off its hinges in a shower of sparks. Straightening, she turned back into the hut as the tongues of flame took advantage of the entry and spread around the doorframe and up into the rafters.
Xena stumbled over to the bed and grabbed the smoking blanket, throwing it over the huddled figure on the floor before picking up the cough-racked bundle in her arms and running for the doorway.
Eponin was never so relieved as when she saw Xena burst through the wall of flames, cradling the small figure against her. The Amazon thrust the bucket of water she'd been holding at the soldier beside her and raced over to them.
By this time, Xena had collapsed to her hands and knees a short distance from the burning frame and was tearing at the blanket covering the bard, her body bent double by the coughs as she tried to clear her lungs.
"Gabrielle are...you all right?" She took in great gulps of air, wiping at her eyes and trying to get them to focus on her friend.
The bard was lying on her side, fighting to inhale the fresh, cold air, tears streaming down her face.
"Yes!" she managed to gasp out as she turned over onto her back, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand but quickly diverting it to her mouth as she started coughing again. "Wha what...about...you?"
Xena took in several more lung-fulls, which prompted another fit of seizing coughs. "I...will be soon as I clear some of this smoke out."
"Gabrielle! Xena! Are you two all right!"
Eponin had reached them by now and dropped to her knees beside the bard.
"Yeah, fine, just...just let us catch our breath." The bard answered back between coughs.
Xena hauled herself to her feet and stood over Gabrielle as she surveyed the burning hut, her own coughing now almost under control.
"What the Hades happened here!" General Andrus came striding up, followed by the Princess.
Xenas soot covered face was set in a grim mask as her dark eyes burned with cold fury. "Somebody set fire to the hut with us inside."
Eponins concerned gaze left the bard and she stared up at Xena, dumbfounded.
"Xena, are you sure?"
The warriors voice was cold as she scanned the still burning hut, watching the Amazons and Andorians as they finally got a line established between the river and the fire, and started passing buckets of water.
"Im sure. That fire started on the outside of the hut, not the inside. And somebody blocked the door so we couldnt get out."
She turned to help Gabrielle to her feet, offering her soot-covered arm, which the bard gratefully accepted.
"Are you sure youre all right?"
Doing a quick scan as Gabrielle occupied herself with brushing off the bits of charred wood from her clothes, the warrior assured herself that there were no burns hiding under all the black that covered the bard. "Here, hows your head?" As Gabrielle straightened, Xena took a moment to examine the bandage but decided it could wait for changing.
Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around herself, waited patiently for Xena to finish, using the time to let her eyes do a quick scan of her partner, making sure the warrior hadn't been injured herself.
Having noticed the shivering beneath her probing fingers, Xena bent down and grabbed the blanket on the ground before standing and wrapping it tightly around the bards shoulders, getting a grateful smile in return. Having assured herself that although Gabrielle was shaken, she was, otherwise, no worse for wear, Xena turned back to look at the remains of the hut, now reduced to a pile of burning planks.
Gabrielle clutched the blanket tighter, more against the shock of their narrow escape than the cold, as she looked up into her partners face. "Xena, how did they get across the river with the bridge out?"
The warriors voice was a low growl as blue eyes met hers.
Those around them froze as they stared at Xena, the excited shouts of the Amazons and soldiers coming from behind them.
"You mean you think it was one of us?" The General was the first to speak; his voice held a note of speculation rather than alarm.
The warrior met his stare as she snarled, "I dont know, Andrus, but those two guys in my mothers stable said they had a spy in the Amazon camp. Looks like we may have brought that spy along with us."
Pausing to stare up the road, it was a moment before she continued, "Im going to go talk to the sentries." Glancing back at Andrus and then Eponin, she added, "You might want to talk to your own people and see if anyone noticed anything before the fire started."
She turned to face Gabrielle, placing both hands on the bards shoulders as she consciously gentled her voice. "You want to come with me, or stay here?"
Gabrielle looked up into the dark, blue eyes searching her face before turning her head and checking out the Amazons and soldiers still pouring water on the smoking remains of the command hut. She sighed as she turned back, her shoulders slumping. "Ill be more help if I stay here."
Giving the shoulders a gentle squeeze, Xena shrugged, "Not necessarily, but okay. I wont be long." She paused for a moment before lifting a hand and brushing away a bit of charred wood that had caught in the bards hair. "Are you sure youre all right?" She let her eyes search her friends face for any hint of holding back.
Gabrielle caught the look and smiled, feeling her breath catch as she noted the fierce concern reflected there. "Yeah. Im good. Go on. Ill see you later."
She watched as Xena turned and left the group to stride down the road towards the demolished bridge. She briefly considered changing her mind and catching up with her partner but was distracted by Eponin, who came up beside her.
The Amazon laid a firm hand on her forearm, concern still evident on her face. "Gabrielle, are you sure youre all right?"
The bard shrugged off the blanket, examining her soot-blackened arms and clothes before meeting the Amazons intent stare.
"Yeah. Im fine, Ep. Nothing a little soap and water cant clean up. But I dont think my Queens outfit will ever be the same." She offered a rueful grin as she held up her arms and displayed what was left of her blackened ceremonial leathers. She shook her head then shrugged as she turned and headed over to join the others still pouring water on the remains of the hut.
Eponin watched her go before catching the eye of the young Amazons and motioning them over.
"Well, why dont we see if we cant at least do something about that," she muttered to herself as she waited for the girls to join her.
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