Chapter six: L’stev
A wise Weyrlingmaster hides his whiskey bottle where even he can’t find it.
– Weyrlingmaster mantra, origin unknown
After a long pause, his dragon said, patiently, You always say that.
Vanzanth was right, of course. Vanzanth was always right. There never lived a brown dragon who was more right, more often, about more things than Vanzanth.
You don’t have to be sarcastic about it.
“But it’s so much more fun if I am,” L’stev said. He opened his eyes to pre-dawn darkness and reached for the glow-basket. “And that doesn’t mean I’m not right too.”
Vanzanth sighed. Go on, then.
“One out of every five dragonpairs don’t make it out of weyrlinghood,” L’stev recited. “Between claims more lives than all the other causes put together. We have twenty-five weyrlings and seven of them are going to go between today. We’ll probably lose one, and more likely two.”
I’m so glad I chose an optimist for my rider, said Vanzanth.
Is it too late for me to change my mind?
“By about forty Turns.”
And a half.
“You can go off a dragon.”
Do you feel better now?
He did. He always braced himself for casualties on the first between day – that way, anything less dire was a pleasant surprise – but in fifteen Turns as Weyrlingmaster he’d only actually lost one dragonpair from those who’d made their attempts on day one. Some Weyrlingmasters waited until the whole class was ready before letting any of them go between. L’stev thought that was stupid. The most confident weyrlings, keen to have the freedom of between, would exert pressure, conscious or not, on their less certain classmates to jump before they were really comfortable with the concept, and that could only end badly. It was better to let the ones who were truly ready prove it, and in doing so encourage the others.
He had thought there would be more than seven on this first between day, but between the ones who didn’t think they were ready and the ones who mistakenly did, the group had cut up. H’nar wasn’t among them, which was a shame. The young bronze rider, such a natural focal point within the class, would have given all the others heart. But M’ric hadn’t passed him. “His dad’s Deputy Weyrleader,” he’d said, when he’d reported to L’stev. “He has too much to prove.”
L’stev had never known H’nar to make any reference to his father, good or bad, but he was willing to accept that M’ric had seen something when mentoring him that he’d missed. He agreed entirely with M’ric’s refusal to pass Carleah, though. C’los’ daughter was very bright, but just like her father, she was prone to the occasional gross error of judgement. L’stev had half expected her to be the first one to ask about timing, but the inevitability of it didn’t make it any less displeasing. He knew she was upset not to be in the first group, and he was glad about that. If she could learn some prudence to go along with her wit, she’d be an asset to any Wingleader.
There were excuses for many of the others. Of the faction that comprised K’ralthe, K’dam, and M’touf, only the latter was really ready, but he’d already disgraced himself by pushing his dragon beyond her abilities to impress his buddies once, and L’stev wouldn’t have him do it again. Soleigh and Maris, who did everything together, had asked for another day’s practice. Most of the other either lacked confidence or suffered from a surfeit of it, but that was normal at this stage, and they would even out over the next couple of days.
As for Tarshe, there’d never been any question of her joining the first group. She was ready, certainly, but L’stev wouldn’t take the risk, and he’d told her as much yesterday evening. Even the best, most thoroughly-prepared dragonpairs sometimes met with disaster going between for the first time – they’d lost the most promising bronze pair in Shimpath’s weyrling class on their first jump, eight Turns ago – and the tiniest possibility that they could lose Berzunth on day one was unacceptable. He’d promised her that she could try tomorrow and Tarshe had agreed. The girl was a gift, L’stev thought. He’d been concerned about her origins – and the fact that she was cousin to Sh’zon – but she’d turned out to be one of the most level-headed and reliable members of the class.
The seven weyrlings who would be attempting to go between today didn’t fit any particular profile. They weren’t the oldest or the youngest. There were five boys and two girls. Three greens, two browns, one blue, one bronze. Weyrbred, Holdbred, Craftbred. All they had in common was that their mentors thought they were ready, and L’stev wouldn’t have passed any of them if he hadn’t agreed
He was still going to prepare for the worst.
L’stev wasn’t a wasteful man; nor, usually, superstitious, but he made an exception to both rules when his weyrlings started going between. He sat down at his desk and pulled a piece of the Weyr’s best vellum towards him. He dipped a fresh pen into ink and then scratched out a heading. Notice of Death.
You’re morbid, Vanzanth told him.
L’stev ignored him. B’joro, rider of blue Lovanth, he wrote, then beneath it the standard phrasing that always began a death notice. My sad duty to report…lost in training…grave loss to the Weyr…deepest sympathies…
Then he paused to contemplate what he would say about B’joro. The lad was Weyrbred, the son of two Caverns folk, so an explanation wouldn’t be necessary. No one who lived in a Weyr was ignorant of the dangers of dragonriding. B’joro had always been quiet but sharp, and he was still both, but Impressing Lovanth had added confidence to his taciturnity. B’joro was a quick study, both attentive and diligent, and faultless in his dedication to his dragon. He and Lovanth enjoyed an especially close bond. Vanzanth had confirmed that very early on, when the weyrlings hadn’t yet learned to keep their conversations private, reporting that he’d found it hard to tell boy and blue apart. They would have made an exceptional addition to any Wing of Madellon. They will be missed.
L’stev put the notice aside and took another piece of hide off the stack. Ivaryo, he wrote, rider of green Saperth. Holdbred, but it was hard to know who would be the recipient of her death notice. Ivaryo’s parents hadn’t even attended the Hatching. A resolute young woman who fell in love with the Weyr and set her heart on becoming a dragonrider. And racked up an impressive number of notches on her bedpost in the process. He didn’t write that down. There’d been an Ivaryo in almost every class L’stev had ever trained: the girl who’d disgraced herself at home and decided she would seek a life where her friendly nature was welcomed, not condemned. Ivaryo was ideally suited to the unique demands of riding a green, and Saperth’s temperament complemented hers perfectly. L’stev had caught Ivaryo sneaking off to tryst with one rider or another more times than he could remember, and for every time he’d stopped her, he was sure there were two when he hadn’t. It exasperated him. Not for Saperth’s sake – even as a juvenile, the green seemed unperturbed by her rider’s adventures – but because it set a bad example for the other girls, most of whom were far less worldly than Ivaryo. Her loss will be felt most keenly by many, many Madellon riders.
Jenafa, rider of green Nedrith. There could hardly have been a green rider a more diametrically opposite to Ivaryo than Jenafa. They were both girls and both Holdbred, and that was where the similarities ended. Jenafa had been brought up alone by her seaholder father, and while that had made her very capable, she lacked much experience of life. A caring girl who took all her responsibilities very seriously. She was incredibly shy, especially around the fifteen and sixteen-Turn-old boys – the ones old enough to be interested in her, but too young to be sensitive to her nervousness. Maris and Soleigh behaved as the big sisters she’d never had, but L’stev did worry about how Jenafa wold handle mating flights when the time came. Her many friends will miss her greatly.
N’jen, rider of brown Danementh. L’stev winced as he wrote the name. N’jen was Jenavally’s youngest son, and that would be bad enough, but he was also one of the most sunny-natured weyrlings L’stev had ever known. If that boyish joy sometimes manifested itself in practical jokes, he didn’t mind being the occasional butt of them – although the time that N’jen had refilled the sweetener bowl in L’stev’s weyr with salt had won him a full sevenday of midden duties. An energetic and well-liked member of the class. N’jen’s good humour was infectious. His pranks were never mean-spirited, though, and he had that rare quality in a fourteen-Turn-old weyrling: the wisdom to know when to stop. Nothing fazed N’jen, and between his ability to take everything weyrlinghood threw at him in his stride, and his gregarious, likeable nature, L’stev could see the lad making Wingsecond in fairly short order once he graduated. The barracks will seem empty without him.
S’terlion, rider of green Nerbeth. L’stev had been quite surprised when L’pay had told him that S’terlion would be ready to go between in the first group. He wasn’t at all convinced that the boy should have Impressed a green. A blue, or even a milder brown, would have been a better fit. But it happened, especially towards the end of a Hatching when the pickings were getting slim, and Nerbeth had been last to Hatch of her clutch. Brave, earnest, and devoted, L’stev wrote. It didn’t help that only two of twelve greens had chosen boys, and M’touf, the other male green weyrling, was too reckless with his dragon’s capabilities to set a good example. A favourite among his colour-mates. The other green riders had adopted the diffident Holdbred S’terlion as one of their own, but that could be emasculating for a young man. L’stev had questioned him closely before passing him for between, to make sure he wasn’t being over-confident as a way of proving his masculinity. An exceptionally fine young man, taken from us far too soon.
G’dra, rider of brown Kinnescath. G’dra had been an apprentice in the Seacraft – not a very promising one, or his Master wouldn’t have let him go – but L’stev liked him well enough as a brown rider. He scrawled a few lines about the dangers of weyrling training and the courage any rider must embody in facing them. He brought all the skills he learned from his Craft to his life as a dragonrider. G’dra kept his space in the barracks as if it were a berth aboard a ship, his harness-work was impeccable, and Kinnescath was always gleaming. That may have been partly thanks to G’dra’s fire-lizards, but L’stev had seen him send the two blues to help his classmates clean their dragons, too. He was always quick to lend a hand to his fellow weyrlings. The class will be the lesser for his loss.
R’von. He wrote the final name slowly, and sat looking at it for a moment before going on. Rider of bronze Oaxuth.
Most of L’stev’s children had Impressed their dragons Turns before he’d become Weyrlingmaster. Rastevon, the youngest by a decade, was the only one he’d trained. L’stev hadn’t had much to do with him, although the lad’s foster-mother Crauva – the Headwoman, now – was a very old and dear friend to him. She’d told him not to be dismayed by his son’s truculence. “Stev’s spent his life getting stick from the other kids for being your son, and he’s not one to let a grudge go lightly,” she’d said, when he’d remarked on R’von’s attitude. Stubborn, defiant, insolent. But not actually disobedient. L’stev could tolerate a certain amount of lip from his weyrlings; he wouldn’t tolerate insubordination. When it came to his dragon, R’von had never put a foot wrong, and L’stev was harder on his bronze riders than on any of the others. He would never have said it to the weyrlings, but Oaxuth was turning out to be the nicest of the Wildfire bronzes, and if R’von could just get over his antipathy towards L’stev he might work out all right. He was my son, L’stev wrote.
He shoved his pen back into the holder with more force than necessary, then swept all seven death notices into a drawer. He’d kindle a nice little fire in the hearth later on and burn all the ones that weren’t needed, cursing as he did the waste of perfectly good vellum.
“All right,” he said. “Vanzanth, wake up the dragonets, and let’s get this day started.”
Madellon was quiet, expectant. The Wings didn’t drill when weyrlings were going between for the first time. Many riders took their dragons away entirely to give themselves some separation in case the worst happened. The watchdragon even put a hold on comings and goings to minimise the distraction of dragons appearing and disappearing overhead.
The unnatural hush just made things worse, L’stev thought, as he walked down the line of half-grown dragonets. Nerbeth and Lovanth were fidgeting, Kinnescath shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot, continually dislodging the fire-lizards trying to perch on his shoulders. Saperth was complaining about the fit of her harness. “Here,” L’stev said, stepping in to point out the strap that had twisted slightly in its keeper.
“Thank you, Weyrlingmaster,” Ivaryo said. She smoothed the strap. “There, Saperth, is that better?”
Jenavally was fussing with N’jen’s flying jacket. “…forget how cold it is between,” L’stev heard her say as he approached, and then she stepped back from her son, as if embarrassed to be singling him out.
L’stev didn’t comment. He moved on down the line. R’von was leaning against his bronze’s shoulder, his arms folded, and one foot cocked back against Oaxuth’s forearm, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He ignored L’stev, and L’stev ignored him right back.
They were ready. Every dragonet had passed muster and every rider had confirmed privately to L’stev that he or she wanted to proceed. Any further delay would do them more harm than good. “All right, Wildfires,” he said. “Mount up and wait for my signal.”
The dragonets were more than two-thirds their adult length, but still very visibly juvenile – all leg and wing and gawky frame without the musculature and bulk of maturity. R’von and N’jen both had to get their dragons to drop their shoulders to mount because they were getting so tall. Later in training, when the dragons had most of their height, L’stev would make them all try to mount without harness. It was a good way to put the bronze and brown riders in their place when they tried to vault up unaided and, inevitably, fell on their asses.
L’stev nodded to Jenavally. “You have the rest of them, Weyrlingmaster.”
Jenavally looked nervous. L’stev knew from experience that he didn’t. Ready? he asked Vanzanth, as he stepped onto his own dragon’s forearm and heaved his leg over his neck.
L’stev strapped himself in, leaning back to yank on the safety strap as hard as he could in a habit that went back decades. He was pleased to see all seven weyrlings performing the same check. The last thing they needed was to fall off because they’d forgotten basic safety protocols. He pulled down his goggles and then, having glanced to see that the weyrlings were ready, he gave the signal to take off. Beneath him Vanzanth sprang aloft into the wind with the powerful kick that his forty-odd Turns had in no way diminished.
As the big brown dragon climbed to a travelling altitude several dragonlengths above the Rim, L’stev heard him declare their mission to the blue on forenoon watch. Wildfire Wing striking north in straight flight, returning between. The watchdragon bugled back an acknowledgement. He wishes us good flying and good luck.
The weyrlings had risen behind them. Vanzanth tilted on a wing to face north, then waited for them to follow suit before issuing a set of crisp commands. Loose wedge at cruising speed. Oaxuth, take offside point. Weyrlings, form up behind.
The cold air of altitude made a good counter to the heat of the sun as Vanzanth led the weyrlings north in the training formation, leaving a dragonlength between each pair. They didn’t have to fly for long – only far enough that Madellon was out of visual range and beyond the temptation of trying a blink jump – but the flight was the weyrlings’ last opportunity to concentrate and focus with nothing but themselves and their dragonets for company. It gave L’stev a few minutes to reflect, too. Mostly, he thought about how much he hated first between day.
Bring them into a holding stack, he told Vanzanth, when he thought enough minutes had passed, and his brown pivoted on a wingtip, taking the youngsters into the gentle circuit that would let them hold station.
Our destination is the Weyr, L’stev heard Vanzanth tell the dragonets. Show me your visualisations.
One by one they came through, transferred from weyrling to dragonet to Vanzanth to L’stev. Each was subtly different, but the shape of the Bowl was right, the outline of the lake within it, the Star Stones properly placed. One by one L’stev and Vanzanth approved the visuals that the weyrlings had been practising with their mentors: Oaxuth, Nedrith, Lovanth, Kinnescath, Saperth, Nerbeth, and finally Danementh.
There was nothing more L’stev could do. It was the most impotent feeling a Weyrlingmaster could ever experience. I hate this part, Van.
He took a long, slow breath. Give them the word.
Weyrlings, said Vanzanth. In your own time, you may go between to Madellon Weyr.
For a moment that seemed to stretch out forever, nothing happened. The seven dragonets remained there in the sky over Madellon’s north ranges, wheeling slowly in their holding pattern.
Then there were only six. L’stev let out the breath he’d been holding. Danementh was gone. As he watched, Nedrith vanished, then Saperth and Kinnescath disappeared almost at the same instant. Tell Hinnarioth they’re on their way, Vanzanth.
Nerbeth, Oaxuth, and Lovanth were still circling. L’stev kept half his attention on them as he tracked the time since the first dragonpair had gone between. He was surprised that Oaxuth hadn’t been first to go. A bronze usually was. But R’von’s dragon was still there, still wheeling.
Something was wrong.
A rivulet of sweat that had formed between L’stev’s shoulder blades under the fierce sun ran suddenly down his back like a ghostly finger. Report, Vanzanth. What’s the problem?
Vanzanth hesitated, listening in. The delay made more sweat break out under L’stev’s wherhides. Oaxuth is telling his rider he can’t do it.
What? Why? There’s nothing wrong with their visual.
Nerbeth says she can’t either. Vanzanth’s voice, usually so composed, had developed an uncharacteristic agitation. Lovanth…doesn’t want to go.
Is Oaxuth putting them off? L’stev demanded. He’d lost his count. Has Hinnarioth confirmed that the others have arrived?
Something was very wrong.
L’stev hesitated only a fraction of a second longer. Then, “Abort jump!” he bellowed across the space between him and the circling weyrlings, making the urgent arm signal for the command as he did. Tell Oaxuth, Nerbeth, and Lovanth to abort and hold. They are not to go between!
To his relief the three weyrlings all made the signals for acknowledged, aborting, straightaway. They understand, Vanzanth reported. They have aborted jump.
We’re returning to the Weyr on the wing. Top speed. Abandon –
And then the keen began.
L’stev felt it through his legs and seat first, Vanzanth’s physical reaction, as the his brown drew in a great shuddering breath. The sound that emerged from his throat was dreadful, and made worse when the voices of the three dragonets clustered behind him rose in tragic harmony with it. L’stev clapped his hand to his head to muffle the terrible song of mourning, even though it resounded in his mind just as painfully as it did in his ears, and then Vanzanth spoke. Nedrith is no more. Saperth is no more. Danementh is no more.
L’stev reeled in his place. The fighting straps bit into his legs but he hardly felt them. All of them? he asked, incredulously, despairingly, clutching the fore-ridge to steady himself.
All, Vanzanth said. As he beat his wings for home, he wrapped his consciousness tight with L’stev’s. Should we jump back?
No. We stay with these three. L’stev almost couldn’t form words. What shaffing happened, Vanzanth? What did they do wrong?
They went between. They did not come out.
But why not? Their visuals were sound! What did we miss?
I don’t know, said Vanzanth. L’stev, I don’t know.
The watchdragon challenged them with a bark as they flew over the Rim, and a hundred other white-eyed dragons looked up from their ledges. Vanzanth ignored them all, instead leading his three surviving charges towards the training grounds and the scene that awaited them there.
Shimpath was standing protectively over a grey-hued dragonet. It took L’stev a moment to realise it was Kinnescath, his hide leached of all healthy colour and his eyes rolling red-flecked white. The senior queen was the only thing keeping the poor dragonet immobile as his limp, unconscious rider was lifted down from his neck.
The other dragonets huddled together in miserable heaps, obviously stunned, their riders clinging to them and to each other, faces white with shock and blotchy with tears. And in another vignette that would remain etched on L’stev’s memory for the rest of his life, Jenavally had collapsed within the protective circle of her green’s forepaws. The young queen, Berzunth had her wings spread gently over Hinnarioth, her head pressed to the green’s back. Her son is dead, L’stev realised, as he released his fighting straps to dismount. N’jen is dead.
S’terlion, R’von, and B’joro were climbing shakily down from their dragonets; so shakily, and with their beasts so distressed, that they were apt to break a leg. “H’nar! M’rany!” L’stev’s voice cracked as he shouted to the two closest weyrlings. “Get them down!” He strode up to Oaxuth’s shoulder as he spoke, and caught R’von as he half-slid, half-fell from the neck-ridges. Even in the full fighting gear of a dragonrider, R’von had never looked so young or so vulnerable, all the cocky attitude knocked out of him. He sagged in L’stev’s grasp, utterly devastated, and it was all L’stev could do not to crush his youngest son to him.
Other dragons were landing all around now, with and without their riders, all ashen with sorrow, humming with sympathy for the traumatised weyrlings. With them, inevitably, came Epherineth. Even mourning dragons moved aside for the senior bronze of Madellon, and so it was that a space opened up before L’stev where he stood between his own hunched and unhappy Vanzanth and R’von’s shivering Oaxuth.
T’kamen vaulted down from Epherineth’s neck. He’d always been a man to take seriously, even as a youth, but L’stev had never been on the receiving end of his displeasure. He straightened as best he could, still supporting R’von, and raised his gaze to meet the Weyrleader’s wrath.
But T’kamen just seized his arm hard enough to raise bruises through the wherhide. “What happened, L’stev?”
L’stev clenched his teeth together, twisting his lips into a grimace, fighting down the wretchedness. I failed them he wanted to say. They were my responsibility, and somehow, some way, I failed them.
But Vanzanth was there, and L’stev’s dragon shook off his own misery to deny him the refuge in guilt. You did not fail them, he said fiercely, dealing him a mental cuff. Report to the Weyrleader, L’stev.
L’stev took a deep breath, trying to organise his thoughts into an account. “We flew out to the north range,” he said. “Held position while Vanzanth took visuals from each of the dragonets, then gave permission for the weyrlings to return between to the Weyr. Standard protocol, same as it was in your day.” He despised himself even as he spoke, as if he were blameless. He must have missed something.
Then R’von spoke. “It was wrong,” he said haltingly. “Oaxuth said it was wrong as soon as Danementh went between. He didn’t want to follow him. He said he couldn’t see where to go. He was calling and calling to Danementh, and then he was gone.”
L’stev and T’kamen exchanged a look. T’kamen looked as lost as L’stev felt. “He said he couldn’t see where to go?” T’kamen asked R’von brusquely. “Your dragon couldn’t go between?”
“No – no.” R’von shook his head as if struggling to explain concepts he didn’t understand himself. “He didn’t want to. He said he had to keep me safe.”
T’kamen looked at L’stev. “And their visuals were sound?”
“All of them,” said L’stev. “Nothing to criticise. Vanzanth would have gone between on any one of them.” With an effort, he mustered his wits. “To lose one between to a bad visual, or a hasty jump, maybe, but not three. Not three, and three more unwilling or unable.”
“And the last one?” asked T’kamen.
L’stev had almost forgotten Kinnescath. “His rider…”
Unconscious, Vanzanth said. They were between too long. Kinnescath says…he couldn’t find a way out.
“Has something gone wrong with between?” L’stev asked incredulously.
T’kamen cocked his head, his eyes momentarily vague. “The watchdragon says that riders have been coming and going between all morning before he put a stop on movements. Do I need to –” Even as he spoke, a pair of greens winked in directly overhead. Epherineth sat up and bugled an enquiry at them. “I guess not. They say they’ve just come from Jessaf and between seems fine.”
L’stev stared out at the training ground. The Weyr Healer’s people were moving among the weyrlings now with cups of a mild sedative specifically formulated to calm and soothe. L’stev always had some on hand in case they lost a weyrling.
A weyrling. Not three.
He’d been prepared to lose someone. He’d been prepared since the moment they’d all Impressed. No matter how closely he watched them, no matter how strong a hand he took, no matter how cautiously he allowed them freedom, some of them always died. They died overflying, they died in collisions, they died flaming, and they died going between. But not like this. Even in L’stev’s darkest moments, in his most sweat-soaked nightmares, in the height of his cynical pessimism, he couldn’t have predicted a tragedy like this. N’jen would never cheek him again. Jenafa would never blush scarlet when they talked about green flights. Ivaryo would never again sneak out for an illicit tryst with a rider who should have known better. Their three – six – young lives were over, snuffed out in an instant. It was beyond his ability to comprehend.
L’stev released his son as H’nar came over with a journeyman and a cup of the sedative for him. R’von drank it all down in three shuddering gulps. Even then, he looked to T’kamen for permission to go before he left. The Weyrleader nodded curtly, and the two young bronze riders walked away, H’nar supporting his friend with an arm around his shoulders.
“Weyrlingmaster?” the Healer asked, offering him a mug. L’stev waved her away. There would be no comforting cups to calm or soothe him. A strong drink later, perhaps, but no solace in dreamless sleep.
“Is it the dragonets?” T’kamen asked softly.
L’stev looked sharply at him. It took him a breath to recognise the quality of fear on T’kamen’s face, the questions left unspoken, but still hanging in the air. Are they wrong? Are the offspring of my dragon defective? Is this my fault? He wished he had a reassuring answer, but all he could offer was honesty. “I don’t know. There’s no precedent for this, not in my time. I’ll look in the records…”
“No,” said T’kamen. “I’ll do it.” He set his jaw. “The last time I had someone else investigate something for me, C’los got killed. No. Your priority is the weyrlings.”
“T’kamen,” L’stev said roughly. “If you need me to resign…”
He couldn’t finish the sentence. T’kamen looked at him as if he’d gone stark raving mad. “Resign?”
L’stev squared his shoulders. “If there’s any chance this is my fault…any chance at all…”
“It’s not,” T’kamen told him. “It can’t be. Faranth, L’stev, you’re not resigning. I absolutely forbid it.”
“Weyrleader,” L’stev said, tucking his chin into his chest, humbled by T’kamen’s faith in him.
T’kamen had already looked away from him. His gaze had fallen upon Berzunth, who was still comforting the distraught Hinnarioth. “What if it’s the dragonets?” He sounded stricken. “What if Epherineth’s dragonets are wrong?”
“They’re not,” L’stev told him. “They can’t be.”
But inside he felt nauseous. They can’t be, he repeated, for Vanzanth’s hearing only. But if they are…if something’s wrong with the dragonets, then we can never let Berzunth breed.
Continue to Chapter seven: T’kamen
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