By Robert Rhodes
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Robert Rhodes and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Piran’s blood ran cold, and his vision dimmed. He could not breathe, could not complete the arc of his sword. But the numbness passed like a chilling wave, and he cut down through the witch’s cloak, through the joint of neck and shoulder, collarbone and lung. She screamed — her voice terrible and shrill, crystal shattering on steel — and crumpled to the ground. She lay coughing, softly choking, then was still.
In the misted twilight, on the bloodstained leaves of the forest, she seemed a pitiful wretch, hardly worth three-hundred bells or the quor-tile of Danger. Her skin was sun-cracked leather, withered on her bones; hanks of hair hung from her skull like shreds of rotting linen. A sunken cheek bore a sinuous brand, marking her not as a spy but as the slave — escaped? — of a lich-lord in the cruel South. Something glistened beside her gnarled fingers — an arc of silvery liquid spilling from a milkglass phial.
Piran closed his eyes and gave thanks for his swordcraft. He’d struck before she finished her devilry, despite her rush from the shadowed undergrowth. But only just, for his muscles ached with a strange weariness.
“She’s dead,” he said over his shoulder to Amara and Ferris. “Let’s take the council its proof and be done. We’ve each a hundred bells to spend — with all our judgment, good and bad. If you don’t eat yours, Boar, you may be able to buy a tavern after all…” He grinned and reached for the phial.
Until he realized he was alone.
He whirled, sword raised, squinting into the forest that cloaked the Scorpion Mountains. The air was silent, the undergrowth still. His companions were gone. Impossible — they hadn’t been ten paces behind. Amara, if she wanted, could elude him for a time, but Ferris the Red Boar — impossible.
He circled away from the witch’s corpse and, finding no signs of ambush, whistled their covert signal. When no answer came, he began calling for them. His voice grew louder, echoing across the mountainside, dissolving into the endless trees. Soon he was running and shouting Amara’s name until his throat grew raw. He stumbled on a fallen branch or root, and his shoulder collided with the rough trunk of an ironoak. He leaned against it, panting and sweat-chilled, staring at his sword on the ground — a brightening sheen of steel, patterned with the witch’s blood.
“Impossible,” he whispered, but even as he spoke, the crow of a gamecock jolted him. He gasped and ran higher upon the slope until the trees thinned before him. Beyond them, he halted on a ledge of naked rock with the forest falling away below him and, before him, a dark granite sky.
He swore a silent oath. He rubbed his eyes and blinked, but there it remained — the sun, rising in the East like a coin burning in its mold.
He, his lover, and his friend had ascended the mountain in the morning. He discovered footprints after midday and in the twilight, only minutes ago, the witch herself. What happened to his companions? What happened to the night?
His thighs and shoulders cramped. Why was he so weary? He drew his cloak around him and knelt on the cold rock with his sword at hand. Unmoving, he watched the land lighten to the mottled gray of a faded tapestry. In the northern distance, Lake Whelm glimmered like a field of slate; on the eastern shore, along its gentle curve, the buildings and towers of Whelmspar formed a wide and jagged cairn, its watch fires burning eerily like witchlights. Flecks of leaf and bark drifted across the lake as fishermen rowed out with their nets.
Below and behind him, the mountainside echoed with birdsong. His eyes followed the boats across the lake and beyond, to the once-sacred tor where the ruined temple of The Forgotten perched like the skeleton of an enormous hawk. He crossed the distance with his mind and returned two evenings ago, when he and Amara, before accepting the council’s commission, had rowed across the water to be alone in the night.
Together, they had stood at the base of the hill. The pale columns and broken arches of the temple glowed in the moonlight, seemed sculpted of moonlight, below the clear autumn sky. Amara took him by the hand and smiled. “I want to go inside,” she said. He followed her up the slope, watching her hips and bottom sway between her twin scabbards. Halfway, she turned and pushed him ahead. “Take the lead,” she said. “You’ve had a good look… and I’m due for mine.”
He spread his cloak on the floor of grass-veined marble, and they made love beneath the high, fallen dome. Her black hair spread softly across his chest, and he was almost asleep when she whispered his name. “Piran? Piran… I love you.”
His eyes opened, were met with hers, expectant and unguarded. Mercenaries did not speak lightly of love, if at all, and Amara had suffered much at the hands of her father and the madman he wed her to long ago. In the past year, Piran had caressed the scars across her back and, twice, had calmed her thrashing in the night. But he was only twenty-four; he was in the prime of his craft and had no plans beyond the coming season. His mother and father slept in the village graveyard; and his brother, if the sea and its leviathans were kind, was trading iron and leather along the Burning Coast. He certainly had no intention of binding himself to anyone for long, let alone a woman of three-and-thirty — no matter how lithe, knife-witted or skilled.
Yet they were together, naked in the shadows and starlight, and her eyes awaited him.
“I love you also,” he said. He shifted and drew her hips to his, so they would not speak again until dawn.
Dawn. He turned his eyes from the temple, his thoughts from the past. The sunlight strengthened, restoring life and color to the land. His breath quickened. He reached for his sword and stood, trembling in the light.
Across the mountainside, the fire had faded from the trees. Now the forest was clothed in fresh green leaves and, like embroidered pearls, blossoms of silver and white. He wiped his sword on the sole of his boot and sheathed it, hurrying on a path to Whelmspar.
He, Amara, and Ferris had hunted their quarry in the autumn twilight. An hour later, on a cool spring morning, he left the mountain alone.
He approached the southern gate slowly. The journey had taken less than a day, but he delayed his arrival till morning, the better to see and be seen and, with luck, trusted. His few hours of sleep had also been welcome.
Pale clouds streaked the sky above the city, and a cool wind gusted from the North. Banners rippling atop the watchtowers were no longer green and gold; on each a two-headed bird of prey spread argent wings across an azure field. A quartet of guardsmen in blue and white surcoats flanked the gate; three rested strange staves, metal-pointed and -trimmed, on their shoulders. All were lean men with skin like copper and sleek, dark beards — men of the West. A farmer’s cart clattered into the city, and they turned their attention to Piran.
“Good morning, my lords.” He opened his hands. His palms dampened from their scowls and the possibility — the truth — that the free city of Whelmspar had fallen. He could not imagine how, nor did he recognize the new banner. And yet, if one Western warlord had forged the clans into a kingdom ravenous for fresh land, if the line of their horses darkened the horizon and their strange staves proved instruments of power… Most of all, if the quor-tiles foretold little chance of victory, then he could envision the councilors surrendering to save their hides and holdings. Or had the city been razed and already rebuilt? However the conquest came, were Amara and Ferris, if untouched by the witch’s sorcery, still here? Were they alive?
Piran swallowed as the oldest guardsman stepped forward. His mouth was dry, his mind a wind-tattered flame. The witch had cast him farther along the river of time. But the question that mattered, the one he couldn’t ask these wolfish men, was how far he had come.
The captain crossed his arms. A bracelet of silver links gleamed on his wrist, and a slender, curved sword hung from his belt. “A bright morning, jesserin. Why do you come to Ixaris, and what name do you bear?”
Piran blinked. The captain’s accent was thick and cloying, the greeting unfamiliar, the city’s name lost. He hastened into the story he’d prepared. “I am Piran var Daine, my lord, and I’ve come to tell my uncle that his brother, my father, lies dying beyond the mountains.” He gestured toward the green ridges of the Scorpion, the snow-tipped peak of the Tail, and bowed his head. “He wishes to see him once more, my lord.”
The captain circled nearer. “You have come from Ixiron, then?” Piran nodded, his heart surging — for Kelspar must also have fallen. The captain looked toward the mountains and stroked his beard. “What name does your uncle bear?”
“Ferris, my lord. Ferris var Daron.”
The captain turned and said something in which Piran understood only Ferris’s name. One of the guards responded. Another said something else, pointing to the road behind Piran and drawing laughter from his peers. The captain’s mouth curled, and he shook his head.
“I do trust you know where to find your uncle? Very well, though my men do wish you much fortune in making haste to Ixiron.” One of the guardsmen laughed. The captain escorted Piran to a table draped with azure cloth and pointed to a whitewashed urn. “Offer tribute to the Holy Ones and enter.”
Piran bowed and unlaced his coin-pouch. “Thank you, my lord.” He had eighteen bells and a handful of silver and iron, but how many to pay? He knew nothing of the Holy Ones, and Whelmspar, like all of the free cities, had never required a toll. His fingertips writhed in the pouch. Too few coins could give offense; too many could raise questions — as would his indecision. He slid three bells into his palm and dropped them, clinking softly, into the urn.
The captain stepped aside. “May peace be upon your sword, jesserin. I do trust you and your uncle will leave Ixaris before sunrise?”
“Of course, my lord.” He offered a last, obedient nod to the guardsmen and walked into the city.
So quiet, he thought as he approached the southern marketplace. The court itself had changed little, though the cobbles appeared more cracked and worn. Market-goers still gathered in small circles, apart from murmuring triangles and diamonds of Westerners, who nodded and stroked their beards. From booths and tables, merchants boasted and cried in both tongues. Women with baskets walked in pairs, the sleek hair of the Westerners — what few there were — adorned with blue and white ribbons. But somehow the scene had changed; its movement and music had —
Its music. He stopped and looked to the edges of the court, the alcoves for bards and belldancers, jugglers and players. But there were none now, only whitewashed baskets of pale flowers and fern hanging from poles and sconces. He swallowed and approached the crowded center, brushing past a glaring Westerner into the heart of silence.
The Fountain of Skylarks stood bare. Its delicate tiers and pedestals were gone as if smashed and swept away, as if they had never been. Only the central pillar remained as the perch of a two-headed eagle or hawk, which overlooked a sun-bleached basin of flowers and fern. It was here he’d first spoken to Amara as her fingertips trailed in the water, her face clean and burnished in the evening light…
He cursed in his mind. The words echoed, escaped his lips, but an outcry behind him swallowed the sound. He turned.
Two guardsmen — two from the gate — stormed into the marketplace. Rage twisted their faces, and they craned their necks, searching the crowd and brandishing their staves. A boy darted into their path, and they shoved him to the ground, scattering bits of parchment. They shouted something again and again, then moved to question the nearest Westerners.
Piran slipped to the other side of the fountain, just as the wave of murmurs spreading from the guardsmen rushed past. Beside him, a thin woman wrung her hands.
“Unclean? Something unclean?” she asked her companion. “How terrible! What could it be?”
Piran’s throat and face grew warm. Had the guards noted a flaw in his story? Or the coins — was an odd number forbidden? Was gold? It made no difference; bloodlust burned on the Westerners’ faces. If they found him, someone would likely die.
His muscles tensed to run, but he stooped his shoulders and shuffled from the fountain as if aged or lame. He left the court through its eastern arch and dashed toward a nearby street — Weavers’ Street, if it kept its name. He strode like one called to urgent business, staring ahead and ignoring those he passed. He turned again, east then north. Iron Street led to the inner court, beyond which were the red-shingled taverns and bathhouses Ferris loved best. And Amara — was she alive? Was she also here?
The blast of a horn shook the air behind him. It echoed between the buildings, joined by shouts and the tramping of boots. He reached for his sword, then his brooch. He unpinned it and threw his cloak into an alleyway. The street ahead was empty. He ran.
He had to find Ferris quickly. He thought of reaching the northwestern district, where the streets had names the council never approved — Beggars’ Stair, The Arse, Death’s Crossing. He could easily find someone to hide him for a price. But someone would just as soon betray him for a second price, especially to win favor with the guardsmen. Worse, he’d already drawn their attention to Ferris. Unless he arrived first, the guardsmen would interrogate Ferris about his unclean nephew. The Red Boar would never answer to their satisfaction — how could he? Which meant he’d be imprisoned and perhaps, with his temper and damnable tongue, tortured unto death. Few deserved such a fate, and no one Piran called a friend.
The buildings beside him blurred as he ran. Then people milled across the end of the street, the inner court, and he returned to his urgent stride. Again the horn bellowed behind him. Without looking back, he entered the court, the center of Whelmspar — Ixaris be damned. It was twice as large as the southern market and easily twice as crowded, yet it seemed all the more quiet without dancing, juggling and song. Even in its heart, on Riordan’s Dais —
A gallows. The Westerners had raised a gallows there, grafting dark wood onto the pearlescent stone. From the crossbeam hung thick ropes, two in the middle binding the upraised wrists of a man and a woman. Each was young and naked; her small breasts were pale in the sunlight. Their bodies were slender and limp, their heads shaven. He thought of two rabbits, skinned and hanging from a rafter, and gritted his teeth.
He wove through the crowd, hurrying toward the northern arch. As he rounded the Dais, the girl whimpered, and he lowered his eyes. Again the horn bellowed, and people slowed, looking, around him. He slipped between them, then through the arch. He turned onto Ale Street, where painted signs hung over broad doors and the roofs slanted brightly beneath the sky. Shouts erupted behind him, somewhere across the court. The buildings seemed so large and numerous now. Ferris was simple to spot, even in a crowd, but how —
He stopped in the middle of the street. The sign for The Squirrel’s Nut, the most raucous of Ferris’s haunts, had been transformed. On it, two flagons hung from the tusks of a chuckling, round-bellied boar. A red boar.
“Gods,” Piran whispered, “you did buy one.” He took two halting, dream-like steps before rushing to the door. He swung it open and spun inside, closing it behind him.
He blinked back the sunlight and breathed smoke, bittersweet and strong. It veiled the taproom like an autumn fog, spreading from a table beside the hearth. Three Westerners, older men with iron-gray beards, held long lacquered pipes and frowned at him through the smoke. A stout woman of nineteen or twenty stood by their table, setting down a tray of steaming copper cups. As Piran entered she looked up, then straightened and bowed her head to the Westerners.
“How else may I serve, my lords?” she asked. One of the men beside her, still eyeing Piran, cupped her plump buttocks.
“My comrades and I,” the man said, fastening his eyes on Piran’s, “will discuss that matter. You may leave us — for now.” His lips tightened into a smile, and his fingers curled into her skirt before letting go. As she backed away, the Westerner set the stem of his pipe between his teeth. He drew from it slowly and, narrowing his eyes, looked away from Piran to trade smoke-shrouded words with the others.
Piran met the woman as she neared the bar. Her cherrywood hair was woven into a heavy braid. At his approach, she turned and raised her eyebrows.
“I’m looking for Ferris,” he said. He glanced at the Westerners; they were still watching him. “It’s urgent.”
Her brow furrowed. “He’s… in the first courtyard. I can call him for you –”
“No.” He started toward the door across the room, then looked down at her again. Her cheeks were childishly smooth and round, her shoulders broad and strong. A coldness grew in his belly as if he’d swallowed a stone from a mountain brook.
“You’re his daughter, aren’t you?”
The lines of her forehead deepened, but she nodded. His eyes watered from the smoke; he blinked to clear them. “I thought so,” he said. “Listen, go behind the bar and stay in sight. If anyone comes for me… slow them if you can, but don’t lie. You don’t need to be caught in this, too.”
She glanced at the front door and bit her lip. “Are we — is he in danger?”
Piran looked past her. On the wall behind the bar hung a long and heavy war-axe. Its double blades were dull and worn, the leather grip ragged and sweat-stained.
“I hope not,” he said and hurried to the courtyard door. He pushed it open and stepped as from a cave into the slanting sunlight. At once something roared and crashed to his left. He ripped his sword free and crouched, shielding his eyes. Between a table and overturned chair stood a monstrous shadow.
“Gods, Ferris…” He lowered his sword, his skin turning to gooseflesh. Over twenty years had passed; the daughter’s face had told him as much. But this — twenty years were far too few.
For the river of time had bloated Ferris’s body as if he’d drowned long ago. The fire of his beard was utterly quenched; only a tawny stain around his mouth colored the matted grayness. His hand clutched a walking staff, the pouches under his eyes were heavy and dark, and at least one-hundred measures of fat engulfed his torso and thighs. He weighed more than three-hundred now, if he weighed ten; yet somehow he limped forward and roared with wonder.
“Gods and demons! Bloody hells, she did it! Look at you — you haven’t changed a day!”
Piran smiled as Ferris clapped his shoulder. Tears glistened in the huge man’s eyes. Piran gripped his flabby arm in response and forced himself to keep smiling; it was like gripping a sack of warm cheese.
“Listen, Ferris, the other court — does the dais still work? I don’t know who these Westerners are, and somehow I’ve riled them up. I think it’s the coins I left at the gate — I don’t know. But they’re coming for me. Now.” He stepped from Ferris’s grasp and shared the lie he’d told the guardsmen.
Phlegm rasped in Ferris’s throat as he sighed. “Shite, I thought I heard their bloody crowing. How many’d you give — wait now! Burn ’em all — where’s Amara?”
“Amara? How should I — I came to ask you!”
Ferris stared, his eyes round and blood-veined. “Lad, I haven’t –” A horn echoed in the street, and Ferris struck the flagstones with his staff. “Damn them! But wait, lad. Your uncle, the gray sow” — he patted his swollen gut, then a pouch at his side — “may yet smooth their feathers. I’m a fine merchant, you know. I pay their taxes and serve their bloody teas and smokeleaf. How many’d you pay?”
Ferris’s jaw fell open, showing teeth as crooked and yellow as knucklebones. “Three bells,” he whispered. “You poor bastard. Shite… of course, you wouldn’t have anything else. Here, give me your arm. The bar for the door’s lost, but I think the dais still works.”
In the center of the courtyard’s far wall was an iron-bound door, an arch within a dense tumble of ivy. With Ferris leaning on his shoulder, Piran staggered toward it. Ferris grunted with every step. “When the bastards came… three years ago, gods… they took our coins and made new ones with their two-headed eagle, the sign of their Holy Ones. Burn ’em, though… I say it’s a crow.”
Piran shoved the door with his boot, and they entered a second courtyard, smaller than the first and smaller than Piran remembered. He remembered it, though, by torchlight — Amara’s eyes gleaming and wickedly arched — and ivy and briar-roses now overran the walls. But the trappings for private suppers remained: a stone table and benches, a minstrel’s dais, a pool with moon- and sun-scaled fish gliding in its shallow darkness.
He eased the reddened and panting Ferris onto one of the benches. He took the walking staff, closed the door, and slid the staff into place as a bar. “Who are they?”
“The Holy Ones?” Ferris grimaced, wiping his brow. “A boy and girl, twins with eyes of fire and skin like snow. They’re from a prophecy of conquest or some such shite, I don’t know, but stone or metalwork without their sign…” He coughed and spat. “Bloody unclean. Like your bells. Like our music. They even destroyed the quor-tiles.” He shook his head but fixed Piran with a pointed forefinger. “Though that was fine with me after we lost you.”
Piran nodded, remembering the tiles arranged on the council table, their runes glowing like starlight. Scorpion. Woman. Sorcery. Danger. A rogue witch crossing the mountains, likely a lich-lord’s spy, the council told them upon offering the commission.
He nodded again then frowned. “But Amara — if you lost me, if the witch sent me here, then where is she?”
“Hells, I haven’t seen her in twenty years. Till now, I thought she was dead.” He shook his head. “And you’re not making sense, lad. There was no witch. The tiles — ”
“What? I saw her!”
Ferris chuckled, his gallows laugh. “No doubt, lad. That’s why you’ve been on the mountain for thirty years, cold as this.” He rapped the tabletop.
A shiver rushed up Piran’s spine. “What –”
“Gods, you don’t — the shite-brained council misread the tiles. She wasn’t a witch. She was a woman the lich-lords blighted and set loose.” He spread his fingers, making them writhe. “Her hair was a nest of vipers, her flesh was scaled, and her eyes — ”
“ — glowed and changed you to stone, you and your sword.” He lifted his arm. “Aye, like a statue for all these years.”
Piran’s heart leapt like a beast in its dark cage, and the shadows of the courtyard grew cold. His hand sought the living ivy, the solid wall behind it. “My brother,” he whispered, “Amara…”
Ferris hefted himself up and sighed. “My friend, your brother… one year his ship didn’t return. And Amara, she saved me on the mountain, covered my eyes and shouted for us to run. But then I heard her calling, behind me. I followed her voice, and there she was, standing over the bitch with her swords in its back.”
He snorted and touched Piran’s arm. “She used me as bait. I kept fighting for ten years after, and I’ve still never seen anything so brave.” He coughed, shaking his head. “We tried to save you, lad. I swear we hounded every alchemist, sage and hedge-wizard we could find. Chanting, incense, ointments — all shite and smoke. Amara, it crushed her. She barely ate or slept, and when she did her nightmares…
“I — the days came when I had a wife, gods keep her, and a daughter. But Amara never gave up. She loved you, Piran. She said you pledged your love in the old temple just before.”
“She said that?” His hand closed within the ivy, tearing vines from the wall. He remembered starlight, her warmth, the hush of his voice. I love you also.
He shut his eyes, shirked away from Ferris’s hand. How many years, how many hours of life had she spent for him? “Where –” he began as a door slammed open and shouting burst from the tavern into the first courtyard.
Ferris tottered, his face pale. “Shite, lad! They’ll flay you alive — go!”
Piran pushed away from the wall and slid to his knees beside the pool. He shifted his sword to his left hand and thrust his right into the water, scattering fish like slivers of light. His fingers dug into the slick stones below the rim. “Where’s the bloody catch?”
“There — about there, I think.” The shouts grew louder, and boots thundered on the flagstones. Ferris turned back to the barred door, cupping his mouth with his hands. “Wait!” he yelled. “Stay back or the heathen will kill me!”
Piran’s hand slipped from the stones. He raised his eyebrows at Ferris.
“I’m helping you, and me,” Ferris whispered. “Hurry!” He cupped his mouth again. “By the Holy Ones, stay back! He’s an enemy’s son! He seeks vengeance!” He reached toward Piran. “Cut me, lad, or give me your sword.”
“Wait!” A stone gave beneath his fingertips. The dais grated as it slid backward, a crescent of darkness growing beneath its edge. Rising, Piran glanced at Ferris’s outstretched hand and, over his massive shoulder, a shadow dropping from the wall.
A Westerner, a guardsman from the gate, landed in a crouch with his sword curving before him. He spat at them and screamed, raising his blade with both hands. Piran sprung past Ferris and met the man behind a cross of steel. But with the impact, his sword slipped in his dripping hand and lurched toward his chest.
The guardsman’s eyes burned like coals. “Heathen! The crows will have your living flesh!”
Piran clenched his teeth. To his side, the door shuddered. “I… don’t have time!” he growled and lunged, striking the man’s ear with his left hand. He turned as he did, sliding his blade free. He spun under the man’s off-balance cut and thrust, spearing his throat. Hot drops of blood splashed his arm and cheek as the guardsman fell.
Piran stared at the corpse beneath the darkened point of his sword. His second kill in as many days — and neither blighted by sorcery. Bile welled, burning, in his throat.
Ferris swung his fist. “Well done! He’ll be the one who saved me from you. Here –” He grabbed Piran’s wrist and ran his own forearm along the blade. “Shite, that’s good steel — now go!” He pushed Piran toward the hole revealed by the dais. A rusted chain hung from its edge, and an odor of damp earth and offal tainted the air.
Piran stared into the shadowed tunnel. “She went to the lich-lords, didn’t she? She enslaved herself for a cure.”
“Aye, but how –” Ferris flinched as thunder cracked outside the wall. Wooden shards exploded from the door. “You can’t fight them, lad! Go!”
He wanted to remain, as still as a statue. He wanted their blades and staves to blacken his thoughts forever. But his life was no longer his own. He leapt into the tunnel and pulled the chain. The dais began grinding shut. Ferris stood over the opening, his bloodstained arm raised in farewell.
“I know,” Piran said, “because I saw her brand. I killed her, Ferris. I thought she was the witch.”
Stone joined stone, leaving him in darkness. Above him, Ferris was yelling, “There! There, over that wall!” In time, he sheathed his sword and, weeping, felt in his pouches for a candle and flint to guide him through the catacombs and sewers.
He would flee the city and return to the mountain, where he would bury her. He would lay pale flowers upon her grave, and for her sake, his sword would not end the life she had restored.
Robert Rhodes is an attorney who lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and prosecutes child and elder abuse cases.
His fiction has appeared in several markets, including Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He has been named a finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, and is a guest lecturer at the Shared Worlds creative writing camp.
He was the author of the “20 Heroes in 2010” series at FantasyLiterature.com, and his essay “Servants of the Secret Fire: Why Fantasy & Science Fiction Matter” won second-place in Pyr’s fifth anniversary contest. Most recently, his story “The Dead Travel Silently” won first-place in the forthcoming Stealth: Challenge anthology from Rogue Blades Entertainment.
You can follow him on Twitter at @rrhodeswriter.
Author photo by Annie Barbas.