The Changeling Child
Book 2 in the Beauty's Beast Series
Lady Beatrice thought the worst she would have to face as a new wife and mother was all the gossip about her past as the king’s mistress. Unfortunately, wicked fairies have come to her village, intent on stealing all the most attractive children away–and Beatrice’s newborn son is widely agreed to be the most beautiful baby in the land.
Before she can stop them, the worst happens and Beatrice’s son is taken, and a strange fairy changeling child left in his place.
Beatrice should revile the otherworldly creature, yet she finds herself growing fonder of him by the day. He could never replace her own son, but she finds her heart has room enough for the changeling child too. But the only way to reclaim her own son is to swap the children back.
Must Beatrice lose the changeling child to get her own son back, or can she figure out another way to save both children and keep them as her own?
Note: Although many of the books in THE BEAUTY’S BEAST FANTASY SERIES contain a romantic subplot, please be advised that this book does not. It’s a fun fantasy adventure with no romance.
Read an Excerpt
When Beatrice caught her husband’s gaze straying to the window of the chamber for the third time in as many minutes, she was tempted to kick his ankle. Unfortunately, she was a noblewoman and the lady of the castle. Outbursts of that kind were beyond her now.
Instead, she forced herself to cross her ankles beneath her skirts and give their castle steward all her attention—one of the castle’s lieges should, after all. “I’m sorry, could you explain again? What is the issue with the kitchen roof?”
Beatrice’s husband Stephen, the Baron of Réméré, stared extravagantly out the window into the yard below, where his men were already saddling his horse for a day of falconry. Stephen was nearing fifty, more than twenty years her senior, a battle-hardened knight with dark hair streaked with gray and skin deeply tanned from hunting. For all that he had an old man’s dignity and honors, sometimes he seemed to have no better discipline that one of his pages.
Their steward nervously rustled his reports and correspondence. She gave him a small encouraging smile. He straightened at once, red tinting his sallow cheeks. “Unfortunately, we did not manage to secure the wardship of the young Baron of Unfrah as we’d hoped.”
Beatrice winced. “Who did King Thomas give the wardship to?”
“The Duke of Aquinnah.” Stephen snorted. “As if that man needs more wealth.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She worked to keep her voice soft, to keep the frustration out.
“I didn’t want to concern you, my love.” Stephen gave her hand a half-distracted pat.
Concern her? As if she hadn’t had the managing of their household almost since the moment they’d married last year. Merciful Fate knew Stephen never bothered to concern himself with the estate, and his carelessness might have been the ruination of Réméré if Beatrice hadn’t taken matters into hand.
One of the ways Beatrice had been hoping to secure an influx of coin was to gain that wardship. Five hundred marks a year they could have received to oversee the Unfrah land and take the young heir under their protection. She restrained a wistful sigh. Apart from the money, it might have been nice for her baby son to have another child about.
Beatrice folded her hands in her lap so she couldn’t fidget. The lady of the manor does not fidget. “Without the wardship we can’t afford lead for the roof of the kitchen, can we?”
The steward shook his head. “No, my lady. The roof must be repaired, though, even if we can’t afford the new lead roof.”
Blight it. Beatrice tapped her fingers against the arm of her chair as she thought. “The outer chamber in the high tower is shingled, isn’t it?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Then we’ll just have to take the shingles off the outer chamber and put them on the kitchen to make the necessary repairs. We’ll have to thatch the outer chamber for now.” She’d been hoping to replace all their shingled roofs with lead this year. Instead, they were going backward. Beatrice touched the pearls at her throat—a gift from Stephen at the birth of their first son a few months ago—and counted the baubles with her fingers. Perhaps she could remove a few pearls from the back of the strand and sell them. Her hair covered that, so who was to notice?
“Thatch. Yes. An excellent idea, my love,” Stephen boomed in his resounding bass voice. He creaked to his feet and limped around his desk, away from the window. “That is the end of our business today, is it not?”
The steward twisted his hands together. “My lord, there is that matter I discussed with you before.” His gaze darted uncertainly to Beatrice. “The matter which the village midwife brought to your attention.”
Stephen’s face darkened red with anger. “That nonsense? Peh, don’t waste my time, man. And do not waste my wife’s time with that foolishness either. Come, my love. I’ll return you to your ladies.”
A lady does not disobey her husband. Although she burned with curiosity to hear the steward’s tale, Beatrice allowed Stephen to take her hand and lead her out of the chamber.
After Stephen rode off with his men for a day spent in the forest with his hunting birds, Beatrice assembled her ladies to make her own small pilgrimage to the high castle walls. The midwife had told Beatrice that her baby son needed sunshine and fresh air to grow into a strong young lad, and Beatrice was strictly observant of the midwife’s orders.
They remained out in the sun long enough to warm her skin and the linen of her dress. The wind caught at the gauzy blue veil over her hair and kept trying to fling it into her eyes. She should go back inside. If she stayed in the sun much longer her milk-white skin would freckle. Some of her ladies were already grumbling as much under their breaths.
Beatrice found since her son’s birth she worried less about her own looks. Perhaps because she felt more secure in her husband’s affection. She was the Mother of the Heir now, after all. What did her looks matter? And, oh, it felt as if she hadn’t been outside in ages. The past few months, since her son’s birth, it seemed almost as if she’d been turned into a wraith of herself, always sleeping, never leaving her rooms.
I might finally be getting my strength back. Her husband had insisted she nurse the babe herself, as was her pious duty as his mother, and she hadn’t objected. She loved those quiet moments with the baby, when the world melted away and it was only the two of them. She just wished it didn’t exhaust her so, as if the child was drinking away her life-force as well as her milk.
The view from the castle parapet this morning dazzled her. She could almost imagine herself soaring free on the winds. The village lay to the left, small but bustling with thatch roofs on the houses and then, across the river, the Greenwood. The beautiful mass of green trees, rippling as though alive, whipped about in the wind, carrying a crisp earthy scent to her on the air. Her land now. Her son’s land someday. If only I can keep Stephen from draining our coffers dry.
Beatrice let out a gusty sigh “I come, I come.” She stepped away from the parapet edge and fell in behind her ladies as they made their way toward the stairs. She toyed with the pearls on her neck. Would Stephen even notice if I sold the whole strand? How many shingles can each pearl buy?
“—haven’t seen her about in ages.” Voices echoed from the stairwell ahead, two of the men-at-arms talking, it sounded like. Beatrice and her ladies fell back, waiting for the men to emerge so they would not have to pass each other on the narrow stairs. The guards were still a few steps down, but the stone of the stairway carried their voices and projected them louder than the men had probably intended.
“—a body fit to make a man weep, the most beautiful lady—”
Beatrice hid a small laugh behind her hand and cast her eyes over her ladies-in-waiting, wondering whom the guards might be talking of. Probably not Sybille, poor thing. Her chest was still flat as one of the page boys’. Perhaps they spoke of Petronilla; she was a lovely girl with cool sable-brown skin, pretty enough to turn anyone’s head surely.
“Ay, she’s fine to look at,” the first guard continued, “even since the babe was born, but she’s no lady.”
Beatrice froze, and now all her ladies were looking at her. She herself was the only noblewoman to give birth recently in the castle.
“What do you mean?” the other guard asked, both their voices growing louder with their approach.
“Why, the baroness is a slut, man. She might have been born an earl’s daughter, but King Thomas kept her as his mistress for years. Then she was passed from man to man at that court of his.”
Beatrice’s face heated, and her blood pounded in her ears.
“Our baron must have been mad to marry the girl.”
“That hair. Those eyes. That bosom…”
“Beauty hiding a black heart. I heard she tried to poison the queen.”
That’s a lie. Certainly Beatrice had wished Queen Aliénor dead, but she’d never done anything about it.
The other man snickered. “I heard she took two men to bed with her at once.”
That…was not entirely incorrect. Mostly she’d watched the two men enjoy themselves with each other. If it came to an accusation, the men would be in greater trouble than she. Castration at best, burning at worst. Although the lax morality of the king’s court back then had meant that charges were never brought against anyone. Here, though, in this backwoods country town, such arrangements and affairs were—almost—unheard of.
“I heard she bedded other women.”
That was true, although only one woman, and she’d hoped her female lover would have been more discreet about it. Cases against noblewomen were rarely prosecuted, and never in Beatrice’s lifetime, but that didn’t mean her past couldn’t be used against her somehow. Beatrice cast her eyes heavenward.
“Well, her whole family has bad blood. Her brother tried to kill the king’s nephew.”
“Yes, can’t expect much from the sister of a traitor.”
“She’s brought a curse down upon us. No doubt. That’s probably why all the trouble in the village started—”
Beatrice turned on one heel before the guards could emerge at the top of the stairs. If she saw their smug faces she’d probably have them killed, which would hardly improve her reputation. She stomped all the way across the parapet to the other staircase. The veil covering her hair blew off her shoulders to billow out behind her. Sweat beaded on her upper lip. Winded and dizzy, she descended into the dimness of the stairway.
Petronilla fluttered after her. “My lady, wait. You’ll trip.”
Beatrice sucked in a deep breath and waited, her hands clenched at her sides until her eyes adjusted. The moment they did, she set off again down the stairs, all her ladies in a tizzy behind her. Petronilla caught up and paced her on the stairway, tentatively reaching out a hand. “My lady?”
“I’m fine.” The gossip was true, of course, all of it. Well, except the bit about poisoning the queen. But Beatrice had been naïve enough to think her marriage could wipe the stains on her character away, remake her into a respectable baroness, wife, and mother.
She shoved the door to her chambers open, and a small bell-like laugh exploded, wiping all her unhappy thoughts away. Her baby son smiled at her, cooing and gurgling, trying to push up on his arms, staring at her with wide blue eyes from his blanket on the floor. No one had loved her so simply, so unconditionally, since her own father had died. Her baby, her precious Little Stephen, was all that mattered—securing his future, his safety. Beatrice smiled at him but turned away almost at once.
Because of the things she’d done, whispers might follow her son forever. Bad blood. Whoreson. No matter what she did going forward, it seemed impossible she would ever live down the wanton impropriety of her youth. She didn’t mind suffering the social consequences of her misadventures, but it appalled her that her innocent baby might have to.
She was safe enough now, her husband and his connections a bulwark against any legal reprisals that might arise. But if Stephen should die before their son was of age…the rumors, the spiteful gossip could be used against Beatrice, could be used to take everything away from herself and her son. After all, how could an unnatural whore like her possibly raise a decent child, possibly run a profitable estate? They could take the estate. Maybe take her son away to be raised by more respectable strangers.
Beatrice hugged her arms tight against her chest, feeling chilled despite the sunlight pouring through her window.
Her ladies finally made their way into the room, chattering among themselves before settling down either to play with the baby or to sew him more clothes. In only a few months it seemed the whole world had pivoted to revolve around her black-haired darling.
She shook her head and settled in at her desk, digging through her correspondence. Nothing to be done now. Immediate financial ruin loomed as the more pressing concern anyway. Stephen was alive and well, and no social harm could come to her or her son while her husband lived. She felt stronger today, after all, so she should take advantage of it to work. Perhaps work would take her mind off spiteful gossip as well. She sent one of her ladies to fetch the steward, and he arrived in her chambers almost at once.
The steward bowed. “Baroness?”
“What was it you tried to talk to my husband about this morning? The issue with the village midwife? Is Mad Mary causing trouble?”
The steward’s lips pinched, and he made a small negative gesture with his hands. “It is nothing to concern yourself with, my lady. Mad Mary is probably overreacting.”
Beatrice knew the midwife. She was eccentric, but not prone to hysterics. “But I am concerning myself. If it is such a small matter it hardly merits the attention of my husband or yourself. You work so hard, I know. Perhaps I can take some of the burden up.” She flashed her teeth at him and he blinked, momentarily dazzled. Her beauty was still good for some things. “You’ll bring Mad Mary to me so she can tell me the matter herself?”
“Of…of course, my lady.” He made another small bow, then hurried away.
Beatrice idly twirled the quill in her hand, wondering what the village’s peculiar midwife had gotten herself into this time. Beatrice forced her attention onto her correspondence while she waited for the midwife to arrive. Bills, bills, bills. Does my husband ever do anything but spend money?
A while later, a soft knock sounded at her door.
“Enter,” she called.
Pages were a common enough sight in the women’s quarters, but this one was uncommonly nervous about his errand, shifting on his feet and twisting his chapped red hands round each other. “My lady, Mad Mary is here for her audience.”
Beatrice started to speak, then hesitated and studied the boy. The castle pages were practically professional gossips. Useful gossip could be as good as coin to a smart lad who knew how to trade with it. “Do you know what the midwife wishes to speak to me about? Is there any rumor bubbling up from the village?”
“I’ve heard tell…that is…she—she says the Fair Ones have come out of their hill.”
Her ladies gasped.
Beatrice raised an eyebrow, but the boy just swallowed and continued, two red splotches standing out strong on his cheeks, “Mad Mary was at the castle gates this morning. I saw her myself. She was screaming that the fairies tried to take a baby last night.”
“Don’t say that word, fool.” One of the nursemaids snapped out the baby blanket she’d been folding and glared at the poor page. “Or you’ll draw their attention here.”
“We call them the Good Neighbors or the Fair Folk, lad,” Petronilla said, more gently than the nursemaid had.
Country ways. Beatrice had grown up at court, among the nobility, in the bustle of the king’s capitol. She’d never had such close contact with the fey folk and other uncanny occurrences that came with living so close to the woods and wild lands. The closest she’d come had been the king’s pet werewolf, and no one had known he was more than a simple wolf at the time.
Beatrice didn’t know if she even believed the tales in the village of Fair Folk, and yet she had still hung an iron horseshoe above the entrance to her rooms where she and the baby slept. “‘You said they tried to take a baby?”
“Mad Mary stopped them.” He shrugged. “That’s what she does.”
Mad Mary was a weathered old crone, hunchbacked, with a long hank of iron-gray hair. Her face was a mass of wrinkles with a color like sun-baked clay. Her eyes were so deep-set Beatrice could not even see them.
Beatrice restrained an urge to trace the smooth lines of her own face, to check for wrinkles on herself. She’d already grown so much plumper after the birth of her son. Wrinkles were probably the next step. Her own complacency about her looks, which had felt so freeing that morning, had dissipated now like the fog of sunrise. Beatrice’s beauty was her only personal asset, the only thing she could control, and it was the only thing that had saved her from the life of a poor outcast once upon a time. The Baron of Réméré had not married a penniless orphan like Beatrice because she had a dazzling personality.
Yet for all that Beatrice feared the tarnish of time’s touch, she would not trade her son for anything. Not to have the first blossom of her youth back, nor all the gold in the kingdom. But she would preserve her beauty for him, use it to serve him. She’d traded her looks and love for favors once upon a time. She could do it again for her son if she had to. I’ll have Petronilla prepare a rinse of lemon juice for me tonight.
Once inside Beatrice’s rooms, Mad Mary seemed in no rush to discharge her errand. She went straight for the baby and lifted Beatrice’s son onto her hip, making him laugh. His innocence kindled some inner light within Mad Mary and made the wrinkled crone more palatable to look upon. Well, no surprise that a midwife should have a way with babies. Mary had delivered the boy herself only a few months ago, after all.
“Tell me about the problems in the village?” Beatrice asked.
Mad Mary glanced sharply over. “You mean our troubles with the Fair Folk.”
“Your husband didn’t care to listen to me this morning. It’s been a long time, in fact, since any of the castle folk troubled themselves about our problems in the village.”
True enough. Stephen had let his lands and his people slip to the brink of ruin, but Beatrice meant to mend all that. To see her son’s legacy secured if nothing else. “Tell me about the baby. Please?”
The midwife clucked her tongue and set the baby on the floor to roll on a blanket. “Ah, we’ve always had changeling troubles, my lady. But it used to be the pretty girls that they wanted. And sometimes pretty boys. Once a year or so, some sweet young thing would disappear into a fairy hill or into the woods. Or a new wife would take sudden sick, and we’d discover it was a changeling all the time, and we’d burn it out.”
“‘Burn it out’?”
“Hot poker down the throat. Or tie them to a stake and set them alight.”
Beatrice must have made a face, because Mad Mary sniffed and settled her skirts about her knees. The midwife held her hands out, palms up, in a what would you gesture. “’Tis the only way.”
Country ways. “When did they start taking babies?”
Mad Mary stiffened, jutting her chin out. “They haven’t. Not yet. I’ve seen to that.”
“I heard you helped save a baby from them.”
“Yes, and another baby just today. He was a few months old, but this morning I caught the damn beasties trying to make a switch, trying to replace the real baby with one of their own sickly ones.”
Beatrice shuddered and bent to lift her boy into her arms. He burbled happily at her and stared fascinated at her necklace, tangling his pudgy baby fingers among the pearls. Ice threaded through her heart, like the lake freezing over in winter. To go to your baby’s bed and find a false child, a changeling, in his place. To lose him, to never hold him or hear him again… “The fairi—the Fair Folk tried to substitute one of their own?”
“Yes. That’s probably how this whole mess started. One of their own pups was born sickly, and now they want to switch him out for a healthy one of ourn.”
“How many young children are there in the village, and how many pregnant women?”
Beatrice dug her fingers against her temples. She was used to the intrigues of court politics: currying favor, clawing your way above the other ladies, love affairs and secrets. She knew how to catch a man’s eye, how to turn that to her advantage. What did she know about running an estate, about helping people? Her lady mother had died when she was a baby. Her noble father hadn’t even taught her brother how to manage their lands, let alone his coddled daughter. All her family knew to do was seize manors through combat or guile. She wasn’t sure any one of them had ever bothered learning how to run one.
Her husband would be no help in this matter. He lacked subtlety and would just storm all over the place, trying to fight magic with swords. Might as well try to joust with the clouds, or kill a rainstorm with arrows. But who else was there? “I will speak to my husband and see if we can help you with your efforts, Mary.”
Mad Mary flicked her a wry glance. “As you please, my lady.” The midwife bent to make funny faces at the baby.
Beatrice didn’t fully understand the midwife’s cynical look until she spoke to her husband later that day once he’d returned from his ride.
Her husband’s apartments were always a mess of manly pursuits: a hunting spear in one corner, a crossbow draped across the bed, and his suit of armor on its stand across from the entrance. Luxurious furs covered the feather mattress on his bed—their bed when he had sport in mind. After her son’s birth, he had not pressed for those attentions from her. Not yet. She did not exactly miss that part of her marriage. He was a kind lover but not a passionate one, which was to be expected from a man of her husband’s advanced years and somewhat generous girth.
His blue-gray peregrine chirruped as she entered the room, shifting on its perch. The bird tilted its head to eye her. Her husband had bought the falcon a few weeks ago, another token to celebrate their son’s birth. Beatrice restrained a sigh thinking of how much the animal had cost. Especially since she had no idea how the baron had bought the beast. Maybe he had a store of coins she didn’t know about.
Stephen smiled as she came into his room. As frustrating as he could be at times, she still warmed all over with fondness when he looked at her like that. They didn’t have a love match, per se, but she certainly felt far more affection than she’d ever thought possible when she’d first agreed to marry him. A somewhat exasperated affection depending on his spending that week, but still a close cousin to familial love. Without their marriage, she would have been a penniless orphan doomed either to serve in another woman’s household or to become a barren nun in some out-of-the-way temple. Or a whore.
Stephen had given her a home and a family of her own. Though he didn’t love her as deeply as he had loved his late wife, still his first wife had only ever given him one daughter and a stillborn son. Beatrice knew Stephen would do much to protect her if only for the sake of the much desired son she had given him.
Still, with a past like hers, Beatrice needed to live up to the faith he had placed in her. No impropriety. No lovers. No gossip. She trailed her fingers across her pearls, then forced her hand away. A baroness did not fidget.
Stephen rose as she entered, and he took two limping steps to clasp her hands. “Hello, my beauty. How does our son today?”
“Marvelous well, my lord.”
“And you? I heard the midwife had visited the castle again. Are you well?”
“She did visit, but it was on quite a different errand.” Beatrice cleared her throat. “I sent for her to learn more about the trouble the village has been having. That our steward mentioned this morning.” His brows lowered in a frown, and Beatrice hurried on before his temper could grow. “I thought that you and the steward are much too busy to listen to her, but I could spare the time. My duties are not so pressing.” She let just a touch of simpering into her smile and her eyes. In the king’s court, Beatrice had learned to control her face as accurately as a knight controls his lance.
“Trouble in the village, you say? What sort of trouble?”
She steeled herself, knowing well her husband’s distaste for the supernatural. “The trouble with the fairies.”
Stephen voiced a loud guffaw and dropped her hands from his own. “Oh my darling girl, don’t let that madwoman suck you into her crazed superstitions.”
“You—you don’t believe? But…your son-in-law, Lord Gabriel. He is a self-confessed werewolf.”
Stephen shuddered and shook his head. “Peh. No one knows what did that to the boy. Black magic most likely. Manmade magic. But fairies and pixies haunting my woods? No, my dear, it’s just not true.” Stephen cupped her cheek, his gaze kind. “More likely the madwoman is making up tales to cover her own failings as a midwife. Fairies indeed. That supposed Fairy Hill has been here for years beyond count, and I’ve never heard anything about any fairies.”
Maybe you weren’t listening. Beatrice bit the inside of her cheek to keep the unwise words in, then composed herself to try a different tack. “Still, many of the villagers believe the midwife. Panic is brewing. Perhaps, as a gesture of good will, you could send some of your men-at-arms to the village to guard the pregnant women and the children. Just a few.”
He touched her chin, looking so fondly indulgent that it made her cheeks heat with embarrassment. “Sweet child, no. I will not send my men on such a fool’s errand.”
Girl. Child. As if she hadn’t had the king’s court (including the king) wrapped around her littlest finger once upon a time. As if she hadn’t borne Stephen as strong and fine a son as any man could wish for. As if she hadn’t buried father and brother both yet still managed to find a place in this world. Were those the accomplishments of a girl? A child?
Oblivious to her flash of pique, Stephen bent to kiss her forehead. “Your kind heart does you credit, my angel.”
She had no kindness in her and never would. Couldn’t he understand it was in his best interest to keep the villagers happy? To protect his lands?
Clearly believing their interview at an end, he flopped back into his chair and took up the knife he’d been sharpening at her entrance. She narrowed her eyes and sidled around his table, drawing his arm around her waist as she settled her plump bottom on his lap. He raised his eyebrows, but a smile flickered on his face, and his hand slid upward to fondle her bosom gently—he remembered she was still full of milk.
Beatrice blinked her eyes, fluttering her lashes as she summoned tears like a falconer summons his bird. “Oh, husband, you are probably right. I am a silly girl, but oh, how I worry for our son.” She wailed the last bit out and dropped her head to his shoulder, letting a few tears fall to soak into the fabric of his tunic.
He patted her shoulder with one beefy hand. “Here, here, what’s this?”
“The fairies are trying to take infants, my lord. Babies just like our own dear Little Stephen.”
He stiffened at that and grasped her shoulders to hold her away from himself. Beatrice sniffed and gazed sadly into his face, silently urging him to work with her for once. He chucked her under the chin with two fingers, then eased her off of his lap. “All right, my dove.”
“You’ll send guards to the village?”
“No, no. One better: I’ll send for that magician of the king’s. That Llewellyn.” Stephen stroked his beard thoughtfully. “He’s a sodomite, but effective for all that. And King Thomas trusts him absolutely. Perhaps the magician has finally repented his blasphemies. That might explain it.”
“Did you never hear that gossip? The magician and the king’s brother Hugh used to carry on together. Scandal of the whole court, but then Prince Hugh died and the whole thing was hushed up. Oh, but that was before your time.” Stephen flapped his hands as if clearing his words out of the air. “Anyway, Llewellyn helped sort out that business with Gabriel the king’s heir and my daughter. If the magician can keep a werewolf like Gabriel in line, then I’m sure this Llewellyn can handle a few troublesome imps.”
Llewellyn, here? Beatrice’s stomach dropped. The king’s magician Llewellyn had been there during the duel in which her brother had been killed. As far as she knew, the magician Llewellyn had helped to orchestrate the whole thing.
Unfortunately, her husband was a king’s man through and through. He wouldn’t want to hear about her prejudices against King Thomas or his pet magician. She clasped her hands behind her back to hide their shaking. “Oh no, my lord. I’m just being silly. Don’t bother the king’s magician with my foolishness.”
“Nonsense. You are worried, and I will do all that is within my power to see you comfortable and safe. You and our son.” He pressed a kiss to her palm.
Now he would help her. Now when it cost him nothing but the vellum to write a letter. Beatrice swallowed her annoyance and trudged out of his rooms, her mind racing.
Her brother had died because of Llewellyn and his king. How could Beatrice ever keep her son safe with help like that? I’ll just have to solve it myself.
Before the wicked magician Llewellyn arrived.
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