The Hero’s Knot

UPDATE – 19 January 2013

Happy New Year, all!  Book II of The Hero’s KnotSilviu the Hunter - is under way. I’ve plotted it out from start to finish and the first draft is about one-third done. I like the way it’s going, and the fact that I’m not under the gun was I was for the first book in November means that I’m able to flesh out events and background to a greater extent than before.

This second book will also benefit from the very kind review I received from reader Ambra for Silviu the Thief, in which she took the time to provide accurate Italian translations for some of the phrases that I had bollixed up. Much appreciated, Ambra!

As a bit of a teaser, here’s the first draft of the Prologue from Silviu the Hunter. I hope it makes you look forward to the rest!

*****

Prologue

 

They came out of the night, oozing from the alleyway like shadows poured from a flask. The mist and streetlights limned them with a sickly, fungal luminescence. They kept to the walls, the curbs, moving surreptitiously, ill-intent emanating from them, glowing in hooded eyes; but they made no effort to hide themselves. They owned the night; the dark was their ally, and after nightfall, all things shrouded by the cloak of dusk were their prey.

One of their number, standing lone and innocuous in the lee of a phone booth rendered defunct by the proliferation of modern communications, had seen the pair arrive. They’d staggered out of the shuttered doors of a vacant eatery, one tall and one short, the former supporting the latter – almost carrying him, in fact, for the shorter of the pair was very clearly intoxicated to the point of near-paralysis. The night had been young, then, and the watcher had marked the duo for what they were. Knowing his duty to his comrades he had followed them, blending effortlessly into the grime and detritus of the street, as they wove a stumbling path from doorway to doorway, clearly looking for something. When they’d found what they’d sought – an unlit, trash-strewn stairwell to a basement apartment, with frost-cracked, weed-choked steps and a door reinforced with rusted iron grillwork – he’d remained in his lurk just long enough to ensure that they went in and stayed. Then he’d taken to his heels to rouse his mates.

The three approached the cement pit together. They knew the building and the streets surrounding it, and had scouted the environs to ensure that there was no secondary egress for their quarry; apart from two low, narrow windows in the back opening onto a furnace room full of thudding, wheezing ironmongery, there was only the single door, and the stairs. The watcher shot a glance at his captain before proceeding, and on receipt of a curt nod, darted forward, vanishing over the lip of the pit. A moment later, a wave summoned his confederates. These two – larger, heavier and more purposeful than their scout – crossed the street with dignity and menace, like men who had every right to be there.

And why not? They owned the night.

There was a lock, but it was long broken. The watcher had suspected as much; the basement apartment had been abandoned long ago, and had long ago been adopted by the city’s swirling maelstrom of human flotsam as a convenient site for all manner of congress. The door swung open to a touch, for a mercy without so much as a squeak. The chamber beyond was a study in long use followed by disuse, and then hard use. The cement floor – only scraps of the original linoleum and coarse tarpaper underlay remained – was littered with shattered phials, discarded needles and prophylactics, and a veritable constellation of matchsticks and cigarette butts. The walls were scarred and burnt, stained and scabrous, and the air of the place – a composite of animal stenches that would not have been tolerated in a zoo – seeped into their clothing like a stain, clotting like old blood in their nostrils.

None of the three were familiar with the geography of the apartment; but in the bowels of the old city, all places were pretty much the same, and they knew well places that were very much like it. There was almost no light, but the interlopers had young men’s eyes, and they were accustomed to stealth and to the stalk. Stepping carefully to avoid the detritus littering the floor, they moved as one through what had once been a comfortable if poor sitting room toward the back of the building, where further chambers waited. They negotiated a short hallway, punctuated here and there with open door-frames (the doors themselves having long since vanished), and the vestiges of what had once been a bathroom, its identity marked only by what had once been a tub, but was now a rusted, filthy trough loaded to the rim with layer upon layer of ancient rubbish – a veritable modern-day midden. None of the rooms was occupied.

There was no light, now. The watcher reached into a pocket and produced a lighter, spinning the iron wheel against the flint with a flick of his thumb, and blinking a little as the flame sprang up, dancing and dazzling in the dark. He held the fire down by the floor, and with a finger pointed out the traces of passage: to the left, footprints in the greasy muck; and to the right, a pair of long, wandering lines. He glanced back up at his chief, and the chief nodded. One erect; one dragged. The tracks led onward, to the end of the brief corridor.

Three paces, then six, and then nine. The hallway terminated at the apartment’s only intact portal, a steel fire-door that still bore traces of the almond-hued enamel it had last been daubed with when some of the great city’s denizens had been fighting in distant jungles against an enemy that built traps out of wooden stakes smeared with their own dung. The door was closed, severing like the blade of a guillotine the tracks that passed beneath it. The watcher sidled up to the door and, without touching, put his ear next to it, listening for evidence of habitation with all of the skill vouchsafed by a misspent life. An instant later he nodded. From within the concealing folds of their garments, each the three drew a weapon; and at a sign from their leader, they burst through the door.

Beyond lay the furnace room. Once clogged with shelving, stored knick-knacks, and the engineered miscellany of modern architecture, it was now all but empty; apart from heaped garbage and a pair of stained, mold-encrusted mattresses, all that remained of the chamber’s former contents were those elements that had proved too heavy or too well-fixed to the concrete to be dragged away: a huge, cylindrical tank balanced upon cinderblock legs, smelling vaguely of oil; the remains of what might have been a cistern, a relic of an older time that suggested something about the building’s true age; and the furnace itself, an antediluvian leviathan of tin and corrosion crouched in the far corner, standing hunched betwixt the two windows with its vaulting ductwork branching across the ceiling like the roots of a banyan. Though cold and silent, the heap of ancient metal loomed like an augury, as if it were too big for its purpose.

They marked their quarry at once. Alongside the furnace’s rusty bulk, atop one of the discarded mattresses, lay a huddled shape. The watcher glanced around, looking for the second member of the pair, but the room was otherwise empty. He glanced at his chief again, raised eyebrows seeking approval; and at the latter’s nod, scampered across the trash-strewn floor, his blade out and advanced, and the lighter’s flame flickering in his other fist. His two comrades remained by the door, alert and wary, the blunt orifices of their arms seeking a target.

The recumbent figure didn’t move; indeed, it did not appear to be aware of their presence. The watcher crouched beside the mattress, waiting for some sign of waking. When it did not come, he extended his knife-hand and prodded a shoulder with one finger. No response. Puzzled, he drew back the covering – it was a long coat of some sort – and peered beneath it.

Black hair, pale skin; a day’s growth of beard. A man; a new one, maybe. The eyes were closed, the lips pale. He was obviously asleep, and in dire need of repose, with black demi-lunes beneath his shuttered orbs. The watcher put a hand on the man’s chest and felt his breath; it came in short, shallow hitches.

He glanced back at his chief and shrugged; a look and a gesture told him to proceed. Beneath the coat, their quarry was well-clad, in a costly wool and linen, with hints of gold showing here and there. The watcher could feel his pulse quicken. With a deft shove he rolled their victim to his back and proceeded to pat him down, feeling for tell-tale lumps and bulges with the ease born of long practice. Apart from some potentially valuable impedimenta – gold cufflinks, a gilt tie-clip – it proved a disappointing exercise. The fellow’s jacket contained a wallet, but it was empty, devoid of anything at all – no money, no credit cards, no driver’s license or insurance papers or customer loyalty card or photographs…nor even any identification. Nothing. That was a puzzler. The man’s watch was expensive, true (it vanished into the watcher’s own pocket; his loyalty to his comrades was not infinite), but that appeared to be the extent of the fellow’s wealth.

The man’s head was pillowed on another coat, this one folded; by all appearances a woman’s jacket, a fancy thing of some sort of fine worsted, dyed a bright, glaring red. It looked…odd. The watcher tapped it with a knuckle, and was rewarded for his perspicacity by a hollow thud. Delicately lifting the sleeping man’s, he slid the heap towards himself and threw back a corner of the garment. The result was disappointing; the thing was a box, an old and roughly-handled chest about the size of a telephone book, darkened with age and decorated – badly – with plaques of some sort of hammered, brassy metal. He lifted the lid and by the light of the flame in his fist, took a glimpse inside; but the box contained nothing of value. Only a bit of crumpled cloth and a chunk of stained wood pierced with a long, bent, rusted nail.

Sighing at the perverse vicissitudes of fate, he shoved the box aside and returned to the sleeping man, patting the pockets in his slacks, hoping for a money-clip, or (the lack of a license notwithstanding) the keys to a car. To his surprise, there was something there. From the man’s left pocket he drew a small, heavy slug, a chunk of some sort of greyish metal that felt like melted solder and was about the size and shape of a half-flattened golf ball. The thing was uneven, covered with nicks and scratches; and unevenly finished, too, white with corrosion in some places, and in other places polished to a bright sheen. The watcher rubbed it with his thumb, wondering what it was. Then he felt in the man’s right pocket…and found a wonder.

The chain was silver, a loop of fine, heavy links nearly a foot in diameter, like a small necklace. It held a bizarre assortment of trinkets – a dozen or more thumb-sized, oddly-shaped tokens of various sizes and materials. Most were silver, but some were not. He thought he could make out a bit of bone, a piece of wood, and even a long, curved tooth that had been drilled for a wire. And there was a flat, dark, jagged piece of…of something that looked like a flake of mica, but that was hard and unyielding, and that felt oddly warm to the touch.

His fascinated hesitation led to the first words of the night. “The fuck you got?” one of the watcher’s comrades asked, hissing the words.

The watcher held up the chain. “Dunno,” he whispered. “Some sort of…charm bracelet, maybe?”

“Fuck.” A sigh. “Money? Cards?”

The watcher shook his head. He decided not to mention the watch. “Got some jewellery. Nothing fancy.”

“Get it,” the chief snapped. “Get it all, and let’s get the fuck outta here.”

The watcher complied, yanking the tie-clip and cufflinks from their moorings. For good measure, he took the chain and the metal slug as well.

The third man snorted a laugh. “You in a hurry, Gerry? You got someplace you gotta be?”

“Hey,” the chief shrugged. “I’m a busy man.”

“You are thieves.”

The gunmen jumped. The voice, reverberant and full of menace, had come from behind them. The watcher shrank instantly against one of the walls. He had only a knife; his confederates were better armed. He thrust his gains into his pocket, trying to hold the lighter steady, without much success; the tiny flame jumped and flickered, casting shadows and playing over the walls like a carnival lamp.

The chief spun in place, searching for a target, his weapon steady. He had not risen to his present stature either by being a coward, or by succumbing to panic in unfamiliar circumstances. “One on three,” he called. “Your buddy’s still out. Not good odds.”

“The chastisement of the unrighteous knows no odds,” the voice replied. A sudden flare of light exploded behind them, in the corridor through which they’d entered. The two gunmen whirled…and beheld a vision.

A woman stood there; a woman, tall and slender and sternly beautiful, fair-skinned, with a lush figure, and waist-length, unbound hair of brilliant scarlet. She was cloaked in light – a hot, flaring light that served in the place of clothing, enrobing her shape in flickering, undulating sheets of what looked like flame.

The gunmen were not fools; they knew a threat when they saw one. Together they raised their weapons, and –

 – with a coughing roar, the basement windows exploded outward, belching half-melted glass and a billowing cloud of flame into the alleyway. There were no screams.

It took some time for the fire department to arrive. The decaying city was rife with incendiarism, and an unoccupied building in an isolated part of town was not a high priority, particularly once the rain began. When they eventually extinguished the blaze, they found the building’s charred ruins to be unoccupied, save for the remains of three males, Caucasian, late-twenties. A half-melted revolver, its cylinder ruptured by the explosion of its ammunition, was found with one of the overdone corpses. The preliminary diagnosis, offered by a wizened veteran of the department, was that the explosion had been the result of the chance ignition of fumes seeping from the undrained fuel-oil tank.

One of the corpses – the smallest one – was found with a gold tie-clip and pair of cufflinks in one of his pockets. That and the gun suggested something about the profession of the victims of the fire. No one wasted any tears; the general consensus was that three miscreants had met with divine justice.

And indeed, they had.

 

♦♦♦

 

 

 

*****

UPDATE – 26 November 2012

Done! I’ve completed the first draft of the first book of the Hero’s Knot trilogy, entitled Silviu the Thief, and have submitted it for validation at the National Novel Writing Month competition, clocking in at roughly 75,000 words.

Now that it’s finished, Serge – one of my friends who is my official sounding-board for writing ideas - is taking a look at it with a view to seeing how well it holds together as a story, and suggesting any major changes. Once I’ve incorporated his input, I’ll publish the final version at Amazon:Kindle and Smashwords, so that the book will be available for purchase over the Christmas holidays.

Honestly, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be; I only started writing on November 4th, and finished the rough cut on the 20th. I spent the last 6 days proofing it – and man, proofing your own drivel is a lot harder than writing it in the first place. But hey, that’s done for now, at least until the next book (which I’ll be writing over the Christmas holidays).

Stay tuned for Book II – Silviu the Hunter.

 

 

UPDATE

Well, not surprisingly, I’ve found that I have far more material than I need just for a single novel. So my entry for NaNoWriMo will now be the first novel in a new series. The series will be called The Hero’s Knot. I’ve already just about completed Book I (entitled Silviu the Thief), which ought to ring in at around 80,000 words or so, and have plotted out Books II and III.

Once I’ve submitted the first book for NaNoWriMo validation, I’m going to format it for publication, and will have it out at Amazon (via Kindle) and at all of the other publishers (e.g., Barnes & Noble, Apple, Sony, and so forth) via Smashwords, hopefully by mid-December.

I’m having a lot of fun with this new setting and cast of characters, and it’s giving me a much-needed mental break from the world of Anuru. But the rest of my intended Chronicles books remain on schedule, and I’ll be back to working on the Brotherhood of Wyrms trilogy as soon as I’ve wrapped up the rest of The Hero’s Knot.

Cheers!

—————————————————————————

Hi, folks!

I’ve decided to take part in National Novel Writing Month this year. You can find all of the details here.

The working title for my new novel is The Hero’s Knot. It’s not part of the Chronicles of Anuru, but I think that once it’s done, you might be able to detect some links between this new work and my principle oeuvre. It’s set in a version of today, in a version of a very well known place…but there are a few oddities that don’t quite square with the world as most of us know it.

All participating NaNoWriMo authors have to hit 50,000 words by the end of November. Those of you who’ve read my books know that I’m liable to shoot way, way past that; I started writing on November 4th and as of this morning, November 7th, I’ve already hit 18,000 words.  I’ll make sure I come to a great conclusion by the end of the month – but there’s a good chance that if all goes well, I’ll just keep writing, and the final published and edited version could end up being a lot longer.

Here’s my working synopsis:

Richie Brann – Raven – has certain unique skills, and they’ve helped him to get by. But when he uses them to do more than merely survive, he unwittingly thrusts himself into a world where it seems that most people possess similar abilities, and want to use him for what he can do. Faced with a choice between being a pawn or becoming one of the powers that rules the shadowy world of demons, runes and ancient magic, Raven struggles to navigate the narrow road between warring factions of sorcerers, delving deeper into his forgotten past, discovering the true nature and scope of his unusual talents, and learning how to wield them to survive, to shape his destiny, and to save the world from a dark and all-consuming evil.

Here’s the draft cover:

 

And here’s a brief excerpt. My apologies in advance for grammatical and typographic mistakes; for the moment I’m concentrating on getting the story down, and plan to work on the detailed editing later on. Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I’m enjoying writing it!

Outside the bank, on a sidewalk decorated beneath the litter of Starbucks cups with frescoes of chalk, chewing gum and old paint, there was a bench. Three horizontal planks of weathered wood set in stippled concrete formed the backrest, and atop the uppermost sat Raven, as secure and stately in his perch as the Lord Chancellor upon the Woolsack. No one noticed him: not the minor functionaries hustling by, tapping frantically at phones or berries or pads as they scuttled between meetings; not the flocks of ne’er-do-well ‘tweens jostling, smoking and cursing with the relish and facility of those new-come to the mysteries of profanity; not the shop-keeps sweeping store-fronts, straightening signs, putting out new produce and taking in the old, or simply standing and staring balefully at the tittering teenagers; not the old women gathered at the corner, scratching feebly at lottery tickets like superannuated hens scrabbling for a kernel in some long-forgotten and irregularly frequented corner of the barnyard.

None of them saw Raven, but Raven saw them. He saw everything. He was the eye in the sky, the all-watcher; the shadow-at-noon, who could hide in a head-beam, scream and be soundless, and even make himself invisible when alone upon a lighted stage. Long practice at his craft had made him a master, to the point where, now, the pale, mundane world and its scuttling denizens seemed to flit by like jabbering actors on the television that he no longer cared to watch. It was too like his everyday vistas; too similar, in that the poor players behind the glass spoke only to each other and never to him, never looked at him, never noticed or acknowledged him. The babbling box was a dim reflection of his life, save that in life the folk that passed him idly by were never so beautiful or witty or charming, never so poised or alluring or steely-jawed or clever or clean. The box spoke of gritty dramas; but his day, from dawn unto the dawning, was awash in the grit of the shadowy netherworld in which he floated like a dead leaf upon the stagnant water of a pond. He needed no pretense of grit; the reality of the world ground upon him every day, paring away flecks of his soul like a joiners rasp upon ash.

As he sat upon his perch, he found himself staring into the gutter, where the last wash of the evening’s rain carried the detritus of the city streets on its final journey via the city’s churning bowels to the river, and thence to the sea. Dead leaves, cigarette butts, a half-crushed bottle purporting to have contained Krystal! Klear! Springwater, a scrap of a campaign pamphlet promising change (although from what and to what was unclear; perhaps origin and destination had been laid out on the missing half of the appeal), a few fragments of a wooden pallet, the inevitable coffee cup-lids, all revolving slowly in the filthy rush, hurrying to the grate and the concrete pipe and oblivion. In their wake, bobbing like an augury, the severed head of a doll floated by. Its hair was long, blonde and clotted with some unnameable flotsam, its cornflower eyes wide and staring, possibly with the shock of decapitation. They seemed to fix on him for a moment, and Raven felt the feathers rise and rustle along his spine. The tangled skein of his destiny had made him a pragmatist and something of a skeptic, and he had long since learned to believe in that which he could see; but he had seen so much even in his brief time upon the earth that there was little left in the world in which he was not prepared to believe. He watched the severed head as it caught in an eddy, chilled by its rictus of a grin, following its azure gaze with his own beady ebon eyes until chance freed it and sent it swirling down into the oubliette, racing along after the rest of the great city’s ills.

Disturbed by the portent, Raven worked his neck, easing tight muscles against the gathering of the dusk and the evening’s chill. His feathers rustled again, and a long coat settled heavily upon his shoulders. His coal-black visage lightened to something pale, even sickly, and black, pinpoint eyes broadened and changed colour too. Only his hair remained the same shade as before; an unruly midnight tangle that hung to ears and eyebrows in a raffled rat’s-nest that hadn’t known a comb in recent memory, if at all. Legged and lanky now, he sat easily atop the wooden beam, not minding the hard edge of the rail as it dug into the back of his thighs through the thin and faded denim of his trousers. His feet, indifferently shod in runners that had once been white but were now an indescribable shade of old, were cold and damp, but that was nothing new. The cold and the damp were bonny companions, and Raven knew them of old, as most did who, like him, shunned the city’s clammy, grudging embrace.

The change came slowly, almost imperceptibly, as if no change were planned until all was done. One instant, Raven; and the next, the man, or nearly. It was a boy’s face atop a boy’s frame; the only manly things about him were the grim et to his lips and pale, jutting, beardless jaw, and the depth of knowledge in his eyes. Fortune’s grace kept curiosity away from them, and that was good; for if any had looked too deeply into those eyes, there might have been questions. A casual witness would be struck first by the fact that they were of two different colours: the right eye blue, the bright and piercing azure of ice beneath a winter’s sun; and the left green, as glimmering green as a gleaming emerald. He knew what caused it. Raven loved the march of the written word and spent long hours in public libraries, idly rubbing the runestone charm, polishing the worn, knurled silver; consuming printed wisdom with the appetite of a starving man, losing himself in the majesty of lore until inattention made him careless and he allowed his disguise to fray, leading indignant custodians to expel him and his shabbiness from their august environs in a flurry of righteous imprecation. In one such foray he had researched his condition. The learned called it heterochromia iridis, and it was often associated with deafness or blotchy skin, neither of which afflicted him; save when he altered it for anonymity’s sake, his entire body was as pale as his cheeks, while his aural acuity was almost preternaturally sharp, and always had been. As sharp as his oddly-coloured eyes, in fact.

The blue-green eyes were unusual, and invited impudent stares, and so Raven worked hard to blur them. It was all a part of his daily ritual, the moment-to-moment attention that was necessary to blend in to his surroundings, to become a part of the drab and unremarkable backdrop that was the great and impersonal city. As he sat atop the bench, balancing easily, watching the drama at the bank unfold before him, his hands were in the pockets of his long coat. Beneath the wads of folded bills that he had convinced the bewildered teller to give him were other, more precious things. In his left hand – the hand of guile, of base emotion, of trickery – he held the forcing charm, the runestone, working it between thumb and forefinger, warming the silver, unlocking its nascent force, tapping into the coiled strength within it and letting that strength flow up sinister wrist and arm, through shoulder and chest and heart and belly, into his lungs, breathing the power, tasting it. And all the while controlling it by conscious volition, shaping it with his thoughts, binding and constraining it; forcing the flow like crackling current down his right arm, into the dexter hand, the hand of strength and reason, the hand of mastery, wherein lay the working charm.

Without looking, working by touch alone, he had selected a single charm from the score that lay jumbled in the depths of his pocket. He knew them all by touch, and knew which one he needed now, feeling the whorls and indentations with his fingertips, seeing in his mind’s eye the fading image of the tiny, grinning imp that hung head-down from the bent limb of witch hazel, sensing the shaping, the focus, that it vouchsafed the river of power coursing through him. It was nisse, the elf; the sprightly gamboller, the wight of the woodlands, the rascal of a thousand faces. Swift and tricky, the charm helped him work the magic, shaping it like clay, like the mass of water-slicked muck atop a potter’s wheel.

For the thousandth time, as he worked to mould the magic, panting and squinting, the image of the potter was replaced by another; by a vision of a smith, bare-chested and sweating, labouring at his forge, shaping glowing steel into a lath by the knowledge of his craft and the strength of his arms. It was a simile more apt to Raven’s peculiar circumstance; after all, one could scarcely wound or kill one’s-self with an ill-wrought earthenware bowl, whereas the magic, like hot iron, could, if mishandled, wound or kill without warning or remorse. It had happened before, through inattention, and would doubtless happen to him again.

Like his form and features, his internal monologue went unnoticed by passersby. Imperceptibly, by inches, his hair lengthened, changing from black to blonde, snarling like a nest of snakes and working itself into a ponytail. His features softened, the nose changing from aquiline to pert, the chin and Adam’s apple receding, the crooked teeth aligning themselves, the lips thickening and turning red. High cheekbones vanished, replaced by dimpled chubbiness, a pattern replicated elsewhere on his body as certain places thinned and others thickened; while crow’s feet, a thick layer of rouge and a clumpy excess of eyelash thickener made for the sort of face men glanced at once and thereafter ignored. Finally, the long, drab coat, jeans and runners became a short, faded leather jacket, a calf-length skirt, and heeled boots.

Careful now, moving with fluid feminine grace instead of his usual lumbering stalk, Raven stepped down from the bench. He didn’t feel any different, not really; the trick of nisse was only a disguise, a glamer, a cheat of the eyes. It was at best a half-change; the boot-heels, for instance, were higher and narrower than his normal footwear, and would trip him up if his concentration failed, but the rounded contours that graced his once-angular form were naught but smoke and shadow, a trompe l’oeil that would betray him if anyone so much as brushed up against him and felt the truth of bone and muscle behind the facade of soft, curvaceous flesh. He had to be careful to avoid physical contact when so disguised. He never wore the glamer of a woman on the subway.

With a final, deliberately incurious glance at the clot of police, investigators, employees and miscellaneous slack-jawed gawkers clustered outside the bank, enduring the cold and the beginnings of a sleety late-autumn mist for the sake of procedural drama, he turned away. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his illusory jacket. The wadded bills – twenties and fifties mostly, just as he had requested from the dreamy-eyed, elderly teller that he had charmed into handing over the contents of her till – were not as warm as gloves (even illusory gloves) might have been, but they were a comfort nonetheless. He had places to go, people to whom to speak, and debts to pay, and the night was still young. Certain that there were no eyes upon him, Raven, cautious and painstaking atop his ill-suited heels, tottered carefully off into the mist. The chill notwithstanding, a little money, no harm done, and a scatheless exit all made for a tolerably successful day. None of the authorities milling so much as noticed the blonde girl’s departure.

None of the usual ones, at least.