The apple tree stood at the edge of Baron Gilford's property like an old sentry, watching over the orchards of Nottingham with a thick skin of bark and deeply-planted roots. It was a hundred years old if it was a day, the tough, weather-beaten survivor of drought and flood and storm. It had seen long, hot summers and cruel, snowy winters, fierce winds and fiercer lightning. But still it stood, and still it remained.
Its blossoms had disappeared with the passing of summer, and now the cool, golden days of autumn were making their seasonal turn. The tree, proud as a new mother, brought forth another year's crop of plump red apples. Satisfied by its lovely progeny, it stretched its heavy limbs toward the sun and basked in the warm afternoon, relaxing after its long labor. It didn't mind the occasional traveler who rested under its boughs, nor the laughing child who crawled up its back and swung from its branches. They were welcome visitors.
One such visitor was burrowed within its limbs now, an older boy with a cloth sack, climbing toward the higher branches to reach the few apples that had escaped the pickers' hands. He was a light and agile lad, scurrying between the tree's boughs as effortlessly as any squirrel, navigating the treacherous tangles of wiry branches and sharp, chafing bark. He snapped off another apple and placed it in his sack with the other four he had managed to scrounge up. They weren't much, but would be dearly appreciated when there was nothing else to eat. In fact, the boy was rather hungry at the moment; perhaps he'd eat one now, while it was still fresh. Nothing was worse than a soft, mealy apple.
He found a comfortable perch on a broad, overhanging limb and sat himself down, crunching large bites out of an apple and listening to the birds sing. If only his mother were here, he thought sullenly. She would know what sort of birds they were. She knew the call of every fowl in England, for birds were her very favorite animal. She used to embroider them onto cloaks and dresses when times were better, and had originally wanted to put them on the leather waistcoat she'd made for her son. However, given the shrewd, serious nature of her boy, she had decided to replace the birds with something a little more appropriate to his character. Wolves were certainly more masculine than cardinals, and her son had been enthralled by the unexpected present.
It would be an entire year soon, fifteen-year-old Will Scarrington thought distantly, gazing across the fields with his mother's green eyes and his father's introspective mind. He was reminded with every passing holiday, every birthday, every beautiful day like this one, that she was gone, and he wondered if the gaping hole in his heart would ever cease to ache. Sometimes the emptiness pained him so terribly that he felt he would die from it, but his grip on life was too strong, and his resilience to death too powerful. No, he would continue to live, though lately it seemed more of a punishment than a blessing.
Will finished his apple and tossed the bare remains to the ground, then looked up when he heard the sound of thumping hooves coming his way. He abandoned his low-hanging seat in favor of a higher one, and, safely hidden from view, peered through the leaves at the scene unfolding across the field. A man on a horse was riding hard in Will's direction, whistling and slapping the reins against the horse's flanks. After a few seconds, Will saw the reason for his haste: a group of six horsemen wearing the dark uniforms of Nottingham soldiers appeared over the rise, tenaciously in pursuit of their quarry.
A horse thief? Will pondered. A murderer? An outlaw? It didn't really matter, but Will glad that he wasn't the one being run down like an animal. He clung to the tree and watched with renewed interest as the soldiers suddenly abandoned the chase and brought their mounts to a halt. Though they were quite far away from Will's tree, the terrain was flat and the wind carried their voices to his curious ears.
"He's heading towards the road," came a harsh, wicked-sounding snarl. "Turn your course north and cut him off before he reaches the wood. Once you've captured him, await my arrival."
"Why the delay, sir?"
"That's no concern of yours, fool! Now follow my orders before I have you all flogged for defying a direct order!"
With a frantic chorus of agreement, the five riders thundered northward and left their leader on his own. Then, to Will's unexpected dismay, the man turned his steed and began heading for the tree. Gripped by an irrational panic, Will immediately scrambled for higher territory and flattened himself against a thin, wobbling bough just as the horse was drawn to a stop beneath him.
Will held his breath and stared down though the strata of leaves and branches as the man (a knight? a captain of the army?), richly dressed in solid black attire, dismounted with a slight groan and walked stiffly over to the trunk of the tree. There came the sound of rustling cloth, followed by the steady, distinct patter of a man urinating. Will curled his lip. He hoped this was the first time the tree had ever been pissed on, otherwise he wouldn't be able to eat its apples ever again. He shifted his weight to relieve some of the pressure on his ribs, and that was when it happened.
He was already falling before he heard the gut-wrenching sound of cracking wood, and the world was suddenly thrown topsy-turvy as he crashed through what felt like the first five circles of hell. Branches slashed and tore at him, bark shredded his exposed skin, twigs and leaves whipped his face, clawing like a pack of angry cats—and then, air.
Will was quick-witted enough to shield his head with his arms before he hit the ground, and it probably prevented him from breaking his skull on the hard, root-tangled ground. On the other hand, his actions had left his torso exposed; he landed hard on his right side, cracking a rib and giving his hip a bruise that would take weeks to fade. But aside from these minor injuries, he was otherwise in fair condition. A miracle, really, considering that he had just fallen fifteen feet. His grip on life was indeed strong.
"Well, well, what have we here?" came the serrated, amused voice from above.
Will uncovered his head and saw the man in black looking down at him with disturbingly keen interest. He was hardly handsome: long, greasy hair, a broad forehead looming over his hawkish nose, and a pair of beady, gleaming weasel eyes. He wore gold hoops in his ears and his teeth were foul from overindulgence of wine and meat, and though Will had never met him before, he knew that this man was a villain.
"Stealing apples, eh, boy?" he rasped, gazing toward the spilled sack on the ground.
Will hesitated for exactly one second, then clambered madly backward to make his escape. He hadn't moved five whole inches before the man sprang forward and pointed a crossbow at Will's face. Will froze, his eyes focusing upon the deadly bolt almost touching his nose.
"There is nowhere to run," said the man patiently, "and if you try, you will be dead before you get three paces. Understand?"
Will nodded, his body throbbing with pain. He didn't think he could run even if he wanted to.
"Good." The crossbow was lifted off of him. "Now then, who are you and what business do you have plundering Nottingham's orchards, hm?"
A memory flashed through Will's mind: his mother, prudent and practical, telling him in her matter-of-fact tone that men of power were easily corrupted and that none could be trusted. "Should you find yourself in the presence of a superior, William," she'd said, "do not speak. Do not make yourself known. The nobility of Nottingham are poisoned with wickedness, and they will find any and every reason to bring misery upon you. You must stay away from them, no matter how kind or compassionate they may seem; these are only deceptions meant to fool us 'simple folk' into believing their lies. If you see a nobleman coming your way, Will, run as fast as you can. And should you find yourself confronted by one, never, under any circumstances, ever tell him your name."
And Will, following the advice of a mother whom he loved even more than God and life, kept his mouth shut and said nothing.
The man furrowed his brow. "What's the matter, boy? Are you dumb? Was Mummy too stupid to teach you to speak?"
A vicious scowl creased Will's scratched and bloody face, which elicited a chuckle from his captor.
"I see that you at least understand an insult. Good. Now perhaps you'll understand a threat: answer me with the proper respect or I'll cut out your tongue and nail it to this bloody tree. Do you want to spend the rest of your life as a babbling, incomprehensible beggar?"
Will licked his lips and swallowed. "N-no . . . sir." His mouth soured on the last word, which was rare and unfamiliar in his vocabulary.
The man gave a rotten smile. "There, that wasn't so difficult, was it? . . . Was it?"
"I thought so. Stand up, let me have a look at you."
Gingerly, Will pulled himself to his feet, finding out with some relief that his legs were still working as they should. They hurt in places, but he was fairly certain he could run on them if the occasion called for it.
The man stepped forward and took Will firmly by the jaw, turning his head this way and that, as if he were livestock being examined for quality. Will was offended by the intrusive touch, but knew that any physical retaliation might result in injury or death. This scoundrel seemed capable of delivering both.
"You look familiar," he muttered, studying Will's face. "Do I know your father?"
A surge of panic coursed through Will's body. "No, I, I doubt it. Sir," he stammered. "I never, ah, never knew him myself."
"I see. Your mother, perhaps?"
"Only a poor peasant, sir."
"And where might she be?"
"Dead, sir. She . . . passed away last winter."
"How unfortunate," said the man flatly, still scrutinizing Will as if the truth were written somewhere on his face. "Who looks after you now?"
"I do, sir."
"Have you no other family?"
"None that—er, n-no, sir."
"Where do you live?"
"Nowhere. Anywhere. Sir."
The man finally let go of Will's face and shook his head. "It's a pity," he sighed, not sounding the least bit sorry. "Thieves caught in the act are subject to a fine, though I doubt a homeless wretch such as yourself has the means to afford it. I'm afraid I have no choice but to arrest you."
"But-!" A desperate fear gripped Will; he took a step backward and was blocked by the tree's immovable trunk. "But it was just a few apples!"
"That's not the point," the man growled, raising his crossbow menacingly. "The King rules England. This tree grows in England, therefore it belongs to the King, and anything you steal off of it is his property! Do you know what the penalty is for stealing from the King of England?"
Will was more frightened now than he had ever been in his life. Here was this terrible man accusing him of what sounded like a heinous crime, and he didn't even have the right to defend himself without being punished for speaking out against his betters! What kind of justice were they practicing in Nottingham? Will was so scared and outraged that tears began to flood his eyes.
The man smirked lazily and lowered his crossbow, taking a step forward and casually resting his arm on the trunk above Will's head. He smiled down at Will, who cringed at their closeness and shrank back against the tree.
"Now, Sir Guy of Gisborne is a fair man," he said in a low, slithering tone, "and he might be willing to overlook a few petty crimes in favor of a better arrangement." He smiled and gave a light, playful tug to a lock of Will's hair. "My cousin, the Sheriff, runs a very busy household. There is always some sort of work to be done; I'm sure I could find a suitable place for you among his servants . . . or mine. A boy of your, hm, uncommon looks would offer rather good sport, I daresay."
Will's skin began to crawl for reasons he was not yet aware of—but his instincts were screaming at him to get away from this man, this vermin, this Guy of Gisborne, no matter the cost.
"In fact—" Gisborne leaned in close, his dark eyes shining and his hot, putrid breath pouring down Will's bare neck "—I would very much like to see how well you fit on my staff. It would be a satisfying position, plenty of special benefits . . ."
And then Will felt something more than just revulsion—he felt a hand.
For three complete seconds his mind left him as he stood staring, horrified and speechless, at Guy of Gisborne. But then his senses returned, and all he saw was red.
He didn't even think. He simply threw his head into Gisborne's and heard a sharp, wet snap as the man's nose was broken. He staggered back, and Will brought his knee up into his crotch, feeling the layers of cloth and leather cushion what would have been a debilitating blow; but it was enough to make Gisborne scream and stumble away.
With his heart pounding and his mind flashing thoughts as quickly as a lightning storm, Will lashed out with his foot and caught Gisborne's right arm, sending the crossbow flying through the air. It hit the ground and triggered the release—the bolt shot harmlessly into the grass.
Gisborne was reeling with pain. Will took advantage of his momentary distraction and raced toward the horse, knowing it was the only way he would ever be able to flee his attacker. He threw himself against the animal's side and clumsily tried to get his foot into the stirrup, but the horse was spooked and Will had never tried to climb into a saddle before. He fumbled and slipped and panicked, and then he saw Gisborne, his nose streaming blood, lurching toward him out of the corner of his eye. Will turned just in time to save himself from being stabbed, and the dagger struck the horse instead. The animal gave a whinny of pain and reared up, pawing at the air, before thundering away with Gisborne's blade protruding from its flank.
"Little-! Bastard-!" the wicked man seethed, reaching for his sword.
The realization came to Will in a split second: Gisborne was going to kill him unless Will killed him first. It was simple fact, as plain and straightforward as could be, and quite possibly the most terrifying notion of Will's young life. He didn't want to die, certainly not at the filthy hands of a corrupted knight such as Guy of Gisborne; so, powered by the vehement desire to live rather than any amount of bravery, he drew his knife from his belt and leaped.
Strike fast. Strike hard. The eyes. The neck. The stomach. The groin. Disable quickly. Finish him off. Run for your life. Get him before he gets you. Kill. Stab. Maim. Run. Kill. Kill.These primitive instincts of self-preservation were the sole, fueling force of Will's actions. He had lost all sense of judgment, mercy, fairness, and was now more animal than human.
Gisborne had his sword half unsheathed when the tip of Will's blade cut into his cheek, splitting flesh and fat as it drew a deep, gushing line from his ear to his cheekbone. The man roared in pain and clapped a hand to his bleeding cheek. Rills of blood trickled between his gloved fingers.
Emboldened by his success and flooded with adrenaline, Will pounced toward Gisborne again, this time aiming at his throat. But the knight saw him coming and blocked the blow with his arm, seizing Will by the wrist. For one second the two enemies locked eyes with each other, then Gisborne, with his greater size and weight, threw himself forward and Will stumbled back, falling flat onto the ground. Gisborne landed on top of him, knocking the air from Will's lungs and causing his cracked rib to flare with magnificent, excruciating pain.
There was a brief, fearsome struggle. Will fought with the savage energy of a mad wolf. He kicked and punched. He squirmed and twisted and bucked for all he was worth. But Gisborne was a grown man, far too heavy to be affected by a small, undernourished fifteen-year-old. The odds were against Will, as he quickly learned when Gisborne began slamming his knife hand against the ground. Crippled by pain, Will let go of his weapon and tried to head-butt Gisborne again, but the man was staying well out of range.
Blood from Gisborne's lacerated face dripped onto Will's shirt as he sat up, wrapped his hands around the boy's throat, and dug his thumbs into the unprotected flesh.
Suddenly there was no air. Will tried to pull in a breath and found that he couldn't, and a wild, hysterical panic overtook him. He clawed at the hands that were strangling him, his nails scrabbling uselessly against thick leather and wool. He then went for the man's face, but it was half an inch too far from his trembling, outstretched fingers. He kicked his legs violently, gouging up furrows of dirt with his heels, yet his struggles were ineffectual with Gisborne's bulk pinning him down.
This was it. Will was going to die today, under this apple tree, with the birds singing and the sun shining and this evil man on top of him, staring down into Will's frightened eyes with a demented grin on his ugly, leering face.
This is no way to die, thought Will faintly. The edges of his vision were beginning to fade, Gisborne's sadistic smile swaying and twisting as the lack of blood and oxygen brought Will closer and closer to death. Find a way. Find something . . . Not going to . . . die like this . . .
As Will's left hand dropped to the ground, his fingers brushed against the hilt of Gisborne's sword. Could he use it? No. It was too cumbersome. He didn't have the strength to lift it.
. . . It was getting difficult to think. The world was darkening, like a cloud had passed over the sun. He didn't have long. A few seconds more, maybe . . .
"Why won't you die?" Gisborne growled through gritted teeth, pressing his thumbs even harder into Will's throat. "It's not as if you've anything to live for anyway! Just . . . give . . . up!"
But Will was a fighter—from his earliest days to this one—indestructible, irrepressible, indomitable. And if this was the day his life was to end, then he was going to fight it to his very last heartbeat.
His hand fumbled across the ground, blindly searching for anything he could use; there was only grass, pebbles and dirt. Then, as the lights went out and world around him turned black, his fingers closed on something thin and firm—a dowel? An arrow?
The bolt. The bolt that had been shot from the crossbow.
Stab, came Will's last thought. Kill.
He grasped the bolt and struck.
Gisborne's howl of pain seemed like a whisper. The hands choking away Will's life were suddenly gone, and when he dizzily pulled himself upright, it was as if everything on earth had gone suddenly silent. Guy of Gisborne was shrieking in soundless agony, clutching the bolt embedded in his side. He lurched slowly to and fro, as if moving underwater, and Will sucked in the sweetest breath he'd ever taken. Air filled his lungs. Blood rushed to his head. And as his senses returned, so did the sound and motion of the living world.
"You fucking whelp!" Gisborne bawled, dragging himself across the ground pathetically. "Spawn of a bitch! Wretched little worm, ahh! God damn you, I'll tear you apart when I—"
But Will had already scrambled to his feet and was running away as fast as he could, his heart thumping madly, his waistcoat flapping, his boots pounding on the ground and sending shock waves of pain rippling up his sore, aching legs.
Behind him, Gisborne roared out a resounding promise that Will would remember for the rest of his life: "You'd better run far, you little maggot! Because if I see ever your cursed face in Nottingham again, you will beg the Devil to save you from me!"
The gravelly voice echoed across the wide, rolling field, and Will Scarrington, his hair flying and tears of terror and relief painting white trails down his dirty cheeks, kept running. He didn't want to think how close he had come to dying today. He didn't want to think about the marks and bruises that would soon be blossoming all over his body. He didn't want to think about the touch, the shock and confusion and disgust it had inspired, or what fate might have awaited him at Nottingham Castle. No, he just wanted to run, put it out of his mind, leave it all behind him. As long as he kept running, he would be all right. He was alive. He would be all right. Everything would be all right.
So he kept running. And he never looked back.
The hooded traveler walked alone in the misty morning, silent but for his breaths of exertion. He was clearly a poor peasant, evidence by his tattered, violet-colored patchwork cloak and mismatched apparel, but he walked with his head held high and his shoulders back, perhaps belaying a noble heritage or simply youthful arrogance. His pace was strong and brisk, even despite the heavy burden he bore on his back: a small wooden chest, its contents jangling richly.
He followed the well-worn road across the dewy English field, each step bringing him closer to the hub of corruption he had not visited since he was fifteen years old. And there it was now, appearing out of the thinning fog like a dark apparition, the castle's jagged silhouette crouching against the pale sky as if it were dragon returned home to roost.
Will Scarlet stopped in the middle of the road and gazed at Nottingham with a mixture of excitement and fear stirring in his belly. The bells of the cathedral began to chime in their deep, brassy voices—he was right on time. Shouldering the trunk's thick leather straps once more, he resumed his journey onward.
Earlier that morning, before first light, Will had anxiously climbed into the saddle behind Azeem and ridden from the safety of Sherwood on the Moor's hardy, swift-footed steed. Aside from one or two very brief experiences in riding when he was younger, and all of those being failed attempts at theft, this was the first time Will had ever truly ridden a horse. He didn't think it was possible for a person to be simultaneously terrified and enthralled without losing his wits, but as he and Azeem had thundered across the dim countryside with the cool, damp wind snapping at their cloaks, Will had relished every wild, frightening, high-flying emotion that poured through his veins and into his beating heart.
One day, he thought, he wanted to ride like this, just by himself, across the open country. Ride until he reached one end of England, then turn around and ride to the other. There was no greater feeling, nothing so absolutely free and uplifting, as that of traveling on horseback.
At the first sign of sunrise, Azeem had stopped in a shallow dell and allowed Will to dismount and take up the locked chest that he now carried. If all went according to plan, he would meet Azeem at the rendezvous point in an hour's time—sooner, if things went better than expected.
As Will approached the formidable castle walls, he seemed to shrink within his cloak like a turtle drawing itself into its shell. It had been three years since he had escaped the insidious clutches of Guy of Gisborne, and he hadn't forgotten the fate promised to him should he come face-to-face with the villainous cretin. Though Will's faith in God—and mankind in general—was capricious at best, he prayed for protection against hostile eyes on this most hazardous mission.
Beggars, cripples, thieves and other riffraff loitered against the outer walls, some stretching out their hands to the merchants and artisans filing into the town. Though many were experienced crooks and vagabonds, just as many were genuinely destitute: the young widow cradling her newborn; the elderly man shuddering under his thin rags; the orphaned children with dirty, thin faces. Will tried not to look at them as he passed by, knowing that it would affect his emotions too greatly. He had to maintain his temper if he hoped to succeed.
As predicted, the sentry standing at the gate stopped Will in his tracks.
"State your business," he said gruffly.
Will licked his lips nervously. "I bring—I'm, I'm bringing tithes, sir. Ah, to the church." He shrugged the chest he carried, causing its contents to clatter and jingle.
The guard cocked an eyebrow. "Bloody large tithe for one man."
"Ah, w-well, you see, I'm the, I collect the tithes for my entire village, uh, sir, and then I bring them to the church every month."
"Really? I been at this job 'alf a year and I never seen you 'ere before."
"Oh, well, I just, ah, that's because I just took over, I inherited the task as tithe man and, ah—" Will inwardly cursed himself and his uncanny inability to tell a convincing lie. "—this is my first visit, sir, so I'm a little new to all this, you know, my, ah, my older brother's the smart one, I don't know why they chose me instead of him, but God works in mysterious ways—"
The sentry, realizing he was speaking to a complete idiot and by now looking quite bored, waved his hand to stop the inane babbling. "Right, right, on you go," he muttered.
"Thank you, sir," Will grinned. "Have a lovely day, sir!"
But the guard had already forgotten about him. Sagging with relief, Will entered the castle gate and found himself in the crowded, bustling square. Merchants were setting up their booths for the day, peddlers hawked their wares from wooden carts, and the blacksmiths and bakers and minstrels were filling the air with the sounds and smells of busy town life. It was something that never ceased to amaze Will, especially after living in the quiet, secluded forest of Sherwood for the past two years.
It wasn't too difficult to find the cathedral, with its towering spires, pointed arches, and broad buttresses. The daily mass was just ending, people both rich and poor filing out of the doors and down the front steps, the latter imploring the former for handouts—with little luck. Will waited patiently to one side until the congregation had dispersed and the peasants, pockets as empty as before, shuffled off to scrounge up their daily bread.
Taking a deep breath, Will put his shoulder against one of the heavy wooden doors and pushed his way inside.
The quietness was the first thing he noticed, as if he'd entered another world. Then came the scents: incense, parchment, candles, wood; then the sense of vast, soaring space. He looked up and felt as tiny and insignificant as an ant. The sheer size of the cathedral was staggering—its ceiling alone must be at least a hundred feet high. The columns, the arches, the murals, the tapestries, the stained glass windows casting colored light upon the smooth, polished floor—Will had difficulty imagining all this had been built by human hands. There was something ineffably moving about standing in the midst of such beautiful, sacred architecture, and Will found himself unwittingly reaching up and pushing the hood back from his head.
"Whow," he uttered softly, staring at the saints and angels glowing in shades of red and gold and blue.
"May I help you, brother?"
Robin's face unexpectedly flashed through Will's mind as he turned and beheld a young monk standing nearby. He was plain-faced and genuinely kind-looking—surely not one of Nottingham's fallen angels.
"Yes, I, ah," Will stumbled, "I wish to speak with the Bishop. I bring an important message for him."
The young monk smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, but His Excellency has already retired for the—"
"It concerns the soul of one Robin of Locksley," Will interrupted, "also known as Robin of the Hood. Please. This is urgent."
The monk's eyes widened at the mention of the notorious outlaw. "Oh my. Well, I, I suppose he would agree to a private audience in his chambers, considering the nature of—"
"Could you ask him to meet me here? My back is nearly broken from carrying all this gold." Will emphatically dropped the heavy chest onto the floor, rattling its contents.
The monk put a hand to his astonished mouth. "Good gracious, I see. Yes, I'll go fetch him at once!"
Watching the lad scurry away in his long robes, Will let out a tremulous sigh. His mission was now halfway complete, but its ultimate success would hinge on what would follow in the next ten minutes. If what Robin had told him about the Bishop of Hereford was correct—that he was the Sheriff's lying, greedy accomplice and at least partially responsible for Thomas Locksley's murder—then Will's plan should work. In theory.
The wait was much shorter than Will had anticipated; the Bishop appeared from one side of the pulpit and walked briskly down the aisle, where Will was sitting patiently on the trunk. He rose to his feet as His Excellency approached, and saw that his jowly, well-fed face was flushed pink with heat. The heavyset man took a moment to compose himself and catch his breath before he addressed Will.
"My son," he said, extending his hand for his ring to be kissed.
Will was unfamiliar with religious customs, having never attended mass nor received holy communion, and he resented being called "son" by this rich, pretentious man. He glared at the jewel-studded rings in front of him and then at the Bishop's face, narrowing his eyes and making his feelings of discontent quite clear. The Bishop received them with equal clarity and quickly withdrew his hand.
"I was just informed that you bring a message regarding the outlaw Robin Hood," he said, his covetous eyes darting down to the chest. "I pray that it is a good message."
Will let out a resentful, sarcastic scoff. "Good for you and the rest of your Nottingham chums, maybe. As for the rest of us . . . well, that remains to be seen."
"What is it, then? Speak, my boy, don't be shy."
A treacherous light glinted in the depths of Will's green eyes. "Robin Hood wishes to surrender."
I sincerely apologize for the cliffhanger, but I had to end this chapter somewhere before it ended up being twice the size of the previous chapters. I also apologize for the delay in updating; I'm working on another story at the moment as well, and it's a challenge to divide my time between the two. In any case, a huge and very grateful thanks is owed to all the readers and reviewers for the last chapter. I'm sorry I wasn't able to personally respond to each and every one, but I can assure you they were tremendously appreciated. That said, I hope you've enjoyed this chapter and are looking forward to more! Thanks for reading! -HJB