Bound by fire, p.1
Bound by Fire
Ronald J. Craft
Copyright © 2011 by Ronald J. Craft
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher except for the user of brief quotations in a book review.
Ronald J. Craft
90 Myrtle Ave.
Cohoes, NY 12047
This book is written for everyone out there that enjoys the simple act of reading and becoming lost in another world. I can't thank my friends and family enough for the support that they've provided over the years during my writing endeavors. I also thank everyone for their understanding when I am suddenly inspired and lock myself in front of the computer for days typing away.
I hope you enjoy reading this novel as much as I enjoyed writing it.
…her cries bathed the land in chaos. Swathed in darkness and fire, her fury drove us from our homes. Our lives diminished as we fled, for we were tied to the land as it was tied to us. It was then that He came to us and offered redemption; virgin lands rich in earth and pure of taint. Our spirits renewed, we bound these new lands to ourselves.
It was then that we lost our shadows and found true darkness.
Excerpt from the Scriptures of Gerimaya
I can do this, Ilian thought.
His father, Kane, raised an eyebrow. "Sure you're ready?”
No—yes. Ilian pointed towards Emon as the boy retched in a corner. "More so than him, I'd say." His heart thumped in his chest, and sweat glazed Ilian's brow.
The father patted Emon's back, while his mother offered words of encouragement. Throughout the room, each family sought to comfort their children with kind gestures and gentle words before the ceremony began.
But not his.
Ilian closed his eyes. The room seemed to buzz all around him, as if a nest of hornets had been shaken and released inside.
If only my own mother were here for this. Father hasn't talked about her in years.
Kane chuckled, and squeezed Ilian's shoulder. “Not all are as ready to set forth into the world as you, Ilian.”
He sighed and opened his eyes. “I'm more than ready, Father. I've waited long enough.” Ilian met his father's gaze for a moment before looking away.
My words are hollow. I'm trying to convince my father that I'm ready, but it's not he that needs convincing. It's I that needs it.
Kane lowered his voice. “Aye, you have shown promise. However, being a blacksmith is about more than swinging a hammer. It's an art like none other; one best used for giving life, rather than taking it away.”
Ilian crossed his arms. It always came to this. A crimson sword had haunted his dreams for as long as he could remember. He yearned to bring it to life with his own hands; to see the sword burning with a fire of its own.
And there lie the problem.
“For six winters I've worked at your smithy crafting nothing but trinkets and farmers' tools. I'm ready to move on, to start a smithy of my own and temper metal into more than a mere candle holder.”
Kane shook his head. “Those words prove that you're far from ready. You may be my son, but that doesn't excuse ignorance.”
“Ignorance? You still don't understa—”
Kane's expression darkened. “Don't be so quick to dismiss the tools that cultivate the land. What good will a sword do you in times of peace or famine? Would you kill or maim your neighbor for a handful of grain?”
Ilian shook his head.“Father, you know as well as I do that a sword can be used for both good and evil. I'd sooner use it to protect someone from a bandit than kill an innocent farmer. Why can't you see that my intentions are for the better?”
Kane smiled and clasped Ilian's shoulder. “You'll learn with time, Ilian. A man is a simple creature. Place a tool in his hand, and he'll build you a wagon. Give the same man a sword, and he'll destroy the wagon he just built.”
He took a deep breath, and exhaled. This was an argument they'd never see eye to eye on; one best left for another day.
Ilian glanced around the chamber once more. The scents of sweat, bile and despair greeted his nose. He cringed at the smell of it all. Today was the day when children who had come of age would go through the ceremony to commemorate their passing to adulthood. It was supposed to be a joyful occasion.
It didn't look all that joyful to him.
For all its glory, the coming of age ceremony was naught more than a religious ceremony left over from the olden days. It was held every fourth moon in the Chamber of Purity. One went in a boy, and left a man.
Or so they said.
Ilian really didn't believe something so laughable, but he had little choice in the matter. While not forced upon anyone, the ceremony was mandatory if one hoped to be anything but a beggar. The seal of a person's craft seared into one's skin was considered a sign of commitment and dedication. Without it, one could never obtain a position higher than apprentice.
The voices in the room quieted down as the door to the Chamber of Purity creaked open. One of Minister Lorey's assistants stepped out and looked around the room.
“It is time to begin the ceremony. I'll have to ask the adults to wait out here. The rest of you, please enter.”
Kane squeezed Ilian's shoulder one more time. "Good luck, Ilian. We may not always agree, but I know you'll make me proud."
Ilian nodded. The ceremony might be a joke to him, but the branding was far from humorous. The pain would be very real.
He hugged his father tight before backing away. "Don't worry, I'll return soon." With that, he swung around, and walked towards the door.
Once everyone finished saying their goodbyes, the children followed the assistant inside. The chamber was circular in shape with tapestries bearing the symbol of each trade covering the walls. Cushions with candles placed in front of them ringed around the outside of it.
In the center stood Minister Lorey, his hands clasped in front of him. A brazier filled with coals, and the brands to be used on them, sat next to the Minister.
“Welcome, children. Please have a seat next to your insignia and let us begin.”
The Minister wore white robes and a golden medallion shimmering with gemstones representing the four Gods. Sapphire, to signify the Oceanic Goddess, Silvestra. Jasper, signifying the God of Flame, Dagfinn. Amber for the God of Loam, Zosimus. And lastly, Pearl, for the Goddess of the Wind, Urania.
Ilian followed the other children as they walked around the chamber in a clockwise direction. He knew Emos, Bert, Kris, and Pylo from the city, but there were many other faces he didn't know throughout the chamber.
Ilian wiped beads of sweat from his brow, keeping his eyes focused on each cushion as he passed by it. Now wasn't the time for him to show weakness.
I have to be strong.
A metal plaque with his name and a hammer, the symbol of the blacksmith order, etched into it caught Ilian's eye. He lowered himself onto the cushion in front of it and took a deep breath. After tonight he would graduate from apprentice to journeyman blacksmith.
It was time he realized his dream.
The sound of foot on stone and the rustling of clothes resounded back to him as the others found their seats and shuffled into place. Many of the faces around him openly showed the fear they felt; their lips quivered and their eyes glistened in the dim light. Others were expressionless, while yet more tried too hard to hide their fear.
A sea of emotion filled the room and Ilian was drowning in it.
“Tonight, the true journey of yo
Ilian's heart felt as if it would burst from his chest with each beat.
Minister Lorey grasped a wooden bowl and raised it above him. “First, the trial of tears. For every tear shed you grow stronger.” He dipped his finger into the bowl and walked up to Bert.
Tough luck Bert, Ilian thought. He has to go first.
Gently, Minister Lorey placed a drop of water on each of Bert's cheeks. He continued around the circle and repeated the process for each until they had all been marked.
“Next, the trial of blood. It is through blood that this land was forged. Never forget the sacrifices of your forebears.” Minister Lorey made his way around the circle once more until he got to Ilian. He lifted the bowl over Ilian's head and dribbled the blood onto his brow. Ilian winced with each drop.
This isn't even the worst part.
The minister spread the blood across Ilian's forehead with his finger and then continued on to the next child.
Ilian held back a sigh. I hate blood. Why does there have to be blood?
Minister Lorey returned to the center of the room and clasped his hands together once more. “Lastly, the trial of fire. For it is through fire and ashes that we are forged anew.”
Each child in the room raised his hand and held it before him as their parents had taught them before the ceremony. The Minister grasped one of the brands from the brazier and moved to Bert's side. His assistant held the child's arm firmly. Sweat soaked Bert's hair and his entire body shook.
“And now through tears, blood and fire you shall leave your childhood behind and step into adulthood.”
Bert cried out as the Minister lowered the hot brand onto his hand. The boy squirmed and squealed, but held his place on the cushion. After what seemed an eternity, Minister Lorey lifted the brand and placed it into a basin of cold water nearby. Steam and a hissing sound escaped the basin.
Ilian braced himself for what was to come. He had worked around fire and iron the majority of his life. However, he had never willingly let himself get burned.
Several of the children in the room cried out loud when the brand touched their skin, while others remained resolute, gritting their teeth and clenching their fists. He wanted to run away, to flee in terror from this ceremony, but doing so would cast him out of the order of blacksmiths.
When at last his turn came, he had all he could do to keep himself from shaking. The assistant grasped his arm tightly and held it in place while the Minister stood above him. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. The pain came instantly. His skin burned and pain shot up his arm. He tried to keep his mouth closed, but the pain welled up inside of him and burst forth in the form of a scream. And then as quickly as it began, it was over. Ilian gasped and clutched the cushion with his other hand. Tears stung his eyes and his arm felt on fire, as if the brand had never been removed.
I promised myself I wouldn't cry out, but I failed. Ilian wiped the tears from his face with the sleeve of his tunic. I don't feel like a man at all.
A bell rang above them, signaling the passage of another group of children to adulthood.
Buckets of water were brought out for each of them in turn. Ilian plunged his arm into the cool, welcoming embrace, relieved the ceremony was over. The assistants brought jars of numbing salve and bandages to wrap the brandings. The salve numbed the skin around the brand and would help relieve them of their pain until the skin had healed. When it was Ilian's turn at last, he pulled his arm from the bucket and held it for the assistant
“This will only take a moment,” the assistant said. His smile did nothing to lessen the pain Ilian felt.
The assistant dried Ilian's arm with a towel. Next, he spread a thick paste across the burn. Ilian sucked in air through clenched teeth as the assistant worked. At last, the assistant wrapped a bandage around the brand.
The assistant nodded. “All done. May the gods watch over you.” He smiled again, gathered up his materials and walked to the next patient.
Ilian closed his eyes in relief as the pain began to ebb away. Never before had he experienced agony such as this.
“Now, let us proceed to the festivities. For tonight, we have much to celebrate.”
Ilian stood up and made his way towards the exit. He had little interest in festivities after what he'd been through and from the looks on the faces around him, neither did the others.
The parents stood nervously outside the Chamber of Purity. Some idly chatted with one another as they sought some way to distract their minds, while others fretted in silence off to the side.
Kane paced. It was a habit he'd had since childhood and it had stayed with him all these years.
I know he'll be okay. Ilian is strong. I just wish I had been able to do more for him. Even after all these years, I feel that it wasn't enough. If only she—
The door to the Chamber of Purity creaked open and jarred Kane from his thoughts. Figures poured out of the entrance, many still little different than before they had entered. Some ran to their parents, teary-eyed, while others held their heads up high, embracing their passage into adulthood.
Their journey has only just begun, Kane thought. It will be many years before they truly know the significance of the step they have just taken in their lives. Memories of his own ceremony brought a thin smile to his lips. It seemed an eternity ago that he had walked through those same doors.
Kane studied Ilian as he approached him. He had the same bandage covering his left arm as the rest of the children, however he appeared to have fared well in comparison to most others. His face was pale and his hair was soaked in sweat but he walked with a confidence he hadn't shown before.
“I'm proud of you, Ilian.” He clasped Ilian's shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “You're an adult. What will you do now?”
Ilian smiled. “I could use an ale. A big one.”
Kane laughed. “Aye, I figured as much. Maybe we can get one of the fine women at the alehouse to break you in,” he said with a wink.
Ilian rolled his eyes. “Roda is nearly twice my age and Gloria has been widowed four times now. I wouldn't exactly call them the best prospects.”
He chuckled and slapped Ilian on the back. “It's the experience that makes them all the more desirable, Ilian.” Kane lowered his voice and gestured with his hand. “You'd be hard pressed to find a girl your age that can swing her hips as well as any of the fine women at the Golden Chalice.”
“Well, now I know what you've been spending our bread money on father,” Ilian said with a shake of his head.
Kane grinned. “A man has his needs, Ilian. You'll see soon enough.” He winked.
Ilian shrugged. “Let's make haste before I lose my thirst.”
They shared a few laughs as they headed towards the Golden Chalice. Despite the experience Ilian had just been through, he seemed to be in good spirits. It's good that he's taken it so well, Kane thought. My reaction had been much worse than his. I cried the entire night. My father cursed me the whole way home and jested that perhaps they should take me back for a second branding on the other arm as the first had obviously not done its job.
Kane couldn't help but crack a smile at the recollection. It had been terrible back then, but now it was naught more than a fond memory.
Torches lit the city streets as the last rays of sunlight faded beneath the horizon. City runners traveled the length of the city throughout the night ensuring that the torches remained lit. Only the darkest, most foul parts of the city were avoided. Many who ventured into those dark places never returned.
It wasn't long until they found themselves outside the alehouse. A wooden sign with a faded picture of what was once a golden chalice hung over the entrance. Time had faded the color of the chalice to look more like piss, Kane noted. Though it arguably held the best ale in all
The Golden Chalice was sparsely populated this early in the evening. Most of the parents took their children to the festival; or, for the ones that took the branding harder than others, straight to their beds. Even though they were considered adults now there were few that were able to immediately accept it. It wouldn't be until the sun had set that the regulars would come out to spend their day's wages on however many pints they could afford.
Kane dropped a few coins onto the bar top and motioned to the barkeep. “Two pints of the good stuff,” he said.
“We ain't got nothing but the good stuff here, Kane. Ya know as much, eh?” The barkeep filled two mugs to the brim and set them in front of Kane without spilling a drop.
“Aye, Tylor. You know I don't drink nothing but the gold.”
Tylor grinned. “If it ain't gold then it ain't good is what I say.”
Kane grabbed the mugs and carried them to the table. Despite his efforts, his hands weren't as steady as Tylor's. By the time he reached the table he had sloshed ale out of both mugs. Kane handed Ilian a mug and sat down across from him. They touched their mugs together and took a long draught. The ale was light and flavorful, caressing Kane's tongue before gently sliding down his throat. Some people preferred more bitter ales, but Kane couldn't help but admire the smoothness of the brew served here.
Ilian smacked his lips together. “I see why you love this place so much.” Ilian placed his hand next to his mouth and lowered his voice. “Despite the look of it, that is.”
“Best in the city,” Kane said. “I met your mom here.”
Ilian cocked his head. “Right, just like you met her at the market, the wheat fields and on an ocean voyage.” Ilian rolled his eyes. “You won't fool me, father. I know better.”
He grinned. “I've been looking forward to this day for a long time now, Ilian. I made this for you in preparation for today.” Kane reached into his pocket and pulled out a small knife encased in an ornamented sheath. He laid it gently on the table between them. “Go ahead, Ilian. It's yours.”
Ilian's eyes sparkled as he grasped the knife and pulled it from the sheath. "I—I don't know what to say. You didn't have to do this.” He met Kane's gaze. “Thanks father. I'll never forget this."
Light danced off the blade as Ilian slashed the air in front of him. The blade was simple in appearance with a sturdy hilt. He had crafted it to be light, durable and functional. It was designed to be used as a tool rather than a weapon.
Hopefully this will show him that not every blade needs to be full of fancy engravings and embedded with gemstones.
Kane smiled. He knew, more than anything, that Ilian would cherish a gift of this caliber. And it would be of more use to Ilian than a sword. "It's my pleasure. Now then, let's order another round! Waitress, l—" Kane's jaw froze as a familiar scent greeted his nose. It smelled of autumn leaves and forest mists.
A scent that brought him naught but fear.
It's her! She's here... but where? Kane scanned the room from side to side but couldn't discern the figure he was searching for. Maybe I was just imagining it, he thought to himself.
A hand shot out and grabbed his arm. “Kane, I've come to retrieve what is mine.”
Kane flinched away from the woman but her grip held him in place. He hadn't even heard her approach. “It can't be.”
Crimson lips frowned at him from underneath her hood. “You've known this day would come ever since you took this boy.”
He glanced back at Ilian. Ilian's eyes flicked between him and the woman.
“Who are you?” Ilian asked. “Get your hand off my father.” He pointed the tip of his knife at the woman.
Kane pushed Ilian's arm away. “Put the knife away, Ilian. It's nothing to be concerned about.” He turned his gaze back to the woman. “Karena, let's discuss this outside.”
“If you like.” Her lips pressed together.
“Stay here Ilian. I'll be back in a moment.”
Ilian made to stand up. “Wait, I—”
“Ilian, sit down. I'll only be a minute.”
Ilian plopped back into the seat and grabbed his ale. “So be it.” His cheeks were flushed and his eyes downcast.
Still a boy at heart, Kane thought. He stood up and gestured for Karena to follow.
She followed him out to the alley behind the alehouse. A rodent squeaked in alarm, scurried past his feet and slipped into a hole in the wall.
Rats. I hate rats.
Kane faced Karena and reached for the sword he no longer carried at his hip. Old habits die hard, he thought. Of all the times that I chastised Ilian for wanting a sword, it is I that find myself wanting one now.
Karena stood adjacent to him and crossed her arms. “Kane, you were entrusted with the boy with the knowledge that after his sixteenth winter we would return for him. Do you mean to forsake your oath?”
His muscles tensed. “Karena, I've changed since then. I won't give him up to you. Though we may not be of the same blood, he is my son.”
She shrugged. Karena parted her cloak and drew twin daggers from her belt. “If this is the road you wish to take, then I have no choice. My orders were clear.”
His eyes widened in surprise. The daggers were straight with a green gem adorned in the hilt of each. Relatively plain in appearance, they were designed to be functional rather than gaudy. “Zephryos. Forged of the winds of the West. How did you...” They glimmered a pale green in the night. He'd seen those once before, long ago. But they did not belong to her.
No, in fact, they shouldn't even exist.
Her hood slid back as she crouched, revealing icy blue eyes and a lock of dark-red hair. Scars adorned both her cheeks, curving downward towards her lips. “You should be more worried about your own life than my blades, Kane.”
“Karena, wait.” Kane backed up a step. “You don't have to do this. Please, let's just talk about it. I know Ilian isn't of my blood, but things have changed. Please—”
The woman shook her head. “You betrayed my master's trust. If you won't part with the boy willingly then I have no choice but to dispose of you.” Her eyes narrowed. “I don't negotiate, Kane. You know this.”
Kane raised his arms protectively in front of him and bent his knees. He'd seen that look in her eyes once before.
It meant death.
A blast of wind whipped through the alley as Karena poised herself to strike. Then, with a sudden gust, she seemed to vanish into the swirling air.
Blast! She's faster than I remember. How can I fight something I can't see?
He loosened his guard and waited for her to strike. His eyes darted from side to side and his heart thumped in his chest.
The alley was silent.
A breeze tickled the hairs on the back of his neck.
Here she comes!
Kane threw himself to the side and tried to roll away, but she was too fast. The wind changed direction and slammed into his body. Air burst from his lungs as he crashed against the wall. Kane struggled to fill his lungs and winced against the sudden pain in his chest.
Bloody hell, she broke my ribs. When did Karena get such power?
The back of his head throbbed and when Kane touched it his hand came away slick with blood. He leaned against the wall and tried to blink away the pain, but it only made it worse.
The wind swirled around Kane and dried the sweat from his brow. She reappeared in front of him and drove her blades into the flesh between his shoulders. His vision blurred and he gasped for air that would not come.
"Things have changed, Kane. I can't afford to show you mercy." Karena's eyes chilled him to the bone.
Kane tried to speak, but words turned to a sharp cry as Karena drove her daggers deeper into his body. Blood gushed onto the cobblestones beneath him and his arms hung limp at his side.
Karena stood in front of him, eying her prey.
“Karena, please don't take him. I beg you.”
She shook her head. “Begging is useless, Kane. You brought this on yourself.” She wrenched the blades from his body and held them at her side. His blood coated the blades from tip to hilt.
Kane gritted his teeth and summoned the remainder of his strength. Bit by bit he raised himself to his feet. His legs shuddered beneath him. Ilian was his son. He couldn't let it end like this. He pushed himself from the wall and charged her, lost to sorrow and fury.
She won't be expecting this, he told himself. Her guard will be down.
This was his chance.
Karena's blade drove into his heart with a loud thump as the hilt smashed into his chest. He tried to reach out and grab her, to choke the life from her tiny neck, but his strength was gone. As he fell, he couldn't help but notice her face. A single tear streamed down her cheek before being swept away by the wind.
And then the world went dark.
Ilian gasped and stumbled away from the corner of the building. He had followed them, curiosity getting the better of him. Ilian saw the blade flash in the dim light as it was driven into his father's chest. He covered his face with his hands, trembling in fear. He took a step forward and gripped the blade Kane had given him only a moment before. As quickly as it had come, his bravery melted away. Doubt plagued his thoughts and his legs shook beneath him.
How can I fight her when even my father couldn't? Ilian thought. What could I possibly do? I need to get away. I have to find a guardsman. He'll know what to do. Ilian spun around and prepared to sprint to the safety of the open street.
A ripple of wind blasted against his face.
Ilian froze. She stood in front of him, arms crossed. Her nostrils flared as she exhaled. “You seem energetic. Where were you planning on going, boy?”
He tried to slow his breathing. “What have you done? W—Who are you?” His heart was racing and his body shook all over.
Why is she doing this? What did Kane ever do to her?
She raised an eyebrow. “What I set out to do. And, who I am is of no concern to you right now. He broke his oath, and so he was punished for it. Now, are you going to come quietly, or am I going to have to break you?” She took a step towards him.
Ilian took a step back. There was no way he'd let her get away with this.
Karena raised an eyebrow. “I'll ask you again. Are you going to come freely or are we going to have to do this the hard way?”
Ilian bolted and ran as fast as his legs would carry him. His side cramped, protesting the sudden movement. The world around Ilian blurred as his vision narrowed to the street ahead of him.
Karena closed the distance between them in a split second. Her boot slammed into the back of his knee and he tumbled onto the ground. Dirt filled his mouth and nostrils as he tumbled to a stop.
She walked up to him and sighed. “They always choose the hard way.”
Karena dug her heel into his back. He gritted his teeth and tried to rise, but she drove him back down. She kicked him in the ribs and flipped him onto his side. Dust choked him and dried his throat. He tried to get up once more, but his body protested.
Ilian moaned and broke into a coughing fit. His side throbbed and the pain flared with each cough.
She glared down at him. “As fun as this is, I'd like to be off before the sun rises.”
Ilian reached for the knife at his hip. His arm still tingled from the numbing salve. The sensation brought back all the memories from earlier in the night. Arguing with his father, the ceremony, sharing his first cup of ale, and receiving the blade. He gritted his teeth and blinked hard to drive the tears away.
Just a little more and I'll have it. I'll do to this woman what she did to my father. His heart pounded as his fingers closed around the hilt of the knife.
He pulled it from his sheath and slashed at her leg. Karena danced away from his feeble attack and slammed the heel of her boot into his hand. His knuckles cracked against the ground and the knife flew from his fingers, skittering across the stones.
Tears streamed from his eyes as he cradled his hand. “Oh gods,” he cried. “You broke it.”
“Fool.” Karena grabbed him by the hair and pulled him onto his feet. The pain in his ribs flared. She walked over to the knife and picked it up, dragging him behind her.
“This is a nice knife. By the craftsmanship, I'd have to guess that Kane made this.”
Ilian glared at her. “Shut your whore mouth. You know nothing about my father.”
“I know more about him than you might think.” Karena pocketed the knife and released her grip on him. “Let me see your hand. I'll fix it up before we leave. I wouldn't want you running around crying about a couple of broken bones the whole way.”
“The whole way? I'm not going anywhere with you.” He backed up a step. “Keep away from me!”
Karena grabbed him by the wrist. Her gaze pierced his own. “Look, you're coming with me one way or another. The more you cooperate, the less I hurt you.”
Ilian swung his fist at her but she caught it with her other hand and bent it downwards. He yelped in pain and dropped to his knee.
She kneed him in the stomach and he sank back down to the ground with a gasp of pain. “My patience grows thin, boy. Do as I say, or pay the price.”
His mind raced, but he saw no way out. She had beaten him at every turn and had nothing left to defend himself with. For now, he would have to do as she wished. Ilian smashed his fist onto the ground in frustration.
I'm so sorry, father. If only I was stronger. I don't even have the strength to avenge you.
He held out his hand in defeat. Karena pulled a small metal container from a satchel at her waist and popped the lid open. She dug some cream out of it with her fingers and spread it evenly across his hand. He winced in pain at her touch. After a few moments the skin on his hand lightened and the pain began to lessen.
Karena put the top back on and slipped the container back into her satchel. “It's an extract from a special plant that grows in my land. It heals with amazing speed."
Ilian flexed his hand and found most of the pain gone. It works even better than the numbing salve from the ceremony.
"You'll still have some pain but it should heal much faster this way,” she said. “It's time we left. If we stick around much longer we'll have to deal with—”
“You there,” a man called out. His armor glinted in the dim light and one hand was placed on the sword at his hip.
Karena sighed. “Guardsmen.”
Ilian stood with renewed vigor.
I still have a chance.
Bound by Fire by Ronald Craft / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 2.7 out of 5 / Based on38 votes