Fairer Than Ivory, Silver, or Pearls
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Seeds of Old Trees: 3. The Retreat
"He is completely faded!" Galathil leaned out of the window as though he needed to breathe. Moonlight haloed him and he gleamed - pale skin and silver hair limned in whey-blue light. Seeing him, a leaner, more gentle version of her father - his face slightly softer, a scholar's look to his grey eyes - Celebrian remembered how it had been when she first met him: her uncle, slain an age before she was born. The barrier of delirium had been something of a mercy in truth - when it faded, the strangeness of what was left was easily bearable by comparison.
"How could he stay so long, once he felt it begin? How could he allow it?"
Nimwen coughed, looking from king to king for reassurance - there was little to be found, both Elu and Olwë were as startled as all. "Should we be speaking thus of him?" she asked, "As though he was not here. He may be with us even now, listening beyond our sight."
"Those in the spirit world can still be sensed," Olwë chided her, gently, "As we know well from the Powers, and folk - like yourself - returned from Mandos. We would be aware of the light within him, were he visible or not."
"Besides," Celebrian broke in, annoyed that her grandmother - who knew nothing about him, after all - should be making such assumptions. "Father wouldn't do that. I think he just had enough of company and wanted to be alone. He is..." She berated herself for not noticing sooner. She should have seen it in his forsaken look - the empty, haunted gaze - and not forced him into places where he was not ready to go. Elrond will have few compliments for me on my healing skills. "He is more injured than we thought."
"'Injured?!'" Galadhon scoffed; horror still in his eyes, his pretence of humour only a defence, "How much worse can it get than this? He is altogether faded!"
And all at once she felt she too would like to storm out of the room, slam the door behind her and go back home, to Elrond's House, where folk had been through more, and did not immediately react to change with fear. "What of it? Is not fading our destiny; all of us? We delay it, and dread it, and do not even speak of it in polite company, yet it will come to all in the end. Even here in Aman, though the wearing is slower."
"I mind me," Elu put a hand on Galadhon's shoulder, either to reassure or restrain, "that Celeborn was ever willing to dare new things. Elmo's stewardship; my return. The Moon; the coming of the Noldor. I wager he has taken to fading in the same way, reasoning that the inevitable might as well be faced at once. And doubtless he has found advantages in it - such as not having to be here, listening to us all flapping like startled sparrows."
Celebrian smiled at her distant uncle with gratitude. At times the Amanyar seemed to do nothing but talk, exhaustively discussing a subject before they acted, but Elu had retained the more swift decisiveness of Middle-earth. He at least seemed to have understood her urgency. "Before we get too deeply into the metaphysics of this," he said, "had we not better discuss what can be done for our kinsman's comfort?"
"You know he may stay here as long as he wishes," Olwë made a half-hitch in a lock of his long, white hair. "Surely to be among his family will..."
Catching Elu's look, Celebrian knew he thought as she did. To be among his own folk would doubtless do her father good, but these - however close in blood - were not Celeborn's family. They were, to him, little more than ghosts of a loss so early in his life he had no words for it. Strangers, who wanted more of him than he was able to give. She had felt the same herself, at first. But she had never said so, and did not now; her mother's empathy at work in her. "I think Adar needs to get away from the sea," she said instead, "He told me a long time ago that it holds nothing for him but sorrow. He looks on it and sees Beleriand sunk under the waves. Mother's sea-longing. Your leaving," she smiled at Galadhon to take the sting from the words, "and my own. Amroth drowning in the bay of Belfalas..."
Shaking her head, she tried to dislodge the memory thus carelessly called up. But it remained, sharp as new experience, replaying the swell of black devouring grief she had felt at the news of her brother's death. Her chest hurt again at the stupid tragedy of it. Though there was balm in knowing that he lived once more, it did not make the memory less bitter. And that was but one loss on her father's list. She breathed in shakily; no wonder he hated the ocean!
"Perhaps now it reminds him of Ennor, which he deeply loves, and the people he has left behind."
Once she had had time to recover from the shock of seeing her father slide into the spirit world with as much ease as a Nazgul; once her heart had begun to beat again and her mind to clear, she believed it was less the fading that troubled her than the fact that he had run away. Even from the presence of the risen dead she would not have expected her father to hide. He was the bulwark of strength in her family. In Eregion, she and her mother and brother had fled from Sauron revealed, but Celeborn had stayed. Immovable, even to facing down the Dark Lord. How could he have run from his own relatives, if he had not come to the utter end of his strength and endurance? The thrill of the uncanny wore off at the realization, being replaced by a closer, more painful dread. "Fading, we will all come to in time, but I fear he is very close to lying down and dying from sorrow."
And I could not bear that! she thought, with a catch of panic in her throat. We have waited so long, almost given up hope that he would ever come. Nana did give up hope. I could not bear it if he was to arrive, only to die and be gone from us for another hundred thousand years! She looked at Elu, whom she had adopted as something of a surrogate father here in Aman - so like he was in many ways to her own. Please!
Thingol stood up, offering her his hand to help her rise. He nodded, acknowledging both thought and words. "We must get him among the trees at once."
The ship rolled and pitched on the sunlit waves, and Celeborn watched his daughter and younger grandson enjoy the spray and salt. The air was faintly luminous, and so clear, he felt he could see to the edge of this world. Did Aman have an edge still? So old-fashioned it seemed, with its pure wind and sparkling water, that it might be too disturbingly modern for the Valar to have made Aman round too. What if it was flat, and the seas poured endlessly away into space in a glimmering starlit cascade? Or was it a platter, bounded by mountains, from whose peaks one could dive out into the airless void? That might almost be worth seeing.
"Ossë is playful today," Elrohir came to lean on the ship's railing beside him, and smile in a good approximation of his normal cheer.
Last night, returned from a solitary walk along the cliffs to his bare stone room, Celeborn had found his grandson waiting for him, sitting in a chair by the fire. The younger elf had an alder flute in his hands and was playing one of the lullabies his mother had sung to him, all those years ago in Imladris. Seeing him, Celeborn had drawn on visibility as easily as he might don his cloak, making the boy start and laugh. "Mother told me you had acquired this new skill, Daeradar. It's rather a surprise to see it."
Here was a reunion untainted by the memory of torment or death. He had counselled the twins when their time of choice ran out, and watched them sail, hale and well, as though they went only to another country. "Daerion!" There had been nothing of the eerie about their embrace, and if Elrohir thought it strange that his grandfather should cling to him as a lost child clings, reunited with its parents, the sheen of tears in his moonlight-grey eyes did not betray it.
"Yes," Celeborn said now, "I got to know him a little, on my voyage." He kept his mouth closed on the fact that Ossë had spent much of the time alternately furious and sulking. The storm he had barely weathered half way through was Ossë's doing - making it plain that the Maia did not appreciate the loss of another of his quendi to the West, when he had not wanted and still did not want any of them to leave. If the Lord of Waves was cheerful now, it was doubtless because he had seen Celeborn's unhappiness, and desired to have it noticed that he had been right all along.
"Strange friends you have, daeradar." Elrohir smiled again, more genuinely this time. The long years had refined him, for now he reminded his grandfather a little of Dior Aranel, last king of the Sindar. And Dior will also be here, he remembered, with a surge of disorientation as distressing as sea-sickness.
"No more strange than anything else in this place."
"You grow used to it," Elrohir smiled reassuringly. He turned his back to the railing and leaned on his elbows, looking up to the pennant on the topmast. A flight of swans soared overhead, dazzling against the azure sky, the whirr of their wings as tuned as music. "There is so much to see and explore. Do you not want to know what I have been doing all this time? And Elladan. What Father has been doing, and Daernaneth; Galathil and Nimloth, Elwing and her husband. Did you know that Oropher is among us again, and has been embroiled in a three way feud with Amdir and Thranduil for a century, over some insult which no one else can now remember. Do you not want to know what young Legolas has been up to, or the adventures of the dwarf that he brought with him? I have many eyewitnesses eager to tell you that story."
At the beginning of Elrohir's recitation, Celeborn felt overwhelmed, but as it went on the sheer load of reminiscence began to strike him as funny. He snorted. Poor Gimli! Alone in this place, surrounded by elves, separated for his whole life from his own folk. He wondered if Gimli had not found it in the end something of a barren honour.
But if the culture shock did not kill the dwarf, I am certain I can endure it also. "I am minded of Master Gamgee," he said, "Who, when a story finished 'and they all lived happily ever after,' would reply, 'aye, but where did they live? That's what I always wonder.' I do not see Oropher settling down peacefully in a land generously donated to him by the Noldor. So many dead! Where are you putting them all?"
"Ah," Elu Thingol made his way along the deck, harp in one hand, goblet of wine in the other, and came to stand beside the two of them. Seeing the spray, he bundled the delicate instrument into his cloak, protecting it from the water, and handed the wine to Celeborn. It had been quenched with hot stones, and smoked with fragrant heat, making him aware for the first time that the wind was cold and the dew of the sparkling white wavetops chill against his face. "You will see."
Elu's smile was youthful, and there was that about him which reminded Celeborn of the twice-born Glorfindel - what had become of him? - an eagerness and a joy he had not had in Beleriand since the first rising of the Sun. Death sat lightly on him, restoring a majesty the world had stolen from him, when it took his daughter. Luthien, like Arwen, forever lost. Neither would come, over the sea or through the Halls of Mandos, ever again. And at that thought, for the first time, Celeborn saw Elu's new life not as something uncanny, to be feared, but rather as a wrong finally put right. He was not created to die. He should never have died, and now that mistake of history had at last been corrected. Would that it could be so for Elu's daughter, for Celeborn's grandchild.
"You are beginning to ask questions, Muindorion. I am encouraged. We had thought that as you were now transparent you must also be as fragile as glass."
The irony made him laugh again - the small 'hmn' to which his laughter had been reduced over the millenia. "In body, say not glass, but diamond. I am become like a Silmaril - impervious to harm. There is now no physical force capable of slaying, or even wounding me." Their looks of surprise made him feel, yet again, too angry to belong in Valinor. Had the Valar not told them? "That is all 'fading' is," he insisted. "The completion of our immortality. It is common now in Ennor. Almost all of my people are thus. Indeed, we pity those who have not yet reached the end of the process."
He heard what he had said; 'My people.' But they were no longer his people. He had abandoned them, leaving the youngsters alone, in a world where those born in the fourth age were now considered ancient. Children, left to watch as one forest after another fell to the chainsaws of Mankind. All at once, such peace as he had begun to find seemed self-indulgent. Contemptible. He turned his face to the East, and strained his eyes, but he could see no end to the realm of Arda. I should have endured longer. I should have stayed.
"Yet the spirits of the Silmarils could still suffer," said Elu gently. "How it cried out to me! How it lamented that it was locked away in loneliness, doing no good. After last night, do not try to tell me your own fëa is as strong as ever it was. I have seen one of my children die of grief. Do not make me suffer it a second time."
Bizarre though it was to have someone looking after him, after all these years, it was a strangeness which made him want to weep. He smiled instead. "It is true. My body is unbreakable as adamant, yet I feel frail as a soap bubble, blown about on the wind. I am helpless and I tremble with every blast."
Elrohir frowned and looked down, to hide the pain and uncertainty in his eyes. Elu exchanged a glance, heavy with meaning, with Celebrian, as though his words confirmed a thought they had discussed between them in private.
Celebrian's face was white and troubled, and he grieved to think he had done this to her. It might have been better, perhaps, to die. To spend some aeons in Mandos, and enter Aman healed - ready to embrace his future with glad enthusiasm, rather than to come thus marred to Valinor, bringing his taint to dim his family's joy.
The ship moved out of the coastal waters, leaving the last of Tol Eressea's white harbours behind. Ahead was the swell of open sea - a moving bewilderment of green and azure and silver. Dolphins - his friends from the voyage among them - leapt by the snowy curve of the ship's bow, and seabirds trailed in its wake like a pennant. For one brief, wonderful moment, he thought they sailed to Ennor, but then, in a long arc of foam, the course changed and they drove North-East. Away from Aman, away from Eressea, out to where there should be nothing but waves and clouds, lifeless and beautiful. Like Mandos, perhaps, a place where he could yearn to be.
But his daughter clearly had other thoughts. "Naneth should be here!" she burst out at last, half in sorrow and half anger. "I care not what slight she thinks she's suffered. She should be here for you!"
"No." Celeborn wiped the spray from his face with both hands. "No. Your mother is..." he recalled saying the same to Galadriel, and the explosion of wrath that had followed, "Is not the easiest woman in the world to live with. I am... glad... she is not here." Alone, he had recovered from the fall of Doriath, while she was in Greenwood. Alone, he had healed, after the destruction of Eregion, while she was in Lorien. Alone, he would mend in Aman, and only when he was ready would he come to her once more. It was the pattern of things. "I have not the strength to face her at present."
"Tell me what happened, Daeradar," Elrohir said, softly, "What has worn you out so?"
He looked at the worried faces and did not know where to start. With the hubris and blasphemy of the last king of Gondor, who had declared himself the equal of Iluvatar? With the Age of Ice which had come, it seemed, as punishment for that deed, leaving the world of Men utterly shattered. The lineage of Arwen, of Luthien, robbed of royalty and heritage, sent wandering among the caves and steppes with no memory of what they once had been? The flood that had followed, reshaping the lands, wiping out the ancient kingdoms of the Eldar with one stroke?
Or should he begin nearer at hand, with the wholesale adoption of Saruman's machines by Mankind? Watching children born to toil amid coal and steam, dwelling in cities cramped, squalid and flowerless as Mordor, and not being able to do anything to relieve their misery. Tell tales, perhaps, to one or two: Make sure the eyes of the mind were not altogether sewn shut on beauty and hope... But what was that, in the face of such ruin? Only a cruelty, maybe, to keep alive a dream of what they could no longer see in waking life.
It had been the factories, the grimed windows and stinking canals, the bent backs and closed, hopeless faces of the children, that had at last driven Thranduil out of Ennor, little less than two hundred years ago. No wonder he had anger to spare in quarrelling with his father. 'We should kill them all,' he had said, ere he and his folk had taken ship. 'It would be kinder than what they do to one another. At least then they would leave the land in peace.'
And - oh - the land! Thranduil had been wise to leave when he did. Wise to spare himself the deforestation, the road building, the concrete and the cars. Wise to avoid the acid rain, the nuclear fall out and power-plant leaks. Dust and poison on the wind; the screaming and choked pleading of dying woodlands, and the day after day misery of trying to heal the growing things of the world, and failing.
But I should not have given up.
Sorrow overcame him. He turned his face into the wind and struggled not to shed the tears that came, scalding as blame, to his eyes. "Too long a story," he said, "And too sad. Ennor needs us, more grievously now than ever. I am ashamed to leave it. Only the time came when I knew it was a choice between dying of grief and coming West." He breathed in, held the breath, and then sighed the chaos of emotions away. "For my family's sake, I chose to come West."
"I am glad you did," Elrohir's fleeting touch grazed along his arm; an offered connection to this new world. "Adar said his household was become too Noldor without you. I have no doubt, one day you will sing the Tale of Ennor in the great Hall of my father's House, and its sadness will make it all the more beautiful, so that folk will weep and be glad. I will wait to hear it then."
It was a good thought, but it seemed to Celeborn that the beauty of elvish melody could never adequately express the defilement of the Earth. Nor could he expose the peace of Elrond's house to the dissonance and rage of mortal music. That tale would have to be told, not sung. In time. When he had achieved enough distance from it. "So Elrond has reverted to living among the Golodhrim, has he?" he said instead. "I am disappointed."
However poor the attempt at flippancy had been, it at least lifted the mood out of mourning. Elu gave him a look of immense smugness. Celebrian bristled comically, "All are welcome in my home," she said, "And all come - Vanyar, Noldor, Teleri, Sindar. Wood-elves, water-elves, deep-elves, light-elves, and the many who are a blend of all. See..." She turned and pointed forwards, past the bowed white sails.
There, at the very edge of elvish sight, Celeborn saw with surprise the dim azure and purple bulks of a far country. Nearer, a steep sloped island rose out of a tranquil sea; water tumbling in small falls down its granite sides, where bracken grew, and fluttering alders clung. Inland were pine forests, and beech groves, and on its peak a great House sprawled and basked in sunlight like a weary dragon. "The Half-way House," said Celebrian, proudly. "I built it, while I was waiting for Elrond, and gave it to him as a present on the day he first arrived. What do you think?"
Like and yet unlike Imladris, it must have welcomed his son-in-law both with the excitement of the new and the reassurance of coming home. Looking down into his daughter's face, seeing the wisdom and practical craft of her spirit, and the generosity of such a gift, he was filled by a welling of pride in her. He brushed the errant tendrils of star-bright hair from her face and kissed her forehead. "It is as fair as its maker. If its spirit is also as compassionate, it must be a fine place to dwell. Is that where we're headed?"
The ship itself answered him, sweeping past the narrow coves, raising wings of spray. On the main jetty there stood the brightly coloured forms of many elves, and the sun glittered on the silver circlet of Elrond Half-Elven as he raised a hand in greeting. Celebrian and Elrohir laughed and waved, and even Celeborn grinned as the wind gusted and sped them past, flying towards the further shore. It was good to see his marriage-son once more, even at such a distance and speed. At some time in the future he must make a less fleeting visit.
"No." It was Elu's turn to point. He did so with the gesture of a craftsman, indicating the further shore, which at their great pace had now begun to show as a continent to rival Aman itself. They passed a harbour town all of silvery stone, with roofs of red tile, gilded with gold, festooned with honeysuckle and climbing roses. The grey ships of Cirdan rocked at anchor there, and mariners from the Falas, from Mithlond and Edhellond, swarmed up the masts to watch them pass, shouting out in many dialects; brilliant and noisy as a rainforest full of parrots.
Beyond the sea-side city the land rose in soft arcs of heavy-wooded green. The wind smelled of clean new leaves, and leaf-mould, dark and rich. He could scent linden flowers and birch sap, honey and pine; hear, and feel in the trembling air, the voices of many rivers. Young brooks laughed, and rivers ran stately and silent beneath the overwhelming, sheltering canopy of trees. Only mountains broke that long swell of rustling life, their peaks gleaming with snow, circled about with eagles, but here and there, meres and meadows lay, pristine. The bare expanse of lakes, the grass and nodding meadow-flowers beautified the encircling forest.
"What is this?" Celeborn asked. The smell - oh the smell of it was like freedom; like miles and miles of emptiness and wonder. Like Beleriand, sanctified by memory and love, returned to him unstained. "How?" he said, scarcely able to breathe for the beauty of it. "This is on no map of Aman I know. What...?"
Elu looked immensely self-satisfied, pleased with his reaction. "When I came forth from Mandos," he said, smiling, "Olwë offered up his throne to me, as the rightful king of all the Teleri. But I had no wish to take what was his, and I am no lover of the Sea. I was no longer of one mind with the Teleri. So I refused.
"There were at that time many Sindar - many of the Lindar of all countries of Middle-earth - released with me or before, who felt alike uncomfortable in the cities of the Noldor. In the streets which only Calaquendi had trod before."
He frowned, hiding some grief. "There was... ill feeling, on both sides."
And the pride returned full force; as gleeful as Elladan after a successful orc-hunt. "So, Melian and I went to Aulë and Yavanna, entreating their help, and we made this. She and I and our people."
"You made a continent?!"
Elu's grin grew wider. "Yes. It is not altogether finished. I have needed your skill with forestry - there is something wrong or missing, in the pattern and distribution of trees, which I cannot quite put my finger on. I would have your advice. And there is room aplenty for you to create your own principality - a place for the Galadhrim, where you may be king once more. If it is your desire. Celebrian is talented with islands, as you've seen. Thranduil too has chosen to found his own country, and rules his people there." He gave a sidelong look, both amused and implacable. "I grew weary of Fingolfin flaunting his many pointed banner at me and insisting on being called 'High King'. So now Dior reigns on Eressea, and Amdir in Dor-Brethilion, Oropher in Eryn Calen... And I call myself 'High King of the Ennorim', just to see the look on his face." There were echoes of old rivalry, now worn smooth with age, in his laugh. But it was merry.
"Yet I would wish," he finished, kindly, "at least for a while, that you would dwell at my court, and that things might be as they were of old. I have been a little nostalgic of late."
Reluctant as a swan coming down from flight, the ship slowed, her snowy sails furling. The crew put out a small grey boat, for there was no harbour here, only a narrow cleft in the cliffs, and the mouth of a young river pouring out from walls where ferns trembled and rock-swallows nested, peeping and reeling on the air above.
As he leapt down into the boat, Celeborn felt as dizzy as the birds. It was too much - too much glory, too much hope, too many possibilities. Even the hint that old grudges still simmered here was reassuring; for where would be the spice of a relationship without the occasional burst of fury? He shook his head, and clutched the bag he had brought with him from Middle-earth against himself. It was all the more valuable now.
This was too good, he thought. Too easy to accept, too easy to forget that the land he had sworn to protect was still dying, in more torment every day, and his own weal would not save it. "I am not yet fit either to rule or advise," he said, torn once more between anger and sobbing, "Is there not some abandoned talan where I could dwell in obscurity for a while? I need..." he wasn't sure what he needed, other than space and peace. To accept that desertion was justified? That running away was not the act of a coward? "I need to think."
A little up the river the cliffs drew down to banks of reed and iris where moorhens and otters swam. There were many pebbled beaches, formed where the roots of oaks had thrust out into the water and made it swirl. He put a hand out and grazed his fingers through grass, over earth, feeling the song of Yavanna, the might of Aulë, and over it the tough, intractable spirit of the moriquendi, and the innocent rejoicing of living things which knew they were loved. The trees welcomed him with the wholeheartedness of creatures who had never yet been hurt, and he found himself shaken with a fierce, primal urge to cherish them and make sure they never were.
"So I thought," Celebrian said, briskly practical. "And you are not the only one. Not all of those returned from Mandos desired to seek out the royalty they had left behind, but chose to live a simple, uncluttered life away from fame. It is to one such house we bring you now; far from lordship and rule. I hope... I hope it will do you good."
The current swept about a bank of silver birch and brought them, suddenly, to the base of a smooth, round hill. On its crest a mighty beech rose towering, and in its spread boughs there swayed a pale talan, large enough for an elven-king's hall - if he be the king of fair Lothlorien.
Beneath its shade, his golden hair gleaming, his eyes alight with pride, stood Celeborn's son, Amroth. The brightness of the re-born was on him, and his face was all joy. "Father!"
"Ah!" Celeborn made a noise somewhere between weeping and laughter, and hid his face, overcome. But the dark-haired maiden, who stood beside Amroth, pulled the covering hand away and held it. Frail, she seemed, but he knew the Silvan delicacy of her beauty covered a core of steel. Her voice evoked many eerie memories of the brook which bore her name. Nimrodel.
"I am glad you came," she said, "For we have great need of experienced hands, and a parent's wisdom."
He clambered out of the boat, trying not to tremble like an aspen leaf, and embraced them both, awed by the solidity, by the reality of them. Folk had told him his son had drowned. But they saw him swimming, not dead, and there had been no body to bury, and for many years he had started awake at the sound of Amroth's voice, blown up from the sea, and wondered if his son yet lived, trapped, calling to him, wondering why he did not care enough to come. "O Araw! O Elbereth! ...Amroth, my son! My son!"
"I would have come to greet you, Adar," Amroth laughed through tears, "But ...it was not a good time. See." Leaning down, he took a swathed bundle from the large basket that lay by his feet. "He also arrived last night."
And carefully, with an unpractised, frightened gentleness, he placed Celeborn's youngest grandchild into his father's arms.
'Muindorion' = 'Brother-son'
On 'Fading'. What Celeborn says here about 'fading' is taken from the essay 'Laws and Customs of the Eldar', which can be found in the book 'Morgoth's Ring'.
"As ages passed, the dominance of their [elves'] fëar ever increased, 'consuming' their bodies... The end of this process is their 'fading', as Men have called it; for the body becomes at last, as it were, a mere memory held by the fëa; and that end has already been achieved in many regions of Middle-earth, so that the Elves are indeed deathless and may not be destroyed or changed.
how, it may be asked, shall a mortal distinguish between the kinds? On the one hand, the Houseless, rebels [dead elves, who don't have a body]..; on the other, the Lingerers, whose bodily forms may no longer be seen by us mortals, or seen only dimly and fitfully. Yet the answer is not in truth difficult...the Lingerers [the elves who remain in Middle-earth nowardays] are not houseless,[bodiless] though they may seem to be... they do not seek converse with Men at all, save maybe rarely, either for the doing of some good, or because they percieve in a Man's spirit some love of things ancient and fair. Then they may reveal to him their forms..and he will behold them in their beauty. Of such he may have no fear, though he may feel awe of them."
In other words, 'faded' elves might be invisible, but they still have a body, and it is one which cannot be destroyed and changed.
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