The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Fair Folk and Foul: 6. When It Is Dark Enough--
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist--slack they may be--these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Carrion Comfort"
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Saelon sat on her rock, hot though it was under the Urui sun, surrounded by the relieving splash of water, and wished that Râdbaran had gotten his wish and stripped her of all her Dúnedain kin. It was Halpan's doing that he had not: gratified by Râdbaran's invitation, proud to be thought worthy, he had been as eager to go as Halmir . . . but old enough to feel guilt at deserting them, and the bonds of blood and oath. He had insisted that Handin and Hanadan remain, raised among their people, a promise that the Dúnedain would not abandon those who had been faithful.
The boys would have been little trouble; but their mother, in turn, would not abandon them. Her quarrel with their father's brother had been vehement and finally savage, impossible to conceal in the closeness of the hall. Halpan had emerged from their chamber white-faced, though he won his point. At the cost, to those who remained, of Urwen's flaunted bitterness. She made a living martyr of herself, growing thinner and paler and harsher as the weeks passed, fretfully awaiting the return of Râdbaran or some other Ranger to take her home to Emyn Uial.
It was almost a pity that the two Rangers who remained were such plain-spoken men. Though more to Saelon's taste than the politic Râdbaran, a fortnight of his gallant talk had sickened Urwen with the—as she called it—coarseness of the company here. Meagvir and Dírmaen, like the other men, avoided her easily enough by attending to their work, and in the fine weather of summer, it was often pleasant to sleep outside under the stars, now that fear of the raugs pressed less closely. Early riser though she was, Saelon often found Dírmaen abroad in the dusk of dawn.
The women, however, tied to the hall and yard by their work or their children, had fewer escapes. Urwen's habitual companions—Bereth, Eithel, and Rian—were growing sour and snappish themselves. Fransag's placid good temper was fraying fast, already tried by her colicky babe and the bastard Sitheag had just given Maelchon. Lis had seen fit to compliment Sitheag on the babe's ruddy health, and near had her eyes scratched out by Gràinne, infuriated by the implied insult to her newest granddaughter. And Sorcha would not speak to her, because she had sent Tarain away with Halmir.
So though the air prickled with the loom of a coming storm, close and sweaty, Saelon had taken refuge amid the grumbling surge of the turbid, choppy sea. Whatever bolts might fall, they could not be worse than the festering rumbles of thunder nearer shelter. She was reflecting that Veylin was unlikely to have a store of pithy Dwarven wisdom on the subject of feuding women—or would be unwilling to admit it—and wondering what kind of horror a dwarf-bitch might be when she heard the drumming hoofbeats of horses, several horses, coming towards the shore across the machair.
Saelon rose to stand on the rock, trying to glimpse the riders through the sandhills. What could the urgency be, and why more than a single rider? Had someone been injured in a hunting accident, as she perpetually feared? Had Râdbaran returned with the Chieftain's decision? Were the Dwarves coming to visit? Was it merely a lark, the older boys coming to race on the wave-hardened shore?
A fine bay she did not recognize skidded awkwardly in the loose sand of the gap, pulled up hard at the brink by its rider—Halpan?!—before coming down the steep face on its haunches. The two that followed, beautiful black-pointed greys bearing tall, dark riders, took the shifting footing with ease.
"Halpan!" she cried, in welcome and astonishment, waving her arm.
He cantered right up to the rock, the horse splashing through the water, mingling the froth of its sweat with the sea-foam. "Oh, Saelon!" he cried, no delight in seeing her, only shattering grief, his face haunted, and flung his arms around her, dragging her from her perch.
It took a cunning writhe to land on the horse before him, and she might still have ended up in the water if the beast had not been so blown that it stood stolidly under the shock. "What is it?" she demanded, his distress kindling a flash of terror. "Halmir—?" As he buried his face in her shoulder, she saw the other horsemen had halted at the water's edge.
He shook his head. "No." But the look in his lifted face was that she had seen when Tarain told him Halladan was dead.
"Arathorn has been slain. By a raug, in Srathen Brethil."
Saelon looked at the waiting riders again, wondering who they were. "That is dreadful news," she said, but though it was a shock—the Chieftain had gone to Srathen Brethil himself? Why had no one brought them word of an attempt to clear the raugs?—Arathorn was no more than a name to her. "But why so wild? Come, take me ashore and introduce me to your companions."
"We come to take you all east," Halpan told her baldly, and she saw he was wounded as deeply by remorse or guilt as by grief. And that the two who waited were Elven-fair.
"Be that as it may," she said, throat suddenly tight. She slid from his horse as they approached the two and shook down her skirts, preferring the dignity of standing while hearing judgment. The riders dismounted as well; even so, they towered over her, taller than her brother had been, but not so tall as Falathar, the only other Elf she had met.
"This is my cousin, the Lady Saelon," Halpan introduced her. "Saelon, these are Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond Half-Elven, boon companions of Arathorn."
It seemed her fate to meet high folk unprepared and draggled. "I grieve with you, lords," she said, dropping a sodden-skirted curtsey. "As must we all. Yet let me welcome you to Habad-e-Mindon."
They were twins, too alike to tell apart. "Thank you, Lady," the one on the left replied. "Forgive the manner of our arrival, and the abruptness of the news."
Saelon met his eyes; as these two were not as tall as Falathar, their gaze was not as overpowering. "If there was fault, it was in my kinsman's manners, not yours. And if he has finally seen what these raugs do, I forgive him."
"You have seen it yourself." It was not a question.
"Then you will understand why we wish to see your people to safety, and quickly. Some of the raugs have scattered, and we hear one has already been here."
She might as well make her stand with the waves lapping at her feet. "No, I am afraid I do not. Yes, there was an attack this side of the mountains, nearly a year ago, but that was well inland and there have been no others. Is there some reason to think the raugs will come so far, or that they no longer shun the sea?"
"Saelon!" Halpan hissed, shocked. "Do you know who you are speaking to?"
She looked up at him. "Halpan, you are distraught. Calm yourself. Ride up to the hall, please, if you have not already been there, to bid them make ready for our guests. Speak to your sister or Rian. You will wish to avoid Urwen."
He gaped at her for a moment, then collected himself behind a coldly bleak stare and rode away.
She watched him go, with a troubled sigh, then turned back to the sons of Elrond. "It must have been terrible," she observed somberly, "to affect him so."
"He ought not have gone, so young and inexperienced," the one on the right told her, "but Arathorn yielded to his pleas. What have you seen, Lady, that you are so little moved by the peril?"
"The wreck of three Dwarves, and only one to be saved. A foresighted woman who has always scorned me seeking my protection. My brother's helm, far too clean, in the hands of his sworn man. Seven months without corn, and near fifty mouths to feed." So much; so much death and despair, and now this on top of all. "Six Rangers, but not a sack of grain. And none of them willing to heed a woman. Simplest, surely, to clear Srathen Brethil and stick us back there. Well," she said bitterly, "we have all paid for that now. Did anyone seek aid from the Dwarves?"
She waited. For all she cared, they could ride away and leave them here. In fact, she would prefer it.
"You must pardon us," the one on the right said. "Much of this we have not heard before."
"Whether it was sought, I do not know," replied the first, "but we had no aid from Dwarves."
It was as senseless and unnecessary as the Dwarves' attack on her and Gaernath almost a year ago, but no one had died because of that moil. The Chieftain of the Dúnedain slain, riding off to hunt raugs as cavalierly as if they were boar: Aniel, who knew their spoor better than any man alive, sworn to their deaths; the Dwarves and their matchless weapons, the only ones known to bite these things . . . uninvited, disregarded. It made one want to weep.
"Come up to the hall," she said. "If you have ridden from Srathen Brethil, I am sure you are in need of refreshment. You might wish to learn something of our history as well, before committing us to another ill-considered course of action."
She cooled enough to be amazed at their forbearance as they walked across the machair, past the gently waving bere, heads already heavy with fine, full ears of milky grain. A month; only a month until harvest, and they wished them to leave now. More foolish, wasteful haste.
The Rangers came swiftly to meet them, at the foot of the track. "Elladan, Elrohir—is it true?" Meagvir cried. "Arathorn is slain?"
"It is true."
The looks on their faces: the Chieftain had not been merely a name to them, but a dearly loved lord.
"Let me see to your horses," Dírmaen offered, and took the greys, stroking their proud necks as if they, too, required comfort.
At the top of the track was a seething mass of people; only their awe of the Elven lords kept them decently at bay. Halpan had spoken. Of course Halpan had spoken.
"Must we go now?" Maelchon: bewildered, near anger. "The bere is nearly ripe!"
Eithel: the whites of her eyes showing like a skittish filly, daring to demand. "Mother wants our packsaddles and horses brought up, and Unagh's help in taking the web from the loom."
Muirne, clutching her new babe to her breast with a terrified look on her face.
"Meagvir," Saelon asked, "will you please take our guests to the cave?" She could not imagine what the hall would be like, not if Urwen was already calling for packhorses. "I believe they will be more comfortable there. I will come shortly with some refreshment."
The Ranger looked from her people to her. When he merely said, "Very good, Lady," and took the sons of Elrond away, she liked him better than ever.
"Gaernath," Saelon called sharply, seeing his flaming hair and eager face among the crowd, "come here. The rest of you," she declared, unable to keep her displeasure out of her voice, "might give our guests a bit of peace: they are in mourning, and have ridden hard from Srathen Brethil. If you do not have something useful to do, gather in the hall; I will speak to you shortly."
Taking Gaernath's arm, she marched him down to the old byre-cave, now their chief storehouse. "They are Elven lords?" he asked earnestly as they went. He had been sorely disappointed to miss a glimpse of the Fair Folk when the ship came from Lindon.
"They are the sons of Elrond Half-Elven. Is that Elf enough for you? I need you to take word of this to Veylin. They have come to take us from here."
His shining delight dimmed, as if a cloud had passed across the sun. "Why?"
"I do not have time to explain. You must go now. I will tell you later."
"How am I to find him? We do not know where the Dwarves dwell."
Saelon glanced around to be sure no one was near enough to hear. Those who were left on the cliff-shelf had gathered in knots of two or three, murmuring amongst themselves. "North, two leagues beyond the cairn you raised, half a league inland, there is a high, flat-topped hill. On the northwest is a rill; go to where it falls over a ledge, halfway up the slope, and wait. I do not think you will have to wait long." She paused, trying to gather her racing thoughts. "If Veylin is not there, leave word: the Chieftain of the Dúnedain has been slain by a raug in Srathen Brethil, and the sons of Elrond have come to take us from here. How soon, I cannot tell, but if he would be heard, he must not tarry. You will remember all that?"
His face was as earnest, but grave now. "Yes. The great flat-topped hill, a rill on the northwest."
"Go. You will be able to see the Fair Folk when you return."
He ran to fetch harness for his horse, and Saelon went along to the door the hall.
If they had been an ill-disciplined pack in the dooryard, here she wished for Teig and his whip. Lis was turning towards her step-son's chamber from the hearth, carrying a griddle she had always fancied, as Fransag took up one of the larger spits with blind rage on her broad face. Eithel was blithely trotting towards Urwen's chamber with an armload of washing that had been drying on the thornbushes without. Artan had Muirne in his arms, though he looked near as terrified as the lass herself. Fokel and Bred were squabbling over a heap of sacks, while Uspag howled in the corner, abandoned by whomever was supposed to be tending him.
"Fransag!" Saelon barked. "Put that down! Lis, where do you think you are going with that?"
Fransag stilled, except for the clenching of her big fist around the iron bar. Lis chirped, "Have you not heard, Saelon? We are leaving, as soon as we may."
"That," Saelon said into the sudden quiet, with great clarity and coldness, "has not been decided. And in any case, that griddle does not belong to you. We have high-born guests to attend to," she scathed them. "This is no time to strip the hearth. Are you all mad, to be carrying on in this way? Where is Halpan?"
"In Urwen's chamber," Murdag told her.
"Is anyone getting food and drink for our guests?"
"Rian, I believe."
Saelon strode into Urwen's chamber, the first time she had ever crossed that threshold. Halpan was seated on the stone bench by the door, Bereth close beside, comforting him. In the far corner, Urwen did not glance up from the kist she was packing, although Eithel paused in her folding, staring at the intrusion. Saelon stood before the bench; Halpan and Bereth looked up at her. "Did you tell folk to pack?" she asked.
Halpan shook his head, despairing. "Only that they had come to take us away."
Urwen's impatience would have done the rest. "That was ill-done, Halpan," Saelon told him. "A fine impression we have made on our guests. Will you come out and do what you can to bring some order, or must I do all myself, as usual?"
"Leave him be," Bereth snapped. "Can't you see he is exhausted and torn with grief?"
"Then you go in his place."
Bereth wrapped her arms more firmly around her brother, glaring hatefully up at Saelon. "It is your fault that we are here," she spat.
"I did not bring you here," Saelon reminded her, voice flat as she reined her own anger in hard. Spiteful, useless; any of the cottar girls was more help. "Nor am I the one who prevented you from leaving with Râdbaran."
Halpan shut his eyes and turned his head from that, then put off Bereth's embrace. "I will come," he muttered.
Saelon left him there. In the hall outside she found Rian hovering with a plate of berry-cakes and her elderflower wine, a fearful look on her face. "Bless you, lass," she said, giving her niece a quick embrace. "Will you come and serve?"
"Are we leaving?" she asked.
"I do not know. Come and find out with me."
Outside, dark clouds full of thunder towered in the sky, threatening rain or worse. Saelon thought of the crop in the field, which could so easily be beaten down; of the lad riding north at her order, to summon her only ally. Then she knocked on what had been her doorpost.
Meagvir drew aside the leather drape, holding it for the two of them.
There was some comfort in being here, in the cave where she had dwelt so long, where every crevice and shadow was familiar as a friend. It had grieved her to see it turned into a storeroom, but now that the Rangers lodged here, it was near as it was when it had been her home. Dírmaen had not returned, but the sons of Elrond were there, seated on the floor against the coolness of the stone rather than on the bench. "Lords, this is my brother's daughter, Rian. Forgive me, but I cannot tell you apart, to introduce you properly."
They both smiled politely, rising. "We are used to it," the one said, and bowed to Rian. "I am Elladan, and my brother here is Elrohir. Your brother Halmir we met before we left for Srathen Brethil, so I can tell you that he is well."
"Oh, thank you!" she exclaimed, blushing prettily and giving a little bob as she balanced the platter. "I am glad to hear it. I hope," she went on, and Saelon could hear the quiver of anxiety in her voice, as she remembered how ill their hospitality had been received by the coastwarden of Lindon, "that you do not mind elderflower wine, because it is all we have, save water and whey."
"So long as it is wet," Elrohir assured her, "it will be welcome."
Indeed, they drank it gratefully enough, and did not scorn the sweetness of honey-clotted brambleberries. After they had blunted their thirst and hunger, Elrohir asked, "Where is Halpan?"
"I left him in the care of his sister," Saelon assured him, softened somewhat by his concern, and his brother's courtesy to Rian. "Will you tell us what befell in Srathen Brethil? Granted, the loss has been grievous, but I am surprised to find Halpan so shattered."
As one, they looked from her to Rian, then back again. She would have not have thought that their shining eyes could be so dark.
Yet considerate. That, too, was different from Falathar. Of course, if the tales told true, these were kinsmen, though fantastically remote. "Rian," she said, "Bereth and Halpan may need help settling folk in the hall. Will you go and do what you can as well? Especially with the younger children."
"Of course." There was relief as well as dutifulness in her voice. "Thank you again for word of my brother," she told Elladan.
"You are welcome." When the drape had stopped swinging behind her, Elladan looked at Saelon. "How much do you already know of the raugs in Srathen Brethil, Lady?"
"Everything our huntsman, Aniel, could tell me."
"This is the man who went with you at loëndë, Meagvir?"
"I am surprised," Saelon said, "that it was not thought advisable to include him in the hunt. Especially if experience was prized."
"If he had been nearer to hand, instead of on the far side of the Ered Luin, doubtless he would have been included," Elrohir replied, taking another berry-cake. "He will have told you that these raugs, as you call them, are breeding, and quickly. Arathorn wished to destroy the nest before the days grew much shorter, or they spread to other waters—if they have not done so already."
"I had not considered that," she confessed. "Yet surely, since their tracks are so strange, it would be easy to see if they are spreading."
"We do not know how much they may travel by water," Elladan pointed out. "On the shoulders of the mountains, where the waters are small, they may often trek between them. If they reached the Lhûn, however, they might suddenly appear anywhere from the Emyn Uial and the Tower Hills west. The attack on this side of the mountains," he asked, "where was it, and do you know why there have been no more?"
"A wet bog a shade more than a league from here, north and east, at the foot of the hills. The Dwarves wounded it—it left what would pass for a hand behind—and we assume it either died or retreated." There was the crack and boom of near lightning; above the door, the sky showed black and heavy.
Elrohir shook his head. "As strange to find Dwarves this side of the mountains. Had they already been molested, and hunted the thing down out of the heights?"
"No, they were taken unawares," Saelon replied. "Are these stealthy or cunning creatures? What went amiss in Srathen Brethil, when you had so much foreknowledge and experience?"
Their look told her that she had not turned the topic skillfully enough, but Elrohir answered her question. "No, they are not stealthy, nor are they particularly cunning. A dozen of us went to Srathen Brethil, and baited them from their tarn with cattle, down to the throat of the corrie, where there was better cover for us to await them. They are hard for Men to spot in the dark, for their hide is dull and dun-colored—"
"Yes," Saelon murmured, remembering that taloned hand. "The corbies could not tear it."
"—but we could see them well enough. The largest came first, wary, as if it mistrusted so much meat at its door. They have hunted the land bare for near ten leagues around, we understand. It slew both of the stirks, and took half of one to the tarn; a short time later, it returned, with another the size of a troll and two a little larger than a Man. They are all fearsomely strong. Once they were busy feeding, we tried arrows to see what they could do, but they do not pierce their hide, not even on the small ones."
Saelon suddenly realized that Dírmaen was sitting near the door, although she did not know when he had slipped in. Rain was falling in torrents outside.
"Of course, they fled, but most of us were waiting for them. Arathorn got the first spear in the sire, before Dornadan and I came to his aid. Halgorn spitted one of the smaller ones, but they take a lot of killing, and your men had said that you must keep them beyond arm's reach."
"Halpan pursued the other large one," Elladan told her. "He does not lack bravery."
"He regretted that he was not in Srathen Brethil with his brother and mine," Saelon said quietly. "Tarain told me it was haunting him."
"That is why Arathorn allowed him to accompany us, I think," Elladan continued. "He pursued, but it eluded him—they are more agile than one expects in something so troll-like—and doubled back to attack those around the sire. That is how Arathorn was slain . . . and I fear Halpan has taken the blame to himself."
Saelon pressed her knuckles to her mouth. "That would be like him," she agreed, and gave a great sigh. How was that wound to be healed?
"Those near enough came to their aid, wounding the thing, but it shook us off and plunged into the tarn before we could finish it. The other small one fled into the hills and was lost in the night. Halgorn set out after it in the morning, but before he left, he advised that Halpan bring us to you, so we could see your people safely across the Lhûn." Elladan gazed at her steadily. "We thought it was understood that if Srathen Brethil could not be cleared, you would come east."
Thunder grumbled, the storm moving inland. East. "That was certainly Râdbaran's understanding," Saelon allowed. "He came here with it, and was adroit at turning talk from any other. Yes, there are some among us who ardently wish to join their kin across the Lhûn. Others, however, have no friends there; and our husbandmen will be hard to move until after harvest, with so good a crop in the field. Unless," she acknowledged, "the storm has spoilt it."
"Do you suppose we would wish that?" Elladan's voice was soft; soft like a bad step in a bog. There was no telling how far down you might go.
She studied the two of them, and wondered if it was their Elvish poise that made her want to bite. Her head told her they mourned their friend and were weary from their travails, but she could see no sign of it. "No. Though I have heard it suggested that Râdbaran brought us no corn so we would be more willing to go where we were bid."
"You believe the Chieftain and Rangers would treat you so?"
"We have little experience of either, having always dwelt on the wrong side of the Lhûn. What I have heard and seen for myself," she told them bluntly, "has not inspired confidence in their care."
"Yet you fostered your nephew with Râdbaran?" Elrohir challenged.
"Discontented I may be," Saelon answered, sharper than might have been wise, "but I hope I am no fool. The Dúnedain value their own kin—provided they are not childless women. The people who held by my brother until his death, however, are not Dúnedain. Merely faithful. What assurance am I supposed to give them?"
"What assurance can you give them here?"
"The security of the sea."
Elladan's gaze came near the intensity of Falathar's. "We have heard that you put great faith in the sea."
From whom? Halpan? "If nothing else, it has fed us."
"That may be," Elrohir said, "but this land does not belong to you."
"No. It does not," she agreed. "So, we are to be driven? If not by raugs or by hunger, by Elves?" It was impossible to keep bitterness from her voice.
"What did you expect?" Elrohir demanded, seeming baffled by the mingled agreement and reproach.
"Expect?" she echoed. Was it really so much, one bay on this long shore? A chance of peace, for the few years of their short lives? "This last year has taught me to expect only grief and despair. What I might have hoped for, I can no longer imagine."
"That you and your people are distressed, I do not doubt," Elladan replied shortly, "but if you think your state is dire, you mistake."
"Your pardon," Dírmaen put in, quiet as ever, "but if not for the Lady's knowledge of the sea and her friendship with the Dwarves, I expect their state would be dire indeed."
Saelon turned her head to stare; she had forgotten the Rangers were there.
"Friendship?" Elrohir questioned.
"You have not seen the hall they delved for them."
"Dwarves do not delve for friendship," Elladan declared, frowning; first at Dírmaen, and then at her. "No matter how warm their will, they must be paid."
They were staring at her: thin, shabby linen, barefoot . . . she must look like a beggar, save for the gold in her hair. She remembered how mean, how unworthy she had felt in Veylin's grand hall. "Who would be so mad," she fleered, "as to hope for friendship from Dwarves?"
"It is not to be had for hoping." Elladan spoke with grave authority. "If one earns it, however, it can be beyond price. You said one Dwarf was saved, Lady?"
"Yes. They delved the hall to repay the service." She said nothing of gratitude. Pitiless; they were as pitiless as Lindon's coastwarden.
He was still frowning. "Even if it is a small hall, that seems over-generous for a single Dwarf."
Yet Veylin had asked if she would have had more from him. What did these two know of generosity? "Dwarves say little; houseless folk ask less, when the gales of winter are upon them."
"Beside a Dwarven hall," Elladan told her, "six Rangers might seem a trifle, though they are not. Your kin have also been generous, Lady, though the open-handedness of strangers may have made it seem otherwise. The Dúnedain are poor, while there is no knowing the wealth of Dwarves. As for assurance, we cannot speak for Argonui, but we have known all your Chieftains well, and though they have not always been able to do as well by their people as they would wish, they have always done the best they could. Even for those who are not Dúnedain." He gazed on her, and his frown returned. "What would you have us do? We came to aid you. Lindon is not our land—we will not drive you. Will you come east with us, or shall we leave you here to whatever fate may find you?"
Saelon set her head in her hands. There was, no doubt, much truth in what he said, yet she could not set aside the sea. For her part, she would stay and dare fate; but few if any of her people shared her faith, and there was too much anger already. "Let me call my people to council, so we can discuss what they wish," she asked. "They are divided, I know; deeply. I will not deny any who wish to leave, but if most desire to go east, it would be folly for a few to remain."
If they all went, she must go too, to keep them on the road and see them well-settled; Halladan would have expected no less. And if she went, how was she to return? She could not imagine dwelling alone in the hall, small though it might be. It would be a place of resentful ghosts, the echoes from empty corners whispering and muttering in the dark. Where, oh where, was she ever to find some peace again?
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Arathorn's death: Tolkien put the dagger symbol of an untimely death before Arathorn's death date, but neglected to tell us how he died. Do not mourn overmuch: he was old for a Chieftain, and I have supposed he went to Srathen Brethil himself in part because he would have preferred to go down fighting.
Brambleberries (also blackberries, Rubus fruticosus): a prickly-caned relative of the rose, bearing berries in August and September.
Stirks: young cattle, one to two years old. These were probably bullocks or steers: castrated males. See Cattle in the Dûnhebaid Dictionary for details.
Sire: a male parent, applied to animals.
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