03 November 2014

Soldier Undaunted -- Chapter 11.1

Eleven

The next day the weather broke. It was still cold, but the clouds cleared out to the east as the day grew older. Beneath the blue afternoon sky the Green Hills crested above a horizon of trees and mist. Unlike the steep and jagged peaks of the Gray Mountains, they did not challenge the heavens. They were old and worn. Time and weather had exhausted them past caring. The earth was enough.
The first men to come up out of the sea to this land over two millennia ago called them the Green Hills, since not even the highest peaks of their humped backs were bare of trees. From their deepest glens to their summits dense forests covered them. Pine and fir spread across their heights; below oak and maple, ash and hickory clothed the lower slopes, which rolled downward into the foothills and forests of the eastern border of the Plains of Rheith. Even during a mild winter they were well watered on their western flank by the rains and snows that came in from the west. To the east the damp sea air, coastal fogs, and storms off the ocean gave them all the moisture they needed to grow thick and green.
But neither the autumn nor the early winter of this year had been mild so far, and as the companions looked from beneath the trees along the river, they could see snow gleaming from the top of the range all the way down to the western edge of the woods at their feet. As the sun sank westwards and the tide of night flowed up and over them, the river they had been following for over a week made a sweeping turn towards the mountains. Their road now ran directly east. From here, Jalonn said, the eaves of the forest were no more distant than a day’s journey, and the nearest of the mountain passes two days away.
“But from the look of things,” he added, “the snow there already lies deep. We may need to seek another way.”
Arden and Niall reluctantly agreed to Jalonn’s assessment, but none of them wished to consider the alternative of which Jalonn did not yet speak openly. For if they could not make their way over one of the more remote passes near the source of this river, passes that would bring them down into the coastal plain a hundred miles north of Narinen, they would have little choice but to travel some twenty miles south until they reached the open pass at the scholars’ town of Prisca.
From there the road led southeast until it joined the Great Road fifteen miles west of the City. It was this road Arden had been set to travel one morning thirty years earlier. He did not wish to go that way. His father and elder brother had studied with the loremasters at Prisca, and Rangers he had spoken to told him that its wonderful library had been razed. In Arden’s youth and long before, there had been much coming and going between the City of Narinen and Prisca, but few besides soldiers now lived in this once beautiful town, for centuries the greatest seat of learning west of the sea, a school for kings and statesmen, scholars and soldiers. At times even the loremasters of the elves had crossed the wide ocean to visit Prisca for consultation and debate.
There from the tower of the library, which rose high above the pass itself, one could look down upon the fair town and the narrow road winding up to it from the tawny fields and shining rivers of the Plains; or gaze eastwards through the pass over the green, grassy lowlands of the coast and the sea beyond. At sunrise the first ruddy light of dawn spilled though the pass to gleam like a beacon off the tower’s golden roof. Arden’s father used to tell him how as a young, homesick scholar he had often climbed the tower’s long stairway to look upon the sea and catch the scent of salt air on the morning breeze.
Little remained of the town these days, only shelter enough for five companies of the dragon’s men. A few of the taverns, which long had been full of song and of students debating history and literature over pints of ale, had in the dragon’s time become the haunts of ignorant troopers and hunters, who sang coarse songs and argued over coarser women. The library had fallen before the fire of the red dragon, who had himself come to reduce all learning to ashes: any knowledge but his own was hateful and dangerous to him.
But the tower was there yet, rising above the library’s broken walls. A watch tower it had become where keen eyed men kept ceaseless guard over the pass and road, which the garrison labored to keep open for the many troopers and spies, hunters and messengers who came that way. Rangers had at times stolen into the ruins at the feet of the tower to salvage what books they could from the ashes. A few had escaped the tower’s vigilance and brought away treasures; most instead lost a treasure and never returned. Yet, though the Rangers who dwelt in the nearby hills still kept a watch of their own on the town, none came near it any longer. No Ranger had ventured inside in a dozen years.
“We’ll know more in a couple of days,” said Evénn. “No need to consider other ways just yet.”
They continued on for a few hours more, then bedded down for the night. The next day was warmer and they found the snow less deep as they moved steadily closer to the forest. It was the first promising sign they had seen in some days. The thought that perhaps the storms might have spent themselves in the lowlands raised their spirits as the Green Hills grew taller before them. A pass might still be open.
Niall and Arden exchanged a few hopeful looks. Neither of them had been this far east for many a year. Arden had always asked to be posted to the west. He had never been within sight of the old mountains since he had come west with Jalonn. Niall had been back once about twenty years ago. When at last he had returned to the Valley, he had answered Arden’s look of inquiry with a frown and a shake of his head.
That was as full an answer as Arden had wanted. He had of course listened to official reports over the years, and overheard snatches of the conversation of others, but he had also made every effort to avoid news of home whenever possible. Once, several years ago, the Masters had suggested to him that he would be ideal for a posting in the east. He replied that he would not obey if they commanded him to go, unless they also ordered him to seek out the dragon. The Masters let the matter drop, and Arden returned to the west, where only his duty took him. His heart and his home lay by the sea.
In the dusk the next day they stopped and made camp for the night a half mile or so from the small road which led down from the northern town of Tusk – so called from the tusks of a huge, shaggy creature like an elephant whose remains had been discovered in a bog there when men first settled the town seven hundred years ago. It ran along the forest’s edge, leaping the Valané on a single arch of stone, crossing the road which climbed up to Prisca, and vanishing into the remote south.
Twice before Arden had walked this road. Once as a boy he had come this far north, hunting for a week in the fall with his father and brother. It had been a spectacular season, with warm days and cool nights beneath rustling leaves of red and gold. Though they had not seen a single deer, Arden remembered that trip fondly when he allowed himself to think of it at all, as he did today. His second time on this road was fresher in his mind. The year after the Fall he and Jalonn had hidden in the woods beside it for months, hunted themselves by the dragons’ men and the packs of mountain wolves they had begun to use as trackers. But that was over three hundred leagues south of where they stood this evening.
The companions slept little that night. While Niall remained in camp with the horses, the others scouted in pairs for miles in either direction. This close to the City the roads and paths were closely watched. The garrison at Prisca patrolled in force, and often set luckless spies to keep an eye on the land. Few of them owned the cunning to elude the Rangers of these woods. Weeks later they were found, long dead and blinded, bound in the middle of the road. The rare survivors had little to report, because they saw nothing, or only what the Rangers wished them to see.
In the mean, chill hours before dawn the companions decided it was safe, and by the time the sun was up, the road was miles behind them. On this side the land rose quickly. The trees began to change. The river grew narrower as they approached its source. Soon it was no more than a swift, shallow stream. Since the camp of the Rangers who dwelt here lay south of the Valané, Jalonn led them across to the other bank before the hills grew too steep. He hoped to encounter them soon, or at least before the end of the day. After a month of hurried secrecy and isolation, it was essential to hear the news of the enemy they had gathered, and to learn whether the snow had already closed the passes. Messages may also have come in for them from Master Raynall. He was also looking forward to the possibility of a fire and a warm meal.
Jalonn of course knew the site of the Rangers’ camp, halfway up the mountain they were climbing and some miles further south, but he felt it was wiser simply to follow the river upwards, and allow the Rangers to find them. Wiser and more cautious. For, while there were no tracks in the snow behind them, even eyes that did not see their tracks might still see them. Jalonn wished no further encounters with hunters. The two at the river had been reckless, even if they could not have known of Mahar’s bow. Shrewder hunters – and many were quite shrewd, skilled in the wild, and fell handed in combat – would have shot down Agarwen and Evénn before revealing themselves. If anyone were on their trail today, and dared enter these woods, the Rangers would isolate and cut them down.
Knowing that he would surely be recognized by any Ranger who saw him, Jalonn scouted ahead with Argos. Since Niall and Arden were old enough for many of these Rangers to know their faces, Arden came not far behind Jalonn, accompanied by Agarwen, Evénn, and the wolf, whom the elf kept close by him today. Niall came last some two hundred yards back. Each also gave the sign that all was well – quivers closed and reins held in the left hand.
Shortly after midday, Evénn indicated with a look and a nod that they were not alone. His sharp ears had detected the faint sounds of others in the woods on either side of the stream. The wolf, too, had noticed them. He kept stopping and staring into the distance, but with a soft word Evénn bade him stay with them. The companions were being shadowed, an unusual experience for Rangers. While the best hunters could track them, rarely could anyone come so close undetected.
Up ahead Jalonn rode on quite calmly, his hand on his hip. For some time he had known that other Rangers had found them. Argos, too, like the wolf and Evénn, had heard the faintest sounds above the voice of the stream. The Rangers would appear, Jalonn knew, once they were satisfied that he and his companions were not being followed. He guessed they had been moving along on either side of the stream for about an hour. That is what he would have done. Presently he rounded a large boulder overlooking the water and saw a man of about thirty five sitting on a rock. He was peacefully waiting for them. His sword lay sheathed across his knees and in his hands he held a small knife, with which he was carving a piece of wood. He let the chips fall into the stream and hurry away downhill. The Ranger looked up casually as Jalonn drew near.
“Master Jalonn, welcome,” he said. “Your party covers its tracks exceptionally well.”
“Hansarad,” Jalonn answered with quiet pleasure. “I’m glad it’s you. Your father is well and sends his greetings.”
“Thank you,” he said, rising and advancing. “That is good news.”
Jalonn dismounted and clasped Hansarad’s extended hand.
“Any sign of pursuit?” he asked.
“No. Who could pursue without a trail to follow? You must tell me how you managed that.”
“Perhaps when you are older.”
“You’ve been saying that for years, Master Jalonn.”
“Yes, and when you have proven yourself, I will tell you what you need to know.”
Hansarad laughed and said, “There are only five in your party?”
“Yes, it seemed a better way to preserve secrecy.”
“Niall and Arden I know, and the woman’s face is familiar.”
“She is Agarwen, daughter of Ramas.”
“Of course, I remember her now. The other is the elf, I suppose? We were all astounded when Master Raynall informed us that the dragonslayer was among you, and that we have two of the ancient weapons. He is truly Evénn?”
“Yes, unexpected as that might seem.”
Hansarad shook his head and shrugged.
“I suppose that if the monsters of legend can return,” he said, “so can the one who slew them.”
Argos walked up to Hansarad, sniffed him, and wagged his tail slightly.
“And you, sir,” Hansarad said to the hound, “what are you doing here? It seems you and your wolf friend would not be left behind.”
Argos wagged his tail more enthusiastically. Hansarad stroked his head, then looked at Jalonn.
“A week ago we received word that two nights after you left Argos and Evénn’s wolf broke out of the kennels and went after you. Apparently, not even the Guardians of the Forest could capture them. Master Raynall was particularly keen to warn us that a wolf would be with you, lest we slay it on sight. First the dragonslayer, then a friendly wolf. It is all very surprising.”
“My life has been one continuous surprise to me, Hansarad, and Evénn would have taken it rather ill, had you shot the wolf. Did Raynall say anything else?”
“No. He said there was no other news, except that the other Rangers have departed the Valley as planned.”
Jalonn nodded his head. Raynall had set the pieces moving. Parties of Rangers would be in place across the land by the time he and his companions reached the City. Just then Arden and Agarwen appeared around the boulder, followed a moment later by Evénn with the wolf by his side. They had dismounted and were leading their horses. Hansarad and the wolf eyed each other.
“He’s all right,” Evénn said, coming up to Hansarad with his hand held out. “He’s been a good friend to me. Thank you for not shooting him. My name is Evénn.”
“So I have heard,” Hansarad answered, taking his hand and looking him over. “As for him,” he said, nodding at the wolf, “we try not to kill our friends, even on the rare occasions that they are wolves.”
They stood for some time by the brook, speaking in low voices, waiting for Niall to catch up. Hansarad questioned them about their route and what they had seen in the woods and on the plains. Jalonn’s account of their clash at the crossing of the Rheith with the hunters interested him most, especially the shot Arden had made over its broad waters. When Niall arrived, the company moved on, guided by Hansarad. Several miles further uphill they turned off to the right, and for the rest of the day traced a winding course through pines at the foot of a lofty cliff. Near sunset they descended from a ridge into a small dell of ancient hawthorns and maples and entered the Rangers’ camp. In the heat of summer it must have been shady and cool, but a cold mist shrouded it now, soaking their hair and clothing as they moved through the gathering gloom. When the dark mouth of the caves where the Rangers dwelt loomed suddenly up through the fog, it seemed like a door to a grim underworld where their ghosts would sleep until the world’s ending.
“This has always been a cheery place in winter,” said Jalonn.
“And it has lost none of its charms over the years,” Hansarad answered, his wry tone matching that of Jalonn, whom he had known all his life.
“At least you can offer us a fire and a warm meal, I think.”
“Master, the scholars at Prisca would have told you that our distant ancestors lived in caves like this one, but even if the dragons have driven us back into them, I believe we can still make fire, and a decent venison stew.”
With that Hansarad called in a louder voice into the cave. Soon their eyes detected a faint glow growing within. It brightened steadily until another, much younger Ranger, emerged with a torch. Immediately they followed him within, and after a few twists and turns found themselves in a large well lit cavern. Its walls were rough and unfinished, unlike those of the citadel, but they glittered and sparkled in the flickering light of many torches. To one side was a hearth, with a large iron pot bubbling over the fire. Above it a chimney of hewn stone mortared together ran up to a natural vent in the cavern’s roof. The aroma of venison was most welcome after weeks in the cold, rain, and snow.
“It’s warmer in here than I expected,” Agarwen said.
“The caverns further back have hot springs,” Hansarad replied. “They make this place bearable in the winter, though you would never know that from outside.”
“I knew there were such springs scattered about these mountains, but I was unaware of any here,” Niall said.
“They allow us to stay warmer than most of our brother and sister Rangers. Somewhat cleaner, too. After our meal, you can soak the chill from your bones if you wish.”
“That would be welcome indeed,” said Niall and the others agreed.
At a word from Hansarad, the younger Ranger who had brought the torch was joined by another who had been tending the hearth and stirring the stew occasionally. They went out to fetch the horses and lead them off to other caverns which were used as stables. Evénn and Niall went with them. In the chamber it was warm enough for the companions to remove their mist soaked cloaks and hang them by the fire to dry. Jalonn sat himself on a bench beside the hearth and drew out a long clay pipe, which he lit and drew on thoughtfully. Other Rangers came in by ones and twos over the next half hour. They paid their respects to the Master and reported to Hansarad, their captain, that there had been no sign of any enemy throughout the day. All was quiet. Four of the two dozen Rangers present in the camp remained outside to keep watch, two at the entrances to the dell, two roving ceaselessly through the woods beyond.
When Niall, Evénn, and the two young Rangers returned from grooming the horses nearly an hour later, all sat down on long benches around rough tables to eat their meal, which they did without much conversation, thankful for fire and hot food at the end of a cold winter’s day. But if Arden’s companions were aware that their arrival here marked only the end of one stage of their journey and that the greater challenge lay ahead, Arden himself was reflecting with a mixture of ruefulness and irony that the next fire to greet them would not be so welcoming. After their meal, he got up and walked over to stand staring into the hearth, thinking of the kindness of the glowing flames before him and the cruelty of those to come. In his mind he could hear the screaming of men and women long dead whom the dragons’ fire had consumed, while brief pieces of friendly conversation and sometimes laughter reached his ears from the table behind him.
This dark turn of thought, he knew, came from the disquiet that had been growing within him since they first sighted the Green Hills two days ago. His ancient yearning for vengeance, his reluctance to see the fallen City of his youth, his dread of failing now as he had failed then, were knotted in his soul. Through all the years of single-minded waiting he had not expected to feel this way when the time came. This thought, too, amused and annoyed him in equal measure. Then the voice of Master Jalonn asking Hansarad about the enemy roused him, and he turned from the hearth to listen.
“During and after the harvest, of course,” Hansarad replied, “they were quite active, moving about the land to make sure that no one had hidden away more than enough grain to keep themselves barely alive for another year. They oversaw the gathering and transportation of it to the City. They drove off the surplus cattle, sheep, and pigs as well. Since then, however, they have been quiet. The weather this last month has not encouraged anyone to venture out. Their patrols along the Tusk road have been perfunctory, with little interest in looking into anything that might keep them away from their barracks and the taverns of Prisca longer than necessary.”
“Any hunters about?” Agarwen asked.
“No, not for several months. A half dozen of them came over from the City late last summer and tried to track two of my men back here. We let them come deep into the forest, far beyond any aid from Prisca, before we dealt with them.”
“So the woods are safe. But tell us, what of the passes?” Jalonn said.
“I fear they are buried deep, Master. As you know, they are steep and narrow, treacherous even for those who know them best. But with all the snow that has already fallen this winter, I doubt anyone could make it over them safely. If you could reach them at all, that is. You saw how deep the snow is here? It grows rapidly deeper as the mountains rise.”
“What if you guided us?” Arden broke in impatiently.
“That would only endanger more lives, Arden,” Hansarad replied, “and bring you no closer to the City. I believe you know something of these mountains, Arden. You were raised near them. The snow must be more than ten feet deep up at the passes.”
“But you don’t know?”
“Easy, Arden,” said Niall calmly. “Hansarad probably knows these mountains better than we do. He has lived and served here for many years.”
Arden glared at Niall, then frowned and turned his attention back to Hansarad.
“Your pardon, Hansarad. I was not questioning your ability or courage. The passes would simply serve us better.”
“No doubt they would,” Hansarad answered, taking no offense, “but not this winter. You must live to reach Narinen. Still, if you wish, tomorrow we can climb up to the higher slopes and see for ourselves.”
“Thank you,” Arden said. “I would be grateful for that.” Then he paused. “But now I think I had better go outside and clear my mind. “
Arden took his cloak and left the chamber, closing behind him the door that kept out the cold. Outside he retraced his steps back out of the hollow, where he found one of the four Rangers on watch. He told her that he was going to try to climb up above the mist and have a look at the stars. As he was working his way up the mountainside through the snow, he heard behind him the call of an owl. It was one of the signals Rangers used to let the others know there was a friend in the woods.
The stars slowly faded into sight as the mist began to dissipate. Once clear of it entirely, Arden settled himself on the top of a rocky overhang. The crowns of the pines growing on the slopes below reached high enough to screen him from the western breeze and the view of anyone further down the mountain. As he brushed away the light, dry snow and sat down, he repeated the owl call to give the Rangers on watch a notion of his position. The call was returned from several directions over the next few minutes.
Up here the night was cold and clear, and the glow from the numberless stars washed over him and down the mountainside to the forest and plains below. The dark tree lined course of the Valané emerged from the woods and ran west towards the waxing moon. On either side of the river and stretching as far as the eye could see, the snow covered fields shone white in the starlight. The peace of the night made him regret his abruptness with Hansarad, who would not have been the captain here if he did not know what he was about; and everything he had seen on the mountain tonight told him that the young captain was certainly right about the passes.
He realized that he needed to meditate, which he had not done since they left the Valley a month ago. The thought amused him, since for so long he had done without it, had rejected it, yet now he felt the need of its benefits. To spend an hour each day focused on something outside himself had done him good. He could only admit that. For so many years he had been isolated, serving alone in the west; meeting other Rangers only seldom and at appointed times to send reports back to the Masters; or more often concealing messages in remote locations where days or weeks later another would retrieve them and pass them along; returning infrequently and briefly to the Valley; traveling constantly, often in disguise, friendless and speaking to few. Those like the innkeeper at Kinabra, who recognized him for what he was and welcomed him discreetly, were very rare.
In constant, silent conversation with his younger self and with his memories, all the while on guard against the enemy, against the treachery of his frightened countrymen, and even against himself, he had long kept himself apart from those who offered him friendship. Yet in the few months since he had met Evénn he had let others come closer to him than anyone had in years; and it had been a pleasure for him. Now he was retreating again, for fear that he would lose them all: Jalonn who found him; Evénn who saved him; Niall who was bound to him in a strange unspoken friendship; and Agarwen who had been his apprentice and desired what he could not give. He had been alone too long.
With a sigh and a frown, he pulled his cloak more tightly about him, looked out upon the night, and began to meditate as they had taught him in his apprenticeship years before, and as he had done sitting beside Jalonn each day of their last month in the Valley. He counted his breaths, slowly in and slowly out, until he was calm within; and he tried to think his way through the old prayers and litanies that directed his thoughts away from himself, out to others, to the world, and to god, to a life of which he was not the center.
When his own thoughts and feelings intruded themselves, clamoring for his attention, he considered them one by one, then let them go and returned to the point at which they had interrupted his meditation. Slowly he moved forward; he cleared his mind; for a little while he let slip the bondage of self. All his other thoughts, emotions, and memories were still present, but his perspective on them shifted. They did not clamor so insistently when he was aware that he was only a part of the whole.
Arden heard the owl call again from below. The stars told him that about an hour had passed since his meditation began. He became aware of how cold he was, nearly at the point of shivering. But the call indicated that someone else was also outside the dell. Rising, he moved about to restore his circulation and warm himself. A cloaked figure soon appeared from beneath the shadows of the trees to his right. It was Evénn. The gray wolf walked beside him, shining in the last of the moonlight.
”I thought it would be you,” Arden said. “It’s your time of night to leave camp.”
“You’ve been meditating,” he replied. “The tension has left your voice.”
“Yes. I did without it for so many years that I’d forgotten how much it calms me.”
“It’s easier to notice the difference when you’re not alone. Turmoil within us becomes our normal state after a time, till we cannot see it without a point of comparison. The same is true of serenity. We forget it is there until we meet others who do not know it.”
“Serenity?” Arden laughed with a hint of bitterness. “I’ve never known that.”
“But you know a piece of it right now. Your voice tells me that. It is often not a tranquility, but a clarity – as when we call a clear sky serene – that allows us to see the disturbance within us as if from afar. It allows us to recognize that what disturbs us is not all there is. The wound is still within you, is it not?”
“Yes,” Arden replied, not liking the question.
“And it still aches, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.”
“But right now you see it differently.”
“Yes,” said Arden, though it felt a betrayal to say so.
“Just so."
Arden gave him a dubious look, which he was sure the night would conceal.
“Do you think I’ve stopped feeling the pain of my wounds, Arden?” Evénn asked, his eyes not deceived by the night. There was no anger in his voice, no edge of passion, as there might have been, only a sorrow for lost things that was as certain and silent as stone. There was only one answer.
“No, Evénn, I don’t.”
“Have you ever wondered,” he asked after a pause, “what I do when I leave camp at night?”
“Of course, we all have.”
“One of the things I do is meditate, just as you have done tonight. The dragons took everything from me, too. All that remained was the small hope that, with the ancient weapons, I might be able to save what is left of my people. That’s what brought me here. But it’s been twenty five years without a single word of news. What if they’re all dead? That’s long been my fear, and now that the possibility of going home is before me the fear grows only worse. Without prayer and meditation, I could never face it.”
“I see.”
“Do you?” Evénn asked.
“Yes, I do. It is coming home again, Evénn, to the mountains and the sea, to the City and the graves of my people that disturbs me. I’ve been away for so many years, waiting and longing to return, yearning to strike back at the dragons; and now that I’m almost there, I feel myself cold and at a loss when I think a fire should burn within me like a furnace.”
“You fear you will fail, after all your waiting.”
“Yes.”
“And in failing you feel you will betray those graves you dug as a boy, and betray your father who has none.”
Arden did not answer, and Evénn continued.
“You will not betray them, Arden, even if we do fail. You did not fail them thirty years ago when you could not accomplish the impossible and save them. You will not do so now. The only failure would be not to try, not to fight with all your strength. You will not fail before the dragon. We all know that. It is not the dragon that daunts you. It is yourself. You will prove true when truth is needed.”
“Your words are kind,” Arden murmured, not sure that he was right.
“Now, I think I will walk in these woods,” Evénn said, “and look upon the stars.”
Evénn and the wolf disappeared into the trees, and Arden turned back down into the dell. The owl calls haunted the night behind him. Inside the cave he found Jalonn and Hansarad deep in conversation. Niall was on a cot asleep, his face turned to the wall.
“Arden,” Hansarad said to him as he came in, “why don’t you soak in one of the hot springs? I imagine you won’t have much chance of a bath for some time. The men use the one at the end on the right.”
“Perhaps I will. At least it will loosen some of the grime.”
Arden went out of the cavern into another chamber and down a passage. The springs sounded like a pleasant ending to a long, cold day and a colder hour and more in the night outside. Torches on the walls lit his way. Near the corridor’s end he passed another chamber with an arched entrance on his left. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed in the torchlight a slender white form through the steam of the spring. It was Agarwen rising from her bath, and he could feel her eyes upon him. He did not look. Then the doorway was behind him and he continued on down the corridor.
In the chamber Agarwen listened to Arden’s footsteps dying away, and wondered whether she had truly seen an instant’s hitch in his stride or whether she deceived herself.

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