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With thanks to RiverOtter and SurgicalSteel for the Beta
Note: This story discusses sexual matters, but hopefully not in a fashion to cause distress to the readers. It should be acceptable to more mature young folk.
Particularly for Lindelea.
In Defiance of the Dark
“I wish you might accompany me to the Houses of Healing when you can bring yourself to do so,” Aragorn had said shortly after the Fellowship returned to Minas Tirith and his coronation as King of Gondor. “No, you might not be a healer yourself, but just by being yourself you hearten those who are ill or have known great injury. You help them to forget for a time that they are in pain or that they have lost limbs. You bring the scent of an innocent land and an innocent people into their sickrooms. You help them know they are not forgotten. So many cannot bring themselves to visit those who are ill, while others here are from far away--from the Ringlo Vale or the furthest reaches of Langstrand. Their families and closest friends cannot make the great journey here to sit by their sides as they recover. To have anyone visit them who simply sees them as they are and as they are able to be and who can help them know they are not alone is a blessing beyond price.”
Frodo wasn’t certain that was true; but there was no question that he would hear the words “The Cormacolindo comes” run ahead of him through the Houses, and when he’d enter a room or a ward he would find those housed there sitting up, watching the doors expectantly, pleased smiles of anticipation replacing grimaces of pain. And the healers and their assistants, as they followed behind him, found that their patients were heartened and more at ease than they might have been for days, or accepting a procedure that the day before would have terrified them.
Sometimes he would be asked to describe the Shire and the lands to the far north he’d traveled through. More commonly a young soldier would describe his home and his parents, younger brothers and sisters, a sweetheart or young wife left behind, or the anticipation of seeing how much a child had grown. Now and then he’d sing for one, slowly feed one too weak to do so himself, hold an invalid’s cup for a third, recite Bilbo’s poetry. One older officer who’d had part of his scalp removed by the slash of an Easterling’s sword discussed the writings of Sephardion with him, an ancient philosopher whose works regarding Númenor had made their way into Bilbo and Frodo’s library.
The Healers themselves were heartened to see him sitting by their patients or to have a brief word with him in the hallways or as he sat by them in their wardroom, sharing a cup of an herbal drink or accepting a few bites of some treat the cooks had prepared to tempt his appetite.
There were a few patients that he looked forward to visiting with, such as the young Man Ionil who’d been so badly burned and who’d been struggling so gamely against the myriad infections that had attacked him, or those children who were within the Houses who were recovering from more innocent injuries or illnesses. He was not allowed to enter the rooms of those who suffered diseases known to be easily passed from one to another, although he was encouraged to speak with some of these from the heavily screened doorways; but on this one day he found himself going beyond the greatest building in the complex to one of the other three he’d not yet visited, drawn he knew not by what inspiration or whim.
The woman healer on duty was surprised to see a small figure enter the doorway, and stood rapidly and came to see who was this child who entered her domain, for it was not a place where those who were very young were likely to find comfort; nor were many of those who rested in this house likely to respond well to the presence of a child who might wish to play or call out loudly.
“May I aid you, young sir, during your visit to the House of Rest?” she asked, then looked into his eyes as he looked up at her, and realized this was no innocent child after all.
“I am sorry,” he said softly, “for I’ve not come here before. It was only that Aragorn had asked me to roam through the Houses to speak with those who might need heartening, and I’d realized I’d not been into the smaller buildings at all.”
She wasn’t certain who Aragorn was, but she certainly knew enough to recognize the Ringbearer, and had heard that the King himself had authorized him to visit the ill as he might wish. “Certainly, my lord,” she said, her tone very respectful, although she was not certain just what he might be moved to do with those who rested here.
“Thank you,” he said with a polite nod of his head. His cheeks had burned when she’d addressed him as “my lord,” but he held himself proudly enough as he turned away from her to explore the place.
The level of the ground floor was given to offices and treatment rooms of various sorts, and one larger room where he found there was a great mineral bath. He finally turned himself to climbing the stair to the upper levels, and here he found well-lighted hallways and wholesome scents. There were few enough patients within this building, but when a room was occupied it was clean and filled with objects of beauty and peace. Most of those who lay in its chambers were elderly, and usually had a family member sitting by them, speaking quietly and offering what food or drink the patient would accept. He quickly realized that this was meant to house those who were dying that they might spend their last days surrounded by peace, tranquility, and beauty.
One room he approached held only a woman, sitting in an invalid’s chair near the window looking outwards. Her hair was dark and lovely, and he realized that if she indeed were dying it was not of old age. He pushed the door more fully open and went in.
“I don’t wish any food brought me,” the woman said in a soft, tired voice as if this was something she’d had to repeat over and over.
“That’s good, then,” he responded, “for I’ve not brought any with me.”
She turned her head slowly to look to see who it was who’d come in at that, looking at him with surprise and, he realized, a growing curiosity. “And who are you?” she asked.
A face that had once been beautiful beyond measure he saw, but one that now was contorted with pain and something else. He remembered his tutor Tumnus Brandybuck from when he was a lad. He’d had a great mole on the side of his face, one that one day had begun to grow remarkably and evilly. There was what appeared to be a tumor growing under a place where a scar showed the healers had already attempted to remove the growth at least once. Her face on that side sagged, and her eye was covered with a patch--probably if she were like Tumnus had been she could not blink that eye any more, he realized.
His initial feelings of revulsion were eased quickly as his memories of his older cousin and former lessons master filled him and as he saw more signs that she had once been very beautiful indeed, and as his curiosity regarding her grew. “I hope that you don’t mind my entrance,” he said politely. “It is only that my friend, who labors in the Houses most days, suggested I visit those who are housed here.”
“Few enough ever think to visit me,” she said. “It is a pleasure to have the loneliness defied, I think. Nay, enter and be welcome.” She waved one hand at a second chair. “I hope that it is not too high for you,” she said.
She had a strong accent, one that was quite arresting, and that in her was most attractive. Her hair was far coarser than he’d ever seen, and a blue-black color such as he seen previously only among the Southrons Captain Faramir’s Men had ambushed. Her visible eye was a dark brown, and almost almond-shaped. Her skin was darker than he’d ever seen in a woman, although it didn’t appear to be tanned, and he noted that the palm of her hand was a more normal pink than was the brownish back of it.
Her hand itself was well-maintained, smooth as if she regularly had rubbed it with oils and as if she’d done little enough in way of labor with it--not the roughness seen in the hands of those who spun or wove regularly, or who scrubbed floors or walls for a living. There was to her the look almost of a great lady; yet there was also a wariness he sensed in her, one that he realized she’d managed to hide from most of those who’d met her but that she could not hide effectively from him. He drew the heavy chair over, then boosted himself up into it to face her. She was examining him with as much interest as he felt toward her. “You are not of Gondor?” he asked her. “Not originally, I mean?”
She shook her head. “No--I was born in Khand, and was sold to the houses when but a child. My parents were heavily in debt, and I suppose I must have fetched a good price.”
He looked at her with confusion. “You were sold--here?” he asked. “I had no idea that any who dwelt within Gondor was enslaved.”
She laughed, and he realized that she must have once laughed easily and rejoiced to have the chance and excuse to do so again. “Nay,” she said, still very amused, “not these houses--the houses of pleasure within my own lands. There I was educated in the arts of pleasing men, and once I was nubile I was properly--initiated. Because I was judged very fair and had a keen wit I was given only to the greatest of customers, and one day I learned I’d found favor in the eyes of a high officer of the armies of Harad, and was purchased by him. I became a part of his harem, and when he was sent to assault the garrison on the Poros he brought me with him along with many of his other preferred slaves.
“He was a cruel Man, however, and I’d come to detest him. Also, what he did with some of the children he’d bought for his own purposes was--unspeakable. One such child he’d brought with us--a fair girl, and one from these lands to the north, one taken by slavers from her village near the banks of the river. His battalion could not take the garrison on the Poros, so he was encamped there for some time. One night, after he’d abused me and had plans to go to the child early the next day, I took my courage in both my hands and decided that the time had come to escape him. He’d never bound me, thinking me tamed by my years of captivity, and I was often instructed to bring him his meals. I put an herb into his food and into his drink that would cause him to sleep very deeply, and sat by him playing upon the zithern until he at last drowsed. Then I settled him into his bed and took the keys with which the other slaves were shackled, and went out, telling his guard I was sent to bring the girl to him. I brought her into his tent, then took his dagger and cut a slit in the back of it and we fled out into the desert. By the time I must suppose he awoke--if indeed he did so--we had already put ourselves in the hands of the officer for the garrison of the Poros. He had a group of younger Men escort us out and northward, and in time we were brought to a place on the river where a ship from Dol Amroth took us to the Prince’s city.”
“And there you stayed?”
“Had I stayed there would I be here now?” she asked, a slightly mocking tone to her voice. “Nay, there was little enough for the likes of one such as myself to do there. I spoke not their tongue at the time. I was fortunate, I must suppose, that he who received us at Poros spoke enough Khandri to understand my plea for refuge. The child was, I hope, returned to her family. I know that a Man and woman were brought to us where we were kept for a time in a fair house within the Prince’s city and she threw herself into their arms, and went with them gladly enough.
“But for me--what was there for me to do? I had been trained to one purpose and one only--to pleasure men with my body and wit; and little enough call there is for that here within Gondor. For the most part those who rule this land are of what I am told is the pure blood, and such have little delight in the ways of their bodies save with their lawful wives--or so I am told. Bloodless, my people would call them.”
Frodo felt himself respond to what he felt was perhaps an insult to Aragorn’s lineage. “They are Dúnedain,” he explained rather stiffly. “They have Elvish blood within them, and the Elves rarely know more than one with whom they will share their hröa during their lifetimes--which I trust you realize is supposed to be as long as Arda remains.”
“Is that the reason for it, then?” she asked. “I will not say that all are like that--but most of those who I felt resembled the last Lord of this land gave me interested looks, but nothing more--instead it was as if I were something to raise their ardor for their own wives.”
She sighed and closed her eyes, and Frodo saw a wave of pain take her--saw her setting her teeth to endure it. His own sympathies were roused by her expression, particularly as he so often endured the same. He slipped from the chair and approached her, took her hand and held it. He could hear the shallow breathing and mostly suppressed grunts of discomfort, and squeezed her fingers to allow her to know she wasn’t going through this alone. As if that appeared to signal to her that his hand was there, she shifted her own grip and held his, squeezing tightly momentarily as a new spasm took her. He allowed it, knowing all too well how the simple fact another was with him had helped him hang on through his own pain. He squeezed back once more, holding onto her as much as she was hanging onto him.
At last the spasm was over and she sat back. He saw a cloth hanging over a basin nearby, slipped his hand finally out of her grip, and went to fetch it. It was clean and dry; the water in the pitcher that went with the basin was still warm and scented with healing herbs. He managed to pour some of the water into the basin and replace the pitcher, then dipped the cloth into it and wrung it out. He returned to her and began to sponge off her now grey face.
At last she spoke, “Your hand is as gentle as that of the new King.”
He paused as he looked into her face. Her eyes were still closed with weariness, but a hint of color was returning to her. He resumed his cleansing, saying softly, “Then Aragorn has been to see you?”
“Is that his name? I thought they’d called him by another name--Lesser or something similar. Odd name for a King--Diminished.”
“E-less-ar,” he enunciated carefully. “Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, he who wields the Elfstone, the Renewer, the Far-strider.”
“You are a kinsman?”
He was astounded at that one--astounded and amused. “Kinsman? Ah, but that would be most difficult, as I am a Hobbit--a Perian or Pherian or Halfling as they call us outside our own lands.”
“You are your own people?”
“Yes, we are. There are four of us who came south with him from Eriador--myself, my younger cousins Meriadoc and Peregrin, and my gardener and friend Samwise.”
“There are other peoples than just Men in the northern Kingdom?” she asked.
“Yes--Dwarves, Hobbits, and Elves; as well as orcs, trolls, and mountain giants. Then there are the Great Eagles and the Ents, although I’ve not met the Ents as yet. It’s Merry and Pippin who have met the Ents.”
She smiled slightly on the one side of her face still capable of doing so. “A new people. I’ve seen what your folk call orcs, of course--they followed ever in the wake of the Black Ones when they came to us to carry that one’s latest commands.”
He found himself going still, and at last she opened her eyes once more to look at him. “So,” she said at last, “you, too, have known their attentions.”
“Yes,” he answered shortly, starting to lift the cloth once more, realizing he’d let his hand drop when she’d mentioned the Black Riders. But now he was knowing his own discomfort. Seeing the pain now in his face she fumbled her hand out and drew the damp cloth from it, allowing him to clutch at his shoulder. He leaned back against the chair behind him, biting at his lip to keep from crying out.
She dropped the cloth and reached out for his left hand to hold it as he’d held hers. “Here,” she said soothingly, “here is my hand for you to hold. You are not alone, my lord. You are not alone.”
At last his spasm also eased, and he weakly opened his eyes to look up at her, wondering if he looked as tired to her as she did to him. “We’re quite the pair, you and I,” she said, a touch of amusement again in her voice. Her eyes dropped to the hand she held. “Your hand--it is so cold. They wounded you, then.”
“Yes, last year in the fall. They came north, seeking my elder kinsman Bilbo or me, and at last found me near Weathertop--Amon Sul.”
She shivered. “To be pursued by such as those,” she whispered.
There was a knock at the door to the room, and a Man asked, “Mistress Lilith? I’ve brought a pain draught should you feel the need for it.” He entered, then paused as he realized she was not alone. “Oh,” he said, “Lord Iorhael--you have come here? How wonderful! Ah, but has your own pain found you? I will send for the King--he is within the main house----”
Knowing his cheeks must have gone quite pink at the use of his title, Frodo shook his head. “It is past, Eldamir. There is no need to take Aragorn’s attentions from those who need them more than I do.”
“Then I will bring you a cup of the herbal drink that he has indicated you prefer. Is there aught else I can do for you--perhaps bring you some bread and cheese?”
“Perhaps some shortly--I could not accept it now--so soon after....”
“I understand, Small Master. And you, Mistress Lilith? Could you eat some? Or perhaps you would prefer some of the smoke the King has suggested to ease the nausea and stimulate the appetite?”
“Perhaps he needs it more than I do,” she said consideringly as she examined Frodo’s face.
But Healer Eldamir was shaking his head. “Not for his condition, or so the King has said.”
“We have embarrassed him, to know he is also discussed for his health,” Mistress Lilith pointed out.
“I am not that ill!” Frodo objected, pulling his left hand free from hers.
“And neither are you that well,” she responded. “I have seen those who have died from the spreading dark coldness the Black Ones leave in their wake, and feel it in your hand.”
“That was months ago,” he said stubbornly.
They were quiet for a time, and at last Mistress Lilith sighed, “It would appear that in your case, as in mine, the damage is too deep and widespread to fully respond to the King’s hand.”
After a moment Frodo looked back to meet her gaze. “So it would appear,” he agreed. “Then Aragorn has seen you, also?”
“Yes--the first time three days past. There is little he can do--the growth has gone too deep--is throughout me now. They removed it once, but could not find all of it; so it returned. But his coming gave me heart--for a time.”
She shivered suddenly once again with pain, and both Hobbit and healer offered her once more their hands, to help her remain grounded through it. When at last it eased somewhat she opened her eyes once more and looked at each gratefully. “I thank you,” she whispered, then swallowed.
“The draught,” suggested Eldamir, “it will help ease the spasms.”
“And it will--it will send me dozing,” she replied, her voice weak yet determined. “Nay--with such a manling as this beside me, why should I wish to sleep now? All too soon I shall sleep indeed, and I--I suppose I will do so--gladly enough. But let me fill myself as I can with what beauty I can take with me first.” When the Man looked at her uncertainly she added, “I promise--if--if it gets worse I will--will allow him to feed it to me. Please?”
After sharing a glance with the healer, Frodo gave a nod. “I’ll stay by her for a time, then, and will give her the draught when she will accept it.”
“Then I will go, and leave her in your keeping for now. And I will send food and drink for both of you. You still have much weight to replace, my friend.”
Frodo turned his face away from the Man’s, nodding reluctantly. “As you will.” He looked back to the woman as the healer left. “It appears you speak excellent Westron now, although you’ve indicated it was not always so. Tell me how it is you learned it.”
So she told him of meeting a ship’s captain in Dol Amroth, a widower who’d desired a fair woman to serve as chatelaine for his home, and how she’d accepted his offer. “He taught me to speak the Common Tongue, and I taught him much of the ways of pleasure and gave to his home a good deal in the way of comfort and grace. He often entertained when he was there within Dol Amroth, and found he could count upon me to see to it that his guests were treated graciously, and that excellent meals were prepared for them yet with economy; and that they were well entertained during their visits.
“But there came the day he sailed from the port and failed to return. His ship was lost in a skirmish with Umbari pirates. Whether he was taken captive or was slain, who can say? Only he did not return. After at last word came that for certain his ship had been attacked, his sister came to claim his house. That her brother should have taken one such as I under his protection disturbed her, and she had me shown out, with little to take with me, although at least she left me some jewels he had purchased solely for me. She would not wear herself any thing he had purchased for my sake. And she allowed me my clothing and a few things I had given him as well. But she made it plain she would take it amiss should any others within Dol Amroth take me, and I must leave the city.
“One whose ship harbored in the port of Pelargir did offer me passage to that city, and along the way accepted--my attentions as payment. He was not of the pure blood, any more than had been he who kept me in the Prince’s city. But it proved that he had a wife in Pelargir, and he begged me not to allow any to know what had passed between us, and I agreed.
“I was able to take rooms there, and in time I gained custom. Among other skills I had been taught how to ease muscles tightened by exercise or worry; I attached myself to a public bath house where I offered to both men and women the benefits of my skill; and a few would visit with me in my own place, for company and conversation and what pleasure they would seek with me. I was comfortable there.
“At last another patron became taken with me, and he would insist on bringing me here to serve, again as chatelaine in his house. Three years past I found a growth on my face and came here for what aid they could give me. They cut it away, but could not remove all, apparently. And now?” She shrugged, looking about the room. “And you, Lord Iorhael?” she asked.
He knew she could see his flush. “Please--call me Frodo,” he asked. “That is the name given me by my parents. I am Frodo Baggins of the Shire, at your service.”
She nodded in response to the half bow he’d given from where he’d been sitting once more in the chair.
He continued, explaining his birth in Hobbiton, subsequent moves first to Buckland and then to Whitfurrows, the deaths of his parents, removal first to Brandy Hall and then to Hobbiton as Bilbo’s adopted heir. She listened attentively, and neither seemed to notice when Eldamir returned with a tray with food for the two of them, setting it between them. He set a bowl of a rich broth for Mistress Lilith, and a second mug of a lighter one for Frodo; plates of cold meats and cheeses and slices of several fruits lay between them, accompanied by a bowl of strawberries for each. He smiled to see both sitting so intently, then withdrew.
“My best friends are my younger cousins Fredegar Bolger, Folco Boffin, Merry Brandybuck, and Pippin Took, and my gardener Sam Gamgee. Of my cousins Folco lives closest to me in the village of Overhill; Pippin next in the Great Smial in Tuckborough where his father’s now Thain; Freddy lives in Budgeford along the Road going East toward the Brandywine Bridge; and Merry, of course, lives in Brandy Hall in Buckland where his father, my cousin Saradoc, is now the Master, Uncle Rory having died some years back. Sam grew up on Bagshot Row along the bottom of the Hill, near the hole we lived in when I was born. Bag End is better than halfway up the Hill, looking west over the Westfarthing of the Shire.
“When it was learned that I must leave the Shire I sold Bag End to my Sackville-Baggins cousins, Lotho and his mother Lobelia; and my own possessions were removed to a cottage some three miles from Brandy Hall in Buckland, near the gate in the High Hay, from which I would be able, it was hoped, to leave easily and unremarked when it was time. How close the hunt was, however, we would never have dreamed, for the Enemy’s Nazgûl had come to the Shire in search of me, entering near the Sarn Ford and coming to Hobbiton the evening we left for Buckland. They hunted us back eastward again, losing us between the Woody End and the Marish, there just west of the Brandywine River. Almost they caught us at the Bucklebury Ferry; early at the next dawning we slipped through the gate into the Old Forest, and were away.” He paused to drink from his mug, and she tucked a napkin into the neck of her nightrobe and carefully spooned soup to her own mouth, fastidiously swallowing each spoonful and wiping her face with a second cloth before taking another.
At last, when each had finished about half the broth set for them, he settled his mug back on the low table, and she laid her spoon again in the bowl. As he reached for the tumbler of water brought him, she took the invalid’s cup and drank from it thoughtfully, then wiped again at whatever might have escaped through the slack corner of her mouth as she examined him with increased interest. At last she asked, “And why was it that the Black Ones came so far to search for you?”
He found he was unwilling to speak of the Ring to one who knew naught of It. He shook his head as he thought what to say. At last he said slowly, “Many years ago, long before I was born, Bilbo was convinced to go out of the Shire on his own adventure. At one point he and the Dwarves with whom he traveled were dragged down beneath the mountains by goblins. They escaped from the orcs, and--and Bilbo found--something--that the Enemy wished found--for his own purposes. He brought it home, and before he left the Shire he left it to my keeping, never knowing what it was he’d found. Slightly over a year ago Gandalf--the Wizard known here as Mithrandir--realized what it was I’d inherited, and counseled I leave the Shire and bring It to Rivendell. And--and there I agreed to take It further.” He stopped speaking, now wishing to say no more about it.
“And you know our new King?” she asked at last, hoping to entice him to speak again.
“That he does,” said Aragorn’s voice from the doorway. “Frodo is one of my most beloved of friends.”
They both turned toward the door, Frodo with the eagerness he now knew whenever he heard Aragorn speak. “Eldamir didn’t send you this way, did he?”
“He advised me as to where you were, but also said you appeared comfortable enough, and that you were speaking with a lovely lady.”
Frodo felt he must be flushing once more, and saw that Mistress Lilith again appeared amused.
“And you, Mistress--how are you this day?” Aragorn asked.
“The pain comes and goes,” she sighed. “I’ve known two worse times since Lord Frodo came to me, but not so bad as to need the draught.” She glanced back at the Hobbit, and the one side of her face lifted into her half-smile. “He grows pale and his cheeks alone redden when he is troubled, I see. I am not certain what it is that disturbs him so.”
“It is the title,” the King informed her.
“There are no lords among Hobbits,” Frodo explained. “If you must use a title, please refer to me as Master Frodo or Mister Baggins.”
“Ah,” she said, looking at Frodo with more interest. “So your rank is a matter of this land, then?”
“He is a lord of all the Free Peoples,” Aragorn assured her. “The Great Eagles themselves have cried out his ennoblement and that of Samwise Gamgee for all those who have ears to hear to know. He is merely convinced that his own folk will not begin to appreciate what has been done.”
“I don’t want my people to have to appreciate what has happened out here,” Frodo corrected, and the Man and woman both turned to look at him. “Those within the Shire haven’t had to deal with much beyond an occasional cold winter for most of fourteen hundred years.”
“Do you forget the white wolves crossing the Brandywine, or the Battle of the Green Fields, or even the pursuit of Aranarth and the forces of Arnor after Arvedui disappeared into the far north, Frodo Baggins?” the Man asked him. “Your folk have never been fully isolated from the outer world, no matter what anyone might have wished for them. And each time they have had to deal with the outer world they have acquitted themselves well enough, as I trust they always will. And we of the Northern Dúnedain have ever rejoiced that this has been true. Why else do you think we have guarded your borders so faithfully? Or do you think we have fully forgotten the aid offered us by Bucca of the Marish?”
“Although you yourself have said that you would guard borders of what settled lands there are whether or not the services of the Dúnedain were recognized,” Frodo responded. “Didn’t you point out that we simple folk of the Shire and the Breelands remained simple mostly because of what your folk have done, watching over our borders in secret?”
Aragorn was smiling. “Trust you to remember that,” he said. “And indeed it has been ever so, although, as Gandalf keeps reminding others, Hobbits are nowhere as simple of creatures as we tend to deem them.”
“Ah,” Mistress Lilith commented, “at last he smiles in return.”
The King nodded. “And each time he smiles it brightens the world of Arda. We are fortunate to see it first hand.” Frodo could feel his cheeks flame, but he couldn’t help smiling along with his friend.
Aragorn returned his attention to the lady. “Now, Mistress, if I might examine you. Do you feel...?”
For some time he asked questions and listened to answers, and listened also to her heart and breathing, and let his hands rest over certain parts of her body. At last he straightened, examining the cup the healer had brought her earlier. “I will ask Master Frodo to help me with it ere he leaves me,” she promised him. “But I would enjoy his company while I may. It is so long since one so courteous--and comely--has visited me. I would not fall asleep betimes.”
The Man nodded. “I understand. Then, as I must soon return to the Citadel, I leave you my blessing, for there are a few more I would see before I leave the Houses.”
After he’d left, she shifted more comfortably in her chair. “Now,” she said at last, “tell me what it is like in your land. Are all as you are?”
He spoke for a time of the Shire and its people, describing the Thain and the Master and the Mayor and their families; how the four farthings and Buckland lay in relationship to one another.
“And there is none for you there?” she asked at length.
He shrugged, looking away from her somewhat. “I once loved a woman of my folk, but it was before either of us was of age. Then suddenly she decided she didn’t wish to marry me after all. She married a second cousin to both of us, and has two children now.”
“And no other woman of your people would have you?” she persisted. “Or was it, not being able to have the one you desired, you would not have another?”
He gave a slighter shrug, looking thoughtfully out the window. “I am told that the lasses have been casting glances at me for many years, although I never truly noticed until Pearl pointed it out to me, there before she threw me over. And I will admit there have been a few who once drew my eye....”
She was searching his face when he glanced back at her. “Or is it now that youths catch your attention?”
He was shocked at those words. “Lads? Stars, no!” He was certain his cheeks must be flaming as he turned away. At last he said, “I have heard of such things, of course. There are questions, I’ll admit, when a Hobbit doesn’t appear to pay the least attentions to lasses.” He turned back to look into her uncovered eye again. “But not for me. Oh, there were thoughts, once, but never the--never the desire to act on them.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I see. I am sorry if--if I have caused your mind discomfort. I have seen those who prefer children, or those of their own sex. Raised as I was in the houses of pleasure, I saw much that--that perhaps I would have preferred not knowing.”
Her face was paler now, and she looked very weary. “I think,” she said softly, “I am ready for the draught now.” He took up the mug and helped her drink it, realizing how weak was her grasp. It took her a time to get it all down, and often she must rest between swallows. At last she eased back in the chair. “If you will ring the bell--I must have aid to return to the bed.”
He found the bell in question, and after ringing it returned to be by her, holding her hand. Her eye was closed now, and she was continuing to swallow. “Will you,” she asked, “will you return to see me again? I would like it.”
“If you desire,” he assured her.
The one side of her face that answered to her mood lifted. “It would ease my heart,” she said as the door opened and a healer and an aide entered to help lift her into her bed.
He came to visit her every two to three days after that. Sometimes she would be sitting in the chair, but as time passed she was more often lying in her bed. She was losing flesh day by day now, and seemed much weaker by the end of the third week of visits. As he entered, she turned to look at him. “Welcome, Master,” she whispered. “It is ever good--to see another--come to me--who--who is not a--healer.”
That she needed to take breath between words now indicated, he knew, that she had not much time left. “Does no other come to visit you?” he asked her as he lifted himself onto the high stool that had been set by her bed for his visits. She managed a slight shake to her head. “Not even he who brought you here to Minas Tirith?” he continued.
She gave a gasp of a laugh. “Lauril? Nay--not he. I hear--I hear another--another fair woman--serves him now. When I was--was no longer fair--he--he stopped coming to see me. Nay--” she said in response to his rising upset at the idea, “nay, I will not--will not fault him. Never did he--he think of me--as--as anything but--an ornament--for his household. Such as I--we do not know the--the--luxury of reassurance--that we are--loved. Not as--as you have known.”
She allowed one finger to trace the veins on the back of his hand. “I sorrow--sorrow--you have not--have not known--physical easing--of the sort--of the sort I--was trained to offer. I do not--do not--fully understand--why this did not happen for you.”
He shook his head. “Had it not been for--for what I received when I came of age, I suspect I would have done so. I’d begun to--to realize--that other lasses were yet looking at me. Oh, there were many lasses who used to look at me when I was younger. Hyacinth Tunnely--not, of course, that I had any interest in poor Hyacinth. She was quite shallow, I fear.”
She smiled her half-smile. “Nay, I cannot see you--with someone--shallow.”
He smiled in return. “Nor could I. Now, Narcissa--Narcissa Boffin, that is--yes, I could imagine myself with her. Before----” Again he found himself reluctant to name or reference the Ring, and tried to think how to tell her without having to explain why. At last he continued, “Once my heart began to heal from Pearl throwing me over, I realized just how much Narcissa loved me and how much she--how much she----” He took a deep breath. “I realized how much she was filling my imagination,” he sighed. “But then--then I came of age.” Again he tried to think how to tell her without having to speak of It. “As I said before, Bilbo had found--something--something important--years before, before I was even born. No one knew what It was, not until just before we left the Shire. Then Gandalf came to test It, and we realized I must leave the Shire and get--It--out of there.
“So I left the Shire. Gandalf made me bring Sam with me, and Merry and Pippin wouldn’t stay behind. We met Aragorn along the way, and he brought us to Rivendell, although I was--wounded--about a two weeks after my birthday, at Amon Sul. I almost didn’t survive then.”
“That is--that is why--you have been ill here?” Mistress Lilith asked him.
He shook his head. “That adds to it, but I was wounded again, and my--my burden was very heavy. The last time I understand I was but barely clinging to life when Gandalf found us and Aragorn--called Sam and me back. They tell me we slept for two weeks straight. We woke to find the army about us, there in Ithilien, where they’d camped to allow those who were worst wounded to recover enough we could make the rest of the return here to Minas Tirith. I’ve recovered a good deal, but nowhere as much as the others have done.”
She gave the slightest of nods. “I can see,” she whispered. “You strengthen, even if it is--slow, while I weaken. You will promise me something?”
“What is it you would have me do?”
“To live--to live as much--as much as you can. You are yet young....”
“It’s almost eighteen years since I came of age. I’m nowhere as young as the others.”
She shrugged one shoulder elegantly. “What is that--eighteen years? I’ve lived thirty-two sun-rounds, but feel--ancient--compared to you. Perhaps I am not a--lady of the realm, but I have known--pleasure. Pain, too--yes; but mostly pleasure.”
“It’s not as though I have known a life of deprivation,” he said gently. “My parents and my aunts and uncles and cousins and Bilbo have all loved me. And at least--at least I know the beginning of what it feels like to know the love of a lad for a lass. Pearl and I had thought to wed, you know.”
“I am jealous,” she said, smiling briefly. “But at least--I was able--to meet you and your friend, the King. That is a--good memory for me to take with me--when I must leave this world.”
“And there was none you ever knew you could have loved as a husband?” he asked.
“One, perhaps--my Captain--my Androd--there in Dol Amroth. Always he was kind to me. Or--or there is you.” Her eye had a decided twinkle to it, but he realized that at the same time she was fully serious.
Frodo felt his cheeks flame. “I am a Hobbit, and no Man, Mistress Lilith.”
“Yet are you not--are you not one--one of the most constant of mankind, whatever the race--that there is, Frodo Baggins of the Shire?” she asked. “It is no wonder--the women of your race--look after you, I think.”
He again felt his cheeks flush as he held her hand. She gave a slight laugh, smiled up at him, then turned her head and drifted into sleep.
At last he rose and slipped his hand out of her slack grip, and quietly left her to her rest, returning to the main House. He found Aragorn in the treatment rooms where he was examining one of those who’d been freed from the ships of Umbar, an older Man with a long scar down his face where he’d been caught by a scimitar on the day he’d been taken as a slave. Aragorn was examining the Man’s shoulder and back.
“The shoulder muscles are truly beginning to heal at last, Captain,” Aragorn was saying. “You should be ready to return to your home in another month.”
“My sister will be both very happy and very distressed,” the Man said. “When I was thought dead, she went to claim my house for herself and her family. I’d always had a larger and more comfortable home than she and her husband had been able to afford. I fear that many of those of my things I’d loved best are already gone, for she has never had appreciation for the beauty of workmanship of items wrought elsewhere. Nor would she be likely to keep those things that had belonged to my late wife.”
“Will she have kept on those who served you in your house?” the King asked as he began methodically kneading a warming ointment into the skin over the injury.
The Man shrugged. “There was but the husband to our old housekeeper, both older folk who used to serve myself and my wife, there before I was widowed. Brigeth, who was housekeeper, died of age two years after my wife. I cannot see my sister dismissing old Melnith. She who served as my chatelaine after Brigeth’s death--however--where she might have gone to no one appears to know. Harthildiel never approved of her, I fear. She said nothing openly before I sailed that last time; but it was obvious she felt that such a woman was far, far beneath me and an embarrassment.”
“She is a woman from Gondor?”
“Nay--she came from the Southlands. She’d been a slave and was freed by our soldiers some years earlier. She was very beautiful and accomplished. I don’t believe I ever fully appreciated how much I’d come to depend on her before I went on my last voyage. The whole time I was rowing in that galley I found myself planning how, whenever I managed to achieve my freedom once more, I’d take her properly to wife. Fivriel would not have minded seeing me remarried, I think--she was far more accepting than Harthildiel has ever dreamed of being.”
The King was now finished, and turned to a basin and ewer nearby, pouring water into the basin and cleansing his hands, finally wiping them on clean toweling before he turned to aid the Man to redon his shirt. “Well, it is my hope that you learn what has become of her, sir. I will see you again in three days, then.”
“Indeed, my Lord King, and I look forward to that day,” the Man said as he tied the last lacing. He straightened to his full height before giving a graceful bow. “Until I see you next, then?” He then noted where Frodo stood inside the door and appeared startled. “My lord? Please pardon me--I’d not realized any other had entered the room. I offer you the joy of the day!”
“And you, Captain,” Frodo said, bowing in return, feeling it not worth the effort to try to disabuse the Man of the idea he needed to be addressed by his title.
The Man went out, and Aragorn, having unrolled his sleeves, looked down at his friend. “And who have you been seeing this day, small brother?” he asked.
“Ionil and some of the younger soldiers,” Frodo answered, “and then Mistress Lilith. She is weakening rapidly, I fear.”
“I pray her death does not cause you too much distress, Frodo.” Aragorn’s voice and expression were soft and filled with compassion. “I cannot say how much longer she might linger.”
“Oh, I know,” Frodo replied. “When I saw her first, I could see where it must lead. You see, my Cousin Tumnus Brandybuck, who was my lessons master when I was a lad in Brandy Hall, had a tumor grow from the mole on his cheek that left him much the same as Mistress Lilith.”
“And the cancer caused the one side of the face to fall as has happened with the lady?” Redonning his surcoat over his shirt, Aragorn was checking the room to see that it was fit to leave to the needs of whoever might use it next.
“Yes. And you say that cancer means crab disease?”
“What is a crab?” the Hobbit asked as they finally passed out into the hallway.
“It is a creature of the sea, although in warmer climes there are a few varieties that live on the land rather than in the water; and there are some crabs that prefer to live in fresh water rather than salt. They usually have a heavily armored body and several jointed legs, with grasping pincers on the two front, great legs. A crab is a strange creature that cannot easily move forward--instead it scurries sideways to reach its objective. So it is with the tumorous growths--they seem to creep sideways into place, then attach themselves to wherever they grow, eventually gathering most of the blood vessels to themselves to aid in their growth.
“Had I had the chance to remove the tumor the first time perhaps I might have been able to get it all, for Adar taught me how to do so, and I’ve removed a few others over the years. Once the growth reaches a point, however, then the seeds of the growth will scatter throughout the body as has happened with Mistress Lilith. Now it grows in many places throughout her body and brain, and it does not respond fully to my power or that of the Elessar.”
Frodo nodded thoughtfully as the two of them left the Houses together.
Aragorn continued, “Did she speak much today?”
“Some, although it grows more difficult for her to breathe. I fear she feels very lonely, and so she rejoices the more in our visits.” Then, after walking quietly through the gardens, he added as they approached the street, “She said--she said that there have been two she could have loved in her life, one of them the one who made her chatelaine in his house there in Dol Amroth. She said he was very kind to her.”
“And who was the other?”
Frodo shrugged, and he could feel his friend’s eyes upon him.
“She said you?” Aragorn asked, amused and touched. “She admitted she is attracted to you? Bless the lady!”
“Aragorn! What can I do for her? I’m but a Hobbit after all!”
“Frodo Baggins, I doubt you’ve been ‘but anything’ in all your life. ‘But a Hobbit’ indeed!”
“But we’re not even of the same race!”
“So what? Beren loved Lúthien and Tuor married Idril, after all. And Thingol took Melian to wife, while he was merely an Elf and she a Maia. It’s not as though a man of one race has never found his happiness only with a woman of another in the past,” he said, looking forward resolutely at their path, an unexplained sternness manifesting itself. “Why can a woman from among Men not be attracted to one of the best of men from among Hobbits?”
Frodo stopped and looked up at the Man. Realizing that Frodo was no longer by him, Aragorn also stopped, turning to look at him. The Hobbit realized his hands were balled up at his sides, and he felt overwhelmed by grief. He could feel his lip trembling. At last he marshaled his voice. “And what can I do for her, or any woman of any race, Arathorn’s son?” he asked in a low voice. “You know, perhaps better than any, just how little of me It left. You know better than any other how the pain returns, how difficult it is for me to eat properly, how weak I have become, how easy it is for me to be overwhelmed.”
“And I know, perhaps better than you yourself, that there burns in you yet the Fire of Life, strongly enough to light all of Arda and Ëa as well. For all of what those of her own people brought her to, yet Mistress Lilith has that Fire of Life within her as well, and Light calls to Light at this moment. Her body may be weakening to dissolution, but she does not lose her joy or Light with it. For all she was made to share her body with many, cheapening the love in the act, yet she, unlike many others, has not lost her appreciation of the joy of the gift of such pleasure. And she wishes that you might not have to remain bereft of that gift yourself.”
The Man stepped close to Frodo, and knelt to look him in the eye. The street had been empty, but now a few came through the gate from the Fifth Circle and paused to see their new King kneeling down to speak, face to face, with the Ringbearer. They retreated enough to allow the conversation to remain private, but watched with fascination, for they were coming to truly love these heroes of the fight against Mordor. “Frodo, you deserve happiness and fulfillment on all levels. Can you not see this is true? She can see it. Stars above--even Sam can see it, although there are few more discerning than he is! We all wish to gift you with the joy you deserve, and the love you need to fulfill you.”
For a moment longer Frodo stood still, searching his King’s eyes; then, his eyes filled with sadness, he turned and walked away toward the guest house. Frustrated, Aragorn rose to his feet and watched after him.
They’d brought a new stool into her room--one with a rest for his feet and a back and arms to it, and with cushions carefully tied in place to make it more comfortable as he sat in it. He was leaning back in it, holding her hand and singing softly under his breath the song about the Moon getting drunk in the old inn that had led to so much uproar in Bree, for she had expressed a love of hearing him sing.
Suddenly he felt her hand grip his briefly, an indication she’d wakened. He opened his eyes and leaned forward. “Welcome back,” he murmured.
“To waken--to find you--leaning over me--smiling--it is worth the pain,” she breathed. “Not long now--not long--then I will rest indeed. But I do not--begrudge it--not when--I--have had you--beside me.” The half-smile she gave lifted his heart.
He held the invalid’s cup to her mouth so she could drink the draught left for her. She didn’t turn it away any more, although she’d fight the tendency to sleep as long as she might.
When she’d drunk what she could he carefully wiped her mouth with the damp cloth left for that purpose. Not only was she herself fastidious, but the healers had explained that should liquid lie on her skin for too long it could cause sores; knowing how deeply the loss of her beauty grieved her, Frodo had been faithful to help her protect what could be kept for her comfort. He knew that one of the female aides would come in two or three times a day to sit her up and change her gowns and brush her hair--her one beauty she’d not lost to the disease--and to rub a sweet-scented ointment into her skin to soothe and protect it. She might be dying, but at least she was being allowed to die with her dignity intact as much as was possible.
When he’d replaced the cloth on the table by him, he turned to see that she was looking deeply into his eyes. “I would--give you a gift, Frodo Baggins,” she whispered.
“You’d give me a gift?” he echoed. “You’ve little enough to share.”
“This--is one--I have--even now,” she replied. “Please, kiss me.” When he paused uncertainly, she continued, “Yes, kiss me--as a lad kisses--the lass--who stirs his heart.” She searched his eyes, and smiled. “You did--once kiss your Pearl, did you not?”
It was little enough she’d asked of him, he knew; and greatly daring, he leaned forward over her face, and kissed her.
Aragorn was entering the room, and stopped, shocked to stillness to find the Ringbearer kissing Mistress Lilith--and most thoroughly, he recognized. A thrill of joy filled the Man, for he knew that both were deeply wounded; but for the moment they were sharing the sign of the greatest hope those who live upon the earth might share--love and a desire to defy the darkness by sharing what could be shared toward the renewal and continuation of life beyond the terms granted their bodies. And although Aragorn had never condoned the tendency he’d seen in some Men to couple regularly and indiscriminately, he appreciated why at some moments even the greatest and most continent felt compelled to find some woman with whom to spend themselves just before great battles or in times of greatest stress.
He’d learned of Sam’s love for this Rosie Cotton he’d known all her life; Merry had one night spoken of the attraction he’d felt for some years to Miss Estella Bolger, while Pippin had admitted watching his sisters with their beaux and his own fumbling attempts to appreciate the attractions of kissing. Frodo, however, had not spoken of his own romantic adventures; and other than Pippin once mentioning that his parents had once hoped his oldest sister would marry Frodo, he’d heard little other indication that Frodo had been drawn to the women of his folk, even though all three of the others had indicated the Hobbitesses of the Shire had been readily drawn to Frodo Baggins.
He was certain that the Ring Itself had something sinister to do with the fact that Frodo had remained alone. One time Frodo had admitted that the Ring had tried to influence him to force at least one Hobbitess; and he’d fought the compulsion, for he would not be that kind of person. Certainly the Ring had caught the echoes in Aragorn’s own heart of his love for Elrond’s daughter, and had tried to convince him that should he take It for his own It would grant him authority to take her in defiance of her father’s will; and at the end, when he’d felt the Eye focus on him as he stood before the Army of the West before the Black Gate, he’d felt Sauron seek to suborn him with similar arguments. That Frodo had had to fight similar battles with the Will of the Ring for almost two decades had roused Aragorn’s sympathy and feelings of protectiveness; that for a moment Frodo and a dying woman were sharing an unsullied moment of physical pleasure pleased him beyond measure. It would not go beyond kissing, he knew--she could do no more--not now; and he suspected that the Ring had somehow burned the ability to be fully roused by a woman from Frodo once It had realized he couldn’t be forced into such corruption as It had desired to make of him.
But there could be no question that Frodo Baggins could kiss.
He heard a hiss of breath in his ear, and realized that Gandalf stood by him, also watching with a level of satisfaction. “Yes, what he might have known had It not come to him,” the Wizard murmured softly. “He and Pearl or that Narcissa Boffin who loved him just as long could have known such joy together, and would have filled the Shire with such a blessed progeny.”
Apparently Frodo heard that, although he didn’t break away betimes from the kiss. However, it ended soon enough.
She looked up into his face, and appeared fully satisfied. “Ah,” she said clearly enough, “you have not lost all, sweet lord. It is long since--I have known so--so satisfying--a kiss.” She gave a quick glance at his lap, and her half-smile almost became a smirk of triumph. “You see--you have not--you have not been--totally unmanned--not as you had feared. I am most pleased. Now, when you--when you return to your--own folk, seek her out. She will have you--of that--of that I am--certain.”
Frodo’s face was almost stark white, and his cheeks themselves flaming brightly as he raised his eyes in defiance to meet those of King and Wizard; he then looked back down into hers. “I cannot say I will be able to do that,” he said. “But I thank you--for your gift.”
“I will rest now,” she sighed. “Go now--with your friends. I will be here yet--tomorrow. Of that--of that I am sure.” She waved her fingers at him and watched as he lowered himself from the stool, accepted the final squeeze he gave her hand, then turned her head away, and smiling still on the one side of her face, closed her eyes.
Aragorn had promised himself he would not speak of this once he left the door to Lilith’s room; but it was quickly obvious Gandalf had no such reservations. “And how long has this been going on?” the Wizard asked Frodo as they approached the stairs down to the lower level.
“Nothing has been going on. She merely wished to gift me with a kiss, and I accepted it.”
“You responded well to her gift, and from what I can tell she was perhaps receiving far more than what she was giving you, Frodo Baggins. And do not believe, my beloved Hobbit, that I am shocked or upset at all. It was a very generous deed on both your parts. You both have need of such assurance against the darkness that would take you.”
Frodo paused, and looked up into the Istar’s face, searching it; and after a moment the wall of reserve he’d erected finally gave way. His eyes were brightened with unshed tears of relief and other emotions, and he gave Gandalf a tremulous smile before he turned away and descended the stairs, intent on returning to the guest house and then perhaps going down to the Fifth Circle where he now had a friend who owned a shop that sold art and writing supplies and who was himself an artist.
“Then there were Hobbitesses that stirred his heart,” Aragorn said softly once Frodo was out of sight.
“Oh, indeed--Pippin’s older sister Pearl and Narcissa Boffin. Actually, I think all were glad when Pearl chose to end their relationship, for I don’t believe she loved him nearly as well as she loved the idea of being in love with him, if you understand what I mean. From what I can learn, both ladies fell in love with him at about the same time, when he was still but a lad of twenty.”
“A lad of twenty? I was certainly certain when I came to that age that I’d seen the one lady in all of Middle Earth who could stir my heart,” the Man replied.
“As I well know. Why do you not tell him why you desire he should remain longer here?”
“It will be a more wonderful surprise when he realizes what I would have him share with me when the day comes.”
“As you desire, my beloved Lord King of Men--and Hobbits.”
On the next morning Aragorn was waiting in the treatment room when the former captive of the Umbari slavers came in, carrying a casket in his hands. The tall captain was stiffly erect as he entered, and his face was troubled. Aragorn examined his visage. “You have had disturbing news?” he asked.
The other raised his eyes to those of the King. “She is here--here in Minas Tirith,” he explained. “Apparently when my sister took possession of my house she had the guardsman escort Lily out of it, and she let it be known that she would cause trouble to any Man who looked in favor on her. I was going past a jeweler’s shop when I saw a woman going in, carrying this--it is a casket I gave my Lily not long ere I left her that last time, to hold the jewels I had given her. A Guardsman saw me confront this woman, and heard my tale that I was the one who’d given the gift of it and what it contained. He took it when the strange woman admitted I’d had no sight of its contents, and he opened it and demanded to know what it contained. When I’d described five pieces of jewelry exactly, he had the woman give it to me, and asked how it had come to her. She had become the mistress to a trader from Pelargir, and this had been the property of his former mistress, and had been left in his house when the former mistress had become ill and he had been advised that she was dying. She’d thought to sell the jewelry it contained and keep the money for her own.
“So,” he continued, “I have what I’d given her, but still am left wondering what has happened to her. Where is she, here within the White City?”
For the King, however, the final pieces of the puzzle were clicking into place. “Did the woman say of what disease the former mistress was dying?” he asked.
“An evil growth,” the Man sighed.
“Let me examine and treat your shoulder,” Aragorn said, “and then I would have you meet one who lies in the House of Rest.”
Frodo came out of the guest house at Aragorn’s insistence. “Is Mistress Lilith indeed dying?” he asked as he fastened the leaf brooch of his Elven cloak.
“I fear she is indeed. However, at the last a part of her own treasure has been restored to her, and she would have you come to see before she goes. Please come, Frodo--for her sake.”
Together they passed through the main House, and then across the walk to the doors to the House of Rest. Aragorn led the Hobbit up the stairs and to the door to the familiar room. As he entered, Frodo realized that Mistress Lilith was not alone--sitting familiarly on her bed beside her was a Man--the captain he’d seen Aragorn treating for damage to the muscles of the shoulder who’d been freed from the Umbari ships. He was fastening a necklace of shining peridots about her shoulders, then laying her back, carefully arraying her shining hair about her. “Ah,” he said as he finished at the last, “I knew you were as beautiful as ever you were, my beloved.”
He looked up and saw the King and Ringbearer paused in the doorway, and smiled. “Oh, my Lord King--you have brought him! Oh, Master Frodo--my Lily has told me how dear you have become to her, and how much in your way you reminded her of me. I know we have not much time, but the King has said he will marry us to one another, if one would stand by us. Will you do so--stand witness to our joy?”
Frodo felt the twist within himself that grieved that her captain had been restored to her, but an even stronger feeling of triumph, one that surprised him with its intensity. “Yes,” he said quietly.
Aragorn drew him to the bed, where Frodo climbed onto the carefully padded stool to sit alongside her. The healer who ruled this house and several aides came in after them to fill the room with flowers, and at last the King took out of his scrip a marriage cord and a rolled marriage contract. The healer and a female aide together raised the wedding song, and at last the King began, “Behold, today two come before you to be handfasted together, to wed one another and to bind themselves to cleave only to each other from this day forward. Is there any who dares speak against this marriage?”
And as the King spoke the ritual of marriage, Frodo Baggins sat by bride and groom, his own Light blessing the union of the two who raised this last defiance against the Darkness.
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