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We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Chapter 24 ~ Holding the North II

Thranduil dreamed vividly of Lindóriel that night.  They said no word to one another, but she seemed as real and as alive as he had ever known her, lying with him in a wide green meadow showered with wind-borne tree blossoms.  It was familiar and yet foreign, like a memory of a place he had not yet seen.  He had tasted tears on her face, only to wake and find they were his own.

Alone in the dark but for the dogs, Thranduil allowed himself to grieve again as he had not for far too long.  Galadriel had unwittingly stirred a torrent of old emotions and passions he had until now kept firmly suppressed.  It had been four hundred years since a woman had touched him that way, and it seemed she had lanced a far older wound than she had intended. 

It was profoundly bittersweet but Thranduil clung to those shreds of dream, treasured them until they were indelibly impressed upon his memory.  It was almost like seeing her again.  Galadriel had given him a greater grace than she knew.

The dogs seemed to recognize their master’s distress.  They gathered protectively around Thranduil on the bed as he finally let the desolation pour out of him uninhibited.  The trauma of being reft from his most intimate companion had wounded him so deeply that the pain was still unbearable when he allowed himself to feel it.  He did not suppress it now.  He felt it, he embraced it, he deliberately exacerbated it until the depths of his soul were inflamed with the exquisite agony of loss.

It was late in the morning when Gwaelas at last came looking for him, the light from the corridor spilling into the deep gloom of his chambers.  Gwaelas was one of the very few who were ever permitted to see the King in such a state, stripped of all pretense and wracked with raw emotion, disheveled and miserable and streaked with tears.  He said nothing, but looked keenly sympathetic as he lit a few of the lamps and then returned whence he had come.  He was back again in a moment, securing the door behind him as he set about the mundane routine of preparing his lord’s clothing for the day.

“I have ordered your breakfast be brought here, my lord,” Gwaelas said gently.  “Lord Celeborn and his lady have been attended, and have likewise spent the morning in bed.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said, striving to steady his voice. 

“Shall I tell them you are indisposed?”

“No.”  Thranduil wiped his eyes and resumed a stern expression.  “I will not spend the day hiding in here.  Allow me an hour, and then return.”

“As you wish.”  Gwaelas moved to wave the enormous wolves off the bed before he went.  One dared to growl at him, but he silenced her with a severe glance.  The entire pack followed him into the corridor to receive their morning rations and escape into the free air outside.

As Thranduil set about making himself presentable, he realized an hour was still a very sanguine estimate.  The mirror told him his face again had that haunted look which inspired no one.  He stubbornly refused to be seen in an official capacity before he had completely collected himself, and now he must recreate in one hour that stable presence of mind he had cultivated over centuries.  He splashed cold water on his face, attempting to quell the roiling tumult in his heart. 

The best immediate remedy he knew for grief was action, especially violent action if he could afford to indulge in it.  He glanced at the wardrobe door and saw that Gwaelas had anticipated his needs with his usual prescience, selecting the stout woodland garb trimmed with many subtle royal embellishments.  A hunt would clear his mind and be a suitable entertainment for Celeborn.  Later he would be able to remember her smile without feeling utterly wretched, but for now he had to think of other things.  He ate his food when it arrived without much thought, his mind already elsewhere.  He tied his hair back and opted again for the steel circlet.

 Gwaelas returned to inquire after him as instructed when the hour was up.  He seemed pleased by the improvement in Thranduil’s manner.  “Your guests await you, my lord,” he said.  “Do you require anything else this morning?”

“No, thank you, Gwaelas,” Thranduil assured him.  “Only inform Dorthaer and the rest of my guard that we shall be riding into the south today with Lord Celeborn, and we may not return before tomorrow.  Have horses prepared for us at once.”

Gwaelas nodded knowingly.  “At your command, my lord.”

Thranduil found Celeborn and Galadriel ensconced in one of the large niche chambers overlooking the King’s throne, lingering over their breakfast in considerable comfort.

“There you are!” Celeborn exclaimed as he joined them.  “I had begun to fear we had kept you waiting, but I am told you had a late morning as well.”

“Indeed,” Thranduil said.  “I had a great deal to consider last night, and enjoyed some exceptionally good sleep which I believe I must attribute to the kind attentions of your lady wife.”

“You are most welcome,” Galadriel smiled.  It was impossible to tell whether she knew or guessed how he had truly passed the night, but Thranduil had no intention of discussing it.

“Today I am at your disposal,” he said instead.  “I understand you wish to see our defenses and learn what you may of the power in Dol Guldur.”

“That is our object,” Galadriel confirmed.  “It now seems that your survival here concerns us all more closely than we thought.  We intend to bear tidings of you to Elrond when we leave for Imladris.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said.  “It seems to me that you might observe more by each taking a different perspective.  By your leave, I would ride south with your husband while Lord Linhir shows you our nearer defenses.”

Galadriel looked at him narrowly.  “I see in your cunning plan merely a pretext to spend time alone with your kinsman,” she said, “but I will not challenge you, for your reasoning is sound.  I shall tour your defenses if you wish, while you two indulge in your own entertainments.”

“You are very gracious, my lady,” Thranduil said, smiling in his turn.

Celeborn affectionately took his leave of her, but she waved him away, perfectly content to sip her wine and wait for Lord Linhir to appear.

Thranduil led Celeborn to the armory where he retrieved his bow and saw his cousin fitted with one of his own.  Fortunately, Celeborn was already dressed appropriately for the outing.  As his objectives today would require more stealth than force, they forwent their swords and armed themselves with long knives instead.

Dorthaer and eleven others of the King’s Guard awaited them in the stables with a pack of Thranduil’s dogs, the horses fitted with light saddles and supplies enough for two days in the wood.  All of them were armed as if for war.

“What sort of hunt is this?” Celeborn asked incredulously as he mounted his horse.  “What is our quarry?”

“The most interesting quarry of all,” Thranduil promised, turning his stallion toward the southern road.  “Men.”


They passed nearly silently through the trees, marked only by the hoofbeats of the horses and the rustle of the dogs through the undergrowth.  Occasionally Thranduil would pull Celeborn aside to briefly explain where they were and what dangers he need be mindful of.  The wood was clear and green for several leagues, though the shadow of Mirkwood had begun encroaching northward again, providing shelter for many evil things.  Webs had begun to appear in the trees overhead, and not everyone who had lately made his home in that region sought leave of the King.

They soon left the road and plunged into the wilds, guided by little more than Thranduil’s instinct.  The subtle speech of the birds told him a great deal, for there were many friends of Radagast on the wing.  They spoke of caution, of danger and of intruders. 

 The dogs acquired a fresh trail in the fading light of evening, and Thranduil raised a hand for absolute silence.  They left their horses with a guard of four while the rest of the party slipped through the shadows on foot. 

They began to hear voices ahead of them as the shadows lengthened, and they could all smell a change in the air.  Firelight flickered in the dark.  They had found their quarry at last, another group of outlaws and rogues who thought to take advantage of Mirkwood’s evil reputation, sheltering there and preying upon the Men of the valley and any hapless travelers they caught on the road.  There were always more of them.  They never seemed to question the disappearance of their predecessors. 

This was not the first time Dorthaer and his Guardsmen had stalked a camp, and everyone fell quickly into position, crouched like shadows beside the wide boles of trees or amid the brush.  Thranduil kept one eye on Celeborn, but he need not have worried.  The Lord of Belfalas may have had little need of his woodcraft of late, but he had not forgotten it.

This camp seemed to be slowly acquiring qualities of permanence.  Simple hovels had been built of split timber to shelter both the thieves and their new wealth against the coming winter.  A generous blaze burned in the center of the clearing, casting its fluid light over a small crowd of weathered individuals, stacks of cordwood, a crude smith’s forge, and scattered piles of refuse.  The skull of a magnificent stag had been hammered to a post outside the largest dwelling, accompanied by those of several birds.  The entire place reeked of woodsmoke and ripe sweat.

The Elves remained fixed in place for a while, surrounding the clearing in a loose perimeter while they counted and observed the occupants.  One of the brigands, made careless by drink and driven by necessity, passed within an arm’s length of both Thranduil and Celeborn on his way into the dark to relieve himself.  Still they did not move.  The time was not right.

Dorthaer returned to report to Thranduil, gliding through the cover like a cat.  By a rapid series of hand signals, he communicated that there were twenty-four individuals present, two of them women.  Five were sleeping, all were armed.  Thranduil nodded and gave him leave to proceed.

Now when the waking Men wandered beyond the firelight, they failed to return.  No sound was heard, save perhaps a few grunts and the whisper of a brief scuffle, but these were lost in the bawdy noise of the camp.  Two of the Men, incongruously decked in fine jewelry, were engaged in a drunken argument which seemed likely to come to blows.  Another was very publicly having his wicked way with one of their women while six more cheered his conquest.  The others wandered through the camp on business of their own, drinking wine, tending the fires, and picking through the roast carcass of a young bear. 

“Where is that fool, Rathar?” one of them demanded loudly.  “Is he so drunk that he has lost himself in the dark?  We have a game to finish.”

“Go after him,” another said, apparently with some authority.  “He cannot escape his debts so easily.”

Grumbling, the aggrieved dice player tramped into the wood in the general direction his friend had taken earlier.  Thranduil tapped Celeborn on the shoulder, bidding him wait and be ready.

Thranduil watched motionless until the man had just passed him.  Then he hooked his arm around the other’s throat and rolled him quietly to the ground, kneeling upon his legs and muffling his cries with a gloved hand until he collapsed in a faint.  With a ready length of rope, Thranduil quickly bound the wrists and ankles together and left him for the moment to return to his cover.  They would fetch him later.

It was high time they made their presence known.  Enough of the Men had been secured for the Elves to risk an assault.  It would have been much simpler to slaughter them all, but Thranduil was feeling generous.  He laid his hand on the bark of a near tree and felt it pulse with recognition.  The spirit of the forest awaited his command.

“Now Sigeric has gone and lost himself, too!” someone observed.  “And has anyone seen Rachad or Garivald?”

“What the blazes is going on?” the obvious chief among them finally asked.

With one great effort, Thranduil choked the life from the fire in their midst, plunging the scene into darkness.  At that signal, his Elves surged forward to capture the blinded and disoriented outlaws.  The men cursed and the women screamed, but all met the same fate.  It was finished in a matter of moments, though the screaming and shouting continued. 

When all their prisoners had been secured, the Elves rekindled the fire, more for cheer and comfort than for any need of light.  It illuminated an amusing scene, fifteen captives tied hand and foot, some still partially entangled in the wide nets which had been cast over them in the dark.  The remaining nine were gathered from the wood and cast down beside their fellows.

“A fine haul, Commander,” Thranduil congratulated Dorthaer as he surveyed the camp.  “They are not so fat as our last catch, but still they seem to have profited quite enough from their mischief.”

“You have got a lot of bloody cheek!” shouted the irate chieftain from where he lay.  He would not condescend to speak the Elvish tongue, though he clearly understood it.  “By what right do you trespass upon our homes and make sport of us?”

“Get him up,” Thranduil said imperiously, impressed by the man’s impudent courage.  “I do not speak to creatures wallowing in the dirt.”

Lancaeron grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him into a sitting position.  “Govern your tongue in the presence of the King,” he growled.

“I am also a king!” he protested.  “Though you seem determined to deny me the distinction.”

“Very well, little king,” Thranduil answered, speaking in the dialect of Men for his benefit.  “Have you a name?”

The Man glowered.  “I am Gunderic,” he said.  “These are my people, and this is my realm.  Not much to you, I suppose, but you have no right to violate us!”

“I have every right,” Thranduil said.  “If you found this stretch of wood pleasant to live in, it is because I have made it so.  You have trespassed in my realm without leave and harried travelers on the road my people made.  You have robbed and abused the Woodmen who have paid well for my protection.  I shall remove you from your den as I am obliged to do, but it is they who will decide your fate.  Bear that in mind.”

That prospect did seem to fill most of the company with some measure of trepidation.  Each of them was thoroughly stripped of all looted treasure, rings, chains, brooches, and coins.  Those who did not give trouble were re-bound in a more comfortable position and offered wine.  Those who spat, cursed, or flailed about were left face down in the dirt.  Considering the disparity of treatment, it did not take long for the stubborn ones to come around to the new discipline. 

With their captives secured, Dorthaer and his party began tearing the camp apart searching for caches of food, treasure and weapons.  Pest-ridden bedding was burned immediately, and the refuse dumps were covered with fresh earth.  In only a few hours, the place seemed vastly improved.  This was partly because the sleeping draught secreted in the wine had taken effect and all their querulous captives were slumbering soundly, allowing the Elves some measure of privacy.

“Look what they found,” Thranduil said, joining Celeborn at the fire with several bottles of wine under his arm.  “It is of respectable quality, good enough to be mine.  In fact, it may very well be mine if the label is correct.  Our shipments have been short of late.”

Celeborn smiled as Thranduil sat beside him on the fallen tree.  “You must thank Gunderic for hoarding your favorite vintage for the occasion,” he said.

Thranduil laughed wryly.  “At the very least I must apologize to the wine merchant.  He always insisted bandits must have been responsible, but that tale always seemed too convenient.”

There were no cups to be found in that place fit for use, so they each broke a seal and drank straight from the bottle.  It was all extremely rustic. 

“I will speak freely, Thranduil,” Celeborn said at last.  “When Galadriel insisted upon making this rambling journey, I agreed partly out of a desire to see you again.  We have had no news in Belfalas, and I have been concerned.  You left the council very suddenly.”

“I was not in the best of spirits at the time,” Thranduil explained.  “You understand.”

“Oh, indeed,” Celeborn agreed, “but that alone can make you vulnerable, as I am certain you know.  I see now that you have rallied admirably, but I believe a great deal more depends upon your rather precarious position here than has been credited to you.  I wish there was more I could do on your behalf.”

Thranduil let the wine sit on his tongue a long time before answering.  “So do I,” he finally agreed, “but that does not seem to be the way the winds are blowing.  This is my task, and short of open war there is not much assistance to be had.  Radagast keeps a watch, and Mithrandir appears now and again.  If ever there is an opportunity for you to join us in battle against Dol Guldur, I am certain you will come.”

“I only hope there is a chance yet for open war and that you are not slowly smothered to death,” Celeborn said.  “The shadow that lies over Mirkwood seems very heavy indeed.”

“We have had some dark times, but we are secure enough,” Thranduil assured him.  “Still, I often suspect the Necromancer does little more than trifle with us.  Whoever he is, he seems to recognize that I am unable to unseat him, but also that we shall not be shifted by anything less than a devastating assault.  We have come to a strange sort of stalemate, though I do not doubt he still wishes us gone.  His attacks have more subtlety now, ever trying our borders and poisoning the wood with his sorcery.”

“Galadriel has become very sensitive to such things,” Celeborn said.  “It has made her restless.  She felt the contention between you and Dol Guldur as we approached, but she says the shadow seems to have withdrawn now, almost as if to hide from her.  I hesitate to ask how it is that you oppose the Necromancer’s advances so successfully, for surely such an effort has its price.”

Thranduil was silent on that subject, and then sighed heavily.  He had finished his first bottle by now, and he could already feel it eroding that veneer of pride which had restrained his answers.  “The price is more onerous than you know,” he admitted at last, ready to unburden himself.  “He is always there, nameless and faceless, looming in the dark.  There are times when I can feel his eye upon me, day and night, watching and waiting and probing at the fringes of my mind until I can have no rest.  I feel as though I am being bled to death.  I oppose him as my strength allows, and thus far I have been able to cast him back, but it can be a heavy task.  I believe he is holding his final assault for that day when he at last finds me too weak to endure his scrutiny any more.”

“Dare we hope that day remains a distant prospect?” Celeborn asked, concerned.

“Extremely distant,” Thranduil said defiantly, twisting the seal off another bottle, “so long as the wood still answers to me.  Its strength has sustained me through the most difficult confrontations.” 

“Does he trouble others as he does you?”

“Not that I have been told, which is all to the good.  If I must bear the brunt of his malice in order that my people may be left unmolested, I would not have it otherwise.”  Thranduil trailed away for a moment, staring into the flames.  “What does it matter?” he asked bitterly.  “He destroyed my happiness long ago.”

Here it came again, that rising tide of bitterness and resentment which grief always left in its wake.  Even now, Thranduil knew he could attribute his impulsive words to drink, but after holding his peace for so long he felt compelled to speak to someone.  He did not like to burden Legolas, and he was not ready to confess his weakness to his brothers. 

“We were grieved that our first news of you for so long was so dreadful,” Celeborn said gently.  He had offered his condolences centuries ago in Imladris but did not seem surprised that Thranduil was still uneasy with his loss.

“She died in my arms,” Thranduil told him, just inebriated enough to be numb to the memory, “slipped away despite all my efforts to hold her.  I would have spent even my last breath to spare her life, but she would not allow it.”

“Then it was very nobly done,” Celeborn observed.  “She must have been a fine queen to make so courageous an end.”

“I must confess I felt neither so noble nor so courageous that night,” Thranduil said.  “In the moment, I wanted nothing more than to die with her, without thought for anything or anyone else.  Now I see the madness of it, but sometimes I wonder what I might have done had she not forbidden me to follow her.”

Celeborn said nothing, but merely tossed a twig into the fire. 

“We were happy here,” Thranduil continued absently, thinking aloud.  “We had everything we could desire, and it seemed we spent a lifetime together in more peace and joy than we had thought possible.”  He paused and heaved a shuddering breath, determined not to be undone by pleasant memories.  “And then he came.  He came and tore us apart, intent upon ruining all that was good and beautiful in our world.  I hate him for that.  I want his name.  I want him unmasked, and I want him destroyed.  Until then, I shall not give him the satisfaction of seeing me succumb to my wounds.”

Unexpectedly, Thranduil felt Celeborn’s hand on his shoulder, an unguarded expression of kindred affection he had not known since his youth.  It was at once a surprise and a comfort.

“For your sake, I wish whatever ill upon Dol Guldur as may be within my power,” Celeborn said.  “But all is not yet lost.  You still have Legolas with you.”

“I do,” Thranduil agreed, “and he is truly the last great happiness of my life.  I am resolved that the Necromancer will not touch him, or else I shall storm his keep myself, like Fingolfin at the gates of Angband.”

Celeborn allowed himself a mirthless laugh.  “I believe you would,” he said.  “For all our sakes, I hope you never have cause.  I would much prefer that you enjoy a quiet victory rather than a glorious defeat.  If you continue on as you are, however,” he added, nodding at Thranduil’s half spent bottle, “you may go storming south this very night.”

Thranduil smiled tolerantly at the gentle rebuke.  “Each of us is allowed his own vices,” he said.

“It is quite good,” Celeborn admitted, meaning the wine.

“Enjoy it, then, while you may,” Thranduil bid him.  “I paid for it.”

It might have been prudent to rest while they had the opportunity, but Thranduil had no wish to waste their time together in sleep, and it seemed neither did Celeborn.  They lingered by the fire long into the night, their proud tongues loosed by wine, confiding to one another many things they might never have mentioned while in complete command of their wits.  Beneath all past quarrels and the quiet distance which had grown between them over the long years, a deep strain of kindred feeling still bound them together.  They had been close once, and neither had ever truly forgotten it.

“I have troubled you enough with my woes,” Thranduil said at last, stoking the fire back to life.  “I may be mistaken, but I sense that you might have troubles of your own.”

Now Celeborn sighed.  He had stopped drinking hours ago, but it was clear he was not accustomed to the excesses Thranduil had come to tolerate.  “After your tales, I fear any troubles of mine will seem petty,” he said at last.  “Understand that I would never have confessed this to your father.”

Thranduil’s interest was piqued then despite his slightly clouded mind.  “Yes?”

“I fear the ancient Curse of Mandos has returned to trouble Galadriel again, catching at our heels like a shadow.  She is troubled by responsibilities she cannot share with me, and she is deeply unsettled at heart.  I would stay with our son in Lórinand, but the sealonging is strong in her heart and she wishes to remain in Belfalas.  At times I feel I am not enough to satisfy her.”

Thranduil took his time framing an answer.  It was a delicate matter that had indeed been discussed within the circles of their family.  He was gratified that Celeborn trusted him enough to admit his personal griefs, and he did not wish to discourage him. 

“I have no desire to dredge up an old quarrel,” he began cautiously, “but it is still true that Galadriel is of a different kindred and another world.  Perhaps she is searching for some justification for her continued presence in Middle-earth.  She would not have taken this exile and its consequences upon herself had she not greatly desired whatever she expected to find here.  Perhaps she has yet to obtain it.”

Rather than stiffen immediately, as Celeborn had previously been wont to do, he merely looked worn and a bit saddened.  “Perhaps you are right,” he conceded.  “There is more, I know, but you may not be wholly wrong.  Oropher may not have been wholly wrong.”  That admission was obviously wrung from him with considerable effort.  “But cursed or no, I still love her, and I would sooner share her fate than be crowned with all the glories of this world.”

Thranduil smiled softly.  “Then continue loving her,” he said simply.  “Cherish every moment with her and let come what may.  That is what will be remembered at the end of all things, when all lords and kings are forgotten.”


The first blush of dawn was glowing in the east when the bustle of activity began again in the camp.  The Elves were in no particular hurry, lingering over their breakfast and enjoying the last few hours of peace before their captives began to stir.  Their horses were fed and watered and readied for the ride ahead.  The salvageable goods of the camp were packed, and—more ominously—the forge’s fire was stoked.

“Is this everything?” Thranduil inquired as Dorthaer and Lancaeron lay two large chests of treasure on the rough-hewn table they had dragged outside for the purpose.

“Yes, sire,” Dorthaer confirmed.  “Every hoard has been emptied.”

“Very well,” Thranduil said, pleased.  “Each of you may claim his prize.”

One by one, each of the Elvish soldiers chose whatever coin or trinket he fancied, a special reward allowed by the King for their outstanding service.  Several wives would soon be well compensated for their patience.  The remainder was carefully stowed in saddle pouches across the company until it could be conveyed to the royal treasury.

“Is this primarily how you have recovered your considerable resources?” Celeborn asked slyly, his expression caught between amusement and disapproval.

“We do have other avenues of income,” Thranduil protested in good humor, “but it is true that these bands of thieves have proven very lucrative prey.  We cannot hope to make accurate restitution, but the Woodmen know they have only to call upon me in their need.”

The cursing and groaning had begun again in earnest now that the prisoners were returning to their senses.  Dorthaer’s soldiers roughly prodded the most sluggish of them awake so that they might all attend the words of the King.

“Good day to you all,” Thranduil began, addressing them clearly in their own tongue, but with a grim sort of false cheer.  “I trust you passed a restful night.  As of this day, each of you is banned from all reaches of my realm, and you will be marked accordingly.  You will be escorted to the western borderlands and delivered into the charge of the Free Men who dwell there.  In the meantime, we have no desire to attend your every need, so you will be free to walk unbound.  Understand that any who attempt to flee will earn a swift and certain death.  My mercy has its limits.”

Several of them, particularly Gunderic, began to loudly voice their objections, but Thranduil had already turned and was not listening.  The other Elves ignored them as well and began loosing their bonds.  The protests quieted as the Men flexed their extremities and began looking to one another.  For the moment, none dared take advantage of his new mobility.  They were given a meager breakfast and allowed to wander a short distance into the wood to attend their needs.  For one the temptation then proved too great and he bolted for freedom.  A silent arrow struck him down amid the bilberry scrub.  He had been warned.

Every surviving captive was dragged in turn to the forge where an iron had been prepared, retrieved from its place on Dorthaer’s saddle.  Each was branded deeply on the shoulder with the bent rune that was the initial of Thranduil’s name, the outward sign of his irrevocable judgment against them.  The clearing was quickly dominated by the howls of the condemned and the smell of burnt flesh.  It was a necessary measure, and each wound was duly salved and bound.

When all the outlaws had been attended, Dorthaer used the same brand to prominently mark the wall of the largest structure in the camp.  It would serve as a deterrent to any others who wished to use the site for unsavory purposes.  The Elves mounted their horses and turned the entire party west, loosely surrounding the Men as they walked and stumbled through the undergrowth.  Thranduil and Celeborn followed close behind. 

“Are you often required to clear enclaves such at this?” Celeborn asked.

“More often than previously,” Thranduil admitted.  “These Men live briefly and learn slowly, but even so they are little more than a distraction from our primary concerns.”

“I would have you tell me more about how you manage those concerns,” Celeborn pressed.  “Your strategies are of great interest to me, and perhaps will set my mind at ease.”

“Patience,” Thranduil said, unable to help cracking a smile.  “I imagine your lady wife has already inspected many of our defenses.  In a few days we shall return to her.”

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