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25. Father of Dragons
A palace servant led the way to Nargothrond. When they crossed the bridge, Aerneth peered down at the stormy waters and shook her head. Stupid not to keep such a great natural defense.
Then it struck her how ironic it was that she had chided Thranduil for trying to keep his march-wardens safe, when here she was on a mission to tell the king of Nargothrond he was too bold and out in the open! But if she was honest with herself, she had not meant what she said to Thranduil, it was just her usual compulsion to wind him up and make him lose that hateful glass face. She did want him to stay safe – or even better, to get as far away from Doriath as possible.
Inside, Aerneth reflected that Nargothrond looked very much like Menegroth. It had similar silver trees and animals, and hidden skylights providing a faint illumination. It even smelled the same way, slightly damp and cellar like.
It was heavenly to take a bathe and change clothes after such a long time on the road, and when she went with her companions to the palace, Aerneth felt a little hopeful again. Perhaps if they could speak more with Orodreth, they could still persuade him to relent? Especially if Túrin was not around. It seemed the man was a bad influence on the weak king.
Sadly, they would not be so lucky, for when she entered the dining area, Túrin was the first person Aerneth saw. With his height and proud air, he dominated the room. He was talking with a blonde elleth, and when the messengers entered he waved them to him.
“Allow me to introduce you to my good friend Princess Finduilas, daughter of the king.”
Finduilas politely exchanged a few words with them, but very soon her attention returned to the man beside her. Aerneth could see why; dressed in fine clothes, but with the physique and bearing of a warrior, he looked very handsome – if you were into the dark, arrogant type. Aerneth prefered blonde, strong and silent ellyn, but had to admit that Túrin had charisma. No wonder Thranduil had seemed so fond of him, when he talked about the boy during their water calls.
An ellon joined them, casting a dark look at Túrin before turning to Aerneth. “My Lady Aerneth. I am happy to see you are well!”
She looked at him in surprise at first, but then recognised him. “Gwindor!” Last time she saw that face was in her water bowl at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. It had been shortly before his brother was severed right before his eyes, after which he had charged prematurely, leading all the elves he brought from Nargothrond to their death.
Aerneth’s eyes were drawn to the stump that was all that remained of his left hand.
“I was taken captive by Morgoth,” he explained. “I managed to escape at last, but lost a limb in the process.”
“I am sorry,” Aerneth mumbled.
“I have only myself to blame. I rushed the attack, and my comrades had to pay for it.” He spoke low, only for her ears. “If you do not mind – would you tell me what happened after I left Barad Eithel?”
“Of course.” She gave him a detailed description of the battle, from the beginning to its bleak end. When she had finished, they were alone; Túrin and the elleth had gone to speak with the king, and Gelmir and Arminas had followed them.
“That man…!” Gwindor’s jaw set.
“What about him?”
“Finduilas and I are betrothed to marry. But ever since he came here, she has loved him more. He claims only to think of her as a sister, but yet he singles her out all the time.” He clenched his remaining fist.
“That must be awful.”
“Mormegil is cursed. Wherever he goes, evil follows. Perhaps I should not expose who he is, but…”
“I know already. My husband is a captain of the Doriathrim march-wardens, and was with the outlaws.”
Gwindor’s eyes widened. “Captain of the march-wardens… I hope… I hope your husband is not Beleg Cúthalion?”
“Nay. Nay, he is Thranduil Oropherion. I heard what happened with Beleg. Thank the Valar, my husband survived.”
“I have met Thranduil; I was there at that time. Afterwards I brought Túrin home to Nargothrond with me – which I bitterly regret now, may I add. Is your husband well? He seemed a nice ellon, though he was understandably not himself when we parted shortly after the death of his good friend.”
“I have not heard from him in many years, but have no reason to believe otherwise than that he is well. We are leaving for Doriath tomorrow, to warn them also.”
“Aye.” She repeated Ulmo’s words.
Gwindor paled and swallowed hard. “These are grave news indeed! From the beginning, I spoke against opening up our city, but of course nobody would listen. I was trapped in Angband for many years; I know Morgoth’s strength. The only way to beat him is for the Valar to return and help us. Leaving our hiding place has only made him aware of our existence – no wonder he will retaliate.”
“But how can we reach them? My father tried to send ships to Aman many years ago. None returned.” Aerneth pushed down the still fresh grief over her mother’s demise.
“There must be a way. There is a prophecy among our people, that one day a messenger will get through.”
Aerneth remembered Ulmo’s final words: From this shore a new star shall arise, and save the children of Ilúvatar . A chill crept along her spine. Did he mean that the Valar would help them? If so, that made it all the more important for the last elvish realms to stay hidden and safe until then – or there would be no children of Ilúvatar left to save.
“I wish I could go with you to Lord Círdan,” Gwindor continued. “I would, if I could persuade Finduilas to come with me. But I know she will stay with him, and I cannot leave her.” He sighed heavily.
During the course of the evening, Aerneth and her companions again tried to speak with Orodreth and make him relent, but to no avail. He was intent on fighting valiantly and not showing weakness. Instead of destroying the bridge, he and Túrin meant to strengthen it and make it wider, so an even greater army could pass. Beginning tomorrow, they would recruit more warriors among the Nargothrond people, increasing their numbers further.
“You should stay and fight too,” Túrin suggested. “Perhaps after you deliver the message to Doriath, you can return here?”
“You could ask Thingol to join forces with us,” added the king.
“We would gladly await battle with our kin, but we promised Lord Círdan to bring back word to him afterwards,” said Arminas smoothly.
The three messengers slept well in the royal guest rooms, and left the city shortly after sunrise. They had not come far, however, when a rider caught up with them at a gallop, bringing three loose horses in tow.
“You must return. Our scouts have seen a great host of orcs south of the Teiglin crossing, and there is a battle going on between them and the humans of Brethil. They must have come during the night. The king will send a company there shortly, but the area is not safe for wanderers.”
“We are not going that far north,” Aerneth protested, dismayed at the prospect of further delay. “There is a secret bridge over the Sirion which is much closer. It is the route the trade emissaries from the Falas used to take.”
“Some of the orcs have come far south, almost to Amon Rûdh. You cannot go there. I have orders to bring you back with me.”
The three messengers looked at each other. Then Gelmir shrugged. “I guess we have to wait a while longer.”
They mounted the spare horses and followed the messenger back. When they had climbed the hills and reached the bridge across the river Narog, Aerneth turned around. Shadowing her eyes against the morning sun she could now see the raging battle in the distance. The orcs were so numerous the area looked black.
“This is bad,” Arminas muttered. “They are too many.”
A few slow days followed, after Túrin and the king had left with a large company to aid the humans and push back the invading orcs. Aerneth and her companions spent the meantime restlessly walking around in the city, sleeping long in the mornings and eating too much, just to have something to do.
After a little over a week, Aerneth felt someone calling her, and hurried to one of the many silver fountains nearby to establish a connection. A somber, tired Gwindor appeared in the water.
“Good to see you,” she said. “How are you faring?”
“We are holding the enemy back, but only barely. The orcs have control over most of the northern Guarded Plain. But that is not why I’m calling. Tú– uh, Mormegil wants to speak with you.” He turned to someone standing next to him, and Túrin’s face replaced his in the fountain. He looked cheerful and excited.
“Do not let that old pessimist frighten you. We are not budging, and with the new recruits I plan to engage, we should soon be able to push back the enemy where they belong. I was very pleased when Gwindor told me about your gift with water magic. This is just what we need! I hope you can stay the duration of this skirmish and be my voice in the city. Could you do it? It would be beneficial to you as well, for the sooner we rid the Plain of festering orcs, the sooner you can deliver your message to Doriath.” He smiled winsomely.
Aerneth nodded reluctantly. She might as well accept, for at least then she would have something to do other than eating.
“Wonderful! Then you shall soon hear from me again. Oh, by the way… Gwindor asks you to send his love to Finduilas, and please greet her from me also.” He disappeared.
Aerneth turned to Arminas and Gelmir, who were with her. “You heard him. We are still stuck here.” She sighed.
Arminas shook his head. “I don’t want to be caught up in this. We all know what will happen; it is not safe to stay!”
“I agree,” said Gelmir. “We should return to Lord Círdan. If we take the river route it should be safe.”
“But what about Doriath?” Aerneth bit her lip.
“Maybe their scouts will discover what is happening, and then someone there might reach out to you.”
“Maybe, might… It’s not good enough! I have to warn my husband!”
“I am not staying. Sorry.” Arminas stubbornly crossed his arms.
Aerneth felt like punching him in the face. How could he be so unfeeling!
“Well I am. You can leave, and I will deliver the message myself,” she said firmly.
“Aerneth, be reasonable…”
But she had already stomped off.
Gelmir and Arminas left Nargothrond the next day, walking on foot along the river but planning to build a simple raft once they got further downstream where the water slowed a bit. Despite their disagreement, Aerneth went out to see them off.
“Círdan will have our hide when we return without you,” said Gelmir, giving her a quick hug.
“He will understand. Tell him to reach out to me through the water if he worries.”
“Be careful.” Arminas took her hand, and some of his earlier affection for her returned to his eyes.
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know.” He kissed her hand, and turned away.
Aerneth watched her former companions as they gradually became smaller. Soon they disappeared behind a cliff and were gone.
The battle on the Guarded Plain continued all summer without much change. The humans lost their leader early on, and soon afterwards retreated back into the deep Brethil forest where the many traps and dense undergrowth made it hard for the orcs to follow. After their departure, only the Nargothrond elves remained to resist the enemy.
The front line wavered back and forth; sometimes the elves were driven back and sometimes the orcs had to retreat, but Túrin never managed to push them further than to the Crossing of Teiglin.
Aerneth made herself useful as Túrin’s delegate whenever he needed more warriors at the front, or a refilling of provisions such as food, medicaments, arrows and similar, but apart from those occasions she lived a quiet, rather dull life in the now almost deserted city. Less than a hundred females remained, together with a small city guard, for by now most of the able adults had joined the army.
Aerneth had offered to come too, but both Túrin and Gwindor had begged her to stay. She was no warrior, and she was more useful as their messenger – and in addition, both of them wanted her to keep an eye on the princess. Since Finduilas seemed perfectly capable of looking after herself, this left Aerneth with not much to do.
Thus the summer passed fairly uneventfully. Not much longer however, for in the autumn the foretold doom reached Nargothrond at last.
The nights had just begun to grow chilly, when something dire came forth from the mountains in the north: a dragon. Once again, Morgoth had let loose one of his most fearsome weapons.
Despite the distance, the remaining citizens of Nargothrond could see it clearly where they had gathered on the terrace outside the city gates. An enormous, scaly beast, crawling down onto the Plain. It was following the river Narog from its spring, burning the ground as it went, and in its wake came an even greater host of orcs fresh out of Angband.
Panic erupted among the onlookers, for what could they do now? Idly await the inevitable destruction? They could never hope to defend against such a monstrous foe, even if they had time to destroy the bridge.
Aerneth tried to speak over the din, again suggesting they escape to her father down by the Mouths of Sirion, but in her heart she knew it was too late. The dragon moved with inhuman speed on its tree-trunk legs; it would catch up with them in no time.
Still, she had to try, though it hurt to leave without a chance to warn Thranduil. There was no helping it – she would be no use to him dead.
Before anyone had time to leave, Aerneth felt Túrin in her mind. When she picked up her bowl, his face in the water was pale and blackened with soot, and of his former pride nothing remained. “The king is dead, and I have just dragged Gwindor to safety. But he… did not make it. Before he… passed away, he begged me to save Finduilas, and said this is my only chance. That the curse… That there is a curse upon my father and his descendants, and only Finduilas stands between me and that curse. Can you… gather the ellith and bring them to the river? Gwindor said you can make Uinen create a mist to hide them in. Please. Can you beg her to help us? I’m coming home as fast as I can, but I’m still far away.”
“I will do my best,” Aerneth assured him, thankful for the advice.
She hurried to climb down the rough ravine, until she was close enough to the roaring fall of the river. There she called Uinen, using a bowl she had brought for the purpose. The Maia instantly appeared as was her habit, but her fair face was distraught and she looked physically ill.
“My waters…” she hissed. “Defiled! Dragon stench! Orc filth!”
“You must save us,” begged Aerneth. “Make a mist like you did before, and cover our retreat. Please!”
“I cannot. I cannot.” Her voice was strained. “The water is ruined and I cannot come near it. You must find another way.”
“No! Please! You can’t abandon us.”
“I am sorry, child.” And she was gone.
Desperately scrambling back up, Aerneth saw that the dragon was almost upon them now. Only one hope remained then; that the huge iron gates leading into the city would hold.
Others had come to the same conclusion, and there was a crowd gathered at the entrance, fighting to push inside. Aerneth was hit in the face by someone’s elbow, and nearly trod on a fallen ellith. Someone yelled for the others to calm down, but nobody heeded them.
When finally inside, people ran to get as deep into the city as possible, and Aerneth was caught by the current of fleeing elves, helplessly dragged along.
They were still in plain view of the entrance when a deep, thunderous boom shook the entire hill. Even the ground trembled, like from an earthquake, and the escapees halted in dismay. Further down the street a couple of rocks fell from the distant cave ceiling, hitting the pavement with sharp cracks.
Everyone turned this way and that, desperately trying to assess which direction was the least perilous.
There was another boom, and more stones rained down. The throng dissolved and the elves scattered in all directions like a flock of startled birds.
Aerneth stumbled and her ankle twisted painfully. Before she could get on her feet, the gates fell inwards with a final boom, and the giant lizard came creeping down directly towards her.
The monster’s horrible stench preceded it, and it weakened her, numbing her senses. She tried feebly to stand, but her legs felt useless and heavy.
A lidless, yellow eye with a narrow pupil turned her way, and she stared into its depth, mesmerised.
When Aerneth came to, she was standing on the terrace overlooking the bridge, just outside the broken city gates. She was surrounded by a group of huddling ellith, her hands bound with a dirty, rough rope, so tight her skin had broken. A few orcs guarded them, laden with jewellery and bulky sacks, probably containing more spoils of war.
Dizzily looking around, Aerneth noticed Finduilas among the survivors, but her head hung and she was bleeding from a head injury. What would happen with them now? All the horror stories she had heard about how orcs treated their captives came unbidden to her mind.
She looked away in dismay, and her gaze fell on the bridge. It was strong and well built; even the weight of a full-grown dragon had not broken its proud stones. Where had the beast gone now?
Then she heard it. Heavy steps from inside the hill, accompanied by thuds and crashes as the city was looted.
Another sound made her turn her head to the Guarded Plain below. She saw a scatter of tiny dots in the distance; riders, and one of them must be yelling on top of his lungs. Was that all that remained of the entire Nargothrond army? She regarded them as they slowly came closer.
After a while she recognised Túrin in the front, it was he who yelled. She wanted to tell him to flee, but just opening her mouth felt like a too difficult task.
Some orc warriors had discovered the small elf troop and went to meet them, but Túrin nonchalantly struck them down, his gaze locked on the captives.
He had almost reached them when there was a thump and a crack from the fallen gates, and the dragon’s head poked out, shortly followed by the rest of its scaly body.
The elves accompanying Túrin fled, but he did not budge. Seemingly fearless, the young man approached the monster, his black sword held high. When it captured the red beams of the setting sun it appeared to be burning.
“Hail, son of Húrin. Well met!” The dragon's voice was a deep rumble, loud and terrifying. “I am Glaurung, Father of Dragons.”
Túrin tried to charge, but the Glaurung only opened one of its eyes. Remembering how she had been paralysed before, Aerneth quickly turned away, but in the edge of her vision she noticed Túrin standing immobile and stiff like a statue.
Glaurung continued speaking: “As for you, you are all that is evil: a thankless fosterling, an outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, foolish captain, and deserter of your kin. You live like a prince here, while your mother and sister slave away in Dor-lomin, dressed in rags. Your father must be so proud,” he sneered.
Still captured by the dragon’s gaze, Túrin remained frozen to the ground, while the orcs began to brusquely push and shove Aerneth and the other ellith away over the bridge.
When she passed Túrin, Finduilas suddenly woke from her own trance and screamed his name, feebly fighting against her bonds, but he did not react.
All the way down to the Plain, Aerneth heard the dragon’s voice in the distance, continuing to work its suggestive spell on Túrin. It wanted him to go to Dor-lomin and rescue his mother and sister, that much was obvious, and Aerneth knew with frightening clarity he would heed it. It must be a trap – why else would the beast not slay him immediately? This was all part of Morgoth’s vicious plan, she was sure of it.
As for Aerneth and the rest of the captives, nobody remained who could come to their rescue, despite the continuous wailing and pleading from Finduilas and many of the others. After a while their orc guards grew tired of the noise, and by means of a cruel whip they very soon put an end to all complaints. Only silent tears and stifled sobs remained afterwards.
They kept walking all through the night, and not until the sun stood high the next day where they allowed a short rest. They were only given foul water to drink, but Aerneth was too thirsty and exhausted to refuse it. The dizziness caused by the dragon’s stench and gaze had left her completely now, leaving terror and gruesome pain in its wake. Every part of her body hurt, from her sprained ankle to her head where she had caught an elbow the day before, and in addition she had gotten her fair share of the lashes generously dealt by their captors.
She fell asleep almost immediately, and when she was roused by an orc’s hard boot it felt like hardly no time had passed. Her head hurt worse now, if from stress, lack of sleep, or damage, she could not say.
On and on they went. They reached the Old South Road and followed it past the burnt remains of farmsteads and reeking tree corpses. Everywhere Aerneth looked the ground was black; there was not a single living strand of grass to be seen. Had the dragon done all this?
She wondered what had happened to Nargothrond. Burnt too? All those elegant silver trees and fountains, gone forever. She had only lived there a short while, but it had reminded her of her other home, in Menegroth. Would Doriath also be burned to ashes when Glaurung had finished his evil work in Nargothrond? Could he penetrate Melian’s magic fence? She did not know, but now that she had seen the power of the dragon, she would not be surprised if he could.
The bleak journey continued, and with each passing day the ellith grew weaker from thirst, starvation and lack of sleep. Their wounds were left untended and beginning to fester, and the utter hopelessness of their situation was beginning to take a dangerous toll on many of them. More than once an elleth refused to rise after their short daytime rests, and were either already dead, or soon beaten to death by an orc whip.
The ones who died without aid frightened Aerneth the most. It was as if the will to live had left them, as if their very soul had withered. Could that happen to her too?
Aerneth tried to feel within herself, and thought her soul was still there. And she certainly did not want to die. On the contrary, an escape plan had formed in her head when she spotted the Teiglin river in the distance, knowing they would have to cross it at the shallow wading area on their way to Morgoth’s realm. Uinen may not be able to help her anymore, but she had water powers too. She had nearly drenched her own husband, and a smaller orc must be even easier to hold down. Aerneth knew she was not powerful enough to save them all, but she could try to free as many as possible.
The plan helped her keep her spirits up, and she thought about it day and night.
When they finally reached the Crossing, Aerneth was jittery and almost weak with anxiety. This was it, her only chance! But her captors must not suspect anything; she had to remain impassive and try to look as downcast as her fellows.
She waited until they were halfway through the river. The water was black and smelly, full of ash, dead plants and animal carcasses, and she cringed at the thought of diving into it, knowing she would have to; it was part of the plan.
She was just about to sing her spell, when she heard a zinging noise, followed by a yelp as one of the orcs caught an arrow through his head. A second arrow pierced the arm of another, but now the element of surprise was lost and the orcs raised their shields.
A bunch of rowdy humans emerged from between the trees on the other side of the river, all clad in greens and browns. The men of Brethil! They would be saved!
Aerneth’s relief was short-lived, however, for the orc leader turned to his companions and barked: “Kill the prisoners.”
The guards lost no time; they instantly drew their grim swords and spears, preparing to do as told.
Aerneth finally shook off her shocked passivity, singing a few notes until a black wave emerged to engulf her captor completely. With a splutter he lost his grip on her bonds.
Before another orc could catch her, she dived under the dark surface, desperately shutting her nose and mouth to the foulness of the water.
All sounds became distant as she let the current pull her with it. The shrill shrieks of the dying ellith, the grunts of the orcs, the shouts of the men – all of it sounded as if coming from the far side of a long tunnel.
When her lungs burned with lack of air, Aerneth cautiously popped her head up, allowing her feet to reach the rocks of the riverbed. She had drifted several yards, but as far as she could tell, all orcs were effectively being killed.
Soon the men began to drag the corpses off the road, gathering them in two piles; orcs in one, ellith in another.
Crawling ashore, Aerneth limped towards them.
“Oy!” cried one of the men, pointing at her and speaking to his comrades in his own language.
She paid him no attention, for a golden mane of hair had caught her gaze. It was Finduilas, leaning against a tree trunk, feebly clasping the crude shaft of an orc spear emerging from her chest. Her breathing was shallow and laboured, and bloody froth trickled from her pale lips.
Aerneth placed her hand over the others' cold fingers, knowing instinctively there was nothing to be done, but at least wanting to offer her some small comfort.
A man joined them, sadly shaking his head. “She won’t make it,” he said in a strong human accent.
“Mormegil…” Finduilas’ voice was barely more than a whisper, and she met the man’s gaze unsteadily. “Tell Mormegil Finduilas is here.” She breathed out one last time, and her body went limp.
“Who’s Mormegil?” asked the man, turning to Aerneth. “But forgive my manners. I’m Dorlas of Brethil.” He bowed in the way of men. ”Let me help you with that.” He proceeded to untie her bound hands.
“Mormegil is… was a captain in Nargothrond. I do not know whether he still lives.” Aerneth rubbed her raw, chafed wrists. “Tell me… were there any survivors?”
“None but you, My Lady.”
None but you. She had saved herself, but all the other captives were dead. A surge of guilt hit her almost painfully, but she pushed it down.
“I need… I need to go to Doriath. Can someone direct me to a path?”
“Pardon me, but you’re in no state to go anywhere. Come with us, and have your wounds tended to.”
“Nay! I have to.” She frowned at the man. She had delayed too long, and even now the dragon might be on his way to Doriath. There was no time to lose, could not this scruffy oaf see that?
The man visibly cowered at the look on her face. “In that case… it’s that way. You can see where the path begins, between the twin beeches.”
“Aye, I see it. Thank you.” She gave him a curt nod before leaving, feeling him and his fellows looking long after her.
The path was narrow, and the trees still covered with leaves, coloured in the merry reds and yellows of autumn. The result was a dimly lit tunnel through the forest, and in Aerneth’s exhausted state it was hard to see where she went. Many times she lost her way and had to retrace her steps.
Soon she was dragging her feet behind her. The only thing keeping her going was the horrible vision of Glaurung setting fire to Menegroth, and Thranduil covered in flames.
It must not happen. It must not happen. It must not happen. She repeated the words to herself like a spell.
Many hours later, Aerneth finally reached the outskirts of Doriath and felt the slight warmth of Melian’s Girdle against her face as she passed through it. She wanted to lay down and sleep right there, but knew she could not risk it. There was still a long way left to the city.
She heard a rustle in the fronds above, and a shape dropped down from the tree. In normal circumstances, Aerneth would have been frightened, but now she did not react at all. She regarded the approaching ellon impassively.
Then she suddenly recognised him, and gasped in surprise.
He looked equally baffled. “Aerneth?” He sounded a happy yelp and caught her in his arms, nearly crushing her. “Blessed be the Valar, it’s you!” Then he seemed to realise what a sad state she was in, and changed his grip so he could support her on one shoulder instead. “What happened?” he asked concernedly. “You are hurt.”
“I must warn you. A dragon… a dragon approaches.” All energy had left her now that she had found someone, and she had a hard time staying awake.
“I shall take you to the captain at once,” he said.
Aerneth only mumbled something incoherently, resting heavily on the other as they began to walk, and after a short while Amroth picked her up in his arms and carried her the rest of the way.
Under half-closed eyes, she dimly perceived a familiar wood cabin between the trees, and a group of elves clad in the march-warden colours emerging as they approached. Aerneth had only eyes for one of them; the tall one in the middle, with his long, straight, silvery blonde hair. She wanted to call his name, but nothing came out.
All colour left the ellon’s face as he hurried towards them. “Is she…? Is she–” His voice was distorted.
“I’m alive,” she murmured.
He breathed out slowly. Taking her from Amroth, he gently pressed her against his own chest.
Aerneth drew in her husband’s familiar scent, and felt his strong arms around her, and all she wanted to do was cry her heart out and never leave his embrace. But there was no time. A dragon was waiting for them, and whether from his fire or some other, unknown horror, Doriath would be ruined. There was no time.
At least now our long-separated couple is united, but for how long? Can they manage to behave this time? By the Prologue you know they get a kid… :) So despair not!
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