The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 35
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter eight)

Chilled and shaking, Talana raced back to the main cavern and found the fire, drinking in its warmth. Steam rose from her clothes.

            “You’d better get that coat off.  I’ll get you something else to wrap up in.” Darrukin said, taking off his own coat and placing it carefully down where the heat from the fire might dry it out.  Fortunately, his shirt was only a little damp in places, so he unbuttoned it and pulled it out from his trousers, letting it hang loose in the warm air.   Talana nodded and slid her coat off her shoulders and down her arms, but the wet garment seemed to stick to her with her arms were behind her back, and try as she might, she couldn’t pull it off.

“Sorry, Darrukin, could you help me with this?” she asked, her tone becoming frustrated.  “I’m stuck – again.”  

He looked up from where he was crouching over his coat, to see her silhouetted form against the blaze of the fire. “No problem. I’ll just get into the light to see if it’s stuck on anything.” he said, standing up.  Moving behind her as she turned her back to the fire, he caught the coat and gently eased it down from her arms, freeing them.

“Thankyou…Oh!” she breathed turning around, almost planting her face on his bare chest.  Staring, she froze, and then flushed as she looked up at him, her eyes wide. “I’m sorry,” she stuttered, “I didn’t realise you were quite so close…I…” she trailed off, nostrils dilating and taking a deep breath.

She gave a little nervous laugh and stepped back from him, looking away and running one hand through her hair, biting her lip. But Darrukin could not stop looking at her.  She was seemingly quite unaware that her shirt was wet and clinging to her body, the fabric semi-transparent against her skin.  He could see that she was breathing heavily, the rise and fall of her chest pressing her nipples against her shirt. Colour was rising within his own cheeks, blood singing in his ears.  If he reached out, he could touch her…he had half lifted a hand when he stopped himself, shaking his head and shutting his eyes against the sight of her.

“Are you alright?” she asked, her voice velvety smooth and low.  He could feel her gaze upon him.  Darrukin felt embarrassment surge through him, along with a sharp pang of desire, which he fiercely ignored.  He knew better than to even think about Talana as a woman, even if she so obviously was.  He had been travelling with her for months, and still at times she would surprise him, catch him unawares with a look or a pose that made him react. He had to swallow hard before answering.

“I’m fine.  It’s just that…I…it’s hard to…I’d better go outside for a moment, erm, check on the horses.”  He finished lamely, pulling his shirt around him and not bothering to grab his coat. He needed the shock of the cold.  

Mutely, she nodded.  She was not exactly a novice at reading body language and particularly adept with men.  She had been leered at enough as a child to know the signs of male arousal.  Far from feeling threatened by Darrukin, though, she knew she was reciprocating.  There was no other explanation for the sudden tumult of emotion within her.  She’d looked at Darrukin, and desired him.  That she could do that at all staggered and confused her.

Outside, Darrukin let the bitingly cold air bring some much needed clarity to his thinking.  What on earth had happened in there? He would have sworn that Talana had looked at him with more than friendship in her eyes. She’d been embarrassed.  A tiny part of him felt pleased that he’d been able to make her blush like that.  If only he hadn’t gone and ruined everything by staring so blatantly at her!  He took a deep breath, letting the cold sear his lungs.  When he released the breath it plumed out in front of him, dissipating almost instantly.  She could not have meant it at all, yet a little part of him felt like celebrating.

Darrukin went back inside when the cold became too much.  Talana, he saw, had taken off her shirt and wrapped herself up in warm furs.  Her shirt and coat were drying next to his coat, steam rising from all three garments. 

“I’m sorry I made you feel awkward. I didn’t mean to.” she said to him, as he sat down opposite her across the fire. 

“I’m only a man, and you’re a beautiful woman.  Sometimes I can’t help it.  But you know the situation we are in.”

Talana held his gaze for a moment before speaking.  “You’re my friend, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that. I’m sorry.”  She paused, and seemed about to say more, but before she could say, Wolf burst back into the cave accompanied by many wolves, stomping and rubbing her cold hands, smiling and showing them both the rabbits she had caught for their dinner.

They did not speak about their moment’s awkwardness to Wolf, nor to each other over the next few weeks. Rather, they ignored it, continuing on as if nothing had happened.  The approaching spring gripped them all with restlessness; they found the cave confining and were more than happy when the weather became warm enough to leave it for longer periods of time.   With the increasing warmth of the sunshine and the snow melting rapidly, they knew that the time to leave was fast approaching. 

Darrukin and Talana took to sparring again, trying to get some fitness back after their winter confined in the cave.  During one bout, not far from the cave in a small clearing in the forest, they battled, ironwood spear against the sword, practising defence and attack, parrying and thrusts. 

“Does the spear tingle still?” Darrukin asked, curious.  Talana nodded.

“Every time I touch it, it reminds my why it is there.  I don’t know what kind of spell is on this thing, but it is almost alive, I swear.  It’s been getting stronger each time I touch it, as if it’s eager to get going.” she finished, thrusting the spear at him only to have him deflect it easily with his sword, the blow ringing out as the metal hit the hardwood.

Wolf strode over, as usual accompanied by a wolf or two.  Darrukin and Talana stopped sparring, lowered their weapons.  Wolf moved to Talana, took up the spear and looked at its dark shaft.

“Are you sure you aren’t damaging your sword there? This thing isn’t even scratched!” she said, shaking her head bemusedly.  They all grinned.  “I wanted to ask you if you would like to join a hunt. The wolves would like you to.” Wolf continued.  “The wolves tell me there are some elk around and we would be well placed to hunt them on horseback, if you like?”

Talana and Darrukin looked at one another, and as one, replied “Yes!”

They prepared the horses quickly and the wolves ranged off into the forest.  Wolf rode the black mare, while Talana and Darrukin were double mounted on his grey stallion. 

“We need to be careful of the ground dwellers, they will be getting more active now the weather has warmed up.” said Wolf.  Both Talana and Darrukin looked at her, puzzled expressions on their faces.

“Ground dwellers? Do you mean sithneth?” asked Darrukin, a look of disgust on his face.  Wolf considered the word for a moment, then shook her head, nudging her mount closer to the grey.

“No, not those scuttling ones.  The ground dwellers are bigger, I’ve forgotten the name for them…they live in caves, they are very good at hiding and are shy.”

“Like yourself, you mean?” said Talana with a smile, and Wolf gave a snort of laughter.

“Not so different, perhaps.  Lost children spring to mind…that’s right, my mother used to tell me that lost children in the forest would turn into them…Oh, what was their name?”

“Trolls, is that right?” Darrukin interjected.  “That’s a story that my parents used to tell me about trolls.  It is supposed to be lucky to meet them, and there is supposed to be a troll-mother somewhere who takes in all the lost children to become her children, her trolls.”

“Yes, that’s the name, trolls.  I did meet one, once, but he didn’t seem to want me to come with him.  I was a lost child once myself…” Wolf trailed off, caught up in a memory for a moment.

They rode on, the air still with a tang of chill, the trees around them showing the first signs of awakening.  The wolves led the horses through the forest, down into a valley and to the edge of an expanse of grass near a small lake.  Down by the water, hooves cracking through the crust of ice at its edge, were elk.  The huge deer were grazing on the water weeds at the lake’s edge, oblivious.  Every so often, one would lift its great head, look around, sniff the air, then continue grazing.

Wolf spoke in a low voice.  “The wolves have fanned out on the other side of the clearing.  We should drive the elk towards them – they will do the rest.  Want to give the horses a run?”

Both Talana and Darrukin nodded, and they stepped out of the verge and into the clearing.  Immediately the elk startled, a huge buck pushing through its herd to look hard at them, assess them.  The herbivore scent of the horses, however, was not quite enough to disguise the scent of humans and wolves.  With a rough call, the buck turned and began to move away from the lake as the horses increased their pace to a trot.

“Charge them!” called Wolf, kicking the black mare into a canter and then a gallop.  With a wild yell, Darrukin kicked his stallion onwards, Talana doing her best to stay seated behind him as they flew over the mountain meadow towards the elk.  The giant deer fled across the clearing, towards the trees; straight towards the waiting wolves.  As one, the pack singled out one animal, cut it off from the rest of the herd and converged upon it, overwhelming it and pulling it down quickly. By the time Darrukin and Wolf had pulled up the horses, some distance from the pack, the elk was dead and the wolves feeding heartily.

Talana’s face glowed. The exhilaration of the gallop made her cheeks red as much as the cold did.  Wolf dismounted and went to the carcass. Politely the wolves drew back, let her take what she needed; a haunch of tender venison enough to last them for days.  She wrapped the meat in absorbent skins and placed it in a bag. 

“You’ve obviously done this before.” Said Darrukin, impressed.

“Years and years and years we’ve been working this way.” Wolf said, looking up at him as she hung the bag on the black mare’s saddle.  “I’ve been with the wolves for so long that we hunt like this without even thinking about it anymore.  They know I do a good job herding animals towards them, and it cuts out all that tedious mucking about chasing them down.”  The cold air had made her nose go red, and her breath steamed in plumes as she spoke.

Talana looked up at the clear sky, squinting at the brightness. “It’s hard to tell where we are.  Are there any villages nearby or is this all forest?” she asked Wolf, looking around.  She and Darrukin had certainly not seen any sign of human habitation since the hut. 

“No, not really.  The closest humans are I think, to the west – but you have to travel a long way to get to them.  My old village.  I don’t want to live near them, and I don’t like the trappers I find up here.  They hurt the animals, and try to kill my wolves.” There was a growl in Wolf’s voice.

“You don’t get lonely here?” asked Talana. Wolf grinned at her.

“Me? No. I have many companions – too many, sometimes!” she said, pointing to the wolves.  “I do admit that it is nice having you both here, though.  I have never craved human company, but you two have been delightful to have with me this winter.”

“You said you met a troll. Only once?  You warned us about them, though.” Darrukin asked.  He had always been fascinated by stories of the unusual, and the trolls piqued his curiosity. 

They dismounted and let the horses paw through the snow for any new grass.  Finding some rocks, they sat, careful to keep above the snow-wet ground.

“The trolls aren’t the half of what I’ve seen up here over the years.  Trolls are not a problem, but I know that the trappers that come here are afraid of such things and would hurt them if they could.  Fortunately, the trolls are very clever and can hide extremely well. Most people wouldn’t know they were close to a troll unless the troll wanted them to.  I only met a troll because it didn’t want me to scare the rabbit that it wanted to catch for its dinner.”

“It spoke to you, then?  They have a language?” he asked.

“Well, it did speak, with a mixture of thoughts and gestures. I understood what it wanted.  But then, I don’t talk much either.”

“What did it look like?” Talana asked.  The story was interesting. Talana had discovered so much since meeting Asikei, one more revelation about beings that she never knew existed just added to the sense of wonder she had about the world beyond Tashmar.

“The one I saw was smaller than me.  They really do look child-like in some ways, maybe the story that Darrukin’s mother told is not far from the truth.  They have child-like faces, are strong and heavily built, and almost always covered in dirt.  They live underground – so the wolves tell me. They see them quite often and tell me these things.  A sense of smell is far more able to divine the presence of a troll than just eyesight.  Apparently, there are cave systems throughout these mountains, some of which are occupied by the trolls.  Trolls once chased my wolves away from one such cave entrance – they were very protective, and the wolves wondered why.” She stood up, walked over to the mare.  “Should we get back?”

The others nodded and looked up at the sky. Clouds were gathering on the horizon and had the ominous look of snow.  Leaving the wolves to their feasting, they rode through the mountains back to Wolf’s cave, settled the horses in their side chamber and went back to the hearth. It did not take long for the fire, which had burned down, to blaze up once more.

“What else have you seen here, in the mountains? Can you tell me more about the troll you met?” asked Talana, as she and Darrukin prepared some dinner with the fresh meat Wolf had cut from the elk carcass. Wolf sat across the fire from them, watching the flames.

“When I met the troll, I was out hunting.  It had big brown eyes and a dirty face.  I froze, then called a wolf to me softly, but the troll seemed to act frightened of the wolf and didn’t look like a threat to me, so I sent the wolf away again.  The troll grinned at me – they have peg-like teeth, almost tusks, if you ask me – and then pointed to a rabbit burrow a few feet away. I watched as the troll mimed catching the rabbit, and I caught some pictures of the same, and it asked me in thoughts not to scare the rabbit.  I nodded, and we waited.  When the rabbit emerged, the troll caught it, bit its head off, then disappeared.  It was a most unusual experience.  The wolves told me more about them; they have a certain amount of respect for the trolls, but ridicule their hunting skills.” Wolf looked at her two listeners, and accepted a bowl of freshly cooked elk meat, spitted and roasted in the fire.

“What else have you seen?” Darrukin asked, swallowing a mouthful.

“Well, I don’t really like to talk about some things, because I know that to speak of magical things sometimes allows those that would destroy them to find them, which is why I would not speak about this while we were outside. The ears of Eshtan are very sharp.  I think the dark magic of Eshtan is slowly draining away all the good magic from this world.” Wolf paused for a moment, taking a bite from her skewered meat stick.  She chewed methodically and swallowed, wiped her hands on her leather-clad thighs.  “The wolves told me that when they found you, there were golden ones around you. Perhaps it was they who called the wolves to you.”

“Golden ones?” asked Talana, finishing her meat.  A wolf draped itself in her lap, and she absent-mindedly scratched its belly as she listened.

“I cannot describe them very well. They are creatures of light, golden and beautiful, who will flicker away in an instant if they do not want you to see them. They hide in the woods, live up in the mountain tops – and leave me feeling as though I have been touched by the Goddess.”

“I don’t undersand. What are they?  The wolves can see them?” Darrukin asked.

“The wolves told me they were there, like little fire-flies.  I have seen them once before, when I still lived with people.” There was a catch in her voice, and she took a deep breath before continuing.  “When I lived in the mountain village, before my parents were murdered, the golden ones visited me.  It was late one night, and I was in my bed, but I could not sleep.  We lived on the edge of the forest, my window looked out into the darkness of the forest and I could see up into the clear night sky.  The stars were incredibly bright that night, and there was no moon.  When I looked up at them, the stars suddenly seemed to swirl and move towards me, and there seemed to be hundreds of little golden flying motes of light streaming in through my window.” she paused, her face alive with the memory. “They were like little jewels which flitted around me, dazzling and bright, wonderful and delicate.  They were like fireflies, but sometimes they would be in the form of a woman, or an animal, or an insect, or they would have no shape at all but a fluid lightness that would swim through the air.  They surrounded me, and I couldn’t speak, didn’t even think of calling out to my parents at all. I was not scared.  I was surprised when one of these little golden flitting things landed on my nose, seemed to bless me.  It was in the shape of a wolf.  I am convinced that it gave me the power to summon the wolves when I needed them, let me talk to them.  Those golden ones are part of the Goddess, I am sure.” she finished.

Darrukin and Talana looked at one another.  Darrukin spoke first. “They sound a little like the guardians in the Valley of Shades.  I wonder…Wolf, when you were a child, were you ever told stories of Ashlon’s magical past?  Tales of legends and mysteries and weirdness?” He looked at her queryingly.  Wolf nodded and he continued.  “Does it seem to you that there might have been some kind of factual basis for those legends? The stories of trolls, lost children and the troll-mother, legends of a past when people and magical beings were far more familiar with each other than in these present days?”

“That might be true. But who would know?  I know the mountains are a retreat for trolls; I have seen golden ones, and heard the wolves speak of them.  Perhaps the mountains, where there are few people, are a place of refuge for those beings.  No one comes here, except trappers and mad, quest-bound fools such as yourselves.” Wolf replied, smiling at her guests.

Darrukin’s vision seemed to be directed inwards for a moment, thinking about something silently. His visage clouded.

“There is no magic in the city of Tashmar, that is for sure.”  Talana said bitterly.  “I have seen that for myself.  There is only evil sorcery, though the churches struggle against it.  No magic, no wonder, just dirty, polluted streets and greedy people.”

“You know, I have a suspicion that the magic is retreating, as you say, Wolf.” Darrukin interjected. “Somehow the magic is being driven back.  If you hear the tales of the old queens and guardians, they mention trolls, tree spirits, all sorts of creatures that we never see or hear of today.”

“The magic must be retreating from Eshtan’s power.  The magic is being driven out by evil.”  Wolf said, anger in her tone.

“We can bring it back. Perhaps that is part of our quest?” Talana said. It sounded naïve of her to say that, but she realised that it was true.  “Eshtan and Ishayla are having a fight, that’s all. Darrukin, you are the Guardian. You are here to protect the Queen.  Whatever has happened to her in her life, it has allowed the rise of evil.  You are not evil, you will combat it.  I am sure you can restore the Queen to what she was. Then perhaps the magic will flow back into all of our lives?”

Her voice had a ring of truth to it that surprised them all.

                                                *          *          *

            Spring arrived with a vengeance of warm sunshine and clear skies.  The snow melted away, leaving the forest wet, runoff flowing down to the river and swelling it considerably.  Darrukin and Talana knew the time was drawing near when they had to say goodbye.

            The wolves had been out and scouting, reporting back to Wolf that they could see nothing dangerous or out of the ordinary within the vicinity. This was a comfort to them all – the threat of the palace guard was one which they took seriously.  But before they could leave, they had to make sure they were ready.  Wolf took them on expeditions to gather wild foods and medicinal plants so that they could take them. Her stores were quite depleted and although she gave generously, they all realised that they would need extra.

            Out on a walk around the mountain into which Wolf’s cave reached back, the three clambered as high as they could up the rocky, forested face. It was a large mountain, too huge for them to contemplate climbing right to the top.

            “Come around to the north side, I’ll show you something.” Wolf called.  Talana and Darrukin were only a few steps behind and followed her along a slim animal track that clung to the slope.  Soon they were clambering upwards again over damp rocks wet with slippery moss.  Balanced precariously on top of one such rock, Wolf pointed outwards to the vista before them.  Both Darrukin and Talana caught their breath in wonder.  Before them, the mountains stretched as far as they eye could see.  Through them, they could see a vast sheet of ice, intensely white-blue in the sunlight.

            “See the glacier?” Wolf asked, her voice hushed as if in reverence to the vast sheet of ice that covered the mountains to the north.  The ice caught the mid-afternoon light, sending dazzling rainbows off its surface, almost looking as if it had caught fire. They could just see the face of the glacier, its white top deepening to an intense blue, the jagged face marching down the valleys of the mountains like an unstoppable river.  Looking closer to their own mountain, they could glimpse the Sapphire river, looking as if it had sprung directly from the glacier.  The water rushed and raced, high and strong.

            “The water is high this year, as it was last year. There will be flooding downriver.” Wolf commented.  Darrukin snatched his eyes away from the view to look at her.

            “We had flooding in Darr last year.  It was actually how I came to find out that I was the guardian.” he said, frowning slightly.  As far as he and Talana knew, they were to head north again once they got back on their way.  North was the glacier.  The glacier, and all the snow, caused the flooding that revealed the Goddess’s message to him.  That time seemed so very long ago now!  He shook his head, wondering at the connection.  Suddenly he felt very homesick, wondering how his family had fared since his escape, wondering if the Queen had dared to turn his family out of their home.  Not that there was anything he could do about it now, of course, he knew that.  Frustration boiled within him.

            Talana caught the look in his eye and tried to smile at him reassuringly.  She knew he was probably thinking about his family.  Keer and Jeron sprang to mind, and she felt a twinge of guilt.  Although she knew she’d done the right thing for Darrukin, in following him and setting him free, she was not so sure about leaving behind Keer and Jeron.  What was done, was done – but that didn’t mean that she had to like it.

            When they climbed back down the mountain, they had armfuls of useful plants with them, ready for packing and storing.  Wolf would take these, giving them her own dried supplies, which would be easier to manage while they travelled.  Talana and Darrukin went to the horses, to sort out the tack, begin the task of preparing to leave.  There was silent agreement between them: they would leave in the morning.  Wolf joined them, bringing with her more supplies from the deposits she had stashed around her cave system.  Furs, warm and thick, to keep them from freezing.  All the dried food and herbs she had left, and she let them have anything else they wanted from her stores.

            “Are you sure we can take all this?” Darrukin asked, amazed at her generosity.

            “Of course.  Have we used it this winter? No. I’ll be fine, it won’t take me long to replace it.  Better it should go with you, as you have an important journey ahead.” Wolf said in reply.

            “You are really very kind, and thank you, for all of this.  If there is anything that Talana or myself can do for you, just say, won’t you?” Darrukin said, feeling quite humbled.

            “I will, don’t you worry.” Wolf replied with a laugh. “Well, it looks as if you will be leaving tomorrow. I think you will have clear skies and calm weather.  I’d better go and make you a good dinner – you’ll want to be off early, I expect.”

            Darrukin looked at Talana, who had paused while packing up a saddlebag.  The younger woman stood, hesitated, then stopped Wolf with a gentle hand on her arm before the older woman could leave the horse chamber.

            “You know, I’m going to miss your company.  You don’t want to come with us, do you?”

            Wolf looked startled, blushed then shook her head, laughing at herself.  “That’s a very kind offer, Talana. But it would not be right for me to join you. My place is here, with my wolves, doing what I can for them. I won’t leave them.  They are my family.  But thank you for the thought.”

            With the decision to leave made, they spent a sad night, mostly in silence around the fire.  They all tried to be cheerful, but the wolves picked up on the sad feelings of the three humans and moped about as well, making them all feel even worse.  Soon they all went to bed, snuggling down amongst thick skins by the fire, watching it die down slowly.

            Darrukin heard Wolf drift off to sleep, her breathing becoming slow and regular.  Talana he could tell was still awake.

            “You alright?” he whispered, leaning up on one elbow and looking at her across the fire.  She turned towards him, and he could see tears glistening in her eyes.

            “Yeah, I’m alright. But it’s going to be harder to leave there than I thought.  Wolf’s been so good to us. She’s our friend, and I don’t feel right about leaving her, really.” she whispered back.

            “I know what you mean. I feel the same way.” Darrukin replied.  “I know it’s the right time for us to go now, but it is still going to be dangerous. I just hope that the wolves can protect Wolf, because I don’t trust the palace guards. I think they’ll be scouring the mountains for us, and I don’t even want to think about what would happen if they came across Wolf.”

            “I know. I thought that the winter would erase any trace of our journey, but I also know how persistent the palace guards can be.  I’m frightened for Wolf, I really am.”

            Darrukin stayed awake far longer than Talana, listening to her drift off into a restless sleep, tormented by dreams about her father, if he was guessing correctly.  He did not wake her, but was watchful.  Eventually he too, fell asleep, the darkness and warmth of the cave winning him over.

            Morning arrived heralded by the cold, wet noses of wolves pressing into warm sleeping furs, wet tongues licking unprotected faces.  Darrukin felt slightly haggard, but got up and began preparing breakfast in a businesslike way.  He did not want to dwell on the thought of saying goodbye. Talana readied the horses with Wolf before they both sat down with him and ate.  Finishing, they cleared up after their breakfast and then went to the horses.

            “We’d better go now, while it’s early.” Darrukin said, feeling the sadness of parting welling up within him.  He did not like goodbyes. “Thank you, Wolf, for looking after us this winter, and for being such a good friend. We will try to see you again when we head south again.”  His voice was soft.  The White Wolf came up to him and nosed him, so Darrukin crouched down to the animal and spoke to him, patting the snow-white fur.  “Look after her, and the others.” he said, gazing into the wise eyes of the unusual wolf.  The White Wolf licked his face in reply.

            Talana had tears in her eyes as they lead the horses out from the cave and into the sunlight. Wolves came out with the three humans, aware that something was different.  The younger woman, rugged up against the cold, caught the older in a bear hug.

            “I’m sorry we have to go and that you won’t come with us. Thank you for everything.  I am very proud to have you as my friend.” she said, releasing her from her embrace.  They looked at each other for a long moment.

            “Here, both of you.” said Wolf, as she rummaged through the pocket of her coat.  “I made these for myself years ago, but I want you to have them to remember me by.  I have enjoyed your company so much, I have loved having you here with me.  I wish you all the best with your quest – I know you’ll be successful.” 

            She held out two necklaces.  Talana took hers and saw that it was made of the canine teeth of many animals, mostly of wolves. Two bear canines hung in the centre, surrounded by those of smaller animals. The teeth were drilled through and fixed on a strip of leather.  She immediately put the necklace on and hugged Wolf again. Darrukin did the same.  Mounting up, Talana set the spear on the toe of her boot and held it upright, kicking her horse into motion.

            “Goodbye, Wolf!” she called, looking over her shoulder at the woman as they set off.  The horses were eager to move, and soon were cantering along through the forest along an animal track that headed north.

            “Goodbye!” they heard Wolf’s reply.  In a rush that startled the horses, they both heard and saw the wolves all around them, loping along beside them howling out their own goodbye to Talana and Darrukin.

 

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