Chapter Nineteen

The clans of Belfast added four warships to Dallan mac Dalriada’s flotilla.

Foul weather dogged them all the way down the long reach of the Irish Sea, past the jutting coastline of Wales and south to the storm-battered tip of Cornwall. Brenna managed well enough until they rounded the long, narrow arm of land that comprised the Cornish coast. The bulk of Ireland itself had sheltered them from the worst of the storms, but once past the southern edge of County Cork, the full fury of the Atlantic burst across their ships. Squalls black with rain swept across the Irish convoy, buffeting them with terrific wind and towering waves. Nausea struck Brenna and Morgana so completely, even fear of capsizing in the maddened sea held no real terror. Medraut was a bit green, as well, although he bore up under the rough weather better than Morgana and her unseen guest.

“We’ll go ashore at the border of Caer-Durnac,” Medraut shouted above the roar of wind and thunder. “March inland from somewhere along the edge of Lynne Bay!”

That ought to put them right about Weymouth, if Brenna remembered her English geography accurately. From there it was twenty-five, perhaps thirty miles to the hill fort Morgana called Caer-Badonicus, which victorious Saxons and their descendants still referred to as Cadbury. “Wonderful,” Morgana moaned, too ill to muster any enthusiasm at all. “If I survive this wretched seasickness, I’ll build a church at Weymouth Bay and dedicate it to Holy Mary, Mother of Mercy.”

Medraut grinned. “A fine idea. Here, let me pull this blanket round your shoulders.”

He fussed solicitously until she waved him away. “Go, lad, go and help your father-in-law guide us safely to shore.”

Keelin, disgustingly hale and hearty despite the pounding of the waves and the incessant pitching and yawing of their little ship—which bulked no more than forty feet from stem to stern—placed a bucket at Morgana’s side and periodically emptied it over the gunwales. By the time they reached Weymouth Bay, destined by Brenna’s time to become one of Britain’s most favored seaside resorts, Morgana was exhausted. Once out of the worst of the battering wind and waves, the Irish flotilla made fine speed across the wide harbor, throwing anchors overboard within a yard of shore. Medraut and Dallan mac Dalriada had to lift her over the side and carry her to solid ground. She felt like kissing the stony beach. She did sink down to sit above the tideline while the Irish offloaded horses and weapons.

When an armed delegation from Weymouth village spurred toward them, shouting the alarm at sight of the Irish fleet, Morgana staggered to her feet again, groaning the necessity for movement. Morgana leaned against Medraut as they stepped forward to greet the men of Weymouth, old men and half-grown lads, she realized, faces chalky with fear at yet another disastrous invasion. When the approaching war party came within javelin range, Morgana swallowed back nausea and shouted across the open beach.

“Hold fast, men of Weymouth! I am Morgana, Queen of Ynys Manaw and sister to Artorius, the Dux Bellorum of all Britain. My nephew Medraut, King of Galwyddel, has brought allies to drive back the Saxons.” She swept a hand toward the Irish, who were still offloading war-horses and equipment.

Medraut added in a strong, clear voice, “These men are now my kinsmen, for I have wed Keelin of Dalriada and made her Queen of Galwyddel. Her kinsmen and mine have journeyed with us from Dalriada and Belfast, to lend Irish strength to our own, for the Saxons have foully attacked the Irish as well as our own British kingdoms. All Dunadd lies dead to Saxon perfidy. The Irish would take dire vengeance upon men who kill the coward’s way, with poison that strikes down innocent babes as well as warriors grown. Vouchsafe us passage through Caer-Durnac and we’ll drive the Saxons all the way to the sea.”

Consternation passed visibly across the old mens’ faces, while the lads stared at their elders in open confusion. One of the oldest riders stroked his long, white beard while staring into Morgana’s eyes. “And does Morgana of Ynys Manaw guarantee that yon Irish bastards won’t burn our homes round our ears and carry our children into slavery?”

“Dallan mac Dalriada of Dunadd and Bradaigh mac Art of Belfast could have held all Galwyddel and Ynys Manaw to ransom during this week past, for Medraut and I went among them alone and unarmed, under truce of marriage. They treated us with honor and pledged to add their swords to our own in blood-feud with the Saxons who murdered their kinsmen at Fortress Dunadd. I swear before Christ and Holy Mother Mary that I believe them to be honest allies of Britain. I would not have brought them, else.”

The old men of Weymouth village conferred quietly among themselves, then their white-bearded spokesman gave Dallan mac Dalriada a formal bow and put away his sword. “We bid you welcome then, and Godspeed to your journey. Weymouth will send a guide to show you the fastest route north to Caer-Badonicus, where the Saxon armies of Sussex and Wessex have laid siege.”

“My grateful thanks,” Medraut nodded graciously, a sentiment Morgana repeated as well.

Within a quarter hour of arrival, the Irish army—more than four hundred strong—set out in a thunder of hooves across the chalk hills and open downlands of Dorset, past thatched cottages built of chalk and flint, cottages and tiny villages that were ominously devoid of males between the ages of ten and seventy. Whipping through the villages, charging across the broad downs, with their grassy, rolling hills and vast herds of sheep, they raced overland at the gallop, past the Giant of Cerne Abbas, an immense male figure cut deeply into the white chalk of the hillside, with a gnarled war club held high above his head. Whoever had carved that immense chalk man, their warlike valor was desperately needed by the Britons who now ruled this land. As the white chalk man fell away behind their fast-moving cavalcade, Morgana prayed they would arrive at Caer-Badonicus in time. And that Artorius would find it in his heart to forgive her.

* * *

Dawn’s first hint of grey had barely touched the eastern sky when Stirling climbed the ladder up to the watchtower.

“There it is again,” the lookout whispered, taking care that his voice didn’t carry. He pointed north, toward the Mendip Hills. Wishing mightily for a pair of ordinary binoculars, Stirling peered northward. The horizon was still too dark to make out anything like actual movement, but the signal light atop the highest hill flashed out an unmistakable message:

Charge under way… charge under way…

“Send the response code,” Stirling said quietly.

The lookout’s lamp flashed briefly in the near darkness, carefully shielded from all directions except the direct line of sight with Artorius’ signalman. Straining his ears to the utmost, tipping his head slightly to put his best ear toward the invisible cavalrymen, Stirling finally detected a faint rumbling sound, like very distant thunder—which could all too easily be taken for the real thing, since lightning flashed and jittered across the northwestern sky. In the encampment below, Saxon soldiers had barely begun to stir out of their tents, clearly reluctant to crawl out into the drizzling cold rain that had begun falling during the night.

All the better, Stirling nodded to himself.

The lookout hissed, “Look you to the south! The Saxon kings are climbing up.”

Stirling turned swiftly. They were, indeed, climbing. Swiftly so. On horseback! That was a stroke of luck Stirling hadn’t counted on. He grinned. “Bloody marvelous! The fools don’t want to muddy their finery, slogging up here on foot! And they’ve brought their ranking eoldormen and thegns, as I’d hoped. Call down which marker post they’re nearest when they decide to stop. And yell out the moment you actually see Artorius and our cataphracti. In this battle, timing’s everything.

The lookout saluted sharply. “Yes, sir!”

Stirling skinned down the ladder to find Cadorius, Melwas, and a number of Briton princes waiting at the foot of the tower. “On their way,” Stirling said tersely.

Cadorius nodded, heading toward the rendezvous point. They passed three score and nine Sarmatian archers who waited silently, crouched down on one knee so as to remain completely invisible to the approaching Saxons. They sheltered their bowstrings beneath cloaks to protect them from the wet weather until time to fire. Stirling paused to murmur, “The lookout will call down the number of the marker they stop nearest. Aim accordingly.”

Nine and sixty stone-still Asian faces nodded silently, a blood-chilling sight. Warriors carved of granite, prepared to come to life at the merest whisper from above…

As the Briton kings reached the innermost wall, an arrogant Saxon voice shouted, “Britons of Caer-Badonicus! Why do your kings not show themselves?”

Cadorius climbed up, Stirling and Ancelotis to his left, Melwas to his right. The king of Dumnonia stared coldly down at the Saxons, who could not see the men crouched low in the narrow spaces between the layered walls, ready to snatch open the wooden sluice gates. Of all the gates—real and false—built into the fortress walls, only these crucial five were lined up one in front of the other. Once opened, God Himself couldn’t stop the pent-up water behind them from roaring free. Ropes quivered, held taut by the gate teams, five men to each side. Lying prone across the roofing stones other soldiers waited, ready to drag up the crossbars holding the floodgates rigidly closed. Enough rain had fallen—and continued to fall—that the slight loss of water trickling from beneath those tight-wedged gates looked like simple runoff seeping down the muddy hillside.

“Well?” the Saxon spokesman challenged Cadorius, sneering through his great, gaudy blond mustaches. “What say you, kings of Britain?”

Stirling and Ancelotis could just see the Saxons’ upper bodies, along with their horses’ heads and twitching ears. They’d called their halt near marker post three, an innocuous looking stub of wood barely visible above the muddy ground, which had been chopped by mens’ boots and horses’ hooves into a fine and filthy slurry. A very faint “Line on three…” drifted down from the watchtower, the sound so faint it couldn’t possibly have carried to the Saxons, who had halted some fifty yards or so downslope. Stirling held three fingers up behind his back, to be sure every archer knew the proper aim point.

Cadorius, watching the silent preparations at his feet, shouted across, “Who among you will hear our terms?”

One of the eoldormen, a man neither Stirling nor Ancelotis recognized, sent back a jeering laugh. “Your terms? You do not dictate terms to the kings of Sussex and Wessex, Briton! We dictate them to you.”

“Very well,” Cadorius nodded, doing a creditable job of a man determined to remain reasonable at any cost. “What terms do you offer?”

The eoldorman turned slightly in his saddle. “What say you, mighty King Aelle of Sussex?”

The Saxon king swept them with a withering, dismissive glance. “If they would save the lives of their womenfolk, let them send the females out first. Along with any children below the age of five. Let this be the first demonstration of Saxon power—and Saxon clemency.”

Behind Stirling’s shoulder, Melwas muttered, “He means to butcher them before our eyes.”

Cadorius’ answer came out flat with apparent dejection. “You offer us no other sane choice. Very well, I will give orders to summon our women and children. And I will unbar the gates, to let them pass.”

Aelle inclined his iron-helmed head in assent as grey light gradually brightened the eastern sky with long, bloody streaks of crimson, ominous predictor of more rain. Cadorius turned toward the inner compound. “Gather the womenfolk up and their babes, as well—we will send them out under a flag of surrender.”

Waiting men “relayed” the command, buying a few more precious seconds while women added shrill voices to the commotion they were carefully engineering inside the compound. The Saxons sat their horses in jaunty confidence, most of them wearing smirks, clearly enjoying every moment of their triumph, which had come at a remarkably low cost in Saxon lives. Oh, yes, they were most assuredly enjoying this moment. Tension tightened through Stirling’s every muscle, every sinew, waiting, waiting for the final signal—

High overhead, the watchtower sentry blew the ram’s horn.

Artorius was in sight.

NOW!” Stirling bellowed. He dropped flat. The others threw themselves down beside him. Wooden bars, snatched from their brackets, sailed into the air. The teams on the gates hauled in unison, dragging ponderous sluice doors wide open. Five wooden gates slammed into five stone walls. Gate teams scrambled for safety as the pent-up water burst free, like the gushing spillway of a dam. Muddy water frothed and flattened into a wave that spread across the whole side of Badon Hill.

Horses reared and snorted in panic as the flood smashed into them, fetlock-deep and splashing up to the horses’ knees in places. The churned-up mud, already saturated from weeks of rain, liquefied instantly underfoot, like slurry thrown off a potter’s wheel. Several animals lost their footing and crashed to the ground, lunging and screaming in terror and pain. Hapless riders were hurled through space to land badly in the mud and brambles, or, even worse for them, they lay pinned beneath their wounded mounts, dragged downhill with bone-crushing force as their horses skidded downward in the muck. Other horses bolted, kicking and sunfishing in their desperation to escape the shifting, slick mud. Water sucked semisolid ground out from under flailing legs. Equine panic redoubled as wounded men and downed horses thrashed and bellowed their inelegant way toward the plain five hundred feet below. In the space of thirty seconds, surprise turned into chaos and—with lightning’s jagged quickflash—chaos spilled into utter rout.

Ancelotis gave the high sign. Three score and nine Sarmatian archers let fly. Arrows fell in a thick black rain. Wounded horses, already panic-stricken, bucked and pitched. More riders came adrift. Another flight of arrows slashed through armor and flesh, through mail shirts, through arms and legs and horses’ fleeing hindquarters. “Fall back!” someone was shouting from within the mass of shaken Saxons. “Fall back—for the love of Frigga, fall back!”

Men slipped and scrambled through the deadly black rain. Saxon kings and royal princes cartwheeled and skidded through the muck. At the base of the hill, Saxon infantry scurried like confused ants. Someone was blowing the signal to charge. Someone else was frantically gesturing troops out of the flood’s path. Water hit the wooden wall shielding the royal pavilion, parted in a great splash, and roared down into the camp below. Whole tents were swept away, their anchoring pegs yanked out of the softened, muddy ground. Saxons splashed after them, trying to rescue weapons washed away with the rest of the flotsam.

“Look!” Melwas cried.

He was pointing to the northeast corner of the hill.

Saxons were running in wild confusion, a whole mass of them fleeing in a mob. Some tried to climb the hill, others ran straight out onto the plain. A fierce exultation swept through Stirling. Ancelotis let out a wild shout. “They’re running! Bastards are running! We’ve broken them!

An instant later, a thousand galloping horses burst into view. Thunder rolled across the Salisbury Plain, four thousand flying hooves shaking the very ground. Artorius was visible in the vanguard, his white stallion snorting at full charge, his golden armor gleaming in the early light, the red dragon banner snapping like a ribbon of blood. The cavalry charge cut through the mass of fleeing Saxons, mowing them down like rye before a scythe. Hundreds of Saxons went down beneath the cataphracti‘s hooves. None of those who fell so much as stirred when the cavalcade swept past. Britons up and down the wall were shouting, hurling javelins into the clustered Saxons foolish enough to seek safety by climbing toward the fortress. A flight of Sarmatian arrows blackened the sky once more, bringing down more.

“Charge!” Cadorius shouted. “Sound the charge! Cataphracti, to horse!”

The watchtower lookout sounded a long blast. A wave of Briton infantry poured over the walls. Women and children led horses forward, running with them toward other gates snatched open by foot soldiers manning the walls. Cavalrymen vaulted into the saddle and charged through them, carefully keeping to solid ground on either side of the slurry that had spelled ruin to the Saxons’ hopes. Ancelotis shouted, “Archers! Keep your ranks closed up! Advance in a group! Continue massed fire!”

He leaped onto the nearest horse, not caring whose it was, and plunged through the open gates, leading Gododdin in the charge. The Saxon kings and their shaken sons cowered against the wooden shield wall of their command platform. Covered in mud, eyes wild, horses dead or galloping away riderless across the open plain, the Saxons drew swords to face down the Britons stampeding toward them.

“Alive!” Ancelotis shouted. “Take them alive!”

A moment later, Gododdin had surrounded them, hemming them round with a glittering wall of British steel. Ancelotis gave them a mocking salute with his own sword.

“You seem to have lost an army,” Ancelotis favored them with a cold smile. He gestured slightly with the tip. “Unless it is your wish to die immediately, throw down your weapons and your arrogant pride and beg the kings of Britain—whom you have greatly wronged—for mercy on your shivering wives and daughters.”

King Aelle of Sussex, barely recognizable through muddy filth, blood, and shock, snarled, “What guarantees do you give us for our safety, do we acquiesce?”

“Guarantees?” Ancelotis raised his brows. “What guarantees did your murderous son and the odious, craven fool with him offer the village of Penrith? Or the farmholds within five miles of the standing stones? We guaranteed Cutha and Creoda safe passage and they repaid it by spitting infants on pikes and hacking toddling babes into scattered pieces for the crows to eat. Shall I return your courtesy back to you in full measure?”

Aelle lost color beneath the grime. Not, Stirling realized with utter contempt, because the news of the massacre was a surprise, but because Aelle finally realized that an accounting was due for their atrocities—and that he, as much as his son, would be held accountable for it. Stirling could see it in his eyes, that moment of sick horror when he realized the Britons were fully capable of slaughtering his daughters. Even Cutha looked pale around his tight-clenched mouth, pale with shock and hatred and the burning desire to sever British heads from British necks in a war he had already lost.

Ancelotis smiled down into their eyes.

“Yield up all that we demand,” he said softly, “or your wives and daughters will learn the true meaning of terror. You have shown us too much of Saxon butchery to expect pity on your women and your squalling infants. Not from men whose families you have slaughtered like lambs under the axe. You have sown hatred and now you reap it in full measure. Surrender here and now, or I vow to you, there will be no stopping our soldiers in their drunken rampages across the lands you’ve stolen. They will defile your daughters and feed your infants to their dogs and smile while they do it. What say you, curs of Saxony? Shall I loose the hounds of Britain against your families? Or leash them and show the mercy you have failed to show any of us and ours?”

For tense moments, silence gripped the huddled knot of men at his horse’s feet. The Britons hemming them in tested the keenness of their blades and smiled into the prisoners’ eyes. Come, those blazing looks whispered, come let me part your ribs with the kiss of steel…

King Aelle had not taken his gaze from Stirling’s. He stared, pride warring with shock and exhaustion and the realization that he could salvage nothing by his own hand. A sigh finally shivered loose and he broke his long silence.

“Let me speak for Sussex, then,” he began hoarsely, “and beg from you better mercy on my people than my fool of a son showed yours.” He let his sword thunk into the mud. The splash darkened the blade with muck. Cutha’s mouth worked once, twice, while his hand tightened like the grip of a vise around the pommel of his sword. His father turned on him with a snarl. “Don’t be a bigger fool than you were at birth! Throw down the sword—for it is no longer yours to hold. I take it back, sword, pommel, and gold rings of honor. I strip you of them before Woden and all his Valkyries, for you are unworthy in my sight and a curse to every Saxon who treads soil upon this earth.”

Cutha’s face washed grey with shock. He collapsed back against the wooden wall, shaking violently. The sword slid from unnerved fingers, splashing down beside his father’s. His father had just repudiated him before everyone who was likely to matter in Cutha’s life. To take back the sword, to be disgraced by its loss, by the loss of the rings of fealty, rings of reward for fine service—such humiliation overbalanced him, left his eyes wide and staring.

Shunned, Stirling warned Ancelotis silently, shunned and broken. He’ll be deadlier than any wolverine when that shock wears off. Consumed with hatred, blaming everyone but himself. Watch that bastard closely in future—if the kings of Britain allow him to live.

Ancelotis grunted. If the king of Gododdin has any say in the matter, Cutha will be hanged for a murderer from the nearest oak.

The others—Creoda, his father Cerdic, their few surviving eoldormen and thegns—let their weapons fall in formal surrender. “Bind their hands with rope,” Ancelotis said tersely. “Behind them, please. Drag them up to the fortress. We’ll want to question them closely—” He broke off, startled, as movement out across the southeastern plain caught his attention. From his vantage point two hundred fifty feet up the hillside, he could see a long way across the open ground to the southeast.

Beyond Artorius and the cataphracti, beyond the straggling lines of the smashed Saxon supply train,beyond the running, panic-stricken Saxon infantry, a living carpet flowed across the plain. Horses at the full gallop. An army’s worth of them. Headed straight for Caer-Badonicus. And Ancelotis could not for the life of him figure out whose army it might be. The Saxon kings, following his gaze, turned to peer across the plain.

“Your reinforcements?” Melwas demanded harshly.

King Aelle shook his head, obviously confused. “No. Would to Woden they were, but they are not men under my command. Nor under Cerdic’s.”

“Then who—?” Ancelotis realized in a lightning flash of utter horror who they must be. “Dear God. Take these men up to the fort and guard them. Archers, to horse, ride with me!”

He kicked his horse into a flat-out run, plunging wildly down the sodden, mud-churned slope. Out on the Salisbury Plain, the fleeing Saxon infantry had stumbled and stalled in their headlong flight from Artorius. The front ranks began to shift direction, running back toward the British lines, scattering to the sides, trying to escape two cavalry charges that rushed toward one another on a direct collision course.

Spurring madly, Stirling and his host caught up with Artorius—who had slowed in open puzzlement—just as the leading edge of Saxons, men who’d fled British steel just moments previously, crashed in amongst them, screaming for mercy, many of them flinging themselves to the ground, prostrate before Artorius’ white stallion.

“Oh, dear God,” Artorius breathed as Ancelotis reined to a halt beside him.

They could see the approaching army’s battle flags. Ancelotis knew those flags, knew them as well as Artorius did. The bottom fell out of Stirling’s gut, splashed into the mud at his horse’s feet, and tried to crawl away with the wounded, exhausted Saxons. “Ireland!

Artorius opened his mouth to give the shout to charge, when the Irish cavalcade drew abrupt rein and halted, hundreds of them, just out of javelin distance. For long moments, an eerie, unnerving hush fell across the field of death, with neither side moving. Then a small knot of riders detached themselves from the main body of Irish troops. A white scrap of cloth fluttered in the wet wind as they rode slowly forward, horses dancing sideways in the adrenaline rush of the foreshortened charge. After a tense moment, Stirling could make out five riders, three women and two men, it looked like. A moment longer and they were close enough to recognize faces.

Morgana!” The word was wrung from Artorius.

He spurred forward, gesturing the cataphracti to wait. Ancelotis was right on his heels.

They met halfway between the two armies, with cowering Saxons lying prone in the mud all around them, desperate to avoid rousing fatal attention. Morgana rode like a woman carved of granite, face pale and haggard with exhaustion and strain. Medraut was with her. Ancelotis wondered at the glow in the boy’s eyes, an inner fire he had never before seen in the boy. The other man with them wore Irish insignia of royal rank, as did one of the ladies, a girl barely Medraut’s age. Father and daughter, Stirling realized abruptly, tracing similarity of features and proud carriage. The other woman was a quiet, sharp-eyed soul who had the look and demeanor of a highly placed court councillor.

“Greetings, stepbrother,” Morgana said quietly, spine straight as a church steeple. “I bring allies of Britain.” She gestured with one graceful hand. “King Dallan mac Dalriada. Riona Damhnait, a Druidess of his privy council. Keelin, daughter of Dallan mac Dalriada and wife to Medraut, King of Galwyddel by my lawfully recorded order. He has made the Princess of Dalriada a Queen of Galwyddel, binding our two peoples into one. Before you speak,” she lifted a slim hand in a commanding gesture that closed Artorius’ lips over the protest balanced there, “know that the Saxons have committed atrocity in Irish-held lands and attempted to shift blame for it onto Britons.”

Lailoken…

Stirling found himself wondering where that bastard might be, along with his unseen guest.

Morgana, reiterating the story of poisoned wells at Fortress Dunadd, which he and Artorius already knew, added, “The Dalriadan Irish and their kin from Belfast seek alliance with any force strong enough to hurl Saxon swine into the sea. Dallan mac Dalriada begs the favor of joining their not inconsiderable force to ours to keep both our islands safe from Saxon ravages.” Her eyes glowed with fiery pride and a defiance that left Artorius pale and silent. “It would,” she murmured, “at the very least, secure much of our northern border and a very large portion of our western seacoast.”

Artorius sat blinking for long moments. He finally brought himself sufficiently out of shock to say, “I cannot trust Irish treachery, Morgana.”

“Brother,” she said gently, “they have already given us the greatest hostage they possess: Keelin, of the royal house of the Scotti clan, last of her father’s direct line. They have held Medraut and me in their power for more than a week now, could have killed us and launched an attack against Galwyddel, against Ynys Manaw and Strathclyde, against any Briton kingdom they chose, with our armies distracted by this Saxon menace to the south. They chose, instead, to seek alliance against a common enemy.”

Ancelotis and Stirling, both of them deeply curious about Morgana’s new allies, studied the face of the Irish king. They saw pride there, strength, and pain, but nothing of treachery. And Keelin—God help, queen of Galwyddel—had reached across to grip Medraut’s hand. The look he gave her was so gentle, so protective, Ancelotis could not hold suspicion in his hands. He turned to Artorius.

“This is a matter for the kings and queens of Britain to discuss in council,” he said quietly. “If I may suggest it, allow the Irish army to camp here, keeping the Saxons imprisoned between us, and hold a dialogue with King Dallan mac Dalriada and Queen Keelin in the meeting hall at Caer-Badonicus. Would to God Emrys Myrddin were not missing. We could use his guidance.”

“Missing?” Artorius asked sharply.

Ancelotis explained.

“I mislike it,” the Dux Bellorum muttered. “I mislike it intensely.” Ancelotis wasn’t entirely certain whether he spoke of Emrys Myrddin’s disappearance or his new in-laws. Both, probably.

“Very well, let us see to these wretches’ confinement, then seek the council chamber.”

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