Through Shadows

Chapter 24

Chapter 24

Under the rose

"I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to recall her from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know. And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot bring."

Aragorn to Éomer before his attempt to heal Éowyn; quoted from: The Houses of Healing, The Return of the King, Book VIII by J.R. R. Tolkien

Minas Tirith, 30th March, TA 3019

Sitting on her bed, Éowyn leaned against the footboard. The woman who had helped her undress and get ready for the night had left an hour ago, but sleep would not come. With a sigh she looked up to the dark square of the open window. The breeze coming in smelled of rain. It had only been a short shower in the early evening, but the smell still floated on the air, causing her heart to yearn for something she could not name. Feeling the cold slowly creeping into her skin, she cumbersomely pulled the blankets up around her.

It had been a busy day, filled with exercises and meetings and she should be tired enough to sleep soundly, and yet there was something that kept her from lying down, something like a faint echo of one of her nightmares. She shook her head at her own moodiness. There had been nothing throughout the whole day that justified any bad mood or worry. Quite the contrary. Her lips crinkled in a fond smile as she recalled Merry's eagerness to fill her in on even the most ridiculous prank the Riders had played these last days, his giddy talk about the preparations at the Harlond for a convoy of sturdy boats to sail upriver as soon as news from Cormallen came that the river was safe. And he had told her in great detail about the floating bridge at Osgiliath that could be pulled apart with the help of chains to let those boats sail through. He had talked nineteen to the dozen, even during the meal they had shared, and in the end she had asked him if he had spent too much time in Ioreth's company lately. He had blushed at the jibe but nevertheless not been able to contain himself for long.

And how well she could understand his elatedness. To know that friends who one had thought lost lived and were recovering certainly was a reason for utmost joy. And was not a shared joy a doubled joy? Absentmindedly she cradled her broken arm. They also said that sorrow shared was sorrow halved. And yet it was dangerous to share one's grief as it showed one's vulnerability, one's weakness to the person one confided in. Had she told the Steward too much? Had she given herself away, letting him see how much she needed someone to confide in? And yet: Would she not trust her very life to him in battle? She heaved a breath as the image of fighting back to back with him rose before her inner eye. What a fight they would deliver, and what an incitement it would be to guard the back of such a man! A man it was worth dying for.

The sudden pain that dragged at her arm ended her reveries. She clenched her teeth. It was not the first fracture she had suffered and she knew that the growing of new bone could be painful, but she had not expected anything like this. How absurd that the healing seemed to cause more pain than the breaking. But she had heard more than one story about how the excitement of battle had caused Riders to not even notice a wound until the immediate pressure of the fight had been over. She grimaced. She certainly would find no sleep without the help of some painkiller.

Swearing under her breath, she slipped out of bed and groped for the lounging robe. As much as she held the Gondorean prissiness in contempt, it was only fair to admit that the robe was most convenient. Fishing with her feet for the slippers under her bed, she slipped into them and made for the door. She would go to the wards and ask a healer for a draught of meadowsweet and then try to sleep in earnest.

She was just about to turn the corner into the corridor right in front of the third ward, when she heard a door being opened and rather forcefully closed again.

"You have no right to stop me talking to her, Mareth." A Gondorean voice, obviously belonging to a profoundly angered man. Éowyn stopped and listened.

"If anybody has a right to do so, it is me, Mablung, and you know it. Anborn left her in my care, and care for her I will. It is bad enough that you tried to head her off when she came to her shift, but you have no business at all pestering her during her work." Where the man's voice had been hot with anger, the healer's voice was clipped and bitter with cold condescension. "And also you should know that the disturbance of the patients' night's rest is nothing the Warden will take lightly."

The man snorted. "And you know only too well that there is no way for me to talk to her save at her work, as no man is allowed into your quarters. I wrote to her to meet me elsewhere, but you know that as well, for I'm sure that it was you who kept the message from her."

Mareth laughed. "You are so full of yourself, you cannot even imagine that she did not want to talk to you, can you? And that is the reason we are having this talk out here in the corridor. Leave her alone. And now excuse me, for I have work to do."

"And what kind of work!" The irate voice reminded Éowyn of someone who had been stung by a wasp. And a quite big one to be sure. "How can you let her work in there with all those men, those warriors, and what is worse: Rohirric warriors? I nearly lost my mind when I learned that she was working night shifts..."

For a split second Éowyn thought to intervene and give that conceited Gondorean git a piece of her mind, but Mareth's answer forestalled her.

"You are a fool, Mablung." The healer's voice was cutting. "Yes, they are wild and boisterous, and yes, their ways and traditions differ profoundly from ours in many aspects, but I tell you, Anwen could not be safer than in their company."

The man snarled. "I have heard different stories about those Riders and their weakness for drink, brawls and women. I do not deem them proper company for my late friend's daughter, even if I respect their valour in battle. And I will hold you responsible for anything that should happen."

"Is that so?" The healer sneered. "Let me see: Your late friend left his sister in my care, knowing that it would mean strenuous work in the Houses, work that might demand strength beyond her young years, bodily and mentally..."

"I cannot believe that Anborn ever thought she would really have to deal with the wounded."

Mareth laughed scornfully. "No, he certainly believed she would be put in some corner as a decoration. Stop talking nonsense. Both, Anborn and Anwen, knew what she would be confronted with, and both agreed with it. Anborn did not doubt her abilities, and nor did he doubt me. And he was right, because the girl proved a boon to the wounded and her aid was much appreciated by healers and patients alike. So with what right do you turn up here, Mablung, son of Maethlung, and demand that she quits the Houses?"

"Don't pretend you are daft. The war is over, Mareth. There is the chance for a brighter future for her."

"And any future is brighter than being a healer, isn't it? But you thought nothing of it when you suggested that future to me. Have you forgotten?" The bitterness almost made her voice brittle, and Éowyn held her breath. Whatever her resentment towards Mareth had been, this very moment she was fighting Anwen's cause and Éowyn did not want her to lose the fight.

The man's answer was snide. "You know she stays not because she wants to become a healer but because of that Lhindir. And who knows what the cad has already done to her..."

"How dare you!" The healer's voice now almost cracked with suppressed fury. "Lhindir is bound through his oath and young as he is, he takes it seriously. But even if he was not sworn to celibacy he would never take advantage of Anwen for he truly loves the girl and he cares. They never worked the same shifts and I always kept an eye on her as she is my charge, but I knew I could trust them. Unlike others who under the pressure of the lingering darkness and uncertainty felt overwhelmed by the cruel demands of our work and forsook their oaths seeking solace and forgetfulness in the warm bed that was forbidden to them."

"Mareth! How can you talk in such a way?"

"How can I utter the truth, plain and bold? Oh, that probably comes from dealing too much with those Rohirrim, Mablung. Bluntness seems to be contagious."

Éowyn grinned widely. Mareth was truly aiming her slashes well. And the healer did not leave the man any time to answer, continuing in a calmer voice now.

"But that is not what we have to discuss. It's a fact that Anwen wants to stay in the Houses. She can do so as a healers' assistant, or she can start an apprenticeship next year, there is no need to force things. Lhindir will not finish his own apprenticeship until next year. And she deems herself too young to get married anyway."

"To get married!" Mablung snorted with disdain. "The lad is a cripple. Surely a Ranger's daughter deserves better."

A Ranger... Éowyn's respect for Faramir's men dwindled rapidly. But Mareth's answer did not leave her any time to ponder.

"A cripple?" The casualness in the healer's voice held something dangerous. "He certainly is. And many a good man will be one after this war. Men who fought and bled for Gondor, who lost their limbs, fighting for her very existence. Do all of them deserve nothing but to be spurned by those who are strong and whole? Shall wives turn down their husbands, parents their sons because they come home maimed, crippled?"

"You are twisting my words, Mareth. I only want what is best for Anwen." Éowyn clenched her fist triumphantly. The annoyance in the man's voice clearly indicated that Mareth had drawn first blood.

"I know, Mablung. But you are judging things from your point of view and don't consider that others might see things differently. And your opinion has not even been asked for. She is under my care, and I tell you she will stay at the Houses. And not because I want her to, but because that is her decision. She will find out what she really wants in the long run, and I will support her, no matter whether she decides to become a healer or to marry. Why, she is still very young and her feelings might change now that the pressure of constant danger is lifted."

From what Éowyn could hear, she assumed that the Ranger had started pacing up and down impatiently.

"And what reputation will a young woman have after having worked as a healer? How will she find a respectable husband? Everyone will ask why she chose to join the Houses in the first place. No, Mareth. I understand that Anborn left his sister in your care when it became clear that war was inevitable, but now life goes on. There is a future in front of her, and I will make sure she'll get a position that befits her rank. Don't even consider a connection with that base-born wheelwright's crippled son!" The Ranger did not seem able to control his vexation any longer, the pitch of his voice raising audibly with every sentence. When Mareth answered, Éowyn could not help a smirk. The healer's voice was smooth and cool and simply dripping with disdain.

"He's a sworn healer, Mablung. Taking up his apprenticeship, he left his former life behind, and it is a shame that I have to remind you of the rules of the Houses. He is skilled and capable and he..."

"I simply don't care." The man roared. "He's a commoner and no way a match for Anwen. You only show your irresponsibility by backing up his undue ambitions. But I will not put up with your fancies. Tell her to quit the Houses and take up living with Lord Baimeldir's family first thing tomorrow morning or I will find ways to force you to lay down your guardianship."

Éowyn had heard enough. Such behaviour demanded more than just the intervention of another woman, and a foreigner furthermore. But she would make this insolent twit pay for his boastful threats. And she knew who to turn to. Making as little noise as possible, she hurried the way back and within a minute she stood in front of the Steward's door, panting slightly, and knocked.

"Come in."

His voice had been even, but as soon as she entered his room he rose from where he had been sitting at the table, writing into a small leather-bound notebook. "My lady, ... Éowyn. What brings you here? Is anything wrong?"

She nodded, and he offered her a chair, sitting down across from her, his face composed but his gaze showing true concern.

"There is something that is very wrong. And I am sure I will never forgive myself if I do not at least attempt to interfere." Swiftly she explained why she had been heading for the Rohirric wards and then reported the talk she had overheard. "That man is one of your Rangers, my lord, some Mablung who claims to have been Anborn's friend."

The Steward nodded. "He surely was, and I do not doubt his true concern for his friend's sister."

Éowyn frowned. "So you deem it right that he wants to remove her from the Houses and threatens Mareth should she not agree with his plans, even if Anwen herself wants to stay?"

"No, my lady, certainly not. And yet what he says does not lack reason." Seeing her frown, he explained: "Anborn did have next to no hope that he or any Ranger would survive, and he wanted to make sure that his sister would be protected and provided for. He wanted her to leave the city with Lord Baimeldir's family, for said lord hails from Ithilien and is a devoted supporter of the Rangers, but she refused and insisted on staying and doing her share. And therefore Anborn spoke to Mareth who he knew and cherished. I do not know what Anborn would say now, with the war being over and Ithilien being free again, but I suppose he would have tried to convince her to go with him to reclaim the lands on the other side of the river."

Éowyn felt irritated. "Perhaps he would. But he is not here anymore, and he gave his sister into Mareth's care and guardianship. And the girl wants to stay there."Had she really been so wrong to suppose the Steward would be on her side?

Again he nodded. "And also there Mablung is not wrong. I am convinced that she has a deep sympathy for young Lhindir, even if she agrees that she is too young to marry him."

"And that is a crime in Gondor?"

His eyebrow twitched slightly, but she did not think it funny at all this time. "No, but Mablung is right to point out that he is a commoner."

Angrily, she threw her hand in the air. "Yes, he is a commoner. But did not Mareth say that as he became a healer his former life and rank do not matter anymore? Would that not pertain for Anwen too, should she take up an apprenticeship? Would that not make them equals in rank?"

"You are perfectly right, my lady. And that is exactly what Mablung is afraid of: That his friend's only sister might set her future aside for a whim, a mere infatuation of an immature mind."

She glared at him furiously. "If he thinks them immature he does not know Anwen nor Lhindir. And even if he is worried that does not give him the right to threaten Mareth."

"I absolutely agree with you. And though the first might be excused as mere short-sightedness or just a common prejudice against youth, the later is inexcusable." He looked at her gravely. "I am not taking sides with Mablung, Éowyn, even though he is one of my Rangers, who has more than once proved his valour in action. But I want to understand what is making him behave the way he is. And he certainly wants to achieve what he deems best for his friend's sister."

Éowyn felt that she was losing her patience. "But he only sees her as that: his friend's sister. Not as a person with a free will, with dreams and with needs..."

With a sigh he rose. "He never was able to see that in women. But nevertheless I think I will have to consider his worries."

She brusquely stood, not caring that the chair toppled over. "Béma's horn! I'll ask Éomer King to make Lhindir a knight of the Mark if it is so bloody important for you that she marries a noble."

He quietly set up the chair before answering, the corners of his lips crinkling in his typical half-smile. "I have no doubt you would do so, but I do not think it will be necessary."

Holding his hand out in a gesture of appeasement, he added: "Be comforted, my lady. I am convinced that Mareth is a most responsible guardian, and Anwen, should she really want to stay in the Houses, shall certainly stay in her care. But there is one more thing. You say she deems herself too young to get married, and so do I. I will not agree with her marrying anyone before she has turned sixteen at least. And now, if you will excuse me, I suppose I'll have to have a most urgent talk with one of my Rangers and with the Warden, concerning the future of my fallen captain's sister."

She squinted her eyes. Had he been having her on all the time or had he really been considering Mablung's motives? Or perhaps both? Irked by her own uncertainty she said: "And what about your intention not to intrude with the rules of the Houses?"

He shrugged. "Nothing I might do will be worse in the eyes of our most honourable Warden than not gainsaying the performance of the Haradric dancers, so there is not much left to lose. But I had better hurry, for it might well be that Mablung has already found his way to the Warden to complain about Mareth, and if only to prove that he was not making empty threats."

"What a churl!"

He gently took her hand. "There is much bitterness between those two, but I will not let others suffer because of it."

"Bitterness?"

He nodded. "Mareth was Mablung's wife and he divorced her for barrenness. She has little reason to love him and she certainly does not miss a chance to nettle him." He brushed a kiss over her knuckles. "I'll have a short talk with Mareth first. Go to your room, my lady, and I will send someone with a draught against your pain." He opened the door and held it open for her to pass through. "And, my lady, when I tell you tomorrow morning what I have achieved at the Warden's will you tell me why you fight that furiously for two youngsters' right to love?"

Bristling she said: "Because..."

He simply put his forefinger across her lips. "Shush, my lady. Tomorrow morning." And giving her a wink out of laughing eyes, he turned and was gone.

Scowling, she headed for her room, taking one of the small oil-lamps from the corridor with her to light the one on her bedside table. What an incredible, infuriating man! Though she admitted to herself that it had been her own fault for the most part and that she had made a fool of herself, losing her temper. In technical terms the Steward had told her from the very beginning he agreed with her, she should have simply left it at that and declined any discussions about motives behind Mablung's churlish behaviour. She grimaced. She should have kicked the Steward the moment he had put his fingers across her lips. What a presumptuous behaviour... And yet she did not find it in herself to feel truly offended.

Shaking her head, she slumped down on her bed. What was it that made her so lenient toward that man?

A knock at the door brought Anwen, carrying one of the lidded mugs typical of the Houses.

"My lady." Visibly flustered, the girl held the mug out to her. "Some meadowsweet tea, as the Lord Faramir ordered."

Thanking her, Éowyn took a sip. Strong and unsweetened, just as she liked it. "Has the Steward told you why he came to the ward?"

The girl nodded. "He said that as long as I keep the rules of the Houses he will support me and see to it that Anborn's intent will be respected." Blushing profoundly she added: "The Riders weren't too friendly when he turned up after the fultumiend had forced Mablung to leave, because they expected him to take sides with the Ranger."

"The fultumiend?" The Rohirric word sounded strange from Anwen's lips.

"That's what the Riders call their comrades who assist the healers, my lady. When we heard that Mablung yelling at Mareth, they went and threatened him with a thrashing, should he not leave her in peace. And when the Steward turned up everyone believed that Mablung had run to him to complain." Her fingers played with the hem of her apron nervously. "I'm afraid that especially Grimbeorn was very uncivil."

Éowyn had no problem to imagine that. Hiding her smile, she asked: "And how did the Steward react?"

Anwen shrugged. "As always, my lady: calm, understanding and composed. He is such a caring, honourable man."

Thoughtfully Éowyn sipped her tea. He certainly was. And perhaps that was the simple answer to her previous question.


Minas Tirith, 1st April, 3019, Third Age

"Oh, I would not say that the Riders were hostile, but rather that they gave me a very authentic pithy Rohirric welcome."

"So Grimbeorn was eager to live up to his name?" Leaning against the rampart, Éowyn did not even try to hide her grin, enjoying the Steward's self-ironic understatement.

He shrugged. "Not too much really. He only informed me that an ill-mannered stallion would be gelded well enough in advance in the Mark, but obviously that was not necessary in Gondor as the malfunction of some Gondoreans' testicles was obvious though they seemed to prefer putting the blame on their wives."

Sobered, Éowyn shook her head. "He will never forgive Mablung for divorcing Mareth. He was truly shocked when I told him about it."

The Steward nodded gravely. "He also seemed very concerned about Anwen, but I think I managed to pacify him and his fellow-Riders. The Warden was a much harder nut to crack."

"The Warden?"

The typical wry smile stole back onto the Steward's face. "The cards were stacked against Mablung from the very beginning, though he never realised. The Warden is responsible for the Houses, my lady, and of course Anborn had consulted him and asked his consent to Anwen's stay under Mareth's guidance... And he also knows who Mablung is and why Mareth became a healer. A healer he acknowledges, and whose skills and dedication are praised not only by a bunch of flaxen-haired barbarians, as Mablung had the effrontery to call the Rohirrim."

Éowyn frowned. "The Warden certainly is not happy about the Riders or rather about their behaviour, and he has made that clear more than once."

"So he has, but he also is intelligent enough to see the good they are doing and to listen to what his healers' tell him. A Warden is elected by the senior healers, my lady, he would not have stayed in that position for decades if he did not have the necessary skills to moderate." The Steward's eyebrow twitched and the corners of his eyes crinkled. "Mablung went hunting for a doe and got to face a boar. Everyone knows that nobody, and be he King or Steward of the realm, has the right to interfere with the rules and management of the Houses. And that understandably is a prerogative everyone in the Houses would stand up for, and foremost of all the Warden. Mablung is used to being a soldier, and he is a good one, the captain of my scouts. But that kind of life has made him blind to anything outside the ranks of the army. He expected to be obeyed and was stupid enough to go to that man and demand of him to send Anwen to Lord Baimeldir's family. And the reason he gave was that he did not see Mareth fit to be the girl's guardian because of her dealings with the Rohirrim."

"That scumbag!" Angered, Éowyn pushed herself off the wall.

The Steward chuckled. "That certainly was a serious mistake. The old man got livid, and in the end I had to save my chief scout from being barred from the Houses."

Éowyn frowned. "It would not have been a bad thing. At least he would have been forced to leave the girl in peace."

The Steward's face turned serious. "He certainly would have. And yet I prefer it the way it is. Mablung is popular with his men, and I do not want any ill humour between the army and the Houses. Nor do I want him to lose face, because there are few scouts as experienced as him. He was put in his place, and he had to realise that only the Steward's intercession saved him from worse. So not only will he tread much more carefully for his own sake, but also because he truly is loyal to me."

Seeing her still frowning, the Steward smiled again. "My lady, try to look at it in an objective way: Anwen is satisfied, for she can stay in the Houses. Mareth is satisfied because her claim was approved and her honour put above any of Mablung's remarks. The Warden is satisfied because he put down his foot against the interference of some conceited noble and even the Steward had to apologise. And last but not least Mablung is satisfied, for I vouched for Anwen's future. The only ones involved I know nothing about are Lhindir and the Rohirrim. The latter will certainly regret that Mablung was not gelded on the spot if I interpret Captain Grimbeorn's remark correctly, and the first was a bit subdued this afternoon, which makes me suspect that Mablung might have had a word with the lad."

Éowyn shook her head. "I think Mablung did not arrive at Minas Tirith before lunch today, for Merry had no news from Cormallen before the afternoon."

The Steward looked at her, slightly surprised. "That is right. He arrived around noon, coming down the Anorien bank of the river after having crossed at Cair Andros and immediately reported to me. But he might have talked to Lhindir when he first came to the Houses."

"He might, my lord. But that has nothing to do with the lad's sadness." Seeing the Steward's enquiring glance, she explained: "He already told me two days ago that he... That she deserved better than him."

"And what did you tell him?" The Steward's voice did not give away anything, but she only too well knew to read the slight twitch of his eyebrow.

Squaring her shoulders, she looked him straight in the eye. "That he deserved to get some sense knocked into his thick skull."

"You seem to be profoundly convinced that there is a joyful future for them. And yet both of them are very young. Not to mention the difference in their class affiliation and status. All that can cause serious strain on their relation."

Was that another one of his strategic calculations or was he simply having her on? She decided that it was probably both, and yet she could not help feeling nettled. "As you say yourself: It can. And most certainly it will if they do not get help. But if we help them, yes, I am sure there is a realistic chance for them. I do not mean to push them together, my lord. I'm no matchmaker. But they deeply care for each other and their union should not be forbidden. Give them time, and don't separate them now because of a status that does not even apply in the Houses. Let them see for themselves what they feel for one another in one or two years time, and give them a chance to decide then. Neither of them is immature or superficial, they will carefully consider the steps they take. Just being young does not mean they are irresponsible."

"Do you know how beautiful you are when you get truly excited?" The Steward's eyes sparkled with mirth, and there was something below the obvious mocking in his voice that reminded her of a cat fur.

Irritated, she insisted. "Stop trying to digress. I know what I'm talking about, for I was but one year older than Anwen is now when I realised how much I cared for Fréaláf of Fyrthe. And I know for sure that our love would have ended in bitter sorrow there and then had not Théodred stepped in as our intercessor."

The Steward smiled. "As I have promised to follow your cousin's example, you put quite a challenge in front of me. But don't you worry. I do agree with you. They certainly are responsible young people and I will do what I can to assure their happiness. And that means to not influence them but to assure them that they will not have to face insurmountable obstacles."

For a flitting moment she felt like kicking him, but then nostalgia prevailed. Slowly she nodded. "That was exactly what Théodred did. And he took Fréaláf with him to the Westfold as his squire. To prove our seriousness as he told the king. But in reality he never doubted us but rather wanted to keep Fréaláf out of Éomer's reach. I know that my brother vehemently spoke against my union with Fréaláf and that only thanks to Théodred's endorsement were we allowed to trothplight in the end." She gave a bitter laugh. "That was the last time Éomer and Gríma ever agreed."

"Your brother certainly had your best interest at heart..."

Éowyn snorted. "He certainly had. But he should have asked me what I thought to be my best interest. He was absolutely convinced that being my elder brother gave him the right and ability to know better than I myself what was good for me. He has changed remarkably, but I fear that down in his heart of hearts he still is the old overprotective, high-handed oaf."

The Steward did not answer that and they stood for a while in silence until he remarked: "Théodred seemed to be quite troubled by your brother's resentment."

She raised her eyebrows. "And he told Boromir?"

"If I understood my brother right it was rather that he asked Théodred why Éomer held such an obvious grudge against such a splendid young warrior."

She gave him a wry smile. "Well, I assume my cousin told him the reason."

The Steward nodded. "He did. And I have to admit that I wondered then what I would have done if I had learned that my younger sister had given herself to one of my men under the rose, no matter how noble that man was. Boromir laughed at me when I told him so, calling me a prissy wimp and declaring his admiration for a people as uncompromising, keen and reckless in battle and love as the Rohirrim. And he mercilessly mocked me, teasing me with my love for the stories about the Shieldmaidens of the North, asking me how I could admire their valour in battle and deny them the warriors' liberties." He smiled lopsidedly. "It did not sit well with me then, but the longer I thought about it and the longer I watched Boromir's yearning for the short time he spent in Rohan every year, the stronger I came to believe that in the bearing of the Rohirrim, men and women alike, one could catch a glimpse of the times of our forefathers when the heroes of the ancient Houses of Men woke pure and free with the first rising of the sun."

Annotations:

fultumiend: (Rohirric/Old English) helper

30th March - 1st April : In the Steward's Reckoning, a calendar Tolkien "invented" for Gondor, all months had thirty days.

under the rose: Besides being a symbol of feminine generative power or love in general, the rose was a sign of secrecy. What was done "under the (sign of ) the rose" was meant not to be disclosed. In the Middle Ages in some European countries a rose was e.g. suspended from the ceiling of the council chamber, pledging all present (as they were under the rose) to secrecy.


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