The Sable Quean (Redwall Series #21)by Brian Jacques
Buckler the hare, Blademaster of the Long Patrol, must save the youngsters of Redwall Abbey-kidnapped by the vile Vilaya the Sable Quean-and stop the villain's conquest of Mossflower Wood.
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Buckler the hare, Blademaster of the Long Patrol, must save the youngsters of Redwall Abbey-kidnapped by the vile Vilaya the Sable Quean-and stop the villain's conquest of Mossflower Wood.
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Travel Is An Adventure!
Wreathing slowly through the foliage of a white willow, smoke spiralled into the warm summer noon. Below on the riverbank, two rats and a burly stoat squatted around the fire, roasting roots and wild turnips on sharpened sticks. Scraping away ashes and burnt soil, the stoat inspected his half-raw turnip. He spat sourly into the fire.
“Wot sorta vittles is this fer a warrior? Stinkin’ roots an’ turnips ’ard as rocks!”
one of the rats remarked hopefully, “If’n ye don’t fancy it, then I’ll eat it for ye.”
Baring his snaggled teeth, the stoat whipped forth a dagger. “Put a paw near my vittles an’ I’ll gut yer!”
The other rat nibbled at a ramson root, wincing with disgust. He was in agreement with the stoat. “Aye mate, meat’s wot we need, a brace o’ plump woodpigeons, or even a fish. I like fishes.”
The stoat flung his turnip into the fire, scowling. “We don’t have ter put up wid this muck. I thought we was Ravagers, not scavengers. Any’ow, wot are we supposed t’be doin’, that’s wot I’d like t’know?”
The first rat retrieved the turnip from the hot ashes, wiping it off on his tattered sleeve. “Zwilt the Shade sez Sable Quean wants woodlanders, young uns. So we’ve got t’stay hid in the area an’ capture any we sees. That’s our orders, mate.”
Testing the edge of his blade on a grimy paw, the stoat grinned wickedly. “Young uns would make good meat. Just let me git me paws on a fat dormouse or a chubby liddle squirrel. I’d let Zwilt ’ave the bones to give to the Sable Quean!”
The smaller of the two rats looked fearful. “You’d do that? I wouldn’t like t’be you if Zwilt found out.”
The burly stoat tossed his dagger into the air, catching it skilfully. “So, wot if’n he did, eh? Lissen, I ain’t scared of Zwilt, or ’is Sable Quean. They don’t bother me!”
The larger rat whispered nervously, “Be careful wot ye say. They don’t call ’im Zwilt the Shade for nothin’—some say ’e’s magic!”
The stoat scoffed. “Rubbish! Wot sort o’ magic, eh?”
The rat took swift glances up and down the bank. “Nobeast sees Zwilt, unless ’e wants ’em to. They say ’e can come an’ go secretly, just as ’e pleases.”
The big stoat shook his head pityingly. “Yer a right ole frogwife if’n ye believe that. Shade or no Shade, Zwilt’s just a beast like any other. Y’see this dagger o’ mine? Well, one good stab of it’d make Zwilt vanish forever!”
The voice came out of nowhere. “How can you do that when you’re already dead, fool?”
Brandishing his weapon, the stoat bounded upright. “Who said that—who’s there?”
From behind his back, a cloaked figure emerged through the smoky willow foliage. With lightning speed and savage strength, it wrenched the stoat’s paw backward, sending the dagger spinning. Dust rose as the stoat’s back slammed against the ground. He lay there, staring up into the face of Zwilt the Shade.
The sable was a sight to instil fear into most creatures. Behind the natural mask of dark fur, his eyes were totally black, dead and inscrutable. Zwilt was lean, wiry and very tall for one of his species. Beneath a flowing cloak of dull purple, he wore a snakeskin belt with a broadsword thrust through it. His teeth showed small, white and sharply pointed as he hissed at the hapless stoat.
“You should have believed the rats. They spoke truly.”
The burly stoat gulped. “Sire, I was only jestin’ . . .”
Zwilt held a paw to his lips. “Silence. You should not be speaking— I’ve already told you that you’re dead.”
In desperation, the stoat tried to rise. “No I ¬ain’t—”
The broadsword appeared suddenly in Zwilt’s paws; he swung it like lightning. As the severed head rolled into the river, Zwilt addressed it.
“Oh, yes you are. Perhaps you’ll believe me now?” Without raising his voice, Zwilt the Shade turned his unblinking stare on the two rats. “You believe me, don’t you?”
They both nodded wordlessly, in stunned silence.
The tall killer wiped his blade on the headless carcass. “Get this thing out of my sight. Throw it in the river.”
The rats scrambled to obey his order. When they turned back again, he had gone. There was only the fire, dying to embers in the bright summer afternoon. The remains of their former comrade drifted slowly away on the current.
None of the vermin band known as the Ravagers dared to disobey Zwilt the Shade. His orders came directly from Vilaya, the one they called the Sable Quean.
Waves broke endlessly on the sands of Mossflower’s west¬ern shore, with the lonely hissing sigh that is the music of the sea. Late noon sun was still warming the beach above the tideline, where the mountain of Salamandastron towered over all. Brang the Badger Lord and his trusty companion, General Flackbuth, sat watching a young hare drilling a group of leverets in the use of the sword. Brang nodded in admiration of the Blademaster.
“I tell ye, Flack, that young Buckler kordyne is by far the best we’ve seen here since his grandsire, Feryn. What d’ye think, eh?”
The old officer brushed a paw over his drooping military mustachio. “Hmmph, I don’t doubt y’word, sah, not bein’ old enough to remember Feryn, wot!”
Brang gave a deep rumbling chuckle. “no, of course not. I’m the only one on this mountain still alive to tell the tale. That’s the trouble with living several life spans more than most beasts. Hoho—see that, Flack. Well parried, young un!”
Buckler had just returned the stroke of another hare’s lunge. With an expert flick, he sent his opponent’s sabre whirling in the air. The blade flashed in the sunlight, landing point first in the damp sand.
Executing a swift half turn, the Blademaster disarmed an attacker who had been stealing up on him. He shook his head at the culprit.
“Never hesitate when you see an opening, Tormy. I felt you behind me before I saw you. Remember, a slowbeast is a deadbeast. You’ll have to move faster.”
Tormy picked up his blade ruefully. “I say, Buck old thing, d’ye think I’ll ever be as jolly good as you are, wot?”
Buckler shrugged. “That’s up to you, mate. keep practising. Also, if I were you, I’d choose a lighter blade. You lack the paw power to wield a sabre. Try a long rapier.”
The leveret cast a longing glance at Buckler’s blade. “Like that blinkin’ beauty of yours?”
The Blademaster cleaved air with his own special sword. It was a peculiar hybrid, longer than other rapiers, honed razor- sharp on both edges, with a cross- basketed hilt. The blade was thicker than that of a rapier but superbly tempered, to give it flexibility. Buckler winked good-naturedly at his pupil.
“There’s not another sword anywhere like this un. I designed it myself, but he made it. Isn’t that right, Brang?”
A flicker of annoyance showed in the Badger Lord’s dark eyes. He beckoned Buckler to attend him.
Saluting the leverets with his blade, Buckler dismissed them. “That’s enough for today, thank you.”
They returned his salute with various weapons. A sabre, a cutlass, a claymore and a broadsword. Sloping his blade over one shoulder, Buckler wandered over to where the huge badger was seated.
“What’s the matter? Have I done something wrong?”
Brang took the sword. He held it, feeling the balance. Bending the supple blade in an arc, he let it twang back, straight as a die.
“I had my doubts about forging this, but you were right—it’s the perfect weapon for you. I’ll tell you what you’ve done wrong, young un. not showing your superiors the proper respect, that’s what!”
Returning the sword, Brang turned his back on Buckler, staring fixedly out to sea. The young Blademaster sighed audibly as General Flackbuth continued where the badger had left off.
“It’s the custom, laddie buck, to give title to those who’ve jolly well earned it, wot! How dare ye refer to the ruler of Salamandastron as Brang. ’Tis your duty to address him as m’Lord, or sah, d’ye hear me?”
Buckler stared coolly at the general. “Aye, I hear ye.”
Flackbuth bellowed in his face, “I hear ye, General!”
Buckler shrugged, repeating slowly, “I hear ye . . . ¬General.”
Lord Brang turned back, his expression softening as he addressed the young hare. “Come up to the forge chamber with me, Buck. It’s high time you and I had a talk.”
Buckler gathered up his array of training swords. He piled them into the waiting paws of his trusty assistant, Subaltern Meliton Gubthorpe Digglethwaite, or Diggs, as he was more commonly known. He was the same age as Buckler, though marginally smaller and markedly tubby. They were lifelong friends, if poles apart in their views of mountain life and etiquette. Diggs nodded toward the retreating Badger Lord.
“What ho, Buck, are you in the stew again, wot? Has old Flackbuth slapped a blinkin’ fizzer on you?”
Buckler winked at his friend. “no, it’s just that the big fellow wants to give me another lecture. Put the blades away, Diggs. I’ll catch up with you in the mess at supper.”
The forge chamber was an airy room, carved from the living rock. It had all the equipment required by a Forgebeast. Weapons in various stages of construction hung everywhere. There was a low, wide window, facing the open sea, with a magnificent view of the western horizon. Lord Brang was proud of his elderflower and comfrey cordial. He poured two tankards, passing one to Buckler and indicating a seat on the window ledge.
Shaking his striped head wearily, the huge badger spoke. “Buckler kordyne, what are we going to do with you, eh?”
A smile hovered about the young hare’s lips. “I don’t know. Tell me, what are you going to do with me?”
Danger flashed in the badger’s eyes for one perilous moment. Then he burst out laughing, landing Buckler a hefty pat on the back, which almost sent him flying out of the window. Brang steadied him.
“Just like your grandsire—the same rebellious attitude, same carefree manner. every time I look at you, I see him returned from beyond the silent valleys. Aye, you’re the very model of Feryn kordyne. You won’t wear Long Patrol uniform, don’t obey orders, always in trouble. You don’t even speak like a Salamandastron hare. Why is that? What’s the matter with you, eh?”
Buckler answered the enquiry with a question. “I never knew my grandpa, was he as good as me with a blade?”
Brang replied, as if loath to say the words, “Feryn was a great Blademaster, the best I ever set eyes upon . . . until you came along.”
Embarrassed by the sudden compliment, Buckler quickly changed the subject. “Tell me again, how did he save your life?”
The sun was starting to drop beyond the horizon. Brang stared out at the crimson aisle it laid upon the calm sea. He never tired of relating the story of his escape from death.
“I was young in those seasons—your grandsire, too. We were about the same age as you are now. There was a plague of vermin sweeping the land. They were called the Ravagers. Aye, and a motley horde they were, murdering, burning, looting and torturing, right across Mossflower. Their leader was a silver sable, Armuk Rinn the Conqueror. Something had to be done to protect Redwall and all our woodland friends.
“I sent out Long Patrol Scouts to discover where he made his lair. They tracked Rinn and his Ravagers long and hard. They were located in an old quarry northeast of Redwall Abbey.”
Brang stopped to refill their tankards. He tossed Buckler a rough- looking chunk of pastry, with nuts baked into it. The young hare felt quite privileged—hardly anybeast was allowed to share the Mountain Lord’s scones, which he made himself on his forge. Brang watched him eating with pleasure.
“nothing like Salamandastron Forge Scones. They’ll put some iron into your muscles, young un. now, let me see, where was I?”
Buckler reminded him. “The scouts had found the vermins’ lair, you said.”
Lord Brang took a sip from his tankard. “Aye, so they had. I ordered the full Long Patrol into battle order and marched on the villains. I must tell you, though, I was young and reckless then, wilder than you’d ever imagine. I take it you’ve heard of the thing they call Bloodwrath?”
Buckler nodded silently, allowing Brang to explain.
“ ’Tis a terrible affliction, a sickness that drives a beast berserk. I had that Bloodwrath, the mad urge to fight, slay and slaughter. nothing could stand in my way, one beast or a score. When my eyes went red with the rush of blood, I became unstoppable. I outpaced my own hares, charging into that quarry, straight into the foebeast. Fool that I was! The Ravagers had scouted our approach. They were waiting for us and had us heavily outnumbered. But I was out of control, roaring Eulalias and laying waste to the ¬vermin.
“By the blade and the hilt, I fought that day. Everything around me was one red mist, but I battled on. Those Ravagers pressed me hard—I still carry the wounds and scars they gave me. I became cut off from my hares, surrounded, so that I could scarcely move to swing my blade. Then I tripped and fell, the sword slipped from my bloodstained paws.
“That was when I saw him—Armuk Rinn, the great sable. He was standing over me, swinging a battleaxe. I knew my fate was sealed, I was a deadbeast. But a miracle occurred. Your grandsire Feryn, my trusty right paw, came hurtling through the air, blade flashing, roaring his war cry. He struck like a thunderbolt, cleaving Armuk Rinn, helmet and head, right through his evil brain!”
Buckler’s eyes were shining, even though he had heard the tale before. “And that’s what settled the battle?”
Brang rose. Crossing to his forge, he leaned down heavily upon the bellows. A plume of golden flame and scarlet sparks shot up, illuminating the badger’s powerful head, glinting in his fierce eyes. “Aye, young un, that was a battle to remember. Though it was my friend Feryn’s brave act which carried the day. Those Ravagers who were still alive fled when they saw what happened to the mighty Armuk Rinn. Up until then, the vermin didn’t believe he could be defeated.”
Buckler laughed. “But my grandpa proved different! That’s why you gave him the Coin.”
The Badger Lord scowled. “Let me tell you about that thing, young un. It actually was a coin, a golden one, from someplace far beyond the sunset, long ago. When I was very young—I recall it was wintertide—I was walking the shoreline south of this mountain when I came across the wreck of an old vessel. It was buried deep by the seasons. There wasn’t much to see, only a bit of old wood sticking out of the sand. Well, I started digging it up and choosing pieces, planning on taking them to old Corporal Cook Magirry. He was a real good old sort, often keeping a little plum duff in the oven for me. Actually it was Magirry who taught me to make Forge Scones.”
Buckler sensed that Brang was going off into tales of his early seasons, so he interrupted. “But how did you come across the Coin?”
The badger came back to the point. “There was a hole in it, and a rusty iron spike fixing it to what looked like part of a mast.” He smiled, winking at the young hare. “Twas my secret treasure. I kept it, same as any young un would. That night I inspected the coin. It was a curious thing, worn smooth but quite heavy and bright. There were a few strange marks on one side— couldn’t make out what they were— er, hadn’t you better run along now, Buck? They’ll be serving supper in the mess.”
Buckler, however, was intrigued by the tale. “Diggs’ll save some for me. Tell me more about the Coin, please.”
Lord Brang frowned, shaking his head. “ ’Twas never meant to be called the Coin. I wanted it to be a special medal for your grandsire. After the battle at the quarry, I polished all the marks from it and made some of my own. A picture of a paw holding aloft a sword, with the word Blademaster engraved beneath it. I wove a silken cord of scarlet and black, threaded it through the spikehole and there I had it, the Blademaster’s Medal!”
Buckler shook his head. “I never heard it called that before. Everybeast calls it the Coin.”
Brang gave the bellows a few more heaves. Bright flames shining upward on his huge, striped features gave him a fearsome appearance.
“Aye, well, that’s your grandsire for you. Huh, the Coin, indeed! Just like you he was, a real young rip. Wouldn’t ac¬cept proper regimental honours from me. Said he’d accept it as a gift, a keepsake, if y’please. The Coin, eh? Rebellious, disobedient rascal!”
Buckler grinned. “Just like me, I s’pose.”
Lord Brang paused, then his attitude softened. “Aye, just like you.”
The young hare stared out at the darkened seas. There was resentment in his tone. “Then why does my brother Clerun wear the Coin? He’s no warrior, just a big, clumsy creature.”
Brang shrugged. “Because he’s the eldest kordyne son. Your grandsire Feryn passed the Coin, and his broadsword, down to his firstborn son, your father, Adarin. now it is the tradition to pass it on to the firstborn—that’s Clerun. There’s nought I can do about it.”
Buckler protested. “But my father wasn’t a warrior either. It’s not fair!”
Brang watched the swift path of a comet crossing the night skies. “I sympathise with you, Buck, but your family traditions must be honoured. I know your father wasn’t a warrior, nor skilled with a sword. But he was a very wise counsellor and served me well all of his life. Maybe if it had been up to me, I would have granted you both the Coin and the broadsword.”
Buckler snorted derisively. “Huh, who needs a broadsword—great, hulking, clumsy things. But the Coin, that would’ve given me something to remember Grandpa Feryn by.”
Draining his tankard, Brang slammed it down. “What’s done is done, and neither you nor I can change it. We just have to accept things as they are.”
The injustice of this stung Buckler. “But my brother Clerun doesn’t even live at Salamandastron anymore. He got himself wed to Clarinna, Major Doughty’s eldest daughter. They’ve both gone off to be farmers together. Hah, I’ll wager she’s wearing the Coin as an ornament now. Aye, and Clerun will be using the broadsword to chop firewood and cut weeds!”
Even though he did not show it, Brang felt sympathy for his young friend. “Well, everybeast to what they choose, I suppose. Clerun to farming, and you here at my mountain as Blademaster. It’s not such a bad position.”
Taking the sword from Buckler, Brang made a few swift passes. He was surprisingly light on his paws for such a big beast. Twirling the sword into the air, he caught it deftly. “A fine blade. I wouldn’t mind making one for myself. Though I don’t think I could repeat a weapon of this quality a second time.”
He passed it back to Buckler, who bowed respectfully. “Nobeast but you could forge a sword like this, Lord.”
Brang’s dark eyes twinkled with pleasure. “I’m glad you respected my title, Buck. I think you’d get on much better with everybeast at Salamandastron if you tried to conform to our ways a bit more. If you know what I mean.”
The young hare whipped his swordblade through the forge flames, as if trying to cut them up. He raised his voice bitterly. “Conform? You mean strut about in uniform, saluting and wot- wotting old chap! Playing at being warriors, and for what, eh? The days of battling vermin Ravagers are long gone. now it’s all parades, exercises, regimental balls and banquets. I’m a Blademaster, what’s that supposed to be? A fool who passes his days teaching other fools how to play with swords!”
He was silenced by the heavy paw of Lord Brang landing on his shoulder. “Then what do you want—tell me, Buckler?”
The young hare was suddenly stuck for an answer. “I want . . . I want . . .”
He flung the sword. It flew across the forge chamber and stood quivering in the door as he shouted, “I don’t blinkin’ know what I bloomin’ well want!”
The badger’s eyes twinkled momentarily. “Let me suggest something. How about a bit of travel and adventure? Would that suit you?”
The young hare’s ears twitched suspiciously. “Travel, adventure—what sort of adventure?”
Brang made a sweeping gesture at the outside world. “Travel is an adventure! When you go travelling, adventures happen along the way. So where would you like to travel to, eh?”
Buckler was totally unprepared for the question. “Travel, er, I don’t know anyplace I could travel to.”
Brang was ready with a suggestion. “It might be a nice idea to visit Clerun and Clarinna.”
Buckler was uncertain. “But why?”
The Badger Lord explained patiently. “Well, ’tis quite a few seasons since they went. I think they’d be pleased to see you. Who knows, they’ve probably got a family now. There’ll be young uns wanting to meet their uncle Buckler the Blademaster. I wager you’ll enjoy being an uncle—has a good ring to it, Uncle Buck!”
Buckler scratched between his ears in bewilderment. “Whoa, slow down there, sir, me . . . an uncle?”
Brang retrieved the sword from the door, then tossed it to the young hare. “Don’t stand there with your mouth open, laddie buck. There may be flies about.”
Buckler did not know whether to smile or frown. “Forgive me. I’m just trying to get used to the idea. D’you re¬ally think I’ve become an uncle?”
Lord Brang closed the damper on his forge fire. “I don’t see why not. A farmer and a farmer’s wife are bound to raise a family. They’ll need help about the place as they get older. Where exactly did they go to settle down, d’you know?”
Buckler nodded. “A small valley southeast of Redwall. Clerun said he spotted it when he was with the Long Patrol. I think he liked it at first sight.”
The big badger brightened visibly. “Southeast of the Abbey, you say. Splendid! You can do an errand for me. Wait there.”
Hurrying over to an elaborate oak chest, Brang opened it. Rummaging about, he produced two coils of rope. “Take these to Abbess Marjoram—she’s a great friend of mine. Last time I was at Redwall, let me see, eight seasons back, Marjoram showed me around the place. I saw Matthias and Methuselah, the two Abbey bells, beautiful things, with wondrous tones. She allowed me to have a go at ringing them. not such a good idea, as it turned out, me being so large and heavy- pawed. I pulled so hard that I snapped one of the bellropes. I felt so foolish, but the Abbess assured me that they were old ropes, long past their best. Brother Tollum, the Abbey Bellringer, repaired the broken rope. Before I left Redwall, I promised the Abbess that I would present her with two stout new bellropes. It took me all last winter, but I spliced these ropes myself. So, you will deliver these to Marjoram with my best wishes. I think they’ll please her.”
The young hare inspected Lord Brang’s gifts. They were superbly made. Green and gold fibres had been plaited in an intricate weave. each carried at their ends two pieces of weathered elmwood, cleverly carved and pierced to form tolling handles. Buckler ran his paw admiringly over them.
“Wonderfully made, sir. These should last a few hundred seasons, eh!”
Brang smiled broadly. “I take it you have decided to go travelling, then. Planning on going soon?”
Buckler felt the prickle of excitement running through him. He strove to keep his voice level. “Would tomorrow morning after breakfast suit you, Lord?” He winced as the badger shook his paw warmly.
“no better time, I’d say, my friend. Are you going alone? Mayhaps you’d do better to take a companion—always good to travel with a comrade. Might I suggest Subaltern Meliton Gubthorpe Digglethwaite?”
Buckler chuckled. “of course, good old Diggs. Though I wonder, who’s going to pull the cart?”
Lord Brang looked puzzled. “What cart?”
The young hare slotted his sword into the back scabbard he had designed so he could draw steel swiftly. The hilt showed over his left shoulder. “The cart we’ll need to carry Diggs’s vittles. Have you seen the amount of food that tubby rascal can shift?”
Diggs was waiting for his friend in the crowded Mess Hall. He pointed to a small heap of supper set out close to him. “Wot ho there, Buck! Just about saved you some scoff, wot. Y’have t’be nippy with this famine- faced mob about. Tuck in, old lad. You must be jolly hungry, wot wot!”
Buckler felt too exhilarated for food, but he kept calm, nibbling some salad and cheese. “Hmm. no plum duff tonight. That’s strange.”
Diggs swiftly wiped crumbs from his tunic. “er, there was only a smidgeon left, mis’rable little portion. Didn’t know you were fond of the bloomin’ duff, or I’d have jolly well saved you some, mate.”
Buckler surveyed the empty bowls and platters lying about. “What happened to the apple crumble?”
Diggs patted his bulging waistline. “Measly bit left. Had to eat it before it went cold.”
Buckler tasted a crumb from an empty dish. “And the mushroom and cauliflower bake?”
Diggs smiled guiltily. “oh, that. no sense in lettin’ the confounded stuff go t’waste. Had to polish it off, I’m afraid. Sorry about that, old stick!”
Buckler nodded as if in agreement with his gluttonous friend. “Hmm. Just as well, old chum. You’ll need it to keep your strength up for tomorrow.”
Diggs captured a slice of his companion’s cheese. “Oh, ¬y’d¬on’t say. Why, what’s happenin’ on the morrow?”
Buckler explained, “We’re travelling southeast, to my brother’s farm.”
Diggs spotted a scone doing nothing; he snatched it. “What? Y’mean the Long Patrol are out on a march?”
Buckler tweaked his ear gently. “no, my old friend. Just you and I.”
Diggs frowned as he demolished the scone. “er, I’m no great shakes at all that trampin’ an’ marchin’ stuff, Buck. P’raps I’d best stay home an’ keep my blinkin’ eye on things, don’cha know, wot?”
Buckler shook his head firmly. “Sorry, mate. It’s a direct order from the great Lord Brang. You’ve got to accompany me all the way there and back, no excuses. Those were his very words to me.”
Diggs stared miserably around. There was no more food to be had. He heaved a long- suffering sigh. “Ah, well, lackaday, poor young me. Who am I, a mere Diggs of the ranks, to argue with a Badger Lord? He must’ve known you’d need a cool head, some reliable chap like me, to keep you out of trouble. Well, don’t worry, Buck m’laddo, I’ll blinkin’ well look after you!”
It was difficult for Buckler to keep a straight face. However, he managed to shake his friend’s paw solemnly. “Lord Brang said I could rely on you. Thank you, my true and trusty comrade!”
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