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When Trees Are Bare

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"With heavy whitening wings, and a heart fallen cold:
I kiss my wailing child and press it to my breast
And hear the narrow graves calling . . ."
William Butler Yeats, The Unappeasable Host 1896


The great forest of Mirkwood lay under a frozen blanket of snow. An icy wind out of the north whistled through the bare branches and wuthered around the craggy hill that held the Elvenking's cave. Inside the bedchamber of the king, a fire burned in the grate, banishing the chill of the winter storm. Thranduil sat at his wife's bedside, listening to the gale rattle the heavy wooden shutter of the window his good lady had insisted upon having when he first brought her north to dwell in the safety of the cavern.

Never had he felt so useless. The healers and the midwives busied themselves at the lower end of the bed, doing the things that women do at such times. He truly did not want to know the details.

He reached with his free hand to brush the damp strands away from his wife's forehead. The rest of her hair spread out over the pillow in a dark tangle. Her eyes -- grey eyes he had seen snapping with merriment and grown clouded soft with passion in the course of the last three thousand years -- glittered with tears of pain, and her skin was too pale, even for one of Elvenkind.

Another spasm hit her, and Thranduil grimaced. "Ouch! Beloved, that is my sword hand," he said as she gripped him with enough force to grind the bones to jelly.

"Thranduil, if you are fool . . . unwise enough to offer your hand to your laboring wife, you may expect such." It was the voice of his chief healer, Nestalinde. Thranduil could not help but notice that she sounded annoyed and more than a little concerned.

"It is the least I can do for her," he muttered impatiently.

"She can hear you, but she will not answer. She has gone deep within herself to concentrate. Now be still and let her do what she must."

If Nestalinde had meant this to be reassuring, it was not. Even Thranduil, a first time father, knew that something was not right.

It was the thirteenth day of Narvain, deep in winter. "Ai, what a begetting day for the little one to celebrate," Thranduil thought as another blast of wind shook the very rocks around him. How unlike the mild evening one year earlier when he had shared a pipe and a glass of wine with Mithrandir out on the balcony in the open air. Elven babes should be born in the spring. But Thranduil had never been a one to follow the rules.

No, never a one. He let his mind wander back to the first time he had first laid eyes upon the lovely girl who was to become his wife. They had lived in the Mountains of Mirkwood in those days, many miles to the south, when the Wood itself was still called Greenwood the Great. It was a happier time. His father, Oropher, still ruled, and he had moved the folk northward from their original stronghold of Amon Lanc to put distance between themselves and the dwarves of Moria, and perhaps, although Oropher would never admit it, the growing Noldorin influence of Celeborn's wife in the once brotherly realm of Lothlórien across the river. The shadow, spreading north from the southern hill of Amon Lanc, bringing the orcs and the great spiders with it would not fall for many a year yet.

He had been out hunting a stag that day, trailing it more for the thrill of the chase than from any real intent to make a kill. It was full midsummer, and he had been out of breath from running up and downhill through the pine-scented glades. He had come into a clearing where a small stream collected itself into a pool, and he had skidded to a stop when he saw a maiden crouching in that pool, her dark hair spread out across the surface of the water like a halo.

Thranduil had always thought the old tales of Elu and Beren being struck with love at first sight to be so much romantic nonsense, but all of a sudden, he had become a believer.

"You look just like a water-lily," he breathed.

"I suppose I do," she replied. '"Would you please toss me my dress?" She indicated some garments hanging on a branch near to the edge of the pool.

Thranduil never knew what demon claimed his tongue at that moment. "And what if I do not?" he asked saucily.

She looked him in the eye and laughed. "Then I suppose I will have to get it for myself." She stood up and moved to the bank, the water of the pool cascading down her glorious naked body. She walked slowly past him and calmly retrieved her clothing from the branch, covering herself while Thranduil gaped and struggled to regain his capacity for coherent thought.

The capacity for coherent thought continued to be a problem for him whenever he was in her presence from that day forward. And from that day it was a forgone conclusion that Thranduil would become hers, utterly, although they continued to meet and court in that glade over the course of many years. The stag was forgotten and no doubt went on to father many a fawn that grew old and died in the forest.

She was of the Silvan Evair, a strange and secretive folk who lived among the trees as elves had done since the First Fathers had awoken on the shores of Cuivienen. Her people were, in fact, recently come from there, after the upheavals following the War of Wrath had drained the Sea of Helcar and changed the ancestral Elven home beyond recognition and forced them to wander west.

The fact that he was the son of the elf who fashioned himself the king of Greenwood the Great impressed her not at all, for her folk cared little for such things. They lived their life deep in the forest, living off the land and having no desire for wealth. That first day, she had been out gathering the tender fiddlehead ferns that grew in the shadowy glades, and she had taken a brief respite from her search to have a quick bath in the waters of the pool. Now it was Thranduil who stole time away from his duties to go and pass time in her company. As the season changed, her tasks changed to seeking out ripe summer berries, and then to picking up the nuts that fell from the trees in autumn. He stayed at her side, carrying her basket for her as she went about her work, and on the days when there was nothing to pick, they sat on a rock at the side of the pool, lost in conversation about everything and nothing.

When winter came, he built her a small bower out of pine branches from which they could watch the snow falling around them. The cold troubled them little, but when it did, she would come beneath his cloak to share the heat of his body. For him, those times were the best.

After the custom of her people, she did not tell him her true name, so he began to call her Lalaithiel, for her ability to make him forget the cares of his position and reduce him to easy laughter within the first few minutes of greeting her. She told him that this lover name was as pleasing to her as any she might have chosen for herself.

Elves court slowly, so the seasons worked themselves around many times before he finally surrendered to the voice that had been clamoring in his heart since the moment he laid eyes upon her. Once the decision was made, he resolved to make the execution of their betrothal absolute perfection. In the solitude of his room in Oropher's airy palace among the trees, he sketched day after day until the vision in his head was realized on the paper. He sought out two perfect gems from his father's treasury -- moonstones to match the rare pale grey of his beloved's eyes. He saved his princely stipend until he had a half ingot of mithril, as light as a feather and more precious than silver or gold. At that point, he was forced to deal with the dwarves of Moria, for there were no smiths in the Greenwood realm skilled enough to work the design he was intent upon having wrought.

He was reluctant to trust the Naugrim in such a delicate matter, and his fears were born out in the end when the finished necklace was delivered into his hands. He knew in his heart that the dwarf, Dorin, had cheated him by adulterating the mithril with silver, keeping both the extra mithril and the gold that was the agreed upon payment for the work.

Even as it was, the necklace was a thing of beauty, but Thranduil was unwilling to accept anything less than flawlessness in such an important gift. As a distant kinsman of Elu Thingol, Thranduil was acutely aware of the dangers of confronting a dwarf in his own underground halls, and only a scion of the House of Oropher would have been rash enough to attempt it. The story of Thranduil's 'discussion' with Dorin and his quest to obtain satisfaction is a tale for another time. But ever after, the Naugrim spoke of Thranduil with resentment -- and a grudging respect. The elves of the Greenwood heaved a sigh of relief when their prince returned from Moria alive and with a growing resolve never to be dependent upon outsiders for anything again.

It was a moonless summer night when he met Lalaithiel in their glade. No words passed between them as he held the necklace out to her, hoping she would understand that he had put all the love into the creation of it that his humble tongue was unable to express. Her pale eyes glittered with tears as she nodded and allowed him to place it around her neck.

Her only words were, "Thranduil, you great royal fool - - yes!"

He kissed her then. She kissed him back desperately, as if she truly had not expected to see him alive again. Before he knew it, she was whispering her true name into his ear and reciting the vow to Eru Ilúvatar binding herself forever to him. He found himself repeating those same vows as he took her down onto the soft grass. Their marriage began that night.

Of course, the next morning it was impossible to disguise the changed demeanor between the two of them. They were greeted with everything from smiles and smirks from the Tawaril to raised eyebrows from the Iathren nobles when they came in from the forest hand in hand.

Thranduil had left Lalaithiel with Galion, whose only response had been a terse, "It's about time," and gone to face Oropher. He was no stranger to being called on his father's carpet, and this was one interview he was dreading.

He was shown in by Oropher's scowling seneschal, and claimed a seat in front of his father's desk. Oropher, busy signing a pile of documents, took his time in looking up.

"My Lord Father, I . . ."

"Oh yes, indeed, Thranduil. I would say that you have," replied Oropher, finally turning his attention to his blushing son.

Thranduil made a pained face and remained silent. No use digging himself in deeper.

"My son, I was aware that you chose with your heart when you began courting an Avarren girl -- do not look at me like that; I know what goes on in my own realm -- but it seems now that you have made a decision with a point somewhat lower upon your person."

Thranduil grimaced and hung his head. This was not going well. "Forgive me."

He was surprised to hear Oropher laugh. "For what?"

"For taking a wife without following the rules of etiquette in such matters. There should have been an exchange of rings and a one year betrothal. Instead . . . Adar, I do not know what came over me."

Oropher chuckled. "I do. I was young and in love once."

"The laws and customs of our people say that I must wait."

"Our laws and customs?" Oropher snorted. "Pious pile of Golodhren cant! Thranduil, one of the reasons I came east was to escape such and to live as elves should. Do you think the First Fathers observed a year's wait as they woke beside the waters and beheld their wives lying next to them?

Thranduil paused. It seemed vaguely blasphemous to imagine the First Fathers doing what he had last night. The tips of his ears colored pink as he remembered it, and his father laughed again.

"My son, I never cared how you conducted yourself in bed matters, as long as you did not disport yourself upon the path and affright the horses. I am relieved to see you wed. I was afeared that. . ."


"Nothing." Oropher smiled "Those laws -- the betrothal, the rings, and the ceremony are for courtesy alone. I doubt that your lovely lady's parents care, since it is not their custom. And I myself choose not to be insulted."

"What of your nobles? I saw many eyes upon us today as we came in. Some were not friendly. I think they find Lalaithiel to be . . . ah . . ."

"Too rustic for the consort of a Grey-elven prince? Whom should I have matched you with, my son? A daughter of the Iathrim, to further set us apart from the people we rule? A noble lady from Lórien, perhaps our kinsman Celeborn's daughter? I feel her heart lies elsewhere. Nay, you chose well. I have been trying to gain the allegiance of the forest folk for half an age, and you did it in one night." He paused and winked. "A pleasant night, I trust?"

Thranduil colored again. "Aye, most pleasant. But it took far longer than one night to win her, Adar."

"If any look you askance, Thranduil, you may tell them to come to me. Besides, those Golodhren laws say that rapid marriage is legal at any time between the Eldar. Especially in time of war." He sighed. "Sadly, I must tell you now that this is a time of war."

Thranduil cocked a questioning eyebrow.

"I have had an emissary from Imladris," Oropher continued. "Gil-galad and the Lord Elendil are raising an army to march on Mordor. Men, elves, even some dwarves will be gathered."

"Do you mean to join them?"

Oropher nodded. "I have long felt that Sauron must be removed from Mordor, for our own safety. I have no love of Gil-galad and Elendil, but we will join the fight on our own terms. I am sorry, Thranduil, but any thought of children must wait until this is over. You will be called away far too soon." He sighed. "I have long wished to be a grandsire, but no matter. There is plenty of time for that once we have returned." He smiled brightly. "We have all the time in the world for such joys. Now go to your wife. Take her to her parents and make it right with them, as a man should. Enjoy your honey time."

Thranduil rose and nodded to his father in farewell. As he left, Oropher called after him.

"Thranduil? The business with the dwarves? You are even more insane than I."

Thranduil grinned.

"And Thranduil? Nicely done, my boy."


Those words, among the few words of praise he had received from his father, had gone through his head the night he sat stony eyed in the King's pavilion following the Dagorlad. He had not expected to be King so soon. He had not expected to be King ever, much less king of a realm so diminished by the loss of its warriors.

At the end of seven years, with Mordor finally taken and Sauron defeated, he had made the sad march home. The long process of trying to rebuild a realm crippled by the loss of so many of its men had begun, and it had failed for, after a time, darkness had come to the Greenwood. Thranduil had not the warrior strength to fight the evil that took root upon their old home of Amon Lanc. Orcs and spiders filled the forest, and the light under the trees grew dark. Thranduil knew that the palace in the Emyn Duir that had been home to them for so long could not protect them nor would the woods provide sanctuary.

He was grateful for his foresight when, in time, the dwarves of Moria delved too deep, and another evil was loosed upon Middle-earth. Against what the Naugrim had unleashed, Oropher's wooden palace would not have stood. Deep in stone, his people could shelter against whatever might come.

Regretfully, he had found a spot along the river in the northern reaches of the forest where a cave might be delved, and he had moved his people north. The one time he had seen his Lalaithiel unable to laugh was on the day the two of them had bade their glen farewell for the last time. He had used all of his skill and wit to make the new underground dwelling as pleasant a spot as could be, and he had succeeded well, even without the help of Dwarvish craftsmen. But it was, like his first action as a warrior leader, when he had led a screaming retreat from the gates of Morannon, a defeat. His reign over Mirkwood, as the forest came to be called under his watch, had been one long defeat.

Throughout it all, his good lady had been a joy and a succor to him. With her alone, could he let down his hair, relax and just be Thranduil for a time. He did not know what he would do without her.

Since his return home to his beloved from that long ago war, in his heart there had been a secret sorrow. He had settled down and waited for a joy that never came -- that their love should be blessed with a child. As the barren years passed, he wondered if he might be being punished by the Belair for his sins, for in his heart, he felt there were many.

He had voiced this secret doubt to none until an evening one year previously, when he and the wizard, Mithrandir had sat out on Thranduil's private porch enjoying the mild air of a winter thaw, sharing a glass of wine and the blowback from the old man's pipe.

Tentatively, he had spoken of his pain, his sense of failure as a man that he should be unable to give his wife the thing she so truly desired. As the King, he above all should personify the vigor of his people, yet in this one matter he found himself sorely lacking.

Gandalf had looked at him and said a strange thing. "Be careful of what you wish for, Thranduil, for every gift has its price. Sometimes your greatest sorrow is in your greatest joy. You are more blessed than many a man or elf I know. Do you truly wish to change it?"

Thranduil had laughed, and somehow his heart had been lifted. Bolstered by the wine and the good fellowship, he had bade the wizard a good night and gone to his wife. And for the first time in many a year, they had come together for the joy of love alone, their secret pain forgotten.

And irony of ironies, within a short time, his willow stick of a lady had begun to bloom like a rose. They were being given a child at last. Over the year as her body blossomed and grew, he rejoiced with her, yet worried in secret. For even though she glowed from within with a pale light, she seemed thin and stretched somehow, as if her spirit consumed her.

She lay now, pale and gasping, and Thranduil's heart was a cold ball within his chest. He had looked to the Healers for reassurance and found none. Their faces were grim as they did what they must to help his wife bring the child forth.

"Sire, it is time," Nestalinde said. "Perhaps it would be best if you left the chamber now."

"There is not a chance of that happening!" he said.

The Lady Healer's face was unhappy but resigned. "In that case, make yourself useful. She needs to be brought upright, and she is too weak to hold herself that way. Get on the bed and support her."

Nodding, Thranduil kicked off his boots and knelt on the bed. The midwives helped him bring Lalaithiel upright into a squatting position. He took her beneath the arms, holding her back against his chest. He could feel the muscles of her belly turn rock hard with each wave. Thranduil was a warrior, inured to the sights and sounds of the battlefield, yet it was a far different thing when it was his own beloved wife, bleeding and in danger. He felt a growing tingling in his forehead, lips and nose, and he bit the inside of his cheek hard to keep himself from the darkness that gathered around the edges of his vision and threatened to engulf him. He would NOT shame himself and fail his wife by passing out.

"Le i mheleth o chuil nîn," he whispered and was relieved to feel her hand tighten around his forearm in response. He kissed the top of her head and buried his face in her damp hair, shutting his eyes and trying to stay conscious.

The muscles of Thranduil's thighs were cramping in agony from the long kneeling when he at last heard a weak cry that soon became a lusty howl of outrage. He almost laughed despite the gravity of the situation for it had sounded as if the babe wanted to go right back in. The next sound he heard was a chorus of collective gasps from the healers and midwives; "Ai! This one has a strong faer!"

"Sire," said his chief healer, "you have a son."

Thranduil sighed imperceptibly. He would rather the baby had been a daughter. In the normal course of elven life, daughters followed the more peaceful path and did not go off to war. He had had his fill of war and wanted none of it for his child.

"Legolas," his wife said softly. "His name is Legolas."

"But, beloved," Thranduil said gently, "that name has been used before. We have already chosen a name should the babe be a boy."

"Legolas!" she said, more loudly, her voice cracking with fatigue.

"As you wish, my dearest," he said, alarmed by both the weakness and the urgency in her tone. "Legolas he shall be." Thranduil let out a sigh and swayed on his knees. One of the healers quickly came to support him by the elbow.

"You may let her down now, My Lord," said Nestalinde quickly. "Sarniel, kindly see to him."

He backed up and lowered his wife's body gently down onto the bed. He stood, on unsteady feet, and let the healer lead him to the corner of the room. He heard the sound of liquid being poured and a glass of wine was placed in his hand. He drank it gratefully and the world came back into focus.

He stood for some time with the empty glass in his hand while the women did whatever it was that must be done. Truly, he did not flinch from the sight of blood -- unless it belonged to someone who was dear to him.

After a while he felt Nestalinde's presence at this side. He turned to see the infant cleaned, wrapped and lying in his wife's arms. Lalaithiel had a blissful smile upon her face, but she was deathly pale.

"Sire, I would have you step outside with me for a brief time."

"Nay, my place is here with my wife. I wish to see my son."

"Thranduil, you will come with me to your antechamber. Now!" Nestalinde's tone cut him and confirmed his fears. He followed her numbly.

"Very well," he said, turning to face her once the door was shut between him and any chance of Lalaithiel's hearing. "Say what you must and say it plainly."

"Your son, my lord, is healthy, and he has a strong faer. A very strong faer. Such children are often known to have strange fates."

This troubled him, but he refused to show it. "If that is all, then so be it. I would expect any child of mine to have a strong faer. As for the strange fate, we will deal with it."

"That is not all, Sire. Your wife put much of her strength into bringing him forth, too much of her strength. She is failing." The healer paused as if reluctant to continue. "Thranduil . . . she will live long enough to suckle him but not much longer."

His response was immediate. "Then I will not allow her to weaken herself further. I will seek among the people and find a wet nurse."

"There is none," she said, "and if there were, I would not allow you to deprive Lalaithiel of the joy she has earned. Did you see her face, my Lord? She has a child at long last, and it has come at a price. She is fading, and nothing can stop that now. I beg you to let her enjoy the time she has left."

"Nothing?" he said. "There must be something. I will send her and the child to the Havens if need be. I will not let my wife die."

"It is Narwain, and the winter is the harshest Ennor has known in many a year! The passes over the Hithlaeglir are piled high with snow and the roads are impassable as well. The babe would die, and your wife as well. My Lord, you must accept what is to be."

"I will not hear this," he said roughly. "There will be no more talk in these halls of my queen's death or of any strange fate for my son. It will not happen!"

"Thranduil Oropherion," she said, "there are some things you may not command."

But he had already turned from her and gone back into his bedchamber. "Leave us!" he boomed. "I wish to be alone with my wife and child." The junior healers and the midwives bowed and left.

Only Nestalinde lingered in the doorway. "Thranduil, my Lord, please . . ."

"Leave me!" he said roughly. He barely noticed as she sighed and turned away, shutting the door behind her.

Lalaithiel lay in the bed, cleaned and covered. The babe, also tended to, had been placed in his cradle. Thranduil sat down beside his wife and took her hand. She smiled up at him, weak but transfixed with joy. "Have you seen him, my love? Have you seen our Legolas?"

"I have," he lied, putting on his best diplomatic tone. "And he is beautiful. Now, you must rest yourself and recover your strength. You have done well, my dearest." Her eyes closed, and he let out a weary sigh. 'A better thing than I have ever done, for you have made life, while I can only take it.'


Thranduil did not know how long he sat staring into the fire before a stirring from the cradle brought him around. The infant was making soft fussing noises. A quick glance toward the bed told Thranduil that Lalaithiel was sleeping. Let her sleep, he thought, let her regain her strength, although in his deepest heart he knew that this hope was vain and all too soon her sleep would become permanent.

He went to the cradle and picked up the tiny wrapped bundle, feeling the babe struggle against the tight swaddling. The women would do this -- thinking that the tight wrapping comforted the newborn. 'Ah, they do not know,' he told himself. 'He is like me and will stand no constraint. He needs to be free.'

"Here you are, my son," Thranduil murmured, pulling away the tight blankets and holding the child close to his body for the warmth, "your father's arms are all the comfort you need." For the first time, he saw his son's face. Often, with the children of his subjects and courtiers, he had struggled to find something nice to say about their newborns, which had always looked to him much like baby squirrels, red, unformed and wriggling. But this one truly was beautiful. "Ah, my little Green Leaf," he whispered, "you did not make a liar of me!"

He discerned that the baby was wet and would have to be changed to be held comfortably. He could call the women, he supposed, to change the nap cloths. But truly, how hard could it be?

The midwives had prepared a high table with all that was necessary, and Thranduil carried his son to it. He made a fresh cloth from the pile ready to hand and the took off the old, soaked one. No sooner had he done so than he felt a warmth against his chest, and a spreading dark stain appeared on the fabric of his doublet.

It took a moment for him to realize what had happened, and then he laughed aloud, keeping his voice down to avoid waking his wife. "So, my son, is this a harbinger of things to come? A sign of how things are to be between us?" Legolas took no heed, merely continuing to wriggle contentedly.

Thranduil took a fresh clout and dabbed a few stray drops of urine from the tiny belly, careful to avoid the freshly cut navel string. He wrapped another dry cloth about his child's loins and then quickly stripped off his dampened doublet, balled it up, and tossed it into the corner. Galion, his valet, would no doubt understand, being several times a father himself and a grandsire many times over.

Now clad in only his shirtsleeves, he wrapped his son in a soft blanket and carried him over to the chair in front of the fire. 'I made this,' he thought in wonderment as he stared into his son's face. That nose, and the set of the forehead -- that was his own. The dark brows and the delicate lips came from his wife. But the hair, three shades paler than Thranduil's own bright gold, and the chin, so soft as yet, but showing signs of stubbornness in adulthood, were those of his father. As if to confirm it, the child scowled briefly in an expression Thranduil knew all too well. Rodyn! It was Oropher in miniature. Strange fate . . .

Gandalf's words rang in Thranduil's mind: "Be careful of what you wish for, Thranduil, for every gift has its price. Sometimes your greatest sorrow is in your greatest joy." How strange that this child had come immediately upon the old wizard's warning. Wizards' gifts always came at a price.

Thranduil already knew the cost, and it was steep, yet he feared he was only beginning to learn the full extent of it. And none of Gandalf's deeds had ever been without a purpose. Woodland rustic though the other Elven-lords of Endor thought him, Thranduil had more insight than any of them knew. He had long suspected who and what Gandalf and the others of his order were and why they had come at a time that the shadow made itself known in his realm.

Suddenly, Thranduil felt an overpowering love for the tiny scrap of life in his arms, a fierce protective need that left him shaken. He felt resentment building and he shook his head in negation. "Hear me, Vaire! Put down your shuttle, Lady Weaver, for my son's fate will be his own. I, Thranduil Oropherion, defy you all, Belair and Ithryn alike! He will not be your tool or your sacrifice. Do what you will to me, but you will not have my son!"

As if sensing his parent's unease, the babe stirred and whimpered. "Hush, my little one," Thranduil whispered. "Your life will be your own. No swords or bows for you. You will be a great healer, or a harpist who sings songs to delight the ear. No need to be a soldier. No need to go . . . there."

The wind beat itself against the side of the hill. The fire hissed and popped. Thranduil held his son tight to his chest and listened to the sounds of his slumbering family. The slow and shallow breathing of Lalaithiel, growing ever softer. The rapid baby snuffling of Legolas. The measured cadence of his own heartbeat.

Throughout his long life, Thranduil had collected moments of special memory, stringing them like beads in a necklace. Laughing in the sunlight with Galion as a boy; rolling in the soft grass around the hilltop at Amon Lanc. Sweating in the flagged courtyard of Oropher's palace, training with his first sword -- so many years before he would actually use it. Lalaithiel, smiling and rising from the water, droplets like sparkling white gems on her pale skin. Oropher's words of praise in his ears: "Nicely done!" One morning out alone on the bridge, mist rising from the waters of the Forest River, the cry of geese heard overhead. And now, his family all together in this fire lit room. For such a short time . . .

"Sleep, my son, my precious," said the Woodland king as he rocked. "Ada's heart is strong enough for all of us."

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