Short story: 'The Death of Uther'

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Nate's take on King Arthur's origin story, possibly the prelude to a future novel. Rome is ready to fall, German pirates are coming in to fill the gap, and a race is fighting to survive.

THE DEATH OF UTHER

By Nate Davis

 

“And though the King had called them forth
And knew them for his own,
So still each eye stood like a gem,
So spectral hung each broidered hem,
Grey carven men he fancied them,
Hewn in an age of stone.

“And the two wild peoples of the north
Stood fronting in the gloam,
And heard and knew each in its mind
The third great thunder on the wind,
The living walls that hedge mankind,
The walking walls of Rome.”

—Chesterton

 

“Did you exchange
A walk-on part in a war
For a lead role in a cage?”

—Pink Floyd

 

A thick blanket of fog blew in from the south, veiling the rocky Cornish forest.  The snorting of horses, the muttering of nervous men, and the scraping of stones on sword-edges filled the early morning air.  Two kings stood together in council.

     One was tall, broad, with blue eyes and long blonde hair.  He wore a burnished hauberk of chain maille and a Roman centurion’s helmet, carried a long sword strapped to his waist and a big iron hoplon slung across his back.  The other was short and gaunt, dark-haired and almond-eyed, wore nothing but a small buckskin kilt with a short bog-iron sword thrust in it.

     The blonde man said in booming voice, “I am Skeaf Hairusung, son of Hairus Parushung of the Ostrogoths. My clan and I have come all the way from Gothland in the east, sailed the rivers, stormed through Hun and Saxon and Roman alike to get here, bearing wives and children with us all the way.  Now we are here, and I know that more are coming.  My people want for two things.  One is a land of their own.  Do you know what the other is?”

     The dark-haired man shook his head.

     “To kill Romans.”

     “I swear that if you fight for me, your long Goth swords will drip with Roman blood.”

     Skeaf broke into a grin.  “That is good!  I look foreward to drawing blades with you, Uther.  What is your plan?”

     Uther crouched down.  He picked up a twig and gestured at the forest floor with it.  “Albius Brittanicus is commander of the Cornish frontier.  He is old and fat, and he grows weary of war; I’m sure that one more defeat will be enough to make him negotiate.  He is sending two cohorts down the Coast Road to attack one of my hill forts, and there is a point where the road squeezes between a rocky hill on one side and a thick wood on the other; it is there that I have set up ambuscade.  But for the ambush to work, I will have to make sure the Romans stay at this choke-point.”

     “And migrant Goths are the only fighters here who can stand toe-to-toe with two Roman cohorts.”

     “Precisely.  Your men will keep them between the hill and the wood.  When we hear the noise of battle joined, my men will sweep out of the trees and over the hill, taking them by surprise and cutting off their escape.  With his defenses reduced by two full cohorts, Albius will be in softer mood to parley.”

     “I like this plan!  When will these cohorts be along?”

     “Within the hour.  Let us position our men.”

 

 

***

 

     The two cohorts—nine hundred sixty men in all, and most of them seasoned professionals—marched down the Coast Road which ran in a lacidasical and decidedly un-Roman manner around and between the rolling Cornish hills.  They made a magnificent sight, shining burnished helms and spear-tips glistening in the fog, nail-studded sandals clacking in grim tattoo on the hard cobblestones.  At the head of each column rode a centurion, grim-eyed grey-haired veterans carrying long slashing swords.  The standard-bearers brandished their eagles proudly.

     Man-shapes loomed up out of the fog.  The senior centurion signaled for the soldiers to stop and rode on ahead until he could get a good look at them.  Blocking their passage was a motley assortment of some six hundred fair-haired, broad-shouldered Goths, with the occasional dark-haired and bow-legged Hun tossed in for variety.  At the fore stood a giant of a man, at least seven feet tall.  In his right hand he held a long iron sword, and in his left—defiantly—a captured Roman eagle.

     “Hail, there!  Are you Skeaf Hairusung?”, the senior centurion demanded.

     “The same, Roman,” the giant said.  “Now ride back to your men and tell them to make ready for battle, for if they want to continue down this road they shall have to go through us.”

     To emphasize his point, he dropped his sword, grabbed the shaft of the eagle with both hands, raised it high above his head, and smote the road, sundering the standard into pieces.  With a huff, the senior centurion turned his horse around and relayed the news to his men.

 

***

 

     The crash of the Goths’ swords against the Roman shield wall rang through the rolling Cornish hills and called Uther and his Celts to the attack.  First came a barrage of sling-stones the size of softballs from either side, and then a mad charge of screaming, half-naked warriors slammed into the formation.

     It was a glorious route.  The Goths were taking the brunt of the punishment and giving ground slowly, but with Uther’s fighters pressing the Roman flanks it looked like things would be over in a timely fashion.

     The senior centurion cursed his bad luck, and his thick-headedness for walking into so obvious a trap.  Grimly and silently, he jumped down from his horse, unsheathed his long spatha, and searched out Skeaf on the battlefield.  He caught the big Goth by surprise, managing to slash him across the belly and rip off his helmet in a fluid motion.  He beat the big Goth’s skull with the pommel of his sword until he went limp.  He re-horsed and with the help of some younger soldiers hoisted the limp Teuton onto the saddle with him.  He charged his horse back down the road to beat Hell, leaving the men to their fate.

 

***

 

     The battle was over as quickly as it had started, with the two cohorts completely annihilated save for a few who had turned tail before the rear had been closed.  The Celts were rejoicing in their victory, but the vagabond Goths stood together grimly, caring for their wounded and cleaning their swords.

     One of them, not a Goth but a swarthy and bow-legged Hun, walked up to Uther and said, “Skeaf was alive when they took him.”

     Uther said, “I’m terribly sorry for your loss, but the battle’s over.  Once I’ve parleyed with Albius Brittanicus, I can reward you men for your service.”

     “The deal you struck was with Skeaf, and Skeaf is still alive.  Will you do nothing for him?”

     “We’ve annihilated two cohorts!  I have the Romans in the palm of my hand.  I’d lose many men laying siege to his fortress, but I think I can get him to give up the frontier peacefully.”

     The Hun spat on the ground at Uther’s feet.  “You are the son of a dog and you have no honor, may your children never know peace.”

     The Hun turned and walked away.  Uther called, “Where are you going?”

     “Keep your reward, pig!  We’re going to rescue our chief!”

     Uther waved the Hun off dismissively and called for one of his captains.  A strong, red-haired youth by name of Ulfius, who for a jest had dressed himself in the trappings of a slain Roman centurion, came walking up.

     “Ulfius,” said Uther, “I need you to find someone for me.”

     “Who, my lord?”, the youth asked.

     “That old fool, Merlin.  See where he has run off to, and bring him to me.”

     Ulfius laughed.  “What could you possibly want with that old mummer?”

     “He is a man of great prophecy; the things he speaks of come to pass, mummer though he may be.  He said last night that he had a mighty gift for me, one I’d need for my meeting with Albius.  Go find him and bring him to me.”

     “Right away, my lord.”

     As Ulfius walked off, Uther raised up his right arm in a mocking Roman salute and the false centurion returned it with a laugh.

 

***

 

     Ulfius returned shortly with a wizened and grey-bearded old man following close behind.  The old man walked with the aid of a stout ashen staff and carried under one arm a long, narrow parcel wrapped in skins.

     “Merlin!”, exclaimed Uther.  “Finally, you come.  Is this the gift you said would help me win over Albius?”

     “Aye,” said the old man, “for you I’ve brought a thing of power thought long-lost, a thing with which even gods may be fought.”

     “Well out with it, what is it?”

     Merlin unwrapped the bundle, revealing a great sword some four feet in length, its blade forged from a kind of shining black metal.

     “It can’t be!”, Uther exclaimed.

     “Ah, but it is.  I hold here Excalibur, the sword of Crom Cruagh, which even the gods fear.  No little task it was, Uther, for me to bring it here.”

     “The sword of the death-god!”  He took the weapon in his hands and held it in front of him.  “This is a greater gift than I could possibly have hoped for.  I am forever at your service, old man.”

     Merlin grinned sagely, said, “Oh, you needn’t worry about that.  You will repay me, soon enough.”

     Uther was too enthralled with his new possession to take notice of the old wizard’s words.  He asked, “Wherever did you get it?”

     “I drew it forth from the water.”

     Uther gave him a puzzled look, shrugged it off, asked, “How is this going to help me win over Albius Brittanicus?”

     “You hold in your hands the sword of a god.  Trust it, and you shall get what you want; all things will go according to plan.”

     “I trust you, old man. Ulfius, prepare my honor guard; we ride now to accept Albius’s surrender.”

 

***

 

     Albius Brittanicus, commander of the Cornish frontier in Brittania, kept residence and maintained his command center in a high-walled, intimidating stone fortress stuck high on a seaward cliff overlooking a sheltered bay.  All along the winding cobble road that led up to the main gate lay the mutilated bodies of slain Ostrogoths.

     “They never even reached the gate,” Uther observed dryly.

     The gate was opened for them by none other than the senior centurion who’d captured the Gothic chief.  He called down that Albius had been expecting them.

     Albius Brittanicus met them at the entrance to his castle.  He was a grey-bearded, corpulent man, but the bulges of muscles hardened by long campaigns still showed under his flabby, wrinkled skin, and he looked on the world with the emotionless eyes of a trained killer.  He greeted Uther and his honor guard with the begrudged respect one shows to an equal opponent and asked them to please come in and break bread with him.

     Albius led them up a long, winding stone corridor and into a large room lavishly decorated with trophies from every corner of the known world: African elephant tusks, a bearded German war axe, rich Persian tapestries, the bladed wheel of a Breton chariot.

     In the center of the room was a table decked out with fine cuts of Breton beef and golden cups of strong Roman wine concentrate.  Albius motioned for Uther to sit at one end of the table, and took the other end himself.
     “I’m old,” said the Roman, “and sotted; not half the man I once was.  My hold on the frontier grows weaker with every passing day, as well you know.”  He winked and raised his goblet.  “I ask mother Rome for more men, and they send me Gauls.  Gauls, by Jove!  And Saxons!  Mark well my words, Uther, never trust a Saxon; these mercenaries would slit my throat as soon as they would yours.”  He sighed, took another quaff of wine.  “Ten years ago I would’ve stormed into Cornwall, driven you all the way to Land’s End, and crushed you like a worm under my iron heel.  There was a time when I loved conquest, war, the long campaign.  By Jove, I loved it so!  But no longer.  It’s a weariness just to maintain the frontier, and it’s long since time I retired, high command be damned.  What are your terms, Uther?”

     Uther, whose Latin was a bit rusty, spoke slowly and with care.  “I want you to stop all troop movements into Cornwall, and I want men under my banners to be able to pass through the frontier unmolested.”

     Albius grinned.  “Is that it, Uther?  If you promise not to attack my soldiers along and east of the frontier, I’ll gladly agree to your terms.”

     “Consider it so.”

     “Excellent!”  He raised up his golden goblet and shouted, “A toast!  To friendship!”

     Uther and his honor guard raised up their goblets.  “To friendship!”

     They drank, and Uther said, “Albius, I have to ask, what did you do with my Goth?”

     “The lumbering giant you used to trap my cohorts?  He’s as dead as stone.  I have him hanging in a cage over the sea-wall, as a warning to any other Germans who wish to test me.  But enough of such talk.  Drink!”

     The men drank.  After a time Albius stood up excitedly and said drunkenly, “Now, my wife will dance for us!  Igrayne, come out here!  Entertain our guests!”

     A tall, dark, curvaceous Latin woman stepped into the room and started to dance seductively, her breasts heaving and her long raven hair waving with each spasm of her body.  Uther’s eyes locked upon her, and his jaw dropped.

     “You’re the king of all Cornwall now, Uther,” said Albius proudly, “but no queen of yours could ever be so beautiful, could she?”

     Uther didn’t hear him.  All his attention was fixed upon the dancing woman.  He shot up from his seat suddenly and said in his careful Latin, “I’m sorry, Albius, but I—I must go.  Thank you for your hospitality.”  He looked to his honor guard and barked in Cornish, “Get up, you dogs!  Merlin, I need to speak with Merlin!”

     They left, with haste.

 

***

 

     They found the old man a few miles outside of their camp, sitting on a boulder, deep in thought.  Uther strode up to him and said, “Old man, the time has come for me to make use of your gift.  Advise me.”

     Merlin’s eyes shot open.  Perceptively, he said, “You’re going to break your truce, Uther?  For a woman?”

     “I can take his fortress with no difficulty; those Goths didn’t even have a battering ram.”

     “You swore to a truce, did you not?”

     “An oath made to a Roman is no oath at all!”

     Merlin turned his eyes away.  “You will get no help from me.”

     “The Badh take you, you old mummer!  You dare speak with such insolence to a king?”

     The old man’s eyes widened, and there was a fire in them.  He stood up on the boulder and shouted, “And how dare you, Uther, speak with such insolence to he who was councilor to the last king, and to he before, on down the line of kings to the day the Sons of Aryas came from across the sea!  I could destroy you with a thought!  With a word I could bring forth from the Other World dark wisdom that would shatter your mind like glass!  Do you wish me to demonstrate?”

     Uther fell prostrate before the old man.  “I am sorry, Merlin.  But I must have her!  Will you not help me?  I’ll give you anything in return, anything you ask.”

     A smile crept across Merlin’s face, and he said, “Anything, Uther?”

     “Anything you ask of me, if only you’ll help me win Igrayne!”

     “You will swear by the iron crown of all Brittania, and by the sword of Crom Cruagh, that at some future time you will give me what reward I ask.”

     “I swear it, Merlin.  I swear it.”

     “Summon your armies and have them build battering rams, with towers, and send them against the walls with orders to withdraw at sunset.  Then meet me, alone, at the Standing Stones above the north road.  There I will give you the aid you seek.  And mark well, Uther, that this is one oath you will not be breaking.”

    

***

 

     They were the rest of the day in finding and felling large enough trees, and spent half the night working by firelight to build the siege equipment.  When they were done, they had two wheeled towers each a bit taller than a man, with a log suspended within and elliptical Roman shields covering the front.  From the top of each flew a magnificent standard, a green wyvern on a sable background.

     Uther gazed with approval on the equipment.  He said, “This is good.  But it certainly took you long enough to build it.  If we wait until morning to start the attack we could lose our edge, but I can’t win with exhausted soldiers.”

     “We’re fine,” Ulfius insisted.  “A sleepless Breton is still worth any two Romans!”

     There were cries of approval from the army.  Uther said, “That is true, but I think we’ve butchered the last of the Romans.  The rest of Albius’s garrison is made up of Sea-Kings and Gauls.”

     “We don’t fear them, my lord!  I could fight a score of them myself!”

     More cheers.  Uther said, “You’re certainly eager enough.  Very well; start the attack.  And remember, you don’t have to take the keep, just keep them pressed until sunset.”

     “Why, my lord?”

     “Because even with these fine ram-towers we would still lose too many lives in taking the keep.  Draw Albius out.  Take away the rich man, and the mercenaries will lose all desire to hold the fort.”

 

***

 

     The sun peeked out over the western hills, a wet wind blew in from the south, and another wave of screaming Celts charged at the outer wall.  They reached their ram-towers again and used them for tanks, hurling spears from them and grouping behind them as they pushed them foreward.  The rabble wore no armor, but hid themselves behind shields pilfered from slain Romans and Sea-Kings.  The soldiers along the outer wall fired arrows and hurled pila and javelins at exposed flesh whenever they saw it, but it did not slow the advance in the slightest.

     A centurion ran along the wall, urging the defenders on.  The soldiers—who were mostly mercenaries from Germania, or themselves Celts from Brittany—largely ignored him.  As he turned to make another round, waving an eagle about and shouting in Latin, a Celt broke ranks and dashed into the middle of the field.  His dark hair waving in the wind, he stooped, plucked a fallen spear from the wet earth, and hurled it at the centurion without breaking stride.  He lifted up his shield just long enough to show himself off—it was none other than Uther—before disappearing into the early-morning fog.  His army turned and followed him, leaving their rams.

     “We should burn those rams while we have the chance,” barked one of the wall-guards, a Saxon.

     A Roman next to him said, “That’s exactly what they want us to do.  As soon as some men come out of the gate, they’ll charge in fast and butcher us before we can form up.”

     “I don’t like the smell of it,” the Saxon said.  “I know these dogs are easy to rout, but they should know as well as us that they could break down that gate without difficulty.  I think they’re planning something.”

     “I suppose you’re right; they are a crafty race.”

     The attack kept on in that wise for the whole of the day, with the Celts gaining ground slowly and retreating abruptly over and over again.  Near the close of day, Uther himself charged again out of the formation, held his shield over his head to fend off arrows and stones, and banged the pommel of Excalibur upon the heavy oak gate.  He yelled in Latin, “Come out, Albius!  Come out, you fat old son of a Roman whore!  By this sword, I challenge you!”

     And again they fled into the fog and the thick forest, the rocky crags and rolling hills.

     Albius Brittanicus, who had for the past few hours been watching the goings-on from his keep, charged down to the castle’s courtyard and shouted, “A horse!  Bring me a horse!”

     One of his centurions met him and said, “Sir, surely you’re not thinking of going out there yourself!  Send some of us, or better yet a few of those Germans.”

     “I want two hundred fresh men and my honor guard ready to ride within the hour!  I know what was in his eyes when he looked upon Igrayne; if that Uther thinks he’s going to steal my wife, by Jove is he mistaken!”

 

***

 

     Uther rode hard along a narrow trail through the woods and along the sea-cliffs to the Standing Stones where Merlin waited.  The old man stood in the center of a circle of rough limestone pillars, each twice the height of a man and at least as big around.  He stood next to a roaring fire of beech logs.

     Wordlessly, Uther dismounted, walked up, and presented himself before the old wizard.  Merlin said to him, “Kneel.”

     Uther dropped down to his knees.

     Merlin took a handful of soot from the edge of the fire, spat in it, and with it marked Uther’s face.  He pointed over the sea-cliffs to where the castle of Albius Brittanicus stood in the fog.

     “Do you remember your vow, Uther?”, he asked.

     “Of course I do!”

     “Run now to that castle, just as I’m pointing, and claim the woman for your own.”

     “Run over thin air?”

     “Trust to my wizardry.  As the life of the Roman wanes, the strength of my spell grows.  Now, go!  Quickly!”

     Uther walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down to where it plunged three hundred vertical feet to a cold and violent salt-sea.  He took a deep breath and stepped off.

     The open air supported him as well as solid stone.  He looked back at Merlin, who was staring at the swiftly-setting sun and chanting in some ancient tongue Uther had never heard before.  Thinking of Igrayne’s dancing, he grimaced and ran on across the open air to the Roman’s castle.  He stepped into a second-story window and dashed down the hall.  Two guards met him.  He reached for his sword and found it wasn’t there.  To his surprise, the guards saluted him and went on about their duties.

     A few minutes’ searching brought him to Albius’s bedchamber.  He threw open the door and saw Igrayne sitting impatiently upon a richly-cushioned couch.  When she saw him enter, she jumped up and exclaimed, “Oh, Albius!  Thank God you’re alive!”

     Wordlessly he ran up to her, tore her robe off, cast her to the floor, and climbed on top of her.  She was at first taken aback by his abruptness, but she soon returned his affections.

     “Oh, Albius . . .”

 

***

 

     In his last few minutes of life, Albius Brittanicus would more than redeem himself for his years of corpulence and complacency.

     The Celts hadn’t been expecting the Roman to actually answer Uther’s challenge, and were taken by surprise when a picked regiment of two hundred Saxon mercenaries and half as many Romans came riding into their camp.  Albius himself jumped down from his horse and yelled for Uther, brandishing his long steel spatha and cutting down any Celt foolish enough to get in his way.  Such rage was in his eyes that pain and death held no terror for him.

     One young warrior grabbed a long ashen spear, lept up onto a boulder, took aim at Albius, and threw.  The spear struck the Roman smartly at the base of the neck, and he went down with blood frothing up at his lips.

     Albius Brittanicus managed to crawl most of the way towards his assailant before finally dying.

 

***

 

 

     With his hold on the border firmly established, Uther spent the next few months ruling over his new kingdom from Albius’s old fortress, watching with pride as Igrayne’s belly swelled.  When she finally had the child—a son, and a healthy one—, he asked her, purely for her benefit, “Is it mine or his?”

     Igrayne said, “The child is his, my lord.  At least, I think so.  A man came to me in the night just after Albius rode off.  He was the spitting image of my husband, but he may have already been dead.”

     Uther only smiled and took the newborn infant up in his arms.  He said, “I care not.  Whoever sired him, he’s mine now and I’ll love him just as well.”

     Ulfius came rushing in, said, “My lord, you have a visitor, and I’d suggest you see to him.”

     “Send him off!  Tell him to come back some other time!”

     “My lord, it’s Merlin.”

     “Merlin?  By the gods, I haven’t seen him since . . . send him in!”

     Ulfius walked out, and Merlin walked in.  Uther said to him angrily, “At last you come!  Where have you been all this time?”

     “Underground,” the old man said dryly.  “I have been sleeping under the earth for nine full moons, recovering from my little trick.  I think you know why I’m here.”

     “Yes, to claim your reward.  What do you want?”

     “Can you not guess?”

     Uther’s expression changed from annoyance to shock as he realized what the old wizard was getting at.  “You cannot mean it, Merlin.  That is too much, even for you.”

     “The child will be better off with me, Uther.  You were never meant to raise a family.”

     “So to slay and to rule is all there is for Uther, Merlin?  Nothing more?”

     “Not even so much as that.”

     “What?”

     “You’re an Oath-breaker, Uther.  You cheated the Goth; you betrayed the Roman.  No-one trusts you.  No-one is loyal to you.  Your alliances are crumbling.  Give the child to me; it will be easier that way.”

     “This is a child, Merlin!  My very own son!  You can’t be serious.”

     The old man tapped his staff hard on the stone floor of the bedchamber; a giant wave rolled and crashed against the cliffs below.  He said, “This is one oath that you will not be breaking, Uther.”

     Angrily, the king thrust the infant into Merlin’s arms and said, “Take it!  Sacrifice it to your black gods or leave it to die in the wilderness, just get out of my sight!”

     Merlin took up the child and left.  Igrayne lept up and beat Uther with her fists, shouting, “Go after him!  Do not let him take my son!”

     Uther took up his sword and went after the wizard.  He ran down the corridor, down the stairs, and out the castle’s front gate, but Merlin was long-gone.

     He turned to one of the gate-guards and said, “Has Merlin been through here?”

     “Aye, my lord,” the guard answered.  “He went by nearly an hour ago.”

     “An hour ago?  Damn that old mummer!  A curse on him and his wizardry!  Which way did he go?”

     “East, my lord, toward the forest road.”

     Uther ran off as fast as he could down the road, into a tangled and ancient forest of oaks and hawthorns that grew steadily thicker and darker as he went.  Stopping to catch his breath, he heard Merlin’s voice call out, “Do not follow me, Uther!  Turn back now!  Do not follow!”

     He pressed on down the road, heedless of the wizard’s warning for he knew he was close.  He didn’t notice the Picts until it was much too late.

     A long ashen spear with a head of hammered copper flew out of the forest and just barely missed catching Uther in the ribs.  The king drew his sword and turned to face his assailant.

     A short-statured, knob-limbed man with long raven hair and crystal blue eyes, clad only in a short rawhide kilt without even sandals upon his feet, lept out of the forest and stood before Uther.  His copper-colored skin was covered all over with intricate blue tattoos.

     Another such man came out of the trees, and another, and yet more until the king was surrounded by some fifteen Caledonian mercenaries wielding copper-headed spears, bronze mattocks, and stolen Roman swords.

     From back the way he had come, Uther heard running feet and a cry in Cornish, “To the king!  We must protect the king!”

     Uther lifted up his sword and charged into the ranks of the ambushers.  Blades bit at his bare flesh and blood flowed down his body in thick streams, but the might of Excalibur could not so easily be overcome.  The ambuscade had mostly been routed by the time the king’s bodyguard reached him.

     The claret flowed freely from the deep wounds that covered Uther’s body, and he knew that these wounds were mortal.  Summoning the very last of his strength, he pulled himself to his feet, lifted the sword high over his head, and declared, “I am king!  None but I shall wield this blade!  I!  Am!  King!”

     His knees buckled, and the late king crashed to the earth.  The tip of the sword struck a boulder and dug into it; the weight of Uther’s body drove the enchanted blade in nearly to the hilt.  One of the bodyguards tried to draw it forth, but it held fast.

 

***

 

     Merlin walked along into the north.  It would be a long and hard hike into Wales, but he had to make it, and soon, lest the child die.

     He looked down at the sleeping infant in his arms and smiled.  “Arthur,” he said, “yes, that is a good name for you.

     “Arthur.”

The End

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