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Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic

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Author Topic: Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic  (Read 1544 times)
Lisa Wolfe
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« Reply #15 on: January 27, 2009, 10:41:52 pm »

innocent. It was not I who did it." "True," said Cardiwen; "it was the boy Gwion who robbed me;" and she rushed to pursue him. He saw her and fled, changing into a hare; but she became a greyhound and followed him. Running to the water, he became a fish; but she became another and chased him below the waves. He turned himself into a bird, when she became a hawk and gave him no rest in the sky. Just as she swooped on him, he espied a pile of winnowed wheat on the floor of a barn, and dropping upon it, he became one of the wheat-grains. Changing herself into a high-crested black hen, Cardiwen scratched him up and swallowed him, when he changed at last into a boy again and was so beautiful that she could not kill him outright, but wrapped him in a leathern bag and cast him into the sea, committing him to the mercy of God. This was on the twenty-ninth of April.

Now Gwyddno had a weir for catching fish on the sea-strand near his castle, and every day in May he was wont to take a hundred pounds' worth of fish. He had a son named Elphin, who was always poor and unsuccessful, but that

p. 8

year the father had given the son leave to draw all the fish from the weir, to see if good luck would ever befall him and give him something with which to begin the world.

When Elphin went next to draw the weir, the man who had charge of it said in pity, "Thou art always unlucky; there is nothing in the weir but a leathern bag, which is caught on one of the poles." "How do we know," said Elphin, "that it may not contain the value of a hundred pounds?" Taking up the bag and opening it, the man saw the forehead of the boy and said to Elphin, "Behold, what a radiant brow" (Taliessin). "Let him be called Taliessin," said Elphin. Then he lifted the boy and placed him sorrowfully behind him; and made his horse amble gently, that before had been trotting, and carried him as softly as if he had been sitting in the easiest chair in the world, and the boy of the radiant brow made a song to Elphin as they went along.


"Never in Gwyddno's weir
Was there such good luck as this night.
Fair Elphin, dry thy cheeks! p. 9
Being too sad will not avail,
Although thou thinkest thou hast no gain.
Too much grief will bring thee no good;
Nor doubt the miracles of the Almighty:
Although I am but little, I am highly gifted.
From seas, and from mountains,
And from the depths of rivers,
God brings wealth to the fortunate man.
Elphin of lively qualities,
Thy resolution is unmanly:
Thou must not be oversorrowful:
Better to trust in God than to forebode ill.
Weak and small as I am,
On the foaming beach of the ocean,
In the day of trouble I shall be
Of more service to thee than three hundred salmon.
Elphin of notable qualities,
Be not displeased at thy misfortune:
Although reclined thus weak in my bag,
There lies a virtue in my tongue.
While I continue thy protector
Thou hast not much to fear."

Then Elphin asked him, "Art thou man or spirit?" And in answer the boy sang to him this tale of his flight from the woman:--

p. 10

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« Reply #16 on: January 27, 2009, 10:42:13 pm »

"I have fled with vigor, I have fled as a frog,
I have fled in the semblance of a crow scarcely finding rest;
I have fled vehemently, I have fled as a chain of lightning,
I have fled as a roe into an entangled thicket;
I have fled as a wolf-cub, I have fled as a wolf in the wilderness,
I have fled as a fox used to many swift bounds and quirks;
I have fled as a martin, which did not avail;
I have fled as a squirrel that vainly hides,
I have fled as a stag's antler, of ruddy course,
I have fled as an iron in a glowing fire,
I have fled as a spear-head, of woe to such as have a wish for it;
I have fled as a fierce bull bitterly fighting,
I have fled as a bristly boar seen in a ravine,
I have fled as a white grain of pure wheat;
Into a dark leathern bag I was thrown,
And on a boundless sea I was sent adrift;
Which was to me an omen of being tenderly nursed,
And the Lord God then set me at liberty."

Then Elphin came with Taliessin to the house of his father, and Gwyddno asked him if he had a good haul at the fish-weir. "I have something

p. 11

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« Reply #17 on: January 27, 2009, 10:42:32 pm »

better than fish." "What is that?" asked the father. "I have a bard," said Elphin. "Alas, what will he profit thee?" said Gwyddno, to which Taliessin replied, "He will profit him more than the weir ever profited thee." Said Gwyddno, "Art thou able to speak, and thou so little?" Then Taliessin said, "I am better able to speak than thou to question me."

From this time Elphin always prospered, and he and his wife cared for Taliessin tenderly and lovingly, and the boy dwelt with him until he was thirteen years old, when Elphin went to make a Christmas visit to his uncle Maelgwyn, who was a great king and held open court. There were four and twenty bards there, and all proclaimed that no king had a wife so beautiful as the queen, or a bard so wise as the twenty-four, who all agreed upon this decision. Elphin said, on the contrary, that it was he himself who had the most beautiful wife and the wisest bard, and for this he was thrown into prison. Taliessin learning this, set forth from home to visit the palace and free his adoptive father, Elphin.

In those days it was the custom of kings to

p. 12

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« Reply #18 on: January 27, 2009, 10:42:56 pm »

sit in the hall and dine in royal state with lords and bards about them who should keep proclaiming the greatness and glory of the king and his knights. Taliessin placed himself in a quiet corner, waiting for the four and twenty bards to pass, and as each one passed by, Taliessin made an ugly face, and gave a sound with his finger on his lips, thus, "Blerwm, Blerwm." Each bard went by and bowed himself before the king, but instead of beginning to chant his praises, could only play "Blerwm, Blerwm" on the lips, as the boy had done. The king was amazed and thought they must be intoxicated, so he sent one of his lords to them, telling them to behave themselves and remember where they were. Twice and thrice he told them, but they could only repeat the same foolishness, until at last the king ordered one of his squires to give a blow to the chief bard, and the squire struck him a blow with a broom, so that he fell back on his seat. Then he arose and knelt before the king, and said, "Oh, honorable king, be it known unto your grace that it is not from too much drinking that we are dumb, but through the influence of a

p. 13

spirit which sits in the corner yonder in the form of a child." Then the king bade a squire to bring Taliessin before him, and he asked the boy who he was. He answered:--


"Primary chief bard I am to Elphin,
And my original country is the region of the summer stars;
I am a wonder whose origin is not known;
I have been fostered in the land of the Deity,
I have been teacher to all intelligences,
I am able to instruct the whole universe.
I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliessin."

Then the king and his nobles wondered much, for they had never heard the like from a boy so young. The king then called his wisest bard to answer Taliessin, but he could only play "Blerwm" on his lips as before, and each of the king's four and twenty bards tried in the same way and could do nothing more. Then the king bade Taliessin sing again, and he began:--


"Discover thou what is
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« Reply #19 on: January 27, 2009, 10:44:42 pm »

"Discover thou what is
The strong creature from before the flood, p. 14
Without flesh, without bone,
Without vein, without blood,
Without head, without feet;
It will neither be older nor younger
Than at the beginning;
Great God! how the sea whitens
When first it comes!
Great are its gusts
When it comes from the south;
Great are its evaporations
When it strikes on coasts.
It is in the field, it is in the wood,
Without hand and without foot,
Without signs of old age,
It is also so wide,
As the surface of the earth;
And it was not born,
Nor was it seen.
It will cause consternation
Wherever God willeth.
On sea and on land
It neither sees, nor is seen.
Its course is devious,
And will not come when desired.
On land and on sea
It is indispensable.
It is without equal, p. 15
It is many-sided;
It is not confined,
It is incomparable;
It comes from four quarters;
It is noxious, it is beneficial;
It is yonder, it is here;
It will decompose,
But it will not repair the injury;
It will not suffer for its doings,
Seeing it is blameless.
One Being has prepared it,
Out of all creatures,
By a tremendous blast,
To wreak vengeance
On Maelgwyn Gwynedd."

And while he was thus singing his verse near the door, there came suddenly a mighty storm of wind, so that the king and all his nobles thought the castle would fall on their heads. They saw that Taliessin had not merely been singing the song of the wind, but seemed to have power to command it. Then the king hastily ordered that Elphin should be brought from his dungeon and placed before Taliessin, and the chains came loose from his feet, and he was set free.

p. 16

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« Reply #20 on: January 27, 2009, 10:44:55 pm »

As they rode away from the court, the king and his courtiers rode with them, and Taliessin bade Elphin propose a race with the king's horses. Four and twenty horses were chosen, and Taliessin got four and twenty twigs of holly which he had burnt black, and he ordered the youth who was to ride Elphin's horse to let all the others set off before him, and bade him as he overtook each horse to strike him with a holly twig and throw it down. Then he had him watch where his own horse should stumble and throw down his cap at the place. The race being won, Taliessin brought his master to the spot where the cap lay; and put workmen to dig a hole there. When they had dug deeply enough they found a caldron full of gold, and Taliessin said, "Elphin, this is my payment to thee for having taken me from the water and reared me until now." And on this spot stands a pool of water until this day.



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« Reply #21 on: January 27, 2009, 10:45:43 pm »

p. 17

III
THE SWAN-CHILDREN OF LIR

KING LIR of Erin had four young children who were cared for tenderly at first by their stepmother, the new queen; but there came a time when she grew jealous of the love their father bore them, and resolved that she would endure it no longer. Sometimes there was murder in her heart, but she could not bear the thought of that wickedness, and she resolved at last to choose another way to rid herself of them. One day she took them to drive in her chariot:--Finola, who was eight years old, with her three younger brothers,--Aodh, Fiacre, and little Conn, still a baby. They were beautiful children, the legend says, with skins white and soft as swans' feathers, and with large blue eyes and very sweet voices. Reaching a lake, she told them that they might bathe in the clear

p. 18

water; but so soon as they were in it she struck them with a fairy wand,--for she was of the race of the Druids, who had magical power,--and she turned them into four beautiful snow-white swans. But they still had human voices, and Finola said to her, "This wicked deed of thine shall be punished, for the doom that awaits thee will surely be worse than ours." Then Finola asked, "How long shall we be in the shape of swans?" "For three hundred years," said the woman, "on smooth Lake Darvra; then three hundred years on the sea of Moyle" (this being the sea between Ireland and Scotland); "and then three hundred years at Inis Glora, in the Great Western Sea" (this was a rocky island in the Atlantic). "Until the Tailkenn (St. Patrick) shall come to Ireland and bring the Christian faith, and until you hear the Christian bell, you shall not be freed. Neither your power nor mine can now bring you back to human shape; but you shall keep your human reason and your Gaelic speech, and you shall sing music so sweet that all who hear it shall gladly listen."

She left them, and ere long their father, King

p. 19

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« Reply #22 on: January 27, 2009, 10:46:10 pm »

Lir, came to the shore and heard their singing. He asked how they came to have human voices. "We are thy four children," said Finola, "changed into swans by our stepmother's jealousy." "Then come and live with me," said her sorrowing father. "We are not permitted to leave the lake," she said, "or live with our people any more. But we are allowed to dwell together and to keep our reason and our speech, and to sing sweet music to you." Then they sang, and the king and all his followers were at first amazed and then lulled to sleep.

Then King Lir returned and met the cruel stepmother at her father's palace. When her father, King Bove, was told what she had done, he was hot with anger. "This wicked deed," he said, "shall bring severer punishment on thee than on the innocent children, for their suffering shall end, but thine never shall." Then King Bove asked her what form of existence would be most terrible to her. She replied, "That of a demon of the air." "Be it so," said her father, who had also Druidical power. He struck her with his wand, and she became a bat, and flew

p. 20

away with a scream, and the legend says, "She is still a demon of the air and shall be a demon of the air until the end of time."

After this, the people of all the races that were in Erin used to come and encamp by the lake and listen to the swans. The happy were made happier by the song, and those who were in grief or illness or pain forgot their sorrows and were lulled to rest. There was peace in all that region, while war and tumult filled other lands. Vast changes took place in three centuries--towers and castles rose and fell, villages were built and destroyed, generations were born and died;--and still the swan-children lived and sang, until at the end of three hundred years they flew away, as was decreed, to the stormy sea of Moyle; and from that time it was made a law that no one should kill a swan in Erin.

Beside the sea of Moyle they found no longer the peaceful and wooded shores they had known, but only steep and rocky coasts and a wild, wild sea. There came a great storm one night, and the swans knew that they could not keep together, so they resolved that if separated they would meet

p. 21

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« Reply #23 on: January 27, 2009, 10:46:30 pm »

at a rock called Carricknarone. Finola reached there first, and took her brothers under her wings, all wet, shivering, and exhausted. Many such nights followed, and in one terrible winter storm, when they nestled together on Carricknarone, the water froze into solid ice around them, and their feet and wings were so frozen to the rock that when they moved they left the skin of their feet, the quills of their wings, and the feathers of their breasts clinging there. When the ice melted, and they swam out into the sea, their bodies smarted with pain until the feathers grew once more.

One day they saw a glittering troop of horsemen approaching along the shore and knew that they were their own kindred, though from far generations back, the Dedannen or Fairy Host. They greeted each other with joy, for the Fairy Host had been sent to seek for the swans; and on returning to their chiefs they narrated what had passed, and the chiefs said, "We cannot help them, but we are glad they are living; and we know that at last the enchantment will be broken and that they will be freed from their

p. 22

sorrows." So passed their lives until Finola sang, one day, "The Second Woe has passed--the second period of three hundred years," when they flew out on the broad ocean, as was decreed, and went to the island of Inis Glora. There they spent the next three hundred years, amid yet wilder storms and yet colder winds. No more the peaceful shepherds and living neighbors were around them; but often the sailor and fisherman, in his little coracle, saw the white gleam of their wings or heard the sweet notes of their song and knew that the children of Lir were near.

But the time came when the nine hundred years of banishment were ended, and they might fly back to their father's old home, Finnahà. Flying for days above the sea, they alighted at the palace once so well known, but everything was changed by time--even the walls of their father's palace were crumbled and rain-washed. So sad was the sight that they remained one day only, and flew back to Inis Glora, thinking that if they must be forever solitary, they would live where they had lived last, not where they had been reared.

p. 23

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« Reply #24 on: January 27, 2009, 10:47:04 pm »

One May morning, as the children of Lir floated in the air around the island of Inis Glora, they heard a faint bell sounding across the eastern sea. The mist lifted, and they saw afar off, beyond the waves, a vision of a stately white-robed priest, with attendants around him on the Irish shore. They knew that it must be St. Patrick, the Tailkenn, or Tonsured One, who was bringing, as had been so long promised, Christianity to Ireland. Sailing through the air, above the blue sea, towards their native coast, they heard the bell once more, now near and distinct, and they knew that all evil spirits were fleeing away, and that their own hopes were to be fulfilled. As they approached the land, St. Patrick stretched his hand and said, "Children of Lir, you may tread your native land again." And the sweet swan-sister, Finola, said, "If we tread our native land, it can only be to die, after our life of nine centuries. Baptize us while we are yet living." When they touched the shore, the weight of all those centuries fell upon them; they resumed their human bodies, but they appeared old and pale and wrinkled. Then St. Patrick baptized

p. 24

them, and they died; but, even as he did so, a change swiftly came over them; and they lay side by side, once more children, in their white night-clothes, as when their father Lir, long centuries ago, had kissed them at evening and seen their blue eyes close in sleep and had touched with gentle hand their white foreheads and their golden hair. Their time of sorrow was ended and their last swan-song was sung; but the cruel stepmother seems yet to survive in her bat-like shape, and a single glance at her weird and malicious little face will lead us to doubt whether she has yet fully atoned for her sin.



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« Reply #25 on: January 27, 2009, 10:47:55 pm »

p. 25

IV
USHEEN IN THE ISLAND OF YOUTH

The old Celtic hero and poet Usheen or Oisin, whose supposed songs are known in English as those of Ossian, lived to a great old age, surviving all others of the race of the Feni, to which he belonged; and he was asked in his last years what had given him such length of life. This is the tale he told:--

After the fatal battle of Gavra, in which most of the Feni were killed, Usheen and his father, the king, and some of the survivors of the battle were hunting the deer with their dogs, when they met a maiden riding on a slender white horse with hoofs of gold, and with a golden crescent between his ears. The maiden's hair was of the color of citron and was gathered in a silver band; and she was clad in a white garment embroidered with strange devices. She asked them why they

p. 26

rode slowly and seemed sad, and not like other hunters; and they replied that it was because of the death of their friends and the ruin of their race. When they asked her in turn whence she came, and why, and whether she was married, she replied that she had never had a lover or a husband, but that she had crossed the sea for the love of the great hero and bard Usheen, whom she had never seen. Then Usheen was overcome with love for her, but she said that to wed her he must follow her across the sea to the Island of Perpetual Youth. There he would have a hundred horses and a hundred sheep and a hundred silken robes, a hundred swords, a hundred bows, and a hundred youths to follow him; while she would have a hundred maidens to wait on her. But how, he asked, was he to reach this island? He was to mount her horse and ride behind her. So he did this, and the slender white horse, not feeling his weight, dashed across the waves of the ocean, which did not yield beneath his tread. They galloped across the very sea, and the maiden, whose name was Niam, sang to him as they rode, and this so enchantingly that he

p. 27

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« Reply #26 on: January 27, 2009, 10:48:30 pm »

scarcely knew whether hours passed or days. Sometimes deer ran by them over the water, followed by red-eared hounds in full chase; sometimes a maiden holding up an apple of gold; sometimes a beautiful youth; but they themselves rode on always westward.

At last they drew near an island which was not, Niam said, the island they were seeking; but it was one where a beautiful princess was kept under a spell until some defender should slay a cruel giant who held her under enchantment until she should either wed him or furnish a defender. The youth Usheen, being an Irishman and not easily frightened, naturally offered his services as defender, and they waited three days and nights to carry on the conflict. He had fought at home--so the legend says--with wild boars, with foreign invaders, and with enchanters, but he never had quite so severe a contest as with this giant; but after he had cut off his opponent's head and had been healed with precious balm by the beautiful princess, he buried the giant's body in a deep grave and placed above it a great stone engraved in the Ogham

p. 28

alphabet--in which all the letters are given in straight lines.

After this he and Niam again mounted the white steed and galloped away over the waves. Niam was again singing, when soft music began to be heard in the distance, as if in the centre of the setting sun. They drew nearer and nearer to a shore where the very trees trembled with the multitude of birds that sang upon them; and when they reached the shore, Niam gave one note of song, and a band of youths and maidens came rushing towards them and embraced them with eagerness. Then they too sang, and as they did it, one brought to Usheen a harp of silver and bade him sing of earthly joys. He found himself chanting, as he thought, with peculiar spirit and melody, but as he told them of human joys they kept still and began to weep, till at last one of them seized the silver harp and flung it away into a pool of water, saying, "It is the saddest harp in all the world."

Then he forgot all the human joys which seemed to those happy people only as sorrows compared with their own; and he dwelt with

p. 29

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« Reply #27 on: January 27, 2009, 10:48:53 pm »

them thenceforward in perpetual youth. For a hundred years he chased the deer and went fishing in strangely carved boats and joined in the athletic sports of the young men; for a hundred years the gentle Niam was his wife.

But one day, when Usheen was by the beach, there floated to his feet what seemed a wooden staff, and he drew it from the waves. It was the battered fragment of a warrior's lance. The blood stains of war were still on it, and as he looked at it he recalled the old days of the Feni, the wars and tumult of his youth; and how he had outlived his tribe and all had passed away. Niam came softly to him and rested against his shoulder, but it did not soothe his pain, and he heard one of the young men watching him say to another, "The human sadness has come back into his eyes." The people around stood watching him, all sharing his sorrow, and knowing that his time of happiness was over and that he would go back among men. So indeed it was; Niam and Usheen mounted the white steed again and galloped away over the sea, but she had warned him when they mounted that he

p. 30

must never dismount for an instant, for that if he once touched the earth, she and the steed would vanish forever, that his youth too would disappear, and that he would be left alone on earth--an old man whose whole generation had vanished.

They passed, as before, over the sea; the same visions hovered around them, youths and maidens and animals of the chase; they passed by many islands, and at last reached the shore of Erin again. As they travelled over its plains and among its hills, Oisin looked in vain for his old companions. A little people had taken their place,--small men and women, mounted on horses as small;--and these people gazed in wonder at the mighty Usheen. "We have heard," they said, "of the hero Finn, and the poets have written many tales of him and of his people, the Feni. We have read in old books that he had a son Usheen who went away with a fairy maiden; but he was never seen again, and there is no race of the Feni left." Yet refusing to believe this, and always looking round for the people whom he had known and loved of old, he thought

p. 31

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« Reply #28 on: January 27, 2009, 10:49:15 pm »

within himself that perhaps the Feni were not to be seen because they were hunting fierce wolves by night, as they used to do in his boyhood, and that they were therefore sleeping in the daytime; but again an old man said to him, "The Feni are dead." Then he remembered that it was a hundred years, and that his very race had perished, and he turned with contempt on the little men and their little horses. Three hundred of them as he rode by were trying to lift a vast stone, but they staggered under its weight, and at last fell and lay beneath it; then leaning from his saddle Usheen lifted the stone with one hand and flung it five yards. But with the strain the saddle girth broke, and Usheen came to the ground; the white steed shook himself and neighed, then galloped away, bearing Niam with him, and Usheen lay with all his strength gone from him--a feeble old man. The Island of Youth could only be known by those who dwelt always within it, and those mortals who had once left it could dwell there no more.

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« Reply #29 on: January 27, 2009, 10:50:05 pm »

p. 32

V
BRAN THE BLESSED

The mighty king Bran, a being of gigantic size, sat one day on the cliffs of his island in the Atlantic Ocean, near to Hades and the Gates of Night, when he saw ships sailing towards him and sent men to ask what they were. They were a fleet sent by Matholweh, the king of Ireland, who had sent to ask for Branwen, Bran's sister, as his wife. Without moving from his rock Bran bid the monarch land, and sent Branwen back with him as queen.

But there came a time when Branwen was ill-treated at the palace; they sent her into the kitchen and made her cook for the court, and they caused the butcher to come every day (after he had cut up the meat) and give her a blow on the ear. They also drew up all their boats on the shore for three years, that she might not send

p. 33

for her brother. But she reared a starling in the cover of the kneading-trough, taught it to speak, and told it how to find her brother; and then she wrote a letter describing her sorrows and bound it to the bird's wing, and it flew to the island and alighted on Bran's shoulder, "ruffling its feathers" (says the Welsh legend) "so that the letter was seen, and they knew that the bird had been reared in a domestic manner." Then Bran resolved to cross the sea, but he had to wade through the water, as no ship had yet been built large enough to hold him; and he carried all his musicians (pipers) on his shoulders. As he approached the Irish shore, men ran to the king, saying that they had seen a forest on the sea, where there never before had been a tree, and that they had also seen a mountain which moved. Then the king asked Branwen, the queen, what it could be. She answered, "These are the men of the Island of the Mighty, who have come hither to protect me." "What is the forest?" they asked. "The yards and masts of ships." "What mountain is that by the side of the ships?" "It is Bran my brother, coming to the

p. 34

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If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. The smallest act of kindness can be the greatest thing in the world.
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