The English Beauty and the Highland Beast (Preview)
Stirling Castle, Scotland, Autumn 1304
Errol MacKinnon took a deep breath, grateful for the brief respite from the fighting. He was exhausted, his arms aching from wielding his heavy broad sword since their first attack on the English at dawn. But the Scots were winning; the English were no match for them, and the battle was finally coming to its bloody end. He pictured those filthy English pigs fleeing with their tails between their legs.
The day was warm, and sweat ran down his furrowed brow. Errol pushed his fair hair back, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, straightened his war tunic, and refastened the tartan at his waist. His clothes were soiled and stained, but staying clean was inconsequential. He preferred to stay alive.
Beside him, Gillebride, his brother’s advisor, had lowered his sword, granting him a sideways grin. The two had been fighting back-to-back since the fighting began at first light.
“Aye, lad,” Gilly glanced at the symbols tattooed on Errol’s sword arm, each representing an enemy he’d killed in battle. “I reckon ye’ll need a few more of those before the day’s done.”
Errol laughed. “A hundred or more.”
“Ye wish,” Gilly said, chuckling. “But, maybe, six today.”
Errol nodded. “It’s been three long years of fighting; I’ve lost count of all those who’ve fallen.” He gestured to the marks on his arm, growing wistful. “But what I wouldnae give to see Mull again.”
“Aye. She’s a bonny island….” Gilly’s words caught in his throat as the enemy’s shouts interrupted their brief reprieve. Six or seven English soldiers appeared on the crest before them, swords raised, faces distorted with blood lust.
“Jesus!” Errol exclaimed, hauling up his sword to ward off the blow from the first. It was a swift, uneven struggle, but within minutes, Errol’s sword had claimed yet another tattoo for his arm. Moments later, he caught a savage blow as the second man advanced too quickly behind the first. He went down on one knee, his tunic ripped by a wild slash to his chest.
Gillebride was beside him, wielding his blade ferociously, trying to ward off the subsequent rain of blows that followed the first. Errol could feel the strength draining from his body as blood poured from the wound over his heart.
One man raised his bow, aiming directly at Gilly. “Down!” Errol yelled while the man was drawing his bowstring.
He flung himself across his friend to protect him from the arrow without thinking and with his last strength. He felt a searing pain in his right shoulder when he heard the ‘ping’ as the soldier released the arrow. He’d taken the hit for Gilly.
He stumbled to his knees, making one last attempt to regain his feet. Wrenching the arrow free, he felt the blood gush from the deep wound. His sword arm hung lifelessly by his side.
He fell back, exhausted and weak from the blood loss. The last thing he heard before all the world went black was Gilly calling his name, cut short by his old friend’s heart-rending screams.
Errol couldn’t gauge how long he’d been unconscious. The jolting of the cart and the pain in his shoulder and chest brought him around. His mouth felt cracked and parched, and he gave his one good arm for a draft of water. But there was faint hope of that.
He was bound tight, crammed in with another group of imprisoned Scots, some with wounds that looked far worse than his.
“What in hell is this?” he mumbled to the man beside him whose head was bleeding slightly from a wound above his forehead.
“It’s the bloody English. They’ve captured all of us, and we’re on the way to Perth. There’s naught but a cold, dark dungeon in store for the likes of us.” The man looked him over, his eyes lingering on Errol’s shoulder wound and the gaping wound on his chest. “Yer fighting days are done with, lad. Ye’d better pray to the Lord to take ye quick before the rats get to ye.”
His tone as he spoke was almost gleeful, but Errol listened in horror, scanning the bloodied, wearied faces among the men, praying for a glimpse of Gilly. But he was not among them.
“Ye are searching for someone?” the man asked.
“Aye, my companion-in-arms. We’ve been together since the first day of the fighting three years ago. He’s been with me since we left our home on the Isle of Mull.”
The man nodded. “Aye. That’s a sad loss for ye, lad. But perhaps they left yer friend there, mistaking him for the dead. Mayhap ye’ll find him again one day.”
Errol nodded gloomily. With Gilly beside him, he’d always felt safe, watched over. He groaned. He’d known Gillebride MacThomas, that big, warm-hearted bearded bear of a man, all his life. Relied on him, listened to his wisdom, trusted him. When Errol had joined the fight against the English to return the crown of Scotland to its rightful King, The Bruce, Gilly had insisted on coming with him, even though he was nigh on thirty-five years old. Now Errol was alone, and he didn’t like the feeling at all. Now he had only his wits to bide him. His family would think him dead, and there’d be no one to come looking for him.
Would his eyes ever see the shores of his beloved Mull again?
“Goodbye, old friend,” he muttered, fingering the silver cross on the chain at his neck. “If I dinnae see ye again in this mortal realm, may we meet in heaven or hell.”
Half a year later. MacDuff Castle, Fife.
Edina Wemyss hated having to go to the dungeon. She hated the cold, dank walls and the water seeping down the stones. She hated the smell of piss and filthy unwashed bodies. She hated the rats who terrified her with their endless squeaking and scurrying and the way they soiled the place, making things even worse.
But above all, she hated seeing the imprisoned men. It seemed so wrong for her father, Michael, to have imprisoned these brave Scottish warriors for no other reason than they were defending their beloved Scotland as they should be, just as her English-loving father should have been doing himself.
But today, she was fulfilling her duty as the serving girl her father insisted she pretends to be, taking these poor men some stale bread and cheese on a trencher board. In her heart, she mocked her father for his distrust of the serving girls, imagining them all spies, but she was glad of the disguise. She couldn’t help fearing what these proud Highlanders would think of her—or what they might do to her—if they realized she was the daughter of the man responsible for their cruel, unjust punishment.
“Got something nice for me under those skirts of yers?” Jeered one guard as she passed. They thought it a fine sport to mock her and make lewd remarks whenever she came by.
Another of the guards muttered under his breath, and the three of them gave a raucous, bawdy laugh.
Edina’s cheeks burned. She straightened her shoulders, hiding her fear.
“I’ve naught fer ye, even if ye were the last three men on God’s green earth,” she snapped, marching past them, nose in the air.
Their laughter faded.
After distributing the last supper, she came to the cell she was always drawn to.
She held up her lantern, lighting the tall figure leaning casually against the wall. “Good day to ye, Errol MacKinnon,” she said, licking her suddenly dry lips.
She was relieved that there was a secure barrier between them. Errol was a big, broad-shouldered fellow with many tattoos up and down his arms, each representing a killing. Despite this, he had always spoken gently to her, and something about his size and good looks made her teeth clench. She had no idea why, but whenever she was near him, a kind of thrumming began in her heart, and her pulse quickened. It was similar to fear, but not quite.
And today, at the sound of his deep, gravelly voice, that mysterious pulse beat started up again. She felt his eyes on her, and just like that, it was hard to breathe.
He gave a soft laugh. “Och, lass,” he said. “This is the part of the day I look forward to.”
“Aye,” she said, lifting the lantern higher, glancing at his cellmate, Lyall, who was lying in the corner, saying nothing. “I’m thinking all of ye men look forward to yer supper.”
He shook his head. “That’s nae my meaning, lass.”
“Och?” She looked puzzled. “What dae ye mean, then, Mr. MacKinnon?”
“It’s yer pretty face I’m looking to see that makes me forget the long months I’ve been here since they brought me from Perth.”
She knew he was referring to his relocation from the prison at Perth once his wounds were half-healed, along with a few other men. Someone had called them “special prisoners,” but that was a laugh. If this was special treatment, heaven help the poor men still languishing in that hellhole in Perth.
His teasing words roused that strange feeling in her belly again and caused the heat to rise in her cheeks.
After she left the trencher, Edina turned to go. Lyall’s dispirited, sunken expression moved her heart. And Errol, despite his well-made features, had dark circles beneath his blue eyes, and, for all his cheeky teasing, he had the air of an exhausted man who had almost given up on hope.
It was so wrong to keep them imprisoned here.
She swept past the guards who, for once, kept their lustful thoughts to themselves and ascended the stairs leading her back to the Great Hall.
As she emerged from the stairwell and closed the heavy timber door behind her, she was surprised to see her sister, Margaret, walking across the slate floor toward her.
She smiled, pleased to see her younger sister’s sweet face, but there was no answering smile. She couldn’t help but note the girl’s red-rimmed eyes and the teardrops clinging to her long lashes. Margaret was frowning, clutching her sleeves around her wrists as if she must hold them there at all costs.
Edina reached a hand to brush a lock of wispy, fair hair behind her sister’s ear. “What is wrong, Little Bird?” she said, keeping her voice low.
Biting her lip, Margaret shook her head, her hands crossed before her, clutching her sleeves to her wrists. “Nothing,” she whispered. “Father wished me to pass on his message. Ye are to go to his study without delay.”
It was clear as daylight that there was something very wrong. Had her father broken his word and was mistreating her sisters?
“Please,” she gently took hold of Margaret’s arm, “show me what it is ye’re hiding.”
The younger girl reluctantly released her grip on the sleeves, turning them back to reveal a pattern of dark, purplish marks on her wrists and arms, wincing when Edina touched her skin lightly.
Edina’s blood flashed to a boiling point. Her father had not kept the bargain he’d made with her. He had agreed to restrain his violence toward her sisters if she cooperated and did his bidding. These brutish marks, like the painful bruises he’d left many times on her own body, were all the proof she needed of his betrayal.
She sighed, long and hard. “Ah, Little Bird. I’ll make an arnica poultice for ye after I’ve spoken with Father. Ye’ll find the yellow flowers growing in the garden beside the wall. Bring them to me; it will help ye heal,” Edina leaned over, dropped a kiss on her sister’s head, and reluctantly trudged to meet with her father.
Her father’s room was large, with one window high on the outside wall where a little light entered, an array of candles providing most of the light. The stone walls were hung with colorful tapestries from Germany, depicting hunting scenes, dogs, men on horses, stags at bay, and courtly scenes of princes and ladies with long flowing tresses and troubadours with their lutes.
A fire flamed in the grate, filling the air with the rich, earthy smell of peat, making this room the only warm place in the castle.
Edina’s father, Michael Wemyss, was seated by the fire and rose to face her as she walked in. Beside him was his advisor Colban, a big-bellied man Edina despised for his fawning ways, hanging on her father’s every word.
She slammed the heavy door behind her, earning a hate-filled glance from her father.
“Why are there bruises on Margaret’s arms?” she demanded loudly, her chest heaving with repressed fury. “Ye said ye’d leave her and Skylar be if I did yer bidding. I’ve done what ye told me to Father, but ye’ve nae stayed true to yer vow.”
Ignoring her question, Michael bade her stand before him. “Och, Edina. Ye’ve been a thorn in my side all these years. Ye’re a wee cow, just like yer mother,” he laughed. “But, at long last, ye do something worthy.” He pushed his face close to hers, twisting his mouth in a sneer.
Edina took a pace back. She’d heard his lament more times than she cared to count, how being a father to three worthless daughters was the heaviest burden he’d been forced to bear in his entire life. As far as he was concerned, his daughters were a curse laid upon him by a cruel god. Good for nothing except a possible advantageous marriage.
She tilted her head, waiting to hear how she would finally be useful to him, wanting to tell him that he was unworthy. Instead, she held her tongue, knowing that if she uttered a word now, it would only enrage him.
“You’ll be my instrument to bring ruin to the entire MacKinnon Clan. We need them out of the picture,” he said, smiling. Colban dipped his head in agreement.
Edina sucked in a breath. What her father was asking was impossible. It was one thing to run his errands and another going against the Scottish Clans, fighting for the cause. It was madness! She shook her head.
“Never, Father. Ye’re asking too much of me. I willnae agree to such a thing.”
He looked at her and laughed softly. “’Tis funny ye think ye have any choice in the matter.”
She straightened, meeting his gaze, her head high. “I’ll nae do your bidding on this errand, Father.”
He smirked, shaking his head. “And if ye want a guarantee yer sisters willnae be bearing any more marks, ye’ll do as ye’re told.” Edina felt her belly twisting. This was as bold a threat as he’d ever made. Do his bidding, betray the men she’d been caring for, or her sisters would suffer at his hands.
Tears burned behind her eyes, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her weep, and she blinked them away.
“I cannae deny ye if my refusal puts my sisters at risk.” Defeated, she lowered her gaze to the floor, waiting with a heavy shadow on her heart to hear exactly how she would destroy Clan MacKinnon.
“Ye’re to free the MacKinnon lad. Let him think ye’re for him, and ye’ve the means to help him escape. Once ye’re clear of the dungeon and he’s setting out for the Isle of Mull, ye’ll go with him. Make him believe ye must flee from here. I leave this to ye. When ye’re safely at Castle Ardtun, Mackinnon’s home, there’s a man held captive there who must be set free. That’s also up to ye.”
Edina gritted her teeth. She was reeling, struggling to take in what her father was demanding.
“And this man, this captive of the MacKinnon Clan? Who is he?”
“Name of Taveon MacDonnell, a scout for the English. They’ll pay me handsomely for his return.”
“And how are ye connected to this traitorous scout? Are ye working for the English? Are ye a traitor to Scotland?”
Michael snorted, his eyes flashing fire. “Dinnae ask questions, Missy. Ye’ve nae right.”
Edina tried not to wince as he hauled his hand back and laid a fierce slap across her cheek.
“Mayhap that’ll teach ye to keep yer mouth shut.”
He turned to Colban beside him, who was nodding approvingly. “Those damn MacKinnons caught up with MacDonnell when he was going to the Lowlands. They’ve been holding him prisoner ever since. He possesses information that will turn the tide for the English. He kens just what the Highland Clans were planning.”
Edina groaned.” What ye’re asking, Father, is more than I can stand. Ye’re telling me to betray my country, as ye’ve already done.”
“Then our wee deal is out, Edina, and yer sisters will meet yer fate sooner than ye wanted.”
She managed to keep her head high, but it was no use. He’d won. She knew all too well that his leverage over her would force her to do as he commanded. If she protested or dared to defy him, her two younger sisters would be the ones to suffer in her stead.
And she could never knowingly allow that.
Eleven years ago, when their mother, Elspaith, fled from their father’s brutal ways, Edina was only ten, Margaret was eight, and Skye was only five. Edina had been to them what her mother had never managed to be; their protector. She’d struggled to keep them safe from their father, taking blows that left her body and soul scarred. All to protect the two wee girls.
She made one last appeal to Michael.
“Ye’ve already taken almost all I must give, and now ye’re demanding the only things I am left with. My honor and my integrity.” She spat the words at him, not afraid of the blows she knew would be coming. “But mind this. If ye lay a finger on those girls, I’ll reveal yer treachery. This Taveon MacDonnell will be telling all he kens to the wrong ears, and it will be on yer head.”
He raised his hand again, laying a hard slap against her face, rocking her back on her heels. She cried out and raised her hand to her stinging cheek.
“Go,” he commanded. “Get out of my sight. Ye’ll be told when ye’re to escape. Ready yourself. Prepare a bundle of clothing; make it look like ye’ve hastily put it together. Ye’ll be leaving in nae over two days’ time.”
Edina nodded wearily.
“Ye’ll need to keep your wits about ye lass,” her father added. “I’ll nae be giving away the secret to the soldiers so, if they come in pursuit, ye and the Mackinnon will be on yer own.”
Edina turned slowly and walked through the door without saying anything. Once in her bedchamber, she let the tears she’d been holding in flow in a seemingly never-ending torrent. Drying her eyes, she was now confronted with the reality of her situation. She’d be leaving everything she’d ever known in two days. She was abandoning her sisters, whose safety depended on her now more than ever.
Staring out of the tiny slit in the thick stone walls that doubled as a window, Edina glimpsed the outside world. All she could make out through her weary, tear-filled eyes was a landscape blanketed with snow, dotted here and there, with leafless trees standing like gaunt skeletons pointing at the never-ending gray sky.
Stretched on his hard pallet, staring into the blackness, Errol MacKinnon was almost ready to succumb to despair. Lyall McPherson, the friend he’d met when the cart first transported them from Stirling, was snoring fast asleep. As the months rolled on, Errol had become certain that, by now, his older brother Blaine and the rest of his family would have given him up for dead. He knew that, by now, his two nieces, Blain’s daughters, would have forgotten what he looked like, but his longing to see them all again kept hope alive.
Nights were the worst when his thoughts looped back over his life, and he questioned every decision and choice he’d ever made. His heart ached at the thought that, by being captured, he’d let his brother down. Yet again.
Plagued by too many “what ifs,” he rolled on his side, closing his eyes, trying to transport himself in his dreams to a kinder place.
He was dozing, halfway to sleep, when he was jolted awake by the sound of light footsteps coming his way.
“Lyall,” he whispered into the darkness. But his cellmate’s snoring continued unabated. He’d fallen asleep almost instantly after eagerly consuming the unaccustomed pot of ale they’d been granted with their supper tonight, too much on his practically empty stomach.
Errol sat up. Those scurrying footsteps were hauntingly familiar. Did he imagine it, or was it the serving girl who came each night with their food? Was his longing playing tricks on him, making him believe the only source of lightness and beauty in this godforsaken place was with him again? Had he finally taken leave of his senses?
He froze, ears straining. No. He wasn’t dreaming. Someone was here. But why? If it was the girl, what in hell was she doing here at night?
After rising quietly, he stumbled to the front of his cell. Hearing a rustling close by, he peered into the blackness, able to make out the indeterminate shape of a figure standing close by and a hand squeezed between the bars holding something. Almost sightless, he groped along the bars until his hands finally contacted the bunched-up fabric. All at once he understood. Someone was attempting to push a bundle of clothing into his cell.
He grabbed the fabric and pulled the clothes through into the cell. “What in hell…?”
A soft voice beside him whispered, “Hush, Errol. It’s Edina.”
It is her. So, I finally learned her name is Edina—a pretty name for a pretty lass.
“Edina, lass. What are ye doing here? And what are these clothes ye’ve given me? Do ye wish me to undress for ye?”
He heard her gasp and pictured those soft cheeks of hers turning pink.
“Errol, this isnae the time for yer wicked jokes.”
“Och, and why would that be so?” he teased. “Ye come to my cell in the dead of night with a fresh change of clothes. What am I to think?”
“Shush yer thoughts. Ye must put on the clothes I’ve brought. I’ve come to release ye from yer cell. But we must hurry. Make haste. It won’t do for ye to be abroad in yer prisoner’s clothes. Besides, ye’d soon freeze. It’s a braw night, and ye’ll need to keep yersel’ warm.”
He registered the tension building in her voice and guessed she was frightened half to death.
“But why…? he began, his heart hammering against his ribcage.
Since he awoke in the jolting cart as they made their way north from Stirling to Perth all those months ago, he had dreamed of such a moment.
“Nae now,” she muttered, “I’ll tell ye all once we’re away from this place.”
“I’ll nae leave my friend, Lyall,” he said. “Although he’s sleeping mighty sound at the moment.”
“We must leave him. I darenae take more than one of ye along with me.”
“But he is my friend. We’ve shared hardships. I cannae leave him.”
“Dinnae utter another word. I hear someone coming.” She pressed a soft finger against his lips, and his senses responded instantly, his pulse thrumming. This was the first gentle touch he’d felt since he farewelled his family back on Mull, going on for four years ago.
The outer door creaked loudly open, followed by the ominous sounds of men clattering down the stairs.
“It’s the guards,” Edina whispered, quietly inserting the key to unlock his cell. She opened it and slipped inside, melting into the darkness beside him.
They stood together in silence, hardly daring to breathe, while the two guards paced along the row between the cells holding their lanterns high. Edina shuffled closer behind Errol, clinging to his waist, keeping well out of sight. He smiled to himself at the feel of her soft body pressed so tight against him.
All was quiet, and the two guards retraced their steps, satisfied that nothing in the dungeons was out of place. They continued up the stairs and out the door. The sound of the key turning in the lock came loud and clear, and darkness once again cloaked the cells.
“For God’s sake. They’ve locked it,” Errol said. “We’re trapped.”
“Nae, dinnae fash,” Edina replied. “I have another set of keys that will let us go on our way. The guards must have seen the door open at the top of the stairs and come to check. We’ll not see them again. They’ll be gone for the night.” She thrust the bundle of clothes into his hand. “Ye must hurry.”
He went to take the clothing but was startled by a terrified squeak from Edina.
“Lassie,” he said, fearful she’d been hurt. “What ails ye?”
She danced from foot to foot, groaning, “My God, do something, Errol. Please.”
“Something crawled on my foot. It’s a rat. I’m sure of it.”
Errol couldn’t contain a chuckle. “We share our cell with legions of rats,” he said, making her squeak again, more loudly this time. “I cannae believe ye’re more scared of a wee mouse than ye were of the guards. After all, no rat has ever threatened me with a sword.”
She flung her arms around his neck. “Oh, Errol, I cannae bide rats. They make me sick to my stomach.”
He grabbed her, lifting her off the floor in his powerful embrace, laughing softly. “I’ll keep ye safe from those monster rats, lassie, but ye must hush or ye’ll wake the others.”
She moaned, clinging to him even more tightly. “Is it still there?”
He made a show of peering through the darkness. The sound of the rat’s scrabbling had stopped, and all seemed clean.
“Aye, lass. He’s returned to his wee family through the hole in the wall.” He lowered her to the floor, still trembling. “Now, if we’re to leave this place, ye’d best let me change my clothes.”
Even though it was pitch black in the cell, he sensed her modestly turning her back as he yanked the soiled prison shirt over his head. His clothes stank, and he wished he’d been able to splash some water on himself to clean up a little before changing into the freshly laundered clothes.
He put on the breeches she’d given him. They were a little baggy around the waist, and he realized he was much thinner than he had been when they first brought him there. But what else could he expect after months of eating nothing but gruel, stale bread, and the occasional lump of cheese?
He reached for the next garment, a shirt, noting with surprise the feel of fine linen against his skin. Next, he donned the woolen tunic and fastened the belt around his waist, hoping it would keep those loose trews from falling off. He knotted a scarf at his neck. “I’m done, ye can open yer eyes now and, ye’ll nae be offended by my nakedness.”
He heard a tiny hitch of breath in Edina’s throat at his words. He pictured that pretty flush of pink in her cheeks blooming because of his teasing. She reached up and fastened a voluminous woolen cloak around him. “Ye’ll need this to keep the cold away.”
He bent, putting his feet into his boots.
“And what of Lyall? Have ye a bundle for him too?”
“We must leave him, Errol,” she said firmly.
“I cannae do that, Miss. He is my friend. I’ll nae abandon my friend.”
“Nae. It’s dangerous enough for one prisoner to make their way out of the cells at MacDuff castle. But two attempting to escape would be sure to bring the guards. One man can slip quietly into the shadows, making nae more sound than that wee mouse, but two men are twice as loud.”
“Nae. Lyall’s a soldier. He kens how to make himself invisible and move with stealth.”
“Oh, Errol,” she wailed quietly. “I ken ye want him to come with us, but truthfully, he willnae wake till morning.”
“What are ye saying?”
“Do ye recall the pot of ale I brought ye this evening?”
He huffed, his heart sinking. “Of course, I recall. It was the first ale to pass our lips since Stirling. I’ll nae forget that. Lyall was asleep only minutes after he’d downed it.”
“That was because I placed a sleeping draft in Lyall’s pot. I wanted to ensure he’d stay asleep when I came to free ye.”
Errol exhaled a long breath, waiting to let this discovery sink in. “Och. I understand. Ye decided Lyall must be the one to stay, and I must be the one to go.” He seized her arm, “But lassie, ye must tell me why ye chose me to be the one to set free.”
She paused and pried his fingers from her arm. “Nae. This is nae time for questions, Errol. We must be on our way. We’ve a long way to travel before daybreak when they discover ye’ve gone and send the soldiers after ye.”
His shoulders slumped. For whatever reason she may have had, the serving girl had released him. One thing was certain; if he dallied any longer, he was jeopardizing his escape. His heart ached at the thought of leaving his friend, but he vowed that once he’d found his way back to Mull and safety, he’d return to this place and grant Lyall McPherson his freedom.”
Without speaking another word, Edina turned the key in the cell door, and swung it open. The two of them crept into the darkness and felt their way to the stairs.
Once they’d fumbled their way to the top of the stairs, she unlocked the door, and they found themselves in the deserted Great Hall. With a finger to her lips, she signaled to Errol to follow as she made her way across the hall and along a passage. Eventually, the long corridor took them to a small door at the rear of the castle.
“This is the door the servants use. The guards rarely patrol it.”
They stepped through the doorway, finally taking their first steps to freedom. Errol rejoiced inwardly at the sharp sting of the icy air and the feel of a fresh breeze on his face. He scarcely had time to fill his lungs with the blessed, sweet, clear air before he heard running footsteps behind them.
He swiveled. Two guards rapidly closed in on them, drawing their swords as they ran.
Before they dashed to safety, the first man let loose with a hoarse cry.
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