Queen Among the Dead
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A dazzling fantasy inspired by the legend of the first true queen of ancient Ireland.
In the kingdom of Eire, banshees chill the air, and water-wights lurk in the rivers.
But the gods have abandoned the isle, and magic is jealously hoarded by the king’s Druid priests.
Neve is the forgotten youngest daughter of the king, and Ronan is a Druid’s apprentice turned thief, making a living by selling stolen spells. They should be enemies, but their shared hatred of the Druids—and a strange magic that has marked them both—makes them unlikely, if uneasy, allies.
When a shocking death throws the kingdom into chaos, Neve must seize the chance to take the throne, with the help of Ronan and the realm’s most dangerous outcasts. Their journey takes them to the outskirts of Eire where magic still runs free … and where an outlaw and a warrior princess might carve out a
future with spells and swords.
Lesley Livingston vividly reimagines Celtic legends and fairytales to craft a thrilling fantasy adventure that will captivate readers of Brigid Kemmerer and Tricia Levenseller.
Release date: January 17, 2023
Publisher: Zando Young Readers
Print pages: 412
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Queen Among the Dead
NEVE ANANN ERIU …”
The Dagda’s voice rolled like low thunder through the great stone gathering hall of his palace. The sound swept over Neve and she winced. Ruad Rofhessa, Dagda of the Tuatha Dé, only ever used his youngest daughter’s full name when he was furious with her. Although such occasions weren’t exactly uncommon.
“Give Lorcan back his tooth.”
Neve lifted her chin and gazed up at her father on his granite throne, flanked by a pair of tall, bronze carnyx, the wolf-headed war horns blown in times of strife to call the tuaths—tribes—to the field of battle. There was mud on Neve’s tunic and blood on her knuckles, but at least her cheeks were dry. The boy standing beside her had tear tracks staining his. And a blossoming purple bruise on his jaw.
The Dagda leaned forward, one massive hand clenched on the war club that was the emblem of his kingship, stained dark with ancient blood. “I thought we’d been over this.”
Neve opened her mouth to defend herself, but the Dagda heaved a sigh and waved her silent, slouching back in his throne as if he simply couldn’t summon the energy to sustain his anger. As if his mind was already turning to other matters. As if he was already somewhere else …
“There is to be no fighting, Neve,” he said.
“I wasn’t fighting. I was defending the honor of the Dagda’s mighty throne.”
“I have warriors and priests to perform that duty.” Ruad Rofhessa looked down at his daughter where she stood before the great hearth, a defiant gleam in her dark golden eyes. “You’ve seen ten whole circles of the seasons come and go. Next Samhain it will be eleven. You are almost a young woman now, Neve, and I expect you to start acting like the daughter of the Dagda and not like some brawling Faoladh she-devil.”
Neve bit her lip to keep from grinning at the comparison. The Faoladh were legendary women warriors devoted to the fearsome goddess Macha the Warbringer, and in ancient times they had been revered—and feared—throughout all of Eire for the mystical battle madness that was said to magically transform them into raging beasts.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Neve said, dipping her head in an effort to look sincere. “Lorcan, I’m sorry I knocked you down.”
“Twice,” Lorcan said.
“Three times,” she muttered under her breath. Then she lifted her head and smiled her best, most brilliant smile at him, extending a hand to clasp.
Lorcan warily reached out and the two gripped each other’s wrists. With that, Neve spun on the heel of her beaded sandal.
She stopped midstep and turned back around. “Yes, Father?”
“Give Lorcan back his tooth.”
“What tooth?” she asked innocently.
Lorcan held out his hand and she reluctantly dropped the bloody molar into his palm. Neve grinned.
“He told me it was loose yesterday. I was only helping.” She shrugged, her grin turning just a bit predatory.
The boy’s face flushed a deep shade of red as Neve spun back toward the massive gilded oak doors. This time no one stopped her from leaving. She headed to the wing of the palace where she shared a many-roomed apartment with her older sister, the crown princess Úna.
The sky overhead was an ominous shade of violet, the threatening promise of an approaching thunderstorm. The corridors were deserted by the time Neve shouldered open the carved ash-wood doors to her quarters.
“Where is your sandal? And why are you such a mess?” Úna’s perfectly shaped brows knit together beneath her silver circlet. “What happened?”
“I lost my sandal when I threw it at Lorcan’s head,” Neve told her. “I’m a mess because fighting is messy business. And I was fighting because the gods demanded it.”
Neve nodded and stripped off her one remaining leather sandal and her torn and dirt-stained tunic. “We were playing ‘invasion’ and stupid Lorcan told me I couldn’t win the battle because I was a girl and girls can’t fight,” she explained as she stalked toward an alabaster washbasin. “I proved him wrong and
now he is my sworn enemy. I wanted to offer his tooth to Khenti-Amentiu the wolf god of the Tuatha Dé in tribute because I am his favorite. But Father made me give it back …” Neve frowned, realizing her father had seemed more preoccupied than usual. “He’s going away again, isn’t he?” she asked Úna as she scrubbed Lorcan’s blood from her fingers and the courtyard dirt from her face.
“Not far.” Úna smiled at her gently. “And not for long. He’s going to the Great Barrow.”
“Pff. I don’t like that stupid pile of rocks.” Neve shrugged into a linen shift and combed her fingers through her damp hair. “I don’t like that architect. And every time Father comes back from there, I don’t like him.”
“Neve.” Úna sat up straight on the couch and her expression became serious. Her glance darted around the room, empty save for the two of them. Not even Úna’s bondswoman, Emer, was around to hear, but she lowered her voice anyway. “Listen to me and listen well. You cannot say things like that. Not ever. Not even to me. Gofannon isn’t just an architect. He’s a Druid and a very powerful man. There are things you don’t understand yet.”
Úna sighed and reached for a blue glass goblet full of mead set on a low table. Although just three years older than Neve, the Dagda’s firstborn already seemed as if she’d passed well beyond girlhood into womanhood. She took a delicate sip.
“Politics is one of those things,” she continued. “Power is another. Here in the halls of Temair, the two are inseparable, and one day your life may depend on how well you are able to navigate those twin rivers.”
Neve bit her tongue. She knew there was truth in what her sister said. The Druids were neither of the Fir Bolg peasant tribes nor from Neve’s own people, the Tuatha Dé, who ruled over them. But the Druids held sway over both, because the order of wandering priests had in recent years begun hoarding the ancient magic of the land. Magic that her father—at Gofannon’s urging—had decreed forbidden to any but the Order, and the decree was enforced harshly, even violently at times. Especially among the Fir Bolg, where even the smallest of magics made a harsh life just a bit more bearable.
Before Neve was even born, Gofannon came to court to become the Dagda’s chief architect and monument builder. As the story went, he’d once been a high Druid from the land of the Cymru, just across the Eirish Sea. Neve had heard whispers of deeds that had led to his banishment from that land, but she didn’t know whether to believe them or not. All she knew was that even in her father’s Great Hall with a fire blazing in the
hearth, the presence of the tall man with the red beard and the piercing blue eyes cast a tomb-like chill she could feel in her bones.
Still. Neve wasn’t afraid of him. Not really …
“Come on, my little wolf cub.” Úna rose and held out a hand to her sister. “Time for sleep. There’s a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon and I should think that after the day you’ve had, you’d need a bit of rest.”
“It’s still light out,” Neve muttered, then brightened. “When you’re Dagda, we can stay up all night. We’ll watch the moon sail across the sky until morning.”
Úna tilted her head and regarded her sister. “I can’t be the Dagda, Neve,” she said. “And neither can you. You know that.”
“You take the western half and I’ll take the eastern,” Neve continued, ignoring Úna. “Or the other way around. I don’t mind. I’ll command the óglach and protect us from invasions of hordes of beastly Fomori.” She propped herself up on her elbow and grinned at her sister. “The Horse Lords will breed magic horses for us swifter than the winds—just like in the old stories—and we’ll race our chariots from one shore to the other. It’ll be glorious.”
Úna rolled her eyes. “The Fomori were driven from the land by our ancestors,” she said. “If they ever truly did exist. They’re just a story now, told to frighten little children. And the Dagda’s horses are already the swiftest in the land. Without any magic at all.”
“You’re starting to sound like that horrid old Gofan—” Neve’s mouth snapped shut at the stern look Úna gave her. “Never mind …”
“Go to sleep, Neve.” Úna padded over to her own couch. “Then you can dream all you want about donning armor and driving dreadful beast people all the way back across the water.”
That was a dream Neve would welcome, she thought as she flopped on her side. But Neve was flush with her resounding victory over Lorcan and sleep eluded her like a wily fox.
“Girls can’t fight,” he’d taunted her. She’d shown him. The most famous fighters in all the old stories were girls. Warriors like the Scathach Queen herself. And her greatest adversaries, the Faoladh, a secret sisterhood of Fomori warriors, the last of their kind, who long ago wielded their shape-shifting powers on the field of battle to devastating effect.
Outside the wind began to moan and the sound of it made her restless. She climbed silently out of bed. Carrying a pair of plain sandals, she slipped out, padding silently through the winding breezeways to a disused stable yard overgrown with ivy. A forgotten place and Neve’s secret refuge within the palace walls.
Lorcan was standing just inside the gate as if he’d been expecting her.
“You were going to keep my tooth,” he snapped, round face flushed.
Neve snorted at his attempt to look menacing.
“What if I died? What if the Druids’d had to stick me in a barrow without it? What if they’d buried me without all my parts?”
“Then I suppose your soul-wraith would have wandered the afterlife looking as ridiculous as you do now,” she said.
“At least I’m not so ugly that my own mother tried to drown me!” Lorcan spat.
Neve felt the blood drain from her cheeks and she rocked back a step.
“You take that back, Lorcan,” she gasped. “Take it back! Or I’ll—”
“You’ll what?” The boy’s face was blotched crimson. “Look at you! No wonder the queen left Temair in shame. She wanted to give the mighty Dagda a son. You’ll never be a warrior. It’s hard to believe you’re even Tuatha Dé!”
Neve felt as though she’d been punched in the stomach. And this time, she couldn’t make herself punch back. She spun on her heels and pelted across the deserted yard toward the gate leading to the royal stables, Lorcan’s mockery ringing in her ears. Neve grabbed the halter of her favorite mare and threw a leg over the pony’s bare back, setting her heels to its flanks and urging it to run, out into the wide fields beyond the walls of Temair.
The storm was nearly upon them before Neve had even reached the farthest edge of the necropolis to the north. Barrow graves rose up like blisters from the green land all around her, lifeless and foreboding. Grass and dirt, driven by the wind, clung to the tear tracks on Neve’s cheeks as the last dim light of the sun faded and the shadowed hills turned the color of old, dark blood. She cast a blurred glance skyward at the dark clouds filled with the bull-headed sky god Taranis’s wrath. Storms like this could sometimes last for hours or even days, and if she was caught outside in it, the hailstones could flay the skin from her bones.
She didn’t care.
It isn’t true! Lorcan’s a liar …
Neve knew the story like she knew her own name. The bards sang of it! On the night of her birth, a ban sidhe demon had crept over the palace walls and spirited her away, hurling her out into the dark waters of An Bhóinn, where she would have drowned, were it not for the divine will of the gods. Of course
she’d heard snatches of hideous court gossip. The whispers that it was Queen Anann herself who’d thrown her child into the river. But no one had ever dared utter those filthy lies in Neve’s presence.
Neve buried her tear-streaked face in her pony’s shaggy mane as it ran.
A monster tried to kill me that night. Not my mother …
“No!” The pony, already skittish with the storm, reared to a stop in the lee of a barrow and tossed its head, snorting and stamping. Neve slid from its back, sobbing, and fell to her knees. “It wasn’t her! It was a ban sidhe …”
The tears spilling down her cheeks splashed the front of her tunic and vanished into the earth. The sound of her weeping echoed off stones and turf. Neve should have known better than to weep on Dead Ground. Known better than to utter those words, like a summoning.
She fell silent as the storm winds shrieked and the long grasses in front of her began to spin, funneling up from the ground, coalescing into the grotesque, ghoulish shape of a ban sidhe demon. Its eyes burned with pale green fire and its gaping mouth was a cavernous maw, hungry to devour her soul.
“Neeeve Anaaannn Eriiuuu …”
Neve screamed and clapped her hands over her ears as the wraith’s voice tore at her mind like teeth and claws, ravaging the sound of her name. The sky turned black as pitch. She would die there, she knew, alone among the dead, and no one would ever know what happened to her.
As fate would have it, she wasn’t alone.
THE BARROW GROUNDS hadn’t seen another living soul that day, except for one.
At thirteen years old, Ronan was still lean and wiry enough to be able to cut away a square of turf, shift a stone or two, and navigate the passageways of most of the tombs without leaving behind obvious signs of desecration.
This evening, the boy’s leather satchel bulged with a cache of stone fragments carved with spells and prayers that he’d liberated from the tomb of the recently interred chief óglach—leader of the Dagda’s own personal guard. The boy felt no twinge of remorse over the pillaging. The man was dead—and, by all accounts, had been of an odious disposition—so what need had he of incantations? At least, that’s what the lad told himself.
The óglach’s tomb had been rich and stoutly constructed, the stones cunningly laid, and it had taken some doing to get in and out again, even for a practiced tomb robber. Now, with a storm coming on fast over the hills, Ronan decided against a trek back to Blackwater Town, where he shared a hut with a handful of river rats and outcasts. Instead, he stashed his pickaxe and spoils in a half-finished cairn he found, then curled up, sheltered by stone and earth, to wait out the deluge.
As the sun sank below the horizon and the winds began to howl, he heard a noise.
A thin, high shriek that raised his hackles.
Ronan poked his head out of the depression where he hid and, shielding his eyes from the biting gale, peered into the purple-tinged gloom. About thirty paces off to his left, there was a small shape cowering before a whirlwind rising up from the ground.
A wash of poison-green light spilled out over the barrows, and a terrifying wail erupted. The boy saw the hunched shape throw an arm up in defense and realized it was a young girl crouching in front of what looked like … a ban sidhe demon.
Ronan swore under his breath.
One scrawny urchin missing from the muddy streets of Blackwater wasn’t his problem. But a ban sidhe on the loose with a taste for fresh blood is, he thought. Or, at least, it will be if I don’t do something.
He’d never actually seen a real demon before, but—having studied under the harsh tutelage of the Druid priests since he could barely walk—he knew the wraith would feed on any living thing it came into contact with and, unchecked, grow stronger and more deadly. Just like the thunderstorm bearing down on the valley. Eventually, the Druids would have to be called upon to banish the ban sidhe back to its forsaken realm.
And, in the meantime, that would cut into his profits. Maybe even his life expectancy …
The girl screamed again. Ronan raked his fingers through his dark hair in frustration, then dropped back down into the dugout. He reached for his satchel and rifled through his bounty of sharp-edged stone strips, careful not to nick his fingertips. Spilling even a drop of blood into that bag full of magic would have been … unwise.
As he’d pilfered spells from the óglach’s barrow earlier that evening, he’d noticed that one of them had borne the mark of a fuath—a particularly nasty kind of water demon whose name literally meant “hate”—which, under normal circumstances, was not something to be trifled with. And even if the boy were reckless enough to want to trifle, the barrows were too far from any water source normally required for a successful conjuring. But circumstances that night were hardly normal.
As Ronan held the spell stone up in front of his face, and the girl screamed again, the skies opened up and the fury of the thunderstorm poured down upon them both.
Plenty enough water.
Now, all he needed was the hate.
Ronan peered at the slashes and knots chiseled on the stone and hissed through his teeth to think that some “mourner” had placed such a vile spell stone in someone’s grave. Designed not to soothe or protect, but to torment the soul of the barrow’s inhabitant. It would fetch him a good price if he sold it in the dark market of Blackwater Town—
Focus! Time enough to think about profit later. If he managed to survive.
“Good thing I’m a quick study,” he muttered, scanning the lines of symbols. The incantation was crafted with a complexity beyond what the boy had learned from the Druid priests. “I hope …”
Lightning lashed the underbellies of the thunderheads as Ronan heaved himself up out of the trench and ran, throwing himself in front of the girl right as the ban sidhe demon lunged for her.
The demon’s taloned hand scraped Ronan’s shoulder, sending agony rippling down his arm. The girl shouted a startled warning, and the sound was enough to distract the monster for an instant—barely—but a string of word shapes plucked from the carvings on the spell stone was already forming on the boy’s tongue and in his mind.
“Fuath!” he cried, his voice cracking. “Hear my summons, Hated and Hating!”
Above Ronan’s head, the torrential rain twisted into tortured skeins, winding and weaving into a monstrous shape—half horse, half serpent, all malevolence—a feral creature of darkness and evil. Rage given form and purpose. A shriek split the air as Ronan’s conjuring became reality, and the fuath’s head canted on its sinewy neck, fixing a baleful glare on the boy. Ronan knew in that moment he was meddling with forces beyond what even a skilled Druid should. He wasn’t even quite sure how he’d managed it. But he had, and he only had a moment to act.
He swallowed the tight knot of fear in his throat. Now, to set the fuath upon the ban sidhe like a hungry beast on a baited trap, he thought. With any luck at all, the two demons would duel to their mutual destruction.
“Obey my command!” he shouted. “Release your fury on one deserving of it!”
Ronan swept his arm in the direction of the ban sidhe as it loomed over the girl. The fuath shrieked again and charged. The ban sidhe’s head whipped around, green-fire eyes peeled wide, howling as the ghostly serpent-horse bore down on it. Flickering veins of indigo darklight raced across the fuath’s sickly pale,
scaley hide, crackling in its mane and tail as it pawed at the air and reared back to strike at the ban sidhe.
In that moment, the boy ran for the girl and grabbed her by the wrist, yanking her out of the way of the two spectral combatants. They ran, stumbling, across the grass, slamming into a moss-robed stone. The boy threw his arm up to shield them from both storm and spells and, in the gloom, he saw the girl’s face—a handsbreadth from his—and was caught, suddenly. Snared like a rabbit in the circles of her dark golden eyes.
She stared back at him as large glistening tears spilled down her cheeks. Without thinking, Ronan reached up and caught them on the pads of his thumbs.
“Stop that!” he said. “Do you want to summon another one?”
Then he squeezed his fists shut around his thumbs. He stared in wonder as her tears sizzled and vanished, sending tiny flares of indigo light sparking between his fingers. In that very same moment, the ban sidhe shrieked and exploded into nothingness and a sudden void of silence.
The girl’s mouth fell open, and Ronan blinked in astonishment at the demon’s sudden demise. His masters had always told him that strong human emotions—manifested in blood or tears or even, sometimes, sweat—were keys to unlocking powerful enchantments. At least they were safe now. From the ban sidhe, at least …
The fuath was another matter. Ronan tensed as he felt the flickering threads of the enchantment that held the demon bound—just barely—to his will begin to fray. The bonds were snapping, one by one, and in another moment, the boy’s own conjuring would turn and devour them both.
“Run!” Ronan scrambled back as the serpent-horse struck at him. Missed shattering his skull by a hairsbreadth. Reared back to strike again—
And then, suddenly, the girl was there.
With a shout, she brought down Ronan’s pickaxe with all her strength onto the serpent-horse’s head. The boy watched, frozen, as the sharp iron spike pierced between the thing’s eyes, stabbing down through the roof of its gaping mouth.
The fuath shrieked and writhed …
And shattered into sparkling dust blown away by a gust of wind.
Ronan collapsed onto his knees. The thunderstorm quieted down all around them as if it, too, had been fueled by some kind of demon energy now banished. Ronan offered up a brief heartfelt prayer to whatever god watched over blacksmiths. Iron was not only an exceptionally rare commodity but also one of
the only material elements that could disrupt a magical conjuring. That morning, Ronan had, on impulse, stolen the pickaxe—a fine tool, clearly intended for a rich patron—from a blacksmith’s hut on his way to the necropolis. He offered up a second prayer to the protector of thieves.
“How …,” he panted, “how did you know that iron would disrupt the fuath spell?”
The girl shook her head, equally winded. “I didn’t,” she said. “I just thought I’d try hitting it with something sharp.”
The two of them looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“What’s your name?” he asked when their laughter subsided.
When the girl hesitated, he held out his hand.
“I’m Ronan,” he said. “Apprentice Druid priest. One day I’ll practice real magic in the stone temples and oak groves, and I’m going to have to remember that fuath spell. It’s a good one.”
“You’ll have to get it right if you want to serve the gods,” she answered, but not in a dismissive way. Just sort of matter-of-factly, as if she believed that one day he actually might. “I’m Neve,” she said, reaching for his wrist. “And if you ever tell anyone ever that I was crying, I’ll summon another demon and command it to drag you down into the darkness and fires of Teg Duinn.”
He stared at her and she turned away.
“Now where’s my pony gone?” She put her fingers to her lips to whistle. There was an answering neigh from behind the near barrow, and she started in that direction.
As he watched her go, Ronan felt a sharp sting pulsing on his palm and glanced down to see a thin line of crimson welling up. A few paces away, he found the fuath spell stone lying in the grass where he’d dropped it. His heart stopped cold when he realized that the shard bore a bright trickle of blood along its jagged edge.
Ronan held it up in front of his face, not daring to move or speak or even think until the rain had washed the stone clean.
When he looked around, Ronan realized he stood all alone in the darkness and the dying storm. No girl, no demons.
It would be many years before he would see either girl or demon again. And when he did, Ronan would come to realize that once he’d managed to conjure one, the other would soon follow.
THE THIEF SMILED disarmingly. “Forgive me, but … have we met?”
Neve’s gaze flicked from the young man’s face, framed by wavy black hair tied back in a tail, down to the laces of his worn sandals. He was half a head taller than she was and wore only a tunic and simple woolen kilt with a travel bag slung across his chest. There was nothing in particular that would mark him as different from any other peasant. Still, she knew he was a thief—not because of how he was dressed, but because she had just watched him expertly cut a coin purse from another man’s belt while the man haggled over a bolt of brightly checkered cloth at a market stall.
She tilted her head as she regarded him. “I can’t imagine under what circumstance I would have ever come into contact with the likes of you, thief.”
“I’m a thief?” he asked. “You’re the one holding the knife and demanding money.”
“Is stealing from a thief really stealing?” Neve grinned and tightened her grip on the blade that she held against the thief’s throat. “Now hand over your coins.”
The long walk to the bustling marketplace of the town of Blackwater had made Neve thirsty for a tall mug of cool mead but she didn’t have any money. Why should she? She was a princess. She had no need of coins. Unless, of course, she’d sneaked out of her father’s palace without permission that morning … which was why she’d followed the thief and his purse of ill-gotten coins and cornered him in this alley.
Neve slid the blade right up under the point of his jaw, where she could see his pulse beating rapidly and looked him directly in the face.
“Wait!” he gasped. “We have met—I remember now. I remember your eyes. It was years ago and there was a storm
rising. You were little and scrawny and your name was, uh … Neve!”
“You are,” he interrupted her, something Neve wasn’t used to. “You were. I’d spent that day, uh, selling prayers for the dead at the necropolis. You were crying and there was a—”
The knife bit into his throat. Enough to draw blood and a hiss of pain from between his teeth.
“I don’t cry.”
“That’s what you said that night.” The thief swallowed, the muscles of his throat moving against the edge of the blade. “You see? I do know you, Neve—”
He blinked, his jaw drifting open. “Prin … cess …”
“Everyone knows me.” She grinned coldly at him. “I’m the daughter of the Dagda. Beloved of the Wolf. She for whom the sun sets and the moon rises—”
“You told me you’d kill me if I ever told anyone!” he interrupted her again. “About you weeping. And I didn’t.” The thief shook his head, as much as the blade at his throat would let him. “I mean, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had, because I didn’t know who you were then. You neglected to mention the princess part.” He glanced down at her knife and then back up to her face. “Princess Neve. I kept your secret. Surely that counts for something, right?”
Neve looked at him more closely. His eyes were a stormy shade of dark gray—flecked with silver like the blade of her fine iron dagger—and his face … his face had lost the childish softness of that night. He’d been young then, too, and she had cried in front of him, she remembered.
“… Ronan …”
Behind the shock of black hair that fell in front of his face, Ronan’s gray eyes went wide with surprise. “You do remember,” he said. He smiled, but Neve could discern a hint of wariness in the expression. “That’s flattering.”
“It was a rather memorable occasion,” she said. “You just happened to be there.”
“To save your life. You’re welcome.”
Neve suppressed a shiver as a long-submerged fragment of that night drifted to the surface of her memory—of the ban sidhe, the pale-green fire in its empty eye sockets and the ghostly hands reaching for her. ...
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