Highlander’s Sinister Bet (Preview)
The castle was filled with the quiet snores of both the men and the women who lived therein. It was still the twilight of the morning with barely any light from the skies or reason for anyone to be awake, but one was awake.
Standing alone in the courtyard of the castle, a hooded figure raised a catapult high up and aimed at the castle. In its hold was a rock. Pulling as far back as the little weapon could handle, the figure let it loose to do their bidding. The rock traveled the air, rising high and fast, with intent to do only harm, to kill.
Daividh’s eyes flung open the instant the rock hit his lintel and was redirected for his head. His still drowsy body sprang into action and he rolled off his bed onto the floor before the rock hit where his head had lay.
He made a quick grab for his trusty sword which was always by his bed, before his eyes quickly read the situation about him.
Someone had thrown a rock or shot a rock through his window with the intent only to do him harm. Daividh could not tell whether his assailant had simply been lucky or an expert marksman but he wasn’t too particular about that detail. Someone had tried to kill him in his sleep and his only instinct was to kill before his assailant had another chance to do the same to him.
His hands moved quickly to his bow and quiver of arrows. Putting two arrows between his lips, he loaded an arrow into his bow and moved towards his window.
Where are ye? Daividh muttered under his breath as he moved closer to the window. He peeked quickly but found the courtyard empty. His second thought had been the other castle window opposite his but the trajectory was wrong. Whoever had attacked him had done it from below.
Readying himself to shoot, Daividh revealed himself by his window with his bow at the ready. But there was no one.
Standing by his window with his heart pounding in his chest, Daividh, the heir of Clan MacDougall, waited for the wind to make a sound that he might release his arrow but there was no one. It was no ghost, he knew this. There were no ghosts in the castle walls.
Where are ye? Daividh wanted to yell. His body shook with seething anger at the one he could not see. Come out and face me if ye dare. But there was no one. His assailant had scrammed.
After waiting a long while, he gave up and came away from his window. He dropped his bow and arrows hard on the floor in frustration. No one could dare lay a finger on him and yet, someone had dared him and had escaped unpunished. For this reason, the heir found no sleep until the first cock crow.
Naomhan MacDougall and his wife Elsa sat at their table waiting on their son. It was unusual of Daividh to be late for breakfast.
“A loss of the heart does that to a man,” Elsa joked.
However, only she and her stepdaughter Kyla laughed. Naomhan was a strict man who found little love for humor. He had high expectations of his son of which he expected all to be met.
“Why does he act this way? He is to be the Laird MacDougall after me,” Naomhan said as he always did whenever Daividh did wrong.
“There must be a reason he is late, Father.” Kyla tried to pacify her father. Without her efforts, she expected an all out spat between her father and brother. They were both hot-headed men and that pitted them against one another more times than it brought them together.
“It isnae yer place to make excuses for him. He is a man,” Naomhan argued.
Elsa looked to her stepdaughter, telling her with her eyes to quit her attempt at pacifying her father. She had learnt a long while back to be quiet with the MacDougall men when they were close to anger.
“He will be down in a moment. I have sent someone up to his chambers,” Elsa said. Though she wasn’t the biological mother to Naomhan’s children, both Daividh and Kyla treated her as though she was their mother and they addressed her accordingly amongst subjects and their father, Naomhan.
Nothing more was said at the table. But it was not over still. Naomhan did not touch his meal and that meant both women could not, not yet. He waited still for his son. So, the women waited also.
Daividh came down the stairs weary still from his lack of sleep. His eyes were bloodshot and he could barely feel his limbs quite right. His body screamed from lack of rest but he understood that his father was waiting for him and predicted rightfully his anger.
“Mornin’, Father. Mornin’, Mother. Mornin’, Sister,” Daividh said nonchalantly, as he came to the dining room. He sat in his seat opposite his father without a word and without looking at his father’s face.
“Ye have nothin’ more to say?” Naomhan asked his son.
Daividh looked up at his father looking clueless at the meaning of his question. Kyla buried her head in her hands knowing as Daividh did that his nonchalance would anger their father.
“A man must always answer for his actions. How dae ye want to become a laird if ye shrug at all yer actions?”
Daividh mumbled something inaudible and Kyla buried her face deeper in her hands.
“What did ye say?” Naomhan’s voice grew louder.
“It is nothin’, Father. I apologize for comin’ to breakfast late,” Daividh decided to say.
Everybody at the table knew that wasn’t an answer that the Laird McDougal would accept.
“I asked why ye slept late like a man with nay work to dae.”
Daividh gritted his teeth. He was tired and found himself spoiling for an argument with his strict father and his rules, but he knew how an argument would affect his stepmother and his sister. They disliked arguments and raised voices, and he wasn’t set on upsetting them.
“A rock was shot into me chambers in the wee hours of the mornin’. If I hadnae moved, it would have struck me head,” Daividh finally replied.
He kept his eyes from his mother who he did not want to worry.
“A rock was thrown into yer chamber. Did ye come to see the person who shot it?” she asked him, obviously agitated.
Naomhan’s frown greased up when he noticed his wife’s worried face.
“Who throws rocks? A child ’haps,” Naomhan said.
He put his hand on hers and gave her a little squeeze. However, she did not turn to him. Her worried gaze only saw Daividh.
“Nay, Mother, as Father said, it must have been some child,” Daividh lied, seeing his father’s warning face. They both cared for her and neither wanted her worried about anything.
“Or Alison,” Kyla muttered under her breath.
Daividh sighed loudly and that seemed to reduce the tension at the table greatly.
Elsa smiled. She often mocked her stepson for it, for getting dumped by his old love interest, Alison. Even Naomhan, who had thought it disappointing that his heir had been turned down by a woman, always found Daividh’s reaction to the mention of Alison’s name funny.
“I think nae. She has nay reason to attack Daividh. She left him, did she nae?” Elsa asked her partner-in-crime Kyla.
“Nay, mother, Daividh says he left her. Me brother is the most handsome man in all of Scotland. He could have the Queen if he wanted her for himself,” Kyla mocked.
Daividh took his meal in his hand and walked away from the table. He thought his father would have ordered him to take his seat but he did not stop him. He looked back at his father and the pair exchanged a knowing look; they would speak about the rock later. It was the latest in a string of strange happenings.
Daividh loved his family for all his accused ego and hotheadedness but he did not fancy being the butt of a joke. He had his breakfast alone.
Glenn was always better company. He was Daividh’s best friend and confidant. However, even he knew little about the breakup between Daividh and Alison.
“Why did she leave ye?” Glenn had asked him when it had still been fresh.
“I left her,” Daividh had answered.
Alison’s words to Glenn had been different, however. In cases of breakups, the man was more likely the liar. Men were not natural liars but their egos pushed them to protect themselves from being termed weak. Of all the men that Glenn knew, none had an ego as big as Daividh’s.
“Ye look dead, me friend. What happened to ye?” Glenn asked the moment he saw Daividh that morning. Training with the men was an event that he didn’t miss and Glenn had expected him. He hadn’t, however, expected him to look as he did.
Daividh had not had much sleep that day, not after the rock and not after his breakfast either. So, he waited, expecting sleep to catch him off guard later in the day.
“Ye are nae me friend only to speak ill of me, are ye?” Daividh asked him. He leaned against the wall at the entrance of the training grounds. From the door, which was left ajar, they could hear the men banter each other lightly with words, fists, and even swords.
“Nay, nay, I am on yer side, always on yer side, even when ye go amiss,” Glenn replied with a grin on his face. He was the only person save for family that could speak to Daividh that way and get away with no punishment or scolding.
Daividh looked at Glenn but said nothing. He could never truly stay angry at him.
“What happened to ye, though? I am worried,” Glenn repeated the question.
Daividh’s face was shrouded in a frown but it wasn’t at the question. He was worried greatly about something.
“Tell me,” Glenn urged him still.
Daividh looked around to be sure they were alone. Satisfied, he leaned in. “I think someone might be tryin’ to kill me,” Daividh confided in his friend.
Glenn was taken aback by Daividh’s words but he kept silent still to allow Daividh speak more.
“I woke up early this mornin’ to the sound of a rock coming in me window. Someone was tryin’ to shoot at me. If I hadnae rolled off the bed quick enough, the rock would have struck me head,” Daividh told him. Even as he spoke, his eyes darted around.
“But it was just some rock. It could have been a child or-” Daividh’s glare stopped his train of words, so he changed “-did ye see the person who shot at ye?” Glenn asked him. He leaned into the wall. To an outsider, he looked relaxed, but Daividh could see the calculations going on in his head through his eyes.
Daividh shook his head.
“But ’tis just a rock. ’Haps it was one of the maids who fancy ye tryin’ to call ye,” Glenn said and Daividh smiled.
“Ah!” Glenn exclaimed and patted his friend on the shoulder.
“Nay, ’tis nae the first time, Glenn. Remember the servant that was killed? He stepped on a tampered wooden stair step that I would have stepped on. That is nae all. A few days ago, someone cut the string of me bow. I was huntin’ a wild boar and the string broke when I tried to kill it. The vexed boar came at me. I am lucky I had a knife lest-”
“The Great Daividh MacDougall would have been killed by a boar.” Glenn spoke too loudly and Daividh had to put his hand over his friend’s mouth.
“Lower yer tone lest she hears ye,” Daividh said to Glenn.
Up until that moment, Glenn had not noticed Kyla’s approach. Both men straightened up as she came to them, and smiled at her.
“I daenae want to ken what ye two are doin’,” Kyla said, before she turned solely to her brother, “If mother asks of me, tell her I went off to the market.”
“I will,” Daividh told her. Kyla nodded her thanks and waved to Glenn before heading to her carriage. Daividh turned Glenn’s face away from his sister immediately so he could not watch her go.
“She will wed a man when the time comes and ye wouldnae be able to stop her,” Glenn told him.
“But I will ken that I protected her from ye.” He glared at his friend.
Glenn shook his head but decided to change the subject. “Have ye told yer father about the rock and yer bow?” Glenn asked him.
“I told me father and mother about the rock but I didnae wish to worry them. Ye ken me mother,” Daividh said, and Glenn nodded with understanding.
He knew how much Daividh cared about her and would do anything to protect her. He would kill anyone who hurt her and his sister. For all of Daividh’s ego and hot temper, he was soft with the women in his life.
“Yer mother spoke of Alison?” Glenn asked. Daividh’s sigh was funny and adequate to answer his question.
“What truly happened between the two of ye?” Glenn asked him.
“She said I was arrogant, that I never listened to her, never spent time with her- I’ll just speak of somethin’ else,” Daividh said dismissively.
Glenn’s eyes judged him as he spoke.
“What is amiss with ye?” Daividh asked him.
“Were her words nae true?” Glenn asked.
Daividh walked away from the conversation and Glenn hurried after him. They moved further away from the training room.
“Women need a lot of things, Daividh. Ye have to give them yer time. Ye have to be the babe and the wolf-”
“I need nae hear about things like that. Ye sound like me ma,” Daividh cut him off, “Whatever ye all choose to believe, I care nae. I daenae feel sad because she is gone. I am glad even. I can have whichever woman I want, so why shall I be sad for the loss of one?”
“Ye can make any woman fall in love with ye?” Glenn asked, repeating Daividh’s meaning.
His eyes began to glow with mischief. Had Daividh not been so involved, he would have noticed the bait his friend was laying out for him.
“Aye, is there a woman that would nae desire me?”
Glenn kept his mischievous smile to himself lest his words came out too soon.
“We shall see if there is any truth to yer words,” Glenn said before he pulled Daividh to his side and pointed at a woman a few meters away from them. “I dare ye to make her fall in love with ye. If ye dae, then I shall believe ye. If ye daenae accept, then I shall think ye a coward. But ken that if she doesnae fall in love with ye, then ye shall walk naked around the castle. That is all I ask.”
Daividh was quiet for a moment as he regarded her, she who Glenn had singled out as his wager. He did not fret about the bet or the consequence for his failure for he did not imagine himself failing. He had never failed in the past, and Alison had been an exception that he did not regard as worthy of being numbered alongside his conquests.
“Six weeks,” Glenn added, “I give ye six weeks or ye walk naked.” Glenn could hardly contain his grin.
“Who is she?” Daividh asked him. He was certain he had seen her around the castle before, but he could not remember much about it as they had not exchanged words.
“Lorraine, she is Mairi’s daughter and some say she is off her head.”
Mairi was the midwife who had birthed his sister from his late mother. He knew Mairi but did not know her children and especially not her daughter, Lorraine.
Though he could not see her well from the distance, he could tell that she had a lovely stature, curvy even though she was slim, and her hair was enviously long and black. It was also easy to see why people thought she was ‘off head’. She wore pants, which was largely unconventional. This intrigued Daividh even more than he had thought it would.
“In six weeks, ye shall be on yer knees beggin’ me for yer words,” Daividh swore to Glenn.
Lorraine walked past the courtyard and took a deep breath before she walked into the palace. The gourd she carried became her main source of concentration. She respected her Laird and respected the castle as every member of the clan did but if she could, she would eliminate the need to ever to step into the castle. There were too many people who stared as she walked.
“’Tis alright, Lorraine,” she muttered to herself even as she walked to the chamber she was expected in. “Ye only have to drop off these herbs for yer ma.”
Lorraine’s mother was the castle’s midwife. Before her ma, her grandma had been the castle’s midwife. It was just another way she had turned her ma’s expectations to naught. Rather than learn the craft of midwifery, she had opted to be a healer. Her ma had been horrified. Who was to carry the family legacy? Luckily, it was one of the few times her pa had deigned to intervene with their arguments.
“The lass has got the gift, Mairi. Leave her be,” he had said, and for all of her ma’s stubbornness, she had never contested a word of her pa’s.
Gently, she knocked on the door. Her mother threw the door open moments later. “Ye are a dear.” She snatched the gourd from her hands and slammed the door before Lorraine could get a word in.
Lorraine could only smile. Only one who dealt with human health would understand how tasking and full of stress it was. Her poor ma had probably not seen her at all. Every bit of concentration she had was reserved for the pregnant woman and her expected babe. It was a miracle she had managed to thank her even.
The first part of her task was done. She had successfully entered into the castle and dropped off the herbs. Now, it was left to exit as quietly as she had come in.
“Lorraine!” The call came from down the chamber hall.
Lorraine swore under her breath. With an increased pace, she made for the exit. Perhaps whoever it was would let her be.
“Lorraine!” The call came again, louder this time.
With a resigned sigh, she stopped and turned around with a plastered smile on her face.
“Thank God I caught ye.” It was Sarah, a friend of her childhood.
“Sarah. ’Tis lovely to see ye.” She and Sarah were aged the same; twenty and three years, but Sarah had married one of the guards of the castle when she had turned eighteen.
“Aye. ’Tis been many days. Ye are well, I hope?”
“I was on the way to your cottage. ’Tis Dan. He burned hot the whole night.”
“What have you tried?” she asked, feeling guilty. She had been trying to avoid the poor woman.
“I tried to offset his fever with a wet rag. It came to naught,” she said, a worried look crossing her face.
“Has he had the cold recently?”
“Aye,” she nodded, “I forbade him from playin’ with the other lads ’fore he spreads it.”
“He has nae been eatin’ his usual?”
Sarah nodded eagerly. “Is he terribly ill?”
“Nay.” She placed her arms comfortingly on Sarah’s arms. “’Tis a flu. ’Tis going around the young lads. He will be fine.”
“Will ye take a look at him?” she asked hopefully.
“Aye.” She nodded. Sarah worked in the castle kitchens and Lorraine knew how busy she was. “I am on route to the market. I have need of some herbs. I will check on Dan in the evenin’,” she promised.
“Thank ye.” She clasped her hands together, gratefully. “I have to get to the kitchens. I asked to be excused. I have to refute it so I will be home when ye come in the evenin’.”
Lorraine watched her lift her skirts slightly and run to the direction of the castle kitchen, and shook her head. Once more, she was thankful for her breeches. She turned to leave. This time, she made it out successfully.
“Shite!” He hadn’t made it in time. He would have caught her if he hadn’t had to speak to the guard. She had been talking to that woman, though.
What was her name? Susan? Sally? Sarah! “Sarah!” He called to the woman who was running to the kitchens. Perhaps she would know where she was headed.
Sarah paused in her tracks and turned sharply to her Laird.
Composing herself, she walked to him in measured steps. “M’laird.” She dipped a curtsey.
“Ye were speaking with- with the midwife’s daughter?” he asked, feigning ignorance to her name. It was best to make the inquiry a formal one. He didn’t need anyone suspecting anything.
“Did she inform ye of where she was headed? I have a message I would like to pass to her mother.” Daividh hoped she didn’t spend time wondering what the laird would want with the midwife.
“Aye, m’laird.” She nodded eagerly. “She’s off to the market to purchase some herbs.”
“Thank ye. Ye may leave.” He dismissed her and then, with large steps, he walked out to the stables. He would need his horse.
“Lorraine!” Pete greeted her enthusiastically, “I have been expectin’ ye.”
“Indeed?” she asked with a little smile on her face, “Where is little Tommy?” She looked around the teeming market. If Tommy was around, he would be close by. Pete seldom let the four-year-old wander.
“Here!” A little voice came. From the back of the stall, the little red-haired boy appeared with the most beautiful grin on his face.
“Ah, hello, little one.” She bent to his level. Another reason to love her breeches, she thought with a small smile.
Tommy threw his hands around her and hugged her. When he pulled away, there was a large grin on his face.
“Will ye be at the puppet show on the morrow?” she asked him, although she looked at Pete. It depended on what his father said, after all.
“Nay,” the little one said, sadly.
“The missus is heavy with a babe. Yer ma will be tendin’ to her soon,” he said, “I will be at the stall. There will be none to take Tommy to the show.”
“Well, we can nae have that, can we?” She ruffled his hair. “Can I stop here? On my way to the show on the morrow? I’ll have him back, too. He should nae miss the show. The other lads will be there.”
“Can I father? Can I really?” Tommy squealed in excitement.
“Are ye sure, miss? Ye will nae mind the antics of the little lad?”
“Nay. ’Twill be a treat for us both.”
“That’s awfully kind.”
“I must leave now,” Lorraine said, “I still have one more stall to visit. Jerome is expected to have the roots I have been wantin’.”
“Alrighty, miss.” Pete placed the package in her hands. “It’s yer usual order.”
“Thank ye.” She dropped the coins in his hands, collected her change and left to the stall a little way afar.
“Jerome.” She smiled at him.
“Gud day to ye, miss. Ye’ll be wantin’ yer roots, aye?” The tall man spoke in the hurried way he always did.
“Aye.” Lorraine smiled. Despite his height, Jerome had the kindest eyes and disposition. He was friends with everyone.
“Here ye go.” He dropped the already packaged roots on the table.
“How much will that be, Jerome?”
Lorraine reached into her breeches for her coins when a large hand slammed several coins onto the table.
“That’s ten. Keep the change.”
Eyes blazing, Lorraine turned to the uninvited guest and froze. Standing with the cockiest smile she had ever seen on his face was Daividh, Laird MacDougall; heir to the MacDougall Clan lands. He was tall, barrel-chested, and with a proud stance. He was huge – very huge. Lorraine felt a shiver go down her spine.
“Hello, Lorraine,” he said with an air of importance that irked her.
Sharply, she turned away from him and deposited her seven pounds on Jerome’s table.
“I’m sorry, miss, m’laird has so kindly paid for these,” Jerome said apologetically. He handed her the coins she had dropped.
Lorraine accepted the money and picked her package before turning to the man who stood, arms crossed.
“I thank ye, greatly, but I am nae in need of yer money,” she said, “Here.” She offered him the seven pounds she held.
“Dae nae be silly. What lass does nae want some extra pounds?” He laughed. “Ye could purchase some trinkets and perfume and all of those things ye ladies like.”
Lorraine saw red but she looked to Jerome who was watching the exchange uncomfortably and stilled her anger. She gave him a stiff smile, picked up her package and stormed off.
Unfortunately, the insufferable man followed her.
Ignore him, mayhap he will tire of whatever ’tis that causes him to trail me. Lorraine took a sharp turn to where her horse was waiting. For a moment, it didn’t seem like she was being followed, but at the last moment, she heard his steps come even closer. He had only stopped to speak to someone for a bit. For every step he took, he seemed to cover two of hers.
Unconsciously, she reached for the small dagger her brother Maxwell had gifted her.
Dae nae be silly, she told herself. He is the son of yer laird. He hardly wants to murder ye.
Well, mayhap nae murder, ye could be kidnapped.
But for what cause? she reasoned. He has more money than yer entire lineage. He does nae need a ransom for yer head.
His steps grew closer as her paranoia grew stronger. Finally, tired of how paranoid she had grown, she turned to him with a glare cold enough to freeze steam.
“What on earth dae ye want?”
He arched a brow. Lorraine grew even angrier. How dare he pester her and act like she was acting weirdly? What nerve!
“Be calm, lassie,” he said in a condescending tone she didn’t appreciate.
Did he expect her to be happy that he was refusing to leave her alone?
“I am hardly a lassie. I am twenty and three.”
“And I am twenty and seven.”
“Barely four years me senior.”
“Nae old enough to call me a lass.”
“Still older,” he repeated.
Tired, she glared at him again. “What dae ye want?”
“I only want to have a word.”
A word? With her? Lorraine stared at him through slit eyes. “Alright. Nice speakin’ with ye, laddie!” she turned on her heel and made to exit.
Daividh grabbed her hands and pulled her to him. “Ye are a feisty one. I would nae have guessed.”
Lorraine lifted her arm and twisted her wrist out of his relaxed hold. Free of his grasp, she sent him a smug look and for the second time, she made to leave.
Bewildered, he reached for her again. This time, he held her wrist and pulled her to him. Lorraine tried to free herself from his grip but found it as secure as iron locks.
“What is yer problem?” he asked.
“What is yer problem?”
“Me problem? I only tried to talk to ye.” He loosened his grip on her hands. Mayhap she is off her head indeed, he thought.
Lorraine stared at him. Was he really that daft or was he jesting?
“Ye stopped me, paid for me purchase without me word. Then ye bade me buy jewelry and perfume for ye see ladies as people who have naught to dae with money than spend it so frivolously. Then ye followed me here and grabbed me arms – nae once, twice, and ye hold on to me, yet still and ye wonder why I say ye have a problem!” She took a deep breath.
“I would nae have had to dae all that if ye had listened to me at the market.”
“I did nae want to and I dae nae have to. Ye have nae right to demand me ear.”
Daividh had never had someone speak to him so brazenly. “Dae ye ken who I am?” When she didn’t reply, he went on. “I am Daividh MacDougall; heir to the MacDougall lands.”
“And that, m’laird, does nae put food in me belly.” And with a determined twist, she yanked her hands out of his and ran to her horse.
In a daze, Daividh watched her mount her horse and ride off with a smoothness that shocked him.
“Oh, dear God! She’s amazin’.”
Daividh froze and turned round to face Kyla who had a naughty grin on her face. “What in the seven heavens are ye doin’ here?” He glared at her. “I told ye to go home.” He had happened upon her as he chased the insolent lady. He should have known that she would not heed his words.
“Ye are nae me guardian,” she said with a small smile, “Come, brother.” She extended her hand to him.
With a long suffering sigh, he took his sister’s hands and walked her to her carriage.
“What did ye see?” he asked her.
“Ye are a little imp. I shall speak to Father about getting a tower with nae door or windows for ye.”
Kyla laughed. “Ye will storm the tower before anyone else.”
“And dae nae forget it,” he said, smiling besides himself, “Dae nae wander too far from the guards, imp.” Whatever was happening to him was still strange and he needed her protected.
“Only if ye tell me why ye never told me ye fancied Lorraine.”
“I dae nae-” he began to argue then paused. He loved Kyla to death but thought it better if she didn’t know anything of the wager.
“Dae nae fight it. I saw ye. She is so bold, is she nae?”
“Aye, she is.” He was still reeling from the shock of it.
“Did ye really say those things to her, ye oaf.”
“What woman does nae want some extra coins?”
“Nae all women are the same, brother dearest. Ye must try to get to ken who she really is. I hear she is a healer.”
“What else dae ye ken of her?”
“Nae so much. But ye can find out.”
“Find out? I doubt she would pay me any mind the next time.” It bothered him. It bothered him more than any woman had bothered him ever. How had she been so immune to all his advances? He had never had a woman physically fight him off.
“Well, then. Ye ken now that ye have yer work cut out for ye.”
Daividh wanted to groan. Why on earth had he agreed to Glenn’s stupid wager?
“Is that ye admittin’ that a woman has ye stumped?”
“’Tis me admittin’ that I have nae met a woman like her; so frustratin’!”
His sister laughed. “Look at the good, brother. Ye have nae met any like her. If you were lookin’ for a thrill, ye will get it.”
“What use is the thrill of the chase if the prize is nae mine in the end?” he said, running his hands through his perfect hair.
“Ah – that is where ye are amiss. She will be yers. I will help ye.”
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