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Destiny?


The light drizzle of rain began falling as snow. Riikka looked at the grey and overcast sky, screwing up her nose in distaste of the winter that was to come. She pulled the silver-white fur of the wolf's pelt cloak tighter around her, a myriad of tiny raindrops glistening on its surface. She gazed out over the deep green of the forests, straining her eyes to penetrate the mist and the snow. She knew it was no good trying - even on the clearest day in summer, there was only the rolling carpet of woodland, stretching out endlessly, but for a few outcrops of rock, such as the one on which she stood. In her tongue, the word for 'the world' also meant 'forest'. Almost without thinking, Riikka muttered a short prayer of appeasement to Luonnar, the great spirit which dwelt in the deep darkness of the forest, preying on the unwary - or the foolish. She followed it by a muttered invocation of Seristi, who kept Luonnar and her servants at bay and provided the forest's bounty. Her sharp ears caught a faint shout of glee, and she peered through the snow, mist and encroaching night to where the hunters were returning, manhandling eleven snorting, wild-eyed elk towards the settlement, and carrying the carcasses of seven more. She smiled as she remembered Saamu, the old shaman, who had died six winters ago. He had been a young man when he had realised it would be easier to keep the elk captive rather than hunt them through the forest all the time. It was as much work gathering the plant fodder for them to eat, but at least the children and women could help with that, leaving the hunters to find and capture more beasts to add to their growing herd. It had all happened long before Riikka had been born - the shaman had been an old man even when her father was a boy. But since that time, the size of the clan had more than doubled, with such a plentiful food supply so close to hand. She muttered another prayer, this time to the dark spirit Arnna who watched over souls, asking her to treat the shaman's spirit with consideration. She turned and swept from her favourite lookout point, her long blonde plaits bouncing amid the swirls of the silver wolf-furs. Riikka heard the servant-maid pattering after her as she strode swiftly down the dark, twisting natural stone corridor towards her father's hall. There would be feasting soon to welcome back the hunters, who had been absent for several days, and she always yearned to hear their tales. She stopped by her private chamber and threw the fur cape to one side. She untwisted her plaits and re-braided them more neatly, intertwining strips of scarlet ribbon with the hair. Then she buckled her sword to her belt and strode from the room again. The serving maid trailed after her wherever she went, even though it had been many years since Riikka had asked her to do anything. Her father still insisted that she have the woman serve her, 'as befitted her father's status', and would hear no more on the matter. She entered the feast hall at the same time as the hunters, though from a different entrance. Her eyes briefly met those of Joukha, her brother, who had led the expedition. He smiled slightly, and nodded in her direction in greeting. She raised her eyebrows in question, and his smile broadened. Riikka vaulted the table to the open space in the middle of the room, and pulled her weapon from its sheath, standing before her brother who walked forward coolly, still in his travelling gear. The servants scattered as their blades met with a ring of bronze on bronze. The torchlight flashed and shimmered off their blades as they sparred, each deftly parrying the other's strikes. After only a moment of the game, Riikka noticed some of the other warriors looking disapproving, and stepped inside her brother's guard to end the fight and hug him in welcome instead. He laughed and returned the embrace, before going to report to their father about the status of the lands around. Even as Riikka was resheathing her sword, she heard a loud comment from Menninkainen, one of the more senior of the warriors, known for his volatile temper. "Woman shouldn't have a blade," he growled. Riikka's weapon was out of its sheath again, even as he finished. "Then take it off me, Menninkainen." Her brother and father were talking in a corner, and had not noticed the exchange. The warrior stood, throwing off his own cloak and pulling his own weapon. Riikka felt her heart racing. Adrenalin surged through her body, and she felt more alert and alive than she had ever done before. Although she had matched blades with her brother while he had been teaching her how to fight, this would be the first time she had fought a man in anger. As Menninkainen approached her, Riikka noticed him stagger slightly. It seemed that he had already been drinking some of the rough ale brewed from the samma berries, a bitter fruit, but very common in the forests near them. But Riikka knew she should not let down her guard, for Menninkainen was known to be a formidable warrior, and would be dangerous even when drunk. Perhaps more so, for he would not allow common sense to stay his weapon. Riikka began the fight carefully, parrying and dodging attacks as she had been taught, so she could gauge the worth of an unknown foe. She was surprised to find she easily measured up to one of the more accomplished warriors of her people. Suddenly, her lighter weapon flashed in her hand, and she painted a line of red across Menninkainen's cheek. With a disbelieving expression, he felt the wound and saw his fingers stained with his own blood. He roared in anger, and Riikka sighed inside as she imagined the heads of her brother and father whip around to see the fight. But there was no time to check, as Menninkainen was coming for her again. But with no greater skill. Soon afterwards, she had given him a matching slash on the other cheek. Riikka smiled as she saw some of the other warriors begin to smile and nod, even some of those who had been frowning as she sparred with her brother. Before Menninkainen had a chance to take another strike at her, Riikka's blade had shorn through his beard, only a finger-width from his chin. Before the fight went any further, Riikka's brother appeared on the scene, and his blade rested on Menninkainen's suddenly bared throat. Riikka was almost disappointed, as she was starting to enjoy this little scene. Riikka all of a sudden became very aware of the silence in the chamber, and that all present were looking at them. "Menninkainen, you are proscribed." hissed Joukha. There was a murmur among the other men. "Why?" protested Menninkainen loudly, trying to rally the other warriors to his side, "Am I, a warrior of the clan, to be banished for fighting with a woman? And a woman who is known to consort with..." He caught his words in his throat as Joukha's eyes blazed in anger and the sharp sword pressed tighter still under his chin. "A woman, yes perhaps. But Riikka is a woman who is the daughter of your lord, and who has proven herself a more competent warrior than you." Joukha indicated the cuts on Menninkainen's cheeks. "Now leave, unless you wish to continue your argument with me." Joukha was known to be a master of the blade - it was principally due to his patient tuition of his older sister that Riikka was able to wield a blade at all. Menninkainen looked at Joukha for a long minute, and then moved to Riikka. His face was showing signs of anger, which changed to confusion and fear as, perhaps for the first time, he saw the drive of leadership and firm resolve that were as characteristic of her as they were of her father and her brother. He knew then that he had picked a fight with the wrong woman. It was no matter that she was rumoured to meddle with things best left to shamans, or that she was well-versed in men's arts. He had made the mistake of attacking the blood of the chieftain, a crime as serious as attacking the chieftain himself. He looked around, but saw no support in the eyes of the warriors around him. Menninkainen turned, and taking up his cloak, sheathed his blade and left the hall, knowing that proscription - exile - was almost certainly a death sentence. Joukha motioned for two warriors to follow him to ensure he left the community promptly. Riikka released a breath she had not even been aware she was holding. "My thanks, brother," she said, gripping his forearm to reinforce her words. Her words spoke of gratitude for his teaching as well as this evening's intervention. Joukha smiled and indicated their father. "I think our lord would wish for a word with us both," he said, motioning that she should precede him. Their father, a grizzled old warrior called Loukha, had been chieftain for many seasons, as his own father had died while he had still been a young man. He looked at them intently as they approached. "Daughter, blood of my blood, what other talents have you hidden from me? There is much I don't understand. You dress as a woman and fight with a narrow blade, and yet you still defeat a warrior of the clan. Your face is not unattractive and your body neither scrawny nor laden with fat, you are daughter to the chief, and yet not one of the worthy warriors of this settlement wishes to take you to be his wife. Why are these things as they are?" "My lord, I watch, I listen. I am forbidden from the work of the women because I am of your blood, and from the work of the men because I am a woman. I learn what I can from whoever will teach me." The old chieftain nodded thoughtfully. "Then who do you number among your teachers, my daughter?" "Joukha taught me the way of the sword." "That is good - it would not do for one with the rulers' blood to be taught by lesser families. Show me this blade of yours. Why do you not use a more usual weapon?" Riikka held the weapon, hilt-first, to her father. "I admit, my lord, that they are too heavy for me to wield. I can hold this one, the lightest in your armoury, with comfort, and Joukha taught me that skill and agility can overcome might in a battle." "It would seem he taught you that lesson well, my child, for you to defeat a warrior of the tribe with the sword of a boy . Who else has taught you the ways of men?" "Saamu was my teacher for many years." The three bowed their heads for a moment in deference to the old shaman. "He said he found the fire in my spirit fascinating. He taught me the ways of nature, of the animals, of the plants - he even showed me the ways to master the minor spirits, in the long and dark winter months. I have fought with Kuutalvi, the wolf spirit who watches over our family. He accepts me as his mistress and permits me to call on him for protection." Father and son looked at each other uncomfortably. There was a long silence before either of them spoke. "My own daughter... one of the spirit-born... who claims to master that spirit to whom we bow down..." Loukha shook his head, rubbing his eyes. He looked up questioningly at his son and heir. "I did not know, my lord." said Joukha. "I have told no one until now." said Riikka proudly. "See that it stays that way." said Loukha sourly. "There are those here who might banish you for being a witch if this were known. Spirit-born and yet not of a shaman's blood." He shook his head again. "These are troubling times." Loukha gathered himself and rose to his feet. Brother and sister took a step backwards to the correct distance. "I must rest and think now. I will see you both again in the morning." He swept from the chamber, still with the quiet presence and ease of step that spoke more of his long life as a warrior than of his advancing years. "Sister, you have undiscovered depths." said Joukha, inclining his head towards her. "My thanks, brother," she said, choosing to take the comment as a compliment. She glanced towards the main body of the hall, drawing her brother's attention there. Joukha looked that way, and noticed that many of the warriors had been watching the exchange between the members of their ruling family, even though they were out of earshot. "The chieftain had decreed that there will be three additional casks of ale broached this night for such a successful hunt!" He raised his voice so all could hear him, but was still drowned out by the roar of delight from the warriors of the clan, who fast forgot about the banishment of Menninkainen. Joukha took his sister's arm and walked her to the head of the tables to sit by his side, in the place where he sat by the side of the chieftain when their father chose to remain for the feasting - it was a position of great honour, especially for a woman. She made the most of it - the best cuts of meat and the best ale were reserved for these gatherings of the warriors - smiling when one of the men caught her eyes, well aware that she was the only woman seated among them, although there were several serving-maids. But that was all right, for this was how it had always been - she only reason that she was there was because her brother, the chief-elect, was pleased with her. She sat back in her seat and listened to the songs and tales of heroism of the warriors around her, learning the new songs and, as always, wishing she had a song of her own. When Riikka awoke, she knew that she had not been sleeping long. Her eyes were scratchy and tired, and her limbs stiff. However, she was a creature of habit, and knew that trying to sleep any longer would be futile. Wearily, she pulled herself from the warmth of the furs on her bed, and moved towards the clay bowl of icy water. Her breath came misty, and her skin goosepimpled in the cold of morning. She broke the thin sheen of ice on the surface of the bowl and splashed water on her face, gasping as it touched her. Much refreshed by the chill, she quickly pulled on her trousers and shirt over the light tunic that served her as underclothes, and pulled the heavy wolf-pelt cloak about her shoulders. Even though the chieftain's hall was built over one of the largest of the hot springs that dotted their settlement, her chamber was one of the furthest rooms from it, and its warmth had mostly dissipated by the time it reached the room. Slowly warming again as she walked through the moist, warm corridors, she made her way to the kitchens, and got her breakfast. Absently munching on the nut bread and cold meat, Riikka wandered outside and walked slowly up to the point where she had seen the hunt return to the settlement the previous day, passing through the narrow and twisting corridor before emerging again into the light of the morning. She breathed in the crisp morning air deeply, smelling the gentle scent of the pines and moisture-laden bark. Riikka gazed over the forest. There was a mist on the land today, and the horizon was obscured. The hazy, weak sunshine fought to penetrate the moisture, and Riikka thought that it might just burn away the mist again today. It would be too soon before the sun would only show its face to the land for a short time, and then it would be winter, and there would be hardly any light at all, even in the middle of the day, opposite to the summer, when the sun shone all the time. Riikka felt the sudden urge to visit Saamu's old home. It had been a morning like this, so many years ago, that she had first become friends with the old man. More briskly than she had mounted the lookout, Riikka made her way down, all the way to the forest floor. She followed the base of the rocky outcrop for several hundred yards, and paused. The entrance to the cave was even more overgrown than last time she had come here. Although, she reflected ruefully, that had been at the start of spring. This represented a year's growth, and the forest quickly reclaimed anything left untended for long. She carefully picked her way through the twisted branches of the trees and the prickly undergrowth, suddenly stepping into a tiny, barren clearing in front of a small cave. She ducked her head to go in, and the faint smell of dried herbs reached her nose. The place was untouched, as she knew it would be. The new shaman had his own dwelling, and none of the common folk would live where a shaman had lived and worked. Riikka murmured the binding words and made the confining gestures needed, and summoned the magic that would kindle a small fire for her in the entrance to the cave, using the wood and kindling that was still plentiful. She had gathered and cut much of it herself, in years gone by, as Saamu had felt more and more the advance of years. The dry wood burned fast and hot, and the chill of the morning was soon lifted. Riikka loosened her cloak and using it as a cushion, seated herself on the stone bench in the wall beside the fire, gazing through the flames to the forest beyond. It was odd, the way it had happened. She had met the shaman many times before, of course, for her father had consulted with him often. Even now, one of her clearest memories of her childhood was of her father and Saamu muttering in their low, deep voices, with her younger brother, barely more than a toddler, eagerly listening in, while she sat with her mother by the fire, letting her braid her hair. Her mother had died when Riikka was about nine years old, and had been a bitter blow. She dragged her thoughts back to Saamu. The day had been at the start of her thirteenth summer. She had already gone through the first part of her change earlier than most of the girls she knew, growing into the woman's form her body had now. However, even at this late age, she had not started her bleeding, had no interest in men whatsoever, and the only hair she had was on her head. She had been skipping through the forest when suddenly she had come across the cave, which had a fire burning inside. She had not known who lived there, and peeked in to see. The shaman had looked up from his meditation, half lost in the spirit world, his strange, unique yellow eyes unfocused. As his eyes had fallen on her, seeing her spirit perhaps more clearly than her physical body, he had given a strangled shout, and almost fallen over. She had turned and run, but before she had covered even ten yards, the shaman's commanding voice had rung out and told her to stop. She had returned of course, fearful of punishment, but he had just sat there, muttering to himself and shaking his head as he looked at her. the only words she had caught for certain were "cursed with blindness" and "all this time... wasted". How long she sat there she couldn't say, lost in her memories of the time she had spent here after that first meeting, learning the lore of the world and of the plants and animals of the forest. It was almost as though she could hear his voice, drilling the lessons into her mind. "For all the sprits, girl, wake up! Only a fool daydreams in the home of a shaman when the shaman is not there...." Riikka started in surprise. The voice had been very real and very close. She reached for her weapon, cursing to herself as she remembered leaving it on the stand in her chamber. Before her stood a shadowy, translucent figure. She had been taught by Saamu not to fear spirits, even those strange, misshapen creatures that roamed the forests, unconcerned by the presence of man, beast or troll. Even now she peered closer. There could be no doubt in her mind, however, that this was her teacher returned. "You're looking well, girl. Of course, you always were a pretty woman - if only I had been eighty winters younger..." the figure smiled at her, but held up a hand as she went to embrace him. "If I am touched by the living, I am banished back to the world of spirits. And I must also be brief, for my time is short." Even as he spoke, he glanced almost fearfully over his shoulder. "Soon, there will come upon you a moment of decision, young Riikka. It carries an importance such as we only experience a couple of times in our lives. Do not allow familiarity and security to cloud this decision, for your destiny will be of greater weight to the world if you follow the urges of your soul, not your mind. Look for this place." Saamu turned slightly and gestured with his arm. Next to him, a translucent yet clear image emerged from nowhere. Riikka saw a quiet lake, with a single island in its centre. It was surrounded on three sides by dense forests, dark and mysterious, but on the fourth there towered a huge cliff of rock, rising high into the sky and topped with the same snow that lay thick on the trees, though the steam rising gently from the lake surface told Riikka that this one of the rare warm lakes. The light was poor, the sun barely visible. Riikka knew that the time would be mid day either in autumn or spring. "You should not seek this place recklessly, my soul-daughter, for death may await you there." The image moved, and focused in on the lake shore, to a small and frosty beach, strewn with wood and fallen spruce needles. There was a fire, burning low, and a single figure laid next to it. Riikka saw an upturned hand, a small pool of blood cupped in its palm, saw the figure's chest barely moving, and knew that human life would very soon depart that place. Then the fire briefly flared up, as it burned a pocket of sap, and she recognised the figure's face to be her own. Her eyes were open but focused on nothing, her skin pale and dead. Riikka forced herself to look at the apparition of Saamu again and tried to speak, only to realise that she had not drawn breath for several moments. A brief wave of dizziness rose as she breathed in again. The image beside Saamu faded into nothing. "If I am to die there, forgotten and unsung, why should I seek it at all?" "If you do not seek it, you will stumble across it, for it is a part of your destiny to go there. It is quite possible that you will not die there - indeed, my showing you this possible future may well alter its course. But one thing is certain. You must go there. Your entire life hinges on what happens on that island." Saamu glanced to one side, and Riikka thought she caught a glimpse of something dark writhing there. She did not look at it directly, for she knew it would be gone the moment she did, and not sure she wanted to see it anyway. "I will have to leave you soon. These spirits here will not approach me, for I still hold power over them as I did in life. But I cannot stand up to Arnna, and she is searching for me even now. Take what you will from my home here. But take care, soul-daughter. I would gladly see you again, but I have no wish for you to visit me in the spirit world before it is your time. Farewell for now, Riikka. Maybe we can speak again soon." Even as the image of Saamu was vanishing, he threw his head back and looked as though he was screaming a silent wail of anguish. Then suddenly before her, as clearly as if they were there for real, were a huge pair of eyes, fiery orange set in black. They were the eyes of a cat, and Riikka knew immediately that she gazed into the eyes of Arnna, the keeper of souls. Her favoured form was said to be that of a giant black lynx, of the white and grey type that wandered in the forests, but had long since learned to keep their prized furs well away from her settlement. The vision grew more powerful, and soon it was all she could see. The fear built on her, layer after layer, suffocating her in its intensity. Riikka squeezed her eyes closed, but the eyes were still there. Saamu's teachings came to her, floating as if from nowhere, and she began a simple litany inside her mind, concentrating as hard as she could on counting backwards from ten to zero and back to ten. She repeated it over and over, forming the image of her fingers moving and counting, inside her mind, until instead of the eyes, the fingers were all she saw, all she was thinking about. A few moments later, she opened her eyes and saw nothing but a gently smouldering fire. She felt alive with the adrenalin of fear, and perspiration sheeted her skin. The image of the eyes, the image of Saamu, all were gone and there was nothing there but the cave and the forest beyond. Except one thing. Sitting in the centre of the chamber was one of the forest-spirits. This particular one was short and pudgy, covered with uneven spines and with a long nose and tail. It just sat, staring at the wall, apparently ignoring her. She wondered at the sight - she had seen creatures of this type before of course - they sometimes came close to the settlement, and the hunters saw them all the time in the open forest, especially on the summer troll-hunts, but she had never seen one this closely before. Riikka cursed to herself, realising that the shaman had indeed spoke the truth. While he had been alive, his power had kept these creatures at bay, but now they were free to come and go, for whatever purpose drove them. Maybe there was still power in this place. Riikka had no way of knowing, but did know that she was lucky that this one seemed to be harmless. Purposefully, she swept her wolf-pelt about her shoulders and strode out into the morning light, pausing only to kick the smouldering remains of the fire so they would quickly go out. The spirit-creature paid her no heed, not even moving. She did not head back immediately to her father's hall, but instead made for the cave of the man who had been chosen by Saamu - reluctantly, Riikka knew - to be his successor after he died. He was the youngest son of the settlement's smith, and was so well-acquainted with magic. He had settled in one of the newest caves, hollowed by the mining families in the wall of the rock face as they followed a rich vein of the special type of rocks that gave the settlement their tools and weapons. No one knew what the smith did to them - how could any man extract metal from rock without powerful sorcery? The heat from the forge was almost overpowering after the chill of the outside air, and Riikka hurried past it, her fingers clutching her charm to Seristi to protect her from any stray magic in the air - she did not want to be turned to metal like the rock. She soon stood in the doorway of the shaman's cave and smiled to herself. Saamu had always said that he could only work surrounded by the power of the earth, but only that which had been fashioned by nature's hand. This new shaman lived in an area that had been wholly hewn from the stone by hand, claiming that nature's power lay in its untampered freshness. The sweet smell of the herbs overcame the smell of burning charcoal from the forge as she entered. She sat without being invited, as was her prerogative as a member of the ruling family, and waited for the shaman to complete his meditations. After a moment, he opened his eyes and saw her there, starting slightly at the surprise. Saamu had never been surprised by her entrance, no matter how carefully she had sneaked in. "How may I help you, liege-lady?" he asked. "Can you tell me what the term 'soul-daughter' means?" Riikka came to the point quickly, as she always did when addressing this man. There was something about him that just made her feel a bit uneasy, like there was something lurking in the shadows behind him, even when the room was ablaze with light. But Riikka was wondering why Saamu had called her that - he had always addressed her by name while he had been alive. It transpired that the shaman did not know. Of course, he did not say as much, saying that it was something to do with the familiarity of spirits, but Riikka could tell he was only really guessing. She decided to tell him nothing of the apparition of Saamu, suspecting that she knew more of spirit-lore than the new shaman, who to her knowledge had never even spoken to the shaman when he had been alive. She gave her thanks and departed, this time seeking out her brother. Joukha had just risen, as his slumber from the previous night's festivities had been deep, and he had been tired from the hunt. "Brother, I must speak with you. In private." she added, seeing that his servant was looming in the background holding his cloak. Joukha glanced at the servant and motioned with his head to the doorway. The servant departed. "My sister, what troubles you this morning?" He stifled back a yawn. "I have just visited the old dwelling-place of Saamu." she said. "Saamu's spirit appeared to me, and told me that there is a place I should seek out." "You saw a vision of Saamu?" said Joukha incredulously, "Have you approached the new shaman about this?" Riikka shook her head, and raised her hand when her brother was about to speak. "I have talked with him already. But for too many years we were served by Saamu, a wise man, and one who held great power over the spirits. We should not expect the same level of service from the new shaman." Joukha shrugged, nodding his agreement. Apparently he was also aware of the man's limitations. "Describe this place to me." he said. "It is a warm lake with a single island in its centre, and a cliff to the northern shore. It is forested on all sides." "I know this place. It is many days travel from here. The forest there is dense. It is full of the power of Luonnar. Why must you travel there?" "I do not know - only that I must. And I must also go there alone." This she felt was required of her, although she did not know why. "Alone? It is a dangerous journey. The chief would never agree to it. Even were you accompanied by our best warriors, I doubt he would allow a woman, especially his daughter, to go roaming in the forest at this time of year." "Even if it had been requested of me by the spirit of Saamu? He risked much to give me the message. I saw his spirit being racked by Arnna when she found out his purpose. I must go as he has instructed me. If the chief will not give me his assent, I shall go without it." "Let me talk to him. Saamu was his friend. This might sway him. But if you must go, come to me first. I will draw you a map to show you the best places to camp and the landmarks to follow to get you there safely and swiftly." *************** *************** Three days later, she was leaving her father's hall and walking the road that led to the main gateway of the settlement. Her brother strode by her side, carrying the pack containing the food and other supplies she would need in the forests at this time of year. Riikka was surprised to see many people lining the pathway on both sides. She glanced in question at her brother, who shrugged. "Maybe they heard you received a vision from Saamu. Or are just curious as to why the lady of the chieftain's house ventures alone into the forests just as the winter starts to turn. I still wonder this myself." They walked the rest of the road in silence, going as far as the edge of the forest, just beyond the cleared area that was maintained in case of attack, even though there were only half-remembered legends in the oral histories of other peoples and tribes. The trolls, though certainly hostile, were too disorganised to mount a serious attack on the settlement's formidable defence. They preferred easier quarry, usually taking those wandering alone in the forests. Once, perhaps thirty generations before, this settlement had a name, presumably to distinguish it from other settlements, but no one remembered it now. It was simply called 'Koti' - 'Home'. "You are still set on going?" asked Joukha. "You know I must, my brother. I shall return as soon as my business at this place is done." They gripped forearms to say farewell in the manner of warriors, and looked long into each others' eyes. Both of them knew that they might never see each other again. The forests were dangerous at this time of year - they were dangerous all the time, but now, with winter starting to bare its teeth, and many of the prey animals moving on or hibernating for the season, the large predators were getting hungry, and getting bolder with it. And of course, the trolls would soon be waking. Riikka knew that even if she went to this lake and set out straight back, she would not return until at least the passing of a new moon, when the winter would drop like an anvil over the land, the sun swallowed in darkness, blizzards, trolls and hungry wolf-packs roaming the forests. Abruptly, Riikka broke the contact and took up her pack, striding into the forest even as she set it on her back. She pretended not to hear Joukha's whispered "Farewell, my sister," and to not understand the uncertain finality of his words. Walking was easy near the settlement - the forests were travelled often, as the women and children gathered the last of the nuts and berries, and stripping the fibrous bark from the trees, which when dried and ground, would make the flour for the nutbread that would see them through the winter. Every now and then she passed one of her people, each of whom stood watching her go in silence, hardly acknowledging her as she smiled and nodded at them. Then, she was walking on virgin snow, and knew she would not see another face until she returned. Her feet started to sink into the soft surface, and she paused for a few minutes to tie her skis into her feet. The snow hissed beneath them as she settled into the easy loping glide that was second-nature to her people. She was making good time even now, as much of the undergrowth had been cleared by the settlement's herd of elk, allowed onto this land to reduce the task of fetching their fodder. After about thirty minutes, she came to the fence, that marked the edge of the settlement's last border. The stout poles and ropes lashed to trees and carefully-positioned posts in the ground made a fence that was about six or seven forearms high, and she managed to clamber through it without difficulty, even in the cumbersome skis, and staggered in the deep snow on the other side. One foot hit a patch of fine powder-snow, and even wearing the ski, sank in as far as her knee. She looked around herself as she regained her footing. She was in the forest now, the domain of the beasts, trolls, and unfriendly, unknown spirits. Her hand moved to the small pouch of herbs and tiny charms that Saamu had made for her on her tenth birthday - even now she felt the power of the old shaman within it, and pushed herself forward, secure that Seristi was watching over her. The rest of the day's travel was harder and slower. The undergrowth was light, covered as it was by a ceiling of dense spruce and pine trees and an all-year fall of needles. However, sometimes she was too slow skidding over the patches of powdery snow, and sometimes found herself waist-deep in the snow, her feet tangled painfully into a dense patch of hardy brambles, the vicious thorns penetrating even the thick furs and leathers of her legs and boots. Night had fallen before she reached the first campsite her brother had told her of, a small hollow under the roots of a huge windfall tree. The ground had been dug in the summer into a shallow cave, but now of course the ground was all but frozen like iron. As soon as she reached the small sanctuary, Riikka realised how tired she was. Her shaking hands barely had the strength to build a small fire and summon the fire spirit to light it. As soon as it was burning, she lay herself near it, covered herself with her wolf pelt cloak and was asleep in a moment. She awoke the next morning chilled to the bone, and wrapped herself up tightly in the cloak to get warm. The ashes of the fire were stone-cold to her touch - and she remembered not even building it beyond the start-up kindling the night before. It had probably burned out ten minutes after she had fallen asleep. She sat for a while chewing on some tough salted elk-meat, before gathering herself and setting out again. It was snowing today, snowing hard, though there was little wind. The white blanket dropped from the sky, onto an eerily silent world. Soon, her silver wolf-pelt was as white as the ground around her. She made no better progress than the day before, but no worse either. Riikka was grateful that at least the freezing temperatures make the bogs and swamps that were common in the summer in the forest no longer a hazard, but many times she had to detour around pools of boiling mud or water, at one time barely escaping being soaked and scalded by the explosion of a geyser. Her waking hours degenerated into a haze of skiing, walking, wearily digging herself out of snow-banks and chewing on the hard nut-bread and salted meat of her provisions. She had hoped to be able to gather some nuts or berries as she went, as she was still just in the last stages of autumn, but soon ceased noticing much beyond what she needed to keep her path - the rocky hillock there, a smoking fissure in the rock there, the carved marker in a trunk there, a windfall there. The route she used now was also used often by the hunters, and well-marked - but for summertime use. She suspected that many of the signs they had cut in tree trunks or scratched on the rocks were buried under the deep blanket of snow. Then, on the evening of the twelfth day, she came to her goal. Although extremely tired, she had forced herself to hurry the last way, for in the failing light she could see the clouds gathering to the north, and even hear the distant roar of a blizzard carried on the rising northerly wind. She reached the final camp-site, an almost cairn-like cave that had been built into some huge boulders on top of the cliff overlooking the lake. She sighed in relief when she saw it was a good shelter, and had obviously been built and sealed to stay in and to be used as a base-camp for many days. Some of the campsites had been poor shelter, one of them being entirely outdoor. She had been fortunate to have had reasonable, even good weather for the time of year, and more fortunate that the most dangerous beast she had seen was an arctic fox. She had not even seen any of the forest spirits in the dense woodland, though she did sometimes come across some odd-looking tracks in the snow. One thing that made her less and less happy was the increasing frequency of troll-sign in the snow. Their tracks were unmistakable - tiny, almost dainty little feet, but the prints were marred by uneven gashes in the soft surface where the vicious claws had dug in as they walked. Her brother had said that this area was full of evil spirits, and the tracks, coupled with the old, dense growth of towering trees, made her extremely uncomfortable. She rare was without her little bag if charms either in hand or in easy reach round her neck. Hurriedly, she gathered a good store of wood for her fire, as the wind rose about her, whipping at her hair and making her cloak flutter. Not knowing why, she dumped the third armload of wood at the entrance to the cave and went to the edge of the cliff, looking down to the lake below, which was already shrouded in darkness from the higher ground all around it. Then she froze, fear sheeting through her. For in that sea of blackness was a flickering point of light that could only be a small fire, spluttering in the strong winds. There was someone on that island. Or something, as her subconscious quickly threw back at her. A gust of wind staggered her, pushing her uncomfortably close to the edge of the cliff and cutting through her fur with chilly fingers. The light went out a second or so later, and she hurried for the shelter of the caves as the blizzard started to build its fury around her. It was not an easy night. The cave was comfortable enough, and she had a good fire, that gave warmth and light to her. But the wind howled about her shelter, forcing its way around the twisted mess of rocks that sheltered the cave. And she could not stop thinking about that point of light. Riikka slept poorly. The morning, when it finally came, was still and quiet, as mornings following storms often were, like nature had worn itself out, and was gathering its breath for more later. Hardly a bird chirped as Riikka emerged from the cave and crawled on all-fours to the cliff-edge. Timidly, she peeked over the edge. The lake lay as smooth as a mirror below her, a light mist rising from it. There was storm-debris tossed up on the shores, and the trees on the island looked battered but reasonably whole. She scanned the shore of the small island as closely as she could. Her family had always been blessed with good eyesight, and she was no exception. Then suddenly, she caught and held her breath. There were two legs sticking out of the forest onto the tiny beach. Dense undergrowth obscured the rest of the body. She watched the legs for some time, but they did not move. Riikka started to wonder if whoever had been on there had not survived the storm. The island was small, and exposed. There could not be much shelter on there except for the trees. And without a fire... Riikka moved herself back from the cliff edge, and she made her way nimbly down to the shore of the lake, using her natural agility and instinct to pick her path down rather than reason the fastest way. Before she broke cover, she glanced again at the island and almost cursed aloud. The legs had disappeared. She looked up at the top of the cliffs to the point she had been watching from before. Yes, she should be able to see the spot clearly. The legs were definitely gone. She would have to wait for the cover of night now, or she would be seen as she crossed the water. To pass the time, Riikka gathered together materials for a small fire, and made the trip back to the top of the hill to fetch her spare clothing. She knew she would have to swim to and from the island and although the water was warm (she had trailed her hand into it to check its temperature earlier), she was under no illusions as to how long she would survive when she came out of the water, at night, if she did not have a fire and dry clothes. Then, in case she was badly wounded, she scoured the forest nearby and made a paste of several plants that had healing and astringent properties. All her preparations made, she settled down to await nightfall. She glanced at the sun to check how long it would be until dusk, and the chill of fear swept through her limbs again. She looked slowly around her. This was the place she had seen in the vision in Saamu's cave. The likeness was exact, from the dismal sun to the pattern of the pine needles among the driftwood. The only differences were that the fire was not lit, although she had built it in the same place, and she was not lying there dying. Yet. She shook her head and tried to put the image out of her mind. It was too late to change the plan now, not enough time to make the preparations again. As soon as it was too dark for her to see the island, Riikka broke cover and quickly stripped off her outer garments. She realised there was little sense in making them wet also, and they would only weigh her down as she swam. She did not plan to stay on the island long enough for the coldness of the air to worry her much. However, even as she placed the clothes on the ground and rolled a thick and sturdy log into the water to help float the weight of her sword, her teeth were chattering from the cold, as she was clad now only in the light tunic that she wore to sleep in. She slipped gratefully into the embrace of the water, warm against her skin, pushing the log out before her. The bottom dropped away into unseen depths only a couple of feet from the shore. As she swam, the water seemed strangely heavy to push against, and she changed her stroke to the more stream-lined but slower kick that children used. She dipped her mouth to taste the water and found it was metallic and full of minerals. She spat it out, not knowing if it was good to drink. After all, there was no shortage of snow she could melt for pure water, and all the time she had been watching, there had certainly been no sign of ripples in the mirror of the lake's surface to show that there was anything living there. Then she realised that the temperature of the water was rising. It reached a peak at mid-distance between the island and the shore. It was hot, uncomfortably so, but still just about tolerable. If anything, it was slightly cooler than the water from the hot springs in her home settlement. It cooled again as she approached the island. Riikka had to swim almost all the way to the shore, as again, the ground sloped away very quickly into the dark depths of the water below her. She pushed the end of the log up onto the small and steep beach and pulled herself from the warm water into the frigid air. The chill stirred her into motion and she made for the centre of the island, but then she stopped, remembering the image of her death, and paused for a moment, drawing her sword and reaching down to cover the shimmering golden blade with mud, lest a stray glint of light on the smooth polished bronze betray her. She paused, wondering if she should darken her coppery skin, hair and tunic, but decided against it - the mud was cold, and it would take her too long. Besides, the dark against the whiteness of the snow that lay here might even be a disadvantage. Then she crept forward into the darkness of the island. She muttered the incantations to summon the weak protective magic and perhaps for the first time wished that Saamu had not forbidden knowledge of the more powerful spirits to her. He had always told her that at times it took the power of a true shaman to control the unruly spirits. There had been a shadow in his eyes when he said that which had spoken of recent events and Riikka now made the connection between this and Saamu not training up a replacement for when he died - for he had always known fairly precisely how long he had left. Riikka stopped dead for a minute or more, stunned at the thought that perhaps the new shaman might have tried to dally with the more powerful spirits... and paid the ultimate price. Riikka shuddered at the possibilities as much as at the cold. It was only a moment or two before she saw light flickering through the trees, and heard a soft humming from that direction. She moved forward incredibly carefully, taking her time, sometimes making herself wait for ten or twenty heartbeats to make sure that her next foot-fall was noiseless. She crept stealthily nearer to the fire. Then, as she was perhaps still twenty running strides from the fire, her foot rustled in a small pile of dry twigs. Instantly, the humming stopped, and a figure leaped to its feet between her and the fire, looking in her direction. She froze, and held her breath. Riikka wondered if realising her danger and stopping to muddy her weapon would be the turning point between the vision and reality. Certainly at this range, her sword would normally be happily reflecting the firelight. She could only hope that his eyes were too light-blinded to see her white form against the dark night or confuse it for a frosty tree trunk. After a long moment, the figure set himself down again, and started singing tunelessly. Riikka let out silently the breath she had held. Her lungs cried out for air, but she forced herself to breathe slowly and quietly until she had her breath back. Whoever this was, he was clearly an accomplished warrior. Even though relaxing, he was still alert to danger. The voice of her brother came floating into her mind. "If you are out-classed by your foe, look for the surprise attack, the way that will gain you an advantage, however small and brief. And more important than that, use it when it arises, as you will rarely get a second chance. Do not show mercy or compassion in the fight. After you have won - that is the time for nobler emotion." She thought for a moment, wondering what she could do. Then it came to her. This was a lone man, out in the wilderness. He had probably not seen a woman for weeks, maybe not even years. Carefully, she pulled at the wet knots on the laces of her tunic, eventually loosening them so that the garment was open down her front. Her chest and stomach instantly goose-pimpled at the unaccustomed chill. She shivered, and knew she had to do this thing fast, or freeze. She could not feel her feet up to the ankles, and already she was wondering if all her toes would survive this journey. She silently slipped off the tunic, draping it in a carefree manner over her left arm, then she crept forward a few more steps. Soon, however, her teeth were starting to chatter uncontrollably, and knew the noise would betray her. She walked swiftly into the circle of light cast by the fire, carrying her sword behind her back. It had the desired effect. The man was momentarily stunned by the sight of a naked woman walking out of the trees on this remote island in the middle of the night. Riikka, though appalled at what she was doing, glided closer, until she was able to whip her weapon from behind her back to strike. Immediately, the man twisted aside from the blow and brought his own weapon to bear. He struck back at her and she dodged backwards desperately, but not fast enough, despite her natural agility. She felt a bright spear of pain in her stomach and saw the tip of his strangely grey weapon come away bloody. She flung her tunic at his face, and stepped towards him at the same time, and even as he flung the tunic to the ground, she felt her sword contact his head. But her grip was still loose from the coldness of her fingers and the shock of the blow she had taken, and the blade had twisted in her hand, striking him with its flat instead of the edge. But it was enough. He collapsed to the floor, unconscious. Tears stung her eyes with pain, and she made herself look at the wound. There was a vivid red line on her body, but she saw that she had been lucky. She had taken a graze, the weapon only penetrating the skin in two places - just above her navel was a finger-long tear of her skin, which closed to a scratch as the blade had moved up and she away, until the tip had caught the swell of her right breast, opening a not very deep but bloody cut as long as the last joint of her thumb. She knew she would have to sew the wounds, and fairly soon, but they could wait for now. For a moment, Riikka looked down at the warrior, breathing easily as he lay on the ground. She raised her sword and rested the metal on his throat. One thrust would end it here, and revenge her wound. Then she moved the blade away and forced herself to relax. To slay the man would be dishonourable. She had prevailed in battle, and it was her duty to show mercy to those she defeated. And she shrank from the killing of any man in cold blood. She turned away, sticking her sword point-first in a nearby tree so she could reach it if she needed it in a hurry. Quickly, she searched the stranger's camp. There was little of use, although she did find a coil of superb quality rope and some miscellaneous equipment. Riikka could not see any food or extra clothing, and wondered how this man had survived. She cast aside that which she did not recognise, and bound the man with his own rope, not caring how tight the rope was around his arms and legs. She was about to drag him to the shore when she noticed his blade, lying on the ground. She examined it in the light of the dying fire. Not only was it the wrong colour, but it had a sheen, a lustre, that her blade lacked. But she could not see clearly in this light, and her prisoner was starting to moan as he came round. A light(ish) kick on the side of the head sorted that out, and she dragged him back to the beach. Riikka found a log of similar size to the one she had already used, and lashed them together with the rest of the rope. She dragged the unconscious man onto the makeshift raft, placed her tunic and what she had found of his gear next to him, and entered the water again. Her fingers and toes, which she knew must be turning blue, if not black, cried in relief at the warmth, and then she cried too at the pain of returning blood. But as the water closed over the wound in her stomach, she clenched her fists and bit her mouth tightly closed - whatever was in this water, it was agony on the broken skin. She swam as quickly as she could while pushing the crude raft before her, and staggered once more from the water at her camp-site. The pain lessened as soon as she left the water, but not completely. She pressed pure snow into the wounds and sighed as the clean coldness lessened the pain slightly. With shaking hands she summoned the fire-magic into the tinder she had laid, and blew on the fire to encourage it to build quickly. She piled on the driest wood she had found, and she soon had a strong and hot blaze going. She stood as closely to it as she was able to dry herself and keep warm, rotating herself like she was an elk on a spit, so every side of her would get warm and dry. She spread her wet tunic out on the rocks to dry also. As soon as she was dry again, she reached for her spare tunic to cover her nakedness, but as she looked down to tie the laces, she saw the wounds again. The water had cleaned them - or scoured might be a better term. There was no blood, and no jagged edges to the wound. It was all healthy flesh. But she knew what had to be done. But before she started, again numbed the area with snow, and carefully dabbed on the salve she had prepared earlier. Riikka immediately felt some relief as the pain lessened. She almost quailed at the thought of what was to come, but she knew it had to be done. She spread what was left of the healing mixture along the skin on the edges of both of the wounds to at least lesson the pain somewhat before she began. Riikka had found a needle and thread in the man's kit, and had brought it with her in anticipation of this moment. She untied the rope binding the two logs together and cut a very short length from the end. This she gripped tightly in her teeth as she threaded the needle. Her hands hesitated once in position, but not for long. She pushed the needle again and again through her wounded flesh, screaming into her gag every time the needle went through the raw flesh. Tears blurred her eyes, making it harder for her to work. When she was finished, she saw that the prisoner was awake and looking at her, with some fear in his eyes. Snarling at him like an animal, she stood up and turned away from him, hiding her actions and whispered words as she summoned the minor healing spirits into the wounds. She laced the tunic tightly over herself, using its pressure on her skin to protect and support the new stitched wounds. Blood immediately seeped through the cloth, but not quickly enough to worry her - it would not take long to clot. She put on the rest of her clothes and collected together the gear into a pack. Then she looked up at the slope she had jumped down so nimbly that morning. It looked very steep, and she doubted that even fully-fit, she could have dragged a man up to her camp. She strode over to him, and pushed the tip of her sword to his throat and she untied his foot-bindings. Then she stood back and motioned for him to rise, and when he did so, pushed him in front of her up the hill. As she left that fateful place, Riikka wondered at the vision. What had she done to avoid it's chilling prophecy? Had simply the foreknowledge of danger made her stop twice and think for a moment instead of rushing on blindly? Had she not paused to muddy her blade or remove her tunic, would she now be lying by that dying fire, having barely escaped with her life, while this man danced some victory dance on his precious island? She shrugged and continued up the hill. *************** *************** The first thing Riikka did when they got back to her cave was tie the stranger to one of the largest rocks there. He sighed and sat himself down, clearly realising that escape was impossible. Then she built a fire and struck it alight with her flint and tinder - she felt unable to control another spirit that night, as she had used a lot of magic today, and Saamu had warned her many times not to overstretch her ability. Aside from which, she was uncertain about displaying even more of her magical knowledge to this stranger. The fire was soon burning merrily even so, for fire building was a skill even the smallest child in the settlement mastered at a very early age. Now, the blaze was providing heat and light for their sheltered cave. Riikka removed the man's gag and sat carefully on the opposite side of the fire, trying not to make her wounds pull against the stitches as she shifted to the new position. She didn't quite manage it and hissed in pain, knowing that the blood would be seeping through onto her tunic again. Seated, she looked at her captive curiously, only to find he was already doing the same to her. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, much the same age as herself. However, she was immediately struck by his hair. His was short and dark, almost black. Riikka absently fingered her long plaits, so blonde they were almost white. Everyone in her settlement had light-coloured hair, which was allowed to grow. She had never seen anyone with dark hair before. And he was tall also, his legs just as unnaturally long as his arms. Riikka stood just under four and a half forearms tall, but this man must be about five and a half, and she was not considered especially small by her people's reckoning. His face too was different. His nose was too large, his eyes were wider-set than she was used to, and were yellow in colour, which unsettled Riikka, only used to the blue and brown eyes of her kin, although she remembered now that Saamu's eyes had also been yellow, though his had been tinted with green as well, at least before they went milky-white with his blindness. The man's skin was also lighter than her people's coppery skin, being so fair it was almost white. And his dress.... she thought he must be a kind of warrior - metal strips looped around his body and over his shoulders, made of the same metal as his blade, and over his woollen trousers he wore a skirt of leather strips, reinforced with the same metal. She could see that if she had fought him without the virtue of the surprise attack, she would have had a hard time getting through the armour to wound him, and suddenly the image that Saamu had shown her seemed much closer and more real. Wearily, Riikka built up the fire again and settled on her wolf pelt cloak to sleep for the night. She heard her captive moving around to try and get comfortable in his armour and tight bonds, but paid him no heed as she drifted into sleep. When she awoke the next morning her heart sank, as she could clearly hear the moan and howl of the wind on the rock above her. She pushed herself to a sitting position, wary of her wounds, but they didn't seem to hurt as badly this morning - it seemed that herb-lore taught to her by Saamu had served her well once again, as well as the presence of the healing spirit in the wound. She glanced over to her prisoner, and saw he was still asleep, slumped against the wall of the cave. Even so, she turned her body away from him as she part-unlaced her tunic to examine the wounds. They had bled slightly from the night before, but the stitches were securely holding the skin together, and the healing salve appeared to be doing its job better than she could have hoped. Carefully and quietly, she again muttered the healing spells over the wounds and relaced the tunic, pulled on her outer leathers and got unsteadily to her feet. Red mist briefly coloured her vision as she stood up, and she leaned for a moment against the rocky wall to keep her balance. She picked up her cloak and pulled it around her shoulders as she padded quietly to the cave entrance. As she had suspected, the wind was strong, driving sleet and snow before it. She looked at the sky and sighed. Though the light was poor, there was no break in the clouds, no prospect of the blizzard subsiding any time soon. Then she froze. Standing in the swirling snow and ice, barely ten paces from her, was a spirit-beast. This one somehow managed to balance on two limbs that tapered to points, and yet still did not leave the slightest track in the snow. What could have been a tail curved over the bulbous mass of its body. But this was not really what had disturbed Riikka. This one was gazing right at her, its three unblinking eyes locked on hers. She moved slightly to her side, and the eyes followed her. She knew this was a bad sign. The harmless beasts seemed little more than automatons, but there were plenty of families at the settlement that had lost a loved one to the spirits. She drew her sword, aware that the bronze would do little to the beast - most were pretty much unbothered by even the weapons that the magic of the smith could produce. She briefly wondered if she would have better luck with the strange grey weapon of her captive. It took a pace towards her. Then she remembered the charm-pouch and fumbled it from around her neck, holding it before her and muttering repeated incantations to Seristi, the protecting spirit. Immediately, the creature made a sound like a cross between a hiss and a snarl and then disappeared into the wall of white, its pointed feet not marking the snow. Riikka sighed as she relaxed, but did not let go of the pouch. A decision had to be made. She was many days' travel towards the barren place where it was too cold for most plants and animals to live. The weather might very well not improve until the spring, and she did not have the firewood, provisions or the patience to wait that long. Plus, there was the presence of the malevolent spirit-beast that worried her greatly. On the other hand, travel in this weather would be slow, difficult and uncomfortable, probably even life-threatening, especially as she was wounded and with a captive in tow. She returned to the smouldering remains of the fire. The man was awake now, and he watched her as she refuelled the fire and prodded it back to life. She clearly heard his stomach rumbling with hunger, and she looked up at him, smiling. He looked embarrassed that his body had betrayed him, but perked up when she threw him a lump of bread and a strip of dried meat. She munched on some meat herself as she thought what to do. She looked at her captive as she ate, noticing the way he was eating the food ravenously. She wondered how long it had been since he had last eaten properly. He clearly lacked the skills to survive in this land. If it had not been for the warmth of the lake where she had found him, she suspected he would have been dead maybe weeks before she had found him. That decided her. With her provisions having to feed two, especially one who had been without food for perhaps weeks, she would have to leave immediately. Even then she would almost certainly have to hunt on the way back, even if the weather held good for them, and she doubted it would be that convenient. In addition, she did not have a spare pair of skis, so the man would have to walk, which would slow her down even more. Although, looking at him, and seeing how otherwise unprepared he was for the terrain of her homelands, she wondered if he even knew how to ski anyway. She finished the food and began packing up all her gear tightly into her pack. She wanted to be sure it was all secure for travelling in the storm. She looked at what the man was wearing, and frowned. She had also found no clothes with him, and what he was wearing was not suitable for travelling in this weather. She fished out her spare pair of leggings - if she loosened the leather ties, they would be large enough to help to cover his legs. She also got out a lightweight leather cloak that would at least stop the wind, if not keep him as warm as a full fur. Next came her snow-shoes, with the wide netting that her brother had told her would let her walk over the deepest snowfall. Although she was reluctant to have the chance of them being broken, as she would then have no spare should her skis break, it would be preferable to waiting for him to struggle through snowbanks, and at least it all made her pack a lot lighter. She first laced up and tied all her own clothes against the freezing wind, and even as she went over to her captive, felt herself getting warm in the still air of the cave, with the fire providing extra heat. "We are going to travel today," she said, speaking for the first time since she had caught him. She saw that he was confused. She repeated what she had said. "kjjkdhf fjfz." he replied. Now it was Riikka's turn to look confused. Was the man delirious? "What are you saying?" she asked. "khfvkh skjh djgjs." he said, smiling at her. She shook her head. She had no time for this. "Riikka." she said, pointing at herself. "Reeke." he replied, pointing at her. "Close en



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Thanks to Andrew M. McLeish for this contribution!

 


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