Maid Marian and the Lawman

Maid Marian and the Lawman

Deb Stover

December 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-403-7

Sometimes the simple goodness of a dream reminds us how to fall in love.


 

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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1896 Oklahoma Indian Territory

Mary Goode has spent nearly a decade hiding her sweetly off-kilter brother,Robin, and two fellow misfits after she rescued them from a brutal institution. But unknown to Mary, the trio's fascination with Robin Hood and their hero's crusade to "steal from the rich and give to the poor" may have led to a few actual robberies.

U.S.Marshal Shane Latimer is on the trail of the inept Robin Hood and his shabby band of not-so-tough Merry Men when his rattlesnake-spooked-horse lands him in the care of Robin’s fiercely protective sister, Mary, aka Maid Marian.

He’s instantly charmed by Mary’s devotion to her whimsical brood but worries that she may be hiding the truth.Still, for a cynical loner like Shane, the appeal of their family affection, love, and loyalty,combined with Mary’s growing hold on his heart, is hard to resist.

Mary is equally torn. This wounded stranger could be the man of her dreams, and for the first time in her life she has someone to share the challenges of keeping her brigands out of trouble.

But will her quest for happiness forever shatter the idyllic life she's forged for her special family?

And how will Shane reconcile his duties as a lawman with his love for Maid Marian and her outlaws?

 

Since publication of her first novel in 1995, Deb Stover has received dozens of awards for her cross-genre fiction, including ten RT Book Reviews nominations and a Career Achievement Award.Visit her at www.debstover.com.

 


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Excerpt

Prologue

Southern Kansas—1888.

The relentless north wind sliced through Mary Goode’s threadbare coat as she trudged along the narrow trail. An image flashed through her mind of a warm fire and sweet tea with hot milk. Ah, but England was a far better place than this godforsaken land, where parents died of mysterious fevers and left their children homeless orphans.

Tears pricked her eyes, but she blinked them into submission. Now was not the time, and if all went as planned, she would never succumb to tears again. Crying was for children, and fate had decreed that at thirteen, Mary was no longer a child.

Huge snowflakes floated down from the blue-black canopy until whiteness nearly obliterated the dark sky. She paused and pulled her coat closer, wishing she still had the warm muffler her mother had knitted last winter. Alas, her guardians had taken everything.

Including Robin.

Her breath caught in her throat at the thought of seeing her brother again. Soon, she promised herself. Very soon.

Turning her face into the wind, she continued her journey, pausing at the top of a slight hill. She tucked a stray curl beneath her hood and blinked several times. At last, the massive brick and stone structure came into view.

God, please let him still be here.

Three months had passed since their parents’ deaths, when the sheriff had taken her brother to this dreadful place. Though they called it an asylum, in truth it was a prison where people like Robin were locked away until they died and were no longer a burden to anyone.

Mary would never forget that horrible day when they’d dragged Robin from her side. Weak from the same fever that had killed their parents, she’d been unable to run away and hide her brother. But now she was strong, and she would take Robin across the border to Indian Territory, where they would hide until their grandfather came for them.

What horrible things might these people have done to her smiling brother, whose laughter brightened even the most dreary days? Her mother had often called him one of God’s special angels, and their father had raised Robin with patience and love. Not once could Mary recall having heard her father refuse to read his son the same bedtime story. Every night until that horrible fever had rendered their father unconscious, he had read from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Of course, it was also his favorite, which was why Lawrence Goode’s only son bore the name Robin.

Mary knew the entire story by heart, though she no longer had the book. That, along with everything else she’d loved, was gone. But no one could take her memories. Those were hers to cherish, and soon she would have her brother to share them.

She blinked, certain no one in this place had ever read Robin his favorite bedtime story. She would recite it to him herself once they were safe, but first she had to find him.

"Please, God, make it so,” she whispered into the snowy night. "Please.”

Her mother’s last words echoed through Mary’s mind, as they often did. Look after your brother, Mary. He will always be a child.

Mary stumbled and her throat worked convulsively, her vision blurred. I will not cry. She drew a shuddering breath; the icy air cleansed her lungs and purged her mind.

Stealthily, she crept around the building, searching for a window without bars. There had to be a way for her to get inside to Robin. Soft light streamed through a ground-floor window, spilling onto the freshly fallen snow in a square of gold. Peering into the room, she determined it was the kitchen and, more importantly, unoccupied.

She widened her stance and gripped the window, easing it open very slowly. The old wood creaked and her heart pressed against her throat, a tight fist of trepidation.

And hope.

Within a matter of moments, she was inside. At first, she thought to leave the window open to aid their escape, but in this weather, that would surely draw unwanted attention.

After closing the window, she rubbed her arms, savoring the kitchen’s warmth. Without knowing where in this huge building she might find her brother, she resigned herself to searching every room on every floor if necessary. A narrow staircase drew her attention, and she decided upstairs made the most sense this time of night.

Her eyes readjusted to the darkness by the time she reached the next floor. She stood with her back pressed against the wall, waiting and wondering, listening to her heart pummel her ribs and echo through her head.

A lone lamp burned at the far end of the hall, and she inched along the wall until she came to the first closed door. With sweaty fingers, she turned the handle and peered inside. A lamp burned near the window, illuminating the room enough for her to see several cage-like iron cribs lined up against the far wall. Most of them were occupied by small bundles.

Oh, dear God. She held her breath and her throat burned with the need to vent her rage at this injustice. If she were rich, she’d take all the babies home and raise them herself. With a shudder and a powerful sense of futility, she left the room and proceeded to the next door.

On the fourth floor, she noted one door slightly ajar with light overflowing into the hall. She heard someone talking from inside, though the words were muffled. Still, something about the voice’s inflection and tone beckoned her.

Holding her breath, she peered through the open door. Joy surged through her when she recognized Robin sitting cross-legged on a narrow bed near the window. He clearly didn’t see or hear her as she stepped into the room, for he continued moving his hands and talking excitedly, reciting his favorite story.

He remembers. Mary’s determination renewed itself. She would find a way to take Robin away from here, to a place where they could live together again as brother and sister. Though he was six years her senior, he would always be her little brother in so many ways.

Her eyes blurred as she searched the stark room until her gaze came to rest on two men seated on the floor near Robin’s bed. They were staring up at him, hanging on his every word. One of them was very tall and dark, obviously an Indian. The other man was the complete opposite, and she knew if he stood he wouldn’t even reach her shoulder. She’d seen a man like him once—a midget, her father had called him.

At first, she remained in the shadows near the door, wondering if the men would try to stop her. But the expressions on their faces told her of the trust and adoration they obviously felt for her brother.

Robin continued the story, pronouncing some words in ways she knew most people wouldn’t understand. However, Robin’s audience, whoever they were, obviously understood.

Knowing she could delay no longer, Mary stepped into the lamplight. "Robin,” she said quietly. "It’s me, Ma—”

Robin leapt to his feet and rushed into her arms. "Maid Marian,” he whispered.

Hearing her father’s pet name for her made Mary’s heart flutter. "Yes, Robin. I’ve come for you.” She cast a furtive glance at the men, who now rose.

"This is Little John,” he indicated the towering Indian, "and that’s Friar Tuck.” He patted the smaller man on the shoulder.

Mary swallowed hard. "How nice. I’m pleased to meet you both.” She looked at her brother again. "We must hurry, Robin.”

"All right.” Obediently, he went to the corner and pulled on an old coat, several sizes too large. "Make haste, men.”

As Mary stared in surprise, the mismatched pair imitated Robin’s actions. The small man donned a coat far too large for his short frame, while the Indian wrapped a blanket around his shoulders.

"We go,” Little John said.

Friar Tuck put a fist on one hip and glowered up at Mary. "You’re but a child,” he said, shaking his finger at her. "But that’s all right, Maid Marian. I shall take care of you all.”

Mary realized that if she refused to allow the men to accompany them, they might alert the staff to Robin’s escape. "Very well then, follow me.”

"Where we going?” Robin asked, his eyes wide and filled with unconditional trust.

Praying for a miracle, Mary reached up to push a stray dark curl from her brother’s brow. With a smile, she said, "Why, to Sherwood Forest, of course.”


 

 

Chapter One

Indian Territory—1896.

SHERWOOD FOREST
NO TRESPASSING

SHANE LATIMER read the crude sign attached to a gnarled hickory and chuckled. He shook his blond head and rubbed the back of his aching neck. Though rain had made the trail almost impossible to follow, he’d made it.

Why had the outlaws marked their hideout with a sign? Either they were even more cunning than Shane had thought, or they were fools. Their reputation indicated the former.

He looked around, marveling at how drastically the terrain had changed once he left southern Kansas and entered the northeastern corner of Indian Territory. Some would deem the lush countryside paradise. Considering the amount of rain that had fallen on him since yesterday, the abundant foliage was understandable. But right now he’d trade his last strip of jerky for the hot Texas sun baking through his bones.

He had to give the Merry Men credit, though. They’d chosen the location for their hideout wisely. Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas were each less than a day’s ride from here, giving the outlaws a wide and varied area in which to practice their thievery.

Watery sunlight broke through the clouds as a mockingbird sailed past, distracting Shane from his daydreams. "Get your hide moving, Latimer,” he muttered to himself, peering beyond the sign and into the dense forest.

After all this time, he knew his backside wouldn’t part company with the saddle willingly, so he decided to remain mounted for now. With a sigh, he retrieved his canteen and took a long drink. Then, as he secured it to his saddle horn again, he saw him.

Half-naked and motionless, the man blended with the trees as if part of the forest. Shane swallowed hard, taking in the long black hair, the buckskin breeches, and the feathers adorning the man’s lance and headband.

An Indian in Indian Territory—no surprise there. However, the brave was as tall as many of the surrounding trees. Shane wasn’t exactly short, standing well over six feet himself, but he knew the giant would dwarf him.

And beat the hell out of him in a fair fight.

Of course, if it came to that, he’d manage somehow to swing the odds in his favor. With the reins laced through his gloved fingers, he allowed his hands to rest on his thighs, never shifting his gaze from the silent brave.

He could think of only one way to determine the man’s intentions. Slowly, Shane moved both hands to the pommel as he shifted his weight in the saddle. The contrast between creaking leather and dead silence gave him pause, but the brave didn’t even blink.

Shane raised a hand in greeting. "Nice day,” he said and touched the brim of his hat.

Silence.

"Well, I’ll be on my way then,” he said, gathering the reins.

The brave widened his stance and gripped his lance with both hands. "Who goes there?” he asked in a booming voice that sent birds fluttering from nearby trees.

Shane figured he had three choices. One, he could draw his gun and get rid of the problem, though killing was something he didn’t take lightly, and the brave hadn’t done anything to warrant killing. Yet. Two, Shane could turn and ride away in silence, or three, he could try to bamboozle his way past the brave. Maybe.

"Who goes there?” the Indian repeated.

"Well, who are you?” Shane grinned. No harm in trying.

"I am called Little John.”

Perfect. "Little?” Shaking his head, Shane chuckled. "I’m looking for someone. Maybe you’ve see—”

"Who goes there?” Little John asked again.

"I told you, I’m looking for—”

"You go.” The brave’s voice left no room for argument. "Leave Sherwood Forest.”

Shane stared long and hard at Little John, weighing his options and his chances. Damn.The giant’s stance and expression remained unwavering. Shane’s element of surprise was lost no matter what. Either the brave would warn the others, or a bullet fired from Shane’s gun would reveal his presence.

His decision made, Shane nodded and urged his horse to turn north. He’d have to circle back and ford the Verdigris. A menacing whir caught him by surprise.

His horse reared, throwing Shane from the saddle. He hit the ground hard and rolled away from the flailing hooves. Somehow, he maintained his grip on his pistol.

Squinting, he managed to fire two rounds, but missed the coiled snake.

The gunfire sent the mare into even greater panic just as the snake struck, impaling pearl-white fangs into the horse’s fetlock. The bucking frenzy would pump the snake venom through her large body that much faster. Shane had no choice but to end the animal’s suffering. God knew he didn’t want to do it.

Clutching his pistol, he rolled onto his hip to rise, but another eerie rattling turned his blood to ice. He swallowed hard, knowing the snake was close. Too close. He shifted his gaze to one side without moving his head, searching until he found the small rattler coiled, ready to strike. Again.

Stealthily, he cocked the hammer of his pistol, praying the metallic click wouldn’t prompt the snake to strike. Sweat dripped from Shane’s brow and pooled in his eyes, but he didn’t even blink.

The mare moved closer, still bucking but with less vigor. Fearing the horse would prompt the snake to strike, Shane pulled the trigger.

The mare’s hoof glanced off Shane’s temple and his shot went wild. Pain exploded through his head. Knowing what he had to do despite his blurred vision, Shane turned his gun on the mare and pulled the trigger. This way would be far more merciful than death by snakebite.

And where was that damned snake?

The mare went down instantly—Shane’s shot had been clean. She suffered no more. "Damn shame,” he whispered, gnashing his teeth.

As if from nowhere, Little John appeared, staring down at Shane like an indulgent parent. "Good horse. Great loss.”

"Yeah.” Shane tried to nod, but his head threatened to split with the slightest movement. He pressed his glove to his temple, then pulled it away bloodied.

The brave extended his large hand. Hesitating only a moment, Shane allowed the giant to haul him to his feet. He sensed he was in no danger—at least no immediate danger.

Little John had to be nearly seven feet tall, with silver streaks glistening in his blue-black hair. Barely reaching the Indian’s chin, Shane wondered how the hell he was going to get out of this mess.

"I need to see to my horse,” he said, tightening his grip on his pistol as he took two dizzy steps toward the mare. She lay on her side, unmoving, but he had to make absolutely sure. If there was one thing he couldn’t do, it was walk away from a suffering animal.

"Snake.”

Little John’s voice startled Shane, making him turn in midstep. Twin probes of fire pierced his calf, sending Shane immediately to his knees.

He’d forgotten the damned snake.

Stunned, his fingers went limp and his pistol fell impotently to the ground. Little John shot past him and grabbed the snake and sent his knife through it. It sure as hell wouldn’t bite anybody else.

But that wouldn’t save Shane or his horse.

Fire sizzled in his calf. Looking down, he saw the snake’s deadly yellow venom, tinged with streaks of his own blood, oozing from the twin holes in his jeans. The pain in his leg rivaled the constant throbbing in his temple.

Stiffly, he lowered himself to the ground and yanked a knife from his boot. Ignoring the blood trickling down the side of his face, Shane ripped the blade through his jeans until the fang marks were revealed.

The rattler had been small, comparatively speaking, but little ones had more potent venom. Still, after biting the mare it couldn’t have had much left. Maybe Shane had a chance, but he had to act fast. The wound on his head wasn’t helping matters any. His vision blurred and cleared.

Little John’s shadow loomed behind him as the sun again broke through the clouds. The brave reached down with his huge hand, holding it out for the knife.

"Help,” Little John said.

Indecision slashed through Shane. What choice did he have? With a sigh, he placed his knife, his trust, and his life in the Indian’s hand. "There’s whiskey in my saddlebags.”

While Little John retrieved the nearly full bottle of whiskey, Shane loosened the bandanna from around his neck and wound it tightly, just above his knee. He grabbed a sturdy stick and slipped it beneath the bandanna, then gave it a decisive twist. Then another.

Little John handed the whiskey bottle to Shane, who splashed some over the snakebite. He sucked in a sharp breath as the fiery liquid burned his wound. Then he tipped his head back and swallowed a generous amount. A far more pleasant warmth seeped through his veins, and he took another pull of the potent, numbing—at least he sure as hell hoped so—liquor.

With the bottle still clutched in his fist, he met Little John’s curious gaze. "Just do it,” Shane urged. "Now.”

Grunting, Little John made two clean slits on Shane’s leg, crisscrossing between the wounds left by the snake. Without speaking, the Indian sucked the poison from the cuts and spat on the ground repeatedly.

A wave of dizziness swept through Shane and he shuddered, knowing at least some of the venom had crept up his leg and into his blood. Only time would tell if he lived or died. He touched the side of his head again. Hell, he might survive the snakebite and still die from the blow to his head. That would make the snake victorious either way. Dead but victorious.

His vision blurred again as Little John continued his efforts. Shane fell sideways and hit the ground hard, his head landing in a mound of damp leaves near Little John’s bare feet. The earthy scents of mud and rotting leaves filled Shane’s nostrils, assuring him he was still alive. For now.

"Little John help more.”

The brave’s voice sounded far away, though Shane was vaguely aware of the giant’s strong arms sliding beneath his knees and shoulders. A moment later, Little John lifted him as if he weighed no more than a small child.

Swirling darkness, waves of dizziness, and unbearable nausea spiraled through Shane. His gut clenched and he retched, then swallowed great gulps of air to calm his gut. The snake’s venom couldn’t have worked this fast. It looked as if the blow to his head might prove more deadly than the snake.

But there was one problem that snake hadn’t taken into consideration. Shane Latimer was nowhere near ready to die.

Little John took a few jarring steps, then broke into a full run, sending shards of pain splintering through Shane’s head.

"Maid Marian make better,” Little John said forcefully, never slowing his pace.

Wondering what sort of insanity awaited him, and if he would live long enough to see for himself, Shane slipped into blessed oblivion.

MARY STEPPED outside the door and looked up at the sky, where patches of blue broke through at long last. For three weeks it had done nothing but rain.

Her gaze rested on her brother’s dark head bent over the task of restringing his bow. At twenty-seven, Robin Goode still possessed the mind of a boy, filled with mischief and fantasy.

With a sigh, Mary looked around the area surrounding their isolated cabins in the woods—home for the past eight years. Sometimes, when she permitted herself to remember her parents and their life in England at Briarwood, she found herself yearning for something more.

But her parents were gone, and here she had a home and what remained of her family. What else was there? A husband and children.

No. Drawing a deep breath, she banished such thoughts. Dreams and tears weren’t for her. She had responsibilities, and no time for daydreams or crying.

After all, this was a good place to live, with an abundance of game, water and fertile soil. Eight years. She and Robin were both grown now. They could probably return to civilization, but what if something happened to her? What about Robin? There was no doubt in her mind that the authorities would put him back in that asylum, or another one just like it. Or worse. No, she had to stay here with her brother and their haphazard family—misfits one and all.

Perhaps Little John was a little slow, but Mary knew he would do anything to protect Robin. The tall Indian was loyal and good-hearted.

Friar Tuck was a fussy little old man now, who’d appointed himself in charge of them all. He was a dear, sweet man, though sometimes a trifle on the bossy side. He’d never shown any signs of instability, other than his random recitations of Shakespeare and some strange scientific ranting no one understood.

They had no clue about his earlier life. According to both Little John and Robin, Tuck had arrived at the asylum shortly after Robin, so he hadn’t been there long before Mary came for them.

Yes, them.She smiled to herself, for fate had surely played a role in their situation. Though she’d gone to that dreadful place with only Robin in mind, now she couldn’t imagine their life without Little John and Tuck. Yes, fate...

Mary picked up her egg basket and headed toward the henhouse, inhaling deeply of the rain-washed air. Except for one unwelcome serpent that appeared from time to time, their Sherwood Forest was truly a Garden of Eden, especially in spring. A sweet profusion of honeysuckle bowed the fence around the henhouse, a startling contrast with the chicken yard’s typical stench.

She bent down to enter the squat log structure, but a shout stayed her.

"Maid Marian.”

Recognizing the urgency in Little John’s voice, Mary dropped her basket and hurried to where Robin had set aside his bow. They both stared into the woods from where the voice had come.

"Maid Marian,” the call came again. The sound of him crashing through the trees and underbrush heralded his arrival. "Need help.”

Winded, Little John paused before them with his burden. "Snake,” he said.

"Oh, no.” Cringing, Mary turned toward the cabin. "Bring him inside,” she ordered. "Robin, get my herbs from the shed. Quickly now.”

Little John ducked to enter the cabin and dropped to his knees beside the straw tick in the front room. Carefully, he deposited the unconscious man, then stepped away.

Mary’s attention was riveted to the man’s bare leg, red and distended below the tightly wrapped bandanna. "How long ago was he bitten?” she asked.

Little John looked out the window, tilting his head to see the sky. "Two—no, one hour.”

She smiled, realizing how hard he was trying to understand. For years, she and Tuck had tried to help both Robin and Little John with the concepts of time. They both grasped the passing of days, but they struggled with shorter intervals.

Turning her attention back to her patient, she looked at his face. Burnished golden hair curled around his handsome face and nearly touched his shoulders at the sides and back. A heated flush crept up her neck to her face as she noted the profusion of curls peeking from his open collar.

Ashamed for failing to concentrate on the man’s injuries, Mary followed the trail of dried blood on his cheek to the massive discoloration at his temple. She had no way of knowing which of his injuries was more serious. If the snake had bitten him only an hour ago, a man his size shouldn’t have been unconscious.

"Horse kicked,” Little John explained.

Robin rushed in, depositing a basket of herbs and bandages beside the bed. Mary knelt on the floor beside the wounded man to examine his leg more closely. Little John had thoroughly siphoned the venom. She squeezed the inflamed flesh around the fang marks gently but firmly. The man moaned in pain, but only clean blood oozed from the wounds—no trace of the noxious, straw-colored venom.

"You did well, Little John,” she said, reaching into her basket for a few items. "Bring the kettle, please. Careful, it’s hot.”

After Little John returned with the kettle, Mary stirred hot water into a wooden bowl filled with herbs until she had a thin paste. Adding a generous glob of red clay from the riverbank, she soon had the necessary consistency for a good poultice.

Fragrant steam wafted up from the mixture as she spread it thickly on the man’s leg. With any luck at all, the poultice would draw any lingering poison from the bite. "Robin, we’ll have to cut away his boot. His foot is too swollen to remove it any other way.”

Nodding, her brother grabbed a huge pair of shears from a shelf near the window. Mary watched him carefully cut through the soft leather, far enough for the boot to fall to the floor with a solid thunk.

"Thank you,” she said, and removed the man’s sock. His bare toes were icy, and the little one was already turning blue on the outer edge. She had no choice but to loosen the bandanna. And pray she wasn’t releasing more poison.

"Who is he?” she asked Little John as she turned the stick that held the twisted bandanna in place.

"Don’t know.”

Merely nodding in response, Mary rinsed a cloth in cool water and bathed the dried blood away from her patient’s face. Even with the discoloring and swelling, she could see he was a handsome man. He moaned again, and his eyes fluttered open for an instant. They were green and glazed with pain.

"Thirsty,” he whispered.

Excessive thirst was an expected consequence from a rattlesnake bite. Mary took the cup Robin handed her and dipped it into the pail of fresh water. Holding the back of the man’s head in one hand, she lifted him and held the cup to his lips. He drank greedily, then fell back against the bedding.

She felt his toes again and noted their color. They were still cold, but healthy pink had replaced the blue tinge. She could only hope that by saving his leg she hadn’t cost him his life. Biting her lower lip, she loosened the bandanna a little more.

She bathed his face again, noting the cut wasn’t serious, but the bruising was massive. All they could do now was keep him comfortable and try to satisfy his thirst. And pray.

Rising, she faced Little John. "What happened?”

Tuck came in during Little John’s recitation of the morning’s events. With a sigh, he shook his bald head and faced Little John. "Well, did he have anything with him? We need to know who he is in case he doesn’t make it.”

"Had a horse,” Little John said clearly. "Horse dead. Snake.”

Tuck rolled his eyes and shook his head. With an indulgent sigh, he tilted his head back to stare up—way up—at Little John. "Did the man have a saddle? Hmm? With saddlebags, perhaps?”

"Whiskey.” Little John nodded. "Yes.”

Mary stood beside Little John and took his hand. "You were very strong and brave today, my friend,” she said with complete sincerity, smiling when the Indian blushed with pride beneath his bronze complexion. "This man owes you his life.”

"If he lives.” Tuck folded his arms across his pudgy belly.

"True.” Mary could hardly argue that point, though she desperately wanted the stranger to live. She didn’t take time to ponder her reasons as she returned her attention to Little John. "Can you take Robin along to help you retrieve the man’s saddle and any other belongings?”

"Make haste, Little John,” Robin said, turning toward the door. "Lead me to saddle.”

Grunting in acknowledgment, Little John followed his friend and self-appointed leader toward the door.

"Be careful,” Mary called after her brother, as always. Robin paused at the door. Wrinkling his brow, he stared at the injured man. "I wonder...”

"What?” Mary looked at the stranger again, then back to her brother. "What is it, Robin?”

"Will Scarlet.”

 


 

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