Count Roland Of France
Source: Myths And Legends Of All Nations.
The trumpets sounded and the army went on its way to France. The next
day King Charles called his lords together. "You see," said he, "these
narrow passes. Whom shall I place to command the rear-guard? Choose
you a man yourselves."
Said Ganelon, "Whom should we choose but my son-in-law, Count Roland?
You have no man in your host so valiant. Of a truth he will be the
salvation of France."
The King said when he heard these words, "What ails you, Ganelon? You
look like to one possessed."
When Count Roland knew what was proposed concerning him, he spake out
as a true knight should speak: "I am right thankful to you,
father-in-law, that you have caused me to be put in this place. Of a
truth the King of France shall lose nothing by my means, neither
charger, nor mule, nor pack-horse, nor beast of burden."
Then Roland turned to the King and said, "Give me twenty thousand
only, so they be men of valor, and I will keep the passes in all
safety. So long as I shall live, you need fear no man."
Then Roland mounted his horse. With him were Oliver, his comrade, and
Otho and Berenger, and Gerard of Roussillon, an aged warrior, and
others, men of renown. And Turpin the Archbishop cried, "By my head, I
will go also." So they chose twenty thousand warriors with whom to
keep the passes.
Meanwhile King Charles had entered the valley of Roncesvalles. High
were the mountains on either side of the way, and the valleys were
gloomy and dark. But when the army had passed through the valley,
they saw the fair land of Gascony, and as they saw it they thought of
their homes and their wives and daughters. There was not one of them
but wept for very tenderness of heart. But of all that company there
was none sadder than the King himself, when he thought how he had left
his nephew Count Roland behind him in the passes of Spain.
And now the Saracen King Marsilas began to gather his army. He laid a
strict command on all his nobles and chiefs that they should bring
with them to Saragossa as many men as they could gather together. And
when they were come to the city, it being the third day from the
issuing of the King's command, they saluted the great image of
Mahomet, the false prophet, that stood on the topmost tower. This done
they went forth from the city gates. They made all haste, marching
across the mountains and valleys of Spain till they came in sight of
the standard of France, where Roland and Oliver and the Twelve Peers
were ranged in battle array.
The Saracen champions donned their coats of mail, of double substance
most of them, and they set upon their heads helmets of Saragossa of
well-tempered metal, and they girded themselves with swords of Vienna.
Fair were their shields to view; their lances were from Valentia;
their standards were of white, blue, and red. Their mules they left
with the servants, and, mounting their chargers, so moved forwards.
Fair was the day and bright the sun, as their armor flashed in the
light, and the drums were beaten so loudly that the Frenchmen heard
Said Oliver to Roland, "Comrade, methinks we shall soon do battle with
"God grant it," answered Roland. "'Tis our duty to hold the place for
the King, and we will do it, come what may. As for me, I will not set
an ill example."
Oliver climbed to the top of a hill, and saw from thence the whole
army of the heathen. He cried to Roland his companion, "I see the
flashing of arms. We men of France shall have no small trouble
therefrom. This is the doing of Ganelon the traitor."
"Be silent," answered Roland, "till you shall know; say no more about
Oliver looked again from the hilltop, and saw how the Saracens came
on. So many there were that he could not count their battalions. He
descended to the plain with all speed, and came to the array of the
French, and said, "I have seen more heathen than man ever yet saw
together upon the earth. There are a hundred thousand at the least. We
shall have such a battle with them as has never before been fought. My
brethren of France, quit you like men, be strong; stand firm that you
be not conquered." And all the army shouted with one voice, "Cursed be
he that shall fly."
Then Oliver turned to Roland, and said, "Sound your horn; my friend,
Charles will hear it, and will return."
"I were a fool," answered Roland, "so to do. Not so; but I will deal
these heathen some mighty blows with Durendal, my sword. They have
been ill-advised to venture into these passes. I swear that they are
condemned to death, one and all."
After a while, Oliver said again, "Friend Roland, sound your horn of
ivory. Then will the King return, and bring his army with him, to our
help." But Roland answered again, "I will not do dishonor to my
kinsmen, or to the fair land of France. I have my sword; that shall
suffice for me. These evil-minded heathen are gathered together
against us to their own hurt. Surely not one of them shall escape from
"As for me," said Oliver, "I see not where the dishonor would be. I
saw the valleys and the mountains covered with the great multitude of
Saracens. Theirs is, in truth, a mighty array, and we are but few."
"So much the better," answered Roland. "It makes my courage grow. 'Tis
better to die than to be disgraced. And remember, the harder our blows
the more the King will love us."
Roland was brave, but Oliver was wise. "Consider," he said, "comrade.
These enemies are over-near to us, and the King over-far. Were he
here, we should not be in danger; but there are some here today who
will never fight in another battle."
Then Turpin the Archbishop struck spurs into his horse, and rode to a
hilltop. Then he turned to the men of France, and spake: "Lords of
France, King Charles has left us here; our King he is, and it is our
duty to die for him. Today our Christian Faith is in peril: do ye
fight for it. Fight ye must; be sure of that, for there under your
eyes are the Saracens. Confess, therefore, your sins, and pray to God
that He have mercy upon you. And now for your soul's health I will
give you all absolution. If you die, you will be God's martyrs, every
one of you, and your places are ready for you in His Paradise."
Thereupon the men of France dismounted, and knelt upon the ground, and
the Archbishop blessed them in God's name. "But look," said he, "I set
you a penance--smite these pagans." Then the men of France rose to
their feet. They had received absolution, and were set free from all
their sins, and the Archbishop had blessed them in the name of God.
After this they mounted their swift steeds, and clad themselves in
armor, and made themselves ready for the battle.
Said Roland to Oliver, "Brother, you know that it is Ganelon who has
betrayed us. Good store he has had of gold and silver as a reward;
'tis the King Marsilas that has made merchandise of us, but verily it
is with our swords that he shall be paid." So saying, he rode on to
the pass, mounted on his good steed Veillantif. His spear he held with
the point to the sky; a white flag it bore with fringes of gold which
fell down to his hands. A stalwart man was he, and his countenance was
fair and smiling. Behind him followed Oliver, his friend; and the men
of France pointed to him, saying, "See our champion!" Pride was in his
eye when he looked towards the Saracens; but to the men of France his
regard was all sweetness and humility. Full courteously he spake to
"Ride not so fast, my lords," he said; "verily these heathen are come
hither, seeking martyrdom. 'Tis a fair spoil that we shall gather from
them today. Never has King of France gained any so rich." And as he
spake, the two hosts came together.
Said Oliver, "You did not deem it fit, my lord, to sound your horn.
Therefore you lack the help which the King would have sent. Not his
the blame, for he knows nothing of what has chanced. But do you, lords
of France, charge as fiercely as you may, and yield not one whit to
the enemy. Think upon these two things only--how to deal a straight
blow and to take it. And let us not forget King Charles' cry of
Then all the men of France with one voice cried out, "Mountjoy!" He
that heard them so cry had never doubted that they were men of valor.
Proud was their array as they rode on to battle, spurring their horses
that they might speed the more. And the Saracens, on their part, came
forward with a good heart. Thus did the Frenchmen and the heathen meet
in the shock of battle.
Full many of the heathen warriors fell that day. Not one of the Twelve
Peers of France but slew his man. But of all none bore himself so
valiantly as Roland. Many a blow did he deal to the enemy with his
mighty spear, and when the spear was shivered in his hand, fifteen
warriors having fallen before it, then he seized his good sword
Durendal, and smote man after man to the ground. Red was he with the
blood of his enemies, red was his hauberk, red his arms, red his
shoulders, aye, and the neck of his horse. Not one of the Twelve
lingered in the rear, or was slow to strike, but Count Roland was the
bravest of the brave. "Well done, sons of France!" cried Turpin the
Archbishop, when he saw them lay on in such sort.
Next to Roland for valor and hardihood came Oliver, his companion.
Many a heathen warrior did he slay, till at last his spear was
shivered in his hand. "What are you doing, comrade?" cried Roland,
when he was aware of the mishap. "A man wants no staff in such a
battle as this. 'Tis the steel and nothing else that he must have.
Where is your sword Hautclere, with its hilt of gold and its pommel of
"On my word," said Oliver, "I have not had time to draw it; I was so
busy with striking." But as he spake he drew the good sword from its
scabbard, and smote a heathen knight, Justin of the Iron Valley. A
mighty blow it was, cleaving the man in twain down to his saddle--aye,
and the saddle itself with its adorning of gold and jewels, and the
very backbone also of the steed whereon he rode, so that horse and man
fell dead together on the plains. "Well done!" cried Roland; "you are
a true brother of mine. 'Tis such strokes as this that make the King
Nevertheless, for all the valor of Roland and his fellows the battle
went hard with the men of France. Many lances were shivered, many
flags torn, and many gallant youths cut off in their prime. Never more
would they see mother and wife. It was an ill deed that the traitor
Ganelon wrought when he sold his fellows to King Marsilas!
And now there befell a new trouble. King Almaris, with a great host
of heathen, coming by an unknown way, fell upon the rear of the host
where there was another pass. Fiercely did the noble Walter that kept
the same charge the newcomers, but they overpowered him and his
followers. He was wounded with four several lances, and four times did
he swoon, so that at the last he was constrained to leave the field of
battle, that he might call the Count Roland to his aid. But small was
the aid which Roland could give him or any one. Valiantly he held up
the battle, and with him Oliver, and Turpin the Archbishop, and others
also; but the lines of the men of France were broken, and their armor
thrust through and their spears shivered, and their flags trodden in
the dust. For all this they made such slaughter among the heathen that
King Almaris, who led the armies of the enemy, scarcely could win back
his way to his own people, wounded in four places and sorely spent. A
right good warrior was he; had he but been a Christian, but few had
matched him in battle.
Count Roland saw how grievously his people had suffered and spake thus
to Oliver his comrade: "Dear comrade, you see how many brave men lie
dead upon the ground. Well may we mourn for fair France, widowed as
she is of so many valiant champions. But why is our King not here? O
Oliver, my brother, what shall we do to send him tidings of our
state?" "I know not," answered Oliver. "Only this I know--that death
is to be chosen rather than dishonor."
After a while Roland said again, "I shall blow my horn; King Charles
will hear it, where he has encamped beyond the passes, and he and his
host will come back."
"That would be ill done," answered Oliver, "and shame both you and
your race. When I gave you this counsel you would have none of it. Now
I like it not. 'Tis not for a brave man to sound the horn and cry for
help now that we are in such case."
"The battle is too hard for us," said Roland again, "and I shall
sound my horn, that the King may hear."
And Oliver answered again, "When I gave you this counsel, you scorned
it. Now I myself like it not. 'Tis true that had the King been here,
we had not suffered this loss. But the blame is not his. 'Tis your
folly, Count Roland, that has done to death all these men of France.
But for that we should have conquered in this battle, and have taken
and slain King Marsilas. But now we can do nothing for France and the
King. We can but die. Woe is me for our country, aye, and for our
friendship, which will come to a grievous end this day."
The Archbishop perceived that the two friends were at variance, and
spurred his horse till he came where they stood. "Listen to me," he
said, "Sir Roland and Sir Oliver. I implore you not to fall out with
each other in this fashion. We, sons of France, that are in this
place, are of a truth condemned to death, neither will the sounding of
your horn save us, for the King is far away, and cannot come in time.
Nevertheless, I hold it to be well that you should sound it. When the
King and his army shall come, they will find us dead--that I know full
well. But they will avenge us, so that our enemies shall not go away
rejoicing. And they will also recover our bodies, and will carry them
away for burial in holy places, so that the dogs and wolves shall not
"You say well," cried Roland, and he put his horn to his lips, and
gave so mighty a blast upon it, that the sound was heard thirty
leagues away. King Charles and his men heard it, and the King said,
"Our countrymen are fighting with the enemy." But Ganelon answered,
"Sire, had any but you so spoken, I had said that he spoke falsely."
Then Roland blew his horn a second time; with great pain and anguish
of body he blew it, and the red blood gushed from his lips; but the
sound was heard yet farther than at first. Again the King heard it,
and all his nobles, and all his men. "That," said he, "is Roland's
horn; he never had sounded it were he not in battle with the enemy."
But Ganelon answered again: "Believe me, Sire, there is no battle. You
are an old man, and you have the fancies of a child. You know what a
mighty man of valor is this Roland. Think you that any one would dare
to attack him? No one, of a truth. Ride on, Sire; why halt you here?
The fair land of France is yet far away."
Roland blew his horn a third time, and when the King heard it he said,
"He that blew that horn drew a deep breath." And Duke Naymes cried
out, "Roland is in trouble; on my conscience he is fighting with the
enemy. Some one has betrayed him; 'tis he, I doubt not, that would
deceive you now. To arms, Sire! utter your war-cry, and help your own
house and your country. You have heard the cry of the noble Roland."
Then King Charles bade all the trumpets sound, and forthwith all the
men of France armed themselves, with helmets, and hauberks, and swords
with pommels of gold. Mighty were their shields, and their lances
strong, and the flags that they carried were white and red and blue.
And when they made an end of their arming they rode back with all
haste. There was not one of them but said to his comrade, "If we find
Roland yet alive, what mighty strokes will we strike for him!"
But Ganelon the King handed over to the knaves of his kitchen. "Take
this traitor," said he, "who has sold his country." Ill did Ganelon
fare among them. They pulled out his hair and his beard and smote him
with their staves; then they put a great chain, such as that with
which a bear is bound, about his neck, and made him fast to a
This done, the King and his army hastened with all speed to the help
of Roland. In the van and the rear sounded the trumpets as though they
would answer Roland's horn. Full of wrath was King Charles as he rode;
full of wrath were all the men of France. There was not one among them
but wept and sobbed; there was not one but prayed, "Now, may God keep
Roland alive till we come to the battle-field, so that we may strike a
blow for him." Alas! it was all in vain; they could not come in time
for all their speed.
Count Roland looked round on the mountain-sides and on the plains.
Alas! how many noble sons of France he saw lying dead upon them! "Dear
friends," he said, weeping as he spoke, "may God have mercy on you and
receive you into His Paradise! More loyal followers have I never seen.
How is the fair land of France widowed of her bravest, and I can give
you no help. Oliver, dear comrade, we must not part. If the enemy slay
me not here, surely I shall be slain by sorrow. Come then, let us
smite these heathen."
Thus did Roland again charge the enemy, his good sword Durendal in his
hand; as the stag flies before the hounds, so did the heathen fly
before Roland. "By my faith," cried the Archbishop when he saw him,
"that is a right good knight! Such courage, and such a steed, and such
arms I love well to see. If a man be not brave and a stout fighter, he
had better by far be a monk in some cloister where he may pray all day
long for our sins."
Now the heathen, when they saw how few the Frenchmen were, took fresh
courage. And the Caliph, spurring his horse, rode against Oliver and
smote him in the middle of his back, making his spear pass right
through him. "That is a shrewd blow," he cried; "I have avenged my
friends and countrymen upon you."
Then Oliver knew he was stricken to death, but he would not fall
unavenged. With his great sword Hautclere he smote the Caliph on his
head and cleft it to the teeth. "Curse on you, pagan. Neither your
wife nor any woman in the land of your birth shall boast that you have
taken a penny's worth from King Charles!" But to Roland he cried,
"Come, comrade, help me; well I know that we two shall part in great
sorrow this day."
Roland came with all speed, and saw his friend, how he lay all pale
and fainting on the ground and how the blood gushed in great streams
from his wound. "I know not what to do," he cried. "This is an ill
chance that has befallen you. Truly France is bereaved of her bravest
son." So saying he went near to swoon in the saddle as he sat. Then
there befell a strange thing. Oliver had lost so much of his blood
that he could not any more see clearly or know who it was that was
near him. So he raised up his arm and smote with all his strength that
yet remained to him on the helmet of Roland his friend. The helmet he
cleft in twain to the visor; but by good fortune it wounded not the
Roland looked at him and said in a gentle voice, "Did you this of set
purpose? I am Roland your friend, and have not harmed you."
"Ah!" said Oliver, "I hear you speak, but I cannot see you. Pardon me
that I struck you; it was not done of set purpose."
"It harmed me not," answered Roland; "with all my heart and before God
I forgive you." And this was the way these two friends parted at the
And now Oliver felt the pains of death come over him. He could no
longer see nor hear. Therefore he turned his thoughts to making his
peace with God, and clasping his hands lifted them to heaven and made
his confession. "O Lord," he said, "take me into Paradise. And do Thou
bless King Charles and the sweet land of France." And when he had
said thus he died. And Roland looked at him as he lay. There was not
upon earth a more sorrowful man than he. "Dear comrade," he said,
"this is indeed an evil day. Many a year have we two been together.
Never have I done wrong to you; never have you done wrong to me. How
shall I bear to live without you?" And he swooned where he sat on his
horse. But the stirrup held him up that he did not fall to the ground.
When Roland came to himself he looked about him and saw how great was
the calamity that had befallen his army. For now there were left alive
to him two only, Turpin the Archbishop and Walter of Hum. Walter had
but that moment come down from the hills where he had been fighting so
fiercely with the heathen that all his men were dead; now he cried to
Roland for help. "Noble Count, where are you? I am Walter of Hum, and
am not unworthy to be your friend. Help me therefore. For see how my
spear is broken and my shield cleft in twain. My hauberk is in pieces,
and my body sorely wounded. I am about to die; but I have sold my life
at a great price."
When Roland heard him cry he set spurs to his horse and galloped to
him. "Walter," said he, "you are a brave warrior and a trustworthy.
Tell me now where are the thousand valiant men whom you took from my
army. They were right good soldiers, and I am in sore need of them."
"They are dead," answered Walter; "you will see them no more. A sore
battle we had with the Saracens yonder on the hills; they had the men
of Canaan there and the men of Armenia and the Giants; there were no
better men in their army than these. We dealt with them so that they
will not boast themselves of this day's work. But it cost us dear; all
the men of France lie dead on the plain, and I am wounded to the
death. And now, Roland, blame me not that I fled; for you are my lord,
and all my trust is in you."
"I blame you not," said Roland, "only as long as you live help me
against the heathen." And as he spake he took his cloak and rent it
into strips and bound up Walter's wounds therewith. This done he and
Walter and the Archbishop set fiercely on the enemy. Five-and-twenty
did Roland slay, and Walter slew six, and the Archbishop five. Three
valiant men of war they were; fast and firm they stood one by the
other; hundreds there were of the heathen, but they dared not come
near to these three valiant champions of France. They stood far off,
and cast at the three spears and darts and javelins and weapons of
every kind. Walter of Hum was slain forthwith; and the Archbishop's
armor was broken, and he wounded, and his horse slain under him.
Nevertheless he lifted himself from the ground, still keeping a good
heart in his breast. "They have not overcome me yet," said he; "as
long as a good soldier lives, he does not yield."
Roland took his horn once more and sounded it, for he would know
whether King Charles were coming. Ah me! it was a feeble blast that he
blew. But the King heard it, and he halted and listened. "My lords!"
said he, "things go ill for us, I doubt not. Today we shall lose, I
fear me much, my brave nephew Roland. I know by the sound of his horn
that he has but a short time to live. Put your horses to their full
speed, if you would come in time to help him, and let a blast be
sounded by every trumpet that there is in the army." So all the
trumpets in the host sounded a blast; all the valleys and hills
re-echoed with the sound; sore discouraged were the heathen when they
"King Charles has come again," they cried; "we are all as dead men.
When he comes he shall not find Roland alive." Then four hundred of
them, the strongest and most valiant knights that were in the army of
the heathen, gathered themselves into one company, and made a yet
fiercer assault on Roland.
Roland saw them coming, and waited for them without fear. So long as
he lived he would not yield himself to the enemy or give place to
them. "Better death than flight," said he, as he mounted his good
steed Veillantif, and rode towards the enemy. And by his side went
Turpin the Archbishop on foot. Then said Roland to Turpin, "I am on
horseback and you are on foot. But let us keep together; never will I
leave you; we two will stand against these heathen dogs. They have
not, I warrant, among them such a sword as Durendal."
"Good," answered the Archbishop. "Shame to the man who does not smite
his hardest. And though this be our last battle, I know well that King
Charles will take ample vengeance for us."
When the heathen saw these two stand together they fell back in fear
and hurled at them spears and darts and javelins without number.
Roland's shield they broke and his hauberk; but him they hurt not;
nevertheless they did him a grievous injury, for they killed his good
steed Veillantif. Thirty wounds did Veillantif receive, and he fell
dead under his master. At last the Archbishop was stricken and Roland
stood alone, for the heathen had fled from his presence.
When Roland saw that the Archbishop was dead, his heart was sorely
troubled in him. Never did he feel a greater sorrow for comrade slain,
save Oliver only. "Charles of France," he said, "come as quickly as
you may! Many a gallant knight have you lost in Roncesvalles. But King
Marsilas, on his part, has lost his army. For one that has fallen on
this side there have fallen full forty on that." So saying he turned
to the Archbishop; he crossed the dead man's hands upon his breast and
said, "I commit thee to the Father's mercy. Never has man served God
with a better will, never since the beginning of the world has there
lived a sturdier champion of the faith. May God be good to you and
give you all good things!"
Now Roland felt that his own death was near at hand. In one hand he
took his horn, and in the other his good sword Durendal, and made his
way the distance of a furlong or so till he came to a plain, and in
the midst of the plain a little hill. On the top of the hill in the
shade of two fair trees were four marble steps. There Roland fell in a
swoon upon the grass. There a certain Saracen spied him. The fellow
had feigned death, and had laid himself down among the slain, having
covered his body and his face with blood. When he saw Roland, he
raised himself from where he was lying among the slain and ran to the
place, and, being full of pride and fury, seized the Count in his
arms, crying aloud, "He is conquered, he is conquered, he is
conquered, the famous nephew of King Charles! See, here is his sword;
'tis a noble spoil that I shall carry back with me to Arabia."
Thereupon he took the sword in one hand, with the other he laid hold
of Roland's beard.
But as the man laid hold, Roland came to himself, and knew that some
one was taking his sword from him. He opened his eyes but not a word
did he speak save this only, "Fellow, you are none of ours," and he
smote him a mighty blow upon his helmet. The steel he brake through
and the head beneath, and laid the man dead at his feet. "Coward," he
said, "what made you so bold that you dared lay hands on Roland?
Whosoever knows him will think you a fool for your deed."
And now Roland knew that death was near at hand. He raised himself and
gathered all his strength together--ah me! how pale his face was!--and
took in his hand his good sword Durendal. Before him was a great rock
and on this in his rage and pain he smote ten mighty blows. Loud
rang the steel upon the stone; but it neither brake nor splintered.
"Help me," he cried, "O Mary, our Lady! O my good sword, my Durendal,
what an evil lot is mine! In the day when I must part with you, my
power over you is lost. Many a battle I have won with your help; and
many a kingdom have I conquered, that my lord Charles possesses this
day. Never has any one possessed you that would fly before another. So
long as I live, you shall not be taken from me, so long have you been
in the hands of a loyal knight."
Then he smote a second time with the sword, this time upon the marble
steps. Loud rang the steel, but neither brake nor splintered. Then
Roland began to bemoan himself. "O my good Durendal," he said, "how
bright and clear thou art, shining as shines the sun! Well I mind me
of the day when a voice that seemed to come from heaven bade King
Charles give thee to a valiant captain; and forthwith the good King
girded it on my side. Many a land have I conquered with thee for him,
and now how great is my grief! Can I die and leave thee to be handled
by some heathen?" And the third time he smote a rock with it. Loud
rang the steel, but it brake not, bounding back as though it would
rise to the sky. And when Count Roland saw that he could not break the
sword, he spake again but with more content in his heart. "O
Durendal," he said, "a fair sword art thou, and holy as fair. There
are holy relics in thy hilt, relics of St. Peter and St. Denis and St.
Basil. These heathen shall never possess thee; nor shalt thou be held
but by a Christian hand."
And now Roland knew that death was very near to him. He laid himself
down with his head upon the grass, putting under him his horn and his
sword, with his face turned towards the heathen foe. Ask you why he
did so? To show, forsooth, to Charlemagne and the men of France that
he died in the midst of victory. This done, he made a loud confession
of his sins, stretching his hand to heaven, "Forgive me, Lord," he
cried, "my sins, little and great, all that I have committed since the
day of my birth to this hour in which I am stricken to death." So he
prayed; and, as he lay, he thought of many things, of the countries
which he had conquered, and of his dear fatherland France, and of his
kinsfolk, and of the good King Charles. Nor, as he thought, could he
keep himself from sighs and tears; yet one thing he remembered beyond
all others--to pray for forgiveness of his sins. "O Lord," he said,
"who art the God of truth, and didst save Daniel Thy prophet from the
lions, do Thou save my soul and defend it against all perils!" So
speaking he raised his right hand, with the gauntlet yet upon it, to
the sky, and his head fell back upon his arm and the angels carried
him to heaven. So died the great Count Roland.
Next: The Cid
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