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Ashes, East Winds, Hope that Rises: 4. Chapter Four
I kept my silence as Théoden ordered accouterments of war brought to our guests. Where they had come like whispers upon the grass they would leave as princes, bedecked in mail and jeweled shields. Gimli the Dwarf chose a smaller shield that had been our king's, when he was a boy. Then I could finally smile, at the vision of a Dwarf bearing the device of the House of Eorl. He saw the humor as well.
"Indeed sooner would I bear a horse than be borne by one," he said, dark eyes twinkling. "I love my feet better! But, maybe, I shall come yet where I can stand and fight."
I matched his smile readily, and thought that I would very much like to see this doughty warrior in battle. Yes, and I looked also at the shining eyes of Legolas the elf, and willed that we might all stand thus together. Not for love of battle did they come, however, but for love of the man beside them, Aragorn with calm drawn about him like the mirrored face of a deep pool. Yet I no longer envied them this, for my own lord stood forth in his rightful place at last. Though we might ride to defeat, we would live our last moments in savage freedom, and suddenly I wondered how much of this was owed to Aragorn, who remembered his promises and also brought salvation to my king.
Soon we were done and thence a cup was drunk, brought to each of us by Éowyn's fair hand. Aye, and there shone a light in her that had been too long dimmed, and she was beautiful as sun on white silk. If it was the smile of Aragorn, king-that-would-be that kindled it, I begrudged him not. Swift as lightning flashed the thought that hearts should not be given on the eve of war, but as swiftly I realized there might be no tomorrows in which to give them. Better it seemed to die with a living dream, than to live in silence and wait dying with no dreams at all.
And still the horns blew, crying down the long wind and echoing from house to meadow. From the fields rumbled the passage of many hooves, as horses were brought to saddle, and the high yips of the herders rang as cries of hoped-for victory. I could not but marvel as Théoden went once more before us, striding as in much younger days, with his hand upon his noble blade and purpose blazing in his eyes. I was grateful for Gandalf's cure - how could I feel otherwise? - but guilt gnawed a dull ache within me. How could we who most loved him have failed him so? How could we have not seen the deceit of Grima Wormtongue in time? How could we - could I - have let the man who became as father to me fall so far? Where in the name of all that was blessed had I been, that I had allowed Shadow to almost drain the very manhood from him?
At the end of his great hall Théoden paused, and turned to look at me.
"While I am attempting to set aright things too long neglected . . . ." He smiled an odd, sad smile and laid his hand upon my shoulder. "Can you forgive me, sister-son?"
He asked for my forgiveness? The shock could have been no greater had he slapped me. With Aragorn and his friends listening at our elbows, I felt my face flush hot.
"My lord," I stammered. "Speak not so! There is nothing to forgive! It is I who failed you. I stood useless while Wormtongue cast his foul lies."
"Nay," he rumbled quietly, and his fingers tightened as I fell silent. "You spoke, and you stood ever at my right hand, though I was as a man blind and deaf. Come now, Éomer, will you grant your pardon?"
I felt the warmth of his hand flood through me like poured honey, and found my throat suddenly too tight for me to more than whisper, "Yes, lord."
His eyes smiled like blue sky, and he chuckled gently. "And what of your sister? Will Éowyn forgive an old man's near-fatal foolishness?"
"My lord, she has forgiven you daily." I smiled as I followed the thought. "And twice daily, if it seemed needful."
He laughed, a golden and joyful sound, and smote my shoulder firmly as he turned away. Then he strode forth from his hall, and before all the chieftains and lords gathered there, he changed my life forever.
"I have no child," he said to their attentive silence. "Théodred my son is slain. I name Éomer my sister-son to be my heir."
The floor tilted under my feet and my ears felt briefly full, and thankful I was to lay eyes on Háma's faithful, smiling face. From behind a hand steadied me, Aragorn, I thought, and my king spoke on.
"If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will. But to some one I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?"
The only sounds were the soft rustle of clothing, a clink of mail, a scuff of shoes on stone. Verily, what man among them would stay, when Théoden rode at last to war - perhaps the last riding the Riddermark would make?
Nonplused, Théoden looked to his captains with keen eyes. "Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?"
"In the House of Eorl," answered Háma stoutly.
"But Éomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay. And he is the last of that House."
"I say not Éomer," Háma replied, and a knowing smile lit his face as his gaze shifted to the king's side. "And he is not the last. There is Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone."
Oh, Éowyn, my sister, mad we are, and mad the world had become. If all fails it will be you who stands among the shield-wall at the last gates, and my every wish is to spare you - but if I come not again to these halls, there can be no other. Though dread seized me, there was no staying the swift hand of fate. So it was declared and so it was done.
While Théoden spoke further to his lords I at last found myself at my sister's side. Éowyn stood now with the sword of her new office upright between her feet, hands lightly grasping the hilt, and I swept her into my arms, sword and all. The hard pommel gouged my ribs as I held her tightly, and I laughed into the magnificent fall of her golden hair. Hard and soft at once she was, bedecked now in cold mail and yet fragile as a dove in my arms.
"I will rue this day, I know," I chuckled. "You will find the moment to hound me as to whom the true master is - and I will have no choice but to bow before you."
"Fool," she grumbled, and pushed me firmly away, but her eyes were laughing. "The woman is ever master, when wit must suffice where strength fails."
"Indeed, my lady," I said, and placed my hands on her shoulders, the bones there slender and strong as bow staves, to give her a gentle shake. "And it is your wit that I should heed more, for we have already seen my strength fail."
"Speak not of that," she replied, her smile fading to solemnity. "Until this morning all our strength was failing."
"Aye." I looked over her head to the tall form of Aragorn, standing beside Théoden and Gandalf as they conversed earnestly with the chieftains. "We have both banner and Sword and a king to lead us, at last, and none of it looked for last night."
"Yes," Éowyn replied, and turned within the circle of my arm to also look. "Gandalf the Grey is returned White. Théoden King has found healing and himself. And the son of Arathorn walks out of legend, bearing a Sword older than memory - and reforged from a time when Men faced the same darkness."
"I think it is called hope, little sister," I said lightly, and grinned at the impatient glare she gave me.
"Hope," she said, and did not smile back. "Yet what hope for me?"
"Éowyn!" I exclaimed, but she stepped from my reach.
"I fear to grasp hope," she said softly, and I wished I dared lift the sorrowful dip of her chin. "Lest it be stolen from me. Even while it stands before me, hope seems but a passing bit of Sun among too many clouds. I am warm for the moment, but I will be cold again as soon as the clouds return."
Words failed me, for I am often confounded by the deep turns of feminine thought, but never so sadly as now. Already the light I had seen in her was faded, and I wished briefly, madly, that I could take her by the arms and shake some good sense into her. How could she not see it? None of us were promised long lives or ease, but here at last was our courage returned to us, our King standing boldly before us, and if in the end we must fail, we would fail while striving as free men.
And more, she was fit, she was worthy for the grave duty now thrust upon her, and she had our people's faith. Though I feared for her now more than ever, I trusted her in the duty she had been given.
"Éowyn," I said quietly. "Shadow and fear chills us all. I barely remember a day when it did not. But now is our time, you and I, to lend our strength to our people. My éored looks to me. Our people who must stay look to you." Carefully I reached to take the hand not occupied by her sword, and found her fingers cold. "Keep them for us, my sister. Keep a place for us to come back to."
"And what if you do not come back?" she asked softly, and suddenly I looked into eyes so naked with anguish that it frightened me. "How long do I wait in this house, looking out from this high porch, willing my eyes to see sign or dust or glint of spears that may never come again? Why must I forever stay and bid what might be our last farewell?"
"And what would you?" I spoke more harshly than I meant to, but the turn of her thought baffled and chilled me, at once. "Would you wish instead to see us fall? To see the men of the Riddermark cold in our own blood while the crows pick at our eyes? By all that is blessed, Éowyn, be thankful that you are spared this!"
"Spared?" She pulled her hand free of my clasp, and took a step back. "Mercy is not always kind, Éomer. But mercy I would wish for, if it spares me from the day when there is no one left between me and the Enemy, and the crows come for me."
"We are all alone, at the end." That was a cold warrior's truth that she must know.
"Never so alone as in the dark of unknowing!" she shot back. "Yes, I would rather see you in your own blood and know, than spend all my days smothering alone in supposed safety, wondering! I would rather follow and risk every sword and arrow that Isengard and Mordor possess, than linger here whilst all I love ride away to a doom I may never know."
With difficulty I smothered the urge to find something - anything - to throw with all my strength. Every word I chose struck ill, I wounded her where I would rather have offered comfort, and I could not for the life of me fathom what it was she sought. Fear and sorrow we long had shared, but whence came this sudden madness?
"Éowyn, there is no comfort in rushing to meet doom before its time."
"How would you know?" Her eyes blazed blue fire and her low voice was very nearly a growl. "Could you stay in my place, son of Éomund, and keep the floors swept and the kitchen neat until that doom bursts in the gates? Could you sleep, not knowing when you might be torn from your bed?"
"Woman, what do you want of me?" I demanded. "There are no certainties in this world, and I will not lie to give them to you! All I can give you - all any of us have - is that hope which has been returned to us!"
"Yes," she said softly, and was suddenly very still. She looked at me as if across some vast, impenetrable distance, and I had the sense that if I touched her she would shatter like ice sheathing a blade of grass. "Yes, we have hope. And when you leave, hope rides with you."
Words defied the grasp of my wit and the gaping of my mouth, and she turned from me, her head bowing so that the mantle of her golden hair fell forward, half-shielding her still face.
"Go to your men, brother. They will want you. I will see you before you go."
"Éowyn -." The words wanted to stick in my throat, yet desperation rose in me reach across that cold space now yawning between us. "Promise you'll wait. Please say you'll be here when I return."
She made no reply, nor did she look at me, and my fear grew. "Sister, promise me!"
"I will wait, brother," she said, and her voice was thin as a breeze beneath an ill-sealed door. "This once more, I will wait."
And so she stood apart from me on the porch of Théoden's great hall. She was my sister, mine in some soul-bound way that had held us since our parents died, mine to tease and to teach, mine to protect from nightmares and spiders and things that bump in the night. But now when she needed me most, it would seem I failed entirely. I would not have others know the helpless anguish fallen upon my heart, and I turned my eyes from Aragorn's questing glance as we started down the stairs. As much as I had lain at Aragorn's feet, what more might a woman's heart devise? Severely I turned my mind from the question. The muster of Rohan had begun, and I looked for Éothain as soon as the gate below swung open.
Ah, how they cheered, for the world moved beyond the concerns of a single man. A thousand Riders with a thousand spears saluted their king's coming with a paean of joy; Théoden! Théoden King! Ferthu Théoden hál! The baying of their voices rose like a swift wind, and hard hands smote my shoulders joyously in passing. Éothain I found easily amongst the jostling crush of horsemen, simply by the smile wreathing his face. To my surprise he rode towards me leading my horse, already saddled.
"We were waiting, Éomer," he said, and leaned from the saddle to seize my arm in an iron grip, white teeth shining. "For whatever you and our king might ask."
"Then what I ask, brother," I said, and returned his clasp tightly. "Is that you ride with me, and together we follow the Lord of the Mark to battle!"
His fierce growl of assent was all the reply I needed. However, my thoughts were grim as I took the reins and stood to assess the muster shaping around me. Though we seemed a steel-tipped sea of strength, suddenly I feared if that strength would be enough to stand between all whom we loved and the Shadow rising against us.
Tall Hasufel and quick Arod were brought with my king's mount, Snowmane, and I took pleasure in seeing my faith so truly rewarded. Neither cruel use nor unkindness marred the animals I had lent, and I was amused to see Arod still bare of either saddle or rein. Turning, I found Aragorn at my elbow, and once again felt myself pinned by that iron-grey gaze. Yet he smiled, the warmth of it at once casting aside my unease.
"Will you trust us with your horses once more?" he asked.
"Now, and always," I replied. "And if my word bears any least weight, there is no horse of the Riddermark you may not have, saving only the king's own."
Smiling briefly, Aragorn stroked his horse's long grey muzzle. "Hasufel serves me well enough. He is both faithful and strong."
"A match for his master, then," I replied. Then the matter of faith startled a long-forgotten thought back to my mind, though I hesitated to speak of it. "Aragorn, forgive me, but I would know, how was it with your quest? What news of your two friends, the Holbytlan?"
To my surprise, Aragorn's smile returned and birthed a sturdy chuckle. "The Hobbits are quite well, I am pleased to say. Better than we, in fact, for they are in the keeping of the Ents."
Certainly I must have stared like a simpleton, as there was open humor dancing in his eyes before I found voice again. "The Ents! Tell me you jest! The Entwood has long been a place of dark mystery, but I have not - I do not - how?"
Still smiling, Aragorn nonetheless answered in all seriousness. "I do not jest, Éomer, nor can I tell you more than this. The Ents have awakened, thanks to our young friends, and Isengard may well have greater foes than it knows."
I could only shake my head in amazement. "Next Eorl himself will come riding down like thunder from the hills, and then all legends will take flesh before us."
Arod suddenly flung up his graceful head and blew, and we turned to see what so drew his attention. There among the milling, stamping press of horses and Riders walked Legolas the Elf, tall and princely in the gleaming mail of our king, and beside him strode sturdy Gimli, with Théoden's shield slung upon his back and his battle ax laid upon his shoulder. One almost supposed the Dwarf feared he might have to hew a path through so many heavy bodies, lest he be trod upon.
"There is a most unlikely friendship," I said. "Legolas son of the Greenwood, and Gimli son of iron and stone. I should wonder what fires could forge such a union of such unlikely metal."
"Yet their faith is true as the steel they carry," Aragorn said. "To each other and to the task before us. My intent is simply to be worthy of that faith."
"You are their captain," I replied. "No matter what king leads us or what banners fly, it is you they follow."
He glanced down, then back at me, and there seemed a gentle shadow in his eyes. "We travel perilous ways, you and I. And yet our fear is never so much for ourselves, is it? We long ago accepted that our own hurts, even our own deaths await us as the possible wages of our endeavors. But we give our hearts to those who follow, and their loss is the scar slowest to fade."
My chest tightened at the sudden grasp of bitter memory. Fifteen men in a barrow at Fangorn's marge. Théodred my foster-brother newly dead at the Ford of the Isen. And so many others whose memories arose nigh to choking, that I was glad for the quick surprise of Aragorn's hand grasping my shoulder.
"Ah, and here they are!"
Legolas smiled in greeting, an expression of such bright good nature that I was pleased to have his favor. An auspicious portent as I judged it, considering we had begun by trying to slay each other. I would much rather have such fierce loyalty on my side.
"Poor Arod," he then said. "He had hoped for a cozy stable and extra corn."
He laughed while the horse bobbed his head as if in understanding, and then butted into the elf's chest. He drew his long fingers over Arod's snowy forelock and spoke in strange, soft liquid tones, Elvish I guessed. Watching while the horse snuffled and blew at Legolas' hands and the elf smiled back at him, I could only shake my head. The two of them appeared like nothing so much as oddly-matched children. Aragorn perhaps thought the same, for he wore an indulgent smile of his own.
Ah, but there was one more not to be overlooked, and I stepped past Legolas and his silly communion, leading my horse towards Gimli. Poor fellow, the Dwarf looked not at all happy amongst all that heavy-footed forest of horseflesh. Now, if ever, was my chance to mend a bridge between us. He marked me as I drew near, his dark eyes sharp as darts above the thick brush of his beard. One would never call him handsome, but there was a robust magnificence to both his form and the fierceness of his expression. Whatever he lacked in stature was more than matched in spirit, for his was truly a warrior's heart. Trusting this, there was more than a little recklessness in the greeting I gave him.
"Hail, Gimli Gloin's son!" I said. "I have not had time to learn gentle speech under your rod, as you promised. But shall we not put aside our quarrel? At least I will speak no evil again of the Lady of the Wood."
Stern his face remained, yet there was suddenly keen humor twinkling in his eyes, as he replied. "I will forget my wrath for a while, Éomer son of Éomund, but if ever you chance to see the Lady Galadriel with your eyes, then you shall acknowledge her the fairest of ladies, or our friendship will end!"
"So be it," I laughed. "But until that time pardon me, and in token of pardon ride with me, I beg. Gandalf will be at the head with the Lord of the Mark, but Firefoot, my horse, will bear us both, if you will."
The glance he cast my faithful Firefoot fell leagues short of enthusiastic, but he consented. Yet a Dwarf seemed ever mindful of bargains and conditions, his now being that Legolas should ride beside us. Little might he know that this was not my boon to grant, but my wish to ask for. Thus I looked with delight upon Legolas' handsome face - the elf through for the moment with bewitching his horse - and Aragorn's stern but kindly one.
"It shall be so," I said. "Legolas upon my left, and Aragorn upon my right, and none will dare to stand before us."
Aye, if we died, we at least would not die cowering in fearful darkness. Amid the shouts of men and the trampling of a thousand sets of eager hooves, I turned and swung to saddle without touching my stirrups. Legolas and Aragorn were also mounted, and I turned Firefoot dancing to find my new companion.
Sternly the Dwarf glared up at me. "You will use prudence in your governance of that beast, I trust?"
"He will bear you as gently as if you were my own grandmother, friend Gimli!"
Legolas joined in my laughter as he reached to take Gimli's ax. "Come, Gimli, I will vouch for your safety. And I promise I'll wait for you, if you should fall off."
Grumbling and huffing, Gimli managed, with greater spryness than I would have credited to him, to find his seat behind me. Nor did he clutch in unease, but instead settled himself neatly in place with his great ax hugged firmly to his shoulder.
"Master Legolas has taught you well," I said over my shoulder.
The growled reply at my back was echoed by Legolas' bright peal of laughter, and so we were ready.
Ready, aye, but for what? For battle, but my heart forebode that it would be like no battle we had ever known. Though my horse shifted light-footed and anxious beneath me suddenly I watched as if from a dream. All about me sprang the steely forest of Rohirrim spears, swaying and surging as though swept by a silent wind. Among the heaving sea of restless horses I noted with odd clarity the many hues of grey, whether dappled or steely or shining like silver, and red that gleamed like burnished copper. Long silvered fingers of sun reached through the many-hued clouds riding low upon the plains, and helms and faces were suddenly gilded in golden light. Bold faces, brave faces, laughing and waiting and fierce as birds of prey, and I would remember them. If I lived, I would remember them all.
Yet our lives were not to be kept, but to be spent dearly as rare coin and sharply as a driven sword. Though many might fall, would fall, we must not fail. Éowyn waited as all our folk waited, and we few were all that stood between them and destruction. Gandalf had hinted of a secret hope, of unseen events yet unfolding to the east, if we could only hold on, if we could but stand unbroken a little while more. And hold we must. Behind us would begin the sad exodus to the Hold of Dunharrow, babe and greybeard, wife and maid, all making the long trek up the ancient, twisting road to the Firienfeld. The Hold was thought a refuge none could breech, and yet they who had founded it were lost to the dusts of time. Would any remember us, who left only songs in the wind upon the grass?
For I was afraid. Not of death, but of leaving so very much behind. A great surge of emotion welled within me and I knew it at last for love. Love of all that I beheld, brave men and fine horses, the greening fields and the chill little breezes, the shifting silver sky that bathed the waking earth in bands of sunlight and sweet rain, and a slender figure in white and silver mail who stood atop the ancient stairs. How I loved them all - and how I would hate to go, when it seemed only now did I see how precious all were.
I turned my head to face that quiet voice, and was not surprised to find Aragorn beside me, tall Hasufel settling to stillness at my stirrup. Absently I noted that Aragorn's keen eyes were the same hue as the sun-touched grey clouds beyond. I wanted to speak, but found my throat too tight for words.
But perhaps he understood. He nodded slowly, and sighed as he rested both hands on his pommel, turning his gaze towards the cloud-caped mountains afar.
"Stand with me, I bid you, Éomer," he said. "We cannot choose the doom that awaits us, but we can choose who is beside us when we meet it."
I felt Gimli's strength waiting behind me and caught Legolas' fierce, hawkish glance, and knew I could choose no better. Then voices were clamoring for Gandalf's horse, bold Shadowfax who now refused the touch of any man. Where away was he? Down to the ford well below the hill of Meduseld, and yet he flung his head up at the wizard's carrying whistle, frozen at that summons like an ivory sculpture. Thinly on the damp breeze his reply rang back, a long, shuddering neigh of imperious defiance. Then he tossed his lordly head and towards us he came at a run, his long legs reaching and bunching in powerful strides, his tail a white banner and his mane a whipping flag. The swift play of muscle and bone beneath that shining coat seemed echoed in the very earth beneath his pounding hooves, and my heart rose as if in answering flight.
"Were the breath of the West Wind to take body visible," I breathed. "So it would appear."
Ah, a joy it was to see that magnificent creature thunder to us in a reckless flashing of hooves, and then tuck himself into a sliding stop that left furrows in the sod. One last toss of his head, and he walked mildly as a dog to the master of his choice. Softly Gandalf spoke, and his strong, gnarled hand caressed the noble head that bent to him.
"The gift seems already to be given," Théoden said, eyes twinkling, and then raised his voice to a firm, carrying tone. "But hearken all! Here now I name my guest, Gandalf Greyhame, wisest of counselors, most welcome of wanderers, a lord of the Mark, a chieftain of the Eorlingas while our kin shall last; and I give to him Shadowfax, prince of horses."
Then giving his thanks, Gandalf sprang astride with agility no one would imagine that old frame possessed, and neither saddle nor bridle was needed in that union between souls. Hatless and with his old grey cloak flung back from snowy robes, he was light embodied and a flag on a white wind. He was power and purpose and a beacon of hope, though Shadow reached black hands towards us from both East and West.
Beside me Aragorn suddenly laughed, a bright, fey joy in him to match my own.
"Behold the White Rider!" he shouted, and my people roared the cry back to him.
"Our King and the White Rider!" shouted a voice I knew as Háma's, and again roared a tide of answering sound. "Forth Eorlingas!"
Thus we rose on a wind of trumpets that swept us away in a torrent, outwards into the day and down upon the rain-sweet plain with thunder rumbling above and below. Let come doom, let come what may, we rode with hope - and hope rode beside me. Hesitation and doubt must be abandoned now, for there remained only one road before us. One road, which would end in Shadow for us all, or would pass us through Shadow to find the shining sun on the other side.
This day, I believed in the sun.
Author's Notes ~
NOTE 1: Special and fond thanks to my fellow adventurers at The Burping Troll - http://www.burpingtroll.com - you are my inspiration, my courage and my support. Thanks to Dwimmerlaik of Henneth Annun, for making me think, dammit, and to all who helped with my Éomer/Théodred questions. And special thanks to Adrienne for volunteer proof-reading and encouragement.
NOTE 2: The forty-five leagues traveled by the Three Hunters in search of Merry and Pippin is the American equivalent of 135 miles in about three and a half days - on foot.
NOTE 3: When one studies "The Lord of the Rings" as well as "The Unfinished Tales," there seems to be equal arguments as to whether Éomer knew of Théodred's death before he rode on his orc hunt, or after. However, I have written my depiction based on various factors which were brought to my attention, including things he and others said - or did not say - which would seem to preclude his having knowledge until after he returned to Edoras.
NOTE 4: Éowyn did wait as she promised, staying to aid and guide her exiled people in the Hold of Dunharrow until the Riders returned victorious from battle at Helm's Deep. Then, however, Aragorn returned only to ride to presumed suicide upon the Paths of the Dead, Théoden and Éomer rode away again to join Gondor in their last extremity, and Shadow at last darkened the skies as physical proof of the Dark Lord's power. Then Éowyn did forsake the duties her king left to her, apparently abandoning hope for life when it seemed there was no hope, and instead embracing hope for a death of her choosing, beside her brother and her king. When the Rohirrim rode one last time, among them went Éowyn Éomund's daughter in the guise of Dernhelm, a Rider of Rohan.
NOTE 5: Tolkien wrote Éomer as being surprised that Éowyn's despair ran as deep as it did, telling Aragorn in the Houses of Healing, "Yet I knew not that Éowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked upon you. Care and dread she shared ... but that did not bring her to this pass." However, I would doubt that Éowyn kept her heart entirely secret from him, supposing rather that her brother was submerged in the burden of his own concerns about war, treachery and a failing king, and he simply failed to pay closer attention to her warning signs. Thus I have allowed her to speak to him as she did in this story, as we are often blind to what afflicts those closest to us.
NOTE 6: I do employ direct quotes of Tolkien's dialogue at times which seemed unavoidable; your forgiveness and understanding is my blessing.
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