| Gods and Heroes|
|by Robert Edward Francillon|
|One of the best introductions to Greek mythology for children. Includes the stories of all the prominent gods and heroes, woven together into a continuous narrative, ending with a full treatment of the twelve labors of Hercules. Ages 8-12 |
THE GOLDEN FLEECE
HEN Æson, who was King of Iolcos, began to
grow old, he left his kingdom to his infant son,
Jason. But the throne was usurped by his uncle
Pēlĭas, who forthwith consulted an oracle as to what
he should do to make himself secure. The answer of
the oracle was strange. It was—"Fear nobody who
cometh not with and without a shoe."
"There is nothing very alarming about that,"
thought Pelias; so, instead of having Jason killed, as
he had first thought of doing, he sent away the child
into Thessaly, a long way off, among the people called
Centaurs, hoping that he would never hear of him again.
The Centaurs were a very singular race. They
were half man and half horse, as if a man's body down
to the waist were set upon a horse's shoulders. Thus
they had a horse's four legs for running, and a man's
head and arms for thinking and fighting: they were
famous archers, very learned, and very brave. Their
most famous chief was Chiron, who, besides being
their best archer, was also a great philosopher and
physician. Chiron, struck by Jason's quickness, became
 his teacher, so that the young prince grew up skilled
both in all manly exercises and in every branch of
When he had become a man, the Centaur thought it
only right that he should know his birth and parentage,
and should have a chance of regaining his father's
throne, since he was so fit to be a king. But first he
consulted the oracle, which gave to Chiron as strange
an answer as it had given to Pelias—"Who seeks a
crown shall wear the leopard's hide."
So Jason, by Chiron's counsel, went out hunting,
and, having killed a leopard, dressed himself in its
skin. Then he set out, on foot and alone, for Iolcos;
and proceeded without anything happening to him,
until he reached a mountain-torrent, so deep, so broad,
and so strong, that the best of swimmers could not
hope to reach the other side.
He was gazing at the torrent, wondering what he
should do, when a very old woman, bent and lame,
came hobbling by, and asked him why he stared so
sadly at the stream.
"Reason enough," said he, "when the water is
keeping me from a kingdom."
"Is that all?" asked the old woman; "I can soon
put that right for you. I am going across myself; and
I'll take you on my back with the greatest pleasure in
 Jason thought she was laughing at him. But something
about her—he could not tell what—made him
feel that she was no common old woman; and even as
he looked her back seemed to straighten itself and her
figure to enlarge. No; she was certainly not joking:
her smile was only friendly and kind. It might not
be very dignified for a rightful king to enter his kingdom
dressed up in a leopard's skin and riding on the
back of an old woman, and it did not seem very safe,
either. However, as there was certainly nothing else
to be done, he got upon the back of the old woman,
who at once stepped out into the raging stream.
How strong the flood was he could tell from the
forest-trees which it had torn up by the roots and was
carrying away headlong. But while Jason's brain
reeled with the whirl, the old woman remained as
steady as a rock, and strode through the deepest and
roughest places with ease. In a wonderfully short
time Jason reached the other side, with no worse mishap
than the loss of his left shoe.
"Never mind that," said the old woman. "The river
is bound to have something. You have only given it a
shoe; most people have to give it their lives."
"But what do you give it then?" asked Jason.
"Oh, the gods go toll-free," said the old woman.
"I am Juno." And before Jason had recovered from
his surprise, she was gone.
 Jason continued his journey till he reached Iolcos,
where the oddity of a man dressed in nothing but a
leopard's skin soon gathered a crown around him.
The news of the sight spread about till it reached the
ears of King Pelias himself, who came out of his palace
to discover what was going on. But as soon as he
caught sight of the stranger in the leopard-skin he
started with dismay. There stood a man with a shoe
and without a shoe—just what the oracle had warned
him to fear!
Seeing that it was the king, Jason at once went up
to him, and said—
"I am Jason, son of Æson. Give up to me this
kingdom, which is rightfully mine!"
His boldness and his royal bearing had a great effect
upon the people, who hated Pelias, and were glad to
welcome back the rightful heir. They set up a great
shout for Jason, which alarmed Pelias still more; and
many of them pressed forward with drawn swords.
But Pelias, if he had not much courage, had plenty
of craft. And so he answered, after a moment's
"Why, of course you shall have what is your own.
Do you think I want to rob you—to keep what is not
mine for a single day! I am only too glad to welcome
you, my dear nephew, home again. I have been wondering
what had become of you, and not till after
 long searching did I give you up for lost. I think you
will find that I have taken good care of your kingdom
while you have been away. I deserve some credit for
having had all the hard work, while you, no doubt,
have been going about and amusing yourself. I am
very glad to see you—indeed I am."
Jason was rather surprised to find everything so easy,
and his uncle so friendly. Indeed he hardly knew
what to say.
"I am only eager to enter upon my duties," said he
at last; "and I shall look to you to help me to govern
"That is the right spirit," said Pelias. "So I will
tell you the first of your duties; one that I rejoice to
give over to better and younger hands than mine. It
is difficult and even dangerous—"
"All the better," said Jason. "It will bring all the
"You are an admirable young man! Well, you
must know that many generations ago King Athămas
of Thebes married a princess of Cloudland, named
Nĕphĕle, and had two children, Phryxus and Helle.
Nephele going mad, he divorced her, and married the
princess Ino, and had two children more. Ino hated
Nephele's children, because they stood in the way of
her own. So, being a witch, she desolated Thebes by
a plague, and got a false oracle to declare that the
 plague should never cease so long as Phryxus and Helle
were alive. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly," said Jason. "Except that I don't see
what all this old family history has to do with me."
"Patience, and you will see," said Pelias. "Just as
Phryxus and his sister Helle were about to be sacrificed,
a winged ram, with a fleece of pure gold, came out of
the sea, took the brother and sister on his back, and
flew away with them through the air. Unluckily, while
they were flying, Helle turned giddy, tumbling off the
ram's back, and was drowned. You have heard of the
Hellespont, I suppose? Well, this is the part of the
sea where Helle fell. Phryxus, however, arrived safely
at the Court of Æētes, King of Colchis, beyond the
great Black Sea, where he sacrificed the ram to Jupiter,
out of gratitude for his escape; but kept the golden
fleece and married the king's daughter. At last Æetes,
wanting the fleece for himself, murdered Phryxus.
There—do you see your royal duty now?"
"I cannot," said Jason, "honestly say that I do."
"What? Why, Phryxus was the son of Athamas,
who was the son of Æolus, who was the father of
Cretheus, who was the father of Æson, who is the
father of you. It is as clear as day that Phryxus was
your own first cousin once removed. And what duty
can be clearer than avenging the murder of a first
cousin once removed? Especially when the murderer
 has a fleece of pure gold waiting for some brave man to
bring away. It is so clear a duty that, if you decline
it, I will undertake the adventure myself, old as I am,
rather than let the wrongs of our royal house go
Now glory was Jason's ruling passion. He would
have felt disgraced if he had declined any adventure,
however difficult it might be: and the greater the
danger, the greater the glory.
So he had it announced through Iolcos and all the
neighboring countries that he had undertaken the
Adventure of the Golden Fleece, and that all brave
knights who desired to share in its perils and glories
would be welcome. The effect of the proclamation was
something wonderful. Iolcos was speedily thronged
with princes and knights, the best and noblest of all
Greece, eager to take part in the expedition; so that
Jason found himself captain of a host the like of which
for birth and valor had never been seen—fifty chiefs,
and every one of them known to fame. It would be
too long to name them all. But I must mention "the
great twin brethren," Castor and Pollux, whom you
know by more than name: and Orpheus the minstrel,
and that other great minstrel, Amphīon, whose music
had built the walls of Thebes: and Autŏlycus, the
craftiest, and Nestor, the wisest, of all mankind: and
Hercŭles, the son of Jupiter, of whose deeds you will
 read hereafter: and Mĕlĕăger, who had also a famous
story of his own: and Theseus of Athens, with whom
you will also meet again,—all these and all their comrades
were, like their captain, in the very flower of
their youth, strength, and valor. Atalanta, a princess
of Scyros, a great huntress, joined the expedition disguised
as a man: and Æsculapius was its surgeon and
The next thing was to build a ship to carry so large
a company across the great and terrible Black Sea,
which the Greeks called the "Euxine," or "Friendly"—giving it a good name just because they were afraid
to give it a bad one, lest it should be angry. The ship
was at last built, and called the Argo.
The "Argonauts," as Jason and his company are
called—that is to say, the crew of the Argo—set sail
in great state and honor from a port of Thessaly, crossed
the Ægean Sea, passed through the Dardanelles into
the Sea of Marmora (as those parts are now called), and
then through the Hellespont, the strait where Helle
had been drowned, into the Black Sea.
From end to end of these dark and dangerous waters
the good ship Argo sailed without mishap, save the
death of its pilot, Tīphys, soon after starting. Erginus
took his place at the helm. But I cannot help thinking
that there was another reason for the good luck of the
Argo. For once, when a great storm arose and
threat-  ened shipwreck, suddenly two flames of light were seen
to play round the heads of Castor and Pollux, and
forthwith the wind fell and the waves became calm.
You know that—
"Safe comes the ship to haven,
Through tempests and through gales,
If once the great Twin Brethren
Sit shining on the sails";
and if this was the virtue of their spirits after death,
one may be certain that it was a good thing to have
Castor and Pollux on board during their brave and
blameless lives. Those two flames of light are still
often seen hovering about a ship in stormy weather,
and sailors still believe them to be of good omen.
After a long voyage, the Argo arrived safely at Æa,
the capital of Colchis, where dwelt King Æetes, the
same who had murdered Phryxus. Colchis proved to
be a rich and fertile country, inhabited by a people
curiously like the Gypsies, with very dark complexions
and black hair, dressed in brightly colored linen which
they alone knew how to weave and dye. They claimed
to be descended from a tribe of Egyptians who had
wandered thither ages ago; and they had many other
secrets which none but they and the Egyptians knew.
Jason, at the head of his company, went before King
Æetes, and demanded from him the Golden Fleece.
 Æetes received him in state, sitting upon his throne;
and, after hearing Jason's demand, answered:—
"Far be it from me, a mere barbarian chieftain, to
refuse what is asked of me by so noble an embassy of
princes and heroes. I would even now deliver up to
you the Golden Fleece, were it in my power. But how
can I give it to you when it is guarded, even from myself,
by two fierce bulls with brazen horns, which
breathe forth flame, and are a match for armies? Before
you can obtain the fleece, you must first tame these
Jason desired nothing better. So he and all his comrades
went into the field where the bulls were, and
endeavored to bind them. But neither he, with all his
courage, nor the craft of Autolycus, nor the might of
Hercules, nor the courage, skill, and strength of the
whole company together, could prevail against the bulls,
who breathed fire, and gored right and left with their
brazen horns. There was work for Æsculapius that day.
King Æetes had known very well how it would be;
but Jason, when night came, retired to the chamber
which had been assigned to him in despair. Midnight
found him still waking, when the door opened, and
there stood before him, holding a lamp, a tall and
beautiful woman, dark-skinned, black-eyed, and with
long black hair—beautiful, as I have said, but terrible
in her beauty.
 "You have no cause for shame," said she, in a softer
voice than he would have expected. "They were
enchanted bulls: and not ten times your number would
have fared better. This is a nation of enchanters,
whose king knows how to laugh you Greeks and your
boasted bravery to scorn. But I am the greatest of all
enchanters; and I will teach you how to tame the bulls—if
you will promise me one thing."
"Anything!" said Jason. "Only tell me who you
are, and what you require of me."
"I am Medēa, the king's daughter," said she. "And
what I require is that you shall marry me this night in
the Temple of Hecate, the Queen of Witches, and that
you will swear before her altar to be true and faithful
to me forever."
"Gladly," exclaimed Jason, who, to succeed in his adventure,
would have gladly sworn anything to any one.
So he followed her to the Temple of Hecate, the
Witch-Queen, and there, with many strange and dreadful rites,
he married her, and swore to be true and
faithful to Medea forever. Then she gave him a magic
herb, and said:—
"This will tame the bulls." And she also gave him
a sling and a stone, adding, "Use this when there is
The next morning Jason went into the field alone.
As soon as the scent of the herb reached the bulls'
 nostrils they crouched at his feet; and when Æetes
and his Court, and the Greek princes with them, came
forth, lo! there was Jason quietly driving a plough
drawn by the bulls, who were now as tame as common
"Some one has been betraying me," thought the
king angrily. But he hid his anger, and said: "You
have done very well so far. I am sorry to say, however,
that the Golden Fleece has other guards. Do
you see these serpents' teeth? You must sow these in
the furrow you have made with your plough—and
then the gods help you if they can."
So Jason, having finished his ploughing, sowed the
serpents' teeth as if they were seeds of corn. And then
from that seed sprang up, in less than an hour, a strange
harvest—an army of giants, as many as the stalks of
wheat in a wide field, who rushed upon Jason and the
Greeks, and trampled them to the ground.
And every one of them would have been slain had
not Jason bethought him of Medea's sling and stone.
Aiming at the chief of the giants, he let fly, and
straightway the army vanished like the phantoms of a
The king began to be afraid, for he was coming to
an end of his spells. He felt sure he had been betrayed,
but could not guess the traitor. But again he pretended
friendship, and said: "That, too, was very well done.
 I see there is something in you Greeks, after all. But
it grieves me to the heart to tell you that the most
terrible guards of the Golden Fleece still remain—a
mighty dragon that never sleeps, but watches the
Fleece night and day. If you can kill him—why
"I can but try," said Jason. So he and his comrades
were guided by winding paths to the foot of a tree on
which hung the Golden Fleece, splendid in the sun.
But at the foot of the tree was a dragon that could
have devoured ten times as many, armor and all, with
one crunch of his jaws. And he breathed forth such
fiery pestilence that none could come near.
Truly it seemed at last as if the adventure was to be
But, at midnight, Medea came to Jason as before,
and gave him another herb, and said, "Take this—and
remember your vow."
Jason was not thinking of the vow, but only of the
dragon. The next morning he set forth alone, and
having found his way to the tree, waved the herb
before the monster. No sooner had the smell of it
reached its nostrils than its eyes began to droop and
close, and presently the ever-watchful dragon was sleeping
soundly. Instantly Jason darted past him, snatched
the Golden Fleece from the tree, and hastening back to
the palace, displayed it before the king's astonished eyes.
 "Seize the robber!" cried King Æetes, to his guards.
But he had come to an end of his enchantments: Jason's
comrades rallied round their captain with drawn swords,
and made for the shore.
The king raved and stormed. "Fetch Medea to me,"
he cried; "she shall raise such a tempest as will sink
the foreign pirates to the bottom of the sea." But even
as he spoke, in ran one of the slaves with the news—
"The Princess Medea—the Greeks are carrying her
"Medea—against her will? No!" cried the king,
who now knew who had betrayed him. "There is no
power on earth that could make her captive, or carry
her away unless she chose to go. Absyrtus," he said,
turning to his son, "hasten after those brigands, and
bid your sister return, and I will follow with my whole
army to cut them off from their ship and destroy them
The news was true: Medea was so passionately in
love with Jason that she had forgotten her father and
her country, and was even now guiding the Greeks
back to where the Argo lay. But, great enchantress
though she was, she was not all-powerful, and she knew
that her spells would be in vain against her own people.
And her father and her brother knew this too.
Her ears were quick, however; and while the Greeks
were still far from the shore, she heard the footsteps of
 Absyrtus swiftly tracking them; and what was worse,
she heard, further off, a tramp and clash, which told
her that the whole Colchian army was in pursuit at
"Hasten on," she said to Jason. "I will wait here."
So, while he and the Greeks pressed forward, she
faced round and stood in the middle of the path until
Absyrtus came up with her. Before he could utter a
word, she plunged a dagger into her brother's heart, cut
off his head and limbs, and then slowly followed Jason,
dropping a bleeding limb in the path every few yards.
Things happened just as she intended. When King
Æetes, riding fast at the head of his horsemen, saw his
son's head lying in the path before him, he threw himself
from his horse with a cry of grief; and seeing what
lay further along the ground, forgot everything else,
even the Golden Fleece, in his sorrow. The cruel
witch, Medea, had foreseen that her father would never
leave the remains of his dead son ungathered and
unburied by the wayside, for the advancing horses to
trample and for the vultures to devour. King Æetes
was so long in seeking for the last limb that, by the
time it was found, Jason and the Greeks had reached
their ship and had set sail, and Medea with them.
But the murder of Absyrtus seemed to cling like a
curse to the Argo, and to keep her from coming home.
 Driven out of her course by storms and contrary winds,
she wandered into unknown oceans, drifting even so
far as the wild and desolate islands of Britain, in the
mysterious Northern Sea. The Argonauts narrowly
escaped being devoured, ship and all, by the horrible
sea-fiend Scylla, with twelve feet, six hideous heads,
each with three rows of teeth, and a body made of
barking dogs, who sits upon a rock and watches for
sailors. And, just avoiding her jaws, they nearly fell
into the whirlpool of Charybdis, another sea-fiend, so
close to Scylla that it was hardly possible to escape one
without being destroyed by the other. They passed
the island of the Sirens, of whom you read in the story
of Neptune, and would have fallen victims to their
singing had not Orpheus made such music on his lyre
that the Sirens ceased their own song to listen, and let
the ship pass by.
I do not know what Medea was doing all this while.
Perhaps she was powerful only on land; perhaps she
could do nothing without her magic herbs; perhaps
her passion for Jason had made her weak; perhaps she
felt some touch of remorse; perhaps her wicked witch-craft
was of no effect in the presence of Æsculapius,
who, knowing more magic even than she, used his
knowledge for helping and healing. But I do know
that Jason was beginning to suffer sorely because of
the vow he had made of his faith and life to Medea,
 and to feel that murder and black magic, and a wife
whom he dreaded and did not love, were too high a
price to pay even for glory. He was not like Perseus,
who had warred against evil with the weapons of the
gods: Jason had sought only his own glory, and had
gained it by means hateful to gods and men.
But his comrades knew nothing of all this—to them
he was a hero of heroes, and they made the wanderings
of the Argo famous for something better than narrow
escapes from peril. They cleared the sea of pirates—a
work in which Castor and Pollux especially distinguished
themselves; and they righted many wrongs,
and carried the knowledge of the gods among far away
barbarian tribes. And at last they saw once more the
coast of Greece; at last they touched the land of Călydon,
where the father of Meleager, one of the Argonauts
whom I have already named, was king.
Now this Meleager had a charmed life. The three
Fates had been present at his birth—the first had given
him courage; the second, strength; but the third had
decreed that he should live only so long as a log of
wood, then burning upon the hearth, should remain
unconsumed. So his mother, Althæa, had forthwith
snatched the brand from the burning, and had kept it
with care, because upon it depended the life of her son.
Meleager welcomed Jason and his companions to Calydon;
but they no sooner landed than they heard evil
 news. The whole country was being laid waste by a
huge boar, which not even armies could kill.
Here was another adventure for the Argonauts.
They proclaimed a great hunt, and tracked the boar,
through mountains and forests, to his very den. In
front of the hunters were Meleager; but next to him
came Atalanta—that famous huntress, swift-footed as
Diana, who had sailed with the Argonauts in the disguise
of a man, and had betrothed herself to Meleager
while they were homeward bound. They followed the
rest, vying with each other which should be foremost;
and besides the Argonauts were the princes and nobles
of Calydon, led by the two brothers of Althæa, who
still kept the fatal fire-brand secure.
They drove the boar to bay at last, and, after a
desperate struggle, Meleager gave it its death-blow.
All his companions rejoiced at his good fortune;
but when he gave the boar's head, as a trophy, to
Atalanta, the two brothers of Althæa stood forth and
"It is not right to give such honor to a woman—a
woman who has no more right to it than we. Such
trophies are for men!"
So saying, they tried to seize it from her. But
Meleager, enraged at the insult to Atalanta, defended
her with his sword, and so unfortunately well that both
his uncles were slain.
 Althæa, watching from her window for the return of
the hunters, at last saw them pass mournfully, bearing
the bodies of her dead brothers. "Who has done this?"
she cried; and being told it was Meleager, she cursed
him, and, in her grief and passion, threw the fatal brand
upon the hearth, where it was caught by a flame.
Meleager, though still far off, was forthwith seized with
scorching pains in all his limbs. As the brand burned,
so he burned also, and when it was consumed, a flame
seemed to clutch his heart, and he fell dead in Atalanta's
Althæa, overwhelmed, when it was too late, with
horror at the result of her rage, slew herself with her
own hand. And such was the miserable ending of the
Hunt of Calydon.
The Argonauts, having now returned to Greece,
parted, and went each to his own home. Jason drew
the Argo on shore near Corinth, consecrating it to Neptune,
and leaving it there as a monument of so famous
a voyage. Then he returned to Iolcos, bringing
the Golden Fleece with him.
He was received with triumph and rejoicing, and
a great feast was prepared to welcome him home.
But, to his sorrow, he found his father Æson so
enfeebled by old age as not to be able to be present
at the festival.
 "Do not trouble yourself about that," said Medea.
"Let Æson only put himself in my hands, and he shall
be as young as you."
Jason, knowing his wife's power, consented. So she
drew all the blood out of Æson's veins, and filled them
with the juice of certain herbs; and he came to the
festival as young-looking and as vigorous as his own
But Pelias, the usurper, who hated Jason, was getting
old, too; and his daughters, when they saw what
had happened to Æson, besought Medea that she would
make their father also young and strong again.
"You need not come to me for that," said she. "You
can do it for yourselves when I have shown you how."
So she killed an old ram, cut him up, and boiled the
pieces in a caldron into which she had secretly thrown
some herbs. When the water was cold, out from the
caldron skipped a young lamb, and frisked away.
The whole thing looked so easy that the daughters
of Pelias, that very night, prepared a caldron; and,
when the water boiled, killed their father, divided him
limb from limb, and threw in the pieces, just as Medea
had done with the ram. But nothing happened, though
they waited till the flesh had boiled away from the
They hastened to Medea to help them. But she
received them with scorn.
 "Murderesses!" she exclaimed, "and fools! It is
you who butchered Pelias; it is you who must make
him live again, if you can. His death is on your hands;
not on mine."
Thus Jason was delivered from his enemy. But the
manner of his deliverance got about among the people.
They rose up against Medea, and drove her out of the
city; and Jason had to follow her to whom he had sold
his soul for glory.
He had never loved her; and now his fear of her
was turning into hate, and the hate into loathing and
horror. All the wickednesses and cruelties she had
committed for his sake seemed to have become his own,
and to be so many curses upon him. And even her
magic had not prospered, seeing that it had cost him
the kingdom he might have gained by fair means, and
had driven him into exile. His only comfort was in
their two children, whom he loved dearly; and at last
he could bear life with the terrible Medea no longer.
He determined to divorce her; to take the children
away from such a mother; and to take another wife
whom he could love, and who would not be a terror to
Such a wife he found in Creusa, a princess of Corinth.
But he was terribly mistaken if he thought he
could break the vow he had made to Medea at the altar
of Hecate, the Witch-Queen.
 Medea affected to be quite content with what had
been arranged. She sent Creusa a wedding-dress, and
had her children brought to her to bid them farewell.
The feast was at its height, and Jason was rejoicing in
his freedom, when a cold cloud seemed to come over
the guests; and there stood Medea, dark and stern,
leading her two children by the hand.
"Traitor and perjurer!" she said to Jason, so that
all the guests could hear. "Is this your return for the
love I have given you; for the country I left for you;
for the sins I have done for you—sins that you took
the fruits of, but were too cowardly to do? I have
given you to the last moment to prove your faith; and
now the last moment has gone. As you choose to be
bound to me no longer, my own hands shall destroy the
last links that bind you and me."
So saying, like the tigress she was, she took up the
children and dashed them dead upon the floor. At
the same moment Creusa shrieked with the agony
of the poisoned robe that was clinging to her and
destroying her. Jason rushed upon Medea with his
sword. But before he could reach her, a chariot drawn
by flying dragons, none knew whence, had borne her
away, none knew whither, through the air.
Jason, from that time, seemed haunted by the Furies.
He wandered aimlessly about the world, unable to rest,
 until one day his eyes fell upon the ship Argo, still
reposing peacefully upon the shore. One may imagine
all the things the sight brought to his mind—his old
dreams of glory; the unholy vow which had seemed to
fulfill them; the weakness and the unfaithfulness
which had destroyed them, and him, and others through
him. Doubtless, he then saw in Medea not so much the
cruel witch as the evil of his own heart, which had
taken shape and form and had become a curse from
which he could not get free. "If I could only rest like
you!" he cried out, falling on his knees before the ship
with bowed head and clasped hands. And it seemed as
if the Argo heard her old captain's prayer. A yard
dropped from the mainmast upon his bowed head: and
ship and captain lay at rest together.
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