The Exile - Chapter 4: New acquaintances
For the first time in a long time, Loran was speechless. When his team set out to patrol this section of Gatelin forest, they had expected orcs and uruk-hai but not an elf!
Loran stared at her for an eternity; she had the grace and unearthly beauty of the elves, with short curly hair as dark as the night, dark brown skin and devastating gray green eyes set in a perfect oval face. She wore a forest green woolen vest over dark green trousers. Her cloak was grey in colour with different shades similar to that of a rock. The visible weapons were a delicate looking bow which he believed was much stronger than it looked and 2 identical slim swords of an unknown but exquisite design.
Loran's gaze slid down to include the horse she rode, his eyes widened even more. He felt his heartbeat quicken as he stared at what he thought never to see again.
A mearas. From far away he could hear Eaodan speaking.
"My lady, forgive our manners. I'm Captain Eaodan of the Gondor rangers. We patrol theses parts. We are most grateful for your aid, without which some of us would no longer draw breath." Loran forced himself to tear his eyes from the mearas and looked back at the female elf. "Ty'lana of Firlaya, I'm not familiar with your name or place of origin," said Loran bluntly.
Eaodan shot Loran a scandalized look which was ignored. Loran knew the gondorian was shocked by his rudeness, but the half elf didn't care.
Ty'lana lifted an eyebrow at his attitude but replied calmly. "I come from a distant land, south of your shores. I just arrived 30 minutes ago."
Loran and Eaodan exchanged a startled look. They shared the same thought, where were the other elves that must have been with her?
"Where are your companions?" asked Eaodan softly.
"There is no one else," replied Ty'lana quietly.
"You landed alone?" asked Loran incredulously. She hesitated a bit before answering.
"My kinsmen made my journey here possible, they are homeward bound, and from here I seek Rivendell."
Loran's brow furrowed. "Rivendell? What do you seek there?"
Ty'lana felt it was time her interrogator properly introduced himself. "May I know who you are?" She asked politely.
She was pleased when the question startled him, he replied a bit sullenly.
"Lorandil of Gondor, formerly of Lothlorien." Loran didn't know why he added the latter; maybe it was because of the way she looked at him. Calm and in control.
"Once again I ask, what do you want in Rivendell ?" He couldn't keep the edge out of his voice. However Eaodan spoke before Ty'lana could answer.
"As much as I find this interesting," he commented dryly "we just killed 17 orcs and I'm sure there are more where they came from. Let's make for camp; all questions will be answered there." Ty'lana nodded and smiled graciously, she looked at Loran.
He nodded reluctantly.
The small group continued down the track with Ty'lana in their midst, she picked out the campfires before they reached their destination. She dismounted as the other riders stopped and answered greetings from those already in the camp.
The camp was of a respectable size, with about 10 tents which could house about 4-5 soldiers each, a small field beside the camp was where the horses grazed.
"Lady Ty'lana," she turned to face Eaodan. "Please accompany me to our commander's tent, Tharwin will see to your horse."
"I appreciate your help, but Maethor is not used to these parts. Please grant me a few minutes to get him settled."
Eaodan nodded. "I will await thee." Ty'lana followed the other riders who regarded her with curious looks when they thought she wasn't looking. It confirmed her suspicions, apart from Lorandil who was half elf; it was likely that there was on other elf in the region. What she found puzzling was Lorandil's suspicious attitude toward her; it was obvious he had never heard of Firlaya which worried her a lot. Why would the elves forget their history? The parting of her people had been a momentous event and had left no ill will between the two groups, so what was the reason for Lorandil's animosity?
With these troubling thoughts Ty'lana removed the blanket on Maethor's back and rubbed him down. There was no saddle or reins because her people had no need of them especially on a mearas. As she fed Maethor an apple, she noticed someone standing close to her, it was one of the riders, he shyly asked her if she needed help in tying up Maethor.
She smiled as she thanked him and explained that there was no need. Red faced as he stumbled over his words; he bade her a good evening and left. When Maethor was through with his snack, she told him to behave himself which he snorted at, then shouldered her bags and left him. Word of her presence had spread like wildfire throughout the camp; more of the men had come to look at her. Keen elven hearing picked snatches of whispered conversation.
"She came charging down the path firing from miles away and had killed nearly 4 orcs by the time she reached us," said one rider. Ty'lana smiled a little at the exaggeration.
"I've seen pictures of elves but never a dark skinned one. Are you sure she's one?" asked another.
"Of cause, she is!" replied someone vehemently, then said in a lower one "I heard she's from somewhere so far away that even Loran doesn't know where it is."
"Well elf or not, her beauty is beyond words," said a familiar voice, it belonged to the rider who had offered to help her with Maethor.
Someone laughed. "Tharwin are you a poet or a ranger?"
"Both," answered another before they moved away, by then Ty'lana had almost reached Eaodan and saw he was not alone. Lorandil was with him and it looked like they were arguing. Ty'lana was certain she was the cause.
"Whatever your suspicions it won't kill you to be at least polite!" whispered Eaodan angrily.
"All I'm saying is that we should be careful around her," Loran paused "wait, she approaches." Ty'lana walked up to the two males. "I am ready."
Minutes later the three approached a large tent in the center of the camp. Eaodan held the flap up as Ty'lana entered. Some men were standing next to a table looking at maps. One of them a young man with light brown hair looked up as they approached the table. His bluish gray eyes widened with surprise as they saw Ty'lana. He looked questioningly at Eaodan.
"Lady Ty'lana of Firlaya, we met her at the edge of Gatelin forest. She saved us from an orc ambush," explained Eaodan. The brown haired man turned back to her.
"I'm Commander Romer of Gondor, we are grateful for your help. Please be seated." He gestured at a corner of the tent where large smooth rocks had been covered with blankets to serve as seats.
Ty'lana dropped her bags and weapons by the entrance of the tent and sat down on one of the seats. At a signal from Romer the tent was emptied until only Eaodan, Loran and Ty'lana were alone with the commander.
The 3 soldiers sat down and faced her. Now the questions begin, thought Ty'lana.
"Pardon the seats but it's all what we have," apologized Romer. Ty'lana waved it aside.
"It is fine believe me," she paused "I know you have questions, be assured I will answer to the best of my ability." Lorandil made an odd sound which made Eaodan glare at him, while Romer gave him a quizzical glance.
"Please continue," encouraged the commander. Ty'lana took a deep breath to steady her nerves. From the time she had set foot on these shores, she had decided to tell whoever she met the full story, leaving nothing out. She knew from past mistakes that friendships that began falsely always ended badly. Even though she had hoped to meet elves first, she was not too worried telling the humans everything. She felt no ill will from these `gondorians'. The way they treated her with something akin to reverence, told her that the elves that had dwelt here in the past had peaceful relations with the humans. Back home Firlaya was surrounded by a number of human island nations which traded with the elf kingdom, though during the elf civil war some of the nations tried to get involved and tried allying with either side. Both sides had rejected such allies, politely telling the humans that the war was an internal matter. She began her tale.
"About 10,000 years ago before the period you consider the first age; the elves were on a Great Journey from their homeland bound west for the Undying lands. The elves stooped over in Middle-earth for a while, some continued on while some decided to stay and Eregion was founded, some elves wanted to explore the southern seas and left on several ships. It took many months before they finally chose a place and Firlaya was founded.
Many years passed and Firlaya maintained contact with Eregion through the palantir," she paused as she noticed a look on their faces that meant they knew of what she had just mentioned, she continued. "Even when Eregion was almost overrun by Sauron and the survivors established the new stronghold of Rivendell, contact was still maintained, then about 4,000 years ago, a civil war broke out in the realm of Firlaya."
There was shock on their faces; Lorandil stared at her with disbelief.
"The war was over succession to the throne of Firlaya, it lasted 35 years and eventually ended when lords on both sides urged the two contenders for the throne to settle it in a fight to the death. Both of them died in the circle and measures were put in place to prevent such from ever happening again. Rivendell was not aware of the war because the palantir was lost during the incident and likewise my people on the other side of the world were unaware of what has passed on this side."
"These measures have been applied to the inheritance of the throne and the inheritance of any prominent lord's holdings. Whenever there is more than one heir to inherit, leadership trials are conducted to decide who the inheritor will be."
"What happens to the losers?" asked Lorandil. There was a bleak look in Ty'lana's eyes
as she answered.
"The losers," she began slowly and steadily "would have to choose between honourable death and exile." Ty'lana stopped speaking for a few seconds; suddenly she found it extremely difficult to utter the next ***ing sentence. She looked at the 3 before her; they were finding it hard to accept what she had just told them. It went against everything they knew of the elves. She straightened her back and spoke.
"My full rank and name is, Princess Ty'lana, twin sister to Prince Thernil and daughter of King Neylan and Queen Elsira of Firlaya. I failed the leadership trials and thus was exiled by choice to Rivendell."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Eaodan sighed wearily. "Well what do you think?"
The princess had left the commander's tent about 10 minutes ago escorted by Eaodan to a private tent he had ordered set up when they had rode into camp. After making sure the exhausted elf needed nothing else; he went back to Romer's tent to find his 2 friends still brooding in silence.
Romer rubbed his lower jaw thoughtfully. "I... don't know what to think. The story is ...simply overwhelming." He looked at Lorandil who seemed preoccupied.
"What about you Loran? Have you heard of Firlaya before?" The half elf shook his head.
"Are you saying she's lying then?" asked Eaodan worryingly.
Loran answered reluctantly. "I sense no lie in her words...she's telling the truth and as for Firlaya I can tell you nothing. I only know the history that is taught every human child in school, we will have to check somewhere else about the elves' history which the elves didn't like sharing." Eaodan was about to say something else then stopped.
Romer said nothing. He had an idea what Eaodan was about to ask and was glad the soldier remembered in time. Loran was the son of a human and an elf, he was born in Lothlorien but at the time of the War of the Ring, when he was 10 years old, his life changed forever. His father, a member of the Lothlorien Home Guard left with hundreds of his fellow elf warriors to aid the people of Rohan withstand the onslaught of Saruman's army. He fell at Helm's Deep. It was said that the Lady Galadriel had offered Loran and his grieving mother a berth on a ship bound for the Undying Lands, but the widow turned it down. This decision had been made because tragedy had struck once again, the widow's two brothers perished when Minas Tirith was attacked leaving her frail aged parents unable to fend for themselves, thus Loran watched the gradual departure of the elves into the West, until only him and the king remained.
After watching Loran for a few minutes, Romer came to a decision. "Gentlemen, I suggest you two get some rest, there's work to be done tomorrow."
"Such as?" asked Loran absentmindedly.
"Such as you escorting the princess to Minas Tirith to meet the king."
"Me!?" Loran gaped at Romer. "Why not Eaodan or someone else?"
"You're the obvious choice, being an elf......"
"Half elf," corrected Loran. Romer smiled and continued "being who you are, you can make her feel more at ease during the journey as well as find out all you can about Firlaya. One thing I'm sure of is that his majesty will be very curious about her,"
"Romer, I still feel that someone else should be chosen besides me," argued Loran
Eaodan sighed wearily. "Permission to speak Commander?"
"Granted," said Romer , wondering what his friend was up to.
"Ranger Lorandil is overdue for 3 weeks of leave......" Loran looked startled as he suddenly realized what Eaodan was doing. "Now wait just a minute!"
The 2 men ignored his outburst. "I humbly request," continued Eaodan "that he return to headquarters for much needed rest and recuperation, before his efficiency is impaired on the field."
Romer grinned broadly. "Request noted and granted."
Loran stood up, he was angry. "I don't need rest," he stated testily.
Romer looked at him and a somber, knowing expression replaced the smile. "You do and that's an order."
Loran mastered his anger before he spoke in a civil tone. "Permission to withdraw Commander?" Romer simply nodded and watched his friend leave the tent. There was silence when he eventually looked at Eaodan, whose worried expression mirrored his own.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Bristling with rage, Loran walked to his tent, barely acknowledging the greetings sent his way by the soldiers he passed. His pointed ears picked up some comments.
"What got him so angry?" asked one.
"Don't know," answered one "just be glad it's not directed at you."
Loran ducked into his tent, he removed his leather cuirass and cloak, dropped them on the small pile beside his weapons and sat down on his bedroll to remove his high cuffed leather boots. Pushing his boots away with his feet, he lay back with his hands cupped beneath his head. He let out a long breath, trying to release the tension he felt. While doing so, his thoughts strayed to the strange guest who rested a few tents away.
An elf princess, exiled from her land because she was one of the heirs to the throne. Romer was right, it was shocking, even more so when Eaodan had asked her to explain what "honourable death" meant. Loran had felt chills when she said it meant suicide.
It couldn't be true. Elves treasured life above everything else, they cared for nature and each other greatly, and in all his 85 years he had never read or heard of an elf killing a fellow elf. Committing suicide was unthinkable! If all she said was true, and Loran feared it was, then Firlaya had a lot of problems. He could recall clearly how her face assumed a bleak look when she told them she was the first to choose exile and selected the only place she could think of that had elves. Loran was surprised when neither Eaodan nor Romer mentioned that the elves of Rivendell had left for the Undying lands along with the other elves of Lothlorien and Mirkwood, then realized with a pang that they expected him to tell her. Loran said nothing, knowing too well that Ty'lana's elven senses must have told her immeadiately she set foot on the shore that something was missing. Romer had asked her why the failed candidates didn't set sail for the Undying Lands. Ty'lana had smiled bitterly. "No one can go there," she told the stunned threesome "it is not because we do not know the way, its because of the civil war and what it made us become, until we can do without the trials and live no longer in fear of such occurring again, maybe we will be able to go there."
At that point, Romer noticed how tired she was and advised her to get some rest. Loran yawned, his eyes were getting heavier by the second, he suddenly remembered that he forgot to tell Romer and Eaodan that Ty'lana's horse was a mearas. He smiled sleepily, well serves them right he thought, they would have to wait till morning for that juicy bit of news. Within seconds the half elf was asleep.
When Loran opened his eyes, the sun was shining brightly and his tent was gone. Also he could only hear birds singing in the distance. He sat up quickly and looked around, he was alone on a green plain, there was no sight of a tent or the rangers he had rode in with.
"Looking for something?" Loran turned round quickly to see an exquisite feminine, figure clothed in shining white robes standing over him, at once he realized she was neither elf nor human but an unearthly being of great power, furthermore Loran hadn't even heard her approach him. He felt no enmity from her as he stood up slowly.
"Where am I? What have you done with my men?" He asked cautiously.
She smiled. "You are still in your tent and your men are safe." She laughed when he gave her a disbelieving look. "Come let me show you."
She used her hand to weave a semicircle pattern in the air, there was a shimmer, then the air in front of Loran darkened to show a camp at night with several tents, the scene moved to his tent and sure enough he could see his sleeping form. Loran looked at the Lady in awe "Then this is a dream."
"How very perceptive of you," she said dryly as the floating scene disappeared.
"Who are you?" asked Loran, oddly he wasn't afraid.
"I am Varda." Without thinking Loran's knees hit the grass. My lady, forgive me! I...I had no idea." He stammered.
"On your feet," she said softly. He stood up at once. He could hardly believe it! A valar had come to him in a dream. What did this mean? He thought frantically.
"It means a lot," answered the female valar in a quiet voice. Loran's throat felt dry. This could only be one reason for this visit; before his mother died she had told him that there would come a time when he must choose between the immortal life of an elf and the mortal life of the human. She had warned him to avoid making a hasty decision.
"Is...is it time?" he managed to ask. Varda looked at him for an uncomfortably long moment. "That depends...... on you."
The answer both relieved and confused the half elf. "I don't understand," he said carefully.
"You will....give it time and a lot of thought," she said cryptically. Loran felt even more worried "I'm sorry, I still....... don't understand.'
Varda smiled sadly. "There is one in your company who feels lost."
"Ty'lana?"asked Loran incredulously. She nodded. "Aid her," she said simply.
Loran blurted the first thing in his head. "Why?"
Varda simply shook her head and laughed. "No more questions, now you must sleep."
"But I....." began Loran even as he closed his eyes and felt his body fold gently to the ground.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Ty'lana woke up, and for a moment was unsure of where she was. Then her memory returned, she was in a camp of Gondor Rangers and it was already morning. She sat up and yawned as she rubbed her gritty eyes. A wash seemed like a good idea at the moment, she walked out of the tent and saw more than a quarter of the men were already up she strode up to the nearest one and inquired if there was a stream nearby. He directed her to an area close to where the horses were kept, after thanking him she walked towards that area. She was about to pass another tent when its occupant came out. It was Lorandil.
"Good morning Lorandil," she said cheerfully. His reaction was not what she expected.
"You!" he said intently with an odd look on his face which Ty'lana mistook for annoyance. She felt something snap, that was it, she had stomached enough, ever since they had met, Lorandil had treated her with suspicion and she was getting tired of ignoring his rude attitude. Part of her told her to calm down, that she was still tired and wasn't thinking, the other part didn't care.
"Yes," she said in a soft dangerous voice "It is me, what is it this time? Did you roll off the wrong side of the bed when you realized I wasn't a dream last night or do you just love being obnoxious? When you have the answers do let me know." She quickly strode away from him, leaving him no time to answer.
After she had walked a respectable distance, Ty'lana scolded herself silently for losing her temper. What was it about Lorandil that set her teeth on edge?
Ty,lana's thoughts were interrupted when a familiar neigh greeted her. She looked up and saw Maethor standing a few feet from her, without knowing she had reached the horses.
The horse closed the space between them and blew softly into her short black curls.
Ty'lana smiled ruefully. "Stop that Maethor, you know that tickles." She patted his neck.
"I have to go wash up, why don't you accompany me?" Maethor obediently followed his mistress into the nearby trees. It didn't take long before she found the clear running stream. She knelt down to wash her face as Maethor drank. Later, Ty'lana leaned back, clasped her knees together and stared at the crystal clear waters. She yearned to take a complete bath, but that would be unwise with the proximity of a male filled camp.
She tugged at her neck opening to get some air, it was so hot, unlike Firlaya which had winter 7 months of the year and spring, summer and autumn crammed into the remaining five. Her train of thoughts stopped when she heard very light steps behind her, she tensed recognizing the familiar approach of an elf. Lorandil stopped a few paces behind her. Ty'lana refused to turn round.
"The answers to your questions are no," there was an awkward pause "I wish to apologize for my attitude, it was uncalled for."
Ty'lana now felt very uncomfortable, from the little time she had spent with Lorandil, it was obvious he was a very proud person, for him to apologize must have taken a lot of effort."
"Apology accepted," she said in a soft voice that was sure to reach Loran's pointed ears. Silence followed, and she expected him to leave when he unexpectedly asked.
"May I join you?"
Ty'lana wanted to be left alone but found her self nodding; after all it would be stupid to destroy the fragile truce between them. Lorandil sank gracefully beside her and gazed at the river in silence.
Ty'lana wondered what he was thinking.
Lorandil had woken up this morning, trying to remember the disturbing dream he had last night. It was important but the exact details seemed just beyond his mental reach. Frustrated he walked out of his tent and almost collided with Ty'lana, hearing her greeting and seeing her lovely face, suddenly enabled him recall his dream. He didn't blame Ty'lana when she lost her temper after the way he responded to her friendly greeting.
As she walked away, Lorandil tried to put himself in her place. Imagine growing up with a brother, knowing that one day he must fight him for the throne, then he loses and must make a choice between suicide and exile. Upon choosing exile, the loser is sent across the world to a land where practically all the elves have left for the Undying Lands, then he meets a half elf who treats him like a criminal. Lorandil admired her strength; if it had been him he would have lost his mind by now. He remembered the valar's command, to help her. That went a long way to make him think that maybe she wasn't dangerous.
One thing he knew was that she must feel very lonely. Lorandil knew that feeling too well. He glanced at the female elf, her eyes were still on the river but it was obvious her mind was miles away.
"Princess......" he began.
"Don't call me that," she interrupted. "I forswore that title the moment I chose exile, just call me Ty'lana." Lorandil was stunned by the bitterness in her voice.
"Understood," he said carefully "Ty'lana you said you wished to go to Rivendell. Would you mind explaining why?"
Several moments passed before she replied.
"To seek sanctuary among the elves, but that's impossible isn't it?" She looked at him with eyes of despair. "I know they have all left. It's the same with Lothlorien and Mirkwood am I correct?" It was not a question.
Lorandil nodded. She turned back to the river and sighed sadly. "Why are you still here?"
Though he had been expecting the question he was barely able to suppress the memories of anger and bitterness that were a result of him staying back on the land of men.
"I would rather not talk about it," he replied. Something in his voice made her regard him warily. "Forgive me; it was none of my business."
"It's alright," said Lorandil awkwardly, then quickly changed the subject.
"We'll be leaving for Minas Tirith today, Romer wishes you to see King Andaran of Gondor."
Ty'lana's face assumed a suspicious look. "Why?"
Lorandil smiled to allay her fears. "He's the grandson of Lord Elrond."
Ty'lana's jaw dropped open. "You mean Lord Elrond of Rivendell?"
He nodded. Ty'lana's face lit up which was a delightful vision to behold.
"Lorandil, yesterday I told you of the palantiri the 2 elf kingdoms used to communicate with, does King Andaran have one?"
Lorandil hesitated, though the valar had told him to aid her, he didn't entirely trust her yet. Few in the kingdom knew of the Orthanc palantir that Gandalf found after Isengard was destroyed. It was in a safe room in Minas Tirith and Andaran had never used it, all who knew of its existence believed it was the last one in Middle - Earth.
"Why do you want to use a palantir?" he asked carefully.
"To tell my family that I have safely reached my destination."
"Won't the ship that brought you relay that message?" asked Lorandil.
"It took us a year to get here; I wish to put my family's minds at rest long before the ship reaches home."
"I see," said Lorandil. What must it have been like for her family to send a loved one into exile? The torment and quilt would be unbearable.
"Well, once we see King Andaran, I'm sure he will help you anyway he can."
Ty'lana nodded, it wasn't the answer she wanted but it would be enough. She stood up.
"If you would excuse me, I have to head back to camp and pack my gear since we'll be laving soon." Lorandil got up as Maethor approached them from where he was grazing.
"He's a mearas, isn't he? asked Lorandil reverently; as he stared at the beautiful dark brown stallion.
Ty'lana smiled. "Yes and my best friend, though Maethor considers himself a lot prettier than me," she joked.
Maethor snorted and butted her gently with his head. Loran laughed
"Now behave your self," scolded Ty'lana in a light tone "that's no way to act before strangers, heavens forbid that he finds your manners shocking."
Maethor turned a baleful eye on Lorandil, then shook his head in what the half elf amusingly translated as "And so what?"
"Well, well I hope I'm not interrupting," said a familiar voice behind them.
It was Eaodan with a quizzical smile on his face.
"Good morning Captain," greeted Ty'lana "I was just returning to camp to get ready for the trip to Minas Tirith. Did you want to see me?"
"No, actually I was looking for Loran, someone told me he was headed this way."
"He's all yours, till we depart gentlemen," Ty'lana left, followed by her horse.
Lorandil watched her go then turned back to see Eaodan regarding him with a puzzled look. "What?" he asked.
"Oh nothing," replied Eaodan, "just that yesterday you were acting like she was the enemy but now your attitude towards her is completely ........different."
Lorandil shrugged elegantly "it's not that different. I just want to know more of where she came from, that's all." Eaodan gave him a look of disbelief then shook his head,
"Any way Romer will be relieved that there is no need in dragging you to Minas Tirith."
Lorandil fell into step beside his friend as they went back to camp.
"Eaodan did you notice anything strange about her horse?" The gondorian looked at him
"Only that he is quite intelligent, but after all elves have always communicated extremely well with animals. The Rohirrim are the only humans to come close to what the elves can do."
"That's not all," said Lorandil smugly. Eaodan frowned. "What else is there?"
"Her horse is one of the mearas." Eaodan was speechless
"Are....are you sure?" he asked breathlessly. Lorandil grinned and nodded.
Eaodan didn't know what else to say, he completely believed his elven friend because he was one of the last people alive who had seen and even touched Shadowfax, Gandalf the White's fabled horse which was a mearas.
"Why didn't you say so yesterday?" he asked accusingly.
"It must have slipped my mind," said Lorandil in a too innocent voice. Eaodan groaned.
"I must examine that horse and I have only a few moments to do so," he hurried off in the direction Ty'lana had taken.
"Wait! Be careful not to annoy Maethor !" As he expected Eaodan did not look back.
Lorandil laughed softly as he followed his friend back to camp.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *