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Old 06-01-2010, 05:56 AM   #1
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Writing the sword fighting scene

Hi all, I've been away for a while, a real long while, but I thought this might help another writer as it has helped me. My friend has been a fencer for 20 years and he taught me how to write a sword fighting scene, making it exciting while developing the character. He taught me how to match the weapon with the character, writing battle scenes, etc. I have his articles on my blog here: http://kimkouski.com/?cat=48 He really knows what he's talking about and hopefully he can help others with the sword, the weapons and the battles. Have fun!!

Kim

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Old 06-01-2010, 08:18 AM   #2
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He gives all the basics in a pretty concise way.

Thanks for posting that.
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Old 06-02-2010, 01:13 AM   #3
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Yeah, that was a great read!
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Old 06-02-2010, 05:11 AM   #4
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Interesting article. I think the part about "match the weapon to the fighter" could have been much longer (and don't forget to match the fighting style). If you create your characters and then characterize one as "a good fighter" and then "another good fighter" and maybe "a somewhat better fighter" this is simply not enough if there is any fighting in the book. Each fighter has strengths and weaknesses based on weaponry and style. Does he know how to stop a raging barbarian or has he never fought anything but other "civilized" fencers? Is he a duels expert or has he lately focused on fighting groups of 5 and more people?


On the other hand the last part I can not totally agree. The one about "learning a weapon takes a very long time."
In the end, skill is important but physical fitness and strength is even more.
Look at world class boxing: People about the age of 20 challenge the old champions about 35. Where are the 15 years of additional training?? On the other hand, there are 17 different weight classes from "105 lbs" to "over 200 lbs", to really make sure, no 125 feather weight is send into the ring against a 200 lbs Cruiser weight. Because it would simply not be fair, even if the light one had 20 years of training and the heavy one had only 5.
Of course, skill and training still matter. You could say that a big strong giant with only a few weeks of the basics does not have a chance against a greatmaster (as long as this master is a least minimally fit enough).
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Old 06-02-2010, 06:57 AM   #5
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no 125 feather weight is send into the ring against a 200 lbs Cruiser weight. Because it would simply not be fair, even if the light one had 20 years of training and the heavy one had only 5.


I fought heavy weapons combat in the SCA. (It's hitting people with sticks for fun, not role playing with hit points, and the closest I could get to the real deal.) At 140 I was fighting people who were well over 300lbs. I even won a few times. I trianed everyday and I still pretty much sucked at it, I just wasn't affraid of anyone. When you have armor and weapons its a whole new can of worms.
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Old 06-02-2010, 07:42 AM   #6
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Combat is dialog. Writing dialog requires understanding relationships. Swordfighting is a dialog in steel. Sometimes it's over with a single pithy quip. Sometimes the debate ranges far and wide.

Combat should illustrate character, and advance the plot.

Everything else is icing.
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Old 06-02-2010, 09:39 PM   #7
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Not really, combat is a quick messy and brutal affar. If it goes over thirty seconds (assuming they're trying to kill each other) then the combatants don't know what they're doing and/or they're putting on a show.

Agreed that combat should advance plot and illustrate the character but if you're writing a combat scene then you need to be realistic.

@ Irishgirl and Maraxus. Training and skill matter more than strength and hitting power. Agreed the two have their place (I would prefer to have both), but training, skill and experience are going to trump someone who just has brawn.
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Old 06-02-2010, 11:11 PM   #8
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Seen a lot of duels to the death with swords have you?

Oh, I've seen combat go over thirty seconds. For sport, and for first blood. Not stage combat mind you. People trying to draw blood with sharp weapons. NOT trying to kill though - that's against the law.

For research purposes however - History is replete with descriptions of actual duels lasting well over thirty seconds. Try "The Duel" by Baldik or Even the Oxford Dictionary of Military Anecdotes.

Sure, it can be over in the first thrust, or they can go all day - probing and waiting for an opening.

"Realistic" - what is that? Realistic to what audience? WHO are you writing for? The general populace? Someone versed in one particular martial art, but not another? I could write a realistic description of a duel that would be meaningless to an un- initiated
reader.

Ever listen to 'real' dialog? It's full of starts and stops... miscues and misunderstandings. Long awkward pauses. Try recording it sometimes. It's boring as hell to read. Written dialog doesn't sound 'real' - it sounds like what we WANT dialog to sound like.

Same thing with combat. A short pithy quote of 'rapier like' wit - and it's all over. "He ran him though and kept moving without so much as a glance." - Okay, I like that. "He ran him through with a thrust in opposition, closing the line of tierce with a time thrust" -Yup, that's realistic. Might even appeal to a trained fencer. Might annoy someone who doesn't have a clue in understanding a time thrust, or what it might suggest about both the attacker and defender. My effort to be 'accurate and real' just lost a reader.

Don't get caught showing off how much research you've done. It's possible to educate and illuminate at the same time, but pontificating stops the action.

Character. Plot - does the description serve that? If not, dump it.
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Old 06-03-2010, 12:47 AM   #9
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Quote:
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Seen a lot of duels to the death with swords have you?
Duels. Now there's a topic where the pure technicality can be intriguing.
I was going to have my MC fight a duel, but there turned out to be a lot of problems. For example, if you read up on standard dueling rules, they are mostly about who apologizes to whom and they leave lots of loop-holes. Only a direct slap in the face was considered instantly and totally unforgivable. Which is something of a shock when you think of how films have tended to skip all the other ins-and-outs. (Which reminds me of my favorite cinematic duel where Judy Davis in Impromptu dives in and shoots her ex lover...something the seconds should have prevented).
Another dueling problem is seconds. Seconds have to have the same social rank as the principle they back. Can be tricky.
And then...choice of weapons. By some rules, despite all the rules about choice, if somebody swears on his honor he is no good with the chosen weapon then they have to pick a weapon the guys says he can weild adequately.
Anyway...the rules of the duel seem more interesting in terms of narrative than any amount of description of the fighting itself.
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Old 06-03-2010, 01:10 AM   #10
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The CODE DUELLO varied considerably from culture to culture, and era to era - for sure. Does the injured party or the challenged party get choice of weapons? Depends on the era and the location. England's code differed from the Continents during the 18th and early 19th centuries in particular. (Shakespeare had great fun poking at the artificialities of the code)

Sometimes the publication of challenges could do more harm to a reputation than the actual insult. Read up on the cartels of Joanot Martorell, an actual knight who fought in armor in the 15th century who wrote the wonderful Catalan Romance 'Tirant lo Blanc' -which Cervantes claimed was the best book of it's kind.

Duels CAN be over in less than thirty seconds - certainly. But they can last much longer - especially if both combatants are trained and wary. Think of Musashi's encounter with another master - they stood for hours in the sun - doing nothing - waiting for the other to make the first move - both perfectly 'on guard.' Does this mean there was no 'duel'? No of course not. The duel began the moment they both faced off. The duel of wills.

I think about the time I lived in Paris. I went to look at where Cardinal Richelieu lived, because there was a notorious 'duelling ground' just below his balcony in the Palais Royal. Duellists would flaunt his edicts by fighting there. Imagine my surprise, to see a children's playground in that spot! (This was 1979/80)

And remember that wonderful line from the Pirates films regarding the 'code' when you think of the Code Duello - 'They're more like guidlines..."
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Old 06-03-2010, 01:22 AM   #11
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The CODE DUELLO varied considerably from culture to culture, and era to era - for sure.
I used a late-eighteenth century Irish dueling code since it was relatively concise but pretty elaborate in going into the rules for apologies. Clearly, getting both parties out of the confrontation without too much loosing of face was one of the major concerns. I guess excessive dueling could result in something of a society-wide honor-drain.
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Old 06-03-2010, 01:51 AM   #12
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Ah the Irish Code Duello figures heavily in the plotline of Kubrik's "Barry Lyndon" - a film I rewatched recently. Still good, though slow going for today's audience.
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Old 06-03-2010, 05:22 AM   #13
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Seen a lot of duels to the death with swords have you?

Oh, I've seen combat go over thirty seconds. For sport, and for first blood. Not stage combat mind you. People trying to draw blood with sharp weapons. NOT trying to kill though - that's against the law.

For research purposes however - History is replete with descriptions of actual duels lasting well over thirty seconds. Try "The Duel" by Baldik or Even the Oxford Dictionary of Military Anecdotes.

Sure, it can be over in the first thrust, or they can go all day - probing and waiting for an opening.

"Realistic" - what is that? Realistic to what audience? WHO are you writing for? The general populace? Someone versed in one particular martial art, but not another? I could write a realistic description of a duel that would be meaningless to an un- initiated
reader.

Ever listen to 'real' dialog? It's full of starts and stops... miscues and misunderstandings. Long awkward pauses. Try recording it sometimes. It's boring as hell to read. Written dialog doesn't sound 'real' - it sounds like what we WANT dialog to sound like.

Same thing with combat. A short pithy quote of 'rapier like' wit - and it's all over. "He ran him though and kept moving without so much as a glance." - Okay, I like that. "He ran him through with a thrust in opposition, closing the line of tierce with a time thrust" -Yup, that's realistic. Might even appeal to a trained fencer. Might annoy someone who doesn't have a clue in understanding a time thrust, or what it might suggest about both the attacker and defender. My effort to be 'accurate and real' just lost a reader.

Don't get caught showing off how much research you've done. It's possible to educate and illuminate at the same time, but pontificating stops the action.

Character. Plot - does the description serve that? If not, dump it.
I was talking medieval combat, I've seen 'duels' I have on good authority from my martial arts instructor(s) and from the ARMA that if the fight goes over thirty seconds they putting on show, it's sport (which has little in common with reality) and/or they're putting a show.

I was talking about medieval swordsmanship. BTW fencing has little to do with the real thing. I do know that about research and writing No worries

BTW By dialogue I meant talking which was what I thought you were talking about. Sorry
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Old 06-03-2010, 05:47 PM   #14
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Ah the Irish Code Duello figures heavily in the plotline of Kubrik's "Barry Lyndon" - a film I rewatched recently. Still good, though slow going for today's audience.
The seconds of equal rank problem could put a damper on dueling in societies with many fine gradations of rank. The difference in getting seconds for a person of high rank (who could he find in town with nothing else to do the very next morning? Given that some rules insist on a strict time limit for resolving each step of the duel.) versus getting seconds for persons of low rank (my MC -- who is bluffing -- claims he can call on a large population of seconds), which would be easier I would think, might force high-ranking would-be duelists to find other ways of resolving insults and all the more so since they have much more to lose if the system of honor starts breaking down.
I was looking into why dueling went out of fashion. It could be that as the industrial revolution had more and more impact, it became harder and harder to calculate the actual social rank of the parties involved and dueling -- rather than offering a quick and clear solution to conflict -- began to seem like more trouble than it was worth.
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Old 06-04-2010, 05:03 AM   #15
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Sue-Proof. You might want to do some research into medieval combat sources. Not just the Fechtbooks, but the texts that describe actual trials by combat. Yes, they could go on for hours. Especially as the armor protected them from many of the injuries - it was not uncommon in warfare for Knights to die of suffocation, heat exhaustion - caused by continuous fighting in armor. Believe me it lasted more than thirty seconds.

I know the difference between fencing and a duel. I doubt any of your instructors have actually fought a duel to the death. So all any of us can speak about is dueling with restricted conditions. I'm talking about duels where FIRST BLOOD is the indicator. And yes, it lasted considerably longer than thirty seconds.

I think making an overall assertion that "Anything lasting longer than thirty seconds' - especially when there is written historical evidence to support the contrary - is probably a risky assertion. As indeed may generalizations can be.

I am familiar with AARMA and the original parent organization HACA. Some of the members do good work, some of them don't.

"Fencing has little to do with the 'real thing' " - well, yes and no. The 'period historical combat' that many groups do, has 'little to do with the real thing' - if you consider the real thing to be fighting to the death. No one is doing that. No one has any intention of doing that. SO it's all a 'simulation', no? There are lessons to be learned from ALL simulations. Understanding their limitations and their inherent strengths and weakness is the key.

The metaphor of the duel as a conversation in steel, is a long held conceit passed on by fencing master who taught people to fight to the death. Like a converstaion, there is an exchange, a give and take, if you don't pay attention, you can be hurt. There is attack and riposte. Their is point counter point. The conceit is as old as swordplay itself, and the language is reflected in such comments as 'What a witty riposte"

The thread is about writing a 'realistic' swordfight. My point is that understanding the various period and cultural styles of combat is a very handy reference. I certainly bring my experience and training of more than thirty years of training and fighting with various weapons on foot, and on horseback into bear when I write a combat scene. But the important thing is to stress CHARACTER and PLOT when writing, rather than to show off my knowledge of period combat to an audience that might not understand. Sure, I can use a word that reference's the proper period or style. Perhaps my character is Spanish, or French. But to fill the description with arcane descriptions of movements taken from my shelf of period fencing manuals, defeats the purpose of entertaining and informing. It's a careful mix one must balance.

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Old 06-04-2010, 05:17 AM   #16
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The seconds of equal rank problem could put a damper on dueling in societies with many fine gradations of rank. The difference in getting seconds for a person of high rank (who could he find in town with nothing else to do the very next morning? Given that some rules insist on a strict time limit for resolving each step of the duel.) versus getting seconds for persons of low rank (my MC -- who is bluffing -- claims he can call on a large population of seconds), which would be easier I would think, might force high-ranking would-be duelists to find other ways of resolving insults and all the more so since they have much more to lose if the system of honor starts breaking down.
I was looking into why dueling went out of fashion. It could be that as the industrial revolution had more and more impact, it became harder and harder to calculate the actual social rank of the parties involved and dueling -- rather than offering a quick and clear solution to conflict -- began to seem like more trouble than it was worth.

An argument COULD be made, that it never went out of fashion. That indeed, it still exists in the form of prize fighting and MMA. Consider that part of the historical test for becoming a fencing master was to pass your 'fight for the prize' - it was literally a test of skill. The swordsmanship was eventually dropped entirely and only the 'fisticuffs' were kept intact.

So one might say that the rules surrounding prize fighting, and mixed martial arts - are not too far removed from the code duello. Consider 'weight class' instead of 'social class' - and you can see how important matchups can become.

Yes, it's a bit of a stretch - but not too much of one I think - to say that the spirt of the duel survives in these encounters. At least, that's what the people selling tickets would like us to believe - with all the hype around "Grudges" and "This time it's personal" sort of promotions.

Just a thought anyway.
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Old 06-04-2010, 07:29 AM   #17
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Oh, my!! I didn't think there would be this many replies!!!! I'm so glad you all liked his articles. I can't tell you how much Darrin has helped me with my fight scenes. He taught me soooo much about fight scenes, how to write them, how to develop my character through the fight scenes and so much more. What you all see on my blog is just a small section of what he has taught me. Someone had asked that Darrin go into details about matching the weapon to the fighter. I was thinking the same thing, so I'm hoping to nail him down on that one. Once he posts it on my blog, I'll let you all know about it. Thanks so much!!! Oh, by the way, he's gotten me hooked on Medieval fighting. It's so much fun looking at clothes on the internet while watching the Deadliest Warrior on Spike TV. Ahhh . . .

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Old 06-05-2010, 01:37 AM   #18
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I think about the time I lived in Paris. I went to look at where Cardinal Richelieu lived, because there was a notorious 'duelling ground' just below his balcony in the Palais Royal. Duellists would flaunt his edicts by fighting there.
On May 12, 1627, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville, a nototious duelist, a scion of one of France's greatest families, fought a duel there, almost outside the Cardinal's windows, and killed his opponent.

On June 22, 1627, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville was beheaded, on the insistence of the Cardinal, despite protests from all sorts of people, including Louis XIII.

I think that largely put an end to public duels in defiance of the royal laws.
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Old 06-05-2010, 05:29 AM   #19
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The 30 second rule makes several assumptions that are probably often wrong. Evenly matched well trained swordsmen probably were much like the duel in
Princess Bride between Inigo and Wesley (Not the actual fighting styles or weapons used but the feint and test approach to see what exactly your opponent can do). It was often also known as cruel but done that in a severe mismatch, the master might toy with the novice adding humiliation into the mix (think captain Malcom Reynolds in firefly fighting the pompous ass on the pompous ass world).

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Old 06-05-2010, 07:31 AM   #20
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On May 12, 1627, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville, a nototious duelist, a scion of one of France's greatest families, fought a duel there, almost outside the Cardinal's windows, and killed his opponent.

On June 22, 1627, Francois de Montmorency-Bouteville was beheaded, on the insistence of the Cardinal, despite protests from all sorts of people, including Louis XIII.

I think that largely put an end to public duels in defiance of the royal laws.
The wonderful book, "The Duel" by Robert Baldick has a full accounting of this duel - which began with sword and dagger, but ended with daggers only. Both men held a dagger to each other's throat, and they mutually asked for quarter. However although the both promptly made for the frontier, Bouteville was arrested, condemned to death and executed. At his execution, Bouteville displayed a remarkable demonstration of masculine vanity - being overly concerned with the preservation of his mustachios.

Even this terrible example did nothing to discourage the vogue of duelling, and it was said that when acquaintances met in the morning at Lousi XIII's court, their first inquiry was ; "Do you know who fought yesterday?"
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Old 06-05-2010, 07:47 AM   #21
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I cheated on a fight scene and had my husband help me write one..although he went a little over board and I ended up editing out his gruesome details but he gave me a good start!
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Old 06-05-2010, 08:18 AM   #22
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I've 'ghost written' a couple of fight scenes for a female romance novelist. Like you - they take my scene, and then 're-interpret' in their own voice.
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Old 06-07-2010, 06:15 PM   #23
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Consider 'weight class' instead of 'social class' - and you can see how important matchups can become.
I was interested in the fact that equality of rank applied to equality between seconds and principles. This seems to offer people of higher rank more options in getting out of the actual fight while at the same time offering some useful ways for lower ranks to score points without killing anyone of high rank. I assume rules of this kind were fairly late developments in the realm of dueling rules.

I suppose in earlier times, there was less of a problem since people of sufficiently high rank could have a champion defend their honor rather than have to fight.
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Old 06-09-2010, 03:15 AM   #24
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Originally Posted by Maxx View Post
I suppose in earlier times, there was less of a problem since people of sufficiently high rank could have a champion defend their honor rather than have to fight.
Medieval noblemen mostly had to fight in person, providing that they were healthy and of fighting age. I think the only exception was the king of England. There was a tradition from 1176 into the twentieth century that he should have a champion at his coronation feast to take on anyone who challenged the succession.

On the other hand, in practice medieval people seem to have fought judicial duels only with opponents who belonged to roughly the same social strata as themselves.

In the 1280s, Philippe de Beaumanoir wrote that, in the region of Beauvais, a nobleman who was challenged by a commoner to a judicial duel would be allowed to fight on horseback with a variety of edged weapons, while the commoner would have to be on foot and armed with just a club and shield. However, if a nobleman stooped to challenge a commoner, both parties would fight on foot with clubs.
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Old 06-09-2010, 03:52 AM   #25
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To me, debating the length of a sword fight is like asking "How long is a piece of string?" I would propose another rule of thumb to deal with the issue.

The length of a fight should bear some relation to the motivations of the characters.

Thirty seconds is a very long time to engage a single opponent in a mass battle where some other enemy might strike you in the back of the neck at any moment. There's a strong motivation not to mess around.

On the other hand, medieval judicial duels that lasted all day were generally civil suits fought by champions wielding blunt clubs. Their principals were standing on the sidelines, still negotiating an out-of-court settlement. There was incentive for the champions to avoid injury and prolong the duel as long as it took to reach a deal.

A sword fight could happen for a lot of different reasons. A rapier duel where the goal is to look good and gain esteem in the eyes of one's peers is going to play out differently than a predatory ambush where the goal is to surprise and overwhelm the target before he can resist.

Of course, the actual length of the fight is different from its pacing. You can have pages of buildup leading to a single, highly technical description of a stopthrust, or you can say "She had been fighting for three whole days and now she really needed a bath."
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