Sunday, January 31, 2010

Flora's Story

Flora charged forward, her pitchfork up at the ready, a battle cry on her lips. She sized up her target as she ran forward, determining the best point to skewer it with her weapon. She weaved to the right slightly to avoid a rock on the ground, and then she was upon her enemy. Without hesitation, she shot the fork forward hard, and it plunged deep into the pile of hay on the barn floor. With a grunt, she lifted a large amount of hay up with the fork, and then began to spread it out into smaller piles for all the horses and cows to eat.

“There you go, ladies,” she said as she worked. “That mean old hay monster won’t bother you any more!”

She giggled to her self. This was one of her favorite games to play on the farm, pretending to be the heroes of the legends she loved to hear over and over again. She imagined her pitchfork was a magical spear, and she was a brave knight, saving her people, and cows, from certain doom at the hands of a vile monster. It was always fun to imagine it. Then, of course, there was the reality.

“Flora!” came her mother’s voice. “Are you almost done? We need to finish packing for the trip.”

Ever since her father had died, Flora’s mom had taken over the farm. However, she found it difficult to hire help, as most men, even the most desperate, were unwilling to take orders from a woman, and a good number of those that were thought it was an invitation to court her. As a result, a large portion of the manual labor on the farm was done by Flora, her mom and her little brother, Gregory. The result was some stability, but not nearly as much money as they had when Dad was still alive. This year was looking especially bad, Flora knew. Yesterday, her mom had let slip that if today’s trip to market didn’t turn a profit, she didn’t know if they would be able to pay their taxes when the collector came by next week.

“Coming, Mum!” Flora cried back, and planted the pitchfork into the ground next to her, wiping sweat from her brow. It was a lot of hard work, usually in the sun, since Dad died. The truth was, though, that Flora enjoyed it all. It meant a lot of time was spent with her mother Rose talking in the field. It also meant that she got to do things she would normally get yelled at, like riding the horses and pulling the plow. She loved the animals on the farm, and working with them like this was something that she always enjoyed. Not to mention the pitchfork. Flora just loved using that to fling hay around. Her mother once commented that she could take down a full grown man with just her pitchfork, she had become so proficient in its use.

“Flora, now!” came her mom’s voice, shaking her out of her reverie. Quickly, she ran out of the barn and to the wagon, where her mother was packing the last of the crops.

“Where’s Gregory?” her mother asked.

Flora looked around as if expecting to see him sitting behind their mother. “I dunno, I thought he was with you.”

Rose sighed. “You’d better go check out back, make sure he hasn’t tried to sneak through the bushes and into Mr. Wilson’s fields again.”

Flora nodded, and then headed off to the north end of the farm. Mr. Wilson’s field was less than a mile away, and it took her about five minutes to get to the fence by run. When she got there, she could see tracks in the mud leading through a hole in the fence. That was her brother sure enough. She looked around to see if maybe he was still on this side of the fence when she heard growling coming from the other side.

“Gregory?” she called. The growling turned to barking. It was Bull, Mr. Wilson’s big, mean dog.

“Flora? Save me!” her brother whimpered from the other side. She sighed again. The fool was probably stealing Mr. Wilson’s strawberries and got caught by Bull, who no doubt had him trapped.

“I’m coming Gregory,” she said with a tinge of annoyance on her voice. She looked around again, this time with an eye towards a club, and found a nice chunk of the broken fence that would work. She hefted it a couple of times to make sure she had it’s weight, and then crawled through the fence.

Before she got out the other side, she was greeted by a face full of teeth, saliva and bad breath, complete with defining barking. She stumbled backwards in fear, bumping her head on the fence behind her. Bull moved forward, continuing to bark, and Flora could see that Gregory was up in a tree behind the dog. Without hesitation, Flora gripped the wood in both hands and swung it at the dog. Even standing up at full height, Bull came to her chest in height, and so the swing hit him square in the nose, snapping his head to the side. The dog let out a great wine, then turned back to Flora. It bared its fangs, which looked to Flora to be about the size of her fingers, and growled. She gulped, and raised the board once more. She was trapped between the dog and the fence, and had no room to maneuver, and realized that if the dog attacked her, she wouldn’t’ be able to swing at it in time.

So, she swung again. This time, Bull was ready for such a swing, and tried to duck out of the way, but Flora had swung lower, hoping to hit the dog’s legs. However, due to his duck, she ended up hitting his head again, swinging it around in the other direction. This time, the hit had more force behind it, and actually pushed the dog to her right a few steps, allowing her to get out from behind the fence. When she no longer had the fence at her back, she turned to face Bull once more. The massive mutt was regaining its footing and shaking its head.

She took a step forward, hoisting the board above her, and cried “Get out of here, Bull!”

The dog ducked back again, this time with real fear in its eyes, and turned to run with its tail between its legs. Flora dropped the board, panting heavily. Her heart was thumping from fear, and she suddenly felt tired. She wasn’t sure that Bull would actually run away, but she was grateful that it had.

“Thanks, Flora!” Gregory cried from above. She looked up and watched as he climbed back down from the tree. As soon as he got down from the tree, she reached out and smacked him on the back of his head. “Ow!” he cried, rubbing where she had hit. “What was that for?”

“What was that for?” Flora asked, anger evident in her voice. “How many times have Mum and I told you not to come back here. I should have hit you with the board!” she said, pointing toward the discarded club. “Now come on, Mum is waiting for us so we can go into town.”

Grudgingly, he led the way back to the barn and the waiting wagon. With the three family members reunited, Rose piled everyone into the wagon, and the traveled to town. As they arrived, they met with several other farmers coming into town on wagons, many of whom greeted them personally. Regulars, just like they were. Thanks to having to find Gregory, they arrived late, however, and were near the end of the caravan, which meant that they would not get one of the better spots to set up.

It didn’t take long for them to set up. Even when her dad was alive, this was something that they would all participate in. When everything was set up, Rose set Gregory to hawking. It was probably the one thing that Flora would admit he did better than her. After a few hours, things were looking up. They had done very well, and if things kept up like this, they would not only be able to pay taxes, but they would have a little extra for hiring help with.

Just around noontime, Flora could hear a voice near by. It was one she instantly recognized from her many other trips to market, and it sounded like he was gearing up for one of his stories.

“Mum!” she said, turning to face her mother and tell her about the voice.

“Yes, dear,” Rose replied, smiling at her, “I hear him to. Go ahead, you’ve done a wonderful job here so far. Gregory and I can take it for a bit.”

Without any further prompting, Flora ran off.

“Flora, my favorite fan,” the voice called to her as she rounded the corner. He was tall, and though not in the shape that he must have once been, still held a power in his stance that made one think twice about confronting him. He had short cropped black hair and a trimmed beard that mostly hid a scar that ran down his left cheek.

“Albert!” she cried and ran up to him to give him a hug. The big man returned the hug, then set her back down and rubbed the top of her head.

“Sit down, girl, I’m about to start my tale,” he said, pointing to the crowd, mostly of small children, but with a few adults looking on as well. As soon as she was seated, he returned to the bench he was sitting at and looked back out at the crowd, a broad smile on his face.

“Right then,” he said. “So, there I was, marching with 15 other soldiers and our captain, per the kings orders, to the mouth of the cave. We knew it was the layer of the beast even before getting to the front entrance. The stench of death and decay was everywhere, covered by the smell of brimstone. At the mouth of the cave, we could hear it’s rumbling from below the ground. Our captain ordered us into formation, but it was too late.”

He slammed his fist into his hands, startling everyone except Flora, who had heard this story many times before. It was one of her favorites of Albert’s. She was even willing to ignore that the last two times it was 10 other soldiers.

“The dragon was upon us! A massive beast it was, as tall as the king’s castle, and with a wingspan as wide as five men tall. It reared back its head, and I knew that this was were we found out what caused the brimstone smell. Without waiting, I ducked behind some rocks.

The fire was horrendous. It swirled about me, as if it were a great storm at sea and my rocks were my boat. I kept my shied up and my spear ready in case something changed. But all I could hear was the roar of the fire. It seemed to go on forever, and I began to wonder if the dragon would ever run out of breath and need to draw in again. But, sure enough, it did.”

He stood up then, arms out stretched as if they were wings. He took a deep breath then, and the youngest children in the audience cried out. Flora smiled. This was the best part.

“I was about to close my eyes and pray for a quick death,” Albert continued, “when I noticed something. It was a chink in the dragon’s great armor, a place where age and constant rubbing of its belly on the ground to sleep had taken its toll. There, shining as if a bright jewel, was a small hole in its scales, and bare skin could be seen. I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity, so I struck without hesitation.”

Now e was acting as if he had a spear in his hands, and he was thrusting the spear in front of him.

“In the spear went, right through the dragon’s flesh, and I continued to push it in as deep as it would go. The great creature roared in pain, and it started to topple. I ducked back behind the rocks, but the beast fell backwards, my spear sticking out of its belly and a dark, nearly black blood rushed forth. I hesitated at first, but sure enough the creature was dead. I had done it. The dragon was dead.”

He paused a moment while the children, Flora included, cheered their hero. But, Albert wasn’t done. He dipped his head in sadness at the next part of the story, and Flora did the same.

“But it was at a great cost,” he went on, wiping a tear from his face. “All my fellow soldiers were dead, killed by the dragon’s fire. I knelt and said a prayer for each one of them, reciting their names to God, one by one, until I had finished even the Captain. Then, I returned to the King, and I brought this scale as proof of my deed.”

At this point, he reached into his pouch and pulled something out. It was large, about the size of Flora’s head, and tear shaped. It was rough on the edges and a kind of rust brown color. It had the appearance of fish scale, only larger. It had to be a dragon scale. No one had seen a dragon in this area for centuries, and so Albert’s scale was the closest anyone had gotten to one. It was a local treasure, and it was all Albert’s.

“He was so thankful and sad for my loss, that he immediately released me from the army, and granted me my own farm as a reward. How I came to lose the farm to a centaur is a story for another day.”

Everyone cheered and clapped, and Flora smiled. She loved listening to the story of Albert fighting the dragon. He was a local hero, at least as far as Flora was concerned. Several of the adults tossed Albert a few coppers for the entertainment, but before he could thank them, there was a scream in the direction of Flora’s mother’s stand, followed closely by several more. Then came the smell of burning wood, followed by smoke rising above the stands. Flora started running towards her mother’s cart without thinking, but was held back by Albert.

“Wait,” he said, “you could be running into a dangerous situation. Wait here.”

She looked up at him with anger in her eyes. Of course it was dangerous, someone was setting fires, and it could very well be her mother’s booth that was burning right now. She had to go and help. She struggled against his strong arms, but before she could escape, a nightmare broke through some of the carts, knocking them aside and setting them ablaze.

It was a squat gray creature, about the size of Flora, with a crude, serrated edged knife in one hand and a torch in the other. Its mouth was filled with sharp teeth and its red eyes glared at her with pure anger, and on the side of it’s head were lopsided, pointed ears. Goblins. Flora screamed, then she turned towards Albert.

“Do something, Albert!”

He turned to look at her, and she saw upon his face the last thing she ever expected to see. Stark, naked fear. Then, he turned and ran, screaming. Flora would have sighed in frustration except that she heard the goblin growl, and turned her full attention back to him. It looked her directly in the eyes, smiled a wicked smile, and then began to advance on her, its knife extended threateningly.

Flora backed up, right into the bench Albert had been sitting on before, and fell
over backwards on to the ground. The goblin rushed forward, as if afraid that the bench had somehow stolen it’s prize for the evening. When it saw that she was still alive, it smiled again, and raised its knife, obviously trying to kill her. She panicked and reached out for anything she could se as a weapon, settling on a mug, which was still full of liquid based on the weight. Just as the goblin was about to jab downwards with its knife, Flora swung with the mug, hitting the little creature square in the jaw. The mug didn’t though, shattering to a thousand pieces and spilling the amber liquid of the mead that was inside all over the monster.

Flora didn’t wait to see if her actions worked, rolling to her side and planning on pushing herself up to get away. But then she heard the Goblin scream and hiss. She took a moment to turn and look at him, seeing that the mead has burned his face, like it were made of liquid fire. Smoke was still trailing off its face. She didn’t stick around to see how mad it was for her doing that, and instead crawled away. A few feet away, she got up and ran towards her mother’s booth. When she got there, here worst nightmares were confirmed. The booth was on fire, burning to the ground, along with all the fruit they had just harvested. Her mother and brother were right there, trying to put out the fire, but that’s when she saw another goblin, appear right behind them.

“Mother!” Flora cried at the top of her lungs, but it was too late. Her mother turned to look at her, but the goblin came up behind her and sliced into her back with its knife, causing Rose to drop to the ground in agony. Then, it shoved Gregory to the ground and moved up to him, looking him up and down in an almost predatory way. Flora sprang into action. She leaped across the field, tackling the creature and getting it away from Gregory and her mother. After they landed, she got up quickly, and saw that the goblin had dropped its knife. She went to grab it, but the goblin was trying to do the same, and in the struggle, it was pushed further away from them.

It turned to look at her, its eyes burning in anger. She kicked it in the face and quickly got up to try and run away, but it lashed out and grabbed her foot. She screamed again, not sure how she was going to get away. But suddenly, its grip let up, and she fell to the ground. She turned to look and saw a large man, another farmer, pulling a spear out of the creature’s back. He nodded to her, and then moved off with several other men and women carrying weapons, clearing the area of the creatures and trying to put out fires where they could. She looked at the dead creature, and shuddered in revulsion and fear. Then, she saw her mother, laying face down, blood on her back.

She rushed to her side and saw that her mother was still breathing, but unconscious. She looked around and found the tattered remains of a burnt tablecloth. Using that, she made a bandage and carefully wrapped it around her mother’s midsection, covering the wound on her back. With the help of some of the other farmers that were at the market, she managed to get her mother out of the square and into a nearby inn that was offering people from the market square shelter. After making sure her mother was comfortable and the innkeeper’s wife declared her okay, Flora collapsed into a restless sleep.

She awoke the next morning on the hard wood floor of the inn, next to her mother, who was still unconscious, but appearing to be asleep now. Then, she saw the man sitting across from her. It was Albert, eating a roll of some sort. When he saw that she had awoke, he immediately looked down at the ground, having at least the good decency to look ashamed.

“Tell me why I shouldn’t punch all you’re teeth in right now?” she said.

He didn’t look up from the floor. “I can’t… you probably should,” he muttered.

She was shocked. That was not the answer she expected to hear.

“What happened back there?” she said after a few moments of silence. “You’ve fought a dragon before, why would goblins scare you like that?”

“I…” he started, then stopped. She stayed quite, waiting for his answer. Finally, he lifted his head and looked her in the eyes. “I never killed a dragon.”

“What?” she recoiled back, as if punched in the gut. “But, the stories…”

“Made up. I’ve been lying all this time, just to get people to pay me money.”

“But…” she just couldn’t believe it. “But, the scale! And your scar!”

He reached up and touched his face where his scar was. “Yes, the scar is real, and I did get it serving in the army. It was during a march, an accident, a fellow soldier accidentally hit me with his knife during dinner after tripping on a tree branch.”

She could only just stare.

“The scale is real too, but I didn’t win it in combat with a dragon. I won it over a game of dice.” As he spoke, his voice stayed calm, and she could tell from the look of his eyes that he was telling the truth. “I don’t even know where the guy I won it form got it, but I made up the story I’ve been telling not long afterwards. It got me attention and money. I… I’m sorry, Flora. I’m a fraud.”

She closed her mouth with an audible clip. He looked back down at the floor.

“Why did you come here?” she asked at last.

“I…” he hesitated again. “You’re my favorite fan. You’re my only fan, really. Sometimes, I think of you like a little sister. I just… couldn’t stand to think that you’re last though of me was as a coward, even if that is true. I cam here last night and saw you asleep next to your mother. I aided the innkeeper in applying a poultice to your mother, one that I learned about in the army. Her wound should heal just fine.”

“Wait,” she said, his comment about her being like a sister reminding her of something. “Where’s Gregory?”

“I don’t know, he wasn’t here when I arrived. I had assumed that you had sent him on some errand.”

She stood up and looked all around the room, asking other farmers and towns folk, the innkeeper and the maid that worked the inn. None of them had seen Gregory. She asked Albert to look after he mother, and went outside. She searched frantically everywhere, but no one had seen Gregory. Eventually, she ran into the man that had saved her last night.

“I saw a boy matching that description,” he said, but it was with sadness in his tone.

“Really? When?” she asked, desperate for any news.

“After we had run the goblins of town,” he pointed in the direction the creatures had headed, towards the hills south of town. “The goblins were carrying a boy like the one you are looking for, brining him with them.”

Flora’s heart sank. “Why?” she asked, terror filling her brain. “Why would they take my brother?”

“Any number of reasons, none of them good,” he said. When she pressed, he reluctantly answered. “They could simply want him for food. Perhaps they want to use him as slave labor. Worst case is they plan on turning him into one of them. They did lose a few here last night.”

“Turn him into one of them?” she vaguely remembered some story her mother used to tell about bad children being sent to the goblins, who would feed him a potion that would turn him into a goblin himself, never to return home again.

“No,” she said. “Someone needs to go rescue him.”

The older man shook his head sadly. “No one’s going out after goblins. We’re just farmers here, not soldiers or warriors. I’m sorry, little miss, but the chances of you’re brother even being alive still are slim. I’m sorry.”

And with that, he left. Sadness heavy in her heart, Flora slunk back to the inn, where she saw that Albert was still there, sitting with her mother, who was still sleeping. When he saw the look on her face, his fell. “What did you find?” he asked.

“He’s gone,” she said, “they took him. And no one will go and rescue him. The goblins have him now, and no one will risk rescuing him.”

Albert stood then, and reached out to hug her. He pulled her close to him and stroked her hair, an oddly soothing gesture. “I’m so sorry, little one,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

Something inside her snapped. “No,” she said firmly, and pushed away from Albert.

“No?” he said, obviously confused.

“I’m going to let this happen. We just lost all our crops, any chance of raising the tax money we needed to keep our farm. I’m not about to tell Mum that we lost Gregory as well.”

Albert looked worried. “What do you plan on doing then?”

“If no one else will go get him, I’ll just have to do it myself,” she said, determination in her voice.

“You can’t,” he said, moving towards her as if he were going to restrain her somehow. “It’s too dangerous. Would you want your mother to be told by me that she lost both her children today?”

Flora, expecting this argument, just shook her head. “I’m going, Albert,” she stared him down, and he stepped back. “I’ve got to. Stay here with Mum and watch over her.”

He sat back down and nodded. “How are you going to rescue him?” he asked after a moment of silence.

“I’ll need a weapon,” was her only response, before she moved off. She spoke to several other farmers until finally she ran into one that had was she needed.

“Yeah, you can take my pitchfork” Albert could hear the man say, and he sighed in concern for the little girl.

Flora followed the directions given by the man that had seen the goblins flee with her brother, and she soon found herself in the hills. They were lightly wooded, and muddy, allowing Flora to follow the tracks of the goblins fairly easily. She was now facing the mouth of a cave, her pitchfork in hand, and wondering what her next move should be. She knew she had the right cave for two reasons. One, the smell, of urine and burning meat, was the same she smelled on the goblins last night. Secondly, after watching the entrance for an hour, she saw one goblin come out briefly before going back inside.

She just didn’t know what to do now. A frontal assault was out of the question. Not only did she doubt she could actually do it, she was also sure that there were enough goblins to kill her before she got very far. Plus, she’d never actually kill anything before, and she wasn’t even sure that she could now. Her anger had taken her this far, but now she was only feeling fear. Maybe Albert was right; maybe she shouldn’t have come out here. Then she heard a cry from inside the cave. It was Gregory it had to be. Setting her jaw, she renewed her dedication to rescue him. He may have been a pain, but he was her brother.

She started looking around the hill. Maybe there was another way in? She decided to check around the edge of the hill, and circled around it. She had gone almost completely around and back to the cave mouth when she saw something. It was a rat, coming out from under a bush up against the hill. If she hadn’t been looking right at that spot when it happened, she wouldn’t have even seen it. She crept up as quietly as she could to the bush and pushed it aside. Sure enough, there was a small tunnel on the other side. It was too small for a full grown adult to get through, but she was small enough to squeeze through. At least, she thought so. She hoped that this would be the way in she needed. And that there were no more rats inside.

A few moments later, and covered in dirt and mud, she could see the inside of the cave. It was pretty dark, but a small fire in the middle of the room gave just enough light to see. There were no goblins, at least that she could see, so she climbed out of the tunnel and got on her feet. Before she could look around the room, she heart a muffled sound, which caused her to jump and put her pitchfork at the ready. Then, she saw a figure on the other side of the fire. It seemed to be laying down on the ground. Maybe it was a sleeping goblin? But, it moved and she heard the muffled noise again. She slowly moved forward, and about the time she got to the fire, she could see what it was. It was Gregory, tied up and gagged. Ecstatic at her luck, she ran to his side and started untying him, keeping a look out for goblins. Gregory kept muttering under his gag, and she had to shush him several times.

“We don’t want them to come back in here,” she said at last. Finally, she had him untied, and sitting him up, she took off the gag. Apparently, he hadn’t been listening to her.

“Oh, thank God you’re here!” he cried and gave her a huge hug. But she pushed him back immediately, and, grabbing her pitchfork, stood. She could hear cries from another part of the cave.

“You idiot,” she said, kicking her brother. “They’re on their way. Quick, to the other side of the cave. There’s a hole there, crawl through it. Go!”

Gregory whimpered slightly, but did as she said. She followed, keeping her back to him so she could see when the goblins came into the room. Just as they got to the hole, two goblins came into the room, one with a crude wooden spear and another with one of those wicked knives. The one with the spear threw it, but his aim was off, and it clattered at the floor next to her feat. She felt her heart thumping. She wished she was facing Bull right now.

“Crawl into the hole, Gregory. Go, quickly!” she cried to her brother, who was just standing there, frozen. She gave him a kick to his shins, and this seemed to wake him up. He got down on all fours and started to crawl. It was an easier fit for him, being smaller than her. The goblin with the knife was making his way across the room. At first, it was a slow move, cautious, not sure what Flora would do. But then, it saw that Gregory had gone through the hole. It let out some kind of cry, and charged at her.

Flora panicked. She ducked to the left to avoid the incoming knife, and jabbed out with her pitchfork, but her eyes were closed, so she wasn’t even sure where she was stabbing. The world seemed to slow down. She felt her pitchfork connect to something, and penetrate it slowly. She heard the goblin scream again, this time in an inhuman cry of pain that caused her to drop her weapon. She opened her eyes to see that the pitchfork had punctured and stabbed through the creature’s skinny leg. Blood was spurting from the wound, and the little creature was hopping backwards, clutching the leg. She looked as the other creature was running up towards the first. Then, things returned to normal time.

Without waiting to see what the second goblin was going to do, Flora dropped to the ground and started pushing her way through the tunnel. When she got to the other side, her brother was there, and grabbed her arm to help pull her out. Without saying a word, the two ran back towards town. Flora was sure that the goblins would be following them the whole time, but when they got back, they were alone.

Once in side town, Gregory stopped Flora, and gave her a big hug.

“Thank you Flora,” he said. “I was sure that you were glad I was gone, and that I’d never see you again. They were brewing some kind of potion, I was afraid they were going to turn me into a goblin, just like them.”

Flora looked her brother in the eyes. “Gregory, you’re a huge pain, and sometimes I just want to push you down.” Gregory’s face fell. “But, you’re my brother. As much as I’d never admit it to anyone else, I love you. Of course I was going to save you.”

The hugged again, and then Flora pushed her brother off. “Okay, enough of that. Let’s get back to mom.”

Flora led the two back to the inn. Inside, she saw that most of the people from the night before were up and either milling about or packing up the few belongings they brought with to the inn. She looked around where her mother was sleeping when she left, but she didn’t see her. She panicked at first, but then she saw Albert.

“Albert! Where’s my Mum?”

“Flora!” the big man said, coming up and giving her a hug. “Flora, I’m so glad you made it back. You’re mom…”

“Where is she?” Flora interrupted.

Then, she saw her. Her mom was in an apron, helping the innkeeper with all the people in the room. She seemed to be happy, smiling and laughing at the patrons and other farmers.

“Mum!” Flora cried, and ran across the inn to her mother.

“Flora!” her mother cried, “Gregory!”

Gregory ran after flora, and the three met in a big group hug.

“Oh, I’m so glad that you two are okay,” Rose said. “I was so worried when your friend Albert told me what had happened.”

“I had to go, Mum. I had to save Gregory.” Flora said, crying.

“I know, little one, I know. I’m just glad you’re back, and safe.”

“Me too,” said Albert, coming up behind them.

Flora turned to look at her friend. She knew that he had been lying all this time about fighting dragons, but she just couldn’t bring herself to care. She hugged him, and then looked him in the eyes.

“Now, I have a story to tell you!”

The End

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