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Tales from Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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5
The Cheese-Maker

Archu and his family first appeared in “The Last Yule of Halabor”. Their home is based on Old Saxon houses.


~~~

THE CHEESE-MAKER

Halabor, on the 25th of Blodmath, in the year 3006 of the Third Age


It were days like these that made young Lord Herumor realize how different his hometown was from the South of Gondor where he had spent the four most formative years of his youth. In Dol Amroth, even close to the end of rhîv, the weather had been most pleasantly mild. Had it not been for the short, violent storms above the Bay of Belfalas, one would never have thought that the summer was already over.

In Anórien, however, the winters had been unusually hard in the recent years; and Halabor lay in a cold spot anyway. Which meant that the cold weather usually arrived around the eleventh of Blodmath, and was steadily getting worse from that day on. After the mild, moist days of early autumn, Blodmath had come with heavy skies and dark, brief days that sagged upon the roofbeams and lay heavily upon the heart.

Finally, on the 24th of Blodmath, the first snow arrived, too, riding the wings of a blizzard storm that tore on the rooftops, dislodged shutters and gates and upturned carts all over the town. During the night, Lord Orchald was roughly awakened by a sudden stream of icy water splattering right into his face. Swearing like Herumor had never heard him swear before, the old lord jumped off his bed and called for his elderly manservant, or, indeed, any servant within earshot, to find him a dry bed elsewhere – anywhere would be right, he added, as long as it was dry – and to find out what had happened.

Old Sador got the other servants from their beds to examine closely the ceiling of the Great Chamber, where the old lord had lived alone since the untimely death of his beloved wife. The first drenching soon slackened, but a steady drip went on, and was soon joined by several more, spanning a circle a yard or so across.

“We will have to call the roofer in the morning,” said Mistress Gilmith, the chatelaine of the Castle, grimly. She was a very strict woman of pure Dúnadan blood who did not tolerate anyone – or anything – to act out of order. “We cannot leave the Great Chamber in this condition for the winter… or our lord sleeping in a servant’s chamber.”

Madern, the roofer, arrived shortly after daybreak to examine the damage of the Great Chamber. He was in his fifties and robust as a bull, his builder team – consisting of him, his brothers-in-law: the stonewright and the plasterer, and their helpers – the best one this side of Minas Tirith. Upon his arrival, Mistress Gilmith relaxed visibly, knowing that the important matter of their lord’s comfort was in good hands.

“This is not good, my lords,” said the roofer, after having climbed the roof and taking a good, hard look at it. “The storm last night must have torn the lead in several places, and the snow has filtered in between the slates, even caved a few of them. And the leak is getting worse.”

“What is your suggestion, Master Roofer?” asked the old lord resignedly, knowing that it will cost him a good amount of coin to have the repairs made. But it could not be helped.

Madern scratched his head. “Well,” he said, “it will certainly be unpleasant to work on the roof during such weather… perilous even. But if we delay repairs ‘til thaw comes, you are in for a flood, my Lord. Right now, the damage is limited; leaving it untouched during winter might aggravate it greatly.”

“Can you afford to take the risk?” asked Lord Orchald, concerned. The last thing he wanted was one of Madern’s team suffer a terrible accident while working on his roof.

Madern nodded. “Aye, I believe so. We have timber, we have slates, and we have lead left from the latest repairs on the ramparts. The ground is frozen hard at present, but there will be no great difficulty in raising a scaffolding.”

“It will be bitterly cold to work up there, though,” said the old lord.

Madern nodded again. “True enough,” he admitted, “more so as we shall have to shift the fallen snow first, in order to replace the broken or displaced slates and to repair the lead flashings. But if we work in short spells, and are allowed a fire in a warming room all day as long as the work lasts, it can be done.”

Lord Orchald considered the possibilities for a moment, then he nodded his venerable head in agreement. “Very well; do it,” he said.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When the roofer left, the old lord returned to the small chamber into which Sador had temporarily moved him during the night. It was a comfortable little room, right behind the Great Hall, meant originally for the servants who would attend to the guests in the Hall, to warm themselves during breaks, as it could be easily heated by a brazier; and it never became truly cold, as it got a great deal of warmth from the Hall itself. Besides, it was close to the Great Chamber, thus Lord Orchald could get his things easily, without having to walk through half the keep.

Still, the old lord looked uncomfortable after having discussed the necessary repairs with the roofer in the icy cold. He kept rubbing his hands over the brazier, and from time to time, a shiver seemed to go through his entire body.

“My old bones have had enough cold for one day, ion nîn,” he said to Herumor ruefully, accepting a large mug of mulled wine from Sador and inhaling its spicy scent deeply. “I would ask you to accompany Master Wella to Archu’s farm today in my stead.”

Herumor nodded readily. He knew Archu; the elderly farmer was one of their chief tenants, and the tax collector was supposed to drive to his farm on that very day to collect the ground rent for the Castle from him.

“Of course, Adar, if that is your wish,” he said. “But why are we needed anyway? I do not believe that Archu would be hostile to Master Wella. He is a good, honest man.”

“Which is the very reason why you need to go with Master Wella,” answered his father. “’Tis not for him; ‘tis for Archu and his family, who have lived through hard times in the recent years. Our tenants need to know that we are concerned about their well-faring; that we care about them. Visiting them from time to time eases their hearts; and in these dark days that is needed, more than anything else.”

Herumor knew the wisdom of his father’s words all too well. He had been taught how to be a lord of Men – and a good, reliable and responsible at that – from a very tender age on. First at his father’s knees, then, when he had begun his training as a Swan Knight, at the most refined court in the entire Gondor, from the Prince of Dol Amroth himself. He knew that the well-being of the people was the responsibility of their lords, and that a lord had to serve his people, just as his people served him.

And thus the seventh hour of the day found him riding after the cart of Master Wella, the tax-collector, accompanied by two of his father’s men-at-arms. Not that he truly needed the escort, of course. The way between the town and Archu’s farm was a short and safe one, and he himself too well-loved for anyone to wish to cause him any harm on their own estate. But his status as the heir of the Lord of Halabor demanded that he did not travel unprotected. Besides, the presence of the men-at-arms gave people a reassuring feeling of safety. As long as the men of their lords roamed the borders, they could sleep more peacefully.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Archu’s farm lay north of the town, beyond the meadows where the horses of the Castle were kept during the summer. It was one of the largest farms on Lord Orchald’s estate, with five and a half hides of land, consisting of a hall and outbuildings, such as stables, storerooms, barns and so on, surrounded by fields and pastures.

“This is mainly an arable farm,” explained Wella, a short, thin, flat-chested man in his middle years, to the young lord, “although Archu does own a few sheep, goats, cow and pigs to provide meat, milk and wool for his family. His wife is a cheese-maker; the only one who makes cheese that is almost as good as that of the Dunlendings. Only that she makes it of cow milk, mostly.”

“The farm must be quite prosperous, then,” said Herumor, knowing that good cheese was much sought after and could bring in handsome coin.

“It used to be, for a long while,” replied Wella. “After all, they have been farming here for the last three hundred and fifty years… or longer. But the raids of the Hill-men have hit them hard; they have lost at least four full harvests during the last ten years, and even more before. Archu can barely feed his family. Had your lord father not chosen to collect his due according to that which they actually can harvest, instead of insisting on a certain amount of coin or goods, they would have lost the farm years ago.”

“But Archu owns the farm, does he not?” asked Herumor. “That means he does not owe Father any service in respect of labour, as some of the less well off farmers on the estate do.”

“True enough,” said the tax collector. “However, he still must pay ground rent and one pig a year to your lord father as well as to the town. He also has to perform carrying duties, unless he can pay the carter to do them for him – which he cannot, and Merryn, despite being his son-in-law, is too much of a cold-hearted bastard to do it for free. Forgive my language, my Lord, but that carter brings out the worst of me.”

“You are not alone with that,” replied Herumor with a faint smile, for few people were so generally loathed in Halabor as Merryn, the carter… save perhaps old Mistress Rybwrast, the fishmonger’s mother. ‘Twas a riddle, how someone like Merryn could be the brother of Sydnius, the innkeeper, well-liked and much-respected reeve of the Old Port, or Gennys, the owner of the town’s only ale-house, a young man as likeable as the carter was not.

Wella nodded. “That is true, my Lord. Merryn is not someone a poor man like Archu could hope to get help from.”

“Are you not exaggerating, calling the owner of the second-largest farm on the estate poor?” asked Herumor with a frown.

The tax collector shrugged. “He might be well off when it comes to the size of his farm, but that does not make him rich… or even wealthy. He had to feed thirteen children while they were still growing up; and now that they are all grown, seven of them are gone or have their own families to feed, and the ones still at home can barely keep up with the work. ‘Tis not just the fields and the livestock; they have to help build and maintain fences and fortifications around Emerië Manor and other endangered places, and provide a soldier for the troops on Cair Andros… which means another pair of hands lost for the farm. And Archu cannot afford to have any hired help, save from harvest time; so aye, they have a hard time to keep going, no matter how prosperous the farm might be. A heavy rain season, a draught or a sudden frost could ruin the family beyond help. These are trying times for the simple folk, my Lord.”

Looking at the farmstead, which they had reached in the meantime, Herumor could not question the truth of the tax collectors words. For an establishment that had supposedly been prospering – more or less in any case – for near four hundred years, the farm showed severe signs of wear and tear. Part of it – like the upturned cart in the front yard, or the damaged thatch of the roofs – was most likely the result of last night’s storm. But there was quite a bit of older damage in the wattled fence that encircled the long, low buildings; damage that should have been repaired long ago, and would have been, too, had all working hands not been desperately needed elsewhere.

The storm had torn out the wings of the gate that was cut into the fence, leaving behind a gap wide enough for two carts to pass through side by side. The farmer himself, a short, wiry man in his late sixties, was assessing the damage and discussing repairs with his eldest son and heir, Ardan, who looked like a younger version of him by thirty or so years. They looked up, hearing the rattle of the cart, and – recognizing the tax collector – Archu gave a weary sigh.

“Master Wella,” he said tiredly, “we have been expecting you. Do come in and warm yourself a bit; travelling in this weather must be hard on your chest. Lord Orchald’s due has been prepared and is ready to be loaded onto the cart.”

“That is good to hear,” said Herumor in Wella’s stead, “but I would like to see more of your farm, if you do not mind, good Archu. Master Wella here says that your wife makes the best cheese west from Dunland, and I would like to learn how it is done; unless it is a family secret, of course.”

The farmer had only now realized his presence and blushed deeply in embarrassment over his mistake.

“Lord Herumor… ‘Tis an honour to welcome you in our humble home,” he said. “Do come in; there are no secrets, and Messbuach will be glad to show you how she makes here cheese. But first, you must honour our hall by having a drink of ale with us!”

Herumor’s first reaction would have been to refuse; his father did not like him drinking such lowly beverages as ale, and he did not want to deprive the family of even more resources. But he also knew that doing so would have been the worst possible insult toward the simple, hard-working man, thus he expressed his thanks and followed the farmer inside.

Passing through the now ruined gate, they came into the front yard: barely more than a short lane, connecting the buildings within the fence. There were five of those, some of them facing the gate with their narrow side – where the entrance was – others joining them in a right angle. All five were built in the same pattern: long, rectangular, sunken-floored buildings, with timber walls and thatched roofs; and all seemed quite old and in need of smaller or bigger repairs.

The largest building was the hall, of course, in which the family lived and worked. It was a well-made, spacious house, its outer walls supported by diagonal oak beams from the outside at every section. Like most farm buildings in the neigbourhood, it was built entirely of wood – in Rohirric, style, rather than in the usual stone-and-wood fashion of the Old Folk – with the sunken central part of the floor built over with wooden planks, and small chambers framing the longer walls on both sides, to provide some semblance of privacy for the family members.

The stables joined the hall in a right angle from the left, while a barn – serving both as a granary and to keep the firewood and the hay dry – stood on its right side, reaching halfway forward to the fence and creating thus a small courtyard between stables, hall and barn, where the women could work when the weather was more pleasant. Again, in a right angle from behind, another building joined the barn, almost as large as the hall itself: the place where they kept eggs and other foodstuffs, and where the farmer’s wife made and stored the cheese. Next to it was a poultry-yard – a fairly large one – and before that a cottage, in which Ardan, the farmer’s heir, lived with his own family.

Behind the poultry-yard, two large haystacks seemed to have stood; now the hay was spread all over the pastures beyond the buildings. Herumor briefly wondered why the hay had not been taken into the barn long ago; but perhaps there was no more room where to put it.

“You will have a great deal of work, collecting and drying that hay again,” he said to the farmer, who shrugged in defeat.

“It cannot be helped, my Lord. I have sold those two stacks, with ten others, to the hay merchant; he has just failed to take them with him so far. We shall have to give him some of the dry haycocks fro our own and try to salvage as much of these as we can. ‘Tis not the first time; nor will it be the last one, I fear.”

“But if it was his fault, for not collecting his wares in time, why should you bear the consequences?” Herumor could not believe what he had just heard.

Archu laughed tiredly. “I could refuse, of course,” he said. “But if I did, he would never buy my hay again. That is a risk I cannot take. You must not stand here in the cold, though, my Lord; and you neither, Master Wella. You know I would never cheat on Lord Orchald, so come into the hall. My sons will see that everything is loaded onto the cart properly.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was obvious that the tax collector trusted the farmer implicitly, for he followed him without hesitation. Herumor did the same. Inside, it was fairly dark, most of the light coming from the central fire built on a raised clay hearth that served for both, heating and cooking. There were a few tallow candles, still unlit, on the table; the family probably only used them at nighttime, utilizing the hearth fire and what little light could come through the small windows, stretched over with vellum, to work by.

Furniture was very sparse in the shared middle part of the hall. Herumor assumed that the small private chambers, screened off from the main hall by simple, home-made curtains, would contain benches that could serve as seating during the day and as sleeping areas at night, as well as iron-bound chests for personal belongings. He had seen them in other farmhouses often enough. Around the walls were plain hangings of thick, simple wool, to keep draught out. A loom stood in the back, opposite the front door, with a half-finished piece of good, homespun wool cloth hanging on it, and a trestle table was placed next to the heart.

The women of the family were sitting at that table, on wooden benches, busily shelling corn and grinding it between the two stones of the hand-mill for dinner, which would most likely consist of hoecake and milk or weak ale, as it often was among poor farmers. Herumor recognized the farmer’s wife, a tall, painfully thin, almost wraith-like woman, whose beauty had long been used up by a hard life, filled with heavy labour and the birthing of seventeen children, thirteen of which had survived into adulthood.

Of the other, younger women, two were very much like her, only still as strong and healthy as possible for someone working so hard on so little food as they did – her daughters, one still this side of twenty and a lovely little thing at that, the other one in her early twenties, still pretty, but the hard life had already left its marks upon her tired face. The fourth woman was short, broadly built and ruddy-faced, age-wise somewhere in the middle between mother and daughters; most likely Ardan’s wife.

While no-one showed aught but the utmost courtesy towards Master Wella, it was the young lord’s presence that caused the true excitement. Life returned at once to the weary eyes of Mistress Messbuach, her hollow cheeks colouring most pleasantly from the thought that she would be allowed to pay host to the heir of their lord. She shooed her youngest daughter, whose name was apparently Saba, to bring forth the best drinking cups (which turned out to be plain and modest zinc ones, but still), called out to her son Erc to bring a pitcher of ale, ordered her other daughter, Vilbia, to fetch the small white cakes from the pantry, and generally, she made a delightful fuss about the noble visitor.

Herumor endured the fuss about his person in good humour. He was used to people getting excited when he appeared among them; he was the only son of their lord, after all, and the folk extended the love they felt for his father over him as well. He accepted one piece of the small white cakes that had probably been made for some special occasion, knowing that the mistress of the house would be heartbroken, should he refuse. The small cake was actually very tasty; surprisingly so, considering the meagre sources the simple folk had at their disposal.

He complimented Mistress Messbuach on them, who blushed prettily, looking ten years younger all of a sudden, and readily led him to the barn where she made the cheese when he asked to be shown the process.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The barn was surprisingly warm, considering that it was not usually heated. But it was protected from the cold wind on three sides by other buildings, which probably counted a great deal, and a fire was lit every day when cheese-making was in process, which most likely helped, too. In any case, it was a pleasant place. On one side, the already finished hard cheeses – large, round and flat blocks with a nice yellow crust – were ripening on long wooden shelves. On the other side, milk from the previous day was sitting in large jugs to sour, while in the middle a low stone heart stood, with a copious copper kettle on it, the fire already built under the kettle, just waiting for being started.

“’Tis truly not so difficult,” said Mistress Messbuach, while her daughters came and began emptying jugs of fresh milk from the morning into the kettle. “First, we leave the milk out to sit over night to sour. That is what you can see on this side. Then we heat the milk and add something to sour it: ale, vinegar or, like today, a special mix of spices. Then we take cream from the previous day to start the curding process. When it has proceeded enough, we separate curds and whey by draining or pressing. Then all we need to do is salt and herb the cheese, and it can be served.”

“That does sound simple,” agreed Herumor. “Yet somehow I have the feeling that it would be more complicated in practice.”

“Nay, making soft cheese is easy,” said the farmer’s wife, “and that is what we are doing now, for it takes time for the hard cheese to ripen, and we cannot make more of them ‘til they are ready to be sold. But soft cheese is much asked for, too, especially the one which is called Good Housewife’s Jewel – the very same we are making today.”

“Why is it so well-liked?” asked Herumor curiously.

“We make it with powdered ginger, good rose water that we get from Mistress Eirendel – the best there is, truly – and flavoured honey that Master Keir makes the way we need it, with spices not often used for honey. They make a much milder taste than if we curd the milk with vinegar; although apple cider vinegar also makes a good, spicy taste, which men often prefer. Vilbia, my dove,” she turned to her older daughter for a moment, “do start that fire, will you?”

Vilbia was already at it, handing the tinderbox with great skill. There could be no doubt that both she and her younger sister have learned the secrets of cheese-making at a young age.

“Now we shall seethe a quart of this morning’s milk, which my girls have already put into the kettle,” continued Mistress Messbuach. “When it does seethe, we shall take it off the fire, put it into a fair earthen pan and let it stand ‘til it be somewhat blood warm and we can add the clotted cream.”

“What clotted cram?” asked Herumor, a little confused. “Where would you take that from?”

“We have made it yesterday,” she replied. “Taking a gallon of milk, we seethed it, and when it was seething, we put a quart of morning milk in fair cleansing pans, in such a place as no dust may fall therein. Also, over night we put a good amount of powdered ginger, with rose water, and stirred it together, then let it settle all night. Now we shall add both to the seethed milk, as soon as it has cooled down enough.”

Herumor still did not quite understand the process – all those different sorts of milk confused him to no end – but chose not to dig any deeper. He was certain it would only confuse him further. One probably had to live on a farm to make a difference.

“How do you separate curds and whey?” he asked instead, feeling that a somewhat… safer topic.

“We strain them through a cheesecloth… or butter muslin as it is called elsewhere,” explained Mistress Messbuach. “We put the curds in a fine cloth, with a little good rose water, fine powder of ginger and a little honey. Then we lash great soft rolls together with a thread and crush out the whey with our clotted cream. Then we mix it with ginger and honey again, sprinkle it with rose water and put the cheese in a fair dish. When served with a snowy froth of raw milk or cream, ‘tis a very fine and tasty dish. Lord Ulmondil and his lady wife order a large pan of it each week.”

Herumor grinned. Lord Ulmondil was one of his father’s vassals; not a bad person, but obsessed with seafaring, although he had never commandeered anything larger than a fishing boat. His wife, the Lady Galadwen, came from Dol Amroth and was as obsessed with Elves as her husband was with ships. She was very proud of her refined tastes; preferring soft, sweet cheese scented with rose-water was certainly something she would do. All the better for the farmer’s family; at least that way they could regularly earn some honest coin.

“Mother,” said Vilbia quietly, “the milk is seething.”

“I see,” her mother turned to Herumor. “Your pardon, my lord, but I must tend to my cheese now. I shall make sure that you will be sent a small dish of today’s cheese to see how it has turned out.”

“Thank you, Mistress Messbuach,” replied Herumor, “and thank you for showing me your work; it was most interesting to learn about it. I shall return to the hall now and see how Master Wella is doing, then.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The tax-collector seemed to do well enough, seated at the hearth upon a few sheepskins to keep him warm, thus Herumor left him to the care of the women and went out to the gate again, where the farmer and his firstborn were making repairs. He talked with them a little, asking about the latest harvest, listening to their concerns, and telling them about the excellent work Archu’s second-born son, Merddyn, was doing at Emerië Manor, as the captain of Lord Orchald’s men-at-arms and Lord Peredur’s weapons master.

His words appeared to make the two sad and proud at the same time.

“I am glad that he makes himself useful,” said the farmer, “but it breaks my heart to see him as a soldier all the same. He has a sense for the soil few other people have – certainly none of his brothers – and he used to be an excellent ox-caller. Ploughing has been thrice as difficult since he left us.”

Herumor had heard before that ox-calling was a very special talent. He was still surprised, though, that it would mean so much. He said so, and both farmer and son laughed.

“It shows that you never had to tend to the soil yourself, my Lord,” said Archu. “Let me tell you then, that a good ox-caller is every bit as vital for cutting the land as a good ploughman; and while I worked with a good many in my time, both callers and ploughmen, I have never known one with the way Merddyn has with the beasts. They would die for him. And as good a hand he was with all cattle, calving or sick or what you will. Aye, I was a sorrowed man when I had to send him away to Emerië Manor. Ardan and Erc and Mudden do their best; but being a good caller is not something you can learn. ‘Tis something you must be born for; and Merddyn was surely born for it.”

“I remember watching him work in team with Father,” added his firstborn wistfully. “He never even glanced behind him when walking backward, feeling his way with his feet only, as if he had eyes in the back of his heels. And he was cajoling the weary beasts without a break, albeit his voice would grow hoarse and tired as the day grew longer; calling and luring and praising them along the furrow. He would tell them how they had done marvellously, and that they should get their rest and food, soon; that in no time, they would be going home, and how proud he was of them and how much he loved them – as if they were people, not mere beasts. And the oxen laboured for him, no matter how hard the soil would be, never turning their eyes for him, not for a moment, as if he could give them the strength to go on, him alone. They would do anything in their power to please him, anything.”

“We had to get a new team of oxen after Merddyn had left,” said Archu. “Those two would never work with another caller again.”

“’Tis strange,” said Herumor. “I have heard of hounds dying at their master’s grave, yet never that beasts of burden would be just as faithful.”

“All good beasts are able to respond to love,” said the farmer simply. “Loath I was to send those two to the Castle as part of my annual ground rent, for I knew they would be slaughtered… and they were a good team; the best. But I cannot afford to keep beasts that are no longer of any use. The new team is not bad; and Erc and Ardan work with them well enough. Still, they barely manage a half of what Merddyn used to be with his team.”

“Why did you send him to Emerië Manor then?” asked Herumor. “Why not one of your younger sons?”

“Which one?” asked the farmer. “Midac was already married and gone to his wife’s people to Lossarnach. Ecne has left us a year before – we know not whether he is still alive or not. Archil had work in the Riverside Inn, work that brought in honest coin; and besides, I needed him there to watch over his sisters. Erc and Mudden were still very young; I feared for them among armed soldiers, as they are both on the smallish side. Merddyn, on the other hand, was old enough and strong enough to take care of himself.”

“I regret that his loss has hit you so hard,” said Herumor. “I wish we could all live in peace, with no need for armed troops. But the Great Eye beyond the River never sleeps; we need to be prepared. And Captain Merddyn is very good at what he is doing right now. I know I sleep better, knowing that he has the weapons training of our men-at-arms in his capable hands. He is needed.”

“I know that,” replied the farmer, sighing. “And we are grateful for the protection, we truly are. We just… we just miss him terribly, in so many places.”

To that, Herumor had no answer. As the only son of a nobleman and the heir of lordship, he had been prepared to become a warrior from early childhood on. For him, weapons practice had long become second nature. ‘Twas the first time that it occurred to him that other people might not see things the same way. That the simple folk might resent the necessity of giving up a pair of hard-working hands to weapons. Archu was being understanding enough. But how many other farmers might have bitter feelings about their sons taking arms?

Even though Herumor knew that it was necessary – the lands needed to be protected, after all – it left him with a bad feeling. He was relieved when Master Wella finally left the hall to tell him that everything was in readiness, and that they could return home.

~The End – for now~

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