Kvasir’s Blood



by Christine Morgan




In Jarl Thorvald’s longhouse, fires blazed hot in the hearths and smoke hung heavy in the air. The feast-tables groaned beneath the weight of beef and pork, bread, cheese, butter, and nut-cakes sweet with boiled fruit. Great bowls brimmed with ale and barley-beer. From high-raised drinking horns, the honey-mead flowed golden.


In Jarl Thorvald’s longhouse, drums thumped and harpstrings rang. Men boasted and jested and joked. Girls squealed and giggled, women uttered throaty laughs. Tales were told, songs sung and sagas said. Voices roared hearty approbation.


In Jarl Thorvald’s longhouse, agate-carved game-pieces sat ready upon whalebone-inlaid boards and ivory dice clattered in wooden dice-cups. Dogs nosed through the floor-rushes for scraps. Children played with toy dolls and horses, with mock swords and shields.


In Jarl Thorvald’s longhouse, the old jarl himself bestowed rich rewards on those who most pleased him. He was wise and wealthy, a generous gift-giver. At his side rested a chest of treasures: coins and hack-silver, brooches, bracelets, arm-rings and amber.


And Ofradr Ulfradsson, who should long since have been there, was not.


The squirrel-fur trim of his hood dripped sleet into his eyes. His wool cloak clung, thick and sodden, over his shoulders. Each plodding hoof-fall of his horse’s slow, swaying gait struck up splashes from the puddles lining the muddy lane.


Lining it? Making it more river than road at this rate.


Ofradr squinted into the wet, grey gloom. How he hoped for the welcoming glow of the longhouse, torches beckoning!


But he saw only more rocky hills and stubby trees with their gnarled boughs rain-bent. Low clouds encroached close, obscuring the rest. For all he could tell of the landscape, they might have crossed this same stretch of lane time and again, going in circles and making no progress at all.


He swiped his wet brow with an equally wet sleeve and glared at the thrall who led his horse by the reins.


“You told me you knew these lands,” Ofradr said. He’d meant to sound accusatory, but the words emerged sulky and petulant.


The thrall—a stout-bodied man, grubby, sparse-bearded, shabbily dressed—groveled. “I do, lord!”


“Then why are we not yet to Jarl Thorvald’s hall?”


“We should be soon, lord!”


Ofradr groaned. There was no use in arguing, no use in further scolding. He needed to preserve his voice for the contests ahead. Already, he’d put it in peril, being out here so long in such wretched weather.


His nose trickled, running freely. He blotted it on the back of his hand, wincing at how raw and tender the rims of his nostrils felt. And was that a coarseness, a scratchiness forming in his throat? The soft tissues growing swollen, beginning to ache?


He prodded with his fingertips under the shelf of his jaw, pressing the flesh, testing for signs of pain. He swallowed thickly. A cough, now … a hoarse rasping cough … would be the end of his chances.


The rain worsened. The damp chill seeped into his bones. Ofradr tried to comfort himself with the prospect of a hot fire, a hot meal, a bowl of mulled mead heady with honey and spices. That liquid warm balm coursing down his sore throat … the sweet steam of it easing his nose and lungs … its kindling heat pooling in his belly, spreading through him to thaw his marrow … his heart lightened, his spirits lifted, the cares washed from his mind …


Yes, a bowl of mulled mead would set everything right in the world.


“Lord?” ventured the thrall, sounding fearful and more abject than ever. “I seem to have brought us the wrong way, lord.”


“What?” Ofradr looked up.


“This creek, lord, with these split logs laid across … and that stone, the moss-covered one … I recognize this place, and we have come far from Jarl Thorvald’s longhouse.”


“How far?”


“Far, lord. Even if we turned now, we would not reach it by night-fall.”


“If we turned?” echoed Ofradr. “What else would you have us do, if not turn?”


“There are, or were, some farm-steads not much further. If we sought shelter—”


“What do you mean, were? When I hired you to guide me, you assured me you’d grown up here.”


“It has been years, lord. I was a boy. But I do remember. We are bound to find some welcome. Some food and a fire, someplace to sleep, and then we’ll make for the jarl’s hall at first light of morning.”


Ofradr put his face in his fur-gloved hands. The prospect of a night spent in a farm-stead hovel … sleeping on a cot if he was lucky and a straw pallet if he was not, instead of on stout sleeping-platforms heaped with fleeces and pelts … dining on gruel and sour beer rather than boiled beef and mulled mead …


Then again, the prospect of a night spent huddled in his wet cloak beneath a tree, with only what wizened apples and cheese-rinds remained in his pack …


“Take us there, then,” he said to the thrall. “Anything to get out of this rain and cold.”


“Yes, lord!”


On they went, crossing the creek on the bridge-ford of split logs, passing the moss-covered stone, descending a rough slope toward a rugged country of valley folds sprawled around the base of a mountain.


The first farm-stead they reached was little more than a few char-blackened timbers leaning askew near a collapsed and abandoned sheep-byre, but the second looked to still be inhabited. The cottage had sod-and-stick walls plastered with daub, and a roof of dank thatch. Desultory smoke curled from the chimney-hole and faint light flickered through a crack in the door. To one side was a crooked fence around a mud-yard and a shed, where a goat eyed them dully while chewing a wad of hay.


The thrall hailed the house and an old woman answered. She was large-bodied but flabby, her skin loose in sags and wrinkles, hair straggling from under a kerchief, her mouth toothless and her features falling just short of crone-like. But she greeted them readily enough, bidding Ofradr come in to warm himself while the thrall settled the horse in the shed.


He needed no second invitation. Moments later, he huddled close to the small fire, holding his hands over it. The old woman bustled about, draping his cloak on a bench, lighting a fish-oil lantern that gave off a greasy, sputtering flame, and setting out two more clay bowls on her rickety table.


Her name, she told him, was Lodunng. She lived alone, with no near neighbors and few far ones, and it had been long since she’d had visitors.


“What brings such a fine youth to such a miserable place as this?” she asked as she ladled up broth from a pot.


“I am Ofradr Ulfradsson,” he said. “Do you know Jarl Thorvald?”


“I know of him, to be sure,” old Lodunng said. “This is his land. He sends his men out each spring and autumn to collect what is due. But, the jarl himself, I have not met, no.”


The broth, when she passed him the bowl, Ofradr found to be a thin, watery concoction made from onions and dried fish. The accompanying bread was flat and lumpy, stone-baked, coarse-ground, hard, and tough to chew even for one who still had all his teeth.


“Jarl Thorvald is holding a feast and contest,” Ofradr said. “He has need of a new skald for his hall, a poet and tale-teller, a singer of sagas and songs.”


“Ah, and you are a skald?” Lodunng scrutinized him, then cackled. “So you must be, so fair and graceful, and with such a voice!”


At that, Ofradr permitted himself to preen a bit, smiling. Sometimes, remarks of that sort seemed to hide barbed insults within, as if obvious he certainly could be no kind of warrior, not him, slim as a girl and almost as pretty.


“Like sweetest honey, strained pure gold from the comb,” she went on, marveling in admiration.


She spoke in reference, of course, to his voice. Which must not have yet been adversely affected by his ordeal, he was gladdened to know.


The thrall came in, stamping mud, and squatted by the fire with his bowl and his bread. The old woman poured them each a cup of beer as well. It was the sour stuff Ofradr had dismally imagined, its aftertaste a scum that made him think of stale sweat and feet.


“A skald,” Lodunng said, with evident admiration. “At my fire.”


“Yes, well,” said Ofradr. “Thank you for your hospitality. We meant to be at the jarl’s hall by now, but he—” here, with a jerk of his chin at the thrall, “—led us astray.”


Mumbling apologies, the thrall gulped down the sour beer.


“Will you miss the contest?” Lodunng asked.


“It spans several days.” Ofradr smiled again. “And even were I the last to arrive, I’m bound to win. There is no better singer in all the North-Lands.”


“Are you so confident?”


“You yourself said my voice is like sweetest honey, strained pure gold from the comb.”


“Yes, but there may be others who know all the sagas, or compose their own poetry, or are captivating tellers of tales.”


“When I sing,” he said, “men hush and women swoon. The very birds go pale with envy. The gods themselves, in high Asgard, would weep to hear … and the dead in bleak grey Niflheim would, for that time, forget their sorrows.”


Lodunng sat back and blinked at him, duly impressed. “Well, you have tasted of the skaldic mead, haven’t you?”


He grimaced into the cup. “Do not speak to me of mead, when this is what you offer.”


“The skaldic mead,” she repeated. “Kvasir’s blood, Odin’s gift … oh, but surely you must know the kennings.”


“Kvasir’s blood? Odin’s gift? Your words are of no sense, old woman,” he said, waving a hand in a bored gesture. “Enough. The hour grows late and I am weary.”


“Will you favor me with a song, then? Before you sleep?”


“No, I must not,” he said. “I must preserve my voice at its best for tomorrow.”


“Very well. But let me instead tell you a tale, one which I think might be well for you to hear. An old tale, of dwarfs and giants, and the gods …”


***


“That it should come to this,” said Fjalar, to Gjalar, his brother. “That we two so cunning, the cleverest of dwarfs, must be brought so low.”


Gjalar nodded. “To think we once took our ease in the feast-halls of kings.”


“Eating from golden plates and drinking from golden horns.”


“We, who worked our ruses upon gods and giants and men …”


“And now, here we sit in dreary poverty.”


“With no fortune and no prospects.”


“With nothing left to our names.”


“Except for these three vessels in which our mother made mead.”


“And not even honey enough left to fill them again.”


They both sighed together in their despair.


“How much better it was when the gods were at war,” Gjalar said. “Oh, there was ample opportunity for trickery then, was there not, brother?”


“Tricks and schemes upon both sides, ah yes, and rich profit to be won.”


“A curse upon the Aesir and Vanir, and their new-sworn peace.” So saying, Gjalar kicked a stone.


“It would not be so bad, but for Kvasir, that man they created.” Fjalar scowled.


“Kvasir the wise,” sneered Gjalar. “Kvasir the knowledgeable, answerer of any questions posed to him. Quite the accomplishment for a man born from spit.”


“God-spit.”


“God-spit, but spit nonetheless. That they sealed their truce by spitting into a vat, fine, hardly unreasonable. But that they’d then think to fashion a living man of it!”


“A man who goes all about the land, teaching, spreading wisdom,” added Fjalar. “To our sorrow and undoing.”


“Indeed! How are we now to earn a livelihood? How will we keep body and soul together?”


“Learn a trade?”


“A trade!” Gjalar cried. “Would you have us hammer and tinker and make trinkets for the gods?”


“Well, we must think of something. We must use our wits.”


“We have made our way all this time on our wits, and relying upon the foolishness of others. Our wits have not changed. It is their foolishness Kvasir ruins.”


Fjalar rolled his eyes, and spoke with great sarcastic scorn. “Perhaps we should seek his advice.”


The two dwarfs laughed, not unbitterly. Then, suddenly, they paused. Their gazes met. Their eyes first widened, then narrowed, then gleamed.


“Brother …” said Gjalar.


“Yes, brother?” Fjalar asked, grinning.


“There is, nowhere within Yggdrasil’s reach, any so clever or cunning as you. Even Loki himself, Laufey’s son, could not devise so brilliant a plan!”


“Let us hope you are right, for even Loki himself, Laufey’s son, could not outsmart Kvasir while hiding from the gods.”


This, Gjalar knew to be true, but they resolved to be more cautious than was Loki’s usual wont. In guise of seekers of counsel, they sent invitation to Kvasir that he should visit and be their most honored guest. They had, they said, many difficult questions in need of answer, questions such that might challenge even his vast knowledge.


Kvasir, who was wise but honest and unsuspecting, agreed.


No sooner had he arrived than—


“Now, brother!” shouted Fjalar.


He and Gjalar fell upon Kvasir and killed him with swift blows.


“We must conceal this deed,” Gjalar said, “or we may bring down Odin’s wrath upon us.”


“Hang him and press him,” Fjalar replied. “Crush his flesh so the blood is all drained out.”


“But we possess no other containers to catch it, only our mother’s mead-making vessels.”


“So be it; we will brew the blood with the honey.”


They did, and found the mixture became a most potent drink, so powerful anyone who drank of it would be imbued with the skaldic gifts of poetry, tale-telling and the singing of sagas and songs. The scent alone of this heady mead inspired Fjalar and Gjalar to craft an ingenious explanation for how Kvasir had happened to die.


“His very intelligence and wisdom caused him such a burden that he suffocated of it,” they told the gods. “None in Midgard were learned or educated enough to pose him further questions. He could bear it no longer.”


And the Aesir believed them.


“Ha!” they exclaimed. “We have done it! Let this be an end to the spreading of knowledge and wisdom in the world!”


To put this to an easy test, they set out straightaway to the home of a neighboring giant, Gilling, known to be among the most foolish of beings. Gilling, whose sons were grown and gone, lived with his wife in a stone hall on the shores of a deep lake.


This in itself was proof enough of Gilling’s foolishness, as he feared the cold waters and could not swim. Yet so much more foolish even than that was the giant, he owned a boat … and it was a matter of mere moments’ persuasion for Fjalar and Gjalar to convince him to row with them out to the very center.


“You are not up to some trick or scheme, are you?” asked the giant as he rowed.


“Us?” said Fjalar.


“A trick?” said Gjalar.


“A scheme?” Fjalar went on. “Whatever for?”


“To rob me of my gold,” Gilling said.


“Why, Gilling!” laughed Gjalar. “You are a giant, and we two are only dwarfs. See how much larger and stronger than us you are!”


“Both of us together could not hope to fight against you,” Fjalar said.


“It had best be not so,” Gilling said. “I heard Kvasir, the wisest of men, is visiting these lands. When he comes here, I mean to speak with him and gain his counsel. If I learn you deceived me, I will crack your skulls like nutshells in my fists.”


“We would never want that,” Gjalar assured him.


“Is this the deepest part of the lake?” asked Fjalar. “The water is so very dark below.”


Gilling glanced over the side, and shivered despite his immense size. “Yes. It is so deep here, not even I could touch the bottom.”


“What a terrible fate it would be if your boat were damaged,” said Gjalar.


“If it leaked,” Fjalar said.


“If the hull-plankings were splitting apart.”


Which, of course, the brothers had already seen to doing. As Gilling saw the water pouring in, as he felt it lap and splash at his feet, he went into a thrashing frenzy of terror. His struggles broke the boat all to pieces. Fjalar and Gjalar clung to the scattering flotsam, but Gilling did not think of it and soon the giant went under.


“Well, he was still foolish,” Fjalar said.


“Now let us see if his wife is any less so,” Gjalar replied.


After paddling their way back ashore, Fjalar climbed by stealth to the roof of the stone hall. He waited above the door. When he was in readiness, Gjalar commenced a loud and woeful clamor of weeping and wailing.


“Ah, Gilling, brave Gilling, his boat is wrecked asunder! He is sunk to the depths of the lake and drowned! He is dead! Ah, alas!”


Hearing this, Gilling’s wife—who was no less foolish than her husband—rushed forth, shrieking with grief. No sooner had she crossed the threshold than Fjalar pushed down a heavy stone. It struck her on the head and she died.


They returned to their home, wealthy again with the gold and jewels they’d taken from Gilling’s house. This pleased them both greatly, or did so until one of the sons of the murdered giants heard of their fate, and came for his revenge.


Unlike his father and mother, the giant Suttungr was no fool. He seized the dwarfs, closing his ears to their entreaties and explanations. He took them not to the deep lake but to the stony sea-shore, where the cold waves crash and the foam leaps and the cries of the gulls sound like the screams of the dying.


Wading into the surf, Suttungr placed Fjalar upon one barren rock island and Gjalar upon another.


“Now you have no boats to break,” he told them. “Now you have no flotsam to cling to. When the tide rises, we shall see how well you swim.”


Then he sat on an outcrop with his great arms crossed, watching.


In came the tide, ever higher. The islands upon which Fjalar and Gjalar stood became smaller, and smaller still. They retreated to the loftiest spots, but still the tide came in. The bitter salt-water lapped at their toes. It lapped at their heels and at their ankles. It engulfed their feet. It wetted their knees.


The dwarfs, unable to paddle to safety, began begging the giant for their lives. They promised to return Gilling’s treasure, every coin, every scrap.


“I will have that regardless,” Suttungr said. “It is mine by right, mine and my brother’s, our inheritance.”


The water reached to their waists. A wave-surge nearly pushed them from their precarious perches.


“Be merciful!” cried Fjalar.


“Spare us!” cried Gjalar.


The sea-spray dashed into their faces, the salt stinging their eyes.


“We’ll do anything!”


“We’ll reward you!”


They slipped, their heads dunking under, and scrambled to regain their footing.


“We have mead!”


“Magic mead!”


Gjalar coughed and Fjalar choked. Their arms flailed, slapping and splashing.


“Mead made from the blood of Kvasir!”


“Wisest and most knowledgeable of men!”


The water rose to their necks, to their chins.


“It grants any who drink it—”


“—the gifts of a skald!”


The water rose to their lips as they strained on tip-toe.


“Poetry!” shrieked Gjalar.


“The mead of poetry!” shrieked Fjalar.


Another wave sluiced over them, engulfing them. But Suttungr lunged out with his long grasp, catching the dwarfs each by the scruff of his neck. He hauled them ashore in the last heartbeat before they surely would have drowned.


Soaking, chastened, and humbled, they trembled. They brought Suttungr to their cave, where they returned to him the gold and jewels they’d taken from his father’s stone hall. They gave him the three vessels of mead.


No sooner had the first taste touched his tongue than the giant knew he had come by a rare treasure indeed. He knew also the dwarfs were sure to betray him despite their promises, that they would kill him the moment they had a chance.


Yet, he had promised to spare their lives … and he prided himself on being of more honor than the likes of Fjalar and Gjalar.


Another sip of the mead gave him the answer. He chained them together in iron neck-collars and dumped them at the very gates of Asgard, letting it be known that here were the murderers of wise Kvasir, to be punished.


Then he hid the three mead-vessels away in the heart of a mountain called Hnitbjorg, setting his daughter to keep watch. The only passage to the spot was of so twisting and turning a nature that no one who had not partaken of the mead could ever find it, and so, only Suttungr himself knew the way.


Odin the All-Father, however, was curious enough to question the dwarfs before punishing them—he had them transformed into roosters, one crimson and one blood-red, whose doom-crowing would herald the end of all things, that which men call Ragnarok. Upon hearing their full tale, the All-Father resolved he must drink of this mead—for Odin was ever a seeker of knowledge and wisdom, such that he’d made sacrifice of his own eye and hung nine days and nights from the tree by Mimir’s well.


He went first to Suttungr’s brother, a giant named Baugi, who kept nine slave-thralls as workers to tend his extensive hay-fields. Odin, disguised, showed to the slaves a whetstone that would sharpen their scythes to the keenest of edges, making quick and light work of their labors. Each of them wanted it, and in their squabbles they slit one another’s throats with the blades.


Baugi, having now nobody to toil in his fields, feared he would not be able to bring in the hay that summer. So, Odin, still in disguise, approached him with the offer to do the work of nine men, in exchange for a drink of Suttungr’s secret mead.


“Over such,” said Baugi, “I have no say … my brother hid the mead-vessels deep within the mountain, where he keeps it all for himself, with his daughter standing guard. Much as I would like a taste of the mead myself, he refuses. He claims he shared with me half of our parents’ wealth as rightful inheritance, but the mead was his own fair reward for seeking revenge.”


“We shall ask him together, when winter comes,” the disguised All-Father said. “And should he still refuse you, we may think of something.”


When winter came, and Odin had done the work of nine men, he and Braugi went to speak with Suttungr. They did ask him together, and he did still refuse.


“Not a drop,” he told them. “Not a sip.”


“As you know,” said Odin to Baugi as they left Suttungr’s house, “I have a whetstone that hones any blade to the keenest of edges.”


“Yes,” Baugi said. “It has been much use to you in cutting the hay. But I hope you do not suggest malice against my brother.”


“No, no,” Odin was swift to assure him. “What I did wish to say was I have also an auger so strong it can bore holes through the hardest of stone, and suggest with this we pierce through to the heart of the mountain.”


To Baugi, this seemed a clever plan, and, they set to work. Only when they had bored halfway into Hnitbjorg’s side did he pause.


“How will this be of help to us?” he asked. “You are no small man, and I am a giant, and this auger bores a hole no wider than my thumb.”


“Keep at it,” said Odin. “I know what to do.”


Not without some misgivings, Baugi did so. He’d no sooner begun to wonder if his hired man was up to some trick than the auger’s tip broke through into the cavern at the mountain’s heart. And then, no sooner had the auger been drawn out than did Odin transform himself to a snake, swiftly squirming into the hole.


Cursing at how he’d been tricked, Baugi grabbed for the serpent’s tail, but he missed. He smote the mountain-side with the auger in his anger and snapped the bit off at the handle. This made him curse all the more fiercely, but by then the snake had slithered far beyond his reach.


Odin made his way to the heart of the mountain. There, he found the three vessels of mead. There, he found also Gunnlod, the daughter of Suttungr, keeping watch over them. Odin resumed his own godly form, proud-bearded and handsome, his brow shining with wisdom, his one good eye like a jewel. He soon won the favor of the giant’s daughter, and they struck a bargain. For three nights, he would lay with her, giving her pleasure in all ways. In exchange, she would allow him three drinks of the mead.


This arrangement, Odin found very agreeable. But when the time came for him to have his drinks of the mead, he did not stop until each drink had drained one of the three vessels so they each were emptied.


Baugi, meanwhile, had gone to Suttungr and admitted all. Suttungr knew at once it must be one of the Aesir. And he suspected strongly which of them it was.


“Odin,” he said. “Well, he will not steal from me! Go to the hole you bored into the mountain, Baugi. Stop it up, block it, that he has no escape. I shall wait for him at the hidden exit and seize him as he emerges!”


This they each did. But Odin, so glutted on mead he sloshed, anticipated Suttungr’s trap. He took eagle’s shape and flew from Hnitbjorg as fast as his wings would carry him. The giant, seeing this, likewise changed his form to an eagle and gave chase. But he, unburdened, was far faster.


Screeching in fury, Suttungr slashed with sharp talons, forcing Odin to flee in desperate flight. Back and forth they went, this way and that, diving and veering, flapping and soaring. Feathers tore from the All-Father’s plumage, fluttering like dry leaves in the wind.


Each near-miss of the deadly claws gave Odin such terror mead sprayed squirting from under his tail. It rained down in soiled spatters across the earth; wherever the mead fell, men gained a semblance of its gift and thought themselves great poets.


From the gates of Asgard, the other gods heard the eagles screeching and saw this wild pursuit. Odin had told them of his intention, so Frigg’s handmaidens rushed to set out vats in the courtyard. Ullr, Sif’s son and the best archer among the Aesir, shot arrows at Suttungr to force him to turn from his course. Defeated, he had no choice but to return to his mountain.


Down swooped Odin. His beak gaped wide. Up from his gullet came a gushing regurgitation, spewing forth into the vats the rest of the mead he had drunk. This was the true skaldic mead, unsoiled and untainted. Odin shared it among the Aesir, and granted portions of it to those he deemed best deserving its gifts.


*


“And that is why poetry is called Kvasir’s blood,” Lodunng said. “Or Suttungr’s mead, Odin’s find or Odin’s gift, the treasure of Hnitbjorg.”


She smiled at Ofradr with her sunken, toothless mouth. He, despite his weariness, had listened raptly to her story as the cottage’s small fire burned low to embers and ash.


“What few think to wonder is what became of those giants,” she went on. “Of Suttungr’s daughter, in particular, who betrayed her own father for three nights in Odin’s arms.”


“Only to have the god empty the vessels of every drop of mead,” Ofradr said. “A devious trick.”


“Some say she lived on in the shadow of the mountain, she and the son that was born to her. Each year, she sends her son out to find someone … a skald or poet, a tale-teller, a singer of sagas and songs. It is a simple enough matter to lure them with promises of a contest at a jarl’s hall, then lead them to her door.”


At that, Ofradr felt his marrow, which had finally thawed, again go chilled. “That is a poor jest,” he said.


“It would be indeed, were I jesting.”


He looked from her to the thrall. The thrall grinned a cruel, knowing grin.


“Jarl Thorvald—” Ofradr began.


“There is no such man.”


“Then … why …?” His wits seemed to have deserted him, leaving him fumbling for words.


She pointed to the back wall of her cottage. Which, Ofradr now saw, had opened to reveal a passageway cut into the stone. It led to a cavern where three vessels waited, each half-filled.


“Each year, Suttungr’s daughter brews a new batch of mead, in hopes of earning her father’s forgiveness. To do so, however, requires something more than honey.”


Before Ofradr could move more than a step toward the cottage door, the thrall seized him in an iron-strong grip.


“You are, of course, no Kvasir,” Lodunng said—or, Gunnlod, as he now knew her to be—drawing forth a long sharp knife. “But you will do.”





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