The Apprentice: 5. Fieldwork in Tharbad

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5. Fieldwork in Tharbad

[Glossary at end of chapter.]

"Lads, it's time for some fieldwork!"

The Istyar rubs his hands together with exaggerated glee when he addresses us, his two journeymen and me, now his most senior apprentice. He enjoys these excursions to perform research in the field. For the apprentices and journeymen who accompany him, these sojourns are exhilarating because of the opportunity to interact with the Istyar without the distraction and competition of the other masters and journeymen. Yet the trips often prove to be awkward in such close company with one who is at once so respected and feared as many mentors are. I convince myself that fearfulness is silly since the Istyar is known to have a kinder, gentler side and even welcomes us into his home with his family. There's no good reason to be uncomfortable around him. Still, he is The Istyar.

"You all are woefully ignorant of our mortal brethren, and I am remiss in not giving you more thorough instruction in the ways of Men. We'll ride to Tharbad tomorrow morning and stay there for a week. Meet me at the gates at sunrise."

Predictably, my mother fusses over my visit to the Númenórean port. It has a reputation of being a rough-and-tumble city, which in spite of the garrison of soldiers stationed there, has its fair share of thieves, pickpockets and worse. Such crimes are unheard of in our city where neighborhood complaints are more often the norm, like a crowing rooster that wakes the neighbors at odd hours, or a pair of less than aesthetically pleasing urns flanking a front door. I assure her that I will be careful. I'm astonished when my father speaks up to support me. He reminds my mother that I will be traveling with the Istyar, who is capable of casting a truly formidable presence.

Alastion, Vórimo and I arrive at nearly the moment the Sun tops the mountains in the East. The Istyar awaits us. He holds the reins of a jet-black stallion, one of a succession of such dark beasts he has ridden over the years. He culls the most vicious animal from a herd, and he takes pride in his ability to coax it into gentle and obedient demeanor. He invariably names these horses "Morirocco," which collapses to chirrups of "Mori." I have borrowed an obtuse bay gelding from family friends. Horsemanship is not my strength, so the animal's desultory temperament is welcome.

~*~

As evening draws near, we set up camp in the hollow of a hill overlooking the Glanduin. After removing the tack from the horses, currying and tethering them so they may graze, we catch and roast fish caught in the river and pass around the bottles of serce valaron. We get a bit into our drink. The Istyar, somewhat inebriated himself, lets his guard down and tells us strange things about the stars while we all lie back on our bedrolls.

"See that, lads?" He points toward the Sirë Elenion as he holds an almost empty bottle of wine. "Inside that beautiful river of stars is something utterly black, utterly horrible, and stranger than you can imagine. Light falls into it and cannot escape. No one knows where the light goes, not even the Valar. Time and space bend around it. That is where they threw Melkor. I think I would sincerely repent before I let that happen to me." He shudders, and his eyes change, their bright mithril fire darkening to the unreadable, the opaque. He retreats into himself and is as silent as a graven image in stone.

"Are you well, Istyar?" Concerned, I forget my place and place my hand on his shoulder.

He shakes his head, and the light returns to his eyes. He pats my hand. "Yes, boy. I'm fine. Just thinking." He shoves himself up on his elbows then stands. "Back in a minute. Nature calls. All that wine, you know."

We see his white smile flash in the dark as he strides away to the woods without a stumble or a weave. The three of us look at one another and collectively shrug.

~*~

Two days after that peculiar night, we cross the massive bridge, the dark waters of the Gwathló swelling through its stone arches beneath us. Tharbad is a major inland port of the Númenóreans. Four seaworthy ships are docked at the quays. Many Men work at the docks hauling lumber onto the ships.

A babel of languages and the miasma of the river bottoms, smoke, human odor, and food rise from the bustling market that is crammed between the docks and the walls of the city. We ride slowly to the city gates, picking our way amongst the throngs of Men in the market, and are welcomed inside, the guards recognizing the Istyar. "Hail, Lord Annatar!" they say. It is a heady experience to see our mentor treated like this. Once again, I am proud to be seen with him.

We ride up the stone-paved street, lined with whitewashed daub and wattle residences and shops, its orderliness a stark contrast to the shanties and filth that lie outside the city walls. The Istyar leads us to a well-kept guesthouse. The young groom's face lights up when our master gives him a small tourmaline as a token for taking care of our horses. The boy assures us that our horses will be well looked after. The Istyar's stallion is restless, showing signs of aggression, but after his master speaks soothing words to him, the horse settles and allows the groom to lead him away with our more mundane mounts.

Before we enter the guest house, the Istyar stops and proceeds to lecture us that we are not to drink the water in the city: only wine or ale.

"You are Eldar, so contaminated water won't kill you, but it has the potential to make you sick, and we certainly don't need that on this visit. And don't forget, these people are the same species as we are: there are Elves, there are Men, but we are all human. Set aside any Elvish sense of entitlement and open your minds to the Men of the city. This is how you will learn."

We enter with these admonishments. The interior of the inn is simple yet gracious with its chestnut woodwork, and the subtle scent of burning applewood lingers in the air. The inn is quiet now, but the muffled sounds of pots and pans clanking and voices in the kitchen are harbingers of a livelier atmosphere.

The innkeeper, a stout Man with grizzled russet hair and a neatly trimmed beard, stands behind a marble-topped chestnut-wood counter. He greets the Istyar in thickly accented Sindarin, "Welcome back, Lord Annatar! I am honored that you grace my humble establishment."

Oddly, the Istyar does not demur at the honorific these Men bestow on him in spite of his criticism of Elvish privilege. He has never claimed the title "Lord" among us. The Istyar smiles winsomely and answers in the Mannish vernacular, a language that has been drummed into my head by the loremasters of Ost-in-Edhil.

"Staying at your inn always agrees with me, Zadanu. It's a damn sight better than the accommodations at the Prince's residence."

My teacher's mouth curls into a sneer. His reaction is curious. Why would he wish to stay at this common inn rather than at the residence of nobility? I check myself as my own sense of entitlement wells up.

"That and you serve fine ale," the Istyar adds. Maybe that's why he likes this place, but I do not think this is the whole of the story. My master's obvious disgust at the mention of the Prince reveals that he harbors contempt for the Lord of Tharbad.

A porter scurries to take our packs, but the Istyar waves him away. "They can carry their own luggage. I told them to pack light, but you may show us to the rooms. Follow him, boys."

We do as we are instructed and follow the young man up the stairs and along the corridor. Alastion and Vórimo promptly claim a room for themselves.

Alastion shrugs and ruefully says, "Sorry about that, Sámaril. I'm afraid you're stuck as the Istyar's roommate."

"Oh, thank you so much." Slouching in resignation, I am nonetheless apprehensive with the prospect of sharing a room with my mentor.

It's awkward for the apprentices and journeymen to be in such close quarters with any of the masters, let alone the Istyar. We put these men -- gods of knowledge -- on pedestals. They surely do not possess bodily functions or do anything else so earthbound. But if one has to share a room with a master during fieldwork, you discover that your intellectual hero is a man like anyone else.

And you can never relax. It's bad enough that you may say something idiotic, but what if you do something base like unconsciously scratch your sardi or break wind at a whim, or worse, awaken with an erection holding your sheets up like a tent? Now here I am, having to share a room with the Istyar for the first time. Ai! How could my colleagues do this to me?

Before I can wing a sarcastic jab at Alastion, the Istyar bounds up the stairs.

"So you're stuck with me, are you? Don't worry. I don't bite, or at least I don't these days, and you needn't worry that I'll do anything untoward since...well, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it simply isn't my preference. I can't guarantee that I won't snore though." He opens the door, and with a sweeping gesture, bids me to enter the room first.

Two copper tubs filled with steaming hot water beckon from the lavatory down the hall. Keen to soak away the grit of travel from body and hair, I grab a towel but take no more than a step into the hall before I hesitate.

"Istyar Aulendil, I'm sorry. If you wish..."

The Istyar sighs and rolls his eyes as he stretches out on the bed, furiously scribbling in a notebook, filling the pages with his peerlessly graceful Tengwar script, exquisite in spite of the speed at which he writes.

"Varda's tits, lad! Relax a little. Go wash yourself first. You need bathing. Desperately."

Once we're all in clean simple clothing, and our hair is plaited or otherwise restrained (the Istyar just pulls the sides of his hair back and secures the strands with a gold clasp, so that is what I do, too), we prepare to go downstairs to the common room to eat and drink, but again the Istyar lectures us.

"Open your minds to these people. Be prepared, for I will be with you."

I will be with you
. That is his code for the molecular journeys during which he drags us along with him into the structures of earth or water or an organism. Alastion, Vórimo nor I have ever entered the mind and body of an intelligent being. A tremor of apprehension skitters with sharp little claws up my spine.

"Getting cold feet, Sámaril?" The Istyar slaps me on the back, vigorously enough that I must catch my breath.

"No, sir." I swallow hard, and we go downstairs, the noise from the common room directing us to its location.

Patrons and guests mill about the entry as the innkeeper accommodates their needs. A number of Men are scattered around the tables in the common room, all eating and drinking. Flatware clanks against plates. Laugher and appreciative smacks and grunts punctuate conversations as the Men tuck into their food. The aroma of fresh bread and spicy-sweet ham triggers my stomach into a fit of growling.

Two women bustle around the room, bringing plates of food and tankards of ale to their customers. One is older, judging by her skin's condition and the silver strands that interlace her chestnut-brown hair. The other is young, barely out of girlhood. I am unsure as to how mortals age, but she looks like she's around my little sister's age, at least in body and face. She bears strong resemblance to the older woman and the proprietor, so I conclude she must be their daughter.

Although the girl sees us sit, fear overcasts her expression, and she averts her face. I am taken aback. Who would fear me? The older woman, however, has no such hesitation. She meets the Istyar's eyes forthrightly across the room. He nods with a smile. Without a word, she grasps four tankards in her large hands, fills them from a cask, and sets them down on the table, one in front of each of us.

"So what's on tonight, Nîlozimra?"

He overlays this simple question with a slight brogue. I marvel at the Istyar's ease with the people of this city - the common people. He shows a curious adaptability to his environment and those surrounding him, something I have not observed much among my people, but then I remind myself that I am not as worldly as he.

"Ham, squash, and long beans," she replies. "Fresh bread. Quite simple compared to your Elvish vittles in Ost-in-Edhil, I expect. But I do have some of that goat cheese you like so well tucked away in the cellar." Nîlozimra evidently knows his preferences from past visits.

"Excellent! Simple food is fine by us and the goat cheese? My stomach is in thrall to you, my lady." Again, he flashes his radiant smile, and she returns to the kitchen on her way to retrieve the cheese that captivates my master. I get the impression that like us, the mortal woman trusts and even has affection for the Istyar. Her daughter, on the other hand, waits on the other Men but studiously avoids us.

"Istyar? May I ask you something?" I hesitate because I think this is an odd question, and I do not wish the Istyar to think that I am dim. He nods silently as he takes his first gulp of ale.

"The lady Nîlozimra is friendly enough, but what is wrong with her daughter? I assume that's her daughter. She seems frightened of us."

The Istyar finishes his long drink and wipes the foam off his upper lip with a cloth napkin.

"Yes, that is her daughter. You intimidate her, and yes, even frighten her. Many -- not all -- but many mortals fear the Firstborn."

Alastion, Vórimo and I look at one another, uneasy. I am baffled as to how anyone could fear us. Well, except the Istyar. It's easy to see how one could fear him. If he becomes angry, there's a force restrained within him that I would never want directed at me. Recently, he has been prone to dark moods in which he is withdrawn and quick to anger. His eyes become shielded, his fair face closed to us. Then he snaps out of these angry depressive states and returns to his usual gregariousness. This erratic behavior causes me to worry about our molecular excursion tonight. Something is changing in the Istyar. It is subtle. It is gradual, but there are nuances indicating that something is amiss. I try to reassure myself that probably I am overanalyzing his behavior.

Yes, probably you are overanalyzing this and overstepping your bounds, too.
A cold voice speaks in my head. Unnerved, I quickly look up from my tankard to see the Istyar taking another long pull from his ale, his eyes fixed on mine.

After we have eaten the simple but satisfying fare, we relax at the table with near-empty tankards. The common room fills up with more people who arrive to dine and imbibe the amber ale and otherwise enjoy the company of others in the evening. In that, these Men differ little from us.

With little warning, the syllables rattle swords in my head. I am swept away into a rushing stream of red fluid with dark crimson disks bobbing and bouncing off spongiform walls. I surmise that the Istyar has pulled me into the blood of someone in the common room, but he does not linger there. We course through pulsating chambers, which must be the heart. We then fly to an intricately woven net that we squeeze ourselves through, and I enter the brain of a Man. This is far more complex than a fish or a strawberry plant. I see motivations, hopes and fears firing though brilliant flashes, and cascades of abstract forms linking like locks and keys with one another, then firing off again and again to yield new thought or retrieval of memory.

I hang on for dear life as we careen through thoughts and emotions of those in the room, leaping from person to person. The amorphous flashes of each Man's brain resolve into clarity. This farmer worries about his crops and wishes he could find some way to improve the fertility of his land. Another doesn't seem motivated to work, but wishes to be wealthy all the same. A local merchant drinks to deaden his emotional anguish over his wife's betrayal with another man. The latter revelation makes my stomach clench because here is a contrasting behavior to my kind, and a sorrowful one, but I make note of it.

Young thoughts whimper: I am not good enough. I haven't the wit to speak with them. I wish I were not so plain. They are too high and frightening. Their tankards are probably empty now, but I will not go to them. I recognize the girl, who reminds me of my sister in a vague way.

Veering from my quiet role as a passenger with the Istyar, I silently speak to her in my mind: Don't be afraid. You are good enough. You are not so unlike us.

Then I am slammed so hard against the interior of my own skull that I nearly rock back in my chair. A conflagration with a black abyss at its center blazes in front of my eyes. My vision clears to see the girl across the room stumble. Then she freezes in place for a moment and turns to look at us, her face white with terror. She flees from the room.

"Why in Utumno's blazes did you do that, Sámaril?" The Istyar's eyes shoot a thousand silver arrows at me. For a brief moment, I perceive a black writhing horror in his glare. Bile rises in my throat, and a cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. Alastion and Vórimo likewise are stunned and have a cast of sickness on their faces. In an instant, the blackness is gone, replaced by something cold and analytical.

"When I am with you in a human mind, the understanding is that you are absolutely silent. It is one thing to yammer within a fish. It is quite another to do so in a human. I am disappointed in your foolishness, Sámaril. That will be all for tonight."

The Istyar catches Nîlozimra's attention. She refills our tankards, but I am not much in the mood for more drink. The prospect of sharing a room tonight with my disgusted and now frightening mentor is daunting, but fortunately, I do not hear the dreaded words: "You're hopeless."

~*~

No more such incidents mar the rest of our stay, and my gaffe seems to have been forgotten. The Istyar is in good spirits as he guides us all over Tharbad. No writhing horrors or chasms surrounded by fire appear during our excursions. We cling to him when he whirls through the minds of Men in the marketplace, the city proper, the garrison, and the docks. The latter are truly hair-raising. It is along the quays that I overhear what must be some of the most sordid thoughts of humankind.

The Istyar leaves us to our own devices on our last evening there. He has been invited to a fete hosted by the Lord of Tharbad, who is a prince of Númenor, a third son of a sister or brother of the king. The Prince is a lord of the royal house but not in the succession.

I sit at the small desk in the room scribbling my observations of the day in my notebook, while the Istyar, having bathed, dresses for the evening. Earlier in the week, he pulled a creased mass of black and crimson silk from his pack, and with one shake the fabric was fresh and unwrinkled. He now shrugs the robe over his shoulders, fastens the eyelets, and pulls his dark hair out from under the fabric to flow down his back. Next, he adorns himself with finery that he has crafted for himself in the House of the Mírëtanor.

Around his waist, he fastens a belt of many overlapping gold disks studded with rubies. He clasps a gold torc around his neck, fastens elaborately embossed and ruby-studded gold cuffs on his wrists, and sets a gold circlet over his brow. The fillet holds a medallion in the shape of an abstract eye embellished with rubies and yellow topaz. This he positions exactly at the center of his forehead.

"It's the ajna chakra. A symbol of wisdom," he says offhandedly of the eye medallion when I compliment him on it. He is transformed from the dedicated smith in smudged, scorched breeches and heavy boots into a regal personage, like one of the old Noldorin lords now vanished from this world.

He is as restive as his stallion as he prepares to go to the prince's soiree.

"Don't wait up for me, lad, but you three must stay here at the inn. Go to the common room if you require entertainment, but don't wander about the city. You are not experienced enough for it." He smoothes his hair, and tucks loosened strands behind his ears as he looks in the small mirror.

"There. Handsome is as handsome does, right, boy?" He smirks with his odd combination of arrogance and self-deprecation, and I smile back at my teacher. "Wish me luck. The prince's entertainments and appetites represent the worst kind of disorder, but it is - how shall I put this? It is useful for me to learn more about him."

When he speaks of this prince, he has a look of revulsion similar to what I have seen on his face when he sees an especially ill-kempt garden plot. His tone becomes dark and somber, yet calculating, too. It is as if he is of two minds when he gives thought to this high Númenórean prince who, for whatever reason, rules in a frontier town.

~*~

Alastion, Vórimo and I go to the common room for our dinner and stay for the ale and the safe entertainment. We have empty tankards, and with neither Nîlozimra nor her daughter about, I volunteer to refill them. As I stand at the cask, tap opened and on its way to filling the second tankard, Nîlozimra's daughter bustles out of the kitchen and not looking where she is going, runs into me. I spill some of the ale, but maintain my grasp on the tankard.

She freezes in place and doesn't appear to know whether to flee back to the kitchen or stay. Finally, she turns to escape, but I stop her by placing my hand on her shoulder.

"It's all right. Really. You have no reason to be so nervous around us. Here, I'll help you clean this up if you'll give me a rag." My Elvish lilt accents the brittle Mannish words, but it's obvious that she comprehends what I say.

She shakes her head and stammers, "N-n-no, my lord, that is for me to do."

"Oh, Tulkas' tight arse, please don't call me 'my lord.' I am Sámaril."

A expression of shock crosses her face at my blasphemy, a weakness of mine, but the Istyar swears frequently with quite colorful phrases in many languages, so naturally, we do as well. Then she snickers at my transgression, and I smile back at her.

"I know. My mother says I should have my mouth washed out with soap. My apologies if I have offended you."

"I take no offense, sir, and I won't tell your mother either."

"Thanks. Now let's find that rag."

I wipe up the spilled ale, which is minor, and take the rag back to the kitchen with her tagging along behind me.

"See, I am not so vicious."

"You are not, but your lord frightens me. My mother and father admire and respect him, but something dark lurks in him. I thought you might be like that, too, but you're not."

I reflect on her assessment. The Istyar can be a stern taskmaster, and his intense regard causes even the most confident among the masters to shrivel. With cold, precise calculation, he pulls one's intellectual defenses away like the layers of an onion, but he surprises us on occasion with sentimentality.

"The Istyar frightens you that much? He can be intimidating, true, but at heart he is a good learned man, and he even has loved ones."

"I expect you would know better than I, and after all, I am just a girl, so what would I know?"

"Please don't say that. You remind me of my sister. You and she appear to be around the same age, and I think well of her. Very well, in fact, even though she annoys me at times."

She smiles and visibly relaxes. "Thank you, sir. Your sister is lucky to have a brother. My older brother died from pestilence some years ago when I was a baby."

"I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "I didn't know him really. I'd best get back to work, or my mother will come scolding."

Her casual dismissal of her brother's death surprises me. Should that happen to my sister or my parents, I would be devastated. Yet she allowed that she did not know him. I recover my senses.

"Very well then. I'll leave you to your duties. Forgive me, I should have asked sooner, but what is your name?"

"Zirânphel."

"Good night, Zirânphel. We depart tomorrow, but perhaps if we stay here again, I will see you then."

~*~

The journeymen and I finish off our ale, chat a while longer and return to our rooms for the night. I drop off to sleep quickly but awaken deep in the night when the Istyar returns noisily.

"Eru in Eä, that was absolutely wretched!"

He fumbles around, and I assume he has had a good deal to drink if he is so affected. I hear the clinks and clanks of his gold embellishments as he tosses then onto the small desk, and then he throws himself onto the bed. Within minutes, he's snoring, a massive, deep sound that shakes the very foundations of the earth. Perhaps I exaggerate, and it's not that loud, but it's impossible to block out. He slept serenely the previous evenings, so I assume that his excessive drinking has a role in this. It doesn't much matter what the cause because I lie awake most of the night, pillow mashed around my ears. I finally resort to the less-than-satisfying waking dreams state.

In the morning, he sits up and groans, and rubs his forehead with both hands, grimacing. His skin, bronzed by the summer sun, has a sickly patina.

"Ai! Manwë's holy rod, what a headache..."

He springs up from the bed, clad only in his brief undergarment, since he has thrown his robe on the floor during the night, and flies out of the room on the way to the lavatory down the hall. I do not want to hear what he is doing, so I quickly shut the door and lie back in bed.

He returns, fresh and reinvigorated, with a healthy color returned ito his face. He plops down on the bed, legs akimbo, and scratches his scalp with vigor.

"That's better. Nothing like cold water on the face for a hangover. So, did I snore?"

I look at him blearily and nod.

"My apologies, Sámaril. I would have been sent summarily to the parlor to sleep had I done that at home. There was no escape for you." Now he scratches his shoulders and yawns. "I fear I succumbed to the Prince's liquor. I have to say, those Númenóreans really know how to distill the grape. The Prince had the brandy imported from the island itself."

He rises from the bed and sifts through clothing hanging in the room's simple armoire. While he yanks on breeches, pulls a light shirt over his head and rams his feet into his boots, he carries on a monologue with me as his captive audience.

"I think we ought to bring your little girlfriend's father to Tharbad to consult with some of the Prince's artisans, once they come over from the island. The serce valaron might yield a fine liquor when distilled."

My little girlfriend? Nierellë? I have barely seen her since that day in the gardens when she wielded the "magic" hoe that I made. He notices my squirming discomfiture at his remark.

"Don't be coy, Sámaril. I know you dream of her." He chuckles in avuncular fashion, but with a touch of risqué derision, as he brushes his hair.

My face burns at his words. A vivid dream about Nierellë a couple of nights ago came unbidden, but intense enough to wake me when I released onto the linens. Fortunately, I was turned away from the Istyar when my body embarrassed me. Based on his rhythmic breathing, I assumed that he was asleep. However, even if asleep, evidently he was aware of my erotic dream.

"Oh, settle down, Sámaril! You are hope...well, no, you are not that, but honestly, I am a man, too. I understand."

My humiliation is complete.

He sweeps his hair back and secures it with a band of leather at the nape of his neck, gathers his belongings, folds his clothing precisely, and begins to pack.

"We'll leave in an hour, Sámaril. Get yourself together."

I lie there gaping at him. "An hour? What..."

"Yes, an hour, Sámaril. Don't you people have any sense of time?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Glossary:

Sirë Elenion (der. Q.) - "River of Stars" a.k.a. The Milky Way.

I took a stab at Adûnaic from "Lowdham's Report on the Adûnaic Language" in The HoMe, vol. IX, Sauron Defeated for the names of common folk of Tharbad. Although the vernacular of the people of Minhiriath is likely somewhat different (maybe influenced by the Haladin languages) than that of pure Numenorean Adûnaic, I offer these as a Mannish differentiation from the Elvish names.

Zadanu (der. Adûnaic): from zadan, "house;" -u is a masculine ending.
Nîlozimra (der. Adûnaic): from nîlo, "moon," and "zimra," jewel
Zirânphel(der. Adûnaic): from zirân, "beloved," and phel, "daughter."

Sardi (Q.): stones, as in "stones."

Ajna chakra (Sanskrit): The Third Eye or Shiva's Eye; "represents advanced mental consciousness that favors the direct perception over the invisible worlds, and the direct perception of the subtle aspects of manifestation."


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: pandemonium_213

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 2nd Age - Rings

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 12/18/11

Original Post: 12/18/11

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