The Helm and the Sword - Chapter III: Vangaris

<p><em>&lsquo;Harad has never been ruled by my own people. But Harad is still my land, and I will defend her, even if I have to burn with P&acirc;zghar to do so.&rsquo;<br /> - King K&acirc;ldor of Near Harad, Commander of the Border Forts, T.A. 1300</em><br /> <br /> <br /> It was late in the year 3005&ndash; the same year that H&acirc;ran and the survivors of Arysis had come to P&acirc;zghar; and the year of M&ocirc;rvar Ch&acirc;ric&rsquo;s exile. In these stark winter months of dust and cold, from the prisons of Badhark&acirc;n a mercenary came to the Border Forts. He had been released at the Commander&rsquo;s request, and now came to him at the promise of employ. Upon his arrival at P&acirc;zghar, he had been brought to the Commander&rsquo;s quarters, where Sulad&acirc;n and his lieutenant H&acirc;ran convened.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;Do you remember me, mercenary?&rsquo; Sulad&acirc;n asked as the man came before him.<br /> &lsquo;Sure I do,&rsquo; he said with a light-hearted menace. &lsquo;You&rsquo;re Amur Sulad&acirc;n &ndash; the man I never kill&rsquo;d.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I thought you were the man that I never killed?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;That remains t&rsquo;be seen,&rsquo; smirked the Khandish mercenary. <br /> <br /> H&acirc;ran looked questioningly at Sulad&acirc;n and this old &lsquo;acquaintance&rsquo; of his. Catching his look, Sulad&acirc;n explained; &lsquo;H&acirc;ran, this is one of the mercenaries who attacked me outside Badhark&acirc;n &ndash; at the order of Dr&ocirc;zhna and Javit&acirc;kh. But I still do not know his name...?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;My name ain&rsquo;t not important. Just my services, and your gold. But it&rsquo;s Asdriemu, since y&rsquo;care to ask.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Asdriemu?&rsquo; mused H&acirc;ran. &lsquo;After the legendary Bandit Lord of old?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Maybe he were named after me,&rsquo; stated Asdriemu. &lsquo;Now, what d&rsquo;yer need me for? Time is gold, y&rsquo;know.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I recall you knew a little about the Surak-Khand invasion of Amr&ucirc;n?&rsquo; asked Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;And I had wondered &ndash; have you worked for them before?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Sure I&rsquo;av. S&rsquo;what brought me to Harad,&rsquo; replied Asdriemu frankly.<br /> &lsquo;Cur,&rsquo; glowered H&acirc;ran. &lsquo;You helped Surakaris destroy our people!&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I&rsquo;ad no part in it. His gold did, though. Were nothin&rsquo; personal. Beside, I never worked for Surakaris &ndash; I worked for &lsquo;is son, Vangaris.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n tossed a piece of gold at the rogue, which Asdriemu caught preternaturally. &lsquo;Can you tell of us of your time in his employ? There will be more payment if what we hear... catches our attention.&rsquo;<br /> And so Asdriemu did. After having been working in Ananik&eacute;, the Land of Spice, to the east of Amr&ucirc;n across the Bay of Bulchyades, his mercenary troupe was hired by Vangaris after the Variag defeat at Solendon. &lsquo;At this time, Vangaris was still th&rsquo;Prince &ndash; but he wanted us t&rsquo;change that. He had some quarrel with &lsquo;is father, about the leadership and shape o&rsquo;th&rsquo;war. It turns out that King Surakaris was a servant o&rsquo;Mordor &ndash; where the Great God is readying &lsquo;is attack on th&rsquo;west. Because Amr&ucirc;n were stayin&rsquo; neutral in &lsquo;is war, He still thought it could be a potential threat &ndash; an&rsquo; so wanted it out o&rsquo;th&rsquo;way. That&rsquo;s why Surakaris invaded.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;And that is why Javit&acirc;kh and the Cult helped him,&rsquo; figured Sulad&acirc;n.<br /> &lsquo;But, it turns out that Vangaris ain&rsquo;t on the same side of &lsquo;is father. Surakaris works for Sauron; Vangaris works for Vangaris. An admirable work ethic,&rsquo; commented Asdriemu. &lsquo;Surakaris was ordered to invade Amr&ucirc;n and stop at that, but not Vangaris, he wants more. So, he hired me and my boys, and we cut up &lsquo;is father the King for &lsquo;im. We brought &lsquo;im the Helm of Surakaris, and got out o&rsquo;Amr&ucirc;n quick-smart, in case any loyalists of Surakaris showed up. And so we took a boat across the Bay of Sudu Cull to Gad&icirc;rkarn, got to Abrak&acirc;n, and got hired to kill you. I never did get round t&rsquo; the last bit, though.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;So if Vangaris is going against the command of Sauron,&rsquo; mused Sulad&acirc;n, &lsquo;why is Javit&acirc;kh still helping him?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Never mind the H&acirc;sharii &ndash; what was Vangaris&rsquo; next move after he took Amr&ucirc;n?&rsquo; asked H&acirc;ran. &lsquo;What did he want to do after that?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I &lsquo;av no idea why that H&acirc;sharin&rsquo;s still helping Surak-Khand, honestly,&rsquo; said Asdriemu truthfully. &lsquo;As for what Vangaris&rsquo;ll do next though, don&rsquo;t you think it&rsquo;s obvious enough? I hope your Forts are properly manned, Sulad&acirc;n. Because he&rsquo;s coming here. He&rsquo;s going to invade Harad.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> <br /> The warnings of Asdriemu had disquieted Sulad&acirc;n. He had always suspected Surak-Khand would invade Harad, but did not grasp the realism of the situation until now. A dark tide beat upon the shore of Sulad&acirc;n&rsquo;s heart &ndash; a mixture of hatred, and anxiety. He had never fought in a siege before &ndash; at least, he had not been on the defending side in one. He longed for the open field, where dozens of tactics and options were available to him as a captain. But to be shut up in four walls, against a countless horde &ndash; the very thought made Sulad&acirc;n claustrophobic. It was all too much like the horrors he had faced in the catacombs of Solendon: the darkness, the fear, the pestilence and the slow death of starvation. Solendon had been his greatest achievement, but it had in turn become his most haunting nightmare.<br /> <br /> Nevertheless, he had prepared the defence of P&acirc;zghar as best he could. He continued to exact vigorous training on his warriors, and although they were exhausted after a day&rsquo;s work of it, secretly they were glad to be in their best shape before Surak-Khand came upon them. The intertwining of the Haradrim defenders and the Arysis survivors had been effortless. The battle-hardened men of H&acirc;ran had taught all their knowledge of war to the garrison, who in turn had much to share in the intricacies of the Border Forts and their various duties and struggles manning them.<br /> <br /> From taxing caravans passing through, P&acirc;zghar had a large quantity of gold &ndash; mostly from the dragon-like hoarding of M&ocirc;rvar Ch&acirc;ric &ndash; which Sulad&acirc;n had put to good use. With the rest of the wealth left to the Border Forts, he had bought supplies in great quantity &ndash; it would take a very long siege for them to starve to death. He had also hired Asdriemu in full, for he had a valuable insight into Surak-Khand, and seemed to be a formidable soldier &ndash; be he Variag or not. Besides, Sulad&acirc;n was uncertain whether the mercenary still sought to bring his head to Dr&ocirc;zhna and claim his reward, or sell him out to Vangaris. Better to keep him close and watched, than away and uncertain. Despite this, however, Sulad&acirc;n found himself warming to the rogue and seeking out his company whenever he could &ndash; for H&acirc;ran had gone out scouting for signs of Vangaris beyond the Forts. The lieutenant&rsquo;s departure had made Sulad&acirc;n uneasy. He thought he had lost H&acirc;ran once &ndash; he could not bear for it to happen again. It was what had happened to his brother Lasran at Abrak&acirc;n, and the misfortune of history had a way of repeating itself.<br /> <br /> <br /> Five years passed as the whole garrison became more and more apprehensive of the coming assault. It was the year 3010, and Sulad&acirc;n himself was now thirty-six &ndash; a true man of war. A year after Ch&acirc;ric&rsquo;s banishment, the mustering Great Army at K&acirc;rnvald had been subdued by a Gondorian reconnaissance force, which had set back the plans of Umbar for many years. Sulad&acirc;n was happy that the schemes of Dr&ocirc;zhna had been thwarted, but it was a bittersweet sensation &ndash; his uncle, the Chieftain M&ucirc;rithir, had been slain in the attack. Sulad&acirc;n often wondered how his grandfather King Marud&icirc;r, and M&ucirc;rithir&rsquo;s own son M&ucirc;rakir would take this news. It was still unknown to him that it was M&ucirc;rakir who had betrayed his location to Dr&ocirc;zhna at Badhark&acirc;n. <br /> <br /> It was in the arid summer months, when the River P&acirc;zghar dried up, that H&acirc;ran and his handful of scouts returned to the fort-city. As the lieutenant passed up to Sulad&acirc;n&rsquo;s chambers, those who saw his face knew what they had feared was true.<br /> &lsquo;Vangaris is marching west along the Amr&ucirc;n Road,&rsquo; he stated, entering the office. Sulad&acirc;n could only give a look of resigned concern, as like a man told that it was about to rain. &lsquo;They will be here in three days.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> And so it was. The defenders of P&acirc;zghar bonded in silent brotherhood, for their experience was now shared. For all of them, from Commander to servant-boy, it was the longest three days of their lives.<br /> <br /> <br /> On the third day, the sun rose upon the eastern horizon, and against the glow of its red light, imposing shapes were illuminated. As inevitably as dawn stretched over the day, the host of Vangaris swept over the arid earth towards P&acirc;zghar. The horns sounded with a mournful despondency, and upon the brink, over the gate of P&acirc;zghar, stood Sulad&acirc;n, and his face shone crimson in the early morning sun.<br /> <br /> The vanguard of chariots and horsemen rode closer and closer to the walls. Just out of bowshot, they stopped, and began to circle about the radius of the outer walls, orbiting like a moon that brings night. They cursed and spat threats at the men upon the walls, who were stoic with acquiescence. Their constant circling was maddening, but they drew ever closer and closer. Finally, Asdriemu plucked the bow from his back and fired it into the vanguard with his typical casual carelessness. The arrow, seemingly on a fluke, hit one of the chariot&rsquo;s horses square in the head, sending it falling to the ground. The chariot crashed into ruin upon the horse, sending those riders and chariots behind it into a piled-up crash. The rest of the vanguard, shocked and alarmed, rode back to the full host.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;A worthy shot!&rsquo; commented H&acirc;ran.<br /> &lsquo;It were abou&rsquo; time someone did something,&rsquo; Asdriemu replied. &lsquo;And you ain&rsquo;t paying me for my pretty face.&rsquo;<br /> Sulad&acirc;n looked at the men to his side, his black locks flickering in the short bursts of wind. Warriors of Arysis and Near Harad, together under his rule. Like its Commander himself, the garrison of P&acirc;zghar was made up of Amr&ucirc;nian and Haradrim stock. A worthy union. As he looked into his warrior&rsquo;s impassive faces, Sulad&acirc;n saw something in them that anyone else could not. They were ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to do as their Commander commanded. To them, death was but a passing worry &ndash; a side-effect they had no interest in. <br /> <br /> In that moment, Sulad&acirc;n saw the worth of the land of Harad. Whereas before he had defended the Border Forts with hollow servitude, now pride swelled up in him. Indeed it was full of scavengers and rogues and traitors, scheming snakes like Javit&acirc;kh, poisonous infiltrators like Dr&ocirc;zhna, and immoral backstabbers like Belzagar, betrayer of Captain Valakar&rsquo;s company. But it had its men worthy of recognition, too. His grandfather, King Marud&icirc;r of Badhark&acirc;n and his earthy, generous warmth; his old trusty companion Kh&ucirc;lgana, the scout of Dh&acirc;ran-sar, and his King Rhub&acirc;k; the proud Merchant Guard Guthar&icirc;c; and of course, the warriors who stood by him today. Harad was just like Amr&ucirc;n, or any other land &ndash; it had its bad folk and its good folk. It just happened that Harad had done more bad to him than good. But Sulad&acirc;n would not do the same. He would defend Harad. He would defeat Surak-Khand, and save the lives of his men. On the spirit of his mother, he swore it. <br /> <br /> The men of Vangaris were in range of the walls. Footmen, horsemen, chariots, with axes and bows and siege ladders and battering rams and the tyrannical greed of conquest on their minds. They had come for Harad &ndash; Sulad&acirc;n would give them Harad.<br /> &lsquo;Fire!&rsquo; he cried, lifting his sword into the air. &lsquo;Fire! Fire at will!&rsquo;<br /> The bows sung and the spears stood readied in the hands of five hundred capable men. Today, their training would pay off; today, their admiration for their captain would save them from the abyss. The Siege of P&acirc;zghar had begun.<br /> <br /> <br /> A first wave of ladders rose up against the wall, but more than half of them were thrown down by the unified effort of the defenders, despite their great weight. But several were secured, and the doughtiest of the Variags climbed. In desperate savagery they threw themselves onto the walls, their two-handed axes swirling, but the long spears dispatched the few that managed to get over the battlements. H&acirc;ran and Sulad&acirc;n marched to and fro along the walls, their direction and mere presence buoying the skill and spirits of their men.<br /> <br /> It was clear that the greatest threat to the defence was now from the enemy bowmen. Seeing this, Asdriemu gathered a large mass of archers and made precise volley fires at the enemy&rsquo;s units of marksmen. Groups of horsemen surged from the swollen mass of the Khandish host and rode north and south &ndash; their purpose seemed to be to cut off any aid from the other Border Forts. Sulad&acirc;n knew that this action was pointless &ndash; even the amassed defenders of K&acirc;rush, V&acirc;rnakh and B&acirc;lghar would not be able to break through the strong enemy lines.<br /> <br /> By now, an even circle of Variags had rounded about the walls, so that both the east and west gates were blocked. Simultaneously, two crimson and bronze battering rams with curved heads like dragon horns were brought up against each gate. Sulad&acirc;n&rsquo;s archers brought the bearers down, but the chieftains roared and more went to take their place; until fearful men were literally being pushed by their fellows to take the rams, though they had to mount a hill of corpses to do so. <br /> <br /> The efforts soon foundered upon the west gate, and their ram was left to soak in the blood of its past bearers, but the assault on the east gate would not relent. Supported by a block of covering bowmen who shot up at the walls above the gate, the battering ram found relief and its crew broke the passage open. Yet the hinges did not break and the doors did not snap, for these had been made in the height of Gondorian masonry. A fearsome chariot led by a troupe of horsemen passed into P&acirc;zghar, but they did not go far. An ordered block of Arysis spearmen lay in wait upon the other side, and the cavalry fell into them like a trap of thickets. The great charioteer was shot from his wain by the marksmanship of H&acirc;ran, and the Arysis soldiery brought their phalanx further and further into the attackers until they closed the great door before them and braced it from intrusion.<br /> <br /> Yet the wrath of Vangaris did not relent, it was only inflamed further. More ladders were thrown against the battlements, and more warriors took up the battering rams to gain entrance. And still the quick command of Sulad&acirc;n saw the ladders cast off, and the gates remained defended and closed. Three times the Variags stormed the walls, and three times they were thrown back. Even as he struck down a particularly brutish chieftain upon the ramparts and kicked down his ladder with an effort, a lull began to wash through the Variags. Despite the threats of their masters, the Khandish would not dare a fourth assault. To the attackers, it was a resignation of claiming an easy victory. To the defenders, it was a flame of hope.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;It&rsquo;s a good job they block&rsquo;d that west gate,&rsquo; commented Asdriemu. &lsquo;If they hadn&rsquo;t, I might &rsquo;av legged it.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;It is always good to know I have someone for my men to look up to,&rsquo; smirked Sulad&acirc;n.<br /> &lsquo;Y&rsquo;know, I thought they did need someone like me t&rsquo;show &rsquo;em how much of a fool you are for thinkin&rsquo; you can stand up to Vangaris. But now, I think I can see why they do.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;We have a lot more fighting to do before we can assure our defence,&rsquo; said Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;But you are right. If the men keep up their strength, and the gates are held, there is a chance we can get out of this.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Sometime&rsquo;s it&rsquo;s better to put yer money on the underdog. If they win, you&rsquo;ll get more gold than if yer bet on the obvious choice,&rsquo; philosophised Asdriemu.<br /> &lsquo;I do hope that was some sort of mercenary proverb, and not an insinuation for a raise,&rsquo; warned Sulad&acirc;n as he turned and walked to find H&acirc;ran.<br /> <br /> <br /> He found him in the courtyard before the east gate, with the ruined statue of Hyarmendacil facing into Khand. He was surveying the wounded Variags who lay about him in clumps, being finished by the spears of his men. There was a grim satisfaction in his watching of such bloodshed.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;At ease, H&acirc;ran, the Khandish have withdrawn from the walls for now. Do we have an assessment of our current situation?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I would say that we have lost about two-hundred and fifty men today,&rsquo; said the lieutenant.<br /> &lsquo;That&rsquo;s half of our defence,&rsquo; said Sulad&acirc;n with resignation. <br /> &lsquo;But if my estimations are right, we killed one-thousand Variags at the least, and two-thousand at the most.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;That is a broad estimate!&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;It is just so hard to tell,&rsquo; mused H&acirc;ran. &lsquo;The piles below the walls are so thick, it is difficult to say how many dead lay under them.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;A good omen indeed,&rsquo; remarked Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;Put half of our men on rest, and rotate them every two hours. I do not think the Khandish will attack again today, for they will be busying assembling their camps for a long-term siege. But our rationed supplies will outlast their patience, I am sure. We have put a great dampener in the designs of Surak-Khand today, my friend.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I know,&rsquo; grinned H&acirc;ran. &lsquo;It is just like old times.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> <br /> An eerie silence fell upon P&acirc;zghar. Sulad&acirc;n, H&acirc;ran and Asdriemu convened in the Commander&rsquo;s quarters. If Vangaris did not send a full-scale siege attack against the walls again, they would outlast him. If the Khandish attacks continued, however, they would fall, bravely and eventually, one by one. At dusk, a shrieking horn rang out from the camp of the enemy.<br /> &lsquo;It&rsquo;s a signal of parley,&rsquo; explained Asdriemu.<br /> &lsquo;I will go alone,&rsquo; Sulad&acirc;n told them. &lsquo;If they attempt some trickery, I would have only one man die.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;No, Amur, let me go in your stead,&rsquo; willed H&acirc;ran.<br /> &lsquo;You must take authority if I fall,&rsquo; commanded Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;And besides, I will not dishonour myself by perverting the terms of parley.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Then just hope that they don&rsquo;t,&rsquo; commented Asdriemu.<br /> <br /> <br /> Sulad&acirc;n hoped the Khandish King would be trustworthy, but still, he did not go out of bowshot of the walls. From the circled camps came a small cloud of dust, until the Commander could discern from them a great chariot riding, crowned with large standards showing the flickering sun of Surak-Khand. Beside it rode two charioteers, and a small retinue of horsemen, who would have circled Sulad&acirc;n mockingly if not for the impressionable terror of the walls. The horses of the great wain stopped a few feet from him, and the King did not get down from his perch. This was the first time Sulad&acirc;n had come face-to-face with the royalty that decimated his homeland, and his blood ran with cold fire.<br /> <br /> &lsquo;Behold King Vangaris, son of Surakaris; second King of Surak-Khand and conqueror of Amr&ucirc;n,&rsquo; announced his herald.<br /> &lsquo;I am Amur Sulad&acirc;n, formerly Amur Sak&ucirc;n, son of Varnam the King of Lurmsak&ucirc;n; grandson of King Marud&icirc;r of Badhark&acirc;n, last heir and Prince of Amr&ucirc;n, Commander of the Border Forts and victor of Solendon,&rsquo; stated Sulad&acirc;n. He felt arrogant for his boasts, but knew they would bite Vangaris like steel jaws.<br /> <br /> One of the Variag horsemen spat impetuously, but the King was resolute. His armour was the studded crimson and gold of the Sar-Khandish, with black robes garnished with a decorative trim. He had an axe ordained with trinkets at his side. Over his face he wore a golden crown with a fearsome mask resembling the war-helms of the Zham&uacute;rai of old, with a spire-like spike peaking the top of the ornament, rounded by protective scales that shone dull in the fading sun. It was the Helm of Lurmsak&ucirc;n, the crown Sulad&acirc;n&rsquo;s father and all his fathers before him had worn, which Surakaris had wrongfully taken as a token of Amr&ucirc;n&rsquo;s doom. Before their conflict was over, Sulad&acirc;n vowed to retake the Helm, and wear it with pride as its rightful owner. <br /> <br /> &lsquo;Well met, Commander,&rsquo; slowly said Vangaris. Sulad&acirc;n did not know where to look, for the mouthpiece of the King&rsquo;s Helm was so small that it seemed to come out of the large, black eye-holes of the mask, as if his sight spoke necromantic words into his mind. If he were to duel him, thought Sulad&acirc;n, he would stab him in those eye sockets; they almost seemed to be the source of his power.<br /> &lsquo;What is the purpose of this parley?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;That is entirely your choice, Commander Sulad&acirc;n,&rsquo; spoke the King. &lsquo;I have only wasted much time besieging your P&acirc;zghar &ndash; and am prepared to waste much more time here &ndash; under the assumption that you will resist my invading of Harad if I did not contain and destroy you. I presume that this is correct?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Inexorably.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Then you are a loyal and a worthy opponent indeed. But an opponent you remain. And by applying your logic and your reason you can predict the very real outcome. For I have forces that hopelessly outnumber yours. Thus, being my opponent is not a very gratifying position to be in.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I disagree,&rsquo; replied Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;It is self-gratifying.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;I can understand your animosity, having come from Amr&ucirc;n &ndash;&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;Can you?&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;&ndash; but you must understand that prejudices are not impermeable,&rsquo; continued Vangaris. &lsquo;Setting them aside would be much more gratifying than your self-styled ideals of vengeance. I do not ask you to join me &ndash; nothing of the sort &ndash; simply allow me free passage into Harad, and remain securely in P&acirc;zghar as we pass around you, without your hindrance. I have made allies in Harad before. They would tell you of how generous and influential my pocket can be.&rsquo;<br /> &lsquo;If I want to know about your alliances, I will go and ask Venmal Javit&acirc;kh myself,&rsquo; spat Sulad&acirc;n, at which Vangaris raised his head defensively. &lsquo;And my prejudices are not set in stone. But my judge of character is &ndash; and so you may excuse me for being prejudiced against a man who broke my people into slavery and bought mercenaries to kill his own father!&rsquo;<br /> The retinue of Vangaris flinched at this, and gave one another troubled looks, but the King gripped his reins with an iron hand and turned his shoulder to Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;Enjoy the rest of your life, Commander, though you shall never again live it outside of your precious walls. This parley is over.&rsquo;<br /> <br /> <br /> As the Surak-Khandish retinue rode back to the camp, the doors of the east gate were opened and Sulad&acirc;n returned into the bosom of P&acirc;zghar. There, he was met by the weary, but proud faces of the defenders and the inquisitive Asdriemu and H&acirc;ran.<br /> &lsquo;So, what can we expect?&rsquo; Lieutenant H&acirc;ran asked.<br /> &lsquo;The hubris of Vangaris,&rsquo; said Sulad&acirc;n. &lsquo;But it must be our wrath that is the first to strike.&rsquo;</p>
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