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Some online stories previously published on Wattpad

The Elder Tree

From the ashes came life, and we mark the birth of the Elder Tree.

I studied these words as sunlight streamed through the library window, the day of my sixteenth year. With the morning dawn, I had thrown off my apprenticeship and taken my vows in the Order of the Forest. Now I marked time before my final initiation.

“I see you’re reading one of the Histories, excellent.” I looked up upon hearing the voice, and smiled at my teacher, Sister Ariandille.

“Yes, Sister. I thought it fitting.”

“Very. Which one did you choose?”

I lifted the book and showed her.

“Ah, the Birth. Tell me, Vashta, who penned these words that honour the planting of the Elder Tree sapling?”

Out of pious habit, I straightened my spine and replied in a serious tone, “’Twas Farwelle the Learned, one of our most ancient and revered mages.”

“Correct. And when did he write the passage?”

“More than six centuries past, in the time of the Three Kingdoms.”

She nodded, and for a moment we took a breath of silence, for the sacred Elder Tree.

An exhalation from my teacher broke the spell. “Well, enough with the lessons, Vashta, I’ve come to fetch you for your vision ceremony.”

I closed the dusty leather bound book and replaced it on the shelf. Then I followed Ariandille from the library.

We went outside where my procession awaited, and we joined five more of my fellow Sisters. They surrounded me in a circle and chanted a prayer of blessing. Then we all walked through the cloister gates, and trekked on foot the few miles to our sacred, living forest.

We entered and ambled our path to our destination, the grove of the powerful Elder Tree. Here, I would be given my vision, and my duty within the Order would be bestowed. At the Tree, the procession halted, and the Sisters moved to encircle its trunk. I stood beneath its branches, waiting.

“We come for divine guidance,” Sister Ariandille voiced the traditional supplication, “for our newest acolyte, Sister Vashta. Hear us, oh Elder Tree, and accord her your wisdom.”

She nodded to me. I leaned forward and I placed my hands on the rough bark, closing my eyes. I felt the pulse of the Tree, the life running beneath its surface as we connected. My familiar world faded, time stilled, sounds of the woodland disappeared, and I entered into the forest netherworld, the place of hallowed life. For a moment I felt serenity, peace…

Then I screamed.

My vision burst with flames and burning, and agonized shrieks. I heard the crackle and the screech of dying trees, and saw the younger face of Farwelle the Learned, surrounded by a conflagration. I smelled smoke, and I my eyes snapped open. I realised the stench was real, and the forest around me was ablaze.

“Run, Vashta!” I heard Sister Ariandille shout at me. “Soldiers have set our forest on fire!”

So I ran, we all ran. We fled our beloved forest, back to our cloister. From inside its walls we could do naught, save watch the woods burn. We felt our hearts break as we heard the terrible screams of the trees.

It took hours for the fire to consume itself into ash and soot, with every moment lived side-by-side in the fear the flames would spread to the cloister. One bit of fortune remained in our favour, as the winds and the soldiers kept the blaze at bay.

When the fire finally died, it left its scars, and a blackened, charred landscape barren of vegetation. From atop our walls we scanned the horizon, and saw no trees, no plants, nor herbs; nothing living remained of our forest. It all burned, and with it the Elder Tree. We failed in our sacred duty, and many of my sisters wept bitter tears, but I did not. I would not give fate the satisfaction.

Confusion and sorrow permeated, like a sickness, but this miasma of grief did not last long, for soon after the fire we faced new problems. The soldiers—the cruel men that set alight our woods—invaded the cloister, stormed through our gates brandishing their weapons, intent on evicting us. Their Captain commanded his men to herd all the Sisters into the courtyard to announce their purpose. We huddled together, afraid, as this dour-faced man disclosed our future.

“Hear me, Sisters of the Forest! By decree of the King, we have the authority to claim this land! This property, these buildings belong to us now. You have until sunrise tomorrow to pack your things and leave this place. Any who try to remain will be put to the sword!”

Shock and outrage shattered over us, and we did not wish to believe—or comply with—the declaration, but the soldiers left us no choice. They obliged us to pack our belongings, granting us the use of some of our wagons and horses, and provided us with provisions enough for a few days. The only true kindness they conceded was to allow us to pack our books, our library of knowledge, and carry it away with us. The rest of our life, however, they commandeered. They stole our animals, our gold, our gardens, our home. We were cast out, forced through our own gates with the ascent of the next day’s sun, riding in our wagons towards the unknown…

~*~

Tens of years have passed, and my hair has grayed. Our Order found a new place to call home; we built a Sanctuary across the river bordering a new forest. We, my Sisters and I, forged a new life, one with fulfilment and happiness, but lately I felt restless. I felt a summoning to return to our old woodland. It beckoned me, and despite warnings and misgivings, I made the journey to the old forest.

It changed much since that last, horrible view of scorched ruin. The soldiers, their war, the strongholds they built over the forest vestige were long gone, all traces of their callous hearts had crumbled and been reclaimed by the woodland. The surrounding villages called the place cursed, haunted by the dead, but the ghosts did not bother me. I liked the quiet of the place.

I walked among the new growth of trees, my hands touching their bark. They’re not as strong, not as large as those I remembered, but they will find their majesty in time. As I wandered, I found myself drawn to a particular spot, and I smiled. A sapling bloomed there.

When I returned to the Sanctuary, I opened my leather-bound journal and took up my pen to write these words…

From the ashes came life, and we mark the birth of the Elder Tree.

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.


Snow

Anyas walked the forest path, shrouded by the snow and ice covered trees, feeling as if she wandered inside a frozen tomb. The whole world seemed buried in a lifeless vista, all white, brown and grey; even the evergreens seemed a dull, dark olive colour. Sometimes all she wanted was colour, the vibrancy she used in her paintings, but there was no use wishing. The world had been this way since long before she was born, a world of snow.
She dreamed of her mother last night—a prayer answered—but it left her with a melancholy; perhaps it was unwise to remember the dead. The ceaseless winter could creep inside a soul, an icy whisper that wrapped around your heart and mind. The snow swallowed love, first with her mother, and a year ago, it took her husband. Only the gods remained forever.
She smiled at that thought; perhaps the snow did not swallow all love.
The Winter God loved her, bestowed on her his gift and allowed her to speak for him through her art. In her studio, she became alive, she created, touched a small piece of eternity. She found her solace in her art, and embraced her passion with a brush in her hand.
Still immersed in her thoughts, she emerged from the trees and entered into the hamlet of Ormsfell. She inhaled the smell of wood smoke drifting from the chimneys, and waved to her neighbours headed to the morning market. A sliver of sun peaked out from the clouds as she joined them, strolling among the marketplace stalls.
She bought a honey pastry from her friend, Lisel, eating while she browsed, and licking the last bit of sweet from her fingers when she finished. She turned to leave, but someone shouted her name. Anyas smiled; it was Clarus. No doubt he had new supplies for her, and she crossed to his stall with eagerness in her step.
“Clarus, my friend. Good morning. How is it with you? Your family is good?”
“Good morn to you, Anyas. All is well, praise the Winter God, with me and the family.” He grinned. “I have some new powders for you, to mix into paints.”
He handed her a box “They should make some lovely colours. I love the way you bring the different hues to life. So beautiful, so spectacular. Seeing your murals and paintings can make a dreary day better.”
“Thank you.”
She peeked in the box and spied several glass jars of pulverised minerals. She smiled and tucked her new treasure under her arm.
“You’re correct, these will make lovely colours. How much?”
“No charge this time, consider it a winter festival gift.”
“Thank you again, I appreciate it.”
“The least I could do for you.” Clarus ducked his head slightly and fidgeted. “Do you know whose portrait you’ll be painting this year for the festival celebrations?”
A brief look of disquiet crossed her face. “Yes. I found out yesterday. It’s Braehyn. I have some ideas on what I’ll do. I think the family will like it.”
“Braehyn. He will do well by the Winter God at the festival.” He bobbed his head in agreement, before a frown shadowed his face. “You two have history, don’t you? I hope your duty will not be more difficult this year.”
“I shouldn’t think so.” The lie fell from her tongue easily. She feared seeing Braehyn again, feared that her old feelings for him would test her loyalty. For love was an odd thing, capricious as the winter wind.
“Good, good. That puts my mind to ease. I shouldn’t like to think of you unhappy.”
Anyas said nothing in reply, simply nodded and said a farewell. Then she continued on her way to the temple.
She entered through a side door, so not to disturb the supplicants come to lay offerings to the Winter God, and slipped quietly through the corridors to her workroom. She smiled as she opened the door and stepped inside. She was home, here among her art, in her private refuge.
A painting rested on the easel, waiting. She put away her new supplies and lit a small fire in the hearth. She changed into her well-stained smock and set up her worktable. Then she stood in front of her work in progress, studying it.
The idea for this artwork came from the dark recess of a restless night, born from a dream; a bountiful gift bestowed by her god. The splashes of colour didn’t resemble much yet, though when finished it would depict the Winter God against the sky, looking down benevolently on the village.
Blobs of azure and crimson were smeared across her canvas as under painting for her sky, and mauve blocked in for the shadows, awaiting her brush to cover them in white to make the snow. Today she planned to smudge the painting in drab green and brown that would later blossom into vivid shrubs and trees.
Anyas poured some of her precious oil into a jar for mixing, inhaling its sharp evergreen tang as it glugged out of the bottle. She set out her wooden palette with its familiar stains, and spooned blobs of paint on its surface from her jars. She added a bit of oil with her palette knife to thin some of the paint, and then picked up one of her brushes.
She dabbed some olive green on a corner of her brush, and some umber on the other corner. With a few strokes, she formed the rough shape of a tree. More strokes followed as her brush dipped and loaded the paint, swishing life into the artwork. She brought her knife into play as well, scratching lines and ridges, building texture into the paint. Her hand and mind flowed in synchronicity, immersed in the dream of her creation, and everything else drifted away.
“Anyas!”
The sudden shout of her name from somewhere within the temple made her jump, and she knocked into her worktable. She heard the sliding scrape and then the sound of the ringing crash as glass shattered on the stone floor.
She turned, her heart fearing the loss of her prized paint, but to her relief only an empty jar lay smashed. She put down her brush and went to find a broom and the person who shouted her name.
She saw him standing there, making conversation with Ierni, one of the temple acolytes. She sighed; this is why she was summoned. She paused, composed herself, and stepped forward with a forced smile.
“Hello, Braehyn.” Her voice didn’t tremble, and for that she was glad.
“Hello, Anyas.” He didn’t smile, but his eyes held the same twinkle she remembered. “It’s good to see you again. It’s been some time.”
“I suppose it has, the last time we spoke was at my wedding.” She managed not to sigh over the silent memory. “You’re looking well.”
“Thank you. I live and work on the community farm, managing the cold frames and the plants. It keeps me fit and healthy. Our yield has been quite blessed this year and I’ve been busy.” He shrugged. “But you know why I’m here. Maybe it’s best we get on with it.”
“Perhaps it would be best, but I need to find a broom first.” She turned to the acolyte. “Ierni?”
“I’ll fetch one right away.” And she disappeared into the shadows of the temple.
Anyas and Braehyn stood in silence until she retured, triumphantly flourishing a broom. Anyas took it from her with a thank you and a smile.
Then she nodded at Braehyn. “Follow me to my workroom.”
An uncomfortable hush filled the next few minutes, broken only by the echo of their footsteps, the creaking of the door hinges and the rustle of the broom as Anyas cleaned the glass from the floor. She rested the broom in a corner when finished and picked up her sketchbook and a piece of charcoal.
“Sit down, please. That stool will do.” She nodded toward the worn, wooden piece of furniture. “I’ll do some preliminary sketches.”
Braehyn sat down and Anyas began her first sketch of his face. Her fingers danced over the pristine white surface of the parchment, gathering dark lines and shading together to form a shape.
As she drew, memories of their time together surfaced, and she felt a joy. She smiled, and glanced up. His handsome face grinned at her, and for a brief moment she was sixteen again, and in love. Then she caught her breath.
No, no. I cannot think on that. It is over. I have a new life.
She would not let her thoughts betray her. Their love was past. Her eyes darted from Braehyn to her work. Her hand trembled as she tried to focus on the art. The art needed her, she couldn’t let her fears or doubts stop it. Her work here was for her God, and He must be everything. Yet…
“How do you feel, Braehyn? About the honour, about what’s coming?”
“Many things, but I have accepted the burden, whatever comes. I do wish I didn’t have so many regrets. About you, especially.”
She tightened her grip on the charcoal. Oh please, don’t go there.
“Did you love me?”
Anyas stilled her fingers and her charcoal. She hesitated, but decided to speak the truth.
“Yes. I did. I think I still do, a little.”
“Then why did you marry him?”
A sliver of anger slipped into her heart, knowing the true question he asked. Whatever empathy she held for him vanished. She raised her head and glared at him.
“The fact you still believe I rejected our love should tell you why. You could have had me, if you had only listened to me. Instead, you wanted something I couldn’t give you. We grew up together, loved together, but you never quite accepted me, Braehyn. I never believed in what you wanted our lives to be, and I would have never given up my art as you asked. Your future wanted us married, and living contently together on the community farm. You loved that ideal of us, that type of marriage, not me. You never saw my dreams, my life, my art. You only saw your impression of our life together. But he saw me, what I wanted, and accepted everything. Perhaps I never loved him as much, but we were happy.”
Anyas watched his cheek twitch and his face scrunch into a grimace. He never liked the truth.
“I’m glad. I may not have showed it, but I always wanted your happiness.”
He paused, with words unsaid. The moment hung, frozen, as they both waited on the engulfing silence.
“I need to know. Did you ever think of returning to me, after he died?”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “No. Too much harshness lay between us. I couldn’t go back.”
“Anyas.” She opened her eyes and saw the regret in his. “You’re right. I don’t suppose it matters now, what could have been. I do want you know I’m sorry. About what I said to you when we parted. The bitterness and hate, you didn’t deserve it.”
She smiled. A sad, small gesture. “Thank you.”
She picked up her charcoal and continued to draw. She felt better, relieved. The Winter God tested her, and she stayed strong. She believed she could reconcile her emotions now.
On the day of Winter Festival, Anyas awoke early. She chose to wear her bright crimson dress, trimmed in white lace, and the crystal necklace that once belonged to her mother. After a quick breakfast, she walked to the village, and joined the procession already on its way to the festival grounds.
A small area of the village—opposite a vast thicket of woodland—served as the festival site each year, with stalls for games, wares, and food. A small dais stood ready, for midday, when the elderly priestess of the temple addressed the people.
Everyone smiled and waved, and gossiped with their friends, but underneath the jovial atmosphere lurked a solemn mood.
Yet, as the sun moved across the sky, casting its feeble warmth on the village, a comfortable ambience flourished, fuelled by camaraderie, sweets and merriment. Almost a deliberate gaiety and high spirits, to forget the other reasons they gathered.
Until the tiny echo of steps could be heard, as the priestess climbed to the dais. The smiles and laughter faded, the games stopped, and the talk ceased. All faces turned to the small, grey-haired woman. She leaned on her walking stick and spoke to her people.
“Another sun has risen on the Winter Festival, the time when we celebrate and give thanks for our good fortune. When we give back to our benefactor, the Winter God. Through his benevolence we thrive. His power gives us life, gives us bounty. Without him, we have nothing. Through the Winter God we have food, warmth and a plentiful existence. Bow your heads, children of Ormsfell, and pray to him.”
Stillness blanketed the crowd, as heads bowed and they prayed in thoughtful reverence. The festival’s meaning went deep, for Ormsfell did indeed depend on the largesse of the Winter God.
Through his magic they survived, as chopped trees grew back within in days, their fuel supplies of oil and coal never ran dry, and their meager community farm produced abundant rations of meat and vegetables. Their food stores never emptied, stoves always had wood or coal, and lamps stayed lit and bright. Their god provided all.
With the end of the prayer, the priestess spoke once more. “We gather here to offer tribute to the Winter God, that he may bless us with his favour and mercy, so we may prosper and survive. And we gather here to remember, remember when we withdrew our offering and paid the price.”
Another silence fell over the crowd. No one wanted that terrible time to return.
Anyas remembered that season. Her life changed in one night.
The village had grown arrogant and proud, and that year, the year Anyas turned seven, they refused the Winter God his tribute. They scoffed at his power, but soon came to realize their mistake. The sun’s rays faltered, staying hidden behind the clouds, and storms descended with wind and ever falling snow.
The angry God refused them his bounty. The trees did not re-grow when cut, the stores of fuel and food did not replenish and Death stalked the village. Their prayers went unanswered, and men and women sent as offers to appease a god’s wrath came home babbling and frostbitten.
Only her mother held the answer. For weeks her mother painted as Anyas watched, a scene of a glorious Winter God riding the storm, full of colour and intensity. The memory of that portrait haunted Anyas, the feeling of awe at its magnificence, the reverence that radiated from the paint.
When the artwork was finished a mother hugged her daughter and a wife kissed her husband, put on her winter cloak, took the painting and walked out across the snow. Anyas watched her mother stride across the snow, to be swallowed by the woods. She waited all night by her bedroom window for her mother to return.
But she never came home.
The sun came out the next day, and the food and fuel stores were filled again, as the Winter God granted them his grace. He accepted her mother’s gift and sacrifice.
Oh, how I hated him at first, hated that the Winter God took my mother. Until he came to me, in my dreams. Then I understood, then I knew why my mother left. Oh, how I envy her sometimes.
“So we offer one of our own,” the voice of the priestess broke through her memories, “a sacrifice to show our gratitude and humility. That he may continue to provide his aid and mercy. Step forward, tribute to the Winter God!”
Braehyn walked to the dais, and then moved to face the crowd.
“Here is our salvation! This is our tribute!”
A roar rose from the villagers, in praise of Braehyn. A small, unbidden tear formed in the corner of Anyas’ eye, and she drew in a breath.
He is coming. My love is coming.
“Look!” A shout came out of the mass of people, and all eyes turned to the woods.
Shadows among the trees shifted, formed a shape, and a horned, black beast emerged at the edge of the tree line. The Winter God.
Anyas exhaled, her pulse racing.
He is so magnificent.
A primal, piercing bellow sounded, with an undercurrent of a snarl, and the hunched, shadowy creature beckoned with a clawed hand.
It is time. I hope you will be pleased, my love.
All eyes stared, as Braehyn waved goodbye and began his long trek across the snowy field to the unknown fate that awaited him in the woods.
Anyas watched her old love walk towards the trees, her mind swirling. She felt a twinge of envy, but no sadness, resentment, hate, or regret, as she feared. Soon he would be taken into the arms of the god she adored. Perhaps then Braehyn would finally understand why they could never be together.
Braehyn will know what I dream of, what I have always dreamed of, he will be with my Winter God.
Anyas sighed. How she longed to exchange places with Braehyn, but it could not be, for she served her God in other ways.
What happens within your dark forest, my love? Do your offerings become slaves, pets, treasured companions? Do you love them as you love me?
She gave another little sigh as she turned away, not wanting to see her God take Braehyn into his embrace. The craving, the ache would be too great. Instead, she stared at his weeping parents. Their pain bewildered her.
Why do they cry? Their son is with him.
She watched their tears, the familiar ambivalence bubbling in her mind. She would have a difficult meeting with them later, when they came to collect the portrait of their son.
Anyas never knew quite what to say to the grief-stricken; she mind refused to comprehend their sadness. They should rejoice the God embraced their loved one, not mourn. She gave them a show of sympathy and kind words, but felt only pity for their blindness. Could they not see the glory in the sacrifice?
She could. For she knew his power, the intoxication of his being. She was his chosen, and she took pleasure in her vocation. She gave thanks he allowed her to venerate his image, and honour his sacrifices. For him she immortalized frozen moments of this life—the last moments before the joining—final echoes of those who sacrificed to keep the Winter God at bay. She lived to serve her beloved God.

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.


Flare Nova

“Captain!”
Renata shouted to be heard above the din, the blare of the alarms, the snapping, discharging machinery, and the repeating communications from ground control shrieking: ‘Abort the mission!’
“The aft hull has breached and we’ve lost the engine room! Captain? The entire section is buckling! We have to seal the bridge!”
Coughing on the smoke filling the bridge, she glanced over at Captain Mason. His dead eyes stared at her, and a piece of metal protruded from his chest. She turned away, slammed the control, and activated the force field. The energy snapped into place with a crackle and hum before the ship shuddered with the wail of rending metal. The power shield held, and the bridge remained secured from the vacuum of space. Renata checked her readings. Four more of the aft decks were gone, joining the engine room as floating wreckage.
How many dead now? All of the crew?
She glanced around the bridge. She was certainly the only member left alive in command. Her hand trembled as she toggled on the central viewscreen. She managed a gasp, before her console shattered in a discharge of energy and everything faded to black.
Renata awoke to the sound of the fire suppression units and the whir of life support.
At least that’s still working.
Sprawled on the deck, she tried to move, screaming as pain radiated through her body. She saw a bleeding gash lacerated deep into her side, and patches of her scorched uniform melted into burns on her left arm and leg. She gritted her teeth and struggled a few feet to the captain’s chair. She popped open a compartment and pulled out the first aid kit.
Breathe, keep breathing.
The words gyrated in her head as Renata slumped among the dead and debris of the starship’s bridge. She tried to staunch the wound in her side with a pressure bandage, but blood seeped through, widening the stain across her uniform. In front of her, the viewscreen images flickered.
Damn them. Damn their solar experiments. This mission never had a chance.
She closed her mind against the awful memories. Against the crew’s screams, the resulting horror, the finality. She simply stared at the cracked viewscreen, and the burning vision of her home planet.
Breathe, keep breathing. Stay alive. 
The end of a world should have a witness.

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.


Dreams

Why was this happening?

Crouched in my corner, curled into my safe ball, I rocked back and forth. Eyes closed.

No point though. I’m blind, eyes shut or open.

That was the scariest part of this nightmare. I was always surrounded by the black nothing. Always in the dark. I used to think the dark was a safe place. That nothing could reach me in the dark. I was wrong.

So wrong.

I was afraid. I needed out of my nightmare.

You know what to do.

I did. That would fix it. My ritual helped calm me. I shook back and forth, mouthed my words with silent lips. I dared not speak aloud. Sound attracted them.

Wake up. Wake up.

Over and over in my head.

Wake up. Wake up.

My mantra to escape the darkness.

Wake up. Wake up.

Then it happened. A warmth on my cheek. The fragrant smell of roses. The sound of a chirping bird. The soft touch of the pillow under my head. I opened my eyes.

I was back in my bed, nightmare over. I smiled and stared out the window. The morning sun looked beautiful. It always did after one of my nightmares.

That was the worst thing about the nightmares. No light. No images. Total blindness. Never knowing what waited in the pitch black. That made everything else worse. The strange sounds. The whispers. Hands touching me. Poking me with sharp things. Needles I think, but I could never be sure.

I liked being awake so much better.

Just the morning sun and snuggling under the covers, while a new, beautiful day awaited me.

What would I do today? Maybe a walk in the park, or…

It didn’t matter. Anything was better than the darkness. I smiled and closed my eyes.

NO!

I jerked awake, eyes wide open. I nearly went back. Back to the black. Too soon.

Don’t sleep.

I looked out the window and frowned. The sun was setting now. My perfect day is over. It felt like it just began. Wasn’t it just morning?

Why is it night?

Suddenly I was tired. But I didn’t want to close my eyes. Sleep brought the nightmares. The blackness. Always lost in the blackness. I liked it here better. In the light, where I could see. I didn’t like being blind. I was afraid in the dark.

I tried to stay awake, but I was so tired.

Don’t sleep. Don’t sleep. Don’t close your…

Blackness.

Even with my eyes open.

No!

I was back. Back in the darkness.

Wake up. Wake up.

I hated the dark, I was afraid of the dark. I wanted out of the dark. I wanted out my nightmare. Out of the place where I could not see.

Wake up. Wake up.

Blind. Blind. Always blind here. Lost in the dark. They did this. They did it to torment me. So I couldn’t see them coming.

Wake up. Wake up.

Footsteps. I heard footsteps. The door. I heard the door opening. No, no. They’ve arrived. I heard them whispering. Quiet, quiet, I must be quiet. Or they might come closer

Across the room, the two psychiatrists stared at the woman on the floor, rocking and mouthing silent words.

Doctor Benson, new to the hospital, turned to his colleague. “Does she always do that? Sit on the floor, swaying back and forth?”

Doctor Jones nodded. “It’s only gotten worse since she injured herself. A terrible thing that. We’re still investigating the security lapse.”

“What happened?”

“She gouged out her own eyes. She can’t see a thing anymore. The poor girl. She’s always in the dark.”

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.


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