Chapter 25

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It took a wild amount of straining and swearing, heaving and at times rolling but eventually, Ria succeeded. Back muscles a corded mess and thighs screaming, she gave one more grunting snarl before collapsing on the bank in a heap of sweat and quivering limbs, wheezing like she'd run ten miles.

"The fact..." Ria gulped in air, massaging the stitch in her side, "you are only taller than me...by two feet but are...heavier than my horse just proves you're...full of shit. I absolutely hate you right now."

Her collapse backward ended with a wet squelch she couldn't be bothered to grimace at. She'd pull herself up once the air being pulled into her lungs dried out.

The Spring, it turned out, was exactly as the name described. Shaped like a teardrop and ringed by ancient mossy stones etched in Ogham markings, the water was unbelievably clear despite its stagnation and tinted a faint blue. Lying near a grassy overhand, Ria could see the stone bottom and the massive knot carved there ten feet below.

Summoning the last whispers of strength, she dug in like a plow horse and dragged Orin into the water as far as she could before the bottom of the silty floor unexpectedly dropped out. Resurfacing with a sputtering splash, Ria struggled to both tread water and grab her unconscious charge before he slipped under. Luckily, buoyancy made Orin easier to handle, and the moment his bloody arms touched the water it began to glow.

"I should let you drown for all the trouble you've caused me tonight," she muttered, sweeping wet hair out of her face. At least the water was cool against her sweaty body, easing the aches and washing the mud from her clothes. The gods only knew how sorely she needed a bath...

Through the rivulets of water streaming down her face, Ria watched the water attended to Orin's wounds, remembering very clearly what the pool had done for her a scant few weeks ago, but the trade had been imprisonment. Suffice to say, she didn't have a deep love for the Spring.

"Oh good! It's activated."

Ria jumped, twisting to search for Hissy. Instead of finding her on the bank or attached to a mossy rock, the madag floated into view from across the Spring, paddling unevenly towards her like a wad of viney flotsam.

"Nice of you to join us."

"Don't be grumpy," Hissy sighed. "I've been trampling down traces of your magic so no one sniffs you out. That's hard to do when you're as small as I am."

"Great. Like I need more stress." When Hissy didn't immediately answer, Ria spared a glance and watched the madag barrel roll multiple times, little legs kicking to right herself. "What are you doing?"

"Rinsing off magical residue. The water purifies as well as heals."

Well then, easy as that.

"Okay, so, please explain to me why Bracken," Ria said changing the topic, "of all the fae who hate me in Tree Spring, saddled with taking care of its lord and ruler?"

"Well, for starters, you didn't stay hidden like I told you to." Ria ignored the jab and the irritation in the madag's voice. "And I think Bracken knew you were the only one we could trust. With Orin compromised, he had to placate the Courts. I'm too small to be of any help, and the rest of the fae are forbidden from coming near the Spring. You don't have a stake in fae politics, so we trust you to take care of Orin. Plus, aren't Green Witches renowned healers? He's in better hands with you than with any of us."

Ria had to look down or risk Hissy seeing the spike of guilt twisting her face. She wanted to say she did have stakes in this game, and she'd been willing to kill for them.

"I'm not a Green Witch. I'm just a Witch with broken connections to the earth," she said bitterly instead.

"The Spring's good at healing. Maybe it can fix what's wrong with you?" Reaching the shore, Hissy climbed out, ridding herself of excess water like a dog. "I'm going to find some herbs to help patch everything up once the water finishes. Stay here, and please listen this time. I like you but I'm not keen on dying for you."

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