Chapter 27

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Ria lay awake in her tower room, unconsciously picking at her thumb's cuticle while counting the shadows. Dawn had kissed Tree Spring a little more than an hour ago. Most of the visiting fae departed the oasis in the gray hours before sunrise in a long procession not unlike a parade, banging instruments and carrying on long after they reentered the snowy grounds outside the barrier. One only group left in sullen silence. A pack of wolves with a fuming alpha and an omega trotting along at the back of the pack. 

Ria wanted to shout and wave at Brenden, to let him know she was alive and safe, but revealing herself to the gathering fae would be suicide. Instead, she trusted Orin had passed word along to her friend, sowing the seeds of hope. They would both leave this godforsaken place come spring and never look back.

Watching from her perch, Ria felt both jealous the fae were able to leave and relieved they were gone. Tree Spring might not have been her home but it was her current ecosystem. The visitors threw off the balance, not to mention sequestering her into isolation for her own safety.

Once the night emptied of its revelry, Ria slipped down to her moss bed and attempted to squeeze a few hours of rest out of the remaining night but couldn't find it in herself to settle. Not after witnessing the magic of Tree Spring first hand and the horror behind its inner workings. And as shocking as it was, she found herself tightening with worry. The Spring healed Orin, yes, but he had been incredibly weak after the fact. Ria couldn't help hear her mother's disapproving tisks, running through a list of things she should have checked before leaving him for the evening.

So it was that once dawn finally began to lighten the sky, Ria popped to her feet, unable to take her mind's back and forth volleying and decided to do something about it.

She was the daughter of a Green Witch. Broken or not, it was time she started acting like one.

For weeks her morning routine consisted of venturing onto the grounds and gathering food. Along the way, she would scavenge for dry wood in hopes of eventually starting a fire to help stave off the chilly nights. This particular morning, however, Ria diverted from her well-worn path in lieu of another. Cautiously wading into the dewy lawn far enough from the castle the land began to flatten, she removed her shoes and set bare feet atop the grass with all the hesitance of someone walking on live coals.

And like all the days before, the effects were instantaneous.

Electricity crackled up her legs, seizing the muscles behind her knees and around her thighs in one tight arc. Teeth gritted, she struggled to remain standing, face a snarled mess of concentration, but lasted about as long as dry paper in flames. Falling to her hands and knees, Ria weathered the pain of a thousand stings, allowing Tree Spring to abuse her body and corrupt her natural magic until it took on the form she most needed, the fruits of her labor literally hanging from the branches overhead and growing in snarls around her wrists.

It was torture, plain and simple, but it bore results, so she would take the beating if it meant survival.

Breathless and spent after ten minutes connected to the earth, Ria used what little strength she could cobble together to harvest her spoils of fruit and herbs and reapply her shoes, severing her connection to Tree Spring.

It was difficult telling the difference between standing and moving once she caught her balance, all sense of motion blurred into one sensation as she stumbled back to the castle and collapsed. Without question, this had been the hardest gathering since her stranding. Maybe the celebration combined with Orin's blood sacrifice made the fae magic more potent. Or maybe it was the sobering understanding Ria was weakening. The shake in her legs and the growing bagginess of her frock had both been stubbornly ignored warning signs of her increasing malnutrition.

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