The river carried us swiftly away from the tournament grounds. From the way the water twisted around us, it was clear that the man in armor was using a Dragongift to direct the flow. My body and my mind were numb from the freezing waters, but I still sensed the pull he had on the river. After what seemed like an eternity, we emerged from the waters and he deposited me rather unceremoniously in a heap at the water's edge. I lay shivering on the ground, desperately trying to regain feeling in my body. "Poor child." The woman emerged from the river as soaked as I was, but she seemed unbothered by the cold. Her body glowed a faint orange hue and within seconds she was dry. She placed her hand on me and rubbed my shoulder gently. Warmth surged through my veins, and for a brief moment, I felt as if I was in the safest place in the world. Only the memory of her blasting fire at my brother shook me out of my reverie.
"Haemon, why did we bring her?" she asked the man in the armor.
"I was wondering the same thing," a new voice joined in. A man with oily black hair and an unpleasant frown stood near the river. He had clearly been waiting for these two. His voice was nasal and thin, and he carried himself like someone who thought himself very important. He reminded me of the sort of people who had suddenly shown up to be Ciaran's friends once he was announced as the future High King. "Haemon. Milena." He sniffed. "I thought the job was to dispose of the future High King and Queen. Not…" he looked at me with some skepticism. "Collect random children."
"And we did our job, Quis," Haemon replied calmly. "But she called out to the future High King in a familiar manner. This girl probably holds more knowledge about the Houses than we do. We can use her to plan the next step."
Quis' face turned red with anger. "I have enough expertise about the Houses for everyone. We don't need anyone else. I order you to kill her."
Haemon arched an eyebrow. "Order? We don't serve you."
"No, but I AM in charge of this mission," Quis said.
"We don't kill for free," Haemon retorted. "Would your master be pleased to see you incur additional costs on this trip?"
"I-" Quis hesitated.
"Oh, Quis," Milena smiled. Her voice was like honey. "Osir will be here soon. I'm sure we can settle the matter then."
Quis' bravado faltered. "Osir. Yes, well…" He puffed his chest up in an attempt to hide his discomfort. "I suppose I can try to extract some kind of information from her." He gestured to the cluster of trees behind him. "Provisions are in the tent."
"Good," Haemon said. "Because I'm starving. Bring the girl in, will you?"
Haemon and Milena disappeared into the forest without another word. Quis turned to me and scowled. "Well? I'm not going to carry you." I weighed my options. Nowhere to run, and no idea where I was. For now, I'd have to behave.
"Coming," I mumbled. I struggled to my feet, and followed Quis into the woods. The forest was a wild tangle of trees and undergrowth - thicker than any I'd seen before. To the left, I noticed the bark on several trees had been scratched away - a sign that some animal probably had a den nearby. None of the marks were fresh, though, so whatever creature made them was probably long gone. I scanned the forest for signs of the den and noticed a sloped area that stood above the rest of the forest floor. It was probably there. I made a note of its location for further use.
"Stop dawdling," Quis grabbed my shoulder. He glared down at me, and caught his breath. "What's this?" I watched the expression on his face cycle through several emotions. With horror, I realized that the ribbon bearing Ciaran's ring was caught in my hair. Quis knelt in front of me and ran his fingers through my hair. I winced as his bony fingers stuck on a tangle. He finally managed to extract the ribbon and the ring that hung on it. He rubbed the deep blue stone carefully, and I could see his mind processing the new information. Without warning, he looked up and locked eyes with mine. "What a delightful surprise," he said. A slow smile crept across his face. "Haemon was right - we CAN use you." I cringed at the feel of his hot breath against my face, but I tried not to look away.
"Quis! What are you doing?" Haemon moved so softly through the trees that neither of us had heard his approach.
Quis took one last look into my eyes before shoving Ciaran's ring back into my tangle of hair and pushing me over. "It's nothing," he snapped. I stared in surprise. Quis was keeping a secret? It was obvious that these three were far from harmonious, but I didn't imagine the divide between them was that wide. Maybe I could use that to my advantage. I quickly tucked the ring under my blouse as Quis lifted me roughly by the arm. He dragged me into an open clearing where a modest tent had been set up. "Get inside," he thrust me at the tent's entrance. I stumbled in and settled down for a night with my captors.