“You're going to be wonderful,” Rubea gushed, tweaking the collar of Arthur's arena uniform into a better position. She had been fussing over his clothes for the last ten minutes—unnecessarily, since any styling she did would be thrown out of the window the moment the buzzer went off and the bloodbath started. Arthur longed to bat her hands away, but instead he just smiled at her.
“I'm very happy to have your confidence,” he said warmly. She giggled.
“Well, all of us on the team believe you'll do simply wonderful! And Morgana as well, you are both so talented and strong. And handsome,” she added, giving him a coquettish smile.
She did this for her tribute every year, Arthur thought, uncomfortable. She'd been telling Micah these exact things last year. She had probably cried when he died, speared by Louis from District Four, but just as probably, she hadn't mourned long.
There was a soft click of a door opening nearby, and when Arthur looked over, Gloss entered the room and walked up to them, greeting Rubea with a smile and a playful kiss on the hand.
“You’ve done a terrific job, I must say,” he said. “Now, I know that we’re technically not allowed to, but would you mind terribly if I stole just a few moments with Arthur here? Just some last-minute mentoring tips, you know?”
The dirty smile added to the end of the last sentence made Rubea look perfectly scandalised, except she was also practically alight with excitement, so the scandalised look was probably mostly at the thought that they might ruin Arthur’s carefully arranged hair, Arthur thought darkly. Talking to Gloss right now, when he really needed to get into the right head space and focus completely on the Games, was not something he wanted to do.
As expected, Rubea wasn’t of much help, however, the way she quickly left the room with a saucy wink over her shoulder. And then they were alone in the small prep room, just minutes before the start of the Games.
It was ironic to think that just 24 hours ago, he would have fantasised about this kind of situation.
“There was really no need to come here,” he said, keeping his voice as crisp and emotionless as possible. “I’ll admit that I… needed to adjust my expectations, but I’m perfectly capable of putting that away and focusing on what’s important.”
Gloss didn’t come closer. Instead, he sat down on the chair by the makeup table nearby and looked up at Arthur with a tiny smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I know you are.”
That made Arthur hesitate. He reached down and adjusted the gold dragon pinned to the front of his clothes, mostly to have something to do with his hands.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have been as harsh as I was last night,” Gloss said. “I got scolded for it this morning, actually. Some of the other victors seem to think that it would have been better to let you go into the arena with your head in the clouds. I believe ‘someone to come back to’ was a phrase that came up.”
Arthur took a steadying breath and looked back up, meeting Gloss’s eyes. “So why did you tell me?”
“To be honest, I’m not completely sure,” Gloss said. “There was just something in your eyes that I—having my twin as a fellow victor is hard sometimes. Everything I do affects her, so I can’t afford to get lost in my head. I guess that’s made me less tolerant of seeing emotional bravery like yours in others.”
“Are you saying I should take it as a compliment?” Arthur asked, feeling a stupid flutter start back up in his chest. He quickly squashed it.
“No,” Gloss said, after thinking about it for a few seconds. “Creating additional liabilities for yourself is not smart, and letting yourself become too attached is reckless, not brave. I think you have everything it takes to make it through. And it would be so stupid if you failed because of me.”
This was his cue, Arthur realised. He raised his chin and relaxed his stance, choosing his words carefully before letting them past his lips. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, keeping his voice light and steady. “You meant nothing to me.”
“Good,” Gloss said, getting off his chair and walking up to Arthur at last. “Be your best, Princeling.”
“Always,” Arthur replied. The signal for him to get into his tube came, and he welcomed it gladly.
“I’ll see you at the winner's ceremony,” he said, grinning at Gloss, who nodded, approvingly. It was with a sigh of relief he stepped into the tube and shot towards the surface.
Arthur came out onto an arid, lifeless plain, and immediately looked around for the others in the alliance. Most of them were some distance off from him, with Cenred closest, only a few tributes away. The tributes next to Arthur on either side were Emmer from District Eleven and the tiny girl from Seven—neither a threat to him. So that was one less thing to worry about.
The Cornucopia was shining in the distance, but Arthur noted that for once, the weapons and provisions didn't seem to be as centred on it as was usually the case. Instead, they were spread rather evenly all over the plain they were standing on, with large backpacks and even a weapon or two lying not far off from the platforms. There was a sword nearby that Arthur could reach with only a few long strides. He frowned to himself. Were they trying to even the field this year? It might of course be that the weapons here, further out, were blunted or cracked, and that it was a sadistic play on the tributes' hopes. Then again, from where Arthur was standing, the sword, at least, looked reasonably well-made.
He cast his gaze further afield. The plain they were standing on was surrounded by mountains, all looking as cheerless as the dead ground before them. In the distance, Arthur could see smoke rising among the peaks. Volcanic country, then. Fantastic.
The countdown kept moving ruthlessly down. Arthur saw Emmer swallow, legs trembling. Hopefully he wouldn't step off before it was time—that always made an awful mess.
He looked up at the clock. Ten seconds.
Something made him look around, wondering where Merlin had got to. He couldn't see him anywhere, which meant he had to be on the other side of the Cornucopia. Probably close to Morgana, then, who was one of the other few people completely blocked from Arthur’s view. This, of course, also meant that Merlin would, in all likelihood, be dead within seconds of the buzzer going. Probably for the best, Arthur thought, though Guinevere would soon regret not taking Arthur up on his offer of joining the alliance.
Six seconds, and Arthur made a decision. First the sword—if it turned out to be a dud, he'd just change it for something better when he got closer to the central stash. If there was a central stash.
Three seconds. Two.
Arthur exploded forwards. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Girl Seven spin around and sprint in the opposite direction. Clever, he thought—that was really her only play in this situation. Then he saw Cenred throw himself forward in a roll and come up with a crossbow, then swivel back and fire a bolt in the direction Girl Seven had gone.
He didn't have time to see what happened after that, because Emmer—the boy was fast—had just reached the sword, a step before Arthur, and now raised it to point at him.
He'd have done better to run, Arthur thought. At the same time, he thought he knew what was happening here. There was a desperate sort of courage in the boy's expression—the knowledge that if he didn't do something to wash out his shameful performance at his Reaping, he'd never be allowed to survive the Games anyway.
Emmer was thin to the point of starvation. He was gripping the sword with both hands, the point weaving slightly. Arthur could see his arms tremble under the weight.
He lunged suddenly, point first, and Arthur stepped aside neatly. As he turned, he brought his knee up and planted it firmly in Emmer's stomach, then as the boy doubled up painfully, smashed his elbow down against his neck. The sword flew out of Emmer's hands; Arthur scooped it up and buried it in Emmer's back without hesitation (hesitation, as every trainer he’d had since he was seven had emphasised, was only something that got you killed). There was a wet gasp, and then nothing. Arthur took his sword and ran on.
The girl from Six was just standing, quite still, in the middle of the plain. She had picked up a backpack and was staring around her with a kind of sluggish panic, but wasn't making a move to run in any direction. She was lost already, the only question remaining how gruesome her death would turn out to be. As Arthur ran towards her, she dropped the backpack and raised her hands. Arthur kicked her legs out from under her, then put his sword through her throat, making the strike clean.
There was a long-handled knife lying just beside her. He picked it up and kept going.
A sudden noise behind him made him turn, just in time to avoid the backpack someone had flung at his head. The angry eighteen-year-old from District Eight was barrelling towards him, wielding a knife in one hand and some kind of club in the other. Arthur managed to block his next blow with his sword, but it bit deep into the wood of the club, and when he tried to wrench it free, he only managed to send both weapons spinning out of their hands.
Arthur stepped back, unsheathing the knife he still held in his left hand and settling into the water stance. Boy Eight glared at him belligerently, brandishing his own knife, but didn't say anything as he circled Arthur carefully. Arthur could see the way he moved his feet and concluded that here was someone who had come to the Capitol training with the intent to learn. He hadn't actually done too badly, for only a few days' work.
He hadn't managed to learn patience, however. He lunged too soon, letting Arthur step aside and behind him quickly. To Arthur's surprise, he did the right thing by not turning, only threw himself forward out of the way of Arthur's knife and rolled, turning back only when he was far out of reach. Arthur was impressed.
They circled each other again, feinting and lunging in turn. Boy Eight had long arms and good reach, but the sloppy movements made it easy for Arthur to dodge him, and his anger was working against him, making him less and less careful. Finally he lunged again, bringing his arm down in a powerful strike from above.
Arthur jabbed his elbow up sharply, blocking Boy Eight's wrist and turning the strike aside, then stepped into the now open space and thrust his dagger up beneath Boy Eight's chin. He died with barely a sigh.
Arthur glanced around. There was no one near him, and from what he could tell, most of the screams had died down. He hesitated for a moment, then leaned down, closing Boy Eight's eyelids for him. He had died well.
He made his way over to where his sword had fallen and wrenched it away from the wooden club, then headed back to where Emmer was lying to collect the sheath. He straightened up after that, looking around for the others. The bloodbath appeared, from what he could see, to be over. There was time, now, to breathe and find one another again.
Morgause was already sitting down to clean her sword, calmly looking through the nearest backpack for something to wipe down the sticky red surface. Sophia was crouching over a body, one knife in each hand; she was smiling with a slightly worrying intensity, but as far as Arthur could tell she had made a clean kill of it. Nearby, Mordred had managed his own kill, and beyond them, Arthur saw Morgana stalking over to put an end to the boy from Nine who was whimpering wetly—hands trembling around the crossbow bolt sticking out of his stomach. Cenred was off in the distance, trying to get off a parting shot or two at the tributes who had been smart enough to run from the start.
And then there was Valiant, sitting up with a groan and clutching at his head.
“Fucker!” he exclaimed, staggering to his feet. Sophia looked up at him, frowning.
“And what happened to you?” she said.
“That fucker from Seven,” Valiant muttered, both hands to his forehead. “Had a fucking staff.”
“A staff?” Sophia said with a trill of laughter. So pretty and at the same time so full of scorn—she must have practised that, Arthur thought as he followed Morgause's example and sat down to clean both his blades.
Valiant all but growled. “Who the fuck decided to put a fucking staff in—”
“Valiant, didn't you take a sword?” Morgause asked calmly, holding up her own and checking it against the light.
“You lost your sword?” Cenred called. He was jogging back towards them, crossbow tucked under one arm.
“The boy from Seven hit him with a stick and stole it,” Morgana told him with a smirk (and Arthur knew she had practised that). Cenred laughed loudly.
“You were defeated by the lumberjack?”
Arthur sighed. “And he left you alive,” he said, rather enjoying the way Valiant's face was slowly purpling. “That's harsh. I would at least have given you an honourable death.”
That made even Morgause laugh. Valiant spluttered.
“Guess he didn't see you as much of a threat,” Sophia said, sugar sweet, and Arthur grinned at her, a private smile of understanding. She had fire, he thought, and could probably be quite fun. Pity she was such an obvious sociopath—but as a flirt in the arena to build some tension and rake in the sponsors, she was perfect.
“We should take stock,” he said, standing up and sheathing his sword. He hung the knife from his belt. “Doesn't look like the Gamemakers have given us too much in the way of weapons. Hopefully that doesn't extend to food as well.”
While the rest of them started to gather supplies, he took a turn around the Cornucopia to take note of the dead, just as the cannons began to boom. Neither Merlin nor Guinevere were among the fallen bodies, he saw. There were eight in total—less than he had expected—and apart from Boy Eight, none of the people he'd marked as hard contenders. Quick deaths like these were the best these tributes could really have hoped for.
He started as he recognised the last girl, however—Mordred's district partner, the sixteen-year-old girl with the auburn hair. Her throat had been opened from ear to ear, and Arthur looked over towards the rest of the group where Mordred was still cleaning his little knife, solemn in this as in all he did.
Arthur was suddenly uneasy. He didn't know why exactly—district partners would often go up against one another sooner or later, as a matter of course for the Games. But opening your partner's throat at the first chance you got...
Morgana came up to him, a bow and quiver slung over one shoulder. “Here,” she said, handing him a sheathed knife. “Not a lot of heavy weaponry, like you said. They seem to want us to go for knife play this year. Oh, and there were some more of those staffs like Boy Seven used. Sophia suggested that Valiant take one.”
Arthur grinned. He could imagine how that had been received. “You've found a bow, though,” he said, bending down to stash the second knife in his boot. Morgana nodded.
“It's the only long-range weapon, apart from Cenred's crossbow, that we could find. Might come in handy. There's not a lot of food. Enough for a couple of days at most, and that's with tight rationing.”
Arthur frowned. “So we'll have to hunt?” he said.
“There are maps in every backpack,” Morgana said. “Showing stashes of food and weapons. I think we're meant to go after them. The Cornucopia is not going to present much of an advantage for us.”
Arthur looked around them. “Could be risky,” he said. “This looks like volcanic country. And if I know the Gamemakers at all, any separate stashes we find are bound to be booby-trapped.”
“Obviously,” Morgana said, taking his arm to lead him back to the others. Morgause had spread out one of the maps on the ground in front of her and was peering intently at it.
“There are stashes all around this ring of mountains,” she said, pointing them out. “And then here, here and here.”
“And there's this,” Morgana said, brushing up against Morgause's shoulder as she reached forward to point at the map. “A large stash and not obviously difficult to get to, not like these ones up in the ravines. All the tributes are bound to try for it sooner or later, if every backpack holds as little food and water as these. What if we set up camp there and watch? It's as good a place to set up base as any. We let the other tributes take the risks. If they die in the attempt to get to the stash, no harm done. If they manage to get to it, we get to them afterwards.”
Arthur smiled at her. That was the Morgana he knew.
"I think you've got the right idea," he said. "Let's head out. Has everyone got a weapon?"
The others nodded, but Valiant looked peevish. "I don't see why you get the bow, Morgana," he said.
"Because you've got lousy aim?" Sophia suggested, adjusting her bandolier of throwing knives to shrug a backpack with supplies onto her shoulders.
Valiant scowled at her. "In that case, let me take your sword, then," he told Morgana.
"No," Morgana said calmly. "I want it."
"You took one sword and you couldn't keep it," Morgause agreed. "We really don't want to lose any more weapons to your negligence."
Valiant looked about ready to explode at that, but his eyes flickered down to Morgause's hand, now resting against the pommel of her own sword. He closed his mouth without saying anything, scowling darkly.
"There'll be a chance to get more weapons soon enough," Arthur said. "As soon as we meet other tributes. You'll get your chance to hold on to a sword then, Valiant. Now let's go."
The climb up into the mountains was not without difficulties. Sophia was on point, scurrying up near vertical cliffs to scout ahead for them, while the rest of them followed at a more sedately and careful pace. With her slight build and strong hands, Sophia was a great climber, but the paths she took were not for the rest of them.
Currently they were taking a short break to catch their breath. There was a sticky, hot feeling to the air around them, and the silence was punctuated ever so often with a noise like the roaring of some great beast. At the same time, it seemed to be too regular and controlled to be animal noises.
Morgana and Morgause were both bent over the map, studying it together.
“It's supposed to be up here somewhere,” Morgana said, pointing up ahead, just as Sophia shouted down, “I think we've got it.”
The rest of them scrambled up to reach her. The ground levelled out as they neared her, and they found that they were looking out over an empty plain, a silver pillar gleaming in the distance. On top was a flat surface, heaped with what looked like both food bags and weapons.
“Why don't we just go for it?” Cenred said, starting forward. Morgause threw an arm out, blocking his way.
“Try not to let on how short-sighted you are, Cenred,” she said. “Wait and observe for a moment.”
She nodded towards the pillar in the distance. The sight was hazy, and it was quickly apparent why—all over the plain, steam was coming out of the earth. As they watched, the ground split open and a jet of water suddenly shot some thirty feet into the air with a roar like the ones they'd been hearing on the way up. Seconds later, it happened again a few feet off.
“Geysers,” Arthur said. “Thought we might get something like that.”
“If we climb up a bit, past the drop there, we can skirt the edge of the plain and reach that shelf up there, overlooking the area,” Sophia said, pointing upwards. “Should be a decent place for us to camp out at.”
"Sure," Arthur said. "Lead the way and we'll follow as best we can."
"I'll expect you some time tomorrow, then," she said, winking at him. She turned and, twisting her fingers into a crack in the cliff wall, started to heave herself up. Arthur winced. That looked incredibly painful.
"You know, there is a much easier way up just over here," he said, but she just laughed at him and threw herself up the wall in what seemed like an obvious mockery of the laws of gravity.
It took them much longer than it ought to get up to their intended camp, since they had to retrace their steps several times when they found themselves without a way forward. When they arrived up at last, Sophia was waiting for them with a grin, swinging her legs over the side of the shelf and eating a granola bar.
"Slowpokes," she said.
"Monkey," Arthur retorted. "You could at least have got a meal started while you were waiting."
She fluttered her eyelashes at him. "I thought I did," she said, brandishing the granola bar. He rolled his eyes.
"We should set up guards," he said, turning to the others. "If another tribute goes for the stash we need to see that as soon as possible, so we can go after them."
"Cenred," Morgause said. "Make yourself useful and watch, why don't you? Now let's prepare some food. I'm starving."
They hadn't talked about rationing yet, but as they prepared their meal, Arthur saw that it would very soon come to tight rations if they didn't manage to add to their supplies. For now, though, they all ate their fill, to regain their strength after the bloodbath and the strenuous climb.
“Hey,” Cenred called out suddenly. “We've got a tribute heading for—”
The rest of his words were drowned out in the sudden roar, and as the rest of them ran to join him, they saw the jet of a geyser erupting not far away.
“Whoa!” Cenred shouted, laughing. “Bullseye!”
“Girl Ten,” Mordred said quietly. He'd been sitting with Cenred, staring down onto the plain. “Stepped right on top of one of the geysers.”
The cannon boomed, then, and as the steam cleared, Arthur saw the form of the unfortunate tribute, lying tossed like a rag doll only a few yards away from the pillar of goods. He wished he'd seen what had happened. Were the geysers triggered by pressure, or had the tribute been unlucky enough to step on one just as it was erupting anyway? Were the geysers more frequent around the stash, or was the whole area a minefield? These weren't ordinary geysers, after all—the ground opened for them and closed up afterwards, so that the area looked like an ordinary plain. It was impossible to say where a geyser would erupt just by looking at the ground.
“Cenred, get some food,” he said. “I'll watch for a while.”
It wasn't long until dark now. He doubted that another tribute would be foolish enough to go for the stash today, but if so, he was intending to learn what he could.
He woke in the early-morning gloom the next day to the sound of a loudly clamouring bell. He rolled upwards into a crouch, ready with the knife he'd been clutching in his sleep. Beside him, Morgause had jerked awake with the same level of preparation, feet under her to be ready to spring and both hands on the pommel of her sword.
“No danger,” Morgana called softly, from her perch as guard. “Someone got to the stash. The bell's to let us know they reached it, I guess—which is good, I would almost have missed it otherwise in this light. Come and see.”
It was Guinevere and Merlin, both of them with several backpacks slung over their shoulders. They were running backwards and forwards across the plain with all semblance of panic, but so far, they'd managed to avoid the geysers. As Arthur watched, Merlin ran forward and then stopped suddenly, running back and sideways a few paces. Moments later, a geyser erupted just where he'd been.
“Ooh,” Cenred said, disappointed. “Lucky.”
“Who is it?” Valiant asked, squinting down.
Arthur sheathed his knife again. “Boy and Girl Twelve,” he said. He'd thought they would be cleverer than to try and come here, but maybe they'd figured that they'd be safe enough under the cover of night.
“Looks like they might make it,” Sophia called. She'd donned her brace of throwing knives and was already starting to clamber down the side of the mountain. “Finally, some game.”
“I'll stay as guard here,” Morgana said. “Hope they got some good supplies. I'm dying for some fruit.”
“Someone else should stay as well,” Arthur said. “We should never be alone on guard.” Morgana glared at him for that, so he added, “It isn't anything to do with you, Morgana. Just simple maths—two are harder to sneak up on than one. Cenred, you stay.”
He didn't stay to see if he was obeyed, hurrying after Sophia instead. She already had quite a head start on him, and he wanted to make sure that she wasn't going to get out of hand. He knew that she wanted to make herself memorable to the audience—if food was going to be hard to come by, they would all have to rely on those all-important sponsors soon—but he also knew that sadism wouldn't win them any points.
Sophia was quick, though. The distance between them was only growing as Arthur climbed down after her, going as quickly as he dared. He didn't glance down the sheer drop down to the plain beside them, and so didn't keep tabs on how far along Guinevere and Merlin were, but as he started to get closer to the more level ground he looked around himself again and saw that they had both made it out of the geyser area. They were starting down the slope that led back towards the Cornucopia, but Sophia was now almost upon them. She was moving silently, and as Arthur watched she raised one of her throwing knives, taking careful aim.
Merlin turned at the last second and saw her, and the knife that should have found his liver hit his forearm instead. He yelled in pain and surprise, and Guinevere turned, stepping in front of him with impressive speed and fumbling at her belt for the war hammer hanging at her hip.
“Really, Twelve?” she said. “You're going to challenge me with that?” She pulled out a few more knives, twirling one of them lazily. “A hint from someone who knows how this game works—these are long-range weapons. That's not.”
“Well, if you're afraid to come too close,” Guinevere said, but her fear was just as obvious to Sophia as it was to Arthur, judging by how Sophia only laughed again.
“It's cute the way you're protecting your little boyfriend,” she said. “Though it would have been kinder to let him take the clean, quick wound. He'll go a lot slower now. Once I'm done with you, I might want to play.”
Arthur sighed inwardly. This was just what he'd been hoping to avoid; cat and mouse games with the idea of a kill as something to be enjoyed. He glanced back quickly. Morgause and Valiant were on his heels, with Mordred close behind. Sophia and the other two were still some way ahead, but at least they were standing still now and he had a chance to catch up to them. Hopefully he could stop this before it went too far. A death in the arena should be quick, clean and honourable, not cruel.
And then he caught sight of Merlin again, crouching behind Guinevere and cradling his wounded arm to his chest. He was staring up past the two girls and seemed to be mumbling something under his breath—a prayer? Oh, Arthur hoped he was not about to start crying or something. With Sophia in this mood, she would probably just find it hilarious.
Then he heard the rumbling, and following Merlin's gaze, Arthur realised what had caught his attention.
“Back!” he shouted, turning and waving his hands at Morgause and the others. “Back, back, run!”
He was glad to see that they didn't question him at all, just turned and scrambled as quickly as they could back up the way they'd come. As he ran after them, he heard Sophia's scream behind him, cutting through the roar of stone moving over stone.
She almost sounded angry, rather than frightened.
Then the landslide was upon them, and he couldn't hear anything else. He threw himself flat and curled up, covering his head with both arms. Stray stones hit him, several large enough to leave bruises and one hitting his elbow hard enough to make him cry out, but when the noise died down, he found himself in one piece. He straightened up slowly, wincing at the pain in his elbow and seeing ruefully that his clothes were torn in several places.
Then again, he thought as he looked out over the dust settling back over the mountainside, it could have been a lot worse.
The cannon sounded—only once. Guinevere and Merlin must have both got away, then. He knew better than to suppose Sophia had escaped the landslide. She'd been right in its path, with no way of getting away quickly. The hovercraft would have a job digging down to find her body, that was for sure. Perhaps they'd have to settle for sending back an empty coffin to Four—he knew it happened sometimes, when bodies were too completely destroyed or too difficult to locate.
He turned back to the rest of his group. They seemed more or less fine, although Valiant had pulled his trouser leg up, scowling at a rising bruise on one calf, and Morgause was nursing cuts on her arms and hands. Mordred looked almost unscathed—but then, he was small, and might have been able to hide between the other two with their larger bodies.
“Well, shit,” Valiant said. “That was a disappointing way to go.”
Arthur looked at him coldly. There had been no love lost between Valiant and Sophia, but she had still been his district partner. The decent thing to do would have been to at least pretend regret for her passing.
“Anyone want to try and go after Twelve?” he asked. “No, didn't think so. Let's get back.”
The climb back up was tiresome. Before they were even halfway up, the sun had come out in force and was making all their clothes stick to their skin. Arthur thought regretfully of the little amount of water they had left from the supplies gathered at the Cornucopia. If they didn't catch a break soon, they'd have to go after some of the other stashes themselves.
They reached the shelf again, tired and sweaty and annoyed, and found Morgana smirking at them. “So that was a complete failure,” she said lightly. “Saw both Twelves legging it down and away, laden with supplies.”
“I would have liked to see you do any better,” Valiant growled. Morgana raised her eyebrows at him.
“I would at least have put an arrow or two in the Twelves before turning tail and running. That way, there would have been a chance of finding some of their supplies after the landslide had passed. What was Sophia doing?”
“Liked the sound of her own voice too much,” Arthur said shortly. “Let it be a lesson.”
He was snappish, he knew, but Morgana's words had made him realise something—he'd asked Cenred to stay with Morgana, thus putting both proper long-range weapons out of play. He really couldn't make tactical errors like that here.
“Do we have anything in the way of medical supplies?” he asked.
“Salve and bandages over there,” Morgana said, giving him a look. “I thought you might need it. Cenred is getting some food together, too.”
“Thank you,” he muttered, and she smiled thinly.
“I'll keep watching, then,” she said, snagging some bread and dried fruit from the spread Cenred was bringing them.
There was salve for soothing pain, and something to help cuts scab over. Morgause was in most need—her cuts needed to be cleaned and bandaged, and Arthur helped her with her right arm, using their little water as sparingly as he could. The sun had disappeared into the clouds again as soon as they got back to camp and a wind had sprung up. Arthur shivered in his sweaty clothes.
“Now that I could use the heat, it's gone again. It's like the Gamemakers are pissing me off on purpose,” he muttered.
Morgause snorted in agreement. “We're going to need to lie low for this to do its work,” she said, gesturing to her bandages and his elbow, thickly covered with salve.
“I know. I'm thinking we call this day lost in any case and just rest up,” Arthur agreed.
What he didn't say out loud, because he wasn't stupid, was that there had already been one spectacular death today. With any luck, the Gamemakers would be satisfied with that and wouldn't be trying to stir up trouble for them.
“Hey,” Morgana called softly, waving to them. “We got another couple trying for the stash. Come and look at these ones.”
They all joined her, looking down over the plain. It was Boy and Girl Three, but they were moving quite differently than Guinevere and Merlin had done. They weren't running; instead, they were proceeding calmly and in a curiously geometric pattern, walking a few steps this way, then turning at right angles and continuing on that way for a little while. Behind them and before them, geysers were erupting as usual, but the area they were moving in was always calm.
“They figured out the pattern to the geysers,” Mordred said. “Impressive.”
The Threes were advancing quickly across the plain, despite their apparently leisurely pace. Valiant motioned to Cenred.
“Give me your crossbow,” he said. “I can take them out from here, once they've got the goods.”
Cenred hesitated, looking to Morgause for confirmation. She shook her head sharply.
“Won't do us good if we can't get to them,” she said. “Let's watch them instead. We should be able to work out the complete pattern of the geysers that way.”
“You mean we should just let them go?” Valiant demanded, incredulous. “We should at least try to waylay them!”
“There's no way we can intercept them,” Arthur said. “With how fast they're moving, we'd never make it down in time. Morgause is right—better to wait and use the information we can gain by watching them to get to the pillar ourselves later.”
“I can't believe this,” Valiant growled. “You're going to sit around and wait, like you're some pansies from fucking Twelve?” He made a lunging motion towards Cenred and his crossbow, but Morgause was quicker. Grabbing Valiant's wrist as he reached out, she twisted his arm up behind his back, with her other hand whipping out a knife to hover in front of his face, the point an inch from his eye.
“The next time you reach for any weapon that's not yours,” Morgause said calmly, “I will put this knife through your hand. And that will be letting you off very easy. Am I making myself clear?”
“Don't nod,” Cenred suggested, grinning.
“Fine,” Valiant ground out between gritted teeth, not moving a muscle. He was staring at the knife in front of his face, sweat beading on his forehead. Morgause nodded and took the knife away, then let Valiant's arm go. He sagged and groaned, shaking his arm carefully. Morgause sheathed her knife and sat down beside Morgana again.
They all watched the Threes as they made it to the pillar and collected some bags, then returned across the plain. Valiant was glaring silently down, his arms crossed sullenly.
“So what?” he said after a while. “They're just going forward, left, forward, right. It's easy. Any idiot could do it.”
“We'll see,” Mordred said quietly. Arthur saw Morgause give him a look and frowned. He hadn't managed to figure Mordred out yet, and the way Morgause looked sometimes made him wonder if she had, or if she was as wary as Arthur.
The first raindrops hit just as the Threes were scrambling away from the geyser area.
“Shit,” Morgana said heavily; Arthur knew that she hated getting wet.
“We need to work out some cover,” Morgause said. “There was some kind of tarpaulin in one pack—Cenred, go and find it.”
“We should have brought some of those staffs from the Cornucopia after all,” Arthur muttered.
In the scramble to manufacture some sort of cover for themselves, Arthur thought that there were at least two good results from the rain—one, that they could somewhat refill their water supply, which he'd been increasingly worried about, and two, that they now had a perfectly good excuse to wait until tomorrow to try for the stash again. Going down the mountain made slippery with rain would be suicidal, especially when they'd had one landslide happen already. Not even Valiant was pushing for an expedition any time soon.
It kept raining all through the afternoon, and they huddled miserably under their cover, eating a little and talking in mutters. This time yesterday, Arthur might have welcomed the respite as a chance for some camera-friendly banter with Sophia, but now he didn't even have that much. Morgana and Morgause were whispering about something together, and Cenred was whining about keeping his crossbow dry.
When the evening drew on, the rain finally let up. By sunset, the sky was once again clear enough for them to see the faces of the dead, projected onto the heavens. Sophia was the only one up there.
“We really need to get back into the game tomorrow,” Morgause said as the Hunger Games anthem faded away, echoing what Arthur had been thinking.
“First thing tomorrow,” Morgana agreed. “And now, sleep.”
Mordred and Valiant were appointed first guards. Morgause handed Mordred an extra knife and then very pointedly drew her sword up next to her, turning her back on Valiant. Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about her continued baiting of Valiant, whose expression was as dark as Arthur had ever seen it—it seemed like she was building him up to the point where he would snap completely, and Arthur wasn't at all sure of what would happen then.
Then again, that was really Morgause's problem.
He threw a last look at Mordred and Valiant, sitting and looking out over plain and over mountainside respectively, then lay down to sleep.
“Can I have one of those rice cakes?” he heard Mordred ask.
“No way, runt, these are mine,” Valiant replied shortly, and that was the last Arthur heard before he drifted off to sleep.
It didn't feel like he'd slept long at all when he was woken again. For a moment, he wasn't sure what had startled him out of his rest—he could only hear the rush of erupting geysers, a noise he'd quickly learnt to ignore—but then he sorted through his recent memory and realised that there had been some other noise there, too. A yell or scream, possibly.
Then the cannon sounded, confirming his guess. He sat up quickly, looking around. The rest of the group was stirring into wakefulness, all of them looking alive and fine. Mordred, however, was sitting by himself by the edge of the shelf.
“Where's Valiant?” Morgause asked, evidently having done the same check as Arthur.
Mordred turned towards them. “He insisted on going down to get himself some weapons from the stash,” he said. “I couldn't stop him.”
He raised his hand to his mouth and took a bite from a rice cake, chewing slowly and swallowing before he continued, “It seems it wasn't so easy any idiot could do it, after all.”
The rest of the night passed peacefully. None of them had been able to muster up much sorrow over Valiant's death—Morgana's only comment had been a “Oh, how sad”, hard to take seriously when it was delivered with a wide smile, while Cenred had been most vocal with his “Thank fuck, he was really starting to get on my nerves”. Arthur had taken a turn at guarding but had slept most of the night away, and woke well rested and ready for the new day. His bruises from the landslide had faded somewhat, and the cuts had scabbed over well enough for him to ignore them.
“So I think we can consider this place to be tapped out,” he said over breakfast. “After we've eaten, let's get the remaining supplies from the stash and then get out of here.”
“Definitely,” Morgana said. “I'm getting bored here.”
Packing up quickly, they set off down the mountainside again. It had dried up from the previous day's rain, but the going was still tricky once they reached the lower reaches, the part of the mountainside that had been ravaged by the landslide. Picking their way through that took a lot longer than expected, and the sun was almost noon high above them before they stood at the entrance to the geyser area again.
“Cenred should watch,” Morgause said. “Mordred, you have the path well memorised, right?”
“I have,” Mordred said. “I think it should be fine for us all to go altogether, unless someone wants to stay with Cenred.”
Morgana laughed. “Are you joking? If there's any fruit in that stash, I'm going to get my hands on it. Let's go.”
Cenred turned, hoisting his crossbow up to his shoulder and surveying the mountainside below. “Enjoy,” he said over his shoulder. “And if there are any extra quarrels, make sure to bring them.”
The rest of them set off. They walked in single file, close after one another, with Morgana leading and Arthur and Morgause following. Mordred brought up the rear, calling out instructions for Morgana.
“Now right,” he said, and Morgana turned. Arthur followed, walking one step forward and then turning, to follow the path she was taking perfectly. They were only twenty yards or so from the pillar, and no geyser had even come close yet. Things were going smoothly—a lot easier than Arthur had feared.
Then Morgana stopped and backed up suddenly, stepping back into Arthur. He was about to ask her what she was doing when Mordred, several steps behind him, shouted, “No, no, that should have been left!”
The geyser erupted a few feet in front of Arthur and Morgana, showering them with stray water droplets, scalding hot.
“Turn!” Morgause shouted, as they scrambled back. “No time to panic. Get to the pillar. Mordred, lead!”
The last few yards were walked in terse silence with Mordred in front instead, his instructions now being only a muttered litany to help keep himself on the right path. They reached the gleaming pillar of the stash, and when the bell clanged as Morgana put both hands on the surface, Arthur saw that the skin of her left arm was red and blistering all over. He looked down at his own hands. He'd been scalded, but not badly. Morgana, standing closer to the erupting geyser, must have been more heavily doused.
“What happened there?” Morgause snarled, rounding on Mordred. He was showing more emotion than Arthur had seen yet from him in the Games, looking completely distraught.
“I don't know, I blanked for a moment,” he said, twisting his fingers together. “Morgana, I'm so—”
“Let's not stick around to portion out blame,” Morgana ground out between clenched teeth. Her left cheek was reddening, too. “For all we know, they could have rigged the pillar to blow if you take too much time. Let's grab everything and go. We should be able to carry what's left between us.”
They loaded up quickly, Arthur and Morgause taking most of the load between them. Morgana was gamely heaping bags on her shoulders, but she winced every time she closed her fingers around something, and Arthur knew she wouldn't be able to carry anything in her hands. He soon declared her done and sent her to watch with Mordred for the best moment to head out into the geysers again while he and Morgause picked up the last of the weapons left in the stash.
“Let's go,” he said, grabbing the last quiver of arrows from the pillar. “Mordred, you should lead this time.”
Mordred hesitated. “I get a much better overview of the area when I'm walking last,” he said. “If I walk in front, I might miss—”
“If you make a mistake and accidentally step into a geyser, the rest of us will just have to try and remember the path on our own,” Morgause said quietly. “I dare say we'll manage. Go.”
Mordred's eyes widened slightly, but he nodded and turned, heading back out over the plain.
The way back was uneventful. They were only just back onto safe ground again and out of the range of the geysers when Morgana sagged to her knees, shrugging off her bags with a groan and screwing her eyes tight shut. Cenred turned at the sound and almost dropped his crossbow.
“What the hell happened to you?” he said. “Holy shit, did you get into one of those geysers?”
“Cenred, shut up and bring all the water we have left and bandages,” Morgause snapped, dropping everything to crouch beside Morgana and put an arm around her shoulders. “Mordred, you take a look and see whether we have picked up anything in the way of medicine.”
Arthur was already opening the bags he'd been carrying. He found food and water in the first three bags which, while reassuring in general, was very helpful at the moment. In his fourth and last bag, however, he found several small pots of ointment. Opening one after another and methodically trying them out on his own smarting skin, he found something that cooled and soothed his minor burns, at least.
“Here,” he said, handing it over. “It seems to do something for burns.”
Morgause nodded. She was washing Morgana's skin gently, and Arthur winced, seeing how Morgana's lips were pressed tightly together—the left side of her face an angry red and curiously shiny.
“We'll get some food together,” he muttered, drawing Cenred away.
By the time they'd organised some kind of lunch, Morgana was treated as best possible. Her left arm as well as her right hand was bandaged up, and her face smeared with a thick layer of ointment.
“Is there at least any fruit?” she asked lightly, and Arthur smiled ruefully at her, shaking his head. She sighed theatrically, then focused on his hands.
“There is still some ointment left, I think,” she said. Morgause frowned.
“We don't know yet if you're going to need a second layer later,” Arthur said quickly, forestalling her protests. He didn't mind foregoing the burn medicine for Morgana's sake, but he was damned if he'd let Morgause forbid him to use it, as he was sure she'd been about to. “I'll manage without; this is hardly anything. Now come and eat.”
He was really going to have to watch Morgause, he thought.
"So what happened, anyway?" Cenred asked eventually, when they'd all stilled the worst of their hunger. There was food to last them for many days, now, and they could up their rations considerably. Water could still become a problem, however.
"It was my fault," Mordred said, shame-faced. He quickly told Cenred what had happened, then added, "It was so lucky that you stepped back, Morgana. Things could have gone a lot worse, otherwise. What made you hesitate to go forward?"
It was hard for Arthur to tell, especially with half of Morgana's face covered in ointment, but he thought he detected a measure of unease in her expression. "I don't know," she said. "I just—maybe I heard it? Like, the sound before water boils or something?"
Morgause shot her a look, swift and unreadable. Then, in one movement, she turned to Mordred and twisted her fist in his collar, pulling him towards her until their noses were almost touching. "That had better never happen again," she said, in a voice so low and tight that Arthur almost didn't catch the words. Mordred stared back at her, then raised his eyebrows.
"It won't, of course," he said, but he was looking at Morgana, not Morgause, and his expression was now more curious than distraught.
Morgause held onto him for another moment, then nodded and let go, turning back to her food as if the past couple of seconds had never happened. "What do you say—where to next?" she said, looking at Arthur.
"Move towards the other stashes," Arthur said. "Start going after them one by one. You know best where they're situated, could we reach one today?"
Morgause nodded. "If we move quickly. Good plan, let's go for that."
All that day they trekked, in more or less unbroken silence. They made good time, even with pauses to check Morgana's bandages, but when by nightfall they reached the stash they'd been heading for, they found it empty. It was one of the easier ones to get to, and must have been raided early on by other tributes.
With tempers already running short from their scare among the geysers that morning and from the long and tedious march, they were all irritated and uncooperative. Morgause was still fussing over Morgana's burns, to such a degree that Arthur finally snapped and told her to give it a rest. Morgause all but exploded with rage in return, and it was only Morgana's restraining hand that stopped it from becoming a fistfight. Things weren't helped by the news projected onto the sky, either—with Valiant the only dead, it was a clear reminder that the field was still wide open and that their alliance had not, as yet, made any big noise in these Games, apart from getting their own members killed.
The next day continued in much the same vein. They made their way to another stash, also emptied, and then struck out towards a third. This one was harder to get to, and they chose to head towards it for just this reason—it might have been left alone by exploring tributes looking for easier ways to get their supplies.
This stash, they saw when they arrived at the place marked on their maps, was situated in a cave that was hardly more than a shallow crack in an almost sheer cliff face. Morgana sighed.
“Now we really could have used Sophia,” she said. “Who wants to play monkey?”
Morgause gave Arthur an appraising look. “I'm lighter than you are,” she said. “And I can find handholds too small for you.”
“Yes, but your hands were cut up badly only the day before yesterday,” Arthur pointed out.
“And yours were scalded yesterday,” Morgana said.
Cenred grinned. “Pleased to see I'm not even being considered for this,” he said. “Morgause is a good climber.”
“I'm taller, though,” Arthur said.
“Neither of you may have to climb, actually,” Mordred said. He was gazing up the cliff wall with a considering expression, shading his eyes with his hand.
Arthur snorted. “Right, thanks for offering, but I think we'll—”
“No,” Mordred said, “I mean you may not have to, because someone else is already climbing to that stash.”
They all looked up. It was the strong-looking girl tribute from Eleven—tall and thin, she had the physique of a good climber and was indeed moving with relative ease. It was hard to see where she had come from, but she must have already been far up the cliff when they neared the place, and might have just been hidden from their eyes for a while by one of the outcrops of rock. She wasn't looking at them at all, and might not have noticed them yet. Arthur quickly signalled silence and shrank back against the cliff under a small overhang, followed by the rest.
Morgause smiled. “I call it,” she said quietly. “Hand me that brace of throwing knives we picked up by the geysers and don't give away our position.”
They waited in silence, Morgause a little further off from the rest of them, poised like a cat about to spring and looking up the cliff face. Suddenly she moved, throwing two knives straight after one another. They heard a scream, and then Girl Eleven came tumbling down, landing a little way away from them and rolling into a crouch.
She was taller than Morgause, but a lot thinner, and the arena had not been treating her well so far. Her hands looked torn and there was a gash down one cheek that was partly scabbed over. She was bleeding from fresh wounds on her shoulder and thigh, but from the way she moved, it appeared that those, at least, weren't too deep. Morgause's knives must have only grazed her.
The girl dropped the backpack she'd been carrying and gripped a knife in both hands, point towards Morgause. Arthur winced. Her form was terrible.
Morgause took one look at the girl, then sheathed the knife she'd been holding and drew her sword instead. Then she charged.
The cannon sounded only half a minute later, and Morgause picked up the girl's backpack and strolled back to them.
“Time for lunch,” she suggested. She opened the backpack she'd taken from Girl Eleven and smiled suddenly. “For you,” she told Morgana, and handed her a bag of apples.
In the late afternoon, on their way to yet another stash, Arthur heard the sound of running water. He ran forward, ignoring the call of Morgause behind him, and climbed up onto a ridge carefully. There had been no waterways marked out on the maps of the arena, but that could have been just a ploy on the part of the Gamemakers.
When he reached the top of the ridge he saw that this seemed to be the case. A wide and deep stream was surging down the mountainside, and the landscape around was a lot more green and fertile than what they'd seen so far.
Almost right below his perch was a kind of plateau, where the stream ran slow and broad for a while before plunging down a sheer drop in a glittering waterfall. Beside the stream was grass and bushes, and there were even a few stunted trees. He could hear bird calls from the bushes.
He turned to see Morgause making her way up to him.
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “You can't just run off—”
“I found us our new campsite,” Arthur said, nodding down towards the stream. “There are birds in the bushes, and I think there may even be fish in the stream.”
Morgause raised her eyebrows. “Nice,” she said. “Fine, let's head down that way. You haven't seen any other tributes?”
“There aren't any here from what I can tell,” Arthur said. “Still, we should be careful, I guess. I'll go in front if you hand me that bow.”
“How about we go together?” Morgause said sweetly, then turned and shouted down to the others to come up that way. Arthur frowned. Morgause had been flexing her muscles more and more these past two days.
They headed down towards the plateau slowly and carefully, with Morgana and Mordred following and Cenred bringing up the rear with his crossbow. They met no resistance, however, and once down by the stream they explored the area closely and found no trace of any human visitors.
“Guess none of the others have found this place,” Cenred said, coming back from his exploration. “So all ours, then. I found this.” He was dragging the carcass of a scrawny dog mutt with long, sharp teeth by the scruff of its neck. Its tongue was lolling out of its mouth and its eyes were dimmed and red. “Should we try to eat it?”
“No!” Morgana snapped, then hesitated and blinked. “No. I don't think it's well.”
Cenred laughed. “Of course not. It's dead.”
“I mean, I think it wouldn't be healthy,” Morgana said, annoyed. “I think it was poisoned. It was dead when you found it?”
Cenred dropped the thing abruptly, wiping his hand on his shirt. “No,” he said. “Dying, though, I think. I threw a rock at it and it went down immediately.”
Morgause sighed and crouched down next to the animal. “Please try to think sometimes, Cenred. You must know eating a dying animal is a bad idea.”
“I thought it was just starving or something,” Cenred protested. “It's thin enough. Why do you think it's poisoned, anyway?”
Morgana shrugged uncomfortably. “I don't know. I just—don't know, I thought it looked unhealthy.”
“You were right,” Morgause said. She held up the mutt's head, parting the fur to reveal a small dart. “At least one of the other tributes has been here after all. This is from a blowgun.”
“Whoever has that, they must be quite wood crafty,” Arthur said. “I haven't seen any signs that a human has been here before us.”
“Well, they're not here any longer, unless they know how to turn themselves invisible,” Morgause said, dropping the mutt back to the ground. “But let's be aware that there is someone out there with poison darts, someone who knows how to cover their tracks.”
The night was cold enough that they decided to go for a fire, and Arthur came back from gathering wood to find Morgause and Morgana whispering together. They stopped when he came near them and busied themselves with getting the fire started, but he caught several glances being exchanged between them.
“Morgana and I will take first watch,” Morgause said over dinner, not surprising him at all. He shrugged.
“Fine. Wake me when you want to switch. Mordred should take the watch with me.”
Morgause nodded shortly. “That works, yes. We'll wake you.”
The fire helped make their new camp site feel almost cosy. As soon as the face of Girl Eleven had followed the Hunger Games anthem and the sky had gone dark for the night, Arthur stretched out next to the heat and tried to relax. Morgause's and Morgana's murmured speech mingled with the hiss of the fire, and he finally drifted off—one knife clutched in his hand and a flail he'd acquired at the geysers within reach.
When he woke, the sun was up and Morgana and Morgause were roasting apples over the embers of the fire.
“You watched all through the night?” Arthur said, sitting up slowly and with his knife still gripped tightly.
Morgana nodded, sticking a knife into her apple to test it. “We had a lot to talk about,” she said easily.
“Anything you want to share?” Arthur said.
Morgana shrugged. “Not really,” she said. “Girl things.”
He stared at her, not bothering to hide his incredulity, but she only grinned and nodded to her crisping apple.
“Toasted apple?” she said. “Not as good without sugar, but unless they've been very creative with the supplies this year I think we'll have to manage.”
Arthur nodded and went to wake up Cenred and Mordred.
“How about striking out towards another stash or two?” he said when they were all feeling sated. “We use this place as base, but look for other tributes in the most likely places to find them—those other stashes.”
Morgause and Morgana exchanged a glance.
“Good plan,” Morgause said. “But Morgana and I were thinking we should explore a bit closer to home first. There's that tribute with the poison darts, for a start. We thought we'd take Mordred and do a sweep of the surrounding area. He has the keenest eyes.”
“Sure,” Arthur said with a shrug. “Then Cenred and—”
“Cenred should stay and guard this space,” Morgause interrupted quickly. “But if you don't mind going off on your own, I think the idea of looking for other tributes is good.”
Arthur looked at her, wondering what her game was exactly. “Fine,” he said. “I'll take some supplies and strike out northward. I'll be back by early evening.”
He packed a backpack with some food and a full water bottle, then added his new flail and two extra knives to supplement the ones he had at his waist and ankle, as well as his sword.
Whatever was coming, he wanted to be fully prepared.
Arthur arrived back unsuccessful at their camp by the stream late that afternoon. He'd found two stashes, both apparently untouched and both too difficult for him to get to on his own. He'd marked them out on his map as places to try if they got really low on food or water and had then moved on. All day he hadn't seen the slightest sign of any other tribute. In fact, the way he'd chosen had taken him back into the more sterile areas of the mountains, and he'd hardly seen any other living thing—apart from a bird or two and a glimpse of something large and serpentine in a valley far below him. He'd made a note of that, as well. So far, they hadn't seen much of wildlife in the arena, but he knew better than to assume the Gamemakers wouldn't populate it with their favourite muttations.
Cenred was standing somewhat lazily at guard when Arthur returned, and Morgana, Morgause and Mordred were roasting a bird of some kind over the fire. The smell of it was amazing.
“Hey,” Arthur called to them. Cenred nodded, and the others stood up suddenly. “Great job. I can't wait to finally have some cooked meat again.”
There was no reply to that, and Arthur slowed, approaching warily. He raised his right hand to fumble at the buckle of his backpack strap, ostensibly to shorten the strap but in fact to put his hand closer to the knife at his hip. Cenred was behind him now, and the other three in front of him with the fire between them.
“Arthur,” Morgana said. She wasn't wearing her bow, he was glad to see, but she had put her hands on the small of her back. For all he knew, she could have stashed throwing knives there. “We’ve been talking.”
“It's time to break up this alliance,” Morgause said. Not as dissembling as Morgana, she put her hand openly on the pommel of her sword.
“Into two groups, one of them being a group of one, I'm thinking you mean,” Arthur said, dropping the pretence in turn and drawing his knife.
He'd been expecting it since yesterday. Morgause had had her eye on the leadership of their alliance from the start. She must have known that he'd never settle for taking the back seat and had decided to muscle him out altogether instead.
“That's one way it could go,” Morgause said, and Arthur spun around, scything Cenred's legs from under him and stamping down hard on the crossbow as he fell. It splintered with a crunch, but Cenred had let go in time, and his hand was safe.
“You're shit at sneaking up on someone, Cenred,” Arthur said, as Cenred rolled away from him with impressive speed and came up holding a saw-toothed blade Morgause must have found for him among Girl Eleven's things.
With the crossbow out of play, he didn't have to worry about being taken out from a distance right now, but his situation was still looking terrible. The other three had moved towards him, and Cenred was upright again. They fanned out, and Arthur had to step backwards to keep them all in view. They were driving him towards the edge of the plateau, he realised.
He glanced behind him at the sheer drop, and then back at the other four. Cenred on his far right, then Mordred, Morgana and Morgause to his left. He looked back at Morgana again, then Cenred, then Morgause, gauging from where the blow would come...
Some instinct made him begin to turn—even though there was no way Mordred could have got behind him so quickly—and the little knife that had sliced open the throat of the auburn-haired girl from Mordred's own district bit into the small of Arthur's back. It tore through skin and muscle, but missed his spine, which must have been the original target. Arthur flailed wildly with his knife hand but met nothing, and as he spun to try and strike at Mordred, he overbalanced and fell.
He was dimly aware of the pain in his back, but everything else felt far away as he fell through the air, water crashing all around him. By the time he hit the water bed below, he was already unconscious.