Arthur blinked and opened his eyes. He was lying down with a rocky roof above him and something soft under his head. A few paces away to one side he could hear voices. He closed his eyes again, trying to even his breathing. He didn't know where he was or with who, and until he did, he needed whoever it was to believe that he was still unconscious.
It didn't take him long to realise that he was not in the doubtful mercy of the alliance, at least. This was another group altogether.
“Take the chance and kill him now,” one voice said. “He's a Career, he'd do the same in a heartbeat. And without angsting about it, too.”
“He's wounded!” another voice exclaimed, and Arthur knew that one: Guinevere from Twelve.
“Best time to kill a Career,” the first voice answered. It could be Boy Three, Arthur thought. Gwaine with the flippy hair.
“He's unconscious,” a third voice insisted. Merlin, Arthur thought. That was Merlin.
“Evens the odds for you, then, doesn't it?” Gwaine said.
Arthur didn't know what he expected as answer to that, but it sure wasn't Merlin laughing delightedly.
“Guess so,” he said. “Still. I'm not going to kill a wounded and unconscious tribute, even if that is the only time we'll be evenly matched.”
Arthur couldn't believe what he was hearing. That Merlin hadn't managed to die from sheer incompetence yet was a wonder in itself, and with an attitude like that, it was even more incomprehensible. The Twelve mentors were both lost causes, but surely one of them must have explained that the point of the Games was to kill the other tributes, not laughingly admit the non-existence of one's own skills.
“He's not going to be much of a threat when he wakes up, the way he looks now,” a fourth voice said—and if Gwaine was here, that had to be his district partner. “Maybe we should just wait for now, see what happens.”
“Oh yes, we'll have ourselves a pet psychopath,” Gwaine said. “Perfect. It's what I always wanted for my birthday.”
“He's not a psychopath,” Guinevere said, quietly enough that Arthur barely caught it. Huh, he thought. Maybe there was something there he could use.
In any case, that was probably his cue.
He groaned softly and raised a hand as if to rub it across his eyes, then slammed his eyes open and twisted onto his side, lowering the hand to fumble at his sword belt instead. But he didn't have to fumble, he suddenly realised—his sword was exactly where it should be. The fools had left him his sword.
A moment later, it became clear to him why. He couldn't even sit up.
He could see, too, that none of them were close enough for him to be able to do them any damage—not in the state he was now. They were all seated around a fire, several paces further off, and something about the space they were in must have led Arthur to believe they were closer than they were. They were in some sort of cave, deep or dark enough that he couldn't even tell where the opening was.
“What—” he growled, and he didn't have to fake his confusion. “How did I—”
“Oh, he's awake,” Gwaine said. “Yay.”
“Too late for me to earn my glory, then,” Merlin said cheerfully. “Shame.”
Girl Three rose and hurried over to him. "You shouldn't move," she said softly, making as if to come close enough to touch and then sitting back instead, out of the reach of his sword. Clever enough, then. "You took a nasty wound to the back."
Arthur felt his side and back carefully, wincing as pain stabbed through him with as much savage force as Mordred's knife earlier. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, however, so that was a tiny bonus. On the other hand, he was gasping with thirst and had no idea where his pack could be.
"Elena, come on," Gwaine said, from over by the fire. "Leave that alone, you don't know where it's been."
Elena frowned for a moment, then fumbled beside Arthur and lifted a bottle of water up to his face. "Do you want something to drink?" she said. "You must be thirsty."
They must have pulled him from the river, Arthur thought. Not only him, but his pack as well—that was his water bottle she was holding. They hadn't even been planning to rob him, it seemed—when he turned his head, he saw that his pack was lying close to Elena, just within his reach if he could manage to stretch. It was kind and noble and so, so stupid of them, and it put Arthur deep in their debt.
“How long have I been out?” he asked. His clothes were still damp, so it couldn't be too many hours since they pulled him from the river, but that didn't tell him much. “What time is it? What day of the Games?”
“It's close to midnight,” Elena said. “We found you about two hours ago. This is the fifth night, I think, since the Games started? Something like that.”
Arthur tried to count up the days and failed. “Were there any deaths today?” he said.
Elena shook her head.
“And yesterday there was only Girl Eleven?”
Elena's face hardened at that, but she said, “Yes, exactly.”
Arthur nodded. That brought him up to speed. It had only been a few hours since he'd been betrayed by the alliance, then.
“You should leave,” he said, raising his voice to be heard all the way to the others around the fire. “The rest of the alliance is camping out on a plateau further up the river, above a waterfall. They'll know by now that I made it, since they didn't see my face in the sky tonight, and they'll want to finish the job. If they pick up my trail, that'll lead them straight here.”
There was a long pause, and then Gwaine said, “The alliance?”
“My group,” Arthur explained. “Former group, I mean. The tributes from One and Two. And the kid from Five.”
“But you're from One,” Merlin said.
Arthur grit his teeth together. “Yes. So?”
“I mean, why are they trying to kill you?”
“Because they got tired of me, obviously,” Arthur snapped. “They didn't want me around any longer, is that concept so difficult to grasp?”
In the gloom of the fire-lit cave it was hard to make out expressions, but it looked like Merlin might be grinning. “Not at all, actually,” he said.
“What the hell does it matter?” Arthur said. “You have to get out of here, all of you. Thank you for helping me. They'll be coming after me, and you shouldn't get killed for that.”
Elena gave him a look, then dropped the water bottle next to him and headed back to the group around the fire. They spoke in whispers for a while, while he managed to manoeuvre the cap off the bottle and swallow a few mouthfuls of water, and then Elena returned.
“You don't need to worry about that,” she said. “We can hide our tracks. They won't find us here.”
Arthur frowned up at her. “No, you can't risk that,” he said, but there was no strength in his words. The world was going blurry again.
“I think we will, though,” she said, sounding mildly amused. “You go to sleep. That wound needs looking after. We can talk more about your alliance group in the morning.”
“Yeah, well, I'm not being chased away from this place by some Careers with a grudge,” Gwaine said over by the fire, and that was the last Arthur heard before his eyes closed on their own accord.
He woke to find Elena wiping his forehead with a damp cloth, like the very best of ministering angel clichés. His knife was in his hand before he had time to assess what was happening, and she shrank back with a gasp.
“No, wait,” Arthur said. “Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I was just startled.”
She smiled weakly. “That's fine.”
“We're still in the same cave,” Arthur said, stating the obvious. “I thought I told you about the—about my group. I don't want you to be killed for helping me.”
Elena smiled again, more genuinely this time. “Gwaine and Guinevere are out doing something about that right now,” she said. “They're laying false trails further up the river, making it look like you dragged yourself from the water on your own. They've been at it since before dawn. We should be safe here from now on.”
She sat back a bit. "How are you feeling? Can you sit up?"
Arthur frowned at her, then stretched carefully. There didn't seem to be nearly as much pain as yesterday, and when he walked his fingers along his side carefully, he realised that the wound had closed up almost entirely. He pushed himself into a sitting position to be able to examine the wound more closely, then looked in amazement at Elena.
"How did you do that?" he asked. "It feels as though it's been more than a week since I was stabbed! You—"
"Can't take the credit," Elena interrupted, smiling. "Merlin is our medic. He worked for the apothecary back in Twelve. That's how the four of us joined up, more or less. I was bit by some kind of insect mutt right before we ran into Merlin and Guinevere, and Merlin managed to draw the poison out and bandage it up. I can't even feel the bite now."
Arthur stared at her, having no idea of how to respond to that. The fact that they had even bothered to patch him up was of course a wonder in itself, but that strange deed seemed dwarfed by the fact that it was Merlin who had done the patching.
"Did I receive some sort of sponsored medicine?" he asked dubiously, feeling that only the fantastic properties of Capitol medicine could explain it.
"Nope," came Merlin's voice, followed moments later by the person himself, arriving into the cave with an armful of brushwood. "Just roots, plants and a whole lot of skill."
Arthur obviously wasn't able to hide his scepticism, because Merlin dropped his load next to the fire and rolled his eyes. "Not all skills have to be all obvious like yours. You have no idea what I'm capable of. Elena, I saw some blueberry shrubs. Hopefully we can do something with them."
"Sure," Elena said and then, as Merlin left the cave, leaned in and laid one hand against Arthur's cheek. Before he had time to react, she put the other to her own cheek, looking thoughtful. "Merlin said you might be a bit feverish and we should try to keep you cool. The fever seems to have broken now, though."
Arthur blinked up at her. She was actually kind of cute now that he saw her close up—full-lipped with large eyes and fly-away blond hair, by this stage in the Games mussed into a proper bird's nest of a tangle. She was looking at him closely, neither hostile nor hateful but merely anxious for his health. This could be very useful.
"I feel a lot better," he said, and then gave her a soft smile. Just as well to lay down some groundwork as early as possible. He reached up to his cheek and put his hand over hers, squeezing gently. "Thank you. You've been wonderful, from when I woke last night to now. I feel like I'm in safe hands."
She coloured prettily, but then pulled her hand away. “Look,” she said, leaning away from him again. “I've done my share of nursing, and I know that it's easy to get the wrong idea. I don't want things to be awkward. So, you know, I'm not saying this because I want to be mean—I just want everything to be clear. I'm not all that attracted to you. Sorry.”
In the silence that followed, all Arthur could think of was that he was so far off his game he didn't know if he could find his way back without a map. He was saved from having to come up with anything in reply, however, because there was a shout of hello from the cave mouth and Gwaine appeared.
"Guinevere shot a bird," he announced. "Some kind of grouse. She's outside plucking it now. You should come outside, too—the sun is out and it's really warm. Think I might go outside and soak."
With that he pulled his shirt over his head and, shaking his hair out of his eyes, grinned at Arthur. "How are you doing, Career?"
Arthur just stared at him, trying to convince himself that the sudden tightening in his gut was purely from annoyance. Gwaine pulled both hands through his hair far slower than any normal person would, managing to somehow stretch and flex at the same time.
Arthur really hated him.
"He’s not well enough to go outside, I think," Elena said, then shot Arthur a glance. "You should rest up. Here—I filled up your water bottle, and there's some dried fruit from your pack. Come on, Gwaine, let's go and help Merlin. He found blueberries. I think we could make that work with the bird."
As she and Gwaine strolled off, chattering easily about potential recipes, for the love of God, Arthur let himself fall back and thumped his head on the ground in frustration. He really couldn't win any battles right now.
He must have slept, because he woke suddenly with Guinevere next to him. This time, however, he was quicker on the uptake and managed to quell the instinct to put a blade to her neck.
"We saved you some food," she said, proffering some large sort of leaf as a bowl, filled to the brim with stew. "Grouse with blueberries."
Arthur sat up and sniffed cautiously. The smell was amazing.
"Thank you," he said. "It smells great. Did you make it?"
Guinevere grinned. "No, Merlin is the cook among us. He keeps complaining that he could have done better if he had some salt, but I think it's nice."
Arthur didn't say anything to that, focusing instead on his food. It was truly wonderful to have something hot in his stomach again.
Guinevere didn't leave, like he had expected. Instead, she sat down next to him and started to peel some small roots carefully.
"What's that?" he asked eventually.
"Burdock roots," she said. "We were lucky to find some. They're hard to get to, but they're naturally anti-inflammatory and also dull pain. You should chew them with some water after you've finished your stew, Merlin said."
Arthur hesitated at that, but it seemed unnecessarily round-about for Merlin to heal his wound only to then poison him. "Great," he managed. "So, Elena said you and Gwaine have been laying false trails?"
Guinevere nodded, frowning at one of the roots. "We should be safe here. I'd be surprised if they came all the way here looking for you, anyway. The river took you quite a long way from your friends—" Arthur winced, and she glanced up at him quickly.
"From your group," she continued after a moment. "At least if I guess correctly where their camp is. You can stay here as long as you need, and then just follow the river away from them when you want."
"I don't want to get away from them," Arthur said. "I want to get back to them and I want to—" He paused, unsure of how to put it, then went on, "I want to put them out of play."
She had put down her roots and was watching him closely. "You want to go after the group on your own?" she said. "You against the four of them?"
"That's how this game works," he said, annoyed. "I won't get anywhere by hiding. You kill them before they find and kill you."
Guinevere was silent after that, peeling her roots, and something prompted him to add, "And I don't want to lead them here, either. I don't want you to get into trouble for helping me."
She smiled suddenly. "If they do come, we're five against four, right?"
Arthur stared. "Yeah, five against four trained tributes. You've seen Morgause in the training sessions. Think she was showing you all she had?"
Guinevere shrugged. "I'm not saying it would be easy. But it's more like three trained, isn't it? That boy from Five, Mordred, he's just a kid."
Arthur frowned, feeling his back flare up with pain again as he shifted position. "I wouldn't count out the kid," he said. "I think he might actually be the most dangerous out of all of them."
He slept the rest of that day and all through the night. When he woke the day after to an empty cave mid-way through the morning, judging by the light, he felt as though he'd rested for a week and a half. The pain in his back had faded to background twinges, and he felt well enough to not only sit up, but get to his feet and make his way to the cave mouth. When he got there, he stopped, taking a deep breath and looking out at the landscape before him in wonder.
It was the first time he'd seen what lay beyond the cave, and it was clear that the river had taken him to an area just as fertile—by the arid standards of this arena, of course—as the alliance camp on the plateau further up the river had been. He couldn't see the river from here, but he could hear it in the not too far away distance, and below the cave's entrance the ground stretched out covered in grass. There were plants and bushes, and even a few small trees.
He couldn't see Guinevere or Merlin around anywhere, but a few steps in front of him, Elena and Gwaine were sitting huddled close together, conferring over something. As Arthur looked closer, he saw that they seemed to be comparing their tokens. Elena's looked like some sort of hair ornament, while Gwaine's was a pendant on a chain that Arthur had noticed around his neck several times. It had annoyed him in a distant sort of way, the same way Gwaine's ridiculous hair annoyed him—the way Gwaine let it grow long and hang free, getting in his face all the time, was an idiotic move for the Games where your ability to fight was all that counted. It was the same with the tokens. So many tributes seemed to favour rings or bracelets or necklaces, not realising the risk they ran of catching their jewellery on something or, in the case of necklaces, having their token turned against them by some forward-thinking fellow tribute with a penchant for garrotting.
It was like none of them had ever even seen the 42nd Games.
Arthur's gold dragon brooch was pinned onto his shirt. He'd originally thought of having the symbol sewn into the fabric, until Gloss had pointed out that in the Games, where every additional edge was important, he shouldn't say no to any sharp point he could get away with taking into the arena from the start.
Elena's and Gwaine's tokens looked typically and quaintly Three—wires connected in intricate patterns on a motherboard-like plaque. They seemed almost to match, and Arthur suddenly realised why the mood between them had always been so effortlessly easy. They must have known each other well before they went into the arena together. Possibly even girlfriend and boyfriend, although Arthur was less certain of that. He seemed to remember now that Gwaine had even mentioned Elena in his interview with Caesar Flickerman.
"Good morning," he said, and took some pleasure in seeing Gwaine jump.
"Oh, look," Gwaine said, recovering quickly. "It walks and talks. Merlin!"
"Yeah?" Merlin and Guinevere came into view from around a rocky outcrop, both carrying the leaves they seemed to prefer for containers. Guinevere grinned at the sight of Arthur, but Merlin only rolled his eyes and handed over his load to her.
"Oh, I see you're up," he said. "Sit down. I need to take a look at your wound. I'm probably going to need to bandage you up, if you're going to be walking around."
"I feel fine," Arthur protested. Merlin gave him a very unimpressed look at that, so he sighed and sat down, pulling his shirt over his head to allow Merlin access to the wound.
"There should be some gauze in my backpack," he said, wincing as Merlin prodded him. "If you really think you'll need it. Feels to me as though it's closing up great."
"If you're going to be moving around," Merlin repeated as if talking to the slow of mind, "I'm going to want you bandaged. To be on the safe side. I really don't want to have to stitch you up if you pull this open again."
"I'll get the gauze," Guinevere said. She wasn't looking at them as she hurried past, though, and as Arthur looked closer at her, confused, he saw that she looked somewhat flushed.
Well. That couldn't be to his disadvantage.
"Does it look OK?" he asked, and Merlin grunted.
"It'll be fine. Is it painful?"
"A little. Not too bad."
"You should take some more burdock root if it starts to get bad, then, but not until after lunch."
Arthur hesitated, then asked quietly, "Why would you do this? Why help me?"
He couldn't see Merlin's face, but he could practically hear the fond smile in his voice when he said, "Gwen pulled you out of that river. I thought it would be a shame to let her work go to waste."
"Oh," Arthur replied. "Well. Thank you. I didn't say before, but I mean it. You didn't have to, and I'm grateful you did."
"Anyone would have," Merlin said, by which he probably meant everyone with a suicidally low understanding of how the Hunger Games worked, but Arthur appreciated it nonetheless. There was a pause, and then Merlin added in a slightly more cheerful tone, "Also, compared to the rest of your group mates, you appear to be more or less sane and almost completely non-psychotic, and I guess that should count for something."
Arthur snorted out a laugh that probably surprised Merlin just as much as it did him. "And you say that without having even talked to Morgause," he said.
Guinevere arrived with the gauze, then, and soon Arthur was bandaged up in a reasonably professional manner. Having someone medically trained in the group was a fair advantage, Arthur thought—all Ones learned basic first aid as part of their training, of course, but not on the level Merlin was obviously capable of, and especially not medical care without help of the supplies or sponsor gifts the District One tributes tended to rely on. These Games had already made Arthur painfully aware of how vulnerable that kind of reliance could make them. A week in, and he hadn't seen the faintest sign of a sponsor gift yet.
That thought led him to another one close at hand.
"I slept through the anthem last night," he said, raising his voice so that all four members of the group could hear him. "Were there any more deaths?"
Elena's face shuttered close at that, and she said, "There haven't been any deaths since Winnow."
"Winnow?" Arthur asked, confused.
"The girl from District Eleven," Merlin told him, adding in a quieter voice, "She and Elena hung out a bit during training."
Winnow. It was unsettling to think of Girl Eleven by that name—somehow, it was too soft and fragile for a girl he'd really only seen bloodied, hard-eyed and desperate. He had a sudden urge to say that he'd had nothing to do with her death, but for one thing, that was a weak and stupid notion, and for another, it was false. If Morgause hadn't called it, it would just as easily have been Arthur who killed the girl.
"What is with your morbid fascination for how many are dying by the day, anyway?" Gwaine asked waspishly. "Afraid there'll be none left for you?"
"No." Arthur glared back at him. "It's about—" He stopped himself in time, and changed tack in mid-sentence. "I just want to know if we still have the others from the alliance to worry about. That's all."
Gwaine still looked dubious but appeared willing to let that one go, so Arthur shrugged his shirt back on and walked over to join Guinevere, who was cleaning the mushrooms she and Merlin had brought back.
"Need some help with that?" he asked. She looked surprised for a second, then nodded.
He worked with her in silence for some time, then frowned at a couple of the mushrooms. "Do these look like death cap to you?" he asked.
As she bent forward to look, he spoke quickly and quietly. "Don't react. You know they have cameras everywhere, right? The reason I want to know if there are any deaths is because if there are several days without any interest for the audience, they will get bored and the Gamemakers will start to make things interesting in other ways. I want to be prepared."
Guinevere frowned, then glanced up at him. "Not sure," she said. "Do you have a knife? I'll cut one in half and take a look." Lower, she added, "I should have thought of that. What would that mean for us, then?"
"Natural disasters, mutt attacks," Arthur replied, frowning down at the mushrooms with her. "We might be safe for now, because the Games tend to enter lulls at this stage anyway and they'll have a lot of fun with my disappearance from the alliance, but I want you to know so that if anything happens, it won't be a surprise for you, at least." He paused, then added, "Also, I wanted to say sorry for how I acted when we first talked. It's just—in the training centre. Cameras. Everywhere."
She cracked a smile at that, so he straightened up and grinned back at her. "Always best to be on the safe side," he said, then gestured at the mushrooms. "Would be kind of stupid if we all died from food poisoning. The alliance would laugh and laugh."
She laughed. "You're right," she said. "Let's finish cleaning these."
Gwaine had disappeared while they were consulting over mushrooms, to try his luck in the river, Elena said. He returned about an hour later, shirtless again, dripping wet, and grinning from ear to ear. Over one shoulder he carried a fishing spear with three large trout-like fish tied to the end, and in his free hand he held a cluster of canisters, all with their silver parachutes still tied to them.
"Got lunch," he said, handing it all to Merlin. "And hopefully there's something we can use with the fish among these sponsor gifts."
Merlin was already opening canisters eagerly. "Salt!" he exclaimed happily as the first, tiny canister revealed white granules. "Finally I can cook proper food again. Oh, and freshly baked bread—from home, Gwen—that'll be great with the fish, and—" He stopped, frowning. "I don't know what this is, some kind of salve or something?"
"Can I take a look?" Gwaine said, and then he laughed. "No way, fantastic! I was just saying to myself how much I missed that shampoo they had in the Capitol. I'm going to head back to the river for a bit. At last, clean hair!"
"Save some for us," Guinevere called after him, then turned back to the task at hand. "I'll start rinsing that fish, Merlin."
Arthur watched the proceedings in helpless shock. If there was ever an opportunity to do a comparison of the Games so far between this group and the alliance, he thought, the alliance would not be the ones to laugh and laugh.
With no dead that night either, Arthur woke the next morning in a state of apprehension. He knew there was no way the Gamemakers would let this idyllic state continue indefinitely.
The morning passed in relative peace, however. Merlin was off scavenging or something, Gwaine and Elena were reminiscing about Three together, bent over the tokens that connected them to their home district, and Arthur was sparring with Guinevere—as well as getting some flirt in.
That was, in itself, a sufficiently tricky game to play, since he couldn't go the same route he'd been planning with Elena. Guinevere, too, was clever enough to spot a pattern and start getting suspicious. Instead, Arthur was treating her like he would any other training partner, not holding back more than his wounds forced him to, and joking like he would with a friend from One. He had started to sneak in compliments when he thought he could get away with it, as well—when he was sure Elena wasn't listening.
It wasn't hard work. He really did like Guinevere. There was something unbelievably fierce about her, and she was obviously the most proficient with weapons out of everyone in her group. (Gwaine—despite that ripped upper body he liked to display so much—had an aim like a drunken duck, Elena was quite good with a bow but not with much else, and the less said about Merlin the better.)
They were practising kicks when a cannon suddenly sounded, blocking out all other noise. Gwaine and Elena shot to their feet, and Guinevere turned pale.
"Merlin," she said, then turned and started running in the direction Merlin had gone earlier that morning. "Merlin!"
"Quiet!" Arthur hissed, rushing to catch up with her and catching her by the arm. She spun and shoved him hard enough that he had to step back a few paces, and he found her glaring at him with eyes full of tears.
"Merlin may be dead!" she shouted. "Don't you tell me—"
"Merlin may be dead," he agreed. "And he may not. But if he is, whoever or whatever killed him could be within earshot."
She stared at him, expression warring between rage and gut-wrenching sorrow. Finally she nodded, and then she put both hands over her face. He stood and watched her cry for a few moments, torn, and then reached out. When she didn't protest, he put his hands on her shoulders and drew her close, leaning his forehead against hers.
"Look," he said quietly, "unless he went very far, we ought to have seen the hovercraft that came to pick him up. It's possible he's still alive. Let's go and look for him."
It went against everything that was the smart and proper thing to do in this situation; if there was anything out there that had killed Merlin, heading towards it was exactly the wrong thing to do. Somehow, though—even with Merlin's general lack of any kind of fighting skills—Arthur couldn't imagine him dying. Also, he couldn't stand seeing Guinevere anguished like this.
He dearly hoped he’d at least hit his head when he fell, as brain injury seemed like the only acceptable excuse for how he’d been acting lately.
"You’re right, let's go find him," Guinevere said, stepping back a pace and rubbing one hand across her eyes. She reached out with the other towards him, as if grasping for support, and he took it in his own gently. "Thank you for understanding."
"Merlin!" Elena shouted behind them, and Arthur turned to remind her of what he'd just said—hostile tributes or monsters, still a large possibility, and all the shouting was not helping at this stage—but then he saw that she was looking at something behind where they were standing. When he turned that way, he saw Merlin running towards them, followed by the boy from District Seven. They were both spattered with blood, but seemed to move with ease.
"Gwen!" Merlin shouted, and Guinevere tore herself free from Arthur and ran to meet him. They met halfway, clinging onto each other. The rest of them hurried after her, until they were all gathered in one big, confusing mess.
"I thought you were dead!" Guinevere exclaimed, shaking Merlin by the shoulders. "We heard the cannon—"
"We did, too! I thought one of you—"
"But you're hurt, what happened to you—"
"And who the hell is this?" That was Gwaine, gesturing to Boy Seven. He was laughing, though, which Arthur thought was a bit unfair—considering that when he had joined the group, Gwaine's response had been to suggest killing him off in his sleep.
"This is Lancelot, from District Seven," Merlin said, grinning at him. "He kind of saved my life."
"But then, who was the cannon for?" Guinevere asked, confused, and Arthur leant forward and put a hand on her wrist.
"How about I organise some lunch and they tell us all about it?" he said. She smiled up at him, putting her other hand on his for a moment, then took Merlin by the arm and started to lead him back towards the cave.
Arthur followed. He had not missed the way Lancelot's eyes had focused on him and Guinevere, and he was surprised to find himself fighting down a feeling approaching shame.
"The cannon must have been for another tribute," he said, when he had managed to portion out bread and dried fruit and the scant remains of yesterday's fish among the group. "Probably the alliance has been hunting. They tend not to wait around."
Lancelot shot him a quick look at that, but Arthur was glad that the rest of the group seemed to accept this statement without any waspish comments.
"So what happened?" Guinevere asked. "Are you hurt?"
"Mostly scrapes and bruises," Merlin said, "although we should probably take a look at that shoulder later, Lancelot. It looked like you wrenched it."
"It's not bad," Lancelot said. "I'll be fine with some rest."
"So whose is all that blood?" Elena asked, staring in horrified fascination at Merlin and Lancelot.
"Mutt," Merlin said shortly. "Some sort of bird-lizard hybrid. It attacked and chased me. Thought I was dead for sure when I finally fell, but then Lancelot arrived."
"And you managed to kill it?" Arthur said, incredulous. "A Gamemaker mutt?"
Lancelot shrugged, looking somewhat uncomfortable. "I got lucky. I tried to get to it with my sword first, but it was too difficult to get in close. So I circled round, ended up in its blind spot, took a chance. Put my staff through its eye. That's where all the blood comes from. Well. Mostly blood, I think."
"OK," Guinevere said brightly, clapping her hands together. "I'm sure that after that graphic and disgusting image, we all feel quite satisfied as to how you managed to come out alive and do not need any further details. At all." She grinned at Merlin, and thereby missed the devastated look on Lancelot's face. Arthur sighed to himself. Just what this group needed—another heart-on-your-sleeve guy with a misplaced sense of nobility.
Gwaine laughed through a mouthful of food. "Well, I'm really glad you're not dead, Merlin. Can you imagine if we'd had to promote Career to cook—we'd be eating like this every day! The horror!"
They all laughed at that, even Lancelot—who looked like he'd been enjoying the more standard Hunger Games fare of "just enough to avoid starvation" up until now. He'd polished off his portion of bread and fruit with astonishing speed, and Arthur had quelled the impulse to give him more on the grounds that it probably wouldn't be healthy for him to eat too much in one go.
"Yeah, you should do something about that," Elena said. "Why don't you try your luck in the river? I wouldn't mind fish again."
"Sure, why not," Gwaine said, standing and rolling up his trouser legs, then pulling his shirt off and tossing it aside. Arthur ran his hand over his face. That move was really getting more annoying by the day.
Not to mention distracting, which was something he really couldn’t afford to think.
He snuck a look at Elena, who was grinning. "Does he do that on purpose?" he muttered.
"Gwaine is a sponsor goldmine," she murmured back, smiling at him.
Merlin stood up, too. "Lancelot, come on," he said. "Let's take a look at that shoulder. I've got some ointment for those cuts, too."
“You should take another look at Arthur’s wound, as well,” Elena said. “He’s bleeding through his bandages.”
Arthur twisted around to get a look and swore softly when he saw that, yes, his wound had definitely reopened. Great.
Merlin came closer, kneeling beside him and checking Arthur’s bandages with surprisingly gentle hands. “Yeah, I see the problem. It’s not bleeding too badly, though, so Lancelot’s shoulder takes priority. I’ll be back for you in a minute. Try to eat some more.”
Arthur bit back a comment about Merlin being neither his mentor, nor his mother, and managed a thin smile instead. Snapping at Merlin when so clearly in his debt would just make Arthur look petty and childish. He took another bite of the apple he’d been given instead, wondering idly how Morgana was holding up—whether her new best friends Morgause and Mordred had betrayed her as well by now.
Merlin came back a short while later, gesturing for Arthur to follow him over to a small alcove towards the back of the cave. Lancelot was there as well, leaning back against the stone, his arm in a makeshift mitella.
“Sit down and lean forward,” Merlin said, putting a firm hand on Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur complied, wondering if he could turn so that Lancelot, at least, wouldn’t get a clear view when Merlin rebandaged the wound; the fewer people knowing the details of his injury, the fewer who could potentially use it against him in a fight later.
“Try to keep still,” Merlin said. “This looks a bit infected, so I have to change the dressings and drain the wound as best I can before I try to close it again. You should probably hold on to something.”
Arthur huffed at that. “I think I can handle a bit of pain, thank you.”
“Your loss,” Merlin replied. “I’m just saying. Some of the herbs I’m going to use will burn pretty badly.”
“Just do it, will you?”
Merlin answered by taking a small pouch from his belt, fiddling with it behind Arthur’s back.
“Deep breath,” Merlin said. “Okay, here we go.”
Arthur felt something cool and moist—a paste of some sort, most likely—against his skin, and then, a curious heat started to build, starting as a prickling sensation and growing stronger and hotter until Arthur had to clench his jaw tight to keep himself from crying out. His entire back felt like it was burning, pain travelling over his skin like liquid flames. He blinked furiously, determined not to give in to the way his eyes were threatening to water.
“Breathe,” Merlin said, voice lower than Arthur was used to hearing it. “Almost done now.”
Arthur nodded, keeping himself in check as the pain grew to a last, agonising peak. Merlin’s hands were swift and steady on his back, applying a new dressing (made from what, Arthur had to wonder; unless there had been a medical kit in one of the bags Merlin’s group had found, the only real source of fabric in the arena was the tribute clothing, and if Arthur found out he was being kept from bleeding out by remnants of Gwaine’s underpants, he might just have to kill himself).
“Relax,” Merlin said, stroking both palms over Arthur’s back, pressing down just enough to coax the muscles there to let go of some of their tension. Arthur closed his eyes and let his head drop forward out of habit, sighing happily when Merlin’s hands found an especially tense knot beneath his left shoulder blade and began to work it loose. He leaned into the touch more and was rewarded when the hands finished with his shoulder and, after a moment of hesitation, moved on to rub the back of Arthur’s neck in slow, soothing circles.
Arthur did his best not to melt into the touch. It had really been too long since he got a proper massage for his poor, abused muscles. More than a week, actually, since they’d been too busy with strategy planning and last minute image touch ups to—
Oh, God, no.
Reality came crashing down, and it took all of Arthur’s discipline not to jerk away from Merlin’s touch. He knew it would be too much to ask for that nothing of the past fifteen minutes or so had been caught on camera, but he fervently wished that they hadn’t got a clear shot of his face, at least.
Arthur’s image (as Gloss had shown him well) allowed for quite a surprising amount of flexibility depending on the situation and people involved, but he would have to be incredibly thick to delude himself into thinking that putting his (injured!) body into the hands of a competing tribute from an outer district—and enjoying the attention to make matters worse—would earn him anything but ridicule from both his home district and the Capitol.
He pulled away with all the casualness he could muster, fighting the cold panic he could feel rushing up his spine. For once, Merlin didn’t say anything, and for that, Arthur was incredibly grateful.
And instantly furious, because how utterly awful were these Games that Arthur found himself relegated to depend on a rag-tag bunch of Threes and Sevens and Twelves for his own survival?
As though on cue, Lancelot cleared his throat, reminding Arthur that he was not only present but there to witness the full extent of Arthur’s embarrassing behaviour. Arthur practically jumped to his feet, wanting to put as much distance between himself and Merlin as possible.
Oddly enough, so did Merlin. Arthur looked at him, startled. In the dim light of the cave, it almost looked like Merlin was blushing, and to his horror, Arthur could feel his own face start to answer in kind.
No. Just, no.
Arthur should have let Mordred kill him with that knife. Clearly, recent events proved him far too stupid to live. He exited the cave quickly, grabbing a spear on the way. Maybe, if he could manage to hunt something down for dinner, he’d be able to breathe for a while.
Arthur opted to take first guard shift for that night. To his surprise, Lancelot volunteered to guard with him. He didn't know exactly how to place Lancelot yet—he had disabled but not killed Valiant at the bloodbath and he had saved a fellow tribute, but for all Arthur knew he could just be playing a very long game—so he went to his guard shift wary and with an extra knife strapped to his back. The evening sky had shown them the face of Boy Ten. He might have been killed by a mutt like the one that had attacked Merlin, or succumbed to starvation, but Arthur thought it most likely that he had run across the alliance. That meant they were out hunting. He hadn't expected anything else, of course, but being reminded of it was sobering. He had fallen too easily into a pattern of contentment here.
He looked at Lancelot, who was looking intently out at the landscape before the cave. Having been alone up to this point, he must have had to snag short hours of sleep whenever he deemed himself safe for the moment, and that he hadn't taken the chance to sleep properly now that he finally could was strange.
"Aren't you tired?" Arthur asked finally. "You can't have been sleeping regularly these past days."
Lancelot smiled ruefully. "I think that's the problem. I'm too nervous to sleep yet."
Arthur looked at him. "So you're planning to stick with us, then?" he said. "Not go off on your own again?" When Lancelot nodded, he added, "Why?"
Lancelot frowned. "What do you mean?"
Arthur shrugged. "You like them, right? Especially her. Guinevere."
"Look," Lancelot said quickly and quietly, glancing in towards where the others were sleeping, further back in the cave, "I don't want to get between you and Guinevere. I just—I'd like to be able to protect her. If I can."
Arthur felt that momentary squirm of shame again, but this time he was better prepared and mentally stomped on it. "And how do you figure that works out?" he said. "First, I'm not entirely sure that she's the one who needs protecting in this situation. For one thing, she seems to be better with weapons than most of the other people here put together, and for another, I reckon she has more guts than you for dirty work." Lancelot scowled at that, so Arthur barrelled on. "But let's say you did save her. Let's say you two were the last people standing. What would happen then?"
"That wouldn't be a problem," Lancelot said quietly, and Arthur wanted to shake him. You met her two weeks ago! he wanted to shout. And now you would happily die for her?
Some of this must have showed up on his face, because Lancelot continued in the same quiet voice, "I don't have anyone back home. There's not really anything to return for, not if it means I'd have to let people like her die to do it. First I thought, maybe if I could get Larch through—that'd be something. But then at the bloodbath—"
He stopped, and Arthur remembered the District Seven girl lying on the ground before the Cornucopia, pierced through with a crossbow bolt. She had been a tiny little thing, he remembered. It was quick, he wanted to say, but he didn't know if that was true, and he didn't know how much it would help, anyway.
"Still," he said, to shake off the image, "that's the problem all you people have. Alliances can't hold forever. Those who do, those who make it until they are all that's left, they have to kill each other. Why doesn't anyone here do the math?"
"Why don't you?" Lancelot asked softly, and Arthur realised that he didn’t quite know what to answer anymore.
They were woken from their sleep shift in the pre-dawn hours by Guinevere shouting. Springing to his feet at once and rushing towards her, Arthur collided with Lancelot on the way out of the cave and almost fell onto the grassy lawn.
"Sorry," Guinevere said, turning and smiling at them. "Sorry, I was just surprised when I saw this girl going for our food stores."
She was resting one hand on the shoulder of a small, dark-haired, painfully thin girl. She was from Nine, Arthur recalled, the one who had cried all the way through her interview with Caesar Flickerman. One of those tributes you didn't usually expect to live beyond day one.
She was crying now, too, shivering violently. "I'm sorry," she whimpered. "I'm sorry, please don't kill me. I was just so hungry, I thought if I just took a little..."
"Don't cry," Guinevere said, putting her arm around the girl's shoulders. "Shh, don't worry. You're safe now. You don't have to steal food—we'll give it to you."
Gwaine, who had been on guard with Guinevere, made an agreeing noise. He was already sorting through the food stash. "Some bread to start with," he said. "You shouldn't eat any fresh fruit until you have had something more filling to eat."
"Oh, for the love of—" Arthur ran his hands through his hair. "Are you going to adopt every tribute in the arena?"
"Don't see why we can't," Merlin said, coming out of the cave and rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I mean, we already adopted you, and I don't see how we can find anyone grumpier or less grateful. It can only get better, really."
"Oh, really," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "And what are you going to do when you have absorbed all remaining tributes into your group—lay down your weapons and refuse to fight each other?"
"Why not?" Merlin said, grinning at him. "It would be worth a shot."
Arthur stared at him. Obviously, they didn't learn about sarcasm in District Twelve. "The ninth Games, anyone?" he said. "Anyone? No? They were the Games where the tributes decided not to fight each other. A hint for you: this story does not end well."
Girl Nine wailed loudly, burying her face in Guinevere's shoulder.
"Oh, hush, sweetie," Guinevere murmured, stroking her hair. "Don't listen to him. We never do. If you can't say nice things, Arthur, can you go and build up the fire? Let's get this girl warm again."
There were so many things Arthur could say to that, the first thing that came to mind being she's only one year younger than you, Guinevere, but in the end he just did as he was bid and went to feed the fire.
"My name is Lamia," the girl said a little while later, seated in front of the fire with Gwaine's sleeping bag wrapped around her shoulders and one of Merlin's herbal brews in her hands. "I'm sorry about crying. I've just been so frightened all the time—I've been hiding close to other tributes and taking their food when they weren't looking. But it's been so hard." She sniffled again, and Guinevere made a soothing noise.
"These Games are designed to hurt. It's been difficult for everyone," she said, while some way off Gwaine could be heard complaining that his shampoo had run out.
Lamia managed a watery smile and swallowed down some more of the herbal brew, then winced.
"Something wrong?" Merlin asked quickly. "I was afraid I may have overdone the menthe."
"No, the drink is lovely." Lamia smiled at him. "I just—I ran into some sort of mutt." She pulled up her left trouser leg to reveal a deep wound near the knee, reddened with inflammation.
"Whoa!" Merlin put down his own drink and hastened over to her. "You should have told me this immediately. I need to disinfect and dress this wound—Arthur, bring me what we have left of the burdock."
Arthur looked at the wound, frowning. The edges looked a bit too even to be made by an animal’s teeth or claws. "How did you manage to get away from the mutt?" he asked.
Lamia glanced at him, then away. "I don't know, I—I just tried to push it off. Then I ran." She was shivering again, and Merlin glared at Arthur.
"Burdock root?" he said, pointedly, and Arthur complied reluctantly.
He managed to get Guinevere alone while Merlin was dressing Lamia's wounds. "Look," he said, "I don't know if it's safe here any longer. If she has found us, others might, too."
Guinevere nodded thoughtfully. "Still," she said, "whatever the case, we'll have to wait for Lamia to get better. You saw that leg. She can't run or climb on that yet."
Arthur frowned. "Yes. I'm amazed that she's survived at all," he said, then added with emphasis, "Especially considering the kind of mutts there are, not far from here. Like that one that almost got Lancelot and Merlin."
"I know—can you even imagine what she must have been through?" Guinevere said, looking pained. "That poor girl."
Arthur sighed. That wasn't the reply he'd been looking for.
He was forced to go along with the plan—none of the others would even think about leaving until Merlin's medicine had done its work on Lamia, and Arthur was in fact not too sure about his own recovery yet, either. There was a chance here to rest up for at least one more day before moving on, and it was welcome enough. After that, however, if they insisted on waiting for Lamia to be completely recovered, it would be time for Arthur to strike out on his own. They had already had a warning with the attack of the Gamemaker mutt yesterday—if the audience wasn't satisfied with blood soon, there would be more of that to come, and this place would no longer be a safe haven.
But for now, it was another day passed in slow recuperation. Arthur sparred some more with Guinevere, watched with stoic forbearance by Lancelot.
"I asked him to join us," Guinevere told Arthur, "but he said something about not wanting to intrude. I don't know what it is—he seems very short with me in general right now. Won't even look at me for more than two seconds at a time."
She was hurt, Arthur saw, but hiding it well behind a decently cheerful smile. He restricted himself to a noncommittal grunt. It was not his job to fix their little romance, especially not since it would end in blood, anyway, one way or the other.
“Mind if I cut in?”
Arthur turned and came face to face with Merlin, who was holding one of Lancelot’s staffs in his hand, looking rather sheepish. As far as Arthur could remember, this was the first time he’d actually seen Merlin with a weapon since his disastrous attempts during training week.
Then again, better late than never. And if Merlin managed to accidentally off himself while training, that would be at least one less person whom Arthur would eventually have to kill. He lowered his sword and stepped back with a sweeping bow. “The lady is all yours.”
“Actually,” Merlin said, “I was wondering if you’d take the time to teach me a few things? Gwen, would you mind taking Lancelot to the river to fish or something? He’s been staring into the ether for over an hour now, and it’s starting to concern me.”
“I don’t know, Merlin,” Guinevere said, “Lancelot doesn’t—well, you know.”
“Please?” Merlin said, giving Guinevere the most ridiculous puppy eyes Arthur had ever seen.
Guinevere rolled her eyes and handed him her sword. “Don’t kill yourself.” She walked over to Lancelot, who did a truly atrocious job of masking his elation when Guinevere leaned down and offered him her hand.
Merlin watched Guinevere lead Lancelot away towards the river and then turned to Arthur, smiling slightly. “Think they’ll get their wits about them and stop pining?”
“No, I guess they are doing far too good a job of misunderstanding each other for that.” Merlin sighed. “Still, they’d be good together, don’t you think? Just imagine how pretty their children would be.”
Arthur very narrowly managed to restrain himself from actually hitting Merlin over the head. Honestly.
“So, sparring?” he asked instead. “What was it that you wanted to learn?”
“Oh,” Merlin said, as though he’d already forgotten that this had been his excuse to interrupt Arthur and Guinevere’s training. “Um… nothing? I mean, not really. I’m sure that beating me repeatedly into the ground would be fun for you, but I’d rather spend my day doing useful things.”
He wandered off without another word, leaving Arthur staring unattractively after him.
As the day went on, Arthur tried to keep an eye on Lamia as much as he could. There was something about her that made him uneasy that he couldn't quite put his finger on. Sometime around lunch, he realised he wasn’t subtle enough about it, however, when Lamia started wailing about him scaring her and the rest of the group turned on him so quickly he felt forced to back off.
The afternoon was slanting towards evening when Merlin announced that he had completely forgotten about his snares.
"Snares?" Arthur asked.
"For catching something we can eat," Merlin said. "I'm tired of fish, and even Gwaine's enthusiasm for getting wet has to end at some point."
"Not likely," Gwaine said, grinning.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "You know how to set snares?" he said. Merlin gave him a sardonic look.
"When are you going to stop being surprised every time I know something?" he said. "Anyway, that's what I was doing yesterday, when that mutt attacked me. I should go check the ones I managed to set."
"You're going back there?" Guinevere asked, alarmed.
"The mutt's dead now, right? Lancelot saw to that," Merlin said, grinning at Lancelot—who looked away, embarrassed. "Anyway, I'm not going that far. I'll just check the closest ones. Hopefully I should bring back dinner."
"Can I come with you?" Lamia asked suddenly and then, flustered, stammered, "I mean—not if you don't want to. Or if I would slow you down or anything. I just thought it might be good to—to know how to set snares and things. If you could show me? But not if you think I'd be in the way—"
Merlin smiled at her. "You wouldn't be in the way at all," he said. "I'd be glad for some company."
Lamia smiled brightly, jumping to her feet. Gwaine grinned and seemed as though he would have said something, had not Elena chosen that moment to elbow him hard in the side.
Together, Merlin and Lamia set off in the direction of the snares, while Guinevere and Elena made hopeful predictions on what they were likely to have caught, which somehow turned into Gwaine telling a story about a turkey having got into his family's work room and frightened the hell out of him. Arthur listened with one ear, fretting quietly. He didn't know anything definite, of course, but something about Lamia put him off, and—no matter how illogical, not to mention stupid it was to do so—he couldn't stop thinking of it as a problem. He’d seen Johanna Mason go from a crying weakling to a nearly psychotically calm killer in the 66th Games, and though people rarely won using that strategy, it wasn’t that uncommon for people to attempt. Finally he stood up.
"I'm getting restless," he said. "I think I'll see if I can add to the dinner Merlin might or might not be bringing us. I want to climb a bit, see how my wound is healing."
Elena looked up at him. "Oh," she said. "Do you want my bow?"
He shook his head. "No, keep that. If anyone comes here, it's good for you to have a proper long-range weapon."
"I have a slingshot, too," Elena offered, and he smiled. A slingshot. He knew how to use one, of course, but that was a weapon he'd never even have contemplating keeping if he’d found it in the arena. Still, for hunting it might be useful.
"Thanks, I'll take that," he said, but before he left, he also strapped his sword to his belt and loaded up on knives.
He set off in a different direction than Merlin and Lamia had gone, but doubled back to pick up their trail as soon as he was out of sight of the camp. And argued with himself all the way, because the whole exercise was completely and stupidly pointless. Merlin and Lamia were either fine or—if Lamia was up to something—the smartest thing Arthur could do would be to just let it play out.
The region he was going through was more mountainous, if still quite fertile, and he had to scramble up steep slopes several times. It didn't take him too long to catch sight of the other two. He had just climbed a crest and was heading down a long slope when he saw Merlin and Lamia at the bottom of it. It didn't look like they'd seen him, and unless they looked back up the slope, they probably wouldn't. They seemed to be chatting and laughing, at ease with each other, which made all of Arthur's ideas seem even more foolish than before. He could see that Merlin's skill with snares had not been an empty boast, either—there were at least two furry bundles hanging around his neck and the snare he and Lamia were heading for looked like it contained game, as well.
Arthur sighed. Perhaps he could just head back and try to catch something on the way. Returning empty-handed when he knew that Merlin would be bringing plenty of game for dinner was not an appealing thought.
Just as he was about to turn away, he noticed something. Lamia had shrunk back when Merlin crouched over his snare, and was now fumbling with something in her thick, tangled hair. As Arthur watched, she drew out a small pipe and put something in it, then raised the pipe to her lips.
Arthur didn't wait to consider. His slingshot, which had been in his hand prepared for any potential game, was already swinging as he threw himself down the slope.
"Merlin, look out!" he shouted. Merlin, he was thankful to see, didn't even turn towards him, just threw himself to the ground and rolled sideways—but Lamia's shot had gone wide in either case. She turned towards Arthur, and he let fly with his slingshot. The shot only glanced off her shoulder, however, and she reloaded instantly and blew her next dart at him. He threw himself aside in mid-stride and then rolled the rest of the way down the slope, coming up at last fumbling for a knife, with a desperate hope that she hadn't had time to reload yet.
He found her locked in a hold with Merlin, who had had grabbed one of her wrists with each hand. She had her blowpipe in one hand and was trying to stab him with a dart held in the other. Clearly, she was much stronger than she looked, because Merlin was straining against her, grimacing. She kicked out suddenly and hit his kneecap, and Merlin lost his balance for a moment. Pulling her hand free, she raised it to strike.
Arthur collided with her from the side, tackling her to the ground and away from Merlin. He knocked the dart out of her hand and grabbed her hair, yanking her head back. His free hand found his knife, and he made a quick cut across her throat without even stopping to think.
The cannon boomed almost instantly.
"What the—" Merlin said, then grimaced, clutching his knee.
"Is it serious?" Arthur asked, pushing away Lamia’s body and moving over to Merlin to check for himself.
Merlin shook his head, prodding his leg with a wince. "Nothing broken or dislocated, I think, just bruised. But it hurts like a—"
"We have to get out of here," Arthur said, getting to his feet and pulling Merlin up with him. "Let's gather the game and go."
"I should set the snare again," Merlin began, but Arthur interrupted.
"No time. The hovercraft will be coming for her, and if there are other tributes nearby, that will lead them to us. Not to mention what kind of Gamemaker mutts may have been attracted by the noise. Come on."
He helped Merlin pick up the rabbits caught by the snares, then put his arm around Merlin's waist.
"Let's go," he repeated, tugging Merlin not too gently forward, and together they started to trek back up the slope, heading towards the camp.
Merlin struggled on in silence beside him for some time and then said suddenly, "You saved me."
"Yeah, well," Arthur said, forcing his voice to come out casual. "One good turn deserves another." Now, if they could just get back to camp and the adrenaline would stop rushing through his body, Arthur would be able to knock his head against something hard a few times and figure out what the bloody hell he thought he was doing.
Merlin laughed shortly. "Isn't that against your rules or something?"
Arthur managed a wry smile, carefully not thinking about what Gloss had to be yelling at his mentor screen right then. "Well, it's not the point of the Games as such, no," he said.
Merling shot him a brilliant smile, and Arthur, to his horror, found himself blushing.
Gloss was going to kill him if he got out of this alive.
When they arrived back at camp it was to find a worried group, with Guinevere pacing anxiously back and forward.
"Guinevere," Arthur called out, "it's fine, I've got—"
"Arthur!" she shouted, running towards them. "Thank god, you're fine, we thought—Merlin, what happened to you?" She stopped. "Where is Lamia?"
"Regretting her choice to turn traitor," Arthur said. "She attacked Merlin. I happened to be there."
Guinevere's eyes went very wide, focusing first on his blood-spattered torso and hands and then on Merlin beside him, who was wincing and clutching at his leg. "Merlin!" she exclaimed. "Are you hurt?"
"Nothing a little rest won't fix," Merlin said, smiling at her.
Arthur frowned. "Wait, you thought that cannon fired for me?"
Guinevere turned back to him, and he realised that she might actually have tears in her eyes. That was discomforting and gratifying at the same time. "Merlin and Lamia were together, but you were alone," she said. "There was one cannon shot. Well, we couldn't be sure, but—we were worried."
"I wasn't," Gwaine called. He was grinning, though.
"What do you mean, Lamia turned traitor? What happened exactly?" Guinevere asked quietly, and Merlin groaned loudly.
"First I get to sit down and someone brings me my medicine kit," he said. "And someone takes care of these rabbits. Then, we tell you everything."
After a dinner of excellently cooked rabbit and lengthy discussions of Lamia's attack on Merlin, Arthur wandered off by himself for a moment of privacy before bedtime—a euphemism he wasn't even sure why they used any longer, since even Elena had caught on to the fact that it meant to go pee. (Gwaine alone among them had never bothered with trying to be delicate, because he clearly had not an ounce of shame or modesty in his body. But those thoughts led down a path Arthur would definitely not go.)
His mind kept replaying the attack. Lamia with the blowgun in her hand, Merlin’s turned back. With a start, he realised how the dead mutt that Cenred had found must have died. Which in turn sparked mental images of Merlin, lying on the ground and gasping for air, going slowly blue in the face.
He cursed and bit down hard on his lower lip. This—whatever was going on with him—would have to stop. The showdown was coming. Only their group and the alliance were left in the game now, and the Gamemakers would force a confrontation before long. Arthur could not afford stupid emotions to get in the way, no matter how strong Guinevere was, or how funny Elena could be. Definitely could not allow himself to like Lancelot for his quiet, honourable nature or Gwaine despite all of his deplorable features. And definitely not Merlin, with his suicidal kindness and quiet competence when he thought Arthur wasn’t looking.
Arthur groaned inwardly and mentally dropped his face in his hands. He was no longer sure that the alliance would come up top in a direct fight. They were only four to this group's six, and Lancelot and Guinevere could both hold their own on a battlefield. He should be happy about that, of course, but he knew something his present group seemed determined to ignore—that if they somehow managed to win, they would have to turn their weapons on each other.
There was a time when Arthur would not have had a problem with that. He’d trained, lived and breathed the Games since he was seven. Going into the arena, he’d known what needed to be done and had been confident that he could do it. Now, he was not so sure.
He was about to head back to the cave when he saw the little silver parachute sailing towards him. His first sponsor gift, he realised with a pang of conflicted emotions. Whatever Gloss had managed to get for him this late in the game had to be important.
The container contained a knife. He drew it from its sheath, looking at it from all angles. The knife was identical to the one Mordred had used to stab him, above the waterfall. Gloss couldn't have been clearer about that message if he'd written it out for Arthur in capital letters.
Arthur spent some more time examining the blade and then said out loud, "It's a beautifully crafted weapon. I thank my sponsors for this gift." He sheathed the knife again and added, to let Gloss know he understood, "I know exactly what I should use it for."
After all, he thought guiltily, knowing what you should use something for didn't mean you actually would.
At Arthur's insistence, they packed up camp the next morning. If they didn't go after the alliance, the Gamemakers would make sure to lead the alliance to them, and Arthur preferred not to be taken by surprise.
When Gwaine went to his fishing spot in the river to see if he could bring a last catch with them, a huge fish muttation with a sharp, pointed snout and saw-bladed teeth almost took his leg off. The river no longer safe meant that the Gamemakers had already begun their efforts to herd them away from their resting place, and this, more than Arthur's arguments, convinced the others that they had better get moving as quickly as possible.
"I don't want to meet another of those mutts we ran into, if that's what's coming next," Lancelot said, with a quick glance at Merlin. "It was more luck than anything that we got away last time."
Even Arthur felt a pang of loss leaving the place they had felt so safe in, and for the four original members of the group, it was obviously much worse. Elena walked silently, without looking back, while Gwaine tried to lighten the heavy mood by joking and telling stories. Guinevere was holding a throwing knife (the only one they had, and Arthur suspected that it was the one Sophia had thrown at Merlin, back at the start of the Games) and was miming different throws as she walked. That sight cheered Arthur up slightly—it showed that she, at least, was prepared for what was to come.
The followed the river upstream, heading for the plateau where the alliance's last camp had been. Arthur didn't know if the alliance would still be together—with so few tributes left in the game, it was likely that they would split up to hunt solo soon, if they hadn't done so already—but it was a place to start, at least. The trek was long, and Arthur found himself wondering how on earth he had survived, carried unconscious by the river over that kind of distance.
By mid-afternoon, they were drawing close to the old alliance camp, and Arthur called a conference to decide how to best go on.
"If they're still encamped up there," he said, "we can't keep going like this. They'll spot us for sure. One or two should scout first, and then come back for the others if it's safe. I'll go ahead, at least. No, I will," he added, when Guinevere looked as though she was about to protest. "I'm healed up as well as I'll ever be, and I know them enough to anticipate any traps."
"Set a Career to catch a Career," Gwaine said philosophically. "Sounds good to me."
Arthur looked around at the others, eyes stopping on Merlin. "Let me guess," he said. "You're the group's designated scout."
Merlin laughed. "You're catching on at last," he said. "I'm the best tracker, at least, even if Elena is a stronger climber. But I'm quieter."
"To say the least," Elena said, grinning. "I think we all know they could hear me in Capitol when I try to be sneaky. Merlin should be the one to go."
Arthur and Merlin set off immediately after that, separating soon after they had left the others and taking one path each towards the plateau. The terrain didn't offer much in the way of vegetation to hide among, but was at least rocky enough that Arthur could find paths that took him towards the waterfall without being in direct sight, if there was anyone watching for them.
He estimated that it was almost an hour before he was back at his old camping spot, and when he arrived at last, he found Merlin already there.
"It's fine," Merlin said, looking up from the remains of a fire. "No traps, no signs that they're close by. This fire burnt out several days ago. It's possible that they've just been staying here without a fire, of course, but no human has been back here since this morning, at least."
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "You’re good," he said, then narrowed his eyes when Merlin mimicked fainting from the shock of hearing Arthur give him an actual compliment. "A lot of hidden talents, clearly."
Merlin grinned back at that. "Right," he said. "Here comes another one." He pursed his lips and whistled, one long piercing note that descended in a warble of confused notes. It was very authentically birdlike, although matched no bird that Arthur had ever heard before.
"What was that?" he asked.
"Gwen and I have been using it as a sign," Merlin said. "Any other tributes should just think it's a bird. It's a bird only found back home in Twelve, though, so she knows it doesn't fit in here."
"Clever," Arthur said. "You probably shouldn't use that signal again, though."
Because now you've told me, you've told the Gamemakers, and if I were them I'd plant a couple of your local birds in here before the day was out, Arthur thought, but said only, "Never mind, it's not that important. Let's have another look around."
There wasn't much to learn; the alliance had left few traces. Together, Arthur and Merlin managed to find the possible direction they had left in, at least, which to Arthur's lack of surprise turned out to be back towards the area where they'd spent their first couple of days. He'd already guessed that the Gamemakers would eventually want to lead them back to the beginning of the Games for the showdown.
Arthur took a stroll around the edge of the plateau by himself, remembering how Mordred had come up on him there. Looking down over the edge and following the path of the waterfall, he saw how lucky he had been in his fall, not to crack his skull open on the rocks below.
"Hey," he called over his shoulder, "come and look at this."
"What?" Merlin cupped one hand behind his ear, and Arthur waved at him to come closer.
"Look down there," he shouted when Merlin reached him. "I thought I saw one of those mutts Gwaine encountered. Do you see it?"
He lay down flat on his stomach, peering out over the edge, and when Merlin followed suit, spoke quickly in his ear, "Lose the bird signal you've been using with Guinevere. The Gamemakers know about it now, and it won't be safe any longer. They have cameras everywhere in the arena; they hear everything we say."
Merlin tensed up immediately, shoulders knotting together and jaw clenching. He had enough sense not to look over his shoulder or anything similarly idiotic, however—merely contented himself with muttering, barely moving his lips, "Do they have cameras here? Didn't they hear what you just said?"
"The noise of the waterfall should mask us here," Arthur said, hoping this was true. Merlin nodded shortly, raising his hand to worry a nail with his teeth. For a split second as the sun hit his face, his eyes looked almost golden.
“I don’t think there are any cameras on us right now either,” Merlin said. “Probably too damp right here next to the water.”
“Have a lot of cameras down in your mines, then?” Arthur said, raising his eyebrows.
Merlin snorted. “Of course not,” he said. “I’d never even seen a camera before I came to the Capitol. So many things were new to me. Plates to put food on! And knives and forks! The things you people come up with.”
“Ah, I see,” Arthur said. “I thought the leaf containers you’ve been using for food here was an innovative thought on your part, but I realise now you were only reinventing your Sunday dinner service.”
That startled a laugh out of Merlin. Arthur looked at him, grinning, and for the first time he noticed a scar on Merlin’s arm. It was an ugly wound, several inches long, the skin still puckered—but it didn't seem infected, at least.
"Was that Sophia?" he asked, and when Merlin looked surprised, added, "The girl from District Four. She threw a knife at you."
Merlin continued to stare at him, now with a frown creasing his face.
“Back at the start of the Games,” Arthur said. “When you were getting supplies from the plain with the geysers. You know?”
Merlin finally lit up. “Right,” he said. “Huh. I'd almost forgotten. It feels like so long ago now.” He frowned again. “Right, that's where Gwen got that throwing knife from,” he added, with the air of one clearing up a mystery.
He was silent for a bit after that, looking down into the water below. "Do you think we have a chance?" he asked finally, quietly. "Do you think we can get out of this alive?"
"No," Arthur said immediately. Merlin frowned, and he elaborated, "We may have a chance against the alliance. Maybe. A slim chance, but a chance. But—we, as in more than one person, have no chance at all. There's only one victor of these games." He reached out and grasped Merlin's wrist, squeezing tight—enough to make his point, but not enough to threaten. "You can't forget that, Merlin. Sooner or later, you'll have to make a choice. It might be better to make it sooner than later. If we split up the group now, we might not have to kill each other."
Merlin stared at him. With a start, Arthur realised just how blue his eyes were.
He was still gripping Merlin's arm. He could feel the raised area of skin left by Sophia's knife under his palm, and almost without realising what he was doing, he shifted his grip until he could run his thumb over the scar.
Merlin's eyes—really, how had Arthur not noticed before—flickered down, then back up. He frowned ever so slightly, but didn't pull away, and Arthur didn't either, not even when Merlin started tilting his head very slowly towards him.
"Hello!" Elena called, and Merlin jerked back violently, pulling his arm out of Arthur's grip and jumping to his feet. Moments later, Elena heaved herself over the edge of the plateau, a little way away. "This wasn't too bad a climb. The others are just behind me."
"Great!" Merlin said, running his hands through his hair and then trying to put them casually in his pockets, giving up after a few tries when he realised that there were, in fact, no pockets on his clothes. "Great, that's good. We haven't found any traces of the Careers here, so we should be safe here. Yeah, I think we will."
Arthur ran his own hands through his hair, then got to his feet and greeted Elena, pretending not to notice the way Merlin distanced himself from him awkwardly as they made their way over to their group.
“Arthur, wake up.”
Arthur jerked awake, drawing the knife hidden under his makeshift pillow on instinct. In front of him, Merlin jumped back, his hands held out in front of him defensively.
“Do you want to get yourself killed?” Arthur hissed. “Don’t do things like that.”
“Clearly,” Merlin replied. “Come on, I need to show you something.”
Arthur got up and strapped on his sword, finding a couple of knives as well before following Merlin into the night. They walked towards the waterfall, Merlin a few steps in front of him, leading Arthur down towards the base of it along a narrow path. They were about halfway down when Merlin disappeared suddenly, leaving Arthur to worry that he’d misstepped and ended up accidentally drowning himself before Merlin stood before him again, pulling Arthur forward by the hand with a pleased smile on his face.
The next thing Arthur knew, he was standing in a small alcove, the waterfall roaring right next to him as he pressed closer to the wet rock. Merlin was standing not even a foot away, leaning forward to make himself heard over the rushing water.
“I figured they can’t hear us here,” he said, looking very proud of himself. “No cameras either, I checked.”
He was probably right, Arthur realised. The water would drown out any sound they made, as well as shielding them from getting caught on any cameras nearby.
He touched the stone. The alcove was the perfect size for just the two of them, and the stone gleamed as though it had just been hollowed out to make some extra space. “How did you find this place?”
Merlin shrugged. “Oh, you know. Just walking around. I’m from the mining district, you know. Stone is—I’m good with stone. We are the best of friends.”
Arthur couldn’t help grinning. “And now we’re here.”
“Care to explain why?”
“…No?” Merlin said, raising a teasing eyebrow. “But if it’s too much for your poor brain to put the pieces together, I might be convinced to give you a hint.”
Arthur grinned, taking a step closer. “Remember, Merlin,” he drawled, moving another inch further into Merlin’s personal space, “I could take you apart with one blow.”
The corners of Merlin’s mouth twitched, and then his expression grew serious. He put a hand on Arthur’s forearm, running his fingers down the skin there, mimicking Arthur’s earlier touch. “I could take you apart with less than that.”
He looked up into Arthur’s eyes as he said it, as though willing Arthur to understand something important without spelling it out. It made Arthur’s breath catch in his throat, the words moving through him like fire, connecting to the five points of Merlin’s fingers on his arm. He closed his eyes for a moment to collect himself and then looked back at Merlin, willing him to see understanding and acceptance in his eyes. “I know.”
Shock was evident on Merlin’s face. “You know?”
Arthur swallowed, nodding carefully. “I suspected. Earlier, on the ledge. And, um, when you were cleaning my wound, that time.”
Merlin gaped at him. “And you—” He blinked repeatedly, as though trying to rapidly rearrange his worldview. “You’re, you know, all right with that?”
Well, no, ‘all right’ was not a word Arthur would use to describe his current feelings. Still, one step at a time; he nodded.
Merlin’s face lit up with an absolutely breathtaking smile. “I didn’t know if you even knew people like me existed.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, because, really? Arthur’s own feelings aside—which he must have hiding better than he’d feared—just how backwards a district was Twelve? “We do get an education in District One, you know.”
“Still,” Merlin said, “at least back home, people don’t like to talk about, you know, that. I only ever told my best friend Will. And my mom, but she already knew. Gaius knows since he’s my mentor. Oh, and Lancelot.”
That brought Arthur up short. “Lancelot knows?”
Merlin at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “Yeah. He’s… more observant than you’d think. And after that time with your wound, he pulled me aside and mumbled about how I needed to be more careful, especially around you. Which, well. I guess I rather failed at that.”
He didn’t look at all unhappy admitting to the fact. His fingers moved up along Arthur’s arm, stopping at his elbow.
“Anyway,” Merlin said. “I didn’t plan on telling you, because you were such an enormous prat, but then you had to go and behave like an actual person, and be nice to Gwen and save my life, and I just—mmph!”
Really, Arthur thought, if he’d known how incredible it would feel to just shut Merlin up with a kiss, he would have done it days ago.
They slept in several shifts that night, setting up a perimeter in order to trap the alliance, should they come back to their old camp. The hours passed quietly, however, and the next morning they headed off again, following the trail of the alliance into the mountains.
Merlin hadn't spoken to Arthur since they’d come back from the waterfall, and he kept out of the way as they walked, taking up the rear with Gwaine and Elena. Arthur couldn't blame him, and despite the initial pang when Merlin walked by him to sit next to Lancelot at breakfast, he couldn't say he was entirely displeased about it, either. Merlin had become truly distracting, and no matter how incredible it had felt to press up against him for a stolen moment during the night, Arthur couldn't afford to lose his focus like that; the end was most likely coming up quickly now, for all of them.
Arthur stopped when he reached the top of yet another of the endless ridges in the landscape, looking back at the others. Just behind him were Guinevere and Lancelot—back to shy looks and shyer smiles that they thought the other didn’t see—but the other three were lagging far behind. Gwaine seemed to be telling stories again.
"Guys, come on. Hurry up," he called, waving. Guinevere and Lancelot reached him, and turned to watch the others.
"I bet he's going on about those faulty phones again," Guinevere said. "I don't know why Merlin encourages him."
Elena, who was bringing up the rear with her bow, waved at them and gave Gwaine a push in the back. She said something that made both him and Merlin laugh, and the three of them hurried forward.
The ground broke apart beneath them with a terrible rumbling sound.
There was no time to do anything but see the shock on their faces as Gwaine and Merlin disappeared from sight. Elena, a step behind, kept her balance for a dizzying moment but then slipped and fell, tumbling sideways into the abyss below.
There wasn't even time for them to scream.
Guinevere gasped and threw herself forward, and Lancelot only caught her at the last minute.
"Merlin!" she screamed, straining against him. "Merlin!"
Arthur joined Lancelot in holding Guinevere back. Everything inside of him rebelled, wanting him to throw himself down the slope to where the earth had opened itself. "They're gone," he said tightly, more to himself than to either of the others. "You can't do anything. They're gone, Guinevere." With the amount of stone and earth that had fallen with them, their chances of survival were next to none. There wouldn't be any bodies for the hovercrafts to pick up here, either. He tightened his hold on Guinevere, forcing down the bile he could suddenly feel at the back of his throat.
"There was no cannon," Lancelot said, weighing in with about the opposite of what Arthur was trying to convey; the last thing he wanted was for Guinevere to think that she could do anything to help them. "There was no cannon—they might still be—"
As though the Gamemakers had delayed the cannon, only waiting for this little ray of hope so that they could enjoy stomping it out, a shot fired. While Arthur was still waiting for shots two and three, the chasm closed up again, leaving no doubt that this disaster was Gamemaker-engineered. Why? Because they wanted to hype up the interest for the final battle with the alliance? The ones who'd been lost were the ones in their group least likely to give sport in a fight, true enough.
"There was only one shot, right?" Guinevere said shakily. "Only one."
Arthur knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help the sudden surge of hope he felt.
"Even if the other two are fine, we can't get down to them," Lancelot said. "The gap has closed up."
"I don't care," Guinevere said shortly. She stood up straight, stared for a moment down at where the chasm had opened and then started down the slope again.
"Hey, wait, stop." Arthur grabbed her arm, then put both hands up in a placating gesture when she wrenched herself free angrily. "I want to help them, Guinevere. But if that area is a trap, we won't be helping by getting ourselves caught in it, too. We need to make sure we're in a position to help them, if we manage to find them. In other words, we need to make sure of our own safety first."
She stared at him, frowning. Lancelot cleared his throat.
"I have some rope in my pack. Is that—I mean, would that be helpful?"
Arthur nodded, not entirely sure if he should be happy about this or not. There was now no way for them to move on without having at least tried. "Perfect," he said.
There was enough rope for two of them. Guinevere and Lancelot tied themselves together while Arthur found a suitable outcrop of rock to brace himself against. Looking slightly ridiculous, Guinevere and Lancelot slowly edged their way back down the slope they'd walked up easily not many minutes ago, with Arthur feeding them rope one inch at a time.
They were almost at the spot where the others had disappeared when the cannon boomed again and then, when Guinevere and Lancelot both looked up at Arthur in horror, once more.
Well. That was that. Guinevere sat down and put her hands over her face, and Lancelot, after throwing an agonised glance up at Arthur, patted her shoulder awkwardly. Arthur let the rope fall out of his hands, and sank to the ground. They were gone—all three of them.
For a long time, he had been resigned to the idea of people dying in the arena—at his hands and at the hands of others. He had known Morgana would be killed, quite possibly at his side, maybe by his own hand. She was good enough to make it to the end, after all. He had known and expected all this, and the thought had never made him feel anything before.
He had never thought he'd find himself caring about three virtual strangers dying.
He didn't know how much time passed until they suddenly heard a fourth cannon shot. Lancelot looked back up at Arthur, confused. Arthur shrugged in response; a fourth death at this time must change the game, but he didn't know how yet.
Guinevere was red-eyed from crying, but once she had pulled herself together enough to stand up, she did so with a hard set to her jaw and shrugged off the hand Lancelot tried to put on her shoulder. She trudged grimly back up the slope towards Arthur and picked up her bag, slinging it over her shoulders.
"Let's go," she said. "We should get away from here and find some kind of cover for the night."
Arthur nodded. Guinevere was right; standing around unproductively would not help them. He rolled up the length of rope again, handing it to Lancelot, and followed her up the mountainside.
As they walked, in complete silence and without looking at each other, Arthur tried to calculate. Four cannon shots, at different times, but all within forty minutes or so of each other. Was it possible that those shots had not been for Merlin and the others? Had the alliance in fact torn itself to pieces?
He didn't share any of these thoughts with Lancelot and Guinevere. If the shots had been for the alliance, and Merlin, Gwaine and Elena were still alive, that would only mean that the Gamemakers had separated them to prepare for a showdown between the six of them at a later date. And if that wasn't the case, well, Arthur knew that could only mean that however they had died, whether from the fall or because they had turned on each other afterwards—which was a scenario that Arthur simply couldn't believe—it hadn't been quick. Which was something else he definitely wouldn't share with the others.
By the time it grew dark, they had found a cave for the night. It was cut deep into the side of a cliff, with a small ledge in front and an almost vertical drop beneath it, and it was with relief they reached it and found that it was large enough for the three of them. It was difficult not to think about how just a few hours before, they'd have had to move on and find something with the capacity to house six people instead of three.
They sat down and made a meal from the rations they had left. Guinevere had closed up entirely since the last cannon had sounded; Arthur had seen that reaction watching older Games, and was not certain that it boded well. Retreating into yourself like Guinevere was doing was a fairly common way to deal with trauma, but those who did were the tributes that tended to snap at a later point.
It was the first time in a very long while he had thought of Guinevere as a tribute, Arthur realised.
When the Hunger Games anthem blared, it startled all of them. The first face that lit up the sky for them was Cenred's, which meant that both Morgana and Morgause were still alive. Elena and Gwaine followed, and then—both Arthur and Guinevere drew in breath sharply—Merlin.
Finally, there it was. Confirmation beyond doubt. Guinevere dropped her head in her hands.
"I'll take first watch," Arthur said. He put his hand on Guinevere's arm briefly, then moved quickly to the ledge outside the cave entrance for better surveillance. Behind him, he could hear shuffling sounds as Guinevere and Lancelot wrapped themselves up in sleeping bags and blankets.
"Did you know him from before?" he heard Lancelot ask softly.
There was a long silence. "Not really," Guinevere said finally. "We are—were the same age, and we'd run into each other in school. But we never really got to know each other until, well, until now. Once we did, though, we—I can't imagine doing this without him. And he was from home. I mean..." She hesitated. “Elena and Gwaine were lovely. I can’t believe they’re gone either. But it’s not the same.”
There was another pause, and then Lancelot said, "I know what you mean. Larch and I—all I wanted was to give her a chance. I thought, if we could just stick together, we might make it. So I told her to run. At the Cornucopia. She was supposed to not bother about supplies and just run away, as fast and straight as she could. I would get supplies for both of us, and then I'd come and find her."
"What happened?" Guinevere asked quietly, when Lancelot's voice trailed off.
"That boy who died today, the one from Two, he found a crossbow first thing out," Lancelot said, in a flat, toneless voice. "They have incredible range."
There was a soft sound, a sigh or sob, and then Guinevere said, "Oh, Lance. Lancelot, I'm so sorry."
Arthur glanced back into the cave. Lancelot had one arm thrown over his eyes, and Guinevere had turned onto her side, facing him. Between them, their free hands had met and were gripping each other tightly. Guinevere's shoulders were shaking.
Arthur turned back to his watch, blinking to clear his eyes.
He had been given the perfect moment, Arthur realised. Whether Guinevere and Lancelot had cried themselves to sleep or just passed out from exhaustion, they were now both deeply asleep and utterly vulnerable.
Arthur looked at the knife in his hands. It was such an ordinary looking weapon to be so significant. He felt along the puckered scar its twin had left on his own skin, wincing as he did so. It was still sore, which was to be expected with a wound of that size. It was a small miracle that he hadn't died from blood loss or infection.
He had Merlin to thank for that, of course.
Arthur turned the knife over again, glancing behind him. It would be easy. He could take them both down so quickly neither would have time to wake up. It would be a merciful death, no doubt a great deal better than they had coming if the Gamemakers grew tired of them or they finally did find what was left of the alliance.
He spun the knife in the air and caught it, then did it again and, after a split second’s hesitation, fumbled the catch. The knife slipped from his fingers and tumbled slowly down the steep drop below him.
"Hell," Arthur swore softly for the benefit of the cameras, and reached for a new knife.
Not all Capitol citizens were as vapid as their affected speech and mannerisms would have you believe, Arthur knew, and there were sponsors who'd see what he'd just done for the fuck you it was. Gloss, who had never seen Arthur lose his grip on a weapon, certainly would.
Arthur did not even want to think about what Uther would have to say to him if he did make it out alive.
But screw them and their game. Arthur was going after the alliance, because they had a score to settle and if he didn't, they'd be coming after him anyway. If he survived the battle with them, and Guinevere and Lancelot were still alive after that as well, he knew what he would have to do. But he knew now that it would never be like this, like Gloss had meant when he sent that gift—a knife in the back, soft and sly. If he was going to have to kill these people, it would be where they had a fighting chance.
If he wasn’t killed off outright for what he’d just done, that was.
The next morning, the Gamemakers triggered lava flows all over the mountainside. When Arthur and his companions managed to make their way to a ridge with some view over the terrain, they found all avenues of escape cut off—all but the one leading them back in the direction of where the games had started.
"Last lap now," Arthur muttered. Guinevere gave him an odd look, but didn't inquire further.
"You seem to know where we're going," she said. "Lead the way."
The geyser area was still when they reached it that afternoon, with none of the rush and splash of water that Arthur had come to associate with it. The plain was obviously still volatile, however—the air steaming and the ground looking dangerously unstable. Still, there was nowhere else to go. This was where the scene was set for the last battle. The sky overhead was darkening with heavy clouds, contributing to the mood.
"What is this place?" Lancelot asked.
"There used to be geysers here," Guinevere said, glancing briefly at Arthur. "It was where Merlin and I first managed to get hold of supplies. They seem to have shut the geysers off now, though."
Arthur said nothing. He was scanning the area for any signs of the alliance, but between the steam and the dwindling light in general, they were nowhere to be seen. They should have been here long before he, Guinevere and Lancelot, and the only conclusion was that they were waiting, now, for him to make the first move.
It would be a shame to disappoint them.
He turned back to the other two. "I'm going to go to meet them," he said. "They'll be waiting, and they'll probably attack as soon as I've made it onto the plain."
"You mean we, right?" Guinevere said. She was holding her war hammer in one hand and gripping Lancelot's hand with the other. Lancelot was looking everywhere but at Arthur. "We're coming with you, of course."
There was nothing to say to that, so Arthur only nodded.
"Let's go," he said. "But let me go first."
He took a deep breath, loosened his sword in its sheath and stepped out onto the plain.
He was trying to focus everywhere at once, tensing with every step. When a knife came whistling past him out of nowhere, he was ready enough for it to be able to duck away easily—almost relieved that something had finally happened. The act itself wasn't comforting, however. The throw had obviously only been meant as warm-up and as a boast, telling him that the alliance still had enough throwing knives left to waste one on a warning.
The steam in front of him cleared, and three figures materialised out of the gloom. They stopped a few paces off, just within throwing distance but far enough away to make a charge with a sword unwise. Arthur could just see how ridiculously dramatic it would all play out on screen.
"The prodigal son returns," Morgause said quietly, twirling a throwing knife around her finger. That was just for show, of course; Arthur mentally rolled his eyes.
"If I came back just to see you cut your own fingers off, I'm disappointed," he said, putting as much condescension in his voice as possible. "Have you been slacking off since I left?"
Morgause narrowed her eyes at him. He'd seen a lot of people try to pull that off in the programme, back in District One, but she was the first one he'd seen who managed to do it without looking completely ridiculous.
“Not really,” Morgana replied in her stead. Her face and left arm still showed some vestiges of the burns she had received among the geysers here, over a week ago, and she had fresh bandages on her right arm and shoulder. One of her trouser legs had been ripped off, showing a calf also wrapped in bandages. Morgause was sporting cuts and ugly, yellowing bruises, too. Only Mordred still looked reasonably unhurt.
"How's your back?" he asked now, and the wound on Arthur's back flared suddenly with pain. OK, that had just taken away the last qualms Arthur might have had about his young age. If he was going to get only one person today, it would be Mordred.
There was a booming sound at that moment, deeper than the tribute cannons, and the plain shivered under their feet. Cracks opened in the ground all around them, gushing out steam and spitting hot magma. They were fenced in on all sides, but between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot and the other three, the ground was clear.
Morgause smiled. "Now the stage is set," she said, and let her knife fly.
Arthur threw himself aside and rolled. Another knife thudded past him, but he managed to twist enough that it only grazed his arm. As he sprang back to his feet, he saw Guinevere throw her own knife back in the other direction. Her practise had paid off. The knife flew straight towards Morgause, who knocked it aside with the sword she had just pulled from her belt before throwing another knife back at Guinevere.
Morgause was open now, before she could grab for another throwing knife. She was still further off than Arthur would have liked, but he had his chance. He started forward towards her, and was in mid-stride when he heard Guinevere shout,
Morgause let fly. Her throw at Guinevere had been feigned; with the knife still in her hand, she had re-aimed the throw at Arthur. He started to verve aside, but he was too slow.
Lancelot barrelled into him, pushing Arthur out of the way and putting himself in the path of the knife. Arthur saw it hit him in the chest—above the heart? Or closer?
There was no time to examine the situation closer, and there never would be. Arthur twisted aside and landed to see Lancelot stumbling backwards several steps, hands fumbling at the knife sticking out of his shirt. Then he took one last, fatal step backwards and, with an expression more surprised than anything else, fell into the crack behind. There was a moment of almost silence, and then the cannon shot, overlaid by the loud hissing of hot lava.
It was a long, guttural howl, and she threw herself forward like an avenging Fury, her war hammer held high over her head. Arthur saw Morgause's eyes widen in shock.
He leapt to his feet again, drawing his sword as he did so and meeting Morgana's with a shock that ran all the way down his arm. She was even stronger than he remembered.
She backed off, and he did, too. They circled each other warily for a moment before clashing together heavily again, and then again. Morgana was wielding her sword two-handed, as was he until he realised that he had once again discounted the most unpredictable one of the alliance. Switching grip quickly, he took one hand off the pommel of his sword and snatched a knife out of the sheath in his belt, twirled to block Morgana's sword with the smaller blade and brought his sword hand around to slice at Mordred, who'd been raising a knife to stab him from behind.
"That trick is getting old," he forced out between gritted teeth, and shifted his balance to kick Mordred hard in the stomach. The boy stumbled back several paces—although sadly not far enough to put him in danger of falling into one of the cracks—and Arthur could spin around to once again face Morgana, blocking her latest strike with both blades.
Then the cannon fired, and Morgana stepped back a pace, smiling. But it was a smile that faded away, along with the colour in Morgana's cheeks, when she saw Guinevere rising to her feet, holding her war hammer in bloodied fingers.
"No," Morgana gasped.
Guinevere turned slowly and raised her head. There was a thin pillar of steam rising from the ground just before her, giving her blood-spattered face behind it an even more demonic appearance. She shook her head briefly, then stepped forward.
Too late, Arthur understood what the steam meant.
"Guine—" he began, but Guinevere took her final step forward, stepping right above the fountain of steam.
The ground exploded, and Arthur saw Guinevere engulfed for a moment in a pillar of fire and steam. Then the shock of the eruption hit him, and he closed his eyes against the white glare of heat, throwing his arms up over his face.
He never even heard the cannon. With the way his ears were ringing, he thought for a moment that he would never hear anything again. He crouched down, trying to make himself as small as possible, and let the heat and noise wash over him in an endless torture. Finally, after what felt like minutes but was probably only moments, he managed to uncover his face and look up again.
The ground where Guinevere had been was empty and still again. There was no sign of her, or of Mordred. The heat had been incredibly intense; Arthur could only think that they must both have been vaporised. He found it hard to breathe.
But there was no time to grieve. Morgana was getting to her feet again, and although she looked as though she wanted to throw up, her sword hand was steady.
"So it's you and me," she said quietly. "As it should be, really."
Arthur got to his feet, picking up his own sword. They had always known there was a good chance it would end like this. And a sword duel was a good way to go, if it came to that. She had obviously taken a battering since he had left the alliance, but the wound in Arthur’s back was deep. He tried to calculate the new odds, but knew he had too little information to know which way this fight would go.
He held his sword in front of his face, saluting her.
"You played a good game," he said.
"You, too," she replied, saluting him in turn.
And then, as he was readying himself for the final charge, he felt the ground shake under his feet again. He looked at Morgana, who stared back, equally puzzled. There was no reason for the Gamemakers to interfere now, when there were just the two of them left.
One of the cracks in the earth, a little way off from them, widened slowly. A jet of fire shot into the air, and then another. A clawed foot appeared suddenly over the edge of the chasm, and then something huge and scaled heaved itself into the open air.
Arthur exchanged a glance with Morgana, and then looked at her shirt, where her silver dragon rested high on one shoulder. He could feel his own golden brooch as a heavy weight against his chest.
"Why?" Morgana said. Arthur shrugged helplessly.
They both raised their swords again, but now turning to face the enormous dragon that had clambered out of the earth and was staring down at them. It looked from Arthur to Morgana, as though sizing them up, and then drew breath.
"Down!" Arthur shouted, and they threw themselves forward, feeling the jet of flame pass close over them.
Arthur turned his head to stare at Morgana. There had been Games before where the tributes fought the arena rather than each other for the final battle, including the disastrous eleventh that ended without a victor, but it was a mystery why it had been felt that these Games needed such ploys. "We have to defeat that thing first?" he suggested. "If you head for its right flank I'll take the left."
She nodded, then charged. He rose after her and ran, ducking another fireball spit at them by the dragon. Its head snaked around, but he jumped and rolled, slashing at its neck when he came back up. The dragon roared, then twisted—Morgana must have hit it from its other side. Arthur danced around and struck at the dragon again, then again, trying to jab at its throat.
He didn't know if he'd done it any real damage, however. Its hide seemed impenetrable.
"Its eyes!" he shouted, remembering Lancelot's tale about the lizard mutt he and Merlin had faced and hoping Morgana could hear him over the continued roaring of the dragon. Then he heard a scream and saw Morgana fly through the air, landing several yards off in a heap. The dragon's tail whipped back, and Arthur managed to avoid it at the last moment, but then one of its huge feet came up and knocked him over, pinning him to the ground. His sword flew out of his hand and as he twisted his head to see if he could reach it, he saw Morgana trying to drag herself upright again.
He saw something else, too. Behind her, only a few paces off, Mordred had appeared out of nowhere and was rising to his feet, his little knife once more in hand.
Arthur wanted to shout a warning, but he had no air in his lungs. The dragon lifted its foot off him, and Arthur managed to draw a painful breath. Then something made him look up; he saw teeth approaching, and behind that, a gaping red maw.
Arthur yelled, and everything went dark.