Chapter 1: The Training Centre
Arthur was seven years old when he won his first tournament. His memories of his life before that point were hazy and jumbled, and once he’d been taken to the training centre, he’d been told not to waste his energy looking back. He was a tribute in training now, and the future was all that mattered. Proving his worth. Being the best. Making it to the arena and coming out a victor.
“This is the Ruby Dormitory,” the man leading their small group down through the centre said. “Boys to the right, girls to the left. Any belongings you have brought with you should be kept in the storage unit under your bed. Your new clothes and any other necessities will be delivered shortly. Dinner is in fifteen minutes at the dining hall, after which I suggest you all retire. Training will begin at 6 AM tomorrow morning.”
He left them with a brisk nod, and Arthur turned his attention to finding his bed and figuring out how to fold away the beautiful red cloak he had been given by the recruiters when they picked him up at the community home.
“I’m Leon Chevalier,” one of the boys closest to Arthur said. “I’m seventh in my family to make the training centre, and my cousin Leah came in second in the 56th games.”
“Gareth Beaumains,” one of the others replied. “My older brother is hoping to compete next year, and my uncle is a trainer here. Archery.”
The remaining three boys made their introductions as well—each with a pedigree more illustrious than the next—until only Arthur was left. He squared his jaw.
“Arthur what?” Gareth demanded. “Who’s your family?”
Arthur raised his chin, determined not to show weakness on his first day, when he detected movement at the corner of his eye. He turned towards the open doorway and came face to face, for the first time, with Uther Pendragon—one of District One’s most legendary victors and current head of the training centre besides.
The other boys noticed the new presence in the room as well, turning and falling still and silent as Uther looked at each of them in turn. He looked far from impressed with what he saw. Arthur stood up a little taller.
“He’s Arthur Pendragon,” Uther said, narrowing his eyes in warning when Gareth opened his mouth. “Highest qualification score in five years and a clear natural affinity for swordsmanship.”
Gareth’s mouth quickly closed again.
“You would all do well to remember,” Uther continued, “that from now on, your only loyalty is to this centre. Whatever decisions we make when it comes to your training, you accept. We don’t care where you come from, only what you are able to do, and you will meet every standard befitting a future tribute of District One, or be sent home to live out the rest of your lives in deep, deep shame. Do I make myself clear?”
Arthur desperately tried to think of something to say that would match the faith the training centre was placing in him and came up empty. He met Uther’s steely blue eyes and saw a challenge there—a clear message that he, in particular, had better live up to expectations.
“Yes, sir,” Arthur said, forcing himself to keep meeting Uther’s eyes. The other boys quickly followed his lead, and Arthur thought he saw the smallest of smiles cross Uther’s face.
“Welcome to the centre, boys,” Uther said, giving them all a brisk nod and exiting the room.
Life at the training centre turned out to be both easier and harder than Arthur had expected. Training was intense, even for the lower years, and more often than not, he woke up with some part of his body hurting. The trainers, though strict and demanding, were fair, however, and after the community home, everything about his surroundings felt like living in luxury. Socially, things went a lot better than he’d feared after his first meeting with his dorm mates; even Gareth, it turned out, didn’t need more than a week to warm up to the rest of them, and after the first couple of months, Arthur could barely even remember what being lonely had felt like.
For some reason, Uther Pendragon kept checking in on him, asking about his progress and dropping clear reminders of how much the centre was investing in Arthur’s potential. Other students sometimes teased him about being so singled out, bowing theatrically and announcing Arthur’s presence loudly when he entered a room. Arthur kept his face calm and pleasant through even the most ridiculous of pet names they came up with for him, reminding himself that only one boy and one girl made the arena each year—everybody at the centre already knowing his name gave him a lot better odds than most to prove what he was made of.
He met Morgana LeFay at the start of his second year. She was one of seven girls accepted into the programme that term and the smallest one by far. Her pretty features and small stature made her look vulnerable; the lack of visible defensive wounds from the audition process and the way she held herself told him she most likely wasn’t. There was a glint of steel in her eyes that made Arthur curious, and after seeing her on the practice field for the first time, he became even more so. Morgana was fast, showing an almost uncanny ability to know exactly where a coming blow would fall and striking when her opponents least expected it.
He and the rest of his class were practicing using staffs while watching the Year One students make their way across the junior obstacle course, when he saw Morgana suddenly hesitate mid-step and drop to the ground with her arms over her head. Arthur frowned, turning to ask Leon what he thought that was about, when there was a loud crack and huge black balls started falling from the ceiling. Screams filled the air, the students on the course running everywhere to get away—except for Morgana, who kept completely still until the last ball had fallen, then stood up with only a slight tremble and launched into the next part of the course as though nothing had happened.
“Good instincts, that one,” Arthur heard their trainer tell Catrina Tregor, principal trainer for Year One. “Reminds me a little of Nimueh at that age.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Ms Tregor replied. “Well worth keeping an eye on, for sure. With Nimueh going into the arena this summer, I’m sure Helen would be glad to take on a new protegé.”
“Especially one this young,” Arthur’s trainer said. “I wonder if—” He broke off, looking over at their group as though he could sense someone paying a little too close attention. “Pendragon! Ten laps, right now!”
Arthur felt his neck burn hot, mumbling a quick ‘yes, sir’ and setting off towards the dirt tracks. He pictured Morgana crossing the finish line, being praised for her performance by trainers arguing with each other over who would get to coach her first.
She was definitely one for the arena.
Arthur picked himself off the ground and gripped his staff with both hands to try and hide the fact that they’d begun to tremble slightly. His trainer waited for him to steady himself, then attacked with a succession of sharp jabs that made Arthur’s arms ache. He managed a quick glance at the clock while dodging to his right, and saw that he’d made it past three minutes, coming up on four if he could just manage to parry the next attack. No one in their year so far had managed four minutes in the ring, and the current record for Year Three was 5.25. If Arthur could just hold up a little while longer, he’d—
“Aaaand, dead,” his trainer exclaimed, sweeping Arthur’s feet out from under his body and pointing the end of her staff against his throat after he crashed to the ground. “3.55, not bad at all.”
Arthur swallowed down his disappointment and got to his feet, remembering to bow to his trainer before slinking off to the changing rooms. Galahad and Leon were already there, together with Jasper, who looked utterly devastated.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Galahad was saying. “Everyone has a bad day now and then. It’s awful when it’s on evaluation day, but it happens. Don’t worry.”
“It’s the fifth evaluation I’ve failed this year,” Jasper said. “Who else in our year has failed even half that?”
Nobody answered him. Jasper slumped forward dejectedly, hiding his face in his hands.
“Maybe you’ll do better tomorrow,” Galahad tried. “There are still two more days of tests for this quarter, and you’ll have the spring evaluations after that as well. Let’s go take a shower, and then I’ll help quiz you on edible plants before dinner.”
Arthur watched the two of them leave, and then caught Leon’s eye.
“How bad?” he asked quietly, keeping an eye on Jasper’s retreating back.
“1.05,” Leon answered. Arthur winced.
“I know,” Leon said, shaking his head. “I don’t think he’ll make the cut for next year.”
Arthur agreed, but didn’t want to say so out loud. Getting accepted to the training centre was an incredible honour; getting cut after only a few years was shameful to say the least. Still, cuts had to be made—only the very best could go on to the arena, after all.
“Starting this year, you will be training on the main obstacle course,” their new trainer said. “I’m Topaz Carrington and will be taking you through Survival Training and Agility this term. You are Year Four now, so you should know what will be expected of you. Don’t let us down; you’ve already seen what happens to people who do.” The last part was said with a nod towards the empty space next to their group. Arthur was suddenly glad he was standing next to Galahad (who was several inches shorter than him), instead of Leon with his freakishly early developed frame. At the end of last year, three students from their year had been cut from the programme. Arthur was determined not to be number four.
“As you will come to see, there are several different sections to this course,” Mr Carrington continued. “Some simulate a specific nature hazard, so you have fast-running water, climbing, extreme temperatures, avoiding or handling different types of animals and mutts, and so forth; others are more general to train your speed, agility and the ability to think fast in a crisis. There are several ways to get through each section, suited for different physical attributes. You will need to find how to play to your own particular strengths, and then adapt this as your bodies grow. For example.” He motioned for them to follow him over to an inspection balcony overlooking a vast plain. Down below, some of the older students were running back and forth, trying to keep out of the way of dozens of giant moving boulders.
“This is the Grind,” Mr Carrington said. “Three levels of stone, moving in a complex pattern that changes from one session to the next. A small person might charge ahead, relying on their speed and agility to get them through any cracks that open up, while a bigger person has to be more patient and make sure they have a firm idea of how the stones move to avoid getting trapped once inside.”
“Don’t forget telling them about the importance of being a realistic judge of their own abilities,” another trainer said, joining their group on the balcony with stopwatch in hand. “Not enough confidence will make you too slow; too much of it leads to stupid decisions. It’s a balancing act.”
Below, three students had managed to get through the course, all of them clearly winded, one sporting several tears in his training gear. A buzzer went off, and another two went up to the starting plates.
“Gloss and Cashmere Donovan, Year Nine,” the second trainer said. “We have high hopes for them both.”
A second buzzer sounded, and the pair was off. Arthur watched with interest as they reached the first row of moving stones, Cashmere looking back over her shoulder with a smirk before leaping up on the nearest one and climbing quickly through an open passage above it. Arthur could see Gloss narrow his eyes, hesitating briefly before deciding not to follow. Instead, he moved along the boulders to the end of the row, slipping through a larger opening to the left. From their position on the balcony, Arthur could see both of them make their way forward, dodging and climbing with practiced ease.
“Another important lesson here is tactical retreat”, Mr Carrington said, pointing at Cashmere, who’d found herself trapped and was moving backwards, looking around for new space to open up. “You will also improve your ability to think in three dimensions; if trapped on one level, you might be able to exit by moving vertically instead.”
He moved on to describing how Arthur’s year would train on the course, and Arthur listened with one ear, filing the information away for later use. Normally, he made a point of giving every trainer his full attention, but this time... Arthur didn’t see how anyone could keep from being completely captivated by the display below. Gloss and Cashmere were nearing the finish now, both utterly focused on their task, every movement strong, controlled and graceful.
Five years, and that could be me, Arthur thought, feeling both elated and intimidated at the thought. Maybe, if he worked himself harder, he could manage it in four.
Arthur turned, toothbrush in his mouth. Gareth grinned at him. He was holding his own toothbrush like a rapier, with his free hand in a somewhat flamboyant duelling pose.
“Ah, you thought yourself safe?” he said, mimicking Mr Carrington’s voice. “But you must always be on your guard. Never relax! Relaxing in the arena can mean your death.”
Arthur took his toothbrush out of his mouth and spat, then nodded solemnly. “However,” he said in a nasal voice, mimicking their head swordsmistress, “since you have challenged me thus, I believe we will abide by the rules of a duel. I will need a second. Leon?”
“Huh?” Leon said. He was clipping his toenails over one of the wastepaper baskets. “OK, sure. Let me just finish this.”
“Are you a fool?” Arthur snapped at him. “In the arena, every weapon counts! Keep those daggers on your feet sharp!”
Sable, who was brushing his teeth at the next sink, turned and grinned. Gareth snorted, then worked his face into the same cool mask Arthur was affecting. “Galahad, I count on you to take up my mantle, should I fall.” He waited, then raised his voice. “Galahad?”
“I’m in the bathroom, pick someone else,” Galahad shouted from the furthest corner of the room.
“Fine, Sable, then,” Gareth said. Sable made a face. “Glad to see you’re into it. Then I challenge you, sir Arthur!”
Arthur snatched up his towel and wound it around his shield arm, then started moving in a slow half circle, stepping carefully first in one direction, then the other. Gareth mimicked him, watching the point of Arthur’s toothbrush carefully. Should have been watching my eyes, Arthur thought triumphantly, feinting to the right and then striking up and under Gareth’s arm.
“Ah!” Gareth cried, clutching a hand to his chest and sinking to his knees. “I die. Everyone in the Capitol weeps for me. What a cruel fate. Avenge me, Sable!”
“I don’t really feel like it,” Sable said, through a mouthful of toothpaste. “Can’t you go back to letting Galahad be second instead?”
“Against Arthur?” Galahad shouted from the distance. “You must be out of your mind.”
Arthur grinned. Gareth, still in a melodramatic dying pose, sighed theatrically.
“I have to do everything myself,” he said, and threw his arms around Arthur’s knees.
“Treachery, you villain!” Arthur shouted, laughing as he crashed to the floor. Gareth had planned it badly, and it was easy enough to wrestle him into a hold. “A nasty trick, and it didn’t get you far.”
“No, but it might have,” someone said, and they all looked round to see Percival from Year Eight and Gloss from Year Nine, standing in the doorway. Gloss grinned at them. “Gareth was right in what he did. In the arena, no one follows duelling rules. Best to learn that as soon as possible.”
“We know that,” Gareth said, sounding put out, and Gloss grinned even wider.
“Your footwork is good, Gareth,” Percival cut in to add, “but watch your elbow in your turns.” He nodded at Arthur. “Good idea with the towel. Everyone knows that anything can be a weapon, but it’s good to remember that anything can be a shield, too. Smart thinking, there.”
“See you in training,” Gloss said, and the two of them left.
Gareth twisted out of Arthur’s hold. “Do they think they’re our trainers or something?” he said.
“Shut up, Gareth,” Leon said. “I think they’re nice. Besides—” Leon paused to stow the last of his things in his toilet case, then looked up and grinned. “You do raise your elbow too high.” He was off in a flash, dashing through the open door and back towards the dormitories.
“What?” Gareth exclaimed, scrambling to his feet to follow. “You coward! Stand and fight!”
As Arthur turned back to the mirror to continue his interrupted wash, he could hear Leon’s laughter mingling with Gareth’s indignant shouts in the distance. Sable went to watch the fight from the doorway, and Arthur glanced back, then raised his toothbrush again and repeated his steps from earlier carefully. He winced. Percival’s critique didn’t only apply to Gareth—Arthur’s elbow was also slightly too high in the turns. He had to practice harder.
“So is this where you hide out when you don’t want to spar?”
Arthur looked up from his work and saw Morgana standing in the doorway to the library, grinning at him. He grinned back, throwing a hand out over the table to indicate his notes.
“Normally I’d love to give you a hint or two,” he said, ignoring her noise of protest, “but I need to finish this essay. Aredian saddled me with analysing weapons choices in Games 30 through 39, and I’m only on page two.”
She grimaced. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Arthur said. “I mean, it’s all useful things. Just a lot of tapes to watch, you know?”
Gareth, who was sitting on the other side of the table, leant back and ran his hands through his hair. “At least you got something useful,” he said. “I got the purge of magic. Again. I don’t get why Aredian keeps harping on about something that’s been dead and gone for at least thirty years.”
Morgana raised her eyebrows, and Arthur grinned.
“Only twenty-three, actually,” he said. “Last documented case was in the 37th Games when the boy from Five tried to protect himself from a swarm of tracker jackers. There have even been some rumours since then, especially surrounding Abernathy’s win in the last Quell, but they’ve all been dispelled quickly.”
“Seriously?” Gareth replied. He rifled through his papers, looking thoroughly put out. “Great. Now I have rewrites to do. Thanks a lot.”
“Thank me when you actually get a passing grade in History for once,” Arthur said, smirking. “Remember, the victors of District One—”
“Are polished diamonds, not lumps of coal, yes, I know,” Gareth said, rolling his eyes. “I guess I’ll just have to compensate with my stunning looks and physical prowess.”
“Yes,” Morgana said sweetly. “Well, good luck with that.”
She gave Gareth a bright smile and turned back to Arthur. “Come find me when you get tired of your books,” she said, and then left the library.
Galahad stared after her, incredulous. “Tell me again why you’re friends with her?” he said.
“She can get you to shut up, so that’s one point in her favour,” Arthur said smugly, then turned back to his work. “Just tell me if you need any further help with your essay,” he added, and laughed when Gareth’s pen bounced off his shoulder.
From the start of Year Five, their quarterly reviews gained a new aspect. Rather than their usual teams of trainers—all solid, stable men and women teaching them everything from sword work to wrestling—these new additions were like exotic birds, dressed in bright colours and makeup, twittering over the way Arthur looked and talked and held himself.
“Look at that hair,” one said, twirling one of her own magenta braids around her fingers. “Perfectly angelic. Should we use that, do you think?”
“Oh no, it’s overdone right now,” said another, a tall man with tiny jewels set all around his eyes. It made his eyes flash with reflected light and made him almost painful to look at. “So Fifties Games. Remember that awful styling they did in, what was it, the fifty-fifth? They actually put wings on the girl for her pre-arena interview. No subtlety at all.”
“He has nice eyes, too,” the magenta-haired woman said, ignoring this tangent into styling history. She put a finger under Arthur’s chin, tipping his head up. “A lovely shade of blue. And I think his cheekbones have promise.”
Arthur wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say anything during this process, but she was looking straight at him, and it seemed rude to only stare back mutely.
“Thank you, you are much too kind,” he said. When she leaned back from him, smiling, he inclined his head in a bow and went on, “Any eyes pale in comparison to your own, if I may be so bold.”
He’d laid it on a bit thick, but Uther had once told him that it was practically impossible to flatter a Capitol person too much. And if he wanted to be a victor, he would have to learn this, too: how to speak to the people of the Capitol, when to be one of them and when to be the awed district citizen. It was just as well to start practising as soon as possible.
Another woman, this one dressed in a gown that seemed to be only feathers, clapped her her hands together in a jangle of silver bracelets. “Oh, he’s so polite!” she squealed. “I love it. Perfectly charming. And quite fresh—it’s been all about the brawn lately. We could spin this.”
The one in magenta braids was still looking at Arthur, considering. “A Man Out of Time,” she said, with finality. There were gasps from the other two.
“Maribelle, darling, that’s perfect,” the tall man said. “And I’ve always wanted to do one. What do you think—Victorian—or do I mean Edwardian? I’ve never really understood the difference.”
Maribelle shook her head. “Medieval times, I think,” she said. “You know, the one with the knights. Chivalry and all that.” She gave Arthur a wide smile, showing teeth that had been stained the same violent shade of purplish pink as her hair. It made her mouth look bloody and sick, Arthur thought with a suppressed shiver.
He made himself smile back at her without any trace of unease. On a whim, he caught her hand and bent his head low over it in the gesture he’d seen in old history books, and the woman in the feathers squealed again.
“Oh, yes,” Maribelle said, sounding pleased. “We can definitely work with this.”
Gareth’s image was easy to see: The Seducer. He’d get to flirt and posture and flex and generally have an air of lighthearted fun. Possibly they would want to twist the role to give it more of a Bad Boy edge, but in either case, Gareth would pull it off well.
For Sable they would probably want to focus on his physique—but, Arthur thought with a twinge of unhappiness that he tried to squash, Sable would probably not last much longer in the programme. He was too slow, and his blade work had lagged behind for two terms now. He’d recently started to pull ahead in strength, and they might keep him for a while longer to see if anything came of that, but Arthur had already resigned himself to seeing him go.
Galahad was harder to pinpoint than any of the others. He was smaller than the rest of them and often shy with new people, and although he talked and joked when they were in their dorm room, in the training area he was soft-spoken and careful. They might do something with that—spin him as someone too innocent and pure for this cruel world (in which case, he would most likely be reaped a bit too young for his own good). Or they might focus on the fact that his best weapon was the bow, and turn him into a stoic and silent sniper. There were some different options, certainly.
Arthur looked up from his thoughts and saw that Gareth, with a nudge and grin at Sable, was aiming an apple at Galahad’s head. Galahad, who was lying back and watching the sky, didn’t seem to have noticed. Arthur frowned, but before he could say anything, Gareth let the apple fly.
Leon stretched out a hand quickly and caught it, then handed it to Galahad.
“From Gareth,” he said calmly, then lay back, too, looking innocently dull. Gareth, who—to his credit—usually took being thwarted in stride, only laughed.
Arthur kept frowning to himself. The role they’d give Leon was the easiest of all to figure out. He’d be The Protector, sent into the arena to watch his district partner’s back and take the brunt of the danger upon himself. It was a role he’d fill to perfection, and Arthur hated knowing that.
Protectors almost always died. And if Leon was selected to go in with someone like Morgana, his chances would be slim to none. So would Gareth’s or Galahad’s for that matter.
All in all, one more reason for Arthur to make absolutely sure he got there himself.
“You leave your left side open when you move to the side like that, you know.”
Morgana lowered her sword and gave Arthur a challenging look. “Oh, do I?” She moved over to the gear rack, picking out another practice sword and tossing it to him. “Why don’t you show me how it’s done, then?”
Arthur made a show out of rolling his eyes, but picked up the sword without further protest. “Do your worst.”
“Are you sure about that?” Morgana taunted, raising her guard with a smile. “It would be such a shame if Pendragon’s golden boy were injured, or worse, scarred.” She gasped theatrically.
“They have treatments for that.”
“But they’re expensive,” Morgana said, moving her sword in a graceful arc. “Are you sure you’re pretty enough to warrant it? Maybe they’ll just pick one of the other boys your year.”
“I guess we’ll see,” Arthur replied, twirling his own sword to get a feel for its weight and balance. It was slightly heavier and longer than the ones they would normally use, from the fourteen-year-olds’ rack, most likely. Arthur smiled. He’d been sparring with Percival in Year Ten lately, who had more than a foot and thirty pounds on him; Arthur could probably handle the swords from the sixteen-year-olds’ rack by now.
“I guess we will,” Morgana said, and charged. Arthur met her first blow easily, using his extra weight to press her back. He managed to keep his advantage for nearly a minute, striking hard, heavy blows to wear her down as she was forced to parry. Morgana rallied soon enough, taking advantage of her speed and shorter range by attacking close, where Arthur had difficulty getting his longer sword into position in time.
The fight was close through to the finish, when Arthur accidentally took a wrong step and lost his balance for a split second. Instantly, Morgana was there, precise blows taking him down until she was standing tall above him, the tip of her sword to Arthur’s throat.
“I win,” she said, looking exceedingly pleased with herself.
Arthur opened his mouth to retort, when he spotted Uther approaching them together with Nimueh Cara, victor of the 59th Games and Morgana’s individual trainer for the past year. He quickly stood up, resisting the urge to brush off his clothes.
“Miss LeFay, well done,” Uther said. “Arthur, a word?”
He walked away, leaving Arthur to follow. Arthur deposited his sword, remembered to bow to Morgana—it rankled, but being gracious about a defeat while you still had the opportunity to learn from it was one of those things that had been hammered into him—and then walked as quickly as he dared after Uther. He could practically feel Morgana smirking after him.
Uther stopped just outside the doors to the training area, but allowed them to shut after Arthur before he said anything.
“This is not good enough, Arthur,” he said coolly. “When you approach someone with a view to teach them, you cannot allow yourself to be beaten.”
Arthur swallowed, fighting down the urge to point out the unfairness of that statement. He’d lost his balance for a moment; it could happen to anyone. It was just luck on Morgana’s part that she had managed to be in the right position to make use of it. He nodded instead, pressing his lips together.
Uther looked at him disapprovingly. “You have been taught to always watch your opponents’ eyes,” he said. “You have failed to draw the conclusion of what your own conduct must be. You must train yourself, Arthur, to never give away with your body or your expression what it is you intend to do. Or, indeed, when something doesn’t go according to plan. You must be unreadable in every moment, be it planned or accidental. Morgana is a girl with a strong natural talent for reading any situation. You can not allow her any advantage.”
Arthur’s eyes smarted, but he nodded again. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’ll practice.”
For the first time this day, Uther looked slightly approving—or at least not openly disgusted. “Very good,” he said. “I expect more from you than this. Don’t disappoint me again.”
“I won’t, sir,” Arthur said, and Uther gave him a curt nod, then strode away.
The door opened, and Morgana swept past him.
“Thanks for the lesson, Golden Boy,” she said, and threw him a devastating smile before running lightly away down the corridor.
Arthur could feel her laughing at him for days to come.
Arthur was shaken awake by Galahad in the early hours of the morning during the 63rd Hunger Games.
“What?” he snapped.
“It’s heading towards the finish,” Galahad said. “Quick! Leon is waking Gareth.”
Arthur shook himself awake immediately. The Games had been going on for almost three weeks. Cashmere Donovan had led her alliance skillfully for the first one and a half weeks, then split from them to hunt solo.
“Pellinore?” Arthur asked, yanking on his shirt.
“Axed,” Galahad said shortly. “Last night. The boy from Seven. But Boy Ten got him afterwards.”
Arthur nodded grimly, jumping into his shoes. Sable was already up, and even Gareth was stirring.
When they got down to the common area, it was already packed. The big monitor on one wall was showing Cashmere running through a forest with a spear in one hand and a long, curved knife in the other. Smaller monitors on either side showed Nimueh pacing up and down in the mentor’s lounge, and the Capitol commentators looking surprisingly fresh, considering what time it was.
“She’s in pursuit?” Arthur asked shortly of the nearest person, receiving a confirming nod.
“Fucking Ten,” someone said. “Who saw them coming?”
“They won the 52nd,” Sable said.
“Yeah, on a fluke,” Gareth muttered.
On the monitor, Cashmere turned her head suddenly to one side and then to the next, then thrust the knife in her belt, hung her spear from the back harness she’d made a day or two previous, and swung herself quickly into a tree.
“Clever girl,” one of the commentators said. “She’s been very good at not falling into any of our little traps. Here the stampede comes now!”
On screen, a wall of wild boars cascaded through the wood, trampling everything in sight. Cashmere’s tree shook but stood firmly rooted, and she kept climbing higher, testing each new branch before transferring her weight.
“Heading up for a look-out, I think,” the commentator said, as she poked her head through the foliage. “Don’t know how she plans on seeing anything, though.”
Cashmere looked out over the wood, turning slowly in a full circle. Then she stopped, as several magpies burst from the trees.
“Oh, she’s using the birds,” the commentator said. “Very good. And, yes, now she’s noticed that they’re moving her way. District Ten’s Aurochs is walking straight into her arms.”
Cashmere climbed quickly down the tree again, now moving with care and stealth. She reached one of the lower branches and perched there, one hand on her knife and the other steadying her with a light touch to the tree trunk.
It felt as though they were all collectively holding their breath. Even the commentators ceased their usual prattle.
There was movement below Cashmere, and she tensed up, then jumped.
She landed just behind Aurochs, her knife already drawn, but didn’t make a move towards him. Instead, she allowed him to turn around and stumble backwards, then smiled.
“She has guts, this one,” one commentator said, sounding grudgingly impressed.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t cost her,” the other replied drily.
Arthur saw movement to his right and turned his head. Gloss was standing a little off from the biggest press of people before the monitor, his arms crossed over his chest. Arthur saw him flinch as Aurochs drew his sword, but the next moment, Gloss was looking every bit the proud and confident brother again, and Arthur frowned, wondering if he had imagined it. He looked closer at Gloss’s arms; the knuckles of his hands were almost white.
He turned back to the screen when he heard a gasp. Aurochs was lunging forward. Cashmere, looking ludicrously small next to him and brandishing a knife that suddenly looked like a toy, darted swiftly aside, dealing him two quick slashes just above the elbow and knee and then turning back to face him when she was just out of reach again.
Aurochs grimaced, and when he tried to raise his sword now, Arthur saw that it was costing him to even get it up to chest height. Cashmere hadn’t cut him deep enough to hit ligaments, but she’d hit him hard, even so.
They rushed at each other again, and once again Cashmere emerged unhurt, having dealt Aurochs another deep gash. He stumbled, then raised his sword with clear effort.
Cashmere backed away even further. She dropped her knife to the ground and then just stood there. As Aurochs began to run towards her, she reached behind her head, snatched her spear from its harness and threw it straight at him.
The spear went into his stomach with such force that it propelled him backwards. He crashed into the soft moss-covered ground, landed on his back and lay still.
Cashmere picked up her knife and walked over to him. She inclined her head in a bow and then, merely nudging his sword hand out of the way, plunged her knife up under his ribcage.
Aurochs hadn’t even stopped twitching before the cannon sounded and the commentators began cheering.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” one of them said, “we present to you the victor of the 63rd Annual Hunger Games: the charming, beautiful, utterly deadly—Cashmere Donovan, from District One! What a finish! What a performance!”
The common room exploded. Arthur threw his arms into the air, and Leon cheered loudly beside him.
“I knew it!”
“It was never a question. She had it in the bag from the start.”
“District One, back on top!”
“Pressure’s on for next year, Donovan,” someone said, and Arthur looked back over at Gloss. “Can’t let your sister show you up.”
Gloss lazily uncrossed his arms and reached for the celebratory drinks being passed around with a wide grin. “I think I have a few extra tricks up my sleeve that would make even Cash green with envy.”
Whoops and cheers followed that statement. Someone turned on some music, more drinks were passed around and soon, an impromptu party was well underway, students from all twelve years celebrating Cashmere’s win.
It was mid-morning when Arthur finally tore himself away, stumbling back towards his dorm to catch another couple of hours of sleep before his private fencing session. A flash of blue caught his eye as he waited for the elevator, and Arthur stopped and looked closer. Someone was curled up beneath the emergency stairway, someone quite large, in sapphire blue. That meant Year Eleven. Arthur frowned.
“Gloss?” he said, walking closer. “You all right?”
“Piss off, Princeling,” Gloss replied. “Go back to the celebration like a good potential tribute.”
He sounded tired, Arthur thought, no real venom in his voice despite the choice of words. Arthur went closer, ducking his head beneath the steps and fitting himself into the narrow space underneath. Gloss didn’t stop him. From what Arthur could see, he wasn’t doing much of anything at all.
“Nothing,” Gloss said. He looked up at Arthur, giving him an easy, charming smile. “Everything’s just perfect.”
Arthur sat down on the floor, waiting.
“My sister is perfect,” Gloss continued, turning his head away. “She just played a perfect Games, and she’ll go on to the Capitol to be a perfect victor. And next year.” Gloss’s voice wavered just slightly. “Next year, she’ll be a perfect mentor. To me. And I’ll go into the arena and better fucking hope that I’ll be equally perfect so that she won’t have to sit there and smile her perfect smile while listening to her imperfect, stupid brother’s cannon blow.”
Arthur swallowed, closing his eyes for a moment while trying to think of something to say. Gloss’s hands were on his knees, shaking visibly. On impulse, Arthur reached out, putting his left hand over Gloss’s right one to still it. Gloss didn’t remark on it, but his fingers moved to curl around Arthur’s, tightening their hold until Arthur had to bite down hard on his bottom lip to keep a pained sound from escaping.
“This never happened,” Gloss said quietly, his hand squeezing Arthur’s a little tighter still.
Arthur shook his head, squeezing back. He stayed where he was until Gloss’s hold loosened, until Arthur could hear his breathing grow deep and regular. Feeling his own tiredness wearing on him, he moved a little closer to the wall, leaning against it and closing his eyes. When he woke up an hour later, Gloss was gone.
From the start of their seventh year, the Ruby dormitory no longer had curfews. To Arthur’s surprise, this meant that some of his dorm mates started to disappear in the evenings. Their training was still as rigorous as it had ever been, and to Arthur’s mind it was unacceptable to stay out late the day before a sword practice. Gareth only laughed when this was pointed out to him.
With the breaking of the curfew, new problems arose, as well. Arthur had thought that over the last six years, he and the other boys in his year had managed to iron out the differences between them, but he arrived back to the dorm one night to find Galahad and Gareth grappling on the floor, dealing each other open blows and kicks that Arthur knew would leave ugly marks. Their image consultants would scream the next time they saw them.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked, stepping in close enough to be heard—but not close enough to be hit. He had a session with his stylist first thing next morning and did not want to have to explain away bruises.
Leon, who was sitting on his bed looking thoroughly exasperated with the whole affair, shrugged at him.
“Gareth made a comment about Jade,” he said. “It was not appreciated.”
Gareth twisted out of Galahad’s grip and got to his feet, panting.
“It’s not like I’m the only guy who’s noticed her tits,” he spat. “I mean, you’d have to be blind not to.”
Galahad jumped up as well, red in the face with rage. “You slight my lady’s honour!”
“Oh, come off it!” Gareth shouted. “No one buys that schtick! You act like I haven’t seen you putting your hand up her shirt. And, by the way, I would say that calling her my lady is a bit naive, because let me tell you, you’re not the only one who—”
Galahad launched himself at Gareth with a roar, and Arthur joined Leon on his bed, rolling his eyes.
“You’re both idiots,” he said, the next time Gareth and Galahad were calm enough to listen. “You’re wasting your energy on something stupid like this, when you really ought to be worrying about beating Jade and the others in the next exam if you want to stay in the programme. Sable was cut only last term; do you really want to join him?”
“Sable was a shit fighter,” Gareth said shortly. He’d rolled away from Galahad and stared at Arthur balefully, holding a hand to his left eye.
“Yes, and you’re a decent fighter, who loses all semblance of control as soon as you get the least bit excited,” Arthur said coolly. “I’ve been watching you. The way you were fighting now, you’d lose a training match against a third-year. People get cut for all kinds of reasons. Start thinking less about what’s in your trousers and more about your knife work, or you won’t last. Remember what happened to Tristan and his girl from Year Nine.”
Leon fidgeted uneasily, but Gareth only snorted.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “You’re acting very high and mighty, but you can’t tell me you haven’t ever taken a tumble with Morgana outside of the mats. The amount of time you two spend between each other’s thighs, I’m surprised she hasn’t got one in the oven yet.”
Arthur went cold. He had to physically stop his fists from rising—instead he stood up, staring down Gareth until he looked away.
“Morgana,” he said, “is like a sister to me. We wrestle regularly, because she’s one of the few who can actually keep up. She’s a true warrior, which is more than I can say for you at the moment. While you’re focusing on what’s under her shirt, she’s planning how to gut you. In the arena, your kind of thinking gets you dead. I suggest you get yourself under control and start thinking about how to beat the girls in our year, not bed them. Otherwise we’ll be seeing you on the bloodbath toll one day.”
Gareth glared at him and opened his mouth, then straightened up suddenly and looked at the floor instead.
“Arthur,” Uther’s voice said from behind him. “I’d like to speak to you for a moment.”
Arthur stiffened. “Yes, sir,” he said, turning and following Uther into the corridor. As he did so, he ran through what he had been saying in his mind. He didn’t think he’d used any swear words—but he’d been harsh, and although by no means as crude as Gareth, he’d still been coarser than was his wont and his role. He forced himself to stand up straight and look right at Uther, taking his chastisement like an adult.
“Sir?” he said.
Uther looked at him for some time and then, to Arthur’s astonishment, put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m very proud of you, Arthur,” he said.
Arthur breathed in more sharply than he intended. He could feel the blood rush to his face as he flushed hot with pleasure.
“You are showing a very good understanding of what this programme demands of you,” Uther went on. “You are an example to those other boys. I hope that they are wise enough to follow where you lead.”
“Thank you, sir,” Arthur managed, fighting down the grin that was too obviously and childishly pleased.
“You are also right about Morgana,” Uther said, and now he looked somewhat more grim. “It is well to remember, Arthur, that she—or any one of the girls close to you in age, of course—might be going into the arena with you one day. She is your ally, yes, but beware of making ties that—can’t one day be broken.”
Arthur nodded solemnly, doing his best to hide the thrill that went through him from the implications of Uther’s statement.
One step closer to the goal.
That summer, after twelve gruelling days in a ruined cityscape filled with horribly humanoid muttations impervious to everything but fire, Gloss was proclaimed the victor of the 64th Hunger Games. Arthur and Morgana watched the final two hours together, almost breathless with anxiety as Gloss raced across crumbling rooftops pursued by the unsettling creatures and finally managed to lure them into a fire trap he’d set up days previously using an old paint warehouse.
The final fight was between him and both Two tributes, who had kept up their alliance to the very end and who caught him unawares just after he’d set off his trap and watched the mutts die in the explosion. Morgana’s nails left grooves in Arthur’s arm as Gloss finally managed to stab the girl only to have the boy slice open his back from armpit to hipbone, but in the end, Gloss found an extra reserve of strength somewhere and buried his knife in the boy’s throat.
As the cheering started in the common room, Morgana finally let go of her death grip on Arthur’s arm and exhaled slowly.
“I thought for sure Girl Two was going to take it in the end,” she said, smiling faintly. “I haven’t ever been so scared for one of our own before.”
Arthur frowned. “Really?” he said. “She was good, sure, but she’d never have had the strength to take on Gloss alone.”
“She didn’t need to,” Morgana said. “She just needed to outlast the other two. And with the way she could beat back those mutts, if she’d broken her alliance with her district partner, it would be her they’d be crowning in the Capitol.”
Arthur looked at her, considering. While it was true that Girl Two had been extremely proficient at cobbling together fire-based weapons to hold the mutts off—and how she’d even managed to work them was beyond Arthur; he’d seen her make a spark take hold of a torch in all but pouring rain—he thought Morgana’s statement was somewhat too bold.
“I think this is the first time you haven’t picked the winner,” he said, smiling to show he meant it as a joke. Morgana took it as such, and pouted at him in an exaggerated fashion.
“Should have known you’d rub it in my face,” she said, then added in a more serious tone, “But it’s true. It’s a good lesson for me, actually. I think I counted too much on her—skill.”
Arthur shrugged. “Had to happen some time,” he said. “But I understand if the shock of being wrong for the very first time in your life has been hard on you. If you want to go lie down, I’ll understand.”
“Shut up!” Morgana shrieked, throwing an arm around his neck for a headlock, and by the time the tray of celebratory snacks reached them, they were locked in a full-on wrestling match that only ended when Gareth threatened to pour his drink over the two of them.
The next year marked the start of their last four in the programme, which meant that media training took up more and more of Arthur’s time. He spent long, tedious afternoons practising and refining his persona, and, at random intervals, was woken two hours before the rest of his dorm and bundled into an interview room, where he was expected to be charming and lovely despite actually wanting to murder whoever was posing the questions.
“Have you had time to see anything of the Capitol?” his interviewer said on this particular morning—a dismal, grey March day. She was a woman Arthur recognised as being on Galahad’s image team, and she had a gratingly nasal, insistent voice. Arthur mentally congratulated Galahad on not stabbing her.
“A little, but certainly not enough,” he said, giving the woman a bright smile. “And I feel like I never could, actually. There’s something new to see everywhere you go.”
She nodded approvingly, making a mark on her clipboard. In actual fact, Arthur had of course never seen anything of the Capitol outside of the telescreens, but after over half a year of this training, that particular question was one he’d be able to answer in his sleep by now.
“And tell us a bit more about yourself,” the woman went on. “What are your strengths? Any particular weapon you favour?”
“Well,” Arthur said, “I am most versed in swordwork, although of course—”
“Wrong,” the woman said, cutting him off sharply. “You are not especially fond of any weapon. You are equally proficient in all possible arts.”
“I must be allowed to profile myself,” Arthur protested. “And people have signature weapons all the time. That guy from District Ten with the meat cleaver, and—”
“People, yes,” the woman told him. “District One tributes, no. You may profile yourself, of course, but you may not do so by naming a specific skillset. Do that, and you are asking for the Gamemakers or the other tributes to make sure your preferred weapon is unavailable.”
Arthur breathed in slowly. It was far too early in the morning for this. He managed to nod humbly, smoothing all annoyance out of his face.
“Moving on,” she said, making another mark. “Tell us about District One. Is there anyone back home you wish you could talk to, right now?”
Arthur sat back, let his face go soft and caring, and lied through his teeth.
He made it through the rest of his interview, and had only just sat down for breakfast with the rest of his dorm when the trumpets that announced an official training centre announcement sounded. Arthur almost swore out loud, but then there was an extra flourish that signalled the head of the training centre himself, and he snapped back into attention immediately.
As Uther entered the dining hall, all conversations quickly came to a halt. Following behind him were all of District One’s currently living victors—sixteen in total—ranging from eighty-year-old Chalcedony Alvarez (3rd Games, still utterly formidable) to Cashmere and, joining the victors’ ranks for the first time, Gloss.
“It’s time for our yearly announcement,” Uther said. “With only three months until the start of the 65th annual Hunger Games, I present to you our tributes: Titania Harington and Percival de Troyes.”
Over at the Year Twelve table, Titania and Percival both stood up, hands held respectfully behind their back but with smiles on their faces.
“We are glad to extend this privilege to you both,” Uther said. “And we’ll be looking forward to welcoming one of you into our ranks. Becoming a victor means becoming a part of the very best our district and centre have to offer, and it will be your duty to help maintain our position as the number one winning district in all of Panem. For one of you, sharing this stage could be the future. Make yourself worthy of it.”
He cleared his throat and looked around the dining hall. “For the rest of our potential tributes in here, these two are to be seen as an example of what you might one day strive to attain. Give them all your support, and help cheer one of them to victory.”
As Uther left the dining hall, it broke into cheers and applause. Arthur stood up with the rest of his dormitory and moved towards the Year Twelves to give his congratulations. He’d thought it must come down to Percival—he’d been miles ahead in his age group for the last couple of years.
Arthur could see how well it would play out, too. Percival was a classic Angel of Mercy, delivering a clean death to those tributes who were most vulnerable. He’d be regretful but kind, and it would be the best thing for those tributes that could otherwise have ended up as bait. It would be especially heartwarming coming from him, too, since he looked more like the typical brawny tribute.
“How about a sparring match, Perce?” someone from Year Ten asked. “Show us what victors are made of.”
Percival only laughed. “My schedule didn’t open up just because I was chosen,” he said. “We’re on the Grind this morning, and then there’s Survival and Tracking after lunch.”
“We have a free hour,” Leon said, turning to Arthur. “Should we go and watch?”
Arthur grinned. “Why not?” he said. “It’s a privilege to get to see tributes in action close up.”
They weren’t alone in heading for the observation balcony. Everyone not actually in training or class seemed to be up there with them.
“Show us your moves, Perce!” someone shouted, and Percival looked up and grinned. He was heading into the Grind together with Cornelius Sigan, the only other boy left in Year Twelve. Titania was waiting for her turn together with the two remaining girls in their year, watching the boys with her hands on her hips and a calculating expression.
The starting bell clanged, and Percival ran forward. A fast-moving boulder headed towards him, and he jumped up, steadying himself with a light touch to the stone and swinging his legs over. He was back on both feet quickly, moving to the right to reach an opening between two stones that would fit his large bulk.
“He has a good eye,” a trainer standing close to Arthur and Leon said. “He was aiming for that opening from the start.”
Cornelius, who was much smaller than Percival, had not been able to leap the first line of boulders as easily and had been forced to wait for an opening. As Percival had to retreat before a series of boulders too closely spaced for him to get through, however, they were brought into the same part of the Grind again. Finally Percival found an opening and dove through, and Cornelius followed close behind. They scanned the area for alternatives, and then both seemed to realise they would need to head down a level. Cornelius headed down first, Percival followed after him, and for a while they were out of sight among all the different levels of stone.
“Hey,” Galahad said breathlessly, stepping up to Leon and Arthur. “I had an image consultation; did I miss it?”
“No, Titania hasn’t gone in yet,” Arthur said. “And Percival is only halfway through. He’s just out of sight right now—he’s over there, by—”
He didn’t have time to finish the sentence. Sirens blared suddenly and alarmingly, and there were gasps all along the balcony. Several of the trainers melted away from the audience quickly, and the moving stones in the course below ground to an immediate and unnerving halt.
“What happened?” Galahad said. “I’ve never seen it stop before. Why would they stop it?”
And then the stones started moving again, slowly and hesitantly, and the course opened up below. Several people screamed.
One large boulder seemed to have been split almost in half. It was stationary, not moving on rails like the rest of the course, and Percival was lying trapped beneath it, not moving.
There was a lot of blood.
“I don’t know what happened!” Cornelius said as he came into view, cowering a little way off. “The stone just broke apart, and Percival was beneath it…”
Trainers were rushing onto the course, pushing Cornelius out of the way and congregating around Percival. Medical staff from the centre’s hospital were rushing to the scene, too. Someone at the back of the the balcony was saying that they should leave, but Arthur and the others stood frozen, unable to look away.
Several of the trainers, as well as the girls from Year Twelve, finally managed to lift and move the boulder together. There were renewed gasps and stifled cries all along the balcony.
“Oh, god,” Leon said faintly.
Arthur nodded, swallowing. The medical staff moved quickly to help, covering Percival with their bodies, but they hadn’t been quick enough to hide what had happened. Percival’s leg was twisted far beyond what was normal, with the knee obviously crushed and what looked like shinbone showing beneath his torn training clothes. His arm seemed to have escaped the worst of it, but his chest looked strange and caved in. Arthur couldn’t even tell if he was breathing.
“Come on,” Galahad muttered. He looked pale and sick. “Come on, we shouldn’t be here.”
Arthur agreed, taking Leon’s arm to tug him away. He looked back himself before they left, and saw Cornelius being led away by the head trainer for Twelve—joined by Uther and, to Arthur’s mild surprise, Aredian, their history professor.
Then, as he turned back to leave the balcony, he caught sight of Morgana, her face beautifully controlled as always but distinctly paler than usual. She was talking quietly to Nimueh, and whatever information was being exchanged, it seemed to be increasing Morgana’s unease rather than relieving it. Arthur bit his lip; Morgana was clearly ahead of him when it came to networking, something which could prove fatal in a future Games, should they be chosen to go in together. Sponsor money was, in most cases, given to a specific district rather than a specific tribute, and whether it ended up benefitting the representing boy, girl or both of them as a unit largely depended on who the district mentors thought had the best chance of winning.
Still, Arthur’s potential Games were a few years away. He still had time to catch up to Morgana.
Cashmere and Gloss both came to their dorm room that night, looking weary but professional.
“Many of you were watching this morning, and doubtless those of you who weren’t have heard from other sources,” Cashmere said calmly. “Percival was trapped beneath a boulder during a training session in the Grind and has been badly hurt. His injuries are too serious for him to be able to compete in the arena this summer.”
Arthur sucked in a breath, even though he’d been expecting it. If that knee was as bad as it had looked from the balcony, it could never be repaired in time for Percival to get his strength and agility back.
“Who will be chosen instead?” Gareth asked.
A quick glance passed between the two siblings.
“Mr Pendragon has been in conference with the PR team and the trainers,” Gloss said. “They have decided to choose one of the potentials from Year Eleven. They haven’t decided who yet.”
Arthur looked from Gloss to Cashmere, frowning. In order to keep things interesting for the Capitol, District One’s tributes weren’t exclusively eighteen-year-olds, of course, and it wasn’t unusual for someone from Year Eleven—like Cashmere in her Games—or sometimes even younger to be picked as tribute. What was strange was that they’d had a back-up from Year Twelve ready in Cornelius, and had decided to pass him by.
“How is Cornelius doing?” Arthur asked, and knew by the smooth smile that settled onto Cashmere’s face what she was going to say even before she opened her mouth.
“Cornelius had a bad shock, but is otherwise well,” she said. “But he hasn’t met all qualifications for the arena.”
“The new tribute chosen will be announced within the week,” Gloss said. “Give them your support.”
“How is—” Leon began, hesitated, then went on, “What about Percival? What will happen to him now?”
Gloss fidgeted and frowned, looking suddenly unhappy. Cashmere looked at Leon, and then said in a surprisingly gentle tone, “It’s early days yet, but they’re hopeful. If he—when he gets out of hospital, it’ll be up to his old trainers to decide where his skills are best put to use. If you want my guess, I think he’ll be joining the trainers’ ranks himself.”
“Those who can’t do, teach,” Gareth muttered. “Poor bastard.”
Gloss straightened up suddenly. “Don’t waste your pity,” he said sharply. “Being a trainer will suit Percival well. He’ll have a good life—better than most of—”
“Gloss,” Cashmere said quietly but firmly, “we need to get the news out to all the dormitories before ten. We should move on.”
She took Gloss’s arm in a tight grip, and smiled around at the rest of them. “Good night,” she said, and steered Gloss away.
The 65th Games seemed to be off to a great start, with Gilderoy from Year Eleven getting picked by the Reaping Ball as predicted, and Titania managing a spectacular Volunteering in the place of an extremely pretty and innocent-looking twelve-year-old who wept beautifully on camera. Gloss and Cashmere welcomed them up on the podium with warm smiles, presenting them with matching gold and silver tokens, as was traditional for District One.
Once the ceremony was over, everyone headed back to the training centre to watch the Capitol recap of the Reapings in the other districts. The common room was filling up quickly, but Arthur wound his way forward easily.
“—a solid start to this year’s field,” the commentator was saying as Arthur slid into a seat next to Leon. “District One has had a very good run recently. How about you, Plinius—are you betting on a hat trick from District One or are you playing the long odds this year?”
Plinius waved a finger playfully. “You can’t expect me to divulge that,” he said. “It’s hard enough for me to appear unbiased as it is!”
“You’re right, of course,” the other commentator said, grinning. “But let’s just say that for those of you at home contemplating a little flutter on either Titania Harington or Gilderoy Dubois, the odds appear to be ever in your favour.”
They both laughed. Arthur rolled his eyes, then snuck a look at Percival, who was sitting on the other side of Leon and watching the screen in sober silence. One hand rested on his crushed knee, repaired well enough to walk on but never enough to be a fighter again. Percival had returned from hospital only a few weeks earlier, a newly minted trainer but still pale from his long convalescence.
It must have been killing him, Arthur thought, to have to sit there and watch Gilderoy have the glory that was supposed to have been his. He was bearing up well, though, hardly letting his disappointment show. As the other Reapings started and they all began deconstructing the tributes together, Percival even smiled.
“Two looks solid,” Leon remarked. “Especially him, as long as he has the brains to back up his strength.”
“She’s not too bad either,” Amethyst from the year above them added. “You can see from the way that she walks that she knows exactly how to shift her weight to keep perfectly balanced. I’m betting she’s been trained in close combat. Possibly blade work as well.”
“Definitely blade work,” one of the trainers sitting close by said, as always ready to guide and correct their observations. “Watch her hands; you can tell by her callouses.”
“Three is looking pretty bad, though,” one of the other girls said. “Boy Three is out of breath just from climbing up on the podium. Probably asthmatic.”
“A goner for the bloodbath,” someone else agreed. “She might make it a couple of days, though.”
Girl Three looked pretty weak in Arthur’s opinion, small and underfed as she clearly was. But she did have a certain focus in her gaze. Sometimes, that was enough to get someone through.
“She’ll make top ten,” he guessed, and got an approving nod from Percival. “So will both from Two.”
“Agreed,” Leon said. “Oh, look, here’s Four coming up.”
District Four was always interesting to watch, in Arthur’s opinion. They rarely volunteered, but there was a training system in place for them, and some quite strong fighters had come out of the district over the years. This year, too, looked interesting. The girl was seventeen and looked like a dock worker—fit and strong. Then the boy's name was called, and there was movement among the fourteen-year-olds.
He's the same age as me, Arthur thought, and was suddenly interested. District Four tributes didn't train anywhere as long as the ones from One and Two, of course, but it would still be intriguing to see how this boy would do.
The tribute separated from his group and started walking towards the podium where the girl tribute and District Four's Capitol representative waited. As he walked, the camera zoomed in on his feet, which despite his otherwise neat, Reaping Day appearance were bare. They were very tanned.
"Ooh," Gareth said, gleeful. "That's embarrassing."
"He wasn't expecting to be Reaped," Arthur said, speaking his thoughts out loud. "In a crowd, no one can see your feet."
He was going to say something more, but then the boy reached his spot by the girl tribute and turned, staring out across the assembly straight into the cameras—straight through the cameras, and right at Arthur.
He had the greenest eyes Arthur had ever seen, the exact colour of the ocean that made District Four such a popular vacation spot for people in the Capitol. The boy blinked, and then, as though he’d only just now noticed the crowd in front of him, let a soft and absolutely breathtaking smile light up his face.
Arthur froze, feeling his heart miss a beat as he just stared at the screen for several long seconds.
Someone laughed close to him, making Arthur snap back to himself with a jerk that was far, far too revealing. He looked around quickly to see if anyone had noticed, mentally fighting down the blush he could feel climbing up the back of his neck, but the other people around him were still making disparaging comments about Boy Four’s shoes and lack thereof. For a split second, he thought he saw Percival frowning at him, but when Arthur glanced that way, he was watching the screen with everyone else.
"—this year's tributes, Clew Mandall and Finnick Odair!" the commentator exclaimed, and Arthur turned back, too. The boy was still smiling
Finnick Odair, he thought, swallowing a little too hard and knowing that, privately, at least, he wouldn't be rooting for the District One tributes that year.
“I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but seeing that, I’m almost glad you got injured.”
Arthur paused on his way down the hall. That was Leon’s voice.
And that was Percival’s. Arthur frowned and moved closer to one of the media rooms, where the door had been left slightly ajar.
“I just mean,” Leon continued, “Odair is so clearly the Capitol favourite this year. How many sponsor gifts has he received by now? The rest of them are practically starving, and he got sent cupcakes, for crying out loud.”
Arthur smiled in spite of himself. That had been one weird sponsor gift; even Odair had seemed utterly bewildered by it, looking at the first cupcake from all angles before taking a careful bite. The resulting expression of bliss on his face as he swallowed it down had been carefully captured by the cameras and played on repeat for several days. Or so Arthur had heard, since he most definitely wasn’t sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to catch the late night recaps.
“He’s both young and incredibly beautiful,” Percival said, sounding tired all of a sudden. “The Capitol can’t help but fall in love with him. We should know; our district plays that angle more often than not.”
Leon huffed. “He’s not that beautiful. I mean, yes, if you like that sort of thing. But he’s nothing compared to—I mean, there are other qualities that—”
“Leon,” Percival said quietly. “Please don’t.”
He sounds sad, Arthur thought with a pang. Worse than that, there was something terribly hopeful underlying the sadness. Percival sounded like someone who didn’t want to hear those words because—
Because he wanted to hear them too much.
He quickly stepped back, moving away from the door. This was clearly not a conversation that was meant to be overheard.
He went back to the dorm room, glad to find it empty, and sat down on his bed, running his hands through his hair. He felt like he’d walked in on something private, and part of him wanted to apologise to Leon for it.
Another part of him, shameful but insidious, resented Leon for daring to have something that Arthur himself was not able to have.
The door swung open, and Arthur looked up sharply. He didn’t want to talk to Leon just yet. But it was only Gareth, who grinned at him.
“What’s eating you?” he said, flinging himself onto his own bed.
Arthur shrugged. “Just thinking.”
“Dangerous habit, that,” Gareth said. “You should stop now before it gives you wrinkles.”
“I’m perfectly serious,” Gareth said. “Look at me, I never think if I can help it, and my skin is flawless. If I lose out on going into the arena—not that there’s any real chance of that with how fantastic my scores have been lately—I can have an extremely successful career doing commercials for Capitol beauty products.”
Arthur shook his head but couldn’t hide a small smile. In a way, Gareth was a perfect example of the way they all needed to live up to the image that had been set for them. With Gareth’s looks developing into a more beautiful and lithe version of what the consultants had been expecting, his image had been tweaked into “artistic and flawless” rather than the “rebellious and exciting” persona he’d been practicing through years five and six. In a way, he and Arthur had much the same problem with potential relationships; while no one would even blink if Gareth were to be discovered with a string of lovers (provided they were appropriately older than him, extremely wealthy and either men or very powerful women as per his target audience for future sponsors), acting on his long-standing crush on Amethyst in the year above them would be out of the question. And while Arthur could probably date every girl in the programme if he wanted to (provided he didn’t compromise anyone whose virtue was part of their image), letting on that he found people like Gloss, and even Percival, more attractive than all the girls put together would be exceedingly… inappropriate.
Besides, even if he somehow would get an opportunity, forming attachments while still at the centre would be beyond stupid. Having a district sweetheart going into the arena might be quaint and generate a little bit of goodwill from sponsors under very specific circumstances, but usually, it just made tributes on edge and easily manipulated. And since anyone Arthur would actually want to date would never fit the accepted criteria, the whole point was moot, anyway.
Waiting was fine, though. Only yesterday, he’d spotted Gloss and Cashmere in the Capitol tabloids again, lounging in a corner at some starlet’s birthday party, flanked by a group of men and women who looked about ready to fight each other for the right to sit closest to them.
Everyone at the centre knew that victors got special liberties. As long as you stayed relatively discreet and didn’t embarrass your district, you would be allowed to go out and enjoy yourself however you wished, and Arthur fully intended to do just that, as soon as he made it through to the Capitol.
Until then, however. Arthur suppressed a sigh.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Gareth asked, frowning. “I can bring you back something from dinner if you’re not feeling well.”
“I’m fine,” Arthur said, “Do you want to bring dinner with us to the common room, though? Games should be coming to an end soon.”
“Sounds good,” Gareth said. “Have you seen Leon? He owes me big. Odair got Girl Six sometime around noon, and Boy Ten was still going strong the last I saw.”
Arthur scowled. “What? She was outlasted by that skinny kid?”
Gareth grinned at him. “Don’t tell me you were counting on District Six in the top three, too,” he said. “I should have bet against you as well. Clearly, neither you nor Leon have any sense at all.”
“We don’t?” Leon said, stepping in through the door, feigning indifference but looking very much like he wanted to punch something.
“Boy Ten made top three and Girl Six is out,” Gareth said quickly and triumphantly. “Pay up.”
“Your fault for picking a loser,” Gareth said.
“Anyone would have picked her over that kid,” Arthur said automatically. He watched a muscle twitch in Leon’s clenched jaw and added, “She was built like Percival.”
Leon flinched. It was subtle and gone in a second, but now that Arthur knew what he was looking for, it was an easy thing to spot. And judging from the level of tension in Leon’s shoulders, Arthur was willing to bet that his conversation with Percival had not gone the way he’d wanted it to.
Which was a good thing really, for Leon’s sake. They all had more important things to focus their energy on, after all.
Chapter 2: The Beginning
Possible dub-con warning for this chapter (references to victor prostitution, sex as coping mechanisms between victors and unclear motives for consensual sex in general).
Arthur crashed through a thick growth of trees and bushes, coming out into a clearing with one knife at the ready and his pack held up to his head as a makeshift shield. It looked empty, and a quick search of the bushes lining the space proved that it was.
Taking only a few moments to catch his breath, he moved forward cautiously, looking around himself for any signs of activity. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of smoke curling upwards in the otherwise still forest.
Someone had not been careful to pick only dry branches for their fire.
He shrugged his pack onto his shoulders again and stepped forward silently, putting each foot down with care. As he moved closer, he could see a body hunched next to the fire with its back to him. It was very small and thin—thirteen or fourteen at most.
Arthur managed to get right up to the fire without making any noise. As soon as he was within distance, he lunged forward, put an arm around the tribute’s neck and pushed his knife up under the ribcage.
The first time he’d had to plunge his knife into a body, his hands had shaken for hours afterwards. Now, it was almost routine.
He made a cursory examination of the pack lying next to the fire but dismissed it. A few pieces of stale bread and a small and blunt knife.
He let the fire burn and moved on, tapping the watch at his wrist. Something nagged at him, though, and he’d only gone a few hundred yards when he realised what. There had been no cannon.
Swearing to himself, he hurried back—although not without caution. More people than him might have been drawn to the spot by the fire. He made it back, took the still body by the neck and plunged his knife in once more. This time, he was rewarded with an almost instant boom.
He shook his head as he wiped his hands and his blade clean. That wasn’t good—kills should always be quick. Still, he’d gone back to finish the job. That had to earn him some points.
He checked his wrist again and frowned. He was running out of time quicker than he’d hoped.
When he’d checked his place last, the river had been to the south. Checking his position against the sun, he set off in that direction, jogging now but keeping an eye and ear out for any other tributes.
He made it to the river safely, then hiked up it until he found the source. He sat down, bathing his feet in the water, and filled up his two water bottles while pondering how he was to set about his task. Dehydration was one of the greatest risks in the arena, and if he could induce that in his fellow competitors, he’d have an edge.
Suddenly, a picture from one of his endless supply of history books came into mind. It was from what had been called the medieval period—a section of history Arthur’s chosen image had forced him to become intimately acquainted with. Siege had been a common mode of warfare then, and he recalled reading about how a besieging power would destroy their enemy’s water supply by launching bloated pigs’ carcasses into the cisterns—and knew that he had realised how to perform his task.
The only problem was what to use. Another tribute’s body was the obvious answer, but those would be collected by the hovercrafts. Still, these woods had their share of beasts.
It meant patience, but he had a bow among his weapons, and after only half an hour, he managed to sneak up on a wild dog and shoot it through the throat. He sliced the animal up generously, smearing its fur with blood, and dragged it back to the river source. He deposited it into the water and weighed it down with several large rocks, but left enough of it above water for the flies to find. The sun and the forest’s pests together should do the job of rotting the corpse and polluting the water below.
Arthur sat back, pleased with his accomplishment. He’d done what he’d been set out to do, and he’d be able to play into his knightly persona when explaining his process, as well. That was a bonus not to be disregarded.
Satisfied for the moment, he decided to rest up and eat some of the dried meat and fruits he carried in his pack, so as to be ready for the final hurdle. The river burbled soothingly next to him, and with the sun above and food in his stomach, it was an almost relaxing respite.
A cannon booming recalled him to his situation. It was time to go.
Before he left, however, he had a sudden thought. Emptying out one of his water bottles, he filled it up again from the water downstream of the dog carcass, then pressed his nail down into the cap until a small indentation appeared. He stowed it easily visible in his pack, set the pack on his shoulders and took directions again. North, now, for his rendezvous.
He had been hiking for little over an hour when he heard a scuffling sound a few hundred metres to his right. Taking his knife out of his belt once more, he moved that way quietly, all the while prepared in case the noise was just meant as a distraction from some trap.
The trees grew close together here, and so Arthur was almost upon the noise before he saw what it was. And then, of course, he had to fight not to start laughing out loud.
“Yeah, very funny,” Gareth said, making a face at him. “Har har har.”
“Comfortable?” Arthur asked. He leant back against a tree, now feeling quite safe in letting his guard down somewhat. He leaned his head to one side, grinning at Gareth’s upside-down one.
“Never better,” Gareth ground out between gritted teeth. He bent his body upwards and flailed ineffectually at the rope encircling both his ankles, then flopped down to once more hang upside down from the snare. “So are you going to let me down, or what?”
“I should really leave you hanging,” Arthur said, smiling lazily. “It would teach you a lesson.”
“I will murder you in your bed,” Gareth said.
“You will try to murder me in my bed,” Arthur corrected, then relented. “Fine, I’ll give you a hand. I’ve managed my task anyway. Ready?”
The rope gave way quickly under his knife, and Gareth fell to the forest floor.
“Ow,” he said pitifully. Arthur laughed.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s play alliance for a bit. I’m rendezvousing in a clearing a little bit up north-west; how about you?”
“Me, too,” Gareth said, brushing himself off with an annoyed grimace. “Although I won’t be seeing any happy expressions on the pick-up crew. I’ve failed this one pretty badly.”
Arthur felt slightly embarrassed as they set off together. In a way he was happy, because every lost point on Gareth’s account meant bringing Arthur into better focus. With only a few months to go until this year’s Hunger Games, it was more and more important to outshine the other two boys left in Year Twelve, and even though Leon was still consistently good, Arthur knew that Gareth was the one to beat.
“How badly is badly? Have you managed to kill anyone at all?” he asked, but Gareth only scowled at him. “No, really. They’ve been generous with this training arena. There are even animal dummies. Maybe you’ve managed to pick off a squirrel?”
“Oh, fuck you,” Gareth said sourly. “I get it. You’ve had a fantastic time. Dead tributes all over the place. I hope the fake blood stains your shirt.”
Arthur laughed, and Gareth finally grinned slightly.
“Seen anything of the others?” he asked.
Arthur shrugged. “No one apart from you. I think Jade was going to be dropped down close to me, but I haven’t seen her. Think she or Glory was the one who set that snare? Probably not Leon, in any case.”
“Glory is great with traps,” Gareth conceded. “But if it was her, I think I’d be dead and out by now and have failed even more miserably.”
Arthur nodded in agreement. Glory usually had a kill plan in place for her traps.
“This is me,” he said, as they stepped into a clearing marked with an emerald green flag. “How about you?”
“Mine was either emerald or sapphire, so I might as well wait with you,” Gareth said. He sat down on the ground heavily, leaning his folded arms on his knees. “Too late for me to earn back any points now, anyway.”
Arthur looked at him. Gareth was looking really unhappy.
“Come on,” Arthur said, sitting down next to him. “It can’t be as bad as that. You’re still alive, at least. With they way Jade’s been vowing to beat all of us no matter what, that’s a bit of an accomplishment, actually.” Gareth only snorted at that, so he went on, “And you were miles ahead when we did the cold test. I really hated that arena.”
Gareth still didn’t say anything, so Arthur moved closer, bumping his shoulder against Gareth’s in a quiet offer of comfort. “Cheer up. There’s still the desert test to go.”
He had been planning to say something else, but a sudden cold sensation against his throat made him stop there. Without turning his head, he felt for his knife and then, finding his sheath empty, glanced sideways.
Gareth grinned at him.
“Apparently I didn’t fail so miserably after all,” he said cheerfully. “Dead?”
“Dead,” Arthur acknowledged. Gareth took the blade away from his neck with an unnecessary and annoying flourish.
“Pack, please,” he said, and Arthur handed it over unwillingly. Gareth tore into it, bringing out fruit and bread with a happy sigh.
“Finally,” he said. “I have hardly had time to eat until now.”
“Happy to oblige,” Arthur said sourly, as Gareth started to wolf down bread. Gareth shook his head, grinning.
“When I got my task for this test, I thought I was done for,” he said. “I thought I’d never be able to take you by surprise. But then I had a feeling that you would fall for the down and wounded gambit. Took me ages to set it up though. Do you have any idea of how hard it is to set off a twitch-up snare just right? I must have practised over a dozen times before I managed to get both feet snared.”
He dug into the pack again and brought out a water bottle, taking several large gulps out of it and then grinning at Arthur again.
“You need to work on trusting people, Arthur,” he said, toasting him with the water bottle. “By which I mean, stop doing it.”
Arthur glared at him, then smiled slightly.
“I guess I should,” he said, staring at the tiny mark in the bottle’s cap. “By the way, that one’s poisoned.”
“I still can’t believe you poisoned me,” Gareth grumbled for what must have been the millionth time, when they came back from their individual afternoon sessions. He had a slight hitch in his step, Arthur noticed; twisted ankle most likely. He filed away the information for the upcoming obstacle course evaluation.
“You killed me with my own knife,” he retorted. “Your fault for not purifying the water first. Consider it a lesson learned.”
Gareth narrowed his eyes. “Well, at least I’m—” He broke off, suddenly very interested in the state of his nails (perfectly polished and painted a deep, cobalt blue), and added, “Good day, sir.”
“Mr Beaumains,” Uther said from behind Arthur. “Well done this morning. I’m glad to see you’re staying focused. Arthur, may I have a word?”
Arthur schooled his face into a neutral expression. “Certainly, sir.”
“Mr Beaumains, if you would excuse us for a minute?”
Arthur watched Gareth leave, then turned to Uther, unsure of whether he was going to receive a lecture for failing out of their last arena evaluation or be commended for managing to take Gareth out with him. “Sir?”
“You have to keep your guard up, Arthur,” Uther said. “I know these people are your friends, but they’re also your competition, and as such, they can’t be trusted. Remember four years ago.”
Arthur nodded. While Percival’s knee had healed well enough in the end, his range of movement in a combat scenario would likely stay limited for the rest of his life. And Cornelius Sigan had ended up cut from the programme and had never been heard from again (something both Arthur and most of the other students around his age were secretly happy about).
“Not everyone is looking to play the Games by the rules,” Uther continued. “Weak and desperate people will do whatever is in their power to survive, regardless of what they become in the process. I trust that Professor Aredian has given you ample examples of just how far some people, historically, have been prepared to go, so I need you to remember that there is a certain point where honour becomes irrelevant. Sometimes, you simply have to fight fire with fire.”
Arthur swallowed. “Sir, are you saying that there is a chance ma—”
“Absolutely not,” Uther said, cooly. “As our President himself has said, the seeds of evil have been thoroughly weeded from this land, and if anything new should try to take root, I assure you it would be most effectively dealt with. I’m simply telling you that in the arena, there is no playing fair. There’s nothing gained by showing mercy.”
Arthur nodded, taking in Uther’s words and turning them in his head, trying to see where they would fit with the rest of his persona. “I’ll remember that, sir.”
“I know you will,” Uther said. He put a firm hand on Arthur’s shoulder, and Arthur felt himself flush with pride at the simple gesture. “Just keep up the hard work, son, and I think I can promise you that you’ll have nothing to worry about at the tribute selection.”
Arthur somehow managed to keep the excitement that surged through him at those words from showing on his face. “Thank you, sir.”
“Keep your focus, Arthur.” Uther said. “That’s all we really need from you at this point. You’re doing admirably in all your evaluations, so just make sure that it’s your head and not your heart doing the thinking.”
“I will,” Arthur said firmly. “My focus is fully on the Games.”
“Good,” Uther said, and Arthur swore he could see a tiny smile tug at the corner of Uther’s mouth. “Now run along. It’s almost time for dinner.”
Arthur inclined his head in a curt bow and left, hardly able to feel his feet as he walked briskly towards the dining hall. Gareth and Leon might still be doing well, but Arthur was the one to watch. And with only a few weeks to go before the tribute announcements, as well.
Arthur quickened his pace. He would make it through. He simply had to.
“Princeling, you need to be far less obvious if you’re going to survive the arena this summer.”
It was a testament to how well Arthur was doing in his media training sessions that he didn’t let the surprise show in his face or body language. He pressed pause on his remote to stop the video he was watching, turned around and managed an expression that was both calm and slightly reproachful.
“I thought we agreed to put the nicknames away. Also, I haven’t been chosen yet.”
Gloss chuckled, pushing off the wall he’d been leaning against and joining Arthur on the couch. “A mere technicality. And you are quite the little prince. Chosen by Pendragon himself to represent both the district and his own legacy. It will be your name called next week. Everyone knows it.”
Arthur shrugged and shot Gloss an artless, open smile. Humility in the face of the great honour bestowed upon him, but still making it clear that he had the confidence in his own skills to be a victor. Getting the balance right was always tricky, especially when his pulse was threatening to run far too fast.
Gloss studied his face and nodded. “Good,” he said. “Very good, even. We’ll make a victor out of you yet.”
“You know that getting to and through the arena are only the first steps,” Gloss said. “I’ve come to tell you that your Advanced Capitol training is coming up, which means that it’s high time we address your little problem.” He nodded pointedly towards the screen and took the remote from Arthur, pressing play.
In front of them, Finnick Odair hefted himself out of the arena river (in slow motion, of course, camera gleefully panning over every inch of tan, wet skin), throwing his head back to get the hair out of his eyes.
Arthur took back the remote and turned off the video. “I know my image.”
“I know you do,” Gloss said. “And I know that you have done very well with all the cheesy, courtly romantic stuff that the debutante crowd will eat up with a spoon. But you’ll need to be able to handle the rest as well.”
“Like what?” Arthur asked, feeling a sting of apprehension. He sincerely hoped it wasn’t more of the silly tourney stuff. Or the courtly dancing.
“This,” Gloss said quietly, and the next thing Arthur knew, he was being pushed back against the couch and Gloss was kissing him.
Gloss Donovan was kissing him.
Arthur couldn’t move, everything in him freezing up in shock as Gloss’s hand found its way into Arthur’s hair, pulling his head back. The instincts he’d honed since coming to the training centre told him to pull away (or push Gloss away—Arthur could name at least five manoeuvres right off the top of his head to get out of a hold exactly like the one Gloss had him in), but something made him hesitate, and that split second was all Gloss needed to drape his whole body over Arthur’s, effectively pinning him in place and making sure that if Arthur wanted out, he’d have to fight for it.
Arthur wished he could claim that he tried, that he didn’t surrender so completely. As the kiss turned deeper, he felt his arms start to move of their own accord, winding themselves around Gloss’s shoulders, pulling him closer instead of away. Gloss responded by putting his other hand on Arthur’s thigh, guiding it out and up, then shifted to get a firm hold on Arthur’s ass, showing him how to move with each push of Gloss’s hips against his.
Somewhere in the back of Arthur’s head, warning bells were ringing weakly. He broke the kiss, trying to focus, but then Gloss kissed him again, and Arthur’s brain stopped listening.
He could feel his pulse racing, making his head spin and heat spread through his body. He kissed back desperately, learning as he went just how to tilt his head or move his body to make the heat between them grow. Gloss moved his mouth away, and Arthur chased it, catching another bruising kiss before there was suddenly a hand on his chest pushing him back.
“I’m sorry to say it, Arthur,” Gloss said, looking down at him with a blank look on his face, “but that? Is definitely not part of your image.”
Arthur felt himself go cold, panic like he hadn’t felt in years rushing up inside him. A test. Of course it had been a test. And Arthur had failed it.
He pushed Gloss further away and got off the couch, stumbling as he regained his footing. He forced himself to stand up straight, to swallow down the bile he could feel at the back of his throat.
Until Gloss told him otherwise, he was still Arthur Pendragon, and he would face whatever consequences were coming with proper grace.
Gloss stood up as well, meeting Arthur’s eyes. “Calm down. It’s not what you think.”
Arthur squared his shoulders.
“This wasn’t a test,” Gloss said, as though he could see straight through him. “Or at least, not in the way you may think. This?” He moved his hand between them. “Was a demonstration.”
“We know you’re gay, Arthur,” Gloss said. “It wasn’t very hard to guess. Everyone involved in your training knows, and it’s not an issue unless you make it one. In fact, it might even make things easier for you in the long run.”
“You have a very appealing image,” Gloss said. “The whole Knight-Reborn thing is just to the Capitol’s tastes. Should you win, you will be very popular. More than that, you will be in a perfect position to promote the interests of our district, but Capitol favour comes with certain… expectations, shall we say?”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, waiting for Gloss to continue.
“You will be sold,” Gloss said bluntly. “Just like now, your body will not be yours to decide what to do with. The victors of District One are the most coveted thing we have to trade, and it’s buying enormous favour for our district in terms of food, shelter, work, medical care and more leniency from the Capitol and the Peacekeepers than any other district can dream to enjoy. Our duty to our district is to please the Capitol. You’ve known this for years and have accepted everything else it means, or you wouldn’t be on the shortlist to go into the arena. And my role, as a fellow victor, is to make sure that you see that this part of your duties is just as important and just as necessary as everything else you’ve been trained to do.
He took a step forward, tilting his head and watching Arthur intently. Arthur somehow managed to look back, to push down a different type of simmering panic. He cleared his throat. “So what does that mean?”
Gloss smiled and reached out towards him, taking Arthur’s hand in his. “It means that, provided nothing drastic happens to make the selection committee change their minds, you’ll have a standing invitation to spend the night with me and Cashmere from Selection Day until your Games start. She’ll teach you how to make sure that every Capitol woman wanting that dreadfully romantic chivalrous fantasy you present get what they want. And I’ll show you how to twist what you really want into things that will work beautifully with your male clients.”
He raised Arthur’s hand to his lips, grazing each knuckle with a fleeting kiss. Arthur swallowed again, feeling some of the previous heat return to his body. “Male clients?”
“Oh, you have no idea,” Gloss said, smirking. “We’re not like the victors from the other districts. People may desire them, but there’s more than a few who just want to demonstrate power, especially with victors from the outer districts. We, on the other hand, don’t need to be put in place, because we’re already exactly what they want us to be. Us, they want to please, as a reward for good behaviour. Trust me, there will be nights when you are stuck escorting whoever is important enough to merit your company that week to events so boring they’ll make you want to stab yourself. But there’ll be other nights as well, and those will more than make up for it.”
Arthur managed a nod, mouth suddenly far too dry for speaking. His mind was reeling, apprehension about his future duties mixing with anticipation so rich he could almost taste it. Whatever hardships awaited him in the Capitol, the possibilities that would come alongside them seemed suddenly endless.
“On second thought,” Gloss said, smirking at him. Arthur felt himself blush like he hadn’t in years at the knowing look on Gloss’s face. “You should come home with me right now. I have a feeling we’ll need some time to take the edge off before you’ll be able to learn anything Cash and I have to teach you.”
Arthur bit his lip, feeling his face burn even hotter from embarrassment. He opened his mouth to protest, to at least demonstrate some focus and control, but whatever remark he’d been able to come up with dissipated when Gloss leaned in and kissed him again, walking Arthur backwards until he had him pinned against the nearest wall.
“Victors’ Square, half an hour. I’ll switch your morning appointments to the afternoon,” Gloss said quietly, taking a step back and winking at Arthur before turning to leave the room. “See you later, Princeling.”
Arthur watched him leave, then sagged against the wall, closing his eyes and breathing deeply to get himself back under control. Once he felt his pulse slow down to something approaching normal, he went back to the sofa and sat down heavily with his hands over his face. The nagging fear that Gloss’s invitation was still part of some kind of bigger test wouldn’t go away, and yet...
Arthur stood up, took another deep breath to steady himself and walked briskly out of the media room, taking a right turn towards the main exit.
The following week passed in a sort of focused daze. Arthur found himself smiling stupidly at the most random moments, and it took all of his skill to keep his regular persona going when he wasn’t actively in training. His body felt different now, alive in a way it hadn’t been before, and everything was somehow sharper and clearer. The first morning, he’d been sore all over—up to par with the aftermath of the most intense evaluation sessions—but he found that this helped rather than hindered him when they went out on the morning obstacle course, aches and pains wearing off quickly and leaving a new sense of awareness of the potential in every muscle and joint behind.
He managed new personal records for different stations three days in a row, won a sword fight against Morgana and caused both Gareth and Leon to skip dinner in favour of extra sessions with their trainers. He caught Uther watching his sessions more than once, always with the tiniest of smiles on his face, and on top of it all, he got to wrap up each day doing and having things done to him that he hadn’t even known to fantasise about.
It was, by far, the best week of Arthur’s life.
The trumpets signalling the official announcement came during dinner the following Monday. Arthur was sitting between Glory and Jade—which meant that for once the dinner table had been relatively free of the constant rivalry that had been building between them for the past month—and he had to actually stop himself from smiling. It wouldn’t do to let on that he knew where the vote had landed beforehand.
He looked at the victors as they all lined up. Kermes, as the latest victor, was at the far right, with Gloss next to him. Arthur tried not to be too obvious, but he couldn’t help looking at Gloss where he stood, tall and straight and strong, a victor to his fingertips.
He realised he’d been staring too long when Gloss turned his head and met his eyes. But there was no reaction—not even a sign of recognition. Gloss stared coolly back at him, his face wooden.
Arthur went cold. Had he misunderstood—had it all been a test, still? Was it possible that he had misjudged so completely? He looked away from Gloss, focusing on Uther instead and fighting down the panic that rose up like a wave.
“Please support this year’s tributes,” Uther finished off his introduction. “First, the male tribute: my son, Arthur Pendragon.”
Arthur sucked in a breath, hardly hearing the applause that broke out around him. He surged to his feet, putting his hands behind his back and allowing a smile to creep onto his face. He met the eyes of Gareth—angry and disappointed, but resigned—and Leon—curiously calm. Gareth looked back at him and, after a moment’s pause, gave a shrug and a thin smile.
Arthur looked further out over the hall, and then back at the victors, where Gloss was now grinning with the rest. Arthur shot him a glare, and Gloss sent him a look that was clearly mocking.
“And joining him, the female tribute,” Uther said, holding up a hand for silence.
Arthur looked back at his year mates, considering. He hadn’t been able to guess which way they would go here. Jade was the strongest fighter by far, but Glory was an excellent trapper and knew more about poisons than anyone in their year. In terms of skill, she would be a better complement to him, but visually, Jade was definitely a better match. It could go either way, really, and Arthur had played around with some different strategies for both of them.
“This year’s female tribute,” Uther said, “will be taken from Year Eleven. Morgana LeFay.”
“What?” Glory shrieked. She went unheard by most of the hall, however. Morgana had already stood up to receive her applause, which was just as loud as Arthur’s. She looked over towards the Year Twelve table, and let a slow smile settle on her face before bowing her head in the direction of Arthur—and, by extension, the rest of the table.
Arthur clapped with the rest, but resolved to warn Morgana against ever leaving food unattended if she intended to keep antagonising the Year Twelve girls. It wouldn’t be the first time a slighted tribute tried to put their rival out of play, after all. She looked at him, raising one eyebrow, and he rolled his eyes.
“We hope to welcome one of you into our ranks this year,” Uther finished off. “Work hard, and make your district proud.”
Arthur kept standing as the victors filed out, accepting the applause and cheers. The taste of glory was electrifying. He looked at Morgana and saw his own excitement mirrored in her eyes.
They’d make a fantastic team in the arena.
Arthur straightened the collar of his simple white shirt, glancing up at the podium. The clock was ticking slowly towards ten, but chances were they would give it a few moments extra, to make sure all the Capitol audience made it to their TV sets in time to catch the whole Reaping.
Behind him, Gareth was making sarcastic comments to Jasper, who had been cut from the programme and their dorm in Year Three, but Arthur willed himself to ignore them and concentrated on looking serious and attentive. For all he knew, the cameras could be on them already.
“You’re at the Reaping, not a reunion party,” he muttered at them. “Remember your audience.”
“Ugh, fine,” Gareth said, leaning forward to poke him in the back of the head. “You should be nice to me, or I might just volunteer for you and steal all your glory.”
“Try it and say goodbye to your kneecaps,” Arthur said calmly.
Before Gareth could respond, Septima Gaudy, their Capitol representative, tottered onto the podium in a pair of lethal-looking heels. Arthur straightened up. Finally, the Reaping was starting.
He was barely aware of Septima as she did her spiel and the Hunger Games anthem played, too focused on what was to come. At last, with her usual trill of “Let’s start with my girls!”, Septima reached into the bowl holding the girl’s names and came up with a slip of paper.
“Morgana LeFay,” she read.
Arthur looked over towards the girls. Morgana, looking strikingly pale and beautiful, straightened up. As she began to walk forward, one of the other girls in her year caught at her arm, and Morgana gave her a brave smile before walking onwards—a nice touch, Arthur thought.
Septima welcomed her onto the stage and shook her hand, then motioned Morgana over to one side before reaching for the boy’s name. She gave a little gasp.
“Arthur—Pendragon,” she said.
Arthur allowed himself to flinch slightly, then raised his gaze and looked straight into the camera that had swivelled to find him. He gave a little nod, then walked forward slowly. As he walked towards the podium, he saw that several of the cameras had found Uther among the victors’ crowd.
He looked down at his feet for a moment to hide his excitement. His name and connection to a previous victor as famous as Uther would already be giving him a headstart with the audience. Now it was up to him to build on it.
Arthur stepped up onto the podium and looked out over the assembly and then, as if he was just recalling his courtesies, turned to Septima and swept her a low bow. She put a hand over her mouth.
He turned to Morgana next and extended his hand. For a moment he thought she was going to Ice Queen it—it had been decided that the two of them were not to be coached together, so Arthur really had no way of knowing exactly how she was going to play things—but then she took his hand and shook it firmly. There was a challenge there, certainly, but she wasn’t as hostile as he’d feared she might be.
He gave her hand an extra hard squeeze all the same. No point in starting out easy when he finally had the moment he’d been waiting for within reach.
Although he’d been to the station to see other tributes off many times, Arthur had never actually been on a train himself before. They turned out to be a lot more comfortable than he had expected; the speed that had made him dizzy when he’d seen them leaving the station hardly noticeable once you were on board.
Since Morgana gave no sign of finding any of this new or interesting—because Morgana, of course, always looked as if nothing in the world could ever startle or unsettle her—Arthur feigned the same disinterested calm.
“Itineraries for this week,” Nimueh said, handing each of them a sheet of paper. “We’ll arrive at the Capitol around four and head over to the training centre and the district apartments. You’ll meet your stylists there for a fitting, then have a quick session in remake—just to check that the pre-stylists have done their jobs, really. Then at six, you have a couple of hours in the gym, then dinner at eight thirty followed by hair and makeup. Your first social engagement is at eleven at one of the most exclusive parties held in the Capitol all year. Anyone who’s anyone will be there, and you’ll be the only tributes in attendance. Use it well.”
Arthur nodded, already picking out conversation topics in his head. Next to him, Morgana was looking equally focused.
“Rest and nutrition will be top priority this week,” Nimueh continued. “You will each meet with a personal trainer who will have a training schedule and diet for you to optimise your form for the Games. Your sessions with the other tributes are for strategy only. Show off enough to intimidate when you need to, but do not tip your hand. I trust that you’re both intelligent enough to know this.”
“You’ll each have private sessions in the evenings,” Gloss added. “We have eight active victors on our team this year, so you’ll have mentoring sessions with several of us, to make sure that you have as wide a perspective as possible of the Games before going in. Your most important session will be interview prep on Thursday. Make sure you review the reading material your image consultants have provided you with before then. We have several hours before we reach the Capitol, so I would suggest that you start by watching the Reapings. District Two through to Five should already be possible to watch through recap, and the rest should all be up before we arrive.”
Arthur glanced at Morgana, who caught his eye and then smiled.
“Let’s check out the competition,” she said, giving him a small wink.
Arthur felt inexplicably relieved. He didn’t know exactly where he stood with Morgana, right now, and Gloss hadn’t given him any instructions. Still, if she was willing to keep playing alliance for the time being, Arthur wouldn’t say no to that. Sooner or later, he and Morgana would have to go their separate ways in the arena—but as long as he could, Arthur wanted to postpone that moment.
“Bet on Top Ten?” he said, and she grinned at him.
“You know that betting against me has never worked out for you,” she said sweetly. “I would be taking your money.”
Arthur laughed, catching the remote she tossed him and switching on the large telescreen covering one wall of the carriage. As he and Morgana settled down in front of it, prepared to both scorn and assess, Arthur caught Nimueh staring thoughtfully at them before leaving the carriage with Gloss. He shivered involuntarily. Morgana had always spoken warmly about her mentor, and Arthur knew that she was a respected part of the trainer team, but for some reason Nimueh just creeped him out.
“Oh, Two. You always deliver,” Morgana said, gesturing at the screen, and Arthur turned back to the task at hand.
Arthur’s stylist was short and plump, with her thick black hair laid in intricate curls and topped with an actual bird’s nest. There was a live lark sitting in it, looking drugged and stupid and giving off the occasional wheezy chirp. Arthur tried not to stare, but the whole thing was so bizarre he felt his eyes drawn to it again and again.
“You are handsome,” she said, looking at him critically. “And I like the idea they went with for you. My name is Rubea, by the way. It’s nice to finally meet you; I’ve only had your measurements and my active imagination to work with so far.”
She winked at him. Arthur cleared his throat.
“I am grateful for your work,” he said, and gave her a bow. Her prep team giggled loudly, and one man gave Arthur a frankly carnivorous look.
“Well, we won’t do any big work tonight,” Rubea went on. “We want that fresh from the district look, after all, so it’s mainly about making you presentable—and I must say, you’re easy to work with there. Do you want to see what you’ll be wearing for the party?”
She nodded at one of her team, who disappeared through a side door and reentered wheeling a mannequin before him. It was wearing a full suit of armour, polished to a high shine and with the golden dragon that would be Arthur’s token for the Games inlaid in the breastplate. A red cloak reminiscent of the one he wore as a student in the Ruby dormitory back home was hung from its shoulders.
You’ve got to be joking, Arthur thought, but outwardly, he only smiled.
“I should make an impression,” he said, and Rubea beamed at him.
Privately, he thought his costume was tacky beyond words. Still, the Capitol had never seemed to learn the meaning of the word subtlety, and he felt sure that Rubea knew what she was doing. She had been promoted to District One only the year before and had done a magnificent job with Micah on her very first go, showcasing both his strength and his beauty perfectly.
(She’d only managed to show her skill in the pre-arena costumes, however. Micah had only managed third place.)
“Try it on,” she urged. “I’ve had this done to the measurements I was sent in May, but we might have to tweak some seams.”
When put on his body, the armour was surprisingly light and comfortable. Arthur had been expecting a tin can, but was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to move about in it. He tested all the joints, bending his arms and knees and turning his head this way and that, while Rubea and her team fussed around him, tucking in the cloth of his undergarments and polishing rivets.
“We need to do something about your hair, of course,” Rubea said, rubbing a few strands between her fingers. “The style is good, but I suppose you can’t get proper conditioner in District One. We’ll need to give it some love before you’re fit to be seen.”
“We lack many of the luxuries you have here,” Arthur said humbly, and she awwed.
“It’s an absolute pleasure to be able to work with real people at last,” she confided in a low tone. “I was on District Seven for years. An absolute nightmare. You wouldn’t believe all the hair! And the nails! I thought I would cry when I did my first Seven styling. OK, now turn, let me see how it fits.”
She examined him critically as he turned in a slow circle.
“Good,” she said. “Very nice. Caelius, see to the rivets on the right shoulder, and give that dragon an extra polish. We want it to really pop.”
She took Arthur’s chin in her fingers, her long nails scraping uncomfortably against his skin. “And I’ll see you later,” she said, giving him another wink. “Just you wait. I’m going to make you gorgeous.”
The party music was so loud that Arthur could feel the bass beat in his throat even while they were still in the elevator. Helen and Cashmere were accompanying them up, with Nimueh and Gloss already in place at the party and talking up the District One tributes to anyone who would listen.
“It’s so hot,” Morgana said, pushing back the crystal coronet holding her long curls in place. Her dress was all crystals as well, with long white gloves covering her arms to the elbow. Artur gave her a sympathetic look. He had thought his costume was bad enough, but Morgana’s had to be excruciating in this heat.
“It’s not hot,” Helen said, raising her eyebrows. “You are hot. Remember that.”
Morgana nodded solemnly and then, as Helen turned to mutter something to Cashmere, made a face. Arthur smiled, then turned his own face away and worked his expression back into its blank mask. They were almost at the top floor.
As the elevator doors pinged open, the heat and the noise hit them like a physical presence. Arthur had prepared himself, but he still had to blink, trying to make his eyes adjust to the dim light.
The first thing he saw was colour. Even in the gloom, the Capitol’s utter lack of restraint showed clearly. There was not a single person who wasn’t wearing something eye-searingly bright, and most of them had hair or jewellery that would put out the eye of an unwary passer-by. Arthur suddenly thought that despite their own outrageous costumes, he and the rest of the District One delegates ran a risk of fading into the background at this event.
Then he spotted Gloss, wearing a blue silk shirt open to the waist and his victor’s crown jauntily askew, and was relieved to find him waving. He glanced at Cashmere, who nodded and made her way over. Arthur and Morgana followed, while Helen melted away, hailed by a man a little further off.
“Darling brother,” Cashmere said, kissing Gloss once on each cheek. “I trust you’ve been keeping out of trouble when I wasn’t here to mind you?”
“Without you, no trouble seems worth the bother of getting into,” Gloss replied lightly, then guided her to a woman at his side. “You remember Apollinia?”
“How could I forget?” Cashmere said, and to Arthur’s slight surprise, kissed the woman’s hand.
“I was just telling Gloss I hoped the two of you would be able to come visit me again this year,” Apollinia said, giggling. “I have added to my collection. I’d love to see what you think of it.”
“We’ll have to check with our scheduler, of course,” Gloss said smoothly, “but I’m sure it won’t be a problem. In the meantime, may I introduce you to our young charges? These are our tributes this year: Arthur Pendragon and Morgana LeFay.”
Arthur bowed low and was rewarded with another giggle. Gloss reached behind him for two glasses of something pink and frothy and handed them to Arthur and Morgana, giving Arthur a glance of approval as he did so.
“Morgana,” Cashmere said, selecting a tall glass of thick black liquid for herself. “I see some people I want to introduce you to. I trust I can leave you boys alone for a minute?”
“We promise to behave,” Gloss said.
On a whim, Arthur smiled at Apollinia. “I promise no such thing,” he said, and she shrieked with laughter.
“Oh, Gloss, I like this one!” she said. “He’s so naughty!”
Other people had moved in, as well, and as Cashmere moved away with Morgana, one man reached forward and put a hand on Gloss’s arm.
“Did I hear that right?” he said, giving Arthur a quick once-over. “Am I looking at a potential future victor?”
“Very strong potential,” Gloss said, smiling lazily. “If you’re looking to sponsor this year, I can promise you that you wouldn’t be wasting your money.”
The man took a few steps further forward.
“I’m Indigo Celestine,” he said. He took one of Arthur’s hands in both of his and shook it warmly, the fingers lingering uncomfortably against Arthur’s. “Cabinet member and founder of Beauty’s Best skin colouring products.”
A woman all but elbowed him out of the way.
“Aurora Flutterley,” she said, blinking vividly purple eyes at Arthur. “Junior executive at Channel One Studios. I would just love to make your closer acquaintance.”
“I think you’ll find that he’s promised me the first dance,” another woman (who Arthur had never seen before, much less spoken to) said. She was very tall, her height made even more pronounced by her hair, which stood up in twisted spirals from her head, interlaced with silver wire and green ribbons. Her dress was green, too, fashioned entirely from ivy leaves.
Arthur, under the pretense of taking another sip from his glass, snuck a glance at Gloss, who bent his head in an almost imperceptible nod.
“My lady,” Arthur said, turning back to the tall woman and bending his face over the hand she held out to him. “Will you do me the honour of granting me this dance?”
The woman smiled triumphantly, then took his arm in a tight grip and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor.
“My name,” she said as they revolved slowly, her hand slipping down over his back, “is Celina Bijou.”
“Ms Bijou,” Arthur said, using his most charming voice. “I’m flattered that you would seek my company.”
“I only sponsor the very best,” she said. “And Gloss assures me you are well worth the investment. Call me Celina, by the way. Don’t stand on ceremony with me! I’d like us to be intimate friends.”
“Your friendship would be of great value to me,” Arthur said.
“Oh, yes, it would,” she agreed. “I am one of the inner circle of Gamemakers, after all, and I flatter myself that my influence in our government is not small, either.” She grinned at him, showing a little too much teeth for Arthur. “I think you’ll find that our mutual friendship could be very profitable.”
When she finally let him go, it was with another pinching grip of his arm and a promise that she would talk to Gloss and make arrangements. Arthur kissed her hand in farewell, wondering if he had actually managed to snag his first sponsor by himself.
After Celina, he danced with Indigo Celestine, and after that with an enormously fat man who held him in a close, sweaty grip the whole dance through. There seemed to be some kind of queue system for dancing with him, but all Arthur knew was that he chatted and danced with the people marked out for him by Gloss, feeling increasingly weary. The armour that had felt so light when Rubea first introduced him to it started to weigh on him, and he felt his attention flagging as the evening ran on. There was something almost childishly pathetic in all these people who kept pushing themselves onto him, flaunting their achievements and vying with each other for his attention.
Suddenly Gloss was there next to him, prying him away from the grasping fingers of Aurora Flutterley and leading him onto the dance floor.
“I can’t let you have him all to yourself,” Gloss said, winking, and Arthur’s heart leapt foolishly. He pulled himself together, allowing Gloss to lead him into a waltz.
“Losing focus a bit there, Princeling,” Gloss said, speaking the words in a soft murmur into Arthur’s ear.
Arthur grinned, taking his hand from Gloss’s shoulder and tapping the victor’s crown.
“I’m not the prince tonight,” he said.
“You’re always the little prince,” Gloss said, dismissive.
“Does that make you my king, then?” Arthur said, emboldened by the music and the darkness. Gloss snorted.
“You definitely need to up your game,” he said, then led Arthur away from the dance floor and to a table laden with different coloured drinks in high, fluted glasses. Arthur reached for a green one, but Gloss steered his hand away quickly.
“Not a good idea,” he said, handing Arthur a bright purple glass instead. “You’ll like this a lot better.”
Arthur took a sip, feeling almost instantly revived.
“Better?” Gloss asked. “Good. I thought you might need it. You didn’t even laugh at Indigo’s latest joke. Granted, the man couldn’t tell a good joke to save his life, but I’ve never let that stop me from finding him extremely amusing.”
Arthur nodded, then demonstrated his most charming smile, throwing in a roguish wink for good measure.
“Good,” Gloss said. “Now let’s go back to pushing the odds along in your favour.”
They didn’t come back from the party until nearly 4 AM, but for some reason, Arthur still couldn’t get to sleep. He meditated, did his breathing exercises and even rolled out of bed to do some push-ups before getting up and wrapping a robe around himself with an annoyed huff. This wouldn’t do. Getting enough sleep at this stage of the game was crucial, but if his body wouldn’t allow him that, then at least he might get some of his pre-interview reading done.
He walked around his room for a while, booklet in hand, trying to get his body to grow tired and heavy. It didn’t really work, and he was already well into the third chapter (Regular Camera Setup And Common Variations) when he heard a door open and close and two voices carry through the main hallway.
One of them was Gloss. The other, he realised with a pang as the person suddenly laughed, was Finnick Odair.
Arthur very nearly walked into his own wall. He berated himself quietly and took a deep breath, then put his booklet down calmly and opened his door. He could go say a casual hello. Victor to future victor and all that. Without making a fool of himself.
Finnick and Gloss were in the kitchen part of the apartment, Finnick leaning against the counter with his back to the hallway. He was wearing a long, translucent sarong that flared at his ankles and clung to his hips and thighs in a most distracting way. His upper body, as well as his feet, was bare, except for some kind of shimmering paint and thick gold bracelets around his forearms and wrists. Arthur swallowed, then told himself firmly not to be ridiculous.
“—every day for the coming week,” Finnick was saying. “Probably more once the Games actually start and the sponsors start throwing some real money around. You?” Something was slightly off with his speech, Arthur noted. Alcohol, possibly, seeing as in the Capitol, there were parties happening every night of the week. Maybe drugs—it was a poorly kept secret that Finnick Odair had a bit of an adventurous streak when it came to such things, after all.
“I’m okay,” Gloss replied. “Some two-for-one exclusives with Cash, a couple of birthday parties and the like. Nothing major. Hey, sit down, will you. Before you fall and hurt yourself.”
“Wouldn’t matter,” Finnick said, the slur in his speech growing more pronounced. “My stylists are experts at hiding marks. Have to stay pretty.”
“I know,” Gloss said, then raised his head and spotted Arthur. “Don’t look behind you, Finn, but we have an audience.”
The change in Finnick’s body was obvious. He turned around with a smooth grace to his movements that Arthur recognised from seeing him on the telescreens. He looked even better in person, Arthur thought dazedly—a bright flash of colour in a world of black and white. Arthur swallowed as subtly as he could, then held out his hand.
“Gloss’s boy,” Finnick said with a smile, taking Arthur’s hand and stroking his thumb slowly along the back of it. “The golden prince. It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Arthur managed. Finnick’s thumb made another little circle.
“All perfect and golden,” Finnick continued, and Arthur stood there, frozen in place, as Finnick let go of his hand and instead reached out and ran his fingers through Arthur’s hair and down the side of his face in one smooth caress. “You know, Haymitch told me once about how in District Twelve, they use canaries down in the mines. Take them down ahead of the workers, and if they fall down dead, that means the air is toxic. And they keep singing prettily, until their last breath. You’re perfect like that, all of you from One. No matter how dark the place or narrow the cage, you just keep singing. Sometimes, I wish I could do that.”
“I think you manage just fine,” Gloss cut in, moving Finnick’s hand away from Arthur and putting a tumbler full of amber liquid and a couple of pills in front of him on the counter. “Here, take these. It’ll help bring you down.”
Finnick swallowed obediently and threw back the drink in one go, then held out the glass to Gloss, who refilled it.
“Which bird is luckier,” Finnick mused, turning back to Arthur, “the one that knows what it feels like to fly but never will again, or the one that’s born in the cage and loves it as its home?”
Up close like this, Arthur could see how blown his pupils were, the unnatural flush to his cheeks beneath the flawless makeup. He swallowed again, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Go back to bed, Arthur,” Gloss sighed. “You need rest, and Finn here needs a cold shower. I’ll see you in the morning.” He moved in and put an arm around Finnick’s waist, pulling him in gently and letting Finnick slump at his side. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
“Can’t stay,” Arthur heard Finnick mumble, even as Gloss was leading him away. “Jo’s out with Callisto Gilding and Lucius Clave tonight. I promised I’d be there when she got back.”
“Let Haymitch do it,” Gloss said. “You need rest too, and she’s—”
Arthur didn’t hear the rest of Gloss’s sentence, only saw Finnick shake his head and pull away, and then Gloss grabbing him again and pretty much pushing him into the bathroom. Arthur did as told and went back to his bedroom, picking up his booklet from where he’d put it down and lying down on the bed. The words on the pages swam before his eyes, and after turning some ten-fifteen pages, he realised he didn’t have a clue what he’d actually read.
A sick feeling of disappointment was building in his gut, and he told himself he was being ridiculous. Finnick Odair was only eighteen, after all—same as Arthur, and Arthur knew painfully well how easily he’d been swept away and lost his mind completely on occasion—and it wasn’t fair to expect him to be exactly the way the broadcasts presented him: all glittering eyes and wit and charm so blinding a person could get lost in it.
Finnick Odair was just a person.
Telling himself that didn’t really make Arthur feel any better.
The Tribute Parade the following evening wasn’t just an opportunity to make an impression and get ahead in the game before it even started; it was also a chance to get a good first handle on the competition Arthur and Morgana would be facing in the arena.
District One usually formed an alliance with Districts Two and Four for the first part of the Games, as long as none of the tributes picked was obviously unsuitable. This year—from what Arthur had observed so far—looked like it was offering up a rather standard mix of people.
The boy and girl from District Two were both tall, the girl eye-catching in particular. She was attractive as well as strong-looking, something her stylist had put to good use. He had put her in striking, dark make-up and had clearly taken a bit of an unorthodox risk with the costumes, focusing on the fact that Two mined metals as well as stone. Both tributes were dressed in metallic clothes—cloth-of-silver, mainly, although Arthur suspected that the girl's stiff bodice was riveted out of actual steel—and had been bedecked with token pieces of faux armour: a spaulder and vambraces for the girl and a sleeveless chainmail shirt for the boy.
Arthur remembered both their names from watching the Two reaping: Morgause and Cenred. Morgause had stridden forward to volunteer with calm determination, not even glancing at the girl she was replacing. It was a bit of a gambit, appearing that detached, but the commentator had loved it. She could be a contender for power.
Arthur wasn't sure about the name of the girl from Four, but the boy was called by the posturing name of Valiant. They were both decked out as mermaids, covered in shiny scales from the hips down and carrying fairytale tridents, fancifully spun and spiralled out of some bronze-coloured metal. The trident obsession that had started with Finnick's win had clearly not run its course yet.
The girl—Saphra or Sophie or something like that—was small and gorgeous, fifteen at most, with pearls strewn in her wavy, blonde hair. She glittered and smiled prettily enough, but there was something clearly calculating in her eyes as she looked around at the rest of the tributes, and her arms spoke of a wiry kind of strength. Obviously not one to disregard. Beside her, Valiant looked massive—a large and well-muscled seventeen-year-old, he was scowling and glaring but didn't seem frightened.
Next to Arthur, Morgana was smoothing down her already perfect hair, looking annoyingly flawless as usual. The six of them would make a solid alliance. There was space for additions to it, of course, and a lot of the training week was going to be about that—scoping out the talents of the other tributes, sizing up the competition and possible allies.
“Notice anyone in particular?” Arthur asked Morgana. She shrugged.
“There are a few with the physique, at least,” she said, jerking her head in the direction of the Sevens, where a boy dressed as the Capitol's idea of a lumberjack was hoisting his district partner onto the wagon with obvious ease, and then towards Girl Eleven, a tall girl with some pretty impressive biceps.
“Takes skill, too,” Arthur mumbled. “And smarts.”
Morgana smiled. “Maybe we should be watching out for the Threes, then?” she said, nodding towards the wagon for District Three. Arthur winced. Both boy and girl were twined in some kind of glowing and twinkling rope, just barely enough to preserve their dignity. It was a terrible costume to be stuck with—there had to be some better way to represent electricity, surely.
The boy wasn't looking nearly as uncomfortable as Arthur had expected, though. He had longish hair that he kept tossing back from his face with somewhat unnecessary vigour, and while he wasn't actively grinning at anyone, he was standing at ease and Arthur saw him share several almost amused looks with the girl at his side.
“Ugh,” Morgana said, grinning. “Look at him. If I knew you could get that fit from connecting wires, I wouldn't have wasted all those hours in the gym.”
Arthur shot her a look, annoyed. “What are you, Caesar Flickerman now?” he said. “Leave the ogling to the Capitol.”
Morgana smirked at him, but turned to take in the rest of the tributes.
“Ten are doing cow costumes again,” she said. “You'd think they'd learn, honestly. Eight is looking good this year, though. Oh, but would you look at what they've dressed Twelve in?”
Arthur turned that way, too, and looked where she was indicating. “Dressed” was a bit too strong a word, really. Twelve's stylist had merely draped a few scraps of black cloth over the parts that really needed to be covered and had then smeared what skin remained—which was a lot—with black dust. The girl was rather a looker and pulled the ensemble off with quiet dignity, but the boy looked like he was trying to make himself turn invisible. The black coal smudges showed up strikingly against his milky pale skin, looking like particularly evil bruises, and he was pulling unhappily at the flimsy covering his stylist had given him. He wasn't entirely unattractive, despite the unfortunate ears, but it was clear that this boy was not going to make it big in the Capitol.
“Someone really ought to fire that stylist,” Morgana muttered.
“Yeah, sure, take it up in your interview,” Arthur said. “Focus, we're heading out.”
The handlers for their wagon stepped aside and gave the horses a sign, and they started rolling out towards the audiences. Arthur tweaked the drape of his cloak, raised his hand in a salute and smiled.
Arthur and Morgana arrived down late the next morning to what was laughably called "training" in the Capitol. Most of the other tributes had already spread out to try some weapons, now and again glancing up at the Gamemakers on their podium. Arthur recognised the head training instructor as Atala from back home. She had been one of the frontrunners in the programme until Year Ten or so, but in the end Cashmere, one year below her, had so outshone everyone else that she had been chosen instead. Quite rightly, as it turned out.
Arthur looked around the room. Girl Four was climbing a rope with every sign of enjoyment. Her district partner was heaving clubs. The tributes from Two, however, were standing off to one side, just watching the rest of the tributes with disdain. Arthur walked over to them and nodded to the girl.
"Morgause, right?" he said. She nodded, raising her eyebrows at him. "I'm Arthur. Do you want to spar?"
She leaned her head slightly to one side, watching him closely. She had absolutely gorgeous eyes, he thought. Even devoid of the dramatic make-up from the tribute parade, they were large and dark and would probably translate well to the screen.
"We're not really supposed to fight each other," she said.
Arthur snorted. Besides the fact that Atala was from his district and programme, he and Morgause were clearly going to be the stars of these Games. Those rules were not for them. "We're from Districts One and Two," he said. "We can do whatever we want. As long as we use practise weapons and don't actively try to kill one another, they'll let it pass. The Gamemakers will want some excitement, too."
"In that case, sure," she said, smiling at him and then glancing around at the other tributes. "I don't mind showing off for a bit. Weapons?"
"Why don't you pick?" Arthur said.
"Swords, then," she said, handing him a blunted one from the practise rack.
They started off slow, circling one another and feinting, trying to draw one another in. Then, as they were getting more into it, Morgause darted quickly left and then right, striking with snakelike speed in under his sword and hitting his armpit.
"First blood," Arthur said, grinning easily. The blow had been heavy, much harder than he'd expected. He mentally upped his estimation of Morgause's strength.
"Want to try for second?" Morgause said softly.
They moved towards one another again, now moving faster and with more purpose. Arthur scored two hits against Morgause and she another one against him, and now they were circling and darting at each other, swords meeting again and again and the ring of steel filling Arthur's ears. He became aware that most of the other tributes were watching them, and from somewhere further off Atala was calling that they were to stick to sparring, no serious injuries allowed, but all Arthur focused on was his next stroke and the growing realisation of something rather disturbing.
He wasn't giving it his all, of course. There was no sense in wasting all his energy on the first day, and he wanted plenty in reserve to dazzle the Gamemakers in the final, private session. But the thing was, although he was holding back, so was Morgause. And he was fighting hard to just keep matching her.
They had moved away from the swords area, pressing each other further and further into the centre of the room. Arthur was keeping a careful eye on the surroundings as he dodged Morgause's blows, not wanting to get skewered by an arrow or something if they were to accidentally get in the way of a target, but as he stepped back to avoid a powerful backward swing of Morgause's sword he bumped suddenly into someone and stumbled. There was an indignant squawk from whoever had been stupid enough to stand in the way, but Morgause was bearing down on him, so Arthur only rolled sideways and rose quickly again into a crouch.
Morgause had left her side entirely open. He hesitated for a moment, then swung his sword.
"Dead," he said, the point of his sword at Morgause's heart. She nodded, pushing back her hair from her face.
"A fair win," she said, and Arthur thought no, not really. She should have been able to use his fall against him. Instead she'd left her guard down and allowed him the opportunity to exploit it. It was a mistake even a fairly well trained swordsman could have made in the heat of the moment, but she was an excellent swordsman. She could have been distracted, but the far more likely explanation was that she'd let him win. Why? To lure him into a false appreciation of her skills? Because she felt herself tiring, and wanted to end the fight quicker? Or because she was simply wary of taking an unnecessary hurt? There could be many reasons for a stunt like that, and not all of them had to be about skewing his perspective of her.
"You're strong," he said, allowing her to pull him to his feet.
"And you're stronger," she said.
Arthur wasn't at all sure that was true.
There was a noise behind him, and he turned to see the person he'd knocked into. It was the boy from Twelve. He seemed to have fallen against a table, and was swearing over his elbow.
"Ow, ow, hurts like a—" He stopped when he saw Arthur watching him, and straightened up. "What the hell do you think you're doing? The swords area is over there!"
Arthur stared at him. The boy was thin and gangly, hardly filling out his training clothes. He was standing at the edible plants table, a sure sign of someone with no faith at all in his abilities to fight, an underfed Twelve miner with no chance in the world of surviving more than two days in the arena. And he was mouthing off to Arthur.
Arthur grinned. "Do you have any idea who I am?" he said. Boy Twelve glared at him.
"Do you have any idea of who I am?" he said.
Arthur raised his eyebrows, looking the boy up and down. "It's harder to recognise you clean, of course," he said, "but the way your accent makes my ears hurt places you in Twelve." He paused for a moment, then added, "I'm from District One."
Not even this had any effect. "Don't they give you names in One, then?" the boy said.
Arthur frowned. This was no longer funny. "Of course they do. I’m Arthur."
"And I'm Merlin," Boy Twelve said. "So now that we know who we are, was there anything you wanted to say?"
Arthur drew in his breath sharply, taking a step forward, but Morgause cleared her throat in warning and he stopped. Atala was watching them closely. She may have let him and Morgause show off, knowing neither of them would be rash enough to sustain hurts before the Games had begun, but there were limits.
"Just stay out of my way, Merlin," Arthur said, checking his temper. "Otherwise you'll wish you had."
Merlin snorted, turning back to his edible plants. "Yeah, sure."
Arthur turned and strode back to the swords area. Depositing his practise sword back in the rack, he headed over to the station for spears and proceeded to make short of work of the targets for the hours until lunch.
He'd never in his life met someone who made such an awful first impression.
"We should look into who else could be good for the alliance," Morgana said at breakfast the next day. "Do you have any thoughts?"
Arthur shrugged. "Not really. Why? Do you have anyone in mind?"
Morgana nodded thoughtfully. "One or two potentials. I was thinking that maybe you could talk to Guinevere?"
Arthur frowned. "Who?"
"Guinevere," Morgana repeated. "Girl Twelve."
Arthur stared at her, then started laughing. "You have to be joking," he said. "You want to bring a Twelve on board?"
Morgana quirked her eyebrows. "You obviously haven't seen her with a mace. She's a blacksmith's daughter, so she's as strong as they get in Twelve, and she knows her way around just about every weapon they've got in there." She shrugged and reached out for another orange. "Watch her for a bit and see if you don't agree. She's a novelty, if nothing else."
"Fine." Arthur nodded. "I'll take a look and if I think you're right, I'll talk to her about the alliance. All right?"
Two hours later he was forced to concede that Morgana was indeed right (always a thing he tried not to acknowledge if possible). Guinevere from Twelve was really rather good, much better than Arthur had expected. She wasn't quite as skilled with the bow and slingshot as with the more close-quarter weapons, but she could use everything from a sword to a morningstar with very good technique.
Her district partner, meanwhile, seemed unable to even pick up a knife without accidentally hurting himself.
The two of them had been sitting with the Sevens, Arthur had noted the day before, and they were working together all day now, as well. He wanted to get Guinevere alone if he were to talk to her, but whenever he looked over at her, she was deep in conversation with Boy Seven (while Merlin and the thirteen-year-old girl tribute from Seven compared incompetence or something).
Finally, right before lunch, Arthur walked over and joined them at their station. Guinevere was explaining spear technique to the rest of her little group, absentmindedly correcting Merlin's atrocious grip while she went through some finer points with Boy Seven.
"—so that's the way to switch between jabbing and throwing grip," she was saying as Arthur came up to them. "Right, Lancelot, just like that. Very good."
Boy Seven—Lancelot—smiled softly at her, and Arthur made a mental note of that. It always paid to keep track of who would protect whom, if it came to it in the arena.
"Looks good," he said casually, and almost smiled at how all four heads snapped around to stare at him. "Can one of you hand me a spear?"
Merlin shot him a look and tightened his grip on the spear (still wrong). "Oh, I hope we're not getting in your way by standing here," he said.
"No, you're fine," Arthur said blithely, ignoring the tone. "Thanks." This was to Lancelot, who had just handed him a spear.
He spent some time stabbing a dummy, then shifted into a throwing grip and attacked some targets, working on accuracy rather than strength. He was aware of the presence of the little group beside him all the time, but gave off every impression of ignoring them completely. It was only when the signal came for lunch and they started packing up that he moved towards Guinevere, who was sorting the weapons they'd been using.
"You've got very good technique," he said. "Not only with this, but with a lot of weapons."
Guinevere frowned. "Thanks," she said. "I think."
"We could always use people who can fight," Arthur said. "Have you thought about alliances at all?"
Guinevere looked at him, and then at her friends. Lancelot was heading off to lunch with his district partner, following the rest of the tributes, but Merlin was hovering a bit further off, watching them with a thoughtful frown.
"You mean with you?" she said, and when Arthur nodded, "Not really. Not so far."
"I think you'd find it helpful," Arthur said. "If you're interested."
Guinevere glanced at Merlin again and then back at Arthur. "And what about Merlin?" she said.
It was Arthur's turn to frown. "What about him?"
"Are you extending this offer to Merlin? I'm not going anywhere he can't come with me."
Arthur stared at her, then crossed his arms over his chest and leaned closer. "Look," he said, "I realise the mentors you have are kind of shit. Haymitch is not even a functioning alcoholic any longer and I don't know if Gaius is senile or just an idiot, but it's just tough luck for you. I'm going to give you the advice they should have been giving you from the start: ditch Merlin. The sooner, the better. In the arena, he's only going to be dragging you down. Cut your losses on that one as soon as you can."
Guinevere looked up at him blankly for several seconds. When the blow came, open-handed and heavy, it surprised the hell out of him.
"I take it your recruiting mission didn't go to plan?" Morgana said, smirking at him across the lunch table. Cenred laughed loudly.
"We could hear the slap all the way out here," he said. "Was that the Twelve girl? She looks like she could pack a punch."
"Let's just say we shouldn't look for an alliance in that quarter," Arthur said sourly. He glared across the table at Morgana and at the boy sitting next to her. "Any more recruiting you want to do, you do on your own. I see you've started."
Morgana smiled. "This is Mordred," she said. "From District Five."
Arthur looked at her, but nothing more was forthcoming. He gave her a look, and she only smiled wider.
"Fine," he said, shrugging. Hopefully she'd tell him sooner or later what reason she had for including a thirteen-year-old without obvious powers in the alliance. Until then, he'd have to trust her judgement, frightening concept though it might be.
He couldn't wait for all of this to be over and the Games to actually start.
Morgana's interview dress was slim, black and absolutely stunning. She did her best model walk onto the podium, up to the twirl at the end and the kisses tossed at the audience.
"Morgana LeFay, District One," Caesar Flickerman said, taking her hands in both of his and kissing her lightly on the cheek. "What a vision you are! Isn't she a vision, everyone?"
The roar from the audience was answer enough. Morgana smiled and waved perfectly.
"And what a wonderful dress," Flickerman went on. "What did you think when you first put that on?"
Morgana laughed. "I fell in love, of course," she said. "I couldn't imagine anything better than to get to wear beautiful clothes like this every day. And then I decided that I would win these Games quickly, so that I could come back to the Capitol as soon as possible."
Flickerman laughed uproariously at that, as did the audience with him. Arthur smiled to himself. She was already laying down some groundwork to have in place if she won, clearly.
"We have a fighter!" Flickerman announced. "And such a charming one, as well. So, Morgana, tell me: what can we expect to see from you in the arena? Any special skills we should know about?"
"Well, I'm fast," Morgana said, winking at him. He chuckled appreciatively. "I have quick reflexes. You could say I'm very intuitive as a person."
That was putting it mildly, Arthur thought.
Morgana and Caesar laughed and flirted their way through the rest of the interview, and when she finally swept off the stage, it was with a look thrown Arthur's way that clearly said top that if you can.
The cameras were all on him now, so unfortunately he couldn't roll his eyes at that.
"And also from District One, Arthur Pendragon!" Flickerman announced, and Arthur strode onto the stage, threw a few smiles in the direction of imagined friends in the audience—show that you are one of them already, and they will have no choice but to love you—and swept a low and courtly bow. A lady in the front row fanned herself with a program theatrically, and he winked at her. Her friends on either side shrieked with delight.
"Someone get that woman a glass of water!" Flickerman exclaimed, and Arthur took his seat to gales of laughter and piercing wolf whistles.
"Arthur Pendragon," Flickerman said, leaning forward to shake Arthur's hand warmly. "Well, of course I have to ask—any relation to the Uther Pendragon? Winner of the 34th Games after a mere seven, brutal days?"
Arthur smiled and shook his head. "I'm adopted into the Pendragon family," he said. "I never knew my biological parents, and after the Pendragons took me in, I never felt the need to."
Several people in the audience aaawed.
"Even so, those blue eyes..." Flickerman turned to the audience, raising his eyebrows. "He is not without resemblance, don't you think?"
Arthur only smiled again. Enigmatic, was what they'd chosen to go with for him here. There was enough superficial likeness between Arthur and Uther for the question to come up, and it would keep the audience interested in him if they thought there was a mystery in his parentage.
Flickerman next led the interview onto questions about how Arthur was finding the Capitol, easily fended—Arthur was meant to be at home in this environment, as befitted the favoured district, but still charmed and grateful for all the attention and privileges—and then onto training scores and fighting skills, where Arthur with the ever-present help of Flickerman's perfectly inserted questions marketed himself as a knight born again.
"Of course, Arthur," Flickerman said finally, "with a father like yours—no, sorry, adoptive father—" He tipped a wink to the audience, then continued, "the pressure must be on for you. How do you feel about that?"
He'd set Arthur up for the perfect finish, and Arthur spared a moment to be grateful that these interviews were run by a professional. Really, they couldn't have managed this thing better if they'd scripted the whole interview together beforehand.
"Well," he said, "I'm very confident in my own abilities. But, um." He allowed himself to hesitate visibly—hardly having to act, either. Flickerman leaned forward, putting a hand on his knee.
"Go on," he said.
"Uther Pendragon basically brought me up," Arthur said, speaking directly into the nearest camera, "and of course he's a big hero to me. He has been ever since I first saw his Games—no, since before that, actually." A woman in the front row of the audience clasped her hands together with an idiotic expression of emotion. "So yes, now that I'm in the Games myself, I feel like—I want to make him proud of me."
Flickerman put a hand to his heart and smiled at the audience, and there were audible sighs from all over the studio. Arthur smiled and stood up to take his bow. Let anyone else try to manage a more diverse image. One of the strongest fighters in the group, with a tantalisingly mysterious background and latent daddy issues. The commentators would eat him up.
He took his seat next to Morgana, leaned back and prepared to enjoy the rest of the interviews.
Morgause went for quietly dangerous in her interview. She smiled a lot, but with a predatory air that seemed to make even Flickerman uneasy. When asked about her skills, she said she'd be happy with any weapon but that she had a penchant for things that were sharp and pointy, achieving the desired laugh.
"I tend to be underestimated," she added then, "which works in my favour."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Flickerman said jovially. "With one of the two highest training scores, that lean frame of yours and, not least, those eyes," he winked at the audience, "I think you'd be one of the tributes to watch out for the most in these games."
Morgause returned his grin with a quiet smile. "And you're still underestimating me," she said.
There was a short, shocked pause, and then the audience exploded with cheers while Flickerman roared with laughter. Arthur mentally applauded Morgause. She was playing the intimidation card for all it was worth, and it was working perfectly. He saw several of the other tributes look even more nervous than before.
Cenred followed Morgause, and spoke the routine Two lines about playing for the glory and honour of his district and the Capitol. He wouldn't have been very memorable if it hadn't been for his clothes—his stylist had dressed him in some ridiculous full-body leather glove that had made Arthur cringe when he first saw it.
This shameless attempt to show off the tribute's body as the most interesting thing about them was repeated in the boy from District Three, who was wearing tight, shiny trousers and a white shirt open to the waist. Like he had at the tribute parade, however, he seemed unusually at ease for a tribute with no media training and barely any clothes on. He grinned at the audience, caught a flower that some insipid person tossed at him and put it between his teeth as he bowed low.
"Gwaine, Gwaine," Flickerman shouted, laughing, "you'll steal the spotlight from me at this rate! Come here and sit next to me." He patted the chair opposite him invitingly, and drew his own chair closer when Gwaine finally sat down.
"Hats off to your stylist," Flickerman said, and the audience laughed and whistled. Gwaine grinned and tossed his head back to bring his shoulder length hair out of his eyes.
"I think they did a great job," he said, "considering that they only have a few days to get the work done. Apparently they didn't have time to find the right buttons or something, though, so I had to make do without."
"I'm sure none of us mind," Flickerman said, to fresh laughs. "So, Gwaine, you don't look like a typical Three tribute, I have to admit."
Gwaine looked innocently puzzled. "How’s that?" he asked, but Flickerman only grinned, inviting the audience into the joke. Arthur wondered if Gwaine was actually simple. He grit his teeth behind the bored, superior expression he had assumed for the non-alliance interviews, determined not to let his annoyance show. Gwaine had all the most irritating qualities of Gareth back home, except that in Gareth, it was all for show. Without the biting intelligence that always shone through in Gareth, there was really nothing redeeming about that type of personality, and yet here was this Three idiot accepting the crowd’s applause as if he’d done something to deserve it.
"What did you do back in District Three, Gwaine?" Flickerman asked, apparently so in love with Gwaine's name that he intended to use it at every opportunity.
"I worked in one of the factories, with Elena," Gwaine said. The cameras found his district partner, who was scratching her elaborately styled hair with an unladylike grimace and started in alarm when she suddenly found herself on one of the big screens. "We made parts for different electrical appliances. It's quite possible that some of these cameras contain parts that I've made, in fact." He waved a hand at the cameras surrounding him.
"Yes, it does seem as though they're glad to see you again!" Flickerman joked, and the interview was once again interrupted by cheers.
Sophia from District Four followed when that spectacle was over at last. Her outfit emulated her tribute costume, with her hair plaited with gold thread and pearls and her dress an abundance of soft blue and green fabric, overlapping in a pattern like waves or the scales of a mermaid. She was utterly charming.
"Do you have any hopes for this year's arena?" Flickerman asked her after the introductions were over, a leading question if ever there was one. District Four tributes always had an affinity for water. Sophia didn't disappoint, either—she would be aware, of course, of how delightfully quaint the Capitol found the idea of district-based skills.
"I wouldn't mind a watery arena, as you probably suspected," she said, smiling sweetly. "I'm a good, strong swimmer. And I'm good at diving, and can hold my breath for a long time. Back home, I work as a pearl diver."
The audience oohed. A pearl diver was an exotic and delightfully pretty occupation, and would surely tickle their fancy. Arthur wondered if there was any truth in it.
After Valiant had succeeded Sophia and scowled threateningly at the cameras for the appropriate amount of time, the interviews started to blur into one for Arthur. Like the audience, he had difficulty staying focused after the principal tributes had been interviewed. Some stood out more than others, of course—but not always in a good way.
Mordred's district partner from Five was extremely nervous. With her long auburn hair almost down to her waist and nut-brown eyes, however, she was rather pretty, and Caesar Flickerman seemed quite taken with her. The same could not be said about the girl tribute from District Six, who looked strung out on something already. Unnervingly thin and pale-skinned, she stared at the audience with wide eyes and open mouth, answering Flickerman's questions with murmured sentences that trailed off into nonsense.
Guinevere's friend from Seven, Lancelot, was stoic in his interview but endeared himself to the audience by talking about how he and his thirteen-year-old district partner were going to do their best to survive together. Boy Eight was furious, barely holding his rage in check as he replied to Flickerman in short, terse sentences. He was eighteen.
Girl Nine cried all through her interview.
Girl Eleven had a high score from her private session with the Gamemakers, and she seemed to be just as strong as her physique promised. Her district partner Emmer, meanwhile, was one of the few non-alliance tributes whose name had stuck for Arthur from the very start. But then, he had already made a splash in the Games—by running away when his name was called at the Eleven Reaping, forcing the Peacekeepers to drag him back to the stage. It was a shameful way to be remembered.
And then there was District Twelve. Like Arthur had expected, Guinevere had received a high training score of eight, and in her interview she managed to somewhat rouse the audience from their stupor with her smiles and her easy manner. Merlin was a disaster, however. He stammered his way through the questions without either wit or charm, sometimes attempting humour that fell completely flat. Not even Flickerman could turn it into something memorable.
Finally the interviews were over, and Arthur stood with the rest of the tributes for the Hunger Games anthem. Tomorrow, the Games would begin in earnest—an end to the waiting for his life to start at last.
Arthur Pendragon smiled for the cameras.
“So, any last advice for tomorrow?” Arthur asked, picking up a cluster of grapes from a bowl on the coffee table back at the District One apartments and throwing them high in the air one by one, catching them with his mouth.
Gloss looked up from the magazine he was reading, shaking his head. “Get some sleep, Princeling. You’ll need it.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, throwing another grape into the air. He could still hear the interview audience cheer inside his head—the obvious approval and excitement that was all because of him. For a moment, when the spotlight had found him as they all took their bow, he’d felt invincible.
“Maybe you could help tire me out,” he said, not caring that he sounded like something out of a Capitol Romance Reel. Gloss raised an eyebrow at him. Arthur picked the magazine out of his hands and leaned in. “Come to bed with me.”
Gloss looked decidedly unimpressed. He also looked tired, despite obvious attempts to hide it behind a pretty spectacular makeup job. Arthur sat down on the edge of the sofa and leaned in further, bracketing Gloss’s head with his hands and pressing a row of slow, wet kisses along the line of his neck.
“Come to bed with me,” he repeated, pitching his voice low. “You’ve worked around the clock for weeks now to get me ready for the Games; let me spoil you a little.”
He moved from Gloss’s neck to his mouth, teasing with soft brushes of lips against lips until Gloss opened for him, letting Arthur deepen the kiss. Arthur shifted his weight and stretched out on the sofa next to him, draping a thigh across Gloss’s hips to anchor himself as the kiss grew hotter. One of Gloss’s hands came up to tangle in Arthur’s hair, and Arthur lost himself in the easy give and take of it all, heat building low and sure in his stomach.
“Come on,” he murmured, letting Gloss’s mouth go in favour of dragging his lips against the underside of his jaw. “I’ll be gone for at least a week in the arena. Let me give you a couple of reasons to miss me.”
The corners of Gloss’s mouth twitched, and for a terrible second, Arthur thought Gloss would start laughing at him. He rolled off the sofa and pulled them both to their feet, leaning in quickly to kiss Gloss again and stop whatever comment or critique was clearly at the tip of his tongue.
Tomorrow, the Games would start, and Arthur was more than ready to step up and play his part. Tonight, however, he wanted something just for himself, and for once in his life, he was going to actually take it.
“I can’t feel my legs anymore.”
Next to him, Gloss hummed in agreement, but still managed to lift a heavy arm and playfully cuff Arthur around the head. “Better sleep it off. If you stumble when getting off that plate tomorrow, I’ll pull you out of the arena and kill you myself.”
Arthur chuckled and rolled over on his back, stretching out his arms. “Duly noted.”
“I’ll miss you, you know,” Arthur mumbled, the lingering pleasure high making his tongue looser than usual. “In the arena. I’ll miss you a lot.”
He felt Gloss grow very still next to him, and when Arthur looked over, Gloss turned his face away. “Don’t say things like that.”
Arthur rolled over on his side, pushing himself up with one arm. “I’ll come back. You know I will.”
He brought a hand up to Gloss’s face, turning it towards him, leaning in to seal his promise with a kiss. Gloss’s answering push nearly sent him falling off the bed.
“Don’t. Say. Things. Like. That,” Gloss hissed, pinning Arthur beneath him and catching his wrists in both hands, locking them above Arthur’s head. Arthur swallowed heavily, taken aback by the sudden coldness in Gloss’s eyes. He managed a small nod, and Gloss’s grip on his wrists loosened a fraction.
“Listen to me,” Gloss said quietly. “And listen closely, because this is easily the most important lesson you still have to learn. Whatever fantasy is in your head right now is a lie. We are not together, and I am not in love with you. I don’t even like you very much, if I’m perfectly honest, because the way you still stubbornly wear your heart on your sleeve after all the time and effort that’s been put into your training makes me want to bash your head against the wall. I don’t fuck you because I want you; I do it because it’s part of my job, and I know how to fake it with the best of them.” He ran a hand up the length of Arthur’s neck, tangling in Arthur’s hair and tilting his head back. Arthur tried to suppress the involuntary shiver that travelled up his spine.
“I can’t believe you,” Gloss spat, giving Arthur’s hair a painful tug before rolling out of bed and throwing some of the scattered pieces of clothing from the floor in his general direction. “What the fuck do I need to do to make you understand this? You. Are. In. This. Alone. What part of that is unclear to you?”
Arthur sat up, pulling his tunic over his head and keeping his eyes down. He could feel his face burn, and a sick, heavy feeling was quickly replacing any lingering pleasure left in his body. “I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Gloss said coldly. “Be smart. Get a fucking grip and start thinking like a victor, or I can tell you right now that Morgana or Girl Two will be accepting that crown from Snow in your stead.” He grabbed a dressing gown from a nearby closet and tied it firmly around his waist. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a previous engagement that I need to get ready for.”
Arthur nodded, swallowing against the sudden sour taste at the back of his throat. He reached for a pair of underwear, pulling them quickly up his hips when there was a knock at the bedroom door and Cashmere entered.
“Gloss, we need to get going,” she said, walking up to her brother and looking him critically up and down. “Let me see.”
Gloss untied the robe, letting it fall off his shoulders with a shrug. He held out his hands and did a slow, sarcastic turn, letting Cashmere inspect him from all angles. “Well?”
“You’ll do,” Cashmere said, then turned to Arthur. “Augustus Prime, likes his partners fucked-out and messy, but dislikes doing the work himself. Thanks for helping out.”
Arthur swallowed again, forcing himself to meet Cashmere’s eyes without flinching, praying that his voice wouldn’t break. “My pleasure.”
Cashmere tilted her head, then looked at her brother, and the two of them had one of their silent conversations that always made Arthur feel a pang of stupid, irrelevant want. Then she suddenly turned and walked up to Arthur, closing her arms around him in a firm hug.
“We believe in you,” she whispered, so quietly that Arthur had trouble making out the words. “Whatever my brother just told you—no matter how true it might be—the victors here, we’re all family, and even though we can’t offer you anything else, we stand by our own.”
She pulled back, giving Arthur a smirk and a wink. “Good luck tomorrow, Little Prince.”
Arthur was still trying to think of a reply when she leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, then put a firm hand at the small of his back and shoved him unceremoniously out the door.
Arthur didn’t realise he was heading up to the roof until he was standing in the lift, watching the numbers for the floors above his slide by on the display. The doors opened with a quiet ding, and Arthur stepped outside. Below him, the Capitol stretched out in every direction, glittering in a thousand colours. Arthur walked up to the railing and leaned against it, closing his eyes and letting the warm wind sweep across his face.
He stood there for a long time, just breathing in the night air, until there was a loud crash to his left, followed by some very creative cursing.
Arthur turned around, just in time to see Merlin pull himself out of a pile of broken pieces of wood that had probably been a small table, once upon a time.
“Killing yourself before the start of the Games would be very stupid, you know,” Arthur said, sending a small smirk Merlin’s way as Merlin struggled to get back on his feet and brush himself off.
“Oh. It’s you,” Merlin said, took a couple of steps forward and then seemed to think better of it. “Wonderful.” He sat down with his back to the railing, still swaying a bit from side to side. He was holding a near-empty whiskey bottle in his right hand.
Arthur frowned. “Where did you get that?”
Merlin looked up on him in confusion, then looked down at his hand, like he only now realised he was holding something. He brought the bottle to his lips and took a long sip, then made a grimace as he swallowed. “Haymitch.”
Arthur’s already extremely low regard of District Twelve and its mentors sank even further. No wonder the Twelve tributes were always so utterly directionless. “Your mentor gave you a bottle of whiskey the night before the start of the Games and told you to go get drunk?”
“Well, no,” Merlin said, tilting his head back and taking another drink. “Technically, I stole it. He passed out on the sofa after dinner, and this bottle was still half-full, so I figured, might as well, right?”
Arthur just looked at him. Might as well? Wow, Merlin really was determined to make an absolute spectacle of himself in the Games, wasn’t he? With an attitude like that, there was no chance he’d even survive the bloodbath. Arthur shook his head and went back to looking over the city.
“My dad died in the arena,” Merlin said, suddenly, pulling at Arthur’s attention after they’d both been quiet for some time. “55th Games. And then my best friend Will, two years ago. I should have figured I would end up there as well, but I thought—lightning isn’t supposed to strike twice, you know? For some reason, I started hoping. So stupid.” He leaned back and closed his eyes, then put the bottle to his lips again for another long drink. The corners of his eyes were wet, Arthur noted. Not that he cared.
Merlin’s melancholy seemed to be contagious, however, because instead of looking out over the Capitol and seeing all the glory that was soon going to be his, all Arthur could see when he turned back to admire the view were Finnick’s blown pupils and Gloss’s stony face. He felt humiliated, all of a sudden, having shown weakness like he had, falling into a childish fantasy because, what? Someone he found attractive had pretended to find him attractive in return. Or had found him attractive, maybe; coming back from the arena or not, that was probably something Arthur would never know the truth of.
It worried him how much something as fickle and subjective as truth suddenly seemed to matter.
“Here,” Merlin said from below, and when Arthur looked down, Merlin’s hand was holding up the bottle. “You suddenly looked like you could use some of this as well. Even though you’re a prat. And I don’t like you. At all, really. Because of the prattishness. And also your hair.”
That certainly pulled Arthur back out of his head. “My hair?”
“It’s all… shiny,” Merlin said, waving his free hand haphazardly around his own head. “No real person has hair like that. It’s Capitol doll stuff. All pretty and empty.”
Arthur sucked in a breath sharply. He slapped away the bottle Merlin was still offering and glared down at him.
“That empty doll stuff could be what keeps me alive in the arena,” he said. “And you have some nerve scorning that. Everyone tries it. We’re just better at it in One.”
Merlin made a face, and took another long pull from the bottle. “Touchy,” he grimaced. “To be fair, I also said ‘pretty’. But fine, sore spot, I get it.” He leant his head back against the railing, closing his eyes again.
“Gwen knows how to do that stuff,” Merlin said quietly. “Be charming, get people to like her. I like her. I hardly even knew her before and now she’s like my best friend. Well. Only friend, really. People didn’t really like me back home. There was only Will, and then he was gone.” He rubbed a hand over his face quickly. “But Gwen—she’s so nice, you know?”
Arthur shrugged. All he really knew about Guinevere was that she was a mean slapper.
“And then you come here, and you have to watch people turn into something they’re not. I mean, Gwen, up on that stage with Flickerman, she’s all charm and cheerfulness and everything, and she’s being this cute person that these horrible Capitol people can love, when in fact she’s hating them all the time. And it’s so fucking stupid that we have to come here and prepare to kill each other, and then we have to pretend like it’s some kind of game so the audience can pretend that, too.”
He drew a deep breath, and Arthur did as well. He felt chilled to the bone. Because if someone was hearing this, then he was almost an accomplice to this speech. He fidgeted and stretched.
“Yeah, well,” he said, “it’s late…”
“And I sometimes think you’re the worst of all,” Merlin said, closely contemplating the bottle in his hands. “All handsome and strong and perfect. It’s like there’s nothing real left of you.”
Arthur stared at him, then ran his hands through his hair and turned away. “You just stopped making sense altogether,” he said. “I’ll get one of your mentors to come do something about you. I hope they don’t put you next to me tomorrow—if you wobble off the platform because you’re hung-over, it will officially be the worst death in Hunger Games history.”
“I’m never hung-over,” Merlin said, making a rude gesture at him. Arthur rolled his eyes and headed for the lift.
“I just think it’s a shame,” Merlin muttered, behind him, and that was something Arthur was just going to ignore.
He turned back just before he went through the doors, and saw Merlin leaning his forehead against the railing, looking out over the Capitol from between the steel bars. His hair curled softly around his face in the gentle breeze, and the lights from below gave his pale face depth, with striking shadows around his eyes and cheekbones. His thin frame, too, looked slender and graceful here; all splayed out and loose with alcohol, Merlin looked considerably less angular and awkward.
Merlin turned his head and looked back at him, and Arthur stepped quickly into the lift, trying to will the doors to close faster. He needed to sleep and get his focus back. And if he could somehow manage to forget that most of this night ever happened while he was at it, that would be even better.
From here on out, he would make a point to be purely professional. And if that made him an empty doll—and screw Merlin and his judgemental Twelve views anyway—well, he could handle that.
District One victors always could.
Chapter 3: The Alliance
“You're going to be wonderful,” Rubea gushed, tweaking the collar of Arthur's arena uniform into a better position. She had been fussing over his clothes for the last ten minutes—unnecessarily, since any styling she did would be thrown out of the window the moment the buzzer went off and the bloodbath started. Arthur longed to bat her hands away, but instead he just smiled at her.
“I'm very happy to have your confidence,” he said warmly. She giggled.
“Well, all of us on the team believe you'll do simply wonderful! And Morgana as well, you are both so talented and strong. And handsome,” she added, giving him a coquettish smile.
She did this for her tribute every year, Arthur thought, uncomfortable. She'd been telling Micah these exact things last year. She had probably cried when he died, speared by Louis from District Four, but just as probably, she hadn't mourned long.
There was a soft click of a door opening nearby, and when Arthur looked over, Gloss entered the room and walked up to them, greeting Rubea with a smile and a playful kiss on the hand.
“You’ve done a terrific job, I must say,” he said. “Now, I know that we’re technically not allowed to, but would you mind terribly if I stole just a few moments with Arthur here? Just some last-minute mentoring tips, you know?”
The dirty smile added to the end of the last sentence made Rubea look perfectly scandalised, except she was also practically alight with excitement, so the scandalised look was probably mostly at the thought that they might ruin Arthur’s carefully arranged hair, Arthur thought darkly. Talking to Gloss right now, when he really needed to get into the right head space and focus completely on the Games, was not something he wanted to do.
As expected, Rubea wasn’t of much help, however, the way she quickly left the room with a saucy wink over her shoulder. And then they were alone in the small prep room, just minutes before the start of the Games.
It was ironic to think that just 24 hours ago, he would have fantasised about this kind of situation.
“There was really no need to come here,” he said, keeping his voice as crisp and emotionless as possible. “I’ll admit that I… needed to adjust my expectations, but I’m perfectly capable of putting that away and focusing on what’s important.”
Gloss didn’t come closer. Instead, he sat down on the chair by the makeup table nearby and looked up at Arthur with a tiny smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I know you are.”
That made Arthur hesitate. He reached down and adjusted the gold dragon pinned to the front of his clothes, mostly to have something to do with his hands.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have been as harsh as I was last night,” Gloss said. “I got scolded for it this morning, actually. Some of the other victors seem to think that it would have been better to let you go into the arena with your head in the clouds. I believe ‘someone to come back to’ was a phrase that came up.”
Arthur took a steadying breath and looked back up, meeting Gloss’s eyes. “So why did you tell me?”
“To be honest, I’m not completely sure,” Gloss said. “There was just something in your eyes that I—having my twin as a fellow victor is hard sometimes. Everything I do affects her, so I can’t afford to get lost in my head. I guess that’s made me less tolerant of seeing emotional bravery like yours in others.”
“Are you saying I should take it as a compliment?” Arthur asked, feeling a stupid flutter start back up in his chest. He quickly squashed it.
“No,” Gloss said, after thinking about it for a few seconds. “Creating additional liabilities for yourself is not smart, and letting yourself become too attached is reckless, not brave. I think you have everything it takes to make it through. And it would be so stupid if you failed because of me.”
This was his cue, Arthur realised. He raised his chin and relaxed his stance, choosing his words carefully before letting them past his lips. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, keeping his voice light and steady. “You meant nothing to me.”
“Good,” Gloss said, getting off his chair and walking up to Arthur at last. “Be your best, Princeling.”
“Always,” Arthur replied. The signal for him to get into his tube came, and he welcomed it gladly.
“I’ll see you at the winner's ceremony,” he said, grinning at Gloss, who nodded, approvingly. It was with a sigh of relief he stepped into the tube and shot towards the surface.
Arthur came out onto an arid, lifeless plain, and immediately looked around for the others in the alliance. Most of them were some distance off from him, with Cenred closest, only a few tributes away. The tributes next to Arthur on either side were Emmer from District Eleven and the tiny girl from Seven—neither a threat to him. So that was one less thing to worry about.
The Cornucopia was shining in the distance, but Arthur noted that for once, the weapons and provisions didn't seem to be as centred on it as was usually the case. Instead, they were spread rather evenly all over the plain they were standing on, with large backpacks and even a weapon or two lying not far off from the platforms. There was a sword nearby that Arthur could reach with only a few long strides. He frowned to himself. Were they trying to even the field this year? It might of course be that the weapons here, further out, were blunted or cracked, and that it was a sadistic play on the tributes' hopes. Then again, from where Arthur was standing, the sword, at least, looked reasonably well-made.
He cast his gaze further afield. The plain they were standing on was surrounded by mountains, all looking as cheerless as the dead ground before them. In the distance, Arthur could see smoke rising among the peaks. Volcanic country, then. Fantastic.
The countdown kept moving ruthlessly down. Arthur saw Emmer swallow, legs trembling. Hopefully he wouldn't step off before it was time—that always made an awful mess.
He looked up at the clock. Ten seconds.
Something made him look around, wondering where Merlin had got to. He couldn't see him anywhere, which meant he had to be on the other side of the Cornucopia. Probably close to Morgana, then, who was one of the other few people completely blocked from Arthur’s view. This, of course, also meant that Merlin would, in all likelihood, be dead within seconds of the buzzer going. Probably for the best, Arthur thought, though Guinevere would soon regret not taking Arthur up on his offer of joining the alliance.
Six seconds, and Arthur made a decision. First the sword—if it turned out to be a dud, he'd just change it for something better when he got closer to the central stash. If there was a central stash.
Three seconds. Two.
Arthur exploded forwards. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Girl Seven spin around and sprint in the opposite direction. Clever, he thought—that was really her only play in this situation. Then he saw Cenred throw himself forward in a roll and come up with a crossbow, then swivel back and fire a bolt in the direction Girl Seven had gone.
He didn't have time to see what happened after that, because Emmer—the boy was fast—had just reached the sword, a step before Arthur, and now raised it to point at him.
He'd have done better to run, Arthur thought. At the same time, he thought he knew what was happening here. There was a desperate sort of courage in the boy's expression—the knowledge that if he didn't do something to wash out his shameful performance at his Reaping, he'd never be allowed to survive the Games anyway.
Emmer was thin to the point of starvation. He was gripping the sword with both hands, the point weaving slightly. Arthur could see his arms tremble under the weight.
He lunged suddenly, point first, and Arthur stepped aside neatly. As he turned, he brought his knee up and planted it firmly in Emmer's stomach, then as the boy doubled up painfully, smashed his elbow down against his neck. The sword flew out of Emmer's hands; Arthur scooped it up and buried it in Emmer's back without hesitation (hesitation, as every trainer he’d had since he was seven had emphasised, was only something that got you killed). There was a wet gasp, and then nothing. Arthur took his sword and ran on.
The girl from Six was just standing, quite still, in the middle of the plain. She had picked up a backpack and was staring around her with a kind of sluggish panic, but wasn't making a move to run in any direction. She was lost already, the only question remaining how gruesome her death would turn out to be. As Arthur ran towards her, she dropped the backpack and raised her hands. Arthur kicked her legs out from under her, then put his sword through her throat, making the strike clean.
There was a long-handled knife lying just beside her. He picked it up and kept going.
A sudden noise behind him made him turn, just in time to avoid the backpack someone had flung at his head. The angry eighteen-year-old from District Eight was barrelling towards him, wielding a knife in one hand and some kind of club in the other. Arthur managed to block his next blow with his sword, but it bit deep into the wood of the club, and when he tried to wrench it free, he only managed to send both weapons spinning out of their hands.
Arthur stepped back, unsheathing the knife he still held in his left hand and settling into the water stance. Boy Eight glared at him belligerently, brandishing his own knife, but didn't say anything as he circled Arthur carefully. Arthur could see the way he moved his feet and concluded that here was someone who had come to the Capitol training with the intent to learn. He hadn't actually done too badly, for only a few days' work.
He hadn't managed to learn patience, however. He lunged too soon, letting Arthur step aside and behind him quickly. To Arthur's surprise, he did the right thing by not turning, only threw himself forward out of the way of Arthur's knife and rolled, turning back only when he was far out of reach. Arthur was impressed.
They circled each other again, feinting and lunging in turn. Boy Eight had long arms and good reach, but the sloppy movements made it easy for Arthur to dodge him, and his anger was working against him, making him less and less careful. Finally he lunged again, bringing his arm down in a powerful strike from above.
Arthur jabbed his elbow up sharply, blocking Boy Eight's wrist and turning the strike aside, then stepped into the now open space and thrust his dagger up beneath Boy Eight's chin. He died with barely a sigh.
Arthur glanced around. There was no one near him, and from what he could tell, most of the screams had died down. He hesitated for a moment, then leaned down, closing Boy Eight's eyelids for him. He had died well.
He made his way over to where his sword had fallen and wrenched it away from the wooden club, then headed back to where Emmer was lying to collect the sheath. He straightened up after that, looking around for the others. The bloodbath appeared, from what he could see, to be over. There was time, now, to breathe and find one another again.
Morgause was already sitting down to clean her sword, calmly looking through the nearest backpack for something to wipe down the sticky red surface. Sophia was crouching over a body, one knife in each hand; she was smiling with a slightly worrying intensity, but as far as Arthur could tell she had made a clean kill of it. Nearby, Mordred had managed his own kill, and beyond them, Arthur saw Morgana stalking over to put an end to the boy from Nine who was whimpering wetly—hands trembling around the crossbow bolt sticking out of his stomach. Cenred was off in the distance, trying to get off a parting shot or two at the tributes who had been smart enough to run from the start.
And then there was Valiant, sitting up with a groan and clutching at his head.
“Fucker!” he exclaimed, staggering to his feet. Sophia looked up at him, frowning.
“And what happened to you?” she said.
“That fucker from Seven,” Valiant muttered, both hands to his forehead. “Had a fucking staff.”
“A staff?” Sophia said with a trill of laughter. So pretty and at the same time so full of scorn—she must have practised that, Arthur thought as he followed Morgause's example and sat down to clean both his blades.
Valiant all but growled. “Who the fuck decided to put a fucking staff in—”
“Valiant, didn't you take a sword?” Morgause asked calmly, holding up her own and checking it against the light.
“You lost your sword?” Cenred called. He was jogging back towards them, crossbow tucked under one arm.
“The boy from Seven hit him with a stick and stole it,” Morgana told him with a smirk (and Arthur knew she had practised that). Cenred laughed loudly.
“You were defeated by the lumberjack?”
Arthur sighed. “And he left you alive,” he said, rather enjoying the way Valiant's face was slowly purpling. “That's harsh. I would at least have given you an honourable death.”
That made even Morgause laugh. Valiant spluttered.
“Guess he didn't see you as much of a threat,” Sophia said, sugar sweet, and Arthur grinned at her, a private smile of understanding. She had fire, he thought, and could probably be quite fun. Pity she was such an obvious sociopath—but as a flirt in the arena to build some tension and rake in the sponsors, she was perfect.
“We should take stock,” he said, standing up and sheathing his sword. He hung the knife from his belt. “Doesn't look like the Gamemakers have given us too much in the way of weapons. Hopefully that doesn't extend to food as well.”
While the rest of them started to gather supplies, he took a turn around the Cornucopia to take note of the dead, just as the cannons began to boom. Neither Merlin nor Guinevere were among the fallen bodies, he saw. There were eight in total—less than he had expected—and apart from Boy Eight, none of the people he'd marked as hard contenders. Quick deaths like these were the best these tributes could really have hoped for.
He started as he recognised the last girl, however—Mordred's district partner, the sixteen-year-old girl with the auburn hair. Her throat had been opened from ear to ear, and Arthur looked over towards the rest of the group where Mordred was still cleaning his little knife, solemn in this as in all he did.
Arthur was suddenly uneasy. He didn't know why exactly—district partners would often go up against one another sooner or later, as a matter of course for the Games. But opening your partner's throat at the first chance you got...
Morgana came up to him, a bow and quiver slung over one shoulder. “Here,” she said, handing him a sheathed knife. “Not a lot of heavy weaponry, like you said. They seem to want us to go for knife play this year. Oh, and there were some more of those staffs like Boy Seven used. Sophia suggested that Valiant take one.”
Arthur grinned. He could imagine how that had been received. “You've found a bow, though,” he said, bending down to stash the second knife in his boot. Morgana nodded.
“It's the only long-range weapon, apart from Cenred's crossbow, that we could find. Might come in handy. There's not a lot of food. Enough for a couple of days at most, and that's with tight rationing.”
Arthur frowned. “So we'll have to hunt?” he said.
“There are maps in every backpack,” Morgana said. “Showing stashes of food and weapons. I think we're meant to go after them. The Cornucopia is not going to present much of an advantage for us.”
Arthur looked around them. “Could be risky,” he said. “This looks like volcanic country. And if I know the Gamemakers at all, any separate stashes we find are bound to be booby-trapped.”
“Obviously,” Morgana said, taking his arm to lead him back to the others. Morgause had spread out one of the maps on the ground in front of her and was peering intently at it.
“There are stashes all around this ring of mountains,” she said, pointing them out. “And then here, here and here.”
“And there's this,” Morgana said, brushing up against Morgause's shoulder as she reached forward to point at the map. “A large stash and not obviously difficult to get to, not like these ones up in the ravines. All the tributes are bound to try for it sooner or later, if every backpack holds as little food and water as these. What if we set up camp there and watch? It's as good a place to set up base as any. We let the other tributes take the risks. If they die in the attempt to get to the stash, no harm done. If they manage to get to it, we get to them afterwards.”
Arthur smiled at her. That was the Morgana he knew.
"I think you've got the right idea," he said. "Let's head out. Has everyone got a weapon?"
The others nodded, but Valiant looked peevish. "I don't see why you get the bow, Morgana," he said.
"Because you've got lousy aim?" Sophia suggested, adjusting her bandolier of throwing knives to shrug a backpack with supplies onto her shoulders.
Valiant scowled at her. "In that case, let me take your sword, then," he told Morgana.
"No," Morgana said calmly. "I want it."
"You took one sword and you couldn't keep it," Morgause agreed. "We really don't want to lose any more weapons to your negligence."
Valiant looked about ready to explode at that, but his eyes flickered down to Morgause's hand, now resting against the pommel of her own sword. He closed his mouth without saying anything, scowling darkly.
"There'll be a chance to get more weapons soon enough," Arthur said. "As soon as we meet other tributes. You'll get your chance to hold on to a sword then, Valiant. Now let's go."
The climb up into the mountains was not without difficulties. Sophia was on point, scurrying up near vertical cliffs to scout ahead for them, while the rest of them followed at a more sedately and careful pace. With her slight build and strong hands, Sophia was a great climber, but the paths she took were not for the rest of them.
Currently they were taking a short break to catch their breath. There was a sticky, hot feeling to the air around them, and the silence was punctuated ever so often with a noise like the roaring of some great beast. At the same time, it seemed to be too regular and controlled to be animal noises.
Morgana and Morgause were both bent over the map, studying it together.
“It's supposed to be up here somewhere,” Morgana said, pointing up ahead, just as Sophia shouted down, “I think we've got it.”
The rest of them scrambled up to reach her. The ground levelled out as they neared her, and they found that they were looking out over an empty plain, a silver pillar gleaming in the distance. On top was a flat surface, heaped with what looked like both food bags and weapons.
“Why don't we just go for it?” Cenred said, starting forward. Morgause threw an arm out, blocking his way.
“Try not to let on how short-sighted you are, Cenred,” she said. “Wait and observe for a moment.”
She nodded towards the pillar in the distance. The sight was hazy, and it was quickly apparent why—all over the plain, steam was coming out of the earth. As they watched, the ground split open and a jet of water suddenly shot some thirty feet into the air with a roar like the ones they'd been hearing on the way up. Seconds later, it happened again a few feet off.
“Geysers,” Arthur said. “Thought we might get something like that.”
“If we climb up a bit, past the drop there, we can skirt the edge of the plain and reach that shelf up there, overlooking the area,” Sophia said, pointing upwards. “Should be a decent place for us to camp out at.”
"Sure," Arthur said. "Lead the way and we'll follow as best we can."
"I'll expect you some time tomorrow, then," she said, winking at him. She turned and, twisting her fingers into a crack in the cliff wall, started to heave herself up. Arthur winced. That looked incredibly painful.
"You know, there is a much easier way up just over here," he said, but she just laughed at him and threw herself up the wall in what seemed like an obvious mockery of the laws of gravity.
It took them much longer than it ought to get up to their intended camp, since they had to retrace their steps several times when they found themselves without a way forward. When they arrived up at last, Sophia was waiting for them with a grin, swinging her legs over the side of the shelf and eating a granola bar.
"Slowpokes," she said.
"Monkey," Arthur retorted. "You could at least have got a meal started while you were waiting."
She fluttered her eyelashes at him. "I thought I did," she said, brandishing the granola bar. He rolled his eyes.
"We should set up guards," he said, turning to the others. "If another tribute goes for the stash we need to see that as soon as possible, so we can go after them."
"Cenred," Morgause said. "Make yourself useful and watch, why don't you? Now let's prepare some food. I'm starving."
They hadn't talked about rationing yet, but as they prepared their meal, Arthur saw that it would very soon come to tight rations if they didn't manage to add to their supplies. For now, though, they all ate their fill, to regain their strength after the bloodbath and the strenuous climb.
“Hey,” Cenred called out suddenly. “We've got a tribute heading for—”
The rest of his words were drowned out in the sudden roar, and as the rest of them ran to join him, they saw the jet of a geyser erupting not far away.
“Whoa!” Cenred shouted, laughing. “Bullseye!”
“Girl Ten,” Mordred said quietly. He'd been sitting with Cenred, staring down onto the plain. “Stepped right on top of one of the geysers.”
The cannon boomed, then, and as the steam cleared, Arthur saw the form of the unfortunate tribute, lying tossed like a rag doll only a few yards away from the pillar of goods. He wished he'd seen what had happened. Were the geysers triggered by pressure, or had the tribute been unlucky enough to step on one just as it was erupting anyway? Were the geysers more frequent around the stash, or was the whole area a minefield? These weren't ordinary geysers, after all—the ground opened for them and closed up afterwards, so that the area looked like an ordinary plain. It was impossible to say where a geyser would erupt just by looking at the ground.
“Cenred, get some food,” he said. “I'll watch for a while.”
It wasn't long until dark now. He doubted that another tribute would be foolish enough to go for the stash today, but if so, he was intending to learn what he could.
He woke in the early-morning gloom the next day to the sound of a loudly clamouring bell. He rolled upwards into a crouch, ready with the knife he'd been clutching in his sleep. Beside him, Morgause had jerked awake with the same level of preparation, feet under her to be ready to spring and both hands on the pommel of her sword.
“No danger,” Morgana called softly, from her perch as guard. “Someone got to the stash. The bell's to let us know they reached it, I guess—which is good, I would almost have missed it otherwise in this light. Come and see.”
It was Guinevere and Merlin, both of them with several backpacks slung over their shoulders. They were running backwards and forwards across the plain with all semblance of panic, but so far, they'd managed to avoid the geysers. As Arthur watched, Merlin ran forward and then stopped suddenly, running back and sideways a few paces. Moments later, a geyser erupted just where he'd been.
“Ooh,” Cenred said, disappointed. “Lucky.”
“Who is it?” Valiant asked, squinting down.
Arthur sheathed his knife again. “Boy and Girl Twelve,” he said. He'd thought they would be cleverer than to try and come here, but maybe they'd figured that they'd be safe enough under the cover of night.
“Looks like they might make it,” Sophia called. She'd donned her brace of throwing knives and was already starting to clamber down the side of the mountain. “Finally, some game.”
“I'll stay as guard here,” Morgana said. “Hope they got some good supplies. I'm dying for some fruit.”
“Someone else should stay as well,” Arthur said. “We should never be alone on guard.” Morgana glared at him for that, so he added, “It isn't anything to do with you, Morgana. Just simple maths—two are harder to sneak up on than one. Cenred, you stay.”
He didn't stay to see if he was obeyed, hurrying after Sophia instead. She already had quite a head start on him, and he wanted to make sure that she wasn't going to get out of hand. He knew that she wanted to make herself memorable to the audience—if food was going to be hard to come by, they would all have to rely on those all-important sponsors soon—but he also knew that sadism wouldn't win them any points.
Sophia was quick, though. The distance between them was only growing as Arthur climbed down after her, going as quickly as he dared. He didn't glance down the sheer drop down to the plain beside them, and so didn't keep tabs on how far along Guinevere and Merlin were, but as he started to get closer to the more level ground he looked around himself again and saw that they had both made it out of the geyser area. They were starting down the slope that led back towards the Cornucopia, but Sophia was now almost upon them. She was moving silently, and as Arthur watched she raised one of her throwing knives, taking careful aim.
Merlin turned at the last second and saw her, and the knife that should have found his liver hit his forearm instead. He yelled in pain and surprise, and Guinevere turned, stepping in front of him with impressive speed and fumbling at her belt for the war hammer hanging at her hip.
“Really, Twelve?” she said. “You're going to challenge me with that?” She pulled out a few more knives, twirling one of them lazily. “A hint from someone who knows how this game works—these are long-range weapons. That's not.”
“Well, if you're afraid to come too close,” Guinevere said, but her fear was just as obvious to Sophia as it was to Arthur, judging by how Sophia only laughed again.
“It's cute the way you're protecting your little boyfriend,” she said. “Though it would have been kinder to let him take the clean, quick wound. He'll go a lot slower now. Once I'm done with you, I might want to play.”
Arthur sighed inwardly. This was just what he'd been hoping to avoid; cat and mouse games with the idea of a kill as something to be enjoyed. He glanced back quickly. Morgause and Valiant were on his heels, with Mordred close behind. Sophia and the other two were still some way ahead, but at least they were standing still now and he had a chance to catch up to them. Hopefully he could stop this before it went too far. A death in the arena should be quick, clean and honourable, not cruel.
And then he caught sight of Merlin again, crouching behind Guinevere and cradling his wounded arm to his chest. He was staring up past the two girls and seemed to be mumbling something under his breath—a prayer? Oh, Arthur hoped he was not about to start crying or something. With Sophia in this mood, she would probably just find it hilarious.
Then he heard the rumbling, and following Merlin's gaze, Arthur realised what had caught his attention.
“Back!” he shouted, turning and waving his hands at Morgause and the others. “Back, back, run!”
He was glad to see that they didn't question him at all, just turned and scrambled as quickly as they could back up the way they'd come. As he ran after them, he heard Sophia's scream behind him, cutting through the roar of stone moving over stone.
She almost sounded angry, rather than frightened.
Then the landslide was upon them, and he couldn't hear anything else. He threw himself flat and curled up, covering his head with both arms. Stray stones hit him, several large enough to leave bruises and one hitting his elbow hard enough to make him cry out, but when the noise died down, he found himself in one piece. He straightened up slowly, wincing at the pain in his elbow and seeing ruefully that his clothes were torn in several places.
Then again, he thought as he looked out over the dust settling back over the mountainside, it could have been a lot worse.
The cannon sounded—only once. Guinevere and Merlin must have both got away, then. He knew better than to suppose Sophia had escaped the landslide. She'd been right in its path, with no way of getting away quickly. The hovercraft would have a job digging down to find her body, that was for sure. Perhaps they'd have to settle for sending back an empty coffin to Four—he knew it happened sometimes, when bodies were too completely destroyed or too difficult to locate.
He turned back to the rest of his group. They seemed more or less fine, although Valiant had pulled his trouser leg up, scowling at a rising bruise on one calf, and Morgause was nursing cuts on her arms and hands. Mordred looked almost unscathed—but then, he was small, and might have been able to hide between the other two with their larger bodies.
“Well, shit,” Valiant said. “That was a disappointing way to go.”
Arthur looked at him coldly. There had been no love lost between Valiant and Sophia, but she had still been his district partner. The decent thing to do would have been to at least pretend regret for her passing.
“Anyone want to try and go after Twelve?” he asked. “No, didn't think so. Let's get back.”
The climb back up was tiresome. Before they were even halfway up, the sun had come out in force and was making all their clothes stick to their skin. Arthur thought regretfully of the little amount of water they had left from the supplies gathered at the Cornucopia. If they didn't catch a break soon, they'd have to go after some of the other stashes themselves.
They reached the shelf again, tired and sweaty and annoyed, and found Morgana smirking at them. “So that was a complete failure,” she said lightly. “Saw both Twelves legging it down and away, laden with supplies.”
“I would have liked to see you do any better,” Valiant growled. Morgana raised her eyebrows at him.
“I would at least have put an arrow or two in the Twelves before turning tail and running. That way, there would have been a chance of finding some of their supplies after the landslide had passed. What was Sophia doing?”
“Liked the sound of her own voice too much,” Arthur said shortly. “Let it be a lesson.”
He was snappish, he knew, but Morgana's words had made him realise something—he'd asked Cenred to stay with Morgana, thus putting both proper long-range weapons out of play. He really couldn't make tactical errors like that here.
“Do we have anything in the way of medical supplies?” he asked.
“Salve and bandages over there,” Morgana said, giving him a look. “I thought you might need it. Cenred is getting some food together, too.”
“Thank you,” he muttered, and she smiled thinly.
“I'll keep watching, then,” she said, snagging some bread and dried fruit from the spread Cenred was bringing them.
There was salve for soothing pain, and something to help cuts scab over. Morgause was in most need—her cuts needed to be cleaned and bandaged, and Arthur helped her with her right arm, using their little water as sparingly as he could. The sun had disappeared into the clouds again as soon as they got back to camp and a wind had sprung up. Arthur shivered in his sweaty clothes.
“Now that I could use the heat, it's gone again. It's like the Gamemakers are pissing me off on purpose,” he muttered.
Morgause snorted in agreement. “We're going to need to lie low for this to do its work,” she said, gesturing to her bandages and his elbow, thickly covered with salve.
“I know. I'm thinking we call this day lost in any case and just rest up,” Arthur agreed.
What he didn't say out loud, because he wasn't stupid, was that there had already been one spectacular death today. With any luck, the Gamemakers would be satisfied with that and wouldn't be trying to stir up trouble for them.
“Hey,” Morgana called softly, waving to them. “We got another couple trying for the stash. Come and look at these ones.”
They all joined her, looking down over the plain. It was Boy and Girl Three, but they were moving quite differently than Guinevere and Merlin had done. They weren't running; instead, they were proceeding calmly and in a curiously geometric pattern, walking a few steps this way, then turning at right angles and continuing on that way for a little while. Behind them and before them, geysers were erupting as usual, but the area they were moving in was always calm.
“They figured out the pattern to the geysers,” Mordred said. “Impressive.”
The Threes were advancing quickly across the plain, despite their apparently leisurely pace. Valiant motioned to Cenred.
“Give me your crossbow,” he said. “I can take them out from here, once they've got the goods.”
Cenred hesitated, looking to Morgause for confirmation. She shook her head sharply.
“Won't do us good if we can't get to them,” she said. “Let's watch them instead. We should be able to work out the complete pattern of the geysers that way.”
“You mean we should just let them go?” Valiant demanded, incredulous. “We should at least try to waylay them!”
“There's no way we can intercept them,” Arthur said. “With how fast they're moving, we'd never make it down in time. Morgause is right—better to wait and use the information we can gain by watching them to get to the pillar ourselves later.”
“I can't believe this,” Valiant growled. “You're going to sit around and wait, like you're some pansies from fucking Twelve?” He made a lunging motion towards Cenred and his crossbow, but Morgause was quicker. Grabbing Valiant's wrist as he reached out, she twisted his arm up behind his back, with her other hand whipping out a knife to hover in front of his face, the point an inch from his eye.
“The next time you reach for any weapon that's not yours,” Morgause said calmly, “I will put this knife through your hand. And that will be letting you off very easy. Am I making myself clear?”
“Don't nod,” Cenred suggested, grinning.
“Fine,” Valiant ground out between gritted teeth, not moving a muscle. He was staring at the knife in front of his face, sweat beading on his forehead. Morgause nodded and took the knife away, then let Valiant's arm go. He sagged and groaned, shaking his arm carefully. Morgause sheathed her knife and sat down beside Morgana again.
They all watched the Threes as they made it to the pillar and collected some bags, then returned across the plain. Valiant was glaring silently down, his arms crossed sullenly.
“So what?” he said after a while. “They're just going forward, left, forward, right. It's easy. Any idiot could do it.”
“We'll see,” Mordred said quietly. Arthur saw Morgause give him a look and frowned. He hadn't managed to figure Mordred out yet, and the way Morgause looked sometimes made him wonder if she had, or if she was as wary as Arthur.
The first raindrops hit just as the Threes were scrambling away from the geyser area.
“Shit,” Morgana said heavily; Arthur knew that she hated getting wet.
“We need to work out some cover,” Morgause said. “There was some kind of tarpaulin in one pack—Cenred, go and find it.”
“We should have brought some of those staffs from the Cornucopia after all,” Arthur muttered.
In the scramble to manufacture some sort of cover for themselves, Arthur thought that there were at least two good results from the rain—one, that they could somewhat refill their water supply, which he'd been increasingly worried about, and two, that they now had a perfectly good excuse to wait until tomorrow to try for the stash again. Going down the mountain made slippery with rain would be suicidal, especially when they'd had one landslide happen already. Not even Valiant was pushing for an expedition any time soon.
It kept raining all through the afternoon, and they huddled miserably under their cover, eating a little and talking in mutters. This time yesterday, Arthur might have welcomed the respite as a chance for some camera-friendly banter with Sophia, but now he didn't even have that much. Morgana and Morgause were whispering about something together, and Cenred was whining about keeping his crossbow dry.
When the evening drew on, the rain finally let up. By sunset, the sky was once again clear enough for them to see the faces of the dead, projected onto the heavens. Sophia was the only one up there.
“We really need to get back into the game tomorrow,” Morgause said as the Hunger Games anthem faded away, echoing what Arthur had been thinking.
“First thing tomorrow,” Morgana agreed. “And now, sleep.”
Mordred and Valiant were appointed first guards. Morgause handed Mordred an extra knife and then very pointedly drew her sword up next to her, turning her back on Valiant. Arthur wasn't sure how he felt about her continued baiting of Valiant, whose expression was as dark as Arthur had ever seen it—it seemed like she was building him up to the point where he would snap completely, and Arthur wasn't at all sure of what would happen then.
Then again, that was really Morgause's problem.
He threw a last look at Mordred and Valiant, sitting and looking out over plain and over mountainside respectively, then lay down to sleep.
“Can I have one of those rice cakes?” he heard Mordred ask.
“No way, runt, these are mine,” Valiant replied shortly, and that was the last Arthur heard before he drifted off to sleep.
It didn't feel like he'd slept long at all when he was woken again. For a moment, he wasn't sure what had startled him out of his rest—he could only hear the rush of erupting geysers, a noise he'd quickly learnt to ignore—but then he sorted through his recent memory and realised that there had been some other noise there, too. A yell or scream, possibly.
Then the cannon sounded, confirming his guess. He sat up quickly, looking around. The rest of the group was stirring into wakefulness, all of them looking alive and fine. Mordred, however, was sitting by himself by the edge of the shelf.
“Where's Valiant?” Morgause asked, evidently having done the same check as Arthur.
Mordred turned towards them. “He insisted on going down to get himself some weapons from the stash,” he said. “I couldn't stop him.”
He raised his hand to his mouth and took a bite from a rice cake, chewing slowly and swallowing before he continued, “It seems it wasn't so easy any idiot could do it, after all.”
The rest of the night passed peacefully. None of them had been able to muster up much sorrow over Valiant's death—Morgana's only comment had been a “Oh, how sad”, hard to take seriously when it was delivered with a wide smile, while Cenred had been most vocal with his “Thank fuck, he was really starting to get on my nerves”. Arthur had taken a turn at guarding but had slept most of the night away, and woke well rested and ready for the new day. His bruises from the landslide had faded somewhat, and the cuts had scabbed over well enough for him to ignore them.
“So I think we can consider this place to be tapped out,” he said over breakfast. “After we've eaten, let's get the remaining supplies from the stash and then get out of here.”
“Definitely,” Morgana said. “I'm getting bored here.”
Packing up quickly, they set off down the mountainside again. It had dried up from the previous day's rain, but the going was still tricky once they reached the lower reaches, the part of the mountainside that had been ravaged by the landslide. Picking their way through that took a lot longer than expected, and the sun was almost noon high above them before they stood at the entrance to the geyser area again.
“Cenred should watch,” Morgause said. “Mordred, you have the path well memorised, right?”
“I have,” Mordred said. “I think it should be fine for us all to go altogether, unless someone wants to stay with Cenred.”
Morgana laughed. “Are you joking? If there's any fruit in that stash, I'm going to get my hands on it. Let's go.”
Cenred turned, hoisting his crossbow up to his shoulder and surveying the mountainside below. “Enjoy,” he said over his shoulder. “And if there are any extra quarrels, make sure to bring them.”
The rest of them set off. They walked in single file, close after one another, with Morgana leading and Arthur and Morgause following. Mordred brought up the rear, calling out instructions for Morgana.
“Now right,” he said, and Morgana turned. Arthur followed, walking one step forward and then turning, to follow the path she was taking perfectly. They were only twenty yards or so from the pillar, and no geyser had even come close yet. Things were going smoothly—a lot easier than Arthur had feared.
Then Morgana stopped and backed up suddenly, stepping back into Arthur. He was about to ask her what she was doing when Mordred, several steps behind him, shouted, “No, no, that should have been left!”
The geyser erupted a few feet in front of Arthur and Morgana, showering them with stray water droplets, scalding hot.
“Turn!” Morgause shouted, as they scrambled back. “No time to panic. Get to the pillar. Mordred, lead!”
The last few yards were walked in terse silence with Mordred in front instead, his instructions now being only a muttered litany to help keep himself on the right path. They reached the gleaming pillar of the stash, and when the bell clanged as Morgana put both hands on the surface, Arthur saw that the skin of her left arm was red and blistering all over. He looked down at his own hands. He'd been scalded, but not badly. Morgana, standing closer to the erupting geyser, must have been more heavily doused.
“What happened there?” Morgause snarled, rounding on Mordred. He was showing more emotion than Arthur had seen yet from him in the Games, looking completely distraught.
“I don't know, I blanked for a moment,” he said, twisting his fingers together. “Morgana, I'm so—”
“Let's not stick around to portion out blame,” Morgana ground out between clenched teeth. Her left cheek was reddening, too. “For all we know, they could have rigged the pillar to blow if you take too much time. Let's grab everything and go. We should be able to carry what's left between us.”
They loaded up quickly, Arthur and Morgause taking most of the load between them. Morgana was gamely heaping bags on her shoulders, but she winced every time she closed her fingers around something, and Arthur knew she wouldn't be able to carry anything in her hands. He soon declared her done and sent her to watch with Mordred for the best moment to head out into the geysers again while he and Morgause picked up the last of the weapons left in the stash.
“Let's go,” he said, grabbing the last quiver of arrows from the pillar. “Mordred, you should lead this time.”
Mordred hesitated. “I get a much better overview of the area when I'm walking last,” he said. “If I walk in front, I might miss—”
“If you make a mistake and accidentally step into a geyser, the rest of us will just have to try and remember the path on our own,” Morgause said quietly. “I dare say we'll manage. Go.”
Mordred's eyes widened slightly, but he nodded and turned, heading back out over the plain.
The way back was uneventful. They were only just back onto safe ground again and out of the range of the geysers when Morgana sagged to her knees, shrugging off her bags with a groan and screwing her eyes tight shut. Cenred turned at the sound and almost dropped his crossbow.
“What the hell happened to you?” he said. “Holy shit, did you get into one of those geysers?”
“Cenred, shut up and bring all the water we have left and bandages,” Morgause snapped, dropping everything to crouch beside Morgana and put an arm around her shoulders. “Mordred, you take a look and see whether we have picked up anything in the way of medicine.”
Arthur was already opening the bags he'd been carrying. He found food and water in the first three bags which, while reassuring in general, was very helpful at the moment. In his fourth and last bag, however, he found several small pots of ointment. Opening one after another and methodically trying them out on his own smarting skin, he found something that cooled and soothed his minor burns, at least.
“Here,” he said, handing it over. “It seems to do something for burns.”
Morgause nodded. She was washing Morgana's skin gently, and Arthur winced, seeing how Morgana's lips were pressed tightly together—the left side of her face an angry red and curiously shiny.
“We'll get some food together,” he muttered, drawing Cenred away.
By the time they'd organised some kind of lunch, Morgana was treated as best possible. Her left arm as well as her right hand was bandaged up, and her face smeared with a thick layer of ointment.
“Is there at least any fruit?” she asked lightly, and Arthur smiled ruefully at her, shaking his head. She sighed theatrically, then focused on his hands.
“There is still some ointment left, I think,” she said. Morgause frowned.
“We don't know yet if you're going to need a second layer later,” Arthur said quickly, forestalling her protests. He didn't mind foregoing the burn medicine for Morgana's sake, but he was damned if he'd let Morgause forbid him to use it, as he was sure she'd been about to. “I'll manage without; this is hardly anything. Now come and eat.”
He was really going to have to watch Morgause, he thought.
"So what happened, anyway?" Cenred asked eventually, when they'd all stilled the worst of their hunger. There was food to last them for many days, now, and they could up their rations considerably. Water could still become a problem, however.
"It was my fault," Mordred said, shame-faced. He quickly told Cenred what had happened, then added, "It was so lucky that you stepped back, Morgana. Things could have gone a lot worse, otherwise. What made you hesitate to go forward?"
It was hard for Arthur to tell, especially with half of Morgana's face covered in ointment, but he thought he detected a measure of unease in her expression. "I don't know," she said. "I just—maybe I heard it? Like, the sound before water boils or something?"
Morgause shot her a look, swift and unreadable. Then, in one movement, she turned to Mordred and twisted her fist in his collar, pulling him towards her until their noses were almost touching. "That had better never happen again," she said, in a voice so low and tight that Arthur almost didn't catch the words. Mordred stared back at her, then raised his eyebrows.
"It won't, of course," he said, but he was looking at Morgana, not Morgause, and his expression was now more curious than distraught.
Morgause held onto him for another moment, then nodded and let go, turning back to her food as if the past couple of seconds had never happened. "What do you say—where to next?" she said, looking at Arthur.
"Move towards the other stashes," Arthur said. "Start going after them one by one. You know best where they're situated, could we reach one today?"
Morgause nodded. "If we move quickly. Good plan, let's go for that."
All that day they trekked, in more or less unbroken silence. They made good time, even with pauses to check Morgana's bandages, but when by nightfall they reached the stash they'd been heading for, they found it empty. It was one of the easier ones to get to, and must have been raided early on by other tributes.
With tempers already running short from their scare among the geysers that morning and from the long and tedious march, they were all irritated and uncooperative. Morgause was still fussing over Morgana's burns, to such a degree that Arthur finally snapped and told her to give it a rest. Morgause all but exploded with rage in return, and it was only Morgana's restraining hand that stopped it from becoming a fistfight. Things weren't helped by the news projected onto the sky, either—with Valiant the only dead, it was a clear reminder that the field was still wide open and that their alliance had not, as yet, made any big noise in these Games, apart from getting their own members killed.
The next day continued in much the same vein. They made their way to another stash, also emptied, and then struck out towards a third. This one was harder to get to, and they chose to head towards it for just this reason—it might have been left alone by exploring tributes looking for easier ways to get their supplies.
This stash, they saw when they arrived at the place marked on their maps, was situated in a cave that was hardly more than a shallow crack in an almost sheer cliff face. Morgana sighed.
“Now we really could have used Sophia,” she said. “Who wants to play monkey?”
Morgause gave Arthur an appraising look. “I'm lighter than you are,” she said. “And I can find handholds too small for you.”
“Yes, but your hands were cut up badly only the day before yesterday,” Arthur pointed out.
“And yours were scalded yesterday,” Morgana said.
Cenred grinned. “Pleased to see I'm not even being considered for this,” he said. “Morgause is a good climber.”
“I'm taller, though,” Arthur said.
“Neither of you may have to climb, actually,” Mordred said. He was gazing up the cliff wall with a considering expression, shading his eyes with his hand.
Arthur snorted. “Right, thanks for offering, but I think we'll—”
“No,” Mordred said, “I mean you may not have to, because someone else is already climbing to that stash.”
They all looked up. It was the strong-looking girl tribute from Eleven—tall and thin, she had the physique of a good climber and was indeed moving with relative ease. It was hard to see where she had come from, but she must have already been far up the cliff when they neared the place, and might have just been hidden from their eyes for a while by one of the outcrops of rock. She wasn't looking at them at all, and might not have noticed them yet. Arthur quickly signalled silence and shrank back against the cliff under a small overhang, followed by the rest.
Morgause smiled. “I call it,” she said quietly. “Hand me that brace of throwing knives we picked up by the geysers and don't give away our position.”
They waited in silence, Morgause a little further off from the rest of them, poised like a cat about to spring and looking up the cliff face. Suddenly she moved, throwing two knives straight after one another. They heard a scream, and then Girl Eleven came tumbling down, landing a little way away from them and rolling into a crouch.
She was taller than Morgause, but a lot thinner, and the arena had not been treating her well so far. Her hands looked torn and there was a gash down one cheek that was partly scabbed over. She was bleeding from fresh wounds on her shoulder and thigh, but from the way she moved, it appeared that those, at least, weren't too deep. Morgause's knives must have only grazed her.
The girl dropped the backpack she'd been carrying and gripped a knife in both hands, point towards Morgause. Arthur winced. Her form was terrible.
Morgause took one look at the girl, then sheathed the knife she'd been holding and drew her sword instead. Then she charged.
The cannon sounded only half a minute later, and Morgause picked up the girl's backpack and strolled back to them.
“Time for lunch,” she suggested. She opened the backpack she'd taken from Girl Eleven and smiled suddenly. “For you,” she told Morgana, and handed her a bag of apples.
In the late afternoon, on their way to yet another stash, Arthur heard the sound of running water. He ran forward, ignoring the call of Morgause behind him, and climbed up onto a ridge carefully. There had been no waterways marked out on the maps of the arena, but that could have been just a ploy on the part of the Gamemakers.
When he reached the top of the ridge he saw that this seemed to be the case. A wide and deep stream was surging down the mountainside, and the landscape around was a lot more green and fertile than what they'd seen so far.
Almost right below his perch was a kind of plateau, where the stream ran slow and broad for a while before plunging down a sheer drop in a glittering waterfall. Beside the stream was grass and bushes, and there were even a few stunted trees. He could hear bird calls from the bushes.
He turned to see Morgause making her way up to him.
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “You can't just run off—”
“I found us our new campsite,” Arthur said, nodding down towards the stream. “There are birds in the bushes, and I think there may even be fish in the stream.”
Morgause raised her eyebrows. “Nice,” she said. “Fine, let's head down that way. You haven't seen any other tributes?”
“There aren't any here from what I can tell,” Arthur said. “Still, we should be careful, I guess. I'll go in front if you hand me that bow.”
“How about we go together?” Morgause said sweetly, then turned and shouted down to the others to come up that way. Arthur frowned. Morgause had been flexing her muscles more and more these past two days.
They headed down towards the plateau slowly and carefully, with Morgana and Mordred following and Cenred bringing up the rear with his crossbow. They met no resistance, however, and once down by the stream they explored the area closely and found no trace of any human visitors.
“Guess none of the others have found this place,” Cenred said, coming back from his exploration. “So all ours, then. I found this.” He was dragging the carcass of a scrawny dog mutt with long, sharp teeth by the scruff of its neck. Its tongue was lolling out of its mouth and its eyes were dimmed and red. “Should we try to eat it?”
“No!” Morgana snapped, then hesitated and blinked. “No. I don't think it's well.”
Cenred laughed. “Of course not. It's dead.”
“I mean, I think it wouldn't be healthy,” Morgana said, annoyed. “I think it was poisoned. It was dead when you found it?”
Cenred dropped the thing abruptly, wiping his hand on his shirt. “No,” he said. “Dying, though, I think. I threw a rock at it and it went down immediately.”
Morgause sighed and crouched down next to the animal. “Please try to think sometimes, Cenred. You must know eating a dying animal is a bad idea.”
“I thought it was just starving or something,” Cenred protested. “It's thin enough. Why do you think it's poisoned, anyway?”
Morgana shrugged uncomfortably. “I don't know. I just—don't know, I thought it looked unhealthy.”
“You were right,” Morgause said. She held up the mutt's head, parting the fur to reveal a small dart. “At least one of the other tributes has been here after all. This is from a blowgun.”
“Whoever has that, they must be quite wood crafty,” Arthur said. “I haven't seen any signs that a human has been here before us.”
“Well, they're not here any longer, unless they know how to turn themselves invisible,” Morgause said, dropping the mutt back to the ground. “But let's be aware that there is someone out there with poison darts, someone who knows how to cover their tracks.”
The night was cold enough that they decided to go for a fire, and Arthur came back from gathering wood to find Morgause and Morgana whispering together. They stopped when he came near them and busied themselves with getting the fire started, but he caught several glances being exchanged between them.
“Morgana and I will take first watch,” Morgause said over dinner, not surprising him at all. He shrugged.
“Fine. Wake me when you want to switch. Mordred should take the watch with me.”
Morgause nodded shortly. “That works, yes. We'll wake you.”
The fire helped make their new camp site feel almost cosy. As soon as the face of Girl Eleven had followed the Hunger Games anthem and the sky had gone dark for the night, Arthur stretched out next to the heat and tried to relax. Morgause's and Morgana's murmured speech mingled with the hiss of the fire, and he finally drifted off—one knife clutched in his hand and a flail he'd acquired at the geysers within reach.
When he woke, the sun was up and Morgana and Morgause were roasting apples over the embers of the fire.
“You watched all through the night?” Arthur said, sitting up slowly and with his knife still gripped tightly.
Morgana nodded, sticking a knife into her apple to test it. “We had a lot to talk about,” she said easily.
“Anything you want to share?” Arthur said.
Morgana shrugged. “Not really,” she said. “Girl things.”
He stared at her, not bothering to hide his incredulity, but she only grinned and nodded to her crisping apple.
“Toasted apple?” she said. “Not as good without sugar, but unless they've been very creative with the supplies this year I think we'll have to manage.”
Arthur nodded and went to wake up Cenred and Mordred.
“How about striking out towards another stash or two?” he said when they were all feeling sated. “We use this place as base, but look for other tributes in the most likely places to find them—those other stashes.”
Morgause and Morgana exchanged a glance.
“Good plan,” Morgause said. “But Morgana and I were thinking we should explore a bit closer to home first. There's that tribute with the poison darts, for a start. We thought we'd take Mordred and do a sweep of the surrounding area. He has the keenest eyes.”
“Sure,” Arthur said with a shrug. “Then Cenred and—”
“Cenred should stay and guard this space,” Morgause interrupted quickly. “But if you don't mind going off on your own, I think the idea of looking for other tributes is good.”
Arthur looked at her, wondering what her game was exactly. “Fine,” he said. “I'll take some supplies and strike out northward. I'll be back by early evening.”
He packed a backpack with some food and a full water bottle, then added his new flail and two extra knives to supplement the ones he had at his waist and ankle, as well as his sword.
Whatever was coming, he wanted to be fully prepared.
Arthur arrived back unsuccessful at their camp by the stream late that afternoon. He'd found two stashes, both apparently untouched and both too difficult for him to get to on his own. He'd marked them out on his map as places to try if they got really low on food or water and had then moved on. All day he hadn't seen the slightest sign of any other tribute. In fact, the way he'd chosen had taken him back into the more sterile areas of the mountains, and he'd hardly seen any other living thing—apart from a bird or two and a glimpse of something large and serpentine in a valley far below him. He'd made a note of that, as well. So far, they hadn't seen much of wildlife in the arena, but he knew better than to assume the Gamemakers wouldn't populate it with their favourite muttations.
Cenred was standing somewhat lazily at guard when Arthur returned, and Morgana, Morgause and Mordred were roasting a bird of some kind over the fire. The smell of it was amazing.
“Hey,” Arthur called to them. Cenred nodded, and the others stood up suddenly. “Great job. I can't wait to finally have some cooked meat again.”
There was no reply to that, and Arthur slowed, approaching warily. He raised his right hand to fumble at the buckle of his backpack strap, ostensibly to shorten the strap but in fact to put his hand closer to the knife at his hip. Cenred was behind him now, and the other three in front of him with the fire between them.
“Arthur,” Morgana said. She wasn't wearing her bow, he was glad to see, but she had put her hands on the small of her back. For all he knew, she could have stashed throwing knives there. “We’ve been talking.”
“It's time to break up this alliance,” Morgause said. Not as dissembling as Morgana, she put her hand openly on the pommel of her sword.
“Into two groups, one of them being a group of one, I'm thinking you mean,” Arthur said, dropping the pretence in turn and drawing his knife.
He'd been expecting it since yesterday. Morgause had had her eye on the leadership of their alliance from the start. She must have known that he'd never settle for taking the back seat and had decided to muscle him out altogether instead.
“That's one way it could go,” Morgause said, and Arthur spun around, scything Cenred's legs from under him and stamping down hard on the crossbow as he fell. It splintered with a crunch, but Cenred had let go in time, and his hand was safe.
“You're shit at sneaking up on someone, Cenred,” Arthur said, as Cenred rolled away from him with impressive speed and came up holding a saw-toothed blade Morgause must have found for him among Girl Eleven's things.
With the crossbow out of play, he didn't have to worry about being taken out from a distance right now, but his situation was still looking terrible. The other three had moved towards him, and Cenred was upright again. They fanned out, and Arthur had to step backwards to keep them all in view. They were driving him towards the edge of the plateau, he realised.
He glanced behind him at the sheer drop, and then back at the other four. Cenred on his far right, then Mordred, Morgana and Morgause to his left. He looked back at Morgana again, then Cenred, then Morgause, gauging from where the blow would come...
Some instinct made him begin to turn—even though there was no way Mordred could have got behind him so quickly—and the little knife that had sliced open the throat of the auburn-haired girl from Mordred's own district bit into the small of Arthur's back. It tore through skin and muscle, but missed his spine, which must have been the original target. Arthur flailed wildly with his knife hand but met nothing, and as he spun to try and strike at Mordred, he overbalanced and fell.
He was dimly aware of the pain in his back, but everything else felt far away as he fell through the air, water crashing all around him. By the time he hit the water bed below, he was already unconscious.
Chapter 4: The Second Alliance
We just saw Catching Fire and got inspired. Here, have a chapter one day early!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
*runs and hides* :D
Chapter 5: The Afterlife
So sorry about the evil cliffhanger of evil in the last chapter. Things will be getting better from here on out. Also, today is FannyT's birthday! Go wish her a happy birthday! :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Noises filtered in slowly and quietly. Everything was dark around him. And cold. Uncomfortable. He was lying in a cave of some sort, which considering that the last thing he remembered was getting eaten by a dragon, didn’t make any sense at all. He opened his eyes and rolled to his side gingerly. A small fire was burning a little ways off, and he could make out several shadowy figures.
For a second, he wondered if everything that had happened since Mordred stabbed him and he fell down the waterfall had been one long, fevered dream, but his wound was too healed for that to be the case, and however feverish he might be, he was pretty sure he wouldn't ever fabricate a dream where he was eaten by a dragon.
"He hasn't woken up yet," Merlin said (because that was definitely Merlin’s voice). "But I'm pretty sure he'll be with us soon. It was a harmless illusion."
"A harmless illusion that nevertheless managed to be corporeal enough to break several of Morgana's ribs, I understood," said a voice that Arthur didn’t recognise. It was male, and old, and exasperated. "Really, Merlin. I told you to be discreet. Do you really think the Gamemakers won't be looking into the unexplained presence of a dragon in their arena?"
"I think that all of those involved will deny they had anything to do with it, and that all of them will hint they did it. It would be some seriously advanced mutation work. They'd all love to be associated with it."
"You had better watch out for that head. If it gets any more swollen I believe it will be painful," said the unknown voice, and Merlin giggled. Arthur groaned.
"Oh, he's awake," Merlin said, then Arthur saw him put something down on the ground and scramble over towards him.
In his mind's eye, he'd remembered Merlin as reasonably attractive. But the face that appeared before him, bright and smiling, took his breath away.
"So you're alive," Merlin said, putting the back of his hand to Arthur's forehead. "And it doesn’t seem like you have a fever. Sorry I had to have you eaten—we had to explain the lack of bodies somehow."
Arthur looked closer at the figures around the fire. The tangle of blonde hair bent over something electrical-looking he quickly recognised as belonging to Elena, and the two bodies lying curled into each other—asleep, it looked like—had to be Guinevere and Lancelot. There was an odd sort of shimmer in the air around them.
"How—" Arthur began, then coughed through his sore throat.
Merlin laughed again. "Come on," he said. "You need to drink something. I couldn't fake all that fire, unfortunately, so I had to use some of what the Gamemakers had already put there. You've probably inhaled a lot of smoke."
"Hey, Arthur," Elena said, looking up from her work with an easy smile and giving him a short wave. Arthur wondered if the world had gone mad while he was out cold.
He sat down by the fire, and Merlin handed over some bread and cheese and a bottle of water. Then he picked up a flat bowl sitting on the ground and grinned at it.
"I'm back," he said. "Don't know about the smoke inhalation, but his system seems to have survived the shock."
"I can't believe you saved the Career," the bowl answered, clearly annoyed, and Arthur started laughing.
"What the hell has happened here?" he asked, slightly hysterical, as Elena looked up and frowned at him and Merlin looked puzzled. "Why are we all alive and where the hell are we and why," he finished heavily, pointing at Merlin, "are you talking to a plate?"
There was a short moment of silence. Guinevere—it was definitely her, Arthur saw now that he was closer to the light of the fire—stirred in her sleep and tightened her grip on Lancelot's shirt.
"I'm scrying," Merlin said finally. He held out the bowl; Arthur recoiled from it. "I'm contacting Gaius through the water. My mentor from Twelve. Look."
Arthur finally bent closer, and saw a face staring back at him from the surface of the water filling the bowl.
And just like that, it all made sense.
"Magic," he said. "You have magic."
"Yes," Merlin said, as though this was completely obvious. Then he frowned suddenly, and his face turned into one of concern. “Are you sure you’re all right? Maybe you hit your head on the way down here. I tried to move you as gently as I could, but, you know, dragon. Not the easiest form to navigate through small spaces.”
Arthur blinked at him stupidly. “Um.”
"And it's Uther Pendragon's son at that, how lovely," Gaius said. Arthur had only ever seen him keeping to the background during the Hunger Games, year after year, and so wasn't sure if his expression was disapproving or if that was maybe just his face. "Merlin, do you want the Capitol to find you before we even figure out how to get you out of the arena?"
"He was eaten by a dragon," Merlin said dismissively. "They won't go looking for his body, no more than they will for ours."
Arthur gulped down a few mouthfuls of water, swallowing past the burn in his throat, and repeated his questions.
"Where the hell are we," he said, "and what the hell happened?"
Merlin shot him an annoyed look and turned away slightly, cradling his bowl to him. Elena tugged on Arthur's sleeve gently.
"We managed to pull you out," she said quietly. "As far as the Capitol and the Gamemakers are concerned, you're dead. We're all dead."
Arthur frowned. "But how," he began, and then he realised something. He hadn't been insulted for several minutes.
He stared at Elena, stricken. "Oh," he said. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
She looked back at him curiously.
"Gwaine," Arthur said weakly. "I'm sorry, he must be—"
"Oh!" Elena exclaimed, and then she laughed. "Oh, no, Gwaine's not actually dead, either. In fact, he's the reason we managed to get all of you out. You know, he and I and Merlin fell..."
They landed softly, on some kind of cushioning material, and although stones and debris fell all around them, they managed to curl together to avoid the worst of it.
"So what was that about?" Gwaine asked. He stood up, holding a hand over his head to ward off any more stones, and looked up. The chasm had closed back up, high above them, and they were in some kind of cave or shaft. There were passages leading off in different directions, but they looked unstable and dangerous. "What’s their play now?"
A block of stone moved aside suddenly, revealing a new passage. Merlin and Elena stood up, too, and the three of them drew closer together as two men and a woman in Hunger Games uniforms stepped out.
"Gwaine McCahn?" the woman said. "Come with us, please."
"What?" Elena said, taking a step forward and in front of Gwaine. He put a hand on her shoulder, holding her back.
The woman sighed and pointed a device at Gwaine's face. There was a sharp noise, muffled down under the earth but still recognisable as a cannon shot.
"Gwaine!" Elena exclaimed, turning towards him. He looked back, shocked, scrabbling with one hand at the back of his neck.
The woman sighed again, crossing her arms. "I haven't done anything to you. I've merely disabled your tracker. To those running the Games, it'll seem as though you died down here, out of reach of the hovercrafts."
Merlin frowned. "What about all the—um, the—" He lowered his voice significantly, waving a hand vaguely around him.
"No cameras down here," the woman said shortly. "Not this far down."
Gwaine still looked taken aback, but much calmer. "Why are you doing this?" he said cautiously.
"An offer has been made," the woman replied. Her voice was clipped and emotionless. "Artema Gildemeister has bought your way out. You'll be taken to the Capitol, to live as her full-time companion."
A stunned silence followed. Then Elena took another step forward and crossed her arms. “You can’t just buy a person.”
The Capitol woman looked at her like Elena was truly simple. Elena stared back defiantly, until Merlin cleared his throat pointedly.
"And what about us?" he said.
The woman shrugged. "You were not meant to be part of the extraction, but unfortunately we had a very small window of opportunity. You two are free to continue the Games from here, and try to get back to the arena above on your own. Needless to say, this extraction is not approved by the Hunger Games at large, and if either of you should make it to victor," she looked them up and down, in a manner that made it very clear she thought it unlikely, "you will be expected to mention nothing of this incident. Gildemeister is a woman of no little means or influence in the Capitol. I'm sure you understand."
Gwaine wasn't saying anything, so Elena said it for him. "What if he refuses to go with you?"
The woman gave her a cold look. "Then the Games end here and now, for all of you." She consulted a wristwatch, then held out her hand. "Mr McCahn. Come."
"Wait," Gwaine said quickly. "Wait, can't I at least—can't I just say goodbye?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Make it quick."
Gwaine turned to Elena and Merlin. "This is my best chance to survive," he said, taking each of their hands in his. "I have to take it."
"Gwaine," Merlin protested, "you can't do this. There are other ways. You don’t need to—"
Gwaine smiled sadly at him. "I’ll take my chances." He stepped back a pace and pulled his necklace over his head, then closed Elena's hand around it. "Keep this. And you win for both of us now, all right?" He cast a look over his shoulder at the Capitol people waiting for him. "That has to be all right. She can take my token if she wants, right?"
"Whatever," the woman said. "Just hurry up. We're on the clock."
Gwaine bit his lip. He hugged Merlin quickly and awkwardly, then crushed Elena to him, burying his face in her hair.
"Time's up," the woman said.
Gwaine untangled himself with obvious regret, then stepped quickly over to the passage.
"You win for us both, yeah?" he repeated, looking straight at Elena and avoiding Merlin's eyes. She nodded grimly, clutching his necklace to her.
The passage closed, and Elena dropped to her knees.
"Elena," Merlin said quietly, sitting down next to her, but not within reach. "I'm so sorry. And I have something to tell you."
"Me first," Elena said, feverishly untangling the ornament matching Gwaine's from her hair. "Gwaine just gave us our excuse."
Merlin frowned. "Excuse?"
"Yes, for killing each other," Elena said calmly. "He built it up just enough, asking me to win and barely looking at you. To those up above, we're dead already. The team that got Gwaine will think so, too, in a minute. Ha!" She finally got the hair clip loose and put it next to Gwaine's pendant, twisting the two tokens together. She stripped a few wires, connected them, then swore and redid two. Finally she sat back, satisfied, and then she looked up at Merlin with a bright smile.
"Isn't he a great actor?" she said. "God, I wish I was as good as him. I think there were even tears in his eyes. Do you want to die first or should I?"
Merlin stared at her.
"Oh, right! Sorry. This neutralises the trackers," Elena explained, gesturing to the combined token. "Gwaine and I have been calibrating it for everyone in the group. We can turn off our two trackers here, die out of the Games. Then we can try and find a way out of this place. Maybe we can even find a way to save the others and get them out, too." She smiled at him again. "What were you going to tell me?"
"Huh? Oh," Merlin said. "I was going to say I can do magic. But that doesn't seem as cool now."
"So we died," Elena said.
“It was very anti-climatic,” Merlin added.
Arthur looked from one to the other and then figured his best option right then was to simply surrender to the darkness swirling at the edges of his vision and go back to being blissfully unconscious.
The next time he woke up was because of a loud crash, and then some muted swearing. He lay quite still, not opening his eyes, and tried to figure out what had happened.
The first thing he was aware of was the smell. Even the most successful of potential tributes tended to spend quite some time in hospital during their training centre days, and the mixed smell of disinfectant and disease was one you could never mistake for anything else.
Arthur moved his head slightly, and felt crisp linen move beneath him. There was a needle in his arm, and he could hear machines beeping softly in the distance.
Which had to mean that he was in the Capitol, being taken care of in a hospital. And unless everything about the cave, Elena and Merlin talking to a plate had been a creative hallucination on the part of his brain, being in a Capitol hospital could only mean one thing: that they’d been discovered trying to break out.
He did not even want to know what would happen to them now. Dying in the Games was one thing; trying to run... to Arthur’s knowledge, no one had even attempted it before once they’d entered the arena. Trying to run from the Reaping Ceremony occurred with a tribute every few years, and was considered the ultimate dishonour. How much worse wouldn’t it be to, like him, have gone in a forerunner and then been caught trying to sneak out with his tail between his legs?
Arthur just hoped they would kill him quickly. Having to face Gloss and Cashmere, his trainers, or even worse, Uther himself, would be a lot worse than any torture the Capitol could think of.
He made a pained noise and someone gasped beside him. Right, District One tributes were always stoic. Then again, it wasn't like they'd be filming him now, anyway.
He opened his eyes to tell the nurse as much, and found Elena grimacing at him.
"Sorry," she said. "Didn't want to wake you, but these chairs are a nuisance. And, well, I’m a klutz."
Arthur stared at her, astonished. He tried to come up with something to say, and came up blank. Finally he managed to get a sentence together, and spat it out at her.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Merlin had to go and talk to the president or something,” Elena said, which really didn't explain anything at all. “I said I’d watch over you for him. Obviously, since I just managed to wake you up, I did a pretty shit job of it. Sorry again.”
Arthur tried to sort out his thoughts. “President—what—” he said, and then, “Oh. Medication.”
The only rational explanation was that he was having some sort of fever dream. They gave you the good drugs in the Capitol, he’d heard.
“Well, not really,” Elena said. “We’re not official Thirteen citizens, so they’ve been rather stingy with the drugs. But Merlin has been doing his, you know, thing.” She waved her hands around. “They can’t really say no to that, now can they?” She must have seen his panicky bewilderment then, because she suddenly leaned closer and took his hand.
“Arthur,” she said, calmly but firmly. “You’re not in the Capitol. Merlin saved you—saved all of us. He conjured up deaths for all of us, so we could escape the Games. We managed to get out and get to District Thirteen. The Capitol can’t find us here. We’ll all be safe.”
She gestured towards the other end of the room, and when Arthur managed to raise himself onto his elbows, he saw Guinevere and Lancelot lying in beds of their own. Neither of them was awake. Some thoughtful person had placed a chair between their separate beds for them to rest their hands on, still joined, even in sleep.
Arthur looked back at Elena. Some words of hers had filtered through.
“District Thirteen?” he said. “Oh, gods. District Thirteen is still active?”
Elena shrugged. “In an underground sort of way,” she said. “Apparently they’ve managed to plod along quite fine for the last sixty years or so. Wouldn’t ask them to bake a cake though. They’re not much for the luxuries of life.”
Arthur lay back against the pillows. Another word rang a bell.
“Conjured?” Then he rolled his eyes, feeling that this, at least, made a strange sort of sense. “Of course. So he got us all—”
Arthur stopped, realising. “I’m an idiot.”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t say that,” Elena said blithely, patting Arthur’s hand. “A bit slow on the uptake, maybe, but nobody’s perfect, after all.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said. “I feel so much better now.”
Elena just smiled at him and gave him another pat on the hand.
"So after we died," Elena told him later on, "Merlin started digging through the rock with magic. He found us safe passages that we could use to get around underground—maintenance and construction tunnels that were probably used when they were building the arena. There were no cameras there, so Merlin could scry safely with Gaius for some outside help as well. He was the one who set us up with passage to Thirteen. Don’t ask me how he knew."
"And the rest of us?" Arthur said, fascinated.
"We had the tracker neutraliser calibrated for all of you, of course," Elena said easily. "Once Gaius heard the commentators talk about the geyser plain for the showdown, he let us know, and Merlin and I hurried there as fast as we could. It was pretty quick going the underground route, actually, so Merlin had some time to prepare. He managed to tap into what the Gamemakers were likely to throw at you, so he had some idea of how to neutralise it without being obvious. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the right moment. Lancelot was scary, though. He really did get a knife to the chest. Merlin had to put some kind of stasis charm around him. I think he’s stable now, though."
Arthur tried to take all this in. "You had it calibrated for all of us?" he repeated.
Elena grinned at him. "Gwaine was against including you, of course," she said, "but I think mostly on principle. Anyway, he didn't grumble about adding Lamia, and look how that turned out."
"But Gwaine," Arthur said, hesitating, "he's still in the Capitol."
"Like he planned all along," Elena said softly. Arthur stared at her, so she went on, "He realised as soon as we came to the Capitol and saw all the LOVE YOU GWAINE signs that he could play that angle. We hear rumours in Three when we do our information monitoring training, about people who get out of the Games alive—tributes who are pretty or interesting enough that there’s some rich person who wants to get them out and keep them for themselves. A live tribute who's not a victor is something exotic and unique, and that's what the Capitol is all about, after all. They're like a living work of art or something, forbidden and exclusive. A naughty little secret."
She made a face, then continued, "It was just rumours, of course. We never really believed it before we were chosen as tributes. But then Gwaine thought that there was no harm in trying—if he was just a harmless pretty face, he might find someone who liked him enough to take him in. And better being some rich person's eccentric piece of art than getting killed in the Games. His plan paid off." She smiled gently. "You didn't really think Gwaine was as vapid as he made himself out to be, did you?"
Arthur didn't reply to that, because he thought the answer might sound insulting. "Still," he said. "The Capitol may not be that simple."
Elena shrugged, still smiling. "Gwaine can also hotwire practically any means of transportation. Someone broke a lot of rules to extract him from the Games. If one of their hovercrafts goes missing, I somehow don't think they'll report it.”
That made sense, of course, Arthur conceded.
"I expect that if he gets tired of being a conversation piece, he'll jack a craft and come join us,” Elena added. “I've already begun working on a beacon that he should be able to lock onto if he wants to find us. We made tokens like that for the tributes two years ago. Atto and Solder."
Arthur remembered. Not the names, but the district. Two years ago, the Games had been won by Kermes, two years above Arthur in the tribute programme, who had played a textbook game. Arthur had watched his Games until he knew them backwards.
That year, Boy Three had died a horrible death in the bloodbath, strangled slowly by the girl from Four who, as it would turn out later, was completely insane. Kermes had finally taken her down in a long and brutal knife fight, during which she had torn a chunk of flesh out of his arm with her teeth. They had fixed that up in the Capitol afterwards, of course, but Kermes had later got himself a full sleeve tattoo over the area, anyway. And he never sat next to Enobaria in victor photos.
The girl from Three had died from hypothermia, in her sleep, on day four.
"You made their tokens?" he asked, confused.
Elena looked up at him, a guilty expression passing quickly over her face, then shrugged. "Doesn't matter if I tell you now, I guess," she said. "Ever since we were both old enough to go into the reaping bowl, Gwaine and I have been making tokens to use in case we were Reaped. When we weren't, we just decided to give the tokens to those Reaped that year. Atto and Solder got the beacons, to find each other—that was two years ago. Last year we made something similar. Those made use of the tribute trackers—let you know when another tribute was close by."
The Three tributes had survived a long time last year, Arthur remembered. And they had both died arena deaths—one from eating poisonous fruit, the other from being attacked by a Gamemaker mutt.
"You took a risk," he said. "What if the Gamemakers had found out?"
Elena shrugged again. "They did confiscate our first efforts," she said easily. "Or at least I guess they did, because neither Lemma nor Carl wore the tokens in their Games. To be fair, those were really clumsy. They were meant to help with night vision, but they weren't even very good. I was twelve," she added, apologetically.
"Huh," Arthur said, because he couldn't come up with anything better.
"Anyway," Elena continued, "we realised after last year that there was real potential in those last tokens, so we just kind of—thought bigger."
She gave him a bright smile.
"And it worked," she said. "These tokens were a gamble, sure, but since they only work when combined, we managed to sneak them past inspection."
Arthur lay back against the bed. For all their preparation and analysis of different tributes' strengths and weaknesses, he thought, his district had seriously undervalued District Three.
"So what happens now?" he asked, feeling suddenly restless. Apart from his throat, which still felt a bit like it had been scraped raw by something sharp and burning, his body seemed well recovered. Definitely more than enough for him to be doing something other than lying around uselessly in bed all day.
"I don't really know," Elena said, looking unhappy about it. "District Thirteen is really strict. They're not very happy we came here. Merlin is trying to smooth things over with them, and I suppose we're going to try to get some kind of asylum here or something, but I'm not sure about what's going to happen yet." She must have seen his expression, because she stretched out a hand and ran it gently through his hair—and he remembered waking up to her wiping his brow when he'd first joined up with their group, less than ten days and over a lifetime ago. She'd done her fair share of nursing, she'd said to him once.
"We’ll figure something out," she said. "We’re survivors, after all."
The next morning, Arthur was released from his hospital bed and given a set of drab and grey but reasonably well-made clothes. A pale man with pox marks all down the left side of his face took his details and then informed him that he had been given a temporary compartment on level eight. Thankfully, Elena showed up to guide him before he had time to admit that he had no idea what that even meant.
“We’re all next to each other,” she told him, as they stepped into an elevator. “Well, you and me and Merlin, at least. There are some empty rooms, too, so hopefully Gwen and Lance can join us here when they get out of the hospital. We’re eight levels underground, so don’t expect a view.”
She grinned, but it looked somewhat forced. As she raised her hand to run it through her hair, Arthur saw that she had been writing on her arm.
“A lot to keep track of?” he asked, nodding at the writing. She looked surprised for a moment.
“Oh! No, that’s District Thirteen routine. It’s my schedule for the day. They print a new one on your arm each morning.”
“They don’t trust you to remember?” Arthur asked, frowning, and Elena pulled a face.
“They don’t really trust us yet, period,” she said.
The elevator came to a halt, and she led the way down a corridor.
“Here we are—your compartment,” she said, stopping in front of a door marked 809. Then she smiled suddenly. “It looks as though someone wants to welcome you to your new home.”
There was a small bundle of flowers hanging from the door handle—fuzzy grey globes topped with purple. Arthur raised his eyebrows.
“Thistles?” he said.
“Burdock, to be precise,” Elena said. She gestured to the door opposite. “That room’s mine, by the way. And Merlin’s next to you.”
Arthur turned his head quickly, then felt incredibly foolish. “Where is Merlin?” he asked, trying to make the question casual. Elena shrugged.
“His arm usually reads meeting all the way to his elbow. The only time they let him out is when he goes to the hospital.” She looked at her own arm and scowled. “I have to go. I have training in five minutes. You’re completely free today, so just get settled in and I’ll come and pick you up when it’s time for lunch.”
District Thirteen, Arthur soon realised, was extremely disciplined. Apart from the fact that his schedule was printed on his arm every day, things were run a lot like at the training centre, which made Arthur feel a lot more comfortable than he probably should.
Because a district that had not only managed to fake its own death (so to speak) but thrive in secret for almost 70 years and build (from what Arthur could tell) a massive military proportionally to its general population during that time clearly did not lack either intelligence or determination. Which, in turn, made them extremely dangerous—and since there was no telling what their long-term agenda might be, the clean-cut discipline evident everywhere he went was starting to make Arthur very uneasy.
Feigning weakness only had one real purpose, after all: waiting for the opportune moment to strike. He tried to recall details about District Thirteen’s role in the war, came up mostly empty and wished he could kick dear old Professor Aredian at home for spending hours and hours during history lessons talking about the purge of magic, instead of things like district politics and ties during the rebellion.
Then again. Just how had Thirteen managed to stay hidden this long?
And where the hell was Merlin?
Since leaving the hospital, Arthur hadn’t seen Merlin once. Hadn’t even heard him move about in his compartment, even though it was supposedly right next to the one Arthur had been given (not that he’d been listening for him, or making up reasons to linger in the corridor leading to their compartments, or anything). Elena claimed to have seen him now and then, and Arthur didn’t think he was in any active danger, given how powerful he apparently was (a corporeal, firebreathing illusion; honestly), but still…
“You look troubled,” somebody said from behind him. Arthur turned around and felt himself smile for what felt like the first time in several days.
Guinevere beamed at him. “I was released from the hospital an hour ago. It’s still hard to walk. Apparently, I stepped into a geyser that wasn’t entirely an illusion. Extensive burns on both legs. They say my body went into shock for awhile.”
Arthur nodded. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
“Good thing I didn’t take your advise to drop Merlin,” she replied, laughing as Arthur winced at the memory. “Elena filled me in. I can’t believe he had magic all along and never told me. Though I guess it explains how his mother’s house always had a fire, even at the end of winter when everyone else was trying to save the little firewood they had left as much as possible.”
Arthur frowned. “You don’t look too shocked at the news that there are still people with magic around. I thought Twelve was purged just like the other districts?”
“Oh it was,” Guinevere said. “Long before I was born, of course, but there were still stories. You know, legends. Rumours about people who almost got through the Hunger Games. And there were all kinds of stories about Haymitch, but I think that was just because people were so shocked we finally had a winner. According to Merlin, he doesn’t have any magic at all.”
“You’ve seen Merlin?” Arthur asked, and then, when she smiled at him, wondered if that had sounded as plaintive as it felt.
“Not yet. Like I said, I have all my information through Elena.”
“So where is Elena?” Arthur asked, looking around. They were in the dining room, with lunch just finishing off, but he hadn’t seen Elena since that morning.
“Off with the president again,” Guinevere said. “She’s working on something communication-related, I think. She wasn’t allowed to tell me.” She shrugged. “They take rules very seriously here, it seems.”
Personal time was not a concept District Thirteen put much stock in. But Arthur did have half an hour’s “reflection” stencilled onto his arm after lunch, every day, which came in useful now to show Guinevere around the different levels, before they came back to level eight.
“My humble abode,” Arthur said, opening the door to his own compartment and indicating the room at large with one sarcastic sweep of his arm. It was a dreary place, without windows or decorations and with a very thin bed taking up most of the space. “Quite lovely, don’t you think?”
“Those are nice, at least,” Guinevere said, nodding at the burdock thistles standing in a jar on a stool next to the bed. They were still fresh, even days after he’d received them. “They can’t have been easy to find here.”
“Someone left them for me,” Arthur said.
“That was sweet of them,” Guinevere said, smiling at him. Arthur smiled back, although he wasn’t so sure. It was actually vaguely creepy. He wondered if District Thirteen was trying to butter him up. And then, with a sinking feeling, just what they wanted to ask him for that would require special treatment beforehand.
Two days later, there was an extra roll of bread next to Arthur’s plate when he sat down to lunch. The night after that, he came back to his room after a day of gruelling physical exercise and found that his pillow was several degrees softer than it had been the night before. The hot water in his shower started lasting longer, and after talking to a couple of District Thirteen citizens, he realised that he was sent on training in the open air, instead of on the underground training level, a disproportionate amount of time.
He could only imagine that District Thirteen were building up to something. They had made use of Merlin’s and Elena’s specific skillsets as soon as they were made aware of them; it only made sense that they would want to use Arthur for something as well. They were expected to work for their keep, that much had been made clear from the start. What worried Arthur was that they never seemed to get around to asking him for it.
What also worried him was wondering what they had Merlin doing that took up all of his waking hours.
Finally, Elena took him aside.
“Look,” she said, “I’m not really supposed to do this, but you’re looking more miserable by the day. I mean, you look more miserable than Lancelot, and he’s been banned from making out with Gwen until they take his stitches out.”
Arthur frowned at her, but she interrupted him before he had time to protest.
“Like I said, not supposed to do this. But here.” She handed him an access card. “Level seventeen. You can thank me later. Oh, and if anyone asks what I’m doing, I’m in my room for reflection and certainly not trying to contact Gwaine with a radio I liberated from the communications storage.”
Level seventeen was very quiet. The hallway stretched out before Arthur as he stepped out of the lift, with the doors on either side closed and no noise filtering out. Arthur walked slowly down the hallway, wondering just why Elena had sent him down here.
Occasionally there were windows, and he looked in curiously. The rooms inside were empty, but he saw rooms that seemed to be meant for strategic planning, filled with maps and models, and rooms that appeared to be some sort of research and development labs. One room was filled with electronics and communication systems, and he wondered if this might be where Elena spent all her time these days.
And then, finally, as he was beginning to tire of this whole exercise, he looked into a room and saw Merlin.
He was standing with his back to the hallway in the middle of an otherwise empty room, holding both hands in front of him and moving them in a slow circle. There was a shimmer in the air in front of him, like a heat haze or mirage.
Arthur stood quite still for what felt like several minutes, then stepped forward and opened the door.
As the door swung open, the haze in front of Merlin wavered and dissipated, and he ran his hands through his hair with an exasperated noise.
“Boggs, I have nothing new to tell you. How many times do I have to say this? I can’t just put force fields around people to protect them from gunfire. That’s not how it—you’re not Boggs.”
Arthur leaned back against the door, forcing his body to make the position look casual. “Well spotted.”
He was going to follow up by asking—casually, of course—how Merlin was doing, but forgot what he was going to say when Merlin practically threw his arms around his neck and squeezed hard enough that Arthur lost his breath for a minute. He wrapped his own arms around Merlin’s back in response, tentatively at first, then with more confidence. Merlin sagged against him, hiding his face against Arthur’s neck, and held him even closer.
“I thought you were dead,” Arthur said, feeling the words tear themselves out of a throat suddenly very tight. Merlin laughed weakly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know it must have been terrible. I hoped you might think I’d done something, but I knew I couldn’t count on it.”
Arthur frowned, stepping back a pace. “Done something?”
“Yes, well, you know.” Merlin looked slightly embarrassed. “Something magic.”
Arthur laughed. “And how on earth was I supposed to know you were magic?”
Merlin stared at him. “But… I told you.” He waved his hands around vaguely. “Never mind that, you said you already knew!”
“Oh,” Arthur said. “Yes, about that.”
“I might have thought you were confessing to something else,” Arthur said.
Merlin frowned at him. “Like what?”
“Oh, you know,” Arthur said, feeling his neck start to burn in embarrassment. “The whole, you know—” He waved his hand between the two of them, hoping Merlin would catch on.
Merlin gave him a very blank look, which suddenly shifted into an expression so comically surprised that Arthur didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
“You thought I was telling you I was gay?” Merlin said, incredulous. Arthur straightened up, trying to fight down the disappointment.
“I may have been mistaken—” he began. Merlin stopped him before he could continue, putting both hands on his waist and pulling them close together.
“I kind of thought that part was implied,” he said quietly, his mouth very close to Arthur’s. “What with the whole me kissing you behind a waterfall and everything.”
Arthur opened his mouth to protest, because it had definitely been him that had initiated the kissing Merlin was referring to, and with the emotional stress of the Games, it wasn’t uncommon for tributes to react in ways they wouldn’t normally, so, really, Arthur’s arguments were completely—
Kissing Merlin proved just as blissfully effective the second time around.
The bunk in Arthur’s compartment had definitely not been made for two people, Arthur thought giddily. He currently had Merlin draped over him like a very warm and rather sticky blanket, which should have been plenty gross, but somehow wasn’t.
“That,” Merlin said, his voice slow and muffled against Arthur’s collarbone. “I don’t even—gnngh.”
Arthur turned his face so that most of what he was sure was a truly embarrassing smile wouldn’t be so terribly obvious. “Very eloquent.”
“Shut up,” Merlin said. “I’ll think of something better once I have my brain back.”
“So, in other words, never?”
Merlin started raising his head, then seemed to think better of it and bit down warningly against the skin of Arthur’s chest instead. “Prat.”
“You know, insulting people tends to be a lot more effective when you don’t sound like they just redefined your universe,” Arthur said, unable to help himself.
This time, Merlin did raise his head. “Redefined—oh, you wish,” he said, glaring at Arthur in a way that made a great deal of very interesting ideas cross Arthur’s mind. “All right for a first attempt, I’ll grant you that, but it’s clear you need practice. A lot of it.” The last part was said with a very cheeky grin. Arthur had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep his smile in check.
He tilted his head and gave Merlin a considering look, then quickly shifted his weight so that he could flip them over without either of them crashing off the narrow cot and unto the floor. He ran a hand slowly down Merlin’s body, taking careful note of just where his touch would make Merlin’s breath hitch, his back arc to bring himself closer or—Arthur’s favourite part—a quick flash of gold appear in Merlin’s eyes. He lowered his head to follow the same path with his mouth, keeping his touch slow and deliberate until he got himself just where he intended to be.
The loud yelp of surprise as he twisted and simultaneously hoisted both of Merlin’s legs up to drape over his shoulders was highly satisfying. Even more as it ended on a tone Arthur could only describe as terribly needy.
Well then. Time to make another point.
“I take it back,” Merlin gasped, some ten minutes later, both of his hands tugging almost painfully at Arthur’s hair to try and bring him even closer. “You’re perfect and lovely, and—holy g—how do you even—”
Arthur counted that one as a win.
“These are not strawberries,” Arthur said, frowning at the piece of fruit he’d just taken a bite out of.
“Yes they are,” Merlin insisted. “Red, cone-shaped, green little leaves at the top. Strawberries.”
“It tastes like a plum,” Arthur replied, turning the fruit over. “I don’t think your magic works the way it should.”
“Hey, my magic saved you from certain death,” Merlin said. “It’s perfectly fine. Now stop being a baby and enjoy your juicy treats.”
“I’m merely helping you improve your skills,” Arthur replied, grinning at him. “Still, it beats District Thirteen gruel, I’ll give you that.” He took another bite. It wasn’t like some kind of weird, hybrid fruit would even make the top ten on the list of strange things that happened around him lately. Speaking of.
“Have you noticed how everyone has been given something to do but me?” he asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral as he scanned Merlin’s face for a reaction. “They assigned Lancelot to a unit before he was even out of the hospital, and I have fifty times the combat training he has.”
Merlin looked suddenly very sheepish, as well as a bit embarrassed. Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“Yes, about that,” Merlin said. “I might have asked them to leave you alone for a bit. Just until you got well!” he quickly added when he saw the look on Arthur’s face. “Also, I didn’t know if you’d be okay with—I mean, you’re from One, which is as close to Capitol as you get without being, you know, actually Capitol. And while the people here haven’t come out and said it, I’m pretty sure they’re not building a giant military and asking me all sorts of questions about magical shields and remote attack options just for the fun of it.”
He leant back a little, looking closely at Arthur. “Are you—um, you’re not saying anything.”
Arthur ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t—” he began, then paused.
“I’m not sure what their long-term plans are,” he said eventually. “They must be building up to something since practically everyone here is a soldier, but I don’t know what they’re waiting for. A spark maybe. Something to cause a power vacuum that they can exploit. It wouldn’t make sense to reveal themselves after having successfully kept off the radar for so long if they didn’t think they had a really good chance at getting what they wanted.”
“So what do you think they might want?”
“Power,” Arthur said simply. “In some shape or form. What else is there?”
“Um, justice,” Merlin said, like this was something obvious. “Equality, freedom for the districts, the end of poverty, little things like that.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “You forgot never-fading rainbows and free puppies for all.”
Merlin looked at him. “For someone who grew up in a place where you could actually eat strawberries,” he said lightly, “you are a very cynical man.”
“I’m just saying,” Arthur said, “that whatever District Thirteen is gearing up to do, it’s naive to expect it won’t lead to a whole lot of trouble. I’m not saying I won’t work with them,” he added, just in case their compartments weren’t as private as they seemed, “I’m just saying we should be aware of the consequences.”
“So where does that leave us?” Merlin asked.
“Right now—in this room,” Arthur said. “We’ll just have to adapt as we go for the rest.”
“I can work with that,” Merlin agreed, then leaned in and caught Arthur’s lips in a sweet, lingering kiss.
Arthur let the half-eaten strawberry still in his hand fall to the floor, wrapping his arms around Merlin’s neck instead and pulling them both back down against the bed. Whatever challenges were coming their way next could wait until the morning.
Last part should be coming along fairly shortly. Edits are about 50% done already. Stay tuned. :)
Chapter 6: Epilogue
Aaaaaaand, here it is, the last part of this fic. Huge thanks to everyone who's followed this to the end. It's really meant a lot to us. *throws kisses*
Second thing: this fic is most likely going to become part of a larger series. We have one companion piece almost finished and many more ideas for shorter pieces. So stay tuned for more to come. :D
The victory show played a duet this year. The first couple of days were relatively quickly dealt with, but Arthur winced to see the footage lingering lovingly over Sophia's mad scramble to try and get out of the landslide that took her life. They were quick, too, to note every angry glance passing between him and Morgause, and to zoom in on Morgana's and Morgause's shared talks.
The cameras showed Arthur the part of the Games he had so far been ignorant of—how Merlin and Guinevere had made their way over the mountains into the more pleasant area of the arena, how they had found Gwaine trying to carry along a feverish and half delirious Elena, and how they had made common cause.
Then there was one of the obvious highlights of the Games: the breaking of the alliance. The ones who edited the footage this year must have been annoyed that it hadn't come down to Arthur and Morgause in the end—there was a clear rivalry there and that would have made for almost too easy editing. Instead, they were marketing Morgause and Morgana as a team and playing them against Arthur as a unit, being sure to linger over the looks passed between Arthur and Morgana in order to build her up as the eventual victor.
After that, the real story began. Brightly-lit footage of Arthur and his new group relaxing by the riverside was intercut with dark images of Morgana and the rest fighting off a herd of mutts, getting lost in the mountains and falling down steep slopes. There was also a long, drawn-out fight between Morgana and the boy from District Ten, a stocky seventeen-year-old who had excelled at wrestling during training week. The camera's perverse delight in her many injuries, in the dislocated shoulder, the swelling black eye and the deep gashes in her right arm, made Arthur turn his face away.
Then the music changed, and the idyll of the riverside camp was broken. Lamia arrived like a snake in the garden, and the ending of their sojourn was a fact. There was the fall of Merlin, Elena and Gwaine—this was dealt with quickly and unemotionally—and, separately, the death of Cenred at the hands of Mordred, the little worm.
The final battle was rather excitingly cut together, with Guinevere's scream of anguish at Lancelot's fall and her battle with Morgause given even more time than Arthur had expected. He could only imagine how annoyed the Gamemakers must have been at the result of that fight. If Morgause had lived, she could have had a final duel with her longtime rival Arthur, or—even juicier—a battle with her erstwhile friend and companion Morgana.
Still, the ending was rather nice: Arthur and Morgana's salute to each other was overlaid with the softest strains of the Hunger Games anthem—reminding everyone who watched that these tributes knew their duty and their calling. Their fight with the dragon was glorious. And then the dragon batted Morgana away, paused for a moment, and swallowed Arthur whole.
Arthur grimaced. Merlin shot him a quick glance.
"Sorry," he mouthed.
After that last gulp, the dragon heaved itself down into the crack it had come from again, and Morgana stood up shakily. Behind her was Mordred, raising his knife to stab.
Morgana turned and drove her sword up under his ribcage in one swift, deadly motion.
"Really?" she said, as the cameras zoomed in on her face triumphantly. "You're going to try that with me?"
She let go of the sword, and kicked the boy away from her. The cannon boomed, and as she raised her face to the sky, the anthem blared brashly forth in all its glory.
Arthur looked at her with a curious mix of pride and pity. She was playing out her role so perfectly, standing calm and erect as she waited for the hovercraft to pick her up—even though, as Gaius had told them, she must have broken several ribs in that last fall, not to mention all her other injuries. The cameras held on to her face, still beautiful even through the mask of burns and cuts, and slowly faded her out to leave room for a bright Hunger Games emblem.
Arthur sat back. So that was it. Morgana would go to the Capitol and be a victor, where she was destined for a world of modelling and glamour. She would do well, he thought. She knew how to play the crowds, and she would know how to use those who tried to make her submit to their power utterly powerless in turn.
Yes, she'd do very well. He only wished he knew as much about his own future.
He looked over at the others. Lancelot and Guinevere were holding hands tightly, her face extremely pale. She woke up screaming every other night, Arthur knew.
“I think that was even more of a nightmare to watch than it was hearing about it,” Elena said. She had her hands to her face, and it looked like she might have been crying. “I’m only glad I was out for the end of it.”
Guinevere stood up suddenly, and walked out of the room. Lancelot glanced around at the rest of them, then followed quickly after. Just after he’d left, a middle-aged woman that Arthur had only ever seen at a distance stepped in through the still open door.
Alma Coin, District Thirteen’s current president. Arthur felt himself sit up straighter.
“You’ve all seen the footage,” President Coin said, taking up position next to the telescreen and staring at them all. “You are aware, I trust, that going back is no longer an option.”
They hadn’t exactly needed to watch their own deaths on screen to know that, Arthur thought. Since she seemed to be building to a point, however, he didn’t say anything.
“You have all been employed in some fashion in our district’s service. You must be aware that we are not only surviving, here, but preparing for the day when justice will once again be served and our district will retake its proper place in Panem.”
President Coin apparently spoke in hyperbole a lot. Arthur restrained himself from rolling his eyes.
“As I said, you’ve all found gainful employment,” President Coin continued. “What I wish to talk to you about today is the possibility of other such employment. We have found opportunities, over the years, to place some of our citizens in other districts. If you wish, such an opportunity might be found for you.”
Arthur breathed in sharply.
“You mean, we’d leave District Thirteen?” Merlin asked, sounding more confused than anything else.
“And continue your work from within another district, yes,” President Coin replied. “Reliable information is both crucial and extremely hard to get, after all.”
Arthur kept his face carefully neutral. Being too excited to leave would surely raise questions about loyalty, but just the thought of going somewhere—anywhere—else after weeks of monotonous work, mostly beneath ground level, was exhilarating. Just having the opportunity to be outdoors again would mean a lot.
“Could we—” Elena began, then broke off, looking away. “No, sorry.”
“Going back to your own respective districts would, of course, be out of the question,” President Coin said, without even making an attempt at tact. “However, we might have some possibilities in District Four or Eight.”
Arthur felt Merlin’s hand reach for his. He glanced over, and saw Merlin give a tiny nod. Well then.
“I’m a very good swimmer,” Arthur told him quietly. “And I’ve always wanted to set foot on a ship.”
“I’m not,” Merlin replied. “But I’ll learn, and I’m pretty sure I could walk on top of the water if I found the right spell.”
Arthur smiled at him. “You are going to be the worst undercover agent ever, aren’t you?”
“Very possibly,” Merlin said. “Do you still want to go with me?”
Arthur shifted his hand, lacing their fingers together.
“Most definitely,” he said.