Crown of Thorns

In the arena, you make a choice. It doesn't matter who you were yesterday or last week or before, because that's all behind you. It doesn't matter how kind you were and how everyone thought of you as a friend. What matters is the knife in your hand and the kid who is your prey, your prey because it's better them dead than you.

Elesabeth Reston's life is shattered by a name. Hers. No one expects her to last a day in the arena, not even her family. Fifteen years old, and not athletic or strong or anything. But brute force isn't everything. And Elesabeth is determined to get home.


2. Chapter 1

We are herded into the square- a large square smack bang in the middle of the District and ringed with towering factories. They have made an effort to clean it up a bit, I can see- but it's not really working. A thick veil of smog hangs over the square, stinging eyes and dampening the mood of the ceremony, if it could be. Peacekeepers stand straight and rigid, watching kids file in silently, eyes fixed on the ground. They look as though they are carved out of stone. Marble, maybe, the stuff that they show on TV, in the Capitol.  Cold and hard and unforgiving, and just as out of place.  But marble cannot hurt you. And the Peacekeepers can.

My eyes stay trained on the shoes of the girl in front of me. They are too small for her, but they are good shoes, soles still attached, if a little worn. She's folded down her white socks in a careful, crisp way.  I raise my gaze to the back of her head. Auburn hair is pulled back off her face and falls to her waist in a careful curtain. She cannot be more than twelve. Her first reaping.  No doubt she's terrified. I feel the slightest tinge of pity- until I remember that I cannot help her. Better her chosen than me. It's a selfish thought, and I hate myself for thinking it, but it's true all the same.

Soon enough, I am shepherded into a roped area for the fifteen year olds. I'm next to two boys- one I've never seen, and another who I think works the same shift as me on the factory. He gives me a ghost of a smile.

I do not listen to the speech the mayor gives when the reaping begins, neither do most of the people who are here. It is torture to wait so long for the names, and I know the speech off by heart. Still, the square is as silent as a grave as he speaks. Which, I suppose, it is.

The speech goes on, for a minute, an hour, I don't know. However long it is, it is not enough. Soon the past victors have climbed on stage and then the escort is walking toward the microphone and the glass balls, that will sentence two children to torture and probable death. Probable. Who I am kidding? District eight hasn't won for years. They will be slaughtered. I might be slaughtered. I might be killed.

It's a new escort this year, fresh from the Capitol, no doubt crestfallen at getting our district. They all wish they had District 1 or 2 or 4, where the kids actually win, heck, volunteer so that they can get the riches and the fame and the honour of it all. But if there is one thing Capitol citizens are good at, it's being upbeat. Upbeat, upbeat, always look on the bright side of life kind of shit. Because what other side of life do they have to look on? Their whole life is one candy, pampered, bright dream that never ends. I would wonder how they stand it, how they live in a bubble oblivious to everything other than themselves. But I don’t. The average brain capacity for one of them might be all of a two year old's.

This particular one is dressed in a ridiculous metallic blue and green suit that hurts my eyes to look at. Is it meant to look like the sea? He fails abysmally. And when he speaks- with those laughable accents that only Capitol people can create- he speaks in falsetto, because he clearly has a deep voice. Maybe he's trying to hide it. It's not working.

It's probably some strange fashion.

He thanks the Mayor in a flowery, over the top way, although for all I know in the Capitol he's underdoing it. Going on about what an honour it is to be here, how the Games are such an opportunity for who knows what, and everyone in the audience is silently screaming at him to draw the names already, get it over with, draw the names, although no one's face betrays them. No. In the Capitol their emotions play over their faces, to read at will like an open book; in the Districts you keep your thoughts to yourself, or god help you. Finally, finally, he walks over to the glass orb that holds the boy's names.

"Well, District eight, are you ready for your female tribute?" he positively gushes. Does he expect us to scream in answer?

Clearly, he's new to this.

The escort's grin falters for a moment when he is met by silence, but he pushes on anyway. A manicured, soft hand that has probably never seen real work at all curls into the orb, digging around at the bottom until it grabs a slip it likes.

"Representing District Eight..." he yells.

My heart is pounding. It could be anyone, anyone, not necessarily me. I stand up straighter. It will not be me. It will not be me. I repeat it, over and over, as if willing it hard enough would make it true.

"as the female tribute ..."

It's not me, please, please, not me.

"in the forty-second annual Hunger Games…"

You could hear a pin drop now. It's the kind of silence that you hear. Pressing on to your chest, making it hard to breath, so quiet it's deafening. Everyone's attention, even though who couldn’t give a shit unless it made them money, is fixed on that orb, those little slips that decide the fate of someone.  Thousands of them, and I have thirty of them.

The Capitol man draws a breath as he goes to announce the name, and we all draw breath with him. I have to calm down. It won't be me, there are thousands of slips, and I almost convince myself that it won't be me, that I might get off, when he reads the name.

"Elesabeth Reston!"

And then my world comes crashing down.

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