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.

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4. Chapter 3

For a moment I just stand there, staring at the silver metal of the train and the thin barrier it provides between myself and my home. Thin, at least, in the physical sense- but I know I am never going back now. There is no way back. There is no way around. The only way, as it has always been, is through.

With a sigh, I turn away.

My footsteps seem to echo in the corridor as I walk into a room. It’s a little hard to walk, because with a sudden lurch, the train is moving. Slow at first, then faster, faster,  faster until I'm sure we must be going at the speed of light. I stumble a bit, but strangely it's easier to walk when the train is going full speed. The ghost of a smile passes my lips. Might as well enjoy what I can.

For a second I'm sure I'm on the wrong train, when I take in the room for the first time, although that's ridiculous, because I'm a tribute, and no other trains run this day anyway. For a moment I'm sure it's a mistake. Because the room, oh, the room that greets me is bigger than my entire house at home and adorned with furniture that makes the Justice building pale in comparison. I stand there for a moment, shock still, I'm sure with a gormless expression on my face. I knew it existed, that the Capitol had grandeur beyond anything someone could have had the capacity to dream. But it's different, knowing it exists, to seeing it in person. In person. I am here in the flesh.

A massive glass chandelier hangs suspended from the ceiling, casting fractured light over the rest of the room. The floor is shining, actually shining and reflecting better than the dusty mirror we have at home- I can see my face clearly in the black surfaces. This perplexes me, because how can you see your face in a colour? I shrug it off, because this is the Capitol and dreams are reality. For that matter, reality is a dream.

Two blue coaches beckon me, probably so comfortable they'd send me to sleep. Even now, even in the situation, even today. But what draws my attention really is the food, set on a bench that runs along the wall on the room.

I can't believe it.

Gobsmacked, I stare. Rows apon rows of things that must be edible, must be, even though it looks more like art to me. Cakes, I recognise, I've seen them in shop windows, but can cakes really look so elaborate? Pastries, hors d'oeuvres, even fruit is cut to perfection and strange shapes. It's unnatural. And suddenly my shock turns to revulsion, as I remember my family at home, and all the rest of the people in the district, who go without and here is all this food set out for two children.

Two children, not just me.

I remember I am not alone.

"So it's just us now, I guess?" a voice says to my left.

I whip around, immediately on my guard. It's my district partner. Jonathon.

His wide green eyes hold my gaze. He has really thick eyelashes. The combination gives him a permanently surprised look, an innocent look which is bizarre because he is so tall and strong.  I can see why girls like him.  He's attractive- the Capitol are going to love him. I tilt my head to the side.

"Yeah?" it's only half a question.

Jonathon smiles, picks a cake off the stand and plonks himself down on the blue couch. Seeing my disgust, he holds it up.

"Might as well enjoy it why you can."

There's truth in that. I choose a small brown tart and take a small bite. It's delicious, like nothing I've ever tasted before. I take another, larger bite, and hear laughter.

"It's called chocolate, apparently," he chuckles.

My face goes red and I sit down, opposite him, my back straight and rigid and uncomfortable as he is slouched and at home.  I envy him, the swagger with which he walks, his strength, his good looks.  He will be the tribute people will be rooting for, if anyone roots for my district. I will be pushed to the side. I don't know if I'm angry or relieved.

"Leaving someone behind?" he says conversationally, like we are going on a holiday, not to our deaths.

My death.

He might have a chance.

I raise my eyebrows slightly, in answer to his question.

With a strange gushing sound, the door opens, and an assortment of people walk in. At the helm is the Capitol man from the reaping, who, for once, looks completely in place. As if this is what he's used to. Of course, I think wryly, he must be.

The thought is repulsive.

A man and woman flank him, although it's easy to tell by their expressions that they do not like him. At least, it's easier to tell from the man's face. The woman keeps her face carefully blank.

I recognise them, from the television, from the Reaping. Victors. In all the years since the Games began, District 8 has had three victors. Not bad, maybe, for 42 years of games, but definitely no where near some of the better districts. I thought they were all still alive, but I might be wrong.

"Aren't there more of you?" Jonathan asks, as if he's read my mind. As soon as the words leave his mouth, I know it's a mistake.  The woman, whose name eludes me, stiffens, and opens her mouth to retort.

"Yeah. But we're your mentors," the man interrupts. He's well built but falling into ruin, just a bit. Not by drugs or alcohol, but he looks unkempt, like he's forgotten about looks. His face is tired, but there are distinct laugh lines around his face. What's his name, Dean? Dean, that was it, Dean Cross. He won the games ages ago, before I was born, when the games were in their infant years.  He must be forty something now. What's the woman's name? She stares at Jonathan with a look that could cut through rock.

"So what, do we pick or something?" Jonathon continues. "Or do you choose who you mentor?"

I swear, the woman looks as if she almost rolls her eyes. "There's you and Dean, and then there's me and that other kid."

Both of us open our mouths to object. Me at being called a kid, and Jonathon because he clearly thinks the woman would be a better mentor.

"The man mentors the boy, that make sense to you, boy? Use your brain. You're going to need it." She turns to me. "You want to be mentored separately, then?"

I give a barely perceptible nod.

"Right then," Dean announces. "Jonathon's with me, and you're with Bi. So we'll go into the side room. You two can have this one." To Jonathon, he says "Trust me, the food's better." And then they leave.

The door slides shut.

We- that woman, Bi, stand and consider each other for a moment. The silence deepens, and I see she has no intention of breaking it. Her  eyes seem to read me, my innermost secrets, as if I were an open book.

Finally, I can't take it. "Your name is Bi?" I blurt out without thinking.

She tilts her head to the side. "Got a problem with that, kid?"

'No, no, it's just.." I backtrack quickly. "It's just unusual, that's all."

She raises her golden eyebrows. Her hair isn't blonde, but it's not brown either. It’s a kind of honey colour, but darker. Similar to my own shade. But her eyes, her deep brown eyes that judge me, my core- are in stark contrast to my own leached blue.

A pause. Then, "What can you do, kid?"

I'm put off, because the question is so out of the blue. "What?"

"Don't show people you're stupid, kid," she says. "What can you do?"

"I'm not stupid."

"Prove me wrong. What can you do?"

"Um," I stutter, "Well, I don't know. I can, you know, um," I can't formulate a sentence in the face of the intimidating woman.

"Kid."

"I don't know, ok? I can't do anything." I burst out. "And I'm not a kid."

She ignores me.  "You seem smart enough, kid."

"A moment ago you told me I was stupid."

That earns the ghost of a smile. "You have spirit, too. I guess you can use that, kid, good."

I just stare at her.

"Well, that's all lovely and sorted then," says the Capitol man, whom up until this point I forgotten. "I just checked on the boy's and there all good to go. How about some food, then? I can order something more substantial than this, if you like."

There is an entire bench which rings the room, completely covered with confectionary. We both answer him with silence. Bizarrely, he seems to notice. I had begun to think that nothing affected him.

"What?" he says, flustered, "People need to eat!" He wipes his hands and skips from the room.

People need to eat, sure, but not all of them have access for food.

Bi is looking at me, gauging my reaction.

I lose it. "It's rude to stare, you know," I spit at her. I am at my wit's end with everything, and I can feel hot tears gathering in the back of my eyes. I can control tears of sadness, but I am hopeless when I get angry. Crying is a weakness, and whatever Bi says with her judging eyes, I am not weak.

I am not weak.

I rise and stomp towards the door, intending to slam it behind me. Then I realise the doors are on automatic. Can't anyone on this godforsaken train do anything for themselves?

I'm so furious I barge into a Capitol attendant carrying a platter of food. The delicacies spill all over the floor- cookies, I think they are called, they sometimes have them on display in shops.

"I'm sorry," I gasp, but he shakes his head and gives me a sort of half smile. Gingerly he picks the biscuits up and places them on the platter again. I have almost turned away when I see him push them into a bin.

The tiles are spotless. There's no way that food could be spoiled, and it is thrown away without a second thought. As if it couldn't keep a family fed for a week. As if cookies are a part of everyday life, and nothing much at all. I can only stare in disgust as he finishes. What must it be like to never have to worry about your future? To be so certain of your security you can throw away a plate of food without a second thought? To be so selfish to do so?

I can't even imagine.

"You're not exactly social, are you?" It’s Jonathon, again.  Is it just that I am oblivious to everything, or he is really good at sneaking up on people?

I make a sound somewhere between a snort and a laugh. "I don't even know you."

"How do you think people make friends, then?" he chuckles. " Assuming you even have any."

I narrow my eyes. "What kind of question is that?"

He laughs softly in answer.

"Got any skills?" he asks, plucking a grape off the coffee table between us.

"It's a good idea to keep some things to yourself, Jonathon."

"Don't show your hand to the opponent, that sort of thing?"

"You could say that." Why is so calm? So… happy? Does nothing affect him?

"How about a friend?'

I frown. "There are no friends in the arena." It's true, so why delude yourself? No one can be friends whilst they are plotting the other's death.

"There are allies. "

"Yeah, there are allies. And you know what those allies, those friends do to each other? Because it's not all that pretty."

He raises his eyebrows, and suddenly I am sick of it all. Of his cheeriness in the face of death, of everything. I breathe out.

"You know where our rooms are?" I  ask.

"Third door, next carriage."

'Thanks."

I let myself into my room. I've never had a bedroom entirely to myself- I've always had to share with my sisters. This one is massive, the size of the flat above the bookstore, for sure, and this is the room on the train. I open the window to get some air, and then just collapse on my bed. This day has been exhausting, and it feels so long. We won't arrive in the Capitol until early morning. It feels so long, but at the same time, too short as well. There is less than a week before the Games.

I cringe away from that thought. I have to live in the moment. If I don't focus on what's happening, I might become distracted. It's no good worrying about something. No use dwelling the fact I might be dead in a few days.

It must be later than I thought, or maybe the strain of the day finally catches up with me. I fall, still fully clothed, into a restless sleep.

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