POV: Alec Flood (18), District 4 Citizen
The Town Square, District 4
2.17 pm, Sunday 14th July, year of the 67th Hunger Games
"If you want to become the male tribute for District 4 this year, you're going to have to fight for your place."
Ludo Robertson, my future mentor, picks up the microphone moves away from the stand with it, leaving no barrier between me and my adversary.
As I turn to face him, I drop into a fighting stance, holding my fists high, ready to strike.
I already know that I will win. Nathan Foster, the other boy who volunteered, didn't go to the Training Centre. He might be strong, stronger than me even. But it's not how much power you have that wins a fight. It's how you use what power you have.
I can see from his glare that he won't use his effectively. His eyes are wild and frenzied. He's not keeping a level head. This fight will be easy.
Admittedly, I can't blame him for being a bit rash in his decisions. His lover has just volunteered for the Hunger Games. And judging by his reaction, he never knew she was planning on it. Maybe I should cut him some slack. Ha, who am I kidding? This is the Hunger Games. No mercy from hereon in.
Nathan drops into a clumsy fighting stance five yards from me, and Ludo starts speaking again.
"This fight will continue until one of you submits, whether that be your own decision, or whether you are forced into it. Victory conditions are knockout or submission. Also, no weapons. This fight is hand-to-hand only. Any weapons and you're disqualified. Got it?"
We both nod, barely taking our eyes off of each other. He's definitely taller than me, by three of four inches. Not that I'm short, I stand just over six feet tall, but Foster is massive. And yes, he has massive muscles, but just from the way he moves, I can tell he'll be sluggish in a fight. Years of training have rendered me agile for my height.
The eleven victors, the Mayor and our district escort, Flavius Blacklock, have all formed a semi-circle on the stage. There's nowhere to go. It's not like I'd run from this, anyway. This is just me and Nathan from here on in, broadcast to the entire nation.
"Ok, then, let's get this underway," says Ludo, and for once I can hear district 4 actually cheering. Not the fake applause that is usually given, but the raucous cheering that you would normally associate with the Capitol. Maybe a simple one-on-one fight will capture an audience in Four. No death, so the stakes aren't too high. Except for this fight. The winner will go into the Hunger Games. I have to give it everything today.
"Three!" calls Ludo excitedly.
"Two!" the crowd are joining in now.
I black out the cheering of the crowd as Foster charges at me, fists raised. As he reaches me, he swings a clumsy punch, and I raise my left arm to block, parrying his blow. Then he swings again with his right, and as I duck, his momentum takes him past me. As he turns, I rise up and punch him squarely on his cheekbone. That was too easy.
Nathan staggers away, trying to shake of the pain. Then he comes to his senses and comes at me again, his fists raised. Yet again, I step deftly away as he charges, and I leave my left leg behind me, tripping my opponent, who stumbles to the floor.
He's a bit thick, this kid. If by some miracle he manages to beat me here, and he won't, he'd never survive the Games. All offence and no thought behind it. No tactical planning. His attacks are so easy to read, so simple to block.
That said, he does have a lot of resiliency. He's on his feet in little more than a couple of seconds, charging me down again. Good. His attacks are useless, I think as I parry two more blows.
But let the punches come. He can wear himself down, for all I care. It will just make my eventual victory all the more crushing.
I'm caught off guard by a change of tactics, but only briefly. Nathan tried to pull me to the floor by hooking his leg around my knees, and although I falter, I regain my balance in an instant. However, I don't have time to react to his next punch and I'm hit on the nose. Hard.
My eyes are watering as I reel away, and it takes me a moment to regain my sight. Okay, he's got quite a punch on him. I certainly wasn't expecting that. But now the time for play is over. I just want to win this.
For the first time, I'm on the offensive. I launch a series of punches and, to his credit, Nathan blocks the first few well. Maybe there is more to his fighting style than I first thought.
After six or seven punches, Nathan stumbles backwards, but as I come in for the finishing punch, he catches my first and pulls my arm down, dropping my head. From there, he reaches out, trying to force me into a headlock.
I swing a couple of weak punches at him with my free arm, but to no avail. Then I lean backwards with all my weight, forcing Nathan backwards. We fall together onto the floor of the stage.
As I roll away upon impact, I realise how near we have got to the edge of the stage. I take a few steps back, and corner Nathan as he stands at the edge of the stage. Now he's trapped.
Nathan tries to charge at me, but I duck underneath his punches, and I punch him hard in the stomach. Nathan bends over, staggering away from me towards the edge of the stage. He's defenceless. Now is my chance. I swing out with my right foot, catching Nathan firmly on the underside of his nose. The momentum carries him backwards, and he topples over the side of the stage, dropping fifteen feet before landing with a sickening crunch.
It's over. I've won. The crowd goes wild, and for a minute, I think that maybe District 4 is just as bloodthirsty as the Capitol. I guess anyone can enjoy a good, fair fight.
Peering over the edge of the stage, I can see four peacekeepers attending to a severely-injured Nathan Foster. He should never have volunteered, the fool.
I'm brought back to reality as Ludo grabs my hand and raises it high to the crowd, before leading me to the centre of the stage.
"So, here we have our two tributes for the 67th Annual Hunger Games!" says Flavius excitedly as me and Marline stand beside him.
"Please give a warm round of applause for Alec Flood and Marline Orman!"
As the crowd cheers, Flavius steps back, and I look straight at Marline. She's really unnerving, actually. Her lover lies unconscious fifteen feet below her, and yet her face remains as emotionless as earlier, her green eyes just as cold. I'm unsure whether she really cared for Nathan, if I'm honest. Surely no-one can be this emotionless? Maybe she just doesn't show emotions.
I'm not sure which Marline I prefer. A ruthless killer, who shows no remorse and no mercy, or a quick, intelligent girl who gives nothing away with mind Games? See, the mind Games have started already. I've known that I will be competing with her for ten minutes, and already she's messing with my head.
"Well then, shake hands," says Flavius quietly, away from the microphone. I do what he says quickly and emotionlessly. For a brief moment, my eyes meet Marline's. They are just as cold as before. Then Flavius is concluding the ceremony, and I'm whisked away into the Justice Building.
The sea breeze has a dramatic cooling effect, saving me from the searing heat of the July sun. My head throbs slightly from Nathan's punches, but it's nothing I can't deal with. I've had worse in the Training Centre.
All is silent, but for the slight crash of the waves on the beach below. I'm on the balcony of the Justice Building, looking out over the bay that contains the better-off part of District 4. I stand unmoving, taking in what might be my final sights of home. Not that I really care. I have no regrets over leaving District 4 behind.
I know that I am out here because before tributes are sent off to the Games, their friends and loved ones get a last chance to say goodbye.
When, after about ten minutes, the doors open on the balcony, I'm not surprised who I find when I turn to look back at them.
I was born in the docklands, the poorest area of District 4, where everyone lives in extreme poverty, of which there is very little hope of escape. My mother, who worked as a cleaner at the school, had got together with a young fisherman, and within a year, I was due to arrive.
Sadly, I never knew my father. He left my mother before I was born, leaving my mother to raise me alone.
However, my mother's wage alone wasn't enough to keep our heads above water, and our family began to decline into poverty. We were wasting away.
When I was eight, my mother died. The doctors blamed it on malnutrition. Not that we could have done anything to prevent it. As an eight-year-old orphan in District 4, I had two options; the orphanage or the Training Centre. And I chose the Training Centre.
Upon my arrival, a couple months before the 57th Games, I found the Training Centre an immediate improvement to the docklands. As the Training Centre provided me with an education (albeit one in weapons and fighting techniques), I was exempt from the regulation requiring all children under sixteen to attend school.
With a combination of a good diet, vigorous training and my muscular build, I had attracted a lot of attention from the trainers by the time I was ten. Even at that young age, I was stronger than most of the thirteen-year-olds in the Training Centre. One trainer, a past victor called Harrow, immediately saw my potential and started making up excuses to relieve me from regular classes to let me have one-on-one sessions with him. And by the age of sixteen, I was the strongest in the entire Training Centre. I put my name up to become the chosen Career two years early, but I lost out in the mock Games, finishing third behind two eighteen-year-old trainees. Not that it mattered, anyway; fourteen-year-old Ludovic Robertson's name was drawn for the 65th Games, and his best friend, young Finnick Odair, volunteered for him.
A year later, I won the mock Games in June, but three weeks later at the reaping, I was again denied the chance to volunteer, as eventual victor Ludo Robertson was reaped for the second year in a row. We never expected him to make it back. But by utilising the Career Alliance to his advantage and uncovering a previously-unknown knack for knife throwing, Ludo won the 66th Annual Hunger Games in just eight days. Considering he spent three of the days being brought back to consciousness by the allies he had won over, this was an impressive performance. And he racked up four kills along the way.
And now I'm here. Aged eighteen, the male tribute for District 4 in the 67th Annual Hunger Games. It's been hard getting here this year. Costa Finnigan put up quite a fight in the mock Games, and I had the fight on the stage with Nathan Foster earlier today, too. But now I'm here, that's all that matters. I've been preparing for this for ten years. I've got no regrets about volunteering. After all, I'm going to win.
"Alec, I'm proud of you, son," says Harrow behind me. The term of endearment only serves to emphasise our closeness. For these past few years, Harrow has treated me as the son he never had.
I turn to face him. Despite being thirty-seven, his body has not yet turned to waste as he trains regularly with the trainees back at the Training Centre. He's about five foot ten, and is slender in build. His long face is clean shaved, and his dark eyes are half-hidden by long strands of jet-black hair. He doesn't quite fit in with the stereotypical District 4 look.
"Well done for volunteering," continues Harrow. "It speaks volumes about you that you're brave enough to volunteer."
"Let's be honest, Harrow," I reply. "After the Training Centre, what is there left for me? Only a chance to give the Games a go. I have had no proper education, so getting a job in Four would be nearly impossible. And I don't want to go back to where I came from."
I hadn't ever really thought about after the Games before, but in saying it, I realise that if I hadn't volunteered for the reaping, I would have nowhere to go. If I'm too old for the reaping, as I will be next year, the Training Centre won't want me. These Games will make me or break me. Literally.
"I understand, Alec," replies Harrow solemnly. I can tell that even after my years of preparation, Harrow doesn't think I'm coming home.
"I didn't go through all those years of training for nothing, you know," I joke, forcing a smirk out of my former trainer.
"Alec, just remember that the arena is an ever-changing environment. Take nothing with a pinch of salt. Question everything. Constant vigilance is the key to success in the arena."
"Don't worry, Harrow," I say. "I'll stay aware."
"Try to join the Career Alliance," he says, something that all trainees are told they must do from the moment they first enter the Training Centre. I never questioned trying to join them. I know that they will want me on their side.
"The Alliance should see you through to the top eight," reminds Harrow. "After that, I'm sure you'll be able to dispose of the Careers."
Harrow pauses for thought before he continues speaking.
"You're the best tribute I've ever trained, son. I have every confidence in your abilities."
I'm slightly shocked by the truth in Harrow's words. I've know for years that I'm a good fighter, but a victor telling me I'm the best he's trained? True praise, indeed.
I start to reply, but two peacekeepers come in to escort Harrow away. He quickly rushes to continue speaking.
"I'm sorry I'm not your mentor, but I'll be making the journey to the Capitol with you. I can't guarantee we'll speak again until after the Games due to your tight schedule, but I'm sure Robertson will see you through this fine. Good luck, son."
"I'll see you soon, Harrow," I reply, and I see him threaten to tear up as the peacekeepers reach him. He acknowledges my goodbye with a slight nod before turning away from me to be escorted from the balcony.
And then he is gone.
A/N: Thanks for continuing to read this story, if you've read this far. I'd really appreciate some feedback, so please review if you enjoyed this chapter. As ever, I welcome constructive criticism.