A minute elapsed and then a gong sounded. The 24 tributes raced towards a mountain of supplies they'd use to kill one another. This is how it had been for the past 73 summers, save for one year when the macabre procedure was carried out with twice as many youths. Details aside, these Games were a prime way The Capitol of Panem tortured the twelve districts under its thrall.
Yet this year turned out to be even less normal than the Second Quarter Quell. Katniss Everdeen and the other 23 tributes were still there, and so were the piles of supplies before them, but their surroundings had shimmered and disappeared.
Their arena had been replaced with something alien instead of an arena she had found relatively familiar. The landscape was one of plain rolling hills instead of the wooded valleys at the edge of her territory back home.
The people around her were mostly strangers, one girl and one boy from each district. She knew the lad from her land – Peeta Mellark, a baker's son, who saved her life with two loaves of bread one time when she was on the brink of starvation. She was fast getting to know the District Eleven girl – Rue Clayton was a darker version of Primrose Everdeen, Katniss' very slightly built younger sister. Katniss loved 'Prim' so dearly that she had taken her place in this cruel contest.
Katniss wondered if this was something the Gamemakers came up with. No, it couldn't be. There was a road with men on horseback, and Gamemakers never put other people in the arena with the tributes. The riders were just as confused. The youths before them were clearly not of Westeros or anywhere else in the Known World.
There was no point in the tributes fighting amongst themselves until this was figured out, but most of them realized they might need to defend themselves against the outsiders. Cato Adams, the tall and strong District Two boy, ran to the pile of supplies to pick up a sword. Marvel Hoffman, his District One counterpart, hefted a spear. Marvel may be a few coals short of a full mine cart, but he still understood that a long weapon would help fight men on horses, Katniss mused to herself. They'd both shown off their skills with those and Katniss was relieved she might be fighting alongside rather than against them. She'd concealed her own talent with a weapon. Her father had taught her to be an expert archer amongst many other things, and a silver bow and quiver called to her. As she picked up the bow and slung the quiver over her back, she noticed that most of the others had also retrieved weapons.
One of the mounted men drew his sword and called out "Who goes there?" Apparently, whoever these people were, they spoke English as well as the silent language of bared steel. "I think none of us want to have to use these," the horseman continued.
"I don't know where we are, but I know who I am. Cato Adams," the brash young man said, taking it upon himself to speak for the whole group. "Agreed," he continued.
"Jory Cassel," the rider said to identify himself. "Apparently you understand both the Common Tongue and discretion."
He reached back across his body to put his sword back in his scabbard. Cato's blade had no sheath, but he just as surely moved it to a nonthreatening position. Katniss took the nocked arrow back off the bowstring and put it back in the quiver; the others also rested their weapons. Jory and his comrades dismounted, to approach the group at a range that wouldn't necessitate shouting.
"Lord Eddard Stark's captain of the guards," Jory elaborated. "These are the guardsmen I was patrolling with," he said while gesturing to the men behind him. They all wore dark armor. Even the utilitarian tribute uniforms worn by Katniss and the rest seemed flashy by comparison.
"You seem like a knight," said the girl from the third district.
"Not exactly. We northmen generally don't take to orders of knighthood, but we compare quite well to those southron fighters nevertheless," Jory answered. "We're near my lord's castle, Winterfell, the greatest fortress in the north, one of the seven united kingdoms on our continent of Westeros."
Cato didn't give her name, explaining "Most of us don't know each other. We were thrown together by circumstance."He didn't seem like the sort of boy to understate. "Glimmer Shinesmith, my girl," he said while pointing to the young woman in question. No wonder he was fascinated by her – the tall blonde was sexy even in these simple clothes, let alone the sheer gown she had worn to amuse the audience. Katniss wondered if the Capitol wanted fighters or models in its tributes. She had found a surprising friend in her stylist Cinna, but she was not the kind of girl who liked being poked and prodded. "Clove Hawkins, an old friend who wishes she was my girl," Cato continued.
The short black-haired girl scowled and fidgeted with a knife while Jory and the rest of the guards laughed at Cato's joke. "Handsome man like you? No wonder the wenches are all over ya!" one of the guards said boisterously.
"I'm Peeta Mellark," said the pale-skinned blonde next to Katniss, by way of introducing himself. "That's Katniss Everdeen – I'm not sure if she's my girl or not," he japed. Peeta had loved Katniss since they were young, but didn't confess it until put in front of the Capitol audience. It was the last kind of thing Katniss thought about, so she took it for quite a shock.
"This castle of yours, is it far?" Katniss asked of one of the guards.
"Not at all," that guardsman answered. "We don't get many travelers here, so all of the household likely would want to see you," he went on. The novelty would likely be even stronger for visitors as foreign as the tributes. Katniss hoped they wouldn't just be a spectacle, though it was rather unlikely these people would treat them worse than the Capitol.
Jory agreed with his subordinate and then hazarded another guess. "Luwin is a wise old man at our castle. He should be especially interested in your arrival and might have ideas as to what brought you here."
"I should be quite interested to learn from him," said Nathan Wozniak, the boy from the third district, and his district partner seemed similarly intrigued. Her name finally came to Katniss – Regina Gates. She didn't want to know who she might have to kill.
The tributes gathered all the supplies they could from the pile, and walked behind the men on horses for the short trip back to Winterfell.
The new arrivals to this land were stunned by the sight of the massive stone walls. "We found four-and-twenty foreign travelers," Jory called out to the comrade working the gate.
"We lost Robb," he called back as he raised the iron grid that formed a barrier at the entrance. "Lord Stark's eldest son and heir, nowhere to be seen!" he lamented.
They rode and walked through the now-open passageway, and a crowd gathered around. Even worrying about Robb Stark's disappearance, the residents of Winterfell were still fascinated by the odd new arrivals. Eddard Stark himself was present amongst the crowd gathering in the castle courtyard. He was a somber man even without kin to worry about. Ironically, this rich family has the same gray eyes as The Seam, Katniss' especially poor part of an especially poor district. "Perhaps my Robb safely ended up in the place these travelers came from," the lord suggested.
"There are many mysteries here," observed a bald man with a light gray beard and huge dark gray robes.
"Is he this Luwin man we've heard of?" Nathan guessed.
"Yes," Eddard answered. "I suppose these travelers could use some food after their journey. Gage, fetch them bread and salt," he said to a man evidently on his kitchen staff. Eddard was nothing if not an extremely honorable man, and he had invoked an ancient sacred custom beyond merely offering a meal. As the lord explained, "We call it guest right. When a host and his guests share food, it is just that they do not harm each other during the stay. Welcome to Winterfell."