Chapter no 16

The Hunger Games

Rue has decided to trust me wholeheartedly. I know this because as soon as the anthem finishes she snuggles up against me and falls asleep. Nor do I have any misgivings about her, as I take no particular precautions. If she’d wanted me dead, all she would have had to do was disappear from that tree without pointing out the tracker jacker nest. Needling me, at the very back of my mind, is the obvious. Both of us can’t win these Games. But since the odds are still against either of us surviving, I manage to ignore the thought.

Besides, I’m distracted by my latest idea about the Careers and their supplies. Somehow Rue and I must find a way to destroy their food. I’m pretty sure feeding themselves will be a tremendous struggle. Traditionally, the Career tributes’ strategy is to get hold of all the food early on and work from there. The years when they have not protected it well — one year a pack of hideous reptiles destroyed it, another a Gamemakers’ flood washed it away

— those are usually the years that tributes from other districts have won. That the Careers have been better fed growing up is actually to their disadvantage, because they don’t know how to be hungry. Not the way Rue and I do.

But I’m too exhausted to begin any detailed plan tonight. My wounds recovering, my mind still a bit foggy from the venom, and the warmth of Rue at my side, her head cradled on my shoulder, have given me a sense of security. I realize, for the first time, how very lonely I’ve been in the arena. How comforting the presence of another human being can be. I give in to my drowsiness, resolving that tomorrow the tables will turn. Tomorrow, it’s the Careers who will have to watch their backs.

The boom of the cannon jolts me awake. The sky’s streaked with light, the birds already chattering. Rue perches in a branch across from me, her hands cupping something. We wait, listening for more shots, but there aren’t any.

“Who do you think that was?” I can’t help thinking of Peeta.

“I don’t know. It could have been any of the others,” says Rue. “I guess we’ll know tonight.”

“Who’s left again?” I ask.

“The boy from District One. Both tributes from Two. The boy from Three. Thresh and me. And you and Peeta,” says Rue. “That’s eight. Wait, and the boy from Ten, the one with the bad leg. He makes nine.”

There’s someone else, but neither of us can remember who it is. “I wonder how that last one died,” says Rue.

“No telling. But it’s good for us. A death should hold the crowd for a bit. Maybe we’ll have time to do something before the Gamemakers decide things have been moving too slowly,” I say. “What’s in your hands?”

“Breakfast,” says Rue. She holds them out revealing two big eggs. “What kind are those?” I ask.

“Not sure. There’s a marshy area over that way. Some kind of waterbird,” she says.

It’d be nice to cook them, but neither of us wants to risk a fire. My guess is the tribute who died today was a victim of the Careers, which means they’ve recovered enough to be back in the Games. We each suck out the insides of an egg, eat a rabbit leg and some berries. It’s a good breakfast anywhere.

“Ready to do it?” I say, pulling on my pack.

“Do what?” says Rue, but by the way she bounces up, you can tell she’s up for whatever I propose.

“Today we take out the Careers’ food,” I say.

“Really? How?” You can see the glint of excitement in her eyes. In this way, she’s exactly the opposite of Prim, for whom adventures are an ordeal.

“No idea. Come on, we’ll figure out a plan while we hunt,” I say.

We don’t get much hunting done though because I’m too busy getting every scrap of information I can out of Rue about the Careers’ base. She’s only been in to spy on them briefly, but she’s observant. They have set up their camp beside the lake. Their supply stash is about thirty yards away. During the day, they’ve been leaving another tribute, the boy from District 3, to watch over the supplies.

“The boy from District Three?” I ask. “He’s working with them?”

“Yes, he stays at the camp full-time. He got stung, too, when they drew the tracker jackers in by the lake,” says Rue. “I guess they agreed to let him live if he acted as their guard. But he’s not very big.”

“What weapons does he have?” I ask.

“Not much that I could see. A spear. He might be able to hold a few of us off with that, but Thresh could kill him easily,” says Rue.

“And the food’s just out in the open?” I say. She nods. “Something’s not quite right about that whole setup.”

“I know. But I couldn’t tell what exactly,” says Rue. “Katniss, even if you could get to the food, how would you get rid of it?”

“Burn it. Dump it in the lake. Soak it in fuel.” I poke Rue in the belly, just like I would Prim. “Eat it!” She giggles. “Don’t worry, I’ll think of something. Destroying things is much easier than making them.”

For a while, we dig roots, we gather berries and greens, we devise a strategy in hushed voices. And I come to know Rue, the oldest of six kids, fiercely protective of her siblings, who gives her rations to the younger ones, who forages in the meadows in a district where the Peacekeepers are far less obliging than ours. Rue, who when you ask her what she loves most in the world, replies, of all things, “Music.”

“Music?” I say. In our world, I rank music somewhere between hair ribbons and rainbows in terms of usefulness. At least a rainbow gives you a tip about the weather. “You have a lot of time for that?”

“We sing at home. At work, too. That’s why I love your pin,” she says, pointing to the mockingjay that I’ve again forgotten about.

“You have mockingjays?” I ask.

“Oh, yes. I have a few that are my special friends. We can sing back and forth for hours. They carry messages for me,” she says.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“I’m usually up highest, so I’m the first to see the flag that signals quitting time. There’s a special little song I do,” says Rue. She opens her mouth and sings a little four-note run in a sweet, clear voice. “And the mockingjays spread it around the orchard. That’s how everyone knows to knock off,” she continues. “They can be dangerous though, if you get too near their nests. But you can’t blame them for that.”

I unclasp the pin and hold it out to her. “Here, you take it. It has more meaning for you than me.”

“Oh, no,” says Rue, closing my fingers back over the pin. “I like to see it on you. That’s how I decided I could trust you. Besides, I have this.” She pulls a necklace woven out of some kind of grass from her shirt. On it, hangs a roughly carved wooden star. Or maybe it’s a flower. “It’s a good luck charm.”

“Well, it’s worked so far,” I say, pinning the mockingjay back on my shirt. “Maybe you should just stick with that.”

By lunch, we have a plan. By early afternoon, we are poised to carry it out. I help Rue collect and place the wood for the first two campfires, the third she’ll have time for on her own. We decide to meet afterward at the site where we ate our first meal together. The stream should help guide me back to it. Before I leave, I make sure Rue’s well stocked with food and matches. I even insist she take my sleeping bag, in case it’s not possible to rendezvous by nightfall.

“What about you? Won’t you be cold?” she asks.

“Not if I pick up another bag down by the lake,” I say. “You know,

stealing isn’t illegal here,” I say with a grin.

At the last minute, Rue decides to teach me her mockingjay signal, the one she gives to indicate the day’s work is done. “It might not work. But if you hear the mockingjays singing it, you’ll know I’m okay, only I can’t get back right away.”

“Are there many mockingjays here?” I ask.

“Haven’t you seen them? They’ve got nests everywhere,” she says. I have to admit I haven’t noticed.

“Okay, then. If all goes according to plan, I’ll see you for dinner,” I say.

Unexpectedly, Rue throws her arms around me. I only hesitate a moment before I hug her back.

“You be careful,” she says to me.

“You, too,” I say. I turn and head back to the stream, feeling somehow worried. About Rue being killed, about Rue not being killed and the two of us being left for last, about leaving Rue alone, about leaving Prim alone back home. No, Prim has my mother and Gale and a baker who has promised she won’t go hungry. Rue has only me.

Once I reach the stream, I have only to follow it downhill to the place I initially picked it up after the tracker jacker attack. I have to be cautious as I move along the water though, because I find my thoughts preoccupied with unanswered questions, most of which concern Peeta. The cannon that fired early this morning, did that signify his death? If so, how did he die? At the hand of a Career? And was that in revenge for letting me live? I struggle again to remember that moment over Glimmer’s body, when he burst through the trees. But just the fact that he was sparkling leads me to doubt everything that happened.

I must have been moving very slowly yesterday because I reach the shallow stretch where I took my bath in just a few hours. I stop to replenish my water and add a layer of mud to my backpack. It seems bent on reverting to orange no matter how many times I cover it.

My proximity to the Careers’ camp sharpens my senses, and the closer I get to them, the more guarded I am, pausing frequently to listen for unnatural sounds, an arrow already fitted into the string of my bow. I don’t see any other tributes, but I do notice some of the things Rue has mentioned. Patches of the sweet berries. A bush with the leaves that healed my stings. Clusters of tracker jacker nests in the vicinity of the tree I was trapped in. And here and there, the black-and-white flash of a mockingjay wing in the branches high over my head.

When I reach the tree with the abandoned nest at the foot, I pause a moment, to gather my courage. Rue has given specific instructions on how to reach the best spying place near the lake from this point. Remember, I tell myself. You’re the hunter now, not them. I get a firmer grasp on my bow and

go on. I make it to the copse Rue has told me about and again have to admire her cleverness. It’s right at the edge of the wood, but the bushy foliage is so thick down low I can easily observe the Career camp without being spotted. Between us lies the flat expanse where the Games began.

There are four tributes. The boy from District 1, Cato and the girl from District 2, and a scrawny, ashen-skinned boy who must be from District 3. He made almost no impression on me at all during our time in the Capitol. I can remember almost nothing about him, not his costume, not his training score, not his interview. Even now, as he sits there fiddling with some kind of plastic box, he’s easily ignored in the presence of his large and domineering companions. But he must be of some value or they wouldn’t have bothered to let him live. Still, seeing him only adds to my sense of unease over why the Careers would possibly leave him as a guard, why they have allowed him to live at all.

All four tributes seem to still be recovering from the tracker jacker attack. Even from here, I can see the large swollen lumps on their bodies. They must not have had the sense to remove the stingers, or if they did, not known about the leaves that healed them. Apparently, whatever medicines they found in the Cornucopia have been ineffective.

The Cornucopia sits in its original position, but its insides have been picked clean. Most of the supplies, held in crates, burlap sacks, and plastic bins, are piled neatly in a pyramid in what seems a questionable distance from the camp. Others are sprinkled around the perimeter of the pyramid, almost mimicking the layout of supplies around the Cornucopia at the onset of the Games. A canopy of netting that, aside from discouraging birds, seems to be useless shelters the pyramid itself.

The whole setup is completely perplexing. The distance, the netting, and the presence of the boy from District 3. One thing’s for sure, destroying those supplies is not going to be as simple as it looks. Some other factor is at play here, and I’d better stay put until I figure out what it is. My guess is the pyramid is booby-trapped in some manner. I think of concealed pits, descending nets, a thread that when broken sends a poisonous dart into your heart. Really, the possibilities are endless.

While I am mulling over my options, I hear Cato shout out. He’s pointing up to the woods, far beyond me, and without turning I know that Rue must have set the first campfire. We’d made sure to gather enough green wood to make the smoke noticeable. The Careers begin to arm themselves at once.

An argument breaks out. It’s loud enough for me to hear that it concerns whether or not the boy from District 3 should stay or accompany them.

“He’s coming. We need him in the woods, and his job’s done here anyway. No one can touch those supplies,” says Cato.

“What about Lover Boy?” says the boy from District 1.

“I keep telling you, forget about him. I know where I cut him. It’s a miracle he hasn’t bled to death yet. At any rate, he’s in no shape to raid us,” says Cato.

So Peeta is out there in the woods, wounded badly. But I am still in the dark on what motivated him to betray the Careers.

“Come on,” says Cato. He thrusts a spear into the hands of the boy from District 3, and they head off in the direction of the fire. The last thing I hear as they enter the woods is Cato saying, “When we find her, I kill her in my own way, and no one interferes.”

Somehow I don’t think he’s talking about Rue. She didn’t drop a nest of tracker jackers on him.

I stay put for a half an hour or so, trying to figure out what to do about the supplies. The one advantage I have with the bow and arrow is distance. I could send a flaming arrow into the pyramid easily enough — I’m a good enough shot to get it through those openings in the net — but there’s no guarantee it would catch. More likely it’d just burn itself out and then what? I’d have achieved nothing and given them far too much information about myself. That I was here, that I have an accomplice, that I can use the bow and arrow with accuracy.

There’s no alternative. I’m going to have to get in closer and see if I can’t discover what exactly protects the supplies. In fact, I’m just about to reveal myself when a movement catches my eye. Several hundred yards to my right, I see someone emerge from the woods. For a second, I think it’s Rue, but then I recognize Foxface — she’s the one we couldn’t remember this morning — creeping out onto the plain. When she decides it’s safe, she runs for the pyramid, with quick, small steps. Just before she reaches the circle of supplies that have been littered around the pyramid, she stops, searches the ground, and carefully places her feet on a spot. Then she begins to approach the pyramid with strange little hops, sometimes landing on one foot, teetering slightly, sometimes risking a few steps. At one point, she launches up in the air, over a small barrel and lands poised on her tiptoes. But she overshot slightly, and her momentum throws her forward. I hear her give a sharp squeal as her hands hit the ground, but nothing happens. In a moment, she’s regained her feet and continues until she has reached the bulk of the supplies.

So, I’m right about the booby trap, but it’s clearly more complex than I had imagined. I was right about the girl, too. How wily is she to have discovered this path into the food and to be able to replicate it so neatly? She fills her pack, taking a few items from a variety of containers, crackers from a crate, a handful of apples from a burlap sack that hangs suspended from a rope off the side of a bin. But only a handful from each, not enough to tip off that the food is missing. Not enough to cause suspicion. And then she’s doing

her odd little dance back out of the circle and scampering into the woods again, safe and sound.

I realize I’m grinding my teeth in frustration. Foxface has confirmed what I’d already guessed. But what sort of trap have they laid that requires such dexterity? Has so many trigger points? Why did she squeal so as her hands made contact with the earth? You’d have thought . . . and slowly it begins to dawn on me . . . you’d have thought the very ground was going to explode.

“It’s mined,” I whisper. That explains everything. The Careers’ willingness to leave their supplies, Foxface’s reaction, the involvement of the boy from District 3, where they have the factories, where they make televisions and automobiles and explosives. But where did he get them? In the supplies? That’s not the sort of weapon the Gamemakers usually provide, given that they like to see the tributes draw blood personally. I slip out of the bushes and cross to one of the round metal plates that lifted the tributes into the arena. The ground around it has been dug up and patted back down. The land mines were disabled after the sixty seconds we stood on the plates, but the boy from District 3 must have managed to reactivate them. I’ve never seen anyone in the Games do that. I bet it came as a shock even to the Gamemakers.

Well, hurray for the boy from District 3 for putting one over on them, but what am I supposed to do now? Obviously, I can’t go strolling into that mess without blowing myself sky-high. As for sending in a burning arrow, that’s more laughable than ever. The mines are set off by pressure. It doesn’t have to be a lot, either. One year, a girl dropped her token, a small wooden ball, while she was at her plate, and they literally had to scrape bits of her off the ground.

My arm’s pretty good, I might be able to chuck some rocks in there and set off what? Maybe one mine? That could start a chain reaction. Or could it? Would the boy from District 3 have placed the mines in such a way that a single mine would not disturb the others? Thereby protecting the supplies but ensuring the death of the invader. Even if I only blew up one mine, I’d draw the Careers back down on me for sure. And anyway, what am I thinking? There’s that net, clearly strung to deflect any such attack. Besides, what I’d really need is to throw about thirty rocks in there at once, setting off a big chain reaction, demolishing the whole lot.

I glance back up at the woods. The smoke from Rue’s second fire is wafting toward the sky. By now, the Careers have probably begun to suspect some sort of trick. Time is running out.

There is a solution to this, I know there is, if I can only focus hard enough. I stare at the pyramid, the bins, the crates, too heavy to topple over with an arrow. Maybe one contains cooking oil, and the burning arrow idea is reviving when I realize I could end up losing all twelve of my arrows and not

get a direct hit on an oil bin, since I’d just be guessing. I’m genuinely thinking of trying to re-create Foxface’s trip up to the pyramid in hopes of finding a new means of destruction when my eyes light on the burlap bag of apples. I could sever the rope in one shot, didn’t I do as much in the Training Center? It’s a big bag, but it still might only be good for one explosion. If only I could free the apples themselves . . .

I know what to do. I move into range and give myself three arrows to get the job done. I place my feet carefully, block out the rest of the world as I take meticulous aim. The first arrow tears through the side of the bag near the top, leaving a split in the burlap. The second widens it to a gaping hole. I can see the first apple teetering when I let the third arrow go, catching the torn flap of burlap and ripping it from the bag.

For a moment, everything seems frozen in time. Then the apples spill to the ground and I’m blown backward into the air.

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