Chapter no 17

The Hunger Games

The impact with the hard-packed earth of the plain knocks the wind out of me. My backpack does little to soften the blow. Fortunately my quiver has caught in the crook of my elbow, sparing both itself and my shoulder, and my bow is locked in my grasp. The ground still shakes with explosions. I can’t hear them. I can’t hear anything at the moment. But the apples must have set off enough mines, causing debris to activate the others. I manage to shield my face with my arms as shattered bits of matter, some of it burning, rain down around me. An acrid smoke fills the air, which is not the best remedy for someone trying to regain the ability to breathe.

After about a minute, the ground stops vibrating. I roll on my side and allow myself a moment of satisfaction at the sight of the smoldering wreckage that was recently the pyramid. The Careers aren’t likely to salvage anything out of that.

I’d better get out of here, I think. They’ll be making a beeline for the place. But once I’m on my feet, I realize escape may not be so simple. I’m dizzy. Not the slightly wobbly kind, but the kind that sends the trees swooping around you and causes the earth to move in waves under your feet. I take a few steps and somehow wind up on my hands and knees. I wait a few minutes to let it pass, but it doesn’t.

Panic begins to set in. I can’t stay here. Flight is essential. But I can neither walk nor hear. I place a hand to my left ear, the one that was turned toward the blast, and it comes away bloody. Have I gone deaf from the explosion? The idea frightens me. I rely as much on my ears as my eyes as a hunter, maybe more at times. But I can’t let my fear show. Absolutely, positively, I am live on every screen in Panem.

No blood trails, I tell myself, and manage to pull my hood up over my head, tie the cord under my chin with uncooperative fingers. That should help soak up the blood. I can’t walk, but can I crawl? I move forward tentatively. Yes, if I go very slowly, I can crawl. Most of the woods will offer insufficient cover. My only hope is to make it back to Rue’s copse and conceal myself in

greenery. I can’t get caught out here on my hands and knees in the open. Not only will I face death, it’s sure to be a long and painful one at Cato’s hand. The thought of Prim having to watch that keeps me doggedly inching my way toward the hideout.

Another blast knocks me flat on my face. A stray mine, set off by some collapsing crate. This happens twice more. I’m reminded of those last few kernels that burst when Prim and I pop corn over the fire at home.

To say I make it in the nick of time is an understatement. I have literally just dragged myself into the tangle of bushes at the base of the trees when there’s Cato, barreling onto the plain, soon followed by his companions. His rage is so extreme it might be comical — so people really do tear out their hair and beat the ground with their fists — if I didn’t know that it was aimed at me, at what I have done to him. Add to that my proximity, my inability to run or defend myself, and in fact, the whole thing has me terrified. I’m glad my hiding place makes it impossible for the cameras to get a close shot of me because I’m biting my nails like there’s no tomorrow. Gnawing off the last bits of nail polish, trying to keep my teeth from chattering.

The boy from District 3 throws stones into the ruins and must have declared all the mines activated because the Careers are approaching the wreckage.

Cato has finished the first phase of his tantrum and takes out his anger on the smoking remains by kicking open various containers. The other tributes are poking around in the mess, looking for anything to salvage, but there’s nothing. The boy from District 3 has done his job too well. This idea must occur to Cato, too, because he turns on the boy and appears to be shouting at him. The boy from District 3 only has time to turn and run before Cato catches him in a headlock from behind. I can see the muscles ripple in Cato’s arms as he sharply jerks the boy’s head to the side.

It’s that quick. The death of the boy from District 3.

The other two Careers seem to be trying to calm Cato down. I can tell he wants to return to the woods, but they keep pointing at the sky, which puzzles me until I realize, Of course. They think whoever set off the explosions is dead. They don’t know about the arrows and the apples. They assume the booby trap was faulty, but that the tribute who blew up the supplies was killed doing it. If there was a cannon shot, it could have been easily lost in the subsequent explosions. The shattered remains of the thief removed by hovercraft. They retire to the far side of the lake to allow the Gamemakers to retrieve the body of the boy from District 3. And they wait.

I suppose a cannon goes off. A hovercraft appears and takes the dead boy. The sun dips below the horizon. Night falls. Up in the sky, I see the seal and know the anthem must have begun. A moment of darkness. They show the boy from District 3. They show the boy from District 10, who must have

died this morning. Then the seal reappears. So, now they know. The bomber survived. In the seal’s light, I can see Cato and the girl from District 2 put on their night-vision glasses. The boy from District 1 ignites a tree branch for a torch, illuminating the grim determination on all their faces. The Careers stride back into the woods to hunt.

The dizziness has subsided and while my left ear is still deafened, I can hear a ringing in my right, which seems a good sign. There’s no point in leaving my hiding place, though. I’m about as safe as I can be, here at the crime scene. They probably think the bomber has a two- or three-hour lead on them. Still it’s a long time before I risk moving.

The first thing I do is dig out my own glasses and put them on, which relaxes me a little, to have at least one of my hunter’s senses working. I drink some water and wash the blood from my ear. Fearing the smell of meat will draw unwanted predators — fresh blood is bad enough — I make a good meal out of the greens and roots and berries Rue and I gathered today.

Where is my little ally? Did she make it back to the rendezvous point? Is she worried about me? At least, the sky has shown we’re both alive.

I run through the surviving tributes on my fingers. The boy from 1, both from 2, Foxface, both from 11 and 12. Just eight of us. The betting must be getting really hot in the Capitol. They’ll be doing special features on each of us now. Probably interviewing our friends and families. It’s been a long time since a tribute from District 12 made it into the top eight. And now there are two of us. Although from what Cato said, Peeta’s on his way out. Not that Cato is the final word on anything. Didn’t he just lose his entire stash of supplies?

Let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin, Cato, I think. Let them begin for real.

A cold breeze has sprung up. I reach for my sleeping bag before I remember I left it with Rue. I was supposed to pick up another one, but what with the mines and all, I forgot. I begin to shiver. Since roosting overnight in a tree isn’t sensible anyway, I scoop out a hollow under the bushes and cover myself with leaves and pine needles. I’m still freezing. I lay my sheet of plastic over my upper body and position my backpack to block the wind. It’s a little better. I begin to have more sympathy for the girl from District 8 that lit the fire that first night. But now it’s me who needs to grit my teeth and tough it out until morning. More leaves, more pine needles. I pull my arms inside my jacket and tuck my knees up to my chest. Somehow, I drift off to sleep.

When I open my eyes, the world looks slightly fractured, and it takes a minute to realize that the sun must be well up and the glasses fragmenting my vision. As I sit up and remove them, I hear a laugh somewhere near the lake and freeze. The laugh’s distorted, but the fact that it registered at all means I must be regaining my hearing. Yes, my right ear can hear again, although it’s

still ringing. As for my left ear, well, at least the bleeding has stopped.

I peer through the bushes, afraid the Careers have returned, trapping me here for an indefinite time. No, it’s Foxface, standing in the rubble of the pyramid and laughing. She’s smarter than the Careers, actually finding a few useful items in the ashes. A metal pot. A knife blade. I’m perplexed by her amusement until I realize that with the Careers’ stores eliminated, she might actually stand a chance. Just like the rest of us. It crosses my mind to reveal myself and enlist her as a second ally against that pack. But I rule it out. There’s something about that sly grin that makes me sure that befriending Foxface would ultimately get me a knife in the back. With that in mind, this might be an excellent time to shoot her. But she’s heard something, not me, because her head turns away, toward the drop-off, and she sprints for the woods. I wait. No one, nothing shows up. Still, if Foxface thought it was dangerous, maybe it’s time for me to get out of here, too. Besides, I’m eager to tell Rue about the pyramid.

Since I’ve no idea where the Careers are, the route back by the stream seems as good as any. I hurry, loaded bow in one hand, a hunk of cold groosling in the other, because I’m famished now, and not just for leaves and berries but for the fat and protein in the meat. The trip to the stream is uneventful. Once there, I refill my water and wash, taking particular care with my injured ear. Then I travel uphill using the stream as a guide. At one point, I find boot prints in the mud along the bank. The Careers have been here, but not for a while. The prints are deep because they were made in soft mud, but now they’re nearly dry in the hot sun. I haven’t been careful enough about my own tracks, counting on a light tread and the pine needles to conceal my prints. Now I strip off my boots and socks and go barefoot up the bed of the stream.

The cool water has an invigorating effect on my body, my spirits. I shoot two fish, easy pickings in this slow-moving stream, and go ahead and eat one raw even though I’ve just had the groosling. The second I’ll save for Rue.

Gradually, subtly, the ringing in my right ear diminishes until it’s gone entirely. I find myself pawing at my left ear periodically, trying to clean away whatever deadens its ability to collect sounds. If there’s improvement, it’s undetectable. I can’t adjust to deafness in the ear. It makes me feel off-balanced and defenseless to my left. Blind even. My head keeps turning to the injured side, as my right ear tries to compensate for the wall of nothingness where yesterday there was a constant flow of information. The more time that passes, the less hopeful I am that this is an injury that will heal.

When I reach the site of our first meeting, I feel certain it’s been undisturbed. There’s no sign of Rue, not on the ground or in the trees. This is odd. By now she should have returned, as it’s midday. Undoubtedly, she spent the night in a tree somewhere. What else could she do with no light and the

Careers with their night-vision glasses tromping around the woods. And the third fire she was supposed to set — although I forgot to check for it last night

— was the farthest from our site of all. She’s probably just being cautious about making her way back. I wish she’d hurry, because I don’t want to hang around here too long. I want to spend the afternoon traveling to higher ground, hunting as we go. But there’s nothing really for me to do but wait.

I wash the blood out of my jacket and hair and clean my ever-growing list of wounds. The burns are much better but I use a bit of medicine on them anyway. The main thing to worry about now is keeping out infection. I go ahead and eat the second fish. It isn’t going to last long in this hot sun, but it should be easy enough to spear a few more for Rue. If she would just show up.

Feeling too vulnerable on the ground with my lopsided hearing, I scale a tree to wait. If the Careers show up, this will be a fine place to shoot them from. The sun moves slowly. I do things to pass the time. Chew leaves and apply them to my stings that are deflated but still tender. Comb through my damp hair with my fingers and braid it. Lace my boots back up. Check over my bow and remaining nine arrows. Test my left ear repeatedly for signs of life by rustling a leaf near it, but without good results.

Despite the groosling and the fish, my stomach’s growling, and I know I’m going to have what we call a hollow day back in District 12. That’s a day where no matter what you put in your belly, it’s never enough. Having nothing to do but sit in a tree makes it worse, so I decide to give into it. After all, I’ve lost a lot of weight in the arena, I need some extra calories. And having the bow and arrows makes me far more confident about my future prospects.

I slowly peel and eat a handful of nuts. My last cracker. The groosling neck. That’s good because it takes time to pick clean. Finally, a groosling wing and the bird is history. But it’s a hollow day, and even with all that I start daydreaming about food. Particularly the decadent dishes served in the Capitol. The chicken in creamy orange sauce. The cakes and pudding. Bread with butter. Noodles in green sauce. The lamb and dried plum stew. I suck on a few mint leaves and tell myself to get over it. Mint is good because we drink mint tea after supper often, so it tricks my stomach into thinking eating time is over. Sort of.

Dangling up in the tree, with the sun warming me, a mouthful of mint, my bow and arrows at hand . . . this is the most relaxed I’ve been since I’ve entered the arena. If only Rue would show up, and we could clear out. As the shadows grow, so does my restlessness. By late afternoon, I’ve resolved to go looking for her. I can at least visit the spot where she set the third fire and see if there are any clues to her whereabouts.

Before I go, I scatter a few mint leaves around our old campfire. Since

we gathered these some distance away, Rue will understand I’ve been here, while they’ll mean nothing to the Careers.

In less than an hour, I’m at the place where we agreed to have the third fire and I know something has gone amiss. The wood has been neatly arranged, expertly interspersed with tinder, but it has never been lit. Rue set up the fire but never made it back here. Somewhere between the second column of smoke I spied before I blew up the supplies and this point, she ran into trouble.

I have to remind myself she’s still alive. Or is she? Could the cannon shot announcing her death have come in the wee hours of the morning when even my good ear was too broken to pick it up? Will she appear in the sky tonight? No, I refuse to believe it. There could be a hundred other explanations. She could have lost her way. Run into a pack of predators or another tribute, like Thresh, and had to hide. Whatever happened, I’m almost certain she’s stuck out there, somewhere between the second fire and the unlit one at my feet. Something is keeping her up a tree.

I think I’ll go hunt it down.

It’s a relief to be doing something after sitting around all afternoon. I creep silently through the shadows, letting them conceal me. But nothing seems suspicious. There’s no sign of any kind of struggle, no disruption of the needles on the ground. I’ve stopped for just a moment when I hear it. I have to cock my head around to the side to be sure, but there it is again. Rue’s four-note tune coming out of a mockingjay’s mouth. The one that means she’s all right.

I grin and move in the direction of the bird. Another just a short distance ahead, picks up on the handful of notes. Rue has been singing to them, and recently. Otherwise they’d have taken up some other song. My eyes lift up into the trees, searching for a sign of her. I swallow and sing softly back, hoping she’ll know it’s safe to join me. A mockingjay repeats the melody to me. And that’s when I hear the scream.

It’s a child’s scream, a young girl’s scream, there’s no one in the arena capable of making that sound except Rue. And now I’m running, knowing this may be a trap, knowing the three Careers may be poised to attack me, but I can’t help myself. There’s another high-pitched cry, this time my name. “Katniss! Katniss!”

“Rue!” I shout back, so she knows I’m near. So, they know I’m near, and hopefully the girl who has attacked them with tracker jackers and gotten an eleven they still can’t explain will be enough to pull their attention away from her. “Rue! I’m coming!”

When I break into the clearing, she’s on the ground, hopelessly entangled in a net. She just has time to reach her hand through the mesh and say my name before the spear enters her body.

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