Thank goodness, I had the foresight to belt myself in. I've rolled sideways off the fork and I'm facing the ground, held in place by the belt, one hand, and my feet straddling the pack inside my sleeping bag, braced against the trunk. There must have been some rustling when I tipped sideways, but the Careers have been too caught up in their own argument to catch it.
"Go on, then, Lover Boy," says the boy from District 2. "See for yourself."
I just get a glimpse of Peeta, lit by a torch, heading back to the girl by the fire. His face is swollen with bruises, there's a bloody bandage on one arm, and from the sound of his gait he's limping somewhat. I remember him shaking him his head, telling me not to go into the fight for the supplies, when all along, all along he'd planned to throw himself into the thick of things. Just the opposite of what Haymitch had mid him to do.
Okay, I can stomach that. Seeing all those supplies was tempting. But this. this other thing. This teaming up with the Career wolf pack to hunt down the rest of us. No one from District 12 would think of doing such a thing! Career tributes are overly vicious, arrogant, better fed, but only because they're the Capitol's lapdogs.
Universally, solidly hated by all but those from their own districts. I can imagine the things they're saying about him back home now. And Peeta had the gall to talk to me about disgrace?
Obviously, the noble boy on the rooftop was playing just one more game with me. But this will be his last. I will eagerly watch the night skies for signs of his death, if I don't kill him first myself.
The Career tributes are silent until he gets out of ear shot, then use hushed voices.
"Why don't we just kill him now and get it over with?"
"Let him tag along. What's the harm? And he's handy with that knife."
Is he? That's news. What a lot of interesting things I'm learning about my friend Peeta today.
"Besides, he's our best chance of finding her."
It takes me a moment to register that the "her" they're referring to is me.
"Why? You think she bought into that sappy romance stuff?"
"She might have. Seemed pretty simpleminded to me. Every time I think about her spinning around in that dress, I want to puke."
"Wish we knew how she got that eleven."
"Bet you Lover Boy knows."
The sound of Peeta returning silences them.
"Was she dead?" asks the boy from District 2.
"No. But she is now," says Peeta. Just then, the cannon fires. "Ready to move on?"
The Career pack sets off at a run just as dawn begins to break, and birdsong fills the air. I remain in my awkward position, muscles trembling with exertion for a while longer, then hoist myself back onto my branch. I need to get down, to get going, but for a moment I lie there, digesting what I've heard. Not only is Peeta with the Careers, he's helping them find me. The simpleminded girl who has to be taken seriously because of her eleven. Because she can use a bow and arrow. Which Peeta knows better than anyone.
But he hasn't told them yet. Is he saving that information because he knows it's all that keeps him alive? Is he still pretending to love me for the audience? What is going on in his head?
Suddenly, the birds fall silent. Then one gives a high-pitched warning call. A single note. Just like the one Gale and I heard when the redheaded Avox girl was caught. High above the dying campfire a hovercraft materializes. A set of huge metal teeth drops down. Slowly, gently, the dead tribute girl is lifted into the hovercraft. Then it vanishes. The birds resume their song.
"Move," I whisper to myself. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag, roll it up, and place it in the pack. I take a deep breath. While I've been concealed by darkness and the sleeping bag and the willow branches, it has probably been difficult for the cameras to get a good shot of me. I know they must be tracking me now though. The minute I hit the ground, I'm guaranteed a close-up.
The audience will have been beside themselves, knowing I was in the tree, that I overheard the Careers talking, that I discovered Peeta was with them. Until I work out exactly how I want to play that, I'd better at least act on top of things. Not perplexed. Certainly not confused or frightened.
No, I need to look one step ahead of the game.
So as I slide out of the foliage and into the dawn light, I pause a second, giving the cameras time to lock on me. Then I cock my head slightly to the side and give a knowing smile. There! Let them figure out what that means!
I'm about to take off when I think of my snares. Maybe it's imprudent to check them with the others so close. But have to. Too many years of hunting, I guess. And the lure of possible meat. I'm rewarded with one fine rabbit. In no time, I've cleaned and gutted the animal, leaving the head, feet, tail, skin, and innards, under a pile of leaves. I'm wishing for a fire - eating raw rabbit can give you rabbit fever, a lesson I learned the hard way - when I think of the dead tribute. I hurry back to her camp. Sure enough, the coals of her dying fire are still hot. I cut up the rabbit, fashion a spit out of branches, and set it over the coals.
I'm glad for the cameras now. I want sponsors to see I can hunt, that I'm a good bet because I won't be lured into traps as easily as the others will by hunger. While the rabbit cooks, I grind up part of a charred branch and set about camouflaging my orange pack. The black tones it down, but I feel a layer of mud would definitely help. Of course, to have mud, I'd need water.
I pull on my gear, grab my spit, kick some dirt over the coals, and take off in the opposite direction the Careers went. I eat half the rabbit as I go, then wrap up the leftovers in my plastic for later. The meat stops the grumbling in my stomach but does little to quench my thirst. Water is my top priority now.
As I hike along, I feel certain I'm still holding the screen in the Capitol, so I'm careful to continue to hide my emotions. But what a good time Claudius Templesmith must be having with his guest commentators, dissecting Peeta's behavior, my reaction. What to make of it all? Has Peeta revealed his true colors? How does this affect the betting odds? Will we lose sponsors? Do we even have sponsors? Yes, I feel certain we do, or at least did.
Certainly Peeta has thrown a wrench into our star-crossed lover dynamic. Or has he? Maybe, since he hasn't spoken much about me, we can still get some mileage out of it. Maybe people will think it's something we plotted together if I seem like it amuses me now.
The sun rises in the sky and even through the canopy it seems overly bright. I coat my lips in some grease from the rabbit and try to keep from panting, but it's no use. It's only been a day and I'm dehydrating fast. I try and think of everything I know about finding water. It runs downhill, so, in fact, continuing down into this valley isn't a bad thing. If I could just locate a game trail or spot a particularly green patch of vegetation, these might help me along, but nothing seems to change. There's just the slight gradual slope, the birds, the sameness to the trees.
As the day wears on, I know I'm headed for trouble. What little urine I've been able to pass is a dark brown, my head is aching, and there's a dry patch on my tongue that refuses to moisten. The sun hurts my eyes so I dig out my sunglasses, but when I put them on they do something funny to my vision, so I just stuff them back in my pack.
It's late afternoon when I think I've found help. I spot a cluster of berry bushes and hurry to strip the fruit, to suck the sweet juices from the skins. But just as I'm holding them to my lips, I get a hard look at them. What I thought were blueberries have a slightly different shape, and when I break one open the insides are bloodred. I don't recognize these berries, perhaps they are edible, but I'm guessing this is some evil trick on the part of the Gamemakers. Even the plant instructor in the Training Center made a point of telling us to avoid berries unless you were 100 percent sure they weren't toxic. Something I already knew, but I'm so thirsty it takes her reminder to give me the strength to fling them away.
Fatigue is beginning to settle on me, but it's not the usual tiredness that follows a long hike. I have to stop and rest frequently, although I know the only cure for what ails me requires continued searching. I try a new tactic - climbing a tree as high as I dare in my shaky state - to look for any signs of water. But as far as I can see in any direction, there's the same unrelenting stretch of forest.
Determined to go on until nightfall, I walk until I'm stumbling over my own feet.
Exhausted, I haul myself up into a tree and belt myself in. I've no appetite, but I suck on a rabbit bone just to give my mouth something to do. Night falls, the anthem plays, and high in the sky I see the picture of the girl, who was apparently from District 8. The one Peeta went back to finish off.
My fear of the Career pack is minor compared to my burning thirst. Besides, they were heading away from me and by now they, too, will have to rest. With the scarcity of water, they may even have had to return to the lake for refills.
Maybe, that is the only course for me as well.
Morning brings distress. My heads throbs with every beat of my heart. Simple movements send stabs of pain through my joints. I fall, rather than jump from the tree. It takes several minutes for me to assemble my gear. Somewhere inside me, I know this is wrong. I should be acting with more caution, moving with more urgency. But my mind seems foggy and forming a plan is hard. I lean back against the trunk of my tree, one finger gingerly stroking the sandpaper surface of my tongue, as I assess my options. How can I get water?
Return to the lake. No good. I'd never make it.
Hope for rain. There's not a cloud in the sky.
Keep looking. Yes, this is my only chance. But then, another thought hits me, and the surge of anger that follows brings me to me senses.
Haymitch! He could send me water! Press a button and have it delivered to me in a silver parachute in minutes. I know I must have sponsors, at least one or two who could afford a pint of liquid for me. Yes, it's pricey, but these people, they're made of money. And they'll be betting on me as well. Perhaps Haymitch doesn't realize how deep my need is.
I say in a voice as loud as I dare. "Water." I wait, hopefully, for a parachute to descend from the sky. But nothing is forthcoming.
Something is wrong. Am I deluded about having sponsors? Or has Peeta's behavior made them all hang back? No, I don't believe it. There's someone out there who wants to buy me water only Haymitch is refusing to let it go through. As my mentor, he gets to control the flow of gifts from the sponsors. I know he hates me. He's made that clear enough. But enough to let me die? From this? He can't do that, can he? If a mentor mistreats his tributes, he'll be held accountable by the viewers, by the people back in District 12. Even Haymitch wouldn't risk that, would he? Say what you will about my fellow traders in the Hob, but I don't think they'd welcome him back there if he let me die this way. And then where would he get his liquor? So. what? Is he trying to make me suffer for defying him? Is he directing all the sponsors toward Peeta? Is he just too drunk to even notice what's going on at the moment? Somehow I don't believe that and I don't believe he's trying to kill me off by neglect, either. He has, in fact, in his own unpleasant way, genuinely been trying to prepare me for this. Then what is going on?
I bury my face in my hands. There's no danger of tears now, I couldn't produce one to save my life. What is Haymitch doing? Despite my anger, hatred, and suspicions, a small voice in the back of my head whispers an answer.
Maybe he's sending you a message, it says. A message. Saying what? Then I know. There's only one good reason Haymitch could be withholding water from me. Because he knows I've almost found it.
I grit my teeth and pull myself to my feet. My backpack seems to have tripled in weight. I find a broken branch that will do for a walking stick and I start off. The sun's beating down, even more searing than the first two days. I feel like an old piece of leather, drying and cracking in the heat. every step is an effort, but I refuse to stop. I refuse to sit down. If I sit, there's a good chance I won't be able to get up again, that I won't even remember my task.
What easy prey I am! Any tribute, even tiny Rue, could take me right now, merely shove me over and kill me with my own knife, and I'd have little strength to resist. But if anyone is in my part of the woods, they ignore me. The truth is, I feel a million miles from another living soul.
Not alone though. No, they've surely got a camera tracking me now. I think back to the years of watching tributes starve, freeze, bleed, and dehydrate to death. Unless there's a really good fight going on somewhere, I'm being featured.
My thoughts turn to Prim. It's likely she won't be watching me live, but they'll show updates at the school during lunch. For her sake, I try to look as least desperate as I can.
But by afternoon, I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking and my heart too quick. I keep forgetting, exactly what I'm doing. I've stumbled repeatedly and managed to regain my feet, but when the stick slides out from under me, I finally tumble to the ground unable to get up. I let my eyes close.
I have misjudged Haymitch. He has no intention of helping me at all.
This is all right, I think. This is not so bad here. The air is less hot, signifying evening's approach. There's a slight, sweet scent that reminds me of lilies. My fingers stroke the smooth ground, sliding easily across the top. This is an okay place to die, I think.
My fingertips make small swirling patterns in the cool, slippery earth. I love mud, I think. How many times I've tracked game with the help of its soft, readable surface. Good for bee stings, too. Mud. Mud. Mud! My eyes fly open and I dig my fingers into the earth. It is mud! My nose lifts in the air. And those are lilies! Pond lilies!
I crawl now, through the mud, dragging myself toward the scent. Five yards from where I fell, I crawl through a tangle of plants into a pond. Floating on the top, yellow flowers in bloom, are my beautiful lilies.
It's all I can do not to plunge my face into the water and gulp down as much as I can hold. But I have just enough sense left to abstain. With trembling hands, I get out my flask and fill it with water. I add what I remember to be the right number of drops of iodine for purifying it. The half an hour of waiting is agony, but I do it. At least, I think it's a half an hour, but it's certainly as long as I can stand.
Slowly, easy now, I tell myself. I take one swallow and make myself wait. Then another. Over the next couple of hours, I drink the entire half gallon. Then a second. I prepare another before I retire to a tree where I continue sipping, eating rabbit, and even indulge in one of my precious crackers. By the time the anthem plays, I feel remarkably better. There are no faces tonight, no tributes died today. Tomorrow I'll stay here, resting, camouflaging my backpack with mud, catching some of those little fish I saw as I sipped, digging up the roots of the pond lilies to make a nice meal. I snuggle down in my sleeping bag, hanging on to my water bottle for dear life, which, of course, it is.
A few hours later, the stampede of feet shakes me from slumber. I look around in bewilderment. It's not yet dawn, but my stinging eyes can see it.
It would be hard to miss the wall of fire descending on me.