The Hunger Games / Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty


20

Getting the broth into Peeta takes an hour of coaxing, begging, threatening, and yes, kissing, but finally, sip by sip, he empties the pot. I let him drift off to sleep then and attend to my own needs, wolfing down a supper of groosling and roots while I watch the daily report in the sky. No new casualties. Still, Peeta and I have given the audience a fairly interesting day. Hopefully, the Gamemakers will allow us a peaceful night.

I automatically look around for a good tree to nest in before I realize that's over. At least for a while. I can't very well leave Peeta unguarded on the ground. I left the scene of his last hiding place on the bank of the stream untouched  -  how could I conceal it?  -  and we're a scant fifty yards downstream. I put on my glasses, place my weapons in readiness, and settle down to keep watch.

The temperature drops rapidly and soon I'm chilled to the bone. Eventually, I give in and slide into the sleeping bag with Peeta. It's toasty warm and I snuggle down gratefully until I realize it's more than warm, it's overly hot because the bag is reflecting back his fever. I check his forehead and find it burning and dry. I don't know what to do. Leave him in the bag and hope the excessive heat breaks the fever? Take him out and hope the night air cools him off? I end up just dampening a strip of bandage and placing it on his forehead. It seems weak, but I'm afraid to do anything too drastic.

I spend the night half-sitting, half-lying next to Peeta, refreshing the bandage, and trying not to dwell on the fact that by teaming up with him, I've made myself far more vulnerable than when I was alone. Tethered to the ground, on guard, with a very sick person to take care of. But I knew he was injured. And still I came after him. I'm just going to have to trust that whatever instinct sent me to find him was a good one.

When the sky turns rosy, I notice the sheen of sweat on Peeta's lip and discover the fever has broken. He's not back to normal, but it's come down a few degrees. Last night, when I was gathering vines, I came upon a bush of Rue's berries. I strip off the fruit and mash it up in the broth pot with cold water.

Peeta's struggling to get up when I reach the cave. "I woke up and you were gone," he says. "I was worried about you."

I have to laugh as I ease him back down. "You were worried about me? Have you taken a look at yourself lately?"

"I thought Cato and Clove might have found you. They like to hunt at night," he says, still serious.

"Clove? Which one is that?" I ask.

"The girl from District Two. She's still alive, right?" he says.

"Yes, there's just them and us and Thresh and Foxface," I say. "That's what I nicknamed the girl from Five. How do you feel?"

"Better than yesterday. This is an enormous improvement over the mud," he says. "Clean clothes and medicine and a sleeping bag. and you."

Oh, right, the whole romance thing. I reach out to touch his cheek and he catches my hand and presses it against his lips. I remember my father doing this very thing to my mother and I wonder where Peeta picked it up. Surely not from his father and the witch.

"No more kisses for you until you've eaten," I say.

We get him propped up against the wall and he obediently swallows the spoonfuls of the berry mush I feed him. He refuses the groosling again, though.

"You didn't sleep," Peeta says.

"I'm all right," I say. But the truth is, I'm exhausted.

"Sleep now. I'll keep watch. I'll wake you if anything happens," he says. I hesitate. "Katniss, you can't stay up forever."

He's got a point there. I'll have to sleep eventually. And probably better to do it now when he seems relatively alert and we have daylight on our side. "All right," I say. "But just for a few hours. Then you wake me."

It's too warm for the sleeping bag now. I smooth it out on the cave floor and lie down, one hand on my loaded bow in case I have to shoot at a moment's notice. Peeta sits beside me, leaning against the wall, his bad leg stretched out before him, his eyes trained on the world outside. "Go to sleep," he says softly. His hand brushes the loose strands of my hair off my forehead. Unlike the staged kisses and caresses so far, this gesture seems natural and comforting. I don't want him to stop and he doesn't. He's still stroking my hair when I fall asleep.

Too long. I sleep too long. I know from the moment I open my eyes that we're into the afternoon. Peeta's right beside me, his position unchanged. I sit up, feeling somehow defensive but better rested than I've been in days.

"Peeta, you were supposed to wake me after a couple of hours," I say.

"For what? Nothing's going on here," he says. "Besides I like watching you sleep. You don't scowl. Improves your looks a lot."

This, of course, brings on a scowl that makes him grin. That's when I notice how dry his lips are. I test his cheek. Hot as a coal stove. He claims he's been drinking, but the containers still feel full to me. I give him more fever pills and stand over him while he drinks first one, then a second quart of water. Then I tend to his minor wounds, the burns, the stings, which are showing improvement. I steel myself and unwrap the leg.

My heart drops into my stomach. It's worse, much worse. There's no more pus in evidence, but the swelling has increased and the tight shiny skin is inflamed. Then I see the red streaks starting to crawl up his leg. Blood poisoning. Unchecked, it will kill him for sure. My chewed-up leaves and ointment won't make a dent in it. We'll need strong anti-infection drugs from the Capitol. I can't imagine the cost of such potent medicine. If Haymitch pooled every donation from every sponsor, would he have enough? I doubt it. Gifts go up in price the longer the Games continue. What buys a full meal on day one buys a cracker on day twelve. And the kind of medicine Peeta needs would have been at a premium from the beginning.

"Well, there's more swelling, but the pus is gone," I say in an unsteady voice.

"I know what blood poisoning is, Katniss," says Peeta. "Even if my mother isn't a healer."

"You're just going to have to outlast the others, Peeta. They'll cure it back at the Capitol when we win," I say.

"Yes, that's a good plan," he says. But I feel this is mostly for my benefit.

"You have to eat. Keep your strength up. I'm going to make you soup," I say.

"Don't light a fire," he says. "It's not worth it."

"We'll see," I say. As I take the pot down to the stream, I'm struck by how brutally hot it is. I swear the Gamemakers are progressively ratcheting up the temperature in the daytime and sending it plummeting at night. The heat of the sun-baked stones by the stream gives me an idea though. Maybe I won't need to light a fire.

I settle down on a big flat rock halfway between the stream and the cave. After purifying half a pot of water, I place it in direct sunlight and add several egg-size hot stones to the water. I'm the first to admit I'm not much of a cook. But since soup mainly involves tossing everything in a pot and waiting, it's one of my better dishes. I mince groosling until it's practically mush and mash some of Rue's roots. Fortunately, they've both been roasted already so they mostly need to be heated up. Already, between the sunlight and the rocks, the water's warm. I put in the meat and roots, swap in fresh rocks, and go find something green to spice it up a little. Before long, I discover a tuft of chives growing at the base of some rocks. Perfect. I chop them very fine and add them to the pot, switch out the rocks again, put on the lid, and let the whole thing stew.

I've seen very few signs of game around, but I don't feel comfortable leaving Peeta alone while I hunt, so I rig half a dozen snares and hope I get lucky. I wonder about the other tributes, how they're managing now that their main source of food has been blown up. At least three of them, Cato, Clove, and Foxface, had been relying on it. Probably not Thresh though. I've got a feeling he must share some of Rue's knowledge on how to feed yourself from the earth. Are they fighting each other? Looking for us? Maybe one of them has located us and is just waiting for the right moment to attack. The idea sends me back to the cave.

Peeta's stretched out on top of the sleeping bag in the shade of the rocks. Although he brightens a bit when I come in, it's clear he feels miserable. I put cool cloths on his head, but they warm up almost as soon as they touch his skin.

"Do you want anything?" I ask.

"No," he says. "Thank you. Wait, yes. Tell me a story."

"A story? What about?" I say. I'm not much for storytelling. It's kind of like singing. But once in a while, Prim wheedles one out of me.

"Something happy. Tell me about the happiest day you can remember," says Peeta.

Something between a sigh and a huff of exasperation leaves my mouth. A happy story? This will require a lot more effort than the soup. I rack my brains for good memories. Most of them involve Gale and me out hunting and somehow I don't think these will play well with either Peeta or the audience. That leaves Prim.

"Did I ever tell you about how I got Prim's goat?" I ask. Peeta shakes his head, and looks at me expectantly. So I begin. But carefully. Because my words are going out all over Panem. And while people have no doubt put two and two together that I hunt illegally, I don't want to hurt Gale or Greasy Sae or the butcher or even the Peacekeepers back home who are my customers by publicly announcing they'd breaking the law, too.

Here's the real story of how I got the money for Prim's goat, Lady. It was a Friday evening, the day before Prim's tenth birthday in late May. As soon as school ended, Gale and I hit the woods, because I wanted to get enough to trade for a present for Prim. Maybe some new cloth for a dress or a hairbrush. Our snares had done well enough and the woods were flush with greens, but this was really no more than our average Friday-night haul. I was disappointed as we headed back, even though Gale said we'd be sure to do better tomorrow. We were resting a moment by a stream when we saw him. A young buck, probably a yearling by his size. His antlers were just growing in, still small and coated in velvet. Poised to run but unsure of us, unfamiliar with humans. Beautiful.

Less beautiful perhaps when the two arrows caught him, one in the neck, the other in the chest. Gale and I had shot at the same time. The buck tried to run but stumbled, and Gale's knife slit his throat before he knew what had happened. Momentarily, I'd felt a pang at killing something so fresh and innocent. And then my stomach rumbled at the thought of all that fresh and innocent meat.

A deer! Gale and I have only brought down three in all. The first one, a doe that had injured her leg somehow, almost didn't count. But we knew from that experience not to go dragging the carcass into the Hob. It had caused chaos with people bidding on parts and actually trying to hack off pieces themselves. Greasy Sae had intervened and sent us with our deer to the butcher, but not before it'd been badly damaged, hunks of meat taken, the hide riddled with holes. Although everybody paid up fairly, it had lowered the value of the kill.

This time, we waited until dark fell and slipped under a hole in the fence close to the butcher. Even though we were known hunters, it wouldn't have been good to go carrying a 150-pound deer through the streets of District 12 in daylight like we were rubbing it in the officials' faces.

The butcher, a short, chunky woman named Rooba, came to the back door when we knocked. You don't haggle with Rooba. She gives you one price, which you can take or leave, but it's a fair price. We took her offer on the deer and she threw in a couple of venison steaks we could pick up after the butchering. Even with the money divided in two, neither Gale nor I had held so much at one time in our lives. We decided to keep it a secret and surprise our families with the meat and money at the end of the next day.

This is where I really got the money for the goat, but I tell Peeta I sold an old silver locket of my mother's. That can't hurt anyone. Then I pick up the story in the late afternoon of Prim's birthday.

Gale and I went to the market on the square so that I could buy dress materials. As I was running my fingers over a length of thick blue cotton cloth, something caught my eye. There's an old man who keeps a small herd of goats on the other side of the Seam. I don't know his real name, everyone just calls him the Goat Man. His joints are swollen and twisted in painful angles, and he's got a hacking cough that proves he spent years in the mines. But he's lucky. Somewhere along the way he saved up enough for these goats and now has something to do in his old age besides slowly starve to death. He's filthy and impatient, but the goats are clean and their milk is rich if you can afford it.

One of the goats, a white one with black patches, was lying down in a cart. It was easy to see why. Something, probably a dog, had mauled her shoulder and infection had set in. It was bad, the Goat Man had to hold her up to milk her. But I thought I knew someone who could fix it.

"Gale," I whispered. "I want that goat for Prim."

Owning a nanny goat can change your life in District 12. The animals can live off almost anything, the Meadow's a perfect feeding place, and they can give four quarts of milk a day. To drink, to make into cheese, to sell. It's not even against the law.

"She's hurt pretty bad," said Gale. "We better take a closer look."

We went over and bought a cup of milk to share, then stood over the goat as if idly curious.

"Let her be," said the man.

"Just looking," said Gale.

"Well, look fast. She goes to the butcher soon. Hardly anyone will buy her milk, and then they only pay half price," said the man.

"What's the butcher giving for her?" I asked.

The man shrugged. "Hang around and see." I turned and saw Rooba coming across the square toward us. "Lucky thing you showed up," said the Goat Man when she arrived. "Girl's got her eye on your goat."

"Not if she's spoken for," I said carelessly.

Rooba looked me up and down then frowned at the goat. "She's not. Look at that shoulder. Bet you half the carcass will be too rotten for even sausage."

"What?" said the Goat Man. "We had a deal."

"We had a deal on an animal with a few teeth marks. Not that thing. Sell her to the girl if she's stupid enough to take her," said Rooba. As she marched off, I caught her wink.

The Goat Man was mad, but he still wanted that goal off his hands. It took us half an hour to agree on the price. Quite a crowd had gathered by then to hand out opinions. It was an excellent deal if the goat lived; I'd been robbed if she died. People took sides in the argument, but I took the goat.

Gale offered to carry her. I think he wanted to see the look on Prim's face as much as I did. In a moment of complete giddiness, I bought a pink ribbon and tied it around her neck. Then we hurried back to my house.

You should have seen Prim's reaction when we walked in with that goat. Remember this is a girl who wept to save that awful old cat, Buttercup. She was so excited she started crying and laughing all at once. My mother was less sure, seeing the injury, but the pair of them went to work on it, grinding up herbs and coaxing brews down the animal's throat.

"They sound like you," says Peeta. I had almost forgotten he was there.

"Oh, no, Peeta. They work magic. That thing couldn't have died if it tried," I say. But then I bite my tongue, realizing what that must sound like to Peeta, who is dying, in my incompetent hands.

"Don't worry. I'm not trying," he jokes. "Finish the story."

"Well, that's it. Only I remember that night, Prim insisted on sleeping with Lady on a blanket next to the fire. And just before they drifted off, the goat licked her cheek, like it was giving her a good night kiss or something," I say. "It was already mad about her."

"Was it still wearing the pink ribbon?" he asks.

"I think so," I say. "Why?"

"I'm just trying to get a picture," he says thoughtfully. "I can see why that day made you happy."

"Well, I knew that goat would be a little gold mine," 1 say.

"Yes, of course I was referring to that, not the lasting joy you gave the sister you love so much you took her place in the reaping," says Peeta drily.

"The goat has paid for itself. Several times over," I say in a superior tone.

"Well, it wouldn't dare do anything else after you saved its life," says Peeta. "I intend to do the same thing."

"Really? What did you cost me again?" I ask.

"A lot of trouble. Don't worry. You'll get it all back," he says.

"You're not making sense," I say. I test his forehead. The lever's going nowhere but up. "You're a little cooler though."

The sound of the trumpets startles me. I'm on my feet and at the mouth of the cave in a flash, not wanting to miss a syllable. It's my new best friend, Claudius Templesmith, and as I expected, he's inviting us to a feast. Well, we're not that hungry and I actually wave his offer away in indifference when he says, "Now hold on. Some of you may already be declining my invitation. But this is no ordinary feast. Each of you needs something desperately."

I do need something desperately. Something to heal Peeta's leg.

"Each of you will find that something in a backpack, marked with your district number, at the Cornucopia at dawn. Think hard about refusing to show up. For some of you, this will be your last chance," says Claudius.

There's nothing else, just his words hanging in the air. I jump as Peeta grips my shoulder from behind. "No," he says. "You're not risking your life for me."

"Who said I was?" I say.

"So, you're not going?" he asks.

"Of course, I'm not going. Give me some credit. Do you think I'm running straight into some free-for-all against Cato and Clove and Thresh? Don't be stupid," I say, helping him back to bed. "I'll let them fight it out, we'll see who's in the sky tomorrow night and work out a plan from there."

"You're such a bad liar, Katniss. I don't know how you've survived this long." He begins to mimic me. "I knew that goat would be a little gold mine. You're a little cooler though. Of course, I'm not going. He shakes his head. "Never gamble at cards. You'll lose your last coin," he says.

Anger flushes my face. "All right, I am going, and you can't stop me!"

"I can follow you. At least partway. I may not make it to the Cornucopia, but if I'm yelling your name, I bet someone can find me. And then I'll be dead for sure," he says.

"You won't get a hundred yards from here on that leg," I say.

"Then I'll drag myself," says Peeta. "You go and I'm going, too."

He's just stubborn enough and maybe just strong enough to do it. Come howling after me in the woods. Even if a tribute doesn't find him, something else might. He can't defend himself. I'd probably have to wall him up in the cave just to go myself. And who knows what the exertion will do to him?

"What am I supposed to do? Sit here and watch you die?" I say. He must know that's not an option. That the audience would hate me. And frankly, I would hate myself, too, if I didn't even try.

"I won't die. I promise. If you promise not to go," he says.

We're at something of a stalemate. I know I can't argue him out of this one, so I don't try. I pretend, reluctantly, to go along. "Then you have to do what I say. Drink your water, wake me when I tell you, and eat every bite of the soup no matter how disgusting it is!" I snap at him.

"Agreed. Is it ready?" he asks.

"Wait here," I say. The air's gone cold even though the sun's still up. I'm right about the Gamemakers messing with the temperature. I wonder if the thing someone needs desperately is a good blanket. The soup is still nice and warm in its iron pot. And actually doesn't taste too bad.

Peeta eats without complaint, even scraping out the pot to show his enthusiasm. He rambles on about how delicious it is, which should be encouraging if you don't know what fever does to people. He's like listening to Haymitch before the alcohol has soaked him into incoherence. I give him another dose of fever medicine before he goes off his head completely.

As I go down to the stream to wash up, all I can think is that he's going to die if I don't get to that feast. I'll keep him going for a day or two, and then the infection will reach his heart or his brain or his lungs and he'll be gone. And I'll be here all alone. Again. Waiting for the others.

I'm so lost in thought that I almost miss the parachute, even though it floats right by me. Then I spring after it, yanking it from the water, tearing off the silver fabric to retrieve the vial. Haymitch has done it! He's gotten the medicine  -  I don't know how, persuaded some gaggle of romantic fools to sell their jewels  -  and I can save Peeta! It's such a tiny vial though. It must be very strong to cure someone as ill as Peeta. A ripple of doubt runs through me. I uncork the vial and take a deep sniff. My spirits fall at the sickly sweet scent. Just to be sure, I place a drop on the tip of my tongue. There's no question, it's sleep syrup. It's a common medicine in District 12. Cheap, as medicine goes, but very addictive. Almost everyone's had a dose at one time or another. We have some in a bottle at home. My mother gives it to hysterical patients to knock them out to stitch up a bad wound or quiet their minds or just to help someone in pain get through the night. It only takes a little. A vial this size could knock Peeta out for a full day, but what good is that? I'm so furious I'm about to throw Haymitch's last offering into the stream when it hits me. A full day? That's more than I need.

I mash up a handful of berries so the taste won't be as noticeable and add some mint leaves for good measure. Then I head back up to the cave. "I've brought you a treat. I found a new patch of berries a little farther downstream."

Peeta opens his mouth for the first bite without hesitation. He swallows then frowns slightly. "They're very sweet."

"Yes, they're sugar berries. My mother makes jam from them. Haven't you ever had them before?" I say, poking the next spoonful in his mouth.

"No," he says, almost puzzled. "But they taste familiar. Sugar berries?"

"Well, you can't get them in the market much, they only grow wild," I say. Another mouthful goes down. Just one more to go.

"They're sweet as syrup," he says, taking the last spoonful. "Syrup." His eyes widen as he realizes the truth. I clamp my hand over his mouth and nose hard, forcing him to swallow instead of spit. He tries to make himself vomit the stuff up, but it's too late, he's already losing consciousness. Even as he fades away, I can see in his eyes what I've done is unforgivable.

I sit back on my heels and look at him with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction. A stray berry stains his chin and I wipe it away. "Who can't lie, Peeta?" I say, even though he can't hear me.

It doesn't matter. The rest of Panem can.


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