Chapter Twenty

20.

"Peeta!" I scream. I shake him harder, even resort to slapping his face, but it's no use. His heart has failed. I am slapping emptiness. "Peeta!"

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. "Let me." His fingers touch points at Peeta's neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. Then he pinches Peeta's nostrils shut.

"No!" I yell, hurling myself at Finnick, for surely he intends to make certain that Peeta's dead, to keep any hope of life from returning to him. Finnick's hand comes up and hits me so hard, so squarely in the chest that I go flying back into a nearby tree trunk. I'm stunned for a moment, by the pain, by trying to regain my wind, as I see Finnick close off Peeta's nose again. From where I sit, I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I'm stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. And it's so bizarre, even for Finnick, that I stay my hand. No, he's not kissing him. He's got Peeta's nose blocked off but his mouth tilted open, and he's blowing air into his lungs. I can see this, I can actually see Peeta's chest rising and falling. Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta's jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands. Now that I've gotten through my shock, I understand what he's trying to do.

Once in a blue moon, I've seen my mother try something similar, but not often. If your heart fails in District 12, it's unlikely your family could get you to my mother in time, anyway. So her usual patients are burned or wounded or ill. Or starving, of course.

But Finnick's world is different. Whatever he's doing, he's done it before. There's a very set rhythm and method. And I find the arrow tip sinking to the ground as I lean in to watch, desperately, for some sign of success. Agonizing minutes drag past as my hopes diminish. Around the time that I'm deciding it's too late, that Peeta's dead, moved on, unreachable forever, he gives a small cough and Finnick sits back.

I leave my weapons in the dirt as I fling myself at him. "Peeta?" I say softly. I brush the damp blond strands of hair back from his forehead, find the pulse drumming against my fingers at his neck.

His lashes flutter open and his eyes meet mine. "Careful," he says weakly. "There's a force field up ahead."

I laugh, but there are tears running down my cheeks.

"Must be a lot stronger than the one on the Training Center roof," he says. "I'm all right, though. Just a little shaken."

"You were dead! Your heart stopped!" I burst out, before really considering if this is a good idea. I clap my hand over my mouth because I'm starting to make those awful choking sounds that happen when I sob.

"Well, it seems to be working now," he says. "It's all right, Katniss." I nod my head but the sounds aren't stopping.

"Katniss?" Now Peeta's worried about me, which adds to the insanity of it all.

"It's okay. It's just her hormones," says Finnick. "From the baby." I look up and see him, sitting back on his knees but still panting a bit from the climb and the heat and the effort of bringing Peeta back from the dead.

"No. It's not - " I get out, but I'm cut off by an even more hysterical round of sobbing that seems only to confirm what Finnick said about the baby. He meets my eyes and I glare at him through my tears. It's stupid, I know, that his efforts make me so vexed. All I wanted was to keep Peeta alive, and I couldn't and Finnick could, and I should be nothing but grateful. And I am. But I am also furious because it means that I will never stop owing Finnick Odair. Ever. So how can I kill him in his sleep?

I expect to see a smug or sarcastic expression on his face, but his look is strangely quizzical. He glances between Peeta and me, as if trying to figure something out, then gives his head a slight shake as if to clear it. "How are you?" he asks Peeta. "Do you think you can move on?"

"No, he has to rest," I say. My nose is running like crazy and I don't even have a shred of fabric to use as a handkerchief. Mags rips off a handful of hanging moss from a tree limb and gives it to me. I'm too much of a mess to even question it. I blow my nose loudly and mop the tears off my face. It's nice, the moss. Absorbent and surprisingly soft.

I notice a gleam of gold on Peeta's chest. I reach out and retrieve the disk that hangs from a chain around his neck. My mockingjay has been engraved on it. "Is this your token?" I ask.

"Yes. Do you mind that I used your mockingjay? I wanted us to match," he says.

"No, of course I don't mind." I force a smile. Peeta showing up in the arena wearing a mockingjay is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it should give a boost to the rebels in the district. On the other, it's hard to imagine President Snow will overlook it, and that makes the job of keeping Peeta alive harder.

"So you want to make camp here, then?" Finnick asks.

"I don't think that's an option," Peeta answers. "Staying here. With no water. No protection. I feel all right, really. If we could just go slowly."

"Slowly would be better than not at all." Finnick helps Peeta to his feet while I pull myself together. Since I got up this morning I've watched Cinna beaten to a pulp, landed in another arena, and seen Peeta die. Still, I'm glad Finnick keeps playing the pregnancy card for me, because from a sponsor's point of view, I'm not handling things all that well.

I check over my weapons, which I know are in perfect condition, because it makes me seem more in control. "I'll take the lead," I announce.

Peeta starts to object but Finnick cuts him off. "No, let her do it." He frowns at me. "You knew that force field was there, didn't you? Right at the last second? You started to give a warning." I nod. "How did you know?"

I hesitate. To reveal that I know Beetee and Wiress's trick of recognizing a force field could be dangerous. I don't know if the Gamemakers made note of that moment during training when the two pointed it out to me or not. One way or the other, I have a very valuable piece of information. And if they know I have it, they might do something to alter the force field so I can't see the aberration anymore. So I lie. "I don't know. It's almost as if I could hear it. Listen." We all become still. There's the sound of insects, birds, the breeze in the foliage.

"I don't hear anything," says Peeta.

"Yes," I insist, "it's like when the fence around District Twelve is on, only much, much quieter." Everyone listens again intently. I do, too, although there's nothing to hear. "There!" I say. "Can't you hear it? It's coming from right where Peeta got shocked."

"I don't hear it, either," says Finnick. "But if you do, by all means, take the lead."

I decide to play this for all it's worth. "That's weird," I say. I turn my head from side to side as if puzzled. "I can only hear it out of my left ear."

"The one the doctors reconstructed?" asks Peeta.

"Yeah," I say, then give a shrug. "Maybe they did a better job than they thought. You know, sometimes I do hear funny things on that side. Things you wouldn't ordinarily think have a sound. Like insect wings. Or snow hitting the ground." Perfect. Now all the attention will turn to the surgeons who fixed my deaf ear after the Games last year, and they'll have to explain why I can hear like a bat.

"You," says Mags, nudging me forward, so I take the lead. Since we're to be moving slowly, Mags prefers to walk with the aid of a branch Finnick quickly fashions into a cane for her. He makes a staff for Peeta as well, which is good because, despite his protestations, I think all Peeta really wants to do is lie down. Finnick brings up the rear, so at least someone alert has our backs.

I walk with the force field on my left, because that's supposed to be the side with my superhuman ear. But since that's all made up, I cut down a bunch of hard nuts that hang like grapes from a nearby tree and toss them ahead of me as I go. It's good I do, too, because I have a feeling I'm missing the patches that indicate the force field more often than I'm spotting them. Whenever a nut hits the force field, there's a puff of smoke before the nut lands, blackened and with a cracked shell, on the ground at my feet.

After a few minutes I become aware of a smacking sound behind me and turn to see Mags peeling the shell off one of the nuts and popping it in her already-full mouth. "Mags!" I cry. "Spit that out. It could be poisonous."

She mumbles something and ignores me, licking her lips with apparent relish. I look to Finnick for help but he just laughs. "I guess we'll find out," he says.

I go forward, wondering about Finnick, who saved old Mags but will let her eat strange nuts. Who Haymitch has stamped with his seal of approval. Who brought Peeta back from the dead. Why didn't he just let him die? He would have been blameless. I never would have guessed it was in his power to revive him. Why could he possibly have wanted to save Peeta? And why was he so determined to team up with me? Willing to kill me, too, if it comes to that. But leaving the choice of if we fight to me.

I keep walking, tossing my nuts, sometimes catching a glimpse of the force field, trying to press to the left to find a spot where we can break through, get away from the Cornucopia, and hopefully find water. But after another hour or so of this I realize it's futile. We're not making any progress to the left. In fact, the force field seems to be herding us along a curved path. I stop and look back at Mags's limping form, the sheen of sweat on Peeta's face. "Let's take a break," I say. "I need to get another look from above."

The tree I choose seems to jut higher into the air than the others. I make my way up the twisting boughs, staying as close to the trunk as possible. No telling how easily these rubbery branches will snap. Still I climb beyond good sense because there's something I have to see. As I cling to a stretch of trunk no wider than a sapling, swaying back and forth in the humid breeze, my suspicions are confirmed. There's a reason we can't turn to the left, will never be able to. From this precarious vantage point, I can see the shape of the whole arena for the first time. A perfect circle. With a perfect wheel in the middle. The sky above the circumference of the jungle is tinged a uniform pink. And I think I can make out one or two of those wavy squares, chinks in the armor, Wiress and Beetee called them, because they reveal what was meant to be hidden and are therefore a weakness. Just to make absolutely sure, I shoot an arrow into the empty space above the tree line. There's a spurt of light, a flash of real blue sky, and the arrow's thrown back into the jungle. I climb down to give the others the bad news.

"The force field has us trapped in a circle. A dome, really. I don't know how high it goes. There's the Cornucopia, the sea, and then the jungle all around. Very exact. Very symmetrical. And not very large," I say.

"Did you see any water?" asks Finnick.

"Only the saltwater where we started the Games," I say.

"There must be some other source," says Peeta, frowning. "Or we'll all be dead in a matter of days."

"Well, the foliage is thick. Maybe there are ponds or springs somewhere," I say doubtfully. I instinctively feel the Capitol might want these unpopular Games over as soon as possible. Plutarch Heavensbee might have already been given orders to knock us off. "At any rate, there's no point in trying to find out what's over the edge of this hill, because the answer is nothing."

"There must be drinkable water between the force field and the wheel," Peeta insists. We all know what this means. Heading back down. Heading back to the Careers and the bloodshed. With Mags hardly able to walk and Peeta too weak to fight.

We decide to move down the slope a few hundred yards and continue circling. See if maybe there's some water at that level. I stay in the lead, occasionally chucking a nut to my left, but we're well out of range of the force field now. The sun beats down on us, turning the air to steam, playing tricks on our eyes. By midafternoon, it's clear Peeta and Mags can't go on.

Finnick chooses a campsite about ten yards below the force field, saying we can use it as a weapon by deflecting our enemies into it if attacked. Then he and Mags pull blades of the sharp grass that grows in five-foot-high tufts and begin to weave them together into mats. Since Mags seems to have no ill effects from the nuts, Peeta collects bunches of them and fries them by bouncing them off the force field. He methodically peels off the shells, piling the meats on a leaf. I stand guard, fidgety and hot and raw with the emotions of the day.

Thirsty. I am so thirsty. Finally I can't stand it anymore. "Finnick, why don't you stand guard and I'll hunt around some more for water," I say. No one's thrilled with the idea of me going off alone, but the threat of dehydration hangs over us.

"Don't worry, I won't go far," I promise Peeta. "I'll go, too," he says.

"No, I'm going to do some hunting if I can," I tell him. I don't add, "And you can't come because you're too loud." But it's implied. He would both scare off prey and endanger me with his heavy tread. "I won't be long."

I move stealthily through the trees, happy to find that the ground lends itself to soundless footsteps. I work my way down at a diagonal, but I find nothing except more lush, green plant life.

The sound of the cannon brings me to a halt. The initial bloodbath at the Cornucopia must be over. The death toll of the tributes is now available. I count the shots, each representing one dead victor. Eight. Not as many as last year. But it seems like more since I know most of their names.

Suddenly weak, I lean against a tree to rest, feeling the heat draw the moisture from my body like a sponge. Already, swallowing is difficult and fatigue is creeping up on me. I try rubbing my hand across my belly, hoping some sympathetic pregnant woman will become my sponsor and Haymitch can send in some water. No luck. I sink to the ground.

In my stillness, I begin to notice the animals: strange birds with brilliant plumage, tree lizards with flickering blue tongues, and something that looks like a cross between a rat and a possum clinging on the branches close to the trunk. I shoot one of the latter out of a tree to get a closer look.

It's ugly, all right, a big rodent with a fuzz of mottled gray fur and two wicked-looking gnawing teeth protruding over its lower lip. As I'm gutting and skinning it, I notice something else. Its muzzle is wet. Like an animal that's been drinking from a stream. Excited, I start at its home tree and move slowly out in a spiral. It can't be far, the creature's water source.

Nothing. I find nothing. Not so much as a dewdrop. Eventually, because I know Peeta will be worried about me, I head back to the camp, hotter and more frustrated than ever.

When I arrive, I see the others have transformed the place. Mags and Finnick have created a hut of sorts out of the grass mats, open on one side but with three walls, a floor, and a roof. Mags has also plaited several bowls that Peeta has filled with roasted nuts. Their faces turn to me hopefully, but I give my head a shake. "No. No water. It's out there, though. He knew where it was," I say, hoisting the skinned rodent up for all to see. "He'd been drinking recently when I shot him out of a tree, but I couldn't find his source. I swear, I covered every inch of ground in a thirty-yard radius."

"Can we eat him?" Peeta asks.

"I don't know for sure. But his meat doesn't look that different from a squirrel's. He ought to be cooked... ." I hesitate as I think of trying to start a fire out here from complete scratch. Even if I succeed, there's the smoke to think about. We're all so close together in this arena, there's no chance of hiding it.

Peeta has another idea. He takes a cube of rodent meat, skewers it on the tip of a pointed stick, and lets it fall into the force field. There's a sharp sizzle and the stick flies back. The chunk of meat is blackened on the outside but well cooked inside. We give him a round of applause, then quickly stop, remembering where we are.

The white sun sinks in the rosy sky as we gather in the hut. I'm still leery about the nuts, but Finnick says Mags recognized them from another Games. I didn't bother spending time at the edible-plants station in training because it was so effortless for me last year. Now I wish I had. For surely there would have been some of the unfamiliar plants surrounding me. And I might have guessed a bit more about where I was headed. Mags seems fine, though, and she's been eating the nuts for hours. So I pick one up and take a small bite. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor that reminds me of a chestnut. I decide it's all right. The rodent's strong and gamey but surprisingly juicy. Really, it's not a bad meal for our first night in the arena. If only we had something to wash it down with.

Finnick asks a lot of questions about the rodent, which we decide to call a tree rat. How high was it, how long did I watch it before I shot, and what was it doing? I don't remember it doing much of anything. Snuffling around for insects or something.

I'm dreading the night. At least the tightly woven grass offers some protection from whatever slinks across the jungle floor after hours. But a short time before the sun slips below the horizon, a pale white moon rises, making things just visible enough. Our conversation trails off because we know what's coming. We position ourselves in a line at the mouth of the hut and Peeta slips his hand into mine.

The sky brightens when the seal of the Capitol appears as if floating in space. As I listen to the strains of the anthem I think, It will be harder for Finnick and Mags. But it turns out to be plenty hard for me as well. Seeing the faces of the eight dead victors projected into the sky.

The man from District 5, the one Finnick took out with his trident, is the first to appear. That means that all the tributes in 1 through 4 are alive - the four Careers, Beetee and Wiress, and, of course, Mags and Finnick. The man from District 5 is followed by the male morphling from 6, Cecelia and Woof from 8, both from 9, the woman from 10, and Seeder from 11. The Capitol seal is back with a final bit of music and then the sky goes dark except for the moon.

No one speaks. I can't pretend I knew any of them well. But I'm thinking of those three kids hanging on to Cecelia when they took her away. Seeder's kindness to me at our meeting. Even the thought of the glazed-eyed morphling painting my cheeks with yellow flowers gives me a pang. All dead. All gone.

I don't know how long we might have sat here if it weren't for the arrival of the silver parachute, which glides down through the foliage to land before us. No one reaches for it.

"Whose is it, do you think?" I say finally.

"No telling," says Finnick. "Why don't we let Peeta claim it, since he died today?"

Peeta unties the cord and flattens out the circle of silk. On the parachute sits a small metal object that I can't place. "What is it?" I ask. No one knows. We pass it from hand to hand, taking turns examining it. It's a hollow metal tube, tapered slightly at one end. On the other end a small lip curves downward. It's vaguely familiar. A part that could have fallen off a bicycle, a curtain rod, anything, really.

Peeta blows on one end to see if it makes a sound. It doesn't. Finnick slides his pinkie into it, testing it out as a weapon. Useless.

"Can you fish with it, Mags?" I ask. Mags, who can fish with almost anything, shakes her head and grunts.

I take it and roll it back and forth on my palm. Since we're allies, Haymitch will be working with the District 4 mentors. He had a hand in choosing this gift. That means it's valuable. Lifesaving, even. I think back to last year, when I wanted water so badly, but he wouldn't send it because he knew I could find it if I tried. Haymitch's gifts, or lack thereof, carry weighty messages. I can almost hear him growling at me, Use your brain if you have one. What is it?

I wipe the sweat from my eyes and hold the gift out in the moonlight. I move it this way and that, viewing it from different angles, covering portions and then revealing them. Trying to make it divulge its purpose to me. Finally, in frustration, I jam one end into the dirt. "I give up. Maybe if we hook up with Beetee or Wiress they can figure it out.

I stretch out, pressing my hot cheek on the grass mat, staring at the thing in aggravation. Peeta rubs a tense spot between my shoulders and I let myself relax a little. I wonder why this place hasn't cooled off at all now that the sun's gone down. I wonder what's going on back home.

Prim. My mother. Gale. Madge. I think of them watching me from home. At least I hope they're at home. Not taken into custody by Thread. Being punished as Cinna is. As Darius is. Punished because of me. Everybody.

I begin to ache for them, for my district, for my woods. A decent woods with sturdy hardwood trees, plentiful food, game that isn't creepy. Rushing streams. Cool breezes. No, cold winds to blow this stifling heat away. I conjure up such a wind in my mind, letting it freeze my cheeks and numb my fingers, and all at once, the piece of metal half buried in the black earth has a name.

"A spile!" I exclaim, sitting bolt upright.

"What?" asks Finnick.

I wrestle the thing from the ground and brush it clean. Cup my hand around the tapered end, concealing it, and look at the lip. Yes, I've seen one of these before. On a cold, windy day long ago, when I was out in the woods with my father. Inserted snugly into a hole drilled in the side of a maple. A pathway for the sap to follow as it flowed into our bucket. Maple syrup could make even our dull bread a treat. After my father died, I didn't know what happened to the handful of spiles he had. Hidden out in the woods somewhere, probably. Never to be found.

"It's a spile. Sort of like a faucet. You put it in a tree and sap comes out." I look at the sinewy green trunks around me. "Well, the right sort of tree."

"Sap?" asks Finnick. They don't have the right kind of trees by the sea, either.

"To make syrup," says Peeta. "But there must be something else inside these trees."

We're all on our feet at once. Our thirst. The lack of springs. The tree rat's sharp front teeth and wet muzzle. There can only be one thing worth having inside these trees. Finnick goes to hammer the spile into the green bark of a massive tree with a rock, but I stop him. "Wait. You might damage it. We need to drill a hole first," I say.

There's nothing to drill with, so Mags offers her awl and Peeta drives it straight into the bark, burying the spike two inches deep. He and Finnick take turns opening up the hole with the awl and the knives until it can hold the spile. I wedge it in carefully and we all stand back in anticipation.

At first nothing happens. Then a drop of water rolls down the lip and lands in Mags's palm. She licks it off and holds out her hand for more.

By wiggling and adjusting the spile, we get a thin stream running out. We take turns holding our mouths under the tap, wetting our parched tongues. Mags brings over a basket, and the grass is so tightly woven it holds water. We fill the basket and pass it around, taking deep gulps and, later, luxuriously, splashing our faces clean. Like everything here, the water's on the warm side, but this is no time to be picky.

Without our thirst to distract us, we're all aware of how exhausted we are and make preparations for the night. Last year, I always tried to have my gear ready in case I had to make a speedy retreat in the night. This year, there's no backpack to prepare. Just my weapons, which won't leave my grasp, anyway. Then I think of the spile and wrest it from the tree trunk. I strip a tough vine of its leaves, thread it through the hollow center, and tie the spile securely to my belt.

Finnick offers to take the first watch and I let him, knowing it has to be one of the two of us until Peeta's rested up. I lie down beside Peeta on the floor of the hut, telling Finnick to wake me when he's tired. Instead I find myself jarred from sleep a few hours later by what seems to be the tolling of a bell. Bong! Bong! It's not exactly like the one they ring in the Justice Building on New Year's but close enough for me to recognize it. Peeta and Mags sleep through it, but Finnick has the same look of attentiveness I feel. The tolling stops.

"I counted twelve," he says.

I nod. Twelve. What does that signify? One ring for each district? Maybe. But why? "Mean anything, do you think?"

"No idea," he says.

We wait for further instructions, maybe a message from Claudius Templesmith. An invitation to a feast. The only thing of note appears in the distance. A dazzling bolt of electricity strikes a towering tree and then a lightning storm begins. I guess it's an indication of rain, of a water source for those who don't have mentors as smart as Haymitch.

"Go to sleep, Finnick. It's my turn to watch, anyway," I say.

Finnick hesitates, but no one can stay awake forever. He settles down at the mouth of the hut, one hand gripped around a trident, and drifts into a restless sleep.

I sit with my bow loaded, watching the jungle, which is ghostly pale and green in the moonlight. After an hour or so, the lightning stops. I can hear the rain coming in, though, pattering on the leaves a few hundred yards away. I keep waiting for it to reach us but it never does.

The sound of the cannon startles me, although it makes little impression on my sleeping companions. There's no point in awakening them for this. Another victor dead. I don't even allow myself to wonder who it is.

The elusive rain shuts off suddenly, like the storm did last year in the arena.

Moments after it stops, I see the fog sliding softly in from the direction of the recent downpour. Just a reaction. Cool rain on the steaming ground, I think. It continues to approach at a steady pace. Tendrils reach forward and then curl like fingers, as if they are pulling the rest behind them. As I watch, I feel the hairs on my neck begin to rise. Something's wrong with this fog. The progression of the front line is too uniform to be natural. And if it's not natural ...

A sickeningly sweet odor begins to invade my nostrils and I reach for the others, shouting for them to wake up.

In the few seconds it takes to rouse them, I begin to blister.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***