My first impulse is to scramble from the tree, but I’m belted in. Somehow my fumbling fingers release the buckle and I fall to the ground in a heap, still snarled in my sleeping bag. There’s no time for any kind of packing. Fortunately, my backpack and water bottle are already in the bag. I shove in the belt, hoist the bag over my shoulder, and flee.
The world has transformed to flame and smoke. Burning branches crack from trees and fall in showers of sparks at my feet. All I can do is follow the others, the rabbits and deer and I even spot a wild dog pack shooting through the woods. I trust their sense of direction because their instincts are sharper than mine. But they are much faster, flying through the underbrush so gracefully as my boots catch on roots and fallen tree limbs, that there’s no way I can keep apace with them.
The heat is horrible, but worse than the heat is the smoke, which threatens to suffocate me at any moment. I pull the top of my shirt up over my nose, grateful to find it soaked in sweat, and it offers a thin veil of protection. And I run, choking, my bag banging against my back, my face cut with branches that materialize from the gray haze without warning, because I know I am supposed to run.
This was no tribute’s campfire gone out of control, no accidental occurrence. The flames that bear down on me have an unnatural height, a uniformity that marks them as human-made, machine-made, Gamemaker-made. Things have been too quiet today. No deaths, perhaps no fights at all. The audience in the Capitol will be getting bored, claiming that these Games are verging on dullness. This is the one thing the Games must not do.
It’s not hard to follow the Gamemakers’ motivation. There is the Career pack and then there are the rest of us, probably spread far and thin across the arena. This fire is designed to flush us out, to drive us together. It may not be the most original device I’ve seen, but it’s very, very effective.
I hurdle over a burning log. Not high enough. The tail end of my jacket catches on fire and I have to stop to rip it from my body and stamp out the flames. But I don’t dare leave the jacket, scorched and smoldering as it is, I take the risk of shoving it in my sleeping bag, hoping the lack of air will quell what I haven’t extinguished. This is all I have, what I carry on my back, and it’s little enough to survive with.
In a matter of minutes, my throat and nose are burning. The coughing begins soon after and my lungs begin to feel as if they are actually being cooked. Discomfort turns to distress until each breath sends a searing pain through my chest. I manage to take cover under a stone outcropping just as the vomiting begins, and I lose my meager supper and whatever water has remained in my stomach. Crouching on my hands and knees, I retch until there’s nothing left to come up.
I know I need to keep moving, but I’m trembling and light-headed now, gasping for air. I allow myself about a spoonful of water to rinse my mouth and spit then take a few swallows from my bottle. You get one minute, I tell myself. One minute to rest. I take the time to reorder my supplies, wad up the sleeping bag, and messily stuff everything into the backpack. My minute’s up. I know it’s time to move on, but the smoke has clouded my thoughts. The swift-footed animals that were my compass have left me behind. I know I haven’t been in this part of the woods before, there were no sizable rocks like the one I’m sheltering against on my earlier travels. Where are the Gamemakers driving me? Back to the lake? To a whole new terrain filled with new dangers? I had just found a few hours of peace at the pond when this attack began. Would there be any way I could travel parallel to the fire and work my way back there, to a source of water at least? The wall of fire must have an end and it won’t burn indefinitely. Not because the Gamemakers couldn’t keep it fueled but because, again, that would invite accusations of boredom from the audience. If I could get back behind the fire line, I could avoid meeting up with the Careers. I’ve just decided to try and loop back around, although it will require miles of travel away from the inferno and then a very circuitous route back, when the first fireball blasts into the rock about two feet from my head. I spring out from under my ledge, energized by renewed fear.
The game has taken a twist. The fire was just to get us moving, now the audience will get to see some real fun. When I hear the next hiss, I flatten on the ground, not taking time to look. The fireball hits a tree off to my left, engulfing it in flames. To remain still is death. I’m barely on my feet before the third ball hits the ground where I was lying, sending a pillar of fire up behind me. Time loses meaning now as I frantically try to dodge the attacks. I can’t see where they’re being launched from, but it’s not a hovercraft. The angles are not extreme enough. Probably this whole segment of the woods has been armed with precision launchers that are concealed in trees or rocks. Somewhere, in a cool and spotless room, a Gamemaker sits at a set of controls, fingers on the triggers that could end my life in a second. All that is needed is a direct hit.
Whatever vague plan I had conceived regarding returning to my pond is wiped from my mind as I zigzag and dive and leap to avoid the fireballs. Each one is only the size of an apple, but packs tremendous power on contact. Every sense I have goes into overdrive as the need to survive takes over. There’s no time to judge if a move is the correct one. When there’s a hiss, I act or die.
Something keeps me moving forward, though. A lifetime of watching the Hunger Games lets me know that certain areas of the arena are rigged for certain attacks. And that if I can just get away from this section, I might be able to move out of reach of the launchers. I might also then fall straight into a pit of vipers, but I can’t worry about that now.
How long I scramble along dodging the fireballs I can’t say, but the attacks finally begin to abate. Which is good, because I’m retching again. This time it’s an acidic substance that scalds my throat and makes its way into my nose as well. I’m forced to stop as my body convulses, trying desperately to rid itself of the poisons I’ve been sucking in during the attack. I wait for the next hiss, the next signal to bolt. It doesn’t come. The force of the retching has squeezed tears out of my stinging eyes. My clothes are drenched in sweat. Somehow, through the smoke and vomit, I pick up the scent of singed hair. My hand fumbles to my braid and finds a fireball has seared off at least six inches of it. Strands of blackened hair crumble in my fingers. I stare at them, fascinated by the transformation, when the hissing registers.
My muscles react, only not fast enough this time. The fireball crashes into the ground at my side, but not before it skids across my right calf. Seeing my pants leg on fire sends me over the edge. I twist and scuttle backward on my hands and feet, shrieking, trying to remove myself from the horror. When I finally regain enough sense, I roll the leg back and forth on the ground, which stifles the worst of it. But then, without thinking, I rip away the remaining fabric with my bare hands.
I sit on the ground, a few yards from the blaze set off by the fireball. My calf is screaming, my hands covered in red welts. I’m shaking too hard to move. If the Gamemakers want to finish me off, now is the time.
I hear Cinna’s voice, carrying images of rich fabric and sparkling gems. “Katniss, the girl who was on fire.” What a good laugh the Gamemakers must be having over that one. Perhaps, Cinna’s beautiful costumes have even brought on this particular torture for me. I know he couldn’t have foreseen this, must be hurting for me because, in fact, I believe he cares about me. But all in all, maybe showing up stark naked in that chariot would have been safer for me.
The attack is now over. The Gamemakers don’t want me dead. Not yet anyway. Everyone knows they could destroy us all within seconds of the opening gong. The real sport of the Hunger Games is watching the tributes kill one another. Every so often, they do kill a tribute just to remind the players they can. But mostly, they manipulate us into confronting one another face-to-face. Which means, if I am no longer being fired at, there is at least one other tribute close at hand.
I would drag myself into a tree and take cover now if I could, but the smoke is still thick enough to kill me. I make myself stand and begin to limp away from the wall of flames that lights up the sky. It does not seem to be pursuing me any longer, except with its stinking black clouds.
Another light, daylight, begins to softly emerge. Swirls of smoke catch the sunbeams. My visibility is poor. I can see maybe fifteen yards in any direction. A tribute could easily be concealed from me here. I should draw my knife as a precaution, but I doubt my ability to hold it for long. The pain in my hands can in no way compete with that in my calf. I hate burns, have always hated them, even a small one gotten from pulling a pan of bread from the oven. It is the worst kind of pain to me, but I have never experienced anything like this.
I’m so weary I don’t even notice I’m in the pool until I’m ankle-deep. It’s spring-fed, bubbling up out of a crevice in some rocks, and blissfully cool. I plunge my hands into the shallow water and feel instant relief. Isn’t that what my mother always says? The first treatment for a burn is cold water? That it draws out the heat? But she means minor burns. Probably she’d recommend it for my hands. But what of my calf? Although I have not yet had the courage to examine it, I’m guessing that it’s an injury in a whole different class.
I lie on my stomach at edge of the pool for a while, dangling my hands in the water, examining the little flames on my fingernails that are beginning to chip off. Good. I’ve had enough fire for a lifetime.
I bathe the blood and ash from my face. I try to recall all I know about burns. They are common injuries in the Seam where we cook and heat our homes with coal. Then there are the mine accidents. . . . A family once brought in an unconscious young man pleading with my mother to help him. The district doctor who’s responsible for treating the miners had written him off, told the family to take him home to die. But they wouldn’t accept this. He lay on our kitchen table, senseless to the world. I got a glimpse of the wound on his thigh, gaping, charred flesh, burned clear down to the bone, before I ran from the house. I went to the woods and hunted the entire day, haunted by the gruesome leg, memories of my father’s death. What’s funny was, Prim, who’s scared of her own shadow, stayed and helped. My mother says healers are born, not made. They did their best, but the man died, just like the doctor said he would.
My leg is in need of attention, but I still can’t look at it. What if it’s as bad as the man’s and I can see my bone? Then I remember my mother saying that if a burn’s severe, the victim might not even feel pain because the nerves would be destroyed. Encouraged by this, I sit up and swing my leg in front of me.
I almost faint at the sight of my calf. The flesh is a brilliant red covered with blisters. I force myself to take deep, slow breaths, feeling quite certain the cameras are on my face. I can’t show weakness at this injury. Not if I want help. Pity does not get you aid. Admiration at your refusal to give in does. I cut the remains of the pant leg off at the knee and examine the injury more closely. The burned area is about the size of my hand. None of the skin is blackened. I think it’s not too bad to soak. Gingerly I stretch out my leg into the pool, propping the heel of my boot on a rock so the leather doesn’t get too sodden, and sigh, because this does offer some relief. I know there are herbs, if I could find them, that would speed the healing, but I can’t quite call them to mind. Water and time will probably be all I have to work with.
Should I be moving on? The smoke is slowly clearing but still too heavy to be healthy. If I do continue away from the fire, won’t I be walking straight into the weapons of the Careers? Besides, every time I lift my leg from the water, the pain rebounds so intensely I have to slide it back in. My hands are slightly less demanding. They can handle small breaks from the pool. So I slowly put my gear back in order. First I fill my bottle with the pool water, treat it, and when enough time has passed, begin to rehydrate my body. After a time, I force myself to nibble on a cracker, which helps settle my stomach. I roll up my sleeping bag. Except for a few black marks, it’s relatively unscathed. My jacket’s another matter. Stinking and scorched, at least a foot of the back beyond repair. I cut off the damaged area leaving me with a garment that comes just to the bottom of my ribs. But the hood’s intact and it’s far better than nothing.
Despite the pain, drowsiness begins to take over. I’d take to a tree and try to rest, except I’d be too easy to spot. Besides, abandoning my pool seems impossible. I neatly arrange my supplies, even settle my pack on my shoulders, but I can’t seem to leave. I spot some water plants with edible roots and make a small meal with my last piece of rabbit. Sip water. Watch the sun make its slow arc across the sky. Where would I go anyway that is any safer than here? I lean back on my pack, overcome by drowsiness. If the Careers want me, let them find me, I think before drifting into a stupor. Let them find me.
And find me, they do. It’s lucky I’m ready to move on because when I hear the feet, I have less than a minute head start. Evening has begun to fall. The moment I awake, I’m up and running, splashing across the pool, flying into the underbrush. My leg slows me down, but I sense my pursuers are not as speedy as they were before the fire, either. I hear their coughs, their raspy voices calling to one another.
Still, they are closing in, just like a pack of wild dogs, and so I do what I have done my whole life in such circumstances. I pick a high tree and begin to climb. If running hurt, climbing is agonizing because it requires not only exertion but direct contact of my hands on the tree bark. I’m fast, though, and by the time they’ve reached the base of my trunk, I’m twenty feet up. For a moment, we stop and survey one another. I hope they can’t hear the pounding of my heart.
This could be it, I think. What chance do I have against them? All six are there, the five Careers and Peeta, and my only consolation is they’re pretty beat-up, too. Even so, look at their weapons. Look at their faces, grinning and snarling at me, a sure kill above them. It seems pretty hopeless. But then something else registers. They’re bigger and stronger than I am, no doubt, but they’re also heavier. There’s a reason it’s me and not Gale who ventures up to pluck the highest fruit, or rob the most remote bird nests. I must weigh at least fifty or sixty pounds less than the smallest Career.
Now I smile. “How’s everything with you?” I call down cheerfully.
This takes them aback, but I know the crowd will love it.
“Well enough,” says the boy from District 2. “Yourself?”
“It’s been a bit warm for my taste,” I say. I can almost hear the laughter from the Capitol. “The air’s better up here. Why don’t you come on up?”
“Think I will,” says the same boy.
“Here, take this, Cato,” says the girl from District 1, and she offers him the silver bow and sheath of arrows. My bow! My arrows! Just the sight of them makes me so angry I want to scream, at myself, at that traitor Peeta for distracting me from having them. I try to make eye contact with him now, but he seems to be intentionally avoiding my gaze as he polishes his knife with the edge of his shirt.
“No,” says Cato, pushing away the bow. “I’ll do better with my sword.” I can see the weapon, a short, heavy blade at his belt.
I give Cato time to hoist himself into the tree before I begin to climb again. Gale always says I remind him of a squirrel the way I can scurry up even the slenderest limb. Part of it’s my weight, but part of it’s practice. You have to know where to place your hands and feet. I’m another thirty feet in the air when I hear the crack and look down to see Cato flailing as he and a branch go down. He hits the ground hard and I’m hoping he possibly broke his neck when he gets back to his feet, swearing like a fiend.
The girl with the arrows, Glimmer I hear someone call her — ugh, the names the people in District 1 give their children are so ridiculous — anyway Glimmer scales the tree until the branches begin to crack under her feet and then has the good sense to stop. I’m at least eighty feet high now. She tries to shoot me and it’s immediately evident that she’s incompetent with a bow. One of the arrows gets lodged in the tree near me though and I’m able to seize it. I wave it teasingly above her head, as if this was the sole purpose of retrieving it, when actually I mean to use it if I ever get the chance. I could kill them, everyone of them, if those silver weapons were in my hands.
The Careers regroup on the ground and I can hear them growling conspiratorially among themselves, furious I have made them look foolish. But twilight has arrived and their window of attack on me is closing. Finally, I hear Peeta say harshly, “Oh, let her stay up there. It’s not like she’s going anywhere. We’ll deal with her in the morning.”
Well, he’s right about one thing. I’m going nowhere. All the relief from the pool water has gone, leaving me to feel the full potency of my burns. I scoot down to a fork in the tree and clumsily prepare for bed. Put on my jacket. Lay out my sleeping bed. Belt myself in and try to keep from moaning. The heat of the bag’s too much for my leg. I cut a slash in the fabric and hang my calf out in the open air. I drizzle water on the wound, my hands.
All my bravado is gone. I’m weak from pain and hunger but can’t bring myself to eat. Even if I can last the night, what will the morning bring? I stare into the foliage trying to will myself to rest, but the burns forbid it. Birds are settling down for the night, singing lullabies to their young. Night creatures emerge. An owl hoots. The faint scent of a skunk cuts through the smoke. The eyes of some animal peer at me from the neighboring tree — a possum maybe — catching the firelight from the Careers’ torches. Suddenly, I’m up on one elbow. Those are no possum’s eyes, I know their glassy reflection too well. In fact, those are not animal eyes at all. In the last dim rays of light, I make her out, watching me silently from between the branches. Rue.
How long has she been here? The whole time probably. Still and unobserved as the action unfolded beneath her. Perhaps she headed up her tree shortly before I did, hearing the pack was so close.
For a while we hold each other’s gaze. Then, without even rustling a leaf, her little hand slides into the open and points to something above my head.