The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 11

When he rolls into bed at 3am that morning, Cai sets an alarm and actually forces himself out of bed when it sounds at six. However, he still finds the Barvens are at the screens before him.

“Did you two sleep?” he rasps and both heads shake without the eyes leaving the image of the four allies packing up camp.

“She doesn't look good,” moans Daria and Cai notices her hand is encased in her husband's powerful grip.

“We're still a long way off the final eight,” he reminds them, uncertain whether he is still drunk or only slightly hung-over. “There's eleven of them still.”

“You heard Ares and Gaspar,” Adolphus answers, his voice slow and deliberate. “They are going to face the Career Pack–“

“They're going to scout!” Cai barks back at the older man. “She wouldn't be so stupid as to fight them. Not in her condition!”

“So… why are you out of bed five hours early?” Daria asks, turning a sympathetic smile on him.

“Everybody ready?” asks Iristina's voice from the TV. The cameras switch to show the Careers' camp at the Cornucopia, where all of them are asleep. “Then, let's go!” As on Day 2, the cameras track the progress of the four allies from above – a tight square of four gold dots taking the route of least resistance up to the summit. The five red dots remain stationary (soundly asleep in the two tents pitched outside the Cornucopia) and so does the electric-blue one that indicates where the girl from District 3 is camped on the beach to the east of Ares' gang. However, Renatus' district-partner is up and moving around a stream, presumably filling her water bottle and maybe catching some fish. For over an hour, they show nothing but this For over an hour, they show nothing but this aerial map with its coloured pin-pricks and Cai gets increasingly edgy. OK, so he was restless to begin with but, by the time, they switch to a panorama of the mountain's summit, he is actually pacing.

“How long have you three been here?” asks Amina's coldly amused voice from behind him as the screen fills with a shot of Viatrix swinging her rucksack onto her back.

“They've not been to bed and I got here at six,” he snaps at her, turning to pace the other direction again. The girl from 3 is still asleep, curled into a ball in what looks like an over-sized rabbit warren. Finally, Ares and her three allies appear on screen and he stops pacing to watch. They're all grinning, except for Gaspar, who is looking like a worse friend every day. Ares pulls down a handful of nuts, cracks them open and pelts Renatus and Gaspar with the shells, while passing the fruit to Winnow. The younger boy giggles and pulls down a reedy branch with feathery leaves at one end and proceeds to tickle Ares with it. They look like the could be on a school trip. They do not look like hardened killers preparing to murder the opposition in their sleep.

“Will you cut it out,” hisses Gaspar, his face contorted in disgust. “We're almost there!” She rolls her eyes and Renatus has to clamp a hand over his mouth to stop any more laughter escaping but they do sober up. About 15 minutes from the summit, by her estimation, they stop and portion out nuts, bread and fish cooked last night.

“OK,” she begins, once they're all replete with food and water. “I think we need to split into two teams.”

“Girls and boys,” grins Renatus, all boyish charm and her heart thuds for another boy, a boy five years dead, a child of the streets like her.

“No. You're coming with me, boyo,” she orders with a broad grin. “And, Winnow, you go with Gaspar.” She leaves the why – to ensure he doesn't stab them in the back – unsaid and, instead, launches into the what and how. “So, my little idea is that we separate here, each team go five minutes in their direction, then one creeps up to the very edge and the other stands guard, real close. OK?” Winnow and Renatus nod but Gaspar is frowning.

“Who do the creeping and who the looking?” She darts a look at the other girl, who takes the hint as seamlessly as though they have been sharing schemes and mollifying this wannabe man for years.

“You look and I will guard,” Winnow asserts, already reaching for her spear.

“And what be we looking fer?” growls Gaspar.

“I told you last night.” She rolls her eyes. “We need to know what we're facing before we fight them.”

“And what if the guard spots us?”

“Then we run, Gazzer!” she instructs, deliberately using his despised childhood nickname and forcing a smile to cover her clenched jaw.

“Fine,” he responds with his own crocodile grin and she is more glad than ever that Winnow is the one going with him and he's not the one watching her own back.

This is not good. This fictional friendship is disintegrating, fast, leaving their real enmity on display. She still looks good. In fact, she looks better for having made friends with her allies, while he spent the last day sulking, not communicating with the other two and not tending to her. He's acting increasingly like a lone wolf tribute and Cai cannot blame his girl for wanting Gaspar away from her.

“They look to be fixing to kill each other afore they be the final two,” muses Gaius and the younger man has got to admit he's right. He's worried for her, he always knew Gaspar would be her most dangerous adversary.

“Don't be crazy, Gaius,” titters Amina. “The boy might not be pretending to like her anymore but he won't kill her. He knows what it would do to the sponsors and even she isn't that stupid.” Cai finds himself clutching a flower vase, rather like Ares clutched that metal plate after the training scores were announced. He wishes that Amina would keep her venomous, spiteful tongue caged.

When she pokes her forehead and eyes above the stone ridge, the first thing Iristina sees is Gaspar's curly head. Wait! She shouldn't be able to see him because, if she can see him, then–

“We've got a bleeder, Proc!” sings out a girl's voice and, instead of turning and running for the shore, the idiot stands up and throws a rock at the sentry. In that moment, she feels the desire to kill so keenly that it clouds her vision and that scares her. Somehow, she manages to send her first knife into Glaucus' butt, instead of Gaspar's face. Then, however, the entire Career Pack are on their feet, weapons in hand, and they are separating to attack both groups. She turns and yells at Renatus:

“They're coming!” The boys nods, his face going as grim as it had after he killed Canus, and he hoists the shafts of his axes a little more securely into his hands. She notices this, this small movement, as she slides down the dirt bank at what feels like a snail's pace. It's strange, since the moment her knife stuck in the boy's behind, the world seems to have slowed down. Then, she's rising – ungracefully – to her feet beside Renatus and the girls from Districts 2 and 4 are appearing on the ridge above them as she and her allies loomed above the Career Pack on Day 1. The younger of the pair is, stereotypically, armed with a trident – which is almost twice as tall as she is – and a gutting knife. The other one is even less well-equipped with a blow-gun in hand and a sickle tucked into her belt. To do their training credit, neither pauses upon seeing their competition. One shoots a dart, which catches in Renatus' thick hair, and the other throws her knife, which would have caught Iristina's throwing-arm if she hadn't released her own knife a split second before. The knife sticks in Fishing Girl's inside thigh, just above the knee and she crumples, clutching at the area around the protuberance, which proves to be the worst thing she can do at that point. She tumbles forward down the dirt bank, lands at their feet and Renatus brings an axe down on her opposite calf with the same deadly precision with which he had removed Canus' head. The fallen Career screams and crawls away from them as well as she is able with one and a half legs. The girl from 2 distracts them from following her ally by rushing at them with her sickle raised and a battle-cry that will, undoubtedly, bring the other three Careers down on them, unless Gaspar and Winnow have them fully occupied. Iristina pulls the machete from her back sheath but it's the spike on the boy's unused axe that enters their attacker's body just below the ribs. She gasps and they can hear a sucking sound, so she won't last long without medicine.

“Let's go!” squeaks the boy beside her and she can see the fear in his eyes.

“OK,” she says with a re-assuring smile before swiping the dart out of his hair. Then he screams and staggers into her arms. The girl at their feet has cut his hamstring. “Let's get you out of here, baby.” She's forcing a grin and so is he as she half-carries him away.

“It could be much'n worse, Caecilius,” Gaius points out but it doesn't re-assure him much as he watches the two pairs limp away in split-screen. The editor then flips through the other tributes in turn. They start with the Capitol's darling, Tadia, staunching the gaping hole under her ribs. She is soon joined by Proc, who sweeps her up in his arms and carries her back to their camp. Next, it's little Bess with her two bloodied legs hiding at the base of a tree who fills the screen. Then, Capitol favourite, Calidia, and her hunting-buddy, Glaucus, who are trying to track the retreating gang members. Next, manic little Viatrix is shown swarming from one tree to the next, desperate to escape the approaching Careers. Finally, there is owlish Attie, the malnourished brainiac from District 3, who has finally woken up. She crawls out of her burrow and sets about assembling her breakfast, blissfully unaware of the non-lethal carnage that has taken place around the Cornucopia.

“I bet–“ Daria begins but cuts herself as the camera returns to Tadia with Proc, who is snatching a parachute out of the clear sky. “Yeah… that.”

“Should we do anything about getting medicine for the allies?” asks Amina with a sneer of distaste. Adolphus and Cai exchange a look. This is an unprecedented situation for them.

“What were you thinking?” Iristina launches herself at Gaspar as soon as she sees him and knocks him to the ground. “Were you thinking?!” Even through her fury, she notices that Winnow is also limping and holding her ribs but, of course, Gaspar hadn't been assisting her. “I said, run! You dumb, deaf pillock! You should have bloody ran!” He throws her off and comes up into a snarling crouch like a wild-cat. Then, someone squeaks behind her and they all refocus their attention on the girl from 3 who has just appeared. Three of them raise weapons, although she can see the effort it costs Renatus, and the intruder sprints for the cover of the woods. “Why don't you set a fire?” she spits at him before going to help the younger boy to sit on a boulder. “OK, stay put, baby.” She smiles at him and sweeps her hand through his hair in the same way she had with Darnell in the elevator. “I'm gonna go help Winnow before she falls over and then I'll be right back, OK?” He nods and gives her an affectionate smile as she turns to the other girl, who is looking even more unsteady than Iristina felt in the early hours of that morning. She runs over and, as soon as her arm is around the younger girl's waist, Winnow collapses onto her. “What did they get you with?”

“He… mace… ribs. She… whip… right leg.” Iristina looks down and sees a ring of square cuts around her ally's right knee. The fact that the cuts seem to be deeper on the soft underside accounts for Winnow's limp.

“OK. It's OK. I'll give you a shot of morphling and there'll be a parachute along at any minute and it'll be OK.” Iristina keeps up this litany of mindless re-assurance as she effectively carries the younger, taller girl over to a chair-like rock formation. She knows she should be killing these people – that is what she said to Gaspar last night, after all – but there are still five Careers out there. Yes, two of them might be mortally wounded but she does not want to go up against three vengeful, trained tributes with only Gaspar at her side, especially considering his current attitude. She digs through their packs until she comes up with the morphling and bandages, while her district-partner builds a fire. As Gaspar wades further and further away in an attempt to catch fish, she gives Winnow a shot of the powerful drug and cleans the two leg wounds. She's rubbing a salve that claims to knit torn skin back together into the second of these wounds, when Gaspar returns with his catch. He retrieves the parachute from a nearby tree, while she is bandaging the other girl's knee. She moves aside, turning her attention to the younger boy's long but shallow cut, so that he can hand the package to Winnow without her and her fellow-volunteer making contact. She and Gaspar continue to dance around each other as she plays the role of nurse and he that of cook. About an hour later, the fire has died down sufficiently for him to cook the fish and drop-scones made of flour, powdered milk and salt water.

“Here,” he grunts, thrusting a plate into her hands. She looks at her share and those of the two invalids and frowns.

“We should give them more, they need to keep their strength up.”

“So do you!” he screams at her. “Or have you forgotten you were dying yesterday?!” Her frown deepens. Why is he acting like this? He doesn't like her – in fact, he hates her – and he just put all their lives in jeopardy. No, Gaspar Barjon is one man she can't figure out.

Fine, then!” she flings at him in the same way she would a knife, in the way she wants to throw a knife. “Cook three more fish.” His face contorts into a gargoyle mask but he does it and the colour does seem to be coming back into Renatus' cheeks. She's wondering if the battle will be enough to keep the Gamemakers happy or if they need to move off the beach, when she hears the cannon.

“Bet that's Bess,” rasps the younger boy.

“Bess?” she frowns at him.

“Peg-leg,” he grins back, weakly, and she laughs for both of them.

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