The 67th Hunger Games

Chapter 17

Winnow wakes her in the small hours before there's even a hint of dawn in the sky. She's holding out one of the padded, thermal jackets.

“You must take this. It is no longer warm.” She takes the jacket and lets her friend take the sleeping-bag It's not exactly cold outside the tent but the temperature must be half what it was the day before. She wonders if the temperature drop had been gradual or sudden. A sudden cooling, which she suspects was the case, could have been very problematic for anyone without the benefit of tent or thermal sleeping-bag, someone like Viatrix. She wonders why the Gamemakers would want to target one tribute in particular. She buckles on her knife-belt before drawing on the jacket, which she leaves unfastened, and then settles down to think. Every nerve in her body is screaming at her to hunt down that cowardly little chit and give the Capitol audiences a show that will go down in infamy but their pact with Winnow is only for killing Careers and they still have two of those left. Although Iristina knows that the other girl shares her thirst for vengeance, she also knows it makes more sense to use Winnow to help them kill Calidia and Proc. Then, of course, she could hope that Viatrix would kill the other girl, sparing either of them from having to do it. Of course, she knows that neither she nor Gaspar would hold their hand if it came down to it but wouldn't that be true of their ally, too? Isn't it likely that they'll kill the second Career and then have to fight Winnow off? It's only then that it hits her: Winnow hasn't killed anyone yet. She, Renatus and Gaspar all killed on the first day and then she was forced to kill the girl from 12 on the second but Winnow hasn't killed anyone. It hasn't occurred to her to ask Gaspar about how much damage the other girl did during the battle on Day 4 but she now wonders if her friend is actually capable of deadly force.

“Even if she is, she won't want to start with an ally,” she murmurs to herself. In fact, as much as she hates the idea of killing Winnow, it occurs to her that it might be easier for her and Gaspar to do it than for Winnow to kill them.

She's abandoned the jacket by the time the sun actually rises and the blaring heat drives the other two out of the tent less than an hour later.

“It got so cold last night,” complains Gaspar, grabbing a water bottle. “Now look at it!” She nods and takes a short pull from her own water bottle.

“What are we going to do today?” inquires Winnow, shedding her standard-issue jacket and settling onto the dusty ground.

“The usual,” answers Iristina, keeping her face deliberately blank. “Have breakfast, strike camp, kill the Careers…” Both dark heads whip around to stare at her.

“Are you sure today's the day?” asks her district-partner. “It's only Day 8.”

“Yes but we ain't been left with much competition and, as far as we know, nothing interesting happened yesterday. If we just sit tight today, the Gamemakers might be tempted to spice things up. Besides,” – her eyes flick to Winnow – “we have a deal and we can't go neglecting our mission.” The other two nod and Iristina interprets the look in the other girl's eyes as an understanding of her ulterior motives.

“Right. Better have a good breakfast, then,” comments Gaspar as though completely oblivious to the non-verbal communication going on right under his nose. She knows it's an act but she's not about to disillusion Winnow, if the younger girl is at risk of underestimating the boy.

“It seems both alliances are preparing for another confrontation,” announces Templesmith's voice as the screen shows the three camp-sites. While Viatrix sleeps on, safely perched in a tree, the other five have finished breakfast and are checking their weapons.

“I wonder if our three Out-lyers know that Calidia and Proc have moved camp,” speculates Flickerman as the screen fills with a shot of their studio.

“I think not,” answers his co-anchor, pointing at the section of the panorama behind them that is focussed on Ares' Gang.

“Ready to start for the Cornucopia,” says her voice, loud and clear.

The hike up to the summit is much harder today. Firstly, it's blisteringly hot and, secondly, they're travelling in a straight line, not following the mountain's contours as they have no idea where Viatrix is and want to cover as little ground as possible.

“There's a… stream over there,” pants Gaspar, suddenly. In Iristina's estimation, the sun wants less than half an hour before it's at its zenith and their remaining water will only last them twice that.

“Let's… check it out!” she gasps back at him. To their delight and her surprise, the stream proves to be a babbling brook, not a mere trickle.

“We could wash,” suggests Winnow, tentatively. The pair from 9 look at each other and then burst out laughing.

“Yeah, we do stink a bit,” grins the boy.

“That is not what I am meaning,” protests the younger girl, blushing very prettily.

“Better fill the water bottles first. The iodine needs half an hour,” points out Iristina and the other two agree. She has just stoppered the last bottle when she hears Winnow laugh.

“A parachute!” calls the other girl. “With soap!” Now, Iristina is laughing too.

“Guess someone wants–“ She cuts herself off just in time; it does no good to appear too knowledgeable about how the Games work.

“There be a sorta pool just up the way,” Gaspar informs them. “Why don't you two go first, stand guard for each other and I'll mind the supplies?” She is less than content with this plan but can see no way around it. So, carrying only their weapons, the soap and the blanket that usually goes underneath their sleeping-bags, the two girls climb to the point where the brook widens.

“It'll be quite a scramble to get down there,” she observes.

“Why do you not stay here to guard?” suggests the other girl and Iristina nods. Winnow drops her spear and divests herself of her outer clothing before taking the soap and blanket from her ally. The older girl has to admit herself envious of the black girl's body: her skin is flawless, despite her battle wounds, and her stomach is as taut as a drum but it is Winnow's abundant chest that Iristina really covets. Personally, she's always been 'pretty enough' with 'nice enough' breasts but the other girl is truly breath-taking and she can feel jealously swelling within her. She turns her back on the water – where Winnow is, undoubtedly, performing an artless striptease that will have the sponsor delighted that he shelled out for the soap – and sets herself to scanning the trees for the slightest sign of movement. The sun is past its zenith before she hears the other girl return.

“The water is delicious,” purrs Winnow, holding out the soap and blanket. Iristina strips down to her underwear before gathering her knife-belt and the bathing paraphernalia to her chest. The younger girl frowns when she realises that her ally is taking the weapons with her. “I will be standing guard.”

“I know but what if someone is walking in the river? I just feel safer having something with me,” she adds with a re-assuring smile. It has occurred to her, if not the other girl, that Gaspar might take this opportunity to kill Winnow and possibly her too. She makes her way down the sloping bank as gracefully as possible and then forces herself to remember that she is probably on every screen in Panem and they want what every man who has ever bought her wants: a show by a willing woman. So, she drops her burdens to the ground – nudging the knife-belt with her toe so that it isn't hidden by the blanket – and then reaches behind her back for the clasp of her bra. Before she undoes it, she bends forward slightly, ensuring that when the clasp releases her breasts drop down and jiggle tantalisingly. She then lets her arms fall forward and encourages the bra to slide down them by shaking her shoulders. Once it hits the ground, she straightens up and stretches her interlaced fingers over her head. She then drops back down, hooks one thumb into the elastic of the panties at the front and the other at the back, and then slides both thumbs clockwise until they reach her generous hips. She pauses to smile for the camera and then slides the unflattering garment down her shapely legs. After the languorous striptease, she makes quick work of cleaning herself and resumes the filthy underclothes with no ceremony. She clambers back up the bank to find Gaspar, not Winnow, waiting for her.

“I was wondering what was taking so long,” he explains but she does not release the knife hilt she had grabbed upon seeing him.

“Where's Winnow?” she asks in a carefully measured voice.

“Sent 'er to guard the provisions.” She can't see blood or Winnow's spear and the cannon hasn't sounded, so she lets go of the knife and hands him the moist blanket and grimy soap. He puts down Rena's axe and takes the bathing paraphernalia from her. She waits until he's out of sight before unbuckling the knife-belt and redressing.

“I say!” gasps Amina as her favoured tribute finally drops his pants.

“Yes. They all know how to put on a show,” observes Adolphus, dryly.

“Must've been what the sponsor were looking for,” points out Cai, who has been steadily drinking spirits since the soap arrived.

“Yes but they don't know that,” says Daria, covering her discomfort with a giggle. He swings around to stare at her, eyebrows raised in sardonic incredulity.

“The girl– Winnow might not but I'm pretty sure Ares and Gaspar know exactly what were expected of them in return for the soap.”

“Caecilius is right; they are not children,” her husband interposes.

“But they're too young for that–!“

“She's older than Finnick,” Cai mutters, morosely. Daria stares at him as though she had failed to comprehend all this meant.

“Yeah but he's a victor and she's–“

“A slut!” Amina spits out. He rather wishes it was him and Amina in the arena in Ares and Gaspar's places; he would like to be able to fight her to the death as tributes do.

The three of them take a light meal and drink a lot of water, which they then replenish, before moving away from the brook again. She is not entirely comfortable that they have spent over an hour beside what is probably the only remaining source of fresh water and have seen no sign of another tribute. She gets more suspicious yet when it takes them less than an hour to reach the external slope of the mountain's crown.

“They're not here,” she predicts with sick certainty.

“How'd ya mean?” demands Gaspar but she doesn't answer, intent on scanning the tree-line. “Damn it! Must've cleared out before that wind last night.”

“What wind?” she demands, spinning around to give him the benefit of her frown.

“That's when it got so cold. Ice wind blew through about eleven.” So, it had been a Gamemaker trick. “An' all that's left up there looks like been around the Cornucopia before thickie wind and now where wind left it.”

“How the hell are we going to find them?” she hisses and kicks the ground.

“Maybe they'll find you, Ares,” grins Flickerman but Cai, who's looking for some sign, spots that the smile doesn't reach the master-of-ceremonies' eyes. The aerial map re-appears and the two red dots are approaching the summit; not from the river but with the western pool to their backs. The green dot is away in the east and, the last time they showed Viatrix, it seemed like she's suffering severe dehydration. The screen fills with a feed from somewhere in front of and below the two District 1 tributes. They're wielding machetes – cutting their way through a patch of over-grown vines – and, every time that Proc's comes anywhere near her, Calidia flinches.

“Those two don't seem to have been getting on too well since Proc killed Glaucus,” remarks Templesmith, sounding cheerful.

“How do we find them?” Winnow is asking when the coverage returns to the cameras nearest Ares' Gang.

“I'd say a smoky fire but, if they wanted to find us, they would've used the one last night,” muses their leader. “No, we'll have to go looking for them. Now, they'll need water, same as us…”

“There was a pool on that side of the mountain,” says the girl from 11, pointing to the west. “I saw it when we were running from the last battle.”

“So, they might have seen it when they were chasing you… OK, let's check it out.”

“Well,” pants Templesmith's disembodied voice. “Five of our remaining six tributes are about to meet in battle. Last time the two alliances met in open warfare, three of the eight were mortally wounded and all medicine is now ten times as expensive as it was on Day 4.”

“Do we have enough money to send them anything if they get hurt?” asks Daria, worriedly. Amina and Cai exchange a look.

“Maybe you should be charming sponsors, “ suggests Adolphus, casually. The rivals leave without another word, while the other three turn their attention back to the drama unfolding on-screen.

“I'mma pray,” mumbles Gaius before getting up and stalking out.

They walk more than half of the summit's circumference before Winnow is happy they're in the right place. They've gone less than half a mile when their way is blocked by a thicket of vines.

“Machetes,” orders Gaspar and something in the corner of Iristina's eye stops moving.

“Down!” she screams and they all drop in time for the thrown spear to miss them. “I think we found them.” She's laughing and she knows it's a bad and dangerous sign but she can't force herself to stop. Gaspar sheathes his machete and pulls Renatus' axe from his belt, instead. He gets to his feet and the two girls cautiously follow his lead. The boy begins to hack away at the vines in front of him, while Iristina turns her machete on those to their left. She can feel Winnow at her back and knows the other girl has her spear extended like a stave. After a few minutes' concerted hacking, she can see daylight through the greenery. In an instant, she's dropped the machete and is throwing knife after knife at the darting figure just beyond her reach. She spins around to warn Winnow but comes up short when she sees Proc with one muscled arm around her ally's throat and the spear lying, useless, on the ground at his feet. “Gaspar!” she hisses and, as he turns to face their adversary, the Career rams a knife up under the other girl's ribs. “Winnow!” she shrieks and throws her remaining knife at Proc. It sticks in the joint of his right shoulder, causing him to howl in agony and release the girl's limp body. Gaspar dives for the fallen spear and she runs to her friend's side.

“His… token,” gasps Winnow. Iristina drops to her knees and her fingers fly mechanically to Mukhbaza's collar that her dying ally is wearing on her throat. “And… uh! And… my… star.” The dying girl raises her wrist, weakly, and Iristina is sliding the bracelet off when Proc lands on top of her. She rolls across Winnow's body, the boy's arms locked around her own neck, and lands with him underneath her. She smashes her elbow back into his nose, then gets up and runs for her life. Devoid of weapons, she has to leave Gaspar to his fate and she sincerely hopes the Careers will kill him.

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