Sitting up in a tree is not considered to be the most productive use of time in District 7. I suppose to an extent this is ironic, since our district is covered in nothing but trees. Oaks, elms, birch. If there's one thing that every citizen is familiar with, it's trees. If there's one thing that every citizen would be glad never seeing again, it's also trees. However, the business of 7 is not to go up trees, but to bring them down. They are then stripped, cut into planks, and shipped off to the Capitol to be used for whatever damned purpose they need so much wood for. I sure don't know. They get coal for fuel from 12. From what I've seen on the television the buildings in the shining city are mostly made of metal and stone. Whatever happens to our wood in the Capitol, it's probably for something frivolous. Or maybe they eat it. Or maybe it's why every Capitol citizen walks around like he has a stick jammed right up his -
My eyes fly open and I spring up from the limb where I was lounging just a moment ago. I've never felt unease at being far up in the trees. I've been at home here since I was three years old, and would run out of our home when I felt it was more beneficial to my health to not be around. I would flee deep into the forest that practically blankets 7 and find a tall, reassuring oak to huddle in for a few hours until I was sure that my father was blacked out and my brothers were too exhausted to give me trouble. Only then would I climb down, sneak home, and climb into the tiny kitchen where I slept by the hearth, pretending that I had never left.
I search for the source of the disturbance but it's nothing but a turkey making its way below me. I warn it that its choice of destination is unwise. If it continues its path towards the lumber camp, then chances are someone will be eating well tonight. The turkey doesn't divert its path. I sigh and make myself comfortable again. I can count on one hand the times that a turkey has listened to my good advice. They're not like the horses.
There's a reason that I can feel at ease here, taking a light nap while the rest of the men - and many of the women - from our village in 7 work at back-breaking labor. I get up earlier than any of the other lumbermen. Probably earlier than anyone in the village, and possibly the district. Hours before dawn, I leave my mat by the hearth and go to the stables that house the massive draft horses that transport the massive logs from the forests to the workshops where they are made into usable lumber and paper. I'm the one who feeds and waters the horses, puts on harnesses, and checks them over for problems. I'll put saddle and tack on the couple of younger geldings that are reserved for the Head Peacekeepers that monitor the lumber camps. By the time I'm done, dawn has broken and I'll ride a gelding - a blue roan named Peaches - to the camp. The rest of the herd follows me to where men are waiting with the massive contraptions that connect beast to tree. They take over from there, and my morning work is done. After that, it's my job to stay out of the way, but not so far that I can't be called if needed. If one of the draft horses picks up a stone, or is hurt by one of the wild dogs that occasionally are desperate enough to make an attempt on such a large animal, or collapses from exhaustion or pain, it's my job to come and oversee the solution. I either fix the problem, give advice on how the problem needs to be fixed, or make the call on whether the animal needs to be put out of his misery.
I've been told a hundred times it's too much responsibility for a sixteen year old, and it took a couple of years before men twice my age and usually about three times my weight would take what I said seriously. But results speak. Before I started working in the stables, it would take a ten man crew to prepare the horses and lead them to the camp. Now it's only me. The relationship I have with horses makes up for my relationship with pretty much every human individual in the district. The horses adore me. People overwhelmingly ignore me. It's when they show me attention that I get worried, because unless it has to do with the horses it's very rarely a good thing.
I rub my shoulder and resist examining the bruise that I know is flowering over it, the mark of the most recent attention I've gotten from my father. He was waiting for me when I left the stables this morning, and caught me smartly on the shoulder. "Get these beasts moving, boy," he said. "I'm not feeding you to play with ponies. If you're not at the camp in twenty, don't bother coming to the table tonight."
The threat was useless. I already knew I wouldn't be eating tonight, already saw the food that had been prepared ahead of time in three portions for my father and my two brothers. I wanted to say that the horses were too skittish to get going because my dad's face made them nervous but that would have gotten me a broken nose instead of a sore shoulder. So I left and made mental notes of where I could fill up on berry patches throughout the day before I had to be back at the camp.
My stomach is reasonably full on blackberries and crab apples. There's no reason I can't take a quick nap and try to forget that today is the day of the reaping.
As if it's easy to not think about being sent to your death. Like the two tributes who went to the Capitol last year. Twelve year olds, both of them. At least their families weren't forced to endure the torture too long. Both went down on the first day. I really hope no twelve year olds are chosen this year. Almost as much as I hope that I'm not chosen this year. And that of course is far more likely.
I'm the only one in my family who takes tesserae because I'm the only one able to anyway. Abel and Jonel, my older brothers, are done with reapings, but of course everyone in my family is required to do what is necessary to put food on the table. Or rather, my tesserae puts food on the table, as do Jonel's wages. Abel and my father turn most of the sesterces that fall into their hands into large pints of beer in the tavern. In a year, when he's old enough, Jonel will do the same, and I'll be taking out even more tesserae.
But there's no use losing sleep over it. The reaping is at five, and it's still a few hours before we all need to be assembled in the square. Best not to think of it. Normally on Reaping Day, we all get a day off to sleep in. It's a holiday after all. But my village is behind the quota and a morning's work should catch us up enough that the Peacekeepers don't give Mayor Lourdes, or us, any trouble.
I have just gotten comfortable in my tree again when I again here the sound of footsteps. Not the slow, delicate step of the wildlife but the steady tramp of boots and dumb human. Sure enough, I can see a number of large figures making their way through the trees. After a moment I can hear their voices.
"Blight! Blighty-Tighty-Whitey! Where are you, you stupid moss-wipe?"
Large builds and heavy footsteps run in my district. Not good company.
I begin sliding down the tree, dropping swiftly from limb to limb. It's the work of maybe half a minute to drop fifty feet, but I'm so high up that I'm not immediately noticed. By the time I'm fifteen feet off the ground, my little search party has passed my tree by.
"He's not here. Maybe he's gotten his girl-ass back to the camp. Check the ravine first and then head back."
I choose that moment to leap to the ground. I don't make a sound when I land, so when the five young men turn around, I'm there waiting. I recognize them all, to some degree. They've all left school, but not one of them is far into his twenties. Mostly, I've seen them hang around my brothers. Which means that tormenting me when I'm around and can't escape has been a regular pastime for years. We're practically bosom buddies. Before they make a sound, I put my hand to my lips.
"Don't. Move. Any of you."
They freeze. One of them, who must weigh at least a hundred pounds more than me, hisses "What? What is it."
"There's a wild dog. Standing right behind you."
They all immediately tense and look around frantically, but then simultaneously remember not to move. "Where? Is it gone? Is it looking at us?"
"Wait...it's turning this way...Oh never mind, it's just you, Connell."
Connell, the biggest bloke, grows a very unique sense of violet usually reserved for rashes in sensitive places. "Not funny you little mole-turd."
"Hey. I'm sorry, honest mistake."
Connell flashes me a gesture that wishes me a gruesome death. "Well I'm getting a good look at you and I can still see what you are. Stupid, filthy little tree-elf."
Unlike Connell, I don't blush. But that doesn't mean I hate him any less.