I kicked the apple tree hard enough to leave a dent, and felt bad about it as soon as I was done. The tree never did anything to me, after all.
I was always on edge this time of year. Everyone was. Even Canterlot, probably, though I'd bet they were more on the edge of their seats than anything else.
But this year was worse, because Applebloom was finally eligible for the reaping.
I tried to tell myself what all of the Apple family had told Applebloom—it wasn't gonna be her, she only had her name in the drawing once, everything was going to be fine, or as fine as it ever was. The Apple family had it better than some. The farm had been mostly successful—we'd made quota all but one year for as long as I'd been alive.
That one year was pretty bad. There'd been a Parasprite invasion, and the blasted things ate more than half our harvest before help arrived from the capitol. Canterlot took the rest of what we had, of course. We could starve, for all they cared, as long as the capitol ponies got their fritters and pie.
But we didn't, of course, though me and Big Macintosh both had to take out tesserae. But overall, we'd been luckier than a lot of people. Surely our luck would hold us through another Hunger Games, right?
Now, if only I could make myself believe it.
The reaping was tomorrow. In two days, this would all be over until next year.
I bucked the next tree in the row, not quite as hard as the last, and apples came pouring down into the basket. This year's harvest was a good one. Soon it would be winter, and me, Big Mac, Applebloom and Granny Smith would be sitting inside around a fire, and Granny would be telling us the same stories she'd told us last year, and the year before, and would probably tell next year, too.
Yeah. I just had to keep thinking positive.
Supper was quieter than usual that night. Granny Smith mentioned that her joints were achy, which meant rain would be coming soon. Applebloom pushed her hay around her plate—I couldn't tell if she'd actually eaten any of it. I was none too hungry myself, but I forced myself to eat to set a good example. It didn't do to let good food go to waste. Canterlot let us keep little enough of it.
Granny Smith brought out pie for dessert—a rare treat, saved for special occasions when we could scrape up enough bits to buy flour, butter and sugar. Granny must have been planning this for a while, now, scrimping and saving.
Even though Applebloom had barely touched her meal, Granny cleared her plate and served her a slice of pie.
"Go on, sweetie," she said. "Apple a day, 'n all that." Applebloom gave her a small smile, and took a bite.
The rest of us served ourselves some pie as well. It was as good as ever, and I tried to enjoy it as much as it deserved. There was a chance it could be my last time.
But no. Our odds were fairly good. I had a few tesserae, but so had Big Mac, and he hadn't been called up, so it wasn't as though I didn't have a good shot at not getting picked.
I turned in early, saying I was tired from working all day.
I tossed and turned all night, dreaming about things I couldn't remember in the morning, but that must've been pretty bad, given the way I was tangled up in the covers from all the thrashing I did.
We all gathered in the Town Square for the reaping, same as every year. Me and Applebloom went to sign up at the booth, then we stood in the area for earth ponies eligible to be tributes—Big Macintosh was, thankfully, too old as of last year. We waited there for maybe an hour while they got the names all set up for the drawing. Applebloom was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm, pressing herself as close to me as she could.
"It's gonna be all right," I told her, a few times, but she never seemed to believe me. I couldn't blame her. I wasn't entirely sure whether to believe me.
The pony doing the drawings was a unicorn named Gingerbread. Her cutie mark was, predictably enough, a gingerbread pony, which was a little strange given her choice of career. Of course, said gingerbread pony was covered in icing, and Gingerbread had a voice that sounded sickly-sweet as a tubful of frosting, so maybe it fit after all. Most of Gingerbread was a light brownish color, but her hair was a brilliant shade of pink, striped with white.
"Hello!" she cooed into the microphone. "Welcome, all of you, to this year's Reaping! I know I'm certainly looking forward to seeing this year's brave young Tributes... but first," she said, shuffling some notecards, "a reminder of what the Hunger Games are all about."
Like every year, things started out with the history of the Hunger Games-how Canterlot had united the lands of Equestria two hundred years ago, after the centuries of war that had followed the assassination of Celestia; how, seventy-four years ago, the nine districts had all rebelled against Canterlot and the Regent who ruled it; how the rebellion had been crushed, and District Nine destroyed; and, finally, how the Hunger Games had been established in order to remind the districts of the costs of rebellion.
While she spoke, the crystal projectors that had been set up onstage displayed various images-my "favorite" was the one with the hateful-looking rebels charging at the horrified Canterloters, with Celestia gazing down from the clouds, tears rolling down her cheeks. Of course, the picture of the rebel rearing up, forehooves held ready to smash down on a terrified foal, was a close second.
When I'd been younger—too young for the Reaping, even—this yearly presentation had given me awful nightmares. At some point, I'd stopped feeling terrified and started getting cynical. It maybe wasn't the safest attitude to have, but I kept quiet, so no harm done.
And there was something just plain absurd about Gingerbread doing the announcing. I think she honestly tried to be somber, but something about her made it hard to take her seriously. Maybe it was the fact that she'd probably never seen anything like the horrors of war she described. She'd never lost a loved one to a fever the local doctor didn't have the medicine to fix, and of course Canterlot wasn't going to send any—as long as it didn't start spreading, it wouldn't impede production overmuch. She'd had never had to see her little sister crying with hunger while trains loaded with District Eight crops went puffing off to Canterlot—and the ponies who'd come to take the shipment had demanded that we make up for being under quota by next fall, or face punishment, as though stealing our food wasn't punishment enough. She'd never had to fear that, if the odds weren't in her favor, she might be sent off to kill and die for the amusement of Canterlot.
Up until three years ago, it had been the Mayor doing the recitation. But after she caught the redpox, which left her alive, but covered in bleeding pockmarks, she rarely showed her face anywhere. It was strange that barely anyone else had caught it—but then, the last year she'd described the history, she'd started crying, had gone a bit off script, saying something like "And because ponies died during the rebellion, now they steal away our children to die in the arena." This was true, of course, but it wasn't the way you were supposed to talk about it. The Mayor's niece had gotten reaped the year before, though, so it was kind of understandable.
It would have been a relief when Gingerbread finished her joke of a presentation if I hadn't known what was coming up next.
Gingerbread pepped right up again, practically glowing with excitement. "And now, it's time to select which earth pony, pegasus, and unicorn will have the honor and privilege of representing District Eight in this year's Hunger Games! Oh, isn't this exciting!"
I wanted to vomit. The other pony on stage, a mare named Cheerilee who was the last victor to come out of District Eight, seemed to share my sentiments. She hadn't said or done anything throughout the presentation, which was pretty normal for her. She just stood there, stock still, face either expressionless or vaguely nauseated.
There were three lotteries set up-little slips of paper with the name of every eligible unicorn, pegasus and earth pony stuck in three rotating spheres, respectively. Gingerbread went for the unicorns first, spinning the sphere with her hoof, then plucking out a name.
District Eight was probably the best place in Equestria to be an earth pony, and one of the worst places to be a unicorn or pegasus. District Eight specialized in agriculture, which was, of course, best done by earth ponies. We had a small population of both unicorns and pegasi to take care of those tasks better done by non-earth ponies, such as jobs requiring the fine coordination of magic and weather control, but both groups were outnumbered by far by the earth ponies.
So Applebloom was probably one of the safest ponies around. She had only a single entry in the biggest lottery—and heck, I only had a few.
Gingerbread cleared her throat, smiled brilliantly, and, glancing over at the unicorn section, read the name of the first tribute: "Lyra Heartstrings!"
Two of the burly pegasus Guardians that had come with Gingerbread went down to the unicorn section to escort Lyra to the stage. I knew her. She owned a little harp, and she could play it prettier than anything I'd ever heard. I heard a gasp from nearby—Bon Bon, who stared at the stage in disbelief. I knew that Lyra and Bon Bon were close.
I also knew that there wasn't much hope of Lyra coming back. She was a gentle pony—she'd likely be one of the first to go. Unicorns from District Eight didn't tend to do well in the Games. Those unicorns that had a fighting chance generally came from District One, which produced magical items, and tended to produce unicorns who were strong and educated enough to be able to use a fair bit of magic. The fact that unicorns over a certain power level had to wear a dampening device leveled the playing field a bit, but probably not enough-especially since District One actually trained ponies to compete in the Games.
Bon Bon started to cry, and Applebloom shivered. I wrapped one of my forelegs around her shoulders.
Gingerbread drew from the pegasus lottery next. She unrolled the little slip of paper and, after a dramatic pause, announced the next tribute: "Honeysuckle!"
The pink pegasus began to walk towards the stage before the Guardians came to get her, her head held high, and her face hard. I had never really talked to her—I'd seen her flying above the farm a few times, but she seemed to keep to the clouds for the most part.
Finally, it was time for the earth pony drawing. With just as much dramatic flair as before, Gingerbread drew the name, unrolled it agonizingly slowly, cleared her throat, and read:
One name in... it must be hundreds. Only one. I must have misheard, or maybe there was another pony named Applebloom-
But no—it was her, my sweet baby sister, and there was no use pretending otherwise. The Guardians were approaching. If they took Applebloom, she'd never come back. So I did the only thing that I could do.
"I volunteer!" I yelled. "I volunteer!" The Guardians halted, turned to look at me.
Applebloom clung to my leg. "No, Applejack, no, no..."
As gently as I could, I detached her. Then I walked, up to the stage with the pegasi on either side of me. I took my place next to Honeysuckle.
"Oh," Gingerbread trilled, "a volunteer! How exciting! Do tell us all your name."
"Applejack," I said. I looked over at Applebloom. She was crying, hard, and it hurt to see it and not be able to go down and give her a hug.
"Now," said Gingerbread, as full of good cheer as she'd been all day, "Let's hear a round of applause for District Eight's brave tributes!"
For a few moments, there was silence. Then came a half-hearted drumming of hooves. And then...
Granny Smith, from the middle of the crowd, reared up and yelled, at the top of her lungs, "Give 'em hell, Applejack!"
She immediately fell back onto all fours, grabbing her hip, but the cry was taken up.
"Give 'em hell!" the crowd roared. "Give 'em hell!"
Gingerbread seemed pleased as punch. I wondered if she'd be quite so thrilled if she realized that neither Granny or anyone else had said who the "'em" were-the other tributes, or Canterlot itself.
Not that we could actually do anything to Canterlot. They were the ones in control, here.
All we could do was give 'em a hell of a show.
I looked down at Applebloom, then over at Big Mac and Granny Smith, and I swore that I'd do the best I could to get home to them.
And I don't break my promises easily.
Gingerbread breathes a sigh of relief as soon as she's in private. That was rather draining, but she did well, she thinks. It's her first time doing this-it's not the most prestigeous district, naturally, but maybe she'll move up. Or maybe she won't. Maybe, if one of the ponies she called becomes a Victor, she'll be offered a move up to a nicer district, and she'll refuse, saying she's fallen in love with District Eight, yes, that's what she'll do, because it really is nice out here, very rustic, maybe if District Eight does well this year, a new style-cowpony hats and boots, or maybe something more plant based, like artificial vines wound through manes-will sweep through Canterlot, and Gingerbread will be at the vanguard of the trend, and won't that be wonderful!
Still, even if the fashion thing didn't pan out... Gingerbread would still love to see one of her tributes win. She thinks she could get quite attached to them, even though, back when she was being trained for this, she was told not to let herself get too close, because, at best, two of her tributes were going to die. Of course, it was also important to get to know her tributes, so that she could properly perform her duties. It was a tricky balance.
Well, she'd just have to be careful.