Author's Note: Many thanks to my beta, Katnissinme, for all her help in polishing this beast of a chapter.
Warning: Canons will be fired.
Alternate Title: As We Fall
"I want to end this war, Katniss."
Peeta's weary voice echoed in her head as she rode in pursuit of the spy they had caught, a spy for Chancellor Snow.
She nodded, her expression grave over the single burning candle as they talked. Peeta's face looked older in the candlelight, sculpted more harshly in the flickering shadows
A large moon reigned over the sky, swollen with light. Her thighs ached. Her legs were her only anchor to the horse's body as she rode without reigns, training herself to be one of the peerless mounted archers of the Twelfth Kingdom. She gripped her bow tightly as she steeled her muscles to balance on top of the galloping steed. Low, thin, branches scratched her face as she passed them by, the woods unsavorily thick in this part of Panem.
Katniss had been training for weeks. Every night, as their soldiers stopped to rest, she learned how to ride while her hands were occupied with a bow and an arrow. They had marched with haste during the day ever since Peeta had received the devastating news that the Thirteenth Kingdom planned to attack the defenseless Twelfth Kingdom, vital knowledge procured and sent by Lord Hawthorne.
She had been doing this for six nights now, for six different spies well-embedded in their ranks. It should have been the Prince's duty to execute them, but she had volunteered out of fear for Peeta now. His anger and sorrow had morphed into violence she could not bear to see.
A snap to her right caught her attention, and she halted her horse immediately. She took an ordinary arrow from the quiver at her back and nudged her horse to the right. The beast was obedient, wasting no time in returning to its full speed.
There were nights when she was lucky, when her shot was clean, right between the filthy prisoner's eyes, and he died quickly. The bad nights were when she would look into their eyes a second too long, and her heart, unbidden, would tell her he was human, too. Instead of a target, she would glimpse him as a father or a brother to someone who waited for him to return, and she would remember her father, or Peeta's brother, and her hands would tremble.
"But to end this war," he said, "I must be the very beast I defend my kingdom against."
But you don't have to do it alone, she thought. Katniss remembered her promise after he executed Prince Gloss, that she would do everything in her power to protect Peeta.
She heard a thud, and the man choked on dust as he fell a few meters from her. Katniss nocked her arrow as the horse slowed and changed direction. With the pale moonlight, she saw as he struggled to stand, and saw that he had twisted his left ankle. He turned to face her, high on her horse, her arrow aimed at his heart. The soldier pitifully groped his surroundings for anything to hurl at her.
Then she made the mistake of looking into his eyes.
He was young. He heaved for air as he tried to scramble away from her.
She pulled the string. The moon was white on his face, and it glowed on his dark, frightened eyes.
She wondered what Snow and his equally soulless ministers had promised this boy, or threatened this boy with, in exchange for espionage. Her hands started to shake.
"We'll end it together," she promised him. If the price for Peeta's peace was her own, she was prepared to pay it.
"Let it fly," came the cold voice of Peeta behind her. She whipped around and saw him on his black horse, wearing his light armor and a spear in his hand.
"He dies either way," he warned, positioning his spear. But Katniss didn't want him to do this, to kill, not when it strengthened his frightening bloodlust.
She didn't think anymore. Her hands moved nimbly as though she were not in control. The arrow found its mark on the soldier's throat, and she wanted to scream that she was sorry.
The guards appeared to drag the corpse away, the leaves crunching beneath it as they dragged the lifeless body off. Katniss shivered. She heard Peeta turn to leave, his horse thundering back to their camp. She wondered why he had followed her tonight. Perhaps she was not as discreet with her guilt as she thought.
Suddenly her shoulder plates felt heavier, the leather binding on her chest constricting. She felt the familiar companion to guilt: panic. She urged her horse to gallop fast so she could have Cinna remove her armor.
She would need Peeta again tonight. They would be spent in the morning, naked and tangled in bed, with angry scratches on Peeta's back when she urged him to thrust harder.
But it would never be enough to make her forget.
The morning was grey darkness as Johanna ran up and up the high tower where the young Prince of the Thirteenth Kingdom rested. Her breath choked as she forced herself to run faster. The tower smelled of smoke and the angry cold that slithered its way to the bones. She had to arrive before Gale, before he carried out his plan for the boy.
It had all been meticulously planned. They would sail for the Twelfth Kingdom tomorrow, their task done save for this. And Johanna was determined to stop the nobleman. No matter if he had already disposed of the prince's guards and replaced them with his own men just for this night.
She reached the top and saw Gale at the other end of the corridor, nearer to the door of the prince than her. She padded towards him as he stood still. The tower was empty. The mock guards were nowhere to be found. Her hard stare met his guilty eyes.
"I have to do this," he pleaded with her as she stopped in front of the door. "I have to give my prince time to return to—"
"And so you kill an innocent boy to make his mother's army pause?" she hissed back. Gale stepped forward, his shaking frame inches from hers.
"And do you think his she-wolf of a mother would spare my innocent people as she lands her army and plunders my kingdom? Have you heard what they've done to the kingdoms they conquered, to the Eighth, the Eleventh? And parts of your kingdom, too? They spare no one! They burn down villages and cities, rape the mothers after they've slaughtered the sons. And the fathers watch on before they become slaves, worked until the flesh melts from their bones from exhaustion."
"This prince is just a boy, a child, and he is not your enemy, Gale," she reasoned.
"And my brothers are also just boys, defenseless against her. I do this for them, too."
"If you can just see past your hate—"
"Do you think I hate this kingdom?" he rounded on her. "No. Even in my hate, I would not do such a thing to a child. But these are the things that have to be done in a war, a war that his mother, the queen, has been partially responsible for."
"And what do you hope to achieve by stopping her?" she challenged.
"Peace," he said, tiredly. "My prince and his allies can end this war. All I wish for is some peace when this is over."
She shook her head, remembering her own father's, the king's, words. "Peace is an illusion, my lord. It only means there is a victor, until he is challenged by the next one lusting for power. You think it would stop when your prince wins?"
Enraged, it was Gale's turn to challenge her. "And so you would let thousands die to save this boy? You would let the war rage on?"
"This boy will not die by your hand so long as I live," she warned. It was her most painful decision, to not crumble under Gale's reasons. She knew very well the value of killing Prince Nim. It would weaken a very dangerous enemy. It's what should be done, she knew. But in her heart, it was still wrong.
Slowly, the wooden door to her left opened, revealing the pale boy. Prince Nim was dressed handsomely as though he had not gone to bed, but hurriedly, as though he had heard people arguing outside his door.
There was no reproach in his eyes as he looked at them. His intelligent stare told them he knew they were not from his kingdom, that he would soon be betrayed.
"There will be no need for murder. I know what my mother has done, for my sake, for the kingdom's sake, and I, too, wish for her to stop," said the prince, looking at them both.
"I humbly submit myself to your deed, as sacrifice for my kingdom," he said with quiet dignity.
Johanna stared at him, aghast at the boy's words.
She immediately knelt in front of him, taking his small face in her hands. "No! No, my prince. This burden is not for you to bear. You mustn't involve yourself in these affairs."
Prince Nim smiled sadly. "Thank you for your kindness, but I know what must be done. No one else should die for me, because of me."
She heard Gale move and she whipped around to scream at him. "Take another step and I will hack you with an axe," she threatened.
"Please, I beg you not to make this more difficult," the prince said.
"You don't need to do this," she pleaded, her tears spilling now.
"And you also don't need to beg for me. I know the part I must play to end the suffering of my people."
Johanna cried in front of him, knowing defeat.
Prince Nim took her hand from his cheek and kept it between his. "May I know your name at least?" he asked, "I hope you are not from a kingdom my mother ruined."
"It's Johanna," she whispered.
He smiled sadly. "Then I count myself blessed to have met such a brave woman." He turned to look at Gale, and their eyes agreed.
Johanna felt a pair of strong arms drag her. The guards had reappeared. "No! Run, Nim! You have to run!" she cried, one last attempt to save the boy, but he continued to look at her sadly.
She flailed, her elbow connecting with a man's chin, and tried to escape. "Are you such a coward that you need a battalion to kill one boy?" she screamed at Gale, her hate spewing forth.
Then one of the hands pressed a cloth laced with a powdery scent to her nose, and slowly, everything seemed farther and farther from her, her limbs grew heavier as she was dragged from the tower, then finally, sleep took her.
When she woke, she rode on a horse against a harsh winter night, with a rough cloth tied to her mouth to prevent her from screaming or biting the man behind her who controlled the reigns. She knew the hand keeping her still. She despised the man to whom it belonged.
Johanna smelled the acrid smoke of burning wood and stone and metal as the wind whipped at her cheek. She turned her head, and she could make out the tall tower where they were last, engulfed in angry flames. Lord Hawthorne was thorough in his execution, leaving no doubt about the Prince's life.
Her heart grieved over her loss, over her failure, and she wished to go back to the numbness of sleep.
The winter storm had not ceased since Commander Boggs learned about Prince Nim's most horrifying death. They had not even a body to bury, and it had been a week since the ceremony to mark the boy's passing.
The snow blanketed the path to the palace and his horse was galloping hard. Queen Alma, according to their Council, had fallen desperately ill following the death of her only son. Plates of food remained untouched as they were returned to the kitchens. She kept to herself in her chamber and only her most trusted servants were allowed. No lords or councilmen were permitted near her, as if she could not bear the sight of them.
Their kingdom was as frozen as the ground upon which he now rode. Without orders from their Queen, they could not move, they could not continue on to their planned attack of the Twelfth Kingdom. Their army, the largest he had ever mustered, waited near the shore, camped in fortified ruins that their prisoners had managed to build. They would lose momentum if they did not act soon.
Boggs dusted the snow from his doublet of deep blue, their kingdom's color of mourning, as the stable boys collected his horse from him before he went inside the palace.
He shivered. Inside, the temperature was almost as frigid as outside, with only minimal fires to cast away the heavy gloom following the tragedy.
He went straight to Queen Alma's private chambers. Gently, he opened the heavy wooden door.
The air inside, saturated with her loss, wrapped around him. He felt a deep sense of shame from his failure to keep their prince safe, the boy he once saved from assassins following the power struggle after the king's death. The grieving mother, in a loose gown of blue silk, her hair flowing in uncombed waves down her back, faced the tall window sitting on her high wooden chair. She did not acknowledge his presence but continued to watch the storm. A frozen river snaked towards the horizon, as grey and bleak as its surroundings. Another untouched meal lay on a golden tray by her massive table. Her thin wrists were unadorned, and the bones had started to peek from her jeweled collar.
He had never seen her like this. Her spine had always been made of steel, even when her husband died. She was dry-eyed then when she faced the king's council to boldly announce her regency until her son came of age. She endured a deadly power struggle for the prince, to see him safely to the throne. She waged war with a nation many times the size of their kingdom to secure his future. She had done everything with a single-minded focus for the prince, loved him fiercely as a mother did, and he had been the only source of her joy, her tenderness shining from her smile every time she looked at him. And now the prince had gone and the fight had drained from her.
"Your Majesty," he started, but he was ignored. Boggs walked to the grand table and carefully took the tray with her meal and set it on the bed. He laid out the maps of their kingdom and the maps of Panem and proceeded to mark their new territories as well as where the current armies of the enemy were stationed. It might be cruel to ask more of this Queen, but he was not leaving without orders on how to proceed with the war.
The rustle of parchment made Queen Alma turn from her chair and rise. She glided slowly, her gown rustling in the silence until she stopped at the edge of the table. She took in the maps. Then her expression crumpled immediately, her hands coming up to cover her face as she sobbed. Boggs looked away, waiting for her to expel this wave of sadness.
She took the small wooden castle representing their palace and turned it in her hand, the sovereign ruby ring on her right hand sparkling in the daylight, tears still fresh down her pale cheeks.
"You think I don't know what my enemies, traitors within our own kingdom, say about me? Especially now, with my boy gone. The same people who opposed this war, will rejoice all the same if we succeed. They now say that I started this war for pure greed, sending our men to their deaths to expand my power. But you have children too, Commander, and let me ask you: Is it despicable for a mother to make sure her child truly thrives and not just survives on elks thinned by countless winter storms or on the pitiful winter wheat that never makes more than gruel and dark bread? That he doesn't grow up to be king of a wasteland? Is it criminal for a mother to love her son that much?" she demanded.
"No," he replied. "The opportunity presented itself and you took it. You gambled and made a choice that your husband and his father before him and their fathers before them were all too afraid to take." But they had not foreseen that the climb to victory demanded a steeper, bloodier price.
"And now I have nothing to show for it," Queen Alma said bitterly. "His heart beat inside mine the day he was born, and I swore to myself that his dreams would be my dreams, that I would raise him as best as I could so he could grow to be better than me. But now I have no heir. I have no son."
"You still have your people," Boggs countered. She sighed, as if to dispel his argument. He knew himself the difficulty of accepting that the prince was gone. But he needed her to see that not all was lost, despite this tragedy. He had once promised himself, knee deep in mud and blood, that they would win this war.
"And you still have your revenge," he added, pulling a fragile necklace from his pocket. He had found it at the foot of the tower when he went himself to investigate, doubting the reports that the fire had been an accident. The pendant dangled from his closed palm, a delicately wrought golden tree, and the gold chain was broken, as if it had been roughly pulled. He had every jeweler and goldsmith questioned, and it was clear that this was not made here in their kingdom. They had been infiltrated. Their heir was murdered.
He saw Queen Alma's face harden.
"My boy," she choked out, the truth hitting her, the pain renewing. Then she swept the maps on the table with her arm, the scrolls crashing to the floor and some landing in the fire. Then she screamed her grief, a long piercing agonized cry of a mother bereft of a child. Queen Alma forced a breath and placed her arm on her belly as if to double over in pain.
Boggs walked over to the fireplace, where the map of the Twelfth Kingdom burned. He felt Queen Alma pull the necklace from his fist and throw it to the fire, heaving with grief, eyes burning with the promise of reckoning.
Katniss woke with a gasp, her heart still pounding, her muscles still tensed and poised for a fight with her unseen enemy. Her mind, engulfed with guilt, now had the wicked ability to turn her fears against her. She had learned not to scream in her sleep just so it would not exacerbate Peeta's condition.
The dream was bad and the dread she felt still crawled up her skin. She wanted Peeta to wake so she would not be alone.
"You can't die," she mumbled brokenly as she pressed a kiss to his forehead.
Then his body shifted, waking from her movements, and she felt his hand run up her thigh, stroking her there, knowing which touch calmed her. Knowing exactly what to do when nights like these happened.
His nose skimmed her hair as his hands continued with their ministrations. She felt herself grow warmer, the nightmare receding.
She toyed with the idea of having sex with him again. They were still naked from their earlier romp. But it was painful to Katniss that they did this, that they used each other to drive away the specters that haunted them. There was no pleasure but only a release from the unrelenting guilt, anger, or whatever emotion had been imprisoning them.
"It's ok," she reassured him, trying to push his hands away from where she ached. Katniss sat and placed her face in her hands so she could not see his reaction in the dim light. Peeta sat too, his warm presence a double-edged comfort. She wanted so badly to see him truly smile once again, like the time when she had first arrived and he was not the heir to a hollow crown that came with a painful price.
"I'm ok," Katniss said, turning to him, his eyes silently probing her. His hand slithered away and he turned to the other side.
Come back, she thought.
But she knew it would not happen. And a part of her didn't want it like this, either. So she shifted also, her back to him. And sleep came once more.
When Katniss woke next, it was still dark. She turned and saw Peeta standing up and putting his arm through the sleeves of his coat. There were men outside the flap of their tent's sleeping chamber. Katniss wore her own coat and belted it tightly around her sleeping gown, plaiting her hair quickly before she went out. Peeta had already gone outside.
As she stepped out, she was surprised to see the lords gathered around the table, as well as the captains and masters at arms. A messenger, dirtied from travel, held out a mud-stained letter in his hand, with the grand seal of Lord Abernathy.
She feared instantly that they were too late, that the armies of the Thirteenth Kingdom had already landed, that they needed to travel even faster to cut them off.
The messenger bended his knee at once when he handed the letter to Peeta. She had only ever seen that sign of respect given to King Owain. She looked at Peeta and saw his face pale.
He tore the seal and swiftly read its contents. Peeta turned to her in one moment of sadness, his eyes burning, before turning back and regaining his bearing to address his subjects.
"My Lord Father, our good King Owain, has passed," he said slowly, with quiet dignity. "As his heir, as your Prince, and as your new King, I will accept your sworn fealty as I accept the burden of the crown."
As the men kneeled in front of Peeta, crossed their right arms over their chests and bowed their heads, they cried out their pledge to serve him as loyally as they have served Peeta's father. But it was all a blur to her as her mind refused to accept the news, and what it would mean for Peeta.
Katniss walked to him once the last man had withdrawn from the room. She took his closed fist and kissed it. "I am so sorry, Peeta," she said.
He pulled her to him and she could hardly breathe from the strength of his hold. But she let him hold her. Then he let her go just as quickly, walking away, knowing that he wanted to be alone for now as he dealt with his loss. And Katniss would wait for him, wait until he came back to her.
She walked toward the bed and slept on Peeta's side, still warm from his body, and buried her face in his pillow, inhaling his scent. Her tears were all for him, for her beloved who had already lost so much. This time, sleep was scarce, and she only drifted in and out of a light, dreamless slumber.
Then there were screams, voices hoarse with pain, then the roar of fire as it enveloped tents and flesh. Katniss woke with a jolt, disoriented by the noise and immobilized with the suddenness. She smelled the smoke, and her hand shot to her side for Peeta, but he still had not returned.
She scrambled out of bed. Katniss was about to run to the flap when Cinna burst in, a squire at his side carrying armors and weapons.
"What's happening Cinna?" she asked, her gaze flitting from one terse expression to another.
"The camp is under attack," he said. He motioned for the squire to start helping him put the armor on her. She turned and went to the chest by the bed to pull out her battle clothes, the rhythm rehearsed. The men faced the wall as she undressed, but she was no longer concerned about modesty.
"Is it the Thirteenth Kingdom?" she demanded as she pulled up her boots, turning towards them again.
He shook his head. "They have no banners and came swiftly, covered in the darkness, and now our men are dying or trying to flee. The lords have managed to gather the cavalry and the archers and some foot soldiers but we have been surprised and are badly damaged already. Where's the King?"
"The King?" she repeated, her hazy mind fatigued. Then she remembered what had happened.
"He stepped out, Cinna. He hasn't returned," she said desperately.
"The men need to see a leader, Katniss, or they will scatter and all will be lost. You need to ride out and show yourself. Your horse waits for you outside." His hands were steady as he fixed the armor to her chest. It was heavy. But the rest of her body was only partially covered to allow for maximum mobility. Cinna had explained all this to her before, but she didn't think the moment would come so soon. And without Peeta at her side.
"Cinna, I don't know if I can do this," she said, as Cinna hastily led her outside where her horse stood.
"Don't think," he advised. "Just act, Mockingjay. Protect your men and your people."
She heard the cries again and saw the dark morning sky grow light with the fires that had been set around their camp. The squire helped her onto her horse, but before she could canter off, Cinna placed a hand to her knee to stop her.
"You forget these, Mockingjay," he said, producing her beautiful bow and three intersecting quivers, the fletching of each set of arrows gleaming in the light. He had made her such beautiful quivers. Her hand guards were of supple yet sturdy leather in the same hue as her wooden bow. He also added a fourth quiver, which she slung on her left shoulder, with ordinary but newly sharpened arrows.
"Thank you," she told him, securing the quivers to her and holding tightly to her bow.
"The lords have assembled beyond the patch of trees," he said, pointing towards the west.
The men she found gathered numbered in the hundreds, mostly mounted archers and lancers on horseback. She doubted it would be enough.
"How many of the enemy are there?" she asked as she halted in front of one of the captains.
"We don't know, my lady, but a scout I sent said they also have a cavalry waiting by the edge of our camp. Their leader is a brutal giant of a man."
"Do they know we have gathered?"
The captain shook his head.
"Then our best chance is to attack now, with the element of surprise. They would not think we could have regrouped so quickly."
Suddenly they heard the battle drums, and a deafening cry of soldiers. The enemy's infantry must be advancing. She saw them beyond the smoke, the heads of marching men and the mounted swordsmen, and an enormous man atop a black horse.
"Our best chance is to rob them of their leader quickly. I want our best lancers in the front, with the left and right flank slightly behind so we pierce like a sword into their battle lines. I will ride near the front," she ordered. All her strategy talk with Peeta was paying off.
Despite the calmness of her voice, she prayed she would hear Peeta riding to her. The men positioned themselves as she had ordered, the standards and emblems raised, the lords bellowed their battle cry and the soldiers responded.
But Peeta was not there. She must do this alone.
So she gave the signal to attack.
The horses began their furious run, their snout steaming with their energy. The thunder of the cavalry drowned the screams still erupting from the campsite.
Then she saw her dying comrades, loyal until they closed their eyes in death. They littered the battlefield, what remained of their smoldering camp. They were ambushed. There was no honor in this battle. Her men died in fear of their lives, running from a raging fire they could not stop.
And she was furious.
She lost her mercy that instant. Her pity, her fear, they had no place in the battlefield. Cinna was right. Only her conviction would ground her. And that was to fight to end this war. Her heart sent hate to course hotly through her with every beat, building with each gallop of her horse as they charged.
She was ready to kill.
When Katniss saw the distance to the enemy lessening, she bellowed "Archers!" and released her arrow of fire, and the archers fired their own, filling the sky with racing arrows that triggered as one, like a heartbeat from the bows. At once, at her will, her own arrow conflagrated, setting fire to the tips of its soaring kin before it reached its target below, branding the enemies' heart with its flames.
"Archers!" she bellowed once more, sending another incendiary arrow to the sky and the rain of fiery arrows continued, decimating the foot soldiers by the front to give way to their lancers.
Then the crash of the spears and lances of her cavalry into the enemies' armor, into flesh and lungs and throat and bone, commenced. The horrible crunch registered in her ears as her anger pounded madly inside her. Horses leapt over kneeling soldiers slashed at the neck.
She shot her enemies at different ranges, point blank to the jugular, at a distance to another forehead, her body twisting to find her targets. Her arms moved mechanically to eliminate the threats. Their left and right flank began to expand to avoid being crushed by the enemy. But despite their momentum and earlier advantage, she felt the press of many more soldiers from behind the front lines, their own attack slowing down. She needed to move faster and fulfill her battle plan.
Then she saw him, their mammoth leader charging down towards them, a deadly spiked mace whistling above his head, ready to break a skull inside its helmet. Katniss moved to her right and kicked a soldier to get a better sight. She reached for another of her arrows, the one with unfailing aim. Her anger guided her hand. This was the man responsible for the massacre of her soldiers, her brothers at arms. He will die by her hand tonight.
Katniss nocked the arrow tightly. A scream erupted as her horse trampled another body to gallop unimpeded. She looked the man in his eye, finding her aim, and he smiled infuriatingly back, amused by the thought of a woman carrying a weapon. She fired her arrow and watched it fly through men. It pierced throats and exited spines in its unforgiving path until it found its target, landing squarely on his massive chest. But the man did not slow down. Katniss fired another arrow, this time aiming for her favored spot, right between the eyes. The seconds seemed to expand into minutes as she tracked the arrow's progress. She watched the man be thrown back from his horse at the shock of the arrow, his head snapping back at the force.
With a freer path through the heart of the enemy's lines, her left and right flank began to disperse as planned, splitting into two to round back and attack the enemy from behind. And the frightened soldiers, leaderless and witnessing the swift but fatal strike, began to scatter like frightened hares.
Some of the enemy captains fled through the forest, its trees burning from the battle, and Katniss and a handful of her cavalry pursued them.
But unlike the nights when she pursued the spies, she found she relished the hunt now. She didn't feel remorse as her arrow pierced an open mouth and emerged at the nape, only a savage and righteous anger. Splitting into smaller groups, they hunted these spineless captains who would desert their men when they had lost.
Suddenly a burning tree fell to her front, frightening her horse and wheeling sharply to her right.
Katniss slapped into the horse's neck as she tried to regain her balance. The horse ran in a frenzied pace, taking sudden sharp turns and eager to get away from the screams of battle. With no reigns to hold onto, she had to grip the horse's mane in order to not slip off, and she secured her bow at the back of her saddle.
She tried to soothe him in order to slow down and not run madly into different directions so she could regain her balance. But the terrified horse did not obey. They ran deeper into the forest until the silence was thorough and the din of soldiers didn't reach them anymore.
Her horse skidded, exhausted, to a stop. Katniss rested her head against his mane once more, glad that she didn't fall off, thankful that she was safe.
"Where did you take us, you brute?" she admonished him gently as she dismounted. Her legs almost gave out from beneath her, her thighs exhausted.
The lights from the battle could be seen, but she judged it to be very far. They should start walking back this instant, for she didn't know if there were enemies lurking in silence. Deep in the forest, only the moon lent its light here.
She had to find Peeta, soon.
A snap from behind alerted her. Her horse, still agitated from the battle, left her with a panicked neigh. Katniss turned to the sound, feeling alone and vulnerable without her bow.
A figure emerged from the darkness between the trunks. He was not her prince, though he had light hair. His eyes took in her defenseless state. She had seen him before, lifetimes ago at the Unification Ball. She realized with dread, with Prince Finnick's voice floating in her memory, that this man was the Chancellor's son, Cato.
"You've made my work very easy, my lady," he whispered. "And you've cost my father far too much already in this war."
He pulled out his broad sword. All Katniss could do was back away. Cato relished the hunt, she could tell, and like a bully, relished her inability to be of any threat to him.
"You die tonight," he said quietly, raising his sword.
No, Katniss thought. Not yet. Not when she was still uncertain about Peeta.
Suddenly, a body rammed into Cato from her right.
It was Peeta.
"Run, Katniss!" he shouted as he tried to subdue the bigger man.
But Katniss was not about to leave him alone. She charged at Cato, pounding madly at his back, pulling his hair, her actions bereft of any strategy. The men wrestled for domination, and Katniss was pushed aside by a heavy arm, her head hitting a tree's root.
She heard Peeta groan, and footsteps were nearing her. Her sight was swimming from the impact.
"No!" she heard Peeta's cry, and another thud echoed in the forest. The footsteps stopped, replaced by the sound of another scuffle.
"Katniss, get out! Please!"
And she obeyed; heaving herself up to her knees to crawl from the scene, and ran.
Lord Hawthorne sighed his relief as their ship, stolen from the enemy, finally docked at a cove in the Twelfth Kingdom. Theirs has been a quiet journey, thankfully, and their absence had not triggered the alarms that would have had the Thirteenth Kingdom's fleet pursue them.
But he had one more mission to fulfill. One more secret to unburden.
He looked for the Princess Johanna. She had been adamant in her anger, rightfully aimed at him. And he didn't try to justify his actions. But he needed her to know one more thing, if he could get her to speak to him.
He waited outside her quarters for her to emerge. And when she did, Johanna glared at him, her enmity unconcealed.
"Princess, may I speak with you?" he asked, bowing low.
She passed by him before he could finish. Gale stopped her with a hand to her arm.
"Has your sense of protocol gone with your honor, my lord?" she addressed him with all the dignity of a princess.
"I need to speak with you," he repeated. His eyes probed hers, asking for a small piece of reprieve. "I understand your anger, and I accept the full consequence of my actions. I am sorry for the pain I have caused. I know you loved the boy like a brother."
"Never speak of him in my presence," she hissed.
"I need to show you something. Please," he pleaded. "If not for simple courtesy then as a small token for my service of keeping you safe while in enemy lands. I deserve at least that much," he added, entreating her sense of honor.
When she didn't turn, Gale walked quietly towards the other end of the ship, where the door to the cargo below was located. His footsteps were measured. His months of servitude under the tyranny of the Thirteenth Kingdom did not affect his dignity. But his very soul felt weak, his heart already tired.
The air below was dank. The ship they stole was meant for supplies, and the damp cloths exuded a moldy smell. Some of the wooden chests had cracks when the ship maneuvered through the high troughs. He led her towards the back, to a small enclosure hung with a curtain, concealing a small door.
Gale produced a key and the lock turned. He opened the door and stepped aside for Johanna to see the small ledge that he had turned into a bed, the small window that let in a dim light that shined on the body of a young boy.
"You monster," said Johanna, horrified.
"It's not as it seems, Princess," Gale said, walking towards the boy. Johanna stood by the door, shaking in anger.
"Is it not enough that you've taken his life?"
"He lives," he said simply. "You can see for yourself that he still breathes."
Johanna walked slowly towards the sleeping body of Prince Nim and knelt by the bed. Her lip trembled with emotion, the truth before her eyes. She stroked his hair back from his forehead, her other hand hovered by his chest and felt his feeble heartbeat.
"I couldn't do it," Gale confessed, his head turning away. "And he would have made it so easy. He was a willing sacrifice. But you were right. This boy is not my enemy. So I saved him instead. I gave him a sleeping draught and set fire to his tower so his mother would be sure of his death. She would have burned down the whole of Panem if she had reason to believe that he had been captured and held for ransom. No one else knows but you and I."
Johanna stood and looked up at him. Gale lost his words at the tender expression in her eyes. Then she tilted her face and kissed him. He pulled her face closer, telling her he was sorry with every movement of his lips.
Perhaps now they could start again, he thought, as his arms wound around her thin body and Johanna sobbed on his chest out of anxiety, out of relief.
"I'll escort you back home," he promised.
"I may not even have a home," whispered Johanna. "I don't know if my mother will still be alive when I get there. And I know my brother and father have gone missing."
Gale held her tighter. "Or we can run away. Take the young prince and pretend you're my wife and he's your brother, another one of the many refugees of the war. We could do it."
"Lord Abernathy will find you and haul you back into service for your kingdom."
"Or you could take me to your family. The prince and I, we could go with you," suggested Johanna. "The Twelfth Kingdom may be last safe place in Panem."
"It might still be too dangerous for Prince Nim."
"Nobody needs to know who we truly are."
Gale looked at her eager face, weighing the consequences of their decision, trying to see far into the future where the war would turn. It would not be easy to conceal a prince and a princess, but in the end he agreed.
They were going home.
The old Chancellor stood, his back to him, not even acknowledging his presence despite the announcement of his arrival.
"You will find evidence of Minister Heavensbee's treason herewith, Your Excellency," said Seneca Crane as he pushed forth a bundle of correspondences between his bitter rival and the leaders of their enemies. Crane was sure that Heavensbee had now fled.
He waited for the approval of the Chancellor, another chance to regain his position in their leader's eyes. But all the old man did was descend into a fit of coughing, his illness worsening as it ravaged his insides. The blood was unmistakable on the piece of cloth he spat on.
"Have I not proven my loyalty now, sir?" he probed. He breathed heavily. Everything depended on this.
"Your problem, Seneca, is that you have always been prideful," Snow said, slowly turning to him. "You think too highly of your abilities and never think past your own glory. Which is why, no matter the evidences of Heavensbee's betrayal, you will never be the heir to my actions."
And that was the end of Seneca's patience. His anger spilled forth from him and he pulled the Chancellor's frail body violently down to the table. He brought out his dagger and pressed it against the Chancellor's throat.
"Why not? Was I not your most faithful servant? Have I not followed everything you have ever commanded of me?" he screamed, spittle flying from his mouth.
"Ah, but you have failed me in this last, most crucial one. Why do you wish to kill me, Seneca? Because I treated you unfairly? Because I did not satisfy your exceeding vanity?"
"You have no one else but me now. Even your brother would betray you. Does my loyalty count for nothing?"
"No. And if you continue to think so, then you are indeed the fool I have always thought you to be, a fool because of your loyalty, like a dog who waits for his reward. You would never have gone far because you never played to win, as I did. You never learned from me. You never carved a path for yourself. I only regret that I entrusted this last, crucial task of destroying the Thirteenth Kingdom to you because you have failed me spectacularly." For an old man, his grip was still strong as he tried to keep the dagger from slicing his throat open. Warm blood seeped from Snow's palms and into his ermine-trimmed doublet.
All the years he had served this detestable and decrepit man, the humiliation he endured, the orders he doubted but fulfilled, out of loyalty, rushed through his mind and made him swipe the dagger away, cutting a crescent wound on Snow's palm, the old man crying out in pain.
Then Seneca gripped the hit of the dagger with both hands and plunged it down to Chancellor Snow's chest. More blood sputtered out from his thin mouth, his eyes surprised that Crane still had some courage left. Then he sighed and looked to his right, slowly growing still.
The door to the Chancellor's private chambers opened, revealing a woman in a sheer nightgown. The Chancellor's new toy.
"Are you his whore?" he asked the woman, releasing the dagger's hilt. He would need it later, to silence this woman, but first he would enjoy her as his spoils of war. He felt himself grow hard as his eyes roved down her lithe body.
"You will pleasure me now," he whispered as she neared. "Forget the old man," he commanded.
Then her whore tricks came to play, and the impish smile returned to her face. Her eyes connected with his and her hand traveled up her body, lingering by her breasts, before she removed the straight pins that held her hair up. He noted her unique smile as her dark hair tumbled down. Her teeth had all been shaped to pointed ends, a she-beast. Seneca felt ravenous for her.
In his lust, he failed to notice the unusually sharp ends of her pins, which she now held between her fingers. He only noticed the smooth curves of her waist, and he felt desire shoot through him as her hands caressed up his arm. And when she had him pressed to her, he heard nothing of the swift press of the knife-like pins she had on her hand into the base of his neck. He only felt the loss of sensation, of control, as she damaged his spine with her poisoned pin, her little trick enough to kill him slowly. He watched her watch him as he slid down her body like an ardent lover. He smelled the powders and oils she used on her secret places. Then Seneca slumped to the floor, the poison working its way to his heart.
His eyes remained open, watching the woman retrieve her clothes, wear them without hurry, and unbolt the massive door. Crane saw his rival, Minister Heavensbee, enter the room, noting the bodies before him with a cursory glance, as if all of these had been in his plan.
He saw Plutarch nod to the woman, his assassin, and she proceeded to raid the Chancellor's room, looking for hidden scrolls and letters, anything that might be of use to the current war.
Then the woman asked Plutarch, her voice a raspy whisper, as she searched inside the Chancellor's clothes. "Wouldn't Snow's brother the king be displeased with your little act of treason and murder?"
Plutarch smiled. "On the contrary, my dear, we would find him pleased. He would only be too happy to finally step out of his brother's tall shadow."
"And the son?"
"As stupid as his uncle the king. I doubt he will survive his little ambush on the Twelfth Kingdom's army. I only need the Second Kingdom to weaken the remaining alliance of the Fourth and the Twelfth. It shan't be long. My spies have just reported the death of King Owain. The opposition is weakening. And the northern scourge can easily be dealt with after I have brokered an agreement among the remaining kingdoms to finally have peace. This nation has been steeped in too much blood."
"And you think they will agree to your proposal?" the woman asked.
He heard Plutarch sigh, a tired sound that was similar to his own when the night was deep and he was alone with his thoughts. "Yes, they will," he answered. "There will be no thing left if we continue. The princes leading the war are more soldiers than monarchs now, and no one longs for peace more than a soldier who has tasted war."
"What carnage want of peace can bring," the woman quipped, plucking the pins from his nape and securing it back to her hair.
Then Seneca felt a biting cold coursing through him, stabbing its way into his heart. The scene receded from him and all his plans, his hopes, his regrets descended with him.
Katniss prayed she would find her bow soon. She ran from the fight as Peeta told her to do, but not to leave him alone. She left to find her bow so she could help.
The early sun was bleeding into the rosy sky. The smoke slithered between the trees as she called for her horse. She went shouting and whistling, until finally, she heard his neigh.
He stood alone in a clearing, the poor horse. The big tawny beast was still shaken from the battle. She approached him slowly, securing her bow once she reached him. Then she stroked his neck, thankful that he was safe.
"Return to Cinna," she commanded him. "Cinna," she reiterated. She hoped he understood her. Then she slapped his massive hind legs to get him moving.
Katniss watched him go, heard his gallop drift to faint patter. Then she turned and followed the markings she made on the barks of trees, hoping to find Peeta.
After some minutes, Katniss heard the faint clang of swords, but the woods dispersed the sound and the direction it came from was unclear.
She was afraid for Peeta. He may never have lost a battle, but he had suffered too much.
Her heart raced even more as the sounds became more pronounced. She hurried as a cry pierced the silence, an anguished cry of pain. Katniss readily nocked an arrow as she hurtled towards the scene.
She stopped by the edge of a circle of trees. In the middle, Cato was thrashing on the ground, weeping and holding the bloody stump that's left of his right arm. His face was dirtied and bleeding, his clothing torn. Her eyes found his hand by Peeta's feet.
Peeta roughly yanked Cato upward, his eyes lost in hatred and bloodlust, forcing him to kneel. Then he circled the poor man, still mewling over his lost hand.
"You dare attack us. You dare harm her," Peeta growled like a predator. He kicked the man squarely in the chest. Cato crumpled to the ground and began to crawl towards his sword. Peeta only looked on before he pounded towards the sword and kicked it way, too. This time he pulled Cato up to stand.
"For your foolish act, I shall enjoy killing you slowly," he promised.
Katniss saw Cato's tears glisten. She aimed her arrow for Cato's throat for a clean, swift kill.
The arrow flew slowly when she released the taut string. Peeta was already poised to deliver the deathblow to Cato, a move that would have cleaved half his torso starting from the left shoulder. But Katniss's arrow afforded him a merciful, quicker end.
Katniss fired another arrow to be sure, and time regained its speed, enough for her to see Peeta's fury now directed at her, forcing her to step backwards. The man she loved was gone. She had pulled him so many times from the precipice of madness, but this time she thought, he had fallen too far already. The bloodlust now dominated his mind. His father's death was the last straw in his string of losses, and the attack on her was the trigger of his final descent.
The sword, with its unclaimed want for blood, grazed the ground with an eerie wail. Her prince cut a haunting figure in the smoky dawn.
"I told you to run," he whispered menacingly as he walked to her. "I told you to stay away."
"Peeta, please," she pleaded, backing away from the threat.
"What is wrong with you? My command was for your own safety, and yet you chose to defy me by putting yourself in danger."
"There was no danger anymore Peeta," she said. She wanted to add that he saw to it himself that there was no danger to her from Cato, not when the poor lord was mutilated. She backed herself into a tree trunk, and in her fright, her legs refused to move to the side. Peeta reached her.
"That was not for you to decide!" he screamed, punching the tree with his gauntleted hand, splinters flying beside her face.
Somehow her mind was able to make her legs run, and she did, ducking from Peeta's arm and running and running between the trees, away from the monster.
But she heard him pursue her. In the silence of the forest, she was sure her heartbeat baited him, a giveaway wherever she hid.
"Do you hate me now?" Peeta's furious demand echoed in the forest. "Is that why you run from me?"
Her tears were cold against her cheek. She ran as fast as she could, but she knew Peeta could easily catch her. And she didn't want him to, she wanted as much distance between her and the man pursuing her as possible. She feared her Peeta was now lost to her. He would never return to the golden prince she loved. The war had claimed him too, at last. It had broken him and ruined him.
Katniss glanced back to see where he was. But she bumped into something hard and nearly lost her balance, if not for the cold hand that gripped her wrist. A hand that belonged to her pursuer. Her breath choked as she looked into Peeta's cold eyes.
"You little bitch," he spat. "You disobeyed me. What do you think would have happened if I was not able to subdue him? Do you think he would have shown you mercy? Do you think he would have killed you as quickly as you killed him?"
"I could have fought—"
"You would have lost."
"He probably would have just lopped my head off. Not like what you did when you mutilated him," she said, her bravery returning. She would fight this Peeta, too.
"You ungrateful bitch. Everything I did was for you! For your safety, for your life!"
"Peeta, stop!" she pleaded. "This isn't you. You wanted to kill him so brutally. And you enjoyed it," Katniss sobbed.
"Well would you rather he killed you then?" he asked mercilessly, his crazed eyes bulging. "Like this?" and his hand snapped towards her throat, tightening like a noose.
"Peeta, no, this isn't you." Her hands moved to his snake-like grip.
"If you were so cavalier about your life, maybe we can end it all now. I can always push a sword through my stomach afterwards."
"No, no," she breathed. She was growing light-headed from the pressure. But she fought him. Her eyes never let go of his angry ones.
"Stop, Peeta," she gasped. "Come back to me. This isn't you. Come back to me."
His grip was still strong.
"Come back to me," she pleaded, her voice faint. "Come back to me, Peeta," and her hand reached out to him, caressing his cheek.
Slowly, she saw the anger drain from his eyes, and in its place the horror that dawned on his mind at what he had done, at what he was now doing.
His hand darted back, as though she were made of flames. Katniss sucked in the air that had been denied her. Her head swayed with the sudden influx. She panted, looking to her side, feeling a tingling rush to her arms. When she looked at Peeta again, the remorse was evident in his face. She knew he was about to run, disgusted with himself at what he had done.
So she launched herself at him and tightly placed her arms around his neck. "No," she said. "Stay with me."
No matter how he tried to pry her, she remained firm, whispering soothing words to him, pleading with him to stay.
Then Peeta put his own arms around her off, pressing her to him. She began to weep with relief.
She pulled back and looked at him. They made quite a pair, both broken from the war, both running from demons birthed by their paranoid minds.
Katniss kissed him. She kissed him to secure him to her, to never let his mind wander again. She kissed him to tell him she still loved him, all of him, despite what had happened.
Peeta responded and opened her mouth with his tongue, and she was glad to receive him. They kissed slowly, languidly, the act repelling the horrors they have just witnessed, casting a new spell. Peeta's hand wound itself in her hair, loosening her plait, the ribbon falling to the ground. They shed their clothes next, but always coming back to each other's lips, thirsty for any touch to soothe the ache.
When they were bare, Peeta slowly turned her around, and placed his forearm to the tree for her to rest her head. His mouth traveled down her throat as he angled her hips towards him. He entered her, filling her, and her moans grew deeper with each thrust. They made love unhurriedly. They made love to forget. He moved and she felt something deep within her respond sweetly. Peeta's rhythm turned it into a song inside her, swelling, rising, making her dizzy, making her coiled and tightened. Then it burst like a clear high note, their breaths mingling, their bodies shuddering.
When they were finished, she turned and faced Peeta, kissing him once more. Then wordlessly, he kneeled in front of her, and she held him, resting her cheek against his damp hair. She felt him weep silently, the tears marking a path down her skin. It was his apology, for everything he could never take back. And she held him tighter, taking everything in. She promised herself, in the wordless moment, that she would never let him go.
I hope this was worth the wait. I do apologize for the very long pause between updates, but if you're still reading, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And to those who just came on board, welcome! Thank you for taking a chance with this story.
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