A/N: I'm so sorry if you're confused. I'm trying my best - there's just so much I want to put in here, and I don't want to explain too much, because I still want it to be a mystery and for there to be surprises and plot twists, so forgive me if you're confused. You can always PM me questions.
But if you are confused on some points, that are mentioned or not explained very well, or that confuse the characters, it's very possible later on they'll be explained. (Or if you think a scene in the past few chapters or in the coming ones is pointless, it's probably just that it'll be important later.)
As for this chapters, I do have a something to say: At the end of it is a splurge scene, mostly for information that'll be helpful later. Consider it a god index, all their names and positions gathered in a convenient place, so if later you forget, it's all there in one scene. (Of course, it's also an important scene.) Within it, you'll see that I changed a little detail mentioned in the past chapter (I've already gone back and changed it) but it concerns Haymitch and which god he is.
Otherwise, that's all. I hope you enjoy reading. Thank you for reading. I disown everything that's not mine, as always. Reviews are love.
Fun facts (you might not have absorbed but should know):
Woof is Joanna's father - the one that raped her - as well as father to Brutus (Joanna's brother), and Twill (Joanna and Woof's daughter).
There is a reason Annie is gone. I didn't forget about her. Nor have I forgotten about Finnick and her.
For a god to be immortal they need a god well. Once they have that, the only way they can die is if someone destroys that god well.
If a person has a god's power, but no god well, and only power sources, then they can still die. There are two ways. One: if their heart is compromised. IE: Stabbed, ripped out, etc. And if that happens, then they die and their power sources die with them. EXAMPLE: If someone happened to stab Peeta in the heart, he would die, and Katniss, being his power source, would die, too. Two: if their power sources are destroyed, they die. (Just more slowly, and painfully.) EXAMPLE: Such as when Joanna was murdered, and it killed Chaff. (Well, he was dead, before Seeder stepped in. But technically he did die for a moment.)
I am making all of this up, so... just go with it. Alrighty. There are no exceptions to these rules.. really, there isn't. It'll all be explained in chapters to come.
Peeta came back several hours after dusk, brimming with excitement. He spared me a glance, reassuring and blue, then clapped Marvel and Finnick on the shoulders and drew them into discussion.
I heard Clove's name mentioned, many times, and much about New Troy's building process. It was good to hear the plans being made. Perhaps it would only be a few months, as Peeta promised.
However, it was dark outside, and I'd thought Prim would return long before Peeta did. Worry began to eat away at me, as the time passed, and both of the babies grew restless without a nightly feeding. I tried to keep them quiet, hoping not to draw Peeta's attention to Prim's absence, and it wasn't going well. In the end, driven to distraction by Peeta's mutterings with Marvel, Finnick, and now Deimas – who had arrived at some point I'd not noticed – , and by Aurora's insistent mewling, and not able to hear my husband say Clove's name one more time in casual, friendly meandering, I wrapped myself, Aurora, and Achates warmly against the cool gray of the night, and escaped the house without notice.
Carrying the two had an awkward feel to it, and I wondered how Prim had manged to look so graceful while constantly managing this feat. It became clear to me, that I needed Prim for more than I thought.
I knew where I was going, to that ash tree I'd seen before. But as I turned that way, Cinna suddenly emerged in the shadows of a house some twenty paces distant to mine, and he smiled in surprise.
"Katniss," he said. "What are you doing out so late?"
I shifted, hugging the children's bodies closer to mine. I didn't want to admit my sister was somewhere out there, in this land that was so familiar to this gentle man. I shrugged – the movement awkward.
And unfortunately, Achates thought the movement very unpleasant. He wailed.
Supposedly following Achates' example, Aurora added her thinner, higher screams to his.
Cinna's face gentled. "Do you want help?"
"No," I snapped, flushing as I thought of what I sight I might be. Juggling the babies around, I tried to soothe them, but they only seemed to complain louder and louder. I began to notice a helpless feeling deep inside of my chest, ripping wider and wider the longer I stood there in the cold. "Yes," I admitted.
What a wretched mother, I am.
Cinna didn't hesitate to swoop forward and pluck Aurora from my arms. He rocked her, and cooed at her, and though she certainly didn't like his arms any better than mine, she for a moment, looked hopeful – as if she thought someone who could feed her had finally taken her away from the hopeless lack I am to her. It would buy a few moments of silence, and Aurora's silence, brought about Achates'.
I let out a long breath, patting Achates' back. Not looking at Cinna, I said, "Thank you."
"They're hungry... where's Prim?"
He knew I couldn't, which only made me feel worse. And he noticed Prim's gone, despite my silence.
As if sensing my unease, Cinna shifted toward me, and said, "My sister can feed them, if that's.."
"Yes," I said, without hesitation. "Let's just get of this cold. They haven't eaten since this morning."
I wouldn't have let that happen, if I wasn't entirely sure that if I said no, I'd have no choice but to return to my hut and that the two children would bawl the hours through until Prim came back. Peeta would notice for sure, if that happened. Plus, I couldn't know where Prim is or when she'd actually be back.
For the sake of the wailing children, I followed Cinna toward the town.
I hadn't forgotten about his involvement in Joanna's murder, and Darius told me how they meant to spy on me – out of curiosity – and I didn't go with him without some inhibitions, but he wasn't a bad person, and he hadn't mentioned Brutus, only a sister, which would be fine, certainly. I had so few options, no friends, I had to take what I could get. (Finnick had become ever more distant with me since he'd realized I'd witnessed Joanna's death and even so, what could he do to aid me?) So I went.
Cinna slowed his pace to walk at my side as we passed the houses, still rocking Aurora to and fro.
"So," he said, "you have met Clove."
I said nothing.
"Flavius told me what happened, with the knife." He paused, as if waiting for me to say something, and then he sighed. "You must not judge us all by one woman. Or by what happened to Joanna, you know."
Again, I was silent.
"Have you eaten tonight?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I am not hungry."
He tisked softly, but did not comment further on the subject of food. "You come to meet my family," he said, warmly. "My mothers and sisters and aunts and their children. They will adore you, and these two." He nodded fondly at the two babies, and smiled that honey smile I'd almost forgotten about.
"You won't be this silent and abrasive to them, will you?" he asked.
Some part of me knew what he was doing – offering me an antidote to Clove, an offering of peace between us. I could see he did not like the rift made between us. At Jo's funeral pyre, he'd asked me to listen to his words, and I'd given him a 'maybe'. Since he was helping me with the babies, I decided I would allow it. "No," I said, and he smiled and, a hand on my elbow, guided me through Panbank.
Panbank was larger than I thought, and I said as much.
Cinna explained that Panbank was the largest settlement in Panem, catering as it did both to the trade routes that crisscrossed Panem and to the proximity of the Veiled Hills, the sacred heart of the land.
He explained a little about the Veiled Hills, pausing briefly at a crossroads within Panbank so we could look north across the Pan river to where the hills rose in the distance. In the moonlight, I could just make it out. "Where is the mist? Every day since I have been here the hills have been veiled in fog."
"Sometimes they wish to hide themselves, sometimes to reveal themselves," he said. "Perhaps, because we are close to the Slaughter Festival, they have decided to —"
He grinned at the expression on my face. "The Slaughter Festival," he repeated. "That most sacred festival of the year. It is when we seize all strangers within our midst and sacrifice them to the great gods Chaff and Seeder…" He saw the horror on my face and burst out laughing. "I jest only. The Slaughter Festival is the autumn festival where we give thanks to Chaff and Seeder for the harvests of spring and summer, and also slaughter the stock we cannot keep over winter. Despite its name, it is a celebration of great joy, and much mischief. Ah, I am sorry, Katniss, I did not mean to anger you."
I tried to shake the scowl from my face. It was not his ill-timed jest that made me unamused as such, but that the scare it had given me had brought to the surface all my fears about the coming time.
"It's fine," I told him. "You're just more convincing than you know, joking or not."
"Ah, well, I am sorry anyway. Now," he said, turning, "my mother's house is not far from here, and I can feel all of you shivering from both cold and hunger, so it is to my mother that I must take you."
As he led me down the road, I realized we were in the heart of Panbank, and that we'd been standing there, close together, talking softly, while about us, although the streets were empty, the circular, stone-walled houses were everywhere, crowding on either side of the roadway, and from these houses warm light and good-humored noise poured. Some people were talking over outdoor cooking fires, and those few were not even caring enough to glance our way. No one noted us with scorn... me, with scorn.
Many people called out greetings to Cinna from their front doors as we continued, or stopped him for a word or two, but there was no derision or mockery in anyone's voices, and only a simple curiosity expressed about my presence. Did they not know who I was? No, impossible. They could see my Greek features even in the washed out light of the stars and moon. Still, they smiled at me, as I stood there.
To everyone who stopped, Cinna even introduced me as "Mother Katniss," the head of my household, and that made me smile at the thought of Peeta being relegated to the status of the breeding stallion who was kept in his stall most months of the year, and only allowed out when he was needed for mating purposes. People smiled at me, and said welcoming words, and blessed Achates, and Aurora, and treated me as one among many… as one of them, which the Trojans had never, ever done.
A few invited us inside their houses. A woman even offered to feed the babies herself. Cinna graciously declined and told them his mother would have his tongue if he didn't bring them straight to her. They always laughed, and agreed. With that, as we progressed (now somewhat slowly) down the road toward Cinna's house, I began to cheer up considerably. I began to appreciate Panem's people more, too.
Cinna's home was as most other houses – a circular, thick stone-walled house with a conical roof of thatch. There was a woman standing outside, watching our progress down the road toward her, waiting patiently for our arrival, even though the air was cold, and behind her back was a very warm house.
I glanced surreptitiously at her the closer we came, curious, and somewhat nervous, at what she would make of me… and of her son bringing me into her house. But I need not have worried, as it turned out.
Cinna's mother, Cecilia, was a tiny woman, almost cat-like in her manners and movements, and possessed of such a mischievous sense of humor that every third remark made me grin. She was much older than I, and I thought that Cinna must have been a child of her later years, but she was possessed of so much life that I wondered, despite her lines, if she was still producing children even now.
She welcomed me at the door of her house with a hug and a laugh, gently chiding Cinna for taking so long to bring me to her, then led us inside.
I stopped the instant I stepped inside the house, stunned by its beauty.
The house that Cinna had given us on the outskirts of Panbank had been bare inside, save for the necessary furnishings and blankets needed for our comfort, and with the experience of the isolated and functional hamlets we'd stayed at on our travels from Delltos to Panbank, I'd thought that all houses must be the same.
But this interior, this was a miracle of color and life and movement. Like our house, there was a second level, a wooden platform resting on the inner circle of wooden posts that supported the top of the conical roof. From this platform were a series of woven banners and ribbons, in every hue of nature, that moved on every breath of air. Among the banners and ribbons hung pieces of carved antler and bone, as well as tiny pieces of quartz hung on slivers of almost invisible gut, pieces of hide and fur, carved seashells, and what I thought was probably dyed seaweed. All these strange things had been hung so cunningly, and with such understanding, that even though the effect should have been that of an overcrowding of completely incompatible objects, they all merged to create instead a sense of grace and light and movement.
It was as though Cecelia and her family had managed to hang all that was most beautiful and wondrous in the world of nature from the central raised wooden platform.
Cecelia saw my face and, in what I was realizing was her normal reaction to most things, laughed. "This is our living house," she said, a soft hand in the small of my back guiding me toward the central hearth. "We have a smaller house at the back of this one in which we cook and weave and do all the snarling at each other that all families need to do." She grinned. "No one dares snarl in our living house."
There was a bench of stone built about the hearth, and I sat down, still staring about me. The house was much larger than the one I shared with Peeta and our companions, with sleeping niches for at least fifteen people, and room for far more about the hearth.
Indeed, there were already some eight other women and two men seated about who, as Cecelia introduced me, all came up to me, took my hands between theirs, and kissed me a welcome on both my cheeks. Most of their names fled my head as soon as they were spoken, I was still so overcome with wonder at both Cecelia and her house, but I retained enough wit to understand that they comprised two of Cecelia's elder sisters (and if I'd thought Cecelia tiny and cat-like in her age, then these two women looked as if the merest breath of wind might shatter their fragile bones), three of her daughters (two of whom were noticeably pregnant, and one of whom – a woman named Octavia – had two toddlers playing at a safe distance from the hearth), one a cousin visiting from the north, and the final two were grown granddaughters. The men, both older than Cinna, were his brothers, and I was given to understand that there was another brother as well as two uncles who, in the Panem manner, still lived in the house of their maternity, but who currently were out minding the family's flocks of sheep and goats.
One of Cecelia's daughters, the one farthest forward in her pregnancy, brought me a bowl of broth that, despite what I'd told Cinna earlier, made my mouth water with hunger. In turn, the daughter took Achates from me – I found I did not mind in the least her presumption – and bade me eat as she fed him. Likewise, Cinna handed Aurora over to his other sister, and she fed the poor, mewling girl.
And to my surprise, the warmth and laughter of Cecelia's family flowed over and about me, warming me through as the fire and the food never could, as they chatted about family matters and the gossip of the town. It felt nice, to sit there, and have Cinna's smiling self at my side, and hear the abundance of these mortal lives to overwhelm me. It was the closest to happiness I had been in a long time.
The entire mood and sense of the house were unarguably feminine, yet neither Cinna nor his two brothers seemed out of place nor even uncomfortable. They melded perfectly into the discussion, much of which was about Cinna's two sisters' pregnancies, as if conversing about such things was as natural to them as arguing about the strength and sharpness of a sword or just how far they could throw.
I was fascinated, I admit.
I'd known of the matriarchal nature of Panem society, but this was the first time I'd been so exposed to it: Enorbaria's house had been too riven with underlying tensions for me to feel as much at home as I did here.
Eventually I realized that the family was discussing the two sisters' yet-to-be-born children as if they already knew the sex and even the personality of the babies the women carried.
Intrigued, I put aside my now-empty bowl (thanking Cecelia and her family as I did so), and waded my way into the conversation.
"How is it," I asked, leaning forward, "that you know the sex and character of your unborn children?"
Cecelia, taking the now fully fed and drowsy Achates from her daughter, and handing him to Cinna, took my hand, and held it between hers. "It is Seeder's gift to women," she said, and explained – as Joanna had once explained – how Seeder graced the women of Panem with the knowledge of the sex and character of the child they carried. "All Panem women feel Seeder in our wombs. It is where she lives… aside from the water. Although in the past year her presence has been but a whisper." Her voice was indescribably sad, and for a moment she paused, as if collecting herself from the tragedy of it.
Then Cecelia glanced at Cinna, and when she looked back to me one of her hands shifted, and rested on my belly. I realized then, as she spoke, everyone had fallen still. "Do you feel her within you, Katniss?"
I opened my mouth to deny it, for how could I if I were not Panem born? But then I remembered that night I'd spent in Seeder's Dance, and the dance that I had done without ever being taught, and I was no longer so sure of myself. I also knew that I was Seeder's power source so I said, "I don't know."
Cecelia lifted her hand from my belly to my face. Her own face was puzzled, all her humor momentarily gone. "You do have the feel of her about you," she said. "How odd, for a stranger…"
And again her eyes met Cinna's. I was now feeling most uncomfortable, as if my flesh were being assessed for market, but then Cecelia laughed, that soothing, carefree one – I began to suspect how Cinna ended up with that honeyed voice of his – and my uneasiness subsided at the sound.
"But then you are a mother who loves her child," she said, "and perhaps that is what I feel."
We talked then of many things: a strange spring where women could beg Seeder's aid in choosing a caring soul for their child; the meaning behind the dangling decorations above our heads; the blight that had struck Panem in the past generation; Cinna's children, and those of his sisters and brothers; the men whom Cecelia had taken to her bed in order to get her own brood of wonderful children; her own mother, who had been one of the strongest Mothers in Panem when it came to weaving Seeder's magic.
At this last subject the mood grew somber.
"I doubt any Mother will ever again know Seeder in the same manner and depth that my mother did," Cecelia said. "Seeder has faded away in this past year. Her power has all but gone. Perhaps as her lover Chaff's power waned, so did hers. No one knows really. But no Mother has been able to use Seeder magic to any great degree since last autumn. We can still touch her, barely, but not as once we could."
"Many of us," Octavia put in, "wonder if that is Clove's doing."
There was a silence, and I knew a line had been crossed.
I also realized, if I hadn't previously, that I had been accepted completely into this community of Cecelia's house. This talk was not meant for untrustworthy ears. Their trust startled me.
"Clove?" I said softly.
I couldn't tell them of her evil, when I had to protect her for Peeta's sake now.
(The thought still made my stomach flip in distaste and disgust.)
But no less did that make the thought untrue. So I masked my face as they spoke this subject.
"Who else could have harmed Seeder, and Chaff, so easily?" said Cecelia. "And who else would it benefit so much as Clove? Yes, Clove, Katniss. Our own Anointed Mother. The woman who is supposed to protect our gods and our land before all else. Who killed Joanna's family, surely."
"She is a Darkwitch," one of Cinna's brothers said.
Then, that strategist's violent voice spoke in my mind, pushing words from my mouth, that I did not know: "Her foremother Ariadne wrecked an entire city, named Crete. Clove will do the same here."
There was a silence, and I knew everyone was watching me.
Ariadne? Clove's foremother? I had not known that, but then, that voice spoke... not the violent one, but the soft, motherly one that I knew. Seeder's. It's true, beloved. I jumped. I hadn't heard that voice since the night of Seeder's Dance, and Joanna's murder. I'd almost forgotten that I should be hearing it.
"I wish…" Octavia said, and she did not finish the sentence.
"I know," Cinna said very softly, and with that last discussion, I departed from their house.
It was much later, nearer midnight, as Cinna and I walked back to my house. Both of the children were asleep in our arms and the cold of the night was biting, so I snuggled Achates close. Our walk was silent for the most part, with that last discussion weighing on our minds, and though I was grateful I'd gone after all – Cinna's family was a joy – I hadn't realized just how long I'd stayed until then.
It did not surprise me that the moment we came into view of the house, the guard at the door stirred.
Darius strutted forward to meet us. He eyed Cinna suspiciously, but overall I could see he was relieved to see us. "Where have you been?" he asked, as he took Aurora from Cinna's arms. Cinna tried to stop him, but I made a motion with my hand that meant it was alright. I had a feeling Darius might have worried himself over Aurora a little more than he did about me. She was, after all, in his protection.
"I've been with Cinna," I answered with ease, and I made a real effort to smile at Cinna. "Thank you, again. I don't think my evening would have gone so smooth if you hadn't shown up when you did."
He gave an amused smile back. "I do not think so either. You looked distressed when I saw you there."
"I was," I admitted, banishing that horrid moment from my mind. "Have a good night."
He nodded, and touched my arm warmly, before turning and leaving.
Darius did not look pleased when I turned back to him. In fact, for the first time, I noticed that there were signs of fatigue all over him, and his eyes weren't green, but the shifting of a fire's flames he'd had before he came to Panem under the disguise of a native. "What's the matter?" I asked, thinking of Prim.
"Nothing," he said, and handed back Aurora. I took her, awkwardly. "They're all asleep," he said, turning and leading the way to the house. "I lied and said you were seeing a healer for a cough Achates' developed. They bought it well enough. Primrose added to help the lie, by saying you were bringing Aurora, too, to make sure she hadn't gotten what she had before. We convinced them you might stay the night there.. since we had no idea where you really were, or when you'd come back. If you came back."
The dig on the end was clearly meant to insult me in someway, that I didn't understand. I grabbed his elbow and ripped him back around, to face me, and Darius stumbled in surprise, nearly knocking right into me. "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, moving back to give us room. "If I came back?"
"People disappear, Katniss," he said. "Sometimes people go off, and sometimes they don't come back."
"Is that a threat?"
"No. It's a fact." He looked away and tried to leave again, but I stepped into his path.
"What's the matter with you?" I demanded. "You're never this evasive."
Still, he didn't look at me, and shook his head. "I'm not being evasive."
"Something is bothering you. Is it Prim? Or are you displeased that I was with Cinna? Do not presume you can dictate whom I can and can't talk with." It's worse than Peeta trying to do that same thing.
Darius just scoffed. "I don't care who you're with."
"Clearly, you do."
"If I did, do you think you'd still be with Peeta?" he said, rolling his eyes, as if his point was the most obvious thing in the world. "If I wanted you, Katniss, then you'd be mine." He pushed passed me.
I grabbed his arm, for a moment, and he jerked away from my touch.
As if my skin was the one that burned with a constant fever.
"Don't," he said, and then, before I could contemplate that expression on his face, he disappeared.
A Week Later
The rectangular stone assembly building on the slopes of Tot Hill was filled with women. They milled about its internal space, their quiet talk a low hum, their movements deliberate, tempered, courteous, their faces gentle, whatever may have been on their minds.
They were the Mothers of Panem, the women who headed each household, who spoke for each family, who gathered here today as they did once a year to discuss how what they had learned from the past would lead them into the future.
The oldest of them was a wizened ancient, her back so curved she had to deliberately lift her face upward to avoid continuously studying her feet, her facial features so drooped both her nose and her mouth had collapsed to rest on her chin. The youngest was a woman only barely into her twenties, her belly round, her eyes and demeanor respectful of all the experience and wisdom that walked about her.
Every one of them felt the weight of not only her own responsibility in leading and advising her own House, but of her part in their collective responsibility. They had a part to play in Panem's safety.
Every one of them had heard of the arrival of the Trojans – and oh, in their massive numbers! — and on their wish to settle in Panem. Every one of them had lost sleep in worry over the situation, and yet every one of them here today presented a calm and ordered face to the world, for there was no benefit in panic, and no possible need to push their troubled peoples even further into worry at that point.
Three specific women had grouped into a corner, their faces as calm as everyone else's, their eyes as watchful as they studied the other women milling about them. Only much more went on beneath.
Enobaria, only very recently arrived from her journey from her home next to Seeder's Dance, looked particularly wary. Her face was pale, her eyes dulled with lack of sleep. Nevertheless, her hair was carefully dressed, her wool robe neatly arranged, her shoulders straight, and she held herself tall, her hands folded before her. There was that ever present flinty look to her, that always intimidated others.
Beside her Cecelia looked even smaller and rounder than usual, although in no way diminished.
They were an odd pair, but old friends, to be sure.
Their companion was Mags, Mother of one of the Houses closely associated with the forests south the Veiled Hills, one of Twill and Brutus' strongest allies, and one of the oldest and loved Mothers present.
"What can we do?" Cecelia said to her companions. "She will destroy us!" She just finished relaying to the two what Cinna had told her of their situation, and what Katniss had said to her seven nights ago.
"She will most certainly destroy us if we speak publicly against her," she added.
"Our respect and our loyalty should be to the Anointed Mother," Mags mumbled.
Most of what Mags said was jumbled and twisted, due to a stoke she'd had in the past, but many among the Mothers knew how to understand her, and Cecelia nodded to Mags' words, almost in shame.
Enobaria would not be so easily abashed. "Our respect and our loyalty was to the Anointed Mother," Enobaria said, her voice low to disguise its anger and distaste, "before that Darkwitch from Crete corrupted that once-remarkable line of Joanna's, the House of Seeder." She was dressed in a robe of very deep red wool, and for an instant the red of her robe reflected in her eyes, and Cecelia shuddered.
"We cannot speak publicly against her," Cecelia said. "Not yet. This Assembly's loyalty will still hold with Clove, even if what she presents us with today will tear out the heart of Panem forever."
"You would have us smile, and nod, and agree with her?" Enobaria hissed.
Cecelia fought the urge to grind her teeth, smiling and nodding at another of the Mothers who momentarily passed close by. Sometimes she felt like her son, Cinna, when she dealt with Enobaria... the same way she knew Cinna put up with Brutus and his rash, brutal impulsiveness and remarks.
"I am saying that there may be better ways to deal with her," Cecelia put in calmly, "and her wicked witchery, than making victims of ourselves by speaking out in this assembly. Much better ways."
"Yes?" said Enobaria. "How might that be then?"
Cecelia, who'd had her hands folded before her in the Mother's traditional posture of calm authority, now dropped them, taking a hand of each of the women beside her. "I think Clove has an enemy she may not recognize until it is too late," she said, so very, very softly both had to lean close to her to hear.
There was a silence, a great stillness.
"Katniss?" Enobaria whispered, in disbelief, and scorn. "I had wondered about her, too, but…"
"Yes," Cecelia said. "Katniss. Whatever happened at Seeder's Dance, I think Seeder's power is still with Katniss. I felt it a bare few days ago. Forget the slip up you made trying to kill her, it is the past."
"Who is this Katniss?" Mags said. "I have not heard of her."
"She is the wife," Enobaria said, and all three women's faces assumed pained expressions at that most horrid and foreign of offices, "of the leader of the Trojans, Peeta. She is young… and yet…"
"Yet she came to Seeder's Dance unannounced," said Cecelia. "And she danced the Nuptial Dance!"
Mags looked taken aback, while Enobaria, who had known this, merely nodded consideringly.
"She is a natural mother," Cecelia continued, "and when I laid a hand to her womb I swear that I felt Seeder.. in a Greek woman! My son Cinna tells me he sees magic in her, and felt it on many occasions of their travel. He thought to loathe these Trojans, these invaders, and yet for Katniss he feels only respect. Warmth. An urge to protect. Love. I know my son is gentle, but in these terms, it is strange."
"He wants to sleep with her," Mags said, simplifying it, and laughed.
Enorbaria snorted, but Cecelia earnestly shook her head. "No, I don't think so. It would have been my first thought, too, but I can see nothing but something akin to brotherly in him with her. Katniss is anintriguing person. The fact that she came unannounced to Seeder's Dance, and then took a part in the Nuptial Dance as though she had been born to it…well, that's astounding. And hopeful, for us."
Enorbaria looked thought, and spoke cautiously, "When Brutus and Twill arrived, and came to her there, they did not grow agitated in her presence, as they are often in anyone's, but they looked at her in liking, handled her gently, and spoke well to her. Both, of them. Brutus and Twill." Before, of course, Chaff was dead, and Seeder's pull in her had faded, and they tried to murder her. There was another silence, the three women's eyes on the Mothers moving about the room, not looking at each other.
"We must speak to Twill and Brutus," Mags said. "Tonight. Before tomorrow's ceremony."
"Aye," said the other two. "We will speak with them."
"Mothers!" Clove called, and stepped forth into the center of the room. As one, all the Mothers present turned to her with bodies and eyes, their movement as choreographed as the most careful dance.
"Our Assembly this year comes at the most opportune time," Clove continued, then she paused.
Clove looked about her, ensuring she was the center of attention. She was dressed in a very white linen robe that left her strong arms bare, and which was sashed tightly about her waist with a scarlet band, highlighting the sweep of hip and breast. Her raven hair was, as usual, left to tumble carelessly about her shoulders and back. Her hands folded before her in the traditional gesture of humility, but above them her eyes flashed, negating any of the humility she may have wished to convey.
She lifted one of her hands, and smiled, warm and gracious. "Please, seat yourselves."
The women lowered themselves to the floor, today covered with soft, warm matting. The younger among them moved swiftly to aid the elder to the few available cushions, and soon all were seated, closely knit, some leaning on others, their eyes centered on Clove who had remained standing.
"I come today on a most important and urgent matter," Clove said, turning slowly within the circle of Mothers, her eyes making contact with each one in turn. "I come to seek your counsel and guidance."
Enobaria grunted, and Cecelia shot her a warning glance.
"You know of the Trojans," Clove continued, "of their arrival, of their numbers, of their wish to settle within Panem." She paused, again, that time to be serious. "I see no reason to deny them their wish."
The Mothers were too gentle, too restrained, too keen on upholding the ideals of calm and respected to break into an uproar, but they did nevertheless stir, and a great murmuring rose among them.
Clove held up her hands in a sign of peace. "Mothers, please, hear me out! I speak plainly and swiftly, for events demand no less. You know of the troubles which have beset us over the past generation —"
"Ever since your witches of foremothers worked her darkcraft," Enobaria muttered, very, very low.
Cecelia laid a restraining hand on the woman's arm.
"How many of your Houses have lost children to unexplained fevers?" Clove cried, her arms now outstretched in supplication. "How many have watched your daughters writhe to their deaths in childbirth where before they dropped their children with the same ease that apple trees drop their fruit in autumn? Our livestock increasingly succumb to malignant diseases, our crops wither in the fields, the ice and the rain and the snow sleet down from the north and turn the thatch of our houses into sodden, moldy useless caps and the flesh between our toes to mildewed horror." Her voice dropped, and she lowered her arms and her eyes, as if grieving. "And our Anointed Father is dying. You know of this. You know" – her voice broke on an almost sob – "you know that Chaff has finally deserted us."
"And in answer to this you threaten us with an invasion of Trojans?" Enobaria could keep her peace no longer, and Cecelia's fingers dug into the flesh of the woman's forearm. Enobaria ignored the pain. "Who needs these Trojans, Great Mother," she called out, "Us? Why? Why?"
A murmuring again arose among the Mothers, and Clove held up a hand to silence them.
"Mother Enobaria speaks only what many of you must think," Clove said mildly, although her jaw and shoulders had noticeably tensed. "But I say to you, these Trojans will not harm us; rather, they can protect us. Furthermore, their leader, Peeta, controls a great magic that can restore to us our prosperity."
Cecelia's fingers by now had dug so deep into Enobaria's arm that the woman's flesh turned crimson.
"We need his magic, sisters, to fill that void that Chaff's failure has created."
Clove took a step closer to the sitting, and looked very, very serious.
"Without him Panem will fail," she murmured. "With him it will regain its strength."
Enobaria muttered something uncomplimentary, but to Cecelia's relief she did not raise her voice.
"I have spoken to Peeta," Clove said. "He will settle among us, become one with us, and in return he will build a great city, powerful with magic, that will guide our return into abundance and happiness."
"Where will he build this 'great city'?" asked a Mother on the far side of the room, and Cecelia was relieved that someone had managed to deflect Clove's attention from herself and her two companions.
Clove took a deep breath before answering. "In the Veiled Hills," she said quietly. "Atop the White Mount, Chaff's Hill, and Seeder's Hill. Stretching as far as Pen Hill, and back toward the Py river."
There was instant uproar – their earlier ideals forgotten in the outrage of what she'd told them – and Clove allowed it to continue for several minutes before she again held up her hands for silence.
"Chaff is dead," she said, "he will not suffer at the loss of Chaff's Hill. His replacement magic, the Trojan magic, will need to combine with what is left of Seeder's power and those strange spirits who live under the White Mount in order to be most effective. Don't you see how badly we need this?"
Then, as the muttering continued, she turned to the door, left standing open, and held out her hand.
Woof, dressed in nothing more than a scarlet hip cloth, entered the chamber, leaning on a great staff. He walked with considerable stiffness and shortness of breath to Clove's side, and glared implacably about at the Gathering of Mothers. "It is necessary," he said. "All your Great Mother says. It is necessary."
"Or else?" Enorbaria shouted, and Cecelia groaned.
"Or else we will perish," said the Anointed Father.
Taking Clove's hand in his, he waved the staff in the space before him.
A vision appeared, and it was one of dread. Naked warriors, daubed in blue clay, swarmed over their land, raping and slaughtering and burning, and howling with laughter all the while. "They mass to the east," the Anointed Father whispered through the horror, "and undoubtedly one day they will launch themselves at us. We have not the strength to defend ourselves. They are a brutal people with no peace. We will vanish, as surely as the autumn leaves are swept into oblivion by the winter winds."
"Seeder?" someone cried out, helplessly.
"You know she cannot help against such as this," Woof said, waving his staff so that the vision folded in upon itself and then disappeared. "Not only is her power weak, but the art of protecting us against swords and fury is alien to her. She is the fertile mother goddess, not the stag-god. Not fierce. "
Again, silence, as the Mothers contemplated this.
Everyone knew of Seeder's horrifying and deepening weakness. Everyone had felt it.
If she is weak, Enobaria thought, her face creased in a savage frown, it is only through witchery!
"If we conduct an alliance with the Trojans," continued the Anointed Father, "merge their magic with ours, then this is what awaits us." Again his staff waved, and again vision filled the air.
Now a mighty city rose on the banks of the Pan river, covering the three sacred mounds, reaching around the mounds in great, gleaming white stone houses, encircled by a high white wall, peaked by a gate resting at the summit of Pen Hill. Its gates stood open, and people were free to move in and out of the city as they willed. In the meadows surrounding the city children played, watched by strong healthy women with big, swollen bellies. Men walked the roads, driving heavily laden grain carts into the city, or hefting the tools of their trades over their shoulders, singing songs, or swapping jests. Content.
The Mothers were silent. They had never seen anything like it – nor had they ever thought to see anything like it. How did this pile of stone – this artifice – protect and nurture the land? As their gods, Seeder and Chaff, had once done? "This city itself will be the magic," Clove said, seeing the expressions in the women's eyes. "It will be as a charm of serenity to us, protecting us for an eternity against all evil and ill favor, and using the magic of a great god well that will be within its walls.."
"Tell us of this 'god well,'" Enobaria said.
Clove cast a glance Enobaria's way, but was satisfied by the curiosity she saw there. "The god well Peeta and I meant to make is used at the foundation of new cities, created first when the initial course of the city walls are laid down, then again when the walls have risen to their full height and are gated. It is a powerful spell-weaving that binds the city, and us, to this land as its protectors, but," she stressed, as a few Mothers murmured again, "its most potent benefit is that we also mean to build a trap... a labyrinth that at its center will attract and then trap all evil besieging a country. It'll trap the bad that comes and that remains now. Who can deny that evil and blight spreads over this land and through our families?" Clove paused, and when she resumed her voice was low but powerful. "The make of our trapping labyrinth will absorb that evil, and the blight that has plagued us will vanish as if it had never been. Panem will be strong again, stronger than previously. That is the two parts; the trap, and the god well in one city."
"How does it work?" asked a Mother up front.
Clove smiled down at her. She knew she would have them with this next. "It is danced," she said, watching delighted surprise light up many faces. Seeder's Stone Dances were very near and dear to the Mothers' hearts. "A labyrinthine dance, very much like Mother Seeder's Nuptial Dance, that uses the power of the male and the female to bind and empower the spell-weaving. There are two dances, the first is performed when the foundations of the city walls are laid, and this is called the Dance of Light." Most, Clove knew, did not have this step, as it was Peeta's thought to use this kind of trap to better the land; most traps were offensive, and inflicted something on the enemies or those who wished to touch whatever the labyrinth was protecting (whether it was just a god well, such as Hades' trap had been aimed, or if it was a city, or as they wanted, an entire land mass) but Peeta had suggested it be defensive. And Clove had readily agreed, not seeing anything wrong with the thought. Only that is was more complicated then she was willing to the tell the Mothers. "This first dance will raise the evil and blight from the land and trap it in the labyrinthine we mean to weave." Like the way Crete's labyrinth once kept the evil that was Asterion trapped. "Then, when the walls are completed, comes the second and last dance, the Dance of the Flowers," the dance all labyrinths had to be completed, "and we will raise a gateway of flower, that will complete the trap, the evil forever inside, and any other to come."
"And who will dance?" cried one of the Mothers.
"Myself, and Peeta," said Clove. "I need a strong partner" — she looked sadly to Woof, who, humiliated, turned his face aside — "who can withstand the forces of evil the trap shall attract.
"Peeta, a god by all means, and I will be the male and female force that weaves the god well and ties it to this land. Mothers, I know you distrust strangers, but within a few generations we will all merge into the one people. Look how easily I and my foremothers assimilated into your society! Trojans can, too!"
Enobaria opened her mouth to say something, and Cecelia clamped a hand on the woman's arm, again.
"The Trojans are our only hope," Woof said. "They are the only thing that stands between us and total annihilation. If we refuse them entry, if we turn them away, then we risk two fates. One, the Trojans will not accept our denial, and will attack us as enemies, seizing our land. Second, even worse, is that they will sail away, taking their magic with them, and our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will suffer and die under the swords of the blue-faced invaders. Without them, Panem is doomed."
Clove finished for him, "With them, it will survive into glory."
The two continued to speak, arguing persuasively that the Mothers needed to make this great step for the future of their peoples. It was a difficult decision, it was a decision that went against everything they'd ever thought right and proper, but it was the decision they must make, and it was a decision that they, the Anointed Father and Mother, knew the Mothers were courageous enough to make.
"Do you think that this has been easy for me?" Woof said. "First watching as Joanna stripped me of my power, and then as Chaff failed into death? Watching this land succumb to blight and pain and knowing there was nothing I could do about it? You cannot imagine what a bitter blow it has been to me that my long struggle to ease Panem's plight has been in vain; what a bitter blow it is that now I say to you that I, and Chaff, are useless. Accept their Trojan magic, accept their god well, and their labyrinth."
It was enough.
When Clove asked if there were any dissenting voices, the Mothers gave her only silence.
"They surrendered?" Brutus said, his eyes blazing.
"Aye," said Cecelia.
"And you added your voices to theirs?" Brutus said, looking at her, Enobaria, and Mags individually.
"We had little choice, Brutus," said Cecelia. "If we had spoken out we would have been dead by dawn. As it is, Clove will undoubtedly suspect us." She shot Enobaria an accusing glance at that.
They were standing on the northern bank of the Pan, slightly to the east of the White Mount. It was deep night, long after the Mothers had agreed in Assembly to the Anointed Mother and Father's plan to allow the Trojans to not only settle within Panem, but to allow them to build over many of their sacred hills. Enobaria, Cecelia, and Mags had been discreet in meeting Brutus, leaving it until late at night when most were in bed, gathering the strength they would need for tomorrow's Slaughter Festival.
"Clove may not be confronted directly, Brutus," Cecelia continued. "You must know that."
He snarled, more in frustration than anger, and turned away.
"Dario has told me of this 'Trojan magic' of their god well they mean to build," he said.
They told him what they knew, anyway, and of the labyrinth, and at the end of it he was unhappier.
"Evil? This labyrinth is a trap that will attract and then trap evil? What if it goes awry?" He paced anxiously along the edge of the forest. "What if it attracts… but doesn't trap? I do not like this!"
Cecelia shrugged. "The labyrinth will take the evil from this land, Brutus. No Mother was going to argue against any means of doing that. Even if they don't understand the process in which it is done."
"Not even you," Brutus said bitterly.
"What do you want, Brutus?" she said, her nerves strung so taut that she was prepared to confront a man she normally only held total civility to. "For Seeder and Chaff's dear sakes, what do you want?"
"I want this land to shake off the Darkwitch's power! I want this land to lie blessed under the benefice of Chaff and Seeder, our Father and Mother, not some stone city that sits atop trapped evil and a well! Is that so wrong, Cecelia? Is that so damned, cursed wrong? I know Cinna would say the same!"
She blinked at him, and frowned, and looked away at the mention of her son.
It was Enorbaria who spoke next.
"She has taunted you with having no weapon, Brutus. There is nothing left with which to fight her, not you, not your dying father, not even Seeder, who none of us can touch anymore. The Mothers have agreed, the god well will be made, New Troy... the trap. There is no weapon we can use against it."
Brutus shook his head, slowly. "We think there is still a weapon."
Brutus shot Enobaria a sharp look. "Twill, thinks."
"Katniss," said Cecelia, knowingly. "We have thought, too."
"Yes," said Brutus. "Katniss could be the weapon. I don't know how, or why, but even Clove is instinctively afraid of her as I am instinctively drawn to her. Katniss is the weapon..."
"All we need to do is learn how to wield her," said Enobaria.
"What can we do?" Cecelia said, though she did not like them thinking of her as an object.
Brutus grinned. "Tomorrow is the Slaughter Festival," he said. "There will be power about, as weak as it might be. I will ask Dario to bring Katniss to the summit of Pen, but I will need you there as well."
"We will be there," Enobaria said, and Cecelia frowned.
"Who is Dario?" she asked.
Brutus looked to Mags, who had remained silent this whole time. "He is a friend, we are told." Mags mumbled an assent. "We have had him watching Katniss, talking with her. He is their house guard."
"What has he gathered?"
"Not much, no more than we have now. Just that she is the weapon we think she is."
"Why is Cinna not the spy?" Cecelia wanted to know.
"Cinna had stood by when I mistakenly attacked her," Brutus admitted. "Dario was a better option."
"The rift is nearly gone, now, I think," she said. "Do you think maybe Cinna could bring her to us?"
"You don't trust this Dario?" Brutus asked. "Or are you just hoping to help Cinna in her bed?"
Cecelia's face flushed, more in indignation than any embarrassment. "I mean to keep him in the loop."
"Very well," Brutus said. "I'll tell Cinna to bring her to us." He looked to Mags. "Unless you object?"
"Dario is a good man," she mumbled, in a far-off way. "He's little interest in this, more in the sister."
"Sister? What sister?" Cecelia asked, feeling lost. At least Brutus looked equally confused.
Enobaria waved a carefree hand. "Just a small blonde thing. Katniss' little sister. No one of interest."
"Except that Dario finds her interesting," Brutus said, contemplative. "Twill will want to know."
"Where is Twill?" Enobaria asked, looking about the tree line. "Should she not be here?"
Something passed over Brutus' face. "She's... not well enough for company."
"Bring me to her," Mags said, and Brutus hesitated just that bit, before nodding.
"I'll bring her here. It'll be faster." Then he turned and left.
When he came back, nearly ten minutes had passed, and he emerged panting.
In his arms, sure enough, was the frail form of Twill, daughter of Joanna and Woof, a connection to the dead Chaff – and it showed... the 'dead' part. Like Woof, there was a clamminess to her hands, and though she slept in Brutus' arms, it was not peaceful. She jerked around slightly, eyelids flickering every so often, a fast and hard twitch sometimes contorting her entire body. She was feverish.
Brutus saw the horror written in Cecelia's face, and he saw Enobaria clench her jaw and harden her eyes, and Mags wordlessly touched Twill's sweat covered face. "She will be dead soon, won't she?"
"We can't know that," Cecelia said fervently.
"No, we can't," Enobaria agreed. "And there's nothing we can do about it." She began to turn away, pulling Mags and Cecelia with her. "Remember, tell Cinna to bring Katniss. We will meet you there."
"Until tomorrow," Brutus agreed.
"They agreed," Clove told Peeta as soon as she met him at her house the evening after the Assembly.
"Good," he said. "I will be sending Finnick south to arrange the passage of the rest of my people north." He smiled at that. "I hope they have not settled in too happily while waiting for word from me."
Clove smiled, content at the light in his eyes, and, taking him by the hand, led him into her house.
There had been little argument between them in the past seven days, and she was glad for it. Now Peeta sat with Clove by the fire, replete with the tasty meal her three daughters had prepared for that night.
"They are sweet girls," Peeta complimented, watching as the three girls sat gossiping and laughing over their spindles at the far end of Clove's house. "They remind me of Delly's sisters from before."
Clove smiled, despite his mention of Delly, and leaned against Peeta. Apart from her daughters, she and Peeta were alone: Woof, ill and weak, had elected to stay at one of the houses in Panbank that night.
For the moment, almost dozing with the effects of the meal, Peeta continued to watch the girls. He almost grinned, remembering the performance they'd put on in the serving of the food. The three girls had been all wit and smiles, as if trying to impress him. In feature they looked much like Clove herself, save that they were slightly shorter, and much slimmer and more girlish, if that were even possible.
The eldest one, Lena. She had an air of sadness and loss about her eyes, and she was far less a child than the other two. Keeping his voice low, Peeta asked Clove about her. "She still grieves for the child she lost a year ago," Clove said, very low. Her eyes followed Lena as she moved around. "She conceived him when she was thirteen, bore him when she was fourteen, and lost him the same year."
"How did he die?"
"A fever." Clove shrugged. "Poor Lena. Still, she will no doubt bear more children."
"I had thought your own daughters would be protected against this blight."
Clove looked at him strangely. "My family must be seen to suffer, as does every other."
The implication of that, made the dozing feeling disappear. Killed her own grandchild. So harsh.
Poor Lena, indeed, thought Peeta and then he leaned as far away from Clove as allowed.
"And you are sure about Asterion?" he asked, because he knew it would irk her.
"There is no need to talk of Asterion," she said and, taking one of his hands in hers, put it to her breast.
He glanced toward Clove's daughters, and he saw that they still had their heads bent low about their spinning, but he felt a queasy feeling shift in his stomach. He drew on his power from Katniss – it was all her and intoxicating, and he let his hand fall away from Clove. "We can't do this," he said, very low.
Clove's mouth twisted ruefully. "You will have to at some point. To complete the couple's god well."
"Then we'll wait," he said, not wanting to think of it.
"And yet," Clove breathed, moving close to him again, and putting her mouth to his ear, then to the back of his neck, then to his throat, "you are a man, Peeta. And I am not unwilling..."
He pulled her face about to his, and looked her seriously in the eyes. "You don't need to remind me. I know who and what I am. And what I want. Which is not this." He pulled away completely. "Don't do this to me now, Clove. Not after this good week between us. You're testing me, for no purpose. "
An almost pout touched Clove's face, and her expression became... petulant.
"And yet you took a wife. I bet you sleep with her all the time. And not me?"
"Do not worry about Katniss," he said.
"Gods, just put her aside," Clove said. "Renounce her. Give her to… to Marvel, perhaps."
Peeta's face hardened the moment she spoke, and something severe and uncompromising came into his eyes. If Clove didn't know any better, they flickered black for a breath. "I will not give her to Marvel!"
Clove fought down a moment of panic. "Peeta –"
"Do not go selling my wife to other men, Clove," he warned her.
"You cannot truly believe I'd be that petty."
"I don't know. You're very petty when it comes to Katniss. Why does she upset you so much?"
"You know why!" Clove hissed, stirred by jealousy, now, that he would so reject her and protect her. "How many times has she betrayed you? Kept things from you? And Asterion…you have said yourself how she mentioned his name as if she expected him, and you saw her with Coriolanus in vision –"
"But Asterion and Coriolanus are no threats. This you keep saying. Should I think different?"
"Asterion is no threat. Neither is the god Coriolanus." Inwardly seething, Clove forced a pleasant look to her face. "But they are two bad men and influences nonetheless. I am jealous, Peeta. That is all. If I sought to alleviate my desire for you in some other man's bed, would you not also be dismayed?"
"He is an old man. I have not shared his bed for years."
Peeta sighed – tired of arguing. "I do not sleep with her," he admitted. "Stop this jealousy."
Clove rose an eyebrow at that statement, but did not counter it. Instead she ran a hand over his chest, and said, "If you do not want me..." which made her voice take on a strange tone... "if you want to wait for us until it is time to complete the god well, to make it all the more special, and if you find the waiting hard, and you need relief that Katniss does not give, then you may take one of my girls –"
Peeta rose, suddenly, leaving Clove sitting awkwardly with her hand extended into empty air.
Peeta said, his voice flat, "You must know that I am not a man who enjoys violating children."
Before she could respond, Peeta was gone, and Clove was left staring incredulously after him.
It was Lena, come to see what ailed Clove.
"It is nothing, Lena. Be a good girl, now, and see your sisters to bed." As her daughters moved softly about the house, Clove went to stand outside, staring into the blackness toward the distant Panbank.
She was seething, now, and oddly enough, she felt minimally mad at herself, too.
Gods, I do not know how to speak to him, she thought, frustrated. And yet, that damned wife can!
"Who are you, girl?" Clove whispered, unconsciously echoing what Cinna had once said. "What are you? And what dangerare you? Why do you constantly battle with me over my Trojan prince?"
Why had she been at Seeder's Dance when Joanna had died?
Why did she mention Asterion's name?
Why did she feature in visions with the ill-famed god Coriolanus?
Why, in the name of all that was honest, did Peeta cling to her so desperately?
Why, why; why?
"What is she?" Clove said, narrowing her eyes. She should be only a mortal, and dismissed at that.
Don't touch her, Peeta had said. Ah! He was bewitched only by her looks. Even though Clove had said to Peeta that Katniss was nothing, when they'd argued about Asterion and Coriolanus, she still felt a jealousy, now, and that unease that Katniss had always given her. Still, she resigned herself not to touch Katniss. Less for Katniss' sake, and more because she knew Peeta wouldn't forgive her now, if she did.
Peeta came home the night before the Slaughter Festival angry. Which was odd, I thought, considering the fact that in the Mother's Assembly earlier that morning, had agreed to allow New Troy to be built.
Upon entering, he'd sat heavily beside Marvel at the hearth, then, he gave Marvel a suspicious look and moved to sit beside Finnick. "You're to leave tomorrow morning," he told Marvel, tersely, and as much as I disliked Marvel, I thought this open hostility toward one of his most trusted advisers odd for Peeta.
"To where, my prince?" Marvel asked, clearly bewildered.
"To Delltos. You'll meet with Glimmer there and lead the people by ship to here."
"I thought you were going to send me," Finnick said.
"I changed my mind. I'm sending Marvel instead."
Confused, both moved to question him, but Peeta silenced them with a look. He didn't often hold them to strict orders, and he did not flaunt his 'prince' title, nor his 'godly' one, but that night, he would.
And that's why I rose from my place beside Prim, and sat by him, and placed Achates in his arms.
He looked at me, surprised. "Your son misses you," I told him simply, and a smile touched his face.
In truth, in the past seven days, he'd had little time to hold his son, and perhaps Achates didn't notice that, but I did, and I missed Peeta. We'd had no time to talk either, with him so preoccupied with the plans on constructing New Troy and with his daily trips to the Veiled Hills with Clove and his advisers.
"How was dinner with Clove and her daughters?" I asked.
A little of the previous anger returned to his face before he softened it. "It was unpleasant."
"I thought as much," I said. I twisted a loose blonde curl on Achates' head. "How are you?"
I looked up at him. "No new worries?"
"For the first time, no. No new ones."
"That is good."
For awhile, we talked of nothing of real importance, sitting at the hearth. Slowly, his smiles were less forced, growing warmer and happier the longer I had my attention on him, and I was glad to see I could still melt him down to his true self, not befuddled by anger or jealousy, guilt or anything dark.
By the time it was to sleep, I rose to hand Achates to Prim for a last nightly feeding. "He sleeps better when he's with Aurora," she said, taking him. Her hands moved with a strange slowness. Her body, too, moved in a way that spoke great control. I knew very little of what she did when she went off with Darius – a thing that happened for hours a day, in the past seven – and since Darius still would not speak with me since that night I'd returned from Cinna's house, and she declined to tell me, I didn't think I'd ever know. Which was fine, I suppose, as long as she remained close and seemed healthy.
I smiled at her. "Alright."
When I slipped into the blankets with Peeta, his hands slid around my waist, underneath my robe and though I stiffened in surprise – he'd not touched me in bed since he'd promised no more sex – I did not immediately grow offended or reprehend him for doing it. "Is this alright?" he whispered.
He drew me close to him, nearly enfolding me into his broad chest. It was admittedly warm.
I nodded, and shifted around so that I had my back to his chest. His bare arms pressed into the skin of my ribcage, and one of his hand rested spread-fingered over my bare stomach. I closed my eyes.
I expected him to sleep, then, but he whispered against my hair, "And this?"
His leg shifted over mine, then underneath, so they were intertwined, drawing me impossibly closer.
I managed a curt nod.
His hand on my stomach gave the slightest of shifts, and something in my lower abdomen went as tight as the string of a loaded bow. My own hand, quickly, settled over his, and held it in place. "Stop."
I felt his breath on the back of my neck, and Peeta passed his lips over my hair. "I want you."
A sharp, hot burning rose in my cheeks, that I was helpless to stop. The roughness of his voice caused the tightness in my belly to tremble, while at the same time, my hand on his pulled it away from me.
"You said..." I whispered, and Peeta immediately withdrew, leaving me feeling cold all over.
"I know what I said," he said, gently, and all the husky lust was gone from his voice. "And I wouldn't dream of forcing you to do something you didn't want..." an awkward pause... "forgiving what my other self has already done to you. But it doesn't change the fact that I do want you, Katniss."
I rolled over to look him in the face. He meant that, I could see.
Keeping a good few inches between our bodies, Peeta raised a hand, hesitated, then traced a finger around my lips. Lust was there, again, in his blue eyes, but there was tenderness and reverence.
And doubt, too. A sadness.
"Do you want me?" he whispered.
I didn't answer.
He brushed the back of his hand against my cheek, and then tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.
Focusing on the sight of that strand, he whispered, very, very softly, "Will you ever want me?"
What do I say?
There was no getting away from this. No distractions.
What do I say? What do I say?
What was the truth?
I didn't know. Not really. By 'want' he meant physically, right? But what if he meant emotionally?
If he meant both, what would the answer be? What would the answer be if he only meant one of them?
As sure as I was in the act of protecting him, how could I be so unsettled by this one question?
I began to shake my head, wordlessly, and his eyes focused on my no doubt wide and lost ones.
Disappointment and a great sadness spread over his face, his hand falling away from me.
"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I don't know. I just don't know. Peeta..."
He managed a small smile, and he took my hand and pressed his lips into the back of it. "It's alright," he whispered, though his voice was just as sad as his eyes. "I'll still love you, Katniss. Always."
It made me feel worse, not better.
"I'll always want you," he breathed, closing his eyes momentarily, before opening them again.
And they were so blue.
That rare timid, vulnerable shine in him was showing. He didn't seem a man capable of harming a fly, let alone killing a person, or destroying a city, or being claimed a replace of Hades. It was pure Peeta.
I closed my eyes and couldn't believe the words I let slip out of my mouth. "Kiss me."
He did. Though there had been a few seconds where I thought he wouldn't. And when he kissed me, it started off shy, his lips just brushing mine, and then, as I did not move away, he really kissed me.
We'd only kissed three times before. Once, when I'd ended it by slapping him. The next, in the hills, that he'd ripped away from in seconds, turning black-eyed. And then most recently, that kiss I'd given him before he'd went to meet with Clove, that was tentative, and too polite, in a way, to be much.
This kiss was very, very different from all the others.
There was heat behind this one, passion and – as he so fervently claimed – raw, unrestrained want.
He pressed himself closer, a leg slipping around mine again, trapping me against his chest. His hand cupped the side of my face, as he deepened the kiss, and his other one snaked behind my head, sliding into my hair, tangling his fingers into the loose black threads. For several long minutes, he continued.
Then I broke it off. I jerked away from him, and I wriggled away from his hands, sitting up on the edge of the bed. My hands fumbled to close my robe, and when I stood, I felt a little shaken, and out of it.
"Katniss?" Peeta whispered, touching my hip with reaching fingers.
"I can't stay here tonight," I said, rushed. I pulled on shoes, not ignorant to the fact that a few of our house companions were still awake – most particularly Marvel, who watched amusedly. Quickly, I fled.
I wasn't really sure where I thought I would go. Only that I needed to be away. I was certain the kiss would turn into more. Because I did want him. If I'd thought touching him felt right, than kissing him... feeling his body move against mine... Gods, then it was the rightest thing in the entirety of the realms.
But I couldn't. Not like that, there... I couldn't. Not with everything that was going on.
Not when I was certain all I wanted was him physically, and he'd just confessed utmost love to me.
I'd fled the house as quickly as I could, hoping Peeta wouldn't follow, hoping Marvel's eyes would stop laughing at me from the dark recess of his bed, and hoping, beyond hope, the guards wouldn't stop me.
I was stupid to think that Darius wouldn't instantly be alarmed by the rate at which I ran away from the house, and – though for a moment I considered running all the way to Cinna's house – I turned down that path I knew would bring me to the meadowlands he and I had once sat in and talked for a time.
Knowing he could never run, I wasn't surprised when he appeared out of no where near the ash tree.
He was standing stiffly, and his face was a mask of both concern and disinterest. "What is it?"
I shoved by him, and sat at the base of the tree. "Nothing. I wanted air."
"Nothing is wrong with Prim?" he asked.
"No," I said, stressing the word. "No. Your recruit is perfectly fine. You can go now."
Still, he stood there, and I hugged my knees to my chest. I tried to focus on the sight of the moon in the distance, but I could tell Darius was looking at me, and I felt a prickle of unease at this. And frustration, too, toward him over the past seven days. My own frustration over Peeta flooded into my overly harsh words as I snapped at him, "Don't you think I ran, because I knew no cripple would catch up?"
Darius didn't reply.
"Why are you even asking me about Prim?" I said next, outright angry now. "Just go look yourself."
"No one knows her better than you," he said, matter-of-fact.
"Clearly if something were wrong, I'd take her with me when I ran."
"Alright." He paused, then asked, "And where would you take her? Here?"
I looked around at the empty, peaceful grass land. "Probably."
"And what if you were being chased?"
"Then we'd run farther."
"What if you can't outrun them?" he pressed.
"Then I'll hide her somewhere."
"Cinna's?" There was a clearly unhappy arch in his tone over that thought.
Irritated, I finally swung my gaze to him, to see his was narrowed. "Why are you so against him?"
He looked away. "I'm not against him.."
"Clearly you have some sort of problem with him."
"It's not him," he said, and when I rose an eyebrow in disbelief, his face turned earnest. "I don't. It's just..." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, a thing I knew he did only when frustrated at his peak. "Why not me?" he asked, and his green eyes gave way to a twisting of oranges and reds.
"Why not you, what?"
"Why wouldn't you come to me? You must know I'd help you."
"You're angry... because Cinna found me when I was distressed, and you didn't?"
Him looking away again, made me sure that I'd guessed right.
"Do you have some sort of hero's complex?"
"No," he said, tersely. "And I shouldn't be angry about it."
"But you are."
"I shouldn't be angry. I was with Prim, where I belonged. I'm supposed to protect her. Not you."
"I don't need your protection, Darius," I told him. "Peeta..."
"Who will protect you from Peeta?" Darius cut in. By the look in his face, I could see he'd worried over this before. "I don't know why you expect him to be your savior at every turn, but when he's not –"
"You want to be. Why?"
"I don't know!" Darius clenched his fists and threw them up, before he abruptly came over to my side and leaned into the tree and slid down it to sit beside me. He buried his face in his hands. "I don't know what's wrong with me. The others say I'm going soft. They say I've let a pretty face distract me from our war the way Peeta has... and that's about the worst slur among the Enlightened, being compared to him." He dropped his hands to look over at me. "You don't look like her," he said, and I knew instantly he was talking about Athena. "And I'm not Hephaestus. I only have his memories, and yet, I feel..."
"You feel what?"
"A need to prove myself," he said, sighing, and he looked to his hands.
"Prove what, though? I know you're a god, capable and powerful."
"I want to prove I am worthy, I guess." He seemed sad now, and something about his sadness made me ache worse than Peeta's had. Peeta's had been over me, but Darius' sadness seemed as deep and unknowing as the ocean, and seeing him deflate against that tree, all playfulness lost, hurt to see.
"Worthy of what?" I asked, softly.
He wouldn't outright say it, even though I knew what. "Even from the beginning of Hephaestus' life he was scorned for being crippled. His own mother throwing him out of Olympus. But he didn't allow himself to stay down. He decided he was competent." Darius spread his hands outward, indicating them. "These, are the competent part of him... me. He built that throne to trap Hera, and tricked them into taking him back. Still, even besting them with wit, he faced rejection and disgust his whole life."
"Rejection, like Athena gave him?" I asked.
"It's one of his most bitter memories," Darius said. "One of his worst rejections."
"And you don't want to be the same..."
He glanced up, then away. "I just want to be worthy..."
Of love? I thought, and knew that he still would not outright say it.
I knew then, why he'd been so overwhelmingly friendly at our first meeting. Why he'd asked for a kiss.
After a few minutes of silence, where I stayed where I was, Darius blinked away his sadness and mustered a boyish smile for me. "I'm sorry. I'll go now. You came here for peace, and I should go."
I didn't stop him, or say anything to contradict him. However, before he actually left, he sat up, swept up a few dead leafs on the ground into a small, hasty pile, then with just the touch of his fingertip, they burst into flames. "It'll burn forever, until you leave it," he told me, and with that, he disappeared.
I was grateful for the light and warmth. I shifted around to sit more comfortably against the base of the ash tree, and pulled my robe more tightly around my form, closing my eyes and preparing to sleep.
Pushing him, and Peeta from my mind in the next few hours proved difficult, but not impossible.
Every year as many people as possible from the tribes and houses of Panem traveled to the Veiled Hills for the Slaughter Festival. They brought with them those goods they had made at their hearths over the past year to sell in the markets, they herded before them their spare livestock that they might barter them at the livestock fairs (as well as one fat beast, which they would feast), and they carried wrapped in cloth their finest bronze pieces – swords, knives, arrow heads, pins, or brooches – that they might offer them to their gods in thanks for their lives and for the food and children that had graced their households over the past year.
If perhaps the food had not been so plentiful this past year, or their children not so hearty, then the family would bring more than perhaps they could afford to offer Chaff and Seeder, desperate for a turn in their fortunes.
The sudden influx of people in the town of Panbank and the surrounding area created mayhem – but it was a happy, friendly mayhem, for the Slaughter Festival was the most eagerly anticipated social occasion as well as religious rite of the year. All the homes within Panbank took in as many people as they could; the over-flow encamped in the areas to the south and east of the town, their children running about, laughing and playing, their beasts baying and bleating in confusion at the throngs of people and their own crowded kind packed into pens and runs.
Of all homes within Panbank, Katniss' house was the only one that was not overflowing with guests, its internal quiet a strange counterpoint to the bustle and noise everywhere else.
On the evening of the Slaughter Festival, Prim took herself off to the northern bank of the Pan river, pulling Katniss along with her. Tonight, they would have time together, as a nurse Peeta had cause to hire watched over their children. Though both had hesitated in doing so, Katniss was still wary about the night before, sleeping in the meadow – after so running away from Peeta – and she didn't want to offend him by rejecting the kindly meant offer. They could safely leave Achates and Aurora behind for a night, surely, and although both adored their children, they thought that perhaps this was one night where they would be better off left behind in the warmth and security of the house and a nurse's care.
Finnick escorted them; Peeta was regrettably tied up with Clove and Marvel was long gone, he had headed south in the morning as he was bid, just before dawn, armed with the news that the Gathering of Mothers had agreed to their plan to settle the Trojans in the Veiled Hills. He would bring the Trojans north by ship, Glimmer among them, and no one expected them for several weeks, if not more.
It would take at least that long to arrange space and accommodation for them, and Finnick, who was in charge of arranging such space, knew he would have his work cut out.
The crowds pressed uncomfortably, and Finnick moved close to Prim and Katniss, trying to keep them free of the press. Prim was oblivious to him, looking left and right, and left, while Katniss noticed his effort, giving him a thankful smile. She wasn't sure if he still felt a twinge of discomfort toward her over witnessing Joanna's horrific death, but when Finnick smiled unrestrained back, an old ease back in his face, she knew that he'd either decided he'd forgive her, or that he would no longer blame her.
Either way, that gave her one good spring in her step to match Prim's overzealous ones.
She was dressed very beautifully, in the Panem manner rather than the Trojan, and Finnick though it suited her better, and wondered from where she had found her sleeveless robe. Its full skirt hung to only just below her knees, leaving her strong brown calves and ankles bare above her fine leather shoes. The material was a finely woven wool and patterned about its low-scalloped neck and hem with a twisted design that Finnick realized only after several minutes of surreptitious observation was of entwined antlers. Katniss wore a matching cloak on her back, its weave slightly denser than that of the robe but even then light enough to flow back from her body with every movement she made.
In counterpoint to her Panem-styled clothes, Katniss wore her dark hair in full Greek fashion, twisted and arranged to fall in carefully controlled cascades from the crown of her head. She shook her head at Finnick and smiled an embarrassed smile when she caught him looking. "It is Cinna's doing," she said.
"Your hair?" Finnick asked, raising his voice above the din of the crowd. "A man did it?"
Katniss' face clearly showed she could not believe that truth either. "He asked, and I allowed. I did not think he could truly do it, but he'd seen other Trojans wear their hair thus and he wanted to try it."
"It becomes you," Finnick complimented and Katniss shook her head again, laughing.
Prim had giggled throughout the process, as well and Cinna had then offered to do her hair. For her, it was braided up upon her head, the thick blonde plaits coiled over her head almost like a crown.
If anyone was looking becoming that day, Katniss thought it was her. However, Finnick wryly observed that many others thought it was Katniss, judging by the number of admiring glances sent her way.
They walked toward the riverbank, the crowds drawing ever closer, and Finnick had to fight to make room for them. Katniss was becoming agitated, while Prim only pressed forward, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright, and just as Finnick had begun to wonder if it might not be safer after all to escort them back to the safety of their house, he lost sight of Primrose in the press of people before him.
He searched and searched through them, frantic almost.
Katniss watched calmly as Prim flounce toward Darius standing beside a stand selling trinkets.
She was not surprised to see Prim's excited beam and Darius' polite smile when she pulled on his elbow and presented herself to him. It was a cute scene, Katniss thought, where Darius scuffled Prim's hair.
It was brotherly, certainly.
Katniss moved to join them, when a voice spoke, and a warm hand took hold of her elbow.
"I have just the place for us to view the celebration," Cinna said.
Katniss turned to him; she'd seen him that morning, when he'd done her hair, but he'd said he had to go see his family well before he could join them. "Let me just grab Prim and we can –"
"No time," Cinna said. "Come on, before your jailer realizes." He indicated Finnick, who had still not seen where Prim stood with Darius and for a second Katniss considered staying and then, she didn't.
Prim would be safe enough with Darius, she reasoned. Tonight should be for fun.
"Hurry," she breathed.
By the time Finnick turned, and said, "Do you –" He stopped mid-sentence, realizing no one was there.
Katniss had vanished… she had simply melted back into the crowds pressed about him.
He bellowed Katniss' name, straining on the tips of his toes to see above the heads surrounding him. But to no avail. She were gone, and so was Prim, to his knowledge, and he was left to be carried along with the flow of the crowds toward the Pan. Hadn't Peeta commanded him to watch out for them?
Peeta will be upset, he thought, and then wondered if he had the nerve to tell him.
"My sister's robe looks well on you," Cinna said to Katniss once they stopped. They were standing on a small raised mound on the northern bank of the river between the White Mount and Seeder's Hill.
He had swept her through the crowd and away from Finnick with effortless ease, conveying her to the small ferry on the Pan's southern bank, and persuading the ferryman with charm and a curiously carved seashell to take them to the northern bank. There, on the northern bank, the crowds were far less as the people about generally consisted only of those taking part in the ceremonies. A special choice few.
From there Cinna had led Katniss to a spot where they would not only be able to have a good view of the rituals about to be enacted, but at the same time not be in anyone's way.
"Thank Octavia again for me," Katniss replied. "I cannot believe she would gift me such a treasure."
"She liked you," Cinna said. "My entire family liked you."
"I liked them too. It is not often I am so welcomed places."
"What do you mean?"
"You say too many kind things about me," she said. "Others are simply not so generous."
Cinna shook his head, bemused. "Didn't I tell you earlier how lovely you looked? You deserve all my kind words, and more," he said. "I am your friend, and your guide through tonight's mysteries," he said. "Tonight I will bring you among greater friends, and allies." His hand shifted into hers and squeezed, but in a manner that was somehow mischievous and teasing, not in any manner demanding.
She, too distracted by the beauty of the landscape of the surrounding Veiled Hills didn't really register his words, but smiled and relaxed her hand in his, which pleased Cinna. Perhaps one day, perhaps soon, she might overcome her inhibitions about what happened with Joanna. Perhaps that could be tonight.
Brutus had asked him to bring Katniss to the Stone Dance atop Pen once the main rituals were done.
He knew his mother, Cecelia, and Enobaria would also be there, waiting. Twill, too.
Please Chaff, Cinna prayed silently, closing his eyes for a moment, let them discover the "why" of Katniss. Let him discover how to use her to restore balance, health, and Panem's true gods to this land.
He shuddered, and she felt it, half turning to him until he could see the concern etched into her face in the starlight. "The cold," he said in excuse. "There will be a heavy frost at dawn, I think." He dropper her hand and pushed her cloak over her shoulders, wrapping her the more tightly in its warmth.
"We should all be well abed by then," she said, and he grunted, able to make no other reply to her.
Then he felt her start, her head moving back to the river again.
"What is happening?" she said, and Cinna heard the strain in her voice.
On the banks of the Pan below them, several hundred women had gathered. They were cloaked, but as Katniss and Cinna watched, they allowed the cloaks to drop to the ground, leaving the women naked.
"They are Mothers," Cinna said quietly. "Not all of them, but a representative grouping of them. They are here to offer sacrifice to Chaff and Seeder." In their last fit of desperation, thought Cinna.
Perhaps it was just a formality, done for the comfort it gave rather than in any expectation of actual aid.
"Sacrifice?" Katniss said.
He smiled, because he knew the strain in her voice that time was to his ill-timed joke from before. "Metal, not blood. The most precious metal objects we have. Given to the river as thanks and offering."
"Why the river… and why such a waste of such precious objects?" Her face scrunched with distaste. "Each of those bronze axes might well feed a small community throughout an entire winter."
One of his hands lifted, extending toward the wide river. "See the stillness of the waters? The gleam of its surface? Is that not the most mysterious thing you have ever seen? Water is the gateway between this world and all the other worlds, the mirror that reflects both sides, and what we offer to the river is taken in thanks by the gods on the other side… in the other worlds. Why such precious objects? Because they are such precious things to us. See… the Mothers take up their offerings."
"They're breaking them!" Indeed, each of the women, no matter what she held, was now ritually breaking the objects – bending, twisting, mutilating, and shattering, if able.
"They do that to show the gods to what lengths they will go to honor them. The objects are precious, and it is in honor of the gods they break them before offering. It is not called sacrifice for no reason."
The beat of a drum began, and then the thin, almost-frightening wail of a pipe.
"There," Cinna said, and pointed toward Seeder's Hill.
Figures stood on its summit, and Katniss and Cinna were close enough to see.
Clove – there could be no mistaking her slim figure nor her wild dark hair. Peeta was with her, wearing nothing but a white loin wrap. Three women – no, girls – stood behind Clove and Peeta, and as Katniss watched, Peeta turned and laughed with them about something, seemingly carefree and happy.
Cinna saw Katniss tense at that simple display.
"They are Clove's daughters," he said. "Fathered on her by Woof during rituals such as these."
Katniss said nothing, staring at the man above and distant to her.
"Why do you love him so deeply when he treats you so badly?" Cinna said, truly wanting to know.
She jerked, and turned to blink at Cinna. "Why do you ask me that?"
"Because I see love in your eyes. And I have seen the way he sometimes treats you."
"Sometimes," she muttered, turning away, seemingly annoyed, and not answering his first question.
"How can you want to be beside him so much?" Cinna asked next, softly that time.
"He is everything to me," she answered, just as delicately.
Above them, Clove turned to Peeta, and kissed him; far below, Katniss gave a low moan of distress.
"Even now? As he does that?"
"It is complicated," Katniss said. "I could be kissing him, now, there. And that knowledge burns in me, but I... I pushed him away last night." She didn't seem to care to share this with Cinna. "I chose this, just as much as he has. He is doing this... for himself, as much as for me. We both play our parts."
Below them, the Mothers had walked far into the waters of the Pan so that the waves of the great river lapped at their breasts. The sight tore the pairs eyes away from Clove and Peeta. As one, and to the accompaniment of a surging of the pipes and drums and the ululations of the watchers on the far riverbank, the Mothers threw their offerings of precious metal far into the river with a splash.
Gigantic bone-fires roared into life on the summits of all the sacred hills and mounds, and as they did so, black figures began to twist and turn about them in wild dance. The fires made her think of Darius.
"Then, surely, you hate Clove, if you love Peeta," Cinna pressed on the subject.
Sighing, Katniss replied, "Yes."
As the great bone-fires roared into life, the Slaughter Festival moved from formal rite to popular revelry. Flasks of honeyed mead were produced and consumed, the carcasses of pigs and cattle were spitted and roasted, and the wail and throb of pipes and drums worked their magic among the crowds.
Atop Seeder's Hill, Peeta and Clove and her three daughters made their way down to the river, then across to the southern bank to partake themselves of the revelry and merrymaking, as did those Mothers who had cast their metal into the river. No doubt Peeta would go search for Katniss.
After a moment, Cinna coaxed Katniss away from the celebration and toward the trees. At first she didn't seem to want to go, or understand why she should, but he just smiled and the pulse of Seeder within her guided her footsteps toward the darkness of the trees with much wanting and desire.
In the first minutes of their jog, Katniss had seen other people — dark shapes moving slowly through the night — but once they'd moved a little distance from the river the shapes drew back and the two were left alone in the night. They sped up then, running fast, though Cinna seemed to struggle to keep up with her. They stopped, eventually, her chest rising and falling in agony, her legs quivering and weak. She bent over, resting her hands on her thighs as she tried to regain both breath and composure.
After a few minutes she straightened, and looked about her, suddenly realizing not only how far Cinna had led her away from the celebration, but how isolated they were in this strange – yet beautiful – landscape in the middle of the night. The dull sound of distant music and laughter reached her.
"What are we doing here, Cinna?" she whispered.
She twisted about so violently toward the voice that she would've tripped if Cinna hadn't steadied her.
A figure emerged out of the night, and Katniss drew in one terrified, angry breath, then ripped herself away from Cinna's hands on her shoulders. "You brought me to him!" she hissed in disbelief.
"Hello, Katniss," said Brutus casually, strolling completely out of the darkness to stand before them. He was the same, but lacking the tied on antlers, and her harsh, angry eyes settled on him in hatred.
"If you think –"
"If I did not kill you in Seeder's Dance," Brutus said, "why should I do so now?"
He stretched a hand to her, holding it there, waiting.
"Because I got away, that's why," she said.
"It was a mistake," Brutus admitted. "I won't hurt you now. I wish to be friends."
Her eyes flickered from his face to the outstretched hand, back to his face, then to Cinna again, in a contortion of betrayal, uncertainty and... hope(?) before finally settling on Brutus' hand to stay.
Very slowly she lifted her own hand, hesitated just as she was about to take his, then, holding her breath, slid her palm against his. He grasped it tight, then leaned forward, their faces very close.
Her eyes were still hard, steely and his were crudely amused. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Brutus," Cinna warned.
"You will regret it, if you try anything against me," she promised.
Brutus laughed. "I believe it," he said, letting go of her hand and standing straight. "I am Brutus. Son in the House of Seeder, as useless a title as can be, now. You are Katniss, and everyone has yet to discover who you truly are, and whether you encompass usefulness… or uselessness. That is why I'm here."
His eyes narrowed, studying her, and she scowled straight back.
"Who are you, Katniss?" he whispered. "Do you, a stranger, carry Seeder in the pit of your belly?"
He moved away, and Cinna urged Katniss to follow by his side as they walked farther into the night.
"We are going to dance for Seeder," Cinna encouraged her forward. "It won't be unpleasant."
"You did not tell Peeta of that night," Brutus cut in, brashly. "Not all of it. Why?"
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe because I was saving it for blackmail."
Brutus grunted in reply to that threat, then said, "You do not like Clove. You wish her dead?"
"Are you offering?" Katniss retorted.
"I could be. We could be great allies, you and I, Katniss," Brutus said.
"I have my own allies," she said stiffly.
"We all think we do," he said. "But it would help both of us if you talked with us tonight. What we will show you tonight few of our people, let alone strangers, are allowed to witness. Be grateful for it."
"Should I also be grateful for you murdering Joanna?"
He smiled, and looked over at Cinna in glee. "She's got spunk, this one. I like her."
The change that came over Brutus when he smiled shocked me. It was not so much it made him handsome, but something inside of me twinged at the sight. Perhaps it was Seeder's love of him.
Seeing that it is that Seeder loved everyone unconditionally, and so through her I decided to follow them. Sure enough, as Cinna had informed me we were going to dace, they led me to a hill on which stood a stone dance. It was much smaller than the great Seeder's Dance, but it had an elegance to it.
"Where is this?" I said, a little breathless.
"This hill is named Pen," Cinna said, stopping to admire it. "Its cap of stone hides its greatest secret –"
"A hole," he said. "A great light hole."
I frowned, and would have asked more, but Brutus started to climb the hill, and we surged on after him.
All my breathlessness increased by the time we reached the top of the Pen hill, and for a few long minutes I did nothing but haul in deep painful breaths. Cinna was similarly breathless, but Brutus just seemed amused about that. He walked inside the Stone Dance and completely ignored us.
I could see the river from where I was, stretching out all silver and mystery in the deep of the night, its waters at the southern shoreline reflecting the light and movement of the Slaughter Festival revelry.
I wondered for a moment where Prim was… what she and Darius were doing, or if Finnick had found her and restrained her. I hoped at the very least she was enjoying her night out. And I hoped Darius was, too. He deserved that. Then I thought of Peeta. Where was he? Still with Clove? Still holding her, kissing her? I felt a great cold fist clutch all the entrails in my belly into one twisting, jealous mass.
I hated her so much…
I turned about, back to where the Stone Dance rose behind me.
Enobaria stood under one of the great stone arches, completely naked, and I was not surprised.
"Join us," she said, and without prompting I slipped the shoes from my feet, and the cloak and robe from my body, and walked into the circle of the Stone Dance. Cinna followed close after.
The cold and frost of the night did not touch me.
Nor did the sudden roar of flames within the Dance perturb me.
Cecelia was inside the dance as well, and another woman I did not know and who was introduced to me as Mother Mags (the past nymph that Darius knows!). I smiled upon those two that I liked.
Even so, Cecelia turned to Cinna and murmured to him, and he left. "Where is he going?"
"He has done his part," Cecelia told me, returning my previous smile. "He is not needed here."
Brutus joined us, as naked as were we four women.
Fire was everywhere. I think the flames came from the stones of the Dance themselves, but they did not touch me, nor did their heat sear me. This time, the fire didn't make me think of Darius, only my anger.
As the quiet introduction finished, Brutus drew me to one side, and the three Mothers – Enobaria, Cecelia, and Mags – began a dance. It was like, yet unlike, the dance that Joanna had drawn me into inside Seeder's Dance. It had the same sensuality, but not its sexuality. It had the same sinuosity, but not its complexity. They danced in a circle, weaving their way about each other, their outstretched hands brushing each time they passed. It was much slower, and their bodies moved with great precision.
Their heads they kept bowed, as if in homage.
It was a dance, that only women with the wisdom of maturity and experience could execute.
A younger woman, I thought, would only have blundered the steps.
I blinked, for suddenly their forms appeared bleary to me. They were still there, I knew that, for something within me could sense not only their presence, but their continued dance, but as heartbeat succeeded heartbeat their forms vanished completely, and all I could see was the center of the circle about which the Mothers danced. And that time, it was filled with a vision.
There was a pond there, crystal clear yet with unknowable depths.
A grassy verge sprawled out from the pond, verdant with health and life.
A white stag with blood red antlers, skeletal and dying, his eyes frantic, his breath heaving in agony from his bloodied, foamed, gaping mouth lay in that grass. His heart, torn from his breast, and hanging by a tendon was displayed outside of his chest. It beat. I could not see it, but I knew it. That heart continued to beat, but so slowly that its measure had to be counted in aeons, not in moments.
Beside me Brutus muttered something, his voice tight with excitement, but I paid him no attention.
All I could see, all I knew was that pitiful stag crawling on its belly toward the pond, dying – literally – for a draught of its healing waters. I felt something inside of me cry out at the sight, and involuntarily I held out my arms to the stag, and would have gone to it, save that Brutus held me back with his hands.
And then the waters of the pond stirred, and an arm rose from its depths.
It was an arm of no natural creature, for it was composed of the water itself.
It glittered with the shards of firelight leaping about the Stone Dance.
It reached for the stag, but in vain, for the pitiful creature was as yet too far from the edge of the water.
The arm moved in a gentle circle, as if waving, or summoning.
Katniss, whispered a desperate, dying voice, so strangled and breathless it was barely audible.
I knew that voice though. As surely as I breathed, I knew it. "Seeder," I replied, sadly.
And then the vision was gone, and everyone – Brutus and the Mothers – was staring at me.
Brutus reached for me, and I stumbled back, without thinking, my heel catching on a stone. Horror flashed into Cecelia's face when I turned my eyes her way, as I tripped into a swathe of fire. I cried out, I think, more out of surprise at seeing the flames on my skin, than anything related to pain.
In fact, there was no pain.
I flailed, the fire danced across my naked body, and I simply scrambled away from it, untouched.
If I'd thought the four were baffled before, by Seeder's blatant display, then they were even more so then. And they weren't alone. I gaped at the fire, still there, and I reached out a hand, watching as the fire simply moved over my skin, as if in caress, rather than to devour or eat away my flesh as it should.
As I stared at the sight of my hand in the fire, Cecelia hurried forth, holding my clothes. She assisted me to dress, wrapping my cloak warmly about me, and all that time she sent me wondering glances.
I knew that whatever she and her companions had thought would happen tonight within the Stone Dance, what had happened was not it at all. I allowed Cecelia to pull me away from the fire.
Brutus had garbed himself quickly in his hip wrap, and moved around to dose all the fires in the Dance but for one in a cold ring of stones in the center of the circle. He beckoned myself and the three now-clothed Mothers in close, and we sat about the growing flames. I couldn't help but place my foot in.
Cecelia tsked, and pulled it back out.
Then, Brutus spoke.
"Chaff is alive," he said, his voice wondering and relieved and mystified in equal amounts.
"Chaff is alive," Mags mumbled in agreement.
"Barely," said Enorbaria, always the one to see the dour side of things.
"But alive," said Cecelia, Enobaria's opposite. "Alive, and that is all we need for hope."
"And Seeder called Katniss' name," said Mags.
"Aye," said Brutus. "She has picked Katniss to help her. That is clear."
Then, as one, Brutus and the Mothers looked at me. "Seeder needs you to help her," Mags said.
"Against Clove?" I said, my voice still wreathed in shock.
Is it possible that the fire-thing is Seeder's doing?
But Darius is the god of fire. Perhaps this is his doing.
"Of course," Brutus replied to my spoken question. "Against everything Clove and Peeta plan."
"It depends," I said, looking over at him. "Perhaps, if we come up with a way to kill her before they begin the plans, I can help you. But if it starts, then I can't help you. Peeta will be too close to her."
"How can you say 'depends' –" Enobaria began to snap, but Cecelia silenced her with a raised hand.
"Do you not love this land, Katniss?" she asked.
"I do," I admitted. "I love it, and I love Seeder. But I also... must protect Peeta."
"You would not sacrifice one man for the sake of all of Panem and its people and its gods?"
I just stared at Cecelia.
"You must aid Seeder!" Enobaria said. "You must! She named you, she –"
All eyes swung to the right, where a small figure stood. Twill, rubbing sleep from her eyes, and face still flushed with fever, body weak and trembling, stood there. "Katniss... will you come with me?"
Brutus, leaping to his feet, rushed to Twill, meaning as if to pick her up. "What are you doing out of bed? Did you walk all the way here? You're sick, you can't just go –" Twill shook her head to stall him.
"There is something I must show Katniss."
She raised two small, blind hands in our direction and everyone in turn was staring at me again.
I wasn't cruel. I could see that Twill was sick, just as Brutus had said, and I could see it took all her will power to remain standing there, arms extended, so I stood and crossed over to her and took those hands. In turn, Twill dropped her face back, as if she could see me. There was something akin to awe in those washed-out, misted blue eyes, and for some reason... I thought I saw a glint of Joanna there, too.
"You are not Seeder, girl on fire," Twill whispered. "You are her opposite. And that is why it is you."
"Girl on fire?" I asked, wryly.
"Seeder remains in water. She is gentle and loving. Seeder loves before all else. Seeder was tricked." Twill tightened her fingers around mine, until her fingernails bit into my flesh. "Panem needs strength, now. Panem cannot stand to be tricked again. It needs fire, and anger, and you, girl on fire, for peace."
So is the fire thing... to be blamed on Seeder? Is all my recent desire to fight also to blame on her?
"Come," Twill said. "Come."
It was so cold my nose felt as though it had frozen and would drop away from my face at any moment, and I partly wished that I had not opt to follow Twill outside the warmth of the Stone Dance.
But with all the Mothers at my side and Brutus I couldn't possible turn back now.
I still was drawn to the land about me, my first tour of the Veiled Hills in the process. The hills made me feel much as I had at the first sight of Panem: breathless, excited, overwhelmed, and strangely loved. This land, and these sacred hills particularly, made me feel as I imagined it would feel to be held safe and warm in a mother's arms. A comfort I needed, as I was bemused by my new title 'girl on fire'.
Twill led me to a spring at the base of a large oak tree. Light glowed there, in the gloom of this late night, and once we stepped close enough to its delightful charm I could feel warmth rising from it.
"Here, Twill?" Brutus asked. "Katniss has not come to beg of children."
"No," Twill said, and she dropped my hands, shrugging out of her thin robe, letting it pool around her feet. She was worse naked, her ribs straining against her skin. "No. We come for a much worse reason."
Her back was to us, as she stepped up to the edge of the streaming pool of water under the rocks from where the spring bubbled. She shivered violently, the motion making her seem even smaller than truth.
She raised a hand back to me.
I obliged her, baring myself despite the cold. I stepped up to her side, and took that hand.
Her eyes were screwed tightly closed by then, and there were tears on her cheek.
"When we enter the pool," Twill whispered, "we will experience a vision. Each will be different. Your vision will be your vision alone. Neither me nor anyone still outside the pond will see what you do. Whatever happens, Katniss, you must endure by yourself. Are you prepared for that?"
"You have been told of the Seeder that all Panem women feel in their wombs," Twill continued.
"Yes, Joanna told me of it." The mention of her mother made Twill flinch slightly.
"If you mean to see the vision," Twill said, barely whispering now, "then you will need to feel the Seeder within your womb. Doyou feel Seeder within your womb, Katniss of Mesopotamia?"
My eyes had strayed to the people at our backs (they were similarly confused) and now I jerked them back to her, and I frowned a little. "Yes," I said. "Yes, I feel her." And I did; it was that warm pulsing.
She said no more. Merely, she made to walk to the pool and step in until the waters reached her waist.
I did as she did, sliding my feet one by one carefully into the water in case the footing was slippery, my opposite hand now at my side, outstretched for balance. Twill showed no similar caution, walking on.
I shivered in delight at the warmth of the water, and as the footing proved soft but not uncertain, I moved easily into the center of the pool beside the girl, then as one we turned and looked back at the Mothers and Brutus, now all standing at the edge of the waters, all staring at the two of us.
"Close your eyes," said Twill, her voice very soft.
I did as she asked.
"Can you feel your womb?"
Cecelia said something, I could not catch the words, and then Twill spoke again.
"Open your eyes," Twill said, "but say and do nothing, whatever strangeness your eyes encounter."
I did as she asked, then only barely managed to restrain my gasp, and to hold myself still in the waters.
I was within the stone hall, the one I now recognized as Seeder's realm. At first I was elated, thinking I had come here to talk to Seeder herself, so that I may look into her eyes and hold a hand and speak plainly. And sure enough, a small woman stood a ways down the hall from me; dark and fey, with very bright eyes. It was her, the woman I'd seen with Hera that very first time, and many times hence then.
"Seeder," I called out to her, smiling happily.
She did not turn at the sound of my voice. In fact, she did not seem to realize I was there at all.
I was not there to talk.
And if I thought her eyes bright, then they were only bright with fear.
About and about she went, flitting from one archway to the next. There was something frantic about her movements. Every time she touched an archway's column she'd shake her head and try the next.
What is she searching for? Someone? Me? A certain place?
Then, suddenly, she cried out and stepped into one, and I was left staring after her in wonder.
I became aware of another person's presence. Their booted footsteps rang against the marble floors at my back, and I could hear their heavy, labored breathing, as if they'd been running down this endless hall for more than a lifetime. "Seeder!" they called, and it was a man's voice. "Oh, don't be like this!"
I pivoted on my feet, to see who this intruder was, and the instant I saw them I jerked back in horror.
A strange, terrible man with a head so repulsive, so deformed, stood there, and he could not possibly…he could not possibly… I could not possibly.. "Asterion," I breathed, and he did not hear me name him.
Asterion, a half-man with a bull's head marched through the stone hall. He was large, larger than Peeta, or any man I'd ever seen, and towered over me like a building – and if he towered over me, than he was a giant to Seeder – and the monstrosity of his bull's head was just as intimidating as his height.
I knew instantly he was no friend, no ally. He carried a knife with him; it was a strange knife, serrated edge, and the handle was white – was bone, horns, twisted together. From deep inside of me, I felt Seeder's fear as sharply as I should have felt the flames of those fires I'd touched. She whimpered.
Asterion laughed aloud–and to think I didn't think any human noises could escape those lips! Then he sobered, terrifying once more, cold-set features, and slowed his pace as he walked through the hall, his head swinging this way and that as he tried to spy out where Seeder had hidden herself.
Like Seeder, he could not see me either. I stepped back, out of his way as he passed me; he smelt of blood, sweat, and what you expect a real bull to smell like, that dirty, dusty animal musk they have.
"Come on, Seeder," Asterion whispered now. "Show thyself. It is, after all, your execution day, and you wouldn't want to be tardy for such an important appointment, would you? Come now. Come.."
There was a slight movement to one side, within one of the shadowy recesses of the arched side aisles.
Nothing. A trickery only. Something designed to make him feel as though that were her.
"Oh come on, you silly bitch," Asterion said. "I haven't got all day."
Seeder's fear accumulated so much that I felt as though it were enough to choke me. I wanted to help her, to soothe her, but when I tried to move, I could not. That's when I realized this was no vision. This was real. This was the truth. The present, even.
Asterion suddenly jerked his head to the archway I'd seen Seeder flee into, eyes alight.
"Ah! There you are! About time..."
Asterion's gait increased in pace and I fought with the invisible ropes holding me in place.
Seeder streaked out the archway the moment he decided upon it. Before, I'd thought she looked beautiful and strong; it was only an illusion. She looked tiny and wizened from Chaff's loss now, as she darted terrified from the shadow of one great column to the next. She wailed, the sound thin and frightened, and she clasped her hands about her shoulders as if that single, futile gesture might save her.
"Oh, for goodness sake," said Asterion, "a toddling child would show more courage."
He pulled forth something other than the knife; a bear's claw although magnified ten times over, and he hurled it at her, and Seeder threw herself to one side. The claw buried itself in one of the great columns of the stone hall, instead, and blood gushed forth from the stone. Seeder fell to her knees, shaking.
Asterion began to laugh again.
"I beg you!" screamed Seeder. "I beg–"
He threw another thing, that flashed through the air, I saw not what, only that it was sharp and deadly and strange, and it barely missed Panem's mother goddess, who rolled desperately across the floor.
"Bitch!" seethed Asterion, and he leaped forward, ripping her up and against the wall.
The knife he held to her belly, and Seeder twisted away in vain.
One thought occurred to me; Shouldn't he be holding it to her heart? That's the only way to kill her...
Why was there so much fear in Seeder even though he wasn't aiming for the heart?
You couldn't kill a god without a god well unless you compromised the heart, like I'd once tried to do to Clove before.
And even so, I felt terror because of Seeder's terror. If she died, her power sources should die, right?
Asterion buried the knife into Seeder's stomach.
Seeder opened her mouth to scream, but I suddenly became painfully aware of Twill's hand still clasped in mine.
She collapsed in the pond beside me, her weight dragging me out of my vision, and into hers.
Fire, so consuming that everything before it crumbled to ash.
Invaders, clay-daubed like those that attacked Peeta and his men that night Achates was born.
Only they were infinitely more frightening, more murderous.
Fire and invaders, together, dropping from the sky.
I saw Twill then, far from me, and she was crying, as if this vision terrified her beyond knowing.
"Tread down the steps," she breathed. "Through fire and death, into the darkness, into the heart, around and about, mouth to mouth, soul to soul, 'mid deafening bells, through sirens' call, 'twixt thunderous roar and shattering wall. Face the evil, turn it about, dance with your lover, and seal the gate!"
Her words went over my head, but I could not mistake the far-off feverish look to her.
I could not forget the imprint of Seeder being stabbed by that disfigured bull-man, Asterion.
I could not ignore the sudden absence of that pulsing heat within me. The sudden lack of Seeder in me.
As I watched Twill, and the fire moved about our backs, one of invaders streaked her way. I cried out in warning, but Twill simply stood there, as the great blue man grabbed her by the wrist. He ripped her upward, nearly off the ground, her torso a hanging target. I tried to run then, seeing that she made no move to fight. "Twill!" I called as loudly as I could. "Twill, run to me! Follow my voice! Come!"
But the odds hated me, because even though I could run in this vision, I was not fast enough.
She didn't even twist away as the man ran his sword through her belly and dropped her.
"No!" I cried. "No, no! Twill!"
I had not known the girl very well, and I'd only seen her twice; one of those times at Joanna's murder. But that did not change the fact that it was Joanna's daughter, the one Joanna had loved very much.
I ran through the fires, careless to them now. Her murderer turned to me, smiling, as if he was thrilled at the idea of killing so soon after his last, and I felt the desire to fight slam into me as if a brick wall.
I no longer was running toward Twill, but at the great blue man, who raised his sword.
That's when I recognized him.
When I noticed the blonde hair above his tattooed face. When I saw Trojan features beneath the clay.
He smiled wider, and I remembered the night in the hut, when Peeta had practically banished him.
And then he was gone, and I was on my knees in the pond, and Twill was leaning heavily into my side, her eyes closed, her hand still painfully wrapped around mine. On shore, I could hear fretful murmurs.
Red twisted across the surface of the water and I rose sharply to my feet, pulling Twill up with me. She would not stand on her own, and I struggled to get a hold on her slippery body. The blood had come from her. From a gaping wound in her abdomen, that as soon as he noticed it, Brutus blundered into the pond to grab at her. He ripped her from my arms, and carried her back to shore, laying her in the grass.
"Twill?" he asked, and I could detect actual pain in the brute's voice. "Twill? What happened?"
I struggled my own way out of the water, and as soon as I stepped on shore, Cecelia wrapped me in her cloak and drew me in close to her. I didn't push her away. I just stared blankly at Twill and Brutus.
I just wondered at the lack of Seeder in me.
"What happened? What happened?" Brutus twisted to look over at me.
I stared at him, and shook my head wordlessly.
Cecelia, still holding onto me, shook me. "Katniss, what happened?"
"Seeder..." I began and was surprised to find my voice shook. "Seeder, she's gone."
"Twill?" Brutus asked in distress as if hoping I'd lied, and Twill lulled her eyes open just a little.
"My father," she said, her voice wracked with pain. "My father, he is dying."
"Woof?" Enobaria asked. "The Anointed Father?"
Twill managed the briefest of nods, before taking a last shuddering breath, and she died, too.
Clove lowered her head over Woof's struggling chest, her eyes dutifully moist. Behind her stood her three daughters, Peeta, and some fifteen or sixteen Mothers all crowded into the house.
This was a terrifying moment for most of the Mothers. With Woof's death, they were launched totally into the unknown. Always there had been an Anointed Father and Mother, guiding and directing them in the love and care of Chaff and Seeder. Now Chaff was dead, and Woof was dying also.
Woof's final breath would herald a new age, frightening for its unknowability.
For Clove and Peeta, contrariwise, it was merely another step toward their ultimate goal.
Nevertheless, Clove appeared truly saddened at Woof's dying. She wiped his brow, and brushed back his sweaty hair. She leaned and kissed his cheek, and smiled so that his final sight would be pleasing.
"I have let you down," Woof whispered. "Everyone. If only I hadn't lain with Joanna –"
"Hush," said Clove, "you were not to know she was such a Darkwitch."
"I tried so hard to make matters well again," he continued. "I have failed."
"There was nothing any more or any different that you could have done," Clove whispered, stroking Woof's brow for the comfort of it. "May all the gods in your next world bless you and defend you."
"If only Brutus…if only Twill…" Woof began to say, weeping.
"Brutus is here," said a voice, "and Brutus shall do all he can to take your regrets and rectify them."
Peeta turned about, very slowly, and looked at the man, whom gave him the darkest of looks.
The man was older than Peeta, thirty-five, perhaps, and he wore nothing more than a hip-wrap stained with dirt and blood, and similarly, the man's bare chest was slathered in the stuff, and in his nails, too.
"What do you here?" Clove's voice was flat, and very cold.
"I come to say farewell to my father," Brutus said. "He may have regretted my sister, Joanna, but I have never regretted him." He walked over and sat down on Woof's bed, taking his father's hand.
"Go away, Brutus," Clove said, but Brutus ignored her.
"There is no hope, save for Clove," Woof said.
"There is always hope, and in the strangest places," Brutus said. "Twill always said that."
"Where is my girl?" Woof asked, looking around in vain.
"Dead," Brutus said, darkly. "She died in this last hour, before you. I have buried her in Chaff's forest."
Woof's eyes began watering, but he did not ask the manner in which the sickly girl perished.
His lip trembled with the effort of speaking: "Promise me you will aid Clove," Woof said.
"I will do everything I can for this land," Brutus said, letting go Woof's hand to wipe smeared blood and dirt from his face. "And if the only way to do that is aiding Clove, then that is what I will do."
Clove gave a hard, triumphant smile, and Brutus looked at her.
"I will do everythingI must in order to protect this land," he said softly, and Clove's smile slipped.
For some time no one spoke, all eyes back on Woof. The old man's eyes were now closed, although tears still trickled from under their lids, his skin was gray, his breathing was becoming ever more erratic. Clove laid her hand on his brow, and Brutus placed a palm on his father's shoulder.
Softly, regretfully, weeping, Woof died, and one among the Mothers wailed.
Brutus raised his face.
"I am my father's heir," he said, looking between Clove and Peeta. "Never, neverforget that!"
Then he rose, and was gone.
Clove's eyes locked in to Peeta's, and they knew they had a bitter enemy.
Still dripping wet, wrapped in Cecelia's cloak, I walked back to my house in silence. Cecelia walked at my side, lost in her own thoughts and grief for Seeder, but I was glad for her physical presence at the very least. Enobaria and Mags had declined to come with us and had said they would pay their respects.
I did not know how they payed respect, but however it was done I did not have the stability, nor strength to manage anything, let alone another dance, or if not that, even a simple set of prayers.
Right after Twill's death, no one had really moved, frozen with the heaviness of loss all about us. First, Seeder, and then Twill, and then Woof. One after another, until all I could see was the end of things.
I did not know how Seeder died – not really. I didn't understand how I was still alive, and she was gone, and that everything of her inside me had so suddenly vanished. I knew in a sad sense that Twill and Woof both had been living off of Seeder's will for a long time now, and they died in a result of her death. Even if I wanted to blame that vision of invaders and fire, and Cato, on Twill's, I couldn't.
Everywhere, death. The soil beneath my bare feet seemed to moan in grief, and I could hear it.
Though I hadn't died with Seeder, I felt as though I'd run ten marathons, and then drowned, and then, like Joanna, someone had reached into my chest and gave my heart a brutal twist. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to curl up somewhere dry, warm, away from the night's cold and cry until I could not cry again.
The closer Cecelia and I drew to the river, which we had to cross to get to my house, the closer we got to the continued celebration of the Slaughter Festival. The sad news of Woof's death had not been spread yet – I suspected that it would be put off so they may have this night of celebration – and it was still in swing. Bonfires still burned on the edge of the Pan river, figures dancing about them; not in any sort of ritual, but in the wild, fevered way drunk and merry people dance. Cecelia sighed at the sight.
"You are so young," Cecelia said. "You should be among them." Her eyes fell on my face and if possible, they became even more mournful. "Yet, here you are. A ghost in a woman's skin."
I pulled her damp cloak more firmly around me shoulders, and tried to straighten. I winced, then shivered violently in the rush of wind that swept over my bare body beneath the cloak and I knew she was not far off in what she described of me. "I'll be fine," I said. "In the morning. I just need sleep."
"You can stay at my house," Cecelia offered.
"No." I found I could not hold myself straight for very long, it was too exhausting, and I sagged again, allowing my shoulders to slump and for me feet to drag slightly. "No. I want to see and hold my son."
"I could send one of my daughters for him. You shouldn't be alone."
"I won't be for long. I'll have Achates and Aurora, and Prim will come home eventually."
Cecelia sighed, but relented, and I sent her a glancing smile, grateful to her for not pressing.
We reached the ferry and the ferryman cast me a curious look, but Cecelia talked him into crossing the river with only two passengers even though in this celebration he insisted it a waste of a trip, and that we should wait for others. I was glad for the silent crossing, but was not so lucky on the opposite bank, where the bulk of the celebration flowed, and the press of the crowd got the better of both of us.
Cecelia's arm was slung around my waist, and I didn't want to admit it, but it became to only thing holding me up and pulling me through the people after a while, and I allowed her to direct our path.
My eyes, which had been drooping, flew open at the sound of someone calling at my back.
"Go," I pressed on Cecelia, when she started to turn. "Ignore him."
She did as was bid, and I could hear Deimas calling over the crowd, still. Not in worry, of course, since he could not see me plainly in the press, but as if he'd hoped I'd join him, and most likely the others.
On and on we twisted through the celebration, that ran throughout the town. We passed Cecelia's house, and she cast a wistful look at the door, and I would have told her to go and see to her children, if I wasn't sure I'd never make it up the slight incline that led to my house. With her there, I managed to.
Inside, the nurse sat with the children and I dismissed her in a word.
I stumbled over to where Achates lay, picked him up, and stared at him as Cecelia said her goodbye.
As soon as she was gone, I sat heavily on the edge of my bed, and pulled my son in close.
Then the dam broke and all I could do was sob and clutch onto him.
After Woof's death, Peeta remained at Clove's house, watching in the background as they talked of pyre arrangements and how it would be done the next day at noon, in order to keep that night a celebration.
Though he knew Brutus should worry him, he managed to push the man into the back of his mind, and as he was about to leave – he wanted to see how Katniss was enjoying this night's festivity – Clove came to his side in the front yard and the confused twist in her face made him pause to speak with her.
"What's the matter?" He knew Woof's death could not possibly had grieved her that much.
"Seeder's dead. She died as Woof began to die. She died the same moment Twill did. I felt it."
"That's..." Peeta blinked, before a thought roared through him: If Seeder's dead... then Katniss..!
"It's good news, surely," Clove continued, ignorant to Peeta's sudden distress. She stared out over the Veiled Hills and shook her head in bemusement. "I just find it odd... who would kill her? Ah," she turned to him, smiling now, "it doesn't matter, really. As long as she's gone, I'm not worried."
Then her smile broke at the sight of Peeta's face.
"Why do you look like that?"
Peeta just took in a shaky breath and dismissed Clove in a glance and began hurriedly moving down the hill toward his horse. Clove stumbled after him. "What? Why does this pain you? Seeder was –"
"Clove," he snapped, climbing the horse. "Just..." He shook his head, snapped his horse's reins –
Clove caught the horse's face and kept it from running off. She stared up at Peeta in the night, staring and staring. He looked around for a different horse – there were none. He snarled at her to move.
"I will trample you, Clove. I don't..."
He trailed off, when he realized that if Katniss were dead, he'd not be able to feel her. And he could. He felt her faintly – a lot more faintly than he should normally, but a lot more than he should feel her if she were indeed dead. Katniss was still alive. He was relieved, of course, but stunted and confused, too.
"Are you certain Seeder is dead?" he asked Clove.
Clove set her lips, affronted that he should question her abilities. "As surely as I breathe, she is dead."
"But the only two ways to kill her would be to find her last power source, or if someone managed to stab her in the heart, on the circumstance that someone could find her, and Seeder's power sources would have died with her, if they're human, and if they're an object, have been destroyed," he said.
"So whoever killed Seeder must have found her power source," Clove said. "Or stabbed her. So?"
"But what, Peeta?"
Now that Seeder is dead, what harm is it that Clove knows? None.
"Katniss is still alive," Peeta began, and Clove rose an eyebrow. "She was Seeder's power source."
"No she wasn't." Clove let go of his horse and placed her hands on her hips. "I would have known."
"She was!" Peeta insisted, sliding off the horse now to stand before her. "She was..."
He watched Clove roll her eyes and then with little effort he let his mind's barrier against her open, and let his memories of the night he brought Katniss back to life flood between them. Clove's face contorted as she ran through the memories of that night and then it stilled onto something deathly hard.
"She was," Clove said, and her voice was angry. "And you didn't tell me!"
"You would have killed her!"
"Well, yeah, I would have killed her. I've been hunting for Seeder's power source for months. Now someone else got to it. They killed her, and Seeder, and now I don't even know who got her power."
"But that's the thing, Clove," Peeta said. "Katniss is still alive. And Seeder is dead."
"No, she can't be. It's impossible."
"I can sense her. Can't you?"
Clove made a face and used her power to reach out for the wife she so hated, thinking she would not find anything, and then she did, in fact, find her. Her eyes widened slightly. "She's still alive."
"Is it... could it be because she's also your power source?" Clove asked – the fact that Katniss was, would have irked her, but not at that moment in the mystery of it. "Could it have saved her?"
"I don't know. Last time she died... she died last time and we both lost her as a power source. If someone killed Katniss in order to kill Seeder, they would have also hurt me because of it. It didn't."
Clove stared into the distance. "Then Seeder was stabbed in the heart."
"But Katniss should still have died as a result."
Clove nodded. "Either way, Katniss should be dead."
Peeta asked, "Is it possible for a god to revoke a power source?"
"No," she murmured. "You can't take it back. It's why we have to be so careful."
"You told me once that to kill Chaff we needed to kill his power source, because that is where his power to live came from. I remember, you said stabbing him would not even make him wince."
"I exaggerated. I told you that, because I knew I couldn't find him to stab in the heart. I knew where Joanna was and you would pass her on the way. Finnick was there to win Annie on my side, so I just decided to lie and tell you Joanna was the only way. I didn't want to waste time with stabbing hearts."
"Well... is it possible? That Katniss being my power source saved her?"
"Maybe." She rubbed her forehead. "I'll ask..."
"Annie?" Peeta suggested.
"They're both busy," Clove dismissed, sighing. "I'll have to ask Darius, I guess."
"Another Enlightened. Don't worry over him. I'll go to him and speak. He's usually always in his realm doing something for Thresh. You go to Katniss, see if she knows anything of what's happened."
They parted on mutual concern and confusion.
Peeta rode easily through the crowds. Not many wished to be stepped on by the horse, and they recognized Peeta immediately, moving out of his path as quickly as possible as to not upset him.
He'd made good time leaving Clove's house and moving toward his – as that is where he sensed Katniss – and he was just rounding the hill to that house, when Finnick, Prim, and Deimas emerged from the crowd, looking to him. Finnick clasped Peeta's leg in friendship and welcome. He was smiling, and his cheeks were tinged with the obvious signs of drunkenness. Peeta tried to smile back at his friend.
"This is a great people," Finnick confessed, and the three fell into step beside the horse.
Prim, too, looked a little flushed, but was not smiling. "What is the matter?" he asked her. Perhaps she knew something of went on with Katniss. He picked up pace, and they struggled to keep up with him.
"Oh," Prim said, glancing at him. "Nothing. Dario just left. I wished he could have stayed longer."
A crush on the house guard? he wondered briefly, before asking, "Have you seen Katniss?"
"She ran off with Cinna, earlier," Finnick said.
"I saw her briefly, not long ago," Deimas put in. "She was heading home it looked like."
They neared the house then, and Peeta kicked his horse so that he galloped the last hundred or so paces. He vaulted off of its back, concerned and confused more than ever, and emerged into the house.
The hearth was burning, filling the house with light, and he spotted Katniss easily, curled up on the bed.
Her form was relaxed in sleep, and Peeta rushed over and sat on the edge of the bed beside her.
"Katniss?" he said, touching her back. The fabric of her cloak there was damp, and he saw she was shivering even in sleep, and he shrugged out of his cloak, pulling it over her. Achates lay beside her.
He slipped the baby away from her hands and set him in the bed with Aurora. When he came back to her, he spoke softly, "Katniss, wake up. We have to talk. Katniss. Look at me, love. Look at me."
The rest of his party arrived then, standing warily in the doorway. Prim looked as if she was about to streak over, but Peeta held up a hand to stall her, and Deimas placed a hand on the girl's shoulder.
"Katniss," Peeta said again. "Wake up."
She stirred only a little, and he managed to roll Katniss onto her back, so he could get a good look at her. Her face was pale, too pale, and her eyes red where she rubbed away tears, and he noticed there was dried blood smeared on her arms, and in the damp cloak beneath his. "Is she hurt?" Finnick asked.
"No," Peeta said. "It's not her blood."
"Let her sleep," Prim whispered. "Talk to her later."
Sighing, Peeta nodded. "I don't think I could wake her anyway."
When I slept, I didn't dream, and that was a relief.
I must have been asleep for hours, because the moment I did awake, the house was filled with afternoon sunlight, and the only other person in the house with me was Peeta. He sat on the ground beside my bed, leaning against the wall, and though I think he hoped to be the first to see me when I woke, he, himself was fast asleep. I wondered if he'd been up all night and morning waiting for me.
If that were so, he wasn't the only one waiting.
The moment I sat up in bed and placed my feet on the floor, the guard at the door of the house turned.
"You're awake," Darius sighed, as if the thought I wouldn't had crossed his mind multiple times.
"Yes," I said, softly, as not to wake Peeta. He deserved rest. I didn't feel exhausted anymore, as I did the past night, but I still felt grief, as well as a little weary. "I slept the whole morning?"
"The rest of the night, and the morning. It's near evening," Darius replied, just as softly.
"Where is everyone?"
"At Woof's funeral, watching his pyre burn. Peeta refused to go."
"I have no care for Woof."
It was said peculiarly, and I raised my eyes to his to find them burning. Within them, I remembered the fire I had touched. I remembered running toward Twill in vain, and how helpless I'd been to help her.
Just the thought brought me pain, and Darius read it in my face. Or maybe he sensed it. He came to me and sat beside me, and, after hesitating a moment, slung an arm about my back and pulled me into him.
I melted into his heat, and slipped my arms around his waist. It was slimmer than Peeta's waist, and he stiffened in a way that made me sure Darius probably never had anyone's arms about him, if rarely.
"What happened?" he asked, lowly.
I just shook my head.
"How can I help you, if you won't let me?" he whispered.
I wondered if he knew that he'd said those words to me before, just recently.
"How can you help me," I countered, "when there is so many troubles on my shoulders."
"Tell me your troubles. I will take them away."
I shook my head again. He sounded like Peeta. "Can you stop mortal armies? Can you keep Gale from Panem's shores? Can you keep Asterion away? Can you keep Coriolanus banished? Can you stop Clove? Can you make Peeta whole again? Can you keep Thresh from harming either of them?"
I expected Darius to sigh and admit that, no, he couldn't do any of that.
Instead, he drew away from me, looked down into my face, and frowned.
"I shouldn't tell you this," he started, and true enough he looked to be struggling with himself.
"Tell me what?"
"It's true, I can't do a lot of those things. Most of them. But one..."
"You can do one of them?"
"I can tell you something that will assure you that one of them isn't a problem."
"Thresh. You worry over him for nothing. I told you before... I lied to you before... I told you that Thresh wishes to attack Peeta and Clove. I lied. I only wished you to tell Peeta that, to make him worry about Thresh coming in and getting him. I said the reason Thresh hasn't put a stop to Clove is because he worries about simply taking more losses than its worth. Thresh has no time for Clove, actually, because he has bigger problems. He has me watching Clove, taking care of her in any way I can... and it's not easy. I was going to take her out in Mesopotamia. But then Peeta became Hades. That's why there is no attack... because I'm no match for him. I'm the one hoping to sway him back to our side, and I'm the one hoping for Annie to abandon Clove, too. I'm the one hoping Gale would be a distraction to Peeta, so I could put a stop to this couple's god well. Only I can't. I'm failing at my job, mostly because I can't get to Clove, and secondly because of you. You're distracting me... and then you asked me not to hurt Peeta. So I've been at a stand still. No Enlightened will touch your Peeta, and no Enlightened will touch you, because I said so. Clove knows this, too. She knows Thresh can't touch her, and I suck."
I stared at Darius' earnest, almost-cringing face. "Don't tell Peeta," he said... an after thought.
"Basically, what you're saying is that... Thresh won't come?"
"Thresh can't come. He sent me instead."
"And you're the best he has?"
He winced. "And clearly not good enough."
It did relieve me a little. I don't have to worry about the Enlightened anymore. It's a weight off my shoulders. A big one, actually. I'd considered Thresh a big threat. I'd thought of him as the second war, and now, though Darius lied to me for the express purpose of Thresh feeling like a immediate, looming threat, now he came to me and told me that Thresh wouldn't even come, and all that threatened Peeta, was Darius himself – but he wouldn't because I asked him not to and because Peeta was stronger. It should have saddened me a little to know that Darius was the only thing working against Clove and her couple's god well, but I also couldn't help but feel happier, knowing it will be done without much opposition, (aside Brutus perhaps) and thus done much faster, and once it's made Peeta will drop Clove.
Of course, I still had Gale to worry about. (And after only putting a little logic and thought behind it, I realized the other war would be mortal also, and it would come from none other than Cato, whom by Twill's vision, has somehow found himself in the midst of the blue-clay people from Poiteran.) Two wars, as Hera predicted, in the mortal realm. And then there was her second warning: Asterion and Coriolanus. Clearly, somehow, someway Asterion was moving freely through the realms. Coriolanus, I hoped, beyond hope, was still banished, and trapped in a mortal's body. Just four problems, right?
I sighed, and Darius smiled a little, in hope. I think he expected me to be angry for his lies. I probably should have been, but if I were him? If I knew I was losing my battle and all I could do was make bravado lies in hopes of intimidating my worst enemy than I guess I couldn't blame him. "Thanks."
"Thanks?" he echoed, and then smiled wider. "Well, you're welcome."
Then his smile faded, and he asked, "What happened last night? What happened to Seeder?"
"What do you know?" I asked, not sure what I should tell him.
"That she's dead. Peeta and Clove know, too. Clove came to me last night, at Mount Olympus." I must have looked concerned because he added, "She doesn't know I've been here. I'm very careful. I showed up in my general wear, and spoke with her boredly... even laughed at her. She was confused, as I am, and as Peeta is, by how you are still alive, while Seeder is dead. You were her power source. By all rights, one way to kill Seeder was to kill you... and yet, here you are. I told Clove she was imagining things, but clearly none of us are, but if any other god heard of it, they would think it impossible or that you were never the power source. Because it is impossible. And too terrifying to want it to be true."
"The thought that we can die? That despite power sources and god wells, we can die? Horrible."
"But Seeder didn't have a god well."
"No, she didn't," Darius agreed. "Seeder didn't have one, because she had Chaff, and Clove tore away all of Seeder's other power sources, and you were Seeder's last one. I need to know... it is possible for a god that is not immortal, that has no god well, to be killed by being stabbed in the heart... was Seeder? If she was, then it explains... more of it, though by rights you should have died with her. If that were true, it could be explained. That what kept you alive is Peeta, since you are also his power source..."
He trailed off when I shook my head. He wanted what he was saying to be true. He wanted to believe that Peeta was the thing that saved me, and that Seeder was merely stabbed in the heart, the one place a god without a god well can be compromised – as I once tried to kill Clove, by doing the same thing – but I saw Seeder's death. I saw the knife in her stomach, not in her chest. Everyone can sense her death.
"She wasn't stabbed in the heart," I said.
"You saw? You were there, when she died?"
"In part," I admitted. "I could witness, but could not intervene. I saw the knife in her stomach."
Darius was troubled by the truth. "Then she shouldn't be dead."
"She shouldn't be. And even if you miss-saw what you did and it was the heart, you should be dead."
I didn't like talking about my 'shoulder be' death, so I sat up and away from him and spoke instead of something else, that was concerning me. "Darius? Does fire hurt you? Like... can you touch it?"
He looked perplexed at the topic change. "Uh, no."
"Fire can hurt me, yes. I'm immortal with my god well, so nothing can really hurt me, but I'm not immune to fire merely because I'm a god of fire, and volcanoes, if that's what you're getting at."
I frowned myself. So Darius didn't have anything to do with it. Twill had called me 'girl on fire' and she'd related it to Seeder by calling me Seeder's opposite. "Can you make a fire?" I asked him now.
He arched an eyebrow, and the boyish fringe of red strands hung over his forehead. "Why?"
I pushed it back, and asked him to build a fire, more firmly, and he gave in.
He shrugged out of his cloak, let it coil up in a pile on the floor, and like before, one touch of his fingertip sent it in flames. As soon as he sat back up, I leaned forward. I hesitated just a bit. Perhaps it was only last night that it worked, and I was about to shove my hand into actual burning agony.
Then I shook away my doubt, and placed my hand in the flames.
"Katniss!" Darius grabbed at my shoulder and ripped me back, clearly thinking I'd lost my mind.
"No wait," I said. "Look." I displayed my hand to him, and he took it, hurriedly, thinking I was hurt.
When he realized the skin remained unburnt, he frowned. "I don't understand."
I turned from him, and placed my hand in the fire again. He didn't pull me back that time. I stood, and slid a foot onto the burning cloak, then the next, until I stood in the center of the fire. Flames merely slithered over my skin. Darius made a squeak of protest, when he saw the cloak I wore – Cecelia's from last night – had caught fire on my back, but I just untied it and let it join the first burning cloak.
"I still don't understand. Katniss?"
I shook my head. I marveled at the fire around my feet. "I don't have any idea. It started last night."
"It's..." Darius paused, and when I looked up, I realized his eyes were rapt on me and something in my stomach pulled tight at the expression his face. I became painfully aware of my nakedness – I'd been naked before in his presence, and he'd simply acted unaffected – but I could feel his eyes on me now.
I also became acutely aware of Peeta, still asleep, not far away. I'd been keeping my voice quiet, and I suspected Darius had used the optional mute button on his much louder one, so Peeta had remained that way throughout our conversation. I was staring at Peeta, worriedly, when Darius stood, stepping close.
He didn't step too close, thankfully. The fire warded him off.
Still, he was close enough that I was caught by the fire in his eyes. The way I always was.
"Who are you?" he asked me, softly, and I saw the awe and desire in his face.
It was a question I'd asked Peeta so many times, and I'd always seen him hesitate to answer. Now I could understand why. I didn't have an outright answer. I wanted to say, that I'm just Prim's sister, or that I'm just his wife, or that I'm just a mortal, but I couldn't say that, because they didn't feel true.
"What are you?" Darius said next. His hand reached out to me, and though I saw him grimace at the feel of the fire on his arm, and I saw the red angry marks the flames left on his skin – it was burning and healing at nearly the same rate – he kept it there, endured the pain, and touched my cheek.
I grabbed his hand on my face, and pulled it away. He held fast to my fingers.
I knew in that moment he would do anything for me, and I wasn't ashamed of abusing it. Not then.
Not when Twill told me the reason I was opposite of Seeder was because it was the only way to endure.
"Do something for me," I said.
"Asterion killed Seeder. I saw him. Find him for me."
Even bewildered by that, Darius agreed. "He was in her realm to kill her?"
"I'll track him."
And he went.
As he left, the fire died, too.
I felt bad, minimally. I still couldn't answer his question, who I was, what I was, all I knew was what Twill said. Seeder chose me, because I wasn't like her. Because I wasn't gentle and loving, and if I was supposed to help Panem I'd need to be the girl on fire, angry and willing to do things Seeder couldn't.
I took the two charred and ashy cloaks and tossed them out into a bush. When I returned to the house, I pulled on a robe, then knelt at Peeta's sleeping side and woke him gently. He came to after a minute.
The instant his eyes locked on mine, and caught up his sleeping mind up, he pulled me down into his lap and held me tightly to his chest, and I relaxed more against his broad one than I'd done on Darius'.
I didn't show him the fire immunity.
I told him most of what I'd told Darius about Seeder's death, but not that Asterion was behind it.
And I told him that it was her heart that was stabbed, and that his power was the reason I lived.
"I'm just glad you're alive," he said, believing my lies. Perhaps it's because he trusted me so much, or maybe his gladness about me being alive blinded him to any veiled truths, or was it as Darius put it? That it was too terrifying, too bizarre to think there was a way to kill gods with no regard for power sources, god well, immortal or mortal alike, and therefore he would have believed anything.
He held me for some time, and I leaned into him, feeling relaxed, not letting any guilt touch me at the moment over the lies and over Darius. I simply lived in the knowledge that now that Seeder was gone, I'd need to do what I can to protect this land, and that I could never really pay her back for giving me one of the greatest gifts I'd received – Peeta. Protecting him stopped feeling impossible a few seconds ago, as I stood in that fire, and it seemed to dawn on me that Hera had been right about the future.
My path wasn't the same as his. It's like what I'd told Cinna yesterday night, as I stood there and watched the strangeness of the Slaughter Festival, and I watched Peeta standing beside Clove, kiss her. I'd said to Cinna, with such certainty; "We both play our parts." We do, we are playing our parts, and though I know he could possible contribute to helping my troubles, our parts just happen to be separate.
But eventually, somehow, I knew they had to come together down the road.
Just not that day. So I lied to him, and kept him off my path, exactly as Hera advised me.
Clove bent her head back and let the late autumn sunshine wash over her face. Winter was rushing upon them – the nights were heavily frosted now and the days bitter with northerly winds and miserable flurries of icy rain. This hour or two of sunshine was to be treasured, even by her.
Finally, finally, things were under way.
She was going to get her couple god well after all. Everything was miraculously working out.
Thresh wouldn't bother her – as she'd known the whole time and had told Peeta before. Darius was still holed up in Mount Olympus, helpless like the cripple he was and always will be, without Thresh at his side – as she'd seen just recently, when she had attempted to talk to him of Seeder's odd death (of which he'd merely laughed at her theories over Katniss, and angered her, and she refused to acknowledge the fact that she'd started the Enlightened pack with him, let alone that he existed). Katniss was still annoying, by rights, and Clove still greatly disliked her, but because she would lose Peeta as a result, she wouldn't touch the 'wife' of his. And besides, she was no longer Seeder's power source (still annoying that Clove hadn't known that before!) and Katniss was currently Peeta's thus making Katniss untouchable on default. And it was also the only reason Katniss was still alive, as Clove was informed.
Peeta had come to her with the details of Seeder's murder. Apparently the killer had gotten into Seeder's realm, the stone hall, somehow, and had managed to stab her in the heart, therefore killing her. The fluke over the fact Katniss was still alive, was merely because Peeta still needed her as a power source.
And overall, Clove wasn't that displeased about it.
After all, Seeder was now dead, as she'd always wanted. The murderer got Seeder's gift, but really, Clove didn't need it. With Seeder gone, and Chaff, too (Woof and Twill, too) everything with the natives had settled even further – at that point they desperately needed the god well and New Troy. It was all very neat and tidy, to Clove. Brutus was a sore spot, and Katniss, too, but overall – good.
(Clove had not even thought about or considered Asterion or Coriolanus after that argument she'd had with Peeta over the two men. She'd told him then that they weren't a problem, and she wholeheartedly believed it. They but distant men who had no real grudge with her. She had better thing to think about.)
Like, building New Troy's walls, so that they could begin weaving a god well, and with it their trap.
Like, how soon, she would build a citadel of power, to ensure that she would never again be thwarted, that her and Peeta would be immortal, and never again afraid of knives too close to their hearts: to cement their power in the walls of New Troy and spin the labyrinthine enchantments of their trap.
It had taken so long to get where she was... but her dreams would shortly be realized.
After all those long years with Peeta, in his youth, in his father's kingdom. After all those years he spent in exile and she clawed her way through the Enlightened rebellion, somehow managing to stay on top After all these months enduring Katniss, leading Peeta to Panem, and hunting Chaff and Seeder...
Clove tipped her head forward again and looked about her. She stood on Chaff's Hill, the Pan and Panbank spread before her, Pen hill and Cor hill at her back. Peeta, her partner in her dream, was conferring with Finnick and Deimas a few paces away, talking of walls and foundations and water levels. Their faces were animated, their voices excited; now raised in frustration at the complications of an errant stream across the proposed line of the city wall, now energized with purpose as they discussed the local rock, a gray sandstone, and whether it would be strong enough to carry not only the weight of the proposed walls, but the weight of the years and expectations it would of necessity have to bear.
Clove smiled, content. Whatever Brutus had rambled about at his father's deathbed, Chaff and Seeder were gone, and all other threats were so enfeebled that they were of no threat whatsoever.
Soon no one would remember Chaff and Seeder's names; all would celebrate hers and Peeta's.
(And even farther down the road, after their god well was finished, king and queen of gods!)
As if her thoughts had communicated themselves to him, Peeta looked up, and smiled at her.
Ah, but how he annoyed her! He had been everything she needed; he'd been her clay to mold for so long, until Katniss came along, and now she could not even convince him to sire her daughter-heir! He was the one that could help her turn her dreams and hopes into a reality. She needed him, and had once thought to love him – as he had once thought to love her – but she found that part more difficult lately.
But it didn't mater. Annoying or no, she liked him fine enough, and he was desirable enough, and eventually she would get that heir off him, whether by force (she still had the gold bands!) or if she indeed had to take advantage of the sex they'd have to have to finish the god well, she would get it.
"We will enclose the three mounds of the city center on all sides with equal distance," Peeta said, his eyes falling from Clove's to Finnick and Deimas' once more. "The southern wall of the city will run along the Pan, making full use of the cliff faces of its northern bank. Then" – his eyes moved away, to the north, and he gestured with his hand – "the wall will curve in a flattened semicircle above the Pan, enclosing the White Mount, and Seeder's and Chaff's Hills, all the way around to Pen hill where the gate will be." Where in the cave of Pen hill, will sit the god well. "This will be a good city, strong easily defended, and sitting atop these mounds, it will command the entire Pan River's Valley."
Clove walked down to join the men in their talk. "Will it have grand bastions and walkways? Tall arches and towers that gleam? Will the wall shine in the sun, dazzling all who gaze upon it?"
Finnick laughed, his nice, carefree one. "If we can make the foundations strong and deep enough, then, yes, Great Mother, it will be a dazzling city, surrounded by the mightiest wall in the world."
"We can entirely enclose the Wall," Deimas said enthusiastically, referring to the wide stream that flowed between Chaff's Hill and Seeder's Hill into the Pan river. "New Troy will have a permanent and secure water supply. No one shall ever be able to lay successful siege to it."
"Panem will be strong," said Clove, pleased.
"Indeed," said Deimas, then forgot what else he was going to say as his eyes shifted. "Ah, here comes Katniss. You have not yet shown her the site, have you, Peeta? Perhaps you can point out where you shall build you and her a palace." He was looking at Katniss as he spoke, and the poor man missed entirely the furtive, petty, and angry glance Clove gave to Peeta, whom in turn ignored it pointedly.
Clove sighed at that and straightened, moving away from Peeta to look down the hill.
Her face tightened, irritated beyond measure. Katniss was indeed making her way up the slope, a somewhat forced smile on her face and a grace to her steps that Clove found infinitely annoying.
Then, stunningly, Clove felt a moment's queasiness in her stomach, as if a darkened fate walked up that slope rather than Katniss, and she managed to keep her face expressionless only with great effort.
Clove actually laughed at herself mentally. Jealousy is getting the best of you, she thought with scorn, and she shook away any dark feeling Katniss brought with her. It's just the annoying mortal wife.
"You know soon is the night of the Dance of Light," Clove said to Katniss, and she almost smiled. "I'd invite you to be a part of the ceremony, but we require virgins... and sorry."
Katniss threw Clove a glance, suspicion and hate within the look, but no offense taken at Clove's words, – Gods, I hate her! Clove seethed – and then she walked to Peeta's side, smiling.
"You wanted me to meet you here?" Katniss asked him.
"Aye. What do you think?" He gestured around them.
Katniss spent a moment studying the view, apparently riveted by its beauty.
"Are you planning out your city?" she asked. "Will you show me?"
Clove rolled her eyes, knowing Katniss could see her, and turned away, hoping that Peeta would dismiss Katniss from plans that were supposed to be Clove and Peeta's alone. But he didn't.
He seemed enthused. "I had not thought you to be interested," he said. "Will you not be bored with talk of masonry and footings?"
"I have not come all this way to be bored," she said. "I want to know. Please, will you show me?"
Peeta looked at her, wondering if this was her trying to somehow make sure Clove was not turning him into his black-eyed self, or if she indeed was interested in his plans. Seeing only genuine interest, he began to feel a little guilty – he'd asked her to be there, after all. (She'd seemed hard to get out of the house the past three days since Seeder, Woof, and Twill's death, and he'd wanted to see her out.)
"Well," he said, "I would of shown you before if I'd known of your interest." He put a hand on Katniss' waist, hesitated, then drew her in close to his body, and began to point out the course of the walls.
Clove watched, unbelieving.
"That's a large city," Katniss said, as he finished.
"Five times the size of Mesopotamia," Peeta said, his voice rich with good humor and soft, too, as if were intimate. "But it will not all be built over. There shall be gardens and orchards, light and shade."
"Space enough the Panem people will be happy," Katniss said, clearly understanding. Then she titled her head a little and said softly, "Space enough for Achates and Aurora to play, grow. Prim will like it."
"Enough space for all our children to play and grow," Peeta replied.
Clove had endured enough. "Children?" she said, arching one of her eyebrows, and walking close to Peeta herself. "I thought you only had one." She made that "one" sound like a desperate failing, looking Katniss square in the face as she did so. "Not all women are as blessed as I in their fertility."
She rested one of her hands on Peeta's shoulder, and leaned close… too close, if the sudden scowl in Katniss' face were any indication. Clove smiled. But Katniss kept composure, and said with a quiet dignity, "Not every woman has had the numerous opportunities youhave taken to catch with child."
Clove flushed, and her hand tightened on Peeta's shoulder.
"Katniss," Peeta said with some remonstration, but his eyes sparkled, and he moved away from Clove.
"Ahem," Finnick put in, and Deimas shifted about, looking at his feet, almost as red and flushed as Clove was. "Perhaps you can show Katniss where the main buildings will be, Peeta? I confess some curiosity myself, lest this dazzling city of yours is to be all wall and no buildings."
Clove made a dismissive sound, and turned away.
Peeta bit the inside of his lip, trying to keep the grin from his face. "There," he said, pointing to the White Mount. "I have a great desire to build a palace atop that mound, Katniss." Then he leaned closer into her, and spoke low in her ear, and she shuddered. "Shall you enjoy the view, do you think?"
"It will be most agreeable," Katniss said, pushing his face away with a look.
"And there" – he pointed to the top of Seeder's Hill – "a great market, commanded by a civic hall."
"And on this hill?" said Katniss, ignoring his goofy grin. "On Chaff's Hill?"
"Here?" Peeta looked at Clove, and his smile dimmed some. "Here we will dance the two ceremonies to make our god well and trap. Here we will construct the labyrinth, and there" – he pointed to Pen Hill, and where the crystal cave resided — "will be the main gate of the city, and the entrance to all."
"This labyrinth," Katniss began, "I have heard of it. A trap, for evil and darkness. How does it work?"
"A labyrinth —" he began to say, but was interrupted by Clove, staring with baleful iciness at Katniss.
"We will make this city between us," she said, making no effort to hide the triumph in her voice, "Peeta and I. We will weave the god well, and we will build the trapping labyrinth. You need not know of it."
Katniss stared at Clove for a heartbeat, and Peeta looked ready to argue, but then Katniss smiled.
"Well, then," she said, and turned to Peeta. "I suppose you should just tell me more of these 'children'."
"You love her."
Clove's voice was harsh, her stance stiff and unyielding. They were walking along the northern line of the walls, inspecting the trenches and foundations, the other long gone and the sun setting behind them.
"She is my wife."
Clove was silent.
"You have no need to be jealous of her," Peeta said. "You are my partner in immortality."
"You'll give her more than one kid, but not me?" said Clove.
"That?" said Peeta, laughing at the thunder of Clove's face. "I teased her, and she was merely taunting me in return. I am not even allowed to lay with her, let alone get a child on her. There is no 'children'."
They walked in silence a few more paces.
"Perhaps you should live with me in my house," Clove said. "There is space enough for you."
"In your bed?"
Clove almost cried in frustration. "If you are so repulsed, no! Any bed you wish!"
"I shall stay where I am." He stopped, and looked over her, seeing her power in her anger. "Gods, Clove, there is nothingfor you to fear. I can be her husband, and you partner in the god well. We will be together, bound, tied, and conjoined as few men and women ever are. Why this jealousy?"
"Because you give her kids. Because you love her. These you do not give me."
Greedy, so greedy, Peeta thought.
"And I don't give Katniss immortality and power beyond everything, do I?"
Clove relaxed. Those were words he'd never spoken, nor would ever speak, to Katniss.
(As far as she knew.) Though Clove had no doubt about it; she did not think he would betray her.
(And oh, how wrong she was.)
"Imagine it, my love. The Night of Light, the process begun, you and I, the dance."
"I can picture it."
"Good! So tell me, will there be enough warriors and virgins among your Trojans to use as dancers?"
"Yes, warriors certainly, and virgins, too, even if I have to sew them back together myself."
Clove's mood sobered, Peeta's comment making her think, for no apparent reason, of Asterion and of his coming rebirth. She wondered why she hasn't felt him enter a new womb, in a new life?
She should have felt it by then – but then again, perhaps this time Asterion was staying dead.
Oh, how sweet! It really all was working out.
"She is so bothersome, though," Clove grumbled out loud.
"Would it be so bad if Katniss were to be sent away, my prince? It cannot do any harm."
"Your wife," Clove cut in. "I know. And she's your power source, but distance doesn't matter there."
"I'm not sending my wife and child away just because you wish it so."
"Well if you did everything I wish, then you'd have to be wearing those bands."
The veiled threat didn't go over Peeta's head and he narrowed his eyes at Clove. Her own mouth hardened into a thin line, but vanished almost instantly as she laughed, and drew Peeta against her.
"I have waited for you forever," she said, and kissed him.
He pushed her back gently, and just far enough to meet eyes. "Don't bring up those bands, again."
"Why? Do they scare you?"
"Do you want me to leave? Do you wish me to fight you?"
"You wouldn't fight me in the bands."
"I would fight you before I was in the bands, Clove."
"This is silly, I didn't mean it." She pecked his lips swiftly, and stepped back. "No bands. Ever again."
"On our immortal eternity."
Katniss sat back against the familiar ash tree within the meadowlands, cradling Achates and watching with very sharp, very observational eyes as Prim went blundering about in the long grass. "Like that?"
"It's what he showed me," Prim replied, straightening. She was breathless, cheeks pinched with both the cold and the exertion of her body's movements, and the spill of golden hair on the top of her head was lopsided and half-loose from its pins. "Darius did it so much better though. Graceful, even."
"Show me again," Katniss said. She sat up to get a better view, setting Achates on the spread blanket beside Aurora and the lay out of the small amount of food they'd brought with them. "Like he did."
Smiling, Prim went about the motions again. This time Katniss calculated the arch of Prim spine, the way she twisted right, while her left foot slid left, and there was a definite turn of the head that was important. It all seemed beautiful when Prim did it, and Katniss did not doubt her little sister's words – even with his crippled leg Darius had managed most of the time to look graceful and competent in his movements. Hadn't he told her once he didn't dance well? Lies. Such lies from that man's mouth.
Once Prim finished, she turned to Katniss expectantly. It hadn't been hard to convince Prim to show her what Darius had been teaching her. She seemed eager to, actually, and Katniss found it all intriguing.
The particular motions Prim was currently showing Katniss were a part of the dance that could weave a god their god well. Prim didn't know all the dance, since Darius had not had that much time with her – before he mysteriously left the night of Slaughter Festival and had not returned in the past four days – and so what she showed was barely enough to make a dent. Katniss took what she could.
"Did he show you how to make a power source?" Katniss asked Prim.
Prim shook her head and walked over to the tree. She sank gratefully onto the blanket, touched Aurora's cheek in affection, and then took up a apple among the food, and bit it. "He said I won't make one."
"Pointless. Power sources are for those who don't know how to make a god well, or for a god who is desperate for power. Power sources are considered... weaker. They're a liability most of the time."
"He didn't want you to have any weak spots."
"Nope." Prim chewed for a moment, then added, "Also, if I made one, it would make my gift from Hera very obvious, and bright, and even the bracelet Darius gave me would not be able to suppress the initial spike in power. Clove would be able to know who and what I am. He decided I wasn't desperate enough for power to need a power source and risk that. So he jumped right to teaching me how to make a god well. That way, once I make one, I can just go to my realm and be safe. Like Rue does."
"You know who Rue is?" Katniss asked, surprised.
"I've never met her. Darius told me about her. He told me about all of the Enlightened."
"Really? He never told me."
"He said it's important I know my brother and sisters in this pact."
"Tell me about them."
Prim didn't hesitate, she smiled shyly at Katniss; excited to be in this attention, to show her how well she is learning to be a queen of gods. She similarly was a good student to Darius. "Well he told me about Thresh, and I knew Annie from before. Then there's Peeta and Clove. That covers Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, and Artemis. I bet you knew all those before, though. You knew Rue?"
"I do," Katniss admitted. "What goddess' power does she wield?"
"A god, actually."
Katniss raised an eyebrow.
"Power isn't gender inclined," Prim said. "She's a the replacement – or 'Enlightened' – Apollo."
"God of light, music, arts, knowledge, plague, darkness... and healing...?"
"It is a skill of hers. Healing, that is."
"Tell me about the others. Who is Delly?"
"You know Delly, too?" Prim laughed. "Maybe you should be telling me instead."
"No... I don't know that much. Only that Peeta knows her. What goddess did she topple?"
"A god, again. She's what Hermes was."
God of boundaries, travel, communication, trade, thievery, and animal husbandry – Katniss understood then why Peeta had brought that white goat to the island. One of Hermes sacred animals had been rams.
Or perhaps he remembered from boyhood that Delly had a fondness for animals.
"Tell me, who took over Dionysus?"
"Oh, his name's Haymitch. Darius says he's a 'real piece of work'. One of Annie's recruits."
"Well to be Dionysus" – god of drunkenness, ecstasy, and festivities – "you'd have to be."
"I suppose. Who else is there? Umm.."
"Aphrodite? I do hope the goddess of love and beauty is a woman."
"You hope not in vain. Aphrodite was taken over by a woman named Cashmere."
"Darius says not all of the Enlightened are from Greece. He wasn't."
Katniss leaned closer, laying out on the ground, propped up on her elbows. She ran her fingers teasingly over Achates' forehead and she could have sworn her son sent her a look questioning her sanity. She laughed, and looked up at Prim. "That's nearly all of them. Who are we missing?"
Prim finished her apple and tossed the core out into the field. "Ares. A man named Gloss... the brother of Cashmere, took over him." God of war, bloodshed, and violence. "Darius says Cashmere and Gloss are nearly inseparable." A coincidence? The true Aphrodite had many a love affair with Ares.
And if Katniss recalled the tale true, it was also a bitter one for Hephaestus. He'd been given Aphrodite's hand in marriage by Zeus to prevent conflict over her between the other gods, only for her to dislike his cripple-nature so much to seek out affairs than endure him. In the story Hephaestus does not allow this to make him meek, but once again uses his abilities at the hammer to trap her and Ares in the act – thus humiliating them, instead of their affair humiliating him. Katniss dislikes the reminder of how many would seek to disregard Darius due to his failing, and wonders why they don't see beyond it.
"Three more," Katniss reminded Prim, when she slipped back into the present.
"Athena, " Prim began and Katniss visibly tensed – forgetting Darius entirely. "A man took her down."
"What's his name?"
"Annie recruited him. Darius says her recruits are always odd. Like Haymitch. His name is Beetee."
Goddess of intelligence and skill, warfare, battle strategy, handicrafts, and wisdom – now a god.
"Vixen, she's Hestia, goddess of chastity and the hearth. Darius says she's got hair redder than his."
"That's impossible," Katniss said.
"Apparently not." Prim smiled at the reminder of his unfeasibly red hair. "Last of all, there's Demeter."
Katniss sighed – Demeter was a goddess of agriculture, harvest, and grain, to be sure, but she was also for growth and nourishment, and it made her think of the motherly Seeder. "Who took over her?"
"A woman named Wiress."
For a minute, the stillness of the cold breeze blew around the two sisters. Katniss rolled onto her back, plucked Achates up in her arms and lifted him up above her, and he gave a delighted giggle.
Prim, looking down, then slyly over at Katniss, asked, "When will Darius come back?"
Katniss, who'd been grinning up at her son, fought off a worried, guilty frown. "I don't know."
I really don't know.