A/N: Sorry for the long wait and for taking it back after posting it. I was unhappy with the first draft of this and had to revise. Due to the wait I added much to the ending so those who have read this chapter have that to look forward to, at least. So make sure you check down there at the end! Hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading. Reviews are love. Once more, I disclaim everything that's not mine. Also: Going to be posting a new story soon, that I was donated by a friend with the username Elsterbird; it's a fabulous story about art school, Everlark, and did I mention Peeta's a nude model? It's a rather fun read.
Six Weeks Later
Black-hulled ships, almost a hundred of them, crowded the banks of the Pan River. They'd arrived a month earlier, bearing within them the joyous faces of the Trojans, their journey of almost one hundred years since the fall of Troy finally done.
Almost a thousand of the Trojans, headed by Glimmer (shockingly), had elected to remain at the original settlement that Peeta had somewhat jokingly named Delltos, and which was now firmly fixed as the developing town's name. It was a good site, and in the weeks they'd spent awaiting word from Peeta, many of the Trojans had decided that Delltos would be an excellent place to live, and raise their children. They'd grown to good terms with the small villages dotted along the Dart River, helped in no small degree with the acquaintance, and then deep friendship, with the three Mothers who'd resided within the Trojan camp as "hostages."
Peeta was not unhappy about the decision of Glimmer and the thousand others to remain in Delltos. It was a pleasant site indeed, and having another Trojan settlement within Panem would certainly be no bad thing. And it was good to keep Glimmer away; he did not want to face any awkwardness left by the imposter, nor any resentment from her over the fact that due to her Spartan heritage he'd reject her.
And it made one thousand less people to have to fit into the area surrounding Panbank.
An influx of eleven thousand people into any area was bound to cause problems; the fact that these eleven thousand were foreigners merely deepened the problems. Peeta was keenly aware of the need not to alienate the people of Panbank in the first instance, and the wider population of Panem in the second instance, and so he took several measures to ensure the influx of Trojans was as painless as possible.
It helped that the majority of the Trojans themselves were acutely aware of the need not to estrange Panem's people. Many of the spoils of Mesopotamia – the gold and jewels, and the silks and linens that had survived the sea journey – were now exchanged with the natives in thanks for the tracts of land that stretched east from Panbank, where the Trojans would make temporary settlement until New Troy was built north of the river. None of the Trojans intruded upon Panbank unless they were asked, and they took care not to trample the meadowlands where grazed Panbank's flocks of sheep and goats, and where roamed their pigs and cattle.
If the Trojans needed meat or grain, then they paid for it. If they wanted company and conversation, then they invited families of Panem into their temporary shelters, and were grateful when and if they themselves were invited into one of Panbank's houses in order to share warmth, food, and companionship. Most of the Trojans had taken the trouble to have, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of Panem's language, and the people of Panbank returned the favor by acquiring words of the Greek that the Trojans spoke.
Within weeks the conversations between the Trojans and those of Panbank were a chattering mixture of Greek and the native language.
Soon, both peoples were exchanging ideas along with tales of adventures and gods. The Trojans, back in Mesopotamia, had used a plow that the Panem people thought would work well in the soils about the Pan river; on their part, the Panem people shared their local knowledge of fishing and hunting to aid the Trojans in their search for meat.
No one, however, hunted in the sacred forests north of the Pan.
It was Chaff's forest; Brutus and (once) Twill's domain. Too sacred to touch. It was respected.
Peeta gave the Trojans one week in which to unpack their ships and to erect suitable shelters against the oncoming winter (which were chilly and damp, so the Panem people told their new neighbors, but not as frigid as the winters in the north of the island), then he set the men to work on the foundations of the walls of New Troy. He needed to work quickly – not only due to his own impatience but to all the quicker hold the power that'll free him from any chains, that'll enable him to protect Katniss and give her immunity to chains, and then finally to slip away from Clove's manipulations. Also, Clove had told him that the best time to work the first dance of the weave, and to work the first enchantment, would be the winter solstice, and that was only two months' distant.
By then, the foundations needed to be complete and the gate marked out.
Evil needed to know where the entrance to the city was in order for it to be trapped.
So the Trojans set to work. The walls were to be huge – the height of five men, and half as thick at its base. That meant the foundations had to be dug at least the height of a man into the ground, and preferably the height of one and a half men. The ground was generally easy to dig – beneath the surface soil and loam lay well-packed gravel whose discovery made Peeta exultant… this land was madefor the support of walls. In most areas the foundations of flint packed into clay could be laid down directly, but in those few parts where the ground was soft and waterlogged the builders would need to drive in wooden piles for extra support. The waterways would be diverted via stone culverts under the walls in the north, and then under a low stone gateway where it emerged into the Pan river.
All in all, to Peeta's delight, there would be few problems apart from time — and that could be defeated with good planning and willing backs.
By the winter solstice he had every expectation of being ready to begin the god well's creation.
On the southern bank of the Pan, watching the activity across the river, Katniss stood, her expression grave. The site surrounding New Troy's destination swarmed with men – digging, carting, excavating.
She watched them tear up the grass and the soil, as if they were personally ripping out the roots of Panem's past gods. It was as if with each thud of the shovel, the men were digging the grave for Seeder and Chaff. Both, gone – Chaff, so near, it didn't matter to Katniss anymore – and soon to be replaced.
She shuddered in dread and anticipation, and drew her cloak tightly about her.
"Katniss," said a voice. "How pleasant to see you here."
Katniss jumped, swiveling about.
Clove walked to her side and looked across the river herself. "All goes well, does it not? Peeta assures me we will be ready for the first dance by the night of the winter solstice." She turned slightly, so she could see Katniss out of the corner of her eye. "You only have a few weeks, Katniss. Only a few."
"A few weeks?"
"Surely Peeta has told you about the way of this, and his and my role in it?"
Katniss rose an eyebrow. "Don't you recall? You told me I must know none of it." Inside her head, she heard Darius' warm voice; sex and love are a part of it. Despite herself color flashed into her face, and mottled down her neck, mostly due to anger than any true embarrassment at what Clove implied. "Why don't you tell me now? What do you mean, 'a few weeks'?" Katniss said, teeth clenched.
Clove sighed breezily, and that only served to make Katniss angrier. "The couple god well requires myself as the female counterpart and Peeta, the male, to unite as one in order to ensure the success of the well. It will ensure a stronger weave and power. You doknow what I mean, don't you, my dear?"
Katniss stared coldly on at her.
"I'm sure you've been worried that Peeta and I have become lovers," Clove said. "But we haven't." Then Clove grinned, bent closer as if they were sisters and whispered, "Not yet."
Her eye glimmered with pleasure as Katniss grew only more stiff and upset, before straightening and continuing: "We're waiting only for the first dance, mortal girl, then Peeta and I will be far more 'married' than you and he ever were. Wedded together in such power you will become nothing more than an irritating insignificance. If I were you, I'd allow Peeta as much use of your body as he can tolerate between now and the winter solstice. I doubt he'll make much use of you after it."
Then she reached out a hand and put her palm against Katniss' cold, flushed cheek, giving it a mocking pat. "Poor girl. You've never been able keep Peeta occupied in any meaningful way. You've had a pair of legs that can be parted, you've a body that can be penetrated, but you're not much else, are you?"
Katniss drew in one deep breath, then with all the strength she had, she hit Clove across the cheek.
Staggered slightly, by the unexpected physical strength, Clove nonetheless remained standing, and her eyes flared, but she made no move to retaliate… at least, not physically. "You've nothing to make Peeta love you for long," she said, her voice now as cold as the frosty air about them. "Nothing. Mortal girl."
"You've got a big mouth," Katniss said through her teeth.
"I'm just telling you the truth he hides from you."
For a moment Katniss looked infinitely amused, as though she'd break into laughter.
Oh, if only she knew, Katniss thought, but said, in a calm voice, "You're right. I'm just the wife."
(She was growing very sick of these bantering sessions. Very tired of them, indeed. They were a direct results of her promise to Peeta to protect Clove, rather than kill her. And if Katniss had to guess, it was a result of the fact that Clove now could not kill her. Thus leading to constant clash on verbals terms.)
"I am right," Clove said. "You're the wife and I'm the queen. I'm glad you see that. You're the power source, the tool. You're the little breeder where he gets his litter. But I'm his immortal partner."
Oh, all the lines she sets. Katniss gave a jerk of his chin to show she understood.
Satisfied, Clove turned to leave, walking a good distance away.
(But no matter how sick of them she grew, she was still competitive, and wished to win them.)
At Clove's back, Katniss called out, her words a white cloud in the air, "But it's me he loves now!"
Cecelia looked up, startled by Katniss' sudden entrance into her house.
She had been expecting the girl, but not this early… and not in this state.
"Katniss?" she said, rising from her bench by the hearth. "What is wrong?"
"Forgive me my entrance," Katniss said, paused, then shot a dark look to the far side of the house where the shadows clung to a figure seated there. "Stop hiding in the corner, Brutus," she said.
Cecelia shot a significant look at Brutus, who made a fuss of standing and crossing his arms, stepping into the light that came from both the fire in the hearth and the morning sun outside. "Well?"
"I've just had the pleasure of talking with Clove," Katniss said, her voice deep with irritation.
"Undoubtedly, a treat," Cecelia said. "You look like you've got something to say."
"She told me that the ceremony will begin on the night of the winter solstice –" Katniss sat on a stool beside Cecelia and Brutus made to sit across from the two " – and that is not very far away."
"It isn't," Cecelia agreed.
"And still you do not wish to aid us against Clove? If we kill her before the ceremony then it's still not too late not to harm your precious Trojan prince," Brutus said. Several times in the past few weeks Brutus had approached her, and asked her if she would aid him and Cecelia and their allies (Enobaria, Mags) against Clove, but every time she had refused. This time was no different from the others.
"Peeta has a plan to get rid of her," she told him, as she has before. "After the god well is finished."
They didn't understand how that worked, but Katniss had resigned herself to Peeta's plan. She could not stop him, or pull him off this path he wants, so she decided that when he offers her Clove's place beside him, after he disposes of Clove, then she'd take it. It is, in truth, when she thought their paths merged.
To join Brutus and the others now would only be to alienate Peeta's hopes. There wasn't any danger she saw in them – not really – but they were the only group that opposed Clove and Peeta (since she'd sent Darius off and Thresh was not coming) and so she had taken to visiting them often and keeping herself close with Cinna and Cecelia, and even Brutus, to keep an eye out for any plots that could do harm.
So far, she'd seen nothing more than Brutus brooding, and heard nothing but his asking for her help.
Cecelia sighed and took Katniss' hand, speaking to him, "We cannot force her to help us, Brutus."
"Everything will work out," Katniss told them, hoping she were right.
After all, there was still Gale and Cato to worry about. And of course, Darius.
Gods, where is he?
It'd been weeks and weeks since that day she'd asked him to find Asterion. Sometimes she wondered if she'd sent him off to die, if he'd been killed in the same brutal way as Seeder, with that same knife.
Everyday she'd go to the ash tree in the meadow, sometimes with Prim, sometimes Achates, sometimes alone, and she'd sit there and she'd wait for him to come back. He never shows, despite the two months that have dragged by. Two months of sitting and waiting, waiting for Darius and for the foundations of the walls to be finished. Two months of Brutus' pestering, Peeta's love, and Prim talking only of Darius.
Cecelia's voice broke across Katniss' thoughts. "How do you know it'll work out?"
"I just do. Trust me. Seeder did, once."
"I trust you, Katniss," Cecelia said, squeezing the hand she still held. "Just not Clove."
"I... I actually was wanting to try something," Katniss started, then trailed off.
"Try something?" Brutus took interest. "Something... against Clove?"
Katniss nearly rolled her eyes. "No. Something to do with Seeder's pond."
Brutus face stilled, and if he didn't put on a mask Katniss knew she'd see pain in his brutish eyes.
"The pond Twill died in?" he asked.
"Cinna told me once that water was the mirror between worlds. I think... well I thought... perhaps I could use it to take me to Seeder's realm. I'm not sure how it'd work, or even if it would, but it's worth trying, I think." It is better than sitting around and waiting for Darius. "Will you accompany me?"
Cecelia smiled and nodded. "I can ask Enobaria and Mags –"
"Just you is fine," Katniss told her. Then she looked over at Brutus. "You can come, if you want."
Brutus made a face, and then stood, and exited the house.
"A no, then," Katniss said, not very put out. To Cecelia she said, "Tonight?"
Cecelia gave her hand one last squeeze before dropping them. "Beneath the stars."
"Do you think he forgot about us?" Prim asked and I tried not to wince.
"No, he couldn't have. Maybe he was called away."
"Another recruit maybe?"
"I thought it was really important for me to finish my training, to get my god well going?"
I didn't look into Prim's curious, innocent eyes as I sat underneath the ash tree. "Did he say that?"
"He said that I could make a difference. That I'd be stronger than him. That I could stop Clove."
"We don't want to stop Clove, now," I counseled. "Peeta has a plan."
"Still, I thought Hera wanted me to be her replacement."
"She did... does. You'll become immortal in time, Prim. Just... wait. Alright?"
"Alright," said Prim, then took up practicing the parts of her dance she knew once more.
Despite all the lies I told Prim that assured her Darius must be off doing something typical and boring to a Enlightened, I was desperate for any piece of information I could get in concerns of Darius. This desire was not only because I was sure that it was a mistake now, to send him after someone so dangerous, or only because I admittedly missed him, as Prim did, or even because the waiting for him was killing me, but because ever since the day I sent him off and I lied to Peeta, all things seemed to shift, as if all that was mysterious about Seeder and my connection to her had vanished. Just as surely as Seeder had disappeared from my life, so did my unknown knowledge of the land (though I still loved it and knew what I'd been told), and so did my dreams of the stone hall. They were gone; no laughing girl at the edge of my vision, no man I loved beyond the world. There was still the immunity to fire and sudden urges to fight (such as when I'd slapped Clove across the face) but otherwise it was as if everything else had been my imagination. They couldn't have been, I hoped. They couldn't.
Guilt drove me to ask Cecelia back to Seeder's pond, despite the memories there. If Darius was dead, then I wanted to know it, and I didn't want to stay under that tree waiting for him the rest of my life. Helplessness was what made me actually show up the night we planned to meet at the pond.
So many times Clove called me 'mortal girl'. It was true. Girl on fire, or not, I had no powers.
I could not transport myself between realms, nor over distance. I couldn't hear thoughts. All about me Clove and Peeta planned their god well, brimming with their power. Prim showed me her half-finished dance, growing more and more expert at it as the days passed, and there I sat, useless.
As I stood over the pond, waiting for Cecelia to arrive, I recalled that day I'd climbed Chaff's Hill and Peeta had put his arm about my waist and explained his plans. He joked of children. He pressed his warm lips into my neck and promised me palaces, and I wanted to melt into his hands and believe him. Because the view from the top of Chaff's Hill was exactly the view from the stone hall in my dreams.
I wondered at that, and wondered at how I loved the hall still, yet it was a place of murder now.
If anything, I wanted to reach it, to touch it, to know it was real. Perhaps find a piece of Darius there.
So that evening, while Peeta was still occupied at the building site (and no doubt enduring the night with Clove), and Achates suckled contentedly at Prim's breast, I took up the walk to Seeder's spring. There, not long after I arrived, a stirring in the grass foretold someone's coming. I turned, expecting Cecelia, and was surprised to see Brutus – and Cinna! – walking toward me. Cinna smiled warmly. "Katniss," he greeted and I hugged him, then sent Brutus a wary glance.
"I thought you wouldn't come," I said.
Brutus shrugged. "I didn't want to miss anything."
"It may not work," I reminded him.
"Not with that attitude," Cecelia called from a not so distant place.
When she reached us she greeted her son with a kiss on the cheek, then a touch of Brutus' shoulder, before she stepped up to me. "Do you want to go in alone? Or should I disrobe and accompany you?"
"No need to join me." I remembered the last time someone had. "Just.."
"Wait at the shore," Cecelia finished for me, smiling. "I can do that."
Such as I had before with Twill I stood naked at the edge of the pond for a deliberative moment, before I entered. I thought of the small girl, and tried to summon the Seeder in me – it was gone though – and so, sighing, I waded into the waters. It was freezing cold, no longer warm, and I wrapped my arms about my stomach as the reality of that sunk in. Without Seeder the land grows colder and hard. Without her, the sacredness fades.
"Katniss?" Cecelia asked in concern, the longer I stood there and shivered.
I drew in a deep breath. "I'm fine," I told her. "Wait." Trying to focus, I allowed my body to relax and dropped my arms at my side, fingertips trailing over the surface of the water. But what to focus on?
"Alright, this is done," Cinna finally said. "You're going to catch your death in there, Katniss."
"No," I said, fiercely. "A while longer."
"You've been in there for hours. It's nearly moonhigh. Get out of the water, Katniss."
Cecelia made no move to stop her son as he waded out into the pond and grabbed at me. Brutus himself looked equally tired of waiting for something to happen. Had it really been that long? Admittedly, I couldn't feel anything below the waist any more, and my hands were stiff and aching, teeth chattering.
Cinna, as gentle as ever, led me out of the water. I stumbled on the grass, my legs complaining under the weight of my body as I dressed, and Brutus dutifully flanked me. In the light of the moon, it occurred to me just how large of a man Brutus was; larger than Peeta, to be sure.
But not anywhere near as tall as Asterion.
Our group made the way back toward Panbank, slowly and, with the disappointment of my attempt hanging over us, in silence. I kept feeling that helplessness. I kept obsessing over the lack of Seeder in me as we walked, not paying attention to much. The sharp irritating pins and needles spread through my legs after they started to get their feeling back, causing me to lose all aspect of grace and balance.
Brutus, growing tired of my back and forth stumble from his shoulder to Cinna's, picked me up.
"Put me down!" was my initial reaction. (Such as when Finnick had done on the ships.) Brutus just grunted at me and dutifully carried me all the way to the ford in the river, and continued to even as we crossed the water. It occurred to me that it was probably a habit of his, from carrying Twill for most of her life. That thought roused sad questions. Had he helped raise her? Was he lonely without her?
Being carried didn't help the helpless feeling in me, but I had to admit it was nicer, and slowly but surely the fire in my legs died and when I said to be put down, he did as asked without any struggle.
We were nearly in Panbank at that time. Very few people were outside so late. There was the usual noise of life and family spilling from the nearby houses, and the glow of the Trojan settlements in the distance, and not too far down the road I could see a group of some seven men heading into town.
At a glance I assumed they were farmers, or herders, coming home to see their Mothers. It was not a foreign concept. If they weren't heading from the road that led to the tribe lands of Albion, I would have actually assumed they were Panem natives returning from visiting the Trojans. Even so, I could not even say with any certainty whether they were Panem-born or Trojan. The man in front carried only one torch and the faint light it cast, with my distance, was not enough for me to make out their faces.
I dismissed them easily.
It was Brutus who stopped, straightening, and eyed the group suspiciously. The rest of us continued on without him for a time, until I sighed – feeling guilty (he had just carried me) – and turned back.
I paused to show concern, though it was minimal. All I really wanted was to get home and forget my failure and tuck myself in with Achates. For Brutus' sake, I joined him. "What is it?" I asked.
He pursed his lips, throwing his chin their way. "Look at them. That's not normal."
I examined the group as he asked. After being with Peeta's fleet for so long, and seeing as much battle as I had in that time, I recognized what Brutus had; too much tension. There was too much orderliness to the cluster of men for them to be a couple of farmers returning safely home. Two of the men were clearly flanking the ones in the middle, the lead with the torch directing them with stiff motions.
I squinted. "Look," I said, relaxing, and pointing at the front man. "He's Trojan. One of Peeta's men, no doubt. Perhaps they caught tribal savages. Peeta had guards posted along the road a few weeks ago."
"I suppose," Brutus said, and after eying the group a few more moments, nodded. "Alright." He turned to join Cinna and Cecelia – who'd been standing patiently aside, waiting for us. "Let's go."
That's when I heard one of the 'tribal savages' speak.
"Where are you taking us?"
I froze mid-step.
I misheard. I had to have misheard.
I stayed in that spot, my back to the group of men that were drawing ever closer – if Peeta's men had captured hostiles, then it was to Peeta they would take the prisoners, so it was safe to assume that they'd walk right passed us, heading toward the same house I was – and I strained to hear them speak again.
Cinna opened his mouth to question me and I shot him a silencing look, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him close to me. I motioned to the others to come closer as well, though they were confused, but the hasty circle they formed out of us wouldn't draw the men's attention too sharply. Or so I hoped.
"To our king," was the leading Trojan's response. "He'll have a lot of questions for you lot."
My hand was still on Cinna's arm and the longer I waited for the prisoner to say something else, the tenser I grew, and the more my fingernails bit into his skin. With my eyes glued on the ground in the center of our circle, I think Cecelia sensed a little of what I was doing, and she began to murmur softly with Brutus over nonessential things – the tide of the river, the harvest, the dinner she had made earlier.
The group of men were close now. I'd been right to assume their direction; they'd turned down the street that'd bring them passed us and straight through Panbank. Their footsteps were heavy, and I heard the clanking of chains. Speak. Just one word. I have to have imagined it. Say something. Anything!
Silence, save Cecelia and Brutus, the crickets on the riverbank, and the surrounding houses.
The men were passing us now. I could tell by the light that shined behind my back from the torch, and the way Cinna's eye moved and focused over my head. On a split decision, I turned about to look myself.
I saw exactly what I'd feared to.
And he saw me, too.
Our eyes met and held, and I felt as though I'd been knocked breathless. My hand on Cinna's arm tightened and his eyes slid down to that, and then raised to, I assume, examine Cinna's face.
Hastily, I dropped the arm. I didn't want Rory to get any wrong impressions.
He looked more or less the same as when I'd last seen him. Dorian Greek to his core, he had the olive-toned skin, the gray eyes, the straight black hair (though ruffed in that Rory Hawthorne way of his); we could have been siblings or, even if someone was dim enough to miss that, they'd at least have to see we were country-men to each other. I was certain beyond doubt the Trojan guards leading them knew what treasure they'd found, if they did not know exactly who Rory was.
The real question was: Where had they been found?
The four other Dorian Greeks with Rory weren't any I knew. Gale was certainly not among them. All of them were chained about the wrists, unarmed, and similarly staring at me as I stared at them. My once-over of Rory had taken less then a second and no more than three seconds had passed since I'd turned around. I knew I had to do something. I knew because that was Rory – Prim's love of her life – and even if he had the workings of a beard showing, and he looked a little more hardened since the days we lived in a palace together, he was no more than seventeen. A boy, really. As young as sweet Primrose.
I straightened immediately, I drew in a breath and thought; be the queen, not the wife.
"What do you think you're doing?" I asked the Trojan guard holding the torch. There was enough anger in my voice to cause him to rebuke a little, and then lean in close to look me over – perhaps he did not think I was Katniss. He held the torch up, closer to me and my little group, and he frowned heavily.
"I'm escorting this group of prisoners to Peeta."
"Prisoners?" I said, taking on an offense look. "These are my men!"
"Yes, that's what I said. Are you hard of hearing? My men. I demand you unchain them at once."
The lead Trojan exchanged a doubtful, almost amused look with the two others flanking the Dorians. He shifted on his feet to draw himself to full height, therefore asserting to me my place, and my size, on purpose. There was that usual scorn in his eyes Trojans regarded me with. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but–"
"Is that how you address a princess of Troy?" I snapped, placing hands onto my hips, and I put as much of Clove's haughtiness into my eyes as I could as I overlooked him. "What's your name, solider? I think Peeta will want to know it, once I tell him of your blatant disrespect tonight, refusing a queen's order."
He seemed completely caught off-guard now, where before he'd just looked like he wanted to smirk at me.
"It's Seneca, my princess."
Ah, that's better. He might not fear me, but he did have regard for Peeta. If I could just play that out in all the right ways I might be able to wrestle Rory and the Greeks free, and keep these Trojans quiet.
I didn't dare look toward Rory, to see if he'd play his part, let alone the other four men, for fear I'd lose the act. I kept my glare firmly on the Trojans.
"Seneca?" I repeated. "I do hope that wasn't your father's name, because you shame it now."
"My princess," said one of the flanking guards, stepping forward. In the light I saw that he was not one of Peeta's men, but he was Finnick's. He would not know Rory for his name. Better yet, he looked as though he did hold respect for me. Perhaps that was because he knew me from the ships, where I was more of Peeta's companion, rather than the spoils of Mesopotamia, a woman raped and taken. That was much easier to rise up from into the mold of a queen. I nodded to him, in permission to speak.
He gestured to Rory and the Dorians. "We found these men sneaking around Chaff's forest, near the road. By the looks of it, they were scouting, my princess. Why would your men be doing that?"
Yes, Katniss, why so ever would your men be doing that?
"I've been expecting them," I said, finally allowing my eyes to fall on Rory's. He might be slightly confused, but he appeared composed. He knew I was trying to help him. Perhaps he even believed the act I put up. "They were due to be here with the rest of the Trojans coming from Delltos weeks ago–"
"I had not thought any Dorian men were spared from Mesopotamia," Seneca cut in.
I fixed him with a hard stare. "And do you know all Seneca? Are you a part of Peeta's group of advisers and it is just that I have not seen you there before? Do you bed down with every body in the fleet's midst? Did you shake every hand of those living at Delltos? Are you even a captain among guards?"
Seneca sneered, then merely lowered his head.
"I thought not," I said, turning from him again, looking to Finnick's man. "These are my men, the few I have. If you found them scouting then it is merely that they were lost. They know as little of this land as you Trojans. Was it an autumn storm?" I asked at Rory. "Were your ships separated from the others? You must have been pushed very far north, traveling all the way back here on land! How is that?"
Waiting for Rory to reply seemed to drag on forever and as it turned out a man beside Rory took up the task. He was many, many years Rory's elder, and mine; late forty, perhaps, with silver in his hair, the look of leadership about him. "It is true, my princess," he said, voice sly. He went along with my act.
"Aye," murmured another of them. "Our ships were thrown by the sea and dashed against white cliffs far north of here. Many died... leaving the five of us. We have traveled long to get back to you."
"Through tribal lands?" Brutus, who stepped up to my immediate right, asked. "Alive?"
The older man looked at Brutus solemnly. "We managed to travel through the wild lands north of here unconfronted by tribes, but the walking was hard in this cold and the hunting was scarce."
"And the moment you near us, you're assaulted at the sake of these men's ignorance," I said, flicking a hand in the Trojan guards' direction. I stepped purposefully in front of Brutus, and fixed Seneca with the hard stare once more. "Unchain them, I say. And mayhaps Peeta won't know about your mistake."
Seneca hissed at the two other Trojan guards who had moved to do as I ordered. "Princess," he said, icily, "misunderstanding or not, it is my duty to bring these Greeks to my prince. It is from him I take my orders. If what you say is true, then he will release them. Yes? And there will be no real harm done. If what you say is not... well, I think he'll have something to say to you about your mistake, no?"
Seneca didn't use Rory as influence, so at least he didn't know just what Greeks he'd captured. Only that he wasn't buying my lie and that he'd seen, or heard of, black-eyed Peeta's reactions to me in the past over 'betrayals' and 'mistrusts'. Perhaps he'd hoped I'd get a beating for this show I was putting on.
And, very suddenly, I was angry. Angry enough to feel the urge to fight roar inside me. (It'd been so much easier to trigger lately.) I clenched my fists, grit my teeth, and stepped right up to the man.
"Do you think to threaten your queen?"
He drew back slightly, holding the torch away. "I am merely speaking plainly."
Without really making the decision, my hand came up and struck him across the face. He staggered, and everyone around me leaned back slightly in surprise, and before he steadied, I snatched the torch from his hand and turned to the two other Trojans. "Do either of you wish to speak plainly, too?"
"Good." I drew in a breath, trying to put the simmer on the anger. "Release my men."
"At once, my princess."
"And give them back their weapons."
As they went about releasing Rory and the Greeks, I became aware that a few people in the surrounding houses had come to watch the spectacle we were making. Witnesses. I held the torch closer to me, hoping the people in the huts could not see that the men in chains were Greek. Most of the ones in the doorways were Mothers and I turned sharply to Cecelia. "Tell them to get to their beds."
"Katniss?" Cecelia asked.
"Tell them that this business is not to be talked of. Go now."
I didn't like speaking so harshly to her, nor did I think she liked being spoken to thus, but if I dropped the facade for her then the guards would see right through it. Plus, I wanted them to believe it too – Cecelia, Brutus, and Cinna. If they thought these were really my men and these guards were really angering me by taking them prisoners, then they might not be inclined to question it later. After all, they knew nothing about Greeks and Rory, or even what life I lived among the fleet, or in the palace. And since I was speaking to the guards in Greek, I doubted they picked up very much of what we said.
With apprehensive faces, Cecelia and Cinna melted away from our gathering and approached the first house. I turned, meaning to speak once more with the guards, and Brutus caught my eye. His face was similarly apprehensive and uncertain, and if I didn't mistake it, intimidated. "You, too," I said.
"Me?" Brutus asked, cautiously. He eyed my face, flicking his gaze from me to the torch.
I realized then that I'd been holding it too close; perhaps not close enough to touch, but close enough any normal person's face would be searing with the heat of the flames. I lowered it a little. "Yes."
He lumbered away toward a different doorway than Cecelia and Cinna.
"Orders, my princess?"
Seneca was recomposed by then and stood stiffly, his eyes dark with anger; but the two other Trojans were idling before me, obedient and waiting. "Your orders are to return to your previous posts."
They dipped their heads and turned to go – Seneca included – but I felt unease at the way he looked at me so before they got too far away I called at them, "Do not think I will so easily forgive you this foolishness. A smart man will stay away. The longer and farther you stay, the faster it may be I forget your faces. I can't tell which men Peeta is to punish if I can not find those men. Remember that!"
Finnick's man raised his hand to show he heard, but did not turn back. They kept going down the road, without their torch now, and I waited and watched them go until I could not make them out. Once they were gone, I turned to Rory and let my face drop to show my real emotions; worry, shock, unease.
"What are you doing here?" I hissed at him. "Do you have any idea what could have happened if I hadn't come upon you? Gods, Rory! This is the very nest of Trojans and they love you none."
Before he, or any of the other Greeks, replied, Cecelia, Cinna, and Brutus drew near again. They'd managed to get all those in the surrounding houses to leave us be, which I was grateful for.
"I don't know what's going on," Cecelia said, "but you're worrying me, Katniss."
"There's nothing to worry about. Everything is settled." I forced out a smile. "Thank you for going to the pond with me earlier, but I have over things to deal with. I would talk with my men. Alone."
She still seemed on edge, but she nodded in acknowledgment to my wish. Cinna touched my arm in that way he does with those warm fingers and golden flecked eyes, and then followed his mother away.
Brutus was not so easily dismissed.
"You may fool all the others, but I am no fool, Katniss," he said, in the Panem language.
"Could have fooled me," I replied in the same language; the Greeks would not know our words.
He curled his lips. "Don't test my temper."
"Do not test mine," I snapped back. "Peeta loves you not, and –"
"Do not think your threats of him will intimidate me! To the others it might. But not me."
"Then fear me!" I snarled at him, making an effort to keep my voice low. "Remember how Seeder called my name. Remember how I escaped you that first time. Remember what you saw at the Dance."
To make sure he understood to what I alluded to, I raised the torch in my hand a few inches higher, and let the light cast deep, dark, long shadows over both of our faces. His face hardened satisfyingly. We continued to stare at each other for an immeasurable amount of time, before he suddenly snarled at me and violently brushed passed me, and – to my wholehearted relief – sprinted away into the night.
I quite literally sagged in my skin once he was gone. I'd actually done it! I'd actually managed to lie so convincingly that I'd freed them of the guards. But the trouble was far from over. My words to Rory rang true – we were still in the middle of the pit. I straightened my shoulders – it was best to keep up appearances – and I nodded at the Greeks to follow me, and I marched resolutely down the street.
About halfway through the town, Rory spoke up. "Where are you taking us?"
It'd been what he'd first said; what had caused me to recognize him. You'd think after what I'd just done to free them of their chains – lie, offend my friends, make an enemy in the guard – there would be more curiosity and friendliness in his tone when he'd asked me. No. There was wariness and distrust.
I cast a look over my shoulder to find them all looking similarly dubious of me.
"I'm taking you somewhere we can talk safely."
"In town?" he said, and I realized their fear. They thought I was taking them to Peeta anyway.
I smiled, and I saw many of them relaxed at the small action.
"No, Rory. I'm taking you through it. There is a meadow on the other side. Going back the other way would have been suspicious. Now hush, we don't want to draw attention. There will be talk soon."
Halfway down the path to the tree, Prim broke away from Katniss' side and threw herself at Rory.
When Katniss had gone to wake her, she hadn't told her why she was being dragged from the house in the middle of the night with warnings to not disturb any Trojans. She'd assumed that it was about Darius and she was happy for it, but the instant she'd seen Rory, pure joy contorted the features of her face and, as she was enveloped in his arms, she had begun to cry in relief, clutching to him.
As the two had their reunion, Katniss examined the others present, her face guarded. They, too, were still on-edge, and there was a stoic feel about them. They watched her warily. She was glad she'd decided to leave Aurora behind; for a second, she'd considered taking Aurora to Rory as well, then she decided that if she did that, then Prim might never return to the house, or danger could harm her.
Katniss had left them with the torch, given to the eldest man; the one who'd spoken out. With the light hovering beside him now she could see that he was not actually Dorian. Greek, yes. But not Dorian.
"Rory?" Katniss asked, stepping close to the pair and forcing them to separate. "Where is Gale?"
Rory smiled at her now, unrestrained, wholeheartedly trusting. "He is well. Not far from here."
"On a large beach to the north. Three days walk. Him and his army."
"Army?" Prim said. "Has he come to fight?"
"Fight, no," Rory said, turning to her with tender features. "Rescue, yes." He cupped her cheek and smiled. He said, "We will take you now, and Katniss, too, and mayhaps there will be no fight."
"Peeta will notice I'm gone."
Katniss was frowning, and Rory blinked at her, confused. "So?"
"I'm not leaving him."
"You have no desire to be rescued?"
"I have no need of rescue," Katniss clarified.
Rory looked to Prim, to Katniss, to the men at his back. "I don't understand."
"We're not prisoners here, Rory. Things are not as they were in Mesopotamia."
"Clearly," spoke the elder man. He surveyed Katniss with mistrust, still. Earlier, what they saw, was not the type of woman Gale, the general, had described to them. No, the Katniss they had found was somewhat more intimidating than the Dorian general had implied, and much more dangerous.
Rory shook his head, dismissing the man's statement and look.
"Katniss, are you fearful? Do you think Peeta will come after you? Gale has the means to protect you now. You need not be scared to accept the freedom we offer. We can be miles away before sunrise."
"The only thing I fear is Gale being discovered," Katniss said, and her tone softened somewhat. "I fear that Gale might fight despite your claim of 'rescue'. Peeta will not lose a war, Rory. Tell Gale that."
"Tell him yourself," Rory insisted. "You cannot believe I'll leave here without you? He'll be angry."
"Let him be angry. Tell him I will not come. I chose not to. Tell him to go and be safe elsewhere."
Prim, who was watching their exchange, suddenly stirred to life, and stepped back from Rory. Her face was sad. "She's right, Rory. I must stay, too. Things are... different. I am... different. I can't leave."
His eyes widened in disbelief as he looked between the sisters. "But.."
"I love you," Prim said, reaching for him again. "But I can't go. Not now. Please understand."
"I don't," he said. "You... you were taken. These Trojans are brutes and rapists.. and you wish to be with them, instead of us? Instead of your family?" Real anger sparked in his eyes and he stepped back from her, that time. He glared at Katniss. "I can almost understand why you would. Who wouldn't want queenship? What woman would turn down a man such as Peeta, rape or not?" There was scorn in the words and they were more insult than real understanding; Katniss clenched her jaw at the blows. "But you," Rory said, turning to Prim again, looking betrayed. "You were so willing to help before, telling us how to get here, and now you wish us gone? Wish me gone? You do not have to be so loyal to her!" He flung a hand in Katniss' direction. "You have listened to her all your life! For once, do not!"
"I'm not doing this because Katniss told me –"
Prim hesitated. Should she tell him of Hera's gift? She could not leave because she could not forget that new piece of her. She could not leave when she did not know where Darius was; she needed him.
The hesitation took too long. Rory backed farther away, shaking his head, joining the other men, and when Prim made to follow him, looking desperate, Katniss jumped forward and held her back.
"I have saved your lives," Katniss told them, her voice soft and her face expressionless. "This night. But I cannot continue to do that if you continue to come back here. If Gale wishes to talk with me himself, then you tell him where this tree stands and I will be here every day at noon. If he does not, if he decides he will fight and forsake my warnings, then know I might not be able to stop Peeta."
"You made it sound a lot like Peeta was on your leash when you spoke before. 'Saving us'," said one.
Katniss' carefully masked cool flared, and her anger, as they'd seen before, was a livid thing. "I am not queen, whatever I may have said," she hissed, stepping passed Prim and into the light of the torch. "I can lie only so much to dim, under-informed guards. Peeta mislikes Gale, and if he lets that get the better of him, and if Clove decides to influence him and push the matter, my words will mean little." Then she drew in a sharp breath, full of emotion, and said, "There are more than just Trojans here. The natives... the Panem people... they are peaceful. They won't stand in war. They do not deserve such an abuse. This land... this land should not be run over with blood. Not over Gale's rescue. Nor revenge."
Rory stared at her. Before, when he'd first seen her and he'd said her name as she stood in that little circle of others, he'd expected to see the same woman from Mesopotamia. Instead, as he watched and the longer she argued with the guards, the more he noticed was different. Was it all an act? What she was saying suggested it was, but he was not so convinced; it seemed rather real. The regal way she held herself, the riveting eyes above her striking features, the spill of her pitch hair falling about her shoulders and the tone of her voice, icy, yet firm as the crack of a whip. Not to mention the sight it had been to see her first strike a fully grown, armed man, but then proceed to turn to the large beast of a man, whom she called Brutus, and growl with him in the native's strange tongue, clearly unshaken.
And then to see fear in both of the men's faces as they faced her!
If the other Greeks were wary of her, then they were not wary for no reason.
Rory didn't want to believe it. Didn't want to be the one to return and tell Gale of it.
He opted to ignore Katniss.
"Prim," Rory said, looking to her beseechingly beyond Katniss' shoulder. "Come with us, darling. Please. Bring me our child, let me hold my own child. I love you, I cannot forget you here. Please..."
She was crying again, the tears silent on her cheeks.
"Prim," Rory said, yet again, pleading and reached out a hand.
She looked to Katniss, but her elder sister merely turned aside her face, unable to give input.
Prim, mirroring Katniss, turned aside her face as well.
An awkward silence followed, wherein Rory's face fell from any mustered anger, and became that of a crushed boy. Beside him the elder man cursed and growled, "The king will not be glad to see Gale's cause is an empty one." He spit on the ground, and then tossed down the torch and stamped it out.
Rory turned hastily. "No! The cause is still there."
"What king has Gale found?" Katniss cut in, worry eating at her stomach. The look of panic in Rory's eyes told her that this king was not one to anger. What sort of promises had Gale made to get here?
Rory did not turn. He kept staring at the elder man just as he'd so recently been staring at Prim.
The other Dorian Greeks of the group were similarly nettled by the man's statement.
"What king?" Katniss repeated, and put real force behind the words.
The elder man drew himself to full height. "His Majesty Undersee, the last king of Sparta."
"Sparta is long gone, its people scattered," Katniss said. "Sparta fell in the Catastrophe."
"And you did not think they would regather?" the man said. "You think Trojans are the only people who can fall, and then rise again? Spartans have re-raised themselves much sooner than Trojans."
Of course, she thought. It wouldn't have taken much for Gale to draw the Spartans in. They're a ruthless, war-obsessed people. They want to prove themselves the strongest. Out fight all enemies.
What better enemy to best and shame all other Greeks, if not the hated Trojans? What better feat would erase the memory of their fall, than taking Panem from said re-raised Trojans? Gale's cause won't matter, not really. Not now. Sparta will have their war. One way or another, Katniss despaired.
"Alright," she breathed. "I'll go with you. I want to meet this king. And speak with Gale."
Prim's eyes threw wide. "But Peeta! He will not take this disappearance lightly! He will worry himself until all he can do is find you, Katniss. And he will! He can sense where –" Katniss grabbed at her.
"Listen," Katniss said lowly, holding Prim's frantic shoulders. "Peeta will not go looking for me, because you are going to tell him not to. You will tell him only this: Remember. Tell him to remember when we walked through Troy, and tell him: Above all others. Will you remember? Will you tell him?"
Prim nodded, but she still looked upset. "But... what about Achates? Me? What about the god well?"
"This is..." Katniss sighed. "Some things take priority. This is one of those things. I have to stop this war." Prim started to say something about it not being her responsibility, but Katniss shushed her. "Imagine it, Prim," she pressed. "Imagine Cinna fighting. Imagine Cecelia having to watch her sons and brothers go to war. Mothers in all villages will watch their children die. I can't let that happen."
Prim, yet more tears falling from her eyes, pressed her face into Katniss' arm. "What about Darius?"
Pain ran over Katniss' expression. "If he comes back, tell him where I am. Only him. No one else."
When Prim agreed, Katniss pressed a kiss into her forehead, and turned back to the Greeks. They'd been watching the exchange, yet did not hear the words, thankfully. Katniss eyed them; their warm clothes, their thick cloaks, their weapons. "We will need food," she said. "I will need better clothes."
"Hide in the woods on the other side of this meadow until morning. I will come back then, alone and prepared." She closed her eyes momentarily. "Then we will make our way to this beach and army."
Back at the house, Peeta woke when I slipped into our bed. He turned over, pulled me into him, his face nuzzling my neck. He went still. "You smell like smoke," he said. "Where have you been?"
"At Cecelia's," I whispered, hating the lie. "I fell asleep."
"You could have stayed there, instead of walking the whole way back in the dark," he said, sighing and relaxing once more. "I hate to think of you out alone in the night. Even if you're coming to me."
Guilt burned in my throat. "Cinna walked me."
"Now he's alone in the dark," Peeta murmured, sleepily.
I remembered a time once when Peeta would have cared not a whit for Cinna and his safety. Of course, that was black-eyed Peeta, and this was blue-eyed Peeta, and he was always so much sweeter. Sometimes I wondered if blue-eyed Peeta was especially compassionate; beyond that of any other man I will ever find. Beyond Gale, certainly, and beyond Cinna, too, if I looked closely enough. It made the lying feel worse. Like some huge betrayal. But he had to understand that it was for him. For his protection, were my lies and my coming leaving. It was for Panem I stopped the war, but for him, too.
I placed my hands on either side of his face and drew it up to mine. I stared at him, and he smiled lightly, his eyes still hooded in sleep. "What?" he murmured. "Have I got you worried, now?"
I just kept staring into his eyes.
He yawned and pressed himself deeper into my hands. "Do you wish me to walk him home?"
A Trojan king, a god, should not be walking men such as Cinna home just at a worried woman's request. Especially when it was at an hour so late, when he could be doing better things. Yet, there he offered... casually even. I could not imagine the powerful king of Sparta offering thus. Only Peeta.
I could not even dream of the image of Hades waking up, merely to walk a mortal man home.
Peeta stared at me for a moment as if curious I meant it, shrugged, then began to sit up.
"No," I said, my hands slipping from his face and to one of his shoulders. "I wasn't talking of Cinna."
He glanced down at me, and must have seen something in my expression, for he lowered himself once more and tightened the arm around my waist. "What do you mean then? 'Yes'? Yes... you...?"
"Yes," I murmured, "I want you."
Peeta's entire composure slipped. "You – what?"
He was wide awake now. I was close enough to know he'd stopped breathing, and one of my hands slipped to his chest; his heart was pounding. "I want you."
Peeta searched my face. "You do?"
Under his scrutiny I felt a little self-conscious; especially since I was saying something I'd never thought I'd say. If we were back in Mesopotamia it might be that I'd rather see him dead than beside me. Now, I couldn't imagine anything more painful than losing him. "I do."
"What made you change your mind?"
"Nothing," I said. "I wanted you before. When you kissed me. I just... couldn't say it."
"And you can now?"
Why is that? Nothing really had changed to make me say it. Not really. I drew my hand to the back of his neck and leaned in, and pressed my lips to his. For a time, he kissed me, undemanding, and then I stopped, drew in a breath, and layed my forehead to his. "I'm scared of losing you. Of you changing."
"I won't," he whispered passionately. "Not when I have you."
"And if I'm not here? If we get separated?" When I leave. "Are you strong enough to hold out?"
"You told me once that the only way I can beat it is by wanting to. I'll still want to even if you're not at my immediate side." He brushed hair behind my ear. "Why do you speak of distance? I'm not leaving."
I am. "So much has changed between us."
My throat felt dry, my heart was pounding so fast I thought my entire chest must be shaking with its effort. "Katniss," he said, and I thought I heard a catch in his voice. Nervousness, almost, if I could believe that from him; I wondered how a god could be nervous. Peeta always changed the meaning of the gods for me. He had shaken away what beliefs I'd had before his coming, all that I'd ever known.
I tried to arrange my face into a smile, but I was too anxious to make any great success of it. I must have looked pale and apprehensive and likely to run at any moment. I thought this was not a good start.
"You grow more lovely with each day," he said, as if he needed to say it, and he smiled. "Katniss..."
Terrified of what he mightsay before I got my bit in, I rushed out, "There are words unsaid between us, I know. Things..." I struggled to find the root of this thought; only that I wanted him to know: "I am sorry that I ever betrayed you, or that I said to you such foul words about Gale, or that –"
"Katniss, do you loathe me?" He seemed to have disregarded every word I'd said, which made me cross, because it had taken all my effort to force them out. They had not easily leapt forth into voice.
Finally, what he said sank into my consciousness. "Loathe you? Why?" How could he possibly think that? Hadn't I just said I wanted him, that I had wanted him even before this moment?
"After everything I've done to you, you think you should apologize? After what I did... all you'd done was expected. The betrayal was expected. Using Gale.. it was..." He sighed. "You make me feel worse with your apologies, you know. When all I can think is that you deserve my apologies more."
"Peeta, it's not you that owes me apologies, it's the other you. I'm not angry at you." I rested a hand once more on his chest. "It is you I want, to whom I apologize, not him. What you said as him –"
"I said stupid things." He ran his hand through my hair, combing his fingers to the tips. I shuddered, and I knew he felt it, for his eyes widened in an almost stunned disbelief. He hadn't thought I would respond so readily to him. Could it possibly be that he was as apprehensive as I? As doubting as I?
His hand came to a halt at the back of my neck, his fingers so warm and strong.
"I have always said stupid and hateful things to you," he repeated, "because I – he – was so frightened of you."
"Frightened of me? Why?" His fingers were now stroking at the back of my neck, and I wished to every god in every realm that they would never stop.
"I was frightened of you because I felt too deeply for you. I was scared of loving you. I was terrified of you the moment I first laid eyes on you, I think. You stood there so proud and sure in your king's megaron"—he half laughed—"having just kicked one of my guards in the shins and knocked another out. I was scared of you, and of your fire, and that is why I acted as I did. I demanded you as my wife, for I think I knew even then that I could not bear to lose you to another."
I could say nothing. I could hardly believe I was hearing these words.
"I – he – would murder the world, if ever we lost you to another," Peeta whispered, and I shivered.
He was so close now, and our bodies touched briefly with this breath and that, at breast and calf. I could feel his heat, feel his heart skittering in his rib cage with the hand resting on his chest.
When I ran my fingers along his collarbones, his skin chilled under my fingers.
"I was sick of being scared of loving you. He felt constantly that you would reject him. I think that is why he is so harsh on you," he continued. "And I am so glad... that you've found it in you to give me a chance." And then I knew that he truly was scared. Scared that I would not take kindly to his words. "I knew all of that the moment I lost you on that beach. I knew I could not stand it, and I had to bring you back." And he had. He'd pulled me from death as no man could. "I knew it in Mesopotamia, when you'd promised to hate me. I'd hated myself then, thinking you could. It's why he saved Primrose."
It was as strange to me as it always was to hear him speak as if he were two different people. What was he saying? That both loved me? Or that... I didn't understand really, but his fervor touched me deeply. I knew that he could hate well. I had never realized until now how well, also, he could love.
"Well, that is good," I said, but I felt my voice choke up as I spoke those practical words.
He grinned at me, amused. "I am saying too much."
"It is nice to hear."
"If you say so, love," he said, running his hand through my hair again.
I offered my mouth to him, and he took it, and I placed his hand on my breast. Surprised, he nevertheless responded, and I knew that our grunts and breathless, muffled cries must have been heard.
I didn't care. I gave myself entirely to the pleasure that Peeta offered. I knew it could be days before I saw him next, so I gave in, and I was preparing for his upset for when I did, eventually, return.
At the last moment, when I arched against him, the fingers of my hands tangled themselves in his hair. And just as before they did not encounter his wiry curls, rather the soft velvet of antlers; I was sure. Thoughts filled my mind suddenly of the white stag, and if possible, my desire – love, I was loathe to think, as I'd been so careful not to use the word aloud – for Peeta doubled inside of my chest.
I did not linger on that, for I was exhausted afterward, and slipped quickly into a dreamless sleep.
I contemplated leaving him a note. I lingered in the doorway of our house, clutching my bag of supplies. Prim sat on her bed, clutching much tighter to my son and her daughter. Seeing Achates made me ache and I almost changed my mind. I thought perhaps Prim was right and it didn't have to be my job. I could stay. I could live in a palace, carefree, with my son to love, and Peeta in my bed, to kiss and feel his love wash over me. Safe, warm, and... completely not me. If I am safe, it must be because I fought for it. If I am warm, than it's because of fire, not tenderness. I kissed all three of them and left.
Just as I told them to, the men were waiting on the other side of the meadow.
Upon arriving I saw they did not truly expect me to come. Not really. Their weapons were drawn as if they thought I'd brought with me a fleet of soldiers. I was almost wounded by their lack of trust.
But no. I didn't trust them very much either.
That's why when I turned to face the eldest man of the group, the Spartan, whom now introduced himself as Cray, I said, "I'm going with you without Peeta's knowledge, but Prim knows everything. If I'm gone too long, she's agreed to tell him. We have a little over a week. Enough time to travel there, stay a day or two, and then travel back. When we get there, I expect you to let your king know of this."
"He will know," said Cray, gruffly. Then he eyed me critically. "We will be traveling hard and long, through unfriendly terrain. Will you keep up? I have not time for whining princesses."
"I'm no princess. I've traveled thus far with Trojans."
His grin was sudden and gave me a chill. "Aye, but Spartans are very different from Trojans." He turned and started to hand out orders, and I was left there trying to figure out the meaning of his words.
Peeta had avoided panic for two full days after Katniss had not come home one night and was not seen anywhere within Panbank, and Primrose had come to him with counseling words. Remember, above all others. He knew what it meant, of course. Katniss had told him before she would defend him, and that it may be so that it seemed she was not doing it, or she would have to go to strange measure to do thus.
But still, it had been difficult to simply let the matter of her disappearance go.
His focus was worth little to nothing. All he could do was draw on the power Katniss gave him, and feel its tug drawing him toward the north road that led into the tribal lands. What would she do there? he wondered, constantly. What is north, but danger? How can I simply take her word and relax?
It was even more troubling due to the fact that the night before she slipped away she'd confessed to him her want of him, and – Gods he was a fool! – she'd spoken of fear over his behavior once she was gone, and then continued to wrap her arms around him and be so sweet, and so willing. He should have guessed it would not come at a cost, that there was a reason behind her change of mind. He tried to recall that night in perfect clarity and tried to remember if there was any fear in her. He couldn't remember any, so he was declined to believe the reason she'd opened up to him was due to fear of not returning, moreover the way she acted only fortified the belief she acted thus because her fear was fear of what she'd return to.
So he'd tried his best to remain undisturbed.
However, on the third day, he could not hold his peace.
If Prim would not tell him where Katniss had gone, and why, then he needed to find another source.
Thus, he found himself at Cecelia's house.
Truthfully, he did not know the woman well, only that in her time in Panbank Katniss had grown a friendship with Cecelia, through Cinna, and she could often be found at Cecelia's house. He was a little nervous, and uncertain how his sudden appearance would be perceived by the Mother.
But he need not have worried. Cecelia greeted him kindly, did not remark on how strange the meeting was, and hastened him inside from the wintry weather into the warmth and comfort of her house.
Cinna was there, his clothes mud-stained as if he had only recently arrived himself, and he, too, greeted Peeta, though not as kindly. Peeta had not seen him much recently and he knew it was probably because Katniss was no longer around. Could Cinna know where she was? Peeta hoped he did.
"Cinna," Peeta said, as he sat at a bench next to the hearth – albeit, he did so a little awkwardly, Cecelia's family around, staring at him. "I cannot stay long… but I find I'm in need of your aid."
Something akin to surprise rose in Cinna's expression. His eyes flickered to Cecelia – Peeta did not miss that – before they settled on the Trojan king again. "What sort of aid are you seeking?"
"It's about Katniss."
"Is she in trouble?" Cecelia asked, sitting next to Peeta, worried now.
He looked over at her, heartened by her concern, but not soothed. "I do not know. She is... gone."
"Gone?" echoed Cinna. "Gone where?"
"You have not seen her these passed three days...?" Peeta began.
"We thought she was displeased with us," Cecelia immediately put in. "We had not parted with her last on good terms. She was angry, then, and we thought if she had not been here in days, it was that she was with you." Cecelia twisted toward Peeta, resting a hand on his. "Gone, you say? Gone where?"
"North, is what I can sense, but nothing more than that." Peeta sighed. "I was hoping you'd know."
"I do not know anything of her leaving." Cecelia turned to Cinna. "Did she speak with you of this?"
"No, nothing." Cinna's eyebrows furrowed slightly. "North, you say? Passed Chaff's forest?"
"Aye, north. I do not know how far. Perhaps in or passed the forest. It could be either."
A heavy look passed between Cinna and Cecelia, and Peeta pursed his lips. "You know nothing?"
"The manner in which we last saw her... she spoke with some men who'd come from the north."
"'Some men'?" Peeta said, in disbelief. "What do you mean? Savages?"
"No," said Cinna and made to elaborate, but his mother motioned him to be silent.
Cecelia dropped her hand from Peeta's and stared at her feet. "I believe she wished us not to share this."
Frustration spiked in Peeta. "It could be she does not know what she got into –"
"Katniss is smart," said Cecelia. "I believe she will be fine."
"And if she dies?" Peeta said, making no efforts to hide the anger in his voice. "You will bear that?"
"If she needed you," Cecelia said, calmly, "she would have taken you."
That, however, was an ill-wording that, already gripped by frustration, sent a bleak wave over Peeta, and his eyes flickered black, and his hand – possessed – grasped the woman by the throat.
Then, before anyone in the house could draw a breath, he jerked away from her, standing up.
"Forgive me!" he said, gripping his hair. He screwed his eyes shut. "Forgive me.."
He left, rushing out into the sunlight, hoping to outrun the tide, the poison.
The last thing he wanted to do was fulfill Katniss' fears about him. The last thing he wanted to do was fail her. So he decided he'd leave it be, as Prim said, and wait for her, and want nothing more than to be himself.
Cecelia stared after Peeta, running a light hand over her neck. About her, her children were horrified, angry, and when Cinna rose with his brothers after the Trojan, she raised a hand to put them at peace.
"He is but a worried man," she said.
"You cannot let that go! You are a Mother in this village, revered as any other! To threaten you should mean his hand!" Cinna's eldest brother furiously proclaimed. "I will take it myself! I do not mind."
"Oh, hush," his mother said, and looked at him sadly. "You do not like blood and violence. Hush."
Cinna sat beside his mother and held her around the shoulders. "You will let this go? We could use this against him. The other Mothers won't be glad he did it. Brutus could use this to an advantage..."
"Hush, Cinna," she said, pressing a finger into his lips. "We must be careful. I feel doom in my bones, and cannot help but think you are somehow already caught up in it. I feel it more for our missing Katniss than for Peeta's threat. The god well does not worry me over so much without Seeder."
"There is doom abroad for all of us, yes. But it is the god well. It has to be. The day of the first ceremony draws nearer each day. If Katniss ran, than perhaps that is the reason. She senses doom, too."
"I do not think those men she helped were supposed to here, or freed," Cecelia confessed.
"Surely not," Cinna agreed. "She went with them? They had her look, her accent."
"We cannot know who they were or the boy who recognized her. If she did not tell Peeta of them, if she lied to the guards as it seemed she did, then she did not want Peeta to know. We won't tell him."
"I thought it would help," Cinna said, then, hesitantly, "Should we tell Brutus? He could go after her."
Cecelia thought about that, then, raising her eyes to Cinna, "Should he?"
"He would be safe in the travel, and he knows the land, even so far north."
Cradling her throat again, thoughtfully, Cecelia nodded. "Send him."
North, Tribal Lands, Spartan Beach
Undersee, the Spartan king, paced the length of his tent. Boards had been laid over the sand, so that his booted feet rang against the solid surface, and the cold breeze of winter snaked underneath the large, doming white cloth walls rising about him, throwing the entrance flap one way, then the next.
The king rubbed at his beard, and turned on his toes; back and forth he went, back and forth.
About him the hustle and bustle of his army thrummed as steadily as the waves on the nearby shore, and he turned abruptly to the makeshift throne at the center of the tent. There, he picked up his crown. He studied the gold, gem studded thing and made a noise of disgust. He threw it and paced once more.
It seemed he would do so forever, until a man appeared at the tent opening, and told him that returning scouts had been sighted. "All of them are present. And they have brought back one of the girls."
"Which?" Undersee asked with some interest. "The boy's princess?"
"Nay. Gale's woman. Katniss."
"Pray, send them here as soon as they reach camp. Call for Gale as well."
The messenger bowed his head and left.
By the time his expected guests arrived Undersee had seated himself in his throne, sitting tall and rigid, his crown sitting on the arm of the throne beside him. He was an older man, but not too old to not be seen as a warrior. His thinning blonde hair was made up for by his generously sized beard, and his shoulders were broad for his lean, tall frame, and no one would find the man caught dead in fine clothes, he only ever wore a warriors outfit. The only thing that spoke of his wealth and status was the flash of gold in his teeth when he smiled – which was rare for the usually stern man – and the crown he so detested.
The first guest to arrive was Gale, of course, seeing as he was in camp. Gale bowed, as he was meant, and it was the low, strong bow of a humble and respectful young man, as it always was. Undersee did not even glance at Gale as he bowed, so used to his brown nosing, but instead frowned at the woman lingering at the entrance of his tent. "Why aren't you in your tent?" he asked her. "I did not call for you."
"I was with Gale," she answered, stepping inside, lowering her eyes. "I was hoping I could meet her."
"Madge..." the king began, and then sighed – he was a stern man and a hard-jawed king, but he knew he needed an informed heir, at least. "You may stay, but silently. You hear me? No words from you."
"Of course," she said, clasping her hands behind her back and curtseying to him gratefully. As she moved to stand beside her father's throne, Gale rose from the bow and caught her eyes. She smiled slyly at him. Gale had told her not to come when she'd insisted to, telling her scornfully that it was no matter of hers and that her father would certainly not allow her to stay, but having just proven him wrong, the smile she gave him caused Gale to scowl at her, momentarily, before looking away entirely.
He had no times for pampered, gaudy princesses of Sparta.
He could think only of Katniss.
Over the passed few days, when he'd been waiting for Rory and the scouts to return, he'd never imagined the scenario he was facing now. Katniss! Returned to him! The thing he'd been working toward the moment he'd seen his beloved home Mesopotamia crumble before his eyes. How had it happened? Rory and the others had been given orders not to go among the Trojans, but to merely figure out their exact location at a safe distance. Was it possible Katniss had somehow sensed them? Or had miraculously wandered far from Peeta's leash and found herself in rescue's arms? What of Prim?
So many questioned filled Gale as he stood in the silent tent, waiting. They battered around inside of him like a ram, the anticipation twisting his stomach into knots. His gaze was fixed on the entrance.
When distance calls rose, louder than the usual noise of the camped army, he knew it was them. He straightened and he heard Madge shift around anxiously – he scowled again, momentarily, at the reminder of her; she'd lit up at the news of Rory's return and the fact that one of the girls that she and all her people and her father had heard about was near, and the fact that she was so eager to meet Katniss and Primrose irked Gale for some reason – then he pushed her entirely from mind.
The flap was pushed open by a familiar man. One of Undersee's main generals; Cray. He was the eldest of the scouts that had been sent out with Rory. The same grayed hair solemn face nodded at Gale, and then bowed to his seated king. Gale misliked Cray, truthfully. There were rumors of Cray and women that made Gale's skin crawl and that went against all of Gale's morals, and the truth of the rumors shone sometimes from Cray's pale eyes. He was a slimy man, yes, but loyal enough for Undersee.
Next came the Dorian Greeks Gale had sent himself. They shuffled forward to bow beside Cray. Rory lingered behind them, holding open the flap for the final member of their group.
She hesitated momentarily before she entered.
Then she stepped through and Gale allowed the breath he was holding to escape him.
It was Katniss, and any doubt over that disappeared. He stepped forward, around the bowing men and he allowed a smile to touch his face – the first real smile Gale had smiled since the loss of his home.
"Katniss," he greeted, and when her eyes landed on his, she smiled, too, though it didn't reach her troubled eyes. He merely assumed it was the strangeness of the camp that got to her. He hugged her.
She stiffened underneath his arms, but nonetheless returned the action.
Perhaps for a moment too long he held onto her, for he heard Undersee clear his throat loudly. When he pulled back, Katniss' eyes didn't re-focus on Gale's face, but were glued beyond his shoulder.
Rory moved to join the row of men, bowing his hasty bow – opposite of Gale's deep one.
"This is her, then?" Undersee spoke.
"My name is Katniss," said Katniss, the sound of her strong and clear voice surprising Gale.
She moved forward, stopping beside Rory, who stood once more, and Gale winced when he noticed that she made no move to bow as they all had done. Katniss merely pulled the cloak about her shoulder more firmly around her chest and she tilted her chin as she examined the king. As much as Gale had liked the daring side of Katniss in Mesopotamia he had forgotten just how audacious she could be.
The king rose an eyebrow, but was overlooking her just as blatantly.
"Katniss it is," Undersee allowed. "I have heard much of you."
"And I do not know you," Katniss replied, in a curious tone. "You know me, but I have not even heard of your name before. Last I knew Sparta was lost and her people lost as well, if not slaves."
"Spartans are not slaves, girl,"said Undersee, though not with too much hostility to raise concern. It was merely a fact he said in his deep, stern voice. "But you are right enough. Sparta is lost. Yet her people are not. You see them here, gathered under me with strength. We are still strong warriors."
"But are you wise?" Katniss said and Gale stiffened. He looked to Rory and found that his little brother gave him a helpless don't-blame-me look and shrug. "A wise king will turn away from here."
"You are a little young to be speaking of wisdom," Undersee stated, narrowing his eyes.
Katniss was unfazed. "You're a little old to think of war."
"No Spartan king is ever too old. He would not be a king if he was not strong."
There was a decisive edge to that statement that Katniss could not have missed. A warning.
Still, she moved as if to retort. Gale stepped hurriedly forward, took her arm and spoke over her. "Your Majesty," he said and tightened his arm slightly around Katniss' to let her know she should address him as such, too. "You remember I told you of her guardedness?" He mustered a tight smile. "She is merely unsure of this, as any sane person would be. Primrose is not here, I see." He turned to Katniss, curiously. "Would you not allow her to come? Did you worry about what you would find here?"
"She stayed because she wanted to," Rory spat out before Katniss replied.
Gale reeled. "Prim stayed? You spoke with her?"
"Aye," Cray said, speaking for the first time. "She did not appreciate the rescue."
"That is not very becoming of a princess," commented the king. He glanced at Madge, his own princess, who was never out of line and whose hair was never ruffled, whom never disregarded his orders. Even now, though she watched the scene with excited, hooded eyes, she kept her head bowed and her lips shut. "She should be grateful that we have come all this way for her. And you offered her rescue?" The king tisked and rubbed at his beard. "Perhaps we will not send for her again."
Katniss, whose face flushed and grew steadily angry at their words, scoffed harshly.
Gale leaned away from her, surprised.
"Rescue?" she said and sent Cray a look. "Perhaps you should tell him who rescued who. Then you will see whom should be the grateful ones." It was clear she did not like Cray; Gale expected nothing less. But there was something more to Katniss' anger. She did not seem to like the fact that she was 'rescued' either and every time she looked at the Spartan king it was as if he'd done her great offense.
"What does she mean, 'who rescued who'?" Undersee asked of Cray.
Cray sneered at Katniss, before he smoothed his face and answered his king. "We were scouting as asked. We walked for three days before we met a great forest. As we moved about the trees, three Trojan guards came upon us." He said 'Trojan' as once Prim's father did, as if the name was a slur itself. "Though we out numbered them, they were quick to obtain us. I had not expected them, since there was no further sign of civilization. As it turned out, we were not far from a main road that led to a town."
"Panbank," Rory supplied; he'd learned the name from Katniss on the trip to the beach.
Cray continued, "On this road they took us and we were told we were being led to Peeta."
Undersee shifted on his throne and grew more attentive at the mention of the Trojan leader.
"It was at the end of this road, among the houses of Panbank, that we came upon the girl," Cray said, nodding briefly Katniss' way – whom stared back, stone-faced. "She helped our escape."
"Helped?" murmured one of the Dorians. He looked to Gale, permission to continue, and Gale gave it. "Truth be told, if Katniss had not shown up there would be no escape. She was our escape. Not 'help'."
Undersee looked to Katniss. "And your side?"
"I saw Rory," she said. "I've known him since he was a boy. I could not watch him be brought before my husband and see him harmed. Not when Prim loves him so dearly. I have been a friend of Gale's. Yes, I helped them escape the guards and led them safely away from Panbank. They speak true."
"Then," Cray put in, before Undersee or Gale commented, "she refused our rescue as well."
Out the corner of Gale's eye, he saw Madge raise her head.
"And yet, here she is," the king said, pulling Gale's attention back around.
"Aye, she changed her mind the moment she heard of you, Your Majesty," said Cray.
"Why's that?" The question was directed at Katniss. "You say 'husband' and did not wish to come with Rory, the man you have known since he was a boy and brother to your... friend, Gale. Strange, no?"
Katniss stared at the king for a few moments and Gale could see she was thinking carefully over the words she spoke next. He felt anxious for her answer as well. The use of 'husband' had stunned him a little; she could not truly think of Peeta as her real husband! Not after all the hate she'd had for him in Mesopotamia. Gale expected her hate to be tripled by the loss of her city and people. The fact that she wished to stay with the Trojans was... was inconceivable. He'd worked toward this land, had pulled the attention of this most stern king, petitioned his cause as loudly as he could, all in the thought that the entire time Katniss was suffering. I should have known better, he thought scornfully to himself now.
Of course Katniss didn't just sit and endure her suffering. That was not the woman she was. That was not the woman Gale had known and admired throughout the years at court. He'd seen something more substantial in her than all the other woman he'd had in his life. It showed in the way she'd not sat idle as Peeta's abused thrall in Mesopotamia; how she'd gathered those swordsmen for a rebellion.
Where was that her, now?
Why was it feeling more and more as if she thought he and the Spartans were the enemy?
"If I am here, now," Katniss said evenly, holding Undersee's stare, "then it is not as a rescued girl, nor do I intend to be your enemy. I am here merely as an envoy, to ask for peace for my people."
Undersee was not happy, that was clear.
Cray and the others, even Rory, looked away; they'd known why she'd come.
Gale, however, frowned at Katniss and pulled on her arm. "'Your' people are dead, Katniss."
"Gale –" she started, sounding wary and sad.
"Your people are dead beneath your home city, because of these Trojans that you are now calling your 'people'. My mother, my little sister and brother, our king, lies dead underneath the stones of our old home, due to the Trojans, because of that damned Peeta. He killed Thom. He raped you. He held a sword to Prim's chest and threatened to kill her." Gale's voice was not growing louder, but softer, more disbelieving, and the more he spoke, the more Katniss looked pained. "Have you forgotten?"
"No, of course not," Katniss said and quite forgot the king, turning to Gale. She held to his arm. "I haven't forgotten. The memories are always there and I still grieve over it, but so much has happened–"
"You can not truly wish for him to live," Gale said. "To remain unpunished.."
Katniss bit into the side of her cheek. "Gale.."
"Gale!" She grabbed harder at his arm and tried to pull him close to her, but he jerked back. "Listen! There is much more than you know that is happening here. This is not an empty land. There are natives here, peaceful people who deserve no war, no matter the Trojan's past crimes. A war..."
"You fear for him," accused Gale, harshly. "Or do you fear to lose the power he gives you? I had not thought you that greedy, but perhaps it is why you hovered so close to Princess Primrose. Was that it? All that time you followed her about and were her closest companion, did you envy her? Were you planning to slip something to her at some point, after winning her father's favor? Or just control her through that bond you built with her? To whisper to her behind the throne and be in control?"
"I have done nothing but love Prim," she snapped.
A mixture of hurt, disbelief, and anger ran over Katniss' face, and her hand twitched at her side, as if she thought to strike him for saying such things to her, but after a moment she composed herself.
"I fear for none of that," she said, softly now. "I fear for you, Gale. For these men I see on this beach."
"For them? For me?"
Her face turned anguished. "You will lose this war, Gale."
He just stared at her.
"Do you doubt Sparta's strength?" Cray cut in, angrily.
Katniss' eyes flickered to the man. "No. I just know Peeta will not lose."
"And why do you say that?" Undersee asked, his voice leveling over the others and drawing all the attention back to where he sat on the edge of his throne. "Tell me of Peeta. I have heard all the Dorians speak of him, the rumors of his exile, and of Gale's thoughts of him, but you must know him better."
Katniss narrowed her eyes at the king. "You can't think me that naïve."
"Most woman your age are," the king replied easily, waving a carefree hand.
"I will not give away anything that could harm him, nor this land," she said, furthering the horror on Gale's face. "I will tell you things that a wise king should heed and turn him home once he hears."
"Ah," Undersee said, "but, like the Trojans once, this 'old and wise' king does not have a home."
"Then make it here on this beach, if you wish, but no farther south."
"My country-men are not fond of coasts," said Undersee. "Sparta was inland."
"Was," Katniss clarified. "Change is often for the better."
"My men tell me the south is only more plentiful and wealthy."
"And it is guarded," Katniss said. "You can want the land, but it will not have you."
Most of the men assumed her words were phrased as such to mean the people settled there would defend the land, but Madge, whom raised her head even further at what Katniss said, gave a confused frown. Katniss turned her eyes for the first time to the Spartan princess. Madge held her gaze.
The two stared at each other. Madge tried not to balk, not sure what to make of this most bold of women, and all the things she'd heard Gale say of Katniss flooded through her mind, making her even more uncertain. She was certainly as beautiful as Gale had implied. Madge herself was much smaller than Katniss' height and her limbs were shorter, more rounded, her face doll-like, lips red and eyes blue, and graced with the blonde curls of her mother; gentle, where Katniss was striking.
Then, almost uncertainly, Katniss turned away, and looked up at Madge's father. "What advantages do you have?" she asked him. "You number in many, I see, but I can tell you that Trojans have more."
"But we have not brought many women and children," said Cray. "We don't need to defend as much."
"No," Katniss agreed. "But this land is vast and you do not know it. Winter is upon us."
"Winter always passes," said Gale. "Wars can survive over the wait. If we wait."
Katniss shook her head at that. "You can't fight in winter. Don't be foolish. Even I know that. You could have brought much food on your ships, but you can not outlast a winter without stores of a harvest."
"All the more reason to take the land, to take these people's supplies for ourselves," said Cray.
"Desperation isn't enough to win a war." She paused, looking doubtfully at the entrance of the tent, and then said, "Perhaps if you make peace, we can offer you food and safety for the winter... but after.."
"Can you offer such?" Undersee asked. "Is that your place? I am curious to see what the Trojans will say to this unconsulted invitation. You will risk feeding all my men, giving us shelter? What if tragedy befalls your stores? What if they are not enough? You risk your people's happiness and full-bellies."
"I would rather them go a little hungry, than bleed and die in the cold months to come," Katniss said.
"Will their king agree with you?"
"If I ask him, perhaps."
A small smile broke over Undersee's stern face. "Will he then? He listens to you?"
Katniss' guarded eyes, if possible, became more guarded. "If you love your men, you will leave."
"I do love my men," he said, and his smiled vanished. "I do not, however, think your threats amusing."
"They are not meant to be amusing. They are meant to frighten you, as all threats are meant to. I do not wish to see any blood spilt, but if blood is being spilt it will be more Spartan blood than Trojan. You have lost your element of surprise, because Prim knows you are here and she will tell Peeta if I do not come back within a few days. And if I do return, and you do not promise peace, I will tell him. You have no advantages. You have no chance. You are not facing a mere man, but a god. He will win."
"God, you say? Is that what this man makes himself out as?"
"It is what he is," Katniss said, solemnly. She looked to the Dorians in the tent and her eyes lingered on Gale's betrayed ones before continuing, "Ask anyone of how Mesopotamia fell. Ask how he won his first battle against Gale and Mesopotamia's king. He is powerful. He will not lose against you."
"I find myself almost disappointed, Katniss," Undersee said, his voice pensive. "All these tales I have heard from Gale, yet you do not match up with my expectations. We were under the impression once we got you and that little one we'd have this victory. We'd have your information on the Trojans to fuel us and perhaps with that our winter will be led in comfort here, in this rich land. Instead, I find myself in this position... You are not a key in which to win, but the lock that will perhaps cost me the war."
Katniss said nothing.
"Men," Undersee said, not looking away from her, "see yourselves out. Madge... you, too."
Gale tensed and started to protest, but his own men and Rory ushered him out, Cray close at their tails. It was Madge who took a step away, then stopped and glanced back. "Father," she started.
He sent her a hard look. "You were given orders."
Madge opened her mouth, then, rethinking, closed it, and followed the men out of the tent.
Katniss drew her hands behind her back and tried to appear unshaken, though the king could see the discomfort plainly in her face at standing alone in the silent tent with him. He picked up his crown.
"Do you know what this is?" he asked her, holding the circlet of gold out before him.
"What are crowns?"
Katniss cautiously answered, "A sign of kingship."
"And kingship is..? The strength of his people, right? The person who holds it all together?"
"So, I ask you again," Undersee said, tightening his grip on the object. "What is this?"
Very uncertainly now, Katniss said, "It is your crown –"
"Wrong!" Undersee's voice thundered, as any king's voice should if he is to be heard and command armies. Once more, in disgust, he threw the golden circlet at the wooden boards and that time with enough force to send a few rubies and emeralds scattering. "It is nothing. I am no true king. The crown is an insult to me. You are an insult to me, standing before me, insolent and young as you are. I can not king over any people who are not a people; for who are these people I command? They are not Spartans, not truly. They are brought low, and though not slaves, they are no better. They win no victories, they hold no land, they are untried in war. All the characteristics of slaves! I am no more than a glorified slave-owner so long as it remains thus. I know no slave-owners that wear crowns, do you?"
"No, you do not, because they do not. And you must see, now, why I am here. It is less of a cause of rescue, I am sure you know already, clever child, and more to do with pride. What are true Spartans, but proud warriors? How can I make my people Spartan again, therefore making me a real king? You know the answer to that better than I. We are both Greek here, Dorian to Spartan, do you see no better way to regain the glory of Sparta but to once more conquer over our bitterest enemy, the Trojans?"
Katniss moved somewhat closer to the throne, looking as if she meant to put his frustration to rest. "I understand," she said. "I understand. But... Helen... is the past. Troy is the past. Leave it in the past."
"It is our forefathers greatest grievance, child. It is never to be forgotten. Now, I do not wish to see you harmed, nor any other Dorians, nor Gale. For it is for you he led us here, and I would not have found this wondrous land without him and I would not have known of this Peeta's wish to rebuild Troy. I can honor the fact you aided us, unintentionally, but know that I cannot accept your peace. War will come."
Katniss, who'd still been moving closer, stopped. Before her sat the now dented and gem-missing crown and she plucked it off the ground, turning it about in her hands, her eyes downcast.
For a long while she was silent, then, "First, you will lose..."
As she trailed off, Undersee leaned farther out of his throne, to hear. When she didn't continue, he stood, stepped the few steps down to her and put his much larger hand over hers. "And then?"
She looked up. Overlooking him sadly, she stood on her toes and set the crown on his head. It looked better there; assaulted as it was. He did not move. "And then," she said, voice hard, "you will die."
Two Weeks Later
Prim hastened about the house. She collected a warm cloak against the cold and slipped her feet into a pair of sturdy clogs against the mud, and then hurried over to the children. Wrapping both in thick blankets, she slung Achates over her back and held Aurora close to her front, and departed the house swiftly, walking through Panbank and then the Trojan settlement to the ferry crossing of the river.
People were everywhere, despite the cold. Many of the Trojans still worked on fortifying their winter settlements – houses within the city walls would not be available for at least a year. Women worked at their household tasks, weaving and baking, minding children, drawing water at the riverbank.
The road that led through the Trojan's settlement was now virtually impassable – so many bull-drawn carts had carried building materials from the southern quarries toward the ferry over the Pan that the graveled surface had been trodden into ankle-deep mud – so Primrose stepped carefully on its verges, mindful of the need to avoid slipping, and had to balance extra carefully with the children.
As she neared the Pan, she stopped, worriedly, and raised her face to the northern bank.
It was a hive of activity. Where six weeks earlier had been three gentle grassed mounds, divided by the streams and bounded on their southern edge by the clay cliffs above the Pan, were now three humps, their grass mostly trampled into the earth beneath, covered with teams of laborers, groups of engineers, piles of gravel, wooden piles, rough-cut stone sections that stone masons were hewing into neatly edged building blocks, and intermittent heaps of soil that had been dug out of the wall's foundation trenches. And it stretched beyond them all the way to the Pen hill, and it's strange inner cave.
Primrose had been to the site no more than once in the past two weeks, at Finnick's insistence, but had not stayed long. She had felt in the way among all the scurrying and purposeful workers, and when she'd managed to find Peeta, he'd been distant, distracted, and had turned aside as soon as he could.
He'd been thus for the two weeks Katniss had not returned home.
She held her breath, nervousness fluttering in her stomach as always at the thought. Questions flooded her mind: Where was she? Why hadn't Katniss come back? What was she doing? Surely the time in which to tell Peeta of where Katniss had gone was upon her. It had been too long not to worry.
Prim had put it off, in hope. She hadn't wanted to believe Katniss in trouble. She wanted to believe that Rory and Gale would protect her, and that the Spartans would not want to harm her, but last night she'd sworn to herself that if Katniss was not back by morning she'd have to tell Peeta, or risk Katniss' life.
With a sigh, and yet another worried pang in her stomach, she set off to the ferry.
The ferry landed on the northern bank of the Pan at the midpoint of the southern wall.
Primrose accepted the ferryman's assistance in stepping from ferry to the river's muddied shore, thanked him, then turned and studied the immediate area. The foundations of this southern wall seemed all but done. The trenches had been dug, and were now filled with a mixture of gravel, flint, and clay. Already stonemasons were laying the founding course of stones for the wall. All went well, here.
Prim stopped by the first group of men she came to, and asked where Peeta was.
The foreman stopped, straightened, stretched his back, and then wiped his sweating face.
"You're like as not to find yourself knee deep in mud, my lady," he said, eying her cloak and footwear, and then more doubtfully, the two babies clinging to her front and back. "This is no pleasure garden."
"I need to see Peeta," Prim said, as firmly as she could manage.
"He's up on the White Mount," said the foreman, nodding in the direction of the easternmost mound.
Prim turned to go, then hesitated. "Is Clove with him?"
"Aye," the man said. Several other of the men in his work squad had now put down their tools and were studying Primrose silently. "He is surveying the sight for the megaron with her, last I heard."
Her eyes closed momentarily, and she drew in a deep breath. She'd come this far, turning around now would be cowardly. She couldn't allow fear to get the better of her. Darius had told her once fear was an illusion.
Gods, now she was missing both him and Katniss! And with that she was gone, moving as quickly as she could through the gangs of workers and piles of building materials.
The men watched her go.
The White Mount rose at nearly a steep enough angle that Prim could not climb it in the mud and with the children; one of the working men from before rushed forward to help her though. As Prim drew nearer, holding tightly to the helpful man's arm as she went, she could see that the wall's eastern foundations were as advanced as those of the southern wall. The ceremony is days away.
She could clearly see that there was, indeed, building work going on atop the mound.
When she was but ten or twelve paces from the top, and had the low rising walls of the building in sight, she heard Peeta's voice floating down to her. It was light, but dull, and purposefully thus.
She scrambled the final few paces, breathing heavily, and paused to catch her bearings and give the man her thanks. He bobbed his head and smiled at her, until she turned away. The top of the mount had been covered with the foundations of a large building — the palace. It was much smaller than the Mesopotamian palace she had been raised in, but the very fact of its existence, and that most of the grassy land will remain about it to make endless stretches of gardens and courtyards was nice.
From where she stood, she could spot the Trojan leader.
Peeta, still talking, walked through a half-completed doorway into a chamber that was surely meant to be the megaron. The walls of this chamber were almost complete and already wooden beams stretched across its roof space. It would be finished within weeks. Beside him Clove smiled and clung to his arm.
Cautiously, Prim moved through the building, disregarding the mud or the curse of the builders she jostled. The chamber Peeta had vanished into lay just ahead of her and, when the doorway loomed before her, Prim walked straight through it, determined, looking only at Peeta standing at the far end.
"Peeta!" She stopped halfway down the chamber, and waited, hoping to lure him away from Clove.
He jumped, then turned to stare at Prim, a frown marring his features.
"What do you here?" he said.
"I... I came to speak with you," she said, not sure how to phrase it. Clove was staring at her, openly, and though there was no hate in her eyes – as was reserved for Katniss – there was something akin to suspicion. Terror gripped Prim for a moment. What if she knows? What if Darius' bracelet fails? Can she tell? Drawing in a shaking breath, holding Aurora tighter, Prim said, "Privately, perhaps?"
Peeta glanced over at Clove, who scowled. "You can speak to me what you would to him," she said.
"What's this about?" asked Peeta, concern rising in his face. It was not often Prim spoke to him.
She looked down. If Clove knew Katniss was in trouble... would that be bad? Prim only knew that Clove and Katniss hated each other, and enemies should not know such things."It's about Achates."
"Achates?" Peeta moved forward, leaving Clove's side. "Is he ill?"
For every step Peeta took closer to Prim she took one back, hoping to draw him further and further away, but he stopped eventually, frowning. "Do you not wish me to see him? What are you doing?"
"It is... it is shaded in here. Come out in the sun... to better see him."
Then she turned and fled, and hoped he'd follow.
Sure enough, as she loitered out in the muddy lot beside the palace structure, Peeta emerged, looking harried and concerned. He stepped immediately to Prim, taking Achates from the sling. As he cradled and examined his son thoroughly, Prim tried to think of how best to phrase what she needed to say.
When he finished, eyebrows now practically touching with how furrowed they were, he looked up at Prim. "I do not see anything wrong with him, other than he has been brought to this hazardous place, in this cold." He placed Achates back in the sling. "What did you think was wrong with him?"
"I guess... I guess he just misses his mother." Best bring up the topic first.
Instantly the expression of Peeta's face changed. First pained, then hard, and then carefully dull.
"You told me not to worry," he reminded her.
Prim looked down at her daughter and shook her head.
"What? What is it?" He looked far to the north. "I sense her."
"She was supposed to be back.. a few days ago. I'd thought she delayed, maybe... but it's been too long, and she told me if she was gone too long to tell you where she was." Prim peeked up at him.
His face was livid. Not in anger, but concern and need, and eagerness. "Where is she?"
"She left... she left with.." Prim struggled to word it gently. "A couple of men.."
"Cinna mentioned that, when I saw him two weeks ago. But he never said whom."
"They were Greeks," Prim said, softly. "Dorians. Rory was among them... she left to meet with Gale."
"Gale?" There was a deeper nature to his voice. "Gale lives?"
"Yes," Prim murmured. "He and a few others. They... they've gathered an army. They sailed here, and have camped north of here on a beach three days walk from Panbank. Katniss went to stop the war."
Peeta said nothing more and did nothing, so Prim raised her head. He was staring in the distance.
His eyes were black.
"And she did not tell me?" he said, his voice decisively harder.
"No... she didn't wish to worry you. She didn't want it to come to fighting."
"Now it is likely she is in trouble." Peeta frowned and turned his eyes on Prim and she tried not to cringe in the face of his black-eyes. "Where did Gale get his army? What manner of men are they?"
Peeta once more looked to the north, his lips folding in distaste.
"Go home, Prim," Peeta said, turning from her and strutting away. "It is safe there."
I do not know what I hated more; the looks Gale gave me or the bite of the chains on my wrists.
I knew by now that Gale could not hate me so much as his eyes tried to portray. If he did despise me for admittedly being Peeta's wife and with the Trojans, than he would be out on the beach among the Spartans preparing himself for war, and he would not, in fact, be chained along side me, confined to the make-shit prison tent. I could only assume Gale had done something to show Undersee that he would not sit idly aside as I was locked away and kept for the purpose of later hostage use. He must have done something that proved himself disloyal enough to lock away, and if he was disloyal to the king who meant to harm the Trojans, then I could only assume that he was a potential ally. Not my enemy.
I saved my own hateful looks for my real enemy; Spartans. Threats did little to move them, but I oft shouted about Prim's knowledge. "Let her tell him," Undersee had said. "If I let you go you will just do the same, and worse, I'll have no leverage over this Trojan's head. You are valuable to me here."
And so, in the past two weeks, I had been 'here'.
It wasn't an unpleasant two weeks. I'd initially started off unchained and with the freedom of the quite fine tent Undersee had confined me in. There was food and a bath and a bed. But once I'd tried escape one too many times, and at one point injured one of his guards, I was given chains that reached no further than halfway across the tent, fettered to the bed. It was this day Gale joined me in my prison. He, too, was given chains, and – though we had not tried – I knew neither of our confinements were long enough to allow us to touch, or get close enough to whisper and conspire. I think, perhaps, Undersee put him there in his efforts to cow me, and furthermore, as an insult to Gale, as well.
Still, even chained, we were treated kindly enough. We were fed all our meals and given enough blankets to stave off the cold, and whenever the guards came they were nothing more than demure.
Once or twice I'd even caught Undersee's daughter loitering outside our tent, and she'd smile at me, and then bite her lip when she saw Gale, and it always seemed as though she was bursting to say something. I knew not what, but from the moment I'd seen her that first time, I knew she was of value. The same kind of value Prim once was for Mesopotamia's king, and that Undersee thought me to be?
However, I could not get any information about her. I asked Gale – I asked Gale a lot of questions – but he was never inclined to answer me. Usually he'd just sigh or look away, and I knew that he was both disappointed with himself, and that he wanted to hate me, but for some reason he could not or wouldn't.
Either way he would not turn himself into a traitor by giving me information. Thus the past two weeks were mostly spent in silence, laying on my bed and staring up at the top of the tent, wondering what will come the day Prim does tell Peeta. What will he do? Will he gather men to march north? Worse?
I would worry about what he would do, and then I would worry about what he wouldn't do, because what if he does nothing? What if he leaves me here at Clove's influence, and because I left blue-eyed Peeta was long gone? What if he doesn't remember? What if he forgets... that night before I left?
Even now, the memory of it ghosts over my skin. He couldn't forget. He couldn't. He never let me die in the past and he'd never let me stray far. There was no way he would simply dismiss my absence.
And then I would think again of what he'd do.
When I'd exhaust myself over that, I'd usually turn to Achates or Prim or, sadly, Darius. I guessed he would still need to be gone, since he had not shown up to help me, as he'd done so many times in the past. I missed him more for that; that he was so far gone, perhaps, he did not even know where I was. Where was he? What was he doing? Had he found Asterion? Is he dead? Hurt? Trapped, as I am now?
Then, when I could not take those thoughts any longer, I'd roll on my side and look to Gale.
This time, as all the others, he ignored me. He was picking through a bowl of dried fruit.
"If you were freed," I started, voice as low as I could manage and still be heard, "what would you do?"
Gale glanced over at me out the corner his eyes, then continued to ignore me.
"Would you fight for Undersee?" I pressed. "Would you fight me?"
Still, no response.
"If rescue comes for me," I whispered now, "I don't want to leave you here."
"Leave me," Gale said, tersely. "I will not join the Trojans, nor pledge loyalty to their king."
"Come as my friend," I insisted. "He will not ask for loyalty."
Gale made a noise, disgusted and disinterested. "'He'," he scoffed.
"Yes, I speak of Peeta," I said, slightly annoyed. "He does exist."
Unfortunately, said the face Gale made at me.
"If rescue comes, he will be in it," I continued. "Promise me you won't fight him."
"I make no promises."
"Gale, I don't want to see you hurt."
"You already have," he muttered, and with that he lay on his own bed and turned his back to me.
I sighed, returning my eyes to the ceiling, and my mind to previous worries. In my thoughts, the only thing worse than Peeta not coming for me at all, was Peeta coming, and then fighting with Gale.
It was late in the night, hours passed since Primrose had come to him and told him of Katniss' whereabouts, and Peeta sat outside, on the as-yet-unfinished steps leading into the palace. Peeta stared out across the progress of New Troy and then to the lights of Panbank on the other side of the river.
He wove his fingers against his tunic, then unwove them, impatient.
The first of the stars were starting to appear in a great silver belt across the cloudless sky. Hadn't he told her to arrive at moonrise? It was long passed moonrise. He sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
Finally, he heard footsteps and turned his head in excitement, then frowned. "What?" he snapped.
Clove perched herself against a beam of wood, leaning against it and peering up at him from behind its partial coverage. "I heard the message you sent her," she said, simply. "She won't come, you know."
"Annie will come."
Clove shook her head. "She won't." Then she sighed and, hesitantly, moved up the steps to sit a pace away from Peeta. She traced a hand along the stone. "You call her for no reason..."
"I need her help."
"I could help you."
"But you won't. I don't trust you."
Stung, Clove hissed at him, "And yet you trust that bitch of a wife of yours."
"She never used me as you used me."
"She already does!" Before Clove could react, Peeta snatched her wrist and twisted hard enough it forced Clove onto her knees a step below the one she'd originally been seated on. "Let me go!"
Struggling, Clove tried to reach out her power and fling him, or burn him, but he merely tossed aside her attempt. Blind panic hit her at that. He really is stronger than me! She cried out when he twisted again, breaking the fragile bones in her wrist. "Please!" She began to sob, clawing at his hand. "Stop!"
He let her go, finally, force in that movement, too. Enough to knock her awkwardly down the last remaining steps. When she was on the ground below, she pushed herself up on her unbroken hand and cradled the other against her chest. "It'll heal," Peeta told her, coldly, and turned to watch the moon.
Anger was quick to cover her lapse of a sob, forgetting the panic and the pain, and Clove rose to her feet, shouting, "You'll regret that! Just because you're Hades now... I'll get Hera! I'll be stronger!"
"Why? So you can waste your time with this? Leave Katniss to her own stupidity! She went into the Spartan camp alone on her own decision! She went no doubt to her past lover! That Gale! Let her go!"
Peeta swung his head around, and looked about ready to stand and make another grab at her, but she saw a change of decision in his black eyes. He ground his teeth, clenched his fists, and ignored her.
It was worse.
To simply be put into the cold shoulder, to be so little a threat to him that he ignored her!
An urge to stamp her foot and demand attention surged through Clove. Gods! Why couldn't he just care more about her, than Katniss? Why couldn't he just see beyond that stupid Dorian woman of his?
Regaining composure, Clove dove for a more practically flow of words.
"Annie won't come," she said, once more, coldly now. "You're wasting your time here."
After a moment, Peeta replied, "Is she not on our side anymore?"
"She has bigger problems. Problems I'm not willing to help her with. She won't come."
"Then maybe I'll call on Thresh," Peeta said and Clove's face turned horror-struck.
"He will kill you!"
"Maybe not. Maybe if I promise him my loyalty he'll help me."
Clove just stared, wordlessly, trying to decide if Peeta was japing.
"Go home, Clove. I don't want to play games with you now."
Is that what you do? she thought. Play games with me? And this, now? Is this the real you?
Peeta snorted humorlessly. "No," he answered her thoughts, angering her further. "This is the me you made, don't you remember?" He turned his hands over and stared at them. "I can feel the poison."
"Push it out," she urged now. She liked the other Peeta. He was easier to control without bands.
"You can, I've seen you do it." You do it for her.
"You don't want to," Clove accused.
Peeta made no response, then he sighed and blinked and his eyes were blue once more. "Better?"
"No!" Clove was still furious. She raised her wrist, now healed. "You think this was okay?"
Peeta pursed his lips. "I shouldn't have... I am sorry. My frustration got the better of me."
She scoffed. "You are upset over her, don't pretend that's not why."
"I am upset," he said, plainly, letting anguish show. "Sometimes I get too upset and he... the poison just wells up, and it takes the pain. It makes me angry and makes me feel more determined to do something, anything... and I don't feel worry or... guilt or anything beyond power. It is... tempting sometimes."
Eying him now, Clove regretted ever putting him in the bands.
After that, he told her to go home for the third time, this time nicely, and finally, Clove left.
Once she was gone, Peeta drew in a deep breath, trying to clear his head.
He waited until moon-high for Annie.
She never came.
Moonlight turned the Spartan camp silver against bleach-white sand. Within the midst of the tents a cloaked figure strolled, footsteps unwavering against the slip of the beach. Pale hands clutched the hood of their cloak to their face. Any guards who glanced at said figure saw no more than the symbol of Ares stitched on the back, a mousy priestess underneath, and dismissed the devote in the next breath.
It wasn't until she reached the well-known prisoner tent that the guards took pause.
"Undersee has ordered no guests," said one.
The priestess smiled. "I am no guest. I am merely a humble servant of Ares. I have come to look into the eyes of our enemy's consort and through her search for omens to this coming war against Trojans."
The guards exchanged looks. Then one grunted – everyone knew the priestess was an odd woman, but she was also the sister to Undersee's deceased wife, Madge's aunt, and meant well – and they let her in.
Inside, the two prisoners slept, and Maysilee stood and watched them for a long while. Gale was twisted up around his blankets, sleeping fitfully, whereas Katniss had curled up and slept like the dead.
Stepping carefully across the laid boards, Maysilee crouched beside not Katniss' bed, but Gale's. He woke instantly, as if he could feel her shadow fall over him, and he jerked up, reaching for a sword – then realized he did not have one. "Peace," Maysilee whispered. "I have not come to harm you."
Still bleary with sleep and hard-of-seeing in the dark and against the hood, Gale narrowed his eyes at the figure. "Madge?" he said. He glanced at Katniss, then the tent entrance. "You can't be here."
She lowered her hood – she may have Madge's look, but she was much older – and Gale noted instantly whom it was instead. "Maysilee?" He'd not known her, truly, but through the voyage with the Spartans, he could not have ignored Madge's nagging voice talking constantly of her aunt's devotion to Ares.
Maysilee pressed a finger to her lips and reached for the fetters of his chains. With swift, small hands she slipped a key into the lock and they jingled as the slid away from his wrists. "Will she scream?"
"Will she scream?" Maysilee repeated, throwing her chin in Katniss' direction.
Gale frowned, rubbing his wrists and sitting up. "No."
Unlike Gale, Katniss did not awake the instant Maysilee reached her, nor did she stir when the chains were unlocked and Maysilee pulled the away as silently as possible. She was aware of the guards without. "Katniss?" She probed the woman, and she lulled her eyes a moment, muttering in her dream.
"She doesn't wake," Maysilee said.
"Try harder," said Gale, standing now – still confused, but not complaining. "Here, let me."
He crossed the tent and sat heavily on the side of Katniss' bed, but still, she did not wake. He shook her, pushed the hair from her face, and spoke hissing, low-toned words to her in all manner of urgency.
The most she did was whimper and twist tightly away from him.
"Is she drugged?" murmured Maysilee, rising and picking up a cup next to the bed. It appeared to have water in it. The priestess drew it to her face and inhaled and could not smell any altering drugs.
"I'll carry her," Gale decided, and looked at Maysilee with a tight jaw and determined eyes. "I don't know why you're here, or why you're doing it, but thank you. If you get us out of here, I will owe you."
"Not me," Maysilee said, pulling her hood on once more. She did not elaborate, though, and just as instantly motioned for Gale to pick Katniss up. "There are horses waiting for us in the south trees.
Gale, wrapping his arms about Katniss, he started to heft her up, when she suddenly jerked awake. She gasped, grasping incoherently at Gale's shirt, and then seemed to actually see him. Her eyes reeled, before they landed on Maysilee's hooded figure, and the chains sitting unlocked at her side. It took her seconds to comprehend the situation and she pushed herself to her feet. Still, she looked unsteady.
"What was that?" Gale asked her. "Nightmares that trap you?"
Katniss rubbed at her face, then pulled her hair back and out of her face. "It wasn't a dream."
"A vision?" Maysilee breathed, her tone tight with awe.
"Sort of," Katniss replied, though Gale could see she was trying to pawn off the entire thing.
"From whom?" Maysilee quite forgot the rescue mission. "Ares?"
"Ares?" Katniss echoed, dumbfounded – as if she'd never heard the name before. "No, of course not."
Katniss' face twisted strangely. "No."
"Whom? Apollo? Zeus himself?"
"It was..." Katniss said and hesitated. "Poseidon."
Gale felt uneasy. "Poseidon visits your dreams?"
"Not often," said Katniss, rubbing her eyes. "It wasn't really a visit. It was like a glimpse. Like sh– he was trying to contact me, but couldn't. I just saw glimpses of him... of a stormy sea, and screaming. So much screaming..." Katniss sighed, and shook her head, and then refocused. "Are we leaving?"
"Yes," Maysilee said, staring at Katniss a moment longer, before turning toward the entrance of the tent. "Wait here. I'll take care of the guards. Put these on." Maysilee pulled two more cloak from underneath hers and tossed them at the two. "When we get in camp, walk calmly, head down."
Two guards were stationed at the trees to the south of the beach. Katniss, ducking behind one of the tents at the farthermost edge of the Spartan camp, tensed, readying to run, but Gale shook his head, then inclined it at Maysilee. The priestess stepped out of the shadow she'd been hiding in and pulled an object from out of her robe – Katniss could not see what in the dark – and placed it at her lips.
A thud of one of the guards' bodies caused Katniss to snap her gaze back around. Moments later, before the second guard could raise a shout, he went stumbling back and to the side, then collapsed, too.
"Alright," came Maysilee's soft voice. "Hurry now."
Stepping over the bodies and into the trees, Katniss murmured, "Are they dead?"
"Sleeping," said Maysilee. She flashed a strange object at Katniss, before stowing it back in her robe. "Darts... if you put the right drugs into them, the right amount, a man can sleep and forget."
"I was wondering how you'd managed to take care of the guards outside our tent," said Gale.
"Yes," said Maysilee.
"Helpless woman, you are not."
Maysilee grinned. "Aye. Most Spartan women are not."
About forty paces through the trees the snorts and clop of horses could be heard, and the group picked up pace until they could clearly make out three horses and a small figure holding their halters.
Gale groaned. "I should have known."
Madge, shooting Gale a disgruntle look, nonetheless smiled at Maysilee and the two woman embraced, briefly. "Thank you," Madge told her and Maysilee nodded gravely. "Tell him I stole your things."
"I will. He will want you dead for this, you know."
"I know," said Madge, and though she tried to look unaffected, there was a wilting in her eyes.
"Stall that as long as you can."
Maysilee nodded, satisfied, and turned back to the two Dorians. "Watch her for me."
Madge made a sound of protest, embarrassed, but Katniss spoke over her, "You need not fear."
"Perhaps not, strange woman," said Maysilee. "I don't approve of Undersee's war, nor the timing, but I love my king. And I believe you want war as little as I do. Do not make me regret helping you escape."
Katniss lowered her head respectfully.
Then Gale grabbed at her elbow and urged her toward the horses.
Clove stood at the top of Cor hill, scowling to the north, rubbing her wrist resentfully.
She wasn't far from the road that led to the tribal lands, so it was still possible for her to make out the handful of figures gathered there. Most would think she'd be standing with them to send off her beloved Trojan prince as those men mounted their horses. But, no, Clove stood purposefully away, just so Peeta knew how much she disapproved of this distraction. Riding north? At a girl-child's claim of enemies gathering there and a Katniss prisoner there? It was petulant of the wife to need rescue, and a waste.
Peeta had not wanted to hear her argument, of course. No more than last night.
So Clove stood, and watched stone-faced, as Peeta and his men cantered off down the road.
For two days we rode at hard trots. I'd not ridden a horse since first arriving in Panem and even then I'd had Cinna's constant encouragements to guide me through the motions. Now, I had only Gale and Madge, who rode unflinchingly, and if they were sore for the few hours at night that we dared used to rest they didn't show it. Gale always went straight to sleep, grasping what he could, and Madge spent a long while tending to the exhausted horses, feeding, petting, and humming to them; not once wincing.
I suppose I'd thought her delicate, but I found quickly enough that she was better at horse riding than most warriors I'd seen. She carried a short-sword, though in truth it was more of a long knife; I wondered if she could use it. I saw her sharpening it the first night we'd stopped. "Preparing," she said. She seemed convinced her father would send after us and that they would not hesitate to kill her.
"He would have you harmed?" I asked her, wonderingly. Prim's father would not have done so, even if she'd betrayed him. In fact, I'd betrayed Peeta before and he never killed me, no matter the hate he felt.
Madge looked at me as if I were somehow mocking her. "If they catch me alive," she said, "then he'd gladly do it himself." She placed her blade against her ribs. "Here, most likely. It is what he does to traitors. Or perhaps he will have my hair sheared, my tongue cut, and he will hang me for show."
"His own daughter?"
"I am his daughter no more." Madge returned to sharpening. "I forsake my heritage doing this."
Gale rolled over to face us from where he slept and asked, "Then why do you do it?"
Madge, taken off guard to know Gale had been listening, bit her lip and shrugged.
She would not speak to me afterward on the matter of her father. In fact, much like Gale, she swore she would not be giving away any crippling knowledge for the war, but she did hope not to be killed upon entering the Trojan's midst. I told her, and Gale, that I wouldn't let them be harmed once we were there.
They didn't seem to take my words seriously – as though I didn't know Peeta and his motives.
Still, even not knowing their fate, they rode with me south.
I suppose it was just fear of Undersee and the Spartans that kept them going.
So we continued, through the land I'd walked with Rory and Cray to reach the beach in first place. After that first night we had begun to hear distant sounds of men and to deter our tail we rode west for a few hours. Madge nor Gale knew the way, but I did somewhat, and I knew if we rode far enough toward a point just to the side of the rising sun, we'd reach the north road. It would be a straight shot from there. The only problem was that I was the inept rider of us three and I was the one in the lead.
Twice we had to circle back when we came across marsh lands too overcome with swampy waters. Madge's horse kept trying to outstride mine and it made my mount nervous... and I was not one to know what to do to calm him. Usually we'd be forced to stop so Madge could deal with it for me.
"Stupid beasts," I muttered on the third go of it, watching Madge go about rubbing its sides.
"They're actually pretty smart," said Gale. "Smarter than oxen."
"I like oxen. They're slow and steady. Horses are so..."
"Too fast?" he teased, like old times. Then he ruined it: "Shall I get a carriage for Her Majesty?"
"Restless," I finished for myself, throwing him a look.
He raised his hands in false surrender.
I made a point of riding faster and harder after that.
Just before sunset on our second day, Gale's horse threw a shoe. We couldn't do anything about it, of course, but rest for a time as Madge soothed the beast and checked its hooves for any other damage.
From there our trot slowed, which my groaning, aching body was grateful for, but I disliked our slower progression toward safety... toward Peeta. What if he comes upon the beach now? Will he still strike down the Spartans? Was it possible if I didn't get to the road, we'd pass each other unknowingly?
There was little to no talk among the three of us as we rode, leaving my mind to worry over these things constantly. I got the impression Gale did not particularly like Madge and he was still mad at me, so there really was nothing he had to say. Whereas Madge was feeling too tense – and I think, guilty – about what she'd done, and was wary of me, and particularly put-out by Gale, so she kept silent.
I, myself, didn't really know what to say to them. I suppose I could apologize to Gale, though I didn't particularly like that idea. After all, what had I done to him? Nothing really. Except 'betray' him?
But how? He couldn't keep me from who I want. I understood I royally screwed up his plans to come here for revenge and rescue at the lead of a formidable – and, as it turns out, fierce – force. That I could acknowledge and felt guilty for, but in the face of things, I'd never actually been his. Did he know that?
From the words spoken at the Spartan camp, one would think he'd told them we'd been married.
I hoped he didn't love me that much.
Late on the second night, half-way through Gale's lookout hour, he shook us both awake.
Panic was the first thing I felt, reaching blindly for Peeta's arm beside me – before I remembered he wasn't there and a wave of disappointment hit me so hard in the chest I was knocked breathless.
Madge felt her own kind of panic. "Is he here? Have they found us?" she asked, swiveling about.
Gale put a hand on her arm – she nearly jumped out of her skin at his touch, though he'd not notice that in a hundred years... he never noticed her – and he pointed over the line of the trees to the west.
"See?" he said. "There's smoke." He looked to me. "Trojans?"
"No," I said, standing to get a better look. There were at least twenty lines of rising smoke, indicating a formidable group. How far away? "We're not south enough for there to be any sign of Panbank yet."
"Maybe." I'd never seen the tribes as of yet, not when I traveled with Rory.
"Then we shouldn't head west anymore than we already have. I'd rather risk seeing Spartans," Gale said, taking up his position at the base of a tree once more. "We head out at first light."
Neither Madge nor I argued with him.
The third day of our ride started off well. We rode at a south-east direction and I knew the road could not be too far off. Any hour now. I was still in the lead, and after two days of getting used to my horse's rigorous trot, I was more courageous in the action of leaning into his speed and pressing my heels in.
My horse responded well – they were bigger horses than what Panem had, and they were trained to withstand battle, so Madge said – so it was good headway that we made. If it took three days to walk to the beach so riding these horses, by all rights, should have gotten us back much sooner. Those few hours we'd taken to ride west and off the Spartan's radar had cost us some time, it would seem.
To my dismay, around noon the trees ended, and opened up to a field. Across it I could make out where the trees rose sharply again, ten times as thick, and I knew deep in my heart that it was Chaff's forest.
We were so close now! We reach those trees and then walk along them to the east and we'd come across the road in no time. As we passed through the field I wanted to race across, but I slowed instead, seeing that the morning dew had frosted across the grass and the last thing we needed was an injured horse.
My slowed speed allowed for Gale to draw level with me, and he smiled, a thin, trying smile at me.
I returned it, hopeful.
"I probably shouldn't be worrying about Rory, but I am," admitted Gale with a long sigh.
"We could go back for him," I offered. If it were Prim I knew I would go back.
"No, Rory chose to stay." Gale shrugged. He's... young. He thinks Prim will come around when he proves that he's strong... that he's with the stronger people. He thinks she's upset and rejected him because he wasn't strong enough to protect her in the first place, against the Trojans in Mesopotamia."
"And your men? They sided with him?"
"Threw themselves in Undersee's favor. They thought I was a fool to stand up for you."
I ran my fingers down the shorn length of my horse's mane. "You... stood up for me?"
"Of course." He threw my a sideways glance while I stared determinedly at my hands. "I always have... I should have in the tent... I.. was just shocked. Not to say I'm not angry. I'm definitely angry at you, and I still don't understand why you've chosen what you have, but still... I should have stood up for you. At least in front of Undersee. Abandoning you there probably wasn't very good to show him."
"But later.. you turned on him?"
"Turned? No. I disagreed with him. He does not like being disagreed with."
A small silence fell, I thought it was a comfortable one, until he suddenly burst out, "Did you mean it?"
"Mean what? That I'd go back for Rory?"
"No. That if I come with you, as a friend, I will not be killed?"
My hands stalled and curled into the short mane. I finally lifted my head to look at him. He was hopeful, and a little cautious, but there was less of his hate in him. "If I tell him you helped me, yes."
"Does he love you so much?"
I felt myself color somewhat. "He knows how to respect someone who has helped him."
"By helping you, I helped him?"
"Yes," I said. He needs me.
"How?" I shrugged, meaning to turn away again, but Gale urged his horse a little closer to mine – the horses knew each other and must have shared tasks of pulling cargo, for they were not unsettled by this closeness – and he reached out a hand to mine in the mane. His fingertips just graced my knuckles.
Behind me, at a little distance, I heard Madge gasp loudly.
Gale, who paid her little attention as it was, didn't heed the sound. I, however, feeling suddenly uncomfortable at his closeness and his touch, turned my head to see what had made her so distressed.
Her eyes met mine, stretched unnaturally wide, her mouth agape. I expected her to look to Gale's fingers still touching my hand, as I'd become aware of her favor of him almost immediately and though this show of open dismay at this one touch seemed petty of her, I still expected it. Because what else would make her look so panic stricken and pained? Yet, despite it, her gaze remained glued on mine.
There seemed to be something she wanted to say. I shook my head to show I didn't understand.
And then her shoulders slumped forward, and she slid gracelessly from her horse, hitting the ground with her shoulder and rolling onto her stomach. Protruding from her back was a single arrow.
"Madge!" I shouted, ripping my hand from Gale's, and grabbing at my horse's halter and rearing around toward her. Her own horse had stopped walking once she'd dropped his reins – as all horses were trained to do – but as I watched another arrow flew through the air and struck the horse's romp.
It screamed and kicked out its legs, and just as quickly ran our way; escape. My horse wasn't fast enough to move out of its track, despite how hard I jerked on its ropes. In a horrible jostle of the two, my leg momentarily crushed between one horse's flank and the other's, my own horse was struck with an arrow – two... no three... and one had just barely missed my thigh. In its panic, the horse threw me.
Battle trained, hadn't Madge told me? Perhaps trained for it, but the beasts had no experience in it and no pain tolerance. Gale shouted my name, vaulting off his horse, and as I watched, struggling for breath and scrambling to my knees, in order to prevent from being trampled, an arrow hit his bicep. Another found its mark in his shoulder. The force of the two as they struck him threw him off his feet.
I was closer to Madge, so it was to her I crawled. I touched her back, felt she was still breathing, and then looked frantically for our attacker. There. Behind us. A group of men. Not Spartan. Not Trojan.
They didn't look like the blue-tribal men I'd seen on the beach of Achates birth. They wore animal skins for clothing, not wool or linen, and though their hair was matted and unwashed, they wore no face paint, no tattoos. They were paler than the Panem natives I knew, with a wide array of red hair.
I ducked and clutched at Madge's arm when I saw that one of them aimed another arrow. I knew we were out numbered – three to at least thirty... make that two against thirty, seeing as how Madge, though breathing, was no where near conscious. I wasn't strong enough to carry her, I knew. The horses were long gone; even Gale's had smelt the blood and heard his braying companions and had bolted.
When I looked to Gale, he was sitting up, snapping off the end of the arrow protruding from his shoulder. He grimaced and blood ran over his chest, down his arm. He could not carry her either.
"I'm sorry," I whispered to her. Then I stood and ran as fast as I could.
We ran hard and fast across the plain with the tribal men in pursuit, but we were no match for them.
One step into Chaff's forest, I felt the pierce of an arrow in the back of my thigh, and another sung passed my head, landing with a thud into the trunk of a nearby tree. Gale collapses beside me.
He doesn't get up that time, three arrows in his back.
I nearly left him there. I considered for a split second that I should continue on sprinting. Then I took a step with my injured leg and it folded underneath me. I couldn't leave – and not just physically.
I shouldn't have left Madge in the first place. Not after what she did for me.
I leaned into the trunk of a tree, close enough to ghost a hand over Gales' ankle, but where now the archers couldn't target me. I couldn't sit or stand with an arrow in the back of my leg, but I crouched awkwardly, and clutched my chest with the hand not on Gale, and believe it or not... I prayed.
I had no proper sacrifice or offering to use as I did so, which would under normal circumstances have been ineffectual at best, but I was desperate, in pain, and I could feel my blood pooling in my sandals.
Hera, first. She was dead by then, of course, and wouldn't have helped me even if she wasn't, but she had been my deity since I was a child and I'd first seen her breathtaking image painted on a pot within the whorehouse. My mother had told me once she was the most beautiful woman in all the world.
Oh, my queen of queens.
The sound of the men drew nearer. They spoke in a slippery, slobbery tongue. One was shouting excitedly and I knew that he'd come across Madge's prone form. They are touching her...
Second was Darius. I shouted his name in my mind, over and over. Come home, come back. Help.
But I knew this time he was not here to save me.
I turned to Peeta, desperately, my hand fumbling away from Gale's ankle to join the one clutched at my chest. I screwed my eyes shut as the pounding footsteps of the men raced with the speed of my heart.
Praying was useless.
My mind was too small for the them to hear. My being too weak... too mortal.
The men were upon me. One of them wrapped a repulsive hand around my arm.
All were crowing at each other about something, delighted.
Two of the tribal men started dragging Gale away, into the plain. The hand on my arm tugged me in the opposite direction, and in a fit of panic, and anxiety – I could not be separated from them! – I lunged away from the man holding my arm and his grip slipped away in the surprise of my leap toward Gale.
I grasped at Gale's ankle again, clumsy, falling to my knees, the pain ripping through me. Still, I held tight to his leg and the two men dragging him made a gurgle of harsh noise at their companions.
A knife slipped over my throat from behind and a body pressed into my back. Pressure was put onto the arrow and I screamed, as it was pushed deeper into my thigh, threatening to break through. But I couldn't wriggle away from the agony. Not with the knife resting on my windpipe; a man at my back.
In my pain, Gale slipped from my grasp and instead of dragging him away they hefted him up, strung between the two men. Another circled from behind me, a stone axe in hand; the one who'd had grabbed me before. He smiled at me with missing and rotten teeth, his freckles cluttering his entire face.
He said something to me in his language and even if I knew the words I do not think I would have been able to think coherently enough to reply to them; the pain was singing through me, my head fuzzy.
I had only one fear and goal, and both were currently centered around Gale.
The freckled man raised the axe high over Gale's neck. I cried out and reached my hand toward him, pressing myself into the knife despite the trickle of blood that trailed over my neck. "Please!"
They didn't heed my word.
The axe was being swung. The instant I realized it was, no matter what I said, going to strike Gale hard and true in the back of his neck, I couldn't watch. I snapped my eyes shut, and the fear and familiar pang of loss shot through me and fell from my mouth with a single sobbing word; "Seeder!"
Something hit me.
Not the axe.. something bigger and... furred. It burst passed me and knocked me and my captor both to the ground and I opened my eyes fast enough to see the beast launch itself at the axe-weilder.
He died screaming, the axe falling from nerve-less hands, far from Gale's neck.
I was too shocked to move.
The men, however, were not.
The one holding me jolted to his feet and broke into a wild run. Words were falling from their lips again, but this time screaming, panicked and terrified. I shared their fear, but I was frozen in place.
I watched, unblinkingly, as the white lion ripped open the freckled man's throat.
White lion... white lion... I couldn't... they didn't reside in Panem, did they?
I'd never even seen a live lion – only their coats fashioned into clothing, only painted on pots.
Lions were a sacred animal of Hera's. But a white one? No, it couldn't be.
It had to be a coincidence. My praying had done nothing for me.
It was huge. Its paws bigger than my face, its body enough to pull down a full-grown tree if the beast really wanted to. The mane was shaggy around his neck, now covered in shock red, the blood dripping from a muzzle that raised... its black eyes training on the fleeing tribal men. It tensed for the chase.
Go, go, go, I thought, holding my breath, not daring to move. Chase them. We're already dead.
Run right passed Madge.
Forget Gale lying so close to you.
Do not turn to me. Do not turn to me. Do not turn to me.
It turned to me.
I clutched the edge of my tunic, terrified.
It paced around me, twice, and the whole time I fought off the urge to flee. The breath rose in my throat and threatened to come harder and faster, but I beat it into a calm, slow thing, as not to start the beast.
I was tempted to close my eyes, but I didn't want it to jump on me as a surprise. The anticipation of not seeing it as it circled me would have driven me mad so I watched it go around and around, until finally, it stopped at my front, and to my disbelief, tipped its head to the side and plopped down on the ground.
It stared at me with its black eyes.
I raised a hand, cautiously. Tension rose the hair of its pelt. Black lips drew back over white whiskers, flashing rows of razor sharp teeth. A low growl emitted from its throat. I dropped my hand. It went still.
For a time I just sat there, staring back at it.
Then, when I decided it would not eat me, I let out a long sigh.
"Who sent you?" I murmured to the lion.
It didn't answer, of course.
"Was it Darius?"
Uninterested in me, the lion bent over and began to lap at its blood-stained coat. I took the time to examine my own wounds, twisting awkwardly around to get a look at the back of my thigh.
So much blood. It was a mess. It was poorly shaped wood, riddled with splinters and the arrow tip had to be stone. I grimaced as I ran my fingers over the end... were they... crow feathers? I cursed them for their lack-luster weaponry. What are the chances I can walk? What are the chances Madge or Gale won't die of infection from the wood or from the bird feathers? Taking a note from Gale's book, I tried to snap the wood left protruding from my leg, but it only pushed and tugged and made my head spin.
I laid back, trying to keep the blue sky and the clouds from blurring.
I would have laid there forever, bleeding, uncaring, if not for the lion, whose head snapped up.
Alerted, I looked around and began to sit up, but the lion surged to my side and pushed me down with its massive body and took up a defensive position on my side facing the forest, snarling, claws out.
Unable to see around the beast, I heard only the sharp intake of breath.
Strange, how I'd not heard footsteps approaching, or the leaves whisking, or the twigs snapping...
Only one person could glide through Chaff's forest thus.
With an arm I dragged myself to the side slightly to peer out from under the lion's head, and sure enough there stood Brutus, shell-shocked, staring wide-eyed at the lion, his hand on a tree trunk.
And as much as I disliked the man, I didn't want to see him eaten alive.
Could I call the beast off? Would it listen to me? I stared doubtfully at its open jaws, the movement of my head drawing Brutus' eyes, and he jerked back in surprise at the sight of me. The lion snarled again, taking a threatening step closer to him, and Brutus let out a startled, "Katniss! What is it!"
So, I thought, they aren't native.
"It's alright," I said, my voice choked. I pushed myself up and took in a long breath to swallow my own fear. If he thinks I'm afraid Brutus will never stay still enough for me to reel the beast in.
Cats like to chase. If he ran, he'd be dead.
"Just... hold on," I said, and Brutus looked doubtfully at Gale and the corpse of the tribe man.
Once I was on my knees and the world wasn't spinning, I decided to place a balancing hand on the lion's flank. I expected it to whirl on me and rip my face off. It didn't. It let me lean my weight into it as I used its body to get to my feet. My bloodied hands left red stains along its blindingly white fur.
Standing now, two hands twisted into the lion's mane, leaning into it, I met Brutus' gaze. He seemed less unsure, even though the lion was still watching him with hostility. "Is... is it yours?" he asked me.
"Umm.." With the upper angle I noticed for the first time a leather cord hanging around its neck, partially hidden by the mane. Running my fingers through its silkiness, I located the cord and twisted it around until I had a small medallion resting in my palm. On a glance, I didn't recognize the symbol.
On closer examination I could make out the clearly the image of a twisted rose.
My heart fell to my stomach.
It's the same symbol on Coriolanus' golden bands.
Coriolanus' sigil. Coriolanus' lion?
But why would he send something to protect me? To save me from the savages?
How would he have the power, let alone why would he know I even exist?
I hadn't prayed to him; how had he known I was in trouble, when all those I cared for hadn't?
At that last moment... I hadn't done anything to... all I'd said was Seeder...
"Don't move," I told Brutus, raising my head. "It can't touch you in Chaff's forest."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," I said, knowing it was true. "It's Chaff's land. This is another god's lion."
"Peeta's?" Brutus asked... and it sounded like he was hoping it was.
"No." I turned my head and looked to my injured companions. I closed my eyes a moment. "Have you been to Panbank recently? Is Peeta still there? If he is, go now, and lead him here, please?"
"He's not. I have been in this forest waiting for your return. I saw him leave Panbank."
"Has he passed us?"
"That, I do not know."
Leaning more heavily into the lion, I ran a hand down between its ears and, after a moment, the beast turned into the pressure of my fingers, its wet, rough nose grazing my palm, its damp lips resting on the tips, its hot breath searing my skin. All I could think was that in one snap, the hand could be gone.
At least I'd diverted its attention.
"Go now," I told Brutus. "Get horses or others to carry my friends."
"What about you?" Brutus asked. "Your leg..."
"Is less injured than my friends," I said, holding his gaze sternly. "Just go."
With one last apprehensive glance at the lion, Brutus turned and left.
I sagged into the lion's side, my face pressed into its flank. "Coriolanus sent you, didn't he?" The lion twisted around, pressing its face into the side of my hair. It sniffed and snorted, and I gasped when I felt its teeth nip at my ear, then the sand-paper agony of its tongue on my cheek. "Whoa there. Hold on... stop, stop..!" I pushed its face away, gently, and it licked my fingers instead... lapping the blood away.
When it made for my leg I jerked back; the most it would do was make me feel more pain.
I pointed my hand toward the north. "Go."
It looked at me, at my hand, to the north.
"Go!" I insisted, shaking my finger.
Something flashed in the lion's eyes; its ears perked up as if listening to another voice other than mine. It drew back from me suddenly, flashing its teeth, snarling. I started, and meant to move, but its giant paw swung too fast, and I was weak from blood loss. It threw me against the ground as if I were a child's doll, the strike of my head against the soil enough to send me whirling into unconsciousness.
When my eyes opened next I stood in the stone hall; but it was not the stone hall I loved.
Abruptly, Peeta jerked his horse to a stop, almost sending the men behind him blundering into his back. He turned his head west and narrowed his eyes. "She's that way," he said... confused, uncertain.
"Not with the Spartans?" asked Finnick. "Surely this is good news."
"We will see."
They robe west.
Brutus had run full-speed back to Panbank to get who he needed. Of course, the return trip had taken a while longer than him running by himself – even mounted on horses Cinna and Cecelia could not compare to his speed – and by the time he sensed the edge of Chaff's forest, he found himself infinitely worried. Less for Katniss, and more for the beast he'd seen, strange, giant, and agile as it was.
But when they broke the treeline to the plain, he saw only four unmoving bodies.
"Is she breathing?" Cecelia exclaimed immediately upon arriving, sliding off her horse and hastening to Katniss' side. She hurriedly tried to roll Katniss over onto her back, but stalled at the sight of the arrow.
"Is she?" Cinna pressed when she did not answer, and Cecelia nodded. "Do you think...?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Quick, grab her friends, it's getting late and the blood..."
Cinna crossed the plain to the body of a blonde woman, somehow managing to slip her into his arms without disturbing the arrow in her back – it would be a long ride back to Panbank. All the while Brutus stood waiting at the edge of the forest, the Greek man with Katniss' look slumped in his arms.
He was eying the field for the beast he'd described to Cinna and Cecelia upon coming to them, Cinna knew, but he was not sure what to think of that. He glanced around his back, but saw nothing.
Part of Cinna was inclined not to believe what Brutus had described to him.
Cecelia, in the process of smoothing back Katniss' hair, said, "Get them on the horses." She looked up and between the two, and then to the tribal man's mauled corpse. "What went on here?"
No one had a response for that.
"We must get them back before dusk," said Cinna, strapping the blonde woman securely onto the romp of his horse, feeling out the edges of her wound. "This one will not last much longer if not treated."
Brutus dutifully did the same for the man, and Cecelia rose to do so as well, but suddenly Katniss gave a heave, retched, then vomited forth a little water, lurching upward, her arms flailing about.
"Katniss! Katniss!" Cecelia shouted. "You are safe!" She tried to grab Katniss' arms, but it took both her and Cinna to manage to subdue the struggling woman. "What is it? What ails you? Katniss!"
"The fire!" Katniss finally managed to splutter. "The fire, oh, Hera! The fire!"
"What fire?" Cinna said evenly.
"The fire, from the sky, evil, so bad, the heart, the soul, the pit, the blackness…"
Katniss was rambling, and Cecelia and Cinna exchanged looks.
Brutus lowered himself onto the ground beside Katniss. "Do you mean Twill's vision?"
Katniss caught his eyes, held them. "The Rose. He's taken her realm. He's taken her power."
"Katniss! Speak sense," Cinna urged.
Brutus, however, seemed not as bewildered as Cecelia and Cinna. "The Rose?"
"Coriolanus," Katniss said, and the word was a exhausted sigh, the panic fading from her. "Somehow, he's no longer banished. Somehow, he's taken Seeder's gift. Somehow, Asterion gave him that power."
The three hovering over Katniss couldn't know the horror of such a truth though. Katniss tried to rise, but Cecelia pressed her down. "Katniss, it would be best if you slept at my house tonight. You've had a shock, and you're leg... you cannot walk. We must get you to Panbank. It is best that —"
"No," said Katniss, struggling to her feet, and leaning more heavily on one leg than the other. "No. I have to find... Peeta... or Annie, someone. Gods, where is Darius? I have to tell another god of this."
"Wait." Brutus pushed his hands against her chest to stall her. "Were you in Seeder's realm? You... can you tell me of Chaff? Last time... before Seeder died, we found out he was alive. Is it still true?"
Katniss brushed his hands aside. "It doesn't matter –"
"Doesn't matter?" he snarled, taking her arm. "I didn't save you for your benefit and not mine!"
"Stop," she said, trying and failing to rip her arm from his hold. "What are you saying? First you don't even want to help me, first I helped you when you came upon the lion, and now you think I owe you something for it? Chaff isn't important right now. There are much bigger threats on the horizon –"
"Chaff isn't important!" Brutus said in fury. "He isn't important? This is his land, not yours!"
"Brutus, calm yourself," Cecelia said, her voice frantic.
Cinna stepped forward – like Twill might of once – to touch Brutus' arm, but he was shrugged away.
"You're wrong. It isn't theirs anymore, it's been taken! That's what is important!" Katniss said, making Brutus only angrier, tightening his grip painfully. " Let me go…let me go!" She started slapping ineffectually at Brutus' strong grip, twisting one way and another to dislodge him. "Let me go…"
"You will aid me, one way or another," Brutus said. "You will restore Chaff, as Seeder intended–"
"What are you doing? Let her go. Let her go!"
There was a flurry of hooves and the heat of a horse's body as it pushed into the little struggling group. Taken by surprise, Brutus lost his grip on Katniss and fell to the ground as the horse careered into him.
Peeta reached down and grabbed at Katniss, who had raised her arms to him. He lifted her behind him on the horse, then turned it about in a tight circle, making Cecelia, Cinna, and Brutus, who had managed to regain his feet, scurry backward to keep from being knocked into by the beast.
"Leave…her…alone!" Peeta said very slowly, very menacingly, his eyes furious. Katniss had wrapped her arms about him, and melded her body to his back, a half grimace on her face for them.
And then Peeta twisted the horse's head about, and they were gone, and Brutus was left staring angrily after them. "Damn her," he whispered, then shoved by Cinna and shouted as he ran off, "Damn her!"
The trees plunged by at an alarming rate as Peeta rode off, me clinging to his waist for dear life. My head was spinning with my wound and the effort of standing up without Cecelia's aid. The use of my energy to fight off Brutus – very ineffectively – had nearly sent me to my knees. I fought to stay conscious, harboring in my mind the horrible knowledge I'd just shouted at my friends moments ago.
There was more I'd not shared with them, because I knew it would only bewilder them more. I know now, why I live – and it's not because of Peeta, or Seeder, or even luck. It was Coriolanus.
Upon being knocked out, I'd been pulled into his presence.
His words stuck fast to my heart – and I wondered if I should dare to speak them.
He'd warned me no one would believe me.
Coriolanus, Coriolanus... why am I stuck with you? He'd asked me that and promptly explained, laughingly, patting my cheek, and I pressed my face closer to Peeta's back, remembering.
It is as I told my friends; he has taken Seeder's power. But not in the conventional means. He literally took all that was hers – he took her realm (though it wilted to his image) and he took her actual power source (me). It was as if he had simple pushed her out of her assigned slot and slipped into it instead.
Except... it doesn't work that way. It hadn't before.
A blunder of horses and men rode passed Peeta and I, heading the way of the plain. I squeezed Peeta's mid-section tighter and murmured, "They won't hurt them, will they? Will they get my friends?"
"They won't hurt them." He hesitated. "Tell me of your friends."
"They are friends, to both of us," I said. "They helped me escape... we owe them."
As I thought, Peeta nodded his agreement and I sighed greatly in relief. But he was not done with me. Once we found the north road and he set his horse on the path, going at a steady pace, he reached back with a hand and felt out the arrow on my thigh, careful to not shift it. "What were you thinking?"
He sounded both angry and pained. I wished he was looking at me so I could disconcert if he was himself at this time, but it was already hard enough to stay upright, let alone turn his face about.
"I was thinking of peace," I said, honestly. "I was thinking of Panem, this land. I love it much."
"And not yourself?" he pressed. "You love this land so much you would go off into a dangerous enemy's war camp, alone, in hopes that perhaps they will listen to your pleas? Katniss..."
"Yes," I answered, cutting him off. "I do."
His hand on my thigh tightened its grip. "Katniss..."
"I would do anything for it."
Now there was definitely more pain in his voice. "I could have lost you."
I pulled my arms tightest yet around him, my face resting against his shoulderblades. "I know."
There was a long silence then, with just the clomping of the horse's hoofs and the lowering of the sun into the afternoon. I didn't want to ruin his mood completely, to rip his settled nerves into a frenzy once more, but I had to tell him before it could blow up in my face as so much before this. "Peeta..."
"It's alright, I'm not angry."
"No, there's something.. something I have to tell you."
He won't believe you, Coriolanus had teased, twirling a strand of hair from my braid.
"Is it about the Spartans? Gale?" Peeta tried to guess. "Prim told me much. I am not angry."
I shook my head against his back, and he tensed, perhaps thinking the worst.
"Is it about the night you left? The confession.." There was a distinct bridge in his tone. "Was it.. real?"
Oh. That hurt, hearing the doubt and sadness in his voice. He thought I meant to manipulate him with it, didn't he? That in order to get away from him most, he thought I seduced him into a supreme assurance of my place, that I had reassured him that I would not leave, hence allowing me to slip away.
A small voice in me told me to tell him so. Tell him it was fake. Don't deal with the fallout. You got what you wanted – sex. But it wasn't just that I wanted. I wanted him to remain himself when I left.
My prolonged silence did Peeta's nerves no great favor. "It is alright," he said, stiffly. "I do not–"
"Real," I said, hurriedly. "It was real, but Peeta... there is trouble–"
"No, something worse. Peeta.. Coriolanus–"
And then there he was.
My words slammed to a halt and I jerked away from Peeta in surprise, staring open-mouthed at the figure that had just appeared on the road ahead. Sunlight caught against his hair, giving him a crimson halo, and I nearly threw myself off my horse to run to him –
"Katniss? What of Coriolanus?" Peeta twisted about to look at me. "Katniss?"
Darius stared back at me, drawing closer – no, jogging closer. He was hurried. There was blood on his clothes and a gash in his neck, and he held something, folded carefully into a piece of white silk.
He spoke none. I pretended to be looking at Peeta as I felt the silk folded object slide into the straps of my sandals. Darius made to leave, but I flinched out a hand – still trying to look at Peeta and not draw his attention to the man hovering near our horse – and Darius hesitated, grabbing my fingers, squeezing them. He gave me a mournful look, stepped close once more, and pressed a kiss to my calf.
Then he was gone again.
So soon after he returned, just gone. Months of waiting and he comes so inconveniently and hurt no less, with nothing more than a object that I cannot even look at now, and then just leaves. Like that.
There were so many questions that burned on my tongue to ask – about his whereabouts, what happened, why it took so long, if he had found Asterion – and he couldn't even stay long enough to speak a proper greeting. To say I was frustrated, if not outright angry, about that was an understatement.
Consumed with the weight in my sandal straps, I forgot what I meant to say to Peeta.
I merely grabbed at my leg and moaned and spoke of pain and the need of healing. Peeta, though letting go of my strange behavior with a look or two, nonetheless considered my health more important, turned about again and took the horse's reigns in hand and urged us into a much faster pace.
We were in Panbank within the hour.
Luckily, before I was pushed into a whirlwind of healers and the horrific need of getting the arrow out of my leg, Primrose came running up to me. I pressed the silk-wrapped object into her hands and spoke quickly into her ear to secret it somewhere. She was nodding as I was carried away to the healers.
The next few hours I spent either unconscious, moaning in pain, or drunk on numbing wine.
Throughout these hours I was aware of few things. I knew Peeta hovered near during them all, and that at one point Achates had been with him – but not long, for I did not want him to remember my screams, when they did come – and once or twice Cinna or Cecelia appeared, telling me of Madge and Gale.
"Gale is already conscious and is fast healing. He is strong."
"And Madge?" I heard Peeta ask.
"Unconscious still. She's no longer bleeding and the arrow is out. Now is a matter of waiting."
Yes, I thought, waiting.
For two days I remained bedridden.
The time that passed was more maddening than the time I spent inside the Spartan's prison tent.
I suppose it wasn't all that bad, considering I had my loved ones around me. Achates was a constant, always tucked in the blankets with me or cuddled into my chest those few times I was allowed to sit up. Prim and Aurora swept about the hut, cooking, laughing, making things lively. Only a look or two of Prim's doubt shined through the contentedness of having them near. Then, of course, there was Peeta.
As promised he welcomed Gale and Madge as allies, not enemies. They'd been given a hut – much smaller and shabbier than ours, but a hut nonetheless – near our own, where they remained as bedridden as I. Though I have heard Gale is well, I have yet to see him, and I am told that Madge has made no improvements. It is still about waiting, and I waited two long days, before I got my respite.
It was not in the form of Madge waking or of a large confession to Peeta of what happened to me – I had not told him about the lion (Brutus had not dared to talk to Peeta after that scene he'd made of attacking me, and both Cinna and Cecelia had quite forgotten Brutus' dramatic description) nor had I told him about what happened once it knocked me out and sent me whirling into Coriolanus' presence. There was no conceivable way Peeta could figure all that out, so I told him only of the savages.
After all, hadn't Coriolanus promised me no one would believe me when I told them?
"Not even your beloved Peeta. Not even your darling sister." The one specific person he had not promised would disbelieve me... to my supreme relief, reappeared on this second day of waiting.
Darius, accompanied by Rue, materialized in the hut, nearly startling Achates and I to death.
"Darius!" I cried out, without thinking. I could not help feeling that if I did not immediately pin him he'd sweep away just as quickly as he had the first time. He smiled a strained smile at me in return.
"Let me," said Rue, perching herself on the edge of my bed. I didn't complain as she moved her hands over the layers of bandages on my thigh – I was quite getting used to her healing – and I thanked her.
Darius paced the length of the hut.
"Prim went out to the market," I explained. "She'll be back soon, or I can send for her. She will be ecstatic to see you. I told her about before... when you came and gave me that object. I think she was disappointed as I to have not spoken to you." When he did not reply, I asked, "Where have you been?"
"The object," he said, turning to me, and I could see he had not heard a word I said. "Where is it now?"
"Hidden," I said. Carefully I layed Achates out on my bed and rose to my feet, heartily relieved to see that my leg was as good as new. Rue rose at my side, touching my arm softly, then promptly left.
I frowned after her.
"She has other things to do," Darius said, as if knowing my dismay, then moved on. "Hidden where?"
"The meadow?" he echoed, sounding entirely irritated. "Are you a fool?"
"Do you know what I did to get that!"
"Well, no, how could I if I have not seen you in months?" I retorted, affronted by his tone.
Darius opened his mouth to snap, saw my expression, then sighed. "Show me where it is."
What? No 'Hello, Katniss, I've been gone for about forever, I missed you'? Not even a 'Hi'?
"I don't know where," I said, the words slow. "Prim hid it. I have been stuck here, injured."
"And I have healed you," he said, moving for the door. "You're welcome."
I started to follow after him, remembered my son and turned back to pick Achates up, before racing outside to catch up with Darius – though it's not that hard since he's limping his way to the market.
"What's wrong with you?" I demanded at a hiss, conscious of the normal Panbank traffic around us.
"What do you mean?" he asked, not paying me any true attention, scoping the crowd for Prim.
The complete rudeness of your behavior? "Where have you been?" I said instead.
"Damn it, Darius," I said, stepping in front of him. As I clutched Achates to my chest, I forced him to meet my eyes; his were the false green of his disguise of Dario. Somehow this upset me. "Where?"
"I have killed Asterion," he informed me and I blinked in surprise. "Where, does not matter."
"I... I merely asked you find him..."
"Finding him wasn't enough."
"Clearly," I muttered, my brow furrowing. "But... how.."
"Not easily. And it doesn't matter how. He'll be back soon enough. He's worked his own magic there."
"So... he's not really dead?"
"No," said Darius, dread clear in his face. "He will be back soon. He will be looking for 'that object'."
"Why give it to me? Back there, on the horse?" I asked, and Darius stepped around me starting to walk.
He called back to me as I hurried to keep up, "I had to lose some... things on my trail."
"Does it matter?" he asked, exasperated. When I was about to argue, he spotted Prim. "Ah, Prim!"
I grabbed at his arm before he could meet with her. "Tell me, do you know Coriolanus' doings?"
He turned his head to me. "I only know that Asterion is up to something, and I must keep 'the object' as far from him as possible. I do not know anymore than that I am doing it for you. What do you know?"
I hesitated. "No one will believe you."
"Coriolanus is free," I said.
Darius pursed his lips. "I have guessed that, yes. Do you know how?"
Yes. "He had Asterion working for him."
"I guessed that as well."
Again, I don't immediately respond. My words come out as a question.
"Is it the knife?" I asked. "Is the object the knife Asterion used to kill Seeder?"
Darius gave a cautious nod. "I can sense an enchantment in it. I do not know who made it. Not I."
I jumped at the opening. Darius will believe me! He has to!
"The enchantment!" I said, stumbling over my words. "It – I know – Coriolanus made –"
Before I could put together all the proper words to form a sentence, Prim appeared, grinning broadly.
"Darius!" She threw herself at Darius, right into his chest, and he laughed breathlessly.
"Hello, little duck," he said and I felt my mouth shut, disappointment heavy on my limbs.
Once Prim and Darius' enthusiastic reunion was over – Katniss felt a little envious that she got that, where all she got was nothing but spite and bitterness from him – Prim led them toward the meadow.
"Where's Peeta?" she asked as they crossed through the long grass. "He let you out?"
"No," Katniss confessed. "He is with Clove, preparing the dancers. The ceremony for their godwell is soon." Very soon. As in days away, soon. "He does not know I was healed as of yet. Rue did it."
"Did she heal Gale and Madge, too?" asked Prim.
"She did," Darius said, as Katniss opened my mouth to say 'no'.
"She did?" echoed Katniss. "Really?"
Darius shrugged. "Figured that if you had to come up with an explanation for your own miraculous healing, might as well come up with one for all three. Plus, they helped you out. They deserve it."
"How do you know they helped me?"
"I saw them."
"You saw?" Katniss sputtered. "You saw and heard me praying, but didn't come?"
"You prayed for me?" Darius asked, lips quirking. It was the first his old teasing peeked out and Katniss forgot her momentary outrage, before flushing – he made it sound like it was something..
"Well, it didn't do me any good, did it?" Katniss said. "But you did see, didn't you?"
"I saw only you escaping the camp with them. I had tapped out after that. I didn't know the tribal men were upon you until after it was over."
"'Tapped out'..." Katniss narrowed her eyes. "So you can just check on us all you want, whenever?"
"You do realize we can't do that, and we've been here, unknowing for..."
He shrugged again.
Before she could lose her temper, Prim pointed to the ash tree. "There!" She went forward, pulled the silk-wrapped knife and crossed back to the two. She momentarily did not know who to hand it to.
Undecided, she simply moved it forward in a 'here' motion, between the two.
Katniss nearly fell over with how fast she jumped away. "Are you crazy!" she exclaimed.
Darius and Prim rose their eyebrows in a way that simply suggested Katniss was the crazy one.
"I meant no harm," Prim said, as Darius pulled the knife from the silk.
"She didn't," Darius confirmed, examining the blade in the sunlight.
Katniss reached a hand out and rested it over his, easing the blade into her own grasp. She sent him an uneasy look, before stepping a purposeful few paces back. "Neither of you should be near this thing."
"Why do you say that?"
Katniss didn't reply. In her hands she turned the knife about. It was the same curious knife she'd seen at Seeder's murder, Asterion's weapon, as Darius said it was; with a handle of twisted bones. Cursed.
"Coriolanus made this," she murmured, and lifted her head. Doubt clouded her expression.
"And?" Prim pressed.
"It is enchanted... it is a very special knife that can kill a god without all the minor details. Power sources will merely be cut off to that god. God wells will be meaningless against that knife."
"A knife that can kill an immortal god?" Darius mused.
They stared at her for a long time, contemplating her words. What they could mean.
"What happens to the power sources and god wells that were that gods?" Darius asked.
"They will be given the the knife's owner," Katniss murmured. "To Coriolanus." She raised her head again, anguished. "Seeder's everything shifted to him. Her realm is his. I... am his, the power source."
Prim's face wrinkled in dismay and thought.
Darius on the other hand frowned. "That's why he tried to kill me, Asterion. If he'd have killed me, he would have given Coriolanus all that I am – my god well. That would have been much power..."
"A lot more than he has right now. With Seeder's power Coriolanus has managed to break away from being banished," Katniss agreed. "But with yours, he might have been able to do his dirty work himself. Asterion is his hunter for the time being." – He will hunt. He will hunt for you, Katniss. – "With this knife he can..." Will they believe me? She became doubtful again and sighed.
Prim asked, "How could he get out of banishment? I mean, with Seeder's weak power, yes, but–"
"He's been left unattended. There is no Zeus to trap him. Thresh has left many of Zeus' prisoners thus."
Katniss didn't look surprised by Darius' explanation whereas Prim became appalled.
"Then you must tell him to attended to the prisoners! They are dangerous!" she exclaimed.
"Thresh doesn't care. He will not hear me. He will not hear you. He has his eyes on bigger problems."
"Tell him of the knife and he will listen," Prim insisted. "He can't ignore something like that!"
"He'll laugh at us," Katniss said. "No one will believe a knife like this exists." They won't want to.
"But..." Prim was lost. "But why kill Seeder?"
"She is the weakest. Best to get the weak, first.
"First? Who next? Me?" Prim grabbed frightfully at Katniss' arm. "Peeta? Clove?"
"You all are the only Enlightened still without your god wells," said Darius.
Katniss tucked the knife into her robe and hardened her face, and turned to the two. "No one is next," she said. "We have his knife now. I have it, and he can't hurt me. I am his power source. To kill me would kill him." It is why he sent the lion. "He is stuck now. His plans are ruined so long as I have it."
"What plans?" Darius wondered.
"Doesn't matter," Katniss said, dismissively. "I won't allow it. I won't allow him to come here."
"Panem?" Prim asked. "He wants to come to Panem? Why!"
"To get his bands back," Katniss said, as if it were obvious. "Clove has them. They have his power in them still, and once he's with them again, he will be what he once was.. and if he gets the knife..."
"He can be what all the gods are," Darius said, his eyes widening in realization. "If he kills them."
"What? No one can hold that much power!" Prim objected.
"No one will," Katniss insisted, patting the knife in her robe. "So long as I have this."