Sunlight, too much sunlight. Why is it so bright? I just want to sleep a few more minutes. I reach for my pillow to block out the light and gain a new puncture in my hand in return. At least the sudden prick wakes me up and reminds me where I am.
The birds are singing overhead, once again there's not a single cloud in the sky, and as always the world is green, green, green. Breakfast is another handful of blackberries, though my body quickly reminds me that it needs more than a fist-full of fruit soon. The sudden change to my diet this last week, as well as the lack of food is clearly not appreciated by my insides, but there's not a whole lot I can do. I'll need at least another day of rest before I have the strength to move on in search for my stashed supplies.
The swelling around my ankle is less today, though it still aches when I move it and twinges sharply when I try to put weight on it. Again, there is little I can do. The first-aid trainer only really talked about cleaning and bandaging wounds, and about sunburn and insect bites and stings. Nothing useful there. Tereza, our medical expert back home, though she never had any formal training I heard of, would probably know what to do to make it better. But she's no more here than my family.
Balia. It's something to distract myself, and I know it will make her happy, so I draw a circle on the grass with one of my thorns, then poke in thirteen more, standing upright like candles on the cakes only factory overseers could afford. Underneath I write Happy Birthday Balia in big, wide letters so that the camera will have no trouble picking it up.
Twenty minutes later a silver parachute drifts down, bearing a single tiny bread square. It lasts only one bite, but it's from home and I'm betting that it's not the result of any Capitol sponsorship. I don't have to force a smile as I look at the sky and say "Thank you."
Thank you District Three for this. I won't let you down now. Not when I am so close. And I'll repay it twelve times over next year. But first I must rest and plan. Stripping creepers and gathering branches, simple tasks that don't require me to stand. Straight lengths of wood, a foot long that I hack free from the hedge and attach to my trip-lines. A longer piece, slightly crooked but sturdy that I wrestle free and trim the off-shoots from for a walking stick.
I sing as I work, sing because it reminds me of home and because my opponents are so far away that they won't hear me. Sing because it keeps away those cold thoughts even when I'm preparing my weapons, because it reminds me of what I'm fighting for. And right now Balia, mother and even little Malcy might be singing along.
I don't really know that many songs, and a good number that I do are little more than children's rhymes my mother and her mother taught us to keep us occupied when we were young.
"Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle the cow jumped over the moon."
"See the little dog, see the dog run. Little dog little dog, home to District One."
"Around and round the mulberry bush the monkey chased the weasel."
Nonsense rhymes, but comforting and familiar.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me."
Grandma's old favourite, I sing it well enough, though not as well as my sister.
"I once was lost, but now I am found. Was blind but now I see."
Well lost is fairly accurate right now, and once I'm well enough recovered I'll find my way again. For some reason I still can't remember the second verse, though the third seems oddly appropriate.
"Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come."
Well, they've been more my snares and toils that caused others dangers, though I've had my share as well. I face the sky as I finish the verse, holding up the ring around my neck as I sing straight to my family.
"Tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home."
Home. How I long for the cool concrete walls, the whir of machinery, the clatter of the workshop. A pen or a screwdriver in my hand instead of this knife, paper or my current project spread in front of me instead of creepers and stakes. These are how I will get there. Whatever it takes, I can do it. Somehow.
I feel like I should be crying, but I'm not. Not enough water for my body to waste it maybe. Or maybe I'm becoming that cold voice in my head, a monster of the Games. But I haven't killed yet, and maybe I won't have to. Maybe I can come out of this relatively unbloodied. I've already had Felton's blood on my hands, and some of Francis's on my traps. I don't much care for it.
I stop singing and keep working as the sun passes overhead.
I eat the last of my blackberries as day seven in the Arena ends. Lying back on the soft grass, my foot resting on a thicker branch six inches from the ground I wait for the sun to set and tell myself not to drink the last of the water.
My iodine bottle must have come unscrewed while I ran, leaving just a few drops that I used for this fill, so I will need to track down my supply pack tomorrow for water as well as food. I bundle up my creepers, thorns and stakes in the mesh, easy to carry slung over my shoulder despite my leg. The walking stick will help with that as well, and I feel more comfortable with it than the knife if I need to defend myself. Though I'm fairly sure the other tributes are far enough away that I won't run in to them. Then I remember the Careers talking about giant spider muttations, and the screams that echoed from this area immediately prior to Tobias's death and shudder.
Running into the four Careers or little Sparrow, assuming the two deaths last night were who I thought, would be better than being eaten alive by some monster. I'm fairly confident about my guess, and when the anthem plays it's Aleksander and Anton's faces in the sky. Big, quiet Aleksander who nodded to his younger brother during the reaping. Little, cheerful Anton, joking with Caesar about getting to stay up past his bed-time. They didn't deserve to die, but I'm glad I don't have to kill them.
They almost definitely re-encountered the Career pack, who will surely reach breaking point soon. I wouldn't be surprised to wake tomorrow morning to the boom of cannons. And what about little Sparrow? Is he hiding like me? He must have been up to something or the Gamemakers would have chased him into the action by now. Maybe that's what they're doing right now. It would be a good way to force the Careers to split, especially if he gets away to strike again later.
I'm too tired to think any more, though I've been sitting nearly all day. The hunger, the thirst, the constant lingering fear of attack takes its toll though. I don't like being so tired that my brain isn't working, but once I find my food and other supplies tomorrow it will be better. It will. It has to. It….
Daylight again. I force myself to stand and start moving before something else forces me, aiming west, always west back towards the centre of the maze. Eventually I'll reach that wider path, and once I do it won't be far to where I dumped the pack. It will also put me back closer to the action, hopefully close enough that the Gamemakers won't try to push me.
It's not long before I hear the cannon fire; I was expecting it after all. Just the one, so either they caught Sparrow or the pack has split. I wait for another one, but it doesn't come. If it's the Careers, then it's probably Jasper. The other three didn't seem to like him much, and I'm sure they all recognised how much of a threat he is. Then again District Four might have split off together, leaving One and Two to fight. Halifax was wounded, and for all his menacing size he did score lower. No, I can hope it's Jasper, but I can't be sure until tonight. Once again I can't help but think one more down. One less person whose blood might end up staining my hands, though I suspect if I come out of this alive I will feel responsible for them all.
Hobbling along with the aid of my stick, I make better time than I expected. I guess I must be nearing the centre regions of the maze when I hear a rustling behind me. It's too small to be another tribute, or even a moderately sized animal. Birds, possibly. They've been harmless enough so far, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will stay that way. I pick up the pace, glancing behind more than ahead, which is why I don't notice the change in the hedge at first. The mid-green core is still there, wreathed as always in the thorny creeper, but now there is a darker hue more prominent as well. And dotted amongst these darker leaves are small white flowers, no bigger than the size of my still-painted thumbnail. More and more of them with each step forwards, and getting lower and lower down the hedge so that they are now level with my eyes.
I don't remember them from training, which means they are neither edible nor deadly poison. But the trainer didn't cover in-between. As my brain processes this thought I notice how sweet the air around me is, sweet like the cinnamon cake we had for dessert one night in the training centre, and somehow I instinctively know they are dangerous.
I turn to run, but my leg gives way. My left leg this time. Then my right spasms uncontrollably and I topple face-first into a cluster of white. Coughing and spitting, I accidentally gasp a full breath of the too-sweet perfume and end up on the ground, my arm now twitching outside of my control. I can still feel pain though, I discover when my knee collides with a gnarly branch.
Desperately I try to crawl away to safety, but my other arm gives out too. I manage to roll onto my back before the rest of my muscles seize and suddenly I am left helpless, defenceless. Completely paralyzed.
My mind is still working though, and I realise this has to be an effect from inhaling the scent of the flowers. There are no flowers this low, so eventually it should work its way out of my body and I'll be able to escape. As long as nothing finds me while I lie here.
I try to clamp down on the panic that comes with immobilization as the time passes. After five minutes I'm sweating; after twenty I start hyperventilating, though I calm slightly when I realise I can still breathe properly. An hour passes, then another. I feel my already peeling skin burn as the sun passes overhead, but it won't kill me. Not straight away.
The thought of staying like this for days send my mind reeling through another bout of panic, but surely they won't do that. It would be so boring at this stage of the game. Unless there is no cure. Maybe I'm stuck like this until someone or something finds me and finishes me off. I already know the paralysis doesn't prevent pain, and I really really don't want to be eaten alive.
I must pass out for a time, my body calming my run-away thoughts the only way it can, because the next thing I know the sky is dark and there are tiny points of light starting to flicker far above. Then I notice the fiery pain behind my right knee, sudden and sharp, like touching hot metal. Another burn from my lower back. Then my stomach, my scratched ear, my lip.
I notice the tickle across my cheek just prior to the next burn, the small black segmented body that trundles up the side of my nose and past my eye, maybe an inch in length, though I feel its bite near my eyebrow.
It seems that whatever has paralysed my body hasn't stopped my vocal cords from working either, and when the fire suddenly intensifies and sweeps up my other leg I scream loud and long. The pain is so much worse because I can't move. Can't crawl away, can't swat the black insects that are all over me, can't even writhe.
How long will it take for them to kill me? Surely this isn't what the audience wants. Belatedly I remember the long-lasting screams I heard from this area a few days ago that marked Tobias's end. Could this be what killed him? If so, then surely the watching Capitol doesn't want to see the same death repeated. And I don't want to die.
More fire now near my left elbow, where the swarm seems to be gathering. I can't focus my thoughts through the pain, but there has to be something I can do, some way out. I don't want the last memory my family has of me to be a screaming mess of writhing black. I don't want to be remembered in my district as the girl who escaped a pack of Careers only to be beaten by ants.
Beetee. Can't he do something? He's had all day to realise I can't move and if this is what killed Tobias then he surely knew it was coming. Unless he can't do anything to help. Maybe the cure is too expensive, or maybe it doesn't even exist. And if it does, I can't move anyway. How would I administer it?
Just as I've resigned myself to a horrible end a silvery shadow cuts across the stars above my head. A parachute, drifting, drifting so slowly to fall on my face. The small bottle strikes me on the cheek with enough force to bruise, though I barely notice it compared to the fire in my limbs, and the soft material envelopes my head and upper body.
A final gift from my mentor, covering my eyes so I don't have to see the swarming insects that will end my life. But then why include the bottle? For the weight perhaps? Surely he could have used something else for that. Maybe he hoped I'd somehow overcome the paralysis by force of will. Maybe the bottle contains some sort of repellent and was supposed to break or tip on landing and chase away the ants.
I suck another agonised breath as the fire reaches my back and nearly choke on the foul cloying smell of the parachute over my face. What sort of material smells so awful? Is it soaked in some sort of poison to kill me faster?
Or is it soaked in something else?
Forcing down the nausea I suck in another deep breath of the rancid material, and another. The fingers on my right hand twitch. Two more breaths and I can clench my hand, nearly make a fist.
It's slow, so slow, but after another minute there is a bite on my neck and my head jerks in response. I can move! Screaming from elation as much as pain I fling my right arm across my body and feel the scurrying of insects as they flee. Using that arm to push myself over, I hear the satisfying crackle of carapaced bodies being crushed. On my front I can try crawling, though only my right arm and shoulder are functioning. After five yards the other arm begins freeing up and I painfully drag myself free of the ant swarm. They don't follow.
By the time my legs gain the first vestiges of movement I realise the parachute no longer smells and I drag it off my head. The little bottle is only half-full, and when I open it the same nauseating stench washes out over my hands. Fingers shaking, I pour some more over a small patch of cloth and hold it directly over my mouth and nose. The smell makes me gag, but the muscles in my legs unclench immediately.
My whole body still feels on fire from the bites, and when I force myself to look I see the exposed skin at my ankles and wrists is covered in lumps. Their poison may kill me yet, but for now I survive. I don't even try to stand. I know my legs won't hold me, and crawling will get me where I need to go eventually. It takes me several minutes to realise I am going the wrong way. Or the right way, depending on how you look at it.
Judging by the moon's position I'm heading towards the centre of the maze, into the unknown dangers of the rest of this path. But if I go back I have to face the flowers and ants again, and then find another way to the centre. Better to just keep going and hope that the dangers have passed.
After two hours of slow crawling and intermittent stops to vomit and lie shaking on the ground until some strength returns I reach the junction and nearly laugh. The wide path that this one meets at a T junction is well trampled and I immediately realise where I am. That very first day in the arena, that first hour fleeing the Cornucopia full of hope, I saw this path and decided it was dangerous. I was right.
That means my supply pack is only about a hundred yards and two turns away. Such a short distance only three days ago, it seems endless now. The sky is beginning to lighten by the time I reach the turning and I cry with joy when I find the pack still nestled in the hedge in one piece.
It takes several attempts to grip the zipper, and I force myself not to think about the possibility of permanent damage to my fine motor skills as I wrestle free a bottle of water, greedily drinking half of it before remembering I probably should conserve what I have. Something else rolls out as I tilt the pack back upright, something compact and soft. The first aid kit I crammed in the top.
It takes another wrestle in the near dark of pre-dawn to undo it, but there is a small spray-bottle that makes it all worth it. I've used it before, or something similar in the workshop after burning myself, but this is ten times better and I rub it into my red, cracked hands, neck and face, gasping at the sudden cool. It soothes the ant-bites too, and after I've coated myself twice the pain has dulled to a point where I might be able to sleep.
Praying that there's nothing here to eat me I curl up, using the soft pack as a pillow and let the exhaustion take me away.