We made eye contact. He didn't break it. This will be my end.
This morning our village was simple, quiet. The occasional caw of a crow and the break of dawn barely seeping through the seams of the land marked any usual day. But now our peaceful state has been interrupted by a surprise visit that came marching through on horse and carriage.
There they are: the Snow's. They parade through our town like predators, matching each of our loathsome stares with equal verve and surrounded by knights. We all stand at attention in front of our houses, almost as if we are guarding them.
No warning, no call from the herald, nothing – they just came. But the terror they brought along was just as fresh.
There they sit – Coriolanus, Alma, Peeta, Cato – in their robes of satin and lace and selfishness and cruelty.
The Royal Family rolls down the dirt path toward their castle located on the far left corner of the kingdom walls, tucked away behind the miles and miles of starving villagers and grimy roads, away from their responsibilities. They seem to be going extra slow, as if taking time to scan through every inch of the crowd. The air is so silent, it seems stale.
I tighten the clutch I have of Gale's hand, afraid that one of the soldiers accompanying the carriage might decide to attack. It's not like it hasn't happened before. I itch for my bow, longing for the chance to plunge an arrow straight through King Coriolanus' heart. Or head, either one would suffice. Gale responds with more force on his part, practically choking my fingers. The pain is almost reassuring if it weren't for the danger that rolls in front of me.
"It'll be fine," he whispers, barely audible. "Just think of snares."
Snares. Something that will keep my mind from this. Something to distract me.
But it doesn't work. To my right, my younger sister, Prim, is shaking like a leaf. Her beautiful blonde hair is caked in dirt from lack of washing lately (if we were warned about the Roayal Family's appearance in advanced, the we would have made ourselves more presentable along with the rest of the kingdom). But even in her gritty state she is gorgeous. Looking down at my own dark hair and muddy finger, I almost feel self conscious in front of such a high-standing family, but that quickly vanishes when I remember what they did to my father, to Gale's father, to all of us. I stand proud of my gritty, 16-year-old state.
When I look up, that's when it happens: I make eye contact with him. His eyes are a deadly blue, almost as blue as Prim's; his hair as bright as the sun.
Prince Peeta Mellark Snow.
I hold his stare for too long, realized too late the danger of my action. Quickly I avert it to the back of the head of the man in front of me, careful not to look back. I just pray no one saw it, or that he doesn't come back and demand my beheading for daring to connect gazes with the "Merciful Prince of Panem".
It takes only a few minutes for the carriage to haul the him and his family away, and judging by how no one has come to chop off my limbs of skewer me on the spot, I assume he didn't think anything our "exchange", if you could call it that. As soon as they are out of sight, the whole village seems to lose some tension, although some of it still lingers, the threat of death still fresh in the mid-morning air. The chatter starts up not long after
Gale turns to me. "Are you alright?" he asks.
"Yes." I nod, letting out a breath I hadn't realized I had been holding. "Let's get Prim inside."
We usher Prim backwards through our door and check on my mother. Luckily, the soldiers didn't decide to make house-rounds this visit or we would have had to watch Mother be dragged from comfort of her sheets and into the road, executed. It wouldn't have hurt me as much as much as it would have destroyed Prim, considering she's the one who left the burden of our mouths to me after falling into her psychotic state caused by my father's death in the battle field.
Prim would have helped with our scarcity of food, but I resisted her insistencies. She's far too fragile for the woods.
Gale and I had just been getting ready to head out for today's hunt, getting a late start, when the Family arrived. He stands in the corner of our two-room shack of a house as I throw on my tunic, boots and belt, not bothering to be modest in front of my best friend. We head out, weaving our way through the still-thriving heat of the crowd, toward the small opening in the Kingdom's wall that allows us freedom into the forest. As we make our way there, I catch bits of peoples' conversations.
"…battle in Coversell…"
"They went to negotiate…"
"…scared the living shit outta me!"
Yes, Coversell would be the one to start a riot. And thank God they did. Maybe this time they might be able to conjure up a rebellion from our villagers. They've tried before, sending in people to rile up our town with hopes of turning us into rebels. We pushed them away out of fear, knowing the consequences of a revolution (such big talk). In response, King Coriolanus and his advisors drafted one man from every household to go and attack Coversell's territory.
That's how I met Gale – we were the only ones willing to revolt. That's also how my father died. But that was four years ago, and I have more important thing to do than dwell on the lost, the past, as does Gale. Like feed a family.
Gale slips through the broken hole in the wall and I soon follow, into the freedom of the forest.
We hunt until late into the afternoon, not really making much talk. I guess we are both still a little frilled from the surprise visit earlier. We don't talk much until we are sitting at our secret spot in the nook of an old rock, splitting up game. From this position you can see the whole valley: the rise and fall of the mountains, the gentle slopes of hills, the shimmering shyness of that of the lake, the roaring, calming rush of the creek. It truly is gorgeous.
"How are you not dead?" He asks out of nowhere. I stare at him, confused.
"Catnip, someone can't simply make eye contact with a royal and not get beheaded in the process, especially not someone like you."
So he noticed. He's right, ofcourse, that you don't make eye contact. My friend Thresh was speared through the chest for such stupidity. I hadn't really thought much of what happened earlier, deciding to just ignore it and thank the Lord for my limbs still being intact. Just assumed no one had noticed and that Prince Peeta Mellark Snow had simply taken what I thought to be certain death as a casual passing of eyes.
So I get defensive. "What do you mean exactly, 'Someone like me'?" I ask, making my surprise clear in my voice.
"Come on, Catnip," Gale compromises, bringing out his nickname for me, "I mean, your ever-present scowl doesn't exactly make you look like a loyal subject, especially to the Family."
He's right. My disgust for the capitol Family of Panem is crystal on my face. Usually I do so well at hiding my emotions, but I guess this one is so strong it breaks the barrier.
"It will be fine, Gale," I reassure him, "I'd be dead by now if he took it as treason."
He nods, dropping the subject. We split the game evenly, but I insist on him taking a bit more considering he has two more hungry mouths at home than I do. Honestly, I have no idea what I would do if I didn't have Gale. We rely on each other, a mutual bond that only we truly understand. Both of us hunt, trade and survive with the other, creating a trust almost impossible to break. At the market, some girls have the courage to approach him and some even flirt, while the others sit back and just admire from a far. It's because of his looks, no doubt. Most of the time I stubble across him and one of those frills doing more than just kissing behind the blacksmith's building. He has a face that could make even Queen Coin swoon if given the chance, but I've never thought of him like that, and he certainly doesn't really give a damn to those girls in the village.
It makes me jealous to think he spends precious time wasting with those average village whores, but not for the reason you would think. It's hard to find a good hunting partner, especially since we're the only ones brave enough to do it in the first place.
We make our way to the Hob, a trading center in an old abandoned mill at the rim of the walls, and trade with a few costumers. They take in about half of our haul in exchange for necessities, and we even pick up new cloth for Prim and Gale's mother, Hazel.
On our way back from the run down Hob, Gale surprises me by suddenly grabbing my hand. I give him a suspicious look, but he avoids my gaze by looking around, checking to see if anyone is around, clearing his throat, and whisking me off the path and behind a nearby house.
Confused by our sudden change in direction, speak up, "What are we doing, it's getting dark." And it is; the sky already a faint navy color. He rests his back against the house's wall and lets out a long, slow breath. The look in his eyes is serious, determined, and a little bit scary.
"Katniss," He says, using my real name. This must be important. He's still holding my hand. "I… I need to tell you something."
"It's about Coversell." Gale looks exhausted, like whatever he's going to tell me is a burden. "They – their soldiers – they came to me. Well, not to me, per se, but I found them. They were wandering outside the Wall a few months ago and I stumbled across their camp."
Coversell? Camp? He's still holding my hand.
"It's amazing, Catnip, their camp. They're just far enough to where the soldiers don't bother to search, but just close enough so they can send in people to the market for supplies. And it's not small – "
I stop him. "Wait. Camp? There are Coversell soldiers staying outside Panem?" I'm breathing heavily now.
"Katniss, they are looking for supporters. For people to help them. We could do it. They want inside ears and eyes to join their rebellion. A rebellion! You and me, we could help. They're trying to take down the Family's rule. Just think, we could finally be free of them, hunt without the threat of death hanging over our heads," He tells me with such enthusiasm, like a little boy who just won his first fight, his steely grey irises beaming with anticipation. We have the same eyes, but I'm sure mine are the complete opposite at this moment.
Mine are sure to be filled with fear.
"Gale, what did you do?" I demand of him. I know what he did, but I need him to tell me. My tone slowly diminishes his up-beat attitude (which is a rare with him).
There is a long pause, long enough to where the candle lights in the surrounding shacks start to flicker away, but he eventually answers.
"I told them I'd join."
I don't register what happens next until the sting in my hand begins to numb and I see Gale hold his face, crouched over the ground in shock and pain. He's let go of my hand, now using it to soothe his cheek. He cranes his head up, looking at me, as he spits on his hand and rubs it on his new wound. I see that I have made an angry red hand print there.
The darkening dusk cannot hide the anger settling in his eyes, although he looks as if he almost expected the wrath of my palm.
I've never hit him before, or he me, but I don't instantly regret it. He's my best friend, but he has no idea the danger of his actions. We're too much alike, our ready-fire-aim persona being identical, but this thing he's suggesting… this is nothing like we've done before. This is practically suicide
"I deserved that," he says monotonously, like it is a fact.
"Gale, you will get yourself killed. If anyone ever found out – "
"You think I care about that, Catnip?"
"Well I don't," He states, "I am helping a cause that could change my life, all of our lives! And I need you to be, too. Think of Prim!"
"Don't bring her into this." I grit through my teeth. "You are making a mistake. And taking a huge risk. If you die, what will happen to your family? Huh? I can't feed all of them, Gale."
This makes him pause, but he sticks with his stubbornness, although his overall expression softens a little. "My family will be fine, and as will yours. Please, Katniss, think of our fathers."
There is yet another anxious pause, Gale waiting for my response.
"I never want to hear anything of this again." I reply, but keep my eyes trained on the ground, unable to face the disappointment that is sure to be in his eyes.
I walk away before he can try to convince me any further.
The sack on my back bumps into my spine as I hurry my way home. Not far now, and the path I follow is as familiar as the air I breathe. I take turns without thinking and step over rocks without consult.
My conversation with Gale still hangs in my mind like a vice, and I can't help but second, guess, my decision. What-if's rack my brain, along with the idea that Gale might have already taken out his disappointment in my choice with some average whore-house girl from the market, but I push them aside, determined to get home and give Prim the new cloth I traded for at the Hob. The image of her giddy face is enough to walk me past the last dirt path separating me from my home and through my front door.
But I am not greeted by my sister's excited face, or my mother's blank stare.
Instead I drop my game-bag to three soldiers pointing a knife to my sister's chest.
"Katniss Everdeen," The middle soldier says. I nod, petrified. "You are here by summoned by the Royal Family. His grace Prince Peeta Mellark Snow is demand your presence."
We made eye contact. He didn't break it. This will be my end.