"Not even a little damp. They must have drained it while we slept," I say. A fear of the cracked tongue, aching body and fuzzy mind brought on by my previous dehydration creeps into my consciousness. Our bottles and skin are fairly full, but with two drinking and this hot sun it won't take long to deplete them.
"The lake," says Peeta. "That's where they want us to go."
"Maybe the ponds still have some," I say hopefully.
"We can check," he says, but he's just humoring me. I'm humoring myself because I know what I'll find when we return to the pond where I soaked my leg. A dusty, gaping mouth of a hole. But we make the trip anyway just to confirm what we already know.
"You're right. They're driving us to the lake," I say. Where there's no cover. Where they're guaranteed a bloody fight to the death with nothing to block their view. "Do you want to go straightaway or wait until the water's tapped out?"
"Let's go now, while we've had food and rest. Let's just go end this thing," he says.
I nod. It's funny. I feel almost as if it's the first day of the Games again. That I'm in the same position. Twenty-one tributes are dead, but I still have yet to kill Cato. And really, wasn't he always the one to kill? Now it seems the other tributes were just minor obstacles, distractions, keeping us from the real battle of the Games. Cato and me.
But no, there's the boy waiting beside me. I feel his arms wrap around me.
"Two against one. Should be a piece of cake," he says.
"Next time we eat, it will be in the Capitol," I answer.
"You bet it will," he says.
We stand there a while, locked in an embrace, feeling each other, the sunlight, the rustle of the leaves at our feet. Then without a word, we break apart and head for the lake.
I don't care now that Peeta's footfalls send rodents scurrying, make birds take wing. We have to fight Cato and I'd just as soon do it here as on the plain. But I doubt I'll have that choice. If the Gamemakers want us in the open, then in the open we will be.
We stop to rest for a few moments under the tree where the Careers trapped me. The husk of the tracker jacker nest, beaten to a pulp by the heavy rains and dried in the burning sun, confirms the location. I touch it with the tip of my boot, and it dissolves into dust that is quickly carried off by the breeze. I can't help looking up in the tree where Rue secretly perched, waiting to save my life. Tracker jackers. Glimmer's bloated body. The terrifying hallucinations.
"Let's move on," I say, wanting to escape the darkness that surrounds this place. Peeta doesn't object.
Given our late start to the day, when we reach the plain it's already early evening. There's no sign of Cato. No sign of anything except the gold Cornucopia glowing in the slanting sun rays. Just in case Cato decided to pull a Foxface on us, we circle the Cornucopia to make sure it's empty. Then obediently, as if following instructions, we cross to the lake and fill our water containers.
I frown at the shrinking sun. "We don't want to fight him after dark. There's only the one pair of glasses."
Peeta carefully squeezes drops of iodine into the water. "Maybe that's what he's waiting for. What do you want to do? Go back to the cave?"
"Either that or find a tree. But let's give him another half an hour or so. Then we'll take cover," I answer.
We sit by the lake, in full sight. There's no point in hiding now. In the trees at the edge of the plain, I can see the mockingjays flitting about. Bouncing melodies back and forth between them like brightly colored balls. I open my mouth and sing out Rue's four-note run. I can feel them pause curiously at the sound of my voice, listening for more. I repeat the notes in the silence. First one mockingjay trills the tune back, then another. Then the whole world comes alive with the sound.
"Just like your father," says Peeta.
My fingers find the pin on my shirt. "That's Rue's song," I say. "I think they remember it."
The music swells and I recognize the brilliance of it. As the notes overlap, they compliment one another, forming a lovely, unearthly harmony. It was this sound then, thanks to Rue, that sent the orchard workers of District 11 home each night. Does someone start it at quitting time, I wonder, now that she is dead?
For a while, I just close my eyes and listen, mesmerized by the beauty of the song. Then something begins to disrupt the music. Runs cut off in jagged, imperfect lines. Dissonant notes intersperse with the melody. The mockingjays' voices rise up in a shrieking cry of alarm.
We're on our feet, Peeta wielding his knife, me poised to shoot, when Cato smashes through the trees and bears down on us. He has no spear. In fact, his hands are empty, yet he runs straight for us. My first arrow hits his chest and inexplicably falls aside.
"He's got some kind of body armor!" I shout to Peeta.
Just in time, too, because Cato is upon us. I brace myself, but he rockets right between us with no attempt to check his speed. I can tell from his panting, the sweat pouring off his purplish face, that he's been running hard a long time. Not toward us. From something. But what?
My eyes scan the woods just in time to see the first creature leap onto the plain. As I'm turning away, I see another half dozen join it. Then I am stumbling blindly after Cato with no thought of anything but to save myself.
Muttations. No question about it. I've never seen these mutts, but they're no natural-born animals. They resemble huge wolves, but what wolf lands and then balances easily on its hind legs? What wolf waves the rest of the pack forward with its front paw as though it had a wrist? These things I can see at a distance. Up close, I'm sure their more menacing attributes will be revealed.
Cato has made a beeline for the Cornucopia, and without question I follow him. If he thinks it's the safest place, who am I to argue? Besides, even if I could make it to the trees, it would be impossible for Peeta to outrun them on that leg - Peeta! My hands have just landed on the metal at the pointed tail of the Cornucopia when I remember I'm part of a team. He's about fifteen yards behind me, hobbling as fast as he can, but the mutts are closing in on him fast. I send an arrow into the pack and one goes down, but there are plenty to take its place.
Peeta's waving me up the horn, "Go, Katniss! Go!"
He's right. I can't protect either of us on the ground. I start climbing, scaling the Cornucopia on my hands and feet. The pure gold surface has been designed to resemble the woven horn that we fill at harvest, so there are little ridges and seams to get a decent hold on. But after a day in the arena sun, the metal feels hot enough to blister my hands.