FernWithy (fernwithy) wrote,

The Big Empty: Chapter Four

The kids have found a map that shows them an old road system. The roads themselves are mostly meadows in the forest, but it's possible to follow them. They start heading southwest.

Chapter Four
Two hours after we start down the road, we come across a deadfall from some recent storm -- an oak tree. Misty spots a long branch and insists on cutting it off. "Your bow," she says. "We should try it."

I'm not sure it will work, and I don't think I can figure out how to cure a hide to make into strings while we're on the move. I've done rawhide curing before, when I was helping a couple of older hunters, but it always took a few days of soaking, scraping off on a board, and drying on a rack. Gut string can be even trickier. It rots pretty quickly. So far, I've been forced to bury the pelts with the bones when I've killed, since we don't have a good way of curing them.

"It might not have to be as tough as rawhide," Misty says. "The real strain would be on the bow. We could use… maybe we could find something fibrous and spin it. Or… I don't know."

Duronda rolls her eyes. "Or you could use the twine that's tying together half the things in my pack. There might even be a roll of it in there. Not to spoil the whole living-off-the-land fantasy for you, but it seems easier."

I've never used a bow with something as flimsy as twine, but I guess it could work, as long as the bow's not strong enough to actually snap it after a couple of shots.

We sort through the pack again when we camp for the night, and there is a ball of twine. It's even pretty strong, and thin enough to nock an arrow on. Misty works on the bow for a while, making all sorts of measurements, testing the natural curve of the wood, and trying to judge its flexibility. She tells me to look for straight, strong sticks to turn into arrows.

"And maybe kill a bird. Then we could fletch them. Unless Duronda has feathers in her bag?"

"No feathers. The guys from Thirteen figured they'd be running with their guns."

"But no ammo?"

Duronda shrugs. "I guess they control that. Maybe they were planning to hand it out if there was an emergency."

"Doesn't seem like a very good plan," Misty says. "What if the emergency broke the command structure?"

Duronda snorts. "If that happened, they'd just stand around with their mouths open and wait for someone to shoot them."

We all laugh at this. It's probably not true -- Thirteen didn't end up in charge by being incompetent -- but it's too easy to imagine the Teachers panicking if they got separated from their orders. How would they know who needed a lesson?

We talk far into the night, while Misty tries different ways to get the bow to bend evenly. She has a pretty good eye for it. I've seen the older hunters (including my father) work on them, but I never asked them to teach me. What she's doing looks right, but it's hard to believe we'll end up with a working bow from what the three of us can scrape together and engineer. She's scraping wood from the belly of the bow to even things out, and by the time she wakes me up for my middle-of-the-night watch, she's got it bending pretty well. She makes me hold it out where the grip would be to test it, then goes in to sleep.

I pick up a few sticks and begin whittling them into arrow shafts. The easiest thing would be to just point the tips and nock the ends, but I'm sure Misty won't find that very impressive. Maybe I'll kill a bird and get some bone for arrowheads, along with the feathers.

We all work on the project as we move south and west along the greenway. For Misty, it's the challenge of figuring it out, and maybe a way of remembering her mother, who was an accomplished bow hunter before she went to war. For Duronda, it's as good a way to pass the time as any other, though she's always pretty sarcastic about the "great project." For me?

I don't know what it is for me. I've done bow-hunting, always with someone else's bow, but until now, it hasn't seemed very important. But we don't even argue about the fact that this is my bow. I'm the best shot, with the slingshot or the rifle. And it was my idea, before Misty started working on it. For the first time since I was unceremoniously shooed out of Pappy Angus's house, I feel like I'm starting to get some control over something.

The road seems to go on forever. Duronda reckons we're going about thirty miles a day, but it curves and swerves around the mountains so much that it's hard to figure how far that really is from where we started. I'm also not altogether sure about Duronda's reckoning. For one thing, I doubt we're going as fast as she thinks, with all the uphill climbs. For another, there's more than one place along the way that the road gives out to creeks and ditches that take forever to navigate.

I'm worried that we'll miss the other big road that's supposed to come in. Every now and then, we'll see something that I think is it, but when we figure the direction, it doesn't seem right. I try to picture the map in my head. The road will be much more westerly when we get there, then it will be a choice between going directly west -- it would be something like a big curve -- or southeast. We won't be able to keep going on the greenway we're traveling on now. Misty swears she saw a river that we'll have to cross right before we get there. I don't remember that, but Misty's usually right about things like that. I hope she is, anyway. It would be an easy marker.

We've been following the road for six days the first time we see the flicker of a distant campfire. On Duronda's insistence, we douse our own, and deal with a nighttime cold snap by huddling together under a blanket, and sleeping close to each other in the tent. This is the first time we've really had to huddle, and it leads to a couple of embarrassing moments, and one flatly dangerous one when I reach out in my sleep and put my hand on Duronda's breast. I'm afraid to go back to sleep after the whispered chewing out she gives me.

We speak softly and infrequently. Misty doubles down on finishing the bow. I've managed to finish and fletch six arrows, and I make a quiver for them by binding sticks into a kind of funnel shape. It doesn't look great, but I can get the arrows easily by reaching over my shoulder.

The day after we spot the campfire, we test the bow.

It's not going to win any beauty contests, and it's not the most powerful bow I've ever used, but it does shoot further and more accurately than the slingshots. I want to use it to hunt, but Duronda suggests saving the arrows. "We still don't know whose campfire that was," she says. "Let's hold the serious ammo, in case we need it."

We spot the campfire twice more, and once, the wind carries the sound of loud, raucous laughter. We continue huddling under the blanket and eating from cans to avoid notice. We walk in the trees that parallel the road, rather than in the meadow itself. For a while, this means we're actually downhill from it. It also seems to be precariously tipped.

"They must have built it up on stilts," Misty says. "It fell on its side sometime, but it's still there."

"Why would they put a road on stilts?" Duronda asks.

Misty looks around us. "Because… it was a city. There was a city, and the road kind of" -- she makes a fluttering motion with her hand -- "flew over it. I've seen pictures of roads like that."

I look around. I don't see anything that suggests a city to me.

Duronda frowns. "Why would the road skip a city? Shouldn't it go into a city?"

"Search me," Misty says. "Doesn't make a lick of sense. But that's the way it was."

"We should watch for ruins," I say. "Maybe we can find another map."

"Are you nuts?" Duronda asks. "We're just about on top of our friends. If there's a city, it's probably a pit stop. Let's not just go wandering in."

"There might be things to find," Misty starts.

"And there might be things to find us."

We reach the river close to sunset, and we decide to camp on this side of it before trying to pick up the new road in the morning.

"There's ruins," Duronda whispers, climbing down from a tree she's scouting from. "And sure enough, I picked out three campfires. All the same camp, by the look of it -- they're all close together, anyway."

"We should have a look," Misty says.

Duronda holds up her hands. "How many times…"

"That's just if we go sightseeing," Misty says. "If we know where they are, and they don't know we're here, then we can sneak up. Have a look and see who we're dealing with."

"You think it's the army?" I ask.

"It's possible," she says. "But I think they usually have big tree-cutters and cut roads with them. It could be…" She bites her lip. "Well, it could be people who've left the army. Which is what we're supposed to be looking for."

The idea of my father -- which hasn't really come forward for a long time -- pushes into my brain with a vengeance. If he's out there, he could have gathered other people. They could be trying to make their way home, using the same greenways we've found. It makes sense.

Duronda looks like she's about to argue, but instead, just shakes her head. "Fine. But not at night. They'll be keeping watches at night. Come daytime, everyone will think everyone else is watching."

This seems sensible enough, so we settle in for the night. No one feels much like talking.

In the morning, we pack up our camp and hide our presence, distributing our ever lighter collection of supplies among the three of us. I don't know about the girls, but I'm weirdly eager to spy out the camp. Whoever it is, they'll be people. I like Misty and Duronda, but my eyes are hungry for other faces.

We all climb the tree to have a look at the ruins. There isn't much to see. It looks like one major building -- pillars stand free, and something that looks like a dome lies on the ground nearby -- and a few minor ones. I can see a few straight lines that might have been city streets, and a collapsed structure or two. There are a few standing stones that might be statues. I want to look at them, but Duronda tells me not to risk it unless they end up right in our path.

We can also see horses running around in a free-form paddock, and tents set up on the green. Whatever this place is, it must be a semi-regular stop. I can see people moving around, but I can't really tell anything about them. Misty and Duronda say they can't see anyone.

We decide to stay together instead of fanning out. It might make us easier to spot, but it will definitely make it easier to run if we don't have to find a place to regroup.

We fade into the shadows as we move toward the town and the camp, signaling each other when we need to slow down or speed up. I don't know when, exactly, we picked up this sign language, but we don't have any problem understanding each other. The river is running along beside us, and the ground is curiously flat, though not quite as meadow-like as the road we've been following.

We nearly walk straight into the first statue. It's covered with vines and bird droppings, and there's no way to read whatever writing is on it, but I can tell that it's a man in a long coat, wearing a hat. There's something in his hand that might be a walking stick or a gun or a sword.

Duronda gestures at it sarcastically, as if to say, "There you have it. A statue."

I stand and look at it for a few seconds, even though it doesn't have much to tell me. This was built before the world fell apart, depicting someone long forgotten, doing something lost in the mists of time. But it's still standing here, after the city around it fell to the forest. I want it to say something, but it doesn't.

The horse paddock materializes out of the woods only a few yards beyond the statue.

It's obviously recent, and probably temporary, with wire strung up around stakes pounded crookedly into the ground. There are several horses here. I've only seen pictures of them from time to time on television, but they're easy to identify. Most of the ones on television are very shiny and clean, but these are mud-splattered, and their tales seem to be full of burdocks. They give off a strong smell that's only partly unpleasant.

I spot the boy watching them when we start to move around the perimeter, and I hold up my hand at the girls. We fade back.

The boy is probably Duronda's age, skinny, his face covered with pimples. He's wearing a strange assortment of clothes -- some look like they've been taken from Thirteen's supplies, others look like homespun that you can get in any district. He's also wearing knee-length trousers that were once bright purple, the kind of color he could only have gotten from the Capitol, and a floppy hat with fish hooks hanging from it.

When they make movies about out-district raiders, they all seem to be in long coats and wide brimmed hats, like it represents their non-district industry. But I know right away that this is the reality of it, that this is the way they'd have to dress -- things scrounged from wherever they could be stolen from.

Someone stomps through the woods, and the boy looks up, frightened, as an older man comes up from around the corner. He's dressed the same way as the boy, but he's carrying a rifle exactly like mine -- standard issue from District Thirteen. One eye is covered by a patch of ragged gold material, and there are angry red scars running down the cheek below it.

"What do you think this is?" he growls. "Nap time?"

"No, sir! I was watching the horses, like you said!"

"Your mind appears to be wandering. I think you need to pay closer attention. My mount has nearly broken through the fence!"

I frown. As with the clothing, there's a pretty standard way that raiders talk in the movies. It's coarse and harsh, and the words are simple -- almost, but not quite, pidgin. Generally, it's a lower way of talking than even district people have in the movies.

But this man, rough though he may look, has a nasal, sing-song accent that gives him away immediately: he's a Capitol man. The idea that the raiders could be from the Capitol itself is strange and jarring. I guess I never thought of them as being from anywhere. If anything, I thought they were like my mother's people, the merchants, back before they settled in Twelve -- nomadic caravans of tough people, born on the road to nowhere. But there's no way to mistake the accent. I've heard it a million times on television. Sometimes in school, they'd try to teach us to speak "properly." The man would have passed those classes with flying colors.

The boy wouldn't have. I don't recognize his accent, but it's not the Capitol and it's not Thirteen.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't see that it was low there. I don't think she wants to get out. She's just sniffing things out a little bit. I told you back when you… when you asked me to get them for you. They're real curious --"

"Don't you ever tell me, 'I told you so.'"

"I didn't mean to --"

"You've been nothing but hostile since you came to us. We took you in when we found you in that horse barn. We feed you. Who else was going to take care of you after the battle? There was no one left."

"I don't mean to be hostile!"

"Then you need to work on your communication. Practice now."

The boy fumbles for a moment, then lowers his head. "I'm real sorry, Trajan."

"Try again."

For a moment, his eyes flicker up, and I see flat hate in his face, even from a distance. Then he lowers his gaze again. "Beg forgiveness, Your Honor."

"Oh, I suppose that's close enough. You're fortunate that I'm in a good mood. Go back to camp and tell Verus what you've done." The man smiles unpleasantly.

The boy slinks off into the woods.

For all his concern about the horses, the man barely spares them a glance before he goes off, slugging something from a canteen on his hip.

I look back at the girls.

Misty is wide-eyed and disturbed.

Duronda signals us to go back. We go beyond the statue, up a little hill, out of earshot of the paddock.

"Okay," I whisper. "Not friendly. We need to get out of here."

Duronda shakes her head. "He was carrying the same rifle we've got."

"I know…"

"Bullets," she hisses. "Come on, Everdeen. We could get ammunition."

"It's a big risk," Misty says. "We've gotten by without it so far." She looks at me.

I bite my lip. "I don't know, Duronda…"

"It's not many shots until that thing's a real heavy club," she says.

"We have the bow now."

"But if we could have two of us armed with something decent…" She raises her eyebrows.

I hear myself say, "All right." I guess I must say it. I'm not sure that I care about the ammunition. My reason is worse: Seeing the boy and the man, my eyes are now starving to see more. I don't admit this. I wonder if the girls feel it, or would admit it if they did.

Whatever the reason, it makes two votes out of three, and I guess Misty's not all that much against it, because she doesn't hesitate. She's even the one to climb a tree and spy out the camp from a closer angle.

"They're mostly sheltering by the dome," she says when she comes down. "They've got one big tent that's probably supplies, and a bunch of little ones where they're camping. The supply tent's closer to the river, so we should just follow this side of the paddock. Stay in the trees."

We fall silent again as we walk along the uneven fence. I feel sewn in between the fence and the river, but the trees are relatively thick there. The camp area has been cleared a few times, and the trees are thinner. We come across the second statue just before we reach the supply tent. This one's a little cleaner. It shows a man in a long coat -- kind of like the ones the raiders wear in movies -- his head bent against the wind. His face is very weathered, but he seems to have a beard. The base is tangled in vines and also very weathered, but I can catch a few letters on it -- "BRAH," "LN W," and "IG," specifically. It means nothing to me, but there's something in the man's posture that I like. He's not strutting around like a Capitol twit or marching stiffly like a soldier from Thirteen. He looks like a miner coming home from a hard day at work, knowing that there are more problems waiting when he gets back.

He looks like my dad.

I stare at him for a while, then Duronda grabs my sleeve and pulls me forward.

We reach the back of the tent a minute later. It's stitched together from the same ragged mish-mash of fabric as the raiders' clothes. Duronda gets down on the ground and looks under a slightly raised edge of it. She glances up over her shoulder and gives an "all clear" sign, then, faster than I thought she could move, she rolls under the hem and into the tent. A second later, her hand comes back out, beckoning.

Misty grabs my elbow and shakes her head.

I shrug. It's a little late now.

I get down on my knees and crawl inside. Misty, whatever her misgivings, follows me.

The inside of the tent is pocked with bright beams of sunlight, which stab the forest floor like needles. Unmarked boxes are piled up everywhere. There are crates with fabric spilling out of them, trunks of leather things that I think are used on the horses, boots thrown hastily in a crate, closed boxes of what could be anything at all. I stare longingly at the boots. My shoes aren't in great shape, and neither are Duronda's (Misty's are, miraculously, still in one piece). We need them as much as we need ammunition.

I look around quickly and grab two pairs, stuffing them in my bag. As long as we're stealing, we might as well go for it. The raiders stole them first.

There's also a box of military rations. I don't steal from that. I can hunt; there's no reason to go hungry, and when I can't hunt, Duronda still has a few of these rations left. I almost empty it anyway. This was meant for soldiers at the front. They have a war to fight, and they won't have time to hunt and forage. The raiders had no business taking it.

I hold myself back.

Duronda finds the ammunition near the front of the tent, close enough that she's carefully ducking the sight lines from the flap when she gets there. It's in a trunk, but it's unlocked.

She reaches in and grabs a box of bullets.

That's when the tent flap comes up.

There's no chance to get away, no moment when I could later think, "If only I'd moved more quickly." We're all able to duck behind crates, but it does no good at all. The tent is large, but too small to miss three intruders.

The Capitol man with the eye patch -- Trajan -- thumbs the safety on his rifle. "Well," he says. "I thought I smelled some visitors snooping around the paddock. You best come out before I decide to start shooting."

None of us moves.

Trajan points the rifle at the box Duronda is hiding behind.

Misty springs up from her hiding place. "No, stop!" she says. "I'm here. Just me."

Trajan laughs. "Oh, of course it's just you. What else could it possibly be? I'm all alone, too, as I'm sure you saw. Talking to myself. Whispering even. Just like you." Misty fights for something to say, but Trajan shakes his head. "Don't bother. We've been tracking the three of you for days. I have to say, you lost me a bet. You were all doing so well that I thought you'd be too smart to bother us here. It's a shame. But don't worry about me. I'll find ways for you to get my money back." He waves the gun at Duronda's crate. "Come on out, girl. And the boy, too. Or is he such a coward that he'll let the littlest girl stand out here all alone?"

I move my bow around from behind me and grab an arrow. It's a fast move, and I'm aiming by the time I'm up, but it's not fast enough.

Trajan raises his rifle, and I think for a minute that he's going to shoot me, that this is the end. Then he turns it and swings.

There's a vast, shattering pain in my head, then the world goes dark.

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