It was all the fault of the wolves.
She stared ahead at the horses. It was the one nearest to her, the grey whose coat shimmered into silver, that she knew had been brought back especially for her.
Despite the little voice inside her head that told her she should be grateful she couldn’t bring herself to be. Fixing her usual scowl on her face, she squared her shoulder and turned to the drinking hall shaking the snowflakes from her hair.
She continued to curse the wolves with each stomp of her feet.
It was a year and a half ago that they started to get concerned.
She had been with her father in the woods when they came across the deer. Katniss was treading her father’s footfalls and following his silent hand signals with a careful eye when she saw his desperate gesture for her to stop.
It lay in front of them with its eyes empty and its soft belly torn roughly open to expose its insides. Like all the wood clan she had a strong stomach and being the daughter of the chieftain meant hers needed to be stronger than most but there was something about seeing the deer in that way that made her stomach twist.
Her father stared at it and rubbed a hand over his beard before kneeling to give it his scrutiny. When he stood up he turned to her with dark eyes. “There’s nothing salvageable.”
Katniss’ eyes flickered from the animal back to her father’s face. “Not even the hide?”
“Not even the hide,” he repeated and despite the stillness of his face she could see the worry in his eyes.
Wolves had begun to tear down the population of deer and were leaving nothing left. Her father led more men into the woods but each time they returned their hands got emptier. They had to walk further into the dark heart of it just to find anything to hunt.
“We don’t have enough food for our people,” Katniss heard her father say to her mother one evening when they thought she was asleep by the fire. “The wolves are starving and the woods are shrinking.”
“How are they shrinking?” Her mother asked, voicing the question that was on Katniss’ own mind.
“It’s him. He does what he wants with the lands and woods and has no regard for the other clans,” her father spat and Katniss could hear the thud of his fists against the table.
She knew immediately who he was talking about. The chieftain from the other side of the woods with the white hair who had the scent of blood hanging about him.
“If you speak to him he might-,” her mother began but her father cut her off.
“No.” His voice was hard. “That man is poison, no better than a snake. We’ll find another way.”
The fire in the drinking hall burned a vicious orange but it warmed Katniss’ skin and the tankard of ale warmed her belly. The more she drank, the less she felt and even though she knew she couldn’t drink forever to stave off the memories at least she had a respite for an evening.
She was enjoying her solitude by the fire when she heard the stomping of boots and groaned.
A body hurled itself onto the stool opposite her and she looked up to see the shadows dancing on Haymitch’s face. He raised his own tankard when he saw her looking. “Congratulations to the bride.”
“Why are you here?”
“Misery loves company, sweetheart.”
“I’m not miserable.”
“Really? That face is fooling no one.” He tipped the tankard to his mouth and Katniss’ mouth curled in disgust as he gulped his drink down, twin rivers dribbling from the lip.
“I’m not miserable,” she repeated. “I’m angry.”
“Is that right?” Haymitch said when he finished drinking. He lifted up a dirty sleeve and wiped it across his mouth. “Well, you’ve got plenty to be angry about.”
A log burst in the hearth sending an ember across the stone floor where it rested besides Katniss’ booted foot. She had the sudden urge to pick it up and clench it in her fist. She wanted to feel it sear her skin. Then how she looked on the outside would reflect how she felt on the inside, a woman burning with fury.
Despite the fire she stoked inside of her she kept her voice like ice when she replied, “Glad you can still be astute, Haymitch.”
He shrugged and belched and they sat in silence while the fire popped and the laughter of the clan members inside the hall roared in her ears.
“What are you going to do about it though?”
She looked up at him with a glare. “If you hadn’t noticed, I am doing something about it.”
“Right. So, what are you both going to do about it?”
A dry laugh made its way from her mouth. “Really? I’m marrying into the meadow clan with their fields and their grains and their goat herding and you think that he’s going to help take on the wolves?”
Katniss brought her own tankard to her mouth and gulped down the yeasty drink with the same ferocity that Haymitch had. If she drank enough than maybe she could turn off the part of her brain that made her want to get her arrows and shoot something down.
“Isn’t that why I’m marrying him?” she continued when Haymitch said nothing. “They give us regular supplies of food and we give them a group of our hunters for their protection. Isn’t that the trade?”
Haymitch’s voice was unusually soft when he next spoke. “Why do you mention the wolves?”
Katniss shook her head. Haymitch was once one of the clan’s finest. Her father told her stories about the traps Haymitch used to set in the woods for the animals and the negotiations he made with other clans, negotiations so skilled that everyone marvelled at how he managed to walk away with so much for so little. Then there was an incident with someone from another clan that left Haymitch’s wife dead when she was pregnant with their child and so he turned to the drinking hall and let the brains drip from his ears.
“It’s the wolves’ fault,” she said. “If they didn’t come further out of the woods to eat everything in their path then-”
“They’re starving,” Haymitch said in a calm, measured voice. “Just like we are. They’re animals and their home is being destroyed. What else can they do?”
Katniss stared at him in disbelief. Of all the people for him to try and defend the wolves to. “I don’t have to hear this,” she said and stood up on drunken, wavering legs to leave.
“You’re too busy blaming the wolves that you forget why the wolves are coming closer. There’s a snake cutting its way through the trees.” He looked up at her, his eyes just as grey as hers but with a strange, dark intensity to them. “You’re our late chieftain’s daughter and you will soon be wife to another chieftain’s son. What are you going to do about it, Katniss?”
The memories came fast that night. It must have been the ale stirring them up.
It was the final council meeting that played on her mind. She remembered noticing that her father’s black beard was greying quicker and his face was more lined. The stress of the situation was gnawing at him and Katniss tried to push down her worry at how tired he looked.
“Our choices are limited,” he said. “The wolves are coming nearer to the boundaries and there isn’t enough deer in the woods for us to hunt.” He shot a look over at his hunters. “It isn’t just the deer numbers that are being depleted. If we don’t do something than we are at danger of starving by the end of next winter.”
“What are the choices?” A deep, rough voice spoke out from across the large table. Katniss saw Gale Hawthorne, one of her father’s best hunters lean across the table. The light of the flames made the angles of his face look just as sharp as the arrows he carried and his eyes shone like flint.
Those same eyes flickered briefly towards Katniss before falling back on her father.
Katniss had once moaned to her mother about him and the way he looked at her in the council meetings. Her mother suggested that Gale’s glances were more appraising than assessing and at Katniss’ stunned expression had laughed. “Perhaps,” her mother said, “he would make a fine chieftain of this clan one day.”
“But he’s not the son of a chieftain or related to one,” Katniss had argued, “he can only become chieftain if he marries into it!”
Her mother had only tugged affectionately at Katniss’ black braid and kissed her on the forehead.
It pained Katniss to be so slow regarding the intentions of men but the intentions of men were something that she never cared to look for. Still, in that meeting she was acutely aware of Gale’s presence and his furtive looks. She was even more aware that out of all the members he was the youngest by far and her father’s favourite.
“We have two choices,” her father replied. “The first is that we take more hunters into the woods, find the wolf dens and kill as many as we can.” He sighed, “That includes the cubs.”
Gale nodded, “And the other?”
This time Katniss noticed it was her father’s eyes that glanced to her quickly and away. “The meadow clan have heard of our plight and have offered assistance.”
There was a murmur around the table.
“They will give us a portion of their harvest each year including any bread they bake. They will also provide us with goat milk and meat. They are too far inland for any wolf attacks but they still require some of our men to live with their people, just in case.”
There was a snort from Gale. “Chieftain Mellark wants us to surrender our heritage and forgo hunting and he believes we will be happy getting fat like them on goats’ cheese and loaves?”
“He will keep us from starving.”
“How generous of him”, Gale said suspiciously, “all this food for a handful of men.”
Her father seemed to age years in a minute and his voice was low and sombre. “No, not just for a handful of men.”
The snow crunched beneath her boots as Katniss left the drinking hall and she pulled her cloak around her tighter. There were lanterns placed around the village square that cast eerie shadows on the stones and in the light of the flame she could see the snow falling.
Katniss’ toes were fast becoming as cold as her fingers and she regretted not putting on her mid-winter boots before she left her home. It would be the last night she would spend in her childhood bed, the last night she would have to listen to the quiet sobs of a mother who still grieved for her husband.
Soon Katniss would be sharing her bed with someone else and not just anyone else but him. He would slide his warm skin next to hers, he would press his mouth against hers and he would take his large hands and-
She shook her head from those thoughts. She would be a wife who slept next to a husband and any sobs she would hear would be from the babies she would bear him that would lay swaddled in the cradle next to her.
Katniss didn’t allow her thoughts to drift again to what she would have to do to give him those babies.
She had swayed past the first lodges that stood next to the drinking hall when she heard the soft crunch of a boot on the snow.
The voice was deep and rough and familiar. She stopped and stood, her fingers curling into fists.
She began to walk on.
The edge of desperation crept in and it seemed to claw its way into the part of her that wanted to hear what he had to say. But there was a stronger part of her that didn’t.
Her voice when she spoke was as sharp as her arrows. “Go away, Gale.”
Despite her words it must have been the simple fact that she spoke to him that urged him forward. The first words she had said to him in almost a year. He hadn’t approached her since it happened and she wondered why he bothered now.
The steps quickened and he brushed past her, the thick furs of his cloak making him seem larger in the darkening light. He stood in front of her, grey eyes pleading.
“I know you don’t want to do this. If you give me some time I can think of something else, something that will help us. You won’t have to leave the clan and you won’t have to marry him.” Gale stretched his hand out and let it drop, almost like he was going to touch her before realising it would have been safer to stroke a live wolf’s pelt.
“Please,” he begged again and Katniss closed her eyes, squeezing them tight.
“I can’t look at you,” she said. “I can’t look at you without seeing my father’s face. I can’t stop seeing his blood on your hands and I can’t stop thinking that he never would have gone so far in had it not been for you.” She spat out the last word with as much venom she could muster and opened her eyes to watch Gale’s face fall.
But that was the truth of it. Her father had declared the terms of the meadow clan and though Katniss was stunned into silence it was Gale who vehemently objected. It was Gale who told her father that they didn’t need to take such a deal and it was Gale who made the assurances that they could take men into the woods, find the den and destroy the pack.
So it was Gale, foolhardy and ambitious who discovered the cubs and it was Gale who was cornered by their mother. But it was her father; her stupid, loving, self-sacrificing father who leapt in. It was her father’s body that was brought back to the village and it was her mother who howled over it.
Gale wanted to be chieftain and he wanted Katniss. Now he got neither. Katniss’ father had a second cousin and his young son was their new chieftain and Katniss, to ensure her people’s continuation in this world, had made the decision that should have been made first.
“Good night, Gale,” she said bitterly when met with his silence. “I get married tomorrow so I best rest.” And she walked off towards her home leaving him in the snow.
It was that summer, several months ago, when the meadow clan first visited. Katniss’ father had made the journey out of the woods several times but none of the meadow clan had ever travelled to them. There were gasps of interest from the woods clan as the men rode through on their horses.
Katniss’ people only had the need to keep a few horses and those creatures were lean and wild but the ones the meadow clan rode in on were bulky and strong, a calmness in their deep brown eyes despite all the people rushing out to view them.
Katniss remembered the lithe grey mare from back then and admired how, out of all the meadow clan’s horses, she seemed the most likely to be a woods clan horse.
The men who rode the horses appeared to be just as bulky and strong. There were breathy giggles from some of the women and Katniss glared at them from the corner of her eye. The men who passed closest looked towards the woods women and winked. It brought on more giggles.
It was instantly obvious that the meadow and woods clans were not the same. Katniss’ people had black hair, grey eyes and brown skin while the meadow clan were golden and blue and pale. The woods clan were built for hunting and stood taller and leaner while the meadow clan, though not fat like Gale had once claimed, were built for farming with their broad shoulder and thick arms.
She watched from the side as Haymitch had greeted them, his tone and body language more welcoming than what Katniss could muster.
The men organised themselves efficiently; two leading off the horses that they had all dismounted, two dragging large sacks of grain they had brought with them as an offering and two that followed Haymitch inside the council hall.
Those last two were related, she thought. All the meadow men had stocky builds but these two had the same hair and face. Ashy blonde waves fell over their foreheads and dimples appeared in their cheeks when they smiled warmly at Haymitch. One was clearly older than the other and must have been Chieftain Mellark. The other must have been his son and heir, Peeta.
Out of curiosity she crept closer, slipping through the group of gathered women. Katniss had a hunter’s tread and was small and slight enough to keep hidden when she needed to be so it should have been simple enough to observe without notice.
But he obviously had something of a hunter’s eye and that surprised her. As soon as Katniss had moved to the edge of the group then Peeta stopped from where he was following Haymitch and his father and turned his head towards her.
Their eyes met and the first thing she noticed was how blue they were. He didn’t smile his warm, dimpled smile at her but glanced over her from head and toe, pausing to take in the pin she wore to signify she had been the Chieftain’s blood. Now he knew who she was.
He still didn’t smile but turned and followed his father in.
The frost was biting into everyone the morning of the wedding but seemingly not her mother’s hands as weaved their way through Katniss’s hair, twisting and pulling the strands into an elaborate design. As her mother pinned each section in place, Sae, one of the villages elder women wove delicate dried flowers into them. The bright white and vibrant yellow petals shone brightly in Katniss’ black hair.
The wedding dress was itchy and the wedding cloak was heavy. Katniss shifted. To her, the weight of the cloak represented the weight of her responsibilities to her people. They had tried one way to survive and it wasn’t enough. This way had to be enough.
Bags of apples and grains and trays of meat were unloaded, one after the other from the cart when some of the meadow clan arrived a few days ago. Churns of goat’s milk followed as did large vats of butter and rounds of creamy cheese. It was the bread that made her mouth water the most and Katniss stared with wide eyes as many golden loaves were brought in from the cold.
One of the girls had given a wistful sigh. “To think,” she said, “that Katniss will now get her bread all warm and freshly baked.”
“That’s not all that Katniss will be getting,” cackled one of the others.
Katniss knuckles popped as she clenched them at the memory from that day. Sae clucked at her and slapped them down to her sides. “You can’t go looking like you’re about to beat your new husband,” she scolded. “Try and scowl a little less, it’s a happy day.”
Sae was too old and Katniss was too fond of her to bite back but she didn’t ease her face out of its glare.
She was ignored anyway as Sae continued talking on. “Summer and winter are the best times for weddings. In summer the blood is all hot and in winter its so cold you need to warm up.” She reached forward and pinched one of Katniss’ cheeks. “If you’re lucky there’ll be a baby by autumn.”
Katniss groaned and leant forward with her head in her hands despite her mother’s small cry at her work being disrupted. It was her role in this agreement. Food for her people’s bellies and a baby in hers.
On that day in the summer, Chieftain Mellark’s voice had been low and kind. He spoke about his sorrow at the passing of Chieftain Everdeen and praised him for his diplomacy and bravery.
Katniss nodded politely and tried to swallow around the lump in her throat. The council hall was hot and sticky and it was her, her new Chieftain cousin and Haymitch on one side and the two Mellark men on the other. Katniss couldn’t bring herself to look at her betrothed, not after the moment outside.
“It’s a thing of evil to let people starve when we have so much food but I am not stupid enough to let the possibility of an opportunity between us slip away.”
“You know why we’re starving?” Haymitch asked and Chieftain Mellark had responded with a solemn nod.
“The woods are being destroyed because of that man. We want an alliance between us, something that will bind the wood and meadow people together so that if he turns his eyes to our fields we will have you by our sides just as we will stand by yours.”
His blue eyes, the same deep blue as his sons, looked over at Katniss. “It would be an honour for us to link the Mellark and Everdeen lines. I have hope for its success.”
Haymitch began talking but Katniss blocked out his words. Despite knowing it was for the best she knew that she would have to say goodbye to her mother, her people and her home just to save her mother, her people and her home.
The lump in her throat grew bigger and she tried to swallow it down but it seemed to keep growing. The very last impression she wanted to give to the meadow people was that she was weak and vulnerable and pathetic.
Katniss switched back to hear Haymitch protests against a winter wedding. “It wouldn’t be a year since her father died and she’s never travelled that far in winter. It must be done next summer.”
“No, we want to cement this alliance as soon as possible. It’s already been too long since we first suggested it, if we leave it another year you’ll change your mind and we’ll waste more time.”
“We won’t waste time we can-”
Katniss held out her hand to stop Haymitch before he could continue spoke. Immediately he closed his mouth and deferred to her.
“We’ll hold it this winter,” she said with more strength than what she felt. “But you’ll bring the first supplies for my people. If you want this trade to begin in winter than you must also make your sacrifices.”
The stool legs scraped against the wood as she stood. “I’ll leave Haymitch to negotiate terms,” and before anyone could speak she walked from the hall and took a sharp left.
She didn’t know where her feet would take her. The soft leather shoes she wore were unsuitable for the long trek into the woods. Subconsciously she must have felt some need to be near a living thing and she continued on until she reached the stables.
The smell of horse skin and straw was strong but not unpleasant and she walked between the whickering animals until she reached the end. Katniss sat on a stool and buried her face in her hands. There was a nudge at her shoulder which she ignored. Until it nudged again.
Looking up, Katniss saw the velvet nose of the grey mare. “Really?” she asked it.
It nudged again, more insistently than before.
“I don’t know what you want,” she told it and stood. Then the voice spoke out from the entrance.
“Apples probably. It’s what usually wins her over.”
The shock made her jerk backwards as she saw Peeta leaning against the wooden frame.
“Did you follow me?” she hissed and took a step forward towards him but she hadn’t any idea what she would do.
He stepped further into the stables towards her until he was only an arm’s length away and as he moved in from the bright sun she got a closer look at his face. Peeta’s eyes were cool and appraising as she knew hers was and they both sized each other up in silence.
His appearance was typical of the meadow clan with broad shoulders and arms thick with strength. He wasn’t as tall as some of the woods clan, not as tall as Gale for instance, but he still had solid height and build over her. Those large hands with their tendons and veins could cradle a lover’s face or squeeze the life from someone’s throat.
Now alone in the stable with her, Peeta’s face somehow managed to appear both friendly and detached. When he next spoke, it wasn’t to answer her question.
“You’re not very big, are you?” he said. “Or particularly pretty.”
It was said in a neutral tone as though he wasn’t intending to wound but was merely stating an observation. Still, it pricked at her skin.
“It’s not my fault you’re too large,” she spat back, “or so vain.”
It was brief but a look of surprise passed over his face and then Peeta broke into a bright, broad smile.
Katniss knew a look of surprise must have shown on her face. Her disbelief wasn’t just that he seemed to not mind what she said but the fact that he seemed pleased by it. His face broke into that warm, broad grin she had seen on display earlier and now that it was directed at her she could see that his face had become absurdly more handsome.
A hot flush bloomed over her skin and Katniss took half a step back straight into the mare who gave her a strong and insistent nudge causing Katniss to step even closer to Peeta.
“Oddly enough that means she likes you,” Peeta said, motioning to the horse. “She doesn’t like many people. She’s more contrary than the others we have.”
“I like contrary.”
“I’m sure you do.” Peeta voice was laced with humour. “Oddly enough, so do I.”
Katniss narrowed her eyes when she saw the gleam in Peeta’s but the heat of her worryingly pleased blush began to tickle up the skin of her neck.
“I’m marrying you for the sake of my people,” she blurted out. “That’s all.”
He crossed his arms and she watched the smile melt from his face to be replaced once again with a pensive look. There was something in his eyes that seemed to soothe her fiery outrage and she didn’t like it.
“I’m marrying you for the sake of mine,” he replied not unkindly. “At least we have something in common.”
Of course he would also be bound to this marriage for the sake of duty. He was just as much a chieftain’s child as she was and he knew what responsibilities he had been born into. Still, an unusual sense of disappointment must have washed over her and she couldn’t hide how she felt as much as he could.
Maybe he noticed. Maybe he remembered that she was still grieving her father. Maybe he remembered than in less than six months’ time she would be leaving her entire world behind because something in his face softened.
Peeta nodded towards the horse. “She doesn’t usually come on journeys but one of the others was foaling. I’ll make sure we bring her in winter so you can take the journey on her. She’ll be your horse.”
Katniss opened her mouth to protest but Peeta held up a hand like she had done to Haymitch earlier.
“Consider it a wedding present.”
When the meadow clan arrived that winter, bundled up in layers of furs and unloading food item after food item, Katniss couldn’t let go of that sharp, hard part of her that was angry at being a traded commodity.
For each bag of grain that was carried into their stores she wondered if it had just paid for her wedding night, or the night after, or for the first night when she was away from here in her home in the meadows.
Despite Haymitch insisting that she spend time with Chieftain Mellark and Peeta she had steadfastly refused, insisting that she would be spending a lot of time with them soon enough. Instead she chose to spend her time in the woods or sat by the hearth in the drinking hall with a tankard in hand.
Her first conversation with Peeta all those months ago was in the stable but it hadn’t been her last. He’d sought her out several nights later when everyone was gathered outside and pulled some straw from her hair with a grin.
Katniss was too proud to tell him that she wanted to accept the wedding present of the grey mare and so she was definitely too proud to admit that she’d been spending time in the stables to try and coax her into friendliness. From the way Peeta had smiled at her, his ridiculously blue eyes gleaming, she knew that he had guessed and that he found it amusing.
The next night Peeta sought her out again and this time slipped an apple into her pocket with a wink. When he stood close to her she stepped back, the heat from his body too much next to her skin.
She made sure to avoid him after that.
She’d also been successfully avoiding him this visit but it couldn’t last. Of course it couldn’t last.
Katniss was going to be his wife. There would be a lifetime together and children between them. And now it was all happening like she was standing on her own shoulder watching from a distance.
The Chieftains of the joining clans presided over the ceremony as was tradition. It was jarring to see Chieftain Mellark, an older version of Peeta, stood in front of her but even more jarring to see her cousin in her father’s place. Something stabbed through Katniss’ chest but she kept her face neutral.
Peeta’s face matched hers perfectly.
His hair was no different, his waves still messy, but he wore a wedding cloak of his people and it highlighted his importance. They looked through each other’s faces during the repetition of the sacred vows and as they shared wine from the ceremonial cup. When the Chieftain’s pronounced a kiss to be held Katniss felt herself falter and looked at Peeta’s face in a panic.
His face was unreadable but his eyes were twinkling in what Katniss once again assumed was amusement. Her breath stopped as he bent down and leaned forward to press his mouth against hers. It was brief but firm and she was surprised at how much her lips tingled after.
Haymitch had gotten drunk and passed out across a table in the drinking hall. It didn’t matter because the meadow and woods clans, now kin, just continued to sing and drink over him.
Katniss’ mother had taken her daughter into her arms and quietly sobbed into her hair telling her how her father would have been so proud of her for doing this. Sae was gathering some girls to help assist in the wedding night preparations and Peeta was nowhere to be found.
Katniss let loose a shuddering sigh when Sae approached with three girls in tow.
The wedding night was always spent apart from the other villagers. In the woods clan there was a free-standing hut away from the village square and all the halls. It was simple but cosy and Katniss had been in there once when she was having to assist a new bride like she was being assisted now.
That bride had been giggling and demure. This bride stood stony faced glancing at the roaring fire in the large hearth, the animal skin in front of it and at the table filled with breads, fruits and cheese. There was a smaller table in the corner with a filled basin and wash cloth and of course, the large bed that was piled high with furs.
Katniss closed her eyes and sighed again when she was led to sit upon it.
Sae unpicked the pins and flowers until Katniss’ long black hair flowed freely past her shoulders. One of the girls pulled at the ribbons and stays of the wedding dress until Katniss was in her underdress and another picked up the wash cloth and started scrubbing at Katniss arms.
“That’s also for later,” Sae told her with a nod towards the basin and Katniss’ eyes widened.
They finally left her alone even though she knew she wouldn’t be alone for long.
Despite the fire, Katniss found herself trembling. She had crept though the dark parts of the woods, had seen deer torn apart and had looked at the bite marks on her father and still she never found herself trembling until now.
There was a knock at the door and she sighed. Tradition stated that the groom was to knock three times. Once to symbolise himself, another to symbolise the bride and the final knock was to symbolise the child that everyone hoped would be conceived in that hut.
Two more knocks sounded and then the door was pushed open.
The snow fluttered through his thick hair and Katniss could make out the white flakes against the blonde but it wasn’t as stark as it was against hers. The tips of Peeta’s ears were pink and his cheeks had taken a rosy glow. He stamped his boots in the entrance and Katniss watched as chunks of snow fell to the ground.
Peeta shut the door and glanced over at her. If he was surprised to see her sat on the edge of the bed in her plain white underdress with her hair down he didn’t show it. Instead he took off his cloak and hung it up before standing in front of the fire to warm his hands.
They didn’t say a word.
The fire crackled and spat and the floorboards creaked as Peeta made his way to the table with the food. With a groan he sat down and sliced up some cheese before piling it high on bread.
Katniss watched him with a frown.
He glanced over at her occasionally while he chewed but it was probably because he couldn’t ignore the piercing stare of the only other person in the room.
Peeta swallowed his mouthful and finally addressed her. “Are you hungry Katniss? I can make you some food.”
Her mouth dropped open before she snapped it shut again. “No,” she replied, “I don’t want food.” She wanted to tell him that she just wanted to get this over with, that he should just lie with her on the bed and do what was expected of him.
Before she could muster the words, Peeta tilted his head to the side and looked at her. Nothing else. Just looked.
Katniss felt the burn of her temper grow and she opened her mouth to speak but Peeta spoke before she could.
“You look different with your hair down.”
He seemed to have a natural talent at throwing her off her guard and she found the words that she was about to say float out of her head. It wasn’t a compliment, it wasn’t that he’d said she looked beautiful with her hair down, but something in the way he said it made her shift. Katniss closed her eyes and took a breath.
Peeta’s voice was low and warm and her eyes fluttered back open. The smile on his face was gentle and the light and shadows from the fire played across his face. Instead of making him look terrifying, they only served to make him seem comforting.
“Are you hungry?” he asked her again and she wondered if he thought she was because of her shaking.
“No,” she said. “I don’t have an appetite.”
There was silence again before she heard Peeta’s chair scrape against the floor. When she looked up, he was leaning back in casually, his legs with their powerful muscles stretched out before her.
“When I left the hall some of our men were drenching Haymitch in water,” he chuckled. “I don’t envy his head tomorrow morning.”
“He’s used to it,” she said.
Peeta gave a drawn-out sigh. “My father always said that Haymitch of the wood clan had a mind sharper than any knife. It’s sad, how things can turn out.” His eyes drifted towards the fire. “Still,” he continued, “even a blunt knife can still be a dangerous weapon.”
Katniss narrowed her eyes. “You’re talking rather cryptically,” she said. “Is there something I should know about?”
His eyes flittered over to her and he gave her a broad smile. “Nothing at all.”
She chose to ignore the lie. “It was Haymitch that negotiated the terms and travelled between our clans,” she told him, “but you probably know that. In fact, Haymitch was keen on this marriage. Very keen.”
“And you Katniss? How do you feel about this marriage?”
Peeta had drawn his legs back towards him and leant forward towards her. The position made him closer to her and if she wanted, she could have stretched out her hand to touch his face. But that was too intimate a gesture and it didn’t matter that she was his wife. She still didn’t know him.
Katniss was tempted to lie but the look on his face was so earnest, so hungry for the truth that she fed it to him.
“I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be taken away from my family and live in a strange new place. I didn’t want to be a wife and I didn’t want to be a mother.”
“What did you want?”
She looked away from him. “I wanted to be free to come and go as I pleased. I wanted to go into the woods when I desired. I wanted to be able to choose my life.” She shrugged. “But my father was a Chieftain and I, a Chieftain’s daughter. Choice is limited.”
“You can come and go as you please,” he told her. “We don’t have woods but we have meadows and, in the spring, you will love them. There’s wheat stalks that grow taller than you.”
She looked back at him. There was nothing that suggested that he was lying to her now. “You wouldn’t want me by your side at all times? Pregnant and barefooted and tending to your hearth?”
Peeta gave a dry chuckle. “Well I confess, I don’t mind the image.”
Her eyebrows shot up into her hair.
“What did you want?” she asked him. It only seemed fair to trade in truths.
There was a creak in the chair as Peeta leant back into it and he took a deep breath in. “I didn’t want to be married either,” he said. “Not yet anyway and not as part of a trade agreement. I imagined I would get to know my wife before our marriage and that I would court her over time.”
He gave a wry smile. “But I’m son of Chieftain and on his death, I’ll be a Chieftain. I’ll always do what’s right for my people over what I want.” He paused and looked at Katniss. “I want children though, not just for my village but for myself. I want to teach them how to plough the fields and show them how to knead bread. I’ll love them.”
“Any children you’ll now have will also be taught to wield a bow,” she declared and then looked at him to see his reaction to her statement.
The grin that grew on his face was the same one he wore when she spoke back in the stables. “They’d be wild little things then,” he said, “like their mother.”
Katniss was about to protest but then she saw him wink at her.
“Do I amuse you?” she snapped. “Do you think it’s entertaining that I tried to bond with the horse and that I panicked when I had to kiss you.”
Something like alarm bloomed on his face. “No,” he protested and then he started to laugh.
“What?” she snapped again. Here she was on the bed in her underdress with her hair loose and her feet bare and her new husband was laughing at her.
“Katniss,” he began, “you’re so pure. There’s nothing wrong with it,” he interjected before she could speak, “but the look on your face at the ceremony and when I saw you with the straw in your hair and I realised what you’d been doing with the horse well... it’s so endearing.”
She couldn’t decide whether she was soothed or inflamed. She found his statement about her behaviour being endearing confusing and she couldn’t read his face. He swiftly moved from the chair and took a step towards her, settling next to her on the bed.
The heat from his clothed thigh seared through the thin material of her underdress and she wanted to shift over, to put some space between them. But it would only be soon enough, she thought, that there would be even less space between them. They were supposed to share one body.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” he murmured. “I really didn’t.” His hand reached out and she saw his pale fingers touch the end of her hair and watched as he rubbed the strands between his fingertips.
“I like the horse,” she said and her voice seemed soft to her own ears. “And I’ve never kissed anyone before.” She didn’t know why she’d felt the urge to make that confession.
“Never,” he repeated and she felt his hand leave the end of her hair and travel to her neck. His fingertips were rough but his touch was gentle. “I’ll always be good to you,” he told her. “I’ll always be kind.”
Katniss turned and his face was so close to hers that their noses brushed. In the dimmed light of the room, his pupils were fat and dark and the brilliant blue resembled more of a stormy sky.
She was suddenly aware of her deepening breath and the gooseflesh on her arms despite the heat. The material of her underdress was soft over her naked breasts and thighs and Peeta’s fingers were softly pulling through her hair making her scalp tinge.
There was the briefest thought in her mind of what her own eyes looked like but it drifted into nothing when Peeta leant forward and touched his lips to hers.
As was custom they’d spent five days in the hut. The only time that others came near was to collect the empty plates and drinking cups and leave more food.
By the third day Katniss was desperate for the open air and when she told Peeta such he’d only asked her where she wanted to go.
They weren’t supposed to leave, that was against custom, but with a smile Katniss had grabbed his hand and they snuck out like children, wrapped up in their layers and went into the woods. Katniss knew not to go too deep. It was winter and the wolves were more desperate but she wanted to see the deep green leaves and breath in the smell of the trees one last time before she travelled with the meadow clan.
Peeta had let her have her moment, seeming content to just watch her traipse around. She learnt quite quickly that his wasn’t a tread suited to the woods and it wasn’t long before she determined it was best for them to head back to the hut, just in case he attracted all sorts of wildlife.
On the way back, they also crept into the stables so that Katniss could feed her grey mare an apple that she’d put into her pocket on the way out.
“What’s her name?” she asked. With the mares colouring, Katniss had expected a name like Silver or Smoke. She would even have accepted Ash.
With a face completely sealed in seriousness, Peeta crossed his arms and replied, “Buttercup.”
Her staggered expression had him throw back his head and laugh. His face was all pink from the cold and he smelt like spruce from their time outdoors. There was a strange burning inside her stomach as she watched his broad shoulders move in time to the deep roar of his laughter.
She didn’t know what possessed her but before she could think she threw herself towards him, grabbed his face towards hers and kissed him.
He’d kissed her back with enthusiasm, his hands roaming the planes of her back and he didn’t protest when she dragged him back towards the hut and the bed piled high with furs. There was a small spark of something that seemed to live in her now and when she spent time with Peeta it only seemed to grow bigger.
She liked his skin sliding against hers and the hot heat of him between her thighs. Once she would have blushed at the thought of people knowing what she had done in the hut but now when she thought of the cosy space, she recalled her hands slipping in the sweat of Peeta’s back as his bare stomach pressed tightly against hers and of the way her legs moved to open herself up further.
After those five days they’d left and Katniss had received the customary travel blessings of her people. Her mother’s eyes were pale and watery but she pressed her lips against Katniss’ forehead and pushed something cold and hard, a pin, into Katniss’ palm. Sae pressed her hand into Katniss’ stomach muttering an old wood clan call to life while Katniss did her best to remove the scowl from her face.
Finally, she turned to Haymitch. His grey eyes as bright as she’d ever seen them.
“Look after my mother,” she told him. “Don’t get too drunk. If you do, try and pass out near a water barrel.”
The horses behind her whickered and she glanced around briefly to see Peeta leading two from the stables; his own, a chestnut stallion and her ridiculously named, contentious creature.
“You and the boy,” Haymitch said, jerking his head towards Peeta even though Peeta was far from a boy, “I know you’ll work out fine.”
“Oh you do, do you?” she countered, even though she hoped for the same.
“I do. I expect next time I see you you’ll have a baby in your belly.”
“It will probably be years until I next see you,” she was surprised to hear the crack in her voice as she said it. She wouldn’t be back to the woods for a while and Haymitch had no reason to travel to the meadows. It was too far for simple, unnecessary visits.
“It will be sooner than you think, sweetheart.”
There was something in the way he said it and something about the look in his eyes that made Katniss pause. Haymitch was looking over her shoulder and when Katniss glanced behind her again she could see he was looking at Chieftain Mellark and Peeta. The two men must have felt eyes upon them as they both looked up.
Peeta eyes softened as he looked at her and his mouth pulled into a brief but genuine smile. When his eyes moved to Haymitch, Katniss could see that they lost no affection but they became more resolute. Peeta nodded his head sharply at the older man but when he looked back at Katniss he gave a wink before focusing once again on the horse.
Katniss turned to Haymitch, something clicking in her brain. “What have you done?” she asked. “The trade was food for hunters but that doesn’t seem fair.” And it didn’t, not when she really thought about it. Food would be given to the woods clan every year for a handful of men that could protect the meadow people.
But the meadow people could protect themselves, she knew it. They might not have the quiet, determined skills of hunters and none of them could fire a bow but the sheer size of them and the power behind their bodies wasn’t something to ignore.
“This summer you referred to it as an alliance,” she said, “it was you that set up the negotiations and you that travelled between our people.”
Haymitch looked at her, an infuriating and strangely sober calmness radiating from him. “Your father didn’t want to make you do anything you wouldn’t want to do but eventually he would have agreed that we needed something to secure the bond between us. We have agreements with the river clan and the mountain clan, we needed to secure the meadow people.”
“Secure them for what?” But she knew.
“You and your new husband, sweetheart, are going to help us cut the head from a snake.”