The Hanging Tree

"Are you, are you, coming to the tree...? *For the HG Competition. Amazing cover by Incandescent Night*

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3. Half Moon

"Strange things did happen here, no stranger would it be..."

 

The night is young and is yet so old. The sun sets and the moon rises, and for something so ancient, a giant chunk of rock orbiting the earth, it looks pale, so fresh; a white rose amidst the inky black leaves of the night sky. When the moon disappears, swallowed by the comparatively blinding day, it seems that it is gone forever- and then it returns again, triumphant, only to perish as the sun rises afresh.

It's a ruinous, unceasing, endless circle.

She's decided that's what it's like to be insane. For the mind to be so utterly shattered, like broken glass dusting the ground like snow; the pain spearing her with weapons forged in shadow, over and over and over. There's always that second, that brief moment of clarity, every morning, every new dawn, when she wonders if she could finally  be healed. And he returns to her, his face demanding her attention, his voice attacking her neck, face, eyes, ears with a spiteful, sadistic brutality.

Because the madness is in her veins, rushing through every artery with a fiery resentment. A burning fever that she cannot stop, cannot delay one bit.

She wonders if she even cares anymore.

Maybe the madness is a good thing; maybe it's what she deserves.

Yes. She does. She deserves the blinding insanity. She deserves it for what she's done.

What he did.

***

She screamed.

There was blood. There was blood everywhere.

There was blood everywhere, and she screamed and screamed and screamed.

***

She knew that there was something different, something very wrong the very moment he arrived. His eyes were dark- a smouldering emerald, filled with hate and anger. Swirling with smoke and burning coal. HIs face creased into a scowl like crumpled paper.

She shivered when she saw him.

Every movement was stiff and abrupt, almost as if he was a puppet, each limb tugged forward by strings by some invisible puppet master. As he took a step forward, she took one back. She wasn't sure what was going on, what about him was making her so nervous, so wary, but there was something very, very wrong.

"What is it?" she asked, forcing her unwilling voice into a soothing tone, as if he was a wild animal about to attack. Which, in afterthought, he actually was.

He didn't reply, and his stony, deafening silence was even more terrifying. 

"What?" she repeated, her voice cracking like her mother's ancient teapot. "What's wrong?"

She'd never seen a snake, but she'd learnt enough from her father to know how dangerous they were. He was the only one allowed in the forest, of course- not her mother, her brother, or even her. She'd never seen a snake, but she knew enough about them to be able to compare his movement to one of them.

One half of a split second, and he was still, utterly still, and yet half of a  split second later and he'd struck; seizing her wrists in one fluid movement, his fingers digging deep into her skin. She let out a surprised yelp and fell back, the soft blades of grass flattening beneath her weight. She hadn't realised how tall he was until then; how strong, and terrifying. The branches cast clawing shadows over his face, altering the profile she knew so well, the face she dreamt about every night, into a mask. Almost the same face- almost, almost- but the lips were thinner, the cheekbones sharper, the eyes sunken. As if someone from the Capitol had wanted to look like him, exactly like him, but now matter how much money they spent, now matter how much time they dedicated to the venture, they'd be nothing but a copy. A shameful duplication.

Because he looked the same- almost.

But almost was a big word, and there was something very, very wrong with it.

***

If the moon could cry, then it wouldn't weep for her. If the sun could smile, it wouldn't smile for her.

The moon would cry for someone who deserved its pity, and the sun would beam down on the one who was worthy of is kindness.

Her brother, for example.

But nothing would weep for her brother now; not now he's nothing but rotting fleshing and cracking bones. No one would smile for him now; not now he's buried deep into the cold, emotionless arms of the earth. Anyone who did would weep for themselves, for their burning anger, hate and despairing thoughts. They would only smiles at the memories of the little boy, the little boy whom everyone adored, the little boy who was fed spare food and stale bread like a puppy. The little boy who was essentially killed by his big, brave sister's foolishness and cowardice.

The thee graves are small; hurriedly patted-down dirt, the middle grave, the smallest, topped with a cracked vase laced in grime. The vase was empty, of course. The flower had wilted into dust long ago. If she remembered correctly- and of course she did- she'd given him a rose, one that she'd stolen from the flowerbed laying proudly before the Justice Building. It was as deep a scarlet as her brother's blood was, and by  giving him such a flower, it was almost as if she was trying to heal him, trying to bring her little, sweet, kind brother back to life by returning such a scarlet to his cold body.

The punishment for stealing is death, of course, but at that time she would have welcomed its cold embrace with open arms.

Her mother's grave is larger, but only slightly, and the name is already fading from the granite headstone. She couldn't afford to have the names chiselled into the rocks, there for all to see until the end of time. She'd made do with a sharpened piece of slate and slit-open hands instead. Her mother was kind; too kin, if she's honest. Her father reminded her mother on many an occasion that kindness came at a price- usually with a peacekeeper trailing behind it, and he was right.

Her mother was rewarded with a bloody knife for her benevolence.

As for her father... well, he died bravely. As bravely as a man with a knife in his throat could die. He died defending his wife and his son as his daughter condemned them to a slaughter.

***

"Run with me." he whispered, his voice, usually as soft as a butterfly's wing-beats, and yet suddenly so sharp and brutal that it could have slit her throat.

It had taken a while to process his words. They'd mentioned it before; but it was only ever jokingly, and she never considered that the day when they escaped into the cloak of tree trunks and shrouded themselves in cloaks of leaves may be upon her, looming ahead like thunderclouds.

"Why?" she asked him, and she was rewarded with a scowl. He took a step back and extending a coal-stained hand. She received it nervously, her small hand fitting perfectly into his large, firm one, scarred from hunting knives and pickaxes accidents, marked from animal bites and calloused from climbing mineshafts.

"Why?" he mimicked her, chortling, as if her question actually amused him. "Why? Because I need to! Because if I stay here any longer then I'll die! Because I'm in a cage here; I'm trapped and it's mad! It's mad, and I'll go mad!" His voice transformed into a scream, a wild scream, and she's terrified that someone will hear him.

Because if someone heard him, then someone would report him. And if someone reported him, then he'd be arrested. And if he was arrested-

She shuddered at the thought.

"We could survive." he insisted, crouching down onto one knee and clasping her hands again. "I can hunt, and I'll teach you to as well. It'll be... perfect. It'll be perfect."

She had to admit that she was tempted. And she had to admit that they could probably make it. They could survive- at least, for a little while. Before the Capitol hunted them down, and executed them, used their beaten, cold corpses as an example to all who saw them. If anyone even considered repeating their actions, then the Capitol would have no mercy.

But she couldn't leave her family. She couldn't leave her mother to clean the clothes and cook their meals alone. She couldn't abandon her father to the manual labour alone. She couldn't desert her brother to his lonely afternoons and hollow evening with his peg soldiers and stick weapons.

She told him so, and his eyes turned to coal.

"Then go." he hissed, the smooth liquor of his voice spiked with arsenic. It changes, becomes hysterical, and he laughs, the crazed cackle reverberated against the emerald shroud like the wind. "Then leave! But don't expect me to follow you! Don't expect me to love you!" The laugh becomes a howl and she runs; she runs as fast as she could run and faster still, chased by the maddening screech.

And she runs.

 

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