She walks for twelve days before she feels like she can breathe again.
Twelve days before she stops recognizing the forest around her—fitting really, because she had stopped recognizing everything else in her life as soon as she pulled that lever—and it feels like the first moment she stepped off the dropship and pulled real oxygen into her lungs.
The forest had been the last bastion of familiarity that tied her to everyone else and it held memories of its own. It felt good to leave it behind.
As the days pass, Clarke rises with the sun and walks until she’s exhausted. Sometimes, clouds blot out the moon and stars early and it gets too dark to see where she’s stepping, so she’s forced to lay out a bedroll at the base of a tree and hope she has walked far enough that day to fall into dreamless sleep.
It never happens.
She rises again each time after struggling through her nightmares, a little more worn than the day before. The ache in her bones feels permanent but comforting, like the gun in her hand. It feels real. And she keeps moving forward in search of that feeling and more because a sole focus on survival allows her to strip away everything else.
You think our ways are harsh. But it’s how we survive.
Her dwindling supply of rations never really concerned her anyway, but Clarke stops caring entirely on the twenty-second day when she stumbles into a clearing and finds a boar sleeping against a log. She fires two shots before she even realizes she’s raised her gun.
For a moment, it does concern her that she has walked for so long with the gun in her hand and that she so readily pulled the trigger on the only living thing she has seen in three weeks…then the thought is gone as quickly as it came.
Every evening, darkness seems to fall sooner. Twilight gathers around her already, strengthened by the dark clouds swirling overhead, but Clarke focuses instead on cutting the boar open the way Bellamy had once shown her. She works methodically, head down, teeth grit, breaking only to haul the pieces up a hill and into a cave she spotted earlier.
She’s just finishing cutting the last of the boar a half hour later, when the sky opens up and the rain starts to pour. Clarke simply sits back in the mud, letting her hands hang between her knees, and watches the blood drip off of them.
Within five minutes, she’s soaked, and the rain has washed her hands clean. She leaves the carcass and trudges up the hill.
She had stocked the cave with wood in between trips to the boar, but the cave is shallow and a constant freezing wind makes it damn near impossible to get a fire going—it takes an hour and a half before she’s able to pull scalding, charred meat off a stick. It’s not bad, actually, and she sits back against the cave wall as she chews and grins a little when she remembers the panther they had eaten on their first days on Earth. Finn had taken their slices and reheated them over the fire because “burned beyond all recognition” still tasted better than mutated jungle cat. That was the culmination of her culinary education.
It’s a good memory of Finn, one that doesn’t embitter the smile on her lips, for the first time in a long time.
But it’s not just Finn who haunts her anymore. It’s closing the door on the dropship and listening to three hundred grounders burn alive. It’s standing safe in the trees as a missile obliterates a two hundred and fifty people. It’s pulling a lever and watching three hundred innocent men, women, and children die for it.
All for her people. Her hundred.
That’s why she turned her back on Camp Jaha once everyone was delivered safely through the gate. She needed to be able to look at her friends and not see the blood of the people whose lives she traded for theirs.
And they needed someone who knew how to wash her hands of the blood and wasn’t kept up by the nightmares of it clinging to her skin.
Her parents had raised her differently. They had been different: they were the good guys. Her father gave his life for the chance to save his people; her mother dedicated hers to saving everyone else. She wanted to be like them both and now she didn’t know how to be both a doctor and a killer. Hell, the only thing that made her feel human was the constant, daily ache in her bones.
She’d gone to hell to rescue her friends, and she had led them back largely unscathed and now the threats were gone and they no longer needed someone to bleed for them.
They needed someone who hadn’t been defeated, destroyed by her victory.
They do not know your suffering will be worse. What you did tonight will haunt you until the end of your days.
Lexa haunts her, last, somehow worst of all. Lexa, sending those warriors to kill her people; Lexa, standing next to her in the trees at TonDC; Lexa, walking away with her head held high as Clarke felt her world crumble to ashes.
Clarke sighs heavily, as the last of the boar finishes cooking and she stuffs it in her pack for safekeeping. Despite the warmth of the fire, the food in her stomach, the mesmerizing staccato of the rain outside, on the nights that she stays awake long enough to think of Lexa, she never sleeps.
She stays in the cave for four days.
They find her on the fifth.
At first, she thinks the snap of the twig is just another breaking bone in her usual nightmare, but when it comes again, Clarke’s eyes fly open and she scrabbles for the gun next to her head. It it’s another boar, she thinks wildly, she would have enough food for—
A man’s voice. Her blood turns to ice. It’s been weeks. Another voice answers the first.
She gets to her feet silently, gun tight in her hand, and edges toward the mouth of the cave. The voices have stopped, though she knows she didn’t imagine them.
Her heart is still hammering, pumping ice through her veins to tense muscles as she stands perfectly still at the cave entrance. She can’t see anything. No one attacks. She takes a single step forward to reveal herself.
A grounder sidesteps out from behind a tree, spear in hand. Another follows him, with another spear. Clarke sucks in a breath.
They appear in ones and twos from all directions, men and women slowly emerging from the brush and from behind boulders, bows drawn, swords and spears ready, until they’re surrounding her. Everything is silently; it's as if they're materializing out of thin air. She glances around at their different styles of their clothing—they’re not the Tree People she’s familiar with, dressed instead in grey furs, or layers of dark brown and reds—and she wishes suddenly she’d gotten to know the clan leaders better.
When Clarke gives no sign of fighting or fleeing, the man standing directly in front of her tucks his sword back into his belt and steps forward. He appraises her with a careful eye.
“Skygirl,” he growls, finally.
She had heard it often enough in the grounder camps, whispered as she passed and usually laced with disdain or distrust but this is the first time she hears it spat with delight. A weight slips into her stomach. She’s a prize. She nods anyway.
Steady hands on bows and spears all around her retighten their grip. Clarke’s own fingers twitch on her gun, but, fighting instinct, she raises her chin instead of her arm.
“We still uphold our end of the alliance with the twelve clans,” she says. Her voice is hoarse from disuse. “We’re still on the same side.”
It’s met with low, rumbling laughter from the leader in front of her.
“The people of the desert do not stand with commanders who hide while their people burn and we do not stand with the sky people who burn them. The alliance is dead, skygirl. We’re at war. We march south with the Ice Nation and River Clan against the commander.”
The desert people. Clarke tries to think back through the hazy cloud of her memory before Mount Weather. Their leader…he was one of the few that never stopped glaring at her, despite Lexa’s warnings. They were from the far north, closer to the Ice Nation than the tree people—and the contingent they had sent for the war was small.
And Clarke can’t remember seeing any after the missile hit TonDC.
“We’ll take her to Azgedakwen,” a grounder to her left intones, in rougher, more halting English. He’s one of a few wearing the blue and gray of the Ice Nation.
The group mutters quietly in their harsh tones—Clarke recognizes none of the words Octavia tried to teach her—but anger, mistrust, derision are the same in every tongue.
Finally, their leader nods and gives an order Clarke doesn’t understand. Then he turns to walk away.
Her heart is pounding but numbness trickles cold down from her head, seeping into every muscle. As she raises her gun to shoulder-height and takes aim at, she’s sure she won’t feel the arrows and spears lodge themselves in her chest. They don’t matter anymore. Nothing matters anymore.
Then the world snaps and comes alive: a streak of gray explodes into her line of sight. There’s a grounder between her gun and the leader and she tries but her numb fingers can’t close around the trigger quickly enough before the grounder hits her with a sickening thud. Her breath rips from her chest, her vision goes white for the space of two heartbeats.
Her face is pressed into the dirt. An arrow whizzes over her head. The gun, unfired, is wrenched from her hands. And then it’s over.
There is a buzz of activity above her as she gasps for air and stretches searching fingers out for the gun that she knows she’ll never touch again. The man barks another command and she feels a rope wind around her wrists. Then a cloth is pulled over her face.
Hands are pulling at every part of her body, men and women shouting—as they pull her to her feet, Clarke tries to yank away and receives a blow to the stomach that leaves her hunched over and limp in their arms.
As they tie her hands to the horse’s saddle, Clarke wonders—not for the first time—if maybe she should have turned the gun on herself instead.
After two days of wearing a hood, of stumbling blindly through the forest with her arms tied to a horse in front of her, two days of hearing nothing but their rough, unfamiliar language, something has awoken in Clarke. Something primal.
They put the hood over the head of a girl who was just trying to straighten her shoulders on the crushing guilt of survival but they take the hood off of the girl who slit her own wrist just to get into the medical ward on Mount Weather and question the guard who had been on the outside.
And that girl is pissed.
As soon as it’s gone, she doesn’t even give her eyes time to adjust to the bright sunlight in the clearing before she lashes out with a kick at the nearest grounder, hitting him somewhere below the knee. He crumples down. She hears another surge in from her right and throws her body in that direction. Her wrists are still bound and tied to the horse but the two of them goes down in a heap and hears the man’s ribs crack under her weight. Someone grabs her—she wrenches away.
Then there’s a crack on the back of her head—she hears it before she feels it—and the earth flips and she’s facedown against it.
When she wakes up, at least it’s without the hood.
It’s night, now, and Clarke wakes to find herself bound to a tree on the edge of the clearing. She knows without even trying the bonds that it’s useless, but she amuses a nearby guard for a few minutes by struggling against the ropes anyway.
“Let me go,” she tries, even though she knows that’s useless too, “Please.”
He just stares at her.
With a grunt of futility, Clarke presses her head back against the tree and feels dried blood slough off of her scalp. She’s on the edge of the camp, just outside the glow of a central campfire surrounded by the hulking forms of the grounders. It’s the first time she’s seen them en masse: there over a dozen, maybe twenty. Mostly men, maybe four or five women. And surely, there are guards posted out of her sight. She tries the ropes again. The tree at her back is rough, maybe if she can work the fiber against it enough to wear it thin, and memorize when the guards change…
Another man near the fire notices her squirming and climbs to his feet to stomp over to her. He’s huge, with the jagged lower half of a human skull strapped to his face. The look in his eyes as he regards her is so intense—though she hasn’t stopped fighting the ropes—that she thinks she’s going to get hit again, so she braces herself, squeezing her eyes shut.
A second later, she feels the lip of a canteen pressed against her chin.
She purses her lips.
“You’re useless dead,” he says. She’s not sure how that’s meant to convince her but her throat feels like it’s coated in dust and she’s burning to survive; she accepts a sip of water with a glare. He returns it.
“Food, too,” the man says. He barks an order and someone comes over with strips of the boar meat she cooked days ago.
Clarke Griffin, Destroyer of Worlds, is handfed tiny pieces of meat.
She wears the glare and struggles against the ropes for the rest of the night even though she knows at this point that she’s so unthreatening that no one bothers to look her way. The grounders talk—even laugh—for hours as the fire dies down. They leave two guards posted at opposite ends of the campsite once they fall asleep and Clarke strains to stay awake, to study her enemy, but ultimately it proves as futile as trying to escape her bonds. She slips into blissful unconsciousness far after the last embers have gone out.
This time, when she wakes, there’s a hand over her mouth and a human skull inches from her face.
She lets out a scream and the hand presses harder over face, shutting her up immediately.
“Quiet, or we’ll both die.” The whispered voice is harsh, frantic, and Clarke realizes that it’s coming from the skull—the mask in front of her. A female grounder is crouched over Clarke, blocking her view of the rest of the camp.
There’s a knife in her hand.
The electric shock of fear in her stomach pulses through her again. She’s not listening—she can’t even hear.
The grounder in front of her hasn’t removed her hand from Clarke’s mouth, but her other hand is occupied as well: cutting through the ropes that hold her to the tree. The grounder’s eyes are the only thing visible behind the full-face skull mask. Clarke can’t stop staring, shocked into place. Her gaze flicks upward and she sees dark hair mostly tucked beneath a black bandana but beneath it, Clarke spots braids that send a pang of familiarity stinging into her chest. Octavia wears her hair like that.
She thinks of Octavia, of Bellamy, Jasper, Monty, Raven, her mother. She needs to see them again. She doesn’t want to die.
The moment she feels the ropes loosen, Clarke lunges upward and throws her weight against the woman, knocking her off balance, then Clarke scrambles back until her fingers close around a fist-sized rock she spotted earlier in the evening. She swings it upward, forcing the grounder back as she tries to climb to her feet. Her legs shake beneath her. Six hours tied to a tree will do that to you.
For a moment, time stops as the two women eye each other warily, one with a knife and one with a rock, bodies tense, illuminated only by moonlight.
“You have to run,” the other woman says, voice barely above a whisper. “Keep the moon on your right side. At dawn, keep the sun on your left side. Do not stop. I’m their tracker, I’ll lead them in a different direction. But—”
Clarke hefts the rock, waiting for an attack. “What the hell are you talking about?” she demands, louder than she anticipated in her attempt to be intimidating.
“Shof op! Tonight is the first night I have been on guard, you—”
But the damage is done—Clarke’s entire body stiffens as she hears hoarse shouts and the rustle of blankets and the clattering of weapons. She looks past the grounder woman into the camp and sees shapes start to rise from the brush.
The woman looks over her shoulder too, snarling a curse, and when she looks back at Clarke she’s the first to react. In one smooth moment, she lunges forward, knocks the rock from Clarke’s hands and loops an arm around Clarke’s waist with an iron grip. Her momentum carries them both back several feet before she drives them both to the ground. The breath explodes out of Clarke’s chest on the impact.
The shouts are louder now. “Skaigirl!” echoes through the trees and now there’s true fear in her limbs.
The grounder has her pinned with her slight but strong body but Clarke fights with everything she has, trying to hold the knife away and reach for the woman’s throat. Instead, her fingers hook into the teeth of the skull mask. She rips it off and flings it into the darkness.
Her nose is crooked, her face is dirty and bruised, her hair is streaked red with something that looks like blood, and her once intricate braids are now subtle and hidden but Lexa is the one sitting on top of her, a storm of fear and anger and desperation in her green eyes. They’re more wild than she’s ever seen them but Clarke would know those eyes anywhere; she sees them every night in her nightmares.
It’s too much, a nuclear explosion of emotion, and Clarke goes limp. She can’t fight anymore.
This isn’t real. The pain in her body, the shouts echoing above her, those are definitely real, but Lexa isn’t here. She can’t be here.
Surprised at Clarke’s sudden lack of resistance, she flings her knife away and releases Clarke’s arms.
“Hit me back,” Lexa hisses through clenched teeth. “Clarke!”
Clarke still isn’t sure if she’s hallucinating the woman above her but the sound of her own name from that voice has her hands forming into fists. She strikes upward, blindly.
Crack. Bone on bone, clean and pure. Lexa’s head snaps back and the shout of pain that escapes her lips has a strange satisfaction burning deep in Clarke’s chest even as the onrushing grounders block out the sky above her.
She’s hauled to her feet and nearly thrown back down again but the grounder leader balls his fist into the back of her jacket and holds her up. He shouts something—someone else translates for Clarke, but she’s not listening. She’s shaking.
She watches Lexa scramble unsteadily to her feet and limp to the other side of camp, ducking behind another grounder before daring to turn back and look.
They stare at each other from across the fire, Lexa’s expression unreadable. There’s blood streaming down over her chin. She was covered in blood last time Clarke saw her, too, though back then it had been the blood of their shared enemy.
Then Lexa pulls the skull mask back onto her face and retreats further into the circle of guards.
When you plunged that knife into the heart of the boy you loved, did you not wish that it was mine?
She didn’t then, back when she needed Lexa.
She’s not as sure now.