It shouldn’t have happened. She should have gone down into safety with the others, should have sucked it up and done what was responsible, expected, Clarke.
But she had a moment of clarity -- insanity? -- poised to descend into the buried shelter, when she catches a glimpse of Wells’ face and thinks: I want to kill him.
It terrifies her.
She’s been choking back this rage for too long, holding back white-knuckled. Now she looks at this small, dark space, the anguish on the face of her best friend, and some small voice whispers: do it here, he might not even stop you.
Clarke turns and runs.
It’s the craziest thing she’s ever done -- the alarm blaring in her ears, Finn and Wells both shouting after her like madmen. But between the terror sweeping toward them on the air, and the monster inside her clawing to get out, Clarke knows which one frightens her most.
While running she stumbles and falls face-first into the ground, only to discover she tripped on a steel door embedded in the ground. When she gets back up onto her knees she glimpses old stones, just adjacent, in a roughly rectangular shape -- the outlines of the ancient foundations of a house. Her hands are tugging at the door handles before her brain can fully form the words storm cellar , the ancient and rusted lock dissolving with one good pull. She lowers herself into the darkness just as the virulent orange fog spills between the trees surrounding.
Clarke drops into darkness, landing badly on one leg. She shoves the pain to one side and drags herself deeper, letting the door fall shut behind her with a clang. She can hear -- things -- rustling in the pitch black of the cellar, curls in tight, and waits.
She makes herself count to two thousand, slowly, before she holds her breath and lifts the door up again.
The fog is gone.
But she’s completely lost.
At first, she keeps meticulous track of the days.
It takes her two days to find the river again, and when she does she plunges her hands into the cold, clear water and drinks. Screw contamination. Between dying of radiation or thirst, she’ll take the second head.
She lies on her back, reveling in the feeling of not being thirsty for long moments before dragging herself to her feet. So, she has no idea where she is, and no way to carry water with her. She’ll have to stick to the river. Eventually she’ll come back to where they found the seaweed -- this isn’t it, she doesn’t recognize any landmarks -- and eventually the others will come back there for supplies, or to look for her. Or maybe she can find her way back herself from there.
Fine. She’ll be fine. Humans can survive for weeks on only water, she remembers that from Earth Skills. She just needs to follow the river.
Of course, the river flows in two directions.
She wastes half the day debating; trying to remember the position of the sun in the sky when she was with Finn and Wells, the slope of the land, the direction of the current. But it’s all jangled together with the blare of the alarm, the slick of dark hatred in her heart.
She decides to follow the river east. She wraps her arms around herself, shivering as the sun begins to descend. It can’t be more than, well, okay, three days’ walk at the most. She can do that. She’ll be fine.
On the seventh day her wristband dies.
It’s been an ever-present hum against the veins in her wrist ever since she woke up on the dropship. Nothing she could hear, but the workings of the hardware inside -- measuring, evaluating, relating -- created a vibration that couldn’t quite be ignored. And then it just. Stops.
Clarke immediately sits down. She’s already weak from hunger (and fear and doubt and I must have been crazy and maybe I’m still crazy why else would I keep walking except maybe it’s just ahead of me), this takes her out at the knees.
She stares at the wristband, wasting precious moments of daylight waiting for it to blip back on, stutter back to life, the technological equivalent of a prank.
A sob rises up in her throat. She hasn’t allowed herself tears since she realized how stupid she’d been. She doesn’t have the time or water to waste. But she didn’t realize until now how much she relied on the wristband -- knowing somewhere above her head, her mom was listening to her heartbeat and monitoring each breath. She couldn’t really be lost, not if Abby could read her stats; somewhere inside her persisted the childish belief in her mother’s omnipotence, her refusal to let her only child actually die.
How had this happened? Was it the Ark, had something gone wrong up there? Or was it the dropship -- another maneuver from Bellamy to separate them from the adults in the sky?
Oh. Now no one has any way of knowing she’s still alive.
(She has a gruesome thought: maybe it died because she did. Maybe she just hasn’t figured that out yet.)
Panic has her clawing at the dead metal like it could pass infection. She breaks it between two rocks -- one fairly flat and embedded in the ground, another she pulled from the river the size of her fist. It comes away from her wrist with a sting like regret.
Clarke throws the pieces into the river. She spares a thought that, between her hunger and the nights spent shivering and in a state of half-wakefulness, her decision making might be affected. Adversely.
It doesn’t matter. She has to keep walking.
Clarke thinks obsessively of how to find food. She tracks the surface of the river looking for fish, or even evidence of a predator whose presence would mean fish. She’s not sure how she would catch anything, but finding them would be a start. She can’t bring herself to wander too far away from the sound of the river, but everything in earshot has been picked clean by the animals that must come to its banks to drink.
She thinks herself incredibly lucky when she sees a quick flash of movement deeper in the woods and discovers a family of non-mutated deer grazing on a kind of plant with thick, tuberous roots. They scatter as she shouts, and her hands shake as she digs up whatever was left uneaten. She makes a pouch of her shirt and takes them back to the river, which now cuts deeper into the earth, growing wider and wilder. The current is steady and strong at this point. All she has to do is keep a tight grip on each tuber as she lowers it below the surface, let the water wash away the dirt.
She eats them one by one sitting cross-legged by the river. She’s too hungry not to, and even a little afraid something else will step out of the trees and try to eat them first. Roots are good, she remembers: potatoes, carrots, they contain all kinds of vitamins and energy. These aren’t too difficult to eat raw. The flesh is firm but yielding beneath her teeth, the skins papery. The taste might leave something to be desired, but she doesn’t care -- the sensation of chewing, swallowing, of filling her stomach is the most delicious thing in the world. She doesn’t even mind the slightly acidic flavor of the juice, or how it leaves her tongue and lips feeling a bit tender.
She falls asleep after. It’s not a conscious decision, and afterwards she realizes she should have expected it: she’s put her body through unimaginable stress. She just sent new supplies to the metaphorical troops and they’re calling a time-out for redistribution and repairs. Fatigue presses her to the ground like an actual weight, and she has just enough presence of mind to shift to a defensive position behind one of the larger rocks, before sleep rises up to take her.
When she wakes up it’s almost night, the sky drenched in colors like a canvas. She feels impossibly good, and as she stands she stretches, giving up an unconscious groan of satisfaction.
Except she doesn’t.
She opens her mouth, and there’s nothing there.
She spends the rest of that night waiting for the other symptoms. She runs through the possibilities in her head -- nausea, vomiting, bloody bowels, fever -- and when she reaches the end of a list that’s exhaustive even for the daughter of a medical professional, she starts again at the top. She simply sits, watching her hands clench and unclench in the soft light of the endless stars, and thinks about how she might die.
But when light begins to filter in gold from the rising sun she’s still staring down at her own hands, and she’s still alive.
Also, she can hear something in the woods.
A few days ago she might have moved on, and quickly. Now, though, it’s hard to feel anything but disconnected -- there’s no immediacy to anything, no driving need. She’s in shock, she realizes, but it’s hard to care about that, either.
Maybe it’s another family of deer showing her something to eat. Maybe this time she’ll go blind. She laughs, silently.
Except -- as Clarke carelessly makes her way through the trees, uncaring of how the sounds of the river grow softer and softer -- it isn’t animals.
She thinks she might have been prepared for anything except this.
They’re young -- really young, barely old enough to be playing out here on their own. She freezes and drops down to the forest floor, creeps forward by inches until she has a good vantage point behind some particularly thick bushes. Here, she can stare and stare and stare until her eyes are dry and her heart is satisfied.
There are people on the ground.
And they look like people, or at least the young ones do: one head, two hands, no fangs or misshapen heads from where she’s crouched in the dirt. Maybe it hits them at puberty.
(Maybe the people on the Ark have always been wrong, about everything.)
They aren’t speaking English. That’s one of the few things keeping Clarke convinced this is real, she’s really seeing this, this isn’t another symptom (hallucinations) or a final mental break before dying. Their clothes are another clue -- surely if this were a product of her own fevered brain she wouldn’t have dressed them in rags and scraps, layers making up for the obvious rips and holes. She wonders for a few minutes if they’re as lost as she is -- abandoned? -- but then she notices the details: too-long sleeves rolled up and tied carefully at their wrists, scarves and sashes wrapped just where they’re needed for warmth. She has a sudden memory of the way Abby would inspect her every morning before primary school: brushing momentary wrinkles out of the soft tunic that serves as a uniform for the younger kids. Clarke blinks back tears, puts a hand over her mouth to quiet the breathing that’s gone ragged.
The children don’t notice. They’re too wrapped up in their game. It's straightforward: they’ve staked out a little area between a shallow cave in a rock face and a creek, the ground cleared of underbrush. One of the children comes out the cave, a ragged fur pelt draped around her shoulders, and the others greet her with upraised arms and a rhythmic chant. The first child takes this as her due, swaggering around the clearing, pointing and delivering what seems to be orders that the others rush to obey. Then teams are negotiated and the group splits, convening on opposite sides of the clearing. The first child -- the leader? -- lets out a blood-curdling war cry, the apparent signal for the two groups to rush each other and begin play-fighting.
Wait, that’s not play-fighting at all.
They’re not fighting-fighting -- no blood, and it seems previously agreed that head shots are off limits -- but the rest of it looks very real. Very... competent. The children face off one on one, each in a fighter’s crouch, keeping their weight on the balls of their feet. They circle each other with looks of absolute seriousness. Their hands are quick when they aim their blows. Clarke watches pain flash across their faces when something lands but no one cries, and no one sits down in the dirt to demand a time out.
She feels a chill crawl up her spine. What kind of adults raise children like this?
There’s a signal she misses and it’s suddenly play again: half of the kids stagger, groan, clutch at their chests as they slowly fall to the ground, their victorious opponents cheering and jumping around in victory, eventually rejoining in their previous chant: “Heda! Heda! Heda!”
The whole thing takes less than ten minutes, and they start again from the top. The only change is the child wearing the moth-eaten mantle of leadership. The chosen leader also gets to daub mud on her face. Clarke missed that part of the costume change the first time around. They do it again, and again, and again.
Somewhere around the fifth reiteration of the game, Clarke realizes two things. One: she’s bored. That’s probably another sign this is really happening, she doesn’t think boredom features much in poisonous hallucinations. Two: the leader-child is always one of the girls.
One of the kids stops and shouts, pointing up at the sun where it dazzles through the trees. The rest of them fall to: re-tying loose ends of their clothing, rinsing faces and arms off in the creek, and carefully storing the fur back in the shallow cave. Then they’re off, whooping and shouting as they wend their way deeper into the woods.
Clarke makes herself count to three hundred before trusting that they won’t come back soon and crawling out from behind her bush.
She searches the cave, spurred by faint memories of playing with Wells on the Ark. There hadn’t been too many places to hide things, but kids are ever eager for secrets. She has to stoop down low to crawl far enough inside. She finds a few rough-hewn knives, each small enough for a child’s hand, a pile of clothes even older and more ragged than the ones the children had been wearing, and a couple smaller furs. Rabbits, she thinks. They’re in good shape, if small.
And there’s food. It’s so well-hidden she nearly misses it, but there’s a string tied around one of the rocks piled in the corner of the cave. When she lifts up that rock, the string pulls up a soft bag from the loose earth underneath. Picking the knot free takes a moment, and inside she finds apples and strips of dried meat.
She moves outside the cave to sit and eat her spoils. Her body is still humming on the edge of exhaustion -- whatever she gained with her previous sleep was lost in the subsequent shocks -- and so she forces herself to relax, soaking up the warm sunshine. The meat is spiced oddly and her stomach cramps a little in apprehension, but she swallows it down. The bag she found the food in is also odd. She turns it over and over in her hands. There’s a slickness to the surface. It’s cotton or another natural fiber, she realizes, treated with something to make it waterproof.
The children might have caught the rabbits that gave up those small pelts, but they didn’t do this. And the meat is strong and gamey, probably venison. She doesn’t think children that young could take down a deer by themselves, however skilled they are at fighting.
When the children left, they acted like they were expected somewhere else. So somewhere in the woods, somewhere close by, is a village or encampment. Of people who have been living on the ground all this time.
She’s so deep in her own thoughts she doesn’t register the rustle of undergrowth until it’s too late, and she’s looking at wide eyes on the opposite side of the clearing.
The little girl turns and runs so quickly, so silently, that Clarke wonders for a second if she actually saw her -- but then realizes she doesn’t have time to debate her senses, she has to go now. She sweeps up the bag of food, the knives, even the rabbit pelts, heart racing, she doesn’t know if she has the strength or resources to make back the distance lost to get to the others but she has to try and --
She hears a single, pained shriek from deep in the trees, and then silence.
It’s not her problem. She resumes walking, trying to find a speed that will give her the edge but not cut too clear a path. The little girl was running back to safety, and safety means grownups, and grownups means Clarke has other problems than --
None of the children cried out when they were punched or pushed down. How badly would the girl have to be hurt to make a sound like that?
No. She has her own people to think about. If they’re still alive. If the dead wristband wasn’t the symptom of a bigger issue. If she can make it back on three apples and two mouthfuls of dried meat.
This girl was so small. The youngest. When she played victorious leader the others carried her on their shoulders. She kicked her feet in glee as they cheered.
Clarke clenches her jaw so tight it aches. She marches over to the nearest low-hanging branch, tying the food bag out of the reach of animals. Stupid, she tells herself. Soft-hearted, she scolds as she throws the pelts over the branch as well. Bellamy’s right, you don’t have what it takes to stay alive, much less lead, as she sticks the small knives into her boots and belt.
Then she turns back.
The girl fell into a pit trap, most likely one set by her older friends to collect more rabbits. Clarke is surprised she hasn’t climbed out on her own until she spots the way the little girl clutches one arm to her chest. She’s in pain, but the tears making their way down her thin cheeks are silent. The only sound she makes is a sharp inhale when Clarke steps into view.
Clarke spares a thought for her appearance after days of walking and sleeping on the ground -- well. It’s not like she has time for a quick dip in the creek. She crouches at the edge of the trap, shows her hands. She reaches slowly for the girl, who presses back and kicks. A whimper escapes her throat when the movement jostles her, and Clarke uses the moment of distraction from the pain to grab her uninjured arm at the wrist. The little girl freezes, and Clarke waits, letting her take in the situation -- see, I’m not pulling you anywhere, I’m just keeping you from hitting me, I don’t want to hurt you -- before holding out her other hand, palm up. Nods at the arm the girl keeps tucked against her chest.
The girl’s shoulders slump, and she stretches out her arm. Clarke pulls up her sleeve and runs a gentle pressure down the length of her forearm, and the girl hisses. It’s only a greenstick fracture, if that. Clarke releases her other arm, again showing her open hands and slow movements as she reaches for one of the small knives. The girl tenses, but Clarke turns her body so she can see how Clarke is just cutting a small length from one of the thicker branches fallen to the ground, and then stripping the wood from one side to form a flatish surface. She puts the knife away and shows the girl how to hold the branch against her bad arm, securing it at the wrist. Clarke thankfully thought to bring the rags she found earlier in the cave, and now she tears them into long strips as she winds and ties, winds and ties, so that the arm is held straight by the splint. The girl grunts a couple times but doesn’t try to move away, dark eyes going from Clarke to her own arm and back again.
It’s a neat job, even if Clarke thinks so herself. When she’s done the girl’s sleeve slips to cover the whole thing. Clarke reaches down and the girl doesn’t jerk away, allowing herself to be hauled up by hands hooked under her armpits. The weight unbalances Clarke, who falls back onto the ground. By the time she hauls herself upright the girl has darted off into the trees.
And then Clarke doesn’t leave.
She’s not entirely sure why not.
Part of her can’t quite face tracking the river again, days spent simply retracing her own steps. Part of her protests leaving the first human beings -- even humans affected in who knows what ways by nuclear fallout -- she’s seen in days after so long on her own. Maybe, if the little girl brings adults, she’ll tell them Clarke helped her. Maybe they’ll want to help her back. Maybe she can take them back to the dropship, and these people who know how to store meat and waterproof fabric can help the hundred survive.
(Or how to craft and throw a spear, but she thinks that might not have been them, they’re so many days walk from there. Maybe they know who attacked them, and can help.)
But when she wakes with the rising sun and makes her way back to the clearing, careful to keep behind cover, it’s still empty. There’s only -- Clarke squints -- a small object placed in its center, wrapped in large green leaves.
Of course, of course she thinks it could be a trap. But curiosity itches at her until she can’t take it, and she tells herself: you wanted to stay behind and see what happened.
So she crosses into the open space. She picks up a branch to poke back the leaves. When they unwrap, it releases a scent into the air that makes Clarke’s mouth water, something sweet and nutty and good. She sits to peel away the rest, spying a small, round cake, dotted with seeds and is that sugar, the small crystals picking up the light?
She’s breaking off a piece to cram in her mouth before she can think. A part of her is asking isn’t this how we got in trouble before? but it’s drowned out by the rest of her screaming back shut up shut up it’s SO GOOD. It is incredibly good. After unknown days of water and walking, it’s the best thing she’s eaten in her life, and her eyes flutter shut with bliss.
When she opens them, seven pairs of eyes are staring back.
The oldest is the first to step closer. Clarke remembers her from the games, and how when she played leader her war cries were so convincing they made Clarke jump. She holds her head just as high, now, as she raises her voice to make an almost imperial demand.
Clarke, mouth full of cake, points to her throat and shakes her head.
It’s clear they understand. The children whisper among themselves until the oldest girl hisses something that makes them fall silent. But they appear to be at ends at what to do next.
Clarke swallows, holds up another piece of cake as an offering.
The leader steps forward, cautious, one step at a time. She comes just close enough to stretch out her hand and take the morsel between her fingertips. She sniffs it -- Clarke raises an eyebrow. Didn’t they bring it themselves? But maybe they think Clarke has transformed it somehow, changed it with her touch. The girl tastes it, chewing slowly.
She announces something to the others, never taking her eyes off Clarke. Whatever she says, the other children relax, shuffling forward. The little girl from yesterday barrels to the front, climbing into Clarke’s lap like she’s claiming the best seat. Clarke stiffens. She’s not used to younger kids, really, she only saw them when brought in for medical attention, and they were scared and clinging to parents. But this little girl chatters away, unselfconscious as she rolls up her sleeve to show Clarke the makeshift splint from yesterday. It’s holding together well, and Clarke gives her a smile. The girl smiles back and then looks at the seed cake, expectant. Clarke hands over a piece and she sits back to eat in comfort.
The older children have more restraint. One by one they gently push any offer of cake back on Clarke, making encouraging motions as she eats. She imagines congratulating their parents: you’ve raised them to be fearsome fighters AND gracious hosts. They cluster closer, examining the ends of her hair, the treads on her boots, growing less cautious as they jostle each other for a better look. When Clarke finishes eating, they immediately notice as her eyes begin to drift shut. They herd her as a group into the cave, pushing and pulling at her clothes, ordering (she guesses) her to sleep inside. When she lies down they throw the ragged fur over her shoulders, and the oldest points at her, then the ground, repeating a word.
Okay, Clarke thinks, as she begins to drift off. I’ll stay.
Their names are, from biggest to smallest: Baya, Jeffer, Balti, Anka, Chesa, Largo, and Thesda. They’ve come up with a name for her as well, something liquid and gurgling that Clarke can’t quite follow. She’s doing her best to work out their language. It isn’t so far from English, she thinks. Almost like English run backwards and underwater, the syllables loose and disjointed. Sometimes, when she tilts her head back and tries not to think too hard, she can just about understand.
The children make that a lot easier, repeating things to her endlessly, speaking slow and clear. They don’t seem at all fazed at her lack of understanding and happily tell her the names of whatever she points at like they’re reciting a lesson for an approving teacher, each demanding a turn. She’s lucky in that respect, she guesses; adults would be more suspicious.
Adults probably wouldn’t make her into something of a pet, either. They bring her food in the mornings and late afternoon when the older ones can get away. Whatever chores or lessons keep them from the clearing don’t seem to apply to Thesda, who finds time at midday as well. Clarke might have found it in herself to creep away the day of the seed cake, when the others were away -- except Thesda returned just as she was about to go, and the look in the little girl’s eyes made Clarke drop her bundle with a sigh. She needs to rest up for a few days anyway, she tells herself, it can only help in the long run. She ignores the guilt whenever Thesda holds on a little too tightly, or walks backward out of the clearing as if Clarke will vanish in an eyeblink.
They bring her things besides food: blankets, and even clothing. None of it’s new or in good enough shape to be missed. They’re smart kids, she thinks with a grin, but she can only imagine how exciting it must be to have this kind of secret.
She feels a little better, and a little stronger, with each day. She manages to get the worst of the dirt off, courtesy of the creek, but her old clothes are a sour and sweat-stained lost cause. It turns out for the best, since the clothes the kids sneak for her, though ragged, are so much warmer she’s surprised. They even find her a pair of mismatched boots. They’re too big, but they’re lined with fur. The nights get colder with each sundown, so this is good -- these are things Clarke will need when she finally starts to make her way back.
She keeps telling herself that -- she’s resting, she’s saving up food for the journey back, she’s learning their language and that will help (somehow) -- as the days pass.
Right up until she’s discovered.
“Commander, this cannot stand. Their families think they are taking food to a wild animal.”
It’s all too easy to track the girl’s eyes, stark against dark paint, as she looks up Clarke and down. “Are we so sure they are not?” she asks, dry.