Clarke hunched lower, and watched the figure from her vantage point behind a tree. He—she was sure her visitor was male—held his hand over the firepit but he’d find it cold because she hadn’t yet lit a fire this day.
He examined the area near the firepit where she had slept the night before and she knew he was trying to determine how long ago she’d been there. She scanned the area behind him and listened, though if he hadn’t come alone, chances were she wouldn’t have known. If Grounders didn’t want to be seen, they weren’t. She waited until he was nearly on top of her, within reach, and then she moved quickly and grabbed his wrist. She pulled with the same motion and he stumbled, surprised. She had her knife to his throat as he sank to his knees, his wrist still in her grip.
He tried to jerk his arm away but she jerked it right back. “Hod op.”1
He stopped moving and she recognized him, then, beneath the streaks of black paint and grime of travel. Zander, a Trikru2 teen who ran errands for Niylah when she required his services. Not even past fourteen, she’d guessed when she first met him at the trading stop, but Grounder teens and even children could be as formidable as adults.
She pressed the knife into his flesh. Not enough to bring blood, but enough to make him aware of the potential. “How many are you today, Zander?”
He used his free hand to slowly point at himself.
She tightened her grip on his wrist. It had to hurt, but he didn’t wince or flinch. “What do you want?”
“Niylah sent me.”
She stared hard at him, searching for confirmation of either truth or lie. She went with the former since she had no reason not to and she let go of his wrist, though she kept her knife positioned at his throat. He slowly moved his hands to his chest, and with the fingers of one hand, he touched a leather cord around his neck, some of it hidden within his shirt. She nodded and he slowly pulled it to reveal a carved bone pendant. It was one of Niylah’s.
She lowered her knife. “Why?”
“She has a message.”
“Two gona came yesterday, but not to trade. They asked many questions about Wanheda.”3
Warriors. She frowned. “Who were they?”
She was familiar with that term. Ice Nation. The thought came unbidden, of Lexa’s quiet words at a funeral pyre, about her loss of a woman named Costia at the hands of Azgeda. She gritted her teeth and willed images of Lexa to disperse. They never did. “What else did Niylah say?”
“The gona said their queen has offered a higher bounty for Wanheda, and that there are many more searching.”
“The power of Wanheda,” he said, as if it was entirely evident.
She straightened and sheathed her knife. She had left Mt. Weather to escape death, to escape her association with it and the events that led to the choice she’d had to make. But instead, the events of nearly three months ago hung around her neck, a weight she couldn’t shed, in the rumors of Wanheda that swirled around her, the commander of death, who brought vengeance to the mountain and put an end to the grisly experiments within its depths.
“Niylah said you would be able to alert Wanheda.” He said it almost reverently and she looked at him, wondering if perhaps he had lost someone to the mountain or if he only carried the growing folklore around because it held romantic appeal.
There is no romance in death, she wanted to tell him. There is nothing even remotely redemptive about flooding Mt. Weather with radiation and watching people of all ages die in the onslaught, their blistered and bubbling skin still the stuff of her nightmares, still the reminder of Lexa’s betrayal.
She hated the memory. Hated thinking of Lexa’s choice. But she hated more that deep within, she knew she would’ve done the same thing Lexa had—did do the same thing, when she killed so many to save her people. She understood Lexa on levels she knew the Commander understood her, but she was not ready to either face that or dissect it.
“Go back to the trading stop,” she said. “Tell Niylah you delivered the message.”
He nodded once and tucked the necklace back into his shirt. “Careful, nameless one. Niylah says there are many Azgeda in search of the bounty. Others, too.”
He nodded again at her expression of thanks and moved quickly into the forest.
She was a two-hour walk from Niylah’s, and a half-day’s walk from the nearly buried structure where she’d been living since she walked away from Arkadia, drained, either incapable or unwilling to bear the weight of Mt. Weather.
“Some leader,” she muttered, surprising herself with the sound of her voice with no one else to hear. She’d grown used to external silence, a strange counterbalance to the interior voices of the ghosts she’d brought from the mountain. She’d lived mostly in silence for weeks, coming to an appreciation and understanding of why and how Grounders communicated within it so well. Wasted words were wasted breath and wasted effort and could mean the difference between life and death. There was beauty in silence, in the subtexts within it, and in the way a glance communicated so much more than a sentence, in the way an expression conveyed intent.
She thought again of Lexa, but then, she was never free of thoughts of her. Lexa’s expressions were often guarded and spare on the surface, but Clarke guessed the depths behind them, and it made her all the more angry that she couldn’t bring herself to hate her. Anger fueled Clarke’s physical survival, but it devoured her emotional reserves. Part of her penance, maybe. She bit her lower lip hard enough to draw blood, and the taste of it always helped with the memories because every drop she spilled was another payment for what she’d done.
Did Lexa carry ghosts? Did she ever regret her decisions? And had she ever really cared, after the soft but hungry kisses in her tent a few months ago? Had she really cared after Mt. Weather’s missile decimated Tondc, when Lexa pulled Clarke with her?
Had she ever really cared, or was Clarke just another cog in Lexa’s political machinations?
She spat blood from her lip onto the forest floor and kicked dirt over it with the toe of her boot, trying to ignore the cold, hard pain in her chest when she thought of Lexa on the mountain. Instead, she focused on skinning the rabbits she’d caught earlier that day, scraped the pelts, and wrapped the flesh in them.
Two hours to the trading stop was a better prospect than the trip back to her shelter. She had colored her hair as dark as she could get it, using charcoal and ash, and she streaked her face along her cheekbones the way some Grounders did, but she avoided extended contact with most because she didn’t speak the language very well yet, and that marked her as Skaikru faster than anything else.
Clarke placed the rabbits in a burlap sack and slung it across her shoulders next to her pack so she could move easily and followed the direction Zander had gone, along a game trail, settling easily into the quiet rhythms of the forest, and the constant companionship of her memories.
1Hod op: stop
2Trikru: Tree Crew; Woods Clan
3gona...Wanheda: warrior/warriors...commander of death; descriptive of Clarke after Mt. Weather
4Mochof: Thank you
She’d been watching the trading stop for a while. Time didn’t mean much anymore, though Clarke still carried a wristwatch next to her heart, on a leather thong. The only thing left of her father’s that she had. It no longer worked, and it might’ve been absurd that she still carried something that no longer functioned with its intended purpose, but it did still function as a tie, however tenuous, to him. It helped her remember beyond the last image she had of him, ejected out the airlock of the Ark, gone before she even had time to register his presence in front of the doors.
She felt its weight now, along with that of three hundred lives at Mt. Weather. She didn’t have the luxury of a disappearance in an instant at the mountain, and instead she saw those people linger, heard them scream, watched her people in the room with the residents of the mountain stand helplessly by, knowing she had pulled the lever.
The underbrush hid her, but she was uncomfortable so she shifted and winced as her muscles protested and the healing wound on her back itched beneath her shirt. She’d gotten that almost two weeks ago, when she brought a panther down. Niylah had patched her up initially, and showed her how to skin it. Clarke was lucky she’d stumbled upon the trading stop her first couple of weeks in the forest and that Niylah kept her own counsel. Since then, Clarke tried to provide her meat and pelts as payment for helping, but she wondered if it would ever be enough to balance the price exacted by the blood on her hands.
The sun hung low, and with nightfall came some safety from prying eyes, but new threats from others—animals that hunted at night, whether human or not. The trading stop stood ten yards distant, carved out of the forest, its external structure low-slung and organic, as if parts of the forest had uprooted themselves and rearranged themselves into the building’s curved ribs and roof and the labyrinthine array of smaller structures and objects that Niylah and her family had accumulated over the years. A few miles beyond lay a sweeping plain Clarke hadn’t tried to cross yet. Beyond that lay the Ice Nation and she had no interest in going there.
Lexa had lost someone dear to Ice Nation, and she thought of that often, too. It added to the mystery that was Lexa, that she could be heartless but vulnerable, cruel but caring. She pushed hair out of her face. Not such a mystery, perhaps, because she had known from the moment she’d first met her that they shared commonalities. Both thrust into positions of leadership young, both willing to do whatever they must to ensure the safety of their respective people, both willing to work together—to a point, in Lexa’s case—toward a common goal.
The horse outside the trading stop jerked its head up, as if it heard something. Clarke watched it, and it relaxed after a few moments, its tail flicking at its hindquarters to ward off insects. This horse didn’t exhibit any overt signs of radiation-caused mutation, but she knew that exteriors didn’t always tell the whole story.
Which took her back to Lexa. She should be annoyed, that the Commander dominated her thoughts so much, but the truth was she preferred thoughts of Lexa—even her betrayal—to the memories of Mt. Weather. And if she was being honest with herself, thoughts of Lexa kept her anchored, kept her focused. Kept her from completely losing herself to the mountain.
Finally, the last of the Grounders she’d seen go into Niylah’s since she had burrowed into her hiding place left. The Grounder mounted her horse and headed west, deeper into the interior of the forest along the smooth track that decades of foot- and horse-travel had pounded into the soil.
Clarke waited longer, until Zander emerged from the structure and started jogging in the same direction as the horsewoman. She watched until he was out of sight, until she heard nothing beyond the breezes and calls of birds and then she stood, stretched, and moved quickly to the post’s front entrance, which faced away from her, marked by two huge logs that curved and tapered toward their tops, creating an archway beneath which visitors passed to access the door, weaving between tables stacked with a variety of objects.
“Heya,”5 Clarke said at the doorway. She always appreciated the trading post’s comfortable interior, like the interior of a barrel cut in half. Shelves lined its walls, and many of them held pelts, clothing, weapons, and many other things that would no doubt find use with someone.
Handmade and rustic furnishings somehow made the space welcoming, in their mismatched cheerful clutter. So different than the sterile, angular, and bare spaces of the Ark that had defined Clarke’s existence up until just a few months ago.
Niylah turned, surprised, her expression framed in the lean features of her face and the long light brown tresses and braids of her hair. She wore the comfortable leather trousers of Grounders tucked into boots and a loose overshirt the color of wet earth.
Clarke held the burlap sack up. “What can I get for these?”
Niylah took it and glanced inside. “A meal,” she said with a smile. “Why have you come, nameless one? Zander delivered my message and still you are here.” Concern flashed in the shifting gray-green of her eyes.
She shrugged. “Why has the Ice Nation increased the bounty?”
“Mmm,” Niylah said. “When did you last eat?”
She hesitated. Yesterday? She wasn’t sure, and Niylah shook her head.
“As I thought. Talk later.” She took the bag with the rabbits and moved to a table constructed of part of a tree trunk cut in half lengthwise. She started chopping the rabbits up with a knife in quick, practiced motions, the muscles in her forearms flexing. Clarke set her pack down and watched. Niylah had taught her a few things about hunting and skinning that supplemented the Earth skills she’d learned on the Ark, but she learned a lot by observing, too.
After she finished, Niylah checked the pelts. “Good,” she said with a smile at her as she ran her fingers along the scraped underside, indicating that Clarke had done a better job than last time at scraping them clean. She submerged the pelts in a pot of what Clarke knew was salted water and then placed the pieces of meat on charred metal skewers. She left them on the table and went out back to a firepit. Within a few minutes, Niylah had a fire going. Clarke knew that once it had collapsed into embers, she would grill the meat. The thought made her salivate. She hadn’t had meat in a few days, and she was hungry. Tired, too.
So damn tired.
Niylah handed her a large swath of cloth and a piece of rough soap. She took them without question and went outside to a battered metal wash basin. Niylah filled it from a nearby stream every day, so the water was always fresh. She stripped quickly in the twilight and washed up as best she could, leaving her hair alone. Grounders kept their hair clean, too, but she couldn’t risk washing the makeshift dye out.
She stood in the growing darkness, the night air caressing her, raising goosebumps on her flesh, and she thought about the night she’d spent in the forest with Lexa after the pauna6 attack, about Lexa’s expression when she refused to leave her, though injured, to the beast’s rage.
Clarke needed her then, and she’d told her as much, said that though Lexa may be heartless, she was smart, and if an alliance was going to work, Lexa had to be alive. Clarke didn’t tell her that she needed her in other ways, that the knife’s edge of Lexa’s spirit had slid cleanly through Clarke’s emotional defenses, and grafted itself gently onto the wounds within that both marred and defined her. No, she didn’t say that then, but Lexa had studied her for a moment, and then allowed her to help.
Even injured, Lexa had kept watch that night, and Clarke had slept for a few hours, slept without dreams or fear, for the first time since she’d come to the ground, deriving comfort from Lexa’s presence even in the unease between them. Now, she took comfort from the memory of Lexa’s lips on hers, and in the knowledge that Lexa had respected Clarke’s need to deal with loss.
Her knuckles hurt from gripping the cloth so hard. How could she feel so safe and so emotionally vulnerable at the same time around someone? How was it that Lexa had burrowed so deeply under her skin in so short a time? That she was both pleasure and pain in Clarke’s heart, both the question and the answer?
She dressed in her clothing, which needed a washing too, but she didn’t want to take the time. She smelled the hot tang of cooking meat and went back to the firepit, where Niylah sat on her haunches, tending the meat. She had positioned the skewers on the stones that ringed the embers, and she reached to readjust one. The coals hissed as juices from the meat dripped onto them and Clarke’s mouth watered. She went inside and hung the drying cloth on a peg inside and returned the soap to the shelf where Niylah kept it.
A few minutes later Niylah handed her a skewer and Clarke took a careful bite and made a contented noise as she sat on the ground next to her. She took another bite, careful not to burn her lips.
“There are many warriors about,” Niylah finally said. “It is not safe for you here.”
She swallowed. “What do they want?”
“That hasn’t changed in days. Why are there more of them now?”
Niylah poked at the embers with a stick and picked up another skewer. She examined the meat and handed the skewer carefully butt-end to her.
She chewed. The meat was hot in her mouth, a little tough, but so good.
“Heda7 works to unite the twelve clans,” Niylah said, “but Azgeda seeks something else.”
Clarke stopped chewing at the mention of the Commander’s title in the language of the Grounders.
“Uniting the clans?” She watched Niylah’s face, wondering where she got this information, and why Lexa would engage in such, given the Grounder penchant for conflict.
“Sha.”8 She nodded once with the affirmative. “We are too long apart, always warring. Heda seeks to change that, to create one out of many.”
Clarke’s throat felt tight, and the surrounding forest seemed to close in even tighter. “What of the Sky People?” she asked after a few seconds.
Niylah held her gaze. “I do not know. Zander has told me that he sees warriors from Arkadia in a vehicle that goes much faster than horses. They search for more Sky People, perhaps.” She gave her a pointed look and Clarke glanced away, and took another bite of meat. She’d never told Niylah who she was, but Niylah knew, had probably known since the first time they’d met a few weeks ago, since Clarke didn’t speak much Trigedasleng.9 For whatever reasons, she kept the secret.
Clarke finished the last piece of meat on the second skewer. “Will the Commander seek an alliance with the Sky People?”
Niylah took the empty skewer and handed her another. “Heda will do what she must for the clans.”
Of course she would. Her stomach clenched.
“If the Sky People wish to unite with Heda, she will welcome it,” Niylah added.
Clarke started on the fresh skewer. “How do you know that?”
She was silent for a long moment and she stirred the embers a bit more. Clarke chewed, waiting. The embers popped and shot a geyser of sparks into the darkness.
“Things are different now,” Niylah said. “Heda knows this. She knows the mountain has changed things, and created opportunities. She also knows it has created new problems. She will seek to exploit the one and solve the other. If an alliance with the Sky People will help with either of those, she will thus welcome it.”
Clarke finished the meat on the skewer and stared into the remaining embers. “That doesn’t mean she’ll honor it,” she said, barely above a whisper.
“She will do as she must.” Niylah took the skewer. “If the Sky People join with the twelve clans, then they are also her responsibility, and a slight to the Sky People is a slight to all clans.”
“Why doesn’t she just gather all the clans and force the Sky People to do what she wants?”
Niylah picked up the remaining skewers of meat. “There would be no loyalty from the Sky People in such circumstances."
Like the loyalty I offered that meant nothing to her at the mountain? Clarke clenched then unclenched her teeth. “What problems did the mountain create?”
Niylah stood in a smooth, graceful motion. She held both empty skewers and those still laden with meat. “Azgeda seeks to challenge Heda.”
Clarke stared up at her in the fire’s dying light. “But they’re part of the twelve clans.”
“Plana10 Nia leads Azgeda. She seeks Wanheda as an example of her might. If Nia can control Wanheda, she can control Heda.”
Queen Nia, Clarke automatically translated in her head. The woman responsible for Costia’s death. “I don’t understand.”
“Wanheda is the commander of death. Wanheda did to the Maunon11 what we have never been able to do. She freed the clans forever, helped put an end to the Reapers and allowed us to honor our dead. This power—this is what Nia seeks.”
A chill that had nothing to do with the night air slid over Clarke’s skin. “There is no power in pulling a lever."
“There is power in symbols. Nia will control the Sky People if she has Wanheda, and she will not keep an alliance with the twelve clans. She will then challenge Heda, and there are those who question her leadership, since she seems to be seeking peace through alliances.”
The chill deepened. Clarke stood, feeling suddenly sick. “How do you know this?”
She stared into the dark, the weight of responsibility and guilt crashing around her shoulders. She had turned her back on Arkadia. Turned her back because she couldn’t face those who had lost friends, allies, and more among the Mountain Men. Couldn’t face the monster she’d unleashed within herself. But in the wake of that, and in the strange evolution of rumors and folklore that had created of her something she never sought, Arkadia needed her.
So, too, did Lexa.
She wasn’t sure which of those thoughts scared her more, and it hit her, then, that her fate and Lexa’s were bound together after Mt. Weather, in the cruelest irony, though she had no control over the legend that had come to define the mountain. Or maybe she did. Maybe had she not run away, had she stayed at Arkadia and worked to build an alliance with Lexa, the legend would never have started. Perhaps her disappearance had fueled it, fed the flames lapping at Trikru’s doors.
She should have felt a surge of self-righteous anger, should have taken some satisfaction in Lexa’s shifting fortunes. She didn’t. Instead, she felt the press of Lexa’s lips on hers, saw the resigned admission of affection in her eyes after Tondc,12 and remembered the quick and rare smiles she shared in the uneasy coalition between Trikru and Skaikru.
Until the betrayal at the mountain.
But Clarke understood, somehow. She hated that she did. Wanted to hate Lexa. Wanted to, but couldn’t. Not for lack of trying. As angry as she was, as hurt as she felt, she understood. And that made her ache even more, because unlike Lexa, she had turned her back on her own people.
It was time to return to Arkadia. As broken as she was, she had a duty to fulfill, and it wasn’t to the past, no matter how hard the past tried to bind her.
“It is not safe out here, nameless one,” Niylah said after a while, after allowing Clarke time to think. She motioned toward the structure with her chin and Clarke saw the motion in the light of the remaining embers.
She nodded and used the rest of the water in the wash basin to drown the embers before she went inside. Niylah had already stored the remaining meat, and she was busy cleaning the table.
“You are tired,” Niylah said softly when she entered. It wasn’t a question, and Clarke appreciated the simplicity of the statement. She nodded and Niylah held her gaze for a moment. “You are welcome to stay.”
That was a risk for Niylah, and she appreciated that, too. “Thank you,” she managed before she moved into the nook that Niylah’s bed occupied. She took her boots off and slid out of her pants and removed her jacket, appreciating the way Grounders used strategically placed candles for light. Never harsh, always warm. Like Lexa’s smile, when she showed it. Clarke’s chest felt as if a vise had clamped around her ribs.
“Sit,” came Niylah’s quiet voice behind her.
She did, cross-legged, on the bed. Nia carefully raised Clarke’s shirt to look at her back. “Much better,” she said and then she moved away and Clarke heard what sounded like water being squeezed out of a cloth.
It was. She winced as Niylah carefully unwound her underbindings and cleaned her back and she was glad, because she couldn’t reach it.
“Thank you,” she said again.
“Mmm.” Niylah worked on her back for a while, the cloth moving with gentle, relaxing strokes and Clarke felt her eyelids droop.
“Zander lost his mother to the Maunon,” Niylah said softly after a while. “And his father as well, because he tried to bring her out.”
Clarke tensed as the cloth moved lightly near the scabs on the claw marks the panther had left on her shoulderblade. “You took him in?"
“His father was one of my brothers. I help as I can.”
She didn’t respond.
“We do what we must,” Niylah said as she moved to rinse the cloth out and Clarke thought again of Lexa, of her unwavering commitment to her people and the decisions she made with regard to them. And then she thought of the moment Bellamy’s hand covered hers in the control room at Mt. Weather and they pulled the lever together, though Clarke bore the decision herself. She had made that choice, too.
She closed her eyes as Niylah continued working on her back. It had been a long time since she’d allowed contact like this. “There were others at the mountain who made it possible to free the Grounders. Wanheda wasn’t the only one there,” she said.
“And all made it possible for Wanheda to stop the Maunon,” Niylah countered. She stopped moving her hands across Clarke’s back. “Thousands died in the mountain. Many others died or suffered in the acid fog. Wanheda put an end to that.”
Clarke clenched her teeth, seeing the images on the monitors, all the people gasping for breath, screaming and groaning, skin erupting in blisters—“I can’t talk about this.” Her throat clogged with tears, clogged with loss and anger, though she wasn’t sure anymore what she was angry about.
“From death comes life.” Niylah gently squeezed her shoulder and moved away, probably to finish cleaning up. Clarke curled into a fetal position on the bed, staring at the wall. She dreaded sleep but needed it desperately, and she wondered if it had been Lexa rather than Niylah who carefully lay down next to her a few minutes later if she’d be able to rest, finally, safe in the blunt honesty of Lexa’s choices.
Still, she welcomed the feel of Niylah’s warmth against her back, and the comfort she offered should Clarke want it. She let herself relax, if only for a little while, within the circle of Niylah’s arms, knowing that the ghosts would come this night, like every other. But maybe in the wake of her decision, they’d grant her a few hours of peace.
5Heya: hi, hello
6pauna: gorilla (big-ass giant mutant gorilla!)
7Heda: leader -- generally used for all leaders, but an honorific -- capitalized -- always applies to Lexa in her role as Commander
9Trigedasleng: The language of the Grounders that originated with Tree Crew, though to have been developed as a way to mask their actions from Mountain Men
10plana: queen [Azgeda title, not used among other clans] Skaikru: Sky People, Sky Crew; those from the Ark
11Maunon: Mountain Men; Mt. Weather residents
12Tondc: A village near what was Washington, D.C. Pronounced "Tone-dee-cee"