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(my) Destruction Within Your Mouth

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~*~

Thesda gives her a doll one day. She delights in bringing small objects to Clarke’s attention, the sort of things only a young child would find interesting, things she’s probably picked up around the forest. Thesda will present them with an air of self-conscious importance, and Clarke will try to transform them into something worthy of the little girl’s expectant attention. She weaves together large, orange-tinted leaves into a forest crown, draws pictures in the dirt with an unexpectedly straight and slender branch, and -- working it out as she goes from a memory of a book -- blows a sharp whistle on a blade of grass. Thesda observes all these feats with the same wide-eyed intensity, sitting on the ground and her chin resting on fisted hands.

 

The doll, however, is beyond Clarke’s ken. It’s ancient and stained, loved to the point where the scraps of fabric making up its floppy body have worn away at strategic weak points -- the doll’s head is only hanging on by the grace of a few threads. Clarke is trying to communicate sorry, kiddo, this one’s a goner with only her eyebrows when there’s a rustling in the nearby bushes.

 

Her first clue something is really wrong is when Thesda shoots to her feet, shouting -- “No! No! Go away!” -- and the next is the figure emerging from the surrounding vegetation like a bad dream.

 

He’s huge, covered in tattoos and scars, wielding a blade longer than her entire arm, and Clarke doesn’t even have time to kick herself for staying where someone like this could find her, because Thesda is rushing towards him and the wicked-looking edge to his weapon.

 

Clarke lunges, grabbing the back of the little girl’s shirt. The man in front of them growls, like literally growls as he raises his arm up high. Clarke only puts her back to him for the split second it takes to shove Thesda behind her, and then she’s facing him down herself.

 

He stops short, eyes narrowing. There’s a bad moment where he’s still, watching her, and Clarke wishes her hands weren’t already preoccupied with a small kid trying to squirm out from behind her so she could pick up a rock, a branch, anything. He seems to decide something, and steps forward.

 

“Gustus.”

 

A voice from the other side of the clearing -- surrounded, Clarke thinks -- makes her turn, but just enough so that the attackers are at either side and Thesda is still at her back.

 

And her jaw drops.

 

Because this one’s on a horse.

 

For a few seconds the horse is all she registers. It’s beautiful -- cream-colored and proud, standing with its head far above her and woah, were horses always this big? They didn’t seem that big in the pictures, is this another nuclear mutancy? How do you even climb on top of something that big? Her attention shifts to the rider.

 

The bottom falls out of her stomach at the too-familiar pattern of dark paint across the eyes and cheeks. Clarke always wondered why the kids were so particular in that aspect of their play, creating the same sweep and strokes every time -- now she knows. She also recognizes the imperious carriage they always tried to imitate as well, the way this girl (because she can’t be that much older than Clarke) holds herself like her head should be carrying a crown.

 

“Heda!” Thesda shrieks, and Clarke can’t hear anything but joy in her voice. The rest pours out in a stream of chatter too quick for Clarke to follow.

 

The girl on the horse listens to all this carefully, head tilted to show her attention. Clarke is distinctly aware, however, of the remaining tension in both of the strangers, and the way they seem to follow every shift of Clarke’s weight.

 

Thesda says something which causes the man -- Gustus? -- to break out into a disbelieving laugh. The rider shoots him a glare cutting enough to make him swallow the rest, but Clarke hears him protest: “Heda --”

 

The glare grows even fiercer, and Clarke almost falls over when the man says, in English: “Commander. You don’t truly believe they have captured a wood witch.”

 

“I do not have to accept the premise to trust in her sincerity,” the girl says. She speaks almost as fluidly as if she grew up on the Ark, just another student Clarke would see in Earth Skills or on the way to Calculus. “They have shown ingenuity and courage, even if their campaign was slightly... flawed.”

 

Clarke realizes that they’re both talking with the attitude of adults around young children, as if speaking English was like spelling out words -- a way to communicate without being understood by smaller ears. They don’t think Thesda can follow this rapid speech. They don’t think Clarke can, either.

 

“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. Clarke has to bite down on the inside of her mouth to keep her reaction from her face.

 

“Mine,” Thesda calls out, using English, and again Clarke just manages to keep from jumping out of her skin. “Mine ca’pured,” she tries, her pronunciation nowhere near as practiced.

 

Clarke stares down at the little girl who’s now clinging to her. Thesda smiles back. She’s missing a tooth.

 

You sneaky little brat, Clarke thinks. But it’s mixed in with more affection than she expected, considering -- what did she really expect from a bunch of warrior kids? Of course she wasn’t their pet, she was their prisoner.

 

The girl on the horse addresses Thesda in their own language. There are too many words Clarke hasn’t learned, but the gist is familiar: negotiation. Thesda is sulky and unresponsive at first, but the rider’s tone grows both coaxing and commanding, and Thesda starts to nod. Eventually she walks away from Clarke -- who almost follows, but the soft growl from Gustus stops her -- and over to the horse. The rider leans down to scoop Thesda up, long braids swinging, and lifts her easily into the front of her saddle. She gives a soft click with her tongue and they’re off at a walk, the horse making its way with surprising ease through the undergrowth.

 

Clarke looks to Gustus, who looks back, hard and impassive. She sinks down to sit on the ground with a sigh.

 

She knows only a handful of minutes pass at most, but it feels like forever until the horse returns to the clearing with its riders. Thesda’s face is shining with happiness. When the rider sets her back on the ground the little girl’s eyes are practically dreamy.

 

The rider asks her a question and Thesda agrees. The rider shifts her attention to Clarke, who swallows hard when the expression in her eyes also shifts -- from fond indulgence to calculation. This close Clarke notices something new: a piece of metal like a medallion, low and center on her forehead.

 

“Your (word),” the rider says, slow and deliberate in their language, “comes with us. She will walk behind me and in front of Gustus. We do not have to tie her up, or use our weapons. She will not use weapons on us.”

 

It’s wonderful how much you can pick up of a new language just through the mock battles of ferocious children. Especially when it comes to veiled threats. Clarke nods, of course -- what else can she do? She just hopes their main concern is getting her away from the children, and they’ll drop her off somewhere and lose interest. She stands, brushing herself off.

 

Insult to injury, it’s Thesda who strips her of the small knives she’s carried since raiding their cache. Clarke holds still for it, feeling her face burn as the little girl goes unerringly for every place they’re hidden. (Or, where Clarke had thought they were hidden.) When she’s finished, Thesda stands in the center of the clearing as they depart in the procession specified, the rider first, Clarke behind, and an unsmiling Gustus bringing up the rear. Clarke watches Thesda over her shoulder for as long as the little girl is in sight, at the way she waves farewell over and over.

 

“Goodbye, (word),” she calls out, the same name she and the other children have used to address Clarke, the same word the rider used. Wood witch, Clarke remembers from Gustus’s English. “Goodbye, goodbye!”

 

~*~

 

The horse is a lot less enchanting from this angle.

 

“Heda,” the man behind her says. Clarke has a moment to wonder: is it a name? Or a title? He also called her a commander, but a commander of what? The village? Her helplessness hits her afresh: it was one thing to be voiceless and surrounded by children. This is something else. As soon as she can find an opportunity, she needs to go.

 

The rider throws a look over her shoulder, and Gustus switches to English: “Commander. May this soldier seek to know your plans regarding your newest --” and Clarke can feel him looking at her as if from a great height, she wants to turn around and bare her teeth, “-- acquisition?”

 

“Are you questioning my decisions, Gustus?” The tone is crisp but there’s an undertone to it, slippery as a fish, which sounds a lot like affection.

 

“Never.” That doesn’t sound playful at all. That sounds real. “I would enjoy knowing whether she will be meal or mascot.”

 

Clarke has a moment of real, genuine fear -- who knows, it’s been ninety-seven years on a landscape of devastation, who knows what these people are capable of -- when the rider chuckles. It’s soft, and she doesn’t turn her head, but the sound itself eases the tension in Clarke. Their children fight like demons and they ride possibly-mutant horses like it’s nothing, but they also make jokes and laugh at them. Maybe not everything of these people is alien.

 

“I doubt there’s enough meat on her,” the rider says. “From what the child told me, she seems incapable of caring for herself as a warrior.”

 

“From the Dead Zone, then?”

 

Dead Zone. That sounds... not great. Clarke focuses on the sway of the horse’s rump, tries not to feel the unknown vastness of this world opening up before her.

 

“Possibly,” the rider says. “If she’s unable to talk... You know people can be overzealous in their attempts to keep the blood clean.”

 

“A zealousness of which the great Commander does not approve.” Clarke sneaks a quick look over her shoulder, but no, he’s not smiling, whatever it sounds like.

 

“Every able body will be necessary to win this war,” the rider says grimly.

 

War, Clarke thinks, stomach sinking. With who? How bad is it? She knows about previous Earth wars from history class, she remembers the lessons of phalanx and Viking raiders, which is probably the level of tech these people work with. Still, the primary image in her head of war is blinding white light, the delayed boom of a nuclear explosion, and then nothing.

 

How can people survive that, and still wage war?

 

“She’s a bit old to begin training,” Gustus rumbles.

 

“She fixed a splint for the youngest. Whoever kept her safe was probably a healer. If they have perished since, it would explain her wandering into these woods.” The rider sends a quick look over her shoulder, and Clarke meets that dark-painted gaze. “Perhaps a fostering in Polis will help others to understand the alternatives to such cases.”

 

“Polis?” Gustus’s voice edges the closest to doubtful yet. “This village could use another healer, especially with the refugees.”

 

“The refugees are exactly why I will take her to Polis. Anya would not appreciate the gift of yet another mouth to feed, especially in the midst of retaliations for the burned village.”

 

“She would not speak against her Commander.”

 

A true laugh this time, if brief, the rider’s head thrown back as the sound echoes among the rustling leaves.

 

“She would not speak against you publicly,” Gustus amends.

 

“True,” the rider says, voice rich with affection. “But she is already in a temper over my decision to visit the survivors while she deals with the invaders. It cannot hurt to transport our baggage a bit farther.”

 

“To Tondisi, then. Indra would not gainsay it.”

 

“No,” the rider muses. “She would not.” The smile she directs at her soldier is soft, and the slightest bit sad. “Threats everywhere, Gustus? Even from half-starved wood witches?”

 

“Your safety is my life, Heda.”

 

The smile slips from the rider’s face. “Tondisi. I will consider it.”

 

~*~

 

The walk to their camp isn’t far, but it’s far enough to leave Clarke shaky-kneed and ravenous. She knows she should expect it. She’s put her body through hell, and it will take more than sleep and whatever scraps children can sneak off into the woods to recover. Still, she can’t help but feel frustrated at her own weakness.

 

Clarke knows they’ve reached their destination even before it comes into view because she sees it in the rider. She straightens in the saddle -- and Clarke hadn’t even been aware she’d been relaxed until that moment, but there was a definite injection of starch into that spine, the shoulders squaring off and head lifting even higher. She was regal before but now she looks distant, untouchable. Gustus comes up to stand abreast of Clarke (who jumps) and he’s assumed the same air, if to a lesser degree. She hears the greetings of “Heda! Heda!” as Gustus puts his hand on her shoulder and leads her into another clearing.

 

She thinks she’s prepared.

 

She blinks away the sunlight as they leave the cover of the trees, and she’s not.

 

There are so many of them. The camp bustles with life: people at cook fires stirring pots as scents drift on the breeze, people crouched as they draw patterns in the dirt and gesture, even people sparring some distance away -- she can hear the shouts, see the flash of metal through the trees. Their heads snap to attention, locking in on the rider. Clarke remembers that look. She saw it on the Ark every time Thelonious Jaha walked into a room: the combination of respect, devotion, and the slightest bit of fear.

 

But Thelonious was the Chancellor. Thelonious had the power of life and death -- he rarely used it, but everyone knew his was the final word. The rider swings off her horse and onto the ground. For all her heavy armor and the obvious ceremony in her carriage, she’s barely taller than Clarke, who thinks: Who are you?

 

The rider wouldn’t answer the question even if Clarke was capable of voicing it. She’s busy handing the reins of her horse over to a warrior (because that’s what these people are, with scars and bruises and split lips), exchanging greetings with the few who dare approach her. One of them gestures at Clarke and the end of their statement going up to make a question. The rider doesn’t smile, not exactly, but the way she holds her mouth makes it clear how terribly amusing she finds it all. She answers in a brief spate of words Clarke can’t follow.

 

Except, again: wood witch.

 

Some of the warriors laugh. Some of them roll their eyes. Some of them look at Clarke, curious, but with a hint of something darker beneath. Clarke thinks of the older stories of Earth, and shivers.

 

When Gustus tugs to lead her away, she doesn’t resist.

 

~*~

 

“Commander” is commander of an army, she decides.

 

Large or small, though, she’s still not sure. There are roughly fifty bodies at this encampment, but the whole thing is clearly designed to be temporary. The mess tent where Gustus dropped her off, with a barely-perceptible look of relief, is supported by rough-hewn trunks still sticky with sap. Even the food is the kind that’s carried on long journeys, nothing fresh, not even things they might have foraged from the forest. Another mouth to feed, she remembers the rider saying. They must be trying to avoid draining the area resources.

 

They leave her alone, mostly. She watches as the whispers about her presence spread, rippling outwards like she’s a rock dropped into still water. Every new pair of eyes on her makes her feel colder until she’s almost shivering in the shadow of the tent. They have to sleep sometime, she tells herself. She’ll find a way to sneak off then. The river can’t be too far judging from the barrels of fresh water she can spot stationed around the camp. She only eats half of what they give her -- something that tastes of both meat and fruit, pounded into a flat cake -- and hides the rest in the baggy folds of her borrowed clothes. Then she goes back with empty hands and pleading eyes several times until they ultimately frown and turn her away.  

 

When Gustus comes stomping back around again she huddles by one of the cook fires and tries to look helpless. He starts talking to a few other warriors and from the low, tense tones she’s pretty sure it’s an argument. Her stomach sinks when a couple of them gesture at her. Repeatedly.

 

Gustus only gets scowlier. He grabs and lifts her from the ground as if she were baggage, pulling her along by the arm. They make their way deeper into camp until they reach an even larger tent with soldiers standing on guard at either side of the entrance. Gustus doesn’t spare them a grunt before walking inside and taking Clarke with him.

 

The rider -- the girl -- is inside. Her face has been wiped clean of paint and the metal ornament removed. It changes the lines of her face, making it a little rounder, and Clarke knocks another few years off the guess at her age. She’s leaning over a table with some kind of model on it. Large pieces of parchment are laid across the table as well, their curling edges held down with weights that have been polished to a dull shine, picking up the light from the braziers of coals that line the edges of the space. When her focus switches to them irritation washes over and then out of her expression, and she snaps something at Gustus.

 

The warrior speaks quickly, punctuating it by giving Clarke a small shake every now and then. She grits her teeth at the treatment but doesn’t resist -- she has too much food secreted away to start a wrestling match. She catches a few words: sleep, night, danger.

 

The girl sighs, addressing him in English. “Speak plainly.”

 

“Commander,” he rumbles. “You know that many of your warriors come from villages like this one. Even in Polis there are many who believe the stories.” He hesitates. “Her presence in the barracks could have consequences.”

 

They don’t want her to know this. They don’t want her to know she might be in danger because of their little joke.

 

How considerate, she thinks sourly.

 

The girl’s face darkens. “I said that she was in my care. They would act against my wishes?”

 

“No,” he says. “But, Commander -- they think she may do them harm. You know how bad luck and ill omens can affect a regiment.” His grip tightens on Clarke, and she fights back a wince. “I myself can take her to Tondisi, tonight. No one need know how or where she was found besides Indra.”

 

The Commander crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow. “I said that I would decide on her fate at a later time. Are you trying to force my hand?”

 

Gustus’s head ducks down. “No, Commander.”

 

“Are you certain?” she asks, low and deadly, and Clarke feels a flicker of the same fear she saw in the others.

 

Gustus goes to his knees in one fluid motion, the hand on Clarke’s arm bringing her down with him. Only she’s not expecting it, and just manages to catch herself on her palms before planting face-first. The force of the landing nearly winds her -- and knocks every single stored ration loose to tumble free and across the heavy rugs at their feet. One of them actually rolls on its edge to knock against the Commander’s boot.

 

The look on the other girl’s face would be funny, if Clarke weren’t so very busted.

 

The Commander crouches down until she’s level with them both, waiting until Clarke raises her eyes to ask a question. Almost an accusation. Clarke doesn’t catch all of it, but she does know the word escape.

 

Clarke and Wells -- ironically -- hadn’t gotten into a lot of trouble, because they hadn’t been those kinds of kids. But they had still been kids. So Clarke drags out her best (if dusty) “that power coupling was broken way before we got into the crawlspace” expression and shakes her head, mining astonishment at the very idea that she would stuff her clothes full of food and make a run for it.

 

The girl snorts her disbelief, rising back up to her feet. She barks something out, and one of the guards steps into the tent to listen as she relays what sounds like orders. Her gaze flickers back and forth between Clarke and guard, meaningfully, and Clarke is careful to keep her eyes wide and guileless.

 

Gustus is still kneeling with his head nearly pressed to the ground when the guard returns to his post. “Satisfied?” the girl asks him, returning to English. “She will bother no one while in my tent. And she,” with a dark look in Clarke’s direction, “shall remain where I put her.”

 

“Shall I watch her during the next meal as well, Commander?”

 

“No, let her stay in here. Clearly she has enough food to tide her over until the morning.” She looks down at him. “You may rise, Gustus.”

 

He does. He has almost a full foot on this girl in height, Clarke estimates, and he’s twice as broad. But he bends and sways in response to her moods like a reed.

 

She keeps her eyes down and thinks: Commander. Commander of what?

 

“And you may rest easy,” the girl continues speaking to her pet warrior. “She can be Indra’s problem after tonight.”

 

He bows his head low again. “Thank you, Commander.”

 

She places a hand on his arm for a moment before lifting it away. She spares a glance for Clarke, still sitting on the floor, and says something brief as she gestures to the corner. Then she sweeps away without a second look, Gustus hard at her heels.

 

~*~

 

Of course the first thing Clarke does is look for a way out. But there’s no other opening in the tent besides the guarded entrance, and her not-so-stealthy attempts to pull up where the sides are tacked to the ground bring her jailers inside within minutes, jabbing at her with the hilts of their spears to send their point home. In the end she resigns herself to picking up the dropped rations and eating them in a sulk, close to the warmth of one of the braziers.

 

Her thoughts go around and around in circles -- have to get back to the river, how much farther is “Tondisi,” she can slip past their notice before then, how many days has it been now -- until her eyelids begin to slip shut. The corner the girl indicated has a pile of woven blankets, the colors only slightly faded. Clarke pulls every one of them around her in a bundle but still ends up shivering. It was actually warmer in her shallow cave.

 

Cranky and cold, she gets up. She walks over to a bed piled high with furs that she first glimpsed in the back when she searched for another exit. She’s tempted to take all of them over into her little corner in a fit of pique. Then she remembers the speed with which Gustus knelt, and only sneaks off the top layer. The addition makes her blissfully warm and she’s finally able to curl up in the shadows of the tent, near the red glow of embers, and drift to sleep.

 

It’s not a deep sleep. She doesn’t think she’s slept well since the Ark, or before... before. She rouses a bit when voices drift closer to the tent and someone enters, the confident stride letting Clarke know who it is without opening her eyes. She hears the shift of fabric as the curtain leading to the bed is pushed aside -- then she hears it again, and she can feel the other girl’s affronted stare boring into her back.

 

Clarke holds her breath. I’m asleep, I’m asleep, she chants inside her head. Taking it back is beneath your great Commander-whatever-ness, because I’m cold and hungry and abandoned, and it’s not worth the trouble of waking me up, because I’m asleep.

 

She hears a huff of annoyance and the rustle of the curtain falling back into place.

 

Clarke lets out a sigh and burrows deeper into her little nest, allowing sleep to wash over her again.

 

~*~

 

 

 

 

(next chapter)

 

She winces when the blankets fall to floor as she stands. She’s lucky -- the assassin doesn’t turn. As adrenaline eats up the last vestiges of her sleep, she notices the beads of sweat trailing down his skin, his face never turning from the curtained-off area in the back. He’s too terrified of the girl in that bed -- even as he comes to kill her -- to pay attention to anything else in the room.


Good, Clarke thinks, and kicks over a brazier of still-glowing coals.