The first day, she’s not afraid.
Anya takes her to a place she doesn’t recognize via the back stairs and crumbling corridors of the tower. It’s deeper in the recesses than she’s ever been -- where the tower sinks into the earth, maybe, judging from the smell of damp and the lichen crawling the stone walls. There’s a room, somewhere in the labyrinth of collapsed hallways and crumbling support beams, that looks like it's been used for this purpose before: there are hooks hammered high into the walls and chains piled in a corner.
Anya binds her hands. Clarke has an instant of panic, then, but quashes it. It doesn’t matter if her wrists are wrapped and tied together so that they can know what she’s doing with them at all times, or hook them high above her head so that she’s left exposed and helpless on the balls of her feet. It doesn’t matter if it leaves her unable to sign. She only has to wait. Clarke knows Lexa, she isn’t going to be left down here to rot forever. Not even for long. She refuses to believe that.
When Gustus enters the room as well his bulk nearly blocks all the light from the torchlit hallway. She’d forgotten how big he is.
“Well?” he rumbles, eyeing Clarke in her position against the wall.
Anya shrugs. “You know what she’s like,” a non sequitur. “Arms. Fleshiest parts first.”
Gustus gives a snort of what sounds like disbelief.
“I know. But she believes the pain alone will be persuasive.” Anya throws a mirthless smile over her shoulder at Clarke before clapping Gustus on the arm. Her parting shot is: “Give it time.”
Clarke's first days in solitary, when the pain of losing Jake used to tear her apart every morning anew, she had a trick. Long before boredom and lack of routine drove her to mark the walls and the passage of time, she would sit on her cot and focus on the far wall. Then she would unfocus, allowing her eyes to relax until all she saw was a softened blur. There was a girl on a bed somewhere, but it wasn’t her. Someone’s father had been executed, someone had been imprisoned and marked for death for trying to finish what he started, someone’s entire life was a lie -- but not her.
Gustus unsheathes a long knife in her range of vision. Clarke switches her gaze to the far wall.
Someone’s about to be in a lot of pain. But not her.
The second day, she’s still not afraid.
She jumps when a metal platter is dropped to the floor next to her, the food barely managing to stay on it as it clatters. But Anya did that on purpose, it doesn’t count.
“I suppose you’re proud of yourself,” Anya says. She speaks in English, and it helps -- no one speaks English to Clarke, here. She must be talking to someone else. “Our warriors have also been trained to remain silent when captured by the enemy. Even under duress.” She slams down a tin cup, water sloshing over its rim.
That’s what Clarke wants. Putting food in her mouth, chewing and swallowing, that’s all beyond her. Those are tasks performed by people whose arms aren’t laced with fire, every move they make tugging at something raw and tender. But she wants the water. She sits up from the grimy pallet they’ve given her. She has to be slow, and careful -- the bindings have cut off a lot of the blood to her hands and left her fingers swollen and almost too stiff to flex -- but she manages to bring the cup to her lips, and the gluey feel of her mouth is washed away at last.
It’s groundwater, sharp with minerals. She can’t gather herself enough to remember why it would make her want to cry.
“Lexa told me everything.” Anya shifts her weight onto her back foot, arms folded as she watches Clarke drink. “If you’re anything like the rest of your kind, you had no idea how to live off the land. How did you get separated from them? Or did you think one girl might slip in, unnoticed, where a group of you could not?”
The others. If Anya’s here, where are the ones she was trying to get information from: Finn, and Bellamy, and whoever else? Are they still alive?
“You followed the refugees from the village you destroyed. Why?” Her voice is like a whipcrack, but Clarke refuses to flinch. “Was your interest in those children in particular?” Her eyes narrow. “Or were you following orders from the Mountain?”
Clarke holds herself very still when Anya crouches down low, coming closer to eye level.
“I heard you were desperate to escape before,” she says quietly. She tilts her head to one side, long hair falling over her shoulder as her eyes seem to strip Clarke’s skin from her bones. “That puzzled... us, at first, until we matched it to the rumors we spread about what happened to your first ship. You were upset then, weren’t you. No place to go back to? No knowledge your people were safe under the Mountain?”
Safe? Those are the people who made the reapers, and Clarke is supposed to think her people are safe?
“But you rallied.” Anya sits back on her heels. “You must have known the rest were on their way. And you realized the advantage you had gained, even if by accident.”
It’s almost as if the pressure drops in the small space; Clarke’s heart beats wildly, and she feels dizzy. She pulls the plate of neglected food closer, the metal scraping against the concrete floor. She should eat. As impossible as it feels, she needs to take whatever they give her. At least, until... Clarke’s hands start shaking as she shoves the rough slices of bread into her mouth.
“And perhaps,” low and smooth, almost crooning, “you knew, then, exactly how much you could get away with. The excuses that would be given, leniency granted. For you.”
Her mouth is too dry to swallow it down, but a few more gulps of water help.
“I think your people were in contact with the Mountain from the beginning,” Anya says, and Clarke almost chokes. “I think your initial explorations, those maps -- they were for those worms who burrow away from sunlight and hide in the belly of the earth. They grow greedy, don’t they? They want the land above, and you and yours are key to taking it.”
She watches Clarke, and Clarke realizes she’s looking for any reaction, any hint of an answer. “It’s only a theory for now, and one I have yet to share with... others. But I think I’ll find that I’m right.”
Anya swoops in, leaning so close so quickly Clarke jerks back to hit her head against the stone wall. “They told you about her, didn’t they,” she hisses. “What did they say? That she was just a girl? That as much as she’d done, as strong as she was, she had to have a weakness somewhere? They don’t know the first thing about her. It was a lie.” Her eyes darken. “But I will eat the heart of everyone you love for making it true.”
Her hand shoots out to grab Clarke around the throat, hauling them both to their feet. She keeps Clarke pinned one-handed against the wall.
“I know you’re not a witch,” she says flatly. “Except I could believe it, the way you got her to turn on herself. Her purpose.” Her grip tightens, and Clarke batters uselessly at Anya’s hold with bound hands. “Maybe your people will call your death a good one, and maybe they’ll honor your strength and skill in this long campaign.” Through the black spots dancing before her vision, Clarke can see Anya’s lip curl into a sneer. “You and I know better. What you did had no honor. Once she gives you over to me -- every scream, every sob of pain she does not allow herself, I will take it from you. It will not be a good death, or a warrior’s death. You don’t deserve one.”
She drops Clarke to the ground.
“According to reports, your people have been in talks with the Mountain,” Anya says as Clarke gasps for breath, her lungs burning. “There have already been minor trades in weapons and supplies, and I’m sure whatever information you managed to pass along helped smooth the way.” She stares down at Clarke stone-faced. “I hope you feel it was worth it.”
That’s when Clarke realizes: Lexa isn’t coming. Or if she does come, it won’t be to help.
“Lexa says you can start on her back,” Anya tells Gustus before leaving.
Lexa comes on the third day.
She brings a contingent of warriors with her, which Clarke never remembers her walking about the tower with. She’s also wearing a full face of dark paint, trails down her cheeks like the nuclear shadows of lost tears.
Clarke wants to snarl at her, what are you afraid of.
At this point it feels like the anger is what’s keeping her alive. She found it yesterday, when Gustus carefully ripped out the back of her clothing, clearing his workspace before he could begin his questions all over again. She can feel blood dripping down her back now, drying on her skin or gathering in damp patches. The work Gustus did on her arms pulls at where they’re secured above her head.
Every time she wants to vomit, or faint, she bites the inside of her cheek bloody and curls up at the heart of her anger.
Lexa doesn’t walk inside the room. She looks from the other side of the threshold like she’s surveying a distant kingdom. “Report.”
“Nothing,” Gustus says bluntly. “And it will continue to be nothing, until you allow real force.”
“Are you telling me,” low and seething, “you can’t get answers from one girl? She isn’t trained in this. Before she came here, she couldn’t even ride a horse.”
Clarke sags in her bindings. Lexa’s voice hurts. Everything hurts.
“She is strong, Heda,” Gustus says, with obvious reluctance. “She still refuses to talk. She refuses even to scream.”
The sound of light steps, and then Lexa is gripping her chin and forcing her head up. She searches Clarke’s face with a stranger’s eyes.
Clarke stares back dully.
After a few moments’ perusal, the Commander’s eyes widen.
“She is screaming,” she says under her breath. “We just can’t hear her.”
Her grip tightens. “Sky girl,” she says. “You were separated from your people. Alone in a strange land -- a strange world. Unaware of its dangers.” Her eyes dart back and forth, and there’s a new element in them Clarke wishes she could focus on. “Something happened. Something that took away your voice.”
It’s hope, Clarke realizes.
Lexa sounds hopeful as she leans in close to ask: “Clarke. Is that what happened?”
Clarke lets her eyelids flutter shut, sagging slightly where she’s bound to the wall. A tightness in her chest that bands across her heart loosens, and she can breathe for what feels like the first time in days. She gives it a few seconds until she opens her eyes again.
She spits a mouthful of bloody saliva into Lexa’s waiting, hopeful face.
There’s an answering clamor as every warrior behind the Commander draws his weapon, shouts of outrage ready on their lips. Lexa holds up a hand and they fall immediately silent.
Lexa gives her face a cursory swipe with that same hand, shaking the mess to the floor. “You’re right,” she says, in a voice that’s only meant to reach Clarke’s ears. “I should have thought of it sooner.”
Clarke notices with a petty satisfaction that Lexa has smeared her own warpaint.
“Do you remember what caused it?” she asks. Clarke nods. “A bite? A sting?”
Clarke shakes her head.
“Something you ate?”
Lexa’s hand leaves Clarke's face, slowly. “Get whatever she can draw with,” she tells one of her lackeys. “And a healer.”
Clarke sketches the innocent-looking roots that set this whole thing in motion, shaking with equal parts relief and blood loss. She can feel Lexa’s eyes on her, but every time Clarke tries to catch her in the act, Lexa shifts her gaze to the paper beneath Clarke’s blood-encrusted hands. When Clarke is finished Lexa steps forward with precise care to lift it away, never coming too close.
“I don’t recognize this plant,” she says, before handing it over to the healer. It’s not anyone Clarke recognizes from among the apprentices, and his accent places him as Blue Cliff. He must be one of their healers, travelling with the influx of warriors on the way to Lexa’s war. They’re not in the main infirmary but what looks like an overflow space: the same beds and arrangement as the official area, with supplies stocked neatly in cupboards. Clarke wonders when the fighting came so close to the city that they needed the extra.
He examines it for a few moments, forehead creasing. “It is an extraordinary likeness,” he says.
“She has many talents,” says Lexa, who still won’t meet Clarke’s eyes. “Is the effect permanent?”
The healer shakes his head. “I may not be familiar with this plant in particular, but I know of others that cause the same problem when not prepared properly. I can work from what cures we already have.”
“Do that,” Lexa said, moving toward the doorway. “Tend to her wounds while you’re at it. I await news of your success.” There’s the slightest stutter in her smooth movement as she reaches the door, but she sweeps out with her head and walls held high.
It takes four days. Four days of concoctions and white-knuckled impatience. It was so much easier to endure the inability to speak before Le... before everyone knew the truth. Now each time the healer comes to her cot with another treatment -- one was syrupy-thick and warm to the tongue, one was clear and bright and cold as mountain water, one was filled with slimy lumps that made her choke, one was -- her heart kicks into high gear and her hands sweat. Maybe this one. Or maybe this one. The healer forces her to rest and recuperate for a large part of the day after each attempt, and after the potion that made her retch and heave up everything in her stomach she sees the wisdom of it. Still. Maybe the next one.
In the meantime they clean out Gustus’s careful cuts, stitch and bandage the worst of them. She supposes she should be grateful for the last bit of dignity in the fact she can’t audibly cry out from the pain.
Four days, and no sign of Lexa.
In the end, it’s a potion of herbs brewed so dark and hot it’s almost a soup. If a soup was made from rotting feathers and too-sweet flowers -- or whatever tasted like that. Clarke takes her first sip and gags.
“All of it,” the healer murmurs.
Clarke glares. Pinching her nose, she tosses the entire thing back in two swallows, wincing. Her stomach roils, acid burning in her throat. She coughs and feels something loosen.
She jerks upright, pulse loud in her own ears. Experimentally, she clears her throat. There it is again -- the feeling of softening, a wearing away like wet sand before a wave. She clears her throat, and this time she can hear her voice -- her voice -- behind it.
Clarke takes a shaky breath. “Mochof.”
It sounds wrong. The words are correct, but her pronunciation is just off enough to make her frown. She knows what sounds to make -- she even dreams in their language now -- but her mouth isn’t used to the necessary shapes.
It seems good enough for the healer. “Inform Heda -- hmm,” he says, as one of the guards is already well down the corridor, weapons rattling with every step. “It seems they already have their instructions.”
The bottom drops out of Clarke’s stomach. Unconsciously, her fingers seek out the bandages on her upper arms. She's healing nicely. It seems a waste to open her up again at this point, but Lexa is nothing if not pragmatic.
As if conjured by the thought, Lexa steps through the door. She comes to a stop almost immediately, as if hesitant to come closer. She’s dressed simply: none of her more intimidating clothing, no warpaint. But her expression is as carefully still as a statue’s. The healer takes one look and departs.
They face each other silently for long moments.
Fine, if that’s how Lexa wants it. “Hei, Heda.”
A ripple of something passes through Lexa’s eyes, too quickly for Clarke to identify, before she relaxes. “We can speak like this if you prefer,” she says in English. Her pronunciation, as always, is flawless.
Clarke just manages to keep from scowling. “Not if it makes it easier to make me your enemy,” persisting in the Woods Clan language, even as she wants to wince. Ugh, who’d ever think a tongue could feel clumsy?
Some of the iron leaves Lexa’s spine, letting her tip to one side and lean against the wall. “I do not wish to assume so.”
“Really?” She lashes out, and her voice scrapes in an unaccustomed throat. “No more theories about how I spent months in here, surrounded by people, and never once made an accidental sound?”
Lexa hasn't dropped her English, so Clarke concedes defeat and switches. “What about Anya?” she asks. There are still traces of rust in her voice, but the words do come easier. Damn Lexa.
Who raises an eloquent eyebrow. “She still insists you should be punished for the crime of infiltration. You can keep your life, but she asked permission to rip out your tongue. She also said she would roast and eat it in front of you. I’m sure she was joking.”
Clarke glares at her.
Lexa almost -- almost -- smiles, but her eyes drift to half-mast and Clarke watches the expression die, stillborn. Instead, the Commander of the twelve clans looks at the floor as she says, expressionless: “You know what I have to ask next.”
Clarke swallows. “I thought the people I came down with were dead, and the rest would never come down from the sky. It wasn’t until I saw Pike, the prisoner -- the one I freed --” and watches the skin tighten around Lexa’s eyes, “that I realized the truth. The thing we lived on, it came down in different pieces. He was on a piece that fell to the north. I wanted him to tell the main camp where the others were, that they were alive.”
She sits on his stories of Azgeda warriors and their disappearing Ark prisoners. Partly because she’s not sure Lexa will believe her in this moment. Partly because she refuses to give up everything. Not after what they did to get it from her.
“When I heard negotiations between your troops and the Ark fell through, I knew I had to go back myself,” Clarke continues. “I had to tell them -- we had no idea anyone was here, alive. They don’t know about the Mountain or the clans. I knew if I could just explain --”
“Explain what?” Lexa breaks in, soft. “They have no respect for us, or our ways. Our lives. They look at the Mountain and see kindred. They look at us and see savages.”
“No, that's not...” Her head spins. “Where are you getting this? You’ve spoken with them?”
“Not personally,” Lexa says after a moment. “But I have reliable reports. Including how your people have already begun to align themselves with the Mountain, trading for supplies and taking up their cause.”
“I don’t believe it,” Clarke says. It makes her a little shaky to see the gathering storm on Lexa’s face, but she persists. “They’re not here to fight. We used to teach that war ended the world. We haven’t survived in orbit for almost a hundred years just to start killing again.”
“What about your original mission?”
“I... I don’t get what you mean.” Lexa can’t still suspect her of espionage. Surely they’re past that.
“The first group of sky people. What were you sent here to accomplish?”
Laughter, ugly with old bitterness, seems to climb its own way out of her throat. “You don’t understand. We weren’t warriors or emissaries, we were test subjects.” At the slight frown from the Commander, Clarke knows she isn’t making herself understood. “We were...” She casts about for an appropriate comparison when she remembered an old, old metaphor, one from books written in the world before. “Do you have any people who dig really deep into the ground?”
“Shadow Valley takes metals from the belly of the earth.”
“And the air down there can be poisonous, right?” At Lexa’s nod, she asks: “How do they know when it’s safe?”
Lexa shifts, getting comfortable. “By bringing small animals with them in cages. It takes less poison for a small body, so they die first if there’s danger. Sometimes they will lower it down first...” Her face shutters as her voice trails off. “I see.”
“It was the same for us. When they sent us down, the mission was just to survive.”
It’s the third time Lexa has used her name. It didn’t escape her notice the first or second times, but she was... distracted, then. This time, she notices. The hair on the back of her neck stands up, and the sensation of electricity beneath her skin doesn’t stop when she sees how Lexa is looking at her, how she’s moved that much closer.
“The animals put to this use,” Lexa says, choosing her words, “do not produce. They are not pets. They are not... valued.”
It doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, Clarke tells herself. She raises her chin in acknowledgement.
“Why not?” Lexa asks, searching her face.
“We,” and and she has to clear her throat again when her voice cracks. She’d thought it had recovered from disuse, but maybe not. “We were criminals.”
Lexa’s eyes widen. “What was your crime?” voice shading a little too close to disbelief.
She really shouldn’t, but she can’t resist, and she --
Clarke allows the grin to bare her teeth as she revels in the near-poetic irony of it all. “I refused to stay silent.”
A second later she breaks, sagging against the wall as her whole body gives over to... she’s not laughing, but it’s caught somewhere between that and a sob; great violent breaths that shake her shoulders.
“It’s not --” Clarke gets her mouth under control. “It’s really not funny.”
Lexa does laugh then, softly. There’s an edge of hysteria to it, and Clarke feels it as well when she folds forward to muffle her own laughter against her knees. If a few tears slip out as well, at least her face is hidden.
The moment passes, and when Clarke sits back up Lexa is on the floor with her long legs stretched out in front of her. She wears a small smile she looks at Clarke with almost helpless --
Lexa’s expression smooths out so quickly Clarke is startled, her awareness of what she just glimpsed fading like mist burned away by the rising sun. The Commander is no less intimidating sitting on the floor of a spare room than she is fully outfitted for battle, if she wishes, and right now Clarke knows exactly who she’s looking at.
“You still have information,” the Commander says. “Their numbers, their weapons, their leaders. You could tell me all of this.”
Clarke lowers her eyes to her lap.
“You would be rewarded for it,” Lexa continues quietly. “It won’t be seen as a traitorous act. Not... not after having spent so long with us. After being one of us.”
“I’m not one of you.”
“Your people discarded you. You said so yourself. They all but left you for dead.”
“No, it wasn’t... They were trying to give us -- give everyone a second chance.”
“I took you in,” Lexa says. “I fed you, clothed you, protected you.”
Clarke’s hands have spread across her bandages without her say-so, skin of her fingertips prickling against the soft cloth. “You locked me up. You let Gustus cut me open.”
When Lexa’s returning silence makes her look up, Clarke finds the other girl staring into space, gaze unfocused. “Yes, I did.”
“Why?” Clarke forces out. She doesn’t just mean the misunderstandings, the horrible logic of it, and they both know that.
“Because we are what we are.” Lexa leverages herself to her feet, still gazing off into the distance. “And that is who I am. Who I must be.”
“That’s it?” Clarke swallows past the tightness in her throat. “That’s all I get? After everything we...”
Lexa finally focuses on her, eyes cold. “After everything,” she repeats, “that you have seen, and everyone you have met -- you still refuse to side with me, and help me fight this war?”
“The people on the Ark are not your enemy.”
Lexa nods, once, as if Clarke has said something entirely different. “So we are at an impasse.”
The whole conversation is surreal. Not because she's using her voice again for the first time in months. What used to be between them was warm, almost alive with its own energy. An understanding beyond words.
Every word they share now seems to build a wall, piece by piece, and the Lexa she knows is vanishing behind it.
Clarke wonders if Lexa feels the same: if she looks at Clarke and wonders where her wood witch has disappeared to.
Lexa wants Clarke back in her original room, the better to keep an eye on her now that her injuries are on the mend. It’s a subject of low-voiced and furious debate between Lexa and Anya, one where Clarke can’t overhear the exact details. But she gathers Lexa has also been careful to hide the revelation of Clarke’s true identity outside of a small circle, and doesn’t want her ongoing absence from that part of the tower to arouse suspicion. Anya looks ready to spit fire by the end of their discussion, but otherwise vanquished. Clarke is nastily pleased to see Lexa’s bull-headedness can rear up against her beloved mentor as well.
Lexa doesn’t say her farewells. She appears done with Clarke, at least for the night. She busies herself talking to the unknown healer before leaving, and he gives her a pouch of some kind of dried herb -- Clarke can smell it from where she sits, and the scene tickles the faint memory of its purpose. Lexa turns and leaves without a look back.
Anya and Tris take Clarke back to her room. It’s all very discreet; they don’t lay a hand on her. Anyone watching would think they were extra protection, a thoughtfulness on Lexa’s part in the wake of Nia’s attack.
That is, Clarke thinks, as long as they didn’t look at Anya close enough to see the contempt in her eyes.
She doesn’t speak until Clarke is already through the doorway: “My instructions are to keep you contained.”
Clarke turns to look at Anya. She’s speaking in English. Not loud enough to be heard beyond the two of them, but the subtext is clear.
“However,” Anya resumes softly, holding the door open, “if I hear you even listening at the door, I might decide to honor my greater duty: the protection of my people.”
She holds Clarke’s gaze until the door is fully shut between them.
Clarke doesn’t bother to take off her boots. She sits on her bed -- it feels like a lifetime since she last slept in it -- with her arms around her knees.
The hours until moonrise are strangely empty. She feels drained of thought, or emotion, staring out her window into the darkness as the moon climbs higher and higher into the sky. The only thing that grounds her in her own body is the pain of her healing wounds.
Whatever subconscious cue is at work, when it happens Clarke comes back to herself almost with a snap.
She takes her boots off. They’re worn and comfortable enough at this point they shouldn’t make too much noise, but Anya’s warning has her taking even more precautions.
She moves across the floor slowly, step by agonizing step. She coaxes the hidden door to the passageway open in stages, stopping every other second to strain for noise beyond the door to the corridor or some other warning that Anya or Tris have become suspicious.
She holds her breath until she’s light-headed, but finally, finally, she’s on the other side and in the passageway. She locks it from that end.
By the time Clarke has traveled the passageway and reached the door to Lexa’s rooms her heart is beating so hard she can feel the pulse in her mouth. She leans her head against this side of the door for a second, takes the moment to desperately try and calm her panicked breathing. It doesn’t work. Either she’s right, and she’s safe. Or she’s wrong, and...
Her hand is reaching to open the door before she can finish the thought.
It feels like time shudders to a halt as it swings open, but...
Lexa is asleep.
All the breath leaves Clarke’s body at once, and she can’t stop herself from sinking to the ground. The bag the healer gave Lexa sags open on a nearby table, its contents speckled across its surface. It’s a very potent herb used for sleep, one Clarke remembers using sparingly for patients in the worst kinds of pain. And Lexa -- Lexa is small and still, her face slack in a way Clarke has never seen. She won’t wake up.
And part of Clarke wonders, as she drags herself upright, what battles Lexa has been fighting that kept her sleepless.
Not her problem. Not unless it has to do with -- no, she can’t afford to worry about how things might be progressing at the Ark. Not yet.
Her witch clothes are where they’re usually kept. She was afraid Lexa might have ripped them up, or had them burned, but maybe she was being economical and keeping Clarke’s inevitable replacement in mind. They’re crumpled, instead of in their usual neat folds. Not that she’s bothered at this point.
She changes quickly. She keeps her eyes on the figure in the bed as often as she can, but Lexa is dead to the world.
Clarke’s legs still shake as she comes closer and closer to the bed. Her eyes burn from keeping them open, trained on Lexa for even the slightest twitch of muscle. When Lexa sighs a little Clarke freezes in place, stays there without breathing for sixty counts of her pounding heart.
It shouldn’t feel like... It should be easier, by now. The healing cuts on her arms, Lexa’s words when they last spoke, it should all make opening the drawer and taking out the pot of gold paint feel like something she is owed.
Her fingers are too trembly to hold the brush steady, and there’s no mirror she can see. It’s easier to use her fingertips, trace the paint along her temples and eyelids from the memory of how it felt rather than what it looked like.
She twists the pot closed, after, and as she looks down at it her grip only tightens.
She is owed.
Clarke shoves it deep into her one pocket, a pouch sewn into the waistline of her skirt. The pot bumps up against her thigh when she walks, but its outline isn’t visible against the fabric.
She has... it isn’t even an idea, it’s an impulse. She grabs the brush, the ivory handle slick against her sweating palm, and walks swiftly over to the side of Lexa’s bed.
There’s a feeling of terrible violence inside her as she looks down at the sleeping inhabitant. An instant which balances on a knife’s point, taking in the steady rise and fall of Lexa’s breath, her hair curling across her pillow. The shadows moving across her face, and living just under her eyes.
("Because we are what we are.")
... she doesn’t have time for this.
It’s like reaching inside her to find a switch: she looks down at Lexa, breathes in the sight of her, put her finger on the pulse of her surging emotion -- and turns it off.
Clarke puts the paintbrush on the mattress, inches from where Lexa’s hand is resting with fingers spread loosely. When she steps back, she feels something wrench.
She feels so empty afterwards she can practically hear her thoughts echo.
It allows her to turn around and walk away.
The guards don’t even blink when she walks out of Lexa’s rooms. Every inch of her skin is raw with anxiety and anticipation, her mind is nothing but white noise with the certainty that someone will reach out and grab her, or shout...
None of that happens, but she’s so preoccupied with the possibility she walks a good ten feet down the wrong corridor before the sound of Anya’s voice freezes her mid-step. Clarke turns, shaking, and tries to make as little noise as possible as she beats a retreat.
She feels almost numb by the time she reaches the cartographers’ rooms, like her overloaded system has just decided to stop relaying back the messages of sensation. She’s not sure if it’s colder or warmer in this part of the tower, and the sweep of her skirt with each step has faded out of her awareness. When the guards at the doors automatically move to block her progress, only to check themselves at the sight of the paint around her eyes, the only thing she’s really aware of is the stinging cuts on her arms and back.
I’m owed this.
The cartographers’ rooms are almost empty, their supplies and works in progress tidied away for the day. She takes a candle from storage and lights it using the banked embers of one of the braziers positioned around the room -- it’s easier to stoke them into fires in the early morning this way, and the bags of sand weighing down each base also serve as rudimentary fire prevention. It’s all the light she needs to find Sharla’s workstation and rifle through its contents. Sharla was working on things besides the maps of the territory where the Ark landed, but Clarke doesn’t have time to parse them. She grabs up whatever partial drafts and sketches of legends she can find, balls them up in her fist until the papers are creased and folded beyond saving.
It doesn’t matter. They’re not what she’s really here for.
She’s only been in the map room before with Lexa. It connects with the cartographers’ room, but they have little reason to go into it on a regular basis. The braziers inside have been allowed to die down to grey ash, and it takes some coaxing with Clarke’s candle to bring the one closest to a window back to life. The cold air from outside at first threatens, and then happily feeds the growing flame, until Clarke can toss the contents of Sharla’s desk on top without fear of it being smothered.
She watches the papers brown and then burn, limned in red just before they’re eaten away by flame. There’s kindling and logs stored in the base of each brazier, and Clarke feeds this to her new fire carefully before turning around to survey the room.
The fire gives more than enough light for her to blow out her candle. It’s not bright, but its glow touches the far corners of the room. Clarke has a sickening moment where she remembers the glow in Lexa’s eyes when she first showed it to Clarke, the way she touched the hanging maps and dioramas lightly, almost reverently. Clarke has seen her gifted in audiences with rich fabrics, precious metals, even jewels. She’s heard them promise Lexa tributes: teams of horses, the choicest selection from the harvest. She never saw Lexa look as pleased by mere possessions as when she stood in her map room, surrounded by the riches here.
Clarke pushes the memory down into the dark, roiling waters of her mind like she’s drowning it.
She knows where the maps she wants are kept. She’s seen them taken down and put away often enough, when Lexa was planning the initial campaign against the Ark. Copies were made to be used in the field -- she helped Sharla make them -- but these are the originals, reproductions of the terrain with breathtaking detail, delicacy, and skill. It hurts, just under her ribcage, to fold them up into a size she can slip underneath the bodice of her witch clothes, but at least the top is tight enough to keep them from falling out and the shawl will conceal any telling lumps. She fits one down her back and two more under her breasts: the territories around the Mountain, the greater view of the Woods Clan, and Azgeda.
She could leave, now. She has what she wanted.
Instead she goes from table to table where the models are displayed, and ruins them. She can’t throw them to the floor, not without arousing the suspicion from the guards outside, but: she crumbles forests of fir trees into dust under her palms, rips up rivers and lakes with her fingernails, flattens hills into plains with soft fists, scratches at snow and ice until it falls away in flakes she can crush beneath her feet. From the trickles running down her arms and back she knows a few of her stitches must have broken; she doesn’t care.
Next she goes for the flat maps. She doesn’t have time for all of them. But she remembers which ones Lexa showed her specially, those first commissioned when she became Commander, or the first ones of territories other than Woods Clan. The maps that show Lexa’s long and demanding rise to her current state of rule. Clarke remembers how Lexa’s voice softened, talking about what they meant to her: markers of memory in a culture with no written records.
Their protective coating makes them harder to burn, but Clarke is nothing if not determined. She feeds them into the flames one by one, watching as the open window sucks away the acrid smoke and tosses it into the cloudy night. And she feels nothing, nothing -- just a deep calm at the center of her.
It’s the same down at the stables: Clarke thinks they would have given her Storm regardless, since the stable master commanded it, but the paint on her face means they bring the horse out ready to be ridden in double-time. The fact she takes a long riding cloak and bag of foodstuffs out of supplies seems to make them a little calmer. A wood witch out riding in the middle of the night is strange, but this one is clearly on a mission of some sort.
And she is. She just hasn’t been given orders by the person they’re all assuming.
She has a moment.
It’s at the top of the hills, just before she enters the thicket of the orchards. She’s not leaving by the city gates -- it feels like tempting fate, and maybe it will confuse them once they figure out she’s escaped. This also brings her to the southern road faster.
From here she can see Polis as clearly as if she were looking down at another map. The marketplace is all closed up and still for the night, the houses and buildings beyond are dark. The tower is the brightest source of light, sporadic windows glinting with life and the business that never stops there, no matter what time of night. Slowly, slowly, she lets her eyes travel up its length to the topmost room. Those windows are dark so that its inhabitant can enjoy the rest that, apparently, doesn't come easily.
You have to go, Clarke tells herself.
It’s still another minute before she can force her hands to pull on the reins and direct Storm on their way.
She has a few hours’ head start -- she figures eight, at most. She uses it. She rides Storm incredibly hard, taking the horse over rougher paths and unknown trails, hoping that will confuse anyone in pursuit. She’s forced to take a break at some point to let Storm recover, but Clarke doesn’t sleep. She knows once she allows herself to feel it her arms and back will be nothing but pain, and the rest of her body one deep ache. But she can’t relax, not yet, and she spends the downtime straining to hear the sound of hoofbeats following them.
There are grain cakes in the bag from the stables and she forces one down. Storm doesn’t share her trouble eating and chomps through half her supply, with a look in her eye that says you owe me so big for Clarke. Once there’s enough room Clarke stores the stolen maps inside the bag as well.
She knows they’re spotted by Woods Clan scouts as they near the Ark. Her skin prickles with the feeling of eyes on her as they draw closer. She keeps waiting to be stopped, until she realizes: they have no idea what to do. What with Anya and Lexa away from camp, there’s no set procedure for a single rider wearing the paint that makes her the Commander’s favorite riding into the enemy’s camp.
But at some point even the strangest circumstances demand a response, and she can tell the moment they start to stir themselves, the gathering rustle around her of forces marshalling, coordinating.
Clarke presses her face against Storm’s neck in mute apology before urging her even faster, demanding that remaining bit of the animal’s energy. The horse complies, muscles gathering for one last burst of speed.
She thinks they’re probably safe from Lexa’s warriors as soon as they break through the treeline, but that’s when a gunshot cracks through the air and kicks up the dirt not too far from their feet.
Storm is too well-trained to go into a full rear, but she dances for a few seconds, Clarke clinging with whatever she has left to the reins. Another gunshot, and she yanks her hood off.
“Stop!” she calls up at the Ark. Its fallen form is like a collapsed monster sprawling across the Earth. They’ve erected a crude wall and gates to contain it, and two figures patrol this side with their heads wrapped up to cut down on the sun’s glare. One of them must have shot at her.
She pulls the neck of her clothing -- Grounder clothing, Grounder colors, and she’s wearing Grounder paint -- even looser, trying to bare as much of her head as possible. “My name is Clarke Griffin. I’m from Alpha Station. I want to speak to the Chancellor.”
Who might be her mother. She hasn’t forgotten that little tidbit, she just hasn’t had time to process --
And this is what nearly undoes her, after everything. The sound of a voice she hadn’t dreamed, or dared hope, that she might be mistaken in thinking she would never hear again. “Wells?” She can only force out a whisper at first, and then a scream: “Wells?”
But he’s already clambering down from the ramparts. “Open the gate!” she can hear him yelling. “It’s Clarke, open the gate!”
Everything blurs, then, and she doesn’t remember walking Storm through the gate or how it closed behind them. Only seeing Wells reaching for her, once safely inside, and how she nearly falls off the horse in her eagerness to meet him. As soon as she’s out of the saddle the past few days descend on her like an avalanche: she can feel every bruise, every sore, every pull of her stitches. Wells’s arms go around her and her knees buckle at the pain, but she clings to him. The people who gather at the sight of their reunion aren’t immediately familiar, but their dark and worn clothing is. The way they carry themselves is: a little hunched and uneasy, like people used to confined spaces instead of the vast and open sky. Even if she’s never seen Arkers looking this gaunt, their desperation is nothing new. Or their fear. Or their distrust.
Clarke closes her eyes and gives herself up to Wells’s protective embrace.