Hunting Reapers would be considered mad by many, foolish by the rest, and none were more aware than the Skaikru leader of the challenging task that faced them. It would be difficult to capture such a beast without the use of violence when it in turn only sought to kill or detain you.
Clarke was acutely aware that the tunnels surrounding the mountain would be thriving with bloodthirsty Reapers but she was less sure of how they were going to infiltrate their ranks to capture one of them. Straying close to the mountain would be treacherous for many reasons and it came as a relief when Lexa explained her strategy upon careful inquiry.
Fear for the Reaper's had not made the Grounder's complacent and regular reports were issued to the Commander regarding any sightings or related disappearances. It was only wise to remain aware of their movements, despite the lack of motivation to engage with the ferocious beasts. This information was more vital now than ever before, offering a strong chance of capturing one of the mutated beings within Trikru territory without having to divert anywhere near the Mountain.
An hour of trekking through the undergrowth led the Skaikru leader into new territory and, with every hesitant step into the unknown terrain, she was more thankful than ever for her defence against any dangers that might be encountered. As much as she trusted the warriors unrivalled combat abilities, the power of a gun was not something to be underestimated.
A brief halt was called to their progress when clear tracks could be observed through the foliage.
"They moved through here recently," one warrior confirmed, his keen eyes analysing the clear tracks spread around them.
"They might be closer than anticipated," Lexa warned, reservation weighing heavily with each step as she became concerned by the sheer amount of tracks in the vicinity. "Remember, we only use extreme force as a last resort."
The goal was to save those who had been turned, not to execute them needlessly.
Clarke shared the Commanders sense of apprehension as their group paused briefly to evaluate the tracks. She was unable to shake the foreboding chill that had descended to smother her initial optimism in the face of their discovery.
A light breeze whispered through the towering trees and the rustling of leaves accompanied by a darkening sky did nothing to ease the blonde's unease, leaning towards nervous resignation as every murmur carried by the wind whipped her head towards the source, expecting the disfigured form of a Reaper to appear at any second.
"We won't be able to avoid bloodshed if we're outnumbered and under attack," the blonde girl expressed, scanning the surrounding trees with one hand drifting to her gun instinctively, her apprehension growing.
Byrnes was no more confident than the girl that she was protecting, taking every effort to cover their flank to prevent an unwarranted ambush. Lives on both sides were at danger in the event of conflict and protecting Clarke had to be her first priority.
"There was another sighting further south, we'll find their tracks instead," the Commander agreed, unwilling to risk their lives unnecessarily if easier targets existed. Capturing a Reaper was a pointless task if it died in the process.
The statement came as a relief to everyone and there was no opposition when Lexa led them back a short way to eventually divert south once they had left the multitude of tracks far behind. It was a short lived sensation when they subsequently ran into a different kind of threat all together.
Clarke's suspicions were initially aroused when a nearby clattering of birds shot into the sky without warning, startled into flight by an unseen threat. She had barely registered the motion let alone thought to comment on the occurrence when a swiftly moving, black creature careened through the undergrowth with impossible speed and swept the Major to the ground with overpowering strength.
Jagged claws and vicious teeth tore through flesh, bone, and clothing in the second that it took Clarke to react, another second passing when she aimed carefully and fired off two shots into the creatures flank. It growled sharply and lurched away from the fallen woman, blood dripping from its muzzle as it tore unsteadily back into the concealing undergrowth.
Clarke raced to her guard's side and fell to her knees, dismayed to witness the fatal wounds that had been inflicted upon the exposed throat and torso. Byrnes was barely conscious, her life ebbing and fading with each second that passed. There was nothing that could be done for her.
The forest around them remained quiet and still, but the animal would not abandon it's kill so easily. It would be back. Lexa stepped forwards as the Skaikru leader stared on in shocked silence.
"We have to move," she urged, her eyes scanning their surroundings cautiously. "Any Reapers nearby will be drawn by the gunshot."
Byrnes choked a final heaving breath and fell still, her body shutting down from the serious wounds that had been inflicted. With great reluctance Clarke uttered a brief farewell and turned away from the ghastly scene, her heart heavy to witness such a violent end. The woman had deserved better, but the imminent threat of Reapers forced them to move on.
In the seconds that followed, a warning cry went up from one of guards when he glimpsed movement in the distance. A second disturbance was noted to their left and it was soon apparent that the Reapers were closing in on their location.
The Commander was eager to avoid further bloodshed, especially considering their goal to detain a living Reaper. It would do them no good to slaughter any raiding parties that were encountered. Retreating was the only viable option.
"Run!" she cried, abandoning her defensive stance to swarm away from the advancing threat, her warriors and the Skaikru leader close on her heels.
Guttural cries went up from the oncoming Reapers when their prey began a hasty retreat, charging after their victims with bloodthirsty intent. In a matter of moments the situation had turned against the small party, hopes of a peaceful encounter dashed in the sight of such violence.
The hunters were now the hunted.
Clarke's breath tore raggedly from her lungs as she charged blindly through the forest, panic further tightening her chest as she found herself separated from the far more agile Grounder's who had swept ahead with ease.
Her path was winding, favouring the flat landscape over any treacherously steep inclines which would only push her closer to exhaustion. Every glimmer from the corner of her eye threatened to be a Reaper, urging her to run faster despite her waning energy levels.
The expanse of trees provided no discernible landmarks for the leader to orient herself from, becoming ever more lost as she tore through the unrecognisable environment.
Eventually, she had no choice but to stop. Every muscle in her body screamed for respite, burning agonisingly from the exertion. With shaking legs, Clarke finally came to a standstill, doubling over with rasping breaths to heave oxygen into her deprived body.
This couldn't go on for much longer.
A flicker of movement to her left forced the girl back to attention and her tiredness was all but forgotten when her eyes rose hesitantly to meet with the wild gaze of a panther and she froze instantly. It was the same one that had killed the Major, it's flank smeared with glistening blood from the bullet wounds as it paused hesitantly in the undergrowth.
For a brief moment, Clarke was convinced that it would slink away into the forest, that it wouldn't attempt another attack after the consequences it had already endured. Golden eyes stared intently at their blue counterparts for a long moment before lips curled back to reveal blood stained teeth and a chilling growl rippled into existence.
Of course not, Clarke thought dismally to herself as the animal extended it's hind legs and leapt furiously towards her with rippling muscles, it's injury doing nothing to dampen its attack. Her luck had all but run dry.
Attempting to lift her gun was predictably futile, unable to match the speed of the powerful creatures advance as it drove straight into her unprotected body, her aim sent skywards as her body lurched back from the impact and the breath was knocked from her lungs.
Pain assaulted every inch of her body when she collided with the ground, although the unexpected explosion from the gun startled the panther into a hesitant retreat as it drew back frightfully from the threatening sound. The scorch of its claws ripping through her shirt summoned a harsh cry from the blonde as she arched protectively to cover the vulnerable area.
A prominent voice shouted from somewhere behind Clarke and briefly gained the panthers attention before it could attempt a second attack. With ears pressed flat against its head and eyes darting fearfully towards the newcomer, the creature wisely decided that this wasn't a battle worth fighting and promptly fled in the opposite direction.
With the threat now retreating, Clarke shoved the weapon blindly back into its holster before addressing the seeping wound on her abdomen, immediate concern dissipating when she recognised the shallow gash that had been carved into the uppermost layers of skin. She had been fortunate this time.
Lexa rushed forwards as the girl staggered unsteadily to her feet, concern etching her features to glimpse the dark red liquid that soaked through the torn shirt. She was surprised that the girl was even able to stand let alone wave away her worried questions.
"It looks worse than it is," Clarke insisted forcefully, fighting against the protest rocking her body in response to the movement. She had never been more relieved to see the Trikru leader. "Did we lose them?"
"Not yet, but I know a place where we can shelter," the Commander assured her, recognising the necessity of a hideout now more than ever. She remained sceptical of the girls claim but held her tongue for the time being. First they would seek cover and then it would be possible to assess the injury.
Lexa took the lead and carefully led them a few hundred metres north where she signalled towards a half concealed cave set into the ground.
"In there?" the blonde asked uncertainly, lilting uncomfortably to one side as her pain persisted. Darkness was all that could be observed within the cave, an ominous sight that did not encourage one to explore its depths.
"Unless you'd rather stay out here?"
Without further hesitation, Clarke shuffled towards the wide entrance. This wasn't the time to be fussy about her accommodation. Lexa followed close behind, sweeping their surroundings one last time with a keen gaze to ensure they weren't being followed before descending into the darkness.
"Where are your guards?" Clarke inquired with a flicker of interest, if only to distract from the persistent burning of her wound, squinting through the dim light in an attempt to locate the other woman who was somehow managing to navigate over the uneven floor with moderate ease.
"Diverting the Reapers," Lexa replied simply, finding what she was searching at the far end of the cave. Clarke's absence had led to a flurry of action from the Grounder's, prompting swift action that would ensure both their safety and that of the Skaikru leader.
Clarke would have enquired further if not for the clenching of her teeth when another wave of pain robbed her of the ability to speak. A sudden flare of bright light seared her eyes momentarily and she ducked her face away from the wash of intense illumination.
Within a short space of time, three torches had been lit and placed at regular intervals along the cave perimeter, casting a flickering light throughout the small confines, illuminating the resources that were gathered safely in the corner. Clarke doubted that luck had anything to do with their presence as she carefully sunk to the ground with a pained grimace.
"It is always wise to have a safe retreat from conflict," the Commander explained when she saw the object of the girls attention, gesturing casually to the limited supplies. "Many of my warriors have fallen prey to Reapers in this area and this provides a chance of survival."
Clarke begrudgingly accepted the logic, now finding herself in the very same position as those had fallen prey to Reapers in the past. Sheltering in the cave didn't guarantee survival by any means, but it was better than nothing.
"Here," the Commander continued, passing a small container of water towards the injured girl which was gratefully used to clean the wound, finally allowing a clear assessment of its depth. It soon became apparent that Clarke's previous claim had indeed been correct and she had been incredibly lucky to escape with only a minor flesh wound, not that it lessened her pain in any way.
The long sleeved jacket became nothing but a hindrance and Clarke abandoned it on the ground beside her before continuing her slow and painful treatment.
"God damn it," she hissed through clenched teeth as the water stung burning pain across her skin, but she didn't let the sensation halt her progress.
Lexa watched the struggling girl with an impassive stare, perching carefully opposite the Skaikru leader with her back leaning against the far wall. A slight breeze swept into their hideout, but the the brunt of the weather was inflicted upon the arching rock at the entrance. They would be safe here, from both the elements and those who sought to harm them.
Clarke was in no fit state to engage in further conflict and it would take a new strategy to approach the challenge of capturing their target alive. It was difficult to engage the creature without violence when it's primary intent was to kill you.
After several painstaking minutes, the wound had been cleaned and covered to the best of the Clarke's ability within the sparse environment and there was nothing more to do but wait until she could return to the village where further treatment would ease her pain.
"How long do you think we'll have to wait?" she asked in the silence that followed, sighing despondently as she mirrored the Commander's position.
"As long as it takes."
Clarke nodded, but was not comforted by the eerie silence that spread throughout the cave. It accentuated every slight movement or noise and, if they were going to be here for a while, she wasn't going to waste it away without at least trying to attempt conversation to distract from the tense situation.
She shifted to find a more comfortable position, a difficult task considering her prominent injury. "I would've been running for an eternity if you hadn't shown up, who knows where I could've ended up. Every inch of this damn forest looks the same to me."
Her tone was light, mocking almost as she pictured herself racing towards safety only to find herself isolated and lost in the foreign surroundings. Not ideal by any means. She would have to make more of an effort in the future to learn the local landscape, at the very least to achieve some semblance of direction.
Lexa's intense gaze flashed towards the Skaikru leader who was unaware of her inadvertently barbed comment as she attempted to the shove the jacket between her back and the harsh rock wall to ease the jagged rocks protruding against her skin.
"I wasn't going to leave you behind," the Commander insisted with unexpected force, surprised that the girls offhand comment had struck a chord. Did the girl really believe that she would just flee and leave her to the fate of Reaper's?
Clarke abandoned her futile task momentarily, eyes widening a fraction as she looked up in surprise. She hadn't meant to cause offence, quite the opposite in fact. A brief moment passed in which the Commander regretted her lapse of neutrality and ignored the questioning gaze that followed her outburst.
"The alliance lives and dies with us" she continued in a more even tone, turning her gaze towards the entrance as if listening for approaching danger, only returning her attention when the girl was once again occupied with her attempt to make their surroundings a fraction more comfortable. "If you had died then I'd have to contend with...your mother."
Clarke didn't know how she'd been expecting the sentence to end but had glanced up in time to witness the distaste that settled over the Commander's face as the words dripped from her lips with immeasurable dissatisfaction and couldn't help but laugh at the strong reaction.
Surprise registered on the Commander's face when the charming sound echoed throughout the cave, startled from the discouraging thought as a loose smile of her own formed in response.
"She means well," Clarke offered, the remnants of an amused smile lingering on her lips as she abandoned her futile effort and settled back with a light sigh. "She was the same on the Ark, always trying to be in the centre of everyone's lives with the excuse that she was an integral member of the council."
Life on the Ark had been unique, but not entirely different from the events unfolding on the ground. Power plays, deception and political stigma would be rife no matter where her people decided to settle.
"Do you miss it, your life in the sky?" Lexa asked suddenly, breaking the girl from the reminiscent memories that swirled to life. She had always wondered what life on the ship had been like before the untimely descent to the planet's surface. An enclosed metal prison held no concept of enjoyment for the Commander, but the blonde's gentle smile at the memory of her time on the ship hinted that it wasn't all bad.
"Sometimes, but only for the memories that we made as family, before it all got too complicated."
"Would you choose to go back? If it were possible?"
Clarke pursed her lips thoughtfully, hardly considering the possibility before shaking her head. "No, life on the ground was always a distant dream but now it's a reality. It may be challenging and dangerous, but there's a beauty down here that can't be captured on the Ark. "
She was momentarily lost to memories of her imprisonment, how she had sketched her vision of what awaited her on the ground with innocent hope. Those had been different times and she had come a long way since then. Days of playing chess and laughing with her parents had been a only a brief snapshot of her young life which was now consumed with war meetings and political drama. The idea would have been laughable a year ago.
Major Byrnes demise had been sudden, unexpected, and a sharp reminder that life down here could be fleeting and blink out of existence before you knew it. Another loss to add to the growing list of departed souls who had contributed so much to their success on the ground.
Clarke's thoughts soon centred back to the present time, the fond memories dissipating as she replayed the days events in her head. The mixture of sorrow and pain from her injury was an unpleasant sensation and the blonde refocused on her surroundings in hopes of a distraction, becoming acutely aware of the silence that had stretched into existence.
She had briefly forgotten the powerful figure who was seated opposite her, self consciously regaining some semblance of composure as she felt the intense gaze observing her closely. Discussions of alliances and war were a common occurrence for the two woman, but it was a rare occasion in which they were able to engage in such informal conversation, even rarer still that they were able to speak in complete privacy. It was easy to distance yourself from the political drama in this isolated environment, to become detached from events beyond the private security that the enclosed space offered.
"If we don't return with a Reaper, then this was all for nothing," Clarke finally said, drawing the topic of conversation back to more pressing issues to make up for her lapse in concentration, not that her fellow leader minded.
"We will obtain what we need," the Commander insisted with calm conviction, tilting her head a fraction at the girls obvious concern. "Your energy would be better conserved if you considered what can be achieved, rather than the consequences of failure."
It was a common occurrence for the Skaikru leader to worry needlessly over the countless factors that were out of her control, planning for every eventuality when she merely needed to wait and ascertain the outcome before making a strategic decision.
Clarke recognised the lecture that was being imparted upon her by the Commander, not that her efforts were unappreciated, but the lectures were becoming a persistent factor within their numerous discussions.
"I just want to do what's right for my people," she concluded, more than aware of her tendency to examine all eventualities, often leading to unnecessary stress and worry. "I can't let them down."
"You have the potential to become an exceptional leader Clarke, but mastery comes with self confidence. You must have faith in yourself for others to follow your example."
The words resonated within the blonde leader and she was once again left with the sense of shared understanding that flowed so easily between them. Very few people could even begin to understand the pressures of leadership, let alone offer suitable advice, but with just a few simple sentences the Commander could achieve all of this and more.
A wince of pain interrupted the thankful smile that had crept onto her features, twisting into a grimace when she shifted thoughtlessly to relight the burning pain at her abdomen. She vaguely realised that her discomfort had been forgotten for the duration of their oddly relaxed conversation, distracted briefly with thoughts of her life on the Ark and how different her new existence now was in comparison.
Abandoning all thoughts of composure to mask her growing discomfort, Clarke proceeded to fold her jacket into a tight bundle and cast it onto the hard ground as a makeshift pillow, swivelling carefully to lay her body flat against the ground with a relieved sigh.
It wasn't incredibly comfortable by any means, but it was enough to reduce her pain by a fraction, easing the pressure that had been building from her tense posture.
Silence reigned once more, but this time it felt natural, comfortable almost as the women retreated to the depths of their own personal thoughts. The blonde's eyes closed without thought as time crept on and she drew in tentative breaths, her head eventually tilting to one side as her breathing slowed and eased into a peaceful slumber.
Lexa watched over the sleeping girl for the next hour, cautiously relaxed as their calm environment remained blissfully uninterrupted. Her tranquil exterior was deceptive when she was primed to leap into action at the first hint of danger, always prepared for the threat of attack.
She found her gaze drawn back to the sleeping girl more often than not, her thoughts drifting to encompass just how monumental the alliance between their people was. She could still recall the chaos that reigned throughout her subjects to learn of the unlikely enemies falling from the sky. That fateful day had marked a turning point in their lives, not that anyone had been aware of it at the time, but the fallout would be unheard of.
A hushed quiet had taken hold of the cave and the Commander let the calm aura wash over her, aware that all too soon they would have to return to the chaos that existed beyond the rough rock walls.
The silence was only broken when a flurry of approaching footsteps drifted into the cave an hour later, prompting the Commander into sudden action when she rose to her feet and approached her warrior with a signal to remain quiet. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that the girl remained firmly in the grip of a restful sleep and Lexa gestured for her warrior to retreat from the cave before reporting his findings.
The sky outside remained grey and dull with rolling clouds as the warriors emerged from the darkness, a fitting setting for all that had taken place on such a disappointing venture.
"They have long moved on Commander, we managed to evade their group and lead them away."
"The panther?" Lexa inquired further, not wishing to avoid one enemy only be ambushed by another.
"Dead, from wounds inflicted by the Skaikru leader."
Lexa swiftly instructed two of her warriors to remain on guard duty, directing the remaining two back to camp with the defeated animal. It was reproachful to even consider wasting such a precious food resource.
Back inside the cave, Clarke was finally beginning to stir, blinking through bleary eyes to find herself alone within the dim confines of enclosing walls. She had no time to consider her situation when light footsteps approached, signalling the Commanders return to wake the sleeping girl.
"Lexa?" the blonde muttered, still caught in the haze of sleep as she propped herself up on one arm, thoughts of conflict springing to mind. Had something happened? Surely she couldn't have slept through an attack?
"It's time to go," the Commander prompted, her step faltering briefly at the informal ease with which her name was pronounced by the oblivious blonde, stepping around the prone girl to return the resources to their allocated position. "Our path is clear."
Clarke was quietly relieved to be departing from the cave, although she was grateful for the opportunity to rest and recover her strength. She blinked away the remnants of sleep and surged forwards as if to rise to her feet, momentarily forgetting about the gash on her abdomen until the searing pain that followed kindly reminded her of its existence. She winced with an audible gasp, sinking back to the ground with a grimace as she silently considered an alternate strategy, intently breathing through the tide of pain.
The Commander promptly extended a supporting arm towards the girl who looked up at her through dark eyelashes before accepting the offered help gratefully and grasped the woman's forearm with a secure grip.
Clarke arched forwards instinctively as the swift movement sparked fresh irritation from the wound, hoping to ease the tearing sensation that accompanied the action as she was hauled easily to her feet. The supportive grip on her arm remained to provide much needed balance and Clarke lifted her gaze to find herself far closer to the Commander than she had expected.
The dark war paint contrasted more notably with the stunning green irises at such close proximity, eyes that glittered mesmerizingly in the dancing torchlight. Clarke found herself unwilling to pull away and put distance between them, vaguely convincing herself that it had everything to do with easing the pain of her injury.
Lexa wasn't quite sure what was happening. She was reluctant to release the girl's arm in consideration of her injury, but found herself unable to move even if she wanted to, frozen in place by the unexpected intensity with which the blue eyes pierced hers. Before she could even contemplate retreating or voicing her concern, Clarke was lifting a hand to hover hesitantly over the woman's cheek, a motion that sent an unbridled wave of emotion curling through the shocked Commander.
"Lexa...," the blonde girl uttered sharply, a beat of silence weighing heavily between them before she slowly retracted her hand. "You're bleeding..."
The Commander was still reeling from how easily her name had fallen from the girl's lips without apparent thought, unable to escape how much she enjoyed the sensation. Her initial uncertainty was quelled in an instant when she realised what the girl had been staring so intently at, having felt the incessant sting of a small cut grace her cheek since their arrival at the cave.
"Your blood, it's...black?" Clarke breathed softly, unsure whether to be concerned or shocked by the revelation. At first appearing to be a trick of the light, she had been astonished to realise that her initial assumption about the unnatural colour had been correct. How was that possible?
Lexa wiped at the minor abrasion dismissively, observing the slightest hint of blood that smeared a path along her finger, ignoring the swell of disappointment in her chest when the blonde's focus of attention was revealed.
"A sign of my heritage, of all the Commander's that came before me. Nothing to concern yourself with."
The trance seemed to shatter with the blunt reply and Clarke stepped back promptly as she realised how strange her behaviour must have appeared, so captivated by the impossible occurrence that she had not thought to consider her actions.
Without another word, Lexa extinguished the torches and promptly led them out into the harsh gleam of daylight, abandoning the unusual emotion along with the supplies within the caves protective walls.
She had sworn never to expose herself to the devastating experience again and she was not about to betray that promise. Despite her silent assurances, she couldn't quite shake the persistent sensation that had been inadvertently reawakened and marched through the forest with a frown lightly creasing her brow, refusing to glance back as the girl in question trailed quietly in her wake, oblivious to the internal conflict that weighed upon the leader.
Love is weakness.
She had lived by the code for longer than she could remember and it made her stronger, more adept to deal with the harsh realities of her life. She couldn't allow herself to falter now, not for anyone.
Thank you for supporting this story, leave a comment if you enjoyed this chapter and I'll see you soon for the next update!