Nothing was the same, nor would it ever be the same again. No...that wasn't it exactly. It was that nothing felt...right. Everything was supposed to be better now, but it wasn't. Not for Jasper. Not for Monty. Not for Lincoln or Octavia. Not for Bellamy. And certainly not for Clarke.
She'd found shelter for herself in a cave that first night. It seemed fitting. Cold and hollow. Just like her.
It had been a temptation to head for the drop ship, but she knew that if anyone were to try to find her, that would be the first place they'd look. And she didn't want to be found. At least not yet. She wasn't ready yet, wasn't sure if she ever would be. The only thing she was sure of was that she had to get away.
Once she'd gotten a good distance from Camp Jaha and after she'd had a few hours of sleep, Clarke took a good look at her surroundings and several things occurred to her at once. The first was that she wasn't far from the bunker where she and Bellamy had found all those barrels of blankets and guns oh so long ago, and that it might have some of the much-needed supplies she'd been unable to bring with her. And the second was that Tondc, where she'd realized she was ultimately headed, was still several hours away in the opposite direction.
The ruins of the village, the lost lives and leaders called to her. But her practicality tugged at her more. She may not want the responsibility of her people's lives in her hands anymore, but she had no desire to end her own life, either. Provisions first. Penance later.
By the time Clarke had scavenged the bunker for anything Kane's team may have left behind when they'd gone back to get the rest of the weapons, she had a knapsack full of what appeared to be freeze-dried military rations, two blankets, and a tarp she could easily turn into a shelter or tent.
As she emerged from the dark, damp, dungeon-like depths, her eyes drifted of their own accord to an area a short distance away that made her stop in her tracks at the memory of the last time she'd been in this place. With Bellamy.
Stumbling forward, Clarke found it harder and harder to breathe as everything that had happened there that day played in her mind's eye. So much had changed since then. Since the day she'd pled with Bellamy not to do the exact thing she was doing now.
Clarke dropped heavily to the ground at the base of that same tree where she and Bellamy had sat that day, side by side, fighting their demons. She was numb. She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, forcing new demons away. She fell asleep there, the darkness that she fought so hard to keep at bay while awake now invading her dreams.
When she awoke, Clarke was disoriented...and not alone. She sat up abruptly, forcing her eyes to focus, her mind sharpening in an instant as she studied the woman who was staring at her so intently.
They watched each other impassively, almost as if challenging one another to be the first to break the silence, each refusing to bow to the other's will.
As it turned out, the first sound between them was not one or the other of their voices. It was a growl from first one and then both stomachs, letting them know that their mutual need for nourishment far outweighed their need to size up each others strengths and weaknesses. At least for the moment.
To let the grounder know what she was doing before she reached for her bag, Clarke said, "I have food that we can share."
The woman nodded her consent and Clarke reached for the knapsack, pulling out some vacuum-sealed provisions that she'd found in the bunker. She offered some to her companion and wasn't surprised when the package was snatched from her hand and ripped open without ceremony. Clarke could see each of her companion's individual ribs. That along with the sickly pallor of her skin spoke very clearly of a life filled with hunger, never enough to eat.
Opening her own packet of food, Clarke took a couple bites before saying in the most non-threatening tone possible, "I'm Clarke."
Intelligent eyes widened and stared at her. Hands stilled as the woman stopped eating.
"Clarke?" she repeated. "Clarke of the Sky People?"
Now it was Clarke's turn to be startled. She nodded and asked, "How did you know that?"
"I heard much about you from the Commander's army. The Mountain Men, they fear you." There was a pause in the Grounder woman's words, a hesitation before she continued. "I was told that you and your people would be dead by now. Sacrificed to save mine."
Clarke shook her head, her brow furrowing as the different pieces of this woman's existence began to fit together in her head. "No. You were told wrong. It's the Mountain Men who are dead. My people are safe back at their camp."
"Yet you, their leader, are not with them," the woman noted solemnly, studying Clarke with an unreadable gaze.
With a sad little smile that barely curved her lips upward, Clarke replied, "I'm no longer their leader." She paused for a moment and took a deep breath as she thought of Bellamy, so strong and so brave. Her eyes met the Grounder's when she said, "Someone else has taken my place."
Seeming satisfied with that explanation, the woman nodded.
"What about you?" Clarke asked curiously. "I don't even know who I'm sharing a meal with."
As she munched on the contents of one of the food packets, the woman said, "My name is Echo. I'm from the River Clan of Dria, the village of Tomac."
River Clan. Dria. Tomac. Clarke had never heard these names before and they instantly piqued her interest.
"How far are your people from here?" Clarke wondered aloud, already trying to calculate the direction where this tribe might be located.
"A half day's walk," Echo responded.
"Is that where you're headed?" Clarke asked next, taking a bite of her own food as soon as the words were out.
Echo nodded. "I'll pay my respects to the dead in Tondc and make my way home."
Tondc. Clarke's head came up at that. "I'm on my way to Tondc as well."
"For what purpose?" Echo questioned, finishing the packet of food while looking in disgust at the non-biodegradable packaging.
Cryptically, Clarke relied, "Decisions have consequences. I need to face the result of mine."
The Grounder scrutinized Clarke without comment, her face unreadable. Clarke met her eyes, not knowing what to make of her. And then the woman said, "We can travel together. Watch each other's backs. The Mountain Men may be gone but these woods can still be dangerous."
Now it was Clarke's turn to study Echo. She saw no malice, no ulterior motive in her features so after a moment she gave a brief nod and said a quick, "Thank you."
Echo stood and nodded back to Clarke, who rose beside her. She handed Clarke the remains of what had held her meal and said solemnly, "You must find a new purpose for this now."
For reasons that Clarke wasn't sure she could even name, she was amused by how terribly apt those words were. Her lips twitched and she took the wrap with another nod as she said sardonically, "I'll see what I can do."
A new purpose. That's what Clarke needed for herself. Some way to make the guilt, the pain, the pressure, the constant memory of her past decisions begin to fade. What that new purpose should be, though, she had no idea.
Feeling Echo's eyes on her again, Clarke forced herself out of her reverie and glanced at the position of the sun in the sky.
"We should go," she said.
Echo nodded her agreement and turned wordlessly, beginning to move in the direction of Tondc.
As they left the bunker and the ruins around it behind, Clarke decided to attempt further conversation. She looked toward Echo and asked, "Why are you alone?"
Without looking back, Echo said, "I chose to be." Such a simple answer and yet Clarke wasn't prepared when Echo turned and met her eyes, adding, "As did you."
There was something mysterious about Echo. Clarke had the feeling that there were things that this woman knew, reasons she was being allowed to accompany her, that she may never find out.
When they arrived at the still-smoldering ruins of Tondc, they both stood silently and took in the destruction. It pained Clarke to be reminded that, beyond eliminating an entire colony of people in the mountain, her decisions had failed to prevent the deaths of nearly everyone in this village as well. She was not a good person. She was not the hero of this tale.
"My clan's leader died here," Echo said, breaking the silence between them.
Clarke's eyes darted to the other woman's impassive face as she quickly said, "I'm sorry," while guilt over her decision weighed her down.
Echo shook her head and looked at Clarke. "She was a warrior. Here for the same reason I came before I was captured. Here to seek an alliance with the Tree Clan, to avenge our loved ones who had been taken by the Mountain Men, who had been bled or turned into Reapers." She paused to let her words sink in before she added, "To die in war is to die an honorable death. There is nothing to be sorry for. She died as she would have chosen."
There was something about what Echo had said that resonated with Clarke, but still she clung to the weight of the burden she bore as she shoved the small comfort from her mind to say, "They could have been saved. No one here had to die that day."
"If not that day, they would have died another," Echo stated simply. She caught Clarke's eye again and Clarke thought it felt as if the woman were staring straight into her soul when she spoke again, "And perhaps not as honorably."
Clarke swallowed hard, looking away quickly, her eyes scanning the charred buildings, the broken homes. Bodies and body parts were scattered across the horizon.
"They should be laid to rest," Clarke finally said when she could find her voice.
"Their rest has been found," Echo returned, once again glancing over at her companion as if trying to understand her. "They found their rest when the Mountain was decimated. They have you to thank for that."
"No," Clarke insisted immediately, "They have me to thank for their demise, not their salvation."
Somehow it seemed as if Echo understood what Clarke was really saying but instead of agreeing with her, she said, "You're wrong. The Mountain Men were responsible for their deaths. You avenged their spirits and saved your people. You were at war. You fought your enemies, were abandoned by your allies, and still you were victorious. Someone to be respected and feared."
"I never wanted any of that," Clarke said softly.
For the first time, Echo smiled at her. "I never wanted to be captured and bled by the mountain men." She paused a moment before adding thoughtfully, "There are lessons to be learned from every one of our life experiences. Some lessons are more painful than others. Some more joyous. All are essential." She changed the subject then, looking to Clarke with a question. "Where will you go from here, Clarke of the Sky People?"
The response was the same as it had been when Bellamy had asked her the same question. Clarke bit her lower lip and struggled for a moment before saying softly, "I don't know."
They stood silently once more, both lost in their thoughts until Echo glanced over at Clarke and said, "If you seek solace away from your people, Tomac would welcome your presence. Somewhere to rest and restore your strength."
A piece of the barricade that Clarke had built around herself began to loosen and crumble at the offer. Now it was Clarke's turn to smile for the first time. "I think I'd like that."
She had a plan, the beginnings of a purpose or at least a destination. For the first time since she'd landed on the ground, Clarke would only be responsible for herself. It was a glorious thought. One that brought a sense of hope and freedom.