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Chapter 37 – Some Kind of Innocence Is Measured out in Years – Part 2

*~*

Patience was something Beth had always prided herself on having in abundance. Sure, she got anxious for things like anyone else but waiting was something she could do. Waiting almost always made whatever she was waiting for that much sweeter when it finally happened. Maggie was the sister who spoiled herself every Christmas by searching for her presents, digging through sheds and closets and looking under beds, while Beth would wait until the wrapped packages appeared beneath the tree and happily gaze at them each night before bed, daydreaming about what she would soon find inside. This kind of waiting, though, Beth truly could do without. Up here in her tree through a long, lonely afternoon, knowing somewhere in the ruins down below, Daryl was in trouble. With nothing to do but wait and watch, her mind wandered of its own accord, forcing upon her the worst sorts of thoughts about what he might be facing. Try as she might to push them away, they slithered in, settled in a lump in her belly and refused to budge.

By sunset, only a handful of the men remained outside in the space by the fence, back there with the garbage pile and the never ending trickle of walkers, drinking something out of Mason jars that surely was not water, and alternately taunting and shooting at the dead as they stumbled into range. The rest of them had gone inside, either the big building or the tents in the yard beside it. Beth was no closer to knowing where Daryl was than when she first arrived in her tree, and her only choice was to sneak in and try to find out that way.

After the sun dipped below the trees in the distance, out past the lodge, and the sky was just beginning to shift toward the deeper blue of twilight, Beth climbed down from her hiding place and tried to steel herself for what she had to do next. Ran over the plan she had nothing but time to work on as she retraced her steps back into the woods, searching for the puddle she remembered seeing on her way through before.

Part one of her plan lived beneath the cover of moss at the bottom of that puddle, easily reached by pulling the moss away and digging down into the damp earth with her fingers. Beth hadn’t done this for years but even now, even with most of her mind fixated on finding Daryl, there was something satisfying about squishing handfuls of wet dirt between her fingers, mixing it with the water until it thickened. Until the puddle disappeared and in its place sat one of Beth Greene’s Famous Mud Pies™, the consistency like a perfect fresh cowpie to ensure a good stick as she dropped a generous portion of it on the top of her head. She spread it through her hair until she was certain she had every last golden strand covered, and tied the muddy mess into a bun at the back of her head. There was enough when she was finished to cover her face and ears, her neck and the backs of her hands, and it almost made her smile, taking a page out of Rick and Glenn’s book even though she had only heard the story months after the fact. It wasn’t walkers she needed to hide from, but it should work just as well, maybe better. Daryl’s vest and her grey sweater and blue flannel were dark enough on their own, and Beth made certain nothing of her bright yellow polo showed from beneath.

Part two of her plan huddled inside a cage partway along the eastern fence, the owner of a friendly face which popped into view and nodded up at her in her perch at least once an hour throughout the afternoon. Even if she didn’t suspect he might have an idea of where they were holding Daryl, no way was she just gonna leave the child in that cage. Of all the things she needed to accomplish tonight, this, aside from the mud, would be the easiest of them.

The same two walkers lingered just outside the fence where the little cage was, and two quick shots with her crossbow put them down for good. Beth ducked down and rushed forward to get her bolts, and as she did that face peeked out at her from a little gap between boards. She hadn’t been able to make out details from up in the tree, but the swelling around his right eye, and the bruise there darkening his deeply tanned skin stood out starkly on his young face. The damage extended down into his cheek, and though his attention was focused on studying her, Beth knew that had to be painful. God, he couldn’t be more than twelve years old and a grown man had done this to him.

“You saw it,” he whispered, and even speaking quietly, the boy’s high voice poked through the distressing thoughts in Beth’s head. “You found the tree.”

“I did.” Beth sighed and tried to shake off the heaviness doing its best to settle across her shoulders. She set her crossbow down on the moss beside her and reached for her Leatherman. “Here, let’s get you out of there.”

The fence here was made of wire grid secured to a wooden post with what looked like bent nails, and perhaps it was just her luck that the wire split here, at the very same post serving as the corner to the boy’s cage. It wasn’t at all what Beth would chose to keep out walkers or keep in a prisoner, for that matter, but it worked in her favour just now so she wasn’t going to question it. With the needle-nose pliers, Beth straightened out each of the nails, freeing the end of the wire, then pulled the wire and the panel of wood back just enough for the boy to wiggle through. Only then did she notice that his hands were bound behind his back. Without being asked, he turned so she could reach his wrists and snip through the wires, then together they dragged the two bodies deeper into the woods, out of sight from inside the compound. 

The boy’s eyes found hers again the moment the two of them, and their smelly companions, were well ensconced within cover of the trees. Beth felt his stare as she watched him roll his wrists and wiggle his fingers, drawing attention to the places where the wire had rubbed his skin raw.

“You’re with him, right?” he asked, gaze flicking down to take in her crossbow just as hers drifted to his face. “That was you who made the birdcall.”

“That’s right,” Beth said.

The boy nodded, gaze drawing inward for a moment before sharpening again and meeting hers. He might be young but there was knowledge there. Wisdom. Something much older and sharper than his youth gave him credit for. “I think—well, I didn’t see where they took him, but I did see where Dane kept going.”

He shifted up onto his knees and pushed aside the moss in front of them, and drew a quick map in the dirt. Having just had the aerial view for the whole of the afternoon, Beth easily followed along as he explained the lodge and the other key points he’d drawn before marking off a square at very end of the shorter wing, the farthest point from the lake.

“This used to be like a storage room or something,” he said, drawing a little x along the east outer wall. “There’s a space between the walls, just enough to walk through if you’re skinny, and this is the only door, this outside one. I’m pretty sure that’s where he is.”

A thousand questions pressed at her at once, about the boy, these men he clearly knew, and the conflict that led to them taking him. Hurting him, a child against grown men, and no matter what he might have done, no child deserved that. Daryl’s involvement in this was accidental, she understood that, but there was so much going on here that she didn’t know, and didn’t have time to find out.

Leaving the questions unasked, Beth reached out and gripped the boy’s shoulder. “Thank you. For everything.”

“I could—well, I could help you rescue him,” he said, swivelling around to face her, his eyebrows rising up high on his forehead. He clasped his hands together like a small child asking for candy or something, an impression completely at odds with the way he had seemed so much older just moments before. “I know how to be quiet, and I think I know where they stashed my bow. I could—”

“No,” Beth said, a little more forcefully than she intended, regretful when the boy jumped in response. But she meant it, and she wanted that understood. She wasn’t going to let this boy put himself at any more risk if she could help it. “You’ve helped. You really have. If wanna do more, you can get yourself home alive, all right? You got people waitin’ on you?”

His shoulders slumped and he sat back in the dirt, head tipped down to where he now held his hands in his lap. “Yeah. Yeah they’re probably really worried.”

Beth squeezed his shoulder again. “Go. I’m all right.”

The boy looked up. Looked her over, pausing to take in her crossbow, knife, and gun, before giving one firm nod and holding out his hand. “I’m Orion. Orion David.”

“Beth Greene,” she said, accepting the hand and its firm grip. “And he’s Daryl Dixon.”

“Beth and Daryl.” Orion’s lips pursed ever so slightly, and he glanced back over toward the compound for a moment. A shout came in the distance, followed by a gunshot and a fresh round of laughter, and he turned back to meet her eyes again. “These guys, they’re dumber than walkers, most of them, but they’re really good at starting fights. It doesn’t much matter to them who they hit, as long as they get to.”

Beth wanted to ask if the injury to his face was the only one he had, but held her tongue as Orion continued speaking.

“When you get out, go north-northeast and stick to the woods.” He gestured vaguely behind him. “They can’t track worth shit, especially not at night, but go. They’re going to come after you as soon as they know he’s gone.”

They held gazes for a long moment before Beth gave a little nod of her own. “Thanks, Orion.”

He replied with the barest hint of a smile. Just a twitch of his lip so very like the way Daryl did sometimes that it made her heart ache with longing to see it again. 

“No, Beth,” Orion said, once again jarring her back into the moment. “Thank you.”

There wasn’t much else to say, after that. Orion moved off into the woods, hopefully in the direction of home. Beth checked her weapons again and listened to the distant noise of the camp, the shouts and snarls, the snap of gunfire. She didn’t want to linger too long here in case someone came looking for the boy and found him missing. She hoped to be well behind the fences before that happened or even better, already long gone.

In the dark, the break in the fence didn’t show. After slipping through she pulled the wire back in place and it stayed even without the nails holding it down. With the sheet of wood in front of it, nobody would even notice. The cage thing she now found herself in was built the same way, square grid wire fencing attached with bent nails to the wooden posts supporting the roof. It took a little longer to bend the nails, being inside the cage, but she did it, silently thanking her decision to look in that drawer where she found this multi-tool. When the final nail lifted away, Beth moved the sheet of wood aside, pushed through the wire, and slipped into the yard. As an afterthought, after tucking her multi-tool into her back pocket, Beth rolled the wire in on itself, leaving an obvious opening just big enough for a boy Orion’s size to fit. 

Time for part three, which wasn’t the hardest part, but hard enough. Just because most of the men had gone inside, didn’t mean she could count on them staying there. She couldn’t really count on anything except her own abilities and the rapidly deepening night, a blessing of autumn even with the chill that came along with it. Beth’s heart was pounding too fast for her to really feel it, beyond the way rushed cool into her lungs as she breathed deep and prepared to run.

There were no guarantees, she knew that, but she also knew that the men tended to walk inside the loose line of outbuildings. Only two men had moved beyond them, a pair of them who left through the main gate mid afternoon and had yet to return. It might not mean anything but it also might, and it was something Beth kept in mind as she darted into the yard, reaching the big pile of rough stones in a few long strides. Somehow the noises of the camp were louder here, from the inside, even though that couldn’t be true. True or not, though, every roaring laugh and drunken shout funnelled right down inside her head and exploded there, loud, obnoxious. Even the pop and crackle of the campfires glowing amongst the tents seemed suddenly very close, so close she could almost feel the flames licking at her skin.

Breathe, Beth. Breathe. She could do this. She had to do this because there wasn’t anyone else, but knowing that couldn’t keep the tremble from her fingers or the wobble from her knees as she peered around the edge of the rubble pile, searching through the dark for anything that moved. Nothing did. Nothing she could see in the dark, anyway, as she stared into its depths, her belly tying itself into an intricate pattern of ever tightening knots. Beth ran through her route one more time in her head, and dashed out from her hiding place.

She crossed the yard in stages, stopping behind the north-facing wall of each of the three outbuildings still standing, her heart pounding so hard she thought it might explode through her chest. When she reached the third, the largest of them by far, Beth pressed her face to the rough stone until the edges cut through the numbness in her cheeks, made her feel something besides the rush of blood and the ache in her lungs. She had to relax, had to calm her insides if she was going to do this with a clear head, but even her breathing exercises weren’t working as they should. The shape of the old lodge loomed in her view, now, just a short dash from where she stood, clinging to the cool, scratchy wall of stone to peek around its corner. If Orion was right, Daryl was right there inside that room at the end. Beth tried to listen through her thundering heartbeat, willing it to calm so she might hear the noises of the camp and pick out any that might spell trouble. They were so close, their ear-piercing volume no longer a trick of her nerves.

“...seen him before?”

The voice jumped in out of nowhere, twice as loud as the rest of them, falling down over her head almost like it came from everywhere at once.  Beth flung her body flat back against the wall, clutching her crossbow to her chest and fighting to keep her ragged breathing from echoing just as loudly into the night.

A second voice answered the first, and like it was attached to some sort of tether, the sound pulled at her left ear as the source of the voices rounded the end of the lodge. “Naw, but Pop n’ Victor think he’s some’un important. Caught him with the li’l shithead an’ all.”

Daryl. They were talking about Daryl and Orion. Beth tightened her grip on her crossbow and focused on the voices as they walked—thankfully—through the yard on the other side of her building, heading over toward the gathering of tents.

The first voice shot out a barking laugh. “King Greg’s gonna be pissed.”

“Serves ‘im right,” said the second man. “Thinks he’s better’n us, well, he’s got another think comin’, yah he fuckin’ does.”

From behind the lodge came the sound of smashing glass, and a rising wave of laughter crashed in its wake, drowning out whatever else the two men were saying. By the time the racket died down to its usual din, the pair had moved beyond her hearing, their voices now part of the background instead of standing out from it. Beth swallowed hard and peered around the side of the building again. It was difficult to make out much of anything in the dark, and the half-moon had yet to rise high enough to provide much in the way of useful light. But she could see the corner of the building, well enough anyway, and the place where the lodge ended and, if Orion was right, Daryl should be waiting. If she stared hard enough, Beth could almost make out the shape of the door, a slightly darker shade of black against the solid shape of the wall.

A strange sort of calm settled over her, like a warm hand sliding down her back; a warm breeze flitting in to drive out the chill of a cool day. Unexpected enough to give her pause, as she took her deep breaths and crept around the side of the outbuilding, eyes never leaving that stretch of wall and the door set in it. The noise of the camp, the men, the walkers, it all faded away. A hum in the background taking up the space once occupied by her buzzing nerves. The way was clear. Nothing moved as she peeked into the yard in the space between buildings, just the faint glow of the campfires and the peaks and domes of the tents backlit in them. This was it. Daryl was right there and all she had to do was go and get him.

The dark rectangle against the stone wall coalesced into the shape of the door she imagined it to be, barred from the outside by a length of two-by-six. Beth set her hands on it, fingers itching to move the wood aside, but at the last second she paused. Paused and cupped her hand against the door instead, listening for the sounds of anything moving inside. Nothing. Not even breathing. Maybe Orion was wrong, and he wasn’t there, but if not, then why the bar on the door meant only to keep somebody in? Beth moved her hands away and pressed her ear directly to the smooth wood, her pulse jumping when she heard the faint rustle of fabric.

And a startled shout, coming from directly behind her.

The contents of her stomach rolled, churning so violently Beth tasted bile in her throat as she somehow spun around and lifted her crossbow up to face the man-shaped shadow now looming in front of her. In the darkness behind him, several more shadows moved, amidst the sound of feet squelching in the mud and overlapping voices all speaking too rapidly for her to hear, too many words, too many voices, too many men and a wall of prickling heat slammed into her body. Rocked her back into the wall of stone and rasped across her scalp, pounded through her skull like the weight of a hammer coming down atop her head as she struggled to breathe, to swallow down the acid tearing her throat to shreds. Two, three, six men now, faces invisible in the darkness, growing blacker by the minute as they circled around her.

No!

Beth wasn’t certain the voice in her head was even hers, but it boomed with the vehemence of a megaphone, shattering the chatter of the gathered men until they fell silent. Silent and standing around her in a loose circle of heads and shoulders and solid bodies, but the clawing blackness slithered back as the shout in her head shook down her spine and pulled a deep breath of cool night air into her burning lungs.

Wait. Beth breathed in again, as deep as she could. Use your head, don’t let it use you. 

Though her whole body shook and her belly churned like a storm on the ocean and her heart pounded fast enough to break right through her chest and bleed all over her boots, Beth squared her shoulders against the wall of rock. Gripped her crossbow and held it up and hoped to God nobody made her have to use it.

“Well,” said another voice, one which caused the men to turn as one to face the new arrival coming in from behind them. “What’s we have goin’ on here?”

One of the shadows bobbed up and down on the spot. “Tell ‘im, Mike!”

Beth blinked, frozen, but present, her heart still pounding but her head growing clearer and clearer by the minute with each subsequent breath she took. Breathe, Beth. Just breathe.

“Caught this dumb bitch sniffin’ around the cell!” said the first one, the one standing close enough now for Beth to smell him, a rank odour of sour sweat and fresh shit and no small amount of alcohol.

He took half a step forward and Beth lifted her crossbow, arms moving on instinct, some reflex still functioning even though any minute now her knees were gonna give out and send her tumbling to the ground. The man—Mike, his round face just visible in the dark—rocked back on his heels and let out a whistle, to which the other men around him responded with a round of laughter.

“Ain’t that cute,” he said, tossing his chin in her direction. “Li’l missy here with her li’l toy—”

A throat cleared, and Beth flicked her gaze from Mike’s grinning face to the tall shadow hovering behind the rest of them. The sea of shoulders parted to let the slim figure through and Beth fought the urge to press her body as deep into the stone as the unyielding surface would allow. The man flicked on a flashlight, the glow of it shining up from under his chin, illuminating the scraggly white beard and the scarred face with a ghostly white glow, leaving his eyes deep in shadow beneath a well-defined brow. 

“Lemme guess, cherry-pie,” he said, words drawled like he had to pull them through a bowl of molasses just to let them out. “They call you Beth.

However they got her name out of Daryl, it wouldn’t have happened through casual conversation. Beth swallowed hard and tried to breathe through the fresh wave of nausea, and stared hard at the man who had spoken to her. Whoever he was, if he hurt Daryl, if he laid so much as a fingertip on him, then he didn’t deserve an answer. None of them did, these ignorant awful people, and she wasn’t going to give them one. Setting her jaw, clenching so tight she felt the pain of it lancing up through her temples, Beth lifted her crossbow to shift her aim toward the face of the man in front of her. He didn’t flinch. Didn’t believe the threat, maybe, or was calling her bluff. Beth couldn’t tell which but she held firm anyway. It was all she could do, hold tight to her bow and not panic while the scene played out however it was going to.

The mouth nestled within the unkempt beard stretched into a smile, and Beth didn’t need to see the shadowed eyes to know it was meant to be anything but friendly. “Pussycat gotcha tongue, cherry?”

From beside her, Mike reached out and shoved her hard. “He askin’ you a question, bitch!”

The shove rocked her to the side but she didn’t fall, planting her feet in the muck at the last second. Mike’s scowl deepened as she turned to glare at him, unsure how much he could see of her face but the prickly creature sprouting claws in her belly did not care one little bit. When he moved to grab at her, Beth was ready, and pulled away from the reaching hands at the same time as she swung her crossbow. One of the arms struck his wrist with a solid thwack which sent him reeling backward.

The bearded man reached out a hand in Mike’s direction as Beth fought against her own momentum, regretting her action the moment it happened but unable to take it back. The bow swung far to the left and dragged her shoulders with it, and Beth tried to throw her body to the right to counterbalance just as a blurry form rushed in beside her. Pain exploded in her cheek, the whole left side of her face consumed by a concentrated blaze and Beth stumbled back from the force of the blow, stumbled and slipped until the world spun away beneath her.

She landed hard. Somewhere far away the roar of laughter reached her ears, funnelling in through the fluid, more viscous than water, swirling around her head in a weird floating haze. The only solid thing to reach her was that burning in her face and a single pulsing thought, the latter of which ripped through the thickening jelly like a harpoon, like a lifeline, weighted and sinking down to her, right where she needed it.

Don’t. Move.

This was how she took control. This was how she changed the outcome, how she took what worked for her dreams and used it now, where things had never been more real. Use your head. Soon, the water rippled away, out of her ears like a receding tide, and the voices returned. The voices and the men they belonged to, and all that went along with that as they snorted and shuffled and stood stinking above her. Shouts came from behind the lodge as the men there carried on unaware in their merriment of what transpired, here. Unaware of Beth, lying on her side in the disgusting muck right where she landed. Unmoving. Barely breathing as she prayed to God nobody checked her pulse, ‘cause surely its thundering beat would only give her away.

“...just some li’l girl, Mike. Stop yer braggin’, Jesus fuckin’ Christ.”

“Fuckin’ bitch near broke my goddamn arm!” Mike growled back, and the shout which followed suggested he’d shoved that guy, too. “Ima show her—hey!”

A couple more grunts out of Mike, then the sound of a thud as something solid whacked into what Beth assumed was Mike’s body. “Thatsa ‘nough,” the bearded man with the flashlight said, with less of a drawl this time and more of a dagger. “Getcha self back to y’all’s tent.”

Mike grunted. “But that bitch done hit me!”

Several voices rose up in mockery of that, and more still erupted in laughter. Mike stammered out something else in defence of himself as his voice got father away, while the others carried on taunting him. A new voice called out for quiet a moment or two later, a voice which sounded very much like that of the man with the beard, only deeper. Thicker, somehow, though she couldn’t quite explain it. The now quiet men who remained at the scene hovered around where she lay in the muck, their eyes on her like a dozen prodding fingers, and it took every last bit of strength she had not to blow her cover. Not to open her eyes to try to see where they all were and ruin her only chance at maybe getting out of this on her own terms.

Only two voices reached her, now. The man with the scraggly beard, and the other one with a voice that was almost, but not quite the same, talking softly together for a minute before the newest one spoke again. 

“Tie her up’n take her inside.”

A pair of strong hands gripped her shoulder and Beth chomped down on her tongue to keep from responding, even as he turned her almost face-down in the foul-smelling mud to tie her hands behind her back with some sort of cloth. The same person lifted her and Beth worked to keep her body loose, to be the dead weight she had to be to keep them from knowing she was only playing possum. The man carried her in roughly a straight line until they entered what had to be the lodge, then made a sharp right turn. A few paces after they passed through a second door. Her face burned, a sting that went bone-deep from her mandible to her brow on the left side, and a fresh jolt of pain lanced through her skull when the man carrying her dumped her without care onto a smooth stone floor. He took her gun and shoved her over onto her right side, only her bent knee keeping her from flopping completely face down, and something warm and sticky trickled from her cheek, sliding over her nose and off her lips to drip onto the floor with a rhythmic little pat – pat – pat.

A boot kicked at hers. “What y’all think?”

It was the one with scruffy beard who spoke. The other one answered after a short pause. “Any word from hunter?”

Beth felt the eyes of the bearded man raking over her like someone raking the coals of a fire. “Dontchu think this’s it?”

The other man let out a chuckle which almost sounded genuinely amused. “Naw, Vic. Ain’t his style.” He took a couple of steps, his boots tapping on the stone as he came to stand by her head. “Jus’ some lil’un gone rogue, I s’pect.”

“Purdy thing,” the bearded man said, and though those kind of words ought to sound ominous from the mouth of a rough man like this, like the two of them here with her in this room, his tone connoted something else entirely. Something Beth couldn’t quite put her finger on, even as he kept speaking. “Damn fool girl.”

Beth caught a whiff of tobacco just before someone tugged at her belt. She barely kept in her gasp of alarm, curbing it at the last second when the snap released on her sheath and the tugging stopped as the weight of her knife disappeared from her hip. “Guess she ain’t got no faith in ol’ Greg, neither.”

The bearded man snorted. “Still a damn fool.”

“Works in our favour,” the other man said, rising to his feet away from her again. “Lil’un like her’s gon’ convince Greg real quick, ain’t she? Him an’that man a hers.”

“Mmm.” The bearded man moved off, back toward the doorway. “Young Mike’s gon’ wanna finish what he done started. Or worse.”

A sigh came from above her, followed by the sound of the other man’s footsteps as he moved to join his bearded companion. “G’on an’ fetch Lyle down, then. He’ll watch the girl ‘til she comes to.”

Beth’s breath caught in her chest and she barely kept her fingers from shaking. If she heard them right, they were gonna leave her there with just the one guard, and apparently one who wasn’t gonna let that other asshole back in. Tentatively thankful, but not quite ready to actually trust any of this, Beth let out her breath slowly so she didn’t draw any unwanted attention and worked at carefully getting them even again. Deep and slow, just like she was asleep.

After a bit of clunking around, one of the men left. The bearded one, doing the other’s bidding. Orion mentioned just the one name, and weighted it with some importance. The leader, then, of these men, and likely the same man waiting here in the room with her. Dane. The name tasted strange on her tongue and somehow didn’t fit the picture she had of him in her head, from his voice. From the second man whose face she did see, with a voice so similar she could easily mistake one for the other if they weren’t in the same room. 

Dane, who believed she and Daryl were both a part of whatever conflict was happening between his people and this man they called Greg. Those two in the yard mentioned him, too, as they passed by her hiding place. King Greg. Before Beth could put much thought into what all this meant, the door opened again and somebody new clomped into the room. 

“Well, shit,” the newcomer said, boots going quiet as the door creaked shut. “Where’s this’un come from?”

It was one of the voices from before, the one who was talking about Daryl and Orion as he and another man walked past her hiding place. Lyle, presumably, but if not that didn’t matter. Easier to give them names in her head even if they weren’t the right ones. The one she called Lyle took a couple of loud steps further into the room, coming to a stop just a foot or so from where she lay on the floor. The murmur of voices continued as Dane recounted the events of the past few minutes. 

Her? This lil’un here?” Lyle said, once Dane finished speaking. He let out a short whistle, and like the other man before him, kicked at her boots with one of his. “The hell she think she gonna do? Damn...”

A soft snort came from Dane’s direction, and the door hinges creaked once more. “Stay here. Lemme know when she comes-to. Might maybe we convince her to get talkin’, seein’s how he ain’t.”

Dane’s words and Lyle’s answering giggle sent a shiver down Beth’s spine in a way the bearded man’s comment about her looks had not. Any thoughts she’d had of thankfulness shook away with it, no matter that she thought this could still work in her favour. Dane left the room, shutting the door behind him and leaving her alone with only Lyle to guard her. One on one, the odds were better, though despite what these men thought, she wasn’t foolish enough to count on having any sort of advantage. Until she could find a moment to observe him unaware, Beth had no way of knowing what sort of man this Lyle was. How big or strong he might be, how quick witted beneath that rough speech. From the heaviness of his steps as he paced across the room and back, the only picture Beth had in her head was that of some tiny cartoon man wearing giant clown boots.

As amusing as that image was, Beth shoved it back and focused on learning what she could with her eyes shut. She felt him watching her, standing there staring a good long minute once his path brought him back in front of her. Thought he might have crouched down to the floor to get a better look, a fact confirmed when he spoke a moment later.

“Gotcha self good’n hit, thur, didn’tcha?” His hand hovered near her face but did not touch it, and he let out a little tch noise before drawing it back. “Oh, you’re gonna be cryin’ some’m fierce when y’all wake up.”

Not likely, considering she was already awake, but Beth couldn’t tell him that. Lyle let out another sound that was half laughter, half snort, and Beth remained motionless while he got to his feet again and slowly walked a circle around her.

He paused as he came around behind her, and crouched down again. “I like them wings you wearin’, though, girlie. Ain’t meant for no damn girl. Hmph.

Ain’t meant for no filthy asshole, either, Beth thought, as Lyle very gently touched one of the wings and she fought to keep from shuddering in response.

“Think I’s gonna be needin’ that,” he murmured, standing up again. He took one loud step, then another, before adding, “yeah, them wings’s gonna look dang nice, all up on my shoulders, I reck’n.”

Not likely, but Beth supposed if that was the only thing he wanted from her, she could handle him ogling the vest. Lyle stomped away, naturally noisy, Beth guessed, rather than angry, and this time stayed over across the room on the opposite side from the door, fiddling with whatever he found there. Thumps and scrapes and a little giggle, accompanied by the sound of metal rasping against stone.

Another giggle, and the thump of her knife landing back on the table. “Betcha use this fer makin’ his supper. Li’l ol’ knife like that, Jesus.”

That knife would sink through Lyle’s skull just as well as it’d go through a walker’s, but Beth tried not to focus on that. She didn’t blame him for what he thought, knowing how she appeared from the outside. A camp full of nothing but men hardly had the best idea of women to begin with, but that could work to her advantage, too. Beth listened as Lyle continued to fiddle with things over in the corner, probably her weapons if she had to guess but if it kept him busy for the moment, Beth wouldn’t begrudge him his childish curiosity.

She went over the facts while Lyle kept himself occupied. Considered what she knew, what options she might have, until the bare bones of a plan formed in her mind.

A stupid plan, maybe even one that might earn her that title of damn fool girl.  A plan that counted on certain actions of these men, based on patterns, sure, but not guaranteed. Having to rely on such shaky details sat heavy in her belly, like a lump of wet wool, but it was all she had. It was better than doing nothing. Than waiting until she had to wake up, or until they forced her to, and succumbing to whatever they had in store for her. 

No. Not this time. She changed her dreams. Took charge of the parts of her mind trying to take control away from her and took it back. This was the same exact thing and if she wasn’t going to allow her own subconscious to rule her life, Beth wasn’t about to let these men do so, either. 

Her whole body ached from lying still on such a hard surface, and her shoulders throbbed from the way the man wrenched them back to tie her hands. Lyle muttered to himself as he alternated playing with the objects at the far side of the room and pacing noisily across it, nothing more that she could really hear or make sense of, except she thought he might be just the right sort of distracted for her to risk taking a look. The very next time he reached the furthest point from her—and paused there, messing around with something again in the corner opposite from the door—Beth cracked her eyes open.

The left one moved sluggishly, heavy and swollen, and she could only pull her lids apart so far before it hurt to go further. Vision blurred by the intrusion of the light, strands of hair, and a copious amount of watering, Beth tried to blink to clear but only succeeded in shooting little bolts of pain through her eyeball to rattle around inside her head. Through the teary haze she could just make out the shape of a small window in the wall across from her, and in little niches built into the stone to either side burned a pair of thick pillar candles. They cast just enough light for her bleary eye to make out the shape of the door, up toward her head, and the row of cabinets or something beneath a countertop down by her feet.

Lyle stood there, leaned up against the wood or whatever the surface was made of, fingertip gliding over the arm of her crossbow, which stuck out from beyond edge. The man himself was shorter than Beth had imagined, somewhere between her and Daryl in height and every bit as skinny as the tall man she thought might be his uncle, or maybe his grandfather now that she got a look at him. A greasy curtain of stringy hair obscured much of his profile, and in the unreliable light of candles and her injured eye, Beth couldn’t be certain of his age but he looked young. Maybe not much older than her.

This—this might work. It might, though the ways it could go wrong were enough to make her head spin, lying there on the floor with her own blood slowly congealing on her face and in a pool beneath her head. At the shelf, Lyle picked up her crossbow and carried it over toward the candles to inspect it in the brighter light. Her crossbow in his grimy hands, but it meant she had the time and space to work her fingers into the back pocket of her jeans while he occupied himself with it. They hadn’t checked her closely when they took her weapons, just grabbed what they could see, and the multi-tool was still in there where she stuck it after coming through the fence. While Lyle poked and prodded at the weapon he clearly didn’t comprehend, Beth wiggled the tool into her hands and with shaking fingers opened the blade.

“What in God’s name y’all doin’ with this?” Lyle lofted the crossbow up and down a couple of times before pointing it at the ceiling. “Sweet baby Jesus, this thing ain’t no feather.”

Thunk

The bolt she had loaded lodged into one of the old roof beams, still intact beneath the makeshift roof. Lyle whistled and muttered something Beth could only vaguely hear as she twirled the blade around in her hands until it caught on the fabric binding them. There wasn’t time to be angry, as the idiot man tried to load another bolt without cocking the bow and threw it against the wall when it refused to stay loaded, only a vague hope that he wouldn’t somehow manage to dry fire it and damage the strings. His fumbling with the crossbow made just enough fuss to cover the sound of the blade tearing through the ties at her wrists, and her fingers shook and she knew she was breathing too fast but if she didn’t do this now, she might not get another chance.

The ties broke apart, and the blade sliced into her wrist. Not deep, not anything at all like what she had accomplished with that shard of glass, but enough to draw a gasp out of her. Prickling heat exploded in her head when she realized what she had done, when Lyle looked up from struggling with the bowstrings to peer over at her. Praying that her hair and the swelling and shadows would conceal the fact that she had her eyes open, Beth tried to tuck the multi-tool away without moving and only succeeded in dropping it.

It landed on the floor with all the noise of metal falling onto stone and with it, each one of Beth’s organs dropped down through the floor to the dirt below.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

“Hey—” Lyle took a step toward her, still clutching the crossbow but also reaching for the gun at his hip.

Another step, and then a shout came from outside, followed by several more. Lyle whirled back around, tossed the crossbow over onto the counter none too gently and tore over to the window, where flashing lights now flickered, darker shapes moving within it.  The commotion got even louder as more and more voices added to the shouting. Lyle glanced toward the door and then back to the window where he remained, fingers gripping the stone sill as he stared into the night and whatever was happening out there.

That odd sort of calm settled over her again, in complete contrast to the pounding of her heart. Now, she thought. It had to be now.

Eyes never leaving Lyle’s form where he stood motionless in the window, Beth pushed up from the floor. She had feet somewhere beneath her but she couldn’t feel them. Couldn’t feel anything but the ache in her lungs and the freight train screaming through her chest as she took one step, then two, as silently as her boots would allow on this echoing floor. All she had to do was get her gun, first. It was loaded, and she didn’t want to use it—so much that a fresh heave of nausea rolled through her stomach—but it was loaded. It was ready, and it was her ticket out of this room whether she used it or not. Beth swallowed back the nausea and took another step. Focus. Focus and get her gun. Gun. Knife. Crossbow. Go. 

But then Lyle turned, once again glancing toward the doorway as though considering the wisdom of abandoning his post to join the ruckus outside, and in the seconds which followed, seconds which dragged on until everything moved in slow motion, the path of his eyes landed on the patch of bare floor, and the little pool of blood belonging to the unconscious girl no longer lying in it. Beth leapt for the shelf but Lyle was faster, and the world jolted back into motion as he spun and charged and shoved her face first into the back wall.

“Where ya think yer goin’?” he growled in her ear, breath heavy with the stench of decay.

Beth’s whole face hurt, now. The original wound throbbed alongside the newest one, a sharp burn and a fresh trickle of blood from her forehead, trying its hardest to flow into her one good eye. Lyle leaned into her again, pressing her even harder into the wall, and Beth swung her elbow back as hard as she could, rolling her strike through her shoulder and landing it somewhere soft enough that Lyle grunted and staggered away. Not far, but far enough, and Beth shoved her body away from wall, pushed her weight into Lyle, sending him back another couple of wobbling steps while she made another dash for her gun.

He grabbed hold of her arm, though, and tugged hard. Dug his dirty fingernails into the wound she made there until she had to grit her teeth against the pain, in effort not to cry out. He pulled hard, pulled her toward him. Beth pulled back but his whole hand circled her wrist and he yanked hard enough that she feared he might dislocate her shoulder. She wasn’t gonna break free that way but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because she remembered. She knew. Lyle’s sneering face loomed closer and Beth pivoted away, like his hand was the hinge and she was the door. On his next hard tug, Beth swung forward again, throwing everything she had into it as her knee lodged into his groin and the heel of her hand struck right up under Lyle’s nose.

Something tore. Something cracked, echoing like a gunshot in the near empty room, the impact of it vibrating through her wrist and up her arm until it tingled. Almost numb, like a blow to her funny bone, but she couldn’t stop to shake it as Lyle fell back, letting go of her to grab for his face, blood pouring out with such force it leaked through his fingers like a gruesome waterfall. He lurched forward again, cursing and growling wetly at her from behind his hands, but not fast enough. Beth dove for the counter to grab her crossbow, and swung it as hard and as fast as she could. It struck him in the side of the head, another loud crack, another vibration rocketing through her bones, and in the wobbling aftermath all it took was a kick to the side of his knee to send him tumbling to the ground.

“F-f-fuckin’... bitch...” he slurred, swaying, reaching out with a hand coated in his own blood in one last effort to grab at her.

Another strike with her crossbow, and Lyle fell, face down on the stone floor. Beth had barely enough time to note he was still breathing as she gathered her things. Knife. Gun. The multi-tool back over by the wall. Cocked her crossbow and loaded a bolt and got the fuck out of the room as fast as her shaking legs would carry her.

She didn’t know that the lodge would be empty, but it was. Nobody else lingered there to challenge her, as she feared there might be, and it was dumb of them but lucky for her. Sheer dumb luck but she’d take it—she’d take as much of it as the universe would give her. The shouts of the men all concentrated at the far side of the compound now, and when she peered out the window, Beth could see the shapes moving in it. Instead of exiting the lodge through the door she came in, as she had planned to do, Beth headed for the one she spotted leading out the opposite way.

Walkers growled at the fence. Some of them kept from closing in by the piles of bodies blocking their path, while others still managed to navigate their way in with that mindless determination and impossible balance which kept them walking. But the men who had gathered here had all gone to join the party over yonder, which she suspected might be the result of the now missing Orion.

But again, it didn’t matter why, and Beth didn’t pause to consider it further as she found her way in the dark to the place where it sat. The lonely gas can, that pop of bright red breaking through the monochrome of dirt staining the camp and its people in drab shades of brown. The gas can sitting idle at the base of a pile of refuse just waiting to be burned, next to a wire fence held in place with only bent nails and scraps of wood.

Beth didn’t wait around to watch the fire grow. Once she finished with the fence, she lit the strip of gasoline-soaked wood with her lighter, the one she had carried in her pocket every day since leaving the cabin, and when the flame caught she tossed the burning wood onto the well-doused pile and ran. The gap in the wall was right where Orion said it would be, and Beth slipped through, hiding there until she heard the whoosh of flames behind her before stepping out into the yard. Nobody lingered outside Daryl’s cell and this time, Beth didn’t hesitate. Holding her crossbow in one hand, Beth threw the two-by-six to the ground, opened the door, and slipped inside.

There were no candles here, and it took her eyes a couple of seconds to adjust to the darkness. At first she thought he wasn’t there at all, until she heard a rustle of movement from deep in the corner. He huddled there, propped up against the wall, face a mess, swollen and purple and every bit as bloody as she felt. As she moved toward him he smiled weakly and held out a shaking hand toward her.

“S’it happening again?” he mumbled, words thick, almost slurred, as though he wasn’t quite awake.

Beth dropped down to her knees in the dirt, setting her hands on his shoulders to try to get a look at his face. “C’mon,” she said, as he tipped his head back to look at her. “We gotta hurry.”

He blinked his one usable eye and his mouth popped open, jaw working for a moment before he managed to speak. “B-Beth?” he said, now reaching for her with purpose, fingers gripping her arms with all the strength of an infant. “Oh, god, Beth. Beth.”

Heart pounding, throat growing thick in response to the weight of her name falling from those split, swollen lips, Beth cupped his face as gently as she could, stroking her thumb just beneath the jagged cut in his battered cheek. “Can you get up?”

He groaned, a pained sound rolling up from deep in his belly, and nodded weakly. “H-hands.”

Between the two of them, they got him away from the wall and onto his knees. His whole left flank was coated in blood but Beth forced her eyes to look past it for now so she could cut through the wires binding his hands and help him to his feet. Fresh warmth from whatever wound hid beneath his clothes seeped into hers as she tucked her body beneath his arm to get him upright. Daryl wobbled for a moment, one hand clutching at his stomach like he was gonna be sick, but then he nodded at her with another weak grunt and got his feet under him properly.

She stepped away and he stood there as only someone as stubborn as Daryl Dixon could, shaky and pale but upright, alive, and staring at her through the dark as though he couldn’t bear to look away, barely even glancing down at her knife when she pressed it into his waiting hand.

They made their escape in the chaos of the fire, amidst shouts and screams and the escalating growls of excited walkers, now funnelling into the compound through the break in the fence. Nobody noticed, or maybe nobody cared, as two figures darted across the yard in the opposite direction, running not toward the blaze to the west but for the fence to the east. Beth shoved Daryl first through the opening she had made hours before and crawled through after him. With the mayhem booming behind them, she reached for Daryl’s hand and held tight, and together they fled into the night.