He had heard whispers of it in other kingdoms but he had never believed it to be true. Until now.
He remembers the first time Merle had told him about it, he had listened intently, eyes wide in wonder, hanging on every word his brother spoke. Even as a child he had never really believed it. But he loved to listen to Merle tell the story of how the Evil Queen had hired a hunter to kill the princess, the daughter of her dead king. Merle had always laughed at the ending, whooping, yelling about how that could be them one day, hired by Queens or noblemen or who knows who to do their bidding, and he wouldn't be no pansy ass about it, would straight up kill that princess and deliver the heart to the Queen.. Imagine the money from that, baby brother, Merle would whistle.
Although Daryl never believed it, that anyone would hire a hunter to kill a damn princess , of all people, he still begged Merle to tell the story every night when they were huddled together, Merle whispering the words quietly, careful not to wake their father. He'd promise Daryl that one day they would get their big pay packet, even if it was just hunting some deer for a royal banquet, and then they'd be out of there, both of them, away from their father's rage and flying fists. Daryl had believed that part.
But then Merle was gone, up and left in the middle of the night, without so much as a backward glance at his baby brother, and Daryl thought that maybe everything out of his older brother's mouth was a load of bullshit after all.
When Daryl had left his father's home to live in his own, very similar, run down shack, Merle had come to him. And Daryl found that he didn't have it in him to fight against his brother, when they could be working together. After all, twice the amount of meat to sell meant twice the amount of money coming in. Daryl should have known that Merle would squander his share in the local taverns, on booze and whores. He told himself that it was fine, this was his brother, he wasn't getting himself in to any trouble (if he didn't count the diseases he'd contracted from aforementioned whores) until one day, after being missing for over a week, Merle showed up with one hand.
Even as a grown man, Merle still spoke with sparkling eyes of the gold they would receive when they were hired by the blue bloods of their kingdom, the money they would make would be more than they could count, he had told his brother. These days Daryl just grunted his disbelief.
Daryl spent his time convincing his brother that going to the tavern did not have a good ending for him and it was better if he stayed with Daryl, making snares, field dressing their kills, sharpening arrows and bolts, in the evening, instead of pissing off heavily armed men who definitely didn't take kindly to men trying to buy a night with their wives. Merle listened for a while and Daryl found himself believing again. Believing that he and his brother could have this life that they had whispered about in the dark as children.
Until Merle got himself killed.
Daryl doesn't know if it's bad luck on his part, or karma on Merle's, when he gets wind of a rumour that the local sheriff is looking for a hunter. He decides to move on. Stay as far from this kingdom as he can, where thoughts of Merle and his plans for greatness don't make his heart hurt. He can't rely on anybody for anything.
He'd shouldered his crossbow through countless kingdoms and a couple of different realms but the ache in his chest didn't leave. He missed his brother. Maybe doing something in memory of Merle would make him hurt less. Maybe.
He should have known that by the time he arrived back in his kingdom, the sheriff would have acquired a hunter and he wasn't sure if he felt relieved or disappointed. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. He stayed long enough to see his father bleed out on the floor of a tavern, much like his brother had, then turned his back and left.
The next time he heard of a hunter being needed was 3 kingdoms away from his own. He moved himself closer to the town, hoping the intrigued looks and whispered judgements would get spoken near the right ear. He needed to do this. For Merle.
It was two weeks before he was approached by a man that, Daryl thought, resembled a rat. He told Daryl that his master, (Lord Something or Baron Something? Daryl didn't care. This was for Merle.) required a hunter and had heard that Dixon was the man for the job. He tried to be non-committal, like he hadn't just trekked three kingdoms and back again, looking for this very opportunity. The man visibly flinched at Daryl's growled agreement to meet his master, and the hunter smirked at his own show of nonchalance.
It wasn't the job he wanted. It wasn't something as easy catching a buck for a royal banquet. Easy money , Merle had called it, could do that with my eyes closed.
But it wasn't as simple as that. It never was. And he wasn't even sure why he had agreed. (Except, he did know why. For Merle.) And now he had one week to track and kill a princess.
As it turned out, finding a princess was as easy as it sounded. Getting near her was a different matter. Daryl watched the blonde royal from afar, his mind drifting back to the tale Merle used to tell him about Snow White, or some equally dumb name, and the hunter that was hired to kill her. He wonders now, if maybe the story was true after all. He'd always believed it to be stuff of fairy-tales and kids stories. Sometimes he wasn't sure if Merle hadn't just made it up himself, changing small details with each retelling, until a small Daryl would tug on his shirt and tell him in a whiny voice that that wasn't how he had told it last time. The more he thought about it though, the more he realised that the ending was always the same. The hunter didn't kill the princess. The Queen killed the hunter. He couldn't stop the uneasy feeling churning in his stomach as he watched the blonde princess, ( Princess Beth, the rat had told him) as she threw her head back laughing at something her dark-skinned guard was telling her. He had never seen royals act the way she did. He had been watching her for 3 days now and he realised that, if he hadn't seen their clothes, he would have thought that the Princess' staff were friends, fellow royals. She seemed to enjoy the company of them, as if they weren't there to do her every bidding. Daryl shook his head, reminding himself why he was here. Sure, the girl was good to look at and she seemed sweet, but he had to remember why he was doing this. For Merle.
On the sixth day of watching her, Daryl was almost ready to give up, go back to Lord Blake and tell him that it was impossible, if he wanted her dead he would have to get someone on the inside. He decided to give it one more night. He made his way to the local tavern ready to drink and fuck his feelings away. He should have felt some kind of pride, knowing that his brother would definitely be proud of him for landing a job like this (even if he didn't think he could do it), but the hollow in his chest seemed to grow deeper, more painful, with every day that passed without Merle. He had positioned himself on a booth with a wooden bench at the back of the pub, good view of the door (his hunter instincts were always there, he needed to be able to see any threat immediately) when said door swung open and a cloaked figure stepped in. Daryl blinked, pushing away the brunette who was pressed up against him, palming him through his trousers. The person may be hooded, their face is hidden, but Daryl had been watching the princess for 6 days. He knew the way she moved, the way her hands fluttered about when something made her nervous, he knew the yellow of her hair was like spun gold, knew that even when she was striding with purpose her footsteps remained light, like she was some sort of ethereal being, floating rather than walking. He watched as the princess glided across to the bar, heard the soft tone of her voice as she spoke to the bar wench in a whisper, asking for a drink. It was only then that Daryl realised he had left his seat, edging closer to her as if pulled by some invisible force. He hadn't been able to get this close to the princess in six days and now... now he wasn't quite sure what to do about it. He mentally shook himself, then turned and left the bar.
Thinking back now, he probably should have left altogether, but instead he lingered outside the tavern waiting for Beth to make her way home, stumbling towards him in a drunken state. He didn't expect her to float out, looking no worse for wear and completely coherent. Before his brain could even catch up he had grabbed her roughly by the arm, pulling her flush against him, her back against his chest. He pulled his arm across her throat, holding her tight but not hard enough to cause her any significant harm. His voice was low and scratchy when he spoke, but then he supposed he hadn't really spoken to anyone since the Lord 5 days before.
“Don't scream. I could kill you right here. Just... Don't. Scream.”
She nodded, shakily, and while his brain was still trying to catch up with what was happening, he headed for the woods, pulling her violently behind him.
It shouldn't have unnerved him, the way she blinked at him owlishly as he dragged her through the dense forest, didn't even try to struggle out of his grip, just let him tug her callously along. It shouldn't have unnerved him, but it did. It definitely did.
He couldn't help stealing glances back at the girl, princess, trailing behind him. She had long since convinced him to stop tugging her, her tone harsh, and she now followed him to her demise obediently. Her eyes were dark, fluttering around the woods as she took in their surroundings, but Daryl noticed that there didn't seem to be any fear in her gaze. More like resignation. They kept walking until they neared his cabin and he walked in, allowing her to trail along behind him.
He thought briefly about how stupid it was of him to continue tracking the princess without his crossbow. And there would be no going back now, not now that he had led her to his own home so he could collect the very weapon he needed to end her.
He wondered what this girl, this princess, could possibly have done to warrant Lord Blake wanting her dead. In the days that he had been watching her, Daryl didn't notice a single thing that seemed cruel or malicious in this slip of a girl. He suspected, for the first time since he had accepted this job, that he might be working for the wrong party. He hadn't thought about it as being about good against evil, just as a job he needed to stop the ache in his chest, to drown out his mantra, the very beat that echoed through his head with each step he took. For Merle. For Merle. For Merle.
It was getting harder to believe that this is what his brother would have wanted for him, but it didn't stop the pounding beat continuing on in his skull. For Merle. For Merle. For Merle.
He glanced towards the girl, hovering in his doorway wringing her hands together and gazing around his very humble cabin. The room was pretty bare save for a cot with a threadbare blanket with a small table next to it. He noticed that there was no judgement in her eyes, just genuine curiosity. He locked eyes with her before plopping himself down on his bed, adjusting the string on his bow, bolts spread out on the floor by his feet. By the time he realised his mistake it was too late. She had gone, running wildly out of his cabin, blonde hair flying behind her.
It didn't take him long to catch her. He doesn't really know why she thought she could get away. He was a hunter and she was a princess way out of her usual domain. When they got back to the cabin this time, he grabbed an old piece of rope and tied her hands to the rickety frame of his cot. He threw a dark smirk her way before getting back to work on his bow.
He's not sure why he didn't just do it when he caught her in the woods. He knows that she knows why he took her. Knows that she knows he was hired to kill her. But he found himself bringing her back, tying her up. For some reason, which he didn't want to think about, he just couldn't do it. It could wait until tomorrow.
He doesn't do it tomorrow either.
It throws him, the fact that she tried to run, because he can see the resignation in her blue eyes, sees the way she looks at him because she knows what he was paid to do and she knows that she isn't leaving the cabin alive. Almost looks like she has accepted it.
She looks at him now as though he is a piece of a puzzle, no fear in her eyes, just like she is trying to figure him out. And it makes him nervous.
He spends most of his time, for the next 4 days (he tried not to keep count, tried not to think about the fact that he had kept her alive for this long when he was supposed to do the job almost two weeks ago) pacing outside his cabin, cursing under his breath or feeding her small portions of game that he had caught. Being near her makes his skin feel too tight and he isn't sure he can stand to be in the cabin with her watching him with open curiosity. He tries to remember why he took the job. For Merle. And he tells himself he has to do it. He has to kill her.
By the sixth day, he isn't sure he can do it.
On the seventh day, she speaks.
“If you're gonna kill me, just do it.”
His head snaps around so fast, he thinks he felt it crack. He watches her, sitting on the bed, wringing her hands together (and he doesn't really remember how or when she had convinced him to untie her but he knew it had been a few days and she hadn't tried to make another break for it so he figured that it would be alright to leave her loose). He shakes his head, not sure if the movement is meant for her or for himself. He shuffles his feet and avoids looking directly at her, like he thinks that if he doesn't see her then he can pretend that she isn't trying to solve the mystery that is Daryl Dixon with just her eyes. He isn't really sure how to answer that. He's still trying to work out his plan of action, still unsure of how or if he is going to do this. He shakes his head again, this time in the hope that it will clear his head, provide him with some kind of answer. He's obviously quiet for too long because she speaks again. He kept help but think about how soft her voice is.
“I know that it was Lord Blake. I know he hired you.” She snorted, and Daryl marvelled at how she made it sound so ladylike. “He tried the same with my sister. She was saved by knights, you know.”
He nodded. He had heard about it, her elder sister being taken and then consequently rescued by a knight. If the rumours were true then she went on to marry said knight, told her father that she didn't want to be Queen if Sir Rhee couldn't be her King, leaving her younger sister next in line to the throne. If the rumours were true, that also meant that there was nothing to actually tie Lord Blake to said abduction, only whispers around the town. Daryl remembered hearing about it and wishing that Merle was here. He'd eat that shit up. Always did love a story involving princesses, though he'd never admit it. Daryl knew he'd been quiet for too long again, she didn't seem like she was gonna say anything else but he knew she was still watching him, could feel her eyes on him. The more he was around the princess, the less he understood why Blake wanted her dead. She didn't seem to possess any immediate threat to him, she was a tiny thing, he could probably have taken care of her himself. He didn't think to ask any questions when Blake's rat had come to him, wonders know if maybe he should have.
“Why does he want you dead?” His voice was gruff, and it wasn't until he spoke that he realised he had only grunted at her for the last few days and his throat felt dry and scratchy with under-use. He glanced back up at her before looking back at his feet, but not before he saw a small smile on her lips.
“He speaks.” She sounded surprisingly playful considering her current situation. “You sure you wanna know, hunter? Might make you think twice about killing me.”
He wanted to pretend that he wasn't surprised at the way she spoke of him ending her life. Ever since he had grabbed her from the tavern, he began to wonder more and more if he was capable of killing a person, of killing a princess. He couldn't help but be annoyed by how sure she sounded, like she knew him, knew what he was capable of doing, of what type of person he was. He was supposed to be the one in authority here, princess or not, and he was damned if he was gonna let her get one up on him. He looked up at her then, determined that she wasn't gonna win this round.
“Ain't gonna kill you here. Let's move.”
He wasn't sure if this was better or worse. They walked for a whole day. She talked the entire time.
He tried to pretend he didn't care for her stories, tales of her and her sister, her and her dark-skinned guard ( Michonne , she told him, s he'll chop your head clean off if she finds you. ) and if some of her tales made the corner of his mouth twitch upwards, well, he wouldn't admit that.
They set up a camp in the middle of the woods and he can't help but notice how... at home she seems. He expected her to act just like the princess she is, turning her nose up at the dirty, tattered blankets he had grabbed from the cabin or at the soft mud and dry leaves surrounding their make shift beds. She is surprisingly at home with all of it, taking the blankets from him and lying them side by side before gathering twigs and dry leaves to make a fire. It takes him a minute to kick himself into action, too shocked, too impressed , while he stands watching her, open-mouthed. She glances at him then and he's sure she looks smug, like she knew he wasn't expecting her to help. Her dress is dragging around behind her and he feels a ridiculous pang of guilt that the hem of it is no longer a shining white but now a dirty brown, dried with mud and sweat. He briefly wonders what the hell she was thinking wearing a dress like that into tavern in the first place, regardless of the long, hooded cloak she was wearing over the top of it. This thought is closely followed by the wish that she had been wearing pants instead of this typical princess dress, that would make it easier for them when they were on the move, hunting or -
He stops himself there. She isn't here as his companion, to hunt and frolic through the fucking forest with him. She's here because he has to kill her. For Merle. He sometimes wonders if it's not also a little bit for himself too. But it's mostly for Merle. He shakes himself out of his own thoughts and sets to work, rubbing two sticks together to start the fire. He wonders how long he can keep this up, he knows that he has to kill her at some point, probably soon, and that by dragging her through the woods, trying to talk himself in to it is only prolonging the inevitable.
He carries on rubbing the sticks together.
The smile she gives him when he finally gets the fire is blinding.
Maybe he doesn't have to kill her.
He looks in to the dying fire light, and tries to remember the exact ending to the story that Merle used to tell him. The ending for the hunter anyway. He didn't kill the princess, this much he remembers. He thinks hard about it and thinks that maybe the hunter tried to trick the Queen. Yeah, that sounds right. He took the heart of an animal? Or the liver and lungs? Point is, guy must have been a damn fool 'cause there ain't no way animal organs look the same as a humans. He glances over at Beth, she's chewing softly on the squirrel he caught earlier. He marvels again at how... normal she seems. As he looks at her, he's not sure that normal is the right word. The moonlight makes her hair glow and her big blue eyes sparkle in the small amount of light from the fire. Yeah, normal is definitely not the right word. He clears his throat and looks away, worried that she will see the softness that is in his eyes now when he looks at her. Maybe he doesn't have to kill her. Maybe...
“I could get a heart from someone, y'know. Pretend it's yours.” He doesn't look at her when he speaks, unreasonably embarrassed. He can feel her eyes on him, knows that she is surprised. He flicks his eyes up to hers before looking back to the fire. She giggles a little and he's not sure why he likes the sound (What a ridiculous time to giggle) (Maybe she's going mad). He looks back at her, eyebrows furrowed, trying to figure out exactly what she finds so funny.
“And where exactly would you find another heart, hunter?” She looks amused, one eyebrow raised and he can't for the life of him work out what she finds so fucking funny about this conversation. He realises then that she's called him hunter again. He's been so busy debating with himself whether to kill her or not (and making moon eyes at her, says Merle's voice. And since when the fuck does Merle's voice offer it's opinion?), that he has forgotten that she doesn't even know his name. He heaves in a breath, trying to decide if telling her is really the smart thing to do but before he can think about it too much, it's tumbling out of his mouth.
“Daryl.” She quirks an eyebrow at him and he realises the last thing she asked him was where he was gonna find a heart and him blurting his name out because of his internal monologue actually makes no sense as an answer to her question. “ I mean... Me. My name. It's Daryl. So you don't have to call me hunter. Unless you want to. I mean, you can. But... It's Daryl.” He stops his rambling, and god he sounds pathetic, and stabs a stick in to the mud, not looking at her.
“Daryl.” She says, trying it out, and he can hear the smile in her voice. He looks up at her then, finds he likes the way she says his name, the look on her face as she says it for the first time. His mouth quirks up at the side and he nods.
“Yeah.” He tells her and she smiles at him, honest to god smiles, and he feel his heart beat speed up a bit because of it.
“So, Daryl, where exactly we gonna get another heart?” He finds it funny that she has an accent. He knows where she is from, knows that that is the accent most people around here have, but he expected a princess to have a more refined accent, never dropping letters or mispronouncing words. But then he never expected her to collect leaves, or trek through the forest or -
She's still looking at him and he realises he hasn't answered her question (again). He clears his throat again, looks out in to the trees as if he is expecting someone to jump out the second he announces his plan, before looking back at her. (And if looking straight into her eyes makes him feel a pull in his stomach, well, he won't admit that, either.)
“I know a guy... Buys the bodies of the dead to use them to learn 'bout the insides, y'know? He's a doctor. Uses them to teach people stuff too. He might owe me a favour or two. Could get a heart from one'a them bodies, give it to Blake, send you off on your merry way.”
“You mean I wouldn't be able to go home?” Shit. He hadn't thought of that. He supposes not. I mean, Blake wanted her dead so he could have the throne, right? That's what he assumed, anyhow. She'd have to disappear off the face of the earth. He nods.
“'Spose not.” Daryl says out loud. He sees the cogs turning in her head, trying to work out her best option here and he's sure he should say something or do something but he has already let her know that he doesn't wanna kill her now by offering this as an alternative and he feels like he has lost the upper hand a bit now, now that she knows that he won't kill her, that he is willing to help her keep her life, even though he is the very one who is supposed to end it and he finds himself thinking of Merle and what he would think of this and whether it's the right thing to do (he knows it's not, the right thing to do would have been saying no to the job in the first place) and he thinks that if Merle were here he'd probably have found a way out of it but then he wonders if maybe Merle might have just killed her the second she stepped foot outside that tavern.
“Will you help me?” His head snaps up, meeting her gaze and this time he sees steely determination there.“Stay hidden, I mean. I'd have to go far, where no one would know me and it's just...” She sighs. “I don't really know much about the world, y'know?”
He nods, understanding what she means but knowing that he can't, that he won't, be able to help her. It's him that's got her in to this mess and he wonder if maybe she might have been better if he had killed her days ago. He isn't sure what she expects him to do for her and he doesn't want to think about what his life would be like with her in it constantly because that makes his head whirl and he's not sure that that's the best thought trail to be following right now. He thinks instead about how he can go back to Blake and hand him the heart of some dead man, claiming it to be the princess, after having sent her packing in the opposite direction, then he can disappear, skulk off in to the woods, on his own with nature again and he thinks that sounds peaceful, like the sort of life he could lead but that doesn't matter because he's speaking before he realises it.
“Course I'll help.”