Chapter 35 – Stop the Clocks and Turn the World Around (let your love lay me down)
The butt-end of the Winchester slammed into Daryl’s lower back, the jolt of the impact radiating down both of his legs. Daryl held in the grunt of pain as Victor turned the weapon around again to prod him between the shoulder blades with the barrel.
“Y’all can shutcha mouths, up there.”
Lyle let out a hmmph, too loud and too obvious not to have been meant for their ears. “Fuckin’ birdwatchers.”
At Daryl’s side, the curly-haired boy let out a sharp little breath and snapped his head back forward to mouth fuckin’ birdwatchers with more than a little dramatic emphasis. Those dark little eyes glared hard at Lyle, loping along in front of them, that steely look which sent a shiver down Daryl’s spine, never mind that he wasn’t on the receiving end of it this time. Daryl followed the boy’s gaze, finding the back of that dingy blond head through the arms of the crossbow strapped awkwardly across his shoulders, stringy hair hanging down across several layers of ratty collars.
If he hadn’t had his head in the fucking clouds, Daryl mighta noticed he wasn’t alone hunting geese, long before the arrival of these assholes. Maybe he coulda stopped it from going down in the first place, if him and Curly here had worked out their differences sooner, or quieter, or something. At least gone into this with more of an advantage, maybe taken out a couple of them and evened the odds a little in their favour. Fuck, if he’d just paid a little more goddamn attention.
If he’d listened to his gut in the first place and not gone back out there without her.
He tried not to. Tried to focus on Lyle’s greasy head and not see her standing there at that patch of damp grass with the lake lapping gently behind her, smile fading, eyes narrowing as the dove call resonated up into her chest and she realized what it could mean. She’d let out a quiet gasp, instinctively knowing she had to stay quiet, but unable to keep it in completely. Her eyes growing wider, gaze sweeping around the clearing for the signs she was about to see. Big and blue and catching the light from the sun over the trees as she stared ahead into their depths. Watching. Listening. Waiting with her lip caught between her teeth for the second call. And she’d know, right then with her heart beating up into her throat, mouth drawn into a tight line when she heard it. When the voice that wasn’t Daryl’s floated out from the woods for the second time carrying a message she never wanted to hear.
She was going to follow.
They never said, neither one of them, that night in the barn when they first practiced the birdcalls, but he saw the look in her eye when he showed her how to make the third one he insisted they have. Same one she saw in his, probably, when they stared at each other past their raised hands and pretended to be mourning doves. As they pretended either one of them was gonna take this at face value. No way in hell was some birdcall gonna stop him from coming after Beth if she was in trouble, and he’d tear apart anything else that tried.
Beth Greene wasn’t going to wait around in her princess tower until he fought the dragon and came back for her. The woman who tracked him down after that storm, the girl who once offered to go after Maggie and Glenn no matter that she’d never done something like that before, regardless of the danger, because she was gonna save her damn sister herself if she had to. No, Beth was going to follow. She was going to follow and she was gonna do something, goddamn her and every last hair on her courageous blonde head.
That place inside, that deep hidden part of him usually swimming in warmth at the thought of Beth now filled with jagged shards of ice. Or maybe glass, shattered with the weight of the frost clinging to them, a thousand frigid edges both slicing him raw and burning with cold. The idea of Beth anywhere near these men only dug those shards deeper, burnt the cold in through every last layer, but she heard the call. Heard it and knew what it meant, and that was the only part of this he didn’t hate.
She was going to follow, but she wasn’t going to do it unaware.
Daryl pulled at the wire binding his hands, but knots were tight; the wire, wrapped and tied in such a way he’d need to be cut out of it. Those frozen shards of glass dug in a little deeper, shredding through his lungs until it took twice as much effort to breathe, and tearing into his gut, too, gouging him raw, turning his insides to a liquid bloody mess. He knew having Beth out there, an unknown player in whatever game was happening here, was his best chance. Their best chance, ‘cause for better or worse it was Beth and Daryl against the world, and she wasn’t gonna let that go. Wasn’t gonna leave him behind or wait around hoping for the best. He had to trust her. Didn’t like it in the slightest, being thrown into a situation where he had to, but he had to trust her.
She wasn’t going to panic. Wasn’t going to fall to pieces there in the marshy grass or run headlong into trouble. What happened in the field with those men, what led up to it—yeah, he knew it could happen again. It could and he’d be a damn fool to think it wasn’t a possibility. But it wouldn’t. Beth wasn’t in that same place now as she was then. Even before the world ended, Daryl suspected Beth had always had that level head on her shoulders, that steel in her spine despite what she looked like on the outside, even if she hadn’t known it. She knew it now, though. Everything she said in the past couple of days showed him she believed it. Believed it here, with her fingers linked over her heart as she spoke those words. Like a promise to herself to never go back. To believe in that strength she had, that fortitude that came from somewhere deeper than muscle, burning right from the depths of her soul.
He did trust her, no matter the weight pressing down on his chest or how deep those frozen shards dug in. This wasn’t a surprise, like the men at the farm. She’d do this smart, use her head, same way she did with those two morons at the cabin. Beth was strong. She was tough, and she knew it now. No question that she’d do whatever she had to do to help get them out of this in one piece.
Daryl glanced down at the boy again, with his clean hands clenched into fists behind his back, just like Daryl’s. Sharp dark eyes alternating between glaring mental arrows at the back of Lyle’s head and sweeping over the terrain like he was keeping watch. Tough little son-of-a-bitch, that kid, smart and not entirely innocent in whatever was going on here—but still a kid. Whatever he done, it couldn’t be serious enough to put that look on his face; finely etched worry lingering beneath that well-practiced glare. Kid knew exactly what they were looking at here, and he was scared. Daryl suspected it took a lot to rattle those shoulders at the best of times, and that look of fear alone was enough to drive those icy splinters deep down into Daryl's bones.
Up ahead, Lyle kicked his way through a pile of half-dried leaves like a giant stinking toddler. None of them seemed to have any regard for stealth, neither Lyle nor the others marching along behind. Victor’s steps every bit as careless as Lyle’s, and the other two at the back chattering nonstop and, from the sounds of it, pulling leaves and breaking stalks from the brush alongside them. All of them making noise like they didn’t care who or what might hear them. Confident in the most frightening of ways that nothing out there mattered, that whatever might possibly hear them wasn’t any kind of threat to worry over.
And though these men followed the well-worn path on the banks of a creek, laying down footprints and other signs of disruption like a trail of blinking arrows, as Daryl walked—encouraged, now and then, by the pointy end of Victor’s rifle—he watched for the clearest patches of mud to press his boots into. So Beth would know. So she’d see the prints he left and she would know he meant for her to notice them. Took all of half a minute before Curly started doing it too, meeting Daryl’s eyes side-on as he left his own distinct print with one small foot at the edge of the path.
Fighting a shiver, though he wasn’t cold, Daryl pulled his thoughts out of his head to focus on what was going on around him. The men, the woods, the kid beside him, doing the exact same thing. But he couldn’t shake that gnawing feeling in his gut, being dragged into something he didn’t understand, with Beth somewhere out there at risk of being pulled in along with him.
Use your head, girl. Stay who you are.
She would. She would.
She had to.
He smelled it before he heard it. The unmistakeable stink of walkers carried in from the south on that cool breeze, with something else slithering in beneath it, foul in its own right. They’d been walking almost an hour, now, from where they crossed the creek. Getting close to wherever these assholes were holed up, going by the stench. Likely wouldn’t be much longer before the noise began filtering in, too. That of the gathered walkers, and whoever else was waiting for them.
From beside him, Curly gave a startled shout, and Daryl looked that way in time to see the boy catch the toe of his boot on a sticking up root and land face down in the mud. He gasped and fought to breathe and aryl ground himself to a halt next to the boy’s prone body, unable to do nothing but watch the resulting chaos unfold. Victor barked demands to the fallen child and Lyle charged back down the path to yank the kid to his feet by the collar of his drab green jacket. The other two hung back, throwing out taunts about clumsy dumb pups, laughing at their own cleverness, and placing bets on whether or not the kid would start crying. And Daryl stood, swallowing down that hot spike of anger bursting up through all that cold weight in his chest, and saw.
Curly put on a good show, all right; if Daryl hadn’t seen him catch himself, breaking the fall with his hip and his shoulder before rolling over to plant his face in the mud, he might’ve believed the boy had landed hard enough to have the wind knocked out of him. Might’ve been distracted enough by the boy’s apparent struggles not to notice the way he dragged his heel in the dirt beneath him as Lyle tried to shake the breath back into him. He dug a furrow, drawing a line across the muddy path and leaving a streak of brown on the patch of moss growing beside it.
Daryl clenched his useless hands into fists. He wanted to be angry, fuck did he ever. Taunting the kid like that, getting their filthy hands on him, except—no. The fall was a ruse. Over Lyle’s shoulder, even as he sucked in another wheezy breath, Curly’s eyes caught Daryl’s and flicked hard in the direction they’d been walking. Okay. Okay. Loud and clear even with the angry creature trying to claw its way out through his belly. Daryl clamped his jaw tight and tugged hard on every last bit of strength he had not to intervene. Not to go off half-cocked and making rash decisions that’d only land the both of them in deeper shit than they already were.
Curly played his little game for another minute or so before he finally appeared to catch his breath, and Victor shouted an order over Lyle’s taunting. Before Daryl could move, one of the unnamed men behind him dropped a sack down over Daryl’s head, obscuring his vision aside from the little pinpricks of light leaking through. Curly gave a little startled shout, then a pair of hands gripped Daryl by the arms and yanked him forward—Lyle, grunting at Daryl to get movin’ as he did so. Daryl fought the urge to shake him off, every muscle in his body drawing taut at the intrusion. But he still had his hands bound tight and that gun at his back and he couldn’t see a fucking thing, so he let himself be led along the muddy path.
Curly—from somewhere just behind—made a couple of shuffling footsteps before resuming that practiced quiet walk of his, letting Daryl know he was still okay. The assumptions held by the men, the back story he didn’t have to make up, the knowledge they presumed he already had, those were advantages here, if he could find a way to exploit them. And so was this fucking kid. That mark he made. That line in the mud, drawn as clear as those angelic curls on his cherubic little head. Didn’t go all the way across the path but it didn’t have to, not to a pair of eyes used to reading the signs.
That angry, clawed creature vanished at last. In its wake, a surge of adrenaline rose up in his chest, and something else. Something soft and deep that felt like gratitude, beating alongside it, for this unexpected ally.
Lyle’s sweaty hands tightened around Daryl’s arm and he gave another hard yank. Daryl chewed hard at the inside of his lip until he tasted blood, listened to the distant snarls of walkers now floating in on the breeze, and walked. Led onward to whatever hell they were walking into.
Where was some sort of compound, a good fifty feet beyond the cover of the woods and behind a rusted gate, which creaked open so Lyle could rush him in past the agitated walkers lingering far too close. The stink was near unbearable even with the bag on his head, walkers mixed with human filth, shit and unwashed bodies and the stench of rotten food. Thick mud and god knows what else squelched beneath his boots as Lyle hauled him along. They’d separated him from the kid the moment they entered, dragging Curly off somewhere to the left, complaining the whole way, while they took Daryl to the right. He should’ve known that was coming, but he couldn’t’ve done a damn thing about it even if he had. Still couldn’t now, bound as he was. Sightless. Surrounded by people who were anything but friendly. He didn’t need to see them to feel their eyes on him, hard and unwelcoming as they moved deeper into the compound.
Lyle and one other—one of the Bobbsey twins, he thought—shoved him through an open doorway. He tumbled forward, expecting to fall flat on his face, and turned his head to avoid the worst of the impact just in time to hit the cold rough stone of an unexpected wall. Sticky warmth dribbled down his cheek when they grabbed him again and shoved him into a chair, and he might’ve fought except for the unmistakable press of the rifle to his forehead as they tied him in with a strap around his chest and another for each foot, leaving his hands still tied behind him, squished between his back and the spindles of the chair.
The rifle fell away after the final tug to his newest bonds, and seconds later the door shut. Not with a click but with the dull thud of wood, followed by the rasp of a wooden bar sliding into place. They wanted him to think he was alone, but he could hear them breathing. One by the door, the other hovering somewhere behind him, having crept not-so-silently around once the door was shut. Whatever room this was, wasn’t solid—a breeze filtered in from somewhere, and it was too bright in here even with the sack on his head to have a proper roof. That funny green light made him think of the corrugated green plastic crap that’d covered part of the trailer when the roof fell in that last winter he spent there. Men walked past his wannabe jail cell or congregated just outside its walls, most of them toward the back but sometimes on the side with the door. Voices raised either in argument or general merriment, and loud, seemingly indifferent to the way the noise drew walkers.
He heard them too, growls growing excited alongside the men’s laughter. Close, like the fences weren’t far from the back of the building. The men jeered at them through whatever barrier separated the living from the dead. C’mon, shit-fer-brains. C’mon and eat me, before gunshots split the air, and a few less snarls remained behind to break through all the cheering. They had to know the noise, the guns, the activity would just keep drawing more of them to whatever partitions they had up, but that didn’t seem to stop them. No wonder he hadn’t seen a single walker this morning. Least this camp full of loudmouths could do was talk about something useful, if they insisted on being loud dumb fucks, but nothing noteworthy came out of the ruckus.
Daryl wasn’t sure how long he’d been left there. Long enough to cycle through at least twenty different voices outside, all of them men, and six different versions of walker tag, all of which ended in gunshots and raucous laughter. Long enough for his ass to go numb from this unforgiving chair they tied him to. The voices out front quieted, dropping down to whispers before silencing altogether. Out back the men carried on but Daryl let them fade away to the background, lifting his head despite the sack to face whatever was about to come in through that door. The bar lifted, and the air stirred around him with the soundless opening of that door. No footsteps, just the subtle rasp of fabric and the darkening of the light pouring in through the doorway.
The men shuffled. Moved. The two who’d been in ducked out and somebody new circled around behind him. If his neck wasn’t dripping with sweat, all the hairs on it would’ve been standing at attention, the way the presence loomed at his back like some dark shadow he couldn’t see. A shiver rolled across his shoulders instead, too sudden and powerful to keep in. An audible huff of breath came from somewhere in front of him, and the ghost at his back lifted the sack from his head.
Daryl tossed his sweaty hair out of his eyes and blinked through the brightness, trying to focus on the figure backlit in the doorway—turned and speaking in a low voice to somebody standing just outside. Daryl saw the familiar wooden stock of that ancient Winchester just as its bearer pulled the door shut, leaving Daryl once again closed inside this room with a pair of men, only this time his stomach lurched and it took everything he had not to strain at the bonds holding him to the chair.
He tried to process everything at once, to take the few seconds he could to survey the room before the new arrivals commanded all of his attention. Stone walls with crumbling mortar, a short storey high, with the wooden roof beams still intact though the roof was long gone. That green plastic crap was nailed to them, leaving gaps where walls ended in broken edges. An old cottage, maybe, or some self-contained part of one. A single room with just the one door leading out, a heavy old wooden one with ornamental iron braces. Nothing else, aside from the chair they put him in, behind which the heavy breathing of the person at his back blew down from above to bathe his neck in hot air stinking of some vile mix of sour sweat, decaying teeth, and pickled fish.
And the man lowering himself into a second chair opposite Daryl’s—the presence in the room which commanded impossibly more attention than whatever beast stood behind him. He wasn’t a large man. Just the right sort of tall and slim that his clothes didn’t fit right and probably never had. A younger version of Victor, both bald and white-bearded, but tidy. Clean, or as near to it as anyone got these days without the benefit of running water. A well-groomed standout in a camp full filth, the sludge on his boots existing in direct contrast to the rest of him. In his hands he held a wrinkled scrap of paper, a list or something, though Daryl couldn’t make out what was written on it, and he stared down at that thing for a good long while.
The man looked up, with an abruptness that jerked Daryl’s shoulders back in his chair, and met Daryl’s gaze with a pair of pale green eyes set deep beneath a strong brow and a weathered face the colour of tanned leather. Narrowed, as they took Daryl’s measure; evaluating what sort of threat he might find tied to the chair in front of him.
Daryl had learned long ago that men who didn’t need no introductions were men you oughtta keep the hell away from.
“Well,” Dane said, his expression remaining neutral, “wouldja look at that, Ashley. New hunter.”
A grunt far too deep to come out of somebody called Ashley rumbled from behind, falling down across Daryl’s shoulders like a shroud. What began as a shudder sunk down in his belly like a load of bricks when a large sweaty palm pressed into his cheek and forced him to turn his head, almost craning Daryl’s neck to the point of cracking before owner of the hand came into view. The protest died on Daryl’s lips at the sight of the giant pockmarked face and beady little eyes of the monstrous, scowling man hovering at his back. Almost too tall to stand upright beneath the makeshift roof, looking simultaneously like a cartoon villain in some little kids’ movie, and the muscle in an old mob flick. Daryl mighta laughed at that contradiction except he was pretty sure this guy with the hands like bear paws and a face like road kill actually was the muscle.
Another grunt, and Ashley pushed Daryl’s head back around and stepped away, hovering to the side and just far enough back that all Daryl could see of him was a large dark blur lurking in his peripheral vision. In front of him, Dane waited, watching the whole exchange with that same calculating glint to his eyes in that otherwise neutral face. Daryl tightened his jaw and pressed his lips tight, forcing down the flutter of panic trying to hammer at his ribs and shake through his fingers, and met Dane’s stare.
Without looking at it, Dane neatly folded the paper in his hands, then unfolded it, and repeated that several times over again as he stared at Daryl. Finally, he gave a slow blink and smoothed the paper out against his thigh. “New hun’er what can’t talk? Or won’?”
Daryl swallowed hard. “Ain’t got nothin’ to say.”
“’S that so.” Dane’s lips pulled into something resembling a smile, except his cold eyes told a different story as he lifted up the much-abused paper and dangled it in the air. “Got me a list here says differ’nt. That pup of yers’s been busy.”
Daryl swallowed and waited, eyeing up the rumbled paper that had nothing to do with him, and from the sounds of things around here, probably nothing much to do with that boy, either. Wasn’t too late to change his story, claim no prior knowledge of the boy, except the thought of doing that tasted sour on his tongue. If they did believe him, what then? Men like these were hardly gonna pat him on the back and apologize and open the gate to let him waltz away unscathed. No, chances were, even if they did believe him, the men would go back out looking for whoever he was traveling with, if he wasn’t with the boy. Looking for Beth, who right now might even be hiding nearby just waiting for her chance to move in. Christ, how was he gonna get to her, locked in here, staring at a list of offenses they’d already decided to pin on him whether he’d done anything or not? How would she even know where to start looking?
Dane gave his throat a soft clear, just enough to draw Daryl back out of his head, and held up the list to read it. “Number one—damage to the east fence, an’ a half dozen dead’uns inside. Num’er two—ever’ last chicken, stole right out of theys pen. Three—fire, set deliberate...”
The list went on, through structures and shit burnt up in that fire, damaged property throughout the camp, stolen belongings, two men unaccounted for after the dead’uns got behind the fences, and on and on until the grand finale, some man called Joel stabbed in his sleep with his own knife and allowed to turn. Whoever this Joel was, Dane spoke his name as though Daryl should know it, as though the group of people Daryl was supposed to belong with would understand the weight of that particular loss.
When he finished speaking, Dane folded his list and slipped it into the pocket in his shirt, then steepled his fingers as he waited for Daryl’s response. The shadow that was Ashley wobbled, like he was rocking side to side and Daryl wasn’t sure which of those things was making him sweat more.
Any excuses he could come up with he rejected immediately, especially since he was damn sure most of that trouble was caused by the two missing men. If Dane wasn’t prepared to acknowledge that, there wasn’t a lot Daryl could hope to say to change his mind. “You think some little kid done all that?”
Dane let out a soft hmmph. “That li’l kid ’ain’t been naught but a thorn in our sides all them months, as y’all’re well aware, but naw, friend, I don’ believe he done it alone.” Those green eyes landed on Daryl like a lead weight, sinking down beneath his skin until he felt it in his bones. “I believe he’d’a had some help, now, don’ you?”
Heart pounding, Daryl slowly shook his head, keeping his eyes trained on those unwavering green ones boring into him from just across the room. Swallowing down the bile trying to rise up into his throat, he said, “we ain’t got nothin’ to do with none of that.”
Dane held the stare for a long moment before he blinked and tilted his head a hair to the left, and though he kept looking at Daryl there was something different about his eyes. “That so? Well, this’s unfortunate, then, ain’t it?”
Something about that sentence squirmed in Daryl’s gut; those biting weasels back again for round two, only this time they brought friends. He had no idea what to say—what he could say—so he said nothing, just watched as Dane patted his pocket where the list of offenses lay folded. There was no reasoning here. No way of talking his way out of this, and with a sensation like concrete slowly hardening his body, beginning with his tingling toes and spreading upward with each increasingly deep breath, Daryl wondered if there was gonna be any way out at all.
Beth. God, Beth...
“Greg owes us,” Dane said, jerking Daryl back out of his head again with the suddenness of a gunshot. That hard gaze leveled Daryl across the room and Dane’s hands—calloused but clean, right down to the fingernails—tightened into fists right there against his legs. “Some’un’s gon’ hafta pay up.”
Dane leaned closer, just a hair, and Daryl pulled again at the wires binding his hands. “What’s ya name, friend?
It didn’t matter. Or maybe it did. Daryl didn’t fucking know anything except giving a name wasn’t going to stop whatever was happening from going down. The wheels were already in motion and the brakes didn’t work, and that hardening weight growing large by the minute stole all the words right out of his head.
Dane leaned even closer, almost but not quite rising from his chair. “’M askin’ a question, boy. Y’all’d be wise to answer it.”
Some’m the matter with ya mouth, boy?
Daryl recoiled like he’d been struck. The man, the eyes, the voice, it wasn’t—it was nothing like—but the words, oh fuck. Fuck. Bile rose up in his throat and he struggled to swallow as Dane stood, launching out of the chair so fast Daryl rocked backward in his, only not tipping over ‘cause Ashley gave it a shove back upright. Dane, shoulders hunched beneath the low hanging ceiling, took one step toward the door before he whirled around again, reaching for the gun at his hip.
“Greg thinks he’s gon’ pull one over on us, hidin’ like a coward a’hind them walls, and you—” Dane’s eyes widened, far enough it looked like they might pop right out of his head. Nostrils flared, a flash of red darkening those tanned cheeks, Dane shook the handgun mere inches from Daryl’s face. “Convenient, y’ask me, sendin’ the bulldog out with a chap’rone this very day. Well, I ain’t no fool, boy. I ain’t fooled fer one dang minute.”
Like some unseen force caught him in the belly with a meat hook, Dane turned again to resume pacing, long legged strides taking him across the room and back in barely any time at all. The man’s free hand contorted into a claw against his leg and he continued wagging the gun as he muttered, speaking not to Daryl anymore but to himself, maybe. Or maybe something or somebody Daryl couldn’t see. The controlled countenance of before vanished and that wide-eyed madman had taken over as he stalked back and forth along the wall.
“He’s gon’ see things the way he oughtta, now,” Dane was saying, bobbing his head, dragging his tongue across his bottom lip. “Ain’t gon’ be no shortage of lev’rage, here on in. Jus’ a matter a time. Jus’ a matter a time...”
This went on and on. Back and forth, ‘til Daryl thought he might be getting dizzy watching, ‘til the words Dane was speaking made less and less sense. Halfway through the final step that’d bring him back in front of Daryl’s chair, Dane’s back stiffened and the clawed hand relaxed, and instead of carrying on the path he seemed so intent on wearing in the floor, Dane swiveled around and sank back into his chair. That collected mask fell back down over his face, only the barest twitch at the corner of his eyes giving away whatever that was simmering away beneath the surface. Daryl fought to keep his breathing under control as those green eyes looked up past Daryl’s shoulder, toward the dark shadow hovering there.
Dane held up the handgun and with a flick of his thumb, released the safety. “Come now, Ashley. Time to learn our friend here a lesson.”
Daryl knew it was coming before it hit him, tried to brace as best he could but still, the blow from that giant paw, a backhand to the face with the force of that oversized man behind it, sent him tumbling over, chair and all. His head hit the ground, packed dirt with no give and his ears rang from the impact. Before he could move again Ashley righted the chair and Daryl together. Daryl worked his jaw, but the whole left side of his face had gone numb. Dane’s face hovered in front of him, once the chair came back into place, but everything had soft, shimmering edges and he couldn’t quite lock on.
Dane leaned in close, until two of him swam before Daryl’s eyes. “Greg owes us, ya hear?”
Daryl blinked to try to clear his vision, wracking his brain for what he could possibly say, for one last pearl of wisdom that’d surely get him out of this. But it was clear the matter was already decided, and whatever answer he gave wasn’t going to change what happened next.
Dane carried on speaking, leaning in further until both his faces blurred together. “Sumbitch gon’ hafta pay up for what tha’ boy’s done,” he said, little drops of spittle flying out to land on Daryl’s face. “Gon’ give us what we deserve, once an’ fer all.”
Daryl clenched his hands into fists behind his back. “He ain’t gonna give you shit.”
Even blurry, that humourless smile sent a chill through Daryl’s chest. Dane held the look and leaned in closer, close enough for Daryl to smell the stale tobacco on his breath. “Y’all’d be wise not to take me for a fool, son.”
A moving shadow was his only warning. Daryl landed harder this time, accompanied by the distant sound of cracking that might have been either his skull or the chair or some combination of both. The world tilted violently as he tried to lift his head, turning his empty stomach upside down as a wave of nausea slammed into him. Daryl slumped back to the ground, tasting blood on his tongue, and Dane’s voice echoed down from above.
“Don’ say I never gave y’all the chance to co-operate.”
The room spun as Ashley wrapped his giant hands beneath Daryl’s armpits and hauled him to his feet. Let him dangle there like a giant ragdoll, nauseous, head swimming, skull throbbing hard enough to split open at the seams if it wasn’t doing that already. Daryl fought through the spinning, struggled to meet the piercing green eyes staring at him, but the harder he tried the more he hurt, the more his stomach roiled, the faster the world around him flew.
Through the whirl of green and grey, Dane’s smirking face spun into view. “Last chance, friend.”
The room lurched again, and anything Daryl might’ve said was lost to the ringing in his ears. Dane’s blurred face barked out an order and the hands holding his arms gripped tighter. Gripped and pulled and tossed him hard into the stone wall like he weighted nothing more than a feather. A sharp pain erupted in his flank, smaller flares of it lighting throughout his back. Pain and the hot spill of blood, and Daryl crumpled to the floor. A useless waste of a man with his hands still tied behind his back and a broken chair still tied to his body.
The first kick to the gut knocked the breath out of him. The second sent a shock of pain rolling right up through his belly and chattering out through his limbs. He blinked and fought for air, fought to move, to somehow scramble up and fight back even as the lead weight in his belly told him he was too far gone for that. That if he had any hope in hell of surviving this, of getting back to Beth, he had no choice but to take it. The ringing in his ears rose up like the clang of a bell in some cathedral tower, loud like his head was the ringer, clanging back and forth inside that resonating drum. Daryl tried once more to open his eyes, to see something, anything, gaze finally settling on a pair of worn out combat boots, dipped in sticky brown mud, tapping in time to some tune only their wearer could hear.
Beth. Oh, Beth. I’m so sorry, Beth...
A kick to his wounded flank shot through him like a red hot poker. A cloak of blackness dropped down, smothering the noise aside from the distant ringing of that damned church bell, dragging the world to a sudden, dizzying stop. The weight in his head pressed in, pressed down, pushed back when he fought to blink his eyes open and when he finally did it wasn’t blackness at all. Light exploded; sharp, sudden streaks of silver-gold rushing past his head, a whirlwind whipping into all the dips and shadows until everything shone with that same blinding glow.
And there, in front of him, a pair of bare feet stood on the dirt, once cold and brown but now warm and glistening, pale and delicate as they stepped gently toward him on pointed toes.
“You know you don’t need to stay here.”
He couldn’t see her, up there. The light was too bright, he couldn’t lift his head enough to see past her knees, but he knew that voice anywhere. “Beth. Beth, sweetheart, you gotta—you gotta go.”
A delicate hand dropped down into view, layers of beaded bracelets curled around her slender wrist. “C’mon. I know a place we can wait.”
Those deceptively delicate fingers tightened on his and pulled him to his feet, and with a whoosh of feathers, Beth folded her wings at her back and that blinding light dimmed, settling into a warm golden glow that seemed to come from everywhere at once. They were in the cabin. Fire blazing away in the stove. A rabbit roasting on top, fragrant and sizzling as the fat dripped out. The little window stood uncovered and outside, a light snow was falling, clinging to the birch trees, lining the creek bed in pillows of fluffy white. Daryl sunk down onto the bed, easing into its softness while Beth looked on, smiling softly. She was naked; as naked as him, and he couldn’t quite see her through that shimmering glow, but he could feel her, soft warm skin and moist heat as she climbed into his lap.
Y’ain’t got him talkin’, yet?
Daryl swept his gaze around the cabin, looking for the source of the voice, but Beth took his face in her hands, cradling his cheeks gently in her warm palms.
“Don’t worry about them Daryl. They can’t get inside, see?”
Front and back, those heavy iron bars lay across the doors, keeping out what should not be in. What didn’t belong here in this place. His place. Their place, his and Beth’s. Beth with her wings beating softly at her back.
Tough sumbitch, that’un. Might maybe Ashley’s gon’ convince him to loosen that tongue when all’s said ‘n done.
A hot spike of pain erupted in his chest, bursting up from beneath his sternum and rolling out like flames. “Beth,” he gasped, fighting for breath against the burning in his chest. “Hurts.”
Beth shook her head slowly and swept her fingers across his brow, warm little brushes that tingled and glowed and as she rocked gently in his lap, and the heat of her engulfed him, pulsed around him, through him, driving out the remnants of pain until there wasn’t anything left but warmth.
“I got you,” she whispered, fingertips tracing the lines of his cheeks, his chin. “Just stay with me.”
He gazed at her, at the soft smile tugging at her lips, at the light swirling up from her hooded blue eyes. “Sing me somethin’?”
Beth’s smile lit up the cabin, almost as bright and shining as her wings, and when she began to sing, that warm golden glow doubled in its brightness, chasing away the all but the last lingering shadows.
Puppy ain’t gabbin’ neither.
Daryl scowled at the voice intruding on Beth’s song, but her ever-moving fingers kept up their sweeping touch, unknitting his brow, soothing his skin with every trail of tingling light left behind. They rocked together slowly in their nest of quilts as she sang, and he couldn’t hear the words but he didn’t need to. They sank down inside him just like the heat from her body, and together they kept the pain and darkness away. Replaced the sharp and hard and numb with warmth so deep, so intense he felt it down to deepest parts of his body. Right through his soul.
She touched his face. His neck. His chest, where the pain vanished and the pulsing warmth seeped in. Unfurled her wings and wrapped the both of them up in their gentle glow. Drew him close until he felt the steady beating of her heart beneath his cheek, the swell of her breast nestled perfectly in his palm.
Must be his woman.
Want I should go give her the message?
“Don’t listen to them.” Beth drew her fingers across his brow again, back and forth until the furrow there smoothed, taking with it the ebbing hints of a throbbing ache. “You’re safe here.”
He knew it. As long as she was there with him, nothing could touch him. “Keep singin’.”
She sang. That sweet voice and that song, too deep, too much to be contained to something so simple as words. It swelled around them, as bold and warm and shining as the light.
He was safe here. He was safe with her. Nothing could hurt him as long as she held onto him. As long as she kept singing.
Not yet. Wait... Wait... Wait...
Beth beat her wings once more, chasing away the voice that tried one last time to intrude. “Wait,” she said, her voice drowning out the echo of the other. “Wait here with me ‘til it’s over.”
She started singing again and once more her song filled his chest. Swirled into the empty spaces inside and out. Curled into both of them where their bodies joined, music as only Beth could make and maybe as only she could make with him, here, in this place outside of time. The song rose up into a crescendo which crashed over him in a blaze of light, a surge of warmth coursing through his body and he never wanted it to end. But even as he felt it he knew that it must, that he couldn’t stay here forever. And as the music wound down, Beth gathered him closer. Curled around him as he curled around her and she sang until the light began to fade. Until the song faded too, back to the distant ringing of some lonely bell.
Daryl blinked one eye open. The other, heavy and swollen and stinging, stayed shut. Refused to budge. The dirt floor beneath his head cooled the heat burning through his cheek and he coughed, the taste of blood and bile heavy in his throat. A pair of muddy combat boots appeared, followed a moment later by two calloused hands and a weathered face swimming in front of him. Pale green eyes like shards of ice pierced through the darkening fog, and a voice floated in from somewhere far away.
Ain’t personal, friend. Jus’ some’un had to pay. Some’un’s gotta give Greg the message.
Daryl’s eye shut, and after that there was nothing but darkness.