Chapter 36 – Some Kind of Innocence Is Measured out in Years – Part 1
The signs are all there. Just gotta know how to read them.
The water of the lake lapped gently at the tall grass behind her, punctuated by the wing flapping and splashing of the geese, agitated and squabbling amongst themselves as they drifted off shore. Driven away by the fate of their fallen comrade, whose blood still oozed fresh around the pair of shafts—a familiar bolt, a slightly longer arrow—lodged deep in its side, twin red stains on grey feathers. The goose’s mate hovered nearby, further down along the shore, watchful, but out of mind for the moment as Beth studied the footprints in the damp earth at the edges of the field. The rest of the story written there as clearly as black text on a crisp white page, each depression in the dirt, each bent blade of grass turning another page in her head until the picture came clear.
Beth almost didn’t need anything else at that point to show her Daryl was in trouble. Despite that certainty, creeping across her shoulders like ice-cold fingers, rising up from her stomach like burning acid, she held out hope right up until that last second that she was simply misreading the scene. That she really wasn’t getting good at this after all and did still need Daryl to set her straight. To explain to her through his tracker eyes exactly what she was seeing since clearly, she was mistaken. Beth sucked her bottom lip in between her teeth and bit down hard. She did need Daryl, god did she ever, but not for this. As the mourning dove called out an answer to her question from deep in the woods, a fresh wave of nausea surged in her belly, and on its heels a renewed throb of her lingering headache.
No, she was not wrong. She might be the only thing here that wasn’t.
Daryl hadn’t answered her, though it was their signal. An unfamiliar voice had that honor and before she even finished thinking it, Beth’s gaze drifted to the small set of footprints just left of where she stood. So very like Daryl’s despite the difference in size. Not so much in the appearance of the tread but rather in the pattern of their placement, both facing off against each other and in turning together to face the threat coming in from the woods. Even in the way the body attached to them distributed its weight, slight though it was in comparison. A proud little something beat in her chest for even noticing that, for being able to tell how they were alike in the ways the others at the edge of the woods were not. A little something quickly overshadowed by the dread rising up from her stomach as the call came a second time. A repeat of the message in case she hadn’t heard it the first time around.
In case she needed to make sure.
Prickling little fingers prodded at her neck and climbed over the curve of her skull until her whole body shuddered in response. Daryl was in trouble, small-footed ally or not. Enough trouble that he found a way to make the bird call to tell her to keep back, possibly risking the wrath of those who were forcing his actions.
This was all her fault. If she hadn’t had that headache, if she hadn’t insisted Daryl go out to scout without her, this wouldn’t be happening right now. They’d be tucked away safe in the railway building or already moving on. Her head still hurt but it wasn’t bad, she could go, she could handle the next leg of their journey except now everything was unravelling right in front of her. It wasn’t like the last time, when he got caught up in the herd but was already on his way back when she found him. That was only walkers, and walkers may have brought about the end of the world as they had known it, but the walking dead were never the enemy.
People. People were the true threat. How many times had they learned that in the years since the dead started walking? Now people had taken Daryl away from her. To where and for what purpose she may never know.
An invisible fist punched her in the gut and tears welled up to blur her vision. Beth smushed her face into her shoulder to wipe them away but more of them rolled out anyway. And she stood there with her crossbow raised, aimed at the space through which said people disappeared and dragged Daryl with them, and all she wanted to do was fall down on the spot and let the tears take over. With a low whine in her throat, Beth shoved away the vision of crumpling to the grass and curling in on herself in a hot sobbing mess. Crying wasn’t going to help; she didn’t get to do that.
Instead she wiped at her eyes one final time and stared hard into the woods, willing the tears away, hearing the echo of the mourning dove bouncing inside her head like its own little ache. She hated it, when Daryl insisted they add the third call. Didn’t want to think about a situation where they would need it, but standing here, right in the middle of it, Beth thought maybe now she understood. Keep away was never going to mean keep away and he had to know, he had to, that she couldn’t just let him be taken. Beth took in a shaky breath and followed the path of those six sets of feet with her eyes as a niggling little itch crept up into her legs.
He had to know. He had to know she would follow and now instead of fighting back the tears she fought against the need to run, against the surge of adrenaline rising up to overtake the burning nausea. To stir her pulse into a raging staccato beating inside her chest and beg her to leave right now. To find him and drag him back from whoever dared take him from her. Because that’d do her no good, either, and it sure wouldn’t help Daryl, running in without thinking, just like she ran toward the truck in that farm yard, dangling there like a carrot on a string. Charging forward without seeing the danger lurking in the shadows. Without even stopping to look for it.
A captive breath stuttered out in violent little puffs as her thoughts carried her back to that day. The signs were there, sure they were, but she hadn’t bothered to read them, and only by the grace of those men had she and Daryl made it back over that fence alive. The memory burned away like a wound in her belly, a tiny bleeding ulcer that just would not heal, and maybe it shouldn’t. Not all the way. Every day since it happened, Beth made sure to think about it even just a little, to keep from forgetting the danger of being careless. Focusing on the good things was something she needed to do, for herself and for her sanity, for the healing of her spirit, but she couldn’t pretend that it didn’t happen. Pretending, ignoring the parts she wished to forget, had led her into that mess to begin with and no matter how it turned out or how many ways she could justify what she did—she made a mistake, plain and simple. She fucked up and almost cost her and Daryl their lives and she wasn’t going to do that again. Not if she could help it. Second chances like that weren’t things to waste and if nothing else, Beth knew the value in learning from her mistakes.
Every part of her knew it, from her feet still firmly planted on the spot, to the fingers gripping her crossbow so tightly she almost expected the stock to crack in half from the strain. Running headfirst into this was exactly what she couldn’t do, exactly why Daryl wanted to warn her. She had to think. Had to make a plan and be smart and figure out what was really going on here before she acted. Take the heads up that Daryl gave her and turn it into an advantage, somehow. Beth took a couple more deep breaths to ease away some of that urgency, to settle her pulse back down from its raging beat, before tearing her gaze away from the forest and shouldering her crossbow. Her fingers were stiff from holding on so tight and she worked on flexing them into and out of loose fists until the stiffness ebbed away, trying to think of what Daryl would do if their positions were reversed.
Daryl probably wouldn’t have talked her into going out alone, and that thought added another weight to the one already pressing down across her shoulders. In some ways, it would’ve been even easier if she didn’t know how to do this. If she’d never asked Daryl to teach her what he knew about tracking, about reading the signs, content instead just to let him lead. To spend their days together as a faithful follower, a little blonde shadow, instead of an active participant in this journey of theirs. Then, maybe, she wouldn’t have this burning in her gut, this acidic dread boiling away inside her with each passing minute she stood here in this place where Daryl had vanished. Maybe she’d be able to exist in blissful unawareness just little bit longer.
Except that was a lie. The biggest lie she’d ever told herself. There was nothing blissful about not knowing. No comfort to be had in clinging to ignorance of how this world worked, nothing that would last. She understood that with heart wrenching clarity the moment Mama came stumbling out of the barn, rotting in her evening dress. If she didn’t know how, if she hadn’t decided to learn and if Daryl hadn’t taken the time to show her, she might right now have been captured along with him. That, or left behind at the railway building, on her own and frightened, facing the prospect of carrying on alone without knowing how.
But she’d asked, and he agreed. She had learned, at least some things. She must know enough to help Daryl get out of this in one piece. Tracking him wasn’t going to be a problem, but she had to be careful not to let somebody catch her doing it. Stealth was the other part of it, the part that was harder for her but came so naturally to Daryl—the ninja to her china shop bull. Whoever was out there probably didn’t know about her yet and she should work on keeping it that way. Standing out here at the edge of the lake left her pretty exposed, and Beth swept her gaze around the whole of the clearing for the first time, biting back the bitter taste of irritation at not having thought of that sooner. She couldn’t be sure where a threat might come from, so taking cover now while she figured out what to do next was probably a wise move.
Beth pulled Daryl’s vest tight around her body, and swallowed down the lump trying to clog in her throat. The last time he’d left her with his vest hadn’t gone so well for him either, and here she was again, the familiar feel of that worn old leather beneath her fingers, getting ready to head into the unknown to find the man to whom it belonged. With a shake of her head to clear it of the memories, gathering there like cotton and threatening to cloud her mind to what needed doing right now, Beth turned her body toward the woods, where the smaller person had come from.
Doing so brought the goose back into view and she paused, looking down at its plump little body. Should she do something with it? A fire was risky out in the open at the best of times, never mind with an unknown threat possibly lingering nearby. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of roasting meat, but prepping the goose and cooking even a part of it would delay her longer than she thought she wanted, but turning down food wasn’t something that’d ever sit well in her mind. A hissing sound from nearby startled her out of her thoughts and she glanced up from the body to where the other goose stood, closer now, still protecting its mate.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she whispered, taking a cautious step closer to the fallen one while his mate was still far enough away, knowing there was nothing else to be done.
She couldn’t bring the goose back to life, nor could she make his death count for something, as much as she hated to waste it. The venison in her pack would have to suffice. Beth held the carcass down with her foot and pulled out both bolt and arrow, eyes on the female goose who, for the moment, was content to merely hiss at her from just out of reach.
That burning in her gut built up again as she puffed up the grass to better hide the goose from view, as she thought about the one left behind to mourn for him while the flock moved on without her, and Beth paused before standing up to once again breathe through it. Daryl needed her calm and she couldn’t afford to let her emotions cloud her ability to think. It only sort of worked, but it was enough. Beth left the geese behind to follow those small boot prints into the woods, walking backwards to conceal her slightly larger feet with the prints already there. Only a little ways in the prints ended at a burrow of sorts beneath the cover of the trees. The brush overhead curved around like a woven green ceiling over the dirt floor, worn smooth by use. A little path led down toward the lake, where, in the tall grass at the waters’ edge, floated a little one-man kayak, tied to a tree with a length of rope. It was as good a spot as any to take her minute to think, hidden here in this place specifically meant to hide in, granting her the cover she needed in case anyone returned while she figured out what to do next.
The burrow-hider left behind a cloth bag fashioned from what looked like repurposed children’s pajamas, and inside this Beth found an apple, an actual bread bun with meat baked in, a couple of small carrots, and a handful of wild blueberries. The whole thing looked like something she might’ve packed with her on the school bus once upon a time—though her lunch bag never had cartoon dogs on it—and it almost made her drop the bag back down in the dirt. Almost. The rumble in her stomach at the sight of that food—and bread, good lord—kept her grip from loosening. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday and the lingering nausea from her migraine couldn’t hold out against her rising hunger.
Forcing herself to chew instead of inhaling the meat bun and the rest of the food practically whole, Beth hunkered down in her hiding place and considered her first move. She already had all their stuff, aside from what Daryl took with him, so she wouldn’t have to go back to the railway building. But carrying the stuff with her wasn’t necessarily much better, especially going into an unknown situation. She’d have to hide it somewhere and hope they could come back for it. Not here, though. No, the people who took Daryl knew this place and might still return, so she wasn’t going to leave behind any more signs than necessary, which meant she’d have to carry it all with her for now.
There wasn’t much else she could plan, Beth realized, as she started in on the apple after licking the breadcrumbs from her fingers. Not until she knew more about who she was dealing with and for that she’d have to follow. Only a few minutes had passed and though they had a head start on her, her gut told her to wait just a little bit longer. She didn’t know if she truly possessed the instincts Daryl had about stuff like this, but she had nothing better to listen to. Nothing more concrete than that feeling in her stomach and even that warred with that itch in her legs, the tremble in her fingers subdued only by the act of eating. Her body wanted to fight but her gut—her head, really, she supposed—screamed at her to wait.
She waited. Marking the minutes with songs in her head as she devoured the sweet carrots and tart little blueberries, until she decided enough of them had passed. There wasn’t anything concrete telling her that either, just that same vague feeling in her belly, something like a flutter of nerves only deeper, rippling out through her whole body. Beth checked her gun, made sure she had a bullet in the chamber, and tightened her holster. Wrapped her palm around the shape of her knife, a comfortable, familiar weight secured to her hip in its little brown sheath. Made sure her crossbow was cocked and loaded and her quiver full of arrows. Even retied the laces on her boots and tried to ignore the tremble in her fingers as she pulled them tight. With nothing left to check, Beth closed her eyes and breathed deep and forced a mental lid down on the worries trying their hardest to settle in. Now was not the time for that.
We gotta go, Beth.
Whatever Daryl was in the middle of, he needed her. Beth and Daryl against the world. Against these men, whoever they were. Against anything that was ever gonna try and keep them apart and damn it, they had come too far together for that to end now. She was gonna get him back. Whatever or however she had to do it, she was gonna get him back.
Following the trail was as easy as she imagined it would be. Four sets of careless prints stuck faithfully to a well-used path through the woods, and two very careful ones pressed clear and obvious in the mud to either side, once they crossed the creek. Beth understood why Daryl might leave prints like that, even with the carelessness of his captors, and knowing that he knew, that he understood she’d be coming after him and wanted her to know it, soothed some of the burning in her belly. I got you, Daryl. Those marks told her he knew that, too. Knew it, and trusted her not to screw things up.
But the other prints remained a mystery, in purpose if not in perpetrator. It didn’t make sense for them to even be there, yet her eyes kept drifting to those smaller footprints, watching for them as she walked even while she kept her eyes and ears open to the forest at large. At least an hour had passed, possibly more, as she followed along, keeping her pace a little slower than the group she was following so she didn’t accidentally get too close. Nothing moved in the woods that shouldn’t, except for Beth. No people. No walkers, though she smelled them now and had been for the past little while. A choking cloud of decay trickling in on the wind, just enough of a warning to curdle in her stomach and settle there, a weight of discomfort trying to sour her determination to move forward. If the tracks hadn’t been going that direction, if whoever had Daryl wasn’t taking him into the heart of what she was sure must be the source of that stink, Beth would’ve long since begun moving away.
And still she watched those smaller tracks, as though one of those instincts she wasn’t sure she had kept drawing her gaze to them. Maybe because they didn’t make sense. There was no reason for them to be there, placed as deliberately as Daryl’s, when she didn’t need his, either, to know where to go. Not with the complete disregard by the others for what signs they left behind. So why would this second captive even bother, unless it was just because they were copying Daryl, but that explanation didn’t quite fit the picture.
She pondered this as she walked, searching with her eyes and her thoughts for what she had to be missing, until what she saw up ahead made her come to a stop, the toes of her boots pausing at the edges of the first and only break in the pattern of tracks. Something happened here. The small archer had fallen, maybe, or was pushed. No, they tripped, just there, on that loop of root. The edge of it pulled free of the ground when the foot caught on it, disturbing the dirt a little to one side. She couldn’t really make sense of the rest of the scene, a mess of sliding feet and general disruption in the soggy ground, but that wasn’t what she needed to see, anyway. The moment her gaze landed on that line in the mud, that furrow so obviously dug by the heel of a boot, Beth knew that was why she had been following those smaller tracks. This was their purpose.
Beth inspected the path beyond that mark, uncertain whether she should heed its message. It could be a trick to lure her astray just as easily as it could be a sign she ought to follow. But if she saw it, so had Daryl, and there weren’t any other marks from him afterward, other than the regular sort of prints he left mixed in with all the others. Same for the smaller person whose line in the dirt she should, in theory, leave the path to follow. She cast one final look down the trail cutting through the forest, then stepped off the path into the brush beside it. Daryl saw the message and made no move to dispute it, and that was enough for her. More than enough.
Why the smaller archer chose this point became clear after about twenty minutes of walking in a straight line away from the trail. A small clearing opened up, ringed with mostly medium sized trees aside from one ancient remnant of a once towering tree, now broken off thirty feet up its massive trunk. The fallen portion of it had lain long enough for nature to reclaim it as just another mossy hump in the forest floor with smaller trees growing out of it. An almost natural-looking collection of large mossy stones gathered at its base, stained with moss and weather and looking every bit as though they belonged there. Something about it drew her eyes, though, and Beth dropped down to take a closer look. The top edge of the largest stone jutted up above the others, and with only a little bit of force Beth was able to pull it away. In its place, a space appeared, leading back into a hidden hollow at the base of the old tree.
Beth spent a minute studying the woods around her, then shut her eyes and listened for a few minutes more, but all she heard was the faint rustle of leaves high up in the trees and the distant tweeting of birds. Satisfied for the moment that she was truly alone, Beth turned her attention back to the newly discovered cache. It was mostly empty, aside a bottle of water, a slightly wrinkled apple, a few strips of jerky, and a pair of arrows just like the one she pulled from the goose, all tucked neatly into the back. More than enough room left over to hide her pack, and she wasn’t gonna find a better place to stash it. Still a risk, should whoever was using it happen by and decide to claim her things as theirs, a reasonable post-apocalyptic case of finders-keepers, but she had to lighten her burden. A calculated risk, Daryl would say. The less she had to carry, the freer she was to act.
Decision made, Beth tucked what she didn’t need inside the cache, everything except her weapons, the multi-tool on her belt, her usual pocket items, and a couple of their own venison strips, just in case. The food and water she left untouched, and replaced the rock just how she found it.
She listened again as she got to her feet, but still heard nothing out of place. There wasn’t anything more than a gut feeling to guide her next move, even as she took the first uncertain steps of it. Finding the cache was like finding the latest clue in a treasure hunt, a turning point if she wanted to get literal about it. There were no arrows. No footprints. Just some invisible urge hooking in behind her bellybutton, tugging her south again one steady foot after the other, same as the path except this one would be of her own making.
Her sweeping gaze soon settled on a little pile of stones placed nearby, a minute or two past the cache tree. A little heap of similar shaped rocks set out in a filled-in circle, none of them larger than a golf ball and nestled deep into the moss grown tight around them. As she walked, as she looked, Beth found more of these stone piles, none of them quite in line with the previous one, but close enough that she could follow them with some effort. Old scars in the bark of some of the trees beneath which these stones were placed suggested there had once been something here to mark, and her mind drifted back to the cabin and its trapline. She didn’t doubt her little friend meant for her to find these. Find them and follow, let them guide her through the woods along this secret path amongst the moss and the trees.
She hadn’t gone far before she began hearing the noise, but with the breeze rolling this way, it was almost a full hour before she felt as though she’d gotten close. Walkers. People. A substantial gathering of both, somewhere up ahead, of the size to produce the stench looming on the horizon like an impassable wall. No signs in the woods, though, of any human traffic. At least no one who didn’t know how to cover their tracks. Still, not wanting to take any chances, Beth moved forward with care, using the largest of the trees and the brushiest of the brush to hide behind as she crept along, picking where to set her feet so she would leave the least amount of signs behind. She wished she had a beanie or something to cover her hair, the one part of her surest to stand out against the colours of the woods, even at autumn with the leaves changing. There were leafy trees here, oak, hickory, walnut, beech, all manner of deciduous species with leaves gone to gold speckled throughout the forest, but a good amount of pine and cypress, too, steadfastly green as they were designed to be, and not at all something she could blend into at a moments’ notice.
No challenges leapt out at her, though, and just about the time she began seeing the signs of movement and structures and a glitter of water through the spaces in the distance, she also spotted the huge old tree. Like the cache tree, it towered over most of the others, except it was still alive, still intact, and had just the right kind of limbs for climbing. If she could get up high enough she should have a decent view of the activity below. In fact, as she stood beneath it preparing to jump up for the lowest branches, she noticed the scrapes in the bark, part way up the trunk where a pair of small feet might scramble for purchase as the owner of them attempted to haul themself up into the tree. Seemed she’d ended up precisely where her mysterious benefactor intended.
The climb was an easy one, as she suspected, though she didn’t know what she was climbing toward until she’d almost reached the place where the tree stretched beyond the canopy of shorter trees around it. One second all she saw above her were more branches, and the next a platform appeared. Old weathered wood secured well to the strong branches beneath it and braced to the trunk itself, with a pair of knotted ropes dangling through the hole in the floor just wide enough for somebody her size to climb through. From the top side it looked like the beginnings of a treehouse, the floor without the walls or the roof, and yet the branches made good substitute for both of those things. Another little burrow of space, reminding her of the one over by the lake, and the way the branches draped Beth doubted anyone could see her hiding up here.
A perfect place to hide, and, as she peered out through a pair of heavy branches, a perfect place to watch.
The source of the noise and the smell sprawled out below, beyond the edges of the forest maybe another thirty feet past her tree. A compound of sorts at the edge of a lake, smaller and murkier than the one she started at. The woods spread out to the left—to the east, if she was reading the path of the sun correctly—and around most of the far side and beyond. To the right, not terribly far beyond her tree, the forest ended abruptly, replaced by the the sort of meadow-like land that grew up in the aftermath of logging or a forest fire, something which happened long enough ago for the brush and to take over and cover most of the destruction. Evidence suggested the fire, considering the uneven edges and the abundance of fireweed, and the ring of cabins in various states of devastation, spaced evenly along the lakeshore to the west. The post-fire meadow arced out around the lake in a wide swath, met up with the forest at the lake’s far side and gradually turned to woods again to the west.
And beneath her, the compound, sprawled like a garbage dump across what might once have been a well-tended yard. This wasn’t a place she knew, but she could see it well enough, the skeleton of what it used to be beneath the squalor it had become. Some sort of lodge, shaped like an L with its long side facing the lake and a shorter wing stretched out behind along the line of the western fence. The stone walls were still standing but its roof was long gone, all but the wooden beams that had once supported its weight. Replaced now with sheets of scavenged wood and other things, tarps and plastic and even what looked like old floorboards nailed haphazardly in place. A couple of other outbuildings, also stone, stood whole throughout the yard, and evidence of several more now reduced to stone rubble. Dotted amongst those, but mostly concentrated along the edge of the lake, were grubby tents in various states of disrepair.
Where grass might once have grown, the ground between the tents, the rubble, the remnants of the lodge was reduced to a muddy mess Beth suspected was partly to blame for the stench, independent of the dead bodies both lying inert and milling about the equally makeshift fence. A nice stone one once stood here, if the still standing pillars at the corners and bracketing the big metal gate were any indication. Probably every bit as impressive as the lodge, back then, now mostly a hodgepodge of wood and wire and metal, extended to cover the part of the grounds which once must have remained open to the lake. Not at all strong enough to withstand a herd or even the numbers which gathered there now, though a few dozen people—men, all of them—seemed to be taking turns making a game out of shooting at them from behind the unlikely partition. Weeks’ worth of corpses littered the ground around the compound, concentrated mainly along the western fence, but around the front, too. Simply left where they fell and allowed to go on rotting, as though none of the living ones particularly cared about the filth or the stench.
Or much of anything really, it seemed, going by the state of things. Though the fire which ruined the forest happened a long time ago, something else had burnt recently, leaving behind a still smoldering heap of debris near the tents by the east wall with nobody tending it. Garbage and bits of the salvaged building materials mixed in with the mud and it looked like they all just threw whatever they didn’t want in the precarious pile of junk taking up most of the southwest corner between the lodge and the fence. Scraps of wood, clothing, torn tarps and tents, empty cans, animal bones and a billion other things she couldn’t begin to make out from way up here. An actual garbage dump right there in the place they lived. Even had a bright red gas can sitting there next to the trash, as though they were just gonna burn the whole thing when it got too unwieldy.
Beth shook her head as she thought of that, the idea of setting a fire right there, risking the already sketchy fence and drawing walkers in, too. She didn’t think anyone left alive could be so careless, but the evidence below suggested otherwise. But what might that mean for Daryl, trapped amongst these people? Beth wanted to think it made the odds better, that their carelessness would make it easy for him to plan his escape, but a sinking feeling in her belly warned her that the opposite might be true. Men who feared so little for their safety probably didn’t have much to lose.
The men in question moved at random throughout the compound, though most of the activity at this time of day was centred around the lodge. And they were men. Beth counted at least twenty-five distinct male bodies but that was probably a low estimate, as the distance made identifying them difficult, especially as all their clothing shared the same dirt hue. Looking down she almost felt as though someone had thrown a sepia filter over the camp and its inhabitants. A few splashes of colour popped out from the tents, the blue tarps and green plastic used for roofing, and of course that bright red gas can, but everything else was some shade of brown. What she did not see were any women, or any sign of Daryl, not even where they might be holding him. Men moved in and out of the big stone building at several points and nobody appeared to be guarding anything. The only pattern she detected amongst their movements was that at some point, most of them joined in the fun at the fence behind the lodge next to the garbage heap, taunting the walkers, shooting at them with varying degrees of accuracy, and making enough noise to ensure they weren’t going to stop staggering out of the woods in search of the source.
Disgusting, is what it was. Disgusting and wrong and giant fist reached into Beth’s chest to squeeze her heart until it ached with every rapid beat.
Killing them is not supposed to be fun!
So caught up in the spectacle below, Beth almost didn’t see him there, tucked away in a little structure built into the east side fence, halfway down toward the lake. Would not have seen him at all, had she not had the overhead view, the way the trees grew right up alongside the fence on that side of the compound. The cage thing had a roof, something that looked as though it had been scavenged whole from somewhere else, like a garden shed or an elaborate dog house. He must have been hidden beneath it most of the time Beth was looking. Except now, just when she had to look away from the madness of the men and focus a moment on something else, she caught sight of his face peering up at her tree through the small gap between the edge of the roof and the sheet of wood at the end of the cage. He couldn’t see into her hiding place, so that meant he had to know it was there and suspected somebody might be there, too.
Not Daryl, despite the initial jolt in her belly at finding the face, but a dark haired boy, locked in that cage. Hidden from view by trees and sheets of wood, though a couple of walkers milled about alongside, searching for the thing which smelled like food and maybe made just enough noise to keep them interested. As Beth watched, the boy nodded up at her and then ducked back beneath the cover of the roof, further from the walkers. Out of her sight, but he’d got the message across yet again. He was okay, there where he was. If she was the sort of person planning on staging a rescue and including him in it, she needn’t rush into doing so just yet.
Beth chewed at her lip and pulled her attention away from the child in the cage to focus again on the yard and all that was happening there. One thing was certain—she couldn’t do anything now, with the sun shining down overhead. The compound was too open, the approach too exposed once she stepped out of the woods. And though the trees were thick up to this corner and all along the fence where the boy was being held, that left a lot of open yard between her and Daryl—assuming she could even find him. There didn’t seem to be anyone on guard but there were no shortage of eyes in the yard and no discernible pattern to their movements. Use your head, Greene. She couldn’t do this now, not even if she knew where Daryl was.
Waiting was gonna be torture, and already her legs trembled and her belly churned with the need to do something. But she had to be smart. Beth didn’t know much about rescuing people but she knew a thing or two about staying alive. Stealth was her friend, and so was cover in which to be stealthy. Cover she didn’t have and so she needed to wait until she had some. Until the sun went down and she could hide in plain sight, the silent little wraith slipping with purpose through this raucous camp until she found what she was looking for and got the both of them out safely.
Breathe. Beth listened to what her brain was telling her, and worked through the breathing exercises that were almost second nature, now. The first breath in shook through her chest like a tremor rumbling beneath the Earth, but she held it in, counted to three. Four. Five, before letting it out in a smooth rush. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be calm. Use her head. Use everything Daryl helped her learn about being little but tough, and when the time was right, get this done.
“I got you, Daryl,” Beth whispered, letting the breeze carry her soft little voice away on the wind. “Just hang in there. I got you.”