This story follows the events of my previous piece, "The Beginning With You".
The spongy forest floor gave way under his boots, squishing with each step he took. He kept his eyes trained on the mossy woods around him as he searched for any movement in the gaps between the trees. The undergrowth had crept up over the trails and around each other, creating knots of plants and vines that caught their feet, tripping them up. Each time she would stumble he would reach out to grab the handle on her pack, holding her upright.
"Winter's comin'," she said, blue eyes sweeping up to look at him from beneath brown straggly bangs, repeating the phrase that he had said many time to her over the last few days. "I hope it don't snow 'gain."
He grunted in reply and kept moving, the weight of his own pack pulling on his shoulders. The sun was sinking lower in the sky and the darkness pushed back against the light until the forest around them faded from green, to gold, and then into dark blue. Soon the night would come and it would swallow everything, leaving them blind. Daryl's thoughts turned to food again - as they often did, and he wondered what they would do if they didn't come across something soon.
The Walkers had eaten their way across the land, like locusts, consuming everything and leaving devastation in their wake. It had been days since they'd had a squirrel, and weeks since they'd had anything else. They'd have to dig into the smoked salmon and canned apples they'd been saving since the last town they'd passed through more than a month before. His mouth watered at the idea and he looked down at the girl plodding along at his side, her mouth set in a determined line.
"What'ch'a thinkin'? Daryl asked her, picking a twig out of her long brown hair.
Judith looked up at him again, craning her head way back. One of her arms hugged the soft cloth doll that he'd given her when she was still a baby. "Them apples," she answered, scrunching her freckled nose. As best as he could guess, she would be about four-years-old now.
"Hungry?" He asked, coming to stop.
Judith stopped too, immediately. "Yeah," she sighed. Her eyes moved down to look at her feet. He looked down too, his eyes settling on her pink boots. The laces had come loose and he frowned at the sight of the toes. The leather had been scratched and worn away and the inside had torn away from the soles. His weren't in much better shape. They would have to replace them before the rain and snow came or they wouldn't survive the winter.
Daryl looked around the clearing that they had found themselves it. "Best we stop for the night anyway," he muttered, picking two trees where he would secure the hammock. He'd tie it up high to keep them out of the reach of any Walkers who might stumble through their camp in the middle of the night.
While he inspected the area, Judith had begun collecting dry wood, her arms stacked high. "You don't go far, y'hear." He watched her curiously as she carefully laid down the pile on an apron of moss. She crouched down and then lunged forward into the underbrush.
"Daryl!" She squealed, and he was in the right mind to shush her before she straightened up, holding a squirming snowy rabbit by its ears. "Look," she giggled, bounding over to him, her face lit up with joy.
"Good catch," he praised, reaching out to take the rabbit.
Judith pouted and held it away, twisting her upper body to keep it out of his reach. "I wanna do it."
"Well, alright then," he pushed his pack off his shoulders and let it drop to the ground with a heavy thud. "Get on with it then."
Judith grinned and secured the rabbit to her chest with one arm. She used her other hand to unclip the small knife on her belt. The blade clicked open with the flick of a small switch and her tongue darted out as she concentrated.
Daryl's arms jerked out to help, in case she lost her grip on the rabbit, but he held them back. He watched as she fumbled to get a comfortable hold on the creature before she drove the knife into its throat. She pulled the blade towards her, severing the rabbit's throat in a jagged movement. As soon as it had stopped struggling, she held it out to let the blood to flow heavily down its stomach. The snowy fur soaked up the blood until it was too thick and soggy to hold anymore, then it dripped onto the ground at her feet.
She looked up at him and he nodded in approval, accepting the dead animal.
"Get that fire wood, Jude," he nodded back to the abandoned pile and walked away to clean the carcass.
"We's gonna eat real good t'night!" Judith sang, skipping towards the wood that she had collected.
Later that night, the fire popped and sizzled in the pit below them, its embers picked up and tossed into the night air by the cool wind that whipped through the trees. He lay on his back on the hammock that he had created out of a camping tarp and sleeping bag. The warm cotton and crinkly plastic was enough to keep them warm and dry for now.
The little girl on his chest shifted and let out a sweet sigh. Her four-year-old hand flexed and reached up to grasp the collar on his hunting jacket.
He looked down to find her blue eyes peering up at him. Her cherub cheek was highlighted by the glow of the fire below them and her little brow furrowed. "Daryl?" She asked, her lower lip sticking out.
"Should be sleepin'," he told her firmly.
"I can't," she whined softly, while still laying her head down obediently. Her cheek settled like a cushion over his heart. "Tell me 'bout 'em 'gain."
Damn same thing every damn night with her…
He reached out to lay his palm over her seashell ear and he used his thumb to stroke her baby-soft hair. She closed her eyes again, listening. She knew he wouldn't be able to resist his Little Ass-Kicker.
"Well," he said, closing his own eyes. "Your Mama were a pain in the ass. Always had somethin' to say 'bout everythin'… but she loved you. She gave up her life for ya'… And your big brother, Carl…" he opened his eyes to look down at the little girl. "He was a pussy at first. Always whinin', a real pain in the ass, too; wanderin' off and causin' shit all the time. But he grew up and he was kinda decent. Saved your life y'know, a million times."
The fire popped again and one of the logs shifted, its base crumbling into ash. Judith stiffened against him and he wrapped his other arm around her, pulling her closer. "And your daddy," Daryl sighed. "He was a good man, Jude. You're lucky to come from his stock."
Daryl pressed a kiss to the thick mop of brown hair that had grown half-way down her back. He'd tried to cut it a few times, but she'd thrown a fit about that since he had told her it was just like her mama's.
Judith's breaths became slow deep wisps against his neck and he looked straight up at the canopy of barren branches above them, his mind drifting into the past.
Chaos, the word came to mind as he fought hand to hand with the men from Woodbury. They'd come onto the prison like soldiers in one of them old stories that he'd learned 'bout in school. Guns blazin' they'd taken the yard easily, cornerin' their own group and drivin' 'em back into the prison. Hershel'd gone down fast, not quick 'nough to escape the first spray of the bullets.
Carol'd been next as she'd crouched over the baby, her thin body takin' shot after shot until it'd given out in a bloody shriek of agony. Daryl'd watched it happen from his perch, his crossbow braced against his shoulder as he fired arrows easily through the air. He'd moved quickly then, leaping over the railing like some damn gymnast or somethin'. He'd reached the baby first, assured by Michonne that she would cover him.
The six-month-old baby'd been sprayed somethin' awful with blood and he'd picked her up, still wrapped in her mama's pink blanket. Michonne had kept her word as he ducked out of the cell, the baby tight against his chest, shrieking. Rick and Carl moved ahead of him with Maggie and Glenn as they fled for the back door.
"Run!" Carl barked, shoving Daryl passed him. "We'll cover you."
Daryl looked to Rick next who nodded. "Keep her safe. We'll meet you back on the highway, where we stopped that first day that we found this place."
Without looking back Daryl held the bundle of blankets and baby to his chest and fled.
Rick and Carl had never shown up to meet him. He had waited for hours, and then checked in everyday for god knew how long. Eventually he had been forced to move on as their supplies dwindled. The prison had become overrun again by Walkers and the Governor's men and the closest town had been picked clean by Woodbury.
"Soon we'll find 'em?" Judith asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. He hadn't realized she was still awake.
Daryl looked down at her. "Go to sleep," he ordered firmly, running his hand up and down her back.
She scrunched her face and then nodded burying her nose into the centre of his chest. "G'night, Daryl," she whispered.
The grass was crunchy and prickly against his skin, dry enough that it poked him like needles through fabric of the thin prison issued sheet that they were laying on. They hadn't had a drop of rain all summer and the brown punished grass had taken the brunt of it. The pink naked baby lay on her back, her chubby hands reaching jerkily for the soft cloth doll he was teasing her with.
She'd started to smile and giggle a couple of weeks ago, showing off a pink tongue and toothless gums as she squealed with delight, her blue eyes sparkling. Lying on his side, Daryl shook the doll and pulled it away from her grasping hands, chuckling softly as she shrieked loudly. "Shhhh," he tapped her button nose. "Don't want the Walkers to come in n' eat us."
The baby babbled nonsense to both him and the doll and Daryl watched her long black lashes brush like butterfly wings on her cheeks. He liked these moments when everyone else was busy or tied up and he had a good reason to offer to take the baby for a while.
"Even if they did," he tossed the doll onto the blanket and used his now free hand to tickle her chin. "Your uncle Daryl wouldn't let 'em getcha…" He smiled as she flailed, giggling at the contact. "That's right," he cooed, taking a second to sweep the yard to make sure no one was listening. "I'd kill anyone who tried to hurt ya."
Wisps of white drifted around them, clinging to their eyelashes and the rough bark of the sturdy oaks that grew densely in this part of the woods. Judith buried her red-tipped nose into the soiled dress of her doll as she trudged on beside him. She'd slipped her small hand into his larger one and he could feel her fingers through the woven pink wool of her mittens.
"My foots'es sure is wet," she told him, stepping over a large log. Her pants were wet too, from when she'd lost her balance and ended up face first in the snow.
Daryl grunted, looking around the snowy woods. He hoped the last of it had fallen for a while. It would help him with his hunting, at least. His eyes settled on the dainty thin tracks of a deer a few feet away. It looked to be a small one, based on the distance between steps. Disappointment settled over him; winter had come early if the deer were still fawns. They wouldn't be able to track or hunt them if they weren't full grown yet, or else they wouldn't be able to breed.
"Thinkin' 'bout them apples 'gain," Judith whispered, turning her face up to peer at him. She breathed out a long breath of air that settled in the air before her and then slowly faded. Her mouth twisted into a smile and she blew out again before giggling. "Daryl! Like that story!" She squealed.
"Keep it down," he scolded.
The little girl released his hand and cupped both of hers around her mouth. She flung her head back in one swift motion and breathed out. "What were its name 'gain?" She asked.
"A train," Daryl told her, thinking back to the little cabin that they'd stayed almost a month in the spring. She wore the butterfly backpack that they'd found there, along with the mittens and scarf. He'd made her leave the books and toys behind, despite her sulking and tears. They had enough to burden their backs with without shouldering useless things like that.
"A train," she repeated the word, her daddy's eyes closing with joy. "Wassa a train sound like?" She asked, skipping a few feet ahead of him. She crouched down and picked up some snow in her cupped hands and buried her face into her palms. Judith started to eat the snow and he wondered for a moment when was the last time they'd stopped for water.
"Like a train," he huffed, stopping to wait for her. He crouched down beside her and pushed the hair back from her face that had gotten caught up in her mouth. Her nose wrinkled and her eyes turned upwards as she thought for a moment. Daryl sighed, "Chugga chugga, chugga chugga, woo woo."
The four-year-old's face lit up and she dropped the snow. She closed her hands around her mouth again to blow steam. Tiny snowflakes clung to the fibers on her mittens and she grinned up at him, showing off her pearly baby teeth.
Daryl hid his smile and pushed himself into a standing position. He twisted his hand around the loose fabric of her coat at the back of her neck. Bunching it up, he used it at a handle and hauled up onto her feet. "Get goin' caboose," he ordered softly.
"Wass'a boose?" She asked, twisting her head around to look at him over her shoulder.
"The ass end o' a train," he answered, placing his hands over her ears and turning her face around so she could see where she was going.
Eventually the trees thinned out, then the tree line broke altogether and they found themselves standing at the edge of a large field. The land had been burned clear through, leaving nothing but scorched grass and earth, partially blanketed by the snow. Daryl's eyes followed the damage to the east where the trees were scarred and grey, lost in the contrast of the snow, jutting from the ground like porous stone.
Straight ahead there lay a small farmhouse, like a smudge against the navy sky. They picked their way across the cauterized ground towards it, passing a blackened tractor on the way. What remained of the house was charcoal and dusty ash. Daryl led the little girl by her hand around the ruin to find a small metal tool shed several paces away. The red paint on the side closest to the house had cracked and peeled with the heat of the fire, but the small building itself remained intact.
The door groaned on long-since used hinges, but gave way to them and they stepped inside onto the plywood floor. "We'll stay here," he told Judith, leaving her in the doorway as he stepped around her to inspect the tiny space. A small vented wood-fired boiler sat in one corner, grated for welding. Judith closed the door behind her and stepped inside, shivering. "Take off your clothes," he told her, removing the equipment from the iron hooks that had been welded to the walls. He tested them and found that they were sturdy enough for their purposes. He could hear her clothes rustling behind him and he made quick work of hanging their hammock diagonally across the room.
Daryl dug out the towel out of her bag and turned to her then crouched down. He made quick dried off her damp skin and then helped her dress into a dry set of clothes. Her arms automatically closed around his neck when he lifted her, then deposited her on the bed. He pulled the sleeping bag over her and tucked her in before stepping outside.
Most of the wood closest to them was burned or soggy from the snow. He decided that he would have to break up the workbench inside the shed and use it for firewood. He turned to head back in, and then paused, his eyes sweeping the charcoal farm. The clouds were heavy and hanging low in the sky, dark and pregnant - impenetrable by the sun.
God, if you're there… You'll hold off the snow.
He scoffed and stomped back inside, closing the door behind him.
Judith, still bundled up in the hammock, watched him silently. He broke up the bench easily and started a fire in the little stove. He put both their boots close to the elements and then opened the door again, two metal buckets in hand. The sky had let go and it was snowing heavily. Long streaks of white fell so thickly that he could barely see the woods in the distance.
He placed one bucket on the ground to fill up and swept the snow off the roof into the other. When he was satisfied that they had enough he stepped back inside and placed it on the grill.
Judith had gone to sleep, her breathing soft and even in the warm room. Daryl changed quickly and hung their clothes. The little girl barely opened her eyes as he climbed into the hammock with her. Her ragdoll arm flung across him while the rest of her body stayed tucked into the spot between him and the plastic side of the hammock.
By the time she woke the next morning he had already managed to get them a large crow. He'd roasted it over the fire, filling the room with the smell of cooking meat.
She sat up in bed, her closed fists rubbing sleep out of her eyes. Daryl placed some newsprint on her lap, a small pile of steaming bird in the middle. Next he handed her a little cup of the canned apples. She accepted the cup without a word and began eating without taking her eyes off of her food.
"Sure are quiet," he commented, sitting down on the floor next to the wreckage that used to be the workbench. He glanced up at her to see her shrug and keep eating. He decided to leave her be and he picked up the roll of duct tape that he had found the night before. Their boots had dried overnight and he used the tape to seal them off, wrapping the silver strip around them over and over again.
Daryl stared into the eyes of the Walker that clawed at the other side of the chain-link fence, its grey fingers dripping with puss and black oily blood. It has been a woman at one time; her long blonde hair gave her away, though it had become caked with dirt and now hung in clumps of tangled knots. She snarled, snowing off blackened gums and gaping holes where teeth had rotted away. Her milky eyes watched him with blind hunger as she sniffed and snarled.
"Daryl," Rick's voice called over his shoulder in greeting.
Flicking his eyes away from the Walker's, Daryl raised the pipe in his hand and popped it through the bridge of her nose, crushing her skull like a melon. She went down instantly, the dead weight of the corpse sliding it down off his pipe.
"Figured if we take out at least ten a day each, 'ventually…" he trailed off with a grunt as he slipped his hunting knife up under the chin of the next closest Walker. With a final thrust it met brain tissue.
"Sounds like as good a plan as any," Rick agreed, resting his hands on his utility belt. He tipped his head towards Carol and Carl who were collecting water from the creek on the other side of the yard. "Been quiet around here," the ex-deputy commented. "Makes me uneasy, like we're waiting for something to happen."
"Or it's just quiet," Daryl turned towards the other man, letting the pipe in his hand drop to rest against his leg.
"Maybe," Rick nodded. "But if something is coming… I need to know that Carl and Judith will be protected." His blue eyes swept beyond the fence, towards the creek, up over the hill, towards the trees.
Daryl kept quiet, not sure exactly what he was asking. When Rick didn't say anything more, he was forced to ask. "What're you sayin'?"
"I'm asking you to do whatever you have to do to protect them," Rick released his hold on his gun and raised it to rest on Daryl's shoulder. "And I ain't just asking you. I'm asking all of you… if things go south, whoever is left standing, please," he swallowed and cleared his throat. "I couldn't take it if I knew the last little part of Lori was gone from this world… that the last part…"
Daryl raised his arm, in part to wipe the sweat off his forehead and out of his eyes, and in part to break free of Rick's hold.
"Will you do that?"
Daryl turned his back on the other man and lined up his weapon with another Walker's forehead.