Where Shadows Deepen

Daryl and his ladies have lost the Woodbury pursuers in the forest, but found no familiar direction for themselves.

Georgia Woods

"He's not all you got, now."

More than one swerve through the unfamiliar woods left their pursuers alone in the dark, and leaves the panting trio trying to ascertain just where the hell they are. Carol's barely stopped moving before she plants her hands on her knees, taking a temporary, very temporary, pause to catch her breath — and catch up Daryl. Her brow, glistening in what rare, mediocre light there is, interrupted by jagged shadows, furrows as she looks up from her bend.

"We got split from Michonne coming outta Woodbury." Best to prioritize, facts out first. "And Rick and Andrea before that." As she starts to rise, so does her visible concern for their returned compatriot; she asks simply, "What happened to you?"

Maggie is not far behind, nearly neck and neck with Carol as she leans thankfully against a tree to catch her breath. Despite all they have been through, she wasn't sure she still had that sort of push in her. She glances back the way they came before settling her eyes on the beaten Daryl. "Andrea thought you were dead. What made her say that?" Especially since Daryl is clearly alive. She seemed distraught enough to believe it and had come back to tell them of it. However, shortly after they were separated. Who knows who she can trust any more.

Stalking several feet ahead of the women as they rest, Daryl's looking out and away without much visible inclination to pay them any mind as Carol begins talking. A ratted boot shoves into crackling leaves. Twisting, he presents his front to them a second time, blaring that unsuitably happy t-shirt against puckered skin— a slice on either cheek, and blots of familiar, to them, blood beneath the sky blue and 'HANDSOME'. Callously, he brushes straight past Carol, looking at neither peering feminine face but storming practically beyond with a brusque, "Sunday picnic. What do you think?"

Mashing the forest floor, he marks their trail in, staring, shifting his crossbow around his shoulders, with effortless knowledge of the ways of traversing the terrain. A slight stagger, a misstep, trips him up once and he raises bloodied knuckles matching cut wrists to hike up split pants held together by a wire. Coincidental timing or Andrea's name causes him to look up, scowling at Maggie before scoffing, dismissing her, "I look like Andrea?"

As she rises from her brief respite, Carol watches Daryl tromp around, her mouth pulling taut just short of a frown, although she seems to take no offense. She nears him — but keeps her distance, the way one might approach a testy animal with caution, giving him his space. One set of knuckles curl, still around her weapon, onto her hips, her other hand rubbing her far arm. Her look is gentle, but she turns her questioning to the immediately practical. "Can you tell where we are, Handsome?" Mostly practical.

"Unless you've been dyin' your hair, you don't look blonde to me." Maggie replies without much bite in her voice. "We're just tryin' to figure out what happened. I'm guessin' you didn't run into the others while you were out here. We don't know if they got out or not. But, we saw someone settin' fire to the place." It doesn't sound like she much cares about the fire, but she glances at Daryl. If there was a man who could burn down a town, it would be Daryl.

A miniscule startle breaks a bit of tension out of Daryl's face, until he glances down. Stains of darkening blood have made it nearly tie-dye from the run, but the lettering's distinguishable enough for him to shoot Carol a little boy's glare. His grunt greets either of them as he rocks back into motion, circling his former pacing ground and squinting over at Maggie, "That weren't you?" An appeal for the tactic burns in his eyes, but that's all the fire Daryl's got on him. Rubbing a hand under his nose, behind flayed knuckles, he shakes his head practically, turning the gesture into a point off to his right, "We're on the opposite side we woulda come in. Yer gonna have to swing all the way around, you wanna catch up to Rick." He slinks back a step, hitching up his crossbow.

"If Rick 'n' the others did make it back out," Carol wastes no time on the if right now— they all know what the if means, in fire and chaos— her words are just a means to an end, building on Maggie and Daryl's, "they mighta come looking for us, else they mighta headed back to the spot we stopped at when we were all together." All but Daryl. Her glance to the re-addition to their scattered group a split second after is quick but watchful, and soon shifts back and forth between he and Maggie for their input. Ifs versus mights and make it speedy.

"Settin' the fire? No. Wasn't us." However, Maggie tilts her head just slightly at Daryl's words. There's a lot of 'you's and not a lot of 'us'es. She glances behind them, away from both the fire and the firefight they just came from. They don't have time to mince words. "Whaddaya mean 'you'? You figgerin' on not comin' with us?" It's clear from her tone that she doesn't think much of that. She nods at Carols' assessment. "They made it out. It's Rick'n'Andrea. She already survived once when we thought she was dead and you know Rick. They gotta be out there lookin' for us. And Michonne's gotta be somewhere. Let's head for that cabin and regroup. It'll at least keep us out of range and let us catch our breath."

He shuffles, Daryl, sideways and partially restless. None is lessened the severity of his conviction, despite a sudden allergy to catching either woman in the eye. "Naw, I'm goin' the other way," he declares, simple as that if not for a sense of fervor in his gravelly tone. "Mook in town said," — probably not under the most comfortable of conversational conditions — "that's where they sent Merle, so." A succinct nod; head slightly tilted like a curious dog, he chances to look at 'em. "That's where I'm goin'."

Shock, in Carol, moves on on fast-forward, hitting her at the start and running through its course rapidly. The tension left in its wake only serves to carve her concerns sharper. An understanding, clear as day, deep in her eyes that's not so opposed to looking straight at Daryl while he tries to skirt off. Understanding, but not agreeably. Suddenly, her feet seem more dug into the forest floor.

"Daryl." Carol only glances away from him to give a quick concerned look to Maggie — and maybe it's a little pointed, too, when it moves from Daryl to their friend. Confrontational — quieter than most — but it's not anger she replies with, it's logic. It's a good logic, a pure logic, softened by knowing. "Now? What do you expect to do when you find him?"

"You're what?" Maggie meets Carol's look with a wary one of her own. "He coulda been lyin'. And you just got outta there and now you're gonna go lookin' for trouble when you're already hurt?" It's hard to miss the blood seeping through his tie-dye. "You're not gonna do Merle any good if you get yourself killed by the walkers and those guys that're still after us."

"I'm fine," he scoffs, throwing a shoulder forward mulishly, taking a step backward, away from them. Consciously, Daryl swipes a hand across his forehead — the least of the bloodstains; he nearly deposits more from wrists clearly bruised and skinned in bonds. Quickly, after the back, he shuffles forward, slightly sideways to them. "I ain't gonna get killed and I ain't gonna leave my brother. Not again." Conviction as solid as stone. Not even a flicker of doubt to the fact wrestles for an ounce of the dominance his preparedness has. "Soon as I find him," he gestures into the unhelpful span of nondescript trees in the direction he intends to travel, "we'll meet you at the prison. But it's gonna be us."

For her part, Carol's furrowing face seems to agree with Maggie; she looks past Daryl into the woods with concern, but doesn't fight him on it. She doesn't have to like it, but she gets it. Sees his conviction. Her mouth is a thin line, shadowed at the corners. "Go if you have to," she tells him straight. It's not permission, he doesn't need that from her. It's a dismissal, turned out on him as she turns a narrow shoulder away, but she does look back— "You find what you're lookin' for," Merle and all that comes with him; if he's still on one piece, "then come back to us," she reiterates. "Stay safe."

This is not something that Maggie can easily condone. Glenn was beaten near to death at Woodbury. They thought Daryl dead to the Governor; can they really give him up again? As Daryl steps away from them, she makes an unconscious step forward and reaches a futile hand out for her friend. It hangs desperate and lamely before she tucks it back toward her body. "Just… just can't you rest awhile? With us? We'll regroup and then we can all go find your brother along with Rick'n'Andrea'n'Michonne."

"Oh yeah? Like last time?" Like this time? Daryl's response, while building with aggression, is half-assed; he's already started tromping away, an expanse of physical and unspoken distance hanging between them — growing. "So maybe I can find his other hand? No thanks." Said his piece, the furtive, fervent, shake of his head following prickles with secondary meaning: no, no. Don't. 'Cause wasn't aggression always Daryl's haunted. Business unfinished, pale in injury and encrusted with his own fresh blood, the younger Dixon tromps further into the woods without friends, without showing face or limp, because when you gotta be okay then you just are.

Carol's weight leans forward like she might follow him, but the attempt comes to no more fruition than Maggie's unfinished reach. She looks somber as she watches Daryl head off; her concern clear. But she turns in the other direction. "He's gotta do it by himself," she tells Maggie. While her tone's not in defence of him, it's not at ease, either. It just— is. "He's got his way. He's gotta figure this out on his own. Then he'll come back." Like last time? "Find us." Does Carol have that faith, after getting to know Woodbury?

She seems to.

"That wasn't—" But it's no use. Daryl has moved on. Maggie takes a step forward to follow, but she also has Carol to worry about. She wouldn't leave the woman on her own. "Yeah, but his way's gonna get him killed." Her gaze lingers in the direction of where the Dixon boy started toward and she shakes her head. "We came here for Daryl. We can't just go back without him." While Carol turns in the opposite direction, she remains rooted. She has yet to follow Daryl, but she doesn't believe it as simple as leaving him to his own devices.

Carol keeps moving, set on a path of her own making through the woods. Several steps along, her eyes shut, her close-lipped mouth flinches, and she stops. She turns back around, tromping over her own tracks. She passes Maggie, not stopping but looking at her with understanding, a decision. Her footsteps pick up for a short burst, gaining a jogging speed that crackles the forest floor. The back of Daryl's bloodstained shirt is guide.

Her voice is quieter than all that.

"He's not all you got, now." He has them.

As Carol passes Maggie in her determined path, the other woman nods knowingly and falls into step right behind her. They're both with him.

Not a slowed step to accommodate the two guardian angels making a wing on either side of him. Daryl tromps along, and the two women beside him, and his glances aside are brisk. "Yea," he finally murmurs, begrudgingly, staring at the forest floor and then up into its labyrinthine depths, "Alright."

* * *

Thwwt. The neck snaps back with the speed of the arrow now embedded through the half-vacated eye-socket. An immense call of gravity brings the walking dead weight crashing back to merely weight as Daryl hikes the crossbow against his shoulder and treks ahead of the women.

A boot overturns a few leaves that, to the untrained eye, look exactly like the crumpled ones next to them. It's one of those brief pauses; a strange, and unhelpful exhale.

Rigorous, the pace set. An unforgiving drive through underbrush slowed incrementally here and there by steady readings of the surroundings. Few animal tracks intervene in this area, but the landscape remains vast — and random, with Daryl drifted far off his original course by the rescue of the women that remain steadfastly beside him now. Unable to truly track time in the deepening shadows of the forest, it had at least felt fruitful to have been tracking something the last what felt like hours: something large, something purposeful—

Something Daryl buries a violent kick into, scattering its last traces of lumbering step in a furry of leaves and frustration. Leaning over to grasp the end of the arrow sticking from its fleshy resting place, he winces, crossbow sliding off his shoulder with a clatter and thump when he presses that other hand to his side.

But the arrow comes free with a squelch without losing a beat.

Carol makes up the last few steps, short of the fallen crossbow; she'd slowed while Daryl dispatched the walker, and now she's at his side clutching her knife. His wince is as noted as his frustration. "Dark's no help," she comments, laying blame to the shadowy surroundings. A more critical look tries to penetrate up ahead of the trio. Even despite being well aware of Daryl's tracking skills, it's difficult for their trek not to feel like they're just getting lost, moving further away from the rest of their people.

Maggie keeps a firm hold on both her pistol as well as a large tree branch she picked up along the way to smash walkers in the head for Carol or Daryl to dispatch with their better melee weapons. She has kept a good pace, making sure to protect their rear. She continually glances behind them to make sure they are not hemmed in by either walkers or those from Woodbury. "Maybe we should take a moment," she agrees, possibly due to Daryl's wince as well as a response to the endless trekking through the woods.

"I shoulda known better." Daryl's quick to criticize, even as his temper lowers against the women's concerns. Tracking a couple of steps around the corpse, toe prodding its bulbous arm, he looks low along his shoulder at Maggie, eyes narrowed to impenetrable slits as he thinks. "Yeah, okay," he gets around to sniffing, "A minute." A jut of his arm vaguely demonstrates where Maggie can plant herself as he takes a couple of strides around the top of the downed walker's head, considering. His head cants in the other direction. "Think I hear water or somethin'." Even the natural act of checking his crossbow higher to ready it causes a flinch, but he ignores it, gesturing the weapon back and forth, "Stay here." Lowering the bow, he hikes slightly north to investigate.

Carol leans against a rough tree, but her weight hardly presses at all. After watching Daryl stalk off toward the sound of water, she looks to Maggie, a glance unaccompanied by words but nevertheless pretty clear in her opinion: concern. For Daryl, for them. Are they digging themselves a deeper hole here in the woods? Her arms, weapons and all, lift to cross, but fall before they lock. Her back straightens, pushing her away from the tree. She can't rest. She takes a few steps in Daryl's direction, peering into the wood.

Maggie leans against her own tree where Daryl has indicated. As she rests, she easily catches Carol's look and gives a slow bob of her chin in agreement. She trusts Daryl and his instincts, but how do they know Meryl is even anywhere near here? All they have is the word of someone from Woodbury and she certainly does not trust them. Not to be left behind, she moves at least as far as Carol toward the dripping in the forest. The man is injured and she doesn't want him to go too far out of their sight just in case.

It's a few tense seconds before Daryl's tromping back towards them with a light rustle of forestry. Batting aside the thicker branches that had made their view of him spotty, he jerks his chin at Carol, swinging the crossbow. "More tracks up here." Cracks of disturbed nature shift his attention behind Maggie, to a staggering presence approaching from their rear, one shoulder cracked high out of place, leaving that right arm swinging as a useless metronome to time the walker's brainless amble. While the walker's senses zone in on Maggie, closest prey, Daryl sights on it, meaning to thrust the crossbow into place.

Pain breaks his intent; his left hand dropping like an anchor to brace his clenching side. Pushing his foot a step forward for balance, he goes again and it worsens in punishment.

Attention moving off Daryl to the newest threat, there's the smallest pause while Carol expects something to happen — an arrow to fire — but when it doesn't, she's rushing toward the walker with practical speed, her long knife raised high in preparation to help Maggie if she needs it.

Already on edge, Maggie whirls about when she hears the crackling behind her. Unwilling to use her gun on one Walker, she gasps, taking a step forward and using the large tree branch she wields to attempt and hit it on the head with as much force as she can muster. The lack of a crossbow is not readily noticed as the adrenaline pumps and she focuses merely on taking out the Walker in front of her.

Barely able to raise an arm is senseless grasping towards Maggie, the walker's blown off course by the smash to the head. Her swing pushes the deceased human straight into a tree trunk so that, between the two hard places, half the side of the walker's face swells and explodes in an overstressed pop like a pinched pimple. As the face caves partially in, Maggie's branch meets with abrupt resistance. The walker sags, truly lifeless, but her weapon sticks there inside him, caught on a glint that reveals itself to be a knife protruding out the back of the walker's skull; left there from an opponent with slightly less lucky aim.

Without contribution, without even a word, Daryl's turned, stalking back towards the source of the water noise.

Carol waits the fate of the walker through, squints for a half-second to eye the glint of somebody else's knife and, with determination making her turnabout succinct, heads off after Daryl. He saw tracks; they'll try to see this through yet.

With a primal grunt, Maggie watches the Walker fall. Eyes focused on the creature that can no longer do them harm, she gives a hard tug at her branch to try and force it from the collapsed skull of her attacker, but it takes quite a bit of strength to free it. The glint of the knife is too much of a temptation and while she glances at Carol and her retreat to find Daryl, she cannot leave the weapon behind. Yanking the weapon from the Walker, she wipes it on the trunk of the tree next to her before giving a wary glance about her and then following after Carol and Daryl.

Ahead of her, her companions are shrinking silhouettes in the dark, poised over a crevice she can't see. At the front of Daryl's feet, the ground caves into a broken and uneven slope speckled with debris all caught in the quicksand of the ravine's mud. In its center, water gushes healthily by but near the bottom edges of the descent small islands of scattered forestry and abandoned supplies — it's possible one such flutter is from a half-buried tarp — are oases of danger; the dim lighting hides most of the movement but, once in a while, something like a head twists in that pit.

Rocking back with a small clatter of the things he wears, Daryl spies on Carol as she comes up alongside. "Buncha poor bastards musta collapsed it tryin' to climb up." Eyes lift, flicking across the way to the equally treacherous opposite side a yard or so separate from them. He cocks the crossbow up. "Path over there, though, so somebody— " He cuts himself off, listening to the crackle of a footstep breaking into their space — who else but Maggie. Easing onto his heel, he starts to turn when the thin shht of rushing air knocks him in that twisting shoulder. Momentum pulls him, with a kick of boot and an understated grunt, straight over the edge of the ravine.

It happens right in front of Carol; she sees it. Step by step, she sees it. She sees him standing there, she sees him turn, she sees something strike his shoulder, she sees him fall— how could it have happened to fast for her to do anything, when she sees it happen? It's too late for a shout to do any good; when noise escapes her throat, he's already over the edge, falling into the ravine she had only just been staring down into. Buncha poor bastards. "D— Daryl— " It's not a shout; it's strangled and disoriented, desperate to help. Prickling danger at her back, Carol's on one knee all of a sudden, an uncomfortable crouch that slips out from under her, both knees hitting rocks as she reaches down. Her hands grasp clumps of mud and loose rock.

The footsteps are not, in fact, Maggie. She is still attempting to catch up. Having pocketed the knife through her belt loop, she has started in a cautious jog in an attempt to close the gap between herself and the others. She can see the outlines of them in the distance - blurry but distinct. She blinks and they both have vanished. The woman, wary and distressed, picks up her pace.

Ghosts in the fog of forest; Carol's crouched form begins to become distinctive, in obvious distress, the image biting at Maggie's heels to speed up and— with little more than a swift break in a couple of trees, something smothers Maggie's mouth and nose and with a hard yank she, too, vanishes.

Daryl's travel down the ravine's sloped mud bank's less subtle. Grappling at the terrain rewards him only with a handful of sludge and his body twisting as he tumbles, slamming into discarded bits of forest and belongings as if he were also a piece of garbage. The crossbow slips from his hand after he rolls over it once, gaining air until it bounces off an outcropping and disappears under the gently raging water with a far off splash. Another foot down, Daryl grabs ahold of a protruding branch from a long buried tree but as he grunts and pulls himself up by a single arm, the perch snaps, sending him down with renewed momentum where he slams into a horizontal metal column. Sliding off one edge, his shirt catches, rips — giving him a jolt — and then holds.

Noise stirs the mud. A reawakened hunger. The circus of Dixon livens dreary limbs, suctioned into the mud; a lone arm near the snapped branch flexes uselessly. Heads turn. The ravine begins to echo with a new purpose of mournful groaning: the breath of the dead. One motivated corpse, leaving a rotted foot behind as it rips out of its mud-trap slips and gets caught in the unwieldy flow of the river but his peer climbs over a spare rock and with an enthused fling of his arm nearly reaches the dangling foot of Daryl. Fingertips glance off of a mud-slicked boot.

He'll soon have friends.

Sooner, Carol's company finds her. What footsteps weren't Maggie belong to a group of heavily armed townsfolk emerging from the brush with urgent haste. As one wraps a nearly friendly hand towards Carol's armpit to drag her upward, two others skid to a stop at the ravine's edge to look over. A man with a full set beard stares and then turns to heavily shove the woman beside him.

"Idiot! That was the redneck the Governor wanted."

"Fuck! I couldn't tell." She rears back, violently kicking a large stone over the same cliff edge. "He's dead now. Fuck."

Carol witnesses part of Daryl's horrific descent — what she can, in the dark — and even more abruptly, he becomes farther away when she's hauled up. In the first instant, only the very first, she thinks it might be Maggie, pulling her from the sight, to safety, and she's resistant all the same; unfamiliarity washes over her like a stinging, crashing tidal wave before she's even fully up and she lashes back, ramming an awkward elbow behind her and tries to push away— to the side freer of the figures of strangers. Her boots scramble and slide in the mud, all the more violently for hearing their words. "Get off'a me!" she threatens, forged in spite and fight, her shoulders ricocheting back and forth.

She feels flesh; it caves. The hands on her loosen with an "oof" and then redouble, grabbing last second for her shirt, sleeve catching on several fingers. Neither is done any favors by the slipping mud, made even looser by Daryl's skidding fall. "I ain't got 'er!" somebody warns, their face just a few seconds of cheekbones in the dark before the person scampers back and around Carol's other side on thicker ground.

"Shit!" The thick-necked woman's still complaining while her bearded friend charges Carol. In the flurry of the night, it takes him a second to realize he's wearing a gun. It snaps up with an untrained swing of his arm. "Guys!" Hovering at the ravine's edge, the woman prances backwards and forwards. "Guys, guys! Guys." Her voice takes several tries to cut over the rustle of trying to herd and corner their prey. "We can't tell him. Okay? We can't tell him what we did."

"What you did," accuses Carol's original captor, blocking her flank.

It takes Carol a second, herself, to realize she's wearing a gun; a rifle, its fraying strap slung over her shoulder and slipping fast. Despite her best efforts to take hold of it in the skirmish and claim power the second she does get her hand on it, the second's too late; someone's already got one trained on her. Facing him, she eyes his stance, criticizing his untrained hold like she's assessing it for weaknesses— ones she used to have. Outnumbered, she doesn't move, standing tense and rigid on uneven ground. Where's her knife— did she drop it after Daryl— ? She scowls at the nearest outline of a face, violently unsympathetic to their cause. "Better he's not in your hands," she manages not to utterly spit, but the words are wrenched with bitterness and emotion. "Go on your way," she warns, rather than pleads. "I'm nothin' to you." It's Daryl they wanted.

A hesitant, three-way, stand-off between the three almost takes Carol up on her offer. Antsy, the two men communicate with a few troubled glances until, in the dark, they prove not enough. "She was with him," accuses the flanker, sidling up towards Carol's back then thinking twice about it — and her elbow. He's given an encouraging jerk of his friend's gun — twice, before he manages to approach, slapping an arm on her shoulder over the strap of her own firearm.

"You had anything to do with killin' our people, burnin' our homes— "

"She could say something," pipes up the woman, charging forward a step to finally engage in the situation rather than dwell over the edge of the ravine where the moans of the dead have risen, louder as glorious purpose awakens with them; flesh hits other flesh. "To the Governor. She might say something about this."

The bearded fellow's face squeezes with weariness; occasionally, one of the lights attached to their guns or belts swings and shows the ash on his face alongside the tired and the facial hair. "Now, why would she go an' do that— or anybody believe her!"

"Doesn't matter," panic ironed out of her voice by determination, the woman raises a knife to point, "I say we found a terrorist and we killed a terrorist. That's what you do when they resist."

While the gun held by the bearded Woodburian seesaws uncertainly between threatening and merely guarding, the hand pressed to Carol's shoulder begins to tighten, loosen, and then clumsily massage. "Well, if we're gonna do that anyway…" suggests a nervously husky voice closer to Carol's ear.

Her already stiff back suddenly feels like an iron rod in defense. Carol wrenches her shoulder in a strong, wiry, but contained motion, fiercely repulsing the hand there, her elbow short of jabbing — stopped in survivor's wisdom. "We aren't terrorists, s'your Governor who's the dictator. Daryl didn't burn down your houses," she gives angry reply, but, even with her sincere belief, it shows in her voice that she knows it's an argument she already knows she can't win — unlike the nervous threat at her back. The man's voice is still curdling, sour, in her stomach, and it refuses to settle.

"Governor keeps us safe," fights the bearded man, his gun little more than a prop — but not to be underestimated — as he fiercely attempts to ignore the individual breakdowns of the two with him: the man behind Carol grunts and lashes his fingers around her waist, roping her with a meaningful pull of all her shirt fabric towards the hard threat of both his body and the muzzle of the gun meant to keep her there. The woman hisses her disgust, rocking left and right in unhappiness. "You gonna pretend you didn't break into our walls? Fire on our people? Your redneck was one of the worst of 'em!"

His friend struggles with Carol's tenseness, jerking so hard he has to shuffle back a step, mud squelching. "You into the redneck thing?" He jests, fumbling with his words like his intention— his grip on her clothes, his own. A cold, solid, presence, his gun draws a crooked line down her lower back.

"You kiddin' me with this, George?" The woman snaps, offended enough only to look in another direction as the gun's muzzle prods Carol, uncomfortably personal.

"Cause I heard the Governor gave him the ol' what-for," the gun swoops towards the inside of Carol's leg but the man's fingers scatter flimsily, "and he yelped like a bitch."

" — 'n' he still got away," Carol spitefully finishes for the Woodburian, steadfast in sticking up for her redneck friend — who got away, one way or another, only to fall into the ravine of writhing dead. A fact left out from her rejoinder but felt in the tight winding of her muscles, shifting her jaw back and forth uncomfortably. Or maybe that's because of the too-close gun and the man's fumbling intentions. Feeling him — George — behind her, feeling the gun, but watching the others, the whites of her eyes are sharp, apprehensive glints in the dark. She's honed in on every detail she's already too aware of, holding fast and on the precipice of another struggle, but she stays still. She stays still, like she might put up with it. Like she might settle.

"Is this really necessary?" bemoans their bearded friend while the woman refuses to look at any of them anymore.

Then: a wave of fight from the woman who doesn't look much like she'd have a hope of getting out of anything by herself. Carol makes a quick, hard grab for the man's scattering fingers and his threatening gun at the same time that she reaches for her own slacking, slipped rifle with her other, closer hand.

A yelp from George. The gun bucks and he fires; the ground in front of Carol's left foot explodes. Startled by the nearness, the Woodburian retreats through the mud. The bearded man jerks his gun to attention, trigger finger twitching hesitantly as his friend's own head weaves in and out of the aim on Carol. Indistinct shouting fills the dark corner of wood echoing of warnings and surprise. The woman throws herself backwards as Carol's rifle comes up, grasping alongside and behind her for the tree coverage they left behind by a yard.

Carol's rifle is given the slack to rise two seconds before it snaps taut by the dead weight of a human being. Clumsy fingers still wrapped around the shoulder strap, George wrestles with his grip as if it were a secured lifeline when he accidentally walks himself backwards into thin air. His front foot tries to compensate as the right hits nothing but the mud fails to oblige; he slips, he drops, all his weight snapping onto a foot that twists incorrectly, sending him head-first down the incline.

The strap of the rifle scrapes, burning, down Carol's arm until it hooks at her elbow and wrenches her toward George, lassoing her toward the edge of the overhang she was already so dangerously near. She tries to rid herself of the weapon, but the abrupt fall of human weight attached to it takes her with it — the sudden force rends all the way up her arm, compelling her shoulder in ways it shouldn't, and her down with a wordless yell. Her last glimpse of the world above the ravine is that of the faint shine of the bearded man's gun and a haze of trees, and she worries about what happened to Maggie— and the ground seems to be yanked out from under her. It's her feet that go, in earnest, slipping until there's nothing.

Her shoulder, screaming more than she is, strikes something both soft and hard— George. She's tangled with the man in a way that is far from his intentions: falling, clawing. He better not think that he's free of her — his fall's not his only problem. Carol's not gonna fall down without a fight — against him, for her life. This George guy is the only thing between her and striking every bump on the way down, and she holds the hell on.

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