A/N: Okay, so yeah, I have other things to write, but this was something I was thinking about for one of them, but it felt too big to do inside something else. Probably inspired by too much War Horse & Flambards when I was younger. Horse-mad girls...
The surprise arrived four days after the funeral, and Robert was not quite sure how to present it to Mary. In the end, he simply asked her to join him to see Lynch who had a question about one of the old farm horses and to dress for muck. It had begun as a whim, but had become a reality, and he hoped it would be welcome.
She came downstairs in tall riding boots and breeches, an old hunting shirt, and jacket and he smiled. "I will never get used to trousers on you," he said. "Or any woman."
"You said muck. I don't feel like wearing a skirt," she muttered. Her face was grey and her eyes were dark, smudged by sleeplessness and his heart sank for her. He knew what had broken her, but he did not think he could fix it, and he prayed this would help.
Lynch was in the yard when they arrived, a fearful look on his face. "M'lady. M'lord, I don't know if this is a good idea."
"What do you.." An animal scream burst from the stable, and a terrible banging. "Good God, what is that?"
"That's him, m'lord. That's Diamond."
"Diamond?" Mary's voice shook. "You found Diamond, Papa? How? The War Office knew where he was?"
"They knew where his unit was, and where the horses that survived were brought. We got lucky. Lynch, what's wrong with him?"
"What's wrong with him is what's wrong with half the folk and creatures that came back from France," he said. "He sees things. He's not himself." A sickening crunch sounded from the stable. "There goes the door," Lynch muttered. "Wait. M'lady, don't!"
But Mary ignored him, walking past them both and ducking into the stable. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark. "Diamond?" Her voice was high and soft, much like the one she had used from the first moment she'd set eyes on him, when she was but thirteen years old and he was only three. "Diamond?"
A great whuffle came from the far box, and she could see the damage to the wooden door. "Diamond, you silly boy. What did you do?" She walked up slowly, snatching a chunk of turnip out of the treat box. "Silly Diamond."
But when she saw him, her heart fell. It was her Diamond, but it wasn't her silly boy, her companion afield, her steady friend. He had been purchased by the Army for the war, and she had cried bitterly when he was taken, believing she would never see him again. Yet here he was, and she began to cry again. He was thinner, his black coat rough and scratched, tears from barbed wire across his chest, burns and scuffs marring him, his beautiful tail and mane in tangled ruins. It was his eyes that made her cry, however, the spirit gone, the pride and calm replaced by fear as he cowered in the corner of the box. "Diamond," she whispered, and held out her hand, flat, with the turnip on it.
He did not move, regarding her with a rolling eye. "Diamond," she said again.
Slowly, he inched across the box. She noted his legs were still good, and the hooves intact. "There's my boy," she whispered as his head came up and he lipped the turnip from her hand. "Hello, my boy."
His great head suddenly pushed forward and against her chest, and he stood, blowing, pressing his head into her as if to hide his eyes. "Shh," she crooned as she stroked his ears. "See? It's all right."
She did not leave him until nightfall. She allowed no one else to groom or feed him, taking guidance from Lynch as he whispered instructions on how to detangle the tail, how to scrape off the matted hair, how to clean his feet, and Diamond let her do it all as he slowly relaxed, slowly seemed to remember where he was.
It took two days of patient cajoling and apple bribes for him to come out of the box and accept a bit, and two more to realize he would not tolerate the sidesaddle, possibly because of the burn high on his withers. The old racing saddle was cut differently enough that it did not touch the scar, and Mary was pleased to see him take it so easily. She ignored the warnings of Lynch and her father and brought Diamond out to the small paddock to walk him around, secretly proud he did not flinch when she finally sat astride on his back. "Walk on," she said softly.
He did walk, and trot, and even cantered gently, tucking his head nicely the way he always did when they hacked out before hunting season. She had not ridden astride since she was a small child, and it took some getting used to, but it was as if they were learning together again, much as they did when they were both young. It soothed the fierce ache inside her, and she hoped it was doing the same for him.
For days, she exercised him in the paddock, until one Wednesday morning, unusually chilly for May, she decided he should see where he used to hunt, and took him off on an easy canter over the grounds. She laughed at his ears, twitching happily as he went for the first fence. She wanted to clap when he cleared the bushes at the stream bed the way he used to, leaving others behind to circle in defeat. He whinnied finally, as he used to, a sound so ordinary and cheerful she nearly cried. They crossed the corner of Skelton Park, rode along the edge of Wharton, and suddenly they were at a long gravel drive and she looked up to see the imposing pale stone of her new home, come July, once she married Richard.
She slowed him to a walk as they came up on the house, all but finished now, and shut up tight. The inside staff would not start for another month. Carson had, in a fit of remorse, privately vetted the butler and housekeeper himself, and she felt at least they weren't going to work against her. The outside staff was already at work replanting the grounds, and she steered Diamond around toward the back, where the stables and yards were, to show him the place he would soon be calling home. They were beautiful, she remembered, as impressive as the house, and she found herself looking a little forward to living here, regardless of what else it might bring.
But at the first step inside the empty stable yard, Diamond stopped. She squeezed his sides. "Walk on," she said firmly, but he dug in his heels. His head looked about wildly, his ears flat back. "Diamond, it's all right," she said softly, and reached up to pat his neck, but he shied sideways and began to back away. Ghosts, she thought to herself. He's seeing ghosts here, just as I did.
A loud noise, like a shot, rang through the air, and Mary found herself lifted out of the saddle as Diamond bucked and screamed, the sound ripping through her as she instinctively grabbed at his mane and pulled herself back into the saddle just as Diamond took off and ran. Not like a hunter, not like the Diamond she had known for ten years, but like the wild animals he used to chase. She lost control, the bit firmly between his teeth as he lengthened his stride, thundering across the grounds. An impossible wall loomed in front of them, and she sawed at his mouth with all her strength, trying to slow him, but he sailed over it, taking her with him, and kept going.
Her eyes burned with the wind driving into them, her boy's tweed cap was gone, and her hair unwound from the tight knot, the braid whipping behind her and all she could do was hold on. He was at a mad gallop now, and she felt sure he would tire, but as the countryside flew past and he ignored her completely, she began to fear he was going to run himself into the ground, and take her with him, and for just a moment, she wanted that, wanted to be flung into the ground, as lifeless and broken as she'd felt for the past weeks, ever since the funeral that had killed any chance at love, to take away this insane ache and need for him, this desperation that she was slowly learning to box away, to hide forever from the world.
But then, as another wall rose in front of them and he jumped it cleanly, she felt the life come back into her, felt fear and fury, joy and confusion, felt every emotion rake at her as the village appeared on the horizon, and just as she had always done, she pulled herself back from darkness.
She was never down for long, she thought, as the gravel turned to pavement, and Diamond's hooves clattered down the village road, toward a place she did not want to go, but she could not stop him.
He was staring at the table in the garden, remembering tea and cakes, simple times, when he heard the commotion, the cries of "Look out!" and the sound of horse's hooves echoing against the stone buildings. He turned to see a black horse, marked with sweat and screaming in fear, skidding to a stop in front of the church. The horse suddenly spun on his heels and the rider was flung off balance, her hands catching the mane and as he reared slightly, she pulled her feet free and swung off him, light as a cat, never letting go as she landed and yanked his head down. "Diamond," he heard her call, and the great horse stopped, burying his head into the woman's chest, like a child seeking comfort.
He found himself walking across the road, toward the two, even as the others moved back from the heels that still kicked back, even as the horse butted against the woman, and he realized with a start and a crushing sensation in his chest that it was Mary.
"It's all right," she whispered as he approached. "It's perfectly all right, Diamond."
Mary froze at the voice, as broken and soft as the last time she had heard it. "Papa found him through the War Office." She finally looked at Matthew, at the hollow, lifeless eyes, as sleepless as her own. "He sees ghosts, I think."
Matthew regarded the scene in front of him and felt that great disorienting sense of going back in time. He was standing not fifteen yards from where he'd watched her ride away seven years ago, and she was stroking the neck of the same creature who had first brought her to his door, yet everything had changed. This was no docile lady's hunter anymore, but a skittish, scarred war horse, who had likely watched his fellow animals die in front of him, beside him, hearing their screams and yet had forced himself forward, just as he had. As William had.. as millions of others had. The horse's great dark eyes were rolling white, sweat foaming and dripping off his shoulder
"He's terrified," Matthew said. "Why are you doing this to him?"
"Doing what?" she asked.
"Making him do things he doesn't want to do."
"I'm trying to bring him back," she said. "He's got to know that it's all right. That's it's all going to be all right."
"But what if it isn't all right?"
"What else would it be, Matthew? What's scaring him isn't true anymore, and I don't care what it takes, he's going to know that. He's going to feel safe again. He's going to be happy again."
"What if he can't be happy?"
"For God's sake, Matthew, he's alive. That should be enough to start." She pulled Diamond's head around and climbed up on the wall to mount him, and he was struck suddenly by her clothes, by the fact she was in breeches and not a skirt, the fact that she was so physically sure of herself as she swung onto Diamond's back and sat down hard as he started to dance. "Stop it," she said softly, but the sound brooked no disobedience, and he stood, still blowing from his race across the countryside, but calmer than before.
They stood silently for what felt like hours, the only sound the horse's breath, before he reached out and touched Diamond's nose, stroking it for a moment.
"The breeches..." He paused, and for a moment, a ghost of a smile played around his mouth. "Just don't cut your hair."
"Damn you, Matthew Crawley." Her voice was sweet and calm. "Damn you for being an unfeeling, self-righteous bastard."
His head flung up at that, stared at her face, seeing a kind of fury on that face he had never known from her before, and again the voice was sweet, in order not to scare the horse. "Damn you, Matthew. For all of it."
And with the tiniest of movements, she made Diamond walk away, slowly, and she did not look back to see the shock on Matthew's face, or the small spark of life that came back to his pale eyes as Diamond broke into a slow trot and she rose into hunting position as she headed for home.