Here Lie the Beasts
"Here lie the beasts of man and here I feast,
The dead man said,
And silently I milk the devil's breast.
Here spring the silent venoms of his blood,
Here clings the meat to sever from his side.
Hell's in the dust."
The world was ending, and half of England was dead and rotting.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, the half of England that was dead had gotten back up and was now feasting upon the other half.
Cora Crawley ran, her once fine dress hanging in tatters from her body, her eyes wild and rolling in terror. She had been running for most of the day, and though she was at her limit she pushed herself harder still, running from the smoking ruin of the cabin she and Robert had been barricaded into. Her lungs burned and her bare feet were raw, but she could not stop, could not look back and see-
There came that sound from behind her, the one that had crouched in the dark corners her dreams since the fall of Downton. That creeping, insidious keening, a noise no human should have been capable of making. Every hair on the Countess' body stood on end and she sobbed, plunging forward through the underbrush like a hunted thing.
She burst out into the open, stumbling to her knees in an abandoned field and lunging up again. She screamed because she could hear it behind her, because it was too much after months and months of hearing what the Spanish Flu was doing to her world.
Another howl from behind, and she was running again. There was an oak across the barren field, mighty and sprawling and swinging its branches low and she thought back to her girlhood and the gnarled chestnut tree her Papa would sometimes help her climb.
Robert, Robert oh what has happened what has become of you why you why can't you remember me
The tree. She forced her weak legs on before they could betray her to what waited behind, and she nearly fell against the rough trunk as she crossed that final distance. Gasping for air Cora jumped for the lowest branch. Soft hands clutched, trembled, slid away, and Cora screamed again, fury dampening the fear.
Again, a higher jump, and this time she managed to get her arms about the bough. Gritting her teeth the Countess summoned her anger and twisted it into strength, and somehow, somehow, she hauled herself up and slung her leg over.
Shaking in exhaustion Cora tried to get herself collected. She had to climb higher, away from the teeth and tearing hands. She reached for another branch and took a shuddery stand and suddenly there was something cold crushing around her ankle.
Oh God, no.
Her feet were wrenched out from under her and for a heartbeat Cora Crawley lived in a weightless world. She clutched at her tree branch for all that she was worth even as her leg felt as if it was being torn away. She thought of Lavinia's teeth in poor Matthew's neck, and kicked wildly into the mass of flesh that was once been her husband. It howled and went down, but not for long.
"Robert, don't do this, it's me, it's Cora!"
In the back of her mind she knew it was useless. Robert had died three days ago. What had gotten back up was purely a creature of the disease; pestilence had no lover or helpmeet.
She made the mistake of looking down and nearly retched at the sight of rotted flesh sloughing away from the skull. White and bulging eyes rolled in their sockets, fixed on her without truly seeing. From within a lipless mouth, gnashing teeth gleamed.
Painfully, it rose again.
Ohgodohnonono not like this nononot Robert killmenow notthisnothisnot-
A rancid spray of black matter erupted from the creature's head, the body jerking sharply before collapsing into the oak's roots. A final shudder, and then nothing.
Too stunned to make sense of what had just transpired, Cora took the opportunity to scramble back onto the branch, her body heaving as she tried not to vomit. She didn't peer down, for she knew that these things could not survive a shot to the head. Instead she turned her attentions to where the shot had come from; she could not afford to think of anything else.
She heard hoof beats, and human voices.
From atop a distant hill her saviors rode into view, two persons of ambiguous age and gender astride a pair of draft horses. One, the tallest of the pair, was leaning towards their fellow and saying something.
"-don't pretend you weren't livin' for that!"
Cora nearly tumbled out of her tree; she knew that voice! Thomas Barrow, that strange footman- what in God's name was he doing out here? And the other rider…
Her heart leaped in her chest as the duo galloped over, and she let out a joyful cry when she spied the hat; frayed and faded, but still sporting its sunflower.
And indeed it was she, clothed in trousers and a soldier's jacket, a rifle clasped in her hand as though she'd been born with it there. Her former lady's maid looked up, and for a moment she seemed almost as frightened as Cora was (had been, for she was safe now wasn't she?). But a second later that slow smile of hers stole over her face and she spurred her horse onward until she was directly beneath Cora.
"Hullo, m'lady. Are you well?"
Cora stared down at her, a small and serious woman who looked rather odd perched atop such a huge horse, and she looked down at the thing that had once been Robert, and finally she looked down at herself, and the fragments of finery she wore.
Cora Crawley began to laugh, though in truth it sounded more like the cackle of a crow, and she carried on laughing until the tears came and her grip on the tree trunk began to weaken. O'Brien looked alarmed and she thrust her gun into the long sling at her steed's side.
"Hold on, m'lady, I'm comin' up to fetch you."
"No, no," Cora hiccoughed, grinning madly. "No. I'll come to you."
She burst into another fit of hysterical giggles, which did absolutely nothing to comfort O'Brien, and began to lower herself, all elbow and knees like a child. Sarah leaned up in her saddle, hands out to steady her even though it wasn't such a long way. Slowly the former Countess climbed down, and she felt two firm hands clasp her around the waist and haul her onto the horse's back. A moment of hesitation, and then O'Brien folded one arm over Cora's middle, drawing her back against her shoulder.
"There, now. We'll get you back safe, no fear." Sarah murmured, and for the first time since this nightmare began Cora allowed herself to relax. Overcome with gratitude, she closed her shaking hand over Sarah's wrist and squeezed.
"Can we get on with this? You've got your bloody Countess- let's get back to the house before more of these things come crawlin' out." Thomas barked, trying to fish in his pocket for a cigarette and failing due to the heavy leather gloves he sported. Sarah shot him a filthy look but wheeled the nervous horse about just the same, spurring it into a canter all while keeping a firm hold on her lady.
For her part, Cora felt eerily calm, even when the cries of the undead could be heard from the trees, an ungodly chorus that made the horse neigh in terror and break into a full gallop. She was nearly jolted from the saddle, but that was all right; Sarah O'Brien had her, and would look after her just like in the days before the Spanish Flu.
Behind her Sarah swore and reached across her to grab the rifle and ready it. Cora yawned, her eyes drifting shut despite the roar of gunfire near her ear.
She tilted her head into O'Brien's neck and slipped into soothing darkness.
In the land of the waking, Sarah O'Brien gunned down three shambling fiends in less time than it took to think and Thomas swung a heavy cudgel over his head in a wide arc, screaming in defiance. The creatures fell before them in a rain of rotted flesh and foul blood, and for a wild moment the riders bared their teeth like animals, fierce and rejoicing in the hunt.
They were not servants here.
The pair rode on for an hour or more, slaying what beasts they could as their ammunition dwindled. The Countess of Grantham remained oblivious to all and O'Brien could not stop herself from pressing two fingers to her pale throat, just to make sure. Each time she felt the fluttery pulse beneath her fingers, she would sigh and hold Cora tighter still
If Thomas noticed, he knew better than to make a snide remark. There were some things it was better to leave alone.
They all reached the Great House just before sundown, and O'Brien and Barrow bore the shrieking tirade of Mrs. Hughes for an hour or more once they were all taken to the infirmary and checked for bites. Reckless, she called them. Bullheaded and selfish. It was forbidden for any of their camp to head out in groups of less than three, what were they thinking of riding into that part of the country, so on and so forth. It was nothing they hadn't heard countless times before in the last few months.
Thomas wore an expression of extreme boredom, cigarette in hand, smoke curling lazily around his face as Mrs. Hughes raged. Sarah, on the other hand, impatiently shifted her weight from one foot to the other, blue eyes darting to the door Cora had been carried through ages ago.
She didn't like having her out of sight.
"Just cut me rations and put me on a leash and 'ave done with it, Hughes." She spat, raking loose curls from her eyes. "When can I see 'er?"
Hughes glared with her remaining eye, somehow seeming to tower over the pair of them through sheer force of presence alone.
"It is done when it is done, and not a moment before. And now not another word from you, Miss O'Brien; you've done enough in one day, and both of you are fortunate that I've decided against disciplining you-."
And she was off again. Sarah focused on something else, letting her thoughts follow Cora through the door. Surely it shouldn't take this long to look her over? She was clear on the bite check, and now she was just tired, nothing more to it.
She hadn't long to wait; within a few minutes the door opened and Mrs. Crawley stepped out, looking as tired as ever. Christ, since the outbreak at Downton the woman had seemingly aged two decades.
"She's exceedingly tired and rather undernourished, but she's awake now and in need of a wash. She requested that O'Brien see to her."
Thomas nearly choked on his cigarette.
"Jesus bleedin' Christ, what does she think this is? The Stricken are ravagin' the bloody countryside an' she's actin' like we got nothin' better to do than spoon feed 'er!"
"Thomas Barrow, you will be silent. The poor woman nearly died today; I expect she's looking for something familiar." Mrs. Hughes thundered, arms crossed firmly over her chest. Thomas sneered in disgust.
"We ain't servants anymore, an' nor is she a countess. Sarah doesn't owe her a damn thi- oh, Christ, O'Brien, don't tell me you'll do it?"
Sarah was already shucking her jacket and rolling up her shirtsleeves, and for a moment Thomas wanted to bash her head against the wall; she was better than this, better than that entitled sow in the next room over!
But her eyes had gotten that gentle look in them, all warm and soft-like, and he knew it was useless. Without another word Sarah O'Brien stepped around Mrs. Hughes, nodded to Mrs. Crawley and entered the examination room.
Cora Crawley was hunched up on the rickety cot against the far wall, her legs drawn up tight against her chest. She jumped slightly at Sarah's appearance and looked 'round with fearful eyes. She forced a smile, though, and gave a nervous little laugh.
"Hello, O'Brien. My, you look rather dashing!" she trilled, the not-smile stretching wider, the large eyes glazed. Sarah approached slowly, knowing that sudden movement would only disturb the poor woman.
"Thank you, m'lady. I heard you needed some help?" she asked gently, pulling up a chair and sitting near Cora's bed. The former Countess of Grantham nodded.
"I know it sounds selfish, and perhaps a bit stupid, but I…I'm really such a fright, and it…I was hoping you…it would be so like how it used to be and I-." she trailed off and gestured helplessly to the bowl of steaming water on the nearby table, looking so very small and lost that it made O'Brien's heart twist painfully in her chest.
"It wouldn't be any trouble, m'lady. An' it's not selfish, in my thinking; this business with the Flu and the Stricken…well. There's no shame in wantin' something familiar."
And it was God's own truth (or would've been, if the bastard existed); sometimes her smoke breaks with Thomas were all that kept her from going 'round the twist. Hell, getting bellowed at by Hughes was a comfort of sorts, even if she still resented being under the old harpy's thumb.
So she smiled at her lady and dared to pat her boney shoulder before rising and fetching the water and rags Mrs. Crawley had left behind. Cora slid off the bed and waited patiently as O'Brien made short work of the few scraps of cloth that had survived her run through the wilderness. She closed her eyes as the remnant of her chemise was lifted over her head, and sighed in contentment the moment O'Brien began to scrub the filth from her skin. If she pushed all other thoughts from her head, it really was like before; O'Brien's touch was as careful as ever, and the sound of water made her think of the lake on Downton's lands. And the near-scalding water felt sublime on her aching muscles, it really did.
"You really do, you know. Look dashing, I mean. A soldier's garb suits you, though I can't say why."
"My mother'd probably suggest it's 'cause I came into this world fightin' everything, so now I might as well look the part." O'Brien said wryly from behind her, gently daubing at a gash on her shoulder. Cora giggled.
"Who is here now? I thought I heard…"
"Mrs. Hughes? Yes, she runs things here at the Great House with a fist o' iron. She's gone 'ard, has Hughes. Think the loss of old Carson did somethin' to 'er."
Cora gasped and whirled around, what little color she had draining from her face. Sarah cursed herself for being so careless, and reached out to steady her Ladyship. Cora stared at her, looking like as though someone had slid a knife into her gut.
"Carson? Carson is dead?"
"I'm sorry, m'lady. He died well, if such a thing can be said. It was all a bloody panic, between the Stricken overrunnin' the house an' the fire destroyin' everything from the ground up. But Carson, the minute he realized Mrs. Hughes wasn't tryin' to get out with the rest of us he ran like hell for the kitchens. She was cornered, half-blind, an' he got between them an' her, fought 'em off. She'd be dead, worse, if not for him." The younger said briskly, feeling the bite of guilt. It wasn't her story to tell, wasn't her grief to bear. It was as if she'd slashed Elsie Hughes open and pulled out everything for the world to see.
Sarah shook herself and tossed aside the dirtied rag, wetting for another and scrubbing at Cora's arms.
"William an' Daisy are here, too, an' young Lily."
"My daughters?" the Countess cut in. Sarah gave a true smile, one that warmed her eyes.
"Sybil's in the next camp over teachin' up some girls to be nurses, an' Edith's out on a patrol."
"Yes, she's a rider same as me. One of the best shots for miles around, is Edith." Sarah said, and under her shock Cora noted a distinct tone of pride in her maid's voice.
"Taught 'er myself. She's steady in the hands an' keen in the eyes. Couldn't ask for a better rider, really."
Sarah let the older woman process this bit of information, moving steadily down Cora's sides and doing her best to avoid the ticklish spots along her ribs. She did not like to see how thin her lady had become- she was a skinny thing to start with, but now Sarah could feel each bone under her fingers.
Sarah looked up, her mind blank for a few seconds as she tried to find the words.
" M'lady…we do not know, for certain. She and Lady Violet have been missin' for months now. Last I saw, she was fending off some of the Stricken with a fire poker."
The rider watched her lady carefully, and was ready to catch her when she swayed dangerously. She fell against Sarah's shoulder and let out an anguished cry, her frail hands coming to cover her face, her entire body wracked with sobs. Startled, Sarah cradled Cora's head into her neck and ushered her back towards the bed, murmuring nonsense at her to get her quiet down.
"Oh, God, not her too, not my little girl!"
"Hush now, ladyship, didn't I say that it's not certain? She got onto Diamond's back fine and rode off. She's a smart girl, she'll manage."
"Miss O'Brien, what's going on in there?"
"Oh, bleedin' Christ."
Sarah glared at the door and could almost see Mrs. Hughes on the other side, hands on hips. Before she could come up with a sharp retort the blustering old cow had opened the door and was striding across the room with scowl on her face.
"Good gracious, Sarah, now look what you've done!"
"What I've done!" the ex-maid snapped, her hackles rising.
"You're supposed to look after her, not distress her. Please leave before you make it worse." The hearth-keeper said sternly, snatching up a nightshirt and trying to coax the weeping countess away from O'Brien's side.
"The hell I will, I 'ave to take care of her!" She snarled, but Hughes gave her that hard look that she'd always kept in reserve solely for the lady's maid, made a thousand times worse by the patch covering where the left eye had once been.
"You've done quite enough. Leave now."
Cora was leaning away from her now, clinging to the former housekeeper like a child would cling to its mother, and to Sarah felt her heart constrict again. Reluctantly, she stood and left the room, casting a final backward glance over her shoulder before gently closing it. She rested her forehead against the worn wood and squeezed her eyes shut.
"Damn it all."
She needed a fag, and a good rage. It was time to find Thomas.
After a bit of searching she found him skulking about in the kitchen yard, occasionally peeking in at Daisy to see how she was carrying on at the stove. He'd gotten her to start speaking in full sentences recently, and though she'd never say it aloud Sarah was grateful to hear the girl's reedy voice again. She poured two cups of tea, nodded to their resident mute chef, and stormed out, fairly chucking Thomas' tea at him before stealing a cigarette.
"Hello to you too, my fine curly-haired mick." He drawled, letting her light off the end of his own fag. She dragged deeply, breathed out a whorl of smoke, and glared sullenly into her teacup. He let her stew for a moment, clearly torn between pitying her and being smug over the fact that her doting had once again brought her nothing but unhappiness.
He puffed out a ring of smoke, watched it fade in the air.
"So. Barely an hour 'ere an' I can see everythin' is goin' smoothly."
"Comfortin', I find, to see that nothing's much changed."
"I'm just sayin', Sarah. Even when you rescue her like some bloody knight of old, she acts like you're 'er own personal lapdog."
"I'll put this thing out on your damned face if you don't shut your mouth." She ground out, gritting her teeth hard enough to make her jaw ache. Thomas glowered and began pacing (out of her reach, she noted). She leaned back against the wall, feeling tired. She and Thomas had grown closer still since the outbreak at Downton, more like siblings than ever, but by God could the lad nag. Worse than her own blessed mother, sometimes.
"I don't see why you'd go back for 'er," Thomas snapped, his fag dangling from the corner of his mouth. "It's the feckin' end of the world, the whole society's come down around our ears and you're still bothering yourself with 'er Highness. You could have died saving the sorry bitch!"
"Don't call 'er that." O'Brien said sharply, pinning him with a ferocious look. "An' what's it to you, if I die or not? I didn't force you to come along."
"Because you're all I've got, you daft hag, and if my comin' along on your little suicide mission keeps you from being eaten, then I suppose I've no choice, do I?"
An uncomfortable silence fell following Thomas' admission, and the two of them stared into their teacups like chastised children. O'Brien worried at her lip.
"I am grateful, you know. That you came along."
"I'd believe you, except for the bit where you forgot I was there the minute you saw that ninny up in the tree. Christ, when you got 'er on the horse you looked like you were holdin' something made of glass and gold." Thomas said, smirking slightly at her. Sarah smiled ruefully.
"I'm happy to have her safe." She said simply. A sly smile crossed his face.
"You don't need to play noble with me; puttin' a bullet in 'is Lordship was reward unto itself, yeah? Revenge for playin' with that maid while 'is wife was at death's door?"
"It wasn't 'is Lordship, not anymore. Much as I disliked 'im, he'd never 'ave hurt Cora."
His smirk faded into a more pensive expression, and he watched Sarah from the corner of his eye as she reached up and began unpinning her hair.
"I only wish…"
"You, wishin'? The world really is ending." She said lightly, shaking out her mantle of auburn curls. He shrugged.
"Only wish you could call 'er Cora to 'er face, is all. Least you deserve, after everything."
"You know as well as I that I've no right to ask anythin' of her. Not after all that." She said, very quietly. She reached out and smoothed her thumb over the scar twisting along Thomas' jaw. It marked the first and only time they had ever come to blows in a fight.
Come off it, Sarah- we both know you're a fair hand at this killin' business.
She'd gone after him with his own pocket knife for those words, and had laid his flesh open down to the jawbone. For a month afterwards they didn't speak, and she would never really remember how they'd fallen back into things. Certainly they'd never apologized.
But then, it didn't need saying; she never forgave herself for the scar, and he never forgave himself for the words. They'd made their peace.
"I would say somethin' about how it's been years, but I'm bloody tired and I have rounds tomorrow. Get some sleep for once, yeah?"
"Certainly." Sarah said, swatting at him when he patted her on the head.
"Don't believe you." He called back, and vanished into the Great House.
In the end, he was right not to.
Somewhere around midnight Thomas sidled into the Countess' room, where he knew Sarah would be, watching over her as always. He found her on the tiny bed, back propped against the wall and her Highness bundled into her side. She was awake, barely, and looking down at Cora as if the pampered waif were the sun and the moon and the stars all in one.
"Pathetic." He sighed, and perched precariously on the chair beside the bed. Sarah turned her head and shot him a sleepy sort of glower.
But he didn't, and she was glad.