When Charles left Connecticut for a small village on the Hudson he hoped to leave more than just the scenery behind, but even after two days of travel it seemed he should not even have hoped for that. He passed, it seemed, the same streams, the same trees, the same woody glens and occasional family of deer that he'd known since boyhood had sent him exploring such idyllic fare. Once or twice, nodding off with his head close to the small window, he was convinced the coachman, or his horses, had worked some trick to return him whence he came, but gradually the road signs seemed less familiar and he began to rest back in the modest cushion of the coach's interior. Still, he was glad of it when a gentleman, much embarrassed, asked to join him as Charles changed coaches for the last leg of his journey.
Being the younger, Charles allowed the man to choose his seat first, and he took the other, facing him, welcoming the company and the chance to look on something new. The man was well- but not over-dressed, possibly nearly fifty years of age, and wearing a silver wig of a simpler style. Charles himself, as a modern man of younger age, wore his natural hair long enough to draw back into a braided queue at the neck.
It was fashionable even so long after the revolution to dispose of the strictest courtesies of the British, so Charles addressed the man confidently after a suitable pause of clip-clops, asking if he had business in Greensburgh, more or less where Charles was headed.
To Charles' pleasure, the man accepted his conversation affably, tapping the side of his nose. "That'll be 'Tarry Town,' Sir, or you'll be set apart from the locals straightaway. But more correctly, I'm to see my grand-daughter in Sleepy Hollow, whose wedding is in a short month."
Charles smiled, feeling better about the direction in which he was headed. "How lucky, Sir: it is my new home as well."
He hadn't heard much of the place but that it was two miles or so north of Greensb--Tarry Town, and was a village smaller by far even than that humble merchant town, set close along the widening of the Hudson called the Tappen Zee and cloaked perpetually (it was said) in a thin mist. In Charles' imagination Sleepy Hollow was a cold and lonely place, but at least he would not be its only visitor. "I'm the new schoolmaster. I heard they've been without for quite some time."
"Then you shall have your hands full with it, Sir, though I suspect that would have been the case in any event."
The man all but winked at him with a roguish but forgivable mirth, and Charles, feeling in his confidence, smiled to have a friend in New York, if even for the month.
"The former schoolmaster," said the man, after another pause, "had a sizable interest in local history. If you have a mind I'm certain his collection of notes and books on the various battles and regiments could be given to you."
"No, thank you," said Charles quickly, with open disdain, too comfortable in his companion's friendliness. "I shall leave it for more bloodthirsty scholars than I."
Charles realized his error when the man lifted his brows and laughed.
"Oh, I do beg your pardon!" cried Charles, grievously chastened. "You fought for us, didn't you, Sir? Of course you did. Oh, I am so sorry."
Charles knew even in the mild autumn chill of the coach that he was blushing brightly. How awful, he was thinking, but the man was smiling again, though more reservedly. Perhaps he smarted from Charles' rudeness, or perhaps it was reverence for his memories, which Charles could hardly begin to fathom.
"British and American soldiers clashed all along this line we're traveling now, right up into the hills and valleys of Tarry Town and Sleepy Hollow. You'll have to crane your neck rather severely to turn a blind eye to it, I'm afraid."
Despite Charles' transgression, the man seemed almost sympathetic to his station, and Charles was humbled further by the man's graciousness.
"I will heed it with all the respect it's due," he said quietly, turning his cap in his fingers where he held it. "It is all well and good for me to frown on the more violent acts of man while I enjoy the peace and prosperity they have dearly purchased."
The man acknowledged the offering with a slow nod, and was quiet. For the rest of the journey he spoke only to point out the names of the various knolls and glens they passed, in an easy and friendly tone that gradually quieted Charles' upset, though Charles was sorry again to have forgotten most of the names just as soon as their subjects were out of sight.
The ride through Tarry Town was pleasant enough but brief for its size, and the coach stopped just north of its last building where the road grew too narrow for the vehicle.
"We'll have to walk from here, but it's not far," said the man, while Charles paid the driver and insisted on covering the full bill.
"For your good company, Sir," said Charles as the coach turned around and left them. He'd placed his cap on his head and taken the other man's bag, as Charles himself had little to carry. He already wore a full third of the clothing he owned, but he felt he'd collected enough complementary shades and patterns among the waistcoats, coat, and breeches that he could be imagined to have a somewhat richer selection.
The air was clear and the sun shone cheerily though lowly as they walked, and Charles was feeling easier about his new home. He was pleased to note that the Hudson was clearly visible to the west, even audible, if Charles was not mistaken, and the birds were different enough from his native lands to be interesting and melodic. He did not mind that they walked mostly in silence now, nor did he truly notice it until they'd come upon some houses by the road and the man stopped to take his bag.
"My grand-daughter's house is there," he said, pointing to a handsomely built structure, but then they were all quite nice to look at, this being a long-established Dutch community of neatness and good taste (so Charles had also been told). "I am Baltus von Tassell, by the way."
"Charles Xavier," answered Charles, glad finally to know his friend's name. "If your generosity is not at last put upon, Sir, could you tell me how to find the MacTaggert farm?"
"The Widow MacTaggert," von Tassell nodded, "yes, you will follow this road over the bridge and past the church, up, past the woods. You'll be amidst her fields then. Stay to walking and the house is close to the road, red as a rooster's comb. I hope we meet again, Mr. Xavier."
Charles thanked him and wished well to his family with a lift of his cap and then kept the man from his business no longer. He could hear the happy greetings from von Tassell's family as he hurried his step and he longed to have such in his present life, but he had last known it a very long time ago, and he told himself he could manage a little longer without.
The sun was about an hour's time above the hills beyond the flat, shining Tappen Zee, but a density of trees cast thick shadows over the road just as he came upon the bridge. Without knowingly setting himself to it, he began to whistle to himself, a sound that grew louder as he left the murmuring rush of the little river behind him and the trees opened up somewhat to show him a cemetery hard by the side of the road.
Tall, old elm and birch trees cast striped shadows across his path, but the church was a happy, bright white, and he let his eyes linger on it so long as it was easily in his sight just to keep his mind from other things. Were the evening not wheeling onward, he would have followed the narrow stone path to the church to sit awhile, but his hostess was awaiting his arrival.
Charles quickened his step and his song and was soon clear of the graves and even, soon enough, the woods, whose weighty boughs creaked thickly and closely overhead to the last rather than slowly thinning out. As Charles passed the last tulip tree he thought, Of course, this ancient wood was chopped short for the fields to which it gave way.
By now the sun cast the fields in orange, deepening to red as Charles finally came upon the house. The lady thereof sat in a wooden rocking chair on its porch, gazing across her lands and seeming not to notice him until he was at her stair.
"You've good timing, Mr. Xavier," she said, rising, and Charles smiled, glad to have done well so soon, even if it was quite outside of his influence.
In the warm kitchen Charles hung his greatcoat and let the glow of the cooking fire chase the bit of chill from his nose and his hands. He supposed if von Tassell had not told him his hostess was widowed (curiously his appointers had not mentioned it) he might have guessed it now, for she spoke to him as the master of the house would and did not strike him as a spinster. She set out a hot meal for him before she sat down at the other side of the table.
"The rest have eaten, but your portion I saved. I have between five and ten hired laborers throughout the year in return for food and lodging; you may have seen the cottages set back behind this house."
"I see," said Charles, suddenly feeling very foolish for being her lodger. Under normal circumstances boarding of the schoolmaster was tolerated because of his benefit to the children, but as she apparently had none in residence, he was sorely and inappropriately indebted to her. But surely she realized all of this when she agreed to take him on.
Yet as none of this were an approachable topic, Charles instead praised the stew and bread he'd been given inasmuch as his feasting would allow it, for even if he had not been starving--which he was--it was indeed worthy of notice.
"They're a simple but trustworthy group," she went on. "I shall make introductions tomorrow, in the case that you cross paths."
"I look forward to it, Madam," said Charles, finishing his bowl with a modestly allowable scrape of the last spoonful. "I have already met Mr. von Tassell, who joined the last leg of my journey."
Though he finished his thought, he saw a glint of concern in her large brown eyes at the mention of the name.
"The elder von Tassell, Sir?"
"I would make that guess, Madam," Charles said gingerly, recalling the deeply lined countenance of his acquaintance. "Baltus von Tassell."
She stood up at once. "If you will excuse me, Sir, I must pay a visit." She took her cloak from next to Charles' greatcoat. "And pray excuse my inexcusable rudeness. Your room is at the top of the stairs, on the right, with all you shall need for tonight if you wish to retire before my return."
Charles was on his feet as soon as she was. "Madam, I shall escort you!"
"You shall not, as I have not given you a horse."
At the alarmed but silenced worry she must have seen on his face, her expression softened above the clasp of her cloak as she fastened it. "Your grand gesture is acknowledged and your concern overwrought. Gunpowder, my horse, is an old cantankerous beast none dare trifle with. Leave the dish and do take yourself upstairs."
She left him no time even for polite words of retirement and was out the door, shutting it behind her such that Charles obeyed the command to stay fast inside. Soon he heard the sounds of her horse as she left down the same path he'd come--or so he imagined, for he thought it ill-bred to watch from the window of this house that was not his and whose board was not even due to him.
In the quiet that followed, Charles sighed, with no course open to him but to pick up his bag and climb the stairs with all his possessions and a new bewilderment to count among them.
Charles woke for the second time some hours before dawn while the lands outside were dusted by starlight and the sky was a deep blue that did not even hint yet at the return of the sun. The first time he'd woken had been at the sound of Mrs. MacTaggert's arrival, much earlier. He'd pulled on his breeches to meet her at the upstairs hall with a still-burning candle, where she had thanked him again for his concern and repeated she had no need of it. Taking her at her word, and satisfied that she'd met with no trouble along the way, Charles returned to his bed and to sleep.
This time there had been no noise to wake him--none of which he was still aware--but it was usual for him to stir three, four times in a night. The room was dark with the candle blown out, but even easily agitated as he was it was always best if he saw nothing when he opened his eyes. Charles knew well enough that the most chilling and pervasive of visions were sometimes as plain and clear as day.
There were two windows in his room, the one close beside his bed where, sitting up, he could look south along the fields and the road cutting through. Despite the clear sky and its twinkling expanse of stars and bright wedge of moon the road plunged deep into darkness at the tulip tree whose branches Charles could make out even at this distance.
Charles wrapped his quilt closer around him as he leaned forward, peering at the tree. All light seemed to disappear under those branches. The road gave the illusion of ceasing its existence there rather than fading gradually into shadow, and what trunks and leaves and branches were lit from the side framed a great hole of blackness Charles could barely believe he'd strolled through just hours before. Were any small night-loving animals to creep too close by, he was sure they'd be swallowed by it, falling into it as down into a well.
Yet even as he contemplated the unnatural emptiness of it a tiny orange glow, as from a flame, flickered into being there in the center of the blackness, and then another, close beside it. Others soon joined it, well off the ground, some dull like embers, others sharp like a match had been struck. They moved slightly, in a rhythm, as though they breathed, illuminating nothing but themselves in the void.
Charles realized his own breath was held and he released it slowly, clasping the quilt again more tightly around him, as the room was much colder now as his senses sharpened. As he stared harder into the night, wondering what bedevilment of fireflies could produce such a composition, the little orange flames moved all at once, in formation, and stopped, as if whatever it was had suddenly come to attention, and had now fixed its other-worldly gaze on Charles.
Charles gasped and lay himself down again so that he was hidden from the window, safe behind the sturdy Dutch architecture and wrapped now from head to foot in the bedding. The distance mattered not. He could not shake the feeling that he could be seen as easily as he'd seen it. For a long time, though it defied all his substantial rational thought, he listened, hard, painfully stifling the sounds of his own breathing, willing his heart, too, to stop its heavy thudding. Once or twice, the house creaked and froze him, but there was no definable approach of footsteps on the dirt road, no whine of the door's hinges or groaning of the stairs underfoot.
Slowly Charles calmed. He felt his heart begin to quiet of its own accord and his breathing became fuller and easier. But he left the quilt overhead and at last fell asleep under the magic of its protection, as supernatural as any prayer or beseechment he could recite.
The students of Sleepy Hollow, if they could be called that, were few in number but their boisterousness and misbehavior was always quick to make up for it. From ages six to thirteen they could barely be contained in the little one-room schoolhouse nestled into the foot of a wooded knoll east of the houses where von Tassell's family made its home.
But Charles welcomed the challenge, letting their vivacity rout out the fright of his first night and dull, for days at a time, older frights he should never be fully rid of. For though he did notice that the valley was aptly named, and that a dreamy fog often wrapped up its inhabitants regardless of the weather, he had seen nor heard anything unusual for many nights.
Today Charles was attempting to rekindle their memory of simple arithmetic, knowing that sons of farmers and merchants would someday find it quite necessary. Boys from the more successful families were already begun to learn from their fathers; boys from the struggling families needed more of his attention. But this at least was a subject whose relevant examples were plentiful in village life, and for the most part he kept his pupils' interest.
For the most part. In the back of the schoolroom two of the younger boys were busy comparing their best marbles. Interrupting them, Charles ushered them from their secluded stations to seats at the front of the class. While he was busy creating in his mind a lesson for them using their cherished baubles, one of the older boys leaned forward in his desk.
"You'd better watch out," he warned them, in low tones Charles supposed he wasn't meant to hear. "Father says the Hessian is returned and looking for heads to take."
"This is a place of learning," said Charles, rather sharply as he faced them again. "There will be no nonsense here to clutter our minds. Fair?"
Van Beuren, the boy who'd spoken, looked somewhat surprised. "Not nonsense, Sir. Father did warn me. We're not to cross the bridge after sundown or the goblin ghost of the Headless Horseman will be upon us in a flash."
"To take your heads?" Charles mused, though irritated. So often his important lessons lost out to useless flights of fancy, platitudes and wishful thinking with no foundation in reality or proof to stand on. It made his job much harder, and their lives, he believed, much poorer. "Can anyone tell me a word for that?"
As he surveyed the boys sternly, hoping to stamp out the tale with a return to scholarship, a boy in the back raised his hand meekly. "Decapitate, Sir."
Charles picked up the book they were working from and attempted to lure them back to its pages. Yet still his pupils looked wary and distracted, and Charles sighed, closing the book. Perhaps this tangent, if he could not avoid it, could be a useful lesson.
"These stories are valuable," he said to them. "Every village and town starts with its own legends. They're part of the heart and soul of a place and its people. But they are just stories. You must all think more critically if you don't want to be always some other man's fool, or plagued your whole life with the insignificant." Charles pursed his lips as he watched their faces for some understanding, some lessening of the perfectly honest fear there. "Humor your parents to keep in line if you must, but think of their possible motives. The woods at night are dangerous for many reasons. Of course your parents wish you safely in bed. Why doesn't this Horseman come for you there?"
"Because without his head he is not whole in the ground," said another boy. "So he cannot cross the water."
"Ah," said Charles, gesturing with a flourish of triumph, "but there is a farm on the other side of the woods full of people, including myself, whose heads are still on their shoulders."
"Because he can't ride so far from his grave!" cried another student impatiently, hastening to add a 'Sir.'
How convenient, he thought to himself, and Charles sighed slowly, not bothering to chastise the boy for impudence. "And does the marker on his grave name him simply as the 'Headless Horseman?'"
"There's no name at all, Sir," answered van Beuren, soberly. "He was a soldier on the British side and none knew it when he fell. But he's buried in the churchyard, you can see it for yourself."
Charles sighed again, more lightly this time, and he picked up the text, finding his place among the faded typescript. "Yes, all right," he said, knowing better now than to try catching them in a fallacy, for they seemed to have answers for everything--or their parents did, who were responsible for passing the tale to them. He resolved to leave it alone, more or less. "If you'll come back to the matter at hand, perhaps your hardworking schoolmaster will be safely home before nightfall."
To their good credit, Charles' students banded together to tackle the rest of the day's lessons admirably, perhaps being cleansed of their distractions by giving them flight early on. One of Charles' few memories of his mother was the macaw she kept, with which she'd converse for a time every evening to exhaust it of the need and allow the house a quiet night's rest.
When Charles set them free to the sunny but chilly afternoon, he watched them happily disperse through the meadow toward their homes, then closed up the schoolhouse against troublemakers and set off for the road through the woods.
It was not far, this walk between the schoolhouse and the road's bridge, perhaps short of a mile, so despite the thick growth of trees that met the bridge it was still bright enough not to turn the scene awry. Still, as Charles walked he could not outpace the concession that he wished his students to be free of these superstitions because he wished so much for himself to be free of them. He pressed their minds to build sturdy walls of reason in the hopes that his more flimsy structure might lean upon them and stay upright.
As he came upon the little stone walkway that led to the small white church, Charles took it, not dawdling long enough to change his mind.
America might still feel new, reborn as she was just a quarter century past, but to stand in a churchyard of such a community made her feel old, with graves dating back nearly two hundred years, the first of the first, the earliest colonists. But there were not many from that time. The community had grown slowly, and Charles could see as much as he wandered through the graves, spiraling out from the church and traveling into the more recent past as he did.
He almost forgot what he'd been looking for until he came across a grave marker of crude stone that had not weathered well. But unlike the badly defaced stones of earlier times which bore traces of their engraving, Charles could tell no name had ever been etched into this stone.
He looked down at the plot of land beneath his feet and slowly stepped from it, but there was no disturbance of the soil, as though something could burst forth at sundown. Indeed the low brush and few clumps of shade-dwelling wildflowers did not bother to avoid this space and treated it as equal among the graves.
Satisfied, Charles turned and followed the path back down to the road, hungry for an early supper and a chat with the laborers, whose conversation he always enjoyed after the limited social graces of children.
With no other way to repay Mrs. MacTaggert for the room and board she generously provided him, Charles helped where he could with the farm's endless chores, though he was limited to those items that could be accomplished without too much compromise to his clothing. Unlike the laborers, whose trousers were fit for the work, Charles' middling clothing was more delicate and, as he was always carefully aware, he had little of it.
So when he ripped the sleeve of his shirt on a fence that evening, he had no choice but to ask his patron lady for a needle and a bit of thread to close up the hole, though he would rather have hidden the fact of his clumsiness from her.
Exchanging the injured garment for his remaining shirt, Charles returned to the kitchen, where it was best lit, to mend the misbegotten fruits of his labor. He sat down at the table and commenced his task, politely refusing her requisite offer to complete it for him. Few men were as hapless at such things as they pretended, Charles thought. He supposed their feigned weaknesses endeared them to the other sex, but Charles erred on the side of self-sufficiency, where possible.
As he worked, and she sat across from him in pleasant conversation about the season's usual festivities and plans for wintering over, he was again troubled by her abundance of kindness in putting up a schoolmaster who was of no use to her whatsoever, and in the same house in which she slept, which was a privilege not enjoyed by the hired laborers who retired to their own quarters some distance away.
Perhaps she missed a learned man's company, Charles thought, and Charles understood, for Charles often craved this too--in ways he had come to realize were not typical of his peers. Though he would not inquire, Charles guessed she'd been without for quite some time, for she was perhaps in her mid-thirties now, and had not time enough to bear children before her loss.
As he set aside his finished work, she took two roasting apples from the fire and sprinkled each with rare cinnamon, setting one before him on a plate with the other for herself. Though Charles was tired from his hours at the school in addition to his elected chores at the farm, he accepted it gladly, a new favorite Dutch treat of his that Connecticut had never introduced. He cut into it and savored the warmth of the pungent steam and its tart, spiced aroma.
"Our village's future lords and ladies haven't sapped your spirit yet, I hope?" she asked him.
"Despite their best efforts, Madam, they have not," he answered, in good humor. "I suppose though that they always cart out their tales of goblins and spooks this time of year?"
"They've told you, have they, of the White Lady of the Drifts?" She watched his face, as though for signs of his recognition. "André's ghost, perhaps? He was a spy during the revolution, you know. They caught him on the road in this very glen."
"No, Madam, but I suppose I will soon enough. Today's specter was what they called the Headless Horseman."
She smiled knowingly, though reservedly. "I imagined it might be. It is the most vibrant, and mobile, of the stories. But it keeps them out of the woods--"
"And safely in their beds," Charles finished with a smile, despite his misgivings over the punitive origins. He finished the last of his apple, preferring to think on it instead. "So I had concluded, Madam."
"You would do well to avoid the woods after dark yourself, Sir," she said as she rose to take his plate, having finished with hers as well. "There are thieves come up from Tarry Town now and then who delight in hiding in those dense trees. That's how André was ambushed, you know."
"I can imagine it well," said Charles, sitting back and recalling how very dark the road at the edge of the woods had appeared from his window, so deep and empty that he'd imagined some fire faeries to fill it. He stood and took his mended shirt, thanking her for the apple and the thread. "I pray you be safe, as well, Madam," he said, recalling her evening travels.
"Do not worry yourself, Sir," she said as he left her. "The Horseman has no quarrel with me."
The weather turned unseasonably warm for a time and Charles, with a bright sun shining warmly on his forehead and no need of a greatcoat, took to reading on the grass beside the little brook after letting his pupils out for the day. Their excitement and impatience to be outdoors could barely be contained and most certainly could not be ignored, and by the by he thought they were right, and even began to let them go a little early. It seemed a shame not to take advantage of the lucky winds, which were sure to bring chills even more bitter when they returned to their seasonal constraints.
Like Charles, the rest of the village's adults followed the children's example, smiling longer, keeping out of doors, walking with a more buoyant step. The fog that Charles felt was never swept fully clean from the valley had perhaps shifted to a sort of haze, a glare of sunshine stirring the air in dusty little currents along the ground still hard and cold underfoot. Yesterday hardly seemed the autumnal feast the calendar had called for, but the abundant harvest spread across the tables proved that indeed, it was.
It had been good to see Mr. von Tassell again, who had been pleased to see that Charles was getting on well. In fact it seemed Mr. von Tassell had been away for quite a long time, and all gathered had been eager to inquire after his health and his travels. And Charles had met the bride-to-be, the grand-daughter Katrina, her wedding just one week away. There had been hopeful conversation that the good weather might last that long, but Charles had doubted it in his heart, as he suspected they all had.
Perhaps most of all, Charles had been relieved to see Mrs. MacTaggert fast in the thick of many discussions, for he always felt there was some expectation of which he fell short, whether he be at fault or not. Her laborers, too, had been in attendance at the charity of the host. Situated much of the time at the edge of the room, Charles had noted for moments at a time their white knitted stockings and breeches, worn so rarely for the occasion, and which were perhaps too small a cut for their heavy and capable frames.
At present, with his book on his stomach, Charles was dreaming that he was still at the feast, now, looking after them. Someone had noticed, and asked why he stared. Charles had only seen them in their trousers, he explained with a blush, so rough and shapeless, and there, did they not look much improved in their dress? Was it any wonder he should stare? He thought at first he was understood, but then the man was calling for Mrs. MacTaggert--
Charles woke with a hand lifted to stop the man, but there was only the brook murmuring before him with the same low, wandering voice of the crowd in his dream. It was not so late, but though it felt like the long days of summer the sun was already setting on her autumn schedule. He stood and brushed himself off, leaving the book in the schoolhouse and making his way through the grasses toward the road. Windows were lit among the houses with lanterns, burning with an orange hue while the sky overhead was deep blue. The stars were already glittering brightly as he left the houses behind and approached the bridge, and the moon, nearly full, was presently rising to help him find his way.
Remembering Mrs. MacTaggert's warning about the thieves, Charles stopped a few paces from the bridge over the modest Pocantico River, sturdy and wooden and casting its own shadows. Just on the other side were tight groups of trees to either side of the path that hid whatever might lurk behind.
Reaching down to take a stone from the side of the road, Charles lobbed it underhand to strike the ground on the other side of the bridge, and he listened for scuffling. He then tossed another, holding his breath in anticipation of brigands leaping forth into the empty air, but all was still.
Releasing his breath, Charles crossed the bridge, somewhat calmed by his test but still he stifled his urge to whistle, lest he give away his position to some less organized marauder. When he arrived at the rocks he had tossed, he moved them to the side of the road to keep them from causing injury to some horse.
The breeze was still warm. As Charles walked, it seemed to have an effect on the squirrels and owls and other unknowables, increasing their activity, though despite that Charles was sure this stretch of road was far quieter than any other. Every hoot and cry and burst through the dry leaves therefore caused him to start, with such complete silence in between that his ears could not help but raise the alarm.
He passed the church and its yard without turning his head, knowing that his eyes, like his ears, were bound to embellish the events around him. Instead he kept his eyes on the dirt of the road that he would not trip, he told himself, and he listened to the light rhythmic sound of his step, forcing himself to keep it steady and determined. Eventually he thought he could hear the Hudson to the west when the breeze brought it to him, and he ignored the creaking of the heavy boughs overhead as it did.
When Charles heard the heavy snorting of a horse some distance behind him, he thought it to be a villager making his way north, and so he moved to the side of the road as he walked in order to give horse and rider plenty of room to pass. When after a moment they did not, and indeed there had been no clip-clopping of horseshoes, Charles stopped and turned to look along the road behind him.
At first there was nothing. The moon, still close along the far hills, cast its light through the woods around him, especially as many of the branches were already without leaves. White trunks of birch trees gleamed as beacons to either side of the road. There should have been very little hidden from him. Yet in the center of the road in a place he'd passed perhaps a minute before there was a billow of thick smoke with no source, growing in size as though someone had just lit a fire, but had done it in the middle of the air. It did not move naturally, but too slowly, not governed by earthly forces. Charles' heart had already begun to pound in his chest, though his mind did not comprehend what it should fear.
Charles was rooted to the spot as the strange smoke filled the width of the road, a dreaded recognition prickling at the back of his neck as the blackness touched the trees above and beside it. Denial and anticipation combined to keep him staring with wide eyes as two small glowing orange flames appeared. Slowly they ignited others, smoldering in the thick smoke. And now, as they reared up in formation, he could see that they licked at the sides of a great black horse.
The sudden pounding of hooves shook Charles from below like an earthquake and he ran. The air, no longer warm, cut icily into his lungs as he sucked it in with his fright, releasing it in cries that fell unbidden from his clenched throat. The thundering weight of the beast shook him with every footfall, and though he could see the shining arch of moonlit fields where the woods ended it trembled violently with the pounding of the hooves and he could not see how far it was yet from him, or even that he grew any closer to it though he ran with all his might and all the air in his chest.
It was no thief behind him. Could this then be a dream still? His legs began to feel numb as he seemed to go nowhere--surely he was still dreaming by the brook! But the dream would not break. And as Charles surely would, with the horse huffing so close to his back that he could smell the burning of its flank, he decided he must leave the road, where the trees might buy him distance.
But it was then that the horse leapt forward beside him. He could see the hooves as they broke fiercely from the thick smoke and above, the beast's lip-less teeth straining at the bit, its eyes burnt from their sockets and the flesh falling in charred ribbons from its white dry skull--
The shock stopped the working of Charles' legs, but yet he still moved along the ground faster now than before. A tight hold on the back of his coat was lifting him, up, flying with the speed of the horse until he was set upon its stinking, haggard form with the devil rider behind him. He reached to hold a fistful of the horse's mane and it came off in his hands; he found the pommel of the saddle and held it instead, survival driving his motions for his fear locked all else up tight.
He heard laughter behind him, hollow and booming, and he felt the press of something cold and round being moved around his side. He looked down to see a man's severed head, skin bloodless and eyes glazed with death, jeering at him from his lap.
It was only the jostling of the horse's gallop that moved it but Charles lurched from it, into the figure behind him, his fright strangling a cry from him and exceeding now any rationality of safety and instinct. He pitched himself sideways, away from them both, hoping to dash hard into some tree to extinguish the consciousness from him, anything to blacken the sight from his eyes and save him from the torment of this hellion, this dead thing risen from smoke and darkness.
He got himself free of the horse, but did not crash down along the road. Instead there was again the pressure at his back, the tight grip of his coat that finally let him down until his legs met the path again and he ran, and stumbled. He rolled hard so close under the hooves that he could feel the air as they cut and moved it and he shook as the earth beneath him shook, until suddenly he pulled ahead of the commotion, leaving it behind as he finally heaved to a stop.
For a moment he could not call the power of movement, but just as soon as his senses returned he flung himself away, further along the road, on his hands and finally rising to his feet. It was open all around him: he was past the edge of the woods, only just, for he turned around then to see the hideous steed and its rider pacing restlessly there where the trees cast their last thick shadow across the road.
The pale head stared mutely from the rider's hip. The horse reared, flames growing brighter then to consume it, illuminating the horseman astride it with no head set upon his neck.
Charles fell again to the ground, blackness blotting out his consciousness then as he'd so hoped it might do.
Morning came too early. When Charles woke, the vestiges of a nightmare lingering uncomfortably in his thoughts to slow them, he found himself sore all over, most especially in his head. Untangling his arms with some effort from the bedclothes he gingerly touched his fingers to his hairline above his eyebrow to find a swelling, hot to the touch and quite tender.
It seemed to take him ages to sit up, and he pushed the blankets from him to inspect a throbbing ankle, also red and angry as he gently prodded it, befuddled.
When one of the laborers entered the room, found him awake, and left again, Charles' head cleared in a bolt of realization that his frightful recollection had not been a nightmare at all. He really had been carried and dashed into the ground by--by what? Despite the morning light already creeping through his windows, Charles cowered against the headboard, blankets again drawn up around him as a violent shiver quaked through him, finding new aches, new bruises.
He could see the spot from here where the Horseman had disappeared. Still dark against the morning he wanted to scramble up to pull the curtain across but it would have required moving, and he was too shaken, and too pained, to do it. If Mrs. MacTaggert hadn't entered the room just then he might have begun to call for her in a momentary failing of his restraint and comportment.
She looked at him soberly for a moment, then poured out a glass of water from a carafe at his bedside and handed it to him. He found he had a great thirst for it, his throat parched and rough from smoke. Mrs. MacTaggert closed the door, though it was not proper to do so, and she drew up a chair to sit, close enough that he would not have to lift his voice.
"They found you lying in the road last night," she said to him, "just outside the woods. You took quite a tumble. Do you remember?"
Would that he did not. Would that those milky half-lidded eyes had not seared themselves into his memory, along with the hideousness of an animated body holding its own head at its side.
"Why did you not warn me it was real, Madam?" His voice stuck in his dry throat and he drank more while she waited. "Even the children knew. I thought it was a tale and I could have lost my life."
"I told you, Sir, to stay well off the road at night," she said, but she seemed weary, without defense, while he attempted to keep his exasperation tightly reined in.
"Because of ordinary thieves! Not an inescapable terror-fiend looking for heads to take!"
"You still seem to have yours," she said, and he stopped short, lifting his hand to finger along the collar of his shirt where his neck was indeed without injury. He had not thought of this.
Mrs. MacTaggert looked toward the door and did not speak, as though listening for the telltale sounds of anyone listening on the other side. Apparently satisfied that they were alone, she sighed, folding her hands on the lap of her skirts.
"In truth, Sir, the Horseman had been gone for so long I was reluctant to believe that he'd returned. Regrettably, I was hesitant to appear a fool to you, a learned man unspoiled by this place, without good reason. I made that gamble because I knew your life was safe."
If not my person, Charles thought sorely to himself, but then he was curious of her certainty in that 'gamble' as she'd called it. "And the Horseman told you this? You've spoken to him?"
He'd not intended to be so accusatory with his question, but her gaze fell to her skirts and remained there for a moment as though he had been. She eventually stood up to refill his glass, and when she sat down again the line of her mouth seemed altered.
He tried to make an apology, but she stopped him.
"The village will tell you he was cut down in the midst of battle, according to the fair and honest rules of war, and that his black soul ignores this fact, ruthlessly taking the heads of any who venture past his grave at night." She pursed her lips and seemed for a moment as though she would not go on.
"But this is not true?" he coaxed.
She sighed. "He was a soldier of great skill, a German fighting for the British and he did it well. Too well, and the American rebels in his path were no match for him, day after day falling to his sword though their muskets were the more advanced weapon. So one night a group of them found his cabin hidden deep in the forests east of here and they crept close and set fire to it, hoping to kill him while he slept."
Charles frowned, recalling the terrible black smoke that wrapped around the specter and his burning mount. It would be an awful way to die. "But that does not explain his--his disposition," he said, his fingers picking absently at the collar of his shirt.
"He hadn't been inside the cabin," she went on. "Seeing his dwelling aflame he ran to it from out of the forest, and the men surprised him and fell upon him, overwhelming him once and for all, and taking off his head to be certain of it."
Charles' frown deepened. He had no taste at all for the bloody institution of war, but even he could recognize what agreement of Man had been broken. He was silent, contemplative, though he listened closely as she continued.
"By the time the men returned to their homes they suspected they'd acted against God's will. They confessed their deed to the pastor, who ordered them bring the body to bury it in consecrated ground to absolve them of their sinful act. They did as commanded, save for the head, which had been lost to some animal of the forest. And out of shame they told not another soul."
"But it was not enough to bury him?" said Charles.
"Perhaps for God, it was." She shook her head with a glance to the window, toward the woods. "But not for the Horseman. He rides for the heads of those who wronged him."
Charles looked too toward the window, toward the dark hollow of the path at the woods' edge. The rest of the village didn't know the truth: it was why they thought themselves future victims. He frowned as he looked back to her.
"The pastor must have told you this?"
"Not the pastor," she said. "My husband."
Her husband--who widowed her while she was still young--"Oh, how dreadful--" he said aloud, but she was rising from her chair and brushing off her skirts as though already dismissing his condolences.
"For nearly twenty years the Horseman has not been seen. It was the night of your arrival that he reemerged from the shadows of the churchyard."
"My arrival?" repeated Charles. "But I had nothing to do with it, I'd only just--"
She turned to watch him, her hands clasped at her waist. She appeared to be waiting while Charles stammered.
"Mr. von Tassell," he guessed finally. "He was one of them. He was right to flee this place! Why has he returned?"
"I have done what I can," said Mrs. MacTaggert, "but he knows the boundaries of the Horseman's ride and so long as he does not cross them during the night he insists on taking his chances for his grand-daughter's sake. I cannot do more."
Charles thought of the von Tassells' house hardly a few hundred yards from the bridge south of the churchyard. And then--the schoolhouse.
"Oh!" he cried, "I shall be late for lessons, I need to dress--"
"You need to rest," she said, firmly. "I've already sent one of the men to dismiss your students. I dare say they will not hold it against you. As for your clothes, they will be laundered of your ordeal."
"Oh, but--" He touched the ruffled cuff of the shirt he wore, noticing only now that it was much fancier, much finer than either of his own. He stared at it, frowning, guessing its provenance before finally stirring again.
"Thank you," he said softly.
She nodded to him.
"Rest now," she said again, "and I shall soon be up again with a meal for you. I do not think we should need a doctor, but if you would like me to send for one I shall."
"Not at all," he assured her, certain that there'd been no bones broken. In fact his head was so full of interest and imagination now that his pain felt less acute for it. "I will be right soon enough."
Again she nodded, looking him over quickly before she turned and left him in the quiet.
When he was alone, Charles carefully inspected the rest of himself. He found another two significant bruises that were quite painful, but nothing requiring attention. It was true that the knock to his head could, purely by chance, have had more serious consequences, including death, but he had to admit that it clearly had not been the intention, unless the Horseman was partial to inefficiency. Yet from the tales--accounts--Charles had heard, he certainly was not.
Charles sighed as he leaned back against the headboard of the bed, his eyes drifting to the road and the woods. What a shock it must have been, he imagined, twenty years past when men like Mr. MacTaggert were murdered so horribly. He knew it was not proper, or particularly healthful, to think on such things, but he wondered how many there had been. Had they died one after the other, in as many nights? Or had there been weeks, months in between, just long enough for the village to catch its breath before another blow was struck?
Charles frowned at himself, but he could not stop his thoughts now.
Who had found them? Surely not family, God willing, but in a village so small would there have been any available stranger to come across such a bloody scene? Was Mrs. MacTaggert spared the sight of her husband?
Tight-lipped, Charles ran his hands over his face, which someone had washed for him, and rolled carefully to his side to take another long drink of water. He refilled the glass and set it down, though before he settled back he opened the drawer of the night stand to find the small locket he'd stowed there on the night of his arrival, one of his few possessions that was not a book or a garment.
Inside was not a portrait. Instead as he rested back against the headboard he carefully took from it a lock of hair, tied with a small ribbon and bent with a distinct kink from the shape of its confines. It was dry, dull, and dusty. Dead. What had once been a beautiful shining blonde looked and felt now like straw.
Raven had been just a year younger than Charles. The siblings were seldom apart, even if she was scolded for digging in the dirt with him and he was chided for joining her at her doll house. When she was nine years of age, and he ten, she took sick and in right fashion he who would not be parted from her fell ill alongside her.
Charles had got better. Raven took her time.
For many nights Charles had looked after her while their nanny rested in another room. There was no role for a doctor to play now, just rest and high spirits, which had seen Charles through. Charles had been so exhausted from his vigils, so recently sick himself, that he fell asleep in a chair at her bedside early one night.
Ever at his heels, she must have passed soon after. But Charles had slept soundly the night through, even into a late morning, so that by the time he woke death had already begun to transform her.
Charles had seen dead things before: the deceased at wakes, the fresh kills of hunters. As a curious boy growing up close to wilderness he had had many opportunities to peer at, even to prod at, what becomes of flesh when chemistry finally has its chance to take it over.
But to see her familiar grey eyes gone flat and clouded beneath mismatched lids; to see her lips hung open away from her teeth and sagging slightly toward the pillow at her cheek; to know that she had perhaps been watching him when she died, and watched him for hours afterward in the dark, carved a deep and jagged chasm inside him whose black depths he often fathomed, whether he wanted to or not.
He wished, dearly, that the locket did contain a portrait, for the visceral horror of her ashen, misshapen face had successfully eclipsed his every memory of her natural visage, pink and healthy and alive as he knew she had been. And yet he could not recall her that way.
As Charles aged, and had secured his pick of scholarly subjects, he learned what he could of anatomy, and the latest of biology, hoping that through a practical application of knowledge he could flush out--neutralize--his instinctual and irrational fear of the experience. But like the sunlight that poured through the curtains that morning no amount of illumination could relieve the memory of his frank terror.
As such, Charles had the rare and unenviable talent now that could transform at will any face in his acquaintance into its appearance after death. He could recreate in his imagination the smallest details of the morbid news he sometimes heard. In this moment he could picture clearly the detached heads of those revolutionaries in Mrs. MacTaggert's account by the time they were found in the morning.
And indeed, such was the condition of the awful face he'd seen as the Horseman carried him upon his horse. Charles had known it could be no trick upon him, for nothing alive could ever approximate that impersonal mask of decay.
Smoothing the clipping of dusky blonde hair gently between his fingers, Charles began to see an opportunity. His more rational studies into the subject had not cured him of his indelible trauma.
Perhaps this would.
Charles hobbled away from the mouth of the woods no fewer than three times that evening, thoroughly losing his resolve, but each time either the pain in his ankle or his stubborn determination sat him back down again in the field just off the side of the road to strain his eyes into the growing shadows that yawned more deeply before him by the minute.
Mrs. MacTaggert had given him some crude crutches and her word that she wouldn't question his whereabouts, though if she looked from her window, she might easily find him in the distance. Also he was not likely to place himself into the woods after dark again--but at their edge, perhaps. She told him too that he would not be troubled by any wandering laborers, who upon hearing of the Horseman's return would not dare open their cottages after too late in the afternoon.
Though the weather still had not turned, Charles wore his greatcoat, and was glad of it, for despite the complete lack of any happening he shivered in its heavy shape from fear. And he had more than half a mind again to call off his plan when he smelled the smoke.
He ceased to breathe and hid himself back behind a collection of cornstalks at the edge of the field, peering between them so that he was very nearly blind to the scene but for a thin sliver of activity. Even thus hindered Charles could see the glowing embers that appeared, which he now knew belonged to the burning corpus of a fast, heavy steed.
For a time that was all Charles witnessed, same as what he'd seen from his window: flames within a thick darkness, but with a crack like thunder the smoke suddenly billowed back as though blown by a gust of wind to reveal the rest of the grisly pair: a rider, rising no taller than the shoulders, and holding his pale, lifeless head against his hip. While Charles had not noticed it last night, the glint of a tarnished sword hung down at his side beneath it.
Charles had nearly swallowed his own tongue to stifle his cry, but as the horse and its rider did not stir, he felt certain both were aware of him regardless of his cover. In an attempt to rally his courage and his higher wisdom, Charles closed his eyes, and counted silently to himself. Without opening them he carefully stood up, then allowed himself only enough vision to pick his way the short distance to the road, limping, until he could set the ends of the crutches on the dirt of the flat road.
The Horseman and his steed were perhaps fifteen feet from him. Charles started when the horse snorted, but he could see that its hooves did not move, so he stayed where he was and lifted his eyes.
He couldn't tell if the Horseman was paying him any mind. The features on the head did not move--indeed, seemed incapable of moving--but he did not disappear or turn away.
Charles drew his breath, hoping his voice would be steady, or even simply audible, when he spoke. For all his effort he nearly shouted it just to see it through.
"Are you, Phantom, possessed of an intelligence?"
There was silence. Charles was glad of the crutches for he could tell that his knees were weakening as he waited, his breath shallow despite his attempts to deepen it, expecting anything, expecting the worst. The horse stamped with idleness, but it seemed, if Charles had hoped to greet a creature capable of interaction, he was to be disappointed.
But a voice did answer him, disembodied yet issued, it seemed, from the region above the Horseman's collar.
Charles soured and blushed where he stood. Yet at least he was not speaking to a mere scarecrow, empty of mind.
"Then do you wish to harm me?"
Again there was a lengthy pause of silence during which Charles could not help but contemplate the darkness that swallowed the woods behind the specter and the chilling impression beast and rider made. The horse shifted and the long sword glinted in the moonlight; what Charles had supposed was tarnish he could see now was blood, as though the blade's last victim were only hours cold. Charles shivered to his core, crutches scraping in the dirt, and he thought perhaps the Horseman intended this effect. And just how certain could Charles be that the Horseman could in fact come no further than where he stood? Could he at any moment rush out these last few paces and strike Charles where he thought himself safe, using his assumption against him?
But at last he answered.
"Not you," said the Horseman. "No."
In spite of his unease, Charles was almost irritated by the confession. After all, he'd be mending his injuries for quite some time. "Then why did you chase me down and torment me if you meant no harm?"
Again the damnable pause, but it was shorter now. "You were in such a hurry. I thought I might help you on your way."
Charles stared, though he didn't know where to level his gaze. In the end he decided to rest his attention just above the shoulders, whence the voice boomed through the night air.
Charles was in a quandary. Surely this specter knew it was the reason Charles had been running? Surely it had not misconstrued the events so utterly?
"You are joking," said Charles, aghast. "You are being humorous!"
"So you are possessed of an intelligence," said the Horseman, but the voice was icy with disdain now, a sentiment clearly heard even if no expression of the face could accompany it. Charles cowered on his crutches as the horse reared, turning the rider away. "Do not address me again, Rebel, or I will start making exceptions."
Before Charles could say another word, a roar of wind kicked up the smoke around the horse and rider to blot them from view. Charles heard the heavy pounding of its hooves as it galloped, fading deeper into the woods, and though he could not see as much he knew they'd gone.
He waited there for some minutes, looking over his shoulder, peering through the trees for any sign of unnatural presence, but all remained quiet, save for the rustling of the fields and the creaking of heavy boughs in the wind. He finally resolved to retire, turning on the crutches and realizing he was still trembling. The tremors stayed with him all the way into the house and back to his bed.
But it did not mean he was not determined. Charles smiled to himself, shivering or not. It didn't mean that at all.
Charles was in no mood to sleep, but the schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow was expected tomorrow at the usual hour. He did his best, but woke many times, now and then sitting up to peer toward the woods, looking for the orange glow of the horse with its rider.
But by this hour they had become any other woods on the continent, quiet and orderly and harboring nothing more mysterious than the origins of their natural beauty. Where had the Horseman been, Charles wondered, when no one had seen him for twenty years? Had he slumbered the years away in his grave until the call of his prey roused him to the hunt once more? Or had he been there all along, wandering the finite strip of road, but choosing to let none see him? Charles slept fitfully with these questions, dreaming of the burning cabin, the black smoke rising up into a black sky, the birth of an angry spirit. If the Christians were right, might that spirit never ascend if not buried whole?
Finally as Charles woke for a final time the sky seemed to be readying itself for dawn, and he gave up. Stretching carefully, he gently ran his fingers over the healing knot on his head and rested back against the headboard. Beneath the warm covers he carefully worked his ankle, testing its state of repair, driving the stiffness from it in preparation for the day. Much of the swelling had gone, but it was still quite tender. Eventually, he closed his eyes, collecting the growing dawn against his eyelids, resting a few moments longer even if he could not sleep.
By the by he began to revisit the details of what he had seen, as was his way, bolstered by the promise of dawn. It never worked with Raven--he always felt the same terror and revulsion as he did waking that morning--but he wanted this to be different. He wanted to overcome, through familiarity, his primitive and irrational fear of the dead. It was the whole point of his arguably foolish venture.
So much had been very dark, but there had been enough moonlight from the woods' edge to resolve some form and pattern. Charles could see that the Horseman still wore his uniform, one of the regiments of Hesse, but burnt, tattered, and faded now, the green coat now the color of a murky lake bottom. Black riding boots, rising to his knees, made him nearly indistinguishable from his mount; same as his gloves, no bit of humanity visible, not even a glimpse of bare neck above the collar.
But he did have a face, did he not? He did once. Though Charles mentally shied from this he collected himself to focus on his memory of it, and he attempted to employ his unfortunate talent in reverse, to work backward from the mask death had made of the Horseman. The hair was easiest: it was cropped very short like the Romans had favored, utilitarian, but following the lines of a well shaped skull. He could not guess at the color of his eyes, nor the original shade of his skin, but the jaw was strong and square and the mouth--
Charles' stomach turned and he swallowed hard to keep it still. No, he could not determine it with any accuracy. The line of exposed teeth only reminded him of poor Raven's waxen face.
Enough for now. Throwing off the bedclothes, Charles shivered in the sobering blast of cold morning air and dressed himself quickly in the dim morning light.
"You can take this horse," said Mrs. MacTaggert beside the house as he prepared to leave. "In order to relieve your ankle while it heals, Sir." She still had not inquired about his whereabouts the previous evening, but she had given her word.
Charles regarded the horse, his grip tightening on the crutches. "Is that not Gunpowder, Madam? The 'cantankerous beast none dare trifle with?'" In old age the horse was comprised only of angles and agitation, one eye ghostly and pupil-less, staring straight into Charles' future.
"He was my favorite," said Mrs. MacTaggert, stroking its neck as though it were still a creature of pride and fondness. "He is also the only horse not pulling a plow."
Charles was about to say that the crutches would be fine when he attempted to pivot away and instead rolled the ankle beneath him.
Though he was much embarrassed by his cursing in front of a lady, Mrs. MacTaggert seemed almost amused. She brought the horse alongside him. "At least you can manage it properly with your good ankle," she said.
Yes, thank goodness, thought Charles, imagining Gunpowder would open the gates of hell to suffer be mounted on the wrong side. But gathering his best graces, he did manage to get himself into the saddle, though it felt like there was hardly enough horse to hold it firm. He thanked her, as sincerely as possible, and was off, moving only slightly faster than his own injured gait.
Charles resisted the urge several times throughout the day to let his students out early, saved only by the fact that there would be no point. He could not hurry the sun along its arc any better than his pupils could, and he knew they tried, could almost see it in their eyes as they gazed longingly out the window.
He rapped rulers on desks to get their attention. But he was also attempting to focus his own thoughts, to make their time spent here worthwhile when they could be helping their parents at their trades or assisting with younger siblings.
At times he was tempted to press them for more information about what they had heard about the Horseman, if only to compare it to the tale he knew. But, especially as he did not believe they were in real danger, he thought it best not to fan the flames, so to speak. They had been right about this, and he wrong; he wasn't about to fall into the trap of admitting it.
At last the school day was out. Charles locked the room up tightly after the boys had scampered out, and was disappointed to see that Gunpowder had remained nearby enjoying the sunshine and the meadow clover and had not wandered back to the MacTaggert farm. But Charles had to agree that it had been a practical arrangement, for standing all day with the occasional trek to a daydreaming student had not put him in any great want of walking home.
Though Gunpowder displayed a right show of discontent, nipping toward him and stepping out of reach, eventually the horse decided he'd made his point and allowed Charles up.
At dinner, which Mrs. MacTaggert had begun serving before nightfall, Charles was again glad of the company of the laborers and their many competing conversations down the long table in her kitchen. It gave him plenty of excuses not to meet her eyes, or to explain himself. But naturally he was the only one left when dinner was finished and the laborers hurried off for their cottages. Charles was doing nothing wrong, but neither was he doing anything intelligent.
But her words were few on the subject. She inquired if he would be taking another evening stroll before retiring for the night, and he confessed that he would.
She looked at him sidelong for a moment as she set a stack of dishes in the basin.
"I hope you will be careful, Sir," she said.
"Of course," he answered.
Charles waited longer this time in the field just by the side of the road after sundown, so long that his head had begun to droop toward his drawn knees and he nearly fell asleep. Though the night was cold again, the air was still and he did not feel it much beneath his greatcoat.
When the horse nickered it sounded as though it were standing over him, and he started with fright and rolled from it, though it was nowhere near. When he stood he could see the horse and its rider tucked inside the entrance into the woods beneath the tulip tree. Charles tried not to lean too heavily on the crutches, but by this time of night his ankle had stiffened again and he could not present himself as the confident figure he'd have preferred.
Instead he simply counted his blessings that he did not faint when the horse lifted its head in notice of him and the Horseman's shoulders squared toward him as though doing the same.
"How shall I call you, Sir?" called Charles. He felt the words came somewhat easier this time, knowing the specter was capable of answering. Whether it would was another question altogether.
"'Disinterested'," said the Horseman, "Or perhaps you will prefer 'Galloping Hessian,' or 'Headless Horseman,' or any other appellation I've been granted by strangers."
"Therefore I ask your true name," said Charles. "I wish to know you."
The horse snorted. After a lengthy stillness, the Horseman gave no more answer than to turn his mount away toward the woods and press it into a walk.
Charles watched after the pair, swallowing hard. Did he trust this murderous phantom? Would not it be prudent to assume it possessed a temper that could flare in an instant, making an 'exception' as it had warned? Was Charles truly contemplating placing himself in the Horseman's realm for no better reason than light conversation?
Charles sighed slowly. Yes. Yes, he was.
He followed. Hobbling along on his crutches he did his best to gain on the slow-moving pair, making somewhat of a clamor on the road as he toiled.
Though the Horseman did not face him, Charles could clearly hear his other-worldly voice. It was only now that Charles noted the German accent that colored it.
"You would chase me down, now?" said the Horseman. He sounded tired, as did the slow clopping of his horse. "I have no more room for irony in my life."
Charles managed at length to get alongside, twinging his ankle but ignoring it, and keeping at the other side of the regrettably narrow road. He was mindful that the Horseman could gallop off whenever he wished, and much worse besides. He allowed Charles to be where he was.
"If they have sent you to plead for von Tassell's life, there will be no pardon for him," said the Horseman.
Charles wanted to deny this, but while he had not been sent, he would not lie to say he did not wish Mr. von Tassell to be spared. Instead he set his crutches into the road and stopped.
"I know what they did to you."
The horse carried on ahead of him, tossing its tail with its bone gleaming between the surviving knots of hair. Scrambling, Charles hurried to catch up again.
"Did that woman finally deign to tell the truth?"
"To me," said Charles. He had fallen into a rhythm with the crutches, but was beginning to breathe heavier with the exertion, and his ankle was beginning to throb mightily. "Does it bother you, Sir, that no one knows?"
"And would you tell them?" said the Horseman, a sneer audible in the edges of the words that grew in volume and agitation. "Betray her trust, soil the memory of her dearly departed husband to exonerate me? I think you would not."
Charles caught sight of the Horseman's head as he spoke, his attention called by rare and awful movement. Dry, colorless lips attempted to sound the words, while the pale brow twitched over dead, flat eyes that seemed to mime the Horseman's sentiment.
Charles tore his gaze away and nearly stumbled at the very edge of the road, but recovered, keeping pace, reminding himself that he put himself where he was this very moment.
"I would do what was right," he said, meekly, "though I admit I know not what that is."
The Horseman had grown quiet after the brimstone in his voice, the face returning to the stillness of a corpse. His horse kept its slow pace, and Charles could see up ahead the little white church and the gentle swell of its hill. Gravestones dotted the ground where the moonlight caught them.
"I care nothing of this village," said the Horseman, at length, and quieter than Charles had heard him before. "It wants to be rid of me; very well, for I would be rid of it. I have one task remaining. Henceforth I am free."
It was strange. Charles feared this specter. He feared him the way the living irrationally fear the dead. More reasonably, he feared the Horseman's sword, and his readiness for murder. And yet he felt for him, for the unnatural predicament of his soul. Did not all soldiers of all wars commit the same crimes that had condemned him? Did he deserve this fate? What might happen to him when von Tassell, wisely keeping out of his reach, left Sleepy Hollow and never returned?
Suddenly the Horseman pulled ahead of him and turned so that his great mount spanned the width of the road before him. The Horseman's body was turned as though facing him, bringing the head just at Charles' eye-level. Charles steeled himself and tried not to flinch.
"What is it you want from me, Rebel? Why do you come here?"
Charles could not be sure, but it seemed as though the eyes of the head, usually unfocused and blank in their stare, had actually rolled in their sockets to peer at him through their clouded haze.
Charles' mouth went dry. He did have selfish reasons. He did not want von Tassell to lose his life, nor did he believe that he would, so long as the man kept safely out of the Horseman's reach. Charles could not help this unfortunate specter.
Still the head watched him, undeterred by his stammer.
"My sister," he said, finally. "I lost my sister when we were young. I thought I might understand it--if I looked at you, if I spoke with you--" He'd begun to tremble as he had before, unable to explain himself while the memory of her leapt at him while he was unprepared for it. "I never grieved--" he said, but he could not continue, could not explain how the acuteness of his fear of her had never stepped aside to let sorrow through. All the courage he'd mustered so far through the night left him and he felt the warmth of tears in his eyes, distinct from the cold night, the cold graves.
Charles continued to tremble as the silence went on, and he became more aware of that deathly quiet, broken only by his breaths and the creaking of his crutches as he kept upright. Suddenly the Horseman rose up in his stirrups and moved to dismount, and Charles stumbled backwards too quickly for his cold, weakened knees. He hit the ground on his backside and pulled himself away toward the trees as the Horseman's boots met the road.
Charles had gone too far, hadn't he? He'd been warned not to come back. He had all but admitted in several ways that he was not useful to this specter, and what would it be to the Horseman now just to pull out his sword and sweep his head clean off?
But the Horseman's boots stopped before him. Charles did not hear the scrape of his blade or see any shift in his weight to wield it. He wiped at his eyes and lifted his gaze, but of course there was not much to learn from looking at him.
Yet he did notice that the worn cloak the Horseman wore behind his shoulders was now draped over his left arm, concealing his unpleasant charge.
"Take my horse back to the edge of the woods," he said. "Get back into your bed, Rebel, as I do mine."
Charles scrambled to his feet, but the Horseman had already turned, pacing steadily across the road and into the woods toward the graves.
"It's 'Charles,'" Charles cried out to him, not knowing why he bothered with it. "Charles Xavier."
"I do not care," answered the Horseman. And then his dark shape silhouetted amongst the trees faded away, and the sound of his boots with it, leaving an emptiness in the night that was almost more disturbing than his presence.
And yet the terrible horse remained, patient, blind of sight but unstartled as Charles warily approached it. He limped along until he picked up his crutches, but he knew after the strain he'd placed on his ankle he was better off, by a thin margin, accepting the Horseman's offer.
Gently he touched its neck, where its flesh and its hair were still intact. It was cold, like moss-covered stone, impossible to be believed as supple, capable of life. Yet the horse tossed its head, strips of hanging flesh threatening to be shaken free. Charles felt a patch of mane. Dry and stiff, it felt like the lock of Raven's hair.
Pushing all of this aside, Charles carefully mounted. The horse was massive and it was not easy, and once in the saddle he wondered if this were not the Horseman's idea of clever homicide, for falling from this height would surely cost him more than an ankle.
But when the horse stirred, it was not quickly, and Charles was delivered safely, minutes later, to the edge of the tree line. No sooner had he dismounted than it was gone, almost seeming to fall back into a sudden yawn of dense black smoke, as though a void had suddenly opened to take it.
Charles watched, thoughtful, until the smoke had cleared. Turning on his crutches, he made his way back to the house, feeling lucky that he had survived, and wondering if his foolishness could continue.
The next day, toward the end of the afternoon while the students were working out a long set of arithmetic problems he had put up on the chalkboard, Charles began to examine the chest of books from the former schoolmaster which had sat in the corner behind Charles' desk since he'd begun. As quietly as possible, so as not to disturb his working pupils, he pulled out each book until he found a few that might hold what he was looking for. The rest he placed with a mustered reverence back into the chest, reminding himself that his distaste for these materials did not necessitate his disrespect.
He took the other books back to his desk and began to look through them, helping his students where he was needed and seeing them off when it was finally time for them to go home, but otherwise lost in the lists of names and their fates.
The German soldiers, most of them from the Hesse region, were detailed separately from the British, so Charles eliminated large portions of the volumes outright. But he did not know which year to focus on, nor which regiment, so he spent hours filling his head with the history of the men who were stationed and who fought in the hills and valleys along the Hudson River.
He was surprised to see that in most cases, the surviving Germans did not return to their home country after the war's completion, but stayed on in the New World, settling down in the villages and towns of their former enemies.
Where a soldier did not survive, the battle in which he fell was listed beside his name, and there usually followed the location of his interment. It was in this way, some time before nightfall, that Charles came upon what he felt for sure must be the name of the specter haunting Sleepy Hollow. There was no battle beside it, and the location of his interment was a questioning "Tarry Town." Charles looked through the lists twice to confirm there was none other like it, and became certain.
Committing the name to memory, Charles stowed the books away in their chest and left the schoolhouse, locking up tightly behind him. Gunpowder was waiting for him, but did not fight him--or perhaps Charles was too distracted to notice, save for heading in the right direction.
Charles remained quiet at dinner, eating quickly and retiring before the laborers did. It was not usual for him, for he often talked with Mrs. MacTaggert as she cleared the table afterward, so he explained that he wished to put his leg up, which was fully half the truth. Mrs. MacTaggert looked relieved and bade him Goodnight, and Charles was again glad that she left him to his own choices, within reason.
He was in fact very tempted to make the trek to the woods yet again, but he needed time to clear his head, and felt more ponderous than adventurous tonight. The books he'd studied, the names over which he'd run his fingers, had given his ghostly acquaintance a context and a place in the history whose bloodshed and tumult Charles had been too young to experience firsthand.
What was more, they'd given him a name. He'd been a man once, of flesh and blood, and Charles felt he knew him now more person than ghoul, and was perhaps the only one who did.
In bed, Charles took Raven's locket into his hand, but did not open it. The metal had worn some over the years, its ornamentation no longer so deeply etched, and it warmed easily in the curl of his hand as he lay. The candle still burned beside him on the table, but Charles closed his eyes. He deliberately called up his last memory of her, after she had gone, and held it unflinching in his mind.
The Charles of that distant morning had cried out and hid himself, shaking with fright and yelling for his mother or his nanny or anyone to come save him from the innocent body of his beloved sister. Now Charles watched her calmly, even wished he could reach out and touch her cheek, smooth her disheveled hair.
He loved her, again. Where he'd been able to feel nothing but revulsion he loved her again, the sister he was never parted from, the sister he'd lost. And suddenly he felt grief--an overwhelming flood of heartbreak that had been waiting for years.
And so Charles wept. He slept with his memories the night through, now and then hearing the echo of a neighing horse, but letting it fade into his dreams of her.
When the sun set the next night, Charles was sitting on the steps of the church. He had no horse nor crutches with him now, for as it happened, his ankle was able to mend itself far more efficiently while he was not making pursuit across the cold ground. He'd walked into the woods after the school day on his own two legs, carrying a slab of stone and a chisel and mallet borrowed from the MacTaggert shed.
By the time he smelled the smoke in the air and heard the clopping of horse shoes on the road down the hill, he had not got very far in his task.
"It's harder than it looks," he said with regret, watching the Horseman's boots as he approached on foot.
"Stone?" said the Horseman dryly, and Charles looked up at him with almost a smile.
The tattered, empty collar between the shoulders was not quite so jarring anymore. And while he could see the bend of the Horseman's arm and the curve of the parcel it carried, both were again concealed by his cloak. The other side of his uniform was still visible, its burnt, worn folds perhaps hiding the strong bulk of his torso even less than it did in life.
"Engraving," Charles corrected, setting the mallet and the chisel down on the stone. "For your gravestone."
The Horseman scoffed, the angry sound of wind gusting through fallen leaves. "And which title have you elected to use?"
Charles watched him, curling his fingers over the edge of the cold stone. He drew his breath slowly. "The one your mother gave you, I think. Erik Lehnsherr, Sir."
For a long moment the Horseman stood with his shoulders squared to Charles. With nothing more than his posture to read, Charles felt the tension, but sat motionless, save for the tightened grip of his fingers on the stone.
"And what if I didn't want them to know it?"
"Then it's a good job I'm so unskilled," Charles answered lightly, keeping his eyes on the Horseman even as he picked up the stone with the chisel and mallet upon it and dropped the lot of it the short distance to the ground beside the steps.
Charles hadn't considered a man wouldn't want his own grave marked with his identity. For who was he, then? How were his deeds and his life to be honored without the name? Would not the village have had more sympathy for his soul if they knew him by the name he'd used in life, a name that brought to mind a childhood, a history, a set of circumstances that had placed him in this unfortunate place in an unfortunate time?
But Charles knew the name. And from the Horseman's words, if Charles minced them the right way, that was all right.
"May I call you 'Erik,' Sir?"
The Horseman snorted as his horse might, and swayed his hips to turn, beginning a stroll through the graves. "Could I stop you?"
"Certainly you could," said Charles. He rose to his feet to follow, placing his weight carefully on his ankle, but it prompted only a slight limp.
"I wouldn't risk an eternity with the Headless Schoolmaster," said the Horseman.
Charles smiled, perhaps more brightly than usual as he could not be seen.
The path they took followed the road, but remained among the graves. Eventually they left the churchyard behind and entered the cover of trees, rustling through beds of fallen leaves. While his companion's step was sure, Charles had to be careful not to trip over the concealed roots of the old trees. He was aided momentarily by the wind, which gusted enough to kick up the leaves and reveal, for a short time, the path ahead of him. Likewise it rippled the cloak on the Horseman's shoulder, revealing a glimpse of pale skin and dusty hair. Charles expected to shudder at the sight, even in such limited exposure, but he didn't. He furrowed his brow in thought.
Erik Lehnsherr slowed to a stop, then turned to face him. "What?"
Charles took several more steps to close the distance before he came to rest a few paces away. With lips pursed, he folded his hands behind his back, a meek posture for a rude request.
"May I see it?"
There was only a brief pause before Erik shifted, rolling his shoulder beneath the cloak and bringing out his head, gripped from the top by its short hair. He held it at arm's length toward Charles as though to shock him, a punishment for asking, or perhaps more of his strange humor.
Charles felt a deep shiver run through him. But the nerves of surprise were short-lived. He did not shrink from the ghastly display as perhaps he was expected to do, but rather gazed at it in earnest. After a moment, he tentatively unclasped his hands from behind his back and extended them, silently asking to take it.
If Erik was affronted by this, he made no motion to indicate it. Instead, after a pause, he lowered it into Charles' hands as though it were a mere bundle of books. The transfer made, he slowly turned again, his cloak swaying around him as he continued on his way.
But Charles stood still and kept his eyes on what he held. It was cold, but the short hair was still pliant between his fingers. The pallid skin was almost translucent and waxy over the forehead and cheekbones. He noted, of course, the more awful characteristics, the ones that had always stuck in Charles' mind--the occluded eyes, the eyelids drooping with asymmetry, the teeth behind slack lips. Very briefly he examined the gaping, cruel wound of the neck. And yet as he breathed slowly through the pounding of his heart, he noticed other things. The old scar along the hairline. The newer cuts on the chin and temple. The fine wrinkles at the corners of the eyes.
Like the vision of his sister he'd called before him last night, he saw not so much death itself now, but the life that preceded it, for so many more vibrant years than the scant hours it took to render it thus.
As he watched, the head faded from his sight and its weight from his hands, perhaps too distant now from the source of the illusion. It took Charles a moment to find Erik's unusual silhouette among the trees ahead, but once he did he picked his way through the woods toward it.
Just several yards ahead of Erik was the river that separated the woods from the houses beyond them. As Charles came up a respectable distance beside him, he looked ahead at the scene beyond the bridge.
The houses were warmly lit, windows yellow with lanterns against the blue wash of night. Most prominent among them was the von Tassell residence. Though Charles could hear very little, especially over the low rushing of the river, he imagined the laughter, the kind words, the excitement of a family with a wedding just two days away.
Charles stood in silence before finally gathering the confidence the speak.
"He knows how to be safe from you," he said, gently.
The drape of Erik's cloak indicated his burden had been returned to him. His answer was not immediate, but it came.
"He will come to me," he said, darkly. "The wedding is in the church on my ground. I have plans to enact in advance in order to delay him. If he has but a foot in my territory the moment the sun sets, it is all I need to end this."
Charles frowned. He supposed the church could be filled with snakes, or a trap set at the pulpit to injure the pastor, or even the bridge carefully sabotaged to bear the weight of a procession in but not out again. But with at least two individuals in full possession of the rules and the stakes, Charles did not begin to see how the plan would succeed.
"Unless you help me," said Erik.
"I can't," whispered Charles. He shook his head as though to buttress his resolve when he looked toward his companion. "Mr. von Tassell is my friend. I cannot stop you from what you wish to do, I know this, but I cannot aid in the murder of an old man amongst his family. I'm sorry, Erik."
Charles' gaze had fallen, but he picked it up again to watch for Erik's reaction, worried to upset him, but also, worried to hurt him.
In the silence, it wasn't until Erik's right arm stiffly returned to his side from under the cloak on his left that Charles realized he'd been gripping the hilt of his sword there.
"Of course," said Erik. He turned to walk away from the tree line, but not so quickly that it seemed he wanted to leave Charles behind. Thus Charles followed, dejected and desperate for some other way to solve the awful purgatory.
"I can have a house built," he said, raising his voice to Erik with hopeful cheer. "Here in the woods, to keep you company."
"And then what?" asked Erik, roughly as he walked, and Charles blushed.
"Well, we could--"
But before he completed his thought, he realized Erik was questioning Charles' finite lifetime. Presumably, Erik could wander these woods for eternity, even as the church crumbled and the trees were cleared and all the names on the graves became as lost and forgotten as his.
Charles suddenly felt too heavy, too crushed to continue walking, but he plodded on along Erik's path lest he lose him in the trees. How awful, how sad to consider what would happen if Erik's plan failed--and it was bound, surely, to fail.
"If only your real head had not been lost," he said. "The Christians believe the soul cannot be resurrected without the body entire. What if that's the key? What if it could be found?"
Charles stopped when Erik did. There was a chance, such a small chance, that a search party could locate the remains of the skull in the forest. If it could be done tomorrow, there was a chance there would be no more risk to von Tassell's life at all!
"I know exactly where my head is," said Erik.
Charles worked his mouth for a moment. "You do?"
He didn't need to see Erik's face to know his contempt--he could hear it. He could feel it.
"Those cowards left it where it lay, unable to stomach their own handiwork when no longer fresh and warm."
Charles was aghast that these men, Mr. von Tassell and Mr. MacTaggert among them, could have collected the body and left it incomplete by choice. "I will get it!" he pledged. "But tell me where your cabin stood and I will bring it back to bury it."
There was a chance it would be the solution Charles wanted so badly: peace for the Horseman, for Erik; and absolution for the remaining survivor of those foolhardy men, who certainly deserved punishment but not death.
"I promise to you I will bring it here if you tell me where to look," Charles repeated. "Please allow me to do this for you."
Erik stood very still for such a long time that Charles worried he had not been heard, or that the illusion was fading, though he knew it was hours yet from dawn. Yet before he could speak again, Erik finally turned, and walked to a large fallen tree, covered with lichen. He sat down there and for once his shoulders fell forward as though in weariness.
He seemed to wait until Charles stepped closer, until Charles seemed ready to listen.
"Those soldiers were inept," said Erik, scoffing faintly as Charles watched him in wonder. "Even outnumbered as I was, I could have outdone them, used their own weapons against them, emerged the victor of their clumsy ambush."
Charles did not dare interject but listened carefully, preserving what distance remained between them out of respect.
"They thought me fatally distracted by my burning cabin, but what care did I have for that? I only thought to free my wife and daughter who were hiding inside it. I could think of nothing else. And so they pulled me from the flames and overwhelmed me."
For a long while Charles was speechless. But when Erik did not resume speaking, he found his own voice.
"You had a family?"
"When the war began, and England was paying for soldiers, we came. Whoever won, there was a better life here, for her people, for mine."
Charles had reached for a nearby tree for its support. He felt as though his body had grown numb to stave off the truth of what he was hearing. "I'm sorry, Erik. I'm so sorry."
"Vengeance lifted me from my grave and only vengeance will put me back in it," said Erik. "There is no other way. But if you insist on your charity mission I will tell you the location of that cabin on one condition."
"Yes," said Charles, softly. "What is it?"
Erik was quiet, though in the silence his shoulders rose and fell as though with deep, difficult breaths.
"Find their remains," he answered, "and put them in the ground."
"I will," said Charles. "Of course I will." It mattered not that, even as far as he'd come, the thought filled him with dread, but what was fear when compared to the unrest of the soul, compared to desecration and dishonor of a memory? Charles finally found the strength in his legs to approach, to offer comfort, anything but idleness, but Erik stood up then. He made a few paces and crouched to brush aside the leaves from a bare patch of soil free of roots.
He picked up a piece of broken shale and began to carve out a map of the forest and hills east of the Hudson, rising higher and far larger than the scope of these lands of Sleepy Hollow. He named specific landmarks and drew their relationships, describing for Charles the winding path he himself had taken to reach home each night.
Charles had to stare very hard to make out the shapes in the wan light. But he was able to commit it to memory. He promised he would do this task, that he would set out at first light. He would do this. And he would bring back the skull, hoping to end all this misery.
Erik, though Charles could not tell, seemed to be staring at the map he had made. Eventually he began clearing the marks from the ground with his gloved hand. "You will find Magda by her bright red shawl, if it survives. And Anya . . ." Erik's hand gradually slowed to rest on the ground.
When he did not go on, Charles spoke gently. He needed whatever information he could gather to find them in what could be rubble by now. "What of Anya?"
Erik finally retracted his hand from the smoothed ground and rose to his feet.
"Anya will be very small."
He did not linger after that. He turned from Charles, whose chest was aching for him, and had faded from view within a few measured steps into the dark. He had gone, and Charles did not call after him.
Charles slept fitfully once he consigned himself to his bed. His heart was heavy with the story he had learned, and his head full of trepidation for the task he would have to complete in the morning. As the night was cold, he piled the blankets over him, but through so many cycles of sleep and wakefulness he was both too cold and too warm, and he tossed restlessly through most of the night.
Within a few hours of dawn, he finally got to sleep and stayed there. Half-formed dreams of ashes and close, dark spaces gradually cleared to set him upon Erik's frightful steed, racing along the road through the trees. There seemed no end to them now. The road went on indefinitely, and the woods stretched always to keep ahead of it, no matter how quick was the horse or how long was its gallop.
Yet Charles was not alone. Just as in the first night of their encounter, Erik sat in the saddle behind him. The steady rise and fall of the horse's gait was palpable in the press of Erik's body behind him, and Charles found himself leaning into him, following the skillful rhythm, finding that the teeth-clattering shudder of the gallop faded into something much smoother when followed properly.
Charles flushed warmly as Erik's hands, free of their usual parcel, crossed over his middle, gloveless fingers distinctly cold where they slipped under Charles' waistcoat. They pressed against his stomach as Erik's arms encircled him tightly, bringing Charles more firmly against him, changing his posture in the saddle until Charles could feel the press of Erik's thighs against his.
"Erik," he mumbled, feeling the tightening of his breeches, helpless to distract himself from it as the motion of the horse and Erik's hold of him forced them in their confines to rub together, arousing his sensitivity to it with every rise and fall.
His breeches were not tight for long. Erik's cold fingers had unfastened them, and before Charles could say a word Erik was reaching past the folds of Charles' shirt to touch him. The chill of his fingers as they encircled him almost rose Charles out of the saddle, but he was so warm now, so uncomfortably hot that it became a coldness he craved, and sought after, pressing himself into Erik's hand while his breaths grew shorter and shorter.
When Erik's other hand moved behind him, Charles was forced to hold onto the pommel of the saddle to steady himself, the instinctual rhythm of his own body clashing dangerously with the gallop of the horse. He was leaning forward, now, over the horse's neck, while Erik seemed to have lifted himself up in the stirrups behind him, giving him leave to send his icy touch down between Charles' breeches and his backside, touching him where Charles would never, ever have admitted to wanting it.
When Charles felt his fingertips sliding into him, his sudden climax ripped him from the dream to leave him gripping at the bedding and shuddering into it, riding it out as there was no stopping it now. He kept the memory of the chilled touch to the last, and had not even caught his breath when he tossed the heavy quilts from him, over-hot and perspiring.
The ceiling was a dim grey as he opened his eyes to stare up at it, his breath slowing as the cold temperature of the room finally reached the rest of his skin, sobering him. But he was still weak in the knees as he stood up to pour water from the pitcher into its bowl for washing, tending in meditative silence to his face and his hands before using it elsewhere.
He often wondered if other men had these sorts of dreams and fantasies. But this time--this dream--Charles was completely certain he was the only one.
Feeling now as cold as his companion had seemed, Charles changed his shirt, the other luckily washed and mended from his tumble along the road. He pulled on the rest of his clothes as the dawn lightened the room and he drew a comb through his hair before braiding and tying it. His best course now was not to think where he was headed, but simply to act.
Charles found Mrs. MacTaggert already awake and busy downstairs. Though breakfast was still a few hours off, she outfitted him with some bread and cheese when he told her he would be out for the day. And while Charles offered only a vague statement of his hope to help the Horseman and the village at once, she agreed to let him borrow a shovel, a set of sheets, and Gunpowder for his efforts. She only warned him to be careful of the thick fog that had rolled into the valley that morning.
Charles set off while, according to his best guess, the sun was still barely free of the hills. He shivered in his greatcoat from the heavy moisture in the air, feeling it against his face and hoping he could still follow the series of landmarks despite it. He found his memory of Erik's instructions to be clear; now he wished the same for his sense of sight.
Yet once he had left the reaches of Sleepy Hollow and begun to ascend into the higher hills of the forest, the fog thinned, and while still perceptible he found it passable. While he was worried he would miss each turn and become lost where Erik's directions could not help him, each landmark appeared where he expected it, though had he not been told to look for them, they would have been meaningless.
By late morning, having come very carefully over the distance, Charles finally caught sight of the remains of a cabin. Most of its roof had fallen in and its walls of stacked logs rose only a few feet from the ground in some places. Meanwhile the forest had grown up around it, reaching to take it over and reclaim its brethren.
Not risking Gunpowder to wander off in this strange place, Charles tethered him to a tree with room enough to graze and water from a tiny stream.
When he straightened and looked around him, the sense of foreboding he had driven ahead of him all morning finally settled over him. It was easy to imagine things, here. Despite the time of day, there was a palpable gloom resting over the forest floor. What remained of the cabin was partially blackened from fire and soot, telling its own sad story. Subtle eddies of air stirred ashes into shafts of sunlight where they rose and fell again.
He was loathe to disturb it, to bring his noisy, clumsy chaos into this picture of absolute mourning, but he had made his promise and felt it to be right. What seemed peaceful to him could be an agony of restlessness on the other side of the glass. He finally goaded himself to movement, and picked his way through the forest floor with care. These grounds were hallowed, there was no doubt, entombed by secrecy for twenty years.
What seemed once to have been the cabin's entrance was blocked by fallen logs, so Charles rounded the side until he found a section of wall low enough to climb over. He carried the two sheets under his arm as he stepped with reverence onto the littered floor, letting his eyes adjust to the somber play of shadows inside.
It had been a small home. Despite the debris and the fresh greenery sprouting amongst the ash and rotting wood, what was human among it did not take long to find. The red of a shawl, half burned and half molded, covered Magda where she lay. As Charles crept closer, he could see the sad tangle of her hair, the curve of her skull, the fingernails still on her fingers.
A combination of fire and exposure appeared to have mummified the remains enough to keep the bones articulated. He cleared the debris from her and gently draped her with one of the sheets like a shroud, shuddering inwardly as he drew her body into it and wrapped it, feeling the shape of her bones through the material. "Forgive me for this intrusion," he said to her, sometimes aloud, sometimes in his own head like a chant. "I do this with respect."
Her remains were light as he lifted her, trying not to put too much strain on any of the joints as he took her from the cabin. Nearby, he found a spot of land without too much growth where the ground seemed soft and free of roots, and gently he set her down there.
He returned to the cabin with the remaining shroud. His heart was heavier now as he found the second body, sheltered by the remains of the bed, but within reach of her mother. He remembered Erik's words as he covered her with the sheet so much larger than the small child she'd been, and with tears stinging his eyes he lifted her wrapped form and carried her to where the other waited.
Breaking ground with the shovel, and toiling hard as he dug, Charles began to think that perhaps he was wrong not to help Erik secure his final revenge. Perhaps it was only fair that von Tassell, having lived a full life these poor souls were denied, should sacrifice himself in exchange for justice. The deeper he dug, the more bitter he became, thinking of the suffering of such deaths, thinking of the anguish of a father and a husband prevented from rescuing his family and perishing with the flames of his home in his eyes.
When he could dig no more, Charles cleared his thoughts to be mindful of his actions. He lifted one, then the other, to place them gently side by side in the grave, strangely considering their comfort, attempting to settle them in repose within the shrouds.
As satisfied as he could be, he began the process of returning the earth whence it came, first scattering it over the white sheets with his hands, then in heavier mounds with the shovel.
When his thoughts returned to von Tassell and his deed, they were more muddled, more confused. Had not Erik slaughtered many of von Tassell's friends and compatriots, having been hired to do so? How could Charles be the one to weigh these deaths on a scale and pronounce some less moral than others?
And how could murder settle the score of murder? Could von Tassell's death at Erik's hands truly grant him eternal rest? How could killing bring him peace?
When Charles had packed the last of the earth over the grave he went and collected an assortment of stones from beside the stream and used them to mark the site. At first he arranged them in the pattern of a cross, but remembering what Erik said of Magda's people he arranged them instead in a stack of more general significance.
The skull, as it happened, was not difficult to find. Despite the underbrush and the encroaching forest, the paleness of its dome stood out among the green and the brown of the forest floor just as soon as he determined to seek it out.
Unlike the other remains, when Charles bent to lift the skull from its resting place he found it had been picked clean, by weather, by insects, and came up in two pieces. Feeling oversaturated of emotion by this hour of the difficult afternoon, at first Charles thought little of its weight in his hands. But as he crouched to wash it of dirt and other detritus in the stream, he thought he recognized the line of its teeth, even the shape of its forehead and the line of its jaw.
He shuddered, not from disgust but from a realization of the mortal connection so often ignored. Why were such things so frightful? Why, when each person daily carries with him the corporeal effects soon to be left behind?
Worn and weary, Charles tucked the skull and its jaw bone in a satchel attached to his saddle. If Gunpowder felt uneasy grazing in sight of such tragedy, he gave no indication, already looking the ruin of a former horse. Returning to the stream once more to wash his hands as best as he could, Charles then folded them in unaddressed prayer over the grave he had dug.
The quiet atmosphere between the tall, still trees seemed none altered, but Charles had faith that he'd made some difference for the better, if only because he'd done as Erik wanted.
Charles only hoped he could do the same for Erik. With the shovel secured, Charles mounted his horse and carefully traced his earlier path toward home again.
The sun was almost setting into the still-thick fog when Charles finally crossed the bridge over the narrow Pocantico River into the woods and the churchyard within them. Though his hands were chafed and sore from his earlier task, he took up the shovel once more, this time breaking ground at the marker without a name. He found himself holding his breath between inhales, hoping so strongly that this was the key to Erik's rest, that Erik would suffer no further, that no more lives would have to be lost. He would know the answer in a matter of shovel-fulls, and the anticipation and worry made him sick.
The last light of the sun faded from the misty evening just as his shovel struck something hard that wasn't rock. He set the shovel down just as a shadow loomed beside him, breaking through the fog, and Charles bent down to confirm that he'd found a collarbone at the bottom of the small pit he'd dug. Luckily for him, he supposed, the hasty grave was not very deep at all.
He sat back on his heels as he looked up at Erik's phantom self. He drew the satchel close and opened it, carefully taking out the skull and mandible and setting them on the ground.
"Shall we try?" Charles asked. He knew Erik did not expect this act to make a difference, but Charles hoped so badly that it would. Erik stood still at the side of his grave as though observing Charles and his remains, but when he spoke it was of other things.
"Did you find them?"
His voice was flat, as though he'd prepared himself to avoid any emotion in it.
"I did," said Charles softly, looking him over. "They're in the ground now, deeper than you, may God rest their souls."
Though Erik was silent, there was a subtle bow in his shoulders and a tightening of his fist at his side that Charles could not help but interpret as gratitude, if not toward Charles then toward the wide unfeeling universe itself, which had heretofore been so cruel to him.
"Allow me to render you the same courtesy," said Charles, fervently, ready to put the skull back where it belonged but wanting Erik's permission to do so.
After a moment, Erik gestured, extending his open hand toward his grave. "Be my guest."
Drawing his breath, Charles nodded. Please work, he thought. He took the pieces of the skull and bent to set them gently in place. Please be enough. Hardly daring to breathe again, he began to cover them in earth, the rich soil so dark against the white bone as it was buried. Only when the grave had been entirely restored, and the earth packed down in proper interment, did Charles gather the courage to lift his gaze.
To his fascination he found Erik changed, indistinctly at first in the fog but then more solidly. His apparition no longer stopped at the shoulders but included his entire form, and what decay had once altered his visage had lessened so that, while yet looking unwell, his features were animated with expression, and his eyes were a clear grey, so like Raven's that Charles was astonished.
But if Charles could see him still, did it not mean his plan had failed?
"It hasn't worked," said Charles, rising to his feet miserably. "You're still here. I'm sorry, Erik."
Erik's eyes remained on his grave, but his thoughts did not seem focused there. When he spoke, his voice was strangely reserved, issued it seemed from his lips now, but different besides.
"It has worked," he said. He stirred as though coming out of his thoughts, and looked about him. "I am whole in the ground."
There was something about that phrase that Charles felt familiar. And the more he considered it the more he didn't like it.
Erik finally focused his gaze on him, and it was then that realization struck. One of Charles' students had said it, hadn't he? The Horseman could not cross the river because he was not whole in the ground.
"You tricked me," breathed Charles, the blood draining from his face to think what he had done.
"I'm sorry, Charles." Erik turned from him with a heavy sway of his cloak and with long, quick strides he sped toward the road. Like a sea creature leaping out of the waves his horse erupted from the ground in smoke and curling flames to bear him up and carry him with ever more speed toward the bridge.
Panicked, Charles thought at first merely to dig up the grave again and remove the skull, but he'd packed the earth hard, and there wouldn't be time. At best he would only trap Erik on von Tassell's of the bridge. No, instead, Charles would have to stop him physically before he reached the man, at the very least to give warning.
He scrambled into the saddle again and goaded Gunpowder desperately into a gallop, hoping the old horse would not falter over the roots of the trees as he pressed him on, but they reached the road in time to see the tail of Erik's horse disappearing over the bridge in the fog, and Charles pushed the beast harder in pursuit. He shouted ahead of him to warn von Tassell away, anything to give him time to escape Erik's expanded boundaries, but the dense fog seemed to swallow that up, too, limiting his sight and his call.
He followed Erik's horse as best he could, knowing Gunpowder was the slower but doing all he could to close the gap. Just barely through the fog he could see the glow of the houses and then quite suddenly he saw ahead of him the dim figure of Erik drawing his sword over a figure who stumbled back to avoid the hooves of Erik's rearing horse.
Shouting would do nothing now. Charles set his jaw and sent Gunpowder barreling toward Erik's steed, but no horse will willingly collide with another. Gunpowder stopped just short and threw him, and Charles saw the pile of firewood von Tassell had dropped just before he fell hard upon it, and he saw nothing after that.
It seemed an eternity before Charles could open his eyes.
At first he was in his childhood home, and the sunlight was streaming in almost to blind him. There sat Raven at his bedside, her pretty blonde hair falling over her shoulder as she watched anxiously for his recovery, the way he'd once done for her in those nights before her death.
He tried to lift his hand to touch her face, to feel her hair, but it was like moving through water. His vision resolved before his command of his limbs, and he recognized the face of Katrina von Tassell, no longer Raven. Rather than the sun blinding him, it was a bright lantern just beside the bed. He let his hand fall the short distance to his side again, and he groaned, aching all over, but most especially his head and his back.
Katrina had gestured to someone else in the room, and Charles watched blearily as Baltus von Tassell took Katrina's seat and then waved her from the room.
"How do you feel?" von Tassell said, anxiously, concern pinching his brow.
It took Charles a moment to find the ability to respond, just as von Tassell's words seemed to take ages to catch up to the movement of his lips.
"Terrible," said Charles.
"Can you move your toes?" von Tassell asked, and Charles at first thought it a very odd thing to inquire after. But he attempted it, and felt their movement, and von Tassell sighed deeply.
"Thank heavens," said von Tassell. "You took such a fall I thought for certain you'd broken your back. I've seen it before."
"Fall?" Had Charles fallen?
But just as he said it he remembered Gunpowder rearing, and why, and he tried to sit up. Von Tassell pressed him to stay where he was, and the painful bruising along Charles' backbone convinced him, for now, to comply.
"You're alive," said Charles. "What happened? How did you save yourself?"
Von Tassell sighed slowly as though composing his thoughts. He finally shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. Perhaps I haven't. But when you fell from your horse, he saw it. And I wanted to go to you to help you, and I think he saw that, too.
"With the fog so thick, and we so far from the rest of the houses, I think he knew that if he took me then, you might be in real trouble."
"He let you go?" asked Charles, awe-struck.
Von Tassell did not seem entirely confident in his safety, but he nodded slowly. "He did."
Charles forced himself to sit up before von Tassell could stop him, biting back the pain but feeling that all his bones were in proper order. "I must go, Sir, and I thank you for your kindness. What is the time?"
Von Tassell seemed bewildered, and still concerned, but he looked toward the clock in the room and answered. "An hour before dawn, Sir."
"Thank you, again," he said, and he suffered the pain as he swung his legs from the bed and bent to put on his shoes. He staggered to his feet, and though infirm, with every step his faculties grew stronger and better aligned. By the time he reached the front door, with von Tassell and even his grand-daughter trailing anxiously behind him, he felt more confident of step, and did his best to convince his host of the fact.
Just as he was slipping out the front door, von Tassell took him by the wrist. "I really must go," Charles plead, but as he looked back von Tassell drew him close with insistence.
"You know, then, what we did?" he asked, his voice low, his expression plaintive as he searched Charles' eyes for understanding, even forgiveness.
Clearly there was shame, there. Clearly there was remorse. But von Tassell did not know the half of it. Was there any point in telling him now?
"Better than you do," Charles answered, his gaze shifting from von Tassell to his grand-daughter and back again. It was not Charles' secret to tell, nor his judgment to make. But this he could not help.
"Good-bye, Mr. von Tassell," he said, pulling away from him finally and slipping from the residence, hoping to disappear into the lingering fog as he entered it again. It seemed to be thinning now, heralding the approach of morning, but it still shrouded the area so that he could barely see the bridge until he was upon it, and he was glad to be making his way on foot. He had forgotten to ask after Gunpowder, but if he knew the beast at all he knew it had put itself first in tossing Charles off.
He moved as quickly as he could toward the churchyard to find Erik already there. He was sitting on the steps of the church where Charles had been when he had attempted to carve Erik's name into the slab of hard stone and failed.
"You let him go," said Charles, not bothering to catch his breath first.
Erik lifted his eyes from the ground--while Charles marveled that he could do that--and watched him. His hands were folded between his knees where his arms rested upon them.
"It hardly seems worth it now if you're hardily tramping over here so soon."
"You were worried for me," said Charles. "You put me above your own quest."
"I could still do it." Erik's gaze drifted over Charles' shoulder as though toward the von Tassell residence. "All that limits me now is distance, and he is still there, within my reach. I can feel he is there."
Charles looked him over curiously. The wedding was this coming day; Erik knew. Von Tassell would surely leave town before sunset; Erik knew. This was his last hour to act, and there was no obstacle remaining, now. Yet here Erik sat, speaking with him, letting the minutes slip away.
Was he damning himself to his peculiar existence forever? Charles had never believed he would.
"Have you pardoned him, then?"
Erik's eyes rested again, focused, on Charles, and slowly his brows lifted, then furrowed. He looked mystified.
"I suppose I have," he said. He seemed as surprised as Charles felt.
Charles was no longer very certain whether he was relieved or not. What did this mean for Erik? Would he roam this place forever?
But before Charles could make a reply Erik made a terrible cough, wet and stifled. Charles rushed forward in alarm while Erik's hand moved to his throat, as confused as Charles, but now gagging, unable to breathe.
"Erik!" Charles reached for him, but did not manage contact. Erik's physical form was waning, and Charles thought perhaps he might find rest after all, but why like this? Why choking as though perishing in the way of flesh and blood?
Before Erik disappeared from view altogether he looked away from Charles, toward his grave, and then there was no more indication to give. He was simply gone.
Charles stood on the steps where he'd been. He felt ill with unease. He should have felt that the whole matter had been resolved, but it wasn't right. Erik had faded into the shadows much more gently before.
And then as Charles stared at the grave the answer struck him, while at the same time it seemed impossible. But what was impossible after all he'd seen? He raced toward the grave, ignoring the sharp dagger of pain in his back, and fell upon the freshly turned soil, scrambling for the shovel and digging into the same dirt he'd just replaced. It was still soft, he thanked God it still was, and he soon threw aside the shovel. He used his hands instead, desperately clawing aside the earth, reaching down into it until he felt the warmth of skin, of hair.
He cleared the soil from the mouth, at last, and it gave a great gasp, pulling in shallow lungfuls of air. Charles scrambled to take up the shovel again to break up the rest of the grave, lifting it out of the way frantically, all his nerves humming with the task. At last the earth began moving, light enough to be lifted with the expanding of a man's chest.
"Hold on, Erik, we're almost there," he said. His voice shook, as did his arms as he worked, but at last Erik had room enough to claw himself up. Charles moved aside, and Erik heaved himself out of the grave, rolling to his stomach and coughing the earth up out of his lungs.
Charles sat by him, trying to pull the air into his own lungs, feeling shocked and bewildered. Had Charles died? Had Gunpowder finally killed him? No, he seemed too much in pain for that, shouldn't it be one or the other?
At last Erik fell to his back in the dirt, staring up at the sky through the trees and breathing great, deep breaths. His hands tightened against the ground, fingers digging into the soil, as if questioning, too, in what realm of existence he'd awoken.
Finally he turned his head, and his eyes--eyes set in a lively, ruddy face--met Charles'.
"You look different," he said, and he coughed, his voice still rough from the dirt in his throat, or perhaps all those years in death.
"So do you," answered Charles. Tentatively he reached out to offer his hand, and Erik took it--warm, solid, real--to sit up. Erik leaned into his knees. "What happened?" Charles asked. "What does this mean?"
Erik shook his head, pressing his hands over his face and through his hair. His clothing was filthy, looking much as it did in his phantom state, or perhaps worse, having been in the ground for so long against his corpse. Charles was surprised it was still there at all.
Charles wasn't sure what he expected, but Erik's grief was not it. Though infinitely more composed than Charles ever was, he sounded in a terrible state.
"I had one life already," he said. "How am I meant to begin another?"
Charles was hardly capable of fathoming this question. Furthermore he knew not to try. But before Erik could begin answering it himself, he would need to be taken out of this place and into light, and warmth, and comfort.
"Wait here," said Charles. "Or hide if you must. I will be back in a half hour, I promise you."
Erik looked at him blankly before he frowned.
"I promise you!" said Charles, before he could object. "I will be back."
Before Charles himself could doubt his words, he took off, hurrying just as quickly as he could through the woods toward the MacTaggert farm, ignoring the pain that dogged him. For once, fear was the very last thing on his mind, and it almost seemed foolish now that he would have felt afraid of the trees and the wind simply because of the dark.
When Charles returned, he carried a heavy basket of food and a pile of clothes under his other arm. As such he moved more slowly, and it was all the more agonizing that he could not be immediately where he wished to be. But in good time, he arrived at the churchyard as he said he would, and to his immense relief, Erik had remained, though he had risen to his feet with a tree beside him for support. He was facing the east, and as Charles climbed the churchyard's hill toward him, he turned his head.
"You look splendid," said Charles, embarrassed for it but not caring. The sun was rising over the hills and changing the colors by which Charles knew him, and Erik seemed to be feeling his own version of this. "Look, I have brought you breakfast," he said, handing the basket to Erik, "and clothes." But Erik was not paying any attention to this last part as he sat down to tear into the potato pancakes, eggs, and toast with jam from Mrs. MacTaggert's kitchen. Charles' conversation with her had been short, and vague, but Charles knew she guessed more of the truth than she let on.
Midway through the meal Erik stopped and offered Charles a portion, but Charles waved it off. "Please, no, I just ate yesterday."
Erik continued with the food, and Charles smiled. His stomach was indeed twisting on itself with hunger but he was able to stifle it well enough with all the wonder he felt. If the power of vengeance could give a spirit presence enough to wield a sword, could not some other, kinder force have put the flesh back on his bones?
Although it would have done little good had Charles not been there to free him from his grave, Charles tried not to question Providence too closely.
When Erik was finished, and sitting against a tree with a flagon of water, Charles gave him a few moments of quiet before speaking again. "I doubt that anyone in Sleepy Hollow will recognize you, or believe what has come to pass, but perhaps your happiness will be better secured in Tarry Town. It's not far from here."
"I remember," said Erik, watching him evenly.
"I would gladly take you into my own home if I had one to provide," he said. He never cared, really, for his own sake, but now he wished he were better established, that he could be generous and take care of this man for as long as he needed it. "I've brought you some clothes, and all the money I had from Connecticut. When I have my month's wages I will give you that as well. Do you know any trades?"
Erik's eyes fell to the pile of clothes sitting beside Charles. "Where have those come from?"
Charles pursed his lips as he dropped his gaze. "They belonged to Mr. MacTaggert. My own clothes are much poorer, but I will give them to you instead if you prefer. It's the best I could do."
"No," said Erik. Eventually he sighed and drew himself forward, taking the clothes and carrying them with him into the woods, away from the road and the houses, but following the river until it was better secluded. As before, Charles took the rhythm of his walk to mean he meant to be followed.
Erik's uniform all but fell from him as he attempted to remove it, more like sodden paper than fabric by now, and he stepped naked into the river, which must have been freezing. If he cared, he didn't show it, and Charles sat down on a nearby fallen tree and watched him as much as was proper.
Erik submerged himself and scrubbed at his hair, the dirt clouding the water around him before the slow current drew it away. When he straightened again, Charles could not help but follow the movement of his hands as they sloughed the filth from his skin, revealing a figure of lean muscles flushing in the icy river.
He was exquisite. Charles no longer cared if he had died in the fall. What he feared now was that he was only dreaming, and that he would soon wake from this miracle.
When Erik emerged, ascending the river's banks, Charles took the ascot from his throat and gave it to him, knowing it wouldn't help much to dry him but it was better than nothing. Erik looked at it for a moment before passing it over his arms, legs, and chest, then dressed himself in the clothes Charles had brought. He kept his own boots, whose tough leather had survived the years, somehow.
From beside Raven's locket Charles handed him the sack of coins, which he knew Erik would not have taken if Charles hadn't deliberately surprised him with it. "It's not much, but it will get you a room in Tarry Town long enough to find other income."
Erik was staring at it in his hand. "I used to know smithing," he said slowly, as though only now remembering what life he'd led before he took up a sword in another country's war. As though Charles thought right, Erik's hand moved to his hip, where the sword would have hung. Of course it wasn't there.
"It must have broken from you in the ground," said Charles. "Shall I get it?"
"No," said Erik, still in that slow, thoughtful manner. "Leave it. It seems fitting."
Charles nodded. He waited until Erik had resolved his thoughts and tucked the money into his clothes.
"I will accompany you to Tarry Town," he said. "To be sure you lodge safely."
Erik's grey eyes fixed on his again, and Charles began to realize that this meant parting ways. And he didn't want that. Not at all did he want that. "But I will visit," he hastened to assure him. "It's so nearby, I could visit all the time."
"Then come with me," said Erik. He'd got close enough to reach for the sleeve of Charles' greatcoat, and Charles could feel him gripping it tightly, pulling gently on it as though he'd pull Charles himself close if he could. "Come with me and stay, and we could go anywhere. No one else could know what you know of me."
Erik looked to Charles with a desolate longing that Charles felt sure he would never see in another person, not as long as he lived. He knew he could not let go, could not deny this man, for he would be damning them both as surely as this patch of earth along the Hudson had been damned by the faults and failings of desperate men.
Charles let Erik draw him closer by his sleeve until Charles could not resist putting his arms around him. Erik felt cold from the river, but beneath the chill of the surface he could feel the furnace, the heat of a beating heart. He shrugged out of his greatcoat and placed it around Erik's shoulders, keeping him close, heartened when Erik made not a single move to draw away from him.
"Then I will not leave you." It felt like a revelation to say it. He gripped Erik's shoulders and pressed his cheek to Erik's jaw, delighted to feel Erik's stubble, the answer of his closeness. "You will not be alone."
Under the weight of Charles' coat, Erik's skin gradually warmed, and the dampness from the river was soon imperceptible. Charles himself felt warm as ever, and was loathe to move, but he knew they must. "The village will be congregating soon. We must go."
"You'll miss the wedding," said Erik.
"To hell with the wedding." Charles stepped back with a deep breath to steady himself. Did he not have with him now everything important to him? "Besides, it will make a fine footnote to your legend if I'm never heard from again."
Erik studied his face with a smile that soon broadened to one side in a satisfied smirk. "I knew you were a rebel."