Benefit of Ghouls and Goblins
As the coach rattled through the village, children ran alongside it and adults peered out their windows. A remote hamlet like this had few visitors.
One of the middle-aged men inside the coach looked out with narrowed black eyes that missed nothing. He was slender with high cheekbones and silver hair that still had a few strands of raven black running through it.
He spoke to his companion in a low tone. "This reminds me of my arrival in Sleepy Hollow. Except that it is far friendlier."
The other man leaned across him to look as well. He was a few years younger, broader-shouldered, with a grizzled beard. "Are you sure this is the same town?"
"It is." They had reached what passed for a town square and the coachman reined in. The older man stepped out, glancing about nervously, pursing his lips.
By the time the second man had emerged, the local clergyman had appeared. "What brings you gentleman to our quiet village?" he asked at once.
"My name is Ichabod Crane," the slender man replied. "I was here many years ago, and was told a ghost story. I wondered if anyone has seen the ghost since then."
The garret was quiet. It generally was when Ichabod was working. An extravagant three candles illuminated his desk, but he was neither messing about with his chemicals nor scribbling in his journal, and the newspaper he was reading was lowered to the desk. Ichabod was frowning somberly, staring into the distance.
Glancing up from across the room, where he was repairing a small tear in one of his boots, Brom recognized the onset of one of Ichabod's spells of depression and hoped he could allay it. He rose and went to Ichabod's side. He took one of Ichabod's hands between his own, running his thumb lightly along Ichabod's scarred palm.
"What's the matter, Ichabod?" he asked softly.
Ichabod sighed, frowning at nothing. After a moment, he said, "The news from France. Their experiment with democracy has been a complete disaster. I had hoped that our country would inspire the world, but it's been only a quarter of a century since the Revolution, and already this country is corrupted. Sumptuary laws, for God's sake! We did not even remain true to our ideals for as long as Greece did. And Greece eventually became decadent and stratified, easily conquered."
Brom stared at him incredulously. "That's what you're worrying about?"
Ichabod met his eyes, a bit taken aback. "Well, yes."
After shaking his head silently for a minute, Brom seized Ichabod and stood, slinging his lover over his shoulder.
"Bones!" Ichabod warned.
"I'll put you down when I get you where we're going," Brom said, and a few seconds later threw Ichabod onto their bed. Ichabod tried to rise, looking miffed, but Brom was over him before he could. "Anyone who's thinking about hooptedoodle like that needs something."
"Hoopte-" Before Ichabod could express his outrage at the flippant word, Brom's mouth was on his. When the kiss ended, Ichabod scowled at him. "This is what I get for trying to have a serious discussion with you."
"Is that what you keep me around for? Serious discussions?" Brom asked innocently, leaving a trail of kisses along Ichabod's neck and jawline. Ichabod groaned. "And if that's what a serious discussion is," Brom continued, "then you've just proven again that smart people are out of their minds."
Ichabod suddenly laughed as his arms encircled Brom's broad shoulders. "Aristotle said, 'No genius was ever without an admixture of insanity.'"
"He was right. But quit thinking about books by dead eggheads." Brom was now busy with Ichabod's buttons. "If you're worrying about things like - what was that about, anyway?"
"The decay of democracy," Ichabod answered with despair.
"Right. I'm pretty sure that democratic decay is out of your jurisdiction, so there's no reason for you to be worrying about it. You have more pressing things to think about just now. My mouth, for instance, and my hands, and ."
"So we're going to fiddle while Rome burns?" Ichabod said with a rueful smile, though he did not seem to be objecting. Quite the contrary, by this point.
Brom lifted his head, frowning. "First France, then America, then Greece, and now - what the devil does Rome have to do with it?"
Ichabod laughed at that, pulling Brom closer. "Ah, Bones. You're such a primitive. My noble savage."
"To hear you talk, anyone would think I was an Indian running around the woods in a loincloth."
Ichabod's smile widened. "I'd like to see that."
"I just bet you would."
Later, Ichabod rose and pulled on a robe before going to put his various chemical experiments in order and blow out the candles. Brom watched him, tired and contented. When Ichabod returned to his embrace, he grasped him close, absently stroking his back. Ichabod drew a deep breath as he settled down. Brom studied him in the dim light the moon sent through the window high in the ceiling. The ever-present circles under Ichabod's eyes seemed darker than usual, and even now, when he was tired and sated, his face was grave, not relaxed.
Brom asked suddenly, "When did you last have a holiday, Crane?" When Ichabod only smiled, Brom said, "You've never taken one since you joined the constabulary, have you?"
"What for? I would just spend it reading and messing about with chemicals."
"Not necessarily. You could spend it in the country, getting a little sun, breathing some fresh air - I don't know why you city people don't choke on the air here."
"Brom ." Ichabod did not look as if he was interested. Brom leaned closer, speaking into his lover's ear.
"We could go on long drives in the wilderness. Just the two of us. No one to see us." At those words, Ichabod's eyes moved to his, and Brom knew he was making progress. "Spend the nights at some country inn where no one knows us and we'll never see anyone again. People who won't have time to wonder about us, and who can't bother us if they do. Ill even run around in a loincloth if you like."
Ichabod drew a breath, wrapping his arms around Brom. "The idea does have a certain appeal," he conceded. After a moment, he added, "But it might not be wise. We might get too used to not worrying; it will be difficult to come back to our normal lives"
"GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!" Brom yelled. Ichabod jumped, startled. "No wonder you have any fun - you think there's no point because it can't last forever! Smart people are lunatics! Why don't you stop eating, because you'll get hungry again? Or stop sleeping, because you'll get tired again? Or stop lying with me, because you'll"
"I surrender!" Ichabod exclaimed, looking both amused and beleagured. "We'll take a vacation! We'll run around the countryside pretending we're satyrs and fauns!"
And so two weeks later, the two of them were leaving the city in a rented coach. Brom drove, revelling in the warm spring air once they were a mere half hour out of New York. Ichabod regarded the breathtaking countryside with resignation; Brom had only allowed him to take his ledger and one book, and he was rather lost without his usual amusements.
They rode till dusk, when they chose a tavern that boasted a couple of tiny attic bedrooms for the rare travellers who passed through. The proprietors had an hour's frenetic activity, putting one of the rooms to rights; no one had occupied either in a couple of years. When they retired, the room was still a bit musty and cobwebs adorned the high corners, but Brom was not inclined to complain; it reminded him, a bit, of the garret where they had loved for the first time, in the Van Tassel manor in Sleepy Hollow.
The following afternoon, they came to a prosperous hamlet set in such pretty countryside that Brom insisted that they remain there for a couple of days. After a night in a far cleaner and more comfortable inn, Brom announced over breakfast that they were going to have lunch on the shore of a nearby lake.
"And just how are we going to get out there?" Ichabod asked with apprehension, already anticipating the answer.
"I hired us a couple of horses," Brom said casually, as if it were a matter of no moment. As he expected, Ichabod looked pained but was too proud to argue. He followed Brom out to the stables as if he were going to his execution.
"We could go quailing instead," Brom offered, knowing that Ichabod had no interest in hunting.
Brom didn't bother to say that he had chosen the mounts carefully. No obstinate, lazy nags like Gunpowder, and no prancing, spirited horses of the sort he preferred for himself. Instead he had chosen docile, obedient animals, easy to control, dull as riding such creatures promised to be. Ichabod's horsemanship was a disgrace to the constabulary. Brom had to do something about it.
The stableman led the two horses out, both mares. One was a strawberry roan, appropriately named Strawberry; the other was named Star for the white blazon on her forehead. Brom quickly claimed the slightly more spirited Strawberry for himself, though she was also the smaller and as such Ichabod would probably have preferred her. Ichabod did not allow himself to protest, however. He moved at once to Star's right side and put a foot in the stirrup, about to mount.
The stableman shot Brom an incredulous look. Both embarrassed and amused, Brom put a hand on Ichabod's shoulder, stopping him. "We can manage," Brom informed the stableman. The man looked at him dubiously, but left them alone.
When he was out of sight, Brom turned to Ichabod. "Didn't anyone ever tell you anything about horses?"
Looking embarrassed already, Ichabod protested, "I haven't even gotten on it yet. What could I have done wrong?"
"Always mount on the left," Brom said, as if he were speaking to a small child. Good Lord, it was worse than he'd thought. He had his work cut out for him.
His mask of stoicism in place, Ichabod went to Star's left side and mounted passably enough. Brom followed suit, vaulting up onto Strawberry with insulting ease. The two of them set out.
As they rode, Brom amiably pointed out the flaws in Ichabod's seat. Ichabod held the reins too high, to start with. Brom showed him the correct hold, and every few minutes had to remind him of it. He tried to give his instruction in the patient way his own father had taught him, but Ichabod never took direction well. He tried to follow Brom's instructions, but he did not answer anything Brom said and with every sentence, he frowned harder. And he was totally incompetent on horseback.
After they had been riding for an hour, Brom explained gently, "Crane, the main problem is that the horse can tell you're nervous, and that makes her nervous. You've got to relax."
Ichabod looked exasperated. "If I relax, I shall fall off!"
Brom looked at him for a second. Then he leaned over and pushed Ichabod off the horse.
Trying to smother his grin, Brom reined in and grasped Star's reins as well. Ichabod, lying on the ground, stared up at him incredulously.
"You fell off," Brom informed him calmly. His father had done exactly the same thing to him, nearly twenty years before. "You lived to tell the tale. If you fall off again, you'll live through that too. So relax." Wrapping both sets of reins in his left hand, he leaned down, extending his right to help Ichabod up.
Ichabod glared at him for a minute before standing up without aid, ignoring Brom's extended hand ostentatiously. He spent longer than necessary brushing the dust from his clothes and straightening his frock coat before taking Star's reins from Brom with a disdain worthy of an earl snubbing a stableboy. Then he mounted - properly, on the left side - and settled in the saddle again. Perhaps in hopes of escaping further harassment, he was better mounted this time, following all the instructions Brom had been giving.
"Relax the muscles in your arms and shoulders," Brom ordered. "You're supposed to hold on to the horse with your thighs. I know you can do that."
His face scarlet, Ichabod did manage to release some of his tension, though not as much as Brom wanted. He stared straight ahead, not deigning to acknowledge Brom's presence or words, even as he complied with them.
As they continued riding through the morning, Brom tried not to constantly correct Ichabod's riding seat. After all, he had just learned the proper way; he needed to practice. And he was actually quite improved already. He seemed a bit startled at how easily Star followed his lead. This was not only due to Star's obliging disposition, but also to Ichabod's improved riding.
They reached the lake shortly after the sun hit its zenith. Brom chose a spot on the shore to stop for lunch. Wincing, Ichabod dismounted and walked stiffly to a rock that was a good size for sitting on.
Brom tethered the horses and went to kneel beside Ichabod's rock.
"I am not speaking to you," Ichabod informed him.
Brom bit his lip to stop the grin. "That's all right," he said. "But you'd better let me tend to you if you want to be able to walk tonight." Without waiting for consent, he grasped Ichabod's calf in his strong hands and began kneading the muscle hard. Ichabod let out an exclamation of pain before gritting his teeth and submitting to the massage. Brom thoroughly tortured every muscle in both of Ichabod's legs before releasing him. By the end, Ichabod had used a few words which Brom had thought were not in his vocabulary.
"Trust me, you'll thank me for this tomorrow," Brom assured him.
"Be quiet. I'm plotting revenge," Ichabod answered sulkily.
Brom let Ichabod fume silently while he brought out the food they had packed. He poured Ichabod a mug of water, which he drained almost instantly, and sat back down by his lover's side with a mug of beer. Ichabod still would not look at him. Impertinently, Brom rested his head on Ichabod's lap, looking up at his pretty, vexed face.
At last Ichabod looked at him, and then reached for the mug Brom held. "Let me have some of that."
Surprised, Brom handed it over. "You must be in worse pain than I thought," he said. He had never seen Ichabod touch a drop of beer.
Ichabod took the mug and unceremoniously dumped its contents into Brom's face. Brom leapt to his feet, spluttering.
"That's the kind of thing I'd do!" he blurted, shaking the excess off his hair. "I never thought I'd see you play a silly prank like that!"
"I'm learning," Ichabod retorted coldly.
Brom burst out laughing, and then scooped Ichabod up in his arms. Ichabod hated to be carried, and Brom rarely dared do so when he was conscious. But that was not the only way in which he was risking Ichabod's ire, because he was carrying him straight to the water.
Correctly guessing Brom's intention, Ichabod seized Brom's head, forcing him to look at him.
"Do you want to sleep on the floor for the next month?" Ichabod demanded.
Brom stopped short. The two men locked eyes for a long moment. But Brom knew when he was beaten. Chuckling as much at himself as at his lover, he set Ichabod on his feet. Ichabod walked awkwardly back to his rock. Brom crouched by the water's edge to wash the beer from his face.
"I'm still going to settle with you for everything else," Ichabod warned.
"I know," Brom answered cheerfully, resuming his place at Ichabod's side.
"Look a bit more concerned, or I'll think of something worse to do to you."
Even though he knew Ichabod meant it, Brom couldn't help laughing. "So all that talk about the humane treatment of accused criminals was a sham?"
Ichabod smiled sourly. "You are not accused, Brom, you are convicted."
When the meal was eaten and they were ready to ride on, Brom quickly claimed Star. "We're switching horses."
"Because Star has already lost respect for you. You can impress Strawberry with your new skills."
Ichabod was wearing his most martyred look. "I am stranded in the wilderness with three dumb animals, and now I have to impress them."
Brom smiled, not taking offense at the barb. "You've already impressed one of them," he said.
"I am not going to ask which one," Ichabod condescended to say before mounting. Properly.
And Strawberry was impressed, because Ichabod rode her competently from the start. Competently, not well, but it was a great deal of progress for one day. And by the time they returned to the inn at twilight, Ichabod could not deny the difference. Brom wouldn't have put him on one of the scarcely-manageable mounts he himself preferred, that would have been foolhardy, but at least Ichabod would be able to ride when he had to without looking a complete fool. Or falling off.
Over dinner, Ichabod's expression alternated between annoyance and grudging pleasure.
"I've got to hand it to you, Crane," Brom said when they first sat down. "You didn't protest or complain once. I don't count threatening me as complaining," he added. Allowing his tone to become admiring, he asked, "Do you ever back down?"
"No." Ichabod's reply was very definite. Brom smiled, unsurprised. Ichabod was quiet for a few minutes before saying carefully, "You taught me a great deal today, Bones." He paused for another long minute before adding, "I do appreciate it."
Brom smiled. "I figured it was time someone taught you how to ride. You're vastly improved already."
Ichabod nodded curtly. "You still are not off the hook."
Brom grinned. "I know it."
And as soon as they were alone, Ichabod subjected him to refined tortures which would have induced him to confess to anything. "You'd have made a first-rate Inquisitor, Crane," he gasped at one point, and was promptly made to regret that remark. He had expected this retaliation. But when he was finally granted release, it was more than worth it.
The next day, Ichabod was easily persuaded to take another ride into the countryside. They rode far out, far from the most distant farmhouse, far from prying eyes. They stopped at midday to eat and rest a bit, but soon Brom's normal restless energy asserted itself and he was up and wandering about. Impulsively he decided to climb a huge oak. When he was perhaps five feet off the ground he glanced over and saw that his lover was watching him intently from his seat beneath a smaller tree.
Noticing Ichabod's eyes on him, Brom grinned and paused on the branch long enough to take off his frock coat, his vest, and finally his shirt, tossing the last over Ichabod's head. Ichabod put it aside, resisting the urge to fold it neatly, and leaned back to watch him. Knowing he was being observed, Brom shot him pleased, impudent glances. He was glorying in the attention, utterly lacking Ichabod's embarrassment when he knew that someone was admiring his damnably pretty face. Brom's face, with its square jaw and vivid blue eyes that hid nothing, was as honest as sunshine and about as complicated.
As Brom continued to climb, his muscles flexed under his skin, which was covered with a thin sheen of sweat. Male bodies were usually praised by comparison with statues of Greek gods, Ichabod reflected, but Brom was no Hellenistic beauty made for lolling about with panpipes or engaging in pointless contests. His broad shoulders and slightly stocky build were meant for rough, practical work in the real world; his magnificent body was meant to be useful, not decorative. He was not a Greek god, but a Roman soldier, strong, brave and straightforward.
He did not know the meaning of fear. Far above the ground, he hooked his strong hands over a branch and swung from it cheerfully.
"Be careful!" Ichabod exclaimed. Brom laughed aloud at that, and inched out further along the branch just to taunt him. Ichabod shook his head, giving up. If he were careful, he would not be Brom Van Brunt.
When Brom had received his inevitable comeuppance at the hands of the female Kung Fu artist Long Cherished Wish, Ichabod had been afraid that the knowledge that he was beatable would destroy him. For a time, he had seemed on the brink of turning into a weak-willed bully just like the other constables, like all the men Ichabod despised. But his spirit had been strong enough to survive the trial, and now he seemed far less a boy, far more a man. Still full of vigor and mischief, still himself without doubt, but a bit quieter beneath that. He took Ichabod's work, and his own part in it, far more seriously now. In fact, they each respected the other far more now.
Having gone as high as the branches could support his weight, Brom gloated over the vantage point for a minute before scooting back down to the ground. He seized Ichabod's hand, trying to pull him to his feet. "Climb up with me," he urged, laughing.
Ichabod could not resist smiling in return, but he did not move. "No."
"Come along," Brom cajoled playfully, tugging harder.
"Bones!" Ichabod's tone was warning; he was near the end of his patience. Brom, recognizing the serious note in Ichabod's voice, promptly subsided. He let himself fall to the grass at Ichabod's side, stretching out and raking a hand through his tousled mane.
"Eggheads," he remarked. Ichabod lifted an eyebrow.
"Should I be insulted?"
"No. I've always liked eggheads."
"Why? You big lugs don't generally have much use for us."
"You're always doing weird things. You're never dull." When Ichabod chuckled, Brom continued, "When I was about eight, there was an egghead at school a couple of years older than me, and he started carrying an umbrella every day, even when there wasn't a cloud in the sky. We all made fun of him, of course, but he kept right on. One day I asked him why he was doing that. He told me that he sunburned terribly he was redheaded, and more freckled than you can imagine. He was using the umbrella to protect himself from the sun. He even showed me some book with pictures of ladies carrying tiny little umbrellas to keep their skin pale, and he said the word for those little umbrellas meant 'for the sun' in some language or other."
"Parasols. Spanish." Ichabod nodded.
"I should have expected you to know! I was amazed. Carrying an umbrella on a sunny day was crazy, but when he explained it, it sounded completely sensible. It was interesting. And I admired him for doing it his way even though everybody picked on him." Brom let his eyes twinkle at his lover. "I suppose I developed something of a crush on him, though I didn't know what it was then. And he wasn't even handsome. Ever since then, I always asked eggheads why they did the lunatic things they do, and they always can make it sound like it makes perfect sense." Ichabod was laughing in earnest now. Brom continued, "I wanted you the minute I saw you, because you were so handsome. But I think I fell in love with you the first time I saw you put on those outlandish spectacles of yours."
Ichabod's face suddenly became serious. Neither of them had used that phrase before. He drew a breath. "And I fell in love with you," he said softly, "when you made me promise not to go 'spook hunting' without you to defend me. It was a bitter moment; I was quite certain you were in love with Miss Van Tassel."
Brom smiled, more gently this time. He sat up and slowly tangled his fingers in Ichabod's inky hair. Ichabod automatically glanced around.
"There's no one for miles," Brom reminded him softly.
Ichabod nodded slowly, and a moment later their lips met.
And holding the man he loved in the bright light of day was more wonderful than Brom had thought it would be.
They moved on the following day. Their leisurely lunch proved excessive; night fell, cool and moonless, before they reached the next town. Still, the road was wide and even enough that travelling it, even in darkness, was no hardship.
Without warning, Ichabod put a hand on Brom's elbow. "Stop the horses."
Brom reined in obligingly. Ichabod shh'ed briefly, and they both listened in the heavy silence.
At first all Brom heard was the soft sound of the breeze and the steady song of night insects. Then he heard it a cry, distressed, shrill, and unmistakeably human.
"Do you have your pistol?" Ichabod asked.
"My rifle." Brom shouldered it, then tethered the horses at the side of the road while Ichabod took his own firearm from his satchel. "Let's stay together," he said as they began to make their way in the dark toward the voice, which sounded again after a moment.
Ichabod wondered if he should shout to the girl, let her know help was on its way, but decided to wait; if someone were abducting her, the culprit might silence her if he knew rescue was on its way. They walked as quietly as they could, trying not to brush against the branches of the trees they passed, not speaking.
Thank God Bones was with him. Had Ichabod been alone, he still would have drawn his pistol and gone to offer aid, but it was infinitely easier to face such things with Brom beside him, Brom who was afraid of nothing, who would defend him to the death without hesitation.
It isn't death I'm afraid of, Ichabod thought with a grim smile. It is the preliminaries that daunt me.
He glanced at the mass of blacker blackness which he knew to be Brom, then stopped in his tracks when he could not locate it. He held his breath, but there were no footsteps, nothing.
Ichabod went cold all over as he glanced around frantically. Brom was nowhere to be seen.
"Brom?" he said, pitching his voice low to hide its tremor. He stood absolutely still, holding his breath, but there was not a sound.
He squinted into the darkness, but there was only the starry, moonless sky and the blackness of trees. He swallowed.
"Bones, if this is one of your bloody pranks, I swear to you...." Ichabod's voice trailed off. It was not a prank and he knew it. Brom knew what this would do to him; he was not this vicious. Ichabod's trepidation mounted; wherever Brom was, if he was not answering, he could be hurt.
Hesitantly, feeling every step cautiously, he moved forward, straining his eyes and ears for something, anything.
Ichabod whirled at the quiet, feminine voice. "Who's there!"
The slender trunks of trees were made visible for a moment by a patch of white moving behind and around them, until the patch resolved itself into a young woman in a pale gown. Ichabod was too surprised to wonder why she was so clearly visible in the darkness.
"What are you doing out here?" he demanded, years of constabulary habit making his tone authoritative.
"I'm lost," the girl replied in a breathy tone. Her eyes were wide with helplessness as she slowly advanced straight to Ichabod. As she drew nearer, he was able to make out her features quite clearly. She was perhaps twenty, with large eyes, creamy skin, a Cupid's bow of a mouth, and a shapely form. She was quite pretty.
As always, Ichabod assumed the responsibility of reassuring others even though he himself was petrified. "Not anymore. It's all right, I'm here now. As soon as my companion returns, we will escort you home."
To his embarrassment, the girl threw her arms around his neck. "Thank goodness," she breathed into his ear. For a second, Ichabod's fear of the dark forest and the ghosts that lurked therein was forgotten in favor of uneasiness when he realized the girl's intentions. He removed her arms from around his neck and stepped back awkwardly.
"It's quite all right. My friend will be back in just a moment," he said hastily. Already he was fretting about what he and Brom would tell the girl's family when they got her home. Explaining the truth about why her questionable virtue had been perfectly safe unchaperoned in the woods with two young bachelors was impossible. Ichabod cursed mentally. "Be quiet, let me see if I hear him," he said, more to fill the edgy moment than for any other reason.
The girl kept silent, but stepped close to him once more, taking his arm as if she merely wanted the reassurance of contact. Ichabod stood straight as a ramrod, hoping his silent aloofness would discourage her. There still were no sounds or other signs of Brom.
"Have you heard any sounds in the forest tonight?" Ichabod asked. "Any animals or other people?"
"Only you," the girl cooed. Ichabod felt his face growing warm. For numerous reasons, he wished that he was anywhere else on earth. His mind searched frantically for something to do. "Is there something wrong?" the girl asked.
He shrugged stiffly, then remembered that she could not see it. "I am not used to female company." She had no ready answer for this, it seemed, and they walked on in silence for a couple of minutes.
"Oh!" the girl exclaimed in sudden distress. Ichabod quickly looked to her, then just as quickly looked away. "My dress!" she said. Somehow, her bodice had fallen open, revealing the fair skin beneath. Ichabod did not know how she could have done it on purpose so silently; perhaps it was simply an accident, fortuitous from her point of view.
"Pardon me," he said woodenly, turning his back on her. "Tell me when you've put yourself to rights."
A silence answered him. She was likely surprised at his reaction, he reflected. He set his jaw. When, when would this night be over....
"You may turn around now," the girl said in a soft tone he did not trust. Cautiously, he looked over his shoulder, and quickly averted his gaze again.
Another silence followed, and then she said, her voice a bit irritated, "Oh, very well.... There, I've fixed it."
This time his wary glance around found her with her bodice modestly fastened and her eyes upon him, faintly puzzled.
Trying to put the awkward moments behind them, he said briskly, "Good. Now, let us see if we cannot find my companion, and then-"
The girl stepped close to him once more with sudden determination. Before he could evade her - she changed.
One second a pretty young woman stood before him, close enough to touch him. The next instant, her face and her entire body were bruised and bloody, with huge gouges torn out of her creamy flesh. The horribly mauled creature standing there could not possibly be alive.
Ichabod could only stare at her, stunned. After taking in the horror of the apparition for a long moment, Ichabod collapsed senseless to the ground.
Brom froze suddenly. "Ichabod?" he whispered. He peered into the black silence of the forest night. "Ichabod?" Nothing.
He set his jaw and turned to go back the way he had come. How in the hell had Ichabod managed to evade him? And why? The last thing Ichabod would want to do was wander alone through the woods on a moonless night. He should have been sticking to Brom like a burr.
Something had made Ichabod faint, Brom decided. It was the only possibility. Though how Brom had managed not to notice a thing was beyond him.
Every few steps, Brom softly called to Ichabod, and then paused silently. If Ichabod awakened alone, he would be frightened witless. Which at least would ensure that he would make enough noise that Brom could find him. Still.... With each passing second, Brom's worry increased.
Ten minutes later, he was praying unabashedly, to whatever deities or spirits might be kind enough to listen. If harm had befallen his lover - he did not want to even contemplate that. He kept searching, driven by a rising frenzy.
For one instant, Brom hoped he had found Ichabod. But even as he quickly turned, he realized that it was a woman's voice. And a moment later, a vague white blur in the darkness came close enough to reveal itself as a young woman.
"Are you all right?" Brom asked, too flummoxed at seeing a girl out here alone in the middle of the night to ask anything else.
She moved right toward him, apparently not reflecting that a strange man in such circumstances might not be a friend. "I am now," she said softly, coming closer.
"What are you doing out here? Are there others nearby?"
"Only us," she breathed, her light eyes boring into him.
Even through his worry for Ichabod, he felt a twinge of annoyance. This wasn't the first time some woman had taken it into her head to throw herself at him, and it could be quite embarrassing if he didn't flatter her enough as he declined her offer. Once a girl in Sleepy Hollow had been so angered at his rejection that she had told her brother that he had importuned her. The brother had challenged him, naturally, and Brom had had to let the idiot win the fight in order to keep peace.
"There is someone else out here," he said firmly. "I came out here with a friend, and he and I got separated. I've got to find him. But once I do, we'll take you back home, don't worry."
He thought her expression was rather quizzical as she fell into step beside him. Not surprising, really - she was very pretty, and most likely her advances were seldom refused. Brom found one more reason to hope he found Ichabod soon. If the girl continued to press her attentions, it was going to take a great deal of flattery to mollify her.
She stopped, catching hold of his arm. "I'm frightened," she said plaintively, and put her arms around his neck, pressing close to him. He sighed. She was not going to make it easy for him. He tried patting her shoulder as he would have if she had been a child.
"There, there," he said, his tone intentionally patronizing. "You don't need to be frightened. I have a rifle; if any wild animals come, I'll shoot them. But we've got to find my friend - I'm worried about him. He might be hurt."
She looked up at him with a puzzled frown. After a moment, to his embarrassment, her bodice fell open. It seemed too convenient to be an accident, and yet the cloth had seemed to open of its own accord.
But Brom had no time to ponder her methods. He stepped away from her, averting his gaze, and removed his frock coat. "Here, put this on," he offered, not looking at her. She hesitated, but then complied. "Let's go," he said brusquely, and began walking.
He was casting about for something to say that might flatter her without encouraging further advances when she spoke. "Am I so plain?"
"Don't be absurd. You're very pretty. It's only... my heart already belongs to someone."
The girl digested this for several paces. "And is your love returned?" she ventured at length.
Brom found himself smiling in the darkness, in spite of his fear for Ichabod and his nervousness about the girl. "Yes," he said softly, and the word warmed his soul even in the circumstances.
After a few more steps, the girl had another question. "Is your sweetheart prettier than I?" she demanded, pouting.
Brom could not help laughing aloud. "Yes. To me, at least," he added tactfully.
She stopped walking, and Brom groaned inwardly. She was still examining him in that puzzled way, but there was something else too. Before he could decide what, she said, "I saw a man, a fair-skinned, handsome man with black hair. He fainted."
Unthinking, Brom seized her arm with a grip that was likely painful. Her skin was quite cold. "That's my friend! Where is he? Can you show me?"
With another searching look, she nodded. Then she turned, taking his hand and leading him into the utter blackness with confidence. How she knew where to go in this dark was beyond him, but after only a moment, a faint, pale blur appeared on the ground before them, and when Brom hurried to it, he found that it was Ichabod, still unconscious.
Forgetting the girl, Brom knelt beside Ichabod, shaking him gently. Ichabod's eyes fluttered open, fixing on Brom with alarm.
"It's me, Ichabod," Brom said, always quick to reassure Ichabod when he awakened from a swoon. "It's all right."
Ichabod clutched at Brom's arms, drawing a deep breath. He seemed to have a grip on himself until the girl stepped into his line of vision. He promptly froze, his lips parting and his eyes widening, his fingers becoming rigid on Brom's arm.
Before Brom could ask any questions, the girl transformed instantaneously from a beauty to a horrific vision of open, bleeding wounds. This grotesque sight lingered for a full minute, and was then simply gone: no girl, no mutilated corpse, nothing but Brom's coat falling empty to the ground.
"Mnmph!" Ichabod moaned. Brom held him tightly.
"It's all right, she's gone. I think she's done what she set out to do."
Ichabod was pressing his handkerchief to his mouth. Brom felt fairly ill himself. They both took several deep breaths before Brom stood and wordlessly helped Ichabod to his feet.
"Are you all right?" Brom asked, a bit shakily, as he pulled his coat back on. Ichabod nodded, and they started walking. A few minutes later, Brom realized that he had no idea where they were going.
"Do you know the way?" he asked dubiously.
Ichabod pointed to the sky. "The stars," he said simply. "We were heading east to the next village. If we head east, we will most likely run into it. At the very least, we shall run into the road. I would have thought a country boy would know such tricks." As he exercised his mind, his voice became more confident. Brom smiled.
"You don't navigate by the stars if you've known every tree and rock for miles around since childhood," he pointed out.
"But the horses"
"If need be, we can fetch them in the morning."
When they reached the town and its inn, everyone was asleep, though a bleary-eyed boy opened the door when Brom pounded. Brom demanded and got some whiskey from the inn's stores along with a room before letting the boy return to his bed. Brom and Ichabod bolted the door to their room. Brom insisted on giving Ichabod a little whiskey mixed with a great deal of water, and after a few reluctant sips, some color returned to Ichabod's ashen face.
"You are going to turn me into a dipsomaniac," Ichabod remarked tonelessly.
"Drink it. It'll put hair on your chest."
"I am quite content to let you be the hairy one."
Brom grinned. The sally showed that Ichabod was himself again. "Now, what the hell happened out there? How did you manage to sneak away from me, for starters?"
Ichabod took another swallow of the well-diluted liquor with relief. "I might ask you the same question. I believe our ghost girl used some sorcery to separate us so that she could frighten us separately." Ichabod went on to relate his encounter with the ghost, and Brom told his own story in turn.
"Did you see how confused she looked?" Brom remarked. "She just couldn't understand why we were more interested in finding each other than in pouncing on her."
The two men looked at each other for a moment, and then they both started to laugh.
"The story goes, she was a girl lived here in my grandfather's time," the minister explained. "Fool of a girl that she was, she went out in the woods one day and never came back. We never knew if she sprained an ankle or got lost or what, but when she was found a couple of weeks later, we only knew her by her dress. By what was left of it. The beasts had been at her corpse. 'Twas a monstrous site."
"How did she die?" Ichabod asked, looking ill.
The clergyman lowered his voice. "None ever knew for sure her corpse was that mangled, you see but it's thought she was murdered. And," he lowered his voice further, "those who've seen her ghost guess that the murderer had his way with her afore he killed her."
Stepping a few reassuring inches closer to his companion, Brom asked, "Why is that?"
"She used to try her wiles on every man who crossed her path. And then turn to a corpse again. She did that to punish men who'd do with her as that first one did. It was said she came on the dark of every moon, until she found an honest man and true, who did not succumb to temptation. But what unsuspecting man could resist the allure of such a beauty?"
"What man indeed. Thank you, sir. Good day," Ichabod said crisply. He climbed back into the carriage and motioned for his companion to follow. A moment later they were driving out of the village.