by Michael Kingswood
The sun was still shining when Brom emerged from his lair, wherever that was. The brightness of it flared across his vision, whiting the world out and rendering him able to perceive only the faintest of shadows as he took halting steps forward.
Vague shapes—the trunks of trees, he thought—loomed all around, and a strange whistling sound carried through to him, somehow. A gentle breeze carrying a bit of extra coolness to the already growing autumn chill.
It was always this way, when he roused from what might be called his resting period. Except that he never rested. He was never entirely certain where he went, but that time was always spent caught up in the constant repetition of his many betrayals and misdeeds…and one in particular.
So when he emerged, it was with greater fatigue and sorrow than when he went in, and today was no different.
And it was day; only in daylight could he be so blinded. But not for much longer. Even as he took his first steps toward a familiar blur ahead of him, he could already tell the whiteness of daylight was dimming, the shadows of night growing, and gradually he began to be able to see more clearly.
He was right about the shape in front of him. Four legs and a powerful body, completely black, with a proud snout and mane, already saddled like always, his tail switching impatiently for Brom to mount him and carry on with the night’s ride.
Daredevil. Brom’s trusty steed for many years of life.
And an eternity now.
Brom remembered the earthy scent of him, the way his chest would heave on the run, and sweat would slick his back and legs from the exertion as he took him through his paces, jumped him.
All gone. Now there was only the nightly ride, and no scents to inhale. No thrill of adrenalin coursing through his veins. No nicker of joy from Daredevil at the exertion.
And no Katrina to come back to, admiration for his horsemanship in her eyes and fire for him in her loins.
Just the lair. And the ride.
The shadows were deep now, night fully come, and he could see as well as he used to be able to see at noon, back in life. The woods were empty, the ground coated in fallen leaves from the surrounding maples and oaks, sloping down from the right toward the valley where Tarry Town lay to his left. Or used to lay. Now it was something else, like everything he had once known.
Only he was the same, dressed like the black Hessian from tales of old in his deep cloak and riding boots, saber on his left side while he carried the pumpkin that substituted for his head tucked under his right arm.
Always the same.
As he drew up next to Daredevil, Brom slid his free hand through the horse’s mane, wishing he could feel the silky strands of horsehair as they passed through his fingers. But even that small pleasure was denied him, now.
“Well boy,” he said—though how he could speak he didn’t know and never had—”let’s be off.”
Then he placed his foot in the stirrup and boosted himself up into the saddle. It was always a balancing act, to ensure he did not lose his pumpkin burden as he mounted Daredevil. But he had done it so many thousands of times since that fateful day when he met his end, he almost didn’t need to think of it now.
Like so much else, the woods outside Tarry Town had changed over the years. Shrunk, the groves and glens receding before the ever-increasing expansion of the hamlet where he used to reside, and it seemed every other town in the country as well.
But worse than that…there was no longer true dark. As he and Daredevil clopped down the hill, the clarity of nighttime darkness gave way to a thinning whiteness as the lights from the town grew more bright. What devilry it was that created such brilliance Brom did not know, but year by year it grew and grew.
Someday there would be no place safe from that light; no place he could go that would not be blinding. And then where would he be? What would he have?
Just the torment of memories of sins past in his lair. And blind wandering when he was out of it.
Brom suppressed a shudder at the thought, and turned Daredevil to the right, to skirt the brightest lights in the town ahead and keep to the woods. What was left of them.
For the thousandth time, he considered turning even more to the right, to the north country where he thought—he hoped—the land would be more open, the lights less harsh.
But he put that thought aside as quickly as it came. Three times he had attempted that journey. And each time, when he had emerged from his lair after the day’s unrest, he had returned to exactly the same spot; the same spot he always did.
No, he was stuck here. Doomed to ride the night in the country of his birth and death, until there was no country left.
And then what?
In life, Brom had not lacked for courage, but he shrank back from that thought. Instead, he kicked Daredevil from a walk to a canter.
Trees rushed past and Brom imagined he could feel the breeze of his passage through the hair on his head; or at least he recalled how it used to feel when he had been able to feel, and had the hair on a head to feel with. But despite the lack of sensation, he felt an echo of the old stirring in his heart as Daredevil’s flanks heaved beneath him and his hooves punched through the loam of the woods’ floor.
Daredevil snorted as though he were actually breathing, and he tossed his head to let out a quiet neigh, and Brom—not for the first time—considered that though this existence might be his own curse, for Daredevil it just might be a slice of heaven itself.
Perhaps this was his reward for a life well lived in service to Brom.
If so, blessings to him, but that brought Brom little joy to consider. Some. But little.
Up ahead, the trees thinned some, and light dimmed Brom’s vision. But it was not intense and constant like the unearthly illumination that lit the town and country, seemingly everywhere. No, it flickered; a flame. A campfire, perhaps?
This was unusual for these woods. Almost no one came out here except him and Daredevil, and the occasional deer, though they were rare these days. Aside from squirrels, rabbits, foxes, and other small forest creatures, Brom almost never came across any living things.
He reigned in, reducing Daredevil to a slow walk, and peered ahead at the fire.
And it was a fire. Still a hundred feet or so away, but with the breeze blowing as it was he would have been able to smell the smoke from its burning plainly, if he still had nostrils to smell. As it was, the clearing where the fire lay was clear to see, though fuzzy like looking through a mist. The effects of the fire on his night-attuned vision.
Still, he could plainly make out a tent in the design that had become popular in these later years, and a man and a woman sitting out front of the shelter, beside the fire. They had a spit apparatus set up over the flames, and the man was turning a handle to rotate the meat they were cooking.
If Brom had a mouth, it would have watered to consider the idea of freshly-roasted meat. Or meat of any kind at all. It had been so long since he had enjoyed even the small pleasure of a meal that he could barely recall what it was like, unless he fought to remember it.
But seeing the couple preparing their little feast, it all came back in a rush. The salt that lingered on the steak despite soaking it half the day to remove the preservative. The feel of the meat as he sank his teeth in. The spray of flavor as the juices flooded his mouth. The coolness of the ale washing it down, and the warmth in his belly coming from both meat and alcohol that spread through the rest of his body, leaving him satiated.
The sight of Katrina across the table from him, her red-brown hair reflecting the candlelight and her eyes sparkling with mischief as she smiled in a way that brought on a different sort of hunger, that she alone could tame, but never quench.
He always said he would hunger for her forever. And it turned out that was true.
It just added to his torment; another bit of goodness gone forever, that he could only long for but never attain again.
Brom found himself shifting his burden to his left hand and placing his right onto the hilt of his saber. Almost he kicked Daredevil into a charge to cut down the couple who dared to enjoy the fruits of love while he was forever denied them.
He stopped himself just before he would have sunk his spurs into Daredevil’s flanks, a new pain of guilt washing over him as he considered what he had almost done.
But then…could he have cut them down even if he’d gone ahead and done it? He was not flesh and blood; hadn’t been for years beyond count. Mostly because he’d stopped counting long ago. After all, what was the point to keeping track of time in his never-ending punishment?
And in all those uncounted years, he had never actually made contact with a living person.
At first, when he’d not fully understood his predicament and tried to find some enjoyment from the nightly rides, he’d played pranks like he had atimes done in life. Frightened people on the road. But he had never made contact; never really tried.
Could he interact, if he even wanted to?
The sudden impulse to move forward, to enter the firelight, and greet the couple. To converse with people, like a man.
Absurd. He pushed that thought from his mind, shaking his head at his foolishness. He was not a man; not any longer. Brom wasn’t sure what he was, but that much he knew for certain. Their world was no longer his, and he would only receive terrified rejection if he tried to enter it.
It had been that way for all these years without count, but still as he gathered the reigns to turn Daredevil away from the fire and deeper into the woods, he felt another pang of regret and loss.
As if he didn’t already have enough of those.
A snap in the woods off to the left brought him up short, and Brom directed his gaze—however he accomplished looking around and gazing without a head—in that direction. Was that a twig or branch being broken?
Between a gap in tree trunks, his vision unclouded by the campfire’s light, he saw movement. If he had eyes, Brom would have squinted to see better. No need. The movement resolved itself into the shape of a man a few seconds later. He was skulking from tree to tree, approaching the campfire.
Brom could almost feel his mental frown as he watched the man creep forward. If he knew the couple and were friends, he would not skulk about like that.
He must be up to no good.
Unless he was playing a prank. Brom thought back to his life, and a multitude of pranks played on friends—and that friends played on him—and he couldn’t rule out a prank.
For the first time in what felt like forever, he found himself interested, and entertained, by the goings-on in the world. As he watched the man creep up to the very edge of the firelight, Brom found himself fair quivering in anticipation of the prank, and the couple’s reaction to it.
But when the man burst into the firelight, his form blurring and becoming hazy from the firelight, he was brandishing something in his hand. A sword?
No, people did not use swords in this uncivilized age. A club perhaps?
The reaction from the couple at the camp was immediate. The woman opened her mouth, as though to scream, and the man scrambled to his feet.
The skulking man surged forward, not even voicing a challenge as he brought the attack.
The defending man backpedaled to avoid the club’s swing, and he shouted, “Katrina, run!”
Brom froze, the name tearing through him like a saw through an oak. Images of her from his life—from their life together—flashed through his mind. Laughing, dancing, praying, cooking, eating, loving… It all came back in a rush, and though she was never far from his mind it was like being with her all over again, for a second.
And when the memories faded, it was like losing her all over again, and he howled.
Brom didn’t even notice driving his spurs into Daredevil’s sides. The horse bounded forward, rushing toward the camp at a run.
Ahead of him, the woman had not heeded her man’s command. She’d backed up to the tent, but was frozen still, watching, horrorstruck, the fight in front of her.
The man put up a valiant effort. But he was unarmed, and smaller than his attacker as well. The club came up, then swept down, and the man raised his arm to block the blow to his head.
The crack of breaking bone almost defeated his cry of pain, and he fell to one knee beneath the attack’s force, his arm dangling limply.
The attacker’s back was to Brom, so he couldn’t see his expression. But he could imagine the look of sadistic glee on the miscreant’s face when he followed up with an almost negligent backhand swing.
The club caught the man on the cheek, and he collapsed in a heap.
The woman—Katrina—shrieked now, the first sound she had uttered, as the attacker turned on her.
And then Brom’s vision blurred further as he entered the firelight.
Brom hauled back on Daredevil’s reigns, and he pulled up short, rearing and kicking his hooves in the air as he let out his own horsely scream.
Woman and attacker turned to stare at Brom: the attacker in disbelief turning to horror, she in surprised relief.
Then the attacker fled into the woods opposite where Brom had entered the campsite, screaming in fright as he went.
Not good enough. He must pay for his deeds.
Kicking Daredevil again, Brom charged forward after the man.
He was fast for a man his size. But Daredevil had won his share of races in life, and the man could never hope to outrun him.
As he approached the fleeing brigand, Brom felt the weight of the pumpkin in his right arm. He flashed back to that night, so many uncounted years ago.
Ichabod fleeing on horse, looking back over his shoulder, his eyes wide with terror.
Brom following on Daredevil and wearing his Hessian costume, its shoulders raised with braces to make it look like he lacked a head.
Raising the pumpkin he was carrying, and throwing it.
The gourd striking Ichabod in the back, between his shoulder blades. Him swaying and the falling from his saddle, somehow dragging it with him to the ground as the cinch came undone.
Ichabod’s horse continuing in its wild flight, trampling man and saddle both as it continued its gallop.
Brom pulling up along side the fallen schoolmaster, looking down at him as he groaned in pain but still sought to flee, pulling himself through the muck at the road’s edge in an effort to make it to the tree line. Hat, saddle, and shattered pumpkin in his wake, and him not even daring to look back, lest the mythical rider take him.
Brom had left him there, in the certainty that Ichabod would never remain in Tarry Town, or the Sleepy Hollow, after such an experience.
Katrina would be his.
But his fate was sealed by the treachery of that night: doomed to wander the nights forever, in the body of the Hessian legend he had imitated to terrorize a man who had once named him friend.
All that ran through Brom’s head in an instant, and he mentally gritted nonexistent teeth. What he had once done in treachery, he now would do righteously.
He raised the pumpkin in his right hand and hurled it.
The gourd seemed to glow with a mystical grey-white light that didn’t affect his vision at all as it traversed the distance between himself and the brigand.
As if in slow motion, he watched the missile strike the brigand just as its predecessor had struck Ichabod: right between the shoulder blades.
Unlike the real pumpkin, this did not shatter, but exploded in a brilliant flash of that same mystical light. Again it didn’t affect Brom’s vision at all, not even leaving the after-images he recalled from his years of life.
The brigand hurled forward, slamming into the trunk of a tree with a solid-sounding splat. Then he slumped to the ground, groaning.
Brom brought Daredevil to a stop and examined the man. He was clutching at his ribs with his left hand and groaning. His right arm was bent at an unnatural angle, and his left knee was knocked off true. He wasn’t going anywhere.
This close, he was dressed raggedly, like a pauper. His beard was long and unkempt, the black hair on his head the same.
A dreg of society. No wonder he had turned to thieving.
He looked up at Brom, face locked in a rictus of pain, but also of horror, his eyes wide with mortal terror. He would only see Brom as a headless shadow in the blackness astride a large and terrifying black stallion. Perhaps he and Daredevil would be profiled by the light of the not-so-distant campfire. So much the better.
A horrible sight, the foretelling of doom.
The man had no idea.
The brigand’s groans turned to whimpering, and he gibbered out something that Brom couldn’t make out. But he assumed it was a plea for mercy.
He paid the man no mind, just wheeled Daredevil around and walked back to the campsite.
When he arrived, the woman was kneeling next to her man, bent over him and checking his injuries. Tears were running down her cheeks, but her expression was set, focused. She had black hair, not red-brown like his Katrina, that was cut short to her shoulders. Her clothes were simple, in the style that people were wearing these days.
“The knave is dealt with,” Brom said as he once more pulled Daredevil to a halt. And as usual he had no idea how he spoke, or whether she would hear it at all.
Katrina nodded. “Good. Thank you – ” She looked up as she spoke but stopped mid-word when she saw him in the firelight.
She blinked. In surprise though, not in fear.
What was she – ?
“Nice costume. You’ve got an even weirder Halloween tradition than we do.”
Brom had heard that word. In conversations from some people who had passed near over the years. And in newspapers he had seen left lying around. It had taken some time, but he came to understand it referred to what he knew as All Hallows Eve. But…different, also.
Which didn’t help him know how to respond. So he changed the subject. “Is your man alright?”
She shook her head. “I think he’ll be ok, but he needs a doctor.” She gestured toward a small black rectangle on the ground next to her. “I called the cops and ambulance. They’ll be here soon.”
Brom wasn’t sure what that meant. Regardless, his business here was done. He tugged on the reins, and Daredevil turned to the right. Back to the night, and the ride.
“Wait,” Katrina said, before the horse had taken a step. “Who are you?”
Brom stopped Daredevil and paused for a short while, considering. This was the longest conversation he’d had in… He had no idea how long; the years were uncounted and he couldn’t recall a discussion since before he died. He needed to be about his business and away from these people.
But something about talking with them felt…good.
“My name is Abraham Van Brunt.”
Katrina nodded. “Katrina Crane.” She gestured at the fallen man, who was beginning to move, slowly. A soft groan issued from his lips, drawing her gaze to him. Her expression brightened to see his evidence of life. “This my husband, Iggy.”
Crane. The name halted Brom’s thoughts. It could not be – Could it?
He thought back to the lanky schoolmaster he had betrayed, and what he knew about Ichabod Crane. He was not originally from Tarry Town. He hailed from…
“From Connecticut,” Brom said out loud, before he knew he was going to do it.
Katrina’s eyebrows rose, and she looked back at him, nodding. “Yes. How did you know?”
“A fortunate guess.”
“We come here every year for Halloween. There’s a legend from way back in his family, so we come camp out here and look for…” She trailed off and gestured toward Brom, then giggled. “The Headless Horseman.”
At those words, Iggy opened his eyes. “Kat?” he managed to say, weakly.
“Baby?” She turned to face her husband more fully, leaning over him. “You’re ok, baby. Help’s on the way.”
Brom took the opportunity to turn Daredevil away from them and heel him into a walk. As he rode into the woods around their campsite, he heard Katrina say, “You won’t believe who’s – “
Her words cut off. Then she said, “Where’d he go? Hey mister? Mister!”
Brom kept on riding.
Riding, and thinking. Thinking thoughts the likes of which he hadn’t dared consider before.
Iggy and Katrina Crane. From Connecticut.
Was it possible that Iggy was descended from Ichabod?
Certainly Ichabod would have married. Katrina was not the only woman in the world—though she was the only woman for Brom—and he would have found a good woman once he made it back home to Connecticut. He must have had progeny. And they would have. And so on and so on.
But for Ichabod’s descendant to be camping here, for Brom to encounter?
And on All Hallows Eve.
That made tomorrow All Souls Day. When souls in Purgatory who had been purged of their sins were finally admitted to Heaven, all debts paid.
Meeting Ichabod’s descendant here. On this day…
It could not be a coincidence. Could it?
Brom had gone to church every Sunday. Of course he had. But he’d never been a particularly devout man. Now he could not help think that maybe God had arranged this meeting.
It was absurd. Except maybe it wasn’t.
Brom had betrayed Ichabod’s friendship, terrorized him to get him to leave town and abandon his quest for Katrina’s hand. And so Brom was cursed to ride the land, for all this time.
But now he had rode straight into Ichabod’s progeny in need, and had come to their rescue.
Could this have been the capstone on his penance?
Brom could not even begin to believe that it could be true. But at the same time…
He came to a break in the trees, and rode out to find he was in the manmade clearing that framed the stone roadways of this modern era. This one ran east-to west. As he looked to the east, his vision dimmed and blurred. The sky was brightening; sunrise was growing near.
Always he felt trepidation at the end of the night. It meant a return to his lair of unrest, and the torment of his sinful memories.
But this was the dawn of All Souls Day.
Was it possible he might go to his lair at dawn and find actual rest?
And not just rest…redemption?
He dared not believe it. But when the first lights of dawn shown forth over the road and Brom felt his hold on reality fading…
As the world drained away all around him, he felt, for the first time in what seemed forever, hope.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: