Ichabod has fears he must face, troubles he must confront, before he can call Sleepy Hollow his home. Slash; melodrama.
He would miss New York, Ichabod thought as the carriage clattered down the road away from the city. No, he already missed New York, the sense of rhyme and reason, the certainty that logic would be sufficient to solve any mysteries he encountered there. In Sleepy Hollow, in the woods at the edge of the civilized world, nothing was as clear. Magic -- witchcraft -- was as likely as reason to triumph. The thought still raised goosebumps along the back of his neck sometimes.
The rustling of Katrina's skirts disturbed his melancholy. Katrina, lovely Katrina, was the reason he was leaving, and she was worth it. She had never managed to adjust to city life, and when she finally asked him if they could please leave, just for a little while, he had realized how much she was hurting.... And there was no way he could allow that. Even now, in the first two hours of the trip, she was already blooming again. He had scarcely realized how much the city was stifling her until now, watching the blush return to her cheeks, watching her grow more animated.
She caught his eye, and smiled. "We're going home."
Mustering a smile of his own, Ichabod nodded.
The town was every bit as quiet as Ichabod remembered it when the carriage rolled to a halt along the main street. There was half-melted snow on the ground, courtesy of one of the season's first storms, and the gray skies promised more of the same before too long. The last autumn leaves were falling gently from the trees, the year dying at its genteel pace.
It had been almost a year since they had left Sleepy Hollow, fleeing in the wake of the murders, turning their backs on the horror of the town. The door to the Killians' house had been replaced, and it looked as though someone was living there now. The windows in the church had been replaced, and the fence around the churchyard rebuilt. The scars were there if one knew where to look, as Ichabod did, but the town seemed to be recovering from its ordeal.
Ichabod's nightmares had relented when they reached New York, troubling him only seldom. Both nights of the coach ride back he had awakened suddenly from fitful sleep, uncertain what dreams had woken him, listening to the roar of blood in his ears. Katrina, sleeping opposite him in the carriage, looked like an angel, her hair as luminous as silver in the moonlight. Her presence soothed him, and he found his way back to sleep eventually.
But he arrived now ill-rested and uneasy; the smile that he offered Katrina as he helped her down from the coach felt awkward and stiff. Horses had been brought for them to ride up to the Van Tassel house -- he recognized Masbath's chestnut pony, and Gunpowder almost looked pleased to see him. Ichabod was afraid he could not say the same; too much of this place was familiar, too many memories, too much fear.
In the first week of December, the weather turned unexpectedly mild, rising above the freezing point before noon each day. The relative warmth compounded Ichabod's sense of restlessness, of incompletion. He took to walking through the forest in the afternoons, brooding, disturbed by his continuing sense of disquiet. The murders he'd solved here had been terrible, yes, but more than a full year had now gone by. Shouldn't he have recovered from the shock by now? Shouldn't he no longer wake sweating in the dark, certain that he had just been dreaming of horrors he could scarcely believe?
On Thursday, the weather seemed ready to turn again, the morning sun obscured by clouds. Ichabod's sense of purpose, however, experienced quite the opposite effect. His problems in settling down in Sleepy Hollow, he decided, came from his failure to resolve his earlier troubles completely. He wouldn't be able to call this place home until he had satisfied himself that the ghost would not return, that the matter was closed and the Hessian's rest final.
He walked into the forest with a destination in mind, that morning, resolute against the cold and certain of his stride. The paths were there, just as he remembered them, winding through the misty gloom of the forest. Birds called, occasionally, and his own steps broke branches, but those were the only sounds. It would have been calming, encouraging contemplation, had he not remembered the frantic races through these woods, the thunder of Daredevil's hoofbeats, the swooping menace of the headless horseman.
The mist was chill, and so thick that he was almost upon the Tree before he could see it. The back of his neck prickled with old fear as he stared at it, the twisted branches and the grave beneath, marked with the Hessian's rusted sword. Ichabod swallowed hard, reaching out in a sort of trance to touch the engraved hilt. The metal was blood-warm under his fingertips.
A creak of stiff leather behind him made Ichabod whirl, his heart pounding. The Hessian stood a mere ten feet from him, between him and the path back to town, staring at him with cold gray eyes the same color as the winter sky above them. His black hair stood up stiff and spiky as a crown of thorns around his bloodless face, and he flexed his gloved hands as he stared.
Ichabod swallowed nervously. "I -- I come to make peace," he stammered.
The Hessian kept his silence for another long minute, then licked his thin lips -- showing a flash of pointed teeth -- and rasped, "There is no peace to be found...in this place." His voice was rough and guttural with disuse, the accent thick.
Ichabod's mouth felt dry, and he struggled for composure. "Please," he tried again, "I wish no quarrel with you."
With sudden, wolfish grace, the Hessian lunged for him, pinning him bodily against the Tree. Even through the black armor, the spirit radiated heat -- /the devil's fire/, Magistrate Philipse had called it. He molded his body against Ichabod's, effortlessly stopping his struggles. He smelled of old blood, dead leaves, of smoke and leather, and Ichabod could feel the coiled strength of him as he thrashed helplessly.
The Hessian leaned down, hot breath on Ichabod's neck, and repeated fiercely, "There is no peace."
When Ichabod felt those sharp teeth close on his earlobe, he welcomed the blackness that swam up across his vision.
The first thing he noticed as he struggled back to consciousness was the ache in his back, dull and persistent, turning to a sharp twinge as he struggled to sit up. The second thing was the cold, the prickling fire in his extremities. He had been lying at the foot of the Tree, long enough that the gray of the sky was more like slate than ash, long enough that when he tried to wiggle his fingers and toes, not all of them responded properly.
Ichabod staggered to his feet, leaning heavily on the Tree. There was no sign of the Hessian; if it hadn't been for his bootprints in the soft earth, much bigger than Ichabod's own, Ichabod might have believed that he had hallucinated the entire encounter. He reached up to his ear, feeling for blood or damage, but there was none. But the cold --! He shivered hard, feeling the cold set in and the dark loom, and hurried down the path toward the town.
By the time the house was in sight, Ichabod's shivers had progressed to full-on convulsions. The coat he was wearing had been just barely warm enough in the daytime, and now as night was falling, he felt the chill straight down to his bones. He stumbled as he made his way up the path, barely keeping his feet, and his gratitude when the door opened nearly overwhelmed him.
"Ichabod!" Katrina cried, rushing out into the chill evening, not so much as a shawl around her shoulders. "Where have you been? I've been so worried!"
And he realized, with a sinking heart, that he couldn't tell her. Bad enough to have his peace of mind shattered, but to destroy her comfort in returning home would be so much worse. "I got...lost in the woods," he forced out through chattering teeth. "So cold."
"Come inside, you poor thing," she soothed, wrapping her arms around him, pulling him into the house. "Come sit by the fire." He leaned into her embrace gratefully, following her to the fireplace in the living room, feeling the warmth like a blessing over his frostbitten face and hands.
He was sweating copiously long before he felt warm, and pulled the blankets she brought him tighter around his shoulders even as he shook and flushed with the fire's heat.
He barely remembered, later, how Katrina had recognized the fever coming on and bundled him off to bed with hot broth and worried murmurs. In the darkness that loomed in front of his eyes, he thought he saw a flash of pointed, wicked teeth, heard a rasping, throaty whisper....
The Hessian pressed him up against the Tree, hot as the fires of hell and strong as any demon, and Ichabod struggled in the grip that crushed his wrists. The Hessian's hands must be twice the size of his own, he realized, gloved fingers meeting easily around the fine bones of his arms. He stared up into that cruel face in terror, and the ghost smiled down at him, the wickedest smile of any man he'd ever seen. Then the Hessian leaned down and sank those sharp teeth into his face, lancing pain just under his right eye, and Ichabod screamed.
Katrina's voice was soothing him, her cool small hands wiping the sweat from his brow: "Hush, darling, it's all right, you're safe, you're going to be fine...." And then more darkness.
And there he was again, the hard bark of the Tree digging into his back and the hard armor of the Hessian pressed to his front, and he struggled more weakly this time, more of a token, a mere show of resistance. He looked up into that winter-blue stare, reading feral hunger and something else -- curiosity? -- there. The Hessian smiled with closed lips, and Ichabod tensed as the ghost leaned down again, struggling to keep his eyes open -- so he saw the Hessian's eyes flicker shut, black lashes against corpse-white skin, a second before their lips touched. Ichabod flinched, just barely, and his lips parted almost in a reflex, and then a hot tongue that tasted of blood and smoke was plundering his mouth....
"Drink, darling, please." Katrina, her voice so full of patience and love, and the guilt tore at Ichabod's very soul. To think that he had just responded to that --!
That monstrous creature, whose body pressed against his own, holding him fast against the Tree. That damned soul who stared down at him with eyes of cold fire, a cruel amusement playing around the edges of his pallid lips. His massive hands, with the strength of years of swordfighting, slid up along Ichabod's shoulders, closing around his throat, and Ichabod had just enough time to be shocked by the sensuality of the leather against his bare flesh before the Hessian's powerful fingers began to squeeze.
He woke tangled in the bedsheets, thrashing against their confines, struggling for breath. His hands shook as he pulled the sweat-soaked linens from his throat and collapsed back against the pillows.
He felt the bark of the Tree under his hands, his face resting against it, his front pressed tight against it by the hot weight at his back. The Hessian's breath on his neck raised his hackles, and he smelled leather and smoke. The ghost closed demanding hands on Ichabod's wrists, enfolding him in something perversely like an embrace. Then he moved, slowly and forcefully, grinding his hips against Ichabod's buttocks, breathing harsh. Ichabod froze in panic and outrage, afraid to struggle against the monster's advances. But when the Hessian leaned down and bit delicately at the nape of his neck, holding him still like a tomcat mounting his queen, Ichabod moved involuntarily -- bucking his hips, thrusting back against the arousal he felt there. The Hessian growled approval into his neck, and Ichabod flushed hot with shame.
"Are you awake?" Katrina asked gently, her hand warm on his forehead.
Ichabod blinked up at her. She looked tired, and worried, and ever so lovely. "Yes... Oh, Katrina."
"Your fever has broken," she told him with a smile. "The worst is past."
Even with the fever gone, Ichabod's health was slow to return. For days, he did little apart from sleep -- thankfully no longer troubled by strange dreams. The exertion of walking from his bed to the dining-room exhausted him, and it was perhaps for this reason that Katrina waited so long to give him the news from the town.
"Ichabod," she said softly over dinner, perhaps a fortnight after his ill-advised walk, "there are unpleasant rumors in town, of which you should be aware."
He frowned. "They aren't speaking ill of you, are they?"
"No, nothing like that." She looked down at her plate. "There have been -- Mrs. Van Wyck says that in the past week, a few of the young men have seen a -- a black rider, at the edge of the western woods."
Ichabod swallowed hard, his appetite suddenly gone. "A black rider?"
"A tall man in black armor, on a black horse." The worry was plain in her eyes. "No-one has been hurt, yet. But it sounds like him."
Oh, how he'd hoped to never have to tell her! "It -- it is him. I -- saw him, the last time I went to the forest." He steeled himself, facing her resolutely. "I have to go back."
"Oh no, Ichabod!" Tears shone bright in her eyes. "You can't! He'll kill you!"
Ichabod twisted his hands in the folds of his napkin. "I don't know that he will. He could have that day, had he wanted to." A shiver that he tried to suppress ran down his spine. The Hessian had not wanted to kill him, no -- but it seemed likely that he wanted something else....
Katrina rose from the table, laying her napkin down beside her place. "You will do what you think best," she said sadly.
As Ichabod was preparing to leave the house the next day, Katrina came to find him. She had the same hurt and sorrowful look on her face that she'd worn all evening, after he announced his intention to go find the Hessian.
"I've brought you something to take with you," she told him, holding out a neatly knotted length of embroidery thread. "It's a charm for your safety. Wear it 'round your neck. And... don't do any more than you feel you must."
Ichabod kissed her fingers as he took the charm from her hands. "Thank you, my dearest. I promise to be careful. But I need to -- to see if there is a way for me to put him to rest."
Katrina nodded. "I know. You're a good man. But come back safe." She tried for a little smile. "I need you to escort me to the Christmas ball in two nights, do I not?"
He smiled back. "Brave girl. I promise, you will have your escort." He kissed her gently, then climbed astride Gunpowder's broad back and nudged the gelding into a slow trot.
The air had turned colder again while he'd been abed -- which was, Ichabod supposed as he watched the horse's breath steam into the air, only appropriate. It would be Christmas day in less than a week, even if he had rarely felt less like celebrating. Frozen grass crunched under Gunpowder's hooves as they turned from the main path, toward the brooding dark wood.
The forest was unnaturally quiet, deathly still as though waiting for him; Ichabod shivered as they passed under the skeletal branches of the first trees. He had just decided to make for the Hessian's grave when he heard the jingle of tack around a bend in the path ahead.
He rounded the corner and there they were -- waiting for him, the Hessian sitting Daredevil's back with a casual arrogance that sparked a sudden, irrational envy in Ichabod's breast. What it must be like to have that grace, that confidence!
The Hessian cocked his head to one side as if asking a question, his pale eyes intense, and Daredevil took a few dancing steps down the path.
"I -- I would speak with you," Ichabod began, his mouth dry. He reached almost unconsciously for the string charm at his throat.
The Hessian nodded, and spurred Daredevil a little further on. The black horse stamped impatiently, tugging at the reins. Ichabod nudged Gunpowder to follow, and the Hessian nearly smiled before taking off at an easy canter down the forest path.
Of course, an easy canter for Daredevil was a hard run for Gunpowder; Ichabod had to plant his heels firmly in the gray's sides to make him pick up the necessary speed. He wondered if Gunpowder envied the stallion's athletic strength as much as he did the Hessian's.
No, best not to think of that -- it was madness, to so envy one of the damned. Instead he followed, clinging to the saddle breathlessly, ducking low to the horse's neck as branches whipped by above him. When the Hessian got too far ahead he would slow, Daredevil prancing restlessly until he could take off again. The ghost was toying with him, Ichabod thought, or perhaps leading him somewhere. But where?
They burst out of the woods abruptly, and Ichabod recognized the scorched hulk before them as the remains of the windmill through which the Hessian had chased him and Katrina the year before. His heart sped up further, even as he reined in his winded horse.
The Hessian turned Daredevil back toward him, the black horse dancing easily down to the base of the hill where Ichabod waited. The Hessian dismounted smoothly, facing Ichabod with a challenging stare. Ichabod swallowed, and followed suit with somewhat less grace. Would he never feel competent in the face of this apparition?
"Now, might we speak?" The Hessian said nothing, merely watched him, so Ichabod continued: "I would bring you peace, if I could." Slowly, the way he would approach a wounded animal, he walked toward the black rider.
"No peace," the Hessian whispered, shaking his head, and there was some strange emotion in his voice that Ichabod couldn't place; it was not quite desire, not quite fury. But he held still, not moving as Ichabod closed the distance between them.
"There is no rest for you? Then at least," Ichabod continued, "tell me what you require to leave the town in peace. What will make you let the people of Sleepy Hollow be." There was cold sweat on his brow, and a prickling on the back of his neck, but he reached out one shaking hand.
And the Hessian took it in a firm grip, madness and strangeness clear in his eyes. "You," he said harshly.
Ichabod's knees turned to water; he staggered and nearly fell, instinctively clutching at the Hessian's gloved hand for support. "Me?"
The Hessian merely stared, silent and inscrutable as the grave from which he came.
"Me," Ichabod repeated. "God have mercy." He closed the last of the distance between them, feeling the demonic heat of the dead man as their bodies came in contact. The Hessian stiffened momentarily as if shocked, then closed his hands around Ichabod's arms, holding him there. His pale, haunted eyes searched Ichabod's face for something, some signal, and when Ichabod tilted his head back and parted his lips he seemed at last to understand.
A wolfish hunger lit his face as he leaned down, but unlike the dream he kept his eyes open as he kissed, and it was Ichabod who closed his own to escape that feverish stare. The horror of what he was doing was not lost on him; this man was dead, never mind the heat of his body or the strength of his hands.
And the taste of him was wildness itself, blood and smoke and winter wind, like running endlessly through the dark woods, hunting, snarling, howling at the moon. Ichabod fought down the intoxication in a panic; it was inhuman, the way the Hessian made him feel. He whimpered into the Hessian's hot mouth, and the dead man pulled him closer, molding their bodies together fiercely.
The Hessian reached up to touch him, and the feel of gloved fingers along the line of his jaw made Ichabod shiver. They slid backward, across his cheek and into his hair, tangling in it, tightening, and Ichabod realized that it was the same grip the Hessian used to carry his grisly trophies home, when he took heads. His eyes flew open in terror, but the Hessian showed no signs of wanting to go anywhere, no signs of reaching for any weapons -- as though he needed them; his own inhuman strength was weapon enough. Ichabod felt the blackness pressing in at the edges of his vision.
He pulled away from the kiss breathlessly, desperate to stave off the fainting spell. The Hessian's fingers tightened in his hair, tugging him downward; Ichabod felt his knees bending in response to the pain.
The frozen ground was cold against his knees, even through the fabric of his breeches, but the heat of the ghost before him, and his overpowering strength, seemed more than enough to distract Ichabod from what was ultimately a relatively minor inconvenience -- especially when compared with the outrage in which he seemed to be expected to participate.
Ichabod thought of himself as a virtuous man; he knew that such unnatural acts were practiced, from overhearing conversations in the police station among the constables charged with discouraging prostitution. Had he considered the subject further, which he tried not to do, he might have arrived at the conclusion that exceptionally perverse men might pursue such behavior among themselves. But never, in his most morbid imagination, had he thought that he might one day find himself in such a position, kneeling before a damned soul as the Hessian unfastened his breeches to expose himself, revealing flesh as white as bone.
Shaking, Ichabod tried to pull away -- he could not do this thing, he could not! -- but the Hessian dragged him back, snarling a warning, and pressed Ichabod's face to his heated flesh. Sick with shame and horror, Ichabod did as he must.
For the first few moments, he had the luxury of imagining he knew the worst of it, in the pressure on his jaw and the weight on his tongue, in the heady dark masculine taste. Then the Hessian thrust forward, taking possession of his mouth, and he choked on the violent invasion. Yet even that could not match the shame of recognizing that cruel motion, realizing that the Hessian moved just as he had in Ichabod's own dreams, knowing that some part of Ichabod's mind had contemplated this perversity before it ever took place.
He returned home just before full dark, letting Gunpowder set an easy pace. Ichabod was in no hurry to return, to have to face Katrina, to have to invent some lie about what had just happened -- about what he had just done. He could still taste the Hessian in his mouth, bitter as rue and sharp as blood. His throat felt raw, and his jaw ached; he had been fouled, tainted, a deep and abiding filth that he would not be able to lose. Surely Katrina would see it as soon as she laid eyes on him.
And oh, he couldn't face that tonight. Not after all he'd been through.
When he had unsaddled Gunpowder and brushed the gray down, Ichabod let himself into the house through the back door. He collared young Masbath at the foot of the stairs.
"Tell Mrs. Crane," he said firmly, "that I have returned but am not well enough to dine with her this evening."
Masbath nodded. "Are you all right, sir?" The worry and doubt in his voice were plain; Ichabod suspected that Katrina had told the boy where he was going that afternoon.
He shuddered. "I am. I merely...need to rest. And to be alone."
Ichabod mounted the stairs in silence, the house dark and still around him, and he tried to take comfort in the sense of fortification he got from it. But there was the taste in his mouth, the filth on his knees. He looked at himself in his little mirror, the haunted expression in his dark eyes, the disarray of his hair where the Hessian's rough hands had tangled it.
And those dreams! The sensual immediacy, the violence and -- he admitted it -- perverse attraction in them. A sane man would call them nightmares, but even now, after what he had just suffered, Ichabod could not be certain it was so.
He looked down at his hands; they still shook, faintly, when he examined them, and the deep scars in his palms were angry and red. How could he touch his wife after this? How could he kiss her, after what his mouth had just done? Ichabod buried his face in his hands.
Nothing would ever be the same.
The Van Braun household fairly glowed with Christmas cheer on Saturday night, when Ichabod escorted Katrina inside. It was the first time he'd touched her since he'd ridden out into the western woods, and he still found himself hard pressed to avoid scrubbing at his own hand before reaching for hers. The horror of what he had done crawled under his skin, burning like a slow poison. Yet she seemed to notice nothing wrong in his face, in his hands, in his trembling voice.
Magistrate and Mrs. Van Braun greeted them warmly -- rather too warmly, Ichabod thought; apparently Masbath was not the only one who had heard that he had gone out to the woods to confront the Hessian. No, he repeated too many times, he didn't think the town would have problems again; no, he doubted any of the people in attendance had summoned the spirit; yes, he would do anything in his power to help keep them safe if the threat should become more immediate.
After less than a full hour, he excused himself for some fresh air. Katrina was enjoying herself so thoroughly that he couldn't bring himself to bother her -- she looked just as lovely as he remembered her from the night they met. She shone her brightest here, in a simple setting, like a finely cut diamond.
Ichabod stood outside in the darkness, listening to the music and laughter from inside the house. The chill air relieved his flushed cheeks, and his eyes turned almost of their own accord to the west, to the black hulked shape of the forest. The Hessian was out there, somewhere, in the dark and the cold.
But this time, it seemed, he could be satisfied without the letting of blood. Ichabod clenched his fists. It would save innocents, to do this thing -- perverse or no.
He could feel a body pressed against him in the dark, hot and smooth, masculine and obscenely powerful. His hands went roving of their own accord, over planes of muscle and ridges of bone, and when he reached between the man's strong legs and heard the Hessian's growl of pleasure, a thrill ran down his spine. He was -- they were both -- stark nude, more bare flesh pressed against him than he had ever touched, and Ichabod heard a little moan escape his mouth before he'd realized he was voicing it.
The Hessian pushed against him and Ichabod moved, tossing back the bedclothes and sliding down across the sheets to replace his fingers with his tongue. He had been taken, before, used roughly, and that was nothing like this quiet, urgent searching in the dark, this exploration. He suckled gently, finding some odd solace in it, and the Hessian stroked his hair, tense and breathing fast.
Those battle-roughened hands moved tentatively over his skin, mapping the contours of his shoulders, his arms, his back. There was a nearly animal innocence in the touch, the curiosity of the savage, the sinlessness of beasts of prey. When the Hessian's fingers closed around his most delicate parts, Ichabod found himself stunned by the strength of his own arousal. He knew immediately what primal force it was that had driven the Hessian to use him so roughly at the edge of the forest; he could feel the same barbaric desire coiled at the pit of his own belly, tight and thrumming.
He pulled back from his mouth's occupation long enough to whisper, "Yes, please," and felt the other begin to attempt a rhythm as he returned to it.
How much sweeter this was, how much kinder, than the first! And yet so all-consuming, hot and brilliant as a bonfire. Then the Hessian twisted under him, moving with that feral grace -- that was even more inspiring when felt, rather than merely seen -- aligning their bodies in a new way, and Ichabod felt hot breath on his thighs.
At the first touch of the Hessian's lips, he cried out aloud. There was fear still, yes, a fear that sparked to life as he felt himself momentarily grazed by unnaturally sharp teeth, but instead of paralyzing him as it had before, it spurred on the wild animal desire that possessed him. He redoubled his efforts and felt the other do the same, felt them sliding inexorably into a rhythm as steady and sustaining as a heartbeat. He arched forward, pushing, opening his throat to receive the answering thrust, and he achieved his own completion even as he felt the Hessian's spurt forth over his tongue.
He awoke in the darkness, swimming up out of the abyss of dream, with a cooling patch of wetness in his nightclothes.
Ichabod paced the length of his room and back again, seething, furious. Bad enough for the Hessian to confront him out in the wood, to commit violent acts upon him, but to come into his dreams as an incubus --! He shuddered to remember how shamefully, unnaturally pleasurable the dream had been.
This had to stop. Squaring his shoulders resolutely, Ichabod turned for the door.
Where he met Katrina, her hand upraised to knock. "Ichabod."
He schooled his face into calm. "What can I do for you, my love?"
She regarded him very seriously, her full lips poised with just a threat of pout. "You can tell me what has troubled you so sorely, since you rode to the forest."
Ichabod flinched, and wished half-heartedly for a fainting spell to excuse him from the conversation. "I think.... Perhaps we had better both sit down, if we are to discuss this."
Katrina turned pale, her blue eyes widening, and Ichabod felt his heart ache for her. He had no ready lie, and no wish to deceive her, but the truth itself....
"I am ready," she said quietly, seating herself in the chair opposite his writing-desk. "Tell me what troubles you so."
He took a deep breath. "When I went out riding...I met him again." Ichabod studied his bookshelves, unable to meet Katrina's eyes. "He is not at rest, but I believe he can be satisfied without killing."
"But that's wonderful news!" She started up from the chair, hope in her eyes, before meeting his gaze and abruptly sitting back down again. "Without killing, but not without something."
He looked down at the floor at her feet. "No. Not without something very dear." A blush was rising to his cheeks as he struggled to find the words. "He has -- other appetites, yet."
"Oh." She looked confused, then horrorstruck. "Oh! That's -- that's horrid! And he wants -- are you asking me to --?"
Ichabod rocked back on his heels as if slapped. "No! Oh good God, Katrina, no! I would never ask you to go to him." He squeezed his eyes shut; if he didn't say it now, he never would. "No, I tell you because...he touched me."
He swallowed hard. "His lust is as unnatural as everything else about him."
"Oh, Ichabod!" She rose from her chair, and he expected to hear the door close behind her, until her delicate hand came to rest on his shoulder. "You have been so brave, for us all, to bear such a thing."
Guilt knocked the breath from his lungs, brought him to his knees, her hand clutched in both of his. "Katrina, my angel. I am unworthy of your kindness."
She stroked his hair reassuringly, and he struggled to contain the flinch as he remembered the dream. "You are a good man, Ichabod Crane, and you are worthy of not merely my kindness but my heart."
"I --" he paused. "I believe he is calling me to him again." He looked up at her, and her eyes were filling with tears.
"We could leave," she offered softly. "My isolation in the city was nothing compared to this. I cannot ask you to suffer such a horror for me."
He shook his head. "I cannot leave. I realized it last night, at the ball. If we leave, if he cannot extract this toll from me -- who else will have to suffer? Who else might have to die, if he is angered? They are good people, your townsmen, and I could not knowingly thus condemn them."
She glared. "They would have condemned you, would have driven you away last year."
"Those men are dead," Ichabod reminded her softly. "They have more than paid for their fears." He stood and placed his hands on her shoulders, brushing away the memory -- the dream? -- of the Hessian holding him the same way. "If it becomes intolerable, I will tell you, and we can leave. But I would not have this on my conscience, if I can avoid it."
She kissed him, and he smelled the faint sweetness of her powder, a delicate scent of lilies. "You are a good man, my love."
Those words still rang in his ears as he walked out into the western woods, an hour later. A good man. Would she say that, if she knew how he had responded to the Hessian's presence in his dreams? If she knew that even now he hoped that he could offer something similar when they met this day, to avoid the cruelty of their last meeting?
He shied away from the thought, unwilling to examine too closely his motivations. The woods were still and quiet as ever, yet they seemed less forbidding this time. Was it mere familiarity that robbed them of their horror? Or was the forest coming to recognize him, to treat him as though he belonged there?
Certainly it was easier to find the Tree than it had once been. Even the face of the Hessian, cruel and unnatural as it was, no longer chilled his blood quite the same way. The dead man had been waiting for him, leaning against the Tree, and he prowled forward with a feral delight in his eyes when he saw Ichabod arrive. He reached out to pull Ichabod to him.
Ichabod placed one trembling hand on the Hessian's chest to stay him. "Not here," he said, "please." He took a deep breath. "Is there somewhere we could go, where you could --" his fingers traced the elaborate motifs of the Hessian's armor --"where you would take this off? So I might touch you."
The Hessian watched him for a long minute as though considering, and Ichabod tried not to flinch from that inhuman gaze. Finally the dead man nodded and turned away, toward the Tree. He whistled shrilly, and the roots of the Tree exploded outward as Daredevil leaped from the depths. The stallion tossed his head and came prancing across the clearing to them; Ichabod watched the Hessian, seeing the barbaric face soften with genuine fondness as he reached out for the reins. He remembered that expression from the first time he'd seen the Hessian restored, and it struck him just as vividly as it had then.
He pushed the thought hurriedly from his mind -- perhaps the Hessian was indeed capable of caring for a creature other than himself; what was that to Ichabod? He wondered, as the Hessian vaulted easily into the saddle, what he was expected to do; would he be forced to follow them on foot, lacking a horse of his own? Then the Hessian leaned down and hauled him up onto Daredevil's back as well, one strong arm pinioning Ichabod against his chest as the other took up the reins. A nudge of heels, a little growling command, and the great black horse wheeled and set off through the woods.
It was so different, to ride Daredevil after becoming used to Gunpowder; the black stallion had a grace, a lightness to his stride, that his own gray sorely lacked. The steed and his rider were similar in many ways, Ichabod thought, feeling the way they moved as one, the rhythm of Daredevil's canter echoed in the smooth roll of the Hessian's shoulders. He found himself drawn along with them, pressed against the Hessian's body, his heart soaring as they thundered down the forest trail.
When the Hessian reined to a halt, Ichabod felt a pang of sorrow in his breast. Nothing in his life had prepared him for the wild joy of a ride like that, the freedom of harnessing such power. He heard himself sigh with disappointment as the Hessian dismounted behind him, and as he looked down from Daredevil's back their eyes met -- and for an instant Ichabod thought there was understanding there.
They had come to the crone's cave, he realized as he slid down from the saddle and looked over to where the Hessian waited for him. He shivered, remembering the horror of the crone's possession, the monstrous thing she had become. But she was gone; Katrina had told him that Lady Van Tassel confessed to killing her. After one deep, calming breath, he followed the Hessian into the dark of the cave.
It did not stay dark for long; whether responding to their presence or because of some magic of the Hessian's, a fire flared to life in the pit by the far wall. There were few furnishings; the table and chair he remembered on one side, an indistinct heap that might have once been a bed on the other. The Hessian's expression was a question: would this place do? Ichabod wondered when the dead man had become so easy to read.
"Yes," he said, hearing his voice crack. "Somewhere like this." He reached for the buttons on his frock coat, and began to undo them.
The Hessian pulled off his heavy leather gloves as though it were a challenge, and Ichabod's hands began to shake. He had dreamed of those hands, large and rough and bone-white, but to actually see the Hessian make any move toward vulnerability shocked him. He tore away his cravat and fumbled with the buttons of his waistcoat, popping one loose in his agitation. It rolled away into a dark corner of the cave, instantly forgotten. The Hessian, still watching him intently, tossed away his long cloak and reached up to unfasten the clasps of his armor. The heavy black shirt beneath followed, as Ichabod pulled his own shirt off over his head.
Then they were both standing there, bared to the waist, the air between them charged with intent. Ichabod took a hesitant step forward, which the Hessian matched. He reached out, cursing the tremble in his limbs, still amazed by the radiant diabolical heat he could feel well before he actually touched the Hessian's skin.
Again the dreams had not prepared him for reality. The body the Hessian laid bare to him now was hard and muscular and scarred, the rough texture of those raised lines so fascinating, so strange, that Ichabod almost forgot to be afraid. These were marks of battle, souvenirs of wars Ichabod was too young to remember. He could scarce imagine the life that would leave such mementos behind -- one especially thick scar was flanked with little pockmarks, running down in parallel, and he realized after a moment that they were the effects of the stitches used to close the wound. What was shocking was not that the Hessian was a violent creature, but that he could ever do anything save destroy.
The Hessian had drifted closer at some point as Ichabod began his explorations, and now reached up to touch Ichabod's shoulder, where the Hessian's sword had run him through a year before, half-cauterizing the wound as it went. The Hessian's callused fingertips stroked the scar now, soothing it, and Ichabod knew this was as near to an apology as he would ever get. He nodded to show he understood, and pressed his lips to the Hessian's chest. He felt himself gathered close, and the natural response -- the easiest thing to do -- was to slide his arms around the body before him, to feel the textures of scars and skin, of spine and shoulderblades, as his hands came to rest on the Hessian's broad back.
One large hand tilted his head back, and he looked up to meet the Hessian's icy eyes, wondering where his fear had gone. Only the faintest flicker of doubt gave him pause when the Hessian leaned down to kiss him. Then his lips parted, and he tasted the wildness of the forest, and it was like riding Daredevil all over again -- a dizzying surge of strength that energized him, made him kiss back hard, bruising his lips against the Hessian's sharp teeth. His hands dug into the muscular flesh of the Hessian's back, and he felt himself grasped equally roughly, the dead man growling into his mouth.
And even that recognition did not horrify him as much as it should have; he realized he was no longer thinking of the Hessian as a man who walked the woods undead, but as something else entirely, some strange wild spirit whose predatory fierceness intoxicated him and beat in his veins.
It was without hesitation that he let himself be drawn down onto the Hessian's discarded cloak, pinned beneath the weight of the ghost's warm body. He felt a shivering, unbearable thrill of trust as he threw his head back, baring his throat in submission to a series of careful, restrained bites to the soft flesh below his jaw. He writhed under the Hessian, staring up at him, his face flushed with something other than shame. Even the Hessian's wicked smile only caused a faint shiver of anticipation.
A strong hand reached down between them and grasped Ichabod through his breeches. He arched up into the touch, a little broken sound issuing from his throat, and he moved unthinkingly to reciprocate.
He was never certain, afterward, which of them first reached to free the other, only that their hands scrabbled desperately to peel back the clothing that separated them, that the feel of hard flesh pressed against his own was a nearly painful relief. The Hessian rocked his hips, pushing them into a rhythm that Ichabod recognized, a driving insistence that he returned eagerly. His own breathing grew jagged in counterpoint to the Hessian's little growls, and his own courage surprised him when he pulled the Hessian down to kiss him, fingers tangled in that wild hair. The kiss was sloppy and wet, and Ichabod felt a sharp tooth nick his lip, but he didn't want to stop, even when the Hessian sucked at his torn mouth and fed his own blood back to him. The slide of sweat-slick flesh, the slippery heat, were too much, too good -- he moaned like a wanton, thrusting back against the Hessian's strokes with all his will. He forced his eyes open, saw his own desire reflected in the depths of the Hessian's eyes, felt himself careening ever closer to the precipice.
"Yes," the Hessian snarled, his eyes aflame, and it was his rasping, guttural voice that undid Ichabod at last, driving him over the edge with a power like lightning striking him. The Hessian's wordless howl followed close on the heels of his own, and they arrived almost at the same instant, a rush of hot fluid that bathed Ichabod's belly.
The Hessian licked his thin lips, gave Ichabod another of those challenging, animal stares, and slid down to lick their combined emissions from Ichabod's skin. Ichabod fell back, limp and exhausted, and shuddered under the exquisite rasp of the Hessian's tongue against his hypersensitive flesh. He could pretend, oh, he could pretend when he went home that this had been an unwelcome indignity, but he would not fool himself. He had done this of his own free will -- and he would be grateful for a chance to return.
He watched the Hessian sit back and begin to dress with the same effortless feral grace with which he did everything. His throat felt suddenly dry. "Will we...do this again?" he asked finally, as the Hessian pulled his gloves back on. Wintry eyes fixed him suspiciously for a moment before the Hessian nodded sharply and reached for his cloak.
Ichabod scrambled out of the way. The swirl and fall of the cloak was like autumn leaves tossed by the wind, and he wondered why he had never noticed that before. There was one more question, though, and he had to ask it: "Who summoned you, this time?"
The ghost looked up, surprised for perhaps the first time Ichabod had ever seen. For a long moment, Ichabod thought he wouldn't answer.
"You did," he rasped at last.
By the time Ichabod understood what that meant, he was gone.