A ghoulish twist on an old legend. Before he was a king, maybe he was something else?
Disclaimer: "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was created by Tim Burton. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was written by Washington Irving. No infringement is intended.
A Ride in the Hollow
It was a fine autumn night, the sort which harkened back to just passed daylight hours of pleasant warmth. The stars cast down their bright rays, unobstructed save by the barest shreds of cloud, onto a strange and dreamy landscape. Trees of splendid color, boasting reds and purples and oranges and yellows, were settling into silent twilight. Deep shadows gathered about the skirts of these steadfast soldiers, the Moon having dipped beneath the horizon to sleep and dream of her lover, the Sun. The air hung heavily with a sense of inviting repose, beckoning any traveller who might happen by to slip into drowsy leisure under the swaying branches.
And through this scene of nature gone to rest a fantastic figure ran. Its spindly legs, if that's what they were, being in likeness to those of an over-grown spider and colored much the same, strode over bumps and hollows, grass and stone, each great step carrying it fast along its midnight errand. There were patches of light color that tracked a few feet above those stick limbs, occasionally hidden when the figure dashed around the vine-covered trunk of a tree or behind some wild-grown bush. Where the shadow was less deep and the pale starlight reached in with faint silvery fingers, the figure was revealed to have what seemed to be either a very large head, or a large hunched torso with no head at all.
What this ghastly creature was couldn't be determined in the frail light that filtered through the canopy. But then, with a jaunty step, it bounded up a short grass bank and onto hard packed earth which served as a country road. In the brighter, if still weak, illumination, the figure showed itself to be a stalk thin person clad in dusty black. The light patches which had hovered above the striding legs were a pair of slender bone hands, a gruesome skull head, and a light beige waistcoat topped with a snowy stock about its skinny neck. The thing that, in shadow, had seemed a misshappen and twisted torso was no more than a filled burlap sack, which the creature had slung on its back.
Looking up and down the rustic course, the creature swivelled and tilted its skull head, empty eye sockets wide and attentive, as if searching for any sign of fellow pilgrims. It grinned a great deathly grin and cackled in ghoulish glee. "I have luck tonight. The moon is gone and a fair few clouds haunt the horizon. I think, perhaps, one of the local folk will meet their much spoken of spectre before the dawn."
It shifted its burden and skulked to the shadows under a large and twisted tree in the middle of the road. The lanky goblin sat, without much grace, upon the ground there. The branches overhead creaked and moaned, protesting perhaps this impudent figure, who seemed to give no mind to the wizened tree's fearful reputation, for it was regarded as haunted by all those who lived about. Whether the ghoul thought much, if anything, about this display of territorial bravado, it indicated nothing of it. Instead, it kept itself aloof and spared not a glance at the noise. The figure, though, had a certain air of not quite realized dignity, with its rather ungainly limbs poking out at odd angles, and, in turn, impressed the spirit of the tree not at all.
The dark suited spectre then deposited its burlap sack between its bony knees and reached into the bag to finger through the contents. It pulled out a pair of worn black boots, a pair of dingy gloves, a Hessian's coat, and a sundry of other items. The clothes lay somewhat stiffly on the ground, padded full to the point of appearing to already be occupied by some invisible giant.
That last item to be removed from the bag was a pumpkin, round and orange, and in its side was carved a grotesque and leering face. The creature cradled the gourd in its long bone hands with a thoughtful expression, something not easy to attain with such bare features.
"I do wonder... would this appear better with a light inside? I do not think a mortal would perceive the full effect of the carving during a dark night such as this." It set the pumpkin on a nest of fallen leaves, then laid its chin onto its skeletal hand. "I shall ask Old Scratch what he thinks of it when I return tonight. Our revels could use a new game or two."
With a firm nod to itself, the creature gathered its spindly legs and sprung up from the ground. In seeming haste now, it snatched up the garments it had carelessly heaped. On went the pants, and the boots, and the shirt. With great flourish it buttoned another waistcoat over its sickly torso. This was followed by the rest of the costume, so that in a quick turn, there stood a soldier of years past, a large presence of old with a small skull head on its shoulders.
It did not don its gloves, but instead, pressed two fingers to its ghoulish lips. A whippor-whill's whistle sang out over the land and was answered apace with the thundering of hooves. A great black horse broke out onto the road from the opposite side of the way. The creature approached the stamping steed without fear, but with a light laugh at itself. The bridle jingled as the horse snorted and stepped with anticipation of the night's work.
"By God, does my master know me well. I had forgotten the tack." It gave the horse a few pats on the neck, amused at its own foolery. It returned to where the pumpkin sat on the ground and caught up both it and the sack. Then, with little effort in even the padded clothes, it leaped onto the horse's back. It tied the burlap behind the saddle and set the leering pumpkin at the pommel.
It finished its strange activities by removing its skull head and stuffing it underneath its waistcoast. Its empty eye sockets peered through holes in the buttons, unperturbed by the now sideways view it had of the world. At last, it pulled on its gloves and kicked the horse's sides with its bony heels.
"Let us be off," it said, voice muffled through a layer of cloth. "The night goes fast and I must be finished here ere the dawn comes, else my master will be sore tempered with me. It is only his grace that allows me this pleasure, when I might better serve at the graveyards and gallows."
With an agreeable snort, the black steed sped away, tearing over wild turf and farmed fields alike. Through forest and dale, round boulders and branches, they kept on this way, that strange pair in the night, the headless rider held high in its seat and bounced along merrily by the horse's swift feet.
But alas it seemed the morbid race was in vain, for no idle worker crossed their path, nor did they see hint of a rowdy young buck, or even a glimpse of some goodwife caught out in her yard on some errand. Frogs and owls and other denizens of the dark served as their only audiance.
It was with heavy hearts, disappointed and gloomy, as mournful as such a pair could be, that they turned back towards the place their nocturnal journey had begun.
The costumed ghoul halted its mount just on the bank of a stream, not far from the large twisted tree under which it had sat to prepare for its work. It gave the black horse a few pats on the neck. "Old fellow, it seems, it is back to the cemetary for us. It is too late in the night for most of the folk here to be journeying home. Perhaps we have done our job too well?"
The creature recalled to its own mind two incidents in particular. The first involved an old heretic, one who'd quite proudly enough claimed to disbelieve in any spirit or goblin, to the point Old Scratch had sent out a messenger to rouse the man's slumbering superstitions. The skeleton itself had been sent on that mission, its first true test of ghastly tricks. Donning its costume of a war not long past, it had forced that old fool to ride behind on its devilish mount, over all the countryside. Until at last, it cast off its clothes to reveal its skeletal form, tossed the new convert into the brook, and urged its steed to bound away over treetops, occampanied by the cracking of thunder.
The other was a most fond memory, if only due to the mortal's own brass. Out on its errand, it had come across a brawny youth riding a horse as black and spirited as its master's own. The youth hadn't vaulted or stammered, instead challenging his ghostly companion to a wild race, all for the prize of a serving of punch. It couldn't resist such a bold invitation and had careered alongside to the old covered bridge, where it pulled up sharp and, in a flash, made away to a hidden enclave. For it had to abide by its own master's wishes, to stay out of sight of any grouping of mortals. No prize could claimed or given, but it had felt the contest worth the effort.
But no capers had come on this night. So with an air of quiet melancholy, it turned its steed's head back to the road. Then, a most peculiar sound came through the dark. It was whistle, not strong nor exceedingly fair, but enough to alert the ghoul of some possible sport. The creature wiggled its fingers, sending a breeze through the twisted tree branches, and answering that whistle with an echo of its own.
The whistling stopped, but more clearly it could hear the approach of horse hooves, and quick after that what appeared to be well-decked scarecrow riding a broken old mount. The creature held in a cackle of mirth, for this being was no thing made of cloth and of hay. It was a mortal, though a more gangly one it hadn't seen. He had a beak nose and no forehead at all. His elbows and knees stuck out in comical ways, so lanky and thin, the creature wondered if itself wasn't this mortal's errant skeleton twin.
The creature again waved, sending the tree branches to groaning and grinding, and watched the mortal's knees shake with impressive strength. It would have sport after all, before going back to its own dark realm. It grinned its ghoulish grin, hidden behind the waistcoat of its costume, and waited for the mortal to wend his forth.
The man indeed seemed in haste, he kicked the decrepit old horse in its sides. But the horse didn't care for this treatment and stepped sideways into a fence at the side of the road. The ghoul waited with increasing delight, the man now trying to urge his mount to straighten its path, and ending up in the bushes in the other direction. With a fury of whips and strong kicks to the animal, the man finally persuaded it to dash forward to the stream. There, it stopped short, next to the bridge, a few paltry feet from the ghoul and its night colored mount.
The man had nearly catapaulted from the back of the horse and struggled to set himself right. The creature's own steed stamped a hoof into the edge of the water in anticaption of the game to be had. The man sat up, his large eyes beheld the creature and steed, and seemed for a moment quite shocked out of moving. Then, with a quavering voice, the man asked of the creature, "Who are you?"
The ghoul kept its peace, knowing the mortal's mind would work its own dark magic, far better than it could with nightmarish words. The man asked again, more afrighted than before. Still, the creature waited, patient in its errand now that it had an audiance to haunt.
Waiting no longer for an answer, the mortal again beat the sides of his horse, and, closing his eyes, began to sing most fiercely a hymn. The old horse gave in to its rider's hard kicks and trundled across to the road beyond. The ghoul let the two pass without harm, then once they were other side of the stream, urged its own horse onto the trail beside the traveller. There it stayed, without word or gesture, as the man was obliged to take in his dark companion's stature.
It wasn't long before the man began his own game, first commanding his horse to a trot, which the creature matched with ease, then slowing his mount, perhaps in hopes his new acquaintance would proceed without him. The ghoul kept pace, still silent and broody. They continued this way until they crested a hill, when the creature was silhouetted against the starred sky. It heard a strangled noise, and squinting through its button peepholes, noted the man had gone quite pale. The mortal first stared where he expected a head should be, then glanced down at the pumpkin sitting primly on the saddle's pommel.
The man's nerve broke, it seemed, as he pummeled his ancient mount, and sent them both flying away in great haste. There was not so much as a moment's delay, when the ghoul spurred his own horse on, staying at the frightened man's side. They raced over ground at a breath-taking speed, kicking up rocks and bits of rich earth, bounding up and down the contours of the land. The creature was enjoying this riotous sport, determined to keep with the mortal till one or the other should fall to some misstep along the swift course.
The man suffered the first misfortune soon after. The girths of his saddle gave way to the strain, and slipped inch by inch from off his steed's back. The mortal threw his hands around the old horse's neck, then the saddle flew off, and was trampled by the ghoul's terrible mount.
The creature cackled in fiendish delight, though he doubted the man heard, for he was quite occupied trying to stay on the old horse's back. The mortal had a tenuous hold, so that every small turn and jolt in his ride, sent his legs splaying and scrambling for purchase. The ghoul pressed on, moving closer and closer. It was nearly upon the man and his horse, when they burst through an opening in the trees, and came upon the bridge where many times the spectre had given up the chase. But when the man gave his horse one last kick, bounding onto the bridge and to the bank beyond, the ghoul would not be denied a grand end to this fright. It rose in its saddle as the man looked back and hurled the pumpkin at the mortal's small head.
The missile connected with a hollow sound, knocking the man into the dust and the dirt. As he tumbled along, the old horse kept on going, and the ghoul and his steed rushed by in a flurry. The creature pulled up and looked back, with an air of grisly concern. The man moaned and rolled over, not dead, but with various small bumps to remind him of this night.
Satisfied now, the ghoul cackled again. It led its horse down to the churchyard nearby. And then, it threw itself off the steed's back, gathered its burlap sack, and commanded the horse to return whence it had come. With lively motions, it stripped off its costume, the coat, and the gloves, and the pants, and the belt, all once again stowed in the bag it had brought. It positioned its skull head on its neck, then winking at the unfortunate mortal, slung its burden onto its back and skulked away into the shadows.
With dawn on its heels, the ghoul capered along, until at last it reached one of those doors between the world of the mortals and that of the spirits. It flung open the portal and clamored on through, racing along on its spider thin legs. It travelled over strange hills, past hideous trees, to a spot before an old city gate. There it spied a convention of fellow ghouls and of ghosts, of witches and monsters of every description. An aged old devil stepped out of the crowd and cuffed the creature about its skull head with a gnarled stiff hand.
"Jack, you rowdy young scamp," the wizened demon demanded, voice gruff and face scowling. "You might have been caught, or killed that poor fool. What sort of trick did you suppose you were playing?"
Jack, that skeletal ghoul, looked quite crestfallen. Its bone shoulders sagged and its elbows went limp. It replied to its master, "I did not intend for the chase to conclude in such an event, but he gave such sport, I felt it fitting, that he should have a grand tale to tell his fellow folk."
The devil, Old Scratch for that's who it was, shook its head at the foolishness of youth. "You've frightened him indeed, for without horse or a bag, he's currently running through the twilighted forest, towards some destination unknown. I doubt very much he will tell much at all."
And then, that mischeivous spirit, grinned rather gruesomely at its disciple. "The pumpkin was a fine addition indeed. I think you shall use it in your missions hereafter, and, I suspect, before I am gone, you shall become a legend yourself. Perhaps on that day, we shall have contest, to see who is most frightful among the mortals. Yes?"
Jack answered with naught but a skeleton's grin.