The night was crisp and clear. The crimson sun had just set beyond the trees of the dark forest and the shadows were now dissolving into the hard, frozen earth. Silver stars twinkled in the profound, black sky, like diamonds reflecting on the surface of a dark lake. Ichabod Crane straightened himself up to his full height and inhaled the chilly air deeply so it froze his nostrils and he coughed. Embarrassed, and rather thankful that no one had seen him, he adjusted his cravat and strode down the steps of the house, waiting for the young Masbeth to join him and blowing on his hands for warmth.
The air was undisturbed and silent save for the shouts of laughter and music in the distance. The Horseman was gone, and the town had never been so sick with relief. Ichabod was not nearly as keen to leave Sleepy Hollow, as he was when he first arrived in the overcast village. Granted, the idea of a horseman without a skull riding around in the Western Woods chopping off heads sounded frightening and absurd, but even so, it was proven true. Ichabod was just glad that the whole affair was all over and he would be able to return to the bustling city of New York in a few days' time. Of course this time, he was hoping to be accompanied by someone other than Toby Masbeth.
"Mr. Crane, sir!"
Ichabod startled at the sudden noise and stumbled on the bottom step. None other than the young Masbeth himself staggered from the house, breathless, and pulling on his coat as he joined Ichabod at the bottom of the stairs. Ichabod hastily pulled out a silver chain from the inside of his jacket, where at the bottom of it, dangled an intricate pocket watch. The man studied it for a moment before snapping it shut and restoring it back into his vest pocket.
"You are late, young Masbeth," he commented, trying his best to sound conversational. The young boy nodded.
"Yes sir," he said, fastening the clasps on his grey coat. "Forgive me. Shall we go, then?"
Ichabod did not trust himself to speak any further, for he was afraid his voice would tremble. Instead he satisfied himself with giving a curt nod and starting at a brisk walk down the empty street. Masbeth trotted along beside him, looking curiously at the constable.
"Are you nervous, sir?" he asked.
Ichabod forced a menacingly loud burst of laughter, which made Masbeth jump in surprise. "Me? Nervous? What an idea!"
The boy gave Ichabod a weary look. "It's quite obvious, if you don't mind me saying so, Mr. Crane, but you do fancy Miss Katrina Van Tassel."
Ichabod sighed and stopped in his tracks. "You speak more bluntly than you should, young Masbeth."
The boy only grinned and patted his master on the arm. "Relax, sir. Miss Katrina is definitely very fond of you. She would never refuse your offer."
Ichabod attempted at a feeble grin, but was unable to say more. There was a moment of silence before the two continued on their way.
When they finally arrived at the tavern, Ichabod made a movement to enter through the front doors, but Masbeth held him back.
"The party's being hosted outside, Mr. Crane," he informed, guiding the man around the building and through the wooden gate where the laughter and music was growing louder.
"Outside?" Ichabod exclaimed. "In this freezing weather?" At that very same moment, an incredibly cold gust of wind hit him square in the face. He scowled and wrapped his arms even more tightly around himself. It was such a strange notion; to hold a party out of doors when the weather was this bitter, but then again, this was a strange town.
Although Ichabod was freezing for the first few minutes in the backyard gardens, he had to admit that the place looked beautiful and warm, despite the chilly weather. Ornamental lanterns emitted an orange glow, and colorful streamers and flowers adorned the tables, chairs, and even the hair of the young ladies, who were dancing in circles and giggling girlishly. Everyone seemed considerably lighthearted, and it was apparent that they had not been this at peace for a very long time. Men and women both walked directly up to Ichabod and his apprentice, wringing their hands heartily and thanking them again and again for the riddance of the Horseman and the wicked witch.
"I always knew that the Masbeth's boy would amount to something, one day," a gentleman smelling strongly of ale chuckled, patting the young boy on the head warmly. "And lookit, now! The apprentice of Constable Crane; the slayer of the Horseman! Cheers!"
Toby looked enormously pleased at the attention he was receiving, but Ichabod's mind was elsewhere. He scanned the crowds of brightly colored gowns twirling in the icy wind like pinwheels, but he was looking for a certain shade of golden hair that he knew so well. A group of young girls stood only feet away from him, and were whispering behind their hands, every so often stealing glances in his direction. Masbeth took one look at the group and motioned Ichabod to lean in closer before whispering, "Watch out for those girls. They're debating which one of them is going to slip you a love potion."
Ichabod blinked, surprised. "Surely you don't believe in such nonsense?" he said.
Toby Masbeth merely shrugged. "You didn't believe in a headless horseman, either, did you?" The boy left Ichabod to his disturbed thoughts as he made his way over to the refreshment table.
Suddenly, a lady with golden hair removed herself from the throng of giggling girls and approached him. Ichabod's heart leapt at the sight of her, but it fell again when he realized that it was not his beloved Katrina. Her hair was a weak, thin blonde with not nearly the shine that Katrina's had. The woman curtsied in front of Ichabod and smiled up at him.
"Constable," she said, graciously curtsying again. "My name is Abigail, and I wished to personally thank you for restoring the security to Sleepy Hollow." The girls behind her were sniggering and casting sidelong glances at him. Ichabod merely nodded.
"You are most welcome," he answered politely. The lady's face brightened and the crowd of girls squealed again. "And you must excuse me, madam, but I was looking for – "
"Please, won't you have a drink with me?" she interrupted, grinning mischievously. "A cup of tea would warm your bones in no time. I insist!" Abigail thrust a mug of some steamy liquid into his hands and watched him expectantly. As much as Ichabod doubted the existence of said love potion, he was still apprehensive to drink anything this girl offered him. "Go on!" she said, flashing him a dazzling smile.
Before Ichabod could say a word, however, the mug was taken gently from his hands and placed back in Abigail's. Katrina Van Tassel smiled sweetly from over Ichabod's shoulder at the other blonde.
"Thank you, Abigail," she said quietly. "But I must have a word with the constable; it is urgent business. If you will excuse us…"
Ichabod Crane found himself being led away by Katrina, away from the dumbfounded girl still holding the mug of tea in her hands. The two weaved their way in and out of the crowds of villagers, farther and farther until the sounds of voices were lost in the wind. Katrina finally stopped walking when they had reached the edge of the gardens where the flowers were fading with a kind of dead beauty. It took the man everything in his willpower to keep from grinning like an idiot. Ichabod hoped she would not let go of his hand.
"Forgive me for taking you away without word," Katrina said. "But a rumor was going around that Abigail was going to slip you – "
"A love potion, yes," the man finished. "Thank you for rescuing me from a most terrible fate, my dear."
Katrina giggled: an adorable, soft giggle that made Ichabod want to laugh along. "Come now, Ichabod. Abigail is not all that dreadful. She is actually quite pleasant if you give her the chance and get past the fact that she is smitten with you."
Katrina did not sound jealous; instead, it sounded as though she were humoring him. Ichabod had the sudden urge to play along, but his voice caught in his throat again and all he could say was, "Hm."
They both stood there silently for a few moments, taking in the night and all it offered. Looking out at the blackened forest was not frightening anymore. To Ichabod, the trees were not nearly as intimidating as they were when he first arrived. He recognized the way they twisted around each other and held the dim, flickering light of the lanterns in the garden. It was almost as if they were a piece of art. Ichabod stole a fleeting look at Katrina; she looked absolutely stunning tonight. Her golden hair cascaded down her back and blew slightly with whatever breeze happened to drift by. Her pale blue gown reflected the light of the moon, so it emitted a silver glow. He was forced back into reality when she took his hand in both of hers.
"Your hands are like ice," she said with a curious expression on her face.
"So are yours," Ichabod replied quietly.
Another moment of silence as Katrina wove her fingers around his and pressed his cold palm to her face. Her cheeks were so rosy in the cold and so warm against his freezing hand…
"Katrina," he finally managed to say. The girl looked up with her soft brown eyes quizzically. Ichabod swallowed. "Forgive me if I seem…er…forward, but I must speak my mind."
"Of course, Ichabod." Oh, how he loved it when she said his name.
"Well, as you know, I am returning to New York in only a few days." She nodded, waiting. "And, ah, well, I was rather hoping if perhaps you would consider…accompanying me." He finished on a weak note, but at least he had said what was on his chest. He watched Katrina for a reaction, and he thought he saw something like excitement flash across her face, but it was gone in an instant, replaced by a straight expression. Katrina seemed to contemplate the answer.
"Hm," she muttered. Ichabod's heart leaped. "Well, I would have to think this through. After all, Sleepy Hollow is where I grew up." His heart wilted like a dying flower. Of course she would not want to leave her home just to come with an awkward constable to the big city. Both of her parents were dead, including her insane stepmother, and this grove held many memories for the girl. "This is where my real mother raised me…" she sighed. "And it was where I first fell in love."
If Ichabod's heart sank any lower, it would have dropped into his stomach. Brom: the handsome, strong young man of the village who seemed romantically involved with Katrina when the constable had first arrived. Brom had died at the hands of the Horseman, and though Katrina admitted that her heart had not broken when he was murdered, Ichabod still felt saddened by the possibility that Katrina still might have feelings for the deceased Brom. This seemed to show on Ichabod's features, for Katrina turned to face him with a slight smile playing at her lips.
"Yes, my first love," she said gently to him. "He was handsome, brave, kind, and though I must say, a bit shy." Ichabod attempted to be polite and nod, although Brom definitely did not seem to be the shy type. She continued. "I did not know what to think of him when he arrived. He was such a gangly young man who carried a black bag full of the most peculiar tools he claimed to have made himself."
Ichabod looked up suddenly. Could she possibly be speaking of him?
Ichabod shook his head hard. "You are mistaken, Katrina," he muttered. "I was never brave, and neither was I kind. I behaved horribly toward you."
The young girl smiled again and placed both of her hands upon his chest, straightening his cravat. His breath caught in his throat.
"He was not so sure of himself," she continued, as if she had not heard him. "But from the moment I saw him, I did not doubt for an instant that I loved him."
Ichabod had no idea what to say. A list of options came to his mind, but he could not find the courage to say any of them without sounding daft. Finally, without a thought, he leaned in and ever so softly kissed her velvety lips. It was brief, but no kiss had ever been so innocent and adoring as this. His face remained close to hers when he had pulled away so he could see his own reflection in her shining brown eyes. Katrina looked surprised at first, but then her face turned a delicate shade of pink and she smiled shyly up at him.
"His name slips my mind," she whispered softly. "But if you ever happen to see him, would you ever so kindly tell him that I accept his request with all of my heart?"
Ichabod's insides were doing the conga. He gave a small sigh of relief. "I will be sure to tell him when I see him, madam."
Katrina beamed and embraced him, running her hand through his dark, wavy hair and sending shivers down his spine. Ichabod – boldly, mind – held her close and sweetly kissed her shoulder as she buried her face in the crook of his neck. Never had either person been so close and giddy with delight than at this moment. Ichabod breathed in the fresh scent of winter and burning wood that mingled within Katrina's yellow hair. When they reluctantly pulled apart, an especially loud shout of laughter issued from the party back towards the tavern. The two exchanged glances, silently agreeing that they should return to the celebration. Ichabod offered Katrina his arm, she took it, and they made their way back to the festivities, enjoying every quiet second together before the music and merrymaking clouded their thoughts. Ichabod made a mental note not to take any beverage anyone offered him as he opened the gate for the golden-haired girl. The beautiful smile Katrina directed back at him was enough to make any man's heart melt into butter, and it was not until Ichabod was again arm-in-arm with Katrina Van Tassel that he realized he was no longer cold.