Rating: PG-13 – just to be safe.
Thanks: A big Thank You (Merci, Danke!) goes to my faithful beta-reader, pumpkinpuss. You're always there when I need you.
Disclaimer: I, unfortunately, do not own anything except the criminal. And even then, she's really quite upset about it.
"BAROO!" the hounds bayed, leaping through the bushes, all setting up a howl. They'd picked up the scent. My scent. I looked fearfully over my shoulder, sweat dripping down my face as I ran. My dress caught on a branch and ripped with an extremely loud sound. The hounds bayed again, much louder and closer this time. They'd heard the rip. I knew they would. They had sharp eyes and ears and noses, police hounds did. I had no doubt in my mind that soon I would be caught.
My bare feet stung angrily against the thorns and pine needles and other sharp, prickly things, too numerous to mention. I raced the hounds, taking the hardest possible path for them to follow.
I splashed through a creek and nearly cried out as the cold, chilly water caused my feet to feel as if they were on fire. I continued running, leaping over the muddy bank, glancing back. The hounds had stopped baying, for the moment.
A shot whistled over my head. The mud delving itself into my cuts didn't help, but it served to spur me on. My dress began to tear once more, and caught me on a low hanging branch. I pulled with all my might and ripped it free, and the hounds set up a howl. They'd heard me again. I struggled over an enormous fallen tree, falling down on my hands and knees, quaking with fear as I climbed to my feet and took off.
I led the hounds on a merry chase that was certain to end with my death, by hanging, most likely. I dropped the thing it was that held me criminal, and it sped me up a bit. That thing had been heavy. I broke out across a clearing, my feet swishing against the tall grass, my breath coming in ragged, broken gasps. My legs and arms aching with effort, my hands shaking so hard I could barely hold my dress up.
I burst back into the trees and heard the hounds break into the clearing behind me. I looked back, confirmed this, and went veering off in another direction. I had gone another thirty yards when I looked back, and saw the hounds had lost me momentarily. I slowed down slightly but kept going. Turning my head, I nearly screamed it off.
Before me was a decapitated body, stuck fast to a tree with a sword thrust through the stomach. I stumbled back with a choking gasp, and collided with the most slender frame I had ever felt. I whirled, walked backwards a few paces, hit the body, and cut loose with another harsh scream. The man in front of me turned pale and held out his hands to steady me. I stumbled to the side, hit the body's lost head on the ground, and fell, tumbling head over heels down a hill.
My back hit a tree and my head smashed against a rock and I went out like a light.
I didn't stay out for long. I woke up mere minutes later, gasping for breath, lying on the ground near the tree with the body. Somebody had taken the painstaking time to carry me back up the hill. I sat up suddenly, all the blood rushing from my head and making me dizzy. I reached out a hand and grasped another tree nearby, one devoid of a headless body. My eyes rolled backwards into my head as I tried to keep myself from falling over again.
A sudden growling caused my eyes to snap back in place and my heart to skip around thirty seconds worth of heartbeats as I took in the sight before me. The two policemen, with their team of hounds, were arguing heatedly with the man I had run into before, a skinny, sallow man, with a crop of messy raven-black hair that stuck out in a few different directions. It dawned on me that I must've scared the living daylights out of him after I'd hit him like I had.
"She's wakin' up!" roared one of the policemen. 'Officer… officer… oh, God, I can't remember his name. That conk on the noggin received earlier had to have knocked me silly.' The hounds increased their level of growling. One of them advanced on me. I snarled at it and bared my teeth, growling just as loudly as it did. It gave a shriek and went streaking back to its master, overshooting by a bit. It hit the end of the leash it was now on with a twang, flipping over backwards, and hitting the ground with a yelp.
The pallid man came over and knelt down beside me. "Are you alright, miss?" he asked softly, and I blinked. He was, in a sense, the first person to ever have said kind words to me. And call me 'miss'. Mostly I was called… well, you don't wanna know what I was called. Let's just say it's not very pleasant.
"I… I… I'm a-alright," I stammered, my voice hoarse from panic and the scream I had unleashed earlier. I bit my lip and threw a worried glance at the people and dogs behind us. The man followed my gaze, and stood up.
"Excuse me, sirs," he said, keeping it formal, his voice rather curt. He seemed so gentle a few seconds ago, and now he had a very harsh look about him. "Why were you pursuing this young woman?"
"She stole summat!" exclaimed the other policeman. I remembered this one. It was Officer Glover. Nasty temper, he had. I remembered him well. He'd been on my case for awhile, even when I had been doing naught.
"Do you have any proof?" Mr. Skinny inquired, placing his hands behind his back and twining his fingers together, rocking to and fro. He appeared so funny that I had to laugh. Which I did. An awful, croaking laugh that sounded rather like I was choking. When he shot a glance back at me with the strangest expression on his face, I tried to smile apologetically. Although it must not have worked very well, for his gaze deepened. Then he turned back to the officers.
"Show us wh't yew stole!" Officer Glover roared at me, his face red. He brandished his pistol, as if to further motivate me. I held up empty hands, much to his anger. He turned purple, and looked like he was about to explode, like a glass under pressure.
"I didn't steal anything," I managed, my throat burning. I was, in fact, lying through my teeth. But as all my friends said (ah, my so called friends. The ones who abandoned me to be chased by the hounds after we tried to pull off our heist) I was an excellent liar, and a crooked cheat. But they didn't need to know that.
The policemen both looked flustered. "Yes yew did," the first officer growled. "We saw yew take it, right owt fr'm under th' owners' nose!" Officer Glover was absolutely puce by now, and I gave that strange, croaking laugh.
"Did anybody else see me take it?" I asked in a hushed tone. "If only you two saw me 'take it'," I rasped, emphasizing heavily on 'take it' with a sarcastic tone, "then you can't prove a thing. You two could be in on it… just to have a girl to have some fun with." My eyes blazed heavily at this, and I grinned wickedly. I've known police officers to try to do that to me.
Mr. Skinny looked positively bewildered. I closed my eyes and rubbed my neck, suddenly coughing. Oh boy… this was going to hurt for awhile.
The two policemen simultaneously bit their lips. "Well, uh…" their eyes were blank and dull, and I nearly began to laugh again. They looked SO DUMB. "Uh…"
Mr. Skinny frowned deeply. "Well then, if there's no incriminating evidence against her, then I guess she's free to go!" he said, pulling his hands around from behind his back and clapping them together. "I'll take care of the girl… as for you two, you can attend to the business of the… you know…" He jerked his head towards the body, then helped me to my feet.
I blushed deeply as I realized what a state of tatters my petty dress was in. It hadn't been beautiful to start with, but now it looked completely awful. I'm sure my hair was just as bad. I found it kind of funny. Mr. Skinny and I both had raven black hair. Mine was long and rather straight, falling a few inches just past my shoulders. I reached up and unconsciously rubbed the scar that spread across the lower regions of my right chin.
"You sure you're all right?" he asked, looking very concerned. I nodded, finding my throat was hurting too hard to speak. "I'm sorry… where are my manners? I've forgotten to introduce myself, what with all the action going on. I am Constable Ichabod Crane," he said, giving me a little bow.
I opened my mouth and cleared my throat, wincing, then managed, "I'm Susan Stantford. Pleased to meet you, Constable." He smiled slightly, placed an arm around my waist and offered me his shoulder to lean on.
"We'll need to get you to Sleepy Hollow," he murmured without looking at me. "I can try to get you a place to stay until further notice. By the way, what WERE you doing out here, if not being chased for a crime?"
I blinked and turned my gaze to the ground and beheld my feet. They looked absolutely awful. Sweltering bruises and cuts lined them in fascinating swirls, black with mud and dirt and other debris that I had run across on my flight through the woods. "I, uh… I… I was… I was coming to, um, pick up a horse," I muttered, shamefully glaring at the woods and avoiding looking at Mr. Crane.
"Well, I certainly hope you weren't crossing through the woods on foot at night," he said, his voice filled with concern. I felt ashamed. I was lying through my teeth and the good Constable was only trying to be nice. "It's very dangerous. The Headless Horseman is about, you know."
"Headless Horseman…?" I blinked again, tilting my face towards his. He was carefully avoiding my gaze, as I had been so few minutes ago.
"Yes, indeed," he said. His eyes drifted to me, saw I was looking at him, and looked straight ahead again. I stopped leaning on his shoulder, and he seemed to take this as a sign and let go of my waist. I tottered a few steps. My knees gave out on me, but he grabbed me before I fell on my face in the dirt. "My, that was some adventure you had," he said, eyeing my feet.
"You have no idea," I muttered under my breath. He placed his arm back around my waist, but I refused to lean on his shoulder again. He appeared to ignore this and we continued at a slow, but steady, pace. We crossed a wooden bridge, the planks groaning as we shuffled across it. "Ow!"
"What is it?" he cried, alarmed, as I fell backwards onto my butt on the bridge and pulled my right foot up to my lap. Gritting my teeth hard, I carefully picked a sliver out of the sole of my foot, gasping slightly when it popped free.
I struggled to my feet again and carefully avoided anymore slivers.
"My, you have tough feet, to endure that much," he said, smiling slightly. "I'm sure the sliver was the last straw."
I rolled my eyes. "Yep," I growled, my tone of voice ending all conversation as we had known it. We walked the rest of the way in silence, my steps, uncertain and uneven, his, steady and calm. It was at this point that I took him in. He was wearing a black frockcoat that was unbuttoned around the waist, so that it revealed a lighter-shaded black vest. Underneath the vest was a white undershirt that poked out slightly. His clothes were rather nice, but not of the best quality, which spoke of a man with very little for wages. I sighed.
He must've caught it, for he looked at me out of the corner of his eye. "Is something wrong, miss?"
"Yeah. You calling me 'miss'," I snapped.
"Well, I'm sorry mi – err… Stantford," he said, his mouth drawn up in a pouty way. I rolled my eyes. "What else am I supposed to call you?" he inquired in a soft voice. People stared at our strange little procession as we made our way through town, apparently heading towards the large and forbidding manor upon the hill.
"You can call me Susan," I growled, not at all in the mood for soft tones and nice gestures. I began muttering curse words under my breath at a high rate of speed. He raised his eyebrows at me but didn't say anything.
"Yes, okay. Susan," he said. He'd been so mellow up until now that I was surprised to see a twinkle in his eye. I pulled away from him a little bit and gave him a pitiful look. He released his grip on my waist, and I found that I could walk, even if it was with a bit of a limp. And so we walked on a bit more. And a little further… and a little farther…
And as fatigue suddenly hit me like a wave of nausea, I felt my mind growing dim along with my vision, and with that, I blacked out.
"A pretty young girl," someone whispered. It was a feminine voice, just beyond my range of brainpower. My eyes were still closed and my mind still half-asleep, and so I only registered bits and pieces of the outside world's conversationalists. "My, my… She's really beat up, isn't she? You say she was running from the police?"
"Yes," came a voice my mind finally recognized. Constable Crane. "Running like the blazes from those hounds. Found that poor man's body on the tree and nearly had a heart attack. Ran into me. Probably thought I was the killer or something like that, because she screamed. Scared me half to death, I must tell you."
"Yes. It's mighty lucky you found her, or they'd probably have hauled her off and done something awful to her. You say they accused her of being a criminal?"
"Indeed. They said she stole something, and growled at her to show what she had stolen. Didn't have anything. Showed them up. Said she isn't a thief, and that the policemen might've had other intentions for her. I couldn't tell if she was lying or not."
My mind began to click and whirr. I lay there and listened further, pretending to still be asleep. I wanted to listen more, but as well didn't want to interrupt their conversation. It wouldn't do to upset people, no no… not when I was still most likely suspicious. Needed to win their hearts, I did. Couldn't let them think I was suspicious.
"You don't say. And such a nice looking girl, too," the lady's voice commented.
There was a silence for a long time, then someone stood up. The person with the female voice spoke again, her voice higher above me now. It must've been her that stood up. "Well, I shall see about getting her some clothes fit for wearing. That tatty dress would surely bring in a breeze and let her catch cold. Good day, Constable."
"Good day, Lady Van Tassel," came the soft reply. A door somewhere across the room opened with a low creak and then snapped shut lightly. I heard Mr. Crane get up from his seat with a sigh, then go about business. I cracked one eye open slightly. He put a log on the fire, then sat down nearby at a small table.
"You can stop pretending to be asleep now," he commented, not looking up. I started, surprised; then I opened both eyes and watched him in silence for a while. "You're not fooling anyone, you know."
I sighed softly. "If you say so."
"I have some questions for you," he remarked as he walked back towards the middle of the room and went about doing random little things. He straightened a pile of books on the table and refused to meet my eye again.
Completely aware and being observant I sat up, grimaced slightly, and leaned against the wall next to the bed. "Go ahead," I replied cautiously, keeping my guard up. I thought he might try to weasel something out of me that he didn't need to know.
"So where are you from?" he asked. I bit my lip. The truth was, I didn't live anywhere. Anywhere civil, at least. I'd have to lie some more. "I… I live in a little cabin in the woods, about ten miles from here," I stretched. I didn't actually live in a cabin. A cave was more like it, but I DID live ten miles from here in the woods.
"Interesting…" he murmured, playing with something on the table that I couldn't see. "Okay then. Next question. Do you know anything about the Headless Horseman?"
I snorted, flaring my nostrils like an angry horse. "Not much. Only that he's a myth used to scare little kids at bedtime. I was one of 'em. Not very kind, I imagine he would be. Why? Is there some nut impersonating the Headless Horseman?" My mind flashed back to the headless body that had been pinned to a tree. I shuddered horribly. He opened his mouth to answer but I continued, ignoring him. "The Headless Horseman basically rides around on his steed, cutting off people's heads while searching for his own. My brother… my deceased brother, used to scare the bejesus out of me with that story. Said if I didn't watch out, the Headless Horseman would get me. Cut off my head. Make people scream."
Crane nodded thoughtfully, then turned to look at me. He leaned back slightly against the table. "Okay, fine. Last question." He paused for effect, it seemed like, then drew in a deep breath. "You're not really here to pick up a horse, are you?"
My eyes widened slightly. I closed them quickly so he wouldn't notice. "Why do you say that? Of course I am." I heard him sigh, and opened my eyes, hoping that they wouldn't give me away.
"No, I don't think you are… I checked up on the stables while you were sleeping. There's no horse for Susan Stantford."
Panic and dread swelled up in my chest. I felt like I might explode. I gritted my teeth to stop from saying swear words, then frowned in the best diplomatic way I could. "What happened to my horse then?" I inquired sweetly, already knowing what the answer would be. I'd been caught. I'd be forced to tell the truth. Then I'd hang. Everybody would gather around the gallows to see Susan Stantford hang for stealing.
He frowned too. "Don't play games with me, Susan. You didn't come here for a horse. They said there isn't a horse for Susan Stantford, there never was a horse for Susan Stantford, nor was there ever going to be a horse for Susan Stantford. You lied to me." His eyes were burning me up. I sighed deeply.
"Okay, okay. You're too smart for me." I pulled in a deep breath, which had suddenly become shaky. "I'm not really here to pick up a horse. I lied. So what?" I almost immediately knew that was the wrong answer, because his thoughtful-looking frown turned into one of anger.
"You lied once. No, let me say that again. You probably lied more than once, didn't you?" he raged. I cringed. Here we go. I could already feel the noose closing around my neck. I'd hang like a goose that's been killed and plucked and bared for the world to see. I'd hang, and everybody would know it. Would my friends mourn? Probably… probably not, that is.
"You don't have to answer. Because I know you did. I can see it in your eyes." I bit my lip until a coppery taste filled my mouth and told me I'd broken the skin. I sucked on it a bit until it stopped bleeding badly then with a grimace swallowed the blood. I looked up at him when I heard his footsteps approaching the bed. He looked down at me with deep disapproval. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for him to hit me or something. Nothing happened.
I opened one eye, then opened the other. He was still there. I closed them again and gulped. "Okay, okay. But what else am I supposed to do?" I asked, exasperated. "I don't have any living… relatives… nor do I have a husband. And you know very well that women can't get very many jobs around here." I ignored the fact that the corners of my vision seemed watery. "My brother… died… when I was younger. About fifteen. My parents, well, they… they were away. I haven't seen them in years. What choice did I have?"
"You could have found somebody, I'm sure," was the tart reply.
"Yeah, right. Sure. Just the same as I could have found a bunch of money lying on the ground. Nobody wanted me."
He didn't say anything.
I was about to say something more when a loud knock echoed off the door. I jumped, startled. Ichabod's eyes widened.
"C-come in," he spluttered, straightening that stack of books behind him again, which didn't need straightening. I furiously rubbed my sleeve over my eyes to get rid of any tears as Lady Van Tassel entered the room, eyeing us both curiously. My face was red from all the rubbing I'd been doing to it and the Constable looked absolutely flustered.
She smiled at us, then laid a pile of clothes on the end of my bed. "I thought I'd bring you something to wear, dear," she said to me, then looked upwards at Crane. He opened his mouth and sucked in a deep breath. I rolled my eyes downwards, ready for the blow to fall. I'd be hanged today for sure.
"Thank you, m'lady," he muttered finally, and my jaw dropped. He hadn't spilled the beans on me! I felt like rejoicing. I quickly slapped my hand up against my jaw and clicked it shut, not wanting to appear suspicious. Ichabod Crane seemed to have noticed, for he raised one eyebrow as if to say, "Keep your mouth shut."
Lady Van Tassel had noticed none of this, however. She had been inspecting something on the table, then gracefully made her way over to the exit. "Good day, dears," she said, opened the door, and left with a snap. I sighed deeply and quickly in relief. Then I looked at him. He glared at me as best as he could, which wasn't very convincing. He didn't appear to have much experience at being hateful.
I did, however. I glared back at him, locking my eyes with his. His eyes wavered ever so slightly and then he looked away, in a disgusted manner. "I don't know why I'm doing this…" he grumbled, scowling at the floor. "You're a criminal. Criminals steal. They kill. How do I know you won't steal everything I own and kill me?"
I had been sitting up until this time. I closed my eyes, rocked back and forth slightly, then fell back against the wall with a thump. "Oh, God. I know I'm in such trouble… I can't help it, Mr. Crane. I have no one to support me. Women can't do much. Maybe I can get a job as a laundry washer…" I mumbled, a deep frown creasing my face. "I hate washing laundry. 'Specially for other people."
He quirked a brow at me and licked his lips slightly. "I'll leave you to dress, then," he said quickly, edging towards the door. I shrugged, and he left. As soon as he was gone I scrambled out of bed, my feet aching and my legs screaming, but I managed to shed my ruined dress and change into a pleasant, soft blue day gown that would keep me up for the day.
Allowing my legs to rest, I plopped back down on the bed. On the nightstand next to me, I found a little dish of water, a comb, and a very, very small mirror that would suffice. I stared at it, then picked it up and stared at my reflection. I looked horrible. My hair was sticking up in all which directions. I sighed, picked up the comb, placed the looking glass in my lap, and began to tame my tangles. It took at least half an hour to forty-five minutes to get everything out, including the mats which had been growing without my knowledge. Then again, when you're as poor as I am, you can't even afford a comb…
After finishing with my hair, I snooped around in the drawer of the nightstand, and was pleased to find a ribbon with which I could tie my hair up. I did so, then spread a bit of the water over my face. I felt better already. But my feet and legs still ached from my three or four mile run this morning. I stood up, much to the protest of my sore limbs and tottered over to the window on the other side. It was dark outside, and the most I could see really by the moonlight were people slinking from house to house fearfully. Looked like it had earlier, during the day. Must've slept awhile.
A gentle knocking on the door startled me so badly that I fell over, hit a chair, and made an awful racket. Without waiting for my answer a head with messy black hair poked its' way into my room. It was looking slightly concerned. "Is everything all right in here?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine," I snapped, scrambling back to my feet. "Just startled me, s'all," I grumbled, and clutched at the table to keep myself upright. The Constable slipped into the room and closed the door, swiftly crossing the wooden floor and coming over to me. He held me steady as I attempted to walk back to the bed.
"I brought you some shoes…" his sentence trailed off as he looked at my feet. They were purple in some spots, black in others, and deep red cuts laced them like patterns. "Oh dear. We'll have to go get them cleaned up," he said softly, then his gaze traveled slowly up to my eyes. He suddenly became aware of what he was doing and blushed brightly. He turned and busied himself with a few things, and pointed behind him to the shoes he had left by the door.
I leaned over the end of the bed and attempted to grab the shoes. I strained with a loud moaning sound and managed to reach them, pulling them into my lap. I saw him glance back at me, then stare at the table. "Is your name really Susan Stantford?" he inquired. I looked up at him, surprised. I hadn't expected that.
"Why, yes, it is…" I busied myself with pulling on my shoes. They hurt, but I managed. I'd need them. "Why do you ask?" I grunted, standing once more. I felt steadier, but my legs still hurt pretty badly.
"Well, I… I just…"
"You wanted to know if I had been lying to you about my name, too?" I shot gruffly, limping over to the table. I slammed my hands down on it and stared forcefully up at him. He flinched, looking the other way to avoid my gaze.
"Y…yes…" he stammered.
"Well, I didn't. I don't lie about that. I'm not some big escaped convict, so I don't need to hide my name. Now, didn't you say something about going somewhere…?"
"Yes. We're going to get your feet cleaned and mended."
"But I can't pay for that."
"You don't have to do that."
"Yes, I believe I do." He finally looked at me, his eyes blazing. I took a step back. 'Wow…' I thought, blinking.
He placed his hands on my shoulders, and turned me gently, then led me off towards the door, keeping me steady.