A/N Sorry my update took so long. Lots of pressures, blah blah. But it's here. I'm going to keep going regardless of reviews because I have this story in my head and it needs to come out. To avoid confusion, this chapter is a flashback of Mary's life before she became Lady Van Tassel. Thank you to you wonderful reviewers!
~ Chapter II: The Legend of the Crone ~
The wood was cold and dark. The woman was wandering alone. You could not tell her age or features, for white netting covered her face and fell down the length of her dress. If someone had been spying on her just then, they would not have seen much, for the trees in that wood were narrow and enclosing. Only small glimpses of the woman could be gained, the tail-end of her dress, or the back of her covered head. She had her back to Sleepy Hollow. If she had turned about, it would have seemed as if she were a veil floating in the air, instead of a woman.
These woods were not the woods where humans lived – but still, the woman could be found wandering through the very thickness of it.
The people of Sleepy Hollow, being a suspicious lot, would not have bothered to discover that she was a real, flesh-and-blood woman. They would have been too busy fleeing for their lives, swearing up and down for years to come that it was the Crone, or a ghost woman, that they had seen. Because of their fear, they had long since stopped hunting in that place they called the Western Woods – for nothing there, they swore, was alive. If you went the opposite side of the town to the Eastern Woods, you could travel quite safely through to the next town over, Minstrel Downs. A fair path had been worn between the two towns, and although it as a long ride through, people were not afraid to stop by the woods, and hunt when hunting season came. But they would not touch the Western Woods.
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People told stories of the bloody battles that had taken place during the War – and one of those battles had ended in the woods. They said the ghosts of soldiers slaughtered on the winter snow had left a bitter memory in the trees – and that ever since, the Western Woods had clung to the spirit of those dark and unforgiving times.
"That is why," Lady Van Tassel would tell little Katrina before bed, "that is why nothing fine will grow in those woods, and no light, even in the midst of summer, will shine through those tight, bare branches. Men brave enough to enter the fringes of that wood say not even a bird stirs, for it is a dead wood, and all who journey to its centre are taken by whatever lies in the dense hollow where the trees cling tight and close together like bitter guards."
"What is it they hide there?" Katrina sunk down under the bed covers, but a little smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, and her mother felt encouraged to continue.
"They say," began Lady Van Tassel, who ordinarily was a quiet, unexcited person, and grew her liveliest telling ghost stories, "that a Crone lives deep in the heart of that black hollow. Some say she looks exactly like a young bride gone early to her grave, and others say she is hundreds of years old. There is one thing they do agree upon: she has the flesh of a demon, and her mouth is full of sharp fangs. The only way, they say, to appease her, is to cut off your index finger, this one here," Lady Van Tassel said, grabbing onto her daughter's tiny finger resting above the covers, "and you must give it to her straight away, for that is the part of human flesh that she likes to eat most."
Lady Van Tassel sat back contentedly on the bed, and blew out the lamp on the window sill. "Now child, enough excitement. Rest that weary head and sleep."
The woman kissed her daughter on the cheek, and shut the door. She produced the key from the pocket in her dress, and turned the key in the door. She had strange fears, perhaps because of how close the town lay near the woods. Sometimes Lady Van Tassel had dreams of lying in bed in the midst of a terrible fever, and vomiting over her clothes. An exceedingly pretty, mysterious woman stood over her pillow, helping her to vomit up whatever sickness had taken hold of her. And by the door, stood little Katrina, petrified.
"Go Katrina," Lady Van Tassel would rasp in her dream, but it never made a difference. Lady Van Tassel would throw up until she fainted away. And little Katrina would stand their by the door frame, watching it all. The strangest part of it was that Lady Van Tassel could watch herself die, as if she were a spirit floating above her body. So perhaps it was for that reason that she kept little Katrina's door bolted at night, for fear of the awful nightmares coming true.
"Is she asleep now my love?" Baltus Van Tassel appeared in the narrow corridor, his arm stretched between the walls like a bridge.
Lady Van Tassel looked down shyly, and nodded. It was always this time of night when she least felt comfortable near her husband. "I think she sleeps."
Suddenly the sound of footsteps could be heard running across the floor. The door behind them rattled ferociously. "Father! I'm scared! The crone is after me!"
Baltus raised an eyebrow. "She certainly sleeps. What nonsense do you tell her before bed?"
The crying went on for another two hours before peace was restored in the Van Tassel household, but for Lady Van Tassel, the ghost woman would always be real.
* * *
It was the very after Lady Van Tassel's ghost stories that the ghost woman showed up in the Western Woods. Only she was not a ghost.
Her name was Mary Archer, and in two weeks hence she would turn twenty-one. She did not look old, but Mary felt old. She felt as old as the old crone, for she had heard the stories about she and her sister. The reason the very rumours existed were because some brave souls, or very stupid souls, Mary liked to think, had ventured in the woods. They did so because there were some among the villagers, or travellers from Minstrel Downs, who still clung to the Old Ways. They were few, perhaps only one or two a year, but that was plenty enough for Mary. They would come seeking magic advice, potions for healing sickness, fate readings. Simple things.
Then they would be on their way, and spread the myth of the old crone or dead bride – whatever they believed existed beneath their veils. For the strange, funny truth was that no one knew there was not one crone, but two. Her sister and she shared their hollowed out shelter in the woods. Whenever the sisters ventured into the woods themselves, they wore their veils. And never together. Always alone. For those travellers who saw the old crone wandering by herself would be afraid, and that way, the women could live undisturbed.
The veil was essential. Mary hated it, hated it more than the trees and the wood and the shrinking light itself, but her sister insisted upon it. "If ever either of our faces were to be seen," warned her sister, "we would be recognised for what we were, and cast even further out of society's way."
And so it was, Mary thought bitterly. I am to remain alone. I will become a bitter old crone, just as the stories say I am.
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