The Trail of Gourds
Follow the trail of gourds.
The boy stares at the note on the rickety table.
“What does this mean?” he asks, the salt of his dried tears still caked on his cheeks.
“You’re in danger now. They’ll come for you next.” The man who lives at the end of the road spoke in a hushed tone. He taps a bony finger on the note. “This is the only way.”
The note is crumpled in the boy’s pocket. The crooked trees leer at him, casting dark glances. A pallid moon races alongside him. His eyes dart through the dark underbrush, scanning for the next flash of orange, the next step towards freedom from the hell he had once called home. He blinks away the tears and soot that had gathered as he watched soldiers set the house his father had raised him in go up in smoke. It wouldn’t be long until they discovered he hadn’t gone up with it.
A frigid breath. The boy freezes. Was that the wind? Or is someone else here? A dark outline looms ahead. The boy crouches behind a tree, squinting. He makes out a large black muzzle, a gaping maw of darkness. The muscles in his tired legs loosen. It’s a cannon, left behind by the retreating army. Besides it lays a small pumpkin, almost unnaturally shaped. The boy dashes past the abandoned armament. It still carries the bitter odor of the day the army abandoned the village. The shouting of black-eyed and bandaged soldiers shoving villagers away from packed carriages still reverberates in the bore.
The path winds deeper into the black tangle of trees, the wind echoing the whispers of dark magic that seeps through this forest. But the boy pushes onwards.
Follow the trail of gourds.
A haven lying deep in the dark forest, a refuge from the sadistic rule of the conquering forces that had swept through the peaceful countryside. Beyond a small, stone bridge was another town, guarded by a deadly spirit. It lurked amongst the trees, never seen but its presence was always felt. When anyone felt eyes upon them, all that could be seen were the thin trees and pumpkins that seemed to have come from nowhere. At least, that’s what the hushed murmurs claimed. Maybe there’s some merit to these rumors. The image of the man who lived at the end of the road flashes in his mind. The sunken but knowing eyes, the worn boots of one that had ventured deep into the forest, deeper than the boy could even imagine. No one had seen him in days. Maybe he was dead. Maybe he was right. The boy prays that it was the latter.
The boy keeps running. He should be afraid of the twisted roots, the eyes glancing out of the underbrush. Any child his age would be. But this was his domain. These trees had been his playground, these eyes belonged to his playmates. He would spend hours exploring the woods around his father’s stables. But these memories turned sour, twisted. The sharp blades of regret sliced at the cloth of his happy memories. Maybe if he hadn’t been frolicking in the woods, he could have helped defend the town. Could have prevented what happened next.
The rumbling of horses. The boy’s blood turns to ice. They are coming. He dives into a bush, scraping his exposed arms. Seconds later a hoof comes to a stop a foot in front of the boy’s face. Boots stomp onto the ground, three pairs, then four. A man shouts a simple command. “Find him.” Through the thorns and leaves, the boy can see the tricorn hat of Colonel Crane, the monster who had taken over the town. His stone-set face never changes, even when he ordered the execution of the villagers who had tried to defend their home, their bodies falling one by one, like lemmings, into the yawning burial pit. The boy had stood in the crowd, watching two faces: the colonel’s and his father’s, as it was consumed once again by the earth.
The three other soldiers fan out, bayonets stabbing into the leafy darkness. The boy’s mouth almost betrays him as sharp steel tears through the leaves, inches away from his nose. They continue into the dark. The colonel follows, calloused hand on his cavalryman’s blade.
The boy turns away from the men and stares right into the eye of one of the horses. He stifles a scream. The deep brown eye gazes at him through the branches and realization sparks in the boy’s eyes. This is the horse that he had taken care of weeks ago, under the willow tree. A long gash had run along its flank, deep and red. The boy had sat with the horse for many hours, tending to the grievous wound, before it finally had the strength to stand. With one last look, it had trotted away. Now, it stares at him again.
The boy glances back at the soldiers. They would be turning back soon, stabbing once again at the bushes. He doubts he would be as lucky this time. He takes a sharp breath, glancing at a circular pumpkin that was watching him as well.
Follow the trail of gourds.
Colonel Crane’s eyes widen as he hears rustling behind him. He draws his blade, the wicked sound of steel leaving its scabbard tearing through the forest. The boy they were looking for was on one of the soldier’s horses. Their eyes meet for a second before the horse bolts, diving into the black of the night.
Icy winds stab at the cuts on the boy’s arm as the horse weaves between the trees. The boy grits his teeth. He can do this. The warmth of his father’s hands around his own as he grips the reins, shielding his bare arms from the cold. The kick of the horse’s muscles moving beneath him, their bodies moving together, like clockwork.
Pumpkins peer from the edges of the boy’s vision, like spectators watching a race expectantly. Soon, the finish line appears. In the distance, the bridge, a small arch over a bubbling creek, beckons him. The boy leans in close. Gunpowder ignites and musket shots whizz by the boy. He doesn’t need to look back to know that the soldiers are catching up.
The boy’s eyes are so focused on the bridge that he doesn’t notice the pumpkins sitting beside it begin to glow softly. Jagged carvings in their hard, orange skin spread, as if etched by a ghostly child, yellow light spilling through. The soldiers’ eyes, aiming down their muskets, widen in fear.
The hooves of the boy’s horse pound against the cobblestone of the bridge, a dozen drum beats echoing through the trees. The boy glances backwards and his heart stops. Right beside him, where only black air had been not a moment before, was a cloaked rider, atop a horse with skin that was as dark as the night. The boy’s horse whinnies in fear, screeching to a stop. Ripples of fear run through the boy’s body, like a heartbeat of terror. As his eyes trace the dark figure, he gasps.
The soldiers stop as well, looking to their commander. Colonel Crane’s stoic demeanor is cracked, and his soldiers see fear in his eyes for the very first time. Across the small river, alongside the boy, is the headless horseman. Drawn at his side is a black saber, surrounded by swirling energy. All at once, the colonel feels a hundred eyes upon him. Dozens of jack-o-lanterns now stare at him, levitating above the forested ground. Desperation seeps into the colonel’s command to fire on the pumpkins. The black blade is raised, pointing at the soldiers, and the orange projectiles take flight. The panicking soldiers only manage to shoot down three before the pumpkins explode into orange shrapnel, blasting their mangled bodies into the trees. The colonel tries to slash at the pumpkins, failing to notice one hurtling from behind him. A second later, his body falls to one side of his horse, and his head falls to the other side.
The boy stares in awe, hands frozen around the reins of the whimpering horse.The headless horseman turns to him, a jack-o-lantern whizzing into place where his head should be.
“You ride well, boy.” The voice emanates from all the pumpkins in the area, a chorus of powerful magic.
He stammers out a weak “T-Thank you.”
More horses appear out of the trees, their riders jumping off. The man who had lived at the end of the road smiles at him, wise eyes filled with joy. The boy realizes that these are villagers that had disappeared, escaping into the woods as he had. Hope gleams in his eyes as he recognizes them one-by-one.
The horseman speaks again. “We could use more capable horsemen like you.”
The boy blinks. “Why?”
The pumpkin’s expression does not change, but the boy can hear a low chuckle.
“We have to take back your village somehow, don’t we?”
The boy’s fear melts away, the regret of his inaction burning up in a fierce bonfire of resolve. If this is how he can avenge his father and do what he should have done that day the soldiers came, then he will do it. He nods.
The magical light behind the etchings in the pumpkin burns warmly. “Welcome to Sleepy Hollow.”