Title: Night-Riders
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: G.
Characters: Ed, Al, and assorted original townsfolk.
Setting: General.
Summary: Another October finds Edward depressed—until the brothers get caught up in a family’s secret.
Disclaimer: They belong to Hiromu Arakawa. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: This is my belated attempt at a third-of-October FMA fic, as well as a Halloween tale. Poor Ed may disagree with me, but October is my favorite month of all, and this story is an affectionate nod to all of the things I love about it. I hope I’ve succeeded in bringing the fun of these autumn traditions to Amestris.
Most notably, this story is a tribute to one of my favorite fictional antiheroes: the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, from the classic Doctor Syn novels by Russell Thorndike. (They can be freely read online, so if you love historical adventure and masked swashbucklers, visit the link to read these wonderful forgotten books!)

 

Night-Riders

 

PART I: ROMNEY

The town of Romney was a small, picture-postcard community, settled in a valley among low green hills. Shops and narrow townhouses were clustered within a few blocks of the quaint, well-kept main street, and beyond that lay scattered farms, surrounded by sheep pastures and fields of crops. Children and their dogs ran and played, dodging the wheels of horsecarts, and flocks of chickens scratched around doorsteps.

In many ways, the peaceful simplicity of the place seemed much like the distant village of Resembool.

It was a similarity Alphonse Elric noticed with a rather sinking heart—or at least with a feeling that would have been such, if he’d technically had a heart at all.

As the train swayed to a halt at Romney’s trim little station, Al pried his gaze from the view beyond the window. With a scrape of hollow steel, he leaned toward the opposite seat, and gently shook the shoulder of a shapeless bundle that was slumped beneath a scarlet coat.

“Time to wake up, Brother. We’ve reached our stop.”

A heavy sigh emerged from under the fabric, and Edward Elric threw it off, blinking wearily at the assault of late-afternoon sunlight through the window. There were shadows around his topaz eyes, and his lips were set in the same thin, hard line Al had seen for days now.

Without a word, Ed shrugged into his coat, picked up his suitcase, and began making his way along the aisle of the train car. Al followed him out onto the platform—and the first thing to greet them was a thick cloud of dust, kicked up by the herd of sheep being loaded onto a boxcar further down the line. Ed coughed violently and waved away the drifting particles.

Sheep…” he muttered, as if the word was a curse. He squinted through the dust and the surrounding bustle of the train station, trying to catch a glimpse of the town that lay before them; and when he did, Al could see him tense up just a little bit.

His dark eyes darkened still further. “Kinda reminds me of…”

“Yeah. I know,” Al sighed.

Most of the time, it wasn’t so bad to be reminded of their native village. In most any other week of the year, a place like this would arouse only a gentle wistfulness for the brothers. It was only that the calendar now happened to mark the first week of October, when the memories hurt the most.

The third of October was the day they had set their house in Resembool ablaze and walked away—leaving behind a few people who cared for them, but not, as much as they wished to, their memories of pain and grief. Besides that burden, all they carried with them was one old suitcase and the promise to heal each other’s wounds. But the anniversary of that day had once again come and gone a few days ago, finding them still incomplete, and it was never any easier to see another year pass with that promise left unfulfilled.

Ed responded to the occasion as he always did, by sinking into a sullen depression; he slept a lot, ate little, and spoke hardly at all. Al hated to see him like that, but any attempt to lighten his brother’s mood only resulted in his being snapped at. There was nothing to do but wait it out. It was never long before they found themselves in the middle of some new crisis, and nothing cured Ed’s malaises like the opportunity to unleash some fresh, bracing anger on a problem. (Preferably a problem that had a face he could smash.)

But in the meantime, having to spend the night in Romney was only going to make him even less pleasant to be around.

“Just great.” Ed hefted the suitcase over his shoulder with his automail hand, and started walking toward the street. “The sooner our next train comes tomorrow, the better… I guess for now we’d better find the hotel.”

Al followed, ruefully refraining from any offer to carry the suitcase. When his brother wouldn’t even let him help, his one advantage of tireless strength seemed only a waste, as empty as the rest of him.

The train station stood on the edge of the town proper, at the end of a broad, brick-paved main street. Romney’s marketplace stretched before the brothers: a bustling general store, small shops crowded with customers, a café whose outdoor patio was almost overflowing with patrons. It was plain to see that Romney was much busier than its small population could account for, and the mood was distinctly… festive.

All along the street, buildings and trees were strung with white lights, and trimmed with garlands made of autumn leaves and acorns. On every door hung a wreath of golden wheat and dried gourds, or a decorative cluster of brightly-colored corn. Most curious of all, enormous pumpkins were perched everywhere, on barrels and windowsills and porch railings—and many of them were carved into grotesque faces.

“It looks like they’re getting ready for a festival,” Al observed, at the risk of pointing out the obvious to his irascible brother.

Ed simply groaned, hanging his head down over his chest. “Of all the times to end up here…”

The timing made Al feel equally sorry. Under better circumstances, he loved festivals and fairs, and the chance to enjoy the colorful revelries of the places they traveled to. He would have liked to see this one—but he wasn’t going to push for that now. He sympathized too much with the weary unhappiness Ed felt at this time of year. It would have been nice if such diversions cheered Brother up instead of making him feel even more discontent, but his restless heart didn’t work that way.

Al’s sense of melancholy didn’t last long, however. Within a few minutes, his attention was entirely taken up by another realization.

In the course of their long and far-flung journeys, Al had become accustomed to a lot of different reactions to his armor. Uneasiness was the most distressingly common, but some responses were more imaginative and unpredictable. He had been mistaken for everything from a robot to a ghost to an outer-space alien. Convincing people that he really was human and well-meaning sometimes required an effort.

But as they walked down Romney’s main street, Al sensed that the looks he was getting were not frightened or suspicious, or even particularly surprised. In fact, if anything, he could only have characterized people’s expressions as slightly… admiring.

That was enough to make Al himself feel nervously perplexed. He wanted to ask if Ed had noticed, but his brother was still walking in a dejected slouch. It would be a wonder if Ed even saw the hotel when they came upon it.

No sooner had that thought crossed Al’s mind than he sighted their destination. A stately cream-and-white building that may once have been a mansion rose ahead of them, elaborately elegant in its gables and bay windows and long, broad porches. From its banister hung a filigreed sign that labeled it The Romney Inn.

“There’s the inn,” Al prompted, tapping Ed’s shoulder. Then he would have frowned if he could have, as he surveyed the rocking chairs and picnic tables on and around the porch—all fully occupied by guests enjoying the crisp autumn weather, talking and playing games. “I hope it’s not as busy as the rest of the town.”

Ed sighed gustily. “With our luck? Of course it is,” he grumbled. Nevertheless, he squared his shoulders and quickened his pace.

A group of children were playing a rowdy game of baseball in the vacant lot next to the inn. Al watched them wistfully, remembering that it was Winry who had actually dragged Ed and himself away from their alchemy books to teach them how to play. The children here showed the same confounding tendency the brothers and their long-ago playmates had: with all of the open fields beyond the edge of town to play in, they were still irresistibly attracted to a cramped plot of dirt that was fenced in on three sides and surrounded by fragile windows. Third base appeared to be the lamppost by the sidewalk.

The crack of a bat resounded through the air, followed by raucous whoops and a scramble of youthful bodies. Then a sudden warning cry was shouted, somewhere to the brothers’ right—and before Al could sort out what was happening, he registered a violent collision against the side of his metal frame, well below his eye level. He couldn’t exactly feel the impact, but his vision was jarred and his armor was rattled, forcing him to shift his weight quickly to rebalance himself.

His swifter-than-flesh reflexes served him well. Even as he regained his footing, he instinctively reached down toward the grunted “Oof!” he heard beside him, and caught the source of the blow. It was Edward who had crashed against Al like a domino—but only because something else had barreled full-tilt into him.

When Al looked down, he found the trigger of the pileup sprawled in front of them. A young boy was staring up from the sidewalk, his face red and teeth gritted. He was perhaps nine or ten years old, with sandy hair, green eyes, and thin, freckled cheeks.

Hey! Whadaya think you’re doing?” Ed snarled at the boy, pushing off of Al’s supportive arm to right himself with an air of wounded dignity. “You wanna get somebody hurt?”

The boy’s lower lip quivered guiltily, for the briefest of moments… and then he hopped to his feet, proving that he was almost as tall as Ed. His fists balled at his sides, and he glared at Ed with sudden defiance.

“Why didn’t you move when I yelled at you?”

Ed’s eyes widened, and he made a strangled noise of outrage in his throat. “Us move? Is this how you treat guests in this town? Since when is a sidewalk—”

Whoa!”

The boy’s yelp was so sharp and abrupt that Edward cut off his own words, instantly alert for danger; but as it turned out, the child had simply taken full notice of Al for the first time.

“Oh wow, that is so cool!” All but shoving Ed aside, the boy crowded close to Al, and actually seized his gauntlet in both hands. He craned his neck to gape in wonder at the fierce features and gleaming spikes of the armor. “Nobody’s ever worn a costume like this for the Festival!”

Al flinched, awkwardly rubbing the back of his helmet with his free hand. “Uh…”

He was saved from trying to frame a coherent reply when the boy glanced over his shoulder, giving the older brother a second look. Ed growled and opened his mouth for another fusillade—but the child merely smirked at him.

“And what are you supposed to be? Little Red Riding Hood?”

Alphonse could practically hear the tripwire that went snap in Ed’s brain. He hovered for an instant on the verge of a truly epic explosion… but then his muscles relaxed, and his eyes narrowed, and his voice dropped to a low and dangerously casual tone.

“No. This is no costume—and neither is that.” Ed jerked his head at Al. “He just wears that to protect him from the sunlight, because he’s really a vampire… and there’s nothing he likes better than the blood of smart-mouthed brats.”

For a second, the boy’s expression quirked. Then he grinned insolently, as if delighted by his own cleverness.

“So why hasn’t he eaten you?”

Al was quick enough to catch Ed around the middle and restrain him—but his other hand didn’t quite make it to Ed’s mouth before their young antagonist had learned a few highly inappropriate new words.

Fortunately, the child knew when to retreat. He bolted off toward the sandlot with a laugh, and had disappeared into the crowd of his playmates by the time Al dared to release his grip on Ed.

Denied the object of his wrath, Ed settled for rounding upon Al, his eyes blazing. “Why didn’t you let me straighten that little monster out?”

“Come on, Ed, he’s just a kid. You were worse at that age. Besides, it serves you right for telling a story like that about me.” Al made the sound of an angry huff as he examined his right gauntlet, which displayed the faint but distinct impressions of tooth marks. “And stop biting my hand when I’m trying to keep you from cussing!”

With no comment beyond a vicious growl in his throat, Ed turned and stomped off toward the steps of the Romney Inn.

The interior of the place was as beautiful as the exterior, dominated by a theme of roses and lace. Huge arrangements of the flowers sat on tiny, doily-topped tables, and portraits of garden landscapes adorned the walls, echoed by the patterns in the wallpaper and the antique china in the curio cabinet. High-backed sofas and cushioned benches lined the walls of the front foyer, and large windows made the space feel bright and airy.

With no apparent appreciation for the décor, Ed stalked up to the check-in desk. Al followed him somewhat gingerly, feeling more out of place than usual in that delicate setting—not to mention a little worried about knocking something over.

A prim middle-aged woman behind the desk watched their approach with a look of discomfort. For a moment Al thought he was receiving one of his typical reactions, but then he realized the woman’s attention was fixed more on the grimly businesslike Ed than on himself.

“We’re here for a room,” Ed announced brusquely, before the woman could speak.

She reddened visibly. “I’m so sorry, but we don’t have any more to offer! Everything’s taken—my daughter’s even given up her own room for the night. We’ve been completely booked up for the Harvest Festival for weeks now.”

Given the crowded state of the town, this news was not unexpected, and Ed merely slumped his shoulders with a sigh. “Yeah, that’s what we were afraid of… But listen, we’re not here for your festival. We’re only passing through, and we’ll be leaving on the first train tomorrow. Can’t we make a deal just to spend the night on one of these couches down here or something?”

The innkeeper hesitated. “Well—”

Her response was cut short by an explosive sound of shattering glass. Al yelped in alarm and instinctively moved to shield his brother, even as Ed lurched into full combat mode: dropping to a crouch, body braced defensively, hands poised for a clap.

In the wary silence that followed, the tinkle of falling shards drew their gazes to a side window, where the lace curtains wafted in a gentle breeze that had not existed in the room a moment earlier. Several glass fragments littered the surrounding floorboards… and halfway across the room, a baseball now nested squarely in the middle of a large cluster of roses.

“Oh, those boys again!” The innkeeper rushed to the window, throwing back the curtain to reveal the jaggedly shattered pane. She peered out through the newly-made hole that overlooked the vacant lot—and promptly launched into a stream of imprecations that even made Ed stare. It seemed the words the boy had heard from him earlier were not so new to those young mischief-makers, after all.

The Elrics glanced at each other. Then Ed broke into a sudden, confident grin, and strode toward the furious woman at the window.

“Take it easy, lady. You’re in luck! We’re alchemists.” He smiled winningly as she turned to him in surprise. “Would it be it worth some dinner and that night’s sleep on the couch if we fixed the damage?”

At that, the innkeeper’s angry red tinge softened to an abashed pinkness. “Why—yes, of course!”

That was all Ed needed to hear. With a familiar smirk of quiet pride in his abilities, he clapped his hands together, and bent down to spread his fingers over the broken glass on the floor. Transmutation energy flickered across the shards, and the innkeeper watched in wonder as the glass flowed back into the hole it had come from, to meld seamlessly together and restore the windowpane to its original shape.

“It’s amazing!” She touched the glass that was now as strong and flawless as it had been before. “Thank you!”

Ed gave a self-satisfied shrug. “Nothing to it. Now, how about that dinn—”

“Uh… Mrs. Waggetts?” a very small and hesitant voice interrupted behind the Elrics.

Both brothers froze where they stood, and Ed clenched his teeth with a wince, as he sometimes did when his automail would scrape against Al’s armor the wrong way. They turned slowly to see the impudent boy they had encountered earlier, standing a few steps behind them—with the offending baseball clutched in his hands. He shuffled his feet nervously as he looked up at the innkeeper.

“It was my fault. I hit the ball through the window,” he admitted guiltily, dropping his gaze. “I’m sorry… and I’ll pay it back.”

The way Ed gulped, he must have nearly swallowed his tongue. “You’re telling me I fixed the window for that brat?” he ground out—his voice fortunately so choked with outraged chagrin that only Al heard him.

Mrs. Waggetts glowered at the boy for a long moment, arms folded sternly. Then she let out a deep sigh, and her face softened a little.

“I’ll let it go this time,” she announced brusquely. “You’re very lucky today, Jep. These two visitors are alchemists, and they’ve already fixed the window for me—so it’s them you’d better thank.”

With an audible indrawn gasp, Jep turned his wide-eyed gaze to the Elrics. “You? You’re alchemists?”

“Of course we are!” Rankled, Ed jerked his State-issued silver watch from his pocket. “Does this look like costume jewelry to you?”

This revelation brought about a complete change in the boy’s attitude. He gaped at the watch, and then at its owner.

“No way—a real live State Alchemist? But that’s… Oh, geeze, I’m sorry about earlier!” His face abruptly turned a spectacular shade of red. “I never would’ve made fun of you if I thought… wow!”

It was no surprise to Al that this sudden tongue-tied awe had a mollifying effect on Ed. He relaxed a little, tucking away his watch, and regarded Jep with an air of condescending forgiveness. “Yeah, well… Let that be a lesson to you, kid.”

“As a matter of fact, you might be able to pay these young gentlemen back,” Mrs. Waggetts said to Jep. “They’re looking for a place to spend the night, but I haven’t any rooms left. Does your family have any guests for the Festival yet?”

“No—we don’t!” Jep’s wide eyes shifted back to the brothers. “Would you really want to come stay on our farm?”

The word farm was enough to make Ed frown. “Uh…”

“Trust me, the Maddocks can put you up better than I can now,” Mrs. Waggetts chimed in. “They usually take in extra guests for the Festival, when all of my rooms are taken. Besides, Fay Maddock’s cooking is the best in Romney—and as much as she cooks for the Midnight Feast, they’ll have plenty to spare!”

The promise of good food clearly cinched the deal for Ed. After a quick glance at Al to confirm there was no objection, the older brother gave Jep a somewhat cautious smile and shrug. “Well, if you’re sure your family won’t mind…”

“Oh no! They told me to check and see if anybody needed a place to stay.” The fading blush in Jep’s face darkened again. “Besides… You know, when they hear how you helped me out…”

If he could have, Al would have smiled. “It’s good that you’re so honest. I just hope you won’t really get in trouble.”

With the happy ending to the mishap, Mrs. Waggetts’ wrath appeared to have subsided. “Oh, don’t worry too much about that. Jep is a good boy—just a little reckless.” She eyed him sternly… and then she smiled. “Besides, no one in Romney can stay angry at Festival time.”

Jep ducked his head sheepishly, turning to the Elrics. “I delivered all our produce earlier, so I’m ready to go home if you are. I hope you don’t mind riding in a horsecart!”

Ed’s tentative grin faltered a little.

“A horsecart… Great…”

 

PART II: FAMILY SECRETS

In spite of Ed’s misgivings, the ride ahead of them was not unpleasant. The open wooden cart was low and broad and contained nothing but a few empty sacks, offering plenty of room both for Al’s bulk and Ed’s inclination to sprawl lazily. Jep himself took the driver’s seat, handling the reins of the most enormous horse Al had ever seen. This huge brown beast named Tor was in fact a gentle giant, with a mellow pace that made for a smooth passage along the dirt road outside of town.

“The innkeeper said your name is Jep?” Al confirmed from his place in the front corner of the cart, opposite his brother.

Jep glanced over his shoulder with a nod. “Yeah…” He wrinkled his nose. “It’s short for Jeptha, but I don’t care for that so much.”

“Pleased to meet you—as crazy as it was,” Al said with a chuckle. “I’m Alphonse Elric, and this is my brother Edward.”

The boy gave a start and turned sideways on his seat, all but dropping the reins—although this evidently made no difference to the horse. Tor seemed quite content to make his own way home even if he had no driver at all.

“Wait a sec… I’ve read that name in the paper.” Jep stared at Ed. “You’re the one they call the Fullmetal Alchemist, aren’t you?”

Now that Ed was coming down from his earlier temper-fueled energy, it was clear to Al that the too-familiar scenery of hills and sheep pastures was luring him back into a funk. He sat rather listlessly, leaning back on his elbows and staring into the bottom of the cart. Ordinarily he would have lit up at such recognition, especially when Al was not mistaken to be the title’s owner first; but at this time of the year, when his thoughts dwelled on his still-unachieved purpose for accepting it, the weight of his Fullmetal name was always heavier than usual.

He glanced up at Jep, and merely gave a slight shrug. “Yeah. That’s me.”

Jep’s breath caught. “But this is awesome! I’ve heard a lot about you—how they call you ‘the Hero of the People’, because you help people like no other State Alchemist does.” He lowered his eyes, his cheeks pinkening. “You’re… kinda my hero, too. I want to learn alchemy one day, and get to travel all over the country doing great things, like you.”

A mingled swell of pride and sadness blossomed within Al. No one was more proud than he of all the good his brother had done for ordinary people—but he knew how lightly Ed esteemed those achievements. He did many things just because they were right, but when it accomplished seemingly nothing to serve his own quest, the pleasure and satisfaction he felt was all too fleeting. As often as he brought happiness to others, his own happiness remained beyond his reach, and seeing that pained Al’s soul just as much as the unfeeling emptiness of his armor.

Ed sighed, turning his eyes away from Jep. “It’s just the job I do… and trust me, it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.”

A frown of mystified dismay crossed Jep’s face, and to divert him from any innocent but hurtful questions, Al quickly changed the subject. “So, Jep—won’t you tell us about your Harvest Festival?”

This topic immediately turned the lad’s expression into an eager smile. “It’s our yearly celebration of bringing in our crops—or at least that’s what it started out as. It’s gotten kinda famous for some other traditions.” His lips twitched impishly. “On the last day of the Festival, everyone wears costumes—and that night, we all wait for the Headless Horseman to ride through town before the Midnight Feast.”

In spite of himself, Ed raised his head at that. “Headless Horseman?”

“Sure. He’s a ghost who rises from his grave once a year—on the night he was hanged, they say. He rides a big demon-horse, and there’s only a ball of green fire where his head should be.” Jep’s eyes glittered with delight at the gruesomeness of his tale, retold as if he had heard it all his life. “He comes with his cursed Night-Riders to steal the souls of children who get in his path. He tries to lure ’em with candy, but if you hold a candle to keep the darkness away, he can’t touch you.”

As Alphonse listened to this wild local legend, he felt a stirring of both fascination and vague unease.

He didn’t really believe in ghosts… Of course not. After all, there was talk of ghosts in the Majihal affair a few years back, but Ed had proven it to be just another case of misguided alchemy. And if this Headless Horseman business was something a lot of people had actually seen… Well, naturally, it could only be some similar kind of ruse, alchemic or otherwise.

However, when one was merely a soul inhabiting a shell of steel, it tended to raise some uncomfortable questions about what was and wasn’t possible—and about what exactly the definition of a ghost was in the first place. People who discovered his hollowness through some accident had more than once gone into hysterics about the “haunted” armor. He had even used that reaction of fear to his own advantage at times… and yet, in one way or another, maybe it wasn’t so far from the truth.

It was ironic to Al that Edward, the very architect of his condition, never seemed to be troubled by those questions himself. Either he was really that sure of the alchemic processes involved in binding an intangible soul to steel… or he was just doing an excellent job of avoiding the issue completely.

Now, Ed’s response to the story of the Headless Horseman was to smirk and roll his jaded eyes toward Al. “Well, I’ll give this town credit for one thing: they’ve got a great gimmick for the tourists. It’s no wonder the inn was booked solid.”

“A gimmick, huh?” Jep looked back at Ed, with a trace of his earlier mischief in his smile. “Maybe you should stay and see him for yourself the day after tomorrow. Then even you might believe.”

“There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Ed leaned his head back, looking up at the darkening sky, and his expression hardened as he repeated the truth the brothers had learned at so great a cost. “The dead can never come back.”

Al dropped his gaze somberly, and decided to try not to think for a while.

 

It was nearly dark when Jep pointed out his home ahead of them, a large and rambling white farmhouse, set well back on what must have been a considerable acreage of property. Its cultivated fields began at the wooden fence near the road, and stretched away into the distance; some of them were already cleared of their crops, others still ripe with vegetables and grain waiting to be harvested. A large black scarecrow loomed up ominously from the cornfield that bordered the house’s long driveway, and more of those curiously-carved pumpkins they had noticed in town were sitting on the porch steps.

“That’s funny…” Jep murmured, peering through the dusk toward a field half-filled with golden sheaves. “My dad was going to bring all that wheat in today, but he hasn’t finished, and the tractor’s still sitting out there.”

Jep halted the cart in front of the house, and guided the Elric brothers up the steps and through the screen door. The house they entered had a neatly lived-in coziness that reminded Al of the Rockbells’ home, and he glanced at Ed, hoping it wouldn’t be a further reminder of things lost and given up.

“Mom, Dad!” Jep called out, beckoning Ed and Al toward the kitchen, where they heard the sound of voices and clattering dishes. “I’m home, and I brought some guests Mrs. Waggetts didn’t have room—”

He stopped in the kitchen doorway so suddenly that Al nearly bumped into him.

By the sink stood a woman, not quite forty, with an air of motherly kindness about her; she wore an apron over her housedress, and her tawny hair was pinned up at the nape of her neck. A girl of about twelve was sitting at the kitchen table peeling carrots, and family resemblance made it clear that she was both the woman’s daughter and Jep’s sister.

Next to the girl sat a very tall, broad-shouldered, powerful man, his hair and beard a light brown that was closer to Jep’s coloring. His right leg was stretched out on the opposite chair in front of him—and it was encased in a cast from his knee to the sole of his foot.

Dad!” Jep yelped, running to his father’s side. “What happened?”

“It’s alright, son,” the man said quickly, placing his hand on Jep’s shoulder. “Just a freak accident. I took a bad step off the tractor while you were gone. I got a break in my leg, alright, but it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. Doc Hallam came over to fix it up.”

The boy whimpered, wide-eyed. “But does that mean…” he blurted anxiously—only to glance at the Elrics and abruptly shut his mouth.

“We’ll talk about that later. Looks like you brought us some company!” Jep’s father leaned forward with a grimace, but the expression turned into a smile as he looked the brothers over. “Sorry you walked into a house that’s a little upside-down right now. So you couldn’t find a room in town, huh?”

Ed rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, yeah, but we don’t want to be any trouble if…”

“Oh, no trouble. We were sort of expecting Jep would find somebody to bring home. We always like to get a little extra money keeping guests for the Festival—but if you don’t mind doing some work for your room and board, that’d be an even bigger help after this.” The man nodded awkwardly to his leg.

“Anyway, let’s introduce ourselves proper. I’m Japheth Maddock.” He waved a hand at the female members of his family. “This is my wife Fay, and our daughter Fawn.”

“I’m Edward Elric,” Ed answered, and tilted his head toward Al. “That’s my little brother, Alphonse.”

“They’re alchemists,” Jep added eagerly, before anyone could make one of the usual cracks about the little qualifier in Ed’s statement. “And not just any alchemists—Edward is the Fullmetal Alchemist they write about in the paper!”

Fawn merely rolled her eyes. “Has Jep talked you to death about alchemy yet?”

“Yeah, you must’ve made his day,” Japheth observed with a chuckle. “Our boy’s champing at the bit to learn all that himself—but his mother and I want him to wait a few more years. Looks like tricky stuff.”

“It is that,” Ed agreed cryptically.

Fay Maddock spoke to her son. “Jep, go unhitch Tor and get him fed. Then wash up for supper.” She turned to the Elrics. “If you boys want to freshen up too, Fawn will show you to the guest room. I hope you’re hungry, because there’s plenty of food!”

Accordingly, Jep went outside to attend to the horse, while his sister showed the Elrics to a small but comfortable guest room with an adjoining bath. After she left them, Al went through the simple motions of wiping the dust of travel from his armor, while Ed scrubbed his hands and face at the sink.

“Brother… are you okay with being here?” Al asked tentatively, after a short silence.

Ed’s back was turned, but his shoulders stiffened slightly, just for a moment. Then he literally shrugged it off, reaching for the towel.

“Why shouldn’t I be? It’s just a place to stay. No big deal.”

He wasn’t fooling Al. The strong sense of home and family about the Maddock household was surely making him heartsick, maybe even a little bitter; but if he didn’t want to talk about it, Al didn’t want to press the issue while they were the guests of strangers.

When they returned to the kitchen, Japheth looked up at Al curiously. The question in his mind was both obvious and annoyingly familiar.

“Ah… please don’t think I’m being rude,” Al said hastily. “I, uh—I have to wear this armor. It’s, um…”

“It’s a punishment assignment from our alchemy teacher,” Ed quipped, shooting Al a rather devious look. Al would have blushed as crimson as Ed’s coat if he could have, but the lie was delivered so matter-of-factly that there was really nothing he could do to rebut it.

Japheth’s eyebrows arched. “Sounds like all that alchemy business really is rough. Maybe Fay and I oughta be thinking twice about letting Jep get into it at all.”

The younger Elric waved both hands in a negative gesture. “Oh, no, believe me—not all alchemy teachers are like ours!”

“Come and sit down, boys,” Fay said kindly, turning from the stove. “Help yourselves to what’s already on the table. I haven’t done the half of my cooking for the Festival yet, so there’s more to come!”

The brothers obeyed, and as they seated themselves, Al could at least see the reason why Ed had been appreciatively sniffing the air for the last few minutes. An enormous meal was laid out on the table: brightly-colored salad, whole ears of boiled corn, a potroast in a big iron kettle, a heap of oatmeal cookies, two different kinds of pie with pretty crimped crusts and large dollops of whipped cream.

Al regarded the spread with a wistfulness that was somewhat more vague than he liked it to be. It was hard to recall things like hunger and taste when he wasn’t even physically equipped for those sensations; he had no stomach to growl or mouth to water in response to the sight of food. He had tried to hold an impression of favorite flavors and textures in his mind, but by this point, little remained except a detached remembrance that such food was good—in some intangible way that was like an increasingly distant dream.

It was frustrating, and a little frightening. He didn’t want to become so used to his armor that he couldn’t remember the feelings of flesh at all… And yet, sometimes he couldn’t help wondering if forgetfulness would make it easier to bear, if he never did regain his body. Surely it would be harder to miss senses that had faded entirely from his memory.

But maybe then there wouldn’t be anything human left to him at all.

With a will, Al pushed away those thoughts. It was bad enough that Brother was depressed. He didn’t want to be unhappy as well, especially when they were in the company of such kind people.

Instead, he focused on their customary mealtime ritual of trying to make it look like he was eating. Over time, they had perfected their system of sneaking food from his plate to Ed’s, and now they could manage it quite well even with Japheth and Fawn sitting at the table. It helped that Ed almost always ate enough for two people anyway—and although he hadn’t been eating much in his recent mood, Fay Maddock’s cooking was apparently enough to coax his appetite out of hiding.

Sometimes Al was a little envious when he watched his brother eat, but at other times it was an odd, vicarious comfort. Tonight it was the latter. After his worry that their surroundings would only enhance Ed’s gloom, it was nice to see him actually enjoying something.

Fay joined them directly, adding a pot of mashed potatoes to the feast, and after a few minutes, Jep returned. His exuberance seemed to have faltered somewhat, and in fact, he looked a little anxious. The lad piled his plate with food, only to pick at it distractedly, frowning and fidgeting. Al considered asking if everything was alright, but he recalled Japheth’s mention of something they would talk about later, and decided not to risk intruding on the family’s private matters.

“So where did Jep find you boys? At the inn?” Japheth asked conversationally.

Before either of the Elrics could answer, Jep spoke up, in an abashed tone. “Uh, yeah. After I… kinda broke a window.”

“Oh, Jeptha,” Fay sighed, as a thunderstorm of a scowl erupted on Japheth’s features.

“But it’s alright!” Al offered quickly. “The innkeeper wasn’t upset anymore after Ed fixed the glass. It’s easy with alchemy.”

Turning his reproachful eyes from his son, Japheth shrugged his big shoulders in apology. “Well, in that case, I’d say we’re the ones in debt to you. I’m sorry you were put to the trouble. We do appreciate you stepping in on Jep’s behalf.”

“No problem,” Ed answered, barely managing the good manners to swallow his food before he spoke. “This dinner is more than worth it!”

“And I’ll be happy to help out here to pay for my stay,” Al added.

“That’s kind of you to offer, and I can’t say I’m in any position to turn it down.” Japheth glanced at his broken leg, and appeared to shake off a fleeting look of melancholy. “You boys plan to be here through the end of the Festival?”

Ed reached for the salad dressing. “Nah, we’re just passing through. We plan to be on the first train tomorrow.”

“Sorry to hear that. I don’t guess State business leaves you much time for fun. And the Festival will be fun…” Japheth frowned reflectively. “Even if folks are in for a disappointment, come time for the Night-Riders.”

At those words, Fay and the children glanced up sharply. Jep caught his breath, and Al almost thought he saw a sudden shine of tears in the boy’s eyes.

“Disappointment? Why’s that?” Ed asked in polite half-interest, too preoccupied with his food to notice the tension of the family’s reaction.

Japheth hesitated, rubbed the back of his neck, and at last spread his hands with a rueful smile. “Well… Being as you’re strangers around here, and having the kind of reputation you do… I don’t guess there’s much reason you shouldn’t know. Especially since the secret’s gonna be out in a couple of days anyway, when folks start adding things up.” He ducked his head somewhat sheepishly. “You see, it looks like the Headless Horseman won’t be riding this year—because the Headless Horseman is me.”

Al gave a start, but Ed only stopped chewing and looked up with a crooked smile. “I knew it…” He glanced at Jep. “Ghosts, huh?”

Jep blushed furiously behind his freckles, not quite meeting Ed’s eyes. “Hey, working up the tourists is our job.”

“It’s our family secret,” Japheth elaborated. “Us Maddocks have been playing the part of the Headless Horseman and his Night-Riders for over two hundred years. In all that time, we’ve never missed a single year… until now.” He glared at the cast on his leg with a faint bitterness.

“How did that start?” Al asked in wonderment.

Fay answered. “One of Japheth’s ancestors was the first Headless Horseman—and it wasn’t just for show then, either. It happened when the authorities in this part of the country tried to put a ban on liquor. People didn’t appreciate that too much, so they started to smuggle beer and wine and whiskey from other regions nearby. Japheth’s forefather was the leader, and to frighten the law away from the smuggling runs, he got the idea of dressing up like ghosts and demons. Of course people were more superstitious then, so I guess it must’ve worked; he came close a few times, but he managed to never get shot or captured.”

“Lucky for me!” Japheth chuckled haplessly.

“After a few years, they got rid of the ban, since it cost the police lots of work and danger and didn’t stop people from getting liquor anyway,” Fawn added. “But by that time, the Headless Horseman had become a local legend—so our family decided to make the act into something nicer. Every year since then, we ride out on the last night of the Harvest Festival, giving people a good scare and throwing candy to the children.”

To Al’s surprise, Ed chuckled. “I knew it had to be a stunt, but I’ve gotta hand it to you and your ancestors—it’s a great story.”

“I’m afraid that story’s seen its last chapter now,” Japheth sighed regretfully. “I can’t ride with this leg of mine. Fay and the kids could still go out as the Night-Riders, but when folks see the Headless Horseman ain’t with ’em… Well, there’s not really any other fella my size in town who just happens to be out of action. They’ll figure it out, alright—and then all the fun of the mystery will be spoiled forever.”

“But doesn’t anybody else know the secret?” Al queried. “Somebody you could trust, who could take over the role of the Headless Horseman, just for this year?”

The big farmer frowned, scratching his chin. “Not around here. My brother did it sometimes when we were young, but he’s moved down south, and he’d never get here in time. A few of our closest friends in town might suspect us, but nobody knows for sure—and nobody we’d think of telling could play the Horseman anyway. It’s a hard ride, and the costume rig is a lot to handle. Not just anybody could do it.”

There was a moment of thoughtful silence; and then, out of the blue, Ed answered with a single astounding sentence.

“I’ll bet Al could do it.”

What?” Al turned a shocked stare upon his brother, his voice taking on the high pitch of panic usually reserved for threats to his blood seal or the fury of Izumi Curtis. “What do you mean, me?”

“Hey, why not?” Ed glanced back and forth between Al and Japheth. “Mr. Maddock is almost your size… well, sort of. Anyway, with alchemy, it oughta be easy to fix up the costume to go over your armor. And in the dark, who’d notice if the Headless Horseman is just a little bigger than usual?”

The Maddock patriarch chuckled. “Looks to me like more than a little. Still, though…” He eyed Alphonse calculatingly.

“But I don’t know anything about riding horses!” Al protested shrilly. “And my armor is heavy! What if I break the horse’s back?”

At that, Japheth laughed out loud. “Oh, don’t worry about him! We use Tor to play the Headless Horseman’s horse Hades, and he’s the best-trained animal you’ll ever see. He may not look it when he’s hitched to a cart, but he has the act of a wild demon-horse downpat—and he’ll do it without knocking a hair of your head out of place. He’s easy to handle as a children’s pony. And he’s just as big as the warhorses they used to carry armored men into battle in olden times, so he’s plenty strong enough.”

“And besides,” Ed remarked wryly, giving Al a sidelong glance. “You don’t exactly have as much weight in there as people might think…” He gave Al’s chestplate a gentle tap with two knuckles, and the younger Elric registered his point with a flicker of awkward self-consciousness. If Japheth believed a fully-armored man was not too heavy, a suit of armor that was empty would surely be even less so.

“You’re actually serious about this, aren’t you?” Al asked incredulously.

“Hey, you’re the one who loves village fairs. This is your chance to be a part of the action.” The elder brother grinned—and had Al breathed at all, the unexpected sparkle in Ed’s eyes would have taken his breath away. “I’ve gotta admit… it does sound like fun.”

From Al’s other side, Jep leaned over, clamping eager fingers onto his vambrace. “It is fun, and I know you could do a great job! It’s really not so hard. We’ll show you everything, and during the ride, Mom and Fawn and I would be right there to help—”

“Now, Jep.” Japheth leaned forward gravely. “We’ve got no place asking Alphonse to take on such a big job if he doesn’t care to. He and his brother are our guests here. I’m sure they’ve got their own important work to do, and this problem is no business of theirs.”

The boy’s shoulders slumped, but the gaze he shifted back to Al was still shamelessly beseeching.

Al turned from Jep to Ed. His brother smiled crookedly, almost expectantly, and still there was that look in his eyes: a mischievous eagerness, like his childhood delight in figuring out new transmutations or concocting epic pranks to play on Winry. After days of depression, seeing that glow of enthusiasm made Al’s soul ache with a dark, reckless joy that was all too familiar.

The plan was crazy and complicated and guaranteed to be trouble—just like Ed himself. And Ed wanted to do it.

And for all it may have cost him, when had Al ever been able to say no to that?

He turned to Japheth, his armor plates scraping in a small, awkward shrug. “Well, I… I guess it couldn’t hurt to see if it would work…”

Jep squeaked in delight and pumped his fist. Japheth raised his eyebrows, and Fay and Fawn smiled; and Ed merely folded his arms with a smirk of satisfaction.

 

PART III: RIDING LESSONS

Ed slept deeply that night, but Al was glad to realize it was not the bleak, heavy-hearted slumber he had withdrawn into so much in the last few days. Of course, Al himself could not sleep—and the hours of the night felt longer and more nervous than usual, filled with wonderings of what the next day would hold. He tried to distract himself with a book borrowed from the Maddocks’ shelves, but his mind was restless.

He didn’t really know what he was worried about. Tor was certainly no kitten, and the idea of learning how to handle the big beast daunted him, but it wasn’t as if he could get hurt if he fell. Ed was far more likely to get himself banged up in the course of this weird caprice, and that wasn’t exactly a new concern.

Perhaps it was simply some kind of stage fright Al felt, an anxiety about making mistakes or doing something stupid. If anything went wrong, it might spoil the very secret the Maddocks were trying to protect.

Underneath all of that, though, a small part of him was excited. Playing the role of a ghost in a town festival was… well, not entirely something that could be called normal, but nothing like the dangerous, uncontrollable abnormality he had come to expect in his life, either. It was the kind of harmless adventure boys should have experienced now and then, a grand game of let’s-pretend such as he and Ed had mostly missed in their painfully short, reality-hardened childhood.

It still surprised Al that this scheme had captured Ed’s imagination. Brother was always so serious, so focused, and his tolerance for colorful frivolities was especially low at this time of the year; but for some reason, the Headless Horseman gimmick clearly appealed to him. Maybe a bit of fantasy was just what he needed to brighten that dark page of the calendar.

In any case, if it would really make Ed happy, that was more than enough reason for Al to go through with it.

Almost before it was light, he heard activity in the kitchen, and gladly abandoned his book in favor of more productive activities. Fay was busy laying out eggs and sausages and homemade biscuit batter for another tremendous meal. When Al offered to help with the morning chores, she sent him with Fawn and Jep to feed the chickens and cows—a task he knew well from his upbringing in Resembool, where misbehavior was apt to earn the sentence of a day’s labor on a neighboring farm.

Funny, but it didn’t seem so much like work anymore.

By the time Al and the children came back into the house, the table was spread with a mighty breakfast. Not surprisingly, Ed was awake, too. Al may not have been able to smell the aroma of Fay’s cooking, but he was sure it must have drawn his brother like a magnet.

“First thing after breakfast, we’ll go out and show you boys how to manage the horses,” Japheth declared, as he eased himself onto a chair and set aside the crutch he was using. “We can worry about fixing up the costumes if you decide to go all the way after that.”

“I was wondering about the horses,” Al remarked. “Doesn’t anybody in town recognize Tor when the Headless Horseman is riding him?”

Jep laughed. “Nope! We disguise the horses too. We cover ’em in dark blankets that are painted with phos—phospa—”

Phosphorescent,” his mother supplied with a smile.

“Yeah. With glowing paint. Anyways, it makes ’em really look like demon-horses. We use the same paint on our costumes, too.”

“Sounds like a major production,” Ed observed, as he smeared a generous dose of homemade blackberry jam onto a biscuit. “I’m surprised you take in guests in the middle of all this. Don’t you worry about them finding out what you’re up to?”

Fawn shook her head. “Nah, when we’re busy getting things ready in the barn, they just think we’re out working the fields. Besides, visitors for the Festival always spend the days in town. They only come back here to sleep—and all the fun tires them out so much, they wouldn’t notice if the Headless Horseman was standing in our living room!”

“In the end, it’s good cover.” Japheth grinned. “Folks would never guess we’re doing all this while we’ve got strangers under our roof.”

 

After breakfast, Fay elected to remain in the house, to wash the dishes and begin another day of zealous cooking. Among other things, she had yet to prepare the candy the Night-Riders carried. This left the children and Japheth to escort the Elrics out to the stable.

“I know your brother said he doesn’t ride, but what about you?” Japheth asked Edward, as they crossed the grassy paddock that encircled the stable. “Any experience with horses?”

Ed grinned confidently, puffing out his chest a little. “Sure I have.”

If an eyeroll could be felt rather than seen, Al was quite certain he emanated such a sentiment just then.

“Brother, you tried riding a pony, just once,” he elucidated. “It was at the village fair in Resembool, when you were six. You fell off and skinned your elbow. And then you cried.”

Ed was walking ahead of him, his expression unseen, but it amused Al inordinately to see his shoulders tense and his fists clench.

“That’s why little brothers are so wonderful,” Ed muttered through his teeth. “You’re like a walking scrapbook of every dumb thing that’s ever happened to me!”

Al laughed. “Come on, Ed. You’ll only get yourself hurt if you try to pretend you know what you’re doing.”

“Well, you’ll both know all you need by the time this day is over,” Japheth chuckled. “Like I said last night, our horses are so well-trained, they could make the ride in their sleep. You just have to learn the right signals to give ’em, and that’s easy enough. Then all we’d have to work on is the costumes. I’ll bet we can get everything ready in plenty of time for you boys to see the sights at the Festival tomorrow.”

“That would be fun!” Al chirped.

They had reached the stable. Jep unbarred the door and led the way inside, lighting a lantern to dispel the early-morning dimness within. The illumination revealed a row of clean, spacious stalls occupied by half a dozen horses, with Tor first in line.

“Let’s see… Fawn, will you let Edward ride Patch?” Japheth asked his daughter, and turned to the Elrics. “That’s her horse. He’s the sweetest one of the bunch. You won’t have any trouble with him.”

Fawn obediently went to saddle her black-and-white pinto. Japheth moved toward Tor’s stall, maneuvering gingerly on his crutch, but Jep and Al were both quick to intercept the injured man.

“Don’t strain your leg, sir,” Al said brightly. “If Jep can show me how, I’ll saddle Tor.”

In the ensuing minutes, Jep guided the armored boy through the task of putting a saddle and bridle on the big horse. It made Al a little nervous, buckling the leather straps against a living animal’s hide—especially without a sense of touch to accurately judge whether he was making them too tight. However, Tor was as placid as ever, and he didn’t seem to mind the awkward efforts at all.

By the time Al led Tor into the paddock, Fawn had also readied Patch, and Ed was rather gingerly examining the pinto’s saddle. A moment later, Jep and Japheth brought out a chestnut colt and a dapple-gray mare, respectively introduced as Bailey and Willow. These were to be Jep and Fawn’s mounts for the training session.

“So… how exactly do we get on?” Ed asked warily, eyeing Patch’s stirrups as if they were live snakes.

“How do you think? Just grab hold and step up—like this.” Fawn demonstrated by swinging herself up into Willow’s saddle, with the ease of lifelong practice. “And don’t worry about Patch moving on you. He’s steady as a rock.”

“If you say so…” Slowly and with far less grace, Edward duplicated the girl’s movements. True to her prediction, Patch didn’t flinch, but Ed still looked highly nervous as he settled himself in the saddle.

Once assured that Ed was safely mounted, Al turned to regard Tor. The horse was enormous, even compared to the bulk of his own armor, but even so…

He shot Japheth a skeptical look. “You’re really sure it’s alright?”

“Trust me. You’ll both be fine.” Japheth smiled, taking hold of the bridle to pat Tor’s whiskery nose. “Climb on up.”

Hesitantly, Al stepped into the stirrup—his lack of sensation forcing him to carefully measure his every movement by sight alone. With a flutter of anxiety, he hoisted himself up into the saddle. Never had he been more conscious of his armor’s weight and metallic clattering, but Tor stood like a statue beneath him, neither spooked by the noise nor distressed by the heaviness.

“Geeze, you look even bigger on top of that thing,” Ed sniped from his uneasy perch on the pinto’s back.

Absent a tongue to stick out, Al had to settle for a verbal retort as Japheth handed him the reins. “Yeah, well, you’d better not get used to the view from that high up!”

Who’re you callin’ so tiny he’d fall through the cracks in a sidewalk?”

 

As the morning passed and the sun rose higher in the sky, the Elric brothers learned the basics of how to make the horses start and stop, turn, and change their pace. It was easier for Ed than it was for Al; clipped verbal commands were often combined with a tug of the reins or a nudge against the animal’s sides, and even after long experience in calculating his unfeeling strength, Al was wary of how much pressure he applied to a living creature’s body. Fortunately, Tor was quick to adapt to the cautious touch of his peculiar new rider.

On the other hand, Al possessed the advantage of having no muscles to strain. Ed seemed to have grown much more comfortable in the saddle, and he showed no signs of tiring—but even as fit as he was, Al suspected he would later be terribly sore from the unaccustomed nature of the exercise.

Having learned to control the horses at a leisurely walk, the brothers graduated to a trot and then a canter. Finally, Japheth opened the paddock gate and let them into an adjoining pasture, where they briefly attempted the full gallop that was expected of the Night-Riders. Jep and Fawn led the boys on a short chase, and by the time they halted beside Japheth again, Ed was laughing between gasps for breath.

It was rather different for Al. Now that he felt sure he wouldn’t fall off or hurt Tor, the riding was enjoyable in its way for him too; but as with all other experiences, his lack of touch robbed it of an entire dimension, leaving much of his appreciation detached and abstract yet again. His steel was numb to the purely physical thrill of swift motion, the living energy of the animal beneath him. From the clues of sight and hearing alone, his fading memory of sensation could draw only the faintest idea of how it might have felt.

But he was happy nonetheless, because Brother had laughed.

“You boys learn fast,” Japheth said with a smile. “I’d say you’re just about ready for some of our Night-Rider tricks. Fawn?”

He glanced at the girl. She drew Willow back a few paces, and then leaned forward in the saddle, pressing the mare’s ribs with her knees as she murmured a soft command. The word was half-familiar, yet so abbreviated and swift as to sound almost like a foreign tongue—a curious verbal shorthand that must have been passed down through generations of experienced horsemen in this part of the country.

Whatever it was, the reaction was immediate and explosive. Willow reared up on her hind legs and let out a terrible shriek, pawing at the air with her front hooves, as if cornered by an entire pack of ravenous wolves.

Throughout this equine contortion, Fawn remained firmly fixed on Willow’s back. After a moment she gave another gentle signal, and the mare instantly grew quiet. Her hooves dropped back down onto the turf, and she stood still, as peaceful as if she had never moved at all.

Japheth chuckled approvingly. “How’s that for a demon-horse, eh?”

“I wanna try it,” Ed declared, his eyes lighting with determination in the face of a challenge. “What was it you said to make her do that?”

Fawn repeated the fluid signal. “And you have to give Patch a nudge with your knees at the same time.”

Ed fidgeted around in the saddle for a moment, as if trying to ensure he was seated as securely as possible. Then he took a deep breath, clearly gathering his courage, and tried to imitate the command. As an unpracticed first attempt, it didn’t sound quite right—but it must have been just close enough, because Patch obligingly repeated Willow’s performance, and reared up with a tremendous bellow.

Al watched in dismay as Ed hurtled from the horse’s back, describing a broad arc of flailing inelegance in midair… only to land stomach-first on the ground with a very loud thud.

 

Edward suffered two more ungraceful flights in the next hour, collecting a few bruises in the process, but he finally got the hang of taking Patch through his stunts without being dislodged. For Al’s part, the learning experience was decidedly on the scary side of exciting, but he somehow managed to stay in the saddle. Never one to suppose he might just be more skilled at something than his brother, he concluded his far greater weight must simply have made him harder to throw.

Around midday, Fay came from the house with a picnic basket and a blanket, and the brothers shared lunchtime with the family under the clear blue sky. More practice followed until late into the afternoon, when Japheth declared his confidence that Ed and Al had both the ability and the confidence to make the Night Ride. Jep and Fawn tended to the horses then, while their father took the Elrics inside. There was still a great deal of work to do—but not before everyone satisfied the appetites their hard riding had worked up again.

It wasn’t lost upon Al that Ed walked rather gingerly back to the house, massaging his flesh arm and his lower back. He had made himself sore, but he didn’t complain. All the same, Fay knowingly offered him a bottle of liniment, and he didn’t refuse it as he and Al went off to wash up for supper.

At least the meal was enough to take Ed’s mind off his aches. Fay piled the table with a heaping platter of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and another garden-fresh salad, followed by plump apple turnovers laced with icing. Afterward, there were samples of the candies she had made for the Night Ride: boiled-sugar sweets and caramel cubes and chocolate drops, all wrapped in squares of brightly-colored foil paper.

Al watched Ed’s enjoyment of the food with a familiar rueful gladness—and he resolved firmly that if he ever got his body back and could eat again, the Maddocks were among the first people he wanted to visit.

When supper was finished (and pockets were discreetly stuffed with extra helpings of candy), it was agreed that they should start work on the costumes at once, leaving ample time the following day for the brothers to properly experience the Harvest Festival. With that plan in place, the Elrics and the Maddock children trooped out to the barn nearest the house. It was normally used for storage, but at Festival time, it became the headquarters for the family’s secret schemes. Fay sent with them still more treats to nibble on as they worked: a jug of apple cider, and a tray of warm maple-glazed doughnuts.

Inside the barn, Jep and Fawn lighted several old carriage lanterns, providing plentiful light to work by. The place was better than an antiques bazaar, piled with several generations’ worth of cast-off furniture and equipment and boxes of unknown treasures. The visible oddities included everything from a broken-down tractor to an entire set of ornate dining-room chairs.

“You could build a whole other house with all this stuff!” Ed remarked, examining a wooden rocking-horse the children had long outgrown.

Jep laughed. “Yeah, we hardly ever get rid of anything. You never know what might end up being useful on a farm—especially at Festival time. Like the old clothes and things we use to put together all this.” He beckoned the brothers to a steamer trunk, which he unlatched and opened, revealing piles of folded fabric and garish masks.

“These are your costumes?” Al asked.

Fawn nodded as she began lifting out the bundles. “Our family’s made up a lot of different characters in all this time, so each year we can play whichever Night-Riders we feel like doing. They all have their own names and stories. Here’s Screech-Owl—our mom’s favorite.” She set aside a dark gray-and-brown bundle, topped by a silk mask upon which a layer of real feathers had been painstakingly sewn.

“And here’s the Headless Horseman’s costume.” Jep drew out a long, tattered black cloak, followed by other midnight-colored garments that looked a hundred years old, like the elegant but half-decaying clothes of a storybook villain. Finally he produced a metal frame that appeared to be meant to fit onto a man’s shoulders.

“The Horseman’s flaming head goes on this. Uh… we use carved pumpkins that are lighted on the inside, and covered with that glowing paint I told you about,” he added a little sheepishly, as if embarrassed that there was so prosaic a reality behind the Horseman’s ghostly illusions.

Ed moved in to examine the frame and clothes interestedly, giving Al a few appraising glances. “Yeah, this is gonna need some work. Instead of using Japheth’s costume, I think we’d better just redo the whole thing from scratch.” He grinned at Al. “It’ll take more than that to cover you up.”

“Well, we’ve got enough junk to make just about anything!” Jep exclaimed, and gestured vaguely toward a corner. “There’s a big roll of canvas over there someplace, if you wanna use that. I’ll bet you could fix it up quick with alchemy.”

“Which costume do you like, Brother?” Al asked, studying the bundles Fawn had laid out. A toad, a bat, a skeletal death’s-head, a leering little goblin, and several other finely-made masks of carved wood or stitched and painted fabric stared back at them.

Edward regarded the rogues’ gallery slowly and thoughtfully. Then he turned away, shaking his head, as a faint smile played over his lips.

“I’ve got an idea of my own. Jep, Fawn… would your parents mind if I borrowed that scarecrow in your cornfield?”

At this suggestion, the children’s eyes lit up, and Jep beamed at Ed. “I know they wouldn’t—that old thing has never scared birds, anyway!”

Nevertheless, Ed stopped at the house to ask for permission before he and Jep went out to uproot the scarecrow. Soon it was brought back to the barn, where it was disassembled into its separate parts: a tall battered hat, a frayed old cloak, a flour-sack head with crooked X’s of stitching to form its eyes and jagged mouth.

“It’s perfect,” Ed declared, with a mischievous gleam in his amber eyes.

 

PART IV: MASKS

The next hour was enthusiastically spent in the work of planning and crafting, punctuated now and then by tryings-on of fanciful old clothes from the bottomless steamer trunk. For this year’s Night Ride, Jep and Fawn respectively adopted the characters named Toad and Imp, whose costumes needed only minor adjusting. Both children were skilled and creative, and a little thread and paint and glue was all they required for their side of the work.

Meanwhile, Ed utterly immersed himself in fashioning his newly-christened Scarecrow. He patched together ragged garments of charcoal-gray to wear under the cloak; then he broke apart the crossbar of the scarecrow’s old framework, made long ago from the stem of a crooked sapling. When pieces of its weathered wood were attached to the backs of the sleeves, it gave the effect of a creature that had come to life and snapped itself free of its pole in the field. He even decorated the seams and moth-eaten holes with bits of straw to suggest leaking scarecrow-stuffing.

As for Al’s own Headless Horseman disguise, they used the Maddocks’ surplus canvas to make a rough duplicate of Japheth’s costume. Once it was dyed black, it would be a passable imitation in the dark. They designed it to fit easily over his armor, covering him well enough to conceal any glimpse of steel beneath—but by unspoken agreement, they delayed working on the problem of the fiery-head gimmick. If it would involve the removal of his helmet, that was a job to do when the brothers were alone.

To Jep’s excitement, both Elrics used alchemy in the binding-together and coloring of material. However, Ed’s choice of methods was curiously out of character: after discreetly borrowing some chalk from Al, he proceeded to draw his transmutation circles in the conventional way, instead of simply clapping his hands.

This decision briefly puzzled Al, but the reasoning behind it quickly dawned on him. Jep was a very bright and observant boy with a particular interest in alchemy, and he would realize the ability to transmute without circles was unusual. Ed wanted to avoid the painful and unanswerable questions of how it was done, and where he had learned it, and if—Heaven forbid—Jep could learn to do it too. He couldn’t explain to a child the terrible cost of his talents.

So Al said nothing of the peculiarity, and merely enjoyed the evening of creative challenges and talk and laughter. Ed seemed to have entirely forgotten his seasonal moodiness, and that alone was a cause for joy. It delighted the younger Elric to see his brother absorbed in complexities of design and function that were not strictly a matter of alchemy.

All the same, subjects did arise that Al had not expected or wanted to face that night—yet they turned out rather differently than he might have feared.

The first such exchange came during a lull in the conversation, while Ed was arranging the pieces of the Scarecrow costume, and Al was in the process of alchemically binding together his Headless Horseman tunic. In the silence, Jep looked up from the fresh paint he was applying to his Toad mask, and furtively studied Ed for a long moment.

“Is it okay if I ask you something?” the boy finally ventured.

Roused from a deep concentration, Ed raised his head, giving Jep a faint smile. “Sure. What is it?”

“Well… you’ve got automail, haven’t you?”

The question caused Ed to glance at his right arm in surprise; having never taken off his jacket or gloves in the presence of the Maddocks, he must have thought his prosthetics had gone unnoticed. “How did you figure that out?”

Jep bowed his head slightly. “Our grandpa had automail too, after an accident with a mowing machine. As soon as he could walk again, the first thing he wanted to do was get back on his horse—but having that metal leg made him change his whole way of riding. And… the way you rode today…” He fidgeted and raised his eyes to Ed’s. “It kinda reminded me of him.”

For a moment Ed stared at Jep, with a mild consternation that slowly warmed into a sort of admiration. Then he smiled ruefully and slipped off his right glove, baring steel fingers that gleamed softly in the lamplight.

“The left leg, too… You really don’t miss much, do you?”

The boy shrugged, studying the metal hand interestedly—yet without giving the slightest sense that he was staring. “Don’t worry, I won’t ask how you got it, or anything nosy like that. I just thought you should know we’re cool with somebody having automail.” He gave Ed a somber smile. “We know how rough it is, from watching our Gramps deal with it.”

Ed’s expression softened abruptly, as it did at times when Al said something that particularly stirred his heart. His eyes were full of that look for just an instant; then he chuckled and reached out, tousling Jep’s hair with his automail hand. Jep did not shy away from that touch, but instead laughed and butted his head against Ed’s palm, just like a friendly cat.

Al hadn’t thought anything could make him like the Maddocks even more, but this kindness achieved exactly that.

Soon the atmosphere in the barn lapsed back into cheerful chatter, and at Jep’s urging, Ed related a few tales of adventures in State Alchemy. He was careful with his words, giving no hint of the pain he and Al had experienced on the road they traveled—and if he slightly embellished the facts in his favor now and then, his brother did not correct him. Just for tonight, Ed would be the brave and selfless Hero of the People that Jep wanted him to be, leaving aside the dark complexities and eternal frustrations of his own motives…

That is, until Jep innocently wandered into another heavy subject, when they had paused in their work for a snack of doughnuts and cider.

“You know, I’ve been wondering…” Jep began tentatively, his eyes downcast.

Fawn clearly read her brother well enough to know what on his mind, because she gave him a sharp, beleaguered glance. “Oh, here it comes—I knew you were gonna get around to this!”

Jep glared at her, and then looked hesitantly to Ed. “It’s just… I thought maybe you could talk to Mom and Dad, and convince them to let me start learning alchemy right away.”

An unsettled silence fell. Ed stopped chewing his mouthful of doughnut, and was very still for a long moment before he finally swallowed and sighed.

“To be honest with you, Jep… I’m not sure your parents are really wrong in wanting you to wait just a little longer.”

The boy frowned in dismay. “But why? I thought you of all people would think it’s good to learn as soon as you can. To be a State Alchemist already, you must have started when you were even younger than I am!”

“That’s true. I was a lot younger,” Ed answered gently. “I can hardly remember a time before I knew alchemy—but that’s exactly why I think you shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry.”

He hesitated then, and glanced at Al, almost as if searching for the answer to an unspoken question. Al failed for once to read his brother’s unspoken intent, and could only tilt his helmet uncertainly; but whether or not Ed took that for an answer, he seemed at last to reach a decision on his own. His thoughtful expression darkened a little, and his gaze swung back to Jep.

And Al keenly noticed the way Brother’s left hand moved to his right wrist, gripping it in the furtive, bitter way that made the younger Elric’s soul hurt every time he saw it.

“It meant a lot to me that you didn’t ask why I have automail… but I’m going to tell you anyway, so maybe you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.” Ed dropped his gaze to the flesh fingers clasped tightly against metal, and took a deep, unsteady breath.

“You see, the way I lost my arm and leg… It was because I misused alchemy.”

The children flinched. Jep’s eyes widened, and although Fawn plainly knew far less about the subject, she gave a faint little gasp of fear.

As for Al, had he physically possessed a heart, he knew it would have squeezed painfully at Ed’s words. What ached most of all was the way Ed left him out of the confession. Brother was shielding him, as he always did; but just this once, when Al felt certain they had nothing to fear from their young companions, he wasn’t going to let Ed take the responsibility alone.

Reaching out, he laid his gauntlet on Ed’s shoulder, with a firm shake of his helmet. “We misused alchemy, Brother—both of us.”

Predictably, Al’s inclusion of himself caused Ed to look aggrieved, but it was the children’s reactions that were more important. Jep and Fawn’s startled eyes shifted from the older Elric to the younger, taking in his metal shell with the beginnings of a new comprehension.

“Then… that’s the real reason you wear that armor, isn’t it?” Jep’s voice was faint, and it trembled a little.

“Yeah,” Al murmured flatly. He knew better than to offer anything beyond that mere confirmation. Jep would draw his own conclusions about what crippling scars might lurk beneath the steel, and that was better for him than to know the hollow truth.

“But—how? What did you do to make this happen to you?”

“The details don’t matter,” Ed cut in brusquely, staring down at his clenched automail fist. Then he seemed to remember who he was talking to, and he relaxed the hand, softening his voice. “All that matters is that we broke the rules—we tried to do more than we were capable of, and we were too young to understand the cost. We thought we could fix anything with alchemy. But if we’d only spent a little more time learning how to take life as it is, instead of looking for transmutations to change it… then maybe we never would have hurt ourselves like this.”

The familiar, futile urge for tears stirred in Al’s soul. How well he knew what Ed was feeling. All those years ago, they both should have tried to cope with their mother’s death in a normal, healthy way, instead of seeking to simply transmute away their pain. The fact they had never really learned to approach life without alchemy was their own failure, and ultimately, it was what brought them to their present brokenness. He could understand why Ed would want to make sure that never happened to Jep.

To his credit, Jep didn’t freak out over the admission. He took it all in quietly, studying Ed’s shamefully averted face, his fisted metal hand, and finally Al’s own heavy burden of armor.

“But after all that… you’re still alchemists,” Jep observed, in one of his peculiar flashes of perceptiveness. “You still went on to use alchemy to help other people.”

Ed raised his head, and although there was a tightness around his eyes, Al was relieved to see a wan smile cross his lips.

“If you trip and put your eye out when you’re running with scissors, it isn’t the scissors’ fault… and basically, alchemy is just a tool in the same way. How responsibly we use it is our choice. We can’t blame it for the fact we were stupid.” Ed ducked his head slightly, perhaps a little chagrined by the emotions he had exposed in the last few minutes. “And I didn’t mean to scare you, Jep. Even after the mistakes we made, I still think alchemy is the best thing there is—and I know you’ll be a great alchemist someday. I just… I think it’s not a bad thing to take the time to know more in life, before you start down that road.”

For a long moment, Jep digested Ed’s words. At last he nodded very slowly.

“I think I understand… and after what happened to Gramps right here on our farm, I know almost any work can be dangerous, if you have an accident or do something wrong. I never thought about it, but I guess I can see how that would be true in alchemy, too.” He smiled thinly at Ed. “I’ll remember, and I’ll try to be patient—and when I do start to learn, I promise I’ll study as hard as it takes to be sure I do it right.”

For a brief moment Brother’s eyes were misty, his face caught in an expression that was somehow guilty and apologetic and glad all at once, and Al shared that feeling. It had been a difficult conversation to have, but in the end, he thought Ed was right to share this lesson with their young friend.

Then it all passed when Ed cleared his throat and slapped his hands together briskly, giving Jep a new and warmer smile. “Well, anyway, a little practice wouldn’t hurt just once. You can help me with this next transmutation… if you want to.”

Jep’s face lit up with startled eagerness. “Oh, sure I do!”

For the next few minutes, Al could have sworn he could sense a warmth inside him, as he observed his brother and Jep. He watched Jep’s eyes fiercely absorbing every detail of the array Ed traced; he watched them press their hands to the circle together, and he watched Jep’s glow of barely-contained excitement, as the boy saw and felt the energy coruscating over the transmuted fabric.

But Al could see through it all. Those intricate lines Brother drew were in fact alchemically meaningless, and that idle clap of his hands was not the casual gesture it had seemed. The transmutation was purely Ed’s doing, because he would never have let a child with no experience handle alchemic power just yet… but the harmless ruse gave Jep the thrill of his life.

 

It was late in the evening when Jep and Fawn finished the alterations to their costumes. The Elric brothers’ disguises still required a little more work, but there would be plenty of time for final touches in the morning—except for one thing.

“Maybe you two should get some sleep,” Edward prompted the Maddock children gently, as they stood admiring their finished handiwork that lay spread on top of the steamer trunk. “We’ll come back to the house in a little bit… after we work on the Horseman’s head.”

After the Elrics’ earlier revelations, both children readily seemed to take the hint.

“Oh—I get it.” Fawn eyed Al speculatively, and then seized her brother’s arm. “Come on, Jep. We’ve gotta help Mom get things ready for the Festival tomorrow, anyway.”

“See you later!” Jep yelped, just barely managing to give Ed and Al a wave before Fawn dragged him out of the barn.

Ed chuckled, watching the pair until the door swung shut behind them; and then he turned toward Al. “Now we’d better—oop!” He grunted as he suddenly found himself crushed in a steel-trap bear-hug of armor.

“You’re the best brother ever,” Al gushed, nuzzling the cheek of his helmet against the top of Ed’s head. “And you know what? I think you still would be even if you were somebody else’s brother.”

Metal scraped as a bewildered Ed used his automail arm to pry some breathing space between them. “What’re you talking about?”

“You know what! I saw what you did with Jep.” Unable to show his brother the smile he felt on the inside, Al settled for trying to put it into his voice instead. “You made him so happy when you let him think he was helping you do alchemy.”

“Oh. That.” Ed finally managed to squirm out of Al’s grip—if only because his metal-plated sibling let him go. “I was afraid I’d overdone it, and I wanted to make sure Jep wasn’t scared away from alchemy by all the things I said. I just…” He gazed down somberly at his automail hand. “I want him to be smarter than we were. To never give in to the same temptations.”

“He’ll be fine, Brother,” Al replied—and then he paused mischievously. “At least, he will if he’s got somebody besides you for a role model…”

“Thanks a lot.” Ed rolled his eyes, turning to rummage for scrap metal in the piles of old junk that surrounded them. “Come on, we’d better work on that rig for the Horseman’s head before Jep’s curiosity gets too much for him, and he comes peeking through knotholes. It’s enough to have you playing a ghost—we don’t need him thinking you really are one.”

The remark unexpectedly cut far too close to Al’s private insecurities, and he radiated the sudden sense of a frown as he rose from his knees. “I don’t think that’s funny at all.”

Perhaps it was something in his tone that caught Ed’s attention. The older Elric turned, with a slightly penitent, uncertain look.

“About that, Al. Are you really okay with all this? I know I was pushy about it yesterday…”

He sounded so concerned that Al’s displeasure evaporated at once, and his voice warmed again. “I’m glad you pushed me into it, Brother. I am nervous, but I’m also kind of excited. It’s been a lot of fun so far—and I’m happy you’re having fun too.”

“I guess I am!” Seeming almost surprised by that realization, Ed smiled weakly and shrugged. “It’s… nice to have something different to think about right now.”

“Yeah. I know,” Al murmured, absently examining an old vase full of dusty silk flowers. After a long moment of hesitation, he added, “I only wish… I wish I could sleep through these nights. I don’t want to think so much.”

It wasn’t really what Al intended, but the remark triggered Ed’s worry mode all over again. He rounded on Al, dropping the cast-iron frying pan he had been inspecting. “Al, what’s really on your mind? Tell me.”

“You’ll laugh.”

“No I won’t.” Ed stepped closer, his golden eyes futilely searching Al’s expressionless metal features. “If something is bothering you, I want to know about it. I don’t want us to go through with this silly stunt if—”

“Oh no, it’s not about the Night Ride!” Al said quickly. “It’s only… ghost stories make me wonder some things. About what a soul is after all, if it doesn’t have a body anymore. About…” He hesitated a little shamefully, dropping his gaze. “About me.”

He glanced up in time to see the understanding that filled his brother’s expression. Far from the impatient scoffing Al had feared, Ed only smiled sadly and shook his head.

“You’re not a ghost, Al. Don’t you think I ought to know?” He raised his automail fist, and the steel knuckles tapped Al’s chestplate with a soft ringing sound. “I know what it is I paid for—and it wasn’t the soul of a brother who was dead, or ever had been. You’re alive. Believe that.”

And it was just that simple: with those fierce, gentle words, and the expression he saw in Ed’s eyes, every trace of Al’s doubt drained away. He impulsively clasped the hand that still rested on his chestplate, leather fingers pressing steel to steel.

“Thank you, Brother.” For not laughing. For the reassurance. For the sacrifice of flesh and blood, and the fathomless love that had motivated it. For everything.

Ed’s shoulders moved slightly, awkwardly, not quite a shrug; as if to say he had already surpassed his quota of sentiment for the day, and he didn’t want another scene. With a feeble grin, he withdrew his hand, and turned to continue picking through the wealth of alchemically useful materials around them.

That was Brother: he found equations so much easier to deal with than emotions.

Feeling a faint glow of loving happiness, Al moved to his side, to join him in the exploration. Everything was alright now, and whatever lunacy took place in the next twenty-four hours, it would be worth it—because Ed had not been the only one to find comfort in the course of this odd fancy, after all.

 

PART V: FESTIVAL TIME

Once the brothers had collected some suitable metals, it didn’t take long to duplicate the frame that supported the Headless Horseman’s lighted pumpkin-head. Ed made considerable adjustments, but even so, the only way to fit it properly above the empty void of Al’s neck was to remove his helmet—something the armored boy had never liked. It was uneasy and disorienting to have his errant head separated from the rest of him, skewing his existing senses. The thought of galloping through town in that disjointed state was a little terrifying, and Al knew he was in for a particularly long and nervous night when they turned in.

He couldn’t deny that he was envious of Ed, who snuggled up to his side and fell immediately into an exhausted slumber.

Fortunately for Al’s restless mind, the Maddocks awoke well before the dawn, and he carefully withdrew himself from Ed’s unconscious sprawl to seek distraction in their company. He made himself useful, helping Jep and Fawn haul crates of food out to the cart, while the injured Japheth was relegated to chopping vegetables for breakfast.

The sun was just rising, and Fay’s golden omelettes were just hitting the plates, when Ed half-staggered foggily into the kitchen. Al wished he could have smirked at Brother’s rumpled appearance: he was obviously paying the full dues now for the previous day’s hard riding.

“You’re walking funny,” Al noted with perverse cheerfulness, and watched as Ed gingerly lowered himself onto an uncushioned wooden chair. “Do you want a pillow for that?”

“Shut up,” Ed grumbled, rubbing the grit from his eyes. “It’s your fault. Your armor’s like sleeping next to a rock.”

Al merely chuckled, taking the excuse for what it was. From the beginning, even before Ed’s lost limbs had been replaced by automail, it wasn’t uncommon for him to crawl over to Al and curl up in his lap after nightmares. Al had gently protested at first, for the sake of Ed’s comfort; but soon he realized the different kind of comfort Ed sought was something far more important. So he too learned to cherish that unfelt closeness, and Ed grew to be perfectly at ease with the hard chill of steel against his skin.

But today Ed was embarrassed by his saddle-soreness—and if he thought to save face by blaming Al, his brother didn’t mind. The Maddocks weren’t going to believe it for a moment, anyway.

“How are you boys’ costumes coming?” Japheth asked.

Ed shrugged, digging into his omelette. “They just need a few final touches. It shouldn’t take more than another half-hour’s work.”

“That’s great. You can finish while Fay and the kids haul the food for the Midnight Feast into town—and when they get back, we’ll all put on our costumes and head for the Festival together.” Japheth frowned suddenly. “Say, we didn’t even think about fixing you up with costumes for today, did we? Everybody dresses up on the last day.”

“Never mind that. I think we’ve put in enough time and effort.” Ed waved a hand dismissively, and turned a wry look upon Jep, who was sitting next to him. “Besides, Jep already thought my regular clothes were a costume!”

“I still think people won’t know the difference,” Jep murmured, blushing darkly, and Ed stuck his tongue out at the boy.

Al laughed softly. “Anyway, for me, it’ll be kinda nice… to go as I am, and not really stand out for once.”

Japheth spread his hands. “Well, of course that’s up to you. And I guess it’s just as well to save up your energy for tonight, after all.” He gave Ed a crooked smile. “Looks like you’re still recovering from yesterday, anyway.”

It was Ed’s turn to blush, dropping his fork noisily on his plate. “Am not! I mean—I just slept wrong, that’s all. I’ll be fine once I get moving.”

The last assertion was one thing Al didn’t doubt. Brother was the most resilient person he had ever known—and even if his aches didn’t work themselves out entirely, he wouldn’t let on about it. When he wasn’t just in the mood to complain, his ability to disregard pain and focus on the moment was a thing of wonder.

“So how exactly is it all supposed to work tonight?” Al asked, partly to change the subject, and partly because that was important information they hadn’t yet discussed.

“Well, I usually come back here for the horses and costumes soon as it’s dark,” Japheth mused, scratching his jaw. “But with my bum leg…”

“I can handle it, dear,” Fay said warmly to her husband, and turned to the Elrics. “I’ll take everything to the place where we set up. An hour after dark, you and the children will have to slip away from the Festival and meet me there—the cemetery on the edge of town.”

In spite of himself, Al flinched. “C-cemetery?”

“Well, it is the best place to hide what we’re up to,” Japheth supplied with a shrug. “It’s on the opposite side of town from our farm. Better for folks to see the Night-Riders coming from that direction than this one—and nobody’s ever around the cemetery during the Festival, so we can get changed and saddle up without being spotted.”

“It makes sense,” Ed agreed with equanimity, and grinned up at Al. “Don’t tell me you’re scared. I thought we’d been through all that.”

“I’m not scared!” Al shot back. “Graveyards are just creepy at night…”

Fawn spoke up. “I didn’t like it either when I was little. But we actually get ready behind the caretaker’s cottage, a little ways away from all the graves. It’s not so bad.”

“Besides,” Japheth added with a solemn smile, “it’s where all my ancestors who made the Night Ride before us are buried. I kinda like to think they’re glad to see us out there every year, carrying on the tradition.”

A part of Al found this idea rather morbid… but in a way, he could imagine how it would be comforting. Apart from their late mother and their absent father, he and Ed had never known any blood relations. Sometimes he wondered what it was like to have the richness of a family history, the feeling of a connection to generations past.

“I’m finished with breakfast,” Jep announced suddenly, pushing his chair back from the table. “Can I put on my costume now?”

His mother frowned at his only half-emptied plate. “You don’t look finished. Besides, you might get your costume torn or dirty if you wear it to unload the food in town.”

“Aww, Mom…”

“Oh, let ’em go ahead and dress up,” Japheth chuckled. “I used to be just as eager for it when I was a kid.”

Fay relented, spreading her hands, and Jep gleefully bolted from the room. Fawn followed him, after a seeking glance at her father was met with a nod of consent. The children were gone for several minutes—and when they returned, both wore costumes quite unlike the sinister darkness of their Night-Rider roles.

Fawn had previously seemed to be something of a tomboy, but now she was transformed completely as a fairy princess, in a jeweled tiara and a glittery pale-pink dress with translucent wings. As for Jep, he was dressed as a pirate, complete with an eyepatch and a wooden sword. Lacking the macabre quality and intricate detail of the Night-Riders, these were instead the quaint, simple guises one might expect of children; doubtless a deliberate part of the cover for their family secret.

“Wow, you both look great!” Al chirped, admiring the costumes as the pair eagerly showed them off.

He couldn’t deny that he was a bit wistful at the sight. It would be nice, for once, to pass off his armor as a whimsical lark, instead of a strangely permanent characteristic… but he would have dearly loved to play dress-up as the children were, in a flesh-and-blood body that could pretend to be anything at all.

Somehow, expressionless steel had never been enough to hide even the slightest shades of emotion from his brother. Hearing a soft tap on his vambrace, he turned to see that Ed’s left hand had come to rest on his arm; and although he couldn’t feel the gentle squeeze of fingers against the steel, he could see it.

“Someday, Al,” Ed whispered, his golden eyes alight with determination. “I promise.”

 

Fay and the children set out a few minutes later, to take the products of Fay’s cooking spree to the Town Hall. Japheth wolfed down the last of his omelette, and then levered himself from his chair with the aid of his crutch. When he began gathering the dishes from the table, Al hurried to help him—followed a bit more gingerly by Ed, who couldn’t suppress a wince when he stood up too quickly.

“Just set ’em by the sink,” Japheth insisted. “I’ll wash up. All I’ve gotta do then is get my costume on—but if you boys still have some work to do on the Horseman and the Scarecrow, you’d better go finish that.”

The brothers complied, and as they made their way out through the kitchen door opposite the barn, Ed glanced up at Al. “The biggest thing left is the Horseman’s pumpkin head, right?”

“Yeah. Jep said we should pick whatever we need from the pumpkin patch behind the barn.”

“Then that’s our first stop!”

The pumpkin patch was a sprawling quarter-acre of vines, dotted here and there with orange gourds that were as small as an apple or as big as a wagon wheel. Al followed Ed into it, taking care not to step on and break any of the rambling plants.

Ed stopped next to a middling-sized pumpkin near the center of the patch. “Here, bend down a sec.”

Slightly bemused, Al squatted down… and the next thing he knew, Ed had yanked off his helmet and shoved it into his hands.

Hey! What—?”

Before Al could get another word out, Ed hefted the ungainly pumpkin, letting it drop with a slight thump between Al’s shoulders. “How else are we supposed to pick one if we don’t try it on?”

“I thought you’d just use the frame we’re supposed to attach it to!”

The elder Elric waved an impatient hand. “I’ll adjust the frame to fit the pumpkin. What’s important is to get the proportions right compared to your armor.” He took a step back, to appraise the gourd that was precariously balanced on Al’s nonexistent neck. Then he shook his head and carefully rolled it off, setting it back on the ground. “That one won’t do. Let’s try another.”

For the next fifteen minutes, Al helplessly trailed after Ed with helmet in hands, as his brother examined one pumpkin after another. Horrified by the thought of being seen actually headless, he fidgeted nervously, flinching at every distant crow of a rooster or bark of a dog. He was soon convinced that Ed was dragging out the process just to torment him.

“Brother, this is taking too long! What if somebody sees me like this?”

“Relax! There’s no one anywhere around except Japheth, and the barn is between us and the house.” Ed hoisted what must have been the two dozenth pumpkin—and it was definitely the heaviest. Al yelped as it landed between his shoulders, its unexpected weight nearly unbalancing him.

Ed casually clamped a steel hand on his shoulder spike to steady him, and stared hard at the pumpkin. “No, that’s not it either.”

At that moment, the abrupt cackle of a crow as it flew overhead made Al jump… and down went the pumpkin, shattering on the ground at his feet.

“…You know what?” Ed remarked, rubbing his chin as he stared down at the mess, with a perfect pretense of thoughtfulness. “I think the first one was the best, after all.”

And the first pumpkin it was, but another twenty minutes passed before they went back to collect it.

It took that long for Al to stop chasing Ed—and then only because armor wasn’t very good at climbing trees.

 

Their brief contretemps resolved, the brothers finally reached the barn with the chosen pumpkin. Edward placed it on a crate in the middle of the straw-covered floor; then he clapped his hands together, transmuted a long serrated blade from his automail arm, and stabbed it into the top of the gourd with alacrity.

Al winced. “Sometimes I think you enjoy that too much.”

Ed ignored him. He was busy cutting a tidy circle around the stub of the stem, angled inward slightly to keep the top from falling into the hollow cavity. Once done, he lifted off the resulting plug of pumpkin-flesh and peered inside… and made a face.

“Okay, you know what? I’m just gonna go over there and finish working on the Scarecrow, while you scoop out the seeds.”

“Why me?” Al spluttered, leaning over to stare into the abyss of stringy pumpkin-muck. “All this was your idea!”

“But it’s your head! Besides, you can’t feel how slimy that stuff is!”

“Neither would you if you used your automail hand!”

That suggestion caused Ed to give his metal fingers a horrified glance. “Ugh—no way! These are delicate moving parts! Do you have any idea how nasty it’d be picking little bits of pumpkin guts out of all these joints?”

The younger Elric sighed, knowing this was one argument he wasn’t going to win. “Fine, you big baby,” he muttered, and pushed Ed aside, to reach down into the pumpkin. Nerveless leather fingers scraped around the inside, coming up with a huge handful of the sticky orange gore, and he violently slopped the stuff down onto the floorboards. “Just because I can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t gross!”

His complaints fell on deaf ears. Edward was on the other side of the room, fussing with his Scarecrow costume and determinedly not watching the pumpkin-gutting.

It was amazing, really, that someone who had the fortitude to draw an alchemic seal with the blood from own his severed leg would be queasy about pumpkin innards. But then, it was just as puzzling that someone who never cried out during automail surgery could be sent into shrieking horrors by the mere sight of a needle. Al was used to this pattern by now: Ed was unmoved by extremes. It was only the little things that got to him.

Once he had emptied the gourd of its unsavory contents, Al made use of the pump outside the barn to wash the stickiness off his gauntlets. He returned to find Ed examining his handiwork.

“You want to carve the face yourself?” Ed queried, turning to him brightly.

Although he was touched that Ed would ask—offering him the fun part as a consolation for the dirty work—Al shook his helmet. The truth was that he didn’t especially care to handle knives or other potential weapons, even for such an innocent purpose. His lack of sensation and easily miscalculated strength were a combination that made him ever-wary of accidents.

“No thanks,” he answered earnestly. “You’re a lot better at slicing stuff up than I am.”

“I hope that’s supposed to be a compliment!” Ed muttered, as he clapped his hands and transmuted a smaller, finer version of his earlier blade.

For a moment Ed turned the pumpkin thoughtfully in his hands, searching for its best side. Having made his judgment, he thrust the blade into it and started to cut—and Al watched in fascination as jagged, menacing features began to unfold. Ed’s carving was crude, but that only added to the eerie savageness of it, with its gaping sharp-toothed mouth and slanted, glaring eyes. Even if the face of Al’s helmet wasn’t really much friendlier, it still disturbed him a bit to imagine that sitting where his head belonged.

“Well, what do you think?” Ed asked at length, as he smoothed out a few remaining rough edges.

“It looks great! It’ll be scary when it’s glowing in the dark.” Al ducked his helmet. “It’s funny, isn’t it? All this time, I’ve worried so much about people being scared of me—but tonight I’ll actually be trying to scare people.”

His brother smiled up at him. “Hey, nobody’s gonna know it’s you. That’s the fun of it!”

With the pumpkin-head finished, Ed attached it to its frame, using alchemy to shape bands of iron that passed through the bottom of the gourd and held it securely. After that, the final adjustments and finishing touches for both costumes took only a few minutes of work.

“I think we did a pretty good job imitating Japheth’s costume,” Ed concluded with satisfaction, as they stood back and appraised the finished guises that lay spread on the barn floor.

“Yeah, and your Scarecrow is scary!” Al exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see you wearing it.”

Edward grinned fiendishly and turned away from their handiwork, giving Al an affectionate thump with his metal knuckles. “Come on. Let’s see what Japheth came up with for his costume!”

So the brothers left the barn, and returned to the farmhouse kitchen… where they found a werewolf calmly sipping coffee at the table.

“What do you think? I’ve been planning this for months.” Japheth grinned through a faceful of greasepaint and spirit-gummed fur, displaying a set of sharply-pointed false teeth. “Of course, a werewolf stumping around on a crutch won’t be too terrifying, but I guess there’s no helping that.”

“Your makeup job still looks awesome!” Ed laughed. “And besides, that crutch will make you stand out. If people notice you’re around through the whole Night Ride, it oughta throw off anybody who’s suspected you of being the Headless Horseman.”

“That’s another reason I appreciate your doing this. When I busted my leg, I thought the mystery would be over, but now people are gonna be left guessing even more. That’s half the fun for everybody, not just us…” At the sound of the front door opening, Japheth smiled and reached for his crutch. “There’s Fay and the kids. Ready to go? You boys deserve a treat, after all the work you’ve done already—and there’s no better treat than the Festival!”

 

The Harvest Festival of Romney was every bit the experience the Maddocks had promised.

It was not yet ten o’clock in the morning, but the main street of the town looked as if the combined contents of a circus and a haunted house had been spilled into it. There were colorful sights to see at every turn: acrobats and magicians, sideshow performers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers with their mischievous marionettes. Even those who were simply out to enjoy the fun were wearing costumes, ranging from the frightful to the silly. The air rang with laughter and music and the noisy clamor of carnival games, and a vast variety of food was being hawked from booths along the sidewalks.

As the Elric brothers and the Maddock family stood at the end of the street, taking in the madcap scene that sprawled before them, Al neatly summarized it all with one word. “Wow!”

Fay laughed brightly. “Yes—nobody here does the Harvest Festival in a small way.” She was in costume herself now, her flowing black dress and pale face-powder transforming the housewife into a very charming vampire.

“Where do we start?” Ed asked wonderingly, craning his neck to look back and forth among the attractions—as well as sniffing the air like a bloodhound, taking in what Al could only imagine was a jumble of savory food-smells.

Japheth chuckled. “Start anywhere you like!”

The Elrics exchanged a glance with Jep and Fawn… and with a mutual resolve, the four of them plunged into the happy chaos of the Festival.

Afterward, Al would always remember it as one of the very best days of his journey at his brother’s side. It took them hours to make their way down the length of the street, experiencing it all. They gawked at the street performers. They mastered every one of the carnival games—in the process winning several stuffed animals, which they were happy enough to give to Fawn and Jep and other passing children. And as for Ed… well, he ate a positively grotesque amount of food.

Furthermore, Ed had somehow been persuaded to make at least a small concession to the town’s costume traditions: he drew up the hood of his coat, and wore a simple black mask over his eyes. He looked at once both hilariously funny and strangely dashing, and Al didn’t know whether to hug him or burst out laughing.

For Al’s part, he continued to enjoy the admiring way people looked at his armor, supposing it was nothing more than a particularly impressive costume. He wished it could be that way every day, in every town—and at the same time, it amused him to think he would deliberately be doing his best to give the same people a scare that night, when he rode as the Headless Horseman.

There was only one incident in the entire day that really annoyed Al. It came when Ed bought a bag of walnuts from one of the food kiosks… because he happened to find it quite convenient to crack the shells with his automail hand.

Crack—crunch—crunch.

Al winced at the noisy snacking that was taking place beside him. “Brother, do you have to do that?”

“Well, how else am I supposed to open these things?” Crack—crunch—crunch.

“You’re just showing off, and you know it.” Al glanced around at the people who were eyeing Ed curiously. Since the steel of his automail was hidden beneath his glove, all they could see was the admittedly odd feat of a slight teenaged boy shattering walnut shells with one hand. “Do you really want people to mistake us for one of the street acts?”

“Hey, I don’t hear you complaining about the attention you’re getting!”

“That’s different…”

“Oh yeah?” Crack—crunch—crunch. “…How so?”

Al sighed and gave up, ignoring the giggling of Jep and Fawn. Having been given permission to run ahead of their mother and their hobbled father, the Maddock children were sticking close to the Elrics—partly enticed by the prospect of more toys each time the brothers took on another game of skill. Jep had lost his eyepatch somewhere, and Fawn’s gilt-edged wings were a little bent, but the pair had otherwise managed to keep their costumes neat and intact.

The illusion unfolding on a magician’s makeshift stage gave Al a chance for revenge, and he gleefully seized Ed’s arm, pointing. “Brother, look at that!”

Ed looked—just in time to see the magician seemingly passing a long, long needle through the hand of his pretty young assistant.

“Oh geeze…!” Growing pale behind his mask, Ed dropped his bag of walnuts and turned away.

“Come on, Ed, you know it’s just a trick.” Al watched interestedly as the magician withdrew the needle, and the assistant showed the crowd her hand, entirely intact and unpierced. “It’d be easy for us to figure out how he does it.”

“Only if you wanna be the guinea pig!” Ed’s eyebrows rose abruptly, and he smirked at Al. “Come to think of it, that’s an idea. We could make a fortune sticking things through your armor and calling it magic.”

“Uh—I don’t really think that would work…”

“It amazes me that anybody still bothers with sleight of hand, when alchemy can perform real wonders.” Ed glanced at Jep as they continued to walk. “Some hacks do use it for cheap performance art, though. Have you ever seen an alchemist put on an exhibit for the Festival?”

“Sometimes, but not this year.” The boy grinned at Ed. “Not unless you want to give ’em a show!”

The State Alchemist chuckled and shook his head. “Pulling stuff like that is just a waste of legitimate skills… Hey, wait a sec.” With a sudden frown, he began searching his pockets. “Where’d my walnuts go?”

If he could have, Al would have smiled and whistled innocently.

Speaking of sleight of hand…

 

The day passed in a whirl of tumultuous excitement, and although its tastes and scents and sensations were lost to Al, he didn’t really mind his own lack just this once. He had something even more precious: his brother smiling and laughing like the boy he should have been, the burdens of their lives forgotten for a day. Such a joy left no room for hurt in Al’s soul…

Even if Ed was just a little bit of a brat now and then.

As the sun was setting, Fay Maddock slipped away from the crowd, to fetch the costumes and horses for the Night Ride and take them to the cemetery. Jep, Fawn, and the Elrics waited an hour after that, continuing to enjoy the fun that went on into the night. Electric lights strung over the street ensured that the games and performances remained brightly lit; but even so, it felt as if shadows of a different kind were creeping over Romney. Puppeteers and storytellers began to enact ghost stories instead of fairytales, while many of the costumes that seemed harmless by day took on a more wild and macabre appearance in the half-light. The air was filled with a sense that something exciting and just a little bit terrible was coming.

Japheth finally caught up with his progeny and the young alchemists while Ed was sampling a vendor’s deep-fried chocolate chip cookies. (Al had to admit that Ed’s adventures in food gave him a weird new level of admiration for his brother. The mere thought of some of the things he’d eaten that day was almost enough to make Al’s stomach ache—and that was saying a lot, considering he didn’t even have a stomach.)

“You should get started about now,” the farmer informed them discreetly. “The kids’ll show you boys the way. Good luck!”

Ed nodded. “Thanks, Japheth. Have fun being a spectator for once—and make sure plenty of people see you while the Horseman’s around,” he added. Then he turned to Al and the children, grinning wickedly from behind his mask.

“It’s showtime!”

 

PART VI: THE NIGHT RIDE

Sitting on the porch steps of the Romney Inn, young Sophie Waggetts couldn’t keep herself from squirming with excitement.

For most of her life, the end of the Harvest Festival had been her favorite day of the year—but that wasn’t because of the games and food and costumes. To her, the Night Ride was the greatest thing in the world. She loved it so much, she didn’t even mind giving up her bedroom to help accommodate the town’s overflow of Festival guests, because those few nights she spent sleeping in her mother’s bed meant the Night Ride was close at hand. Besides, as the innkeeper’s daughter, she was rewarded with the best vantage point on the entire street.

She hadn’t always loved it. When she was three years old—nearly four—and Mama had let her step onto the porch to watch the Night Ride for the first time, one glimpse of the Headless Horseman was enough to send her shrieking beneath her bed.

A year later, she trembled and peeked out from behind Mama’s skirts until long after the demons rode away, missing out on the candy they left in their wake. But afterward… she couldn’t get the torch-lit images of those creatures out of her head. Thinking back on them didn’t scare her. It fascinated her, and she suddenly found she couldn’t wait to see them again. When the next Night Ride came, she didn’t care about the candy. All she wanted was to watch the Night-Riders, never taking her eyes from them for a moment. She was so very curious about where they came from and how they existed.

She never confessed it to anyone, but a naughty little part of her had even wished the local bully’s candle would burn out, leaving him with no protection from the Night-Riders. She knew it was terrible of her, but she wanted to see what happened when they stole a child’s soul. After all, a mean boy like that wouldn’t really be a loss to anybody, now would he?

To Sophie’s astonished delight, the demons actually did single out the very surprised bully during that same Night Ride, cutting through the crowd to encircle him with their ghastly horses. Speaking for the Headless Horseman—who had never been known to speak, and how could he, not having a mouth?—the one called Screech-Owl told the boy his cruel soul would make him a splendid Night-Rider. Although they could not touch him then, the Horseman vowed to claim him one day, even if it meant making a special visit from the grave to do it. On some dark night, the Horseman would return and catch the bully off-guard when he had no candle to save him… unless he made his soul unfit for their company, by learning to be kind.

The boy was so terrified, he ran home as fast as his legs would take him. From then on, he was polite to his elders and nice to other children. He had never come to see the Night Ride again, and for years afterward, he would not set foot outside without a candle after dark.

From that night forward, the Headless Horseman was Sophie’s favorite hero and first crush. She was ten years old now—nearly eleven—but no storybook prince had ever managed to replace him in her heart. She still spent the rest of each year waiting for this one night, as ardently as a much older girl would wait for a secret visit from a forbidden lover.

Her anticipation was shared by everyone around her. As the evening grew later, people had begun to close in more tightly, lining both sides of the street. Some children eagerly squirmed their way to the front row, but others preferred to peer out warily from behind their parents. This was especially true of those who had come to see the Night Ride for the first time, and didn’t know what to expect.

The electric lights along the street were shut off, leaving the crowd bathed in an orange glow of candlelight. In the spirit of the occasion if not for superstition, every man, woman, and child carried a candle. Tapers of colored wax were sold at a booth during the Festival, and the proceeds from their sale were donated to the local orphanage. It was just one more way in which the Night Ride benefited the town.

Tsk, Sophie, you know your candle should be lit by now!” Mama’s voice spoke up, as Mrs. Waggetts bent down from the steps above Sophie to light her daughter’s bright blue candle with her own.

The innkeeper was dressed as a witch, all in black, which was funny to Sophie because she knew Mama was the farthest thing from a witch. Her own guise was a sharp contrast to her mother, an angel in white with down-covered wings and a little halo of golden tinsel. It was a very pretty costume, but Sophie harbored some sneaking doubts that she would really make a very good angel—darkly fascinated as she was by the Night Ride’s demons.

And the truth was, maybe she hadn’t quite exactly forgotten to light her candle.

As the minutes passed, the excited babble of the crowd increasingly sank into hushed murmurs. A ragged veil of clouds passed over the moon. The stillness grew so powerful that Sophie was startled when the town’s clock tower struck ten, ringing the hours in its deep, hollow chime.

Then, far off down the road that led to the graveyard on the outskirts of town, there came the sudden scream of a wild horse.

“They’re coming,” Mama said nervously, and began to hurry back and forth, inspecting the candles of Sophie’s friends who were privileged to share the inn’s steps with her. “Oh, they’re coming!”

Further neighs and screeches of phantom animals followed, mingled with the cackles and yells of somewhat more human voices. Beneath these cries came a lower note, the faint rumble of hooves, like a ghostly thunder that was quickly drawing nearer.

At the end of the street, there was a sudden wave of children’s shrieks: terror combined with delight. Sophie’s heart leaped into her throat, and she sprang to her feet. Although Mama forbade her to set foot off the bottom step of the porch, she leaned forward as far as she could, looking down past the crowds to the source of the coming excitement…

And suddenly they were there, five freakish figures mounted on huge stampeding beasts, with green-yellow firefly light swirling around riders and horses alike. The brightest glow of all floated above the gaping empty neck of their leader—nothing but a ball of green fire with a terrible face glaring out of it—and streaks of the same unnatural-colored flame seemingly flowed like water off the tattered cloak that streamed from his shoulders.

The Headless Horseman was a giant, even bigger than Sophie remembered.

With unearthly wails and screams, the Night-Riders galloped past, throwing off a trail of small objects that sparkled like gems in the candlelight. These were chocolates and other sweets wrapped in foil: a bait to tempt children into letting go of their candles. Sophie reached out to catch a few in her palm. Some of her friends darted to the edge of the street to pick up the candy that fell—but they each gathered their prizes with one hand, none of them brave enough or greedy enough to put down the candles they clutched tightly.

Although Sophie had eyes for little but the Horseman, she glimpsed other demons who had become familiar in the course of many Night Rides. Screech-Owl rode alongside his master, just as he had for as long as Sophie could remember, and she recognized the grinning banshee features of the one called Imp as well. The other two were obscured from her view, and they vanished up the street before she could make them out.

Sophie was not disappointed. From experience, she knew this had been only the first pass… and the best was yet to come.

The uproar of the Night-Riders’ passing faded away toward the opposite end of town. For a few minutes, there was silence; then the sound of hoofbeats rose again, as the demons turned to retrace their course. A moment later the phantom horses came thundering back down the middle of the street, only to rear and bellow and paw the air as their riders pulled them up short in front of the inn.

This was why Sophie’s front porch was the best seat in town. It was the Night-Riders’ custom to present themselves at the Romney Inn each year, to give visitors for the Festival a grave message.

Behold, doubters!” Screech-Owl’s cracked shriek of a voice exclaimed. The feathered monster stretched out a claw-hand toward the Headless Horseman, who sat towering on the back of his demon-horse Hades. “When you strangers return to your cities, tell the people what your eyes have seen—and heed this warning. The Headless Horseman is not the only one to do the work of culling wicked souls from among you!

The warning was familiar enough to be predictable, and as Screech-Owl delivered it, Sophie studied the other Night-Riders in the company. The Horseman definitely seemed bigger and blacker than ever before. Imp’s horse was prancing skittishly at the edge of the group, and an ugly little frog-like creature called Toad was there too… but the fifth Night-Rider was unfamiliar. With his sackcloth head and crooked wooden limbs, his scarecrow form was both eerie and unmistakable.

Screech-Owl’s message was hardly completed when an older boy, standing several feet to Sophie’s right, let out an incredulous snigger. One of the out-of-town guests, he was a belligerent and misbehaved child who had spent the last three days declaring his skepticism of the Night Ride. He submitted to holding a candle only because his parents insisted he humor the locals and the younger children.

I’m not scared of you,” he declared to the Night-Riders, and deliberately dropped his candle on the sidewalk at his feet. “What are you gonna do now?”

The answer was clearly more dramatic than the boy expected.

With a loud croak and an acrobatic leap, Toad vaulted over the neck of his horse and landed on his feet. Then he literally hopped toward the doubter, his rangy frog-like springs covering the ground between them with astonishing speed. A rattling hiss emerged from his throat as his long webbed fingers reached out, eager to pluck a soul ripe for the taking.

With a terrified squeal, the boy snatched his candle from the ground and held it out defensively.

Confronted by a flickering candle flame, the change in the onrushing demon was instantaneous. Toad froze on the spot, uttering a deep grunt of dismay, and sullenly crept back to the side of his ghostly horse. He would have no soul to steal this time.

A rough chuckle came from Screech-Owl’s throat, and as he looked at his fellow demon, Sophie had a sense that he was smiling in amusement. “Be patient, Toad. His is not the only soul worth our attention.”

“You’ll have no souls in Romney this year,” a voice spoke up firmly from the porch behind Sophie and her friends. It was Mr. Karo, the mayor. On any other day, he was a jolly, grandfatherly man; but when he addressed the Night-Riders, as mayors of the town had done for hundreds of years, he always looked frightfully stern and protective of his townsfolk. “As you see, we were ready for you again—but we’ll thankee, all the same, for the reminder to be good to one another. I hope some of our guests will take that lesson home with them.”

The scarecrow-demon uttered a sarcastic snort, and Mr. Karo looked at him curiously, adjusting his spectacles.

“Well, now… In my whole lifetime of watching the Night Rides, I don’t think I’ve seen you before. You must be a new servant of the Horseman. What are we to call you?”

Suddenly finding the attention focused on himself, the demon of sacking and straw almost appeared to squirm. After a moment’s hesitation, he leaped down from the back of his horse. It seemed he was trying to imitate Toad’s graceful dismount—but he stumbled and wobbled badly on his landing. Although Sophie managed not to laugh, several other children giggled, and the demon looked around at them hotly with every sign of genuine embarrassment.

Then he staggered forward a few steps… and when Sophie caught a good glimpse beneath his ragged cape, and saw the way his broken-stick limbs seemed to point in wrong directions, she couldn’t blame him at all for his awkward movements.

Call me Scarecrow—because that’s what I am! ” he rasped, in a high reedy voice. He pointed a crooked wooden finger at the cowering boy who had challenged the Night-Riders. “I used to be a boy like you, but I did terrible things… and then the Headless Horseman found me. He took my soul and put it inside this scarecrow, and now I have to follow him through endless night, until I steal enough souls to give him in trade for my own. Let that be a warning to you!

As the Scarecrow spoke, Sophie noticed that the Headless Horseman had turned toward his newest servant. The ghostly face within the green fire never changed its wicked expression, but his big dark body seemed to be quivering just a little. As if with some strong emotion… or maybe with laughter he had no voice to utter. Cruel laughter, at the plight of the child-soul trapped in that walking heap of sticks and straw.

And just like that, Sophie found she had a new hero.

Mama cried out Sophie’s name as the girl plunged from the steps, rushing into the street. Several children shrieked with horror, and even a few adults gasped and shuddered; but strangely, Sophie felt no fear at all as she stepped up to the Scarecrow. It surprised her a little to realize he was hardly any taller than she was.

She dropped her candle at his feet, and its flame guttered out as it struck the ground.

“You can…” Her mouth suddenly felt dry, and her heart was beating fast. “You can take my soul… if it would help you.”

The Scarecrow almost took a step back. Almost, but not quite. As the crowd stood frozen and breathless, he studied her from beneath the brim of his big black hat. His unreadable stitches-for-eyes stared at her for a long moment… and then he slowly shook his head.

“I’ll never hurt another sweet soul like yours,” he said. His voice was not the thin, scraping croak it had been before, but much softer, and for a moment very nearly human. “Even if it takes me a thousand years—it’s only the bad ones I could ever take.”

He raised his hands close to his chest and clapped them together, causing a few onlookers to flinch in fear for Sophie; but all he did then was to bend down and touch her fallen candle. A beautiful liquid light flowed over it, and the wax melted and reformed as if by magic, taking the shape of a pretty little bird.

As the light faded, he gathered the wax figure in his clumsy twig-fingers and held it out to her. She shivered on the inside as she gently took it from him.

Go back now!” he growled, and his voice was all thorns and brambles again—but Sophie heard the tiny little catch in it. Impulsively, she rose on tiptoe and swiped a kiss across his rough sackcloth cheek before running up the steps.

Sophie expected her mother to be angry… but there was only a crooked little smile on Mama’s lips as she looked thoughtfully at the Scarecrow, and then at the wax bluebird in Sophie’s hands.

When Sophie turned back, the Scarecrow still stood as inanimate as he once might have in some farmer’s field. For a moment he looked almost unsure of what to do with himself. He flinched when Screech-Owl whistled a sharp night-bird signal; but as he and Toad hurried to mount their horses, Sophie saw him glance furtively at her one last time.

There are no souls for us here, Master,” Screech-Owl reported regretfully to the Horseman. “Shall we ride on while the night is ours?

For answer, the ever-silent Horseman raised a powerful black hand. He spread it in a sweeping gesture toward the edge of town, and the world beyond—where evil souls still waited to be seized, somewhere out there in the darkness.

Screech-Owl whistled again, and the Night-Riders turned their horses toward the open road. Hades reared and snorted, hooves thrashing, and sprang forward at a gallop as if wolves were at his heels. The servants of the Headless Horseman followed, back through the town and on into the blackness of the countryside, their eerie shouts fading on the wind.

With their departure, a palpable tension slowly broke, like relief and disappointment all at once.

The first few tentative voices to speak became a swell of talk and laughter, until the street buzzed like a live wire with the pent-up excitement of the experience. Candlelight gave way to electric light, and in its brighter glow, children bolted into the street to snap up the few pieces of candy that had been missed. The crowd began a slow migration toward the Town Hall, where the Midnight Feast awaited.

But as Sophie Waggetts clutched her bluebird to her chest and followed her mother, she already yearned for the next Night Ride… and it was not the Headless Horseman she would be dreaming of in the year to come.

 

Half an hour after the Night Ride, there was no witness to the strange caravan that traveled the deserted road beyond the edge of town, making its way back to the Maddock farm from the cemetery. Without any apparent driver, the great horse Tor followed the road he knew well, hitched to his familiar cart. Four other horses tethered to the back of the cart followed obediently, a dramatic change from the wild phantom beasts they had impersonated a short while earlier.

The horses were not really alone. At the bottom of the cart lay the Night-Riders’ costumes, hidden beneath a thick bed of straw—and on top of that straw lay the Elric brothers, stretched out on their backs and gazing up at the stars.

Those pinpoints of light in the sky glittered with an unusual intensity. In the fields and houses along the road, not one mote of artificial light could be seen, for the inhabitants of the farms were all in town for the Festival. Only fireflies competed with the celestial brightness above them, their tiny sparks flickering over the surrounding cornfields.

Nowhere else but in Resembool had Alphonse seen the stars shine so brightly.

Ed had been quiet ever since they returned to the cemetery to remove their costumes. Verbally quiet, at least: Al could tell there was an excited energy bubbling in him after the thrill of the Night Ride, but his smile conflicted with the thoughtful perplexity in his eyes. He had volunteered to take the horses back to the farm before rejoining the Maddocks at the Midnight Feast, and Al readily went with him. The food was irrelevant for the armored boy anyway, and he was just a little concerned for his brother.

For his part, Al was enthralled by the Night Ride, and his brief but fascinating sense of power in the role of the demons’ terrifying ringleader. It was one of the most fun things he had ever done during his existence in armor—and so easy, just sitting in silence on Tor’s back and looking monstrous. With two hundred years of legend doing the real work, he hardly had to lift a finger to give the crowd the good scare they wanted.

On the other hand, with the Scarecrow’s eventful introduction, the experience seemed to have been much more complex for Ed. Whatever it was that affected him so, Al hoped it had not undone the progress of the last two days in curing his October melancholy.

“Al… were you upset by the story I told?”

The sudden question came softly in the night air. Surprised, Al turned his helmet to look at Ed beside him. “What?”

“About the Headless Horseman putting the boy’s soul inside the scarecrow.” Ed glanced away. “I turned it around, because the Horseman was supposed to be the big villain. But if you switch the roles, it’s…”

He trailed off awkwardly, and Al sat up to study his troubled face in the moonlight. It took a long moment of puzzling for the younger Elric to figure out the unspoken ending to the words; but once he did, he let out a sudden bright laugh.

“Oh, Brother. All those terrible things you said as the Scarecrow… Is that really how you think I feel about this journey I’ve made with you?” He chuckled and shook his helmet. “Don’t be silly. You didn’t steal my soul. You saved it—and I’ll never be in darkness as long as you’re with me.” In a tender gesture, he reached over to brush Ed’s bangs out of his eyes. “Of course I wasn’t upset. Didn’t you know? I was trying not to laugh.”

Metal fingers twined impulsively around Al’s leather ones, and Ed sat up, blinking at Al with a look of gentle wonderment. “Really?”

“Honest. I was afraid I was going to burst out laughing and ruin the whole thing.” Al deeply wished he could show his brother the smile he felt inside. “It was a great inspiration, Ed. And besides, if you hadn’t told the story, we might have missed out on seeing that little girl get a crush on you!”

Even in the silver half-light, Al could see Ed’s face turning as red as his coat.

“It’s not my fault she didn’t have the sense to be scared!” he protested hotly. “Girls are crazy that way. It’s just like when Winry got into those trashy vampire novels. Remember that?”

Al winced. “Oh yeah…”

 

After leaving the horses and costumes at the Maddock farm, Ed and Al hurried back to the Town Hall to join the Midnight Feast. They slipped inside as unobtrusively as an armored giant and a red-hooded teenager could—which was surprisingly not difficult, given the array of striking and colorful disguises in the crowded room. Several dozen long tables had been set up in the cavernous meeting space, and around these sat hundreds of happy and satisfied Festival-goers, helping themselves to a vast spread of food.

Ed’s eyes became huge behind his black mask the moment he saw the repast, and Al couldn’t help chuckling.

There was seemingly nothing that wasn’t on the tables. Roasted turkeys and mutton legs, fried chicken and glazed ham; creamy potato salads, deviled eggs and stuffed peppers. Rich soups of beef and barley and vegetables. Golden corn boiled and buttered on the cob, or popped and coated with caramel. Candied apples, gallons of spiced cider, endless pies and pastries and cookies. All the bounty of Romney’s fields that the Harvest Festival celebrated had been represented here.

Ed scampered from one buffet table to another, eagerly heaping a plate with the delectable offerings. As for Al, he followed along and collected somewhat more modest servings of whatever his brother seemed to like best. Apart from the sake of appearances, he knew it would spare Ed an inevitable trip for second helpings anyway.

“Ed! Al!” a voice called out, and they turned to see Jep in his pirate costume, waving to them from a table where he sat with his parents and sister. The family had saved two seats there for the brothers, who gladly joined them.

“You should hear it, Ed!” Jep exclaimed laughingly, leaning close to the older boys, his voice lowered as far as the noise of the gathering would allow. “Everyone’s talking about the Scarecrow, and what happened with Sophie Waggetts. And Sophie…”

He pointed to another table nearby—where young Sophie sat beside her mother, her plate of food barely touched, dreamily petting the wax bird Ed had transmuted from her candle. Her enraptured expression was the cue for another blush to creep down from beneath Ed’s mask.

“I think I really did create a monster,” he groaned, drawing laughter from Al and the Maddocks.

 

Late the next morning, after a long night’s rest and one last resplendent breakfast, the Elrics departed for the train station—and the Maddock family came to see them off.

“Here are some leftovers from the Midnight Feast,” Fay said kindly, pushing a large covered basket into Al’s arms. He accepted it with a slight bow and a murmur of thanks, aware that Ed was already eyeing the basket hungrily.

“You’ll come back for next year’s Night Ride, won’t you?” Jep asked eagerly, looking up at Ed with shining eyes.

“We can’t promise that. There’s no telling where we might be a year from now,” Ed admitted. Then he smiled with a solemn warmth, and added: “…But we can try.”

The smile on Jep’s face reflected exactly what those words made Al feel.

“Sure, you gotta come. We’ll even save the Scarecrow costume for you,” Jep offered with a grin, causing Ed to chuckle and shake his head.

“You don’t need to do that. In fact, if we don’t make it back next time… I think you oughta play the Scarecrow, Jep. We wouldn’t want that girl at the inn to be disappointed, would we?”

Jep’s freckles stood out as he blushed furiously. “Aww, I wouldn’t want Sophie Waggetts kissing me…”

“We’ll do our best to make it back,” Al laughed. “Maybe by then, you’ll even be ready for some lessons in alchemy!”

“Oh, that would be awesome!”

Smiling wryly, Japheth clapped his hands on the shoulders of both Elrics. “We’ll all be looking forward to seeing you boys come back. What you did to save the Night Ride doesn’t just mean a lot to us, but to the whole town—and we want to thank you again.”

Ed ducked his head slightly. “Thank you, sir,” he said, and nothing more; but Al knew exactly what he meant.

Thank you for making this time of the year something better for us.

The whistle of the train pierced the air at that moment, a final call for boarding. Ed and Al glanced at each other, and then looked back at the Maddocks, to receive one last round of smiles and waves.

“See you later!”

 

HISTORIAN’S NOTE:

By the following year, the Elric brothers had been drawn ever more deeply into the dangers and challenges of their journey. They did not make it back to Romney for the next Night Ride. Jeptha Maddock was disappointed; but as Ed had urged him, he wore the costume of the Scarecrow himself that year. The character’s return brought great delight to Sophie Waggetts.

In time Jep became a skilled alchemist, but instead of making a career of it, he chose to follow the Maddock family traditions of tending the farm and carrying out the Night Ride. Many years later, Sophie became his wife—and upon being introduced to the family secret, she was thrilled to discover she had become a Night-Rider after all.

As for the Elrics, they did find occasion to return for the Night Ride eventually, and they didn’t come alone…

But that is another story.


© 2011 Jordanna Morgan