When Ketherin called, the horses came out of the forest. Branches from the trees bent low and cracked, the noise like the creaking of old bones in winter. They pulled themselves free, tar-like sap hanging greenly in long, dripping threads behind them, reminding her uncomfortably of the nerves and blood-vessels of the human body. Then they pulled themselves together, each branch finding its own position relative to the rest, the green sap wrapping around them with whip-like motions, and crawling here and there across the surface, binding them into a kinetic whole. Leaves flattened out and smoothed along the horses's flanks, and a white light arose in their otherwise dead eye sockets. For a moment they stood their like deadwood sculptures on the edge of the forest, and then they sprang into life.
They raced across the meadow at the forest's edge, running first parallel to the forest, their leaf-flanks fluttering and sussurating in the wind of their passage, then turning sharply and racing in towards her. The heavy wooden feet thumped down rhythmically on the earth, flinging soil free in scatters and clods, stamping round imprints deep into the soft ground. They pulled up next to her, their wooden heads and faces tossing and harrumphing just like real horses, and as one they all turned their heads to look at her.
Ketherin swallowed, and reached out a tingling hand. It touched first one nose then another, going amongst the horses and never missing one, knowing that they all had to be acknowledged or the forest would take its gift back.
"We ride," she said. When only silence greeted her words she looked behind her.
Debrin had a hand to her mouth, stilling a cry of shock. Her other hand clutched her long, brocaded skirts as though gathering them up to run, and Ketherin realised that she might still do that. Next to her, Alasdair looked almost as apprehensive, but he was leaning forward, eager to touch the horses but wary of what Ketherin might say. And Jube was silent and still, sitting on the ground, his eyes blank and a wet patch spreading beneath him. Ketherin wrinkled her nose in momentary disgust, and then reminded herself that at least the horses weren't real.
But they are real, whispered the little voice in the back of her mind. They might not be horses as you think of them, but they're here and they'll carry you. And they won't get tired, and they don't leave hoof-prints like normal horses, and they don't need feeding like normal horses. Aren't these better? Hasn't the forest done you proud?
"Are they real?" said Alasdair, still leaning forward. Ketherin noticed that he was balanced lightly on his toes.
"Of course they are," she said. "They're here aren't they? Touch them, gently mind."
"Oh...." Debrin's voice escaped her throat at last, trembling and high-pitched. "But are they... safe?"
Alasdair tiptoed forward, wanting to touch the horse but at full stretch in case it attacked him. "I think they're safe," he said. "Ketherin called them."
"You never said," said Debrin, her voice trailing off again. "You never said."
"There wasn't a lot to say," said Ketherin. "It's not like I get horses every time. I get what the forest can spare, what it thinks is most useful."
"Why are there five horses?" said Alasdair, stroking the nose of the nearest horse now. The horse had lowered its huge, hard, wooden head and almost seemed to be nuzzling into him. "There's only four of us."
And that's if we all ride, thought Ketherin automatically. She reached out a hand to Jube, who took it automatically and came to his feet slowly, stoically.
"I don't know," she said, knowing she was lying. "I hope the fifth horse is to guide us."
"Guide us where?" Debrin had lowered her hand from her mouth now, but still had her skirts clutched, ready to run.
"Away. I don't know where we can go, but the forest might." Ketherin regretted almost as soon as she said it, as the look of horror on Debrin's face returned and deepened.