Three times the highlands called, and three times she answered.
It happened first on a gray Wednesday, when she was eleven years old. Heavy rain clouds loomed overhead as she trudged along the narrow road that connected her grandmother’s house to the village. She had a bag slung across her shoulders, filled with enough bread and cheese to last them three weeks, and her back ached under the weight. The rest of her felt numb. Eleven years was a young age to begin feeling trapped, but begun to feel it she had. The death of her parents had made her world shrink to a narrow point, one she couldn’t envision herself escaping. It was an idea that hung on her at all times, like the heavy moss of the tree branches outside her grandmother’s home. A shrill, unexpected whinny punctured the busy noise of her mind, and her eyes swiveled up from the dirt.
Not far off stood a young horse, a glossy, glassy dark green, and dripping wet. She froze, and her heart began to rattle in her chest. Her grandmother told her never to touch strange horses that came near roads or lingered close to creeks and rivers. She had ruefully laughed it off as one of her grandmother’s silly ghost stories, designed to make her feel like a child again and not a girl who had seen her whole family die.
The horse cocked its head at her, the way she’d seen dogs do. She felt a strange desire to go to it, despite knowing she shouldn’t. It whinnied again, pitifully, and with a twist, pointed its chin at its foreleg. There was a slimy, greased wedge of wood lodged in the watery sinews. She put down the heavy bag, and put her hands on her hips.
“If I help ye,” she said, “you shan’t eat me.”
The horse vigorously threw its head up and down, in what passed for a nod. She approached cautiously, gingerly kneeling on the grass and wrapping her apron around the gnarled piece of wood. The horse shrieked, and so did she as she used all her strength to pull on the wedge, toppling backwards when she finally managed to rip it out. As she shakily picked herself up, the horse’s muscles and skin snapped back together, the gaping hole repaired. It stamped its feet, prancing in place, before swooping down to grab her collar with its teeth. It threw her up into the air, and she landed on its back.
She tried to scramble off, but found every myth and legend her grandmother had told her had been right: once you touch them, you’re stuck. Nothing could pry you off, save a friar with some holy water on hand. The horse galloped into the nearby woods, breaking over the green hills like water flowing downstream.
She was gone for a year.
People found the unattended bag in the middle of the road, and called her grandmother. They sent out search parties, and trampled over the few tracks the horse had left. Folks set up vigils, but eventually, gave up.
When she came home one evening, walking up the twisting road to their home under a full moon, her grandmother thought she was hallucinating. That maybe Death had sent her granddaughter to come and get her, to make the passing just a little easier. But no: the girl was real. She spoke, she ate, she hugged her weeping grandmother and comforted her as best she could. The town rejoiced and held parties, but soon found the little girl wasn’t quite the same.
In the early mornings, before the sun rose fully, she’d be at the back fence, talking to the birds. At night, she’d sing to the wind and it would sing back in strange words, gossiping with her and trading secrets. She danced around tree trunks like other children would, but the trees held her hand and twirled her round and round in ways that made her childhood companions endlessly envious. When townsfolk would round up people for to hunt for the creatures of the deeper forest, she’d spit on the ground at their feet and they’d always come back with nothing.
She grew up strong. She chopped her own wood, herded her own animals, and built room after room onto her grandmother’s old home with her own hands after the old woman died. She didn’t seem to like leaving the shade of the hills that surrounded her and didn’t seem to like any of the men in town either–-so people assumed that she’d turn into a spinster, what with her strange ways and her stubbornness.
On the eve of her twenty-seventh birthday, she disappeared again.
With a small song on her lips, learned in the heart of a place no mortal had been since she herself walked there, she danced around her kitchen. A small rap came from the window on the other side of the room. She looked up, and there was the horse. Her horse. At first, she burst out laughing. Of course, it would show up to celebrate her birthday with her. But it didn’t whinny plaintively or neigh in its comical way; it just stared at her, before beginning to frantically kick the wall beneath the window. She rushed outside, but stopped at the threshold of the kitchen door.
There, in her back garden, was a long-eared man with thin, elaborate gold lines patterned across his face. He held his arm tightly against his side, pressed against a large, dark red stain seeping through his shirt. She began to breathe very hard, hands twitching at her sides.
“S’no where else for us to flee,” he said with great effort, through a mouth full of blood.
She opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off–on one of the high hills above her home, a low horn blew. A litany of shrieking voices echoed down. She balled up her fists, took off her apron, and wrapped it securely around her bleeding visitor’s side. Under the bright moon of that summer’s night, she looked up and saw the shadowy shapes of the horde moving towards them. The trees would hold them off, but not for long.
With a groan, she lifted the injured man, placed him on the horse’s back as it kneeled (this wasn’t its first time with her, it knew what to do), and jumped on behind him. They took off down the road, down past the place where she had first disappeared, down through the village, down across the green, flying through the highlands with shadows on their heels, until they reached the coursing waters of the nearby river and vanished.
She was gone for five years.
Someone in the village suggested they auction off her home. They tried, twice. Both times, the new homeowners would run screaming back into the village, babbling in a terror about the trees attacking them when they went outside, the plates throwing themselves, the birds deliberately shitting in shoes and on food, and the house itself muttering cursewords at them. Everybody gave up, and the house was condemned as haunted, its owner either lost in the woods or dead.
It was on a strangely balmy autumn day that she returned. She rode through the village on a tall, chestnut-brown horse, clad in strange armor. She held a babe in the crook of right arm. She spoke to no one, other than briefly stopping to buy bread and milk before going home. Just like before, she returned different than she had been prior to her disappearance. More reserved, but kinder. Less outwardly full of fire and spite, but somehow immensely more intimidating. She radiated authority, and a kind of icy, silver-darkness born out of seeing and living things that no one else had seen and lived.
She wandered around the edges of the village, placing strange black stones on its borders. Whenever anyone complained of bizarre things happening in their home, she arrived, unasked, and fixed it. Young and old were free to roam her property and pick whatever they found growing, and soon it became a habit–-villagers milled about her property, constantly greeting each other, for some reason feeling safer there than they did in their own homes. Years passed, her daughter grew, and though they were the pair of them considered strange as could be, they were beloved. Her girl, who, under the full moon seemed to have a face that glowed with faint gold lines, moved away to have adventures of her own.
But the trees were still there, the wind whispered, and the sleepy village of frequently confused men and women was safe and sound. She missed her daughter terribly, but understood the need to see what lay in the hidden places of the wide world, and wander until contented.
The last call came three days after her eighty-second birthday.
She had been sick. Severely so. It had been days since she’d been out of bed and in her gardens, or walking among her dearly beloved friends out in the woods. Shakily, she managed to get to her kitchen and set the kettle over her small fire, when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something dark and glossy green.
Standing in the open door of her rambling home was the horse. It fixed her with such an expectant expression in its black eyes that she laughed.
“Haven’t ye heard?” She creaked, struggling a little to find her next breath. “I’m naught but an old woman now.”
The horse cocked its head at her and trotted out to the edge of her garden, before swiveling back around to look at her. It stamped the ground with its front hoof. She smiled, and slowly retrieved a hooded gray cloak from the hooks next to her door. Gently, she pulled it on and shuffled out into her yard. The first steps were the hardest. Her heart hammered in her chest. Her lungs burned, and her chest hurt. The horse always danced a few steps ahead of her, just out of reach, but impatiently bobbing back and forth, waiting for her to catch up. She would’ve told it to stop being so damned silly and give her a ride, but all her spare energy was put into placing one foot in front of the other.
As she hit the border of the woods, she found it easier to breathe. The horse paced a little further out in front of her. Dewy moss and grass under her feet, whispering trees above her head, she began to feel alive again. Truly, alive. The ground sloped up through the thick mess of tree trunks and grown-over stumps, blending into a dark, carpeted green in which she was only a tiny gray speck, moving further and further on.
She was never seen again.