Monday, 9 November 2009

Chapter Twenty-Three: Cutlass

“Lost for words, girly girl? I quite understand. Who wouldn’t be to discover that they had been employed by Captain Cutlassssss?” The last ‘s’ of ‘Cutlass’ wound through the air like poisonous vipers.
The point of the sword was slowly removed from Sally’s throat and her eyes widened as the figure stood and she watched it rise up and up. And up.

Captain Clarabelle Cutlass (known to her crew as Old Squideye, for reasons which will shortly become apparent) was an imposing figure and quite the strangest looking person that Sally had ever seen. She was at least eight feet tall with arms and legs so long and thin that if you could picture a person with limbs made from broom sticks and snooker cues and you might just come close to imagining just how jutty and sticky-outy she was. Just to be in the same room as her was to risk a poke in the eye from a pointy elbow or a knobbly knee.
The pirate captain’s head sat atop a long thin neck the length of one of her forearms and seemed to have the ability to contract into or extend out of her body like a turtle’s neck from its shell. The face itself belonged to somebody who could have been sixty or a hundred, and was long, hard and sour, her pale skin stretched over prominent cheek bones and looking as if bitterness had sucked every ounce of joy from her. As the light from the fire caught her face, Sally noticed the outlines of soft, pinkish scales (most noticeably on her dried, thin lips) and realised that it wasn’t just her long neck and hissing voice which made her think of snakes.
She was dressed from head to toe in thick, white furs, a fur hat perched on her head and soft golden ringlets poking from underneath(a little too soft and a mite too golden perhaps).
But of all the strange aspects of this old woman (and remember, this was a being who looked like a cross between a scarecrow and the Loch Ness Monster) there was one which stood out froze Sally like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. This was the Captain’s right eye.
Red, it was. Not just tired or bloodshot but completely red. From the pupil to the iris to the orb of the eye itself, completely red. A bright, viscous, blood red which stood out from the rest of her pale, tight face and looked as though it might melt all that it surveyed with a burning glare.
She was truly ugly. But this was not down to her physical appearance; a kinder, more caring person may have been able to carry that tall, thin body with grace and beauty. No, this ugliness was the outward manifestation of the deep bitterness and hatred which curdled inside her (maybe it was cruel that the crew referred to her as Old Squideye; but really, once you saw the malevolence that flared from that bright red eye, you knew that she really was as cold and ugly as a creature from the dark depths of the sea).
Something black sat in Clarabelle Cutlass’s heart and over the years it had slowly poisoned her until that sucked-dry face and that terrible red orb were merely an echo of the evil which ran through her entire soul.

Eventually, after what sounded like an eternity, a strange sound squeaked from Sally’s dry mouth: “Employed?”
The neck extended straight out from the pirate’s body and arched down towards Sally until their faces were inches apart.
“Why, yessss of coursssse. Why elsssse would you still be alive? You have been found quite adequate for the exissssting vacansssy of perssssonal asssssisssstant to the Captain. Clarabelle Cutlasssss. Me, mysssself and I, deary.” (and from now on, you’ll just have to imagine her hissing voice or else I’ll run out of ‘s’s!)
“But…wh-wh-?” Sally stuttered, cofused.
A fake, pencilled eyebrow rose above the red eye. “Oh such modesty, girl. Come, now surely you must know how important your talent is in this part of the world!”
“Talent?” Another croak.
“Your letterin’, of course girl!” When Sally still stared blankly, the old woman tutted in exasperation. “Because you can read and write!”
“But how do you-?” The whole sum of Sally’s time in the small office had been a chewed pencil and a numb backside. She hadn’t written one word.
“The forms, deary. The forms. The very fact that you understood enough of the forms not to fill them in proves that you can read and write!”
This really was the craziest logic that Sally had ever heard but before she could say so, the captain continued:
“Most new crew members usually just put their mark down as quickly as they can, convinced that they’re signing up for a percentage of the profits. Sure proof that they haven’t read a word on the paper work.”
Sally couldn’t contain her confusion any longer: “So, the only people who sign the forms are the ones who can’t read them and anyone who can read them, doesn’t sign them! That doesn’t make any sense at all!”
“Sense!” This word sounded like the hiss of a frustrated python and Clarabelle Cutlass reared her head back and spluttered. “It doesn’t need to make sense, girl. It’s the law! Company law. Anybody who works for a Company ship must complete the correct paperwork!”
“But if you sign something that you don’t understand…?”
“Oh come now.” The old woman tutted. “A mere irrelevance. And besides, signing will always be better than the consequences for those who don’t.” Sally felt a chill on the back of her. “Except in your case, my dear. Where your not-signing has shown you worthy of a completely new set of forms. And anyway…” She flicked the ash from her cigarette onto the lion skin on the floor and rubbed it idly into the fur with her foot. “Your arrival is most fortunate. I’ve only recently lost my last assistant. He had to leave the ship due to….” Her voice quietened to a whisper and she narrowed her eyes, “…unforeseen circumstances. So your application has been received at just the right time. Well done on not completing the required forms and welcome to Company employ!”
“Company? But I thought... Aren’t you…” Sally hesitated. She wasn’t at all sure how the next word that she was about to speak would go down.
“Yes?” Something dark lurked under the words; something threatening. The red eye flashed at Sally, a warning to be careful.
But Sally being Sally, she took a deep breath and said it anyway. “Aren’t you…pirates?”
Cutlass seemed to blink in surprise and then ever so slowly a strange, hoarse, vibrating screech emerged from her throat like the death rattle of a vulture. The neck swayed from side to side like a charmed cobra and Sally froze, stunned by the unearthly sound.
It took her at least ten seconds to realise that the horrific noise which filled the cabin was laughter.
Eventually, like an old locomotive, she slowly wheezed to a stop and took another puff on her cigarette.
“Pirates, dear?” the words emerged in a cloud of smoke. “Such a quaint word. Such an old-fashioned concept. Pirates. Well I never. Of course we’re not pirates. The Huntress is a legitimate trading vessel. We are lawful, certified freelance merchants. Look, look,” She pointed with her sword to various framed papers on the wall. “We have all of the forms to prove it. Company forms.”
And it would seem for Clarabelle Cutlass, that this was the end of the argument. She sat down once more in her armchair, her long neck arching over the top so that she could still look at her new assistant. “And your numbers, deary? How good is your numbering? What’s thirty two and fifty one. Quick, quick, no holding back now.”
“Eighty three!” The answer shot out of Sally’s mouth before she could stop herself.
“Mmmmm,” Cutlass fingered a ringlet of blond hair. “Well, that certainly sounds right.” She pulled open a drawer in the small table next to her and pulled out an abacus. Her long, black fingernails darted along the device, clicking beads back and forth until she declared triumphantly. “Yes, eighty-three! Quite right! That settles it: you definitely get the job. Now, if you’ll just wait here, I’ll get the forms.” And with that she jumped up again and strode to a second door next to the one through which Sally had entered. Walking out, Sally heard her disappear down the corridor outside with a screech of: “Ratboy! Ratboy! Where are you?”
And as the door swung to behind the pirate captain, there was another noise in the air. A short, sharp whistle. Sally looked up and around her, wondering what strange sight she was going to see now. A second impatient whistle drew her attention to the ticking grandfather clock standing in the corner of the cabin and she suddenly saw her. There poking out from behind the clock were the two bright eyes and face full of spry whiskers that was Brigadier Cynthia Landrey.
Sally ran over to the cuckoo clock. “Brigadier Landrey!” She exclaimed, overjoyed to see the friendly face.
“Cynthia will do just fine, Sally,” the otter replied and climbing up the base of the clock until she was standing on the small ledge beneath its face, she hopped off and onto Sally’s shoulder. The long, thin body curled around the girl’s neck and Cynthia rubbed her face against Sally’s cheek in greeting.
“Now, I’ll have to be quick so listen carefully,” she said, urgently. “Jack has sent me to tell you to keep strong and remember that mum’s the word.”
“I haven’t said a thing,” Sally said. “I promise.”
“I know, Sally. I’ve been keeping an eye on things from the clock. You’ve been doing an admirable job. And from what I’ve heard, Old Squideye won’t be keeping you down on Deck Thirteen with the rest of us. Sounds like they have bigger plans for you.”
Sally didn’t like the sound of that. “What should I do? I…”
“You must play along. Jack says that he’s working on a plan to get us off of this ship and the more you can tell us about Squideye’s setup, the better chance we have of running circles around the peglegs when the time comes. Do you understand, Sally?”
“Yes, I think so. You want me to pretend to work for them but to really be a spy for you.”
“Exactly. Tell them what they want to hear. Especially that creep of a First Mate, Ratboy. He’s a sucker for flattery. Just be careful with Squideye – she’s not as stupid as she looks! Ooops I can hear her coming.” With a quick rub on the cheek, Cynthia Landrey jumped down onto the floor and back behind the clock. “Stay strong, Sally. Don’t forget, if you need me, I won’t be far away!”
Then she was gone and Sally was alone again. She heard voices coming back outside the door and Clarabelle Cutlass, with Ratboy (who Sally now knew to be the pink creature who she had met twice already) grovelling next to her, strode back in:
“…woodworm down on Deck Nine, ma’am.”
“Get it seen to or else, Ratboy.”
Her reptilian lips split into a hideous grin when she laid her eyes on Sally again and she shoved a sheet of parchment at the girl.
“Now, deary.” The pirate captain hissed. “If you’ll just put your mark on this contract, then it will all be official.”

And that’s how Sally Hargreaves, eleven years old, and of 22 Dunstable Lane, became personal assistant to Captain Clarabelle ‘Squideye’ Cutlass of the Huntress.
Or, in short, how Sally became a pirate.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Chapter Twenty-Two: Grimwald Stalkin Treads in Poopin (I)

As Grimwald Stalkin walked out of the log cabin that he shared with his brother, his foot squelched ankle deep into a cold brown pile!
“Aahhhhh!” He roared with anger, shook his fist at the muck that now covered his boot, and kicked at it so hard that his foot slipped sharply on the slushy mixture of brown-streaked snow. Flipping up into the air, he came crashing down on the dung which now covered not only his right boot but the backs of his rough deer-skin trousers as well.
Such a terrible stream of words came out of his mouth that I cannot possibly write them down here. In fact I find myself blushing even at the thought of them.

If the truth be told then, from a very early age, Grimwald Stalkin had had anger issues. The slightest piece of bad luck would result in shouting and swearing usually followed by a punch or a kick thrown at some inanimate object. The result of this was that the object would either break or cause pain or injury to his hand or foot. This, in turn, would cause another fit of anger and then more punching or kicking and so it would go on until the offending object was smashed to pieces or Grimwald had bruised his hands or feet so badly that he had to go back to bed.
Needless to say, bills for furniture repair were particularly high in the Stalkin household.
Yes indeed, it has to be said that Stalkins as a whole are not the best humoured of folk, but even among his grumpy kin, Grimwald was renowned for his bad temper.

“Greymalkin Stalkin!” He screamed in a rage so fierce that another two blood vessels burst into a network of fine, red lines on his lumpy nose. He struggled to stand up and almost slipped three or four times again in the process. When he was finally on his feet, he straightened the beaver skin hat on his bald head and shouted once more: “Greymalkin Stalkin!”
The door of the log cabin slammed open and an almost identical figure carrying a large shotgun burst out into the cold morning air. He came out of the cabin at such a speed that he completely missed the step outside the front door, slipped and fell straight onto his back.
His furious older brother was silenced as the shotgun went off with an almighty explosion and the shot smashed up through the porch roof of the cabin. The resulting avalanche of snow plopped down on top of Greymalkin leaving only his ruddy-cheeked, bald, bearded face exposed.
“Burn and blast it, Greymalkin Stalkin! What be you running round with a shotgun for! You could of killed us pair!” Grimwald Stalkin roared at his younger brother and yet another fine red line appeared on his huge nose.
“Blast and burn it, Grimwald Stalkin! You done shouted fit to pop an eye out. I thoughts you was a-being murdered out ‘ere! What in boiling blood done ‘appened?” Greymalkin Stalkin roared back at his elder sibling as he struggled up.
“I done trod me in poopin!” Grimwald Stalkin pointed an accusing finger at the offending brown pile. “What in burning brimstone be poopin doing round ‘ereabouts?”
Greymalkin stood up, picked up his skunk skin hat and brushed the snow from his clothes. He walked over to stand opposite his brother and both slowly bent over until their large, red noses were centimetres away from the matter at hand. Simultaneously, they took a large, deep sniff, considered and looked up into the eyes of the other, then slowly stood up straight again.
“That be ‘orse poopin!” Greymalkin exclaimed.
“Aye and stripy ‘orse poopin to boot!” Agreed Grimwald. “What in blazing stinkweed be stripy ‘orse doin’ round these parts?!”
Both brothers studied the snow covered ground.
“Bain’t no tracks. It done snowed too deep last night. But that poopin be almost steaming fresh. Go grab me my Maisey Barrel, Greymalkin and be full of care with yorn that you don’t blast no more ‘oles in us roof!”
As his brother ran back into the cabin, Grimwald Stalkin grabbed a bag of chewing weed from his pocket. He shoved the last remaining handful of brown weed into his mouth and stood chewing thoughtfully whilst brushing his right boot back and forth in the snow to clean it. The empty bag slipped carelessly from his hand and drifted down to lay on the snow.

For those who have ever had any dealings with Stalkins, it is a well known fact that they are an incredibly messy people. It is easy to recognise a Stalkin cabin because the gardens, yards and land thereabouts are always strewn with rubbish of every kind.
In fact, the only reason that Rodriguez had not recognised this as Stalkin territory the night before was because of the snow which had covered the rotting heaps of garbage piled up outside the Stalkin brothers’ log cabin.
As well as being naturally untidy, they are a short, stocky and muscular folk. Very few Stalkins stand higher than four feet and most of the men (and not a few of the woman) go bald at a very early age and compensate by growing big, bushy beards. They have large, misshapen noses, ruddy red complexions and wild out-of-control eyebrows.
They also suffer terribly from a complaint that I will not go into here because even Stalkins deserve to maintain a little dignity. All I will say is that they often find it very painful to sit down and this is probably the main reason why most of them are just so angry all of the time.
They were a highly emotional people all round and this was reflected in their tastes. They were driven by their enormous appetites to taste everything that it was possible to taste. In fact, the only living creature that did not immediately appeal to a Stalkin’s taste buds was another Stalkin (and I dare say, given the right circumstances even this was a taboo that some would be willing to break).
This was probably the main reason why they were such expert hunters and although the Stalkins did not originally come from this part of the winter lands, in their own country they were a mountain people. They had grown up hunting, trapping and fishing.
Rodriguez, who knew all of these things, was beginning to understand just how much trouble he and David were in.

Before long Greymalkin Stalkin traipsed back out of the cabin; this time carrying a shotgun over each shoulder.
“There be yorn.” He announced handing over the larger of the two shotguns to his brother.
“Ah Maisey Barrel, my love!” Grimwald Stalkin stroked the weapon with a tenderness which he showed to no other thing in the world. “Us be going a-hunting for stripy ‘orse!” A moment of calm crept over the Stalkin. It was at times like this, with gun in hand and the knowledge that he would kill and eat something pretty soon, when he came as close as he ever really got to happiness.
“Greymalkin Stalkin, ‘unting time!”
“Aye! ‘Unting time, Grimwald Stalkin!”

Inside the barn, David and Rodriguez stood peering out through gaps in the wooden slats at the two strange figures outside. David could not hear what they were saying but the look of concern on Rodriguez’s face when the zebra had nudged the boy awake was enough to tell the boy that he should be worried. The sight of these two short men carrying very large shotguns only served to confirm this.
Suddenly the two figures turned and seemed to look straight at the barn. Straight at them!
David and Rodriguez jumped back from their spy holes and turned to each other, wide-eyed in panic. Rodriguez could hear the sound of feet clumping in the snow toward the barn door, the mumbling of angry words and the rattling of the sliding doors. There was no other way out of the barn. They were trapped!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

A note about copyright

I’ll be seeing you was written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain in 1938. I have tried to find out if there is a copyright on the lyrics but with no success. No copyright infringement is intended.

Chapter Twenty-One: The Song

The morning was no longer new but still the black ship was shrouded in dark shadow as it sped along the frozen river. The watery sun finally peeped over the edges of the steep valley sides and shone weakly in the grey winter sky, but it would be hours yet before the deep snow in the valley felt its touch.
The Huntress, as dark as the shadow she sped through, followed the winding course of the river as snow-capped peaks rose far in the distance. The faint notes of a sad music fading in her wake.

It was this music which woke Sally up. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep but when she sat up one of the forms was stuck to the side of her cheek. She peeled it off and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The adrenaline of the night’s events had carried her through until the morning, but five minutes in the office with a horrendous selection of maths problems had been enough to send Sally into a deep, exhausted sleep.
She looked around, trying to trace the source of the music just as it faded and died.
It was coming from behind the second door, now slightly ajar. Standing up from the desk, Sally took a step towards it and her hand reached out for the brass knob. Almost as if it were waiting for her fingertips to touch the cold metal, the music began again. The simple, beautiful notes of a piano.
As she pulled the door slowly open, a voice began to sing. A voice that Sally was surprised to find that she recognised.
A sad, old-fashioned voice. Old-fashioned in the way that voices in black and white films were. It was the voice of a singer that her father listened to a lot. He would take out his old vinyl albums, dust them off and look sadly out of the window as the beautiful tones weaved through the room. Her name, Sally knew, was Billy Holiday. She knew the song too. The words were beautiful and sad as well, and they reminded her that she was a long way from home:

I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through
In that small café
That park across the way
The children’s carousel
The chestnut trees
The wishing well

Then another voice spoke, cutting through the warm familiar music. A commanding voice which made Sally stiffen. “Don’t just stand there, dearie. Come in.” A voice as cold and icy as the winter landscape outside.
Sally hesitated briefly, but the combination of the words and the music seemed to pull her in against her own will. She pushed open the door and entered the large cabin within.
The first thing she noticed was the fur. Animal furs and skins covered every surface in the room.
Just in front of the door, for example, lay what looked like the thick, white coat of a massive polar bear; its large arms and legs stretched out to the sides. Beyond that lay a lion skin and further still what looked like the spotted pelt of a leopard.
There were furs hanging from every wall: tiger, wolf and fox; zebra, squirrel and rabbit; panda, yak, antelope, coyote, moose and beaver. Furs lined the wall seat on the right under the curtained portholes. Furs lay thick on the gigantic iron-framed bed at the back of the room. Fur coats poked out of the wooden wardrobe in the far, right-hand corner. Fur slippers stood next to the bed. Fur hats hung from hooks on the wall. Furs of all kind: black, white, brown, striped, spotted. Beautiful furs.
Although not beautiful in the common sense of the word. To Sally they were sad, tragic. The type of beauty
found in a tear drop or a dying rose or a butterfly pinned to an album.
The haunting music continued to float softly around the room:

I'll be seeing you
In every lovely summer's day;
In every thing that's light and gay.
I'll always think of you that way.

The room was dark but warm flames flickered in the stomach of a black, pot-bellied stove on the left-hand side of the cabin. In front, with its back to the door, stood an old, swivel armchair covered in the thick fur of a snow leopard.
”That’s it. Come closer, deary.” The voice sliced through the air like a razor. Its owner sat deep in the armchair and Sally saw one long, bony hand protruding from the arm of a mink fur coat. Smoke curled from a thin, brown cigarette held in the end of an ebony cigarette holder. Two bony, slippered feet perched on a fur-covered stool, were warming in front of the stove. “Come now, don’t be shy.”
Just as there had been with Jack Douglas, there was a tone of command in the voice; a confidence that knew it would be obeyed. However, whereas Jack’s voice had been warm and charming and had inspired the belief that everything would be alright, this voice was slippery, sickly sweet and cold. It was ice laced with black treacle. It enchanted in the way that a snake’s eyes could hypnotise its prey, and it had to be obeyed. Sally knew instinctively and without a doubt that this was the captain of the Huntress.
The young girl approached the armchair. Next to it stood a small table with an old-fashioned gramophone. The music came from an old record which spun on its turntable. She stopped a few steps away from the chair. The profile of the smoker was dark still in the shadows.
“Tell me your name, girly.” The voice was calm and quiet but dripped with unspoken menace.
“Sally Hargreaves, ma’am.” Sally’s mouth opened and spoke without her volition.
“Mmmm. A pretty name to go with such pretty hair. Now, tell me, dear, did you complete the paperwork?”
Sally knew that any lie would be seen through immediately, “No ma’am.”
“Can’t do your lettering, eh?”
“No…I mean, yes….I can…it’s just…”
“Yes, go on. Tell me the truth girl.”
“Sorry it’s just that I didn’t think that I should be signing anything which meant that I could be drowned, burnt or shot.”
The figure in the chair spun around with such speed that Sally’s heart skipped a beat. The long pointed sword in the other, bony hand sliced through the air and came to a sudden, jolting halt, vibrating while its point lay against the soft flesh under Sally’s chin.
The sad, beautiful song came to an end:

I'll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I'll be looking at the moon,
But I'll be seeing you.

Then only the scratch and hiss of the needle at the end of the record could be heard. The captain of the Huntress leant close to Sally, a cobra’s smile on her face.
“Well done, my dear.” She hissed. “You’ve got the job.”

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Chapter Twenty: The Barn

As rays from the morning light streamed in through the porthole of the office where Sally stared in horror at the maths test, the same morning sunlight pierced the darkness which surrounded her younger brother and stirred him to wakefulness. David woke up from what he was convinced was the strangest dream ever.
A whiff of morning breath from the mouth of the zebra snoring centimetres away from him, however, quickly convinced him of his mistake.
He raised his head and looked around him. He lay on a pile of straw facing his sleeping companion in what appeared to be a damp, gloomy barn. The air smelt like a mixture of old newspapers and the type of mouldy vegetables that you find wrinkled at the back of a cupboard. But however bad the combination of this and zebra breath was, it was still a far better place to be than the middle of a raging snow blizzard.
The beams of warm light which lanced in through gaps and knots in the wooden slats of the walls told David that it must be morning.
He had no memory of arriving here; the zebra must have found this place sometime during the night and taken refuge from the wind and snow. He thought back to the night before; such a long, mad, impossible night. He wasn’t sure how long they had travelled along the river, but flashes of memory told him that it must have been a very long way indeed. He knew that his travelling companion must be exhausted and he sat up gently so as not to wake him.
David, still dressed warmly in his anorak and gloves, brushed straw from him and looked around him. He saw that the barn was as wide as his whole house in Dunstable Lane and the roof above probably just as high. The pile of hay filled this section of the barn, which was walled off from the rest by a wooden partition on one side. The partition also acted as a support for another level high above, against which an old, shaky ladder leant.
He stood up carefully, waded out of the deep straw and walked around the wooden partition and into the larger part of the barn. There were two very tall and very wide doors in the wall and he walked over to them. They were not locked but when he pushed against one, it opened barely an inch.
He pressed his face to the small gap which he had managed to make and saw a large drift of snow piled up outside. It must have continued to snow heavily after they had taken shelter here.
David turned around. On the other side of the partition, the barn looked as though it had been used for storage. Sack cloth covered objects on the floor; crates were piled up in the far corner and strange metal instruments hung from the wall.
He lifted up some of the cloths and peeked into the crates, some of which were filled with straw, some with nets and sheets, and in one something soft and furry which he couldn’t identify in the gloom.
He struck lucky with the last box that he uncovered. It contained crisp-looking, green apples packed in straw. The sight of them caused a large rumble from his belly and David realised just how empty his stomach was. He was sure that whoever owned this barn would forgive him for eating just one apple considering how hungry he was. He picked one from the top of the crate, polished it on the side of his anorak and bit into the fresh, juicy fruit.
As the sweet juice crashed over his tongue like a fresh wave, David felt his stomach growl in expectation and he settled down to eating in earnest.
Within minutes, all that remained was a skinny core and David realised that he was still hungry. And this hunger being greater than any guilt he might feel at helping himself to what didn’t belong to him, the young boy took another apple and wandered back over to the inviting, soft pile of straw and lay back down.
While he chewed on mouthfuls of the second apple, David considered the strange, brave creature sleeping next to him and wondered what his name was. They had travelled such a long way together (and it was hard to believe that it had only been one night) but still they did not know one another’s names.
The beams of light which shot across the room above him seemed to vibrate with dancing motes of dust and tiny scraps of straw. He yawned and placed his free hand on the soft mane of the dozing zebra. He gently stroked the black hair while biting into the last chunk of apple and watching the hypnotic movement of the light.

A dream coloured with memories: he is signing to his parents, eager to tell them of his day’s adventures. He turns to see Sally, her eyes blank. She shakes her head at him, mouths angry words and as usual it turns into an argument with Mum and Dad. Furious words shoot about the room, flying unheard over his head and leaving him alone in his island of silence. He turns to his parents in sad desperation but they have gone. He turns back to his sister and finds himself alone and shivering at the side of the pond. She stands angry on the deck of the black ship as it sails away. Ever further from him, he is powerless to stop it.

Rodriguez woke up and smacked his lips in satisfaction, stretching his neck sleepily. Even the straw in this smelly old barn was a luxury compared to the weeks that he had spent on that godforsaken prison ship.
The strange, silent young boy who he had chosen to help the night before lay sleeping close by; a browning apple core clasped in his hand. The zebra moved his large head down close to the boy until he could hear the soft breathing and he smiled softly to himself.
Standing up, he stepped out of the pile of straw onto the wooden floor of the barn, his hooves softly clipping and clopping on the hard boards. He had no idea where they were or even how far away the frozen river was. It had become impossible in the midst of the raging wind and snow the night before to tell which direction they were heading in. Tree after tree had loomed out of the howling storm, difficult to tell apart in the dark. For all he knew they could have been going round in circles. Zebras weren’t meant for snowy landscapes.
Eventually the dark, solid walls of this building had appeared out of nowhere. He hadn’t stopped to consider who this barn belonged to out here in the middle of nowhere or what he might find inside. He just knew that if they didn’t get inside and away from the blizzard quickly then there was a good chance that they wouldn’t survive the night.
Luckily for them both, the door had slid open easily and when his eyes had fallen upon the large pile of straw that lay inside, he had thought it the most welcoming bed he had ever seen.
Now after a good sleep, he found himself hungry and his nose took him straight to the apple crate. His tail flicked into the box and scooped an apple up into the air and straight between his teeth. He crunched down and the sweet juice flooded into his mouth.
Fresh fruit and vegetables hadn’t exactly been a strong part of the menu on board the Huntress and he had missed them terribly. The apple disappeared in seconds.
As he crunched on his second apple, he glanced idly around him and what he saw made him freeze with horror in mid-chew. The walls were hung with an assortment of metal instruments, some with latches and springs, hinged bars and vicious sharp teeth; others with wire nooses and sharp, deadly spikes. The zebra knew instantly what they were and whispered a single word to himself in Spanish: “Cazadores!”
The word was spoken with hatred and venom (and to be honest, a fair amount of apple juice). Rodriguez knew that the instruments on the wall had all been designed with one purpose in mind. They were evil, vicious, death-bringing contraptions and they were used for catching and seriously injuring animals.
The word which he had spoken was this:


And from the mighty roar of anger and the loud gunshot crack which suddenly came from outside the barn, he knew that at least one of them was very nearby.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Chapter Nineteen: Health and Safety

Sally chewed the end of a pencil and stared down at the forms on the table in front of her.
Daylight had begun to stream in from the small porthole but she had long since given up looking at the landscape. At first, its white winter coat had been fascinating and beautiful but soon it had become monotonous with the only break in the tableau of white, the occasional brown of an exposed tree trunk or a swatch of green from uncovered pine needles.
Despite the iron-grey sky, it had almost stopped snowing and only the odd, lonely flake of snow drifted past the porthole. The morning light revealed an alien landscape. It had snowed an awful lot during the night but no amount of snow could account for this change in the countryside. The gentle rolling Downs of her Sussex home had given way to the steep, rugged foothills of distant mountains.
Sally sat on a rickety chair at a large desk in a small office.
She had been brought here just over an hour ago after being led up countless stairs in the semi-darkness of the sleeping ship, climbing until her calf muscles had begun to burn.
The guttering flames of the lanterns strung up in the stairwell had revealed various doors leading off to unknown parts of the ship but she had seen nobody enter or leave. It was just Sally and her two familiar companions.
They were, in fact, the same two pirates who had so unceremoniously kidnapped her from her bedroom hours before and although she was being roughly pushed up the stairs ahead of them, she managed to steal the occasional glance at these strange creatures.
Neither of them was much taller than Sally herself and they were both dressed in thick leather jerkins and trousers, and wore heavy boots on their feet (claws? paws?).
The monkey, she saw now that she was close up, was most definitely a baboon (Come to think of it, she wasn’t even sure that baboons were monkeys. Hadn’t she learnt at school that they were called something else?). Its most outstanding feature, of course, was the long, bone shaped nose which protruded from the pink face surrounded by a mane of matted red hair. Deep-set and perched atop this massive protuberance glared one tiny, evil red eye. The other was covered by a dark eye patch.
The other creature was even stranger. Like a giant, dirty-looking, pink rat but furless, its snout ended in a dry, brownish nose and two sharp little teeth jutted out over its bottom lips. White bristles stuck out in irregular patches across its cheek and chin, and its large moth-eaten ears poked out from under the red bandana tied around its head. From the deeply unpleasant smell which surrounded it, it didn’t seem to be overly concerned with its own personal hygiene. It also seemed to scratch itself a lot.
In fact, it scratched so much its arms, its back, its neck (and other places that Sally really didn’t want to consider), that it was starting to make her feel itchy herself. She had the strongest desire to dig her fingers into the hair behind her right ear and give it a good, hard scratch. But with her hands tied behind her back, this was impossible and she tried desperately to ignore the growing desire.
Sally didn’t dare ask anything. She had asked once where they were going but the violent push which she received in answer was enough to discourage her from asking again. Her two kidnappers remained silent.
The silence just made her focus even more on the growing urge to scratch. The more that she tried to ignore it, the stronger the itching sensation became.
It was just like when you watch wildlife programmes about ants or small insects like fleas. Very soon your body starts to imagine that they are crawling all over you and it is very hard to resist scratching. I bet even the thought of this now is making you want to itch. Well, it was a hundred times stronger for Sally.
She tried to concentrate on something else. Anything else.
“Ape!” The word popped out of her mouth before she could stop it and was greeted with a grunt of disapproval from the baboon behind her and a hove that almost knocked her over. But it was true, she thought to herself, baboons were apes, not monkeys! Although she wasn’t entirely sure what the difference was.
Eventually, she had been led off down a corridor on one of the upper decks of the ship. A door was pulled open, her hands were untied (to her great relief as the need to scratch had become almost unbearable) and she was shoved into the room where she currently found herself.
“Now, if you would just sit at the work station provided.” The unpleasant nasal voice came from the rat-like creature.
Sally had had enough and while she scratched vigorously all over, she felt her temper beginning to rise again and couldn’t stop herself from spurting out: “What is it you want from me?”
The smelly creature looked a little taken aback by this. It took a deep breath, sighed and began to intone:
“It is Company Policy that forms are completed in triplicate for insurance reasons.” Even its own eyes clouded with boredom as it recited the monotonous information. “All questions with an asterisk must be answered. A company approved pencil has been provided for you and which must be returned at the end of the session. You will be given two hours to complete the forms to a satisfactory standard…um…” He scratched his forearm and chewed his lip while he tried to remember the next part. “Oh yes…And any failure to comply with company form filling procedure will result in special measures and…” Sally couldn’t help but show the disgust on her face as its hand sunk down the back of its trousers to scratch some more. “…oh yes…immediate termination of employment.”
“What-?” She was cut off as her two captives strode from the small office and the door was slammed in her face and locked from the outside.
There was nothing for Sally to do but to investigate her new surroundings. The room itself was small; really no bigger than three or four wardrobes stuck together. There were two doors: the one which she had been brought through and another on the right-hand wall which was also locked.
A brief investigation of the rest of the room revealed that the porthole was too small to squeeze out of and that the only furniture was a desk and a chair.
On the desk was a thin pencil, a pile of what looked like at least thirty sheets of paper and a pair of old-fashioned spectacles. She picked them up and examined them. They were battered and the half-moon shaped lenses were scratched and smeared. She put them down again and turned her attention to the papers.
She read the heading at the top of the first sheet of paper:

Insurance Form One: Termination of Employment in the Event of Accidental Drowning

That didn’t sound good. She glanced at the printed paragraph under the heading and had to squint to read the tinniest script imaginable:

I, the below signed (please sign on dotted line below), do hereby accept that any incident resulting in my accidental drowning is not the responsibility of the Company and completely my own fault. The Company will be exempt from any financial loss incurred by such drowning.

A chill ran down the back of her neck and she lifted the second sheet up:

Insurance Form Two: Termination of Employment in the Event of Accidental Burning.

And the next one:

Insurance Form Three: Termination of Employment in the Event of Accidental Shooting.

Sally flicked through more of them and the hair on the back of her neck stood up as the descriptions of different ‘terminations of employment’ got steadily worse. And then about ten sheets in, she came to the worst one of all:

Literacy and Numeracy Test – section 1A

Sally groaned. Not only had she been kidnapped by pirates, not only were there risks of various horrific ways of termination, but worst of all they were forcing her to do a maths test as well!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Chapter Eighteen: Snow Storm

It came, charging though the dark forest: black fur, eyes glinting, teeth large and sharp enough to rip their flesh from their bones. But Rodriguez did not wait for a formal introduction. Snorting in alarm, he spun around, his hooves skidding in the snow in his panic to escape while David clung on for dear life. The young boy gasped as from the corner of his eye he saw a sharp metal blade slicing through night air towards them.
Then just when it seemed they would never get away in time, suddenly they were moving again, racing through the dark, the air rushing past Rodriguez’s ears.
An angry roar erupted in frustration behind them and so intent was the zebra on escape that he almost crashed into a massive tree trunk. Swerving to miss it, Rodriguez whirled around, his sides crashing through the undergrowth, his back legs slipping and sinking up to the haunch in a snow drift.
He struggled to free himself, aware that the creature must be making ground on them. And finally, just as the sound of the crashing behind seemed almost upon them, with a frantic buck, his legs kicked free and they shot forward once more.
The momentum of release sent them hurtling forward with such a speed, however, that the zebra and the boy shot right over the edge of the steep hillside and they found themselves plunging down the incline towards the silver thread of the river far below.
“Aiiiiiiiiiiiii!!” (which is Spanish for: Ahhhhh!) cried Rodriguez as he desperately tried to brake their descent with his forelegs. But it was futile; they were out of control and gaining speed.
“Dios mio!” the zebra shouted (which, just in case you wanted to know translates as something like: Oh my God!) and as the scattering of small bushes and saplings on the hillside whizzed past faster and faster, he closed his eyes and began to mutter a rapid prayer in Spanish.
David, meanwhile, held on for all he was worth. He clasped hard with his legs and buried his face into the frozen mane as the wind rushed against them, its icy breath stinging his ears.
Faster and faster they went, until Rodriguez, eyes still squeezed shut, was sure that he was about to lose his footing and that they would both tumble over at a breakneck pace. Then just as it seemed that disaster was inevitable, the steep hillside began to level out.
Feeling this, David lifted his face and squinted through the pelting snow. Although they were gradually slowing down, it wasn’t enough and still they were hurtling towards the bottom of the valley, the river now a vast, grey and very hard surface, getting larger by the second, coming straight at them fast until...
Suddenly they broke free of the snow clad hillside and were shooting across the ice. So fast, in fact, that their speed had begun to turn them around until they were spinning. Shooting across the ice and spinning!
Rodriguez finally plucked up the courage to open one eye. They were shooting across the river like a spinning top, but they were alive.
He strained his head around to look at the small boy on his back. The relief at their escape from the massive beast above and the gradual slowing down of their spin on the ice brought a wide grin to the zebra’s face. David, whose cheeks had flushed a bright pink, smiled back in relief.
“Yipeeeeeeeee!” cheered the Spaniard as they turned like waltzing dancers and the boy’s eyes and mouth became wide ‘O’s echoing the horse’s joy.
Round and round they went, and slower and slower, until finally, after what seemed like a life time, they came to a halt on frozen river. Their hearts thumping in their chests, they beamed at each other still and David reached up to rub the side of the zebra’s face roughly in affection. They both gave massive sighs of relief.
Rodriguez looked around. The storm was worsening and the air was so thick with snowflakes that it was increasingly difficult to see. They were on the dark ice not too far from the far bank. David pointed back towards the side of the river from which they had come. The zebra nodded and gingerly began to move in that direction across the ice. Slowly but surely and with only one or two slips, they made it to the firmer footing of the riverside.
They looked up at the forested hillside down which they had sped quite so spectacularly and realised just how steep and just how dangerous the journey down had been. Its top, now hidden in the storm, would have been difficult to climb to on a normal day but in the current weather conditions, it would be impossible. They would just have to continue their journey down here.
Rodriguez began to follow the river once more but in the dark night, neither of them had realised just how deep the snow was starting to become. It came up past the hoof now and the zebra found that the most he could manage was a light canter.
He looked around at the boy. David was staring ahead a fixed, determined look on his face, and in his mind the Spaniard saw once more the small picture which the boy had drawn of his sister. The small picture, which for reasons known only to himself, had persuaded the ex-prisoner from the Huntress to pursue the very ship which until only hours before had held him captive.
The memory of that picture spurred him on again now. And despite the difficult conditions, he bent his head down against the wind and pushed on through the growing storm.

For hours more, they travelled. How long and how far, David did not know for the numbing cold had started to work its way beneath the thick anorak. The valley whipped past: dark river, dark river bank, darker trees and bushes. The wind howling into a blizzard. It became difficult for the young boy to keep his eyes open against the whip of snowflakes. He closed them.

A small clump of snow hit David in the face. His eyes opened and he lifted his head weakly. He didn’t know how long he had been asleep. The end of his nose hurt and he rubbed it with one ice encrusted glove, but only succeeded in making it sting more. He tried to look at the landscape around them but the ferocity of the storm made it difficult to see more than about twenty metres in any direction. He clasped his legs together tightly against the sides of the creature below but wasn’t sure if he was successful. He could no longer feel his legs. His face fell forward into the zebra’s mane again.

Rodriguez had slowed to a walk. The snow now came half way up to his knee joints and each step was an effort to release his hoof from the thick drifts below and move it forward. He became more and more aware of the wind which howled like a pack of wild dogs. It had, in his mind, become a living thing; a terrible, malevolent, hateful thing. A thing that stood in their way and pushed them back trying to stop them from achieving their purpose. Their journey, this night, had become a battle. And although both the boy and the horse fought on bravely against the blizzard, it was a battle that they were slowly losing.

The next time David awoke, the air was so thick and dark with snow that he did not know if it was night or day. He could feel the effort that Rodriguez was making, pushing against the wind and the thick drifts. He lay with his face against the creature’s back unable now to even lift it. He was so numb by now that he wasn’t entirely sure if he was holding on tightly or not. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter quite so much as it had earlier.
He felt stuck in this moment of his life; as if he had always been here in this storm on a zebra’s back; as if he would always be here. Yes, that’s it. A thought appeared in the back of his mind. This is everything. This is where it begins and ends and goes back to the beginning round and round in a circle. There is nothing else. Only here. Only now. Always.
No, no, no!
Another thought appeared like a slap in the face. Don’t sleep. It’s dangerous. You must stay awake.
But David didn’t want to think about other voice. He was too tired and besides, he was sure that it was becoming warmer. The wind no longer seemed to whip at him quite so cruelly. It was more soothing now. Like the caress of his mother. Like her cool hands on his brow when he was sick with fever. He smiled.

The last time he awoke, nothing made sense. The air around was a vicious scribble of snow. It was so much easier not to think about it. So tempting just to close one’s eyes and ignore anything outside his head.
David remembered nothing else.

The End of Part Two

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Chapter Seventeen: Cell 57

The black ship cut through the night.
Slap slap slap. Her black sails flapped like the wings of a giant bat and stiffened in the chill hands of the bitter wind.
Hisssss. Her silver blades sliced the surface of the thick ice, spitting up large frozen chunks as it passed.
Crack. Shatter. Icicles which had formed and hardened on her masts and deck rails fell and splintered on the hard deck.
Creak. The dark ebony wheel which steered the terrible vessel turned to the bony grasp of its captain.
The terrible red eye glared through the night, burning with hatred at all it surveyed and stared hard, unblinking as if it could set all that it fell upon on fire.
Unwavering, the eye squinted malevolently through the worsening blizzard and its owner barked an order:
“Rat Boy! Bring the prisoner up!”

Both the fox and the girl continued their path across Deck Thirteen.
As Sally drained the last drop of the most refreshing mug of tea that she had ever drunk, a red flash popped down from the ceiling above, grabbed the tankard and was gone.
“Oh…uh…thank you…uh….Mister Blossompouch.” Sally had never been in a situation where it seemed so hard to think of what to say.
Sally turned back to Jack and saw that the sadness in the fox’s eyes been replaced by a spark of humorous intelligence once more and she asked: “So if you are prisoners, then why aren’t you locked up?”
“The peglegs do allow some of us smaller animals a certain freedom during daylight hours,” Jack Douglas replied. “The larger animals are considered more dangerous and are required to stay in their cells at all times. They use the rest of us to take in the food (If you can call such slop, food!) and drink twice a day. We also have to do the mucking out.” His upper lip curled in distaste. “Luckily for us, the fools who run this ship have confused seniority with size. They think that it is the larger animals who are in charge. And they don’t seem to have realised that they have provided the ranking officers with the perfect opportunity to meet and…” he smiled to himself, “…plan.
“Anyway, at sundown, we are required to report back to our cells and are locked in for the night. However, as you can see, we have some very capable lads and lasses here, madam. Let’s just say that a locked cell door does not provide much of a barrier to the likes of MacGregor and Carlysle.
“The larger animals, I’m afraid, are not so lucky. They’re too big too get out through the tunnels and their doors have had extra locks placed on them just to make sure that none of them escape. The peglegs wouldn’t want an angry buffalo on their hands now, would they?”
Jack Douglas grinned, relishing this last thought and then came to a stop. They had finally reached the other end of the deck. A few small animals scampered about their business in the shadows by the back wall but Jack Douglass ignored them and nodded towards a cell door in front of them.
A solid black façade with no barred window at the top, it was locked and bolted with many more padlocks than the other doors on the deck.
“The big mystery of Deck Thirteen, madam. The Locked Cell.”
Sally walked over to the door and read the number painted near the top: “Cell 57.” “Who’s in there?” She asked.
“A question that has been puzzling us for days now, Miss Hargreaves. We just don’t know.” Jack explained:
“The cell was empty and the door unlocked until two days ago. Then in the middle of the night before last, the ship docked at one of the trading posts along the frozen river. The crew were sent ashore for a little R and R, and someone or something was brought aboard. Even our sources above decks were not able to garner any reasonable intel.
“It is the only cell that we are not required to bring food to or to muck out. In fact, it is kept locked all day. Only, Ratboy, the First Mate (and a nasty piece of work to boot) is allowed to enter the cell once a day. During the curfew at night when the whole deck is locked down, he brings food. Whoever or whatever is behind that door, is a mystery indeed!”
“Couldn’t the beavers tunnel underneath?”
“Yes, excellent. Good thinking there, Miss Hargreaves. However, even with such talented engineers as Carlysle and MacGregor, tunnels take time. Current estimates are that we are still at least a day and a half away from completion. Until then, we’ll - ”
Suddenly, a voice, shouted from the far end of the deck, cutting him off in mid-sentence: “Peglegs deck nine!” The cry was passed from animal to animal and cell to cell right down to the end of Deck Thirteen where Sally and Jack Douglas stood.
The fox’s ears pricked up alertly and instantly he was all action. “The lookouts must have spotted members of the crew on their way down!”
He shouted past Sally, his voice carrying down the length of the deck. “Right! To your stations, lads and lasses! And as for you, madam,” he looked up at Sally.” We are going to have to put you back the way that we found you, I’m afraid. We need to get you down to the other end of the deck post haste!”
Before Sally had a chance to ask him what he meant, the fox was off at a speed that she would not have thought him capable of. His forelegs bounded across the wooden floor so quickly that every time the wheels behind hit an uneven plank, his back end would lift high up into the air before bouncing back down again with a thud.
“Come on then, Sally! No time to lose!” He shouted over his shoulder and Sally found herself running as fast as she could to catch up.
As she ran, she heard orders shouted out around her in harsh whispers. Doors were clanking shut, heavy objects dragged to different positions and the lanterns that lit the deck were being extinguished one by one.
The cry came again: “Peglegs deck ten!”
By the time they had reached the far end of the deck, just one lantern was still alight. The lantern which hung above the spot where she had first regained consciousness.
“Down you go, Madam,” Douglas said. “We’re going to have to tie you up again just as we found you, I’m afraid. Can’t let the peglegs know that we’ve been breaking curfew now, can we? Caruthers and Temple here will help you.”
Sally glanced down at two thin hares standing next to the wooden post. The smiled up at her, their large, almond-shaped, honey-coloured eyes apologetic. They held ropes similar to the ones which had been used to tie her up earlier. The idea of being bound again and left to the mercy of the pirates who were heading down to the prison deck was almost too much for Sally to bear.
“No, no,” she spat the words out like bullets. Anger had started to build in her chest as soon as she had begun to realise what it was that they wanted her to do. “I don’t want to. What’s going to happen? No, I…”
The Field Marshall spoke gently but, underneath, his voice carried a tone of command: “Sally, listen to me. There is no choice. If they find out that we have been roaming around the deck at night after curfew then it means big trouble for all of us. I don’t believe that they wish to harm you. If they had wanted to do that, then they would have already done so by now. Please, we need your help. If you don’t-” The end of his sentence was left hanging unspoken in the air.
“Peglegs deck eleven!”
Sally saw the plea in the fox’s eyes. Trust me, they said to her. I’ll make sure that no harm comes to you. Trust me. And she did. She didn’t know why but she did. With difficulty, she swallowed the anger that was building and got slowly down to her knees.
“Alright.” She agreed reluctantly.
In a flash the two silky-furred hares tied her wrists and legs together again (although nowhere near as tightly as the first bonds had been). As they moved her back into position, Jack Douglas whispered in her ear.
“As far as they are concerned, you have been unconscious since they put you down here. You will have to keep everything that you have seen and heard down here to yourself. Mum’s the word, huh?”
She looked up at him and nodded, “I promise.”
“We won’t forget this, Sally. The stinkbag will have to go on again, I’m so sorry. Just one more thing: whatever happens, I want you to remember that the platoon has eyes and ears everywhere. We’ll watch out for you. Remember that.”
And with those words, the foul sack was pulled down over her head. And although it was only as far as her nose this time, still a wave of nausea cramped through her stomach.
“Good luck, Miss Hargreaves.” Then he was gone.
She lay there in the dark trying to breathe through her mouth. Her whole body tensed nervously as, with a metal clang and an almighty crash, the door at the top of the steps behind her was thrown open.
Loud footsteps stomped down and did not stop until they were almost on top of her. Rough hands grabbed her legs and the top of her arms and hoisted her up. Then she was half-carried, half-dragged up the steps and out of the door.
After it was slammed shut and locked, the sack was ripped from her face and she felt a hot breath and drops of saliva sprinkle onto her cheek as a new voice whispered:
“I would like to welcome you to the Huntress on behalf of senior management. As is customary, you will be required to complete a few Health and Safety forms before a short tour of the facilities. We hope you have a happy stay and that the experience will be one to remember for the rest of your life. However short that may be.”

Chapter Sixteen: Something Out There

The snow fell harder as they galloped along the forested hillside. The flakes thickened, the snow on the ground deepened and often Rodriguez lost his footing in drifts that were deeper than they looked.
David began to wonder about this magnificent creature he was riding. He still had no idea of his name or what on earth a zebra had been doing in the middle of winter in his back garden. Didn’t zebras live in Africa? Or was it India? He could only assume that it had arrived on the same ship which had taken his sister. Or more likely, remembering the chains on his legs, he had escaped from the ship.
David glanced down at the red welts on the zebra’s back and saw that they crossed a network of older scars cutting through the striped fur.
He wondered if his weight on the zebra’s back was causing the creature pain and tried to position himself to avoid the freshest of the wounds, but there were too many.
He gripped tighter to the ebony mane and once more thought that this was perhaps the most beautiful animal he had ever seen. Despite the scars.

On and on.
Every so often a gap in the trees revealed the river, a ribbon of ice curling along far below and the black sails of the pirate ship racing the wind.
Every time this happened, David would clasp his legs tightly against the zebra’s sides in excitement and tap the side of the horse’s muscular neck until Rodriguez glanced in the direction of the black vessel and would squeeze out an extra spurt of speed.
Despite the speed of the ship, they kept up. Sometimes gaining a little ground, sometimes falling behind but always within sight. How the zebra managed this in such conditions, I cannot guess, and I am sure that deep down even Rodriguez himself did not know that he was capable of such a feat of endurance.

Up above, hidden by dark snow clouds, the moon passed its zenith. The snow fell heavier still, settling even upon the zebra’s fur. David found himself having to brush snow away from the horse’s mane and lean over to make sure that it didn’t go into the animal’s eyes. Even the mane that he grasped onto had begun to stiffen in the icy cold.
Then he began to feel it: a niggling itch at the back of his consciousness telling him that there was something he should know. He glanced behind him; he saw the snow clad trees rushing back, disappearing into the night. But beyond that, in the dark, nothing.
The thought inside his head grew more persistent but still he did not know what it was trying to tell him. He looked around again and this time, just for the briefest of seconds thought that he saw…Then it was gone and for the first time during that long flight through the snowy landscape, a long, thin needle of fear slid into his chest.
David finally understood: There is something out there following us!
His eyes widened at the realisation and that small needle point opened out into terror like a blot of ink soaking into thick paper.
There is something out there in the dark!
He freed one hand from the dark mane which it had been grasping, the hair so cold that the clump which had been so tightly held remained curled in a tight ball moulded to the shape of his clenched fist. He thumped the side of the zebra’s neck to catch its attention. But the horse ran on, his breath bursting out into the night air. Up until now, David had not noticed the froth around Rodriguez’s mouth or the frenzied look of concentration in his eyes.
He thumped again harder and this time did not stop until the spell that the horse was under broke. With an effort that felt harder than maintaining the pace that they had been keeping, the zebra struggled to slow down and stop.
His bony chest pumped in and out violently in an effort to fill his lungs with air and stop the burning sensation of oxygen deprivation. Rodriguez wearily turned his head round to look at the small human on his back. His brow creased: [what?].
David stabbed a finger at the dark behind them [there there!].
And then they saw it, both at the same time. Downhill from them, in the darkness where they could just about make out the shape of the trees, there was something…else .
Too shocked to move, they squinted into the shadows of the forest. Movement. Clearer this time, something shaking the thick bushes just out of sight in the darkness
And then Rodriguez heard it over his own hoarse breath. Crash! Smash! Something big! Something giant! Something ripping through the trees ferociously. Something heading right for them!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Chapter Fifteen: Below and Above Decks

Thump! Sally landed squarely on her backside.
More shocked than hurt, she found herself sitting waist deep in a shallow hole in the floor. Her shoulders and upper body stuck out above the deck and there staring down at her and looking more shocked than she was, was the face of the Field Marshall.
An angry snarl curled the fox’s mouth and his forelegs pulled him to the edge of the splintered wood. He peered down into the dark space below. “Macgregor! Carlysle!” He snapped loudly. “You blasted fools! I know you’re down there! Report at once!”
As Sally struggled to stand up, she heard a scurrying noise from the shadows under the deck. Two lights appeared strapped to wooden helmets on top of two furry heads. A nasally American voice piped out: “Alright, alright, alright. Calm down, Chief. Just problems with one of the props for tunnel number six. We’ll have it fixed in a jiffy!”
The voice issued from a furry snout with two very big, protruding teeth. As the creature finished speaking, a large tongue popped out licked the teeth and lips and slipped back into its grinning mouth.
Jack Douglas was still angry: “For goodness sake, Carlysle! You almost injured our young guest here! And be careful about what you say soldier – remember: loose lips sink ships!”
Both of the creatures sniggered at that and Jack Douglas puffed in exasperation. “Just get it fixed and quickly!”
Carlysle grinned up at the fox and then turned and noticed Sally for the first time. “Well, good day to you there, ma’am.” He beamed again, a great big, infectious toothy, charming smile and Sally couldn’t help but smile back. MacGregor, meanwhile, who had not spoken a word yet, put a paw to his mouth and blew her a kiss.
This last act seemed to infuriate the fox even more and he growled, his hackles standing on end. Sally thought that if he hadn’t been red already, he would certainly have flushed scarlet with anger “Macgregor, try to remember your manners! You’re not in the North Continent now!”
The animals both put their front paws together in exaggerated apology and Sally had to cover her mouth with her hands to stop from laughing. They turned and crept back under the floor and she saw the great, paddle shaped tails disappear behind them. As she rubbed her bruised behind and heaved herself back up onto the deck, a whirring, sawing noise punctuated by hammering started up from under the floor below them.
“Are you alright, Miss Hargreaves?” The fox looked concerned.
“Yes, I’m fine I just bruised my b- Beavers? Are they beavers?” She couldn’t quite believe what she was saying. Had she just been spoken to by two American beavers?
“Yes, in charge of the tunnelling detail. The only two here with any real construction experience. They’re good lads really and between the pair of them, they’ve managed to tunnel through half the ship without the peglegs knowing. They’ll have that hole patched up in no time.”
He lowered his voice. “Between you and me, though, our friends from the Northern Continent are a blasted unruly lot. Heaven alone knows what they get up to down there most of the time.”
With the sound of the beavers busy fixing the hole behind them, Jack Douglas started moving along the deck again and Sally walked quickly alongside.
“Anyway, where were we, Miss Hargreaves? Ah yes, your questions. Well, I’m sure that the most burning issue that you have right now is your presence here on the Huntress.”
“Yes, please Mr. Douglas.” Sally was beginning to recover from the shock of everything and finally found herself able to construct sentences again. “Please, do you know why I am here?”
“Well, I’d say that that was much more courteous than the first time you asked that question.” He glanced up at her and she reddened with embarrassment again. A small smile crept across his mouth and she realised that he was not being completely serious. “And please, madam, call me Jack.”
He continued to trundle across the floor towards the far end of the prison deck but more slowly now as he reflected on the answer to her question.
“Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that we believe that you are more than likely a prisoner here like ourselves.” He shrugged and continued, “Some of our contacts on the upper decks reported your abduction at eleven hundred hours. You were tied up and unconscious, and the blighters had the stink bag on you.
From what we can gather it would seem that the peglegs weren’t expecting that particular stop off on our journey. It wasn’t on the map and seems to have taken them as much by surprise as it did yourself.
I wouldn’t mind betting that pirates being pirates, the blighters saw an opportunity to steal something and so they did: you! I dare say they’re not even sure what they’re going to do with you now that they have you here. That’s why they bundled you up and dropped you below decks. More than that, we can’t say, I’m afraid.”
“Field Marshall Douglas!” An urgent voice cut through their conversation. They both turned to see the otter, who Jack Douglas had introduced as Cynthia earlier, come bounding across the deck towards them. “There’s news!” She exclaimed breathlessly as she came to a halt in front of them.
“One second, please, Miss Hargreaves,” the fox said politely and walked a short distance away with the otter, who began to excitedly whisper. Sally saw the fox’s ears twitch in interest. “He what?!” The hackles stood up on his back once more. Whatever had happened, Jack Douglas wasn’t pleased!
After another minute of animated conversation, the fox wheeled himself back over to stand by the young girl. He looked up at her. “You…er…you mentioned a brother when we first untied you.”
“Yes, His name’s David.” Sally’s heart leapt into her throat. “Is he here? Has somebody seen him?”
The fox cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Here, no. But I believe that we may well have spotted him.”
“What? Where? Where is he? Is he alright? Has anything-“
The fox cut her off mid-sentence and continued quickly: “The pirates weren’t the only ones to take advantage of the ship’s unscheduled stop. You see, the Peglegs don’t know it yet but we managed to get one of our lads ashore in all the kafuffle! A Corporal in the Hispanic Cavalry, name of Rodriguez! A zebra! The reason that I mention this is that we had hoped that this would be the last that anybody on board this ship would see of him.
“What I wasn’t expecting was to receive news within hours of his escape that the blasted fool would be following the ship!” Jack Douglas sighed in exasperation again. “And what is more, reports would seem to suggest that he is not alone. He has a young civilian with him.”
“It’s David!” Sally’s face lit up; she just knew it. Her heart told her so. “He’s short with brown hair.”
“I can’t confirm it, you understand but that would seem to fit the description we’ve been given. They were spotted on the banks of the river not twenty minutes ago. Our man up there is a species with a very acute sense of sight. Sharper, thankfully than any of the crew of this soulless vessel.
“I’ll be honest with you, Miss Hargreaves, I have absolutely no idea why the Spaniard is in pursuit of the Huntress after the pain that he suffered here and the effort entailed in his escape...I just hope he knows what he’s doing. Between you and me, I never much understood him at the best of times. Terribly thick accent, you know. “
“And my parents? Do you know-“
“You were brought on board alone, I’m afraid, Sally.” The fox fell silent; he didn’t know what else to say to comfort the young girl.
Sally suddenly felt the urgency of the whole situation: trapped on the ship alone, David outside, her parents vanished. “I have to get off of this ship. I need to find my brother and my parents. Can you help me? Can you get me off? David’s out there and he needs me and he can’t hear. He-”
“Now, now young lady. Pull yourself together.” The fox spoke in his very reassuring firm but gentle tone. “Drink some more of your tea. There’s everything to play for but I have to remind you: this is a prison. Even though it looks as if we have our liberty down here, I assure you the reality could not be further from the truth. Above decks, it’s a different story.” He saw the look of hope on her face starting to fade and added: “We can’t be certain of anything in our situation, you understand, but never say never and all that. We’ll do our best to help, I promise you, Sally, but it will take a lot of planning.”
Sally looked down at the fox, a smile on his face, his eyes alight with mischief and she finally thought to ask: “And what about you? Why are you prisoners here?”
“Ah, that’s an answer which requires an extremely long explanation.” Jack Douglas let out a deep sigh; one which was heavy with things lost but not forgotten. “But the very short version is that we are prisoners here because we are valuable and the peglegs stand to make a lot of money when they deliver us at the other end of this voyage.” He paused briefly. “We are valuable because we are the Last Ones.”
“The Last Ones?” Sally frowned but her tone had softened. She recognised the note of sadness in his voice. “You said that before. What does that mean? The last what?”
“Well, quite simply put,” his voice caught in his throat and he looked away from her for a second and coughed. When he looked back, his tone was strong once more. “We are the last of our kind. You met the platoon, madam. They are the last hedgehogs, the last field mice, the last hares. Blossompouch is one of the last red squirrels. Carlysle and MacGregor are the last beavers. Cynthia Landrey is the last otter. General Smithers the last mole. And so it goes on. We are the only ones left. The Last Ones.”
Sally was shocked, “But what happened to the others?”
“Hunted.” The word hung in the air between them like an echo from a gunshot. He fell silent and although the young girl wasn’t sure what to do or say, she felt as if she should say something. Anything.
“So, you are…”
“Yes, exactly.” He stopped, straightened his back and puffed out his chest proudly. “I am the last red fox in the world. At your service, madam.”

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Chapter Fourteen: On and On (the terrible beauty encroaches)

With the small boy holding tight to the black mane, they flew along the river bank, which followed the frozen river as it twisted away from the village and into the surrounding farm land. Every so often a hedge or fence would block their path but the zebra leapt them cleanly and did not break the rhythm of his stride once. Despite his poor physical condition, Rodriguez displayed a strength which few looking at him would have thought possible.
On and on, they galloped and David had to pull the anorak hood up to protect his face from the biting wind and the sharp, cutting snowflakes in the air. On and on, for five minutes, ten, twenty, an hour and yet still there was no sign of the black ship which had abducted his older sister.
One last hedge to jump and the clean lines of fields gave way to woodland and forest. The icy river began to widen and the bank began slowly to rise above the frozen water.
On and on, the path of the river ahead now hidden behind its own twists and turns. Still they had not caught the slightest glimpse of the pirate ship.
The feel of the landscape began to change. The snow-covered ground continued to slope upwards, gently at first and then gradually more steeply. The trees changed from the familiar tall, broad-leafed oaks and beeches of the countryside that David was used to, slowly giving way to elegant pines; each metres tall, their delicate needles coated with snow crystals.
The river continued to fall away below and the banks stretched ever farther apart. Even the air began to taste different in a way that David could not put his finger on.
On and on, Rodriguez powered, puffs of steam chuffing from his nostrils into in the cold, night air. Still it snowed, gently but slowly covering everything in the open, the zebra’s hooves crunching down into the deepening white carpet which now lay at least two inches thick on the forest floor.

We have all felt the beauty and mystery of a snow-filled night. The familiar sights of our streets, gardens and towns changed so dramatically. The hard edges softened, familiar landmarks made invisible; our whole world becomes so different. The weather isolates us and controls our lives in a way that did not seem possible in the sultry days of summer.
We forget the sheer power that the weather can have. The power to freeze rivers, make roads treacherous, stop buses and trains, lock us into the warm pockets of our homes. Once, my parents told me, when they were children, even the sea had frozen. The ships near the coast had become trapped. Imagine that.
It is a terrible white beauty which glows with the possibility of magic. It makes us realise how fragile is the world we live in. How everything we know is on a knife edge and can disappear so completely so quickly.
Yes, I’ll say it again: it has a terrible beauty.

On and on. For brief seconds at first and then increasingly longer periods of time, the concern for his sister and parents became dulled by the beauty of the Christmas card landscape and the hypnotic rhythm of the galloping zebra.

Memories: Times when they were together; holidays, parties; days in the park. Times before the arguments started. Those terrible silent arguments when their mouths and the expressions on their faces had shown their fury but their eyes had revealed the pain that their anger tried so desperately to hide. The eight-year-old had seen everything and understood more than his parents had ever guessed. But there had been times of laughter and warmth too; times when the house had not simply been a house.

A sudden flurry hit him square in the face and David realised that he must have been dozing. He was not sure how long had passed but they had stopped high up on a forested hill, the landscape around them glowing with white light.
Rodriguez stretched his neck around, his chest rising and falling as his lungs pulled in gulps of air, and lightly pulled at the cuff of the boy’s anorak to gain his attention. David bent to the side to look the zebra in the eyes and smiled, puzzled [what?].
His gaze followed as the horse indicated with his long nose a spot far below them where the white river cut through valley between the forested hills. There, black against the ice, sped the dark ship, its sails bulging with the icy wind which propelled it through the countryside.
David tapped the zebra excitedly on the shoulder and pointed urgently down at the dark vessel.
Rodriguez bent round again to look the boy in the face. His eyes spoke: [fear / pain / are you sure?].
David was not sure where this beautiful creature had come from, how it had been hurt or why it had decided to help him. He just knew that despite its thin body and wounded back, it had carried him far into the winter countryside. He took the zebra’s head between his two small hands and looking the creature straight in the eyes, nodded [yes / please / thank you].

Neither boy nor horse saw the still giant figure in the trees uphill from them, light from the white landscape glinting from its dark eyes and razor-sharp teeth. It stood unseen, watching, as heavy flakes settled on its thick, brown fur and the sharp pointed metal hook that hung from its arm. It waited.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Chapter Thirteen: The Huntress

Sally Hargreaves felt that events had gotten out of control. She had lost her parents and her brother. She had been kidnapped by pirates. A fox was talking to her.
Understandably, she felt more than a little anxious and not in control and when Sally felt this way, she reacted in the only way that she knew how. She got angry.

Some thoughts and facts about the subject of Sally and anger:

Thought no. 1: Sally didn’t ever mean to get angry; it just seemed to happen.

Fact no. 1: It happened quite a lot. In fact, it was something that she had got into trouble over quite a few times both at home and at school. Lately, there had been more than one letter sent home from her teachers.

Thought no. 2: Sometimes it seems that anger brings with it a certain clarity. You know exactly what you feel. There is no confusion. You do not have to face those other feelings bubbling beneath. The ones that perhaps suggest that nothing might get better; that your life is at the mercy of others; that you are a victim.
With anger at least, you feel like you might just achieve something. Even if it is just lashing out at the person or thing who has made you angry in the first place.

Thought no. 3: One thing I have learnt over the years: anger is often a hollow promise. It is like a drug that someone takes to forget all their problems. It promises more than it delivers. You bump back down to earth afterwards and your problems are still there. Often worse than before because after anger, you feel guilt. And guilt means that you feel ashamed and that you don’t like yourself or how you have acted.
And the more you start to despise yourself, the more angry you become. So the cycle continues.

Fact no. 2: It is a hard lesson that I have learnt. But Sally, at the age of eleven, had still to learn it.

“You – You –you…” She pointed an angry finger at the animal in front of her, glaring and moving a few threatening steps towards him. The fox pushed itself back on the wheels and grinned sheepishly.
“You are a –“
“Field Marshall Jack Douglas at your command, madam.” He nodded.
However, the confirmation did little to calm Sally’s anger. He backed away as she took another step towards the fox.
“You are a talking fox! And this is a-”
“Yes.” The fox nodded in encouragement. The whole gathering of animals seemed to stiffen and tense in anticipation.
“This is a-“ Her mouth fell open, her face red, she shook her head in incomprehension. “a….a…This is a ship!”
The collective in front of her breathed a sigh of relief as she finally spat the words out and they nodded happily at each other, grinning at her astuteness. Their nodding ended abruptly, though, as the angry girl began to shout:
“WHAT AM I DOING ON A SHIP? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY PARENTS? WHERE’S MY BROTHER?” She advanced on the pack of animals, her fists clenched (Not to hurt them, you must believe me. It was just that clenched fists were another of those barriers that Sally threw up. If anybody around her saw the fists, they might not look at the true emotions which hid in her eyes).
The animals quickly moved back out of her path, some of the smaller ones scattering into the shadows and the fox, who appeared to be the leader of the group, pushed himself back on the wheeled contraption causing loud squeaks from some of the animals behind him as the wheels ran painfully over their paws.
“I assure you madam…”
“It wasn’t us, we are as much…” He retreated.
WHY DID YOU TAKE ME?” She continued forward.
“…prisoners on this…” He moved back.
“WHO ARE YOU?” She stormed towards him.
“Oh for Pete’s sake!” The fox stopped backing up and straightened his back, looking the angry young girl squarely in the eyes and forcing her to stop in her tracks. His voice and posture assumed a commanding tone. “Young lady will you just stop and listen!”
QUIET!” He barked the word, the fur rising on the back of his neck, and the order carried the weight, experience and knowledge of one who knew that what he usually ordered was obeyed without question. Sally fell silent immediately, her eyes wide in shock and the anger fizzed away as quickly as the steam when water is thrown upon a fire.
Her mouth dropped open but nothing came out. Quite simply, for the first time in a very long while, Sally Hargreaves was lost for words.

The animals quickly organised themselves into rows again, the smaller creatures who had disappeared into the shadows nervously reappearing.
“Now,” the fox said. “If we can start again, young lady. My name is Field Marshall Douglas and it is my great pleasure to greet you on behalf of the Last Ones.”
The fox straightened his back as he stood to attention and his tail bent into a sharp salute. The rows of creatures behind him shifted into even straighter rows.
Sally, who was not used to being ordered about herself, wasn’t sure how to react and before she was even aware of what she was doing said: ‘Um.. I’m Sally. Sally Hargreaves. I live at number 22-“
“No, no, no. Careful, madam. Name, rank and number only. Never give any more information than you have to. Especially not in front of the lower ranks.”
There were a few awkward coughs and whistles behind him, but one quick commanding sideways glance from the sleek, red-furred head was enough to silence the small platoon behind the fox.
“Oh … I…um…” Anger seemed to have deserted the girl along with the ability to form sentences. “Sorry.”
“Never mind. The shock and all that I suppose. Nothing that a good strong cup of army tea won’t fix. Sergeant Blossompouch!”
A small red squirrel stepped forward from the nearest row. His head, back and tail as straight as an iron bar as his tiny voice gave a squeak, a whistle and two short chirrups.
“Sergeant, a mug of tea for the young lady as quickly as you can. Strong and sweet, mind!”
And with one short, sharp squeak, the squirrel disappeared in a blur of fur and tail up the nearest wooden post and flitted across the ceiling, disappearing behind the beams.
The fox cocked a head nearer to Sally and whispered: “Can’t understand a word the chap says, you know, but makes a damned fine cup of tea. Now, if I could just introduce you to my fellow officers: General Peter Smithers and Brigadier Cynthia Landrey.”
The fox nodded to his right and Sally looked at the two creatures standing to attention there. The first was
a tiny brown mole who was cleaning a small pair of glasses on his fur and next to him was a sleek, shiny otter.
“Madam,” they both piped out at the same time. Sally held up her hand to wave a short greeting but remained, understandably, speechless.
“Between us,” the fox continued, “we make up the top ranking officers of this platoon. Most of the lads and lasses are volunteers but they are a willing lot on the whole. “
He turned to face the far end of the long room. “Now if you’ll just follow me I’ll give you the quick tour of Deck Thirteen.
“General. Brigadier.” He nodded a brief farewell to the other two creatures beside him and began to move using his forelegs to pull himself along on the strange wheeled contraption. Sally now saw that it was attached with leather straps to the hind quarters of the fox. Resting on the wood, she saw two furless bumps where the fox’s back legs should have been.
“Uh-hum,” Field Marshall Douglas cleared his throat and with a start Sally realised with deep embarrassment that she had been staring. Her face flushed a burning red.
“I … uh.. I’m really sorry I just…”
But the fox didn’t stay still long enough to hear her apology. With a burst of “Follow me, Miss Hargreaves!” he was off at a surprising speed, his forelegs scampering and the wheels bumping along the wooden planking of the floor behind. Sally had to hurry to keep up as he headed to the far side of the very (and now she saw just how) very long room. As they moved, lanterns were lit along the length of the deck; their flames creating pools of light.
“Our quarters, as you can see, stretch the entire length of Deck Thirteen.”
“But what is this ship?” Sally finally found that she could speak again. “Why am I here? Why are all the doors padlocked?”
“Ah good. Some very astute questions I’m glad to hear. Well,” the fox stopped in his tracks for a moment to consider her questions. “You are aboard the infamous ship, the Huntress, madam. Legends abound about the size and purpose of this terrible floating fortress but I appreciate that none quite prepare you for the reality.
“As tall as three houses with fifteen decks and crewed by ninety nine of the most terrible mercenaries to have ever set sail.”
Sally interrupted: “I saw a black flag. Are they…”
“Pirates? Yes, blasted peglegs! And take care, for there is not a one of them who would not sell their own mother if they thought they could profit by it. Ah here we go.”
A brief chattering and a flash of red brought them both to a stop as Sergeant Blossompouch curled down the nearest post, a small wooden tankard of steaming tea held tightly in its curled tail. The squirrel presented the mug to her and Sally had to stoop down to take it.
“Thank you very much.” The squirrel acknowledged this with a quick nod of the head, a short whistle and was gone again. Sally sniffed the steaming greenish liquid that had been given to her and was surprised to find that it had a sweet, spicy smell to it. She took a quick sip and a pleasant warmth and sweetness spread along her tongue and down her throat to her chest. “Mmmm.” The sound of pleasure was involuntary.
“Did you say that this was a prison ship?” she asked.
“Yes, sadly. And we, despite appearances to the contrary, are all prisoners. This is the prison deck - Deck Thirteen to be precise. Each one of these doors is a cell. There are precisely one hundred and thirteen cells; one hundred and eleven of which are currently occupied. Fifty six cells line each side of the deck and then there is one cell right at the end which is rather puzzling-“.
The fox stopped and fell silent. He cocked his head to the side and his ears twitched in concentration.
Then Sally heard it. A soft creaking sound that grew steadily louder.
“Oh no, not again!” It was the last thing she heard before the air was rent with a tearing, splintering noise. The wooden boards below her shifted slightly and then abruptly gave way completely!
Sally found herself falling into blackness and a small part of her realised that the loud screaming which filled her ears was her own.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Chapter Twelve: Breakthrough

Communication between a boy and a zebra is, you would be right in thinking, difficult at the best of times. Imagine then how much more difficult it was when the boy communicated through sign language and the zebra only spoke Spanish (And a very little English, David always liked to remind me).
There was one thing, however, that they both had in common: the most important basis for any type of communication: they genuinely wanted to understand each other.

So there they stood and looked at each other. The boy and zebra in the snow on this strange night. Together, but each lost in his own world; not knowing how to let the other in.
Rodriguez looked into the face of the young boy: red cheeks glistening with tear trails, eyes filled with sadness and, pain. David looked up at the beast which stood over him and saw the same pain reflected back from those large, brown eyes. He glanced down at the chains around the creature’s legs and understood that he was not the only one who had had something precious stolen by the intruders.
And there it was. Something recognised. Something that both understood. Something shared. It was a start; something to build upon.

David placed his hands on one of the thick upper legs of the creature and made as if to pull him down the garden path.
The zebra frowned in confusion: [what?].
The boy pulled at the massive leg again and then pointed towards the lake. The departed pirate ship: [there].
Rodriguez understood but shook his head.
Again the boy pointed but the zebra snorted and would not budge. He nodded down at the chains binding his legs.
David, his eyes lighting up as a sudden idea entered his head, indicated with his hands for the creature to stay where it was and raced around the corner of the house, disappearing into the open front door.
When he reappeared minutes later, he was carrying his father’s tool box and had dressed for the weather: thick jeans tucked into sturdy boots; a padded anorak over a warm jumper; a woolly hat and scarf.
He even remembered to pull the door shut behind him, taking a second to lock it with a spare key which he had grabbed from the hallway.
Another ten minutes and the young face, red with exertion, grinned up at the zebra through cold puffs of air. His dad’s hacksaw had made short work of the chains.
The zebra moved his legs, stretching out. Back, forward, to the side. A large grin spread across his face and without warning he burst into a huge leap in the air, hooves clashing together (a thing, David later told me, he wasn’t entirely sure that a zebra should be able to do) in sheer joy at the freedom of being able to move properly once more.
David stood watching, and despite the worry which still clouded his eyes, a massive smile appeared on his face. Rodriguez, his short celebration finished, trotted a step towards the boy, bent his neck down and gently nuzzled the boy’s chest. David understood and gave a brief modest shrug of his shoulders [you’re welcome].
Then fumbling in his coat pocket, he pulled out a small tablet of paper (the type that you leave next to telephones so that you can scribble a message down quickly) and a pencil. David started to write, his tongue sticking from the side of his mouth in concentration. Once he had finished he held the paper up so that the zebra could see it. The following words were written:

My name is David.

The zebra bent close, almost touching the paper in front of him and squinted down at the letters the boy had written. He frowned, took a step back and shook his head. David saw the confusion in the zebra’s eyes. The boy pointed to the words on the pad and then jabbed a finger at his own chest, but Rodriguez’s eyes softened in apology and he shook his head again.
With a sudden realisation David understood that the zebra could not read. But refusing to admit defeat, he flipped over to the next piece of paper and began to scribble rapidly. The zebra stood patiently watching and one brief sketch later, David held up the tablet of paper one more time:

He pointed to himself and instinctively signed the word for sister. This time, there was a flash of understanding in the zebra’s eyes.
“Tu hermana?” The zebra asked and David nodded vigorously. He saw the look of comprehension in the creature’s eyes and he signed at him [please]. Then he turned and pointed once more, firmly, resolutely towards the pond.
The yellow flame of fear flared up behind the horse’s dark pupils and the black mane waved back and forth through the snowy air as yet again Rodriguez made his feelings clear. He took two steps backwards and bowed his head down towards the ground: a definite refusal.
The boy’s signs became frantic: [please please]: a desperate, pleading look on his face. Tears squeezed out of the corner of his eyes.
The zebra, unable to look the boy in the eyes, stared down at the ground and slowly continued to shake his head. His bowed almost broken posture communicated to the boy what his lips could not: [sorry no sorry].
When Rodriguez finally looked up, David had gone. He was walking quickly down the path towards the garden gate. His straight, sure back spoke of a strength within the small frame and a willingness to do whatever it took to rescue his sister.
The horse sighed, partly in exasperation, partly in guilty anger at himself. He shook his head again, but nobody was watching. It was only Rodriguez himself now, alone with his own refusal to help the boy who had unchained him. This small boy.
David walked towards the garden gate. Tears streamed down his cheeks but fierce determination was etched into his creased brow. He didn’t know how he was going to do it but he must catch up with that ship. They had taken Sally and probably his parents too!
His determination was such that it was a second or two before he noticed the rumbling vibration from the path behind him. Then suddenly with a sudden whip of wind in his face and a ballooning thrill in his stomach, he found himself in the air for the second time that night.
In mid-gallop, the zebra had grabbed the back of the young boy’s anorak with his teeth, and with one swift jerk of that large head, Rodriguez swung David up, over his neck and onto his vast, striped back.
The boy grabbed quickly onto the soft, black mane to stop himself from falling. Despite the dark worry which he carried inside, he couldn’t help but feel a joyful excitement as the zebra almost flew out of the garden gate, and down towards the pond.
Rodriguez did not hesitate for a second as he leapt the pond fence cleanly. Landing on the other side, the zebra briefly skidded on an icy patch before quickly regaining his footing. Then he was off, surefooted, galloping around the pond, past the mouth of the river and along its banks. As fast as the wind. The boy and the zebra.
The pursuit had begun.


Friday, 4 September 2009

Chapter Eleven: Untied

The strange voice cut through the darkness again. “Hold still, young lady. We’ll have you free in a jiffy.”
Despite its reassuring tone (and despite herself), icy fear flooded through Sally’s veins as the red pinpricks in the shadows came closer still. She squeezed her eyes tight and desperately repeated to herself. Please wake up. Please wake up.
Scurrying and scratching noises erupted around her feet and the small of her back where her hands were tied, and the creatures, whatever they were, began to tug at the bindings. She felt the brushing of short, prickly fur on the skin of her wrists and ankles. Curiosity forced her to look again and she saw that the floor around her seemed alive with small, shadowy creatures. Still she did not scream. Instead, she bit her lower lip hard.

More things you should know about Sally:

1. I have told you already that Sally was tougher than a girl of her age should be. Well, she was the way she was for a reason. And that reason was that she felt like she had to be strong all the time, that she had to be brave. She didn’t want to give her parents any more reasons to be angry and argue.
2. But as hard as she tried, things just never seemed to work out the way she had planned. In fact, she could remember a few occasions when the best of intentions on her part had resulted in terrible arguments (Like the time: when silence had fallen over the house like a dark, heavy cloud and she had tried to help by trying to by making a surprise lunch. The sound of the plate shattering had been nothing compared to the eruption of her parents’ anger. The shouting soon became about something more than just broken plates and she had sat silently as the door had slammed behind her mother. It had been a whole day before she had come back that time).
3. And so she set up a protective barrier around herself; one, which kept hidden the types of feelings which, she believed, might lead to other people becoming angry.
4. Now, sadly, it had come to the point where she tried to hide these feelings even from herself and the parts of her that felt sadness and fear had hardened like healing skin around a wound.

No, Sally did not like to show her feelings to anyone; not even the monsters that were about to devour her. She bit her lower lip hard to stop any noise emerging.
It wasn’t long, though, before she realised that these furry creatures didn’t seem intent on hurting her at all. Instead, they seemed more interested in the ropes which tied her wrists and ankles. After a few uncomfortable tugs and jerks, the bonds began to give slightly and Sally found that she could move her wrists a fraction.
Another few seconds and they were undone completely and her arms came apart. Immediately, a painful burning sensation crept up her wrists and she rubbed her hands together rapidly to help the blood flow back to the tips of her fingers.
As soon as her legs were free, she painfully crept to her feet and jumped from foot to foot to relieve the sharp sensation of pins and needles.
“Better?” asked the voice from the darkness.
“Um Y-yes,” Sally stuttered . “Th -thank you …um…whoever you are.”
No sooner had she stopped speaking when a light blazed into life in the lantern swinging above. Sally had been in the dark for so long that it stung her eyes, forcing her to squeeze them shut. It took a while for the pain to subside and slowly opening them a fraction at a time, she became aware of the bizarre scene in front of her.
Lined up in the circle of light cast by the lantern, stood an assortment of very small creatures which included: squirrels, field mice, an otter, hedgehogs and …were they… meerkats?
“Stand to attention lads!” It was the peculiarly British voice that had spoken to her earlier and it came from a very red, very handsome-looking fox.
Only, this fox was missing his back legs and was resting on what looked like half of a wooden skateboard on two large wheels. He used his front legs to manoeuvre backwards a little so that he could look up at the girl who stood in front of him.
“On behalf of the Last Ones and myself, may I welcome you, madam, to, the Huntress, the largest prison ship to sail the high seas!”