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!”

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Chapter Ten: The Long Room

The smell from that terrible sack had been thick and impenetrable and wrapped her like a mummy in bandages. Then suddenly it was gone and one by one her senses slowly came back to her.

Smell: Musty, earthy smells. Wet dogs; damp hay; stables; just like the farmyard she’d visited with school the year before.

Feeling: The tightness of her bonds. A vibration from deep somewhere deep below her. A rocking, swaying movement.

Taste: the bitterness of bile. Dryness. She moved her parched tongue until saliva worked its way into her mouth once more then forced it through the sticky seal of her lips. Her mouth opened with a wet clack.

Sound: A metallic creak; something swinging on rusted hinges back and forth, back and forth. And beneath its rhythm the strangest combination of noises: whistling, rasping, clicking and whimpers; snorting, snuffling, the occasional whoop and squeak. Her befuddled brain tried to concentrate on one all-important thought: “David!” The other sounds around her fell silent and it took her a while to realise that it was her own voice which had spoken. Sally realised that she was awake.

Sight: Her eyes flicked open. Everything was dark.

She was lying on her side, her hands and feet bound tightly by a rough, fibery rope.
She felt that disgusting sack against her cheek on the floor next to her. The strange rocking movement must have dislodged it. With an effort, she managed to move back away from that stinking cloth. What had happened? It took her a few seconds to remember. Then it all came flooding back and Sally felt the flush of hot anger in her cheeks.

Some things you should know about Sally:

1. She was a very practical young girl and, lately, had got used to doing things for herself. This is why, whereas most people might have shouted for help at this point, she realised that the fact that her hands and legs were still bound meant that help was probably not near at hand and if she was to be free then she was going to have to do something herself.
2. It seemed as if this independence had formed a hard shell of anger around her (although we all know that such things have their roots in deeper matters). She was the sort of girl who would clench her fist and bite her lips in silence if something hurt her rather than cry out in pain. Sadly, she was angry in a way that a girl of her age should have no experience of.
3. This anger and independence had combined to give Sally strength in situations where other girls her age may have just given up in fear. It was a hard strength, not the sort that would make her many friends in life, but still it did have its time and place. And that was time was now and that place was here.

So gritting her teeth and using the anger inside of her to force her whole body to move, she twisted and groaned until she managed to manoeuvre herself into a sitting position and rest her back against a square, wooden post fixed into the floor behind her.
Once there, she looked around her again and began to realise that it wasn’t as dark as she had at first thought.
Shapes began to emerge from the shadows: two upright barrels in the near corner, an old unlit lantern slowly swinging on the cross beam above her head, a high wooden ceiling and one, two, three wooden walls. She followed the near wall with her eyes. And followed. And followed. And began to see that the room was very long. So long , in fact, that it receded off into shadow and the far wall could not be seen.
The long room, at first sight, seemed empty, punctuated only by the occasional post holding up the ceiling. Peering through the darkness at the walls nearest her, however, Sally saw that they were, in fact, lined with strong, thick wooden doors secured with heavy iron padlocks and that each door had a small, metal-barred opening at the top.
She twisted her neck to look behind her and could just about make out a short flight of steps leading up to a door set half–way up the wall. It was closed.
Sally turned her attention to her bound hands and feet. The bonds were strong and cut into her flesh tightly and the tips of her fingers were starting to tingle with the lack of blood supply. She struggled briefly with them but quickly realised that they had been tied expertly and she had no chance of removing them alone.
The bonds were quickly forgotten, though, as a sound suddenly emerged from the darkness. It was a very strange sound indeed and to Sally’s ears sounded like the scritch-scratch of a puppy’s claws on wood mixed up with the trundling clunking of a shopping trolley. And it was coming closer.
She turned her head from side to side trying to pinpoint where the noise was coming from. Was it behind her somewhere? But before she could twist her head to look behind again, she became aware of something even more worrying. The shadows in front of her appeared to be getting closer. They were moving!
And in the shadows there were tiny, red pinpricks of light. Four, five, no more, at least ten pairs of red eyes! All moving towards her!Suddenly, with no warning, there was a blast of hot breath onto the side of her face and a strangely, old-fashioned British voice whispered in her ear: “I do beg your pardon, madam, but try not to struggle and I promise we’ll make this as painless as possible.”

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Chapter Nine: The Kidnappers

Now, I know that you are thinking: What about Sally? The last that David had seen of his big sister was the look of shock on her face as a net had been pulled over her head, and he had fallen backwards out of the bedroom window.
It’s not that he had forgotten about his older sister, it’s just that for the briefest of moments the shock of meeting a real-life zebra in the back garden had blotted out everything else.
And although our story may have been long in the telling, in fact, less than five minutes had passed from the moment that he fell from the window to the crashing sound that was about to smash through the night air any moment now.

Three, two, one…

Crash! The zebra jerked backwards startled as the sound of a slamming door and excited voices shattered the peace of the snow fluttering gently down in the dark.
David recognised that the animal had heard something and his sister’s name popped immediately into his head: Sally!
He waved desperately at Rodriguez but the zebra was no longer paying attention to him. Instead the creature had lowered his head defensively, his ears pointing forward sharply, trying to locate the source of the voices.
David watched as Rodriguez began slowly to tiptoe (can a zebra tiptoe? Tip-hoof?) around the corner of the house and down its side towards the front garden.
David rushed alongside but quickly found himself pushed gently back by the zebra’s long snout until he was standing behind the creature and close to the wall. David understood the message; it was similar to the one his sister had given him less than ten minutes before: keep behind me, be quiet!
The boy and the zebra moved quietly up to the corner of the old brick wall and slowly looked around.
The front door was wide open; the small glass window at the top smashed.
Then they saw them: half way across the front lawn there were two figures carrying something heavy across the lawn.
David blinked in surprise at the sight of the first: it was a monkey! It was just slightly taller than David and its reddish-brown fur was matted and dirty. It wore a dark jerkin and a red scarf around its neck. For a brief second as its head turned to the left, he saw that it was wearing a black eye patch.
Behind it came the second and (if at all possible) even more curious figure. It stood about a head shorter than the monkey and appeared to have no fur at all. Its long snout ended in a pink nose and protruding teeth. Its large ears, moth-eaten and dirty, squeezed out from under a black bandana. A skinny, mangled tail almost touched the ground along which it ran. It looked, to all intents and purposes, like a giant furless rat.
Both of the creatures staggered across the snowy grass beneath the weight of what they were carrying and as the boy and the zebra watched, the rat-like creature tripped and the large object slipped from their grasp and thudded onto the snow.
David’s mouth fell open as he saw that this object, which they were now scrambling to pick up, had arms, legs and a mess of blonde curls. It was Sally!
David could stand still no longer and began to run towards his captive sister. It was a second before he realised that he was running but not moving and another second before he managed to twist his head around and saw that the back of his pyjama top was gripped firmly between those very white, very strong zebra teeth.
He tried to pull away but Rodriguez shook his head roughly. Again the zebra’s message was unmistakable: No! His eyes told David that he would accept no argument. But behind the firmness in the zebra’s eyes there was something else: fear.
Desperation filled the boy’s eyes. He turned back and saw that the two strange figures had managed to lift Sally’s unconscious form and had struggled down the path, through the garden gate and across the small road which separated the houses in Dunstable Lane from the banks of the large pond. They hopped over the short pond fence, staggered down the slippery banks and ran straight up the bouncing, wooden gangplank of a ship.
A ship!
David hadn’t seen it until that moment. It was just so unbelievably huge and black that it hadn’t registered against the backdrop of the night-time countryside. At least three times higher than the houses which stood in Dunstable Lane, it filled the night sky. It was quite the biggest and the most sinister ship that he had ever set eyes on either in pictures, on the television or in real-life. And just as with his sister seconds before, the sight of this terrible dark vessel struck sharp blades of terror into his heart.
His struggling against the zebra stopped and he looked up at the sharp black masts and the rigging which crawled with ugly, ape-like creatures. A black flag flapped from the top of the central mast and despite the thickening snow, he could clearly make out the white skull and crossbones. There was no doubting the type of ship that this was.
As the gangplank lifted, David pulled futilely one last time against Rodriguez but to no avail; the zebra would not let go. And, anyway, it was already too late. The ship was moving.
How, you may ask, could it possibly cross a frozen pond? Well, the answer to that is that it was balanced on two giant silver blades that ran its entire length and surprisingly for a vessel of its size, it moved elegantly along the ice. It turned and glided to the far banks of the pond. A strange, melancholic music faded in the wake of the dark vessel and as quickly as it had arrived, it had reached the mouth of the frozen river and was gone once more, taking David’s sister with it.
Sally Hargreaves had been kidnapped by pirates!