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.