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