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.