Jehanna stifled a sob as Sardi entered the front room and shut the door. She was cleaning the window that looked out into the back yard as she had promised she would. Unfortunately, her eight-year-old arms could not quite reach the top panel. Had Sardi not been in the room, she might have climbed up on the ledge, as she often did. She had walked every ledge and rafter in that house with an agility that would make a spider envious, but climbing was forbidden in the house. He moved behind her and the bile rose in her throat, the hairs pricked up on her skin.
The others were in the village, shopping, so as far as she knew the cottage was empty. This thought made her more wary than ever of his encroaching presence. In the distance, she could see the blue ocean. She loved the water and the salty scent that hung in the air. A winding dirt track trailed its way down towards the village and she squinted into the distance, hoping that soon she would see the others amble into view. In vain, she reached up to the top panel pretending not to have noticed Sardi's presence.
"Here, let me help you," Sardi said, his words a little slurred. His big clumsy hands fumbled around her waist and he lifted her up so she could reach the highest pane. She gasped and could have kicked herself as Sardi chuckled, reading excitement into her reaction. He squeezed her a bit tighter, pinching the skin around her middle. Jehanna froze.
She had always been Sardi's favourite; he had constantly picked her up and doted on her like any new parent. Except, Sardi Mantar wasn't her real father. He had adopted her and her twin brother when they were just four years old. She and Jehan were different. Their skin colour was darker than that of the Mantars and of most of the villagers who had always treated them with a measure of suspicion. But the Mantars had happily taken them in and for that alone she knew she should be grateful.
As Sardi lowered her to the floor, he lingered a little too long, holding her just level with his face, his thick tree trunk arms circling her from behind. The stench of ale on his breath made her pinch her nostrils and take short shallow breaths through her mouth like a panting dog. He nuzzled his nose in her long dark curls, oblivious to the fact that her body was rigid with fear. He easily held her imprisoned in one huge arm, leaving the other hand free to slowly snake down her body, pulling with a sudden urgency at her clothes. Jehanna's fists clenched and unclenched as she tried to think what she could do to get out of this.
Jehan had once told her that if you punch or kick a man hard enough just below their belt, that they would fall to floor and not get up again for a long time. She could never reach him from that position and if she didn't hit hard enough, that might just make Sardi angry. A drunk Sardi, she could maybe deal with, but an angry drunk Sardi was too much. She could just poke him in the eye, then he might let her go. But again... one squeeze with his arms and he could crush her bones or throw her to the wall like a rag doll. She wanted to scream. Jehan would know what to do. Where was he?
There was a loud bark from the yard from Lobo the guard dog. Was it the others? Her heart fluttered. Sardi sighed and released her. The moment her feet hit the ground, she sped out of the room, leaving the door swinging on its hinges. She raced into the yard just as Jehan, Monie and the kids came around the corner laden with wares. Her brother stopped in his tracks. His eyes sharpened at the sight of her and Jehanna skidded to a halt at the same time, just a few yards away. They exchanged a glance. His eyes flickered to her fists which were clenched at her side and he nodded before striding off towards the cottage. Jehanna took in a deep breath and let it slowly out again. She was shaking, but tried not to let Monie and the kids see that. She smiled at last and took some bags from Monie, helping them into the yard.
It was early evening and the sun was setting, but there was enough light to be able to dig a large hole for Jehanna to plant some seedlings. Sardi was a fisherman, so he was up and out early in the morning and back by midday. The evening was usually spent in the local tavern, drinking away any profits from the day's catch. He always made sure that Monie had enough meat or fish to feed them all, but vegetables were expensive to buy from market, so one of Jehanna's many tasks was to tend to their vegetable garden.
By the time Jehan found her, she was digging so furiously that the hole had become too deep for the little bean plants she intended to transfer. She looked up at her brother, sighed and began to shovel some of the dirt back. Her face was a dirty grey colour where she had wiped her soil covered hands across her brow and her skirt was covered in round patches of dirt where she had used it to protect her knees as she tended to the garden. Jehan put a hand on her arm and prised the little shovel from her grip. She looked up at him at first in anger, until she registered the empathy in his eyes, then a lump formed in her throat and her bottom lip began to quiver.
"I can't do this anymore," she said. Fresh tears spilt from her eyes and left a watery track as they ran down her cheeks.
"Shhh," Jehan said. He took her into his arms and softly patted her back. "We'll be okay. He's at the tavern and Monie is with the children." Her chest shuddered as the tears began to subside.
"I'm scared, Jay. His hands are... horrible." Jehanna felt her brother tense. He released the embrace and held her at arm's length, looking into her eyes.
"I won't let him hurt you. We'll think of a way. What about Monie? Can she do something?" He said. Jehanna pulled a face.
"She won't do anything, she's scared too."
"I could kill him," Jehan said. For a moment Jehanna thought he was joking, then she saw the serious glint in his eye. "It would be easy, you know. He's always drunk. It would be like an accident, he could fall downstairs."
"We can't. What about Monie and the children? What would they do without Sardi?" she said. Jehan grunted. "I know you don't like Kherula and Lanni, but I don't want them to die too."
"And what about us?" Jehan said. Jehanna dropped her head. In her mind's eye, she could only see Sardi's drooling, grunting face and the smell of his mouldy, ale ridden breath. She wanted to vomit. "I can show you a few things for now, but we must get away soon." Jehan took her hand in his and turned over her palm. "Take hold of my hand...like this." Jehanna grinned and grabbed hold of Jay's hand. She was used to his little lessons in survival, but until now had not been able to try them out for real. "If he grabs your hand, all you have to do is press your knuckle down on the back of his hand just here..." He pressed down on her hand and Jehanna felt a sharp pain, like a needle stabbing her hand.
"Oww," she squealed and snatched back her hand. "That hurt."
"Isn't that the point?" Jehan said with a sigh. "The idea is to get him to let go, so that you can run."
"So that he can beat me, more like," she said.
"He won't beat you. Trust me. You just have to get him to let you go. You try." Jehan grabbed hold of her hand and she pressed down with her knuckle as he had shown her and nothing happened. He took her finger and moved it a fraction to the left, so that the knuckle sat just between two bones on the back of his hand. "Try there." She pushed and he withdrew his hand, grinning. "See. You can't help but pull away - it sends shooting pains right up your arm."
"Where did you learn that?" Jehanna absently picked a doc leaf from her garden, split it in half giving one half to Jehan, then rubbed the remaining half over the sore spot on the back of her hand.
"Same way you learnt about the leaves," he said rubbing the broken end of the leaf into his hand. "Trying to find out how things work. Like Kherula. Yesterday, I was in the yard chopping wood, when he came hurtling up behind me with a large stick and whacked me over the head without any warning. Lucky he is only four, otherwise you would be bandaging my head and sticking on one of your yucky poultices." Jehan pulled a face and Jehanna batted his arm playfully.
"What did Sardi do?"
"Sardi just laughed. So I have to find ways to keep Kherula away from me so he doesn't get hurt or split my head open or something stupid."
Jehanna jumped to her feet. "Show me some more moves," she said. "What if he grabs me from behind?" Jay stood up, turned her around so that she was facing away from him, then wrapped his arms around her shoulders pinning both of her arms to her side. Jehanna laughed and wriggled, but couldn't free herself from his embrace, despite Jehan weighing far less than Sardi and having about a third of his strength. "Okay, so what now?"
"Can you reach behind you with one hand?" Jehan said pulling her tighter still. She could easily shift one hand behind her back. "Now take a large pinch of whatever you can grab hold of, best place is just inside the thigh, now squeeze and twist as hard and as fast as you can. Jehanna didn't want to hurt her brother, but managed to take a fold of skin beneath his trousers between her fingers and twisted. Jehan let go with a squeal. "Good," he said rubbing the inside of his thigh. "And again." He grabbed hold of her from the front this time, so that she was looking over his shoulder. Just as he began to tighten his hold, Lobo, the guard dog came pounding into the garden and stopped dead in front of them. His ears were flat to his head and he was bearing his teeth in a low rumbling growl.
"Err... Jay? Hold very still. Don't do anything sudden," Jehanna said smiling at Lobo.
"It's that dog again, isn't it?" Jehan sighed but followed his sister's instructions.
"Slowly drop your arms away from me and take two steps back with your hands in the air," Jehanna said. Slowly, Jehan retreated, being followed all the time by Lobo who looked like he was about to leap onto him and rip his throat out. Once Jehanna was sure that Jay was no longer a threat in Lobo's eyes, she said, "Lobo, lie down." The dog did as he was told and Jehanna went over to ruffle his ears. Lobo whimpered softly and lost all interest in Jehan.
"I don't know how you do it," Jehan said. "That dog never does what I tell him to do." He sat down, defeated, in the middle of the vegetable patch.
The twins looked at each other and an understanding passed between them. They knew that they were going to have to leave Villan, sooner rather than later. They didn't want to abandon the place that had become their home, but they both knew that sooner, rather than later, Sardi was going to hurt Jehanna.
That same night, while the household slept, the twins packed everything they owned into two small bags. Jehan stopped by the kitchen and signalled to Jehanna that he would follow on. They had agreed to steal what meagre provisions that could be spared, without leaving Monie and the kids with nothing.
Jehanna slipped into the yard. As she made her way to the stable, Lobo raised his sleepy head then pricked up his ears when he saw who it was. Jehanna made a shush sound, then went over to stroke his head. She wished she could take him with her but Lobo was too old to be going off on adventures. Besides, she already felt guilty that they were about to steal one of the pack ponies to ease their travel burden. Jehanna had been responsible for training their newest animal, Arion, who was not yet ready to accompany Sardi to port.
She slipped through the stable door. Their aging pack pony, Baku, lifted her head when she saw her coming in, but Arion was on his feet, neighing for attention. Jehanna reached into her pocket and pulled out two small apples. One she gave to Baku, with a kiss on her nose.
"I'm so sorry my love. I wish I could take you too, but Sardi needs someone to carry his fish. He will find someone new to keep you company." Baku chewed on the apple and remained lying in the hay silently accepting Jehanna's words. The other apple she used to coax Arion out of the stable with as little fuss as necessary. He seemed content just to be around Jehanna and didn't even complain when she slid a bridle over his head. She slid easily onto his back, laying the bags in front of her, pannier style.
She waited for Jehan at the gate to the cottage. He was silent as he laid his bag across Arion's back alongside Jehanna's belongings. As he reached across the pony's back, Jehanna caught the glint of a blade nestling inside his jacket, the hilt within easy reach. An uneasy feeling settled in the back of her mind. Jehan had always said to her that a person should never pick up a weapon unless they intended to use it. She was also well aware that their journey could take them into unknown areas with unknown threats. She wasn't sure if it was unease at the thought of her brother wielding a weapon or at the realisation that there may be dangers ahead.
Jehan lead Arion out of the gate. There was a loud crack behind them, as the wind caught the gate and slammed it shut in the frame. Jehanna winced and looked at Jehan, but they carried on walking down the path. She held her breath, counted to ten and when nothing stirred in the darkness of the Mantar household, she let out her breath and her heart hammered in response.
"There's room up here for you too, Jay," she said. He shrugged. "We could move faster. Arion is stronger than he looks." Then they heard it. A loud, sharp bark. They stopped in their tracks and looked back towards the cottage. A light winked on. More barking. Then they heard shouting, doors banging and commotion in the stables peppered with intermittent barking. Jehanna's heart was racing. What would Sardi do if he caught them? Jehan was clearly thinking the same and he broke into a run, pulling Arion's bridle behind him. Arion was stubborn at first, but Jehanna coaxed him into a trot and they sped down the path towards the coastal road. Before they disappeared out of view of the cottage, Jehanna looked over her shoulder and saw Lobo jump the gate, closely followed by Sardi. Lobo was fast for an old dog, but Sardi was too big and heavy for old Baku. He was waving a fist, digging his heels into the poor old pack pony and shouting.
"Thieves!" he said. "When I get my hands on you, I'll... you'll wish you were never born. Do you take me for a fool? Ungrateful little bastards. Thieves!"
"Get up here, Jay. Arion can easily outrun Baku, especially with Sardi on her back." Jehan didn't need any prompting as he leapt up behind Jehanna and Arion broke into a canter. But they weren't fast enough to outrun Lobo. The dog had run through the undergrowth to cut them off where the track went into the coastal road. If they had made it at least that far, they could have taken Arion into a gallop and put enough distance between them and Sardi that he would never have been able to catch them. But Lobo burst into view ahead and stood his ground, barking at them. They came to a standstill, Arion unable to move beyond the barking guard dog.
"Go away, Lobo," Jehanna said. "What are you doing here?" She jumped down from Arion and made shooing movements with her arms, but the dog stood his ground. He barked again, but it was a questioning bark and he hung his head to one side. "I can't take you with me. You have to stay and look after the cottage." But the dog was not taking no for an answer and carried on barking and pawing the ground in front of him. Arion was becoming restless and seemed to be trying to turn around. Then in the background they could hear Sardi's bellowing getting closer.
"Do something," Jehan said. He was reaching inside his jacket and Jehanna panicked. She picked up a small flat pebble and launched it at Lobo. It hit him on the head, not hard, but hard enough for the dog to feel it. Lobo stopped barking and hung his head, whining.
"Go away," she said. "You are not wanted here. Go and look after Sardi." Lobo whined again and let out another bark.
"Damn that dog. It's going to get us caught," Jehan said, pulling the kitchen knife out of his jacket and jumping down from Arion's back.
"No," Jehanna said. "Not Lobo. Go! Shoo, dog!" She picked up a handful of pebbles and launched them at Lobo. The dog turned around and ran off, back into the undergrowth. Jehanna jumped up onto Arion's back, closely followed by Jehan, then coaxed Arion into a trot, then a canter. Tears were streaming down her face. She hadn't wanted to hurt Lobo, but could see no other way. Even as they launched into a gallop for the coastal road, they could hear Sardi's swearing and shouting die away on the breeze. That was the last they ever saw of Villan or the Mantars.