The Gankas helped Yonfra develop her sense of duty. Most people considered them animals, but she knew they were intelligent. Her duty was to marry the man her guardian chose. She was prepared to do her duty, but she first had to survive attacks of hestegs. She did not realize the ambitions of her guardian would be more threatening than the deadly hestegs.
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As usual, I awoke at two in the morning. I slipped down the stairs, my bare feet soundless on the steps. The servants were asleep, of course, but I wore a cloak just in case someone saw me. It would be shocking behavior for an eighteen-year-old girl to be seen leaving the house dressed as I was.
The moon lit the familiar path and I ran easily. Before I was a mile away from the house where I lived with Tansti, I pulled myself up onto a branch of a tree and left my cloak on a higher branch. I was just wearing my shift, a thigh-length garment that did not hamper my running. I carried this week's newspaper rolled up in one hand. The night was cold but my easy stride warmed me.
I had covered half the three miles to the Ganka cave when I heard the horses. At first I thought it was a hestag, but they never moved around much at night. I was more alarmed when I recognized the lighter sound of horses' hooves.
Hesteg Valley had no cover. The old forest burned down years ago in one of those unexplained forest fires. Moonlight reflected on my white shift. The drunken shouts of the riders frightened me more than the clatter of hooves. I veered to the right and dropped down flat on the coarse grass. One rider came so close I felt the vibration of the earth against my body. He pulled his horse to halt, dismounted, and ran toward me. I rose and sprinted away from him as fast as I could.
I had forgotten the second man. He shouted, "I've got her!" as he grasped my hair. I raked my nail across his arm and gave a sharp scream. He pulled back, catching several strands of my hair in his hand.
Now they swung toward me, guiding their horses right at me and laughing as I dodged the hooves. They thought I was just a peasant whom they could trample or use as they wished.
I felt the trembling of the ground and saw the hesteg before the men did. The sight of the approaching animal was terrifying. To my surprise the huge beast passed right by me. It was after the horses. Its gigantic antlers scraped the rump of one horse. Fortunately for the horse, the hesteg did not swing its killer tail. The horse bolted, nearly unseating the man. The riders slammed their heels against their horses' sides and took off at a reckless gallop. To my relief, the hesteg ignored me and lumbered after them.
At a faster pace than usual, I headed for the safety of the Ganka's cave. I was panting and too agitated to go through the proper ceremony. I flung myself into the entrance, relieved to hear Aiyeu scold me.
"Yonfra," he said in the clicks and chirps that make up Ganka speech. "What's the matter with you? You know you should wait before coming in. Supposed we had set a trap?"
He was right. I might have broken a leg or even been killed in one of their deadly traps but I was too shaken to think about it.
"Two men on horseback...then a hestag...," I said between gasps.
"Come on in," he said. He led me down the passage and into a large room. The ceiling was much too low for me but just right for the Gankas. "Rest until you are ready to tell me what happened," he said.
A furry black mask surrounded his large dark eyes. His prehensile tail had black rings. His fur was a deeper reddish brown than any of the other Gankas and one of his ears did not point up as stiffly as the other.
I sat on a little Ganka bed and leaned against the wall of the cave until I could speak clearly. A baby Ganka crawled into my lap. As I stroked his smooth, unmarked brown fur I felt calmer. The three fingers of his small hand clutched my shift as I told Aiyeu what had happened.