"Marji! Check the rope!"
That's my papa, N'triado Zorro, hollering at me. I check the rope that's secured to the rope harness where I'm sitting. Inside a pouch on the harness is a ripcord that'll let me get down once I've crossed the gorge.
"And check your brother!"
Papa wants me to make sure I don't drop Jacynt'n, my six-year-old brother, on the way to school. Jaci's in a jute sack tied to my waist, hanging low enough and off to my left side so he won't get in the way of my shooting.
I have my backpack of schoolbooks, I have my mad'rj'r, and you can bet your bones I'm not gonna forget my baztid'r.
Papa looks up at me, his daughter, dangling in my harness from the squeaky pulley hanging from the threaded steel garg'nlyn. He takes my right hand, kisses it, and says, "Have a good day at school, Marji." He pats the bulge made by Jacynt'n's head in the sack.
I switch my baztid'r from my left hand to my right, and I smile at Papa. One of the handlers behind me pushes hard on my back and hips, and Jaci and I are off.
The hill drops out from under us and we're surrounded by dense trees like an encircling wall. A few small birds, the harmless kind, chirrup and fly from their branches while Jaci and I zip past. Jaci can't see very well from inside his light brown, tight-mesh bag, which is just as well. The trees get bigger and closer, and we pass over the spiked punt'cerc down below. I unholster my mad'rj'r, a steering stick that's a long wooden pole with a fork at the top, pointing back at me. I swing the mad'rj'r up and smack the fork down onto the garg'nlyn. The speeding wood smokes hot against the steel line.
Tiarn'joq had better be waiting, past the trees. He promised to always protect me.
Here come the trees! I lower my head and feel the thick green leaves slap over my head and face, and in a moment the vast G'rganr'o Valley opens up in front of us. The sun is coming up in a sky so blue it's almost purple. Clouds of mist rise lazily from the steep, tree-covered mountains that make up the valley, our home.
Tiarn'joq beats his violet and burgundy-colored wings. He's hovering off to my right, as usual. I wave at him and he raises his long wooden fighting pole, sharpened at both ends, in greeting. I grip the mad'rj'r, though we aren't yet going too fast down the garg'nlyn, or zipline, as some of you call it. I'm about to call out to my friend Tiarn'joq when, from my left, I hear the rustle of feathers coming at me with growls and shrieks. Here they come; the j'gyph'ns.
I raise my baztid'r. I know the word "baztid'r" has something to do with crossbows and marksmanship, but I think it got that name because these pesky jaguar-gryphons of ours are a real bunch of bastards.
Don't tell Papa I said that. I can still get spanked, even though I'm already eleven.
I shake my head to keep my long, dark brown hair out of my eyes. Jaci hears the j'gyph'ns and starts whimpering. Tiarn'joq is already fighting one of the flying predators, so it's up to me to take care of the three j'gyph'ns closing in on Jaci and me.
I aim my baztid'r and fire a bolt right into the chest of the first j'gyph'n. Two to go.
* * *
Well, Jacynt'n and I have to get to school somehow, don't we?
My name's Marjit'ta Zorro, but everyone calls me Marji. Sometimes I get called La Zorra Voladora, but we'll get to that later. Our people have lived up in the village of Az'iro'd forever, or at least for a few centuries. Sometimes if you find a gap in the trees surrounding Az'iro'd and look down at the churning, silver-blue river, the steep view will make you dizzy. It's too tough and dangerous to walk across the gorge, so we use the garg'nlyn, or gorge-line, to get to and from the rest of the world on the other side of the G'rganr'o Valley.
Tiarn'joq is fourteen, one of the P'jarin'te, or bird-people. He's got those colorful wings, and feathers of the same violet and burgundy that run along the outsides of his lean arms and legs. Tiarn'joq blushes whenever I tell him his feathers are pretty. He doesn't have to wear clothes, which is really unfair because I do. I have on short overalls and a shirt today, along with my holstered hunting knife, the holster for my mad'rj'r, my backpack, and my brother-in-a-bag tied to my waist. I weigh a ton with all this gear. I hope the garg'nlyn holds, but the men of our village wouldn't let me go out on this crazy-ass contraption if they didn't keep it safe, would they?
The trip across the river gorge takes only a minute. But it's a pretty busy minute.
* * *
I flip the baztid'r up and back to work the lever and load another bolt. It's a fairly heavy weapon and I'm always afraid I might drop it, but I can handle it better than a lot of the boys can. There's a clockwork mechanism that torques the bowstring of the baztid'r and loads another bolt. The bolt magazine holds twelve with one in the slot, so I have thirteen shots to keep me and Jacynt'n safe going across the G'rganr'o Valley.
The two j'gyph'ns are getting closer. Flip, click, reload; one, two; aim, fire! Shit, I missed. Crud; like I said, don't tell Papa about my mouth. Flip, click, reload; one, two; aim, fire! Yeah! Got another! Except now I see five more j'gyph'ns flying in from below. Tiarn'joq got one already, and he's going after another. His bare skin flashes bronze under the sun. Blood drips off one end of his fighting pole like red petals from a brilliant morning flower.
I look down. My brother and I are speeding along right over the R'oa'mon River, about a quarter-mile below us. Oh, I shoulda warned you to sit down for this part if heights make you wanna tip over. Anyway, I look back up, reload the baztid'r, and fire. Missed, and the j'gyph'n I aimed at flies close enough that the tips of his wings brush against my bare legs. Brown-spotted gold fur and black-feathered wings and heads; that's our j'gyph'ns. Each one's the size of a really big dog. I flip the baztid'r again and try to fire. Crap, it jams. The j'gyph'n is coming back around with two more joining in. Jaci and I are starting to go too fast, so I pull the fork of my mad'rj'r down tight on the wire, which also helps steady us so we don't rock back and forth so much. A few sparks fly out from under the fork of the mad'rj'r. I bang the baztid'r against my right leg three times. That usually works.
Tiarn'joq has ripped open the side of a j'gyph'n, and he arcs away from a thick spurt of j'gyph'n blood to go after another. He's about thirty yards away, to my right; my best friend and protector. He calls out to me, "Marji, you okay?"
"Just a minute," I holler. I raise the baztid'r and fire at the oncoming j'gyph'ns. A hit! But the other two j'gyph'ns are closing in together. I cock the lever, fire, and miss because I stupidly didn't take time to aim --
"Jacynt'n," I shout at my brother. "Stop whimpering!"
-- like anyone has time to aim. I cock the weapon again and "click;" shit, another jam; we're speeding up, I can tell by the way the wind is whipping back my hair; I pull down hard on my mad'rj'r and here come the two j'gyph'ns and oh shit (don't tell Papa) they're coming on far too fast; this is it, this just might be it for me and --
Wham! I feel the two j'gyph'ns collide right beside me, and as they fall away they begin fighting, all the way down to the treetops below. Not very cooperative with each other, are they? Below me I see the rich plumage of the deadly as'sp'jar'z birds watching the j'gyph'ns fall. The as'sp'jar'zs are as big as the j'gyph'ns, and at least as dangerous. Fortunately the as'sp'jar'zs stay down by the trees, or Jaci and I would never make it across. I look up --
"Marji!" Tiarn'joq cries, and beats his wings hard to rush toward me.
A j'gyph'n homes in on me from my right, and just to add to the fun I see, through the break in the trees ahead, the big wooden blocks, sawed-off tree trunks, really, where the garg'nlyn is attached; end of the line. There's just a ratty old hay bale tied there to cushion the blow. Jaci and I are zipping down the line far too fast, and it's all up to me to stop us. Two handlers beside the wood blocks watch us, and one of the men closes his eyes. That can't be good.
I pull down hard on the threaded steel line with my mad'rj'r and cry out to my brother, "Curl up tight and hold on!"
I hear Tiarn'joq whoop joyously, and a j'gyph'n tumbles ass over beak right in front of me, spurting blood in a sticky red arc. I see a couple of as'sp'jar'zs rise to snatch the dying j'gyph'n right out of the air. Yum.
Now I see the other handler close his eyes.
No, they can't stop me. The slope right in front of the garg'nlyn base is far too steep to stand on.
I let the baztid'r slide on its sling down my right arm and I use both hands to bear down hard on my mad'rj'r. Sparks shower down on us like hot rain. I curl my knees in front of Jaci's bag and turn sideways a bit, ready to take the hit for him. Crap, the last kid who crashed like this didn't walk for three months. And then he died.
I bet this is gonna hurt.
Oof; I feel my breath forced out of me and, what? Something hard and tight on my chest, pulling back. It's Tiarn'joq! He smacked his fighting pole across my chest, got behind me, and now he's pulling me back! The pulley above me squeals like a stuck bat while we slow down.
I stick out my feet and hear my boots thunk on the wooden blocks below the hay bale when I stop us. Perfect. The handlers open their eyes and wipe sweat off their foreheads.
I smile at them and say, "Scared ya there for a minute, didn't I?"
Tiarn'joq takes away his pole and hovers beside me, making sure I'm okay. One of the handlers reaches up and takes hold of Jacynt'n, and I unfasten my brother's bag from my waist. Then I pull the ripcord on my breech harness and jump to the ground, and steady myself with my mad'rj'r when I land.
I look up at Tiarn'joq and salute him. "Three o'clock," I say, "one garg'nlyn base up?"
Tiarn'joq nods, too out of breath to say anything. He flies back out over the valley. The P'jarin'te have their own school.
I holster my mad'rj'r, sling my baztid'r over my shoulder, take my little brother's hand, and hike up the slope with him. The ground levels off a bit, and the school is just a few yards away. D'drat'r P'rtalo, our teacher, waits for us. I think she worries that we're gonna get hurt on the way over or something.
"Well, Marji," Srta. P'rtalo says to me. "I hope you saved some energy for that big test today."
"You bet," I say, and we follow her into the Nub'sq'a school.
In the schoolroom, I discover that last damned j'gyph'n splattered blood all over the front of my clean overalls.
Like I said, they're bastards.
Part One of Four