"No one's coming to get you, girl," I say to myself.
I check my baztid'r and make sure I still have my hunting knife. I get the knife out and grip it in my left hand.
"Jacynt'n!" I cry. "Jacynt'n, call to me!"
Nothing. He can't be eaten yet; I would have heard him screaming. Okay, that's gross, but it's true, isn't it? I begin to hike up the steep incline of the mountain slope, back to where I think Jaci might have landed. A trio of as'sp'jar'zs come down below the leaves, and circle around while deciding whether or not to eat me. I think about firing a warning bolt at them, but I'm not sure how the as'sp'jar'zs might react if I make them mad. My arms and legs are all scratched up; I have a nasty bruise on my left side, under my ribs, from the mad'rj'r; my right shin makes me limp; and oh yeah, the j'gyph'n that cut off Jaci's bag gashed my belly. Blood trickles down my clean overalls; this time it's my own.
"Jacynt'n!" Crap, is that a serp't'n in that tree up ahead? "Jacynt'n!"
"Marji!" I hear him call from up the hill.
"Jaci!" I call back. "Sing! Sing a song and don't stop singing! I'm on my way!"
My brother's voice is terrified. "Please hurry, Marji!"
"Sing, Jaci! Sing so I can find you!"
Jaci starts to sing. The noise doesn't matter; it's not as if the beasties down here can't see his bag or smell his fear.
"Jeemany crap!" I cry out and jump when a serp't'n drops his head out of a tree right down beside me. He makes a grab for my arm, and hisses at me when he misses. Serp't'ns aren't venomous but they'll get a hold of you and wrap their coils around your body, and squeeze the life outta you. They're only about thirty feet long, right? I swing the baztid'r around and bash the serp't'n in the head with it. Yeah! I dazed him! I step forward and slash up with my knife, and catch the serp't'n right under his jaw. Dark red blood gushes all over my left arm. I've helped birth calves; the blood doesn't faze me a bit.
"Tell your friends," I say to the serp't'n, "to leave my brother alone." Of course, the serp't'n isn't really going to do anything except hang there and wriggle while he bleeds to death.
I fight my way up the hill to my brother as fast as I can. Above me there are now five as'sp'jar'zs circling in their rich red-green-purple plumage. The hell with it. I aim the baztid'r at them and fire. I miss, but one as'sp'jar'z flies off and two others hide back up in the leaves. I look in front of me again. There's a tree I have to pass and, yup, that's a serp't'n coiled around its trunk. The beast's head is up in the leaves, waiting for a tasty morsel to amble up for a hug. I fire at the serp't'n; the bolt misses; I reload and fire again. A hit! The serp't'n's brown-tan-gold patterned body wriggles and his head drops down out of the leaves.
I brace my legs and shout at the serp't'n, "Yeah, you just think twice about kids on the menu today, ya overgrown worm!" And I fire. Zing! Right in the head! If I ever see Papa again, I'm gonna thank him for teaching me how to shoot.
Jaci breaks off singing. "Marji, what happened?"
"I'm coming!" It doesn't matter if he stops singing; I already marked his position. When I get up to the dead serp't'n I pull the bolt out of his head and fit it back into the baztid'r. Maybe it's a lucky bolt, huh? Far above the trees I hear Tiarn'joq cry out. I think he's battling another j'gyph'n. Tiarn'joq can't find me but he's not gonna leave me. Wait -- what was that? I fire my baztid'r into the jungle.
"Stupid girl," I say to myself. "There goes your lucky bolt. Don't shoot at shadows like a baby." Flip, click, reload. There he is. I see the pale mesh of Jacynt'n's jute sack atop a tight cluster of thick green leaves, about four feet off the ground. And right over the bag a serp't'n hangs down, sniffing at my brother with his forked tongue.
I fire. Damn it, missed again! Flip, click, reload; one, two; aim, fire! I miss again, but it's close enough for the serp't'n to look at me and hiss. Then the little creep smiles at me, I swear, like he's gonna get back at me for that by eating my brother. My hands are shaking. I can take a serp't'n coming after me, but not one going after my brother. The serp't'n is opening and closing his jaws slowly while he tries to figure out what part of my bagged-up brother to grab on to. Flip, click, reload; one, two; aim, fire; jammed, damn it! I bang my weapon against a tree trunk and try again. And miss again.
Up through the mesh, Jaci finally sees the serp't'n's head about six inches above him. Jaci screams; I guess I can't really blame him.
Flip, click, reload; one, two; aim, fire! A hit! Right in the serp't'n's neck.
The serp't'n starts wriggling about. I run up to my brother and yank his bag down from the leaves. He falls to the ground with a thump, and I hear him sniffling.
"Don't cry, Jaci!" I say. "Not right now!"
I look up and see the serp't'n coming down right at me with his mouth wide open.
Flip, click, reload; one, two; aim and fire that sucker right up the serp't'n's maw!
Damn, that's three serp't'ns I've killed already. We can't keep getting lucky, right? I cut the rope on the sack with my knife and let my brother out. I holster my knife, and Jaci whimpers. He's not badly hurt, though; just some scratches and a bruise on his left thigh. I grab the coil of rope out of the bag and put it over my head and loop it off my left shoulder. I pull a wooden box out of the sack and shove it into Jaci's hands. "Hold that tight!" It's a magazine of baztid'r bolts to use on our afternoon trip home. I get the feeling they aren't gonna last that long.
I grab Jaci's hand. "Let's go!"
"But why that way?" Jaci says.
"Down the hill's faster! C'mon!"
Jacynt'n whines, "But home is up the hill." He's right; we'd fallen into the jungle on the near side of the R'oa'mon River. Good thing, too, because right over the river it's a quarter-mile drop, straight down. Splat!
"We're going this way!" I yank Jaci's hand hard. "Move it!"
Jaci starts to whine again, but the drag'rto pretty much decides for him.
Yup, I said a drag'rto. It lumbers into view about twenty yards up the hill, as if ready to eat whoever is doing all of that whining. Drag'rtos are black as night and kind of shiny, and about twelve feet long. They look like a cross between a crocodile and a Komodo dragon, and they're the main reason we build those punt'cercs around the villages.
"Jaci, run!" I pull hard on his arm. Jaci looks behind him, screams, and scrambles like a rabbit to keep up with me. He clutches the baztid'r magazine tight to his chest.
The drag'rto follows.
They're fast, those drag'rtos. And their hides are thick. A baztid'r bolt can't usually penetrate their skin, not at any place that matters.
Oh, and did I mention that they roar?
The drag'rto roars. Jaci screams. We're pitching down the steep hill so fast I think we're gonna tumble over any second. I grip Jaci's arm tight and literally fling him ahead of me into a cluster of wide green leaves as thick as leather straps. Usually that kind of brush only hides hornets the size of Papa's fist, but not anything that might eat you. I turn around, face up the hill, and brace my legs apart.
"The lady singers on the crystal wireless wear boots made outta your hide," I shout at the oncoming drag'rto, and then I fire.
The baztid'r bolt thunks off the top of the beast's head and tumbles away like a pinwheel.
Flip, click, reload; one, two; aim, christ its only ten feet away and closing in and opening its mouth --
Fire! The bolt rams right through the drag'rto's tongue and into its lower jaw, pinning down the tongue. Not a kill, but the drag'rto stops and rolls over with hideous shrieks and roars while it paws at the awful thing in its mouth.
There's a village a couple of valleys over where the people still pierce their tongues like they did in the tribal days. It always hurts my mouth to think about them.
I turn and run down the hill. Jaci is standing by the leaves where I threw him, holding the box. I'm glad he's not covered in hornets.
I run past Jaci and holler out, "Keep up!" I look back. Well, give him credit for trying, but Jaci's legs are too short, so I grab his arm and yank him down the hill with me toward the river; too fast for the serp't'ns and I hope fast enough so the drag'rtos think we aren't worth the effort.
But there are about seven as'sp'jar'zs following above us, hungry for fresh meat. The birds' long red tails curl gracefully after them while they circle, and our running provokes squawked threats at us.
The river! Through the trees I see the sunlight-silver gleam of the R'oa'mon River, maybe fifty yards ahead. I put on a wildcat-burst of speed while I jump vines and fallen tree limbs, and yank Jaci over them after me like a sack of potatoes. He whines that his arm hurts and he wants to throw up. I'm just grateful he hasn't yet noticed how badly I'm scraping up his knees. The ground starts to level out and we come out of the trees, and there's the river! Raging and rushing and roaring under the blinding blue sky, where six j'gyph'ns circle over the water as if waiting for breakfast to be served.
I'm panting and can barely speak, so I pull Jaci up next to me and stop running. I see some large rocks in the river, off to my right, and I know they go all the way across because I've seen them before from the garg'nlyn. I can hop over on the rocks, but I'm not sure about Jaci and, of course, there are those j'gyph'ns to fight.
I look up. Y'know, I bet Tiarn'joq is the best friend I'm ever gonna have.
I shout up at him, "How'd you find us?"
"I heard Jaci singing," Tiarn'joq says, "and I followed the sound of your running."
"Can you get Jaci across the river?"
"Yeah, but why aren't you going back home?"
From somewhere back in the jungle, we all hear the roar of the drag'rto I'd shot.
"Okay," Tiarn'joq says, and lands on his feet next to me. The j'gyph'ns keep circling over the river with their eyes on us and the whole boatload of as'sp'jar'zs behind us, by the trees. None of the beasties wants to move first.
I take off the coil of rope. Tiarn'joq and I tie Jaci to Tiarn'joq's sharpened fighting pole in a harness attached at two places. Jaci hangs in the harness like he's on a swing. Then we all run to the bank of the R'oa'mon River, toward the rocks, while flying Tiarn'joq holds up the pole so tied-up Jaci can run underneath it.
The water tumbles and foams in front of us, and I see a few fish jump into the air.
"Can you make it?" I ask Tiarn'joq.
"Yeah," he says. "Can you?"
I shrug, and head for the rocks. Tiarn'joq grabs hold of his fighting pole at both ends, flaps his gorgeous wings, and lifts them all into the air. Jaci, as usual, whines.
I start out onto the rocks. They're wet and slippery, but I have on pretty good boots. I inch my way across the first rock to test my footing. I can do this. I leap over to the second rock. The spray from the river kicks up pretty good, and it feels nice on my hot skin. Looking at the steep green mountains rising up from the river, I feel like I'm at the bottom of a well. Tiarn'joq is trying to hover close to me but he can only hold Jacynt'n up for so long, and finally Tiarn'joq flies over to the other bank to put Jaci down. I leap over to the next rock. A couple of j'gyph'ns follow Tiarn'joq and my brother at a distance.
Six more j'gyph'ns come after me.
Hell, I have no fear! I have my baztid'r, right? And I'm the best sharpshooter of the R'oa'mon River valley, right? La Zorra Voladora! Time to teach these pesky j'gyph'ns a lesson. I raise my baztid'r and fire.
Bingo! One j'gyph'n hit; not killed, but he banks away and flies off. Watch out, you fluffy suckers! Flip, click, reload --
Oh, shit. I'm out of bolts.
Part Three of Four