Fiction: The Zeri (2010)

Tinwit tittered and skittered, dancing with too many feet along the damp bark of the tree’s stretching boughs. Her translucent scarves whirled around her, caught in the wind of her own speed, tangling and disengaging like iridescent sparring serpents.

“Wait up!” Girque hissed behind her, walking with his hands and feet all down the same branch. He was weighed down by a full basket strapped to his shoulders, the bulk resting between his gauzy wings.

“No~” Tinwit sang back, pausing only for an elaborate twirl before flouncing off. “I have to open the door~”

Girque mumbled something uncharitable beneath his breath, antennae drooping in annoyance, as he continued to trudge along the two-inch limb. His pack was full of broken weapons, blades and arrows and shortstaves, to be mended by the armory’s smiths and woodworkers. And it was blasted heavy.

But of course, Tinwit wouldn’t help him carry any of it. She had to open the door. Feh.

At the end of the branch, where it dove into the network of other boughs that would combine to comprise the trunk, a light billowed into existence and brightened slowly with a not-quite-audible hum that made the bark shiver. Girque stuck sharp nails into the branch for traction and kept moving, hands and feet together, eyes averted from the growing luminance.

The tree whimpered through his fingertips when the door opened, allowing the two Zeri access to its hollowed, honeycombed interior.

Tinwit pirouetted back to him, smiling with all her needle teeth, faceted eyes reflecting the now-fading glow. “I opened the door~” she purred triumphantly.

“Thank you,” Girque grunted. “Now will you help me wi–”

“I’m going to tell the weaponsmen we’re here~” she interrupted, spinning and buzzing her wings briefly, just enough to give her momentum to bound gazelle-like along the bough. She vanished into the tree’s aching doorway, ignoring the aura of unhappiness hovering at the threshold.

Girque squeezed his eyes shut, counted to three, and opened them again. Zeri magi were becoming less and less lucid as generations went on; Tinwit was a young, talented little waif, but she was as reliable as a leaf blown by the wind.

He sighed, plodding along until he reached the entrance. “Sorry,” he said to the tree, touching a hand briefly to the threshold and snatching it away just as quickly when pain shot up his arm. He did it every time, penance for the door’s necessity, even though all the other guardians had long since abandoned the old tradition.

Girque and his bundle stepped inside; he felt through the shadows for the weed-woven ladder and began his blind descent, the weight hanging so heavy that his body canted at an unnatural angle, his back aiming for the floor. His feet tangled in the fraying rungs; he tightened his jaw and moved more carefully.

There was light at the bottom, set well into the tree’s slope-buried base, a great hollow that shook slightly with old pain. The Zeri who manned the armory bustled around, ignoring Tinwit dancing in spirals around them; one grizzled woman stopped when she saw Girque, no welcome or smile softening her soot-smudged face. “More?” she demanded, somewhere between resigned and frustrated.

“More,” Girque confirmed, pitching his tone to be apologetic. He unstrapped the bulging basket from his back and handed it off, straightening gratefully while the old woman huffed and dragged it off towards the repair quarter. “Tinwit!” he called, muscles burning as he stretched them. “We can’t stay here.”

“But I like the smells of iron and sulfur~” she sang happily, her scarves already darkening like sullied smoke.

Girque winced; his lungs were shutting off in protest of the atmosphere already, and this youngling liked it? With half-hidden exasperation, he trotted over to her and captured her wrists, then tugged her towards the ladder. “We’ll be back soon enough,” he muttered, wishing it weren’t the truth.

“I love the war~” Tinwit crooned sweetly, kissing his cheek before swarming up the ladder ahead of him. “It paints everyone such pretty colors~”

Girque stared after her, shook his head, and began to climb.