The girl sat cross-legged on a mat of vines. She'd exhausted her young body dancing for him. Now Horatch clung to his tree and watched her catch her breath. He'd climbed down far enough to spare her neck from craning, but that left him more vulnerable than he liked.
“How long have you lived here?” She plucked at the leaves without purpose, fiddling, keeping her hands dancing as if she hated to be still. She'd come back to the clearing, but she wasn't completely at ease with him yet.
“Not long, Milyi. I only arrived when the moon was last full.”
“Really? How did you get here?” She fired off questions with the breathless talent of her youth. Her energy, the way she moved when dancing, convinced him she was his candidate. She had talent that went above her people's usual skill. It would impress a Great One, he was sure.
But he hadn't shared that certainty with her yet. Her people still stalked the jungles looking for him. They still carried the blunt weapons.
“I walked mostly. Sometimes I rode.”
“Rode what? Was it far?”
“Some animals can, occasionally, be persuaded to offer a short ride. And, yes, it was a long journey, Milyi, though not so long as most of us will have to travel.”
“Us? Are there other T’rants?”
“There are many of us." He resisted the urge to drum against the soft, corky bark. Had any of the others returned yet? "Though not as many as we once were. I am fortunate to have found you quickly. Many will travel much farther. Some may never find what they seek.”
Would Niatha welcome him back, if he came without a candidate? He longed to return, to rush the girl so that he might see the temple before the next round moon rose above it. If he spooked her, however, he'd have to search again, range farther or return without a Hand.
“What do you seek?” Milyi had listened patiently to his tale, but her face shone with more questions. The girl hungered for something beyond the mundane life of her village. That alone might prove enough to sway her, but he'd need to tread gently.
“The Great Ones are waking. Their burrows stir and sing to us.”
“The star spiders?” Milyi interrupted him.
Horatch enjoyed her interpretation of them. “Yes. And as they wake we T’rants are moved to serve them once again. There was a time when we could tend to their needs without leaving our temple. But the years have left us without Hands. Your people, Milyi, have forgotten the Great Ones. So the council has ordered us to scatter and search for what the star spiders need.”
“What do they need?”
There it was. The time had come after all. “You, Milyi. The Great Ones need you.”
The girl snorted, a better sign than fear, but not the reaction he'd hoped for either. “What would ancient spiders want with me?”
"You have talent." Horatch shifted his body a quarter turn. "The dancing, and you're not like the others. Your mind is wide."
"What good is dancing?" She shook her head, and one of her plaits flung loose from its bonds. Her hands moved immediately to rewrap it. "Grandmother says the only thing I'm good for is finding a husband."
"What is that?" Horatch heard the sorrow in her words, but he didn't understand the meaning. If he could prove useful to her, find this thing she needed, maybe she'd be willing to return with him. He lifted to his toes and lowered his abdomen, waved his spinerettes from side to side and anchored himself to the tree for safety. He couldn't be certain yet. She still had so much fear. "Is it something I could help you with, finding this husband?"
"I don't want one!" She stood and let her hair fall free and loose. Her words trailed into a sniffle, and she sat as abruptly as she'd sprung to her feet. "I won't. I..."
Behind the girl, the jungle waved and danced. The breeze was light today, barely strong enough to bend his silk, and yet the fronds across the clearing shifted. Horatch flexed his legs and pushed his argument to the very edge.
“The star spiders need you, Milyi. You and others like you. You’re different than the rest of the village. You're special, and if you'd...”
The brush fluttered again. This time the wind could not account for it. The girl noticed as well, and she turned her body instinctively to shield him. Protecting already, and she didn't even understand it. Horatch did. He turned already, scampered up the tree even as Milyi whispered the warning.
"Go. Hide, Horatch."
He flew up the tree. His claws devoured the bark, but his metatarsi still felt the vibrations rattling from the jungle floor. Footfalls. A struggle.
"Stop it!" Milyi's scream reached the canopy.
Horatch swiveled. He peered down between the fronds at two girls and an entire ring of hunters. One of them held her, though she kicked and twisted. They had many limbs, many hands to join the work. They pulled her arms up over her head and bound her wrists together. Then, as easily as he might have carried a beetle, they tied her feet as well, lifted her squirming body to their shoulders, and marched back into the jungle.
Horatch watched. Their time had run out, it seemed. He whispered a prayer to the Great Ones, a request to give his legs speed, his claws grip. He flexed and sprang, tipped the edge of the farthest frond and vaulted to the next tree. He slipped across that one, darted from fan to fan and leaped after the thumping of human feet.
He would see the Temple before the moon was full again. But he wasn't going without his girl.