Niatha watched the first candidate eat with some measure of trepidation. She could feel his jerking movements, the hard swallows, through the vibrations in her toes. Braffin fidgeted with them, keeping himself nearer the boy than she could bear to stand.
Hands were very clunky creatures. This one consumed the fruit they'd brought him like a post molt male, as if he only had this one meal left to him.
She waited until he swallowed again, braced her legs for the blast of his voice, and spoke again. "Braffin found you in the southern jungles, but he tells me you were alone. I was not aware your people lived solitary lives."
"Huh?" His head jerked up, knocking her a step sideways. The stone tables had pits in them now, from age and neglect, but she was grateful for the grip it allowed her. This Hand had strength, certainly. His dark hair rose to the height of the fourth step when he was standing. But he had a roughness too, a manner that hid defiance, and that concerned her. "Oh. I left my village."
"Why?" Now his voice softened, and though it soothed her feet, Niatha sensed he hesitated, didn't want to share his reasons. "Well, it was time for my proving hunt, but the pigs have been thin for two years in a row. I don't think even our best hunters bring them back as often now."
"They are moving north," she said. "where the jungles have not been cleared."
"This is the song they sing, as they pass the rift."
"I knew it!" He thumped one of his square fists against the stone.
Niatha's toes actually left the surface at the impact and poor Braffin had to dodge to one side to avoid the gesture. Still, Braffin scrambled back, loyal always to his candidate. He'd risk the proximity, it seemed, to prove his Hand's worth. There must be something there, then. Something worthy.
"That's what I told them when I came back without...with no pig. I told them that there weren't any to be found." He put his fruit down a measure more gently. his head lowered and a fall of brown hair hid his face. "I told them there was nothing I could do, but they made me go out again and again."
"Your people require this proving hunt as a test?"
"Yes. And without a pig, there wasn't any point in going back. I just gave up and kept walking."
"Tofar and I found him near the rift," Braffin added. "I'd only just found Tofar, injured from his own journey, and I meant to return him to the gates first and then continue my search."
"Braffin said there was a city here. He said you needed people to work. I can do anything. I'm strong, and I'm a good hunter if there is game to hunt."
"He has a bow," Braffin said. "And I've seen him kill with it."
Niatha heard the fear in Braffin's voicing too. He trusted his candidate, but he also worried the boy would somehow be rejected. Why? They were desperate, and all T'rants knew it. She would seek him out later, ask him when they were alone. Now, however, she focused on his candidate.
"What is your name, First of all Hands?"
"Janta." Niatha felt the name, rolled it through her thoughts and liked it in the end. "You will stay here, Janta. You could not prove yourself to your people, but it is their loss. Now you will train with Braffin. He will show you the ways. And then, First of Hands, you will prove yourself to the Great Ones."
"I promise it," he said. Somehow, he sat even taller than before, and though his voice rang out like a gong, the table only rattled a little.
Niatha chuckled. He had enthusiasm. Maybe his previous failure would push him harder. They could use some determination around the city. Her people hadn't been properly riled up in ages, and she was no longer certain they could muster any sense of excitement. Maybe, they only needed Hands again.
She waved for Braffin to accompany her and then followed the long table away from the Hand, toward the ramps at the far end of the hall of Hands. When they'd halved the length of the room, and she was certain the candidate could not hear them, Niatha whispered to his new mentor.
"Show him around, Braffin, and let him pick a room of his own."
The scout dipped low and raised his abdomen to her. "Yes, High One."
He'd done well, and she let him know it through her own, relaxed posture, a gesture that she didn't fully feel. She still worried, still felt a nagging in her insides alongside the wistfulness. Tofar had survived, but his injuries had proven the dangers across the rift. Hurry back, Horatch.
She let her worry push her orders a little, that and the memory of Janta's falling fist. "But teach him to move softly first. At that volume, he'll be eaten for sure. "
Some would be lost, of course. One didn't wander into a Great One's presence with any certainty of survival. Losses were inevitable, but then, that was why they needed more Hands. For all their sakes, she prayed Janta would enter the burrow and return.
If he perished, so far, they had nothing else to offer.