It had a name, but everyone simply called it the Company. The Company was prosperous, prestigious, and pervasive. Dominating all industries from sea to sea. Exploring and founding even beyond the sea. It was a coveted position to be a worker in the Company. Those who attained the highest ranks were envied and revered all the more. For in those ranks, one was not a mere “worker.” One was a Hand. The Company had many Hands. And these Hands reached into every corner of the known world. The Company did not tolerate weak Hands. Only strong ones.
There was no great mystery about how one could become a Hand. One had to meet and complete the Challenge of the Hand.
The challenges were kept secret. How often the challenges were held was kept secret. When and where the challenges were held was kept secret. Even so, it was said the challenges were always changing, so that none would have an advantage. If it was discovered or even suspected that anyone did have an advantage, that one would never have the chance to take the challenge. That one would never have the chance to be a Hand.
A hundred days after the first full moon of the new year, Calder stood before a gray-robed man who was called the Master. The Master was the one who was tasked with testing the challengers. Three others stood beside Calder and before the Gray Master.
Calder was a worker, a scribe and a sometimes mender of machines. He had been accepted for the challenge and told to report to the Company tower in his town before dawn. He listened closely as the Gray Master presented the challenges and the rules. The challenge was to cook a pot of rice, to reach the top of a high wall, and to fill a bucket of water that hung from a deep well. Each challenger was to complete the challenge alone. Each challenger had only one day in which to complete the challenge. Finally, each challenger could only use whatever tool he or she was given by the Master.
The challengers were made to choose a piece of parchment from a small bowl. The character written on each challenger’s parchment would determine the order in which they would proceed. All other challengers would watch, as would the Master, and other hidden high authorities of the Company. After the order was determined, the challengers were given a bracing potion to strengthen them for the challenge ahead. Calder and his fellows knew that while the tasks seemed simple, the challenge would be made difficult by whatever tool they were given. They had a short while to sit and prepare while the challenges were made ready. They spoke nervously and awkwardly with each other until the Hand that served the Master came in to fetch them out to the field of challenge.
Calder watched as the first challenger was given her only tool. She was given power over the element of fire. She went first to the pot of rice, for with her power, she could easily complete the task of cooking the rice. But she found there was no water in the pot. So she went next to the high wall. She used fire to burn footholds and handholds into the wall. These she used to slowly, carefully climb. She had to wait for the holds to cool down, for though she could control fire, she was not safe from being harmed by it. A strong wind began to blow when she was more than halfway up the wall, which to Calder seemed to be several times his own height. The first challenger held herself flat to the wall, burning into it to make a pocket for her whole body to fit into until the high wind subsided. It took her the better part of the day to reach the top. By then, the three-quarter moon and the stars were the only light by which she could see. To climb down the other side would take just as long and leave her little if any time for her other tasks. But as soon as she reached the top, she vanished and reappeared on the ground. The challenge was to climb the high wall, not to reach the other side of it.
The first challenger, a bit dazed but otherwise well, rested a bit. She went next to the well. A bucket hung above the well. So she tried to lower the bucket, but she could not. She tried to untie the bucket from the rope, but she could not. The Master called out to her and told her that the bucket would only move if it was filled with water. The first challenger paced beside the well for a few moments. She tested the stones of the well and found that some were lose. She chose two of them and pulled them free. She tied them to frayed ends of rope above the bucket. Calder and the other challengers glanced at the Master, but he did not stop the first challenger.
Then the first challenger made a ball of fire between her hands. She twisted her hands slowly and slightly making the ball of fire grow bit by bit. Then she sent the ball of fire down into the well. They could hear the sound of hissing and bubbling from within. Bursts of steam puffed out from the well. The first challenger watched as the steam began to condense on the stones she had hung above the bucket. She reached forth to shake the droplets that formed into the bucket. They were few, for most of the steam had dissipated. But she made another fireball. She made more steam. She collected more droplets. The night wore on. Calder and the other challengers watched and noted. At last, there was enough water in the bucket for the first challenger to move the bucket. She lowered it down into the well to collect whatever water might be left. There was none. She raised up the bucket and carried it to where the pot of rice sat waiting, with no wood or fuel in sight. The first challenger poured the water into the pot of rice. There was just enough. She took a deep and weary breath. Then she placed her hands beside the pot and made enough fire to cook the rice.
When the rice was cooked, the first challenger was called before the Master. Stained with dust and sweat, suffering cuts and bruises from the climbing of the high wall, and few burns from her handling of fire, the challenger came forth. She bowed before the Master, who bowed before her. Then the first challenger vanished from the field of challenge.
The remaining challengers were allowed to eat and rest a while, but they remained on the field of challenge. There were no pillows or pallets, only hard ground. There was no shade or tree, only their own hats or hoods as they had them. All other tools and possessions had been taken from them before the challenge. It seemed they would not leave the field until all the challengers had completed or failed their challenges. So their only chance to sleep was to do so when their fellow challenger was on the field. Calder had dozed a bit while the first challenger was collecting the water in the bucket. He wanted to watch what all the others did, but he knew he should rest, for he was to go last. While they rested, the field was cleaned and set anew. There was water in the well, the high wall was smoothed, and a new pot of rice was waiting to be cooked.
When the second challenger was called before the Master, he was given the power of water. So he was able to fill the bucket quickly and with ease by raising the water from the well. Then, as the first challenger had done, the second challenger paced before the well, thinking about how he might complete the rest of the challenge. He sat down with the bucket of water and tested his power. He suddenly slapped himself on his forehead.
Calder thought that the second challenger must have remembered the trick with the steam that the first challenger had used. Water boiled. Water steamed. And water froze. The second challenger poured some water into the rice pot. He held his hand above the pot and made the water within boil and simmer. So he completed the second part of the challenge. Now that he knew he could make ice and snow, he went before the high wall and began to make ice and snow. He climbed the snowbank and grew it as he climbed. He had to make it taller and bigger, so it would not melt. Calder could see that the challenger, clothed only in the everyday garments meant for temperate weather, was growing cold and weary. The second challenger shivered. His breath misted. His shoulders stooped. He slowed his pace, making enough snow that it would pack tightly and stay frozen. At least, he reached the top of the wall.
As before, the challenger vanished from the top of the wall and reappeared on the ground. As before, he was called before the Master. Shivering, panting, but standing firm, the second challenger bowed before the Master, who bowed before him. Then the second challenger vanished from the field of challenge.
The third challenger was given the power of earth. She went first to the well, her strides and actions sure. She used her power to raise pebbles from the ground and send them down into the well. Calder remembered an old fable about a well of water and a clever raven throwing pebbles into it to raise the water. The trick worked. With the power of earth, it did not take the third challenger long to fill the well and raise the water enough to use her own hands to reach down and scoop up the water to fill the bucket. She next took the filled bucket to the pot of rice. It was a sunny day, and it seemed she would make use of it. The pot was of metal. With her power, the third challenger built an earthen oven in which to place the pot of rice so it would cook in the heat of the sun. But as the rice was still cooking, a bank of clouds rolled in and blocked out the sun. Calder shifted his eyes toward the Master, wondering if the Company, powerful as it was, had found some way to summon the clouds. And he wondered if the Company had likewise summoned the wind that the first challenger faced when she had been halfway up the high wall. But then he shifted his gaze back to the third challenger.
As the others had done, the third challenger thought a while. She grasped the metal pot and gazed at it for a few moments. Metal too came from the earth. The third challenger suddenly rose and abandoned the rice pot for the moment. She walked toward the high wall. To one who commanded earth, the high wall made of earth seemed her easiest task. The third challenger pushed her hands against and then into the wall. She carved crude steps for herself out of the earth of the wall itself. It took her so long that the three-quarter moon had been hanging in the sky for many hours by the time she reached the top of the wall. She vanished, as the others had done, and reappeared on the ground. She was caked in dirt and weariness, like the others. But she had one task still remaining.
She took some more water from the well and carried the bucket to her last task. She knelt before the pot of half-cooked rice. She took a bracing breath, and she grasped the edges of the pot with the tips of her fingers. Calder could not see what was happening. Suddenly, the third challenger recoiled from the pot, releasing her grasp. She held her hands in the air, then dipped them into the bucket. Then Calder understood what had happened. The third challenger had done to the metal of the pot what the second challenger had done with the water. She had made the metal hot. But while the second challenger could wield that aspect of his power without touching the water, the third challenger must have found that she had to touch the pot to wield hers. Just as she had to touch the earth of the high wall to soften it enough to carve the steps. She could move earth without touching it, but could not change its qualities without touching it. The third challenger repeated the action of heating the pot and cooling her fingers in the water until the rice was cooked.
The third challenger was then called before the Master. Hands still clawed, her face stiff from the effort of showing no pain, the third challenger bowed before the Master, who bowed before her. Then the third challenger vanished from the field of challenge.
And it was Calder’s turn.
As he expected, Calder was given the power of air. And though he had had time to think about how he might use it to complete the challenges, he was most unsure of himself and his power. He first tried the well. He tried to push the water out of the well with fierce gusts, but no matter how well he focused, the water splashed so much that little reached the bucket. He feared he would lose all the water in the well if he continued trying. So he abandoned that task for the moment and approached the high wall. He had planned to use the power of air to lift himself up to the top of the high wall. But again, he struggled to control the power. It felt like trying to grasp a just-caught fish that was covered in soap and oil. His hold on the power was slippery and it felt as if it were resisting and trying to flee from him. He wondered how the other challengers had mastered their powers so well, and if the other elements had been as unruly. Surely, fire and water must have been equally elusive.
Calder manager to raise himself up on a gust of air, but as he tried to summon another, he would fall just a bit. He fell all the way to the ground a few times, and became too frightened to try going higher, for fear he would fall from a far height and hurt himself. He went to the rice pot next. Calder wondered if he could heat the air, as his fellow challengers had heated water and metal. He sat down and thought and tried slowly to change the air so it would warm around the pot. And he found he could. The air grew warm on his hands as well, but he had thought of that, remembering the burns his fellow challengers had suffered. Even as he heated the air around the pot, he then cooled the air on his hand. He was slow and measured in his efforts. While his progress pleased him and revived his confidence, he could not yet cook the rice without water. The day wore on and the day darkened. Calder grew more and more anxious, for he had not yet completed any part of his challenge.
He thought for a few moments about how the other challengers had faced their challenges. He remembered the clouds that blocked the sun when the third challenger tried to cook the pot of rice. If he only had some rainclouds, he could fill the bucket. He raised his hands to the clear sky and summoned winds, but there were no clouds to push or pull. So he tried to make the air colder and colder. Clouds began to form and darken and swirl. At first, Calder was happy, even proud, that he was using his power so well. He wanted to glance over to the Master, to see if the Master approved of what Calder was doing, but he knew that would be foolish. He needed to concentrate.
Then Calder felt the power whipping and writhing, even as the clouds and winds were whirling and swirling. He felt a tug of fear, then a wash of panic as he felt something break away from him, as if he had lost hold of the reins to a wild stallion. Lightning flashed within the clouds. Thunder cracked and boomed.
Rain began to fall.
Calder tried to control the air, the winds. But he could not. He tried to look for the Master, but did not see him. Calder ran to the well and took what shelter he could by crouching beside it. He had enough control over his given power that he could shield himself from the brunt of pelting rain. Crouched where he was, he heard the rain filling the bucket.
He rose to his feet and saw that the bucket was indeed overflowing. But he would not need the water in the bucket to cook the rice. The rice pot too was overflowing with rainwater. Calder dashed toward it, fearing the rice would all spill out. He lifted the pot and set it down beside the well. Lightning flashed around him. Thunder knocked him to his feet. Calder raised his arms again. He tried to use his power to dispel the clouds, blow them away, but he could not grasp it. Then a great surge of lightning, many-armed and terrible, struck the high wall. Another followed. Thunder boomed and the high wall cracked. Part of the top wall, scorched and battered, crumbled to the ground.
Calder ran to the rubble before the high wall. He saw where lay some charred bricks from the top of the wall. He reached out and touched them, burning his finger. He braced himself, hoping his boot was sturdy enough, and he stepped on the bricks. He vanished and re-appeared on the ground just before the rubble. It was trickery. But just as he had hoped, he had completed that part of the challenge by reaching the top of the high wall. The fallen bricks were steaming in the rain. Calder hoped they were hot enough to cook with. He brought the pot of rice. Standing over it to shield it from the still-pouring rain, he set the rice down into the hot bricks and waited.
After some time, Calder saw that the rice was cooked. There was dirt and dust in it and he would only eat such a pot of rice if he was starving. But it was cooked.
The lightning and thunder stopped first. The rain lightened to a mist. The dark skies grew ever brighter. As Calder watched, gray clouds turned white and wispy. Beyond, there was not blue, but the dark purple of night, brightened by stars and a three-quarter moon.
Calder was called before the Master. Back straight but stiff from long stooping, sopping wet and cold from the storm, Calder bowed before the Master, who bowed before him. Then Calder too vanished from the field of challenge.
Calder woke in the chamber where he had first met the Master. It was empty. None of the other challengers were there. He lay on a pallet. Beside it was a cup of water and the empty vial of the potion Calder had drunk. The Master entered. Calder, no longer wet, cold, or stiff, rose and bowed before the Master, who inclined his head.
“It was an illusion,” Calder said.
The Master answered. “We would not be a great company if we so foolishly risked the lives and well-being of our fellow people, be they our customers or our workers.”
Calder was both customer and worker. But he wondered if he would now be Hand. He had finished the challenge and done so successfully within the allotted day. But he had struggled far more than the other challengers. He had not long to wait for his answer.
“You show great promise,” the Master said. “But it was dangerous and foolish to summon a storm only to fill a bucket of water. You were almost killed by lightning. You will not soon be a Hand of the Company.”
“Perhaps I can be a Foot of the Company?” Calder said nervously, before he could stop himself. He tried to hide his great dejection. He thought he had demonstrated far more power than the other challengers. They too had been reckless, he thought. But he also thought the Master was correct. He did not know the challenge was an illusion of his mind. He would not have risked the lives of others, only his own. But it seemed that was a mistake. It seemed they had wanted to test how well he valued his own life, for if he became Hand, he would gain much knowledge and power by the efforts of many. All of that would go to waste if he were reckless with his own life.
Calder knew his chances were done with the great Company. So he felt he had nothing to lose in asking his next question.
“Does the Company ever give any challenger a second chance?”
“No,” he was told.
Calder still remained a worker with the Company as a scribe and a sometimes mender of machines. He thought long about the challenge and how he might have met it. But he knew he would have no more chance to prove himself at the same challenge. If the challenges were the same for all, then everyone would know how to meet and beat them. So even if he were given another chance at the challenge, the challenge would be different. Something more difficult. And yet, he continued to think about how he might have completed the challenge he was given. He would watch as air moved the surface of a lake. He would stare as leaves and dust swirled and drifted on breezes. He observed how the winds bent and broke great trees during storms.
Wind wears down a mountain in time. He might have worn down the high wall, or done what the fire challenger did and focus a force of air on one part of the wall, so fierce that it would make an impression and soon a hold. Calder realized that he could have commanded the winds to sweep enough small grains into the well to do as the earth challenger did, and raise up the water. He could have then heated the air around the pot of rice and cooked it thus.
He studied to strengthen his knowledge. He worked to strengthen his body. He longed to be Hand. So, being bold, he waited a year and applied once again to be Hand. To his utter surprise, and to the envy of some, Calder was again accepted.
Once again, it was a hundred days after the first moon of the new year. This time, Calder did not go before the Master with other challengers. He was alone. And to his further surprise, the challenge he was given was the same one he had faced before, with one change. The change was the last and greatest surprise. He was given not one power, but all. All four elements. He could easily win the challenge. He could fill the bucket in moments with water. Fill the rice pot with water and cook it with fire. Summon a stair of earth and ice quickly to climb the high wall.
He knew he could do that and win the challenge long before the sun reached its zenith. But knowing he could do so made him hesitate. He had what he never thought he would have, a second chance to prove that he could win the challenge with only the power of air.
Calder sat down before the well and thought for a moment. He tested each of the powers, finding them each to be different. Earth was easy to grasp, but heavy to hold. Water was harder to grasp, but far easier to shape and direct. Fire was as difficult to grasp as air, and felt more dangerous to hold. But he found that all he need do was let go and the fire would vanish. It did not linger and whip about as air did. He tested the power of air, making gusts and little funnels, making pockets of cold and pockets of heat. The power of fire pulsed. And he could follow that pulse to grasp it. But the power of air vibrated. The power of air was everywhere. He still struggled to grasp it and did so, it seemed to him, only by luck and by chance. Calder thought of all the ways he had devised over the past year to win the challenge the first time he was given it. And he decided upon his strategy.
He would refrain from using water, earth, or fire. He stood before the well, and he still struggled to grasp the power of air, and found he now had to struggle with the temptation of grasping the other powers. He swept stone and pebbles into the well and raised the water enough so he could cup it into his hands and fill the bucket.
He poured the water from the bucket into the rice and cooked the rice by steadily heating the air around the pot and cooling the air before his hands, just as he had done a year past. He had no water then. But now, he cooked the rice, and finished the second task. Finally, he faced the high wall. Calder tried his method of wearing down a small piece of wall the size of his hand to make a handhold, but it took hours just to make one hold. He would not win the challenge that way. This time, Calder knew he was not truly risking his life. And yet, he had to behave as if he was. For that would be the case if he became Hand and met similar challenges in the world. So he could not be reckless. It gave him comfort and confidence to know he had but one task left. Carving into the wall using only air would take too much time. But he had enough time to master another way.
He sat before the wall and took a pebble in his hand. He made a funnel of air and set the pebble inside it. He watched as the pebble was whipped about. He took another pebble and set it into the center of the funnel this time. It fell to the ground, unaffected by the wind, for there was no wind in the center of the funnel. Calder took another pebble. And tried again and again to float the pebble gently on gusts or funnels of air. The more he practiced, the easier it became to grasp the power.
At last, he managed to float a pebble farther and farther up. It was so small, he lost sight of it, and so it came plummeting to the ground. But Calder still had time. He picked up a larger rock, one he would be able to see even if it reached to the top of the high wall. And he tried again. And again. He sent the rock up to the wall and over. But he felt the tug of the power resisting, trying to flee. He had needed just a bit more strength to pick up the fist-sized rock than to pick up the little pebble. So he tried again. He brought loose stones from the well, large and heavy. He balanced three of them in his funnel and sent them up to the wall. Up and over. And he did so with a bit more effort than before. He took rest. He even took a meal, eating the rice he had cooked. And drinking the water he had drawn from the well.
Calder tried again and again. Adding more and more weight. He could not loosen enough rock and stone from the well to equal the weight of his own body. But he learned enough to try, at last, to carry his own self up to the top of the high wall.
As he prepared to go, he noted that the once-clear sky was now filling with clouds, dark clouds. Wind began to gust past him. He had practiced lifting stone and rock in still air. He considered practicing one more time with the gusting wind. But the clouds were darkening. The air grew damp. It would begin to rain soon. Lightning would begin to strike, and if he was at the top of the high wall, he might be struck. He could use his other powers to dispel the storm. He knew he could. Perhaps he could let the storm be and use his power over fire to keep the lightning from striking him. It was evening when the storm came.
Calder had till morning to reach the top of the wall. He would use the other powers if need be. But he would wait till he had no choice before he did. He took shelter beside the well and even tried to doze a while. The storm lasted for what seemed like hours. And then it was done. Much as before, it stopped quite suddenly and within moments, Calder was looking up at a clear sky. Only now the sky was a dark purple and the warm light of the sun was replaced by the cool light of a three-quarter moon.
Light breezes lingered, but Calder judged that he could still balance himself. And so he began. With both dread and eagerness, he stepped into the funnel of air he had made, and slowly and steadily, he made it stronger and stronger. He felt the fear break free from his chest, even as he felt his feet break free from the earth. He rose farther and farther up. As he had promised himself, he did not look down at the ground, but up at the top of the high wall. The closer the top came, the calmer he became. And the calmer he was, the easier it became to harness the power of the air and the wind.
When he reached the top, he was too far to reach over and grasp it. He raised himself up just a bit more and looking down for the first time, even just at the top of the wall, he felt another spike of fear. Calder used the winds to steady himself as he stepped onto the top of the wall. But before he could crouch down as he longed to do, he blinked and found himself on the sound and steady ground below.
Calder gasped. He glanced around. He gazed up at the high wall, at the bright moon. He took a breath and breathed out a sigh. Much as he had marveled at the feeling of rising into the air in a funnel of wind, he was glad to be back on the earth. It took a moment for him to remember past his relief that he had just completed the Challenge of the Hand.
Calder was called before the Master. Unharmed and triumphant, and yet as anxious as ever he had been in his life, Calder bowed before the Master, who bowed before him. Then Calder vanished from the field of challenge.
Calder woke once again in the chamber where he had first met the Master. It was empty. He lay on a pallet. Beside it was a cup of water and the empty vial of the potion he had drunk. The Master entered. Calder rose and bowed before the Master, who bowed before him and spoke.
“That was well done, challenger.”
“Thank you, Master.”
The Master gave him a small smile. “You will have to accept ‘no’ for a final answer in most cases. And you will not have a second chance with all the challenges you face in life as a Hand.”
Calder stood straighter. He felt a surge of pride. “I understand, Master.”
“But for some challenges, you will have a second chance, a third, many. But only if you choose to take that chance.”
“And I will never know until the moment comes.”
The Master bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement.
“So I must be prepared to think short and to think long. To persevere. To act. To wait.” All the things he had done in the challenge. Calder stopped for a moment. “I must be prepared to be unprepared. And I must be prepared to be prepared.”
“As in all things in life, only more so.”
“Then what is the difference between the rest of life’s challenges and the challenges of being a Hand?”
The Master was silent. Calder knew that signal. It meant he was expected to answer his own question. He was anxious, agitated, and elated. He could not be expected to answer questions in that state. But he had just become a Hand. He thought of what that meant.
“Power and privilege.”
The Master bowed his head once more. “You will be given great power as a Hand. The wisdom and mercy with which you use that power is as important as the skill with which you use it.”
So it came to pass that on the hundred-and-first day after the first moon of the new year, Calder the scribe and mender of machines, became a Hand of the Company.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel