Salamander: Theory and Practice

To the late Patri Pugliese
My consultant on cleverness and much else.

Chapter 1

He relaxed, closed his eyes, let his mind wander out. Behind him the dim glow from a fireplace, its fire almost dead. Further, fainter, the fires in neighboring houses. At his right, just the other side of the wall, the little furnace, at its heart a single, impossibly brilliant, point of light. He pulled shadow over it until it vanished.

Farther out, the near edge of the vast sphere of woven fire that held the College, half its height above ground, half below. He melted into it, fitted to the dancing flames, through.

A classroom, at its head a magister, young for his robes.

Magister Coelus scanned faces, as always at the beginning, searching for gold. Not power, useful though that might be, but perception, control. Intelligence. The last students filed in, took their seats. A boy at the back caught his attention, glowing in an odd pattern of woven flame, brighter, more intense than the others. Power certainly, a lot of power. The boy looked up, saw the magister looking at him; the light vanished. Not a boy but a girl, shy face neither pretty nor ugly.

He wondered whether her blocking of his perception was training or talent; either way interesting. In the four years since he, with the help of Maridon, finally persuaded their colleagues that the results of modern scholarship had some relevance to the policies of the College, none of the newly admitted female students had shown more than an average level of ability. If the girl turned out to be not merely a prodigy but a fire mage as well, it would shake up the greybeards—and a good thing too.

The students were seated, watching him; time to start.  

"Since this is your first lecture, I will start by listing things everyone knows about magery:

"Mages have magic; common folk do not.

"What makes a truly great mage is power, the ability to set a forest on fire or freeze a lake.

"Mages train, as apprentices with one master or students with many, in order to learn to increase their power.

"Because the power of mages comes from the elementals—salamanders for fire, sylphs for air, and the rest—and elementals know mages by their names, giving a child the name of a past mage gives him easier access to that mage's elemental.

"Every one of the facts I have just listed is false. The first step to wisdom is not learning but unlearning."

He looked up from his notes into silence, held it for a long moment, continued. "First, and most important, magic is not limited to mages. Human beings without magic, if they exist, are far rarer than humans beings with magic. Modern research suggests that magic is not even limited to human beings, that many, perhaps all, living creatures have some portion of magic used in some way.

"All of you know people who are not mages but use magic. The cook at the inn, whose food tastes better than anyone else's. The lucky hunter. The farmer with a green thumb. It used to be believed that the success of ordinary people in ordinary tasks depended only on mundane skills, but scholars have now proved, beyond any reasonable dispute, that it is not so. Very nearly everyone has magic and very nearly everyone uses it, mostly as an additional aid in their ordinary business.”

If possible, the room became more silent still. Coelus looked up at faces blank, some obviously shocked.

"This has been suspected for a long time, and was proved more than a decade ago. It is not a secret of mages. Mages have little need to keep secrets, considering how unwilling people are to believe the truth when it is told to them.

“Some of you are now wondering why you are here. If your parents' laundry maid—the one who always gets the clothes to come out brighter than anyone else—would do as well, why not send her? Why are you more suited to be mages than she is?"

Again he stopped, to let them think and tension build.

"The answer is not that you have magic and she does not, but that you have more than she, enough to be used for more than washing shirts. That is half the difference between mages and other folk, the half that got you sent here. The other half, how to use that power, is what you are here to learn.

"You will start learning it very soon, but first you have more to unlearn. I have just told you that one part of what makes a mage is having more power. How then can it be that the common belief that great mages are distinguished by their great power is false?

"The answer is that even the greatest mages do not have very much power. You have all heard stories of how some fire mage waved his hand and set a forest ablaze. Some of them are good stories, but none of them are true. If a fire mage wants to set a forest ablaze, he has to do it the same way anyone else does—with a lot of kindling. Durilil, our Founder, one of the most powerful fire mages that ever lived, is reliably reported to have been able to set a hearth fire of plain logs ablaze. A forest holds a lot more logs than a hearth.

"What makes a great mage is not the amount of power but the skill with which he uses it. Consider a healer—yes, healers are mages within these walls, whatever they may be called elsewhere. No mage has enough power to go through the entire body of a patient and set everything aright, at least not if the patient is anything bigger than a mouse. What a skilled healer does is to find the one crucial fault and heal that, then let the rest fall into place by its own nature. The more skill a mage has, the less power he uses—needs—to accomplish his task. That is what you are here to learn.

"And one reason that skill is what you are here to learn is that we cannot teach you to increase your power. Nor can anyone else, any more than he can teach you to increase your height. It is possible, although difficult and dangerous, to get the use of more power by pooling with another mage. There are drugs that will let you draw down your power today at a cost tomorrow, although I do not advise you to use them. But the pool itself we cannot increase."

Coelus fell silent, looked out over his audience. Doing it backwards, starting with everything they knew that wasn't true, had worked, as it had last year; they were all wide awake and watching him. Now it was their turn. "Questions?"

A long silence before one of the students raised his hand. "How can people use the elements for magic in their daily life? Cooking has something to do with fire, and farming with earth, but hunting? What is the element for a tailor?"

"There is no element for a tailor or a hunter. There is no element for cooking, as far as I know, and I have my doubts that a good farmer is simply an untrained earth mage. But then there is no element for healing, yet I have told you that a healer is a sort of mage. There is no element for weaving, yet the sphere of woven fire that holds this college safe from the world, and the world safe from the College, was the work of two mages, and only one was a fire mage.

"The belief that all magic is tied to one of the four elements is both true and false. All magic can indeed be seen as combinations of earth, air, fire and water. But all magic can equally well be seen as combinations of hot, cold, wet and dry, or of woven, dissolved, refined and tempered. It is true that hot magic is combined from air and fire, but equally that fire magic is combined from hot and dry."

This time the students looked more puzzled at the paradox, the central paradox of magical theory, than shocked—except for the girl in back, who was watching him with nothing in her face but careful attentiveness. He wondered if she had failed to follow, which would be a pity. Or perhaps she already knew. Some students came to the College already apprenticed and at least a few witches were technically competent in magery. If most were not that was the fault of his colleagues, and a fault they were finally correcting. If the girl in back had not come with an adequate understanding, at least she could leave with one.

"Explaining how that can be and the simpler implications will take me most of two months, starting here first period tomorrow. For now, the best I can offer is metaphor."

He turned to the broad slate that occupied most of the back wall of the lecture hall, chalk in hand. "Imagine this slate is a map. A is where you are starting. B is where you want to go to."

He drew an arrow pointing up, under it an N for north, a rough distance scale in miles, turned back to the class. "How do you get there?"

The same student who had asked the question raised his hand; Coelus nodded to him to speak.

"Go about six miles east, then two north."

"Yes. Can someone give me another answer?"

No one spoke. Coelus looked at the girl in back; in a moment she raised her hand, a little reluctantly.  "A little less than six miles North-east, almost three miles south-east."


He turned back to the board, drew in her answer as two arrows, turned back to the class. "Which is true? Is point B east and north from point A?"

He held their eyes for a moment, turned back to the board, waved his hand—what they would expect of a mage. The horizontal grid, white on the black slate, appeared suddenly. "Or is it north-east and south-east from point A?"

He stepped to the slate, caught the grid at its bottom edge and swung it up—it pivoted on the lower left corner—until its lines lay along what had been the diagonal. "Class dismissed."
* * *

“How does the new class look?”

Maridon looked up from the papers. “Forty-nine new students, six of them women. Mostly children of minor nobles, tradesmen, small landowners, but there are two farmers’ sons that Dag searched out and sent here. Three are the children of mages, so probably half-trained, or half mistrained, already. Also the daughter of Duke Morgen, who may be a problem. Less power than most, but it might be prudent not to say so.”

Coelus shook his head. “And then when she can’t do things… . I suppose there’s the usual nonsense with names?”

Maridon nodded. “At least there’s only one each Durilil, Georgias, and Helmin. Remember year before last? Three Durilils and two Gilbers. Good thing most people don’t plan on their children being mages, or we would be down to four or five names for the whole class. Far as I can see there’s no truth to it; damn superstition.”

“No truth at all. I went through the school records for the past thirty years; just finished last week. A kid named Durilil is no more likely to end up a fire mage, or Gilber earth, than anyone else. And it’s getting worse—mage names are more common than they were thirty years ago. Why won’t people believe us when we tell them it doesn’t work?”

Maridon contemplated, not for the first time, the limits of his colleague’s formidable intelligence. He might be the best theorist in the college, but understanding people was another matter. “They don’t believe us because they think we are trying to keep down the competition. Too many talented mages and what would become of us?”

“There can’t be too many. Just think of everything we could do if we had five or ten times the trained numbers, five or ten times the power. Put out forest fires before they spread, maybe even do something about plagues. That’s why …”

“That’s why you talked Dag into spending his free year wandering around looking for talent in unexpected places. I know that and you know that, but how may people outside the college know it? People believe what they want to believe.

“But it isn’t all bad. Just think; in fifty years half the newborn boys in the kingdom might be named Coelus.”

Coelus shook his head. “Not even one in a thousand. If I am very lucky, fifty years from now people in the College will remember my work. Nobody else. Theory doesn’t impress ordinary people. They want results, nice showy results. If Durilil had come back with the salamander on a chain, instead of never coming back at all, half the class would be named after him instead of one or two.

“Let me have a look at the admission papers.”

The two fell silent for a few minutes, while Coelus leafed through the stack. At last he looked back up.“That’s very interesting.”

“What? I didn’t see anything special about any of them.”

“That’s what’s interesting. According to Hal we have three or four moderately strong students—one of them named Helmin, just to keep up the superstition, and one of them a find of Dag’s—plus a bunch with enough power to be worth training but not much more, and a few I’m not sure we should have taken. That’s what he saw, but I was watching the class before my first lecture and it isn’t what I saw.”

The other mage looked at him curiously, waited.

“I’ll leave you to see for yourself. Let me know when you’ve spotted him. Or not.”

Maridon noticed the suppressed smile—Coelus was not nearly as subtle as he thought he was—made his own deduction, said nothing.


Chapter 2

The lecturer droned to a halt, put the chalk down, turned to the class. "I hope that is clear. If not, make sure it is by tomorrow; some of this will be used in what we do then. If your own notes are not sufficient, the library has a list of written texts that cover the same material."

He looked them over a moment and then, satisfied, turned and left the room.

Mari looked down at her tablets, pale yellow wax in ebony, the outside panels inlaid with a pattern in gold wire. Other students were jotting final notes in theirs, so she used her stylus to add, in her untidy script, two more notes on wedding garb for a (hypothetical) future wedding.

Not likely to make the lecture any more understandable. Nor, she suspected, were the texts in the library; the one she had tried looking at might as well have been written in archaic Dorayan for all the sense she could make of it. What she needed was a helpful human being to explain things.

One or two of the younger magisters might be possibilities, but probably not this year; that could wait until her first individual tutorial. Getting one of the young men in the class interested in helping her would be easy enough, with ten men to every woman, not to mention her natural advantages. It might also be fun, but on the other hand it could lead to premature complications. At this point she preferred to keep her alternatives open. Better to have all the male students hoping.

The answer was obvious and sitting two chairs away. The girl had no clothes sense and no particular looks, but she seemed pleasant enough if a little shy and quite obviously understood the lecture better than anyone else in the room. She had been transparently puzzled when other students—including, once, Mari—had been unable to answer the magister's questions. When the question was to her she had answered it immediately, clearly, and, judging by the lecturer's response, correctly. By the second half of the lecture he had fallen into a pattern of putting a question to one of the other students and then, if he failed to get a satisfactory response, putting it to Ellen.

As the students got up from their chairs, Mari decided on the direct approach; it seemed most suited to what she could gather about the other. "You seemed to understand all of that much better than I did; would you be willing to join me at lunch and try to explain it?"

Ellen looked up, smiled. "Of course. At the noon bell?"

Mari considered suggesting the cookshop in town instead—there was time enough to get there and back, and the food was better—but decided against it, remembering her mother's advice. The other girl was wearing no jewelry. Her clothes gave no clear sign of rank or wealth. If she was too poor to want to buy lunch when it was free in the college refectory the suggestion would embarrass her; offering to buy it for her might make matters worse. In the setting of the College the girl was her equal—at least her equal—and it was up to Mari to remember that. "At the noon bell then."

* * *

Mari waited until the two were seated at one of the smaller tables that as yet had no other occupants and let Ellen cut a slice from her sausage before putting the first question. "Are we training to be witches or mages? I can't tell."

Ellen considered for a moment. "We are training to use magic. Women who use magic are commonly called witches. Several of the magisters here think they ought to be called mages, that what they do is no different from what men who use magic do."

"But women do different sorts of magic. Everyone knows that. Women do weaving magic and healing magic and things like that. Men are fire mages and earth mages and … ."

"Everyone knows it. But it isn't true. At least, not completely true."

"How can it be both true and not true? I don't understand."

"That was part of what Magister Bertram was trying to explain in his lecture. Most weaving mages are women and most fire mages are men, but that doesn't mean that a man cannot have a talent for weaving or a woman for fire."

Ellen looked around the refectory. It was getting crowded, but so far nobody had joined the two of them at their table. "Which are taller, men or women?"

"Men, of course. Jon over there is taller than I am, and even Edwin is taller than you are."

"But you are taller than Edwin. So men are not taller than women. Not always."

"And men are better at fire magic, but not always?"

Ellen nodded.

"But I know lots of women who are taller than short men. I have never heard of a woman who was a fire mage. Not one."

Ellen thought a moment before answering. "Mages have to be trained. At best, an untrained mage cannot do much with his power. At worst … . Do you know what they call an untrained fire mage?"

Mari shook her head.

"An untrained fire mage is called a salamander, after the fire elemental. Do you know what happens to an untrained fire mage?"

Mari shook her head again.

"Fire without control is dangerous. Either he kills himself by accident—that's what usually happens—or he kills someone else by accident or he burns down a house or barn, which is quite likely to kill people, and then someone else kills him. A boy who starts showing the talent is likely to be recognized before he does any serious damage and, with luck, sent for training. A girl … . Everyone knows girls can't be fire mages."

"That's scary. But if women are hardly ever fire mages, and the ones that do get killed, how do Coelus and Bertram know witches can do fire magic? How do you know?"

"I think Coelus figured it out from basic magical theory, but I'm not sure and explaining it would be hard, since you haven't taken those classes yet. How do I know …?"

She gave the other girl a long, considering look. "How good are you at keeping secrets?"

"Very good, when I want to. My brother tells me all about … things he does. I never tell our parents." She stopped.

"Can you keep a secret for me too?"

Mari nodded. Ellen turned in her seat, holding her hand, palm up, where her body blocked it from the rest of the room. For a moment her hand cupped a flame. "That's how I know."

Mari's eyes widened. She looked back at Ellen. "Yes. I can keep a secret."

"May I join your table, noble lady?"

Both girls looked up. The speaker, a tall student, well dressed, was looking at Mari inquisitively. She nodded assent.

"Joshua son of Maas at your service. How have you been enjoying your first few weeks in this temple of wisdom?"

"Everyone is very nice, but I find the wisdom somewhat opaque. Ellen was just kindly explaining today's lecture to me."

Joshua glanced at Ellen, then back to Mari. "If you ladies wish assistance, I will be happy to provide it. After a year and a few weeks I think I have most of it down and am looking forward to getting out come spring. My father thinks a trained mage would be very useful in his business. What was it that was puzzling you?"

Mari gave Ellen a rueful glance, turned back to Joshua. "I am still puzzled by Magister Coelus' explanation of how magic can be entirely elemental, entirely humeral, entirely natural and entirely combinatorial, all at the same time."

"That I can explain. The elemental points are, of course, the elements: earth, air, fire and water. The natural points are the natures: hot, cold, dry, and wet. Hot is a mixture of fire and air, cold of earth and water, and so on."

"But didn't he also say that fire was a mix of hot and dry? If hot is fire and air, and dry is ...," she looked at the others.

"Fire and earth," Ellen responded. Joshua looked momentarily annoyed.

"Fire and earth. That's right."

Mari continued: "Then a mix of hot and dry ought to have fire and air and fire and earth. That's two fire and one each air and earth. So how can it be pure fire?"

Joshua looked puzzled. "Say that again?"

"A mix of hot and dry ought to have fire and air and fire and earth. That's two fire and one each air and earth. So how can it be pure fire?"

He thought a moment before answering. "That does seem puzzling, but it must be true. I am afraid the explanation is a little complicated for students in their first year, but by the time you finish Magister Coelus's theory course next spring it should be clear enough. That is the bell for the fourth period; my tutor will be expecting me. I hope we can talk more later."

He gave Mari a formal bow, nodded to Ellen, went out the door.

Mari turned back to Ellen. "Do you understand it?"

She nodded. "But I don't think he does. Mixes are a loose way of putting it and misleading, for just the reason you saw. The superposition has phase as well as amplitude; the air and earth cancel when you put hot and dry together with the right phase to get back to fire. How much mathematics have you learned?"

Mari gave her a helpless look. "When I add up numbers I can usually get the same answers twice running."

"There is a class next semester that you could take to get the basics—the math, not the magic theory. Then the real math class next fall, and then Magister Coelus' advanced theory class in the spring. He is supposed to be very good. Mother says he has been responsible for more progress in basic theory than anyone else in the past twenty years."

"Your mother is a witch? Or a mage, I suppose I should say?"

"Mother is a weaving mage, which, outside the College, is a witch. She finds theory fascinating. She taught me as much as she could and then sent me here to learn more. When I'm done I expect she'll want me to come back and teach it to her."

"No wonder you know so much already. It would be a great favor to me if you would keep explaining things; you are much easier to understand than the magisters."

"Of course. Mother says teaching is the best way of really learning things, so it isn't really a favor at all. Besides …”

She stopped a moment, went on. "The magisters want to teach me, which is what they are here for. The boys, or some of them, want to get me to go to bed with them, which is not what they are here for or what I am. I think you are the first person so far who just wants to be friends.

"Now I had better go do the work to get ready for fifth period lecture."

Mari watched her go. One problem solved. The next would be how to politely discourage Joshua. There was nothing wrong with rich merchants or their sons, but she did not think that was what her father was planning for her. And, in this case, hoped not. She wondered if he had forgotten that the schedule for all three years—with tutorials in the fifth and sixth periods, not the fourth—was posted on the refectory wall, or if he simply assumed she had not bothered to read it.