Salamander: Theory and Practice
To the late Patri Pugliese
My consultant on cleverness and much
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,
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
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
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.
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
He looked them over a moment and then, satisfied, turned and left the
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
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
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
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
"And men are better at fire magic, but not always?"
"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
"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
"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
"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.