DargonZine 25, Issue 3

Ol Tamboch Narhin, Thread 3: Schooling



This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Ol Tamboch Narhin

All magic is the same and springs from one of only two sources: the natural world or the divine.

Yes, yes, I’m sure you’ve been told different. Believe me, and I’m in a position to know, what you’ve been told is wrong.

It is true that every single magic worker, from the conjurer with more than nimble fingers helping her trick the gullible to the most puissant magus with his world-shaping spells, uses magic differently. Everyone approaches magic differently, has their own understanding of it, manifests it in the way best suited to themselves. But fundamentally, beneath all of that infinite diversity, the source is the same.

Teaching magic, therefore, becomes a tricky prospect. If the student and the teacher, the apprentice and the master, do not see magic in somewhat the same way, the prospect of the novice learning anything is vanishingly small. This makes being careful in choosing whom you take on as a student vital. Unless, of course, you use a different pattern than the master-takes-apprentice model.

The next thread in the tapestry takes us back to the Empire of Beinison, south of Baranur, about 140 years ago.

 

Qawm wanted to be a hero. When his supposedly-dead mother returned to take him away with her, he thought his dreams were going to be realized.

Qawm tried to be brave as the tall woman on the big, brown horse led him away from his home. It wasn’t easy, but the stories all said that heroes didn’t feel fear, so he did his best to be heroic about it. He followed her on his plodding mule, holding her lean, hard hand, and she never spoke a word to him, nor looked back at him.

The moment they had passed beyond eyesight of the village, En-Allodurul stopped her horse, and Qawm’s mule followed suit. She dropped his hand and dismounted, then uncoiled a length of rope already tied at one end to the back of her saddle. She slipped the other end into the mule’s bridle and tied a loose knot, then remounted her horse and started moving again. Qawm supposed he should be thankful for the new arrangement, but it did put her at even more of a distance from him.

They rode just like that for half a day before coming upon the rest of his mother’s party. A company of people rushed out from a trio of wagons to welcome her back like returning royalty. Qawm heard her name repeated enough times to be sure he would never forget it as each one greeted her and assured her that whatever that person was in charge of had been taken care of completely. Once the welcoming rush was over, his mother slid gracefully from her horse’s back and walked away in the company of her people, leaving him sitting on his mule, alone.

A moment later, two people came out from behind one of the wagons. They weren’t dressed as well as the others, but they did wear the same badge: a chevron between two small circles. They came directly over to Qawm, and the shorter one said, “So, you’re the kid. Hmph.”

The taller one said, though not any more kindly, “Get on down here, kid. We’ve got plenty of things to get done before we hit the trail again, and getting you stowed is only one of them.”

Qawm slid inexpertly off the mule and almost fell when his legs wouldn’t quite straighten out after so long wrapped around the barrel of the beast. The shorter servant caught him by the arm, expertly but not gently, and led him toward the wagons. The tall one led the mule away.

When they reached the rearmost wagon, the short servant said, “All right, up you go kid. You’ll be riding on this wagon until we get to Breil.”

Qawm said, hesitantly, “My name’s Qawm.”

“Yeah, yeah, fine, whatever. I hope you can take care of yourself on the road, figure out when meals are served, find your own way behind a tree when we stop for a rest. I don’t want to have to nursemaid you all the way there.”

The short man walked away, grumbling, and Qawm wondered whether this was how heroes usually started out.

 

***

 

Qawm rode in his mother’s caravan for sixteen days, and in all that time, never spoke to her once. Only the two servants who had first spoken to him ever paid him any attention, and it wasn’t hard to tell that neither was happy with that situation. He wasn’t pleased with being little more than another piece of baggage, but he was in such a strange situation that he had no idea what else to do.

He did manage to learn things along the way, the principal one being that he really didn’t know much at all about anything. His first day, he learned a very important piece of information, which was that his mother was a magus, one of the elite users of magic. If he had known anything about anything, he would have been able to tell that just from her name, the “en” prefix being an honorific signifying that status.

Only gradually did Qawm manage to learn that the caravan’s destination, and thus his own, was the Trevrai School for war mages, situated in the Fortress of Breil. Instead of anticipation, though, Qawm only felt disappointment. One of those few things he had learned in his first almost-fifteen years was that magic wielders were never heroes.

After all, when traveling players acted out legends and tales, the ones who saved villages, who rescued the poor and weak, who did good deeds, were the sword-swinging heroes. Wizards, magicians, and mages were always the ones in tall towers handing out quests, or capturing the weak, or menacing those villages the heroes saved. And if real magi were like his mother, rather than the robe-wearing menaces, crystal-ball-staring sages, or wand-pointing jokes in the plays, Qawm didn’t wonder why there were no stories about them.

On the sixteenth day, the caravan stopped before the huge stone gates of the impressive, imposing Fortress of Breil. Situated in south-central Beinison, the fortress had once been the empire’s southern border and it had served its purpose well until that boundary had been pushed beyond it. Now the high walls extending outward from the forbidding crag that backed it only enclosed the Trevrai School. Looking up at the massive construction, Qawm figured that finding a new use for the fortress was better than tearing it down or letting it go to waste by sitting empty.

En-Allodurul’s party gathered before the gates as they opened with ponderous slowness. Even Qawm joined the formation, standing next to his mother, who didn’t acknowledge him in the least. When the fortress gates were wide enough to admit the entire group, they began walking forward, meeting a similar group who were emerging to welcome them.

Several regal individuals surrounded by a throng of servants and helpers surged out between the gates. The two groups met and merged, Qawm’s mother joining the other exalted individuals, the courtiers mingling with each other and chatting away. Absolutely no one paid any attention to Qawm, and he was left behind for a moment until his short and tall keepers came up behind him and hustled him after the others.

The gate courtyard of the fortress was large and empty. As far as Qawm could see, no effort had been made to turn it into anything other than what it had always been: a staging area for troops moving in or out of the gates. As the magi and courtiers continued through the court and into one of the stark, plain buildings, Qawm’s keepers each gave him a pat on the shoulder, and the taller one gave him a wan smile. Then they turned around and went back to the wagons, which were still outside the gates.

Left alone one more time, Qawm wondered if he was supposed to guess where to go and what to do next. Before he had a chance to make a decision, a weedily-thin old man came around a corner and straight over to him. The man squinted as he looked Qawm up and down, and then, looking just as unimpressed as his mother had back in Lonial, said, “You definitely qualify.” His voice was as thin and weedy as his body, but Qawm had no trouble hearing him when he said, “Come with me.”

He followed the old man around that same corner and through a different door than his mother and the others had gone. They went down a hallway and into a small, square room with six more doors besides the one they had entered by.

The thin man turned to him and said, “Do you see, hear, smell, taste, or feel magic?”

Qawm just shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The old man nodded and said, “No training at all, I see. Fine, fine. Tell me, then, have you noticed anything strange lately, perhaps over the last few months or years? Something that you never noticed before, but now is always there?”

Qawm realized what the man meant, and said, “Oh, yes. Sparks, I see sparks!”

“Good. Come this way.” They went through one of the doors into another small room, and this time there were pictures on the other doors. “Choose the picture that looks closest to what you call ‘sparks’,” the old man said.

The pictures were all very different: waves, circles, lines, dots, and the like. He had to think for a bit, because he didn’t see exactly what his sparks looked like in these pictures, but he eventually decided and walked over to the door with the dots. The old man waved him through it with a small smile.

They continued through a few more rooms, choosing dots inside a figure rather than surrounding a figure, then choosing dots that moved rather than were stationary, and finally dots that were varying in strength depending on where they were seen. At the end, the old man said, “Well, you’re lucky that we have a beginning class you will fit into, as it means less work on your part catching up. I’ll record your results — Qawm, yes? — right after I show you to your study hall.”

 

***

 

Just that quickly, Qawm was a student. He was two months behind most of his peers, and though he was given direction on how to bridge the gap, he got no help in the process. When he asked after his mother, thinking to get some extra tutoring, he was shocked to learn that she had left the day after she’d arrived, without saying anything else to her son. Cast completely adrift in a wholly unfamiliar situation, Qawm had little choice but to apply himself to matters at hand.

Though he was completely unprepared for anything like the Trevrai School, he did his best. The lessons were basic and easily understood and didn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with magic as far as Qawm could tell. Instead of stealing minds, killing from afar, or even just lighting a candle by looking at it, he was doing exercises in concentration, in deep-breathing, in staring at something until he could describe it perfectly with his eyes closed. He never seemed to have time to ask questions like “why?”. Not of his teachers, certainly, who were frighteningly remote, much as his mother had been. Nor of his fellow students, none of whom were the least bit friendly to him. They ignored him whenever possible and acted superior to him when they couldn’t, using their whole two months’ worth of advanced knowledge as their reason. So he put his questions aside and just did as he was told, too confused and scared to care whether it was all for a good reason or not.

As he was busily engaged in bringing his education up to the level of his peers, another new student was added to his tier. Terim, a girl several years younger than Qawm, entered the school with even less fanfare than he had. She, too, found herself overwhelmed by the strangeness of the lessons and the lack of aid in bringing herself up to speed, a fact she was very vocal about. Qawm wanted to help her, but he was too confused trying to understand it all himself to pass anything on. Terim fell farther and farther behind, failed the periodic tests again and again, and by the end of Qawm’s first month she had been summarily ejected from the school and the fortress with nothing more than the robes on her back and with leagues to go to the nearest village.

 

***

 

By the time Qawm had been at Trevrai for three months, he was easily keeping pace with the rest of his tier and he had settled into the routine of the school. Class went from the morning meal through to the evening meal with only brief breaks along the way. Everyone was given the same lessons in the same order without regard to how quickly or slowly the lesson was comprehended. There were obviously a few who needed more time, and sometimes they got it from another student but never from the teachers.

There were also a few who were so quick to grasp the lessons that they found class time boring. The teachers swiftly and ruthlessly put down any hijinks this caused, though only within the confines of the classroom. Normally there wasn’t enough spare time in the day for mischief, as the students were sent to bed very soon after the evening meal was over. However, when one of the three superior students, Hoshan, Aralla, and Edok, were verbally humiliated in class, or worse, physically punished, they usually found some way to release their frustrations on the only people they could: their fellow students.

The brutality of the bullies was common knowledge, spread by whispers and by the physical evidence of splinted arms or black eyes and bruises. The whole situation was made worse by the fact that it wasn’t anything that Qawm’s peers were doing that brought the elite’s wrath, especially when the cruelty began to be a nightly routine, rather than an occasional beating to make the bullies feel better about being humiliated.

Qawm nursed his anger night after night as he heard them prowling the halls, trying to push himself out of bed to go avenge the wrongs done against his fellow students, wrongs that the staff of the school completely ignored. He wanted to be a hero, but it was harder than he’d fantasized it would be. On the night he lay immobile in his bed, listening to the trio in the next room making Oream cry, he started to hate himself as much as he hated them.

Several days later, he encountered the trio by accident as he was returning to his room from the garderrobe. He came upon an open door, which was an infraction of the rules, and he quickly looked inside. They were inside, Hoshan and Aralla stripping the robes off Lideak, whose room it was, Edok standing watch. Qawm caught Edok’s eye, and the older boy walked right up to the doorway. He frowned at Qawm, and said, “You never saw us, Qawm, right? Good. Just be glad you’re En-Allodurul’s kid, or we’d be dragging you in here to be sure you kept quiet.”

Qawm scurried away in mortal fear: he had never been the object of the elite’s attention before, and he was astonished that they even knew his name. The only reason there wasn’t piss dribbling down his leg was that he had just used the garderrobe. He got back to his room, slammed his door, and huddled shivering underneath his sheets. Gradually, he recalled the rest of what Edok had said. He’d never been thankful for his mother before, especially after she dragged him away from his life into this strangeness, and then abandoned him completely. But it now seemed that he owed her some measure of protection from the bullies. He wondered why he wasn’t happier about that.

 

***

 

By the end of the first year, Qawm had learned to read and write, to do all manner of strange mental exercises, and finally they were beginning to teach magic. Lighting a candle by touching the wick, wafting a feather off a table with a brief puff of air: it wasn’t much like the tales, but it was more than his father’s apprentice Tavin could ever hope to do. He wondered if his father would be proud before he recalled the kinds of stories Yarol’d always told about evil, nasty wizards. Qawm remembered the tear in his father’s eye when he’d been taken away; was it from the loss of his son, or the fate his son was being taken to?

On the day of the progress examination, Qawm performed completely within expectations. He sometimes wondered if he could do more things than he had been taught, but he never tried anything on his own. He was content with his progress, and secure in the knowledge that he could learn what was being taught when it was offered. He had nothing to prove to himself, and no one else to prove anything to.

The elite three had contrived to take their practical tests last. They went to the front of the room as they did everything: together. Standing in front of a table full of candles and feathers, sheets of vellum and cones of incense, Edok looked to his companions, and they each performed the four tests in concert. They touched wicks and produced light. They each moved a single feather from the middle of the pile off the table without touching it. They laid fingers to vellum and traced out symbols that remained after their touch had passed. Finally, they tapped incense cones alight, snuffed the flame without contact, and caused the rising smoke to spiral upward into a perfect ring.

The examiner nodded, indicating that they had all passed. Qawm expected the three to turn and sit down, smug smiles on their faces since they had all done excellently at the tasks. They smiled, but didn’t move. Edok said, “Now.” All three put their hands on the edge of the table, and amazing things began to happen.

Every candle burst into flame from base to tip, melting rapidly. The pile of feathers flew up in a cyclone motion, then formed into the figure of a dancing woman, quite well detailed for being made of plumes. The incense cones started to dance across the table top, each one beginning to smoke a different color. The sheets of vellum folded themselves into the shapes of birds and flew into the flames of the melting candles, and were burned up. Fortunately, the incense smoke bent over to wreath the ashen birds, because from the wafts of scent that escaped, burning vellum smelled bad.

Qawm watched the spectacle with the rest of the tier, mouth open. His only thought was, “Now that is magic!” Gradually, the display ran down. The candles were just puddles of wax, the vellum and the incense were ash, and the dancing woman collapsed back into a pile of feathers, right in the middle of the wax.

“Finished?” the examiner asked, and Qawm was sure that he was not as impressed as the rest of the tier. The elite three had been turning to face the class — Qawm figured they were going to take a bow — but they all snapped back to face the questioner. “Nothing excuses this flagrant waste of time and resources. Everything you just destroyed on this table took time to make, not to mention the cost of the materials. Your parents will be billed accordingly.

“As for the excessive use of ability, if you thought to impress me or anyone else at this school, you were sadly mistaken. You have an assigned path for the next four years, and you will follow that path without deviation. Those who sit behind you have all fared better in this test than you three. You will be stripped of all privileges for the next month, and be strictly confined to your rooms for the same amount of time. Discipline is as much part of what we teach as magic, and it is clear that none of you have a clue as to what that is.

“And don’t think to use your connections to your magus parent to influence this or any other decision about your future, you young brats. Your parents have given you totally into our care and you have no appeal on that count. Now go to your rooms.”

The elite three stumbled out of the room, looking as confused and cowed as any of their victims by the unexpected turn of events. Qawm wasn’t surprised that each of them had magus parents; how had Edok known of his mother, after all? He was surprised that the school was so ruthless in quelling overachievement, but he supposed he shouldn’t have been, given how measured the lessons had always been.

The examiner looked to the rest of the tier and said, “Good work today, good luck in the coming years. You are dismissed until evening meal.” Then he left the room.

Qawm stood up and cheered with everyone else, elated at the comeuppance the elite three had received. He only hoped that they couldn’t hold a grudge for a whole month.

 

***

 

Four years later, Qawm stood in front of the same table and performed his final examinations. He was confident that he knew what he had to know, and he executed each trial with skill and finesse. He succeeded again and again, and when the last one was accomplished without taxing either his knowledge or his capabilities, he knew that he was ready to graduate.

The examiner, a woman this time, smiled at him and said, “Very good. Would you like to try the advanced test?”

Qawm had put careful consideration into the question long before entering the room, and he knew his answer. He smiled back, said, “No, thank you,” and returned to his seat, passing Lideak as she went forward.

He looked around the room at what remained of his tier. Ten of the twenty-two that had been in the room he had first been shown to were still sitting around him. Curiously enough, none of the attrition over the five years had happened at the annual examinations. The lessons had gotten harder and more complex over the years, exploring more and more avenues of magic, and there were times when one or another of his peers just couldn’t keep up beyond a certain point. At times, it seemed as though the pupil had the ability to grasp the lesson if only it had been explained slightly differently. Occasionally, Qawm had encountered that problem himself, when the specifics of an exercise just didn’t make sense to him, though he could see the possibilities in the outcome. Fortunately, he had managed to bridge those few gaps in the presentation of the exercise well enough to still be here. Not everyone was so lucky.

The elite three were still in the tier and once again, they were last to be summoned to the testing. Edok went up first, as they were no longer permitted to test together. Qawm recalled the terror of the elite’s first three years — they had, in fact, held a grudge for much longer than a month after that first annual examination — and the incident that had ended it. Oream, who had the room next to Qawm’s, had eventually had enough of their abuse and one day early in the fourth year when they next came for him, he stabbed Aralla in the chest with a knife he had shaped with magic. Hoshan had reacted instinctively, snapping Oream’s neck, while Edok ran for a healer. Aralla had survived, but the aftermath had resulted in severe punishments on all three bullies, and permanent monitoring to make sure that they didn’t pursue any vendettas. The school could be as efficient in punishment as it was in teaching, and the elite three never caused a problem again.

Edok breezed through his test, and when the examiner asked about advanced testing, he nodded. The resulting test was very subtle, and obviously very difficult from what Qawm could see of the sweat breaking out on Edok’s brow. Silent moments stretched, until finally both Edok and the examiner sighed. “Very good,” the examiner said, and Edok returned to his seat with a smile on his face.

Aralla and Hoshan quickly followed, accepted the advanced testing, and passed. The final examination was over for his tier. The examiner said, “Good work, everyone. You have two days until the caravan to Cabildo leaves.” With that, she walked out.

Qawm could barely believe it. With just that much ceremony, he was a graduate of the Trevrai School. He was a war-mage! In two days, he would be leaving for the capital of Beinison, the grand city of Cabildo. He wondered, briefly, whether he could have passed the advanced test that four of his peers had passed. Then he shrugged off the question. He was just as happy not to be going to the Magus Academy, and not only because the elite three would be there. He had always wanted to be a hero, but that wasn’t going to happen now because he was a mage. Given the gossiped stories he’d heard, and the examples he’d seen from his cold mother to the cruel elite three, he had no wish to get as far from his dream as being a magus would put him.

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