"Name?" Estelle asked, a little while later, as the young man helped her into a small tent at the edge of the gathering she'd tried to avoid.
"Belthor, son of Morse," he told her. "And you?"
"I'd prefer not to say," she replied. Belthor frowned.
"Would I be wearing a mask if I wanted to give out my name willy-nilly?" Estelle counter-asked. Belthor nodded after a moment.
"Oh. Okay." He eased her to a seat on top of a trunk, and now Estelle took the time to look left and right. The tent had few enough items in it - this was definitely a traveling company - but what was here was arranged haphazardly, scattered left and right and giving Estelle the impression of a young man whose life took place very much outside of this small space and who never intended to share it with anyone.
"How are you planning on getting me home, Belthor?" Estelle asked.
"Oh, um." Belthor paused to grab what looked like a pair of trousers from the ground and throw it behind the first large thing he passed. "Uh, just let me..." He kicked an empty bottle under a spread bedroll. "I don't usually have company."
"I'll survive," Estelle said, patience starting to wear thin. "Plan?"
"Oh, well." Belthor swallowed. "Chartreuse looks to be about your size. I can slip over to her tent-"
"You mean Flowers?"
"Yes, she likes those kind of dresses." Belthor relocated his thoughts after a moment. "I can lift a dress of hers, and a bag to put your...uh, outfit in. You can walk on through Rosa like nothing's the matter. Probably even catch a carriage."
"Three hundred people have come through this little clearing today," Belthor said. "We keep a bit of a protective charm up to dampen scents and roll them all together into a nondescript...blended smell. They can't find you from me in here."
"Why?" Estelle asked.
"This is Master Kulkas' company," Belthor said, very earnestly. "And some wizard-hating creatures can track scents. It's only in our interests to protect ourselves."
"So you're a wizard, Belthor?"
"What? Oh, no! No!" He shook his head. "I'm only fifteen! I mean, um...I'm from a little town, very far away from here, about a million miles from any important places. But I always liked magic stories, you know? So I kind of taught myself some of the art, and...well, one day, a recruiter wanders through the town, and hey, I impressed him, and he takes me to the Grand School of Magic in the north."
"An initiate," Belthor corrected. "There are four of us. Whoever impresses Master Kulkas the most gets a staff."
"And then you...become a wizard?" Estelle asked.
"Oh, heavens, no," Belthor said. "That gives us the right to go to the Academy for real, though. Take classes with all the masters...all that. Then, once we've proceeded far enough there, we get our wands."
"What's the difference between a staff and a wand?" Estelle asked.
"Size," was Belthor's immediate response, before he reddened considerably. "Well, um. To use magic, you've got to have runes...you'd know all about that."
Estelle glanced at the tent flap. Her pursuers were likely scouring the woods where she had taken out Belthor's companions. She needed them to move on.
"I have time," she said, rubbing her head through her helmet.
"Oh...uh, okay." Belthor glanced around. "Uh. Do you want something to drink? Eat?"
Estelle's throat was very dry. "Sure."
"I think I..." Belthor fished a little bag of carrots from the next best thing to nowhere, and then a bottle too dark for Estelle to tell what was in it. "Here you go."
"Carrots?" she asked, but that didn't stop her from taking it all gratefully. "Thank you, Belthor, son of Morse."
"I don't eat meat," Belthor said. "I do no harm to the world. Or, I try, at least. So yes...carrots. And water."
Water. Estelle could live with water. She opened her helmet enough to expose her mouth but not the rest of her face, and ate and drank. "So, runes?"
"Runes," Belthor agreed, with a little jump. "Uh, each god or goddess, major or minor or forgotten, has a rune. And you have to have that rune to invoke their power. You carve it into your staff, or onto your wand, see."
"But some people use magic without either," Estelle pointed out. "Like Flowers."
"Tattoos," Belthor said. "You can get runes tattooed onto your body."
"Then why doesn't everyone?"
"Because only the masters of each deity's reclusive monastic orders know their rune," Belthor said solemnly. "Even if I had a rune tattooed on me...oh, actually, here." He rolled his sleeve back, and Estelle blinked as she saw a large...squareish shape inked onto his bicep.
"Uh...what is it?" she asked after a moment, when she couldn't apply any further level of description to it than squareish.
"It's the rune of the Goddess of Healing, Nerien," Belthor explained. "I mean, to me? It looks intricate and beautiful and complex. I'm guessing you just saw a square-like shape."
"Yes." Estelle blinked as pieces connected in her mind. "It appears as one thing to some people and something else to others, doesn't it?"
"It appears in its full glory to those its patron deems worthy of knowing it," Belthor said, and Estelle paused. Again, he reddened. "Not that you aren't worthy, you know, but...um. Each god has criteria. And they make wizards go on quests to learn the runes. Only the oldest of the masters know all of them, and they can't teach runes to others for the same reason you can't see the glory of Nerien's art."
"Then how does a magic school work?"
"They teach basic spells, the kind that belong to the very minor gods who don't stand on ceremony so much as the major gods," Belthor explained. "And they teach theory of magic. Histories of the orders. Personalities of the gods, so you know what you're getting into. Advisers talk to you about what order you should seek runes and patronage in. Some people come in with natural abilities, too. We call them-"
"...yes," Belthor finished, a little nonplussed. "How did you know that?"
"I've been around a few places," Estelle said by way of non-answer.
"Oh." Belthor blinked. "Well, the thing is, anyone can carve anything on a staff, or a wand. Wands are shorter, handier, more powerful - but not as many runes. Tattoos can only be put on by the various orders' masters. Plus you can't have opposing gods' tattoos next to each other, but magic tattoos all have to be connected in one big artwork...it becomes a puzzle."
Estelle filed that away. "So how do you impress the master and get your staff?"
"Lots of things," Belthor said. "Just...you can be great at magic, or you can impress him with your knowledge, or you can do something impressive on the trip. Or you can get recommended by someone along the way, someone Master Kulkas would listen to. Someone weighty."
Estelle nodded. "So it's a competition. Hence why your buddies-"
"Yeah." Belthor shrugged. "Sometimes it gets rough. If I couldn't handle it, I wouldn't have come along when Master Kulkas offered me a chance."
"So why didn't you fight them with magic?" Estelle asked.
"Because I only have Nerien's rune," Belthor said. "I don't know many truly powerful spells. All I can do is heal, not harm. Not that there's a problem with that. I quite appreciate that kind of power. It just...isn't so useful in a battle."
Estelle nodded. She shifted her weight and took a long drink.
"You...look like you hurt," Belthor said slowly. "What happened to you?"
"Long story." That was as far as Estelle wanted to go.
"You got in a fight, didn't you? Is that why people are after you?"
"Kid," she said, and only realized how patronizing that sounded after she'd already leaned forward, "if I really wanted to talk about it to someone I'd just met, don't you think I'd already have broached the topic?"
Belthor paused. "Oh. Right. That makes sense." He inhaled. "Um. Can I...well, it's kind of...I just...I'm trying to-"
"What?" Estelle bit off.
"You really look like you hurt," Belthor finally said. "And I do have the rune of the Goddess of Healing. I can soothe your pain and speed your recovery."
Estelle hesitated. She glanced down at her burning ribs.
"What would it entail?"
"It, um." He swallowed. "You'd have to...take off your shirt. Just far enough for me to touch the wounds, that's it, I swear! Skin contact. That's all. And then you could just sit back and I'd do the rest."
Estelle raised one eyebrow at the young man, but if she'd really felt threatened by him, she'd have taken her chances on the main road. He felt like a kindly, perhaps a little over-awkward teenager, not a convincing predator in disguise.
Then again, he'd be a piss-poor disguised predator if his disguise didn't work...still, Estelle felt very secure that she could break any dozen or two of his bones whenever she felt the urge to do so, even in her diminished state. There was a lot of comfort in that feeling.
"Okay," Estelle said. She paused to close up her helmet just in case, then reached down and opened her chestpiece. She pulled the sides apart, gasping as her sides lit up from the relieved pressure. Her hand snaked down and she pulled up her sweat-and-riverwater stained shirt underneath to reveal her stomach.
"Oh, my." Belthor knelt before her, hands up by his head as he hesitated. "I, uh. Okay. I'm going to...just going to put my hands on your sides, right where those bruises are. Just...resting them there. Nothing else."
"Noted," Estelle said, hiding a smile at how careful the initiate was. She wondered if she had the honor of being the first woman he'd ever seen undress even a little bit.
"Okay." He touched her, and she hissed through her teeth at the pain. Belthor swallowed and paled, but he didn't pull back. "Nerien!"
Pale white light washed over her stomach. Estelle fought down a cry as the pain redoubled, as if it was angry at the attempt to subdue it...and then it very well did subside, almost completely. Just like that, it was over, and Belthor very quickly lifted his hands and stepped back.
"You're half-healed," he said. "I couldn't do more. But I did numb the entire area, so you can make it home without limping."
"Thank you, son of Morse," Estelle said, examining her less-bruised stomach.
"Let me just go...steal that dress," Belthor finally said. "Then I'll leave and you can change and slip out without me seeing who you are."