Banner art by Artmetica.
You can find the whole cover art here- the art is gorgeous!
There's also a mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,
Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 8)
"So your disguise is a lack of one?" Raff looked up from the letters he was reading- it turned out that Jonathan, brat though he was, had told the truth about their contents- to see Charity and the rest now garbed in eclectic greens and browns. He was surprised that they'd managed to throw together enough of the correct colors, but being allowed leather armor at least helped the color theme.
"Pretty much- without the conspicuous robe I'm just a woodsy half-elf. It's nice when you get to disguise yourself as yourself." He nodded towards a sheathed sword lying in the grass next to the napping dog; the mouse, wisely, had taken up residence in his pocket again while the cardinal hid somewhere up in the tree branches. "That's about all there is to it."
"Should I bother asking why you have a sword? You know you can't use it, right?"
Raff stood, grabbing the scabbard and attaching it to his belt. "I just can't hit anything with it. Becoming a Messenger didn't mean that I suddenly forgot how to wield it believably should I have to act like I can use it. Besides, it's less awkward than lugging around a bow and quiver I can't use. I notice you guys didn't think far enough ahead to realize a relevant weapon might help out a costume."
For the first time since he'd met her, Charity smiled sheepishly as she began unscrewing the silver fox from atop her wooden staff. This she stowed carefully in her pack before retorting, "What we have will have to do. At least our quarterstaves can pass as walking sticks." That's one good thing about being clerics of a mischief god, Raff supposed; Hermes was one of the few deities that didn't mind his flock hiding their holy symbols- or at least hiding them in the name of stealth and roguishness.
Charity turned to glare at the napping canine. "Now is the dog going to lead us or not?"
The dog opened one eye and yawned. "Pushy, isn't she."
Raff coughed to hide his laughter. "Ye don't know the half of it." Catching the woman's expression, he said, "I was talking to the dog, not you. We're coming. Right, dog?"
As the group set off, the dog and Raff leading, the half-elf asked the canine quietly, "Do you have a name? I feel silly calling you 'dog' all the time."
"Isn't talking to me already silly? And I am a dog."
"Both very good points. But you need a name-"
Raff's musings were interrupted by a well-camouflaged shape swinging itself down from the trees and landing lightly in front of him, nearly causing the half-elf to jump out of his skin. The figure had an arrow nocked on his bow, but wasn't targeting it- yet. And as Raff knew, one visible wood elf probably meant another half dozen hidden away who were aiming.
"Told you wood elves were near," the dog chimed in ever-so-helpfully as Raff tried to get his heart to stop racing. He silently berated himself for not noticing this elf sooner, Some almost-ranger I am. As Raff got a good look at the stranger, he noticed both that the elf was his height, making the newcomer fairly tall for an elf, and why he'd missed seeing him- well, other than being distracted by the dog- the elf's clothing and green tattoos blended him into the forest even better than the garb Raff wore.
I wonder if those are real tattoos; that must have hurt- rolling his eyes at his own short attention span, Raff recalled the correct greeting for this situation. Bowing low to the very green elf in front of him, and presumably the ones hidden nearby, he said, "Hail tree-friends, may the peace of the woods be with you" in his native Elvish. He hoped that this elf happened to know that dialect because he'd never had a chance to learn more than a few words in Wood Elvish.
The elf seemed to understand. Nodding his head, he gave the expected reply of "Well met traveler, from whence do you come this day?" in an only slightly accented version of the same language.
Raff had a moment of panic as he tried to recall what the last line to be said was; it had been years since he'd last recited this greeting. It was on the tip of his tongue... Something about pines and air... Aha! "From the forests and pines of my home where the air is good and all is well," he finished. That had always seemed silly to him- his forest didn't even have pines- which was likely why it was the line he never could keep straight.
His slight hesitation didn't seem to bother the wood elf, so possibly he hadn't caught it; the elf nodded again and when he reached over with a vine-patterned hand to grasp Raff's arm, the cleric knew that the disguise had worked. Now to just explain his traveling companions who likely weren't believably fluent in Elvish and certainly didn't know the woodland greeting...
Or maybe just not that last part. Mina stepped forward, echoing Raff's bow, and said, "Well met. My comrades and I are on our first mission under the tutorage of Rafion, and we were wondering if you could assist us with our task" in flawless High Elvish. The half-elf's jaw dropped. Why didn't she say she could speak it? I could have helped her with an elven disguise; she's certainly tiny enough.
Still dumbfounded, Raff wasn't sure how to jump back into the conversation and certainly didn't have a good explanation handy to explain their quest. Luckily Mina seemed to have a lie already thought up, "We were asked by druids to the north to research the mating habits of dragons in the area; a rather arduous task, to be sure, but we will not be allowed to reach the full rank of ranger until we complete this."
She's good, Raff thought. Something told him that Charity was about to open her mouth and demand to know what was being said, though- gods forbid someone speak a language she was unfamiliar with in her presence- so he hastily took a couple of steps backwards to join her. Sure enough, he reached her side in time for her to ask "What-".
He silenced her quickly with a jab of his elbow to her side and whispered, "Be quiet. Mina's giving a very good lie as to why we're looking for a dragon and I want to hear."
Charity nodded and remained silent, but his retreat caused Raff to miss the wood elf's response. He was able to catch Mina's sigh and her next statement of "It does seem like the novices always get the most tedious quests, does it not? But you say there is rumor of one in the pine forests to the west of here?"
Once again Raff missed the elf's response, this time as Jonathan leaned over to whisper, "Are they finished yet? Are they going to tell us about that dragon or not?"
Before the half-elf could answer, it was Tomas's turn to inquire, "And what is she saying about trees and something west? That's all I caught in there."
Raff rolled his eyes up to give a silent prayer asking for the patience to deal with such annoying traveling companions. He may not have the greatest attention span, but at least he could stay silent for a few minutes. "If you guys would stop talking, I'd be able t'tell you," he hissed.
Tomas had the courtesy to look abashed, but Jonathan only scowled as Raff was finally able to hear Mina say "Thank you for your assistance; I am very grateful for your aid. I must now speak with my companions to explain this situation as a few of them do not yet know this language well."
The wood elf nodded and bowed low to her. His next actions surprised Raff; turning to face the group, the wood elf dipped his head and said in highly accented and broken Common, "Dangerous dragons often be, but tell Kerethiana that with our blessings you go and that vouch for you Caledhrad does. Young rangers, on this task well do we wish you."
Then with a wink at Mina, he stepped back into the shadow of the trees and vanished into the greenery as his mottled greens and browns seemed to become the foliage. Raff glanced at the spot uncertainly, but even with his trained eyes he couldn't tell if the elf was still watching them or not. Obviously the elves did not take them for a threat, but judging from Mina's blush, that particular elf could still be sticking around for a different reason.
"You charmed him or something, didn't you?" Raff asked her suspiciously. Having used that trick more than a few times himself, he was a pretty good judge of noticing when someone had just tried flirtation combined with magic to get desired information, even if he hadn't witnessed the whole exchange.
"I wouldn't say that. He was just friendly and helpful," Mina replied with a shrug, obviously trying to pretend that she hadn't been the cause- probably because Tomas was now glaring in the direction he thought the elf had left. And left was right, or correct, anyway; Raff was amused to notice that the young man was glaring in the wrong direction.
"Now where is this dragon?" Jonathan demanded, "Some of us just want to get this over with, you know. Who cares how he gave her the information?"
Now Raff had to do all he could to keep from laughing at the dirty looks both Tomas and Mina shot at the boy. This drama was fairly amusing, or at least more amusing than anything else on this trek, but the teen did have a point. Apparently Charity agreed, because she commented before Raff could get his smirk under control, "To the west, correct?" At Mina's nod, she continued, "Then west we go."
A thought occurred to Raff, "And we should get away from prying ears as soon as possible. Nice as these elves seem to be, we don't want them learning of our true mission," he whispered, "Obviously we'll need to explain it to the dragon- I'd recommend not in disguise, in case it doesn't work and she becomes angry- but the less who learn of it, the better." Not that he thought a map would be of particular use or attraction to a wood elf; they rarely left their forests and from what he knew, not many of them bothered to learn how to read, even in their own language. Still, it was better to be safe. Look at me, being all rational and thoughtful, he thought with mock-pride.
As if echoing his thoughts, Charity said, "That's an impressive statement. We'll turn you into a good, levelheaded Messenger yet."
Raff looked at her questioningly, wondering if she meant to be rude, and saw that she was grinning. "We'll see about that," he retorted, mirroring the grin.