Old Nel paused to gaze at the attentive faces packed into the common room of the Riverbend Inn. It was not often that Old Nel had the energy to tell his stories anymore, being as old as he was, so when he did nearly the entire village came out the hear him.
Old Nel was in truth, well beyond old, or even ancient for that matter. He was a knarled as a tangleroot tree and some say as old as the forest itself. No one in the village even remembered a time when Old Nel wasn't called Old Nel. He simply always was as he is, and would remain that way until the world stopped turning. But Old Nel remembered a time when he used to tell his stories nightly in front of that small, cozy fireplace in the common room. Now the village was lucky if the withered man made an appearance once each moon.
Silence held the enraptured audience as the elder recounted one of his best stories, the Fall of the Six Cities, his quiet pauses broken only the cackling of the fire and the soft noises made by Snake honing his daggers in the flickering shadows in the back of the room. Snake's nature used to disturb the villagers, until naught but a few winters past. Bandits had seized Shade's Veil, imprisoning the villagers in the inn as the bandits ransacked their homes. The terrified villagers huddled together in fear in the very same room that Nel told his story this evening. After a short time, the bandit raid fell silent, and the door slowly swung open. Snake stood silent in the moonlight, his face unreadable as he gazed at the villagers. Without a word, he turned and dissapeared back into his dwelling on the outskirts of the village. When the villagers found the courage to emerge from their shelter, all of the raiders were simply gone. Snake has never revealed his actions that dark night, and no one has gathered the courage to ask. None of the villagers will dispute that he has been a hero to the village ever since that night.
Old Nel's gaze drifted across the audience, his weary eyes settling on a table near the back of the room and its two battle-scarred occupants. Richard and Takoda had both arrived in Shade's Veil less than two moons ago, though by very different means. Takoda had washed up unconcious and near the brink of death on the southern bank of the Blue Serpent near the village. The blacksmith's daughter, Sasha, had found him while washing clothes in the river. She and her father, Hale, were able to nurse him back to health, although he seems to have lost all memory of his past. While aiding in his recovery, they found a small strip of leather branded with the word "Takoda" hung from a cord around his neck, and this became his name ever since.
Richard speaks almost as little of his past as Takoda, and seems to think he can find his own amnesia at the bottom of a flagon, drinking any and all alcohol he can wrap his lips around. When he arrived at Shade's Veil, he was haggard and travel-weary, looking as though he hadn't seen a good night's sleep in weeks. He and his travelling companion, a small burro named Poncho, promptly collapsed from exhaustion upon entering the town. After a few days rest, he was right as rain, but the thousand-yard stare in his eyes has yet to wane.
Richard and Takoda had an unspoken kinship, and it wasn't their mutual love for a pint of ale. Even they didn't seem to know what drew themselves to the other man, but to see them seated next to one another made it obvious to Old Nel. Both of these warriors had the eyes of men who had seen something far too horrible to comprehend. One could not accept it, and the other had simply forgotten it.
While studying Richard's hard gaze, Nel noticed the warrior's eyes flicker briefly toward the man named Kobe, Richard's lips turning to a slight frown. Richard had never trusted the good-natured scholar from the Capitol. Kobe never seemed to notice Richard's rough nature toward him, or he simply chose to ignore it. He had arrived at Shade's Veil about five moons ago, just as the Winter's cold was lifting and the first flowers of spring began to bloom. Upon his arrival, he announced he was a representative of the College of Sages in Dragon's Rest, and he had come to Shade's Veil to study the wildlife and flora of Tangleroot Forest. It quickly became apparent that he was not all he claimed. Most of his forays into the forest occured late at night, and was often seen carrying strange devices with him. Also, the man never seemed to bring back any samples from the forest to study. He simply explains that the devices he carries into the forest are used for advanced scientific research, and that removing samples could disturb the delicate balance of the forest. Regardless of whatever research he is performing, he is well liked by the children of the village, and has been accepted by a majority of the villagers.
Thinking of the village children, Old Nel turned his gaze to them, gathered around him on the floor, staring up at him with open, expectant faces. Scanning through them, Old Nel noticed something odd about two of them. Timmy and Scarlett sat a short distance apart in the middle of the clump of children. Timmy was Hale the blacksmith's only son and quite a wonder. A year ago, he took up his father's hammer and began working the forge, which would not strike anyone as unusual, except for the fact that he was only seven years of age. Now his unnatural strength is accepted as normal by the villagers, attributing it to his father's impressive strength. It was clear that the boy's strength would surpass that of his father's one day, probably sooner than later.
Scarlett was now more of a young woman than a child, but she certainly had been when her father brought her to Shade's Veil six years ago. He still posesses the protective air about him that he carried with him to the village when they first arrived. His presence almost has the feel of a protective bodyguard or guard dog, but there is no doubt that he loves the child. Soon after their arrival, her father purchased a farm outside of the village, and he raised Scarlett on his own ever since. Despite living distanced from others, they made sure to make frequent visits to the village, especially when Old Nel told his stories.
As Old Nel continued to recount the struggle between mankind and the Dragons ages ago, he turned to look at his daughter, Suirei, who he had adopted as his own kin many winters ago. She sat slightly off to the side with a face almost as hard as Richard's or Takoda's, but showing just a hint of youthful optimism. She had been born in the Frozen Blight to the distant north. The only memory of her parents she posesses is of their deaths when she was very young, which left her to fend for herself in the frozen wasteland. The only things she has of her parents are two coins, each engraved with one of her parents' names wrapped around an upside down hourglass, or perhaps an hourglass with the sand falling up. She made her way to Shade's Veil with those two coins in hand, seeking answers as to her parents' identities (and ultimately hers), and why they had been hiding in the Blight. She had attached herself to Old Nel as soon as she arrived at the village, believing he had the answers she sought. He told her what he could and was always willing to share his wisdom, though his answers never seemed to be enough for the young girl.
As he neared the end of his story, the feeling that something was off tickled the back of Old Nel's mind again. Was it something to do with those two children? No, they appeared to be fine. What was it that concerned the old man? Could it be the way they were sitting? No. He scanned the children again. Scarlett and Timmy were seated as contentedly as the rest of the children, but with a slight gap between them. The gap! That was the spot where Sasha normally sat, inbetween her little brother and best friend. Where was she? Old Nel did another quick scan of the room. His story now over, Old Nel noticed that Hale was missing as well. A small frown crept onto Old Nel's lips, but as if the thought were a summons, Hale burst through the front door of the inn, sopping wet.
"You have to help me!" he cried. "Sasha fell into the river! I tried to save her, but the current was too strong for me to get to her. She's been swept down into the Tangleroot Forest!"
Almost as soon as he began, Timmy, Scarlett, and Takoda were on their feet and headed for the door. Seeing Scarlet go, her father tried to stop her, but she would have none of that. Kobe was quick to follow, volunteering his knowledge of the forest, and saying he had plans to venture into the forest that night already. Amongst the commotion, Poncho wandered in through the open door straight to Richard, and the small burro nudged him with his head. Richard waved him away and reached for his flagon, only to find it empty. He reached for his wallet and found it as dry as his cup. Poncho nudged him again. Richard watched as Poncho joined the growing procession leaving the room. Shrugging ruefully he rose and followed. Watching all of this happen, a small smile touched Old Nel's lips. He turned and spoke to Suirei.
"You should go with them, child. They will need you."
She looked at him questioningly, but she knew he would have told her more if he wanted, and quickly joined the others. Raising his voice, Old Nel called out to Hale.
"You stay, Hale."
Hale had turned to leave with the others.
"We should leave the reckless adventuring to the young, yes?"
Hale opened his mouth to protest, then simply nodded in agreement. Everyone knew and respected Old Nel's wisdom. The door closed behind the last of the rescue party only moments after it had opened.
"Do you really think the six will be enough?" Hale questioned.
"Seven." Old Nel replied with a smile.
Hale and the others looked around in surprise, for none of them had noticed Snake silently leave with the rest. Not all of the villagers were looking at Old Nel anymore, but those who were noticed him sit up straight-backed in his chair, glazed eyes gazing at somewhere far off. Whatever he saw, it was beautiful.