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Critique needed, please...

 
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CBB



Joined: 12 Apr 2008
Posts: 243
Location: Over there! *points*

PostPosted: Tue May 13, 2008 8:26 pm    Post subject: Critique needed, please... Reply with quote

I've been writing this story off and on for a little while-it's been a while since I last looked at it, and I've just finished overhauling the first chapter. I'd be interested in some critique from a third party though.

Here's the first chapter:

The rain had stopped that morning, but the canyon was so deep and the walls so sheer the sun had not had time to dry the sticky mud before sinking below the horizon. Spring had barely begun, so the chill night air was more than adequate to freeze the mud, turning the ruts in the well-traveled road into knife-edges that one could feel through even the toughest leather soles.

Even at the height of summer, however, the sun would have been hard pressed to do more. The canyon was narrow and convoluted, with a floor wide enough only for one or two mule-drawn carts to go at a time. Its walls often loomed over the path as they rose sharply to the level of the open air high above. The sun was only visible during mid-day when it was near its zenith and could shine straight down, but even then the light could only filter down in shafts and patches as it worked its way past the overhangs and near-tunnels.

It was said that in lands hundreds of miles away to the southwest, such a canyon would be commonplace, with rocks the hue of a spectacular sunset and with multicolored sands constantly sifting down from the desert above. But here, the canyon was encased in a single hill which wound its way across the plains like an earthen snake. Seventy meters it rose above the plains that normally climbed or fell no more than three or four meters over the course of several miles, so high that the local inhabitants would have called it a “mountain” had they not been familiar with the great mountain chain to the west.

The canyon itself was gashed into the hill’s back like a cruel wound, so deep that the floor was more or less level with the plain outside. The walls were made of rock that had originally been a dull grey, as could be seen from rocks that had tumbled down and split open, showing their interiors. But they had been stained a dark, mottled brown that gave the canyon an appearance that inspired several degrading names that drew snickers from the young boys of settlements nearby. The rocks could be returned to their original color either by a vigorous scrubbing or by the long, gentle cleansing of the rivulets that ran down from the plain above when it rained. Indeed, by the places where these rivulets converged, thin ribbons of grey could be seen, like veins of silver in dark earth.

The road that ran through this canyon was littered with stones both large and small, so that even though the walls themselves were far enough apart to permit a decent amount of traffic, the road often narrowed. There were at least half a dozen chokepoints for every mile traveled, although never so narrow that a cart could not work its way through. This should have made it a road of minor importance, especially considering the major trade route that lay a few miles distant to the south. However, the road was actually quite popular with travelers who either carried nothing or who were transporting small, important items, for all the world was subject to banditry, and this region was no exception. The canyon held a reputation as the most secure road between the mountains and the great river. Its great depth made it impossible to see from afar who was traveling and with what strength, the narrow way made it easy for few defenders to fight a larger force, the walls were too sheer to mount an attack from above, and the projections of the wall meant defenders had innumerable shelters from projectiles of any kind.

These features meant banditry on this road was only potentially a problem at each end of the canyon. A group could lie in wait right where the wall narrowed while another group would follow travelers in and surround them. Unfortunately, both these sites had proven ideal for two small settlements, both of which had acquired sizable militias. By the time travelers were beyond the aid of these militias (who were known regionally for their unique version of capital punishment: throwing the culprit from the edge of the canyon rim into a portion of the canyon with numerous, but widely-spaced and rather sharp projections), they were within the most easily defendable portions of the road, and they always traveled in large enough groups to protect themselves, but small enough not to sustain the large numbers of bandits it would take to have a reasonable chance of success, a number strictly enforced by the settlements as they enjoyed the benefits of this unusually safe trade route.

This meant nothing to one lone traveler who was at this moment walking slowly in the exact middle of the roadway, unescorted and unknown to both settlements and their militias. The frozen razor-blades of the mud broke under his measured tread, making a dull crunching noise that echoed in the darkness. The traveler was walking “upstream,” although this canyon very rarely had a river. Its roof was the very summit of the hill in which it resided, so little water actually flowed into it. However, what water did make its way inside had very little opportunity to escape, and so the air was close and laden with moisture, almost clammy to the touch, and so heavy that it did indeed flow with perceptible motion down the twists and turn of the canyon.

The traveler himself had passed through the town that lay at the “exit” of the canyon-Topi-and was now on his way to its sister Whitcha City at the “entrance.” He was unusual in several respects-first, he was alone, which was vehemently prohibited by the Joint-Articles which governed Whitcha, Topi, and the canyon between. The traveler had already evaded two of the ten patrols that were constantly walking the road about a day’s march from one another to ensure that no bandits had infiltrated any of the groups traveling the road.

Second, he didn’t wear the usual simple coat of the region, although to be honest there were probably none in the region that would fit him, for he was very tall. Instead, he wore a sleeveless poncho made of fine black wool, which extended from his neck down to the top of his boots and which was near motionless due to his slow tread. In the near total darkness his dark hair seemed to blend seamlessly into his back. Only an occasional twinkle betrayed its length, tumbling freely down to where his waist should be, though the formlessness of the poncho made that hard to find for certain.

Third, he appeared to be completely unarmed, another violation of the Joint-Articles, which required a weapon to be worn at all times, even by magicians, but also required it to be plainly visible at all times. Nevertheless, every so often a metallic clink! could be heard from underneath the poncho, which any seasoned warrior or soldier would find as highly suspicious at the least.

Fourth, he wore a black hat which looked like an upside-down shallow bowl with a point at the top, which an unusually learned scholar in these parts would have recognized as being of traditionally Dichi origin, although the color was unusual. The brim was low enough to cover half of his face, although that hardly mattered at this late hour.

Fifth, he was extremely surefooted in the near-total darkness, for although the full moon was shining on the hill and surrounding plains above, only the stars overhead threw their light into the canyon. The interior of the canyon had been reduced to a world of black shapes which stood silhouetted against a background of ebony, yet the traveler never stumbled on the uneven ground, nor did he even brush against the many obstacles in his path, but kept to the center of the road, turning with the walls and avoiding the rocks in the pathway as if he traveled in the clear day.

Sixth…he was singing, low and softly. Words could not be made out, but the mournful tone could not be mistaken as he made his way along the road. The silence of the canyon was almost as complete as the darkness, and it gave way only reluctantly to this melodious intrusion. High above, the wind made a moaning sound as it swept across the lip of the canyon, barely audible, and the traveler’s own voice faded as if to listen. The wind died away and the traveler began to sing again, and in the thick obscurity the wordless tune seemed almost to trail away behind him like a fine mist.

Just ahead of him, the road disappeared around an abrupt turn. He walked with his strange raiment, his sure footing, and his song up to the corner before he abruptly stopped and the song was silenced. He raised his hand, shaking off the poncho as it draped over his arm, in a token of peace. He stood very still in the freezing night air with one arm raised, waiting. The canyon had been running somewhat north-south, but the sudden turn meant the next section was running roughly east-west, allowing moonlight into the canyon. The turn was fully illuminated up until the wall cut it off the light and plunged into shadow where the traveler stood right of the edge of light which seemed dazzlingly white after the canyon’s gloom. The air was now slightly smoky and carried a light smell of roasting meat. The moonlight was caught in the hazy vapor and seemed to hang in front of the traveler like a gossamer, transparent curtain. Directly ahead of him was another deep pool of shadow created by an outthrust of rock about twelve feet high and five feet wide, like an oversized tombstone set into the wall of the canyon.

The traveler had stopped because from out from the shadow of the tombstone, a spear had appeared that glittered in the moonlight and seemed to float in mid-air, its bearer still invisible in the shadow of the tombstone rock.

“Identify yourself and the number of your party, traveler,” demanded a male voice.

“Alezander Mercat, one,” replied the traveler in a tenor voice as he lowered his arm within the poncho once more.

“One? You may want to revise that answer, boy. Militiamen tend to cut the fingers off of jokesters.”

Just visible under the brim of his hat, a mouth quirked into a small smile before it replied, “Then I shall certainly revise it, sir. The number of the party remains the same. The name, however…” the traveler stopped, as if considering his answer, and then spoke a few syllables. There was a pause, and then the spear suddenly fell clattering to the ground as the male voice grunted in surprise and pain. There was silence for another beat or two, and then a woman sprinted out of the shadow of the tombstone rock, across the moonlit road and into the shadow on the traveler’s side.

The brief glimpse revealed brown hair tied back in a braid that thudded softly on the back of light plate armor as she ran. The armor itself was stained a mottled brown and grey similar to the canyon walls and consisted solely of a breastplate. Her arms and legs were clad in leather guards stained similarly, and the woman carried a simple helm under her arm. The armor bulged outward slightly, not from the physical stature of the woman but from the layers of clothing underneath meant to drive out the cold.

The woman slipped back into the darkness, so quickly that it seemed almost to close around her with an audible blip!, but the traveler could see her quite clearly even as her stout frame bowed to him on one knee as gracefully as her armor and layers would allow, helm still under her arm.

She would never be called beautiful even on a dark night, but it was no fault of nature. At one time her face would have been called pleasant by the disinterested and beautiful by the enamored, but it was now a patchwork of scar tissue crisscrossing from the hairline to her jaw. The upper half of her right ear was missing, with fresh and rather crude stitches holding the flesh closed.

“My lord, I-” she whispered, head inclined.

“You have a few more marks of my service, Joise.” The voice was now a deep bass and carefully neutral.

Her free hand automatically began to go to her ear, started, and went back to her side. “I meant to get a new scar to show my mortality, lord. I didn’t duck fast enough.”

“Does it pain you?”

“Yes, but the blow was delivered by an ordinary bandit.”

“Then you have heard nothing directly from our friends?”

“Nothing, lord. There are rumors from the main trade routes that there have been sightings near the great river, but none closer than Sain Lius.”

“What of the watchers?” The voice was still measured and neutral, detached.

“They fly overhead, lord, without stopping to eat or pillage. They follow the canyon mile for mile, always circling twice over the cities before turning back to retrace the route.”

“How many?”

“Twelve, my lord.”

“None have come or gone?”

“None, lord.”

“What of the temples?”

“They remain closed, lord. No one enters or exits, in either city, except to bring fresh food and water.”

“No services?”

“Yes, my lord, but they are held outdoors by novices with assistance from the monasteries.”

“Very well. Betriz had already told me.” At these words, Joise pursed her lips, as if beaten to the punch. She nodded, then winced as the traveler extended one hand, still covered with the cloth of the poncho, and covered her wounded ear. Then, slowly, with a hint of reproach-“Betriz told me of the children.”

Joise started, then began to shake. “L-lord, I know I had no permission to-” but she stopped when she heard the traveler hiss in pain. “M-my lord?”

“It is nothing,” The reproach was gone, but had been replaced by a sick undertone, as if it was being kept under tight control. “You have done well, beyond my expectations and trust in you. Continue to watch as they watch. Give no indication of anything abnormal. Erase the memory of your companion, but invent some situation for which to compliment him for his keen eyesight. I was impressed he could see me before I stepped into the moonlight. Await further instructions-but be prepared. They may come from higher powers than me. Farewell.” He released her ear and, turning, walked around the turn of the canyon. Joise stayed where she was, raising her head and staring after him.

She slowly stood and walked into the swath of moonlight, half expecting him to have mysteriously disappeared, especially with the camp of her contemporaries so close. There he was, however, walking away with none of the theatrics she had expected.

She shook her head and turned to perform her ordered duties. She jumped when the deep voice called back to her, “I hope the scar is to your liking.” Her hand went to her ear. The piece that had been lost was there, and where the axe blade had severed it she could feel the bumpy tissue of a magnificent scar.

“Thank you, my lord…”

But he had already gone past the next turn.
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I love children...but I could never eat a whole one.

Psychosomatic! That boy needs therapy...
Ya que estamos en el baile, ˇbailemos!

Keeper of Earthsong's Wispy Wooshy Memory Ball
Keeper of the Dragon Planet


Last edited by CBB on Sun May 18, 2008 12:42 pm; edited 2 times in total
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Allicat



Joined: 14 Apr 2008
Posts: 1389
Location: Land of the troll.

PostPosted: Thu May 15, 2008 2:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I like it! The dialogue is clear, the descriptions paint a good picture. A couple of typos here and there;

2nd paragraph:
Quote:
The canyon was narrow and convoluted, with a floor wide enough only for one or two mule-drawn cart to go at a time.

Needs pluralising

2nd paragraph:
Quote:
The sun was only visible during mid-day when it was near its zenith and could straight down, but even then the light could only filter down in shafts and patches as it worked its way past the overhangs and near-tunnels.

Needs a shine in there?

4th paragraph after the 1st dialogue
Quote:
The woman slipped back into the darkness, so quickly that the it seemed almost to close around her with an audible blip!

Firstly, I liked this line, secondly, miss out the "the"?

That's all I found, and they're only tiny things, but I'm nitpicky Wink

For a first chapter it's shaping up well. It draws the reader in and provides questions without being totally baffling.
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CBB



Joined: 12 Apr 2008
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Location: Over there! *points*

PostPosted: Fri May 16, 2008 12:14 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I hate those little mistakes! XD I'm nitpicky, too, and it's a matter of pride to be able to spot them...oh well. Rolling Eyes Thanks for pointing them out!

And thanks for the compliment on dialogs-that's actually where I'm stuck right now-a conversation. Why do people have to talk to one another? Gaaah.
_________________
I love children...but I could never eat a whole one.

Psychosomatic! That boy needs therapy...
Ya que estamos en el baile, ˇbailemos!

Keeper of Earthsong's Wispy Wooshy Memory Ball
Keeper of the Dragon Planet
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Nem



Joined: 14 Apr 2008
Posts: 2141
Location: England

PostPosted: Fri May 16, 2008 6:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The opening is too drawn out. Setting a social and political scene should be more dispersed and reserved for later in the story I think. Of course if this isn't the very start of your story you can completely disregard that for the rubbish opinion it is Wink
The later parts are really nicely done, I might not have included quite that number of points on the appearance of the traveller, or not have numbered them but they're well written in any case. Overall it was well written, really a pleasure to read. Smile
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CBB



Joined: 12 Apr 2008
Posts: 243
Location: Over there! *points*

PostPosted: Sun May 18, 2008 12:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you very much!

Hmm...I see what you mean in too much too soon...it is the very start, so it isn't a rubbish opinion. I just wanted it to be very clear how strange this canyon is from the very beginning, but overblown description isn't the way to do it. I'll have to see about moving some of that to later chapters...
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I love children...but I could never eat a whole one.

Psychosomatic! That boy needs therapy...
Ya que estamos en el baile, ˇbailemos!

Keeper of Earthsong's Wispy Wooshy Memory Ball
Keeper of the Dragon Planet
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View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
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