The Sentinels

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Lost Boy
Feb 4, 2005
Brisbane, Australia
This is an excerpt from a novel I'm working on (I dip in and out of it on an irregular basis). It's an action scene from the end of second chapter. It's a little longer than I usually like to post, so I'm sorry about that. It's still first draft stage but I think it's pretty clean so far as spelling and grammar goes. I'd appreciate any thoughts you want to share, especially on the flow, the voice, the tone, how well (or not so well) I convey the action, the general interest of the piece. You know, the usual. Cheers!

The shadows were lengthening down the face of the mountain above when Callan called a halt. They had yet to even come into sight of the pass Jeck had spied from above. The others gathered around.

‘Do we camp or do we conitinue on?’

‘It’s your call, Callan,’ Delbridge said.

‘And I’m asking your opinions.’ Cal looked at Jeck. ‘How far from this pass do you think we are?’

Jeck peered into the falling gloom ahead of them. ‘Not far, I reckon.’

‘Will we make it by dark?’

Jeck shrugged. ‘It didn’t look like too hard going.’

‘What would you do?’

‘I’d carry on.’

Callan nodded. ‘Then we carry on.’ He gestured for Jeck to lead the way.
Delbridge followed him, with Kenned behind and Callan last of all. The sun had all but disappeared behind the highest peaks when they came to the defile. Jeck turned back and shot Callan a grin. ‘Easy going! We’ll be past and asleep before ye know it!’

Callan was about to call back to Jeck to keep moving when a shadow dropped from the rocks above and into their midst. Kenned yelled, half in shock, half in terror, as the thing swiped at him. The young ranger stumbled backward into Callan, and both fell hard onto the rocks.

The shadow turned to face Delbridge and Jeck. Del managed to get a hand to the hilt of the sword at his hip, but he got no further than that. The creature’s dark claws glistened in the fading light as it leapt and tore at Del’s throat. The cold iron scent of the wind was suddenly full of the coppery tang of blood, of death. Del sank bonelessly to the ground, gurgling his last breath. The shadow threw aside his body and strode toward where Jeck stood planted, spear levelled at the thing’s heart. ‘Try me, shadowspawn!’

The shadow screamed as it attacked, a sound that chilled Callan to the bone even more than the biting wind. It sounded like nothing so much as metal scraping metal, though Callan thought there was something in it that spoke of a mother grieving for a lost child. It darted to the right, but Jeck’s spear was as quick, jabbing out to catch the thing on its indistinct thigh. Dark blood welled, but the shadow took no notice; it spun inside Jeck’s spear and slapped at the old man’s chest. Jeck went down with a cry.

Callan had managed to untangle himself from beneath Kenned. The young man was alive and unmarked, but frozen with fear. Callan had no time for him. Sword in hand, he rushed at the thing that had killed his men. A wordless cry filled his throat. The shadow turned to confront him, and met his first sword-stroke with its iron-hard claws. Callan swung again and again, throwing all his rage into each blow, but the thing met every stroke, driving the ranger back. Callan gave ground, and suddenly the creature was on the offensive, lashing out with both hands. Callan was barely able to catch the blows on his blade, or duck out of the way. The shadow slashed again, and Cal was too slow; a pain like fire sliced down his forearm, and he fell to the ground. The sword clattered from his grasp. The shadow stood over him, screaming in triumph. Callan waited for the final blow, waited for the release of death.

It didn’t come. The shadow’s triumphant scream died in its throat, silenced by a clothyard shaft tipped in iron and fletched with goosefeathers. Callan looked over his shoulder to see Kenned standing astride the path, face drained of colour, longbow quivering in hand. ‘Gods…’ he said in a small voice.

The shadow-creature crumpled to the rocks at Callan’s feet. The ranger scampered back, his eyes never leaving the dying thing. It seemed to become more solid as it passed, more tangible. Rippling blue-black fur covered its body. Its face was squat, brow heavy, its nose a slit and its mouth a nightmare of teeth. The eyes fixed Cal in their glare, and he shuddered with the malevolence he saw there. He jumped as a hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up into Kenned’s grey eyes. ‘Jeck.’

Callan looked past the creature, and saw what Ken meant; Jeck was lying on the trail, his chest still rising fitfully. Kenned helped Callan get to his feet. The ranger took up his sword from where it lay on the stones, and walked toward the thing. It was dead, or so close it didn’t matter. Still, Callan raised the sword and brought it down hard on the thing’s neck. Then he cast the sword aside and went to Jeck’s side.

There was a growing patch of darkness on the old man’s tunic, where the wraith’s claws had torn his flesh. Jeck half-coughed, half-sobbed. Crimson blood and frothy spit flecked his grey beard. Callan knelt beside him. He was vaguely aware of Kenned standing over him.

‘The thing?’ Jeck whispered.

‘Dead. Ken killed it.’

‘Good.’ Jeck looked at the boy. ‘You’ll do, lad. You’ll do.’ He coughed. ‘You’ve got to get to, to the gate… tell them….’

‘We will,’ Callan said. ‘We’ll patch you up, and we’ll go at first light.’

‘Fool.’ Jeck coughed again. ‘You know what it was, lad?’

Callan nodded.

‘Tell them. Warn them.’ Summoning all the strength he had left, Jeck grasped Callan’s hand. ‘He’s coming, and we’re all that stands before him. Tell them.’

‘I’ll tell them.’ Tears crept down Callan’s face.

‘Good lad,’ said Jeck. After that, he didn’t speak. When he’d gone, Callan stood.

‘Get your pack,’ he said to Kenned. ‘We leave now.’

Kenned hesitated. ‘Jeck and Del…’

‘They’d understand.’

Kenned nodded, and went to fetch his pack. Callan went and picked up his sword. He hacked two fingers off the thing’s right hand, and wrapped them in a scrap of Del’s cloak. When that was done he went through first Del’s and then Jeck’s gear, salvaging food, water, anything that would be of use. He took the bone-handled dagger from Del’s boot and slid it through his belt. Stooping to pick up Jeck’s spear, he called out to Kenned. ‘Ready?’

Kenned loped up. ‘Ready.’ He had a look of determination in his eye. ‘You said you knew what that thing was?’

Callan nodded grimly. ‘It was a wraith. A servant of the Demon Lord.’

‘Then the Wall?’

‘There’s a breach.’ Callan shouldered his pack. ‘Come on. We’ve a long way to go.’ Without a look back, they set off into the dark night.
First, I want to say that the piece as a whole flows quite well. In general, action and description are nicely balanced, the figures sketched without too much detail, but enough to individualize rather than making them types or too stereotyped (it's hard to avoid a certain amount of stereotyping just because so much has been done with a limited range of characters in this genre; you've done well here with that).

Mostly the comments I've got concern some purplish phrases that serve no actual purpose and can either break the flow of the prose, simply seem superfluous, or at times out of place.

"down the face of the mountain above..." above seems superfluous here; above them might make it work if, as I assume, they are partway up a mountainside, but even then it's chancy. The extra word isn't needed to convey the image.

"into sight of the pass" -- unless there's a guard-post there that would see them, "in sight of" would be a better choice. Otherwise, it sounds like the pass sees them, not the other way 'round.

"Callan last of all" -- if it's only this small group, simply "Callan last" seems more appropriate -- if it were a caravan, the former would be so.

"the coppery tang of blood, of death" -- the "of death" doesn't belong here; the first phrase conveys what you mean, and trust me, the smell of blood and the smell of death are not the same, not even close; we can assume from the fact you saw fit to tell us of the smell of blood that death is, if not already present, just about due; and the addition of the extra phrase seems forced, artificial, and too common compared to the lean, precise descriptions so far

"gurgling his last breath" -- again, too stereotyped a phrase; rein such things in where possible; a good alternative might be "with breath gurgling" -- "gurgling breath" would do, but seems almost comically flat, the inversion keeps the illusion intact

"threw aside his body" -- in such a context, it's more appropriate to say "the body", but this is a minor point, save that "his body" gives an unconscious impression that he may still be alive

"and strode toward" -- to stride indicates a slow, deliberate, almost stately movement; is this what you meant? It would give an awful lot of time for reaction if this were the case. If you mean for the wraith to approach slowly but with such a movement as to increase his fear, "stalked" may be a better choice

"spear levelled at the thing's heart" -- is he sure of this, e.g., the placement of the thing's heart? Is he certain this would be an instantly (or near-instant) fatal blow in a vital spot?

"a sound that chilled Callan to the bone even more than the biting wind" -- again, "to the bone" has come to be a hackneyed phrase, more likely to arouse a smirk than a shudder at this point, and it's too much again; simply leave it out, and the sentence flows more smoothly and the reader is more likely to be kept in that "suspension of disbelief"

"it spun aside Jeck's spear" -- do you mean it spun aside from, or that it knocked or thrust his spear aside? To spin his spear would indicate that it grabbed it and moved it in a circular motion, which would do absolutely nothing to evade the point of the spear; to do the other would be to bat (another possibility) it off away from its present position, and away from posing the threat of a blow to the wraith's torso

"Callan had no time for him" -- again, superfluous; the reader will understand this without being told; and it breaks up the narrative flow.

"with both hands" -- does the thing have human-like hands? This may be a point cleared up in other extracts; if not, choose the descriptive carefully so that the reader can instantly envision what sort of "hands" it has: claws like a bird, paws like monkey or a cat, etc., without using those exact phrases

"Callan waited for the final blow, waited for the release of death" -- again, the final phrase is unnecessary and comes across as somewhat clumsy, sort of hitting the reader over the head. It's likely to irritate rather than clarify.

You have too much description of the arrow -- again, unnecessary, breaks up the flow. This should simply be clothyard shaft

"It was dead, or so close it didn't matter" -- in this sort of setting, there's no such thing. Either such an enemy is dead, or it's a threat, as any seasoned traveler or warrior would know. Even the seemingly most incapacitated enemy can surprise you and make sure you're dead, whether it (or he) is or not.

"Crimson blood and frothy spit" -- again, unnecessary descriptives. This should either be simply "Blood and spit" or "Crimson froth" -- spit of its nature is usually at least largely frothy (as opposed to drool), and blood (if human) is invariably red when it hits the air, however blue it may be in the vein.

And you might want to avoid "dark night". It seems unnecessary and, frankly, that final paragraph is written with such beautiful simplicity that it seems gilding the lily.

I've been as thorough as I could here because these are all tiny things to eliminate, just flecks of unfinished manufacture, as it were, to be sanded off. Taken as a whole, it's very good; it flows well, the imagery is striking, and the characters have a solidity to them. I'd make more comments on the wraith (or rather, I have questions about), but I get the feeling that sort of thing is covered in other extracts I've not seen. I especially like your use of dialogue, which is realistic, simple and has a natural feel to it. And the laconic statement "There's a breach" says volumes. I can hear him deliver it in a quiet, even flat tone that nonetheless makes the hair on the back of my neck go up with a feeling of "Oh, sh**!" You've definitely got me intrigued, and I'd like to see the rest of this. Good luck!
Cheers, J. D. Your critique is much appreciated, believe me. A lot of the things you've pointed out seem blindingly obvious now, but they're the sorts of things I think I miss through familiarity with the text. Some were just embarrassing. The joys of writing... But it's great to hear that a piece has struck a chord. Dialogue is an area I always feel I fall short in, so I'm glad that in this short section, at least, I've got it close to right. I've got a fair bit more written, so I'll probably post another extract sometime soon.
only one thing beyond what jd said to add. blood tastes and smells of iron, that you mention iron as the scent of the wind, and copper as the blood is confusing to me. It sort of stuck in my mind for the rest of the piece, which was good overall!!!
bendoran said:
only one thing beyond what jd said to add. blood tastes and smells of iron, that you mention iron as the scent of the wind, and copper as the blood is confusing to me. It sort of stuck in my mind for the rest of the piece, which was good overall!!!
Yes, I almost mentioned that; it stuck with me, too. It's become a staple of description, I don't know why; but you're right; it's the iron we smell; copper has a quite different odor to it. Glad someone else picked up and decided to actually mention it!
I've always personally thought that blood had a coppery tang to it, in smell and taste, and I'm sure I've come across it described that way in literature before; I can't recall ever seeing it described as iron. Although knowing me I have gotten it ass-backwards. It would make sense, I guess, iron I assume being a component of blood. I don't know. Now I'm confused... Might need some researching. Oh, and thanks for your comments, Bendoran.
No, I don't think you're confused; it has often been described that way. I just don't believe it's quite accurate -- wet a (copper) penny and an iron nail, then smell them; it's quite distinct. Or, if you really want authenticity, prick your finger after smelling the penny. You'll be able to tell the difference. But, yes, as I said, it's become something of a staple to describe it as coppery smelling, just as it's still something of a staple to describe zombies or decaying corpses as having a blueish color, when that's not what they look like at all. (I could go into descriptions, but it's not pleasant remembering...)
I'll have to do that test, though I'm not sure about the pricking myself. All in the name of art, I suppose. Though there's no copper in our currency, so I'll have to find an alternate source for that. I wonder how much the hardware store will charge me for half an inch of copper wire...?

And you've just ruined chapter three, where hundreds of blue-tinged zombies claw their way from the cold, hard ground.
Culhwch said:
And you've just ruined chapter three, where hundreds of blue-tinged zombies claw their way from the cold, hard ground.

Ooooops! You know, I seem to have a knack for that.....:eek:
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