The Squire

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Aquilonian

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(This is chapter three. "The Outcast" which I posted a few weeks ago, was chapter one)

On the far side of the Forbidden Mountains, the vast pine forests of Aegrainte extended for two hundred leagues westwards to the windy plains of Lethulonde. On a hillside rising from this forest, two men stood leaning on their long-handled axes, gazing toward a grey stone tower that rose out of the trees beneath them. They had noticed a wisp of scarlet coloured smoke, drifting from the tower’s slender chimney.

“She’s at it again! Gods, Derberyn, can’t your lady mother breathe without enchanting something?”

The man who spoke was about forty years old, broad-shouldered, with a long scar showing white against his sun-browned face. His hair and beard were blonde, matted thick as a lion’s mane, and flecked with bark chips and fragments of dry leaves. His companion was much younger, about sixteen years of age, but with a man’s height already, and lean muscles toned by heavy labour. His hair was black as a crow’s wing, and his skin had the olive tint of southern countries. Both men were bare-chested, their skin glistening with sweat. The young man raised his hand to shade his eyes, peering toward the tower.

“That’s a new incense,” he said. “It’s usually purple, for death magic. Red smoke’s for warrior’s magic.”

The older man laughed. “Your lady mother’s going to war?” he asked, incredulously. “Where’s her army? Me an’ you?”

Derberyn remained silent and tight-lipped at first. “It’s for me,” he said at last. “I’ve seen it coming. She’s been looking at me differently. She always used to try an’ baby me. Not any more...”

“Well that’s good ain’t it? You’ve grown a hand’s span taller in the past six months. Any mother would be proud o’ you. Filled out too… That’s the chopping an’ the heaving. You’ve me to thank for that, eh? An’ Tegriolde I guess… Blacksmithing’s a man’s work. All that hammering…”

“She doesn’t see me as a blacksmith. Nor a woodsman, neither…”

“Oho! Like that, is it? Well, princeling…”

“Don’t call me that!” Derberyn’s eyes flashed fiercely and the muscles rippled in his chest as his fists clenched. “You know I didn’t mean it like that. I’d rather be a woodsman, or a farrier, or a charcoal burner, anything at all, so long as I was free. But you know my mother. There was a messenger last week. From Corbulaine…”

“From your lord father?”

“He wore Imperial livery, an’ the scroll had the Emperor’s own seal. She didn’t read it to me, but she’s gone all thoughtful ever since.”

“The Emperor can count to sixteen. He knows you’re a man grown now. Probably wants to see how you’ve turned out.”

“He knows how I’ve turned out. Orobas sends him regular reports, an’ he has other spies. Remember that peddler last autumn? T’wasn’t by accident he came here. He’s not the first, either. They used to bring me toys an’ nuts an’ sweets. Then it was penknives an’ new boots. Last time it was a sword. They always look me up an’ down, an’ clasp hands, like they’re testing my strength.”

They stood for a while, watching the red smoke drift over the treetops. The older man waited for the smoke to dissipate before he broke into Derberyn’s fierce silence. “Well then,” he said, “if you’re soon gadding off to Corbulaine, we’d best squeeze the last few dregs of work out o’ you ‘afore you leave. Come on now. Let’s finish this one while we’ve light enough to see.”

He turned back to a great tree they had felled earlier, and commenced lopping off the side branches from the trunk. Derberyn came to join him. Their axes soon took up a satisfying rhythm. It was hard work, and it helped Derberyn not to think. He had had enough of thinking.


* * * * * * *


That evening he joined his mother in her room for supper, on the topmost floor of the tower. As usual the windows were shut tight, and muffled by heavy curtains hanging to the floor. The iron stove radiated heat, and bitter-tasting incense smoke lingered in the air, mingling with a multitude of other queer smells. The room was festooned with hanging baskets of exotic herbs and bunches of dried serpents. Every inch of wall was lined with shelves sagging under the weight of old books and mildewed scrolls, dried lizards, jars of pickles and fruits crystallised in honey, and bottles of rare tinctures. From the biggest jar a wizened head leered through the cloudy yellow fluid in which it was preserved. Derberyn moved his chair to sit sideways to the head. He had never liked its cynical expression, but he didn’t like to turn his back upon it either. He was sure that he had once seen the head’s lips moving, from the corner of his eye.

His mother had prepared the meal herself. It was a southern recipe, from Garisar, the long island in the Narrow Sea where she was born, and where the most part of her soul remained, while her body pined amidst the sombre pine forests of Aegrainte. Such a meal was meant for lazy golden evenings on an outside terrace, where red-brick walls exhaled the long day’s treasured heat, beneath trellises heavy with jasmine. Derberyn could smell spiced lamb with onions, garlic and tomatoes fried in olive oil. Side dishes of curd cheese sat ready on the table, with two great rounds of fresh-baked almond bread. Derberyn’s mouth was watering already. He wished his mother cooked more often. She generally took little interest in food, and made do with whatever plain fare was sent up from the kitchen. She was pouring wine for the two of them, another departure from her habits, and using the fine crystal glasses she had brought with her from Corbulaine, not the usual chipped pewter cups. It was white wine as always, the only gift she was permitted to receive from her father in Garisar. Orobas, the tower’s sour-faced old seneschal, always made a great show of holding each bottle to the light and squinting into it from all angles, as if expecting to surprise some demon swimming in the wine, then burning the straw packing, lest letters or charms be concealed in it.
 

Brian G Turner

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Same criticisms apply as before - IMO you really need to read up more on POV use and learn to apply it. You have some really nice flourishes to this, but you keep restricting yourself to describing the visual experience which is wasted in a novel. You could make this so much stronger by giving us something of the character experience. At the moment you are too emotionally detached from your story and characters, and all the time you do that, you keep the reader emotionally detached from your story and characters.
 

HareBrain

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Nicely written, but for my money, you tell us too much here, and it saps the intrigue, which for me peaks with "She's been looking at me differently", but which you then go to great lengths to explain. I agree with Brian's point about distance. Even if you are using omniscient narration, you can (and should) still go into the characters' feelings.

I wouldn't normally feel comfortable rewriting, but I just want to show how much I think you can cut. (In red. Blue is suggested addition.)

***

The older man laughed. “Your lady mother’s going to war?” he asked, incredulously. “Where’s her army? Me an’ you?”

Derberyn remained silent and tight-lipped at first. “It’s for me,” he said at last. “I’ve seen it coming. She’s been looking at me differently. She always used to try an’ baby me. Not any more...”

“Well that’s good ain’t it? You’ve grown a hand’s span taller in the past six months. Any mother would be proud o’ you. Filled out too… That’s the chopping an’ the heaving. You’ve me to thank for that, eh? An’ Tegriolde I guess… Blacksmithing’s a man’s work. All that hammering…”

“She doesn’t see me as a blacksmith. Nor a woodsman, neither…”

“Oho! Like that, is it? Well, princeling…”

“Don’t call me that!” Derberyn’s eyes flashed fiercely and the muscles rippled in his chest as his fists clenched. “You know I didn’t mean it like that. I’d rather be a woodsman, or a farrier, or a charcoal burner, anything at all, so long as I was free. But you know my mother. There was a messenger last week. From Corbulaine…”

“From your lord father?”

“He wore Imperial livery, an’ the scroll had the Emperor’s own seal. She didn’t read it to me, but she’s gone all thoughtful ever since.”

“The Emperor can count to sixteen. He knows you’re a man grown now. Probably wants to see how you’ve turned out.”

“He knows how I’ve turned out. Orobas sends him regular reports, an’ he has other spies. Remember that peddler last autumn? T’wasn’t by accident he came here. He’s not the first, either. They used to bring me toys an’ nuts an’ sweets. Then it was penknives an’ new boots. Last time it was a sword. They always look me up an’ down, an’ clasp hands, like they’re testing my strength.”


He thought of the messenger the week before, with the Imperial livery, and the scroll bearing the emperor's own seal. [Plus some hint of his feelings maybe, but not a lot.]

They stood for a while, watching the red smoke drift over the treetops. The older man waited for the smoke to dissipate before he broke into Derberyn’s fierce silence. “Well then,” the older man said, “if you’re soon gadding off to Corbulaine, we’d best squeeze the last few dregs of work out o’ you ‘afore you leave. Come on now. Let’s finish this one while we’ve light enough to see.”

***

As long as they aren't overwhelmed, readers like the work of putting two and two together themselves. And for my taste, a little period/fantasy world detail goes a long way, though judging by the success of ASOIF, that doesn't go for everyone. So I would suggest setting yourself the task of cutting the second section by about 50% and seeing where that gets you.

ETA: I know this is a losing battle, but it's one I'll fight till I die:


The mark before the "a" is an apostrophe, not a speech mark, and indicates a missing letter. It should therefore look exactly the same as the one in the middle of "can’t", i.e. a 9 rather than a 6. The problem is that Word etc can't tell the difference.
 
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The Judge

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I enjoyed this, as I did your earlier extract.

The omniscient beginning of the first scene is distancing, and gives the whole extract an old-fashioned air. If that's intentional, fine. It didn't prevent me from reading on, but I do agree that it would read as more gripping if your narrative stopped looking on the scene as an observer and became more involved with it as part of the character's voice, which is what you've done to a lesser extent at the end of the first scene and in the next.

I have to say, though, that I don't find the premise realistic. I know that's an odd thing to say about fantasy which clearly involves magic, but there should be emotional truth in all writing, which arises from the characters and their situation. I'm assuming the boy is a by-blow, but if a nobleman acknowledges an illegitimate son, which appears to be the case here, that son does not engage in blacksmithing and woodsman's work. I'll accept that the boy might be rebelling against his mother's -- and possibly his father's -- wishes, but in that case there would be consequences. And if someone is paranoid enough that her father can't contact her and packaging is burnt to prevent it, they'd keep a lot closer eye on the boy himself, otherwise what's to stop someone approaching him in the forest and handing him the message or charm for her?

The same applies to the boy's mode of speech. I've no idea of his mother's station in life, but if her father can afford to send white wine a considerable distance, I suspect she's more than merely lower middle-class, and if she thinks there's the slightest chance the boy will eventually be mixing in his father's milieu, she's going to ensure he talks correctly. Here he may just be imitating the woodsman, and in conversation with his mother he will speak more formally, but in that case I'd expect some comment about it in the narrative ie he deliberately slips into yokelese. (To be clear, I'm not suggesting a kind of Oliver Twist device where by some quirk of linguistic genetics the boy speaks perfect Queen's English even though he's brought up in a workhouse, but his speech will reflect those he's among, and from the hints you've given here, I can't see his mother allowing him to speak common. If I'm wrong about that, and/or she's been lax in that regard, and his playmates from a young age have always been from the peasant class so this is now his natural way of speaking, I'd expect this to be something brought up when he is making his way in the world.)

There was a slight padded feel to the dialogue in that first scene, and while I wouldn't go as far as HB in removing practically all of it, it could usefully be pruned. As for the description in the second scene, that was a little rich for my blood, but I think the main problem is the fact you've got it all there condensed at the beginning with nothing to leaven it. If you trimmed it somewhat, and spaced it out during the scene, it perhaps wouldn't appear quite so indigestible. By the way, that final sentence -- the "then burning" caught me the first time, as I thought it was a continuation of what the seneschal thought the demon was doing not what the old man would always do. Perhaps might be an idea to change the word order, or put the demon clause in parentheses to avoid numbskulls like me reading it wrong.

A couple of nit-picks: "pined amidst... pines" is a bit ungainly, and I'm not convinced pewter does chip, unlike stoneware or earthenware. And re HB's bugbear of the wrong-direction-facing apostrophe, "afore" is a complete word not a contraction, therefore shouldn't have any apostrophe before it anyway if it was deliberate and not just a typo.

Anyhow, despite my cavils, as I say I did enjoy it. I look forward to reading more.
 

Martin Gill

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I agree on the POV comments above. It felt detached, almost like I was reading a premise, not the actual story. I won’t retread territory commented on already.

I like much of the description, especially the food, which made me hungry, but there’s places where you are overly wordy. Take...

Derberyn remained silent and tight-lipped at first.

Silent and tight lipped are arguably the same thing.

The comment about his muscles rippling in his chest, them being bare chested and sweaty gave me images of Mills and Boon. Plus your muscles don’t really do anything in your chest when you clench your fist. Bits like that threw me out of the story.
 

CTRandall

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I second most of what Brian and Hare Brain said. One other nitpick, I'm not sure what a "cynical expression" is (especially on a pickled head. I'm having fun trying to imagine that now :) ). You've already described it as leering. That's enough reason for me to avoid looking at it while eating.

You've obviously got descriptive ability but I got only a bare sense of the story. There are so many potential directions it could go but few clues for the reader--note The Judge's uncertainty about the relationship with the father, the mother's status or Derberyn's potential rebelliousness. We're having difficulty pinning down basic character motivations, which weakens the immediate source of conflict (which I guess is Derberyn being sent away?). For me, more focus on the conflict and less on details here.
 

Aquilonian

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Thanks for all this feedback, all very useful as before. In answer to some points raised, I just clenched my fist and yes my pectoral muscles did also tense! Stands to reason, if you're clenching your fist, the pecs puts the power behind your punch.

Background explanation about Derberyn's class background etc. He's not a by-blow he's legitimate. Mum is still the Emperor's junior queen, but is banished to a remote location due to her father (the lord of an offshore island) having transferred his allegiance to the Emperor's rival potentate. So D has grown up in a rustic environment and has no posh people to mix with even if he wanted to. However, later in the chapter I do mention that his mother has insisted on speaking in the courtly form of the language and disapproves of his mixing with peasants although there's nothing she can do about it. She is desperate to regain the Emperor's favour.

I shall prune some of the description but not all of it as I do personally much prefer detailed descriptions and to motivate myself to write at all I have to write for myself as well as for a hypothetical lit agent. I shall also aim to give more sense of D's inner life so long as I can do so by showing not telling.
 

Lafayette

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I think, I find myself liking what you have written more than the others critiquers have. I like your POV. To me it was descriptive and set the mood for what the place is and what may be coming. I was intrigued. I personally liked all what HairBrain put in red and believe you should keep it. I want to read more.

The only reason I would rewrite this (in my personal experience) is you can always improve on your writing. Just don't get carried away and lose the tone.
 
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