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Fantasy Short - Opening

night_wrtr

Non-human Protagonist
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#1
I am hoping to get a little feedback on this short story that I had submitted to my first pro-market. While it wasn't accepted, I still feel strongly about it and want to give it another editing pass or two and send out to other publishers. This is the first 1200 words, and the full length of the story is 7k. Any feedback that you can shoot back at me will be welcomed.

Thanks

* * * * * * *
Mist wrapped around Samuel like a thick fur blanket, but it brought no comfort. Roundhouses lay collapsed, the beams and canvas smoldering. He tasted smoke, smelled the taint of rifle powder and fire oil on the wind.

The mist hid the massacre from full view in the early morning light. It wasn't the first he had seen at the hands of the Darkhearts, but the familiar sight tore at the old wound stitched in his heart. It dug in like an arrowhead, twisting, seeking out the pain that had dwelled there for so long.

He searched for survivors, picking through the remains of the village. Bodies lay about the camp, struck down as they tried to flee. Some never made it out of their houses.

Drag pole marks at the edge of the village led south toward the Orakawe camps. A handful of survivors. Part of him wanted to follow to ensure they reached the camp safely, but instead he forced himself north, following the trail of shoed horses.

The direction of the Darkhearts.

He kept a firm grip on his bow as he walked through the tall grass that covered the hills and valleys. Rain from the night before left the soil soft and damp, soaking his leggings and moccasins. Grassland faded into mountain country, steep and rocky, sending a sharp sting into Samuel's bones with each step. 'You're an old fool,' Two Arrows had told him. 'The journey will kill you before they do.'

Samuel clenched his jaw and climbed the winding trail up the mountain. His strength faded as the day lengthened and was forced to find a spot among a cluster of birch trees to rest his weary legs. The Three Horn peak loomed above, mocking his old age. It had been fifty years since he last climbed this trail. The eastern ridge was the preferred path, but Samuel needed to make up ground. The Darkhearts were more than a day ahead of him.

He let his eyes linger on the gradual rise and fall of the landscape below. Orange, red and yellow spotted the tops of maple trees, ready to signal the month of Falling Leaves. Birds sang. Squirrels jumped from limb to limb, waving their thick brown tails.

The air smelled of honeysuckle and pine needles. It reminded him of his youth, when everything was good, and the Orakawe were free to do as they wished.

How long before the land cried its song of mourning, swelling with the black smoke of Darkheart cities and factories?

He remembered the day his father had renamed him Samuel. It was supposed to show the Darkhearts that the Orakawe people wanted peace. They sent him to learn their language, culture and way of life, visiting cities built out of rock and smoke. It was the land he remembered most, choked and rotten. It cried in sorrow underneath the stone streets.

Behind him a waterthrush changed its tune, signaling a predator. Samuel listened closely, making out the muffled footsteps through the brush. He was impressed that Two Arrows waited this long to approach him.

"I can feel your anger," he said. "It growls like a bear waking from winter."

There was a momentary pause before the footsteps came closer. "How long have you known I was following?"

"Since the moment I left the elder’s tent."

Two Arrows sighed as he sat next to Samuel. He was dressed in his war shirt and beaded vest. His hair was shaved along the sides, letting his long braid hang over his shoulder. A warrior’s tradition. The two had become like father and son, filling the void that had formed in both of their hearts. Nothing would have prevented Two Arrows from following, which was why Samuel didn't bother trying to stop him.

Two Arrows glanced at him nervously. "I knew you'd send me away if I didn't wait until we reached the mountains."

Samuel nodded.

"I won't go."

The silence built between them. Two Arrows’ breaths grew labored, ready to erupt into a firestorm of words as soon as Samuel spoke his rebuke.

Samuel allowed the moment to linger before standing. "I know." No need to argue and he couldn't deny how useful Two Arrows was with a bow.

Two Arrows followed after him. "The tribes are moving east," he said. "They will join Clear Water in a few days. He says they'll attack Fort Harrod first, before they can raid another reservation."

War. It saddened him to know how many lives it would cost. Clear Water had the right idea joining the tribes together. He hoped it would make a difference this time.

"You should go and fight with them," Samuel said. "He will need brave warriors."

"So should you."

"I thought I was an old fool?" Samuel leaped from one boulder to the next, making light work of the rocky outcrop.

Two Arrows frowned. "You're still a Bloodtalker. You could-"

"Even magic can't make old bones new again."

Samuel used a fallen tree as a bridge across a large gap in the rocks. He ignored the distance of the cliff bottom below, balancing along the trunk, walking one foot over the other.

"What is it?" He said as he reached the other side.

Two Arrows raised his arms for balance as he crossed. "I don't understand this bond you have with the dragonai. You could fight for your own people again, but instead, you're here. The dragonai have never helped us. You said so yourself, they let the Darkhearts come and take whatever they wanted. What do we owe them?"

Samuel used tufts of grass to pull himself up a steep rise of unstable pebbles. The path leveled off into an easier climb, allowing them to move away from the cliff's edge and head toward the top of the mountain ridge.

Two Arrows grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. "Why fight for the dragonai, Samuel? They deserted us when we needed them. You've not talked to them in years."

He pulled free of the younger man's grip, and continued walking, easing into a narrow game trail. He spotted recent deer tracks in the mud and wished he had time to hunt for fresh meat. The thought made his mouth water.

When it was clear Samuel wasn't going to answer, he continued. "You might have tricked the other elders into thinking this is about a warning, but I know there is more to it than that. It's him, isn't it? He's here."

Samuel stopped walking and forced his heart to maintain a steady beat. He unclenched his fists and let out a calming breath. "Wakiza is my bloodbrother. Despite what happened between us, his kind deserve a warning." He turned, locking eyes with Two Arrows. "You're right. Slayer is leading the Darkheart soldiers to the dragonai's Sacred Lands. He will slaughter them." His mind returned to the village down below and the sudden nudge of a dark memory threatened to tear free from the depths of his heart.

"They must be warned," Samuel said, turning back to the trail. "No beings should go through what we have endured." His son's face appeared in his mind, bloodied and motionless. "Slayer is here. And I will stop him."
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
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#3
There are turns of phrase in this I think are really great - but I also see a lack of focus and depth, resulting in something that looks like someone trying too hard, rather than a story flowing naturally.

The opening sentence underlines this - it's a contradictory metaphor that says: something is like a comforting thing but not a comforting thing. That's my reading at least, and it doesn't make sense.

The first few paragraphs are namely just different ways to describe the same physical scene before moving on. There are a couple of nice turns of phrase, but otherwise mostly superficial. My internal editor is itching to condense this, and waiting for you to say something about the character.

The name "Darkhearts" may have a precedent but at the moment it means nothing but looks too simplistic and generic.

You then move into some nice descriptions, but also include generic ones about birds and squirrels that say you're trying too hard.

Then the dialogue starts and it looks as though the first couple of pieces of speech actually come from the same character, but are set on separate lines as if it's an actual dialogue exchange, which is confusing.

At this point I stop reading because:
a) You've not given me a hook
b) I'm stumbling over some of the text
c) I'm not yet convinced this is real

Overall, I think you're showing some great writing in this - but I also think you're trying to hard. The result is that you end up so focused on the superficial external experience you forget to give us the deeper internal experience that could really make this come alive. It's the latter that, when you touch on them, show your best writing.

But, that's just my personal opinion.
 

HareBrain

Bunny of Wonder
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#4
I agree with Brian that the opening simile doesn't work. Not only are mist and a blanket nothing like each other (as you even point out in the text), mist doesn't "wrap" itself around you in the same way -- you're just in it. I think this is also part of a clash between the feel of the prose and the feel of the scene. Maybe I've been influenced by the writing I've read about the American west, but I think this would work better if it were more sparse and dry, with description kept to a minimum and kept to a few polished lines (and factual, rather than using simile or metaphor). In the same vein, I'd probably give less of the character's thoughts. In many cases they don't really add anything at this stage.

Brian's also right that you need to be clearer as to who's speaking each line of dialogue, as we don't know the characters well enough yet to tell, or guess.

Apart from that, I think it shows promise. It just doesn't yet feel as sure-footed as it needs to be.
 

ASleepyGiraffe

Currently incognito as A Festive Pikachu
Joined
May 21, 2011
Messages
67
#5
I'd echo a lot of Brian's sentiments. There's some really nice sentences in this, and an atmosphere and tone that I feel can be quite compelling, but I do have a few minor irks and quibbles that detract from the overall enjoyment of the piece as a whole. As with all advice, take whatever's useful and ignore the rest.

Also, sidenote, I'm used to editing in word, with comments and such, so I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do this vis a vis the forum. If anything isn't clear because I've fudged things, bung me a message and I'll try to elaborate better on my quibbles and suggestions.

Not a full crit as I'm short on time, but I hope this is somewhat helpful.


* * * * * * *
Mist wrapped around Samuel like a thick fur blanket, but it brought no comfort. (Just to be annoying and contrarian, I actually liked this opening line. It gives us a character, and something happening. The contradictory nature of the metaphor, has the possibility to subvert expectations. It's not a line that leaves me flummoxed, or desperate to read on, but it is subtly intriguing and depending on the pace/tone you want to instil in the story, it might be a fine start.) Roundhouses lay collapsed, the beams and canvas smoldering. He tasted smoke, smelled the taint of rifle powder and fire oil on the wind. (Good sensory details)

The mist hid the massacre from full view in the early morning light. (Could possibly allude to this earlier, you mention the smells, but offer nothing to what I imagine would be perhaps one of the worst. The dead. Especially if 'fire oil' had been used, I imagine the stench would be, unpleasant to say the least.) It wasn't the first he had seen at the hands of the Darkhearts,(I'd agree with Brian that, Darkhearts does seem a tad generic, but if that's intentional, feel free to ignore this) but the familiar sight tore at the old wound stitched in his heart. (This line I found awkward, and I think it's because of 'Darkhearts' and 'heart, being used in such close proximity to one another) It dug in like an arrowhead, twisting, seeking out the pain that had dwelled there for so long. (I do like the phrasing of this, but a small part of me wonders if it would be better shown? Perhaps have Samuel react to seeing something among the bodies of the fallen that rekindles the pain/trauma in him? Some sort of physical reaction, or action that hints at things rather than stating it outright. Granted not everything needs to be shown, and this might just be one of the things that is better told to keep the pace from sagging, but It might be worth experimenting with)

He searched for survivors, picking through the remains of the village. Bodies lay about the camp, struck down as they tried to flee. Some never made it out of their houses.

Drag pole marks at the edge of the village led south toward the Orakawe camps. A handful of survivors. Part of him wanted to follow to ensure they reached the camp safely, but instead he forced himself north, following the trail of shoed horses.

The direction of the Darkhearts.

He kept a firm grip on his bow as he walked through the tall grass that covered the hills and valleys. Rain from the night before left the soil soft and damp, soaking his leggings and moccasins. Grassland faded into mountain country, steep and rocky, sending a sharp sting into Samuel's bones with each step. 'You're an old fool,' Two Arrows had told him. 'The journey will kill you before they do.' (This reminds me of 'Craw' from Abercrombie's The Heroes, and that is by no measure, a bad thing.)

Samuel clenched his jaw and climbed the winding trail up the mountain. His strength faded as the day lengthened and was forced to find a spot among a cluster of birch trees to rest his weary legs. The Three Horn peak loomed above, mocking his old age. It had been fifty years since he last climbed this trail. The eastern ridge was the preferred path, but Samuel needed to make up ground. The Darkhearts were more than a day ahead of him.

He let his eyes linger on the gradual rise and fall of the landscape below. Orange, red and yellow spotted the tops of maple trees, ready to signal the month of Falling Leaves. Birds sang. Squirrels jumped from limb to limb, waving their thick brown tails.

The air smelled of honeysuckle and pine needles. It reminded him of his youth, when everything was good, and the Orakawe were free to do as they wished.

How long before the land cried its song of mourning, swelling with the black smoke of Darkheart cities and factories?

He remembered the day his father had renamed him Samuel. It was supposed to show the Darkhearts that the Orakawe people wanted peace. They sent him to learn their language, culture and way of life, visiting cities built out of rock and smoke. It was the land he remembered most, choked and rotten. It cried in sorrow underneath the stone streets. (nice)

Behind him a waterthrush changed its tune, signaling a predator. (So although there's nothing necessarily wrong with this, it felt rather weak to me. Here was a chance to get into the action in a very nuanced way. Samuel can hear a waterthrush change it's tune. He knows that means something's out there. But the way this paragraph is written, the fact that he doesn't seem to be bothered in the slightest. I dunno, it weakens it to me. The fact that Samuel's not worried or concerned at all, deflates any underlying tension.) Samuel listened closely, making out the muffled footsteps through the brush. (Later you go on to elaborate that he knows he's being followed by Two Arrows, but here and now, as a reader, I feel like he just has insane senses to be able to get that from a muffled footstep, especially considering all the noises of nature echoing around him. Sure, he may have enhanced senses, and that's fine if that's what you're going for, just something of note.)He was impressed that Two Arrows waited this long to approach him. And what if he's wrong? Even if he was sure he was being followed, if he's surrounded by vegetation, it might not be what he thinks it is. He hasn't turned to face the noise. Hasn't addressed it in any way. It could be a Darkheart, or a wild animal hunting him. But instead Samuel's so nonchalant, it make me not worried because clearly there's nothing dangerous in this world that can threaten him. This was a great moment to highlight how dangerous this world is, how unpredictable, how cruel, and I assume with the massacre and talk of war, that's what you're after. Instead what we get is the opposite, the sense that even after this atrocity, there's still time for rest, no sense of real danger. This could have been a segment to build a sense of conflict and really shown Samuel's expertise and how he reacts to stressful situations. Instead, I'm left feeling like the stakes aren't that high. It's hard to be emotionally invested in a character, when the character doesn't feel emotionally invested in their own surroundings, and predicaments, and in a way, Samuel feels distanced from his. I hope at least some of what I'm rambling here makes coherent sense)

"I can feel your anger," he said. "It growls like a bear waking from winter." (Might want to make it clearer, that it's Samuel talking here. The last named character was Two Arrows so the brain may naturally default to assuming this is their dialogue.)

There was a momentary pause before the footsteps came closer. "How long have you known I was following?"

"Since the moment I left the elder’s tent."

Two Arrows sighed as he sat next to Samuel. He was dressed in his war shirt and beaded vest. His hair was shaved along the sides, letting his long braid hang over his shoulder. A warrior’s tradition. The two had become like father and son, filling the void that had formed in both of their hearts. (This isn't needed. It's telling. Show it. Show it in the way they are with each other. In how they act. In how they talk. In what they're doing. If their relationship isn't coming across on the page then think about what steps you can take, to show elements and interactions that display it) Nothing would have prevented Two Arrows from following, which was why Samuel didn't bother trying to stop him. (Afraid I have to stop here as I have to disappear to do things, but fingers crossed some of what I've said is useful to you. And don't be disheartened by any of the comments. You've got a steady foundation to build from in this draft. There's a lot of interesting stuff. Just needs a smidge of revisiting I think.)

Two Arrows glanced at him nervously. "I knew you'd send me away if I didn't wait until we reached the mountains."

Samuel nodded.

"I won't go."

The silence built between them. Two Arrows’ breaths grew labored, ready to erupt into a firestorm of words as soon as Samuel spoke his rebuke.

Samuel allowed the moment to linger before standing. "I know." No need to argue and he couldn't deny how useful Two Arrows was with a bow.

Two Arrows followed after him. "The tribes are moving east," he said. "They will join Clear Water in a few days. He says they'll attack Fort Harrod first, before they can raid another reservation."

War. It saddened him to know how many lives it would cost. Clear Water had the right idea joining the tribes together. He hoped it would make a difference this time.

"You should go and fight with them," Samuel said. "He will need brave warriors."

"So should you."

"I thought I was an old fool?" Samuel leaped from one boulder to the next, making light work of the rocky outcrop.

Two Arrows frowned. "You're still a Bloodtalker. You could-"

"Even magic can't make old bones new again."

Samuel used a fallen tree as a bridge across a large gap in the rocks. He ignored the distance of the cliff bottom below, balancing along the trunk, walking one foot over the other.

"What is it?" He said as he reached the other side.

Two Arrows raised his arms for balance as he crossed. "I don't understand this bond you have with the dragonai. You could fight for your own people again, but instead, you're here. The dragonai have never helped us. You said so yourself, they let the Darkhearts come and take whatever they wanted. What do we owe them?"

Samuel used tufts of grass to pull himself up a steep rise of unstable pebbles. The path leveled off into an easier climb, allowing them to move away from the cliff's edge and head toward the top of the mountain ridge.

Two Arrows grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. "Why fight for the dragonai, Samuel? They deserted us when we needed them. You've not talked to them in years."

He pulled free of the younger man's grip, and continued walking, easing into a narrow game trail. He spotted recent deer tracks in the mud and wished he had time to hunt for fresh meat. The thought made his mouth water.

When it was clear Samuel wasn't going to answer, he continued. "You might have tricked the other elders into thinking this is about a warning, but I know there is more to it than that. It's him, isn't it? He's here."

Samuel stopped walking and forced his heart to maintain a steady beat. He unclenched his fists and let out a calming breath. "Wakiza is my bloodbrother. Despite what happened between us, his kind deserve a warning." He turned, locking eyes with Two Arrows. "You're right. Slayer is leading the Darkheart soldiers to the dragonai's Sacred Lands. He will slaughter them." His mind returned to the village down below and the sudden nudge of a dark memory threatened to tear free from the depths of his heart.

"They must be warned," Samuel said, turning back to the trail. "No beings should go through what we have endured." His son's face appeared in his mind, bloodied and motionless. "Slayer is here. And I will stop him."
 

tinkerdan

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#7
I love that first image, despite the feeling of contradiction
I've placed some notes: inside the quotes.
Mist wrapped around Samuel like a thick fur blanket, but it brought no comfort. Roundhouses lay collapsed, the beams and canvas smoldering. He tasted smoke, smelled the taint of rifle powder and fire oil on the wind.
I think what happened here is that the first sentence is separated from a thought that is intimately tied to the image. That's the first sentence of the next paragraph.
Mist wrapped around Samuel like a thick fur blanket, but it brought no comfort. It hid the massacre from full view in the early morning light. However, roundhouses lay collapsed, the beams and canvas smoldering and he tasted smoke, smelled the taint of rifle powder and fire oil on the wind. It wasn't the first he had seen at the hands of the Darkhearts, but the familiar sight tore at the old wound stitched in his heart. Dug in like an arrowhead, twisting, seeking out the pain that had dwelled there for so long.

Bringing the first two paragraphs together this way helps that image do what you want(I think).[Opinions may differ.]

The mist hid the massacre from full view in the early morning light. It wasn't the first he had seen at the hands of the Darkhearts, but the familiar sight tore at the old wound stitched in his heart. It dug in like an arrowhead, twisting, seeking out the pain that had dwelled there for so long.
--------------------------------------
From here down you seem to step back from your character and lose the initial conection to his senses and he seems to become distanced from what's happening as though he's become numb--was that planned--I ask because it's killing my enthusiasm for the story.


He searched for survivors, picking through the remains of the village. Bodies lay about the camp, struck down as they tried to flee. Some never made it out of their houses.

Drag pole marks at the edge of the village led south toward the Orakawe camps. A handful of survivors. Part of him wanted to follow to ensure they reached the camp safely, but instead he forced himself north, following the trail of shoed horses.

The direction of the Darkhearts.
I think it would help to dig in closer to the MC POV and express some of what it is he has seen of the hands of Darkness--perhaps he made a vow to himself that he would stop them--maybe last time he vowed it was the last time. Maybe he's so close on the trail that only moments separated him from his goal and saving these people. He might even be beating himself up. We don't really know because he has become so distant and removed all of a sudden.

Addressing some of his inner struggle might reveal what some find missing--the conflict and the stakes and the things that might stand in the way of or help the character make those vital turning points in the plot.
Engaging the MC POV five senses and even their emotions might help carry the story.

I think it will be a good story.
 

night_wrtr

Non-human Protagonist
Joined
Apr 18, 2017
Messages
318
Location
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#8
Thanks @tinkerdan

Yeah, it was intentional to have a bit of distancing there. I wanted to set up a memory that he has been suppressing for so long, and the scene reminded him of it. It will happen again when it is revealed what the memory is and will open the door and dive into that moment of his life at a deeper level. A few things tie into that moment later in the story (the reason why he no longer communicates with his bloodbrother), which comes back in the final scene payoff. Your comments are spot on though. There is more to be done here.
 

Stable

Watching you from upside down
Joined
Oct 7, 2016
Messages
234
#9
The start felt very "he did this, he did that" to me. I wasn't really gripped. It seemed like a historical novel until suddenly we get to the mention of dragonai. Could you foreshadow at all or is that what you are going for?
 

night_wrtr

Non-human Protagonist
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Messages
318
Location
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#10
The start felt very "he did this, he did that" to me. I wasn't really gripped. It seemed like a historical novel until suddenly we get to the mention of dragonai. Could you foreshadow at all or is that what you are going for?
I think it was me trying to ground the story before hitting the fantasy elements.
 
Joined
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Messages
769
#11
but the familiar sight tore at the old wound stitched in his heart. It dug in like an arrowhead, twisting, seeking out the pain that had dwelled there for so long.
This is a good example of what I think Brian meant by "trying too hard". Anguish as arrow metaphor taken too far. Maybe just "long dwelt there" would be less flowery than "for so long."


Sorry to have to point this out, but if you are not Native American, there are going to be a fairly loud minority that are going to want to talk to you about cultural appropriation. I like how you are writing from the Indian viewpoint without using Tanto-talk, but you might run into some righteous indignation no matter how you write it.
 

Toby Frost

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Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
4,048
#12
I don’t have much to add here, but I agree with the majority of the comments above. I liked it, and I thought that it would make a good story.

I actually quite liked the way that you gradually introduced the fantastical elements and other details to show us what this setting is like. Things like the reveal that Samuel is wearing moccassins – hinting that he is native, which boots wouldn’t do – helped build up a strong idea of the setting. It helps that you are working from an established image and tone, namely the aftermath of a massacre by what I assume are berserk cavalrymen, and the mournfulness that I associate with that idea, and putting fantastical elements into that.

I agree that “darkhearts” feels overly generic, and that the dialogue towards the end could do with being clearer. I’d also agree that there is a slight over-doing of some of the metaphors (and, in Onyx’s example, given that this is a fantasy story I did wonder if there was something literally stitched in his heart). However, I think these problems are pretty small, and could be cleared up without much trouble.
 
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