To reiterate a key point - this process depends on audience participation. I'm just hosting, not taking part in the critique.
I had quite a few entries quite swiftly and I chose this chapter 1 to start with as it is fairly short and it's fairly traditional. One entry was in rhyming couplets which seemed rather a taxing place to start the exercise!
You can offer your thoughts in the comments - these are moderated and I will pass "tough love" but not anything that I feel crosses the line into meanness or mockery. So, rather than waste your efforts, do bear in mind that the object of the exercise here is to help. That said, robust critiques are encouraged and I guess we will just have to find our level as we go.
You can also email critiques to me and I will see if they can be transferred to the blog post in a way that preserves their editing markups.
This is actually a prologue. My feeling is that if someone offers their prologue for critique in a Chapter 1 critiquing exercise then we should judge it as if it were a first chapter. If you are not expecting a reader to skip over your prologue (which I used to do habitually in 80s fantasy where they always seemed to be be dull info dumps) then your prologue needs to be as engaging and readable as any chapter 1.
A howling night’s gale sharpened its teeth on Tolford’s cheek, licking the warmth from his exposed face. A thin web of branches danced in fervor above him; the arms of ash, cypress, and cedar joining hands to ward against the wind. He stood solemn atop a crumbling stone bastion, olive fingers of ivy creeping patiently up its face. A large fire roared above him; locked away in an iron cage atop a tower, it surged and showered all surrounding in a warm, glowing orange light.
Tolford wore brass studded leathers strapped across his chest, and a worn and hole-ridden chainmail coif atop his head. It fit loosely around his shaven chin, for which he was thankful, for every link that touched his skin brought a chill. He stood leaning with both gloves on the walls edge, the standing waters of the swamp lapping hungrily at the dirt banks below Rohn’s Front.
The fort had stood since the Second War, built in its infancy, and separated the southern edge of the Central Valleys from the Morass of Rohn. It housed more than fifty men on any given day, with daily patrols who swept the bog’s edge in search of bandit trails; those who would brave the swamp instead of face the lands law. The stench of death was a small price to pay for safety from your own.
Tolford was to watch from the wall for any movement, which he found particularly difficult on a night such as this, for it seemed the wind had brought life to everything amongst the trees. Each shrub and misplaced flower stood to beckon in turn, and he found his eyes tired and strained.
His eyes wandered skyward in search of rest. The black of night stared back at him, punctured by diamond pins; a thousand and one keyholes to a greater plane. He faced what he knew to be south, and sure enough, Aethera gazed back. The gleam of her eye left the rest in shadow, somehow finding him through the thick tree tops. “And she watches from her kingdom,” his mother would say as she named the stars, so patient in wait for sleep to claim him. As a youth, he often wished he could join her amongst the heavens and explore a realm beyond his own. Thirty two years and nothing had changed. He slipped into slumber as he stood, eyes weighted by a long days watch.
A firm hand grasped Tolford’s shoulder, bringing back to the conscious world. A familiar voice said, “Tol, gather yourself. Captains makin’ rounds.” Peter stood behind him, the rough illumination of the tower’s brazier pulling him from the shadows. He spoke through an unkempt, black beard, its odd knots curling over a mail coif. He stood a hand’s height over Tolford, shoulders broad and belly lean.
“Aye,” Tolford started, “right, dozed there a bit.”
“The wind catches me as well, sends me right off,” Peter said, pretending to fall asleep himself. He laughed and punched Tolford’s shoulder with a gloved fist.
“That it does,” Tolford replied, grinning though disoriented. He nodded in thanks and Peter returned a half smile before turning back to his post on the western wall. He had known Peter since his fourth day in the Fort Rohn and he was the only one he might consider a friend amongst the guard.
Tolford looked behind himself to the inner fort. Captain Garn was taking his usual route, circling the inner wall from below, torch held aloft. It sputtered and spit hot oil onto the earth, which had been worn by countless steps into a natural path. As he passed each post the guards gave the all clear from above. This was done every night, three times per watch. Tolford thanked his god this was the third. He would be relieved within the hour.
Garn passed underneath his side of the wall. Tolford raised a closed fist and Garn returned the same. Turning back from the Captain, he returned his sight to the maze of mossy trees.
A shadow jumped from beyond the trees, flashing black in the bright light of the tower fire. His grogginess was ripped away as his heart jumped and his eyes focused. He leaned once more on the stone wall and waited for the shadow to shift again. The tower fire whipped, a mighty gust sending sparks flying free into the night air. The light faded and surged back again as the flame returned.
All was still. The wind had died. The sound of crackling embers returned to his ear as the howl subsided.
The darkness had a way of prodding the worrisome part of his mind at this time of night. Still, he thought of raising his arm in alarm. It wouldn’t hurt to take a gander, though he didn’t fancy the thought of soaking his boots so soon before he slept.
Ten minutes passed and no man or beast walked from the dark. His worry subsided, and the thought of his bedroll crept into his head. A shout sounded from inside the keep,
“Watchs Done!” Captain Garn’s commanding voice carried well in the silence.
Tolford made his way and lowered himself down from the wall on a wooden ladder propped up beneath his feet, hopping with a grimace as he reached the last step. A young mad clad in identical uniform stood waiting. Tolford did not recognize his face, only the familiar look of exhaustion upon it. They exchanged nods. Tolford turned toward small shack that housed the fort kitchen as he lifted the chain from over his ears, tucking it in a leather pouch around his waist. He let out a deep breath of satisfaction as air rushed over his short, rusty hair. As he walked he worked the aches from his legs in an awkward stretch.
Hot, stuffy air filled lungs as he walked through the kitchen door, weighed down by the smell of poorly cooked cabbage. Tolford knew the scent well, as he had eaten more cabbage while stationed here than all his other years combined. He strode over to stand at the food trough, regarding the cook, Bert. He was a large man with little hair, not by his choice. What he lacked in locks he made up for in chins and a kind heart.
Bert ladled a few steaming spoons of stew into a wooden bowl and passed it across the trough, followed by a dense wheat roll. He wiped his hands on a filthy, once white apron and said, “Got some fresh pepper in this morn’ from Goldleaf, does wonders for the taste.”
“Not that it needs it. My thanks,” Tolford replied. In truth, it desperately needed many things, but he would lie through his teeth if it meant staying in the cook’s good graces.
“That’s mighty kind,” Bert said. His eyes brightened as he snuck another roll into Tolford’s hand.
Tolford raised his bowl in thanks.
Peter waved him down as he wandered into the mess hall. He found him at an otherwise empty table, already tearing his roll into pieces to let soak in his stew.
“Surprised yer’ not out already, you look like hell, old man,” Peter said, scratching his dark beard as he waited for his bread to soften. He was not much younger than Tolford, but he reminded him often.
“Not much better than you, I’d say,” Tolford retorted as he sat down across him. A dull, lonely ache filled his gut. He dug in his soup, grabbing a potato morsel between his dirty fingers and began to eat. The pepper didn’t help.
“You know the new bloke on our watch?” Peter asked between bites.
“Only in passing. A new recruit, I take it.”
“Aye, from Andersgate. By his word, dark things be brewing that way,” Peter declared, munching away. “Damn Ashcloaks are after it. Raided a caravan due for Oaksheart, he said. Baron’s trying to point the finger at the highwaymen. But the boy, Trevor, I think his name, said they found a wounded one off the trail, nothing but grey threads about ‘im.”
“You trust his word?” Tolford asked, pausing with his bowl in his hand. He knew Peter to bite easily on any lure, buying any rumor that came his way as fact. The new blood often had many stories to tell and sold them for favor with the Fort’s Guard; men with too much time for idle hands.
“That I do. That’s why they sent ‘im here, I think. Seen too much,” Trevor tapped his temple with his forefinger, “says they have the bloody Oathbreaker in irons, holding for word from the King.”
“Tensions high enough as it is. Best not rile the beast further.”
“Should’ve just axed the bastard and kicked his head back to the Ashkari. Tyrael’s going to try and kiss and curtsy his wait out of a war. Ha! It’ll be on his hands.”
“It’ll be on your hands and mine, and every other man with blood to spare.”
This drew pause from Peter, his eyes falling to his meal. After a moment of thought, he said “Too true, that.” Tolford arched a brow at the words. Raising his head, Peter continued, “Still, I’d’ve cut him down myself, finished ‘im right there in the woods. No better grave for a bandit.”
“And no better blade,” Tolford said, toasting him with one of his buns. He knew a conspiracy when he heard one and he had heard far too many within these fort walls. He would let Peter have this one tonight; he had neither the care nor energy to counter it in his current state.
Peter shook his head and grinned, saying, “You’d do well to hold a sword like me, old man.”
“Keep calling me that and I’ll put one between your ribs,” Tolford said, standing with a now empty bowl. He slapped down his second wheat bun across the table in front of Peter and said, “Here, you’ll need your strength,” and walked back to return his dishware. Peter called some curse or another after him but he paid little mind, raising a hand in farewell as he left for the barracks.
The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils, another familiar scent, especially this time of year. As he rounded the outer wall of the kitchen he saw the smoke trail billowing into the night air, an acrid fume building. A bright blaze glowed from over the western wall, no doubt a pyre for the freshly executed. As if it wasn’t enough the bog wood itself released a foul scent when burnt, an inconvenience the fort experienced too often on chilly autumn nights such as this. He watched on as two men tossed another lifeless and naked body over the wall. Red sparks exploded in a crunch of timber, drifting with languid reproach as the corpse crashed into the burning pile.
Tolford covered his mouth and nose with his hand, which did little to block the scent. He hurried to the barracks some twenty yards away, choking on the plume of justice done.
The barracks was a miserable abode by any standard. Four dozen bedrolls lay shortly spaced over a crooked wooden floor, each one as lonely as the last. There was little light in the hall, only a few short candles lit to find your way. Ten or so dozing and snoring men filled the floor, scattered about. Tolford made his way to his bedroll far off in the corner under a breezy window he had fought hard and long to claim. His bed was a simple, cotton roll that stunk of sweat and swamp air. Peter owned the one opposite him.
Tolford unclasped his leathers, steel, and satchel. He set them underneath the always open window, before kneeling and rolling onto his bedroll with a grunt. He untied the laces on his dirt caked boots, kicking them off near his armor. He laid still, exhaustion seeping from his pores.
For most of the guard, this would be the time to admire keepsakes and trinkets from families or lovers, perhaps only memories of home. Often during this time Tolford would feign sleep and watch Peter from the corner of his eye. Peter always had a simple, silver chain he would run through his fingers when he thought no man was watching. He would fall asleep with it tucked tight to his chest. Some nights, this brought a bubble of envy from within Tolford’s belly. On others, he thanked his god he had nothing to yearn for.
Tolford woke suddenly, his skin clammy and aching. His eyes opened to a slate darkness and his ears to crushing silence. He coughed, clearing his lungs with raking pain. A foul taste crept across the back of his tongue. His throat was gravel, grating as he breathed in shallow breaths. He stood, fumbling with his hands to find the waist high windowsill to support himself. He looked through it, searching for a sign of the dawn. He found none.
He must not have slept long, he thought. There was an illness about him. Random, sharp pains stabbed at his limbs. He knelt back down, feeling around for his boots, fingers prickling with numbness.
Tolford stood, dazed. He took a blind step, bending to feel what would have been Peter’s bedroll. It lay empty, uncovered and cold. His heart lurched into an odd beat.
He stumbled to the barracks door, falling over a half dozen empty bed rolls, each as cold as the last. Fear touched him then, a slow caress of horror waking his skin in gooseflesh.
The outside air struck him with a cruel emptiness. He strained his eyes, searching with desperation amongst the black, with not a torch or candle to be seen. His heart, galloping now in his ears, drowned the silence. Tolford called out, first for Peter, then for someone, anyone to hear him. He was yelling now, scrambling to the inner keep on clumsy feet.
The abyss swallowed his screams and spat back desolation.
Tolford fell to his knees, the taste of hot iron searing in his throat. Fingers of dread raked at his skin. His grasped the dirt, running it through his fingers; the only grounding presence in a shrouded sea. Feverish, he rolled to his back and searched what he thought was the sky.
She had forsaken him as well.
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