I posted a prologue on here a few weeks ago, sort of a test to see if i might actually do well at writing a fantasy. It got a few likes, and I received a fair amount of new followers, so I decided to keep going with it. Instead of it continuing to be a prologue, I decided to just have it be the first chapter. This is the second chapter, where we meet the main protagonist of the story. This time though, I’m looking for feedback. Harsh, brutally honest feedback. If you haven’t read the first chapter yet, read it. It was my last post before this one. Thanks in advance.
The stallion’s coat was lacquered — it’s black hair gleaming like pitch in the moonlight before Chara was sure she was far enough away to slow it to a walk. The front of her jerkin and the sleeves of her blouse were soaked through from wiping away tears that seemed as if they’d never stop. King Boraan was slain. His son, the Knights, the guards…all slain. Fathers, brothers — their corpses were rotting in the dust, and she watched it all, quiet on her stolen horse.
Stupid, she thought. Why are you so stupid?
She unrolled the cloak she had bundled behind her saddle, and draped it around her shaking shoulders. The sky was full-dark now, and even in the midst of summer, the Swathed Hills dipped into unforgiving cold when night came. She had lost the trail when she was running from that thing that had been chasing her. It was no matter. She didn’t much want to be running back to Thrym anytime soon, anyway. Thrym — her home — was where the Demon was sure to have gone, and he had seen her. He had chased her somehow. She couldn’t see it, but she had felt him as if he were on a horse of his own, barreling down on her. She had felt it as sure as she could feel the coldness of the night, and the sodden jerkin sticking tight to her chest.
It had been right behind her, and she had been sure that any minute, any second, she would feel icy fingers grip her neck and rip her from her horse. But, that feeling stopped as instantly as if it had run into the great oak and iron postern gate. Now the only physical clue to tell her she had most definitely been running from something, were the small gashes and cuts on her neck, hands, and face, from being whipped at by branches and shrubs that lined the thin trails. That, and her sweating horse, still rolling it’s eyes with fear.
Soon, Chara’s sobs faded to a comforting silence, and the only noise she could hear was the slow crunch of the stallion’s hooves through the leafs and twigs that littered the forest floor. She breathed deeply and let out her first comfortable breath since before she left the city walls earlier that day. It seemed like an eternity ago.
The day had started plainly enough, until it had been darkened, tainted by the castle’s announcement. The call came forth from the king himself — that every Knight, soldier, and man strong enough to wield a sword must prepare for battle. The announcement was given by the Kingsguard, who stood watching over the crowd, peering down, buzzardly in their intent to snatch up anyone who fled the order. All of the noblemen and women, they had said, had been board-up inside the keep of the castle, and all of the lowborns were ensured that they would be kept safe — that the men of Castle Thrymdor and the market district would see the attacker killed. It was a Monster, the announcers said. Something imprudent enough to let itself loose from its filth to draw a battle on the greatest Darkslayers know to the realm. “There should be no worry.”
Her people panicked anyway, scattering from the announcement, grabbing kids and loved ones, and piling into their little homes. Merchant tables were tipped, things were looted; women screamed as they were knocked down in the mud and stepped upon. Men pulled up rocks, or gathered broken sticks and used them to try and keep the Kingsguard away from them, as well as used them for things worse than that. They were rounded up by the guard with hardly an injury and marched off toward the armories. Some of the men, still drunk from the night before, cursed and spat at the guards, as they tried to twist out of their grasp — some, still committing whatever acts of heinous indifference, struggle to finish their loot-advantaged crimes.
The Kingsguard spoke again, seeming confident that the army could destroy the creature in an evening, or so they claimed, and that set Chara‘s imagination aflame, despite the shame she felt about her village people behaving that way. It should have been an honor, and if she hadn‘t been born lacking manhood, she would have been eager to volunteer — unlike the sorry lot she called neighbors. Drunks, thieves, rapers, and murderers — all vying to escape their duty to the king. Chara thought of running up, taking one of the swords that were being given out, and sliding it through the bowels of a few of the men she recognized that were presently fleeing the call. Men she wished she didn’t recognize, at all.
Instead, she began to hatch a plan — a plan to see the battle first hand. She needed to be there, and she would get there any way she could. To witness the battle firsthand, a girl, oh the stories she could tell. She would be the talk of all the village, instead of the gossip and rumors of lords and ladies and status and character, and tittle-tattle of the royal families‘ secrets and affairs. This was by and large the norm in the peasant town of Thrym, which made for a dull place for a teenaged girl to grow, mostly, and Chara rarely got any stimulation from it. Sometimes, the Kingdom would hold a jousting tourney in the square, where even the lowest of beggars could see, but that was rare, and seldom as marvelous as the Highborns promised. Sometimes there were fights in the inns that spilled into the streets, and she would see a man get knocked about, or even killed, blood mixing and pooling with the dark brown mud of the common road. She hadn’t liked that so much, but still, she thought it better fun than kneading bread, or watching her mother knit mediocre garb for the Highborns that they would never buy. So, the prospect of witnessing a battle, especially one that was proclaimed to be an utter domination, had filled her chest with butterflies that she hadn’t felt in years. It was one thing to see drunken brawls, and chivalrous tourneys, but it was something else altogether to witness her Knight-protectors, and men-at-arms perpetrate bravery and honor, first hand. To see it happen, what she had only heard in stories, was motivation enough to lie and sneak her way into the hills.
Stupid. Look what you’ve gotten yourself into.
It had seemed good that the panic happened that quickly, and that chaotically, and Chara soon found herself kneeling inside an empty cask near the stables. She waited patiently for what seemed like hours before she finally heard all of the commotion begin to die. When the road was clear, she slipped out of the cask and snuck her way to the back of the market town’s stable, where she pried open the door and was instantly dismayed to find Jyrim standing there with feed in his hand. The plan hadn’t involved him at all, but Chara hadn’t thought much ahead of simply stealing a horse. Through all the excitement, she hadn’t counted on anyone being there to stop her. Especially Jyrim, who should have been hauled off with the other men to go to battle.
“Chara!” he had said, dropping his chin nearly to his chest. “What are you doing out, the guards…there’s an order to stay in.”
Jyrim. He had always looked at her the way fat little boys look at candied apples. “I could ask the same as you,” she said, putting on her most flirtatious look. She had seen the whores do it time enough, there was no reason she couldn’t manipulate a young man just as well. “What’s a strong man like you doing here, instead of going to kill this monster yourself?”
His cheeks flushed red as he explained that his father went in his stead, and mother was too weak to mend the horses. He stuttered through asking again why Chara was there.
Damn. The setback didn’t slow her. She walked up to him slowly, swinging her hips, shrugging. Sheepishly, she told him that there was nobody who could help her. Nobody who cared. “Jryim,” she said, putting his face in her hands. “I desperately need something from you.”
He let a grin flash across his face, and Chara could see his mind at play, his wishes and wants reflecting in his dull, witless eyes. Still, he backed away until he ran up against the far wall of the stable, pushing his hands before him. “You…you want? What…is it?
“Not want,” she said. “Need, Jyrim. And what I need from you is–” she leaned in to whisper in his ear, “your…horse.”
Jyrim’s faced scrunched up, and he shoved Chara back a few paces. “A fucking horse, Chara? You say all…that — come in here like that, and you ask me for a fucking horse?!” He crossed his arms and kicked a pile of hay across the room. “For the King’s sake, I told you there’s an order. Where are you planning on going? What are you — Lord, I can’t give you a stinking — “
Chara wrapped her arms around his neck then, cutting him off with a long, hard kiss. She had to focus to keep from vomiting, his breath so horrid flowing straight into her nose, that she had to think of other things she had thought lovely. Sir Garedd. Sir Malar. Prince Lyrdran from the stories. Lilies. Morning grass. Fresh bread. Finally, she pulled away.
Jyrim stared at her for long moments before he spoke again, his eyes wider than the horse’s had been during the panic in the streets. “Chara…I…I’ve wanted this…but it‘s not going to get you –”
“A horse, Jyrim. I need it. It’s important.”
She kissed him again, this time rubbing her body up against his. She could feel his heartbeat, beating feverishly through his chest, and she almost threw up, again, wanting to punch him square between the legs. After a moment, she pulled away again, shame begging to poke through her steel resolve. “A Horse. When I get back, we will finish what we started.” She gave him a sly grin, and put her hand upon his chest. She could feel his heartbeat slowing, but still giving chase to that what would rival a hummingbird‘s.
Jyrim stared at her for a length of time, with his mouth hanging open, and chest heaving. His expressions were indecisive, and he did little to hide how torn he was between saddling the horse, and saddling her. Luckily, he lowered his head, and brushed Chara aside. He picked a saddle off the wall, one of the more worn, Chara noticed, and mounted it on the an old black stallion in the back corner pen. He led him out easily, and handed the reigns over to Chara, but before she could pull them away, Jyrim grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her head around until her eyes met his. “You owe me,” he said.
Chara left him standing in the doorway to the stable in a cloud of dust and loose hay. She felt sick. Although she was past what was considered adulthood, she was mostly inexperienced with men. Mostly, of what she only wanted to remember. Not consensually inexperienced out of distaste or revulsion, but simply because she didn’t have the time, what with her father being gone, and her mother having an ill mind and all. She hadn’t kissed anyone in some time, or anything more shiver-inspiring — anyone she wanted to — and she certainly had not wanted her next lustful moment to be Jyrim, her childhood tormenter. She felt sick, and the urge to rub soap over her tongue, and scrub her body until it was pink and raw was virtually overwhelming. Regardless, Jyrim had actually been the easiest part, and a part of her plan to which she only felt slightly guilty. Bullying her brother had been much worse.
As her horse trotted up the road, she noticed him sitting on a steel tankard a few feet from the east gate, tossing a small pebble up in the air. She hadn’t expected to see him. Matty prenticed for the gatekeep, learning a trade he would someday take up, but with the town so panicked, Chara was sure that Matty had been sent home like every other unnecessary person. She dismounted her horse, and walked anxiously up to where her brother sat.
“Matty?!” she said. “What in the King’s Dungeon are you doing here?”
“Me?” he said, dropping his stone to the ground. “What are you doing here? Mother is going to tan you when I tell her.” He stood up then, getting to his tiptoes to peer around the empty road, as if it were at all possible that their mother would be near when he needed her.
Chara slapped his arms back down to his sides, and forced him to sit back down. She put on her ugliest sisterly face and growled, “where’s Quent?” Her brother furrowed his eyebrows and frowned.
“King’s orders. He’s a fighting man, used to be a smith, you know?”
“He’s gone?” She smiled, despite herself. “This is good,” she said, “I won’t have to be kissing two men I didn’t intend on.”
Matty squinted his eyes and began to open his mouth in question.
“Shut up…just never mind, Mat.” She frowned, and knelt down next to her brother. “The thing is, and I know you don’t want to, but, I’m going to need you to let me out…”
“No way. There’s an order, y’know? ‘Nobody in or out, lest …’”
In the end, it only took a solid punch on the shoulder, and threats of exposing some of Matty’s more insidious, past mischiefs to their mother before her brother agreed to let her out of the gate. She promised him she wouldn’t be gone long, and promised him that nobody would know that he was breaking a king’s order. Reluctantly, he undid the locks and pouted exaggeratedly. As she trotted out the gate, she looked back at her brother. He gave a quick wave, and smiled tentatively through his frown. Sweat dripped from his forehead as he looked around nervously, closing the gate that seemed far too big for him to man himself. That seemed like ages ago, now.
“Mat,” Chara said aloud. Please, be safe. She had to go back.
But now, now that she had seen, God, even wanted to see, the waste; the filth; the gore that had befallen the defenders of the city. She wept again for the innocence she had lost just hours before. When she closed her eyes, she still saw the blade of the enemy, that sickly knight in all black, swinging his dinted sword just a little too fast than seemed possible. No matter where he was struck from, what seemed like an innate knowledge had warned him, and he spun to meet his target, driving home the point of his sickly sword. It was not what Chara had wanted to see.
One knight had managed to loose it from him, and the blackened invader opened his mouth and screamed a scream to chill the bones of the mountains themselves; the attacker freezing, as his flesh peeled away and blew off in the wind, leaving nothing but charred black bones that crumbled with a touch of the black one’s finger. It was then that she knew that she should never have left the safety of the city walls.
He seemed to reposition, too. Not in the way normal men walk, or run, but he seemed to serve one place and then a second within the blink of an eye. A black wisp would furl up from the ground and overtake him, and he would appear, fighting in a different spot altogether. Chara watched this from the back of her horse, high above the pass, covering her mouth at every single death, and wishing more than anything she was back, covered in her mother’s shawl, squeezing Mat and Mother, both.
Not one of the fighting men gave way, not as Chara sat at the top of the pass screaming to them, screaming that they should return to the castle, that they should give up and keep their lives. But no one heard, and no one had parted to give the beast ground. For that, for all of them, she cried. The King and his son were the last to die, although they had been at the front with the creature the entire day. They seemed to anticipate its blows as well, but every time it seemed they had a opening on it, the demon shifted; dissipated, just to slay another soldier, until finally, it appeared behind King Boraan himself and ran it’s scathed blade across his neck. The prince then, midst war cry, plunged his sword through the back of the creature’s tunic, but his sword wrapped itself in nothing but darkness and mist. The demon hurdled back into existence just beyond the reach of the prince’s still out-thrust sword, and swung one round swipe across the midsection of the young man. His white tunic, severed, and began to blot with red that soon ran up the whole of his midsection. He fell there, turning to look into his dead father’s eyes. Thryor Pass was quiet, then.
Mat. The king. Thrym. Another tear fell from the corner of Chara’s eye. Mother… I have to go home. Just then, the black horse underneath her shied and whinnied, almost tumbling her to the forest floor. “There, there,” she said. “Steady now.” She leaned foreword and patted the head of the horse. It still stepped back and forth uneasily, nervously, as she ran her soft fingers down it’s face to the end of its nose. “Don’t be scared,” she whispered. “We’ll be home soon…”
“Oh will you, now?” came a voice not ten spans from where she sat.
Chara wheeled in the saddle and faced the horse in the direction of the voice. “Who’s there?” she said, peering into the darkness. Nothing stirred. In front of her a few paces, she could vaguely see the outlines of trees and branches; darkness wrapped in darkness. “Show yourself!”
A shuffling came, and then a scraping sound. Another scrape, and bright yellow flame tore a hole in the dark veil of the moonless night. It was lifted, illuminating a hand that held the match the flame burned upon, the trees nearby, and the scarred leather of a man’s dark tunic. It came to a rest before a wooden pipe that sat pinched between a pair of lips. The light reflected sweat covered cheeks and a crooked nose, with eyes hidden beneath the cowl of a misty grey cloak. The flame dipped, rose, and dipped again, as the stranger puffed small billows of frothy smoke, and then it was extinguished. All that remained of the darkened man was the soft glow of ember that moved with his invisible hand.
The smoldering ember moved closer. She could smell the smoke, stinging her nostrils, thick, overwhelming notes of cherry, like it was burning with moist wood. She felt the smoke as it floated to her eyes, burning them, making tears instinctually take shape in the corners of her vision. Her breathe quickened as her heart began to race; her legs and arms exploded with energy. She dug her heels into her horse, and threw the reigns, and just as her horse began to turn, and dash into the darkness, she felt a gloved hand grip her ankle. As the horse pushed away, the grip of the man held her in place and she was yanked from the saddle, right out of the stirrups
.Chara landed on her chest, and her nose bounced off the dirt. Pain, and white light exploded through her head, as she gasped for air. Her chest heaved, aching, dying for breathe. Up or down could have been any direction, her head swooned as she tried to open her eyes, but there was nothing there. She felt a wetness creeping from one of her nostrils, rolling down over the crest of her lip. It tasted of metal and salt, and flowed and flowed, emanating from the aching, throbbing pain in the center of her face. Blood. She rolled over, kicking out, and whipping her hands through the air in any direction the man might be, and she screamed, and yelled, and thrashed her body on the cold, sodden ground. But she connected with nothing.
“Are you done?”
Chara stopped, and opened her eyes. At first it was hard to see; the pain from landing on her nose made her eyes water, and the night was still as black as it had always been. “Stay away!” She scraped at the ground, scrambling to come across a stick or rock; anything to defend herself.
“Don’t be stupid, girl,” the stranger said. “You hadn’t know I was about until I chose to show you. Instead of decent inquiry, you ran. I hadn’t the time to deal with such…childishness. That is why you are on the ground with a bleeding nose. No doubt it hurts. Rise, and allow me to tend to it.”
“Keep away from me, villain.”
“If you’d like to lie there and bleed to death, have at it, child.” His face glowed orange again briefly as he took a puff from the pipe. “But if you’d like to follow me to Thrym and tell them what we have seen,” he blew out the smoke, “I’d find the company pleasant. Two voices are oft better than one, especially concerning Wind Riders.”
“You –” she managed. “You saw…? Wind Rider, Sir?”
“The beast that slew the king. Some call them other things. Sifts, Depleters…they go by many names. Best we move along. Could be more about these woods.”
Depleter. She had heard that before. The stories were old, but still made their way around the market square when a Word Performer came through. They came on the wind, the stories said. A part of it, the wind, until they met living flesh. Then, they were a part of that. It made sense that that was what the dark knight she had seen had been. She watched him, as a blackness — a hollow, swirling fog of putrid shade — twisted itself out of the mouth of the charred knight it had occupied, and reached its snaking arms to wrap around the knight that had been dying on the ground. Slowly, those arms stole from him everything that he had ever been, and reformed them in the monster that stood above him. It had depleted him — left him a dried up, ashy husk, crinkling up on the battlefield. She had seen that, sure as she was sitting there now. A Depleter.
“You saw the battle,” she said standing, trying to feel out for the man in the dark. Her nose still throbbed, and she was dizzy. She stumbled once, reaching forward toward the dark. Her hand touched the rough leather of a covered gauntlet, and she pulled herself closer. The smell of that tobacco, cherry, wood, grew harsher, and burned at her now drying eyes. The man’s face was illuminated again, and this time, she caught his eyes. He stared deeply through great, hard, grey eyes, endless in their purported wisdom, and as hard as the Fallow itself must be. He blinked one eye as the breeze changed and blew the frilling smoke back into his face. The ember faded, and so did Chara’s view of the stranger’s alluring features. She smelled the smoke again. Cherry. Wood.
“I saw it. Yes, but not in the way that you did.”
Chara felt fingers wrap around her wrist and turn her hand over. Then something soft, something small and silky was draped across her palm. “Take this,” he said. “Tilt your head toward the ground, and press this cloth to your nose. It won’t help the pain, but you won’t keep bleeding.”
She did as he said, but wrinkled her forehead about the answer he had just given her. What did he mean about — “You’re not from Thrym, sir. You speak…oddly.” Her cheeks flushed pink, luckily hidden by the darkness of the midnight woods. Where are your manners. “I meant no offense, sir. This night has me out of sorts.” Out of sorts? she thought. Out of sorts?! This man, this stranger pulled you from your horse, and now your in the pitch-black, horseless, trying to keep from bleeding all over yourself.
As if he could read her mind, the man spoke openly, interrupting her thoughts. “The mistake is mine, in truth, that being the pain of your bloodied nose. I hadn’t intended…” he trailed off. “I hadn’t meant to make you fall. I fear that was rather a quick decision I had made, and one of selfishness, I suppose. As I had begun to explain, two voices are better than one, especially when attempting to confirm accounts of –”
“Depleters,” Chara cut in.”
“Yes, certainly, the Depleter. I couldn’t let you run, and miss the chance of sharing your account, as well. You are right, I am not one from these lands, and I fear that if I were to march myself into this kingdom here of Thrym, and expose a knight — maybe lord or King by now — of being spawned of the Shadow, I would have been run off…maybe run through, do you understand, child?”
“Sir, I do, but I am no — “
“Please,” he cut in. “Call me Gherric. And child? Is that what you were going to say? You are no Child? Then, pardon Miss, I beg forgiveness. This darkness, it swallows vision whole.”
Deep, tolling bells struck out in the night, piercing the thin midnight air like a needle through cloth. Chara’s mind jumped to the sight of the black, ugly sword piercing her prince, and the creature who held it, smiling as his skin flaked in the breeze off the Saline Sea. She shuddered.
“You’ve probably never had to hear those bells in your life, child…ah,…Miss,” Gherric said. Those bells are wrung for death — for change. Thrym is aware. It prepares to crown a new king. This changes things. Pray we can sway whatever outcomes are wrought of tonight.” Gherric lit another match, and held it to a wick of a small white candle in a glass casing that was hung from a spear looped through his horses saddle. He held out his hand. “Ride with me. We must go to Lucansfear. Lanier will listen; he is a true king. No help can come to Thrym before we ride east.” He put his hand sternly on her shoulder. “Girl,” he said. “The time for decisions is now.”
Chara looked up at the stars in the sky, as if expecting some answer to be written in the emptiness between them. Gherric gazed into her eyes, his own burning with urgency, when she looked back to him. “I have family in Thrym, sir. If I come with you, can we save them?”
“I make no promises,” the strange man replied. “But with men and iron, we will certainly try. This world, here and across the seas, may depend on it.”
His last words sent chills up Chara’s spine, icy skeleton fingers spreading goose-pimples with every touch. Mat, she thought. Mother…the World.
“Gherric,” she whispered, putting her hand on his horse pommel. “Quickly…”