A number of folks graciously volunteered to beta read the novella and I've already received feedback from some of them. While not everyone is going to like your story, you can still benefit from their comments as to why they didn't like it. That's actually more beneficial than the one who says they loved everything about the story but gives no suggestions for improvement.
I don't care how accomplished a writer you are, there is always room for improvement. Sometimes writers get so close to the story that they don't notice the things that are missing. I forget that the reader doesn't know what I know and needs to be given hints to help them come to the conclusions I want them to. It frustrates me the number of times I write that the character reached their destination or finally met up with someone and readers ask who is this person or I didn't know they were headed there. Sure enough, when I go back to check, I realize I never mentioned where they were going or who they were supposed to meet. It was in my head but not on paper.
Based on the feedback I've received so far, I'm sharing the rewrite of the first chapter, and hope some will comment whether this is good enough or needs more work.
Thanks for reading!
Aldan Beaverson hurried along the cobblestone street leading to the King’s Castle at the west end of Westalia. For five days he’d outpaced the army approaching from the south. Rumors abounded at every village along his route as to King Romar’s intentions. However, today the weather became unpredictable along with greater numbers of villagers headed for the city in search of safety. He’d arrived in the city later than planned and hoped the rain would delay the army even longer. The rich aroma of roasting mutton and the sound of laughter coming from a nearby inn pulled him away from his intended destination. The promise of a hot meal and the chance to dry off outweighed his need to reach the Castle.
Aldan stepped through the door into silence as every eye fell on him and then quickly turned away. Forced laughter erupted from several tables as it appeared patrons were more interested in their ale than food. With the one serving girl busy refilling mugs, Aldan signaled to the innkeeper who seemed loath to abandon his sanctuary behind the polished wooden counter.
The food was surprisingly good but he wasted no time in savoring the meal. Silence fell once again when he stood but the laughter returned full force as the door shut behind him. The rain had tapered off while he ate, but heavy, dark clouds still filled the sky. Shifting shadows from overgrown bushes and the rustle of leaves from ancient oaks, added to his unease after leaving the inn.
Aldan breathed a sigh of relief as the dark silhouette of the castle came into view. This was the first castle he had seen outside of the pages of a book and the reality of it stopped him in his tracks. It would not have surprised him to hear the ground groan at the weight of the massive stone structure. Dull faced granite blocks, most covered with moss or ivy, were a testament to its extreme age. The foul odor he encountered was unexpected.
Apparently they drained the castles garderobes into the moat, probably as an extra deterrent to keep enemies out. Fortunately, the drawbridge was lowered. Holding his breath, Aldan hurried across to the sally port in the massive wooden gate. A quick pull on the bell rope and a voice from somewhere above called down.
“Who goes there?”
“Aldan Beaverson. I’m the new apprentice mage.”
“Aye. We’ve been expecting you. A moment please while I summon the mage.”
Aldan hoped they would hurry as one of the shadows detached itself from the nearest building and slowly made its way toward the bridge. He quickly rehearsed one of the few defensive spells he had learned and loosened his sword in its scabbard, just in case.
About the time he determined to cast his spell, the portal opened and he was unceremoniously dragged through as the nervous guard peered out then slammed the door.
Unaware he’d been holding his breath, Aldan gasped, “What in the Seven Hells was that?”
“That is why you are needed here,” announced an elderly, silver haired gentleman. “And why the gate is always kept closed. Well met, young Beaverson. I am Jordan Ryecliff, King’s Mage. I must return to the King but the chamberlain should arrive shortly to escort you to your rooms. I will see you as soon as I can, but plan on asking your questions on the morrow when we have more time.”
With that, the mage spun in a swirl of flowing, dark blue robes and disappeared down a corridor just as a harried, portly man approached from the opposite side of the entry tunnel.
“Ah, Master Beaverson! So glad you finally arrived. Welcome to Greystone Castle. I’m the chamberlain, Horis Whitely. Please follow me and I will show you to your rooms.”
Before Aldan had a chance to answer, the chamberlain headed back the way he had come. Hurrying to catch up, he couldn’t help but notice the poor state of the castle. Dust covered everything in the hall and cobwebs hung from the ceiling. The wooden banisters and railings of the three flights of stairs they climbed, hadn’t seen a polish cloth in a very long time. The hour was not that late, yet the only sounds to disturb the eerily quiet halls were their footsteps.
They arrived at a door the chamberlain opened with one of the many keys attached to a ring. Aldan entered the room, pleasantly surprised at what he saw. His rooms had been thoroughly cleaned and several lit candles gave off a pleasant scent. A small fire crackled cheerfully in the fireplace. Tapestries hung on the walls depicting forest scenes and someone’s garden. Not really to his tastes but better than scenes of battle in their blood spattered glory.
Master Whitely waved in the direction of a small table to one side. “I suspect you are quite weary from your journey but a small bottle of wine and a platter of meat and cheese has been provided in case you are hungry. I must leave now and return to the King but the Mage indicated he would visit you before turning in. A key to your room hangs on a peg next to the door. Just as a precaution, always keep your door locked. Goodnight.”
Aldan shook his head as the chamberlain quickly exited the room and shut the door behind him. Other than the one question he’d been able to voice upon entering the castle, they had given him no opportunity for further conversation. He didn’t need to be a scholar to figure out something was terribly wrong. Where were all the staff, and why keep his door locked in the King’s castle?
A knock at the door put a hold on further musings. With the chamberlain’s warning still fresh in his mind, he cautiously stepped to the door and called out. “Who’s there?”
“Your royal welcoming committee—as it were.”
Intrigued, Aldan opened the door to be confronted by a stunningly beautiful young woman about his own age. Long dark hair framed the face of an angel with deep green eyes and wearing a simple but elegant gown. Having someone like her appear at his door did not happen every day.
“Are you going to invite me in or just stand there and stare?” she asked as one corner of her mouth twitched, and the twinkle in her eyes threatened to un-mask her royal attitude of indifference.
“Ah, sorry my lady,” he stammered in apology. “I was expecting Mage Ryecliff.”
Aldan held the door as she glided in on slippered feet. The material of her dress made a swishing sound as her perfume filled the air. He shut and locked the door as he’d been told, all the while desperately trying to regain his composure. Why would Princess Odessa visit him in his rooms, alone?
He faced the princess and executed his best bow using the form taught to him by his mentor. “Forgive me your Highness. I am Aldan Beaverson, apprentice mage, at your service.”
After a perfunctory glance at the rest of the room, the princess returned her gaze to Aldan. Wavy blond hair that just touched the tips of his ears, framed an angular face dominated by a set of expressive dark brown eyes. The tall, slim body that would fill out as he aged gave her a glimpse of what the future promised.
“At least you are more pleasing to the eye than our last apprentice. Your hair is shorter than I prefer but that will grow out in time. Now come away from the door and join me at the table. We must talk.”
Aldan rushed to position her chair as she sat down, then sat across the table hoping she had missed the color in his face at her frank appraisal. So many questions flashed through his mind, but where to start?
The princess sat there quietly with the same faint smile as if waiting for something. This time, the heat that rose up from his neck was for his own lack of manners. “May I pour you a glass of wine, Princess?”
She answered with a nod of her head and a quick glance at the platter of food in the center of the table.
“Please help yourself, Princess. Meat and cheese are all I have to offer you.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, but we can talk about that later. Right now, I feel I must inform you of the happenings inside the castle.”
“Please do. The city is on edge with the approach of King Romar and I’ve felt something else was amiss ever since I passed through the gates. It has only gotten worse now that I’m in the castle.” Aldan gestured with the knife he used to cut slices of the meat. “Even the air around me feels oppressive and filled with malice.”
The Princess nodded in agreement. “That is one of the reasons why most of the staff has abandoned the castle. That and other things.”
His attention riveted on her face as the hair on the back of his neck rose in apprehension. “What other things?”
Eyes wide in fear, trembling, she pointed to the door with a piece of cheese and whispered, “Those things.”
Reluctantly, his head swiveled to face in the direction she pointed and watched in fascination as a black cloud oozed under the door and formed into a being unlike anything he had ever seen before. How do you defend against something that appears as solid as smoke?