Critique Group – Don’t Look Back

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Don’t Look Back – by Isabelle

Dulcilla glanced back anxiously, her heart beating madly as she ran. Her friend, a dark-haired man, was running behind her a little ways, leading a small pony. Dulcilla breathed in relief. Good. He made it… He was safe… mostly. A limp slowed his movement, but he nonetheless soon caught up to Dulcilla.

He handed the pony’s reins to Dulcilla, continuing to run at her side. “Here,” he spoke urgently. “Mount as soon as you’re far enough away and then ride to where it’s safe. You know where”

Dulcilla’s eyes flew to his limping foot. “You’re hurt… How will you run all that way…?” She placed a hand over her mouth in horror, realizing there was no way he could. “We’ve got to mount now!”

He shook his head. “If we mount now, then we’ll be spotted and caught easily. We have to wait until we get to the mountains” He gave Dulcilla a small smile. “I’ll be fine”

Dulcilla searched his face worriedly. After a moment, she hesitantly nodded. She trusted him at least this much…

Suddenly a shout sounded from some way off. Dulcilla’s companion flicked his head back to look. His eyes glanced briefly behind him before they flickered back to Dulcilla. “Ride away like I told you as soon as possible, Dulcilla, and I’ll meet you” He slowed a little. “Go in a different direction from me” His expression was urgent. “Hurry!”

Breathlessly, Dulcilla ran faster, turning a different direction, and leading the pony with her. The last sounds of her companion’s voice reached her as she ran: “Ride, Dulcilla, and don’t look back!

Dulcilla mounted quickly and rode. But, despite her friend’s warning, she could not help one last glance back. She looked back just in time to see an arrow tip burst through her companion’s side. Scarlet spilled through his shirt, and he crumpled to the ground noiselessly.

Dulcilla forced herself to look away, a sob rising in her throat. “No…” She whimpered, still riding as though the wind were behind her.

And they rode on – she and her pony – Dulcilla not daring again to look back,  still broken up from the first time. Tears streamed down her face freely.

Somehow, though, she made herself look back again, despite her knowledge that there was no way her companion had made it. And yet, despite this knowledge, it still felt like an arrow to her own side when Dulcilla’s eyes could not find even one living soul anywhere behind her.

Suddenly, as though spooked by something, Dulcilla’s horse whinnied loudly and reared up. She fell, and all went black… That was all that Dulcilla could remember. It had been almost a year now since she’d come here – a fruitless year of trying so hard to remember who the man was, why she’d been running, what had happened before it, and so many other questions. Dulcilla was half-beginning to believe that it was only a dream, and that it really had never happened at all. But then, that face… His face… She knew it… somehow.

 

 

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Categories: Critique Group

29 replies

  1. There was an interesting disonnence for me when I read the title then the opening sentence. It intrigued me to keep reading since that wasn’t what I was expecting the opening line to be given the title.
    I think the line “she and her pony” is a little redundant- there’s no one else there to be riding on besides her. Also in that paragraph I think the word “last” would better fit than “first” in regards to her looking back, the first time made me think back to the opening paragraph when she saw the man coming with the pony.

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  2. “If we mount now, then we’ll be spotted and caught easily. We have to wait until we get to the mountains” – you need a period here. It’s easy to overlook so I completely understand. 🙂
    “Ride away like I told you as soon as possible, Dulcilla, and I’ll meet you” – you forgot another period here. You also might want to restructure this sentence. It felt a little like a run-on. Maybe say, “Ride away as soon as possible, Dulcilla, just like I told you. I’ll meet you later!”
    “Go in a different direction from me” – and another period needs to be placed here.
    “And they rode on – she and her pony – Dulcilla not daring again to look back, still broken up from the first time.” – I feel like the “and” is unnecessary in this instance.
    Other than those few edits, this is an amazing section of story. It made me want to continue reading. I really want to know what comes next! Who was that guy she was with? Why were they running? Did he really die or did he somehow survive? Will she see him again? Where is she now? It was very fast-paced and easy to follow. I really enjoyed this small piece and I am left hungry for more. Excellent job!

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    • Thank you so much for the critique – very good point. I shall watch in the future for awkward or grammatically lacking dialogue. This was very helpful!
      Thank you so much – I’m glad you liked it! I would post more, but it might not make much sense – you see, this is the beginning of a sequel, and without the first book, it would seem confusing. The beginning of the first book was posted on here a while back, though, called The Second Brother or Brothers of Elliar, I think.
      Thanks, and Merry Christmas, Shelby!

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  3. Hi Isabelle,

    Thanks for submitting this piece! You have a natural talent with words, and your sentence structure generally flows well.

    One thing that stuck out to me is your use of “ly” adverbs. We learn in grade school that using adjectives and adverbs is good because it is more descriptive. (I tell my middle school students this as well!) However, as writers improve and mature, the use of descriptors should actually decrease, and the effective, descriptive verb becomes paramount for engaging storytelling. I see several uses of an “ly” adverb after a verb that stick out to me: “Dulcilla glanced back anxiously,” “he spoke urgently,” “Dulcilla searched his face worriedly,” and “Dulcilla mounted quickly.” The use of these adverbs TELLS the action, instead of showing it. (The old phrase: “show, don’t tell.”) For example, in the sentence “Dulcilla searched his face worriedly,” I should be able to tell from her actions and the pacing of the story that Dulcilla is worried. It is redundant to say that she is searching his face worriedly. Describe her actions/behavior that let us know that she is worried so that we can SEE the worry in her eyes, instead of just telling us that she is worried. You probably can’t avoid the use of “ly” adverbs altogether, but when you use one, see if there is another, stronger verb that you can use instead to eliminate the adverb.

    Again, good job with the pacing; the intensity is there, but cleaning up your descriptions will intensify the intensity. 🙂 This is definitely an interesting premise, and I hope that you keep working on it! Hope this helps!

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  4. Interesting start 🙂

    At the beginning, there doesn’t seem to be much reference for where the characters are or what they are doing(aside from running). To an extent this is fine, since from the last paragraph her memory is hazy, but it would still help to have something to anchor the readers in the scene. This could either be a single sentence that briefly describes something happening around her or where she’s at, or maybe adjusting the word choice of the first few sentences to indicate something of her surroundings.

    Also, it feels a bit like she glanced back simply as a way to bring her friend into the scene. Indicating why she turned could help set the scene and make it make more sense. “Hooves clipped rapidly across the cobblestones behind Dulcilla. She glanced back, heart racing…” is an example. From this alone, we would know she’s running on a cobblestone street(or at least near one), and maybe that the town is of a decent size and at least used to be well kept or prosperous(compared to a village with an uneven dirt road).

    Here are some questions to keep in mind in this scene: Why would riding the pony attract more attention than running and leading it? The characters are running, and that’s not usually something people do when they’re trying to stay hidden or unnoticed, so shouldn’t they just ride if they’re in that much of a hurry? And why is staying hidden more imperative than speed in this case? Ponies are also smaller and likely slower than horses, so think about whether there is a specific reason she has a pony instead of a horse. One reason could be that she was a child during this flashback, and if so, find a way to indicate this.

    Other than that, I don’t have much input aside from what everyone else said.

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    • That’s a very good point concerning setting. Those suggestions are very helpful, and I more certainly make use of them.
      Thank you also for the questions – I do indeed have answers to them, and will most certainly keep them in mind.
      Thank you for the critique, Autumn!

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  5. This is an exciting start that builds mystery and intrigue. Overall, I would like to see you implement more intimacy and strive for vivid verbs.

    Details (I’m not going to mention punctuation errors. Others did that.):

    Dulcilla glanced back anxiously, her heart beating madly as she ran.

    I don’t think you need “anxiously.” The heart beating madly sets the mood.

    “Her friend, a dark-haired man, was running behind her a little ways, leading a small pony.”

    First, I think from her POV she would refer to his name. Second, she wouldn’t consider his hair color at this moment. Third, it’s hard for me to picture the leading of a small pony while running. It’s not efficient. Why isn’t he riding it? Also, aren’t all ponies small? Fourth, “was running” is a weak verb construction. I think you can show this more vividly with stronger verbs, and I think the limping would be the first thing she would notice.

    but he nonetheless soon caught up to Dulcilla.

    If they were both running, and a limp slowed him, how did he catch up with her?

    “Here,” he spoke urgently. “Mount as soon as you’re far enough away and then ride to where it’s safe. You know where”

    Try to avoid the adverb by choosing a more descriptive verb. Also, this doesn’t sound like the speech of a running man who is speaking urgently.

    Dulcilla’s eyes flew to his limping foot.

    This takes readers out of her POV. How about “Dulcilla riveted her stare on his injured foot.”

    “You’re hurt… How will you run all that way…?” She placed a hand over her mouth in horror, realizing there was no way he could. “We’ve got to mount now!”

    “In horror” is telling. Show the horror. You also mentioned the reaction (placing a hand) before the motivation (realizing).

    He shook his head. “If we mount now, then we’ll be spotted and caught easily. We have to wait until we get to the mountains” He gave Dulcilla a small smile. “I’ll be fine”

    How would mounting a small pony cause them to be spotted? If their running and their voices are enough to get them captured, I don’t think a slight rise in elevation will be a problem. Again, his verbiage doesn’t sound like an urgently running man.

    Dulcilla searched his face worriedly. After a moment, she hesitantly nodded. She trusted him at least this much…

    Again, try to ditch the adverbs by showing the worry and hesitation.

    Dulcilla’s companion flicked his head back to look.

    Why not his name?

    His eyes glanced briefly behind him before they flickered back to Dulcilla.

    If he looked back, she wouldn’t see his eyes for that moment.

    Dulcilla mounted quickly and rode. But, despite her friend’s warning, she could not help one last glance back. She looked back just in time to see an arrow tip burst through her companion’s side. Scarlet spilled through his shirt, and he crumpled to the ground noiselessly.

    You don’t need “She looked back just in time to see …” Also, avoid the adverbs. Do it this way:

    Dulcilla vaulted onto the pony. In spite of her friend’s (use his name instead) warning, she glanced back. An arrow burst into his side. Scarlet spilled through his shirt, and he crumpled with a silent splash.

    And they rode on – she and her pony – Dulcilla not daring again to look back, still broken up from the first time. Tears streamed down her face freely.

    You don’t need “she and her pony.” What do you mean by “from the first time”? Tears streaming down her face takes readers out of her POV. Mention tears burning her eyes or leaking between her lips, bitter and salty.

    Somehow, though, she made herself look back again, despite her knowledge that there was no way her companion had made it. And yet, despite this knowledge, it still felt like an arrow to her own side when Dulcilla’s eyes could not find even one living soul anywhere behind her.

    This is too long and complex. Make it simple and strong, like this:

    She forced another look back. No one was there … anywhere. All was silent except for the pony’s thudding hoofbeats.

    Suddenly, as though spooked by something,

    You don’t need this intro. Just go straight to the sudden action.

    That was all that Dulcilla could remember. It had been almost a year now since she’d come here – a fruitless year of trying so hard to remember who the man was, why she’d been running, what had happened before it, and so many other questions. Dulcilla was half-beginning to believe that it was only a dream, and that it really had never happened at all. But then, that face… His face… She knew it… somehow.

    Where is here? Are we suddenly shifted to a year later. I am confused.

    Overall, good job. 🙂

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  6. Hi Isabelle,

    I’m no expert, but hopefully you can use some of my advice to improve your work,

    The opening was interesting in that I am curious as to what is chasing them. In the beginning a writer should include questions the reader wants answers to. Something to make them turn the page.

    I did get a little hung up on some of the word choices.

    – Her friend, a dark-haired man, was running behind her a little ways, leading a small pony.
    Try – Her friend, “name”, was running a distance behind her, leading a pony.
    The description, a dark-haired man, seems more fitting to introduce a stranger than a friend. It can be added later. I usually introduce a character by name then say her friend. And small seems unnecessary. You wouldn’t say the tall giant.

    – He made it… He was safe… mostly
    Leave out “mostly”. Sounds better thinking he made it safe. Then we are more surprised when he is shot with the arrow. “Mostly” adds extra words and prepares the reader for possible upcoming action.

    – . A limp slowed his movement, but he nonetheless soon caught up to Dulcilla.
    Try replacing “A limp” with “An injury”. I had to stop and picture how this guy was running and limping at the same time. Reading injury would make me think less about the awkward movements that somehow managed to catch up to her.

    – “Mount as soon as you’re far enough away and then ride to where it’s safe. You know where”
    I think you can leave out “You know where.” If she knows it’s safe then it’s implied with the line “to where it’s safe”.

    – Dulcilla’s eyes flew to his limping foot
    Watch out giving inanimate objects unrelated traits. Her eyes didn’t grow wings and fly to his foot. Try Dulcilla’s focus turned to his injured foot.

    – She placed a hand over her mouth in horror, realizing there was no way he could.
    Reaction before action. Try – Realizing there was no way he could, her quivering hand rose to cover her mouth.

    – “If we mount now, then we’ll be spotted and caught easily.
    I can’t picture a big height difference between a pony and someone riding a pony. Especially if you say small pony. Which also leads me to the big question, where are they? A desert? A forest? What protects them from view now? If they are running I’d be hopping on the pony to go even faster. Maybe add some setting into this opening so we have a better idea of what we are visualizing.

    – Suddenly a shout sounded from some way off. Dulcilla’s companion flicked his head back to look. His eyes glanced briefly behind him before they flickered back to Dulcilla.
    I noticed you use the word way to describe distances. Earlier it was “a little ways” now “some way off”. Again, try varying your words. “A shout sounded in the distance.”
    Also, repetitive words become easily noticed, like flicked and flickered. Try – Dulcilla’s companion turned his head, to look back for a brief moment, before returning his gaze forward.

    – “Ride away like I told you as soon as possible, Dulcilla, and I’ll meet you”
    I don’t think you need the words “as soon as possible”. It’s implied that he means now and not later. If you really want to show urgency try – “Go now! Ride away and I’ll meet you.”
    Not sure why she still ran in a different direction first, then mounted the pony. Sounded like she should be hopping on the pony right away.

    – She looked back just in time to see an arrow tip burst through her companion’s side. Scarlet spilled through his shirt, and he crumpled to the ground noiselessly.
    Try – The moment she looked back, an arrow burst through her companion’s side. Also try “Scarlet spilled through his shirt, as he collapsed to the ground.” Leave out noiselessly. –ly words may not be our friend.

    – And they rode on – she and her pony – Dulcilla not daring again to look back, still broken up from the first time. Tears streamed down her face freely
    try – “She rode on, not daring to look back again.” The tears show she is still broken up so you can remove the line, “still broken up from the first time.”
    Remove the second “despite this knowledge”
    Why did we change to a horse in the last paragraph?

    – Suddenly, as though spooked by something, Dulcilla’s horse whinnied loudly and reared up. She fell, and all went black… That was all that Dulcilla could remember.
    How about – Without warning, Dulcilla’s pony whinnied and reared up. She fell, the blue sky above, then it went black.

    I would end the chapter there. Leave the reader wanting to turn the page to find out what happened to her. Open up the next chapter with a new paragraph for the time shift. Then maybe transition it like this.
    A year later and that was the only thing Dulcilla could remember….

    I am guessing you left out his name because of this amnesia she develops? I understand the idea but before she fell she sounded like she knew who he was. I would give him a name and then she could still wonder who this man really was.

    Good work creating a story a reader may want to follow. A few spots where word choice may be better, but that will come to you as you write more. Also try to add some setting to make it easier to visualize. Where is this chase happening? If she makes it to the mountains do we hear echoes? does dust get kicked up? etc.

    Thanks for sharing and Good luck!

    – Tree

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    • Good points! This is definitely a good deal to work with – thank you so much!
      Yes, I did leave out his name because of her amnesia – he does have a name, but I do not wish to use it because of this and because it would give away too much to the readers later. However, I do agree that it sounds awkward not to use it here. Do you have any suggestions as to how to work out this difficulty?
      Thank you very much, Tree – this was very helpful!

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  7. Hi Isabelle,

    I’m intrigued! Well done creating a question mark – you have a really solid “wait, what?” moment that has me wondering what on earth happened that day, and what could have led up to it.

    A couple things. I love how descriptive you are. I think (and a few people have mentioned this) you could probably achieve the same result with less, but more intentional, words.

    Another thing, in her memories, Dulcilla is familiar with the man, in that he’s referred to as a friend, she’s relieved when she thinks he’s safe, grieved when she sees him shot, etc. But then we discover this is a memory, and she doesn’t remember who that man is. So in a sense, the reader is given more information than Dulcilla actually has in the present – if she doesn’t remember him, she wouldn’t know he was a friend, she would only remember how she felt when events involving him occurred.

    One other thought, and if you think I’m totally off feel free to chuck it in the bin. What if you tried to create a sort of jagged, fragmented reader experience, by shifting back and forth between the present and the memory, rather than giving the memory away all at once? Sort of trying to get the reader to feel like they’re in Dulcilla’s shoes – trying to piece together these bits of memory and wondering where they lead?

    Here’s an example. It obviously still need a killer opening sentence, but other than that I think you still get the information, but with less than half the word count.

    She had looked back, heart racing. A dark haired man was struggling to catch up, leading a horse behind him. She’d been relieved. Perhaps he was a friend?

    One year year later and she was no closer to remembering. All she had was bits of memory, then darkness.

    The limp. He had limped towards her before he pushed the reigns into her hands.

    “Here,” he’d urged. “Mount as soon as you’re far enough away and then ride to where it’s safe. You know where.”

    Dulcilla pushed her palms against her forehead and grimaced. Who was that man? She had trusted him … but not completely.

    There’d been a shout in the distance.

    “Ride away as soon as possible. I’ll meet you. And Dulcilla -” He griped her shoulder. “Hurry.”

    Whoever he was, she’d trusted him enough to obey.

    She had looked back for a moment. Long enough to see the arrow burst his side. She had looked away before forcing herself to look back. He was gone – not a living soul remained.

    She had left him. Whatever had happened to him after, she had left him. But who was he? And who was he to her that she’d been filled with such clawing grief?

    Dulcilla longed to believe it was a dream. But that face, something about that face … she was haunted.

    Anyways, I realize that gives your intro a very different feel, and it totally may not work for you, but it’s a thought. All in all, you’ve got an interesting start – good luck!

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  8. This is intriguing, Isabelle! I really like how you described the man being shot by the arrow (“Crimson spilled…”). I think it is creative and clear without being graphic. Even though your heroine suffers memory loss of this event, I think I, as a reader, would like to know more specific stakes of this opening scene even if I can’t know everything that is going on. For example, are her enemies out to kill her or capture her? Was it a personal conflict, and they’re furious with her, or impersonal and simply a job? And is it ongoing, which I think it is probably is or you wouldn’t have included it? Thank you for your submission!

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  9. Keep up the good work.

    It looks like everyone already mentioned the writing issues, so I’ll give a few things about horses. I don’t ever recall one of our horses rearing when they’ve spooked. Bucking people off (which isn’t normally spooking) or bolting happens, but rearing from a spook isn’t that common. (Spooking is normally silent.) However, many times people in my family have been thrown off by a spooking horse, but it’s not the rearing that does it. When horses spook, they often bolt in an unpredictable direction, often leaping sideways. This sudden movement in the direction the rider isn’t prepared for is what causes many a rider to lose the saddle. One second you’re going forward, the next you’re still in the same place, but the horse is ten feet to your left and you’re slamming into the ground.
    If you don’t want that option, another one would be that, while she’s looking back, the horse runs under a tree, and she’s knocked out of the saddle by a branch.
    The horse could also stumble over something and fall down. A falling horse is probably one of the most dangerous ways to end up on the ground because oftentimes, the rider can end up under the horse.
    A rearing or bucking horse is normally a case of a misbehaving animal. You should figure out if your character is an experienced rider or not because if she later seems experienced, the reader might have trouble believing her horse rearing unseated her so easily.

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  10. Isabelle,
    I LOVE the way you were able to pull off the beginning being so vague! Normally as a reader I don’t think I would’ve liked it, but because of the amnesia thing I feel like it makes it a very nice touch👍. I did feel a connection to the characters even in that short amount of time, so that’s a job well done in my book! The only thing I think I would’ve liked to have seen would be some sort of explanation about where Dulcilla was or what she was doing before she saw him again? But that’s just a personal preference thing😋. Besides that it was a very good read and I hope to read this story in it’s entirety one day😊!!!

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    • Thank you so much – that means a lot to me, because my biggest problem with modern fiction is too much action and not enough character development, and I would hate to have the same problem in my own book. That’s definitely a good point – the setting is in need of some more specific touches. I shall do my best! (As for reading it in its entirety, you could on my blog – linked in my name – once I finish it – you see, it is a sequel and is not yet finished.) Thank you for the critique, Elizabeth!

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  11. I like this story beginning. It makes me want to read on. Why can’t she remember anything? Why is she on the run? Who is she running from? Where is she running to? Good job on the hook. 🙂

    There are a few things I would suggest taking a look at, and some have already mentioned this before. ” “Here,” he spoke urgently.” Saying someone is speaking urgently is okay, but I lose the feel of what he’s feeling, if that makes sense. I would show that he is breathless, anxious to get her ahead, not willing to mince words. I hope that makes sense.

    Find a synonym for suddenly. The first use (Suddenly a shout…) was good. The second use (Suddenly, as if spooked…) seemed repetitive to me. One thing I would suggest doing is use “At that moment…” This might a good thing to do when they hear the shout. Maybe add a more defined action or thought before. You could also use “A shout broke through her thoughts…” or something of that nature.

    “She looked back just in time to see an arrow tip burst through her companion’s side. Scarlet spilled through his shirt, and he crumpled to the ground noiselessly.” Great job here! I love the visual. And in the following sentences you captured the emotion someone might feel in such a situation wonderfully.

    I’m seconding a thought expressed in an earlier comment. Is there a specific reason she is riding a pony? Does she have a smaller physique? Was that the only animal they were able to get away with? I’m imagining a shetland pony running with an adult and I’m assuming a teen (quite amusing in my head to be honest) but that may not be the correct picture. One more thing that might help a visual better is saying whether the pony has a saddle or not. This could help fill in the urgency of their flight, as well as give an idea of the difficulty of mounting the pony.

    “She fell, and all went black…” This is good here. However, I would suggest adding a little bit more meat to it. “She lost her grip and fell to the ground, hitting her head on a stone. All went black.” This may just be my preference, but when a character is knocked unconscious, it places more emphasis on the resulting confusion when a separate sentence is used.

    There are a couple other things I noticed that others have pointed out and offered suggestions for so I won’t repeat those.

    Overall, great job. I like your story and I can’t wait to see more. You have a strong start. Best of luck!

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    • Thank you – hooks have always been one of my biggest problems in writing, so I’m glad I finally worked it out. Those are all formidably points, and I will remember those in editing this scene. Thank you for the critique!

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  12. Isabelle, you did a good job at creating a hook. I was instantly wondering who was pursuing them and why. I am really curious as to who this man is and where he disappeared to. Will Dulcilla find him again? Will her memory ever return? The mystery is very intriguing.

    However, I was confused by a few things. Some of the descriptions seemed strange and drew me out of the story. For example, consider changing “limping foot” to something like “injured foot (or leg)”, or maybe try to describe the injury (e.g. “a small trickle of blood stained his trousers”). There are some other descriptions that seem odd, but not necessarily wrong.

    Punctuation was missing at the end of some of the dialogue, and I noticed an overuse of ellipses […]. Most can be replaced by a comma or period.

    Also, when the man tells Dulcilla to ride, he seems to contradict himself when he said to wait until the mountains.

    Finally, the time-lapse in the last paragraph seemed out of place, like it needed its own paragraph. Something like describing her waking up from a dream or daydream would be a better transition. It would also help clarify where she is now, what happened during the one-year-memory-lapse, etc.

    Overall, great story! I like where this is headed. The name Dulcilla is very unique, which I think adds to the creativity of the story.

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