I have a feeling every long-time fantasy reader has one. Usually, it’s the high school magnum opus epic fantasy novel with dragons and wish fulfillment. Sometimes, the urge to write a book comes earlier. In my case, it came when I was twelve. I still have the old notebook somewhere containing 250 pages of pencil scribbles and drawings of landscapes and swords. The only oddity was that I wrote a historical novel. “Historical” in the loosest sense, of course; I didn’t even have access to the internet at the time and the closest thing at hand was a set of out-of-date encyclopaedias from the 1970s. Oh, and what I gleaned from the terrible historical novels I binged on, which seemed to use the same source.
The elevator pitch:
The year is 477 CE. The Western Roman Empire has fallen. A group of explorers led by Cato Last-name-withheld-because-he-didn’t-have-one cross the Carpathian Mountains to find allies and trading partners in Eastern Europe. Disaster soon befalls the expedition, and the remaining group of Byzantines find themselves caught in a war between migrating Slavic and German tribes.
With the confident assumption that the Byzantines had no contact with or knowledge of their neighbours to the north whatsoever. But again, old encyclopaedias and the boom of horrifically bad historical novels from the 90s tended to give that impression.
It’s a wonder I finished it. Or maybe not. Burly men hacking at each other with swords was kind of my thing, and the only thing better than reading about burly men hacking at each other with swords was writing about it (OBSERVE). Then I began the rewrite on my newly-obtained computer, which I never finished because my brain quite reasonably said “nope” after slogging through no less than 158 pages.
I’m not going to transcribe the original draft because a) it’s smudged to near-illegibility and b) I don’t have time for that shit. But I am going to share excerpts from the revision because I don’t have any better ideas for a blog post today.
From Chapter One:
Domation, the leader of the group, was walking in front of Cato down the rocky trail. “Just where are we, Domation?” Cato asked.
“Where ever we happen to be,” he replied. “The Carpathian mountains are a good place not to know where we are,” he added on thoughtfully, obviously talking to himself more than anyone else.
“Do you know where this trail leads?”
“No, I cannot tell from the map. But others have obviously used this trail before, otherwise it would not exist, and from the direction, I believe this trail does lead to another land a distance away from here, which must be Sarmatia.”
Another scholar not far behind began to grumble. “You’re going to kill us all, Domation.”
“Don’t say that,” Cato told the man.
“Was I complaining about you?” said the man. “But it is also your fault, in a way. You, after all, are one of the two people who lead this mission.”
I WAS THE MASTER OF EXPOSITION, obviously.
After a stupidly long description of Cato starting a fire so he came melt some snow, Cato becomes acquainted with the two brothers Antony and Aurelian. Chapter Two happens. Most of Cato’s men rebel and he’s left with a merry band including the above-mentioned brothers, this Domation fellow (not an actual name–the correct Roman name is Domitian but 1970s encyclopaedias, am I right?), and some guy named Maximium (I think I meant Maximilianus but I probably just thought That sounds kind of Roman). They find their way out of the mountains after fighting avalanches and hypothermia. Witty banter happens:
“What exactly happened to me back there?” Maximium asked, for the first time in a long while.
“You didn’t know how to run and you had made love to the snow. Due to your lust you cost us a good amount of time too.”
Maximium smiled wryly. “Go to hell.”
Aurelian returned the same smile. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not dead.”
Cato slashed through a branch. “Will you two please shut up?”
“I will if the scholar here admits that he too is going to hell with me.”
Har har har.
Then they build a raft to float down a river in Chapter Four. But first, Cato comes across a dead warrior in the woods and takes a gold eagle pendent clutched in his hand:
A corpse lay on the ground. The skin was decayed in a horrible way, in flaps all over the body. A coat of mail covered the body, but that was all that was left of clothing. Cato’s eyes were soon drawn to the dead man’s face. His face was contorted into a permanent scream. He stared into the dead man’s eyes, which were gaping holes. He was terrified, but he could not look away from the man’s face. He stared for a long while into stories untold until he suddenly tore his gaze away.
This is luckily the same guy who died horribly in the Prologue. I haven’t quoted that Prologue because it ends just before the guy dies horribly, and is therefore boring.
I then call punt poles “bunting poles” which is almost not incorrect if you speak certain English dialects in the nineteenth century. Aurelian takes especial glee in torturing Maximium by dunking his head in the water and nearly drowning him.
“You’re a Mithras worshipper, and you dunked my head in the water!”
“I did no such thing,” Aurelian yawned again.
“Yes you did; I know you did!”
“You have no proof.”
“I heard your voice when I went into the water.”
“What does that have to do with me putting your head in the water?”
“You told me to wake up and take another swim!”
“I was not talking to you; I was talking to Cato, my drowsy friend,” Aurelian gestured to Cato.
“That’s bullshit,” Maximium exclaimed. “Cato is never drowsy at noon.”
“Then why do you target me, an innocent person?”
“It is because you are guilty.”
“I’m just as guilty as you are.”
“But I can’t be guilty, and you know that, how the Hell could I be guilty?”
“My point exactly,” Aurelian continued to sharpen his short sword.
That exchange doesn’t even make sense. Also, Maximium shows maximum anger in this scene.
Not long after they encounter a group of horsemen crossing a bridge. “Use you poles as spears! It is better to die than to be captured by savages,” Domation says, and draws his sword because he realizes his own advice is stupid. Their attempts at resistance are futile, however, as the horsemen just throw a net over them when they pass under the bridge. The horsemen’s leader, Zbyszek, fortunately turns out to be an all-around good guy who can speak Latin and takes them to the chieftain of his tribe. They’re Polish, as you might well have guessed, and the chieftain’s name is Lech, the legendary founder of Poland. Subtle.
Cato shows Lech the golden eagle, and Lech vows revenge on the invading Saxon tribe who killed his emissary. Zbyszek shows our heroes around, and for some reason Aurelian gets annoyed at Zbyszek calling them “Romans” even though they’ve been calling themselves that all this time, “Actually, we aren’t Romans, we are Greeks and Macedonians who are under an empire that requires us to call ourselves Romans, even when we aren’t ruled from Rome.” Uh…yes? For his impudence, Zbyszek declares, “Speak with sense or be short of manhood.” Jesus, that’s harsh.
Anyhow, they go to the market the next day (it’s Chapter Six, now).
“This stuff must cost a lot of money,” Cato said.
“Money? What is money?”
“Never mind,” Cato shook his head. “There doesn’t seem to be any food in these stalls.”
“Food is given to all for no trade. Our Chief rewards the farmers with riches. Is it not the same where you came from?”
“Not exactly,” Cato replied.
“That is sad to hear,” Zbyszek stroked his beard. “A land where you must pay for food is not a good land.”
He just said he doesn’t know what money is, yet he obviously has some understanding of basic monetary transactions when it comes to shaming Byzantines.
One of the Saxon prisoners from yesterday’s revenge raid tries to escape, plunging the market square into chaos. Cato knocks over a blond woman when he tries to run away from the six-foot-tall berserker Saxon only to get cornered by that same six-foot-tall berserker Saxon.
He looked directly at Cato, Maximium and the young woman. The escapee grabbed the young woman and threw her to the ground, saying something in his own language. He took the jeweled dagger away from her and threw away his old dagger into the street behind him. He whipped her out of the way with his chain and ran for the nearest door as more spearmen ran by. The hut’s door was firmly barred.
The escapee turned to face Cato. He swung the chain over his head and struck. Cato fell on his face before the chain hit him. The escapee ran over him and smashed Maximium in the face with his elbow. He ran to the last hut that blocked the way. He desperately tugged at the door. It was also barred.
He turned around, but Cato stood at the center of the street, the only one uninjured as he got up from the ground. The escapee looked him in the eyes. He said some insult in his course tongue.
He raised his dagger and waited. Cato looked around. He jumped up behind a hut and pulled the thatch off to reveal the framework. The escapee was getting closer. Cato pulled one of the sticks from the framework and jumped back into the alley.
Cato put his two hands over the end of the stick and wielded it as a sword. The escapee laughed and charged.
“Only God can save me now,” he said. He reeled the stick back behind his head as the escapee charged. Just at the last moment, Cato jumped aside and swung the stick with full force. The end struck the escapee square in the mask of his helmet.
Dust flew up from his feet as he fell to the ground. The stick splintered and one half of the stick fell to join the escapee. Cato looked down with surprise at the limp man.
“I think you knocked him senseless,” Maximium said after fully standing.
The young woman turned face up and groaned. Cato looked at his opponent in surprise. His helmet was still covering his face.
Maximium went up to the escapee’s body and kicked it once. The man did not move. Maximium looked up. “You did a pretty good job,” he said. He kicked the body again.
The escapee let his chain fly. The chain wrapped around Maximium’s feet and pulled him down. He jumped up and whirled the chain around his head before striking at Cato and pulling him down too. The escapee began to run away from them.
Cato threw the stick at the running man’s neck as he fell. The stick made contact. The escapee fell forward. Cato scrambled back onto his feet.
More dust was kicked up as the escapee jumped onto his feet once more and howled a war cry. He staggered back before drawing up his stolen dagger. He held it in his right hand point first, aiming it directly at Cato. Cato slowly backed away and came up against the wall of one of the closely spaced huts.
The escapee lunged, his chain trailing behind him. Cato said a small prayer as he prepared to meet his death. The escapee’s war cry grew louder.
His attacker snapped back and fell. Cato stared. Maximium stood behind the escapee gripping the chain.
Cato got to his feet and ran to what was left of the stick. He picked it up again and was prepared to meet his opponent. The escapee came up and pulled back at the chain Maximium held. Maximium lost his grip. The man swung it forward.
“Maximium, the chain!” Cato yelled.
Maximium jumped aside as the chain came flying forward. It hit the back wall of a hut and fell to the ground. It writhed there for a few seconds before it stilled.
A smacking noise filled the air as Cato repeatedly hit his opponent with the stick. The escapee’s arms flew up as he struggled to stop the blows. He uttered different words in his own language and spit at Cato. Cato hit him again until his opponent’s struggle ceased.
Because of this, Lech rewards Cato by…engaging him to his daughter Liliana! Who was the woman he just happened to save in the scene above. But first he wants to know Cato’s age.
“How old are you, Cato?”
“Thirty-two whats?” Lech demanded.
“What are years?”
“A full cycle of seasons, beginning halfway through the winter, is a year.”
“Ah, winters,” Lech said.
This chieftain knows Latin and has no idea what a year is.
It turns out there’s an ulterior motive: Lech wants the Byzantines to teach his war band tactics so they can defeat the Saxons. Cato has pretty well demonstrated he knows nothing about military tactics, but he agrees anyway because Liliana is teh hotness. Weirdly Liliana knows this and doesn’t mind, ‘cause she teaches him how to fight and speak Polish.
“First, you’re holding it wrong,” she went up to Cato and shifted his hand position. “This isn’t a short sword, hold it like this.”
‘Cause that’s not Freudian AT ALL.
Anyhow, it’s Domation and the other guys who train the warriors. Maximium hatches a scheme to call for aid from the Slavic tribes to the north, and things look on the up-and-up, only the inevitable Saxon attack comes just days before the wedding. A black metal band leads the enemy army:
Cato noticed some men howling at the front, their hair fashioned into spikes that stuck out in all directions. They wore nothing but bearskins. They danced about and pointed at the walls, but they were unarmed.
“Wizards,” Cato mumbled as he saw the crazed men.
Then this happens:
The enemy warriors cleared the path as their Chief advanced to the front of his war band. He let out his own bellowing war cry that superseded all the rest.
Lech dismounted and climbed up to one of the ramparts where he let out his own terrible war cry. The drums beat even faster. The two Chiefs exchanged war cries in their shouting match that completely masked those of the other warriors.
Nothing like a good shouting match.
The Saxons use a battering ram to try and get through the palisade’s gate, but are thwarted and end up using ladders or try to pull down the wall with grappling hooks.
Another grappling hook latched itself onto the wall. The rope it was attached to went taut. Cato could hear the strain of the wall. He went to the rope and began to cut it.
Another blade joined his, a dagger. He looked up. Liliana was the possessor of the blade. The rope snapped and the warriors pulling it fell.
“You look so surprised? You didn’t think I’d miss the battle, would you?”
Frankly, she has way more reason (and skill) to be fighting than he does, but he sends her away.
After the Saxons succeed in smashing the gate, Lech charges with his horsemen:
The horses smashed into the shield wall and there was a clash of breaking spears on both sides. Splinters flew everywhere. Cato watched in horror as Lech skewered one warrior right threw the stomach.
The enemy warriors who had charged in retreated. Spearmen closed the gates with had been broken open and held them with their strength.
I don’t really know why Cato is so shocked by the skewering, he’s just stabbed a Saxon through the face!
So, this battle scene basically lasts forever. Lech ends up turning over command to Domation, who leads a retreat out of the walled town. A black metal wizard menaces Cato by throwing sand at his back, and “Cato turned around and smashed the wizard in the face with the hilt of his sword, knocking him unconscious.” The other warriors on both sides are shocked.
Chapter Nine ends thusly:
The enemy warriors pursued them from the gate but only halfway to the village. There they stopped at the command of their Chief. The enemy warriors shouted curses at them, waving their spears in a great clamor before the war drums stopped playing. Then they stopped.
Their Chief walked up in front and sneered. “You cannot stay behind…those walls forever!” he said in a broken version of the tribal language. “We will crush you just…like we trampled you…today!” he screamed.
Cato wakes up with Liliana nursing him back to health and then goes before Lech, who gives him a stern talking-to. And that’s where the draft ends.
Of course, the original pencilled copy went on from there: Liliana gets captured; Cato single-handedly infiltrates the wooden tower she’s kept in using a crossbow that Zbyszek gave him and saves her. Maximium rallies the other tribes and brings them back. The advisor to the enemy chief turns out to be Cato’s old mentor in Constantinople. A battle ensues, and the Saxons are defeated. Lech establishes a new town called Gniezno, which will grow to become the first capital of Poland. The end.
It’s not as utterly insane as the Viking story I wrote only a year later, but it’s still an odd artefact to look back on–a clumsy imitation of my reading material at the time, sprinkled with scraps of Polish language and history. The Saxons were obvious stand-ins for Nazis, that much was clear. I guess the strangest thing about it is that the plot and characters aren’t far off from your typical historical novel at the time like Byzantium (1989) by Michael Ennis, except that the usual torrid sex is largely missing.
I can’t say there are many lessons to be learned from this except that anyone can write and finish a novel, even a twelve year old. Not necessarily a good or competent novel, but anyone can write one as they long as they persist in putting one word after the other.