Okay, I double-dog dare you. Go ahead and post the awfullest, grottiest, ancientest piece of juvenilia you still have a word processor that will open. I'll wait.
It's a good thing she said the bit about word processors because I have some real junk in numerous notebooks, written from the age of 12-13 upwards. Also the first novel I completed and submitted is, fortunately, lost and gone because I wrote it on a typewriter and finding it in the bottom of the wardrobe during the decluttering, I dumped it in the paper recycling skip.
But I've had a good rummage around on the hard disc and came up with this. I can't date it precisely because it was written on a BBC Master 128 computer, which used the View word processor and ADFS operating system. When I started using PCs, the college technician rescued the files I thought I might want to use off the 3½ ADFS discs and put them onto DOS discs. The dates according to file properties are therefore somewhat random, apparently being created in January 2002 but last modified in June 1996!
In fact it was written some time in the mid-80s. The novel was never finished, this being the novel I killed by writing a complete synopsis for the agent. With hindsight, it probably deserved to die. *g*
You may or may not be delighted to know that the files open happily in Word and can thus be presented here for your delectation and amusement.
The rafters rang with the high, clear note of steel striking steel. The duller beat of sword on shield resounded through the hall, sending back a flying echo which mingled with the sound of stamping feet and gasps of men breathing hard. Ragged shouts tore the air and a woman ran screaming, her long dress a flutter of white against the dull glitter of iron mail and the bright reds, greens and blues of the arms on surcoat and shield.
The last rays of the evening sun struggled in through the dusty glass of the windows, glinting on helmet and swinging blade. Golden motes sparkled in the shafts of light where the dust kicked up by the fighting danced in the disturbed air.
Four men fought in the hall, two pairs of panting and grunting warriors, swearing under their breath when a stroke went awry, feet thumping and scuffling on the wooden floor. Neither side seemed to be gaining the advantage until one, a young man with black plumes on his helmet and a black and silver surcoat, hissed to his opponent, "This is going on too long. You're supposed to be dead by now!"
There was no answer, but the man he was fighting suddenly seemed to hesitate, to lose concentration. Steel blade bit hard into mail. The man cried out, dropped his sword with a ringing clatter onto the dusty boards, clutched his chest and pitched forwards, first onto his knees and then onto his face. After writhing in agony for quite a long time, and twice attempting unsuccessfully to get back on his feet, he finally lay still.
Later, the young man in black and silver was seated on a bench at the side of the hall, relaxed now, his helmet by his side, a can of soft drink in his hand. His former adversary wiped his brow with a handkerchief and fishing his glasses from his pocket, replaced them on his nose.
"Didn't Dave take too long to go down?" the black and silver knight demanded of the group at large.
"Oh, no, Matthew, I don't think so," the bespectacled knight said, slumping down onto the bench beside the black plumed helmet and helping himself to a can of beer from the pack on the floor.
"And you took far too long to die," Matthew added.
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did," the young woman in white retorted. "You were enjoying yourself far too much. But the fight can't go on that long at a performance or the whole show will run late.
Dave shrugged and ducked his head in fake shame. "All right. I'll remember." There was a sharp click and hiss as he opened his drink, then throwing his head back, he took a long draught.
Talk and laughter hummed where only a few minutes before the desperate sounds of battle had cut the air. The other knights compared notes on their performance and slowly shed their heavy helmets and mail and padded or quilted jerkins. A slender youth dressed as a squire in tunic and hose, black and silver to match his knight, slipped through the crowd and came to stand beside Matthew. It was only when the youth pulled the pins from her light chestnut hair and let it fall down over her shoulders that it became apparent that the squire was actually a young woman in her early twenties and not a lad of fourteen. She poked Matthew in the chest with an accusing finger. "You'll have to finish Dave off quicker than that at Caernarfon on Sunday or we'll be there all day."
Matthew grinned up at his squire. "It's Dave you'll have to tell, not me. I was doing my best."
"Oh," It was the lady in white who spoke, "You mean if it came to a real fight, Dave could beat you?" She looked younger now she was no longer playing the part of a distraught damsel. She was no older than the squire, but where Claire was lean and athletic, Emma was smaller, softer and rounder with a halo of blond curls framing her face, deep blue eyes and the palest honey tan complexion. Matthew lounged back in his seat. His face remained calm, but there was a slight edge to his voice as he said, "No, I wouldn't say that. I reckon we're very evenly matched, actually."
Dave leaned forwards, waving his can of beer for emphasis. "Get away! I could beat you any time. I wasn't even trying and you couldn't finish me."
"Only because I wasn't expecting you to start improvising. That wasn't supposed to be a free fight. It was supposed to be the final practice for Sunday and we were supposed to stick to the script." Matthew sounded nettled.
"You just don't have the killer instinct," Dave said loftily.
"And you do?" Matthew snapped.
"I reckon so. It's something you either have or you haven't. Makes all the difference to a fighter."
Matthew opened his mouth to retort, the colour was rising in his cheeks, but he was stopped by a squeal of laughter from the blond girl. "Dave! Killer instinct?" she gasped. "I don't know about that, but I do know that Matthew always looks the part better."
"I can't help having to wear glasses, Emma." Dave sounded stung now.
"It's not that, it's... It's... I don't know. A certain nobility of bearing -- or something..."
Matthew waved his hand languidly. "It's something you either have or you haven't," he drawled and the tension was abruptly released as the whole group collapsed into laughter.
The sky above the orange glow of the city lights was a soft, deep blue velvet; the air was warm, with just the smallest breeze stirring the shrubs in the gardens of the large detached houses on this quiet suburban road. Matthew's car chugged into the kerb and stopped.
"Well..." Claire said brightly. "See you on Sunday then. Thanks for the lift." She pulled at the door catch without success. "I'll never get the knack of this," she muttered, then the door clicked open.
She was gathering her bags from the footwell of the car, her chestnut hair falling over her face as she bent forwards, when Matthew said, "I... Er, I wondered if you were doing anything tomorrow?"
Claire straightened, tossing her hair out of her eyes. "Tomorrow? No... Why?"
"Well I thought -- that is I hoped -- that you might like to come out for a drink. Or to see a film -- or something. Whatever you like..."
Claire regarded Matthew steadily for a moment, then she said, "You could pick me up here, at my house at seven. A meal would be nice. Emma told me about a good restaurant she'd found." She climbed out of the car dragging the bags containing her costume after her. Then she stopped and looked back into the car. "See you tomorrow then."
"At seven." Matthew was smiling now.
Claire shut the door and waved as he pulled away from the kerb. As she watched the car's rear lights disappear down the road, she muttered, "And about time too, Matthew Bowman. I was going to give you another week and then I'd have had to ask you out myself."
Matthew climbed quickly for the sheer joy of being out on the hills. The sun was hot on his back; he could feel its heat through his shirt. Sweat was running down his face, but he still did not slow down, feeling almost as though he were running from the grime and fumes of the city which lay behind him in the far distance, a grey, hazy sprawl with at its heart the tall white office blocks of the city centre. He worked amongst those all week and did not want to look back at them now.
High above him, a skylark trilled, no more than a tiny speck, almost invisible in the shimmering sky. Far above that crawled a silent silver arrowhead drawing a thin white trail across the blue. But the plane was too high to be heard and the only sound to break the silence of the hills was the song of the skylark.
Once over the summit, with the city hidden by the vast bulk of the hill, he slowed down and walking on over the rough moorland really began to enjoy himself. He ambled along, following the route almost automatically for this was one of his favourite shorter walks, reserved for the days when he did not have time to drive all the way to the Lakes or North Wales and get out into the mountains properly. He half smiled to himself, remembering the number of times he had said that he liked living in Manchester because it was a city that was very easy to get out of. He had just begun thinking of the evening with Claire, when he noticed the small ruined cottage tucked away in a small hollow.
He had passed it at a distance many times before, but today he realised that he had never taken a close look at the place. Without quite knowing why he suddenly felt curious, he wandered over and stood on the lip of the grassy hollow, looking down at the small grey ruin. The cottage had only ever had a single story and it was now only a shell. The windows still remained, complete with lintel and sill, but the door was a mere gap in the stone wall. The frames had long rotted away, though small fragments of grey, flaky wood pitted with woodworm holes still clung to the stone in places. Weeds grew in crevices between the stones and grass struggled to survive in the cracks between the flagstones of the stone floor.
Matthew strolled down to the doorway and peered inside. The air outside was warm and grass scented; inside, the cottage was dank. It also looked darker inside than it ought to have done, considering that most of the roof was missing. Matthew caught the musty smell of decay. An old iron bed-head was propped in one corner, tangled with the remains of a rotting mattress; rusty springs lay scattered across the floor. There was nothing of any real interest.
As he began to turn away to continue his walk, something bright flickered on the edge of his vision. He turned back to see what had caught the light, but there was nothing there. Frowning he turned his head away, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see the flecks of brightness were back. When he stared hard into the cottage, whatever it was had disappeared again. He stepped right onto the threshold, intending to see if there was anything shiny lying in the darkness and nearly jumped in surprise as he felt the hairs on his bare forearm prickle, as though he was standing near a strong source of static electricity.
"It's just some broken glass or something," he muttered to himself as he stepped forwards, trying to focus on where the bright spots had shone briefly in the gloom.
Blue light rippled through the air. He gasped as he felt something battering at him, jolting the breath from his body. He could see nothing but liquid colour, flowing over his face and down over his body. He stood in a waterfall of light, marvelling at the beauty, the coldness and the weight of it -- and then he realised that he could not breathe. Panic took over and he stumbled forwards, hands outstretched, trying to claw the suffocating light aside. There was a wrench, deep in his mind, and then the bright light died in a flash of rainbow shards.
Matthew found he was standing on stone flags, but no grass grew between them and they stretched away much further than they should have done. He looked up to see bright sky above him; bird song was loud in the air. On his left a high creeper-covered wall bounded the large courtyard and he could see the tops of old oak trees beyond. Straight ahead, a large house of golden coloured stone formed one side of the courtyard, and over to his right a graceful archway led to another smaller yard, surrounded by stables.
He saw the two men at the very instant they saw him.
For a moment they looked as astounded to see Matthew as he was to find himself in the courtyard, then they reacted swiftly. Two swords left their sheathes simultaneously as the men ran towards him.
Matthew half turned, glancing back over his shoulder, ready to escape the way he had entered, but he could see nothing beyond the gate; the rippling curtain of blue light hid the world beyond and he hesitated for a fatal moment, afraid to plunge back into the suffocating brightness.
And then it was too late, the men had reached him. Matthew stood completely still and kept his hands well away from his sides, palms forwards, to show that he was unarmed. One man, stockily built with a mop of sandy hair, stopped in front of him and raised his sword point to hover an inch or so from Matthew's throat. The other ran behind to put himself between Matthew and the gate.
"How the hell did you get in here?" the sandy-haired man demanded. The sword point moved a fraction closer to reinforce the question.
"I..." Matthew found his mouth had gone completely dry and he had to swallow hard before he could continue. "I just walked in."
The interrogator's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Just walked in? Oh, come on, pull the other one!" Then he snapped. "Where from?"
"From?" Matthew's mind seemed to have stopped functioning properly with fright. "From outside."
The sandy-haired man glanced heavenwards for an instant. "God, give me strength! From where exactly outside?"
"From outside the cottage."
"Is he thick, or just scared witless?" the man behind Matthew asked.
"Scared, I think. Search him, and then we'd better take him inside so we can question him properly.
The man behind Matthew sheathed his sword and began running his hands down Matthew's sides and along his arms and legs, feeling carefully for concealed weapons. "Nothing."
"Hey! What's going on here?"
Over the sandy-haired man's shoulder, Matthew saw a young man running down the steps from the house. As he approached, Matthew saw he was about his own age, in his early twenties, younger than the armed men holding him prisoner. His thick dark hair was tousled and unlike the others who wore white shirts, close fitting breeches and soft leather boots, he was dressed in jeans, t-shirt and trainers.
He stopped and after regarding Matthew thoughtfully for a moment simply glanced at the sandy-haired man and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"We've got an intruder."
"He broke in here?" The newcomer turned to stare at Matthew in disbelief. The man who had been behind Matthew moved round to stand with the others. "I thought the gate was supposed to be secure."
"So did I," the sandy-haired man said grimly. "Let's get him inside. We've got some serious thinking to do."
He lowered his sword and began to turn towards the house.
Matthew saw his chance and took it. As he leapt for the gate, he heard someone shout, "Stop him!" but he was too quick for them. The only thought in his mind as he plunged into the flowing light was, "OUT!"
The light beat at him for an instant, but this time he held his breath and did not try to breathe, then came the wrench and the splinters of rainbow light and he was through and out on a grassy hillside. He took off as fast as he could over the rough ground, running head down, watching where he was putting his feet, knowing that a misplaced foot at this speed could leave him with a broken ankle and completely at his pursuers mercy. He had no doubt that he would be followed.
He had therefore gone quite some way down the valley side before he realised that the small town where he had parked his car was no longer below him. It was not easy stopping his headlong flight; the downward slope drew him on. He bounded to a halt with some difficulty and stood panting, staring around wildly. The landscape was completely empty; the grassy slope rolled down into the valley bottom and then up the other side onto another bare hilltop. The sun beat full in his face, but Manchester no longer lay in the distance to the south. Even the plain where the city had stood was gone; there were only more and more hills, rising into mountains in the distance.
Looking again at the hilltop opposite, Matthew realised that though the lower slopes were green and grassy, towards the top the peak rose in rocky crags, sharp and clear against the cloudless blue sky.
He stood frozen, completely at a loss. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to think rationally again. There had been other times in the past when he had walked from one familiar place to another that was really somewhere completely different. Of course then he had been asleep and dreaming, but perhaps he was dreaming now? What if he had fallen and hit his head whilst trying to escape from the courtyard? Or -- even more likely -- fallen and hit his head on the stone doorway of the cottage in the Pennines? Or he could have fainted from heat exhaustion after rushing so quickly up the hill. Probably at this moment he was lying unconscious by the small ruin. This was not a very comforting thought as Matthew realised that if he did not come round quickly, it was unlikely that anyone would find him and he could easily die from exposure during the night. But it was marginally better than the alternative suggestions that he was really roaming around in an alien world, or that he had lost his mind...
Somewhat to his surprise, no one had followed him. He knew they had been right behind him as he plunged through the gate, but no one had yet appeared. More evidence that he was dreaming?
Feeling a little steadier, a little more in control, sure now that at any moment he would come round to find himself sprawled half in and half out of the cottage, Matthew decided to go back to the grand house and give himself up. There was nothing in this bleak landscape to do and nowhere to go. The men had only said they were going to question him after all... He turned and plodded back up the hillside.
[Aarrgghh! How could I have written this? Boring or what? green_knight take heart. I used to write long boring bits.]
But when he breasted the lip of the hollow, he had another shock. There was no ruin. At a loss, he wandered vaguely around the grassy dip. He tried to will the cottage to appear, but without success. Finally he sat down on a boulder, put his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. "Now what?" he muttered. He waited for a good five minutes, and still nothing happened. "This is turning from a nightmare to one of the most boring dreams I've ever had," he said aloud to the scenery in general.
It was only then that he spotted the castle. Built from grey stone it was almost impossible to see against the mountain crags which rose behind it. Matthew guessed it was about three miles away. It sat on a low hill commanding the head of the valley.
He waited for another three minutes. Still nothing happened. As there was no other landmark to aim for, he finally set off in the direction of the castle.
By the time he had been trudging over the moorland for about twenty minutes, he had begun to have serious doubts about his dream theory. He could not remember ever having had such a boring and yet detailed dream before in his life. If he stopped and studied the ground, every blade of grass and tiny cushion of moss was there in vivid detail, yet absolutely nothing else was happening, expect the long laborious plod across country. He pondered the alternatives for a moment, then decided that it was better not to think at all and simply concentrate on walking.
Reaching the river flowing in the valley bottom, he turned right, upstream towards the castle. The water flowed swiftly: cool liquid silver under the hot sun. It was so clear that even in the deepest pools he could see every stone on the river bed and watch small brown fish darting in the shadows. The river was just about shallow enough to wade, but Matthew did not relish the prospect of squelching on towards the castle in wet jeans and trainers, so he carried on along the riverbank, looking for a place he could cross dry-shod.
The rippling, gurgling water was making him feel very thirsty, but he knew better than to drink for a large river. It looked clean enough, but if there were houses or farms further upstream, it could be polluted. As he went further up the valley, he should soon come across a small stream flowing straight down off the mountain. That would be safe enough.
Up ahead, a movement caught his eye and he stopped to watch as several large black birds rose into the air. Their raucous cries sounded loud in the stillness, cutting harshly through the rippling, chuckling sounds of the river. Matthew sniffed the air. The faint breeze had suddenly wafted the sickly scent of decay in his direction. The carrion birds had obviously been squabbling over an animal carcase. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, but started walking again, trying to ignore the smell. He was suddenly glad that he had not decided to chance drinking the river water.
The stench grew stronger as he approached. It was so strong now that he knew there must be more than one dead animal. Gritting his teeth and pinching his lips tight shut, trying not to breathe too deeply, Matthew hurried on, anxious to be past and upwind of the source of the smell. Farmers can be fined for this sort of thing, he thought. It's an offence to just leave dead animals lying around. Though he knew it often happened, usually earlier in the year, at lambing time when death rates amongst the flocks were at their highest.
The grass and wild plants on that part of the river bank were tall and lush and as Matthew approached, he could see there were many more birds, gathered in small groups on the low browny-grey mounds that thankfully were mainly hidden from view. The birds called in alarm as they saw him, hopping and flapping away. Their huge black wings clawed the air as they fought to gain height, then they simply glided a little distance away, settling back to earth to watch and wait until he had passed by and they could return to their meal. Their beaks were curved and cruel as scimitars and they glared at him in annoyance.
Ravens, Matthew thought. Then hesitated. Weren't they too big for ravens? And did ravens have such curved beaks? He had a nasty feeling that they didn't.
A few paces further on he disturbed a seething mass of flies that crawled over something lying on the ground. The stench seemed to intensify as the flies rose in a buzzing cloud around his head. Tight lipped, Matthew took another stride, and then stopped as he got his first good look at the birds' meal.
A skull grinned up at him from the grass; a few greyish strands of flesh still clung to the bone, but there was only darkness in the eye-sockets. The eyes had been pecked out first. Curved ribs, picked clean, made a white arching cave with more evil-smelling flesh below. But the skull was not that of a sheep; it was human.
Matthew's stomach contracted convulsively. Coughing and retching, fighting waves of nausea, he turned and ran blindly up the valley side until he was away from the worst of the smell. He stumbled to his knees on the grass and for several minutes tried hard not to be sick. His eyes were watering and his mouth tasted sour, but he finally managed to control his heaving stomach and torn between revulsion and the need to know whether all the bodies were human, or whether a poor farmer had died out alone with his animals, he made his way slowly back down to the river bank.
The cloying stench of death made him feel panicky as well as sick. But he was prepared this time and managed to avoid looking directly at the corpses, letting his gaze slide around and over them, trying to get a general impression of what had happened without looking too closely at the details.
All the corpses were human.
He thought that all the dead were men, but though the bodies had been stripped, not much of the softer belly-flesh remained. They were also too decayed to see how they had died, but to his horror, Matthew saw that the feathered shafts of arrows jutted from some of them. Something squelched and crunched under his foot, and before he could stop himself, he looked down to see that he had just trodden on a severed hand. Small white bones showed through the putrefying flesh.
His nerve broke completely then and he began to run on upstream, anywhere as long as it was away from the horror he had blundered into. He had barely gone a few yards when he tripped over something lying hidden in the grass and almost came down on his knees. The ring of metal made him stoop and look for what he had nearly fallen over. Carefully parting the grass, he saw a bright sword with a huge amber-coloured stone set in the pommel. Almost without thinking, his hand closed around the cord-bound grip and he pulled the blade from its resting place.
He straightened up, hefting the sword experimentally to feel the balance. It was double-edged with a sharp point: a cut and thrust weapon. Then he swallowed hard. The sword had not saved its previous owner who presumably lay dead by the river.
The next worrying question that forced itself into Matthew's mind was, "Were the dead from the castle, or was that where the killers had come from? And where were the killers now?" He stared around the flat sunlit area by the river, the skin between his shoulder blades suddenly crawling in anticipation of an arrow in the back. He knew that before he did anything else, he had to find out more about where he was; it had never occurred to him before that the place could be so dangerous.
To carry on towards the castle now seemed unwise. Matthew decided it would be best to climb straight up the valley side to the summit where he would be able to get a better idea of the lie of the land and also -- most importantly -- be able to see anyone coming before they saw him. He weighed the sword in his hand. It was extra weight to carry, but he was reluctant to just throw it back into the grass. He knew how much he'd paid for his own replica sword; this one must be worth a small fortune. No ordinary person had carried it before; you had to be really someone to use a blade like this. Suddenly anxious to be moving, Matthew turned his back on the river and started climbing.
He only managed to put a few hundred yards between himself and the river. He had paused for a moment to catch his breath before beginning the steep climb up to the crags of the summit when a shout from behind made him turn. Two men had just left the cover of a clump of bushes which grew along the river bank upstream from where the bodies lay. Some distance behind them were two horsemen.
One of the men on foot shouted again and they started up the hill after him. Praying that none of them carried a bow, Matthew began to run.
I did, at the time, think it was good. It was certainly as good as I could write it, thus fulfilling matociquala's advice:
See, those words only count if they're your very best words when you write them. You have to believe in them. You have to be spilling your guts. No holding back. No "writing to learn." Writing, with everything you have, even if it's terrible.
Or as Gail Sher says in One Continuous Mistake
Try again. Fail better.