A lot of different things influenced my dream of becoming a writer. One was the summer in my early teens read Fritz Lieber’s fantasy stories about his sword-wielding heroes Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser. One is the tall, burly, quiet type, the other is small and nimble, and they wander the world of Newhon, working as mercenaries or occasionally thieves, in their never-ending quest for a good time. At the time I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. That evolved as my reading widened, and by the time I got to college I’d changed my focus to poetry, and now, well, I’d just like to be published, although there is some fun in amassing a record-breaking collection of rejections.
Lieber’s stories inspired me to write a series of my own, set in a faux medieval world with wizards and monsters and castles. Rather than a pair of heroes the focus of my stories would be a lone thief named Latham Poloniat. I’d created him for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign and he was, well, me, but with some extra skills and a name I’d made up while browsing the periodic table. “Latham” was shortened from “lanthanum”, or so I thought until I actually met a guy named Latham, but that’s another story. And “Poloniat” was from “polonium”, back before it made headlines for poisoning people. I just liked the sound of it and didn’t know then that Marie Curie discovered it and named it somewhat controversially for her homeland of Poland, but that Slavic connection is kind of funny to me now.
My series started and finished, or never finished, depending on how you look at it, with what I thought was a pretty clever story that would introduce Latham as a thief but essentially a good guy who’d rob from the rich and, well, at least he wouldn’t rob from the poor, but would tip generously and move on. The story was called “A Balance Of Power” and found Latham trapped in a small town ruled and terrorized by dueling wizards, Vanados and Thoros—more funny periodic table derivatives—who have each other in a stalemate. Early drafts started with Latham in Vanados’s castle, being made an offer he can’t refuse. At this point a little world-building was necessary, so in an aside I explained that magic, like electricity, could be lethal if conducted through the body, so wizards wore special medallions to draw the magic away, and also focus and direct it. A wizard without a medallion would be powerless, or overpowered. And all Vanados wants should be a simple job for an expert thief: steal Thoros’s medallion.
I thought I had everything I needed, but after a few drafts realized the conflict didn’t really set up the ending. The stakes weren’t high enough, so I rolled the opening back a bit to a dark and foggy night—stormy would have been overdoing it—and put Latham in the local tavern, chatting with his friend the bartender, a jovial guy named Dinoy. I have no idea where that name came from. They’re alone with the light-fingered Latham pulling his usual amusing trick of stealing glasses from behind the bar without being seen until one of Vanados’s minions—a shadowy, floating torso with an egg-shaped head and glowing eyes, none of which served any purpose other than sounding cool—enters to tell Latham the wizard is looking for a thief for hire. And here’s a minor flaw: it’s a bad idea to go around advertising yourself as a professional pilferer, at least in a small town where everybody knows your name.
What happens next has already been established, but, having accepted the job, Latham returns to the bar for one last drink, and confesses to Dinoy what he’s got to do. Dinoy tries to talk him out of it, reminding him that either wizard unchecked could wipe out the town, the surrounding countryside, perhaps the whole world. I didn’t realize it at the time but the magical standoff sounds like a vague allegory for the Cold War. Something else I didn’t realize is that committing grand theft wizardry would require time for careful, sober planning, and the last thing a professional thief would want to do is share his next move with a garrulous drink peddler.
Latham is on the horns of a dilemma, which, now that I think about it, sounds like a terrifying mythical creature, although the word actually comes from a Greek term for “double proposition” which sounds even more terrifying, but that’s another story. Anyway he’s stuck between risking his own neck or everybody else’s, so of course he immediately sets off for Thoros’s castle at the other end of town.
Some might want to quibble over geography since, as far as I know, there are no towns, especially small towns, anywhere that are presided over by two castles, but this is fiction and you can get away with anything in fiction. Besides you couldn’t have a fantastically powerful wizard living in a trailer.
Thoros’s castle, as you might have guessed, proved to be the most difficult part of the story. While I wrote at least a hundred complete drafts this was the act that changed the most. At first it was simple: Latham creeps into the sleeping wizard’s bedchamber, grabs the medallion, and slips away unnoticed. I know I just said you can get away with anything in fiction but this stretched the suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. Wouldn’t a wizard guard something so valuable a little more assiduously? Then I tried having Latham stab the sleeping wizard, but he was a thief, not a murderer, and it still lacked drama. I needed a lot of smoke to obscure the carefully arranged mirrors of the denouement. Vanados had minions so his brother should too, so Latham finds his way into the front hall of Thoros’s castle—torchlit, of course—and into an underground moat where he fights through giant albino salamanders and zombies. Then I scrapped the salamanders and had Latham duel with Thoros who, once disarmed and de-medallioned, is turned upon and torn apart by his own undead horde. This still seemed too easy; my idea of Latham was that he was someone who depended on brains more than brawn, and besides it seemed obvious that a rapier-wielding thief would lose in a brute force face-off against a powerful wizard. I needed Latham to escape, so I kept trying different things. Even fantasy has to abide by certain rules, and the main rule is that the hero’s journey should be difficult but not impossible. Here’s where I should have taken a little more inspiration from Lieber; Latham could have used a partner, a strongman who’d make up for his lack of stature and who could provide a distraction, facing down Thoros while Latham pilfered the prize. I’d conceived of Latham as a loner, though, so he was on his own and would have to find a way by himself.
Once out of the castle Latham’s journey across town is a bit of a slow point in the story but I wanted to take a little time to dwell on his thoughts. Behind every door he passed were real flesh and blood people I’d made up, and he has to live with what his actions would mean for their lives, but he continues on to Vanados’s castle. The wizard is overjoyed at his success, hugs him, performs a quick and easy spell to destroy Thoros’s medallion, and hands over a bag of a thousand gold pieces. I hadn’t delved deeply enough into the world I’d created to come up with a name for the local currency.
And now it was time for the wrap-up. I’d reverse-engineered the entire story from this conclusion in which Latham, a heavy bag of gold at his hip, sets off on the road out of town in search of his next adventure. Then, at a sufficient distance, he stops, pulls Vanados’s medallion out of his tunic, and smashes it with a rock.
It was supposed to be the first in a series, and I did have other ideas for Latham—a demonic plant, a sea voyage—but no matter how many times I rewrote it I never could get “A Balance Of Power” quite right. Eventually I’d scrap the idea, and all the copies I’d made as I wrote and rewrote it, and moved on to other things. For a long time I thought of the story as a failure. I assumed any “real” writer could knock out a similar story in a few drafts, while I kept tinkering and tinkering. Even retelling it here I’ve made some changes. Now I look back on it with a strange fondness. It’s like an old friend who taught me as much as a summer can.