I am, by trade, a writer of fiction. As such, I’m often accused – and rightly so – of “just making things up.” And while I’d like nothing more than to take credit for the creation of that species of mythological beast called kaunar (which would later achieve lasting immortality thanks to Tolkien, who used them as a template for his Orcs), they are in fact indigenous to the annals of history. I merely stumbled across them . . .
In 2006, while researching a story on the used grimoire trade in Vienna, I came across a rare find in the basement of a forgotten bookshop in an alley off Kolingasse. On a shelf below the local histories and the hand-bound volumes of 17th century bucolic poetry, surrounded by lurid romance novels from America, was a crumbling pasteboard file box. The peeling label bore the name “Mikolajczyk” in a scrawled hand. I recognized the name from an article on the vicious academic in-fighting that rocked the University of Vienna in the mid-19th century. In 1887, Professor Stanislaus Mikolajczyk published extracts from a Roman-era manuscript purportedly by Sallust, identical in wording and style to that author’s Bellum Iugurthinum. Instead of a war with Jugurtha and his Numidians, however, the manuscript related a tale of Rome’s war with a decidedly non-human tribe in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, called the Orcadii. The accusations of forgery and insanity leveled at Mikolajczyk drove him from the University; disgraced, he committed suicide the following year.
Thinking I had perhaps found clippings or notes on the whole curious affair, I purchased the box and carted it back to my hotel room. That evening, upon inspection, I discovered something wholly unexpected. Inside the box was a ream of old paper covered in a neat cursive script. The pages were a mix of Latin and heavily-emended English. A cursory reading sent tremors of delight down my spine. More than clippings or notes, here was Mikolajczyk’s handwritten translation of what he called the Bellum Orcadias. Here was the genesis of the old professor’s disgrace.
This was a monumental find. Immediately I phoned a colleague in America, a Classics professor at Harrison College named V. Darlage, who helped coordinate the dissemination of scans of the initial pages via fax to various prominent historians and Classicists around the globe. What followed were endless rounds of authentication and appraisal. By week’s end, I had confirmation that this was, indeed, the handwriting of the late Professor Mikolajczyk. With the matter of the veracity of the physical pages laid to rest, their content was another matter.
In a footnote to the manuscript, the Professor described buying a folio of Latin texts from a “private collector” (whom he later identifies as a British expat named Barrett, who ran a profitable business smuggling antiquities out of Rome). But, with no indication of where the folio came from, or where it wound up, we are left with only the word of the decidedly volatile Professor that its contents were authentically Sallust’s
Even with my piecemeal knowledge of Latin, there no denying that the Bellum Orcadias reads like a fair-copy of the Bellum Iugurthinum – but a copy where some cunning scribe with functional knowledge of Scandinavian lore had removed all mention of Jugurtha and replaced it with a figure named “Kjallandi”, the Numidians with “Orcadii”, and so forth. Some sections appear to be of original authorship, like the extract presented below, the author’s aside regarding the origins of the Orcadii. Ancient or modern, it is nevertheless a fanciful bit of writing. I present it here for the first time:
17. My subject seems to call for a brief account of the Orcadii, who are seldom seen, now, and are considered by most other people to be nothing more than a myth, which mothers use to frighten their children into behaving. Having encountered one, an old warrior who in his prime was a sword-brother of Kjallandi’s, I can easily give an account of their dress and manner. As for their origins, I shall dispatch what is known in the fewest possible words.
The Orcadii hail from the far north, from an archipelago of perpetual ice and snow beyond Caledonia known as the Orcades. My informant told a curious story of their origins that is so outlandish that it cannot possibly have even a kernel of truth to it. He claimed his people, who call themselves Kaunar, were fashioned by the god Mercury from the flesh and blood of wolves and serpents. Then this boreal Mercury, who it seems is very stern, set them to guard his titanic offspring from the vengeful gods of the north. The Orcadii failed in their appointed task and fled from Mercury’s wrath, scattering to the Four Winds rather than face the doom that was written for them. Though they no longer enjoy his favor, the Orcadii yet revere this northern Mercury and offer sacrifices of blood and meat, hoping to curry the god’s good will once again; but the one most often on their lips is a one-eyed hero called Baleg or Balegar, whose symbol they scratch and paint on every surface and upon whose name they swear oaths.
18. The Orcadii of the High Atlas were said to have come south at the urging of a wise-woman, a priestess called Idunn, who led them first by ship to the shores of northern Gaul and then by forgotten paths through dark forests and over jagged hills to the borders of Hispania. Some refused to go further and settled in the Pyrenees, while the rest continued on, led by the visions of Idunn of a golden garden filled with peace and plenty. But Idunn, whose years were tallied at ten times the length of the longest-lived Roman, was slain in the land of the Mauri, and where she fell there is said to have sprang up an apple grove whose fruit is sweetest in the early morning but grows sour as the day turns to night. The Orcadii who followed her ascended into the High Atlas where by wolfish fury and serpent’s guile they did make themselves masters of peak and vale.
It is perhaps a mark of Fortune’s favor for Rome that the Orcadii share nothing of the Latin sense of discipline, nor do they harbor in their breasts the ambition of the Carthaginians. They are tough, for the High Atlas does not breed softness, and their culture is one of unparalleled brutality wherein the strong dominate the weak and the warrior is exalted above all others, but even the most hardened among them longs for a life of sloth and indolence. They can be cunning in the acquisition of gold and in matters of warfare, but too often allow envy and petulance to turn victory into inevitable defeat. Publius Scipio, who had occasion to write a friend in the senate, thus described the Orcadii:
19. “For my own part, I agree with those who think that the Orcadii are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, they exhibit the same physical peculiarities throughout. All are muscular in build, though often wiry, with long arms and thick-nailed hands which aid their ability as innate climbers; the tones of their skin range from swarthy to black, and sunlight darkens and burns them as it does the milk-skinned Keltoi. Hair is of particular importance to the Orcadii; theirs is uniformly black – long, coarse, and thick – and its care and decoration represents a source of pride bordering upon vanity. Their facial features appear as diverse as ours, though they run toward a wide nose-bridge, heavy jaw, almond-shaped eyes, and slightly pointed ears. Most have savage red eyes, though feral green, brown, and black are not unheard of. Still, the feature that most sets them apart from humanity is their teeth; without variation, the Orcadii possess exaggerated canines, like the fangs of a wolf.
“But what is most astounding is the claim made by each and every one, from the lowliest slave to the most celebrated warlord, that save by violence or injury they cannot die. I cannot attest to the veracity of this claim, though I can state with certainty that when an iron edge is applied to their flesh they do not leak good red blood like we Romans, but rather a stinking black broth that cannot be natural.”
This account of the Orcadii is enough for my purpose.