Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Lone and Level Sands - the lost scene that began it all

For some years now, I've belonged to a group of online authors who get together once a week and all write for exactly an hour on whatever topic one of us sets. The object is to get us writing fast and with as little internal editor as possible, but the results are sometimes (though not always) gratifying. Many stories that started that way have been published, including no less than eighteen of mine. Some have been flash fiction that I completed in the hour and polished later. Others have have fragmentary beginnings that I've expanded into longer stories. My previous Musa book, The Treason of Memory, was among those which started that way.

Back in 2008, in response to the prompt "write a story about an object being dug up from the ground which radically alters your character's conceptions of the origins of something", I wrote what would eventually turn into The Lone and Level Sands. However, this wasn't the beginning of the story that Musa has just published, but a scene that takes place months earlier and in a different country.

For anyone who's curious, I give that original scene below. I've changed nothing, even keeping the different spelling of the main character's name. I've no idea whether the decision to change Zaddith to Zadith was deliberate or a typo, but he's unmistakably Zadith now.


“And these were dug up where, exactly?”  Professor Thalidri sipped his drink with the prim delicacy Zaddith had always found absurd in such a big man, peering over his glasses at the two graduate students before him.

“In the desert,” said Museve eagerly, evidently not noticing the corroding scepticism in their teacher’s tone.  “Twenty miles from the coast, near Lahlem.  There’s a theory...”

“Thank you, Ms Amwa,” the Professor interrupted, and for once the young woman fell silent immediately, her shoulders drooping a little.  “I assume you’re referring to the theory of the temple of Shetti.  I can assure you, it was a theory popular among the more... enthusiastic of students when I was your age.  I see that little has changed.”

“But, Professor.”  Zaddith usually let his friend do the talking, but he couldn’t contain himself.  “Surely this is evidence.  The fact that tablets like these have been excavated just where the temple’s supposed to be... Well, it’s evidence, isn’t it?”

“Thanks for your usual incisive analysis, Mr Zaddith,” said the Professor dismissively.

Zaddith squirmed in embarrassment and annoyance.  Though his papers always received top marks, he somehow couldn’t reproduce the same fluency in speech, and he’d learnt to keep his mouth shut in class, for fear of ridicule.

The annoyance was because he knew that Professor Thalidri was perfectly aware that his surname came last, not first as it did here in Qymssa.  He didn’t make the same mistake with Museve; but Zaddith had long since realised that the Professor disliked Northlanders and took that dislike out on him.

“Professor,” said Museve, her tone more conciliatory, “you must agree that it’s a significant find, whether the temple exists or not.”

Three pairs of eyes returned to the baked clay tablets strewn on the desk between them.  Zaddith and Museve had taken a risk smuggling them out of Hranti, one of the more unstable of the petty dictatorships that clung to existance in the Sruq Desert.  Officially, they risked prison for removing antiquities without a licence, but Zaddith suspected that they could very easily have been shot in secret, to become just two of the many people who’d vanished in Hranti over the past decade.

In the end, though, neither could bear the thought of spending months, even years, applying for a licence, maybe to be refused in the end.  Zaddith was still having nightmares at the thought of what might have happened, but they were clear.

“The script is clearly similar to Early Dembin,” commented Thalidri at last, less scornful as he immersed himself in the ancient texts.  “The language, though...”  He paused a moment, sounding out some of the symbols.  “It has certain structural similarities to proto-Sriwali, and... yes, some vocabulary in common too, I’d say.  Perhaps an extinct language from, oh, let’s say, four thousand years ago.”

The two students glanced at one another, and Zaddith wondered whether Museve would have the nerve to bring up their theory.

“We thought so too, at first,” she said, a little uncertainly.  “But there are elements that don’t appear to be Sriwali at all.  I... we think it may be an older language.  We think it’s the language of Kebash.”

There was a long silence, while Zaddith waited for the Professor’s sardonic laughter; but it didn’t come.  When he looked up, he saw that the older man was staring at them.

“Kebash.”  There was no inflection as he spoke the name.  “Are you trying to claim you’ve found the lost city of Kebash?”

Museve took Zaddith’s hand under the desk, clearly for support, and gulped.  “Not... not actually,” she said at last.  “The stories all talk about Kebash being overwhelmed by the sea as punishment for its sins, not buried in the desert.  But... the tradition is that Kebash was somewhere between Xeinnur and the mainland.  Couldn’t this have been an outpost?”

And that's where the hour finished, just when the scene was getting interesting. Kebash was a name that had come up here and there in other stories I'd written set in the same world, as an ancient, lost city that was the source of the most dubious magic. A kind of equivalent of Atlantis with a darker reputation.

I knew I wanted to write a full story based on this scene, but how? When I started thinking about the plot, it was very obvious that the story proper had to take place during the dig itself, and the later in the dig the better. This could serve as some kind of prologue, but that would feel awkward.

In the end, I made a fresh start, with the dig in full swing and Zadith and Musu (who had now acquired a diminutive of her name) watching the army trucks approaching across the desert. There was no place for this scene, although it is referred to in the story, and several of the points of discussion appear in a different context.

The Lone and Level Sands is, as it should be, a far more centred story, both in time and place, than would have been possible if I'd used this scene. But this is where it started, in terms both of the main characters and of the search for the Temple of Shetti and evidence of Kebash.

The Lone and Level Sands and The Treason of Memory are both available in all ebook formats from Musa Publishing.

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