Swords for a Dead Lady

by Jim Webster

[Editor’s Note: Jim Webster is the editor of the Excellent Prismatic Spray, and Peter Freeman is an excellent and prolific writer and contributor to both the Dying Earth and Stone Skin Press’s The New Hero anthology. Soon, they will be sharing excerpts from their enormous shared world fiction.]

For the last few years we’ve been running ‘the Land of the Three Seas’. It is a play by email game, but played in a more ‘narrative’ fashion. The procedure is simple, in character, and in real time I write an email, through the yahoo group. The other character replies in character and between us we move the story along. As the story progresses we inevitably create other characters, places, events and these are logged into a ‘sophisticated database’ (a table in a Word document.) These entries are not necessarily particularly large, for example -we have Madame Afflagar. Her entry merely comments that “she was chosen by lot to be Toelar Director of Low Entertainment, her program of moral decency is not entirely popular.”

Others get a more generous entry as with ‘Three Wheels Thorwillin’ who is recorded as “the itinerant purveyor of bad bargains, strange foodstuffs and occasional card sharp, who regularly used to stop traffic by having the wheel fall of a cart he owned and he would then pass amongst the crowds selling them food as they waited for order to be restored. Obviously this was in Meor, in Koggart’s Junction it might be days before traffic built up.

Eventually the Meor watch fitted an extra wheel and then made him pull the cart himself, two magistrates taking turns to steer by prodding him with his goad or flicking him with his whip.”

Then we have institutions, for example there are the Deacons of the Ninth Hell. For them the entry reads “A somewhat ignored priesthood which worships a particularly unpleasant collection of demons, apparently on the principle that someone has to and matters would go badly if the ninth hell was left unsupervised.”

Then there are places, take the village of Boranst. “Thirty miles north of Derths Crossing, it is a small hamlet, strangely fortified against the wilds. It is small but is dug into the rock, each family having their own cave in a cliff which overlooks the trail. The ground above the cliffs is a mass of briers and thorn bushes, the ground below they cultivate assiduously. The cliff face has been polished smooth over the years and the only way up is by narrow stairs which actually spiral into the rock.”

Then there are books and plays, again as an example ‘The tale of the Usurer Blevin fleecing the merchants of Beale’. Not as much a book (although there was a play once written) as a series of three paintings. The first is the classic ‘Usurer Blevin fleecing the merchants of Beale’, the second, less well known, is ‘The Usurer Blevin hiding in the dunny pit to avoid the searchers’, where we see the face of Blevin illuminated by thin shafts of light from between the boards in the privy floor, and the final, ‘The Usurer Blevin flees the nomad raiders’ which shows in the foreground the usurer desperately whipping his obviously dying horse whilst the nomads inexorably close on him.

When you add in animals, foodstuffs and plants, you can see why the current gazetteer is 185,368 words long

Obviously the original sketch map has been expanded, so now our cast of characters have a reasonable sized land mass to play with.

And the stories keep crawling out, interesting characters live complicated lives in real time, and Peter Freeman and I sit in quiet pubs, stare into empty pint glasses and tell each other that we really ought to do something with it.

And so, eventually I did. Benor Dorfinngil is a character I have ‘played’ for several years, I have written 3,500 emails as him, and both Peter and I feel we know the man.

A plot developed and with that basic idea in mind I started writing.

Characters created years before would enter the plot, strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then be about their business. The naked body of a woman, hastily buried, was found at the edge of a swamp. The locals knew she wasn’t one of hers, they sent a messenger to a local Urlan lord to ask him to investigate it. The Urlan are warriors with a strong honour culture, not necessarily detectives, but they remembered Benor, who as a jobbing cartographer was obviously a scholar and obviously the man for the job. As the tale unfolds we have ambush, civil strife and even light opera.

Thus and so we now have the tale ‘Swords for a Dead Lady;’ This is now published and is available in electronic format here from Amazon.

As with all these things no one ever knows when to stop, the gazetteer keeps growing and we have a second tale with the publisher, ‘Dead Man Riding East’.

An adventure where the unintended theft of a tyrant’s concubine, followed by the inadvertent acquisition of a wife, leads to revenge, the fall of dynasties and over exposure to the world of high fashion.

The two comments that most cheered me about ‘Swords for a Dead Lady’ were where one reviewer described it as ‘Vancian’, and another reader commented “it certainly isn’t derivative. No sub-Tolkien fantasy here.”

At times the depth of the background we have inadvertently created almost frightens me, and we add to it, day by day, we’re probably adding 60,000 words a year, so it seems a pity not to make more of it.

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