My friend William L. Hahn is one of the few authors of Epic Fantasy whose books I truly enjoy reading. Usually, book in this genre bore me after a short while. The pacing is slow due to overbearing descriptions and side-stories. But not in Will’s books. With him, every single word moves the overall story forward.
I’m all the more delighted that he trusts my small publishing company “The Independent Bookworm” with the publication of his masterpiece “Judgement’s Tale”. Follow us into his world: “The Lands of Hope”.
In Will’s words:
I am deeply pleased and honored to address Cat’s followers today, for she has been a dear friend and an invaluable colleague directly responsible for much of my success. It’s only fitting that the excerpt for this post is the title-character of my upcoming novel, Judgement’s Tale.
As you may know, I followed the Lands of Hope for a long time – seriously more than 25 years – without trying to “write” about it in the sense of tales. Notes, yes copious notes, almost obsessive details, but never with an eye towards authoring a story. The Lands were always real to me – took a long time to admit that – and it was simply too BIG a job. There are more than five thousand years of history, a continent ten thousand kilometers long, and a population currently near five million persons. Where to start?
Long story short – I did start, by chronicling some of the spectacular events close to the current day in the Lands, what the sages are now calling the Age of Adventure: and they don’t mean that as a compliment! Adventurers are rare and unloved, they upset people and break with honored customs to follow rumors and hunches. But even outcasts, it seems, need company – they usually go about in small groups, and can be incredibly loyal to each other. I followed the deeds of several bands of these remarkable persons in my early chronicles.
But throughout my notes there was one fellow, unique even for them, maybe not properly an adventurer at all. He was a pariah, regarded with fear and loathing though he seemed to do nothing wrong. I was taken in by his driven nature, his terrible alone-ness – even other adventurers seemed to reject the one all knew as The Man in Grey. I wondered about that – to my eye, he was a combination of admirable and frightening qualities. Intelligent, brave and courteous, but also tightly-wound, inflexible and seemingly humorless. Solemn Judgement, the infamous Man in Grey wandered through every kingdom and touched briefly on the lives of nearly all the heroes, because he like them seemed to seek out danger in the furthest corners of The Lands.
Then as I looked at him more closely, I realized – he was not nearly as old as everyone took him to be, indeed, just a youth. How did this happen, and where did he come from? Even after twenty-five years of study, I had to admit I didn’t know the answer, I had never dared to look. But I began, and the result, several years later, is this novel.
In this excerpt, nearly the beginning of the tale, you can meet Solemn Judgement for the first time and perhaps begin to see how his spirit was formed from his first day in the Lands. I hope you enjoy Judgement’s Tale Part One: Games of Chance.
As we say in The Lands, Ar Aralte! (Hope Forever)
At forest’s edge, the gypsy band huddled and watched a boy on the seashore burying his father.
Clouds ripped overhead in shreds of slate; below, the endless Western Sea reflected leaden chop without a white edge to relieve the monochrome sense of threat. Yet the boy outdid them both. He laid his father’s corpse in a pose of dignity, and stubbornly hacked a fire-trench behind the tide-line scrub. All the while his posture, his pace, his entire demeanor radiated a total lack of color. The gypsies could have explained the ashen tint of his tunic, the dusty charcoal of his breeks and high leather boots. Salt water might have bleached his long, straight hair to dark silver, as well. But they could all sense it was otherwise- the boy was grey, through and through. And they came no closer yet, though the Rom were a hospitable people by nature.
“Grandmother, can they really have sailed from the West?” said Yellin the knife-thrower to the troupe’s leader. The thin, tightly-wrinkled woman shrugged for answer, in annoyance not indecision. He continued “But no one has crossed the ocean to the Lands since…”
“Since the advent of Hope, if we are to believe the stories,” said Mari the tambour-player; and at this everyone nodded, for to the gypsy a story is the blood of life.
“Yet see you the skiff,” insisted Yellin. “Well made and trim, to be sure, but so small, and with a crew of only two.”
Now the leader bestirred herself and pointed with her stick to the skies, where a lone hawk circled and cried. “We have had strange storms this month,” said Grandmother Valeria, “lightnings of many colors and winds that blew in circles, it seemed. And the hawk portends long journeys, the lone hunter who rules the signs of the Air. I think this young man comes of a land further, yet not the same, as those our heroes set out from.”
The band stood in silence after the grandmother had spoken- a new story unfolded now and none would interrupt it. Instead they watched as the young man completed the trench, then faced the skiff with arms akimbo. After three moments, he decided; bracing his leg under the mast-board for leverage, he hauled hard and began to break up the beautiful craft for firewood.
The Gypsies watched him still, an hour later near dusk and by the light of the burning pyre. Munching apples and crusts, they took in his every move, like watching a play: the boy piled the planks in a half-pyramid, put his father’s body on the keelboard, and hauled it to the top with driftwood-rollers and all his strength. He had set the flame and now stood leaning on a half-length of the skiff’s mast, serving him as a thick quarterstaff.
“He is not a man,” said Mari, “not fifteen I bet.”
“Old enough to see his father die perhaps,” Yellin nodded. “But to bury him… and now?”
“Now, he is alone in all this world,” said Grandmother Valeria “For he is not of the Lands, I can feel it.”
Again no one answered her, and the story continued in silence. The son had put aside some of his father’s belongings, and with the funeral flame fully set he knelt briefly, then rose to take them. As the flicker-toothed fire ate the setting sun, the grey stranger put on the iron-hued broad-brimmed hat, hung the silver symbol around his neck and donned the full-length charcoal cloak, with all the gravity of a man putting on armor. He took up the staff, and faced the fire on the beach once again. For a moment, he seemed to sag, as if under some nameless weight. The wind died down, but a single report of thunder signaled it was merely the quiet before the storm.
“He is a castaway, an orphan now,” said Geltar the fire-eater.
“And so, he is one of us,” finished Valeria, and before anyone could stop her, she stepped from the edge of the trees and into the story, gesturing to the boy on the sand. At first, he appeared not to notice, but after dipping to one knee a final time in a gesture of respect, he turned and strode steadily in her direction. From that moment, he never looked back at the fire or the sun, the father or the sea. The rest of the gypsy band shuffled from cover in response, and before long they were together. At this close range, the Rom could see that his eyes were large gems of silver, gazing hawk-like from beneath his ashen brows.
“Do you speak the Common Tongue, boy?” Valeria asked, holding her hand palm-up in a gesture of friendship.
For a moment, it was as if she spoke to a statue of a boy, his body unmoving and his face yielding no more comprehension than that of an animal to her speech. But as she prepared to try again, the grey youth said “Aye, though thy tongue is somewhat odd, I trow I do gain the meaning of thee, mistress.” It was Common, as the gypsies knew it, but of an older dialect, such as the scholars in Conar might speak.
“Do you know any other speech, then?” Valeria asked, and in response the stranger tried first a smooth-flowing tongue, which had no meaning for any of the band, and then another, somewhat harder and more clipped. He spoke with fluency to judge from his ease; but on his third try, every tone hummed like a rung bell, and some of his listeners actually stepped back a pace from the resonance and strength of it.
“Those words!” started Yellin, “Is he singing? I never-” but the leader of the band interrupted him, her face shining with wonder and fear.
“It is Ancient, I’ll be bound. I know it not but I’ve heard enough before, in the courts and at trials. This boy speaks the tongue of power like a native.”
The stranger stopped to hear this dialogue, a puzzled expression on his face. “Ye- know somewhat of those last words? I have little training in them-”
“And you should not speak it again, except at need,” returned Valeria. “It is the Ancient speech, which our heroes used, the tongue of dragons and other beings of power, and one cannot lie while speaking it.”
The boy raised a single brow. “Or in any other tongue, certes.”
After a moment, a quiet chuckle made its way among the gypsies, the first hint of levity these entertainers had felt this day. Valeria too smiled, and said “Assuredly. We have seen you from afar, traveler, and we welcome you to our band for as long as you may wish to stay. Tell us, what are you called?”
The young stranger stood even taller than before as he swept off his hat and answered in the manner of a captive soldier. “Mine name be Solemn Judgement, mistress. Son of… of Final Judgement, once of…” and here for a time the boy could not continue. As he stood in silent struggle, the weather broke and a storm came lashing down on him. The gypsies stood just under the lee of the forest and were mostly untouched, but the grey stranger’s face was soon speckled with rain. Valeria scrutinized him closely, yet saw nothing but sky-water on his cheeks: the heavens granted a sign of grief he could not provide himself. “He was- my teacher, mistress. Every day, as we sailed- he taught … I seek knowledge,” he finished stiffly.
Valeria stepped forward then, and as her band gasped she reached for the young man with both arms. The same stick-hand which had just yesterday cracked Geltar’s skull when he offered an impertinence in jest, the fingers which had turned the tarot cards in merciless judgment of her own people over the decades she had ruled the clan; these same limbs she now used to enfold the stranger, holding him close as if she would shelter him from the rain. And for all he bent in any human reaction to her welcome, she may as well have embraced his staff. But when she turned and led him by the arm, Solemn Judgement went along with the gypsy band, stepping east with them into the forest, further into the story, and fully onto the Lands of Hope.
For twenty centuries the Lands of Hope prospered from their Heroes’ peace, but suffer now from their absence as a curse thickens over the central kingdom known as the Percentalion. An immortal omniscient conspirator schemes to escape the extra-worldly prison restraining his tide of undeath, using a demonic ally in a plot to bring back hell on earth. Solemn Judgement steps onto these Lands both a stranger and an orphan, driven to complete the lore his father died to give him.
In a world beset with increasing chaos, the bravest Children of Hope must take mortal risks. A young woodsman’s spear-cast, a desperate bid to save his comrades; the Healers Guildmistress’ cheery smile, hiding a grim secret and a heavy burden of guilt; the prince of Shilar’s speech in a foreign tongue, a gambit to avoid bloodshed or even war. As a new generation of heroes, scattered across the kingdoms, bets their lives and more, Solemn Judgement- soon to be known as The Man in Grey- must learn to play … Games of Chance: Part One of Judgement’s Tale
available on amazon on July 4th