Spoiler on at least 1 bad ending for the new book. All content subject to change.
“Hurry up, Erill! The sun’s almost down; they’ll be burning Goash soon!”
Erill ignored Caius, the young son of village brewer, and remained reclining on the pile of straw watching the purple-grey clouds slowly drifting about the horizon, tinged majestically by the setting sun. When that fat golden ball disappeared, the torches would be dropped and the Goash, a sacred effigy of an ox-headed harvest-god, would go up in flames. All of the people of Altier would dance as the giant bull made from the woven straw of the year’s first wheat blazed away, celebrating another season’s end and successful harvest.
This would be Erill’s last Goash festival in Altier. He’d determined to leave the village of his birth forever. This year had seen his mother taken by illness and his father slain by thieves. Erill had resolved to stay and finish the harvests with the other farm folk, but there was little left to keep the young man in town of his birth. Kara, Caius’ older sister, had been noncommittal towards Erill in the past, and her recent attention felt more like pity for the man who’d lost both parents than genuine affection for him.
Now seemed like the best time to leave. The last harvest was in, his parents’ affairs had been set in order, and a caravan hauling a bounty of unworked Ungoza crystal along the Long Road had stopped in the village to take part in the celebration. Erill’s belongings were packed and ready to go.
Altier, a small agrarian community in the demesne of the Barony of Nortune, had been Erill’s home his entire life. Now, severed from ties to family and obligation to community, Erill had the whole of the Empire in which to pursue his fortunes. He’d already spoken with the caravan master about the possibility of joining up with them when they continued onward to the port of Syflanis.
Erill had other options, though. Banditry along the Gatlian portion of the Long Road had been on the rise in recent years (indeed, his father’s death was testament to it), and the nobility had been trying to levy men in an effort to do something about it. He could offer his services to one of the barons or even join the Imperial Legion in Pelliora. The options seemed without limit.
“I’ll do you proud somewhere, Dad,” Erill swore aloud, taking to his feet and brushing the straw and strawdust from his clothes.
The young man wondered if he should at least say goodbye to Kara and her brother. It would be the polite thing to do, at least. Maybe even watch the lighting of the Goash. Who knew if he’d ever see it again? It was an impressive spectacle. He could enjoy the night and leave with caravan in the morning. On the other hand, he could leave tonight with no real regrets. He was ready.
Erill took a deep breath. Kara had been extra nice to him these last few months. Even if her feelings for him were not what he would’ve like them to be, it would be nice, he thought, to see her one last time before he left. And Caius deserved a goodbye, too. Though he could be bothersome, the lad seemed to look up to Erill like a brother. And did he really want to miss out on watching the Goash burn?
Torches were already being lit by a few of the villagers who’d been delegated to overseeing the annual festivities. While sometimes the Goash would be erected and burned in the spacious square, with a sizeable caravan in town it was thought safer and wiser to place the 15 foot effigy on the outskirts of the community after the last harvest came in. Erill had been among those who moved the idol from the barn that had sheltered it since mid-summer to the fallow field and could not help but feel pride when his eyes fell on the great golden ox.
“You’re here!” Caius shouted. “This is going to be great! This is the biggest Goash I’ve ever seen!”
True enough, this was one of the larger effigies the villagers had made, at least within Erill’s lifetime and certainly Caius’. The year’s first wheat harvest had been a bumper crop, so the Goash had been made correspondingly grander in hopes that the successive crops would have yields as bountiful as the first. And despite the trouble with bandits and thieves, the subsequent harvests had been plentiful.
“Yes, he is,” Erill patted Caius on the head, “and he’ll be watching over Altier all through the winter, too.”
The boy craned his neck and stood on tip-toes to get a better view of the straw idol then turned to Erill. “You’re leaving soon, aren’t you?”
Erill sighed. “Yeah, I suppose I am.” Young Caius looked at Erill with sad half-understanding, a confused look of sympathy and disappointment. Erill wished that he could put into words his reasons, explain how he’d felt these last months in his parents’ house by himself, haunted by the memories of their passing and his own failings as a son. Instead, he could only say “I’m going to miss you, Caius. You take care of yourself while I’m gone, alright?”
The boy nodded.
“Do you know where your sister is?”
“I think she’s still back at home getting ready. She said something about a surprise. What do you think it could be?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Erill laughed as he ruffled the boy’s hair. “Now don’t look so sad.”
“I’ll try,” Caius patted down the cowlick Erill had stirred. “Kara might be here soon. Or she might take forever! You know how sisters are.”
“I’ll see if I can go find her.”
“Okay, just hurry back before they light Goash. It’s going to be amazing!”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Erill left the gathering crowd behind him and half-jogged, half-ran through the gloaming toward the small house where Kara and Caius lived with their parents. On his way, Erill hurried past the few caravan guards who’d drawn the short straws and were forced to take the first night watch and remain with the carts while others joined in the opening revelries. It was a shame that such precautions had to be taken even in a normally peaceful village such as Altier, but failing health of the Baron of Nortune and political intrigues in Syflanis were being exploited by the robbers and outlaws who hid out in the forested midlands of Gatlia. Such trouble in the province had cost Erill’s father his life, so Erill would dedicate the rest of his to doing something about it. And that’s what he would tell Kara.
Erill arrived at Kara and Caius’ home, a piled-stone cottage on the edge of one of the many freshly reaped fields. The windows were faintly aglow with pumpkin-orange light. Erill knocked on the thick-planked door.
“Just a second!” a lyrical voice answered his rapping from within the small house. Erill shifted nervously on the uneven flagstones sunk into the ground about the house’s entrance and gazing down for the moments just before the door swung open wide. Erill looked up and saw Kara’s silhouetted form, her hair carefully coiffed and many-ribboned dress hanging in bustles about her waist, standing against the gentle glow of a table lamp and the hearth fire. “Erill!”
Erill saw her face light with a smile even in the post-dusk shadows. He was suddenly at a loss for words. Kara’s dress was new, made from velvety blue fabric and cut in the style worn by the fine ladies of Syflanis. She looked stunning in it. “You look… Your new dress is lovely.”
“I wanted to surprise you,” she swished her skirt proudly.
Erill was indeed surprised.
“I bought it from the traders for the festival tonight. What?”
“I wanted to tell you…” Erill stammered.
“Yes? Couldn’t even wait for me a few more moments?” Kara’s blushing laughter tied Erill’s guts in knots.
He took a deep breath. “I wanted to let you know, I’m leaving tomorrow… Probably with the traders; they’ve already…”
“You stupid…” Kara’s comely face became contorted with a mix of emotions, not all of which the young man could identify. The young woman punched Erill in the shoulder with considerable force. “And you didn’t even think to tell me before tonight?”
“And if you weren’t going to tell me till tonight, you could’ve at least let me enjoy the festival first!” Tears were streaming down her face, glistening with light from the Goash which had just gone up in flames. “Who do you think I was wearing this dress for? Well, come on, at least let’s go watch and maybe have a dance before you go off on your big stupid adventure.”
Kara angrily grabbed Erill’s hand and started dragging him toward where the revelry was occurring about the base of the towering inferno, not giving him even the slightest backward glance.
Not ten of Kara’s angry paces from her abode did Erill notice that the Goash was not the only pillar of flame visible against the night sky. And the screams and shouts coming from the edge of the village were not those of celebration but of fear and panic.
“What’s happening?” Kara stopped, causing Erill to awkwardly bump into her.
“Bandits! They must be raiding the village!”
“What are we going to do?”
“Stay close!” Erill barked, yanking Kara behind the corner of a nearby barn. “It sounds like they’re attacking near the road, by the Goash.”
“Caius! He’s probably in trouble!”
“The wagons are in the square,” Erill said, peering out from the cover of the wooden building. The armed men about the wagons were shouting, pointing and scrambling about. “They probably mean to draw the guards off; they could be here any moment… I have an idea.” Erill took another glance toward the commotion. “I’m going to go first, open the gate, then you follow. Can you do that?”
Half-crouching, Erill scuttled over to the barn door, lifted the latch and swung it open just enough to enter, hoping that since he’d yet to see any of the nighttime raiders, they would’ve yet to see him. He motioned for Kara to follow, and the young woman quickly scrambled to join him.
“There are pitchforks, hoes, and spades in here,” Erill pointed out a rack of implements hanging on the far wall of the barn. “Might be able to make some use of them.”
Erill went to the rack and grabbed a pitchfork. Its wrought-iron tines could pierce a man as easily as a bale of hay. He’d seen it before another time a couple of thieves had been caught slaughtering a calf by a neighbor. It hadn’t been a pretty sight.
“You’re seriously going to try to go out there and fight them?”
“Will you be safe here?”
“How should I know if I’ll be safe here when raiders are out killing everyone?” Kara cried.
“Well, I have to do something! We should stay here and wait,” Erill admitted. If the raiders had bows, he wouldn’t stand a chance against them. Neither did any of the other villagers, for that matter. Erill swore under his breath.
“But what about Caius?” Kara pleaded. “Mom? And Dad? They’re out there!”
“They may already be dead, Kara,” Erill bitterly retorted, frustrated by the feeling of helplessness that gripped him. It was the same feeling he had felt when he had heard his own father had been mortally wounded defending his village. “But I’ll make sure that nothing happens to you.”
Kara hid herself in a corner behind a stack of loosely baled hay while Erill placed as many objects as he could lay his hands on in pile behind the barn door. It would not keep the door, which swung outward, from being opened, but would at least prove difficult to clamber over or thru and might give Erill the opportunity he needed for a well-placed thrust of a pitchfork. When he felt the door was sufficiently barricaded, Erill stood between Kara’s hiding spot and the door, his pitchfork held at the ready. The sounds of the chaos that had once been distant were steadily growing closer. The shouts of the men-at-arms and the clashing of steel were audible through the dry and cracked wooden boards of the old barn. The sounds of hooves bearing down, arrows flying, and cries of anguish filled the night and rung in Erill’s ears. This was no mere raid; Altier was being massacred.
Over the cacophony of fighting, Erill could hear Kara pleading to the gods to protect them. There was a crackling thump on the thatched roof of the barn, following a harsh male voice urging a steed forth. The dry thatching quickly burst into dazzling flames.
“They’re torching the village! We have to get out of here!” Erill tossed aside the pitchfork and began moving aside enough of the junk he had placed by the threshold that they might climb over. Kara rushed to his side, but the embers from the roof were falling all about them, and runners of flame had begun to engulf the walls. Smoke filled the air, and neither Kara nor Erill could stop coughing. The barn was turning into a death trap.
Reaching deep within himself, Erill knocked the door open and pulled both Kara and himself out of the flaming structure. They fell flat on the ground and managed to belly crawl away from the certain fiery death they had just escaped.
All of Altier was alight. Horsemen, all wearing masks, galloped to and fro, some empty-handed, others with their torches still held aloft. No building was spared. By the road on the north edge of town, the Goash mockingly blazed away, towering over the smaller fires that consumed the homes of the slaughtered villagers.
Erill and Kara scrambled to their feet. Their hope was that the raiders would be so pre-occupied with the destruction they wrought that they would not notice the pair racing across the fields, southward away from the village. Alas, such hopes were in vain.
The illumination from the several fires reached far, and the movement of two caught the attention of one of the riders. The rider spurred his mount on, triumphantly holding aloft his torch, and ran the pair down.
The last things Erill heard were Kara’s screams and the beating of the hooves that were swiftly upon him.
This represents about 5 nodes out of the dozen or so I’ve got mapped already. I’m half a dozen to another dozen nodes away from finishing the first true ending/path (not a “you screwed up and died”, but a “your choice led you to this final outcome”). Whatever this ends up being, it promises to be bulky. Not all, but a few nodes will have more than two choices, which will certainly up the page count.