Helianthus never thought he'd ever see his little town of Convallis so bright and lively again. After so many months under siege using nothing but guerilla tactics and sheer stamina against foreign invaders with all too much practice at their deadly skill, he was sure they would all be too broken and weak to celebrate by the end of it.
He never could have anticipated how quickly his neighbors and brothers in arms, all weak from tight rations, injury and illness, would break out the last of the wine. How they would feast like there were no fresh bodies being picked over by the crows just outside the makeshift walls.
He sipped lightly at his ale as he sat around the roaring bonfire half the town's protectors, watching them joke and drink as though from a mile away. Most of them were still wearing their armor. After five days it had likely become more familiar to them than their own skins.
Helianthus remembered then that he was also still bearing the weight of his full chainmail. He put down his pint, freeing up his good arm to throw off the steel helmet that had narrowed his vision and muffled his hearing for the past week. The metallic clatter called the attention of the jovial mob.
"Feeling alright, Eli?" His sister, Astera, asked, slinging an arm over his shoulders affectionately. Every time he looked at her, he couldn't help but stare. The last time they'd seen each other, he was only 16 and she was 20. She'd seemed so impossibly tall back then, towering over everyone like the mountains surrounding their little valley. Now, ten years after he'd left to become a soldier, they were as similar as though cast from the same mold.
He nodded, watching the flames flicker between the swaying bodies of an old couple who had gotten up to dance. "Just sore. Tired."
"It's been a rough couple of weeks." Astera's smile slid slowly off her face, eyes slightly glazed from just a few too many drinks. Her long, pale hand rose to his face. "You look just like father, Eli. When did that happen?"
He blinked, hoping the tears gathering in his older sister's eyes were just from the smoke. He'd never seen her cry before and certainly wasn't ready to now.
"Hey, Captain! I've been looking for you everywhere!" Cadmus interrupted, stumbling up behind them holding a leg of mutton. He was one of the dozen or so genuine soldiers among the town's makeshift troops and Helianthus' oldest and truest friend. They went through the prestigious Academy of the Royal Legion in Astuvia together. Ever since then, neither seemed to be able to rid themselves of the other if they tried.
Astera pulled herself from the log they'd been sitting on, swaying like a birch tree in a storm as she aimed a withering glance his way.
While Helianthus's height made him prone to back and neck aches from constantly crouching down to everyone else's level, Astera refused to so much as tip her head for anyone's comfort. Having spent her childhood being the sole provider of their little family, she'd learned to use whatever she had as an advantage over others. Now, she used her height just to make Cadmus squirm.
"I know. I should've expected it from all stories you told me. But after everything, I'm beginning to believe what everyone else says about her being raised by wolves." He muttered as he took a seat on the other side of Helianthus, using his body as a shield against Astera's bitter gaze.
Helianthus shrugged, hand lifting unconsciously to the stitches in his bicep. "She's not all that bad. She just-"
He tried thinking of something to explain his sister's animosity towards Cadmus. She was drunk. She'd never killed before. She had a hard childhood and didn't trust easily. But though all those things were true, none of them were the full truth.
"She just doesn't like you." He said, earning a full-bellied laugh from his old friend. Helianthus smiled as he took a measured sip of ale, wincing when the arrow wound in his bicep reasserted itself.
Cadmus noticed his pint was almost full and stared with astonishment. He'd never been one for moderation, not before he'd accidentally, temporarily taken charge of an entire town. "You're drinking like my granny, Captain! Loosen up a bit, you deserve it."
"I took a nasty blow to the head. I don't want to add to the misery I'll be in tomorrow." Helianthus sighed, searching out the wound with his fingers. He was already regretting taking off his helmet. The world seemed suddenly much too wide and loud without it.
Oxalis materialized on the other side of the log, his clever hands already searching through Helianthus's matted blonde hair. "I said I was sorry. You had no business standing where my hammer could fall in the first place!"
Helianthus rolled his eyes but let the master carpenter prob gently at the goose-egg beginning to form over his right ear. His dusky, work-callused hand took hold of his chin to examine the soldier's eyes, peering over the hawk-like hook in his nose with intent.
He was still as charming as the day Helianthus left for the Legion. All the fantasies he'd had about the man and his strong, capable hands came flooding back in an instant. For a moment, he felt like a boy again, watching with fascination as Oxalis sawed through smooth planks of birch from the corner of the older boy's family workshop. Only now, the four years between them seemed less like the impassable chasm it had been in his youth.
In fact, as he let Oxalis turn his head this way and that, he considered simply stepping over it. Later, perhaps. When the dust settled and the sun rose and life felt less like a bizarre fever dream.
"It's not that bad. Why not find a lovely lass to relieve your suffering? No one in town would deny you now that you're our hero." The master carpenter said with a twinkle in his dark, steady gaze and a clap on the shoulder.
Helianthus reciprocated Oxalis's suggestive smile, the back of his fingers brushing almost accidentally against the older man's thigh. "What, a fumble in the dark? That's really not my way of things."
"Of course not, everyone knows you like it in broad daylight, Captain!" A passing Legion soldier cackled, tasteless as the beer he was soaked in. It was times like these that he really hated how easily his voice carried through a crowd.
"Hey! Watch your tongue around my sister!" All the knowing chuckles turned to nervous coughs and mumbled apologies. Helianthus also shrunk into himself, wishing he'd just kept his mouth shut.
"Pah!" Astera whipped her long blood-crusted braid over her shoulder and leaned forward at an angle only achievable by the very drunk to address the group. "Think that's news to me? I raised the idiot. I caught him starkers in the orchard for no good reason so many times, I could identify his corpse by the shape of his balls."
Helianthus went red as a cherry with embarrassment as everyone by the fire laughed until their stitches reopened. His stuttering protests went ignored as Astera regaled his men with all the worst moments of his awkward adolescence. The embarrassment of unearned authority was now entirely eclipsed by his sister's drunken ramblings.
The Legion men had all weathered training and endless patrols with him, becoming as close as brothers in the process. The townspeople had welcomed him back home with a warmth he never would've expected after ten years away. After this, he might never be able to look any of them in the eye again.
His mortification faded when one of them pissed their pants laughing. He reminded himself that no one here would remember any of this come morning. His sister probably wouldn't even remember saying any of it. He silently excused himself from the group and sought out someplace quiet.
The makeshift soldier's encampment set up on the market grounds was out of the question. It was the center of all the night's revelries. Escaping the congratulatory offers of drinks and dances had itself been a tactical achievement on par with his recent victory.
All the buildings still standing in the town square were filled to the brim with people celebrating life and grieving the lost. Before, Convallis was a farming town with a few dozen families sprawled over the hills and valleys with miles between them. Today, everyone was crammed into whatever shelter was available with up to four families living on top of each other.
The only remotely quiet houses were the ones filled with the injured and dying.
In the end, he wandered up the hill where a few catapults still sat like sleeping giants. Soon, they would be taken apart for the wood or burnt for fuel. Tonight, they stood vigil.
He leaned against the trunk of an oak tree that had been old when he was a boy, taking care not to disturb his injured arm. For the past three days, he'd been too occupied with maintaining the siege and fending off the invading forces to feel pain. There simply wasn't any room for it. He felt that his blood was wet, arrows were sharp, and death was inadvisable but none of it really mattered until everyone was safe. Now they were and he could think of nothing else.
His head throbbed as though it contained an angry mule, kicking at his skull from the inside. The arrow wound through his left bicep fought with the slash in his right side for the prestigious title of 'biggest pain in the ass'. To top it all off, his ass hurt too.
He looked out to the east. To the stars glittering above him and the darkness concealing the bodies scattered below. Even here, he could smell the smoke from the bonfires of the celebrations he'd so recently escaped. The laughter of the townspeople relieved to be free of the constant fear of invasion cut through the still night air like the song of a nightingale.
But Helianthus knew their troubles hadn't ended with the siege. He hadn't had the chance to inspect the grounds outside the town's walls since the last battle but he'd grown up around farmers. He knew that even if the invaders hadn't salted the fields or eaten the crops themselves there was no hope in harvesting the remains. Any livestock would also be lost. To the enemy or to starvation in their locked pens, it didn't matter.
Not only would it be a struggle to feed everyone but the largest export of Convallis was fine wool and the last of their sheep were currently warming themselves over celebratory bonfires on roasting spits. The summer wouldn't last long. When it left, they wouldn't have any wool to keep themselves warm in the coming winter let alone trade for supplies.
He had already agreed to meet with the town elders come morning to plan out the trajectory of the next few weeks, but he couldn't help but to turn every variable over in his head. The town elders might have experience in managing floods and crop failures, but no one here had ever seen battle before now.
Helianthus was not experienced in the art of war. Officially, he was a low-ranking foot soldier in the Legion and was not qualified to make big decisions concerning the fate of an entire town. But then, no one else was either.
And if all his assumptions were wrong and the elders did have a better plan, at least the problem distracted him from the gaping, oozing hole in his arm.
The Legion had originally only expected a few raiders. They sent out a dozen soldiers and an inexperienced captain and treated the situation as more of an advanced training exercise than a real defensive measure. When the band of raiders became an invading army and their captain fell, he was the only one who knew the local terrain as well as the basics of how to mount a good defense. He was the only one who could effectively mobilize the civilians to defend their town and keep the still-green soldiers from turning tail. Now, he feared he might be the only one who could lead them away from famine and poverty.
Somewhere downhill, wolves howled their triumph on the battlefield and fought over their victory feast as though it were table scraps. In the shadow of the catapults, Helianthus drifted into restless dreams of lost sheep with matted, overgrown coats tangled up in the chainmail of the dead.
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