War in the North: The Northdowns: Smoke on the Horizon



The sun rose, burning through the morning mist that would gather in the lower lying areas of the rolling hills of the small farm. Rubbing his bloodshot eyes, Hollace looked towards the east, where he thought he saw the glow of flames in the darkness last night. The black plume of smoke brought a frown to his face, hidden under the thick mustache and he turned away from the window. Quietly, he moved past the bed, his wife Ainslie sound asleep, her golden brown hair spread out on the soft pillow like a fan. He looked over her face, so peaceful in her sleep but he could not ignore the dark circles under her eyes. Their newborn son had cried most of the night, like nearly every night since he was born. The tiny infant was silent now, sleeping in his cradle with his thumb partially lodged in his mouth.

The strain on the man’s face was not only from adjusting to the new addition but from the dire signs and rumors that came each passing day. The Briarberry farm was tucked away, set back from the Greenway among hills that served as grazing ground for sheep and cattle. Grain and a vegetable garden was coaxed from what little flat land was available. Ainslie’s grandparents had broken in the wild land, farther out in the Downs than most farms which occupied the fertile grounds of Kingsfell. Over the passing months, the word of raids was spoken over and over, that the Orcs were coming down from the north. Some farmers were leaving but most wanted to stay and guard their crop as it was the beginning of the harvest season. Hollace had believed, like most, that the Greenway Guard would stand and protect all but the most unlucky and exposed farms.

He cast his tired eyes once more at the window, the smoke still visible above the trees.

“I saw the smoke at dawn.”

Hollace Fenflower turned, his father Gatland stood just behind him. The stout older man continued, “I’d be a fool to think that just trees.”

His parents had come to visit from Bree, to help with the new baby, their first true grandchild and had lingered because of the increased danger. His mother Charissa was making breakfast, allowing Ainslie much needed rest. The farm supported another ten men and two women, mostly cousins of the Briarberry clan and a few of them hired men. The harvest was ready and Hollace had hoped to hire a few more hands to bring in the oats and hay but none had come by looking for work.

With the ominous plume of smoke drifting in the distance, they set out on the daily farm routine. Milking, feeding, cleaning, repairing, all of it needed doing and there was little chance for taking time away from it. Unable to keep his mind from it, Hollace finally removed his gloves, tucking them in his belt and left behind the sickle he had been repairing.

“I got a mind to climb up to the watch tower,” he gestured to the ruins of an old signal tower once used by the vanished men of the old kingdom to light beacons against invaders from the north. “See what I can see.”

His father nodded, returning to the task of sharpening another scythe. Hollace left the small homestead and made his way into the hills, the sheep were still afield and hardly looked up, recognizing the man. He left the faint path where it ended at the foot of a steep hill and climbed up to the crumbling stone tower. Old logs still were stacked, or what remained of them. He touched one and it crumbled to sawdust between his fingers. He made a note to restock it, perhaps he would never have reason to light a signal for aid but as things were going, it was better to err on the side of caution. Besides, it seemed wrong somehow to leave the rotting logs there. Hollace peered into the distance, the rolling hills dropping away to flat land, much of it plowed and planted.

There it was, in the direction of Stoneheight, the fire seemed even larger from this vantage point. Like an entire town burning. Hollace felt a trickle of sweat bead down his neck and he looked south toward the farms of Kingsfell but no smoke was seen. His instincts told him that would not last long, if the Greenway Guard had failed, and he hoped it had not, then the ranches and farms of Kingsfell would be next. His own farm was hidden from view, away from the shortest path between the north and Trestlebridge and now he was grateful for it.  

On his return, he saw Ainslie sitting outside with their son at her breast, a blanket draped over her shoulder for modesty. He smiled under his mustache, his green eyes shining with affection for them both, and kissed the crown of her head, inhaling the subtle smell of lavender she washed with. The morning sun lit the gold strands within her thick brown hair and she never looked more beautiful.

A sudden chill hit him, like a wind from the north and he felt the hairs stand on end. If they had to flee or fight, what would become of her? Still weak from a difficult birth and their infant in arms. He huffed a breath, his face suddenly stricken at the thought. He left her there and went to speak to his father.

“You were right, it’s Stoneheight, it could be no other,” Hollace said, rubbing his thumb against his mustache, “It still burns.”

Gatland Fenflower grit his teeth, “If it’s fallen, they’ll run to Kingsfell, the farms have men and weapons and more important, food. But it’s a bad place to defend if it comes to it, nothing but open ground.”

“I’m gonna ride out there, we can’t just sit here and wonder what happened,” Hollace said finally, turning to go inside and change into sturdier clothing. A boiled leather tunic and heavy boots, his long knife on his belt and axe hanging from his hip. When he mounted, Ainslie approached with his spear and handed it to him.

“Probably won’t need it,” he said, not wanting to worry her.

 

The young woman hefted the sleeping infant, her free hand reaching to him, “Better to have it and not need it then the other way. Come home as soon as you can.”

 

Hollace nodded once and took the spear which he could wield with ease when both his feet were on the ground but it felt awkward in the saddle. “I’ll be back by sunset, don’t worry.”


He left without much more of a farewell, riding the sturdy horse southward in the direction of Gatson’s sprawling farm. Even from a distance he could see a number of horses and tents, a large group camping around the farm house. Hollace put his heels to the horse's flanks and cantered toward them.