Grim decides to wait in Newport for a few more days, hoping that Remina might appear. Willis, Rinjiminee and Cedrick decide to leave the city though and ride back up river towards Himartys once more. The journey is uneventful until the fifth night when they stay with Enshaw Marrowman. He talks of the Great Burning around two weeks ago. Off in the distance, near sunset, the villagers saw the clouds lit from beneath as if a great fire raged. Fearing that it might come head towards the village, they watched all night but it strangely died down midway through the night. In the morning, Enshaw and a few others went to have a look. They found a large scorch mark across the slope of one hill. Curiously, it was twenty feet wide and reached the entire length of the slope. Enshaw has never seen a wild fire be so contained before. They usually spread quickly and cover vast distances before dying out.
In the morning, the group decide to have a look at this scorch mark. It takes a couple of hours following Enshaw’s directions to reach the mark. It was as Enshaw described. The grass burnt to a cinder and blackened earth beneath. Searching the area, it’s not hard to notice that it is covered in Orc trails. There is also horse dung near the bottom of the slope, which they estimate to be about two weeks old. Willis, examining the next hill over, turns back and notices the scorch mark is actually curved slightly with the centre being towards the bottom of the slope. The time scale would be about right for Remina and the Devlan youths. The party tries to follow the horse trails leading north-east away from the area but they disappear into a forest and they are not skilled enough to follow.
After the next night, the road turns away from the Dragor River and heads north towards Himartys. The group continue eastwards. racks are frequent to begin with but slowly fade away over the next couple of days, as do the farmsteads. The wilderness finally takes over but travel is still easy over the plains where the grass has still to grow. On the third day, they are aware of the land turning black in the distance. The infamous Barren Lands.
As the group travels east, they come across a glade that seems peaceful and tranquil. It’s completely at odds with the surrounding barren lands. Exploring the come upon an ancient Varanganni. He invites them to stay and share his fire and food. The Varanganni introduces himself as Koder Boretill. It’s a name that Cedrick vaguley recognises but can’t quite place it.
Koder isn’t too concerned about the number of Orcs and Goblins that are now populating the area. He explains that they stay away from this vale, which has been his home for decades. As a consequence, he knows nothing of recent events and doesn’t seem to care much. He likes this peacefulness and solitude to ruminate over what he has lost.
I fought the Dantha e’Tan and the Humans in the Blane for three years with mixed success before I found the horn. I thought I’d encountered a power to aid us. It brought union and cohesion to our force at first. It made us a better fighting unit than any other in these islands. But the longer it was used in the army, the more out of control and violent they got. We leaders lost control and the army went on the rampage. Thankfully, the plague struck. Who knows what would have happened if the army had kept together. The Horn was lost in the chaos. I did steal a glowing gem from the Dantha e’Tan camp. A strange gem. With that in my possession over time I came to understand great wisdom and knowledge about the world. I lost the gem too, a century ago. That knowledge and wisdom faded. Knowing what I had lost I left behind the wars. They seemed so trivial and meaningless. I’ve been a recluse ever since.
After concluding his tale, the group ask him about the east of the island. Kodor explains that when he last visited there it was much the same as the west of the island. Villages, towns and cities. He heard from some in his army of a vast underground city there too but he doesn’t know if that truly exists. He suggests that if the group plan to travel across the Barren Lands, they will likely come across an Ardeleanu caravan. They frequently travel across the hostile terrain.
He goes on to explain. They are believed to be kin to the Varanganni but are shorter, not much taller than the Bin’Eria. They are peaceful and shun violence of any kind save what they need to kill for meat. They have bright coloured wagons pulled by teams of ponies. They should stand out against the blackness of the Barren Lands. They are friendly enough if you show no hostility to them. Keep your hands away from your weapons – hide them if you can but I guess that’s not always possible.
The group have a couple of skirmishes with Orcish bands. They are heading east in small parties. This gives the impression that they are looking for something or someone.
Two days into the Barren Lands, as the day draws to a close a skeletal forest ahead. Trees long dead with bare branches and long grey trunks pointing skyward. Suddenly three large dogs burst from the trees heading directly towards the group. They stop about halfway and start growling. Willis attempts to growl back while Cedrick attempts to approach them. Rinjiminee waits for a moment pondering why there are dogs here. A call from within the forest, makes the dogs turn and run back into the trees. Believing there to be a camp in there, the three adventurers follow.
In amongst the trees ahead, they spy brightly coloured wagons, contrasting against the grey and black of the landscape around them. The colours clash garishly and almost make the eyes hurt. The wagons turn out to be small houses on wheels. The Ardeleanu go about their business, washing clothes, mending tools and preparing the evening meal. They are taller than the Bin’Eria but smaller than the Varanganni. The adult males have close clipped beards and all have overly large noses and a yellowish tint to their skin. Their clothing even more garish than their wagons. The soft music of flutes and fiddles picks up and some Ardeleanu start dancing.
The group approaches and the music stops, all eyes turning to them. A wiry woman steps forward, her hair grey and cut short. She gives a bow and says “You are welcome by our fires. Do you know the song?” Willis apologies that they do not know the song but the fire would be welcome. Rinjiminee offers his thanks too. The woman introduces herself as Raynia and her husband as Alin.
The adventurers travel with the Ardeleanu for the next week or so as they cross the Barren Lands. They learn something about the people they travel with. Rinjiminee picks up an admirer in a young woman named Mara. They dance together most evenings.
The Ardeleanu follow the Way of the Qilin. The Qilin, as explained to them, lives its appointed time and does not struggle against the wind. Qilin do no harm and so it should be with all Women. and Men. No one should harm another for any reason whatsoever. It always better to run away and hide. Violence harms the one that does it as much as it harms the victim.
Asking about the Qilin, the group learns that is a peaceful creature from the grassy plains far to the east. It has a flattened lizardlike head, a mane that grows upwards and a beard from its chin. It has antlers like a deer and scales like a fish. It appears at the passing of a great sage, surrounded by fire – the symbol of rebirth.
Raynia has a certain respect for Koder, when asked about the Varanganni. He still carries much anger and violence but his seclusion and contemplation is having an affect as he struggles to find his inner peace.
One evening, after the evening meal, Raynia tells them a story:
Have you heard of the Jinn? The live in the lands far to the east. Very few people are permitted to cross their lands. Storytellers, peddlars, the Ardeleanu are amongst the few. They are a warrior people and often have little to do with us, avoiding our caravans, though many have tried to talk to them. It is a coming of age ritual of theirs, for those approaching adulthood to travel into the dark lands. They test their skills as warriors against the Orcs and Goblins.
A couple of years ago a caravan of our people came across such a band. A young woman of the Jinn approached the caravan, dragging herself near death to the camp. She refused all help and offers of healing. Her companions were found nearby, all dead and lying in amongst three times their number in Orcs.
The survivor only desired to pass on a message, ‘Leafblighter means to blind the Eye of the World, Lost One. He means to slay the Dragon. Warn the People, Lost One. Sightburner comes. Tell them to stand ready for He Who Comes With the Dawn. Tell them…’
Those that have heard the tale have puzzled over it. Leafblighter and Sightburner are the Jinn names for the Taint, while Lost Ones are the what the Jinn call the Ardeleanu. None know who He Who Comes With the Dawn is, or how the Dragon is going to be slain.
Once across the Barren Lands, the Ardeleanu turn south but direct Willis, Cedrick and Rinjiminee towards the nearest town. Upon arriving, as they head through the town to find a suitable inn, the group stop short. Ahead, almost invisible, is a shadowy figure with burning eyes hidden in the shadows. They only notice as a man is talking to the creature. Rinjiminee attempts to lip-read but can only make sense of the man saying “… will keep watch for them. I’ll tell the others.” With that the man wanders off and the shadowy figure retreats deeper into the darkness and vanishes.