It was three days later, near sunset, before Ijah spotted what was most likely the beginning of the Madden Hills. She stopped, drank a bit of her remaining water and ate some dried meat. There had been little to no signs of settlements in the plains alongside the Sudakkar Wasteland. The few homesteads she had come across had been long abandoned, they were little more than a room or two dug down into the earth with some support for an earthen roof. As she had moved further away from the edge of the wasteland there were more plants, a wider variety of birds and sign of other small wild creatures. Earlier that she had come across the tracks of a larger creature, she guessed it was a wyrm as it had walked on four clawed feet and a long tail had left a wavy pattern across the loose sand. She had been unable to read the signs for further clues, after a short distance she had lost the tracks entirely.
With the coming of darkness Ijah laid out her bedroll, wrapped herself in her blanket and sat down with her sword within reach. She fell into a meditative state and conditioned herself to awaken if something or someone approached her camp. Soon she was in a deep trance.
The night passed without incident, a gentle rain drew her out of her reverie. The eastern horizon was showing blue-grey, while a sliver of sun illuminated the higher clouds with a soft glow. She secured her bedding, drank the last of the water she had available and set off southward without delay. Near mid-morning she came to a cart track, it showed signs of recent use; wagons, horses, men and other livestock had all passed this way within the last few days, heading into the Madden Hills. The rain continued throughout the morning, rarely more than a light drizzle.
Early in the afternoon she came to a trio of homesteads of earth and stone, there were a couple of small orchards, grain fields and vegetable gardens. Of livestock she saw two horses, a few cattle, plenty of goats and chickens, as well, a dozen sizable dogs. She saw a couple handfuls of people, a few working at a distant forge, the tap-tap-tap of metal on metal could be clearly heard. At the closest of the homesteads a pair of women and a gaggle of children were gathered around an oven and near the road a trio of youth were working on a stone wall bordering the homestead on the eastern side of the road.
The trio stopped working and regarded her approach. Some of the closer dogs came to investigate, not barking, they came to the edge of the road not far from the youths and sounded off low rumbling growls. Ijah smiled and waved, coming to a stop a good ten paces from the dogs. She sensed no malice from the trio, only open curiosity.
The eldest of the youth, near manhood by the local’s standards came up to the dogs and with a hand signal had them sit, they quieted down. “Good day, my lady. Are you part of the circus?”
“The circus that came through.” He pointed to the tracks on the road.
“No, I’m not part of the circus.”
“They came by a few days back, lots of them. A couple hands of wagons and half a hundred folk of all sort. They should be performing in Upper Madden for another couple of days. If you hurry, you might catch them.”
“Well, I’m heading that way. If I may pass?”
“Oh yeah. It sure isn’t my road, we keep it clean and fill in the holes every spring, but we make no claim and charge no toll. It wouldn’t be proper. We want folks coming by now and then, don’t you know?”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
“We like to trade. Though I see you have nothing much on you.”
“I have coin. I do need some food.”
“Oh yeah. We only trade our food for other food, mostly.”
“I’d give you a silver for a few days food and the use of your well.”
“What kind of silver?”
“GreensBridge, Brisken, Swampdon.”
“You have a lot of silver then.”
Ijah eyed him, wondering if she had said the wrong thing. However, the boy continued, “I’ve never seen a coin from Brisken nor Swampdon.”
“So can I buy some food?”
“No, sorry, that wouldn’t be proper.”
Ijah had just about enough of this, she moved to pass by, remaining calm so as not to upset the dogs. The guy raised a hand, “I mean, we’d give you some food and show you to the well. Come with us, me ma would love to meet you, though I got to warn you, some of the kids might be kind of rude, we don’t see many foreign folks in these parts.”
Ijah looked around the homesteads again, other than some more dogs heading this way, no one else seemed to have paid much attention to her arrival. “Alright, I would be honoured to meet your mother.”
The three youth lead Ijah across the field, seemingly a winter pasture. The other dogs arrived and gave her a curious sniff before bounding off towards the house. She was led around to the back of the sod and stone structure where a woman and two of her older children were busy in the outdoor kitchen. The woman wore her long greying hair up in a tight bun, she wore a stained smock over a faded and patched dress, she had a tough, leathery look about her. Not far from the outdoor kitchen the gaggle of children played in a trampled field, the youngest appeared to be around three years of age, the oldest close to ten. When they spotted Ijah both play and work stopped, then the kids started towards them in excited curiosity. The mother regarded Ijah with a shrewd look for a few moments, ignoring a pair of dogs who were vying for her attention.
“Look ma! We met a traveller in need of food and water.”
“And it took the three of you to bring her to me?” The younger children had nearly reached them and the woman turned and pointed back the way they came from. “You lot, back to your games, you know the kitchen is off limits. You three, that wall is not going to repair itself, back to work.”
After the children had been sent off the older woman regarded Ijah, her hands on her hips, her head tilted to one side, “You seem like you’re a long way from home. Be that as it may, you are welcome.”
“Thank you mother, I’ve coin to pay for supplies.”
“Nonsense, come over here and sit.” She directed Ijah to a large wooden table, cleared a space and waved her to the bench. In short order Ijah had bread, stew and boiled greens. She instructed one of the older children to start some travel bread, made sure Ijah was settled with her food and then went back to the oven and pulled out a number of pies.
“Any news from the road?”
“There were some raiders up near Allark’s Hold. I saw the tracks of what might have been a fair sized wyrm. Not much else of note.”
“Them cursed wyrm keep getting close and closer. In my great grandmother’s time there were none here, but then the orc came down from the north and brought the spawn with them. Some folks, as might know, say the wasteland is crawling with them now.”
“I only saw sign of the one. Though I might have seen a band of orc along the edge of the wasteland.”
“Likely. It’s been that way ever since my grandmother’s time. They typically don’t come out this far, not since my mother was young at any rate. ‘Sides most of them are more man than orc now.”
“Your lands seem fairly open and I see no stronghold, your people must live in fear of the orc and other raiders.”
“Fear? Nah, not so much so. Caution, certainly. Though we’ve dealt with orc before and raiders from Allarks Hold, and the Madden Hills. Occasionally greedy travellers or wild animals. We’ve the dogs and most of the adults know a thing or two about fighting. The only thing we fear is a bad growing season followed by a hard winter. But, as to that, we’ve been fortunate, Promad has blessed us with a score of years where there’s been plenty.”
After she had eaten, one of the older girls took her to the well where she was able to wash and refill her water skin. The girl said little but seemed curious about Ijah and her sword, though she was not forward enough to ask questions. Ijah was surprised to note that the day had turned warm, by her standards at least, while the girl was sweating openly. Ijah was hopeful there would be more days like this, in the areas around Swampdon there had only been a day or two each summer that approached anything close to what Ijah considered warm.
The girl walked Ijah back to the kitchen and her mother, who had wrapped some food for Ijah to take with her, she declined payment and wished Ijah safe travels.
By late afternoon Ijah found herself in hillier terrain, a large, partially collapsed stone tower stood on a hill overlooking the road, a few large trees held a vast murder of crows that croaked and cackled as Ijah walked by.