Heroes of the Vale
Ruined keeps, burned-out watch towers, and occasional abandoned farmsteads dot the backlands of Elsir Vale and the area around Lake Rhestin, reminders of the fallen kingdom of Rhestilor. Even older ruins can be found here and there, dating back to the old dwarf-realm or the druidic human folk.
Lake Rhestin’s eastern shore is hard to define, because the lake gradually gives way to the vast wetland known as the Blackfens. The Blackfens tend to be marsh, rather than swamp – that is, most of the landscape is a treeless maze of open water, reeds, and wet, grassy flats that shelter countless waterfowl. Isolated hummocks or islets in the marsh are covered with dense brush or forest. In the days of Rhestilor the marsh was much smaller, its spread controlled through the locks and canals, but it has grown steadily since the kingdom’s dissolution. Half-drowned farmhouses, dilapidated barns and sheds, and sinking fieldstone fences tell the tale of settled lands slowly inundated and abandoned.
The population of monstrous denizens is slowly on the rise in the Blackfens, but their growth is stunted by the constant vigilance of several small groups of wild elves known collectively as the Tiri Kitor. These elves were the caretakers of the swampland before the rise of Rhest, and they still fulfill their charge centuries after Rhest’s fall. Now that their ancestral lands have increased so dramatically in size, they are slowly expanding their boarders and strength.
About 20 miles north of Skull Gorge, the Dawn Way splits into the Old North Road, which leads up along the western shores of Lake Rhestin to the Endless Plains and the cities to the north, and the Dwarfroad, which climbs through the Wyrmsmoke Mountains to the lands of the west. Once this road was the preferred route for caravans traveling east-west, but the growing presence of savage tribes and hungry monsters in the Wyrmsmokes led to the Dwarfroad being all but abandoned. Most travelers follow a battered cart-track that parallels it 30 miles farther north or take their chances on a track skirting the Thornwaste to the south, steering clear of the goblin-infested mountains.
The major river of the region is the Elsir, a broad but slow-moving stream fed by a number of tributaries. For most of its length, the Elsir averages 200 to 400 yards in width, reaching the depths of 20 to 40 feet in the middle of its channel. The small town of Elsircross, about 150 miles upstream of Brindol, is the first place where it can be forded, although a wooden bridge spans the river at Brindol and ferries it at Talar and Drellin’s Ferry.
North of the mountains at the edge of Elsir Vale lies a great windblown sea of dry grass, stretching for hundreds of miles east, north, and west. The plains aren’t truly featureless; the land has a fair amount of rise and fall, and low-lying creek beds choked up with undergrowth and briers cut deep gullies through the grassland. Lonely stands of tall, hardy trees dot the savannah-land. Nomadic human barbarians, tribes of gnolls, and bands of wild centaurs roam the Endless Plains.
Sheltering Elsir Vale from the harsh weather of the Endless Plains, the Giantshield Mountains are a low range of arid, well-weathered peaks. The northern slopes are barren, dry, and rocky, home to a variety of dangerous monsters. The southern slopes are a little more hospitable, covered in light pine forest and cut by the gorges of many small seasonal streams. A smattering of isolated farms and steadings hidden throughout the southwest portion of the range represent the last remnants of the druidic folk who once lived throughout the vale.
East of Elsir Vale lies a vast, arid steppeland that quickly gives way to rocky desert. In the vicinity of Dennovar the Golden Plains are dry, flat grassland, but within a few dozen miles the grass gives way to a rock-littered badland of flats and mesas, a waterless and inhospitable wilderness posing a formidable trial for the trade caravans following the Dawn Way.
This shallow, marshy lake stretches almost 100 miles from north to south. Once its shores were dotted with the villages and manors of Rhestilor, but the centuries since the kingdom’s fall, humans have largely abandoned the old heartland of the realm.
Climbing the southern foothills of the Giantshield Mountains, Marth Forest is a rugged, wild woodland rarely trodden by human feet except in its southwestern fringes. In its lower reaches, the forest is dotted with the old barrows and stone circles of the ancient druidic folk who once dominated the vale. The higher parts are home to human barbarian tribes – disorganized clutches of feral berserkers rarely encountered outside the woods.
South of the Wyrmsmoke Mountains lies a vast barren land known as the Thornwaste. A maze of broken hills, briar-choked ravines, and dry, dusty scrubland, these badlands give way to larger and larger stretches of desert as one goes further south and west. The Thornwaste has long been the haunt of lions, hieracosphinxes, and other hungry monsters. The ruins of a lost serpent-empire thousands of years ago still lie hidden in this wasteland.
Several xenophobic tribes of wild elves dwell in the depths of this dense forest, avoiding contact with most other folk. The elves of the Blackfens once counted themselves among these folk, but centuries ago they broke ties with the Westdeep elves and struck out to the east, eventually settling in the Blackfens.
Generally held to be haunted by the restless spirits of the ancient human druidic folk who once dwelled here, the Witchwood is a lush, wet woodland with interspersed with swampy stretches in the vicinity of the larger rivers.
Several volcanic peaks gave this rugged range of hills and low mountains its name; travelers who observed the plumes of ash and smoke that sometimes arose from the inner hills believed that a great red dragon was responsible for the fuming hills.
South of Elsir Vale lie the Wyvernwatch Mountains, a forbidding range of high, steep mountains with few passes leading to the other side. The Wyvernwatches divide Elsir Vale from more densely populated and civilized realms of the southern coast. Only the most determined trekkers cross the range; most go hundreds of miles out of their way by circling east or west around the mountains before turning north.