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The high fantasy world I'm building is loosely based on 10th-century Scotland, under threat by Viking-type raiders. There's a small group of not-Scots with supernatural gifts that an ambitious chief of not-Iceland would particularly like to get his hands on for his own power-hungry purposes, so the gifted folk have built a secret community in a fertile but difficult-to-access highland valley to hide from him and his goons. They leave the valley seasonally and take a boat downriver to trade goods, so they aren't totally isolated, but they don't tell anyone where they come from.

What conditions could I introduce to the entrance or surroundings of a valley capable of growing enough crops to feed <50 people and an appropriate number of livestock that would make it extremely difficult or impossible for strangers to find the place unless someone shows them the way?

My best idea so far is that the valley is accessed through a narrow, rocky pass that's hard to see from the outside, which could be further concealed with brush and other obstacles. There's also one gifted villager who can alter what other people see, so he could deliberately conceal the entrance if he knew enemies were looking for it -- but I think it's a bit much to propose that he could do so without conscious thought and effort, so I'm hoping for a plausible way to hide the valley that doesn't require supernatural intervention 24/7.

Any ideas?

ETA: I don't need the valley to stay safe from the raiders - in fact they're destined to find it eventually. I just want to explain why they can't find it unaided even once they start looking, and need somebody on the inside to lead them (inadvertently or deliberately) to the entrance.

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    $\begingroup$ Just an observation: in the real 10th century there were no overseas raiders capable of raiding a hard-to-access small valley in the mountains not immediately near the sea, especially if the locals were willing to put up a modest fight. (OK, there were no such raiders who could conceivably raid Albany, as people called Scotland in those times. Maybe the situation was different in the Far East, I just don't know.) In the real world the entire issue would be a non-problem. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 11, 2020 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP In the IX and X centuries Saracens attacked also inland targets. E.g. In 898 the Abbey of Farfa was sacked and burned to the ground. In 905, the monastery was again attacked and destroyed by "Saracens". It's located about 40km inland to the North East of Rome. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2020 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP The Vikings were also able to navigate up rivers with their shallow-bottomed boats and attack inland villages that would otherwise have been safe from raiding. So given that there's a river flowing out of the mountains which the villagers use as transport for their trading runs, it's not inconceivable if they're sufficiently motivated... $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2020 at 22:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Synaesthete: The question says that the valley is "difficult to access". A valley with a navigable river is not difficult to access. (And in 898 the "Saracens" were the mighty Arab Empire, which was at war with the Roman empire, and winning. The navy of a great empire is not a band of raiders.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 11, 2020 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP The hidden valley itself doesn't have a navigable river, but the river becomes navigable some miles downstream. So the raiders would have to leave their boat and travel a fair distance on foot, which wasn't common practice for Viking raids but would make sense in the particular scenario I'm building. $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 2:10

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There is no (direct) passage. They climb.

Your 'valley' is actually the caldera of a volcano that went inactive eras ago. There was enough time to build soil and it is minerally rich, hence fertile. Rain gathered in the caldera and there is a nice little lake at its center. Water flows away by underground streams. There is no direct passage to access the crater

Your smart not-Scots have found a way though (maybe someone had a vison?).
The outside of the crater has a forest. If you climb high enough on a tall fir growing close to the outer side of the crater you can reach a natural terrace from where you can easily pass to the inner side.
With time they have improved the way with well camouflaged wooden walkways and ladders. They have also installed a pulley system to lift and lower the goods they want to carry with them. Elderly people can safely use them too.
Of all the outside trees only that fir allows a way into the steep crater.

You also mention livestock. It's possible to bring in only small animals. But of course some could be brought in when sitll young and grown inside (like piglets). Horses and cows would not be suitable.

Imagine something like this but with a thick forest around and inside the crater and a small lake at the center. And no taller mountains around to have a view of the inside of the crater.

Koko crater

Volcanic craters

Edit: Upon thinking about it I think a fir tree is not adequate (the branches would hardly carry anyone). I suggest instead beech, because am partial to it. But oak is fine too.

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    $\begingroup$ If you want to have potable water, just make the only outlet a waterfall. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 11, 2020 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ I'll give that some serious thought for sure, thank you! Though at one point I need one of the young villagers to get a wounded (and heavy) fellow villager back into the valley, and climbing a tree or even a ladder wouldn't be a viable option... level (or at least ground) access would be better if there were a way. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2020 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Synaesthete but that is an opportunity! not a problem. What would you like to have: "I will bring my friend back through the usual (boring) way" or "How in the gods name will I manage to bring back my friend??!" Dramatic opportunity. Just depends on how you want to handle this: more realistic or more 'special powers driven'? Maybe there is this girl he had a big quarrel with who has this weird special power of talking to the trees.... imagine the scene of the tree branches lifting the wounded body gently, branch after branch in a dreamy like scene... (continued) $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2020 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ If you can bring up an elderly person via a lift with pulleys, you can just as well bring up a colt or a calf (most likely tied down). $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Biosthezerg considering the weight yes. Passing through the branches would be more tricky. But not impossible. But once on the cliff you would still have a hard time with a calf. Anyway it's up to the OP $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 23:07
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Social engineering

Pose as poor, tattered wood-dwellers. Use your guy who can alter what people see to make them look scrawny and ill-fed. It limits your ability to buy and sell unless you do it secretly with trusted merchants who won't betray to traveling strangers that those "poor" buy quite a bit -- but then, it's hard to get things back, so they would limit outside purchases anyway.

Vikings aimed their raids at rich locations. Cities. Monasteries. They would time them for festivals in order to maximize their haul of slaves for capture. The point of this is to make them think "slim pickings."

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  • $\begingroup$ Though in this case the "Vikings" wouldn't care how scrawny or ill-fed their targets were, as their supernatural gifts are the desirable commodity rather than anything else. But in another context that would be useful for sure! $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2020 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Synaesthete That's one of the things you have to hide. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Sep 14, 2020 at 21:37
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To stick with your narrow, rocky pass idea, you could block off the pass. If you have someone who can move rocks easily, you could set up a barricade or make the pass look (if you'll pardon the wordplay) completely impassable. This would bring any would-be invaders to an impasse. This would work especially well if they only need to leave infrequently. If they leave once a year for trading, you wouldn't even need anyone with special gifts to do it---you could just have everyone work together to clear the pass, leave the person who can conceal the opening as a guard, and then have everyone seal it up again when they return. You could do that even if they leave more frequently, but it seems like a lot of effort to go to on a regular basis.

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Surround the village with a forest of highly poisonous plants like Heracleum sosnowskyi. I know there is no such thing in Scotland, but it could be. Any warrior in medieval armor will get terrible burns if they'll try to go through debris.

And there can be a secret tunnel (or even trench) that leads to the village. Or maybe once per year villagers put on some special closed clothing (like plague doctors) and carefully chop passage through the forest.

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  • $\begingroup$ Secret tunnel, through the mountains? Hmm, sounds pleasingly familiar... :D Thanks for the plant idea, though, I likely won't use it in this particular setting but it's a great concept to keep in mind! $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2020 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking about passage like this istockphoto.com/photo/… should be really hard to find if you don't know where it is. $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2020 at 11:08
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Crypt.

crypt

https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jadol

There are ruins up on the mountain. They were there when the first settlers came to the lands below. The ruins extend back into the mountain, merging with natural caves. It is easy to get lost in the caves. They were built to make it easy to get lost. In some parts of the caves there may be other things.

Your hidden people know the route. They are descended from the ancients who built the ruins originally. You can traverse the cave systems and emerge into the light on the far side if you know what you are doing. There are patterns etched into the wall so you can go through in the dark with one hand on the wall. These patterns don't look like much by torchlight.

The raiders are afraid to go into the cave and rightly so. They try once and then back out. Then they catch a child and make her lead them through the cave. Of course the builders expected this and the child falls down a hole, deep in the cave. The raiders are not sure if this was an accident or a planned escape route. They don't want to follow her.

This would be fun to write. The ruins and cave will be exciting and scary. Perhaps a few raiders make it through. They probably will not have much fight left in them. When the girl makes it thru first and lets the people know who is coming (maybe), these survivors could be met with psychically augmented super creepy finale. They then wake up by the river, to return and tell the story.

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    $\begingroup$ Just the thought there could be spiders in there would stop anyone with an ounce of good sense! ^.^ $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ Hidden in plain sight, love this! $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ This would certainly make an excellent story, even if not suitable for the one I'm writing! $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2020 at 21:42
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Consider the Debre Damo monastery

the Debre Damo Monastery is located on a flat-top mountain and can only be accessed by rope lowered from someone above. The monastery is self-sufficient, growing its own crops, etc., for about 300 people.

But would this stop a raiding party?

Nope.

While the difficulty accessing Debre Damo is legendary, the reality is that a good free-style rock climber could get on top without a lot of trouble. Your valley has the same issue. A good climber can climb any slope, any cliff, anywhere along the circumference of the valley, then lower a rope for everyone else. There is no such thing as "impenetrable" in any believable way.

And all it would take is one enterprising person wondering, "huh, where'd those dudes come from?" to follow them and discover the hidden trail. It would take a LOT of concerted effort to keep the secret if people are leaving the valley for any reason.

Finally, keep in mind that the harder you make it for a raiding party to discover or get to the valley, the harder it is for the people living in the valley to leave it (and get back).

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    $\begingroup$ probably the key is to keep hidden the notion there is anything interesting in the area. A heavily forested mountain would not attract attention from raiding parties. Of course the villagers must be wary with campfire smokes. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2020 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ @DuncanDrake you're right. Given the tech level, the only chance is to minimize any need to leave the valley. Any trace or trail back could (and eventually would) be used against the settlement. Europe's 100-year-war is, if I recall correctly, a good example. Semi-independent groups of militia hunted for every valley where a community might be housed. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 14, 2020 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Good points! This whole discussion has been a good education in how to frame a worldbuilding question, as I now realize I should have specified that this is backstory for my main characters who are now in a different location, and that the "hidden valley" IS destined to be found eventually. I just didn't want it to be possible (or likely, anyway) without one of the villagers inadvertently or deliberately betraying the secret entrance to their enemies... which is exactly what happens in the story. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2020 at 21:35
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Use a decoy road

The real Scotland is big and wild. Even the invading Romans were unable to conquer it. In fact they built a wall to keep the Scots out of the rest of Britain!

Build a nice road that bypasses your people's encampment. Make it look old and little used. Make sure that there are no paths leading from it to the hideaway. Instruct your people never to use the same path twice so as not to wear a track. Definitely tell them not to use the road, except annually when heading to the river. There aren't many of them so their annual passage will just help keep the weeds down.

The invaders will be grateful for the existence of a road, however worn, and will just see the usual mountains around them that are ubiquitous in this sparsely populated land. They will march past without a second glance. They will assume that the road leads somewhere important that is worth looting.

Ideally a fresh water spring crosses the road so the invaders will have no reason to search for water in that vicinity. If you are really nasty, always leave a dead sheep in the water upstream of the road. This will make travellers very ill but only after a delay. They will not want to go back to somewhere with bad water.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some helpful thoughts here re being careful not to use the same trail too often when they leave the valley, which I will keep in mind - thanks. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2020 at 21:37
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Pretend to be raiders of another - even more violent gang marking your territory. Strip your dead, put the on poles to rot, let the sound of the tortured echo down the canyon, make a huge charade and ocassionally send patrols out to hunt for the "weaker" gangs - if you run out of farm labour.

Turns out that engaging in gang wars - is not actually a substainable buisness.

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  • $\begingroup$ no, op please dont do that because its a stupid idea that apperas to be the opposite of what you want op $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Sep 11, 2020 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't call it a stupid idea as I could see it working in a different story, but it's more suited to a Mad Max-type environment than the one I'm building in this book! $\endgroup$ Sep 12, 2020 at 2:11

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