A little way up the narrow valley, before they reach the woods, the PCs notice the squat, tumbledown buildings by the riverside. They are hardly big enough for a human to stand in, and the complex cogs and shafts that occupy the central cavity of one of the buildings are perplexing. What were these buildings? And how safe are they to explore?
Alternatively a desolate place is the perfect setting for a derelict chapel or croft. There needn't be any actual physical encounter involved, but it adds atmosphere to a place to see its dead history. For instance, in the Outer Hebrides there are whole deserted villages which were razed to the ground by the English during the Clearances. Such stories give a setting authenticity and character.
A revolt or attack happens against a strong city/kingdom. All the losers of the battle that can be captured are brutally crucified along the roads that enter the kingdom to show their strength and as a demonstration of what happens to their enemies. ... a long road, decorated with hundreds of dying crucified soldiers... You see them bleeding, you hear them screaming and whispering for help. Do you really want to enter this reportedly peaceful kingdom?