The next day, the elves finally reach the outskirts of the thriving human settlement of South Tower. There is indeed a multistory keep towering over the other buildings, a far more impressive one than Gumreddoc’s description of the original Southern Outpost. It is also much better maintained than the keep in the Foul Fen. At the top of the tower flutters a triangular red flag, a much larger version of the one Tilyn set out this morning. Around the tower are streets and streets of buildings, but the elves cannot see much more than the roofs of those because there is an actual wall around the settlement. Here on the exterior, there are also a variety of minor structures. Not so many are on the eastern side from which Tric and Heppa approach because that land is thinly populated with just farms. As far as Wesnoth business goes, this is not a main route in. They can see a true road coming in from the north, presumably leading to the Northern Outpost, and there is a good deal of activity on the side facing the River Weldyn.
“Serious business,” Tric murmurs, looking out at the boats tied at the docks along the river. As for the structures, some appear to be simple homes. There is an actual line for entering the city. Some merchant wagons are in that line, but others are set up with awnings stretched out in front of them, pop-up shops to attract the money of new arrivals.
The elves hear one merchant hawking cool drinks to soothe those waiting in line. Hepalonia gasps and turns excitedly to her cousin. “We could have done that with the crystal!”
Tric Manu agrees that having a cold drink whenever one wants is indeed powerful. “Too bad you gave it to your dad.”
Heppa shrugs. She may no longer have the ice crystal, but she still likes thinking of other things she could do with it. And they will be back in their home village eventually; she can try it out then.
Hepalonia and her cousin are the only non-humans around. A variety of humans populate the line in front of them. In her experience, elves—other than Tric Manu—are pale with light blond hair. These humans, though, have skin tones ranging from dark brown to tan to olive to pink. Their hair is similarly a wide array of colors, though Heppa notes that she only sees about half of the rainbow. In addition to black, brown, white, and gray, there are yellows, oranges, and reds, but she sees no blues, greens, or purples. Shockingly, there are even some humans with no hair. Hepalonia had thought maybe variations in hair color were related to age, but now it seems there are even more factors than just that. As Tric Manu slowly shuffles them forward in the line, she looks around, taking it all in: humans of all ages, shapes, and pigmentations. She has a grand time.
Tric, meanwhile, chats with the person in front of them in the line. “Excuse me,” he begins, “we’re emissaries of the Estbryn Forest, a notable community of elves, over that way.” He throws his arm out towards the track they came in along. “We heard good things about the Full Bloom Festival. I believe it starts in a couple days? The moon is pretty close to full.”
The person shakes his head in annoyance. “Yeah, I know. It clutters up all the streets and brings in all these outsiders. I have to wait in line even just to get my bags of oats into the market. It’s ridiculous!”
Given the grumpy response, Tric lets that conversation drop. The fellow’s disgruntlement reminds Tric that Merriver, too, must be disgruntled about something, given all the arms she is buying. He ponders that situation for a bit. A human uprising could be interesting. It would certainly be fodder for future stories. He kind of hopes it will happen while he and Heppa are around to observe it.
Eventually they reach the front of the line at the gated entrance to the city. Two guards with metal helms and short spears are on duty, and triangular red pennants hang behind their posts. The spearman on the left is dealing with the grumpy oat farmer. The guard on the right gestures Tric and Heppa forward and then does a double-take. “Whoa! Elves! We haven’t had elves come to our city in quite a while.”
“From our perspective, it hasn’t been that long,” Tric replies.
“Are you from the Great Forest? From Wesmere? The, uh… what is that southern one called? The Aethenwood?” Tric lets the man keep guessing, hoping that he will hit on the closest elvish settlement to this spot, but Heppa interrupts politely before he gets it right.
“Oh, we’re from the Estbryn Forest,” she says.
“I’m not familiar with that one. Where’s that forest?”
Tric is so tempted to make their home into an exotically distant location, but he reins himself in. A bit. “It is nearby,” he admits, “but it is a closely guarded secret of the elves, Estbryn Forest. And it is closer than you might think.” He turns, sweeping an arm broadly. “You can barely make out a tree far off in the hills that way. That is just the very edges of what you might call the Estbryn Forest. But! The forest itself is not just the trees. It is the roots as well, so it reaches deep into the ground.” Tric rambles on a bit more about the water that flows in and out of the forest.
When Tric Manu finally winds down, Hepalonia tells the guard, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. We look forward to entering and seeing your fine city.”
The other guard lets his charge through the archway and turns to see who his comrade is dealing with. “I’ve never seen an elf looking like you before,” he says to Tric.
“I get that a lot,” Tric replies. He pulls off his elite red headband, making his pointed ears clearly visible. At that point, he realizes something is missing. “My feather is gone! That’s a bummer.” He knows for sure he had it this morning when they left Nasir’s Hideaway. Momentarily distracted, he glances around for the green duck feather.
Since Tric Manu has dropped the conversation, Hepalonia takes advantage of the opportunity to turn it to topics of interest to her. The cousins would certainly benefit from some inside information on the city, like a good place to stay, but that is not what is on her mind right now. “I see that a lot of the people in line here have different hair color, different skin color. I haven’t seen quite so many humans before. Does that have to do with age? Gender?”
The guards laugh. These elves seem pretty dumb and inclined toward self-aggrandizement, but they are kind of cute, in their own way. They tell them that pretty much anyone can have any color hair, but, yes, there is a tendency for it to turn gray or white as people get older. The female elf presses further, wondering if absolutely any color hair is possible, so one of the spearmen clarifies, “No, of course not. Nobody has green hair or blue hair, like grass or water. That would be ridiculous. But orange and red, those are completely normal colors.” With that, they gesture the elves through the archway into the city and turn their attention to the next traveler in line.