The north of the Steamlands is covered by a sweeping arc of human influence, reaching from the Spear Capes on the west coast to the Palace Cape on the east, where the human presence begins to wane under the influence of the Machine Minds. South of this arc of influence and west of the Palace Cape is a huge swathe of untamed land, referred to generally as the World Forest. This forest sprawls over mountains and plains, hills and rivers, and constitutes fully half of the landmass of the Steamlands. In the north and west it is dry eucalypt forest, merging with pine on the higher slopes; to the far south it turns to temperate rainforest, also primarily eucalypt, and here the Beastmen roam in what is commonly called the Beastlands. In the deep centre of this huge forest complex are the kingdoms of the elves, an ancient and reclusive race with many secrets, their own pagan gods, and a strange and wild magic that is unfamiliar to the humans of the north. Most believe that the elves and beastmen lived in the Steamlands long before the coming of humans, but this history is not clear, because there are no early records of contact between humans and elves, and it may be that the elves arrived later than humans. Although their sailing technology is primitive, it is noteworthy that the elves of the western coast – perhaps the least understood of all the elves – are remarkably adept at sailing, and have a stock of legends of long journeys that, though little studied by humans, suggest knowledge of events and places that are unknown in the Steamlands but can be dated back thousands of years.
If it is true that the elves came from elsewhere, no one knows where that elsewhere might have been, why they came to the Steamlands, or the relationship between their strange nature gods and the civilized gods of humans. Though congress between the races has improved in recent years, little exchange of cultural knowledge occurs, and it appears that the elves like to keep their secrets fast hidden. Thus, to the majority of humans the elves remain a race of barbaric wild folk, little better than Beastmen. Though explorers and adventurers returning from the World Forest report magnificent and strange cities, and marvels of nature lore and magic, most folk dismiss these tales as fanciful rubbish, and imagine elves as loose bands of tribal savages.
The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Elves are divided loosely into three groups: high elves, who live in the mountains; wood elves, the majority, who populate the deep forests; and low elves, who live on the coast and are expert sailors. The three groups share a language, though they have many dialects, and trade and sometimes make war with each other. The high elves seem to live mostly in small agricultural communities, farming the valleys of the high mountains and fishing on the lakes. The wood elves live in wandering bands that travel around loosely defined territories, living off the land. Low elves have small coastal communities, but spend much of their time living on the open sea, often returning to land only after months at sea. However, both the low elves and the wood elves also maintain metropolises: the cities of the low elves form at sea for brief, defined periods, as the boats of many small communities come together for festivals of marriage, diplomacy and trade. The wood elves maintain permanent cities in the deepest, oldest parts of the forest, carved out of the wilderness and growing as part of it. These cities are often nearly empty, and populated on a seasonal basis as the wandering bands return from their travels. Different bands seem to maintain different, regular patterns of migration and return, but the rules governing these nomadic cycles are unclear to outsiders – whether they are religious, seasonal, or cultural is impossible to say. Because elves live longer than humans, and do not construct their lives around standard seasonal patterns, they seem to maintain longer cycles in their lives – so every 10 or 30 years the cycles of a large number of bands will synchronize, and the cities will become festivals of glorious noise and colour.
At all times elven cities will be occupied by travelers, diplomats, the elderly and the very young, as well as members of other communities at rest or play. They are also home to non-elven forest residents: centaurs, fauns, and a range of fey folk can be found in most elven cities. They also maintain strange colleges of magic and religion, shrines, and their unique agricultural and biological institutes, which fashion new and weird crops and make mysterious creations out of the stuff of life. In the World Forest, what is natural and what is created can be impossible for outsiders to distinguish, and it is not known whether the forest shaped the elves, or the elves the forest.
Elves can be remarkably diverse in appearance, with skin ranging from deep black through the palest white tinted with pale blue, green or copper hues. Their hair is usually black or blond. Universally they are small and slight of build, with delicate bone structures and exaggerated facial features – large, non-human eyes, oversized but delicate ears, and remarkable cheekbones. Their eyes usually show very little white, and can appear strangely non-sentient with their unblinking gaze. Their voices are remarkably powerful, with a wide vocal range and strange ability to project sound beyond the limits of their frame. They also have remarkable hearing, but it is easily confused by the mess of sounds in a human city – they can only employ their senses well when they are in the wilderness. Elves live perhaps three or four times the length of time of humans, and it is not clear if they are mammals. Males and females are indistinguishable, and their is no extant record of childbirth. Some suggest they are a mature (or immature) form of fey life – just an ephemeral stage in the fairy cycle – while others have suggested that they can reproduce asexually or sexually. More extreme theories also exist – that the elves produce children collectively through their will, which is why they have to gather in cities periodically; or that they are a static race incapable of producing new members of their kind. There is no record of the existence of a half elf, and dark rumours amongst those close to the elves that miscegenation of this kind is seen as abominable. The elves are also deeply resistant to the human religions, maintaining their own strange pagan worship against all reasonable evidence that it is worthless under the gaze of Sigmar.
The elves of the Steamlands are a strange, magical race that cannot ever be fully understood or accepted by humans. Nonetheless, their adventurers and traders travel amongst the humans of the Steamlands, cause little harm and, though not widely trusted, are usually accepted with good grace. Though many humans think a time will come when there is a reckoning between the races, and many humans see elves as inferior and barbaric, they are tolerated or accepted in most places. Whether the suspicions of their darker purpose will be proven true is a matter that only time will tell; and the truth of their past and their strange, alien culture is something that can only be discovered by the hardiest and most persistent of adventurers …
fn1: somewhat like the annual democratic meeting of the old Icelanders.