Previous events are described in the story Yalinea - Tree Shaper. It's only very loosely tied to the events in the story below.
House Under Leaf
Home sweet home
“Next stop, Emerald Hill.”
As the words were broadcast over the crackling old PA silence spread among the passengers on the subway. Conversation ceased or became hushed and people looked furtively at each other.
Yalinea had kept to herself; quiet and with the hood up no one had paid her any attention. Now, as she stood up, all eyes turned to her and they all knew. Humans never stepped off alone at Emerald Hill. If they had business in the area they would come in pairs or they’d step off at the next stop before or after. It wasn’t that it was dangerous for them, the elves weren’t hostile and wouldn’t hurt them; it just wasn’t done.
She felt their eyes on her, or imagined she did. As she walked to the door she kept her head high and her back straight. She avoided looking at or making eye contact with anyone but she tried to stand tall and walk with confidence. She was an elf and she wasn’t afraid of them. This was her stop in her hometown and she had as much right as anyone else to live here and get off the train wherever she pleased.
The humans weren’t hostile, not like the one who’d been starring at her when she got on the train back to town earlier this morning. That one had been scary. These ones were normal. Their looks and stares were ones of suspicion and sometimes aversion, but not outright hostility.
Yalinea waited by the door, studying her reflection in the window as the dark tunnel slid by outside. With the hood covering her ears and shades covering her eyes she looked almost human - almost, but not quite. Unless they knew what to look for most humans glancing her way would take her for a fashionable young human in her early twenties. A closer look would reveal that her hair was more green than blond and that the angles in her face were too sharp to be human. These were details that were easy to notice for anyone who took the time to look, but if you kept your head down and walked quickly no one did. She’d not had any trouble from anyone on her way home.
“Emerald Hill. Mind the gap.”
The PA crackled again and the door opened. The platform was empty in front of her and after she left, no one stepped on, at least not in this car. Yalinea could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the other passengers as the doors shut behind her and the trail rattled off into the tunnel. Then again, it might have been her imagination.
It was good to be back in her part of town. Yesterday had been a long day and she’d had to spend the night away from home. Whether to make the trip back to Emerald Hill alone or not had been a tough decision but now, after getting off the train, she felt she’d made the right choice. Evenings on the town brought out the worst in the humans and though she probably would have gotten home safely on her own, it wouldn’t have been pleasant.
Be that as it may, she was home now and that was what mattered. She’d stepped off at her own stop and was just a few minutes walk from the door to her own house. She’d be surrounded by her own kin, could let her ears out and remove the shades and not have to worry about the starring eyes of humans.
Emerald Hill was the elvenhome part of Kul Viller and it took its name from the big green hill that rose in the center of the area. Over the years the elvenhome had expanded outwardly to encompass surrounding quarters, but it was only buildings on the hill itself and the houses on the street circling it that were done the elven way. In the quarters nearby, elves lived in human style flats and apartments; all dull colors and right angles.
She walked up the stairs and out into a light morning rain. It had started as she stepped on the first train an hour earlier and was still falling, slowly and quietly. There was no wind to speak of and the sky was a pale but uniform grey. It would rain for hours. Yalinea had a pretty good idea of how she’d spend her day – in her tree by her house.
Outside the subway she stepped off the path and out onto the unmowed lawn. She took off her shades and put them in her bag. She kicked off her sandals and let the wet grass tickle her bare feet.
Last of all she tilted her head up and pulled back the hood, letting the rain hit her full in the face. As the first drops landed on her ears a small shiver of pleasure shot down her back and she smiled blissfully. Moments like these were what it was all about - when she could emerge from the dark of the subway and emerge from the twilight of her shades and emerge from within the confines of her hood to stand in the tall grass and face the world and the rain as herself, without hiding.
The moment passed, as it must. The first few drops were joined by countless others and she started walking up the hill. She pondered getting something to eat but she’d had a sandwich from a vending machine when changing trains at the Grand Central earlier and she wasn’t very hungry. There was food in the fridge back home anyway.
So Yalinea crossed the cobbled road and went through the opening in the little wall that circled the Hill. Originally it had been called Emerald Hill, still was in fact, but that was also the name of the entire area and these days the hill itself was just referred to as the Hill, by elf and human alike.
It was wild and unkempt in a way Yalinea had first found unsettling but which she’d eventually come to appreciate. It was a comfortable contrast to the straight and orderly lines of the human city outside. Duvanelle had explained at some point that it was the traditional way of elves in this corner of the world, to let nature roam free and to meld with it instead of shaping it around you.
The Hill was the epitome of this philosophy. Little buildings were spread out all over the place, snuggling up next to old trees or digging themselves in between rocks and bushes. Some were very old. Elves had lived here for thousands of years, and while most dwellings were more recent than that great care had been taken to preserve the nature of the hill itself.
Yalinea was fortunate to have made herself a home there, even if her place was small and near the bottom. The Hill was where the eldest and their kin had their homes and living in a house on the Hill was a mark of high social standing among the elves. Yalinea was young, barely eight hundred years old but as a journeyman tree shaper her position on the social ladder was a rung or two above others her age. Even then she was fairly close to the bottom and by all rights she should have been staying in one of the apartment complexes circling the Hill. She had ancestry though; one of her great grandmothers had been with the tribe who originally settled the area, back before the Dark Ages, and still owned land and a house on the hillside.
The house had stood empty when it had been time for Yalinea to move away from Hefsj, a small all-elven mountain dwelling that had been her home all of her life. She’d travelled around to see her elder kin and hear what they had to say about the world. As she visited with her nineteenth-great grandmother, Annaievah Gerritavoe, she learned of the house in Kul Viller, the capital of a small human kingdom in the farther mid-northwest. It had seemed like a great idea at first, especially as Duvanelle Mistlinger, a master tree shaper of some renown currently resided there. She could have a house of her own and she’d be able to learn her craft from a true master.
Hefsj hadn’t had any master at all. Kalavi, the village elder, possessed some small talent and had seen her started on her craft. It wasn't long before he'd taught her all he knew and after that she’d had to figure things out on her own.
She’d loved Hefsj. It had been a great place to come into the world and to grow up in. It was where she’d first danced for the sun and sung to the moon, where she’d met her first love and where, quite late, she’d borne her first and only child. She’d loved it there but eventually, as all elves must, she’d had to move away.
Her son, a grown man now, was still living in Hefsj, alone in the house they’d once shared. Hayilak Aneuar was the name she’d given him - after two of her male ancestors she’d heard great things about. She hoped he was happy and that he would stay there. The village wasn’t big but it was a good place and safe. The others would take care of him and there were no humans there.
Yalinea pushed that last thought away. She’d only lived in Kul Viller for a handful of years; she would be fine, she’d get used to the humans. This was her home now. She was safe here. A few more steps and she could see the tree in her garden over the thanesberry bushes on the right. There it was. The enormous old troll’s hat was one of the largest trees on the hill, second only to the grand oak in the Grove of Memories at the top.
The tree reached far and vide and its branches stretched over her entire garden. Its canopy was dense and protected the ground from rain – it might still be dry under it – but also from sun. The perpetual shade meant it was hard to grow anything but mushrooms on the ground. Fortunately, the previous inhabitant had set up little platforms all over the tree where flowerbeds and pots could be placed or hung. Yalinea had made good use of them and had been able to grow her own vegetables the last four summers in a row.
She walked up the little path that took her from the main road to her house under the leaves. There was no gate and no fence. Her house’s grounds stretched as far as the tree and everything under it was hers - as far as the earth could belong to anyone. The ground under the tree was barely damp. It had rained for over an hour already and the water still hadn’t really found its way down through the foliage. It would eventually, but not yet.
Underneath the canopy a dusky twilight ruled. No direct sunlight made its way past the leaves except for a short while in the evening when the sun shone in horizontally before disappearing behind the houses in the distance. Yalinea did most of her gardening and other green work up in the tree. In a sense, the tree was her garden - her collection of little gardens.
The actual house itself was small, a cottage built out of stone and wood, set halfway into the hillside with the massive trunk of the troll’s hat making up one of its side walls. The roof had been made to have grass growing on it, and maybe it had once. These days however, with the perpetual shade of the tree, a thick layer of soft dark moss covered it. Sunk into the ground, mossy and snuggled up to the tree, her house was nearly indistinguishable from a pile of old rubble in the twilight gloom under the branches. She opened up the door and stepped in.
Inside it was dark, but as she waited one candle after another came alight and as her eyes adjusted a soft warm glow spread across the room. It was an enchantment she’d laid herself. Once she was indoors and the door was closed candles placed in certain candleholders would light up. She wasn’t a strong weaver, but she did enjoy dabbling in traditional magic when she had the time and inclination. Compared to what a trained and experienced weaver could do her little trick with the candles was child’s play, but to Yalinea it was a most complicated weaving and she was proud of having successfully tied it together.
She’d run the theory of it by Valon, a local magic instructor with whom she was slowly developing a friendship. He’d overseen her weaving when she did it but had not actually interfered in any way. It really was her work from start to finish. Her little house looked rather gloomy from the outside and it cheered her up to have the candles come alive and greet her when she came home.
She found the remote for the stereo and turned it on. The soft humming tones of an elven choir filled the room. The music wasn’t loud, but the sound was warm and reassuring, a perfect accompaniment to the candles. It had taken some time for her to get her head around it, but once the idea of personal sound systems for home use finally sunk in she’d embraced it eagerly. She’d wasted no time getting her own.
It was something that had been unheard of in Hefsj, the place didn’t even have electricity or running water. Here, she could turn on the stereo at any hour and could have a choir sing her favorite songs just for her. It was a wonder of technology and even though she’d owned her own stereo for years the little machine still amazed her. At first, just its round plastic shape and its blinking green and blue lights had fascinated her almost as much as the fact of what it did. She’d since gotten used to seeing the machines around. She’d seen stereos in all shapes and sizes in homes and in public places; they were everywhere. Still, no matter how many times she pressed the little plastic button with the triangle on it, Yalinea couldn’t get over the simple joy of having music played just for her.
She dumped the sandals next to the boots by the door, threw the bag onto the sofa and started undressing. She draped her skirt and hoodie over the back of a chair and then, underwear and tank top, she climbed the ladder up to the loft. The loft was a small space up under the roof. Sometimes she slept there, but mostly it was just a storage space for old junk she couldn’t bear to throw away. More importantly, from the loft she could access the hatch that let her out on the back of the roof and up into the tree.
Unhindered by the restraints of clothes she was out and up among the branches in moments. Once in the tree the climbing was easy. Former residents of the house had also been tree shapers and they’d all practiced their art on the troll’s hat. Knots and branches had been pulled into just the right positions and getting to the upper heart of the tree was as easy as climbing a stair. Yalinea had made adjustments of her own to suit her shorter legs, but they were minor accomplishments compared to the initial construction of the path through the canopy.
The branches she stepped on were damp, but not wet enough to be slippery. Even this high up in the tree the leaves kept the rain away. That was a feat of tree shaping she couldn’t yet come even close to pulling off. Bending trunks and branches was easy. Convincing a tree to grow its leaves in a way that they protected the same spots from rain for years on end was not.
She’d asked Duvanelle about it, but the master's answer had been short and vague and lead the discussion on to another topic. Yalinea hadn't asked again. The master was like that sometimes. She was a great teacher and was both patient and methodical when imparting her knowledge on her students. However, when it came to matters outside of her areas of expertise Duvanelle was very reluctant to discuss them. It made her irritable and annoyed and her students learned to stay away from such topics. Fortunately there weren't many things the master didn't know about her craft.
So instead of learning about it from her master Yalinea had decided to figure it on her own. To influence how a tree sprouted it leaves shouldn't be impossible. It would be difficult beyond her current abilities, but as the troll's hat proved, it was doable. Either way. before she could even start trying she had to figure out how it had been done in the first place; only then could she attempt to replicate it.
She had to call Ven at some point, but that would have to wait, she wasn't in the mood right now. Veneylien had been her escort out to the client's place yesterday, but someone had called about something and he'd had to leave. He'd said he'd be back but he never came, which is why Yalinea had decided to stay the night. She would have called him then and there, but she'd forgotten her phone at home. It had been worrying not to have him come back, but now she was home her worries had faded. Ven would be fine, something had come up that was more important then the minor embarrassment he'd suffer for dumping her with some humans in the suburbs.
Her thoughts similarly dark she climbed the last few steps that lead her to the tree's upper heart. The upper heart wasn't actually a heart as such, it was a term tree shapers used to describe the above ground spot where the main trunk of the tree ends and splits up into branches or sub-trunks. That's where she stopped her ascent, maybe twenty feet above ground. In the winter she had a great view from up here but now, in summer, her view was obscured by the thick foliage. This morning she took it for a blessing; she'd had enough of humans and their dull square world for a while and didn't want it distracting her.
She sat down where the massive trunks split into four different ones, each at least as thick as an average maple tree. Leaning back against the thickest trunk, letting her feet dangle on each side of one of the other ones she closed her eyes and relaxed. Letting the last of her thoughts run their course she pressed her palms against the trunk beneath her. Reaching out with her mind Yalinea settled down to search for the Idea of the tree.
The above story is continued in The Rock in the Sea in the Hat.