Episode 1: Gates of the Echowood

Episode 1: Gates of the Echowood Tales of the Echowood

CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of drought and famine, themes of climate change, xenophobia, and isolationism, deep rumbling noises including earthquakes, some frightening elements.When a traveler stumbles through a strange archway of stone and wood and magic, they find themselves on the threshold of an inn in the heart of an ancient forest. Inside, they find an ancient sprite who gives them a tale… the story of how the door which brought them into the Echowood was made, and the desperation and deception that built it. But as his story unfolds, it becomes clear that not all is as it seems with Grael, and a deeper mystery begins to take shape.Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter, Patreon.com/homesteadcorner, and ko-fi.com/homesteadcorner. Executive produced by Axel Allcock.For more information, additional content, and episode transcript, visit homesteadonthecorner.com/tote001 "Dark Emptiness" elements created by jalastram (https://freesound.org/people/jalastram/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.

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CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of drought and famine, themes of climate change, xenophobia, and isolationism, deep rumbling noises including earthquakes, some frightening elements.

When a traveler stumbles through a strange archway of stone and wood and magic, they find themselves on the threshold of an inn in the heart of an ancient forest. Inside, they find an ancient sprite who gives them a tale… the story of how the door which brought them into the Echowood was made, and the desperation and deception that built it. But as his story unfolds, it becomes clear that not all is as it seems with Grael, and a deeper mystery begins to take shape.

Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter, Patreon.com/homesteadcorner, and ko-fi.com/homesteadcorner. Executive produced by Axel Allcock.

For more information, additional content, and episode transcript, visit homesteadonthecorner.com/tote001

“Dark Emptiness” elements created by jalastram (https://freesound.org/people/jalastram/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

Transcript

CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of drought and famine, themes of climate change, xenophobia, and isolationism, deep rumbling noises including earthquakes, some frightening elements.

[Sounds of a forest – birds, wind, a small stream]

[Music]

[Butterfly wings flapping]

[Distant thunder]

[A few small rocks fall]

[A loud set of insect-like wings buzz as Grael approaches, then lands]

[Footsteps]

[Grael takes a deep breath]

[Footsteps]

[Pulling vines and ivy away from a structure]

[A few more small rocks fall]

[Grael takes a few steps back, then sighs]

Grael

Ash and oak and iron and thorn, Stone and rune and land forlorn, Last thin chance of vain hope born, Heed thee now my call.

[A flash of magic, and a low hum as runes begin to glow]

Grael

Waste and want and fallen leaf, Broken branch and desperate thief, Famine, fire, grant relief, Heed thee now my call.

[The wind grows louder, swirling around Grael and scattering fallen leaves]

Grael

Sun and stars and hearth-fires low, Dragons, giants, gods of old, By thy power, make me bold: Heed thee now my call.

[Several unknown creatures roar in the far distance]

[Rocks fall from the archway in front of Grael]

[A pair of heavy wings begin to flap]

[Deep, thundering footsteps are heard]

Grael

Heavens high and caverns deep, Castle, ruin, broken keep, Ancient power I now reap – Heed thee now my call.

[The ground begins to shake]

[Grael’s wings start to flap, and he rises into the air as he speaks, his voice echoing]

Grael

All that was and may yet be, All I know and cannot see, Desp’rate words now set I free, Heed thee now my call!

[Thunder rumbles, and the air itself tears open]

[The forest suddenly goes quiet]

[Grael lands, growing quiet]

Grael

You, who walk the woods at night, You, with vision more than sight, You, who may set worlds to right… Heed Thee Now My Call.

[Main Theme]

Narrator

Homestead on the Corner presents… Tales of the Echowood.

[Main theme fades out]

[The inside of a small inn on a rainy night, fire burning in the hearth]

[Someone chops vegetables in the kitchen, almost inaudible]

[The door creaks open, then shut]

[A traveler stands on the threshold, dripping wet]

[After a moment, they cross the floor, footsteps echoing slightly]

[They quietly pick up a plate, examining it]

[They try to put it back down, but slip, dropping the plate]

[The place shatters loudly on the floor]

[Silence]

[Grael’s wings flutter, and he emerges out of the kitchen through a squeaky side door]

Grael

Oh! Welcome, traveler! Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in… Tend to get a bit lost in my own thoughts back there.

[The traveler tries to kick the broken pieces of the plate away]

[Grael laughs]

Grael

Oh, no need to worry about that – I’ll clean it up later. Come, sit and have a drink with me. It’s been an age since I’ve had a guest in my inn, and you look like you could do with getting off your feet for a spell.

[Grael opens a bottle and begins to pour wine into a cup]

Grael

What takes your fancy? Wine? Cider? I’ve some ale in the back, and a pint or two of honey mead – though I’ve always found it a bit too sweet for my liking. What’ll it be?

[The traveler tries to answer, but instead there’s a faint ringing, almost musical noise that Grael doesn’t seem to hear]

Grael

The strong silent type, hmm? Ah well… I can talk more than enough for the both of us.

[Grael pulls up a stool and sits down, sighing in contentment]

Grael

Ah… That’s better. Nice to take a load off the old wings now and again. Most days I’m buzzing around this place sunrise to sunset and don’t even get a chance to…

[Grael smacks himself on the forehead]

Oak and thorn, where are my manners? I haven’t even asked your name!

[The traveler tries to speak again, making a more agitated sounding noise that Grael still can’t hear]

Grael

Hmm. Most strange…

Oh, I see. Clever that – it’s a dangerous thing, giving away your name. Especially to one of the fae folk. Don’t worry – if it makes you feel better, I’ll give you mine first.

[Grael rises from his seat with a flutter of wings]

Grael, sprite of the first age: gnarl-root, ash-borne, star-bound – keeper of the Inn of the Archway.

[Giggles]

And you are…?

[The traveler begins to wave their arms, making a louder, more discordant noise]

Grael

Now there’s no need to get upset, I was only asking for…

Oh.

[Grael flies back to his chair]

So the passage took your voice in trade then?

[Grael sits back down, sounding tired]

Well… I’m sorry for that. Normally, the archway exacts a smaller toll. But there is always a price to be paid, to leave an old life behind.

[Faint chime from the traveler, as if worried]

Don’t worry… It will pass in time, if you let it. All things do.

[Silence]

[The traveler walks forward, then picks up a goblet from the table]

[Faint chime from the traveler, inquiring]

Grael

So you will join me for a drink then? Excellent.

[Grael pours wine into their cup]

I suppose you’ll also want some answers with your wine, then? Where it is you’ve found yourself, and why you’re here? That sort of thing?

[Faint chime from the traveler as they shrug]

[Grael chuckles, taking flight]

Grael

Careful what you wish for. We innkeepers are notorious tale-tellers, especially when our inns have been empty for a while. But for you…

[Grael lands and settles back into his seat]

For you, yes – a tale is exactly what you need, more than simple answers. It’s a long story all told, but… What’s say you give me as long as it takes to finish your wine to tell it? How this place and the arch for which it’s named came to be, perhaps?

[Faint chime as the traveler shrugs, then takes a sip of their wine]

[Grael scoffs]

Grael

Try not to look so excited.

[Settles back into seat]

Right – Where to begin?

[Music]

Well, where all good stories begin, I suppose… With a problem. You see… The Echowood is an old place – an old, wild place, unbent, unbowed, and untamed by the centuries. And for all that time, people have scraped by in a forest too dense and too enchanted to cut down: growing crops, raising cattle, just trying to make ends meet. Oh, there have been kings and queens and one would-be emperor, but for the most part, it’s just been simple folk, making a living for themselves.

An old forest – and a strange one. No one really knows how big it is, for one thing. There are people who claim to live on the borders, high in the mountains or on the edges of the sea – but trying to map those borders often leads to… Headaches. Both figurative and literal. Astronomers and mystics have tried to figure out the shape of this world for centuries, and while they all agree that some places are nearer to the center and others closer to the edge, and that you can almost always get from one to the other by walking in a straight line… That’s about all they can agree on.

But there’s something those philosophers and seers can’t accept – something that everyone in the Echowood knows to one degree or another. This world cannot be bound into any one shape. It shifts. It changes. It slips its skin with the seasons, as the leaves go from green to yellow to red to gray, then fall; only to return with the coming of the rain. And with each turn of the sun and moon overhead, the light of morning shines on a new world reshaped in the concealing dark of night.

[Sound of hammers and saws in a small village with animals nearby]

But we didn’t always know that. Long ago, when the world was young and the people who lived here still feared the wood, there stood a small farming village in the heart of a wide clearing. The people there were the good kind of folk – simple, perhaps, but mostly good. They cared for their families and neighbors, building houses and wells and clearing fields as their needs grew. They sowed their crops diligently, discovering as they did which plants could be used for food and how to make them grow. Most of them never left the village, and those who did rarely went more than twenty miles from their home their entire lives. And those few who did travel farther afield almost never returned… Or if they did, they did not return as the same people who left.

[Wind in the forest at night, dark and foreboding]

[Footsteps moving through dried leaves]

And so, in the minds of those villagers, there were only two directions which really mattered – inwards, homewards, towards safety; and outwards, toward danger, fear, and death.

[A rusty metal gate creaks shut]

[Wolves begin to howl in the distance]

Few knew what the shadows beneath the trees truly held, and only a handful of those who learned the truth lived to tell the tale. It was a time when a watchful eye and a strong lock were your only guarantees of safety come nightfall, and the stranger who wandered in from the outside was viewed with deadly suspicion.

[The sound of hammers and saws working]

And so, as the years passed and the village grew into a tempting target for the wolves, and ogres, and faceless things that lived in the forest, the walls surrounding it were rebuilt and rebuilt again, taller and stronger each time, and the gates opened less and less often. The village swelled to a town, and then to what might almost be called a city… But the walls, now made of stone and iron and fear, hemmed the people in.

[The gates slam closed]

[Music]

And so when the time came to build new homes or to lay the foundations of an enchanter’s tower, the city began to encroach on the farmland now trapped behind its walls. The farmers were none too happy to lose their fields of course, but the dangers of the forest meant their fields were easier and safer to remove than the boundary walls. So fields were razed and foundations laid, and the city carried on, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe soon to come.

[Clattering and rumbling as fields are demolished]

It began when the first rain of spring did not fall at its allotted time. For decades, the city’s elders had been able to rely on the weather mages’s predictions to the hour, to know when and how the rains would fall – but this year, the day came and went without a cloud in the sky. And then the next day. And the next week. And the next month.

[Crickets and flies start to buzz in the heat]

Spring vanished in a haze of feverish heat that turned slowly to a sweltering summer. The farmers desperately tried to draw more and more water from the wells to stave off ruin, but in time they began to run dry. The trees surrounding the wall began to wither and die in the terrible heat, and still the sun shone in a cloudless sky day after day after day without end.

[Something like a tiger roars in the distance]

Worse still, the creatures in the woods began to approach the city more boldly, driven by hunger and thirst and waiting for any opportunity to catch someone beyond the walls. Of course, the city gave them no such opportunity. They all knew that the land beyond the wall was dangerous, and even as they starved and wasted away from thirst, they knew that staying inside was the only way to survive. They simply hoped and prayed that they might outlast the year and see the end of this terrible famine.

The famine did not break with the passing of the year. The weather mages, delirious from hunger, made their predictions with no small measure of optimism, and few could manage to be surprised when they failed.

[Sounds of village life return, now more desolate and dry]

What little rain and snow fell that winter had been collected in cisterns, tanks, and barrels all across town, but when the summer heat returned it was quickly exhausted, as well after well dried up across the city. The people began to grow desperate, to the point that some even suggested abandoning their city and starting over in the cooler lands to the north… But they were quickly shouted down.

[Faint sounds of a crowd arguing]

There was no safety to be found outside the wall, for the world outside had turned fully against them. If there was a way to survive, it had to be found by looking inwards, to each other, as it always had. And so the village elders decreed that the gates were to be sealed, locked, and barred at all times to prevent anyone from coming… Or going… From the village.

[The gates slam shut, heavy and final]

[Silence]

[Music]

It was then that the sorcerer came forward. He was an aged figure, grey hair and a hunger-thin frame, with skin tanned and wrinkled from years spent beneath the open sky. He had been trained in the tower of wisdom, instructed in all the magic his predecessors had learned… But then he had gone beyond, spending long hours standing on the edge of the wall and looking out into the depths of the impenetrable canopy surrounding them. He had watched the world shift and change and turn with every twist of the wind, and each new dawn. He had seen the blue mountains almost out of sight turn white with snow in the winter and a bare brown in the summer. He understood the world outside the wall far more than anyone else in that city – enough to realize that the world outside the wall was no different from the world within it. He knew something else, however, and that is what he brought to the council of elders: the knowledge that the Echowood was not the only world in existence. That a thin barrier of magic was the only thing that separated their reality from an uncounted number of other realms… And that he knew how to reach them.

And so, before the assembled members of the village council, he promised the people an escape from the Echowood and its dangers, into a realm of safety, plenty, and peace… An escape that would not require them to leave the protection of their walled and dying home.

[Faint sounds of argument]

The people were hesitant, of course – the word of a sorcerer was not as reassuring a proof as it might seem. But in the end, it came down to simple arithmetic: there was not enough food or water to survive another bad year, and no way to safely leave the city and find more. And so, under the sorcerer’s watchful eye, the farmers and magicians of the city began to grow an arboretum.

[Sound of a hoe cutting through the dirt, thin trees creaking]

It was unlike anything the city had seen before… tightly packed groves of oak and ash and thorn cuttings transplanted from the forest and compelled to grow by the wizards’ art into thin saplings, reaching for the sky like grasping hands. The sorcerer watched carefully, judging their growth by standards no one but he understood.

[Chopping and the sound of a bonfire]

When a single tree failed to meet his expectations, he ordered the entire grove torn out and burned, scattering the ashes to enrich the soil for the next trial. Sometimes he did this three or four times for a single grove before they grew to his liking, while other groves he allowed to grow untouched, despite the weeds growing up around them. The rest, he simply kept pruned and cleared, cultivating them like any other gardener would.

For seven months and seven days, every farmer and magic-worker in the city toiled in the sorcerer’s arboretum, following his strange and often nonsensical instructions to the letter. Late one morning, he ordered one of the younger farmhands to find a rabbit and bring it back before nightfall. The child, not wanting to disappoint the sorcerer, ran off to the market, but there were few people selling anything at all anymore, much less living animals.

[Repeated knocking]

She went from door to door, asking if anyone had a rabbit she could borrow, but it seemed that no one in the city could help her. Finally, with all options exhausted, the girl snuck out through a small crack in the wall near her home and slipped into the Echowood before anyone could see her. She half expected to be met by a wolf and eaten immediately, but she was scared of disappointing the sorcerer more than anything else.

[Music]

[Footsteps through dried leaves, sounds of a forest and a small creek]

The forest was quieter than she expected, but not half so dark as she feared. After about an hour of searching, she found her way into a small green clearing, still carpeted with grass and brightly colored wildflowers. At first, the sight of so much life confused her… But then she saw the small stream still trickling through the center of the hollow. Her heart leaped at the sight, and she rushed over, filling her hands with cold, sweet water and drinking her fill for the first time in years. As she drank, she felt something like a knot inside her chest release, and she began to weep. She couldn’t understand why, but some part of herself – a part that she’d kept walled in and closed up for as long as she could remember – was finally let loose, and all she could do was weep with relief as a small measure of hope slowly returned to her heart.

She didn’t find a rabbit, in the end… The sun was already on its way down when she left, and even if she did find one, how was she meant to catch it and bring it back without a net, trap, or even rope? When she returned to the sorcerer and told him she’d failed, she expected him to be furious… But instead, he looked at her with confusion, as if unsure what she was talking about. Then he laughed as he remembered, assuring her that he didn’t actually need a rabbit – she’d just looked like she was about to pass out from exhaustion, and he had been trying to get her to rest. The girl grew angry when she heard this and almost started to yell… But then she remembered the stream, and the forest, and that she did in fact feel more rested and restored than she had since the drought began. The sorcerer caught the look in her eye and smiled. “Ah yes,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes, “I do think that did you well. Very well indeed.”

[Sounds of village life return]

The girl went home content that night, and slept far sounder than she had in years.

[Sounds of a crackling fire]

When she and the rest of the farmers returned the next morning however, they were horrified to see the arboretum decimated, with all but the oldest grove torn out and burned. They began to argue amongst themselves about what had happened: whether someone had left the gate open that night, or if they’d forgotten to douse their lanterns before they left, or even if one of them had done this out of malice or spite. Before the argument could come to blows, however, the girl – still feeling clear-headed and alert – noticed the sorcerer standing in the remaining grove. She pointed him out, and the rest of the farmers fell silent, watching as he went from stick-thin tree to stick-thin tree, slowly weaving them around each other in the vague shape of an arching passage.

[Footsteps]

After a few minutes, one of the older farmers approached and asked what he was doing. The sorcerer smiled and said that the work was almost finished – the right trees had finally grown, and they were almost ready to complete the gateway. When the farmer asked what had happened to the other trees, the sorcerer simply laughed and said that they hadn’t grown quite right… That these were the only trees that they needed. Before the farmer could demand a reason for why they’d spent so long growing the things, the sorcerer beckoned the young farmhand over and asked her to help him weave the branches. It took her a while to get a handle on the pattern, but once she did, she was able to work nearly as quickly as the sorcerer, and the archway was complete by midday.

[Distant muttering]

The rest of the farmers and magicians, unsure what they were meant to be doing now, sat around the edge of the arboretum and watched as the sorcerer pulled a small bag from his pouch and held it out to the little girl. She opened it, then looked up at him, confused, before she pulled out a small piece of crude iron.

[Faint metallic ringing]

It was about the size of a thimble and almost perfectly round, coming to a slight point at the end. She asked what it was, but the sorcerer just laughed, saying that she should be able to recognize an acorn when she saw one. The girl just looked more confused, and the sorcerer sighed, telling her to dig a small hole and bury it at the foot of the arch. Not really knowing why but not feeling like she could ask, she dug a pit in the soft earth before dropping the metal acorn into it, covering it back up and patting it down for good measure.

[Sounds of digging and burying the acorn, and the ringing fades]

The sorcerer nodded, and then told her to step back. He said it with such a tone of warning that she retreated all the way to where the other farmers stood, ignoring their questions as she focused on the sorcerer. He was walking around the trees now, speaking low words in a powerful voice that carried clearly on the wind. She recognized what he was saying as a growing spell, the same one she’d heard him use time and again with the trees in the arboretum – only now, he directed it at the scrap of iron she’d just buried.

[A low, deep rumble begins to build]

[Grael’s voice echoes]

“Turn and turn and turn thrice more, Time and tide and torrent pour, Raise and rise and life restore, Till all the doors stand open.”

[The metallic ringing begins again]

It was a spell she had seen and heard many times, and so she didn’t expect much to happen. Every time he’d spoken the words before, the trees sprouted to life in a few hours, rather than the few days it would normally take. While no one who spent their life farming could deny it was impressive, it was hardly the most interesting magic to watch.

Imagine the girl’s surprise, then, when she saw the small metal seed she’d planted a moment before burst out of the ground as a snaking vine of dark, pitted iron, wrapping itself around the wooden gateway she and the sorcerer had spent the morning weaving.

[Sounds of a metal vine growing – creaking, twisting metal, churned earth, and a deep rumble like an earthquake]

As it grew, thin metal leaves sprouted from the narrow trunk, spreading themselves as if to catch the sun on their burnished edges. At the base of the arch, where she’d buried the seed, she saw the ground writhe and twist as thick roots grew out to support the heavy stem before finally, the impossible iron tree touched the earth on the other side of the archway, fully entwining the enchanted doorway.

[Metallic ringing fades out]

[Sounds of laughter]

Laughing and amazed, the crowd of farmers and magic workers rushed forwards, admiring the detail and craftsmanship of the iron tree. And as for the sorcerer…

[Music, all other sounds fade away]

He watched as the girl and her fellow farmhands marveled at the work of his magic, and felt a pang of guilt twist at his heart. So far, the doorway was growing exactly as he’d planned – oak and ash and iron and thorn, woven in perfect symmetry. Now all that remained was to lay the stones atop the living gate and carve the necessary runes – child’s play compared to the slow work of cultivation. He would almost feel safe trusting it to the other mages… Almost. But once the gate was complete and they knew the truth of his plan… He wondered what these good, simple folks were capable of doing to one who deceived them.

[Sounds of village life return]

[Hammers and chisels ring and scrape on stone]

The stonework was nearly as easy as he expected. There were a few moments where an improperly carved rune or a poorly cut stone set the work back by days or even weeks, but it was barely a month before the gate was complete. The stonemasons had grumbled all the while that the sorcerer insisted on building the arch from dry-fitted stones without mortar, but they still did their work, and did it well. Two years after the great famine began, the doorway between worlds – the salvation of their civilization – was complete. True, it looked like any other stone arch, and passing beneath it did nothing but make your teeth itch… But it was simply a closed door. All they had to do was open it.

[Distant muttering of a crowd]

At midday, on the last day of the last month of what many thought would be the last year of the city, the people assembled at the arboretum, looking on from the perimeter. The elders, standing near the gateway, made a show of profound gratitude to the sorcerer, heaping him with praises and platitudes and promising to grant him wealth, power, and a place of prominence in the new world. The young farmhand, sitting on her father’s shoulder at the north end of the arboretum, watched as the sorcerer reluctantly accepted these honors, seeming to grow more uncomfortable with every passing moment. This confused and worried the girl in a way she could not easily describe. The sorcerer – who she now considered a friend – had succeeded. The gate was finished. His work was complete. Why then did he look so… Nervous?

At last the ceremony ended, and the sorcerer turned to the open gateway. He ordered the elders to retreat to a safe distance, and once they had grudgingly done so, he raised his hands towards the door and spoke. His words were soft, yet somehow they carried clear and strong all the way to the edge of the arboretum and… beyond. In the rest of the town, those who did not or could not make it to the ceremony stirred, lifting their heads as they heard a faint whisper on the wind… A tremor in the air that filled their hearts with hope – and a strange sense of dreadful anticipation. In all the corners of the Echowood, his words rang.

[Grael’s voice echoes]

[A deep rumble begins to build]

“Ash and oak and iron and thorn, Stone and rune and land forlorn, Last thin chance of vain hope born… Heed thee now my call.”

[Heavy wind, sounds of an earthquake or landslide, sounds of rattling dishes]

Across the Echowood, the trees shuddered and shook, as if driven by a wind. The blue mountains trembled as cornices of snow and long-frozen ice shook loose, thundering down their slopes. In the far corners of distant lands that those in the walled city could hardly imagine, goblets and platters rattled on banquet tables before the great rulers now stirring in their chairs, the words of a far-off sorcerer echoing in their great halls.

[Cacophony fades to a quiet forest next to a small stream]

And in a clearing just south of the city’s walls, a small white rabbit, stopping to take a drink from a clear stream, lifted its head and turned its ears towards the sound of the strange, compelling words.

[Sounds of village life return]

Within the arboretum, the sorcerer lowered his arms, finally exhausted from his work, and turned to face the thunderous applause of the crowd.

[Applause and cheering]

He allowed himself a brief moment of pride. He’d done it. This door might not be what these people expected it to be… But it was what they needed. The only thing that could save them.

[Music slowly fades in]

[The sound of the crowd begin to grow dim]

The girl was the first to see it. While the rest of the crowd was distracted cheering for the sorcerer, she’d kept her eyes on the gate. The space beneath the arch, once holding only empty air, was now a dark and swirling mass of energy, opening into something darker still.

[Low, churning sound of the void]

But even so… She thought she could see something moving against the black… Something long and undulating, twisting in and around itself against the terrible void. She tried to speak up, to ask her father if he saw it too, but her voice caught in her throat as the black vacuum of the space between worlds swallowed the sound of the cheering throng.

[Grael’s words echo and distort, growing deeper in pitch]

The twisting shape grew larger as it drew nearer to the doorway she had helped to build, swelling to such a size that she could not see its fullness through the narrow arch of wood and stone and magic – and then, as it eclipsed the darkness of the void with the pure black of a lightless, dead universe…

[Music and distortion end, footsteps]

A woman stepped through the doorway.

She was thin and tall, with red hair tied back in a short, practical braid. Her garments were made of worn leather, dyed a deep forest green and clearly designed for travel. Over one shoulder she carried a quiver of arrows fletched in red, and in her hand she held a longbow almost as tall as she was. Her eyes darted over the strange scene in front of her, confusion hidden behind a clear survival instinct. In an instant, she took in the assembled crowd, now in various points between cheering, alarm, and terror; the barren arboretum surrounding her, coated in the ash of dead, burned trees; and the sorcerer, standing a few feet to her left.

[A low, pulsing heartbeat is heard]

[Creak of the longbow’s string being pulled taut]

She had an arrow on the sting in less time than it took the girl to blink, aiming squarely between the enchanter’s eyes. After a long second, the girl finally made a sound: a strangled cry of fear for the life of her friend.

[Music]

That’s probably what saved his life, in the end. The huntress heard the cry of the child and looked back at the crowd, finally seeing who they really were: weary farmers, simple townsfolk… And children, staring at her with wild terror in their eyes. She looked back to the sorcerer, who seemed just as surprised as her that he wasn’t dead yet. After a moment, she slowly lowered her bow, though she kept the arrow on the string.

[Creak of the string being relaxed]

And then she spoke. Her first words in this new world? Well, they were simple and fitting enough, I suppose. All she said was… “Where am I?”

The answer took longer than it should have to parse out, especially with the irritated elders demanding to know how this outsider had arrived within their city, but eventually, the truth became clear. The gateway, which the sorcerer had promised would take them all out of the Echowood, was in truth a doorway that only opened inwards, allowing passage into and out of the Echowood from other worlds. See, the sorcerer knew much about the Echowood that his kin did not. After all… He’d spent long hours on the edge of the wall, looking out into the forest surrounding them. He had watched the world shift and change and turn, learning its nature… Its name. He understood the world outside the wall far more than anyone else in that city, and he knew that it would not allow them to escape their fate so easily. But he also knew that hope was not lost… For the blue mountains almost out of sight beyond the treetops were still covered in snow in the spring, and a few leagues north of the city’s wall, the forest still shone a brilliant green. The drought that choked the life from them would not break in a year, or even two… But if they could brave the forest and find another village willing to trade for food and water, they would survive. And so the sorcerer had devised a plan to build the gateway and call on a hero from another world to save their city… Even if he had to lie in order to save them.

The elders were furious, of course… The sorcerer ended up in the city’s dungeon for a few days before he mysteriously vanished from his cell, slipping into the forest under cover of night. But his plan worked, despite their fears: the huntress agreed to lead an expedition north, taking the few brave souls willing to go beyond the wall and striking out towards that still-green region of the forest. It took less than two days of hiking before they found another town – a fishing village that always had more food than they needed at the end of the season. Though suspicious of these ragged interlopers, they agreed to help their neighbors as soon as they heard their plight, sending the party back with wagons full of food and water – enough to last the city through the winter.

[Sound of hammers and saws working]

A few weeks later, a skilled builder came through the portal, and with the help of most of the town, they managed to build an aqueduct which linked the city to a lake several miles west. That season’s crop was the most bountiful the city had seen in years, and the streets were alive with joyful laughter once again on the night of the harvest festival.

[Sounds of laughter, a rainstorm beginning]

And finally, when the weather mages’ predictions at last came true and the spring rain began to fall, the gateway opened one last time, and the two heroes from another world left for their homes… Though not before the huntress left her longbow with the young farmhand, who had been one of the few people brave enough to leave the gates with her on that first expedition. She had spent the last two years training her, teaching her to hunt and fight and protect her home, and she had come to love the girl like a daughter in that time. It was a tearful farewell… But a happy one all the same. The girl knew how much the huntress missed her home, and she understood why she chose to leave… and why she couldn’t go with her. This village – this Echowood – was her home. She couldn’t abandon it. And she never did. But that’s a story for another time.

[Music ends, the sounds of the inn fade in slowly]

And so the city endured, their trust in their neighbors growing with the bountiful harvests that they traded year after year, before they pulled down the walls completely, the fear which built them finally exhausted. As the world changed and shifted around them, they changed with it, and finally, through the gradual wearing on of time, the city shrank back to a town, then a village, and finally, the last people who had called it home moved on to greener pastures and new frontiers. But the archway remained through the years, and in times of greatest need, the doorway has still opened to bring forth heroes and saviors for the Echowood. Some have been brave warriors, others brilliant thinkers and scholars, and others, simple folk whose mere presence has turned the tide of fate. But for the last 300 years, all of them have been greeted at the threshold of a new world by the Inn of the Archway… And its humble keeper.

[Grael sits back in his chair]

Grael

Huh… Barely touched your wine, have you? It’s Vintoc red… You really shouldn’t let it go to waste.

[Faint chime from the traveler – a question]

Grael

Hmm? Oh yes, of course I’ve been the keeper for that long. 300 years is nothing in the life of a sprite. Though truth be told, it’s been a very long nothing… I don’t normally like to be tied to one place like this.

[Grael flutter from his seat, wings buzzing]

But there’s nowhere else in all the worlds I’d rather be right now – meeting new people, teaching them about my home… And telling stories. Keeps me sharp in my old age, I think.

[Grael sets a plate down in front of the traveler]

But I’m sure you must be hungry, too. Best not to drink on an empty stomach… At least, that’s the rule here. Is it the same in your world?

[More emphatic chime from the traveler as they gesture around the room]

Grael

Now what do you mean by… Oh, right – yes, of course this is all here for you.

[Faint, questioning chime]

Well, you and all the other heroes who’ve come through that arch before. I can’t say I know why you’re here… Nor why the passage took your voice. But if you came through the door, then you must be here to save the Echowood. I don’t know how or what from… Things have been pretty quiet the last hundred years or so. But it’s always the same – When that door opens, it’s my job to teach those who come through everything they need to know about the Echowood.

[Grael picks up his goblet]

So, if you’ll permit me, I have a proposition for you: Until such time as your voice returns, or you discover why you were brought here, I will tell you everything I know of the Echowood – its history, its peoples, its secret depths and hidden heights. I will tell you of witches and ghosts and sea-beasts. I will tell you of dragons and dwarves and the glittering stars above. I will illuminate the secret turnings of this world to you as best I can… and in the end, I will send you on to whatever fate awaits you.

[Grael holds up his goblet in a toast]

Do we have a deal?

[The traveler picks up their goblet]

[A discordant, angry chim from the traveler, and they throw the goblet down, shattering it on the floor]

[Silence]

Grael

So I take it that’s a refusal? I must warn you, it’s most unwise to spurn the hospital–

[The traveler turns and begins throwing plates off the table, shattering them noisily]

[Discordant chimes as they try to speak, but are unable to do so]

Grael

Please stop that – I can see you’re upset, but that’s no reason to make a mess of my–

[The traveler smashes the wine bottle and begins to approach Grael with the sharpened end]

[Grael’s voice echoes with command]

Grael

Stop.

[A flash of magic, and all sounds of movement cease]

[Silence, wine dripping from the broken bottle]

[Grael’s wings flutter as he moves closer]

I wouldn’t struggle, if I were you. That spell is too strong for you to break like that. And it’s far too late for fear.

[Grael stops a few feet from the traveler]

So. You’re not the one I’m looking for, then? Not the one I need? What a shame. I was hoping it might work this time. Ah well… there are always others.

[A low rumble of thunder and tearing as the portal opens]

And I’ve worlds enough, and time to find them.

[Grael flies back to the kitchen door, then looks back]

Fare thee well, traveler.

[Another burst of magic, and the traveler flies backwards]

[They smash through the door of the inn, then through the branches and vines of the forest]

[The wind swirls around them, growing louder and louder until it cuts out as they fly backwards through the archway]

[A ringing in their ears in the only noise]

[Silence]

[The inside of a small inn on a clear morning, fire burning in the hearth]

[The door creaks open, then shut]

[Another traveler stands on the threshold, looking in]

[After a moment, they cross the floor, footsteps echoing slightly]

[They quietly pick up a plate, examining it]

[They try to put it back down, but slip, dropping the plate]

[The place shatters loudly on the floor]

[Silence]

[Grael’s wings flutter, and he emerges out of the kitchen through a squeaky side door]

Grael

Oh! Welcome, traveler! Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in… Tend to get a bit lost in my own thoughts back there.

[Music]

[Grael uncorks a bottle of wine and begins to pour]

Welcome my friend!

Welcome to the Echowood.

[End Credits]

Narrator

Tales of the Echowood, Episode one: Gates of the Echowood. Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter and Patreon.com/homesteadcorner. Our executive producer was Axel Allcock. To learn more about the series and listen to our other podcasts, visit Homesteadonthecorner.com. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, feel free to connect with us on Twitter and Instagram @echowoodpod, and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or the podcatcher of your choice. I’m Trevor Van Winkle, this is Homestead on the Corner, and you’re listening to: Tales of the Echowood.

[Main theme]


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