Episode 2: Witches of the Echowood – Tales of the Echowood
CONTENT WARNING: Religiously motivated violence within a fantasy setting, familial conflict, betrayal, and separation, nightmares and dream violence, discussions of poison, illness, and death.
Waking to the sound of raised voices, the Traveler listens in as an aged witch lays a curse on Grael before storming out of the inn. Rather than being afraid of her, Grael tells the story of two witches he one knew, and the rivalry that shaped their lives.
Starring Sam Taylor as Grael and Alejandra Cejudo as Maeven, 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/tote002
CONTENT WARNING: Religiously motivated violence within a fantasy setting, familial conflict, betrayal, and separation, nightmares and dream violence, discussions of poison, illness, and death.
[Sounds of a forest at night – crickets, owls, a slight wind]
Before we get started, this episode contains instances of religiously motivated violence within a fantasy setting, familial conflict, betrayal, and separation, nightmares and dream violence, and discussions of poison, illness, and death. Content warnings and a full transcript are available in the show notes.
[Sounds of the forest fade out]
[Crackling fire inside the inn]
[Grael shifts in his chair]
I can’t tell you 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. 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 people, its secret depths and hidden heights. I will tell you of witches and ghosts and sea-beasts. I will illuminate the secret turnings of the world to you as best I can, and, in the end, I will send you on your way to whatever fate awaits you.
[Picks up glass]
Do we have a deal?
[Traveler picks up their class, clinks it against Grael’s]
Oh? You’re… You’re going to stay?
[Traveler nods, makes a faint shimmering sound]
[Grael lifts off, fluttering around]
Well then, I – I supposed I’d better show you up to your room… And get you some fresh clothes, and start cutting some more firewood before it…
[Across the room, a pot near the fire begins to boil unexpectedly]
[Grael hesitates, then flutters over, gently removing the lid]
Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble. By the pricking of my thumbs… Something wicked this way comes.
Homestead on the Corner presents… Tales of the Echowood.
[Main theme fades out]
[Early morning birds sing outside the inn]
[A bedroom door opens, and the Traveler emerges into the hall]
[They give a shimmering, faint yawn, then start down the hall]
[Old wooden stairs creak underfoot]
[Muffled voices suddenly rise from below]
You play a dangerous game, ash-borne.
The game I play is my own. I know the rules better than you ever could.
[The Traveler sneaks closer, trying to overhear]
I cannot compel you to listen. You are not bound by the echoes as we are.
Oh, I thank you for acknowledging this.
But! I still beg that you heed my warning. Turn from this course, before you run yourself headlong and heedless upon the rocks.
Speak your mind plainly, Maeven. Metaphors were never your strong suit.
Fah! Never ask a witch to speak her plain thoughts, Grael. They may prove too sharp for your tender flesh.
Even so. I have better things to do than waste time on this pantomime.
[Maeven scoffs, then crosses the room, pulling the lid of a pot on the stove]
[She throws something into it, causing a noisy flash of energy]
[A lone tone begins to pulse as she speaks]
Fool. Conjurer. Star-bound, Star-blinded. Stumbler towards ruin, lost soul guiding. May your wings shrivel and carry you no further. May your feet catch in subsuming earth. May your eyes close forever, lest they behold the end you seek! May you find no peace in the depths of the earth.
[The noise of bubbling and pulsing energy fades away]
Are you done?
Proud fool… Yes, I am done.
Good. Then I’ll ask you to leave my inn, if you’ve no further business here. Your shipment of everroot should arrive before the solstice.
Do not think I will forget this.
[Maeven opens the door]
Don’t worry… I know you won’t.
[The door closes behind her]
[Grael sighs heavily, then begins to pull glass bottles out of boxes]
[After a long moment, the Traveler opens the door and enters]
Oh? Up already? Well… Good. I was worried you might sleep the entire morning away. Hungry?
[The Traveler pauses, staring at the door Maeven just exited]
Hmm. So you did hear that.
[Faint shimmering sound of affirmation]
Don’t worry about her. I’ve had curses flung at me by things far more terrifying than old Maeven. She might have a razor-glass tongue, but that’s about all she has.
[Grael’s wings flutter as he begins moving bottles across the room]
Besides, she still needs me around to bring in supplies, especially this far into the Echowood. I doubt I’ll end up with anything far worse than a toothache.
[Grael picks up a heavy, creaking box, his wings beating harder]
[The box slams down on the bar, rattling slightly as he pants]
Think you could give me a hand with these?
[The Traveler crosses the room, picking up a couple of bottles and assisting Grael]
You know, she reminds me of a witch I used to know, ages back. Well, two of them really… But that’s a longer story than I have time for on a morning like this. Maybe later.
[The Traveler stops, looking at Grael in disbelief]
[After a moment, Grael chuckles]
Well, you certainly don’t have a problem making yourself heard, do you?
[The Traveler shrugs]
Alright… Pull up a chair, and I’ll tell you the tale.
[Grael and the Traveler fetch chairs, sitting down across from one another]
[Silence as Grael thinks]
There have always been witches in the Echowood. Before anyone else dared to dwell in the shadows beneath the trees… There were witches. Before the first town or village or shack, they were here: living alone in the places no mortal dared to dwell: the wild regions where the herbs and mushrooms of their art grew in plenty, and they could practice their magic in peace. For peace was not easy to find: for as long as there have been witches in the Echowood, there has been the fear of witches. Almost all of it is built on misunderstanding and lies… A belief that there is something unnatural to witchcraft. When a village butcher or cobbler or priest loses their daughter to the wild woods, they rage against witchcraft and all its devilry, claiming they were deceived into choosing the path of magic. But no witch has ever chosen to be a witch – they are simply born such. Even when they must slip their mortal forms to do so, deep in their soul, in their very being, they were always witches… and if they did not obey their nature, they could never be truly happy, truly whole, truly themselves.
One such witch was born in a small river village in the far southeast of the Echowood, on the border of the ancient treeline where the forest ended and “civilization” once began. She realized what she was later than most; close to her seventeenth year and almost fully grown. She was the daughter of a gardener who served the local lord, and when she began to be apprenticed in her father’s craft, she discovered that the plants in his greenhouse spoke to her in a way they never did to him. She knew without being told which plants could grow close together, and which could not. She knew how to coax life from them after a harsh frost left them wilted and grey. And she even thought that, when she was left alone in the greenhouse, she could faintly hear the sound of singing. It took her a while to understand the reason, but once she did, she realized that her feelings of disquiet in the narrow streets and alleys of her hometown were more than her own dislike of walls and enclosed spaces – they were the witches’ call into the wild, as old as time itself.
[Sounds of village life – bells, animals, people]
Her father, thankfully, understood… He was unmarried and solitary by nature, a bookish, educated man insulated from the small-mindedness that plagued his fellows, and his privileged position on the lord’s estate protected both him and his daughter from harm. The lord even gave her a small purse to help pay for her travels and any expenses she might incur… All in secret, of course. Not even a lord could be seen supporting witches and their ilk – not publicly. And so, after a bittersweet farewell and a promise to visit often, the witch left her childhood home to roam the Echowood, searching for the place that called to her… The place where her magic would be strongest.
[Sounds of the forest fade in]
You see, the magic of witches is different from all other forms – not lesser or greater, but of a different kind. The magic of sorcerers is built from books and runes and the words of a spell, allowing them to bend small pieces of reality to their will, changing the shape of the world to fit their own desires. It is a skill that can be learned by anyone, even those with no innate ability or skill in magic; old or young, male or female and all between and outside, human and elf and fae and dwarf and shade. In many ways, it’s closer to astronomy or alchemy than the witches’ art. But witches… Ah, now they are different.
[Distant, echoing singing]
Rather than bending the world to their will, they follow the will of the world… Or perhaps you could say they are the will of the world, made manifest. For the Echowood must always have witches, and plenty of them: for their art is not in shifting reality to their liking, but in maintaining the balance that keeps it, and its peoples, alive. Deep in the woods, in the far-off places where no gardener or forester or magician or doctor would ever dare to tread, witches do the work of them all. They clear away the death and decay that lingers beneath the trees before it can poison the land or spark a wildfire beyond control. They harvest herbs and mushrooms and secret things, before they overgrow their bounds and choke the life from other plants. They cut and prune and care for the trees, allowing them to grow tall rather than bending and twisting into gnarled, impassible tangles. And when someone wandering the woods falls ill or injures themself, they know they will be found and cared for by a witch… Whether they want to be, or not.
[Footsteps through the undergrowth]
But back to our particular witch: She was young, and she was adventurous, and she was wise… Or at least, she thought herself so. She figured that most witches were not the daughters of gardeners, and that she would have an advantage over her competitors (for that was how she thought of them). She just knew that she would find the place meant for her – the place that called to her – and it would be beautiful and vital, a keystone of reality made for her protection. She had only to find it, and make it hers.
[Bubbling mud and waves, faint animal growls]
There was just… One small problem. She had already found the place that called to her. Less than a day’s walk from the village, she wandered into a fetid swamp of saltwater and reeds, where a small hut sat abandoned on a patch of mostly-dry earth in the center. She’d heard the voice of the Echowood calling her, drawing her towards it… And ignored it, telling herself it was simply her imagination, latching on to a place that made her think of witches. Surely, this couldn’t be the place she was called – not someone with her abilities, her knowledge, her skills. Nevermind that the thought of living in such a hovel repulsed her. Nevermind that she could still see her hometown from the top of a low hill. Nevermind her own fears of the things that moved and slithered beneath the water… She felt sure this couldn’t be the place, and so she carried on.
As the days turned to weeks and then to months, the young witch began to fear she’d made a terrible mistake. The lord’s money, though generous, was dwindling with each night she spent in an inn, with inns becoming rarer and more expensive the further she traveled into the Echowood. Her eighteenth birthday came and went, almost unnoticed on the road. In every region of the forest, she searched desperately for a place which called her… But no place did, try as she might to convince herself. She lingered on earthen mounds, in hollowed out tree trunks, in wide green clearings carpeted with wildflowers… But she could never feel at ease there. She’d felt the call of that marshy patch of land now leagues away… But she could not return there, not with her rapidly dwindling purse and her newfound fear of the deep woods at night. So she carried on… Further and deeper into the endless trees, struggling to keep the road in sight so she didn’t lose her way. But eventually, she did.
[Foreboding, dull wind through the fog]
One cold morning three months from her childhood home, winter began with a vengeance, throwing up great curtains of fog that left her senseless in the oppressive gloom. The last of her money had been spent a week ago, at the last inn before the road shrank to a single muddy lane and the reach of civilization ran out. She was in the deep-wood now… And she was afraid.
For an hour, she called out for anyone who might help her. Her clothes, which she’d kept sturdy and whole with the aid of her sewing kit, were now muddy and worn thin. Her supplies were running low. She heard things moving in the mist surrounding her, but she knew they would not harm her – witches, though feared by humans, were as much a part of the natural order as any wolf or shambler she might find. In short, the only danger she faced was losing those few luxuries of village life she still had. But it was still enough to make her buckle at the knees and begin to cry.
She missed her father. Can you blame her for that? She missed his kind, comforting words, his laughing presence at mealtimes, his faith in her abilities and her potential to change the world. She also missed her comfortable bed, the ease of working in the warm, clean greenhouse, and the knowledge that fresh bread and cheese and fruit were only a trip to the market away. For the first time in her life, the young woman realized that she was capable of missing home.
That thought was what finally got her back on her feet, wiping tears from her eyes with angered determination. She would not go home. She’d already come this far, braved these dangers, walked away from everything she’d ever known. She wouldn’t give up now. And so she struck out into the wall of rolling grey without a clue where she was going. Those hours of calling and crying had already cost her precious daylight, and the forest was growing darker by the minute. She wasn’t sure if she could find the ingredients to make an ignis fatuus to light her way, so she kept going, hoping just to find a cave or hollow where she could wait out the fog… Maybe build a fire.
She began to scan the ground around her for dry tinder when she stumbled into what she thought was a thin tree standing alone in the middle of the clearing. The surprise of her impact drove the wind from her chest, and she was about to let loose a string of curses she would never dare to utter normally – when she stopped. It wasn’t a tree she’d collided with – it was a wooden post. Not milled or even cut very neatly, but still clearly part of a structure. Straining her eyes against the fog, she saw three other posts nearby, standing in a rough square about twenty feet to a side. And then she saw a ladder between the two nearest posts, and realized that she was standing beneath a house on stilts, built in the middle of the woods… A witch’s house.
Now, this wasn’t quite the good turn you might assume, for witches, as you might have guessed, are solitary by nature, needing space for their art and (in most cases), their love of solitude, silence, and distance from other people. Most only kept the company of animals or familiar spirits, and even then only if they weren’t too talkative. Oh, they occasionally convene for covens or rituals or rites of initiation, but those are almost always short lived arrangements. There are few people witches want to meet less in all the worlds than other witches.
But still, our witch didn’t have any better options, and she was so desperate for company that she almost relished the thought of meeting another witch… Almost. And so she scrambled up the rickety ladder of branches and thick twine and knocked on the rough, unfinished door of the strange house.
[Climbing, knocking on door]
There was no answer. She knocked again, then tried the door. It had no handle, much less a lock, and so it swung open easily enough.
[Creaky door opens]
[Sounds of the forest fade slightly]
Stepping carefully over the seemingly innocuous line of ivy strewn across the threshold, the young witch entered the empty house… For indeed, it was empty, and seemed like it had been for some time. Old candles sat half-burned on the table, the small stone hearth was empty of ash, and a thin layer of dust covered the living room, kitchen, and bedroom. When she saw that last one, the young woman forgot all her worries about the wrath of other witches. The bed, clearly made from materials gleaned from the forest and pieced together over the years, looked more comfortable than anything she had ever slept on – especially after a week of rough living in the depths of the ancient wild. She collapsed into it immediately, and was asleep long before the sun was fully set – and the keeper of the house returned from a long day of foraging.
[Falling into bed, sounds of the forest fade completely]
Let us take a moment to examine this other witch: currently tired, footsore, and aching from a day of work, just about to find a strange woman lying in her bed. She was not, I’m afraid, the daughter of a kind gardener in the employ of a lord. She was not the daughter of a kind man of any sort, nor did she enjoy the smallest measure of the privileges of the young witch’s childhood. Her father and mother were strict, hardworking, religious folk: farmers who spent every evening at the temple of light, praying to gods who kept them and their children safe from witchcraft. She was the middle of seven children – the first girl after three older brothers – and so she grew up either being ignored by, or fighting, with sibling and parent alike. She knew she was a witch from the age of 10, as her parent’s warnings and the vitriol of the priest’s teachings left little doubt to what her feelings about the green, wild forest meant. She’d tried to run away multiple times as a child, but could never find her place in the forest before her parents found her. There was little warmth in her welcome home, and less each time she returned.
When she was nearly a woman grown, her parents told her, in no uncertain terms, that she was betrothed to the son of another churchgoer, and would be married on her eighteenth birthday. The fight that followed was like nothing she had ever seen, full of deep insults and cruelty beyond anything she thought her parents were capable of. It ended abruptly, when caught up in the heat of emotion and forgetting her fears, she blurted out that she was a witch and would never marry any man, much less one her parents chose.
The silence which fell over that house was a weighty and terrible thing. It hung in the air for what felt like an hour before her father stood and said he was going to fetch the priest. Before he left, he turned to her eldest brother and told him to get the axe and start cutting firewood. Needless to say, by the time her father returned with the priest, leading a party of torch-bearing townsfolk, she was long gone into the depths of the Echowood, stealing a horse and fleeing with all the speed she could muster.
[Horse galloping into forest]
That was nearly five years ago. She had spent the time since building her fortress among the trees, far enough into the deep-wood that no light-fearing crusader would ever dare approach it, laying traps and protective barriers to ensure her solitude was never disturbed.
[Sounds of the forest fade in]
You can imagine, then, that she was none too pleased to see this strange woman lying in her bed – especially after a damp, miserable day like today. The shout that woke the young witch was loud enough to shake her from her pleasant dreams of home and send her scrambling to her feet…
[Sounds of rising and stumbling from bed]
Or rather onto her feet, then off them again as she stumbled and fell, then back as she came up in a defensive stance, ready to fight off this intruder. Then she got a better look at the terrifying, angry woman across from her: short, strongly framed, and wearing a dress handwoven of rough fibers and strewn with vials of dried herbs, small trinkets, and faintly glowing liquids. In the same instant, the older woman took in her appearance: medium-tall, thin, and fair of face and hair, wearing a tunic and trousers that, while clearly patched and travel worn, were of a cut and quality only the upper classes wore. They stared at one another for a long minute, trying to get a measure of one another… Before finally, the older one spoke. “What are you doing in my house?”
The young witch hesitated, then decided she couldn’t hurt her situation by telling the truth. And so she gave this other witch the story I’ve been telling you: how she first felt the call towards the woods, left her home, and wandered the trees for almost a year now. She left out the part about the swamp, of course – but besides that, she mostly told the truth, only putting slightly more emphasis on the difficultly of the journey than was strictly necessary. Terrified as she was of this woman, the young witch did not want to go back out into that cold, dreary night.
The older witch listened, hearing in the careful gaps in her story everything this young woman didn’t want her to know: that she came from privilege in a more enlightened part of the world, left home with all the support she could ask for, and still chose to let herself into a stranger’s house rather than make her own shelter. She knew exactly who was standing in front of her: an entitled child who still thought of being a witch as some wild, romantic dream rather than the harsh, solitary existence it was: hated and feared and hunted like a dog by those who did not understand the way the world turned. A life that left little room for comfort… or mercy.
[Sound of morning birds]
Thankfully, the young witch didn’t have to depend on her unwitting host’s mercy. By the time she finished her story, she realized that the sky outside the house was already starting to grow lighter, the fog having cleared in the night. “You’re certainly a talker, aren’t you?” the older witch groaned, “Must come from town living.” The younger witch was about to sputter some words of protest when the older raised a hand to silence her, then pointed at the rising sun. “It’s going to be a fair day out, so if you’re going home, then I suggest you get a move on. No knowing if the weather will hold.” With that, she laid down on the bed and was fast asleep before her guest could say another word.
[Sounds of lying down on the bed]
The young witch didn’t know what to do. Her “host” clearly thought she wanted to return to her father’s house. It wasn’t the fact that she was wrong that bothered her – up until then, she’d been considering that very course of action. It was the fact that this stranger who’d only just met her assumed that she wanted to give up her quest and return to the comforts of home. At that thought, a rage welled up in her heart – a fierce determination to prove her fellow witch wrong, and more than that, to make sure she knew how wrong she’d been. Forget her dreams of finding a place that called to her, forget her longing for a realm of beauty and bounty to call her own… She was going to stay here, in this dark and secret patch of the deep-wood.
And that’s exactly what she did. She didn’t move in next door, per say… After that altercation, she hardly wanted to see her new neighbor on a daily basis. But she did find a towering cedar tree with a comfortable open space between its outstretched limbs a few miles away.
[Sounds of building]
On the first day, she built a small covered platform above the forest floor… just enough to keep the rain off and stay warm. From there, she began to expand her treehouse bit by bit, finding and building the tools of her craft and gathering materials until finally, she had a neat little witch’s hut with a clear view of the open sky. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable or sturdy as she would have liked, but she had built it herself, and felt no small measure of pride as she turned to the work of witchcraft.
[Sounds of digging near a stream]
Of course, the older witch was none too happy when she learned that this little princess (as she’d taken to calling her neighbor) had moved in to her forest. It was nearly six weeks before they crossed paths again, the younger startling the older as she knelt in a clearing, gathering mushrooms. “So you didn’t go home then,” she said once she’d recovered from her start. “You really should heed the advice of your betters, you know. Might do you some good.” This was enough to set off an argument between the two, which ended with the younger “accidentally” knocking a rather large pine cone off a branch as she stormed off, nearly hitting the older woman in the head. The elder witch glowered and grumbled before returning to her work, silently compiling a list of all the ingredients she’d need if she, hypothetically speaking, wanted to brew a poison for her little intruder.
The months passed, and the younger witch didn’t find any poison waiting for her out in the forest or in her rapidly expanding home. Instead, she just went about her business: keeping her portion of the forest clear of dead trees and beasts, helping the few passing travelers with their ailments in exchange for trinkets and materials she could not make herself, and listening as closely as she could to the voice of the Echowood, working to maintain the balance.
[Distant, echoing singing, mixing with a low drone]
Of course, its voice seemed far away here, and even what little she did hear was often drowned out by the presence of the other witch. As she worked charms of growth and renewal into a grove of quince trees ravaged by a windstorm, she felt another spell pulling against her own – not an intentional counter-charm, but one that slowed the progress of her work all the same. Across the forest, the older witch was sowing a spell of decay and shriveling on a patch of briars that had snuck its way in and was now choking the life from some of the oldest trees in the deep-wood. She felt the pull of the other’s spell and growled in annoyance. Of course that young fool was trying to make things grow and thrive: she wouldn’t understand the idea of balance if it hit her over the head with a pine cone.
So the older witch continued her spell, refocusing her efforts against both the briars, and her neighbor. A few miles away, the younger witch felt the increased resistance and fought it – working faster to weave the herbs and potions she’d collected and brewed into the earth around the trees, bending all her will against the pull of decay. It was difficult – a more difficult piece of magic than she’d ever worked – but by the end of the day, both witches, exhausted and sweating and cursing, had finished. It was over… But both of them knew this would happen again.
Of course, neither of them gave up, expecting the other to surrender long before they did. The older witch was more experienced, world-wise, and hardened than her young compatriot. The younger witch, on the other hand, was self-assured, educated, and above all, stubborn. She wasn’t about to let anyone force her out of another home, much less this crabby, ill-tempered crone. She was going to stay, come hell or high-water.
And so the stalemate continued: youth and willpower against experience and fortitude. After a few months, both witches started their days by weaving counter-spells against the other’s magic. After a year, they’d learned how the other moved through the forest and could avoid them with ease. After two years, they’d memorized the other’s foraging patterns, figuring out how to use what they left behind for their own workings. The young witch’s treehouse was now a sprawling, many-leveled thing with pulleys and elevators for moving materials around at ease. The older witch’s house remained stubbornly the same, though she’d taken the liberty of adjusting her protective wards and traps against her neighbor’s intrusions. By the time the third year rolled around, they were both so familiar with the other’s counter-charms and spells that they often incorporated them into their own work: adding the influence of the other’s spell to balance and strengthen their magic. All of this, they did almost without thinking of their neighbor – neither of them had seen the other in years now, though they had become accustomed to and even strangely comforted by their unseen presence in the deep-wood.
[Sounds of early morning, water boiling]
It was early in the winter of the fourth year when it happened. The younger witch – now older than she’d been at the start and considerably less fair-skinned for years spent beneath the open sky – woke with the sun, as she often did. As she brewed herself a cup of tea on her small brick stove, she began, almost unconsciously, to reach out with her mind, feeling for the influence of her fellow witch on the forest surrounding them. This was a ritual she practiced every morning: she was more of an early riser than her neighbor, and could often get started on her counter-spells before she awoke. As the water began to boil however, she frowned. Refocusing and reaching out again, she probed for the older witch’s power in her favorite places – the rocky little stream that ran down in the valley, the patch of ruins she’d been dismantling further north… even the clearing surrounding her home. It didn’t matter where she searched. She could find no sign of her rival’s power anywhere in the forest.
[Tea kettle sings, water poured into cup]
She tried to ignore it as she went about breakfast; finishing her tea and cooking a large duck egg she’d found by the pond. But hard as she tried, the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach made it impossible to eat.
She knew well enough that even when a witch is sleeping, their influence can still be felt wherever their works are found… That their mind continues to work magic in the waking world even as they dream. The only way to remove that influence was to render them completely unconscious, cut them off from magic through a counter-curse… Or kill them.
She didn’t want to go back to the older witch’s house. She also didn’t want to be this nervous about someone who had only ever offered her insults and heartache. But she was nervous, and so she did go… Leaving her workings for the day and making her slow, careful way across the forest.
[Footsteps through undergrowth, heartbeat fades out]
It wasn’t just her frayed nerves that made her cautious: if someone had attacked her neighbor, the most likely culprit was a witch-hunter – and if they were still around and found another witch investigating their handiwork, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her too. The walk across the familiar deep-wood took far longer than it ever had, but eventually, she saw her neighbor’s rooftop come into view over the low trees surrounding it.
She hesitated for a moment at the edge of the clearing. There was no smoke rising from the chimney, but there was also no sign of a struggle. The grass of the clearing seemed undisturbed, and the rough, unfinished door was closed. To all appearances, it seemed like the older witch had just slept late, as she often did. But the younger witch, much as she might like to, could not convince herself of that. And so, for the second time, she climbed the ladder and entered her rival’s house.
[Climbing ladder, opening door]
She was more careful about sidestepping the traps and lines of protective herbs laid out on the threshold than she’d been four years prior. The inside of the house was stuffy and tasted of dust, and she immediately opened the windows to air out the smell. As she did so, the morning light fell across the bed – and she froze.
Lying there, still as death, was her neighbor – her rough skin pale and slightly green, the muscles around her shoulders and neck looking wasted and drawn, her hair greying and thinning at the temples like she’d aged twenty years in a single night. The younger witch stood absolutely still, hardly daring to breath herself until she saw her neighbor’s chest rising and falling – slowly, almost imperceptibly, but she was unmistakably alive.
The younger witch didn’t hesitate, didn’t even think about her years of rivalry with the older woman. Instead, she rushed to the bed, placing the back of her hand to her neighbor’s forehead. There was no fever, and the skin didn’t feel clammy or cold. She placed two fingers gently on the other woman’s neck, feeling her pulse.
It was slower than it should be even in a deep sleep, but it was steady – not an illness of the heart, then. For a brief, terrible moment, she worried that the older witch might have suffered a brain hemorrhage that left her alive, but unable to work magic… And then she saw the plate of half-eaten mushrooms sitting out on the table, and all became horribly clear.
You see, the younger witch grew up in a kinder part of the world than her rival… But that didn’t mean that the cruelty of other places didn’t reach her. When she was about ten, a group of missionaries from the church of light – a company of witch-finders and a handful of emissaries – arrived in the decidedly agnostic village where she lived. The leader of the party presented the lord with a gift: a sealed box of witchbane, courtesy of the grand potentate. The lord, not wishing to insult the emissaries or the church that sent them, graciously accepted the gift, before quietly handing it to his gardener, telling him to dispose of the wretched things quickly, quietly, and above all, thoroughly. Before he did, the young witch-to-be caught a glimpse of the mushrooms through the glass lid of the box. They were brightly colored, a shimmering mix of red and blue and yellow. She had never seen mushrooms that looked so perfectly edible, and she was about to open the box to get a better look, when her father walked in and saw her with a hand on the lid. H e whipped the box away from her, placing it on a shelf well out of her reach before taking her in his arms and telling her what she’d almost eaten: a specially cultivated breed of death-cap mushrooms, grown in secret by the church of light and sown in the deep forest where witches were known to dwell. It was the church’s most vile and effective weapon in their crusade against witchcraft – even if those few people who knew of its existence also knew that it was responsible for far more deaths of non-witches than the church would ever admit. As far as her father knew (and when it came to plant-lore, he knew more than most anyone), they were the single most poisonous thing which grew in the soil of the Echowood.
[Low heartbeat, sounds of morning]
Those words echoed in the young witch’s mind as she stooped next to the bed, rooting her to the spot with dread – but only for a moment.
[Rushing footsteps, sounds of frenzied movement and cloth rustling]
The next she was across the house, whipping a dishcloth away from the basin and wrapping the mushrooms into a tight bundle, taking care not to touch any part of them with her bare skin. She thought through everything her father had taught her that afternoon: witchbane mushrooms were poisonous to eat, poisonous to touch, and the spores they let off even after they were harvested and cooked were poisonous. “Just three hours in the same room is enough to kill you,” he’d said, “Three minutes with it on your skin’ll do the same. But if you eat any part of it… Then you’re gone. Not right away, and not quick either… But gone as sure as an arrow through the heart.”
It was that part that made her work fastest of all. As she searched the hut for any kind of box or chest made of iron or stone, she worried that she might already be too late. For the first day after exposure, most people would feel nothing. But when they went to sleep, the poison began its vile work, shutting off part of the brain one by one. It shut off the ability to wake, locking the afflicted inside their dreams. It shut off their ability to do magic, cutting them off from any protective charms that might save them. And over the coming weeks – anywhere up to six or seven – it would leave its victim blind, deaf, and paralyzed before finally, it would reach the heart and stop it beating. That was what killed most witches who made the mistake of harvesting the alluring fungi… That, or they died of thirst long before the poison ran its course.
[Rummaging and ripping cloth]
The younger witch’s fingers closed around a small metal urn at the back of a cluttered cabinet, and she quickly stuffed the wrapped-up mushrooms inside. Quicker than she’d ever worked before, she ripped a long strip of cotton from the bedspread and wrapped it around the edge of the lid, sealing it as airtight as possible. She couldn’t burn it, she knew that – the spores would spread even faster and further if she did so.
[Climbing down ladder, running, digging]
So she rushed down the ladder, crossed the clearing to a bare patch of dirt and ash where nothing had ever grown, and dug a pit two feet deep with her fingers, caking her hands with grime before pushing the urn below and burying it.
[Running water in the forest, cloth ripping]
Running to the nearest stream, she scrubbed her hands for ten minutes to remove any trace of the poison, tearing off a small corner of her shawl and wiping them clean. By the time she returned to the hut, her heart still hammering in her chest, it had been more than an hour since she opened the windows, and any trace of the mushroom’s touch had been carried off by the steady wind blowing through the house. Now, at last, she could begin.
[Lighting and moving a candle]
The older witch seemed paler by the time she returned, her breath shallower. For a moment, the younger witch worried she might be too late – but she methodically lit a small candle, gingerly held her neighbor’s eyes open, and moved the flame slowly back and forth. Her eyes, though glassy, still responded to the light, and the younger woman breathed a sigh of relief. She still had time… Time to find the patch of witchbane that had done this and cut out its heart.
Perhaps the most wicked trait the church gave its monster – beyond what I’ve already described – is that the only known antidote has to be made from its heart: a gnarled, twisted mass of fungus that appears at the center of any large enough growth of witchbane. To cure the poison coursing through your veins, you need to pass through the very thing that wants to kill you – avoiding the mushrooms and trying not to breath their spores as your few remaining hours of useful movement tick down. And with most witches living alone, far from anyone who could possibly help them… It was a crueler poison than any should ever dare to use.
She scoured the areas of the forest the older witch frequented, checking all of the places where she normally gathered mushrooms, but found nothing. The poison-bright caps of witchbane were nowhere to be found, and as the day turned to night, she returned to the house on stilts, defeated and heartbroken. Even so, she kept watch over her rival into the bitter watches of the night, making sure she had enough water and what little food she could eat. Her condition worsened by degrees, but she knew that the older witch was still there behind the haze of the poison. She couldn’t say how she knew, but she did. Even deprived of sleep, heart hammering with dread – she knew.
[Sounds of night in the forest]
Unable to rest, the young witch began to search the hut for anything that might tell her where her neighbor found the mushrooms. After a few hours, she found a crude, hand-drawn map of the forest, concealed in a secret compartment she only found by luck and persistence. It was difficult to read unless you already knew that part of the forest, but once the younger witch determined which scribbles indicated the witch’s hut and her own treehouse, she was able to get her bearings.
[Paper moving, flipping]
[Early morning birds]
The sun had just begun to rise when she finally found it… a few lines of text that seemed newer than the rest of the map. “Bright patch of good ones here – not terribly tasty, but cook up nice.” She was out the door almost before she knew it, racing north.
[Footsteps, low drone]
It was easier to find the mushrooms than it had been to find the map, now that she knew what she was looking for. The sun, cutting through the treetops with golden brilliance, turned the swirling array of red and yellow and blue into a kaleidoscope of iridescent temptation against the green. Even knowing all she did, the younger witch did catch a part of her mind thinking about how tasty the mushrooms looked, just sitting there.
[Cloth ripping and wrapping]
But she shut it down as quickly as it spoke, pulling long cloth bandages from her satchel and beginning to wind. She wrapped several layers around her mouth and the exposed skin of her throat to keep herself from breathing in the spores. She wrapped an extra layer of cloth around the area where her trousers met her boots, to make sure no errant skin touched the fungus. And finally, she wrapped her hands from fingertips to elbows in thick cotton mittens that locked her fingers in place. With all that complete, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and thought of the last time she saw her father: standing at the back gate of the lord’s garden where the cultivated hedgerows gave way to the wild forest beyond. “Good luck, dear heart,” he’d said quietly, clearly trying not to cry. The young witch opened her eyes. If she’d ever needed that luck, it was here. She took a deep breath… And walked into the deadly grove.
[Footsteps, distant thunder]
Anthea’s dreams had been troubled… dark, violent, twisted things that brought her back to the worst parts of her memory, mixing them in ways that made her head pound and her heart ache. Memories of her older brothers pushing her down when she tried to play with them, only this time, they pushed her down a well that left her falling, falling, falling into an infinite deep abyss. Memories of the minister’s sweet-faced daughter picking flowers in the field behind the church, only this time, the flowers she plucked were torn out from Anthea’s skin, leaving red marks on her arms and legs that she couldn’t seem to scrub away. Memories of that last night in her childhood home, only this time, when she tried to flee, it wasn’t her younger sister who caught her at the back door, but her father, shaking his head as he hefted his axe, swung back, and then brought it down on her waiting head again and again and again as she died over and over… But the dreams would still continue. She would return to die in a different horrible way, and every time she though she must wake up, that she had to wake up… She just fell deeper and deeper into a sleep without end, towards the sleep that has no end.
She could not tell how long she’d dreamt. It felt like a lifetime. It felt like a single night. It felt like eternity. But then, as she found herself falling down that bottomless well once more, this time pushed by the preacher’s daughter… She realized the darkness wasn’t complete. There was a light, far above her… Not the harsh light of day seen through the mouth of the well, for that had vanished long ago. No: this was a pale, glimmering light… a clean, icy blue.
[High ringing noise]
Not the vivid tint of the mushrooms she’d found before she fell asleep, but the blue of a far-off comet or star, reflected in a frozen lake. It was beautiful, and distant, and it called to her… and so she answered. In the dream, she willed herself closer and closer to the light, drawing nearer until it stood taller than she did. And as it grew so bright that she had to close her dream eyes against the light, she could have sworn she saw the form of another person, hidden within the luminance. Then, all at one and with a sudden coughing fit, she awoke.
[Movement in bed, the sounds of the forest at night]
[A small crackling fire]
The younger witch was already at her side, steadying her head and holding a wooden pail beneath her chin. Before Anthea could question the reason for either, she felt her stomach churn, and she quickly made use of the bucket as her body evacuated the half-digested remains of brightly colored fungus from her system. The young witch made soft, reassuring noises as she held out a cup of water as soon as Anthea had finished. She almost spat something mean-spirited at the little princess, but the ragged dryness of her throat meant she could hardly speak, much less curse – so she accepted the water as graciously as she could. As she drank, her vision began to clear slightly, and she finally saw that the younger witch looked somewhat the worse for wear. Her hair was matted with dirt and sweat, her eyes bloodshot and marked by deep bags, and her forearms were still partially wrapped with bandages, the skin beneath red from scrubbing any trace of poison away. She even thought she saw a few grey hairs poking through her blond curls, but it was hard to tell in this light. All in all, it looked as though she’d aged about ten years since the last time they saw one another. But even so… She was still as infuriatingly beautiful as she’d been that first night they met.
Anthea got the whole story soon after, though the younger witch took several hours to tell it. Anthea could barely manage to get upset at her, though – She was still weak from lack of food and water for one thing, but there was something else that she couldn’t make sense of… Something about her old neighbor. Had she always glowed faintly when caught in the corners of her eyes? Had there always been a distant shimmer of starlight about her hair?
The younger witch left a few days later, once she was sure the last of the poison was out of Anthea’s system… And not a moment before. Soon, the older witch was able to resume her workings, and though it took her a while to get caught back up, life in that part of the deep-wood soon returned to normal. The patch of witchbane was walled in by the two witches with a line of iron-laced stones, and protective talismans and charms were buried in the ground surrounding it. The seasons turned as they always had, and the witches kept the balance… But something had changed between them. They no longer avoided one another’s company so completely, sometimes making excuses to cross the unspoken borders between their lands just to talk with one another. If one of them couldn’t find a key ingredient they needed for a working, they would make their way to the other’s home and ask if they had it in their stores. And slowly, the younger witch began to realize just how empty her sprawling treehouse felt with just her in it, and Anthea eventually admitted that she did like her neighbor’s home – that it was not, in fact, “a sprawling cancer growing on the side of a perfectly good tree.” And so – after a few years of dithering, humming, and hawing – Anthea dismantled her old stilt house and moved in with her neighbor. The two were spending so much time together, it was hardly worth the trouble of keeping two different witch-houses in the same region of the forest. And… if they were both very honest with themselves, which they very rarely were… they had to admit that they’d begun to feel certain things for one another. That they always had, ever since that first foggy night.
Three years after her brush with death, on the morning after their first night together, Anthea could hardly keep a childish grin from splitting her face in two. It was so out of character for the normally taciturn woman that her now-partner – whose name, as it turned out, was Maeven – couldn’t help but laugh as she asked her what was so funny. “Nothing, princess,” she answered, barely managing to keep down a laugh of her own, “I was just thinking what my parents would say, if they saw me now. I’ve done exactly what they told me never to do.” When Maeven asked her what that was, Anthea smiled even wider and said, in a half-whisper: “Keeping the company of witches.”
[The sounds of the inn return]
[Grael’s wings flutter]
Well then? Are you going to help me with these, or are you going to sit there looking flabbergasted all day?
[The traveler makes a faint, inquisitive noise]
Ah, I’d not worry about her, my friend. Witches have their own ways… But they’re rarely as frightening as they seem. Not once you get to know them. Now come on… There’s plenty of work to do yet!
[The Traveler stands up and begins moving the bottles with Grael]
Tales of the Echowood. Episode Two: Witches of the Echowood. Starring Sam Taylor as Grael and Alejandra Cejudo as Maeven, 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.