Episode 4: Oceans of the Echowood – Tales of the Echowood
CONTENT WARNING: Elements of thalassophobia, existential dread, and some body horror
Walking through the woods with Grael, the Traveler discovers a strange lake, hidden amongst the trees. But when Grael finds them standing beside it, his terrified warnings lead into a strange tale of the sailing captain Meredith Elmroot… The first and last to explore the waters of the Echowood’s enchanted oceans.
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/tote004
CONTENT WARNING: Elements of thalassophobia, existential dread, and some body horror
[Sounds of a forest at night – wind, owls, insects]
Before we get started, this episode contains elements of thalassophobia, existential dread, and some body horror. Content warnings and a full transcript are available in the show notes.
[Sounds fade down, muffled through a window]
[The traveler tosses and turns, unable to sleep]
[The traveler gets up, crossing the room]
[Sounds of the window being opened]
[The traveler breathes/yawns faintly]
[They stand for a moment, then start to return to bed]
[They hear something outside and stop, then go back to the open window]
[Far away, the sound of crashing waves]
Far did we sail, and far did we row, And further still did we fall. Our ship ran aground in the depths of the sea, And evermore shall we roam. Evermore shall we roam.
Once did I dream of a life on the sea, A life without trouble or strife. Now do I dream of my life upon land, That’s evermore out of my sight.
Far did we sail, and far did we row, And further still did we fall. Our ship ran aground in the depths of the sea, And evermore shall we roam. Evermore shall we roam.
You who are young and you who are free, And any who hear this song, Stand not too close to the edge of the sea, Lest you join us our crew down below.
Far did we sail, and far did we row, And further still did we fall. Our ship ran aground in the depths of the sea… And evermore shall we roam. Evermore shall we roam. Evermore shall we roam.
Homestead on the Corner presents: Tales of the Echowood
[Main theme ends]
[Sounds of the forest at morning]
[Footsteps, wings approach]
[Grael and the traveler push the foliage aside]
The thing is, there aren’t any gillers in the Echowood – everyone knows that – but this trader still thinks he can pull a fast one on old Grael. So I decided to play along. “How much for a bottle?” I asked. “What’s it worth to you?” He replied. “Well I don’t know sir… How dangerous are these things?” “Ooh, terribly dangerous,” he said, looking around like he was worried there might be someone listening in; “They can skin a man to the bone in the space of a breath.” “Really?” I said, trying to sound shocked, “Well how is it I’ve never heard of them, if they’re so dangerous?” “Well that’s the thing,” he said, clearly making this all up on the spot, “They kill you so quickly and so ruthlessly that no one lives to tell the tale, so most people don’t know about them.” “Then how did you make this potion?” I asked, barely managing not to laugh at this amateur, “How do you know that it works?” “Well, uh, I…” Hey, Traveler? Slow down a bit, would you?
[The traveler slows down, letting Grael catch up]
Thanks. Where was I… Oh right. “Well, uh… I use it every morning, and I’ve never been attacked by a Giller.” I gave him my best look of confusion and asked “But you have seen them before, right?” By this point, I think he knew that I was toying with him, and he started to say that he hadn’t seen one, but he used to know someone who knew someone who didn’t use his potion, and they… Traveler! Wait up, there’s no rush!
[The traveler takes off running, breaking through the foliage]
[Distant sound of waves, growing closer]
[Traveler’s footsteps slow as they arrive on a beach – lapping waves, sand, and wind]
[The traveler hesitates]
Traveler? Where are you? Traveler!?
[The traveler walks up to the edge of the water, splashing their hand in it]
[Grael’s wings approach, and he pushes through the bushes]
Ah, there you… What are you doing? Get away from the water, now!
[The traveler jumps back, startled]
Give me your hands. Let me see.
[Rustling fabric and movement]
Still mostly dry. Did you touch the water?
[Nodding, faint sound of affirmation from the traveler]
You didn’t drink it? Didn’t speak to it?
[Faint, exasperated noise]
Right, of course you didn’t. You should be fine, then. That was close, though.
[Faint questioning noise from the traveler]
[Grael takes a deep sigh]
No, my friend – it’s not just a lake. That… That is the Ocean of the Echowood. And I doubt very seriously those are waters you’re ready to tread.
[Faint movement as the traveler looks back and forth]
[Annoyed, questioning sound from the traveler]
[Grael sighs, exasperated]
Fine, fine… If you don’t believe me, at least believe those who first charted those waves. Maybe then you’ll be less keen to take a swim.
[Grael flutters to a nearby log, sitting down]
[The traveler walks over and sits down next to him]
Take a moment. Breathe in the smell of the air. Look closer at what you see as a lake, stretching away to meet the sky. Look at the shoreline, where the trees crowd in on every side as it curves away from you.
[The sound of gentle lake waves fades into the crash of the ocean]
Then look again, for though the lake appears small, you can see that the trees vanish from sight long before they reach the far shore. Look again, and see that the water vanishes over the horizon, lost to the far distance. And take another breath: for that’s not the earthy smell of a freshwater lake, but the saline bite of salt spray and sea. But don’t look too closely, breathe too deeply: your mind cannot hold both realities within the bounds of its logic. Even so – it’s not lying to you, Traveler. It isn’t a trick. And if your mind begins to scream a warning… listen to it.
[Faint, distant voices]
[The sounds of the forest fade up]
Those who live in the Echowood know the danger, and have always steered clear of the lake-which-is-not-a-lake. The Castle Caraway once stood not so far from these shores, one of its seven towers overlooking the sea… But few ever dared to go near it. It was a strangeness beyond the usual quirks of life in the Echowood, and almost no one desired to know more than that.
[Low, dark rumble]
I say almost no one, because many centuries ago, long before the castle was abandoned and Oakheart’s curse fell over its halls, there lived in the court of the king a great sailing captain by the name of Meredith Elmroot. She was not borne of any noble house, nor did she possess land or wealth of her own. She was a low-born peasant from a village in the deep-wood, a known friend of witches and bandits and outlaws, an outsider whom few could truly claim they knew. There was only one thing that placed her above the rest in the eyes of the king, and that was enough to grant her a place in court and a room in the castle, high in the tower that overlooked the sea.
[Faint sound of waves]
For as long as she could remember, Meredith had dreamed of the sea: she saw crashing waves and secret islands every time she fell asleep, the fortresses of coral growing in the shimmering depths, and the vessel that would one day bear her hence. This might not have been so strange, if not for the fact that Meredith had never seen the lake-which-was-the-sea when she was awake. In fact, she’d never even heard of it. Her village was a hundred miles from its shores, and rarely saw visitors who might tell of its dangers. But even so, she dreamed of it every night. She told the priests of her dreams, but they knew nothing of the sea – at least, nothing that helped her. So she ventured further afield, seeking out those hated and feared by the villagers in hopes that one of them could help her in her quest.
[Footsteps through leaves]
It might be best to point out that she was only 8 years old at the time, and the people she sought out were so surprised by her single minded purpose that they agreed to tell her everything they knew almost immediately. Even then, she didn’t learn much, though she did glean many useful skills from these encounters: she learned herb-lore and simple potion brewing from the local witch; a few basic runes from a strange sorcerer-hermit who lived in the woods nearby; swordplay and knife throwing from a band of merry outlaws; and how to talk her way into places she didn’t belong by an old, retired thief.
It was that last talent that proved the most useful, when 15 years later, she learned that the sea lay north of Castle Caraway and decided that she would persuade the king to fund an expedition. It was a long journey on foot to Castle Caraway, and a longer wait for an audience with the king… But she had waited her entire life to reach this point, so those months of waiting passed like a dream. An irritating, over-long dream, but a dream nonetheless. When her name was finally called and she stood before the assembled rulers and counselors of the Echowood, she gave her story in far more detail than I can here. She told of her dreams as a child and the years she had spent searching for the truth behind them. She feigned distaste for conferring with those beyond the light of the king’s benevolent rule, claiming they were desperate and dangerous flights of fancy. Inside, though, she smiled. She knew the old thief would be proud of the lie, even as she disavowed her friendship to deceive the rich and powerful.
She brought her story to a crescendo with her long and arduous journey to the castle, playing up the relief and wonder she felt when she finally saw the mighty spires of Caraway above the treetops. She had felt no such thing of course: the castle was not her destination after all, but one stop on her way to the sea. But by the looks of wonder, amazement, and pity on the faces of the assembled sovereigns, she knew that they were right where she wanted them to be. And so she at last laid down the final trick in her hand and knelt before the king – asking, begging, pleading with a humility she didn’t really feel that he grant her the funds she needed to build the ship she’d always dreamed of, hire a crew, and sail for the far side of the mysterious sea.
[A low fire, wind, and movement in the courtroom]
Silence fell over the court, and all eyes turned to the king. It was nearly five minutes before he answered. Her story impressed him, of course. He too had wondered what lay beyond the sea (or so he claimed), and he’d long considered the possibility of an expedition. Perhaps, he said – laying special emphasis on the uncertainty – Meredith’s arrival at the castle and her dreams of sailing were a sign… a divine blessing on the endeavor they both sought. It would take some time to gather the funds and expertise necessary for such a journey – but he would see it done… And until such time as she was ready to depart, she would be welcome in the courts of Caraway.
[Paper and pencil moving]
The king then gestured to one of his scribes to take his words down as a royal proclamation, sealing it with his signet ring and laying it into law. The assembled lords and ladies cheered, and Meredith felt her heart sink.
She had seen the signs in his words – the careful gaps in meaning that left her adrift and beholden to the king’s whims. He placed no time frame on the construction of the ship, and stranded her in his court until the expedition was ready to depart… and he had no reason to let her go quickly. He’d seen the way his courtiers looked at her – as a curiosity, a bit of novelty, perhaps even a prophet. Such a person was more useful as a feature in court than on the deck of a ship, and she kicked herself for not anticipating this.
For the next three years, she found herself the talk of the castle: the strange peasant girl who dreamt of the sea and kept the company of all manner of strange and secret people. At banquets and balls and between hearings at court, she found herself hounded for stories: tales of her exploits and wisdom from her sacred dreams. She offered them readily enough, even when she began needing to make up new ones. Much as she despised her new status, she knew that showing discontent and impatience would lead to nothing more than a swift kick out the door. And so she bided her time, as she had for so long. After all, the sea wasn’t going anywhere, and that was all that mattered.
[Music ends, The sounds of court return]
Three years into her imprisonment on land, however, she finally broke. She had heard no word of her ship being built or her crew being assembled, and every time she brought it up with the king he simply muttered that it was “next on his list, of course… I’ve a lot on my plate at the moment, you must understand.” She was no fool, and she knew when she was being strung along.
[Echoing voices and music in a large space]
And so, during one of the harvest banquets, she challenged one of the chief scribes to a drinking game. He did his best to keep up with her, but by the end the skinny, city-born scholar was slumped in his chair, blackout drunk. Meredith helped him back to his room, then swiped his key and broke into the archives while everyone was distracted with the festivities.
[Noises of the banquet grow dim in a nearby, underground space]
Shelves stacked high with dusty scrolls and tomes stretched away from her in the high-ceilinged vault, but she made her way straight to the pile of royal proclamations on a table near the door. After a few minutes of searching, she found the one the king had written for her, buried nearly five feet deep beneath a stack of court records. It didn’t take an archivist to figure out that it hadn’t left this room since the day it was written, and she felt no small degree of vindication as she folded it away inside her bag. The scribe would wake up with a earth-shattering hangover… But she’d been right, and after three years of waiting, she could finally begin.
[Sounds of the court fade back in]
The king was disappointed to see Meredith missing from court the next morning, but not terribly surprised. Half his advisors were sleeping off their drinks and probably wouldn’t be in their chairs again for a week. He was slightly more worried when she didn’t appear at mealtimes, and even more worried when he heard that Meredith wasn’t in her room – that she’d left the castle on horseback the night of the banquet and hadn’t been seen since. Even so, he reassured himself that she’d be back soon – either that, or she wouldn’t, and he could finally forget about fulfilling his costly promise. As the season began to turn and the leaves outside Caraway began to redden with autumn, he felt more and more certain that he was finally rid of Meredith Elmroot – at least, until a messenger arrived with the first bill from a shipyard near the great river.
He was none too happy that Meredith had gone behind his back, but there was little he could do: the proclamation was made before the entire court, signed and sealed by his own hand. It was law, and as the shipbuilders continued to cut and warp and hammer the timbers of the ship to Meredith’s design, the royal treasury dutifully paid for every nail and board. From her small room in the nearby inn, Meredith could look out the window and see her vessel beginning to take shape. She smiled – the room might be cramped and stuffy compared to her chambers at Caraway, but that room had been a barely disguised cell. Here, at least, she was free – and soon, the ocean would be hers to explore.
She chose her crew carefully as the ship neared completion. While finding sailors with experience on the open ocean wasn’t an option, there were plenty of strong backs and adventurous souls to be found passing up and down the great river. She found her first mate quicker than she expected: the captain of a sailing barge who’d spent his entire life on the water. She’d first heard his booming, commanding voice all the way across town, giving orders to unload the ship’s cargo. He too dreamed of adventure on the open ocean, and he signed on as soon as he found a new captain for his old barge. For her lieutenant, she brought on an elven ranger caught waylaying travelers on the main road, paying their bail and offering them a chance to turn their skill with sword and bow to the unknown dangers of the sea. For her quartermaster, she recruited a dwarf from the blue mountains, setting her fastidious miner’s mind to the logistics and supplies of the voyage. And finally, she filled the rest of her crew with a rag-tag assembly of every class and creed and shape: fae folk and wulvers and humans alike, all outcasts and outlaws unwelcome and unwanted on land, but whose hearts glowed with a kindred fire to that which shone in Meredith’s.
At first, many resented their captain and her royal commission, fearing they were being shipped off to die on a doomed expedition by an agent of the crown. Those feelings evaporated almost as soon as they met Meredith face to face, though. She could outfight, outrun, and out-swear the lot of them on her worst day, and anyone who thought otherwise was put in their place soon enough. She never used her captainship to distance herself from the crew, instead joining in on the chorus of their shanties, heaving a line if there was no one around to do so, and more often than not drinking the rest of her sailors under the table when evening came. That’s not to say that keeping up with the crew was easy for her, and she often woke with a splitting headache or bruises from her latest brawl… But her childhood spent amongst outlaws and her years spent sparring, drinking, and carousing with the knights and pages of the castle meant she knew how to use their expectations against them, taking advantage of their underestimations. By the time the ship was complete and fully seaworthy, the crew was close as kin and fanatically loyal to Meredith, and not her gold… though the pay, of course, did help.
[Sounds of a harbor town – the bell of a buoy, animals, waves]
The king only appeared once before they departed: standing on the edge of the dock and keeping his distance from the ragged-looking crew Meredith had assembled. He wished her godspeed on her journey before making a few underhanded comments about the appearance and decorum of her sailors. Meredith dismissed these with all grace and courtesy, reminding the king that he’d had three years to assemble his own crew. He coughed and muttered something about being unable to find the time, then turned and grabbed the bottle of wine from a nearby page. He raised his voice and prepared to christen the ship, blessing its voyage, its captain, and all who sailed upon the HMS Steadfast.
He felt a hand on his arm the moment before he swung the bottle down, and looked over to see Meredith standing at his side. Steadfast was a good name, she admitted… But in her dreams, the ship had always been called Evermore. The king looked from Meredith to his courtiers to the group of rough sailors watching on in expectation – then sighed, saying that it was indeed a better name.
With a final word and a broken bottle, the Evermore slid down the ramp and into the waiting waters of the great river, where she bobbed slightly before rising to her full, imposing height, main mast towering above the trees. Meredith thanked the king, promised to return in a fortnight with her report, and then ordered her crew to embark.
The proud vessel sailed swiftly out of the mouth of the great river into the lake-which-was-the-sea, cutting through the breakers with her captain’s longing for the open water. They left the harbor as the early morning tide flowed out, and by midday the last glimpse of the Echowood’s towering pines had vanished behind their stern. Meredith watched the last trace of green disappear and felt her heart soar. After nearly twenty years of waiting… She had made it. She and her crew were the first souls to sail this ocean, and that feeling of isolation and freedom warmed her belly and fed her soul. Finally… She was home.
[Waves and creaking wood]
The sea was calm and level for the first day, lake-like in its stillness as it stretched away from the ship in all directions. Evermore was a thoroughbred of a ship, strong lines and wide sails bounding ahead with all the speed she was build for. Her rudder still felt stiff and stubborn underhand, but Meredith knew she would soften with time and use as the ship and her captain became more familiar. When the sun finally set over the far-off horizon and the first watch of night began, Meredith stayed awake far longer than she should have, staring up at the sea of stars reflected perfectly in the darkened waters below.
[Sounds of wind and waves growing louder]
They sailed for nearly a week without incident, the waters growing steadily rougher as they went – though it was nothing the Evermore couldn’t handle. On the morning of the fifth day, however, Meredith and her crew woke to a strong headwind bearing down on them, halting their westward progress. The captain knew this might happen, and though she had hoped to sail straight into the setting sun for the entirety of their voyage, she ordered the sails trimmed and the ship turned to a northwesterly heading.
[Rattling ship’s wheel, creaking pulleys]
The vessel responded slowly, but soon enough she was underway again, and Meredith ordered the new heading charted and marked on their maps before returning to her ordinary duties. Sitting in the crow’s nest far above the main deck, she stared out through her spyglass, scanning the horizon for any sign of land – islands, archipelagos, sandbars, anything that broke the surface of the water and could be used as a beacon for navigation. But seven days into their voyage and with the wind only growing harsher, she still saw no sign of dry land.
It was on the evening of the seventh day, just before they were scheduled to turn back, when the storm arrived.
[Thunder rumbles, sounds of storm – crashing waves, rain]
The wind, by now a gale, suddenly slammed into the side of the Evermore with the force of a battering ram, turning the ship about and throwing the helmsman from the wheel as it spun out of control, the rudder dragging behind the ship. Before he could get back to his feet and stop the ship turning, the sky suddenly opened, the clouds losing heavy sheets of rain over the unsuspecting crew. The rigging pulled and twisted as the sails ballooned with the force of the wind, a few thick ropes snapping and flailing in the wind. The once-placid waves slammed into the hull, tilting the deck beneath the feet of those still trying to process the fact that it was raining as water began to pour over the railing on the port side, filling the bilges almost instantly.
All of this happened in less time than it takes to describe, and Meredith needed nearly ten seconds before she was recovered enough to begin shouting orders: strike the sails, weigh anchor, and get below to pump the bilges clear! Her crew, still shaken and unsure, quickly proved their worth as they jumped to their tasks: pulling down the sails with almost unbelievable speed, dropping both anchors to stop the ship from spinning, and forming a chain gang and bucketing out the water pooling in the bilges. As the chaos of the storm was slowly overcome with the hurried movements of work, the crew began to sing, keeping time with the lilt of their song against the pounding waves.
[Voices singing a sea shanty, sounds of work]
The storm lasted the whole of the night, breaking just before the sun rose above the far horizon. For all that time, the ship had rocked and bucked like a wild horse trying to throw its rider, rising and falling as ten foot waves broke against its sturdy sides, but no hands were lost, and it seemed they might escape unscathed. But right before dawn, a fierce wind bore down on the mast, twisting at the already strained and splintered wood as it tore the mainsail free from its rigging. The sailors tried to bind it back up, but they were too slow, and the proud mainmast shattered and fell with a roaring crash into the churning waters below.
[Sounds of breaking wood and a loud crash]
[Sounds of the storm fade away]
The sun shone in a cloud-streaked sky as Meredith and her first mate took stock of their damage ship. The bilges were already dry, and the ship still rode high in the water. The fine woodwork and paint of the hull was chipped and worn, but it was nothing they could not easily repair. But the mast… That was a bigger problem. The ship had oarports on her lower deck and was built to be rowed if needed – but not all the way back to port. Her crew were loyal and hearty, but it would take more than a week to cover the distance… and every body had limits it was best not to test. She felt her heart sink as she realized they might not have another option. They’d still seen no sight of land, and the only way to replace the mainmast was with a large tree trunk – the kind that was plentiful in the Echowood and all-but-impossible to find in this vast, endless ocean.
Her voice was just starting to rise as she argued with her first mate over the best course of action when the sprite in the crow’s nest cried “Land ahoy!” They looked at one another in disbelief, then raced up and onto the foredeck. Indeed, rising out of the fog a few miles to port was what looked to be a large island: its shores rocky and harsh, but still covered in the tall, strong trees of the Echowood. The crew groaned when Meredith ordered them to take up the oars, but a few sharp words from the first mate made it clear that their options were either to row to the island, or row back to Caraway. Within the hour, the Evermore was anchored in a shallow harbor, her rowboats cutting through the water towards the narrow black sand beach ahead.
[Sounds of rowing]
[Music, continued sounds of waves]
They stayed ashore for almost a week, searching out the perfect tree, carefully cutting it down before stripping it of bark and sealing it with pitch. The crew floated it back to the ship, where the boatswain and her mates fitted the sails and raised the new mast, securing it to the deck in place of the old. Their work ashore done, the rest of the crew took the opportunity to explore the island, gathering food and water to replace their rapidly thinning stores. The island seemed to be inhabited only by a few species of land-locked birds, and a colony of albatross, watching on from the tops of the trees. The sailors left them well enough alone, of course: they all knew the bad luck which came with killing seabirds, and so they limited their gathering to the fruits and nuts that grew in plenty in the island’s dark, volcanic soil. No larger beasts lived there, no fae folk, no witches… They were truly the first people to set foot on that island, and the silent stillness beneath the trees was broken only by their movements and the persistent crash of waves in the far distance.
Finally, at the end of their sixth day at anchor, the sail was raised on the new mast, and the Evermore left the port of that lonely island with a rousing cheer from her crew. Meredith smiled to hear it. Though the mast looked clearly out of place against the dark, milled wood of the rest of the ship, it would more than suffice to bring them back to Caraway. Turning to the helmsman, she ordered a new course: southeast and back to the Echowood.
[Sounds of the ship wheel turning]
It wasn’t until the third day that she realized they were off course, when another island – this one small and sharp and thin as a dagger of glass – appeared off the port side with the morning sun. Meredith was the first to see it, rising a few yards out of the water. She turned and called out to the cartographer to mark its position – but when she looked back, it was gone. She blinked several times to make sure her eyes weren’t deceiving her, but there was no sign of it. She shook her head and dismissed the cartographer, figuring she was just seeing things in her exhaustion: she’d been at the wheel all night, fighting a strange current that kept trying to turn the boat to starboard. In any case, the watch was changing, and she gratefully returned the wheel to the helmsman before retiring to her bunk for rest.
[Sounds of hurried movement and voices]
She was woken a few hours later by shouting above deck and a fist pounding on her door. The first mate charged in, saying there was something wrong but refusing to say what it was. Grumbling and bleary eyed, Meredith climbed the stairs, blinking in the light of the midday sun as the foredeck buzzed with activity. Sailors ran back and forth, pointing at something she couldn’t quite see against the glare of the water and speaking with a mix of excitement and fear. Irritated, Meredith demanded the first mate explain what was going on. He simply pointed out towards the horizon and said: “Look.”
Squinting and shielding her eyes, Meredith looked out towards the line where the brilliant sky met the blinding waters. For a long moment, she saw nothing – then she gasped. The dark, sharp island she’d seen earlier was back: now off to the port side and nearly ten leagues closer. A few degrees south, another island rose behind it: this one rounded and green like a small, grassy hill. And a few miles further south, another just like it rose above the water… And another… And another… In every direction surrounding the ship, those squat green isles rose from the water… And then she saw the sharp ridges of the first island disappear below the waves, and she realized what she was seeing.
Battle stations were called, and she ordered the ship to turn about and flee. The oars were lowered, and what crew were not needed to carry spears and crossbows above began to pull with all their might away from the twisting, rising flanks of the impossibly huge sea serpent surrounding them… But it did no good. The strange currents Meredith had been fighting now swirled around the ship, turning the prow against their desired course whenever they drew close, and soon the Evermore could only move in a spiral within the turning, snaking body of the creature. Still they pulled, the helmsman struggling at the wheel as he tried to resist the swirling maelstrom. The crested isle – which Meredith now realized was some kind of fin that marked the leviathan’s head – was moving faster, growing closer and closer as it snaked around her ship. The water began to churn and roil as the beast tightened the great circle of its body, and Meredith could clearly see the shining green of its scaly flanks as it drew within range of the crossbows. She ordered the archers to fire, but it did no good – the pitifully small bolts simply sparked and flashed off its sides, which moved so quickly that the thin ridges and markings of its body were almost a blur. The waves began to buffet the ship back and forth, and the rowers had to let go of their oars as they bucked and shook in the white-caps. Meredith ordered the spears to the sides, ready to attack this creature if it tried to crush the ship beneath its enormous weight… When it suddenly slowed, and then stopped.
Meredith’s breath caught in her throat. She could see its body resting in the water less than twenty yards away, turning slowly to keep itself afloat. The waves grew calm and still again, but there was no way to row clear now – the serpent was too close, and the gaps between the humps of its back were too narrow to sail through. Then slowly, almost bashfully, the crested head of the sea-beast rose out of the water just off the prow.
[Splashing, pouring water]
It was thick and angular, with bright yellow-gold eyes that stared out of wide, round eye sockets clearly not made for life on the sun-baked surface of the water. A thin, forked tongue flicked out as if tasting the air, its thin, snake-like nostrils flaring as it sniffed at the strange intruder before it. Its mouth opened slightly, exposing rows upon rows of sharp, needle-like teeth as it stared down at the Evermore and her crew with what seemed almost to be… Curiosity? At least that was how Meredith read the look in its eyes, though perhaps that said more about her than this creature.
[Splash, sound of increased waves]
After a long, heart-stopping moment, the serpent turned away and dove back below the waves. The curves of its body began to move again, following the head down into the fathomless depths of the great sea in a long, snaking motion. Meredith felt the currents of its movement begin to pull the ship forward, and she ordered the rowers to back oars and heave like their lives depended on it. The ship just narrowly avoided being pulled under by the great beast’s passage, but soon… all signs of it were gone, and the sea was quiet and still again. The crew breathed a sigh of relief… Until someone noticed the hundred tiny cracks and splits in the hull, slowly filling the ship with water.
[Dripping water, hammering, sawing, and tearing cloth]
The Evermore was a blur of activity for the remainder of the day, every hand hammering cork or nail or board or desperately heaving buckets full of water as they tried to restore the barrier between sea and ship. The anchors could not be lowered for fear of submerging the ship and the rudder had shattered in the fight, so the Evermore just continued to drift on the currents of this strange sea, moving further and further off course… If she was even on course to begin with.
When the sun at last set, Meredith looked up and saw constellations she did not recognize – stars that had never been seen in the Echowood. They had been shifting for days, growing stranger and less familiar every night – but now it was undeniable. Wherever they were now, it was nowhere near Castle Caraway.
At long last, the ship stopped taking on water. Her proud, smooth hull was now a mismatched patchwork of spare lumber, canvas, and thickly woven patches of unfamiliar grass collected from the island now far behind them. Much of the foredeck and a few of the smaller sails had been torn apart to provide the material, and Meredith could barely recognize the ship she’d spent most of her life dreaming about. The only patch of hull that remained the same was the upper portion of the stern on the port side, where the vessel’s name had been painted shortly after they put to sea. Now the bright gold letters shone mockingly back at her, laughing at her optimism, her hopes for this voyage. Evermore. She was beginning to fear it was a more apt name than she could have imagined.
Meredith didn’t voice these fears to her crew, but she knew they’d all begun to feel it. As the seventh day of the voyage home ended and the third week began, none of them could deny that something strange was going on. In their hearts, a strange ennui began to set in… A haunted feeling that they were utterly alone in all the world, and that the shores of the Echowood were no closer than they’d been the day before – that they’d never be, no matter how far they traveled. But they were sailors, and they were loyal to their captain above all else… Even as she began to spend more and more time alone in her cabin, or staring out from the edge of the deck into the dark and endless depths of the ocean below. So they kept sailing east – or at least, the direction their compasses told them was east – chasing the rising sun towards an ever-receding horizon.
Do you ever really notice it? The moment when things begin to change? Where the change begins, how it begins? It’s a small thing, more often than not – something insignificant, all-but-unnoticed. A felled tree, a crow’s song, a point of light glimmering brighter than all the others in the sky. A stone dropped in a mountain pond. Do you ever see the consequences, rippling out from the moment like the shifting of the tide? Can you ever know what one thought, one chance encounter means? Or are we all adrift on a sea of sights and sounds and choices, rolling one upon the other all the way to the world’s edge, and only knowing once we’ve looked behind what any of it meant? Our lives are one unbroken line, stretching from a birth we do not remember to a death we cannot know.
The fourth week at sea ended without sight of land, as did the fifth… And the sixth… And the seventh. The supplies had been exhausted a long time ago, but none of the crew seemed to care: no one seemed to feel hunger any longer, and when they became thirsty they simply lowered a bucket over the side of the ship and drank the warm saltwater down in great mouthfuls that should have made them wretch and gag… But didn’t. By the end of the third week, the wind had died completely, the sails hanging limply from their makeshift mast – and yet the ship continued moving, sailing on a flat, still ocean towards a destination no one knew. Few noticed when the sun stopped rising and setting, and no one made mention of it to their comrades. When the patches of sea-grass they’d used to mend the hull started growing, overtaking the boards milled from proud, strong Echowood trees, no one thought it strange… At least, no stranger than the changes they were beginning to notice in their own bodies, as their skin started to grow thin and scaly and fine membranes began to appear between their fingers and toes.
Sometime – I cannot say when, for they had stopped counting the days when the sun stopped turning – Meredith stood with her arms hanging over the railing, staring out at the blinding water as she so often did, when she felt something wet and thick fall against her cheek. She reached up and calmly brushed the seaweed now growing from her scalp away, unable to convince herself that this was unusual, much less dangerous.
She had been called to the sea, after all… And here she was. The true sea at the heart of the Echowood… The sea without end, which drew all things to the heart of the deep. There were no headings here, no directions, no compass points that mattered. The only direction which mattered – which was even possible – was further in, further down, deeper and deeper towards the center of all things.
She would miss the land, she thought as she slowly climbed up onto the railing, still staring out at that impossibly bright water… Or at least, she thought she would. She’d spent so many years trying to reach this place that she didn’t really feel like she’d lived on land at all. She realized with a start that she couldn’t remember her parent’s faces – not with any real clarity. They were probably still alive somewhere, living their lives of quiet stillness below the trees… But Meredith’s pace of life had left them behind a long time ago, and as she stood on the rail with one webbed hand on the rigging, she did feel some small guilt for that… But this was the life she had chosen, and her parents had always wanted her to be where she was happiest, where she felt she belonged. They did not share her dreams of the sea, but they had always believed in them… In her… In what she would become. And with one last thought of home, she stepped from the railing and fell to the embrace of the smooth, still waters below… And Meredith Elmroot was no more.
[Sounds of the waves and forest fade in slowly]
Ten years later, long after the voyage of the Evermore had been declared a failure and the sailors mourned by those few people who knew them, a young fisherman stood on the shore where the sea met the great river, whistling a wordless tune. The sun had already set, but he’d had poor luck all day and just wanted to catch something before he returned home to his husband. As he watched the currents of the river carefully, he heard a sudden splash from the lake beyond. Startled, he looked up to see that something had landed in the water nearby – a wide, flat plank of old wood, seemingly broken off from a larger piece. Curious, the fisherman carefully pulled it out of the water with the end of his pole, for he knew better than to swim out into the lake-which-was-not-a-lake.
It was indeed a milled, finely cut plank, seemingly from the hull of a ship – and when he flipped it over on the sand, his eyes went wide. The letters painted there, though chipped and faded, could still be clearly read, even in the dying light: Evermore.
He heard another splash and looked up just in time to see a vaguely human figure dive below the surface, its long mane of kelp trailing behind it as a flippered tail rose briefly into the air, before it shot below the surface, descending to the undersea kingdom of the mer-folk… Where the Evermore, her crew, and her captain remain to this very day.
[Grael stretches with a sigh, sits up, and begins to fly]
I’m headed back to the inn. You can stay out a while longer if you want to… But don’t go near the water again. The mer-folk might not be hungry… But the sea most certainly is.
[Grael flies off into the trees]
[The traveler sits still for a moment, then stands up to follow]
[The traveler stops, then makes a faint, inquisitive noise]
[Maeven emerges from the trees]
Oak and thorn, I thought he’d never shut up. Quite the little storyteller is your host, isn’t he?
[The traveler steps back, making a faint, threatened noise and putting up their hands]
No need for that, “Traveler…” Your fists wouldn’t do you much good anyways, even if I did come to fight. I’m not here to hurt you… Although, if I did want to foil the sprite’s plans, killing you wouldn’t be the worst move I could make. Might even force him to reconsider it all…
[The traveler steps back, accidentally stepping in the lake]
[Thunder rumbles in the distance]
Now now, no need for that – I was just thinking aloud. And he wasn’t lying about the sea, so I’d step away from it, if you wish to remain as you are.
[The traveler hesitates, then steps forward]
That’s better. You really can trust me, you know. You’re not a part of the Echowood, so it has no designs on you – unlike our inn-keeping friend. And harming you would barely slow him down. He’d have another human here before the season turns.
[Faint, questioning noise from the traveler]
Yes, him. Listen close and mark my words child, for I will not say them again: Grael is not who you think he is… And you are in terrible danger.
Tales of the Echowood. Episode Four: Oceans 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.