Chapter Three- Hodgey
I feel it best to preface this with an important disclaimer. Though I am sure most already know all I am about to relate, I occasionally find that however obvious a fact might seem there is going to be someone who misses it. I hope to avoid any and all confusion by just restating, up front, that I am a dog.
I am small. I have floppy white ears and curly white fur. I have been described as “fluffy” on multiple occasions. Also “adorable”, “cute”, and “get-that-stupid-mutt-out-of-my-yard”.
(That last one was more of a nickname).
So, with all this said and said again, I can safely state: As the stars lit my path through the forest underbrush, I wasn’t feeling like a very good dog.
Ahead of me, John carved our path, loud and clumsy as ever. He was babbling, as per usual, and I was tuning in and out as it suited me. “…and Sara still says that it’s my fault, but I’m pretty sure that if she had listened to me in the first place, none of this would have happened,” he droned, turning back to me as if he genuinely thought I cared.
“So, Hodgey.” He furrowed his brow, lost in thought. “What do you think?”
What did I think?
That I was a horrible person for lying to Violet. That I was selfish to want to go see the Valley, again and again, every time John went. That I wished I could do something, anything, to help Violet feel more like herself. That the material they had started using for dog toys was ridiculously abrasive, and somebody should write a very stern letter to the CEO of HugsPrint demanding they reevaluate their current quality control.
“I think…” I murmured, my voice still rough from the unnatural vowels of English. “I think you have put a lot of thought into whether a lawn mower or a motorcycle is better for the zombie apocalypse.”
“I mean, maybe.” John shrugged dubiously, pushing another large branch out of his way. “But it’s one of those questions, you know? The kind that keep you up at night.”
I grunted in a very noncommittal way, unsure how to respond, and scrambled over a log which stood in my way. We emerged from the forest, having reached the riverside. The same riverside where a mysterious rowboat, then John himself, had breached the space between worlds, leaving it open for further use. By John, at least.
Well, not just John. As we reached the river, he knelt near a hollow log and pulled a couple of small, smooth stones from its interior. They were marked with the same nonsensical runes which dotted John’s hands. The same ones which I was used to seeing Ruby scribble on everything. Sometimes, if he felt up to it, John could walk between worlds by himself. But most of the time, he had to provide some support. And frankly, I preferred it that way. Jumping through worlds with just John had never felt one hundred percent safe.
To be completely honest, John and I didn’t really get along. I found him impulsive and reckless. He found me judgmental and, well… small. We certainly disagreed over Violet a lot of the time. But over the past few months, we had come to a certain understanding. A fragile, tedious, understanding, but an understanding nonetheless.
As I watched, crouching on my haunches, John finished setting up his circle, arranging it so it was partially submerged in the water. “Okay, so,” he mused, rubbing his hands together. “I think we’re all set.”
“Good,” I said shortly, carefully stepping over the stones and toward John’s feet. As I squirmed, he reached down and picked me up. I licked my lips, trying to hide my frustration. This wasn’t terribly comfortable for any of us.
“I’d tell you to hold on, but…” John jerked his head toward my paws.
If I could’ve, I would’ve rolled my eyes. “Yes, yes, I have no fingers. Your wit knows no limit.”
“Hey, first of all–” John opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again. “You know what? I don’t care. I’m the bigger person. Literally. Okay, focusing now. Focusing. Focusing.”
I was just wondering whether talking incessantly actually helped him focus or if it was just an unfortunate quirk when the world blurred, and we started to fall through space. For a moment, we were at breakneck speed. For just a second, the sounds of the forest were replaced by the murmurs of something else. And in that void, I smelled something new on John.
A shiver arced down from my ears to my tail, but before I could react further I was face first in wet grass. Suddenly, sound had returned. The scent of oil and smoke had been replaced by the sweet soil of the Valley.
John hadn’t quite stuck the landing, but we were in the Valley. Hooray.
With a little bit of effort, I pulled my head from the earth and shook it a bit to clear the dirt. I blinked, taken aback by the sudden light. I heard a groan from John somewhere to my right. I didn’t smell blood on him, so he must’ve been lucky enough not to teleport onto a sharp object. Slowly, my vision cleared, and the fuzzy outlines of a few curious deer came into view. Framing them was the dense forest I had come to expect from the central Valley.
“Hey, uh,” John got to his feet, dusting off his shorts as he addressed the strangers. “We close to the Echo Caves?”
One of the deer whispered something in an unfamiliar tongue to the other, before looking up at us with some amusement. Before they could say anything, a familiar voice sounded from close by.
“John? Hodgey?” Oak galloped into view, grinning at us jubilantly. “You made it!”
“Yeah, thanks for laying out the stone circle for us.” John smiled, stretching a little. “I mean, I missed it by a bit, but it was helpful in connecting me here.”
“Any time.” Oak approached us. “We’re just outside the current encampment. You didn’t miss by that much.”
“I’m not landing in rivers anymore,” John admitted. “So, yay.”
This comment was met with a chuckle from Oak. “Come on in.” He waved us toward what appeared to be a clump of bracken ahead of us. “Ripple will be thrilled to see you guys! It’s been so long.”
“It has been,” John agreed. “But we’re here now.”
The deer began to trot into the woodland, motioning for us to follow. “Well, come on in! The camp is this way.”
We followed Oak through a narrow opening in the bracken, and emerged in the deer herd’s latest encampment. The last time I had been to a deer camp, it had been rather small. Though the deer tended to roam free in general, last year’s conflict had hit them hard, splitting their manpower and dividing their population. But once more, they were united, and it made for a much bigger, much more centralized, set-up.
The familiar shacks and milling deer were supplemented by scattered animals of differing species, and small carts of goods were set up near the gateway we had walked through. A school of small fawns were listening attentively to an elderly-looking teacher, and I saw some strong-looking adults carrying large quantities of moss into the Echo Caves. The whole thing reminded me of a tamer, quieter version of the otter encampment I had seen with Violet all those months ago.
“Hodgey! John!” A pleasantly unexpected voice chirped suddenly and the reddish form of Fira swooped down from the open sky. Grinning, she fluttered to a stop in front of our small group and nodded her head in greeting. “How was your trip?”
“Turbulent,” I growled, but my comment was lost under John’s louder response.
“Great, great,” he told Fira, smiling. “What are you doing here?”
“I was nearby doing some reconnaissance for the Crown,” Fira related amiably. “I’ve been checking in with Oak and Ripple on occasion, and they reminded me you guys were set to visit soon.”
“And you came to meet us,” John observed. “I feel very in demand.”
“Oh, hush,” Oak chuckled. “Save your posturing for our conversation with Ripple. We have some guests for you two to speak with.”
“Guests?” John raised an eyebrow, echoing my own curiosity. “Good guests or bad guests?”
“Not actively trying to kill anyone, if that’s what you mean,” the deer replied, digging at the ground unconsciously with a hoof. I supposed he was eager for us to reunite with his mate.
“Anyone we know?” John asked, oblivious to this. Oak shook his head and John frowned. “Weird. I thought we knew all the big players in the Valley.”
“You think you know the Valley?” Oak tilted his head, and I heard just a trace of a challenge in his voice. “You’ve barely begun.”
“Well, let’s not keep the strangers waiting,” I interjected shortly, indicating the entrance to the caverns beyond. “Shall we?”
“Of course.” Oak’s countenance lit up. “Ripple will kill me for holding you all so long.”
As our group stepped into the mouth of the cave, the scent of moonshine blossoms assaulted my lungs. I cringed- it was sickly sweet and overpowering. I found it hard to think of these flowers as anything but the lifeblood of the Nightlock poison, which had almost killed John last year. I mean, to be fair, a lot of things had almost killed John last year, but these flowers were still creepy.
As the ground sloped downwards sharply, the flowers slowly began to dwindle. We were getting closer to what had once been Boulder’s cave, back when he had led the deer. Ripple and Oak had broken tradition by choosing not to dwell within that cave, but I could not blame them… it held a lot of bad memories. Instead they had taken up residence a few passages down, in a simpler, cozier abode. One which we were getting pretty close to. We passed a group of chatting animals who were coming from another tunnel, and a bear nodded politely at me. I blinked, unused to the respectful gesture, and nodded back awkwardly. If I could have blushed I probably would have, upon realizing that said bear was by then far away.
“Alright, looks like this is the place,” Fira chirped, fluttering toward an upcoming opening in the cavern wall. It seemed to have been painted to resemble a forest—its walls covered with strokes of green, brown, and blue. It occurred to me that no deer would prefer to live underground than under the open sky. Ripple and Oak really were making a sacrifice for their people.
“It sure is,” Oak confirmed, a bit of a spring in his step. John and I exchanged a look. Oak sure had changed since he and Ripple had mated. Or married? Whatever Valley people did.
We stepped through the opening and into Oak’s home. As he had told us, it was smaller than Boulder’s, but no less grand. While Boulder’s had been adorned with artificial gemstones produced by the Crown, Oak and Ripple had furnished their new home with paintings. As with their doorway, the walls were covered with beautiful murals of simple things. A sunset. The riverside at midday. The Great City at its peak. It was truly beautiful.
At the other end of the “room”, we spotted Ripple. She was conversing with what appeared to be a stork, and a fox on cushions of some sort. The stork was unfamiliar to me- in fact, I was pretty sure I’d never even seen a stork in the Valley before- but the fox seemed familiar. I just couldn’t quite put my paw on her name. As we entered, she shot me a surprised smile, which I returned. Ripple and the stork were too deep in conversation to notice our arrival.
“Ripple, look who we found!” Fira sang, descending onto a perch near the doe. Ripple glanced over, surprised, and stood up.
“John! Hodgey!” She exclaimed. “And..?”
John shook his head slightly, and Ripple deflated a little. Violet had been a good friend of hers, and her absence hit the doe harder than she would like to admit.
“So this is the great hero!” The stork boomed in an unusually loud voice, and I cringed a little. He stood up, his long legs causing him to tower over the sitting fox and deer. Confidently, he strode up to John. “I’m Horatio, good sir. It is good to meet you.”
“Uh, you too?” John seemed just as taken aback as I was.
“So humble!” Horatio squawked. “What a guy, what a guy.”
“My apologies for Horatio,” the fox stated in a quieter tone, which somehow seemed to ooze more authority in a syllable than all of the stork’s bluster combined. “I’m Captain Scylla. Hodgey and I have met.”
Horatio seemed to realize I was there for the very first time. He peered down at me from above, his height making him more than a little imposing. “Ah, yes! Haji!”
“Not Ha-gee,” John corrected. “Hod-jee.”
“My mistake.” Horatio was unfazed. “Forgive my exuberance! It is just so exciting to meet you fellows at last.”
“Yes, John and Hodgey are really something,” Ripple cut in, sensing our discomfort. “Please, everybody, come take a seat.”
John and I exchanged a look and moved toward the circle of cushions where Ripple was resting. Oak took a seat between Scylla and Ripple, while John sat near Fira’s perch. I moved to sit on John’s right, when suddenly Horatio swooped in, taking the seat I had approached and leaving me to sit between him and Scylla.
I was isolated.
“So, Horatio, Scylla,” John began as he adjusted his seat. “What brings you to the Echo Caves?”
Horatio took a deep breath, likely preparing to launch into an endless tirade, when he was cut off by Scylla’s calm voice. “We come representing a group called the Memoriam,” she told us. “Have you heard of it?”
“I think once or twice.” John echoed my own thoughts. “But I don’t know what it is. It wasn’t really involved in the war and violence I was involved in.”
“The Memoriam is an alliance of Valley merchants and crafters,” Oak explained, his voice level. Whatever his opinion of these visitors, he did not show it. “They formed during the founding of the Valley, founded by an Inner Council of the wealthy and powerful. Their goal was and is to encourage the reconstruction of Valley trade and commerce. We’ve been especially active in recent years, keeping industry safe from the Soldiers’ rampages.”
As I tilted my head, scratching my side and trying to reconcile this very-human concept with the seemingly less material world of the Valley, John raised his hand.
“So, wait…” John sounded completely lost. “While we’ve been protecting the Valley, you’ve been protecting the Valley’s… money?”
“We are protecting the Valley’s culture,” Horatio cut in, sounding pleased to have finally found an opening in the conversation. “The Soldiers of Sorrow present a threat to life in the Valley as we know it. We wish to preserve the true essence of the Valley… the parts that make it worth living in.”
“Like the people in it?” John shifted uncomfortably.
“Things have changed,” Oak sighed. “Over the past few months, the Soldiers have shifted priorities from the loss of life to something else. They have made no effort to reclaim Pandora’s Box, or its key, and have mounted no secondary assault upon the Great City.”
“Attacks on villages have grown less frequent, but they are still happening.” Ripple’s face was grave.
“Caleb’s changed tactics,” John restated bitterly. “He’s covering his tracks again.”
“Over the past few months, the Soldiers have begun assaulting the cultural rather than political hubs of the Valley,” Horatio boomed. “Many of our chief analysts believe he is attempting to cripple the Valley’s trade.”
This did not sit well with me. What did Caleb hope to gain from this? What could he gain from this? There was nothing complex about the merchants of the Valley… nothing important for him to gain. His followers had always been enough to supply him with weapons, so what was this about?
“So, what do we do about this?” John bit his lip, deep in thought. “Unless Ruby has made headway in tracking down Caleb, we’re sort of at a loss.”
“Not necessarily.” Scylla pulled herself up grimly. “The Inner Council of the Memoriam believes they have a plan for handling this situation.”
“Great, what is it?” John leaned forward, curious.
Oak and Ripple stared at their hooves as Horatio answered with a haughty glee. “I’m afraid that is classified.”
“Sorry…” John looked just as dismayed as I was. “Classified? What is this, James Bond?”
“The Inner Council has invited the leaders of the Valley to attend their annual conference in Wsfyr, scheduled for a few weeks from today,” Oak explained, his voice dry. “They promise to detail their plan for the Valley there.”
“You both are invited, of course.” Horatio grinned at John and me . “We would be honored to host the Valley’s greatest hero.”
“Okay, sorry, let’s go over this once more.” John was absolutely furious. “You’re only going to help us if we attend your business lunch?”
“Attendance is not mandatory.” The stork sounded more than a little miffed.
“Look, all we ask is that you consider our offer.” Scylla sounded more apologetic, which I appreciated. “The Inner Council really admires you three, and it would be great if you showed. Even Violet, if she felt up for it.”
I glanced at John, who was still stewing over Horatio’s words. Violet was really our only viable option for dealing with these people—John would lose his temper pretty quickly, and Lord knew they wouldn’t listen to me. But Violet had a knack for diplomacy, one which could potentially nip whatever this was in the bud.
“We’ll do what we can,” I grumbled, and Horatio jumped a little bit, as if he had already forgotten my existence. Scylla gave me a grateful smile.
“Thank you,” she said, stepping off her cushion and trotting over to a nearby bag. She rummaged a bit and produced two slips of parchment, which she handed to John. “Here are your invitations. You’ll need them to get in.”
“Thanks.” John took the papers suspiciously.
“Well, we’ll give you some space.” Scylla cut off Horatio before he could start talking again. “After all, you didn’t come to see us.”
“Thank you, Scylla. Horatio.” Oak dipped his head respectfully at the two merchants. “If we can make it, we shall.”
It was all Scylla could do to drag her friend out of the cavern, leaving Oak, Ripple, Fira, John, and me alone.
“I think I speak for all of us when I say that Horatio is quite the character.” Fira sounded amused. “By the Great Seed, the Memoriam has grown audacious. They’ve gone from negotiating trade deals to ending a war. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Still, we need all the help we can get.” Ripple sounded thoughtful. “Besides, what harm can they do?”
“Looks can be deceiving.” John remained in a foul mood. “I learned that last year.”
Uncharacteristically, Oak seemed totally undisturbed by the subject of the Soldiers. He seemed to bounce impatiently, just as he had on our way here. I frowned. Something was different.
“Yes, well, we have enough time to worry about the Soldiers and the Memoriam later.” The deer chief dismissed our concerns. “Right now, Ripple and I have big news to share!”
Ripple shot Oak a questioning look and realization dawned on her face. Momentarily, the doe looked embarrassed. A little reluctantly, she turned back to us. “Fira, Hodgey, John, I have something to tell you,” she muttered, her eyes downcast. “It’s not a huge deal, but Oak insisted I tell you guys.”
“We’re expecting!” Oak bounced to his feet, ecstatic, and John and I moved away a little automatically. “I mean, she’s expecting! We’re going to be parents!”
“Wow, Ripple!” Fira squealed a little. “Congratulations!”
“Wow, uh…” John blinked, a little put off. “Wow!”
Well, I had not expected that. I feel like I should have, but sometimes things just sneak up on you, like a mailman at midday. “You will be lovely parents,” I murmured, and Ripple blushed a little.
“Not that it will matter if Caleb obliterates the Valley,” Ripple reflected bitterly.
“Very true, very true,” John agreed. “I need to get over to Ruby soon. Maybe I can help her get a lock on the Big Bads…”
“Well, I’m a little sore.” Fira fluttered her wings. “Fancy a walk, Hodgey?”
“Uh, sure?” I frowned, a little caught off guard. “Lead the way.”
I indicated a goodbye to Oak and Ripple, and followed Fira out into the hallway. Already, I had a few ideas about where this conversation was going.
“Before you ask, Violet is fine,” I grumbled. “She’s still shaken but in a bit–”
“I wasn’t going to ask about Violet, actually.” Fira shot me a confused look. “I know she has some stuff to work through. I was going to ask about you.”
“Oh,” I replied, stupidly. I had not expected that.
“How are you?” Fira pressed. “I know that John and Violet’s world isn’t the best for people like us. You doing okay?”
“I’m fine,” I replied instantaneously. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“You sure?” Fira was unconvinced. “I know we don’t know each other super well, but every time you come back its like some sort of wall has sprung up. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’ve seen misery before,” I growled, memories coming back unbidden. “and my life with Violet is anything but that. I appreciate your concern, Fira, but I’m fine. Really.”
Fira regarded me carefully for a second. “I believe you believe that,” she said after a moment. “But I don’t know whether I believe it’s true.”
The Valley Chronicles: Quest is available now from Lulu.com and will be available from other outlets shortly.