The man in ragged clothes with a worn face and sad eyes has no name. It is better not to have a name, he thinks. Names are dangerous. Names can find you out, can make others remember you. Names have meanings, have stories attached to them. A name contains everything you have ever done, all you are, and all you will be. Names follow and precede you. To have no name is to have no story. No one notices a man with no name, with dirt on his face and rubbed into his clothes beyond repair. A nameless person is just a passing shadow, and that’s all he wants to be.
I am no one, I am nothing.
At first, it’s a desperate plea that he whispers over and over with his hands clasped over his ears whenever he hears those footsteps coming toward him. For those first months, he hears them wherever he goes, even when he’s alone. Even as those moments become fewer and further between, he still thinks those words to himself when he looks over his shoulder. It’s what he thinks in a white burst of panic if someone’s eyes linger on him a moment too long. It’s what he whispers while ducking into hiding places when he feels someone has been walking behind him a little too closely. It’s what he says aloud to the shadows before opening his eyes to find no one there. It’s what he tells himself as he enters and leaves towns without even bothering to look at their names, knowing he won’t settle and stay.
Soon, it’s a mantra. It’s the last thing he thinks before falling asleep, and the first thing when he wakes up.
I am nothing, I am no one.
Being no one is easier than being someone. It’s best to be a permanent stranger, a ghost haunting every place he visits. Eyes slide over him without noticing him. He is forgotten the moment his disappears from someone’s line of sight.
Sometimes, though, he has to be someone. It can’t be avoided.
He is Edmund to the tavernkeeper who he makes small talk with to learn about the things that have transpired in the outside world since he was…away.
He is David to the kind old woman who finds him asleep in her barn and offers him a meal instead of the handle of the broomstick she holds.
He is Nikolas to the owner of the shop where he finds supplies, stolen later that night.
He is Erik to the guard who lets him into the next town he finds, after several days of sleeping in the woods.
Sometimes, being someone is just that…being someone. His name is Dirty Beggar or You There, Drunk or Strange Man or even Hey, Thief and that is okay. There are days where it is easier to be any of those things than having to become Cedric or Randolph or anyone else.
But mostly, he is no one…just a dirty, thin wanderer with sad eyes and no name. Forgotten moments after being seen, just another faceless stranger.
In his dreams, he is always someone.
He dreams of being a little boy, with a name he won’t let himself speak, who had friends that he played with in the woods near their village. A little boy who was welcome in any home in the village, collecting stories and treats from the older citizens with his friends. A boy who sat on his mother’s lap and learned his letters. A boy who walked in the woods with his father and learned how to always find North so he could get home. A boy who everyone was so excited for, who held so many dreams in the palm of his hand. A name not forgotten, but not allowed.
He dreams of being older, of a name he cannot forget, he cannot block, no matter how hard he tries. He is Bren, christened thus on the first day of his new life. Bren who charmed teachers and learned quickly. Bren who studied too hard, his friends said, as they dragged him out to roam the streets of Rexxentrum. Bren whose name was chanted during drinking competitions, the surprise weapon of their class.
He is Bren at the formal balls, hand in hand with one of his best friends. Bren, who shared a mutual first kiss with the first person he’d ever fallen in love with. Bren, who sent messages back and forth all night long. Bren who loved the way she said his name in her whispered messages.
Bren who was twice hand-picked—to do great things, he had thought. Bren whose name was given with pride and possession by his master. Bren who endured every test, every experiment, who passed them all, save for one.
But the dreams always end the same.
He is Bren and he hears his new name and his old, forbidden one in the inhuman screams coming from the burning house, begging him for help. No matter how he tries, Bren can never reach them. Bren set the fire. Bren cannot put it out.
I am no one, I am no one, I am nothing, no name, he thinks desperately upon waking, a hand clamped over his mouth to keep him from speaking aloud.
Nothing. No one.
He often wakes up begging not to be Bren. He could never bear all of the things that the name Bren means. Bren belongs to that man. Bren is made of fire and endurance and precise incisions and burning, writhing magic under his skin. Bren is made of equal parts cruelty and promise. Bren is powerful and terrible. Being no one is better.
The name Bren calls forth the sound of screams now.
Quiet now, Bright One, Frumpkin purrs in words that aren’t words as he curls on his master’s chest, calming him after these nightmares.
“Bright One” is the name given to him by his familiar. Names are important to fey creatures. Giving a name holds power. Frumpkin accepts that he is called Frumpkin because that is the name given to him by his master (and because it is such an amusing human name). And in turn, he calls his master Bright One (for the power that burns in him like bright fire, and the bright fire on his head, Frumpkin says). He did not like the name at first (can he never escape those flames?) but grows used to it as his bond with his familiar also grows.
But though this is the most consistent name he keeps, the man-who-used-to-be-Bren does not consider himself to be Bright One.
He considers himself nothing. No one. No name. Just a ghost, a stranger. He infuses every step, every movement of his body with this persona. Building himself into nothing.
To be nothing is safe. To be no one is the best way to walk.
The guards who throw him in the dark, cold cell don’t ask for a name. They don’t care. It’s late when they arrest him; they’re less concerned about who he is than how quickly they can get back to their cups and their dice games in the guardroom.
He curls against the wall, a nameless prisoner. No one will come for him; no one is interested in a dirty, ragged would-be thief with no name. Perhaps he will die a no-name prisoner, buried in an unmarked grave or scattered to the dogs to be devoured until it’s like he never existed at all. Unfortunate, but not unfitting.
He wraps himself in his coat and scarf, burrowing down into a cocoon of semi-warmth. It’s a long time before he falls asleep, but he does.
Later, he’ll be surprised that the guards’ footsteps don’t wake him, nor does the slamming of the door. No, neither of these things wake him from his exhausted, (for once) dreamless sleep. But the tiny, airborne body crashing down on top of him does.
Whatever it is tries to nuzzle into his coat. He startles awake, sitting up quickly with a hoarse, cut off shout. A ball of green wrapped in grey and black garments tumbles off him and rolls to its feet with a shriek of terror. It shrinks against the wall, edging away from him toward the far side of the room.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t realize you were a person! I thought you were a pile of rags—oh god, I’m sorry!” She’s a goblin, he can see that now that she’s closer to the torch light. Her eyes are wide and frightened, but a nice gold color and slitted like Frumpkin’s. Her ears and nose are adorned with gold rings. Her long fingers are splayed against the wall.
He blinks and shakes his head, trying to clear it of sleep.
“Nein,” he says, “I am sorry. I did not mean to frighten you.”
“No, no, it’s my fault!” the goblin squeaks. “I should have looked more closely before I just jumped on you. I—I didn’t realize you were a person.”
He looks down at himself thoughtfully for a moment. A pile of rags is not a bad way for someone who’s no one to appear.
“Well, I cannot say that I blame you,” he says. “I do appear to be more rag than person right now.”
The goblin seems unsure of what to say to this. She presses back further into the wall. He watches her curiously as he stretches, trying to get feeling back in his limbs. The floor is not the most comfortable floor he’s ever slept on.
“Well?” the goblin explodes. He jumps.
“Well what?” he asks.
“Aren’t you going to…you know…beat me up or something?” she demands.
He frowns at her.
“Nein…why would I do that?” he asks.
“Well…because…that’s what people like you do when they see someth—someone like me, right?” Her voice is hard.
People like you. His heart starts to beat harder. How does she know? He’s just a dirty stranger with no name. A pile of rags. How does she know of the goblins he’s killed in the name of the Empire? How does he know what he’s like at all? He has no name, no story. He’s no one, nothing.
“People…like me?” It takes effort to ask the question. Even to him, his voice sounds small, but the goblin doesn’t seem to notice.
“You’re a human aren’t you? And me…look at me,” she gestures to her face, baring her uneven, pointy teeth for emphasis. “I’m a goblin…”
He relaxes. A human. Not…not anyone else. He is still safely no one.
“So what? You haven’t done anything to me,” he says.
She eyes him for a moment, hesitating.
“All I usually have to do is exist,” she says.
The voice of that man echoes in his head.
“Goblins…nasty little pests marring the face of a perfect empire. They are nothing but primal animals, raiding and killing livestock and even taking human children. Those…things don’t deserve pity. They deserve death.”
Bren tortured and killed many goblins without a second thought. Why worry about it? They’re just things. Animals. Dangerous and dirty and disgusting.
He is not Bren.
He looks at the creature in front of him. She’s no primal animal. She’s a person, a very terrified person, cowering against the wall of a jail cell. Cowering from him. They threw her in here with him.
“Existing is no crime in my book,” he tells her firmly. “I promise you, no harm will come to you from me.”
She hesitates, her eyes narrowing for a moment like she doesn’t really believe him.
“Oh, um. Okay then,” she says. She takes a step away from the wall, and then another. She moves slowly, not taking her eyes off of him, as if she’s afraid of startling him. He nods at her. She clears her throat nervously.
“So um. What’s…what’s your name?” she asks.
No one. Nothing. I have no name, his mind whispers.
“Ah…Caleb,” he says after a moment, plucking the name from nowhere in particular. “Caleb Widogast.”
“I’m…I’m Nott,” the goblin replies, some unreadable expression flitting across her face.
“Nott?” he repeats.
“Yeah! Uh…Nott the Brave. See, get it? Because I’m not…I’m not very brave,” she gives him a lopsided grin.
He smiles back at her. It surprises him. He has not smiled in a very long time. People who are no one don’t usually have a reason to smile, least of all him.
Now he is Caleb Widogast and he helps Nott the Brave escape from the prison. She, in turn, rescues him from the overwhelming flames that threaten him. The flames he caused.
Will he ever not be Bren?
A free man again, he wanders from place to place, town to town. The dirty man with sad eyes now has a small green shadow. He teaches her how to be no one. When they are no one, they are ignored, which he prefers an she accepts with relief.
No one is best.
He isn’t no one to Nott, though. Not ever. Even when they aren’t speaking, she smiles up at him and he feels like someone. It feels strange to be someone all the time.
“Caleb,” she says, coming to him with a question or something to show him. Sometimes he forgets that “Caleb” means him. She finds it endearing, assuming he’s lost in his book or in his own thoughts. Caleb is someone that belongs to Nott. To her, he is a wandering, thoughtful self-taught wizard from a poor village, looking to learn more magic. Nothing more. But it’s enough for her. She likes Caleb. Sometimes she says “Caleb” and it’s so full of admiration and affection it makes him squirm.
I’m no one, he doesn’t say. He’s tried to explain it once or twice, but she always denies him, telling him how wonderful he is. He has stopped arguing. Instead, he tries not to wince whenever she makes one of her excited exclamations.
“Caleb, look…” Nott says one day, picking something up off the ground near the road.
Caleb. He turns and gives a start. For a moment, it looks like she’s holding a human child, but no. it’s a doll—a very large, well made, rather realistic doll.
“Some child must have thrown it from a carriage or something,” he says.
“I wonder why they didn’t want it anymore,” Nott murmurs. She is running her fingers over the dolls’ porcelain face, carefully tracing the plump red lips and the button nose.
“I don’t know,” he says, squinting down the road. There is no sign of any other travelers.
“It’s beautiful,” Nott says, smoothing the doll’s golden curls.
“You don’t want to keep it, do you? It’s almost as big as you are,” he says, alarmed.
“No, you’re right. That wouldn’t be practical,” Nott says, looking back at the doll wistfully. She sighs, then pulls out a dagger. She slams the butt of it into the doll’s flawless white forehead, the porcelain crumbling. He jumps.
“What are you doing?” He demands.
Nott continues bashing in the doll’s face, tapping in patterns until she pulls the bottom half of the face out from the now dusty mess that used to be an expensive child’s toy.
“I’m going to make it into a mask. If I put this over my face and pull up my hood, maybe I won’t attract as much attention,” she says. “Then we can stay in town for longer.”
“That is not a bad idea,” he says. “Here, let me see it.”
Nott hands him the broken face. The perfect nose and lips are still there. He casts Mending, smoothing out the jagged edges to ensure she won’t be cut.
“Hand me that ribbon out of the doll’s hair?” he asks, pointing.
Nott quickly unties the doll’s hair and hands him the length of ribbon. He cuts it in two and attaches it to either side of the mask.
“There we have it, one little girl mask,” he says, holding out the mask.
Nott takes it carefully. She runs her fingers around the smoothed edges.
“Thank you,” she says softly. “Caleb?”
“Is it…with magic…is it possible to make me…to make this my face for real?” Nott asks.
He looks up. She’s not looking at him. She’s looking down at the mask. Tears have gathered in her eyes, but have yet to fall.
“I suppose so,” he says thoughtfully. “There may be a few ways. But it’s…it’s far above anything I can do.”
“But it’s possible?” Nott does look up now, a terrible, longing look on her face.
“Yes, I would say it is,” he says. “Is that…something you want?”
Nott gives the ghost of a laugh, the tears finally falling from her eyes.
“Have you ever wanted to…not be Caleb anymore?” she asks.
He shudders. He is not Caleb. He never has been. He is no one. He is nothing.
“Ja, I suppose,” he says. “Do you…not want to be Nott anymore?”
Nott wipes at her eyes with one arm.
“Every single day,” she whispers. “But every day, I’m still Nott.”
He looks down at his scarred hands, his bandaged arms.
Nothing. No one.
“Would you like me to teach you some magic?” he asks.
“Is that…something I can learn?” Nott asks, her head jerking up quickly.
“I believe so,” he says.
“Then yes! Please teach me anything you can!” Nott says.
“Perhaps we can both reach our goals together, ja?” he asks.
Nott rushes forward to throw her arms around him. He isn’t used to this yet, and won’t be for a while.
“Thank you, Caleb,” she whispers.
Being someone sometimes means that you are who you are because someone believes you are. They hold the definition of who you are. You exist in their mind. You belong to them. Caleb is someone who belongs to Nott. Nott believes he’s wonderful and powerful and her friend. Nott trusts that they are partners. They are Caleb-and-Nott now. A new name.
For months, they are Caleb and Nott together. Caleb and Nott and sometimes Frumpkin fall into routines. In the woods, Nott finds them food—she does a better job than Caleb has ever done, making quick work of small prey with her crossbow. He builds them small fires to cook meals and protects their camp site with his Alarm spell. They sleep wrapped in Caleb’s coat, curled in on each other for warmth and safety. He teaches her magic, from the beginning. She is good at it. She teaches him how to shoot her crossbow and how to hunt. He is not good at it.
He decides it’s nice being Caleb. He starts putting on more weight than he had when he was just no one. Nott makes sure of it, showing him plants they can add to their meals in addition to the meat she hunts. He sleeps better and has less nightmares, too, with her small frame snuggled next to him. Frumpkin likes him as Caleb because of this. He is pleased that the Small Bite (as he has named Nott) is taking care of Bright One. Now his familiar whispers his new name next to his pact-name…Bright One, Caleb. There is humor in the fey-cat’s whisper—there always is, but he is pleased, too.
In town, sometimes they are Caleb and Nott. Sometimes they are no one. Sometimes they are someone else.
In one town, they are Dimitri and Artemis, traveling performers. He performs simple magic tricks while she runs through the crowd with a small box for coins, donning her doll mask and hood.
In another town, they are Sterling and Rose. They sell “magic” clay pots, promising to turn copper to silver. They sell a good few before the townspeople start to catch on and they have to disappear, leaving Sterling and Rose behind.
Sometimes, there is no con, and they are Kurt and Lily, father and daughter.
But when they are alone, they are always Nott and Caleb. Even when he is no one, he is Caleb to Nott. She says his name with warmth and affection. He learns to listen for it, the way her mouth wraps around it like one of her tiny embraces. It takes him a while to get used to saying good night and good morning to someone again. To be someone to someone else.
They make friends, Nott and Caleb. It’s good; they need companions, but it’s complicated. Now he has to remember that he is Caleb and that these people are part of their group. He recognizes the name fastest when Nott says it. Sometimes he’s slower to respond to these new people. Not all of them find it as endearing as Nott does.
It’s strange, he thinks, how different people say a name differently.
Jester almost sing-songs it, emphasizing the first syllable so it sounds like “Cay-leb”. The tone she uses tells him what she wants, whether it’s for him to play with her, for him to do something for her, or for him to talk to her. He can tell if she’s happy with him or not. He likes the way “Caleb” sounds when she’s happy.
Beauregard spits the name out like a formality, or she’ll drag out the second syllable when she’s annoyed with him “Cay-lub” She often uses her annoyed voice with him. They don’t really see eye to eye, though he likes her quick wit and admires her strength. Sometimes it’s fun, egging her on until she growls at him.
Yasha pronounces it quietly and carefully, the few times she says it, her accent fluttering like frills around the syllables.
Fjord makes this name sound like an adult’s name, often spoken while making direct eye contact. When Fjord says “Caleb,” they’re negotiating or Fjord needs him to do something. Fjord uses the name for all business. Sometimes it feels like Fjord doesn’t know how to be someone as much as he doesn’t.
And there’s Mollymauk. Mollymauk adds the honorific “Mister” before the name. He isn’t sure whether the tiefling is making fun of him or not, with his “Mr. Caleb”. He’s a hard one to pin, but he takes it in stride, sometimes responding with a “Herr Tealeaf” for good measure. Never before had he garnered enough respect or wisdom to be “mister” anyone. He has been Adept and Apprentice, but not Mister.
Caleb belongs to Nott, but Caleb now also belongs to these people. The Mighty Nein. Another name attached to him. He isn’t no one very often anymore. Someone is always calling for him, asking him his opinion on this, or to identify that, or asking if he’d like some of whatever someone ordered to eat. He walks down the street in a band of brightly colored, bright-voiced people. It terrifies him at first—being no one is better than being someone. It’s safer to be no one. And these people are very much someone. But after a while, it’s okay. After all, no one knew Caleb before the Mighty Nein. Caleb belongs to them. There was no Caleb before Nott, before the Mighty Nein.
He learns that being someone is hard. It’s terrifying. So many times, he wants to go back to being no one. It’s not just the battles and the adventures, all the stories that come with being someone—especially with being someone who is also the Mighty Nein.
Being Caleb means that people rely on him. That people need him for things. Worse, it means that people trust him and even care about him. Being Caleb for Nott was one thing. He and Nott are alike…shadows and wanderers with no past they want to return to and no sure future. Caleb and Nott could run and disappear whenever they want. They can become no one. But Caleb and the Mighty Nein…they have pasts and futures and desires, and they are now including him.
He’s not Caleb. He’s someone who used to be Bren. And before that, he was someone else. He’s no one. He’s nothing. These people deserve better. They shouldn’t trust him and they certainly shouldn’t care about him.
He cares about them, too. That’s worse.
The people Bren and before-Bren cared about did not fare well from belonging to him, or him belonging to them. From caring.
That’s why he’s better off as no one. If you’re no one, you can’t hurt anyone else.
But he does care, and so do they. So he keeps being Caleb. For her. For them.
Grief is a ridiculous thing. He’s lived with a lot of it. It haunts him and weighs every movement he makes, but it’s been many years since it’s been so fresh.
Mollymauk never knew that he isn’t Caleb. Until the moment Molly died, he saw him as Caleb, and never thought otherwise.
With an odd spike of fear, kneeling at the fresh grave, he wonders what will happen if Molly rises again and he isn’t Caleb anymore. If he’s no one again or someone else. If he’s someone else and Molly rises as someone else (Who was Lucien?) then they’ll be complete strangers. Somehow, he doesn’t like the idea of them meeting as anyone other than Molly and Caleb. Something is buried in the ground with Molly, anchoring him…Caleb now has a tether making him more…Caleb.
Being someone means you are created and changed by everything you experience. Beauregard changes the day Molly dies. He notices it every so often for a long time. She tries to make him part of her. Nott, too, changes. She’s less skittish, more determined. They are still Beauregard, still Nott, but different.
And he…becomes Caleb more. It’s getting harder to remember that he isn’t Caleb now. That he’s no one.
Sometimes you have to be someone because someone else needs you to be. Their being them depends on you being someone. You rely on each other to be someone when you both need it.
Beauregard says “Caleb” differently now. It doesn’t seem different at first, but as he listens, he hears it. There’s a desperate familiarity there…with half of their friends missing and another dead, she clings on to his name like a life raft in the sea. It’s the second name she says in the morning, after she’s fully out of the nightmare of losing Molly again and again. She calls quietly for Caleb, just to make sure he’s there.
He learns to wake up and be Caleb instead of waking up as no one.
“Ja?” he says out loud, his voice sleepy and annoyed on purpose, even when he’s lain awake waiting for the call like he does most mornings. I’m here is what he means.
“What?” Beau replies like clockwork, pretending she doesn’t know what she’s done.
“What?” he replies in the same tone.
They never talk about it, not even after the nightmares slow and the rest of their friends are safe. The closest they come are the rare times when he happens to be looking at her when her eyes snap open, his name on her lips. The relief in her eyes when she sees him is enough. They don’t need to talk about it.
He doesn’t think about running now. He is Caleb because Beauregard needs Caleb to be Caleb. Caleb belongs to Nott first, and then to Beauregard.
And for the first time, Nott says his name heavy with grief and disappointment rather than affection. She’s looking for something he can’t give yet. To tell her, to make her understand would be to tell her the rest. Caleb belongs to her; he can’t take Caleb away like that. Nott needs him to be Caleb, too.
It’s jarring when Caduceus Clay calls him “Mr. Caleb.” It sounds different than when Mollymauk said it. This low, quiet voice is full of polite respect. It takes a while for him to get used to hearing that honorific without flinching. He avoids talking to Caduceus for a while, not sure how to handle yet another variant of this name. Especially not one so close to one he’ll never hear again.
It’s even more jarring when Jester and Fjord say his name, full of relief and joy and affection. Caleb is someone familiar and comforting to them. And as he wakes to check on them every hour that first night, even in the safety of his magic bubble, he realizes Jester and Fjord are familiar, comforting people to him, too.
He doesn’t know when it happens, truly. When he becomes Caleb. When Caleb means him and it doesn’t feel false anymore. Caleb is who he is now. He belongs to that name, to name of the Mighty Nein, and to them. To Nott, Beau, Jester, Fjord, Yasha, Caduceus…and Mollymauk. Each person Caleb belongs to is a tether holding him in place, keeping him in this name, as this person. For the first time in a long time, he feels like a real person.
When he was no one, he was a ghost, wandering from place to place, slowly gathering magic and information. He woke up in the morning, survived the day, and walked until he couldn’t anymore. He slept where he could. He ate what he could. He survived. He was nothing. No one.
It felt right, at the time. He doesn’t deserve to be anyone. To be real, to be warm and filled. But he couldn’t sustain it. He knows that now.
He is Caleb and Caleb is a person. He is not necessarily a good person, but he is a person all the same.
Caleb is a person who prefers a nice black tea in the morning, though he’ll eat almost anything Caduceus places in front of him. He’s a person who gets up early and listens to Caduceus talk about interesting plants or creatures he’s seen, or people who came through the Blooming Grove while he gets breakfast started. Caleb is a person who believes all knowledge is worth having.
Caleb is a person who Fjord asks for advice in the arcane, a person whose opinion is trusted. He’s a person to pore over maps and runes with. He is a person to ask about their next move, to help plan. He’s a person that can be counted on to help keep them safe.
Caleb is a person who lets Jester pull her pranks with amused patience. As long as she doesn’t mess anything important up, he doesn’t mind finding the occasional dickbutt in his books. He’s a person who likes making Jester smile. His sense of humor isn’t great, but she always smiles when he tries. He is the kind of person who doesn’t like seeing her sad.
Caleb is a person who balances with Beauregard…not physically, of course, but they keep each other on the right path, even though it’s hard sometimes. She is the shoulder he grabs when he must be blind, the person he leans on when they’re both bloodied from a fight. They have a language of looks and eyebrow raises now, a language made on those stressed days hunting the Iron Shepherds. Frumpkin casually mentions one night that Gruff Pocket (He hasn’t quite forgiven her for keeping him in her pocket during his days as a one-ounce owl) is becoming almost indiscernible from a proper litter-mate.
Caleb is a person who sometimes enjoys comfortable silences with Yasha, watching the clouds gather over the ocean. He enjoys that they can appreciate a quiet moment without having to speak. It’s almost like the comfort of being no one, but it’s warmer and calmer. Less terrifying.
Caleb is a person who is still Caleb-and-Nott at the end of the day. At the end of the day, they fall into old routines, even when they don’t have to. They share a room and sometimes a bunk. They share treasures found on their journeys. Caleb is a person who has watched this scared little goblin girl grow into Nott, the Brave, who is studying new types of weapons and protecting her friends without thinking of herself. Caleb is a person who is so proud of Nott.
Most strangely, when he thinks about it, Caleb is a person who has a best friend. Who has someone he loves and is loved by. He never thought he could have that.
When you’re no one, you aren’t loved.
Somewhere along the line, he stops thinking about the difference between being someone and no one. He is someone. He is Caleb. He never forgets to recognize his name. Once or twice, he’s even answered to it when someone called out for a different Caleb in a busy shop or tavern. Despite everything, he comes to love belonging to these people. He comes to love being Caleb.
Until one day…he’s not.
Caleb belonged to Nott first. He became Caleb because it was what he told her. They were Nott and Caleb, then they were Nott and Caleb…and these other people. Then…after that they were the Mighty Nein.
But first, before anything else, they were Caleb and Nott.
“My name is Nott the Brave and I’m a little goblin girl but…once upon a time I was Veth, a young halfling woman.”
Have you ever wanted…to not be Caleb anymore? …every day I’m still Nott.
Nott. Not. Not Veth.
She tells her story, the story of Veth. He can’t help but stare at her as if she’s a stranger. She is a stranger. His little goblin girl is a grown woman with a husband and a child. A son. A living family she wants to get back to. His fellow outcast is a heroine, killed and cursed for saving the people she loved, running to find a solution, not a new beginning.
The story of Nott and Caleb always had an end, he realizes. He always imagined he would be the one to cause that end. Lately, he has not thought as much about that end. But… when she finds what she’s been looking for, the goal he promised to help her reach, she will stop being Nott.
How can there be a Nott-and-Caleb when she gets to be Veth-and-Yeza-and-Luke once more?
And if Nott is not…Nott…then who is Caleb?
Caleb belonged to Nott first.
I am…no one. I am nothing.
The old emptiness and fear settles into its place.
He takes a deep breath.
Caleb reaches out and places a hand on Beauregard’s shoulder as he’s done so many times before. Out of habit, she covers his hand with her own, giving it a squeeze. Instead of jumping into Frumpkin’s eyes, he jumps into the soft brown eyes of Veth the Halfling.
“Your name was Veth?” he confirms.
“I was,” she says.
I am nothing.
“My name…was Bren Aldric Ermendrud,” he says, his voice breaking. “Was.”
And before that…no, there is no before. Before is not allowed.
I am no one.
But it is Bren’s story that needs to be told, now. It’s Bren’s enemies just around the corner. Bren’s past wrapped up in all of this. When Nott said your people, she meant the people that Bren belonged to.
“I name you Bren, my burning boy. Your gifts with fire will take you so far. From this day forth, you are the flame. You are Bren.”
Bren was theirs, made by them, molded by them. He belonged to them just as sure as Caleb belonged to Nott.
He much prefers Caleb.
“When…when did you get your new name?” she asks him. Nott. Veth.
Who is Caleb without Nott? No one.
“I used a lot of names. Caleb is just…what I told you,” he says with difficulty.
Caleb belongs to Nott, he doesn’t say. Caleb was the name I gave to you and you made it into me. He doesn’t know how to explain any of that. He wishes he could, when she looks away, hurt flashing across her halfling face. (Her real face.)
“What do you prefer?” Fjord asks quietly.
“I…I don’t know.”
He wants to stay Caleb, but at the moment, he can’t find Caleb. Not with Bren so close and Nott so far away.
I am nothing. I am no one.
You can’t be no one and someone at the same time.
Caleb, come here, take a look at this.
Hey, Caleb, can I see your cat for a sec?
Does that cloud look like a dick to you, Caleb?
Mr. Caleb, would you try this and let me know what you think?
Stay on task, Widogast!
Caleb, you’re wonderful!
I think Caleb’s really cool!
See? Jester thinks your COOL, Caleb! Because she’s your FRIEND!
“Caleb…let’s stick with Caleb for now,” he says faintly, his heart beating faster.
Caleb belonged to Nott first, but Caleb also belongs to all of them. He doesn’t want them to stop calling him Caleb. He doesn’t want to stop being Caleb to them. Caleb means the man who is with these people, here.
Being no one is easier. Being nothing is safer. But he can’t go back to that. Not anymore.
Caleb will change again…he will have to. But he doesn’t want to start over again.
Caleb is Caleb, but it’s hard to feel like Caleb right now. Everything feels different, strange. He stares at the wall in the darkness, listening to Caduceus’s deep, even breathing and Fjord’s light snoring. He pulls his coat more tightly around him.
Who is Caleb without Nott?
I was Veth.
Caleb is Caleb Widogast. He is Caleb alone, but he’s not used to that yet.
Right now, Caleb feels like no one. Nothing.
He’s not ready to not be Caleb-and-Nott yet. Through everything, good and bad (and most of it bad), they stuck together. They had each other at the end of the day. And suddenly all of that is gone. Never again will Nott come running with some treasure she’s scavenged for him, or some story to tell. Never again will she put flowers in his hair or ride piggy back. Never again will they pull any of their cons. Never, never, never.
Never did he imagine that all of that would be over…just like that.
Never did he imagine that she would not be…Nott.
I’m sorry, I should have told you, Caleb. I was Veth.
Never did he think it would feel…like this. It happened so fast, it’s like there’s a gaping hole right through him. Like she’s just gone. The emptiness bores into his chest and makes him want to gasp for air, but he doesn’t dare. He doesn’t want to wake the others. This isn’t something he wants them to see. He grips the worn fabric of his coat as tight as his fingers can go, the tips growing numb quickly. He focuses on making his breathing match the breathing of a normal, sleeping human.
I am no one. I am Caleb Widogast.
He doesn’t know long he’s been there, focusing on breathing, staring at the shadowy grains of the wooden wall when he hears the door creak open, a sliver of dim light from the hall slashing through the room. He closes his eyes automatically, like a child not wanting to be caught awake after bedtime. Is it Beauregard, here to check on him? She’s been her own special brand of concerned all evening. He remembers her eyes, softening to a vulnerability he had only seen first thing in the morning, when it was just the three of them.
Don’t run, she had said.
He’s not sure if Beau believes he’ll be there in the morning. He doesn’t know how to tell her that Caleb belonged to Beauregard second. That she is one of the tethers keeping him Caleb.
He waits. For several moments, there’s no further sound. Then the door gently closes. She’s gone.
Just when he starts to relax, He hears movement. Slowly, small footsteps pad toward him. It’s a quiet sound, but each familiar footstep makes his heart beat harder. The footsteps stop right by his bed.
I am no one, He thinks desperately to himself, the old habit chiming in. Other parts of his mind are screaming other things that he tries to ignore.
Nothing happens for several…minutes? Hours? Years? Just breathing and his heart hammering in his chest. Can she hear it? It’s so loud.
A small, achingly familiar hand touches his back—hesitant at first, pulling back (just like when they first met), and then more firmly, resting there for a few moments.
He holds his eyes shut tightly and counts to ten. Then he lets go of the breath he’s holding and slowly turns over. He opens his eyes.
Nott is there. Knowing this and seeing it are two very different things. More importantly, she’s Nott. She’s back in her goblin form, watching him, golden eyes wide in the dark, one hand curled around the other as if she’s just pulled it out of a burning fire. There’s a slight tremor, as though she’s trying to keep from full-on shaking. Other than that, she doesn’t move. She just stands and looks at him, her face unsure.
They stare at each other for a moment.
When they were Caleb-and-Nott, they had routines, habits. Things they did without thinking. Caleb-alone longs to fall back into their old routine.
Not sure if it’s the right thing to do, Caleb scoots backward, making more room. A cautious invitation. He hears Nott breathe in, the tiniest of gasps. She places her hands on the edge of the mattress, then pulls back, hesitating. He watches her face. He hasn’t seen this much apprehension from her for a very long time. It was a slow process for her to believe he was really okay with her even holding his hand when he used Frumpkin’s sight. He worked in tiny steps, getting her comfortable little by little, until she was finally convinced that he didn’t mind her being close to him.
It feels like they are back to square one...strangers to each other once more, staring at each other uncertainly across a dim jail cell.
My name is Veth.
Slowly, as if she’s a wild animal he doesn’t want to frighten, he uncurls one of his hands and extends it to her, beckoning. She looks at him again, takes a deep breath, and climbs up onto the bed. She stays on the very edge, careful not to touch him. He pulls his hand back. The space between them on the narrow twin bed feels like miles.
I got scared of the skeleton so I came over here.
How long ago was that? When Caleb and Nott slept in a cellar in Zadash when they had first found the Beacon? They were still Caleb-and-Nott…and the Mighty Nein. Still separate from them, but they had each other. He’d held the Beacon (how dangerous that had been in retrospect!) and dreamt of all of those different roads of possibility and…peace. It had been startling when he’d woken. He’d felt like no one, which was normal, but he’d also felt like everyone. But there was Nott, curled against his legs, keeping him grounded. Keeping him Caleb. She was often found there when he had nightmares or strange dreams. She always knew, somehow, though they never really talked about it.
It feels wrong, her staying so far away. He wants to pull her close. How many nights out in the woods had they slept like that, when they were no one to the rest of the world and Nott-and-Caleb to each other? Him curled around her, her curled around Frumpkin. A skinny, malnourished tangle of warmth. That’s how they survived those frigid nights until it became a comforting habit that continued into the spring and summer. Even after they could afford a room with two beds, they slept like that more often than not, especially after a long day or a hard battle.
But that was then. Now…
We got married, and had a child.
She’s not a little goblin girl. Not really. She never was. She’s a halfling woman with a husband and son.
The duality of who she is and the life they had as Nott-and-Caleb still makes him dizzy.
But she knows now, too. That he was never really Caleb. Not before her.
She knows that he used to be Bren.
He has no right to ask anything of her. Not anymore. He tries instead for a friendly nod. It’s all right for you to be here, if here is where you want to be, he doesn’t say.
She’s still watching him, as if she’s not sure what he’ll do.
It’s been a long time since she’s been afraid of him like this. Is it because she knows what he is now? Because she knows about Bren and the monster they made him?
Your people. You.
But…then why is she here? What is she looking for?
I will not harm you, he had promised that first night. Does she know that’s still true?
Does it matter?
This strangeness makes him want to scream. He wants to beg her to say what she came to say, or do whatever it is she came to do, but he can’t. The silence is unbearable.
“Well…Gute nacht,” he whispers, trying to clear it. It doesn’t feel right. Nott flinches as if he’d shouted at her.
What does she want? Why is she here? What is he supposed to do? She’s watching him and not saying anything and it’s almost unbearable.
He hesitates, then turns back over to face the wall. For just a moment, he feels the relief of not seeing her eyes burning into him. But then he hears another small intake of breath. Wrong.
He’s messed it up again somehow. He waits for her to leave. His ears strain for her footsteps padding back toward the door, the quiet creak of it opening and closing. Then she’ll be gone again. Likely for good this time. He waits for the gaping hole that is his future to take back over. Nothing. No one. Caleb-Alone.
He stiffens when he feels the lightest touch of her back against his. She’s curled in the opposite direction. They’re barely touching, but the point of contact burns, reminding him that she’s there.
He stares at the wall, not knowing what to do. He tries to be no one, but his mind won’t let him. He’s barely breathing, trying to force himself to relax. Then he feels Nott start to shake, ever so slightly. He hears the smallest sniffle in the dark. Something shifts in his heart, shoving all his fear to one side. He never has been able to stand it when she cried. Veth. Nott. It doesn’t matter. She needs him to be Caleb now.
Fuck him. Well, fuck him twice, then. Enough of this.
Without hesitation, Caleb turns back to face Nott, pulling her in to close and curling around her like he’s done so many nights before. He wraps her in his coat, tucking her in with him and holding her with his outside arm. Just like they used to sleep. But instead of Frumpkin, Nott catches Caleb’s other arm and pulls it to her chest, holding it tight. Her tears are hot on his hand. He bows his head over hers and just holds her while she cries.
It might not be entirely right, but it’s not wrong, either. It’s a little better, somehow.
For several minutes, they stay like that.
“I’m so sorry, Nott,” he whispers down into her hair. “For...for everything. For charming you to go underwater. For dragging you so far from your family. For not listening to you.”
“I’m sorry, too,” she says, pulling back to look up at him. “You didn’t know. I should have told you the truth about everything sooner but I was so scared. Waking up like this? Like the very thing…I just ran. I didn’t know what to do until the day you helped me make my mask. When you said maybe…maybe I could change back. But by then I didn’t know how to tell you the truth. I had thought…I would be Nott forever.”
Caleb is quiet for a moment. Then he gives her a smile.
“I like Nott,” he offers. “I always have.”
“I know. I always liked Caleb, too,” Nott says.
Caleb takes a deep breath.
She deserves to know.
“Before you were Nott, you were Veth,” he says carefully. “But before I was Caleb, I was no one.”
“You…weren’t you Bren?” she asks.
Caleb flinches. He can’t help it.
“Bren…belonged to them. To him. To…to Trent Ikithon. When I was Bren, I was everything they made me…Bren was the person who would…do all the horrible things I did,” he says, voice dropping so quiet that Nott has to lean in to hear him.
He closes his eyes.
“When I ran, I left Bren behind. I couldn’t be…that person anymore. I don’t know…if I can use that name again,” he says. “Bren is theirs.”
He opens his eyes, looking past Nott to a long, empty road.
Nothing. No one.
“For nearly four years, I was no one. I worked hard to be no one. Just…a starving, dirty, nameless shadow. Never stopping. Never resting. It was safer that way. No one would find me. And I wouldn’t…if I was no one, I couldn’t hurt anyone,” he says. “Any time I talked to someone, I used a different name.”
“Just like we did when we went into town,” Nott remembers.
“Ja, just like that,” he says, nodding. “If I had to give a name, it was a different one. I didn’t think of myself as anyone. I didn’t have a name anymore. But people…have to have names. When you asked me for my name, I chose one and gave it to you without thinking about it. I did not know then what would happen.”
“So you got stuck as Caleb because of me?” Nott says quietly.
“Yes…well, no,” Caleb shakes his head. “You made me Caleb.”
“I didn’t…make you be Caleb,” Nott says. “You could have been anyone. I wouldn’t have minded. I don’t mind now if you…if there’s someone you’d rather be.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Caleb pauses, then. He takes a moment to think, stroking Nott’s hair as he does so.
“Before I was Caleb, I was no one. I had nothing. I was barely surviving. I was tired of barely surviving. I did not have a plan in that jail cell. I did not even know if I wanted to be free. And then there was you. You needed someone. You needed Caleb. I became Caleb for you, and I stayed Caleb for you. And we were…we were Nott-and-Caleb, who survived that first winter together and traveled from town to town. We took care of each other and…and things got better,” he says. “I do not think I would be here today if not for you.”
“Caleb…” Nott breathes.
“Bren belonged to them. To Ikithon and those people who made me what I was. But Caleb belongs to you, Nott the Brave. You made Caleb…you made me what I am now, every day we were together. And even though I know…what I did and what I am. I know I can’t escape that. It’s better…better as Caleb,” he says, bowing his head. “And I know, now, that you will not always be Nott the Brave. Someday, you will be Veth Brenatto again, and you will be able to return home to your husband and son. But for now, thank you for being Nott the Brave, and making me Caleb Widogast.”
Caleb feels Nott place both of her hands on either side of his face and kiss his forehead, just as she’s done so many times before.
“If…if that day comes, where I get to be Veth again and go home…you know you’re welcome there anytime, right?” she says gently. “None of…none of what we have is a lie. I’ll…we’ll keep a room for you. I want you to meet Luke…meet him for real. And Yeza, too. When they couldn’t be my family, you have been. And that’s…that’s not going to stop. Even if I get that back. You know that, right?”
The idea had not occurred to him. That she could be different and not leave him alone. That it doesn’t have to be either-or.
“We are…still friends, then?” he whispers.
Nott snuggles closer to his chest, reaching up and wrapping her arms around his neck. He buries his face in her hair, breathing her familiar scent. He’s not cold anymore. He’s so incredibly warm. He’s real. He’s Caleb.
“Of course we’re friends. We’re…we’re family,” Nott says gently. “We never weren’t…no matter what happened today or will happen tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” he murmurs.
“You know I love you, don’t you, Caleb? You know that, right?” Nott says, nuzzling his chest.
He knows, but it’s harder to believe. Harder to maintain. He’ll hear her cold, angry “Fuck him!” in his dreams for a very long time. It’s what he deserves. It’s the truth. Just as he’s always known. A part of him will always feel like no one.
But Caleb presses his lips to the top of her head.
“And I love you, too, Nott the Brave,” he says.
That, too, is true. The truth of it almost surprises him, but it feels old and familiar, like he’s known it for a very long time. He may be horrible and broken and a monster, but he is Caleb. And Caleb loves her. Somehow, there’s room for both of those things to be equally true. And that’s something.
Being someone isn’t as safe as being no one, but being no one is hard. The dirty man with the ragged clothes and sad eyes isn’t no one anymore. He hasn’t been no one for a while now. He sleeps in a warm tangle of green and brown with his small goblin shadow. He is Caleb Widogast, and he is Bright One, Caleb, and he is Caleb-and-Nott, and he is Caleb-and-the-Mighty-Nein.
And he is better for it…better for being Caleb.