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but it’s the roots that will bind us here

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Caduceus is barely a toddler when they bring him before Her for the first time. Firbolgs grow so slowly compared to some of Her other children and he is still very small in his mother's arms, but the meeting ritual is a simple one and does not require anything of the child.

Instead of squirming like the other two of his siblings had, Caduceus is quiet and calm as he is brought before Her. However, when his mother tries to set him down in the earth and then walk away, his little face crumples and he clings to her leg tightly.

Constance smiles and pulls him up again to kiss his forehead. She nuzzles their noses together, and he stares back at her with wide eyes. “I’ll be right here,” she promises. “Don’t be afraid.”

When she sets Caduceus back in the dirt, he doesn’t fuss this time, though he watches her quietly as she backs away.

The Wildmother reaches out to him, a small brush of wind against his cheek. The baby giggles and babbles, bringing his little fists up to his cheeks. She reaches out to Constance as well, and Cornelius and the two older children behind them, touching each one gently to let them know of Her presence and that they are also loved.

Little springs of green begin to pop up from the dirt around Caduceus. He is fixated easily on the movement as plants begin to grow at an impossible rate from the dirt surrounding him. The Wildmother chose first the blossoming of white chrysanthemum, then the calming shade of the bluebell, and finally the calluna; the lavender heather. Baby Caduceus giggled delightfully as the tiny display circled him, reaching out and pulling several of them from the ground.

She allows this, of course. The flowers are meant for him after all.

After a few moments, Cornelius gently scoops Caduceus up from the circle and props the child almost lazily against his side, in the manner of a man accustomed to holding children and carrying them around.

“He will be very blessed,” Constance says, stepping beside her husband to reach out for Caduceus, who grabs her fingers with his little hands. “He will be well loved.”

“It was a good introduction, wasn’t it,” Conrelius says, in his slow, even tone. “Three flowers.”

As the group pulls away, Caduceus is hoisted up on his father’s shoulder. He watches the little circle of flowers intently as he is carried away. Caduceus is very quiet and allowing of it. The Wildmother watches him and sees he is fascinated by Her gifts, but not demanding of them. His older sister and brother had cried when they had been carried away. They were not weaker or lesser for it, but it does catch Her eye.

An odd little one indeed, but She could see in him the capacity for great things. She would be delighted to watch this one grow.

---

He comes to Her on his own to her the first time when he is in his mid fifties and petulant.

He is sniffing and snotty-nosed, and there is mud on his cheek and his elbows are scraped up. Caduceus sets out his candles with the fumbling manner of someone still unpracticed with the method, but he remembers exactly where to place them because he had been watching intently when his older family members had done so for him.

The tree before him shakes slightly in the wind. The Wildmother can feel the centuries of love in every inch of it, of the long history of Clay family’s feelings towards Her, and requited by Herself unto them in turn. Here, She is very strong.

And young Caduceus now kneels down on his cloth and beseeches Her. “Um. Wildmother,” he says, and his voice is not yet the low note it will become later in his life, but squeaky. “Can you make Calliope be nicer to me?”

It was interesting, for Calliope had made a similar plea to Her the night prior.

There were pilgrimages and duties to which Her children were obliged to keep. Unfortunately, one such recent task had required the efforts for all three adult Clays within the Blooming Grove. They had left a little more than a month or so ago, leaving their oldest in charge. Calliope had of course vowed solemnly to be the keeper in their place, and had meant it. But she was also barely past childhood herself and was chafing against the situation of full-time babysitter and graveyard keeper. And Calliope dreamed so strongly for adventure.

Last night Calliope had plead to the Wildmother, asking that She stop her dumb annoying brothers from being themselves. They were loud and demanding the scarce attention Calliope could provide, as she quickly was overwhelmed with baby Clarabelle’s needs alone.

It was up in the air whether Colton or Caduceus had first begun the war. One of them had pranked the other with spiders a week or so ago, and it had only begun escalating out from there. Yesterday they had chased each other around threatening violence until Colton almost tripped over baby Clarabelle. Exhausted and frustrated, Calliope had both her brothers clean all of the graves and pull all of the weeds until they were dirty, sore, and tired. Now She could feel all the children’s frustration with each other and She knew it was only a matter of time before the kettle boiled over again.

The Wildmother does not play favorites but she is very fond of Caduceus and seeing him tired and frustrated provokes Her sympathies. The wind ruffles his hair.

He sighs. “I guess not,” he says, grumpily, “Could you make Colton fall down a cliff, then?”

This makes the Wildmother laugh, and the tree branches and their leaves shake with the motion. They fall around Caduceus' head as he looks up wondrously at them, and his mouth opens in shock. Perhaps he hadn’t realized until now that She was listening this whole time.

“Hey, Wildmother?” Caduceus says. His voice is a little more fragile and all temporary frustration has been forgotten, for something more serious. “When will I get my own power? I don’t like being left behind.” His bottom lip wobbles.

The Wildmother cannot be there in person, but She spins warm wind around him to try and express something akin to a hug.

---

Much, much later, there is another boy. There are no ceremonies for him by his parents to draw Her attention to his being and She can only see him faintly in the corner of her vision. But he comes to the beach almost religiously. It is enough.

He is very scrawny and his clothes do not fit right. When he sits on the sand to watch the ocean, he has such awe for it that it draws Her attention and presence strongly, even though the Wildmother has many faithful, and many duties.

The Wildmother takes a part of Herself and places it into his chest. She will keep an eye on this child, She thinks.

---

They have left Caduceus all alone now.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault and She cannot help him when he is scared of reaching out to Her, to ask Her directly what has happened.

But now Caduceus has withdrawn so deeply into himself. He smiles and he gardens and he tends to the temple as best as one person ever can. He offers prayers and thanks to Her each night, and he greets the sun each day with his soft, pleasant cheer.

Sometimes he sleeps well. Some nights however, like tonight, he curls into himself in his bedroom which he shared with Clarabelle, and quietly sobs.

The Wildmother wants to reach out to him but can do no more than offer an indication of Her presence. So She blows on the candle by his bedside, the flame drifting out and then back up again. The wind caresses his cheek.

You are not ever alone, The Wildmother presses, wordlessly. Not ever. Not while I am here.

She isn’t sure if She has been understood, but eventually he nods off, tears still in the corners of his eyes. She breathes, and the candle goes out.

She is not enough.

----

A small anguish buries itself in Her chest. A part of Her essence has fallen into dark water, has been wrenched out by a violent presence while She was not paying attention to stop it.

She mourns Her child lost to the deep, for the poor lost boy that had so loved Her beaches, and for the part of Herself that was torn out from him and replaced by something terrible and cruel and very, very cold.

----

She has not forgotten the boy so much as he had been removed from Her sight by force. So when Caduceus reaches out to help Fjord to his feet, and She can suddenly see him once more through his eyes, her surprise is overwhelming.

For the first time since he had drowned, She reaches out.

It isn't enough. A dark, pulsing energy radiates from him and burns Her on contact. It isn’t a normal burning sensation, but as though fire turned cold, and it withers the parts of Her essence which touched it.

The Wildmother withdraws, reluctantly. She can only wait and watch for an opportunity to try once more.

----

Caduceus drowns. He is lost on his path, and his faith is floundering. The Wildmother knows how frightened he is, how uncertain the future appears to be.

She cannot force faith and She cannot interfere directly so She can only watch and share in his anguish.

She is glad of the girl, the one who follows the strange fey creature. The Wildmother isn’t certain what to make of that particular dynamic or predict how it will unfold, but her advice and reassurance help Caduceus and for that, She is grateful.

----

Caduceus dies. He is not meant to stay here yet. She holds him at the precipice of Death and watches the strange cleric pull him back to his friends on the other side.

She will wait patiently for the moment that Her child can join Her, but that moment is not today.

----

The Wildmother finds Fjord there in the roots of one of Her greatest trees. Here, in the center of Her power, She can see his soul bare and clean before her. Here, She begins the process of cleaning the corruption that fell serpent of the deep had dared lay upon one of those which She had claimed to be Her own.

She is delighted to find that Fjord reaches out to Caduceus for guidance towards her purpose. Caduceus is gentle with him, as he always tries to be, but reluctant to set him forward on one straight path. He believes Fjord to be a gift for another god, but the Wildmother knows he will see as clearly as She does, given time.

The Wildmother watches them grow together, Fjord finding a beacon in Caduceus to drive his ship towards. Eventually, the strange hesitance in Caduceus begins to pull away. He starts to invest attention and affection back to his friend, and the garden between their souls begins to blossom.

----

Caduceus finds his family.

The Wildmother feels joy for each of Her chosen as they wake from the stone, but for Caduceus and his family She is especially grateful. Caduceus turns the crystals for Her as was always intended to happen, and makes the choice not to return home to the Blooming Grove, but to continue wandering with his friends.

The Wildmother is intrigued by this decision and the implications in it. She is not sure if Caduceus knows it himself yet or if, like he told his parents, he really did believe he simply owed this to the Mighty Nein.

She is hopeful that he will discover it soon.

----

Fjord dies.

This is a longer anguish than Caduceus, and even more brutal. The Wildmother watches as rage enters Her cleric’s heart as he strides over the deck to reach Fjord’s body.

She is there, she helps him bring Fjord back. It is Her power that courses through him and reaches out, tugging Fjord out of the cold black behind his eyes, pulling him forward and into the living world

She is there as Caduceus pours every part of himself into erasing the contamination of Uk’otoa from Fjord’s body, until they are both collapsed and shaking on the ground. Fjord reches up the eye. It was painful, but now he is free. That spot which once held a part of Her and was replaced with foul corruption, is now cleansed and whole once more.

He is safe now. He is theirs, now.

The Wildmother knows Caduceus will not let them take Fjord back.

----

Caduceus wanders away from the group before nightfall when they are not watching. The Wildmother reaches out to Fjord, a slight gust of wind on his neck to have him turn just in time to watch Caduceus slip away.

Fjord does not alert the rest of the group, only frowns as Caduceus’ back vanishes further into the woods.

The Wildmother is sure he will follow, and moves her presence back to Caduceus. He is always a quiet one, her quietest Clay, but today he has been drawn and anxious and it has worried her. He moves through the forest with intent, looking around until he finds a small meadow.

Caduceus takes out from his back a small square sheet, which he usually uses for commune. He does not cast a spell or take out any of his symbols. He simply finds a patch of flowers to sit beside. Caduceus picks a daffodil, twirls it in his fingers. Closes his eyes.

She waits, patient, as he works out what to say.

“Help me, Melora... I cannot love him,” Caduceus sighs, “Not when he looks to me for guidance.”

The Wildmother sighs back, the wind picking up before him and making the wild flowers dance. Caduceus’ eyes are closed and he does not see this, but She knows he feels Her presence, because his head tilts forward and his ears perk up.

“He’s far too deeply wistful to be loved,” He says, “By anyone at all. How could I take advantage of that?”

She blows past him to tug on Caduceus’ hair, gently, but enough to clearly express with him how silly She thinks he is being.

“I do love him. But I don’t want anything to change - I’m frightened of change. I don’t know what to do.” Caduceus now opens his eyes, and they are pleading with her. “What should I do?”

The Wildmother brushes past his cheek, past his shoulder and to where, behind the tree, Fjord stands. He is standing very still and his cheeks are flushed.

Caduceus looks back and sees him there. “Fjord,” he says, and stands to his feet.

He doesn’t appear to know what to say next. His hands clutch each other tightly. The Wildmother can feel his heart racing, the impulse to run must be flashing through his head, but he is quiet now. As though he is waiting for some final judgement.

“Caduceus…” Fjord steps into the meadow. “Did you mean that?”

“I…”

“You don’t think I can make the distinction between admiring you and, and liking you?” Fjord said, voice cracking down the middle. “You don’t trust me enough for that?”

And this is not where the Wildmother had thought the conversation would go. From his reaction, neither did Caduceus, who flinched back a step, his ears pulling down with the motion.

“I’m sorry,” Caduceus says, softly. “I didn’t mean for you to hear any of this.”

“So if I didn’t, then you’d think that would’ve been fine.” Fjord’s lips twist downward, and She knows that he is more upset than angry. “I was worried you were doing something stupid, but you’re fine. I’m going back.”

“Fjord, wait!”

Caduceus is fast when he wants to be. He is taller than Fjord and therefore his stride is longer and he catches up before Fjord can move too far away, grabs his wrist.

Fjord jerks away from his grasp. “I don’t need your protection here, Caduceus.”

“I’m sorry,” Caduceus says, and because he has always been genuine, “They were my own inner doubts and fears. They don’t have any weight on your character.” His smile is watery, but it is true. “I don’t think you can forgive me for every part of it, but know that that is the truth.”

“I don’t want to forgive you for it,” Fjord says, and Caduceus looks like he’s been slapped. Fjord takes a step towards him, reaches out, squeezes his arm. “I mean, I don’t want to ignore that you like me. Not when I feel the same way.”

Caduceus flushes. He doesn’t say anything in response, but stares wide-eyed at Fjord.

Fjord scratches the back of his neck. He is unable to keep eye contact. “Look, I was going to tell you actually,” He says, “But it never seemed to be the right time. And now, listening to that -”

“I’ve ruined it,” Caduceus says, and the Wildmother can feel his heart crumple.

“No! No, Caduceus,” Fjord says, “You haven’t ruined anything. I promise. This is just… a lot different than I thought.”

Caduceus still looks miserable.

Seeing this, Fjord seems to make a decision right there. He pulls something out from his pocket. It is a big seashell, glossy and irridanct, and it has clumsily been made into a necklace with a chain threaded through its shell.

“It isn’t anywhere close to your gift,” Fjord says. He hands it over, and Caduceus carefully takes it.

“Fjord, this is beautiful.”

Fjord lets out a nervous sound that might be a laugh, and looks down. “It really isn’t anything.”

“It is,” Caduceus says, insistently. He holds out his other hand, the one not holding Fjord’s gift, which the daffodil has been clutched in all this while. Fjord takes that from him, a little confused, and Caduceus smiles.

“If I haven’t ruined anything between us,” He says, “Would you allow me the chance to try this again?”

Fjord nods dumbly at first, before he gets his voice back.

“Yeah - yes. I’d like that.”

“Good.” Caduceus breathes a sigh of relief. “I would, too.”

The Wildmother watches them walk back together to their group, a little awkwardly, as though both of them want to reach out and hold each other’s hand but aren’t quite sure what the terms are yet.

She knows that they will be fine. They are brave, good men, and they are good for each other.

----

Fjord comes to Her, before their final battle.

He is as unpracticed as Caduceus had been the first few times, arranging seashells in the placement he can best remember with his forehead scrunched up in concentration. Every movement is deliberate and slow.

He kneels before her on the cloth.

“Wildmother?” He asks, and clears his throat. “I don’t expect you to answer me, like you do him. I don’t have that same, uh, skillset. But… hopefully this will get your attention.”

The waves against the shore pull back and She crests forward in a longer wave that stretches out much further than the tide allows, as close to the first few shells, before withdrawing once more. Fjord seems to take that as the confirmation She had intended.

“I want to ask that you protect him. Please.” Fjord says. “I know you care about all your servants and priests but he’s doing this for you as much as he is for us, and I don’t know if you can provide extra protection, but I think you should.”

The Wildmother reaches out, a soft brush of wind against his cheek. Warm and comforting. It is as much as She can say, in this way.

Fjord ducks his head. He seems to have figured it out for himself, even if She cannot speak with him. He was always a bright child.

“... I know,” he says, “I remember. Protect all you survey and all that is yours. I’m the extra protection, I’m meant to protect him.”

You both are both meant to take care of each other, the Wildmother speaks through the wind. She is not sure if the words catch in the back of his mind, or if this passes him by. It is not a straightforward relationship which She is allowed behind this barrier, but She does what She can.

He has no other questions for Her, and none which She could answer as directly as he would like Her to besides.

Fjord simply sits by the sea, as he had so long ago when he was alone. He breathes in the salty air and breathes out, slow and calm, and he listens to all the sounds and he names them one by one. Today, he is not alone. Today, when he has gotten what he wants from the ocean he will return to his friends and his family, those that love him.

It will be a hard battle they face tomorrow, but the Wildmother believes each of them will look out for each other, and that will be how they will survive.

---

When the day finally arrives, She finds them beneath Her tree in the Blooming Grove, the tree Caduceus had knelt at so long ago with his scraped up elbows and knees.

The Blooming Grove has never been this full in centuries of people laughing and loving each other. There are many faces which the Wildmother has loved and known for so long, and many more She can only now see more clearly in this place of Hers where She is so strongly known. Caduceus and Fjord and their Mighty Nein have met and befriended so many various people, and they have all come to join them on this joyful day.

It is Caduceus’ idea to try and handfast with seaweed, though it had been with the help of Jester and Caleb to make it work. They had wound fishing wire through the seaweed to help it keep its structure, and then the rest was done with ribbons.

Caduceus takes Fjord’s hand in his own. Yasha, resplendent with her white-feathered wings and starkly contrasting black gown, binds them together as Corin speaks to the Wildmother’s presence and the blessings She will be sending to their life moving forward, together.

The Wildmother is happy to have someone speak on Her behalf, but it is not necessary.

Flowers begin to bloom around the ceremony. The guests gasp in awe and look down as She expresses Her delight with the union by calling on all manner of blossoms. Roses, of course, of many colors, red tulips, yellow ambrosia flowers. It is fertile ground for Her expression, and soon a carpet of many colors has stretched from the guests to beneath the bridegroom's’ feet.

Caduceus laughs at the sight, light and bright, and Fjord is a little tearful and overwhelmed. Caduceus leans over and kisses him, as gentle as with anything he does. The Wildmother can feel the thrum of their hearts pulse in time with each other, quick and nervous, but they are safe in Her reach here and surrounded by the love around them.

She thinks of Fjord, the forgotten child on her sandy shore. She thinks of Caduceus, curled up in a lonely temple, left behind. Those images are long behind them now, left in colder times. They have each other.

It is more than enough.