Fjord collapsed back at camp in a heap, exhausted from working out with Beau. Every muscle in his body ached. He wished he’d just faked sleep when Beau had pestered him awake that morning to get back into the routine.
He fumbled around for his canteen and let the water splash over his face, opening his mouth and getting a couple swallows of the precious liquid before screwing the cap on halfway and dropping his arms back to the ground. Fjord closed his eyes and let the morning breeze sweep over him as he tried to slow his heart down. From somewhere off to his right, Fjord could hear one of the group humming, the humming morphing into cheerful song. He listened as the voice sang.
“When the fresh wind starts blowing the old dew-frost away. When the flowers start springing up every new day. When the leaves start to glisten like diamonds from the sun—You’ll know Melora’s work is being done.”
Besides knowing only about three of them had a voice low enough to be the one singing, the lyrics of the song were enough to narrow it down immediately. Fjord popped one eyelid open, squinting against the morning sun to try and spot his friend.
Caduceus sat cross-legged about thirty feet away, voice caught by the wind and flowing softly back to Fjord. He was setting up some ritual or another, as far as Fjord could tell. It piqued his interest enough to make Fjord sit up, holding in a groan as he did so. His body did not thank him for the sit-up he’d just done.
“La, la, la-la, la, something, la-da, bum, bum la-dah—And the earth is fresh turned, harvests on the way,” Caduceus resorts back to humming as Fjord listens, seeming to interject a few words here and there. Like the lyrics are half-forgotten but the tune was undeniable.
“When the gravestones are laden with fresh and clean snow. When the creatures of summer have long been burrowed. When nature is frozen and death lays its claim—the work of the ‘Mother is renewing again,” Caduceus sings.
Sometimes Fjord forgets that the Wildmother represents something entirely different to his friend. While Caduceus doesn’t worship the goddess of death, he and his family have been the keepers of a graveyard for years and years and years. It’s bound to make even the cheeriest of tunes have a solemn note in their lyrics.
Fjord takes a few quiet steps closer, not wanting to interrupt either the ritual or the voice he’s so rarely heard outside of group discussions and arguments. Caduceus tends to be a mediator, or a call for honesty within the group. He encourages, and he supports in battle with quick words or called warnings, but it’s rare to hear him talk just for the sake of conversation. Or, in this case, Fjord isn’t sure he’s ever heard the firbolg sing. Caduceus has so far been content to listen to others and sit by the wayside. Not the center of attention.
As Fjord gets a bit closer, he second-guesses his own thoughts. Even now, Caduceus isn’t really drawing attention to himself. He’s on the edge of camp, in a small clearing between trees and wild plants tangling together around them. The others are all awake, all set in their own preparations for travel that day. Fjord would probably be just waking up if it weren’t for the torture Beau had dragged him along for that morning.
“La, la, la-da-la, hmm, hmm—“again, humming lines in that same, sweet, low register of his. A light breeze wafts through and Fjord watches the strands of Caduceus’ hair be picked up and whirled around in the warm front as it passes. He feels it ruffle through his own slowly growing hair as it passes, tickling his ears for a moment.
More words are forgotten as Caduceus keeps humming. Fjord is close enough to have an angle to see the ritual being set up before him, now. Incense, lit, a distinct smell rising from the tip. Sharp, yet somehow earthy. Like an overripe spice plum mixed with copper and tea leaves. The smoke rose in gentle lines up, stirred by Caduceus’ breath as he sings low in his throat. A circle is drawn in the dirt before him, and the different accoutrements Fjord has seen presented in such circles before are being pulled from pockets within his tunic and pack.
From his vantage point, still stalking forward, Fjord can see Caduceus’ eyes half-closed, head swaying in an even slower time than his words. Fjord has seen Caduceus sway like this before, and he wonders if this is the music Cad imagines when he closes his eyes and pictures the Wildmother.
Caduceus’ voice is reverent, like a prayer, as he continues singing, knowing less and less words, but hummed with no less devotion than the lyrics he remembers. There’s a curl to Caduceus’ shoulders that gives Fjord the impression of sadness though. As if he will persevere in the ritual because he must, though it pains him not to remember the words. The stiff way Caduceus sits tall, except for his shoulders that hunch and curl closer to his chin, the more he resorts to humming instead of singing. Almost shame that radiates from him.
Shame looks so, so wrong when it’s written over Caduceus’ body. He wants to press the shame out of his shoulders, and offer something kinder in its place.
But Fjord had never practiced any scripts to be a comforter to others. Sometimes he lucks out and says something helpful. Sometimes he trips over his own words so many times he gives up partway through. He’s never felt the natural inclination of what to say to lessen another’s grief, or hurt, or fear. He’d hardly ever known what to say to himself in those situations, let alone any others.
But the incongruency in seeing his friend so devoted yet so sad pricks at Fjord’s heart, and he softly pads forward the remaining few steps until he is beside Caduceus. He gently rests one hand on the firbolg’s shoulder. His friend is so tall, he doesn’t have to bend his knees. He just lays a hand to his shoulder and squeezes it softly in greeting, not wanting to interrupt.
Caduceus’ humming doesn’t falter, but his head does lean to one side, right eye peaking open fully and nodding at Fjord before resuming his former position and continuing the somatic motions of setting up a Communion with his goddess.
As Fjord follows the tune’s swells and lows, he picks up on when a new verse is starting, and adds his own voice to Caduceus’ worship of the Wildmother.
“When the ocean is churning, waves higher than hell. When you feel yourself tipping along with each swell. When you call out in hopes of rescue to be near—She will grant you a respite, you’ve nothing to fear.”
“When the turmoil turns your heart black as stone. And the strengths you had used are sapped from your bones. As you destroy the ties of evil inside—the Wildmother cradles you and provides.”
Fjord’s knees, still weak from the morning, are shaking slightly as he continues singing. The words being produced are coming to him as he goes. He’s just as surprised as the other is, at what he’s saying. Though he knows it’s the truth, these words. He’s letting himself be a mouthpiece for his goddess, claiming the good she’s done in his life. Even before he knew who she was, and what was in her nature.
“Loneliness settles as winter leans on. All things recycle, life, death and beyond. But in the darkest of nights even then—She’s watching, and working, and sending a friend.”
Fjord feels the twitch in Caduceus’ shoulders as they sink, then hitch, then sink again. Fjord opens his eyes, blinking against the morning sun, and looks down. Caduceus has his hands slowly moving through the actions required, his voice still providing the low hum of music. But his head is bowed and he cannot see his face. The shoulder beneath his hand, however, hitches suddenly and shudders, then flattens out again. The unsteady pattern does not match the song. But Fjord can feel it matching the shaking in his knees, and the emotions he can feel churning in his gut as he sings praise for the Wildmother.
Fjord squeezes the shoulder again before letting go, stepping delicately over the ritual circle and turning to sit across from Caduceus. The incense fills his nose as he sits before it, and a soft breeze seems to encircle them, keeping it from drifting away. It is warm but not making him sweat more. Instead it is a comfortable breeze, as if it were a hug from Jester. Playful and friendly, and ready to muss your hair up a little if it means getting the best angle for a hug.
Caduceus has his head bowed, but Fjord follows a track of wetness on Caduceus’ face as a tear follows the length of his nose, cresting to one side and past the corner of his mouth, before dropping from chin to the ground. A few more tears join it, and Caduceus’ humming is thick in his throat, gruffer than before. His hands seem to be making the final motions for the spell to be set into place, if Fjord is reading it right. He has watched with wonder many times as Caduceus has contacted his goddess, has meditated beside him. But he’s never heard the musical aspect of it until today.
“The process of dying must be preserved. It’s only thru Her, that it may be reversed. The power to bring what has fallen, home again—a godly decision if my solitude may end,” is sung low. Caduceus’ voice cracks as he speaks to life this final verse. A soft green light emits from the circle on the ground, rising with the incense to shimmer in the air before them.
Caduceus looks up, his big, grey eyes reddened with sorrow, a few tears clinging stubbornly to his eyelashes and the light dusting of gray fur on his face. Fjord looks back, once again at a loss for the words to say, now that the song is complete. He doesn’t know what to say or do to wipe that expression off of Caduceus’ face. He wishes he could do anything, but this wasn’t his ritual. This wasn’t his magic. He could only wait and react, no control to be had of his friend’s state.
“My upbringing impressed upon me the importance of tradition, and holding it close. Knowing what is expected of me, and what I need to do to uphold those traditions. It never occurred to me to make up my own words in the song to the Wildmother, before. My aunt taught me the words, and she would sing the song in daily work as well as in ritual. But after so long without either a need to commune or a reason to speak aloud, the words had faded. Only a few of the many, many verses my aunt had taught me remained.”
Fjord nods, leaning forward slightly as Caduceus speaks, his words rumbling from deep within his chest.
“As with the Dusts and the Stones, there should always be one of the family there, taking care of the Blooming Grove and all who are interred there. From a very young age I imagined that to be me. I allowed myself to grow with the expectation of service, and duty, and tradition resting upon my shoulders, in honor of the Wildmother. A member of the Clays to stay while the others find their purpose as they leave and return.”
Fjord watches as Caduceus takes a deep breath. His thin frame barely swells as he breathes in and holds it for a long moment—before breathing out again. As he releases the air his head sways down, but his shoulders straighten slightly.
“Did that image bring you joy? Would that life have made you happy?” Fjord asks, curious. He doesn’t usually delve into questions about Caduceus’ family, but it seems to be weighing heavily on his friend, this day.
Caduceus takes another deep breath, head still bowed. Fjord watches another tear arc its way towards the earth.
“I was at peace with it. It seemed my path was clear, and it seemed to be what I was suited for. I was always the slowest of my siblings to accept change, or to welcome adventure. A homebody, who stayed back to tend the garden while the others ran errands or visited town for supplies every couple of years.”
“I appreciated routine, and familiarity of expectations. That’s what I anticipated my life to be full of. Knowing exactly what I’m meant to be doing, even if the reasons why or the timeline is unclear. Trusting the Wildmother, and her wisdom, and her timing, was easy, when I was growing up. It was even easy for the first year or so, after the last of them had left to find a cure, feeling a pull in their soul from the Wildmother to venture beyond our home to try and save it. One I did not feel with them.”
Caduceus’ voice is scratchy, and thick, and Fjord watches as he blinks rapidly for a moment, turning his face up to the sky. The morning light peers between trees and frames him in a shaft of brightness, highlighting how pale his fur is, how bright but faded his hair has grown in the time Fjord’s known him.
“Time is difficult for us to keep track of—there wasn’t a great need for it, for my family, really. But part of that was intentional, after enough seasons had passed, with no word or sight of my family. It was harder to trust my goddess, even as I prayed daily that would be the day I caught sight of one of them on the path home.”
Though tilted back, Fjord sees that shame flash and settle on Caduceus’ face again, and again he presses down the powerful urge to smooth his friend’s features out, back to calm or content or anything that didn’t lay so wrong on him.
“I was… I was terrified,” he admits in a small voice. “And I was angry.” Caduceus lifts one hand to his mouth, covering it, shaking his head back and forth.
“You had a right to be, Caduceus,” Fjord says. “You were left alone with no idea what was going on for years. Did the Wildmother never tell you anything about them? Could you never message them or, or, I don’t know, scry?”
“Scrying was beyond my capabilities at that time. And asking the ‘mother would have been a weakness on my part, proof of my lack of faith—“
“Bullshit,” Fjord interrupts, temper flaring. Caduceus’ eyes fly open and he looks fully at Fjord, startled.
“Bullshit,” Fjord repeats, scuffing the ground with one hand. “If there’s anything you’ve taught me, Caduceus, it’s that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. How could asking have hurt? How could she make you feel like that?”
“She-she didn’t make me feel anything, it would have been a personal failing, I’m not blaming the Wildmother—“he starts, but Fjord doesn’t like what he’s hearing.
“Stop it, stop saying that! Being afraid, and leaning into that fear is okay, right? Didn’t you say you usually smile when you’re afraid? Well, it’s okay to just be afraid and not do anything about it. It’s okay to worry, it doesn’t mean you trust the gods any less. For goodness sakes, Caddy, I’d be worried if you told me you weren’t angry or scared in that whole time. It’s natural.”
Caduceus chews on the inside of his cheeks for a moment as he lets Fjord’s words wash over him. Fjord can see the doubt in his friend’s face, but Caduceus doesn’t contest the statement like Fjord had expected.
“Perhaps. But I felt it was a failure to both my family, the Grove, to the other families, to the Wildmother, that I didn’t have enough faith to trust her. Obviously she had a plan—I met all of you, right? And we ventured to the Dusts and the Stones and defeated the challenges there. I shouldn’t have doubted her—“
“Caduceus, it was years later, I’m sure your parents or siblings won’t fault you for being afraid or doubting. If they do, then I have a thing or two to say to them, holy priests of the Wildmother or not. And just because they were statues for most of the years you were at home, doesn’t mean you were wrong to be angry or upset. It is okay to let yourself feel the shit you feel. Bottling it all up makes for a worse mess later. Trust me.”
Caduceus shakes his head again, and Fjord feels that flame inside of him burn hotter, but he doesn’t keep on trying to convince him otherwise. He’ll have time for that later. Instead, Fjord changes the subject, bringing Caduceus’ focus back to the ritual he’d set up.
“Alright, we’ll table that discussion. You’re communing with the Wildmother—you had questions for her, right?”
Caduceus looks down at the circle, almost with surprise. Like he’d forgotten it was even there. “Ahh… I can’t quite remember what I was going to ask her,” he says, cheeks dusting with a blush of embarrassment. Fjord ignores how sweet the rosy color looks on his cheeks in favor of letting a new idea swirl and form in his mind.
“May I ask a question or two, of her then?” he asks delicately. Caduceus nods, humming an affirmative.
“Wildmother, did the Clays all make it safely back to the Blooming Grove with Reani?” he asks. Caduceus’ mouth drops into an ‘o’ of confusion as the wind picks up between them, swirling a few leaves with a warm gust in a circle around them.
“Yes,” Caduceus answers aloud, his voice fragile again.
“Thank you,” Fjord nods, thinking how to phrase his next question. “Wildmother,” he pauses, hand rubbing his chin as he considers his options. “Should Caduceus forgive himself for having doubts and anger in the time when he was unsure of his faith and the fate of his family?”
Caduceus’ jaw drops further, eyes wide, probably at the presumption in Fjord’s question. Fjord waits for the wind to pick up, and he is not disappointed. There’s a whirl of activity just outside of their bubble, leaves and grass clippings and flowers being pulled from bushes and swirling up into the air in a small funnel around them. The wind tugs at Caduceus’ long hair but it doesn’t tangle or pull, just playfully lifts the tips as their mini-tornado destroys nothing, but gives a very loud answer to Fjord’s question.
Caduceus clenches his jaw together for a moment before saying in a small voice, “she says yes.”
“And one more question,” Fjord says aloud. Cad nods tightly, eyes averted and watching the whirlwind. A light blue flower falls from the wind and drifts onto one of Caduceus’ knees. He stares at it, unmoving, as the wind stays warm but not destructive around them.
“Are you sorry that Caduceus feels he deserves his pain because he thinks he’s failed you?”
“Fjord,” Caduceus exclaims, aghast. “It’s not a goddess’ place to apologize to her followers—“Caduceus starts. But he’s cut off as the wind stops abruptly. The bits of leaf and grass falls to the ground. But the flowers drift delicately, falling onto the ritual circle in an intentional dance, pink and green and blue petals laying in a spiral between Fjord and Caduceus. Like the whittled earrings Caduceus wears.
The air between them grows cool but refreshing—a new breath of air instead of the circling, recycled warmth that had been between them previously. Fjord feels sweat cool on his temple as the soft gust brushes past him, instantly relaxing his shoulders as it refreshes him.
Fjord looks up to Caduceus and sees his eyes are closed again, lower jaw shaking slightly. Fjord reaches across the circle and grasps Caduceus by the wrist, feeling his thumb reach all the way around to meet his first finger and then some.
“Caduceus?” he asks quietly. The wind dies around them and the sounds of the forest come back into focus as the magic of the ritual fades.
Caduceus squeezes his eyes tighter, leaning away from Fjord’s voice, but not removing his grasp. Fjord watches as his friend’s shoulders hitch again, his breathing becoming unsteady.
Fjord feels his heart break as he watches Caduceus try to keep himself from coming undone. He watched Beau break apart when they visited her parents, then Jester do the same the night she provided a hero’s feast during Travelercon. And now, the friend he associates with quiet strength and endless patience, wisdom, and general chill, is trying to quiet his own hiccupping breaths and squeezing his eyes shut as if feeling pain was an unforgiveable weakness.
His mind flashes back to his talk with Caleb on the open waters—about being thankful for experiencing more life than he ever thought he would. And further back, to gripping hands with Caleb as they agreed they were in this together, all of them, to the end of the line. Back when the group was helping Fjord through his bullshit captaincy and piracy and nearly-unleashing-a-chaos-god-of-the-sea to make him feel better.
He thinks about Yasha’s scream in the cathedral when she was finally brought back to herself—how the hairs on the back of his neck had risen, how all eyes had been drawn to her as she dropped to her knees and lightning flashed outside, the thunder so loud it busted the rest of the glass in the windows.
He thinks of all the time Caduceus has spent without any friends to see him through his difficult moments, all the time Caduceus had to doubt and feel guilty and cover his pain and push it down until it threatens to tear him apart at the seams.
He looks at the man before him, thinner than may be healthy, hair paling and skin a sickly gray compared to the way his siblings had appeared, post stone makeover. He thinks about how the rosy glow to his cheeks had made him appear heartier, lovelier. How often he’s missing that glow, lately.
For once he doesn’t hesitate when considering his instincts on providing comfort, always unsure before, how it would appear, and scoots himself to be beside his friend, wrapping his arms around the thin, shaking shoulders. His chest to Caduceus’ back, leaning his head to rest at the base of Caduceus’ neck, murmuring soft hushes to soothe him. He offers the comfort he wishes he’d had in his darkest moments. An end to the loneliness—someone to care, to comfort. To be a friend. To be there, period.
Caduceus brings one hand to grasp where Fjord has his hands locked around him, bowing further forward and finally letting himself openly cry, jaw unclenched and sobs racking his entire frame. Fjord felt every bone in Cad’s spine push against him as he hunched low, letting himself feel.
“It’s going to be okay, I’ve got you, Caduceus,” Fjord reassures, rubbing one hand up Cad’s arm as he speaks in a low voice.
He holds on as Caduceus chokes and coughs and sobs and cries, his body trembling as he lets words fall from his mouth in nonsensical waves of emotion and memories. Fjord holds on all throughout, keeping him together in his arms. He listens, and listens, and hears more than what could be said. Heartbreak, fear, loneliness, so much pouring out from his friend.
By some miracle, the others have been distracted all morning. Caduceus has a space to let himself come undone without fear of being judged. Fjord thinks the others wouldn’t blame him for this, but he’s beginning to understand Caduceus much better than he thought he did, and can see that he doesn’t want to appear like this before the rest. Not without some preparation, at least.
The sun finds new angles in the sky as Caduceus slowly loses his tears. His body trembling with exhaustion, his breathing evened out over time. Fjord, behind him, having been breathing in a deliberate pattern, knowing Caduceus could feel his steady heartbeat and helping him without words find a center again.
Fjord unlocks one arm to offer his water skin, hoping to help his friend replenish some of the oceans of water he’s just lost. Caduceus takes it, wordless, and drinks, head tilting back and losing some of his hunch as he did so. He nearly empties it before setting it back on the ground beside them. There’s a stilted quiet that wasn’t between them before. It’s nearly unbearable as it stretches, and Fjord doesn’t want this—he doesn’t want it to be weird or awkward now, he just wants him to feel safe, how—
“When everything builds to unbearable pain; when you cannot walk tall and proud under the same. When you feel your life ripping apart at the seams—Melora is sending a hero for thee,” he sings, letting words flow clumsily as he tries to think ahead.
“When your voice is a falsehood, and your face even too; when you never let your friends see the real you. When darkness encroaches on your heart every day—maybe she’s trying to help find a new way.”
He can only speak from his experiences. But he thinks Caduceus can bend meanings well enough to relate. They’re more similar than Fjord had first realized. For good and for bad. But they have time, and help, and friendship to build their way through their weaknesses.
Fjord hums the tune a few times as he thinks of something more uplifting to sing. In his arms, Caduceus begins to sway, both hands folding over Fjord’s hands as he leans back into the embrace, humming along. The wind around them is delicate as it carries their tune high.
“A life is a sorrowful thing to be waste; in anger and doubts, in the way bitter words taste. There’s love and friendship and tomorrows to see—Melora has brought hope—she’s brought you to me.” Caduceus’ voice rumbles from low within his chest. His voice scratchy and sunk from the strength of his previous emotions letting out. But strong, truth ringing out in every syllable.
Fjord thinks about what Caduceus said to him, once; that one day someone will be praying for a hero, or a sign, and it’ll be answered by Fjord showing up. That he could be the culmination of faith someone has in their god—that he could be a beacon of hope, if he follows the Wildmother. That he has so much good in him to share, that he could be a hero. That he already is one.
Fjord repeats the words back, singing them softly in Caduceus’ ear, letting the other know he feels the same strength of conviction in what he’s saying as Cad does. When he finishes the line, he plants a small kiss on the crown of Cad’s head, bowing his forehead to one shoulder after and slowly unlocking his hands from where they’ve been wrapped around Caduceus.
The other turns slowly, facing him. For a moment Fjord takes in the puffiness in Cad’s face, the severely reddened eyes, the matted fur where he’d scrubbed at tears that had gotten tangled with snot on their way down his face. His hair fuzzy and frizzing out. He looks perfect, Fjord can’t help but think, despite the obvious signs he’d been crying.
“Thank you, Fjord,” he says, hesitating. “I… I don’t know what I would have done without you. Without all of you, inviting me to join them, to rescue you, to follow and learn and guide and be together on this journey that we’ve been on. I don’t know where I’d be—well, I’d be at the Grove, I know. But I don’t know where my mind would be without you, Fjord. Just being around you makes leaving home worth it, even with all the uncertainty I’ve faced along the way.”
Fjord feels his face grow warm, as do the tips of his ears. He blushes, and reaches one hand back out to grasp Cad’s wrist, squeezing lightly. “Likewise, Caduceus. I wouldn’t be half the man I am—heck, I may not have even lived—without you here. You make me believe in miracles, Caduceus, because to me, you are one.”
They both have small smiles, slowly growing wider, as they look to each other for a moment. Caduceus leans forward and places a kiss on Fjord’s forehead, resting his forehead to Fjord’s for a moment after, just breathing in his space. Fjord feels a little light-headed, but mostly warmth is flowing through him at the light touch.
The moment doesn’t break. It ends, as all moments do, but there’s no shuffling or avoidant eyes as they hear Jester and Veth call for them distantly. They stand together, brushing some of the dirt from themselves. Fjord picks up the flower that had landed on Caduceus’ knee and offers it to him. Cad places it in his hair, weaving it into a strand to the side of his face. They grab their things and head back to the main camp together, greeting the others and waving away concerns of where have you been and oh no did beau’s workout kill you and other silly questions the group came up with in their time apart.
Caduceus isn’t ready to reveal his insecurities to the rest, yet. Fjord gets it. He keeps an eye on his friend as they all regroup and discuss the travel plans for the day. They begin another trek, another adventure, following the weird roads they do.
And along the way, Fjord finds himself humming to a new tune.