As the Midnight Hammer is guided through the icy water by the Cetus and her babies, Fjord lays on the quiet deck, eyes shut against the warm sunlight from above, embracing the gentle swaying of the ship through the seas, Caleb’s pendant feeling oddly heavy against the base of his throat.
The deck is partially destroyed from Avantika’s attack, and the deckhands have mostly left him be, other than to move around him while tidying up and searching for salvageables. So he basks, and he dozes, and he thinks.
His body still aches with the viciousness of Avantika’s stikes from the previous night, like his very soul still resonates with the burning sensation she delt him, a reminder that he will carry with him for a very long time.
Below decks, Caleb inscribes spells into his book and Jester sketch portraits of the kind Cetus family. Beau and Yasha stand guard on opposites sides of the Midnight Hammer, watching over the ocean as icebergs drift swiftly past. Veth has tied herself to the rigging, holding tightly to the rail as Frumpkin winds lovingly between her legs. Caduceus is probably below decks with the others, trying to convince Vess Derogna to try some of his favourite tea and most likely failing.
But Fjord is happiest to lay on the rough deck of the icebreaker, one of the very few nice day’s they’ve been gifted while out at sea, almost as if the Wildmother has witnessed his recent trials and has taken pity on him. Still, he basks under Her sunlight, streaming down from the parted clouds in the blue sky, and he feels almost as if Her warmth is slowly but surely replacing the coldness that Avantika had put within his soul, soothing the burn with a cool balm of Her tender touch.
Admittedly, he has been thinking much about the Wildmother, since they finally defeated Avantika for the second time in the watery depths of the freezing ocean. He has spent many hours lying on his softly swinging hammock in Caleb’s magnificent mansion with the Star Razor clutched between his hands, running his fingers over the new, additional runes and the elongated blade, the sturdier hilt, and each time he closed his eyes, the blinding white light of the Wildmother’s blessing bisecting Avankika with its holy glow burned behind his eyelids.
Despite the appreciation he has for the Wildmother’s aid and the unexpected kindness She has shown him, there is still a small part of him that can’t help but feel bitter. He had prayed to Her, on his own violation for the first time in a very long time, to keep him and his friends safe on the restless seas, and to help prevent what happened last time they were on the ocean from happening again. He has promised to live a life of freedom on the open seas, to smite those who abuse their power, to follow Her wordless guidance through the strong wings and rumbling storms, to trust the skies, to adapt like the shifting tides and reveal hidden secrets, to explore the mystery of the world, to chart the globe uncharted, to discover dark deeds and thwart those who hide in the shadows of the changing waves. To find the path to becoming something great.
He pledged himself to Her, and in return, Avantika and her undead crew bordered the Midnight Hammer, attacked and hurt his friends, and escaped with the Cloven Crystal. Sure, they retrieved it and carved her into orca bate, but the fact that it had happened at all was cause enough for him to doubt the interest of his goddess.
He is certainly grateful for all Her aid, but sometimes it seems that She isn’t watching him when he needs Her to be watching.
He doesn’t feel the presence beside him until he hears the deep, bassy hum to his left. He glances aside, turning his head against the cool deck, to see a familiar set of floral covered boots and silvery clear lichen draped over his shoulder and onto the deck. “Hey there,” Caduceus hums, that big, dopey grin looking down at Fjord, his tall frame blocking out the sun and casting him in shadow. “You look nice and cozy. How are you feeling? We’ve had quite a few rough days, and none of us has really checked in yet.”
Even after the craziness of the last few days, Fjord can’t help but smile. “I’m fine, thanks Ducey,” he stretches languidly against the deck, the heat from the sun warming his bones and making him lazy and sated. “Just thinking, is all. I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
“Oh yeah?” Caduceus smiles dopily as he joins Fjord on the deck, grunting a bit as his stiff body aches and his knee sore from a childhood encounter that Fjord can't quite remember clicked with the motion, but he smiles at Fjord. His hair falls over his shoulder, the sunlight making his hair seem very pink. His cheeks are sallower than normal, and his eyes are ringed by dark circles from many long days and sleepless nights, but his eyes are still kind, and his smile is still as warm as it always is. “Do you want to talk about it? I’m more than happy to help you get it off your chest.”
There is never a nice way to tell a devotee that you’re having issues with their god, but Fjord knows Caduceus well and knows that Caduceus is unlikely to really be unhappy with him, no matter what he says or how he’s feeling. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Wildmother as of late,” Fjord says. Caduceus hums in acknowledgment. “Have you spoken to Her at all, recently? Has She… mentioned me?”
“No. But there’s no need,” Caduceus says. “You look different. Glowing, almost. Radiant.“ he frowns for a moment, eyebrows pulling together. “I’m not sure those are the right words. Jester would probably know what I’m trying to say. Proud. Confident.”
“I do?” Fjord blinks, surprised. “Well, thanks Caduceus.”
“It’s no trouble,” Caduceus laughs that jolly laugh of his. “But yeah, you look different. You’re a whole new man now. I’m very proud.”
Bashful, Fjord doesn’t thank him, but a blush rises on his cheeks, despite his attempt to stop it. “I spoke to Her, earlier that day. When Avantika attacked,” he swallows. “She asked me if I would… I don’t know how to explain it. Live a life of freedom on the open seas, smite those who would abuse their power, follow Her directions in the form of shifting waters, to discover places uncharted. And I agreed. It sounded like everything I’ve ever wanted.”
He doesn’t like the way Caudues watches him with those kind, understanding eyes of his, and he turns his head away to face the sky and the ever-changing clouds. “But…?” Caduceus prompts. He always did know Fjord too well for his own liking.
“I can’t help but feel… a little forgotten,” Fjord admits. He can almost feel Caduceus’s judging eyes peering into his soul and the fragments that Avantika had torn from him. “After I pledged myself to Her and promised to follow Her for the rest of my days, I was... happy. But when I prayed to Her before that battle, nothing came of it. I think I had foolishly hoped that She may interfere in some way, or protect us. But all we received was a terrible storm and undead Avantika trying to kill us and take the Cloven Crystal. And I can’t help but feel like I’ve done something wrong. Like I’ve upset Her somehow.”
“Oh no, not at all,” Caduceus’s smile remains in place, but his eyebrows pull together in thinly veiled concern. “As far as I’m aware, she’s incredibly proud. You’ve given Her no reason not to be.”
Pursing his lips, Fjord crosses his arms over his chest and stares upwards, the clouds drifting over the sun as if to mock his turmoil “I don’t know how to explain it, Caduceus. You’ve always been so sure and true in your faith to her, but I’m just so new to this and I… I don’t know. I feel like there are more downs than ups to this whole deal. More hardships than rewards. Like I’m doing so much work to better myself and improve, but everywhere I turn, there are just obstacles in my way, and trying to turn me back in the opposite direction. I feel like I’m not moving at all. Like I’m stagnant. I’m faced with so many trails that I’m starting to wonder if She even wants to me to succeed at all.”
He is surprised by Caduceus’s chuckle, deep and heavy, like a warm blanket, and he glances over to see that Caduceus has copied his stance and is also watching the clouds dance across the sunlit sky, his eyes scrunched up sweetly as he laughs. “Oh,” he huffed. “Oh, that’s almost funny. No, Fjord, I think you misunderstand. She wants you to succeed very much.”
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Fjord, in fact, has misunderstood. “Then what’s with all these challenges? These trials?” he demands weakly. “Every time I think I’m getting somewhere or like I’m making strides in my commitment to Her and my personal growth, it seems like there’s always something nearby to knock me back down a few pegs and send me back to where I started. Why does She do that?”
“Well, I don’t think that it’s Her doing it, but I will say that She might be… choosing not to warn you about them. Like covering a pit of spikes with leaves and hoping that you notice it before She points it out to you,” Caduceus tilts his head as he speaks, and his hair brushes against Fjord’s neck. “But no. You’re going about this the wrong way. It’s not about Her preventing you from moving forward, it’s Her way of… hm. Let’s say of ensuring that you earn it.”
“Earn it?” Fjord splutters. Of all the things he had expected Caduceus to say, that certainly wasn’t it. “Earn what? My right to be a good person?”
“You are a good person. You’ve been a good person for as long as I’ve known you,” Caduceus states mater-o-factly. “And I like to think that I’m a rather good judge of character, and getting better every day. If you ask me, it’s less about Her wanting you to suffer and more about proving that you want it. If you’re willing to fight for it, to battle despite these tests She puts in your way, then She knows that She is not wasting Her time looking over you.”
“I feel a little singled out,” Fjord admits, though his voice is softer now that he is digesting Caduceus’s wisdom. “I’m not going to lie.”
“Don’t be. She tests us all,” Caduceus smiles at the sun like She is the light streaming through the clouds and warming his skin. “My whole family has faced terrible trials. She sent us all on that quest to restore and save the Blooming Grove, and I like to think that She did it because She knew we would succeed. Or, well, that one of us would, at least. It’s alright to need help along the way. I had you all to help to find the Kiln and make my way to the Stone’s. My family never had that kind of help. I think, if they had, none of this would have happened. But isn’t it a wonderful thing to believe that you are special?”
Fjord has never been special. He has never felt special, or like he was worth a damn until he met the Nein and he was looked at with new eyes. But the words settle heavily on his bones nonetheless. “I understand what you’re trying to say, Caduceus, but I’m not quite convinced.”
Sighing, Caduceus’s face turns pensive as his features cool and he stares at the sky. The ship lurches once as it hits and breaks apart a particularly large iceberg. “Do you believe in fate, Fjord?”
“I am of the belief that everything happens for a reason. We may not understand that reason, but the reason is there, hiding in the background,” Caduceus says, suddenly very sombre. “I believe that She wanted my family to fail, and for you to arrive at my Grove and lead me out of my home. I think She wanted me to succeed where my family had not, because I had the most to gain from the experience. While my home would have been saved sooner, I would not have met any of you, and I would not have grown into the man I am today. But while my path was clear, She did not make the journey easy. If it’s too easy, then anyone can do it. But if it’s difficult, and tiring, frightening, and unappealing until the very end, then it’s much easier to wheedle out those who deserve Her attention, and who is worthy of Her aid.”
“What are you trying to say, Caduceus?” Fjord wants to understand, he really does, but he is just so new to this, and he is so damn tired that any thought is anguish to him.
Thankfully, Caduceus is eerily patient with him. “A storm did swallow us, yes. Avantika did attack us, true. Many of us were injured and nearly killed, sure. The eyeball was stolen for a time, I suppose. But while those things were terrible and difficult and frightening, there is always a light in the darkness. We survived. We found Avankia. You killed her and got the stone back. And She blessed you by aiding your final blow, and by making you and your blade glow with Her holy light. I knew I gave you that sword for a reason, and She just proved it that night. So while there is misfortune, it will always be followed by success. And the hardships make the rewards much sweeter.”
“Oh,” Fjord frowns. “I guess I understand that.”
“It may be hard right now, and it may be hard further down the road, but at the very end of the road, it will be filled with… well. I’m not quite sure it will be filled with. I’m sure She’ll make it special for you,” Caduceus tilts his head to look at him, and his easy smile is infectious. “I believe that this is worth it. That all this hardship is just going to grow into something bigger and better. That you’re going to benefit from it in the end. That you’re going to be worthy of Her gifts and Her aid, and that She will look down upon you and smile, and grant you kindness because She knows how much you have been through. That, from these trails, you’re going to grow into that man you want to be. I think you’ve already started.”
A warmth spreads through Fjord at Caduceus’s words, like the warmth in the air before a humid spring storm, where the water slaps against the side of the boat and the air crackles with the threat of a storm before giving way to purple skies. It’s familiar, but also not. He feels Her presence, but She seems to be affirming Caduceus’s words as if She wants to personally reassure Fjord that She wants him to succeed and that all this suffering will be worth it in the end. Caduceus must feel it too because his eyes fall shut as he hums low in his chest, Her presence like a tender hand against his face. Fjord feels it too, and all of a sudden, all his deep-seated worries just wash away, like wet sand in the tide. “Thank you, Caduceus,” Fjord is aware of how thick his voice sounds, but hopes Caduceus won’t mention it. “I think I really needed to hear that.”
“It’s no problem,” But Caduceus is still looking at him with questioning eyes, his smile careless and lazy. “Think about it this way if you're still not convinced. If the others hadn’t found me in the Blooming Grove, I never would have aided them in saving you from that awful place, and I never would have seen the places I’ve seen, met the people I’ve met and fought the fights I’ve fought. I would still be that lonely boy afraid to leave, hoping for some company to waltz through the gates and praying day and night that my family would come home. But the Nein changed all of that. You gave me my family back. You saved my home. You gave me a purpose again. And if you hadn’t been on that boat when it went down, you never would have met your patron, you never would have run into Jester, you never would have met the others and I and none of this would have happened. You would still be that sad orphan trying to make a name for himself but too afraid of what others would think, who filed down his tusks and modified his accent to fit his definition of important and normal. But you changed all that yourself, with very little help from the rest of us,” he winks, and it’s such a startling look that Fjord nearly recoils. He must be spending too much time around Veth, or Jester, or Beau. He can’t tell who the worst influence is. “See? Fate. It’s all about fate.”
“Well, I can certainly see that,” Fjord laughs. It feels good to laugh after so many stressful days. “I appreciate you being here for me.”
“It’s no trouble at all. I’ve been told that I’m a very good listener,” Caduceus beams like Fjord has just made his day. For all Fjord knows, he has. “I’m glad that I could help.”
“We best be going,” Fjord says when neither of them moves. “It’s cold out, and we’re probably in the way of the crew.”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to say anything but I think my hat has stuck to the deck with all these frozen water and stuff. My tail too is feeling a bit numb.” Caduceus says it like they’re discussing the weather, and Fjord laughs as he helps him up off the deck and onto his feet. He wasn’t kidding about his hat or his hair- his eyebrows are speckled with frost. “Thanks, I was starting to worry that I’d be stuck there forever.”
“No worries,” Fjord laughs. “Consider it a tiny bit of momentum towards the favour I owe you.”
Caduceus laughs so hard that his whole body trembles and Fjord laughs with him, though some of the deckhands look at them strangely. “You don’t have to owe people every time someone does something nice for you,” he says sagely. “Now, don’t stay out here too late. You’re going to catch a cold. I’m going to go back below decks, make you a nice cup of tea to fight off some of that chill.”
Fjord watches him go, and when every strand of his pink head has disappeared below decks, he turns back to the bow of the Midnight Hammer, and he leans out over the railing as the Cetus family coo at each other and leads the ship onwards. He is reminded once again of how the ocean has always felt like his home, and how safe he feels upon it despite the ever-looming threat of Uk’otoa. The sea is his home. He isn’t going to let anyone scare him away.
He feels the Wildmother against his back, Her warmth replacing the chill Avantika’s blade had left in his soul, and he is grateful to know that She is watching.