Linuto was in an excellent mood when he woke up the following morning, thanks to the warm feeling of the applause and the attention from the guests at the inn. The innkeeper stood by her word and gave them breakfast – she even filled Mikeloto’s backpack with food for the trip which should, if they rationed it, last until next morning.
He and the other two continued their journey towards Vent, and Linuto had almost forgotten that his actual plan was to get Mikeloto and Joelito back to Dohr’s manor. But with food in his stomach and after a night under a roof, if not in a bed, live looked very different. Linuto wasn’t so keen on going back, where he would probably have to spend most of his time the coming weeks clearing weed from the garden and trying to convince Joelito and Mikeloto to help.
They walked towards Vent, and if they had just kept the tempo up they would have reached the same day – but none of them were in much of a hurry anymore. It felt less and less likely that Antonius would turn up and bring them home. They took several breaks, talked about everything between heaven and earth, had lunch and dinner and when evening came they still had several hours to go to reach their destination.
They stopped for the night at a small lake. Linuto found a stream and make sure that the others drank from it rather than from the stagnant water of the lake. He didn’t want to get sick, or having to take care of the other two if they started puking.
When he came back with the two full cups Mikeloto and Joelito had already started in on the last of the food, and he hurried to get some as well.
“Seriously. What will we now eat for breakfast tomorrow?”
“It’ll sort itself out”, said Mikeloto. “Now: let’s go take a swim.”
It turned out that the lake was deep and cold and no one was very interested in getting more than their feet wet. Instead Linuto gathered wood and started another fire.
“Linuto, do you want to join in and throw some dice?” said Mikeloto.
“I’ll start”, said Mikeloto.
“Why are always starting?” said Joelito who was holding the dice. “It’s my turn actually.”
“But it’s my dice. I’ll start. Hand them over.”
“What do you mean, no? Give them here!”
“Can you for once in your life give it a break”, said Linuto. “Just start Joelito.”
“But it’s my …” said Mikeloto, but a dark look from Linuto made him stop.
A little while later Mikeloto was so involved in the game that he had forgot who started. They kept playing until it became too dark to see the dice results, when they laid down and told each other stories until they fell asleep one by one.
Linuto was the first one to wake up the following morning, but for a second he thought that he was still dreaming. It was white all around him. A heavy mist was covering the whole meadow and Linuto could see only ten meters around him.
He had not seen fog at Dohr’s manor for a long time, and never one as thick as this.
He was suddenly unsure of all directions. Where the road was. Where the small group of birch trees were standing. Where the lake was.
Mikeloto and Joelito was still sleeping. Linuto decided to wake them up. They were very reluctant at first, but once their eyes were open they were fast awake quickly.
“Mist! Cool!” Joelito ran some distance away. “Can you see now?”
“No we can’t. Come back here before we lose you”, said Linuto. “We need to find the stream so we can get something to drink, and then find the road. And let’s bring everything with us, if we don’t pass here again.”
The others nodded. They didn’t have much to pack anyway and was soon done.
“Mikeloto, you’re in the lead. Joelito, bring up the rear and make sure everyone is accounted for. I thing the stream is in this direction.”
Linuto pointed and they started walking.
“Shouldn’t we have reached by now?” Joelito said a few minutes later.
“Yes we should”, said Linuto. “I must have …”
A scream interrupted him, and then fell silent as fast as it had arrived. It sounded close, but not in the direction they were going.
“What was that?” asked Joelito.
“It was a girl”, said Mikeloto. “Come, let’s help her!”
He started to walk quickly in the direction of the scream, and Linuto and Joelito almost lost sight of him. After a little while he stopped and looked back at them.
“I’ve found the lake.”
When they caught up they understood what he ment. Mikeloto had just kept walkling and not seen when the edge of the water turned up. He was now standing with water up to his knees. Joelito gave him a hand up on shore again.
“Well. This is the lake. But where is the stream?” said Mikeloto. “And where is the one that screamed?”
“If we follow the shore in the right direction we’ll find the stream”, said Linuto. “Quiet.”
“I haven’t said anythin…” said Mikeloto.
“Ssssch!” said Joelito. “I hear it as well.”
What Linuto and Joelito heard, and Mikeloto as well when he stopped talking, was the sound of someone crying. It was coming from the lake. Linuto came down to the beach, carefully stepped into the water and bent down to the surface to listen.
“It sounds like a child.”
Toyie stood up quickly, and of course hit her head. A couple of pots that had been standing on the counter she had hit fell on the floor and made a big ruckus. Toyie touched the back of her head and fought back the will to cry a little.
Her two friends Issy and Ellen came running into the kitchen to check what had happened.
If friends were the right word.
Issy was short, thin and blond, Ellen a tall, busty brunette. It was in their kitchen in one of the fancier parts of Vents varangian neighbourhood that Toyie was sitting. She always felt very plain and clumsy next to them, and it was of course made even worse by hitting her head on the underside of a kitchen counter.
“What are you doing?” said Issy.
She bent down and picked up one of the pots.
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Toyie while she crawled out and carefully stood up. “You called, I sat up, hit my head on the counter, got hurt and fell down in a tragic pile.”
“You’re not a tragic pile, sweetie”, said Ellen and patted Toyie’s head, which made it hurt even worse.
“I just wanted to know if you’re done packing”, said Issy.
“No, not quite”, said Toyie.
“Well, do that then. Why do we always have to wait for you?” said Ellen.
“I’m almost done”, said Toyie.
Issy and Ellen had decided that the three of them should travel to the lake southeast of Vent to do birdwatching. So it had fallen on Toyie to prepare the hike, buy all food, prepare it so it would be easy to cook in the wilds, and carry all the heavy equipment.
That was the reason why she wasn’t done, while Issy and Ellen had finished packing their small backpacks of inconsequentials a long time ago.
Toyie grumbled and finished packing. She put on the big backpack and walked outside. Ellen and Issy sitting and waiting in the sun outside.
“So you are done. Great!”
Ellen and Issy stood up, and they left for their birdwatching expedition. Why the other two wanted to watch birds was not entirely clear to Toyie – neither Ellen nor Issy was usually interested in being outdoors. Probably it was some new trend she hadn’t picked up on.
It had actually sounded nice when they had asked her. A hike to a lake full of birds on a late summer day, how hard could that be? Very hard if you had the right – or rather the wrong – travel companions. Ellen and Issy did nothing, except talk to each other and whine on Toyie when they thought she did something wrong.
“You’re lagging behind again, sweetie”, said Ellen.
Toyie had stopped to catch her breath, she was probably carrying twenty kilo on her back.
“I’m coming”, Toyie said. “Keep walking. I’ll catch up.”
Ellen smiled a smile that someone who didn’t know here very well would probably characterize as friendly, but that Toyie recognised as patronising.
“We need to get there before sundown and you have all the food”, she said.
“I’ll catch up”, said Toyie.
“If you say so”, said Ellen and smiled again. She turned and ran to catch up to Issy, who had just kept walking.
It hadn’t always been like this. That was probably the worst bit.
Toyie, Issy and Ellen had been inseparable as children. They ruled over the other varangian girls in the part of Vent where Ellen and Issy still lived. Until they were teenagers they did everything together, as equals.
Toyie’s back was still aching, but she put the backpack back on and started to walk before Ellen and Issy disappeared from view.
Everything had been fine until Toyie’s father had been shunned by the varangian council. Which in turn meant that his business took a bad turn and they had to sell their house and move to the cheaper part of town, closer to the human quarters. And since then the others treated Toyie as if they were doing her a favor just hanging out with her.
They reached the lake.
“Hurry upp, Ellen!” said Issy. “We can still see some birds before it’s too late.”
Toyie groaned as quietly as she could as she put down the big backpack. As she looked up Ellen and Issy had already settled down with a pair of binoculars each and was watching the birds that were landing on the lake or on the small isle in the middle of it.
There were no binoculars for here.
“What’s for food?” Issy shouted.
“Sssssch!” said Ellen. “You’re scaring the sparrows.”
Issy giggled and went back to her birdwatching.
Toyie pitched the tent. She gathered wood and started the fire. She cooked.
For not the first time she wondered why she let them treat her the way they did.
She knew it was their “friendship” that made it so that she was still welcome into the circle of young, rich varangian women in Vent – but as the years went on she was questioning more and more why she should try to be a part of that group. It did have some financial perks, and she had never had to get a proper job but could live on her connections. But was it really worth it?
The smell of food brought Issy and Ellen back from their vantage point. The meal was quite pleasent even for Toyie, but she was of course left with doing the dishes while Issy and Ellen returned to gazing out over the lake. When dusk fell a bit later she had still not seen even one rare bird.
When Toyie stepped out of the tent the following morning the world was gone. No matter where she looked the fog was a white, sticky web of the finest spider silk. Everything was damp and it was a lot colder than it had been in the last few days.
She walked around a bit to get her heat back. Ellen and Issy hadn’t woken up yet.
It was impossible to know what time it was. Toyie thought she could see where the sun was hiding, but was far from sure. The fire she had started last night was dead and cold, and she didn’t have the energy to make a new one. Instead she brought her blanket and draped it over her shoulders. Out of her backpack she picket and apple and a piece of bread.
They had made camp in a meadow close to the lake. Now she couldn’t guess where either the lake or the road was. She didn’t even see the trees around the lake.
Toyie didn’t know how long she was sitting like that, but finally she heard how Ellen and Issy started to move. She followed in silence how the other two woke up and came out of the tent. The mist fist made the excited, but soon brought them down. All sound was swallowed by the white smoke. Toyie stayed seating.
A lonely bird was singing somewhere in the unseen forest. Toyie looked up. Ellen and Issy were eating. She could see the trees closest to her now, so the fog must have let up somewhat. It was still too thick to leave camp, though.
Suddenly the sound of a child crying sounded throughout the camp. Toyie stod up, and Ellen and Issy stopped whispering amongst themselves. The sound came back. It felt unreal in their current state of total isolation, and Toyie thought of fairy tales she had been told as a child, stories of creatures that hid in the mist, hid and tricked unwary travelers into the underground.
A big bird of some kind flew past quite close, and Toyie let out a small shout. The wind made the almost invisible trees sing and sent a shiver down her spine. The fog was thicker again. And still the sound of the crying child.
Toyie looked at Ellen and Issy. They had stood up as well, and were still silent.
“What should we do?” she asked.
None of them replied.
“What should we do?” she said, a bit loader.
“Yes! We heard you the first time.”
Ellen tried one of her blistering looks, but today it just came of as nervous and worried.
“We’ll stay here, of course”, said Issy.
“But, the child?”
“It’s probably not a child. It’s probably an animal or something”, said Ellen.
“And even if it is a child there is no way for us to find it in this mist. We’ll just get lost if we try”, said Issy.
Toyie closed here eyes. She wasn’t surprised, not really. But still somehow disappointed.
The sound of the child was still clear. It didn’t sound far off. She picked up her backpack and attached her blanket. The tent would have to stay, she didn’t have time to take it apart.
“Where are you going?”
“You stay here”, she said. “I’ll go and find the one that is crying.”
“Oh you are, are you!” she heard Ellen reply, but by then she had already turned her back on them.
“She’ll be sorry about this”, one of them said to the other.
They were so similar in her mind that she could no longer tell them apart.
Toyie walked and walked, and the sound of the crying child did not grow louder or weaker. She had thought that she would quickly find the child or notice that she were walking the wrong direction. Instead the feeling of things not being quite real grew stronger, as if something supernatural was going on. She considered turning back. But then someone screamed, and she upped the pace.
The sound of crying suddenly stopped, and so did she. She was standing on a stony shore – she had almost walked into the lake.
She didn’t know what to do now. As long as she had heard the child her course had been clear. Now everything was murky, and images of all the horrible creatures hiding in the mist in the fairy tales of her childhood came back to her.
The fog had not let up at all since she left camp, if anything it was thicker now than when she woke up. She could only see a couple of meters out over the lake, and had no idea how far the shore reached in either direction. Maybe she should just turn around. But she didn’t want to return to Issy and Ellen like this, having found nothing. In that case she would rather go back home to Vent.
But she didn’t know the way back to the road either, and she stood undecided.
Then she heard voices. It sounded like humans, like young men. She carefully followed the water line towards them.
“I can’t hear anything now either”, said one of the voices.
“What should we do now then?” asked another voice. “Should we keep looking for the stream?”
“I want to find out who was crying”, said the first voice.
“And I want to find the girl that was screaming”, said a third voice she hadn’t heard before. “She might need help.”
Toyie assumed that they were talking about the same crying child and the same scream that she had heard. She had almost reached them, but she hadn’t decided if she should reveal that she were there or not. She couldn’t see them yet, and couldn’t know if they were more than three.
“Should I call for her?” said the second voice.
“I guess it couldn’t hurt”, said the first voice.
It went quiet for a bit.
“HELLO! YOU WHO SCREAMED BEFORE! DO YOU NEED HELP?”
Toyie was caught of guard by the strength of the call when it came, and she took a step to the side, out where the shore ended. There was a small drop to the water, and she fell. Her reflexes saved her from submerging completely, and she managed to keep her backpack dry, but arms, legs and but were wet.
The splash brought the attention of the young men.
“What was that?” said the first voice.
“Someone fell into the water. Just as you did a while ago, Mikeloto”, said the second voice.
“Quiet, I want to make a good first impression”, said the third voice, apparently belonging to someone called Mikeloto.
“Schhhhh! I heard something”, said the first voice.
The men had come closer while they were talking, but now they stopped, still not visible to her. Toyie crawled back onto shore and took a few steps away from the lake. She was shivering, the water was cold and the fog sucked all heat from the air.
What should she do now? No one else had answered the call of the second voice, and the child had not started to cry again. She could probably sneak away if she wanted to. But it felt bad somehow, first listening to their discussion without telling them and then just disappear without explaining who she was.
“Hello”, she said loudly into the mist. “My name is Toyie, and I’m the one that fell. I came here because I heard someone cry, but then it stopped and I heard your voices. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”
At first she didn’t get a reply.
“We also heard someone crying”, said the first voice after a little while. “It sounded like a child.”
“Was it you that screamed before?” said the third voice.
“It was not me”, said Toyie. “I heard it too. But I heard the crying child first.”
“Odd”, said the man that had called so loudly before.
“Truly”, said the first voice. “But anyway, it has stopped now. Toye, was that your name?”
“Toyie”, said Toyie.
“Toyie”, said the voice, “is it okay that we take a few steps in your direction so that we can see each other?”
Toyie hesitated briefly but then thought if she had taken it this far ..
She heard the sounds of footsteps and then one, two, three humans appeared out of the fog, so close it was almost unpleasant. She took a step back.
“I’m Linuto”, said a thin man with red hair and freckles. She recognized his voice as the first one she had heard.
“I’m Mikeloto”, said the tallest of the three and gave her his hand. He was very attractive, with blond hair and marked cheekbones, and it was obvious he knew that very well.
“I’m Joelito”, said the one that looked youngest, but that might just be because he was the shortest. It was him that had shouted before.
“Okay, yes, sure”, said Toyie and took Mikeloto’s hand. “And I’m Toyie. As I said already.”
“Do you think the child is stuck on the island?” said Linuto.
“No, I don’t”, said Toyie. “Only birds live there. That’s why I’m here, I’m a birdwatcher.”
Or rather, I take care of two birdwatchers.
“We didn’t hear it until we reached the lake, so it must be somewhere close by”, said Linuto.
“Does it matter?” said Joelito. “I thought we were looking for the stream. I’m thirsty – and hungry.”
“You shouldn’t have finished all the food yesterday”, said Linuto. “And we can’t just leave a child that is lost in the mist, can we?”
“I don’t think it is a child”, said Joelito. “It’s something unnatural trying to make us get lost.”
Toyie shivered, and not just from the cold, but Mikeloto laughed.
“Do you believe in such nonsense, Joelito?”
Joelito shrugged. Linuto looked at his to friends with a worried expression. Toyie scanned the lake, and realised that the fog had cleared a lot in a short while. She could even see the bird isle now.
“Guys”, she said. “Check the mist.”
Linuto, Joelito and Mikeloto looked around.
“That was fast”, said Linuto. “I thought it would stay most of the day, considering how thick it was.”
“It’s still not fully gone”, said Toyie. “But this should make it easier to find the one that cried.”
“I’ll continue to search”, said Toyie. “At least for a while. It might just have been an animal or the wind or something, but I can’t let it go without at least checking properly.”
“We’ll help!” said Mikeloto. The others looked at him with surprise. “What?” he continued.
“Nothing”, said Linuto. “How are are we doing this?”
“It’ll be faster if we spread out”, said Toyie.
Said and done, they each took a direction and started looking. The mist never fully went away, but they could almost see across the lake now. An hour or so later they met again, in more or less the same spot, having found nothing or heard anything else. The fog was getting thicker again, which was strange at this time of day.
“Well then”, said Linuto. “What do we do now?”
Mikeloto was watching Toyie.
“Are you a varangian?” he said.
The question was surprising. Most humans could tell straight away, and if they were unsure then never asked. She nodded.
“Cool! Are you from Vent? We’re going there!” said Mikeloto.
“Do you live there?” said Toyie.
“No, we’re from … down south”, said Mikeloto. “We haven’t been in Vent before.”
“I have”, said Linuto.
“Yeah yeah”, said Mikeloto.
That was at least a partial explanation for the question. Most people Toyie had met lived in Vent and met varangians all the time. If these three hadn’t seen many before, then it was less strange that they didn’t know straight away that she wasn’t human. She might even be the first varangian that they had met.
“I live in Vent”, she said. “What are you doing there?”
“We’re storytellers”, said Linuto quickly. A bit too quickly, as if he wanted to get an explanation in before Mikeloto had time to say something. “We’re hoping to find an inn where we can perform.”
“Varangians likes stories”, said Toyie. “Especially if they have strong heroes killing big monsters.”
“Are you going to Vent now?” said Mikeloto. “Can we travel together?”
He smiled a crooked grin, and Toyie realised that he was trying to flirt with her. An involuntary smile spread across her face. She was not interested in the young man in the least, but there were no denying that he was handsome. And it had been a very long time since anyone had shown any interest in her. Everyone in Vent, including her self, were way to aware of her social status for that to happen.
But be that as it may, did she want to travel with Mikeloto and his friends?
One thing was clear: She didn’t want to go back to Ellen and Issy. They could do their bird watching without her.
She laughed. She had almost all the food in her pack. They would have a hard time without her. Probably return to Vent earlier than planned, on empty stomachs.
“Why not?” she said. “We can travel together.”
Linuto was never entirely sure why Toyie had decided to join them. Maybe Mikeloto was as charming as he had always claimed; Linuto had always assumed it was just empty words. Maybe it was because the fog was now almost as thick as it had been when he woke up and she didn’t want to be left on her own.
But he had gotten a good impression of Toyie, and was happy for the company. Especially when it turned out she was a lot more prepared for this hike than him and the others.
“I have food in my backpack – lunch is on me”, she said before they started walking.
“Lunch?” Joelito said. “We haven’t even had breakfast.”
“Let’s stort that out then”, Toyie said and smiled.
After the combined breakfast-lunch Linuto brought Toyie to the side.
“I don’t know you, and the others probably would prepare for me not to tell you this, Mikeloto most of all, but if you’re going to travel with you then there is something you should know.”
“Oh”, said Toyie. “What?”
“We’re loons. Not ordinary morons like most people, we are afflicted by the sickness, committed to a manor and have run away.”
“Oh wow”, said Toyie.
“I don’t know how much you know about the committed, but I can reassure you that none of us are dangerous and most of the time you won’t notice that anything is different. But it’s important that you know, in case something would happen.”
Linuto didn’t quite know what to say. He didn’t want to get into too many details about the others, it didn’t feel right. And he himself had never had an episode so he didn’t know what would happen if he did.
“You’ll notice if it happens. Hopefully it won’t take many hours to reach Vent, so the likelihood is very low that something will go wrong.”
Toyie seemed to be considering this, but then she nodded.
“I’ve said that I will go with you, and I’m standing by my word”, she said.
Linuto noticed that he had been holding his breath waiting for her reply, and forced himself to breath normally.
“Thank you! Do you have any idea how we will find our way back to the road? I’ve lost all directions.”
Toyie looked around.
“I think it’s that direction”, she said and pointed away from the lake. “But I might be wrong. It might be safer to just stay here for now.”
A sudden shout from Joelito interrupted their conversation.
Linuto looked up, and saw how Joelito was standing around looking in a completely different direction than where Toyie had pointed.
“Linuto! Hurry! Mikeloto walked off by himself.”
Linuto sighed and turned to Toyie.
“You might get to see an episode after all”, he said. “I’m coming, Joelito.”
Toyie looked at him with big eyes.
“What should we do?”
“We need to catch him”, said Linuto.
And so they left their safe spot at the lake and walked into the fog.
Mikeloto didn’t know what Linuto was saying to Toyie, but he was very annoyed with someone that was supposed to be a friend trying to block him charming her. At first he considered just barging in and interrupting whatever they were talking about, but just because Linuto didn’t have any manners didn’t mean that he should behave as badly.
Instead he walked into the fog and found two varangians of his own, who were a lot more impressed by his charm, and who were very happy to come back to Vent with him since they had lost their food.
Then it seemed that Issy and Ellen, which was their names, knew Toyie, but Mikeloto didn’t really pay attention to that. His day had just taken a turn for the better again.