This mist was a problem.
The day passed and it refused to lift. Linuto had a harder and harder time to hold on to the belief that everything was fine. Joelito’s words, so easily ignored at first, that this was something unnatural that wanted to cause them harm, kept creeping back into his thoughts as the day passed and sight did not improve.
They had found a road after they had rediscovered Mikeloto, and started to follow it. Mikeloto and the two varangian women that he had met and managed to convince to join them walked first, then Joelito by himself and finally Linuto and Toyie. Linuto had a clear feeling that Toyie and the other two knew each other, but they had hardly said hello or looked her way.
After walking for most of the day they stopped to eat dinner. Him and Joelito helped Toyie finish the meal, while Mikeloto, Issy and Ellen (which was the names of the two varangians) were just messing around.
Linuto tried to get them to help with the dishes at least, but they ignored him.
Toyie just shook her head.
“There is no point”, she said, and started to pack up everything herself.
They continued walking. Linuto had lost all sense of direction a long time ago, but Mikeloto insisted that he knew where they were and that they were on the way to Vent. That could not be true, since they should have reached the town many hours ago, so Linuto assumed that they were walking the other direction, back towards Rylander and Dohr’s manor. He didn’t say anything, since that was where he had been trying to get the others to go more or less the entire time. But he felt bad for Toyie, who was getting further and further away from home.
He made sure that Joelito was out of earshot and walked closer to her.
“We’re not on the way to Vent.”
“I know. But Issy and Ellen are distracted by Mikeloto, and I’m not going to tell them.”
Linuto laughed. Then he was serious again.
“You were travelling with the other two, right?” he said.
“I guess I were”, said Toyie.
“And left them to look for the child, or whatever it was.”
“I guess I did”, said Toyie.
“Is that why they’re angry with you?”
“Well, I guess so.”
No one spoke for a bit.
“Boneheads”, said Linuto.
They walked next to each other in silence for a bit. Mikeloto was apparently saying something funny, because both Issy and Ellen started to laugh. He looked very happy with himself, but Joelito seemed annoyed. Linuto decided to talk more with him later, make sure that he was feeling fine. But first he wanted to get to know Toyie better.
“Is this something you do a lot, watching birds?” he said.
“No, first time. Don’t ask me why”, said Toyie.
“Are you working for the other two?”
Linuto suspected that he should let go when Toyie didn’t say anything more, but he had never been very good at stopping to ask questions about things he was interested in.
“So, why are you doing everything?” he said.
Toyie looked surprised. It took a while for her to answer.
“Because they expect me too. Because it’s been like that for a very long time.”
“I don’t understand”, said Linuto.
“You said you’d been to Vent, but I’m guessing you haven’t interacted much with varangians”, said Toyie.
“I’ve sold them vegetables and toys”, said Linuto. “But I’ve never really talked with anyone before, not about anything important.”
“Varangians live by strict honor codes”, said Toyie. “They are like laws, but no one have ever written them down. They decide what a varangian should and shouldn’t do.”
Linuto nodded. He had heard about this before, but never learned much about it.
“My dad was a businessman and when I grew up he broke one of the rules – he sold something to a human without offering it to the other varangians in Vent first. He was cast out of the council after that, but refused to leave Vent. Before that we were quite well off, even if I’ve understood later that it wasn’t always as easy as it seemed. Afterwards …”
Toyie looked away while talking.
“We had to sell the house. My dad lost all his contact amongst the varangians, so his only choice was to continue trading with humans – which made everything even worse, in the eyes of the others. I was about to loose all my friends, but Ellen and Issy stayed put. They held me up, invited me to their parties, made sure the others kept talking to me. But everyone knew it wasn’t for real.”
Linuto still didn’t fully understand, but he waited with asking anything else in case Toyie hadn’t finished.
“So I help them with things”, she said. “And I live in a grey zone, not cast out like the rest of my family, but also not part of the varangian council.”
“But you left them”, said Linuto. “In the mist, to look for the crying child. What will happen now?”
“I don’t know”, said Toyie. And again, more quietly: “I don’t know.”
The grey day quickly turned into dark night when the sun started to set. Linuto made a fire and Toyie prepared an evening snack, while Mikeloto tried to help Issy and Ellen pitch their tent. They didn’t seem to have any idea about how it should be done. Finally it was up, but it looked like the first gust of wind would knock it down.
It was big enough for three or four people to easily fit, but Toyie made no attempt to join the other varangians. Instead she put her sleeping mat next to Linuto and the others. She had an extra blanket that Joelito and Linuto shared – Mikeloto had gotten one from Issy and Ellen.
Linuto, Joelito and Toyie played some dice, while Mikeloto continued his attempts at charming Ellen and Issy. Joelito was a bit preoccupied, but in a better mood again, and Linuto felt calmer. After a while it became too dark to see, and they prepared for sleeping.
Linuto added some extra wood on the fire and then tried to sleep, even though the ground was hard and the blanket too small for two. Sleeping under the open sky had really lost all it’s charm.
Toyie sat and looked into the fire. She wasn’t able to settle down. She had been shocked to see Mikeloto come walking out of the fog with Issy and Ellen on either side. She was still not sure why they had followed him, but it was probably connected to the fact that he was both quite the sweet talker and very pleasant to look at. And of course, they had been lost in the mist with no food and no one to boss around.
They didn’t seem to care that he and the other humans were loons, if they had even picked up on that fact.
They had hardly said anything to Toyie. She wasn’t surprised after she had left them the way she did, but it hurt having them treat her like air. She did not look forward to returning home to Vent. At least here she had Linuto and Joelito to talk to, and Ellen and Issy were just two group members. As she had told Linuto, she didn’t know what was going to happen when she returned and everyone could see that she was no longer under their protection.
Someone put a hand on her shoulder and she almost jumped.
“Aren’t you asleep?”
Linuto sat down next to her. She hadn’t noticed that he was awake.
“No. You neither?”
“Not right now, as you can see. But I did sleep. Woke up because … well, because I needed to water the trees if you get my drift.”
Linuto picked up a stick and poked the fire with it.
“Won’t you try to get back to sleep?” asked Toyie.
“Well … I was thinking to keep you company for a while. Mikeloto is snoring.”
“Oh”, said Toyie. “That’s nice of you.”
He shrugged. Silence fell between them.
“What are you going to do after?” asked Linuto.
“When morning comes, the mist clears and it becomes apparent that we’re not going to Vent.”
That was the question that was keeping her awake. She had stood up to Issy and Ellen. Her time in the inner circle was over. She would have to find new friends and a job, and both those things could be made harder by the influence of the two women. She would become like the rest of her family, completely shut out of the varangian council.
Maybe it was time to leave Vent all together.
“I don’t know”, she said a third time, after the silence had dragged on for a bit too long.
“If you bring us back to Dohr’s manor you might get a finders fee”, said Linuto.
Toyie looked at him with surprise, until he started to smile and she understood that he was joking. She poked him with her elbow.
“Maybe I’ll do that”, she said. “Will there be a job for me there, do you think?”
This time it was Linuto’s time to be quiet for a long time.
“Maybe”, he said then. “I know that Dokaius and his siblings are always overworked, no matter how many assistants he’s hiring.”
“Why is that?”
“Assistants come and go. But Dokaius, Antonius and Junia are the ones responsible for all of it.”
“Why did you run away?” she said.
“It was more Mikeloto and Joelito that ran away”, said Linuto. “I mostly followed. I thought I could get them to go back home again.”
Toyie laughed before she could stop herself. Mikeloto spun around and stopped snoring for a few seconds. She and Linuto sat quietly until he started again, and she continued talking with a softer voice than before.
“Sure, I’ve only known them for one day, but you must have known from the start that that would be impossible.”
Linuto looked like the thought hadn’t occurred to him.
“You might be right”, he said. “I sure didn’t want to keep clearing weeds all day long, that’s for sure.”
“What are you going to do after?” she said, same question he had posed earlier. “If we wake up and are half way back to Dohr’s manor? Will you be happy or disappointed?”
“Bit of both, I think”, he said. “I miss my bed. But if we’re returning to Dohr’s manor then I hope that Dokaius and Junia are back and everything have returned to normal. I don’t want to be first loon anymore.”
Toyie didn’t ask what “first loon” was, she could guess from what Linuto had already told her.
“But it’s better now”, he continued. “When I have someone to talk to about things.”
Toyie smiled again.
“Same here”, she said. “But now I think I will try to sleep. You should do the same.”
“Sleep tight, Linuto.”
“Sleep tight, Toyie.”
Toyie fell asleep almost instantly.
When Linuto woke up early the following morning the mist was finally gone, and it was immediately clear that he had been right, they were nowhere near Vent. But it was as clear that he had been wrong – they were nowhere near Rylander either.
They were still in the forest, but Linuto could see bits of buildings between the trees. Further ahead he could see more stone ruins where the forrest cleared out more and more. He had never seen anything like it.
The others were still asleep, and he went to explore the area. It must have been a very long while since anyone lived here, all ruins were overgrown with moss and wines and what used to be streets were now full of bushes and trees. Linuto examined one of the ruins more closely. The stone had darkened and cracked, so he assumed that a fire had devastated this city. Most ruins he could see were just stone foundations, so the houses had probably been wooden.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind all of this felt familiar, but he couldn’t bring the memory back. He walked back to camp, where Joelito was up and yawning. Mikeloto looked to be on the verge of waking up, and he didn’t see Toyie so he assumed she had gone into the forrest to do her business.
Voices came from inside the tent, and Ellen and Issy came out. Ellen, the tallest of the three varangians, looked around for a bit, then turned to Mikeloto who had just sat up.
“This is not the road to Vent!” she said.
“You don’t say”, Linuto replied quietly.
Mikeloto looked around, confused.
“Are you trying to trick us, boy?” Ellen said in a hard voice.
Mikeloto looked devastated. Linuto saw that Toyie was walking quickly back to the camp, she had probably heard that something was about to happen.
“We must have found the wrong road in the mist”, said Linuto to divert Ellen’s attention. Mikeloto was usually less fragile than Joelito, but that was based on his very high opinion about himself. Failing and having someone pointing out that he had failed could lead to an episode.
Ellen spun around and stared at Linuto. Her sharp gaze made him uncomfortable, but he continued.
“If we follow the road back we should find the lake where Mikeloto met you. Without the mist you can easily find your way home from there.”
“So you’re lost?” said Ellen, still in the same tone of voice.
Linuto felt anger bubble up inside him, but kept calm on the surface. He was not the one with impulse control issues. He shrugged.
“I don’t know what Mikeloto promised you to follow him, but there is an old saying that fits well here. The one that follows a loon is a bigger fool that the one that is leading him. Or her, in this case.”
Joelito laughed and Toyie guffawed. It took a while for Ellen to react, probably because it wasn’t an obvious insult at first look. Then her cheeks turned dark red and she turned back to Mikeloto.
“Are you going to let your buddy talk to me like that?”
“He’s not my buddy”, said Mikeloto.
Linuto looked at him angrily.
“What did you say?”
Mikeloto turned away and mumbled that he hadn’t said anything.
“Ellen, Issy, I need to talk to you”, said Toyie.
Ellen and Issy pretended not to hear.
“By the unknown name of the Most High!” Toyie snapped. “Stop acting like I’m not here!”
Ellen and Issy looked shocked, and Mikeloto miserable. Joelito was the only one that still seemed to find the situation funny, but then he had always appreciated chaos and loud volume.
“Linuto, Joelito and Mikeloto are loons”, said Toyie in a normal talking voice. “They belong in Dohr’s manor, not in Vent.”
Joelito did not look amused anymore.
“You told her?” Mikeloto said to Linuto. “Was that what you were talking about last night?”
“I had to”, said Linuto. “What if one of us had an episode and she didn’t know?”
“Is this Dohr’s manor?” said Issy.
“No”, said Linuto. “We are lost, Ellen is right about that much. I have no idea where we are.”
“I can answer that question”, an new voice said.
Everyone looked around in surprise until they could see where it came from.
Out of the woods came a tall man in his mid fiftieths. He was dressed in all black, with the white collar of a man of the church. His light hair and beard were trimmed close and he wore a hat. He bowed.
“May the peace of the Most High be with you. My name is pastor Edwin, and I have a solution to your problems.”
(Photo: Egor Myznik/Unsplash)