Chapters:

THE OLD GOD - sample

18 September, Lake Haltia, North-Eastern Finland, near the Russian border

     I can’t find her.

     The realisation hit Ben like a boxer’s punch. He bit the mouthpiece in frustration, scanned around in the dark, plunged deeper. There was no point in surfacing, signaling to the others. They could do nothing to help.  He was the only one left with diving gear, skills and experience.

     Before venturing further in the darkness that was only narrowly sliced by his diving torch, he glanced at his wrist, the diving computer. Not good. He had been underwater for over two hours. His re-breather tank was not running out of air, yet, but his torch was running out of battery. He had no spare torch – this was the spare torch. The battery of the first was already flat. And he was running out of stamina. Nothing burnt calories and drained muscles like diving in ice-cold water.

     The lakes of Finland had an average depth of six meters. This one, called Lake Haltia, ‘the lake of nature spirit’, was an anomaly. Created by a meteorite impact some quarter of a million years ago, the bottom of the lake lay ten times deeper, at sixty meters. The visibility was ridiculously poor even in the shallower shore waters. Ben was painfully aware he had only little hope of finding anything here, around the deepest spot, where he was now performing his diligent search pattern before he had to ascend. 

     The lake was muddy and the autumn sun already setting. At this depth, he could barely see the tips of his fingers even with the powerful underwater torch. In other circumstances, he could have surfaced and tried to track the air bubbles of the lost diver. But with re-breathers, there were no bubbles. The air was recycled in the tank – hence the name, re-breather - and hardly anything bubbled out from the mouthpiece. He had no way of tracking Elina, if she couldn’t or wouldn’t signal to him with her torch or by clinking on her tank.

     Ben let more air out of his buoyancy vest to draw closer to the bottom, one last time. He had to get up. This was unhealthy, dangerous even. His mask had started fogging on the left side, again, blurring the already poor visibility. He sighed into his mouthpiece, again, out of frustration. He shouldn’t. He had to make every breath count, deliver every ounce of the priceless oxygen to his cells, make it last as long as possible.

     He was already feeling light-headed and he knew it was a high time to start the careful, slow ascend to the surface, for his own safety. But he had to take one last look at the bottom before returning to the shore with his devastating news. He had to.

     He reached the bottom of the pit, covered in brown, quietly wavering waterweed. Ben scanned the surroundings with his torch, left and right, right and left, back and forth. He kicked his fins softly, rhythmically, to keep the pace steady and efficient, and hovered his hands close to the bottom, raking the water and weed, to aid his limited vision. Nothing but more entangling water plants. Twigs. Mud.

     Suddenly, he touched something lean and hard protruding upwards. An arm? Let it be her!

     No.

     It was a straight, sturdy branch pointing up from the bottom mud. An unexpectedly straight one, roughly the strength of a wrist. Whitish. Ben glanced around and even with his blurred vision, he could see a dozen similar branches sticking out from the marshy ground. Some were curved, some were straight. In a flash, he understood they were no branches.

     In the vanishing light of his dying torch, he watched the brown viscose water swirl around remnants of once-living beings – a garden of bones.

 

 

****

To: hunter@mail.com

From: guardian@mail.com

Sent: 9 September at 12:38

 As you have been made aware, it is of utmost importance that you take care of the situation as swiftly as possible and leave no time for the opponent to take advantage and execute their plan. You will be contacted soon for more details. Be prepared.

 ****

 

 
 

10 September, Helsinki Airport

     Anna waited patiently, standing still, at the arrival hall. It’s funny how it’s so similar everywhere, she thought, gazing around routinely. The same around-the-clock, fluorescent lights, shiny stone surfaces, carpeted long halls, uncomfortable benches. People of all ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities. Anna stood in the front row of a scattered group, some wearing a uniform of a hotel or a taxi company, but most in plain clothes: families, friends, lovers, waiting for the next plane, the next wave of arrivals.

     Only twenty minutes in waiting, she spotted a man who fitted her expectations: approximately 180cm tall – six feet, is it, in the imperial system? Or five point nine? she translated, reminiscing her experiences in Canada and wondering if Australia also used feet and inches for height. Medium build with broadish, square shoulders, tousled sun-streaked hair, hazel eyes, outdoor clothes. Very Australian. She lifted her paper a bit higher, keeping her eyes on the man. Her print-out stated in a clear, bold font: MR BENJAMIN THOMSON.

     She had guessed correctly. The man spotted the paper, then lifted his eyes to her face, and a smile appeared – somewhat strained, more fixed on for politeness than genuine delight. No wonder, he’s just flown for twenty-two hours, Anna thought. I wouldn’t be very smiley either, in particular if he can’t sleep on planes, just like me. She returned the smile.

     “Dr. Aalto, I presume?” He said, when he got closer and extended a hand. “Nice to meet you in person at last.”

     “That’s me, even if this isn’t Lake Tanganyika. Finland is called the land of thousands of lakes, so close enough,” Anna said when she shook his hand, “but please, call me Anna. Dr. Aalto is far too formal. Nice to meet you too, Mr Thomson.”

     “Please, likewise, call me Ben. Mister means someone’s grandpa. Nice catch on the reference,” Ben’s smile widened to an appreciative grin. “I guess it comes with the profession?”

     “Oh, was that a test?” Anna’s eyes narrowed, face deadpan, as she gestured Ben to follow her. “Checking if my credentials are real?”

     “No no, of course not,” Ben said hastily. “I’ve just always wanted to say that to someone! Dr. Livingstone is my hero. One of the greatest explorers in history. Mapping Africa on his own in the 1800s… that must have taken guts, being surrounded by all that wildlife, nature’s obstacles and potential diseases. We’re heading to the true wilderness, aren’t we? Even if it’s not Central Africa.”

     “No offence taken, just a joke.” Anna smiled reassuringly. He’s polite, she thought, as she led them out of the airport’s gliding doors. “How was your flight? Not too draining, I hope?” She listened with half-focus the usual: the tiny meals, the cramped seat, the lack of sleep, the crying babies, the blocked toilet. When Ben recounted his last day and night in broad strokes, his smile did not waver. Good manners, or good-humored, or both, Anna assessed. Her mind was soon elsewhere, tinkering with her problem, trying to find answers, but she made the attempt to appear social, focused, by nodding at the right places, letting out a short laugh here and there.

     Anna stopped behind a dark grey Toyota Yaris, rental. Her own similar vehicle was back home in Rovaniemi, 800km north from Helsinki, but she liked driving this particular model. Small, fast, efficient, easy to maneuver. She clicked open the trunk and offered to help Ben haul his gear in – a black, heavy-looking, army-style canvas bag. He waved her off and dropped the bag in with a thump.

     “You must be absolutely exhausted and starving,” Anna guessed, when she steered the car towards the exist. “I’d suggest trying a buffet lunch somewhere. You’ll get a hot meal, salad, dessert and coffee for ten euro and a handy overview about the Finnish cuisine at once.”

     “That sounds both practical and affordable,” Ben said, “my two most favourite adjectives.” He paused. “Is it always this chilly at this time of the year?”

     “I wouldn’t call this chilly!” Anna laughed. “It’s 15 degrees Celsius. Most Finns consider this as decent late-summer weather.”

     Ben looked at her, unclear whether she was joking. “Maybe it warms up later?” he said, a hopeful note in his voice. “Funny, the sky’s colour is somehow of different hue of blue than back home,” he added, peering outside.  

     “Oh? Well, perhaps colours are different down under. But don’t hold your hopes up for weather. It will only get colder the closer we get. Remember, we’ll pass the Arctic Circle on our way to the site.”

     Ben looked around curiously while they picked speed on the highway. The trees had already started changing into the autumn wardrobe. The thinning green foliage, merrily fluttering in the wind, was dotted here and there with vibrant yellows, oranges and reds. Anna loved this time of the year. Autumn had always been her favourite season, despite the approaching cold period of six months of darkness, snow and ice – the Nordic winter.

     “I hope you don’t mind me jumping straight into business, Anna, but could you please run me through where we’re at? Do we have everything set and ready to go?” Ben asked and suppressed a yawn with his cupped hand. Not a plane sleeper, Anna deduced.

     “We’ll fly off tomorrow. I know it’s a bit tight with your jetlag, but we really need to get going. I understood from our correspondence it’s not a problem for you?” She glanced at him. We can’t waste time, she thought. I hope he can make it – and be hundred percent functional.

     “Nope, not at all. The sooner the better. I’ll manage,” Ben said.

     “You’ll meet the rest of the crew tonight. It’s going to be a lean and mean team of five, including you and me. We figured you’d need some food and rest, and maybe a shower, first.” They hurled along a freeway leading towards the city center. The road signs around and above stated ’Helsinki 15 km’.

     “You think I stink after my flight?” Ben asked, incredulous. “That’s how I feel for sure.”

     “Oh no, I didn’t mean that!” Anna corrected hastily, before registering Ben’s joke.

     “You speak very good English, Anna,” Ben noted. “Comes with the job?”

     “Thank you. I suppose it does. Most of my field’s literature is in English, that’s the lingua franca of the academia,” she said. “And, I’ve done post-doc research in Canada, at the plains - the prairies, I mean. If you pick some North American accent, that’s where it comes from.” Anna glanced at the rear-view mirror while speaking.

     Nobody was following them. It would be highly unlikely, anyway, and also unfruitful, but one can never be too careful. She didn’t have the object with her here in Helsinki, why would she? It was safely tucked away. She tried to refocus on Ben’s words, find something to chat about. Calm her nerves.

     “Ever been to Australia?” Ben asked, oblivious of her restlessness.  

     “No, not yet. I’d really like to go one day. It’s just so far away! As if you wouldn’t know,” she added sympathetically.

     “That is very true. This is my first time this far up north. I’ve been to Europe before, but never further up north than Scotland.”

     “You haven’t seen anything yet.” Anna laughed. “Wait until tomorrow, then you’ll see some real north!” She switched lanes to overtake a red Peugeot. “Tomorrow morning, we will land at the Rovaniemi Airport some 800 kilometers north from Helsinki, in Lapland, and take a taxi to our campus. Once there, we’ll finish packing the four-wheel drive with all your gear; and run through the last-minute checks.”

     Ben nodded. He rubbed his knees with his index fingers while absorbed in thoughts.

     Anna overtook another car, pushing the speed limit. We won’t be back in Rovaniemi any faster regardless of how fast I drive, she reminder herself and eased her foot on the pedal. There’s no point in scoring a fine, causing delays, reprimand from the University. But, in no time, the Toyota had crept back to the same speed without her noticing. Shoot. I need to take it easy, she thought. She realised Ben had asked something.  

      “Sorry, I drifted off. We’ll hit the road by 10am and by early afternoon, we should reach the point where we start trekking. It’s a good three-hour drive towards the Russian border on the winding roads, followed by an hour’s hike on foot.”

     “Not a problem, I’m used to hiking.” Ben watched the landscape glide by. Anna tried to imagine how it must look from his point of view, visiting here for the first time. The scenery had not changed much since the airport. The road was lined on both sides by a steady flow of industrial cubes of grey concrete and steel with neon signs – warehouses, superstores and cheap office buildings. The frequent gaps between the buildings revealed stretches of stripped, yellow autumn fields and coniferous forests behind. 

     “Of course, the duration of the hike will depend on how many breaks we’ll need,” Anna continued. “We’ll have some heavy carry-on. We have packed enough supplies for three weeks, and will need to re-stock in the nearest town at some point, if we can – and need – to keep going.” She glanced at Ben, inviting questions.

     Ben cleared his throat. “Anna, I must admit that even after all the emails, I don’t fully understand why we are in such a hurry with this expedition. Not that I’m not keen to be a part of it, of course,” he added. He had had to push the seat back to fit in his legs and now he was leaning on the headrest. Anna had a vague feeling that despite his laidback appearances, something was bubbling under. She couldn’t put a finger on it – positive or negative? He seemed friendly, professional. It must be anticipation, excitement he’s trying to contain, she thought. I’d be excited, too, if I were him. I am excited to be part of this! And, he doesn’t even know the full story.  

      “I thought it’s best to explain everything tonight, when we have the whole crew together,” Anna said. “But, I guess I can clarify some points now. Firstly, it’s about the season. Winter is coming. We must move fast if we plan to uncover anything during this year. The next chance will only come in six, seven months, when the ground re-thaws.”

     Ben nodded thoughtfully. The freezing ground was a self-evident problem for archaeology in the Arctic. Anna hesitated, stalled. Ben prompted her with a nod to go on. She sighed, momentarily lost with words. Her palms felt clammy against the wheel. How much could – should - she reveal? Ben already knew they were after more finds from a site that had proven a very promising location. How much he needed to know? Anna pursed her lips. He’s part of my team now, she reminded herself. He does need to know. I can’t keep it from him once he meets the team, or once we reach the site. But… she couldn’t push herself to give out everything, not yet. She had only just met the guy, despite the number of emails exchanged during the past two weeks.

     Finally, she continued. “To put it bluntly, what we’ve found… it might… rewrite history. Not just the history of Finland, or Europe, but the whole world.” She turned to face him to check if he understood the significance of her words.

     Ben met her gaze, his hazel eyes friendly, the same diplomatic, neutral-polite smile glued on. He must think there’s hyperbole in my words, fueled by academic enthusiasm about any archaeological find, Anna thought. For some reason, Ben’s civil disinterest irritated her. He should be jumping up and down because of this chance, not just sit there like it’s any old gig on his project calendar! But then again, he doesn’t know. I can’t blame him for not reacting, if I’m not giving him all the facts. I should be more open, she admitted to herself reluctantly.  

     “I could not include everything in my emails for security reasons,” Anna said. “I told we’ve found something unique. What I didn’t tell you was the exact nature of the find.”

     Ben shuffled on the seat, adjusted his back more upright. He certainly seemed more alert now. Fully awake. I’ve got his attention. Anna focused on the road before she continued.   

     “Three weeks ago, my university received something very rare. A local resident handed in some items he had found with his hunting partner. He told us he stumbled upon them deep in the forest close to the Russian border in North-Eastern Finland. The find was a half a dozen gold coins. The finder said the coins were scattered around the shore of a small but deep lake, Lake Haltia.”

     “Go on.”

     “The hunters would have never found them had they not known that sometimes up north you can find tiny nuggets of gold from water bodies. That’s why they had their eyes peeled during a coffee break at a camp fire,” she said. “The coins were partially buried, but the hunters dug them out when they saw the glimmer.”

     “Interesting.” The idea of nuggets of gold seemed to energise Ben. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what’s the exact value of those coins?”

     “We don’t know yet. That’s why we engaged Professor Rossi – Vick - from the University of Rome in this project. He was overjoyed when I contacted him directly and requested for his input. He’s one of the leading specialists in numismatics; research of coins and money. It’s a privilege to have him on board.” Anna’s eyes shifted between Ben, the road and the rear-view mirror. Nobody’s following us, you know it, she told herself. No point in being paranoid.

     “I’m very glad and flattered that Vick - I mean Professor Rossi recommended me for this gig and got you to contact me. But... do you often find gold coins lying around lake shores?” Ben asked, a doubtful undercurrent in his voice. “And how come those hunters gave them to the authorities? I’m pretty sure if my countrymen had found something similar, the coins would end up either as a family heirloom or straight on Ebay!”

     “This is by no means a common find. Finland has been a poor and struggling country for millennia before today’s high-tech success. But, it’s illegal in Finland to keep ancient items – anything over a hundred years old belongs to the state automatically, to the museum authorities. People here are very law-abiding, thankfully.” Again, Anna sent heartfelt thanks to her lucky stars for that fact. The coins could have so easily disappeared just like Ben said. 

     “Wow.” Ben huffed.

     Anna wasn’t sure if Ben’s comment was meant for Finland’s history from rags to riches, or to the law-abiding part.  

     “Not only are these coins rare, but we can’t identify them,” Anna continued. “That’s the most intriguing – and most frustrating -  part. They don’t seem to match any known finds in Finland or elsewhere. Dr. Rossi is working on checking the databases almost around the clock.  They could possibly be Etruscan – ancient Italian, that is – but even that is an unverified lead at the moment. Unfortunately.”

     “Why?” Ben’s eyes were fixed on Anna’s profile and again, she felt a current of something radiating from him – energy, focus, zoning in. He’s very keen to understand, she thought.

     “Because it makes it close to impossible to date and evaluate them. If we don’t know their age or maker, we won’t know their value,” Anna said.

     Ben fell silent for a moment, then he seemed to ponder something.

     “Are you sure the hunters gave you everything? I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t have kept any of those coins as souvenirs. But, maybe I’m just a cynic.”

     “I think they did.” Anna shifted gears with a rapid movement. They were now approaching the city centre and the traffic flow was thickening. “That’s because the coins were not the only find they surrendered to us.”

     Ben raised his chin, looked at Anna quizzically. The cat’s out of the bag now, Anna thought. I really should tell him. What does a few hours, a couple of days, here and there matter? He’ll find out eventually. But, the words failed her, refused to come out.

     “Ben, I apologise, but right now I can’t give you more information,” she said instead. “It’s not that I don’t trust you...” Anna realised her tone wasn’t as convincing as she hoped, “…but I’d rather have the whole crew together when we discuss this further. It’s good to have all the experts around the same table to answer your questions.”

     “That’s absolutely fine by me,” Ben said. Anna caught an edge of disappointment in his voice.

 

 

 

18 September, Lake Haltia

     “I can’t keep going,” Ben said, exhaling audibly. “It’s too murky and dark. Even with my torch the visibility is too poor, and now the battery is dead anyway.” Ben stood in front of his team – what was left of this team - dripping, drained out of energy. He had delivered the tragic news. Now, he stripped off the lead weights and the buoyancy vest and placed them carefully on the ground. He pulled off the mask from his forehead, the attached snorkeling tube swayed, and put it with his torch on top of the pile. It was a relief to get the weight off. In water, the gear weighed nothing. On land, it was close to ten kilos. He was cold and his legs were trembling. Even the five-millimeter-thick drysuit, designed for cold waters, had not managed to keep the chill out. Nothing could stop the approaching Arctic winter.

     When nobody spoke, Ben hung his head and dropped himself on the ground next to his gear, cross-legged. He let his forehead fall on the heels of his palms. He simply had no energy to stand.

     “There must be something we can do!” Mika reacted belatedly. They all seemed to be stunned. He rubbed his temples in disbelief. Ben didn’t have any strength left to offer advice, suggest action, take charge. He was sure the young Finn was ready to punch him. As if he didn’t dislike Ben enough already and now he had lost Elina.

     “Yes, there is,” Anna said, her voice quivering only slightly. “Everyone, let’s pick torches and start a search around the lake. Elina may have surfaced somewhere else, possibly disoriented or even unconscious. We can still find her.”

     On the cue, already edgy, Mika ran off to their belongings, rummaged through the bags and piles and soon returned with three heavy-duty torches. “I can’t find more.”

     Vick picked two torches and handed the remaining one to Anna behind him.

     “That will do. Ben, you can’t come after such a long time underwater,” Anna said, her eyes dark but stern in the campfire glow. “Is it safe to leave you behind? Will you manage on your own for a bit? Are you cold? Can you walk?” she bombarded him with questions, her face rigid with concern in the darkening night.

     “I’m all right. I just need to get closer to the fire, that’s all,” Ben said wearily. “Please don’t worry about me, pick the torches and go. I’ll join the search as soon as I have changed clothes and rested a bit. My flashlight should be in the tent.” Ben dragged himself up closer to the campfire and slumped down into the circle of merciful warmth. He felt grateful for it. He also felt dizzy. Not good. Not good at all. He should dehydrate, and eat something. He did not move.

     “Don’t wander off too far from the water’s edge. If she has surfaced, she’s probably lying somewhere close to the shore,” Anna said, glancing to both directions at the shore, already searching.

     “I can’t see her walking far, exhausted, with all that gear and without any food or water,” Vick agreed. There was no trace of his usual jolly mood. The night was falling rapidly now. The last rays of the sun still rendered the Western edge of the sky gold and pink, but soon the night would blanket everything. Ben could barely register what happened around him. I just need to rest a bit, then I’ll join them, he told himself. He could feel his consciousness slide closer to the edge of blur.

     “Grab more layers on you before we go,” Anna urged. “It will be a chilly night. There’s no point in getting ourselves in trouble with hypothermia, in case it takes hours to find her and get her back to the camp.”

     The two men nodded, turned, disappeared into their respective tents. Anna did the same and soon returned to the fire, pulling on a fleece jumper to go under her Gore-Tex jacket.

     “I’ll head to the left, you two start from the right,” Anna said, when she saw the two men return. “We should meet at the opposite shore in less than an hour. It’s not that big.

     “Please, don’t go alone, Anna,” Vick said. “If Elina’s hurt, we might need to carry her. Take Mika with you.”

     Mika nodded, pointed towards the shore with his torch. “Hopefully the vegetation is not too thick, as we don’t have anything to cut through it.” His voice, low and close to mumble, was devoid of emotion. In shock, Ben realised. He followed the young Finn’s gesture. The innocuous young birches and willows did not look deserving of an axe or a machete, but Ben could see how the dense vegetation would pose a problem in the dark.

     “Let’s not waste more time then. Ben, you sure you’re ok?” Anna bent down, touching his shoulder lightly, her eyes studying him.

     “Yeah, I’ll be ok. Just go,” Ben managed to reply, and to his own surprise, sound remotely convincing. He was far from ok. But this wasn’t about him, it was about Elina. Priorities. Yeah right, priorities worked just fine today, a dark, cruel voice in his head said, mockingly. Ben gave a quick shake to his head, like a dog drying up, and refocused on the fire. His hair dripped water. In the corner of his eye, he saw how the search party darted off  through the bushes, one to the right, two to the left. He could hear the distancing trampling and rustling, accompanied by loud, desperate hollers: Elina! Elina! E-e-lina!

     In a few minutes, the camp fell silent. The only sound accompanying Ben was the faint crackling of fire. Even the lake was quiet, no lapping of waves or little splashes of jumping fish. Just silence. He reached forward to grab one more log and dropped it on the hungry flames. He should get up, get changed, get out of the damp drysuit. He straightened his back, but his legs refused to take hold. I’ll rest up just a little while longer, he thought. He should get ready, eat and drink, grab his torch, prepare for a long night, join the search party.

     He didn’t do any of that. Instead, he followed the fire spit sparkles up to the sky. He had been underwater for almost four hours in total today, fighting the cold and dark and fatigue. It was too long by any standards. Normal compressed air tanks would only allow an hour of diving per tank but with his rebreather, he could keep going – in theory – up to six hours. In cold water, his body hit its limits far before the tank did. But, the extended time meant Elina could still be alive underwater. If she was conscious, that was. And if her equipment had not malfunctioned.

     I must get up, must get going, Ben thought, fighting the darkness around in the forest, in his head. I can’t give the impression I don’t care. I can’t let anyone think that.

     He did not feel it coming and he couldn’t have helped it if he had: his body gave in, he slowly dazed off. Before his consciousness completely submerged, a fleeting thought fluttered by. I must tell them… about the bottom.

     The bones in the lake.

 
 

 

 

10 September, restaurant in central Helsinki

     “Everyone, meet our diver,” Anna introduced Ben to the four people already seated around the old-fashioned teak table. The occupants of the booth had been huddling close together, quietly chatting under the dim chandeliers, but now they looked up. In the first corner, closest to Ben, was a tall man in his early forties: he had a wavy, almost black hair and equally dark, amicable eyes with faint crow’s feet. The accentuating lines made him look good-humored.

     “Good to meet you again, Mr. Thomson,” the man said with a wide smile, genuinely pleased.

     Ben grabbed the offered hand and returned the smile. “Come on, Vick. Mr. Thomson sounds like a dry old headmaster! Or would you rather have me address you as Dr. Rossi?” Ben said, chuckling. “Long time no see.”

     “You haven’t changed a bit! I’m glad you could join us. That long-haul flight must have been draining for you!” Vick shook his hands vigorously and reached for a half-hug and half-pat. When Ben had met him the first time, he had instantly liked Vick, his uncomplicated friendliness and straightforward attitude. Why didn’t we keep in touch? He thought. I suck at keeping long-distance friendships going.  

     On Vick’s right side sat a younger man, in his mid- to late-twenties, of average height and build. He had wheat-coloured hair, rectangular face and pale blue eyes framed with blond eyebrows.

     “My educated guess is that you are Mika Tavi, our gear specialist,” Ben smiled politely, struggling slightly with the foreign pronunciation.

     “Yes sir, that’s me,” Mika said with a deadpan face, when he briefly, firmly returned Ben’s handshake. Ben moved on with a faint flutter of unease. What’s his problem? He thought. Not openly hostile, but not friendly, either. Is he… suspecting something? How could he?

     Before Ben could indulge in that train of thought, another hand was extended to him across the table. A lean blonde in her mid-twenties had stood up. She was wearing a soft, deep-blue sweater that complimented her blueberry eyes perfectly. Her hair was tied up to a fashionable messy bun on top of her head. Unlike Mika, she flashed an authentic, white smile to Ben. She didn’t seem to be wearing much, if at all, make up. Charming, Ben’s brain labelled, when he returned the smile, half-focusing on his own odd selection of word. Charming? Who says that these days? Enchanted, mademoiselle, he felt like saying, but refrained at the last minute.  

     “Nice to meet you Ben, I’m Elina Ranta. I’ll be your diving buddy. I’m Anna’s PhD student, as you know. It’s great to have you on board.” Her deep voice was pleasant, her eyes… intrigued? Her hand was warm and the grip, solid.

     After the greetings, Ben said how it had been excellent news to him that Elina had plenty of experience in diving in cold conditions. “It will not be an easy ride, I fear,” he added.

     “Vick has told us you’re also a very experienced diver and a trustworthy trek leader,” Elina said and Ben couldn’t tell if there was the faintest touch of taunt, teasing, in her voice. “He speaks very highly of you. Clearly you made quite an impression on him two years ago.”

     “I had the time of my life at the Kokoda Track, even when I felt I’ll die on the spot!” Vick interjected. “Friends, I can happily confess I have indeed said every word that has just been relayed.”

     “Wow, I sure hope I can live up to that completely overblown reputation!” Ben said, smiling uncertainly. “I’m under pressure here. Thanks a ton, mate,” he winked to Vick in mock disapproval. It was a widely-acknowledged fact among outdoor enthusiasts that the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, ninety-six kilometers in rough mountainous terrain in humid tropical conditions, was one of the most taxing and difficult trails in the world.

     Anna prompted everyone to scan through the menu so that they could place the orders and discuss business. She seemed somewhat nervous, which didn’t fit into Ben’s already-formed image about her as a steely, even cool academic professional. When Anna smiled, it didn’t reach her eyes and she had seemed only half-engaged, when Ben had chatted with her in the car.

      When the waitress left, Vick asked, “should we go through the expedition program?”

     Anna leaned forward, crossing her fingers on the table. “I’ve gone through the basics in my emails to you, Ben. The others have already received a face-to-face briefing. But, it’s a good idea to discuss everything together in more detail.” Her voice did not betray any anxiety and Ben started to think he had imagined that. Based on her resume, which Ben had searched online the first thing before accepting this gig, she had ten years of experience in leading archaeological digs. Why would she even have a reason to be fidgety? Still… there was something nervous underneath, Ben could tell, even if he couldn’t explain how he knew.

     “As you know, I will lead the land excavation, Vick will be my co-pilot and Mika will assist us in every aspect of the project. Elina will plan and oversee the underwater mapping and search, but Ben, you’ll be in charge of underwater safety and gear maintenance,” Anna said, paused, took a sip of her water glass. “I – we, Vick and Elina included, presume there is a good probability to make further finds in that lake, if the coins have been a part of a sacrifice, or if they were hidden during a period of unrest.” Anna paused again to let the waitress pour wine to everyone. As soon as she left and was far enough, Anna continued.

     “Mika is our ‘raw manpower’, so to speak,” Anna smiled and Mika nodded, seemingly not offended to be the muscle, not the main brain. “He’ll help with all the physical labour, including the excavation, but he’ll also chop wood, fetch water and so forth. Not that we, all of us, wouldn’t help where we can. This is a team effort and no role is fixed in stone. But, Mika has been with me at the digs for years and he knows how to handle artefacts - that is, not to touch but immediately alert a professional to document the site and the find.”

     Ben glimpsed at Mika, who again nodded but did not speak. He did not seem bothered the slightest that he was to step aside immediately if something exciting was found. Good to know he won’t try to channel Indiana Jones, Ben thought. Vick was speaking now.

     “… trying to find out if a trade route extended this far north that early.”

     The coins, and their origin. “What’s your best guess, how old are they?’ Ben asked and noticed the immediate intensifying of electricity in the air. He had stirred the pot somehow. But how? The three archaeologists glanced at each other. Mika looked from one person to another, outside of the loop just like Ben.

     “Normally, the ancient, foreign artifacts found in Scandinavia are either Viking or Novgorodian – ancient Russian – origin. The Viking era, as well as the Novgorodian tradespeople era, lasted approximately from 500 CE to 1000 CE, Common Era, or after Christ for the non-archaeologists. But these coins are much, much older,” Vick told them.

     Ben looked confused. Anna had said the coins were maybe Etruscan, Italian.  

     “I’ll clarify,” Anna interjected. “Vick’s preliminary assessment shows these coins pre-date everything that has ever been found in Scandinavia, or what could be reasonably expected to be found from here.”

     Ben noticed Anna’s face had lost colour. Also Vick looked serious, whereas Elina’s expression was akin to a child eagerly waiting for a birthday cake to be brought in the table for her to make wish. The conversation was halted, when the waitress delivered their plates.

      Once the waitress was out of the hearing range again, Elina jumped in. “These coins might be the oldest metal artefact ever found, anywhere.” Her eyes radiated enthusiasm.

     Ben’s fork stopped mid-air. It dawned on him he had underestimated the significance of this find earlier. That was good news. Excellent news. Anna raised her hands as if wanting to calm down everyone, even as nobody spoke.

     “There are three very important questions in the air here. We must find out if this is an isolated case. Firstly, were these coins dropped in as early as it seems based on their age? Or, were they lost or hidden much later? And thirdly, who made them? It’s simply not possible that the local hunter-gatherers of the past could have managed to manipulate gold that early in history, much earlier than any other human population on earth,” she said.

     “Isn’t it a good thing if they are really old?” Ben asked, hoping not to sound an absolute ignoramus. The older they were, the more valuable they were, no?

     “It’s more complicated than that,” Anna said, voice tight. “If they appear too old, it raises questions about a hoax. What if we have nothing but an elaborate scam in our hands? We might be wasting everyone’s time and two university’s funding just to increase the value of counterfeit products that will eventually get stolen and sold at the black market, and we have learned nothing more about the evolution of human culture.”

     Elina turned to face Ben. It looked like she wanted to grab his hand, squeeze it, emphasise Anna’s point, but she didn’t. “You must realise, Ben, this is huge. Finland has never been full of riches. This has been a cold and poor country for millennia. Where did these coins come from? Who made them? Why are they in that remote lake? And, if there are coins, perhaps there’s much, much more lying at the bottom!” Elina’s salad remained untouched, she looked at everyone around the table, one by one, eyes sparkling.

     “How old do you suspect the coins are?” Ben asked Vick, when nobody appeared to offer that information.

     “Twenty thousand years, at least.” Vick’s words rolled out slowly, cautiously.  

     Ben blinked.

     “There are several problems with that age,” Anna said and smoothed the table cloth. “The oldest known metal objects – copper bowls and such - are seven thousand years old; and the oldest known coins are less than three thousand years old. People learned to manipulate metal surprisingly late in history and we only adopted metal money some six, seven centuries before the emergence of Christianity.”

     “I get what you said about the possibility of hoax, Anna,” Ben said, “but I still can’t understand why the age is such a problem. I would have thought you guys are over the moon! This could be the new record, then: you could have in your hands coins that are bloody seventeen thousand years older than previously assumed?”

     Anna sighed. “Like I said, there are several problems. One of them being: Finland did not exist twenty thousand years ago.”

     “You lost me,” Ben blurted.

     “This whole area was covered by a massive glacier, called the Scandinavian ice sheet,” Elina again jumped in, seemingly unable to sit still. “For the period starting from two and a half million years ago until some eleven thousand years ago, the whole of Scandinavia, along with the northern parts of Great Britain, Germany, Poland, the Baltic states and Russia, was buried under a slab of ice, three kilometers thick. The end part of that era was called the Veiksel glacial period, or more commonly, the Ice Age.”

     “Let me get this straight,” Ben said, squinting. “You say that someone dropped the coins in the lake through the glacier?”

     “That’s how it seems for now, but how could it be?” Elina said. “Nothing lived in the sub-zero temperatures of the glacier. Nothing grew there. No animals lived on top of it. Who were those people, and how and why did they do it? Mint those coins, survive living on a block of ice? Or, have we had the whole timeline of human history wrong?”

 

 

 

 

18 September, Lake Haltia

     Darkness was falling rapidly now. Anna stumbled onward through the thick underbush. Elina was somewhere in the lake, on her own, perhaps unconscious. Anna’s heart was racing: she had to find her student asap. A twig she carelessly released from tension whipped her across the face. The tiny horizontal blade left a sore mark on her cheekbone. She touched the spot. No bleeding. Good. She wiped off a spider web from her forehead. She had already pushed through more webs than she cared to count.

     Her own breathing sounded heavy and forced. I must slow down, she thought. And yet, I can’t, an immediate follow-up of the first thought appeared. There’s no time to waste. Every minute means less air for Elina. Anna could almost tangibly feel the sand in an imaginary hourglass glide away. Tears burned behind her eyelids.

     Anna’s movements were stiff under the suffocating layers of clothing. Walking, half-jogging, through the bush was more laborious than she had predicted and she had too many layers on. She could hear Mika stomping on through the twigs and branches and shrubbery. She could not see him anymore due to the dense vegetation and the falling veil of darkness; she only caught an occasional glimpse of his torch, sweeping the ground, twinkling between the tree trunks. The toes of her hiking boots were visibly wet due to the dew, but she couldn’t feel the dampness, yet.

     They had not been able to strictly follow the shoreline – it had turned too marshy almost immediately. They had been compelled to take a number of sidesteps into the belly of the forest. Now, it was not clear to Anna where exactly the lake was. Somewhere on the right, most certainly. But she hadn’t seen the shoreline for a while.

     Suddenly she registered that the night was even darker. She could not see the blinking of Mika’s light.

     “Mika!”

     No response.

     “Mika!” She let out again, a bit louder. Still no response. No sign of his torch. No sounds.

     Nothing.

     The frigid autumn night was now enveloping her. Daylight had vanished faster than she had expected or wanted. Down south in Helsinki, the days were still a bit longer than this far up north. In Northern Finland, the beginning of the polar night was only a couple of months away. Beyond the Arctic Circle, the sun never rose at all from late November to late January. Nothing but moonlight and the faintest glimmer of dawn that soon revolved back to darkness, for two months.

     “Mika!” She cried and could not help a quiver in her voice. She drew in a sharp breath, held it in, strained her hearing.

     Still nothing.

     She could not see or hear him anywhere. How did he manage to get so far ahead? All she could see was rows after rows of brown-red, tall, stoic pine trunks, surrounded by thickets of smaller rowans and young spruces here and there, depending on the ground conditions. To her right, she rather sensed than saw the impenetrable wall of the lake shore: the thick bushes of alders and willows, thriving in the damp earth, blocking the view to the darkening water. I can’t see if she’s somewhere in the water or not, Anna thought for the umpteenth time, exasperated, verging desperation. And now I’ve lost Mika too. How did this happen?

     A memory appeared, from the deeper layers of her brain. From almost three decades ago, when she was eight. She had been playing hide and seek with her year-younger brother Leevi and their friend, the kid next door, Olli. Olli was the master of hiding. Not only because he was creative in inventing new hideouts, but because he was fearless in reaching them: the highest branches of a tree, or the farthest corner of an old, unused potato cellar behind the Aalto family’s modest three-bedroom villa from the 1950’s.

     With resilient, excited effort, Anna and Leevi always found Olli. Except one time. It was after dinner, the sun had already set. At first, it had been thrilling to use flashlights in the hunt, but after two hours of no peep from Olli, Anna had gotten nervous. Leevi had attempted to laugh it off at first, but she had seen the worry and fear in his eyes, behind the mask of nonchalant. What if something bad had happened to Olli? What if this time, they couldn’t find him at all? What if Olli would end up in trouble? They both knew Olli’s father was a firm type and hated to be bothered by children’ issues.

     When Leevi had sat down with a quivering lip, bursting into tears, Anna had made up her mind. They had been yelling Olli’s name, called him to quit playing, scanned all his usual spots. Nothing. Anna marched home to tell their parents, ignoring her brother’s pleas to not cause Olli consequences.

     Anna could still remember, see clearly in her mind’s eye, how the flashlights had swept the forest around the village, the beams brushing the trunks like giant fingers, reaching out, seeking to grasp Olli, bring him home. Olli was found close to midnight. He had fallen off a tree in the middle of a rosebush and he had lain there, unconscious, since. He had to be taken to the hospital and even Olli’s father had been quiet. Anna had cried alone the whole night, considered too old to sleep in between of her parents, and Leevi was there anyway, being consoled instead of her, the big girl.

     The memory made her shiver. Nothing has happened to Mika, she reasoned. He’s a grown man, there’s nothing he could fall into or injure himself seriously. He can’t be too far.

     Then, she realised that the memory had not arisen because of Mika, but because of Elina. This was hide and seek with life and death. She stifled a sob, wiped it off, marched onward.

     After stumbling on in silence for a few more minutes, she registered what had quietly pestered her. Mika had not once checked that they were still together. Maybe he was too distressed to keep an eye on me, she thought. Elina must be found, after all.

     Eventually, she had to stop, catch breath.

     She weighed her options. Stay or continue?  She decided to carry on. Mika would undoubtedly stop and wait for her when he finally noticed she was not in tow. And, then, they both would find Vick. And hopefully, Elina too!

     Anna glanced at the sky to check the weather. It was too dark, too covered. She could not even see if it was clear or cloudy. The thick canopy of the pristine pine forest enclosed her in like a ceiling, making it feel like she was the only person in the world, wandering around in a colossal, ancient, abandoned temple of nature spirits.

   

 

****

To: hunter@mail.com

From: guardian@mail.com

Sent: 11 September at 06:38

Be ready to act when the moment comes. We have intel suggesting that an opponent is on the move. Remember, our future rests on your shoulders. You were not chosen for nothing.

 ****

  

 

 

11 September, Helsinki Airport

       The morning flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi was boarding on schedule, planned to take off at 06:55. There was no jet bridge. The line of passengers – mainly businessmen and -women in their power suits – bee-lined across the tarmac from the bus towards the white Finnair Airbus 320-200. Ben had almost reached the bottom of the stairs, inhaling the crisp morning air. He was stuck behind an elderly, heavy-built lady dragging her equally heavy-built carry-on with great difficulty. Ben offered to carry it up the stairs, but that only got him so far. The queue came to a constant halt when people ahead took their time to locate their seats.

     He took another deep breath in, standing at the plane door. He loved the cool weather. That’s why he had moved from Perth, his birthplace, to Tasmania, the coolest location available in the country. His mother was still giving him grief of the decision. You don’t visit enough, Benjy, she kept saying. Why are mothers always so clingy, he had thought more than once. Or was it just his mother? His father did not say much, other than that he understood Ben’s need to make something of his life. His business, Venture Treks and Dives. It was easier to live at the east coast. Tasmania was popular among European and Asian tourists. The only downside was that when he had a gig abroad, it took quite a bit of flying to reach PNG, Papua New Guinea, Malesia or Indonesia. But overall, Tasmania was better than Perth. If only his mother stopped pestering him.

     Ben realised his fingers were stiffening in the cold. He pressed them against his mouth and breathed a few times. Finally, the queue nudged forward.

     Inside, Ben found he was seated together with Elina, Vick and Mika had the next row and Anna was seated alone one row up. Anna was already sitting down and busied herself with a laptop. Always efficient, immersed in work.

     Ben lifted his carry-on into the overhead locker and offered to help Elina. Instead of accepting, Elina just flung her bag up into the locker and smiled.

     “Thanks, but I better take care of my own stuff. We have a lot to carry once there,” she said, grinned and slid through the narrow gap onto her window seat.

     “What made you to choose to study archaeology?” Ben asked, when the plane ascended to the sky on schedule.

     “I’ve always been fascinated by the past,” Elina said. Her dark blue eyes had smile in them, as usual. She seemed to have a naturally positive, extroverted disposition. “I want to see the big picture. You know, where did we come from, where are we now and where are we going.”

     “I’ve never thought one could follow a path from the past to the future,” Ben said, not offensively.

     “Not literally, of course, but history does provide perspective. It’s a sequence of events; causes and consequences. What happened and why? What followed? The past is a rich vein for endless research.” Elina smiled. The seat belt sign went off with a ping. The plane hummed steadily and the sky behind the oval windows was clearing.  

     “For example, this summer Anna and I documented a very rare find in the Helsinki city area. Sometimes average Joes stumble upon something - they may be picking berries or mushrooms, or just taking a walk in the forest. Every now and then a farmer finds a peculiar old thing while ploughing a field and contacts the local museum.” Elina’s face was now fully lit with enthusiasm.

     “Is everybody really so law-abiding that no finds go unreported?” Ben asked.

     “I can’t say. We don’t know about those finds that go unreported, eh?” she smirked. The twinkle of her eyes captured Ben’s gaze. He was secretly pleased Elina was to be his diving partner instead of Mika.

      “What was the find?” he asked.

     “A sacrifice rock from the Bronze Age, estimated to be two thousand years old.”

     “Sacrifice? Sounds bloody brutal.”

     “Not at all, it’s not for sacrificing like in Hollywood movies. No crazed priests, throat cutters or head smashers!” Elina laughed. “Have you ever been to Hindu regions? You know how they give little offerings, such as rice and incense, to their gods and ancestors to ask for blessings? It was a similar type of tradition.”

     “No crazy throat cutters running havoc here, then, checked,” Ben smirked. “One less risk to worry about.”

     Elina shook her head. “Nordic homesteads used to have sacrifice rocks at their yards or next to the fields. They were natural boulders with carved little hollows to place offerings, such as a drop of milk or porridge or some grain. To ask for blessings or protection.”

     “Is that the oldest such a rock you’ve found?” Ben asked, enjoying Elina’s enthusiasm, passion, towards her vocation. It was always fascinating to listen to people discuss what they cared about. One reason why Ben loved diving. Divers were enthusiasts extraordinaire.

     “It wasn’t the oldest. There are similar rocks dating back to the Paleolithic era, the Stone Age, ten-eleven thousand years ago – to the period when the Scandinavian ice sheet melted. That’s when the Nordic countries were first populated. The sacrifice rock tradition faded with the introduction of Christianity in the 12th century, but in some areas, the old customs held firmly until the early 20th century. There have not been many generations yet who do not know or practice these traditions.” Elina said, thoughtfully.

     “Well, outsiders sure don’t know about it. Wikipedia said the majority of Finns are Christians and that was the end of that story. Now I have to lodge a complaint with Wiki for failing me in my attempt to appear prepared,” Ben said with a lopsided smile.

     “Not a surprise Wikipedia wouldn’t know. The so-called pagan history is not really celebrated in Finland. For example in Lapland, where we’re flying, the Christian missionaries destroyed the local belief system during the course of the 19th century.” Elina’s smile was rueful now. “Officially, Finns have been Christians since the Swedish kings converted the forest Finns with swords and death threats from the 1100s. But, some pagan traditions, often mixed with Christian ways, were practiced until the early 20th century in the remote areas of Finland.”

     “Swords and death threats?” Ben asked.

     “Europeans nowadays panic due to Islam, but they completely forget also Christianity is an import product, brought in with force. Every European country and region used to have its own traditions and belief systems from Druids in the British Isles to shamans in the Northern Europe, and everything in between.”

     “Finland seems to be one of the countries were the old practices held out for longest,” Ben said, frowning.  

     Elina looked at him, the wistful expression melting. “You’ll probably learn this during your stay, but us Finns have a reputation of being stubborn. It’s called sisu, grit or tenacity, a concept we’ve very proud of.”

     A flight attendant stopped next to Ben’s shoulder and asked something. He also registered the low hum of the plane engines and the rustle of sandwich wrappers.

     “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Finnish,” he said apologetically.

     The stewardess immediately switched to fluent yet accented English. “Would you like to have a ham or cheese sandwich, sir, and some coffee or tea?”

     “Ham, please. And yes to coffee too, thank you. Black.”

     “How about you, ma’am?”

     “Juusto, kiitos. Ja kahvia myös,” Elina replied. “I’m going for a cheese sandwich and a coffee,” she translated to Ben. When she received her tray, she turned to him again. “The old customs are fascinating. That’s why I started my PhD studies. This trip came as a stroke of luck to gather material!”

     “What’s your topic?” Ben asked, when he unwrapped the sandwich.

     “Not fully formulated yet, to be honest. The core theme is the longevity – no, persistence - of religious and spiritual beliefs across all human cultures and eras, even during this scientific, rational period we now live in. Since the dawn of the humankind, people have always believed in the divine forces and afterlife. It’s intriguing. Why do such beliefs persist?” Elina paused to taste her coffee.

     “So, do you think those coins in the lake are a sacrifice?” Ben asked, hoping he did not change the subject too openly. Nobody wanted to talk about their value. Or, perhaps the team really did not know it yet. His previous experience of antiquities was limited, but it instinctively made sense that a fascinating story linked to the objects could add value. A sacrifice to the forest gods. I’ll keep my ears open, he thought, when he took a bite of the dry sandwich.

     “Either they were lost by accident, or they were hidden on purpose,” Elina said. “Finland has been in the cross-fire between the ancient Swedish – Vikings, back then – and Russians for eons. A wealthy owner at some point of history could have tried to hide his or her treasure. Or, like you suggest, they were thrown in as a sacrifice, a plea for something.”

     “Will you be able to ever find out for sure?” Ben studied Elina’s eyes, but she was focused on picking out a limp salad leaf out of her sandwich.

     “The thing is, studying prehistory is much harder than studying history,” she said. “There are no written records about what people thought and believed in during prehistorical times. That’s the defining line between prehistory and history – the invention of writing.”

     “So, it’s a no?” Ben smirked.

     Elina looked at him with an open expression. “I’ll confess something, but keep it to yourself. It’s a go-to answer of any archaeologist to say that a find has a religious purpose when we don’t know for sure what it is.” Her eyes started twinkling again. “We often joke that maybe in a few thousand years, when the archaeologists of the future stumble upon today’s graveyards, they’ll deduce that it was a part of burial rituals of the 21st century to place two gel-filled pouches on top of females’ chests for additional protection to aid them cross over to the otherworld.”

     Ben blinked, not following.

     Elina let out a laugh. “We can’t be sure any record of today’s breast implant craze will survive, and for the future humans it might be incomprehensible to think that someone would have willingly, surgically inserted blobs of plastic under their skin just to be stared at. Maybe future archaeologists will conclude that those pouches were a tribute to the goddess of fertility, like so many decorations and gifts and sacrifices in the past.”

     Ben could not help a chuckle. He wiped a bread crumble from his chin. “When you put it like that, it does sound possible. Should we start carving notes for those future archaeologists to explain this modern society and weird habits of ours, to help them out?” He put his cup down and sat quiet for a while. “Imagine if we were still equally superstitious, had the need to sacrifice things. I guess our everyday life would be filled with all sorts of rituals and dancing and whatnot to keep the spirit folks happy!”

     “You know, I often think we haven’t got rid of that trait at all, it has just changed, mutated,” Elina said, glancing out of the oval window before she continued. “Have you ever thought of how religiously and dutifully the evening news track the stock market rates? It’s like announcing whether or not the gods are happy. The markets are up, the economy is thriving, the gods are smiling. There’s work and food and shelter for everyone. When the opposite happens, the gods are angry. Jobs are at stakes; the economy will fail if we don’t quickly sacrifice something. Someone. We must cut spending, tighten the belt, let businesses go bankrupt and people lose their homes. We must compete against each other, harder, faster, longer, please the gods, sacrifice the weakest – homeless, jobless, mentally ill. It’s quite Medieval or even Mayan, don’t you think?”

     Ben did not know what to reply. He had never thought of it before but he came to a quick conclusion that Elina’s interpretation was scarily accurate.

 

 

 

 

18 September, around midnight, Lake Haltia

     The forest around Lake Haltia had fallen silent for the night. Anna swept her way through the shrubbery with the torch beam. One step here, another safe landing there. The uneven ground and the impenetrable undergrowth forced her to steer more and more towards the left. Further away from where she assumed the lake was. I’ll turn back when I find any kind of an opening, she calmed herself.

     “Mika! Mika! Stop and wait for me!” she yelled into the dark, once again.

     Still, no response.

     The narrow beam of her flashlight tried to cut through the night, but the mute wall of trees and shrubbery only revealed the next few meters. Anna felt too hot under the thick layers of thermal underwear, fleece and weather-proof Gore-Tex, but she did not dare to take off the coat in fears that the evaporating sweat could expose her to creeping hypothermia. She could see her breath. It was below ten degrees Celsius for sure. She felt like crying. Collapsing.

     Anna had been struggling through the forest for hours now. Her digital watch showed 00:34. She had not seen any signs of Mika since she had lost contact with him. No broken branches or bent shrubbery to indicate his way. Not that Anna could actually tell. She was not experienced in tracking. At least her torch kept going on strong.

     The most uncomfortable fact was not the late hour, the sweating, or even the risk of hypothermia. She was hungry and thirsty, but she could cope. What she could not take was the fact that she was lost. Helplessly, undoubtedly, miserably lost. At some stage of her journey, she had been compelled to take a detour to get around a particularly entangling patch of underbush, and that’s when it must have happened. Later on, she tried to navigate back to her right, where she was sure the lake was. But it just wasn’t there. The lake was nowhere.

     Anna had been scouting back and forth, left and right, and she could not see even a glimpse of anything that resembled a body of water. Other than an occasional marshy spot, covered with thick, soft, deceptively lush moss. And which would immediately suck her feet in, if she made the mistake of stepping on the innocuous green cushions that were, in fact, deep swamp holes. The name of Finland in Finnish, Suomi, originated from the word suomaa, “the swamp land”.

     At the beginning of the night she had been worried sick for Elina. Poor Elina, somewhere in the cold, muddy water, all on her own. Elina may have washed ashore somewhere, still alive, but possibly unconscious. They could not waste a minute. They had to locate and rescue her. But, for a couple of hours now, Anna had been consciously fighting against panic. Panic rising from her own predicament.

     No reason to get upset, she reminded herself, again. She had practically grown up in a forest. Her family had lived in a village a few hundred kilometers down south, but the surrounding forest had been very similar - majestic pine wilderness. She knew her way around. She was almost a local. Almost.

     And yet it did not help her at all in this darkness.

     She tried to calm her nerves by breathing slowly in and out. The torch did not allow her to see anything more than the closest pillars of red pines, accompanied by the usual birches, willows and rowans. Each tree looked the same. There was nothing to tell this shrub and that shrub apart.

     She estimated that the temperature had dropped closer to five degrees Celsius. She was not afraid of the cold as long as she kept moving. But sooner or later she would need to stop and camp for the night. In the rush to get going, she had not brought a lighter, not even her flint and a pocket knife to spark fire. Hence, warming up in front of a soothing camp fire would not happen.

     She ran through her options. One: keep going and hope for the best. Maybe she would reach the lakeshore, or better yet, her camp. Two: stop here, avoid wandering off too far. It was already a possibility that she had taken all the wrong turns and was heading towards the never-ending Arctic wilderness of the practically uninhabited Northern Finland. This vast green carpet of boreal forests covered the northern part of the globe, stretching from Finland to Siberia, all the way to the Sea of Okhotsk, the edge of the Sea of Japan. Thousands and thousands of kilometers of wild lands of reindeer, bear and wolf. She suppressed a sniff, wiped her cheekbone with a quick motion, forced herself back to reality. Lay out the facts. Consider the facts. Trust the facts.

     Fact one. She was sure she had not yet crossed the Russian border. There would be no fence, gate or guard, not this up north. The border was only actively guarded around habituated areas. The only marker that separated Finland from its massive neighbour was an open-cut lane, fifteen meters wide, bulldozed through the ancient forest. She couldn’t have missed it, if she had crossed it. So, fact two was that she was still in Finland. Where exactly, was a much harder question.

     I’ll sit down for just a couple of minutes, she decided, when she felt her legs give in anyway. Five hours of resilient marching through a difficult terrain would take a toll on anyone, she muttered under her breath. For the first hour alone she had kept calling Mika, and also Vick, in the hopes that she had already reached the midway of their search area. She had heard nothing but irate crows, whom she occasionally scared off from their patrol branches in the treetops of the towering spruces.

     Anna huddled against a pine trunk, sitting in between of tussocks of mosh, lingonberry and blueberry. She wrapped her Gore-Tex tighter around her, even though she was still hot. It was easy for the body temperature to drop in a cold night like this. The wall of surrounding darkness unnerved her, no matter how hard she tried to think she knew exactly what was out there: more pines, birches, spruces, lingonberry and moss. Mosquitoes and frogs.

     Absolutely nothing to worry about.

     These remote forests of the North were also the undisturbed land of many wild predators, such as viper, wolverine and fox. Anna was not afraid of the wildlife. Like any Finn, she knew that wild animals avoided people when possible, and larger ones would only attack if threatened or cornered, or when protecting their cubs. Anna most definitely was no threat to anything and this was no time for cubs – that would be in spring. In any case, she had been stomping as loudly as she could, partly because she wanted her camp to hear, partly because she knew that all the wild residents would steer clear from the noise. Her human scent was already an unmistakable repellent to them. She hoped. Trust the facts.

     Suddenly, she thought she detected something – a sound? No, maybe not a sound… but a feeling. A sensation. Instinct.   

     “Mika? Vick? Is it you?” she said softly to the cooling night. Then she repeated it, louder.   

     No response.

     She held her breath to listen as closely, attentively as possible. No twigs breaking around her, no rustling of someone – or something – stepping, pushing or crawling through the underbush. Nothing. And yet she could feel it. The goosebumps. The hair rising at the back of her neck.   

     The feeling of not being safe. The unease of… being watched.