Translated and introduced by Agnes Broome
This article appeared in the 2013:S issue.
For as long as she can remember, Alva has been poised to flee. Though her teenage life in Helsinki seems perfectly, boringly normal, she is constantly pursued by a nameless fear with roots in a childhood of which she can remember nothing. Then Alva is approached by the darkly handsome, leather-clad Nide, who ― as we see in the extract below ― seems able to answer all the questions she’s never known how to ask; he reveals Alva’s true name and birthright and leads her on a journey to Shadowland, a Cimmerian realm deep underneath the city where all the creatures of Nordic folklore have found shelter from the rapaciousness of humankind. As the two descend, however, it soon becomes clear that Nide is not what he claims to be, that Alva’s life is in immediate danger and that the dark and deadly fairytale world trapped under modern Helsinki (known as Helsingfors to Finland-Swedes) is about to be unleashed. Young adult fantasy writer Maria Turtschaninoff (b. 1977) has published three novels to date and counts Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin and C.S. Lewis among her favourite authors.
She paused outside the café with her hand on the door handle.
Before and After. If she chose to step inside now a new time would begin, she knew that. A time after After. Was she ready for that? What would she find in Before?
She would find the truth. The truth about Umbra and Shadowland and everything else she had now glimpsed. The truth about her heritage, identity, roots. Of course she wanted to know those things.
But she might also find the truth about why she had been afraid all her life. The truth about why she couldn’t even think about Before without feeling that familiar jolt of terror running through her body.
The door handle felt cold against the palm of her hand.
The voice spoke close to her ear, so close she could feel his warm breath on her neck. He placed his hand next to hers on the door handle and gave a push. The door opened smoothly and Alva was hustled inside by Nide’s body.
He led her to the farthest table and took the chair by the wall. That meant Alva had to take the one facing away from the room and she settled onto it feeling uneasy. She always sat where she could see the exit. Now she felt exposed on two sides because Nide’s eyes never left her, not when the waitress came to take their order, not when the cups of tea were brought to the table. He fixed her with those jet-black, slightly slanted eyes. She was held as if in a vice and couldn’t have got up even if she’d wanted to.
Not that she wanted to. Why would she want to? She set her jaw and defiantly stared right back at him.
His dark hair came down to his shoulders, his fringe was plaited back into a braid and the rest hung loose. His eyebrows were thick and his upper lip completely smooth. His nose was flat and wide and two thick silver rings pierced one of his nostrils; an eyebrow, too, was adorned with a silver barbell with green stone beads. He was tall, so tall he had to sit sideways on his chair because his legs wouldn’t fit under the small wooden table. Instead he stretched them out so they almost touched Alva’s green chair and the studs on his tight leather boots gleamed in the lamplight. Emerging from the sleeves of his leather coat were hands covered with dark hair and more rings than Alva had ever seen on a man. She found guessing his age difficult, she thought eighteen but at times he looked older than that.
‘Do you like what you see, your Highness?
Alva flushed. She had no control of this situation and it threw her off balance.
‘Could you stop calling me Your Highness!’
‘As you wish, Umbra.’
Alva didn’t know where to start, what to ask. She stirred her tea in silence. Nide studied her for a while, his face inscrutable.
‘Tell me, what do you remember? How much do you remember?’
She understood what he meant straight away, but took a moment before answering. Telling him the truth was mortifying. She sighed.
‘Nothing. I don’t remember the first years of my life at all.’
Nide didn’t seem offended; rather, Alva thought that for a brief moment he looked very pleased. Then he leaned back, making his leather coat creak against the back of the chair.
‘No matter. I have come to restore you to your birthright.’
He glanced round the room quickly and then leaned in toward Alva, this time so close their foreheads almost touched across the little table.
‘You don’t belong here, among these mortal fools. You can sense it, can’t you? Have you not always felt excluded, different, superior to these – these – humans?’ There was no mistaking the contempt in his voice.
Alva didn’t reply straight away. She had felt excluded. Different, yes. But superior? A cut above? More deserving than Julia and Kaj who had cared for her, loved her, comforted her during those difficult black nights that had never seemed to end? No.
She looked up and looked straight into Nide’s eyes and her belly flipped so hard she forgot the sharp retort she’d been ready to give him.
‘You come from another world’, he continued quietly, ‘a world with no room for humans. A world that is much older than the one in which you grew up. We were here first, long before the humans.’ He took her hand between his own two. She could feel the cool of his rings against her palm, his rough skin against the back of her hand. It became difficult to focus properly on what he was saying.
‘When the humans came, we lived side by side with them in peace for a long time. We didn’t understand the danger at first. Not until they had stolen everything from us.’
He pressed his hands around hers until it hurt. She couldn’t find her voice to tell him to stop.
‘There was one refuge only. The halls of the King of Shadow, deep underneath this city. We had to give up everything, leave everything behind. Driven from our wealth and lands.’
Nide finally let go of her hand and leaned back a little. His eyes still rested on Alva’s face but they seemed to be gazing far away across time and space and she was given some breathing room, a brief moment to herself to try to make sense of what he was saying.
He was telling the truth. He wasn’t human. She didn’t know what he was, but it was plain to see that he wasn’t human. He had told her that she belonged to his world. And if he wasn’t human, that meant that she…
‘My people were the last to surrender’, he said and returned to the present and the café and Alva. ‘We had no wish to become someone else’s subjects and servants. But in the end we, too, had to make our way down to the halls of the King of Shadow. Shadowland became our new home and we have dwelt there ever since.’
He broke off and gave her a crooked smile.
‘It is not a bad place to live, don’t think that, I beg you. There are things there you could never see above ground.’ He put one hand on top of hers, lightly this time. ‘I want you to go there with me. Back to your true home.’
‘Who am I then?’ The question escaped her before she had time to consider whether she wanted to know the answer or not. Nide smiled, his teeth white against his dark face.
‘You? Have you not yet realised it? You are the daughter of the King of Shadow.’