The cottage is small, just a kitchen-cum-living room barely large enough for the three people occupying it, and an even smaller bedroom with a fully equipped hospital bed that stands out among the old-fashioned furniture. Outside the wind is howling, rattling the windows as it lashes against the glass. Giles shivers, still frozen to the bone even though the cottage itself is almost uncomfortably warm, heat radiating from the large cut-iron stove that stands in the corner of the room.
He'd briefly thought about cancelling or postponing the interview because of the weather, but he feared that by the time he'd have time to come back, it would already be too late.
Ever since establishing their base in Scotland, Giles had spent most of his time tracking down potentials - not just those who had been called, but also those who had been too old when Willow performed the spell. The woman who lives in this small cottage in the middle of nowhere on Western Finnish countryside is the oldest one he's found so far.
She is in her late eighties, short and bone thin, her face pale and tired, and her head almost bald except for few thin strands of white hair. Late stages of breast cancer, the woman's daughter had said. Her family had tried to get her to move to a hospice, but she'd refused, insisting on taking care of herself for as long as she could.
She doesn't speak English, and the little she'd spoken so far had been interpreted to Giles by a young woman about Buffy's age - her granddaughter, it had turned out. She'd been the one to give him a ride to the cottage, fearlessly driving her small car through the blizzard that still raged outside.
The old woman herself had been less than co-operative, however, giving one-word answers if bothering to reply at all, and the last twenty minutes the three of them had sat in a complete silence that made Giles want to say something trivial about the weather.
"You just don't get winters like you used to, not anymore."
The woman's sudden words rouse Giles from his thoughts. Her voice is hoarse, barely louder than a whisper, and as she speaks, she leans back with her eyes closed, her words punctuated by the rhytmic rocking of her chair. The girl pulls her own chair closer to her grandmother and translates the lyrical sounds of the strange language into English.
"The winter was a cold one that year. I remember we used to get proper winters back then, but even so we thought it was a cold one.
I was sixteen when the war started. A skinny little pikkulotta who'd never even kissed a boy and whose dreams were no bigger than a pretty new dress. I worked at an old school that had been turned into a hospital, not far from the road they used to take supplies to the soldiers. We were close to the border - too close, said the older women - but we trusted our boys to keep us safe.
We'd been at the school for two months when the Russians trapped a group of soldiers on the other side of a nearby lake. They still had food, but had run out of medicine, and maybe if we got them some they could hold off until the reinforcements arrived. The messenger who told us this was a young boy, not much older than I was.
I helped Mrs. Manninen - Manniska, we used to call her - dress his wounds, and when we were finished, she told one of the other girls to clean after us and asked me to come with her to the kitchens. Her face was stern, and there was a sadness in her eyes that I'd never seen before, and I think I knew what she was going to say even before she said it.
'Elsa darling', she said, 'May God forgive me what I'm going to ask, but there is something I need you to do.'
She told me that someone had to take penicillin to the soldiers, but the boy they'd sent to fetch it was in no shape to get it to them. He'd been shot as he'd broken through the line to get to the lake, and though we'd only been at war for a few months, I'd already seen enough to know he wouldn't wake up in the morning.
I was the oldest girl, I didn't have children, I'd grown up here so I knew the forest. I was the one who had the best chance of coming back alive. If there were any men at the school, she would ask them, but we didn't have time to wait for them to come back from the town.
I was scared, of course. I wanted to go home, I wanted for the war to end, I wanted to see my mother and my father and my brothers, and I wanted to live, but I kept thinking about the soldiers on the other side of the lake, cold and dying, and I heard myself say yes even before I had really even made my mind.
Manniska told me that I would be taken on a sleigh to the lake, and I would then ski across the ice to get to the other side. The Russians were watching the lake, but a lone girl might manage get across without being noticed, and slip through the lines to our troops.
The women gave me the camouflage suit of one of the soldiers who'd died. It was the smallest they could find, but it was still too big for me, the sleeves hanging over my hands and the trouser legs so long I had to tie them with string around my boots so that I wouldn't trip over them. I remember there was a small burned hole in the white fabric, right there at the chest, and a dark shadow of a bloodstain around it. While I waited for one of the girls to get the horse ready, I put my finger to the hole and tried to imagine what it had felt like to be shot, if the soldier whose uniform this was had died fast or if he'd been left to suffer. Tried to imagine what it would feel like to die myself.
I was still standing outside, waiting for the sleigh, when I saw Manniska slip out of the house through the back door. She looked this way and that, and then pulled me aside, to the shadow of the outhouse. When she knew no-one could see us, he put her hand in her coat pocket and took out an old service revolver.
'To protect your virtue,' she said, as he pressed the gun in my hand, 'In case you run into the enemy'. I asked her if she meant that I should kill myself rather than let the soldiers take me, but she shook her head and laughed. 'No, the gun's so that you can blow their balls off if they try anything.'
The sleigh left me by the road near the lake. I can't remember the name of the girl who took me there, but I remember the look in her eyes when she left me. Apology and gratefulness all in one.
The sky was clear and the moon full, so it was almost as bright as during the day, and I didn't have to worry about getting lost in the dark when I cut through the forest to get to the ice. It had been snowing all week, the snow reaching above my knees, and I had to almost crawl to get forward.
I was almost at the lake when I suddenly felt like someone was watching me. There was a sound of a branch snapping, and when I turned around, I saw a man standing behind me.
At first, I thought he was a Russian, and I was already reaching for the gun, but then I realised that he was wearing the same uniform I was. I didn't want to speak, in case there were enemy soldiers near, but I stepped away from the shadow of the trees and into the moonlight to make sure he knew we were on the same side.
There was something wrong with him, however, a dark shadow on his neck that I first thought was just grime but when he started to walk towards me, I saw that it was blood.
'Are you alright?' I asked, quietly, clutching the skis to my chest as I took a step backwards. 'Do you need help?'
He didn't say anything, just bared his teeth like a rabid dog and growled. When he got closer, I could see that there was something wrong with his face, too, like it was deformed somehow, and I remember thinking how odd it was that I couldn't see his breath, even though mine clouded in the cold air.
I kept backing away, making my way towards the lake as he slowly approached me. He moved like an animal, head twitching like he was sniffing the air, hands clawing at the air in front of him. I wanted to close my eyes so I wouldn't have to look at him, but I was afraid that if I did, he would jump on me and eat me, and so I just kept moving until I felt the ice underneath my feet. For a few seconds we just stood there, looking at each other, and then I turned around, dropped the skis, and started running.
For a moment I thought he'd remained on the shore, but then I heard him - the heavy thud of his boots hitting the ice, his low growl suddenly coming closer. I didn't dare to look behind me, but I imagined him chasing me on all fours like some kind of beast from hell, and the more scared I was the faster I ran.
It wasn't a large lake, but it wasn't a small one either, and to this day I have no idea how I managed to keep him behind me as long as I could.
I was almost on the other side when I saw a dark shadow on the ice not far from me, and suddenly I remembered my grandmother telling me not to go swimming too far into the lake. There was a Näkki living in that spot, she had said, and if it caught you, it would pull you under and turn you into a fish. It could even do it through the ice, and many men had been lost in the lake when they'd been crossing it during winter and not watched where they were going. When I had told this to the other girls, and when they had told it to Manniska, she just said there was no such thing as a Näkki, that it was only old wives tale, and what really happened was that there was a strong current in the lake right where it was supposed to live, and that's why the ice never froze properly, no matter how cold the winter.
My legs were getting tired, and I knew that I couldn't run much longer, so I turned and headed towards the dark patch, thinking that I'd rather be taken by the Näkki than the beast that was chasing me. When I reached the shadow, I could hear the ice creak and crackle under my feet, but I closed my eyes and kept repeating the spell that my grandmother had taught me as a child to keep the Näkki away.
'Näkki pois, minä veteen, näkki pois, minä veteen, näkki pois, minä veteen...'
I didn't even realise when I'd gone past the place where the Näkki lived, but when I reached the shore and my feet touched solid ground, I felt the last of my strength leave my body and all I could do was collapse into the snow. I lay there, gasping for breath, barely having enough strength to roll on my back and see if the beast was still following me.
He was still on the ice, standing very still, right above the darker patch. I could hear the sound of the ice cracking all the way to the shore, deep wet snaps like bones breaking. The beast looked at me, his face suddenly human again as if the Allmighty had taken mercy on him and allowed him back to His grace, and then he fell, the ice breaking underneath him as he screamed for help. And I never said this to anyone else before, but when he fell, I could have sworn I saw long dark hands wrap around his feet and pull him under.
I sat on the shore for a long time, just watching the dark lake in front of me. There was a funny feeling on my face, like small teeth biting in my skin, and when I wiped my hand across my cheek, I realised I'd been crying, the tears freezing on my skin. I dried my face to my sleeve and then after one last look at the lake I headed towards the forest where the soldiers were waiting for me.
They said that it was at least three boys that I saved, who'd have died if I hadn't taken the penicillin to them. They even gave me a medal, after the war, and invited me to meet the president on Independence Day.
The tall grandfather clock in the corner strikes one, and the woman opens her eyes. Somewhere during the story she has stopped rocking, and is now sitting completely still, her back ramrod-straight as she watches Giles. Finally she speaks again. Her voice is strained from use, almost gone already, but there is a look in her eyes that Giles knows that he will never forget, and he understands her words even before the girl translates them.
"To answer your question: no. I've never felt like I was anything special."