Skugga är en tilldragande, drygt tjugoårig kvinna med rödbrunt hår och slaviska drag. Hon är något under medellängd och rör sig som en vältränad gymnast. Hon är oftast klädd i linneskjorta samt en välsittande läderväst med matchande byxor. Hon bär inga synliga vapen, och den imponerande mängd knivar som hon har dolt på sin person ser man vanligen inte förrän det är för sent. Detsamma gäller för övrigt även ett vitt, vagt handformat ärr över vänster bröst, som hon fick när hennes vapenfrände Haru släppte lös en dödsgast på henne bara för att se vad som skulle hända.
Skugga växte upp i Volthynien, som är ett land söder om Nordmark och “på andra sidan vattnet” (i förhållande till Sverige skulle det ligga någonstans i västra Polen). Efter ett krig som hon själv spelade en viss roll i och som tog livet av flertalet av de hon då levde tillsammans med, begav hon sig till Nordmark, som med visst fog betraktas som världens ände av de civilserade folken på kontinenten. Hennes nordländska namn är en rak översättning av det volthynska namnet “Cien”. Till en början försörjde hon sig som trubadur, men efter vissa mellankommande händelser – innefattande bl.a. en flerårig vistelse på en hemsökt fängelseö – har hon tills vidare lagt lutan på hyllan.
Skugga har sett alltför många människor dö runtomkring henne, ofta på grund av meninglösheter eller ren mänsklig ondska. Hon har ingen högre grunduppfattning om varken sig själv eller världen i övrigt. Hennes upplevelser i Thule, och då i synnerhet vad som timat sedan hon slagit följe med Liv och de övriga äventyrarna från Tingsveden, har emellertid börjat återge henne tron på möjligheten att göra skillnad i tillvaron.
För närvarande är Skugga genom Kung Eriks personliga bemyndigande en av de fyra herrarna till Kråkberga. Rollen som länsherre är ny för henne, men hon har en mycket starkt utvecklad pliktkänsla och är besluten att utföra sin uppgift på bästa sätt. Hon trolovade sig nyligen med Sigmund, den yngste sonen till jarlen av
-—, och vilka följder det kommer att få, för henne och för landsänden i övrigt, återstår att se.*
(*Som före detta trubadur, borde hon möjligen vara medveten om de dramaturgiska riskerna med att trolova sig strax innan man drar ut i ett större krig.)
A Life Less Than Ordinary
One for the road
Olgerd could not make up his mind about the girl. Back at the tavern, when she had asked leave to accompany him and his bodyguard Lothar on the way south, he’d taken her for a whore looking for customers. He usually didn’t mix with indecent people, but to deny a lone woman company on the highroad would not have been very decent either, and he had seen no way for a man of standards to refuse. Lothar had not objected, but then he’d had his eyes on the girl from the start. He had probably made the same assumption as his employer regarding the girl’s occupation, and was hoping to get lucky.
The girl was certainly not a burdensome companion. She had no trouble keeping up with Olgerd’s longer stride but held herself respectfully to the rear, she didn’t bother him with meaningless prattle (as many women were wont to do), and she had made no unseemly overtures whatsoever. In fact, aside from her fittingly unassuming request at the tavern, she had hardly said a word all day. She seemed altogether too modest to be a whore, Olgerd thought, and he felt that perhaps she deserved little kindness to make up for his impolite – if altogether justified – assumption t the tavern.
“Are you perchance on your way to some relatives, lass?” he asked, getting just the right tone of benevolent encouragement.
“You are kind to ask, Sir”, the girl said, with downcast eyes. “Sadly, no – I have no relatives that I know of. I’m hoping to find some gainful employment in Holstead, is all.”
Warmed by the girl’s plight as well as her respectful manner, Olgerd could not help but to feel a little protective towards her. “You did the right thing when you asked to join us on the road”, he said, amiably. “I’m sure you will do well in Holstead – who knows, maybe I can put in a good word or two for you, myself!”
“Oh, so you’re an important man then, Sir?” the girl said, looking up for the first time. He noticed that she wasn’t unattractive, under all the dirt.
“Well, I wouldn’t say important”, he replied modestly. It wouldn’t do to let her know just how important he was. “But people in these parts tend to listen to what I say, if you know what I mean.”
“Why, I’m in luck then”, she said, smiling brightly. “I think the Lady herself may have sent you in my way, Sir!”
She was really very pretty, Olgerd thought, returning her smile. He was now altogether pleased that he had let her join up. During the mid-day break he shared his meal with her, and when they continued southward he found himself telling her more about Holstead, its people and its ways, and about his plans for its future betterment.
He was about to go into his views on the administration of bridges and waterways when Lothar suddenly halted, and held up a hand. Olgerd opened his mouth for a question, when there was a buzzing sound, and Lothar stumbled back with a curse and an arrow sticking out of his shoulder.
There were suddenly four men in front of them, having emerged from the bushes on either side of the road. One of them had just dropped a shortbow and was reaching for his axe; the others were already armed. Lothar ran at them with a hoarse bellow.
Swords and axes crossed on the highway. One bandit fell to the first blow from Lothar’s greatsword; the others closed in. They circled the big man warily, looking for an opening.
Lothar was a skilled swordsman, but wounded as he was he could not hope to keep three enemies at bay for long. He seemed to realize this himself, and with a roar he made a lunge at his nearest adversary. When the man backed away, Lothar leapt through the opening, and was suddenly doubling back along the road.
Olgerd watched his fleeing bodyguard with an almost comical look of outrage on his face. His expression slowly changed to fear as the three remaining outlaws turned their attention to him.
“I hope you didn’t pay your guard in advance”, one of the bandits said nastily. “I would hate to have to run him down after killing you.” His gaze shifted to Olgerd’s travel companion, and he smiled. “We’re in luck today. Gold and entertainment!”
While two of the bandits swiftly and efficiently separated Olgerd from his valuables, their grey-bearded leader approached the girl. “Don’t worry, little one”, he said, affecting a smile that twisted across his scarred features. “We won’t hurt you. If you’re good to us, we might even let you hang around for a while.” He reached out and brushed his hand lightly across her breasts. She didn’t move, and he nodded thoughtfully. Then he ripped her tunic open.
The sound of cloth tearing masked the grunt of pain as the knife slammed between the bandit’s ribs, piercing his lung. His eyes widened in shock. The girl twisted the knife and pulled it free.
Warned perhaps by some instinct, one of the men searching Olgerd began to turn around. There was a sharp report as a steel bolt went through his eye and stopped against the back of his skull, and he fell to the ground twitching.
The last of the outlaws stared in disbelief at his fallen friend, at his leader who was slowly drowning in his own blood, and lastly at the girl. She was regarding him calmly with clear blue eyes, a crossbow pistol in her left hand and a bloodied knife in her right.
The girl was first to act, darting forward with her knife held low. She turned aside as the outlaw swept down with his shortsword, but she wasn’t quite fast enough and cried out in pain as she was struck sideways to the ground. The fall turned into a roll and she came to her feet a few yards away, blood trickling down her right arm and her knife now switched to her left hand.
Olgerd watched the battle with open mouth. The girl moved as if dancing, never letting the sword come near again, and the bandit had no choice but to follow where she led. Olgerd suddenly realized that she was moving to get her enemy between them. He gripped his walking stick with both hands, but was unsure of what to do.
The bandit seemed to perceive the danger of being outflanked, and shot a quick glance over his shoulder. It was enough. The girl spun forward and her blade trailed an arc of glittering red pearls. Everything froze for a moment; then, the bandit slowly sank to the ground, his throat cut cleanly from ear to ear.
Olgerd met the girl’s gaze across the blood-flecked road. The shyness was gone from her eyes now, as if it had never been there. So was the cold glitter he had seen during the battle. What was left was something else, an expression almost of sadness, as she looked at him. He suddenly felt the need to say something, anything, to break the silence.
“So”, he said, striving to regain his authority. “I guess we, ah, should continue.”
“No”, she said, “we can’t. I’m sorry.”
Insight came to him slowly, and the cold fear he had felt during the battle returned. “You are here for me.”
She nodded briefly. “Yes. I had planned to meet up with you at the ford, but you must have taken the ferry, and I didn’t know where you were going, so I lost the trail. I guessed who you were when you entered the tavern, but it was not until you began talking about trade and your plans for Holstead that I was certain.” She smiled wanly. “”I told you, I think the Lady sent you in my way.”
He struggled for words, some way of delaying what was going to happen. “You speak of the Lady. If you revere the Goddess of luck…”
She shook her head. “You misunderstand. I was speaking of the Raven Queen.”
* * *
An ambitious and far-seeing man
Wladyslaw, Lord of Volthynia, was an ambitious and far-seeing man. It was probably these traits which had led to the visit from the gray-clad anonymous stranger; the man who called him-self Felt.
The offer was fairly straightforward. Felt and his company would be given leave to settle in the wilderness to the northwest, a forbidding and supposedly haunted country of deep woods and mountains that was commonly known as “Draugen”. Although the settlers would be nominal subjects of Lord Wladyslaw, they would pay no taxes; instead they would receive a yearly sum in silver and be free to keep whatever they could make from the land. In return, they would supply the Lord of Volthynia with certain very valuable – indeed, almost invaluable – services. For Felt and his company were specialists in a very exclusive field: Infiltration, information and assassination.
That was well over a decade ago. The years that had followed had been turbulent, to say the least, but the Lord of Volthynia had never regretted the bargain.
* * *
Tag… you’re out!
When Cien later thought back on her childhood she had cause to reflect on how it had differed from that of a normal child, and how much it must have changed her from what she would otherwise have become. But such reflections can be built only on wisdom and experience, and a small child possesses neither. Her early life was a mixture of play and discipline, of stern and often harsh training complemented with a sureness of belonging that evoked a fierce sense of pride and accomplishment in her young mind. The physical and mental education took the form of playful competition, coupled with a code of obedience to duty that became as natural to her as breathing.
The Ravens were strictly hierarchical. Four to eight soldiers (junior members were called cadets) made up a wing, led by a lieutenant. Five senior lieutenants reported to the Captain, who was second-in-command under Commander Felt. This very military denomination was a remnant from the past, before the Ravens came to Volthynia, but in reality the wings functioned more like families than military units. Most of the younger members were indeed born into the organization, but some – like Cien – had been recruited from without. Cien had been very young when she became a Raven, and she could hardly remember anything of her earlier life, only that it contained fire, terror and hunger. She knew that she had been picked from the streets of Tiblisi by the Commander himself, but her upbringing was handled by a woman named Cinna. Cinna, who for many years had been Captain of the Ravens, loved and treated Cien as if she were her own daughter. Cien liked to pretend that the Captain and the Commander were her real mother and father (which was made easier by the fact that the two were sometime lovers), but she never dared speak of this fantasy to anyone.
The children were given real missions very early on. Few will take notice of a stray child, or look twice at the beggar boy asking for coins outside the tavern. The young spies were often beaten or driven away, but seldom suspected.
At fifteen years of age the cadets graduated into soldiers, acquiring the privileges and duties of full members of the organization. Some were kept at home in the old border fort that served as a base in Draugen, but most were sent out to seek employment and gain some years worth of experience in the outside world. They would obtain what work they could, most as labourers, soldiers or servants, but some in more qualified professions. A few would be sent to some convent to receive a formal education, which would open up opportunities to enter the service of some church or castle lord.
Cien did not go to a convent. Like all the children she had learned to read and write, but apart from lays and ballads (which she would avidly study or, much rather, listen to) she had little fascination for books. Her main interests – aside from boys – lay in the outside world, which she longed to explore. Her curious nature combined with an innate talent for appearing harmless made her ideally suited for what the Commander called “outer reconnaissance”. Basically this consisted in going from place to place, learning and reporting about the people and lands through which she travelled. Mostly she would present herself as a wandering minstrel with moderate talent and a pretty face, which enabled her to earn a not too indecent living while on the road. Life was still more or less a game to her.
This changed when she received her first order of assassination.
* * *
She had been informed of the target’s name, appearance and occupation; how he dressed, how he lived and the company he kept. She had been warned that he would probably travel with one or two bodyguards, and that his morally high-minded attitude suggested that she should not approach him as either a minstrel or a woman of leisure. Since it might assist her in out-guessing his actions she had even been told about the reason for his death: He was striving to forge a trade alliance which the Lord of Volthynia wished to disrupt. What she had not been told about the target was that he would also be a kindly old man, whose only apparent vice was a touch of vanity and self-pride.
It is hard to kill someone who has been kind to you, with whom you have shared a laugh and a piece of bread. It is hard to kill someone you like. Cien found this out only moments before the deed, and it did not stop her: Twelve years of obedience to duty won out over compassion. But it shattered something within her, something that would never really have time to mend. For it was only a very short while after the assassination of Olgerd the Scribe that the war began. The trade alliance was broken, but another alliance grew from its ashes as the lords of the neighbouring lands all made war on the Lord of Volthynia.
The armies marched, and Cien marched with them. The Ravens’ network continued to function, and she was ordered to monitor the movements of Lord Casimir of Halych, whose forces threatened Volthynia from the west. She would communicate through other agents like herself, who slipped back and forth through the fighting lines.
Life as a camp follower did not sit well with Cien. Joining up as a minstrel of no consequence (and therefore beneath the notice of the officers), she quickly found herself wooed at arms length by the soldiers. Such attentions – which she had previously found it fairly easy to handle – could not now be avoided if she wished to remain in camp. Things became a little easier when she managed to attach herself to one particular soldier – a veteran halberdier who was feared and respected throughout the company – but the same brutality which kept other suitors away was occasionally directed at her. Still, she loathed him only a little more than she loathed herself.
Her own trials were bad enough, but the atrocities she had to witness as the army marched were worse. This was her homeland invaded, its farms and villages pillaged and burned. Some of those she saw murdered and raped were known to her, and all were her people, those she had sworn to protect. Yet she could do nothing but watch and report, and when the army made camp she would entertain the enemy soldiers and sing of their bravery. She expected, and even hoped, to receive orders to kill either Lord Casimir or his general. She knew that she would almost certainly fail, but either way it would all be over for her. But no such orders came.
Things came to a head when the castle of Lord Wladyslaw was besieged. Cien stood behind the lines, her heart empty as she watched the walls behind which she had been born being pounded by the trebuchets. She knew what would happen when the castle fell; she had seen it all before.
When orders finally did come, they did not concern assassination. Cien was required to provide assistance in secretly getting a small party out of the castle and through the siege lines. She was to take any personal risk – as the words went, to “consider herself dead” – to make this happen. It wasn’t hard to figure out what this meant: Lord Wladyslaw was planning to escape from the hold.
* * *
Friends with benefits
Stefan straightened up, and took a firmer grip on his crossbow. The movement came from within their own lines, but no one was supposed to come this way until it was time to change the guard.
“Who goes there?!!!”
The moving figure started, and then slowly stepped forward, arms raised in the air. “Friend – I’m a friend – please don’t shoot!” It sounded like a woman’s voice.
It was a woman, Stefan could see that when she came closer. She was a young, pretty thing, and she looked frightened.
“Hey, I know that’un! It’s Gunthar’s little whore!” Didrik, the other soldier on watch, had been roused by the outcry, and he did not appreciate being woken. “You’ve got no business here, girl! So fuck off!”
The girl hesitated, and then tried a cautious smile. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t be here, but Gunthar told me to try and find him some wine. He’s posted by the horse picket, and, well, I don’t want to keep him waiting until he gets off duty. You know how he is…”
Stefan laughed; he now recognized her as well. “We sure do. He’s having you leggin’ boot now, is he?”
Didrik was taking more of an interest. “Wine, you say? That’s officers material, that is!” He looked meaningfully at the swollen bag hanging over the girl’s shoulder.
She held up the winebag with a rueful sigh. “So they say. Me, I say, finder’s keeper’s.“ Her mien changed subtly. “Although to be fair, I must admit you found me. And, you know, if you report me, you’ll be sure to get a nice pat on the head by the sergeant. But if you look the other way, you can have some of the wine… and I’d be real grateful.”
Stefan could feel his pulse beginning to quicken. “Oh yeah? And what about Gunthar…?”
“Oh, he can wait a little bit longer. He’s got the horses to keep him warm, doesn’t he…?”
Didrik was already reaching for the winebag, which gave Stefan first hands on the girl. Oh, she was a looker all right, and judging from the noises Gunthar used to make she should be good sport. This nightwatch was getting to be a lot better than expected.
* * *
Bad things come to an end
Cien felt sick; not from what the men had done to her, but from what she had done to them. She would feel better in the morning, but for them there would be no more mornings. This was almost worse than it had been with Olgerd; at least she had not lied to him as she killed him.
The way was now clear to the castle walls. At the prearranged signal, a rope ladder snaked down from the battlements. She grabbed it and held it steady to assist as the first dark figure climbed over the parapet.
There were five persons in all: The Lord and Lady Wladyslaw, their son (who was the same age as Cien; she wondered if she had looked that pale when she had seen her first corpse), and two of the Ravens. Cien was surprised to find that one of them was the Commander, but she did not let it show. It made sense for him to be there, when she thought about it. “Soldier Cien, reporting for duty, Sir!”, she said, saluting him. “The way is clear from here into the woods, and horses can be gotten from a picket to the northeast!”
The guards at the horse picket were dealt with swiftly and quietly. Cien was oddly relieved to find that Gunthar was not among them. She felt nothing but loathing for the man, but in the end she had used him as thoroughly as he had used her, and she owed him better than a knife in the back.
There were no more enemy soldiers on this side of the siege lines, and the ride started out uneventfully. Cien managed to get a few moments aside with the Commander.
“Are we going to rejoin the other Ravens, Sir, or do we head straight for the border?”, she asked.
“There will be no rejoining”, he answered curtly. “I will go with the Lord when he leaves the country, and the Ravens will disband until I return to take up command again.”
“Disband?” she blurted. “But why…? The Captain…”
“The Captain is dead”, he said bluntly. “She was captured by Lord Casimir, and died during interrogation several weeks ago.”
The cold brutality with which he informed her of her adopted mother’s death by torture stunned Cien almost more than the words themselves. She had lost the one person who had been a constant in her life for as long as she could remember, and she hadn’t even known it. The world, suddenly a cold and empty place, closed in around her.
Something within her kept her going through the rest of the ride, guiding her horse and answering with her voice when she was spoken to, but the first conscious thought that she could later recall came to her on the bridge over Marmara River. The road they had been following was old and seldom used, leading only to long-abandoned mines in the mountains. The bridge was built across a narrow and very fast-flowing stretch of the river, with nothing but sheer cliffs on either side. Like the road itself it was old and unkempt, and swayed alarmingly under the weight of the horses.
Cien was riding next to the Lord’s son as they crossed the bridge, and his sudden look of stark terror got through to her. Then he screamed.
“Horses! Horses in the air!!!”
Unbelievably, the boy was right. There was a thunder of beating hooves as great beasts with flaming eyes and cloudwrapped manes filled the night sky, their riders loosening a rain of arrows on the small party on the bridge.
Terror and confusion! Lord Wladyslaw cried out and someone answered; a wounded horse shrieked. The Commander fired his crossbow pistol and one of the attackers fell away into the darkness, but more arrows kept coming. Cien grabbed the bridle of the young lord’s horse and tried to follow as the others made a dash across the bridge. They had gone scarcely more than a dozen yards when their horses suddenly halted and reared, shying away from the apparition that had emerged from the other side of the chasm. It was a rider, wrapped in flames and carrying a staff that shone with a painful light. Its mount, a nightmarish unliving travesty of a horse, stepped onto the bridge with slow deliberation.
Lord Wladyslaw had his sword out but no enemy was within reach; he seemed to be wounded, and several arrows were protruding from his armour. Cien lay where she had fallen from her frenzied horse, so frightened she couldn’t even move. There were cries from others nearby, but she couldn’t see them: Her gaze held fast to the terrible specter that was approaching from the other end of the bridge.
“It’s a warlock”, she heard the Commander say, though it was clear that he didn’t expect anyone to listen. He sounded tired, almost bemused, and suddenly she noticed that he was an old man. “They’ve got a warlock. Not an altogether disappointing ending, after all!”
The moments that followed would haunt Cien’s nightmares for the rest of her life. She saw the Commander spur his horse into the flames that surrounded the warlock. She screamed and tried to rise, when suddenly the bridge tilted. Cien was lifted into the air, tumbling down among the burning timbers. The last thing she saw was Lord Wladyslaw standing over his son, his hair and clothes burning like a halo. Then the icy waters of the Marmara River closed around her, and she knew no more.
* * *
Cien survived, though she never knew quite how it happened. Burned, battered and half drowned, she was borne away by the river and washed ashore several miles downstream. She dragged herself to cover under some willow trees, where she lay in a fever for several days. She drank water from the river, but she had no food, and in the end it was hunger rather than returning strength that drove her back to the nearest settlement.
News and rumours abounded. Castle Volthynia had fallen (some said by treachery) and the land now belonged to Lord Casimir. Lord Wladyslaw had been caught while on the run – or, according to one drunken muleteer, had fought a duel with Lord Casimir – and was killed, his family dead or taken as prisoners. The castle town of Tiblisi had been plundered; some of it had burned down.
Lord Wladyslaw’s death at least was a certainty – his corpse, badly burned but still re-cognizable, had been displayed at the castle and had been publicly identified by his chamberlain. This was all that Cien really needed to know. Her liege lord was dead, as was her mother, and the last order from her Commander had been to disband the Ravens until such time as he called them together again – an event which, in light of what had happened on the bridge, seemed unlikely to ever happen. Any idea of swearing fealty to Lord Wladyslaw’s young son – even if he was alive, which was doubtful – would be nothing but ludicrous. Nothing and no one had any claim on her now. She was free – and the taste of freedom was ashes and bitter iron in her mouth.
* * *
Cien, Assassin Between Jobs
Cien has spent the last year or so trying to distance herself from her past, mentally as well as geographically. She is struggling to overcome her self-loathing, but it is a hard journey. The faces of the dead – of old man Olgerd in particular – haunt her dreams almost every night. She cries for forgiveness, but the dead are silent. The only face that doesn’t appear is the one she is missing the most: that of Cinna, her adopted mother. She sees her often, but only from the back, going away, and Cien can never keep up. When she wakes, and remembers how her mother died, she wonders if the ghost is trying to spare her.
Cien’s failure (as she sees it) to protect her family and homeland has left her with a deep-seated urge to help people in need. This is nothing she is aware of herself, however. Her experiences during the war and the flight from Volthynia dealt a savage blow to her belief in the virtues of honour and loyalty. She now swears by the gutter code: It’s every one for herself, and nothing and no one can truly be trusted. Ironically, she will still not be the first one to break a trust, and this more than any other trait can probably be her key to finding a path of redemption. She will do good if given the means to do so, and make up whatever cynical reason she needs to justify it to herself. And if, in the end, someone actually accuses her of being good, she might even come to believe it.
In the meantime she is somewhat at a loss of what to do with herself. She has fallen back into her old role of wandering minstrel, making a gain out of her former guise, but when this won’t make ends meet she does take on work in the shadow trade. She claims that this is out of necessity – “after all, a girl has to get by” – but this is yet another bit of self-deception: The truth is that she dearly misses the excitement of going on missions. The difference is that now she can choose her “assignments” herself. She is rather picky in this – and she has never, so far, accepted an outright contract kill.
* * *