MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The island in the middle of the frozen lake, the home of the great Polish duke, was lit by cold moonlight.
Like every winter, the ice connected the island to the surrounding banks, but the stronghold could not be reached by crossing the frozen waters. The bridges were the only way to reach the duke’s dwelling, which was guarded by double ramparts, high as ash trees. Two bridges, like mooring ropes holding boats in place. West and East. Two arms, like a mother’s, nursing her child. The western bridge led to the road to Poznan. The eastern—to Gniezno. Between them was the isle of Ostrów Lednicki, hidden like a treasure. After all, it was a treasure hold. The dynasty’s hidden nest. The place where the duke’s children were raised. And the bridges, like umbilical cords, could lead those children into the world. Two bridges, two children who had almost reached adulthood, and ice all around them, on a night lit up by a winter’s full moon.
* * *
Swietoslawa let her eyelids fall shut. She was sitting on a wide bench with her legs tucked beneath her, a servant combing her long hair. Small clouds of mist escaped with her every breath. She was breathing deeper and deeper, until she finally rested her head on the soft fox fur that covered the bench. Her hair fluttered as it fell below the backrest. The hand holding the comb froze in midair.
“Is she asleep?” the servant asked, looking to the corner of the chamber, where a girl in a simple woolen dress sat on an iron-clad chest. She sat in the same position as Swietoslawa, with her legs tucked under her, head cocked to one side. Her face revealed nothing.
* * *
Boleslaw moved his shoulders to settle his chain mail over his leather caftan. He buckled his belt. He checked that his knife slid smoothly from its sheath. Sweeping hair away from his face, he glanced at his waiting comrades. Dark-eyed Zarad, ginger Bjornar, and fair-haired, skinny Jaksa stood at the chamber’s door watching him tensely. Two dogs lay at Boleslaw’s feet.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Your cloak,” Jaksa said, throwing him the wolf-fur-lined wool.
“Gloves,” Bjornar added as he passed them over.
“And your sword.” Zarad’s eyes flashed in the chamber’s darkness.
One of the dogs raised its head, alert.
“No,” Boleslaw said, pulling on his gloves. A barely discernible shadow flickered across his face. “That wasn’t Father’s order.”
The other three nodded as if on command, and Zarad whistled quietly with admiration for the absent man.
“The duke,” he added.
They left the room, leaving the door open. Boleslaw called back over his shoulder:
“Duszan, guard the dogs!”
Their footsteps echoed on the stone floor of the palatium, then—nothing. A young man emerged from the shadows. Slender and tall, dressed inconspicuously, unarmed. The dogs whined. Duszan walked over and patted their heads. He poured water into their bowls and began to pick up the items strewn around the room. He placed the sword carefully back on its stand.
* * *
Swietoslawa lay draped over the bench.
“Is the princess asleep?” The servant repeated the question insistently.
The girl rose from the chest silently and walked over to the princess’s still form. She crouched next to Swietoslawa and, gently sweeping away her hair, looked in the princess’s face. The silent girl raised her eyes to the servant and nodded in confirmation.
The servant sighed with relief. She covered Swietoslawa with a blanket and picked up the objects scattered around them. Two bone combs, a hairband decorated with silver, silk hair ribbons for plaits. She closed it all in a box and glanced nervously around the room. A cup of now-cold tea stood on the edge of the table. The servant poured it into the fire, and the remnants evaporated quickly. She dried her fingers on the edge of her dress.
“Take off her shoes when she wakes up. Help her get into bed, cover her, and wait by the fire. Anyway, you know what to do,” she said to the girl, and left without waiting for a response.
The door closed behind her with a hollow clunk.
Swietoslawa was a master at faking sleep. Now, she opened her eyes, which were dark with anger.
“What a bitch,” she whispered to the girl crouched in front of her.
The girl placed a finger on her lips and gestured toward the door. Swietoslawa remained on the bench, but pushed away the covers. They could hear footsteps approaching the other side of the door. The two looked at each other, keeping still. Then the silent girl took the blanket and laid it on the stone floor. The princess was wearing tall, hobnailed boots, but they made no sound as the girls walked carefully across the soft fabric.
* * *
Boleslaw listened to the rhythm of footsteps on the bridge. Counting the steady footfalls helped to steady his own thoughts. One, two. One, two. One, two. After another moment, he stepped onto the bridge, too, Bjornar and Zarad by his side, Jaksa bringing up the rear.
The East Bridge. As a boy, it had taken him four hundred steps to cross it. Then, three hundred. Every year, he would check, until now, at sixteen, it took him the same number of steps as it took a grown man. Two hundred and fifty.
Father took only strong, fit, well-built men into his personal squad. Those who needed only two hundred and fifty steps to cross the East Bridge. Father. The duke. Bestowed by their people with love and fear in equal measure. A master of politics, who switched alliances faster than the wind changes direction. A warrior at the head of a boundlessly loyal army. A father with an iron hand on the back of his son’s neck. Boleslaw did only what his father wanted. So, what did he want tonight? The night before the winter festival? Why had his father ordered him to come, unarmed, to the harbor by the East Bridge? One, two, one, two. Boleslaw tried again to let the rhythm of their steps in the night’s silence calm his racing thoughts.
For sixteen years, Boleslaw had been the duke’s only son. Until a few months ago, when Father’s wife—whose reign had begun after the death of Boleslaw’s mother, Dobrawa—had given birth to a son. A son to whom the duke had given his own name, Mieszko the Second.
It hurt, like a slap in the face. Until then, Dobrawa’s two children, like the island’s two bridges, had been the only ones that mattered. They would secure their father’s legacy as the first ruler of a united Poland.
Father had more daughters, from the olden days, the old wives, but that was a different story. None of them could threaten his sister’s position, the daughter of Dobrawa, the woman Mieszko had given up the old religion for, had taken the baptism and forsaken all other gods and wives for. Swietoslawa would be okay. Daughters were the seals of peace, alliances, ceasefires. But the heir is always the son. The son!
A few days earlier, there had been a feast to celebrate Duchess Oda, as beautiful as a dancing flame but as cold as ice, and her newborn son. Oda wearing new golden earrings, the child—the wedge between Boleslaw and his father—on her lap.
“My Mieszko!” Father had toasted and laughed, Boleslaw gritting his teeth and Oda listening to a monk read the story of Abraham and Isaac. When Abraham was building the altar on top of the mountain, Oda blushed and interrupted the monk with a swish of her slender, ringed hand.
“Enough. Mieszko is too young to listen to these horrors.” But the duke had protested: “If he wants to be a duke, he should listen, just like Abraham listened to the commands of his god. Unconditionally.” He had ordered more mead brought out then, as if this word—unconditionally—gave him pleasure. He drank with his squad and didn’t see how Oda’s expression brightened the closer the firstborn son was to being sacrificed in the monk’s tale. Boleslaw, though, couldn’t take his eyes off her. He watched as she stroked her son’s blond head, hugging him to her breast; how she raised her chin commandingly.
And that was why, now, as he walked the East Bridge at his father’s orders, he felt fear. Fear which he tried to dispel with the confident rhythm of his footsteps. One, two. One, two. Was there an altar awaiting him at the docks? One, two. He touched the knife at his belt absentmindedly. He had another in his boot. One, two.
Whatever happened next, he wasn’t going to be a lamb led to slaughter.
* * *
Swietoslawa listened by the door. She heard the clang of weaponry against a belt’s metal fittings. It sounded like two, maybe three men, accompanied by the click of a woman’s shoes.
“Is she asleep?” The haughty voice could belong only to Oda. Swietoslawa could have sworn she smelled the cloying scent of the rose oil the duchess dabbed on her temples and heard the musical chime of her new, prized golden earrings.
“As you commanded, my lady,” replied Juta, the servant who had been combing her hair only moments before. “She’s asleep, and won’t wake up anytime soon.”
Swietoslawa gritted her teeth. She should have guessed whose orders the servant had been following.
“Good. Is she alone?”
Copyright © 2016 by Elzbieta Cherezinska