The Dragon of Wawel Hill

The Wawel Dragon, in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographie Universalis (1544)

Excerpt from Silent Water, Jagiellon Mystery #1

Finally, we moved, leaving behind the slanted roofs of the city with their gleaming red tiles. The stone walls of the castle seemed brighter in the sunlight, almost as white as the surrounding snow. The village of Niepołomice lies four leagues east of Kraków, and the journey took us along the winding riverbank. It was here, according to ancient lore, that smok wawelski, the mighty Dragon of Wawel Hill, had come to drink from the Wisła to quell a fire burning in his stomach. He had dwelled in a cave on the slope of the hill and terrorized citizens and peasants from the surrounding countryside until a clever cobbler came up with a plan to slay the beast.

To that end, he stitched together a calfskin which he had stuffed with meat and a mix of smoldering sulfur, tinder, tar, and pitch, and he laid it outside the cave like an offering. When the hungry dragon next came out, he swallowed the calfskin whole, and soon an inferno was raging in his belly. Unable to quench his thirst no matter how much water he drank from the river, the dragon died breathing fire from his mouth, and the city was saved.

Some think it a legend, but others believe that a creature like that had indeed lived many centuries earlier when Kraków had just been founded. Whatever the case, the riverbank looked quiet and pristine now, its snow sparkling in the sun as if it had been dusted with crushed diamonds.

How different it was from its midsummer aspect, when townsfolk and courtiers had come out to sing and dance on its lush grass speckled with violets, dandelions, and clover. The maids of honor had made garlands of daisies and persuaded me to wear one. “You look so young, Donna Caterina!” they exclaimed when I took off my headdress and cap and pulled out the pins that held up my hair. The garland sat like a cool fragrant cloud around my head, and I did feel like a girl again, in fact, the lightness of it lifting the burden of my present life off my shoulders, if only for one afternoon. “Someone who didn’t know you would think you one of us!” They laughed.

I laughed too, casting a discreet glance at a nearby archery target. There, contestants were preparing for the competition, and Helena was among them. Zamborski stood in line as well, but my attention was attracted by a dark-haired man with an air of quiet confidence about him, without the cockiness or the aggressive loudness of the other men. That man was Konarski, as I would soon find out. He was not the biggest of them all, but his figure was lithe and his movements quick and precise. He made it look easy, whereas the others strained, the veins in their necks bulging. And he won the contest, besting Helena and Zamborski—in that order. A little later, as I congratulated Helena on her second place, he happened to walk by. I congratulated him on the win, and he bowed and introduced himself. That was the first time we had spoken. I hoped to see him again after that, but as the dusk fell and the bonfires were lit, he disappeared. We went down to the river to sing and float the garlands at sunset, a beautiful ceremony punctured, for me, by a faint sense of disappointment.

After that day, I only saw him a few times in the banqueting hall on big court occasions. He always acknowledged me with a nod, but we never exchanged any other words. How strangely ironic that it was only this terrible event of the Christmas night that had brought us closer together.

Silent Water, Jagiellon Mystery Book 1, set at the 16th century royal court in Cracow is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon and FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited.

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