The Sleigh Ride

Kmicic z Oleńką na Kuligu, painted by Juliusz Kossak


Excerpt from Silent Water, Jagiellon Mystery #1

It was a court tradition to hold sanna—a sleigh ride along the river to the royal hunting lodge in Niepołomice—on the day before New Year’s Eve. It was the unofficial beginning of that celebration, but in the year 1519, it almost did not happen. For days it had looked like there would not be enough snow on the ground, but the thaw had come to an end that same evening we visited Maciek in the jail, and it snowed that night—a cold, hard type of snow, not abundant but compact enough to allow the sleighs to run smoothly.

King Zygmunt decided to hold another war council as the attack on the strongholds of the Teutonic Order was to start in a matter of weeks, and he called off his attendance. The queen joined him, and for a while it seemed like the ride would be cancelled after all. But the king proclaimed that tradition must be honored, the court deserved the entertainment, and the sanna would go on, albeit without the royal couple. Only the most essential staff and those attending the council were ordered to remain in the castle, and everyone else who wanted to go to Niepołomice was free to do so.

I never liked New Year’s Eve, with its sense of something passing, irrevocably ending, of time slipping from our grasp and taking away a part of ourselves as it floats into the dark gaping maw of the past. And, of course, that New Year’s season was marred by the still-unsolved murder of one of the courtiers. Few believed that a slow-witted servant was responsible for it, yet the investigation seemed to have stalled. The queen persisted in her belief that Chancellor Stempowski was involved and that he wanted to shut the case down, but she could offer no proof. Nor could I, for that matter.

With all that hanging over us, I was especially happy that the day was bright and sunny, the winter sky pale blue and cloudless after the snow. I took my seat in a four-person sleigh with Lucrezia, Helena, and Jan Dantyszek, who had jumped in at the last minute, having run down from the castle among the stragglers. I was disappointed, for I had hoped that Sebastian Konarski would show up, and I had kept the seat empty for as long as I could with vague excuses. I guessed that he had been held up on the king’s business, or the chancellor had called him to attend the council.

The sleigh was a large and sturdy vessel carved out of mature oak and painted elegant shining black, with gilded finishes around the edges and gilded knobs on the little doors on both sides. Four people could fit inside, facing each other in pairs, propped on soft cushions and with wool blankets piled on their knees. The ladies and I were wrapped in cloaks lined with marten fur, with fur hats on our heads and gloved hands in fur muffs. Dantyszek sat cavalierly with only a small feathered velvet cap on his head, the better to show off his wavy hair that shone golden where the sunlight touched it. But like us, he was wrapped in a thick cloak, which he informed us was bear fur from a beast he had slain himself.

It took a while for the sleighs to be tied together and prepared for departure, and as we waited, I took a flask filled with hot water mixed with raspberry syrup out of a leather pouch that servants had placed in each sleigh. I filled everyone’s cups, and between our wrappings, the sun, and the warming beverage, the cold was not so biting anymore; in fact, it was rather invigorating.

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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