Forge Books is so excited to offer an exclusive first look at the cover of THE WIDOW QUEEN bestselling and award-winning author, Elżbieta Cherezińska.
Elżbieta Cherezińska is beloved and highly-acclaimed in Poland, where she is has published 14 award-winning books. THE WIDOW QUEEN is her first novel to be translated to English, and it goes on sale April 6, 2021.
The Widow Queen tells the epic story of Świętosława, who is the daughter of a great duke of Poland. To him, Świętosława and her two sisters represent three chances of an alliance; three marriages on which to build his empire. But the powerful and headstrong Świętosława seeks a throne of her own, with no husband by her side, and she refuses to be simply a pawn in her father’s plans.
The Widow Queen is the vividly-imagined story of an incredible queen whose life and name were all but forgotten—until now.
The novel already has some major fans:
“Elżbieta Cherezińska writes with great depth and imagination, bringing to life seductive and detailed worlds.”—Olga Tokarczuk, Nobel Prize Laureate and Man Booker Prize winning author of Flights
“The Widow Queen is the story of a woman standing strong in a world run by men, and of the sacrifices we must make for power and love. Elżbieta Cherezińska brings epic history to life with her own unique and recognizable voice. Her stories have emotion, drama, and make even the most well-known historical events feel exciting and fresh.”—Tomek Baginski, Executive Producer, The Witcher, Netflix
“A fascinating and forgotten corner of history . . . Cherezińska brings to life a world of violence and beauty, superstition and intrigue.” —Linnea Hartsuyker, author of The Half-Drowned King
“Fascinating, authentic, and beautifully told, The Widow Queen is the story of a forgotten Polish princess in an era of warriors, the headstrong, clever Świętosława —twice a queen, mother of kings. An impressive and compelling story brought vividly to life!” —Susan Fraser King, author of Lady Macbeth and Queen Hereafter
“The Widow Queen is a genuine gift for historical fiction enthusiasts: a deeply-detailed story of power, politics, and love—and the impossibility of keeping all three. In Świętosława, Elżbieta Cherezińska reveals to us a complex woman who was ignored by historians, rightfully elevating her to an equal standing with her more-famous allies and enemies. This carefully-crafted novel lives up to its protagonist’s title: The Bold One.”—Nathan Makaryk, author of Nottingham
“Look no further for your next great adventure… This hidden history of a forgotten yet vitally important heroine brings Świętosława into the limelight she so richly deserves.”—Octavia Randolph, author of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga
Here’s an exclusive first look at the cover for THE WIDOW QUEEN by Elzbieta Cherezinska, and keep scrolling down to read a special first sneak peek:
Cover Design by Katie Klimowicz
Lambs to the Slaughter
The Piast House
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 Poznań. 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.
ŚWIETOSŁAWA 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 Świętosława, with her legs tucked under her, head cocked to one side. Her face revealed nothing.
BOLESŁAW moved his shoulders to settle his chainmail 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 fairhaired, skinny Jaksa; they stood at the chamber’s door, watching him tensely. Two dogs lay at Bolesław’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,” Bolesław said, pulling on his gloves. A barely discernable 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. Bolesław called back over his shoulder:
“Duszan, guard the dogs!”
Their footsteps echoed on the stone floor of the palladium, 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.
ŚWIETOSŁAWA 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 Świetosława and, gently sweeping away her hair, she 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 Świetosława 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.
Świętosława 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. Świętosława 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.
BOLESŁAW 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 only needed 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. Bolesław 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. Bolesław tried again to let the rhythm of their steps in the night’s silence calm his racing thoughts.
For sixteen years, Bolesław had been the duke’s only son. Until a year ago, when Father’s wife — whose reign had begun after the death of Bolesław’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. Świętosława would be ok. 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 ear rings, the child—the wedge between Boleslaw and his father—on her lap.
“My Mieszko!” Father had toasted and laughed, Bolesław 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. Bolesław, 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 Eastern 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.
ŚWIĘTOSŁAWA 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 only belong to Oda. Świętosława 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 ear rings.
“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.”
Świętosława gritted her teeth. She should have guessed whose orders the servant had been following.
“Good. Is she alone?”
“Yes. That is, only Dusza is with her, the clod.”
“Good. You can retire for the evening, too,” The hint of a German accent, Oda’s mother tongue, colouring her command. Then the click of the servant’s shoes retreated and grew faint, along with the metallic clang of the duchess’s guard.
Silence fell behind the door. Świętosława turned and looked into the silent girl’s grey eyes. They gave away nothing. Świętosława climbed nimbly onto the bench by the wall and pulled herself up to reach the high window. She pushed the wooden window-frame, and an icy breeze swept into the chamber. Two lines of torches were visible in the night, gliding towards land over the East Bridge.
One, two… she counted in her head. …nine, ten… Father is leading a whole squad out of Ostrów. On the night before Koliada? Her heart beat faster. Maybe it was time? For what other reason would a squad have to leave the stronghold at night, if not to greet an important guest?
She jumped off the bench. She forgot to close the window, so Dusza, wordlessly, climbed up and did it for her.
A guest, Świętosława thought frantically. The most important one of all. The one whose name they are still keeping from me…
“Come on, Dusza,” she whispered. “Take your dress off. Tonight, we switch. I knew that…” Świętosława thought snake, but instead spat out: “Juta! She’s in the duchess’s service. I asked father to let me make my own decisions about the servants, but no. ‘My wife,’ he says. Yes, I tell him, she’s your wife, but not my mother! What was in the cup?” she looked at Dusza.
The girl stood in front of her in a white linen shift, her dress in hand, shivering in the cold room.
“Poison?” Świętosława asked.
Dusza shook her head and passed her dress to Świętosława, who turned and lifted her hair from her back. Dusza unlaced her mistress’s dress with deft fingers. She helped Świętosława undress and replace the princess’s fine garment with the rough wool one.
“So it wasn’t poison?” Świętosława repeated, taking a breath with difficulty. “It’s too tight. Your breasts are growing slower than mine.”
She touched her own, held in by the fabric.
“Or perhaps mine grow too fast, since Father has been talking about marriage so much? My marriage, to God knows who!”
She reached out a hand for Dusza’s cloak and hood.
“I’ll ask for new ones to be made for you in a larger size. Ones that will fit us both. But, you know, it’s a secret.” She winked at Dusza as she pulled her hood over her head. “Do I look like a respectable servant? One who must run across the bridge on important business at night?” She spun around, laughing.
Dusza looked at the princess, not answering.
“Come on, get into bed and cover yourself up. Sleep, my Dusza!” Świętosława whispered. “Tonight, you are the Piast princess. Just don’t get your hopes up for any sweet dreams.”
She closed the door behind her and, with the hood covering her head, she walked boldly through the narrow corridors of the palladium. This wasn’t the first time she and Dusza had done this. Escape, disguise, a small trick. Anything that would give her more information. “When will the delegates arrive?” she asked Father often, but he’d just laugh. “What tongue will I use with my husband?” she’d surprise him at the end of a feast, when his head would be swimming from drink, and in response he’d stick his tongue out at her. When he’d return from the hunt, she’d accost him with the question: “Where will I go? South, west or east?”
“The East Bridge…” she whispered now, the chill from the frozen lake embracing her. “My husband will come from the east!”
She pulled the cloak tighter and, running across the bridge, looked for the flicker of torches. She wanted to know. Which of her father’s alliances was she to guarantee? Kiev? Would it be Kiev? Duke Mieszko hadn’t declared war on Rus yet, and he was already planning peace? Ah! she thought, maybe the price of my hand is the return of the Red Cities which were stolen from us last summer?
Whatever awaited her this Koliada, she wasn’t going to be a lamb led to slaughter.
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