1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 46

Chapter 18


Royal Hungary

Austrian-Hungarian Empire

With a disgusted look on her face, Denise turned away from her examination of the disabled wagon and looked to the north, following the line of the Kysuca river whose right bank they’d followed to get here. Then she looked to the south, where the Kysuca flowed into the larger Váh River. The town of Žilina was somewhere nearby, across the Váh, but she couldn’t see it from where she was standing.

Finally, she looked across the Kysuca at the only prominent structure anywhere in sight. It was a castle, built in the Renaissance style but with roots that were obviously much older. She could see the medieval foundations that were still in place.

“Well, this sucks,” she pronounced to no one is particular. Then, pointing at the castle, she asked: “Does anybody know who owns that pile of pretension? Sorry, I meant to say ‘palace.’ Or is ‘castle’ the proper protocol here in–where are we again?”

Lukasz smiled. Denise irritated a lot of people with her teenager’s I don’t give a damn what you think attitude, but he didn’t mind. Sometimes, when the target of the attitude was someone who deserved it, he found her quite entertaining.

Noelle didn’t smile, because she knew from long experience that would just encourage Denise. But she’d been in some hairy situations with the girl and thought very highly of her. All things considered.

“We’re still in Royal Hungary,” she said. “The part that Austria kept, I mean. The Bohemian part”–she pointed at the Váh river–“starts on the other side of this river. In this stretch, anyway. The border runs further east once you go south a ways.”

Nobody challenged her. That would have been rather stupid, she’d since been part of the negotiations between Austria and Bohemia that had produced the division of Royal Hungary.

“So that castle–palace, whatever–is Austrian, right?”

“No, it’s Hungarian. Austria and Hungary are politically united mostly because they have the same king. They’re not the same country.”

Denise frowned. “So what’s your official position here? Countess of Hommona or Mrs. Drugeth, AKA wife of the Austrian emperor’s best buddy?”

“I am not ‘Mrs. Drugeth’ and you know it, Denise.” The custom of wives taking the surname of their husband was not followed in central Europe–or in most of Europe, for that matter. In this historical era, that was a British custom.

“As to the question itself, I’m not sure. It’s quite possible–even likely–that whichever nobleman owns that castle–yes, that’s the right term in this neck of the woods–isn’t in residence. He and his family might have packed up and gone to Linz in order to get Emperor Ferdinand’s assurance that they won’t be fed to the Bohemian maw.”

“Only way to find out is to ask,” said Lukasz. “So now the question becomes, where can we get a boat? Luckily the river hasn’t frozen over yet.”


Getting the boat took two and a half days, but most of that time was spent loading everything onto the boat after they made an agreement with the owner that he would transport them down the Váh to the town of Trenčín. There, he assured them, they would find a wainwright with the skills and materials to repair the broken axle on their wagon.

They wouldn’t find him in Žilina, he explained, because he and his family had all moved to Trenčín–as had quite a few other of Žilina’s inhabitants. Why? Here the bargeman went on a long peroration on the subject of Bohemian vices as compared to Hungarian virtues, and concluded with a not-so-veiled criticism of the feckless new emperor who had handed over Hungary’s ancient sacred soil to the aforementioned wretched Bohemians.

“The old emperor, Ferdinand II–there was a stout fellow!–never would have agreed to such a thing,” he concluded. The expression on his face could have been used by an artist for a painting titled Lugubrious Man.

Denise thought it was pretty funny, especially when Noelle made the mistake of trying to reason with the man.

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Žilina is on the west bank of the Váh, which is clearly established as the border. Trenčín is supposed to remain in Austria-Hungary even though it’s on the other wise of the river. If they were really that worried about it, they should have stayed here.”

“Exactly what I told them!” exclaimed the barge owner, looking more lugubrious than ever. He pointed to the east, where the central tower of Budetín Castle was still visible. “It’s their fault. Those cowardly Suňogs!”

Here he went on another peroration, this one on the decrepit state of the Suňog family who had owned Budetín Castle since their ancestor GaÅ¡par Suňog–there was a stout fellow!–had bought it almost two hundred years earlier. Instead of remaining in the castle to fend off the schemes of the dastardly Wallenstein–Denise thought he might veer off here into another tirade on the subject of Bohemians and their vices, but he managed to stay on topic–the wretched Suňogs–all of them! every last one!–had fled to Linz to cower under the supposed shelter provided by the new emperor–the same one who lost Vienna to the stinking Turks.

Indignation was now added to lugubriosity. Denise thought Artemisia Gentileschi, the great artist who’d painted Denise’s own (definitely not lugubrious nor indignant) portrait on the nose cone of Eddie’s airplane, would have had a field day with this guy.

Country Bumpkin, Beset By Woes.

Eventually he wound down. Noelle left off her attempts to reason with the man, for which Denise was thankful. A little rural lamentation was okay, but it wore out its welcome pretty quickly.

Fortunately, the barge was big enough to carry all their belongings except the horses. Those would have to be taken in tether by the Slovene cavalrymen. Also fortunately, whoever designed the wagon had shrewdly made the big cabin where the passengers rode detachable from the frame, so it could be hauled separately.

Unfortunately, Noelle and Lukasz got paranoid about what Noelle called “operational security” so Denise was forced to ride in the cabin on board the barge instead of riding a horse alongside the river. Apparently no self-respecting Polish nobleman would let his beautiful young leman ride a horse under these conditions. Never mind that if the delicate twit couldn’t even ride a horse she wasn’t likely to handle her official function all that well either.

But Denise’s reasoned logic–I’m too fragile to ride a horse but not too fragile to have that pile of bone and muscle–here she pointed an accusing finger at Lukasz–ride me?–failed in its purpose. Into the cabin aboard the barge she was required to go.

Granted, the cabin was both more comfortable than a saddle and a slow-moving barge on a placid river kept her a lot warmer than she’d have been on horseback.

“As long as the river doesn’t freeze over and strand us out here,” she warned Noelle. She looked out the window of the cabin at the very cold-looking river. “Which could happen any moment, you know.”

“Denise, a river this wide is not going to freeze over before we get to Trenčín, even if the temperature drops like a stone.”

“We’re in the Little Ice Age, remember?”

“It’s the Little Ice Age, not the Instant Ice Age. You’re just grouchy because you don’t like the barge owner’s singing.”

“Sure don’t. Are we there yet?”

Aboard a barge on the Váh river

Between Žilina and Trenčín

It took four days to get from Žilina to Trenčín. Even though, as Denise complained bitterly, it was only fifty miles or so.

“Jesus H. Christ. How does a barge move this slowly? Because the stupid barge guy keeps pulling over and stopping.”

“He’s letting the people on horseback catch up with us. Remember them? Our friends and companions?”

Denise knew that perfectly well. She was just in a bad mood.