Melanie Dunstan 1997 The old wagon creaked and wobbled as it wound slowly along the country roads. Above, the stars glistened in a silvery carpet, inviting the imagination away and aloft.... showering the huge greys pulling the wagon shone with a ghostly light.

Little Ishinna was sleeping in her mothers’ arms, and her father sat, strong and competent, next to them. Nestled in the hay at the back amongst the packages, boxes and bales of a successful day’s trading, the three children and their grandmother curled up together like piglets. Yuri was nearly asleep, lulled by the gentle jostling of the wagon and its inmates. Taysia, eyes closed, gently stroked his hair. And Michal turned youthful eyes towards the heavens, dreaming as usual. The home farm crept closer, but very slowly.

"What happened at the palace, Bubba-la?" asked Taysia, anxious for their story to resume. In the box seat, Anneke’s back stiffened, her eyes snapping, and her husband’s hands became tight on the reins. "Taysia, why don’t we wait until we’re home?" her grandmother asked, gently. "I’m sure your Mumma and Papa don’t want to hear this old story again..." "Oh, but Bubba-la, we’ll all be asleep when we reach home...." "And you did promise us a story each night," added Michal, the eldest, eagerly. In the front of the wagon, the children’s parents exchanged a whispered word or two. "A story, a story, pleeeease can we have a story?" shouted Yuri, who at three years old, needed to have everything happen immediately - and stories were so much more exciting that sleep.

"Hush Yuri, you’ll wake Ishinna. Yes, you can have your story" came the gravely male voice from the front of the wagon "Thank you, Michal," replied the old lady, demurely. "Yes, thank you, Papa," said Michal and Taysia. Michal the elder humphed, and shifted his hands on the reins.

For a moment, nothing was heard but the steady hollow thud of hooves hitting dirt road and the slight whisper of breeze-laden trees. The silence lengthened, and the old lady moved as if in pain. "Are you all right, Bubba-la?" asked Taysia anxiously, as she felt for Michal’s hand. Her brother returned the squeeze, giving her a little reassurance. "But of course, my dear!" replied the Bubba, in an overly-bright voice. "We learn to deal with little aches and pains as we grow older...." "Story, Bubba-la? Yes? Yes?" asked Yuri, leaning to try and peer into the elderly, shadowed face. "Of course, Yuri. Now settle back my dears, and be comfortable, for here is a tale of old and of wonder, from after the dawn of time....." the children wriggled slightly in the fragrant hay, settling back with a contented sigh.

"Now, where did we leave the story?" asked the Bubba, in a tone of voice that set the children to giggling. "The Dragon Princess and the Palace, Bubba," said Michal. "And she had just caught Anna and Michal and the sea captain and the little girl." "What was the little girl’s name again, Bubba-la?" asked Taysia. "Anneke, my child," said the old lady absentmindedly. "Yes, Mumma?" came the answer from the front seat. Michal - the younger - drew in his breath, sharply.

"That wicked princess was now an even more wicked queen! She had set her icy heart on revenge, and nothing could stop her. ‘I take it very badly that one of my servants deserted me when I reached this country alone and unchaperoned’ she said, ‘and now, you can be punished for it....’ continued the old lady. "Is that what she really said?" asked Michal. "Yes, my boy, as far as I can remember...." came the distant reply . "But Bubba," cried Taysia "How can you know what she said?" "Ah, my dear," replied her grandmother, "I have a little worm in my ear that tells me lots of things - haven’t you and the boys got one?" and the children collapsed into fits of giggles again, and the moment passed.

"Well," continued the old lady, once the children were quiet again "the dragon queen had the group taken away and put in a tower room to await her after the audience was over. And by the time she finally did appear, our friends were in a very sorry state indeed. Without food, or water, or warmth for most of the day, and tired from the journey, all but Michal had fallen asleep on the hard, cold benches." Michal wriggled a little. He liked hearing about this boy who had the same name as himself - and even the same as his father.

The door was unlocked, and a little Majordomo entered, and thumped his rod of office on the floor. "All rise for her royal majesty, the queen Anastasia!" he declaimed in a loud voice. Slowly, and with many groans, the party awoke and sat up. "All rise, all RISE!" shrieked the Majordomo, strutting around the room, thumping his stick on the floor. The men slowly got to her feet, but our Anna remained seated. The Majordomo leaned his face very close to hers, and his spit struck her skin as he spoke cuttingly ‘What? Defiant so soon? Just wait, my pretty, soon we shall see your defiance abate!’ ‘That will do, Grolya. Leave us now!’ like a china doll, the cruel queen glided to the centre of the room as the Majordomo and the guards left. Her eyes, her hair and her clothes glittered and shone with a harsh, unforgiving light.

"The little girl started to cry, and Anna cuddled her close. A deathly pale, heavily-jewelled finger pointed. ‘We don’t hurt children here. You needn’t cry, my pet’ The sound of her voice included a thousand snakes, hissing. ‘We just put children in their place - away.’ The note in her voice was final, and held the crack of doom. Little Anneke shrieked, and hid her face in her mother’s dress. ‘However,’ continued the fake queen ‘We are currently short of a lady’s maid for our own dear child, called Tatia, after our own poor, dear departed, sister....’ Anna sniffed, hard, and got a very cross look from the dragon queen. ‘Poor Tatia, she is so delicate, we fear for her at times....’ the smile on the face of the china doll grew positively malicious ‘and so we appoint YOU, dusty-girl, to look after her every need. You may even have your own ugly child beside you, as a playmate for our poor little Tatiana... for she should be brought up by people who are familiar with the requirements of royalty, you know... and such are sadly lacking in this uncivilised land.’

"Having made her pronouncement, the dragon queen turned regally to go. ‘Ah, yes,’ she turned again. ‘The man - you know boats, we believe?’ The sea captain looked hard at her. ‘You know I do.’ ‘Ah well, yes, we have a.... mission, for you.’ The malicious smile was back. ‘To return to the old country, and redeem certain treasures and certain people to grace our courts...’ ‘My lady, it is hard winter in the old country!’ The sea captain protested. ‘The seas will be impossibly high!’ ‘Then you will have to be impeccably skilled at dancing with the dolphins, won’t you?’ after that cold, cruel delivery, she turned to Michal. ‘The youth can go to the kitchens. We understand they need a wood boy.’ With that, the wicked queen swept out, leaving shocked silence in her wake.

Taysia was crying, and Michal held her shoulders. "Ah, Bubba-la," he whispered. "I never knew they could be so terrible" "Ah, my boy," replied the old lady, "You are very young, and you have yet to meet up with real cruelty. It was very hard for poor Anna to say goodbye to her husband, but at least she had her daughter beside her, and could keep safely in the palace against his return, with useful - and very needful!- work to do whilst her beloved was gone." "What work did you do, in those days, Bubba?" asked Michal. The old lady shot him a very sharp look, but it was lost in the darkness. Just then Yuri, who had nodded off, awoke with a great shriek. "The dragon is coming! Hide, quick!" "It’s all right, Yuri, boy; no dragon will hurt you here. I promise!" crooned the old lady. "All the dragons are gone, now. All gone" Yuri subsided into the occasional sobs, and Taysia cuddled him, drying her own tears in his curly hair.

Well it wasn’t long after the queen had left that the serving door creaked open. The cook peeped her head in, and seeing it was only our friends there, with no guards, she beckoned them out. They went swiftly down the passages to the kitchen, where the cook fed them and they warmed their toes by the fire. After they were fed and rested, one of the servants led them very quietly up the back stairs to King Ivan’s bedchamber. The throne room had been luxurious, but the King’s bedroom was plain, sparse and in a state of disrepair. The small grate was empty, and the room was cold and inhospitable. The King lay, shivering, under some plain grey blankets, his face a similar colour. Michal gasped and raced to his father’s side. ‘Papa - Papa - I am here at last!’ he cried, his tears falling like Isilya’s waterfall. Slowly - so slowly! The King’s eyes opened, and his watery gaze fell on his son. ‘Kalya, my boy! My son! I have waited so long to see you!’ At his words, an elderly man shuffled into the room; it was the old Majordomo. ‘Zeider, I am here!’ cried Michal, and ran into the old man’s embrace. ‘Oh, my grandson!’ wept the old man. ‘That I should live to see this day!’ he led Michal to the bed, and they both held the King’s hands."

In the front of the wagon, the children’s father blew his nose, long and hard, interrupting the narrative. Michal and Taysia wriggled a bit, impatient for the story to continue. "And then what happened, Bubba-la?" asked Michal, when all was quiet again. The old lady was silent for a while, staring into the skies. In a distant farm, a dog barked, and was answered by another, farther away. The moon began to rise, huge, yellow and noiseless. Frogs croaked and splashed in a nearby pool, the wagon traces creaked and the horses plodded homewards. "Bubba?" asked Michal. The old lady gave herself a little shake, and continued.

"Yes, my young ones, that was a very touching scene. Michal had been away for so many many years, his grandfather had grown old, his father had grown ill, and now he had returned to be with them in their last days.... now, stop sobbing Taysia. You know that people have to die. Why even I have to die, much as I’m not yet ready to do so - in fact I can promise you that the bulbs you plant this year for spring flowers will be in blossom for my stone vase, and even now I’m still not ready... now, now, my child, dry your tears. It’s a great big adventure; can’t you see?" "Is that why you’re telling us this story now, Bubba-la, instead of waiting until the littles are older?" asked Michal. "Yes, my lamb, you need to hear the story from me, if possible," replied the old lady, gently.

"Well, finally the three of them remembered Anna and the seacaptain, and their little girl. Michal jumped up to introduce them. ‘Papa, meet Anastasia - the real one, and her husband Yuri Tomasovich.’ ‘Cousin Vanya, I am so happy to meet you at last,’ said Anna, moving to the bedside. ‘And so sorry to hear of your illness....’ ‘Ah yes,’ said the King, his mouth twisting wryly. ‘An unfortunate encounter with my wife’s poisoned needle some years ago in argument.... I have never fully recovered.’ The King looked at little Anneke. ‘And who is this beauty?’ he asked gently, extending his hand.

Then Anna was very proud of the fine manners of her daughter, for little Anneke curtsied nicely, as was proper, and held out her hand to the King. ‘Pleased to meet you, cousin,’ she said quietly. Michal jumped up to fetch her to the bedside. ‘Isn’t she adorable?’ he asked, stars in his eyes. ‘She’s only seven, but one day she will grow up and then I’m going to marry her!’ ‘ Then you have my blessing,’ said the King, laughing through his tears. ‘For wherever you both are, there will be the true king and queen of this land’ and Michal hugged him. ‘Cousin Tasha... you should know that Tatia is not my child... and deal with her accordingly.’

"The King’s mouth twisted in pain. ‘I was informed of this shortly after I had proclaimed her as being the heir to the throne... my one comfort these last few years has been that Michal has been living near you and in close contact with you, and away from that poisonous viper in the throneroom...’ Anna gasped ‘Cousin Vanya - you knew? All these years?’ ‘My dear, I could not inform you - my only trusted servant is Michal’s grandfather - and he has been far too frail to make the journey to meet with you... how can I apologise for you living in hiding all this time?’ ‘Cousin, it is not your fault - is it husband? We have been very happy and have never been in want...’

"And so the little family passed the afternoon together, catching up on news, exchanging confidences and warming each other’s hearts. At last, though, the old Majordomo asked the visitors to leave, as the King’s face had become haggard and drawn, and it was obvious that, even though he was excited to see his family, he was tired half to death. And so they left, with many promises to return. Michal found the servant, and together they found their assigned rooms. Nobody much wondered at their vanishing from the tower room, as everyone assumed someone else had shown them the way to their rooms and instructed them in their duties - the palace discipline was slack at that time and the Majordomo not very interested in household matters - his attentions were on his position at court.

"And the next morning, Anna and her daughter visited the nursery." "What about the girls, Bubba-la? Were they friends?" sniffed Taysia. "Ah, those girls!" chuckled the Bubba. "So different - and so alike! Well, Anna had her work cut out, I can tell you! That first day in the nursery - it was terrible for poor Anna and her child. Tatia was spoiled, undisciplined, rude and aggressive. She scratched and bit when she must get dressed, and finally stood like a wooden doll, with her arms outstretched, waiting to be clothed like a doll. "What!" shrieked Taysia "Hush, my child. You mustn’t blame the poor child - she had just never been taught how to behave, and so she was like an animal..." "Oh, Bubba-la that’s terrible! Then what happened?"

"Well, we couldn’t have that behaviour for long, could we? So Anna took the girls for a walk in the grounds. In an untended thicket, they found a good strong tree branch, and Anna broke it off. ‘Now this,’ she said severely to the girls ‘is for punishment. If you are naughty, or disobedient, you may expect to feel this stick slapping on your legs!" "Nooooo!" wailed Yuri, who was very frightened of being smacked. "It’s all right, babushka, nobody is going to smack you tonight," soothed Taysia. "NOT a babushka!" growled Yuri, angrily, sitting up. "Yuri Potyaltsinski, Brovnya Farm Estates, Nurieta, Yuzchem, and I’m three!" "Hush, Yuri, yes we know. Listen to the story", sighed Taysia. "Then what, Bubba-la?"

"Well, poor little Anneke had the worst of those first few weeks, I’m afraid. Tatia was nasty to her, and would bite, and pinch, and pull hair, every time Anna’s back was turned. It got so that Anneke used to run away and hide for whole days at a time to get away from her nasty cousin." "Cousin?" asked Taysia, surprised. "I thought she wasn’t supposed to be Ivan’s daughter?" "Ah, but don’t forget, her mother, the false Anastasia, was a cousin of Anna’s - yes, they were related by blood." "Poor Anneke!" sympathised Taysia. The old lady threw an impish look towards the front of the wagon "Well, my dears, not so very downtrodden, at that - Anneke used to hide and listen to conversations and sneak about the palace, in order not to get caught and returned to the nursery... she learned a very great deal in those first few weeks. But of course, she was seen. In her grey homespun, as she crept between one hiding place and the next, she earned the name Hoylehen, for the old country goblins... can I give you a handkerchief for that cough, daughter? I am sure you’re getting a cold..." "No, Mumma. Thank you, Mumma" came the muffled voice from the front seat.

The old lady continued. "As time went on, Anna learned that no other servant had been able to stay more than a few days with Tatia’s violent tempers and nasty tricks. But Anna would not take any nonsense, and slowly a little girl emerged from the animal that had lived in the nursery previously. And just as slowly, with many backward steps, Anneke became friends with Tatia. There were many fights, I can assure you... for both girls had the same terrible tempers and stubborn wills. I suppose that kind of thing can run in the blood in families...." the old lady chuckled. "Yes, there are many more stories I can tell... but to return to this one, all was relatively well until the night the King died, when the girls were about fourteen years old. His poor old Majordomo had died the previous day, and many suspected foul play, but were unable to prove anything. Unfortunately, with the state of the court in those days, many did not even care. Especially the queen.

"She proclaimed a week of celebrations, and each night called poor Michal into the centre of the court to taunt him mercilessly about his lowly state. He bore it as well as he could, and my admiration of him grew for the strong and stalwart exterior he presented to the twittering sycophants who comprised the court." "Why, Bubba-la, were you there?" "But yes, Michal, my lamb - I’m sure I told you that your grandfather took me to court when I was younger..." "Oh... yes. You did..." replied a sleepy voice. Then all was quiet in the back of the wagon.