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 days 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, Annekes back stiffened, her eyes snapping, and her
husbands hands became tight on the reins. "Taysia, why dont we wait until
were home?" her grandmother asked, gently. "Im sure your Mumma and
Papa dont want to hear this old story again..." "Oh, but Bubba-la,
well 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 childrens 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, youll 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 Michals 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
"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 girls 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
"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 - havent 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 dont hurt children here. You neednt
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 mothers dress.
However, continued the fake queen We are currently short of a
ladys 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, wont 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!" "Its 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 wasnt 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 Ivans bedchamber. The
throne room had been luxurious, but the Kings 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 fathers side. Papa - Papa - I am here at last!
he cried, his tears falling like Isilyas waterfall. Slowly - so slowly! The
Kings 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 mans 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
In the front of the wagon, the childrens 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 Im 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 Im still not ready... now, now, my child,
dry your tears. Its a great big adventure; cant you see?" "Is that
why youre 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 wifes 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.
Isnt she adorable? he asked, stars in his eyes. Shes only
seven, but one day she will grow up and then Im 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 Kings 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 Michals 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 others hearts. At last, though, the old
Majordomo asked the visitors to leave, as the Kings 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
"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 mustnt blame the poor child - she had just never been
taught how to behave, and so she was like an animal..." "Oh, Bubba-la
thats terrible! Then what happened?"
"Well, we couldnt 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. "Its 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 Im
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, Im afraid.
Tatia was nasty to her, and would bite, and pinch, and pull hair, every time Annas
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 wasnt supposed to be Ivans daughter?" "Ah, but
dont forget, her mother, the false Anastasia, was a cousin of Annas - 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
youre 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 Tatias 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 - Im 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.