As Philip Pullman explains in the Intro to his delightful, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are not, strictly speaking “texts.” They are pieces of folk lore that transform with each new telling and teller. And as tellers, we change them, shade them and turn them. We pick our battles, our heroes and villains. Ultimately, with a unique voice, we make these tales our own.
The Dragon and His Grandmother is (very) loosely based on an old Russian fairy tale, told in my croaky October voice and spun through the Dragon’s Nest. ‘
I have been told it is a tad long for one sitting, so I am breaking it up over the next couple of days. For anyone who wants to read ithe tale in its entirity, it can be found here on my sister site, Off the Rails: Track 451.
The Dragon & His Grandmother
via Shawn MacKENZIE
Once, not long ago in the cosmic scheme of things, in a kingdom by the Emerald Sea, there lived an impatient prince. He had always been this way, since the day he pushed into the world three weeks early. When he crawled he was impatient to toddle; when he walked he was impatient to ride. And as prince, he was most impatient to be king.
And while he waited (impatiently) for that day, he spent hour upon hour in the royal observatory looking through his big brass telescope. He turned his eye seaward, and dreamt of travelling the waves. When he grew up he would be an explorer prince, discovering new lands no one had ever imagined.
As he got older, the sea seemed too vast and exploration too leisurely an activity for his eager nature. No immediate gratification there. So he turned his glass landward, to the nations bordering his father’s kingdom. Most people would marvel at the towns and farms, forests and streams. But the young prince saw only rich, green lands begging for the conquest of a warrior king.
Now, his father, the Old King, was a fair ruler, but he was no longer a warrior. And more germane to our story, like all of us, he was mortal. In time – some say sooner than he ought, but that is another tale – he died, and his impatient son became an even more impatient king.
The moment he claimed crown and scepter, he summoned his ministers and tax collectors, armorers and generals. He was the king and he was going to expand the realm as his father never had. And he was going to do it now.
The impatient young King needed an army as fodder for this land grab. An easy prospect, being king. He simply gave the command. Every man in the kingdom over 16 and under 50 was ordered to fight under his banner. And they did. This gave him a great many soldiers in the field, but few farmers or guildsmen, smithies or tanners at home. Not that he worried about that. The war would be over in a couple of weeks. Impatient kings accept nothing less.
Of course, the people in the neighboring kingdom had other ideas. They quite liked their benevolent leader, paying fair taxes, living in peace, and had no intention of turning their lives over to some upstart despot. So, it was that they were drawn into a very long and very bloody war that could do no one any good.
As the war dragged on, year after year, the fields lay fallow, the shop shelves bare. Still the King would not quit. There was nothing with which to pay taxes, and without taxes, he had nothing with which to pay his army. Draconian threats and promises of empty glory were hardly enough to live on. Hardly enough to die for.
Among the conscripts’ mud-encrusted ranks were three brothers, Osip, Luka, and Lev, grandsons and only kin of a widowed school teacher. For seven long years they’d followed their King’s standard and watched their friends die. Their boots were holey, their tunics tattered; they hadn’t had a warm meal in weeks. As for getting leave, they’d given up on that dream long ago. But still they stuck it out. In times of war, desertion was a capital offense, and as long as they had their heads they could hope to eventually get home, to see their Gran once more.
One day, a company of new recruits arrived in camp, clean-scrubbed innocents half of whom would be worms’ meat by the end of the month. While his comrades were settling in, a lanky tow-headed lad approached the brothers.
“Friendly faces, at last!” he exclaimed. “You probably don’t remember me. It’s been so long. I’m Grisha. We lived next door to you. I was only eight when you went away, so…”
A flash of recognition and Osip clapped the lad on the shoulder. “Grisha, of course! My, you’re quite the young man, now.”
“How are things at home?” Lev asked.
“It’s like a ghost town. Women, little children. A few old men. They’re the only ones left. Holding things together as best they can. The kids are running wild without your Gran keeping them in line, giving them lessons.”
“What do you mean?” they asked in unison.
The lad shifted on his feet. “Oh, I am so sorry,” he said. “I thought – surely you must have heard.”
“We’ve had no letters, no news, for ages.”
“She died at mid-summer. The whole town came out for her funeral; she was much loved, you know.”
The brothers fell silent, their grief doming round them. Grisha muttered a good-bye, then, fading back into the slog and clash of the camp, gave privacy to their loss.
Osip, the eldest was the first to speak. “We should have been there,” he said, wiping his eyes. “With Gran. I’ve had enough of this. Enough of the cold, enough of the blood, enough of this war we’ve no business fighting.”
“Not much we can do about it, though,” Luka shrugged, as cautious as his middle-brother standing made him.
Lev tightened his belt. “Well, there’s something I can do. I’m leaving. Tonight.”
“That’s crazy,” his brothers whispered, looking over their shoulders to be sure no one was eavesdropping on their counsel. “You’re talking desertion. Get caught, and it’s the gallows for sure.”
“I’m not planning on getting caught, am I? Just slip off now, under the new moon, and no one will notice until I’m long gone.”
“What about Grisha. He’s seen us, knows us; he’s going to wonder.”
“And if he does? Remember our first month in ranks? The captains kept us so busy we couldn’t remember our own names, let alone worry about some casual acquaintance from years back. The word on the line is the whole camp’s moving out tomorrow. That’s less than 24 hours. I hide in that big cornfield over there and when their gone, I go the other way. Simple. Listen, I’d rather we stick together, but I will go alone if I must.”
Now Lev was their little brother and Osip and Luka couldn’t very well let him take off on his own. They were all the family in the world to each other, now, and family kept together. Besides, he’d always been the smart one of the three. Perhaps his plan would work. Perhaps they could get away, reinvent themselves, maybe even make their fortunes.
That night, when fires were banked and the dark face of the moon turned upon them, the brothers crept out of camp. Screened by stalk and straw, they pulled their cloaks tight and waited.
But the army did not march on. Instead, beneath a threatening sky, it remained encamped, all around them. Then the rain began, moderate at first, but by evening the air crackled with lightning and a tempest raged. Four days and four nights it rained, sometimes a torrent, sometimes a drizzle. In rising mud and misery, Osip, Luka, and Lev sat out in the field, without food, shelter, or options. Return and they’d be hung; stay and the elements would get them.
“So much for your plan, Lev,” groaned Luka through chattering teeth. “We’re all going to die here like drowned rats.”
“You didn’t have to come,” Lev snapped back. “We’ve been the King’s chattel for years. What’s a little weather compared to that?”
In a futile stab at their circumstance, Osip wrung the rain from his hat then pulled it onto his head. “I’d rather face a fiery Dragon than stay here doing nothing,” he said. “At least we’d be warm.”
“Did someone say ‘Dragon’?” It was a voice, rumbling low as the grave.
PART II – TOMORROW….