Author: Anthony Russo
Genre: Literature and Fiction > Historical Fiction
On a July night in 1918, 17-year-old Anastasia Romanov, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas of Russia, and the rest of the royal family were executed by soldiers of the new Soviet government. In the dark woods, Ana is rescued by British agent Jack Hawthorne, a man with a monstrous secret. Badly injured but miraculously alive, Anastasia and Hawthorne are pursued by Major Kaspak of Cheka, the feared secret police. Vladimir Lenin and the Red Bolsheviks want her dead, but the White Loyalists under General Alexseyev believe this girl can inspire a divided Russia. Ana and Hawthorne flee to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) where they are helped by a childhood friend of the Romanovs, Peter and his father, a former chief inspector. Together they plan a desperate escape, but Kaspak plots to have the last word. Armed with courage and an officer’s saber, Ana and Hawthorne’s terrifying other half could change the course of history.
17 July 1918, Yekaterinburg, Russia.
The woods were so quiet at night.
Ana marveled at the trees, their branches appearing as dark fingers spread across the night sky. She was being carried through the forest, floating above the ground without moving her legs. Painfully turning her head, there was a man holding her in his arms. All she could make out was his jutting chin and stubble-covered cheek. His silvery, short cropped hair caught moonbeams passing through the tree branches.
The path through the forest was uneven. There were roots and unexpected rocks. The man stumbled several steps. Everything inside Ana jangled like the puppets the wood carvers brought to the Alexander Palace every Christmas. She weakly cried out in pain.
“We’re almost there,” the man regained his footing. He started moving again.
She lifted her hand up to her eyes. Dark streams dripped from her fingers, a fluid like oil. An iron salty taste clung to her mouth. She remembered the tang of gunpowder, choking smoke everywhere and a flash of steel in the little basement room. A bayonet came towards her. She winced.
“Stay awake, Anastasia!” the man commanded her in English.
She could not. The woods slid away. The trees stretching their branches towards the canopy of stars became a blur. She exhaled and the cool night air changed into wispy steam.
“Anastasia, come back!”
She was riding Orion down the harsh, crooked path through the woods that her mother told her not to take. Sunlight danced between leaves and branches. The woods always tempted her, snaking behind the Alexander Palace where she and her family lived these many years.
The Alexander Palace was miles away from the noise of Saint Petersburg with its bustling avenues filled with people and carriages both horse and motor driven. In the 1790s, Catherine the Great built the great palace for the occasion of her grandson’s wedding. Tucked within a quiet village, the palace and its quarters for servants and stables for horses was surrounded by lush acres of green woods. The Tsar and his family settled here, far enough away from the “swampy bog of the city” as her mama put it, for peace and solitude.
Ana desired neither peace nor solitude. To her, the palace was her home and playground. When she was little, Ana gleefully ran up and down its refined hallways and staircases, chased by bewildered maids and the house butler, pretending to gallop about on a beautiful steed like those ridden by the Royal Guards.
The palace with its many rooms and corridors were delightful places to romp, but it was the mysterious woods that beckoned Ana. Her mama’s warning not to ride there fell on deaf ears.
Actually, it was the horse that was taking young Ana for a ride and not the other way around. Startled by a passing fox, her gray stallion Orion went from trotting to full gallop in less than a heartbeat. It was all she could do to hold on to the reins, shouting at the horse that the fox was more frightened of him. The horse just ran and ran. Leaves and branches whipped at her face, snatching the head scarf and delicate pink hat from her head. The same beautiful hat she picked out all by herself from a frilly Paris shop.
A blur appeared, a horseman astride a giant white charger. He and Ana were side-by-side, racing together down the narrow wood lane. A gloved hand seized Orion’s bridle strap. With a strong yank of the reins, the cavalryman drew both horses to stop.
Her sweating gray stallion continued to whinny and paw at the forest ground with his front hooves. Ana thought he might rear up and throw her, but the officer held the strap tight, keeping Orion in place. His own horse, wearing the red and gold livery of the royal palace guard, stood like a rock. Such antics did not faze such a beautiful animal. She sat frozen in the saddle, panting more from fear than exertion, her heart hammering.
All at once, the stern officer spoke.
“Grand Duchess, you were told not to go into the woods.”
“I just wanted…” she tried to explain, but the man would have none of it.
“Orion is used to open roads and wide spaces. These narrow paths frighten him!”
“You will stop lecturing me at once. Only my mama disciplines me!”
A smirk of sarcasm appeared on the young officer’s sweating face.
“Very well, Grand Duchess Anastasia. The next time he runs away, you stop him.”
“How dare you!” Ana drew herself up into a statue of haughty fury, as much the fourteen-year-old daughter of Tsar Nicholas of Russia could muster. “What is your rank and name?”
“I am Captain Henryk Michonski, formerly of the First Polish Cavalry Guards. Appointed by personal decree of the Tsar to the Royal Palace Guard.” He bowed with an overtly elaborate flourish of his free hand, a gesture that was more sarcastic than respectful. “Now that we have been properly introduced, you should learn to listen to your mother’s instructions.”
The captain was completely right, of course. If it had not been for the captain’s quick-thinking and speed … but Ana was not thinking about that. She hated the thought of this lowly officer lecturing her with a smile on his face. She pointed to her head.
“I lost my hat and scarf, Captain Michonski. Fetch them.”
A stony mask came over the young officer’s face. Even the youngest daughter of the Tsar must be obeyed.
“Yes, Grand Duchess. At once.”
He turned his own horse about with a single snap of the reins. He and the white charger vanished around a leafy corner. After the captain found her hat, he took Orion by the reins to lead them back to the stables behind the palace. They returned in silence—the officer leading the sullen-faced duchess.
A skinny rod of a boy with black hair saw them approaching the stables and vaulted down off the fence to fetch Ana’s mother. Ana knew at once she was going to be in terrible trouble, no matter how much she called out to young Peter Andersen not to get her mama.
“That Peter can be such a bother,” Ana grumbled underneath her breath. The boy was the same age as her, but he acted like a terrible grownup: always following the rules, always worrying about the trouble she caused.
Her mama, the Empress Alexandra, arrived. Seated on her own beautiful horse, she wore a clever riding hat pinned to her head, a satin black cape and riding dress as though she was posing for a portrait. Captain Michonski bowed to her as he handed Orion’ reins to Peter Andersen.
“Mama!” Ana cried out, pointing at the lump of fabric she held tight in her hands. “My beautiful hat is ruined!”
“You are lucky it’s just a silly hat, child! What have I said about you going through the woods?”
“Orion was frightened by a fox and bolted. That’s all.”
“You could have fallen. You could have been killed,” she glanced down at Peter, son of the famous Chief Inspector Andersen and Ana’s occasional playmate. “Why didn’t you try to stop her?”
Peter demurely bowed. “She said she wanted to ride on the track. But when she got to the trees, she rode away into the woods. On purpose.”
Ana was tempted to kick at the boy with her leg, but she knew better.
The Empress nodded towards the Polish captain.
“Thank you sir, for your quick thinking.”
“It was my duty, Your Highness. Your daughter is a fair rider, but Orion can be a handful. Perhaps some additional lessons would keep the Grand Duchess occupied … and away from the woods?”
“An excellent thought, Captain,” the Empress nodded in earnest. “I will gladly accept your recommendation.”
“He was so mean,” Ana interrupted with a whiny voice. “He talked down to me!”
“I will gladly let the captain spank you, if you weren’t acting so foolish.”
Ana fell quiet, knowing that when her mother started using her full baptized name she was very close to receiving the end of a leather belt across her bottom. Her mother had no difficulty disciplining her children, especially the youngest and most troublesome of her four daughters.
“Change out of your riding clothes. You’ve ruined them.”
“But Orion was scared,” Anastasia hugged the stallion around his sweaty neck. “I need to brush him to calm him down.”
The empress glanced at the captain, who nodded his approval.
“Very well. After you change your clothes, you may tend to him.”
Peter led Orion into the stables with Ana still seated on him. Thinking about what she had done and the look of relief on her mama’s face, Anastasia turned around in the saddle to face the captain. Her whiny tone changed to one of respect.
“Thank you for saving me and Orion, Captain Henryk Michonski.”
Surprised by the gesture and for remembering his name, the officer bowed to her.
“You are welcome, Grand Duchess.”
“Ana! Wake up!”
Moonlight danced on flickering leaves. A breeze moaned through the trees and caressed her cheek.
She lifted her head towards the man carrying her. His concerned gaze was fixed upon her. His eyes reminded her of an animal’s, bright and glowing as they reflected the moonlight. She remembered her father and his hunting parties tracked down and killed many wolves in the barren steppes.
“Je vous connais? Do I know you?” she barely whispered in a mix of French and English.
“Maybe,” he smiled. “I’m thankful you found your way back to me.”
She weakly looked around. Every time she took a breath, she winced from a sharp pain in her right side.
“Where am I?” she cried.
He turned so they faced a small cottage just beyond the wood. Further on there was a small hamlet of homes down the lane.
“First things first. You need a doctor.”
The man walked up to the first house and started pounding on the door. After a long moment, a feeble light appeared in the small home’s thick glass windows.
“Men are trying to kill you, Anastasia. They will not succeed. Not this night.”
Ana awoke again, this time in the warm embrace of a bed. Her head was elevated by pillows and a blanket was tucked around her. Inside the room was a worn dressing table, a mirror, a wardrobe and a heavy oak cabinet. The window was shuttered tight to keep out any light.
She twisted under the blankets, confused and frightened. Hovering in the doorway there was a girl’s face, young and moon-shaped, staring back at her.
The girl stumbled and quickly left, calling out.
An elderly man with a bald head and a white groomed moustache and beard came inside. Removing his coat and rolling up his sleeves, he washed his bare hands and forearms in a basin. He leaned over Ana, pressing the back of his cool hand to her forehead and taking her wrist to time her pulse with a vest watch.
“I am Doctor Andropov. Do you know where you are, mademoiselle?”
Ana shook her head.
“You are in the village of Galia, just outside of Yekaterinburg.”
Ana looked past him. The girl from before was standing at the doorway, her mouth agape. The doctor turned around and chuckled.
“That is Magda. Don’t mind her. I’ve never entertained such an important guest before.”
Ana tried to sit up in the bed, but it hurt too much. The man gently pushed her back against the pillow.
“Luck was shining upon you the night you came to us, young mademoiselle. One of many different kinds of luck.”
Ana swallowed. Her voice sounded more like a toad croaking.
“How long have I been here?”
The doctor motioned to Magda. With shuffling and banging of a ceramic pitcher, she brought Ana a cup of water. Leaning forward to drink made Ana wince with pain, but the water was cool and welcome down her rough throat.
Magda curtsied and smiled.
“God bless you, Your Highness.” She crossed herself. “It truly is a miracle.”
The doctor shooed her away.
“You were brought here three days ago. It is the twenty first of July. You were badly hurt.”
The doctor pulled back the blanket so Ana could see her bare arms. There were several large, black circular marks. They were painful to touch. Everything, from her eyebrows down to her toes, ached.
Everything was so hazy. A swirl of images, screams, smoke and noise. A white rage. The room spun around her. She almost dropped the water cup. The doctor placed it on a side table.
“A man brought me here. An Englishman.”
“When you are ready, he will speak to you.”
“I wish to talk to him now.”
“Are you certain?”
Ana nodded. The physician left the room, taking the hovering Magda with him. After a few moments and hushed words she could not understand, heavy boot steps echoed down the corridor, approaching.
The Englishman stood in the doorframe, as tall and imposing as a black bear. His jaw was square as though cut from stone, the silvery hair on his head was trimmed close. This was the same man who carried her in the woods, but his eyes were not the same as she remembered. The glowing animal gaze was gone, replaced by a soft hazel brown and quite normal in appearance. He wore trousers, heavy boots, a white shirt and an unbuttoned brown vest.
He picked up a chair and set it firmly down beside the bed. He did not have the airs of an aristocrat, but he was not a factory worker or a farmer either. Most of the men in Ana’s life were servants, footmen and stable workers. They treated her like a porcelain doll, fragile and delicate. Much of that had to do with her symptoms of hemophilia, a disease she shared with her young brother Alexei. Treated as though she was made of fine crystal, most servants she knew spoke quietly and used polite words.
This man was curt and blunt.
“Anastasia. We meet again,” he spoke to her in English. “Do you understand me?”
There was a familiarity about him that Ana could not place. Nodding, she roughly spoke back in English, although it was difficult. The language at the royal court was a mixture of French and Russian.
“Yes. Who are you?”
“My name is Jack Hawthorne. I was sent here by your father’s cousin, King George of Great Britain. I am an agent of His Majesty’s government.”
The man’s request to remain calm did not sit well with her. She wanted answers. It was difficult enough trying to speak in English. Very little of anything here or the people were familiar. Her voice cracked as questions filled her throat.
“Why were we in the woods? I do not know this place at all!”
“Gently Anastasia,” the man handed her the cup of water and made her drink again to calm her down. “What do you remember?”
There were flashes of remembrance across her eyes, like the bursts of light set off from a photographer’s powder flash, but they disappeared too quickly.
“I don’t remember anything.”
The man sat back in the chair, contemplating.
“Where do you live? Certainly not in the woods where I found you.”
“I live at the palace,” she replied as though he was being foolish.
The man slowly shook his head. “We are nowhere near St. Petersburg or the Alexander Palace. You and your family were exiled to Siberia, then brought to Yekaterinburg.”
Ana fought a spinning jumble of thoughts. She remembered the house. The rough interior of bare bedrooms and hallways took form, surrounded by a high fence. She sat with her three sisters, sitting and sewing all the time because there was so little else to do. And sometimes there were men there, cruel men, always staring at her. Following her around. Were they servants? Guards? She remembered being cold and hungry.
“There was a house. I lived in a house. With my family. Where are they?”
The doctor stepped forward.
“Please. You’re putting too much of a strain on her,” he urged Hawthorne. “There will be time to do these things later.”
“We don’t have later, Doctor.”
Hawthorne went to the room’s wardrobe. Opening it, he produced a frock and travel dress. After he laid the dress across the bed for her, Ana examined it with her hands and eyes. The dress and its jacket were ruined. There were holes all across and some parts were ripped to shreds. A dark red stain seeped from the corset.
Was that blood?
“Can you remember them, Ana? Your family. What happened to them?”
It was the middle of the night. Doctor Botkin was going from room to room. They were going to be set free. Everyone was so happy. Tatiana was crying. Poppa was pleased they would remain together.
But there was Commandant Yurovsky, head of the Red Guards who watched over their imprisonment, telling them he wanted a picture of the family and the servants. Ana and the others were told to get dressed in their traveling clothes.
The Guards sent everyone to wait downstairs in a basement room. They arranged themselves for the picture to be taken. Mama had difficulty standing. So did Alexei, Anastasia’s brother. Chairs were brought in so her mama and poppa could sit. Alexei sat in Poppa’s lap. The sisters all held hands.
They waited there for a very long time.
The commandant came into the basement room with many guards. He read aloud from a paper. They were criminals and were to be executed at once.
Poppa stood up, passed Alexei to Anastasia, and cried out.
The commandant took out a pistol and aimed it at Poppa.
Smoke. Thunder. Screaming. Begging.
Deafened by the pistol shots, Ana saw only men and shapes falling around her. The smoke parted. Olga, the oldest of Ana’s sisters, threw herself in front of Mama. She tried to stop a guard from pointing his pistol at them. Her head snapped backwards, as though an invisible hand struck her in the face and threw her to the ground. Olga disappeared into the smoke.
Ana held Alexei tight. He was so weak from the blood disease that he could not stand. Hands tore the young boy away from her. Ana saw the empty hole of a gun pointed towards her. She blinked. A fist of fire threw her against the wall. Weeping and stunned, she huddled there. Another fist hit her arm. Another in her side. Another in her leg. Thunderclaps hammered her ears. She screamed as though she was being torn apart.
A blade flashed towards her. It slid in. A terrible pain exploded in her heart.
She cried out, gasping, and all fell dark around her.
Ana blinked tears.
The doctor grumbled and fumed, but Hawthorne remained close, letting her hands feel the holes in her clothes.
“These are the clothes I found you in. Doctor Andropov called it luck that saved you. I’d say it was a miracle. A fortune in miracles.”
Hawthorne slid his finger inside one of the holes of her frock until a blue stone mounted inside a silver filigreed setting appeared between his fingers. He placed the jeweled pin in her palm.
“Treasures from the Russian dynasties, sewn into your corset. They saved you.”
Ana looked down at the ruined dress. She recalled the long days she was trapped—a prisoner—inside The House of Special Purpose. The windows had been painted over to prevent them from seeing the out and to keep outsiders from looking in. She and her family were only allowed outside in the yard for the briefest of times. Guards followed the family and listened in on their conversations. Ana and her family could not write letters or speak to anyone.
There was nothing to do but sew and mend clothes. Especially this dress.
“Ana, this dress will save us,” her mama had told her.
Ana looked up at Hawthorne and Doctor Andropov, amazed and confused. She broke into a sob.
“The guards did it. They shot all of us in the basement.”
Ana overheard a gasp of terror and weeping. Magda collapsed to the floor just outside the door, her head buried in her hands. The doctor went to her, comforting the fallen servant.
Hawthorne took Ana by the hand. There was a fierceness to him, a sense of protection and strength. She was safe here. The beautiful gemstone slipped from her other hand as she wiped the tears from her face.
“And then what?” Hawthorne persisted.
“I woke up outside the house. The guards were tossing my family to the ground. Tearing our clothes off. I slipped through the boards in the fence when they were not looking and ran into the woods. The guards chased me. Yurovsky was their leader. He ordered his men to shoot.”
A shuddering wave of recollection came over Ana. Her grip on Hawthorne’s hand tightened. Her face turned ashen.
“Someone was there. Not you. A man all in white. A ghost. A wraith. He attacked the guards, I think. I don’t know! I’m so confused.”
After sending Magda away, Doctor Andropov stepped back into the room to bring this painful recollection to an end.
“Please, sir.” he begged. “She’s exhausted.”
The grim-looking Hawthorne’s expression softened. He relented. Taking the gem and the dress away, he returned it inside the wardrobe.
“I’m sorry for upsetting you, Anastasia. There is one more thing I want to show you. One more miracle.”
He reached under the bed and pressed a long piece of forged metal into her hands. The blade reflected the room’s diffused light.
It was a cavalryman’s saber.
“When I found you in the woods, you were wielding this.”
Major Kaspak of Cheka, the secret police of the Bolshevik Party and the new Soviet government, walked the grounds of the Ipatiev House—The House of Special Purpose—in silence, his gloved hands behind his back as he observed.
Soldiers seized from a passing force supporting the defense of the city of Yekaterinburg from the White Loyalists were retrieving the bodies of nine men from the nearby woods. Battling swarms of black flies and wearing handkerchiefs and rags over their faces, they loaded the dead on a wooden cart and dragged it over the tree roots back to the house. This was their third trip.
As they approached, Kaspak raised his hand to stop them as he had done twice before. He pulled back the blanket covering what lay inside. Stoic, war-hardened men turned away from the sight. Not Kaspak. A doctor and former instructor at the elite Moscow Academy of Medicine, he was looking for answers. He also desired new assets. What he found in the cart provided very few answers and would not aid his research. Torn to pieces, the remnants were hardly recognizable as men.
With a gloved hand, he lifted an arm out of the cart to inspect it. The arm was not attached. One end was a mess of sinew and muscle where it was ripped from the shoulder socket. The embroidered sleeve patch of a commandant of the Red Guard caught his eye. Kaspak was certain the arm belonged to Yakov Yurovsky, the head of the detail guarding the royal family and the man responsible for their execution.
“Why was he in the woods and not the house?” Kaspak wondered aloud. The soldiers only grunted and shuffled their boots. The major returned the arm to the cart and snapped his fingers. The blanket was tossed over the dead and wheeled off.
“Put him with the rest.”
The soldiers pushed the cart to a large pit behind the house dug by prison laborers for the nine soldiers and for themselves. Even the Red Guard soldiers working the site would be diverted on the way back to their battalion and shot on the side of the road—the victims of a “White Army ambush.” Kaspak wanted no witnesses, no links or words to connect what happened here to the outside world.
He walked back to his personal staff investigating the house and its contents. Commandant Yurovsky was to have carried out a simple order. That simple order turned into the series of events that had to be carefully investigated. Yes, the Romanovs and their servants were dead. But so too were their executors.
The grisly details of the guards’ deaths was the reason why Major Jurgen Kaspak was summoned here by Premier Vladimir Lenin’s order. Kaspak was not truly an officer, although his rank suggested as much. He investigated certain unusual cases on behalf of the government, although very few knew he had been thrown out of the Moscow Academy for the very same reasons.
He had been caught probing the mysteries of cellular death on the living. The “participants” of his experiments were drunkards, opium addicts and prostitutes he found in Moscow’s dark street alleys. The trail of bodies was discovered by the police and, rather than face public embarrassment, the Moscow Academy would have nothing more to do with him. Although he avoided criminal charges, Doctor Jurgen Kaspak was promptly dismissed and publically disgraced.
Abandoned by his colleagues in the medical profession, the judgment brought down upon him pushed him into the arms of the socialists. By sheer coincidence, Kaspak saved Vladimir Lenin’s life after an assassination attempt. Accepted into Lenin’s inner circle, the former doctor was given permission to continue his research. As a major in the elite Cheka secret police, he could work with impunity.
A table and chairs were set up near the house’s basement door and a truck holding yet another cargo of death: the Romanovs and their servants. More conscripts were working with lanterns inside the spoiling odor of the cargo truck, wearing masks over their faces and holding photographs in their hands. Their job was to identify the dead and report it to Kaspak’s lieutenant, Mishkin.
Mishkin was the frail son of a banker with the mannerisms of a church mouse. The spectacles perched on his nose only added to his appearance of fragility. The man was obsessive about details and therefore was perfect for Kaspak’s special unit.
The lieutenant was seated at the table, taking careful notes in his ledger, leafing through Red Guard logs and checking everything as the contents of the house was brought out. To his right was an iron strong box. Just behind him were bundles of clothes. The rest of the house’s contents was being thrown into a pile.
Kaspak watched, bemused, as laborers carefully cut through the seams and stitches of pieces of clothing with bayonet knives. Out spilled gold, jewelry and mounted gemstones. The royal family was smuggling a fortune inside their clothing. He picked up a decorative blouse. It was perforated by pistol fire and stained with blood. Too bad the royal family were shot before they could use any of their fortune.
The major walked over to Mishkin and snatched up a photograph of the royal family taken at the Alexander Palace. There stood Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, the prince regent Alexei and the four duchesses.
Kaspak remembered he was there that Christmas two years ago, just a minor official of the rising Bolshevik Party watching along with onlookers as the family took their places for their annual holiday portrait. How content they all looked. They never even suspected the storm of change that would sweep them away. He admitted to not being too fervent a socialist. It was science and discovery that drove him, not politics.
A whiff of death escaped the truck as a conscript staggered out and dropped a picture of a man and a gold ring on the desk. It was the wedding band from the hand of the Tsar.
“So. They are all accounted for?”
“No, Major.” Mishkin was pouring over a ledger. “We are missing one body and found another.”
Kaspak found the lieutenant’s choice of words puzzling.
“How can you lose a body and gain another?”
Mishkin pointed at the royal photograph in Kaspak’s gloved hand.
“We have not found all of the Romanovs. It is proving difficult.”
“Take all the bodies out of the truck. Examine them in daylight.”
“Yes, of course.” Mishkin lifted up a ledger book. “But by count alone, we are missing someone. There were seven Romanovs, their family doctor Botkin and three servants. These books from the house tally them and their names. There are only ten bodies in the truck. The missing is either a servant girl or could be the youngest duchess, Anastasia. The others are all mostly accounted for.”
“When they were shot by Commandant Yurovsky and his men, some did not die. The jewelry they were hiding on their clothes protected them from gunfire and bayonets. Yurovsky ordered the guards to shoot them in the head, making identification difficult.” He fingered the wedding band of the last Tsar before dropping it inside an envelope and placing it inside the iron box. The ring belonged to the people now. “There is a body missing from that truck.”
“If the young duchess is not there,” Kaspak words and gaze trailed off to the woods where Yurovsky and his men—pieces of them—were found. The answers were out there. Whatever happened here at this house was not over.
“The other body was found in the basement’s cold storage room,” Mishkin declared.
“It is not the Grand Duchess?”
“No. We are trying to identify him.”
The mystery was only growing. Kaspak marched towards the basement doors. Soldiers hefting art and furniture taken from the Alexander Palace after the royal family’s abdication skittered out of his way. He wanted to see this other body for himself.
The major first stopped at the basement room where the Romanovs met their destiny. This was a great moment in the new Soviet Russia—an end to the monarchy and the division between the wealthy landowners and the peasants. Here justice was delivered upon the wealthy elitists in the form of bullets and bayonets.
The room still smelled of gunpowder and the iron scent of blood. He noted the stained floor and the toppled-over chairs where the weakling monarchs sat their last. The far wall was peppered with bullets. Kaspak’s mind regarded the scene with the cold calculation of a doctor. This wasn’t an execution. This was surgery. The evil heart of Russia had been carved out and cast aside. He wished he could have been there to observe it. He was always curious about death … and the return from its chilling seas.
“Death to the Tsar! Death to the monarchy!” a voice shouted behind him.
Kaspak turned on the soldier, allowing his frown of displeasure to deliver its own rebuke. The man shrank back and slinked away.
“And you will join them,” he quipped as he turned a corner and found the house’s cold storage room and turned on the gas lights. Reserved for preserving vegetables and other foods, he found the body tightly draped there on a preparation table. By its length and physique this was a man, not a young woman like the missing duchess.
He removed the drape from the body’s head and gasped. He was a perfect specimen of death, preserved down here in the cold confines. Kaspak checked the body and found only two gunshot wounds. The young man had been shot in the back. This house contained many mysteries.
“I know you are hiding there,” the major spoke aloud. “Come forward.”
The soldier he chastised earlier stepped out from the darkness and saluted.
“Yes, Major Kaspak?”
“Tell Lieutenant Mishkin to have them bring up the special truck. I want this man loaded inside at once. Time is crucial if he is to be reclaimed.”
The major turned his head, slightly annoyed.
“Why are you still standing there? I gave you an order.”
On the occasion of her fifteenth birthday, Anastasia was given a special gift from her mother the Empress: personal riding instruction from the captain of the royal guards, Henryk Michonski. The captain himself proposed he train Ana to ride her horse Orion. The Empress was delighted, but none more so than Ana.
The captain instructed her at the stables and horse track behind the Alexander Palace while Peter Andersen and Anna Andersen looked on. The summer months were humid and unusually hot, but that didn’t stop the captain from drilling Ana. Orion was not even taken out of his stable, not until Michonski was satisfied with Ana’s form as she sat in her saddle precariously on a fence rail. If she even slightly leaned the wrong way, she and the saddle would fall over into the filthy mud, enraging her.
“Patience. Practice. All cavalrymen must be these things,” he lectured her.
“I am not a cavalryman!” she protested. “I am a duchess!”
“For Orion’s sake, you will become a cavalryman. Anything less is an insult to the horse.”
“You treat the horse better than me,” she sobbed there in the dirt, her beautiful clothes muddy and ruined.
“Then prove me wrong, Little Duchess.”
Ana hated when he called her by titles such as “Her Majesty”, “Her Most Highness” or “Little Duchess”, knowing he was being spiteful and cruel. Complaining to him only brought more titles, each one more ludicrous than the previous.
“Yes you are a poor student, Your Supreme Delicate Duchess.” “No you cannot rest, My Esteemed Grand Holiness.”
A rage built up inside of Ana. She wanted to do better and prove him wrong.
After Captain Michonski was satisfied with her saddle work, they took up riding. Up and down the dusty track the captain rode his luminous white charger beside her and Orion, correcting her with a strike of a rider’s whip across her leg or back. Everyone, even her sisters, taunted the captain’s young “cadet”.
Ana stopped wearing dainty riding clothes, replacing them with sturdy trousers, riding boots, a white button blouse and a sash around her waist like the Cossacks wore. She tied her long hair up instead of wearing a sassy satin riding hat.
After seeing her dress this way, her sisters Tatiana and Maria started accusing her of being Alexei’s long lost brother, “Anok.” Even her mama found her appearance too unsettling after a long afternoon spent training.
“You’re a grand duchess, not a stable boy,” she would scold her.
Ana didn’t pay any attention to them or their teasing, only to the young captain. A man who grew more admirable—and handsome—with every day.
“Are you enjoying your lessons, Duchess?” he asked her as they took off together to the wide swath of dirt of the riding track behind the palace.
“Yes, very much!” Anastasia played with Orion’s mane. “I have learned to appreciate him like the great stallion that he is.”
He turned to her and grinned, putting his white charger into a gallop. Ana at once followed him, prodding Orion to follow.
The two horses rushed off at once. The summer wind and its sweet breezes filled her nostrils while she followed the captain. The thundering horse and its powerful strides yielded to her commands as she leaned forward in the saddle. Orion was set free and so was Ana. She found herself laughing with joy, breathless and exhilarated all at once.
They stopped at the far end of the track, almost at the entrance to the woods where she would try to run off to when she was younger. She knew better than to disappoint the captain and turned Orion back around, ready for another gallop back down the way they came. But the captain was in no hurry. Pleased with her progress so far, he nodded towards her.
“What shall your next lesson be, Duchess?”
The thrill of the ride only made her bolder.
“Teach me how to handle a sword,” she said, noticing the fine saber in its scabbard resting in its loophole on the saddle beside his waist.
“Are you enlisting, Grand Duchess?” Henryk joked back. “Or would you prefer an officer’s commission?”
“You said I was to become a cavalryman. Teach me to be a real one.”
“Little princesses do not handle swords. They hold scepters and rule from thrones. You should act like the rest of your family.”
She looked back out across the horse track, towards the palace. There was a sheltered promenade where her sisters, Olga, Tatiana and Maria, along with their giggling friends of the royal court were taking high tea. They were surrounded by shade, music and servants. Anastasia was always left out—too young to understand their gossip and treated as a clingy annoyance.
There was still young Peter Andersen, the boy who remained by the stables while she went out and rode Orion. He seemed content to watch her practice riding. The son of the chief inspector was a writer and would divide his time between private schooling in the village and staying at the palace. But recently Peter had become gangly and dour. He spent a great deal of time keeping to himself, writing in his journal.
Anastasia did not care so much for her sisters or Peter. She wanted the attention of the captain of the guard.
“I don’t want to be like them. I want to be like you.”
The captain looked surprised. He brought his own white horse around, circling Ana and Orion with perfect gait and precision. Ana could not tell if he was concentrating on riding or if he was deep in thought. With no effort at all, he brought his horse to a halt right next to her.
“Your parents would not approve of such things,” he caught Ana’s disappointment and returned it with a mischievous smile. “However, I believe it’s time you and Orion learned to ride in the woods.”
Ana brightened at the challenge, but remembered her mother’s warning.
“Mama said I should never go there alone.”
“You will not be alone.” His gloved hand grazed the saber nestled inside its scabbard. “And we can train there in peace.”
Anastasia woke up to the sound of voices coming from past the door to the bedroom. She recognized the old doctor and the Englishman, Hawthorne, speaking. They were discussing her.
“You are pushing her too hard.”
“It’s a long way back to England and my timetable cannot be altered. It’s been nearly a week. We need to keep getting her out of bed and on her feet.”
“Hasn’t the young duchess suffered enough?”
“The Red Guards know what happened by now. Their secret police will be searching for a missing duchess. Let us try to avoid using Anastasia’s title, shall we?”
The old man’s voice turned apologetic. “My mistake. I see you’re still bothered by your shoulder. Do you want me to look at the wound again?”
“It’s none of your concern,” Hawthorne flatly cut him off.
“If there is one thing I am certain of, that bullet wound will become infected unless you have surgery.”
“I have no time to be disabled by your idea of surgery. Ana must be made safe. The only safe place for her is in England.”
“I’ve treated many injuries on the battlefield in the Caucuses. An infection spreads rapidly and can lead to fever and unconsciousness.”
“Duly noted,” Hawthorne glowered.
Their voices turned back into undeterminable whispers. Ana pulled away the bedcovers. Wearing a borrowed nightdress, perhaps belonging to the servant girl Magda, she examined the round bruises on her chest, arms and shoulders. They were lessening in color and so was the pain when she pressed on them. The gems sewn into her traveling clothes had deflected the guards’ bullets, saving her. The murder of her family still remained firmly trapped within her mind, sending flashes of horror before her eyes.
She looked to her right and saw the saber there beside her, wrapped in a pillowcase. At first, the Englishman did not want her to have it, but she begged and fussed and firmly declared that she would not sleep unless he relented. She touched the metal handguard and gave quiet thanks to the brave man who gave it to her.
“Henryk,” she fondly spoke his name.
Speaking made her cough. The pitcher of water on the table beside her was empty. She decided this was as good a time as ever to prove to Hawthorne that she did not need his help. She could get her own water.
Wrapping both hands around the closest bedpost, she pulled hard to raise herself. Every fiber in her side screamed. The sores on her legs were needles as she dragged them across the mattress. Her arms shook and trembled. With great effort, Ana finally sat upright on the bed.
“See?” she croaked aloud.
Now all she had to do was get on her feet.
Easier said than done. She considered leaning forward and standing, but the pain in her side argued against that. Grabbing the bedpost again, Ana slid her backside off the bed and tested resting her weight on her feet as they touched the wood floor. They tingled with sharp pinpricks.
“Up,” she commanded herself with a hoarse whisper. “Get up!”
She tried once and grimaced. The Englishman had been harsh to her before, goading her to stand up using her own strength but she always needed his help. She decided that she did not like Hawthorne very much. Did he not know that everything inside hurt so bad?
Ana tried again. Success! But not for long. Her knees and joints buckled as she nearly lost her balance and fell back on the bed.
She breathed deeply. The bedpost at the end beckoned her. She would need two steps, maybe three at the most to reach it. Standing again, she stretched out with one arm. Staggering forward, she fell against the bedpost there. She nearly cried out but managed to remain standing. Another success.
Before her was a bureau of drawers and the partially-open door to the hallway. Two more steps, she told herself. She would soon walk before the Englishman to prove she could do it. She tottered towards the bureau using the stiff walking motion of a soldier on parade. Leaning against it for support, she took another deep breath and stretched for the door handle…
Her legs turned to gelatin. Feeling faint and nauseous, she propped herself up against the doorframe. Sweat poured down her face. The room spun around her as she collapsed to the floor.
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