The Red Bride

By Samantha Henderson

You are to imagine, Twigling, the Red Bride to be a human, such as yourself, although she is in truth a creature of the Var.

I'm guessing you've heard the kitchen staff speak of the Red Bride, because you've a quick ear and the wit to pick up a few words of Varian, and you're not so arrogant as most of your race, to think the back-chatter of servants and slaves as no account. You're small for your species, and quiet, and I'm wise to that trick of yours of tucking up under the table and staying so still everyone forgets you're there. Still, they should be cannier than to imagine a human Twigling like you wouldn't overhear.

You must be patient. The Red Bride isn't a story I've pondered back and forth in my head and made like a Terran bedtime tale, all chopped up nicely for your eager birdlike gape. I must think it through in the telling and you must open up your mind and believe that a dog-which-is-not-a-dog may be hatched from an egg with all the knowledge it needs to hunt. The story of the Red Bride is a slave's tale in slave speech, which I do not generally hold in my head around humans lest my face betray me, so I must shift words around from one meaning to another like stones on a reckoning-board, each stone taking meaning from a square where another stone was a moment before.

Also, I think the story of the Red Bride is Varian entirely, nothing human at all, and doesn't come from the shared tales the scholars say that all the Seeded Races share in common.

If your mother overheard me mention the Seeded Races, and that the scholars begin to say that human and the Var are alike, she would have me whipped. You know that yourself, Twigling. But past this night, I do not think that your mother's whip will be used for anything after tonight save lashing a bundle of fiber-thorn.

The Red Bride is a Var and so squat, stunted, and ape-like to you, but you are to see her as we do and therefore beautiful, straight and strong, with piercing eyes and poised like a warrior. However you think of those princesses of yours, that you watch in your holo-stories and then beg me to weave into your bedtime tales—however you think of the most beautiful of them, or the most adventurous, the one you want to be—that is what she looks like.

You must understand, Twigling, that your princesses are all very ugly to me.

The Red Bride is born again and again, as our holy people are, over the span of many years. In the story in your head you might say that she is one of a long line of women that are born each from another. I notice that in the stories humans tell their young a woman who lives forever is a monstrous thing—a demon that kills the newborn, or that runs about on chicken-feet, and not to be honored as we would honor her.

The story doesn't start with the Bride, but with the Vallhan, a leader that is born, unknowing, when the Var have greatest need of him. He is not born a dreamer, or a gatherer, or an arbiter, as are our males, but all these things together. In your story, you must think of a village boy who has found an ancient sword. The Vallhan's mind is like a prism, gathering and scattering light, and information, and knowledge, and pain.

It's quiet—yes, it's very quiet. You don't hear the clatter from the kitchen, the servants getting ready for tomorrow's anniversary feast and celebrations. They're not preparing the Great Room, or polishing the silver. I wonder if your parent's guests, come to the ambassador's house for this holiday, snug in their bedrooms with a Var outside each door to supply their every need—I wonder if they notice anything strange about it.

There comes a time when the Vallhan has seen enough, and bears all he can bear, but he cannot act without his bride, the Red Bride, beside him.

So far this tale is easy to tell but now it gets difficult, for I don't have time to shift from what the words mean in slave talk to Semla-Varian (we have as many languages as bloodlines, you know, although as far as the humans are concerned we all speak the same debased patois), to bedtime-speak. My mind's rusty—I've been living among the Terrans too long. You are to imagine that the Red Bride must be sought, hunted down by a dog, a hound. This hound hatches from an egg laid by a monstrous bird, like the ones whose bones are stone in the Vandian Mountains, that the scholars say are like those dug out of Terran soil. The egg is made from the belly-stones of the Var that go to the mountain-lakes to die; the bird eats them, and crushes them inside it, and makes it all as one: egg and shell and hound.

You remember the lake, and the belly-stones, don't you, Twigling? I know you followed us that day we took old Impiti to the mountain on his dying-day. I didn't say anything, because I know you were fond of Impiti and brought him water when he was thirsty and he feared to move from his place in the children's wing. And also I know that you lied to your mother and said you had sent him on an errand when he was really sleeping. I didn't say anything, because I thought that it might be a good thing for a human child to see how a Var died.

When I saw that you understood that the moonstones your people find on the shores of lakes and small seas, which are sacred to us, are the belly-stones of the Var that die there, I almost killed you. I saw you look from the white bare ribs of the dead to the opalescent spill of pebbles beneath, and I know you are clever. If humans learned that in time the grey coating of our belly-stones wore away and they became such pretty baubles, we would be bred and slaughtered for them as your species breeds cattle.

But I am curious, and I wanted to see what you would do. At that time, I knew the hound had been hatched and was hunting the cities, the mines and the salt-flats for the Bride. And you said nothing. That's why I'm here tonight, telling you stories, instead of gathering with the others or guarding your door, ready to strike.

No, Twigling, you can't move. I put stillweed in your tea tonight. You can hear, and see and breathe, but your limbs will not obey you. Let me finish the story.

The hound hunts the alleys where my people scrape for a living in the soaring cities their ancestors built. It sniffs the banks of rivers where mothers throw their children, either because they have died or because they don't want them to live in slavery. It finds the places where the Var have been whipped, and kicked, and killed.

I'm sure it found that post beside the back door, where your mother has her servants whipped. I have bled there myself, more times than I care to remember. I will admit to you that I won't miss your mother, or your father, who occupied himself with his ambassador's duties and did nothing.

So the hound hunts until he finds the Red Bride, with her veils and scarlet slippers and ruby bracelets, waiting for him. You understand that because this is not a story of your time, or race, or planet, that the hound is not a hound as the Bride is not a Bride as the rubies are not rubies, but the Bride is certainly red, because both Var and human blood are red.

Ah—you hear them now? It won't be long.

The hound leads the Bride to the Vallhan, and the hearts of the Var quicken and their seeming inaction—simply a slow, hidden birth, a process of decision that would make impatient humans jibe—ends.

No—hush. They won't come in; they know I am here. I gave you stillweed because I need you to be quiet, and not incite the others to kill you when you try to run away.

Yes, they're in your sister's room next door. I gave her stillweed as well, and I thought a long time about whether I could save her too. But I can only carry one and I'll need to protect you a while, while the Red Bride runs rampant and the Var carry her onward with their anger. And in truth I can't forget the time your sister misplaced her necklace and blamed it on Sencha, and the poor little thing was whipped at your mother's post.

You didn't know Sencha was mine, did you? It's not the habit of humans to pay attention to such things. When you live with us, you will have to learn to pay attention.

The others disagreed with me. They want none of your kind to live. But I have been living among humans a long time, and I know many of your stories, and I think it is worth the risk. I think perhaps I have a part in the tale of the Red Bride as well, because in the old stories there is a little bird that sings on the Red Bride's shoulder, and flies to the Vallhan when they meet, and causes him to stay behind at the worst of the raging and keep his hands clean. I think I may be that bird.

I gave this kindness to your sister—I gave her enough stillweed that she fell asleep, and opened her veins myself. I've no wish for her to be frightened, as Sencha was frightened.

Sencha died after her whipping, did you know that? Small wonder. We don't speak of it. You might have asked, I think.

Don't try to speak. It's important that they think you're dead. I'll tell them I'm taking you to the lake to bury you—they know I'm half-mad, anyway. It's a good thing I'm stronger than I look, and that you're little for your kind, Twigling.

Come now, the house is burning. We'll stay in the long woods until the Red Bride has ended her reign and the Var remember, as the humans have not, that we are the Seeded Races, and one under the skin, as the scholars say.

Then, perhaps, we can try this again.


Samantha Henderson photo

Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California under the pomegranate tree next to the chickens. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Chizine, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit and Abyss & Apex, and podcast at Escape Pod, PodCastle and Drabblecast. Her previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives. For more about the author, see her website. You can contact her at samantha.henderson@gmail.com.