The Best Wet Nurse in Vorbarr Sultana - A Barrayaran Folktale

by Susan Profit

This was originally posted to the lois-bujold mailing list in March 2002.

In the time of the Great Nicholas Vorbarra, was his son Ivan come to adulthood. Now, as any good prince, he sought the lands of the Vor for the finest Vor Maiden fit to be his princess. He traveled to all the corners of the lands, and on his way back to Vorbarr Sultana, he found the tiny home of a Vor widow.

She had two daughters, gracious and comely to look on, dark tresses falling like shadows upon their backs. The youngest was her favorite, but the eldest was the only one old enough to wed. The prince found himself deeply in love with the youngest. He asked the widow and her daughters to return to the Palace with him to meet his father.

Now, when he arrived the Emperor Nicholas also fell in love with the young daughter. But he saw that the older would be a fine wife for his younger son. And so, he declared there was to be a double wedding on the very date the young girl would be old enough to marry.

But the younger son was ambitious and he was cruel. He had found a chemist who had a potion that was guaranteed to turn a person into a deer. Now, he did not know what a deer was, but he already knew who he would use it upon, and when.

On the day of the wedding, the youngest sister was married to the older brother and the older sister to the youngest brother, and the Emperor was happy, for these maidens shone like jewels in his court.

Before the summer was out, both sisters knew they were pregnant, and they were very happy. However, before the youngest sister had a chance to tell her prince she was carrying his heir, she told her sister and her sister's husband. The younger brother sent her a goblet of herbs steeped in honey water to celebrate. But hidden within these good herbs was the poison potion. She drank of it, and was transformed before her sister's eyes into a strange animal, long of leg, large of eye and shy of nature. The creature escaped through the window and took up residence in the farthest garden on the palace ground, beside a fountain of the softest music and the freshest water.

The younger prince told his brother that he had proof that the young princess had run away with a stable boy. He demanded his wife give her very word that she would never tell the prince what had happened to his princess, saying he would murder his wife as soon as she had delivered his son if she betrayed him.

The older prince was devastated. The older sister appeared in the court to be the perfect grieving sister, but when she was alone, every afternoon, she went down to the garden and spoke with her deer sister. The strange animal would let no one approach her except her older sister, but she was able to reply to only one question a day. Other than that, she was mute.

One afternoon in spring, both the strange creature in the garden and the older princess delivered their children. Both had delivered healthy children, the younger princess a boy and the older one a girl. As soon as that night fell, the younger prince told his wife "I am going to keep you in this wing of the palace, and you will never go out to walk in the gardens until you give me a son!"

Bereft, the princess begged him for a favor. She asked that she be allowed to have her child suckled by the best Wet Nurse in all the city. He granted it, and left. The princess called to her side the woman who had raised the two princes, Ma Serglov and asked her to do a favor. She asked that the woman take the deserted prince with her every afternoon to sit beside the fountain. She begged the woman to offer the child to be nursed by the first creature to approach and ask it a question.

Ma Serglov at first refused, but when the princess grew more and more upset, she agreed. "What question am I to ask this creature?"

"What is the name of the child that lies beside you?"

And so Ma Serglov and the prince went to the farthest garden and sat beside the fountain. In a very short time they were approached by a strange creature with long legs, large eyes and a shy manner. The creature sniffed the infant princess and offered her teat. Ma Serglov held the child to it and let her suck until she was full. As the creature turned to leave she asked "What is the name of the Child that lies beside you?"

The creature sighed, and answered in a soft voice "Prince Nicholas Vorbarra is he named." Before the stunned Prince could say a word, the strange creature slipped into the woods with the infant. They returned to the palace, where he went to see his sister-in-law.

"Who is that Creature?"
quot;I have given my word that I will not tell you that, but I can swear that any question she answers you will be true and she is a faithful subject of the Emperor who wishes no harm to you." He frowned at his sister-in-law, then left her with Ma Serglov. Ma Serglov was wiser than he was and so she asked "What shall I ask tomorrow?" "What happened to make you look this way?"

And so the next day, the deserted prince and Ma Serglov entered the garden, and when the strange creature had suckled the infant princess, Ma asked
quot;What happened to make you look this way?"

The strange creature sighed. "On the afternoon the midwife told me I was pregnant, I told my sister and her husband the good news. But before my husband could return and be told, my brother-in-law offered me a drink of herbs and honey water and a terrible potion." Again the creature slipped away.

On the third day, the question was "Can anyone break this spell?" The strange creature replied "Yes, but they must hurry. For on the Midsummer's Day, I will be changed forever into this shape and never more be able to speak."

On the fourth day, the question was "How can this spell be broken?" And the answer was "You must take me into the court of your father and slay me with your sword." Then as the creature slipped away, he asked
quot;Are you my beloved princess?" The creature came back to stand before him. She rose on her two hind feet and gazed into his eyes. She carefully laid her head upon his shoulder and sighed, and he knew that she was truly his princess who had not deserted him after all.

Now, Ma Serglov was frightened by this answer, so she sent in secret to the older sister and told her the fate of her deer sister. She was horrified that her dear younger sister could only be released by death. So that night, she sent Ma Serglov into the room of the Prince to steal his sword. Together, they threw it into midden behind the stables, and returned to their beds.

For one full month, the prince frantically searched the palace for his missing sword. Finally, on Midsummer's Eve, he went to the garden and asked the strange creature where to find it. She sighed and told him "My sister does not understand. When you cut my head off I will not die as she fears. Instead I will stand before the court in a dress made of stars and your brother will find his tongue telling all he has done. But because she does not understand, out of her great love for me she hid the sword in the midden pile behind the stables and there it is still."

The prince ran as fast as he could to the midden, extracted the sword and took it to his arms men to have it cleaned and readied for the court Festival the next day.

And on Midsummer's Day, as the older prince entered the court to greet the Emperor and wish him a prosperous and happy summer, the strange creature walked in beside him with the Wet Nurse following behind. When it came his turn, they approached his father the Emperor. He announced to his father that he had a wondrous gift to give him, then took out the sword and stuck off the head of the strange creature.

As promised, the best Wet Nurse in the kingdom for the infant princess was standing beside him with the infant prince in her arms, but so too was the missing princess dressed in a skirt of softest brown with stars scattered all over the surface of it. And as promised, the younger bother found himself telling his father the Emperor all he had down to try to prevent his brother from having an heir so he could inherit the throne. Then he told of other crimes against the Vor and Emperor, and when he was done the Emperor sadly ordered his youngest son to be staked out in the town square with no food or drink until he had expired.

His shame was softened only by the return of the wronged princess and how happy she made his eldest son. The two sisters grew closer, raising their children together and the younger sister bore the prince four more daughters, daughters whose eyes were very large and dark and whose manner was very shy and demure.

© 2002 by Susan Profit (

Current version by Michael Bernardi,

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Last updated: May 6th 2002