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Featured Story III • April 2018 • Mythic Delirium Books

Featured Story III • April 2018



Sword and Tattoo


Kate MacLeod


Although geographically we are at the center of the known world, our village is quite remote from the rest of civilization. Few traverse the heart of the Sea of Grass, and those that do seldom venture from the main roads. But on occasion a traveler does go astray. Most of those end up as nothing but bones amid the tall grass that dances like waves in the wind, hidden from sight until they are directly underfoot of the next lost wanderer. Our village is much the same; the small river we settled on the banks of is in a narrow chasm so deep the tops of our few trees are quite hidden. We know it wasn’t always this way, that long ago the river created the chasm and we sank down with it, safely out of sight. Now we cannot be found among the nodding waves of grass unless we too are directly underfoot.

So the man who appeared one morning curled up outside the public house’s door, half-dead and clutching a broken sword, he was out of the ordinary. He had a wild look to him: long ginger hair in tangled mats, clothes a mismatch of styles and origins from all over the edges of the Sea, face darkened with charcoal to be invisible in the night, the tattoo that dominated his right shoulder blade of two snakes knotted around each other, each biting the other’s throat, with bright red spots of blood like welts on his skin. He could only be a bandit, although one who had strayed far from the usual bandit haunts.

We brought him inside the public house to one of the rooms we had in the back behind the kitchen, places for travelers to stay the night. The public house was older than the oldest of us and our ancestors had made rooms for the comfort of travelers. We never asked ourselves why we still maintained those rooms, even though travelers were so rare, but at least we had a bed to put the delirious, raving man in.

In truth he wasn’t the first in our memory to show up in the night for us to find in the morning huddled in the public house doorway, and now we fetched the other foreigner to watch over this one. We called her Nell and she never objected, although she had been old enough when she arrived to tell us her real name if she had chosen. She had not chosen to tell us anything. She had spent twice as many years with us as she had been when she had shown up half-starved and willfully silent. We had fed her but never persuaded her to speak, and she had made herself the one who tended to the public house, keeping it clean and in good repair between our infrequent gatherings.

Now she took to the job of nurse with the same quiet diligence. She washed and bandaged all the man’s wounds and trickled honey water into his mouth whenever his thrashing nightmares desisted long enough to allow it. When he at last woke, she continued to feed him. She of course never spoke, and if he tried to speak to her none of us knew of it.

Then the day came when the man was well enough to walk about. We watched from windows as we spun and wove and from across vegetable patches where we crouched weeding as he limped to the edge of the river, two pieces of his broken sword in his hands. He drew his arm back, preparing to hurl the weapon into what depths the river offered. Deep enough to hide the shattered remains of the bridge that had stood for generations, older even than the public house. Not a single stone rested upon another any longer, but not a stone was missing either. They waited, under the dancing current. We felt them there, and anticipated feeling that blade, nestling among the stones, perhaps also waiting.

But then he lowered his hand again, clutching the broken blade so tightly it bit into his palm, his own blood not quite so impressive as that on his tattoo.

The man turned and limped back into the village and found our forge. The blacksmith took the two halves of the sword the man handed him mutely and examined the break. It would take some days to repair. The man nodded and went back to the public house where Nell was waiting. They both disappeared through the doorway and what happened inside those walls the rest of us never knew, but when the sword was repaired the man paid with a gold ring from his own ear. He carried the sword back to the public house and thrust it deep within the thatch of the roof and it was never spoken of again.

The man remained among us, living in the public house with Nell. He seldom spoke, but he said enough to tell us his name was Tore, which was all we needed to know. We showed him a patch of land further downstream where he could grow his own food, and when work that required many backs arose, Tore was always there to do his share.

In the spring Nell emerged from the public house with a girl-child in her arms, a girl born in our own hollow. She was almost one of us. Very nearly, we could tell. The girl had her father’s ginger hair but her mother’s dark eyes, a startling combination. We stopped by to see her, separately to not startle her parents, and each of us agreed that as well as the hair and the eyes she had something of us, something invisible to her parents but apparent to us. It was something like a smell, something like a feeling, as if she were just a bit warmer than another baby might be. We said nothing to Tore and Nell but we were all agreed, she was nearly one of us. And she was a good baby, content to sit on a blanket and play with her own feet while her mother was off fetching water and her father was plucking the feathers from a chicken.

What led the other bandits to our hollow? We will likely never know, but find us they did and before we quite knew what was happening they had found Tore. Tore rushed to scoop his daughter up into his arms and then started for the public house, but one of the bandits cut him off, a shirtless ruffian whose scars were even more extensive than his tattoo. He stood between Tore and the safety of the sturdy door, between Tore and his sword hidden in the thatch. We fancied we could see the hilt just peeping out of the straw, winking in the sunlight. We imagined it glowed like a torch in Tore’s mind, like the stones of the bridge that never left our awareness.

Another of the bandits, a short wiry lad with a nervous twitch, found the forge and shoved the blacksmith aside, seizing a poker from the fire and striding across the commons to where Tore was holding the others at bay with one outstretched hand, his daughter clinging tightly to the twisted locks of his hair as she looked all around with her great, dark eyes. He didn’t see the danger approaching until it was too late. The bandit pressed the hot iron to Tore’s shoulder, sizzling through his jerkin to the tattooed skin beneath. Tore cried out, falling to his knees but not letting go of his daughter.

There was nothing we could think to do to help. We could see his sword but could not get it to him, and the other bandits were closing in, blades raised high.

Suddenly a voice filled the commons, a voice making three sounds at once: a high whistle that made our bones shiver, a low but still feminine voice commanding something in a language none of us knew, and between and through the two a scream of pure rage. Air crushed down on us, popping our ears then driving breath from our lungs. Most of us were staggered to our knees, a few passed out entirely, but one of us saw Nell enter the commons, moving her hands to compel the air to rush past her, knocking the bandits off their feet. Two little streams of water flowed past her, perhaps from her fallen buckets, only the water was flowing uphill. The two streams divided into four, each trickling up to a fallen bandit, then becoming a rope of water tying itself around each man’s ankles.

Their screams filled our hollow as they were dragged through our little woods, but the river accepted them with a splash and then our normal quiet was once more restored.

Clever woman, did she know? The stones rejoiced, we all felt it; they feasted. Soon even the bones of those bandits would be gone, not a morsel for the fish who avoided the places where the stones of the bridge lay too close together, rolled by time and the current of the river.

Then they would sleep again, they would settle back into waiting. We hoped.

We helped our fallen get back to their feet, but Nell moved not at all, just seethed, her hands in fists, although she had no foes left to fight.

“Nell,” Tore said, struggling to his feet with the babe in his arms.

“You told me,” Nell said, her voice smooth and melodious, showing no signs of long disuse or even the just-occurred overuse. “You told me one day they would come for you, and I swore to stand by you.”

“You did,” Tore said, hugging their daughter tight.

“Now I tell you the same,” Nell said, finally walking up to him, then pulling her hair back, tipping her head so that he, so that we all, could see the little tattoo behind her ear, a circle within a triangle within a circle. “My voice will carry outside of these chasm walls. It will be heard, beyond the shores of the Sea of Grass to the far corners of this world, by all those with ears to hear. My people will come for me.”

“And I will stand by you,” Tore swore.

We went back to our own business, weaving and weeding, smithing and spinning, but we were in unspoken agreement. When Nell’s people came, the child would be in danger, and when the child was in danger not just Tore would rise up. We would stand with him, and so would the stones our ancestors had left to protect us. We feared her people would be many and the stones might not slip back into slumber after that fight. Their hunger would draw them out from under the eddies, up into the air where all with the senses to perceive would feel their presence.

We didn’t exactly fear the stones, but we did fear the things so terrible our ancestors had left us hidden behind such fearsome protections, beings so terrible our parents and grandparents had whispered not a single hint of them to us, not even disguised in a fairy tale or parable, and yet we all had been born knowing that fear.

But perhaps it was finally time. Yes, we agreed in silent glances one to the other all around the village. Soon it would be time to come out of hiding, to raise our voices as Nell had risen hers, and face the unnamed thing our ancestors had so carefully hidden us from.



Kate MacLeod lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, two sons, two dogs and a cat, although they may head further north soon, as the winters in Minnesota just don’t get cold enough anymore. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Abyss and Apex among other publications, and is forthcoming in Analog . Her novel In Quaking Hills, the second volume in her young adult science fiction series The Travels of Scout Shannon, will be out in January 2018. She occasionally pops up on various social media, but her internet home is at https://www.katemacleod.net.

About “Sword and Tattoo,” she writes, “Not too long ago I was rewatching Sons of Anarchy, and the back of my brain was sort of ruminating on the meanings of the tattoos and inclusion and exclusion from groups, but especially the importance of trying to remove something that was meant to be permanent when you were no longer part of the group. At the same time, my eldest son was reading one of my absolute favorite short stories for his English class, William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily,’ and I remembered one of the things on my writing bucket list was to tell a story from the point of view of an entire town. Those two things twined themselves together in my mind and ‘Sword and Tattoo’ was born.”



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