Holiday short story winner: Armadillo Scars

  • The challenge for our most recent holiday writing competition was to write a creative story inspired by ‘How that scar got there’
  • We only had one slot open for a writer to be published in YP’s annual anthology, and here she is!
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Take a look at the winner of our latest short story competition.

This short story was written by Megan Ng, age 13.

It’s Scar Night at the Blue Armadillo, and everyone’s coming in style.

We’ve got our regulars, of course. You can see them right up by the bar, waving or banging the countertop to catch the barmaid’s eye. All their entries are unremarkable – they’re all doing it for the hell of it, to get a brief moment in the spotlight. Jagged cuts across their fingers from a chopping accident, the faint marks of stitches on their legs or chins.

None of them ever win, but they’re useful – help to promote the event, you see. It’s their night of relaxation after a gruelling season. Even though the Armadillo isn’t exactly hard to find, we usually score many more new customers who curiously follow the line of sweaty people to our door.

The first-timers are the easiest to spot. Lingering by the entrance, cloaks always too clean. Their scars are a little more interesting – they wouldn’t come otherwise, too nervous about what the others might think. The odd souvenir gained from an arcane ritual gone wrong, a finger lost here or there in machinery. They present these carefully, shrugging an arm out of their shirts. Maybe, if it’s a quiet night and we’re feeling kind, one of them will win.

Short story competition: Santa’s dark secret

Over there, that man, the one who’s just flung back his hood. He’s a strong contender, those plague scars puckering his face. A cheer rises up around him, the clinking of glasses, people reaching over to slap him on the back. “Nice ones”, they’re saying. “Shows you lived.”

His competition grins at him from her seat at the counter. She’s shaved her head, all the better to show off the gruesome gash on her scalp – it’s the kind that people would ogle behind her back and avert their eyes when she turned. Here, though, she’s the centre of attention. From her wild gestures, I’d say she probably got it in a fight. Hard to tell, though.

In a corner, there are a few kids who look like they’ve come straight from fighting a dragon. Might need someone to check on them soon – it’s Scar Night, not Open Wound Night, and I’m not quite excited about the way that boy’s bleeding against the wall. Right next to the queen’s painting, too.

The queen.

In the painting, she’s wearing a backless gown, the better to show off her scars. They run like a tapestry down her torso, skin puckered and rippled. Occasionally, someone turns and raises their glass to it. Embarrassing, really, how much they love her.

Not all taverns have the queen’s portrait in them. Some owners despise her, won’t let anyone who says her name past the door. But they aren’t the ones who hold Scar Night. Here, every mark is a tribute to survival, to the queen.

Short story competition: The elf who wanted to be human

There’s a girl sitting in the warm glow of a lamp, carefully taking off her prosthetic leg. Royal guard, by the looks of it. How else would she be able to get something so beautiful? Silicone and aluminium, but it bends and twists in a way almost impossible for machinery. From the queen’s very hand.

They say that ever since the queen ascended the throne, the armadillos in the fields started working twice as fast. That their metal joints never need oiling, and when called, they run towards their masters so smoothly that it’s as if they’re gliding.

Machines go into the queen’s workshop, and they come out different.

The plague-scarred man is talking to the royal guard, and they laugh together as she mimes a story. Something about a dog chasing a rabbit.

I lean my head back and catch snatches of conversations, staring at the portrait in its gilded frame. The drinks are good tonight. Whoever wins Scar Night will count themselves lucky.

A few latecomers slide into place. People with missing eyes, or hands. Claw marks on their arms. Battle trophies. Nobody sees me, hidden up against the darkest ceiling beams.

It’s time. Everyone is dead silent, all watching Cora as she stops wiping a glass and slowly, theatrically, puts it down.

She’s practised wiping that glass a million times this week, trying to look completely and totally nonchalant. And you have to admit, she’s done a great job.

Her finger flicks up and she points to the girl with the shaved head. “You.”

Cora has a knack for storytelling and a flair for the dramatics. That’s why I chose her for the job – because although Scar Night is first and foremost about scars, it’s also about stories. It’s about people’s wild tales, even if some do exaggerate.

Short story competition: Finding true happiness

We always pick a different winner, but it doesn’t matter. The chance of free drinks for the night is not why these people come here. And although they don’t know it, it’s not why I host this competition.

She’s not in the crowd. I’ve scanned every face carefully, and I can already tell.

From the bar, Cora meets my eyes, and I give her a brief shake of my head. She’s not here.

I suppose this’ll be just like always, then. Brace yourselves, everyone. The entire room is holding their breath. Cora leans forward and grins.

“How did that scar get there?”

And there’s a collective sigh, as the woman with the shaved head smiles with a mouth full of sharp teeth and leaps onto the countertop.

For the next 10 minutes, we listen to her tell the story of her scar. We watch her jumping from the countertop to the stool to the floor, acting out her battle against a rogue armadillo. It went crazy, she said, while ploughing a field on her family farm.

“If I hadn’t been fast enough, its blades would have cut through my little brother in a heartbeat.”

Her name is Alexandra, and her tale is ferocious and cunning and proud. Maybe she stretches the truth a little, because ... did she really cartwheel over a metal beast five times as tall as her? But the core of it is accurate – the jagged cut across her scalp confirms her story.

“Perhaps,” she whispers, leaning against the wall with her arm slung around a stool, “one of those king-lovers made it go insane. Hacked into it or something. ’Cause this happened right after the queen ...” She pauses.

We all turn to the portrait on the wall. This girl is good. If I hadn’t got Cora, I might be offering her a bartending job right now.

Short story competition: Two sides to every story

“They could have wanted to sabotage her. Didn’t everyone hear about the accidents, when the queen was still new to the throne? Machines malfunctioning. Strange, right, when nothing’s gone wrong for years now.”

She looks around.

“Well, if those scum tried to make us hate her,” Alexandra holds up her drink, “it didn’t work!”

And a wild cheer goes up all around the room, people reaching over to shake her hand. Amazing, they say. A hero! The portrait is toasted too, and I smile quietly to myself. A good ending, although factually wrong. The reason the armadillos had malfunctioned was because they took some time to adjust to their new master.

Of course, the changes the queen made to them in her workshop didn’t help.

I know what they say about her. You’d have to know, working in a tavern. How the garden rose from the dead and flourished the second she took the throne. How she never asks for tools in her workshop, only strange ingredients. Why would you need herbs and gravesoil to fix up robots?

I know what they whisper, behind closed doors.

Witch! A woman shouldn’t have been able to overpower her husband. A woman shouldn’t have been able to seize the throne. There’s no evidence that the crimes she says the king committed were true.

She goes out in public with veils over her face and hats with large brims, and nobody remembers quite what she looked like when the king was still alive. Rings on her fingers and jewels on her gowns.

And of course her scars, spread over her arms and back like spiderwebs. Practically unheard of for a monarch, especially a female one. Doesn’t she care at all about her appearance? She’s ugly, maimed, broken.

The next person is stepping up, and I snap back to the present. It’s the plague-scarred man.

Short story: Don’t mess with the elves

After the first one, Cora never needs to prompt. The stories flow out of them, everyone eager to tell. His name is Otto, and his story is one of great grief and pain. Loss of his father. Terrible fear across his village. The smell of burning bodies.

He was only a child. Most of the people surrounding him had only heard about the plague from their grandparents, but now they bow their heads and think in silence.

Yet his story ends with a note of pride. They might have lost many, but they survived. “And now, because of the queen, medicines are available throughout the land. Almost like magic, how fast they cure you.”

At that, everyone’s gaze sneaks over to the painting again. “Magic,” Otto says again, and the word darts around the tavern. Cora mouths it quietly, and glances up at me to flash a smile.

Cora is many things, but she’s not subtle, and I nod back wearily.

The story has sobered everyone, yet there is still the collective toast to the painting. Alexandra throws an arm around Otto, and together they drink to the ones who weren’t so lucky.

And so begins a flurry of shorter stories, of different scars.

A shopkeeper with a shock of pink hair shows off the dent on their chin. From jumping on river rocks, trying to impress their friends, they say. It was silly of them.

A man with a cane pulls up his trouser leg to reveal a jagged red scar on the inside of his calf. I was born with my legs joined together, he says. A miracle that he survived, and everyone makes sure to tell him so.

A boy who saved a stray cat from drowning shows off the scratches it gave him. He gets a laugh and a small round of applause.

Short story: 3 wishes

The workers, the apprentices, everyone gets a turn, and everyone is listened to carefully.

The royal guard with the prosthetic leg is last. Her name is Darwin, and she lost her limb in the riots.

And that’s all the introduction she needs. People glance at each other, then the painting, shuddering slightly.

Her story is harrowing, but even more so are the memories of those dark times, just after the king’s murder. The mobs, the burning houses, the blades.

Thirteen years hasn’t dulled the horror of it. And I know what everyone thinks of it, too.

She’s a witch, she used her powers. That’s the only way she could have killed him. Only magic could beat his technology. How else do you think Her Majesty got those hideous scars?

I clench my fists. Cora’s gaze flickers up to my hiding place a tad too often now, but nobody notices, so focused are they on Darwin’s searing words.

After the king was slain, his supporters demanded that the princess take over. They did have a daughter – she wasn’t seen in public a lot, but she was there, at the edges of photos and memories alike.

But the queen had planned ahead, and before that night, the princess was smuggled away.

Although, she didn’t plan enough. Houses were ransacked, searching for a little girl. Possible candidates were snatched from their families by the mob. People were killed. Future scars burst up like flowers, scarlet blossoms all across the land.

Darwin’s voice is raw now, and it wavers as she skirts the more macabre details. But she is supported by dozens of other voices, hands that hold hers and tell her how she did her job well. You won, they say.

This is why people come to Scar Night. For the chance of free drinks, yes, but also for these moments.

“We never found her,” Darwin says. She looks around defiantly and I lean closer. “The princess. But I know she’s alive. Our queen saved her, she must have. I know she did.”

My vision blurs, and I carefully wipe my face of emotions. I don’t want Cora to look up suddenly and see me like this. If she was alive, would she recognise me after all these years?

She was so little when I sent her away. I sometimes wonder whether I was too cruel. Whether there could have been a way to keep her near me, to protect her.

Scars are memories, and I’m wreathed with them.

Don’t cry. Everything is going to be fine, but right now I need you to go with those people because it is not safe for you here. You’ll stay with them until you’re all grown up, and then you can come home, okay? I will know you as soon as I see you, don’t worry.

Short story: Replaced by robots

Would she be scared to look at me? At the scars that I flaunt, at the eye I lost fighting her own father to the death?

I will know you as soon as I see you, but first I need to give you something that nobody else will have.

So that I’ll be sure it’s you.

It won’t hurt. I’ll bind it with magic, and you won’t feel a thing.

When you want to come find me, remember to look for other people with these marks, okay? Follow them. You can trust them.

Scars are memories. They’re stories. And I tell myself this every time I watch our tavern light up with the roar of survival, of people who have defied death.

My daughter is alive, I say to myself as Darwin beams through her tears. She’s putting on the leg – the leg that I made in my workshops, melding science with sorcery. It’s got my own magic in its core.

My daughter is alive. I must believe that.

Cora swipes at her face with her sleeves and taps a fingernail against the glass she’s holding, turning everyone towards her.

“Well, Darwin,” she says, “that’s a winning scar if I ever saw one.”

The cheer that rockets through the tavern is exuberant. Darwin orders far too many free drinks and hands them off to other people – technically not allowed, but tonight I’ll let it slide. Someone begins singing, and the pink-haired shopkeeper whistles the refrain.

Scar Night is every Tuesday, and it’s always our happiest time. Stories and laughter leaking into the streets. That’s what the Blue Armadillo is known for.

It was me who chose the name. Funny, right? A nod to the king – I took his metal beasts and turned them into my own.

I try to be a kind and fair ruler, because he was not. I will be the one to fix what he broke.

When morning comes, I’ll whip up my invisibility spell and steal back to the palace. But now I can relax and watch the festivities.

I can dream of the day my daughter walks through that door with the glowing mark I made on her face.

And when that happens, I will be the one who smiles at her from behind the counter.

I will be the one to ask her the story of her how she got her scar.

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