1 – Seven
A THIN LAYER
OF SNOW DUSTED the dark alley as Kibwe and his young charge, Herminius,
made their way home. The dust and the flickering light from their
torches turned the their grimy world into a twinkling wonderland. It
wasn’t thick enough to turn the world white, but it still numbed their
fingers and toes and dampened their hair. Of the three things man needed
for survival—food, shelter, and clothing—the former was usually
crusty bread and thin wine, the middling was a drafty, small three-room
flat, and the latter consisted of threadbare rags. Luckily, they
possessed all three.
They passed a door, and
Herminius stopped. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Kibwe looked up
at the sign. Erect Stallion. “It’s
a boarding school for lost women,” he snapped. “You’re too young
to go in there. Keep walking.” For a copper, the redheaded boy toted
Kibwe’s bucket during his weekly trips to the coaler. The old man didn’t
need the help, but it kept the kid out of the back alleys and away from
“I know what a whorehouse
is, Kibwe. That’s not...” The youngster turned toward a rubbish pile
next to the door. “I heard a cry.”
Kibwe shuffled over to a pile
of trash and waved his torch around. “Rats.” He kicked a fruit crate full of the vermin.
“Let’s go.” A muffled cry caught his ear. He pushed the crate to
the side, revealing a colony of the pests burrowing into a small, wadded
up, bloody sheet. He shooed the rats away, and the bundle wiggled and
squeaked again. The thought of leaving it never crossed his mind, but he
killed more people in the Broderick District than not. He handed his
torch to his young companion and picked up the whole bundle. The
metallic tang of blood assaulted his nose as he carefully unwrapped the
sheet to see a newborn boy, still wet with his mother’s afterbirth,
looking up at him.
throwaway, he thought. They better hope the Idolites don’t find out about that practice. They
might find themselves hamstrung in the square late one ni... The
old man’s eyes flashed wide at the series of moles on the baby’s
left breast. Before he could stop himself, a cursed thought crossed his
mind—The reason my family died. Another thought swallowed it. I’ll
have to do something about this.
He swung his head around and
scanned the alley. Apart from the rats reclaiming the crate, they were
alone. He looked up at the door leading to the Erect Stallion and then
back down at the baby. “If some whore threw him out, she’s not going
to appreciate us knocking on her door and giving him back.” Then he
saw the tied-off umbilical cord. Throwing the baby away was not their
original plan. “That’s a lot of blood. His ma’s probably dead.”
“We could give him to the
Idolites,” Herminius suggested. “They have an orphanage for
“What? No! Religious
fanatics, all of ‘em. He’ll be one of their morons in a few years.
Didn’t you say something about a bitch having puppies?”
“Bring her to my flat.
There’s another copper for you if you get it there before I fall
asleep. Why are you still standing here? Hurry off with you.” With
that, he took the coal bucket and shooed the boy down the street. He
scurried back to his flat in the dark and wrapped the baby in dry
swaddling made from his robe as soon as he got there.
“It’s going to be a cold
one tonight, little one.” Kibwe lugged his chair over to his stove’s
glowing maw. He had sat down and gotten the infant situated in his lap
when Herminius showed up with a whining, milk-laden bitch in tow.
He looked up at Kibwe, eyes
bloodshot, holding a single puppy under his arm. “All the other ones
died,” he whispered.
Kibwe snuggled the baby up to
the bitch’s teats, and fascination overwhelmed him as nature found a
way to ensure life would continue, even in its most helpless and
The sniffling boy kneeled and
put the puppy on one of the hind teats. “Have you named him yet?” He
continued kneeling as he inspected the baby.
“Who? The baby? No. Why?”
“How about...Baby of
“How ‘bout what?”
“Baby of Broderick.” The
boy stood up to emphasize his point, his eyes no longer red. “He needs
“Humph. He won’t
appreciate that name when he gets older. I’ll think of one later.”
“Okay. We can call him
Broderick until you do.” Herminius kneeled back down. “I’ve always
wanted a brother.”
“Broderick. Humph. Good a
name as any, I suppose.” The old man pulled a blanket off his chair and
wrapped it around his shoulders. “And he won’t be your brother. If he
lives, he’ll stay here with me. Speaking of which, shouldn’t you be
getting home? Your ma is doubtlessly worried sick.”
“Yeah, I’ll probably get
the stick tonight.” In a heartbeat, the small and curious boy grew years
older as defiance shrouded his face. “But I’m not leaving until I get my
two copper pieces.”
“Humph.” Kibwe pulled out
the agreed-on price from his pouch and handed it over.
Although Kibwe’s house was
small, cozy didn’t describe it. Books piled in a haphazard fashion littered
the central room. The only people who read them these days were Herminius and
himself, the former spending more and more of his time there as his unmarried
mother fell deeper into the arms of the Idolites. Doorless frames led to two
other spaces. One, a kitchen with smoke stains on the walls and ceiling and
grease marks that had lingered past the previous inhabitants. The other
strangely-angled room doubled as a sleeping space and storage closet, leaving
barely enough freedom for a single person. Ink, chalk, and even blood covered
the walls. Overall, it was a typical dwelling for those trapped in the
Broderick District. Fortunately, the title, Healer, afforded him a sliver of
respect. The ruffians left him alone.
set the freshly fed and sleeping Broderick on the table to inspect the
birthmarks in detail. They’re
certainly in the right arrangement of the stars making up the Seventh House.
And that small mole in the middle, seven points. I’ll be damned if that
doesn’t look exactly like the Seven Sons constellation. He stared at it
for a fistful of breaths and rapidly shook his head. “Bah! Coincidence, that’s
all.” Albeit a laughable coincidence—the kind that weak-minded fools would
call the work of the gods. He’d seen, to his eternal regret, how even the
intelligent could be gullible enough when it came to certain subjects to be
goaded into believing anything, especially if the idea was nurtured with just
the right amount of viper oil.
what he believed impossible made Kibwe wonder if the time wasn’t nigh to
turn the simple and the superstitious into true believers before he died. The
proper story, passed along to the occasional gossipy patient...
little one, you are not going to like what I have to do to you tonight.”
He shuffled into the sleeping
room, pulled open an old chest—something from a much brighter past—and
rummaged around inside. Finding a knife, sharpened to a razor’s edge, he
honed an old stag bone until it was needle sharp. He pulled a thread from his
blanket and wrapped it around the needle.
“Clove oil. Hmm. Where did
I put that..?” The bitch lifted its head at the sound of Kibwe’s voice.
“Ah, yes. Over there.” Kibwe unrolled a large leather carrying case filled
with small glass bottles holding his healing agents. He picked one and rubbed
some of its oily contents on Broderick’s left breast, completely covering
the areas around the moles. “This should deaden the pain some, little one.
Not all, but it’s the best I can do.”
picked up his writing quill and ink and drew the connecting lines between the
moles, forming the Seventh House. Satisfied with his artwork, he picked up his
needle, dipped it in the ink until the thread was soaked, and tattooed the
design permanently into Broderick’s chest.
The first time the needle
pierced his skin, Broderick’s howl set Kibwe’s ears to ringing. The bitch
jumped up, dropping an upset puppy to the floor, and ran over to sniff her
latest charge. He shooed the dog away and continued working the needle,
ignoring Broderick’s cries. After the first few minutes, the cries changed
tenor. Kibwe no longer heard pain, but anger.
memories darkened his mien as he recalled what brought him to this hovel.