The boy who called himself Hiram was a noble’s get, but in the Stacks of Rat District, who wasn’t?
Blind Beatrix was a bastard—claimed her father was a port merchant who tried to sell her off. He’d almost managed it, too. But a bad batch of Whispersleep wine took her eyes, and her value as a servant dropped to nothing. It was a foul alchemic liquor, rumored to be stilled with a teaspoon of white oil in every bottle, for flavor. Imitation Whispersleep was sold from disreputable shops, some variations little more than vinegar and grease with a few drops of laudanum. A handsome young poet had drizzled some onto Beatrix’s tongue, except his had been wood spirits laced with treacle to mask the smell.
Opossum was a bastard too, though he’d tried to burn his house tattoo from his shoulder with a scrap of hot iron. The infection nearly killed him.
The girl named Spoons told everyone she was the illegitimate of a spire noble, but she refused to say which. When cornered by some of the older boys working for the watch they were more interested in what was under her stained tunic than which house she’d been cast out of.
Then there was the new boy. Hiram.
“They found me in the middens at birth, but the commander Amos took me in because I’m extra tough.” The boy named Hiram bragged, sitting on a mound of rotting wood and spokes, and scraps of metal siegeskin so rusted it was parchment thin.
“That’s why he trained me to fight like a legionnaire, see? Because he knew I’d be a soldier. No normal babe could survive being tossed out, that’s what he said. In another year, when I’m ten, they’ll let me join the children’s brigade. I was hand-picked by the commander before he died, you see? Cause’ Amos knew I was tough. But until I’m in the brigade I’ll need help from everyone. Once I’m in, I can bring you all food and clothes. But until then you’ll need to help me, you see?”
Heap was sitting next to Blind Beatrix, listening to the boy named Hiram. She kept shaking her head, glassy white eyes fixed on the putrid puddle at her feet. She said; “You left a warm bed and a bowl a day with the sisters at Menoll Home, to come here? You ain’t gettin’ our food.”
“The sisters didn’t do things the way I like.” The boy said. “I’ll bring you food later. More food than you can ever eat, once I’m in the brigade. Spoons already said she would. So did Badger.”
“You gave him your food?” Beatrix asked, and the younger kids said they had shared. “Stupid, stupid waste.”
“It ain’t stupid!” The boy shouted. “I promised I’d pay ‘em back. I was hungry, and the brigades don’t take scrawny boys.”
“Stupid!” Beatrix shouted. “They’re hungry, too. We’re all hungry.”
“But I need it.”
“We all need it. Besides, I can hear the fat on your bones.”
The other kids laughed. It was true. Life as a commander’s servant had given him reserves.
“It’s not funny, hag! Amos showed me how to fight, and I’ll knock your teeth in, you old blind bitch.”
Heap frowned, looking from the fat boy to Beatrix. She had pulled Heap squalling from the Stacks, to nurse him with a rolled-up rag soaked in pigeon broth. She must have had six or seven years on him, but she didn’t look old, unless you were gazing into her eyes. Not like some of the wrinkled beggars he’d seen on the streets.
“Come along Heap.” She said. “Let the fat boy whine about his rumbling tummy.”
Heap took her hand and followed her deeper into the Stacks, and the children dispersed without offering any more support to the fat boy. They seemed to have forgotten how fierce he was, now that Beatrix had shrugged him off.
They climbed through the rotting timbers and ties, through the spars and arms of the broken weapons of war, where the city dumped its engines outside the wall once all the valuable parts had been scavenged. The children crawled into tiny nests dug into the bellies of the old war machines, ignoring the hungry boy outside on his rusted throne.
Heap and Beatrix picked through the rubble to their shelter, which was a waterlogged siege frame and a slice of tin roof, fastened to the top with twine. It was the best spot in the Stacks.
Heap sat on a pile of rags in the corner, which was growing fuzzy black spots, and Beatrix felt her way to her torn quilt, folding a corner over her lap. She reached behind her and pried at a wad of rags with grimy fingers, revealing a hole. Inside was a heel of bread and a fried eel skin Heap had found in the market, neither of which were a day younger than rancid.
“We don’t share.” She said, stuffing the rags back into the hole. “Not with fat boys like him.”
Beatrix snapped her fingers at Heap, and he scrambled over to her and collapsed against her. He encircled her waist with an arm and she his shoulders, and they took turns nibbling at the foul heel.
She was humming a wandering, aimless tune, but she stopped. “Yah kid?”
“Is it true?”
She sighed and brushed at his hair like he was a doll. “Is what true?”
“If he was in the brigade, could he bring us food?”
Her fingers knotted in his matted copper-brown hair, pondering the question. “It’s true the brigades feed their children, yes. But when the fat boy is gone he won’t be coming back to help us.”
“If I was in the brigade, could I get us food?”
Her hand halted its gentle stroking and slid to the nape of his neck, where it tightened. Her body seemed to fold over him, drawing the old quilt around them. “They wouldn’t take you.” She whispered. “Not someone from the Stacks, and you’re too young.”
“I could lie.”
“I could cut my hair and steal a fine shirt. I’d tell them I was short for my age, and my papa worked in Old King District, and I could—”
She quieted him by brushing her lips over his. She was always doing that sort of thing—the kissing. Heap didn’t mind because the two of them were close, and she’d done so much for him. It was a warm thing, not altogether unpleasant. He’d seen others kissing in the secluded parts of the Stacks, but he got the feeling it meant more to Beatrix.
They finished the bread and chased it with a skin of cistern water. The rain began to pound on the tin roof so hard he couldn’t hear her humming over the tiny drumming hammers. Rust and mold and rain-soaked wood permeated everything. A tattered flap of skin shed oily droplets under a small circular window.
Beatrix dozed. Heap tried to keep still, lying against her side. She whimpered in her sleep, and sometimes her forehead crashed into his shoulder when she buried her face against him. He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t slept with her arms around him, quietly moaning in the dark corners, when there was no one around to hear. She trusted Heap. She’d rescued him, shared her life with him. In the early years before he was big enough to steal food she’d risked starvation for him. Now, because he was fast and clever, they ate better than the others.
She whispered in her sleep, calling for one of her brothers, Teppi. He’d been taken away when her father left the city, to Marathorn across the sea. She called his name again and her white eyes fluttered open, and she nudged Heap.
“Do you hear that?”
He shook his head, straining to hear over the rain.
“Get up.” She said.
While Heap was untangling himself from the blankets the boy Hiram ducked into the shack. He was wet and shivering. His dark hair was matted over his brow. In his fist was a pried-up cobblestone with jagged edges.
“Why won’t you share?” He said, eyeing the half-eaten eel skin Beatrix was holding. “You could share with me. I won’t tell anyone. I just want a bite to eat, and a place to rest for a while.”
“Get out.” Beatrix said, standing on the quilt. “This is our spot. Get out, fat boy.”
“But you’ve got so much! And I’ve got nothing.” He whined, coming closer.
“He’s got a rock!” Heap tried to warn her. But as the words spilled from his mouth the boy Hiram struck. He swung at her with an overhand fist like he was trying to crack a coconut, and the cobblestone caught her just below the nose.
There was a loud crack. Teeth hit the ground. Beatrix stumbled back, gasping through strings of blood, and she slumped down with her hands over her head trying to fend off the next attack.
Surprise was plain on the boy’s face as he struck her a second, weaker blow, glancing the stone off her scalp. She moaned as her head was jerked sideways, and a bead of crimson rolled down her forehead. Hiram dropped the rock and ran out of their little shack, not bothering to pick up the eel skin that had slipped from her fingers.
The boy named Hiram had nothing to fear from the children of the Stacks after they heard about Beatrix. They willingly gave over a portion of their meager means so he wouldn’t be underfed when he applied to the brigade. He relished in the status he had won for himself. After the initial shock of Beatrix’s death faded they gathered around Hiram—to hear stories of how he’d punished her for selfishly hoarding food. Once that story failed to hold their attention he spun yarns about life as the commander’s houseboy. Tales of mischief and adventure that would rival any penny novel.
Heap knew them for the lies they were, because his story about Beatrix was a lie. Especially the part about her death.
Beatrix wasn’t slain that night in the rain. It took a week for her to die, while Heap kept the shack shut tight with scraps of wood and rags. He stole boldly, often from the same vendors, risking life and limb to bring her food as quickly as he could. Most of it he had to chew or grind into paste before spooning it into her mouth. She wheezed and licked it down, but with her teeth missing and her jaw cracked open, it became too painful to drink broth.
Heap sulked and contributed to the new king’s gluttony, offering just enough to appease him. He could tell the fat boy was suspicious, but he never went near the shack with the tin roof. It smelled of blood. He let Heap go about his business with a few parting insults.
The doctors in town refused to see Beatrix. He was too small to carry her, and anyone in Rat District who heard him mention the Stacks immediately shut their doors or shoved him aside. The only helpful advice anyone gave him was to warn him about the rats, and to find a stick to keep them away from her body. He even tried the clergy, and the sisters at Menoll. They told Heap to pray to Illmaera, The Mother, on behalf of his friend.
On the sixth day it rained again, and a chill descended. He couldn’t keep Beatrix and himself warm, no matter how much tattered cloth he piled on top of her feverish body. He’d tried to wash her clammy skin the day before with a cool wet rag, and now he blamed himself for her sharp decline. He wasn’t able to get her clean with dirty scraps of linen anyhow, and the look of her pallid, maturing body made him ashamed. Near the end he pillowed her head in his lap and tried to feed her, and she shook her head.
“Heafff…” She huffed. The air from her mouth was sweet from the spoonful of broth and from the infection. The cleft under her nose and mouth never stopped oozing. The guilt was killing him, but he looked forward to his next run through city, away from her, when he was sprinting wildly through the streets.
“Yah.” He said.
“Talk?” He ventured, and the nod was barely perceptible. He brushed her hair, careful of the new scar running through her scalp, and his throat tightened. “I wouldn’t know…”
Her eyes squeezed shut, and tears gathered in the corners and streamed down her temples. In the years she had raised him, she’d never asked him to converse with her. It was Beatrix who did the talking, even when they slept.
“I’m sorry I’m not Teppi.” Heap said, and he felt a slight jolt of her head against his lap. “I’m sorry I didn’t stop the fat boy.”
She gave a low, pitched moan, and went still. Her tongue clicked as it peeled off the roof of her mouth. “Lufff…”
“Love?” He asked, leaning over her. She didn’t nod this time, or move, other than her shallow rasping breath. “Yah, me too.”
He bent his forehead over hers so the two of them were touching.
Heap found the greedy boy in his usual spot, the morning after Beatrix stopped breathing. He was trying to impress Spoons, telling her about the girl-servants he’d escorted to his bedchambers, although details of what they’d done in private were not forthcoming.
Hiram’s sudden interest in her might have been sparked by rumors that she was selling herself to beggars and purse-cut boys. Opossum said she’d confided in him after the first time, telling him it was better to earn a few coins for something they’d do anyway.
As he approached them the rat-stick was heavy in Heap’s small hands. It used to be an oak lever to an engine, and it was almost too big for him to swing. Dirty brown splotches marked where he’d used it to defend Beatrix from sharp, needle teeth. Heap wished he’d used it from the start.
“Why you got that stick?” Hiram asked, trying to deepen his voice. He sounded dull and oafish, sitting on his timber like a toad.
“The cobbles were too tough to pry up.”
Anger faded from Hiram’s face, and fear blossomed when he realized what Heap intended to do with the rat-stick. Spoons saw it too, and she edged away from the King of the Stacks.
“I ain’t mad at you.” Hiram said. “I was mad at the blind bitch. She was hoarding food.” He slid off the timber, balling his fists. Heap kept coming. “Amos taught me to fight. You saw it. I don’t wanna have to—”
The stick crashed into Hiram’s forehead and the boy bit his tongue in half. He spat out a fleshy red triangle, and he tried to plea again.
Heap missed his face, bouncing the stick off the boy’s flailing arms, but the second swing split his cheek open and the impact hurt Heap’s wrists. Spoons was running through the Stacks, calling for Opossum or Blink or Tom-Tom, or anyone who would come help. Her shouts brought out a dozen faces, and the children watched from their holes and hiding places.
The fat boy whined and curled himself into a tight ball, begging. “Ah di’ meaaa ihhhtt!” He screamed as the stick made dull, meaty noises.
Heap didn’t rage or scream or stomp as he punished the older boy. He did what he had to do. When the fat boy stopped moving, Heap stopped hitting him. He couldn’t tell which blow had done it. There had been several cracks and crunches, just as there had been with the rats.
He dropped the stick and watched the mud puddles bloom crimson around the boy. Spoons came back with the others, and they gathered in a wide circle, waiting, staring at the body. They seemed to expect something from Heap.
“What was his last name?” Heap asked without looking at them.
“Don’t know.” Spoons said, but a younger boy answered; “Mortimer.”
Hiram Mortimer. Hiram of the children’s brigade. Heap thought to himself, whispering the name, practicing the sound on his tongue. I can be Hiram Mortimer. I can steal for the watch, for protection, and find a way into the brigade. I can be Hiram Mortimer.
Heap began rehearsing everything the fat boy had told them about his life before coming to the Stacks.
Thank you for reading my first contest-winning short story. It means the world to me to be able to share it with you. If you’d like to receive updates, posts, and more short stories as I write them, please subscribe below.