The little urchin boys hadn’t run far, Mortimer found them idling by the old tannery on the corner of Prince Dakkar and Hyde. “You two shrimps are a couple of bandersnatch farts,” said Mortimer, fearing they might have seen him running from the catacombs. “I’d punch the snot out of you both but I need you to tell people how I’m not afraid to go to the catacombs and yell Dunsany.”
“Three times,” the little blond urchin held up three fingers.
“What?” said Mortimer.
“Didn’t you say it three times?” the urchin asked, his fingers still raised.
“You dumb bugger,” the curly-haired urchin with the cap slapped his leg and hooted. “What you just done don’t count for diddly squat. You got to say that word three times.”
“Bollocks!” Mortimer cursed. “I didn’t not say it cause I didn’t want to say it,” he tried to explain. “I just forgot is all.”
“You’re a double dumb bugger, Mortimer McNettle,” the blond boy laughed. “You should have just lied and said you done said it three times. Ain’t no way we ever would have known the difference.”
“Oh yeah?” said Mortimer, his eyes bugging out as he grabbed both urchins by the collar. “Let’s all three of us go into the catacombs this time and holler it together.”
Ignoring boys’ cries for mercy, Mortimer proceeded to drag the two panicked urchins down the alley and into the catacombs.
Mortimer’s railway lantern was still where he left it on the floor of the passage leading into the catacombs. Unfortunately he couldn’t pick it up or he would have to let one of the urchins go, so he left it behind and dragged the two boys onwards another twenty paces. Mortimer stopped and shook the urchins. This is where I heard it,” he said to the boys. “First it sounded like a kid trying to sing a lullaby or something but she weren’t singing no words, then when I was almost out it sounded like an older girl laughing at me.”
“We didn’t hear nothing,” the two little boys cried. “Let us go.”
“Do you see that line?” Mortimer nodded to a charcoal line that ran along the floor and up both walls. “What do you think it means?”
“It means there’s monsters in her you dumb bugger!” The blond urchin yelled out.
Mortimer tightened his grip and hollered, “DUNSANY!”
The boy with the curly dark hair turned his head and bit Mortimer on the wrist.
“You little bastard!” Mortimer called out, dropping the urchin as he shouted with pain. Now free, the dark-haired boy turned and gave him a kick so swift to the kneecap that Mortimer dropped the blond boy as well before falling to the floor.
Mortimer was on the ground just a moment before adrenalin brought him around. This was not a place he wanted to be. With his balance on the uninjured leg he brought himself to his feet and tested his weight on the hurt side. The pain was subsiding; his knee would be fine. His wrist, on his left hand, fared worse. That bite was deep, deep enough it would leave a scar, he was sure.
Those little brats are in for an ass-kicking when I catch up with them.
[img_assist|nid=9020|title=|desc=|link=popup|align=left|width=224|height=244]Mortimer limped back to the railway lantern which still cast its light upon the walls. He had just turned up the wick when he heard the same echoing lullaby he had described to the urchins earlier. His hair went all to prickle as he turned around. Not more than twenty paces away, where he’d been standing a moment earlier, was a little girl of about eight. She was hard to see at the very margins of his light but she appeared to be holding a toy bear
“What are you doing here, you stupid little kid?” Mortimer called out. “You should go home.”
The girl stood in silence, motionless, staring across the space between them. It took him a moment to realize she was not alone. Stepping from the shadows behind her was a young woman with her dark hair worn loose about her shoulders. She put an arm around the little girl and held her to her side. Mortimer raised the lantern higher but the oil was running low and the light too dim to distinguish her features. Despite the chill she wore just a shift, her legs and shoulders remained bare.
“Is the boy brave or is the boy stupid?” The woman asked. Her voice had a rasp, like pebbles being rolled by the tide. Mortimer wasn’t sure if she was addressing him or the child.
“My name is Mortimer McNettle,” Mortimer announced. Though the dark obscured the details he imagined she was pretty.
“Mortimer is a stupid boy,” she rasped. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Are you talkin’ to me?” Mortimer was so upset he clipped his gerunds. “Who the frig do you think you’re talkin’ to? I’m not scared of you! Why don’t you step into the light?”
[img_assist|nid=9021|title=|desc=|link=popup|align=left|width=640|height=617]“Father has forbidden us to cross the line, stupid boy,” even in the dark she sent the impression of a leer but then her voice took on a saucy tone. “You’ll have to come to Nelly.”
“Why are you dressed like that?” Mortimer had never seen a woman stripped to her undergarments. “It’s winter.”
“The deeper caverns are hot. My bonnet and frock make me sweat. Sometimes I like to sweat. But not in my frock. It makes the wool stink and I like to be clean. I only wear my frock and bonnet to hear Father teach. I am his queen—Queen Nefertiti. Thomas is only a prince. I am better than Thomas. I was first. Now, come closer to me Mortimer McNettle.”
Mortimer swallowed hard. Despite his boasts about not being scared he had never been more scared in his life. Even still, he couldn’t resist one last glance at the bare shoulders of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, before turning and running for the exit.
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