Mortimer rubbed finger along his upper lip. He was about to give those pioneer mustache hairs a chance to prove their worth. To give credit its due, the urchins, in gratitude for receiving only half a beating when a full thrashing had been in order, had helped him understand something truly profound.
“If she can’t go past that line you could have gone right up to her and got a real good look,” said the dark-haired urchin with the cap. “You still could if you was brave enough and careful about it.”
“It’s true, but to be safe you should stand an arm’s length from the line—in case it’s just her feet that can’t cross over,” said the blond urchin who then gave an exaggerated wink and added, “Be sure as not to be a dunce and say the wrong thing, if you know what I mean.”
“Like what sort of wrong thing?” asked Mortimer.
“Like the word you ain’t supposed to say three times you dumb bugger!” the boy shouted back. “As long as you don’t say it you can stand as close as five feet to her however long you want.”
Mortimer broke into a grin. “If I don’t say the D-word then I can get a good look at her!”
“Hey!” Mortimer gave the two urchins a swat as they hesitated at the entrance to the catacombs. “How come you two are so willing to come with me today when yesterday I had to drag you by the collars?”
“Cause yesterday you was going to holler that bad word three times,” said the dark-haired urchin who started to follow Mortimer deeper into the tunnel.
“And today ain’t none of us going to say it,” added the blond haired urchin who kept pace with his friend.
“Look, there must be water seeping through the floor,” Mortimer pointed to an area in front of them covered in ice. “Don’t fall you dumb little turds.” But even as he warned the urchins he gave them a shove, causing them both to shout out in alarm. Mortimer laughed. “You two are such dimwits. No wonder you’re kindling boys.”
“Ha-ha!” the blonde boy intoned. “Like you’re ever going to be anything other than a kindling boy.”
“There’s the line,” Mortimer pointed to the ground about five feet before them.
“Stop here,” the little blond urchin insisted. Just to be extra safe.”
“How do I get her to come out if I don’t say the D-word?” asked Mortimer.
This seemed to stump the urchins based on the sudden puzzling of their brows,
“Don’t matter anyway,” said Mortimer. “I don’t see how it can be true, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Father teaches the scientific principles and scientific principles seem counter to the thrice-uttering theory,” said the raspy voice Mortimer recognized from the previous day. The woman seemed to be about twenty yards further along the tunnel, almost completely obscured by shadow. “But even still,” she continued. “Aren’t you just a little curious to see if it could be true?”
“NOT US, WE AIN’T!” The urchins shouted, before scrambling headlong for the exit.
“How could it be true?” Mortimer said as the retreating footfalls of the fleeing urchins diminished to silence. “Why would shouting out that word three times call you, even if you are not around? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Sometimes you sound like a smart boy,” said Nelly with that odd raspy sibilance that seemed to be the perfect marriage of the wondrous with the horrid. “It’s not true. It is a story invented by monsters above us, to scare children out of the sewers, children who are smarter than you. They listened. You didn’t. Sometimes monsters give good advice.”
Though she remained a fair distance deeper within the tunnel Mortimer was starting to lose his nerve. He dropped his gaze to the floor. “You said you couldn’t cross the charcoal line. Is that true even if I said the word?
“You should cross the line and prove you are brave.”
“Me,” Mortimer laughed. “I’m not stupid.”
“I disagree,” she shrugged. “But I will never cross Father’s line.”
“That doesn’t make sense either,” said Mortimer. “Who says you have to listen to him. Sometimes fathers are wrong.”
“He is Father and he is never wrong!” She took a step closer. Mortimer could almost see her. “I could never disobey him,” she continued. “Obedience is all we have to repay his great kindness.”
“What great kindness?”
Nelly ran from the shadows, and though she didn’t run with impossible speed she surprised him with the unexpectedness of her actions. She slammed into Mortimer with such force he was thrown to the ground, his head hitting hard against the stone floor.
“I didn’t say Dunsany!” Mortimer protested, panic causing his voice to crack. He had never imagined a creature so fearful was possible. Her limbs were longer than they should have been; the fingers of her left hand alone easily held his head in place, forcing him to look at her demonic countenance. He repeated his plea. “I didn’t say Dunsany!”
“I told you, stupid boy, it doesn’t matter, it was all just a story.”
“You said you couldn’t cross your father’s line,” Mortimer tried to turn his head, to shut out the horror, but her grip was too secure. She squeezed until it hurt, but not too the point of causing him to cry out.
“Father is not mine! I am his,” Nelly hissed just inches from Mortimer’s face. “And I did not cross his line. I crossed the line your young companions drew on the ground. Father’s line went up the walls. This one just goes across the floor. The two children came earlier in the morning with sponges and buckets of warm water. Once they’d scrubbed Father’s line from the floor they drew this one ten feet deeper. Look behind you, the charcoal is still on the walls, they never washed it off and you never looked. You should have seen those two little boys, smug in their belief that they were safe so long as they didn’t say Dunsany, Dunsay, Dunsany.”
“You let them do it?” Mortimer cried out and though he was still terrified, his temper was fired-up to the volatile point with her revelation of betrayal. “Why didn’t you catch those festering turds?”
“Because I wanted to catch you,” Nelly hung over him like a ravenous gargoyle. “And Father wants them to believe the lies told above. He says it keeps us safe.”
Are you saying you would have caught them if you heard them say Dunsany three times?”
“Doesn’t that make the story true?”
“No it doesn’t. I could have caught them at any time. But last night it served my interests to let the children carry on in their ignorance. Had they been so stupid as to say Dunsany three times, however, I would have taken them to the caverns and fed them to my sisters.”
“Don’t panic, Brother Mortimer, I am not going to feed you to my sisters. I am going to take you to Father to prove I can be trusted—like Thomas. The lines he draws are not necessary, Nelly Faulkner does not need to live inside a charcoal cage. You will be my key.”