The Cursed Headdress (a Teachout story)

This is a story (please note the “read more” button!) about the Teachout sisters, links to whose other adventures can be found in my full bibliography.  I think this can stand alone, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go and read “The Drowned Man” first.  For reasons.  (It’s cool.  I’ll wait.)  And, you know, feel free to read all the other Teachout stories, as well.  It’s a long weekend coming up, after all.


The Cursed Headdress

by Laura E. Price

“So, d’you think falafel for lunch?”

“We ain’t got money for falafel, Gwen.”

“‘Course we got money for falafel.  And some groceries.  Come on.”

Gwen’s walk, to Corwyn’s eye, was far too unconcerned and bouncing for the way they’d spent the past two hours.  “They said we had to pay them back,” she said, trudging after her sister down the museum steps.  “They said they’d contact their lawyers.”

“And I wish them good luck in their endeavors,” Gwen said.  “They want to take the grand sum of fifty dollars I’ve got hidden under my box spring?  More than likely Mrs. Warram’s been in there and snatched it already, anyway.”

“Oh, nine hells, how are we going to pay rent?” Corwyn asked; this hadn’t occurred to her before, as the museum’s highly disappointed curatorial staff had raged at them for the loss of the item they had been sent, at great expense, to collect.  She’d thought about food, about failure, about lawyers, but rent had only just occurred to her.

“Wyn–”

“No, Gwen, they said–”

Gwen turned round and grinned that grin she always got when things went south for the two of them; the grin that had even odds between making things better and making them much, much worse.  “I heard what they said.  So they want to sic the law on us–so what?  We bunk off the flat, live in the Hill for awhile again.  Ain’t no solicitor nor curator going to find us in there unless we want them to, and not a one of them’s got the stomach to hire the folks as could otherwise.”

She had a point.  But.  “I don’t want–”

Gwen stepped closer, swept Corwyn’s hand up and squeezed it.  “It ain’t ideal.  But it ain’t the worst thing could happen to us, either.  It’s a sight better than getting killed at sea, no matter what those old idiots think, so don’t you start siding with them, hear me?”  She tugged at Corwyn’s hand, caught her eye and smiled her real smile, the one she saved only for Corwyn.  “C’mon.  Falafel.”

***

And so the Misses Teachout made their way into the depths of Cobbler’s Hill, down to the docks where the only falafel cart in all of San Xavier plied its trade in fried chickpeas.  It was there, chatting amiably with the nearly toothless old man who made the stuff, that Corwyn’s knack woke up and gave her head a tug.

“Nine hells,” she muttered; she shoved the rest of her food into her mouth and took off, Gwen behind her and calling goodbye to the falafel man, who waved after them and went back to the broken-down clockwork that powered his fryer.

“Is it getting dark?” Gwen asked.  Clouds, dark gray edged in black, spread across the sky.

“Yes, I think it is,” Corwyn replied, distracted by her knack, which was taking them away from the waterfront and into the maze of warehouses on the north side of the docks–not quite Union territory, but close enough for concern.  The Tongs’d  just look at them funny so long as they didn’t cause trouble; the Dockworkers’ Union boys would just try to kill them, and that was if they didn’t recognize Gwen.

But in the end, Corwyn’s knack steered them west a block or so before they’d have walked into trouble and brought them neatly to the front door of a building that was edging out of decrepit and into crumbling:  though the door and the wall it was set into still stood firmly in place, the windows had no glass, and the roof was half caved-in.

There was chanting coming from inside.

Corwyn ignored the twinge she felt from her unsatisfied knack.  She and Gwen moved to what was once a large window and peered in.

In the middle of the floor, on a pile of rubble, lay a young man.  A naked young man–awake and awfully calm for someone spread-eagled on a heap of shingles and bricks–painted all over with signs and symbols in something red.

“You think that’s blood?” Corwyn asked Gwen, nodding in his direction.

“I think that’s paint,” Gwen said with a snort.

The chanting came from a group of people gathered round the prone figure of the painted man.   It might have made an eerie, or at least off-putting, tableau had their circle been even or their chanting in unison.  Even the hems and dye jobs on their blue, hooded robes were ragged. They looked, Corwyn thought, like a hungover congregation of cultists at the weekly potluck and black mass.

“So who are we here for?” Gwen asked.  “The paint job?”

“No …” Corwyn let her eyes skim the circle, but then someone moved: a tall person in a purple robe unfolded from behind the rubble like a mantis.  His robe was just as unevenly dyed and hemmed as the blue ones; his scrawny ankles poked out from under it.

“That one?” Gwen asked.

“No.  Dammit.”  The mantis man held a very large book that made Corwyn’s eyes water just seeing it at a distance.  Or maybe, she thought as her head began to throb, it was just her knack, mad at being ignored for so long.

The purple mantis man opened the book and began to read in what Corwyn could only assume was meant to be a stentorian tone, utterly ruined by such a thick Cobbler’s Hill accent that he could have made even the courtroom scene in Raakel and Adrasteia sound stupid.

Maghe salamndre tremenda premum vos gradum …”

Corwyn wiped at her eyes and scanned the circle again.  The ground under her boots trembled.  “What in nine hells?”

… hoc picta puerum mali sumne et facile …

“Corwyn Teachout, what kind of crazy has your knack gotten us into now?” Gwen asked, grabbing Corwyn’s arm with one hand to keep her steady, holding the dubiously-constructed window ledge with the other.

“Oh, because your knack’s never gotten us into trouble, Gwen!” Corwyn snapped.

… earum anxiemini consequentias!

The wind, chill and smelling of sulphur, picked up around them.  Things crashed up the street, yelling and swearing echoed from the direction of the docks as the trembling became a pronounced rumbling.  Corwyn groaned.  “I’m gonna have to go in there and look around for whoever it is.”

“All right, come on,” Gwen yelled over the rumbling ground and the not-quite-a-howl of the wind.

Corwyn’s headache receded as they climbed clumsily over the windowsill, a sudden tremor sending them both sprawling on the debris-littered floor. None of the robed figures seemed to notice; they kept chanting even as they worked to keep their balance.  Corwyn shoved herself up on her hands and knees just as the purple-robed priest pushed his hood back, revealing a skinny bald head topped by a headdress of chain-strung jewels that dripped down his sunken cheeks and over his square, black eyebrows.  A large brown gem rested in the center of his forehead.

“Ain’t there one of Madame Tereza’s girls wears a headpiece like that?” Gwen asked.

“Not exactly like that–hers don’t glow.”  Though, judging by how the naked, painted man smiled when the light from the brown stone hit his skin–he grinned like it was sunshine and he’d been caught in the rain–maybe Madame Tereza ought to look into a replacement.

The floor next to the makeshift altar let loose a grinding, heaving noise.  “That is not a good omen,” Gwen said.

The floor next to the painted man split open and a large, webbed foot emerged from it.

“Corwyn, do you sense a certain pattern regarding the eldritch creatures we seem to encounter recently?” Gwen asked, her face caught halfway between amusement and consternation.  The chanting grew louder and more unified.  The purple-robed mantis priest laughed like a little kid.

“No, this is completely different–last one was a fish monster; this one’s obviously amphibian,” Corwyn replied, relaxing into the familiar rhythms of trading wit with Gwen.  That is, until the webbed foot–it looked like a frog’s, maybe, but a mottled bluish-gray–slapped down over the torso of the young man, covering him from collarbone to thighs.

The painted man screamed, high and reedy, broken in the middle but not stopping even as he began to sob.

Corwyn practically felt Gwen’s knack kick–she took one bounding step forward to break into a run for the altar.  “And my knack’s the one getting us in trouble?” Corwyn yelled after her.  Gwen didn’t respond; the foot–maybe a salamander’s?–looked to be more stepping on the still-sobbing man than trying to drag him into the abyss.

Corwyn’s own knack yanked at her once again, and she was off, too, around the ring of blue-robed chanting people, trying to run but, between the uneven footing and that same uneven footing shaking under her, mostly just staggering.  She could see Gwen from the corner of her eye, kicking the purple-robed man in the face from the high ground atop the straining amphibian-foot.

A short figure lost balance and fell as Corwyn approached; the hood fell back and revealed a woman, maybe as old as their landlady, chanting, eyes blank, tears and snot running down her face, and Corwyn’s knack dropped away to leave her wondering if, since it did not seem likely that she’d convince the woman to stop chanting and come with her, maybe she didn’t actually need to haul her out of here, anyway.

It was at this point that the rest of the roof began to cave in.

***

Shingles and cinderblocks thudded to the floor as the wind, howling full-on now, whipped inside and added nails and screws and small rocks to the chaos.

Corwyn dodged a brick that then narrowly missed the kneeling woman’s head.  She glanced around at the rest of the oblivious, still-chanting minions, only one or two of whom were still standing, and sighed.  “Nine goddamned hells.”

Someone was screaming.  Corwyn got hold of the kneeling woman and pulled her to her feet; the woman looked up at Corwyn and her eyes cleared, narrowed, but she kept chanting.  The woman clapped a hand over her mouth; when her mouth kept going behind it, she used the other hand to smack Corwyn in the shoulder and gesture pointedly to her face.

“Lady, you know more than me right now,” Corwyn told her, then shoved her down into a crouch as a shingle flew past.  “We need to get out.”

She led the still-chanting woman to the next robed figure in their path: a man sitting with tears leaking out of his closed eyes even as he kept droning with the rest of them.  She tangled her fingers in his hood and tugged, and the man opened his eyes.  He looked directly at Corwyn, seemingly terrified, his mouth forming word after word after word.

“Come on,” she told him.  “It’ll be all right.”  Which might or might not have been the truth, but it was enough that the man scrambled up and came along behind her toward the next person.  Corwyn imagined a line of chanting, robed people stringing behind her through the collapsing building like blue ducklings … well, it was a better plan than her last lunatic scheme, anyway.

And then everything went bright, bright white; the chanting cut off mid-word; the earth fell still under their feet; and something slammed into the back of Corwyn’s head as a stench like rotted, boiled corpses engulfed them all.

***

She woke up to someone sobbing.

Not Gwen, she realized groggily, unsure how long she’d been out as she sat up, feeling the warm, wet spot on the back of her skull and blinking hard to clear her light-dazzled eyes.  The kneeling woman and the terrified man were gone, having left their robes behind on the ground; other figures were slowly beginning to move elsewhere, but they were silent.  Corwyn looked round for the source of the crying.

It was the painted man, curled near the debris altar, dusty and sobbing into his knees, his torso bright red and blistered in spots where he’d been stepped on.  Corwyn reached over, to the horror of her sore head, and grabbed one of the robes before she got up to move closer.

Gwen got to him first, seemingly coming from nowhere, and reached a hand out toward him.

He slapped it away; the smack of skin rang through the still air.  “Get the hell away!” he sobbed.  “That were my salvation you took from me–eternal life at the god’s left hand!”  His voice was ripped and barely audible, screamed away when his god stepped on him, Corwyn thought distantly, but his legs worked just fine–he kicked at Gwen, who stepped back right into Corwyn.

“All right then,” Corwyn said, twining her sister’s blistered fingers with her own.  She tossed the robe back in the direction she found it.  “Guess you can find your own way home.”

***

“Good to know not even an earthquake and a building collapse can get the goddamned Jacks into the Hill,” Gwen said as they watched the rest of the chanters, all silent now, appear from the ruined warehouse and shuck their blue robes to scuttle off home.  The purple mantis priest emerged onto the street eventually; he caught sight of the two of them and took a few steps in their direction, mouth open, long, skinny arm raised to point.

“You really want to do that?” Gwen asked, her voice easy, but her posture poised.

He shut his mouth and blinked at them, then dropped his hand to his jaw, which was coming up in bruises to match his robe.  He turned and limped away toward the docks.

Corwyn, having suffered through Gwen’s examination of her head, now turned to satisfying herself that Gwen had no more than those blisters on her fingers from touching the monster’s foot and a cut on her cheek from a nail or a bit of flying glass.  She gave a sigh and rubbed her sister’s head.  Gwen graciously allowed this, and the two of them turned and headed in the direction of Pallasgreen and their apartment.

“So the flash was because he threw the book into the hole?” Corwyn asked.  She’d missed the entire thing thanks to that poorly-timed shingle; this did not sit well with her.

“No, the book going into the hole was part of nobody’s plan.  He dropped it.”

“But that’s what that godawful smell was, the book.”

“Yup.”

“And we probably don’t want to know what it was made of, to smell like that.”

“I daresay we do not.”

The foot had retreated back into the hole, presumably, as neither it nor any bits that might have once been it were anywhere to be found when they could see again.  There didn’t seem to be too much damage to the surrounding area–some crooked streetlamps and toppled boxes, broken windows and scared cats, a good number of buildings sunk further into the ground than before.  Magic, she thought irritably.

“So that was a highly entertaining afternoon,” Gwen declared with a grin.  “Not what I expected when we went for falafel.”

“It surely was a distraction,” Corwyn replied, feeling amiable, now.  Possibly living back on their old streets to avoid legal prosecution did not seem as bad a proposition.  Maybe it was just the head wound talking, but she felt better than she had, bleeding and pain aside.  They’d manage.  They always did.

“Oh, you know, speaking of distraction …”  Gwen shoved her hand into her back trouser pocket and pulled out a mass of chain and jewels, stretching it between her fingers so that the stones spilled over them like flowers on vines.  “D’you think this might assuage the concerns of the Crookston Museum’s curatorial staff?”

Corwyn smiled the smile that was Gwen’s alone and gave the headdress a considering look. The brown gem glittered in the orange-yellow light of sunset.  “I bet it will if we tell them it’s cursed.”


copyright 2015 by Laura E. Price.  Feel free to link to this story, but please don’t reproduce it without permission. 

(Also, Amy, the Latin is actually supposed to be that bad.)

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