Wearing the Hat

Mike Reeves-McMillan


“Look, Mistress Rose,” said the Gryphon Clerk, “we can do this one of two ways.”

She wore a dark suit, and the bead above her silver gryphon seal, hanging round her neck on a plain cord, was black with a thin white stripe. I didn’t know much about Gryphon Clerks—they’re a southern thing, or had been until the war—but I thought that meant she wasn’t very senior. She acted like she was in charge, though.

“Either,” she said, “you become our local warden and postmaster, or we send in some young soldier from the south to do it for you. And I have to warn you, we’re running out of good ones.”

I frowned. “It won’t be good for my business,” I said. “I’ve worked hard not to be political. Folks round here don’t take to the new government.”

“So they’ll, what, go a day’s journey out of their way to buy goods at the general store in the next town? Please.”

I sighed. She had a point.

“Besides,” she said, “we’ll pay you. Copper a day for being the warden, plus on-duty allowance, and you keep a quarter of the post fees. There’s a hat, as well.”

“Oh, good,” I said, “I can put that out for people to drop coins in when my business goes under.”

She didn’t reply to that one. I think she knew I wasn’t serious, saw my resistance breaking down.

“You’ll do it, then?” she said.

“Oh, all right. I’ll wear the hat,” I said, in a voice of resignation.

***

There was some kind of a tech with her in the skyboat, and he set up the message machine and told me how to work it.

It was straightforward enough. You dialed in the destination, the task, and the message, clicked the switch that created the sympathy with another machine somewhere else, and pressed your thumbprint to a little window to authorise it. You could register people for the census, vote in elections, deal with the new government bank, pay taxes, send short messages to people in other towns, even order goods out of catalogs. That last one would be handy. It took days to get anything in normally, and sometimes the farmers needed something badly. Old Moss’s well-pump had broken in the harvest season, and the old man had nearly put an end to himself cranking up buckets of water while he waited for a new one.

The tech had a patronising manner and a tendency to skip bits in his explanation and use terms I didn’t know, but I got it all straight eventually and demonstrated that I could do everything I needed to be able to do. The Gryphon Clerk, who had been standing by, walked up and handed me a bag of coins. “Congratulations,” she said, “you’re the postmaster. Here’s your float; don’t lose it.”

“What?” I said.

“Your float. You’re a bank branch now. That’s exactly two gold pillars, in small silver and copper. If you drop down below a pillar, or go up above about four, call us and we’ll send a skyboat to give you more or collect, as applicable. Here’s your cashbook. Make sure you enter every transaction; you will be randomly audited, and required to make up any shortfall. You do know how to keep a cashbook?”

“Of course I do,” I said, stung. “But what if I get robbed?”

“You’ll be required to make up any shortfall,” she repeated. “We’ll respond to a call on the message machine within half an hour, though, so if someone robs you, just call us once the robbers leave and we’ll hunt them down. Now, you were in the military, right?”

“Years ago,” I said. It wasn’t an advantage to have been in the military recently, given how the war had turned out.

“Hand on heart, and recite this oath after me,” she said. I swore to obey the legitimate orders of my military superiors, to defend the realm and to protect all its inhabitants, of whatever origin. “That means gnomes and dwarves, too,” said the clerk, in case I’d missed the issue that the war had partially been about. I’d never seen either one, way out here, but I nodded, and she gave me the fore-and-aft warden hat. The single dot on it indicated that I was the lowest of the low and didn’t get to give anyone orders, as the clerk helpfully clarified. She also issued me with a pistol, and a booklet that told me when I was allowed to use it and how to keep it clean.

“Right,” she said. “Send a message if you need anything, but make sure it’s really important. We’re stretched. Here’s a list of people to look out for, by the way. If you see them, let us know. The War Tribunal would like to talk to them.”

She and the tech climbed back into the little skyboat, one of the military ones that looked like a normal boat, only with a clear canopy over the top instead of a deck. It lifted into the air and vanished over the trees.

***

A few days later, I was sweeping the shop when Reed came through the door. His hair and beard looked wilder than I remembered them, and his sleeve bore the marks of a brassard having been sewn on and then later torn off, none too neatly in either case. I put down the broom and stepped behind the counter.

“Reed,” I said.

“Rose,” he replied, eyes glancing around the shop. He grabbed a bag of flour and another of dried beans. Nobody buys dried beans who isn’t planning to spend time in the forest, or traveling. I thought I’d give him some friendly advice.

“Heard a rumour,” I said, “that some people wanted to talk to you about the war.” I glanced at the marks on his sleeve. I knew what color the brassard would have been, and it wasn’t the one that you could still wear where people would see. His name was on the list the clerk had given me.

“Heard a rumour,” said Reed, “that you sold out to the southern-loving gnome-kissers.”

I gave him a level look. “I didn’t get offered much of a choice,” I said. “Now, I’m not wearing the warden hat right now, and you and my little sister were friends, back when, so I’m just offering you some advice. Might be that you want to spend some time out of sight. I’m just mentioning.”

He narrowed his eyes at me, but nodded. He smelled like he’d spent a while in the forest already. Strictly speaking, I should have asked him to register for the census, but I knew what the answer would be.

While he was paying for the flour with worn coins that looked like they’d been buried at some point, old Moss wheezed into the store.

“That contraption working?” he said, gesturing to the desk at the back where I had the message machine set up. “I’m expecting some money from my son across in Riverby.”

“Not just now, Mossy,” I said. “Something wrong with it. And, being as it isn’t working, I can’t send a message for anyone to come and fix it. I’ll just have to wait for them to notice that nobody’s heard from us for a while and come out on their own.”

“How long you reckon that will take?” said the old man.

“Skyboat came yesterday,” I said. This wasn’t the military skyboat, but the freight boat, which looked like a flying string bag, a big cargo net hung off a frame with some flight crystals at the corners. “So maybe two, three days. They’re busy, or so they told me.”

I gave Reed his change. He looked thoughtful. That should have warned me—Reed never did have a good thought in his life that I heard tell of.

***

Later on that day, I was taking stock when young Field burst in.

“Warden!” he said. I wasn’t wearing the hat, but I stepped over to the counter to fetch it out from the drawer there as I asked him what was the matter.

“Reed and a bunch of them lads is on their way into town,” he said. “Armed.”

I grabbed my keys and ran to the front of the store. Since the message machine had turned my store into a bank, I’d fitted a sturdier door inside the light one, to lock up at night. I slammed it and locked it.

“Do me a favour?” I said.

“What?”

“Run to the back door and lock it.” I threw him the keys. He looked down at them, then up at me, paused, then nodded and ran. I knew that pause. He’d thought about what Reed would do to him if he saw him come out of the store and guessed that the lad had warned me.

When he returned, I had pulled my official warden pistol out of its box and loaded it. He looked at it with wide eyes.

“You ever shot a gun?” I said.

“My uncle’s hunting rifle, once,” he said. I reached under the counter and came up with the Peaceful Stick, which is what I called the heavy club that I used if people became argumentative about their accounts. It happened now and then. Less often lately.

“You’d be safer with this, then,” I said.

He nodded, and swapped the bunch of keys for the Peaceful Stick. “How are they armed?” I asked.

“Couple of long guns, mostly bows, though,” he said. I nodded. Nothing that would get through my heavy door, but I needed to close the shutters over the windows.

I was closing and bolting shutters when I heard Reed’s voice outside.

“Rose!” he yelled.

I didn’t reply. Didn’t want him knowing exactly where I was.

“Hey, Rose!” I heard the phut-thud of a pressure rifle firing and the bullet striking the doorframe.

“Close the rest of those,” I directed Field, who put down the stick and jumped to the shutters. I stalked to the front of the shop.

“Can I help you, Reed?” I called.

“You can hand over the money that you got in there,” he said.

“Can’t do that,” I told him. “Not my money, a lot of it. And I don’t fancy giving you mine, if it comes to it.”

“I’m declaring it forfeit in the name of the Absent Protector,” he yelled, and his friends whooped approval. Sounded like there were maybe six or eight of them.

“Protector’s dead,” I said.

“That’s what the southerners told you, is it?”

“That’s what I hear, generally.”

“It’s a filthy lie. I’m confiscating that money for the Denning free forces.”

I assumed that was them. “No Denning any more,” I said. “There was a war. We’re part of Koslin now.”

I heard someone spit, and the creak of a board in the porch, and a hand trying the door, not too seriously as yet.

“Rose,” said Reed, “you going to let me in so I can liberate that money, or do I go through you to get at it?”

“Reckon it’s the second one, all things considered,” I said. I pointed to a rolling ladder in the corner of the store and gestured to Field for him to bring it to me. He gave me an uncomprehending look, but complied.

My store has high shelves, up to the ceiling, nearly. But only nearly. I used the ladder to get high enough that I could clamber onto the top, made a mental note to dust more often, and directed Field by gestures to get up onto the shelves on the other side. The top shelf held cans of beans, and he reached down and transferred a few up onto the top with him. Missiles. Good thinking. I reached down and found bags of salt, which wouldn’t work as well, but I had to make do with what was to hand.

Problem was, we were close enough to the ceiling that we didn’t have much room to cock our arms for a shot. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realised I’d made a mistake coming up here. I’d maybe get one or two of them, and they’d have a job of work to get to me, but it wouldn’t stop them robbing the store while someone covered me—and, at worst, they’d shoot me and leave me up there, wounded or dead.

Meanwhile, the men outside were making increasingly serious efforts to break down my door. I’m a decent rough carpenter. Wouldn’t win any beauty prizes for my pieces, but they’re solid. It took them a while, and meanwhile, I hoped, someone outside in the village might happen to notice them and summon help for me.

I couldn’t count on that, though. Had to assume I was on my own, except for the boy.

“Shoot the lock,” said someone, and phut-thud, phut-thud, phut-thud sounded as they tried it. Wouldn’t do them much good, since it was bolted on the inside, three places.

I lifted my eyes up, as you do in such situations, and noticed the trapdoor in the ceiling.

The shop had been my mother’s, and when she finally handed it over to me she’d pointed out the trapdoor and said, “Goes up to the roof.” That was all she’d said about it, and I’d never gone to the trouble of trying it.

Now seemed like a good time.

As I angled myself awkwardly off the shelf, Field’s eyes were the size of the palm of his hand. Three times my height off the floor, those shelves. If I fell and landed on my back, a bullet from Reed would be a kindness. I clamped down on that thought and repositioned my shoulders.

It took three or four good thumps to dislodge the trapdoor. Darkness waited on the other side. With the shutters over the windows, the whole place was dim, and I couldn’t see a thing in the ceiling space. I’d just have to try it anyway. To get down now, I’d have to have Field climb down first and bring the ladder over, and there wasn’t time before they would break in.

I placed the pistol inside the hatch first, then grasped the edges and began to haul myself up. “You stay quiet,” I told Field, and he nodded. “Don’t try to fight them unless they come after you.”

I banged and scraped just about every limb I had going up through that trapdoor. I’m a middle-aged shopkeeper. A youth like Field might have had an easier time of it, but it was me wearing the hat.

The roof space turned out to be cramped, dusty and full of spiders, not to my surprise. Fumbling around, my neck just about bent in a circle, I found another trapdoor letting onto the roof. It was latched, and I cut myself on the latch before I got it open.

I could hear the front door splintering. Slamming the inner trapdoor, I pushed the outer one open as quietly as I could and eased myself out onto the shingles.

I reached back in for the pistol, and dropped the trapdoor closed with a tiny thump.

Now, how to do this? I could climb over the roof peak, slide down the back and drop onto the water tank, and then to the ground, but that would only get me away. It wouldn’t save my money, the money entrusted to me, or the boy.

I sighed. Forward looked like the only way.

From out here, I could still hear them working on the door. I’d made it about twice as thick as I thought it needed, which, as so often happens, turned out to be about the right amount.

The rough shingles provided some grip, if I moved slowly. I eased myself to the edge and peered down, and my feet tingled with that feeling you get when you’re high up.

I saw nine men. Three only bore battered old swords, and another had a cudgel a bit like the Peaceful Stick, but of the remainder, two had guns, and the other three bows. A crossbow and two short bows.

I tried to remember from my military training whether the saying was “outgunned is better than outmaneuvered” or the other way around, but gave it up. It didn’t matter anyway, since I couldn’t choose.

My head swam—I don’t like heights much—but there wasn’t going to be a better opportunity. The two biggest men, Reed and another I didn’t know, had set their guns aside to batter at the door with their shoulders. The shortbowmen didn’t have arrows on the string, though they had the bows in their hands. The crossbowman had his weapon loaded, but resting by his side. The door had nearly yielded, and in a moment they would all be readying to burst in.

Ignoring how I felt about the drop, I pointed my pistol at Reed and yelled, “Put down your weapons and stand back from the door!”

Reed, bouncing back from shoulder-slamming the door, looked up in surprise, lost his footing, and sprawled on the boards of the porch. The other big man shaded his eyes—the sun was behind me, I realised, and my shadow fell on the group. The two shortbowmen twitched towards their quivers, but changed their minds and slowly spread out their hands. The rest just gaped.

“Right,” I said. “We can do this one of two ways. First way: you put your weapons down on the porch and back away slowly. You ride out of town and don’t come back again, and I forget to report this to anybody. You want to hear the second way?”

“First way sounds good,” said one of the men with bows. The other nodded. They looked like they might be brothers.

“Do it,” I said, before anyone else could speak. They dropped their bows onto the boards.

“Arrows too,” I said.

“Wait,” said Reed.

“No waiting!” I shouted. I was scared out of my mind, between the height and the situation, and it wouldn’t take much to set me off. “Drop them!”

The bow brothers dropped the quivers, with a touch of reluctance. They represented a lot of hours of work, I knew. My cousin was a fletcher.

“Good,” I said. “Now step back off the porch. You with the crossbow, drop it and step back.”

He didn’t look at Reed for permission. I noticed that. The other man who’d been battering at my door backed slowly off the porch along with the other three.

“You at the back,” I said to the ones with the swords and the cudgel, “drop…”

Reed dived for his gun.

My first shot went nowhere near where he was and not all that close to where he had been. I’d fired the gun a couple of times, to see what it was like, but it wasn’t like I had practiced. They hadn’t issued me many bullets, either.

My second shot, though, missed his foot by about a thumb’s length. By then, he was up against the wall, with the sun out of his eyes behind the edge of the roof, and bringing his rifle to bear.

He wasn’t a much better shot than me, I suppose, because his first shot zipped past an arm’s length away.

One of the swordsmen dived for the loose pile of weapons. The bows and one of the quivers had tangled together somehow, and the crossbow lay more than an arm’s length away. Reflexively, I twitched the pistol towards him and fired, and he rolled away from where the bullet hit, struggling to disentangle a bow.

Reed shot again. His rifle had a poor rate of fire, because a new bullet had to be worked into position with a manual lever between each shot. This one took a chip out of the edge of the roof next to my left hand.

I took a breath, steadied my shaking hand as best I could, and fired. The pistol had eight bullets in it, and took long enough to load that that was my effective limit for this fight. This was the fourth, and it scored his forearm. He cursed, but kept working the lever.

An arrow pinged off the shingles beside me, and I blazed off my fifth shot in the general direction of the bowman, trying to get him to disengage from the fight. He was close to the other men, and they scattered, backing away from the storefront. I shifted my aim back to Reed, but his next shot made me twitch back and sent the sixth bullet wide.

I pulled back from the edge of the roof. I couldn’t see Reed from this position, but he couldn’t see me either, and I could focus on the rest of the men. The crossbowman was about to climb on one of the horses they had tethered across the street. He was done. The swordsmen and the one with the cudgel, unable to contribute to the fight, were glancing back and forth between the horses and their leader, and the two men with the short bows flanked them. They had one quiver between them, and one of them held a couple of arrows awkwardly in his off hand. They each had arrows on the string. I pointed the pistol from one to the other, and they continued to back towards the horses.

I shifted my aim as the other large man headed for his gun, leaning against the front of the store out of my line of sight now. “Don’t try it,” I said. “You leave now, nobody needs to die.”

He looked me in the eyes, and saw something, I don’t know what, but he nodded, and joined his friends in backing away.

“Come on, Reed,” said the crossbowman. “We can’t win this.” He was mounted up and ready to ride, and two of his fellows had sheathed their swords and joined him already. The horses, nervous with the fighting, stamped and shifted under them.

“Traitors!” I heard Reed cry. “We would have done it if you hadn’t turned coward.”

“Give it up, Reed,” said the crossbowman. Two more men mounted, and the big man who’d had the rifle was almost to his horse. The shortbowmen still had their arrows on the string, but didn’t appear about to fire.

I heard Reed curse, and then the boards below me thumped as he ran out into the road, carrying both rifles. He threw one to the other big man, who fumbled it, then slid it into a kind of rifle sheath on the side of his saddle before mounting up.

I couldn’t see the look Reed gave him from my angle, but I could guess.

“Ride away, Reed,” I said, my pistol steady on him. “Ride away, and live. Show me you’re a smarter man than I think you are.”

He threw the rifle up to his shoulder, and I shot him down.

As he lay writhing in the mud, I hoped none of his mates had been counting my shots. I had one left, and if they decided to try for me, I was an easy target against the pale shingles.

There was a long silence, in which Reed’s final gasps were the only noise.

They stopped, and we watched each other over his body. I kept the pistol steady. It was starting to grow heavy, and I braced it with the other hand.

First one, then the other of the shortbow brothers took his arrow from the string, slung his bow, and returned the arrows to their shared quiver. Then they lifted the corpse of their former leader onto his horse.

One of them put the rifle into its scabbard and turned to look at me.

“He had his warning,” I said, before they could say anything. “You have yours. Ride away alive.”

After a pause that felt like it was half a lifetime, the crossbowman set his horse in motion. The others followed without another word.

“Now,” I said to myself, as I let the shakes begin and allowed the pistol to rest on the shingles, “how do I get down off this roof?”

***

Two days later, when the same patronising tech arrived to fix the machine, he asked me, “Any trouble? Apart from this, I mean.”

My new assistant, Field, looked up from his sweeping.

“Nothing to mention,” I said. “Most days, I don’t even need to wear the hat.”