Monstrous regiment, p.1
Part #31 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
About the Book
‘Trousers. That’s the secret ... Put on trousers and the world changes. We walk different. We act different. I see these girls and I think: idiots! Get yourself some trousers!’
Women belong in the kitchen – everyone knows that. Not in jobs, pubs or indeed trousers, and certainly not on the front line, braving enemy forces in defence of their country. Then again, there’s always a war on somewhere, even if no-one really knows what it’s about. And when money and enthusiasm for it are running very low, it might be time to let women make a stand, on the battlefield and for their rights ...
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Terry Pratchett
Polly cut off her hair in front of the mirror, feeling slightly guilty about not feeling very guilty about doing so. It was supposed to be her crowning glory, and everyone said it was beautiful, but she generally wore it in a net when she was working. She’d always told herself it was wasted on her. But she was careful to see that the long golden coils all landed on the small sheet spread out for the purpose.
If she would admit to any strong emotion at all at this time, it was sheer annoyance that a haircut was all she needed to pass for a young man. She didn’t even need to bind up her bosom, which she’d heard was the normal practice. Nature had seen to it that she had barely any problems in this area.
The effect that the scissors had was . . . erratic, but it was no worse than other male haircuts here. It’d do. She did feel cold on the back of her neck, but that was only partly because of the loss of her long hair. It was also because of the Stare.
The Duchess watched her from above the bed.
It was a poor woodcut, hand-coloured mostly in blue and red. It was of a plain, middle-aged woman whose sagging chin and slightly bulging eyes gave the cynical the feeling that someone had put a large fish in a dress, but the artist had managed to capture something extra in that strange, blank expression. Some pictures had eyes that followed you around the room; this one looked right through you. It was a face you found in every home. In Borogravia, you grew up with the Duchess watching you.
Polly knew her parents had one of the pictures in their room, and knew also that when her mother was alive she used to curtsy to it every night. She reached up and turned this picture round so that it faced the wall. A thought in her head said No. It was overruled. She’d made up her mind.
Then she dressed herself in her brother’s clothes, tipped the contents of the sheet into a small bag which went into the bottom of her pack along with the spare clothes, put the note on her bed, picked up the pack and climbed out of the window. At least, Polly climbed out of the window, but it was Oliver’s feet that landed lightly on the ground.
Dawn was just turning the dark world into monochrome when she slipped across the inn’s yard. The Duchess watched her from the inn sign, too. Her father had been a great loyalist, at least up to the death of her mother. The sign hadn’t been repainted this year, and a random bird-dropping had given the Duchess a squint.
Polly checked that the recruiting sergeant’s cart was still in front of the bar, its bright banners now drab and heavy with last night’s rain. By the look of that big fat sergeant, it would be hours before it was on the road again. She had plenty of time. He looked like a slow breakfaster.
She let herself out of the door in the back wall and headed uphill. At the top, she turned back and looked at the waking town. Smoke was rising from a few chimneys, but since Polly was always the first to wake, and had to yell the maids out of their beds, the inn was still sleeping. She knew that the Widow Clambers had stayed overnight (it had been ‘raining too hard for her to go home’, according to Polly’s father) and, personally, she hoped for his sake that she’d stay every night. The town had no shortage of widows, and Eva Clambers was a warm-hearted lady who baked like a champion. His wife’s long illness and Paul’s long absence had taken a lot out of her father. Polly was glad some of it was being put back. The old ladies who spent their days glowering from their windows might spy and peeve and mumble, but they had been doing that for too long. No one listened any more.
She raised her gaze. Smoke and steam was already rising from the laundry of the Girls’ Working School. It hung over one end of the town like a threat, big and grey with tall, thin windows. It was always silent. When she was small, she’d been told that that was where the Bad Girls went. The nature of ‘badness’ was not explained, and at the age of five Polly had received the vague idea that it consisted of not going to bed when you were told. At the age of eight she’d learned it was where you were lucky not to go for buying your brother a paint box. She turned her back and set off between the trees, which were full of birdsong.
Forget you were ever Polly. Think young male, that was the thing. Fart loudly and with self-satisfaction at a job well done, move like a puppet that’d had a couple of random strings cut, never hug anyone and, if you meet a friend, punch them. A few years working in the bar had provided plenty of observational material. No problem about not swinging her hips, at least. Nature had been pretty sparing there, too.
And then there was the young male walk to master. At least women swung only their hips. Young men swung everything, from the shoulders down. You have to try to occupy a lot of space, she thought. It makes you look bigger, like a tomcat fluffing his tail. She’d seen it a lot in the inn. The boys tried to walk big in self-defence against all those other big boys out there. I’m bad, I’m fierce, I’m cool, I’d like a pint of shandy and me mam wants me home by nine . . .
Let’s see, now . . . arms out from the body as though holding a couple of bags of flour . . . check. Shoulders swaying as though she was elbowing her way through a crowd . . . check. Hands slightly bunched and making rhythmical circling motions as though turning two independent handles attached to the waist . . . check. Legs moving forward loosely and ape-like . . . check . . .
It worked fine for a few yards until she got something wrong and the resultant muscular confusion somersaulted her into a holly bush. After that, she gave up.
The thunderstorm came back as she hurried along the trail; sometimes one would hang around the mountains for days. But at least up here the path wasn’t a river of mud, and the trees still had enough leaves to give her some protection. There was no time to wait out the weather, anyway. She had a long way to go. The recruiting party would cross at the ferry, but Polly was known to all the ferrymen by sight and the guard would want to see her permit to travel, which Oliver Perks certainly didn’t have. So that meant a long diversion all the way to the troll bridge at Tübz. To the trolls all humans looked alike and any piece of paper would do as a permit, since they didn’t read. Then she could walk down through the pine forests to Plün. The cart would have to stop there for the night, but the place was one of those nowhere villages that existed only in order to avoid the embarrassment of having large empty spaces on the map. No one knew her in Plün. No one ever went there. It was a dump.
It was, in fact, just the place she needed. The recruiting party would stop there, and she could enlist. She was pretty certain the big fat sergeant and his greasy little corporal wouldn’t notice the girl who’d served them last night. She was not, as they said, conventionally beautiful. The corporal had tried to pinch her bottom, but probably out of habit, like swatting a fly, and there was not enough for a big pinch, at that.
She sat on the hill above the ferry and had a late breakfast of cold potato and sausage while she watched the cart cross over.
The afternoon hung heavy and humid, and a yellow pine warbler followed her from bush to bush. Last night’s mud was steaming when Polly reached the troll bridge, which crossed the river in a narrow gorge. It was a thin, graceful affair, put together, it was said, with no mortar at all. And it was said that the weight of the bridge anchored it ever more deeply into the rock on either side. It was said to be a wonder of the world, except that very few people around here ever wondered much about anything and were barely aware of the world. It cost one penny to cross, or one hundred gold pieces if you had a billygoat.1 Halfway across Polly peered over the parapet and saw the cart far, far below, working its way along the narrow road just above the white water.
The afternoon’s journey was downhill all the way, through dark pines on this side of the gorge. She didn’t hurry and, towards sunset, she spotted the inn. The cart had already arrived, but by the looks of it the recruiting sergeant had not even bothered to make an effort. There was no drum-banging like there had been last night, no cries of ‘Roll up, my young shavers! It’s a great life in the Ins-and-Outs!’
There was always a war. Usually it was a border dispute, the national equivalent of complaining that the neighbour was letting his hedge grow too long. Sometimes it was bigger. Borogravia was a peace-loving country in the midst of treacherous, devious, warlike enemies. They had to be treacherous, devious and warlike, otherwise we wouldn’t be fighting them, eh? There was always a war.
Polly’s father had been in the army before he took over The Duchess from Polly’s grandfather. He didn’t talk about it much. He’d brought his sword back with him, but instead of hanging it over the fireplace he used it to poke the fire. Sometimes old friends would turn up and, when the bars were shut for the night, they’d gather round the fire and drink and sing. The young Polly found excuses to stay up and listen to the songs they sang, but that had stopped when she’d got into trouble for using one of the more interesting words in front of her mother; now she was older, and served the beer, it was presumably assumed that she knew the words or would find out what they meant soon enough. Besides, her mother had gone where bad words would no longer offend and, in theory, never got said.
The songs had been part of her childhood. She knew all the words of ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ and ‘The Devil Shall Be My Sergeant’ and ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’ and ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and, after the drink had been flowing for a while, she’d memorized ‘Colonel Crapski’ and ‘I Wish I’d Never Kissed Her’.
And then, of course, there had been ‘Sweet Polly Oliver’. Her father used to sing it when she was small and fretful or sad, and she’d laughed to hear it simply because it had her name in it. She was word perfect on the words before she’d known what most of them meant. And now . . .
. . . Polly pushed open the door. The recruiting sergeant and his corporal looked up from the stained table where they were sitting, beer mugs halfway to their lips. She took a deep breath, marched over, and made an attempt at saluting.
‘What do you want, kid?’ growled the corporal.
‘Want to join up, sir!’
The sergeant turned to Polly and grinned, which made his scars move oddly and caused a tremor to shake all his chins. The word ‘fat’ could not honestly be applied to him, not when the word ‘gross’ was lumbering forward to catch your attention. He was one of those people who didn’t have a waist. He had an equator. He had gravity. If he fell over, in any direction, he would rock. Sun and drink had burned his face red. Small dark eyes twinkled in the redness like the sparkle on the edge of a knife. Beside him, on the table, were a couple of old-fashioned cutlasses, weapons that had more in common with a meat cleaver than a sword.
‘Just like that?’ he said.
‘You don’t want us to get you stinking drunk first? It’s traditional, you know.’
‘I haven’t told you about the wonderful opportunities for advancement and good fortune, have I?’
‘Did I mention how the spanking red uniform will mean you’ll have to beat the girls off with a stick?’
‘Don’t think so, sir!’
‘Or the grub? Every meal’s a banquet when you march along with us!’ The sergeant smacked his belly, which caused tremors in outlying regions. ‘I’m the living proof!’
‘Yes, sir. No, sir. I just want to join up to fight for my country and the honour of the Duchess, sir!’
‘You do?’ said the corporal incredulously, but the sergeant appeared not to hear this. He looked Polly up and down, and Polly got the definite impression that the man was neither as drunk nor as stupid as he looked.
‘Upon my oath, Corporal Strappi, it seems that what we’ve got ourselves here is nothin’ less than a good, old-fashioned patriot,’ he said, his eyes searching Polly’s face. ‘Well, you’ve come to the right place, my lad!’ He pulled a sheaf of papers towards him with an air of bustle. ‘You know who we are?’
‘The Tenth Foot, sir. Light infantry, sir. Known as the “Ins-and-Outs”, sir,’ said Polly, relief bubbling through her. She’d clearly passed some sort of test.
‘Right, lad. The jolly old Cheesemongers. Finest regiment there is, in the finest army in the world. Keen to join, then, are yer?’
‘Keen as mustard, sir!’ said Polly, aware of the corporal’s suspicious eyes on her.
The sergeant unscrewed the top from a bottle of ink and dipped a nib pen in it. His hand hovered over the paperwork. ‘Name, lad?’ he said.
‘Oliver, sir. Oliver Perks,’ said Polly.
‘Seventeen come Sunday, sir.’
‘Yeah, right,’ said the sergeant. ‘You’re seventeen and I’m the Grand Duchess Annagovia. What’re you running away from, eh? Got a young lady in the family way?’
‘’e’d ’ave ’ad to ’ave ’elp,’ said the corporal, grinning. ‘He squeaks like a little lad.’
Polly realized she was starting to blush. But then, young Oliver would blush too, wouldn’t he? It was very easy to make a boy blush. Polly could do it just by staring.
‘Don’t matter anyway,’ said the sergeant. ‘You make your mark on this here document and kiss the Duchess and you’re my little lad, you understand? My name is Sergeant Jackrum. I will be your mother and your father and Corporal Strappi here will be just like your big brother. And life will be steak and bacon every day, and anyone who wants to drag you away’ll have to drag me away too, because I’ll be holding on to your collar. And you might well be thinking there’s no one that can drag that much, Mr Perks.’ A thick thumb jabbed at the paper. ‘Just there, right?’
Polly picked up the pen and signed.
‘What’s that?’ said the corporal.
‘My signature,’ said Polly.
She heard the door open behind her, and spun round. Several young men— she corrected herself, several other young men had clattered into the bar, and were looking around warily.
‘You can read and write, too?’ said the sergeant, glancing up at them and then back to her. ‘Yeah, I see. A nice round hand, as well. Officer material, you are. Give him the shilling, corporal. And the picture, of course.’
‘Right, sergeant,’ said Corporal Strappi, holding up a picture frame on a handle, like a looking-glass.
‘’Pucker up, Private Parts.’
‘It’s Perks, sir,’ said Polly.
‘Yeah, right. Now kiss the Duchess.’
It was not a good copy of the famous picture. The paint
‘Huh,’ said Strappi, and pressed something into her hand.
‘What’s this?’ said Polly, looking at the small square of paper.
‘An IOU. Bit short of shillings right now,’ said the sergeant, while Strappi smirked. ‘But the innkeeper’ll stand you a pint of ale, courtesy of her grace.’
He turned and looked up at the newcomers. ‘Well, it never rains but it pours. You boys here to join up too? My word, and we didn’t even have to bang the drum. It must be Corporal Strappi’s amazin’ charisma. Step up, don’t be shy. Who’s the next likely lad?’
Polly looked at the next recruit with horror that she hoped she was concealing. She hadn’t really noticed him in the gloom, because he was wearing black – not cool, styled black, but a dusty black, the kind of suit people got buried in. By the look of it, that person had been him. There were cobwebs all over it. The boy himself had stitches across his forehead.
‘Your name, lad?’ said Jackrum.
Jackrum counted the stitches.
‘You know, I had a feeling it was going to be,’ he said. ‘And I see you’re eighteen.’
‘Oh, gods . . .’ Commander Samuel Vimes put his hands over his eyes.
‘I beg your pardon, your grace?’ said the Ankh-Morpork consul to Zlobenia. ‘Are you ill, your grace?’
‘What’s your name again, young man?’ said Vimes. ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve been travelling for two weeks and not getting a lot of sleep and I’ve spent all day being introduced to people with difficult names. That’s bad for the brain.’
‘It’s Clarence, your grace. Clarence Chinny.’
‘Chinny?’ said Vimes, and Clarence read everything in his expression.
‘I’m afraid so, sir,’ he said. ‘Were you a good fighter at school?’ said Vimes. ‘No, your grace, but no one could beat me over the one-hundred-yard dash.’
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett / Fantasy / Humor have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes