By Terry Pratchett
Published by HarperCollins
September 2003; 0-060-01315-X; 368 pages
Occasionally, someone belched or expelled wind noisily, and Polly responded with a few fake eructations of her own. That seemed to inspire greater effort on the part of the other sleepers, to the point where the roof rattled and dust fell down, before everyone subsided.
Once or twice she heard people stagger out into the windy darkness; in theory, for the privy, but probably, given male impatience in these matters, to aim much closer to home. Once, coasting in and out of a troubled dream, she thought she heard someone sobbing.
Taking care not to rustle too much, Polly pulled out the much-folded, much-read, much-stained last letter from her brother, and read it by the light of the solitary, guttering candle. It had been opened and heavily mangled by the censors, and bore the stamp of the Duchy. It read:
It was in a careful hand, the excessively clear and well-shaped writing of someone who had to think about every letter.
She folded it up again. Paul had wanted medals, because they were shiny. That'd been almost a year ago, when any recruiting party that came past went away with the best part of a battalion, and there had been people waving them off with flags and music. Sometimes, now, smaller parties of men came back. The lucky ones were missing only one arm or one leg. There were no flags.
She unfolded the other piece of paper. It was a pamphlet. It was headed "From the Mothers of Borogravia!!" The mothers of Borogravia were very definite about wanting to send their sons off to war Against the Zlobenian Aggressor!! and used a great many exclamation points to say so. And this was odd, because the mothers in the town had not seemed keen on the idea of their sons going off to war, and positively tried to drag them back. Several copies of the pamphlet seemed to have reached every home, even so. It was very patriotic. That is, it talked about killing foreigners.
She'd learned to read and write after a fashion because the inn was big and it was a business and things had to be tallied and recorded. Her mother had taught her to read, which was acceptable to Nuggan, and her father made sure that she learned how to write, which was not. A woman who could write was an Abomination Unto Nuggan, according to Father Jupe; anything she wrote would by definition be a lie.
But Polly had learned anyway, because Paul hadn't, at least to the standard needed to run an inn as busy as The Duchess. He could read if he could run his finger slowly along the lines, and he wrote letters painfully slowly, with a lot of care and heavy breathing, like a man assembling a piece of jewelry.
He was big and kind and slow and could lift beer kegs as though they were toys, but he wasn't a man at home with paperwork. Their father had hinted to Polly, very gently but very often, that Polly would need to be right behind him, when the time came for him to run The Duchess. Left to himself, with no one to tell him what to do next, her brother just stood and watched birds. At Paul's insistence, she'd read the whole of "From the Mothers of Borogravia!!" to him, including the bits about heroes and there being no greater good than to die for your country.
She wished, now, she hadn't done that. Paul did what he was told. Unfortunately, he believed what he was told, too.
She put the papers away and dozed again, until her bladder woke her up. Oh, well, at least at this time of the morning she'd have a clear run.
She reached out for her pack and stepped as softly as she could out into the rain.
It was mostly just coming off the trees now, which were roaring in the wind that blew up the valley. The moon was hidden in the clouds, but there was just enough light to make out the inn's buildings. A certain grayness suggested that what passed for dawn in Plün was on the way.
She located the men's privy, which, indeed, stank of inaccuracy.
A lot of planning and practice had gone into this moment. She was helped by the design of her breeches, which were the old-fashioned kind with generous, buttoned trapdoors, and also by the experiments she'd made very early in the mornings when she was doing the cleaning. In short, with care and attention to detail, she'd found that a woman could pee standing up. It certainly worked back home in the inn's privy, which had been designed and built with the certain expectation of the aimlessness of the customers.
The wind shook the dank building.
In the dark, she thought of Aunty Hattie, who'd gone a bit strange around her sixtieth birthday and persistently accused passing young men of looking up her dress. She was even worse after a glass of wine, and she had one joke: "What does a man stand up to do, a woman sit down to do, and a dog lift its leg to do?" And then, when everyone was too embarrassed to answer, she'd triumphantly shriek "Shake hands!" and fall over. Aunty Hattie was an Abomination all by herself.
Polly buttoned up the breeches with a sense of exhilaration. She felt she'd crossed a bridge, a sensation that was helped by the realization that she'd kept her feet dry.
Someone said, "Psst!"
It was just as well she'd already taken a leak. Panic instantly squeezed every muscle. Where were they hiding? This was just a rotten old shed! Oh, there were a few cubicles, but the smell alone suggested very strongly that the woods outside would be a much better proposition. Even on a wild night. Even with extra wolves.
"Yes?" she quavered, and then cleared her throat and demanded, with a little more gruffness:" Yes? "
"You'd need these," whispered the voice. In the fetid gloom, she made out something rising over the top of the cubicle. She reached up nervously and touched softness. It was a bundle of wool. Her fingers explored it.
"A pair of socks ?" she said.
"Right. Wear 'em," said the mystery voice hoarsely.
"Thank you, but I've brought several pairs -- " Polly began.
There was a faint sigh. "No. Not on your feet. Shove 'em down the front of your trousers."
"What do you mean?"
"Look," said the whisperer patiently, "you don't bulge where you shouldn't bulge. That's good. But you don't bulge where you should bulge, either. You know? Lower down?"
"Oh! Er ... I ... but ... I didn't think people noticed ..." said Polly, glowing with embarrassment. She had been spotted! But there was no hue and cry, no angry quotations from the Book of Nuggan. Someone was helping . Someone who had seen her ...
"It's a funny thing," said the voice, "but they notice what's missing more than they notice what's there. Just one pair, mark you. Don't get ambitious."
"Um ... is it obvious?" she said.
"No. That's why I gave you the socks."
"I meant that ... that I'm not ... that I'm ..."
"Not really," said the voice in the dark. "You're pretty good. You come over as a frightened young lad trying to look big and brave. You might pick your nose a bit more often. Just a tip. Few things interest a young man more than the contents of his nostrils. Now I've got a favor to ask you in return."
I didn't ask you for one, Polly thought, quite annoyed at being taken for being a frightened young lad when she was quite sure she'd come over as quite a cool, non-ruffled young lad. But she said, calmly: "What is it?"
"Got any paper?"
Wordlessly, Polly pulled "From the Mothers of Borogravia!!" out of her shirt and handed it up.
She heard the sound of a match striking, and a sulfurous smell that only improved the general conditions.
"Why, is this the escutcheon of Her Grace the Duchess I see in front of me?" said the whisperer. "Well, it won't be in front of me for long. Beat it ... boy."
Polly hurried out into the night, shocked, dazed, confused, and almost asphyxiated, and made it to the shed door. But she'd barely shut it behind her and was blinking in the blackness when it was thrust open again, to let in the wind, rain, and Corporal Strappi.
"All right, all right! Hands off ... well, you lot wouldn't be able to find 'em ... and on with socks! Hup Hup Hi Ho Hup Hup --"
Bodies were suddenly springing up or falling over all around Polly. Their muscles must have been obeying the voice directly, because no brain could have got into gear that quickly. Corporal Strappi, in obedience to the law of noncommissioned officers, responded by making the confusion more confusing.
"Good grief, a lot of old women could shift better'n you!" he shouted with satisfaction as people flailed around looking for their coats and boots. "Fall in! Get shaved! Every man in the regiment to be clean shaven, by order! Get dressed! Wazzer, I've got my eye on you! Move! Move! Breakfast in five minutes! Last one there doesn't get a sausage! Oh deary me, what a bloody shower !"
The four lesser apocalyptical horsemen of Panic, Bewilderment, Ignorance, and Shouting took control of the room, to Corporal Strappi's obscene glee. Polly, though, ducked out of the door, pulled a small tin mug out of her pack, dipped it into a water butt, balanced it on an old barrel behind the inn, and started to shave.
She'd practiced this, too. The secret was in the old cutthroat razor that she'd carefully blunted. After that, it was all in the shaving brush and soap. Get a lot of lather on, shave a lot of lather off, and you'd had a shave, hadn't you? Must have done, sir, feel how smooth the skin is ...
She was halfway through when a voice by her ear screamed: "What d'you think you're doing, Private Parts?"
It was just as well the blade was blunt.
"Perks, sir!" she said, rubbing her nose. "I'm shaving, sir! It's Perks, sir!"
"Sir? Sir ? I'm not a sir, Parts, I'm a bloody corporal, Parts. That means you calls me 'Corporal,' Parts. And you are shaving in an official regimental mug, Parts, what you have not been issued with, right? You a deserter, Parts?"
"No, s -- Corporal!"
"A thief, then?"
"Then how come you got a bloody mug, Parts?"
"Got it off a dead man, sir -- Corporal!"
Strappi's voice, pitched to a scream in any case, became a screech of rage.
"You're a looter ?"
"No, Corporal! The soldier -- "
-- had died almost in her arms, on the floor of the inn.
There had been half a dozen men in that party of returning heroes. They must have been trekking with gray-faced patience for days, making their way back to little villages in the mountains. Polly counted nine arms and ten legs between them, and ten eyes.
But it was the apparently whole who were worse, in a way. They kept their stinking coats buttoned tight, in lieu of bandages over whatever unspeakable mess lay beneath, and they had the smell of death about them. The inn's regulars made space for them, and talked quietly, like people in a sacred place.
Her father, not usually a man given to sentiment, quietly put a generous tot of brandy into each mug of ale, and refused all payment.
Then it turned out that they were carrying letters from soldiers still fighting, and one of them had brought the letter from Paul. He pushed it across the table to Polly as she served them stew, and then, with very little fuss, he died.
The rest of the men moved unsteadily on later that day, taking with them, to give to his parents, the pot-metal medal that had been in the man's coat pocket and the official commendation from the Duchy that went with it. Polly had taken a look at it. It was printed, including the Duchess's signature, and the man's name had been filled in, rather cramped, because it was longer than average. The last few letters were rammed up tight together.
It's little details like that which get remembered, as undirected white-hot rage fills the mind. Apart from the letter and the medal, all the man left behind was a tin mug and, on the floor, a stain which wouldn't scrub out.
War has come to Discworld . . . again.
And, to no one's great surprise, the conflict centers on the small, insufferably arrogant, strictly fundamentalist duchy of Borogravia, which has long prided itself on it's ability to beat up on its neighbors for even the tiniest imagined slight. This time, however, it's Borogravia that's getting its long overdue comeuppance, which has left the country severely drained of young men.
Ever since her brother Paul marched off to battle a year ago, Polly Perks has been running The Duchess,her family's inn -- even though the revered national deity Nuggan has decreed that female ownership of a business is an Abomination (with, among others, oysters, rocks, and the color blue). To keep The Duchess in the family, Polly must find her missing sibling. So she cuts off her hair, dons masculine garb, and sets out to join him in this man's army.
Despite her rapid mastery of belching, scratching, and other macho habits (and aided by a well-placed pair of socks), Polly is afraid that someone will immediately see through her disguise; a fear that proves groundless when the recruiting officer, the legendary and seemingly ageless Sergeant Jackrum, accepts her without question. Or perhaps the sergeant is simply too desperate for fresh cannon fodder to discriminate -- which would explain why a vampire, a troll, a zombie, a religious fanatic, and two uncommonly close "friends" are also eagerly welcomed into the fighting fold. But marching off with little (read: no) training, Polly (now called "Oliver") finds herself wondering about the myriad peculiarities of her new brothers-in-arms. It would appear that Polly "Ozzer" Perks is not the only grunt with a secret. There is no time to dwell on such matters, however.Duty calls. The battlefield beckons. There's a tide to be turned.
And sometimes -- in war as in everything else -- the best man for the job is a woman.(back to top)
Terry Pratchett has been writing the Discworld novels since 1983. His first novel was published when he was 20, and he continued to write in his spare time whilst working as a journalist for a local newspaper. In his thirties he left journalism to become a press officer for Central Electricity Generating Board. He now writes full-time and is Britain's best-selling novelist, with a fanatical following.