Title: Plogviehze, Baby (Prologue, 0/14)
Disclaimer: Pratchett's, really.
Spoilers: Monstrous Regiment. Also references Thud, The Truth, The Fifth Elephant, Carpe Jugulum, and Witches Abroad, but no story spoilers for those.
Zer cast: Polly, Mal. Also, Otto, sort of. Several thousand characters get mentioned by name or even talked about. OCs.
Rating: T for now, possibly M for later. Scratch that, definitely M for later, on account of there being a lot of swearing (and a lot of reason for swearing), and violence, and such.
Note: This is going to be long.
Plogviehze, Baby: Prologue
Snow. Kettle. Snow into the kettle. Put kettle over fire. Tea leaves and mug and hot water. Reaching coherent thought in five, four -
"Morning, sarge," said a voice from the darkness across the camp fire. Polly didn't bother to look, she'd always recognise that voice. Polly had once daringly compared it to that of a fifty year old chain-smoking bar chanteuse with a knack for dramatic makeup, a broken heart and a drinking problem.
The mental images alone had been worth the look she'd got.
"Morning, corp," she said. Parts of her were still bloody furious, although she was helpless at determining how, exactly, she was supposed to voice that. Shifting as close to the flames as was possible without actually snuggling up to them, she heard the soft clicks of a foldaway coffee engine being, well, unfolded.
"The sun has risen, sarge," said the voice quizzically. "Got some water left?"
There was a short pause as Polly's tired and freezing mind tried to wrap itself around these sentences. She groaned.
"Help yourself," said Polly, nodding to the kettle. "Literally or figuratively?"
"The sun, Mal." Clearly someone else was also having trouble getting their brain into full operating mode. Polly was glad to notice.
"Let's make war, Polly," said Mal softly as she was pouring boiling water carefully into a nozzle. "The negotiations failed quite spectacularly. Don't think it's going to take much longer now."
The scent of coffee shivered in the air, fragile and strangely warm.
"At least this means we're going to be out of here soon," said Polly.
It was a relief, she thought. The middle of Borogravian winter, and they'd been camping out here for three weeks already. Someone must have thought this a very clever idea. Someone with a heated office and a warm bed to sleep in, with a duvet and a pillow, and a bathtub and -
"Are the lads awake?" asked Polly.
In the faint light of the very early morning, Mal shrugged. "Don't think anyone's been sleeping, really," she said. "Bit cold."
"Yes," said Polly. "About that -"
Over the rim of her coffee mug, Mal raised an eyebrow. It was annoying. Polly had practised the one eyebrow thing herself, in front of a mirror, and all she'd managed was some kind of lopsided frown. Mal made it look so easy.
A moment passed.
"What is it, sarge?"
Polly thought. The fire was quite close to the tents, and while she couldn't hear anything, it didn't mean nobody was listening -
"Up for a walk, corporal?" she asked. She expected - and would have accepted - downright mutiny. They had a pretty good fire going on here, after all. The answers she wanted had better been worth leaving it.
"Sure," said Mal, getting up in one fluid movement that Polly wasn't going to even try to imitate. Not at this hour, anyway. Holding on to her mug of saloop, careful not to spill anything, she got to her feet as well. Hardly shaking, even, she was a bit proud of that.
She received a look that was thoroughly taxing, and glared back while motioning Mal over to the beaten path. Silently, they made their way through a forest of army tents, meeting and greeting the occasional freezing patrol on their way.
Off the campsite and into the woods. Silence. Mal was walking in front of her, a heavy black cloak over her Borogravian army uniform, and Polly entertained herself - oh, the entertainment - by nailing her eyes to Mal's back, her thoughts alternating between I wanna go home and Who the hell are you, and why don't I know? It must have been the earliness of the morning that brought these two together.
Where did Mal go when she went home? Polly imagined tall, dark castles with screeching doors, bats circling the towers, ever-present thunderstorms and curtains, imagined Mal prancing about in dramatic dresses. Certainly not. Maybe home was where the heart was, to Mal.
Yeah, right, thought Polly faintly. Pull the other one, it's got fucking bells on.
"Right, sarge," said Mal, when they'd gone far enough to be out of earshot, but not far enough to accidentally have committed desertion. "Do we have to talk?" She found herself a tree to lounge against and sipped her coffee in a particularly infuriating way.
"Mal, look -," began Polly and paused to find out how, exactly, she was going to phrase this while paying respect to the utter innocence of the situation. She settled for, "Where the hell were you tonight?"
The cause was totally lost when Mal cocked an eyebrow. Again.
"I do have my own tent, sarge," she said with a sly grin.
"That, while entirely faithful to the truth, is not, as it were, an answer to my question, corporal," said Sergeant Perks. "Besides, you weren't there. I looked," added Polly.
Laughter. "Missed me?"
"Er," said Polly. "I was cold, Mal. You know how humans get."
Another taxing look. "I do," said Mal. "Bit delicate, humans."
Delicate, thought Polly. Not a word I'd choose to describe myself. Far too accurate. Also, not going to dwell on the topic of mortality. Far too pressing.
"Where, Mal?" she asked.
"I was off having kinky vampire sex," said Mal. "In a tree. Where do you think I was?"
Inwardly, Polly groaned. She wasn't sure she could cope with the new and improved Maladicta. Maladict had been annoying enough, what with the superiority, but the single 'a' at the end of the name had added a whole new dimension to the annoying. It was... distracting. Er.
As if to prove the point, Polly's mind inadvertently dwelled on the technicalities of sex in a tree. Until she found the critical error.
"I thought you were afraid of heights," she said.
"Nah," said Mal. "I'm uncomfortable around heights. Not afraid as such."
Mal shrugged. "Besides, trees don't count as heights," she said. "But if it is your intent to crush my will to live by reminding me that I am not, in fact, the owner of a private life, do go on."
Polly gave her a traditional two eyebrow frown.
A sip of coffee, a smirk. "So good to be in the army, isn't it, Pol?"
Quite a lot of unsaid sentences there, thought Polly. Wow. Glad to see one of us copes.
"That kind of talk," she said, "spreads alarm and despondency. Et cetera. Where the hell were you, Mal?"
Third time's the charm, eh? Mal looked down, and when the ground provided no help at all, she looked up again.
"Family matters," she said. "Broadly speaking."
Polly glared at her, and the glare was supposed to say 'Who the hell do you think is sergeant here?'. She wasn't sure the message came through, though. Also, as far as corporals went, this one probably needed to feel independent once in a while.
"Okay," said Polly. "Do I want to know?"
Mal shook her head, smiling slightly. "Thank you for understanding," she said. Polly didn't, but since all of the questions on her mind were of the sort Mal never, ever answered, she didn't bother.
"Don't do it again, corp," said Polly. "I mean this. Someone's going to have your -"
No one should be allowed to say 'Polly' like this, thought Polly. Saying 'Polly' like this made the world a really damn silent place. Also -
"What is it, Mal?"
"I need you to know that -," began Mal, and considered her coffee mug for a moment. "When this all is over -", she tried again.
"Spill the beans, corp," said Polly. "I'm getting a bit chilly here."
Mal drained the mug in one go, and then grimaced when she found her only distraction device gone. "Right," she said. "What would you do without me, sarge?"
This was not, strictly speaking, a logical continuation of the conversation, thought Polly, and then she realised what it meant, and went cold. Colder, anyway.
"I think," she said softly, "I would have to inform the command." Always assuming she'd still be alive when this all was over, thought Polly. It was amazing, the way you never left room for the thought that you might not live to see the sunset.
"Right," said Mal.
It wasn't as if Polly hadn't expected something like this. Or, to be frank, she hadn't expected this, but found herself wondering why. Mal was so far from idealistic it wasn't even funny.
Well, so was Polly, but -
A question reared its ugly head.
"Is that why you, er - ?" began Polly, having caught herself too late.
"Is that why I er what, sarge?" said Mal.
There wasn't really a way out of this, thought Polly, trying to think up, well, synonyms. "Engage in illegal activities, corp," she said, finally. "You know. I've got to ask."
"With all due respect, sarge," said Mal, lighting up a cigarette, "that was to keep you warm."
"You know that's not what I meant," said Polly.
Without asking, Mal lit a second cigarette and passed it over. Without complaining, Polly accepted it. An unhealthy little habit, she knew that, but these things tended to lose their shock value when you fought battles for a living.
"Mal?" she volunteered, after the silence had stretched out for too long.
"I didn't have a dishonourable discharge in mind, or something," said Mal. "Certainly that's not what you were thinking, sarge?"
What did you have in mind, then? thought Polly. She didn't ask, they weren't talking about it and that was all there was to it. Really. She took a long drag off her cigarette.
"These are different," she said, a tad surprised.
"From Ankh-Morpork," said Mal. "Far better than the Borogravian blend. I think they might actually contain tobacco."
"Ha," said Polly, "I think they might actually not contain sawdust."
Polly usually didn't care either way, as long as the damn things were burning. It was something warm to breathe, as opposed to the icy winter air, so what if they were a bit stinky. But where the hell did Mal get Ankh-Morporkian cigarettes in the middle of an army camp?
"We should get back," she said. "Pretend to wake the lads and try not to look as if we came back from - er."
It must have been the earliness of the hour, she thought. She wasn't usually in the habit of just starting sentences without thinking where they might lead.
"Oh no, you don't," said Mal. "Look like 'er', I mean. Trust me on that." In the dim morning light, there was a thin smile, a hint of teeth. Polly groaned.
"You're an Abomination, corp," she said. "Can we get moving?"
She noticed Mal was looking at her, the hand with the burning cigarette raised halfway to her lips. Almost touching Polly, but not quite.
"Damn," said Mal. "You really were quite cold, right?"
"Yes," said Polly. "Doesn't matter. Move it, corporal."
"Sergeant Perks," said Mal, clearly disobeying her orders. "Have you slept at all?"
"This is not the moment to go all Igorina on me," said Polly. "Besides, you're the one who's got ice on her coat. His coat. What are you this week, again?"
"Nocturnal, at any rate," said Mal. "I'm sorry, Polly. I keep forgetting that humans -"
Delicate, thought Polly. How the hell did Mal manage to forget? Taking advantage of human delicacy was her job... And Polly's, too. Forgetting that right now. It was easy, really.
"Forget it, then," said Polly. Moving, finally. Polly tentatively reached for Mal's arm, feeling the warmth radiating from her skin underneath the fabric. Not cool at all, she thought. It must be all the coffee.
Without looking at her, Mal took Polly's hand into her own, rubbing a bit of warmth into Polly's frozen fingers. She didn't let go until they were within range of vision from the camp, either. Polly accepted it the way she'd accepted Mal's, well, warmth all winter; mostly thankful, slightly uneasy. Sort of angry now, too.
"Spring's only a month away," murmured Mal, when they were proceeding among the waking army in a slightly more professional fashion. "Maybe I can -"
"Wait until spring or until I die?" asked Polly. "Whichever comes first?"
She noticed with amazement that her voice was hardly shaking. Yes, she wanted this, wanted to hurt Mal, who intended to leave her alone in this craziness and go her merry reformed way and never be bothered by dying humans again. A look into Mal's face confirmed that she'd succeeded, too.
"Damn," said Mal, and left it at that. A cigarette end was flipped onto the ground. The glow hissed in the snow and died.
The new day began, and it turned out to not be a great big fish at all.
Until spring or until I die.
Falling and falling while the sounds of the battle became mere background to the beating of her own heart. Still beating, then. Good thing, thought Polly through a haze of pain.
The unconsciousness was a drawn-out sigh, and then it wasn't much of anything, really.
She woke up, breathing still. Someone's scream still lingered on the edge of her mind, the exact words escaping her mental grasp.
"Polly," a voice, whispering now.
That was her name, all right. There were more words, but she couldn't concentrate, couldn't -
Icy thingies were touching her face. Fingers.
"Drink," the same voice. Molten snow trickled off fingers into her very dry mouth, one drop at a time so she wouldn't choke. She still did, and it hurt so bad. She found her shivers caught, carefully, in arms that weren't hers.
"Sorry, sorry," the voice trailed off. More trickling, badly aimed.
Want, thought Polly, want my mum, here. Hurts so bad -
Dead. Mum's dead. Polly'd been a girl then, she was grown-up now, doing grown-up things. Dying.
She checked, and found her eyelids closed, and forced them open.
"Polly," the voice, "'s better if you don't -"
Shapes and shades and lines arranging, black and white and grey. Night time. She found she could move her lips, if she just concentrated.
Focusing, yes, yes, a face. Mal. Eyes, too. Polly curled up around the pain, her gaze shifting and shifting and fixating on a point next to Mal. Behind her.
She made her lips move again.
"Polly?" a whisper.
"Don't let him get -" you, thought Polly, don't let him get you. Right behind Mal, moonlight was reflected off a scythe. Something inside her knew the truth, and it moved the lips.
"Don't let him get me please Mal I beg you please -"
Mal turned her head. Turned back to Polly and shifted so Polly couldn't see him anymore.
She heard the grains of sand fall. They stifled the sound of everything else, including that voice -
YOURS OR MINE, MALADICTA. YOU CHOOSE.
Mal closed her eyes, leaving Polly all alone.
"Maladict, actually," said Mal.
"She's her own, reaper man," said Mal. "Polly's her own. You're oversimplifying."
THANK YOU, said Death. I DO TRY MY BEST.
There was a pause in which Polly was caught up in existential dread, although she wouldn't have expressed it like that. She felt Mal taking her hand, entwining their fingers. It didn't make much of a difference to anything, thought Polly faintly, but the thought was nice.
"How come you're playing games, reaper man?" said Mal.
WHY ELSE WOULD YOU BE HERE, IMMORTAL?
"Yes," said Mal. "I didn't expect you to understand."
"Mal -", a whisper. Breath running out. 'Don't let -', a thought. The impact of the last few grains of sand resonated loudly, somewhere within. Her hand was still held.
"Not yours, then," said Mal.
A grain fell, and another, and silence. Silence. Polly lifted her head to watch the moon. For a moment, it was obscured by a flapping shape, the silhouette of a bat that rose into the night sky.
Polly heard the sound of spitting next to her, and she turned and saw and it didn't add up. Mal eating snow, Mal spitting pink ice, shivering, curled up and eyes squeezed shut. Polly saw her own arm reaching out, tugging at Mal's sleeve. Mal turned her head away.
"Mal?" said Polly.
"Still," said Mal. "Don't move. Close your eyes."
Polly obeyed, she had to. She felt one part of herself being annoyed at the eagerness, but it was shut down quickly.
The sound of a sword being drawn, a rustle of cloth, a sharp indraw of breath.
"Drink," again. Water trickled into her thirsty mouth, only it wasn't water, really. She drank until she blacked out. It didn't take long.
Until spring it was, then.