Summary: The unveiling of Mildred Froc, rupert extraordinaire, and Sergeant Jackrum's theories on ignorance and stupidity. PG-13 for language and allusions to violence. Sorry about the really crappy title.
Warnings: SPOILERS OUT THE WAZOO for Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment. Seriously. DO NOT READ THIS if you haven't read the book.
Author's Note: In response to the General Froc Week challenge on Cheesemongers (community. General Froc before s/he was General Froc, and Sergeant Jackrum when he was Sergeant Jackrum but slightly less so.
Disclaimer: Characters and situations herein (at least the first situation) are purely canon and belong to Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment. Dialogue etc. filled in by me, not for profit, but because it is relaxing and stuff. Believe me, if I was getting paid for this, I wouldn't be posting it on the internet.
No, scratch that. Everything hurt.
As she lay there--presumably she was lying down, although for all she knew in this state she might have been floating upside down--Mildred Froc contemplated the insides of her eyelids. As far as she could tell, she had suffered no major eyelid injuries. This was comforting. Sort of.
She was cold. Well, that was no surprise. She had been cold for the past three months. It wasn't as if the Borogravian uniform was particularly well-designed to resist the always-bitter winters. But something was on top of her, covering her body (most of her body; one foot was sticking out). A bit of it was covering her lips. She attempted to figure out what it was. It felt scratchy. A coat, perhaps? Not a blanket; it was the wrong shape.
She'd always thought the saying 'a fog of pain' was a tremendously stupid one; now she realized that she simply hadn't experienced true pain before. Fog was probably the best word for it, assuming that the phrase 'enormously painful anvil smashing one into the ground and making coherent thought completely impossible' was not available.
Being unconscious made her nervous, because she never knew how long it had been, who was with her, who wasn't with her, and so forth. Involuntarily, she tensed her muscles, then groaned in pain. Damn. She rather enjoyed tensing her muscles; it was a visible way of communicating to the men that she was angry/pissed/furious/enraged/fill in synonymous adjective here. Considering the fact that she was under someone's coat and no one seemed to be around anyway, she decided to hold off on the physical communication for the moment.
Right, then. There was a fire; she was lying next to it, judging from the warmth, and it hadn't begun to die down yet, which meant that whoever had lit it wasn't far away. The ground was relatively dry, which meant that she was under an overhang or in a cave somewhere. And, yes--she opened her eyes and squinted--she was under a coat, an old scruffy one. It was vaguely familiar, but she didn't bother with trying to remember whom it belonged to, because her head felt too small for her brain. The important thing was that she was, surprisingly, not deceased. From what she could remember, this was a bit of an unlikely outcome of the... was it a battle? An ambush? All of the individual fracases seemed to run together after a while. Something she hadn't been prepared for; that was all she remembered – although, to be honest, she hadn't been prepared for most of the last months' conflicts.
The tips of her fingers were numb from the cold. She tried to roll over a bit to get them closer to the fire. Her shoulder complained as she rested her weight on it momentarily, but she managed to curl up into the characteristic cold-soldier position, knees under chin, arms clutched to sides, fingers outstretched to the fire. She shivered, pulling the old coat closer around her.
There was a bandage on her shoulder. It was dry. She stared at it for a moment, then peeked underneath it. Urgh. She looked away. So someone had been changing her bandages. Cleaning them up, too, from the look of it. Now she was beginning to warm up, an ache in her side was beginning to make itself felt. She didn't dare look at it, but it was big. She didn't even know how one would go about cleaning that sort of thing up, and she knew a lot.
She looked at the little cuts and bruises on her forearm and wondered how many of her men had died.
She looked up, for the first time, towards the sound of stomping boots and cold, huffing breaths at the entrance to the little cave. She watched, hawk-like, as a stomach entered, followed by defiantly red cheeks and eyes still watering from the bitter cold outside, along with assorted other body parts. She was not entirely surprised to see that they belonged to Sergeant Jackrum.
He looked at her, face registering no emotion in a very sergeant sort of way, or perhaps more than that. If he was pleased that she was conscious, he didn't show it. He merely nodded, once, as people do to acquaintances whose names they are not entirely sure of. She gave him a tiny dip of the head in response, quickly.
Jackrum moved slowly, stiff from the cold, and sat down opposite her, leaning against the rock wall of the cave. It didn't look very warm; he didn't look as if he cared, but then, he never did. He adopted a similar posture to her own, although it was more relaxed (and, of course, his girth did not allow him to tuck his knees under his chin). He rubbed his fingers together vigorously, blew on them, and spread them out in a mirror of Mildred's own gesture. The skin on his hands was chapped and raw.
Mildred lowered her own hands, pink and warm. "Um," she said, and stopped. She wanted to know something, but she wasn't sure what.
Jackrum's eyes swivelled to look at her. She felt nailed in place. "You're awake," he said mildly. "'S'good."
"Er..." she said uncertainly. "Yes." Then: "It was you who took care of... of the bandages and so forth?" She tried to sound properly pompous, with some degree of success.
"It was me," Jackrum admitted, as if it was something he knew he should feel sorry about but didn't.
"Well." Mildred harrumphed. It was a skill, and it had taken practice (in front of a mirror, so she could get the accompanying expression right as well). "Thank you, sergeant. You seem to have done a remarkable job keeping the wounds clean."
"Well, sir, it pains me to say that I've got some practical experience in that field," said Jackrum, regarding her through the flickering flames.
"Yes,"Mildred said, for lack of anything better to say. There was a period of silence, short but still too long. It needed to be filled. She cleared her throat and went on, "I'm sure there will be a commendation for you in the future, sergeant... superb care of a superior officer... I'll see to it if I can..."
Jackrum closed his eyes, a pained expression passing briefly over his face, but, to his credit, he did not interrupt her. When she had trailed off and looked away, he opened his eyes and said, quietly and clearly, "Don't tell me from commendations, sir. With respect."
Mildred exhaled. Her muscles had tensed again. It hurt. She swallowed. "They're... dead, then? All of them?" she said. Her voice was louder than she'd intended, far too loud to be contained in the tiny cave; her words bounced off the walls and through her head again several times before echoing out the door.
He looked at her. "Yes." He looked at the fire. "All of them," he added in a flat voice.
Mildred felt very small. For a moment she felt like screaming until the echoes built up and caused them both to explode into a thousand tiny pieces. Then her inner rupert took over. Bluster, it told her. Bluster, and everything will be all right. If you're in charge, it hasn't happened, because then it would be your fault, wouldn't it? She looked at Jackrum with her eyes but not her mind, resulting in a glazed, half-attentive look only noticeable to the very alert, and shook her head slightly. "Such a shame, sergeant. I... I suppose we should have the official letter sent off to their families when we get back to headquarters. I'm sure their mothers will feel better knowing that they died defending their country and the Duchess."
"Sir," said Jackrum abruptly. "Sir, I am aware, sir, that this is a difficult situation for you, sir, seeing as how you were in charge and caught unawares, sir, with your trousers down, if you like, but, sir, I must ask you, sir, if you don't mind, to please shut up." He paused. "Sir," he added.
Mildred looked at him. His face was still carefully blank. She pursed her lips without realizing it. "So," she said, "you blame me for their deaths? You think it was my fault?"
"Good," said Mildred, "because--"
"I know it's your fault," said Jackrum. "Because you don't know anything, sir, with respect. Not about this sort of thing. Ruperts don't, generally."
He patted the pockets of the pants of his uniform. Mildred, who knew him well enough by now to know what he was looking for, stuck her hands into the pockets of the coat and brought out a wad of chewing tobacco wrapped in paper and a small knife. She handed them to him, and he took them, wordlessly, with a slight nod. She said nothing, just watched him.
He began to cut a piece of tobacco. "You didn't mean to, o' course," he said. "I know that. Don't go telling me you didn't mean to, sir, because I know that. And you're not stupid. You're just ignorant. Different beasts, ignorance and stupidity, but the one can be fixed while the other can't. Ignorant people do stupid things, though. And the stupid thing you did, sir," and he gestured with his knife, "was not listening to me."
"You," said Mildred, very firmly not being upset because she knew it wouldn't get her anywhere, "are a sergeant. I am the officer in charge. It is your job to listen to me."
Jackrum sawed the last connecting piece of tobacco apart and popped the small piece into his mouth. He chewed contemplatively for a moment, then stored the lump in his cheek and said, "You are strictly correct, sir, but you are not right. I am a sergeant. The thing about officers, though, successful officers, officers that get promoted, is that they listen to sergeants, because sergeants know how things work. They won't tell you if you ask 'em, but I've met some officers--majors, generals, big important men--and the things they know, they didn't learn themselves, sir, be sure of it. They're taught men. Because sergeants can be stupid, sir, but they can't be ignorant, or they end up dead. Whereas officers, sir... well, like I said, ignorance can be fixed."
Damn. She was definitely upset now. "I am not an ignorant person, sergeant," Mildred said flatly.
"Not in general, sir, I'll grant you that. You've read things I haven't; nearly everyone has, o' course. But for killing people and not getting killed yourself? You don't know a damn thing, sir. If you did, they'd still be alive, wouldn't they?"
"Sergeant Jackrum!" She was on her feet now, although she didn't remember actually standing up. She was shaking, too, and not from the cold. "This is insubordination and blatantly insulting! If you think my ignorance is responsible for the deaths of my men, you can take it up with the military tribunal, but until you do so, kindly refrain from insulting my intelligence! I know just as much as you do about survival! I have been trained by the finest strategists in Borogravia!"
"Well," said Jackrum, waving a hand airily. "Training." He chewed his lump of tobacco for a moment, the picture of calm contemplation. "And, you know," he added after a moment, "I've never trusted people who call themselves the finest or best anything. They make it up themselves, to advertise." Then he looked up, staring directly at her, and said levelly, "How long do you think you'd last, sir, if I threw you out of this cave right now? Do you know how to build a fire, or clean a wound, or change a bandage? You don't, do you? You don't even know how to find a spot of shelter in a storm. And that's the knowledge that matters out here. Training doesn't cut it."
Mildred realized numbly that she was still standing up, and wondered why. She sat down quickly and looked at her hands. What was I thinking? she thought desperately. This thought was not in reference to any particular act of foolishness on her part; rather, it was in reference to everything, or possibly Everything, which was bigger than her own personal everything, and more hopeless. "You're right, sergeant," she whispered; her voice was raspy. "I don't know a damn thing."
He regarded her curiously, one eyebrow slightly raised. Then he shrugged and looked at the ceiling. "There's always time to learn, sir," he said, in a philosophical tone of voice. He paused. "Funny the things we learn," he added.
Mildred looked up, eyes wide, and regarded the sergeant, with his red, red uniform and his red, red cheeks, with his beady black eyes fixed steadily on the ceiling and his steadily-chewing jaw, and she knew. And she was, for the first time in quite a while, afraid, because it was all over and she knew what was coming next.
He looked at her then, and she knew that he knew that she knew that he knew. She opened her mouth, closed it, swallowed, and looked around frantically. She had to say something, or she would just die, right there, of shame and embarrassment and silence, without even being punished first, and some tiny, morbid part of her was curious about what was actually done to Abominations, because she didn't know. Finally she managed to squeak out: "I... I thought you should know... I... my name's Mildred... um."
She waited for the other shoe to drop, or kick, or disembowel, or something. But Jackrum just watched her, not in the manner of an interrogator staring down a guilty party, but with an air of curiosity and, almost undetectable, faint disappointment.
"I wonder," he said after a moment, "why you think that you needed to tell me that."
Mildred gaped like a fish. "Meh?" she said, and meant it.
"Well, sir," said the sergeant, "you never told me your first name before, did you?" He paused. "I wonder, sir," he said, "whether you think I didn't need to know it before." He gave her something approaching a sergeant's glare. "Do you think I need to know it now? Do you think you're less important now, compared to me? Is that what you think? I am disappointed, sir."
"You're going to send me back, Sergeant Jackrum, and we both know it, so please don't play around," said Mildred wearily. "I'm tired, and I'm cold, and my bones ache, and I'd rather just get on with it, really."
"Ruperts must have their egos, sir," Jackrum continued, as if she hadn't said anything, "and so I feel obliged to tell you that nothing I have learned since our last fracas has managed to convince me that you are anything less than a pompous bastard. However! You have potential. And therefore, sir, it is with utmost respect that I tell you to lie back down so as not to open the wounds again. I'm off to get some more firewood. I'd like my coat back, if you don't mind, sir, as it's cold enough out there to freeze the nadgers off a troll."
He held out a hand. Mildred handed him the coat, because she couldn't think of anything else to do. She watched him walk to the cave's entrance, feeling shell-shocked (or, given technological progress on the Disc at this point in time, catapulted at). At the door, he paused and turned around.
"Names," he said, "are like brains. You need to have them to work right, and in the hands of someone else, weird things happen." He grinned a tobacco-stained grin. "You don't hand them to your enemy, sir."
"Are you my enemy, sergeant?" said Mildred faintly.
Sergeant Jackrum grinned wider. "Am I your friend, sir?" he asked her, and turned, and left.
Mildred Froc stared after him, feeling vulnerable and safe at the same time. All in all, she decided, the most sensible thing to do at this point was to go back to sleep.
General Froc (first name: none of your damn business) grimaced at the letter. She recognized the handwriting, and was not pleased about this.
Alone in her quarters, she read it again.
Just because I'm gone, don't get cocky, and don't try anything funny. Perks has got the list. There are always new lads. Don't be ignorant. Fair warning. Pass it on to anyone you feel needs it.
S-M Jackrum (ret.)
She sighed and crumpled the letter into a ball. Damn it all. There always were new lads.