What Polly Did Next
Summary: If Monstrous Regiment could be filed under "What Polly Did" this would fall under the remit of "What Polly Did Next" telling as it does the joys trials and tribulations of our eponymous heroine, picking up sometime in the year following the final paragraph of MR.
Disclaimer: Author owns nothing and does not intend to profit from the work. Characters from Monstrous Regiment belong to Terry Pratchett and have merely been borrowed for this caper.
A/N: This is intended to be one massive epic (I know – there's only one chapter at the moment, who am I kidding? But there are more awaiting the edit stick, I promise). Though written as chapters each section could stand alone as an individual snapshot of life on the border rather than a drawn out WIP. I'm only clustering them under this banner as a way to prevent getting things out of order.
Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own,
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone,
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half-forgotten dream,
Or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream,
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face,
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space,
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.
The Windmills of your Mind
Words & Music by Alan & Marilyn Bergman & Michel Legrand. Recorded by Dusty Springfield, 1969
If you were a god, travelling through the cosmos, drifting across the great expanse of space, you might be surprised to come across a turtle swimming toward you through the infinite darkness. It is unlikely that you would expect the four elephants standing on the back of the shell, and you might drift closer to see how they could be supporting a disc which revolves slowly without any visible mechanism.
Who, you might think to yourself, lives on such a world, so flat and so impossible?
With your interest piqued you may perhaps drift closer to have a better look. Wafting in ethereal form over the surface you would be astonished to see the many different types of people who live there. [However, it would probably be at this point that you would be struck by a thunderbolt and crash to a fiery ocean demise. The gods of the Discworld don't play well with others and as yet haven't learnt how to share.]
But having come so far, let us examine further, moving quickly over the plains cities, as nothing interesting ever happens there. Let the eye focus instead on the boiling nationalism of the mountain states. Not Überwald, an echo of Ankh-Morpork now, but Borogravia -taking her first wobbling steps into the dawn of a new world, which may or may not contain a great big fish.
Our interest here is not in the bustling cities, traced out from this height by the march of clacks towers, but instead in the confusing corners of the map, where the mountains bunch up like sheets in a nightmare and faint traced markings warn "here be dragons". No one lives here if they can help it, though the eye might seek out an occasional farm or woodcutter's cottage clinging to the mountain sides up above the deep forests where no man goes. The roads wind along the shoulders of the slopes, twisting in switchbacks along the contours, climbing higher and higher in dusty effort to escape the valley bottoms below. This is border country, though (unusually for Borogravia) the line is not generally contested. However a scattering of forts punctuate the frontier, merely for the look of the thing, and up on the higher slopes men sit in observation posts or scrabble over the rocks in endless patrols, bemoaning fate and the mistakes that brought them here.
A few of them look up as a cry rings out over the valley, squinting into the sun until they sight the eagle wheeling overhead. These great birds are king of the mountains, drifting on the thermals and looking down, in all meanings of the word, on the two-legged bunglers struggling below. From an eagles eye view, all the mountains are one mountain, a rocky paradise cleft deeply as though scarred by giant claws. One massive hunting ground of interesting things that wiggle and run.
Today the eagle is hunting away from the high peaks, where the valleys run into one another, interlinking as small becks flow into larger streams, growing ever wider and deeper and gaining power. Below him two tributaries join together and a river becomes worthy of the description, carving out a wider valley capable of human colonisation before dropping over boiling falls into a long canyon of echoes and flowing away to the real world hundreds of miles downstream.
Above the falls, where the roads meet is a larger gathering of houses, a village anywhere else, but here called a town, with castle above for all the protection it can offer. This is the heartbeat of the Border Patrol, the place where bureaucracy happens. From here orders and men are sent out and reports and a veritable cornucopia of supplies delivered. It is a town many call home, though most arriving at the start of their tour of duty call it something else entirely when they first see it and discover the reality of the consequences of persistent insolence, or determined incapability.
The eagle will go no closer, denying us a glimpse into the castle. But the eye continues non-the-less, gliding over the outer walls, surprised by the thermals rising from the kitchens, to soar above guard towers before swooping down again over the courtyards. Our destination is a small office on the second floor where, walled in by grey stone, a supply clerk sits, ledgers open in front of her.
Thus is Sergeant Polly (previously Oliver) Perks introduced. It is late summer and she swelters in her tiny room, suffocated by paperwork; stores and ledgers, schedules and reports. A fitting punishment for one so brazen as to stick a spoke in the smooth running of the army, taking on the high command with nothing more than a book of scrawled names to stop a war dead in it's tracks by mere effrontery.
Buried beneath documents, there let her lie.
The scream of the eagle dropped into Polly's afternoon torpor, distracting her momentarily from the columns of numbers marching across the page. Her head lifted and her soul strained to follow the free flight across the skies, for a second forgetting her captivity. But the window was small, framing only a constricted square of blue sky and the eagle was way up out of sight. Her terrestrial chains brought home with a thud, she returned to her ledgers.
She didn't run to the window anymore when she heard the eagle cry. There would be no point. She had accepted many long months back that payment was owed for what she did. The human mind adapts swiftly to constraint and nowadays it was only in her dreams that she reached out for freedom.
And so the afternoon rolled on. Ledgers were completed and put aside. Gradually the in-tray emptied. Forms were filled out and filed away. She worked with quiet efficiency developed from months of practice. They had made her into a good clerk. With a wry smile she considered that she may in fact be of more use to the army in this position than anywhere else they might have thought to send her. At this a new interruption broke into her thoughts as drifting in through the window came the distant chant of new troops marching up the road through the town.
Poor buggers. She paused, her mind drifting away from the files she held ready to shelve away. What would this mixed batch have been sent here for? Repeated untidiness? Persistent cleverness in the face of stupidity? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or maybe just an inconvenient memory that refused to be ignored.
She put down the files and strolled over to the window, the eagle still wheeling somewhere above, unseen, but his cry falling down calling her to freedom. Not today she thought as her eye moved from the open sky to the courtyard below, where the line of troops was stumbling in through the imposing gates. A solid sergeant led the column, yet another drunk by the look of him, the landlord of The Log And Wedge would be pleased with the extra custom. The men looked tired and thirsty, the long march up the valley road having given them all a throat-scratching patina of dust. Polly's gaze drifted idly over the ranks until it reached the corporal bringing up the rear, and there abruptly halted. She gasped, her brain stalling and falling into a tailspin, hands reaching out to steady a no longer stable stance. Rational thought and logical conclusion production processes, generally her loyal companions, had stuttered to a halt. Arising from that brief moment of recognition two overriding truths were all that existed in her world.
* * * One: You need to be down there, right now, this minute.
* * *Two: The place that you stand currently is not the place you should be.
* ! * ! * For The Duchess' Sake! GO!
And the body responded, running on instinct only, fired by months of desperate loneliness. Racing footsteps sped down the corridor, taking the stairs two at a time, gravity adding to her momentum until she took the last six steps in a flying leap to the stone paved hall, her headlong rush carrying her onward, curious stares following after until the bright light of outdoors drew her to a shuddering halt, uncertain, at the edge of the courtyard.
Was she sure it was Mal? Rationally there was no reason why the vampire should be here at the squalid end of the world. Was it just her brain conjuring up an image of someone, anyone she knew to assuage the aching desolation?
It was Mal though, standing thin and tired in the bright clear light of the courtyard, drawn up and silent behind that false front.
She was here. The relief washed over Polly from head to foot, dissolving the tight bands that gripped her, that over the months she had adapted to surviving with. Able at last to draw in a clean breath she felt the chill trickling into tight muscles forced to release their clamping hold. She had forgotten how good it felt simply to breathe deep.
Oh Mal. I missed you.
Her heart clenched again as another thought struck her. What if the girl didn't recognise her? What if she didn't want to see Polly? If Mal's eyes should close her out, this her friend from old, what would she do?
But it didn't matter and Polly shrugged off the tension. Mal was here and whether it went wrong or right from this moment on they would work something out. The smile that had been slowly moving up from somewhere around her stomach burst out at last. There was someone here who shared her past, a lifeline in an ocean of isolation. As Polly stepped forward, out into the sudden light of the courtyard she realised this must be how Mal felt about coffee.
Following the cavalcade of dust up the road Mal found her thoughts once again falling into the familiar depression that had kept company with her for a good while now. Hot. Tired. Miserable. Her mind trod again the well-known boards of the old treadmill. Another Blasted Fort. Another Blasted Posting. Another Blasted Job.
She should never have signed up again.
The reiterations bumbled along in time with her marching feet, the litany floating above the deeper grinding wretchedness of having no other choice than to keep going. She would be the first to admit it; the constant struggle had worn her down.
The old temptation surfaced again, to leave, get out, fly away as far as possible and start again someplace new. What did it matter that she had given her word? Wasn't she, a vampire, expected to be faithless? Yet somehow that made her all the more determined to stay. She would not break her word. She would not be that person.
But as she looked down the months still left to serve she was conscious more than ever that the price was too high.
They marched on and on, the road a dusty hell to be added to the list of ways the army had found to annoy her over the past year. The reinforcements had been marching for weeks, she hadn't even realised Borogravia stretched this far. Coughing through the smog she grimaced as it was driven home to her that the powers that be had finally washed their hands of her and handed her over to fate for a good kicking.
It was in this dark mood that she stumbled in through some overly decorated gates into a courtyard and came to attention with the rest of the squad. In previous postings she would have summoned up a withering comment on the décor, but what was the point? There was no one here who would appreciate it anyway.
Then, as she stood there drooping, the world decided to change. She picked up the sound of flying feet, and a drab figure staggered out into the courtyard as though unable to stop her headlong rush.
And in that moment she knew her. Mal's thoughts jarred and split into a million confusing pieces. Why would Polly be here? Her tired mind struggled to understand, there was just no sense in it at all. She swayed where she stood, fighting for comprehension and then Polly was there, enveloping strong arms holding her up. Sighing out her tiredness with the struggle, the army and the world, Mal put her head down on that welcoming shoulder and found peace.
Polly always wondered if it had been her thundering heartbeat that had drawn Mal's attention. The rapid drumming produced by her headlong rush down the stairs had been joined by a curious skipping irregularity. More prosaically it could just have the movement in the corner of her eye that brought that dark head whipping round.
The eyes drank her in, startling Polly with their intensity. Mal looked at her as though she were a dream one had wandered long to find and yet always woken empty handed. Had life been as bad for her in the months that lay between them on the pitted cobbles? Meeting those eyes, nothing in the world could have stopped Polly stepping across the last gap and gathering up the slim form.
She wouldn't say she'd thought deeply on the matter, but a small corner of her mind had been expecting some sort of rejection. But to her surprise Mal held on like a person drowning, her grip so tight that for a moment Polly couldn't breathe. Then the girl seemed to sense her struggles and loosened the death grip, dropping her head instead to that shoulder and burying her face in the curls gathering at her neck (No material could survive the speed Polly had achieved down the flight of stairs and her hair had once again escaped the neat tie she used to keep it out of the way).
Vampires were not meant to be tired and put their head down on your shoulder. But then vampires were not meant to be lowly Corporals in the army able to be posted to distant border posts where they had been longed for by miserable disgraced abominable Sergeants. Polly merely rejoiced and gently stroked the thin shoulder blades under her hand. As she stood quietly within the protective circle of those arms Mal drew in a huge breath, as though by getting the essence into her lungs it would become part of her and she could hold this moment for ever.
Oh Polly. I missed you.
For a moment they stood there, apart from the world and uncommented on by it. But the disc turns onward and life in the army must go on likewise. A disconcerted muttering from the squad broke the spell and the two figures drew apart, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Reality flowed back into their personal worlds and Polly was surprised to see growing shock replace the previous hunger in Mal's eyes, almost as though the girl was afraid. For that moment had she really not known Polly was real? Been betrayed into truth regarding what she had really thought of their friendship all that time ago? Impossible, Polly decided. It was much more likely to be merely shame from revealing such vulnerability. Vampires were supposed to be strong and unshakeable; they didn't feel loneliness or despair. As she looked over once again into those dark eyes Polly found the old mocking walls raised once more and retreated.
Mal stepped back, fighting to overcome confusion and embarrassment. Polly was really here, this time it wasn't a dream. And Mal had been caught staring, betrayed into revealing more than she had intended about what she wanted. Hadn't she promised herself not to confuse this one? Polly was a friend, possibly her only friend right now, and she didn't want to mess that up. Perhaps Polly hadn't noticed, Mal thought ignoring the numerous voices that hurried to bring examples of the girl's perceptiveness in times past. Drawing down the mocking mask she attempted to slip back into the old light ways, producing the standard small smile of welcome amusement. She wasn't to know that unless she was careful, when said smile touched on Polly it spread to her eyes and went supernova.
They struggled with small talk for a moment, before Polly made her excuses and, dragging herself away, went back to the small room with the grey walls that had been her prison for so long. A less generous commentator might draw attention to the fact she spent a good deal of the next hour staring into space, but we will draw a veil over that.
Early evening found Polly still deep in her ledgers. She didn't usually stay so late, but you know paperwork, it can really pile up if you don't keep on top of it. The small voice whispering "and if you stay here she'll know where to find you" was resolutely ignored. She had thought it best to leave Mal alone to settle in with the rest of the new arrivals. The pouncing in the courtyard had been bad enough. Polly blushed to think how that must have looked. After that, following the girl around like a lost puppy wasn't really a great idea, for all its temptations. Polly was a sergeant after all, besides she had work to do. Important army related work.
So she had buried herself in the paperwork; taking comfort from the reports of stores required and received, personal files that needed updating and ledger after ledger of neat numbers. Somewhere someone's heart was singing, but that couldn't be her, she was a staid sergeant, reliable and good at her job.
The few hours quiet reflection led her to the conclusion that everything had got a bit out of hand down in the courtyard and what she really needed right now was a friend. With this in mind it would probably be best not to frighten away the only person who fit that description within a 200 mile radius by over enthusiastic displays of affection. It wasn't even like Mal was a demonstrative sort anyway! Polly had worried for a good hour that she would vanish away out of shock and discomfort. The toll on her nervous system had been expressed by nibbling. The official pencil would never be the same.
Eventually the army ran out of things to force corporals to do. Mal was released to her own devices and after some discreet enquiries found the half opened door on the second floor. At the knock, Polly looked up with an eagerness that would have surprised her clerk Corporal Ganzfield who had been on the receiving end of her expressive scowl at his necessary, nay vital, interruptions over the previous months. Her patience was finally rewarded, Mal stood framed in the doorway, diffident, which was odd for a vampire, uncertain almost. Reining in her instinctive beaming smile Polly found herself blushing instead and chided herself for it. Hadn't she decided an hour ago to be grown up and mature about this? To hide her confusion she stammered out an apology for the pouncing earlier, determined to get the embarrassing conversation out of the way.
"It was just so good to see someone" she added in explanation. Wasn't that the truth of it, deep down? Surely Polly would have pounced on any of the squad should they have turned up in this hellhole. It wasn't like there was anything special between her and Mal. They were just friends. Mal produced a small smile and nod of agreement to Polly's great relief. Though the sergeant wouldn't have been quite so comforted had she been able to see the thoughts hiding behind that sardonic expression.
Following the time of confession and absolution the silence between them stretched a little overlong and so to break it Mal enquired in a general manner about the circumstances leading to a certain Sergeant Perks being stranded out here in the middle of nowhere. She knew of course something of the goings on at High Command. The efforts of the leader of the Monstrous Regiment to stop another war taking more of Borogravia's sons had filtered out to all corners of the army. Plus Polly had told her before she went what she was planning.
"The Border Patrol apparently needed a sergeant most urgently at exactly the same time that I was released from Major Clogson's staff. Odd that." She quirked an eyebrow and received an understanding shrug in response. "But as they say, the army works in mysterious ways. And paperwork isn't all that bad really."
It wasn't like Polly held any malice. She had been an annoyance, an obstacle in the way of progress and so she had been removed. It had been made clear to her that there was nothing personal in their response.
"And you?" She wondered whether to ask about the demotion to corporal. You never knew with Mal, it could have been for some high jinx extraordinaire of which she was justifiably proud.
"Ah 'Posting'." Mal smiled that thin smile again. "What I can't tell you about the intricacies of the transfer of a hard working soldier from unit to unit aren't worth telling." She leant in her most nonchalant manner against the doorframe. "You'd be surprised Polly, the things that can get you posted. I myself was astounded any number of times. The latest one was for singing I believe. The Major was somewhat against soldiers on fatigues in his billets singing loudly about hedgehogs when he had a hangover. I have no idea why."
Polly had met the Mal brush-off enough times to recognise the signs and, thin ice crackling beneath her, racked her brain for a route back to safer ground. Glancing out of the window she was struck by inspiration and offered a tour of the town, dangling a visit to the coffee bar (hopefully they hadn't shut yet) as a sweetener to the deal. Mal wasn't keen at first but when Polly began to describe in detail the espresso machine they had at Fouquet's she wavered visibly and came down on the side of caffeination. Polly grinned, steel willed she may be, but Mal was a sucker for caffeine.
They wandered out into the quiet evening, Mal happy to find that the heat of the day dissipated quickly up here on the cool breezes coming off the mountainside. Striding out through the imposing gate she commented on the fact that no one appeared interested in their coming and going. Polly laughed, and the rest of the route was taken up with an explanation of how life in the army worked out here on the border.
"Basically," she concluded "as long as you're not supposed to be doing something tedious or out on Patrol, no one cares where you are."
"I could get used to this" Mal mused, flicking stones off the bridge into the river. "Does anyone play Cripple Mr Onion out here?"
That night, as Mal wandered the dark corridors of the sleeping fort, she found herself humming quietly. The espresso they sold in the Le Fouquet's had only partly contributed to her good mood. All in all the day had definitely worked out better than she had envisaged when rudely awakened from her just slumber this morning. She caught a glimpse of herself in the reflective glass of a portrait hung prominently on the wall and stopped to adjust her jacket. As she straightened the collar she took a moment to assess the colour once again and nodding decided it would do. "Corporal Maladict, Border Blues at your service" she whispered to her reflection and saw the self deprecating wince break out over the figure's face. Great. Now she was talking to herself. Taking one last look she smoothed down the material and smiled. She couldn't really regret the loss of the Cheesemongers red, blond hair went better with royal blue after all.
Exploring further she found a narrow staircase and climbed up and away from the lower levels to the more functional corridors above. She paused, leaning on an upper windowsill, and peered out into the cool night. Somewhere out there lay Polly, sleeping the sleep of the just. Obviously life had been a bit rough on the poor girl, out here on her own. But no matter, Mal was here now and would soon shake her out of this uncharacteristic slump. Wasn't that what Mal was for? A mischievous grin danced over her lips as plans began to form in her fertile brain.
The shaded lanterns of the guards twinkled on the walls and lookout towers but were drowned out by the blanket of stars above. Picking out old favourites it came to mind that perhaps she should teach Polly about the stars. Turning away at last she strolled on and reaching the end of the passage, took the flight of stairs up to the attic level. Unsurprisingly the one room she was interested in, lying as it did at the very end of the corridor, was locked but she'd been carrying lock-picks for a while now and it only took her a few minutes to get the door open and slip inside. This would do nicely she thought, there was a good solid beam to hang on and no one was likely to come investigating with a stake all the way up here. Removing her new jacket and boots she swung up onto the beam and settled in for the night. A tomorrow filled with possibilities awaited.