"Fine. I just thought that you'd like to know someone saw you. And you'd better get that tea to 'em before they try to kill one another."
At least I was someone watching the enemy, Polly thought furiously as she walked away. I wasn't someone watching another soldier. Who does he think he is? Or she is?
She heard the raised voices as she pushed through a thicket.
"You can't torture an unarmed man!" That was Blouse's voice.
"Well, I'm not waiting for him to arm himself, sir! He knows stuff! And he's a spy!"
"Don't you dare kick him in the ribs again! That is an order, sergeant!"
"Asking nicely didn't work, did it, sir? 'Pretty please with sprinkles on top' is not a recognized method of interrogation! You shouldn't be here, sir! You should say 'Sergeant, find out what you can from the prisoner!' and then go somewhere and wait until I tell you what I got out of him, sir!"
"You did it again!"
"You kicked him again!"
"No, I didn't!"
"Sergeant, I gave you an order!"
"Tea's up!" said Polly cheerfully.
Both men turned. Their expression changed. If they had been birds, their feathers would have gently settled back.
"Ah, Perks," said Blouse. "Well done."
"Yeah… good lad," said Sergeant Jackrum.
Polly's presence seemed to lower the temperature. The two men drank their tea and eyed one another warily.
"You'll have noticed, sergeant, that the men were wearing the dark-green uniform of the First Battalion the Zlobenian Fifty-ninth Bowmen. A skirmishing battalion," said Blouse, with cold politeness. "That is not the uniform of a spy, sergeant."
"Yessir? But they'd let their uniforms get very dirty, then. No shine on the buttons, sir."
"Patrolling behind enemy lines is not spying, sergeant. You must have done it in your time."
"More times than you could count, sir," said Jackrum. "And I knew full well that if I got caught I was due a good kicking in the nadgers. But skirmishers is the worst, sir. You think you're safe in the lines, next moment it turns out that some bastard sitting in the bushes on a hill has been working out windage and yardage and has dropped an arrow right through your mate's head." He picked up a strange-looking longbow. "See these things they've got? Burleigh and Stronginthearm Number Five Recurved, made in bloody Ankh-Morpork. A real killing weapon. I say we give him a choice, sir. He can tell us what he knows, and go out easy. Or keep mum, and go out hard."
"No, sergeant. He is an enemy officer taken in battle and entitled to fair treatment."
"No, sir. He's a sergeant, and they don't deserve no respect at all, sir. I should know. They're cunning and artful, if they're any good. I wouldn't mind if he was an officer, sir. But sergeants are clever."
There was a grunt from the bound prisoner.
"Loosen his gag. Perks," said Blouse. Instinctively, even if the instinct was only a couple of days old, Polly glanced at Jackrum. The sergeant shrugged. She pulled the rag down.
"I'll talk," said the prisoner, spitting out cotton fluff. "But not to that tub of lard! I'll talk to the officer. You keep that man away from me!"
"You're in no position to negotiate, soldier boy!" snarled Jackrum.
"Sergeant," said the lieutenant, "I'm sure you have things to see to. Please do so. Send a couple of men back here. He can't do anything against four of us."
"But – "
"That was another order, sergeant," said Blouse. He turned to the prisoner as Jackrum stumped off. "What is your name, man?"
"Sergeant Towering, lieutenant. And if you are a sensible man, you will release me and surrender."
"Surrender?" said Blouse, as Igorina and Wazzer ran into the clearing, armed and bewildered.
"Yep. I'll put in a good word for you when the boys catch up with us. You don't want to know how many men are looking for you. Could I have a drink, please?"
"What? Oh, yes. Of course," said Blouse, as if caught out in a display of bad manners. "Perks, fetch some tea for the sergeant. Why are people looking for us, pray?"
Towering gave him a cockeyed grin. "You don't know?"
"No," said Blouse coldly.
"You really don't know?" Now Towering was laughing. He was far too relaxed for a bound man, and Blouse sounded far too much like a nice but worried man trying to appear firm and determined. To Polly, it was like watching a child bluffing in poker against a man called Doc.
"I don't wish to play games, man. Out with it!" said Blouse.
"Everyone knows about you, lieutenant. You're the Monstrous Regiment, you are!" he said. "No offence meant, of course. They say you've got a troll and a vampire and an Igor and a werewolf. They say you…" he began to chuckle "…they say you overpowered Prince Heinrich and his guard and stole his boots and made him hop away in the altogether!"
In a thicket some way off, a nightingale sang. For quite a while, uninterrupted. Then Blouse said, "Hah, no, you are in fact wrong. The man was Captain Horentz – "
"Yeah, right, like he'd tell you who he was with you pointing swords at him!" said Towering. "I heard from one of my mates that one of you kicked him in the meat-and-two-veg, but I haven't seen the picture yet."
"Someone took a picture of him getting kicked?" squeaked Polly, drenched in a sudden horror.
"Not of that, no. But there's copies all over the place of him in chains and I hear it's been sent by the clacks to Ankh-Morpork."
"Is… is he annoyed?" Polly quavered, cursing Otto Chriek and his picture-making.
"Well, now, let me see," said Towering sarcastically. "Annoyed? No, I shouldn't think he's annoyed. 'Livid' is the word, I think. Or 'raging'? Yeah, I think 'raging' is the word. There's a lot of people looking for you lads now. Well done!"
Even Blouse could see Polly's distress. "Er… Perks," he said, "it was you, wasn't it, who – "
Over and over in Polly's head the words ogodIkickedthePrinceinthefruitandveg were going round and round like a hamster in a runaway treadmill until, suddenly, it ran up against something solid.
"Yessir," she snapped. "He was forcing himself upon a young woman, sir. If you recall?"
Blouse's frown faded, and became a grin of childlike duplicity. "Ah, yes, indeed. He was 'pressing his suit' in no small way, was he not?"
"He didn't have ironing in mind, sir!" said Polly fervently.
Towering glanced at Wazzer, grimly clutching a crossbow that Polly knew for a fact she was scared of, and Igorina, who'd much rather be holding a surgeon's knife than the sabre in her hand and looked worried sick. Polly saw his brief smile.
"And there you have it, Sergeant Towering," said the lieutenant, turning to the prisoner. "Of course, we all know there is some atrocious behaviour in times of war, but it is not the sort of thing we would expect of a royal prince.5 If we are to be pursued because a gallant young soldier prevented matters from becoming even more disgusting, then so be it."
"Now I am impressed," said Towering. "A real knight errant, eh? He's a credit to you, lieutenant. Any chance of that tea?"
Blouse's skinny chest visibly swelled at the compliment. "Yes, Perks, the tea, if you would be so good."
Leaving the three of you with this man who's positively radiating an intention to escape, Polly thought. "Could perhaps Private Goom go and fetch – " she began.
"A word in private, Perks?" snapped Blouse. He drew her closer, but Polly kept her eye on Sergeant Towering. He might be bound hand and foot, but she wouldn't have trusted a man who grinned like that if he'd been nailed to the ceiling.
"Perks, you are making a great contribution but I really will not have my orders continually questioned," said Blouse. "You are my batman, after all. I think I run a 'happy ship' here, but I will be obeyed. Please?"
It was like being savaged by a goldfish, but she had to admit he had a point. "Er… sorry, sir," she said, backing away as long as possible so as not to miss the end of the tragedy. Then she turned and ran.
Jackrum was sitting by the fire, with the prisoner's bow across his huge knees, slicing some sort of black sausage with a big clasp-knife. He was chewing.
"Where's the rest of us, sir?" said Polly, scrabbling for a mug.
"I sent 'em to scout a wide perimeter, Perks. Can't be too careful if matey-boy's got pals out there."
…which was perfectly sensible. It just happened to mean that half the squad had been sent away…
"Sarge, you know that captain back at the barracks? That was – "
"I've got good hearing, Perks. Kicked him in the Royal Prerogative, eh? Hah! Makes it all more interestin', eh?"
"It's going to go wrong, sarge, I just know it," said Polly, dragging the kettle off the hob and spilling half the water as she topped up the teapot.
"D'you chew at all, Perks?" said Jackrum.
"What, sarge?" said Polly distractedly.
The sergeant held out a small piece of sticky, black… stuff. "Tobacco. Chewing tobacco," said Jackrum. "I favour Blackheart over Jolly Sailor, 'cos it's rum-dipped, but others say – "
"Sarge, that man's going to escape, sarge! I know he is! The lieutenant isn't in charge, he is. He's all friendly and everything, but I can tell by his eyes, sarge!"
"I'm sure Lieutenant Blouse knows what he's doing, Perks," said Jackrum primly. "You're not telling me a bound man can overcome four of you, are you?"
"Oh, sugar!" said Polly.
"Just down there, in the old black tin," said Jackrum. Polly tipped some into the worst cup of tea ever made by a serving soldier and ran back to the clearing.
Amazingly, the man was still in a sitting position, and still bound hand and foot. Her fellow Cheesemongers were watching him dejectedly. Polly relaxed, but only a little.
" – nd there you have it, lieutenant," he was saying. "No disgrace in calling it quits, eh? He'll hunt you down soon enough, 'cos it's personal now. But if you were to come along with me, I'd do my best to see it goes easy with you. You don't want to get caught by the Heavy Dragoons right now. They ain't got much of a sense of humour – "
"Tea up," said Polly.
"Oh, thank you, Perks," said Blouse. "I think we can at least cut Sergeant Towering's hands free, don't you?"
"Yes, sir," said Polly, meaning "no, sir". The man offered his bound wrists, and Polly reached out gingerly with her knife while holding the mug like a weapon.
"Artful lad you've got here, lieutenant," said Towering. "He reckons I'm going to grab his knife off of him. Good lad."
Polly sliced the rope, brought her knife hand back quickly, and then carefully proffered the mug.
"And he's made the tea lukewarm so's it won't hurt when I splashes it in his face," Towering went on. He gave Polly the steady, honest gaze of the born bastard.
Polly held it, lie for lie.
"Oh, yeah. The Ankh-Morpork people've got a little printing press on a cart, over on the other side of the river," said Towering, still watching Polly. "For morale, they say. And they sent the picture back to the city, too, on the clacks. Don't ask me how. Oh yeah, a good picture. 'Plucky Rookies Trounce Zlobenia's Finest', they wrote. Funny thing, but it looks like the writer man didn't spot it was the Prince. But we all did!"
His voice became even more friendly. "Now look, mates, as a foot soldier like yourselves I'm all for seeing the bloody donkey-boys made to look fools, so you come along with me and I'll see to it that at least you don't sleep in chains tomorrow. That's my best offer." He took a sip of tea, and added, "It's a better one than most of the Tenth got, I'll tell you. I heard your regiment got wiped out."
Polly's expression didn't change, but she felt herself curl up into a tiny ball behind it. Look at the eyes, look at the eyes. Liar. Liar.
"Wiped out?" said Blouse.
Towering dropped his mug of tea. He smacked the crossbow out of Wazzer's hand with his left hand, grabbed the sabre from Igorina with his right hand, and brought the curved blade down on the rope between his legs. It happened fast, before any of them could quite focus on the change in the situation, and then the sergeant was on his feet, slapping Blouse across the face and grabbing him in an arm lock.
"And you were right, kiddo," he said to Polly, over Blouse's shoulder. "Cryin' shame you ain't an officer, eh?"
The last of the fallen tea dribbled into the soil. Polly reached slowly for her crossbow.
"Don't. One step, one move from any of you, and I'll cut him," said the sergeant. "Won't be the first officer I've killed, believe me – "
"The difference between them and me is, I don't care."
Five heads turned. There was Jackrum, outlined against the distant firelight. He had the man's own bow, drawn taut, and aimed directly at the sergeant in complete disregard of the fact that the lieutenant's head was in the way. Blouse closed his eyes.
"You'd shoot your own officer?" said Towering.
"Yep. Won't be the first officer I've killed, neither," said Jackrum. "You ain't going anywhere, friend, except down. Easy or hard… I don't care." The bow creaked.
"You're just bluffing, mister."
"Upon my oath, I am not a bluffing man. I don't think we was ever introduced, by the way. Jackrum's the name."
The change in the man was a whole body event. He seemed to get smaller, as if every cell had said "oh dear" very quietly to itself. He sagged, and Blouse slumped a little.
"Can I – "
"Too late," said Jackrum.
Polly never forgot the sound the arrow made.
Jackrum laid the bow aside carefully. "Found out who he was messing with," he said, as if nothing much had happened. "Shame, really. Seemed like a decent sort. Any saloop left, Perks?"
There was silence, and then a thump as Towering's body finally overbalanced and hit the ground.
Very slowly, Lieutenant Blouse raised his hand to his ear, which the arrow had perforated en route to its target, and then looked with strange detachment at the blood on his fingers.
"Oh, sorry about that, sir," said Jackrum jovially. "Just saw the one chance and I thought, well, it's the fleshy part. Get yourself a gold earring, sir, and you'll be the height of fashion! Quite a large gold earring, maybe."
"Don't you all believe that stuff about the Ins-and-Outs," Jackrum went on. "That was just lies. I like it when something's up. So what we do now is… can anyone tell me what we do now?"
"Er… bury the body?" hazarded Igorina.
"Yeah, but check his boots. He's got small feet and the Zlobenians have much better boots than us."
"Steal the boots off a dead man, sarge?" said Wazzer, still in shock.
"Easier than getting 'em off a live one!" Jackrum softened his voice a little when he saw their expressions. "Lads, this is war, understand? He was a soldier, they were soldiers, you are soldiers… more or less. No soldier will see grub or good boots go to waste. Bury 'em decent and say what prayers you can remember, and hope they've gone where there's no fighting." He raised his voice back to the normal bellow. "Perks, round up the others! Igor, cover the fire, try to make it look like we were never here! We are moving out in number ten minutes! Can make a few miles before full daylight! That's right, eh, lieutenant?"
Blouse was still transfixed, but seemed to wake up now.
"What? Oh. Yes. Right. Yes, indeed. Er… yes. Carry on, sergeant."
The fire gleamed off Jackrum's triumphal face. In the red glow his little dark eyes were like holes in space, his grinning mouth the gateway to a Hell, his bulk some monster from the Abyss.
He let it happen, Polly knew. He obeyed orders. He didn't do anything wrong. But he could have sent Maladict and Jade to help us, instead of Wazzer and Igorina, who aren't quick with weapons. He sent the others away. He had the bow ready. He played a game with us as pieces, and won…
Poor old soldier!, her father and his friends had sung while frost formed on the window panes. Poor old soldier! If ever I 'list for a soldier again… the Devil shall be my sergeant!
In the firelight the grin of Sergeant Jackrum was a crescent of blood, his coat the colour of a battlefield sky.
"You are my little lads," he roared. "And I will look after you."
They made more than six miles before Jackrum called a halt, and already the land was changing. There were more rocks, fewer trees. The Kneck valley was rich and fertile and it was from here that the fertility had been washed; it was a landscape of ravines and thick scrub woodland, with a few small communities scratching a living from the poverty-stricken soil. It was a good place to hide. And, in here, someone had already hidden. It was a stream-carved gully, but here at the end of summer the stream was just a trickle between the rocks. Jackrum must have found it by smell, because you couldn't see it from the track.
The ashes of the fire in the small gully were still warm. The sergeant got up, awkwardly, after inspecting them. "Some lads like our pals from last night," he said.
"Couldn't it just be a hunter, sarge?" said Maladict.
"It could, corporal, but it ain't," said Jackrum. "I brought you in here 'cos it looks like a blind gully and there's water and there's good vantage points up there and over there," he pointed, "and there's a decent overhang to keep the weather off and it's hard for anyone to creep up on us. Milit'ry, in other words. And someone else thought the same as me last night. So while they're out there looking for us, we'll sit snug where they've already looked. Get a couple of lads up on guard right now."
Polly drew first watch, atop the small cliff at the edge of the gully. It was a good site, no doubt about it. A regiment could hide here. No one could get near without being seen, too. And she was pulling her weight like a proper member of the squad, so with any luck Blouse would find someone to shave him before she was off duty. Through a gap in the treetops below she could see a road of sorts running through the woodland. She kept an eye on it.
Eventually, Tonker relieved her with a cup of soup. On the far side of the gully, Wazzer was being replaced by Lofty.
"Where're you from, Ozz?" said Tonker, while Polly savoured the soup.
There couldn't be any harm in telling. "Munz," said Polly.
"Really? Someone said you worked in a bar. What was the inn called?"
Ah… there was the harm, right there. But she could hardly lie, now. "The Duchess," she said.
"That big place? Very nobby. Did they treat you okay?"
"What? Oh… yes. Yes. Pretty fair."
"Hit you at all?"
"Eh? No. Never," said Polly, nervous of where this was going.
"Work you hard?"
Polly had to consider this. In truth, she worked harder than both the maids, and they at least had an afternoon off every week.
"I was usually the first one up and the last one to bed, if that's what you mean," she said. And to change the subject quickly, she went on: "What about you? You know Munz?"
"We both lived there, me and Tilda – I mean Lofty," said Tonker.
"The Girls' Working School," said Tonker, and looked away.
And that's the kind of trap small talk can get you in, Polly thought. "Not a nice place, I think," she said, feeling stupid.
"It was not a nice place, yes. A very nasty place," said Tonker. "Wazzer was there, we think. We think it was her. Used to be sent out a lot on work hire." Polly nodded. Once, a girl from the School came and worked as a maid at The Duchess. She'd arrive every morning, scrubbed raw in a clean pinafore, peeling off from a line of very similar girls led by a teacher and flanked by a couple of large men with long sticks. She was skinny, polite in a dull, trained sort of way, worked very hard and never talked to anybody. She was gone in three months, and Polly never found out why.
Tonker stared into Polly's eyes, almost mocking her innocence. "We think she was the one they used to lock up sometimes in the special room. That's the thing about the School. If you don't toughen up you go funny in the head."
"I expect you were glad to leave," was all Polly could think of to say.
"The basement window was unlocked," said Tonker. "But I promised Tilda we'd go back one day next summer."
"Oh, so it wasn't that bad, then?" said Polly, grateful for some relief.
"No, it'll burn better," said Tonker. "Ever run across someone called Father Jupe?"
"Oh, yes," said Polly, and, feeling that something more was expected of her, added, "He used to come to dinner when my mother – he used to come to dinner. A bit pompous, but he seemed okay."
"Yes," said Tonker. "He was good at seeming."
Once again there was a dark chasm in the conversation that not even a troll could bridge, and all you could do was draw back from the edge.
"I'd better go and see to the lieu – to the rupert," Polly said, standing up. "Thank you very much for the soup."
She worked her way down through the scree and birch thickets until she emerged by the little stream that ran through the gully. And there, like some awful river god, was Sergeant Jackrum.
His red coat, a tent for lesser men, was draped carefully over a bush. He himself was sitting on a rock with his shirt off and his huge braces dangling, so that only a yellowing woolly vest saved the world from a sight of the man's bare chest. For some reason, though, he'd kept his shako on. His shaving kit, with a razor like a small machete and a shaving brush you could use to hang wallpaper, was on the rock beside him.
Jackrum was bathing his feet in the stream. He glanced up when Polly approached, and nodded amiably. "'Morning, Perks," he said. "Don't rush. Never rush for ruperts. Sit down for a spell. Get yer boots off. Let yer feet feel the fresh air. Look after your feet, and your feet will look after you." He pulled out his big clasp-knife and the rope of chewing tobacco. "Sure you won't join me?"
"No thanks, sarge." Polly sat down on a rock on the opposite side of the stream, which was only a few feet wide, and started to tug at her boots. She felt as though she'd been given an order. Besides, right now she felt she needed the shock of clean, cold water.
"Good lad. Filthy habit. Worse'n the smokes," said Jackrum, carving off a lump. "Got started on it when I was but a lad. Better'n striking a light at night, see? Don't want to give away your position. 'Course, you gotta gob a bundle every so often, but gobbin' in the dark don't show up."
Polly dabbled her feet. The icy water did indeed feel refreshing. It seemed to jolt her alive. In the trees around the gully, birds sang.
"Say it, Perks," said Jackrum, after a while.
"Say what, sarge?"
"Oh, bleedin' hell, Perks, it's a nice day, don't muck me around. I seen the way you've been looking at me."
"All right, sarge. You murdered that man last night."
"Really? Prove it," said Jackrum calmly.
"Well, I can't, can I? But you set it up. You even sent Igor and Wazzer to guard him. They're not good with weapons."
"How good would they have to be, d'you think? Four of you against a man tied up?" said Jackrum. "Nah. That sergeant was dead the moment we got 'im, and he knew it. It took a bloody genius like your rupert to make him think he'd got a chance. We're out in the woods, lad. What was Blouse gonna do with him? Who'd we hand him over to? Would the lieutenant cart him around with us? Or tie him to a tree and leave him to kick wolves away until he gets too tired? Much more gentlemanly than giving him a quiet cigarette and a swift chop where you go quick, which is what he was expecting and what I'd have given him."
Jackrum popped the tobacco into his mouth. "You know what most of the milit'ry training is, Perks?" he went on. "All that yelling from little spitbubs like Strappi? It's to turn you into a man who will, on the word of command, stick his blade into some poor sod just like him who happens to be wearing the wrong uniform. He's like you, you're like him. He doesn't really want to kill you, you don't really want to kill him. But if you don't kill him first, he'll kill you. That's the start and finish of it. It don't come easy without trainin'. Ruperts don't get that trainin', 'cos they are gentlemen. Well, upon my oath I am no gentleman, and I'll kill when I have to, and I said I'd keep you safe and no damn rupert's going to stop me. He gave me my discharge papers!" Jackrum added, radiating indignance. "Me! And expected me to thank him! Every other rupert I've served under has had the sense to write 'Not posted here' or 'On extended patrol' or something and shove it back in the mail, but not him!."
"What was it you said to Corporal Strappi that made him run away?" said Polly, before she could stop herself.
Jackrum looked at her for a while, with no expression in his eyes. Then he gave a strange little chuckle. "Now why would a little lad like you say a little thing like that?" he said.
"Because he just vanished and suddenly some old rule means you're back on the strength, sarge," said Polly. "That's why I said that little thing."
"Hah! And there's no such rule, either, not like that one," said Jackrum, splashing his feet. "But ruperts never read the book of rules unless they're trying to find a reason to hang you, so I was safe there. Strappi was scared shitless, you know that."
"Yes, but he could have slipped away later on," said Polly. "He wasn't stupid. Rushing off into the night? He must've had something real close to run from, right?"
"Cor, that's an evil brain you have there, Perks," said Jackrum happily. Once again Polly had the definite feeling that the sergeant was enjoying this, just as he'd seemed pleased when she'd protested about the uniform. He wasn't a bully like Strappi – he treated Igorina and Wazzer with something approaching fatherly concern – but with Polly and Maladict and Tonker he pushed all the time, wanting you to push back.
"It does the job, sarge," she said.
"I just had a little tate-ah-tate with him, as it were. Quiet, like. Explained all the nasty things that can happen vees-ah-vee the confusion o' war."
"Like being found with his throat cut?" said Polly.
"Has been known to happen," said Jackrum innocently. "You know, lad, you're going to make a damn good sergeant one day. Any fool can use his eyes and ears, but you uses that brain to connect 'em up."
"I'm not going to be a sergeant! I'm going to get the job done and go home!" said Polly vehemently.
"Yes, I said that once, too." Jackrum grinned. "Perks, I don't need no clacky thing. I don't need no newsy paper. Sergeant Jackrum knows what's going on. He talks to the men coming back, the ones that won't talk to anyone else. I know more than the rupert, for all that he gets little letters from HQ that worry him so much. Everyone talks to Sergeant Jackrum. And in his big fat head, Sergeant Jackrum puts it all together. Sergeant Jackrum knows what's going on."
"And what's that, sarge?" said Polly innocently.
Jackrum didn't reply immediately. Instead, he reached down with a grunt and rubbed one of his feet. The corroded shilling on a string, which had lain innocently on the woollen vest, swung forward. But there was something else. For a moment something golden slipped out of the vest's open neck. Something oval and golden, on a golden chain, flashed in the sunlight. Then he straightened up and it was dragged back out of sight.
"This is a bloody odd war, lad," he said. "It's true there's not just Zlobenian soldiers out there. Lads say there's uniforms they'd never seen before. We've kicked a lot of backsides over the years, so maybe they really have ganged up and it's gonna be our turn. But what I reckon is, they're stuck. They took the Keep. Oh, yes, I know. But they've got to hold on to it. And winter's coming and all those lads from Ankh-Morpork and everywhere are a long way from home. We might have a chance yet. Hah, especially now the Prince is dead set on finding the young soldier that kneed him in the wedding tackle. That means he's angry. He'll make mistakes."
"Well, sarge, I think – "
"I'm glad you do, Private Perks," said Jackrum, suddenly becoming a sergeant again. "And I think that after you've seen to the rupert and had a nap, you and me is going to show the lads some swordsmanship. Whatever bleedin' war this is, sooner or later young Wazzer is going to have to use that blade he waggles about. Get going!"
Polly found Lieutenant Blouse sitting with his back to the cliff, eating scubbo out of a bowl. Igorina was packing away her medical kit, and Blouse's ear was bandaged.
"Everything all right, sir?" she said. "Sorry I wasn't – "
"I quite understand, Perks, you must stand your turn like the other 'lads'," said Blouse, and Polly heard the inverted commas clank into place. "I had a refreshing nap and the bleeding and, indeed, the shaking has quite stopped. However… I do still need a shave."
"You want me to shave you," said Polly, her heart sinking.
"I must set an example, Perks, but I have to say you 'lads' make such an effort it puts me to shame. You all seem to have faces 'as smooth as a baby's bottom', I must say!"
"Yes, sir." Polly pulled out the shaving gear and walked over to the fire, where the kettle was permanently boiling. Most of the squad was dozing, but Maladict was sitting cross-legged by the fire, doing something to his hat.
"Heard about the prisoner last night," he said, without looking up. "I don't think the el-tee is going to last very long, do you?"
"The lieutenant. From what I hear, Blouse's probably going to have a nasty accident. Jackrum thinks he's dangerous."
"He's learning, just like us."
"Yes, but the el-tee's supposed to know what to do. Do you think he does?"
"Jackrum's stuck, too," said Polly, topping up the kettle with cold water. "I think we just keep going."
"If there's anything there to get to," said Maladict. He held up the shako. "What do you think?"
The words "Born To Die" had been chalked on the side of the hat, next to the packet of cigarettes.
"Very… individual," said Polly. "Why do you smoke? It's not very… vampire, really."
"Well, I'm not supposed to be very vampire," said Maladict, lighting up with a shaking hand. "It's the sucking. I need it. I'm on edge. I'm getting the no-coffee jitters. I'm not good with woods in any case."
"But you're a vam – "
"Yeah, yeah, if this was crypts, no problem. But I keep thinking I'm surrounded by lots of pointy stakes. Truth is… I'm beginning to hurt. It's like going cold bat all over again! I'm getting the voices and the sweats…"
"Sssh," said Polly, as Shufti grunted in her sleep. "You can't be," she hissed. "You said you'd been going straight for two years!"
"Oh, bl… blur… blood?" said Maladict. "Who said anything about blood? I'm talking about coffee, dammit!"
"We've got plenty of tea – " Polly began.
"You don't understand! This is about… craving. You never stop craving, you just switch it to something that doesn't cause people to turn you into a short kebab! I need coffee!"
Why me? Polly thought. Do I have this little sign on me saying "Tell me your troubles"? "I'll see what I can do," she said, and hastily filled the shaving mug.
Polly hurried back with the water, ushered Blouse to a rock, and stirred up some foam. She sharpened the razor, taking as long as she dared. When he coughed impatiently she took up position, raised the razor, and prayed…
…but not to Nuggan. Never to Nuggan, since her mother died…
And then Lofty was running across the ground, trying to shout a whisper. "Movement!"
Blouse nearly lost another earlobe.
Out from nowhere came Jackrum, boots on but braces dangling. He grabbed Lofty by the shoulder and swung her round. "Where?" he demanded.
"There's a track down there! Troopers! Carts! What do we do, sarge?"
"We keep the noise down!" muttered Jackrum. "Are they heading up here?"
"No, they went right past, sarge!"
Jackrum turned and gave the rest of the squad a satisfied look. "O-kay. Corporal, take Carborundum and Perks and go and have a look. The rest of you, tool up and try to be brave. Eh, lieutenant?"
Blouse bemusedly dabbed foam off his face. "What? Oh. Yes. See to it, sergeant."
Twenty seconds later, Polly was running after Maladict, down the slope. Here and there the bottom of the valley could be seen through the trees, and as she glanced down she saw sunlight flash off something metal. At least the trees had coated the woodland floor with a thick layer of needles, and, contrary to received opinion, most woods aren't littered with branches that snap loudly. They reached the edge of the wood, where bushes fought one another for their place in the sun, and found a spot with a view.
There were only four troopers, in an unfamiliar uniform, riding in pairs ahead of and behind a cart. It was small, and had a canvas cover.
"What's in a little cart that four men have to protect?" said Maladict. "It must be valuable!"
Polly pointed to the huge flag that hung limply from a pole on the wagon. "I think it's the newspaper man," she said. "It's the same cart. Same flag, too."
"Then it's a good thing they've gone right past," hissed Maladict. "Let's just see them out of sight and creep away like good little mice, okay?"
The party was travelling at the speed of the cart and, at this point, the two riders in the lead stopped and turned in their saddles, waiting for it to catch up. Then one of them pointed, back past the hidden watchers. There was a shout, too far away to be understood. The troopers in the rear trotted up to the cart, met with their comrades, and all four turned to look up. There was some discussion, and two riders trotted back along the road.
"Oh, darn," said Polly. "What have they spotted?"
The horsemen went past their hiding place. A few moments later, they heard the horses enter the woods.
"Do we run an' get 'em?" said Jade.
"Let Jackrum do that," said Maladict.
"But if he does, and the men don't come back – " Polly began.
"When they don't come back," Maladict corrected her.
" – then those other two will get suspicious, won't they? One will probably stay here, the other will go to get help."
"Then we'll sneak up and wait," said Maladict. "Look, they've dismounted. The cart's pulled in, too. If they look as though they're worried, we'll move in."
"And do what, exactly?" said Polly.
"Threaten to shoot them," said Maladict firmly.
"And if they don't believe us?"
"Then we'll threaten to shoot them in a much louder voice," said Maladict. "Happy? And I hope to hell they've got some coffee!"
There are three things a soldier wants to do when there's a respite on the road. One involves lighting a cigarette, one involves lighting a fire, and the other one involves no flames at all but does, generally, require a tree.6
The two troopers had a fire going and a billy-can steaming when a young man jumped down from the cart, stretched his arms, looked around, yawned, and sauntered a little way into the forest. He found a convenient tree and, a moment later, was apparently examining the bark at eye height with studied enthusiasm.
The tip of a steel crossbow bolt pressed against the back of his neck and a voice said: "Raise your hands and turn around slowly!"
"What, right now?"
"Um… all right, no. You can finish what you're doing."
"Actually I think that's going to be quite impossible. Let me just, er… right. Okay." The man raised his hands again. "You realize I just have to shout?"
"So?" said Polly. "I just have to pull this trigger. Shall we have a race?"
The man turned round.
"See?" said Polly, stepping back. "It's him again. De Worde. The writer man."
"You're them!" he said.
"Dem who?" said Jade.
"Oh dear," said Maladict.
"Look, I'd give anything to talk to you!" said de Worde. "Please?"
"You're with the enemy!" hissed Polly.
"What? Them? No! They're from Lord Rust's regiment. From Ankh-Morpork! They've been sent to protect us!"
"Troops to protect you in Borogravia?" said Maladict. "Who from?"
"You mean from whom? Er… well… you, in theory."
Jade leaned down. "Efficient, aren't dey…"
"Look, I must talk to you," said the man urgently. "This is astounding! Everyone's looking for you! Did you kill that old couple in the woods?"
Birds sang. Far off, there was the call of the female blue-capped woodpecker.