Written for a series of weekly sub prompts under the umbrella of the main challenge "Plan" over at Cheesemongers. The sub prompts consisted of: Brightness (taken to mean Light), I Yam What I Yam, Creativity, and Crowned.
Summary: Polly and Mal are seconded to a different regiment for a highly secret job. If they only follow the plan, everything should be easy. In today's thrilling instalment; has the plan worked?
Disclaimer: Terry Pratchett owns the characters and the world they live on. I am grateful for all the brilliant books and make no claims of ownership in any way.
A Spot of light relief IV (Crowned) or What? No Light Relief?
They emerged from the oppressive darkness into the refreshing soft light of a summer evening. Dispensing with the usual army protocol of sentries and defensive perimeters the small squad crept into the cover of a nearby spinney and collapsed exhausted. It had been a long scramble back to the light.
Polly lay on her back staring up through gently moving leaves at a deep blue sky. The tight fear that had clawed at her stomach the whole time they'd been struggling in the dark eased as tension washed out of her on little ripples of birdsong. In this moment she didn't care whether the operation had succeeded or not. It was enough merely to be out in the sun again. Stretched out beside her, Mal was dealing with her muscle cramps by wriggling her shoulders in the turf. Her shirt, as she complained to her superior, was entirely ruined and she would be indenting for another the minute they returned to civilisation. Breeches as well, she continued, indicating that crawling was hell on the extremities. Polly's scraped knees and elbows stung in sympathy.
The sun dropped toward the horizon, drowsy eyes watching lengthening shadows striding through the trees. Eventually the chill of dusk prompted Polly out of her reverie and she roused the squad. They didn't move far, no-one had the energy for a night march and so they camped that night near where they'd hidden their packs long days before. None of the squad slept through the night undisturbed. The cramped days in the darkness left a shadow on their minds. First one and then another struggled awake, fleeing dreams of confining rock, to fall back, reassured by the pinpoints of stars above.
Polly awoke with a start, reliving again the last few moments in the tunnel with the fuses burning down behind them and a choking desperate rage against the rock that trapped them so callously. Reaching out automatically for Mal she instead found empty space. Apart from the sleeping lads, the glade was empty, but she could scent cigarette smoke on the breeze. Creeping away quietly so as not to disturb the curled ball of Little or the spread-eagled form of Large, she came upon Mal sitting against a large tree at the edge of open ground. No words passed between them, Mal simply moving over to make space for her. They watched the stars together until sleep crept up on them, two small exhausted figures curled up together under a wide open night sky.
By the next midmorning they were all tired of hiking. The rolling terrain, so pretty to look at from a distance, was murder on weary legs. It was Polly who saw it first; Mal being distracted by a long speech she was working on for when they got medals. It sat there, temptation itself, property of a deserted farm tucked away in a fold of the hills. There was a short hurried discussion but in the end it was left to the senior officer to decide.
"Oh soddit" said Polly. So they went ahead anyway.
The shout startled Polly awake, the stern face of her superior officer looming over her. Sitting up amongst the heaps of debris, she awaited her fate with resignation. Smith had other plans however, and opened the conversation in the manner of one discussing roses over a garden fence.
"You seem to have returned with a cart, Perks. Dragged, seemingly, by some four legged animal I will henceforth charitably refer to as a horse."
Over his shoulder Polly could see Sergeant Jones, happily stroking the maligned four legged animal and murmuring softly into the long ears. Smith followed her gaze and when he turned back she could have sworn his lip quivered, just for a moment. But he was an officer after all, there were standards.
"Do you have an explanation for this turn of events, Lieutenant?" His drawl was perfect, honed no doubt on generations of incompetents before her. There was only one thing to do.
"Yessir." She saluted perfectly, finding hay in her hair and ignoring it with utter confidence.
"And would you perhaps care to enlighten us with said explanation?" The patient expression didn't slip for a moment despite the provocation.
Behind her own poker face, Polly swiftly marshalled her thoughts into some kind of order. "Just thinking of the regimental motto sir. Fulfilling the ancient ideals sir."
"This?" He threw out his hands at the audacity of it, an indication of the vast gulf between the decrepit cart and anything remotely resembling his regiment. "Do tell lieutenant, how exactly does stealing this monstrosity count as fulfilling ancient ideals?"
Polly saluted again. When in doubt, always keep saluting. "Sir, regimental motto sir. Swift and Bold sir"
"..And Bold sir"
"And surprisingly comfortable" Mal piped up from her perch. Lieutenant Smith had to turn away for a moment.
They were interrupted, thankfully, by Little. "Sir?" A worried face rose over the cart edge, "is it done? Did we do it?"
Smith changed track, his face sliding into sham disappointment at the reappearance of his soldiers.
"Not you again?" he protested, but Polly was pleased to see him discreetly checking for Large amongst the hay. An officer he may be, but he was no Rupert. Large was woken up and assisted over the side by Smith, who wondered aloud why they hadn't both been left by the wayside.
"After your dire warnings on what would happen if we did?" Polly knew then that they were ok. She echoed Little's enquiry, begging Smith to tell them of his exploits.
A broad grin broke out across his face as he bowed low, accepting their imagined applause. "You will be pleased to hear that despite the most insane excuse for a plan you lads came up with." He bowed again in Mal's direction. "We at the Light Infantry have successfully brought it off!"
There was much jubilation from the troops. Polly broke into relieved smiles, Little and Large cheered like the impressionable youths they were and even Mal nodded in appreciation. Under the noise Lieutenant Smith leant in quietly to offer his approval. It had apparently "gone up like a geyser" and the troops remaining had offered very little resistance. The price, shown in the torn clothes and worn faces of her squad, was silently acknowledged in the squeeze of a satisfied hand on her shoulder.
"Alright lads! Load up!" Smith, having noted the benefits of the transport Polly's squad had found, ordered everyone to climb aboard. They scrambled on, fighting for the best positions. All except one. Jones hovered near the tailboard, brimming with an unasked question. Smith finished mediating between two corporals who both claimed the right to hold the reins before turning to the sergeant, sighing and indicating that he could run on ahead if that would fulfil him completely. Overhearing Mal's muttered comment to Polly he added (for their ears only) a comment along the lines that yes he was weird, but very useful at times so was kept on. Unfortunately they didn't catch the rest of his words, about how some other useful people he could mention might find themselves in a similar situation. Blissfully unaware they settled amongst the hay for a gentle relaxing ride back to headquarters.
"Leave it be!"
Polly batted away the ministrations of her sergeant but Mal insisted, continuing to brush the jacket as best she could. In response to the whine of protest she explained that 'Officers Should Have Standards' and in her present guise Polly was losing marks by the minute.
"You, my dear, are a disgrace to the regiment, the sex and most especially to me!"
Polly complained that it seemed to be only the latter that was causing her distress.
"You should at least look smart for your dressing down." A hand was now flicking through her hair, attempting to remove the dust and remaining straw.
"Oh." Polly raised an eyebrow. "Are we in trouble then?"
Mal expressed the opinion that they were always in trouble with this specific Colonel, whether they deserved it or not. Her hand paused for a moment in its efforts, resting on Polly's cheek. Polly leaned in slightly as Mal, suddenly recollecting herself, tilted the head to one side as though merely attempting to get a better view of the straw she was removing.
Stepping back, Polly broke the awkward pause, enquiring as to their plan of survival this time and suggesting they follow their usual arrangement. Mal at first agreed in all seriousness, but unable to resist the standard set up line, reached into her breeches pocket and stopped short. "I say, dash it all sir! I do believe I forgot to pack the petticoats. They must be with the troops. I'll just run back and..."
"Lieutenant Perks and Sergeant Maladict?"
A perfectly dressed Corporal waved them forward. Mal made a final attempt at Polly's collar and then they were in the room with the courteous Corporal quietly closing the door behind them. They came to perfect attention and waited.
Ten minutes later they passed the Corporal again, arguing vociferously. It appeared that Sergeant Maladict had nudged Lieutenant Perks at an inopportune moment and they were now permanently posted to the Light Infantry under Captain Smith (Lieutenant as was). Polly was seemingly not pleased with this outcome.
"That was never the plan!" Polly was still protesting as they vanished around the corner. Their voices drifted back for a moment to the Corporal, who shook his head and returned to his paperwork. As the two dishevelled soldiers made their way out of the building, Mal continued in her attempt to persuade her superior that this really was the best way.
It was an uphill struggle. Polly didn't succumb to the argument that it was more fun in the Light Infantry. Neither was she open to the possibility that there was less chance of being killed whilst skirmishing around the countryside as compared to taking position on the front line with the rest of the pike men. Eventually Mal pulled her down an empty side corridor, determined to settle this before they got back to the troops.
"Look Pol, what's the big plan?"
"To stay alive?"
"Exactly! And what gets you killed the most?"
"The enemy? Foot rot? Explosions?" Polly indicated her general appearance. It was a forceful argument she felt.
"No!" Mal was almost dancing with frustration. "Ruperts. Every time." She presented her final argument. "So, in the Light Infantry, where are all the Ruperts? Think Polly!"
Mal had a point. Ruperts didn't like to run. They didn't like inconvenient weather. They were, in fact, unsuitable for all light infantry purposes. Polly, having been exposed to the effects of the stupidity of ruperts one time too many, began to see that this could be a wonderful idea.
There was, however, one problem remaining. She expressed her concerns vehemently. In reply Mal explained that the league would probably allow her to bite a certain Sergeant Jones due to extenuating circumstances. She seemed to relish the prospect. Polly shut her eyes for a moment, visualising the beautiful possibility. But it wouldn't do. A vampire that ran everywhere? It would be too much. If Smith could manage him, so could she. Anyway, she explained to the disappointed vampire, they could always throw him off a cliff when it got too much.
It was decided then. Polly turned, looking out of the nearby window to the lads milling about in the square below. Her lads now.
"Light Infantry" she murmured. "I never thought I'd see the day."
"At least the motto fits." Mal stepped up behind her, slim arms sliding about her waist. Polly resisted for a moment, determined that her exasperating companion shouldn't have everything her own way. But she was tired, and Mal was a solid comfort to lean against. They stood for a moment in silence before Polly thought to ask for clarification of the statement.
"Oh Pol. How could you have forgotten?" Mal pressed closer, whispering mischievously, her breath a caress against the back of Polly's neck. "Swift and Bold, dear Polly, swift and bold."
The object of her affection jumped and spun out of reach. During the next five minutes a few things were made perfectly clear. Firstly this wasn't the time or the place for such goings on. Secondly the lieutenant was going down to inspect the troops and see to their billeting and nothing was going to stop her. Thirdly the lieutenant was then going to hunt herself a bed and sleep for a week, baths optional. As to the sergeant, she could do what she liked; her actions were of interest to nobody at this point in time.
Eventually Polly ran out of breath and came to a halt, glaring at her subordinate. Out of options, a rare occurrence in their many adventures, Mal blinked, saluted and meekly followed her lieutenant down the stairs and out into their new life in the Light Infantry. It was going to be a beautiful day.