Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The drummers paused to let the thousands of voices chant their war cry. “Vive 1’Empereur!” And the drums started again, the old rhythm that Sharpe knew so well. Boom-boom, boom-boom, boomaboom, boomaboom, boom-boom. That rhythm had sounded from Egypt to Russia, had driven the columns to rule Europe, and between each phrase the drummers paused, the shout went up, and the column came on as the drummer boys, tight in the column’s centre, let the sticks fall again. With each shout the bayonets went up in the air and splintered the slanting sunlight into twelve thousand shards and to the left of the column, in the space between the two strange hills, the French cavalry hacked into the remnants of the Portuguese.

“No.” Sharpe spoke to himself. Hogan saw his right hand gripping and re-gripping the sword handle.

The Fourth Division were beaten. Some men climbed the lower slopes of the Lesser Arapile, some the slopes of the Teso San Miguel, while some took refuge in the village. The column carved through the defeated Battalions, ignoring them, marching steadily on towards the small valley that led to the very heart of the British line. Some of the Fourth Division, like the South Essex, still went backwards in front of the column, but they were beaten, and the column came to the small valley and the guns, on either side of the French, poured death into their ranks. The British roundshot lanced at the column, the shrapnel exploded above it, but still the Frenchmen closed up, marched on, stepped over their dead, and they left a trail of mangled, shot-torn bodies in their wake like a blood-slime beneath the smoke.

The noise was the noise of French victory. The drums, the cheers, the guns that could not stop them, and the noise filled the valley as the French Battalions went towards the distant landmark of the new Cathedral’s largest tower. The Eagles were bright above their heads.

Wellington’s messengers galloped at break-neck speed down the slope. They went to the Sixth Division, the new Division, the Division that had taken so long to take the fortresses, and it was the only Division between Clausel and victory. The Fourth Division had been beaten and now the Sixth had to win or else Clausel would have plucked victory from disaster.

Battles rarely start quickly. Sometimes it was difficult to know when a skirmish had become a battle, yet the height of a battle was easily determined. When the Eagles were flying and the drums were sounding, when the guns of both sides were in frenzy, then the battle was fully joined. It had yet to be won and Sharpe, who had watched the South Essex go backwards through the smoke-torn valley, could not bear that it might be won or lost without him. He shook off Hogan’s restraining arm, called for his horse, and went down into the smoke.


From the ridge crest there had been a pattern to the battle, often disguised, always shrouded by smoke, but a recognisable pattern. The French left had been broken, the centre had yielded and then delivered a splintering counter-attack, while the French right, like the British left, was still in reserve. Wellington was hooking his attacks from the west, one by one, but Clausel had forced a new pattern and was even now daring to hope for victory. Once in the valley there was no pattern. It was familiar, for Sharpe had been on many battlefields, but for the men who loaded and fired, who looked desperately into the smoke banks for a sign of danger, the valley was a place without pattern or reason. These men could not know that the French left was broken, would not know that the blood was drying to a crust on the flanks of the Heavy Dragoon horses, they only knew that this valley was their fighting place; the ground where they must kill or be killed.

It was a confused place, but it had a simplicity that Sharpe needed. He had been fooled by La Marquesa and his foolishness had led to the escape of his enemy. He had been outwitted by the clever people of the secret war, but in this valley there was a simple job to do. He knew that La Marquesa would be hearing the guns like an echo of last night’s thunder. He knew she must know that he had turned the tables on her, lied through his love as she had lied through hers, and he wondered if she thought of him.

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