Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The Voltigeurs were at the bridge’s end, lining it, fumbling their muskets into the firing position, and Delmas was just feet away. A rifle bullet cracked past Sharpe, he saw a French Voltigeur duck away from the passing of the bullet, and then another Frenchman pitched forward. Forward! Sharpe looked up. There was musket smoke from the houses of the city which bordered the wasteland the French had cleared about the fortresses. “Look!” He pointed up. “The Sixth must have got here!”

It was not the Sixth Division. The muskets were being fired by the citizens of Salamanca, venting their anger on the French who had occupied the city for so long. The Voltigeurs were caught between the two fires; the Riflemen firing across the long bridge and the Spaniards aiming from behind.

“Come on!” They had reached the safe part of the bridge, that part which could not be reached by the guns, but at the same moment Delmas had stumbled into the arms of his rescuers who were already retreating, taking the fugitive up towards the forts.

Sharpe and Harper ran, not caring about the odds, and the French Voltigeur officer calmly turned six of his men around, lined them, and brought their muskets up into the aim.

Sharpe and Harper split automatically, Harper going to the right of the bridge, Sharpe to the left, so that the enemy would have to choose between two smaller targets. Sharpe was shouting now, an incoherent shout of rage that would frighten the enemy, and he could hear Harper bellowing to his right.

Another rifle bullet cracked past them, hitting a Frenchman in the knee and his shout of sudden pain made the others nervous. Two of their number were wounded, both men crawling back towards the hill. Behind them Spanish muskets fired, before them the Riflemen were firing down the long length of the bridge between the two huge men who were screaming defiance at them. The four remaining Voltigeurs pulled their triggers, wanting only to retreat to the safety of the fortresses.

Sharpe sensed the wind of the musket balls, knew he was not hit, and he had the huge sword ready for its first strike. The enemy skirmishers were going backwards, retreating after Delmas, but the officer tried to hold them. He shouted at them, pulled at one of them, and when he saw it was hopeless he turned himself with his long, slim sword waiting for Sharpe.

It was the French officer’s bravery that made the four men turn. Their muskets were not loaded, but they still had bayonets which they twisted onto their muskets, but they were too late to save their Lieutenant.

Sharpe could see the fear in the man’s eyes; wished that he would turn and run, but the man insisted on staying. He moved to block Sharpe, bringing his sword up to lunge, but the huge cavalry sword beat it aside in a numbing, ringing blow, and then Sharpe, not wanting to kill the man, shoulder charged and sent the officer flying backwards onto the roadway of the bridge’s entrance.

The four Voltigeurs were coming back, bayonets outstretched. Sharpe turned towards them, teeth bared, sword ready, but suddenly he could not move. The French Lieutenant had grabbed his ankle, was holding on for dear life, and the Voltigeurs, seeing it, suddenly hurried to take advantage of Sharpe’s loss of balance.

It was a fatal mistake. Patrick Harper, the Irishman, counted himself a friend of Sharpe, despite the disparity in rank. Harper was hugely strong, but, as with so many strong men, he had a touching gentleness and even placidity. Harper was mostly content to let the world go by, watching it with wry humour, but never so in battle. He had been raised on the songs and stories of the great Irish warriors. To Patrick Harper, Cuchulain was not an imaginary hero from a remote past, but a real man, an Irishman, a warrior to emulate. Cuchulain died at twenty-seven, Harper’s present age, and he had fought as Harper fought, with a wild battle song intoxicating him. Harper knew that mad joy too, he had it now as he charged the four men and shouted at them in his own, old language.

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