Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Revenge was at Alba de Tormes, his heels scraped the horse’s flanks, and the Cathedral clock, above the Palacio Casares, struck twelve.


Alba de Tormes was a town on a hill to the east of the River Tormes. The hill was crowned with an ancient castle and covered with jumbled roofs that led down to the magnificent convent where the body of St. Teresa of Avila was revered by pilgrims. Beside the convent was the bridge.

The French needed the bridge to take their shattered army to the relative safety of the eastern bank and away from the pursuit that they knew would come with sabres in the dawn, but Wellington had denied them the bridge. Weeks before, when his army first came to Salamanca, he had put a Spanish garrison into the Castle and into the defence works at the bridge’s eastern end. The Spanish guns could rake the length of the bridge, rattle its stones with canister, and so the French were trapped in the great river bend.

From Alba de Tormes the river flowed nine miles north and then, in a great curve, it turned westwards and flowed for ten miles before its waters passed beneath the arches of Salamanca’s Roman bridge. Within that great bend the French fled eastward through the night. Hundreds crossed by the ford, but most went towards the town that had the only bridge they could use. The French guns, baggage, pay-chest, wounded, all went to Alba de Tormes and to the bridge that was guarded by the guns of the Spanish.

Except the Spanish were not there. They had fled three days before; fled without sight of an enemy. They knew the French were coming south, feared a British defeat, and so the Spanish garrison packed its baggage and marched south.

They deserted their post. The bridge was left open to the French and, all night, Marmont’s men went eastward. A great victory had been devalued. The stragglers of the defeated army were collected on the eastern bank, formed into ranks, and marched away. A rearguard, that had not fought the previous day, barred the eastward road a little beyond the town and its empty bridge.

The news reached Wellington’s Headquarters at the same time that Sharpe was persuading Hogan that Britain’s spy-ring had been betrayed. One notebook, just that, and a hundred doors would be beaten down from Madrid to Stettin, El Mirador’s correspondents would be dragged away and the French firing squads would be busy. Hogan shook his head. “But how do you know?”

“Lord Spears found it missing, sir.” Sharpe had already described a hero’s death for Jack Spears.

Hogan stared suspiciously. “Just that? Nothing else?”

“Isn’t it enough, sir? He died before he could say anything else.”

Hogan nodded slowly. “We must tell the Peer.” Then there was the explosion of anger, of cursing, because Wellington in the next room was hearing from a cavalry patrol that the French were crossing the bridge at Alba de Tormes. The defeated army were escaping, not trapped as he had thought, because the Spanish had fled. The door between the two rooms was flung open.

Sharpe had seen Wellington’s anger before. It was a cold anger, hidden by stillness, expressed in bitter politeness. Not this night. The Peer hit the table with his fist. “God damn them! God damn their bloody souls! Their bloody, rotten, filthy souls!” He looked at Hogan. “They deserted Alba de Tormes. Why didn’t we know?”

Hogan shrugged. “Because they didn’t see fit to tell us, sir.”

“Alava!” Wellington bellowed the name of the Spanish General who was the liaison officer with the British. The staff officers were very still in the face of the General’s anger. He hit the table again. “They think we fight for their bloody country because we love it? They deserve to bloody lose it!” He stalked from the room, slammed the door, and Hogan let out a long, slow breath.

“I don’t think the Peer’s in any mood for your news, Richard.”

“So what do we do, sir?”

Hogan turned to a staff officer. “What’s the nearest cavalry?”

“KGL Light, sir.”

Hogan turned for his hat. “Get them.” He looked at Sharpe. “Not you, Richard. You’re not well.”

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