Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe rode, despite Hogan, and Harper rode beside him on Spears’ horse. Captain Lossow, with his troop, were their escort, and the German officer greeted Sharpe with undisguised pleasure. The pleasure was dissipated by the long, chafing ride. Hogan was at home on a horse, he rode straight backed and long stirruped, while Harper had been bred in a valley of the Donegal Moors, had ridden the ponies bareback as a child, and he sat easily on Spears’ horse. Sharpe was in a nightmare: He ached in every bone, the wound throbbed, and three times he nearly fell as sleep tried to claim him. Now, at dawn, he sat in agony above the Tormes and stared at a grey landscape through which the river twisted, sinewy and silver, past the silent town with its castle, convent, and empty bridge. The French had gone.

And Leroux? Sharpe did not know. Perhaps the French Colonel had lied to Lord Spears. Perhaps Leroux planned to stay in Salamanca until the British moved on again, this time eastwards, but somehow Sharpe doubted it. Leroux wanted to take his treasure back to Paris, decode it, and then loose the cruel men against the names inside. Leroux had ridden, Sharpe was sure, but where? Alba de Tormes? Or had he gone directly east from Salamanca towards Madrid? Hogan doubted it. Leroux, Hogan was certain, would try to find the security of the French army, surround himself with muskets and sabres, and the great doubt in Hogan’s mind was simply whether Leroux had been given too great a start. They spurred down the hill towards the river that slid chill beneath the mockingly empty bridge.

Sharpe had been given his last chance. He had ridden for it through the night and in this dawn his hopes were at their lowest. He wanted to take his sword, his unblooded sword, against the Kligenthal. He wanted Leroux because Leroux had beaten him, and if a man thought that was a bad reason, then a man had no pride. Yet how could they discover a lone rider in this immense countryside, skeined with early mist? Sharpe wanted revenge for the deaths of the crucified Spaniards, for the deaths of Windham and McDonald, for the pistol shot on the upper cloister, and for Spears whom Sharpe had liked, whom Sharpe had killed, and whose honour he protected.

Hogan twisted in his saddle. He looked tired and irritable. “Do you think we’ve overtaken him?”

“I don’t know, sir.” In the dawn there was no certainty.

They clattered over the bridge, the sabres of Lossow’s Germans drawn in case the French had left a rearguard in the town, and then the iron of the horses’ hooves filled the narrow streets with echoing din. As they breasted the hill at the town’s head they saw the horizon, that till now had been grey touched with spreading pink, suddenly blaze with the top edge of the rising sun. It was scarlet gold, dazzling, and the western wall of the castle keep was coloured rose. The new day.

“Sir!” Harper was pointing, exultant. “Sir!”

In the sunrise, in the glory of the new day, the doubts were put to rest. A rider, alone, going eastwards, and in the telescope, through the flare of the light, Sharpe saw green and black overalls, boots, a red jacket, and an unmistakeable black fur hat. A Chasseur of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, alone, trotting eastwards. It had to be Leroux! The lone figure turned dark and blurred against the dawn, then dropped into a dip of the road. He had not looked back.

They followed, urging the horses into a fast trot for their strength had to be conserved even though the riders all wanted to sound the pursuit, go into a gallop, and bring their sabres against the fugitive. Twice more they saw the Chasseur, each time closer, and on the second glimpse Leroux turned round, saw his pursuers, and the chase was on. Lossow’s trumpeter let go with the challenge, the spurs went back, and Sharpe tried to tug the huge sword from its clumsy scabbard.

He was easily outstripped by the Germans, good riders all, and he cursed as his scabbard flapped and banged against his thigh. He lurched, unbalanced by the sudden gallop, then the blade came free, was shining in the dawn, and he saw Leroux once more. The Frenchman was less than half a mile ahead, his horse jaded, and Sharpe forgot his aching thighs, his sore seat, and clapped his heels to persuade more speed from his horse.

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