Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The Germans were still ahead of Sharpe. They rode through a small village where Leroux, mysteriously, had turned left. They followed his northward course, the horses plunging a shallow bank into a stream, scattering the water silver bright in the dawn, then onto fields of the far bank. There were hills ahead, shallow hills, and Sharpe wondered if Leroux was hoping for a hiding place. It seemed a forlorn hope.

Then Lossow was shouting, holding a hand up and signalling a stop, the troop pulled left, slowed, and Sharpe caught them up and his protest at abandoning the pursuit died in his throat. Their horses slowed to a walk, stopped. Leroux was safe.

Leroux would reach Paris, the notebook would be decoded, and the Frenchman would win. If they had been given another two miles they might have caught him, but not now.

Leroux was trotting his horse along the face of a shallow hill that sloped up from the wide valley. Lined on the slope was the French rearguard, a thousand cavalrymen, and Lossow spat in disgust. “We can’t do anything.” He sounded apologetic as if he thought Sharpe might truly expect him to charge a thousand enemy with just a hundred and fifty men. He shrugged at Sharpe. “I’m sorry, my friend.”

Sharpe was watching Leroux. “What’s he doing?”

The Frenchman was not joining his cavalry. He trotted along the face of the ranks and Sharpe could see that he raised his sword in salute to the French squadron commanders. Leroux was still going north, past the cavalry, and Sharpe urged his horse into a trot so he could follow the Frenchman. Sharpe led Lossow’s troop north, a half mile to the west of the French line and watched as Leroux went on riding, past his cavalry, and dropped into a valley at the end of the hill. Leroux was now in dead ground, invisible to them, and Sharpe pushed his tired horse into a canter.

There was a hill ahead of them that would overlook the dead ground, and they rode up its slope, the dew sparkling where the hooves hammered the turf, and then it was Sharpe’s turn to hold up his hand, to slow, and to curse. He had half hoped that Leroux was planning to ride on, to go eastwards again with his own cavalry behind him, but Leroux had reached true safety. In the small valley were French infantry. Three Battalions in square and, some way behind them, another two Battalions who guarded the rear of the hill where the French cavalry barred the road east.

Leroux was walking his horse towards the Battalions in square. Sharpe swore again, pushed his sword into its scabbard, and slumped in his saddle.

Hogan leaned on his pommel. “That’s that.”

One of the French squares opened its ranks, Leroux walked his horse inside, and for all Sharpe could have done Leroux might as well be in Paris already.

Patrick Harper flexed his borrowed sabre and shook his head. “I was just beginning to look forward to a cavalry charge.”

“Not today.” Hogan stretched his arms, yawned.

Further eastwards, perhaps three miles away, the road was filled with retreating troops. Going east to safety. Leroux had reached the rearguard, was safe, and would soon be escorted by this infantry to the rest of the French army. Lossow had just a hundred and fifty men. The French rearguard was at least two and a half thousand men, infantry and cavalry, and Sharpe’s last hope vanished like the mist that faded from the landscape.

It promised to be another beautiful day. The meadows of the gentle hills were lush with pasture, lavish with wild flowers, and the first warmth of the climbing sun was on Sharpe’s face. He hated to give up this pursuit, yet what else was there to do? They could ride back to Alba de Tormes, sit by the river’s edge, and drink harsh red wine till all the disappointment was drowned in the vintage of last year’s comet. There would be other days to fight, other enemies, and Curtis’ men were not the only brave people who sent messages to England. There was hope, and if the hope was not bright then there was always wine in Alba de Tormes.

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