Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

There was terror and madness in the air. The Germans had turned into this charge in a sudden explosion of anger. Their long heavy swords were raised for the first stroke, the hooves slung up great clods of turf, and the French square nearest to the charge fired again. Eighty yards to go.

Screams came from ahead of Sharpe. He had a glimpse of a horse sliding on its belly, head up and yellow teeth bared to the sky. A man rolled over and over, blood whipping from his neck, his sword stuck straight up and quivering in the ground. The trumpet again, incoherent challenges, and everywhere the hammering of hooves that filled the valley.

A horse drummed the earth with its legs, dying on its side, blood frothing as it lashed its neck and screamed in pain. The second rank gathered itself, jumped, and the French had saved one rank’s muskets for the moment. Smoke pumped from the square, bullets lashed at the charge, and a man was hit at full jump. He came backwards from his horse, a halo of blood about his face, and the horse went on alone. A standard bearer was down, his horse dead, and he ran with the standard, holding it aloft, and another German leaned left from the saddle, took the staff at the full gallop, and again the banner was high and taking them on in the impossible charge.

The earth quivered with the heavy horses, with the hammer of their hooves. The ranks had loosened in this madness so the valley seemed filled with big men on big horses, the sunlight catching their swords, the brass-plated straps of the bicornes, and the gleaming hooves that drove them on. The hooves threw up earth that stung Sharpe’s face. The horses seemed to strain towards the enemy, their eyes wild, their teeth bared, and Sharpe let the madness flow up in him to conquer the terror. He rode past a dead horse, its rider crouching for safety behind the corpse, and Sharpe had never done this. He had never ridden with the cavalry in a charge and there was a splendour to it that he could not have dreamt. This was the moment when a man became a god, when the air was noise, when speed lent its strength to the sword, a glorious feeling in those minutes before a bullet turned the god into dead meat.

A cavalryman, wounded, was being dragged by his stirrup. He screamed.

At fifty yards another rank of the square brought up their muskets, looked into the storm of anger, and fired. A horse and rider tumbled, hooves high in the sunlight, falling, and the blood streaked impossibly far on the grass, then the next rank was past, manes flying, and still the French had one more loaded rank.

The square blossomed smoke. A bullet hammered past Sharpe, but he did not hear it. He could only hear the hooves. An officer ahead of Sharpe was hit. He saw the man shaking with the pain, imagined the scream that he could not hear in this valley of noise, and saw the long sword dangle useless by its wrist strap. The man’s horse was hit too, jerking its head in sudden pain, yet it charged on. A dying man on a dying horse leading the charge.

The trumpet hurled them at the enemy. One trumpeter was down, his legs broken, yet he played on, played the charge again and again, the notes that could drive a man into wild glory. These screams in the valley, horses and men, screams of pain drowned by the trumpets. The guidons were lowered like lances, it was the final moment, and crossfire took them from another square and one guidon went down, point first into the earth and the man who had held it seemed to fall so slowly, then suddenly he was rolling and screaming, streaking the grass with his blood, and still the charge was led by a dying man on a dying horse. The man died first. He fell forward onto the neck of his horse, yet the horse still obeyed its last command. It charged. It used up its blood, its great heart pumping to the dying limbs, and the horse fell to its knees. Still it tried to charge as it slid on the grass, slick with blood that pumped from its chest, and it slid with its dead burden and died itself. And as it died, and could not turn, it slid like a great missile of dead meat into the front face of the square. Man and horse, in death, smashing the ranks back, opening the gap, and the next rank of Germans saw it.

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