Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

He was swinging the heavy seven-barrelled gun like a club. The first stroke beat down a musket and bayonet, beat down onto a Frenchman’s head, and the second stroke threw two men down. Harper was kicking now, stamping them down, using the gun as a mace into which he put all his giant strength. The fourth man lunged with his bayonet and Harper, taking one hand from his club, contemptuously pulled the musket towards him and brought his knee up into the stumbling enemy’s face. All four were down.

The French officer, lying on the ground, watched aghast. His hand nervelessly let go of Sharpe’s ankle, saving himself from the downward stab of the huge sword. More Riflemen were coming now, safe on that part of the bridge that could not be reached by the enemy gunners.

Harper wanted more. He was climbing the hillslope, negotiating the rubble of the houses which the French had blown up to give their forts a wide barrier of waste ground. He went past the two wounded men who, like their comrades below, would be prisoners, and Sharpe followed the Sergeant. “Go right! Patrick! Go right!”

Sharpe could not understand it. Delmas, safe with the other Voltigeurs, was not going towards the fortresses. Instead he was limping right towards the city, towards the balconied houses from which the Spaniards fired. A Voltigeur officer was arguing with him, but Sharpe saw the big Dragoon officer order the man silent. Two other Voltigeurs were detailed to help Leroux, to almost carry the limping man up the slope and Sharpe did not understand why Delmas would go towards the scattered musket fire of the civilians. It was insane! Delmas was within yards of the safety of the forts, but instead he was aiming to plunge into a hostile city into which, at any moment, the Sixth Division of Wellington’s army would march. Delmas was even risking the Spanish musket fire, the closer to which he limped the more dangerous it became.

Then it was no danger. Sharpe, climbing up behind the Dragoon, saw a tall, grey-haired priest appear on one of the balconies of the houses and, though Sharpe could not make out the words, he could hear the priest bellowing in a huge voice. The man’s arms flapped up and down, unmistakeably telling the civilians to stop firing. Damn the priest! He was letting Delmas get into the tangle of alleys, and the civilians were obeying the grey-haired man. Sharpe swore and redoubled his efforts to catch the group of Frenchmen. Damn the bloody priest!

Then Sharpe had to forget Delmas and the priest. The other Voltigeurs, seeing the speed with which Sharpe and Harper were climbing the hillside, had been sent down to deal with them. The first bullets struck dust from the rubble and Sharpe had to roll into cover because the musket fire was too heavy. He heard Harper swear, looked for him, and saw the Irishman rubbing his thigh where he had bruised it in his own swift fall behind a block of stone. The Sergeant grinned. “Didn’t someone say this would be an easy afternoon?”

Sharpe looked behind him. He guessed he was halfway up the slope, a hundred feet above the river, and he could see three of his Riflemen shepherding the prisoners into a huddle. Four more climbed towards them and one of them, Parry Jenkins, was shouting incoherently and pointing beyond Sharpe. At the same instant Harper yelled. “In front, sir!”

The Voltigeurs, annoyed perhaps at the impudence of the Riflemen’s charge, were determined to take the two men isolated on the slope. They had fired their volley and now a dozen of them came down with bayonets to either take prisoners or finish Sharpe and Harper off.

Frustration filled Sharpe with anger. He blamed himself for letting Delmas escape. He should have insisted to Colonel Windham that the man could not be trusted, and now Windham was dead. Sharpe had to presume that poor young McDonald was dead too, killed at sixteen by a bastard who had broken his parole and who was now escaping up the hill. Sharpe came up out of his hiding place with a huge anger, with the great, heavy, ill-balanced sword in his hand, and as he went to meet the Frenchmen it seemed to him, as it so often did in battle, that time slowed down. He could clearly see the face of the first man, could see the gapped, yellowed teeth beneath the straggly moustache, and he could see the man’s throat and he knew where his blade would go and he swung, the steel hissing, and the sharpened tip slashed the enemy’s throat and Sharpe was already bringing it back in an upswing that crashed a second man’s musket aside, bit into the man’s forearm so that he dropped the weapon and was helpless as the downswing slammed through shako and skull.

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