Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

They saw daylight. They twitched the reins, they screamed, and the French tried desperately to remake the line. Too late. A horse was there, the first sword came sobbing down, and then the horse was hit by a musket ball, it fell, made more space, and two more horses were in the gap, the swords hissed, and the horses leaped the pile of dead and were within the square. The French were dead men.

Some ran, some surrendered, others fought. The Germans came at them with their long swords and the horses fought as they were trained to fight. The horses killed with their hooves, hammering at skulls, they bit so that a man could lose his face in one horrid second of bowel-loosening fear, and the dust rose with the screams as the last German squadrons tugged right and went for another square.

Survivors of the first clawed at the second square, they tore into its ranks and the horsemen came too. Harper was there, the sabre fast in his hand, and Spears’ horse was trained for this. It moved constantly so no infantryman could hamstring it, it lined up the targets for the sabre, and the Irishman was chanting his Gaelic war cries, the slaughter-madness on him, and the valley was filled with the horsemen, the swords, and the hopeless infantry.

The second square collapsed, broke apart, and the Germans grunted as they brought the heavy blades down in the killing blows. The trumpeter, his legs broken, still lashed them into a fury, though now the notes were of pure triumph. Sharpe’s horse, not trained for war, swerved from the chaos and he swore at it, tugged at the reins, and then a mounted French infantry officer came for him, sword held like a lance, and Sharpe lashed with his great sword, missed, and he cursed this horse that would not take him to the target. Leroux?

Where in God’s name was Leroux?

He could see Harper. The Irishman was in among the fugitives from the second square. One man came at the Sergeant with a bayonet and Harper kicked up with his foot, caught the bayonet, and then sliced down with the sabre. The man fell, and his shako was ludicrously stuck on Harper’s sabre. It stayed there through two more strokes, then shook itself offas the huge Sergeant killed a French officer.

Sharpe could see Hogan. The Major, his sword not even drawn, was circling among the infantry shouting at them to surrender. The muskets were being thrown down, the hands going up, but still Sharpe could not see Leroux.

The third square was retreating up the hillslope. Back there somewhere, Sharpe knew, were two more French Battalions. A new trumpet call rang out, reforming two squadrons, and then Sharpe saw Leroux. He was in the third square. He had been on foot, but now swung himself into his saddle, and Sharpe kicked with his heels and rode towards the unbroken square. Its men were nervous, panicked by the smell of blood and fear, and as Sharpe rode so did the trumpet throw the reformed squadrons against the square.

The first two squares were ended. Most had surrendered, many were dead, and the Germans, who had done a fine thing, wanted to do more. Individual riders spurred towards the unbroken square.

The square fired, not at the cavalry, but at survivors of the first squares who wanted to break into its ranks. The infantry were frantic with fear, stumbling as the square inched backwards, and the first Germans came, were blasted from the saddles, while one man rode down the face of the square, his face a mask of blood, and his long sword beat uselessly at the bayonets, rattled against muskets, and then a shot threw him onto the ground.

More Germans charged home, the swords fell, and there was no reason for the square to break, yet its men were terrified of the fate of their comrades. Some threw down their muskets, raised their hands, and Sharpe could see the mounted officers in the square’s interior tearing at their standard. This Battalion did not carry the Regiment’s Eagle, they carried a flag which they tore into strips to hide in their uniforms. The square was dying and Sharpe saw the surrender and still he charged, wanting to break through the ranks to get his enemy, Leroux.

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