Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Patrick Harper threaded his way into the third square and looked down on Sharpe and Leroux. The Frenchman still knelt, the Kligenthal was still on the ground. Harper looked at Sharpe. “What’s his trouble?”

“Won’t fight.” Sharpe’s sword was still clean.

Leroux stood up, wincing as the wound in his left leg hurt. “I surrender.”

Sharpe swore at him, then gestured at the sword. “Pick it up.”

“I surrender.” Leroux’s pale eyes looked right for help, but Harper blocked the view.

Sharpe tried to see a likeness between this man and La Marquesa, but he could not. What in her was beauty had become hard in her brother. “Pick up the sword.”

Leroux brushed grass from the fur trim of his red jacket. “I have surrendered.”

Sharpe swung the flat of his sword so it hit the fur hat, knocking it off. “Fight, you bastard.” Leroux shook his head. Sharpe would not take the surrender. “You surrendered before, remember? Not this time, Captain Delmas.”

Leroux smiled, gestured at the Kligenthal. “You have my sword.”

Sharpe crouched, his eyes still on Leroux, and picked up the Kligenthal in his left hand. It was beautiful, balanced to perfection, a weapon made by a master. He tossed it towards Leroux. “Fight.”

Leroux let the blade fall. “I am your prisoner.”

“Kill the bastard, sir.” Harper growled.

“I’m going to.” Sharpe levelled his sword, put it to Leroux’s breast, and pushed. The Frenchman went backwards. Sharpe stooped and picked the Kligenthal up once more. He held it out, handle towards the Frenchman, and went forward again and again. Leroux went backwards. The French soldiers watched.

Then Leroux could go no further. He was backed into a corner of the square and Sharpe brought his sword up so that the tip was at Leroux’s throat. The Rifleman smiled. “I’m going to kill you. I don’t give a damn whether you fight or not.” He pressed with the sword, Leroux’s head went back, and suddenly the pale eyes showed alarm. He really was to die and his arm came up, snatched at the Kligenthal, and Sharpe stepped backwards. “Now fight, you bastard.”

Leroux fought. He fought because he thought that if he won this fight, then he could surrender. He knew Sharpe would kill him, he had recognised that, so he must kill Sharpe. And if he succeeded in killing the Rifleman then there was always hope. He might escape again, make his way back to France, and it would always be possible to arrange for Curtis’ capture. He fought.

The Kligenthal felt good. He gave two short, hard strokes that loosened his wrist, and he felt the shock of the blades’ meeting, and then he settled into a rhythm, probing the Rifleman’s weakness, letting the Kligenthal tease the older blade to one side in preparation for the lunge. The point always beats the edge.

Sharpe went backwards, letting Leroux get out of the corner, and Harper rode alongside just as if he were the referee at a prize fight. Some of the French shouted for Leroux, but not many, and some of the Germans came to watch.

Sharpe watched Leroux’s pale eyes. The man was strong, and faster than Sharpe remembered. The blades rang like anvils. Sharpe was content to let his long, straight sword do the work for him, he let its weight soak up the attacks, and he planned this man’s death. La Marquesa, Leroux’s sister, had asked him once if he enjoyed killing, had even accused him of enjoying it, but that was not true. Some deaths a man can enjoy, the death of an enemy, and Sharpe was paid to have enemies. Yet he did not wish death on the French. There was more satisfaction in seeing a surrendered enemy, a defeated enemy, than in seeing a slaughtered enemy. A field after battle was a more horrid place than anything the people in England, who would soon celebrate Salamanca, could imagine. Death stopped war from being a game, it gave it glory and horror, and soldiers could not be squeamish about death. They might regret the moment when rage conquers fear, when it banishes all humanity and makes a man into a killer, but that rage could keep a man from being dead and so the regret was mixed with relief and a knowledge that, to be a good soldier, the rage would one day be back.

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