Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

This was just one division, the Sixth, while beyond the city and shielding it from the French field army were the other Divisions of Wellington’s force. The First, the Third, the Fourth, the Fifth, the Seventh, and the Light Divisions, forty-two thousand men of the infantry marched this summer. Sharpe smiled to himself. He remembered Rolica, just four years before, when the British infantry had numbered just thirteen and a half thousand men. No one had expected them to win. They had been sent to Portugal with a junior General, and now that General saluted his troops as they marched into Salamanca. At Rolica, Wellington had fought with eighteen guns, this summer’s battle would hear more than sixty British cannon. Two hundred cavalry had paraded at Rolica, now there were more than four thousand. The war was growing, spreading across the Peninsula, up into Europe, and there were rumours that the Americans were beating the drum against England while Napoleon, the ringmaster of it all, was looking north to the empty Russian maps.

Sharpe did not watch the whole parade. In one of the eight streets that led to the Plaza he found a wineshop and bought a skin of red wine that he decanted, carefully, into his round, wooden canteen. A gipsy woman watched him, her black eyes unreadable, one hand holding a baby high on her breast, the other plunged deep into her apron where she clutched the few coins she had begged during the day. Sharpe left a few mouthfuls in the skin and tossed it to her. She caught it and jetted the wine into the baby’s mouth. A stall beneath the Plaza archway was selling food and Sharpe took some tripe, cooked in a spiced sauce, and as he drank his wine, ate the food, he thought how lucky he was to be alive on this day, in this place, and he wished he could share this moment with Teresa. Then he thought of Windham’s body, blood smeared on the dry ground, and he hoped that the Frenchmen shut up in the forts were hearing the band and anticipating the siege. Leroux would die.

The parade finished, the soldiers were marched away or dismissed, yet the band played on, serenading the nightly ceremony in which the people of Salamanca played out a stately flirtation. The townspeople walked in the Plaza each evening. The men walked clockwise at the outer edge of the square, while the girls, giggling and arm in arm, walked counter-clockwise in an inner ring. British soldiers now joined the outer promenaders, eyeing the girls, calling out to them, while the Spanish men, jealous, watched coldly.

Sharpe did not join the circle. Instead he walked in the deep shadow of the arcade, past the shops that sold fine leathers, jewels, books, and silks. He walked slowly, licking the garlic from his fingers, and he was a strange figure in the holiday crowd. He had pushed his shako back, letting his black hair fall over the top of the long scar that ran, beside his left eye, to his cheek. It gave him a sardonic, mocking look when his face was at rest. Only laughter or a smile softened the rigour of the scar. His uniform was as tattered as any Rifleman’s. The scabbard of his long sword was battered. He looked what he was, a fighting soldier.

He was looking for Michael Hogan, the Irish Major who served on Wellington’s staff. Sharpe and Hogan had been friends for most of this war and the Irishman, Sharpe knew, would make good company on this night of celebration. Sharpe had another reason, too. Hogan was in charge of Wellington’s intelligence gathering, sifting through the reports which came from spies and Exploring Officers, and Sharpe hoped that the small, middle-aged Major could answer some questions about Colonel Philippe Leroux.

Sharpe stayed beneath the colonnade, heading towards the group of mounted officers who crowded about the General. The Rifleman stopped when he was close enough to hear their loud laughter and confident voices.

He could not see Hogan. He leaned against a pillar and watched the mounted men, gorgeous in their full dress uniforms, and he was unwilling to join the favour seeking group who crowded round the General. If Wellington picked his nose, Sharpe knew, there would be plenty of officers willing to suck his fingers clean if it brought them one more golden thread for their uniforms.

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