Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The French could not see the British. They saw a few officers on the hilltop, saw the flash of light from an occasional telescope aimed at them, but Marmont had to guess where Wellington’s troops were hidden behind the ridge. He would have to guess where to make his attack, knowing all the while that his fine troops might climb the ridge’s scarp only to be suddenly faced with the red-jacketed infantry that could fire their Brown Bess muskets faster than any army in the world. Marmont would have to guess where to attack, and Generals do not like guessing.

He did not guess that first day, nor the next, and it seemed as if the two armies had come together only to be paralysed. Each night men from British Light Companies would go down the hill towards the French to act as picquets against a night attack, but Marmont did not risk his army in the darkness. Sharpe went one night. The noise of the French army was like the noise of a city, its lights were a sprawl of fires scattered as lavishly as the poppies and cornflowers. It was cold at night, the upland not holding the day’s heat, and Sharpe shivered, Leroux and La Marquesa forgotten, waiting for the battle to erupt on the long ridge.

On Monday, after early breakfasts, the road from Salamanca was crowded with people coming to stare at the two armies. Some walked, some rode, some came in carriages, and most made themselves comfortable on a hill beside the village of San Christobal and were irked that the armies were not fighting. Perhaps because the spectators had arrived, there seemed a greater sense of urgency in the British lines, and Sharpe watched as his men once more prepared for battle. Flints were reseated in the leather patch that was gripped in the screw-tightened jaws of the rifle cocks, hot water was swilled into barrels that were already cleaned, and Sharpe sensed the fear that all men have before battle.

Some feared the cavalry and in their minds they rehearsed the thunder of a thousand hooves, the dust rolling like a sea fog from the charge and shot through with the bright blades that could slice a man’s life away or, worse, hook out his eyes and leave him in darkness for life. Others feared musket fire, the lottery of an unaimed bullet coming in the relentless volleys that would fire the dry grass with burning wads and roast the wounded where they fell. All feared the artillery, coughing its death in fan-like swathes. It was best not to think about that.

A hundred thousand men, before and behind the ridge, feared on that perfect day of heat, poppies and cornflowers. The smoke from the French cooking fires of the night drifted in a haze to westward while the gunners prepared their instruments of slaughter. Surely today they would fight. Some men in both armies hoped for the battle, seeking in combat the death that would release them from the pains of diseased bodies. The spectators wanted to see a fight. Why else had they come the long six hot miles from Salamanca?

Sharpe expected battle. He had gone to a Regiment of Dragoons and tipped the armourer to put a new edge on the long sword. Now, at midday, he slept. His shako was tipped over his face and he dreamed that he was lying flat, a horseman riding about him, and the sound of the hooves was distinct in his dreams. He could not rise, even though he knew the cavalryman was trying to kill him, and in his dream he struggled and then felt the lance tip at his waist and he jerked himself sideways, twisting desperately, and suddenly he was awake and a man was laughing above him. “Richard!”

“Christ!” The horse had not been a dream. It stood a yard away, its rider dismounted and laughing at him. Sharpe sat up, shaking the sleep from his eyes. “God, you frightened me!” Major Hogan had woken him by tapping his belt with a booted foot.

Sharpe stood up, drank tepid water from his canteen, and only then grinned at his friend. “How are you, sir?”

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