Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe was becoming used to her sudden questions that had no relevance to the previous conversation. She seemed to like to tease him, bring him almost to the point of anger, and then deflect him with some irrelevance. He brushed his right cheek. “Powder stains, Ma’am. The gunpowder explodes in the rifle pan and throws them up.”

“Did you kill someone tonight?”

“No, not tonight.”

They were standing just two feet apart and Sharpe knew that either could have moved away. Yet they stayed still, challenging each other and he knew that she was challenging him to touch her and he was tempted suddenly, to break the rules. He was tempted to walk away, as Marmont had simply walked away from Wellington’s army, but he could not do it. The full mouth, the eyes, the cheekbones, the curve of her neck, the shadows above the white lace-frilled dress had caught him. She frowned at him. “What does it feel like? To kill a man?”

“Sometimes good, sometimes nothing, sometimes bad.”

“When is it bad?”

He shrugged. “When it’s unnecessary.” He shook his head, remembering the bad dreams. “There was a man at Badajoz, a French artillery officer.”

She had expected more. She tipped her face to one side. “Go on.”

“The fight was over. We’d won. I think he wanted to surrender.”

“And you killed him?”



He gestured at the big sword. “With this.” It had not been that simple. He had hacked at the man, gouged him, disembowelled the corpse in his great rage until Harper had stopped him.

She half turned away from him and stared at the scarcely touched food on the table. “Do you enjoy killing? I think you do.”

He could feel his heart beating in his chest as if it had expanded. It was thumping hollowly, sounding in his eardrums, and he knew it as a compound of fear and excitement. He looked at her face, profiled against the broken moonlight, and the beauty was overpowering, unfair that one person could be so lovely and his hand, almost of its own volition, came slowly up, slowly, until his finger was under her chin and he turned the face towards him.

She gave him a calm, wide-eyed expression, then stepped away from him so his arm was left suspended in mid-air. He felt foolish. Her face was unfriendly. “Do you enjoy killing?”

He had been made to touch her, so she could back away and make him feel foolish. She had brought him here for her small victory, and he knew defeat. He turned away from her, walked to his rifle, slung it on his shoulder, and started back down the balcony without a word. He did not look at her. He walked past her, smelling the tobacco smoke from her cigar.

“Colonel Leroux enjoys killing, Captain.”

For a second he almost kept on walking, but the name of his enemy stopped him. He turned.

“What do you know of Leroux?”

She shrugged. “I live in Salamanca. The French were in this house. Your job is to kill him, yes?”

Her voice was challenging again, impressing him with her knowledge, and again he had the feeling that he was involved in a game of which she only knew the rules. He thought of Leroux in the forts, of the cordon of men about the wasteland, of his own Company in their billets. He had a simple job and he was making it complicated.

“Good night, Ma’am. Thank you for the meal.”


He kept walking. He went round the corner, past the lights of the spyholes, and he felt a freedom come on him. He would be true to Teresa, who loved him, and he quickened his pace towards the secret staircase.

“Captain!” She was running now, her bare feet slapping the rush mats. “Captain!” Her hand pulled at his elbow. “Why are you going?”

She had teased him earlier, mocked him for not kissing her, withdrawn when he had touched her. Now she held his arm, was pleading with him, her eyes searching his face for some reassurance. He hated her games.

“God damn you to hell, Ma’am.” He put his left arm about her back, half lifted her, and kissed her on the mouth. He crushed her, kissing her to hurt, and when he saw her eyes close, he dropped her. “For God’s sake! Do I enjoy killing? What am I? A bloody trophy for your rotten wall? I’m going to get drunk, Ma’am, in some flea-bitten hovel in this bloody town and I might take a whore with me. She won’t ask me bloody questions. Good night!”

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