Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“What the devil?” A Lieutenant Colonel pushed his way down the trench. His neck was constricted by a tight, leather stock, and his face was red and glistening in the heat. “Go on, man!”

“They’re surrendering, sir! A white flag!”

“Good God!” The Colonel clambered up the trench side and stared at the San Cayetano, then at the San Vincente. “Good God!”

The British troops in the trench jeered at the French and shouted insults. “Fight, you buggers! Are you afraid?”

The Colonel bellowed at them. “Quiet! Quiet!”

Only the San Cayetano showed a white flag, the other forts were silent, no defenders apparent in their casements. Sharpe wondered if this were a trick, some convoluted plot by Leroux to gain his freedom, but he could not understand it if it was. Whether they were defeated by bayonets, or simply surrendered, the French garrisons would still be at the mercy of their captors and Sharpe would still be able to search their ranks for the tall, cold-eyed man with the long Kligenthal sword. The Company settled down in the trench. Rumours worked their way up and down the excavation, that the French merely wanted to send out their wounded, then that the enemy wanted time to negotiate their surrender. Some of the men slept, snoring gently, and the quiet of the afternoon, without the gunfire, seemed remarkably peaceful to Sharpe. He looked to his left and could see, over the roofs, the dark lattice of the mirador. There was a square black hole that showed where La Marquesa would be watching through her telescope. He wanted this afternoon done, the prisoners paraded, and Leroux safely chained at Headquarters. Then he could go back to the small doorway, climb the stone stairway, and have the last Salamantine night in the Palacio Casares.

A French-speaking officer took a speaking trumpet onto the trench parapet and shouted at the San Cayetano. Rough translations were passed in the trench. The French wanted to get orders from the fortress commander in the San Vincente, but Wellington was denying them the chance. The British would attack in five minutes and the garrison had a choice. Fight or surrender. As if to reinforce the message the eighteen pounders fired a last volley and Sharpe heard flames roar and crackle behind him as the San Vincente laught fire again. The San Cayetano officer shouted at the British, the French-speaking British officer shouted back, and then another messenger came down the trench and shouted up at the man with the speaking trumpet. The order was plainly heard in the trench. The enemy had wasted enough time in argument. They were to remove the white flag because the assault was now coming. The command was passed on in French, the Lieutenant Colonel drew his sword, turned to the packed trench, and shouted for them to go.

They cheered. Their bayonets were fixed, they wanted revenge, and the men hurled themselves up the side of the ravine, ignoring the Forlorn Hope that was now just part of the main attack, and Sharpe went with them. No guns fired from the French embrasures. The San Vincente, when Sharpe turned to look at it, was blazing fiercely. The gunners in the biggest French fort were fighting the flames, not serving the guns, and the assault was untroubled by canister. The white flag had gone from the San Cayetano, withdrawn into the shattered defences, and in its place was a rank of French infantrymen. The enemy were filthy, smeared by smoke and dust, and they levelled their muskets at the attack. They glanced at each other, not certain if they had surrendered or not, but the sight of the attackers, swarming in loose order over the rubble, decided them. They fired.

It was a small volley, hardly effective, and it only served to wound a handful of men and goad the others on. There was a ragged cheer, the first redcoats were in the ditch that was half filled with fallen masonry, and then they climbed the crude breach towards the fort.

The French had no fight in them. The infantrymen threw down their muskets before the attackers reached them. They were ignored, shoved aside, and the troops poured into the convent’s interior. The building still smoked, showing where the fires had been, and now it filled with cheering British, intent on loot, and Sharpe stopped at the glacis lip ahd looked behind him. Sergeant McGovern’s squad were there, where they should be, and Sharpe cupped his hands. “Stop anyone leaving! Understand!”

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