Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“Yes, sir!”

Sharpe grinned at Harper. “Let’s go hunting.” He drew his sword, wondering if this would be the last time he ever used this sword, and jumped into the ditch. The climb onto the defences was easy, thanks to the collapse of the convent wall into the ditch, and Sharpe ran up the stones, hoping against hope that Leroux would be in this first building. He could be in any of the three. The French had not been able to leave the forts, thanks to the ring of Light Companies, but there had been no way of stopping them moving between the buildings in the dark of night.

“God save Ireland!” Harper paused at the top. The San Cayetano resembled a charnel house whose corpses had been crushed and burned. The unwounded prisoners were gathering in the central courtyard, but they left on the ramparts, on firesteps, beside guns, a grisly remnant of the garrison. The eagerness of the attackers for revenge was checked by the horror. The redcoats were kneeling by the wounded, giving them water, and every soldier could imagine what life had been like, these last few burning hours, under the close bombardment of the guns. One man was close to the breach, on a stretcher where Sharpe presumed he had been laid so he could be taken swiftly to the hospital, and the screaming, horrid figure seemed to sum up the garrison’s suffering. He was an artillery officer and the plain, blue uniform reminded Sharpe of the man he had killed at Badajoz. This man would not live long. His face was half masked in blood, a shapeless mass where one eye had been, and his belly appeared to have been torn open by a splinter of wood or shattering iron that had left his guts, blue-sheened between thick blood, open to the sky and flies. He heaved, he screamed, he shouted for help, and even the men who were used to suffering and sudden death found the agony unbearable and gave the horrid wound a wide berth. Between screams the man panted, moaned, and cried. Two French infantrymen, unwounded, squatted fearfully beside the officer. One held his hand. The other tried to contain the terrible blue-red wound that had smeared the uniform with blood where it had not been scorched with fire. Sharpe looked at the artillery officer. “Be quicker to shoot him.”

“And a dozen others, sir.” Harper nodded at other men, some almost as badly wounded, some burned beyond a human face any more, and Sharpe climbed back to the breach top and shouted at McGovern. “The wounded will come out! Let them up!”

Carts were already waiting at the trench head, beside the main battery, to take the French to the hospital. Sharpe checked them out, one by one, and then looked at the prisoners in the courtyard. Leroux was not there. Somehow Sharpe was not surprised. He expected Leroux to be in the main fort, the San Vincente, and he hurried as he began to search the San Cayetano for he knew that the assault on the other forts must begin soon. He raced up stairs inside the convent, throwing doors open onto empty rooms, coughing when he had to dash down a smoke filled corridor to explore rooms threatened by flame, but the fort was deserted. The French were prisoners, downstairs, and the only men in the upper rooms were British soldiers rifling the possessions of their erstwhile enemies. Even those men Sharpe looked at carefully for it was not beyond a possibility that Leroux would have disguised himself in British uniform, but Leroux was not there.

A shout came from below and Sharpe ran to the last room he had not searched. It was empty as the others, except for a telescope, mounted like La Marquesa’s on a tripod, that a small Welsh soldier was struggling to lift. “Leave it!”

The man looked offended. “Sorry, sir.”

Sharpe could see the tripod marks on the wooden floor and he carefully aligned the telescope again on the old marks. He guessed that perhaps it had been used for receiving telegraph messages, when the French army had been close to the city, but he could not be sure. He peered through the glass, saw open sky, and tilted the tube downwards. The glass pointed through a tiny window. Anyone using it from the tripod marks could see scarce a thing through that tiny space. A patch of sky and then, the glass steadied, and Sharpe saw the dark square, and saw the circle of light that he knew was the brass-bound lens of La Marquesa’s glass. He grinned. Someone had tried to watch La Marquesa on her mirador and he could not blame them, for it must have been hell to be pinned in this tiny fort and an officer had set up the glass, far enough back so that it would not reflect any betraying light, and he must have prayed and hoped for a glimpse of that perfect beauty to relieve the perfect hell that sliced apart a man’s intestines. He stayed for a moment, hoping he would see her, but there was no sign of her. He remembered the shout from below and gestured at the glass. “You can have it, soldier.”

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