Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

It was a place of honey-coloured stone, a riot of belfries and towers, churches and palaces, all dwarfed by the two Cathedrals on the highest hill. The New Cathedral, three centuries old with its two domed towers, was huge and serene in the sunlight. This city was not a place of trade, like London, nor a granite-faced fortress, like Badajoz, but a place of learning, of prayer, of grace, of beauty that had little purpose but to please. It was a city of gold above a river of silver, and Sharpe was happy to be back.

The city had been spoiled, though. The French had razed the south western corner of Salamanca and left just three buildings. The three had been changed into fortresses, given ditches and walls, loopholes and embrasures, and the old houses and churches, colleges and monasteries had been ruthlessly pulled down to give the three forts a wide field of fire. Two of them overlooked the bridge, denying its use to the British, the third was closer to the city centre. All three, Sharpe knew, would have to be taken before the British left the city and pursued the French army that had withdrawn to the north.

He looked down from the forts to the river. It flowed slowly under the bridge between green trees. Marsh harriers, their wing tips flicked up, glided between green islands. Sharpe looked again at the magnificence of the golden-stoned Cathedral and looked forward to entering the city. He did not know when that would be. Once the far end of the bridge was secured by the Sixth Division, the South Essex would march two miles east to the nearest ford and then go north to join the rest of the army. Few men of Wellington’s forces would see Salamanca until Marmont’s army was defeated, but it was enough for Sharpe, at this moment, to stare at the intricate, serene beauty across the river and to hope that soon, very soon, he would have a chance to explore the streets once more.

Colonel Windham’s mouth twitched into a half smile. “Extraordinary!”

“Extraordinary, sir?”

Windham gestured with his riding crop at the Cathedral, then at the river. “Cathedral, Sharpe. River. Just like Gloucester.”

“I thought Gloucester was flat, sir.”

Windham sniffed at the comment. “River and cathedral. Much the same, really.”

“It’s a beautiful city, sir.”

“Gloucester? Of course it is! It’s English. Clean streets. Not like that damned place.” Windham probably never ventured out of the main street of any English town to explore the rubbish clogged alleyways and rookeries. The Colonel was a countryman, with the virtues of the country, and a deep suspicion of all things foreign. He was no fool, though Sharpe suspected that Lieutenant Colonel Windham sometimes liked to play the fool to avoid that most hurtful of all English insults; being too clever by half. Windham now twisted in his saddle and looked back at the resting Battalion. “Here comes that Frenchman.”

Delmas saluted Windham. Major Leroy had come with him and translated for the Colonel’s benefit. “Captain Delmas asks when he can be sent on to Headquarters, sir.”

“In a damned hurry, ain’t he?” Windham’s tanned leathery face scowled, then he shrugged. “Suppose he wants to get exchanged before the damn frogs run all the way to Paris.”

Delmas was leaning far down from his saddle to let one of the Colonel’s dogs lick his fingers. Leroy spoke with him while Windham fidgeted. The Major turned back to the Colonel. “He’d be grateful for an early exchange, sir. He says his mother is ill and he’s keen to get news of her.”

Sharpe made a sympathetic noise and Windham barked at Sharpe to be quiet. The Colonel watched the Frenchman fussing his dogs with approval. “I don’t mind, Leroy. Damned if I know who’s going to escort him to Headquarters. Do you fancy a hack?”

The Major shook his head. “No, sir.”

Windham screwed himself around again and peered at the Battalion. “I suppose we can ask Butler. He’s usually willing.” He caught sight of Ensign McDonald, much closer. “Does your young man ride, Sharpe?”

“Yes, sir. No horse, though.”

“You have bloody strange ideas, Sharpe.” Windham half disapproved of Sharpe’s belief that an infantry officer should walk like his men. It made sense for some officers to be mounted. They could see further in battle, and be seen by their men, but a Light Company fought on foot in the skirmish line and a man on horseback was a plain target. Sharpe’s officers wore their boots out. McDonald had heard the exchange between Sharpe and Windham and he came close and looked eager. Major Leroy swung himself off his own horse.

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