Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

They began running.


They ran, forcing themselves over the stones, stumbling in the debris of the ruined houses, taking the shortest route to the city. The cordon of Light troops, still in place, watched in astonishment as the two huge men, one in a stained and damp shirt and wielding a huge blade, the other carrying a seven-barrelled gun, charged at them. A man levelled a musket and gave an uncertain challenge.

“Out the bloody way!” Sharpe’s bellow convinced the picquets that the two were British.

Sharpe led the way into the alleyway from which the abortive attack, four days before, had been launched. Civilians were crammed in the streets, hoping for a glimpse of the excitement in the wasteland, but they parted hurriedly before the armed men. Thank God, Sharpe thought, it was downhill to the Irish College where the wounded were taken.

Yet the man who must, surely, have piled the guts of another man onto his stomach, who had smeared himself in blood and soot, who had sought his disguise in a wound so terrible that no one would think he could survive or think he was worth troubling over, had such a lead on them. Thirty minutes, forty even, and Sharpe felt a blind rage at his own stupidity. Trust nothing, and trust no one! Search everyone, and yet the sight of the disembowelled artillery officer had made him turn away in horror and pity. It had been the first officer he had seen inside the first fort and now he was convinced it had to be Leroux. Who could now be free inside the city.

They turned left, their breath coming in humid gasps, and Sharpe saw that they still had a chance. It was not much, but it drove him on. The crowds were holding up the wagons carrying the wounded, jeering at the enemy, and British troops were holding the people back with muskets. Sharpe pushed and forced his way to the nearest cart and shouted up at the driver. “Is this the first batch?”

“No, mate. Haifa dozen have gone already. Gawd knows ‘ow they’ll get through.”

The driver had mistaken Sharpe for a private. He had seen the rifle slung on the shoulder and, without his jacket or sash, Sharpe had no badge of rank except the sword. He looked for Harper. “Come on!”

He bellowed at the crowd, pushed at them, and they broke free of the crush around the wounded and ran on, down the hill, and ahead of them Sharpe could see the other carts standing empty at the steps of the College. Sentries barred the door, ignoring the pleas of civilians who seemed to want to get in to finish off what the British bombardment had begun. Apart from the civilians, young men mostly with long, slim knives, there was no excitement at the college. No shouts, no chase, no sign that a wounded man had suddenly sprung to full life and hacked his way to a dubious freedom among the vengeful Salamantine streets.

Sharpe took the steps two at a time and pushed into the crowd that filled the small terrace in front of the great gate. A sentry challenged him, saw the sword and rifle, and made a space for the two men to push through. They hammered on the gate.

Harper looked blown. He shook his head, pounded the studded wood again, and looked at Sharpe. “I hope you’re bloody right, sir.” The Company had been left at the San Vincente, ignorant of where their Captain and senior Sergeant had gone.

Sharpe hammered with the steel guard of his sword. “Open up!”

A wicket door opened in the gate and a face peered out. “Who is it?”

Sharpe did not answer. He pushed through, stooping through the small entrance, and a courtyard opened up before him. It would have been a beautiful place, a haven of peace in a peaceful city, a well surrounded by a lawn which, in turn, was surrounded by two storeys of carved cloisters. Today, though, it was the collecting place for the dying, the courtyard filled with the first French wounded who had come to join the men they had wounded four nights before. The courtyard was choked with bleeding men, with orderlies, and Sharpe paused at the archway and looked desperately for the artillery officer who had seemed so terribly wounded.

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