Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

It all happened terribly quickly. One moment a man seemed to be dying, moaning feebly, and the next he was rising to his feet and in his hand was a long grey blade. He was like something from the pit, something that had rolled and nuzzled and lapped in blood, and he freed the stiffness from his arm with a scythe of the sword and loosed his voice with a great war cry. In the Name of the Emperor!

Harper was looking the other way. He heard the shout, he turned, and the sentry was between him and the demonic figure. Harper shouted at the man to move, tried to force him aside with the squat barrels of the big gun, but the sentry lunged feebly with his bayonet at the ghastly figure and the Kligenthal drove it aside and came back to carve a line diagonally up the sentry’s face. The man screamed, fell backwards, and he fell on the seven barrelled gun and the impact made Harper’s finger pull on the trigger and the huge gun fired. The bullets hammered uselessly on the flagstones, ricocheted into the balustrade, and the recoil of the huge gun, a recoil that could throw a man clear from the fighting top of a battleship, slewed Harper round and backwards.

The Sergeant fought for balance. There was only the staircase behind him and he stood at the very top at the inside of the curve where the steps were steepest. He was falling and his right hand flailed for support and the sentry, screaming because he could not see, fell at Harper’s feet and scrambled for safety and his arm went to the back of the huge Sergeant’s ankles and Harper was falling.

Harper’s hand caught the balustrade, he heaved on it with all his huge strength, and then he saw the French officer coming for him and the sword was reaching for Harper’s chest and the blade seemed to speed up as the Frenchman’s strength went into the lunge.

The blade caught him. The point slammed between the tiny carved thighs on Harper’s crucifix. He let go of the balustrade, shouting in alarm and warning, and his legs were trapped by the sentry, and he lashed uselessly with his arm for balance and then he fell away from the blade. He toppled.

His head hit the eighth stair down. The sound of it could be heard throughout the courtyard and it was a dull crack. The head seemed to bounce up, light brown hair flapping, the blood already dripping, and then the head slumped down again and Harper’s body slipped until it was caught on the stair’s bend and he lay, spreadeagled and bloody, head downwards, on the scrubbed stone stairway.

Leroux turned away and shouted at the French wounded to stay out of his way. He ran to his left, the shortest route to the rear of the college, and two sentries, startled, came together and levelled their muskets. One knelt, pulling back his flint, and Leroux checked. They were too far away for him to charge. The one man fired and the ball went harmlessly past the Frenchman, but the other held his fire, waited, and Leroux turned away. He would go the long way round, hoping no sentries waited, and the sword felt marvellous in his hand, like a live thing, and he laughed at the pleasure of it.

Sharpe was inside the surgeons’ rooms when he heard the bellowing echo of the seven-barrelled gun and he turned and was running, leaping the bodies laid out on the grass, and he saw Harper fall, saw the huge body bounce on the steps, and Sharpe was shouting with an inchoate anger that cleared the hospital orderlies from his path. He took the curved stairway three steps at a time and he jumped Harper’s body from which blood trickled to puddle on the next step down. The Sergeant was silent and still.

Sharpe reached the head of the stairs as Leroux came back past the place where he had lunged at Harper. Sharpe felt an immense anger. He did not know if Harper was alive or dead, but he knew he was hurt, and Harper was a man who would have given his life for Sharpe, a friend, and Sharpe now faced the man who had wounded Harper. The Rifle Captain came up the last curved steps, his face terrifying in its rage, and his long sword sounded in the air as he swept it backhanded at the Frenchman and Leroux parried. Leroux’s left hand was grasping his right wrist and all his own strength was in the Kligenthal, and the blades clashed.

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