Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe felt the blow of steel on steel like a sledgehammer strike numbing his right arm. He was rigid with the effort of the blow and the recoil of the blades checked his rush, threatened to topple him backwards, but Leroux too had been stopped, jarred by the two swords meeting, and the French Colonel was astonished at the force of the attack, by the strength that had come at him and still threatened him.

The Kligenthal lunged while the echo of the first clangorous strike still came back from the far side of the courtyard. Sharpe parried the lunge, point downwards, and then turned his own heavy blade with such speed that Leroux jumped back and the tip of Sharpe’s blade missed the Frenchman’s face by less than a half inch. Again, and again, and Sharpe felt the surge of joy because he had the speed of this man, and the strength, and Leroux was parrying desperately, going backwards, and the Kligenthal could only block the attacks of the old cavalry sword. Then Leroux’s back heel touched stone, he was against the wall, and there was no escape from Sharpe. The Frenchman glanced to his right, saw the way he had to go, and then he saw Sharpe’s face screwed up with the effort of one last hacking swing that would cut him in half. He brought up the Kligenthal, swinging too, a cut that owed nothing to the science of fencing, just a killing swing in his last defence, and the blades sang in the air, the Kligenthal went past Sharpe and the Rifleman’s swing was parried.

The blades met, edge to edge, and again the shock jarred into their arms, shook their bodies, and the sound of it was not a clang, no harsh music, and Sharpe was falling because the sound was dull and his blade, that had been on every battlefield for four years, broke on the impact of the beautiful, silken, grey steel of the Kligenthal. Sharpe felt it go, felt the jarring shock turn into a lurching fall, and he saw the top half of his blade break and tumble as if the steel was no more than baked sugar. It broke, grey and splintered, and the tip fell, harsh onto the flagstones, and Sharpe was left with a handle and a jagged vicious stump. He hit the stones, rolled towards Leroux and stabbed upwards with the stump at the Frenchman’s groin, but Leroux laughed in his relief, stepped away, and brought up his sword, point downwards, for the stabbing, killing blow.

The sentry who had not fired his gun pounded around the corner of the cloister, elbowed aside two wounded French officers, and shouted at the blood-stained man whose sword was poised. The sentry jerked up his musket, Leroux saw it, and the Frenchman abandoned Sharpe and ran. The Rifleman hurled the useless sword fragment, missed, and rolled to his feet with his rifle coming off his shoulder.

“Hey!” The sentry’s protest was lost as his musket fired. He jerked the barrel up as the flint sparked and he just managed to avoid Sharpe who had erupted into his line of fire. The ball thumped past Sharpe, the pressure of it on his cheek, past Leroux, and flattened itself against the far wall. Leroux was running, no enemies before him, and the Kligenthal was long in his hand.

Sharpe’s arm was slow, numbed by the blade-shock, and he fumbled with the rifle flint. Leroux had reached a door at the far end and he tugged at the handle, then beat at the door with his fist. It stayed shut. He was trapped again.

Sharpe stood up. The flint came back and the feeling of the heavy spring compressing was satisfying. It clicked into place, the rifle was ready, and he walked towards Leroux who still hammered at the door just twenty paces from Sharpe. Sharpe jerked with the barrel. “Still!”

The Frenchman reached down to his boot and as he did the door opened. Sharpe saw the hand come up and in it was a pistol, the barrel octagonal, and he knew Leroux had a duelling pistol. He shouted, began running, and then the Irish priest, Curtis, was standing in the doorway and Leroux pushed the old man aside, went through, and Sharpe shouted at the old man to get out of the way and the door was closing and Sharpe had no time to aim, but just pulled the trigger and the Rifle bullet drove a long splinter from the door’s edge. He had missed.

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