Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

The pain was like a dream in Sharpe, and sometimes he floated up through the layers of pain and he cried out and at other times he was deep in its suffocating folds and the dream writhed inside him, separate from him, but part of him, pinned to him like the lance held in the Indian soldier’s hands that had pinned him to the tree outside Seringapatam, except this was dark, dark, and he cried out, sobbing because of the pain.

“Whoa there, lad!” Connelley paused with his bottle half way to his lips. “You’re a brave one now, sure you are. Be brave, lad.”

Sharpe was lying on his side. He was a child again, being beaten, tied to the bench in the foundling home and the arm was crashing down and crashing down and the birch was splintering inside him and the face of the supervisor changed to Wellington’s face and the face was laughing at him.

He dreamed. Teresa was there, but he did not remember that dream, and he did not know that he dreamed of La Marquesa, and the dusk turned to darkness, night in Salamanca, and it should have been his last night in the wide black-curtained bed and he moaned on the palliasse and Connelley, half drunk, called in his sing-song voice for him to die well.

He slept. He dreamed that the rats were chewing the flour and water paste that was caked onto a soldier’s hair. Recruits were forced to grow their hair long and when it was long enough it was pulled back and twisted round a leather queue, pulled so hard that some recruits screamed as the hair was yanked and twisted. The skeined hair was formed into the queue, five inches long, a solid pigtail, and it was caked with flour and water paste so that it was stiff and white and sometimes, in the night, the rats chewed at the queue. Then, surfacing into the pain, he remembered that he had not had his hair powdered and pasted for a dozen years, that the army had dropped the fashion, and that the rats were real, scuffling along the cellar’s edge, and he coughed at them, spat weakly, and the pain shrivelled him and he cried out.

“Die well, lad, die well.” Connelley had woken up. He should have been relieved hours ago, but he rarely was. They left him to drink peaceably with the dying men. The Irish Sergeant stood up, groaned as the pain hit him, and called again to Sharpe. “It’s only the rats, lad, they won’t touch you if you’re living.”

Sharpe knew then that the pain was real, that this was not a dream, and he wished he were dreaming again, but could not. He opened his eyes into the dank darkness and the pain was pulsing in him, making him sob, and he forced his knees up and tensed himself, but the pain was terrible and encompassing.

The rush light on the stairs flickered on the cellar wall. The bricks gleamed damply, darkly, curving down to Sharpe’s head and he knew he was in this place to die. He remembered Leroux, La Marquesa, and he knew he had been so confident and now it was all over. He had come so far, from the foundling home to being a Captain in Britain’s army, yet now he was as helpless as that small child strapped to the bench while the birch thrashed at it. He was going to die, and he was helpless, childlike, and he sobbed to himself and the pain was like flesh-hooks ripping him apart, and he dreamed again.

The Irish priest was mocking him, was stabbing him in the side with a long spear, and Sharpe knew he was being sent to hell. He dreamed he was in a vast building, so high that the roof was misty, and he was pinned by the long spear to the very centre of the floor, and he was tiny, and the great space echoed with laughter, insane laughter that boomed and banged its way in the huge building, and he knew that in a second the floor would open and he would fall endlessly, fall, down to the pits of hell, and he struggled out of that dream back to the pain. He would not go to hell, he would not, and he would not die, but the pain made him want to sleep or to scream.

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