The bricks glistened above his face. Cold water dripped slowly onto the palliasse. He knew it was the night’s middle, death’s kingdom, and the rats scuttled against the wall. He tried to talk, forcing words from the pain’s grip, and his voice was like wind stirring thistles. “Where am I?”
Connelley was drunk, asleep, and there was no answer.
There was no Harper. Sharpe remembered the body on the stairs, his friend, and the blood that puddled on the step, and Sharpe cried because he was alone, and was dying, and no one was there. There was no one. No Harper, no Teresa, no mother, no family, just a damp cellar of rats, cold in death’s kingdom, and all the glory of Colours carried into battle-smoke, of a soldier’s pride, of the bayonets rippling in sun and the boots going forward across the sparks towards victory ended here. In a death room. No Harper. No slow grin, no shared thoughts without words, no more laughter.
He sobbed, and in his sobs he swore he would not die.
The pain was all over so he forced his right hand down and found his naked legs, and then he moved his left hand and found the bandage and he felt round the bandage, round to his lower stomach, and the pain screamed up inside him in a vast red swell of breaking agony that drove him into unconsciousness again.
He dreamed his sword was broken, splintered grey shards, useless. He dreamed.
A man screamed in the room, a high-pitched quavering scream that startled the rats and woke Connelley. “Whoa there, lad! It’s all right, so it is, and sure I’m here. Hey lad, lad! Gentle now. Die well!”
“Where am I?” Sharpe’s voice was unheard in the noise. He knew, though. He had seen death rooms before.
The man who had screamed was crying now, small yelps that peaked in pathetic gulps, and Sergeant Connelley swiftly swallowed some rum, thrust the bottle in a gaping pocket, and lumbered down the room with his bucket of water. Other men were stirring, crying for water, for their mothers, for light, for help, and Connelley called out to them all. “I’m here, lads, I’m here, and you’re brave boys, are you not? Now be brave! We have the French, so we do, and would you want them to think that we’re weak?”
Sharpe breathed in short, shallow gasps, and he swore he would not die. He tried to blank the pain out, but he could not, and he tried to remember men who had come out of the death room alive. He could not. He could only think of his enemy, Sergeant Hakeswill, who had lived through a hanging, and Sharpe swore he would not die.
Connelley shushed the men with his rough tenderness. He walked down the room, pausing by some, finding some dead, comforting others. Sharpe drifted in the pain; it was like a live thing, trapping him, and he struggled with it. Connelley knelt by him, talked to him, and Sharpe heard the Irish voice.
“Are you called Patrick now? And us thinking you was a Frenchie.” Connelley stroked the dark hair.
“And a good name it is, lad. Connelley’s my name, and Kilkieran Bay’s my country, and you and I will walk on the cliffs there.”
“Dying.” Sharpe had meant it as a question, but the word came as a statement.
“And sure you’re not! You’ll be chasing the women yet, Paddy, so you will.” Connelley took his rum bottle, lifted Sharpe’s head gently, and poured the smallest amount between the lips. “You sleep now, Paddy, you hear me?”
“I’m not going to die.” Each word was soft, each almost edged with a sob.
“Sure you’re not!” Connelley lowered the head. “They can’t kill us Irish.” He backed into the aisle and stood up. The room was quieter now, but Connelley knew that the noise could break cut-again. They were like puppies the dying. Once one was excited, the whole litter began yelping, and a man deserved some quiet to drink and die in. He sang to them, walking up and down the aisle, and he sang the Corporal’s Song that told of the soldier’s life and he repeated the refrain over and over again as if he wanted to sing them softly into a soldier’s death. “It’s a very merry, hey down deny, sort of life enough. A very merry, hey down deny, sort of life enough.”