Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

“And you, sir.”

Curtis went. Sharpe felt foolish and alone. He wanted her, to lie to her and with her, and he was alone. He waited. To the south, over the village of Arapiles, the thunder bellowed.


The ridge ran north and south. It had been close cropped by sheep, goats, and by the rabbits whose droppings lay like miniature spent musket balls in the thin, springy grass. The ridge smelt of wild thyme.

The day had dawned with a pale, rinsed sky. The only remnants of the great thunder storm were a few high, ragged clouds and a burden of water on the soil that promised to be burned away by noon. The ridge top was already drying when Sharpe arrived.

She had begged him to stay. She had begged him to protect her against Leroux, and he had joined in the lie by begging her to retreat with the army, to go to Ciudad Rodrigo, but she would not.

She had gone back to the city in the early morning, when it was still dark, and she had promised to send Sharpe a horse, a gift, and he had protested, but the horse came. A servant gave it to him and watched, silent, as the Rifleman rode towards the fords east of the city. She had given him a horse, a saddle, a bridle, and he could not guess how much the gift was worth. Soon she would discover that he had betrayed her, as she had him, and he would return the gift. Now he rode the horse down the great ridge towards the place where the hills ended and the plain began; the turning place. This was the bend where the armies went west and the ridge was like the marker on the inside of the curve. He had explained it all to her, in the darkness, and he had said that the French could march faster than the British and so Wellington planned to steal a march. He would leave a Division at Arapiles and send the rest of the army on a fast march, fifteen miles westward and, by staying with the rearguard himself, Wellington would persuade Marmont that the whole army was still in front of Salamanca. She had listened to him, asked questions, and Sharpe had warmed to the lie.

They had lain together in the shelter and when the time came for them to part she had touched the scar on his face. “I don’t want to go.”

“Then stay.”

“I must go.” She smiled sadly. “I wonder if I’ll ever see you again.”

“You’ll be surrounded by cavalry officers and I’ll be jealous.”

She kissed his cheek. “You’ll bristle with dignity, like the first time you came to the mirador.”

He kissed her back. “We’ll meet again.” The words echoed in his head as his horse, her horse, trotted on the ridge’s spine.

To the east of the ridge was a wide sweeping valley where the ripening wheat had been flattened by the rain and where a few dark trees showed the course of a stream. At the far side of the valley was an escarpment, its steep side facing Sharpe, and he knew that beyond the sheer red-rock bluffs at its crest the French army would be marching. The ridge and the escarpment ended in a great rolling plain and it was on that plain that Marmont would swing westward into the home straight; the race to block the Portuguese road.

At the southern end of the ridge the ground fell steeply away and, a short walk from the ridge’s end to the west, was a village. It was like a thousand other Spanish villages. The cottages were low, made of rough-dressed stone, and a man could not stand upright in most of the small houses. The houses grew into each other and formed a maze of tiny alleyways that surrounded the simple church, no bigger than a storehouse. The church had a small stone arch built on one end of its roof that acted as the belfry for the one counter-weighted bell. A stork’s nest clung to the top of the arch.

The richer peasants, and there were few of them, had painted their cottages white. Roses grew against the walls. Farmyards lay next to some cottages, empty now for the villagers feared the army that the night had brought behind the ridge. The villagers had driven their cattle away, to another village, and the hovels and alleyways had been left to God and the soldiers. The village, which had never been famous, was called Arapiles.

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