Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

If a man stood at the very bottom of the slope, near to the village, and looked southwards he would have seen an apparently empty, almost level plain. It was covered with wheat and grass. The horizon was dark with trees and jumbled because, beyond the plain, the country was rough and hard. If the man turned to his right he could see the village of Arapiles and, just beyond the village and so close to it that it seemed as if its rocks grew out of the small cottages, was a hill; the Teso San Miguel. Between the southern end of the ridge and the Teso San Miguel was a small valley, just two hundred yards wide at its narrowest point, and if a man were to walk up the valley’s centre, keeping the ridge to his right and the Teso San Miguel to his left, then he could see straight ahead of him, four miles to the north, the big tower of Salamanca’s New Cathedral. If the small valley were wreathed in cannon smoke, silted with musket smoke, then a man might be grateful for that landmark.

In the east was the escarpment, then the wide valley, then the high ridge which smelt of thyme and lavender and was pretty with cabbage white butterflies, and then the small valley, and then the Teso San Miguel with Arapiles at its foot, and beyond the village and the small hill the plain stretched to the west. Yet none of those things were strange in this landscape. Sharpe stood his horse at the southern end of the ridge, and his soldier’s mind took in the escarpment, the valleys, and the village, but his wonder was at the plain that stretched away to the treeline to the south. The plain, which was pale with ripening wheat, was like a great sea that lapped against the escarpment, ridge and Teso San Miguel, and in the sea were two strange islands. Two hills, and to a soldier the two hills were the key to the plain.

The first hill was small, but high. And, being small and high, it was steep, too steep for the growing of crops and so it had been left for the sheep, the rabbits, the scorpions that lived in the rocks that littered the slopes, and the hawks that nested on its flat summit. The small hill lay just to the south of the ridge, so close that the valley between them was like a saddle. From the air the ridge and the small hill would look like an exclamation mark.

If a stork flew directly south from its nest on Salamanca’s New Cathedral, over the river, and on into the farmland, it would cross the small hill. And if it still flew south, into the great plain, it would cross the second hill just three quarters of a mile from the first. This hill was truly isolated in the wheat. It was bigger than the first, but lower, and it was like a flat-topped slab that lay, like a dash, beneath the exclamation mark. It was as steep as the first hill, just as flat-topped, and the hawks and ravens lived there undisturbed for no man had a good reason to climb the steep sides, no reason unless he had a gun. Then he would have every reason for no infantry could hope to dislodge a force that was on the flat hill-top that stood like a great gun platform in the sea of wheat. The two hills were called by the villagers ‘los Hermanitos’, which means ‘the little brothers’. Their proper name was taken from the village itself. They were the Arapiles; the Lesser Arapile and, out in the plain, the Greater Arapile.

When God made the world he made the big plain just for the cavalry. It was firm, or would be when the sun had dried off the night’s rain, and it was mostly level. The sabres could fall like scythes in the corn. The Arapiles, Greater and Lesser, God made for the gunners. From their summits, conveniently made flat so that the artillery could have a stable platform, the guns could dominate the plain. God had made nothing for the infantry, except a soil easily dug into graves, but the infantry were used to that.

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