Authors: Bernard Cornwell
by Bernard Cornwell
For Peggy Blackburn, with love
“A knight errant -
to cut a long story short -
is beaten up one day and made Emperor the next.”
by Miguel Cervantes (1547-1615)
Translated by J. M. Cohen
Sunday, June 14 to Tuesday, June 23rd, 1812
The tall man on horseback was a killer.
He was strong, healthy, and ruthless. Some men thought he was young to be a full Colonel in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, but no-one took advantage of his youth. A single glimpse of his curiously pale eyes, pale-lashed eyes, eyes that gave his strong, handsome face a chill of death, was enough to make men offer respect to Colonel Leroux.
Leroux was the Emperor’s man. He went where Napoleon sent him and he performed his master’s tasks with skill and pitiless efficiency. Now he was in Spain, sent there by the Emperor himself, and Colonel Leroux had just made a mistake. He knew it, he cursed himself for it, but he was also planning how to escape his self-imposed predicament.
He was trapped.
He had ridden with a cavalry escort to a miserable village huddled at the edge of the great plains of Leon and there had found his man, a priest. He had tortured the priest, stripping the skin inch by inch from the living body, and in the end, of course, the priest talked. They all talked to Colonel Leroux in the end. Yet this time he had taken too long. At the moment of victory, at that very moment when the priest could take the pain no longer and screamed out the name which Leroux had come so far to learn, the German cavalry erupted into the village. Men of the King’s German Legion who fought for Britain in this war savaged the French Dragoons, their sabres rising and falling, their hoofbeats drumming a rhythm behind the screams of pain, and Colonel Leroux had run.
He had grabbed one companion, a Captain of the cavalry escort, and together they had ridden desperately north, cutting their way through one group of Germans, and now, an hour later, they had stopped at the edge of a wood that grew about a sudden, quick stream that tumbled towards the River Tormes.
The Dragoon Captain looked behind. “We’ve lost them.”
“We haven’t.” Leroux’s horse was streaked with white sweat, its flanks heaved, and the Colonel felt the terrible heat of the sun smashing through his gorgeous uniform; red jacket looped with gold, green overalls reinforced with leather with the silver buttons running down each leg. His black fur colback, thick enough to stop a sword blow to the head, hung from his pommel. The light breeze could not stir his sweat-plastered blond hair. He suddenly smiled at his companion. “What’s your name?”
The Captain was relieved by the smile. He was frightened of Leroux and this sudden, unexpected friendliness was a welcome change. “Delmas, sir. Paul Delmas.”
Leroux’s smile was full of charm. “Well, Paul Delmas, we’ve done great things so far! Let’s see if we can lose them for good, eh?”
Delmas, flattered by the familiarity, smiled back. “Yes, sir.” He looked behind again, and again he could see nothing except for the bleached grassland silent under the heat. Nothing seemed to move except the wind-ripple of grass, and a solitary hawk, wings motionless, that easelessly rode the cloudless sky.
Colonel Leroux was not deceived by the emptiness. He had spotted the dead ground as they rode and he knew the Germans, good professionals, were out in the plain, spreading the cordon that would drive the fugitives towards the river. He knew too that the British were marching eastwards, that some of their men would be following the river, and he guessed that he and his companion were being driven into an ambush. So be it. He was trapped, outnumbered, but not beaten.
He could not be beaten. He had never been beaten, and now, above all other times, he had to regain the safety of the French army. He had come so near to success, and when he completed the job then he would hurt the British as they had rarely been hurt in this war. He felt the surge of pleasure at the thought. By God, he would hurt them! He had been sent to Spain to discover the identity of El Mirador, and he had succeeded this afternoon, and now all that remained was to take El Mirador back to some torture chamber and squeeze from the British spy the names of all the correspondents in Spain, Italy, and France who sent their messages to El Mirador in Salamanca. El Mirador collected information from throughout Napoleon’s empire, and though the French had long known the code-name, they had never discovered his identity. Leroux had, and so he had to escape this trap, he had to take his captive back to France, and there he would destroy the net of British spies who all worked for El Mirador. But first he must escape this trap.
He let his horse walk into the cool greenness of the wood. “Come on, Delmas! We’re not finished yet!”
He found what he wanted just a few yards into the wood. A fallen beech tree, its trunk rotten, lay in front of a tangle of brambles and wind-driven leaves from last year’s autumn. Leroux dismounted. “Time to work, Delmas!” His voice was optimistic and cheerful.
Delmas did not understand what they were doing, was frightened to ask, but he followed Leroux’s example and stripped off his jacket. He helped the Colonel clear a space behind the log, a hiding place, and Delmas wondered how long they would have to crouch in thorny discomfort until the Germans gave up the hunt. He smiled diffidently at Leroux. “Where do we hide the horses?”
“In a minute.” Leroux dismissed the question.
The Colonel seemed to be measuring the hiding place. He drew his sword and poked at the brambles. Delmas watched the sword. It was a weapon of exquisite craftsmanship, a straight-bladed, heavy cavalry sword made by Kligenthal as were most of the French cavalry blades, but this sword had been made specially for Leroux by the finest craftsman at Kligenthal. It was longer than most swords, heavier too, for Leroux was a tall, strong man. The blade was beautiful, a sheen of steel in the dappled green light of the wood, and the hilt and guard were made of the same steel. The handle was bound by silver wire, the sword’s sole concession to decoration, but despite its plainness, the weapon proclaimed itself as a beautiful, exquisitely balanced killing blade. To hold that sword, Delmas thought, must be to know what King Arthur felt when he slid Excalibur, smooth as grey silk, from the churchyard stone.
Leroux straightened up, seemingly content. “Anything behind us, Delmas?”
The Dragoon Captain turned. Nothing disturbed the peace of the beeches and oaks. “No, sir.”
“Keep watching. They’re not far behind.”
Leroux guessed he had ten minutes which was more than enough. He smiled at Delmas’s back, measured the distance, and lunged.
He wanted this kill to be quick, painless, and with a minimum of blood. He did not want Delmas to cry out and startle anyone who might be further into the trees. The blade, as sharp as the day it had left its maker, pierced the base of Delmas’s head. Leroux’s strength, an enormous strength, drove it through bone, through the spinal cord, and into the brain. There was a soft sigh and Delmas crumpled forward.
Leroux guessed he would be captured, and he knew too that the British would not let Colonel Leroux be exchanged for a British Colonel captured by the French. Leroux was a wanted man and he had seen to that himself. He worked by fear, he spread horror about his name, and all his victims, once dead, were inscribed with his name. He would leave a patch of skin untouched and on the patch he would incise two words. Leroux fecit. Just as if he were a sculptor boasting a fine piece of work, he would leave his mark. “Leroux made this.” If Leroux was captured he could expect no mercy. Yet the British would not give a fig for Captain Paul Delmas.
He changed uniforms with the corpse, working with his usual speed and efficiency, and when he was done he pushed his uniform, together with Delmas’s corpse, into the hiding place. He covered them swiftly with leaves and brambles, leaving the body to be eaten by beasts. He drove Delmas’s horse away, not caring where it went, and then he mounted his own horse, placed Delmas’s tall, brass helmet on his head, and turned north towards the river where he expected to be captured. He whistled as he walked the horse, making no attempt to hide his presence, and at his side hung the perfect sword, and in his head was the secret that could blind the British. Leroux could not be beaten.
Colonel Leroux was captured twenty minutes later. British Greenjackets, Riflemen, rose suddenly from cover inside the wood and surrounded him. For a moment Leroux thought he had made a terrible mistake. The British, he knew, were officered by gentlemen, men who took honour seriously, but the officer who captured him seemed as hard and ruthless as himself. The officer was tall, tanned, with dark hair hanging unruly beside a scarred face. He ignored Leroux’s attempt to be pleasant, ordering the Frenchman to be searched, and Leroux had a moment of alarm when a huge Sergeant, even bigger than the officer, found the folded piece of paper between saddle and saddlecloth. Leroux pretended to speak no English, but a Rifleman was brought who spoke bad French, and the officer questioned the Frenchman about the paper. It was a list of names, all Spanish, and beside each name was a sum of money.
“Horse-dealers.” Leroux shrugged. “We buy horses. We’re cavalry.”
The tall Rifle Officer heard the translation and looked at the paper. It could be true. He shrugged and pushed the paper into his pack. He took Leroux’s sword from the big sergeant and the Frenchman could see the sudden lust in the Rifle Officer’s eyes. Curiously for an infantryman, the Rifleman also wore a heavy cavalry sword, but where Leroux’s was expensive and beautiful, the Rifle Officer’s sword was cheap and crude. The British officer held the sword and felt the perfect balance. He wanted it. “Ask what his name is.”
The question was asked and answered. “Paul Delmas, sir. Captain in the Fifth Dragoons.”
Leroux saw the dark eyes rest on him. The scar on the Rifleman’s face gave him a mocking look. Leroux could recognise the man’s competence and hardness, he recognised too the temptation that the Rifleman had to kill him at this moment and take the sword for himself. Leroux looked about the clearing. The other Riflemen seemed just as pitiless, just as tough. Leroux spoke again.
“He wants to give his parole, sir.” The Rifleman translated.
The Rifle Officer said nothing for a moment. He walked slowly about the prisoner, the beautiful sword still in his hand, and when he spoke he did so slowly and clearly. “So what’s Captain Delmas doing on his own? French officers don’t travel alone, they’re too frightened of the Partisans.” He had come in front of Leroux again, and the Frenchman’s pale eyes watched the scarred officer. “And you’re too bloody cocky, Delmas. You should be more scared. You’re up to no bloody good.” He was behind Leroux now. “I think I’ll bloody kill you.”
Leroux did not react. He did not blink, did not move, but just waited until the Rifle Officer was in front of him again.
The tall Rifle Officer stared at the pale eyes as if they would give him a clue to the riddle of the officer’s sudden appearance. “Bring him along, Sergeant. But watch the bastard.”
“Yes, sir!” Sergeant Patrick Harper pushed the Frenchman towards the path and followed Captain Richard Sharpe out of the wood.
Leroux relaxed. The moment of capture was always the moment of greatest danger, but the tall Rifleman was taking him to safety, and with him went the secret Napoleon wanted. El Mirador.
“God damn it, Sharpe! Hurry, man!”
“Yes, sir.” Sharpe made no attempt to hurry. He painstakingly read the piece of paper, knowing that his slowness irritated Lieutenant Colonel Windham. The Colonel slapped a booted leg with his riding crop.
“We haven’t got all day, Sharpe! There’s a war to win.”
“Yes, sir.” Sharpe repeated the words in a patient, stubborn tone. He would not hurry. This was his revenge on Windham for allowing Captain Delmas to have parole. He tipped the paper so that the firelight illuminated the black ink.
“I, the undersigned, Paul Delmas, Captain in the Fifth Regiment of Dragoons, taken prisoner by the English Forces on 14th june, 1812, undertake upon my Honour not to seek to Escape nor to Remove myself from Captivity without Permission, and not pass any Knowledge to the French Forces or their Allies, until I have been Exchanged, Rank for Rank, or Otherwise Released from this Bond. Signed, Paul Delmas. Witnessed by me, Joseph Forrest, Major in His Britannic Majesty’s South Essex Regiment.”
Colonel Windham rapped with his crop again, the noise loud in the predawn chill. “Dammit, Sharpe!”
“Seems to be in order, Sir.”
“Order! Blood and hounds, Sharpe! Who are you to say What’s in order! Good God! I say it’s in order! I do! Remember me, Sharpe? Your commanding officer?”
Sharpe grinned. “Yes, sir.” He handed the parole up to Windham who took it with elaborate courtesy.
“Thank you, Mr. Sharpe. We have your gracious permission to get bloody moving?”
“Carry on, sir.” Sharpe grinned again. He had come to like Windham in the six months that the Colonel had commanded the South Essex, a regard that was also held by the Colonel for his wayward and brilliant Captain of the Light Company. Now, though, Windham still seethed with impatience.
“His sword, Sharpe! For God’s sake, man! Hurry!”
“Yes, sir.” Sharpe turned to one of the houses in the village where the South Essex had bivouacked. The dawn was a grey line in the east. “Sergeant!”
“The bloody frog’s sword!”
“Sharpe!” Colonel Windham’s protest sounded resigned.
Patrick Harper turned and bellowed into one of the houses. “Mr. McDonald, sir! The French gentleman’s sword, sir, if you’d get a move on, sir!”
McDonald, Sharpe’s new Ensign, just sixteen years old and desperately eager to please his famous Captain, hurried from the house with the beautiful, scabbarded blade. He tripped in his haste, was held by Harper, and then he came to Sharpe and gave him the sword.
God, but he wanted it! He had handled the weapon during . the night, feeling its balance, knowing the power of the plain, shining steel, and Sharpe had felt the lust to own this sword. This was a thing of lethal beauty, made by a master, worthy of a great fighter.
“Monsieur?” Delmas’s voice was mild, polite.
Beyond Delmas Sharpe could see Lossow, the Captain of the German Cavalry and Sharpe’s friend, who had driven Delmas into the prepared trap. Lossow had held the sword too, and shaken his head in mute wonder at the weapon. Now he watched as Sharpe handed the weapon to the
Frenchman, a symbol that he had given his parole and could be trusted with his personal weapon.
Windham gave an exaggerated sigh. “Now, perhaps, we can start?”
The Light Company marched first behind Lossow’s cavalry screen, striking up onto the plains before the day’s heat rose in the sky to blind them with sweat and choke them with warm, gritty dust. Sharpe went on foot, unlike most officers, because he had always gone on foot. He had entered the army as a private, wearing the red jacket of the line Regiments and marching with a heavy musket on his shoulder. Later, much later, he had made the impossible jump from Sergeant to officer, joining the elite Rifles with their distinctive green jacket, but Sharpe still marched on foot. He was an infantryman and he marched as his men marched, and he carried a rifle as they carried their rifles or muskets. The South Essex were a redcoat Battalion, but Sharpe, Sergeant Harper, and the nucleus of the Light Company were all Riflemen, accidentally attached to the Battalion, and they proudly retained their dark green jackets.
Light flooded grey on the plain, the sun hinting with a pale red strip in the east of the heat to come, and Sharpe could see the dark shapes of the cavalry outlined on the dawn. The British were marching east, invading French-held Spain, aiming at the great city of Salamanca. Most of the army was far to the south, marching on a dozen roads, while the South Essex with Lossow’s men and a handful of Engineers had been sent north to destroy a small French fort that guarded a ford across the Tormes. The job had been done, the fort abandoned by the enemy, and now the South Essex marched to rejoin Wellington’s troops. It would take two days before they were back with the army and Sharpe knew they would be days of relentless heat as they crossed the dry plain.
Captain Lossow dropped behind his cavalry to be beside Sharpe. He nodded down at the Rifleman. “I don’t trust your Frenchman, Richard.”
“Nor do I.”
Lossow was not discouraged by Sharpe’s curt tone. He was used to Sharpe’s morning surliness. “It’s strange, I think, for a Dragoon to have a straight sword. He should have a sabre, yes?”
“True.” Sharpe made an effort to sound more sociable. “We should have killed the bastard in the wood.”
“That’s true. It’s the only thing to do with Frenchmen. Kill them.” Lossow laughed. Like most of the Germans in Britain’s army, he came from a homeland that had been overrun by Napoleon’s troops. “I wonder what happened to the second man.”
“You lost him.”
Lossow grinned at the insult. “Never. He hid himself. I hope the Partisans get him.” The German drew a finger across his throat to hint at the way the Spanish Guerilleros treated their French captives. Then he smiled down at Sharpe. “You wanted his sword, ja?”
Sharpe shrugged, then spoke the truth. „Ja.“
“You’ll get it, my friend! You’ll get it!” Lossow laughed and trotted ahead, back to his men. He truly did believe that Sharpe would get the sword, though whether the sword would make Sharpe happy was another matter. Lossow knew Sharpe. He knew the restless spirit that drove the Rifleman through this war, a spirit that drove Sharpe from achievement to achievement. Once Sharpe had wanted to capture a French standard, an Eagle, something never done before by a Briton, and he had done it at Talavera. Later he had defied the Partisans, the French, even his own side, in taking the gold across Spain, and in doing it he had met and wanted Teresa. He had won her too, marrying her just two months ago, after he had been the first man across the death-filled breach at Badajoz. Sharpe, Lossow suspected, often got what he wanted, but the achievements never seemed to satisfy. His friend, the German decided, was like a man who, searching for a crock of gold, found ten and rejected them all because the pots were the wrong shape. He laughed at the thought.
They marched two days, bivouacking early and marching before dawn and, on the morning of the third day, the dawn revealed a smear of fine dust in the sky, a great plume that showed where Wellington’s main force covered the roads leading towards Salamanca. Captain Paul Delmas, conspicuous in his strange rust-red pantaloons and with the tall, brass helmet on his head, spurred past Sharpe to stare at the dust cloud as if he hoped to see beneath it the masses of infantry, cavalry and artillery that marched to challenge the greater forces of France. Colonel Windham followed the Frenchman, but reined in beside Sharpe. “A damn fine horseman, Sharpe!”
Windham pushed back his bicorne hat and scratched at his greying scalp. “He seems a decent enough fellow, Sharpe.”
“You talked to him, sir?”
“Good God, no! I don’t speak Froggy. Snap! Come here! Snap!” Windham was shouting at one of his foxhounds, perpetual companions to the Colonel. Most of the pack had been left in Portugal, in summer quarters, but half a dozen outrageously spoiled dogs came with the Colonel. “No, Leroy chatted to him.” Windham managed to convey that the American Major was bound to speak French, being a foreigner himself. Americans were strange, anyone was strange to Windham who did not have true English blood. “He hunts, you know.”
“Major Leroy, sir?”
“No, Sharpe. Delmas. Mind you, they hunt bloody queer in France. Packs of bloody poodles. I suppose they’re trying to copy us and just can’t get it right.”
Windham glanced at Sharpe to see if his leg was being pulled, but the Rifleman’s face was neutral. The Colonel courteously touched his hat. “Won’t keep you, Sharpe.” He turned to the Light Company. “Well done, you scoundrels! Hard marching, eh? Soon over!”
It was over at mid-day when the Battalion reached the hills directly across the river from Salamanca. A messenger had come from the army, ordering the South Essex to that spot while the rest of the army marched further east to the fords that would take them to the north bank. The French had left a garrison in the city that overlooked the long Roman bridge and the job of the South Essex was to make sure that none of the garrison tried to escape across the river. It promised to be an easy, restful afternoon. The garrison planned to stay; the guard on the bridge was nothing more than a formal gesture.
Sharpe had been to Salamanca four years before with Sir John Moore’s ill fated army. He had seen the city then in winter, under a cold sleet and an uncertain future, but he had never forgotten it. He stood now on the hill crest two hundred yards from the southern end of the Roman bridge and stared at the city over the water. The rest of the Battalion were behind him, out of sight of the French guns in the forts, and only the Light Company and Windham were with him. The Colonel had come to see the city.
It was a place of honey-coloured stone, a riot of belfries and towers, churches and palaces, all dwarfed by the two Cathedrals on the highest hill. The New Cathedral, three centuries old with its two domed towers, was huge and serene in the sunlight. This city was not a place of trade, like London, nor a granite-faced fortress, like Badajoz, but a place of learning, of prayer, of grace, of beauty that had little purpose but to please. It was a city of gold above a river of silver, and Sharpe was happy to be back.
The city had been spoiled, though. The French had razed the south western corner of Salamanca and left just three buildings. The three had been changed into fortresses, given ditches and walls, loopholes and embrasures, and the old houses and churches, colleges and monasteries had been ruthlessly pulled down to give the three forts a wide field of fire. Two of them overlooked the bridge, denying its use to the British, the third was closer to the city centre. All three, Sharpe knew, would have to be taken before the British left the city and pursued the French army that had withdrawn to the north.
He looked down from the forts to the river. It flowed slowly under the bridge between green trees. Marsh harriers, their wing tips flicked up, glided between green islands. Sharpe looked again at the magnificence of the golden-stoned Cathedral and looked forward to entering the city. He did not know when that would be. Once the far end of the bridge was secured by the Sixth Division, the South Essex would march two miles east to the nearest ford and then go north to join the rest of the army. Few men of Wellington’s forces would see Salamanca until Marmont’s army was defeated, but it was enough for Sharpe, at this moment, to stare at the intricate, serene beauty across the river and to hope that soon, very soon, he would have a chance to explore the streets once more.
Colonel Windham’s mouth twitched into a half smile. “Extraordinary!”
Windham gestured with his riding crop at the Cathedral, then at the river. “Cathedral, Sharpe. River. Just like Gloucester.”
“I thought Gloucester was flat, sir.”
Windham sniffed at the comment. “River and cathedral. Much the same, really.”
“It’s a beautiful city, sir.”
“Gloucester? Of course it is! It’s English. Clean streets. Not like that damned place.” Windham probably never ventured out of the main street of any English town to explore the rubbish clogged alleyways and rookeries. The Colonel was a countryman, with the virtues of the country, and a deep suspicion of all things foreign. He was no fool, though Sharpe suspected that Lieutenant Colonel Windham sometimes liked to play the fool to avoid that most hurtful of all English insults; being too clever by half. Windham now twisted in his saddle and looked back at the resting Battalion. “Here comes that Frenchman.”
Delmas saluted Windham. Major Leroy had come with him and translated for the Colonel’s benefit. “Captain Delmas asks when he can be sent on to Headquarters, sir.”
“In a damned hurry, ain’t he?” Windham’s tanned leathery face scowled, then he shrugged. “Suppose he wants to get exchanged before the damn frogs run all the way to Paris.”
Delmas was leaning far down from his saddle to let one of the Colonel’s dogs lick his fingers. Leroy spoke with him while Windham fidgeted. The Major turned back to the Colonel. “He’d be grateful for an early exchange, sir. He says his mother is ill and he’s keen to get news of her.”
Sharpe made a sympathetic noise and Windham barked at Sharpe to be quiet. The Colonel watched the Frenchman fussing his dogs with approval. “I don’t mind, Leroy. Damned if I know who’s going to escort him to Headquarters. Do you fancy a hack?”
The Major shook his head. “No, sir.”
Windham screwed himself around again and peered at the Battalion. “I suppose we can ask Butler. He’s usually willing.” He caught sight of Ensign McDonald, much closer. “Does your young man ride, Sharpe?”
“Yes, sir. No horse, though.”
“You have bloody strange ideas, Sharpe.” Windham half disapproved of Sharpe’s belief that an infantry officer should walk like his men. It made sense for some officers to be mounted. They could see further in battle, and be seen by their men, but a Light Company fought on foot in the skirmish line and a man on horseback was a plain target. Sharpe’s officers wore their boots out. McDonald had heard the exchange between Sharpe and Windham and he came close and looked eager. Major Leroy swung himself off his own horse.