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Authors: Bernard Cornwell

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Vivar nodded. “Tomas does not believe the legend, but he does understand its power. As does
the Emperor Napoleon. If the people of Spain were to learn that the banner of Santiago was just
another trophy in Paris, they might despair. Tomas understands that, just as he understands that
if the banner can be unfurled in Santiago, then the people of Spain, the good people of Spain,
will believe in victory. It will not matter, Lieutenant, if a thousand-thousand Frenchmen ride
our roads because, if Santiago is with us, no French Emperor can defeat us.”

Sharpe stepped away from the altar. “So the banner must reach Santiago de
Compostela?”

“Yes.”

“Which is held by the French?”

“Indeed.”

Sharpe hesitated, then plunged. “So you want my help to make a raid on the city?” Even as he
spoke it sounded like madness, but the atmosphere in the chapel entirely freed his voice of any
scepticism. He stared at the strongbox as he continued. “We have to go through their defences,
penetrate the cathedral, and hold it long enough for your ceremony? Is that it?”

“No. We need a victory, Lieutenant. Santiago must be seen to have a victory! This will not be
some dark deed, done in secret and haste. This will be no raid. No, we will take the city from
the French. We’ll capture it, Lieutenant, and we’ll hold it long enough for the people to know
that this new enemy can be humiliated. We’ll win a great victory, Lieutenant, for
Spain!”

Sharpe stared in disbelief. “Good God.”

“With his help, of course.” Vivar smiled. “And, perhaps, because I cannot find any Spanish
infantry, with the help of your Rifles?”

Somehow Sharpe had not thought he was being given a choice. Instead, by the very act of seeing
Vivar’s secret, he had assumed he was entering into the conspiracy. Now, standing in the cold
chapel, he knew he could refuse. What Vivar wanted was madness. A handful of beaten men, British
and Spanish, was supposed to take a city from a conquering enemy, and not just take it but hold
it against the bulk of the French army that would be only a day’s march away.

“Well?” Vivar was impatient.

“Of course he’ll help!” Louisa said with a fervour that showed in the brightness of her
eyes.

The men ignored her, and still Sharpe said nothing.

“I cannot make you help me,” the Major^said softly, “and if you refuse, Lieutenant, I shall
give you supplies and a guide to see you safely to the south. Perhaps the British are still in
Lisbon? If not, you will find a ship somewhere along the coast. Good military practice demands
that you forget this superstitious nonsense and march south, does it not?”

“Yes,” Sharpe replied bleakly.

“But victory is not always won by sense, Lieutenant. Logic and reason can be tumbled by faith
and pride. I have the faith that an ancient miracle will work, and I am driven by pride. I must
avenge my brother’s treachery, or else the name Vivar will stink through the annals of Spain.”
Vivar spoke these words in a commonplace manner, as if avenging fraternal treachery was an
everyday part of any humdrum existence. Now he looked into Sharpe’s eyes and spoke in a very
different tone. “So I beg your help. You are a soldier, and I believe God has provided you as an
instrument for this work.”

Sharpe knew how difficult it was for Vivar to make the appeal, for he was a proud man, not
used to being a supplicant. Father Alzaga protested with an incoherent and throaty growl as
Sharpe still hesitated. Nearly half a minute passed before the Englishman at last spoke. “There
is a price for my help, Major.”

Vivar bridled immediately. “A price?”

Sharpe told him and, by telling Vivar, he accepted the madness. For the sake of his Riflemen,
he would rouse a saint from an eternity’s sleep. He would go to the city of the field of stars
and take it from the enemy. But only for a price.

The next day, after the morning parade, Sharpe left the fortress and walked to a place from
where he could see for miles across the winter landscape. The far hills were stark and pale,
sharp as steel against the sky’s whiteness. The wind was cold; a wind to sap the strength of men
and horses. If Vivar did not move soon, he thought, then the Spaniard’s horses would be unable to
march. „

Sharpe sat alone at the track’s edge where the hillside fell steeply away. He gathered a
handful of pebbles, each about the size of a musket ball, and shied them at a white boulder some
twenty paces down the hill. He told himself that if he hit it five times running then it would be
safe to march on the cathedral city. The first four pebbles struck clean, bouncing off into the
weeds and scree of the slope. He was almost tempted to throw the fifth askew, but instead the
pebble bounced plumb from the boulder’s centre. God damn it, but he was mad! Last night, overcome
with the solemnity of the occasion, he had allowed himself to be swept away by Vivar’s skilled
telling of an ancient myth. The banner of a saint dead two thousand years! He threw another
pebble and watched it skim over the boulder to fall into a patch of ragweed which, in Spain, was
called St James’s grass.

He stared into the far distance where a frost still lay in those folds of the hills which the
sun had not yet touched. A wind fretted at the high tower and thick bulwarks of the fort behind
him. The wind felt immeasurably clean and cold, like a dose of commonsense after the wit-fuddling
darkness and candle-stench of the night before. It was madness, God-damned madness! Sharpe had
let himself be talked into it, and he knew he had also been influenced by Louisa’s enthusiasm for
the whole idiotic business. He threw a whole handful of the pebbles which, like canister
splitting apart from a cannon’s muzzle, spattered about the white boulder.

Footsteps sounded behind Sharpe, stopping a few paces away. There was a pause, then a surly
voice. “You wanted me, sir?”

Sharpe stood. He pulled his sword straight, then turned to stare into Harper’s resentful
eyes.

Harper hesitated, then took off his hat in the formal salute. “Sir.”

“Harper.”

Another pause. Harper glanced away from the officer, then looked back. “It isn’t fair, sir.
Not at all, sir.”

“Don’t be so bloody pathetic. Who ever expected fairness in a soldier’s life?”

Harper stiffened at Sharpe’s tone, but would not flinch from it. “Sergeant Williams was a fair
man. So was Captain Murray.”

“And they’re dead men. We don’t stay alive by being agreeable, Harper. We stay alive by being
quicker and nastier than the enemy. You’ve got the stripes?”

Harper hesitated again, then nodded reluctantly. He fished in his ammunition pouch and brought
out a set of Sergeant’s chevrons that had been newly stitched in white silk. He showed them to
Sharpe, then shook his head. “I still say it ain’t fair, sir.” This had been Sharpe’s price: that
Vivar would persuade the Irishman of his duty. If Harper would accept a Sergeantcy, then Sharpe
would march on Santiago de Compostela. The Major had been amused by the price, but had agreed to
exact it.

“I’m not accepting the stripes to please you, sir.” Harper was deliberately provocative, as
though he hoped to change Sharpe’s mind by a display of insolence. “I’m just doing it for the
Major. He told me about his flag, sir, and I’ll take it into the cathedral for him, then throw
these stripes back at you.”

“You’re a Sergeant at my pleasure, Harper. For as long as I need you and want you. That’s my
price, and that’s what you accept.”

There was silence. The wind fretted at the hill’s crest and fluttered the silk stripes in
Harper’s hand. Sharpe wondered where such a rich and lustrous material had been found in this
remote fortress, then forgot the speculation as he realized that once again he had taken the
wrong course. He had let his hostility show when instead he should have demonstrated his need of
this big man’s co-operation. Just as Bias Vivar had humbled himself to ask for Sharpe’s help, so
Sharpe now had to show some humility to bring this man to his side.

“I didn’t want the stripes when I was first offered them,” Sharpe said awkwardly.

Harper shrugged as if to show that Sharpe’s odd admission was of no interest to him.

“I didn’t want to become an officer’s guard dog,” Sharpe went on. “My friends were in the
ranks, my enemies were Sergeants and officers.”

That must have touched a sympathetic chord for the

Irishman gave a half-grudging and half-amused grimace.

Sharpe stooped and picked up some pebbles. He flicked one at the white rock and watched it
ricochet down the hill. “When we rejoin Battalion they’ll probably put me back in the stores and
you can go back to the ranks.” Sharpe said it as a sop to the Irishman’s pride, as a half-promise
that Harper would not be forced to keep the white stripes, but he could not keep the resentment
from his voice. “Does that satisfy you?”

“Yes, sir.” Harper’s agreement sounded neither heartfelt nor bitter, merely the
acknowledgement of a wary truce.

“You don’t have to like me,” Sharpe said, “but just remember I was fighting battles when this
Battalion was still being formed. When you were growing up, I was carrying a musket. And I’m
still alive. And I haven’t stayed alive by being fair, but by being good. And if we’re going to
survive this shambles, Harper, we’ve all got to be good.”

“We are good. Major Vivar said so.” Harper spoke defensively.

“We’re half-good,” Sharpe spoke with a sudden intensity, “but we’re going to be the bloody
best. We’re going to be the cocks of the dirtiest dunghill in Europe. We’re going to make the
French shiver to think of us. We’re going to be good!”

Harper’s eyes were unreadable; as cold and hard as the stones of the hillside, but there was a
stirring of interest in his voice now. “And you need me to do it?”

“Yes, I do. Not to be a bloody lapdog. Your job is to fight for the men. Not like Williams,
who wanted you all to like him, but by making them good. That way we all stand a chance of going
home when this war’s over. You want to see Ireland again, don’t you?”

“Aye, I do.”

“Well, you won’t see it again if you fight against your own side as well as the bloody
French.”

Harper blew out a great breath, almost in exasperation. It was plain he had accepted the
stripes, however reluctantly, because Vivar had pressed them on him. Now, with equal reluctance,
he was being half-persuaded by Sharpe. “A good few of us will never see home,” he said guardedly,
“not if we go to this cathedral for the Major.”

“You think we shouldn’t go?” Sharpe asked with genuine curiosity.

Harper considered. He was not weighing what answer he should give, for his mind was already
made up, but rather what tone he should use. He could be surly, thus ensuring that Sharpe knew of
his continuing hostility, or he could match Sharpe’s conciliatory manner. He chose neither, but
rather spoke in a flat and dutiful voice. “I think we should go, sir.”

“To see a saint on a white horse?”

Again the Irishman teetered between his choices. He stared at the stark horizon, then shrugged
as he chose his new course. “It never does to question a miracle, sir. You just take the guts and
belly out of it and you’re left with nothing at all.”

Sharpe heard the acquiescence, and knew his price was being paid. Harper would co-operate, but
Sharpe wanted that co-operation to be willing. He wanted their fragile truce to become more than
an agreement of convenience. “You’re a good Catholic?” he asked, wondering just what sort of a
man his new Sergeant was.

“I’m not so devout as the Major, sir. Not many are, are they?” Harper paused. He was making
his peace with Sharpe, but there would be no formal declaration of hostility’s end, nor any
regrets about the past, but rather a new beginning that must find its halting start on this cold
hillside. Both men were too proud for apology, so apologies must be forgotten. “Religion’s for
the women, so it is,” Harper went on, “but I make my nod to the Church when I must, and I hope
God’s not looking when I don’t want Him to see what I’m doing. But I believe, aye.”

“And you think there’s some usefulness in taking an old flag to a cathedral?”

“Aye, I do,” Harper said flatly, then frowned as he tried to think of an explanation for his
bald faith. “Did you see that wee church in Salamanca where the Virgin’s statue had eyes that
moved? Your priest there said it was a miracle, but you could see the string the fellow jerked to
make the wooden eyeballs twitch!” More relaxed now, he laughed at the memory. “But why go to the
trouble of having a string? I asked myself. Because the people want a miracle, that’s why. And
just because some people invent a miracle doesn’t mean there aren’t real ones, does it now? It
means the opposite, so it does, for why would you imitate something that doesn’t exist? Perhaps
it is the real banner. Perhaps we will see St James himself, in all his glory, riding in the
sky.” Harper frowned for a second. “But we’ll never know if we don’t try, will we?”

“No.” Sharpe’s agreement was half-hearted, for he could put no credence in Vivar’s
superstition. Yet he had wanted Harper’s opinion, for he keenly felt the worry of the night’s
decision on him. By what right could a mere Lieutenant order men into battle? His duty, surely,
was to take these men to safety, not march them against a French-held city. Yet there was an
impulse to adventure which led him there, and Sharpe had wanted to know if Harper would follow
the same impulse. It seemed he would, which meant that the other greenjackets would also. “You
think the men will fight?” Sharpe asked openly.

“One or two of them will make a fuss.” Harper was scornful of the prospect. “Gataker will
squeal, I dare say, but I’ll knock his bloody brains about. Mind you, they’ll want to know what
it is they’re fighting for, sir.” He paused. “Why the hell do they call it a gonfalon? It’s a
bloody flag, so it is.”

Sharpe, who had had to ask Vivar the same question, smiled. “A gonfalon’s different. It’s a
long stringy banner you hang off a cross-staff on a pole. Old-fashioned sort of thing.”

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
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