Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Tags: #Historical Fiction
“He’s not coming,” Harper said. “It’s very simple, sir. We’re not going south. We’ll go north
to the coast. We talked about it, so we did, and that’s where we’re going. You can come or stay.
It’s all the same to us.”
Sharpe stood very still, disguising the fear that pricked his skin cold and churned in his
hungry belly. If he went north then he tacitly agreed with this mutiny, he accepted it, and with
that acceptance he lost every shred of his authority. Yet if he insisted on going south he was
inviting his own murder. “We’re going south.”
“You don’t understand, sir.”
“Oh, I do. I understand very well. You’ve decided to go north, but you’re scared to death that
I might go south on my own and reach the Lisbon garrison. Then I report you for disobedience and
mutiny. They’ll stand you by your own grave, Harper, and shoot you.”
“You’ll never make it to the south, sir.”
“What you mean, Harper, is that you’ve been sent here to make sure I don’t survive. A dead
officer can’t betray a mutiny, isn’t that right?”
Sharpe could see from the Irishman’s expression that his words had been accurate. Harper
shifted uneasily. He was a huge man, four inches taller than Sharpe’s six feet, and with a broad
body that betrayed a massive strength. Doubtless the other Riflemen were content to let Harper do
their dirty work, and perhaps only he had the guts to do it. Or perhaps his nation’s hatred of
the English would make this murder into a pleasure.
“Well?” Sharpe insisted. “Am I right?”
Harper licked his lips, then put his hand to the braids hilt of his bayonet. “You can come
with us, sir.”
Sharpe let the silence drag out, then, as though surrendering to the inevitable, he nodded
wearily. “I don’t seem to have much choice, do I?”
“No, sir.” Harper’s voice betrayed relief that he would not have to kill the
“Bring those things.” Sharpe nodded at his haversack and weapons.
Harper, somewhat astonished to receive the peremptory order, nevertheless bent over to pick up
the haversack. He was still bending when he saw he had been tricked. Harper began to twist away
but, before he could protect himself, Sharpe had kicked him in the belly. It was a massive kick,
thumping deep into the hard flesh, and Sharpe followed it with a two-handed blow that slammed
down onto the back of Harper’s neck.
Sharpe was amazed that the Irishman could even stand. Another man would have been winded and
stunned, but not him. He shook his head like a cornered boar, staggered backwards, then succeeded
in straightening himself to receive Sharpe’s next blows. The officer’s right fist slammed into
the big man’s belly, then his left followed.
It was like hitting teak, but the blows hurt Harper. Not enough. The Irishman grunted, then
lurched forward. Sharpe ducked, hit again, then his head seemed to explode like a cannon firing
as a huge fist slammed into the side of his skull. He butted his head forward and felt it smash
on the other man’s face, then his arms and chest were being hugged in a great, rib-cracking
Sharpe raised his right foot and raked his heel down Harper’s shin. It must have hurt, but the
grip did not lessen and Sharpe had no weapon left but his teeth. He bit the Irishman’s cheek,
clamping his teeth down, tasting the blood, and the pain was enough to force Harper to release
his huge embrace to hit at the officer’s head.
Sharpe was faster. He had grown up in a rookery where he had learned every trick of cheating
and brutality. He punched Harper’s throat, then slammed a boot into his groin. Any other man
would have been blubbing by now, shrivelling away from the pain, but Harper just seemed to
shudder, then bored in again with his overwhelming strength.
“Bastard.” Sharpe hissed the word, ducked, feinted, then threw himself backwards so that he
bounced off the blackened stone wall and used the momentum of his recoil to drive his bunched
fists into the other man’s belly. Harper’s head came forward, and Sharpe butted again; then,
through the whirl of lights that seared across his vision, he brought his fists backwards and
forwards across the Irishman’s face.
Harper would not back down. He punched back, and drew blood from Sharpe’s nose and lips, then
drove him reeling backwards. Sharpe slipped on snow, tripped on the floor’s rubble, and fell. He
saw the massive boot coming, and twisted clear. He came up from the floor, snarling through
blood, and grabbed Harper’s crossbelt. The Irishman was himself off balance now and Sharpe turned
him, swung him, then let go. Harper spun away, staggered, and fell against the wall. A stone
gouged blood down his left cheek.
Sharpe was hurting. His ribs were tender, his head spinning, and his face bloody. He saw the
other greenjackets edging closer to where the two men fought. Their faces showed disbelief, and
Sharpe knew that not one of them would intervene to help Harper. The big Irishman had been
delegated to do this job, and would be left alone to finish it.
Harper spat, stared at Sharpe through a mask of blood, then heaved himself to his feet. He
found his bayonet and drew it.
“Use that, you Irish bastard, and I’ll kill you.”
Harper said nothing, and there was something very terrifying in his silence.
“Bastard,” Sharpe said again. He glanced towards his new sword, but the Irishman had edged
round to bar that salvation.
Harper stepped forward, coming slowly, the sword-bayonet held like a fighter’s knife. He
lunged with it once, sending Sharpe to one side, then lunged again, quick and hard, hoping to
catch the officer off balance.
Sharpe, expecting the second lunge, avoided it. He saw the flicker of astonishment on the big
man’s face. Harper was good, he was younger than Sharpe, but he had not fought a man with
Sharpe’s quickness. Nor had he been hurt so much in a long time, and the flicker of surprise
turned to pain as Sharpe’s fists slapped at his eyes. Harper slashed with the bayonet, using it
now to drive his attacker away, and Sharpe let the blade come at him. He felt it slice at his
forearm, he ignored it, and rammed the heel of his hand forward to break the Irishman’s nose. He
clawed at Harper’s eyes, trying to hook them out of his skull. The Irishman wrenched away and
Sharpe pushed him off balance again. Fire seared at his arm, the fire of warm blood drawn by
steel, but the pain went as Harper fell.
Sharpe followed fast. He kicked once, twice, crunching his boot into the big man’s ribs, then
he seized the bayonet, cutting his fingers, and stamped his heel onto Harper’s wrist. The weapon
came away. Sharpe reversed it. He was panting now, his breath misting in the frigid air. Blood
dripped from his hand to run down the blade. There was more blood on the snow which had drifted
through the hovel’s broken roof and gaping doors.
The Irishman saw his death above him. He rolled, then jerked back towards Sharpe with a stone
in his hand. He lunged with the stone, smashing it onto the point of the descending blade and the
shock of it numbed Sharpe’s arm. He had never fought such power, never. He tried to drive the
weapon down again, but Harper had heaved up and Sharpe cried aloud as the rock thumped into his
belly. He fell onto the wall behind, his hand still numb where it held the bayonet.
He saw that Harper’s face had changed. Until that moment the big Irishman had seemed as
dispassionate as a butcher, but now there was a berserker look on his face. It was the face of a
man goaded into battle-fury, and Sharpe understood that till now Harper had been reluctantly
doing a necessary job that had suddenly become a passion. The Irishman spoke for the first time
since the fight had begun, but in Gaelic, a language Sharpe had never understood. He only
understood that the words were an insult that would be the threnody of his death as Harper used
the stone to crush his skull.
“Come on, you bastard.” Sharpe was trying to massage life back into his numbed arm. “You Irish
scum. You bog-Paddy bloody bastard. Come on!”
Harper peeled bloody lips back from bloody teeth. He screamed a challenge, charged, and Sharpe
used the chasseur’s trick. He switched the blade from his right to his left hand and screamed his
own challenge. He lunged.
Then the world exploded.
A noise like the thunder of doom crashed in Sharpe’s ear, and a flash of flame seared close to
his face with a sudden warmth. He flinched, then heard the whipcrack of a bullet ricocheting from
the hovel’s wall.
Sharpe thought one of the other Riflemen had at last summoned up the courage to help Harper.
Desperate as a cornered animal, he twisted snarling from the foul smell of the gunpowder smoke,
then saw that the Irishman was as astonished as himself. The stone still grasped in his massive
fist, Harper was staring at a newcomer who stood in the east-facing door.
“I thought you were here to fight the French?” The voice was amused, mocking, superior. “Or do
the British have nothing better to do than squabble like rats?”
The speaker was a cavalry officer in the scarlet uniform of the Spanish Cazadores, or rather
the remnants of such a uniform for it was so torn and shabby that it might have been a beggar’s
rags. The gold braid which edged the man’s yellow collar was tarnished and the chain-slings of
his sword were rusted. The black boots that reached midway up his thighs were ripped. A sacking
cloak hung from his shoulders. His men, who had made the tracks in the snow and who now formed a
rough cordon to the east of the farmhouse, were in a similar condition, but Sharpe noted, with a
soldier’s eye, that all these Spanish cavalrymen had retained their swords and carbines. The
officer held a short-barrelled and smoking pistol that he lowered to his side.
“Who the devil are you?” Still holding the bayonet, Sharpe was ready to lunge. He was indeed
like a cornered rat; bloody, salivating, and vicious.
“My name is Major Bias Vivar.” Vivar was a man of middle height with a tough face. He looked,
as did his men, as though he had been through hell in the last days, yet he was not so exhausted
that his voice did not betray derision for what he had just witnessed. “Who are you?”
Sharpe had to spit blood before he could answer. “Lieutenant Richard Sharpe of the 95th. The
Rifles,” he added.
“And him?” Vivar looked at Harper.
“He’s under arrest,” Sharpe said. He threw down the sword-bayonet and pushed Harper in the
chest. “Out! Out!” He pushed him through the hovel’s door, out to where the other greenjackets
waited in the snow. “Sergeant Williams!”
“Sir?” Williams stared with awe at their bloodied faces. “Sir?”
“Rifleman Harper is under close arrest.” Sharpe shoved Harper a last time, tumbling him into
the snow, then turned back to the Spaniard’s mocking gaze.
“You seem to be in trouble, Lieutenant?” Vivar’s derision was made worse by the amusement in
The shame of the situation galled Sharpe, just as the Spaniard’s tone stung him. “It’s none of
“Sir,” Major Vivar chided him.
“None of your bloody business, sir.”
Vivar shrugged. “This is Spain, Lieutenant. What happens here is more my business than yours,
I think?” His English was excellent, and spoken with a cold courtesy that made Sharpe feel
But the Englishman could not help his mulishness. “All we want to do,” Sharpe smeared blood
from his mouth onto his dark green sleeve, “is get out of your damned country.”
There was a hint of renewed anger in the Spaniard’s eyes. “I think I shall be glad to see you
gone, Lieutenant. So perhaps I’d better help you leave?”
Sharpe, for better or worse, had found an ally.
efeat,” Bias Vivar said, “destroys discipline. You
teach an army to march, to fight, to obey orders.” Each virtue was stressed by a downward slash
of the razor which spattered soapy water onto the kitchen floor. “But,” he shrugged, “defeat
Sharpe knew that the Spaniard was trying to find excuses for the disgraceful exhibition at the
ruined farmstead. That was kind of him, but Sharpe was in no mood for kindness and he could find
nothing to say in reply.
“And that farmhouse is unlucky.” Vivar turned back to the mirror fragment which he had propped
on the window-ledge. “It always has been. In my grandfather’s time there was a murder there. Over
a woman, naturally. And in my father’s time there was a suicide.” He made the sign of the cross
with the razor, then carefully shaved the angle of his jaw. “It’s haunted, Lieutenant. At night
you can see ghosts there. It is a bad place. You are lucky I found you. You want to use this
“I have my own.”
Vivar dried his blade and stowed it, with the mirror, in its leather case. Then he watched
pensively as Sharpe spooned up the beans and pigs’ ears that the village priest had provided as
supper. “Do you think,” Vivar asked softly, “that, after your skirmish, the Dragoons followed
“I didn’t see.”
“Let us hope they did.” Vivar ladled some of the mixture onto his own plate. “Perhaps they
think I’ve joined the British retreat, yes?”
“Perhaps.” Sharpe wondered why Vivar was so interested in the French Dragoons who had been led
by a red-coated chasseur and a black-coated civilian. He had eagerly questioned Sharpe about
every detail of the fight by the bridge, but what most interested the Spaniard was which
direction the enemy horsemen had taken after the fight, to which enquiry Sharpe could only offer
his supposition that the Dragoons had ridden in pursuit of Sir John Moore’s army.
“If you’re right, Lieutenant,” Vivar raised a mug of wine in an ironic toast, “then that is
the best news I’ve had in two weeks.”
“Why were they pursuing you?”
“They weren’t pursuing me,” Vivar said. “They’re pursuing anyone in uniform, anyone. They just
happened to catch my scent a few days ago. I want to be sure they’re not waiting in the next
valley.” Vivar explained to Sharpe that he had been travelling westwards but, forced into the
highlands, he had lost all his horses and a good number of his men. He had been driven down to
this small village by his desperate need for food and shelter.