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Authors: Bernard Cornwell

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BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
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That food had been willingly given. As the soldiers entered the small settlement Sharpe had
noted how glad the villagers were to see Major Bias Vivar. Some of the men had even tried to kiss
the Major’s hand, while the village priest, hurrying from his house, had ordered the women to
heat up their ovens and uncover their winter stores. The soldiers, both Spanish and British, had
been warmly welcomed. “My father,” Vivar now explained to Sharpe, “was a lord in these
mountains.”

“Does that mean you’re a lord?”

“I am the younger son. My brother is the Count now.” Vivar crossed himself at this mention of
his brother, a sign which Sharpe took to denote respect. “I am an hidalgo, of course,” he went
on, “so these people call me Don Bias.”

Sharpe shrugged. ”Hidalgo?“

Vivar politely disguised his surprise at Sharpe’s ignorance. “An hidalgo, Lieutenant, is a man
who can trace his blood back to the old Christians of Spain. Pure blood, you understand, without
a taint of Moor or Jew in it. I am hidalgo”. He said it with a simple pride which made the claim
all the more impressive. “And your father? He is a lord, too?”

“I don’t know who my father is, or was.”

“You don’t know…“ Vivar’s initial reaction was curiosity, then the implication of bastardy
made him drop the subject. It was clear that Sharpe had fallen even lower in the Spaniard’s
opinion. The Major glanced out of the window, judging the day’s dying. ”So what will you do now,
Lieutenant?“

“I’m going south. To Lisbon.”

“To take a ship home?”

Sharpe ignored the hint of scorn which suggested he was running away from the fight. “To take
a ship home,” he confirmed.

“You have a map?”

“No.”

Vivar broke a piece of bread to mop up the gravy. “You will find there are no roads south in
these mountains.”

“None?”

“None passable in winter, and certainly not in this winter. You will have to go east to
Astorga, or west to the sea, before you will find a southern road open.”

“The French are to the east?”

“The French are everywhere.” Vivar leaned back and stared at Sharpe. “I’m going west. Do you
wish to join me?”

Sharpe knew that his chances of surviving in this strange land were slim. He had no map, spoke
no Spanish, and had only the haziest notion of Spanish geography, yet at the same time Sharpe had
no desire to ally himself with this aristocratic Spaniard who had witnessed his disgrace. There
could be no more damning indictment of an officer’s failure of command than to be discovered
brawling with one of his own men, and that sense of shame made him hesitate.

“Or are you tempted to surrender?” Vivar asked-harshly.

“Never.” Sharpe’s answer was equally harsh.

His tone, so unexpectedly firm, made the Spaniard smile. Then Vivar glanced out of the window
again. “We leave in an hour, Lieutenant. Tonight we cross the high road, and that must be done in
darkness.” He looked back at the Englishman. “Do you put yourself under my command?” And Sharpe,
who really had no choices left, agreed.

What was so very galling to Sharpe was that his Riflemen immediately accepted Vivar’s
leadership. That dusk, parading in the trampled snow in front of the tiny church, the
greenjackets listened to the Spaniard’s explanation. It was foolish, Vivar said, to try to go
north, for the enemy was marching to secure the coastal harbours. To attempt to rejoin the
retreating British army was equally foolish, for it meant dogging the French footsteps and the
enemy would simply turn and snap them up as prisoners. Their best course lay south, but first it
would be necessary to march westwards. Sharpe watched the Riflemen’s faces and for a second he
hated them as they nodded their willing comprehension.

So tonight, Vivar said, they must cross the road on which the main French army advanced. He
doubted if the road was garrisoned, but the Riflemen must be ready for a brief fight. He knew
they would fight well. Were they not the vaunted British greencoats? He was proud to fight beside
them. Sharpe saw the Riflemen grin. He also saw how Vivar had the easy manner of a born officer
and for a second Sharpe hated the Spaniard too.

Rifleman Harper was missing from the ranks. The Irishman was under arrest and, by Sharpe’s
orders, his wrists were first bound together then tied by a length of rope to the tail of a mule
which the Major had commandeered from one of the villagers. The mule was carrying a great square
chest that was wrapped in oilcloth and guarded by four of Vivar’s Spaniards who also, by default,
acted as guards over the prisoner.

“He’s an Irishman?” Vivar asked Sharpe.

“Yes.”

“I like the Irish. What will you do with him?”

“I don’t know.” Sharpe would have liked to have shot Harper there and then, but that would
have turned the other Riflemen’s dislike into pure hatred. Besides, to circumvent the army’s
careful disciplinary process and shoot him out of hand would have been to demonstrate a disdain
of authority as great as that which had earned Harper punishment in the first place.

“Wouldn’t we march faster if he was untied?” Vivar asked.

“And encourage him to desert to the French?”

“The discipline of your men is your own affair,” Vivar said delicately, thus intimating that
he thought Sharpe had mishandled the whole business.

Sharpe pretended to ignore his disapproval. He knew the Spaniard despised him, for so far
Vivar had seen nothing but incompetence from Sharpe, and it was an incompetence made worse by
comparison with his own easy authority. Vivar had not just rescued the British soldiers from
their precarious refuge in the old farm, but from their officer as well, and every Rifleman in
the makeshift Company knew it.

Sharpe stood alone as the troops formed into companies for the march. The Spaniards would
lead, then would come the mule with its box-shaped burden, and the Riflemen would bring up the
rear. Sharpe knew he should say something to his men, that he should encourage them or inspect
their equipment, do anything which would assert his authority, but he could not face their
mocking eyes and so he stayed apart from them.

Major Vivar, apparently oblivious to Sharpe’s misery, crossed to the village priest and knelt
in the snow for a benediction. Afterwards he accepted a small object from the priest, but what it
was Sharpe could not tell.

It was a bitter night. The thin snowfall had stopped at dusk and gradually the clouds cleared
in the eastern sky to reveal a brightness of cold stars. A fitful wind whipped the fallen snow
into airy and fantastic shapes that curled and glinted above the path on which the men trudged
like doomed animals. Their faces were wrapped with rags against the pitiless cold and their packs
chafed their shoulders raw, yet Major Vivar seemed imbued with an inexhaustible energy. He roamed
up and down the column, encouraging men in Spanish and English, telling them they were the best
soldiers in the world. His enthusiasm was infectious forcing a grudging admiration from Richard
Sharpe who saw how the scarlet-uniformed cavalrymen almost worshipped their officer.

“They’re Galicians.” Vivar gestured at his Cazadores.

“Local men?” Sharpe asked.

“The best in Spain.” His pride was obvious. “They mock us in Madrid, Lieutenant. They say we
Galicians are country fools, but I’d rather lead one country fool into battle than ten men from
the city.”

“I come from a city.” Sharpe’s voice was surly.

Vivar laughed, but said nothing.

At midnight they crossed the road which led to the sea and saw evidence that the French had
already passed. The road’s muddy surface had been ridged high by the guns, then frozen hard. On
either verge white mounds showed where corpses had been left unburied. No enemy was in sight, no
town or village lights showed in the valley, the soldiers were alone in an immensity of white
cold.

An hour later they came to a river. Small bare oaks grew thick on its banks. Vivar scouted
eastwards until he found a place where the freezing water ran shallow across gravel and between
rocks that offered some kind of footing for the tired men but, before he would allow a single man
to try the crossing, he took a small phial from his pouch. He uncorked it, then sprinkled some
liquid into the river. “Safe now.”

“Safe?” Sharpe was intrigued.

“Holy water, Lieutenant. The priest in the village gave it to me.” Vivar seemed to think the
explanation sufficient, but Sharpe demanded to know more.

”Xanes, of course,“ the Spaniard said, then turned and ordered his Sergeant to lead the
way.

”Xanes?“ Sharpe stumbled over the odd word.

“Water spirits.” Vivar was entirely serious. “They live in every stream, Lieutenant, and can
be mischievous. If we did not scare them away, they might lead us astray.”

“Ghosts?” Sharpe could not hide his astonishment.

“No. A ghost, Lieutenant, is a creature that cannot escape from the earth. A ghost is a soul
in torment, someone who lived and offended the Holy Sacraments. A xana was never human. A xana
is,” he shrugged, “a creature? Like an otter, or a water rat. Just something that lives in the
stream. You must have them in England, surely?”

“Not that I know of.”

Vivar looked appalled, then crossed himself. “Will you go now?”

Sharpe crossed the fast-flowing stream, safe from malicious sprites, and watched as his
Riflemen followed. They avoided looking at him. Sergeant Williams, who carried the pack of a
wounded man, stepped into deeper water rather than scramble up the bank where the officer
stood.

The mule was prodded across the stream and Sharpe noticed with what care the soldiers guarded
the oilcloth-covered chest. He supposed it contained Major Vivar’s clothes and belongings.
Harper, still tied to the packmule, spat towards him, a gesture Sharpe chose to ignore.

“Now we climb,” Vivar said with a note of satisfaction, as if the coming hardship was to be
welcomed.

They climbed. They struggled up a steeply rising valley where the rocks were glossed by ice
and the trees dripped snow onto their heads. The wind rose and the sky clouded again.

It began to sleet. The wind howled about their muffled ears. Men were sobbing with the misery
and effort, but somehow Vivar kept them moving. “Upwards! Upwards! Where the cavalry can’t go,
eh? Go on! Higher! Let’s join the angels! What’s the matter with you, Marcos? Your father would
have danced up this slope when he was twice your age! You want the Englishmen to think a Spaniard
has no strength? Shame on you! Climb!”

By dawn they had reached a saddle in the hills. Vivar led the exhausted men to a cave that was
hidden by ice-sheathed laurels. “I shot a bear here,” he told Sharpe proudly. “I was twelve, and
my father sent me out alone to kill a bear.”

He snapped off a branch and tossed it towards the men who were building a fire. “That was
twenty years ago.” He spoke with a kind of wonder that so much time had passed.

Sharpe noted that Vivar was exactly his own age but, coming from the nobility was already a
Major, while Sharpe came from the gutter and only an extraordinary stroke of fate had made him
into a Lieutenant. He doubted if he would ever see another promotion, nor, seeing how badly he
had handled these greenjackets, did he think he deserved one.

Vivar watched as the chest was fetched from the mule’s back and placed in the cave-mouth. He
sat beside it, with a protective arm over its humped surface, and Sharpe saw that there was
almost a reverence in the way he treated the box. Surely, Sharpe thought, no man, having endured
the frozen hell that Vivar had been through, would take such care to protect a chest if it only
contained clothes? “What’s in it?” Sharpe asked.

“Just papers.” Vivar stared out at the creeping dawn. “Modern war generates papers,
yes?”

It was not a question that demanded an answer, but rather a comment to discourage further
questions. Sharpe asked none.

Vivar took off his cocked hat and carefully removed a half-smoked cigar that was stored inside
its sweatband. He gave an apologetic shrug that he had no cigar to offer Sharpe, then struck a
flame from his tinder box. The pungent smell of tobacco teased Sharpe’s nostrils. “I saved it,”
Vivar said, “till I was close to home.”

“Very close?”

Vivar waved the cigar in a gesture that encompassed the whole view. “My father was lord of all
this land.”

“Will we go to your house?”

“I hope to see you safe on your southern road first.”

Sharpe, piqued by the curiosity the poor have about the lordly rich, felt oddly disappointed.
“Is it a large house?”

“Which house?” Vivar asked drily. “There are three, all of them large. One is an abandoned
castle, one is in the city of Orense, and one is in the country. They all belong to my brother,
but Tomas has never loved Galicia. He prefers to live where there are kings and courtiers so, on
his sufferance, I can call the houses mine.”

“Lucky you,” Sharpe said sourly.

“To live in a great house?” Vivar shook his head. “Your house may be more humble, Lieutenant,
but at least you can call it your own. Mine is in a country taken by the French.” He stared at
Rifleman Harper who, still tied to the mule’s tail, hunched in the wet snow. “Just as his is in a
country taken by the English.”

The bitterness of the accusation surprised Sharpe who, beginning to admire the Spaniard, was
disconcerted to hear such sudden hostility. Perhaps Vivar himself thought he had spoken too
harshly, for he offered Sharpe a rueful shrug. “You have to understand that my wife’s mother was
Irish. Her family settled here to escape your persecution.”

“Is that how you learned English?”

“That, and from good tutors.” Vivar drew on the cigar. A slip of snow, loosened by the fire in
the cave, slid from the lip of rock. “My father believed that we should speak the language of the
enemy.” He spoke with a wry amusement. “It seems strange that you and I should now be fighting on
the same side, does it not? I was raised to believe that the English are heathenish barbarians,
enemies of God and the true faith, and now I must convince myself that you are our
friends.”

BOOK: Sharpe's Rifles
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