Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Tags: #Historical Fiction
“At least we have the same enemies,” Sharpe said.
“Perhaps that is a more accurate description,” he agreed.
The two officers sat in an awkward silence. The smoke from Vivar’s cigar whirled above the
snow to disappear in the misting dawn. Sharpe, feeling the silence hang heavy between them, asked
if the Major’s wife was waiting in one of the three houses.
Vivar paused before answering, and when he did so his voice was as bleak as the country they
watched. “My wife died seven years ago. I was on garrison duty in Florida, and the yellow fever
Like most men to whom such a revelation is vouchsafed,
Sharpe had not the first idea how to respond. “I’m sorry,” he said clumsily.
“She died,” Vivar went on relentlessly, “as did both of my small children. I had hoped my son
would come back here to kill his first bear, as I did, but God willed it otherwise.” There was
another silence, even more awkward than the first. “And you, Lieutenant? Are you
“I can’t afford to marry.”
“Then find a wealthy woman,” Vivar said with a grim earnestness.
“No wealthy woman would have me,” Sharpe said, then, seeing the puzzlement on the Spaniard’s
face, he explained. “I wasn’t born to the right family, Major. My mother was a whore. What you
“I know the word, Lieutenant.” Vivar’s tone was level, but it could not disguise his distaste.
“I’m not sure I believe you,” he said finally.
Sharpe was angered by the imputation of dishonesty. “Why the hell should I care what you
“I don’t suppose you should.” Vivar carefully wrapped and stored the remains of his cigar,
then leaned back against the chest. “You watch now, Lieutenant, and I’ll sleep for an hour.” He
tipped the hat over his eyes and Sharpe saw the bedraggled sprig of rosemary that was pinned to
its crown. All Vivar’s men wore the rosemary, and Sharpe supposed it was some regimental
Below them the Irishman stirred. Sharpe hoped that the cold was slicing to the very marrow of
Harper’s bones. He hoped the Irishman’s broken nose, hidden beneath a snow-whitened scarf, was
hurting like the devil. Harper, as if sensing these malevolent thoughts, turned to stare at the
officer and the look in his eyes, beneath their frosted brows, told Sharpe that so long as Harper
lived, and so long as nights were dark, he should beware.
Two hours after dawn the sleet turned to a persistent rain that cut runnels in the snow,
dripped from trees, and trans-Go formed the bright world into a grey and dirty place of cold
misery. The strongbox was put back on the mule and the sentries posted on its flanks. Harper, who
had finally been allowed into the cave’s shelter, was tied once more to the animal’s
Their route lay downhill. They followed a streambed which tumbled to the bottom of a valley so
huge that it dwarfed the hundred soldiers into insignificant dark scraps. In front of them was an
even wider, deeper valley which lay athwart the first. It was an immense space of wind and sleet.
“We cross that valley,” Vivar explained, “climb those far hills, then we drop down to the pilgrim
way. That will lead you west to the coast road.”
First, though, the two officers used their telescopes to search the wide valley. No horsemen
stirred there, indeed no living thing broke the grey monotony of its landscape. “What’s the
pilgrim way?” Sharpe asked.
“The road to Santiago de Compostela. You’ve heard of it?”
Vivar was clearly annoyed by the Englishman’s ignorance. “You’ve heard of St James?”
“I suppose so.”
“He was an apostle, Lieutenant, and he is buried at Santiago de Compostela. Santiago is his
name. He is Spain’s patron saint, and in the old days thousands upon thousands of Christians
visited his shrine. Not just Spaniards, but the devout of all Christendom.”
“In the old days?” Sharpe asked.
“A few still visit, but the world is not what it used to be. The devil stalks abroad,
They waded a stream and Sharpe noted how this time Vivar took no precautions against the water
spirits. He asked why and the Spaniard explained that the xanes were only troublesome at
Sharpe scoffed at the assertion. “I’ve crossed a thousand streams at night and never been
“How would you know? Perhaps you’ve taken a thousand wrong turnings! You’re like a blind man
Sharpe heard the anger in the Spaniard’s voice, but he would not back down. “Perhaps you’re
only troubled if you believe in the spirits. I don’t.”
Vivar spat left and right to ward off evil. “Do you know what Voltaire called the
Sharpe had not even heard of Voltaire, but a man raised from the ranks to the officers’ mess
becomes adept at hiding his ignorance. “I’m sure he admired us.”
Vivar sneered at his reply. “He said the English are a people without God. I think it is true.
Do you believe in God, Lieutenant?”
Sharpe heard the intensity in the question, but could not match it with any responding
interest. “I never think about it.”
“You don’t think about it?” Vivar was horrified.
Sharpe bridled. “Why the hell should I?”
“Because without God there is nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing!” The Spaniard’s sudden
passion was furious. “Nothing!” He shouted the word again, astonishing the tired men who twisted
to see what had prompted such an outburst.
The two officers walked in embarrassed silence, breaking a virgin field of snow with their
boots. The snow was pitted by rain and turning yellow where it thawed into ditches. A village lay
two miles to their right, but Vivar was hurrying now and was unwilling to turn aside. They pushed
through a brake of trees and Sharpe wondered why the Spaniard had not thought it necessary to
throw picquets ahead of the marching men, but he assumed Vivar must be certain that no Frenchmen
had yet penetrated this far from the main roads. He did not like to mention it, for the
atmosphere was strained enough between them.
They crossed the wider valley and began to climb again. Vivar was using tracks he had known
since childhood, tracks that climbed from the frozen fields to a treacherous mountain road which
zigzagged perilously up the steep slope. They passed a wayside shrine where Vivar crossed
himself. His men followed his example, as did the Irishmen among his greenjackets. There were
fifteen of them; fifteen troublemakers who would hate Sharpe because of Rifleman
Sergeant Williams must have had much the same thoughts, for he caught up with Sharpe and, with
a sheepish expression, fell into step with him. “It wasn’t Harps’s fault, sir.”
“What happened yesterday, sir.”
Sharpe knew the Sergeant was trying to make peace, but his embarrassment at his loss of
dignity made his response harsh. “You mean you were all agreed?”
“You all agreed to murder an officer?”
Williams flinched from the accusation. “It wasn’t like that, sir.”
“Don’t tell me what it was like, you bastard! If you were all agreed, Sergeant, then you all
deserve a flogging, even if none of you had the guts to help Harper.”
Williams did not like the charge of cowardice. “Harps insisted on doing it alone, sir. He said
it should be a fair fight or none at all.”
Sharpe was too angry to be affected by this curious revelation of a mutineer’s honour. “You
want me to weep for him?” He knew he had handled these men wrongly, utterly wrongly, but he did
not know how else he could have behaved. Perhaps Captain Murray had been right. Perhaps officers
were born to it, perhaps you needed privileged birth to have Vivar’s easy authority, and Sharpe’s
resentment made him snap at the greenjackets who shambled past him on the wet road. “Stop
straggling! You’re bloody soldiers, not prinking choirboys. Pick your bloody feet up! Move
They moved. One of the greenjackets muttered a word of command and the rest fell into step,
shouldered arms, and began to march as only the Light Infantry could march. They were showing the
Lieutenant that they were still the best. They were showing their derision for him by displaying
their skill and Major Vivar’s good humour was restored by the arrogant demonstration. He watched
the greenjackets scatter his own men aside, then called for them to slow down and resume their
place at the rear of the column. He was still laughing when Sharpe caught up with him.
“You sounded like a Sergeant, Lieutenant,” Vivar said.
“I was a Sergeant once. I was the best God-damned bloody Sergeant in the God-damned bloody
The Spaniard was astonished. “You were a Sergeant?”
“Do you think the son of a whore would be allowed to join as an officer? I was a Sergeant, and
a private before that.”
Vivar stared at the Englishman as though he had suddenly sprouted horns. “I didn’t know your
army promoted from the ranks?” Whatever anger he had felt with Sharpe an hour or so before
evaporated into a fascinated curiosity.
“It’s rare. But men like me don’t become real officers, Major. It’s a reward, you see, for
being a fool. For being stupidly brave. And then they make us into Drillmasters or
Quartermasters. They think we can manage those tasks. We’re not given fighting commands.”
Sharpe’s bitterness was rank in the cold morning, and he supposed he was making the self-pitying
confession because it explained his failures to this competent Spanish officer. “They think we
all take to drink, and perhaps we do. Who wants to be an officer, anyway?”
But Vivar was not interested in Sharpe’s misery. “So you’ve seen much fighting?”
Tn India. And in Portugal last year.“
Vivar’s opinion of Sharpe was changing. Till now he had seen the Englishman as an ageing,
unsuccessful Lieutenant who had failed to either buy or win promotion. Now he saw that Sharpe’s
promotion had been extraordinary, far beyond the dreams of a common man. “Do you like
It seemed an odd question to Sharpe, but he answered it as best he could. “I have no other
“Then I think you will make a good officer, Lieutenant. There’ll be much fighting before
Napoleon is sent down to ‘ roast in hell.”
They climbed another mile, until the slope flattened out and the troops trudged between
immense rocks that loomed above the road. Vivar, his friendliness restored, told Sharpe that a
battle had been fought in this high place where the eagles nested. The Moors had used this same
road and the Christian archers had ambushed them from the rocks on either side. “We drove them
back and made the very road stink with their blood.” Vivar stared at the towering bluffs as if
the stone still echoed with the screams of dying pagans. “That must be nearly nine hundred years
ago.” He spoke as if it were yesterday, and he himself had carried a sword to the fight. “Each
year the villagers celebrate a Mass to remember the event.”
“There’s a village here?”
“A mile beyond the gorge. We can rest there.”
Sharpe saw what a magnificent site the canyon made for an ambush. The Christian forces, hidden
in the high rocks, would have had an eagle’s view of the road and the Moors, climbing to the
gorge, would have been watched every step of the way to the killing arrows. “And how do you know
the French aren’t waiting for us?” Emboldened by Vivar’s renewed affability, he raised the
question which had worried him earlier. “We’ve got no picquets.”
“Because the French won’t have reached this far into Spain,” Vivar said confidently, “and if
they had, then the villagers would have sent warning down all the roads, and even if the warnings
missed us, we’d smell the French horses.” The French, always careless of their cavalry horses,
drove them until their saddle and crupper sores could be smelt half a mile away. “One day,” Vivar
added cheerfully, “the French will flog their last horse to death and we’ll ride over that
loathsome country.” The thought gave him a renewed energy and he turned towards the marching men.
“Not far before you can rest!”
At which point, from above the gorge where the Moors had been ambushed, and in front of Sharpe
where the road led down towards the pilgrim way, the French opened fire.
harpe saw Vivar dive to the right side of the road,
and threw himself to the left. The big, unfamiliar sword at Sharpe’s hip clanged on a rock, then
the rifle was at his shoulder and he tore away the scrap of rag that kept rain from the gunpowder
in the rifle’s pan. A French bullet gouged wet snow two inches to his right, another slapped with
a vicious crack into the stone face above him. A man screamed behind him.
Dragoons. God-damned bloody Dragoons. Green coats and pink facings. No horses. Dismounted
Dragoons with short carbines. Sharpe, recovering from his astonishment at the ambush, tried to
make sense of the chaos of fear and noise that had erupted in the winter’s cold. He saw puffs of
grey smoke, dirty as the thawing snow, in an arc about his front. The French had thrown a low
barricade of stones across the road about sixty paces from the canyon’s mouth. It was long range
for the French carbines, but that did not matter. The dismounted Dragoons who lined the peaks of
the immense and sheer cliffs either side of the gorge were the men doing the damage.
Sharpe rolled onto his back. A bullet cracked into the snow where his head had been a second
before. He could see the Dragoons standing on the lips of the chasm, firing down into the
deathtrap of the road where, nine hundred years before, the Moors had been slaughtered.
Vivar’s men had scattered. They crouched at the base of the rocks and fired upwards. Vivar was
shouting at them, calling for them to form a line, to advance. He was planning to charge the men
who barred the road. Instinctively Sharpe knew that the French had foreseen that move, which was
why they had not made their barricade in the gorge, but beyond it. They wanted to lure the
ambushed out into the plateau, and there could only be one reason for that. The French had
cavalry waiting, cavalry with long straight swords that would butcher unprotected infantry.