No rights infringement intended. M/F
The Sharpe Fan Fictions of The Mardy Bum
a work of fan-fiction by The Mardy Bum, 26th August, 2006
Harper wandered back through the night, listening to the men chatting and gambling, laughing and joking, and smiled to himself as he recognised a different sound. Hagman was singing. This time it wasnt a dour, sobering soldiers song, but a happy childrens rhyme. He reached the cluster of tents away from those of the South Essex, finding, as he knew he would, those he cared about the most. Ramona was sat with Hagman as he bounced a giggling baby Patrick on his knee. He sang quietly but confidently, waving little Patricks hands in time to the ditty. Harper carried his volley gun over quietly, stopping behind his wife and putting a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, smiled, and then went back to watching her son.
Harper looked around the circle of faces and smiled. Harris, his nose in a book. Moore, cleaning his rifle as if the last four times hed already done it that evening didnt count. Robinson, Taylor and Brown playing some strange variation of cards, which seemed to involve cartridges and child-safe swear-words. He walked round to the fire, taking the tea urn and pouring himself a cup. He walked over and sat near Harris, looking at the book.
Another dirty book, Harris? he asked, amused.
Not at all, sir, Harris grinned, looking over the top of the slim volume with his small, round glasses perched on his nose. A witty yet profound tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness, he said.
Oh. Kings Regulations then, Harper grinned.
Hardly, Harris snorted. The Marriage of Figaro.
Wheres the wit in marriage? he asked, and Harris snapped the book shut, looking at him.
Youre supposed to tell me that, he said plainly, and Harper smiled. And while were on the subject of telling people things, do you know what were doing here, Harps? he asked. Harper looked into his tea.
Waiting. Just waiting. The South Essex hasnt been ordered anywhere, so were just sitting here while our arses go biscuit-shaped, so we are, he said quietly. Why? Fancy a chance to get your head blown off, do you?
Just wondered why were not drilling. Wheres the Major, anyway? he asked. Not like him to miss his tea.
Day Book, Harper said knowingly, and Harris nodded. Harris opened his book again, and Harper stood slowly. He finished his tea, stretched, and went back to the tea urn, refilling the tin mug. He walked back out of the circle and toward the Majors tent.
It was well-lit inside, the silhouette of the Majors table and chair plainly visible. So was the form of the Major himself, one elbow out on the table and book, his head in his head. The other hand scratched away with the second quill that evening. The candles flickered, the breeze brought the sound of birds and animals abroad, but the quill kept scratching, scratching, scratching.
Harper waited out of sight, wondering if the Major had known hed have to keep the books before hed taken the rank. He doubted it. He was about to cross to the tent and interrupt his scribblings when he heard the distant sound of the Postmasters voice.
Schofield! Marjorie Schofield! Postmaster for Marjorie Schofield!
He looked over quickly, finding the man marching through the lines of tents, waving an envelope in the air, looking around for signs of someone claiming it. He hurried over, following the man, hoping to catch up with him and Miss Schofield. Thatll put a smile on the Majors face, so it will, he grinned, finding shes back. As he followed he saw the man stop at a tent, bending and talking. Harper caught the sound of a female voice and grinned, making sure he knew where he was before turning and hurrying back to Sharpes tent. He crashed his big hand against the wooden post outside.
Sir! he called cheerfully. Sir! News, sir! he cried.
What? Sharpe said, his voice a study in disinterest. Harper pushed the tent flaps aside and stooped, sliding into his tent and holding up the mug of tea first. Sharpe just looked up from the book, waiting. Well? he asked, his face bored.
Miss Marjories here, sir, he said, waiting for the smile to break over Sharpes face. It didnt. Instead, it ruptured with confusion.
Here? How? he asked, putting the quill down and staring at the Sergeant Major. Shes supposed to be in Lisbon.
That she is, sir, but I just caught the Postmaster delivering, sir. She was talking to him just now, sir, her tents just five minutes from here, so it is, he said. Sharpe put his hands to the table and lifted it away from him slowly.
Bloody strange, he said to himself, standing slowly. He waved at Harper and they ducked out of the tent. Sharpe stopped and gave his back a bone-popping stretch, rubbing his hands over his face. He sniffed and took the proffered tea from Harper. Well why didnt she come over here? he asked himself.
Couldnt say, sir. Dont know how long shes been there, in that army tent, sir, he said, then realised perhaps he shouldnt have said anything. Sharpe drained the tea double-quick time and looked at him.
Well, maybe Ill ask her, he said reasonably. Show me.
Harper turned and led him through the maze of tents and soldiers, the flickering fires and lamplights, until he stopped. That one, sir, he said, pointing cheerfully. Sharpe walked over slowly, unable to stop a smile cracking his stern features.
Mar? he called curiously. Marjorie?
What do you want? said a voice. It was female, definitely female. And definitely not that of Marjorie Schofield. The tent flaps were swished aside and a woman stepped out.
She was perhaps five foot five, with long jet-black hair that sat freely around her shoulders. It blew around in the breeze as she looked back at the confused-looking squaddie in the darkness. Her dark eyes studied his face, finding the scars, the puzzled expression, and the eyes. She smiled slightly.
Im sorry, forgive my appalling manners, she said, putting her hands to her dress and attempting to pull it straight. With it being hemmed so tightly to her bodice there was neither reason nor improvement. May I help you gentlemen? she asked, as if searching for the correct word.
I were looking for Marjorie, maam, Sharpe said, hoping he sounded polite. Miss Marjorie Schofield?
She nodded. Thats me. Do I know you? she asked, curious. She looked past him to Harper, then back at Sharpe. I think Id remember, she added to herself.
Begging yer pardon, maam, he said, recognising money when he saw it. Major Sharpe, of the South Essex. This is Sergeant Major Harper, he said, waving a hand behind him.
Major Sharpe? Major Sharpe? A Major? she repeated, staring. There was a long, silent moment. She stared at him, her eyes disbelieving, it seemed. She collected herself. And in green! What is the world coming to? she said icily. He just raised his eyebrows. And why are you roaming round this time of night looking for a girl, Major? she asked, and her voice was definitely unfriendly.
Shes a friend, maam, he said gingerly. He didnt like the way her eyes were burning into his, the way her stare had turned cold and hard. He lifted his chin.
Well theres only one Marjorie Schofield here, Major, and thats me, she said. And at the risk of being rude, I neither know you nor want to know you. Goodnight, she said briskly, turning and stalking back inside the tent flaps. Sharpe just watched for a long moment, and Harper prayed he wasnt about to lift the flaps and follow her in.
But the argumentative gleam in his eye died, his chin lost its rigidity and he turned slowly from the glow of the tent, not looking at Harper as he walked away slowly.
Come on, Pat. Leave her be, he said quietly as he passed him. Harper watched him walk off, and then looked back at the tent. He sighed, then turned and followed the Major back toward their part of the world.
They walked in silence, but the disconsolate depression was almost deafening.
It had been three weeks. Three weeks with no orders, three weeks with no action, and more importantly, three weeks with no letter or note from Marjorie. Not that it bothered the big Irishman, but it bothered his commanding officer, and that made it his business. Of course, the Major never complained about it or discussed it with anyone, and a part of Harper found that sad. He should have someone to complain to. He should have someone to tell. He fell into step next to him, noticing he hardly bothered to watch where his feet were going. Major Sharpe had a curious, nimble gait at the best of times, but right now it was all over the hillside. What he needs is a fight to get his teeth into, so he does, he nodded to himself.
Strange that, he said aloud. Sharpe just grunted. Her having the same name, so exactly. And saying she didnt know you, sir, he said curiously. Oh, she knew you alright, he realised, she knew you and hated you for it.
Well I dont know her. And just like her, I dont want to, he tutted. They reached the tents and Harper waited for him to stop, but he just carried on straight into his own tent. He stood outside.
Well, Ill just be sending the boys to bed, so I will, Harper called for Sharpes benefit. He made out the shape of the Major closing the Day Book and putting things in order, and then the candle was blown out. Harper nodded. And God keep you too, sir, he said a little sadly, turning and walking back to the circle of faces.
As he sat and sang and drank fresh tea, he couldnt help worry over the face that wasnt there. And then his thoughts turned to the woman. Her face. Something about her face Ive seen her before, I know I have. He sighed, lifted little Patrick onto his knee, and thanked the heavens he had different stars to those of Major Sharpe.
Do me this favour, Harris, and Ill see to it you get light duties, so I will, Harper said quietly, and Harris nodded and turned away, heading for the officers tents of the South Essex.
Sending him fer rum, Harper? Sharpe asked from behind him suddenly. Harper wheeled quickly, looking at him. He had seen Sharpe covered in mud, blood and all kinds of substances in between, but hed never seen his eyes look so empty.
Not at all, sir, he grinned guiltily. Sharpe grunted and walked past him, toward the large tub of steaming water that Ramona had left out for him on the wooden table. He slid his tunic off and dumped it unceremoniously on the ground next to him, pulling his shirt free before sliding it off over his head. It went the same way as the tunic and Harper sighed, turning and walking off quietly.
Sharpe put his hands toward the water, then hesitated. He leaned forward, put his arms against the sides of the tub comfortably, and instead thrust his whole head into the hot water.
Everythings clearer under here, he admitted to himself. No dust, no French, no waiting, no writing in that bloody great book. He let a few bubbles of air escape his nose, feeling them bump against his face as they made their way to the surface. He stayed that way until he felt his lungs start to burn. He was thinking about the point in removing his head when he felt a hand on his back.
For some reason he smiled, opening his eyes under the water and straightening, pulling his head out. He turned and his smile dropped as he saw it was Ramona watching him. He realised he wasnt disappointed it was Ramona; more that it was not whom hed hoped it would be without knowing it.
You silly boy, she said sternly, pushing a towel at him. You make yourself cold out here. Is early, and too cold for your head in there. She watched him press the towel to his face, then looked around, checking who was close enough to hear her. Lawford has riders this morning. Maybe youll have a job now, she said quietly. He pulled the towel away and looked at her.
About bloody time, he grumbled. She folded her arms and sighed.
I hope you find something worth killing, she said sternly, and he just looked at her. You are looking for something big and fierce to kill, I know that look, she said. He just turned away from her. Make sure its what youre looking for, and not something that looks the same, she said wisely, reaching past him and taking the bundle of linen from the wooden table. He turned to look at her but she swished away in a flurry of long skirts. He sighed, then caught sight of Harris sidling out of an officers tent and into another. He shook his head and turned for his uniform, picking it up off the ground and shaking it out.
There was no movement from Lawford, that day or the next. After the third day Sharpe was contemplating shooting at redcoat picquets in the dead of night just to alleviate the boredom. His uniform had been patched and re-sewn, his boots re-heeled and his sword had been sharpened more times than a Pond Street whore.
He was lying out on his cot, studying the ceiling of his tent as if hed never seen it before. He brought his hands down from behind his head, looked over at the rifle standing in the corner of the tent, and decided it was time for some shooting practice. He rose off the bed, not bothering to find his tunic or pull his braces over his shoulders, and grabbed up the weapon. He turned for the tent flaps and walked out, looking round.
Moore and Brown turned and looked at him as if surprised. Brown tugged on Harpers elbow urgently. Harper stopped arguing with Harris in mid-flow and looked round. He caught sight of Sharpe and looked back at Harris. Harris looked over, looked back at Harper, and turned to walk away quickly, their heated argument forgotten as Harper gave him a slight push.
Sharpes eyes narrowed. Harris! he shouted. Harris stopped short. Harper turned, stepping into the line of sight neatly.
Sir, youre awake, he said, walking toward him with a cheery smile. He held a hand behind his back carefully.
Harris, get back here now! Sharpe called. Harris turned slowly and began to walk back toward them. Brown and Moore started to back away, Sharpe noticed. He let them. Somehow he had the feeling they were superfluous.
Harris has some things to
Sergeant, shut it, Sharpe said harshly. He watched Harris walk up and stop next to Harper, as if for protection. Now whats going on? he demanded. Something you dont want me to know about?
Well sir, its not something
Not you, Harper, he snapped. He looked at Harris. You.
Harris gave a great sigh, as if it were all monumentally unjust, then flicked his gaze at Harper momentarily. He looked at his feet.
The Sergeant gave me a task, sir, he said gingerly. What task? he demanded. Out with it, man!
Oh but its nothing, sir, Harper put in. I just
Sergeant, one more word out of you, Sharpe breathed, and Harper closed his mouth, having noted the wild look in the Majors eye. Now, Harris, explain what this errand was, he said dangerously. Harris didnt look up.
The Sergeant Major instructed me to get word to Miss Schofield, sir. I started by verifying she was still in Lisbon, sir. And then a helpful Lieutenant in the Essex found news for me, sir, he said quietly. Sharpe studied his face, noted the discomfort and looked at Harper quickly.
Well? he demanded. Harper tried a small smile.
Seems shes not there, sir, as if shes just dis- Sharpe stepped up very close to Harper suddenly, and he braced himself for a strike. But Sharpe just shoved his hand behind Harpers back and snatched the piece of paper from his hand. Sir! he said desperately. Sharpe stepped back, out of reach, lifting the paper to see it.
It was a despatch. For the attention of Mr P. Caron, aide to the General Sir Arthur Wellesley, for the sums and amounts of those lost in the skirmish at the outer Lisbon redoubts. He snorted without mirth. A butchers bill, he observed. His eyes skimmed down the list, naming officers and soldiers who had been identified as those lost in some small surprise attack by French. His eyes stopped abruptly, captured by one simple phrase at the bottom.
And the regrettable loss of two highly skilled and devoted cartographers ~ Mr Peter Schofield, and his sister, Miss Marjorie Schofield, formerly of England.
He stared for a long moment, then read it again. He let his hand drop slowly, then looked up at Harper.
Jesus, sir, the Irishman said quietly, his dark eyes heavy. Sharpe just sniffed dismissively, then looked at Harris.
Thank you, rifleman. Go clean some kit, he said gruffly.
Sir, Harris said gratefully, turning and sidling off as fast as was polite. Sharpe turned to go. Harper grabbed his arm quickly.
Sir, he blurted. Sharpe turned slowly and looked at him.
What? What are you going to say? he asked, looking weary. Is there something you can say? he asked, curious. Harper just let go of his arm slowly. Didnt think so, he said quietly, and walked back toward his tent, his rifle over his shoulder. Harper watched him duck under the tent flaps and inside. He stood there a good few minutes, but still no plan struck him that could help the situation.
He turned and walked away.
I say, Sergeant Major Harper! Where is Major Sharpe? a tall, elegant young man called from the edge of the tents. Harper appeared, wiping frizzen oil from his hands with a much-used cloth. He looked the young man up and down, thinking perhaps he was twenty-five if he was lucky, with the physique of a spring sapling. He walked a few steps closer.
Who shall I say is asking for him, sir? he asked pleasantly, smiling. The man looked at him.
Youre Harper? he asked, surprised.
That I am, sir. Is it the Major youre wanting? Can I give him your compliments, sir? he asked cheerfully, noting the mans expression soften into a small smile.
Please do, he said, walking forward and holding out a hand. Lieutenant Colonel James Hardwick, he said pleasantly. Harper lifted his hands in the rag, shrugging.
Oh Im sorry sir, wouldnt want to get you all greasy, now, he said. Hardwick smiled a little wider.
Much obliged, Im sure, he said. Please inform the Major that I await him in Colonel Lawfords tent, Mister Harper, he said. Harper eyed him.
That I will, sir, straight away, sir, he nodded.
Good man, he nodded, turning and walking away smartly. Harper watched him go, then just shrugged to himself and turned, walking through the tent lines to Sharpes tent. He found him round the back of it, shaving over a bowl of warm water.
Sir, he said loudly.
What is it? he asked quietly, watching the cut-throat razor carefully as he swept it up his jaw slowly.
Colonel Lawfords asking for you, sir, he said cheerfully. Seems we have a new recruit, too, he added.
Oh aye? Sharpe asked, but Harper recognised the disinterested tone too easily.
A Lieutenant Colonel, if you please, Harper said indignantly. A Mister James Hardwick, he added. Seems nice enough, if you like people that can read but cant shoot straight, sir.
Right now Id settle for he paused as he stroked at the opposite side of his jaw something to shoot at, Pat, he finished.
Ooh, youre not wrong there, sir, Harper grinned. Best be getting to Colonel Lawfords tent then, eh sir? he asked.
In a bit, Sharpe allowed, continuing his slow, steady routine. Harper just sighed, and turned and walked away.
Ah, there you are at last! Lawford called as Sharpe ducked into his huge tent, shako under his arm. Well at least your uniforms clean, he tutted, eyeing him. Sharpe just stared at the far wall.
Sir, he replied. Bastard, he thought vindictively. Bloody shaved an all.
Well then, Major Sharpe, allow me to present the Lieutenant Colonel Sir James Hardwick, he said, waving a hand toward a willowy young man. The man, light brown haired and hazel eyed, nodded to him, and even tipped a jaunty finger from his forehead. Sharpe nodded politely.
Colonel, he said respectfully.
Major, he grinned, and Sharpe wondered just what was in store. His eyes swept to the swarthy man seated at the left of Lawfords table, looking very comfortable indeed.
And Monsieur Caron, Lawford said, indicating the man. He stood slowly, inclining his head.
Major, he said smoothly, and Sharpe had an instant impression of charm and sophistication. Something about him suddenly set his teeth on edge. But he nodded politely as the man sat again.
Mr Caron, he said, copying Lawfords educated pronunciation of the name, emphasising the last syllable. A Frog? In Bills tent?
Mr Caron and Sir James have brought me a rather strange despatch, Major, Lawford said. Sharpe turned his attention back to him.
Sir, he replied. Caron watched him, his eyes amused. Lawford sat slowly, reaching to the desk and picking up a roll of parchment tied with a red ribbon.
The General orders you to the village of Venganza, two days march from here, on the other side of the river, he said abruptly. Sharpe looked at him, surprised.
With the South Essex, sir? he asked.
Dont be premature, Major, Lawford said cautiously. Youre to take your precious Chosen Men and find something for the General. He advocates any and all reasonable force to procure this item and return it to Mr Caron forthwith, he said. He shall take it back Lord Wellington himself. Sharpe looked at the man in question, smiling back at him. Sharpe half-expected him to spit canary feathers.
Did you lose something, Mr Caron? he asked innocently, hoping to annoy him.
I did not, Major Sharpe, Caron replied smoothly, his French accent non-existent. It is something we need to acquire to prevent it causing trouble elsewhere.
May I know what it is, sir? Sharpe asked Lawford directly.
I think it best we leave Lawford began.
Its a leather-bound book, Major, Hardwick interrupted cheerfully. Caron and Lawford looked at him, apparently unimpressed. He looked over at them. Oh come now, the Major is expected to retrieve it for us, whats with all the secrecy? he scoffed loudly. Sharpe eyed him warily, even as he was impressed with the loud mans extreme confidence. He turned back and looked at him. Youre about to ask whats in the book. Names, Major, just names, he said. Names of the good Generals wandering officers, he said with a broad smile.
And would you be one of those wandering officers, sir? he asked innocently. Hardwick affected horror.
Oh good Lord, no, he chuckled. I fight battles, Major. And just like you, I win, he added pleasantly. This book was the last foolish act performed by one of the Generals less fortunate of wandering officers, he said helpfully. Lawford cast him a glance, but he ignored it admirably. Seems he wanted something to bargain with, should he be caught.
And was he, sir? Sharpe asked, after a long moment of silence.
I should hope so. Its the only way I could explain how he was found with a French cavalry sabre aligning him with the dirt not unlike a tent-peg does a guy-rope, he said pleasantly.
So wheres the book now, sir? he asked. Hardwick grinned.
If we knew that, we wouldnt need you, Major, he said. Sharpe cleared his throat, looking at his feet slowly.
With all due respect, sir, Im a soldier. I dont know anything about chasing down missing books and
Ah, I stand corrected, Hardwick said suddenly. He turned and looked at Caron. Too bad, old man, he shrugged, apparently not fazed in the least. Sharpe watched him, but it was Caron who spoke, drawing his attention.
We have you to be the most secretive of diggers, Mister Sharpe, he said quietly. Sharpe felt anger rising at the man's haughty tone. After all, was it not you who intercepted a report bound for me? He eyed Sharpe, and he in turn sized him up. Within a second hed decided where and how best to carve the flesh from this man Carons ribs with one strike.
Caron stood, breaking the moment, and made a show of looking through his pockets. Hardwick watched, amused, as he produced a rumpled piece of paper. A butchers bill? From the skirmishes at the Lisbon redoubts? Caron pressed.
No, sir, Sharpe said, his fingers gripping the beak of the shako tightly.
So you had that dirty Irish thief do it for you? he asked, his smile gone. Sharpes lips thinned.
Say that again. Sir, he breathed dangerously. Hardwick looked at him, then back at Caron.
Come, come, Hardwick said pleasantly. It was just temporarily mislaid, Pierre, he said dismissively.
Did you read the bottom? Caron said to Sharpe smoothly.
Mr Caron, Hardwick interrupted.
The silly girls dead, Sharpe, and theres
The two soldiers, standing outside Colonel Lawfords tent on guard, heard a loud crash and sounds of a scuffle. They looked at each other from beside the tent flaps. The taller one gestured inside with his head. The shorter one stared at him, then shook his head. You first, he dared.
Guard! Lawford roared from inside. They both put hands to their shakoes and ducked into the tent quickly, cocking their loaded muskets.
They found two red-coated officers dragging a green-tunicked officer off another man. He was lying on the floor, his black jacket and smart matching trousers dusty and in complete disarray.
Calm yourself, man! Hardwick shouted at Sharpe, pulling desperately on his right arm, even as Sharpe kicked his foot out in the direction of Caron. Good Lord, hes got a pull on him, he breathed.
Richard! I will not have this! Lawford shouted in his left ear. Sharpe stopped struggling to free himself and let the two men drag him over toward the two soldiers. They just looked at him at musket-point, taking no chances.
Hardwick let go and Lawford released him, pushing him toward the tent flaps. Sharpe caught his feet and turned quickly, pinning Caron with a look that would have boiled tea for the entire regiment of the South Essex.
Now get out, and take a moment to remember youre an officer and a gentleman! Lawford roared. You are leaving at dawn tomorrow, Major!
Sharpe tugged his tunic straight, pulled his sword to sit properly again, and looked at Lawford with narrowed eyes.
Yes, sir, he breathed, looking at Hardwick and nodding respectfully before turning and disappearing from the tent flaps. Lawford brushed at his sleeves, pulling them straight and turning to Hardwick. He shook his head, letting the moment dissolve slowly.
Well, sorry about all this, Sir James, he said sheepishly. Hardwick grinned.
Oh, dont be, old boy. I rather like him, he said, turning and looking at Caron, who was picking himself up off the floor and feeling his jaw gingerly. But you, dear chap. Well, that was rather too far below the belt, I fear, he said disapprovingly. We need him. Must you attempt to make enemies of everyone you meet?
Are we right? Sharpe asked Harper in the cool morning air. The Irishman sniffed, leaning onto his heels and tucking his thumbs in his belt.
Me and the boys are just fine and dandy, sir. Its you we worry about, so it is, he said lightly. Sharpe looked at him.
Leave it. He looked at the Chosen Men, hastily trying to avoid eye contact. Get em on the road, he said harshly.
Aye sir, Harper acknowledged. He turned to the men. Right you lot, you heard the man, elbows and arseholes, come on, he said, clapping his hands. The Chosen Men shuffled into a loose group and shouldered their rifles, Harris taking the lead as they began the slope toward the village of Venganza.
Sharpe fell in behind them, deliberately avoiding Harpers watchful eye from in front.
I just dont want him sticking his nose in. Not today. He thought back to the last time hed received a letter from Marjorie. To the untrained eye it wouldnt have rivalled a Marquis de Sade, but it had smacked of such promise and care hed let himself believe she could be someone he could be comfortable with perhaps for as long as survived the battles and injuries, even if that had meant the next few hundred years.
He cursed himself for his foolishness as he remembered how hed sat there, alone in his tent, grinning at the hand-written note like a little boy with a shiny new shilling. How hed realised she had made him happy just by writing frank, forward letters about weather, other peoples horses, the dry dirt roads to Lisbon. How hed laughed at her descriptions, and warmed to her closing lines for him to take care of himself. How hed wished shed been sat there telling him her stories in person.
His foot landed on a stone that gave sideways suddenly, and he almost stumbled. He looked up and around, hoping no-one had seen him being so careless, and straightened unconsciously.
After a good few hours he spotted Harpers head wandering back and suddenly the big Irishman had fallen into step beside him. He swung his volley gun up across his shoulders and wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
I was thinking, sir, when we get to Venganza we should find the library and simply take the first big book, he said cheerfully.
Were you, Sharpe said, uninterested.
A book of names, they want. Well just find a book of the local names, thatll do the trick, Harper continued, nodding to himself, satisfied. Then we can get on with the drinking, so we can, he beamed.
Pat, theres more to life than drinking, he said, annoyed.
Oh, now thats where youve got it backwards, sir, he said brightly. Theres more to drinking than life.
I cant argue with you Pat, I havent a bloody clue what yer talking about, he snapped. Harper cleared his throat quietly.
No sir, I dont suppose
Sharpe interrupted him by putting a sudden hand out. He stopped, tilting his head slightly.
Im sure I heard a shout. Sounded like a man. French?
Harper froze for a long second, waiting for Sharpe to move. Sharpe looked at him and nodded. Harper whistled and the Chosen Men turned and looked at him. Harper pointed at the trees lining the shingle road, and they split and ran without hesitation.
Sharpe pushed at Harpers arm, and the Irishman ran for the side of the road. Sharpe went to the opposite side, taking his rifle from his shoulder and pulling it to half-cock. He raised it, ready, and stepped carefully backwards into the brush.
There was another shout, and this time he heard it clear enough to know he had been right, but not clear enough to hear which language it was in. He waited as the sound of horses approached, but it seemed they would take forever to appear.
At last a tall, elegant chestnut horse slowly plodded into view. Sharpe lifted the rifle and aimed, hoping the rider would be about the normal height for a man. He followed the riders position until the horse wandered on past him.
He recognised the rider: Pierre Caron.
He hesitated for a long moment. Then he closed one eye, pulling the rifle onto full cock and aiming carefully. At this range, a mere twenty feet, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. His mouth pulled to one side in a wicked sneer as he drew a very clear and precise bead on the Frenchmans head.
Major Sharpe! someone else shouted, and he froze, his aim still locked. Major Sharpe, we were sent to aide you as best we can! the voice continued, and Sharpe opened his eye, huffing angrily.
Colonel Hardwick? he called.
Yes, sir! At your service, sir! Hardwick replied, still out of view. Sharpe cursed fluidly and at length, pulling the rifle back to half-cock and letting it drop slowly. He eased it back off cock and slung it over his shoulder fiercely, stamping out of the brush and out onto the road.
He stopped and stared. He had seen Caron and then Hardwick, but behind them, flanked by ten redcoats, was a third rider. The mysterious Miss Schofield. He looked at his feet as he spat some invective, growling another to himself as he lifted his head and pulled out his whistle. He blew it three times in short, shrill notes. Hardwick turned his horse dextrously and looked at him, surprised. Caron and Miss Schofield turned across their horses to see.
Chosen Men poured out of their hiding places, and Hardwick smiled, leading his horse back toward Sharpe.
My compliments, Major, we had no idea where you were hiding, he said, dismounting quickly and grasping the reins tightly in his left hand. Sharpe just looked at him.
What are you doing here? he demanded, then remembered who he was talking to. Sir, he added quickly. Hardwick grinned.
Exactly as I said, old boy weve come to help you. I managed to convince old Lawford we could do this together. After all, I felt it rather unfair it be pushed on you, especially right now, he said, letting his voice drop slightly in volume. Sharpe looked daggers at him, but he simply clapped him on the arm and turned to look around at the Chosen Men. Now then, wheres that Sergeant of yours? I need a drink, and Im not talking about that god-awful tea he makes, he grinned boisterously. The Chosen Men looked at Sharpe, confused.
Harper! Sharpe called harshly. As if by magic, the Irishman appeared. Get the Colonel some of your booze. The rest of you, pick yer bloody feet up, he snapped, nodding respectfully to Hardwick before walking round him deliberately and marching on.
The Men looked at Harper, who shrugged and gestured with his head, and they turned and slung their rifles, following the angry figure stomping up the shingle road.
I say, rather touchy, isnt he? Hardwick said to Harper quietly. Harper sighed, reaching into his cartridge box and finding his tiny flask.
That he is, sir, that he is. But if the French find us out here, sir, youll be glad hes such a mean bastard, sir, he said cheerfully. Hardwick eyed him as he took the proffered flask.
Im sure I will, he said with a small smile.
Sharpe set a cracking pace, and by sundown the Chosen Men were struggling to keep up. Harper had tried his best to slow him with his chit-chat and then straight asking, but he may as well have tried to stop the sun going down.
The two of them strode ahead, forging the way down the shingle road, and Harper noticed that even after a whole days marching, Sharpe still walked like hed stamp vindictively on the next person to get in his way.
He looked behind, to the Chosen Men, their rifles over their shoulders and their shakoes hanging limply from their spare hands. Behind them rode Pierre Caron and Colonel Hardwick, and Harper took the time to study them both.
Caron was smaller, lighter, but his swarthy features and dark eyes made him look somehow dangerous. He looked to be dozing in the saddle, but Harper noticed his hands kept a tight hold on the reins. Hardwick was looking tired but Harper had to admit he looked the professional soldier, still keeping a sharp look-out for anything that moved in the wrong direction. His red coat was clean and new, his face square and open, and his horse must have cost a kings ransom. He wondered idly if it had ever spirited him backwards from a fight. Something told him it hadnt.
Harper looked behind them, at the lady riding the dark horse by herself. She rode side-saddle, her face harsh and thin, her dark hair pinned back under her sensible hat. She turned her head to watch the ten South Essex soldiers, apparently her own escort, as they marched stiffly. Harper was struck again by the feeling that hed seen her before. As she turned her head to look at her own hands on the reins, he felt he almost had the time and place in mind.
He looked back at Sharpe, then slowed so that he drew alongside Hagman.
Dan, he said quietly.
Harps, he nodded genially, weary though he was.
Youve seen the lady, Dan? he asked quietly, from the corner of his mouth.
That I have, he said, equally quietly.
Do you recognise her at all? he asked. Hagman was no fool. He swung his head around in a complete circle, as if just stretching, before looked back where he was putting his feet.
Seems familiar sir, but cant place her, he admitted.
Hmm. Me neither. Very strange, is that. Her having the same name. And saying she didnt know the Major.
You think she does? he asked.
I know she does. Saw it on her face, so I did. And her mood after he told her his name. I just cant for the life of me think who she reminds me of, he said, and then snapped his fingers. Thats it its not her I recognise. She looks like someone, so she does, he breathed. Hagman turned and looked at her deliberately.
Cant say as I know who it is, he said truthfully. What we need is camp and sleep. Maybe itll come to us later, he nodded wisely. Harper nodded, patting his shoulder. Can you get him to stop, or is he going to have us march all night? he asked cheerfully, but Harper noticed the strain. He nodded.
Ill have a word, he said, winking grimly, and quickened pace again to catch up with the Major. Nearly dusk, so it is, he said cheerfully. Sharpe grunted. Will you be wanting to stop, sir?
The men have marched all day, sir. Awful tired, so they are.
Itll be hard going when its dark, he added.
Well of course, its entirely up to you, so it is. But I cant make tea if were walking, he said sadly. Sharpe hesitated. He huffed and wiped a hand over his mouth.
Go on then, he said. Tell Robinson to find a good spot.
Yes sir! Harper grinned, dropping back and nodding to Hagman before finding Robinson. Though his bones ached and his feet throbbed, he tore off the side of the road and crashed about for a few minutes.
Sir! he called eventually, and Sharpe lifted his hand.
Halt! he called. Robinson came out of the bushes. He dashed up to Sharpe and stopped, straightening smartly.
Good bit o ground, sir. Its got a small stream an all! he beamed. Sharpe nodded.
Good lad. Right Sergeant, he said, turning to look at Harper. Fall em out. Were camping on Robinsons recommendation tonight, and starting out fresh at dawn.
Yes sir! Harper said, relieved. He turned and shouted at the Green Jackets, then looked over at the South Essex boys. They were stood to attention, watching longingly. Harper looked back at Sharpe. The South Essex escort, sir? he asked, noting their heads bob up and look at him gratefully. Sharpe stopped, looking back at them. He walked over slowly, past Harper, and up to Miss Schofields horse. He stopped, looking at her with trepidation.
Are these men your escort, maam? he asked, trying to sound polite. She turned her nose up at him.
They are, and as such are no concern of yours, she snapped. He licked dry lips and looked at them.
Were camping. So are you, he said. She looked back at him.
Dont think you can tell me what to do, you impertinent scruff! she cried. Caron and Hardwick looked over from their horses, currently nibbling at the grass by the side of the road. Hardwick smiled slightly.
I cant, youre right there, he said. He looked at the men, sweating and trembling with fatigue. But unless you hold a commission in his Britannic Majestys Army as is higher than mine, you cant stop me ordering them to fall out. Can you, he stated. She glared at him. He smiled maliciously at her and turned away. South Essex, fall out. Make camp with the riflemen, he called. They sagged and lifted off their shakoes as one, nodding to him gratefully and dragging themselves over to the path trodden by the Green Jackets. They had already disappeared through the bushes and started fixing up tripods and collecting firewood, and the redcoats followed.
Sharpe watched them, finding himself alone with Caron, Hardwick and her.
How dare you! she fumed, lifting her riding crop and slapping at his shoulder with it. He turned like lightning and grabbed it as she pulled it back to strike him again. She struggled but he had a good hold. He glared at her, and they locked gazes for a long, dangerous moment.
I say, as amusing as all this is, couldnt we get a drink of rum in too? Hardwick called over. Caron urged his horse forward and dismounted by the side of the road. He tied the horse and ducked through the hole made by the soldiers, disappearing.
Miss Schofield still held firm to the crop, as did Sharpe.
Ill let go so long as you stay away from me, he breathed. She snorted with contempt.
Nothing would please me more. Give it back, she demanded. He let go simply and she wrenched it backwards, pulling sharply on the reins to move past him to the bushes. Sharpe wiped his hand over his face, and then realised someone was standing behind him. He turned and saw it was Hardwick.
Women. Cant say two words to them, eh? he said, clapping Sharpe on the shoulder and turning him round to the bushes. Sharpe shook him off politely as they ducked through the bushes.
Not that one, Sharpe grunted, and Hardwick followed him to the small circle of Chosen Men. Sharpe stopped as Hagman looked up at him from his place in the grass.
Soon have a cup brewing, sir, dont you fret, he smiled. Sharpe nodded then turned and lifted his pack from his back, letting it fall to the ground. He wiped his forehead, looking around the small clearing and hearing the sound of the tiny brook trickling past them, about ten feet away.
Major, I wonder if I might have a word, Hardwick said, and Sharpe looked at him before undoing the top buttons on his tunic and sliding the rifle off his shoulder. He walked over and passed it to Harper, then looked back at the Colonel.
Of course, Colonel, he said non-commitedly. Hardwick inclined his head, and Sharpe followed him back to the road. They stopped by Hardwicks horse, and the Colonel turned and looked at the road theyd already covered.
Its a bad business, Major. Im sorry to have dragged you into it, he said gingerly, and Sharpe realised it was the first time the Colonel had not been radiating complete confidence. He sniffed.
Yeah well. If its the job Ive been given, Ill do it and then get back, sir, he admitted. Hardwick looked at him now, and smiled slightly.
Was it your job to steal a French standard, Major? he asked craftily. Did the General give you orders to do that?
Not in so many words, sir, he said warily, eyeing him. Hardwick nodded.
I see. Have to say, dear chap, was ever so pleased when you did. Went over so well with the parish at home. You dont know who I am, do you? he asked knowingly. Sharpe shrugged.
Lieutenant Colonel, sir, and therefore my superior officer, he said simply. Hardwick chuckled softly.
You havent questioned the Sir James bit, Major, he said. Sharpe put a hand to the back of his head, rubbing slightly. He let his hand drop and looked out over the road.
Well Every officer has a ri great family, sir, he said, changing tack quickly. Hardwick laughed outright.
Except you, Major. He was quiet for a moment. Yes, I have a great family. May I ask where you grew up, Major? he asked eventually.
Why? he asked, looking at him curiously.
Because you may have heard of my great grandmother, Elizabeth Shrewsbury of Hardwick? he asked guilelessly. Sharpe thought for a long moment.
Cant say as I have, sorry, he said awkwardly. Hardwick smiled.
Hardwick Hall? More glass
Than stone! Sharpe finished, nodding. Bloody ell! Thats your family? he gasped. Sir, he added quickly.
Oh come now, Major, its just us, he said. He paused. Youve seen the hall? he asked.
Oh aye who hasnt? he asked. Its certainly big enough! What are you doing out here with a family like that? he wondered.
Its because of my family that I am out here, Major, he said wearily, and Sharpe saw his perpetual cheer deflate. He sighed. Its all so tiresome, he heaved. They want me to marry this poor girl, just because her father is rich. Then they want me to lord over the landscape, as if thats something to be proud of. Honestly, he snorted contemptuously. He glanced at Sharpe, who was watching him openly. So I bought myself a commission and escaped out here, he smiled brightly.
You bought in at Lieutenant Colonel? Sharpe asked curiously.
Oh no, dear chap, Heaven forbid! Hardwick laughed, putting a hand on Sharpes shoulder. I bought in at Ensign, man! Much more fun, he grinned. Sharpe tutted.
It int fun, its shit, he muttered. Hardwick let his smile dim.
Well you must know you were an Ensign once, werent you? he asked. Surely?
Aye, I were an Ensign. In India, he added.
India! Well! Were you at Gawilghur? he asked. Sharpe looked at him, surprised.
Yes, sir, he said. Bloody hard time that were, an all, he added.
Ill say. Thought my goose was well and truly cooked there! Hardwick beamed. But as you can see, I came through. As did you, eh? he said, patting his shoulder, then letting his hand drop.
So When did you buy your Captaincy, sir? he asked, confused.
Buy? Buy, say you? No! I got my Captaincy through killing Johnny Foreigner, Major, as I suspect you did, he admitted. Sharpe nodded dumbly. Then came a Majority that was fun, he said, nodding to himself. Talavera, you see. Obviously not as noteworthy as yourself, Major, but satisfying, none the less, he said. Sharpe blew out a sigh, wiping his hands over his face and looking round in the falling light. Something wrong? he asked.
No, sir, Sharpe said, and Hardwick shook his head. Just seems wrong, dont it? he said quietly. Sharpe watched him, unsure. You calling me sir, I mean. Youve got to be more than five years older than me, with more experience. He paused. You must have been pretty upset when you saw me roll into camp. Must have thought I was there to interfere with your light company, eh? he asked lightly. Sharpe nodded. Thought so. Actually, I was sent here by the General.
Family friend, he shrugged. We gave him some money a while back for ships, or something. I forget, he said simply.
So can you tell me what youre really doing here, sir? he asked quietly.
James. The names James, Major. He looked back out over the road, and Sharpe hesitated.
Richard, he admitted, and the Colonel turned and looked at him.
Splendid. Well, I shall tell you, Richard, were going to this place Venganza to find the book. If we cant safely spirit it out, were to destroy it thoroughly. Theres just one problem, he said, a shadow passing over his face. Sharpe sighed, nodding.
Let me guess. There are French spies in the village. Happens everywhere I go, he shrugged. Hardwick chuckled.
Worse than that there are French spies and theyre not all in the village, he said conspiratorially. Sharpe looked back to the bushes, hearing the sounds of the men making food and tea.
Caron? he asked quietly. Hardwick shrugged.
Who can say? I dont know for sure, but look at him! He should walk round with a sign on his back, saying everyone look at me, Im extremely suspicious, he scoffed, and Sharpe smiled.
Then its not him, he said. Hardwick studied his face.
You think so?
Hed be daft to be a spy with his face, sir. James, he corrected. Hardwick shrugged.
The girl? he asked. Sharpes eyes narrowed. Look old man, Im not one to pry, but why does she hate you so? he asked curiously.
Buggered if I know. He paused, wetting his lip slowly. But shes lying. About a great many things, he added.
Oh jolly good! Hardwick crowed boisterously, grinning, and Sharpe looked at him. Means we can play at wandering officers ourselves, get to the bottom of her deception!
Sharpe shook his head, smiling, and Hardwick chuckled. Oh, I say! he said, snapping his fingers suddenly, do you think one of us should you know get to know her? Court her and such, find out what shes up to? he whispered enthusiastically. Sharpe chuckled.
Are you like this all the time, or just when theres a bit of pretty skirt about? he asked. Hardwick chuckled.
Oh all the time, definitely, he nodded vigorously. I say old man, let me have a go, eh? he asked earnestly. After all, she already hates you, and Im a sparkling officer with a rich family. I could be in there and find out everything in no time, he offered. What do you say, eh? he said eagerly, nudging Sharpes shoulder. Eh?
Just make sure she dunt find out yer real reasons, and that she stays away from me. Other than that, youre a grown man James, you do what you want, he grinned. Hardwick laughed.
Harper! Sharpe roared, crouching by his pack in disgust.
Yes sir! Harper replied, hurrying over from the other side of the road. He and the Chosen Men had been relieving themselves away from the makeshift camp.
What the bloody hells gone on here? Sharpe demanded. Harper looked around. Packs and belongings had been rifled through and dumped in disarray. I were gone less than five minutes, Pat, and look at it! he snapped.
Jesus, sir, I have no idea, he said, confused. Is anything missing, sir? he asked, wondering over Sharpes sudden anger. He had woken up to hot, fresh tea and had seemed much more cheerful.
Personal stuff. Letters, he admitted icily, and Harper let his mouth round into a silent o before nodding to himself. Letters from Miss Marjorie, he realised.
Anything else, sir? he asked. Sharpe thought about it.
No. Me flask and telescope are still there, he said, then looked at Harper directly. Get the men back, and them South Essex. Get every pack turned out.
Surely you dont think
I want to see what else is missing, Pat. Somethings not right here, he breathed, crouching down again to do up his pack securely. Harper nodded and turned away.
Richard? Hardwick asked, appearing from the side, carrying his open bag. He stopped and looked around, taking in the sight of the other packs emptied out. Oh, I say, he said quietly to himself.
Anything missing, James? he asked.
Not that I can see. Strange, eh? he said to himself.
Not really, Sharpe realised suddenly, then stood abruptly and ran through the bushes to the horses. Bloody hell! he spat, and Hardwick followed quickly.
What? he demanded, alert. Sharpe waved a hand at the tied horse.
Caron and that girl theyve gone, he snarled.
What? Well, there we go perhaps theyre in it together, he shrugged, and Sharpe turned on him.
Theyve gone to Venganza with my letters and your horse, he pointed out. Hardwick looked at the single remaining horse.
Good Lord! What complete whats the word, Richard? he asked angrily.
Bastards? Sharpe replied, as Harper caught them up.
Oh, well, I wouldnt use that kind of Hardwick began.
The South Essex lads, sir, Harper interrupted breathlessly, and Sharpe looked at him.
Well? Gone too, are they? he demanded.
Pity theyre not, sir. Theyre all dead, sir, every man jack of them, he said, shaking his head.
What? How? Hardwick demanded.
Throats slit sir, clean as a surgeons blade, he said.
Well damn it all! If thats not sheer impudence! he shouted, enraged. To kill ten good fighting men to cover your escape! Thats just just sheer bloody wickedness! he shouted. He stopped short, surprised. Oh my, he said hastily, then swallowed and looked at Sharpe. I do apologise, Richard. Such language, he said fearfully, shaking his head and walking away. Harper watched him go. He turned to Sharpe.
What now sir? he asked eagerly. Sharpe looked at him.
We get to Venganza. We find the pair of em, he breathed, and Harper nodded, grinning maliciously. Then we get em to tell us everything they know about that damned book.
Oh. But that Mr Caron sir, he looked a frightful tight-lipped sort, sir, he said doubtfully.
Oh aye, he snapped scornfully, one swift boot to the nadgers and hell be giving me that girls home address.
Harper grinned and turned away to round up the Chosen Men.
The nine men and one horse arrived at the gates of Venganza the next evening. That was as much success as they would have.
Lieutenant Colonel Hardwick! shouted a thin, nasal rasp of a commanding tone. The men stopped just shy of the gates and looked up. A small, rotund man was watching from the ramparts of the high stone wall, sliding a telescope shut. We were told you were coming! he added. They took in his red coat, shiny epaulettes and cocked hat. Sharpe sighed and Hardwick looked at him.
Well. Seems your reign and mine have come to an end, old man, he said cheerfully, then removed his own hat and looked up. Yes, sir! he called up. May we trouble you for entrance?
Of course! the man called. He disappeared as shouts were heard from inside the tall wooden gates. After a few minutes the gates creaked and were reluctantly coaxed open from inside. Sharpe and Hardwick looked at each other, then began to walk inside.
They found themselves in a large courtyard, surrounded by redcoats with loaded muskets at the ready. There seemed to be hundreds of them. Sharpe and Harper took careful note of the buttons on the jackets.
The 42nd! Harper whispered, surprised. Sharpe straightened unconsciously as the small man reappeared, marching over to Hardwick and stopping. He saluted abruptly, ignoring everyone else.
Lieutenant Colonel Hardwick, he said, a small smile on his round face. The General was good enough to send word of your arrival, he added. Hardwick nodded.
I must beg your forgiveness sir, for I was not informed you were here, he said graciously. The man waved a hand.
Oh tosh, dont think about it. We are the 42nd Regiment sir, Colonel Edward Adams commanding, he said. Hardwick saluted neatly.
Sir, he said.
No need, sir, no need, he said.
This is M-
Yes, yes, you can bring your partisans inside if you so wish, he said dismissively, turning to go.
Major Sharpe, sir, of the South Essex, Sharpe said loudly. The Colonel stopped short.
South Essex, you say? Well whats that get-up, man? he demanded rudely, staring at him. Someone steal your uniform?
Sharpe bristled and opened his mouth, but Hardwick stepped into their line of sight and smiled.
Formerly of the 95th Rifles, sir, he said helpfully. Green Jackets, and all that? he prompted.
Oh, oh yes, I see, Adams said, looking round Sharpe to the Chosen Men. And who are they? Drummers? Bit dirty, he tutted.
The Chosen Men, sir, Sharpe said angrily.
Chosen? For what? he demanded, looking at Sharpe as though hed just that moment scraped him from the underside of his boot.
Riflemen, sir, Sharpe said hotly. Adams tutted again, looking skyward.
Another useless dalliance by his lordship, no doubt, he sighed, turning and walking off. Sharpe opened his mouth but Harper gripped his elbow suddenly. He ran a slow tongue over his upper lip, controlling the desire to snatch his rifle from his shoulder and demonstrate just how useless it wasnt. He huffed and Harper let go of his arm, stepping back again. Hardwick looked back at Sharpe apologetically, then at the Colonel.
Sir? he asked, catching up with him. Sharpe and Hardwick walked toward the stone steps, following the Colonel. He turned and looked at Hardwick. Why are you here, sir? Weve been on the road a few days, Im afraid Im somewhat out of the loop, he said helplessly.
Ah. Well, you see -. The Colonel stopped when he realised Sharpe could hear as well. He pulled on Hardwicks arm to walk with him, but Sharpe kept pace on the outside of Hardwick. Do you hunt, Hardwick? he asked loudly, stopping. Hardwick looked at him.
Oh, well, yes sir, as a matter of fact I do, sir, he said, confused.
Hounds? Which group? he asked, looking at Sharpe surreptitiously. Hardwick thought for a second.
The green swatch, he added, confused. Adams grinned.
Ah, very good. Just so. He paused and looked at Sharpe. And you? Hunt, do you? he asked. Sharpe looked at him.
Just the French, sir, he bit out, highly annoyed. Adams looked vindicated.
Ah. Just as well. Would probably get mistaken for a hound, he said pointedly. Sharpe took a step across them but Hardwick grabbed him.
Richard, he said warningly. Im sure hes referring to the green, he said helpfully. Sharpe let his weight backwards, then stepped back again. Slowly.
Im sure, sir, he breathed, slapping Adams with a look whose heat would have shamed any Spanish summer day. Adams swallowed hastily and then flapped his hands at him.
Anyway, get your men seen to, Mister?
Major. Major Sharpe. Sir, he said stonily. Adams shrugged.
Whatever. Off you go, theres a good chap, he said carelessly. Hardwick just looked at Adams, the disgust plainly evident on his face. Sharpes lips thinned and his eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. He turned on his heel and marched off, to rejoin the Green Jackets milling around the courtyard.
I say, bit rough, what? Hardwick said gingerly.
Oh tosh. Hes just a grunt under that pathetic excuse for a uniform. Shouldnt be allowed, he said, shivering suddenly, just shouldnt be allowed. Men like him should be put to work digging, not wearing an officers sword.
So, what are you doing here, sir? Hardwick asked, hoping to change the subject. Adams smiled suddenly, as if everything else were forgotten.
Oh, thats right, you havent heard, he said cheerfully. Were waiting for the French to storm us, Colonel. They should be here in oh, day after tomorrow, I think, he said.
Storm? Here? Hardwick asked, shocked. Adams looked at him.
Is that a problem, Colonel? he asked.
Well, it is a bit of bad luck, really. We were hoping to collect something and then be on our way. We must return it to the General, you see, he said apologetically. Adams nodded.
Ah. Well perhaps youll have time to fetch it and be off before the French arrive, eh? he asked, patting him on the back. Perhaps you could send that rabble back with it, and stay here for the fun? Its going to be a splendid how-do-you-do, Colonel, a splendid how-do-you-do, he said, grinning. Theyve got cannon, you see. Theyre going to try and breach the wall and then storm through it, probably with one of their own Forlorn Hopes, or whatever the French call it. All we have to do is stop them. Its going to be a glorious fight, I can tell you, he said.
Hardwick looked at him. Hes completely mad, he realised. Oh well, sounds jolly exciting, he said out loud. Adams clapped him on the back and turned him toward the steps.
I knew youd fit right in, he said proudly.
And thats the size of it, Richard, Hardwick said quietly. They were standing by the stone steps to the courtyard, Hardwick enjoying a rather expensive looking cigar. Sharpe was leaning against the wall, his rifle stood next to him. His hands leaned on the barrel eye, leaning it from side to side slowly as he thought about the days events.
Bugger him, he said vindictively. Hes not getting in me way, Colonel or no, he added. Ive orders from Wellington himself, and that little pricks not going to stop me.
I daresay hell try, Richard. He doesnt seem to like you, he said apologetically.
Thats alright, I cant stand him neither, he replied. There was a long pause. So you and the Chosen Men are to join in this redoubt.
Sorry, old chap, had no say. Hes my commanding officer, you know, he said miserably. You know, I think now would be a good time for me to retire to England, he said thoughtfully, then puffed on the cigar slowly. I could just do with six months of rolling green hills and nothing but hunting and shooting for sport.
Sharpe looked at him. Well go on then. Youve a choice, James, I havent. Get yourself back to England and marry that bird yer dad picked out for you, he said dismissively. James grinned.
I will not. Ill go back to England and find a girl who likes hunting and shooting, same as me, he smiled. Sharpe snorted in amusement. Shell ride in the woods with me, and read with me, and help me fix rabbit snares. Shell be handsome and capable, youll see, he grinned. Sharpes smile faded.
I knew a girl like that once, he admitted quietly. Hardwick let his smile drop too. He thought about it.
The girl in that despatch? he asked gingerly.
I see. Those letters that went missing from your pack From her, were they? he asked.
I see. Well then old boy, I should say Im quite hoping I never have to read such a report about any girl I like the look of. And then Ill say goodnight, and tell you that Colonel Adams has asked me to tell you to see him in the morning, he said, yawning. Sharpe looked at him. It really is too bad, dear boy, Im dreadfully sorry for you. He patted Sharpes shoulder once. Sharpe nodded to him and he turned and walked away.
Sharpe looked out through the pitch, wondering if hed bother sleeping. If he did it would just be fitful, short napping again. He toyed with the idea of standing there all night, enjoying the peaceful courtyard, with no noise or disturbance. He might have been there a long time, thinking these thoughts; he had no way of knowing. He sighed, realised he really should get some rest, and lifted his hand to rub his eye.
Something moved in the far corner of the courtyard and he froze, staring. He tried to make it out. It moved again and he used the movement to make out the form as it slid across the far wall and toward the steps. It slid ever closer to him, and he rested the rifle to lean against the wall silently, crouching further into the shadows thrown by the steps.
The figure swept over and put a foot on the steps. Sharpe waited until they were near the top, and he heard the door swing open. He leapt out and round, taking the steps two at a time. He flung himself through the door still on its back-swing, and grabbed at the figure.
He wrenched them back and against the inside wall, snatching the hood away.
Well, well, well, he breathed into the face of Miss Schofield. Are you going to tell me who you really are now? And why you took me letters? he demanded. She struggled fiercely, but he slammed her shoulder back against the wall. She gasped, shocked, and froze. She swallowed, recovering her composure.
She looked at him from a mere four inches, studying his emerald eyes coldly. Oh believe me Major, I yearned to tell you who I really was that first night in the army camp. But I couldnt give the entire game away, now could I?
What game? he demanded roughly. She smiled, despite the definite malice in his scowl.
Thats for me to know and you to find out. My name might clear it up, she snapped. Charlotte. Charlotte Berry, she hissed. He just stared at her.
Is that supposed to mean summat to me? he demanded angrily.
You arrogant bastard! she screamed into his face. He lifted his other hand and kept her shoulders pinned to the wall. You killed my brother! Lieutenant Berry, of the South Essex! Ive waited this long to find you, you murdering gutter-snipe, and now Ill get my revenge!
Maybe Ill just kill you here and now and be done with it, Sharpe seethed. She laughed in his face.
You cant. Youre such a good man, Richard Sharpe, or so they all say!
He pushed on her shoulders roughly and she bumped against the wall. What do you want? he snapped.
I want what you want, Major the book, she admitted.
And you think pilfering some useless letters from me bags going to make me give it to you? he demanded. I dont even know where it is!
No, you wont give it to me for the letters. But maybe for this, she said, lifting a hand slowly. In it was a pale pink scarf, exactly as one he remembered so well. He grabbed it and stepped back, watching her cautiously. He ran his thumb over the silk, knowing whose it was by the slight smell of lavender that drifted up to shock him.
A scarf? he demanded, covering his fear. Just a scarf? Yer off yer head, he snapped dismissively. She sneered.
Oh no, Major, I dont mean to torture you with a scarf, she grinned, and he swallowed. The owner of that scarf is very much alive, Major. She hasnt mentioned you, but then, its not easy with one just like it tied over her mouth, she grinned. He moved and in one sudden, fluid movement had caught her by the throat.
Where is she? he breathed. Her fingers dug at the wall desperately, her eyes staring at him in surprise.
Where I can keep an eye on her, she rasped. If anything happens to me, she dies, she managed, and he let his fingers ease just a tad. She breathed more easily. If you dont give me that book, she dies, she added.
He eyed her dangerously. If you so much as touch
Do we have a deal? she snapped. Or shall I have her finger cut off to convince you? Itd be damned hard to write such spirited letters with only four digits, she hissed.
Ill get you the book. Youll let her go, safe and sound. Or Ill find you and you can burn in hell with yer brother, he snarled. She felt his fingers tightening slowly. She clawed at them, smiling despite the difficulty.
Deal. She yanked on his fingers suddenly. She coupled the movement with her knee, driving it into his groin with as much angry strength as she could muster. He let go abruptly, staggering back and into the wall behind him, bending double and coughing horribly. He slid to his side, his left shoulder against the wall for support, but could already see her bouncing away down the corridor.
He let himself get his breath back, cursing her, her family, and anyone vaguely related to her. It was a long few minutes before he could put his hand on the wall and straighten slowly. He moved to walk and winced, cursing her again before limping out of the corridor, back to the door.
He pushed it open roughly and made his way down the stone steps awkwardly. Harper! he bellowed, then winced and coughed again. Harper! he shouted, wiping his mouth.
He heard running and there was the Irishman, stopping at the bottom of the steps, his volley gun at the ready. Sharpe reached the bottom and shifted his weight onto one leg, not looking at him as he wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
Jesus sir, what happened to you? You look white as a sheet! Harper cried. Sharpe swallowed, checked his breathing, and looked at him.
Tell me where we can find that Caron, he said, putting a hand out and pushing him round to walk. Harper nodded.
Oh, right sir. Harris spotted him not too long ago sir hes really not very smart for a spy, he said conversationally. Sharpe snorted in disgust.
Hes not a spy, he tutted. But Ill bet he knows where that damned book is.
And why would he know that, sir? he asked.
Cos that bitch whos pretending to be Marjorie Schofield wants it. He stopped and looked at Harper. Shes Berrys sister, he said heavily.
God save Ireland! Harper hissed. Berry? He had a sister, sir? he asked, shocked.
Aye. And twice as conniving as that rat-bastard piece of shit were, an all, he spat. Shes got Mar. Shell trade her for the book.
Harper grinned abruptly. Well, at least shes alive, sir, he cried, clapping him on the shoulder.
Fer now. We have to get that book.
Jesus sir, but youre not going to hand it over, are you? he asked quietly, as Sharpe turned and they walked on.
Absolutely, Pat. But shes not going to get far with it. Shes going to get it just as the Frogs attack. And then theres no way she can leave, is there? he asked pointedly. And then we have time to catch her with it.
Harper nodded thoughtfully. Although, youd think that if she laid all these plans, shed have laid a way out of a French siege, so she would, he offered. Sharpe stopped and looked at him.
Shut it, Pat. I were just starting to get hopeful, he grumbled.
Sorry sir. Hows this for cheerful news, sir, he said eagerly, catching him up as he walked away again. Harris has found a book of Milton, and Robinsons found the rum stash of the entire village!
Both wasted on me, Pat, he said, shaking his head. Come on, weve got work to do, he said, and Harper grinned.
The dull thud didnt register with Sharper until he heard the whistling sound straight after. He looked at Harper, wide-eyed, as the cannon ball smacked into the village wall soundly.
Shite! Harper breathed. Theyve started early, the Frog bastards, he cursed. Sharpe got up, crossing to the window in the tower and looking out.
Four guns an all, he said thoughtfully. He turned and looked back at Harper and Harris, the only other two allowed in his tower room. He had secreted the three of them up there to avoid Colonel Adams, who had seen fit to send search parties for the three missing men. Well? he asked.
Seems to me, sir, Harris said thoughtfully, pouring over the map in front of him, that there are only four places she could be.
Show me, he said, walking over and looking at the map. Harris reached out and patted the picture confidently.
This place has three cellars, sir. I vote shes in one of those, and probably the one farthest from the kitchens, he added. Less people to peer inside and see whats in there. The only other place would be the library, sir, he added.
The library? Jesus, dont make this into a book-finding mission, Harris, Harper grunted. Harris grinned impudently.
Actually sir, it appears to be highly fortified and only has one door. And no windows, he added thoughtfully. Sharpe nodded.
Right then. There are four places and three of us. He looked at Harris. Youre the clever one, which one would you go for? And if you say the library, Ill make sure Harper halves yer tea rations, he said sweetly. Harris swallowed.
The furthest cellar, sir. He looked at Harper. Seriously! Thats where Id put anyone I wanted kept secret, sir.
Good lad, Harper said, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder. He looked at Sharpe. So whats the plan, sir? We dont have the book.
Book? Harris asked eagerly. Sharpe ignored him.
Yeah, but the only one as knows that is the bugger than actually has it. Right? he said craftily. Harper and Harris waited, and there it was: the slightly glazed look in those green eyes, the tongue touching the upper lip lightly, the definite edge to his jaw. Sharpe was planning.
Good afternoon, Charlotte Berry said pleasantly, walking into the room slowly. The single man by the door nodded to her. Any trouble? she asked.
Nothing, he admitted, his French accent heavy and his eyes tired. She nodded and closed the door behind her. She walked deeper into the room, watching the girl sitting on the chair. She walked around the front of her.
Marjorie? she asked politely. Marjorie, dear, wake up, Ive something important to show you, she said nicely. Marjorie opened an eye, remembered where she was, and yanked at the ropes over her wrists fiercely.
Nothing you could have would interest me, she spat, tugging still. The ropes had already burnt and cut her skin, but she tugged anyway. Charlotte smiled, opening her bag and pulling out some small, beige pieces of expensive cartridge paper.
My dear Richard, she began, reading the paper, Ive waited so long for a village where were able to send letters. I hope when you get this youre still in one piece, and Pats keeping you out of trouble, she continued in a honeyed voice. Marjorie stared.
Where did you get that? she demanded hotly. Charlotte paused and looked at her.
Oh dear. Not terribly bright, are you? she asked. This is mostly boring but oh, wait, look at this! The nights here are drawing in, and Peter says itll be proper winter soon. I wish you were here to keep me warm, as you do know how make me
Alright, I get it, Marjorie interrupted. How did you get them? she demanded.
I stole them. Much like how your dear Richard is going to steal something for me, she said, smiling with satisfaction.
You think hell work for you? Marjorie snorted. Hes too good a man. He wouldnt lower himself.
Charlotte crossed close to her, slapping her hard across the face. Marjorie cried out, surprised. She looked back at her venomously.
He will, my dear Marjorie. Precisely because he is a good man. Because he knows if he doesnt, youll be found all over this village. One part here, another part over there, she said airily.
Bitch, Marjorie whispered. Charlotte nodded.
I am. He made me this way. She stepped back, looking her over. You dont seem so special a girl. I wonder what he could see in you, she muttered idly.
Im not a completely twisted evil whore, Marjorie offered sweetly. Charlottes face turned angry, but she controlled herself. She thought for a long moment, then smiled to herself.
You know, I think Ill get my revenge hurting you. I know how much Major Sharpe would be enraged by this. In fact, once youve begged me for release and Ive cut your throat, Ill tell him as much.
And why do you want to see him suffer? Marjorie asked. What did he ever do to you?
Charlottes face turned dark. She straightened unconsciously. He killed my brother.
And you killed mine! Marjorie exploded. If I do one thing in this life, Ill kill you for it! she shouted, her face reddening. Charlotte laughed, clapping her hands together.
Oh, dear me, this is going to be so much fun, she giggled. If it hadnt included that whoreson of a miscreant from killing my only family, she snapped suddenly.
Marjorie lifted her chin and looked at her with eyes that would have taken the edge off a diamond. If he were anything like you, he did the world a favour, she spat.
Charlotte stepped closer and slapped her again, this time with the back of her hand. Marjorie waited for the sharp pain to subside before licking a sore lip, looking back at her.
You keep going, this is going to be fun, Charlotte said delightedly. You know, I would have wanted to take it out on his wife, but someone got to her first.
Bitch! Marjories brain screamed. She thought back to the conversations she had had with Sharpe how hed been cut to the bone by the loss of this wife. She thought back over his tales of prejudice, his accounts of Horse Guards many refusals of his gazettes, and a fierce rage welled up inside her.
Why must this world always piss on the good people? This worlds had more than its fair share of fun out of his bad luck. This whores not getting anything out of him, even if it kills me to stop her. How dare she! Come on then, bitch, do yer worst! Screw you, and every one of your mis-begotten, bloody useless excuses for family! she raged. Charlotte stepped back, studying Marjories face.
And dont think youll withstand what well do to you, she said, everyone breaks after a few days.
And every time I want to, Ill think of what youre trying to do to him, and Ill find a way to kill you, Marjorie thought vindictively. Just step a little closer.
Hardwick strode into the cavernous cellar, looking round at the arsenal silently. He counted the number of muskets stacked against the wall of the disused cellar. Something made him pause. He froze, wondering what might have alerted his soldiers instincts in such a dank and dismal place. He heard some small noise and edged toward the barrels of gunpowder.
Something shifted in the dust on the floor, and he heard it. Grinning, he pulled the loaded pistol from his belt as he put a hand round and grabbed at thin air.
A piece of material caught in his grasp and he yanked on it. There was a scuffling sound and pistol shot rang out.
The sound reverberated off the walls, then all was silent. Hardwick looked down at the form of Caron, lying, shaking, on the floor. The pistol he had let off was lying safely out of reach. Hardwick grinned.
Youre a poor shot, old boy, he said pleasantly. And incredibly stupid. Do you realise how much damage you would have done, had that shot hit some powder? Dear me, he tutted, shaking his head. Now I believe you and I have some rather urgent things to discuss. He bent down and hauled the man to his feet. Caron looked to the door but Hardwick grabbed his arm and raised his pistol. Care to try me, Pierre? he asked politely. Caron shook his head. Good. I hope you wont think me immodest if I confess Im rather a crack shot with one of these. Now then, theres really only one question I want answering, he said.
Im not telling you anything, he said proudly, sticking his chin out and puffing out his chest. Hardwick grinned suddenly, and Caron stared.
Oh good. I was rather hoping youd say that. Because I know someone whod be very interested in persuading you to tell him, he chuckled. Come along, dont dawdle. Must let him know the good news!
Mister Sharpe, sir! Harper called across the cellar. Sharpe turned and looked back.
Well there's no bugger in here then, he said sarcastically, walking back toward the steps in the gloom. Harper cleared his throat.
Begging your pardon, but Colonel Hardwick is asking for you, sir, he said, more quietly.
Oh aye? What does he want? he asked, looking at Harpers cheerful face.
Says he has something for you, so he does, he said, grinning. Sharpe dropped the torch, stood on the end to tamp it out, and followed Harper out of the cellar gratefully. They walked up the steps and out through the door, closing and barring it securely before walking back to the main part of the old castle.
It was dusty and grimy, everything covered in a thin layer of ancient gravel, and the two men crunched through it determinedly. Outside, the sound of French guns pounding at the walls was met by the occasional sound of musket fire and shouts of officers with Things To Do. Sharpe was glad that, just this once, he wasnt part of it. He imagined the 42nd Regiment organised and ready, taking pot-shots at the French soldiers stupid enough to get too close to the walls. He heard the sudden crack of a rifle and looked at Harper.
Theyve been drafted in, so they have, sir, he said apologetically.
Well as long as theyre not expected to leave the castle, he growled, angry his best men were being wasted on some fools idea of keeping the enemy at bay. They strode round to the library, currently favoured by Harper because it was easily defended. He swept in the door and waited for Sharpe to follow him.
He did, and stopped dead. He stared. Bloody ell James, what you been doing? he asked with a sly grin.
Hardwick looked at him, still holding his pistol on a now seated Pierre Caron. Caron looked at him with as much dignity as he could muster.
Nothing much, Richard. Just a little seeking and finding, he grinned. Hes rather reluctant to share the location of the book. He even maintains he does not know where its hidden. However, I believe otherwise, he said, stepping away from him and pulling the pistol off cock slowly. He looked at Caron. Now then, old boy, I think it would rather be in your best interests to tell Mister Sharpe here all you know. Hes not nearly as patient as I am, you see, he grinned. Caron looked at Sharpe.
Theres nothing you could say that would persuade me to divulge
You think about yer next answer very carefully, yer bastard, Sharpe breathed, moving quickly across the wooden floor to stand in front of his chair. It may be yer last.
Caron looked up at him. He swallowed.
Sharpe looked out at the walls, watching the men scurrying about, hearing the shouts of Colonel Adams and assorted officers.
Sieges dont look so bad from up here, he reasoned, watching the movements of the men, seeing all of their efforts to keep French bayonets from reaching the top of the walls. He stood, bitterly entranced, as redcoats easily defended the only entrance. Just a matter of time fore the Frogs call it off fer today. Theyll wait till tomorrow now. He smiled slightly. Perfect.
He turned and walked back to the library, his hand closing and opening on the sword hilt by his left side unconsciously. He walked in, looking around.
Ah, sir, Harper said cheerfully. Will Miss Berry not be waiting for us, sir? he asked. Sharpe snorted without mirth.
Bloody hope so, he grunted. She can come and find me, now that she must know we have the real book.
The door opened again and Hardwick entered, looking hot and more than a little used.
Stone me, its awful hot work out there, he breathed, opening his jacket and removing a simple white handkerchief, wiping his face vigorously. How goes it with you, Richard? he asked. Sharpe slid his hand inside his tunic and brought out the leather-bound book he and Harper had wrested from its hiding place not half an hour before. He waved it at Hardwick.
Got it alright, but now we're just waiting, he admitted, looking down at the book. It was amazingly innocuous. A simply burgundy leather cover, plain except for some wear and tear on each corner, opened to reveal a list of seemingly unconnected names. There was no explanation, no foreward, no notes of any kind, simply the list of names that went on for many pages. Sharpe had cast his eyes through it, but none of the names had seemed at all familiar.
So you're moving things along, eh? Hardwick asked eagerly. Sharpe looked back at him, sliding the volume back inside his tunic.
What am I supposed to do? Run round the castle shouting Ive got yer book, bitch, come and get it? he asked ruefully. We still dont know where she is.
Oh, I see, he said, nodding. Could Pierre not shed some light on this matter? he asked. Sharpe smiled slightly.
Hes not in the mood, he said dryly. Hardwick could understand. After ten minutes in a locked room with no-one but Sharpe for company, Pierre Caron had given up the location of the book. Hed also seen fit to share his life story, one which included his bad luck at being trapped under siege, just when hed found the book and was about to make off with it before Charlotte Berry could smoke him out. He says he dunt really know the woman, only that shes not on his side.
Oh, thats a blow, Hardwick admitted. Was rather hoping they were in this together. So if Miss Berry is just in this for the book, whats Pierre doing here? he asked. Sharpe walked over to the large, comfortable leather chair and lowered himself into it wearily.
He werent very helpful about that. And to be honest, after hed told me where it was it didnt seem to matter much. Why dont you ask him? he said, wiping a hand over his face. Hardwick watched him, then looked at Harper.
I say, old man, would you mind giving us a minute alone? he asked cheerfully. Harper nodded.
Pleasure, sir, he said, nodding respectfully and walking out, closing the door behind him. Hardwick looked at Sharpe.
I, er Ive been on the rough end of Colonel Adams wrath, most of this morning, he said slowly, walking to the table and helping himself to the drinks thereon. Sharpe just sniffed and unbuttoned the top few shiny buttons on his tunic. Hes most displeased with you, Richard. Called you all kinds of names. Would have made a sailor blush, I rather fancy, he added thoughtfully. Sharpe smiled.
Bugger the Colonel, he said happily. All I have to do is get Mar and this book out of here, and then back to Wellington. The rest can go hang, he added fervently. Hardwick looked at the wine hed just poured. He lifted the glass slowly.
Hmm, he agreed doubtfully. Sharpe looked at him.
What? he asked mildly. Hardwick turned and looked at him.
You know you neednt stay here, Richard, he said quietly, looking at his drink. You could take this Marjorie and repair to England. He paused, then looked up at Sharpe. Had you thought about it? he asked lightly. Sharpe sighed, wiping a hand over his face.
Yes. And no, he said. Im not done here yet, he added. Hardwick raised his eyebrows.
Youre a Major, Richard. You have influence and a position. You could take this girl back to England and
And do what? Sharpe demanded quietly. Ive got nothing, James. Im a Major, but thats it. A gazetted Major, left a little elbow room by Wellington from time to time when it suits him or when he wants me for summat. Ive a bit of money put by in London, but what good is that when Mars never going to . He stopped himself, looking at the arm of the chair. He lifted a hand and smoothed it over the surface slowly. Hardwick nodded sadly.
I see. He sipped at the wine, disliked it immensely, and set it back down on the silver tray. He folded his arms, leaning back on the table. So you stay in this war, leading regiments and doing whatever Lord Wellington orders you to, hoping to stay alive and somehow achieve a higher rank. Not a good way to live, if you dont mind me saying, Richard, he said quietly.
Oh aye? And how should I live? Go back to England, have Mar disappear cos she dunt want to marry some scruffy whipped peasant-boy with a torn Majors sash? he asked bitterly.
I just mean He sighed.
You just mean well, James, like you always do. He huffed to himself. Why do you carry on in this place? You could go home at any time, he added.
I know. And I will. Just as soon as this siege is broken. Id give it a day, he said airily. Itll be shame to say goodbye to the whole army life, what with sleeping and eating in this beautiful country.
It was beautiful. Now its full of ghosts, graves and broken promises, Sharpe said quietly. He stood abruptly. Go home, James. And dont spare the horses, he said dryly, a small smile on his features. Hardwick looked at him, ignoring the sounds of men shouting and muskets crackling outside. Sharpe walked to the door, opening it to find Harper outside, pretending he wasnt listening in.
Would like to see this thing through, Richard, Hardwick said proudly. I feel somehow responsible for your involvement, you see, he added apologetically. Sharpe shrugged.
Ill get Mar back, and the book. And if I dont, Ill just burn it.
And the girl? This Miss Berry? he asked. Sharpe looked at Harper, then back at Hardwick. He wet his lips slowly.
Ill have her arrested, he said pleasantly, turning and walking out. Hardwick caught Harpers eye, and they shared a long look.
No, me neither, Sergeant, he said quietly. Harper shook his head and walked off.
He felt a sharp push at his shoulder and was instantly awake. He looked up into the face of Charlotte Berry.
Well, well, well, she smiled maliciously, holding a candle over his face. If it isnt Lieutenant Sharpe.
Major, he stressed, looking round the library in the gloom. He found Harper at bayonet point, torn between scowling at the burly looking Frenchman holding it, and looking at Sharpe. Found me then? Took you long enough. Did you lose yer map? he snarled, pushing off the blanket and standing free of the chair. She moved back, safely out of his reach, and smiled.
Hardly. I was having far too much fun talking to your lovely woman, she said pleasantly. He looked at her with venom. Come now, dear Richard, we cant stand here playing games when theres so much at stake. Wheres the book? she demanded suddenly. He looked at her, then over at the Frenchmen.
You think Id have it in here? That Id just hand it over, without first seeing Marjorie? he scoffed. Im not as stupid as you look.
Hmm, she said, thinking. So this is where I make you promise to follow me to visit with your darling Marjorie, and not try to jump us, is that so? she asked lightly. I dont think so. Youll sit here in fear while I go and fetch her up here. And Pierre here will watch the two of you. He looked around, but realised she was referring to the huge slab of Frenchman, and not Pierre Caron.
Whats the matter, afraid well jump the lot of you and run off across the fields wi the book and your captive? Evading Frog patrols left, right and centre, making it to the next village without food, water, or horses? he demanded. She grinned.
You do have a point. But Im not taking any chances. You and your pet bog-paddler are sitting tight. Wait for my return, she said icily. He reached out and grabbed her wrist cruelly. She gasped and swung back to look at him, reaching for his face with her free hand.
He ducked it easily, grabbing that wrist and clamping his hands tight around them. She struggled but he had a damned good hold.
Now then, he breathed, bending her wrist round and yanking it across her back. She yelped and then cried out in pain. Sharpe looked at the Frenchman. You, he spat. Hand it over.
The man looked at him, then at Charlotte. Sharpe let go of her limp wrist and put his hand to the back of his breeches, sliding a shiny new dirk from its sheath. He brought it round slowly, making sure it caught the light near her neck.
Tell you what, dont hand it over. Ill cut her throat and then the big Irishman next to you will do yours, he snarled. The Frenchman appeared to think about it. Sharpe grinned. Oh Charlotte, he said, his voice mocking and cruel, seems we have a problem. This man seems to like you, maybe enough to risk me killing you both here and now. Must be love, eh, he said to Harper. The Sergeant grinned.
Sure enough, sir, he said impishly. Sharpe nodded.
Well then, he said simply, pushing the blade against the soft skin of Charlottes throat. She whimpered as he pressed slowly, staring at the Frenchman. Harper looked at him, then back at Sharpe.
Oh sir, but itd be a shame to get blood on that rug, he reasoned.
Dont care, its not mine, Sharpe said, amused. He pressed slightly, and the blade dug in just enough to pierce the skin. A single line of blood appeared, and the Frenchman cursed something. I hope thats French for you win, Sharpe snapped. The man huffed, then reversed the bayonet and shoved it in Harpers direction. Looks like it, Sharpe said, then pulled the blade back a little, but it hovered ever close. Now, you take us to Marjorie, and make damned sure theres no problems, he breathed at the back of her head. She swallowed.
Ill kill you, she spat hoarsely.
Not if I kill you first. Go, he barked, pushing on her arm. She cried out with the sudden jolt of pain, stepping forwards. He followed her closely, as Harper gestured with the bayonet. The Frenchman followed them silently.
They walked out of the library and across half of the castle, Sharpe cursing the map that had now been completely turned upside down in his head. She was doing it on purpose, he realised, trying to confuse him.
They stopped by a door and Charlotte stood firm.
Now unhand me, you callous bastard, she spat. He scoffed openly.
Unlock it. Now, he said. She sniffed.
I cant. The keys in my pocket. Youll have to let me go, she pouted. He let go of her arm and pushed at her shoulder, thumping her against the wall next to the door. She gasped and bit her lip. He pressed the blade to the back of her neck where she could feel it, then put his hand to the pocket of her dress. You lecherous
Just shut it, he said, finding her pocket empty. He pulled his hand back, wondering what to do next, when his eyes suddenly fell on a knot in a cord, at the side of her neck. He put his hand to her back, sliding it up and feeling the shape of a key near her shoulder blade.
How dare you! she fumed. He didnt bother to reply, just put his fingers to the cord and pulled on it. The key started to slide out, but then caught on something inside the lining of her dress. He moved round and slid his hand inside the dress, along her shoulder, and she jumped. You disgusting, sad excuse for a pervert! she gasped. How dare you handle me!
Bloody ell woman, if you think this is handling youve had a deprived life, he snapped impatiently. His hand, though warm and dry, was rough to the touch as it slid along her shoulder and then turned toward her back. He found the key but had to push his hand in further to get them to it securely. He managed to get an index finger to it and pulled it out slowly. He heard Harper chuckling and looked at him. What are you laughing at? he asked indignantly.
Oh, nothing at all, sir, he said, a huge grin on his face, his bayonet securely against the Frenchmans throat. Sharpe looked back at the key, yanking on it suddenly. The cord snapped and he handed it to Harper.
Here, he said. Harper took it, his blade still on the Frenchman, as he gestured him to shuffle over. He did, and Harper unlocked the door, his eyes never leaving the big man. He swung the door open and Sharpe gestured Harper back. He grasped Charlottes arm, pushing her in before him. Mar? he called into the gloom of three candles. Marjorie?
There was a muffled noise and Harper and Sharpe looked over. Marjorie, in her best riding outfit, was tied to a wooden chair by the far wall. She had what looked like a black silk shawl over her head. Sharpe looked over, then at Harper. He nodded and waved the Frenchman over to the chair.
A pistol cracked suddenly. The Frenchman fell.
Sharpe, Harper and Charlotte looked on as Pierre Caron appeared from behind the door, watching them as he reloaded the pistol carefully.
Mister Sharpe. So good to see you again, he said suavely.
You bastard! Charlotte shouted at him. Youve killed Pierre!
Oh I shouldnt worry about him, Caron said to her glibly, there are plenty more where he came from. He looked at Harper. Youre next, he said cheerfully. Harper shifted his feet but Caron lifted the now ready pistol. Sharpe shuffled to his left, and Caron turned it on him. Dont! he warned.
What are you doing here? he demanded, still holding onto Charlotte. He pushed her more in front of him.
To collect the book, Mister Sharpe, he said. Even a thug like you could understand how useful that would be to me.
Why did Wellington let you come? he snapped curiously. Caron grinned.
I told him I knew Major Monroe, he shrugged. Of course I do I worked with him once. Well, when I say with, I really mean against, he said wisely.
Jesus youre a French spy? Harper interrupted. Caron looked at him.
Ironic, isnt it? Although the real irony is that so is she, he added.
Liar! Charlotte hurled at him.
You really shouldnt call people names when theyre holding a loaded pistol, my dear, he said serenely. Why dont you come clean? It seems to be far too late in the day to be pretending were anything other than we are. Eh, Mister Sharpe? he said cheerfully.
You want the book. She wants the book. But I need the book, he replied.
But I will have it, he said forcefully.
Over her dead body, Sharpe snapped, pulling on Charlotte to bring her full in front of him, and both of them in front of Marjories chair. Caron kept his aim steady and low.
Come on, man! Fight properly! Caron huffed, unable to get a clean shot at Sharpe with Charlotte held in front of him. Sharpe grinned maliciously. He shoved Charlotte to one side and lunged at Caron.
The pistol cracked but nothing emerged from the gun. The ball had not been inserted. Sharpe was on him in a moment, his hands grabbing for the mans neck. Harper stepped around the scuffle and ran for Charlotte. She leapt on Sharpe, grabbing at his back and head with her bared nails.
Harper grabbed at her round the waist. She twisted and raked her nails dangerously close to his eyes. He staggered and Charlotte turned her attention back to Sharpe.
He had Caron pinned down underneath him, but Charlottes nails in his neck made him lurch to one side in a bid to throw her off. They fell in a tangle of arms, legs, skirts and swords.
Caron crawled out, snatching at his sword and drawing it hurriedly. Sharpe rolled from him as fast as he could, his hand on his sword hilt before a searing pain abruptly screamed into his leg.
Give me that! Harper shouted, manhandling Charlotte back from the two men. She dropped the bloodied dirk, screaming insults and battering at the Irishman. He didnt think. He slapped her generously across the face, and she wilted dead away.
Sharpe dragged himself to his feet, aware the back of his trousers were wet and warm. He drew his sword and faced Caron, sucking air in through his nose desperately above the pain.
Now then, yer bastard, he growled. Caron swallowed now that the green-jacketed devil was on his feet and brandishing his own weapon. He realised there was no alternative.
He rushed forward. The swords clashed, Caron stroked, Sharpe parried easily. Carons slimmer, more elegant blade slid through the air like water off of silk. Sharpes sword crashed through the gloom like pox through a regiment, catching Carons blows every time. They staggered and pushed, swept and dragged blades.
Harper snatched up the pistol and reloaded it quickly, before tucking it in his belt and looking across the room. He slung Charlotte over his shoulder and crossed to the chair, letting Charlotte down to the rug. He fished around for the bayonet and scooped it up, using it on the ropes around Marjorie.
Sharpe slammed his shoulder into Caron. He fell to the floor but Sharpe staggered, his left hand clutching at his knee painfully. Caron saw his chance. He kicked out with all his weight. Sharpes left foot folded and he went down in a heap. Caron was on him, bashing at him indiscriminately with the sword hilt. Sharpe struck out with his elbow, catching the pommel of the hilt full on his hand. There was an awful crack and Caron laughed out loud as Sharpe cried out in pain. His hand flicked open. His sword dropped to the floor with an almighty clatter.
Caron drew the sword back slowly, aiming the tip at Sharpes eye. Sharpe stared at him, his chest heaving, his neck running blood and his breath coming ragged through his nose. He glared at Caron, his jade eyes spitting with hatred. He grasped at the first two fingers of his right hand, bent at such an unnatural angle, and Caron grinned delightedly.
Dont worry, Caron said, they wont hurt for long. He drew the sword back further, tightening his grip. Sharpe didnt move.
Caron thrust forward with his sword. Sharpe bent forward. The blade cut into his tunic and slid across his back, stinging as it cut open some skin. Caron grunted suddenly, then gasped and fell forwards. He landed heavily against Sharpes back and shoulder, inert.
Harper jumped up, crossing quickly. He grabbed Caron and heaved him off, onto the floor. The shiny dirk sat proudly, plunged hilt-deep into Carons chest. Harper looked at Sharpe, shaking his head.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, sir, he breathed, grasping the sword hilt and pulling it free of his tunic. You cut it fine that time.
Oh yer a laugh a minute, you are, Sharpe snapped irritably, his attention turning back to his dislocated fingers. He grabbed them tightly, hissing, as he climbed to his feet wearily. Harper put his hands out and knocked his away. He grabbed the fingers. Dont even th-
Harper wrenched them straight and Sharpe jumped, crying out and pushing Harper away from him with his left hand. Harper watched, amused, as Sharpe looked at his fingers curiously. He looked at Harper slowly.
You could have warned me, he pointed out, wiping his forehead with his left arm.
Not on your life, sir, Harper said indignantly, watching Sharpe squeeze them again with his left hand. Then he put his hand inside his tunic and over the book, checking it was still intact.
Richard? Marjorie asked, and they looked over. Sharpe crossed to her chair, spying Charlotte still apparently out for the count on the rug. He crouched in front of Marjorie slowly.
Mar, he breathed, his face breaking into a grin, and she sat forwards and threw her arms round him. It jarred and stung every slice and injury, but he pulled her to him and held her tightly for a long moment. He pulled her away to look at her. He noticed her face was bruised and swollen. Im sorry we took so long, he said quietly. She grinned.
Balls to it, I want to get out of this damned room, she said. He grinned, nodding. He helped her to stand and she turned to see Harper. And you! she said, letting go of Sharpe and crossing to him quickly, You are a bloody hero! She wrapped her arms round him and planted a huge kiss on his cheek. He looked surprised, then grinned.
Oh, well, no trouble miss, Im sure, he said cheekily. She chuckled, pulling herself back and looking round at Sharpe. She gasped and pointed at him.
You! Charlotte breathed behind him. He turned to find she was on her feet, her nails bared, her teeth flashing in the gloom.
There was a single pistol shot. Charlotte stopped abruptly, her hands slapping to her chest directly over her heart. She stepped back once. Then she fell to the floor. Sharpe immediately bent and checked her neck. The pulse he found threaded and faded. He blew out a long sigh, shaking his head and looking round.
Bloody ell Pat, that were . The sentence died on his lips.
Marjorie sniffed, lifted the pistol away from Sharpes direction, and took a deep breath. She let it out slowly.
You once asked me if I knew how to use one of these, she said simply. Well, now you know, eh. She turned and handed it to Harper politely, who was staring at her in awe. Bitch. Dont know who she thought she was, she grumbled to herself. She wiped her hands on her trousers, then looked round at Sharpe. She stopped, surprised at his face, watching her in shock. What?
Lets... he cleared his throat, knowing Harpers face mirrored his own. Let's just get out of here, Sharpe said. Weve still got to get this book out an back to Wellington, he said, standing slowly. He hissed and Marjorie walked over.
Richard, yer bleeding from just about every patch of skin youve got, she tutted. Ive told you, if yer going to play rough, make sure you hurt em more n they do you.
Come on. We have to find out how to get out from underneath a French siege, he said ruefully.
Sir! Sir! Major Sharpe! came a shout. Harris and Hagman appeared round the doorframe. They took in the scene in the room, and then dashed over to Sharpe.
Well? he demanded impatiently.
Theyre in, sir! Harris managed before Hagman could get his breath back.
Who? Sharpe asked, confused.
The Frogs, sir!
Ah, finally! Colonel Adams shouted, spying Sharpe managing slowly down the stone steps. What the devil are you playing at, Sharpe? Weve been looking for you for two days, man, needed you at the Good Lord! he cried, aghast, taking in Sharpes appearance. His green tunic was ripped at each shoulder, his bloodied shirt showing through very clearly underneath. The white cloth strip holding the two fingers of his right hand together matched the one staunching the blood flow from the back of his left thigh. His neck was scratched and bloodied, welts clearly beginning to form, and his face was bruised and dark with malevolence.
Sir, he said clearly, stopping in front of him smartly. I regret I have been unavailable for the past two days. However, I was following Lord Wellingtons orders to find and make safe two French spies within our own ranks, sir, he said, keeping his chin up. Adams mouth worked but nothing came out for a long moment. He looked around him, uncertain.
Hardwick! Hardwick! Adams shouted, his voice betraying his fright. He looked back at Sharpe. Well, did you get them, man? he demanded loudly.
Most definitely, sir, he nodded confidently. Adams swallowed.
Right, well then We are broken, Sharpe, he said. If youd been here, fighting like a real man, you might have helped stay the ranks, he snapped. As it is were preparing for the French to start over that wall. Theyve already got in and to our magazine, he said.
The magazine, sir? Sharpe demanded angrily. How the bloody hell could they get men in there so fast?
Theyre soldiers, man! Adams shouted. They do this for a living! How dare you question me! he roared. Luckily for us Im not as cowardly as yourself, sir! he spat. We stood our ground, by God we did! We drove them back for now, he allowed. Sharpe pushed all the blood he could taste to the front of his mouth, turned to one side, and spat loudly and accurately. It just missed Adams boot. Adams recoiled instantly. Why, you
Colonel Adams, sir, Hardwick said from his right. Both men turned and looked at him. Sir, were preparing the defence, weve got the four guns into position, sir. But weve lost all our tapers! he reported. They were in the magazine. And were down to four barrels of gunpowder, sir, he added. Adams whimpered, wiping his forehead with a damp handkerchief.
Oh my, he moaned to himself. What is a Colonel to do? He thought for a long second, then turned to Sharpe. Right, sir, you will try and regain what modicum of respect you could ever hope to have by leading the men in the first bayonet charge, he said imperiously. Sharpe looked at him just looked. And then, Hardwick, you shall
No, Sharpe said suddenly. Adams stopped, dumbfounded.
What did you say? he gasped, unable to comprehend.
No, sir, Sharpe said. Well find tapers. Get them guns going to cut em down. Then well face em inside the wall. Pull the men off the top, get em lined up, about thirty feet from the breach, and
How dare you impugn my command! Adams shouted. Sharpe swallowed and took one step toward him. Adams took an involuntary step back, then looked at Hardwick. He cleared his throat. Ive had a better idea, Colonel Hardwick, he said loudly, with as much dignity as he could muster. Were going to put Sharpe in charge of the guns. Hell stay up there with them, and his riflemen, to cut down as many French as he can. Well regroup the men in this courtyard, and in three neat lines, if you will. I want them a good thirty feet back from the breach in the wall, is that understood? he asked haughtily.
Yes sir, of course, sir, Hardwick said immediately.
Good man. Then when any lucky French get over that wall, we lay down suppressing fire by ranks until they turn tail and run. Understood?
Yes sir! Hardwick said smartly. He saluted and ran off. Adams turned and looked at Sharpe.
Well? See to your guns and men, Sharpe, he said dismissively. Sharpe shot him a look that would have shattered glass. He held his gaze until Adams swallowed and looked away. Then he turned and shuffled his way back toward the stone steps. He made his way up slowly, finding Harper there. He put a hand under Sharpes elbow and half-pulled, half-guided him up the final few steps.
What is he saying to now, sir? Harper asked scathingly. Sharpe looked over his shoulder at the Colonel, strutting round the courtyard spewing orders. His eyes narrowed.
Were to find tapers and get em to the guns, along with the Chosen Men, he said. Harper regarded him as he shook him off his elbow.
Oh, right then, he said sarcastically. Look at him, marching around like a cock of the barnyard, he tutted.
Oh hes a cock alright, Sharpe said to himself.
And just where are we supposed to find tapers, sir?
We have a book to burn, dont we? Sharpe asked. Harper looked surprised.
But isnt that Nosys book, sir? he asked innocently.
Its my bloody book now, Ill do what I like wi it, he grumped, turning and walking for the ramparts. Harper grinned and followed.
None of this really happened. I made it all up. There is no village of Venganza. There is a Hardwick Hall, but it has nowt to do with a family called 'Hardwick'.
No spirited young ladies from the north of England were harmed during the writing of this fan-fic. However, certain other young ladies will not be renewing their subscription to "Evil Wenches Monthly".
~ The Mardy Bum,
15th July, 2006.
Hong Kong S.A.R.