|No rights infringement intended. M/F
Disclaimer: Sharpe, Edrington, and the Chosen Men are other peoples' toys. They're seeing me on the side, but no money is changing hands in the process.
Summary: Forced to march together during a retreat, Sharpe and Edrington are cut off from the army and must make their way back through country controlled by the French. In the process, they share far more than just the hardships of war.
Author's Note: AU as far as history goes, but it fits the movies. I watched the vids, wrote half the story, and *then* looked up a battle to match. So I created quite a continuity problem for myself. I tried to drag it back in line with history, but found that I could tell this story, or I could be accurate. I chose to tell this story. It falls between the end of Sharpe's Rifles and the beginning of Sharpe's Eagle.
Betas: Nathilie, idicEm, Moonjaguar. Guess this makes it a Celtic triad. Three perspectives, all of which showed me some of the strengths and weaknesses of the tale, and all of which made me itch to make it better. But all flaws are, of course, my own. Thank you all for the gift of your attention and your intelligence.
Feedback: Please! to raggedrose @ yahoo.com
Sharpe was heaving at the wheel of a gun carriage, stuck fast in the rain-sodden ground, when he heard the hoofbeats. The sound barely registered as the wood against his shoulder creaked and moved forward slightly.
"That's it, lads! Come on!" he shouted as he threw his weight into the task. The wheel shivered as someone slammed a baulk of timber solidly behind it, but by then the gun was half on solid ground. With a great sucking sound the carriage pulled free and the men pushed hard. Sharpe heard a muffled curse and a splash behind him as one of the men on the weapon's wooden trail slipped and fell, but the gun kept moving, climbing the slight slope.
"Heave!" he shouted, as if his men needed any encouragement by now. The wheels were on flat ground by now and momentum was beginning to take over. The road was just ahead. Sharpe dug his heels in as the wheels reached it. "Halt!" The gun rolled forward another foot or so, then stopped, to rest on the solid packed surface.
For a moment, they all stood there, heads down, panting as if they'd run a race. Sharpe raised his head as his breath came back to him and grinned as he looked about at what they had done, at his recovering men. He froze as his eyes came to rest on the tall, elegant horseman on the road. The man was in uniform, the red coat immaculate. Privately, Sharpe thought he looked as if he'd never done a day's work in his life, but he knew it was wiser to keep that opinion to himself.
"A word, if you don't mind," the figure said.
Sharpe nodded, then turned back to his men. "Sergeant Harper, take over here. Burn the carriage and blow the trunnions off the gun."
A tall solid figure in a green rifleman's tunic paused and lowered the canteen he'd been drinking from. "Sir!"
The officer, whose name was Edrington, continued to observe, and wait. The job had been well done, for what that was worth, but the air of informality that pervaded the small group was not at all to his liking nor was the untidy figure of their officer. The first words out of his mouth had marked him for what he was, all but a common soldier himself. His uniform was what could only be called a disaster, a threadbare officer's jacket worn with overalls and boots that had surely been looted from some battlefield or other. He was muddy to the knees and his hair was matted with sweat. The rag he probably called a shirt had once been white, or at least Edrington supposed so. The scarecrow figure shambled to some semblance of attention before him.
"Sir?" Sharpe answered warily. The disapproval on the officer's face touched a core of anger in him, but he kept his face impassive as he looked up at the elegant figure. He wished heartily he hadn't felt it to be his duty to destroy the light field gun.
"I am Major Edrington, of the 43rd Foot." Edrington surveyed the scene before him once again. "We're on our way to join Wellesley's forces. Where are the rest of your men?"
"Rest?" Sharpe was startled into speech. "We're all there is. Sir." He remembered the honorific just in time.
Edrington ignored the breach of protocol. The officer's lower class origins were plain in his speech and Edrington wondered just how he had come to wear an officer's coat. "And your commander?" he asked.
"I report to Wellesley, sir," Sharpe answered. Belatedly, he remembered his manners. "I'm Lieutenant Sharpe, sir, of the 95th Rifles." He took secret pleasure in the confusion in Edrington's eyes, and was tempted to say no more, but knew he must. "We were working with the guerrillas in the mountains."
"Were you." Edrington said. The ragged group of soldiers grew more intriguing by the moment. "Detached duty?" That would go a long way towards explaining the appalling lack of discipline the small group showed.
"Yes, sir." Sharpe said.
"And now?" asked Edrington.
"Harassing the enemy, sir." Sharpe hoped the answer would satisfy Edrington. They were all on their way to rejoin Wellesley, the dimmest parade ground soldier knew that. Edrington's mouth tightened and Sharpe knew he was on shaky ground.
"We all do that, Lieutenant," Edrington said. "You're on your way to report in, surely."
"You'll march with us, then," Edrington said. The man's shortness and formality were beginning to annoy him. So Sharpe and his men wanted to see what plunder the retreat would yield, did they? In the chaos no one would notice if they broke a regulation or two. His eyes fell on the unkempt men gathered around the gun. They were obviously used to their freedom. Who knew what they would do with it, left alone? Sharpe's eyes followed Edrington's to his men. A moment ago they had been free, or as close as any man who wore the King's coat could be. Lightly armed and toughened by long days on the march, they could have skipped over the mountaintops. Sharpe's spirits sank as he contemplated the long days it would take to rejoin Wellesley now. He could think of no acceptable reason to refuse, though.
"Good," Edrington said. "You'll note that I have only one other lieutenant. The company took heavy losses and no reinforcements can be had until we reach Wellesley. So our meeting was fortuitous. Just one thing, though," Edrington paused and looked Sharpe up and down, from torn jacket to mud-smeared boots. "Tell me, is it the custom here for officers to do the work of common soldiers?"
"No, sir," Sharpe answered. What the hell? He was tempted to laugh.
"Surely your men could do this," Edrington replied. He looked curiously at the gun. "It's not one of ours, is it?"
"You're not the only one undermanned, sir." Here was another useless bastard with a bought commission, Sharpe thought to himself. He'd seen action at least, which was more than could be said for most of them. He forced himself to smile at Edrington. "We found it stuck here. Wouldn't want the French to recover it."
Edrington looked at the gun, then at the man before him. "Quite right. I'll see you in my tent, Lieutenant."
Tent? Sharpe stared after the retreating horseman. He shrugged and walked after Edrington.
"Bloody useless bastard!" An hour or so later, Sharpe shrugged off his green jacket and threw it on his bedroll.
"Is he, now, sir?" Harper stood next to the fire, a cup of tea in his hand.
"Damned parade ground soldier," Sharpe barely paused in his tirade. "More worried about the state of my uniform than he was about the state of our supplies. Said that was a matter for the quartermaster, and we'd be fine once we caught up with Nosey! Seems to think that's just a matter of marching down the road till we reach him." He shrugged off his filthy shirt, a particular bone of contention with Edrington, and threw it after the jacket. "I'm to dine with him tonight, and I'm to make myself presentable before I do so. Oh, and he's a bloody earl, so I'm to call him milord!" He looked with annoyance at the cup of tea in Harper's hand. "Well don't just stand there, heat me up some shaving water!"
Sharpe bent down and scrabbled in his pack until he found his only other shirt. It wasn't clean, but it was better than the one he'd just taken off. He stalked down the hill toward the stream.
"Lieutenant Sharpe, milord!" The servant announced the visitor, then ducked out of the tent. Edrington was sitting at a small camp table with another young officer. He stood to greet his guest, then turned to present the other red-coated officer.
"This is Lieutenant Forbes," Edrington said. The two men shook hands and then took their seats. Forbes looked barely old enough to shave, thought Sharpe to himself. The boy barely managed to meet his eyes. Completely out of his depth. No wonder Edrington wanted him to stay. Freshly washed and shaved Sharpe looked a great deal better, Edrington noted, though his uniform still left much to be desired. At least it was clean, as was the shirt beneath it. Again, Edrington wondered who had made such a man into an officer. He intended to find out. Their brief interview that afternoon had only served to emphasize the distance between them, and so Edrington had given them both a few hours respite. At first meeting Sharpe seemed no more than a jumped-up mongrel of a man, more common soldier than officer and looking for a reason to complain about conditions, supplies, anything that did not suit him. Yet he seemed competent, for all that. Edrington hoped so.
"Glass before dinner?"
"Thank you, milord." Sharpe reminded himself that most officers traveled with their own supplies, not just the ones who were more mindful of their own comforts than they were of their men. The tent was bare enough, after all, not what he'd expected.
Forbes jumped up and got glasses and decanter from a small chest.
Edrington noticed Sharpe's wandering eyes. "I don't like to bring more than I need on campaign," he said. "We seem to have that in common."
"I don't have much to bring, milord," Sharpe answered. It was true enough. Everything he owned was in his pack.
"I see you have enough to present yourself properly, though," Edrington said. "An officer is an example to his men, don't you find that?"
"Of course, milord," Forbes squeaked. He colored as both men's eyes turned to him.
Sharpe smiled at the lieutenant, and wondered silently if the boy had seen any of the actions that had decimated the company. "An officer shouldn't ask his men to do anything he wouldn't do, milord, a smart uniform hasn't got much to do with it." He knew he was playing with fire, Forbes's eyes were huge as he looked from one man to the other, but if one child in a red coat could be taught to value his men as more than brightly dressed dolls to be ordered about it was worth it.
"That needn't extend to getting down in the mud with them," Edrington replied. "I think the men respect an officer properly turned out, a man they can be proud to serve under. I know it must be difficult, but coming up from the ranks as you have, what kind of man did you prefer to serve under?"
Sharpe's smile grew wider. "A man who knows his business, milord. A man who wins the most battles and loses the least men doing it and knows what makes a good soldier."
Edrington smiled back. "And what makes a good soldier, Sharpe?"
Sharpe answered without hesitation. "The ability to fire three rounds a minute in any weather."
A simple philosophy for a simple man, Edrington thought. "No more than that?"
"What more do you need?" Sharpe answered. "Three shots a minute, and to stand, till the enemy breaks and runs."
He felt both men's eyes on him, Edrington's amused, Forbes's astonished.
Supper arrived then, brought by the servant. Roast chicken and bread Sharpe could only assume was part of Edrington's personal stores. It was better food than Sharpe had eaten in a week but he was damned if he'd show Edrington that.
"Here I sit on Buttermilk Hill,
who would blame me cry my fill,
and every tear would turn a mill,
Johnny has gone for a soldier..."
The clear notes carried down from the ridge where a Rifleman stood on guard. Harper climbed up to join him. There were things to be said for being with the main body of a company again. It hadn't taken him long to find a woman willing to wash Mr. Sharpe's shirt. As Hagman finished his song, Harper handed him a stone bottle.
"Thankee, Pat." Hagman let the rum slide down his throat.
Harper looked out over the valley. The road wound through it, a silent ribbon of lighter grey. Nothing moved, for which Harper was glad. Sharpe had left their small camp where it was, now the edge of the main encampment. Though the larger force had placed sentries, Sharpe had ordered his own men to man this ridge, not trusting the 43rd with their safety.
Harper took the bottle as Hagman handed it back. "Nice not to be eating scraps and drinking out of ditches," he said.
Hagman squinted into the darkness. "As long as we don't meet the French with this lot."
"They're not as bad as they look at first," Harper said.
"At least they share their drink," Hagman allowed. "Damn few of them, though."
"That's true, so it is," Harper said. "I've been talking to a few, trying to find out why that is. They're tougher than they look. Ah, but their officer is giving Mr. Sharpe hell, so he is. Clean shirt and a shave, with the French chasing us back to the sea." He took a drink, then handed the bottle over.
Hagman took it, and drank deeply. "Their muskets are clean."
"They've seen fighting, all right," Harper said. "Their officers are all but gone, have you noticed? The sergeants are running the place." "They'll see more before we reach the sea," Hagman said, and continued to look out into the darkness.
"And how do you know that, then?" Harper asked. Something in Dan's voice sent a chill up his spine.
"I just know," said Hagman. "I just can feel them, watching us."
Harper strained his eyes and ears, but the darkness was velvet silence still.
Sharpe stood by Edrington's side, trying not to fidget. The sun was well up and the 43rd was only now forming into column. Sharpe's imagination conjured up an eternity of such mornings and he wished they'd never stopped to free the trapped gun.
Forbes was mounted, riding up and down the ranks, doing nothing useful that Sharpe could see.
"Milord, my men could march ahead and send back reinforcements." It was an ill-considered speech and Sharpe regretted the words as soon as they were uttered.
Edrington turned his pale eyes on Sharpe. "The 43rd can get home on its own, lieutenant." Sharpe's body fairly sang with his impatience to be gone. Impatience, frustration, all were there on the surface but Edrington wondered what lay below. "Are you so eager to reach Wellesley, Sharpe?"
Sharpe was silent a moment. A yes or a no could be equally damning in this aristocratic officer's eyes. "Sorry, milord," he finally said.
"It won't take so very long," Edrington said. He looked at Forbes. "Look at him, Sharpe. He was an ensign a week ago. I had no choice but to promote him, at least temporarily. I'd gladly trade him for a half dozen good sergeants but they're not to be had. I need you, Sharpe. Whatever else you may be, you're a man of experience."
"Yes, milord." Sharpe resolved to hold his tongue. It was usually not a thing he found difficult to do around superior officers. Stupid, stupid--the way to get along in the Army was to say as little as possible and do what was ordered.
Edrington could see Sharpe's men beside the road, and sense the man's disappointment. Not fear. The frustration of a man who knew how such things were done and was forced to watch them done badly. He realized he'd done the man an injustice when they'd met.
"Your men do you credit, Sharpe," he said. "They may not look well, but they are ready in good time, and in good order." He saw the taut shoulders loosen a trifle. "A company cannot ready itself for the march as quickly as a squad of Chosen men. I want them to the fore when we march, to be sent ahead as scouts. Believe me, I know their worth."
"Thank you, milord. Shall I place them?"
"By all means," Edrington said. "Then I'd be obliged if you'd tighten up the column." He watched the tall Rifle Officer go. For a moment he considered granting Sharpe's request and letting the men go. If their conversation for the duration of the march were going to consist of "yes milord" and "no milord" from Sharpe, it would be a long few days.
To Sharpe, the day was interminable. It seemed to him that the column had barely started before the midday halt was called. Then the camp followers had to be rounded up, the wagons and the mules set in their places, and the whole huge parade set in motion again. Worst of all, Edrington seemed to expect him to make conversation during the halts.
The only bright spot was the placement of his men. The dust wasn't nearly so bad at the front of the column, and Sharpe envied them their moments of relative freedom as they took it in turns to scout ahead.
By evening, Sharpe was hungry, bored, and bad-tempered. An invitation to dinner from Edrington didn't help matters. The only saving grace was Harper's resourcefulness in providing his harried officer with a clean shirt and a large swallow of rum.
Sharpe sat in the camp chair, trying not to fidget. It was becoming his usual state, he thought sourly. He accepted a glass and resisted the urge to drain it and ask for more.
After the meal, before Sharpe could excuse himself, there was a discreet knock on the tent frame.
"Yes?" Edrington called.
"I need to speak to Mr. Sharpe, milord, sorry to disturb you." Hagman's voice came through the canvas.
"Go and see what he wants, Mr Sharpe," Edrington said. "But return when you're finished, if you please."
Sharpe mentally cursed Edrington as he ducked the tent flap. A moment later he was ducking it again, Hagman right behind.
There was a map on the table now. Forbes was looking curiously at it, and listening to Edrington's explanation of their day's progress. Both men looked up as the two men entered.
"Tell the Major what you told me," Sharpe said.
Hagman shuffled his feet nervously. "Well, sir, we're being followed."
"Followed? By whom?" Edrington demanded.
"French column, milord," Hagman replied. "About a day behind us."
"How do you know this, Rifleman?" Edrington badly wanted to ask Sharpe if the man was reliable, but they were already off to a bad start. Why risk worsening relations between them? He needed Sharpe, far more than Sharpe needed him. The thought rankled, but he could not deny the truth of it, at least not to himself.
"We crossed into the foothills today, milord," Hagman began. "The ground's much higher than it were. Last night I knew someone was watching us, but I couldn't be sure. So when we halted, I asked Mr. Sharpe here for a mule and leave to scout behind the column. I found a nice high ridge, milord, one I could see the whole valley from. There's fires, milord, the kind an army makes in camp."
"My God," Edrington said softly. "Thank you, Rifleman, well done." He went to the chest and pulled out a flask of brandy. He poured a generous measure and handed it to Hagman.
"Thankee, sir." Hagman drained the cup and made himself scarce.
Edrington was absorbed in the map. Forbes was white and silent beside him.
"How well do you know this country, Sharpe?"
Sharpe nodded. "Well enough, milord." Not by the map, though. Maps were something Sharpe rarely had. His knowledge came from the locals, and the sure certainty that came from walking every weary mile.
"The hills, Sharpe, or just the main roads?" Edrington persisted.
"Some of them, milord.
Edrington resisted the urge to grind his teeth in frustration. "Is there a quicker route?"
Sharpe considered a moment. "There's a road in the mountains. We'll reach it tomorrow, with luck. At our pace it might be another day before we reach the pass and it's just beyond." Sharpe pointed out the pass on the map as best he could. "The Partisans use it. It's shorter, milord, but much rougher. Your soldiers would manage it, but not the baggage train, and not the guns."
"We cannot leave them to the French." Edrington's eyes were on the map.
Sharpe wondered if he were speaking of the people or the supplies. A day before he would have bet on the latter, but now he wasn't so sure. "Most officers would leave the women, milord."
Edrington lifted his eyes to meet Sharpe's. "That is not the action of a gentleman, Mr. Sharpe." He looked at the map again.
"Nevertheless, our route is now a matter of considerable urgency." He paused a moment, thinking. "If we roused the camp now, we would surely make the pass by tomorrow. The road narrows considerably there as I recall, does it not?"
"Yes, milord," Sharpe agreed. Before his eyes the fussy parade ground soldier dissolved, to be replaced by a hard, practical man.
"In your opinion, could we defend it? Send the baggage train on ahead and site the guns where practicable?"
"I don't know, milord," Sharpe said. "If the ground's in our favor, and there aren't more Frogs than we can handle, there's a chance. Won't know till we get there. We won't be able to spare anyone to defend them. If we lost, they'd be easy pickings for the French." Edrington's eyes met Sharpe's. "It's either that or abandon them and take our chances in the mountains."
Fires were doused, packs strapped up tight and mules and horses hitched swiftly to wagon and gun carriage as word of the pursuing French swept through the camp. Fear did what a decimated company and practically nonexistent officer corps could not and the column quickly formed on the road. Sharpe and his Chosen men took the rear this time. The speed of any column was determined by its slowest members, and Sharpe was determined to leave no one behind.
Edrington, surprisingly, agreed, but with a few reservations. At the brief meeting he held before they marched, he gave everyone their instructions. There was no time to address the whole force; the best that could be done was to pass the information on as they went.
"I'll give everyone the best chance I can, Sharpe, but I can't sacrifice the company for a few. We have a good lead on the French, but we still have to reach the pass and fortify it as best we can. If they can't keep up, they'll have to be left behind."
Midnight, and a gibbous moon clearing the foothills in the east found the column well on its way. The road was beginning to rise more sharply and in the back of the column, people were beginning to tire. It was all Sharpe and his men could do to keep them closed up. People were beginning to abandon what they could no longer carry, shouting to even the dullest Frog both their path and their desperation. They crossed a stream just after dawn and Edrington called a halt. As the exhausted army breakfasted on bread and tea, and the horses and mules drank their fill and cropped at the grass, he rode the length of the column and spoke to the men. Sharpe might laugh at the idea that an officer's appearance was important, but Edrington was sure that the sight of him, clean and in good spirits, put heart into his weary men.
At the end of the column, Sharpe was deep in conversation with one of his men. Perkins had just descended the steep hillside. He held a mug of tea in his hands and took the opportunity to drink deeply as Edrington rode up.
"The road's clear for as far as we can see, milord," Sharpe said. "But we won't make as good time from here on, I don't think. A few of the lasses are near done, especially the ones carrying babies. And then there's the people throwing things away. "Put as many in the wagons as possible, Sharpe, have 'em take turns if you have to. And nothing is to be abandoned on this road. Put it in the wagons."
"Ahead of the people, milord?" Easy for you to say, Sharpe thought. You haven't walked a step. Did it really matter whether the French found possessions or people on the road? Either would tell the tale, but at least baggage couldn't answer questions or yield to threats. The look Edrington gave Sharpe stopped the rest of his objections cold. "I'll slow the column, but it can't be helped. We're a good day and a half ahead of the French, or should be if they did as we expected. We'll site the guns, make the pass defensible, and assess our situation then from the reports of our scouts.
That same dawn found Dan Hagman sitting on the last ridge before the land fell away into the plain. A short way down the other side, a company mule waited, contentedly munching grass younger and sweeter than the fare around camp ever was. Hagman felt much the same. When Mr. Sharpe had asked him if he wanted to remain behind, to see what the French would do when they found the empty camp and then to report back directly to him he'd agreed readily. Both of them knew the job had its risks, but it had its pleasures as well. Best of all was the warm glow Mr. Sharpe's trust gave him. Only the men of the 95th knew he was here, Mr. Sharpe hadn't even informed the highborn major who had come and taken charge of them without so much as a by your leave. As he'd put it, it was easier to ask pardon than permission and knowing the state of the enemy on their trail would be far more important to the major by then than how they knew it.
Hagman was singing, something he'd been doing off and on the whole night. To anyone who knew him, this would have come as no surprise. Hagman was possessed of a clear, tuneful voice, as well as the inclination to make use of it often. And so he had kept himself company through the night. One by one he'd watched the French fires die down and wink out. Now he watched the first one send smoke into the clear morning sky.
The camp woke as any other camp on the march did. If they knew their prey had fled in the night, they didn't think the information was worth varying their routine for. When they formed column and began to move, Hagman mounted the mule and went to find another vantage point by their old camp.
The road was still wide, but it continued to grow steeper by increments so gradual that they crept through the weary column, slowing it subtly. At the rear, an old man felt a wave of dizziness take him. He stumbled over a rock and fell. He rolled over on his side and managed to rise to his knees, but could not gain his feet.
Cooper stepped out of line and grabbed the man under the arms. "Come on, get up! Don't want to be left behind, now do we?" He lifted up, but the old man's legs wouldn't hold him.
"Wagon!" Cooper shouted. "Tongue, help me get him to the bloody wagon!"
"Just - just a moment and I'll get up." The words were soft, almost too soft for Cooper to hear. To his surprise, it was Sharpe who came back and helped him wrestle the man into a wagon. But soon another exhausted soul fell out of the column, then another, until there were too many for the Chosen men to handle, let alone accommodate.
"Perkins!" Sharpe caught the young Rifleman as he trotted to another fallen man. "Find Edrington, have him stop the column." He stopped in the middle of the road. "Chosen men, to me!"
Sharpe cursed as the end of the column came with the green-jacketed soldiers. The people still in their places looked back, their faces unsure. "Go on!" he shouted, waving them forward. "Don't wait for us, keep going!" Less of you to herd back together once you've had a rest, he thought disgustedly as he waited for the column to stop.
It didn't. It trailed slowly up the road and out of sight as they watched. What the hell was Perkins about? he wondered. Or had Edrington refused to stop? Sharpe remembered his instructions and realized that now, he and his men were the ones left behind.
Hagman's mule picked its way through the abandoned camp. He wondered if any of the Frogs would know enough about tracking to read the truth of their retreat. The fires were long dead, colder than they should have been. Garbage lay unburied, but any company on the move might neglect that chore. A few items of personal property lay scattered about, and Hagman searched the camp as he would any battlefield. Most of it was heavy or bulky, but he managed to find another blanket before he heard the hoofbeats. Instantly he flattened himself against the far side of a tree, hoping the rider wouldn't go behind the brush where his mule was tethered. He heard the horse being pulled up and slowly he unslung his rifle and checked the priming.
The French soldier dismounted at the first pile of abandoned possessions and pulled the reins over his mount's head to trail on the ground. He scanned the camp for signs of life. Dan froze as he felt the man listen.
Satisfied, the soldier drew his bayonet and poked at the ashes of the nearest firepit, then went back to the pile. He pulled a piece of tarred canvas aside to reveal a small iron brazier. He began to do as Hagman had, quartering the field in search of plunder.
Years of poaching had given Hagman certain skills, undesirable to His Majesty's servants, but well suited to a soldier. He knew how to kill, quickly and cleanly, but preferred not to do it unless there was no other way. He waited, hoping the scout would leave before he reached the tree, but the man was more thorough than was good for him.
The crack of the rifle flushed the birds from a nearby bush. It also startled the Frog's horse. As the man fell, the horse bolted, flying back down the road to the French camp.
Hagman watched it go, dismayed. Methodically, he reloaded his rifle and slung it over his shoulder, then untethered his own mount and galloped after it.
The horse had a long lead by the time Hagman's mule gained the road. Terrified and riderless, it had the advantage. As they thundered along the packed surface, the distance between the two animals slowly widened. The road sloped downhill as they neared the valley, gently curving back and forth, and the panicked horse showed no signs of slowing. Hagman knew he wouldn't catch it and he looked ahead for a good place to get a clear shot at it. Finally the road straightened out just as they hit the valley floor and Hagman pulled his mule to a stop. Quickly he unslung his rifle and sighted on the fleeing animal. As he did, he saw the French horsemen on the road. He slung the rifle again and wrenched his mule's head around, but it was too much to hope that he'd get away unseen. When he looked back over his shoulder he could see the horsemen in pursuit. He flattened himself over the mule's neck and let her run, praying she'd be fast enough.
Perkins could barely speak when he reached the head of the column. He trotted the last few steps up to Edrington and slowed to a walk, chest heaving. "Sir--stop--the column--" he panted.
Edrington looked down at the winded Rifleman and pulled his horse out of line.
Perkins rested his hands on his knees and spoke in short puffs as he waited for his breath to return. "Milord--Lieutenant Sharpe--requests--stop the column!"
"Why?" Edrington inquired. "What's wrong?"
Perkins stood up straight. "They're falling out faster than we can put them in wagons, milord. Mr. Sharpe and the rest of the chosen men are with them. He requests a half hour's rest."
Edrington looked up at the sky. The sun was high now, and he knew the pass could not be far. Damn Sharpe for disobeying a direct order anyway! Half an hour's rest meant an hour's delay at the least. Edrington knew his men and knew they would march wherever and whenever he commanded, but the camp followers were another matter. In their current state, there was a distinct possibility that once stopped, they could not be forced to continue at all.
"I gave specific instructions, Rifleman. Lieutenant Sharpe chose to ignore them." He considered ordering the soldier to stay with the column, but knew that the impulse was born of pique and his own exhaustion. The man would be better off in his own unit. "Tell Sharpe to let the people rest and then escort them to the pass. We shall fortify the area and ready the baggage train to continue once they arrive." He watched the young man's face fall, disgusted with himself as well as Sharpe, but knowing that survival demanded that he do nothing else. The man saluted, then set off for the rear at quick time.
*** "He what?" Sharpe demanded. "The cold bastard!" The exhausted rear of the column was not making good time, but at least it was moving.
"He's left us?" said a woman walking painfully next to Sharpe.
"Aye, Mary, he has," Sharpe answered. There was little point in lying to her once she'd heard, but as she swayed he knew he'd have to find a way to put enough heart in them to make it to the pass. He raised his voice so the small group could hear every word.
"His lordship has left us to make our own way to the pass," he began. "But only because we're close enough to get there on our own. By the time we get there, they'll have done all the hard work, lads! All we'll have to do is wait for the French to arrive!" The Chosen men raised a ragged cheer. "And all you'll have to do," Sharpe went on, "is to climb in the places where the powder and shot were and ride down the other side of the mountain." He smiled, in spite of the anger that seethed just under the surface. Had half an hour's rest really been so much to ask?
Hagman stopped where a stream ran beside the road to let his mule drink and have a short rest. He hadn't heard the horsemen for a while now, but he knew they weren't far behind. Their heavy gear had slowed them somewhat. Hagman had left everything but his rifle and cartridge pouch with the baggage train. Even so, the mule was reaching the limits of her strength by now, and Hagman did all he could to spare her
Edrington didn't realize he'd reached the pass until his horse had passed the crest and begun to descend. Mortified, he wheeled his horse clumsily and gave the proper orders to stop the weary men. Dusk was closing in fast, and already it was becoming difficult to see, much less begin their task. He struggled to think for a moment of all that should be done.
Already the sergeants were creating a new sort of order, one that didn't depend on steady steps forward. They would lay it at his feet to command as he chose. For a moment he was overwhelmed with love for that noble creature, the sergeant. It was then that Edrington realized that few, if any of his men could be expected to do much that was useful without rest. Himself included, he thought sheepishly. Yet some things had to be accomplished. He looked at Forbes. The boy was nodding in the saddle. Edrington climbed off his horse. Every muscle protested, though he rode daily. The soreness was pulling him awake though, allowing him to do what needed to be done.
"Forbes!" He shook the lieutenant's leg, causing Forbes to snap awake.
The boy turned bright red with embarrassment as he realized he'd been sleeping. "My apologies, milord."
"Come now, Mr. Forbes, out of that saddle," Edrington ordered gently. "You've served the company well today, just a few more things yet to do."
"Who goes there?"
Sharpe whirled, his rifle at the ready before his exhausted mind made sense of the words. "Lieutenant Sharpe, you bloody fool!" He lowered the weapon, carefully uncocking it. "How long have you been here?"
"Since just after sunset, sir," the sentry answered. "Major Edrington wanted to see you as soon as you arrived. He's at the top of the pass."
That suited Sharpe quite well, he thought. Quite well indeed. He had a thing or two to say to his bloody lordship. He turned to his sergeant. "Harper, bed everyone down."
He trudged uphill, following the sentry past the guns ranged in a neat row pointing downhill. Behind them, the wagons stood in a double row, blocking the pass and forming a barrier between the guns and the limbers. Not the best arrangement Sharpe had ever seen, but good enough for the night, he supposed.
"I lied to 'em," he said companionably.
"Sir?" Hale said cautiously.
"The folk we just walked up that bloody great hill." Sharpe's voice was rich with amusement. "I told 'em you'd have all of this done by the time we got here. Now they'll have to pitch in and help."
The sentry trusted the darkness to hide his smile. Mr. Sharpe seemed all right, but a man never knew. "To be sure, sir." The sentry pointed to a dark lump beside the road. "He's just there, sir."
Sharpe felt the familiar gulf open between them. How could he expect the man to be easy with an officer, particularly one he didn't know? "Thank you, Private--"
"Hale, sir," the man replied.
"You can go back to your post, Private Hale."
"Yes sir." Hale knuckled his forehead tiredly and went down the hill.
For a moment, Sharpe looked down at the sleeping man. His high and mighty lordship sleeping rolled up in a blanket on the ground like any common soldier. For a moment, he imagined how good it would feel to give the man a good swift kick in the ribs. Instead, he shook what he hoped was his lordship's shoulder.
Edrington started under his hand, then spoke. "Yes?" He forced his gummy eyes open, fighting his way awake. Truly, he wanted nothing more than to sleep.
"It's Lieutenant Sharpe, milord. All souls present and accounted for." No thanks to you, he wanted to add, but decided to take a leaf from Private Hale's book.
Edrington sat up. "Well done, Sharpe. Any sign of the French?"
None, milord." A rest would have made no difference, but Sharpe kept the thought to himself.
"And your man--Hagwood?""
"Hagman, milord. Not back yet." It was really quite easy, Sharpe told himself as he bit back his irritation. All he had to do was keep supplying short, accurate answers till they reached Wellesley. He'd done it for worse officers than Edrington. The man would never even notice.
"Get some sleep, Sharpe," Edrington said. "At first light we'll get started."
"Aye, milord." Sharpe turned to go back down the hill, to sleep with his men. Halfway down, he knew that if he didn't choose a place now, his weary body would choose one for him. He managed to slip off his pack, pull his blanket loose and roll himself in it before sleep took him.
The mule was tottering under him by now, and Hagman dismounted, more out of pity than anything else. The road rose steeply, though he could hardly see it in the dark. The stars were thick overhead where they weren't cut off by the ridges that enclosed the road on either side. Hagman stroked the laboring animal's neck. "Sorry, lass." He considered trying to lead her up the hill, but knew he'd have more options without her. He eyed the far ridge. If the horsemen were still following him, they'd be riding animals as near to foundering as his mule by now. He followed the ridge with his eye, wishing he could see the road for comparison.
Gently, Hagman relieved the mule of saddle and bridle. He shoved them behind a large rock and hoped that he'd done well enough in darkness to serve when it was light again. With the stars showing him the edge of the ridge, he began to climb.
From the crest, the road directly below was invisible, hidden in the fold of land it ran in. The moon had risen by now, and by its light, Hagman scanned the land he'd passed through. The road undulated over hills and down out of sight, only to reappear again as the land rose. What Hagman saw on it chilled him. The horsemen were indeed still after him, their animals moving slowly. Beyond them was something even worse. A Frog column.
Sharpe was aboard a ship, the waves rolling it heavily from side to side, keeping him from sleeping. The waves were roaring, the sound passing through the thick hull. It was calling his name... "Mr. Sharpe!" Dawn was breaking, grey and cheerless, and Hagman was shaking him awake.
Sharpe groaned, unable to make any more coherent sound. That was no good. He shook his head, then sat up before he could think better of it. "Hagman... the Frogs--"
"They're on their way up, sir. A full company. They're a few hours behind me."
"Bloody hell!" Fear brought Sharpe fully awake. "How?"
"Must have marched all night, sir, just like you did. They were only half a day behind us when we broke camp. They caught sight of me, sir, I'm sorry--"
Sharpe was already moving, shaking people awake and directing them to rouse the camp. The soldiers tumbled out of their blankets and were put to work. Mules were swiftly harnessed to the wagons, limbers moved, and the wagons unloaded of all but the bare minimum of food and water. There were many tears as the women of the camp were forced to leave behind all that they owned.
Edrington found Sharpe at the base of the camp, looking at the land critically as the last of the wagons rolled through the pass. "What in God's name is going on?"
"Hagman just arrived. A French company's on its way up, milord." The light revealed a narrow roadbed surrounded by irregular rocky terrain. "There isn't time to site the guns properly, but there's plenty of cover for the men to either side. Should be able to give the baggage train a good start."
Edrington looked down the road. "We should be able to hold this position, I'd think. How long before they're here.
"A few hours, milord."
"Hours? How in God's name did they manage that?"
"Hagman says they marched all night, just like we did. I've a couple of my men on the hillside, to let us know when they're close." Sharpe watched Edrington take the news in.
"Very well, then." Edrington took one more good look at the approach. "You place the men, and I'll manage the guns. Get the baggage train safely off first, will you, Sharpe?" Edrington didn't even wait for an answer, he just strode off towards the guns.
The wagons were full, and every mule freed from dragging the guns had a rider. Forbes saluted Sharpe as he approached.
"Wagons ready sir."
Ready was a matter of opinion, Sharpe supposed. Children roughly snatched from sleep were crying miserably, as were many of the women. Soldiers who were badly needed elsewhere were saying their goodbyes.
"Well, get them out of here then, Lieutenant," Sharpe ordered brusquely. "Sergeant, get those men back to work! We'll all be seeing each other in the end, that is, we will if we get to work and give a proper welcome to the Frogs!"
Moments later, the wagons began to move.
On the other side of the pass, men were scraping out wide rounded trenches for the gun carriage wheels. On the steep slope, it would keep the guns in place as they fired. As each gun was placed, abandoned baggage was stacked in front of it. The result was neither pretty nor perfect, but it was better than nothing. Sharpe was sowing the hillsides with soldiers when the scouts came running back to the pass. Moments later, they heard the drums.
Gun crews were hurriedly told off and the first shots loaded. Edrington stood at one end of the makeshift battery, his sword in hand.
"Wait for it," he said softly as the first soldiers appeared. A wild-eyed gun captain twitched his linstock back from the touchhole. "Not nearly enough of them in range yet."
Sharpe was doing much the same on the hillside. When the cannon at last filled the pass with light and noise, he was gratified to hear only a few stray muskets go off. "Wait till ye can see, lads--"
The smoke funneled down the pass, revealing gun crews methodically ramming the next charges home, then the hellish sight of men torn apart in the flood of canister. The next ranks stepped over their dead and dying fellows an instant before Edrington's sword slashed down again. Sharpe saw this, but only noted the details necessary to direct his men. The horror and the blood barely registered. He was far too busy keeping the men on his side of the pass firing in volleys, while on the other side, the disciplined crash of musketry showed that Sergeant Price was doing the same.
Perched on the hillside farther down the road, the Greenjackets alone were allowed to fire at will. A rifle was a far different weapon than a musket. Slow and complicated to load, but accurate enough to shoot the pips off a card at fifty paces, the Baker rifle had a deadly elegance all its own. Hagman was a master with one, and he was in his element as he picked off as many officers and sergeants as he could see.
The column didn't waver, even as it was cut to ribbons by Edrington's guns, its sides peppered with musket fire from the hillside. It exacted a toll of its own as red-jacketed troops were marked in their places and shot by the men in the French outer ranks.
At first, the British were just holding their own as the cannon cut down rank after rank and the muskets poured volley after volley into the French. But as the battle continued the French inched closer and closer to the guns. The makeshift barricades protected the gun crews somewhat, but the French were still picking off far too many of them. As experienced men fell, so did the rate of fire. One bright gun captain directed his men to add the bodies to the barricades, and for a time this stemmed the losses, though the time stolen from loading and firing allowed the French to gain even more ground.
Desperately Sharpe tried to squeeze more out of his men, but he could see the deadly progression. Sharpe began to pull his men back behind the guns, concentrating their fire into a lethal semicircle that swept the ground before the precious cannon free between the rounds of canister the gunners poured regularly into the column of French soldiers. If they lost the guns, they were beaten. Three rounds a minute, his mind screamed. They were going to lose, and all because Edrington's men couldn't fire three rounds a minute indefinitely.
Edrington himself was also well aware of the merciless equation he faced, as well as the fact that they were running out of canister. As the circle of defenders tightened, he racked his brain for some strategy to at least buy them time to flee.
Last off the hillside, Sharpe and his men had their backs to the pass. Looking straight into the rear of the guns, his men provided covering fire for the gun crews. He could see the state of the powder and shot all too well.
"Can we fall back and blow the rest of the powder?" Sharpe bellowed in Edrington's ear.
"Not without fuses," Edrington shouted back. "We'd take ourselves with it!"
Sharpe looked over his shoulder as the next volley was fired. Single bullets had been whipping over his head for some time now, and as he suspected, some of his men were on the rocks above the pass. He caught Hagman's eye, then jerked his head toward the middle gun. Hagman nodded and slapped the stock of his rifle before returning to the fight.
When he turned back, Edrington's sword was hanging from his wrist as he tried to stem the flow of blood from his upper arm.
Sharpe didn't hesitate. He grabbed the middle gun captain's arm. "Fire your last round and throw as many of the charges as you can in front of your gun! Then run like blazes!"
"Do it!" Sharpe grabbed Edrington's good arm as the last round crashed out. "Retreat! Retreat! Fall back! Go! Go! Go!"
Then they were running, and Sharpe prayed that Hagman had understood those last strange actions around the guns.
The world opened up in a roar of light and noise.
Edrington woke slowly. His head throbbed, radiating pain through him with every movement. He opened his eyes and shut them instantly as the light lanced through his head. He groaned, then gasped as the attempt to throw his arm across his eyes to block out the light shot fire through his bicep.
"Ssh, lie still, now." Why couldn't he identify the speaker? He knew that voice, he was sure of it. The effort only increased the daggers shooting through his head. He decided that doing as it said was a damned good idea. Even breathing hurt right now.
After several minutes, the complaints of his body subsided enough for Edrington's mind to contain something besides the pain, and the wish for death. "What happened?"
"We lost." Lost? Then memory returned in a rush. "The men--the French--where are my men?"
"Don't know," the voice, which Edrington could now identify as belonging to Richard Sharpe, replied. "We were routed, they're probably halfway down the mountain by now. You were out, so I dragged you off the road and into the thickest brush I could find. My fault, after all."
"Your fault?" Edrington felt like an idiot, able to do no more than repeat what was said to him. He struggled for coherence. "What is your fault? What happened?"
"You were shot during the battle. Do you remember that?"
"Yes." The memory was as hazy as the pain was sharp, but Edrington remembered the bright blood dripping through his fingers.
"We were about to be overrun, and I told the gun captain to throw all his charges under the middle gun. Then we fell back. We were last through the pass, and that's when the powder went off. I thought that was the end. But it wasn't. When I got up, I saw you lying a few yards down the road. I didn't see anybody, ours or theirs--sssh!"
Edrington opened his mouth to ask why, and found it covered with Richard Sharpe's dirty hand. The sharp reek of gunpowder made him feel ill and he bit back a groan. "Quiet," Sharpe whispered beside his ear. "Probably a Frog search party." Then Edrington heard the footsteps on the road and the voices conversing softly in French. During the long silence that followed, he slipped into darkness again.
The day wore on, the time dragging as Sharpe sat beside the wounded officer. It was the not knowing that was the worst, he decided. Several small parties of Frenchmen passed on the road above, and then, as darkness fell, Sharpe heard what sounded like the French column pass.
Edrington did not wake again. Sharpe put an ear against his chest and heard the reassuring pumping of his heart, the hiss of his breath, but his skin was clammy to the touch and his face was pale. After an hour or more passed with no further sounds from the road, Sharpe decided to see for himself.
It took quite some time to climb back through the brush the two of them had slithered down so easily, all the more so because Sharpe was as silent as he could be while doing it. He paused on the edge of the road, still enclosed by branches, and listened intently. When he was sure, he pulled himself onto the road, marked the entrance to their hiding place with a couple of rocks, and crept to the edge of the pass.
The battlefield was deserted, save for the dead. Bodies lay everywhere, but the grimmest harvest was in the center of the road, where the powder had exploded. He noted with satisfaction that all three field guns had been rendered useless. The center gun had been blown completely off its carriage and it lay upended against the rocks, one trunnion shattered. The other two lay in the remains of their carriages, but in the darkness Sharpe could see no fatal damage to either. The discarded baggage that had shielded the gunners was blown to ribbons.
Sharpe cast around the battlefield, looking for food, blankets, anything that would help keep Edrington and himself alive until the earl was well enough to travel. The bodies had been stripped of valuables, but the French troops had been looking for what was small and easily carried. He found his own oxhide pack, the contents rifled, but only his fine telescope missing. He told himself it didn't matter, that there were more important matters at hand, but the loss still hurt.
There was very little food to be had, but Sharpe did find some bread, a couple of full waterbags, more blankets, and a few other odds and ends before he went back to Edrington.
The Major was still in that sleeplike state that frightened Sharpe, and he debated whether it was best to rouse him or let him sleep. Finally he decided that if the man slept at least he wasn't in pain, and so he tucked most of the blankets around the injured man and stretched out beside him.
When Sharpe awoke, Edrington was still unconscious. 'Well we won't be getting out of here for the next few days', Sharpe thought to himself. He stared at the injured man, wondering what to do.
"Well, at least I can see to that arm," Sharpe said aloud. He carefully uncovered Edrington's right arm, keeping as much of the man under the blankets as possible. The wound was crusted shut, but began to bleed slightly as Sharpe examined it. He wanted to whoop as his gentle probing revealed another wound on the other side of the arm. "Won't be having to try and dig that out on my own, thank God," he said. He washed it as well as he could with the water he'd found and wrapped it in clean cloths. Feeling as if he'd accomplished something at last, Sharpe wrapped Edrington up in all of the blankets before leaving to see if there was anything useful left on the battlefield. He realized how useless the action probably was, but it was better than sitting in the thicket, wondering whether or not the major would live. This time, he took his rifle with him, though it was much harder to climb up to the road with it and his cartridge pouch slung across his back. By now, his belly was telling him that a few scraps found on a battlefield were not enough to live on, and Sharpe was hoping to find some game.
Sharpe paused again at the road, and at the pass. His careful approach paid off, for he heard the French troops before they saw him. Sharpe's stomach knotted as he smelled the rabbit they had roasting over a small fire. There were only two of them and for an insane moment Sharpe was considering how best to shoot them both and claim their dinner for himself. Well, if there's one rabbit to be had, I can surely find another, he told himself. He crept back the way he had come, and then kept going, intending to put enough distance between them for a rifle shot to go unnoticed.
Sharpe stopped, listening intently as one sound stood out from all the others. It grew louder as he listened, and as the road began to vibrate slightly, it resolved itself into the sound of marching feet. He took to the underbrush again.
The French patrol passed quickly, but Sharpe stayed where he was for a bit longer. Perhaps going after a rabbit wasn't the wisest way to spend an afternoon, at least in these parts. Perhaps not, his stomach chimed in, but a man can't get far with nothing in his belly. And Edrington would be needing food too, if he woke up--when he woke up, Sharpe corrected himself.
The road began to descend again, and Sharpe had seen neither rabbit nor Frenchman for some time when he came to the side road. It climbed steeply, more so than Sharpe had remembered, but the walk was worth it. As he rounded a bend, he saw a rabbit standing in the middle of it, staring back at him in frozen terror. A moment later it was staring at nothing in particular and Sharpe was listening for any signs that his shot had been noticed. An hour later, Sharpe was sitting beside a small fire, contentedly sucking on the creature's bones and feeling better than he had in days. He wrapped the other half of the roast rabbit in his handkerchief and put it inside his shirt before burying his ashes and picking up his rifle.
Edrington woke to find himself wrapped tightly in blankets. He struggled to remember how he'd gotten there, and was a little frightened to find that the task of remembering was a difficult one. He felt as if his thoughts were gummed together, and his head hurt abominably. His head--the pieces of memory fell into place. Sharpe had brought him here. Where was Sharpe? Had he been left here? Edrington tried to sit up, but the pain pushed him back down. He drifted then, rousing when he became aware of movement beside him. He opened his eyes to find Sharpe looking down at him.
"I'm glad to see you awake, milord." Sharpe watched Edrington's eyes drift shut with dismay. His lordship's color was better, to be sure, but there was something about him that wasn't right. He put a hand to Edrington's forehead.
"Sharpe." Edrington felt the gentle hand on his forehead. He realized his eyes were closed, and opened them again. "I thought you'd gone."
"I had, just not far," Sharpe replied. "I found us some water and a fat young rabbit." He pulled the meat from his jacket and unwrapped it. He pulled a small piece from the carcass and held it close to Edrington's mouth.
The wounded man doubled up on his side, retching.
Sharpe hastily put the meat aside. "Sorry, milord. Maybe later." He kept his tone light, and his fears to himself. He rubbed the wounded man's back through the layers of blankets till the dry heaves subsided.
"Sorry, Sharpe," Edrington said at last. He stayed on his side. He didn't have the strength to roll over on his back, but he wasn't about to tell that to Sharpe. His skull felt as if it was going to cave in.
"What for?" Sharpe asked. "You wouldn't be the first man who didn't like my cooking."
Edrington managed a feeble chuckle at Sharpe's equally feeble joke, though his head pounded the harder for it. "I don't seem to have the stomach for it right now."
"I found some bread, and some water, milord. If you feel you can manage any of it, just let me know."
But Edrington was already asleep again.
Sharpe sat back on his heels, truly frightened for the earl. He smiled at his foolishness. When had that happened, he wondered? There wasn't a nobleman he gave two farts for, save Sir Arthur, and at that he knew enough to watch his back. He'd watched loads of men die before. If Edrington up and did so, he'd be free to make for the rest of the army. He might even get there before his men on this road. It wasn't as if the man meant anything to him personally. Why, ever since they'd met Sharpe had been trying to get shut of him.
No. Sharpe had been trying to get shut of the parade ground soldier. The last day or so had shown him that there was a lot more to Edrington. He remembered the Edrington who stood firmly beside his cannon, sword slashing down as they exploded in smoke and thunder. The man who wouldn't leave the camp hangers on behind, even when no one would have thought any less of him for doing so. The Edrington who had just joked to keep Sharpe's spirits up when Edrington was sick enough to wish he was dead--Sharpe--a nobody, a man who didn't even know who his father was. The Edrington Sharpe was caring for now was a man worth calling friend, even if he wouldn't allow anything but milord. Sharpe lay back against his pack. If there were any way in hell to bring his bloody lordship out of this alive, Sharpe would find it.
Sharpe woke the next morning feeling odd. He rolled over and found himself staring into Edrington's eyes. For a moment he stared back. The strange feeling of disquiet that had filled him every time he looked at the sick man was gone. Edrington's eyes were clear once more. They twinkled as he met Sharpe's gaze, as if he knew a secret no one else did. "Morning, milord." Sharpe rolled onto his back, breaking the connection. "Feeling better?"
Edrington lay back as well. "Yes, thank you. And thank you for looking after me, Mr. Sharpe."
"It were my fault you got hurt, milord."
"Nonsense," Edrington replied. "Fortunes of war. By the by, how did you set the powder off? We didn't have any quick match, and even you aren't so foolhardy as to walk up with a rifle and set a spark to it."
"I didn't set it off," Sharpe said cryptically.
"Then who did?" Edrington turned on his side, propping his head on his uninjured arm to look expectantly at Sharpe. "It were Dan Hagman, milord. Best shot in the company. He put a hot ball in it just as the Frenchies overran the guns."
Edrington remembered then the way that Sharpe had looked back at the rifles on the rock face, just before he'd called for the powder bags. "A rare shot indeed. I owe that man a guinea when we return." And a rare officer, he thought to himself. Few had that kind of unspoken bond with their men.
"So, are you hungry today, milord?"
Edrington considered the question. "I should be, I'm as weak as water still." He considered the roast rabbit gingerly, and felt no nausea, though no real hunger either. "Rabbit, bread, and water I believe you said? Why not all three?"
"Why don't we start with the water, milord?" Sharpe sat up and dug in the top of his pack for the waterskin.
Once Edrington started drinking, he realized how thirsty he was. He gulped down half the water before Sharpe pulled it away.
"Slowly, milord." Sharpe said. "Lie down and see how that sits. I don't think I've seen many as sick as you were yesterday."
"Of course." Edrington lay back, surprised and a bit embarrassed at the strength of his sudden craving. "Sorry, Sharpe."
"I'm glad you're getting your strength back," Sharpe answered. "I don't mind saying for a while there I wasn't sure if I'd be going with you or burying you." Sharpe caught a whisper of sound and held up a warning hand. "Sssh--"
Edrington strained his ears, wondering what they were listening for. Then he heard it, faint but strengthening. The sound of marching feet.
The two men lay still in their green cocoon as the soldiers passed. This was no squad, Sharpe thought to himself. It was a full company at the very least.
"How often has this been happening?" Edrington whispered.
"Every day," Sharpe whispered back. "This road's a deal too full of Frenchmen for my tastes."
"Then I suppose I must regain my strength," Edrington said. "Where is that rabbit?"
Sharpe set out early the next morning for the mountain road. His belly was flat against his backbone, and so was his lordship's, though he wouldn't say so. Sharpe was almost willing to steal from a French patrol by now.
Once Sharpe reached the road it didn't take long to find and kill his first rabbit. The disused track was far livelier as far as animals were concerned than the main road. He stuffed the rabbit in a haversack and kept looking. A small path, nothing more than a deer path, really, caught his eye and he followed it until it opened out into a large meadow. A deer looked up at his approach and quickly bounded off. By the time Sharpe had unslung his rifle it was gone. Ah well, where there's one deer they are bound to be others, Sharpe thought to himself. The thought of venison made him almost crazy with hunger. Rifle at the ready, he skirted the grass where the brush was low and the browse thick. Meat wasn't the only thing to be had here, though. Sharpe crossed a stream, then bent to pull a handful of wild onions, and the youngest of the dandelion greens that were thick on the ground. But while they would relieve the monotony of rabbit, they weren't what Sharpe craved.
It wasn't until he reached the edge of the brush and was cutting across the open grass that he saw another deer. Swiftly he brought the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The deer dropped where it stood. When Sharpe reached the dead buck he realized just how much work lay ahead of him. He looked down at the animal happily. With this much meat, Edrington would be on his feet in no time. Properly dried, they could eat it all the way across the mountains.
Sharpe slung his rifle and cartridge box across his back to free his hands. He squatted down and with an effort, managed to get the dead buck across his shoulders and stagger back to the trees. He stripped to overalls and boots before cleaning the carcass, then gathered some firewood.
By the time he was done his upper body was streaked with blood and sweat. He quickly built a fire. The first blackened lump of venison was heaven. Sharpe gobbled it down, and then roasted another. He ate and ate till he could hold no more His belly was almost sore it was so full. He lay back against a tree and stretched his legs out before him. Could he be blamed for falling asleep?
When Sharpe woke, the fire was a red circle of embers. A bird was tearing at the meat, and Sharpe chased it away. He built the fire up again and roasted some more meat to take back to his lordship. What he needed was green sticks, and a bed of coals to dry the meat over. The meat would need watching, and turning. He looked down at himself. The firelight was kinder than the sun had been, but Sharpe knew he looked like a savage. He didn't want to face Edrington like this. He didn't want to be in his own skin like this. The dried blood itched and flaked away as he scratched his ribs.
In the end, he put out the fire and carried the carcass, and everything else, down to the stream. It widened out into a pool at one point, and he stripped bare and stood in it, the water pulling softly at his knees. He washed himself from head to foot, scrubbing himself with great handfuls of horsetails, which grew in abundance on the banks. He knelt, the cold water caressing his chest as it flowed past. He ducked his whole head in the water and scratched every inch of his scalp, closing his eyes in pleasure. He stood and shook his head like a dog and slicked his sodden hair back. When he was done every inch of his body tingled and Sharpe hadn't felt so clean, or so free, since he could remember. He didn't bother to dress, preferring the feel of the clean air on his newly washed flesh to that of his filthy uniform.
Sharpe looked out at the meadow, and the friendly stars overhead. He wished he could stay here forever, feasting on venison and wild onions and forget about the Army, the war, and Sir Arthur bloody Wellesley. For tonight, this beautiful place was all his.
Then Sharpe remembered the wounded man who lay in a thicket on the road. A place like this could make any man well again. There was food and water and no one used the road but a few Partisans. Tomorrow. Maybe Edrington would be strong enough to make the trip tomorrow. And the venison couldn't be left up here, not if he ever intended to see it again. In the end, Sharpe compromised. He cut as many strips of meat as he could carry and bundled them up in the uncured hide. He hung what remained of the buck as high in a tree as he could. After all that he needed another bath. He resumed his uniform and picked up his rifle and cartridge pouch, and the haversack and hide of meat.
It was close to dawn when Edrington heard Sharpe slide down into their hiding place. He'd lain awake for most of the night, wondering how in God's name he'd survive if Sharpe didn't return. He was ashamed at the intensity of emotion that flooded him and grateful that it was too dark for Sharpe to see his face. He knew the Rifle Officer wouldn't abandon him here; it was just the damnable weakness that still filled him. When it had passed, he'd feel himself again.
The rifle clattered down onto Sharpe's blanket, followed by Sharpe himself. The man smelled different. Of grass and fresh water and something Edrington could not identify. He jumped as a large pliable lump of something landed across his legs.
"Sorry, milord," said Sharpe. He pulled the hide-wrapped meat off to the side.
"What is that, Sharpe?" Edrington smelled blood. He reached out and his fingers grazed the rough hide.
"It's meat, milord," Sharpe said, pride touching his tone. "I got a deer. And I found us a better place." Sharpe opened the haversack and pulled out a chunk of roasted venison. "Better for getting you on your feet than rabbit."
How perfectly barbaric, Edrington thought. But he kept it to himself as he took the chunk of meat from Sharpe. The man was a barbarian. A resourceful, honorable beautiful man, with hair like sunlight and--Edrington nearly dropped the venison. A fellow soldier, he corrected himself. A fellow soldier, no more. He bit into the meat. After days of little or nothing, it was what his body craved. He quickly finished the piece and asked for another.
Sharpe propped his back against his pack and smiled in the darkness as he listened to Edrington eat. He could feel the life coursing through his body and wanted nothing more than to fill Edrington with it too. This was food a man could march to the ends of the earth on. For the first time since the battle he was sure they'd both see Wellesley's army.
Edrington was on his third piece when he heard the first soft snore. He smiled indulgently. Sharpe had done a better day's work than most. Small wonder he was tired. He ate his fill, then tucked away the rest of the venison and lay down himself. His full belly sent him off to sleep soon after.
Sharpe woke before Edrington. He stretched with care, mindful of the sleeping man next to him. He stared up at the leaves, the filtered sunlight painting them every color of green there was. He stared down as a few rays of light splashed across the front of his worn green jacket. He was taken again by the feeling of peace that had filled him in the meadow the night before. He'd never had a home before. He wondered if this was how people who did felt. He let it fill him, tried to memorize its every detail and tuck it away inside himself, to look back on in harder times.
Edrington stirred, then slid an arm across Sharpe. The Rifle Officer froze as a warm hand slid inside his open jacket and found its way through his open necked shirt. Unwelcome heat rushed through his body and down to his groin. He rolled on his side slowly, his back to Edrington, and felt the hand drop away. He opened his mouth wide as he gulped in great lungfuls of air. His hard cock strained the front of his trousers as he struggled to gain control of himself. He wished desperately he could take himself in hand, but what if Edrington woke? Why now, and why him? Surely it had been an accident. Edrington was asleep and didn't know what he was doing. It wasn't his fault that he'd fired Sharpe's blood. It was his breeding, he thought miserably. Like mother, like son, after all. Men of Edrington's class didn't get up to such things. God help him if the major ever found out. He needed a woman, that's what it was. Maybe it was something he got from his mother, but Sharpe had never been ashamed of his passions. He'd never looked down on a woman for satisfying them either. A whore was like any other artisan. She knew her job and did it well or she didn't. Making a living giving pleasure was probably a sight more honorable than killing for one, when you thought about it. He wished he hadn't had to leave Teresa behind in the mountains. She'd given him the love one soldier might give to another but the giving hadn't been easy for her.
Sharpe felt the feelings subside as he thought about what had almost been the first time with Teresa. He remembered the look on her face when she'd pulled away from him. God, he'd wanted her, but not like that. Not with a face full of fear. He'd had fellow soldiers before too, but women were safer and easier to bed, truth to tell. Man or woman, if they weren't willing, or better yet, eager, Sharpe wasn't interested. Edrington would be neither. He imagined the look of disgust Edrington would turn on him if he ever found out that Sharpe enjoyed such things. He prayed that his reaction to the major's touch was an accident, a thing that would never happen again. All he had to do was get them home, find a willing woman, and think no more about it.
Edrington woke feeling better than he had since the battle. Next to him, Sharpe's green-clad back was solid and comforting. Waking in the same bed with a comrade in arms--Edrington shook the thought away. Sharpe had never read the classics; he would have no idea what he was talking about. Simple soul that he was, he'd probably be disgusted with the whole idea.
Edrington had known of his inclinations for a long time. As a young ensign he'd gone from his first battle to the arms of a fellow soldier. What he had found there had changed him. Society might punish such acts harshly, but Edrington could not find it within him to see them as unnatural. Richard Sharpe, however, would likely see it as exactly that. In the space of a few days Sharpe had gone from a person beneath Edrington's notice to a man whose respect he valued highly. How had it happened? Had it been simply because Sharpe had saved his life, cared for him when he could not do it for himself?
No. If Edrington were honest with himself, the roots of the attraction had been there almost from the beginning. He had chided Sharpe for working alongside his men because it was an act he respected and could not emulate. The gulf between an earl and a common soldier was just too great. Sharpe cared for his men in a way that Edrington envied. His love for them and theirs for him was obvious and absolute. With one look, Hagman had understood Sharpe's wants and had done as his officer desired. It was a talent that Edrington had not even known existed and to Sharpe it was as natural as the sunrise. What would it be like to love such a man? It was a thing he would never know, just as Sharpe would never construe Ovid or Catullus. He would be content with the beginnings of friendship and seek the company of his own kind.
Carefully, Edrington sat up. For once, there was no weakness. He felt fine, he just had an almost overwhelming urge to empty his bladder. As he rose to his knees, Sharpe turned over.
"Morning, Mr. Sharpe." Edrington pissed over the edge of the branch cradle they lay in, then sat back down on the tangle of blankets. "Feeling better?"
Edrington caught the shy touch of pride in Sharpe's voice. "Yes, much. I feel as if I could walk all the way down the mountain today."
"That good?" Sharpe said slyly. "If I'd known that I'd have gotten us a deer days ago."
"So how far is this 'better place' of yours?" Edrington asked.
Sharpe reached for the bag of meat. "Maybe three miles to the road and another one or two to where I got the deer, milord." He pulled a piece of meat out and started eating. "Plenty of cover, as long as you're paying attention. The road's the one I told you about."
"I think we should get started, then."
Sharpe had another piece of meat in his hand. "Breakfast first, milord, then we get started?"
When had he begun to hate the sound of his title on Sharpe's lips? "Very well."
Moving camp took most of the day. Sharpe made the first trip alone with his pack and some of the blankets. The second trip left the thicket bare of everything but the hide full of meat, including Edrington's bright red coat, folded in on itself and wrapped in a blanket. Not a single patrol appeared. Edrington realized he should have seen that as the portent it was.
The two men crept down the road together. Edrington had not realized how much he missed his sword until it was once again in its proper place at his side. He carried a loaded pistol in his hand, comforted by its weight. Sharpe carried the meat, but that was all. They were almost to the mountain road when they heard the footsteps. Before they could get off the road, two French soldiers rounded the bend. Edrington and one of the soldiers fired almost simultaneously A neat hole appeared in the man's forehead then blood blossomed from it as he fell on top of his weapon. Quickly Edrington threw the fired pistol aside and drew the other from his belt. He fired at the other soldier.
Sharpe dropped the meat, and he raised his rifle as the other soldier lunged at him, bayonet fixed. The man was far too close to fire at, and Sharpe swung the butt of the rifle sideways, desperately trying to knock the steel coming at his chest aside. Edrington's bullet hit the soldier in the neck, but the force of his charge still carried him forward and Sharpe felt the blade tear into his thigh. The dying soldier fountained blood as Sharpe pushed him sideways, and the bayonet ripped free of his flesh. Sharpe went to his knees, both hands clutching at the wound.
"Sharpe!" Edrington dropped his pistol and ran to his wounded friend.
"Load--those--don't worry about me," Sharpe sobbed through gritted teeth.
"Fine." Edrington took a moment to reload. "You're losing a lot of blood, can you walk?"
"Looks like more than it is," Sharpe insisted. "Course I can--what, are you going to carry me, your high and mighty Lordship?"
Edrington ignored the comment. "Let me get these bodies off the road." He rolled the dead soldiers to the side of the road. Luckily at this point it wound around the mountain. One side sloped down as it did after the pass. The brush was thicker than Edrington would have liked, but he managed to roll them both into it. There was nothing he could do about the blood.
Sharpe had grabbed his rifle by then and was on his feet.
Edrington looked at the blood soaking one side of Sharpe's overalls. "Do you have any cloth? That needs to be bound up."
"No," Sharpe said. "No time, there may be more Frogs."
Edrington quickly set his shoulder in Sharpe's armpit and braced himself to take the bigger man's weight. Awkwardly he swung the heavy Baker over his shoulder, then threw his arm around Sharpe's waist. "Come on," he said. "Let's hope this road is as close as you think."
"Get the meat--"
"Hang the damned meat, Sharpe, we need to get off this road!" And I can't carry it and you, he wanted to add, but knew they didn't have time for another disagreement.
The two men lurched down the road, both concentrating on staying upright. As the battle madness faded, Edrington's strength did as well. But Sharpe grew steadier by the moment.
"You'd think I'd be used to this by now," he gasped. "The bastards always get the same-bloody-leg!"
Edrington was tempted to laugh, but he couldn't spare the energy. The steep mountain road rose off to one side. They stumbled onto it together and out of sight of the main road. He stopped walking, forcing Sharpe to stop. "Let me get a look at that."
"No." Sharpe said. He knew if he sat down he wouldn't be able to get up again. "When we get there. It's not far."
"I'm going to have a look at it all the same." Edrington slipped out from under Sharpe's arm slowly and was heartened to see that the man could stand on his own. The wound was still bleeding, though. Sharpe's leg was soaked in blood. "This has to be bandaged, your boot is soaked." Edrington stood. "Where are the bandages?"
"In my pack," Sharpe answered.
Edrington drew his knife and cut the rest of his torn and bloody sleeve away. He folded it into a pad and doubled his belt around Sharpe's thigh to hold it in place.
"Happy?" Sharpe asked.
"Oh, transported," Edrington answered. "Let's go." He took Sharpe's arm over his shoulder again.
As they climbed steadily uphill, Edrington wondered just what Sharpe's idea of "not far" was, but he couldn't spare the energy to ask. His back ached from the effort of supporting the wounded man and only pride kept him putting one foot after the other.
Sharpe was lightheaded, counting steps under his breath. How many made a mile, again? At last, he spied the deer path, but when he ducked to clear the overhanging branches he lost his balance. Both men fell heavily to the ground.
Edrington heard Sharpe's yelp of pain as his wounded thigh slammed into the dirt. He fought his way to his knees and rolled the wounded man on his back. The bandage had slipped a bit, but the blood had slowed to a trickle. Feebly, Sharpe tried to slap his hand away as he pulled it back into place.
All Sharpe wanted was to lie still at last, his chest heaving and his thigh pulsing pain. At least he didn't have to walk any farther. He never recalled the moment when he passed out.
Edrington tried to rise, but found himself back on hands and knees beside Sharpe. For a few minutes he could do nothing but rest his forehead on his hands and wait for the dizziness to pass. When he could raise his head, Sharpe was unconscious.
After an eternity, Edrington managed to gain his feet and pass through the low branches. As the meadow opened before him he knew what Sharpe had smelled of the night before. He drew the fragrant air deep into his lungs and felt it renew him somewhat.
"Blankets. Bandages." Edrington knew he was talking to himself and in his exhaustion he didn't care. He could not let Sharpe lie there in the open all night. He wandered the perimeter of the place and came to the stream, and beside it, found their equipment. He fumbled at the straps of Sharpe's pack, hoping that there would be clean cloth inside. The stiff straps and stout buckles resisted his clumsy fingers and after several tries he had to give up the attempt. He doubted he could manage the task right now anyway. He grabbed the blankets and took them back to the entrance.
Sharpe hadn't moved but when Edrington put his ear to the wounded man's chest he could hear his heart beating steadily. He gently rolled Sharpe onto his uninjured side and got a blanket under him. He spread the remaining blankets over them both and let sleep take him.
Sharpe opened his eyes to branches and shifting sunlight. For a moment he wasn't sure where he was. Then the pain in his thigh registered and memory came flooding back. As the pain became a known quantity, another sensation registered. A heavy warmth spreading down his uninjured side. Sharpe smiled, glad he had woken first as he rested his cheek against the top of Edrington's head.
As Sharpe's arm tightened around him, Edrington woke as well. He blinked and reflexively pulled back as he realized where he was and whom he was lying on. The arm fell away as he fought his way free.
"I'm sorry, Sharpe." Edrington's attempt at his usual urbane tone sounded stilted, even to him.
Sorry? Not shocked, or worse yet, furious? Edrington's obvious embarrassment emboldened Sharpe. Like a child caught with his hand in the honey jar.
"So am I," he answered. "I was enjoying that." He grinned as Edrington's eyes went wide with astonishment, maybe more than just that. So was that really how it was? His high and mighty lordship had an eye for his fellow man? He decided to find out.
"You can lie back down if you'd like."
"Perhaps--I--What I mean to say is--" Edrington shut his mouth as he realized how simple minded he sounded.
Sharpe smiled, a gentle smile that drove any desire Edrington might have had to speak out of his mind. He took one of the earl's hands in his and brought it to his lips. He pulled Edrington slowly forward, giving the other man every opportunity to free himself if he chose. Edrington did not so choose. Either this was real, or he was still asleep and dreaming, and either way a man that he wanted very badly was making it quite clear that his feelings were returned.
Sharpe hadn't been truly sure of Edrington, even when he'd woken with the man in his arms. He'd taken a chance and trusted his instincts, knowing that if he guessed wrong he might be called out or worse. Still, the earl didn't seem the type who'd kill a man over a kiss on the hand and a smile. When their lips met, he let Edrington choose what he wanted. The pain from his thigh and the weariness in every muscle was actually an asset for once. The last time he'd held someone for the first time he'd moved too quickly and frightened her away. He didn't want that to happen again. So he held the sword-hardened hand in his and concentrated on giving, rather than demanding. When Edrington's tongue brushed his lips, he opened before it. When Edrington's hand slid from his and found its way into his hair and his tongue pressed more deeply into Sharpe's mouth, he met the man with equal passion. Slowly they learned the measure of each other and Sharpe couldn't help thinking it was even worth getting wounded. Again.
Edrington pulled back, looking deeply into Sharpe's eyes. Sharpe's arm was around him again, as it had been when they'd woken, but Edrington knew that the slightest sign from him and it would fall away. "I'm not made of glass, Mr. Sharpe," he said. It was novel, being treated with such care, but he was no nervous young virgin, unsure of his wants.
"And my name is Richard." Sharpe answered.
"Mine is Frederick." Edrington pulled the blankets aside and pressed himself against Sharpe.
Sharpe grunted as he felt Edrington's interest even through the uniform trousers. He snaked an arm around the earl's lower back and pulled him closer. He wished he dared lie on his side, he dearly wanted to wrap his arms around this man and press the length of their bodies together, but he knew better. Even so, he couldn't help arching into the earl's hand when he felt himself stroked through his own clothing.
Edrington sat back as he heard Sharpe's groan of pleasure change to a hiss of pain. "Richard, are you all right?"
"Aye, 'm fine. Just a twinge." Sharpe fought to hold onto his desire through the pain. He knew this was stupid, that he should see to his leg before anything else, but that was his mind talking. His body had other ideas. He was tired of being responsible, and tired of doing the right thing. He'd lain beside this man for days now, being the proper gentleman. Between the French tramping up and down the road, finding enough food to keep body and soul together, and taking care of the wounded man, there hadn't even been opportunity to ease himself. And there was always the chance that his lordship would change his mind. No. He'd earned this, Edrington wanted it as badly as he did, and he meant to have it.
"Let me see?" Edrington undid the top button of Sharpe's overalls.
Sharpe closed his eyes as a wave of lust swept through him. "Well if all you want are my clothes off--"
"I'll start with that," Edrington allowed. He groaned as Sharpe turned and rubbed his face against the bulge in his trousers. He knew he was being distracted, and he no longer cared as he felt teeth grabbing at his buttons. As rationality faded he pulled back out of reach. There was no reason to allow Sharpe to win so easily, after all. The man would probably come to expect it. He slipped his hand inside the soiled white shirt.
"No bloody fair," Sharpe whispered.
"Oh, there are rules?" Edrington replied.
"I wouldn't know, not being a proper officer." Sharpe's tone was light, but Edrington could feel the hurt behind the words. He remembered their first meeting with something close to shame.
"I thought a proper officer was a man who didn't ask his men to do anything he wouldn't do himself," Edrington said. "By those standards I wonder how many of us are?" He pushed the green jacket open and kissed the hollow of Sharpe's throat. There it was, that thing he had no name for. It wasn't a taste, it wasn't a smell, but it shared the characteristics of both. It fired his blood and Sharpe reeked of it. Edrington's mouth fastened first on one patch of skin, then glided across another. Sharpe was rapidly moving beyond thought as he felt those soft lips learn him. He pulled Edrington closer, savoring the feel of the hard soldier's body in his arms. His hands slid down over the firm arse, and he gasped as he felt teeth at his neck.
Nothing had ever felt so good as the pressure of Sharpe's arms around him, the feel of his hands on his backside. Edrington was all but drunk on it and yet it wasn't enough. And Sharpe's leg had to be seen to, whether he had the sense to realize that or not. He rolled aside and lay on his back, his whole body humming, his trousers tight with his need.
Sharpe stayed where he was, because all he wanted was to roll over onto Edrington and finish what they'd started. His body sang with lust and his hard cock ached and he wondered if he'd moved too fast again. Slowly he felt his racing heart slow. He was sure his lordship--Frederick, he corrected himself, then corrected himself yet again--did his lordship want him to call him that, or had it only been for the moment? It seemed as though Edrington had wanted it. Had he missed something as his passion rose? What had he been thinking, to treat Edrington as a--as a what? A fellow soldier who was experienced enough to know what he wanted? He smiled up at the sky. No. He'd done nothing wrong. His lordship had changed his mind. Surely he could live with being turned down. It wasn't something that happened often, but it did sometimes.
They lay there companionably for a time and let the peace of the place seep into them. Then Edrington sat up. He saw Sharpe's smile and couldn't help returning it. "That leg needs to be seen to."
"Aye," Sharpe answered. He wasn't sure what to say, so he rolled carefully over onto his uninjured leg and up onto his knees. By the time he got there his interest in Edrington was no longer a problem. He felt sweat break out on his forehead as he knelt there, waiting for the strength to get up to come to him. "Got some more bandages in camp. Cut 'em from a few Frenchmen's shirts." Talk was good. It gave him something other than his body to concentrate on.
"I can fetch our baggage here," Edrington offered. "There's no need for you to move just yet." He could see what the effort to rise was costing Sharpe. And it would give him a chance to collect himself out of Sharpe's presence. As his body calmed, rational thought returned. What had just happened and why? But Sharpe was fighting his way to his feet by now, and Edrington had no choice but to help him.
"There's water at camp," Sharpe managed to say. "Better cover." He might not be able to walk as easily once he'd been poked and prodded, and he'd just as soon do it now. Once he was on his feet he felt better. He was pleasantly surprised to find that he could walk, if only just barely. It was easier than rising had been, he didn't have to move the leg as much. But it would only just bear his weight. He was glad when Edrington came to support him and together they headed for the stream.
Sharpe leaned up against a tree as Edrington folded a blanket into a rough pad. His leg throbbed dully again and all he wanted to do was lie down. He didn't care if it was on bare ground. He pushed himself off from the tree and began to limp towards the blanket.
Edrington looked up and left the blanket as it was. He helped Sharpe to sit on it, then to lie down. "It would only have taken a moment." He, too, was wondering just what to call his--friend? He hoped so. He wanted to be able to call Sharpe friend for a long time to come. He hoped he might still have the chance to call him more than that. He hoped it was only the effort of moving that kept Sharpe from speaking save in short sentences. Right now there were things far more important than his confusion or his feelings.
Sharpe yelped as Edrington tugged at his right boot.
"I'm sorry, Sharpe," he said. "These need to come off."
So it was Sharpe again, then. Sharpe felt his heart drop down to his boots. He gritted his teeth as Edrington pulled off the right boot, then the left, and then went to work on his overalls. He'd never felt less like making love in his life by the time they were off. He tried to keep from shivering as he lay there.
Edrington noticed though, and laid a blanket gently over Sharpe. "I'm sorry," he said.
"Don't be," Sharpe answered. "Had to be done, milord. Bandages are in my pack."
There it was again. Edrington hid his disappointment at Sharpe's return to his title by grabbing the pack and fumbling with the straps. Everything within was neatly folded and far cleaner than Edrington expected. It was easy to locate the folded cloth. He took stock of what was there and selected one piece to soak in the clear water. Carefully he cleaned the ugly slash on Sharpe's thigh as thoroughly as he could, trying not to react to the stifled sounds of pain Sharpe couldn't help making. The wound was trickling blood again by the time he had finished, but it was only blood and no more ominous sign.
"Looks like that Frog kept his bayonet well," Edrington said, hoping he sounded more self-assured than he felt. The blade had torn deep into the muscle.
"So you're a bloody doctor?" Sharpe groaned. "Just get on with it. Please," he added as he realized how short his words had sounded.
"Sorry." He just didn't have the energy to add a milord for good measure. Edrington didn't seem to notice. "Don't worry about it," he said as he folded a pad out of the rags and tied it in place. "Wish I had some brandy to offer you as well."
"There was none for you," Sharpe answered. He lay back and waited for the pain to ease. He felt Edrington lift his head and place something soft under it.
"No, I had to make due with a comrade in arms instead," Edrington said softly. He sat down on the ground beside Sharpe and wished he dared to take Sharpe's hand in his. "I would have died without you, Sharpe."
Sharpe shut his eyes for a moment. "I would have done the same for anyone, milord."
Edrington wanted to scream at the use of his title again. "I'd hoped I wasn't just anyone, Richard." Sharpe remained silent. "Richard?" But Sharpe was asleep.
When Sharpe woke again, he was alone. Daylight filtered through the branches above him and he was wrapped up warmly in the blankets. He had a powerful need to relieve himself. The sound of running water a couple of feet from his head only made it worse. He pushed and pulled the blankets aside, dreading the pain he knew would come when he rose. But soiling his bedroll would be worse. He dragged himself to his knees, and crawled a few feet to the nearest tree, his thigh lancing pain through him with every movement. His head whipped up as a shot rang out. He froze, listening, but no sound came to him but the wind through the leaves. Another shot broke the calm.
Sharpe pulled himself back to the blankets as quickly as he could and scrabbled through their possessions. His rifle wasn't there, nor his cartridge pouch. He took a deep breath, groping for calm. Stop it, you silly bugger, he told himself. It's only his lordship out there, has to be. And he has my rifle, came the angry thought. Might've asked. He realized he was being ridiculous about the same time he noticed he was shaking. He collapsed back onto the blankets miserably. Shame and the knowledge of his own helplessness filled him and he curled on his side. All he could do was wait for Edrington to return.
He must have slept, because the next thing he remembered was the sound of twigs and branches crackling. He lay there, ashamed anew at the fear that filled him. Edrington appeared a moment later, Sharpe's rifle slung over his shoulder and a satisfied smile on his face. He tossed a couple of rabbits to the ground beside the firepit and quietly set the weapon back down beside Sharpe.
Sharpe closed his eyes, feigning sleep as he smothered the rage that filled him at the sight of his rifle in another man's hands. He was being ridiculous, he knew, and worse. Unable to walk more than a few steps on his own, he was at Edrington's mercy. The man had only taken his weapon to get food for them both. It was a much better weapon than those pistols for such a task. He was only doing what was best for both of them.
He felt Edrington bend over him and quietly withdraw. The smell of blood followed. When he heard the stealthy sounds of a fire being laid Sharpe realized how stupid he was being. He opened his eyes to see Edrington leaning over the firepit, blowing the coals to life again. Intent on his task, Edrington didn't notice and Sharpe was glad of a moment to collect himself. He felt raw, as if his momentary fear was there in his face for Edrington to see.
The fire lit, Edrington sat back for a moment. He looked over and saw Sharpe's eyes on him. "Did I wake you?"
"No," Sharpe lied.
"How's the leg?" Edrington asked.
"Still can't walk, if that's what you're asking," Sharpe replied bitterly.
"I wasn't," Edrington answered. He wished briefly for the closeness of that morning, and wished he hadn't been so eager to take what Sharpe had offered. "There's plenty of game here, we can stay as long as we need to."
"Sorry." Sharpe felt shame flood him again. "I'm not fit company right now." His unruly emotions threatened to choke him. When had he ever wasted his time feeling sorry for himself? The anger was better. It kept the other, less presentable emotions at bay.
Edrington spitted the rabbits and began to cook them. "Neither of us has eaten since yesterday, small wonder you're feeling out of sorts."
"How's the arm?" Sharpe asked, desperate to change the subject. Edrington was in shirtsleeves, the right one torn and bloodied. Sharpe couldn't help thinking that he'd never looked less like an earl, sitting on the ground roasting rabbit over a fire as any common soldier might do.
Edrington smiled. "It still pains me a bit, but it's manageable. Oh, I borrowed your rifle, by the by. I didn't know when you'd wake."
"You put it back where you got it," Sharpe replied. He reached for it, knowing it hadn't been cleaned and glad for something useful to do. "Any of those rags left?"
Edrington rose and got them. This must be yet another of those things that made a good soldier, came the sarcastic thought, but he kept it to himself. He'd planned to clean all the weapons after they'd eaten, but Sharpe badly needed something to do, and Edrington desperately wanted the man in better temper.
"There's a tin cup in there too," Sharpe said as Edrington reached into the pack. "Could you fill it with water and set it close by the fire?"
When Sharpe's rifle was as clean as he could make it and dark with a new coat of oil, he asked for Edrington's pistols. It was a job he could do, as he put it and Edrington gladly handed over the task. Within a day he was doing the cooking and fire tending too, as his strength quickly returned.
Sharpe was glad of it, pushing himself to do what he could. Each new task he could take on made him feel more himself, and less dependent on Edrington for everything. As if by mutual consent, they slept on opposite sides of the fire.
Edrington told himself he did it because Sharpe was ill, and Edrington had proven he couldn't be trusted to keep himself in bounds. When he was well, perhaps.
Sharpe told himself he did it because his lordship had changed his mind, and because it was a long walk over the mountains yet. He couldn't even keep himself fed right now. Maybe he'd risk finding out when he could take care of himself.
Within days Sharpe was hobbling around the camp, determined to regain his mobility. Truth to tell, the beauty of the place was beginning to pall on him. No drink, and no women, he told himself. Only a beautiful soldier who wanted nothing of that from him. Better to have a woman than to dream of him night after night, and take himself in hand when the man went hunting. His supply of cartridges wasn't going to last forever either.
Edrington had finally done it. He had been trying for a deer for the last couple of days. Sharpe was well enough to leave, or soon would be and they'd travel faster if they had to forage less along the way. Game was still plentiful, but their presence in the meadow had made the animals warier than they had been. Edrington had been traveling farther each time he hunted.
He carried the deer into the camp to find it deserted. "Sharpe?" He scanned the meadow, then walked out into the open grassland. Sharpe was searching the edge of the thicket for firewood. He carried the beginnings of a load in his arms. His walk was still stiff, but he was clearly mending fast. He wore no shirt and had laid his green jacket aside and as Edrington came up, he saw the scars on Sharpe's back. He wondered what the man had done to deserve such a punishment.
Sharpe turned as he heard the feet behind him. He wished he'd worn his shirt, at least. It hung dripping from a branch in camp.
"Sharpe! You're looking well!" Edrington said. Flogged or no, Sharpe was indeed exceeding well to look upon, and Edrington tried not to stare as he approached. A wide grin split Sharpe's face. Edrington thought he'd never seen Sharpe look so charming, or so common. It was an odd combination.
Sharpe felt Edrington's eyes wander his body. Suddenly he didn't mind leaving his shirt behind. "Feeling well, thank you your lordship."
In nothing but a shirt, boots, and breeches, Edrington looked far less the aristocrat and more the soldier he was at the core.
"Come back to camp, I've got a surprise." Edrington said.
Oh, I'll just bet you have, thought Sharpe. "Surprise?"
"I shot a deer."
"Then we're going to need a lot more wood," Sharpe observed before following Edrington back to camp.
Edrington helped Sharpe hang the carcass and then went to gather wood. He needed to get out of Sharpe's presence for a few moments. By the time he returned with a load, the light was beginning to fade. Sharpe was a sight. His torso and overalls were streaked in blood and the deer hung open before him. He was setting some of the meat he had cut on sticks close by the fire. Edrington pulled off his shirt as well and helped Sharpe to hang the meat closer to their bedding. They were both bloody by then, and Sharpe pulled off his boots and went into the water, overalls and all. Edrington joined him. He'd tried to keep his light breeches as clean as possible, but after days in the mountains they could only be described as filthy. He scrubbed at them, and the red stains at least began to fade.
Sharpe waded to the bank and stripped off his wet clothes. He hung the overalls with his shirt. "Wish I'd thought to take the trousers off those Frenchmen," he said.
As Edrington sneaked a look at Sharpe's lean body he decided that he was quite satisfied with the way things had turned out. He stripped as well and stood before the fire to dry himself. The heat felt good after the cold water.
Sharpe checked the meat and pulled a stick of it off the fire. He sat down on his bedding and pulled his knife from his belt where it lay on top of the blankets. He speared himself a chunk and looked up at Edrington. "Hungry?"
Edrington looked at the meat, and at Sharpe sitting nude on his blankets. Food was the last thing on his mind. He looked away, and rummaged through his own possessions. His own eating utensils had gone with his saddlebags, but Sharpe had found him another knife on the battlefield and he picked it up. He sat down beside Sharpe and began to satisfy the safer hunger.
"Makes a nice change from rabbit," Sharpe said between bites. He drank deeply from the water bag and sat it within Edrington's reach.
"It does," Edrington agreed. "How long do you think it will take to dry it all?"
"We could be on our way in a few days," Sharpe said. "I should be able to do a day's walking by then. I could do it now if I had to."
If he could do a day's walking he could do other, far more enjoyable things. Edrington pushed the thought away quickly before his body could take an interest in such matters. He looked over at Sharpe's leg. The bandage was soaked, but fairly clean. "Should that be changed?"
Sharpe glanced down at his leg. "Let a man eat his dinner first." He returned to the piece of meat on the end of his knife. His leg was sore, but he realized he hadn't thought about the wound since Edrington's return. He really was fit to travel again, if only just. "You won't have to spend your time being my nursemaid any more, though you've taken fine care of me."
"I haven't minded," Edrington said. "You did the same for me."
"That one will have to come off too," said Sharpe, pointing at the bandage on Edrington's arm.
"This? It's practically healed," Edrington said around a mouthful of venison.
"Good," said Sharpe. "It could use a fresh bandage, then." Sharpe rose and began to turn the drying meat. "We can wash out the rags and dry them next to the fire. We'll have to watch the meat anyway."
Edrington realized he was staring at Sharpe's neat backside and looked away. He finished the piece of meat and wiped his knife on a handful of grass. But the thought of that tight flesh under his hands, and the memory of Sharpe's body under his that followed were making him wish he'd left his trousers on the bank when he'd washed. Abruptly, he rose and fled to the trees.
Sharpe heard Edrington get up, but by the time he looked over at his bedding the man was disappearing into the darkness. He finished dealing with the meat and began to clean his rifle.
Edrington leaned against a tree and cursed himself for a fool. He hadn't made it very far without his boots, but the thought of stopping to put them on had never crossed his mind, so eager was he to get out of Sharpe's presence. Perhaps there was a chance the man might yet be interested in more than just friendship, but so far Edrington had seen no sign of it. He looked down at himself, standing and ready for action. A simpler remedy would have to do.
He closed his eyes as his hand closed around his hard cock, wishing it was Sharpe's. He let the image of that tall, lean body fill his mind as he began to stroke himself.
Sharpe pulled the rifle's barrel through the oily rag one last time before settling it again into the stock. He slipped the ramrod back in place and put the cleaning tools away. Edrington had still not returned. It was full dark by now, and surely it couldn't take anyone that long to take a piss. Had something happened? He loaded the newly cleaned weapon and went the way his lordship had. It didn't take him long to find the man.
Edrington was too focused on his body to notice Sharpe's approach. So the Rifle Officer watched, feeling himself respond as he listened to the small groans, watched Edrington's body shiver as he pleasured himself. He knew he should go back to camp and leave the man some privacy, but he didn't. As Edrington cried out, his release spattering the grass in front of him, Sharpe realized his folly. As Edrington opened his eyes he realized he was not alone. As his eyes fell upon Sharpe, his own manhood standing proudly, his face reddening in embarrassment, the sight was half nightmare, half dream come true. He wished he had a well-chosen word or two to offer, but for once, his wit deserted him.
All he could do was walk forward.
The rifle thudded to the grass, the cartridge pouch a heartbeat behind as the two men came together.
First bodies, then lips joined as they took their pleasure of each other.
Edrington let Sharpe draw him down to the grass, let him press him down into it. It was pure bliss having that lean hard body atop him. He felt himself begin to harden again and he pulled Sharpe's cock against his. The soldier groaned and thrust forward, eyes closed in pleasure. The sound went straight to Edrington's groin. How uncomplicated the man was in his need, there was no pretense to him at all. It had been a long time since anyone had wanted him so openly, or with such force. With lips and tongue he coaxed more soft noises from Sharpe.
Sharpe felt Edrington's fingers at his arse, running over his back and sides, taking him beyond thought. He thrust against the yielding flesh beneath him, the soaring ecstasy stronger than the twinges from his thigh. He felt lips close over his nipple, float along his throat. Edrington hardened beneath him and he drove their cocks together, covering Edrington's belly with his seed.
Edrington smiled as he felt Sharpe shudder against him, watched the wide mouth gape in ecstasy. He rolled the man over onto his back and nestled in close by his side as he watched him come back to himself.
Sharpe opened his eyes to see Edrington smiling at him. Suddenly he felt exposed, naked in a way that had nothing to do with lack of clothing. He smiled back, determined not to show it and reached down to take his lordship's manhood in his hand. He was rewarded with a gasp. Not so high and mighty now, are we, he thought to himself as he stroked the rigid flesh and watched Edrington's eyes close in pleasure. He pushed Edrington onto his back and kissed his way down the lightly muscled chest. Edrington tasted of smoke and firelight, tinged with the slight musk of his pleasure. Sharpe took his time, his hand moving slowly as he slid his mouth down Edrington's body. By the time he nuzzled the curls at the base of Edrington's manhood, the nobleman was whimpering, his hand buried in Sharpe's hair. He mouthed his way up the straining organ, and felt it pulse beneath his mouth, Edrington's release mingling with what was left of his. They lay there for a time, listening to the wind in the branches and the slight sound of running water. Sharpe reached out and took Edrington's hand in his.
Sharpe heard Edrington speak, so softly he couldn't make out the words. They didn't sound like English, though. "What?"
Edrington smiled up into the trees. "A very old piece of wisdom," he said. "An army of lovers is invincible."
Sharpe was silent a moment. He wished he could ask Harris what Edrington meant. Somehow his lack of education was less of an embarrassment before the rifleman. But Edrington's hand still lay warm in his, and there had been no mockery in his tone, or his words.
"I've marched with lovers before." He remembered Teresa, and Lawford, and other fellow soldiers, some living, some dead. "I've buried a few."
"So have I," Edrington said. Trust Richard to cut to the heart of things. He realized how pretentious he must have sounded. A short time ago, he would have taken Sharpe's ignorance as proof of his inferiority, but the man's untutored words showed his intelligence. He prayed he'd have the sense not to misjudge such men in the future. "But you fight the harder for them, don't you?"
"I fight to stay alive," Sharpe said. "I expect them to do the same."
"You kept me alive, Richard," The name hung in the air between them. "Why?"
Sharpe put his hands behind his head. "You were one of us. You fought well, and you kept as many of us alive as you could. I wasn't sure, when you left the rear of the column behind--" He stopped, unsure of what to say. That he'd thought his lordship was a coward? No. Never that. "I thought you couldn't be bothered over a few whores and old men. I was wrong, and I'm sorry, Frederick."
Edrington was silent a moment. Sharpe's words were truer than he knew, or they had been.
"I had to keep the company moving, Richard. I knew my men would get up again, but I wasn't so sure about the old men and whores, as you put it. You're right, I was willing to lose a few to ensure that the rest survived."
"They might not have," Sharpe said. "I didn't think of that when I asked you to call a halt."
Edrington smiled. "We lost, anyway."
"I hope they got away," Sharpe said softly.
The wagons were burning. The smoke spiraled up into the clear mountain air as the Chosen Men watched. Across the small valley the last of the horses and mules were trailing out of sight as the road bent around the mountain.
"Free at last," Cooper said.
Hagman watched the last horse round the bend. "Luck to ye," he said softly.
"Luck to us, you mean," Cooper said. "They have the horses."
"And we have the guns." Hagman patted the stock of his rifle, cradled in his arms.
"We'll meet them yet, so we will," Harper said, his voice full of false cheer. French dead lay in the burning wagons, along with more than a few of their own. The battle had been short and sharp; the French squad had come upon them as they were camped for the night.
In the aftermath of battle, the remains of the company had tumbled down the road after the wagons. The Chosen Men had managed to stay together and had quickly outdistanced the rest of the soldiers. Harper didn't waste any tears on them, the memory of the column continuing up the road without them was still fresh. They'd make it on their own or not at all. He only wished that Mr. Sharpe had come down that road with them. Downhill, the rifles made good time with little to carry but their weapons. A day later, they'd caught up with the baggage train.
That was when their troubles had truly begun. The people were directionless, stopping often, though the soldiers tried to keep them moving. At every halt more abandoned the group, taking horses with them if they could manage it.
Inevitably, the fastest of the French had caught up with them. They had died to a man, their muskets no match for rifles. Harper had broken up the baggage train then, knowing it was inevitable. Burning the wagons seemed the easiest way to keep them from the French, and to dispose of the bodies. There were too few horses for all, and so the rifles left as they had come, on foot.
Sharpe woke to warmth. He smiled as he felt the length of Edrington's body pressed tight up against his back. He lay there a moment, though the fire had died to coals, winking redly in the dark. Stealthily he pulled himself free of the blankets to feed it and check the drying meat. Behind him Edrington made a muffled noise.
"Go back to sleep. I'm only feeding the fire." Sharpe set some smaller sticks on the coals and blew them into life. The warmth felt good against his bare flesh.
Edrington rolled up onto his side and enjoyed the sight of Sharpe silhouetted against the firelight. It was a relief to be able to look openly at last, with no fear of consequences.
Sharpe got up stiffly and prodded the first rack of meat. It was leathery now, ready to be packed away. He pulled the stick clear of the support he'd pounded into the ground and switched it with one that was farther out from the heat.
Edrington crawled out of the blankets and poked at the fire. "Can I help?"
Sharpe shook his head. "Naught we can do till morning. I don't want to cut meat in the dark." He put the last stick back in its place and sat down on the blankets.
"What shall we do till morning?" Edrington mused.
Sharpe grinned, and turned toward Edrington. "I can think of a few things." He leaned forward for a kiss.
The corpse-filled pass reeked of death and the French officer did not linger. He walked his horse through it, taking in the looted bodies and the bits of equipment scattered everywhere. An English armorer's mark was visible on the barrel of one of the dismounted guns. So, they had been trapped here and either routed or killed by a French column. The road beyond carried the mingled tracks of thousands of men and horses, silent marks of the unimpeded passage of the Emperor's troops. On every road it was the same. Wellesley was calling his troops back to him--why? He regarded the silent dead around him. There would be no answers here. He walked his horse slowly through the pass. The road beyond was no more informative, at first. Until something registered, so faintly at first that it was nothing more than a vague presence. As he moved further along, it strengthened and revealed itself. The smell that had filled the pass, the smell of battle's aftermath.
He found the stinking bundle of meat at a bend in the road. His face set, he dismounted and kicked the fly covered thing over the edge of the road. It was then that he saw the blue uniform.
The two soldiers had been dead a long time, far too long to expect their killers to still be here. But some of the English had gotten over the pass, at least. The officer mounted again and kept riding. When the side road branched off, he took it.
The next few days were as blissful a time as Edrington could remember. They tended the meat, made love, and slept, only to rise and do it all again. He was almost sorry when the carcass was a slowly ripening pile of bones and uncured hide. Sharpe's pack was full, his few remaining belongings in his haversack or tied to it. He'd sacrificed one blanket to make straps for the rest, which Edrington carried over one shoulder, along with the water. The fire was cold ashes behind them as they looked out over the meadow one last time.
Sharpe wiggled his pack into a comfortable place and slung his rifle over one shoulder. He leaned on his bad leg, and was half tempted to tell Edrington that he needed another day to rest it.
"Ready?" Edrington asked.
"Aye." As ready as I'll ever be, he thought.
The road rose sharply for the first mile or so beyond the meadow and Sharpe was trying to breathe quietly, surprised to find himself so out of condition. When Edrington stopped at the crest he kept walking, hoping the short stretch of level ground he could see ahead would be enough of a rest to make it up the next hill.
The sound of hooves on the road above surprised them both as the horseman came into sight. He was riding hard, dangerously so, Edrington thought as he shrugged his way out of his bundles and drew his pistols. His first shot went wild.
Sharpe unslung his rifle and swung it at the galloping horse. He felt it connect as the horse slammed into him, knocking him aside. The animal reared, spilling its rider onto the road. Sharpe tried to roll aside as the shadow fell over him, but the heavy pack was pinning him down.
Edrington ran forward as the horse's front feet came down perilously close to Sharpe. He grabbed the reins.
Sharpe shrugged his way out of his pack, but the rider had risen by then and was coming at him, sword drawn. He rolled as the blade came down, and felt it bite into his half-healed leg, Desperately, he grabbed the man's sword arm.
A shot rang out, and the man fell on top of him.
Edrington threw the pistol aside and worked to calm the frightened horse. The pistol shot had made matters worse, and he hoped that the Frenchman was dead, or at least in no condition to cause any more trouble.
He was. Sharpe pushed the dead man off him, his leg on fire. Why, oh why did the bastard have to use this road? He pressed his hand to the wound, trying to think through the pain.
The horse was calmer now, and Edrington tied her to a tree. Sharpe had still not risen, and he began running as he saw the blood.
"Not again, damn it--" Sharpe was rocking back and forth, his face twisted in pain.
"You do seem to have a knack for it," Edrington said dryly, though he felt anything but calm.
"Bastard!" Sharpe swore, as he felt Edrington's gentle fingers at his leg.
"Who, me or him?" Edrington asked. "Richard, let me see." He pried Sharpe's hands away.
The bandage was soaked in blood, but Edrington couldn't remove it with Sharpe's overalls in the way. It was bleeding far more than he liked, and so he abandoned the attempt and pressed down hard. Sharpe cried out, but submitted to the rough handling. Edrington prayed he wouldn't bleed to death.
"Goddamned Frog bastard! Christ, how could I be so bloody stupid, I never even heard him!"
"I didn't hear him either," said Edrington. Under his hands the bleeding was slowing. He wanted to shout for joy. Instead, he said the first thing that came into his head. They could both use the distraction. "Why in God's name did you try to fight a horse with a rifle butt?"
"No time to shoot," Sharpe said. He was beginning to feel lightheaded. "Only thing I could do. Club bloody hell out of the horse's mouth and he'll throw his rider every time."
"She," Edrington corrected. "I caught her. And you didn't hit her in the mouth."
"You sure?" Sharpe grinned weakly. "Was wondering where you were."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am," Edrington said tartly. "And I did manage to shoot the rider."
"Just hope there aren't any more of 'em." Sharpe lay back, unable to hold his head up any longer.
"Richard?" Edrington lifted his hand cautiously. The bleeding had nearly stopped. He took Sharpe's hand. The fingers were like ice.
"I'm going to go and get some bandages, all right?"
"Fine." Sharpe didn't care what he did. He was just happy to lie still as the world spun around him.
Edrington ran for the gear he had dropped and brought it back to where Sharpe lay. He grabbed the pack and put it under the wounded man's head and fumbled in the haversack for the rags and some blanket scraps. He tied a new bandage over the old, afraid to remove it. He untied the bedroll and covered Sharpe as warmly as he could. Then he loaded his spent pistol and put all three weapons close to hand.
The road remained silent. When Edrington was sure Sharpe was sleeping, he dragged the soldier's body a few feet further away and went through his pockets. It was a low task, unworthy of an officer, but he remembered how Sharpe had roamed the battlefield in search of food while he lay helpless. The money he refused to take, but the man's tinderbox, tobacco, and flask of brandy he was glad to help himself to. He saw to the horse. As evening came, he gathered wood and started a small fire. Sharpe had still not woken.
It was dawn before he did.
Edrington sat cross-legged on the ground, Sharpe's hand in his and the weapons laid out beside him. He felt Sharpe's fingers twitch against his, then grip his hand firmly.
"Frederick..." Sharpe tried to sit up, but thought better of it.
"As soon as it's light I'll get us back to the meadow," Edrington said.
"No." Sharpe closed his eyes, gathering his strength. Somehow the meadow that had seemed so inviting this morning seemed a cage now. It was as if a spell had been broken. "Forwards, not back. Wellesley will be gone if we wait much longer."
"Richard, you can't travel like this," Edrington said.
"I can. You said you'd got that Frog's horse." Sharpe pulled his hand from Edrington's and managed to rise up on his elbows. He stayed there a moment, then sat up. "On this road we're only a few days from the sea." Had his men made it? Had the rest of the Army gathered as ordered?
"Damn it, Richard! You could start to bleed again!" Edrington peeled the blankets aside.
Sharpe's hand was already there. "Not bleeding," he said happily. "Hurts like the devil, though."
"This might help." Edrington took the flask from his pocket and handed it to Sharpe.
"You get this off him?" Sharpe jerked his head toward the dead man.
"Where else?" Edrington hoped Sharpe would drink it, go back to sleep, and stop this silly nonsense about leaving.
"I'd rather have water," Sharpe said. "Might need that more after a day of riding."
Edrington passed Sharpe the tin cup full of water. "Rest, Richard. Just for a day."
Sharpe looked up at the sudden intensity in Edrington's voice. "You want to stay here, then?"
"Would that be so terrible, just for a little while?" Edrington forced himself to smile, as if the question were meaningless.
Sharpe raised his head and searched Edrington's face. "No, Frederick, of course not." Thoughts of the last few days brought an answering smile to his lips. "A time or two I thought of what it'd be like just to stay." The smile faded. "But we can't. I can't just run away and leave my men to fight for me. I don't even know if they're alive or dead."
"I'm not asking you to run, Richard," said Edrington softly.
"I know you're not," Sharpe said. "But don't you see? It'd be so easy, at least at first. Just you and me, and nothing to do all day but hunt and make love. To hell with the war, to hell with Wellesley. All we have to do is get ourselves left behind and we could live like kings.
"Until we ran out of cartridges," Edrington said dryly. Richard had never seemed so common as he did at that moment, or so free. It was a taste of the life Richard and his men must have led in the hills. Edrington smiled as he understood. Sharpe was caught between two worlds, welcome in neither. None of that mattered in these mountains. Here it came down to a man's wits and his skill at arms. "Yes, it would be easy. And if we don't make it, will we ever be sure of our reasons?"
And so Edrington found himself strapping their belongings onto the horse and helping Sharpe into the saddle.
They halted at noon.
"I feel fine," Sharpe said as Edrington helped him off the horse.
Edrington smiled indulgently. He hadn't missed the small sharp intake of breath as Richard's feet hit the ground, nor did he fail to notice the stiff way his comrade moved. "Fine for a man who never rides."
Sharpe used a large rock to ease himself to the ground. He put his back against it and slowly stretched his legs out. "Don't have to do it for long." His wounded leg throbbed in time with his heart and he leaned his head back. It was worth it to be moving again. When his eyes closed, Edrington quietly unsaddled the horse and set her to graze.
Sharpe woke to darkness and dim firelight. His side was warm where Edrington lay against it, a contrast to the cold night air on his face. He lay still under the blankets for a moment. His whole body ached, his leg worst of all. And he had to take a piss, and Edrington had allowed them to lose half a day.
Edrington stirred as Sharpe slid awkwardly out from under the blankets. He didn't speak as the man climbed painfully to his feet and hobbled off a few paces to make water. But he moved over when Sharpe returned and sat up to spread the blankets back over them both.
"Why didn't you wake me?" Sharpe lay on his back looking up at the stars.
"You needed the sleep," Edrington answered.
Sharpe recalled their words of the day before and wondered whether that was the only reason. Aye, a man of Edrington's class could be as tempted as a common soldier to run, but not Edrington. He was a rare one, a soldier first and a lord after. He could never be content to stay hidden away in the mountains. Yet he'd wanted to, if only for a moment. He'd wanted to stay with Sharpe. He'd understood what it meant to fight beside a lover.
Edrington rolled onto his side and rummaged around on the ground. "Are you hungry?"
He offered Sharpe a large chunk of dried meat and a water skin. He was glad when Sharpe took them and began to eat. The anger of a junior officer, and one raised from the ranks at that should have meant little to him, but the anger of Richard Sharpe was another matter now. He felt off balance. Even though he knew he was in the right, he had no worthy answer to the questions Richard might ask. There was no question they must rejoin Wellesley as quickly as possible, but it was a matter of honor now, not a course he wanted to pursue. He felt as caught between worlds as Richard must. He could not return to thinking of Richard as class and rank demanded, but neither could they be to each other in camp what they were alone in the mountains. And what of Richard? What world did he inhabit? Was there a place for their friendship within it?
Sharpe put the water skin aside and lay back on the ground, loath to break the silence between them.
And so sleep found them again, each wrapped in his own thoughts.
Several days more of picking their way over paths that were little more than deer tracks brought them back to the main road. Edrington made camp out of sight and took the horse to see what lay ahead of them. Sharpe was asleep when he returned. He'd been sleeping more and more as they traveled, and gaining little from it as far as Edrington could see. His leg was no better, the wound was hot and obviously painful. It was becoming a race, thought Edrington. They had to get off the mountain and find shelter, and a doctor. Making the road was a small victory. They would travel much faster on it, and their chances of finding what they needed were much better. Unfortunately, so were their chances of finding Frogs.
Morning, and the mountains were wrapped in mist. The blankets were heavy with it, and while Edrington lay them across the back of the saddle to dry, Sharpe stretched his hands over the remains of the fire. His teeth were chattering and he wished fiercely for Harper and a cup of tea. He settled for another chunk of venison and a long drink of water as Edrington packed up the camp. His sore muscles screeched with the cold as he smothered the fire with dirt.
The horse's body was furnace hot against the insides of his legs and it eased his stiffness at first. Sharpe buried his icy hands in the horse's mane.
By noon, Edrington knew they had a problem. At first, he'd attributed Sharpe's near silence to the cold and his injuries, something that would fade as they traveled. As the day wore on, Sharpe's face grew paler, his answers to Edrington's overtures shorter. He finally caught the horse's bridle.
Sharpe jerked upright. "Why did we stop?" He realized he'd been dozing as the road swam back into focus.
"I could do with a rest," Edrington said.
Sharpe looked down at the faraway ground. It seemed a cruel effort to climb down such a distance, only to climb back up again.
"Richard?" Edrington let go of the bridle and went to help Sharpe dismount.
"You're not fooling me again," Sharpe said vaguely.
"What?" Edrington grabbed the bridle again as Sharpe attempted to kick the horse back into motion.
"We'll lose the rest of the day."
We might, Edrington thought grimly. "You won't travel far on an empty belly, Richard."
"We're only a few days from the coast," Sharpe insisted. How could he make Frederick understand? "Can't stop."
Edrington led the horse off the road and into the trees, Sharpe protesting feebly the whole way. Sharpe's arm was hot beneath his as he helped the man to dismount at last. He hissed as his bad leg took his weight.
Edrington lifted the bandage and wished he hadn't. The wound was worse, white with pus and hot to the touch. Sharpe would soon be beyond a surgeon's skills. If he weren't already, Edrington thought despairingly.
I'll get you home, Richard, he promised silently. I'll get us both home.
Harris had slipped away to the outskirts of the camp. No one had seemed to know quite what to do with the Chosen Men since they'd returned, and no one had the time as the remains of Wellesley's army poured onto the waiting ships. He was just as happy to be overlooked, with little to do but read. The book had cost him a bottle of wine but it was well worth it. Plutarch was a particular favorite, he hadn't seen it in a long time. It was in Greek, and so wasn't as dear as it might have been had anyone else in camp save a few officers been able to read it. It fell unheeded to the ground as he ran toward the ragged pair on the road.
Sharpe didn't know he was swaying in the saddle. All he knew was that the road was liquid under the mare's hooves. Dimly he knew it wasn't always like this, but right now it didn't seem odd. When he opened his eyes the colors of the land were too bright. Frederick's coat glowed, piercing his brain. So he kept them closed most of the time now, floating in a soft grey haze. His leg ached softly too, but it scarcely disturbed him. He knew Frederick was beside the horse, leading her back to camp.
Harris skidded to a stop before the horse. "Mr. Sharpe?" Sharpe's eyes opened briefly, but he didn't speak. Privately, Harris thought it was a miracle he was managing to stay in the saddle. A crusted bandage was bound around his right thigh. Belatedly he remembered the man leading the tired animal and saluted. "Milord, welcome back--" he stopped. What did one say to an earl come back from the dead? 'Glad to see you weren't killed?' 'We'd long since given you up?'
Edrington acknowledged the salute with a smile. "I'd be obliged if you'd show me where the surgeons' tents are. Mr. Sharpe has been wounded." Mr. Sharpe, now, no longer Richard, at least not in public. He'd never been so glad to see the end of a journey in his life, but the loss of the easy comradeship they'd shared so openly when it had been just the two of them was hard. They had had no one else upon which to depend, but that had been enough to sustain them. He'd known that it would be this way.
"This way, milord," Harris fell into the courtier's role automatically. It had gotten him many things he'd wanted in his life. Perhaps this time he could use it to get some answers. The condition of both officers, as well as the odd reversal of Mr. Sharpe mounted while the Earl of Edrington walked was a puzzle indeed. Perhaps it was just the fact that Mr. Sharpe was badly wounded, but regardless, there was a tale behind it."Shall I take the horse?" Harris held out his hand for the reins.
It was harder than he'd thought to hand them over, but Edrington did so. He dropped back to walk beside the saddle, resisting the temptation to lay his hand on Sharpe's leg. He took refuge in his rank, and let Sharpe's man choose their path.
When the horse finally stopped, Sharpe snapped awake as he began to slide from the saddle. Hands were there to guide him to the ground, but he shook them off to stand on his own. His leg throbbed, the fresh pain pushing back the fog.
"What have we here?" The surgeon strode out of the tent to look at the two most recent arrivals. "Orderly! Get these men inside at once!"
"I'm quite all right, sir," Edrington said as the orderlies helped Richard inside. "I must make my report." He had no idea to whom, but he had no intention of being trapped in that tent, with no idea what was going on or how his men had fared.
"Nonsense!" the surgeon replied. "Look at you--you're barely on your feet!"
Edrington felt some of his strength return. He gave the man a charming smile. "Yes, it has been a long few days, but I assure you, there's nothing wrong with me that a bath and a good night's sleep won't cure."
Harris took the horse's reins again. "I'll conduct you to the general's tent, milord, if you're ready?"
"Yes, thank you," Edrington replied, wishing he knew the man's name.
"I'll have your own made ready for you as well, milord," Harris went on smoothly. "If you'll follow me?"
"On your own head be it," the surgeon said irritably. "I do have other patients." He ducked back inside the tent.
"Thank you, Private--" Edrington said as they walked.
Harris heard the question in Edrington's tone. "Harris, milord."
"Harris," Edrington repeated. "Tell me, Harris, what happened after we were routed? Did my men return? Did Lieutenant Sharpe's?"
"Well, milord, after the powder went up, it was every man for himself."
"How many, Harris?" Edrington cut in.
"Not sure, milord," Harris said. He was surprised to see the Major's face fall. "They've been put on ships as soon as they arrived, as have the rest of the troops." Was this the same officer who had left the rear of the column behind?
"And the rest of you?" Edrington felt the strength leach out of him. So it was a rout, then. They were being chased from Spain like rats. Harris realized that the Major was much nearer to the end of his strength than he'd let on to the surgeon. He was certainly in no fit condition to take to Nosey, not with the chaos the army was in. He changed direction toward their camp. Harper and the rest would want to know Mr. Sharpe was back, and they'd be as eager as he was to know how it had been accomplished.
"No one has given us orders to leave yet, milord," said Harris.
"I'll speak to Wellesley about finding you a place, since Mr. Sharpe is unable to do so himself," Edrington said dully.
"What happened to Mr. Sharpe, milord?" Harris asked.
"We were surprised by a French horseman on the road," Edrington answered. "Mr. Sharpe took a sword cut to the leg before I could shoot the man. His wound has made him feverish, I fear."
As they came to the tent standing solitary in the small circle of bedrolls, Harper jumped up. "Ten--shun!" he cried as he saw Edrington.
The Chosen Men jumped to their feet.
"As you were," Edrington said wearily. He watched Harris and Harper exchange looks he could not read. Somehow he had never realized how isolating his rank could be. The world of the common soldier had never been his concern. It had taken Sharpe, a man with a foot in both worlds, to show him what he had been overlooking. The men relaxed, but still stood. An air of formality that had not been there before pervaded the little camp. Edrington knew they were waiting for him to speak, to explain his presence. "Lieutenant Sharpe is wounded, not dangerously so. He's with the surgeons now."
"Major Edrington brought him in just now," Harris added. "On a horse he took from the French."
Harper got up and disappeared into the tent.
Edrington watched the men take in the information, and was suddenly sick of the undercurrent of tension his presence was generating. "And now I must report to Wellesley. Harris, if you'd be so kind as to show me the way?"
Harper reappeared and set a camp chair by the fire. "Surely you don't want to see him looking like that, milord. Have a wash and a shave first? I'll just heat up some water."
"There's no need." A moment ago, the distance imposed by his rank had seemed stifling. Harper's words caught Edrington off balance. The mere mention of hot water made him aware of how much he itched under his torn and filthy uniform. How could he appear before a general in such a state? How could he stay here under the gaze of Sharpe's men? Why did they suddenly seem to want him to?
Hagman passed a tin cup to Harper, who presented it to Edrington.
"Have a cup of tea while I do that, milord, it won't take a minute.
The smell of tea after so many days of water was irresistible. Strong and hot, Edrington felt it trail comfort all the way to his belly. The kindnes
s of Sharpe's men was balm of another kind. He emptied the cup in short order, and was relieved of it by a black-haired rifleman.
"Hagman?" Edrington asked, hoping he'd the right name to the right man.
"I'll just take this, milord," said Harris, sliding the battered red coat from Edrington's shoulders.
"You set off the powder that destroyed our guns, did you not?" Edrington asked.
"I did, milord." Hagman's eyes darted to the torn and bloodstained shirt Edrington wore, and the bulge of the bandage under the tattered right sleeve.
"That was a prodigious shot, Hagman. You kept our ordnance out of enemy hands and covered our retreat admirably. But how did you know what Sharpe was planning?" Edrington was glad to have the chance not only to credit the man's accomplishment, but to ask the man a question that had been on his mind since then.
"Thankee, milord," Hagman replied, surprised and pleased that a strange officer would remember such a thing. "He told me. Well, not in so many words, he just told me to keep a watch on the middle gun. When I saw him throwing charges under it, it were plain what he wanted, milord." Hagman's eyes were drawn to the bloody sleeve again. "I thought I saw you fall."
"This?" Edrington said. "It's nearly healed."
"Ah, that's a pity milord, so it is," Harper said of the ruined shirt as he came from the fire, a steaming bucket in his hand. "Take it off and have a wash and I'll give you a nice shave."
"Gladly." Edrington pulled the filthy shirt over his head, ignoring the slight twinge from his bandaged arm. He scrubbed the sweat from his upper body, wishing he could strip completely. He was amazed how much better he felt for it, though.
He was asleep in the chair before Harper finished shaving him.
"What do we do now?" Harper asked Harris.
Hagman rose from where he was sitting by the fire. "Put him to bed. Mr. Sharpe won't be needing his for the night." Gently Hagman laid a hand on Edrington's shoulder. "Your tent's ready, Milord. Let me help you to bed."
As Hagman disappeared into Sharpe's tent with the exhausted officer, Harper picked up his haversack. "I'll be going to see about Mr. Sharpe, then."
"Absolutely not!" the surgeon said. Behind him, Sharpe tossed restlessly on a narrow cot.
Harper stood before him, Sharpe's filthy uniform in his arms. "But sir, I could take care of him as well in his tent, and you have more wounded arriving every day, so you do."
"When he wakes, perhaps." The surgeon glanced back at the wounded officer. "The wound is progressing nicely, but until the fever breaks, I can't allow him to be moved."
"I'll just sit here a while and see if he does, then," Harper said.
"Then you can make yourself useful." The surgeon pulled a low table close to the cot and put a bowl of water and a cloth on it. "If he does wake, tell me."
Edrington woke slowly, feeling better than he had in days. As he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see white canvas overhead. His tent? He struggled to remember how he'd gotten there. The last thing he remembered was hot water. Only a bucketful, but he could almost feel it against his skin. Hot water and a shave. He rubbed his smooth jaw, then stretched.
He sat up as he realized that the tent was smaller than his. He didn't recognize a thing in it. Then his eyes fell on a heavy sword and beside it, a well cared for rifle. He smiled and lay back in Richard's blankets for a moment before rising. A fresh shirt lay in the chair atop his clean red coat and trousers. His boots, freshly blacked, stood beside it. If it hadn't been for the stains in the white trousers and the newly mended rips in his coat, Edrington might have wondered how much of the last few weeks had been real. He dressed quickly and went out into the morning.
"Morning, milord." Major Hogan was standing by the fire. The Chosen Men were nowhere to be seen.
"Good morning, Major," Edrington answered.
"A fine morning, a fine morning indeed," Hogan said. "I don't know how you and Sharpe did it, but we're glad to see you back."
"Where is Lieutenant Sharpe," Edrington asked, as if Hogan had jogged his memory.
"Still with the surgeons," Hogan replied. "He's not woken yet, I fear."
Edrington felt his heart clench. "And the 43rd?" he asked, deliberately changing the subject.
"Ah, the 43rd," Hogan said. "Now that's exactly what I'm here to talk to you about, milord. They've done well, very well under your command. But they've suffered for it. You're to sail for Lisbon to join them. Today."
"Today, sir?" Edrington hoped he'd misheard.
"Today." Hogan said.
Edrington had always hated field hospitals. It was a place men came to die. He prayed that Richard would not be one of them. Harper rose from his place by Sharpe's head as he reached the cot where his comrade in arms lay.
"Morning, milord." Harper's voice was low, his eyes dull and hopeless.
"Has he woken, Harper?" Edrington didn't know why he bothered to ask. Harper's eyes were all the answer he needed.
"No, milord." Harper's eyes dropped to the dirt.
"I'm sorry," Edrington said softly.
"They won't let me take him, milord. They say he'll die if I take him to his tent. But he'll die in here for sure."
Edrington closed his eyes against the despair welling up in him. "I've been ordered to Lisbon. I'm to leave today."
Harper was shocked to see moisture around the earl's tightly closed eyes. "Lisbon?"
"Yes, damn them!" Edrington's voice was still barely above a whisper, but the anger in it crackled in the air.
Harper raised his eyes. "Could you stay with him a moment, milord?" he asked. "I need to change the water in the basin." He wondered what had happened out there. The two of them had been oil and water before. Now... He wasn't sure what they were to each other now. The man deserved a chance to say his goodbyes.
"Of course," Edrington said.
Harper picked up the basin. He wrung out the cloth and set it on the table, then left them alone.
Edrington sat down, wishing he dared to take Richard's hand in his. Only yesterday he'd been free to do that. Only yesterday Richard had spoken to him. It seemed like centuries. He picked up the damp rag and ran it gently over the white face.
"I've been ordered to Lisbon, Richard," he whispered. "I trust we'll meet there soon, my comrade in arms." He ran the rag over the slack lips, not daring to say more.
"So I thought that if he were in his tent he might get better, sir," Harper said.
"And what does the surgeon say?" Hogan asked, though he knew perfectly well.
"He says Mr. Sharpe is better off in there with all the other dying men, sir."
"And you don't agree?" Truth to tell, something Hogan avoided doing whenever possible, he didn't agree either. If nothing else, Sharpe's fever could sicken other men.
"He's gotten no better, sir," Harper replied. "And the surgeon's got his hands full, so he has. Me, I've nothing else to do." The last statement was a gamble, but Harper was out of ideas. A man like Major Hogan, he could always find an idle man something to do.
Hogan gazed blandly at Harper. "I'll see what I can do, Sergeant Harper, I'll see what I can do."
That afternoon, Harper was called to the hospital.
"You're to take him," said the surgeon. "I must say there's little hope whether he stays here or not, but I'm told you have time to spare to care for him. That may make the difference."
Carefully his men lifted Sharpe, cot and all, and carried him the short distance to his tent. As soon as the flap was closed and all but Hagman had gone, Harper lifted the bandage. The wound was white with pus.
"The surgeons say that's a good sign," Hagman said. He sniffed at the soiled cloth.
Harper had taken a small tin out of his pocket. When he lifted the lid Hagman saw that it was full of maggots, bedded on a piece of rotten meat.
"That smells worse than the bandage," Hagman said.
"What do you expect?" Harper replied. "That's what they eat. You see," he said, folding the bandage back, "Maggie and her sisters here are very selective creatures"
"You call her Maggie?" Hagman said incredulously.
"Maggie the maggot," Harper continued, "lives off of dead flesh." He coaxed the fat white creatures out of the box. Hagman watched, fascinated, as they disappeared into the whitened flesh. "She can't stomach it when it's fine and healthy. So they'll eat the wound clean and then Mr. Sharpe will get better." He took the soiled bandage away and put a fresh one in place.
Each of the Chosen Men took a turn at Sharpe's bedside, but Harper slept on the dirt floor of the tent, emerging only to eat, drink, and piss. Around them the camp crammed itself into the waiting ships.
Hogan was a daily visitor, the only one Harper would allow in the tent apart from the Chosen Men. Luckily for them, the surgeon was far too busy to keep a watch on them. And so Sharpe was left in peace, to live or die.
Hagman sat in the chair beside the cot, singing softly.
Oh the cuckoo she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies
She brings us good tidings, she tells us no lies
She drinks from white blossoms for to keep her voice clear
And the more she sings cuckoo the summer draws near
Sharpe floated up to awareness slowly. Hagman's song registered first, then the smell of woodsmoke and his own sweat. He opened his eyes, then tried to lift his head, but there was no strength in him.
"Mr. Sharpe?" Hagman stopped his song as he saw the wounded man's eyelids flutter and then slide open. He closed his own briefly in silent thanks. Then he nudged Harper awake with his foot.
"Whuh--" Harper rolled over and opened his eyes.
"He's awake, Pat!"
Sharpe opened his mouth, but no sound came out. His tongue and the inside of his mouth felt like dry canvas. He tried again.
"Sssh, sir, easy now," Hagman said.
The grin on Harper's face filled the tent. "Mr Sharpe, sir--welcome back!"
Hagman grabbed the basin and used his fingers to dribble some water into Sharpe's mouth.
Sharpe closed his eyes in pleasure as the tepid liquid hit his parched tongue.
"We can do better than that," Harper said. He poked his head out of the tent. "He's awake!" he said joyfully to Perkins and Cooper, out by the fire. "Can you get me some water?"
Sharpe choked as a handful of water hit the back of his throat.
"Are you trying to kill him, Dan?" Harper asked
"Sorry," Hagman said. He eased Sharpe over onto his side and let him cough the liquid out.
"Bloody hell--" It was only a whisper, but it was speech. "Dan--"
"Sssh, sir, don't tire yourself," Hagman said.
The tent flap twitched open and Perkins came in, a tin cup in his hand.
"Thanks," Harper said as he took it. "Now run down to the hospital and see if you can get us some nice broth, there's a good lad."
"They're packing it up, Sergeant," said Perkins.
"Fine, good idea," said Harper. "Best you get there before they finish. Mr. Sharpe needs his strength."
"Don't fuss," Sharpe whispered as he felt himself raised up far enough to drink without choking. The cot shifted as Hagman sat behind him and eased him back to lean against his chest.
"Aye, sir," Hagman replied, but stayed where he was.
As Harper brought the water over, Sharpe reached for the cup, only to have it pulled back "Maybe next time, sir. Just now we need to get something inside you."
"Harper--" Sharpe's throat was too dry to say more, so he settled for scowling as he allowed the sergeant to hold the cup to his lips. The cool liquid slipping down his throat was the last thing he remembered.
When Sharpe woke again, night had fallen. A single candle shed a wavering light and he could hear someone moving about on the dirt floor. Beyond the white walls, Hagman was singing. He lay there a moment as his body's complaints registered, collecting his scattered thoughts. The last few days were a blur that slowly resolved into a hazy sequence of events. There had been an endless ride down a broad road. He remembered the dust that had coated his throat and the slowly growing ache in his leg. Edrington's face, the bright red of his coat, and then Harris. And then a tent, and a long fall into darkness. They must have made it, the faces of his men came after that. Blessed coolness, traveling across his sweating body and sliding down his still parched throat. Had Edrington been among them? He seemed to remember his voice, saying words that Sharpe could not recall. Carefully, he rolled up on one elbow, absurdly delighted when he managed even that small task. He was still dizzy, but the overwhelming weakness was fading fast.
"Evening, sir." Harper's cheerful voice came from the floor of the tent. He was sitting cross-legged, putting the last of Sharpe's belongings in his pack. He rose and poured a cup of water, which he offered to Sharpe. "Feeling better?"
Sharpe drained the cup and passed it back for a refill. "Thanks, Pat." He looked around the empty tent. "What's going on?" He drank the second cup.
"We're leaving for Lisbon tomorrow, sir," Harper said as he refilled the cup once more. "Do you think you could manage some broth? Perkins got some from the surgeon for you." It was plain to see that Mr. Sharpe was still far from well, but he'd turned the corner right enough. Harper meant to make sure that he stayed that way.
After a few cups of broth, Harper allowed Sharpe to move on to bread and stew that he suspected had been made with the venison strips he and Edrington had brought down from the mountains. While he ate, Harper talked, telling Sharpe of the trip down the mountain, and the fate of the rest of the company. Sharpe's face grew grave as he heard how the baggage train had been lost, but Harper took some satisfaction in Sharpe's quiet assessment of his decision.
"Aye, I would have done the same, Pat," Sharpe said. "Even if they'd made it here, they would have been left behind. Better that they had the horses.
"Oh, and I almost forgot." Harper laid a brass and leather cylinder in Sharpe's lap.
"My telescope!" Sharpe's face lit up as he picked it up. "I thought the Frogs had gotten it!"
"Well they had, sir, sure enough," Harper replied. "I found it on one of them when we had that bit of trouble over the wagons." It was good to see a smile on Mr. Sharpe's face. He hoped the second bit of news would please him as much. He laid a letter next to the telescope. "Major Edrington was ordered to leave for Lisbon while you were ill, sir. He left this for you." The look that flickered across Sharpe's face was unreadable. He made no move to open the letter Harper handed him. "He wanted you to have it as soon as you woke," Harper persisted. "And here I thought he was all brass and proper tailoring. He brought you home, sure enough." Harper paused, but Sharpe kept his silence. "I gave him one of your shirts, sir. His wasn't fit to wear and he lost everything with the wagons. I hope that was all right?"
Sharpe's smile raised as many questions as it answered, Harper decided.
"Aye, it was, Pat." He could see the questions behind Harper's eyes still. "And there's more to his lordship than meets the eye. He's a proper soldier, for all his airs and graces." Sharpe lay back down and clumsily put the telescope and the letter on the ground beside the cot. "A good man to have at your back."
Harper remembered the workmanlike placement of guns and men at the pass, the disciplined way Edrington and his men had fought. There was no shame in being overwhelmed. No joy in it either, but in the end they had done their best and many more had lived to tell the tale than might have under other officers he could name. "I'll leave you to rest, then sir?"
"Aye, Pat. Good night."
Harper picked up the candle from the small camp table.
"Leave the candle, Pat," Sharpe said.
Harper smiled and set the candle back on the table. "Aye, sir. Sleep well." He slipped quietly out of the tent.
Sharpe reached carefully over the side of the cot for the letter. He broke the seal and unfolded the thick, cream-colored sheet.
Comrades in arms rarely choose their partings. I have been ordered to Lisbon where my men await. I commend yours for their courage, and their hospitality. Harris kept me from the surgeons and Harper provided me with the means to make myself presentable once more. I made use of your tent, I only wish you had been well enough to share it with me. Mine, I fear, was lost with the Company's baggage and the Army has little to spare at present.
I trust we shall meet again in Lisbon.