No rights infringement intended. M/F
The Sharpe Fan Fictions of The Mardy Bum
a work of fan-fiction by The Mardy Bum, 1st October, 2006
ONE a work of fan-fiction by The Mardy Bum, 1st October, 2006 ONE
A little more to the left, sir! Harper shouted. Sharpe leaned out carefully, stretching as if his life depended on it, but it was still out of reach. Come on, sir, youre not trying! Harper shouted, frustrated.
This int as easy at it looks, you know, Sharpe shot back, annoyed. Why arent you up here getting it back? he demanded, even as he shifted his grip on the tree branch and leaned perilously far from anything resembling safety. Harper looked at his feet, then back up the tree to where the Major was shifting gingerly down the tree branch, twenty feet from the ground.
Cos youre much quicker on your feet, sir, he admitted. Oh yes, me up a tree, thatll be the day, Harper grinned to himself. There was a cracking sound. Sir! he shouted.
Nearly nearly come here, yer bugger! Sharpe hissed, his fingers brushing the heavy silk ever so slightly. He made a desperate lunge for it and missed.
Er, sir? I think you should get back a
Damn it, man! Sharpe shouted at him, not tearing his eyes from the target. He inched his left hand further out along the branch. I were nearly there!
Sir! I really think you should leave
Sharpe lunged for the silk, had a good hold, and grinned. There! Got you, yer little
There was an almighty ripping sound, the noise of a four-inch-thick branch tearing itself from the trunk. Sharpe made a desperate grab for another branch with his right hand, now enclosing the silk hed risked his life for. His hand closed on the branch securely. At the same moment the branch supporting his feet began to distance itself from the trunk. Sharpe found himself dangling by his hands, one of them slipping on the silk, the branch under his feet peeling away. It crashed down, Harper jumping back out of its way hurriedly.
Sharpe muttered something unkind under his breath and then looked around for any other branch that might be of use.
Bloody hell! Look at that! Rifleman Brown shouted, and the rest of the Chosen Men came running. Harris slid to a stop in the dirt, hastily buttoning his shirt from his morning wash.
Now sir? I think itd be a good idea not to move, he called up. Moore and Hagman appeared. They just stood and stared up at Sharpe, hanging from the tree by his hands, the slight breeze blowing the large, silken colours of the South Essex Regiment around him.
Oh yes, well done! Sharpe shouted sarcastically. Any other bright ideas? he demanded. He looked to his right, saw a branch not too far from the trunk, and realised he didnt really have a choice. He took his right hand from the branch, and he heard Hagman mutter something. He shoved the corner of the colours in his mouth, then put his hand back to the branch. He shifted down it two-handed.
Oh well done, sir, Harper said nervously. Sharpe growled something but the colours obscured everything, something which made Harper quite glad. There was a loud creaking sound and Sharpe stopped abruptly. Oh shite, Harper moaned. Sharpe sighed, long and loudly through his nose.
I should have known. The rest of me weeks been like this, why should today be any different?
The creaking got louder, and Sharpe was unsurprised to feel the branch he had hold of leaning down slightly. He cursed, spat out the silk, and watched it twirl gracefully between his feet to make its way toward the ground. He looked up. The branch gave a great wrenching sound and gave way.
Sharpe did not twirl gracefully to the ground.
He plummeted like a mis-timed joke, overtaking the silk colours easily. Before he had a chance to even acknowledge his hands were empty, he felt something smack into him with untold force. His side and shoulder took the brunt of the slam into the hard Spanish dirt. The force bounced him onto his back, the dust fluttering up around him.
The first thing he noticed was that the breath was pushed from him as if someone had squeezed him with an elephant. The next thing he noticed was the pain. He realised he couldnt see, but that mystery was soon cleared up. Something was dragged off his head, and he realised it was the large regimental colours of the South Essex being removed.
Oh shite, sir, oh Mary Mother of God! Harper cried as he dragged the silk away from him. Can you move, sir? he asked, finding him spread-eagled on his back, staring up at the sky. Sharpe just coughed raggedly, desperately sucking in air.
Hes winded, Harris called out over Harpers shoulder. Let me see. Harper got up from his knee and Harris pushed his way to Sharpes side, who was still trying to breathe. Harris looked him up and down.
Well, cant see any blood, and there are no bones hanging out, he said confidently. He peered at Sharpes face, which suddenly seemed pale. Sir? he said cheerfully. Sir? Can you hear me?
O course I he stopped, coughing abruptly yeah, he snapped, still sounding short of breath.
Good, he beamed. Right then, sir, Im just going to check you havent broken anything. Tell me if something hurts, alright sir? he asked. Sharpe appeared to ignore him, still sucking in air like it would be deducted from his pay if not used. Harris bent over him, squeezing his knees, then his elbows. Sharpe didnt respond, just breathed. Harris looked at him, shaking his head.
Well? Harper demanded from behind him. Moore and Hagman looked at each other as Robinson and Taylor came running.
Whats going on? Taylor cried, looking around. Hagman sighed.
The Major was getting the colours back, he said sadly, shaking his head and turning away. Taylor rushed up and banged into the back of Harper. He had to step forward to steady himself. It pushed into Harris, who automatically put a hand out to stop himself falling forwards. His hand landed on Sharpes chest heavily, taking Harris weight.
The resulting bellow made every man fair jump out of his skin. Taylor sprang back, rattled by the bestial shout of pain. He looked up at Harper as the big Irishman turned and reached down for him. He caught his jacket up in his ham fist and dragged the rifleman to his feet.
You! Run! And pray he doesnt get up! he shouted in his face. Taylor turned and scrambled off, running as fast as his legs would carry him. Harper turned and looked at Hagman. Dan, fetch the surgeon, he said. Doesnt sound like he should be moving by himself, he said darkly. Hagman nodded curtly and grabbed Moores jacket by the shoulder, pulling him after him. Harper turned and peered over Harris shoulder, down at Sharpes face.
His eyes were closed, his face the colour of pipeclay, running with sweat. Harper cursed as he noticed his shoulders quivering slightly. Still Sharpe said nothing, but just lay there, breathing falteringly.
Well? Harper asked. Harris watched him, then turned and looked at Harper.
Looks like his ribs, he said quietly. Hopefully, just bruised a bit, but didn't sound like it. If one of them is broken, or maybe two, it means at least a few weeks of pain with him not being able to move. Hes not going to like that, he admitted. Harper huffed, then nodded.
Sir? he called out. Sharpe opened one eye to look up, not necessarily at anyone. Ribs, is it sir? he asked with false cheer.
Bastard, he breathed.
Oh, hes alright, so he is, Harper said flatly, then blew out a sigh and shook his head. He turned and walked back a few steps, looking at the silk all bundled up in a heap. He shook his head again, then turned to find Harris getting to his feet. Harris walked up to him, pulling his elbow and walking further away.
I hope its just his ribs, Harps, he said quietly. Harper let his fear show on his face.
Whats that supposed to mean? he asked.
Well, he took a hard lump to the head, too. And thats never a good thing.
Harper and Harris knelt and peered over Sharpe, studying him and tutting wretchedly. Sharpe seemed oblivious to any activity.
After what seemed like an eternity, Hagman and Moore returned with the camp surgeon, who was angrily stalking across the grass like he had much better things to do. Hagman and Moore had to hurry to keep up with the spritely old man.
He stopped and looked the two men, kneeling over the stricken one. He spied Harpers sleeve and cleared his throat.
You are the Sergeant Major? he asked imperiously. Harper got to his feet quickly.
That I am, sir. He took a fall from that
Yes, yes, move, he commanded, waving his hands at him. Harper and Harris backed away. The surgeon knelt and then leaned over Sharpes face. Well? Who are you, son? he called.
Not deaf, Sharpe managed, sounding very much out of breath. Sharpe, he added. The doctor nodded, then turned and pressed and prodded nearly everything, working his way up from Sharpes ankles. He reached his chest and deliberately missed it out, skipping to his shoulders. He squeezed on his right shoulder and Sharpe jerked in pain. The surgeon nodded wisely, then felt his neck carefully.
Right then, he said abruptly, leaning back and nodding. Not too much damage, by the looks of it. Just a bang on the shoulder and some ribs, I rather fancy, he said. He looked at Sharpe. Now this will hurt, he said seriously. Sharpe cast him a look that would have made a rabid dog think twice. The surgeon slowly put his hands to his chest and patted them round slowly. He reached the sides and patted harder. Sharpe whimpered and grunted something uncharitable, wheezing in air as best he could. The doctor got to his feet, then tipped a finger at Harper. Not broken, but nearly, he said quietly. We need to carry him back to his tent. Hes not moving off his back for the next two weeks, he said. Harper nodded.
He turned to Hagman and Moore, instructed them to find something on which to carry the Major, and then stood talking to the surgeon for a long time.
And Mrs Fuller, she say all the children run like animals, nobody to school them, their fathers in the South Essex, their mothers wash for the regiment, Ramona said disapprovingly. I say this to Harper, he does nothing. I say, you want your little Patrick grow up like this?, he say I busy, she went on.
Sharpe stared at the ceiling of his tent, wondering idly if he should get the seams re-waxed. Autumns drawing on, and that means rain.
I think I talk to him, make him say something to the other men, make them take charge of their children, Ramona said, then looked at Sharpe. You think so? she asked.
Yeah, before it rains, he said absently. She nodded.
Yes, before the rain come, she said wisely, then looked back at him. Ok, I make you tired. You sleep, I do some washing, she said, leaning over and moving the pillow up for him. Be a good boy, dont move, she said, then got up and walked to the tent flaps. She stopped, smiling. You know, you are good listener, she said, then ducked out of the tent.
Sharpe desperately wanted to sigh with boredom, but he didnt dare breathe in that deeply. It hurt to breathe as it was, and that was his best shallow draws that didnt tax his screaming bones too much. Hed worked out that if he didnt breathe deeply enough to feel the bandage tighten over him, then it didnt hurt so much. It was hard; he kept losing concentration and breathing automatically, and then the stabbing pains would make him gasp, and that would only exacerbate the whole thing.
Ill kill that Irish
Oh sir, here you are, right as rain, Harper said, ducking into the tent. Weve got you some tea, sir, with something a little extra in it, he added.
Great, he ground out. Harper walked over, sitting on Ramonas stool. He leaned over.
Youre going to have to sit, sir, he said apologetically. Sharpe wondered if it was all worth it just for a cup of tea. Come on, we had the surgeon put a wee drop of something in it to dull the pain a bit, sir, he said cheerfully. He put his free hand under Sharpes arm and braced him, helping him to ouch and whimper his way to a slight sitting position. Harper waited while he let his head fall back to the pillow, clearly trying not to scream with agony. Here we go then, he said, reaching out and helping him take a sip of the tea slowly. He swallowed it and then let his head fall back again, his jaw muscles working on the inside of his cheek. He was quiet a few moments.
Salright, he admitted eventually, and Harper smiled proudly, knowing that was the highest praise the Major could manage. He sniffed gingerly.
Jeez sir, I know it must hurt like Hell. I saw you fall, sir, and sweet Jesus, but I didnt know what to do. You just fell so fast, he said wretchedly, then leaned forward and helped him take another few sips. He waited while Sharpe relaxed against the headboard again.
Why was it up there? he bit out.
Well, sir, a couple of the Essex lads
And you, he shot at him.
Well, yes, and me, sir. We were telling tall stories, sir, about flags and climbing and
You got pissed, and challenged each other to chuck a flag up in some bastard tree? he demanded, sounding short of breath. Harper couldnt meet his eyes.
And you stood there and watched me climb up there and get it? he demanded.
When really I should have had you all up to the Colonel fer arsing about? Sharpe snapped. Harper watched his feet intently.
That you should, sir, that you should, he said quietly. Sharpe pursed his lips in a way that spoke volumes of invectives, then looked back at the ceiling. It was quiet for a long moment.
Well at least Im not dead, he huffed. Harper grinned.
And youve got two weeks on your back, sir, he said. You know how soldiers dream about getting two weeks flat on their back, he said.
Its no fun on yer own, Sharpe muttered sourly, then looked at him. Come on, give us the tea and bugger off, he said. Harper leaned over and Sharpe took the cup off him. He drained it slowly before handing it back.
Ah, there you are Colonel, the man said, entering Lieutenant Colonel Lawfords tent and beaming at him. Lawford looked up, appraised the mans uniform, and stood to attention behind his desk.
Sir, he said respectfully. The man waved his riding gloves at him, walking in further and taking a seat opposite him.
Take a seat, man, he said cheerfully. He was about fifty, with light caramel hair that was trying to grey in streaks over his ears. He was the same height as Lawford, but sounded much larger. Colonel Jeremy Bane, he said stretching a hand across the desk as Lawford sat. He jumped up again to shake hands, then sat.
Colonel, he said, in as friendly a manner as he could manage, given that he had never heard of him. Is there something we can do for you, here? he asked politely.
Matter of fact, there is, he boomed. Im here to take half your strength, sir. Here, he said, leaning to the side of the chair and feeling in his breeches pocket for a piece of paper. He handed it to Lawford. Sorry to do this to you, old boy, but Wellington has signed it. I just need to borrow half your men for a little Frog-pasting, and Ill bring them right back, he said cheerfully. Lawford read the orders, noticed them signed by Wellington and counter-signed by someone called Nairn, and looked up at Colonel Bane.
No trouble, sir, he said quickly. Of course youll take what you need. If you dont mind me asking, sir, why only half? he asked.
Well, cant have the buggers running back this way and you being unable to stop them, what? he chuckled. Lawford ohed and sat back. Someone tells me that that Major is here too the one who refuses to wear red, blast his eyes, he laughed, apparently delighted. Must say Ive been wanting to meet him for a long time. I have a Captain Mackenzie with me who speaks very highly of him, very highly indeed, he said. Hope to bring him along with us on this jaunt, as a matter of fact, he said.
Ah, Lawford said tactfully. He handed the orders back to Bane slowly. Hes on the sick register just now, sir, he said.
Sick? My word Mackenzie made him out to be made of sterner stuff, he admitted, surprised.
Oh, stern stuffs right sir. He fell over twenty feet and narrowly escaped breaking his ribs, he said apologetically.
Good Lord! How did he come to fall twenty feet? Out here? he asked, shocked.
He was in a tree, Lawford admitted quietly.
Well, Ill be! What was he doing in a tree? he chuckled.
Retrieving the Kings property, sir, he said quietly. Im sure theres still time to meet him before you go. However, hes been bed-ridden this past week and still
Well, this is excellent news! Bane crowed, beaming for England. Simply splendid couldnt have worked it out better myself! I have a simple task for him, he said happily, standing. Lawford sprang to his feet. Oh, youd better come too, seeing as hes under your command. Youll need to know his duties, he said, turning to go.
But sir, hes not fit to be going anywhere, or in fact attracting duties of any kind, he protested, as he followed him from his tent.
Nonsense, man! You think me heartless? Of course Im not about to order him on march or make him do anything dreadfully demanding. Im not a callous man, after all, he beamed. They ducked out of the tent and stopped. So, where is the lucky blighter? he asked. Lawford turned to his right, spreading a hand for the ranking officer.
This way, sir, he said worriedly.
They walked across camp and stopped outside a very innocuous-looking tent. They heard the sound of a womans voice, singing quietly, and Lawford turned to Bane.
Ah, sir, perhaps
Injured, is he? The cheeky scoundrel, Bane interrupted him cheerfully, moving him aside and ducking inside the tent without hesitation.
Ramona, sat on her stool next to Sharpes bed, gasped and grabbed her sewing to her, surprised.
Who are you? she demanded quietly. Bane looked down at her, over then at the bed.
Major Richard Sharpe fearless private of the Kings 33rd Regiment of Foot, Ensign in India after battle distinction, daring Lieutenant of the newly formed 95th Rifles, the brave taker of the French Eagle at Talavera, fearsome Captain with the South Essex, the favourite of British royalty, London tea-houses, ladies parlours and news-stands throughout England was sprawled, completely asleep, half on his front, half on his side. A small pillow was propped under his left hip to keep him in a comfortable position. His arms were up under his pillow, the bright white bandage showing up well against the slightly striped tan and white of his scarred, naked back. Bane eyed him warily, then looked back at Ramona.
Well at least theyre regulation shorts hes got on, he said with a disapproving yet polite cough. Ramona tore her piercing gaze from the Colonel and got up hastily, pulling the sheets up and over the lower half of Major Sharpe. She looked back at Bane with the imperiousness of Spanish Queens. And who are you, my dear? Bane asked her politely, his eyes telling her he thought he already knew.
I his friend, she said angrily, putting her hands on her hips. No-one else look after him, I make sure he eat, she said, daring him to challenge her. He grinned.
I see. He spied the ring on her finger and looked at Lawford, surprised.
I didnt know Major Sharpe was married, Colonel? he fished. And to such charming young lady, he said politely.
I not his wife! Ramona cried angrily. Sharpe stirred slightly, then opened an eye. I marry his best friend!
Oh dear, the Major wouldnt have you, was that it? Bane asked politely.
Who the bloody hell are you? Sharpe said suddenly from his bed. The three of them turned and looked at him. He looked distinctly bleary, but seemed to be focusing on Lawford. Leave her be, shes only here while Pats cleaning kit, he added grumpily. Bane looked back at Ramona.
Oh well then, I am most sorry to have upset you, Mrs? he asked, putting a hand out. She let a hand slide off her hip and held it out for him.
Harper, she said, still a little angry, as the Colonel kissed her hand. He let go of her slowly.
Mrs Harper. So good of you to take care of your friend, he said cheerfully. And, in your opinion, is he ready for duty? he asked.
Look mate, I dont know who you think you are, but no buggers sposed to be in here. Clear off, Sharpe said testily. Bane laughed.
Oh, dear me, Colonel, listen to him! he chuckled. What a mouth! Mackenzie was right about his language, what? he said, apparently amused. Lawford just stared. Sharpe paused, then returned his head to the pillow, withdrawing a hand and rubbing an eye.
Do I know you? he asked, wondering why else Lawford would have let the man in. He shoved the supporting pillow off the bed wearily. Something told him his rest was over. He turned slowly, painfully, and sank to his back gratefully. Suddenly the bruise that covered his entire right shoulder, a study in purples and burgundies, was visible. Bane whistled appreciatively at the injury.
Er, Colonel Jeremy Bane, sir, at your service, he said. Sharpe looked at him quickly, surprised. Bane advanced on his bed holding his hand out to shake, but then let his arm drop, eyeing Sharpes shoulder and bandages. Oh, I see, er rather awkward for you just now, I suppose, he said generously. Still, cant have you lying around here, sleeping all day, when I have something for you to be getting on with, man, he beamed. Sharpe swallowed.
I apologise for being rude, sir, he said quickly. I didnt know you
Nonsense, man, dont give it a second thought, he said, then looked at Ramona. I say, my dear, run along, would you? Army stuff, you see, he said. She looked at Sharpe.
You need something, you call for me, she nodded at him, then lifted her skirts and her chin, glaring at Bane once before whisking out of the tent. Bane sat on the vacant stool by the bed, looking at Sharpe with a huge grin.
I say, old man, nice girl! he enthused. Is she really your friends wife? he asked slyly.
Shes the wife of a six-foot-summat Irishman, who also happens to be my Sergeant Major, sir, Sharpe said amiably enough, but the message was clear. Banes smile dampened slightly.
I see. Well anyway, Ill get straight to it, Major, he said. Sharpe waited. You see, Im here to take half of Colonel Lawfords men. Need to secure a village, steal some food, kill some Frogs, that sort of thing, he said dismissively, waving it off with his right hand. Ive got this Captain called Mackenzie, said it was your letter to Horse Guards that helped him get his gazette ratified, he said.
Mackenzie? Hes here, sir? he asked, surprised.
That he is, sir, not too far away. Hes a damned decent fellow, even if he is one of those Bible-thumpers from the wrong side of the wall. Now, dont get me wrong, hes a wonderful man for a fight not afraid to get in there and show the lads how its done. But hes foreign, for all that. Anyway, he said abruptly, slapping his own knee and looking back at Sharpe, he told me all about you, said you were a decent chap and one that could be trusted. So Im trusting you with a highly important task. He sat back slightly, studying the wounded man. Sharpe just waited. Yes, I want you to do something so incredibly important to me, that Im leaving you Captain Mackenzie to help, he said proudly.
As long as I dont have to leave me bed, sir, Sharpe said grudgingly.
What? No! Its simple, Major! But believe me, I cant leave this to just anyone! This is highly delicate, needs someone with proper army discipline, real stern stuff! he crowed. Sharpe swallowed.
Im not a spy, sir, he said quickly. Bane laughed, clapping his hand against his own knee a few times.
Oh Mister Sharpe, you are a card, he laughed. No, no, youre entrusted with the most valuable thing that my 53rd has ever transported from one battlefield to the next, he said, then lowered his voice. The fate of our combined force marching on the next village may well depend on you taking good care of them and protecting them from all evils, he said quietly. He leaned toward Sharpe slowly. Do you understand me, Sharpe? No harm must come to either of them, or the 53rd could be split asunder! he hissed.
Sharpe considered the mans face. A little light-headed on whatever Ramona had slipped in the tea he may have been, but he wasnt completely convinced.
What are they, Colonel? he asked carefully.
Something you can put right here in your tent, and watch. For four or five days, Major, can you do that? he asked boisterously, leaning away from him again. Sharpe looked over at Lawford, stood safely behind Bane, who nodded frantically. Sharpe was still unsure of the depth of his involvement.
Yes sir, he said quietly.
Good show! Jolly good show! Bane cried, then turned round and nodded at Lawford. See? I knew he was a good man, despite what the ladies at Horse Guards might say, he said off-hand.
What? Sir, Sharpe asked immediately.
Oh, just a ladys fanciful gossip, young man, he said, then waved it off. He stood abruptly. Well, Sharpe, I shall fetch them right away.
Lawford and Sharpe watched him leave the tent quickly. Lawford looked at Sharpe.
Sorry Richard, he outranks me, he said miserably. And anyway, I have no idea what this crazy task actually is, he said.
Then well find out, I expect, he said. He shifted down the bed slightly, grimacing in pain before he stretched out on his back. Bloody cheek, though. Im supposed to be resting, he sighed.
The tent flaps twitched again and the two men looked over. Captain Mackenzie ducked in through them, then removed his shako, grinning. Och, there yare, sir, just like they said.
Mackenzie, Sharpe said, smiling, and Mackenzie walked over, reaching out and shaking his hand. Sharpe hissed and the tall Scotsman let go quickly.
Oh, apologies sir, forgot yir a wee bit laid-up, he said.
Yeah well. He looked up at him. So whats this all about? he asked.
Och, youll nae be believing what the man wants ya tae dae, he said, shaking his head. When he told me, I had to make sure I was with ye, sir. Couldnt leave you with em, not when yir not full-well, sir, he said, tutting.
What? Sharpe dared.
The tent flaps flew aside and in flew two little girls, their long blonde hair bouncing around them, their pretty dresses swirling around.
Mister Mackenzie! they cried excitedly, banging into his kilt and hugging onto him.
Now, now, girls, he said, sounding nervous, what wuid yer father sae?
Oh God, Sharpe moaned, letting all his muscles go lax suddenly, staring up at the ceiling.
Whos that? the slightly taller girl said curiously. She walked to the bed. Who are you? she demanded imperiously. He turned his head and looked at her.
Who are you? he shot back, riled at her tone. She put her hands on her hips instantly, huffing and looking down her nose at him.
I am Miss Veronica Bane, sir. And you are? she demanded.
Sick and tired, he admitted wearily. She stared at him, then turned abruptly.
Mister Mackenzie? Take this mans name. I want him punished, she said haughtily. She stopped abruptly as someone burst out laughing. Colonel Bane appeared through the tent flaps and she looked at him.
My, my, arent we angry today, hmm? he asked, walking over to her. Now you must take special care of Major Sharpe here for me while Im away. Hes sick, you see, and needs you two little angels to look after him, he said suavely. Veronica looked over at the other, smaller girl, who walked over and stood next to her sister.
What do you think, Emily? Veronica asked her quietly. Emily looked at Sharpe, then folded her arms and stared at him. Sharpe looked back at her. She walked closer, looking him over as if she was buying him. She bit her lip.
Are you going to die? she asked him carefully.
Not soon, love, he hoped, and she studied his face.
I am not your love, she said clearly. You need a shave. Who are you? she asked politely. He couldnt help but smile.
Major Richard Sharpe, of the South Essex, milady, he said politely. Forgive me for not getting up, Im on the sick list and am not allowed to leave me bed, milady, he said clearly.
Ah. Then you are excused, she said.
Miladys too kind, he said generously. She smiled at him, a sudden, warm smile.
I like him, can we keep him? she said over her shoulder to her older sister, then looked back at him. Oh! Whats that? she gasped, reaching over and pushing at the old scar over his left shoulder. He hissed as the slight twist he had given had pulled on his ribs. She withdrew her hand quickly. Oh Im most sorry, please forgive me, she said quickly, then ran back to her sister, clutching at her hand.
Oh rubbish, Veronica said loudly, hes just faking it because he doesnt want to do any work, she said. She stomped up to his side to look him over, but her face paled slightly as she looked at the old wounds over his chest. She walked backwards slowly, then bumped into the legs of her father.
Well? Can you look after this wounded soldier? We shouldnt be more than a few days, Bane said, patting their shoulders. They turned and looked up at him.
We can try, Emily, the younger one, said. But if he dies, remember he was bad before we got him, she said, worried. He chuckled.
Of course. Now, Im leaving Mister Mackenzie here too, so youll have plenty to be getting on with, he said. Now we have to be rounding up soldiers and leaving, so you two stay here, my darlings, and Ill be back in a few days. Ok? he asked brightly. They jumped up and down and Sharpe watched them hug and kiss goodbye.
Mackenzie sidled over to his bed, then sat on the stool. He ran a hand through his thick black hair, then looked at Sharpe.
The five year old is Emily, sir. The seven year old is Veronica. Proper wee princesses, by the way. Weve got our hands full, Id sae.
Well sir, were all moving out in an hour, Harper said uneasily.
What? Sharpe demanded abruptly. Whos moving out?
Me and the Chosen Men, sir. Seems Colonel Bane wants only the best or so he told Mister Lawford, sir, he said.
That bastard! Well whos going to make me tea? he demanded, reaching over to push the sheets back. He hissed and grunted at the pain as we swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Oh sir, you shouldnt be moving, you know that, Harper said urgently, crossing to him and laying a huge heavy hand on his shoulder. Sharpe was trapped and he knew it.
Well you get to Lawfords tent and tell him Im keeping you here, he snapped. The tent flaps opened and Mackenzie walked in, a large tin cup in his hands. It was steaming. He was followed by the two girls, holding hands and watching everything with wide eyes.
There yare, sir, the best cup o tea yell ever taste in yir life, he said, crossing to the bed. Harper let go of Sharpes shoulder, stepping back out of the way. Sharpe looked up at the Scotsman.
Oh aye? he asked petulantly. Harper watched him take the tea and peer at it doubtfully. He noticed it was a good, rich colour. He sniffed, glancing at Harper before sipping it. His face changed, losing all of its doubt, and for just a second, for the barest of moments, Sharpe appeared genuinely pleased. Harper sighed, shaking his head sadly.
Ill be on me way then, sir, he said quietly, turning away. Sharpe looked over at him.
Ey! he called out quickly. Harper turned back to look at him. Watch out fer the lads, he said quietly. And make sure you dont get any musket-balls in yer. Im not looking after Ramona forever, he said. Harper nodded slowly.
That I will, sir, that I will, he said warmly, turning and walking out. Sharpe looked back at the tea and drank half the cup.
Bugger me, thats good, is that, he said, relieved, then looked at Mackenzie as he cleared his throat nervously. What? he asked innocently. Mackenzie gestured to the two girls with his head. Sharpe cleared his own throat slowly, then just sipped the tea. If Id known you could make tea like this, Id have kept you with the South Essex, Sharpe smiled, having drained the cup. The girls wandered over and sat on his trunk, bouncing on the springy lid delightedly. Mackenzie grinned at him.
Actually, Im no a tea-maker, Major, he said delicately. Youll be thanking the young miss fae that, he grinned. Sharpe looked at him.
Which one? he asked fearfully.
Emily, sir, Mackenzie said, and Sharpe looked over, realised what they were doing, and his face dropped.
Ey! Get off o that right now! he called out angrily. Theres kit and weapons in there!
The girls jumped up and off quickly, Emily looking at him guiltily. But Veronica put her hands on her hips.
How dare you raise your voice at me! she said imperiously. Mackenzie looked at him knowingly. Sharpes lips thinned.
Yer dad left me in charge o you two, thats how! Sharpe shot back. Now sit on summat as made fer it, and stop arsing about, he snapped. Veronica huffed, leading her sister over to the edge of his bed. He watched them, incredulous, as they climbed up and got comfortable. Did I say there? he demanded, handing the cup back to Mackenzie.
Well do you have any chairs in here, Captain? she shot back coolly.
Major, he said slowly. Veronica simply tossed her long hair over her shoulder and lifted her nose. Emily looked at him and shrugged apologetically. He sighed, scrubbing his hands over his face.
And where are your clothes? Arent you getting dressed today? Veronica added. He looked at her.
You two are going with Captain Mackenzie here, while I get dressed. Then were going to sit in the Colonels big tent and he paused as inspiration came to him and yer going to read to me, he finished.
Ok, Veronica said simply, scooting off the side of the bed, helping Emily down too. Come on then. Mister Mackenzie? she said, turning to find the tall Scotsman waiting for orders. We need to find a good book, she said, leading Emily off by the hand. Mackenzie looked at Sharpe, shook his head, and followed them out.
I will not read, Veronica said clearly, folding her arms and sitting on the chair in Colonel Lawfords tent, glaring at Sharpe. He didnt look up from the table, having installed himself in Lawfords chair.
Fine, he muttered, reading the map as best he could. Bloody tables not high enough, he grumbled, lifting the map higher in his hands, trying to keep his back straight.
Youre not listening to me! she protested.
Yeah I am, he replied automatically. Just read.
This isnt even Byron! she huffed. I cant read Byron, but that smelly man doesnt know that, she added to herself.
Well we cant go hunting fer books, and yer dad didnt leave you any, so
Dont you blame my father! she replied sharply. He hissed and let the map down slowly, resting his elbows on the table to take the strain from his ribs and back.
Look young lady, Im only looking after you while yer dads not here. Hell be back in four days. You can sit there and read fer four days, or you can get locked in that trunk you were bouncing on earlier. Its your choice, he snapped, staring at her. Emily looked up from her sewing, watching her sister warily.
You monster! she shouted, then slapped her hands over her face, beginning to cry loudly. Sharpe appeared stunned. He soon collected himself.
Now look here! he shouted. Dont you think Ill just let you do whatever you want just cos you can cry, young lady! he bawled. If you think Im such a monster, why dont you bugger off and find Mackenzie, Im sure hed let you win an argument!
Veronica stopped abruptly. She looked up, her face composed and dry. Sharpe looked at her and smiled maliciously, vindicated. She slid off the chair and kicked at it, causing it fall over. Sharpe dropped the map and put his hands to the chair arms, pushing himself up slowly. It hurt. Veronica kicked at the trunk by the chair, then began hammering at it with her foot. Sharpe growled, half out of pain, half out of sheer annoyance.
Ey! If you dont stop that youll not be able to sit fer a week! he roared. She stopped abruptly, looking at him and realising he had got up.
Why? Will it hurt my legs? she asked, backing away from him as he walked slowly around the table toward her. Emily watched, wide-eyed.
No! Cos Im going to give yer arse such a tanning itll feel like
Major! Mackenzie called, hurrying in through the tent flaps. Veronica winked at Emily quickly and then burst into tears.
Mister Mackenzie! she bawled, rushing into him and grabbing at his legs. Hes so horrid! I dont want to stay with him! she sobbed, and Mackenzie huffed at Sharpe as he bent to pick her up.
Suits me, yer little Sharpe began.
Major, perhaps I should take the young miss for a wee walk, eh? the Scotsman said loudly, and Sharpe shut his mouth abruptly. He wiped his face with his left hand slowly.
Aye, go on then, he said wearily. Mackenzie hefted the little girl to his waist and nodded, turning and walking out. Sharpe sighed, then hissed and put his hand to his ribs, his face evidently regretting trying to use too much air.
He looked at his feet, shaking his head slightly, then hissed with the pain again. He looked up and caught Emily staring at him. Well, he said quietly, thank God yer not causing a fuss like yer sister, he said, then turned and walked back to the chair. He sank into it slowly. She looked at her embroidery in her hands, then back at him.
Shes only just started doing that, she said conversationally. He looked at her, and she bit her lip suddenly. He wondered if his face looked as pained as he suspected.
Oh aye? he asked, wondering why this little girl was staring at him so fixedly.
Yes. Mother died. Veronica cried a lot, she said darkly. Sharpe looked down.
Sorry, he felt compelled to say. Emily looked at him.
Wheres your wife? she asked suddenly, her face bright with innocence and hope. Daddy says behind every good officer, theres a marvellous wife. Is she here? Is she beautiful? she asked shyly. Sharpe sighed, then put his hand to the shirt over his ribs, leaning back.
She were beautiful. Shes not here now, he admitted, looking at the ceiling. Emily got up and walked over slowly. She stood by his chair, and he looked at her. She put her hands on the wooden arm, looking sad.
You mean she died? she asked quietly. He studied her face, then nodded. Oh. But thats ok, shes probably up in Heaven talking to my mother now, she said happily, looking up at the tent ceiling briefly. Sharpe smiled despite himself.
Aye, youre probably right, he allowed. Her English were good fer a Spanish girl, an all, he said, looking away from the small girls naive face.
Mrs Sharpe was Spanish? How exciting! Was she very beautiful? she asked. He grinned.
Aye, very beautiful, he said quietly.
What about your father? Was he upset when she died? she asked. My grandfather was very sad, for a long time. Sharpe lifted a hand to scratch at the back of his head, wondering just what to say.
Well I dont know. My father died before I were born, he said nervously.
Was, she said suddenly.
What? he asked. She walked around the front of him and put her hands to the chair arm, using it to pull herself up him. He grabbed her before she could fall, and he found she had installed herself on his lap most comfortably. He realised he was trapped. Severe embarrassment, caused by a little person at such close quarters, started to make itself evident.
Before I was born, she said. He thought about it.
Eh? he asked, confused.
You said were. Thats not right. It should be was, she said. He smiled.
I thought you were five, he said.
Nearly six, she pouted. But Ive already had one year of schooling in how to speak, Mister Sharpe. She leaned on him. You must be very sad, she said quietly.
Why? he asked.
You dont have your wife, or your father. She paused as a thought struck her. Wheres your mother? she asked fearfully.
Talking to yours, most like, he admitted. She turned and looked up at him, horrified.
Oh you poor man! she said, flinging her arms round his neck and grabbing him in a strangle-hold. He grunted with the pain and put his hands to her arms, taking her hands away. Youve lost everyone?
She studied his face, and he marvelled at how sympathetic a small child could suddenly become. He took in her small, sad face, her blond hair that reminded him so much of Antonias. Is this how she looks now? Where is she? If I see her some day, will she hate me? he thought, lost in the little girls eyes.
Thats awful, she whispered suddenly, dragging him back to the real world. Why Why is everything so unfair? she asked timidly. I didnt want Mother to leave us. Daddy told me to say goodbye, but I wouldnt. I didnt want to.
Sharpe felt acutely uncomfortable, caused in part by having a small child sitting on him as if they were close friends, and partly by the sadness on her small face. Her face, the very fact that she may or may not look like his daughter, scratched mercilessly at raw nerves. He looked away abruptly, swallowing and pushing away so many unwanted feelings. He looked back at her slowly, clearing his throat.
Sometimes sometimes you have to say goodbye to people you dont want to. Sometimes you have to watch bad things happen to good people, people you love. Its not fair, but its how life is. He watched her digest this, and realised it all sounded very miserable. But we still have our friends, eh. Im still here, an I dont have tantrums every five minutes like yer sister, he said, putting his hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently, offering her a small, apologetic smile. She leaned away from him slightly so she could look up and study his face.
Really? she asked doubtfully. He grinned.
Well, so long as I get me tea on time, anyway, he admitted, and she smiled.
May I May I call you Richard? she asked shyly, her face a little red.
Yeah, alright, he shrugged, then regretted the movement. She leaned on him again, looking round the tent. It was quiet for some moments.
Will you read to me? she asked. Father does sometimes. But hes so loud! she said, looking up at him. Youre quiet.
Well just dont tell any of the soldiers that, Ill never scare em again, he tutted.
No, dont read to me, she said quietly. If you get up youll hurt again, and thats not fair. She thought for a second. Tell me about Mrs Sharpe. What was she like? she asked wistfully. Sharpe sighed, blowing out air through his teeth slowly.
Well, he said, looking down at her, she were a fierce woman
Was, she corrected. She was a fierce woman, Richard, she smiled, patting the shirt on his chest.
Are you telling it then? he asked. She grinned, then laid her head against him. Anyway, she was a very scary person, was Teresa. She were in charge of lots of dangerous Spanish men, and they were trying to
Sharpe opened an eye, looking over his pillow lazily. He reached up and scratched his head, and was happy to find it didnt hurt his side as much as hed expected.
Something moved in the darkness. He froze. He knew there to be nothing in his tent that would make that sound. Then he remembered the two girls, sleeping silently on the two camp beds not far from his cot. He closed his eye again.
Something rustled. And then he heard it.
There was a sharp snapping noise. No childs heavy enough to do that. He grabbed the sheets and wrenched them back, leaping out of bed and banging heavily into someone. He grabbed at them in the pitch. They simply grabbed him by the arms and pushed him backwards roughly. He landed on his back, grunting at the sudden pain stabbing through him. The tent flaps swished and flew about.
Mackenzie! he roared, as loud as he could with the air still painful in his lungs. Mac!
He heard someone whimpering and then heard movement. Girls! Get over here right now! he shouted. He heard rustling and movement. He put his hand out and grabbed at the side of the cot, pulling himself up until he was sat. Emily! Veronica! His eyes slowly became more used to the darkness and he felt two little hands searching for his arm. He grabbed hold of the hands and squeezed. Whos that? he said, only able to see the blond hair.
Its me, Emily, she said fearfully.
Wheres Veronica? he asked, peering round in the gloom, but he could see the tent was empty. He swallowed, then stood. Emily grabbed at his fingers desperately. He let go of her fingers to head for the tent flaps. He stuck his head out, finding Mackenzie lying on the ground, his shako on the floor next to his bleeding head.
Richard! Richard! Dont leave me! Emily wailed, running after him. She grabbed onto his legs, crying suddenly. He looked around.
Shit! No Harper, no Harris, Mackenzies out fer it, and one girls missing. He turned and found the girl still clinging to him, making it impossible for him to move freely.
Look Emily, get -. Move over -. Oh bugger, he snapped impatiently, realising she would never release her dogged hold on the only thing she considered safe. A hundred ideas went through his head, but then he realised hed have to bow to the inevitable. He scooped her up reluctantly, and she hugged onto him as if her life depended on it.
Wheres my sister? she sobbed.
I dont know yet. Well find her, Emily, he said urgently. He carried her out of the tent, looking around for horses or signs of someones escape. Veronica! Veronica! he bawled. He was suddenly aware of the rustle of other tents, other soldiers who had heard his shouting.
He looked around, realising how silly it must look, the tall Major carrying a little girl while dressed in nothing but regulation pyjama trousers. He looked at the Scotsman on the ground, then looked at Emily, still crying. Look, love, calm down, he said, as gently as he could under the circumstances. He peeled her off slowly and looked at her. Dont look, he said. She grabbed onto him fearfully, and he got closer to the Captain, crouching slowly. He put his hand to the mans neck and breathed a sigh of relief. He turned and commandeered the first soldier who got too close. You, fetch the surgeon hes alright. Just needs cleaning, he snapped dismissively. The man nodded and ran off.
Sharpe stood slowly, his ribs objecting to the load. He turned and looked at the other soldiers of the South Essex, watching, wide-eyed.
Right you lot, any of you as heard or saw anything, you stand where you are, or so help me Ill have every one of you buggers doing drills fer the next twelve hours, he snapped. Men shuffled their feet. Someone heard or saw summat, and yer going to tell me what it was.
Two men sidled forwards slowly. He looked at them as Emily stopped crying and sniffed. He gestured with his head at Mackenzie. You two help the surgeon wi him. When yer done, come and find me, he said. What are yer names?
Jones, the short one said.
Marwick, the taller, brown-haired one admitted.
Right then, Privates Jones and Marwick, you come and find me when yer done. Understand? he asked.
Yes, sir, they replied smartly.
Good lads, he said dubiously, then turned and carried Emily back inside the tent. Right, he said, looking round and finding candles. Look, love, youll have to get down, he said carefully.
But my sister! she cried.
I know, but hanging onto me like last weeks tea rations int going to help us right now, he pointed out shortly. She looked at him.
But it makes me feel better.
He paused, surprised. Yeah, well. Come on, he said awkwardly, shifting her and then lifting her down to the bed carefully. It hurt, and he let it show on his face. She watched him.
Im sorry, she said quietly. He looked at her as he turned to the candles and lit them slowly.
Why? he asked. What did you do?
Youre still hurt, and I acted like a baby, she said quietly. He looked at her.
Well yer only five, he said. She stuck her bottom lip out.
Nearly six! And we have to grow up one day, Richard, she said imperiously, and he smiled.
Enjoy it while you can, he said wisely, turning to find his uniform. He pulled over the cavalry trousers but stopped abruptly as his ribs screamed in protest. He hissed and put his hand to the bandage over them, closing his eyes suddenly.
Do you need help? she asked, and he looked at her.
Not from you, I dont, he said indignantly. Look, get yerself dressed, will you? he added, more accommodating. She swallowed.
I My sister always helps me, she said. He looked at her, thought for a second, then walked to the tent flaps again.
Jones? he called. The private jumped to attention.
Yes, sir, he said immediately.
Do you know Ramona Harper? he asked. Jones nodded. Good. Go find her tent, tell her we need her help. On the double, private, he added.
Yes sir, he said, turning and tearing off across the dark camp. Sharpe turned and ducked back inside, finding Emily still sat on his bed. She didnt look so confident now. He walked over slowly, sitting on the bed and letting himself relax his shoulders.
Where is she? she asked timidly. He looked at her.
I dont know. Do you know whod want to take her away? he asked. She sighed.
The maid. She doesnt like her. The man who looks after Daddys horse. He doesnt like her either. Oh, and the lady who does the washing. She doesnt like her
Emily He paused, rubbing his forehead. He straightened, trying to alleviate the pull on his ribs. She bit her lip, then slid off the bed quickly.
You should lie down. Daddy hurt his ribs once when he fell off a horse. He had to lie still for a week, she said, walking round and pulling the sheets back. He looked at her.
He were bruised to buggery as well, was he? he muttered.
The stable man shot him, she said off-hand. He looked at her.
The horse. He had a broken leg. I think the stablehand didnt like the horse. He looked very unhappy when he had to shoot it. He said it hadnt done its job, she said, then gestured with her hand, waving him toward the bed. He looked at her, then shook his head and used his hands to lift his legs onto the bed. He let himself lie back and breathed out a sigh of relief. See? Much better, she nodded happily. She walked round and sat on the bed next to his elbow. What are we waiting for? she asked.
The surgeon to see to Mac, and fer Ramona.
Whos Ramona? she asked.
Me friends wife. Youll like her, he said with a smile. She nodded.
I hope I like her as much as I like you.
Oh, ah well, I hope so too, he managed, a little embarrassed. She looked up as the tent flaps swished open.
Richard! What happen? Ramona asked, shocked. Who is this?
Ramona, this is Emily Bane, he said, making no attempt to get up. Shes the daughter of Colonel Bane, him as just left wi half the South Essex and Harper, he added.
I know who he is. He say some very rude things, she sniffed, then walked over.
Can you help her get dressed and sorted? he asked. Ive got to get up and find out whats going on. Weve got a missing girl, he said.
Ramona looked at Emily. Ok then, we go, she said cheerfully, putting a hand out to her. She shrank back against Sharpe, leaning on him.
Emily, come on, its only Ramona, he said quietly. Emily turned and looked at him.
Do you trust her? she whispered, and he grinned.
Have done with my life lass, many times.
Ok then, she said, then turned and looked at Ramona. Im only trusting you because Richard trusts you, she said clearly, and Ramona grinned.
Really? she said slyly. Well, come on, we find you clothes and breakfast, she said. Emily slid off the bed and took Ramonas hand, and they walked to the tent flaps. Ramona stopped and looked at him. I come back, Richard, help you to dress, she said. He looked at her.
Er, no, yer alright, I can
Hes hurt, Miss Ramona, he cant do it by himself, Emily said loudly. Sharpe shot her an exasperated look.
Look you, just go, he said to her, then looked at Ramona. Watch her, and dont take her anywhere wiowt me, he said, then stopped abruptly. Except fer right now. Go on, he said. Ramona smiled slyly.
Why? she asked impishly. He huffed.
Cos Im getting outta bed! Go on, he said dismissively. She laughed suddenly and he looked at her, hoping the tips of his ears weren't really going as red as he suspected.
Who you think care and dress you and your wounds when you so badly injured? she laughed. Not Father Curtis, not your frail girl off praying and certainly not my husband! Me, Richard, me! You men are all same shape when your trousers are off, she laughed. He gawped at her, then collected himself.
Thats as may be, but I dont think the wife of me best friend should stand there watching me dress. Go on, go, he said, hoping he sounded Majorly. She smiled to herself and tugged on Emilys hand.
Come on then, she said, leading her out.
Right, what do you know about this Bane, and what could help us? Sharpe asked Mackenzie quietly. They sat at the small table in Sharpes tent, Emily curled up asleep in Sharpes bed warmly. Mackenzie, the bandage round his head making his black, tufty hair spike out the top, leaned back in the camp chair.
I know Bane hasnae any friends, sir, he said quietly. Hes with Wellington, wants to march over the length o Spain and kick every French bast- every French soldier off of it, he said, glancing at Emily suddenly.
So he didnae made himself any friends at Horse Guards. Hes even used some of his own money to help him, he said. But a lot o officers didnae like him siding wi Wellington. They started nasty stories about his wife, God rest her soul, he added.
Like? Sharpe asked impatiently.
Well, I didnae meet the lady before she died, but her staff liked her an awful lot, he said. Seems she didnae have such a grand family before she married Bane I think she had a poor upbringing, he shrugged.
So them wives at Horse Guards decided she werent worth letting in, Sharpe mused to himself. How did she die? he asked.
Mackenzie looked at the sleeping girl, then leaned toward Sharpe, lowering his voice. Fever, they said. I asked the servants. Fever.
Nowt suspicious there, Sharpe said, frustrated.
But straight after she died, accidents started happening round the house, he added quietly.
Well, a painting thats been securely fixed fer generations suddenly dropped off the wall, just when Bane was walking nearby, he said. Then later, on the march, there was his horse. Threw him, and fae no good reason, in my opinion.
You were there?
Aye, I was there, and watched the stablehand put him down, he said, shaking his head.
Emily said the stablehand were angry wi the horse said it hadnt done its job, Sharpe mused. Was he in on it?
Quite possibly, Mackenzie drawled. Look, youd need to talk to the wee girl, sir, I dont really know all of it.
Aye, I know, he said, but looked over at Emily slowly. I just dont want her to be upset. Over her mother, like, he added. Mackenzie smiled slowly.
Shes a wee angel, theres no denying that, he said. Sharpe looked at him.
I just dont want her screaming the place down again, he said gruffly, standing slowly. Mackenzie watched him, grinning, and got to his feet too. Get them two squaddies, tell em to meet me in Colonel Lawfords tent. I want to talk to them about what they saw.
Yes, sir, he said, turning to go.
Mac, he said suddenly. The Captain turned and looked at him. Sharpe hesitated, then looked at Emily. Youd best take her and keep a close eye on her. I dont want her waking up and finding everyones left her, he said uneasily. Mackenzie nodded.
Aye, yir right, sir, he said, walking over to the bed. He pulled back the covers and lifted her slowly, nodding to Sharpe before crossing the tent and walking out.
Sharpe turned and picked up the green tunic he hadnt worn in over a week and slid it on slowly. His ribs still hurt like blazes, and he wondered suddenly if theyd ever stop. It seemed he couldnt remember a time when turning round or bending or even leaning didnt hurt. He wiped his hands over his face, not bothering to button his tunic, and walked out of the tent.
Well, damn it all, man! He entrusted his family to you and you go and lose one of them? Lawford demanded angrily.
I didnt lose
Well shes not here, is she? Lawford interrupted.
Sir, there are men on their way here as saw summat. Ive sent Captain Mackenzie off to question the picquets too. Someone else saw summat, and theyre going to tell me, and then were going to find the girl before the Colonel comes back, he snapped.
Lawford leaned back in his chair, looking him over. He nodded finally, dropping his letter-opener back to the desk. He looked up slowly. Well you might have shaved, man. And had time to clean some kit, he said reproachfully, but his anger was spent. Sharpe didnt answer and Lawford could well imagine the words going through the Majors head. Make sure you do before Bane gets back here. Youre a mess, Richard, he said quietly.
Im on the sick list, sir, he pointed out. Lawford pinned him with a stare.
That doesnt give you the right to walk around with facial hair like a gypsys, he snapped, having noted with jealously that Sharpes beard had grown out around his mouth and down his chin rakishly. The whiskers that now ran down the sides of his jaw to meet up at his chin only served to make him look devilishly attractive. Lawford huffed. Get it seen to.
Yes, sir, he said automatically. My arse, he added, noticing Lawfords envious look with some satisfaction. He resisted the temptation to smile. Instead he cleared his throat.
Sir? Mackenzie called from the tent flaps. They turned. Ive Privates Jones and Marwick, sir, he said. Sharpe walked to one side of the desk as Lawford stood.
Good, good, bring them in, Lawford said, waving. Mackenzie pushed the two men in and they walked in slowly, up to Lawfords desk. They stood to attention. Sharpe looked at Lawford, but he spread a hand out in an after you gesture.
Thank you, sir, Sharpe said, then walked closer to the two men. Names? he snapped.
The two men straightened and lifted their chins. The shorter one spoke first.
Private Ardwyad Jones, sir, he said curtly.
Private Arry Marwick, sir, the taller one admitted. Sharpe studied them.
You two were somewhere near me tent last night. Did you see what happened to Captain Mackenzie? he asked clearly. They were silent. Jones, he snapped.
No, sir, I didnt see a thing, sir, he said slowly, an almost sing-song lilt to his voice. All black, you see.
Sharpe eyed him, then looked at Marwick. And you, marrik? he stressed. The private cleared his throat.
I didnt see nuffink, sir, he said immediately. Lawford looked at Sharpe and shrugged helplessly. Sharpe walked round to Marwicks side and stared at him. After nearly a minute, Marwick started to sweat.
Im not angry cos yer lying, Sharpe said quietly, but cos yer helping someone cover up what happened to a little girl right inside an army camp.
But sir, I really didnt
Youll speak when yer spoken to! Sharpe roared in his face. Marwick jumped and squeezed his eyes shut. Sharpe took a step backwards, then looked over at Jones. You have summat to tell me, Jones? he asked dangerously.
I didnt see anything, sir, he said, licking wet lips. We was having a cup of tea, you see, and the fire, well, its awful cold at night now, and we
I dont want a weather report, Sharpe snapped, walking closer to Marwick again. You, he said quietly, and the private opened his eyes again. Tell me what you saw. Who did you see thumping Captain Mackenzie? Who did you see leaving me tent? he demanded.
N- no-one! I swear, sir! he cried. Sharpe lifted his foot and booted him in the shin as hard as he could. Marwick cried out and bent over in pain, reaching for his shin. Lawford opened his mouth but Sharpe grabbed the privates neck in his hand and slammed the side of his face into the surface of the desk. He pushed it down angrily.
Sharpe! I say! Lawford protested.
Who? Sharpe demanded of the soldier. He whimpered something and motioned to the other man.
Jones, Marwick rasped, tell him!
Sharpe looked at Jones quickly. What?
We didnt know he was going to hurt the little girl, sir! he cried fearfully. We just says, family, is it? And he said yes, sir! he continued. We thought we was helping, sir! he added desperately.
Helping? Helping? Sharpe demanded. He shifted his grip to Marwicks collar on his stiff jacket and hauled him upright again. You helped someone find my tent? Because he said he were family o the two girls? he shouted.
Yes sir! they chorused.
You have one minute to tell me all you know, Sharpe said malevolently.
Tall man, he was, sir! Smelled of horses, you see. Spoke as a London boy, as I remember. Didnt see his face clearly, sir, but think he had a moustache, sir, Jones said quickly.
He was London alright, sir, Marwick said suddenly. He had a big orse, a big black one wiv one shoe missing, sir, he put in. Sharpe stared at him, incredulous.
You didnt see his face but you know his horse had lost a shoe? he said, then looked at Lawford.
Dear Lord! Hes stolen my Charger! Lawford cried. He looked at Marwick. A tall black horse, you say? Any white on his nose? he added hopefully.
Not a mark, nor his feet, sir, the soldier said.
Hells teeth, Richard! Hes taken my Charger! he snapped. Well at least we can hang him for horse theft, he said vindictively. Sharpe ignored him.
Right then. You two are coming with me. About face! he shouted. Both privates turned and snapped to attention. Out! Sharpe commanded. They quickly jogged to the tent flaps and waited outside. Sharpe turned to Lawford, who was still shaking his head and muttering to himself. Right then, sir. Ill get a search party together and well start tracking the horse, he said, nodding before turning for the tent flaps himself.
Richard, Lawford called out. He stopped and looked back at him. If at all possible try and bring me back the horse?
See what I can do, sir, he said, stepping outside. He found the two privates standing to attention outside. Know much about horses, do you Jones? he snapped.
I know which way you sits on them, sir, he admitted. He looked at Marwick.
I knows a best way to roast em, sir, he said with feeling. Sharpe sighed.
Well then, you two have just joined our search party. Get to my tent and find Mackenzie. Tell him Im on my way, and to be ready to leave fer tracking. Hell direct you, he said.
Yes, sir! they chorused, and turned and ran across the camp. Sharpe wiped his hands over his face, encountered the slight beard, and huffed. He walked off, following them.
Where are you going? Emily asked, watching him strap on the sword belt.
To find yer sister, he said curtly. She jumped off his bed without a word, walking over and picking up her jacket, pulling it on. He looked at her as he checked his dirk was in the sheath hanging over the back of his breeches. What you doing?
Im coming with you, Richard.
I dont like it here. Daddys not here, and if you and Mister Mackenzie are going to look for my sister then I should be with you, she said, pulling her long hair out from her coat collar and looking at him. He sighed, wiping a hand over his face. Daddy told you to look after us, didnt he? she asked.
He did. And its my fault Veronicas lost, he said quietly.
No, its her fault for being so horrid to everyone, she said petulantly. But how can you look after me if youre not here? she asked. He thought about it, realised he didnt have a choice, and nodded.
Alright. But you have to be careful, and do everything I tell you, when I tell you, ok? he asked sternly. She nodded.
Ok. If you do one thing for me, she said. He stared.
This int a trade, lass, he said impatiently. She bit her lip, and he realised he had upset her. What is it? he asked carefully.
I just I just wanted you to hold my hand, she admitted timidly. He huffed at himself and walked over, holding his hand out. She walked over and took it firmly. Ok. Now we can go, she said.
Emily sat in front of Mackenzie, the tall Scotsman holding her up in the saddle. They plodded along behind Sharpe and the two privates, who were following the prints of a horse with only three shoes. A brief questioning of the previous nights picquets had given them a clear heading, and the fact that the escaping horseman seemed to have been alone.
Weve only three hours before sunset, Emily said unhappily, looking at her pocket-watch. Mackenzie looked at it too.
But thats a lovely watch, miss, he said cheerfully. Wherever did ye get it?
Daddy gave it me. Veronica has one too, but hers is violet on the back, she said quietly. She watched Sharpe stop and crouch down, putting his hand out to the dirt road and thinking. She watched him straighten awkwardly, huffing out through his nose before walking on carefully. Why are you friends? she asked brightly.
With whom, miss? he asked, lost.
Richard, she said.
Oh, Richard is it? he grinned, pushing at her shoulder. Seems you two are better then friends than we, he winked.
Are you not friends? she asked, turning and looking at him.
That we are, young missy, that we are. We met out on some field in this here dusty country, he sighed.
Did you fight the French too? she asked.
Och, you should ha seen us. We fought like kings, missy, and your Richard like the very devil himself, he grinned.
I dont like that idea. My Richard couldnt be a devil at all, she scoffed, and Mackenzie grinned to himself.
Just as ye sae, missy, he grinned. She turned and watched the men.
Sir, Jones said suddenly, just as Sharpe had stopped to stare in confusion at the horses tracks.
What? he asked, staring at the sudden explosion of horse prints all over the road.
Its one horse we want, sir, is it? he asked. Sharpe looked at him.
It was. Looks like someone met him, he said. Bugger!
Sir, more over here, I think, Marwick said. Sharpe walked over to see.
Not more! he tutted. He walked back and looked around. Mackenzie brought the horse to a stop and they watched. Sharpe looked at all the tracks, then turned and re-traced his steps. He walked back to the two privates and stopped again, hitching the rifle up on his shoulder. Right then. Theyve met him and carried on in the same direction. He nodded at the two South Essex lads, and they walked on, this time following perhaps four horses in total. Just cant be sure wi them riding in twos, he grumbled to himself.
They walked on until the light started to fade. He turned and looked back at Mackenzie.
Mac? he called. Mackenzie and Emily looked at him. Well have to find somewhere to stop. Im buggered if Im following em in the dark, he huffed. Mackenzie nodded and stopped the horse. Sharpe turned to the privates and they disappeared into the bushes that lined the road, emerging some minutes later. This way, Sharpe said to Mackenzie. He walked the horse to the roadside and then lifted Emily down to stand. She stretched, yawning and rubbing at her face. Mackenzie dismounted and noticed her trying to stay awake. He smiled, taking the horses reins and her hand, ducking them through the bushes to follow the other three men.
They came out to a small clearing, and Mackenzie roped the horse to a large tree trunk. He found the two soldiers setting up a small fire and tripod, ready for tea. Sharpe was not there.
Richard? Emily called fearfully. Richard? Where did you go? she called out timidly. Mackenzie squeezed her hand and she looked up at him.
Now then missy, hes just checking to make sure no-ones following us, or making sure were not bivouacking next to some French soldiers, he said confidently. There was a rustling sound and Sharpe appeared from the bushes on his left. Ah, there yare sir. All safe, are we? he asked knowingly.
Dont know, havent checked yet, were just dying fer a pee first, he sniffed, then caught sight of Emily and froze. He let his tongue wander over his upper lip, desperately trying to think of something to say.
I need to go too, she said quietly, letting go of the Captains hand and walking toward Sharpe. He just looked at her. Come on then, Richard, she said cheerfully, tugging at the side of his cavalry trousers before walking toward the bushes. He just stared after her.
Go on, sir, Mackenzie said. She trusts you.
Sharper turned and looked at him, indignant. If you think Im helping her
Dont let her get lost, sir, Mackenzie said urgently, and Sharpe jumped and turned quickly, hurrying after her.
Cos you have to open yer hand, Sharpe said quietly.
But how do you do that if you have to hold that other thing? she asked.
Well you kind of get used to it, like. Takes a long time to learn how to do it, he said, patiently.
Oh. Have you been a soldier long? she asked, flicking her fingers against the side of the barrel of the big rifle. He lifted it and moved it away from her slowly.
Is that a yes? she asked curiously.
A yes, he said. Anyway, tell me about yer schooling, he said, hoping to change the subject.
But soldiering seems much more fun, she said cheekily. She pulled the blanket round her tighter, shivering a little. Its a bit cold, she said timidly. He looked at her, considering her for a long moment.
Come here then, he said quietly. She got up from sitting with her back against his pack, and wandered over to him. She sat herself down on his right side, leaning back on him and getting comfortable. She sat up straight again, lifted an arm out of her blanket, and pulled his right arm over her securely. He just waited for her to get comfortable. She settled back against him, and rested her head against his green tunic. She sniffed.
Do you think well find her? she asked.
Of course we will. Tomorrow, he said confidently. She nodded slowly.
Ok. She let her eyes drift closed and she was asleep. Sharpe rested his head back against the tree and thought about the day ahead. He heard a rustling and grabbed the sword in his left hand.
Sir, Mackenzie whispered.
Yeah, he whispered back. The Captain appeared, his sword drawn, watching the bushes. He sat slowly, then nodded to Emily.
The wee lass is sleeping at last, then? he whispered. Sharpe just looked down at her. Aye, and about time. Shes fair whacked, I can tell ye, he nodded. He put his hand inside his red coat and took out a small flask. He unscrewed it and offered it to Sharpe. He took it, sniffing the lip and looking at him in surprise.
Whiskey? he whispered.
Aye, but its been blessed, sir, he winked. Go on, live a little, he whispered. Sharpe took a sip, then handed it back. Shes scared, poor lamb, he added.
Aye, I know, Sharpe allowed.
But shes impressed with you, sir, he grinned, and Sharpe looked at him.
All she talked about all day was you, sir. Fair to say shes in love, ken? he grinned, taking a sip of the flask. Sharpe just snorted.
Yeah well. When her father gets back and finds out what weve been up to, hell skin me alive. Ill be looking at Captain again next week, he said dismally. Mackenzie shrugged diffidently.
Fair to say, with her singing yir praises, ye might just get away with a slap on the wrist, he said.
And what about Veronica? If we he looked down as Emily twisted in her sleep and put her arm out and to his whistle-chain, if we get her back, and she tells her father her side of the story, Im done for, he added in a hoarse whisper. Mackenzie shook his head.
Not on yir life, he smiled. With Emily and me on yir side, sir, yir safe and sound. He looked back through the bushes to the two sleeping privates. Id just like a crack at the man that took her, thats all, he allowed.
A soft spot fer the little angels, have we? Sharpe grinned, and the Scotsman turned and looked at him.
I just dont approve of grown men snatching wee girls in the dead of night, sir, same as you, he said stiffly. Sharpe nodded.
Go on, get some sleep, Ill watch, he said, but the Scotsman shook his head.
No, sir. You sleep, Ill keep a good eye on us all, he said. Sharpe looked at him.
Thanks, he said. Mackenzie shook his head.
I feel I got ye intae this, Major. I told him you were a good officer. He believed me, he grinned. Sharpe snorted with amusement, then gestured with his head.
Go on, get on watch then, he said. Mackenzie smiled and stood, stretching before turning for the bushes, his Claymore at the ready. Sharpe sighed, realised it didnt hurt as much as before, and leaned his head back against the trunk. He let his eyes close for a moment.
Sir, Mackenzie said, pushing at Sharpes shoulder gently. Sharpe opened his eyes quickly, snatching for his sword. Sir, Mackenzie said again. Sharpe stopped and looked around, then down at the little girl still fast asleep on his lap, wrapped in her blanket. He wiped his left hand over his face, then looked at the Scotsman.
What time is it? he asked quietly.
Nearly seven, sir, he whispered. Sharpe nodded. Everything, including himself, was covered in a fine dew, and he hoped it hadnt soaked through Emilys blanket.
Anything? he asked.
Aye, a right carry on over yonder, Mackenzie grinned. Sharpe raised his eyebrows at him. We may have found the Colonels horse, sir, safe and sound. And at least two men lighting fires in a very silly place, he added with a grin. Sharpe smiled.
Well, sir, he said, crossing to crouch next to him, whispering so as not to wake Emily, I heard a bit of a sound, sir, and went to see. He sniffed, taking off his shako and rubbing at his head to warm it a little. His hair stuck up like a freshly pulled carrot. Saw the Colonels black horse, all black, sir, being pushed along like it didnae want to go. Well, woke the boys and had them follow the bastards. Two men, sir, with wee Veronica tied to the horse. He paused, scrubbing at his face. Tailed them to a drop-off at the road, sir. Its a veritable cliff, Id sae. They made it down, we watched. They dont seem to have noticed us, sir. Im thinking theyre taking her there to trade or deliver, sir.
There? Sharpe prompted.
A farmhouse, sir. Bloody big one, he added. Sharpe rested his head back, thinking.
So we follow them, get into the farmhouse, and steal her back, he said simply. Right?
Oh aye sir, I knew youd be wanting something like that, he grinned. So I left Jones and Marwick to watch them sir, make sure that if they left wed know about it. I came straight back here to get you, sir, he said wisely. Sharpe nodded.
A good nights work, Captain, he grinned. He nudged at Emily gently. Come on, lass, up yer get, he said loudly. Emily opened her eyes and looked around.
Richard? she asked, before she even knew where she was.
Aye. Come on, its morning, we have to find yer sister, he said gently. She sniffed and rubbed at her face wearily, nodding.
Oh yes, of course, she said simply, and he put his hands under her arms, helping her to sit up. She turned and held onto him, pushing on him to get up. She stood and stretched, yawning. She looked around. Oh, good morning Mister Mackenzie, she said, noticing him and smiling.
Good morning to ye, miss, he said cheerfully. And hows yirself?
Well, I could do with some strong tea, she said conspiratorially, making Sharpe chuckle.
Couldnt we all, he said. He got up slowly, stretching out. He smiled, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. Dunt hurt so much this morning, he admitted.
Good. Er Is there anything to eat? she asked gingerly. He looked down at her.
Might have summat in me pack, he said. Do you like biscuits?
Not the army ones. Daddy says they could be used as spare flints for muss-cakes, she said thoughtfully.
Muskets, Sharpe said helpfully.
Yes, those too I think, she said earnestly. Although, Im sure if you dipped them in the tea, theyd go soft, she said, brightening suddenly.
Yer right, Sharpe said. Now all we need is tea, he joked. And biscuits, she added, looking up at him and grinning. He grinned back at her, and Mackenzie cleared his throat.
Well, sir, miss, I think wed best get going, he said apologetically. She nodded.
I think so too. Then we can find Veronica and give her arse such a tanning! she said crossly, putting her hands on her hips. Sharpe cleared his throat gingerly.
Er, yeah, erm You might want to not say it like that, though, he said carefully.
Why? she asked, putting two hands to her mouth guiltily.
Well, yer dad might not like it, he said uneasily. Not very ladylike, he added carefully. She nodded.
I see. Well then, lets go, she said sadly, turning and walking off. Sharpe looked at Mackenzie and waved his hand for him. Mackenzie nodded suavely and followed her back toward the road.
Thats it? Sharpe asked in a low voice. The four men and one girl were crouched behind the ridge of the high hill, looking down into the valley-like bed. A wide, squat farmhouse, at least seven windows wide, occupied dead centre of the valley floor. Sheep and goats wandered around it aimlessly, but it seemed they were only there because they had nowhere else to go. There were no pens or fences, and Sharpe and Mackenzie pulled back and looked at each other.
Going to be hard, sir, he said wisely.
Hmm. He ran a hand over his chin, thinking. We have to get in there before dark. We dont know if theyve moved her already. If they have, we have to get on their trail. If they havent, weve got her, he said thoughtfully. He looked at Jones, who was squinting at something over the ridge. What is it, Jones? he asked, and for some reason had a bad feeling. He turned and looked back over the ridge.
Those sheep, sir, he said quietly. Its not right, you see. Why dont they go for the hay? he asked himself. Sharpe pulled out his telescope and trained it on the sheep.
What hay? he asked.
There, sir, he said, nodding. Sharpe looked at the goats, saw the little bells under their necks, the way they paced around. The sheep mixed with them, all of them bleating and looking in one direction. He moved the lens and caught sight of the large dump of hay, what must have been merely ten or twenty feet from them.
I dont get it, Sharpe admitted. Jones smiled.
I dont understand it either, sir, very strange, you see. Never known a sheep not to go for the food, he said. Sharpe tutted suddenly, still looking through the lens.
Bugger me! he whistled, then got up and hurried to their right, past everyone and peering over the ridge. He carried on a good twenty feet away from them. He stopped and looked through the lens again. He grinned, then scuttled another twenty feet away, stopping to check something again. Emily looked up at Mackenzie, then round at Sharpe. He collapsed the telescope and came back quickly, stopping next to Jones. Jones, youre a genius, he said, slapping him on the shoulder.
I am, sir? he asked, confused. Oh. The sheep, is it?
Yes private, the sheep, he said, then looked at Mackenzie. Do you know why they wont go for the hay? he asked. Mackenzie did the only thing he could; he shrugged. Because they cant reach it. It looks like its not far, but theres a bloody great ditch cut in the land, probably a stream, he said.
We have cover to the farmhouse, Mackenzie grinned, and Sharpe nodded.
We have cover to the farmhouse, he confirmed. He looked round at them all, thinking. Marwick, he said suddenly. The private turned and looked at him.
Yer in charge of Emily, he said. Marwick swallowed.
Sir, I I know I done wrong, sir, before sir, he said quietly. Emily looked at him.
What did you do? she asked. Sharpe looked at her.
Soldier stuff, he said quickly, then looked at Marwick. Well now you can make up fer it, he said. I dont want you telling the young miss here what went on, seeing as how its in the past now, got it? he asked. I dont want her thumping and screaming at him if she finds out he let that man in the tent in the first place, he thought. Marwick nodded gratefully. Good man. You take charge of her, make sure you keep her well back up here. He looked round at the others. Right. Mackenzie and Jones, yer with me. Were going down through that stream, following it to the house, and then sneaking in. We dont know how many are in there, so keep it quiet till we do. We find Veronica, grab her, and get out, understand?
And if they should try to stop us? Mackenzie asked knowingly. Sharpe smiled politely.
Why, we stop em, Mister Mackenzie. We dont want em following us, now do we? he said pleasantly. Mackenzie grinned and then looked past him to Jones.
Right then, lets go, he said. Jones and Mackenzie turned and began scuttling along behind the ridge, heading for a place they could get into the stream bed. Sharpe felt a tug on his tunic sleeve and looked at Emily.
Richard, she said quietly. He waited, but she seemed reluctant. He put a hand on her shoulder.
Look, youll be alright here. Marwick herell look after you. If he doesnt, you tell me when I get back, and Ill sort him out, alright? he said. She shook her head.
No, I want you to be careful, she said quietly. Dont get hurt. She put her arms round his neck, squeezing. He gave her what passed for a quick hug and pulled her away.
Ill be alright. Worry about finding some breakfast, eh? he said with a smile. She nodded, then leaned on him and kissed him on the cheek.
Well just you make sure you have everything you need, she said. He grinned.
Ive got everything a soldier needs, love, he grinned, the promise of tea and food, and a kiss from a pretty lass, he said. You stick with Marwick, and well be back soon. He put his hand to her face and shifted her hair from his eyes gently, before dropping his hand to her shoulder and squeezing reassuringly. She watched him adjust his sword and grab the rifle from the ground, winking at her confidently before turning and heading off after the others. She watched him go, then sat down, chewing her lip. She looked at Marwick.
And whats your name, sir? she asked quietly.
Harry, miss, he said pleasantly. She nodded.
Hmm, she said, pre-occupied.
The sun burst through the clouds and broke through the mist lying low on the valley. The three men made their way slowly down the bed of the stream, the trickling brook not enough to wet their ankles except for splashing. Sharpe led the way, his rifle in his left hand, ready. Jones followed, keeping up admirably and hanging onto his musket to make sure it didnt drop and let the ball roll out the barrel. Mackenzie brought up the rear, his Claymore ready.
They were twenty yards from the house when Sharpe stopped them, hearing something. The men lay flat against the tall side of the cutting, their heads barely concealed. The taller Mackenzie had to stoop slightly so that his shako-less head wasnt seen. They waited. Sharpe looked at his feet, found something useful, and stood on it. He lifted his head over the top slowly, just enough to see at ground level.
He saw five men, one of them carrying a rolled up blanket over his shoulder. Whoever was in the blanket didnt protest as the men walked toward Colonel Lawfords horse, which had been coupled to a flatbed trap. Sharpe swore; it was parked perilously close to their hiding place. If the men walked around the near-side wheel to climb aboard, they would see straight into the cutting. Sharpe dropped and looked at the other two men.
Theyre coming this way five of em, and what looks like Veronica, in a blanket over the biggest buggers shoulder.
Straight fight? Mackenzie whispered. Jones turned and pulled out his bayonet, screwing it on even as he watched the Major. Sharpe nodded.
Got a pistol? he asked the Captain. He nodded, drawing it and standing his sword in the dirt to check it was primed and loaded. He looked back at Sharpe. Right then. Make yer shots count were not in this fer hostages, he said. First chance you get, grab the girl and we jump straight back down here. If anyone follows, kill em, he whispered hoarsely. Jones and Mackenzie nodded. Sharpe turned back to the side of the cutting. He rammed his boot into the earth, then slung his rifle over his shoulder. He pushed himself up and grabbed at the top, scrabbling up lightning fast. He snatched up his rifle and aimed.
He squeezed the trigger and the resulting crack masked the sound of the two men scrabbling up after him. He saw the large man holding Veronica slump to the ground, the blanket tumbling to the grass. Sharpe was off running toward the girl.
The other four men shouted in alarm, merely ten feet away, but Mackenzie shot the first and ran into the other, battering him to the ground with the butt. Jones fired his musket, the sound like a thunderclap at such close range. A man fell. Jones didnt hesitate. He jumped to his feet and ran at the two pulling what looked like pistols. Mackenzie swept a trusty dirk into one of them. Jones had speared the second with his bayonet before the man could chose at whom to aim his pistol.
Sharpe grabbed at the blanket and yanked at it to open it out. Aw, shit! he cried in dismay. It was full of potatoes and assorted vegetables, wrapped in what seemed to be bolts of silk, probably all about to go to traders. He looked around at the dead men, then at Jones. The man you saw outside the tent is he here? he demanded. Jones looked around quickly.
No, sir! he said fearfully.
Major Sharpe! someone called. Sharpe snatched up his rifle and hoped the person calling him wouldnt realise it wasnt loaded. He looked around, then to the farmhouse, just another ten yards away. He looked in the doorway. Major Sharpe, if you wanted food, you could have just asked! the man called.
Who are you? Wheres Veronica? he shouted back, angry. Angry at being tricked, angry at having given away his position, angry at being caught in open ground with no weapons save blades.
Trust me, the young lady is fine, the man called back. Tell me, Major, did you really manage to reload that thing as you ran for the blanket?
Sharpe studied him, and found him acutely unremarkable. He looked to be of average height, average build, average everything. He had a slight accent, his hair dark under his peasants cap that, judging by his words, seemed as fake as the vegetable ruse. Probably a Frog spy, Sharpe realised. Bloody hell, Id give a lot fer a loaded rifle right now.
He let the rifle fall from his shoulder slowly, then realised more men were coming to the windows of the farmhouse. They looked out slowly, and Sharpe looked over at his two men.
Leave it, he said harshly, and they put their weapons up. Sharpe looked back over. What do you want? he asked.
I want you to come inside, Major. We have things to see to, the man said. Sharpe stood slowly, not looking at the others as he walked over, his calm footing masking his anger. He stopped in front of the farmhouse, looking at the man, wondering.
Who are you? he demanded. The man grinned, lifted his pistol, and fired.
The snapping sound made all three men jump. Sharpe felt a searing pain in his leg and staggered back one. He clapped a hand to his left thigh, looking down at it in surprise.
You bastard! he blurted, just looking back at the man in shock. The movement had been so quick, the event so unexpected. The man laughed out loud.
There, you see! The good Major does bleed, like anyone else! he called out. The men, whose faces seemed to number perhaps five or six, smiled and joked amongst themselves. Oh dear me, I cant remember when Ive had so much fun, the man continued, nodding and laughing still. Sharpe dropped his rifle on the ground and let go of the pistol-shot wound to his leg, stalking toward the man determinedly. He raised the pistol again automatically, realised it was empty, and let it drop. He waved at the men watching, and they levelled their muskets at Sharpe. Now, now, Major, he said quickly, unprepared. Youd hate for me to harm the little girl, now wouldnt you?
How do I even know youve got her? he demanded, stopping and putting his hands to his neck and untying the cravat quickly. He bent and tied it round his leg, hoping to staunch the flow of blood. He realised it was trickling down the back of his leg too, and thanked his stars for small mercies. At least the ball wasnt still in there.
Oh, I see. Youll want to see her, of course, the man said, and Sharpe had heard enough to identify him as French. The man walked over slowly, stopping next to Sharpe, watching him breathe in pain, and smiled. He crouched down by the side of Sharpe, put his free hand out, and lifted the cavalry trousers slightly, studying the boots. As I thought, he said to himself. He stood again, Sharpe staring at him with such venom he stood back one. Where did you get these magnificent boots, Major? he asked pointedly.
Get yer own, he snarled vindictively. The man looked over at the assembled men, walked over and took a fresh, loaded pistol. He walked back to Sharpe, then levelled it at him.
Where? he demanded.
Off a Frog bastard I had to fillet on account of his treachery, he snapped. The mans face flashed with anger but he controlled himself. Why? Dont you have a pair? Were you at the latrines when they gave em out in your camp? he sneered. The man bristled but kept his composure. Or just not good enough to make officer? he added, noticing the mans non-regulation haircut. The man stepped back slowly, controlling himself. Sharpe grinned at him maliciously.
If you want the girl, youd better come with me, he said. We want to strike a bargain, he added coldly. Sharpes eyes narrowed. Shit. Seeing as we dont have anything to bargain with, looks like its me.
He watched the man turn and walk back to the farmhouse. Sharpe limped toward his rifle, putting his hand out to pick it up. He heard a handful of flintlocks being cocked and froze. He thought about it, then just bent and picked it up anyway, hearing the man chuckle to himself.
Major, its useless, he said helpfully. Just leave it there, will you? he said.
Well if its useless, you wont mind me carrying it, Sharpe stated stubbornly, and turned and limped toward the door. Mackenzie rushed up, drawing the aim of the loaded muskets, but he simply put his arm under Sharpes elbow and took some of his weight. Jones picked up his musket and began unscrewing the bayonet as if he had all the time in the world.
You there! the man shouted. Everyone looked round at Jones. What on Earth do you think youre doing?
Im not leaving this, sir. Its taken from my pay if lost, you see, he said. If youll let Mister Sharpe carry his rifle, I dont see why I cant have a spent musket, sir, he said. Unless its a worry, is it? he asked calmly, pulling the bayonet free and sliding it into its place along the underside of the barrel, slinging the musket onto his shoulder. The man tutted.
Bloody Welsh, he grumbled.
Plentyn gordderch, Jones replied in a heartbeat. Mackenzie looked at him curiously but said nothing. The man walked over crossly.
What was that? he demanded. Jones looked at him pleasantly.
Youre too kind, sir, he said with a winning smile. Sharpe hid a smile, guessing right enough, and Mackenzie tucked his pistol in his belt. The man took a step backwards.
Well then. Lets go, he said suspiciously, waving his pistol at the three men. They turned and made their way into the farmhouse, hopeless, helpless, and weapon-less.
Marwick sighed and pulled his head back from the edge, taking his shako off and scratching his head. He smoothed his light brown hair back and pushed his shako back on, looking down at Emily.
Or rather, where Emily had been. Shit! he gasped. Oh no hes gonna murder me! he whimpered, looking round desperately. Oi! Emily! he called, then realised where he was and slapped his hands over his mouth. He thought for a second, then turned and picked up his musket, running for the cut in the valley, and the stream bed.
Take a seat, Major Sharpe, the man said, pushing his shoulder roughly. He stumbled to a chair, falling into it and staring back at the man. Does it hurt? he asked genially.
Go to Hell, he snapped, and the man laughed. After youve given me the girl.
Oh really, Major, the man said, looking round the room at the six men, in peasant clothes, watching with ready muskets. What do you have that I would trade for her?
What do you want? he asked. How am I supposed to bargain if you dont tell me who you are and what yer doing here? he pointed out. The man nodded.
Yes. I have been rather amiss, havent I? He walked to the centre of the room, looking at Jones and Mackenzie by the two men at the door. He looked them up and down, shaking his head at Mackenzies kilt and then looked back at Sharpe. They can have the girl, Sharpe. I never really wanted her anyway. And she does moan so, he added, aggrieved.
So why did you have her stablehand steal her in dead of night? Sharpe asked angrily. He turned on him.
Because I needed you, Major, he said. I had hoped to cut you off before you reached that tiresome village where the girls father is finding it rather rougher going than he thought, he said. But then I heard you were going nowhere. Apparently you were claiming to be on the sick register and had squirmed out of the fight. So like an Englishman, he tutted.
He dunt know everything, then. I hope. Well you know, I still get paid me Majors pay whether I fight or not, he pointed out quietly. The man turned and looked at him.
Quite so. It didnt go unnoticed that your Irish friends wife was in your tent for whole nights at a time, Major. Really, its quite disgraceful, even for an Englishman, and quite poorly disguised, too, he mused.
Always were lucky wi the ladies, were you not, sir? Mackenzie put in, hoping he sounded sour enough. The man looked at him, then back at Sharpe.
Yes, do tell. Is she worth all the trouble youll cause with her husband? Or is this an arrangement between soldiers? Do you share everything? he asked, interested.
Mind yer own bloody business, Sharpe snarled, riled at the inference. The man nodded, grinning.
I see. Fearful of the big man finding out, are we? he smiled slyly.
Think what you like, Sharpe snapped.
Oh I do, Major, but thank you for the kind thought, he said.
Come over here and Ill give you summat else fer free, Sharpe bit out, and the man grinned.
You know, I think I rather like you. Its a shame. Ah well. He turned and nodded to a man behind Mackenzie. He turned and disappeared out of the door. Your two men here will escort the little girl back to wherever it is you want to go. However, Major Sharpe, you will remain here. You owe the Emperors Imperial Guard one pair of boots.
Now look here, Mackenzie began, but the man turned on him.
Yes? Dont tell me youre going to sacrifice your life, and the life of this pathetic Welshman, for this murdering officer? he asked mildly. Mackenzie bit his tongue, then looked at Sharpe. They exchanged a glance.
Absolutely not, Mackenzie said with fire. Just gi me the girl, sir and Ill be on ma way. I owe him nothing, he said. The man studied him.
Really. Did he not get your gazette ratified? he asked quickly. Mackenzie snorted.
If thats what ye want to believe, he said scornfully. Ask Major Campbell about who got me ma gazette, he added. The man looked back at Sharpe.
Sorry, old boy, seems theyre deserting you like a sinking ship, he said. He turned to Jones. Are you willing to leave your commanding officer here? Would make your life simpler, as you so generously got him into this mess by letting my man into his tent, he said pleasantly.
Cer i grafu, sir, cer i grafu very much, he said. The man blinked.
Youre welcome, he sniffed, covering his confusion. Jones nodded, beaming. He looked at Sharpe.
No hard feelings, is it, sir? he said, grinning. Sharpe just looked at him.
Should have known not to trust a pair of foreigners, he grumbled. Jones just grinned. Mackenzie heard someone behind him and the two soldiers turned, seeing Veronica being carried toward them. She was beating at the chest of the men who had her, and then she started ranting.
She was still calling him all kinds of amazingly inventive yet stunningly innocent names as he stopped and lifted her off him, handing to her to Mackenzie. She stopped short, surprised.
Mister Mackenzie! she gasped, then grabbed him and hugged him for all she was worth.
Now then, miss, lets be going, he said warmly.
Wheres Emily? she demanded, then turned to see Sharpe sat on the wooden chair, his hand pressed to his leg, watching her. What have you done with my sister? she demanded loudly.
Oh give over, will you, he said wearily. Shes back at the camp. Just go, he said. She pushed at Mackenzie and he had to let her go. She dropped to the floor and ran over, raising her fists and beating at Sharpes chest. He lifted his hand and fended off the blows as best he could.
Where is she! Dont lie to me! These men told me what horrid things youve done! she shouted. He caught her wrists and held her still.
Mackenzie, will you please take her away now? he snapped. The tall Scotsman walked over and snatched her up, pulling her away from him easily. He looked up at him. Mac, he said suddenly. The Captain turned to look at him. Tell Emily Im sorry about not having them biscuits, he said quietly. Mackenzie nodded.
I will, sir, he said, then cleared his throat. Well sir, heres hoping ye understand, sir. After all, yir still a Sassenach, he shrugged. Sharpe could have smiled. He made himself scowl at him.
Go on, go, he said bitterly. Mackenzie nodded, hitching Veronica up higher and nodding to Jones.
How do we know yell no shoot us as we leave? Mackenzie asked the man. He shrugged.
You dont, he said, smiling. Go. Now, he added seriously. Veronica began protesting and shouting again. Mackenzie simply clamped his hand over her mouth and carried her out into the farmyard. Jones followed, walking backwards to watch the six muskets and one pistol. His hands tightened on his musket as he carefully followed Mackenzie away from the farmhouse door. The door was summarily slammed as Mackenzie and Jones leapt back into the ditch.
Jones flung his musket on the ground, long, complicated words tumbling from his mouth. Mackenzie wasnt sure what they were, but they sounded like decidedly juicy invectives, presumably in Welsh.
My thoughts exactly, he said, letting go of Veronica. She jumped to the ground, her feet landing in the stream, and made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat.
Ugh! Now look, Im all wet! she cried. Mackenzie turned on her.
You, young lady, are going to be quiet fer five minutes! he snapped. She stopped short, unused to the Scotsman talking to her in such a manner.
Whats going on? she asked, suddenly fearing the worst.
Major Sharpe came here to rescue you. Now hes trapped and we have to find a way to get him out again, before something bad happens, Jones said carefully.
He came to rescue me? But I thought he hated me, she said stunned.
He came to rescue you, Mackenzie said, steering clear of any other admissions. Now please, just be quiet, he said, more calmly.
Veronica gave a great gasp and pointed suddenly. Look! she cried.
Veronica, what did I-
Sir! Jones said quickly. Mackenzie looked up. He saw Emily running at full tilt toward the farmhouse, Marwick hot on her heels, one hand carrying his musket barrel-up, the other holding his shako on. The two men looked at each other, then scrambled up over the edge, running for them.
Now then, Major Sharpe, to business, the man said, smiling and walking over to him, pulling out a chair and sitting himself down gratefully. You dont know me you can call me Dubois. But I know all about you, he smiled.
Really, Sharpe said, his eyes narrowing. Dubois smiled.
Yes. We have quite a good book on you, he said conversationally. A certain Major Ducos has given us a great many facts about you. I must admit, I have kept my eye out for you since you acquired those boots from Colonel Leroux? Yes, I know, he said to himself sadly. However, one other fact interests me more than the others.
Wait, wait, wait, Sharpe said, you snatched the girl to bring me here? he asked clearly. It werent about the girl, but about me? he stressed.
Oh dear. Not particularly clever, is he? Dubois said to himself, then repeated it in French for the benefit of one of the other men. He grinned, and Dubois looked back at Sharpe. Yes, Major. Now listen. I dont believe for a second that those two men have honestly taken that girl from here with the intention of going straight back to camp. So listen to me, and lets move quickly, yes? he said pleasantly. Sharpe turned and looked around at the six men, noting positions and weapons. Now then, we know you have money, and we know where it came from. Im rather like you, Major, in that I dont steal except from my enemy. Which would be you, he smiled. Sharpe pursed his lips.
Its about money? he asked thoughtfully. He studied the Dubois face. Well then, if thats all it is, you may as well have it, he said.
What? Dubois laughed. Youre just going to hand it over? he said scornfully.
What choice do I have? Anyway, it dunt matter, he said dismissively. Dubois stopped laughing.
Why doesnt it matter? he asked cautiously.
Cos you wont live long enough to spend it, any of you, Sharpe said pleasantly. The Frenchman laughed again.
Oh, you really are an amusement, Major Sharpe, he said. Sharpe grinned and nodded.
Oh yeah, laugh a minute, me, he said cheerfully. However, me two partners are not, he added, his face dropping.
As if I care about them, he scoffed. Sharpe shrugged it off.
Fair enough. Just make sure they never find out who it were that stiffed em, thats all, he sniffed. Dubois grinned.
Oh come now, Major, you expect me to believe I should be looking out for your accomplices? he asked. Theyre gone, along with your little charge.
Them two? Christ no, Sharpe said, surprised. The girl? The one in me tent? he prompted. The man watched him. She int as stupid as you look, pal. Can you imagine how many partisans and hiding places shed know, all over this country? he asked. And her husband. You know the one, the tall, built-like-a-brick-privvy Irishman. Yeah, he added meaningfully, as Dubois started to look worried. He wouldnt mind so much if I were gone, like, seeing as itd give him a larger share an all. But if he were cut out altogether well, a right unhappy bastard hed be, he said happily. Still, youre the spy, youd get round it, like as not, he shrugged amiably.
Dubois looked past him and spouted a great deluge of French at another man, one holding a musket. The man crossed the room to him, and they jabbered at each other angrily for a moment. Sharpe spied the mans all-too-clean hands on the musket and didnt hesitate.
He leapt up and grabbed the weapon. He used his momentum to slam the butt into Dubois stomach. He threw his elbow into his face. Dubois fell backwards. A musket fired and the man still struggling with Sharpe fell. Another musket fired, and another. Sharpe threw himself to the floor. Another musket fired and he tried to count. Four? That leaves mine and one more.
He rolled to the side of the room. Something grabbed his ankle and twisted desperately. He shifted and bobbed up and down. The loud blam of a musket sounded and he grinned. He jumped up properly, aimed and fired at the two men still standing.
One man fell. Sharpe ripped his boot free and advanced on the other man. Without breaking stride he swept the musket up and across his face. He fell, shouting. Sharpe dropped the musket, three men closing on him. He snatched up a wooden chair. One man lunged for him. He crashed it over the mans head, sending him to the floor. The other two jumped him together.
All three men went down in a tangle of arms and legs. Sharpe found someones hands round his neck. He grabbed on the mans shirt and yanked him toward him. He forced his head up at the same time. His head connected viciously with the mans eye socket and his grip suddenly weakened. He threw him off, kicking out at him. He rolled onto the last man, getting on top and jamming his elbow into his gut. The man wheezed and Sharpe leaned back. He slammed his fist into his head as hard as he could. He went limp as of impact.
Sharpe rolled off him and spied his rifle on the floor. He snatched it up then turned to find the door blocked by Dubois, holding a pistol. Dubois smiled.
Well, well, well, Major Sharpe, he said, his lip dripping generous amounts of blood. A rather impressive achievement, I commend you, he went on. Sharpe stared at him, feeling his ribs throb and his thigh burn. It seems I rather underestimated you.
Dont send clerks to do a soldiers job, he breathed, trying to catch his breath. Dubois nodded. I see. Well, seems it was all for nought though, doesnt it? he asked. Sharpe swallowed, thinking desperately. I could just torture you by shooting you in the other leg. Or I could shoot you in the stomach. Would take you hours to die like that. And Id just sit here, watching you, promising you to finish you off quickly if you told me where to get my hands on the money you stole from us French, he grinned. Sharpe appeared to think about it.
Ive one question, Sharpe said suddenly. Dubois waved his hand for him to continue. If you shot that ball, what other weapons would you have?
Why, Major Sharpe, probably-
Something large and brown suddenly collided with the back of Dubois head. He cried out in shock. His pistol fired. He tumbled to the floor.
Bloody Hellfire! Mackenzie shouted through the open door, dropping his musket. He looked at Sharpe.
The Major was stood staring back at the Scotsman, his face a picture of shock. He wobbled and fell backwards, hitting the wooden floor with an almighty crack that sent his rifle bouncing from his hand.
Richard! Emily shouted, squeezing past Mackenzies legs and falling to her knees next to him. Richard! she sobbed, looking at his quiet, calm face. His eyes were closed, the blood seeping thickly from the wound to his head. She wailed and threw herself over his chest, spreading her arms over him. He flinched and muttered something.
She sprang off him as the three men and her sister walked over quickly. She wiped at her eyes and nose, putting her hands to his chest and pushing slightly. Richard? she asked, rocking his chest desperately.
I should have got you them biscuits, he breathed, opening his eyes slowly.
I should have made you tea, she sobbed. He lifted a hand and she grabbed it fearfully, sobbing for England.
Now Look here, lass, he said quietly, and she tried to stop herself from sobbing. Cryings not going to help you, or me, eh, he managed. She gulped a few times and squeezed his hand. Get Mister Mackenzie, he said, his voice a near whisper. She turned and looked up at the Scotsman. He walked around the prone Major and knelt next to his head, inspecting the wound. He looked worried.
Nasty gash, sir, he said, sniffing to himself. But yell be fine wi rest, I daresay, he added, looking at Emily.
Hes not dying? she asked timidly.
Not yet, Sharpe breathed, and she began to cry again, falling on his chest. Look love
Emily! Get up at once! Veronica called out. You wait till I tell Daddy what youve been up to with this rude man! Hes been horrid to me since
You! Emily shouted suddenly, turning to look at Veronica. She stood slowly, pointing at her. This is all your fault! Richard was hurt and you were mean to him! Daddy asked him to look after us, and you made trouble! Ive had it with you and your tantrums, Ronnie! All you do is sulk and scream to get your way! Its not fair! she shouted angrily, stamping her foot. Veronica looked shocked.
I wish Richard wasnt so hurt right now, or Id tell him to get up and tan - your - arse! she spat. Jones raised his eyes to the ceiling, biting his lip to stop from smiling. And when weve found the man who did this to Richard and given the bugger a good hiding, Im going to tell Daddy all about you and your tantrums! she shouted.
She heard a wheezing sound and tore her gaze from Veronicas shocked face to look back at Sharpe. Richard! she gasped, kneeling down. Are you alright? Can you talk? she said quickly.
Not fer laughing, no, he admitted, chuckling. She breathed out a sigh of relief. You know summat, Emily? he asked, putting his hand up. She took it firmly, looking into his bright green eyes, waiting on his words. Yer alright, you are.
Alright, come on, Mackenzie said loudly, getting to his feet. We need to get back to camp, and make sure everyones in a fit state to explain to Colonels Bane and Lawford what weve been up to, he said soberly. Jones and Marwick nodded, and Mackenzie turned Veronica round, pushing her toward the door and the two privates. Then he turned, and as he couldnt prize Emily from Sharpes elbow, enlisted her help to get him on his feet instead.
Oh, there you are, sir, Harper said, ducking into the tent and stopping short. Jesus, Mary and Joseph sir, but what happened to you? he gasped.
Sharpe was in his white pyjamas and a clean shirt, new bandages round his ribs showing up very nicely underneath. He had a square of cotton bandaged to his head above his right eye, making his very clean-looking hair spike out the top not unlike the leaves on a pineapple. He looked freshly-shaved and quite pale without the usual smudges of powder smoke on his face. He was sat on the bed, one leg dangling over the side, playing cards with a small, blond girl. She was giggling and wagging a finger at him.
The two of them looked up and over at the Irishman.
Oh, er, Pat, he said, clearing his throat and straightening a little. We were just er playing, he said feebly. Harper took his shako off and walked over, looking at the little girl.
Oh, so I see, sir, he said, sitting on the stool next to the bed and watching the girl grab all the cards toward her.
I win Richard! she crowed, giggling. Sharpe looked at Harper, the Majors face a study in how not to turn red with embarrassment.
So this is what you were doing while we were off getting shot at, sir, Harper tutted. What happened to your head, sir? he asked curiously. Sharpe opened his mouth, then shook his head.
I got into a fight, he said simply. Harpers mouth twitched into an amused o shape. Emily leapt up and giggled, throwing herself at him and landing in his lap. She squirmed and turned round, leaning back on him. She pulled his arms round her and shifted her feet to a more comfortable position. She leaned her head back and looked up at him.
Tell him, Richard! she squealed in delight. Tell him about the man on the horse, and Mister Mackenzie smacking the buggers head in with a muss-cake bottom, and you getting shot in the head, and
Emily, Sharpe said warningly, ignoring Harpers look of malicious fun admirably. Do us a favour, lass, get us some tea, eh? he asked warmly. She bounced up and slid off the cot slowly.
Alright, but you owe me three biscuits, she said, wagging a finger at him and then walking out of the tent slowly. Harper turned and just looked at Sharpe.
So, ah had an eventful few days, so you did, Harper said innocently.
Well, you know me, Pat. Hate to waste me time in bed, he said, sliding off the bed and walking to the table, putting the cards on it safely. He put a hand to his ribs and then walked back to the bed, sitting back down. Gave them Frogs a good beating, did you?
Oh, that we did, sir, he said. Colonel Banes not a bad man, really. Little too eager to get us all into the killing field, so he is, but hes not afraid to be there himself, he added. Nice daughters too, so I hear, he said lightly. Sharpe looked at him. Ramona, sir. She says the wee ones planning to marry you when shes old enough, he grinned. Sharpe rolled his eyes.
She int a bad lass, Ill give her that, but do me a favour, Pat, he said, find some nice six year old lad fer her to fall in love with. He paused. How olds your one?
Dont even think about it, Harper began.
But shes a rich family, Pat, got a lot of
Marry an English girl? Into an English family? God save Ireland! If you
Here we are, said a cheerful voice, and Emily reappeared with three cups of steaming tea on a tray. She carried it over carefully, stopping in front of the two men. Well? Take one, Richard, she said, and he put his hand out for one. The tray slipped a little and some tea spilled.
Oh, bugger! she hissed. Harper looked at Sharpe, surprised. Sharpe just shrugged helplessly, his face a crash-course in how to appear sheepish. He took a cup carefully, and she pushed the tray toward Harper. Pat? she prompted. He grinned and took one gratefully.
Well, thank you ever so much, miss, he said humbly, and she smiled at him. The tent flaps swished suddenly and Mackenzie ducked into the tent. Emily turned to see who it was and frowned.
Oh, Mac, she said, looking surprised. I didnt get you a cup of tea. Ill be in more trouble now, she said, and they watched her hand the third cup to him and hurry out of the tent, presumably to get more tea.
More trouble? Sharper prompted. Mackenzie walked over, nodding to Harper with a cheery smile.
Well ye see sir, her father doesnae approve of her new words, he said with a grin.
What, muss-cakes? Sharpe quipped. No, sir. I overhead him ask the wee miss where shed picked up her more colourful descriptions of people, he grinned.
And what did she say? Sharpe asked with trepidation.
Ah, said the Scotsman, raising his cup of tea. The three men waved the tea at each other before sipping it. She said: those are Sharpes words.
None of this really happened. I made it all up.
No spirited little blond girls were harmed during the writing of this fan-fic. However, Emily grew up with a much wider vocabulary than that of her sister, or so I'm told.
~ The Mardy Bum,
1st October, 2006.
Hong Kong S.A.R.