It was an odd predicament. A very odd predicament to be in, and somewhat awkward; very awkward indeed. He gazed up at the wide green eyes staring directly into his own and swallowed.
“Get off me.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
Sharpe heaved himself up from where he was lying on top of the General and stood, blushing at the somewhat bemused and astonished looks on the faces of the other generals and officers of Wellington's staff. Wellington sat up, blinking to counter the sudden giddiness from when his head had struck the ground. Sharpe hesitantly stuck out his hand, which the General grasped and he was hauled back to his feet, and paused to dust himself down briefly before turning to gaze on the body of the late Captain Stuart, who had been unfortunate enough to be standing behind Wellington when Sharpe had knocked him down out of the path of the bullet. Stuart lay with his eyes closed, almost peaceful as if he might only have been sleeping were it not for the great gash in his throat. Bright red blood pulsed through his snow-white cravat and splashed upon his smooth, pale jaw.
“A shame,” the General said quietly. There was an odd silence about the group; a tension, and he was the only one who dared speak. “He was a fine officer. Looked to have a promising career ahead of him.”
He then turned on the would-be assassin, apprehended by two of Sharpe’s riflemen, one of which the big Irish sergeant that always seemed to follow the captain around. The man they held was a Spaniard; medium height, with dark hair and darker eyes, a proud, haughty face wearing torn, dirty clothes which looked as if they once had been fine. Wellington’s expression became murderous.
“How much?” he asked coldly. “How much did they offer you?”
The Spaniard was slightly taken aback by the question, his mask of impenetrable pride slipping momentarily before he pulled himself together again to answer.
“It was not for money,” he said in heavily accented English. “I am no cheap thug to be hired, I did it for –”
“How much?” Wellington growled, ignoring the Spaniard’s protests, a steely glint in his eyes. He was in no mood for humouring injured pride, and the man seemed to sense it. He hesitated, clearly fighting to keep up his defiant glare, before conceding.
“Twenty thousand francs.”
“Does Bonaparte attach so low a price to my name?” he asked bitterly, his words thick with disdain. “Had it been fifty thousand I may not have begrudged you for trying. Now I am merely insulted.” He threw another glance down to the deceased captain, his anger flaring anew, though he allowed no outward indication of the fact. “Sergeant, take that man away.”
“Wait!” The Spaniard struggled against his captors, all pretence of hauteur gone. “You did not ask my name, nor my reasons!”
“I did not ask and I do not care,” Wellington said quietly, his gaze lingering on the fast-cooling Stuart. “Get him out of my sight.”
As the protesting Spaniard was hauled away the remaining officers and aides-de-camp regarded their General warily. Though his face was unreadable, the fury that smouldered in those icy-blue eyes was all too clear as he continued to stare at the man who had taken the bullet meant for him.
“Sir?” The rifleman took a hesitant step towards the General. Wellington lifted his gaze and Sharpe saw the outrage; but he also saw something else, something that he could not quite name. He had seen it before at Assaye, when the bayonets, pikes and tulwars had glinted bright under the Indian sun, eagerly competing to be the one to cut short the life of the then Sir Arthur Wellesley. But he had stopped them; he, Richard Sharpe, had stood between them and his dazed commander and screamed defiance at them, repulsed every attack, given no thought for his own skin as he had thought only for Wellesley's. Then it was over, and the General had looked at him; looked at him almost exactly as he was looking at him now.
“It seems that you have once more saved my life, Sharpe,” Wellington said flatly. His expression had not changed and was still blank, save that within those eyes.
Sharpe shrugged, somewhat embarrassed by the situation. He was aware of every officer's gaze fixed upon him, though he made sure not to look away from the General.
“Just doing my duty, sir,” he mumbled.
Duty. Almost exactly what he had said the last time. Wellington remembered the day well – how could it be otherwise? Though he had been half conscious at the time the roar of battle, the clouded images of a bayonet glinting above him, of Sharpe fighting like a demon, spitting and swearing at the circling enemy were forever seared into his memory.
“You seem to be making quite a habit of it.”
“Yes, sir,” Sharpe said, wishing the ground would open up and swallow him. it had been bad enough last time. He was unable to break eye contact, and he could not think of anything else to say. “Sorry, sir.”
Wellington’s eyebrows arched mockingly.
“Sorry?” he said severely. Damn the man! Why did he choose now to be contrite? “I should hope not. This is one habit I hope you shall not decide to rid yourself of!”
That day one man had stood between him and death, and now it had happened again – only in far less dramatic circumstances. And again, like last time, Wellington was not sure how he felt about it; but somehow Sharpe’s modesty made it a damn sight worse. Only one thing was certain; he was once more in debt, hopelessly in debt and he was not sure if this time he could ever pay it back. At a loss for anything else to do, he held out his hand to the rifleman.
“My thanks to you, Mister Sharpe.”
The same words as last time. They did not have the same meaning, could not have the same meaning - the confirmation that he had risen from the ranks and become an officer, that he was no longer part of the common herd - but to Sharpe they seemed no more hollow, perhaps carried far more meaning. He took the General’s hand.
“Thank you, sir.”
An amused glimmer showed briefly in those blue depths, and Wellington leaned in closer to Sharpe, lowering his voice so that only the rifleman could hear.
“Let us pray I shall not be requiring your services a third time.”