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Regiment Of Ghosts

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 There's only two kinds of officer in His Majesty's army: the murdering kind and the killing kind.

Pat can see in the new Captain’s face that he wants to disagree, but it’s the plain truth. The way he sees it, it’s a sergeant’s job to look after his men, and a captain’s duty to offer them up to the rifles and bayonets, and this Sharpe has the soldiering look of one who learned young not to care too hard or too deeply.

Pat’s got a regiment of ghosts marching at his back. You’d think that’d be enough to stop him caring, but somehow it never is.

 Mistress Teresa is bold and brave and beautiful like the sun. When she rides into camp, her cloak flies out around her like the colours do in the dusty Portuguese wind. She's not like anyone Pat's met before but, then, neither is Captain Sharpe.

 She dies in a dirty village square in Spain, coughing on blood with a bullet through her chest.. They bury her on a hill outside the village. Pat doesn’t like graves. It seems wrong for something so small and dull to replace the solid brightness of the living.

 Afterwards they fight, and that's something.

 But at night the Captain stares into the fire, and it's plain to see that things aren't right. Sure, it's a hard thing to watch those you love die. It changes something in the world that seemed unalterable. You see their faces still, behind your eyes, and then one day you start to forget and that's worse.

 But they need Captain Sharpe, so they do. He's a decent officer, and he's still alive.

 They sit by the fire drinking rotgut and watching the flames dance, the way Captain Sharpe has every night since. Never enough to get rat-arsed, though Pat thinks it might do him some good. But then, it's too easy to get killed out here if you're drunk. Pat can't remember the last time he got properly floored, and that's a crying shame for an Irishman so it is.

 “Sure it's a lovely night, sir.” He looks up at the stars. “Not a cloud to speak of. Miss Teresa would've liked it, would she not?” He says it mildly, as if he can't feel the grief hanging in the air like smoke.

 Sharpe stares at the coals. “Aye” he says, after a pause. “She always did used to say that a clear sky was best for a night attack.” He coughs.

 “Your little Miss Antonia was looking well when we passed yesterday.” Pat remembers the day Teresa told the Captain about her and he went around for a fortnight looking half the time terrified and half like he'd hung another sun in the sky.

 “Yeah. Christ, Pat.” He rubs a hand over his face. “They've said- well. Her family think it best that I not see her. Teresa's uncle. Thinks I'm – well. I gave her some money, anyway” He wipes his face again, as if it's doing any good. “It's - well. They say it'll be- they'll take care of her. It's just-.”

 He doesn't say what it just is, only stares into the coals like they'll burn that look out of his eyes.

 “God save Ireland.” Pat puts an arm around him, lets him lean half-drunk and heartsick into his shoulder, and if his jacket gets damp, well, it's a dark night.

 Pat sits with him, same as he did with Perkins after his first bad battle, and Hagman after he saw what they did to that little French drummer lad in Flanders.

 Like he can keep their ghosts at bay just by being alive.

* * *

Perkins was fourteen when he joined the Chosen Men, but Pat remembers him from long before that, a skinny army brat barely as big as his rifle. He ought to have been left behind somewhere, God knows what happened to his parents, but somehow he never was. He remembers Dan Hagman teaching the lad to shoot, his brown hand steady on the gun over the smaller one, gentle the way he always is with small wild creatures.

Perkins dies a few weeks short of eighteen, crying and shouting in Pat's arms. Dan stands beside him, his voice catching as he sings.

If Perkins ever had a Christian name, the Army lost it long ago. They bury him beside his first and only girl and his body is so light in Pat's arms.

 The creases in Dan's weathered face are deeper after that, though his steady voice carries a tune as well as ever.

  It's a sergeant's job to look after his men, and Pat's doing the best he can. He's seen so much death, he'd almost forgotten the power it holds. Like a punch to the guts, over and over.

He keeps expecting to see Perkins, and his unexpected absence joins the ranks of the dead that march behind him.

 One day soon, he realizes with a chill, looking at the numb, familiar faces around him, his dead are going to outnumber the living.

 * * *

 That same feeling creeps up on him again, icy fingers clutching inside his chest, when they venture down into the Dying Room to look for Major Sharpe.

 Father Curtis said it was Hell on Earth, and he's not far wrong either. Pat's been in worse places, but still. Finding Richard just breathing there don't make him feel much better. It occurs to him as they carry the Major upstairs that Richard Sharpe's a heathen Englishman, and if he dies-

 He shoves the thought away, gripping Sharpe's cold, clammy hand. Richard Sharpe's not going to die. Pat won't let him.

 It should be him in the sickroom, looking after his officer. That's a sergeant's job. But Father Curtis has decreed otherwise, and Pat's surely not going to gainsay a priest.

 Instead he beats metal on metal, willing life into Richard Sharpe with every blow of the hammer. Please, he prays. I'll say a Hail Mary every day.  I'll marry Ramona, so I will. Whatever it takes..

 He prays all the while he hammers the sword, as if he can pound away the fever.

 Later on, as they pour buckets of icy water over Richard's scarred, shaking body, he forgets how to pray.

 Kill or cure, Father Curtis says.

 “Sure, the French have been trying to kill you for years” he whispers as he wraps wool blankets over the shivering body. “You're not going to let a little bit of cold water do the job for them are you?”

 A week later, and victory warms him as he holds out the sword.

 “I found it, sir” he insists, staring straight ahead and not smiling at all. “Lying around.”

 “You're a damn liar, Pat.” says Richard, grinning, and straps it on. It does Pat good to see it, so it does. If any sword can beat that bastard Frenchman it's that one.

 Leroux dies on the sword and Pat marries Ramona.

 After all, he tells himself. If the ghost of Annie Brady still follows him, sure, she's not the only one.

 * * *

Pat Harper would follow Richard Sharpe into hell and back but, for all that, he bloody hates England.

 Joining the army again anywhere would be bad enough, but here- God save Ireland! All these lads signing on to be bullied and sold and murdered. They might as well be dead all ready. But it's a sergeant's job to look after his men, and somehow he can't break the habit, even though technically he's not a sergeant any more.

 God knows, he loves his country but he can't help feeling that it's going to get him killed one of these fine days. The sergeant and the corporal watch him all the time and he can feel the hatred tightening around him like a noose, the scars prickling all the way down his back.

 The only thing keeping him here is the steady warmth of Richard at his side, straight-backed in the ranks. Just another shitty job.

 Until Richard is gone and he’s standing there with a gag tearing into his face and his hands tied, cold disbelief burning through him. They're going to run him down, the murdering bastards, run him down like an animal and shoot him for the sport. 

Christ, at least in France they'd kill him like a man.  This is worse than the gallows.

Then he's running and, thank God, there's Richard with the pony and a rifle, a blessed rifle, and he can breathe again.

He's wet and cold to the bone, fighting for his life. But that's all familiar and at least he's not doing it alone.

 Not yet. He glances over at Richard.

 There’s a regiment of ghosts marching between them, and Richard grins at him through a face streaked with mud, fierce and alive, gunfire mixing with the lonely cry of the corncrake over the marshes.