June 3 - 6, 1815.
He floated in a sea of darkness and fire. Shapes came and went before him. There were alligators with crests of red hair and pale blue eyes. There was swamp water that burned. Sometimes, he looked down at himself and saw that his body was burning too, but it didn't bother him. There was a night sky in which the sun blazed. There were cypress trees with clutching hands for branches. There was Lucille with a long rifle aiming and shooting at him. There was the British camp manned by an army of walking corpses. Friends, enemies, strange things he could not identify. Sometimes, he saw a man's face, darkly handsome, mustached. More often, he saw a woman's face, light brown with long black curls.
The last image came to predominate more and more in his visions. He would see her leaning over him and propping him up, pouring something foul down his throat, or pressing a cold wet cloth to his face. But one of his visions was truly outlandish. He saw her kneeling before a strange altar, before images that looked like they came out of a cathedral in Spain, alongside grotesque idols that looked like something straight from Hell. Candles of all shapes and colors and sizes burned all around her and the altar, some carved in strange shapes like the idols. She was in the middle of a circle drawn on the floor in chalk, inscribed with strange symbols. Just outside of the circle, a small fire burned red and green in a brazier. Occasionally, she would drop something onto it that would cause it to flare up and change color. There was an exotic scent like incense. From somewhere close by, came the rhythmic beating of drums. The woman was clad in some flowing, white, semi-transparent stuff, and entwined around her was a great white snake that coiled around her neck and arms, and periodically, she would lift it over her head. She was chanting in some uncouth tongue, using names like Ogun, Mawu Lisa, Sango, Baron Samedi, Ogou Balanjo, Ayza, and most of all, Damballah.
He watched, mesmerized, as she lifted the snake off of her neck and placed it on the floor before her, coiled in a semi-circle. From a cage, she withdrew a live black rooster that she held by its feet, its wings flapping frantically. She seized it by the head, and with a quick motion, wrung its neck. Taking a long knife, she sliced its head off and sprinkled the blood on the floor in the circle made by the white snake's body. She continued to chant, and Sharpe heard the words distinctly.
"Bosi Damballah Go! An-nayite Kongo!
An-nayite, konvi-anba! An-nayite Kongo, Omi-anba!
Bosi-Damballah Go! Bolo An-nayite Koun-M'Bele!
Bosi-Damballah Go! An-nayite Kongo!
An-nayite, kriol knovi-anba! Si Damballah Go!
Omi Damballah Go, Anayite Go, Omi anba!"
The woman's movements became more and more frenzied in keeping with the increased tempo of the drums. She began the chant over again, but this time in a deeper voice, a man's voice.
He lapsed back into the hot darkness and the dull thunder of the drums faded into blackness.
Sharpe woke with a slight trace of the drums echoing in his mind. Then he realized it was the rain on the roof. What a dream he'd had! The memories began to come back, and he opened his eyes and looked around.
Never in his life had he seen a more outlandish room. From the corners where the ceilings and the walls met, preserved alligator heads gaped at him. Hanging over his head was an object that looked like a feathered net. The walls were covered with hangings painted with bizarre dancing figures, most of them humanoid, but grotesque, with skeletal bodies, horned heads, and distended demonic features with bulging eyes and gaping mouths. In one corner was a basket cage with several clucking chickens in it, some black, some white. In another corner was a pair of tall, slender wooden drums. Standing next to them was a long, gnarled wooden staff with strange carvings on it. In the far wall was an open door through which he could see the swamp. It appeared to be evening. Next to it was a simple cook stove, and several pots and pans hung from the wall. In spite of its outlandish furnishings, the single-roomed dwelling was scrupulously clean.
Sharpe's attention was drawn to the odd shrine that took up most of one side of the room. The wooden alter had a half dozen images on it, three of the images looked like they could have been Catholic saints, but Negroid. The others had the same strange demonic aspect of the wall hangings. The remains of the chalk circle could be seen on the floor (so it wasn't all a dream), along with some strange chalk drawings, a red heart with two crossed swords over it, flanked by two blazing suns with human faces.
The far wall was shelved to the ceiling, with rows and rows of jars, some containing powders of all colors, some seemingly containing herbs or weeds, some containing oil of some sort. Sharpe could see things floating in the oil, he recognized a rose in one, a scorpion in another. The jars were labeled, but he couldn't read them from his bed.
On an adjoining wall were candles, in every shape, color and size. Some were like skulls, some like male shapes, others like female shapes, and others like demon heads, others like nothing he could recognize.
Next to the candles, arranged in neat rows, were small cloth dolls, at least fifty of them, each about six inches long. All were human shaped, some skeletons, some obviously female, some clearly male, red, black, white, brown, and yellow.
He tried to get up and take a closer look, and then fell back with a gasp. Why was he so weak?
And for that matter, what was he doing here in the first place? And where was here?
He took a closer look at himself. He was naked under the blankets, and both his forearms were heavily bandaged. He also had bandages over his ribs on the left side, under the arm. He hurt, but it was endurable. The memories began to flood back. The village. The massacre. Red Gator. The swamp. The alligators.
He tried to get up again, and fell back. He noticed how hot and feverish he was. What was wrong with him? And then all other thoughts became irrelevant.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!"
A snake had just crawled up onto the foot of the bed, and now pulled its length over the blankets to coil on his belly. It was a cottonmouth, and deadly poison. It was the biggest one he had ever seen, nearly twelve feet long and as thick as his wrist. And it was as white as snow. It raised its head and looked down at him. He could almost see curiosity in its beady black eyes. He didn't move, didn't breathe. It flicked its tongue at him and lowered its head . . .
"Zombi! Leave him alone!"
Abashed, the snake slid off the bed and out of his sight. Sharpe breathed a sigh of relief and looked towards the speaker. He caught his breath again.
It was the woman of his dream. She was, to say the least, striking.
She was tall, almost as tall as Sharpe. Her skin was the color of tea with milk, her form shapely and yet muscular. She was quite young, in her early twenties, Sharpe would have guessed. She wore the same flowing white gown he remembered, but now the long skirts were tied up around her thighs to free her legs. She wore no shoes. Her hair was jet black, long and curling, flowing down her back, held out of her eyes by a white cloth around her brow. Her features were fine, with slightly flared nostrils and a full mouth hinting at mixed blood. Her eyes were dark and magnetic, Sharpe found it difficult to break contact with them. Her voice was lilting, musical, with an accent similar to those he had heard in Jamaica.
"I wouldn't try to get out of bed yet. The fever hasn't quite broken."
Sharpe was barely able to croak a reply.
"Swamp fever. I think you must have swallowed about half of it last night before I found you. By the way, the next time you want to go hunting alligators, there are easier ways to kill them then sticking your arm down their throats."
"How did I get here? And where is here?"
"I heard all the commotion and paddled out to see what was going on. I found you and a dead gator. You looked like you needed help, so I brought you here. Both of you. As to where here is, it is my swamp house."
Sharpe took another look through the door, he could see the scaly tail of an alligator with a rope around it. He wondered how she had managed to get it up on the porch.
"Who are you?'
"My name is Marie Laveau. And you are . . .?
"Sharpe. Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles."
"Well, Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles, you need to lie back down and rest. I'll get another dose of your medicine."
She turned to the stove, where a small pot of some foul concoction was simmering. Sharpe recognized the smell from his previous doses.
"What is that stuff?"
"Doctor Yah-Yah's cure-all. He was a famous Voodoo Hougan."
She brought the pot over with a spoon. Sharpe's nose wrinkled at the pungent odor.
"What's in it?"
"Jimpson weed, sulfur, and honey, stewed in a pot and then rubbed against a black cat with one white paw."
Sharpe looked around.
"Do you have a cat?"
"I have its paw."
She held the spoon up to Sharpe's mouth. It tasted as bad as it smelled, but he choked it down. She grinned.
"Whatever is wrong with you, it will cure you or kill you. Doctor Yah-Yah was lynched after too many of his patients died."
"And he was a Voodoo priest?"
"A Hougan, a male priest of Rada, the Way of Light. They are always weaker and less skilled than the Mambos, the female priests of the Way of Light."
"I've heard of Voodoo when I was in Jamaica. It's a sort of devil-worship isn't it, human sacrifice, cannibalism, curses, that sort of thing?"
Her voice hardened.
"I am Le Grande Mambo of Voodoo in New Orleans. Do not speak like a fool of that which you do not understand."
Sharpe was chastened.
"I'm sorry. You helped me, and I'm grateful."
Her voice grew soothing.
"We will talk more tomorrow. For now you rest."
Sharpe suddenly remembered something, and a note of urgency came into his voice.
"What is today?"
"Wednesday, the 4th."
"Can you get a message to General Jackson's camp? It's very important."
She brought him a sheet of paper and a pencil. He wrote a quick note.
The Brothers of the Swamp are behind the killings. They are
planning a massacre in New Orleans this Saturday, the 7th.
They will be dressed as British soldiers.
Lieutenant Colonel Morris of the South Essex is a traitor working
with Red Gator to blame the British army for the killings. He is
profiting from sales of the plunder. There must be a sales agent.
He will have the proof I need.
Writing this note had drained the last of Sharpe's strength. He lay back exhausted, as Marie Levau took the paper and pencil from him.
"That must get to Commodore Killick of the American Navy, by tomorrow."
"Enough! Now you rest. I will see to this."
Sharpe had already lapsed into a feverish half-consciousness. Some hours later he had dim impressions of a man in the room, and heard a muttered conversation in French. Then he slept again.
When he woke, it was evening of the next day, and the swamp through the open door was the soft gray of twilight. His fever had broken, and he felt much stronger. From the stove, something savory was cooking, and his appetite was aroused. He sat up.
Marie Laveau saw him and walked over.
"Do you feel like getting up?"
Sharpe nodded, and she went outside and came back with his shoes, overalls, shirt and tunic. They were clean and dry.
"I almost threw them out. They smelled of blood, but I finally washed it out."
"I'm glad you didn't toss them. We've been through a lot together."
Sharpe looked around the floor nervously. There was no sign of the snake. The woman was amused.
"Don't worry. Zombi's out hunting."
She went outside while he dressed. Then he walked towards the open door. As he passed by the rows of jars, he looked at some of the labels. They read things like "Banishing," "Court," "Dream," "Go Away Evil," "Healing Light," "Health," "Love," "Luck," "Money," "Passions," "Phantoms," "Protection," "Spiritual, "Success," and "Voodoo."
He joined her sitting on the porch at the water's edge. There was no sign of the alligator carcass beyond some dark stains on the wood. She answered his unspoken question.
"I dressed the meat, I'll tan the hide later. Your loa must be amazingly strong, to kill one of the lords of the swamp with only a knife."
"Your spirit self. All living things have a loa, and each one is different. It is always awake and active, even when you sleep. Your dreams are the journeys of your loa while you sleep. The loas control nature and human events, the health, wealth, and happiness of mortals They carry messages from mortals to the gods."
Sharpe looked at her curiously.
"Who are you, Marie Laveau, and why do you live out here all alone?"
"I don't. I have a fine house in the city where I live most of the year. I keep this place for times when I have business in the swamp."
"As I said before, I am La Grande Mambo, the Great High Priestess of all Voodoo in New Orleans and the bayous hereabout. I was born to it. My mother was a slave in Haiti, my father her master, a molasses plantation owner. I was born the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, on a night when the Serpent Star was ascendant. My master recognized that Great Damballah's favor was upon me, and saw that I was educated."
"I arrived here from Haiti when I was seventeen, six years ago, after the Great Slave Revolt was put down. I came under the tutelage of Doctor John, the greatest of the Voodoo Hougans in New Orleans. He taught me all he knew, but I soon surpassed him and he gave up the High Priesthood to me. He taught me of the gods of Voodoo, Olorun the Unknowable, Obatala and Oduduwa, the Creators, Baron Samedi, the Guardian of the Grave, Sango, the Lord of the Storms, Osun, the Healer, Ayza, the Protector, and Damballah, the Great Serpent, my patron. Doctor John taught me the healing arts, what herbs and powders will break fever, stop bleeding, or fight poison. I learned how to make charms to bring good luck or bad, to cast spells of love, money, power, health, protection, or destruction. I learned of the using of candles and of dolls. He taught me of the days that are holy to the gods, how to honor them on those days, and how to make sacrifices to the gods, to seek their counsel and favor or to bestow it on another."
"Since then, I have used my powers to help people, to heal them, to find the truth, to bring them what they wish, love, money, power. I am the slaves' protector, those who would abuse them must reckon with me, and the harm I can do if I choose, and act with restraint. I charge for my services whatever people can pay, it is enough to live on comfortably. I also have assisted the surgeons in Jackson's army"
"You said that you keep this hut for when you have business in the swamp. What business?"
"I watch. Nothing happens here that I do not know of. My ears are on every plantation, in every village, in every corner of the city. They are even in the British camp."
Sharpe's surprise must have shown on his face.
"Yes, I act as a spy for Jean Lafitte. Whatever happens that affects his business, either in your army or Jackson's, he learns of. In return, he offers me protection from those ignorant ones who fear my power."
"But why did you help me, an enemy soldier?"
"When you find a man in the middle of the swamp in an alligator's jaws, there are more important questions than what side he fights on. When I found you, your life was very low, almost flickering out. Your loa might never have returned. I sought the counsel of Great Damballah, and used the spirit-snake he sent to me to seek his face. His loa possessed me when I sacrificed a black cock to him. He told me I was to help you in any way I could, for he favored you, and your loa was strong."
Sharpe uneasily remembered her frenzied writhing and how she had spoken in a man's voice.
"Now, Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles, who are you, and what were you doing in the swamp with your arm down an alligator's throat?"
"I'll tell you if you'll just call me Richard."
She smiled and nodded. Sharpe told her of why he had come to Louisiana, of his investigations of the massacres, of his visit to the American camp and of Red Gator. Her breath hissed between her teeth at the mention of his enemy.
"The Demon of the Swamps. You will need a powerful loa indeed if you go up against that one. Rarely have I known a loa so black and evil."
Sharpe went on to tell her of the ambush, the betrayal, Red Gator's plan, his own escape, and his fight with the alligator. She was quiet for a time after he finished.
"I was right to help you. You would not have survived this far unless the hand of the gods was upon you."
Sharpe was going to ask her more about her beliefs when she got up.
"Dinner is ready."
She spooned out two large bowls of some peppery broth with meat, shrimp, tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers and okra, poured over boiled rice. Sharpe tried it and reached for the water, it was delicious, but very spicy. His appetite was definitely back.
"You like the gumbo?"
"I've never had chicken like this before."
Sharpe looked at her questioningly. She grinned again and indicated a piece of the meat.
He looked at it in surprise, then tried another bite.
"Tastes like chicken."
He had two bowls, and was tired after he finished, so he said good night to Marie Laveau and went to his bed. The last thing he saw as he drifted off to sleep was her shape out on the porch, her gown glowing in the moonlight. Her hands were lifted to the moon, and she was chanting, but too softly for him to hear.
He slept all night and most of the day. When he awoke, it was sunset again, Marie stood over him with a pair of shears.
"Let's have a look at your arms."
She snipped his bandages off and examined his forearms. The alligator's teeth had punched several round holes in them, but the wounds were clean and already seemed to be closing. Marie nodded in satisfaction and inspected his left side.
"Your ribs are only bruised, not broken. And it's a good thing the bones in your arms bend before breaking. The gator's teeth missed them and went into the flesh. Your wounds are healing well."
She spread some pungent salve on his wounds and put fresh bandages on them.
Dinner was ready. Again, he was ravenous. This time it was a savory dish of spicy rice with squirrel and crabmeat that she called a jambalaya. Afterwards, they sat on the porch with their feet dangling in the water and watched the fireflies. Sharpe didn't know how much of what she believed was true, but he was struck by how fervently she believed it.
"Do you believe in a god like they do in church?"
"The gods are manifest through the spirits of our ancestors. Their loas continue after their earthly lives are over. They can bring us good or harm, depending on how we live and what sacrifices we honor them with. Only the ignorant say that Voodoo is evil. The good or evil is within us, and the path we walk is determined by how we honor the loas in our hearts."
"You said that Voodoo is not evil. Could anyone ever use it for evil?"
She was silent for a moment, then nodded.
"All of life is the Kundalini, the River Inside. To do good is to go with the flow of the River, to do evil is to go against it, only the very strong can do so, and when they do, they become terrible indeed. There have only been a few, but they have had the power to kill from far away, to cause miscarriages, to bring illness or deformity. Some have used dolls, others spells. We call them Capiatas, the followers of Zobop, the Way of Darkness. Worst of all are the masters of zombies, the living dead, which the Capiata can resurrect from the grave to do his bidding, even kill at his command."
Sharpe shuddered and decided not to pursue the subject.
"I'll need to get back to my army in the morning. I'm strong enough. They'll need to know what I've learned."
She nodded and stood up. After a moment, so did he.
"I've contacted some one. A boat will be here for you in the morning. But I have a price for my services."
Sharpe stared at her, wondering how to tell her that he had no money with him, but she continued speaking. Her eyes seemed to glow in the darkness.
"It is rare, Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles, that I meet some one with a loa such as yours, on whom the favor of Great Damballah rests. To join with such a man can only strengthen my own loa."
She reached up, unloosened her gown where it tied at the shoulder, and let it fall to the ground.
"This is the price of my help, Richard."
Sharpe looked at her in awe, catching his breath.
She was magnificent.
She was also very demanding.
Cornelius Kilick made his way along the Rue Ste Anne, in the French Quarter. His boots clattered on the rough plank sidewalk, sounding loud in the fog, merging with the steps of the two men who accompanied him, his First Mate, Lieutenant Liam Docherty, and Lafite's bosun, a sinister, squat looking one-eared fellow named Armand. Jackson's curfew was in effect, and so the streets were deserted this late at night. Killick patted his jacket pocket to remind himself of the curfew waiver for him and his men. Underneath their cloaks, they carried pistols and belaying pins. But no one challenged them as they made their way down the dark streets, and into side alleys and side-side alleys into an increasingly disreputable side of town. They came to a certain door, and Killick checked the sign that hung above it: "A. Crepeaux, Agente." Although it was late, a lamp still burned within. He turned to the two men with him.
"Watch the door."
They nodded and took up positions on either side, looking up and down the alley, their hands on the pistols under their cloaks. Killick knocked on the door vigorously, and then waited as the lamp inside came closer, and he heard footsteps approach within.
Antoine Crepeaux was at the nexus of everything crooked in New Orleans. An outwardly respectful businessman, he carried on an extensive fencing and black market trade. No one trusted him, but doing business with him was an unavoidable fact of life in New Orleans. Which is why Jean Lafitte had had him watched for a long time. And now it paid off. Lafitte had been informed of the visitors to Crepeaux's office late at night, the visitors whose Indian identity had not been concealed beneath their hooded cloaks. The Brothers of the Swamp were hard to mistake. Lafitte had also noticed that their most recent visits over the past few days followed soon after the massacres of villages and plantations in the area. He was considering what he would do with this information when Killick had come to him with the Englishman's letter.
The door opened, and Crepeaux's face looked out. He looked like his namesake, a repulsive looking little toad of a man, almost completely bald, with thick spectacles that made his eyes huge, and cold, clammy skin. Killick pushed his way in before Crepeaux could slam the door.
"I am closed, Monsieur Killick, if you would come back during my normal business hours -"
"Antoinne, so good to see you. I won't keep you but a moment. I'd like to take a quick look at your records for the past six months or so."
"My records are confidential, Monsieur."
"General Jackson has declared martial law, Crepeaux, nothing is confidential from his officers. You can show me your records here or at Jackson's headquarters. Your choice."
Crepeaux scowled at his unwelcome guest, and then shrugged.
"If you insist, Monsieur."
He walked to a large bookcase and took down two thick, bound ledgers, which he spread out on the table with an air of impatience. Killick walked over to them and thumbed through them. As he suspected, what he was looking for was nowhere to be found. He smiled at Crepeaux.
"If you will excuse me, Monsieur, I have much to do - "
"Just one more thing, Antoinne. I'd like to have a look at your other records. The ones you keep hidden from the authorities."
Crepeaux stared at Killick for a moment as if he were a plague carrier. He shrugged.
"I have no other records, Monsieur. I am sorry-"
"Then you won't mind if I have a look for myself. Records are such slippery things, they can get overlooked so easily."
Killick strolled over to the bookcase, grabbed an armload of ledgers, and threw them to the floor. He began to systematically tear the office apart. Crepeaux gasped, spluttered, gestured, ineffectively, and then sighed.
"I think I may have what you seek here, Monsieur."
He waddled over to his desk and fumbled in the front drawer, withdrawing a loaded and cocked pistol, which he aimed at Killick with a shaking hand.
"Monsieur Killick, you will please leave my establishment at once, and never come back."
Killick looked at the pistol for a moment, then he shrugged.
"Whatever you say, Antoinne. They're probably not here, anyway."
He turned towards the door, and continued his turn in a full circle that spun into a powerful kick at the front of the desk, tipping it over. Crepeaux shrieked as he fell back, firing the pistol into the ceiling. The desk fell on top of him, pinning him across the chest. As his men rushed in the door, Killick planted a foot on the desk, grinding it into the repulsive little fence's ribs.
"Now, Antoinne, I believe we were discussing those other records."
Crepeaux gestured wildly at the desk, his voice a strangled croak.
"Get it off me!"
"Can't hear you, old friend. I guess all the excitement tonight has messed up my ears."
"F-f-false bottom in the desk, right hand drawer."
In one motion, Killick swung the desk back to a standing position, gesturing his two men towards the gasping man on the ground.
He pulled out the right drawer, throwing its miscellaneous papers aside. Using the marlinspike on his sailor's knife, he pried up the thin wooden panel in the bottom, to reveal a hidden compartment. Sitting therein were six "other" journals bound in leather.
"There now, Antoinne, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
He began to thumb through them, noting several items that Lafitte would find of interest. In five minutes, he had found the name he was looking for. He gestured to Docherty, who handed him a leather satchel he had hidden under his cloak. He packed the six volumes away, five for Lafitte, one for himself. He looked at Crepeaux, who sat on the floor glaring at him.
"Antoinne, if I were you, I'd take a holiday from New Orleans. A long one. Probably a permanent one. You're going to need it after Red Gator gets word you sold him out."
The fence turned white, his face convulsed with fear.
"No Monsieur, you cannot! You do not know what he does to men who cross him -"
"Actually, I do, Antoinne. That's why I suggested you set up shop somewhere else."
He started for the door, his two men following him. He turned at the door.
"Real soon, if I were you."
He exited, leaving Crepeaux pale and trembling.
Sharpe lay in the bed with Marie's warmth beside him. He was on his back, looking at the ceiling, she pillowed her head on his shoulder with an arm across his chest. He was surprised at how tired he was, she had taken a lot out of him.
He was surprised at something else too. At the feeling that filled his heart as he lay there with her. The feeling of shame.
Sharpe had been with women many times. Even when he was with Theresa, he had not been a model of faithfulness, witness his liaisons with Josefina and La Marquesa.
He had rationalized it, after all, they saw so little of each other, and a soldier had to take his pleasures where he could get them.
But those arguments sounded hollow in his ears, and he didn't even try to make them now. All he could think as he lay there was Lucille, and how faithfully she was waiting for him, and how bitterly she would cry if she saw him now. God, how could he have done this to her? What had she ever given him but love and acceptance? And a pistol ball in the shoulder, but that was before they had been properly introduced.
And Sharpe realized, he was no longer an alley cat. He was truly ready to settle down to a quiet, faithful life with one woman. And Lucille was that one.
He swore to himself, then and there, that his days of playing the field were over. If he got back to Normandy alive, and Lucille was still waiting for him, he would never again touch any woman but her. He owed her that much.
Marie stirred and lifted her head, her dark luminous eyes staring at him in the dark. Her hand stroked his chest.
"Who is Lucille?"
"You spoke her name three times in your sleep."
"My woman back in France. Soon to be the mother of my child."
"You have a woman in France, and yet you lay with me?"
Sharpe shook his head.
"I shouldn't have. It was a betrayal of her trust. You will be the last."
"Suppose I asked you to stay here with me, to be my man?"
"I could cast a spell on you that would make you stay."
Sharpe more than half believed her.
"Please, don't do that."
She studied him for a few moments in the darkness.
"You really do love her, don't you? And you feel remorse?"
"I do not feel remorse. I now carry a portion of your loa within me. It has strengthened me, and I will never forget you. But I will send you back to your woman with my blessing on you both. And my protection, as much as I can give it."
She rose, her superb form ghostlike in the darkness, and returned a few moments later with a small cloth bag, closed with a smooth stone ring, from which came a slender chain that she fastened around his neck.
"This is a Gris-gris bag. Do not take it off for any reason. Not until the danger is passed."
"What is it?"
"Protection. Protection from the Demon of the Swamps who you must fight and kill. Protection from anything that might harm you."
Sharpe raised a hand and touched the bag. Inside, he could feel several rough, irregular shapes the size of large pebbles. It was very cold to his hand, though not at all as it lay on his chest.
"What's in here?"
"Three years ago, I went to the grave of a black Capiata, a master of zombies and death spells, one of the most evil practitioners of Zobop that has ever lived. I found his tomb hidden in the swamp where I knew it would be, and there his loa and mine fought for a day and a night as you fought with the alligator. I prevailed, and my prize was his skull. Its power became mine, and I have used it piece by piece ever since. These are the last fragments, sealed with my blood. You must swear to me that you will not remove it until its power is gone. You will know when that is."
Sharpe was disturbed at the prospect of carrying a bag of skull fragments around his neck, but Marie was deadly earnest, and he sensed she knew more of these things than he did. At least it wouldn't hurt to humor her. He nodded.
She rested her head on his shoulder again, and squeezed him.
"Will you hold me until the morning?"
"A part of my loa is now yours too. The swamp is in your blood. Wherever you go, it will always be a part of you."
He couldn't be sure, but he thought he could feel her tears on his chest.
January 7, 1815.
Sharpe woke and squinted at the sunlight. He was alone in the bed, which was cold next to him, she had been gone for a while. He heard a sound from beyond the door, she was on the porch.
He got out of bed. His uniform would be out on the porch where he had left it. He put a hand on the doorsill and spoke gently.
"Last night was very special. I will always remember it."
Sharpe's clothes hit him in the face.
"I'm sure it was, Mon ami, but we have other things to do. Get dressed."
The voice was a man's, wryly amused, with a French accent. Sharpe caught his clothes and looked at the man who stood on the porch grinning at him, as he stood naked to the morning sun. Tied up to the porch was a long boat with a dozen rough looking men sitting in it. Looking at Sharpe.
The man who had spoken was slightly younger than Sharpe, dark-skinned and handsome, with curly black hair and a trim moustache. Sharpe recognized him as the man who had looked in on him in his delirium. He was dressed in a dark green captain's coat, a broad-brimmed tan hat with a scarlet band around the crown, a thick leather belt that supported a brass-hilted cutlass, white breeches, and tall black boots. Underneath the belt was a scarlet sash whose end blew in the gentle breeze. He had an air of dashing recklessness. But there was something dangerous in his dark eyes. This was a man who lived by his wits in a cutthroat business and did whatever he had to do to stay on top. A man who let no one get in his way.
The man doffed his hat and bowed to Sharpe with a flourish.
"Jean Lafitte at your service, Monsieur."
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Last update 17/7/01