Richard Sharpe and Patrick Harper are escorting the beautiful but headstrong Marie-Angelique Bonnet across central India to meet her fiancé, Major Joubert. Their plan is then to head to the coast and a ship for England.
However they soon fall in with a mixed detachment of different troops that badly needs their leadership due to bandit attacks. Sharpe learns that a prisoner with the group is the son of the man who killed Sharpe's wife several years earlier — a piece of information that almost leads Sharpe to homicide on the spot.
Coming to Sharpe's aid during one attack is a passing group of East India Company troops headed by Colonel Dragomirov, who leads his force in hot pursuit of the bandits. Continuing their journey to the fortress where they expect to find Major Joubert, Sharpe's convoy instead discovers that the entire garrison has been massacred, except for the commander, who has been tortured. Incoherent at first, he later makes a startling revelation.
As it becomes clear that Sharpe and his party have unwittingly learned of a conspiracy that marks them all for death as people who know too much, they prepare for a climactic battle against overwhelming odds. Could this really be Sharpe's last stand?
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
In the aftermath of Sharpe's Challenge, Richard Sharpe and Patrick Harper are ready to head home from India. But first they must cross the bandit-plagued badlands of central India to reach the distant port of Calcutta, where they are to take a ship for England. Plus they are not alone: by official request they are escorting the mercurial Marie-Angelique Bonnet to meet her fiancé, Major Joubert, at an East India Company fort along the way.
En route, they come upon a camp populated by a mix of British crown and East India Company troops. The king's unit is an ill-disciplined lot led by boy soldier Ensign Beauclere, who is supervising the transfer of an accused murderer to Calcutta. Travelling with this detachment is an Indian princess and her train, riding elephants under the protection of East India Company soldiers. An evangelical vicar, an army engineer, his pregnant wife, and a few others fill out the convoy.
All have been warned about the notorious bandit leader Chitu, who is making trouble in the region. Sure enough the party is attacked and manages to repulse the outlaws after taking many casualties due to poor leadership. Sharpe is the obvious man to take charge and agrees to see the motley band through the dangers ahead. During another attack, they are aided by East India Company cavalry led by Colonel Dragomirov, who is on patrol in the area and gives chase to the raiders.
Meanwhile, Sharpe has learned that the accused murderer is Barabbas Hakeswill, son of the man who murdered Sharpe's wife Teresa during the Napoleonic Wars. Harper is barely able to keep Sharpe from lynching Barabbas on the spot.
Coming upon the fortress where he is to rendezvous with Major Joubert and bid farewell to Marie-Angelique, Sharpe discovers the aftermath of a bloodbath, with the entire garrison massacred except for General Simmerson, Sharpe's old nemesis, who has been staked out in the sun and left to die. Simmerson has lost his wits and only later reveals that Dragomirov and Joubert led the attack. It seems that the two mercenary officers are behind a mammoth opium exporting operation that they want to keep secret at all costs.
Continuing their journey, Sharpe's convoy reaches a river crossing where Dragomirov and Joubert suddenly appear and lead an ambush intended to wipe out the party. They are driven back, but Joubert manages to kidnap Marie-Angelique, who wants nothing to do with him. During the fight, Sharpe is wounded by one of his own men, Color-Sergeant Wormwood, who takes advantage of the melee to shoot the commander he despises for what he considers excessive discipline.
Secluded with Marie-Angelique, Joubert orders her to bathe in the river with the aim of molesting her — only to be surprised by Sharpe, who all but drowns him before Marie-Angelique finishes him off with his own pistol. On their way back to camp, Sharpe and Marie-Angelique are captured by Dragomirov. The villain gives Sharpe a tour of his opium processing facility, complete with a snake pit for troublesome workers, which is where Sharpe ends up for refusing to join forces with the drug lord.
However, Sharpe escapes the vipers, finds the drugged Marie-Angelique, and flees back to camp, where all prepare for a climatic battle with the enraged Dragomirov. The onset of labor for the engineer's wife means that their last stand must take place in a small village where, ironically, the real Chitu is the headman. It turns out that he is just a simple farmer, although ready for the coming fight along with the rest of the village men. Overnight, Wormwood tells Barabbas, with whom Sharpe has reconciled, that Sharpe aims to kill him. Wormwood sets Barabbas free, gives him a horse, and soon sounds the alarm and pretends to pursue him. In fact, he is riding off to join Dragomirov.
On the day of the battle, the defenders are desperately outnumbered but put up a valiant fight. Nonetheless, some of the most noble fall, including Beauclere. When all seems lost, Barabbas suddenly appears at the head of a column of British troops, turning the tide, Wormwood gets his due from Harper, and Sharpe engages with Dragomirov, impaling him with a sturdy cavalry sword.
Amid the carnage, the engineer's wife has given birth to a baby, assisted by Marie-Angelique. Afterward, Marie-Angelique tends to the dying Beauclere, while Sharpe grasps the boy's hand and recites a fatalistic verse from a beloved soldier's song: "Here's forty shillings on the drum_, For those who volunteer to come_, To list and fight the foe today,_ Over the hills and far away."