India, 1803. It is four years since Richard Sharpe earned his sergeant's stripes at the siege of Seringapatam, and four years in which Sharpe seems to have discovered the easiest billet in the British army. But that comfort is rudely shattered when he witnesses a murderous act of treachery by an English officer who has defected from the East India Company to join the mercenary army of the Mahratta Confederation commanded by the flamboyant Hanoverian, Anthony Pohlmann.
Sharpe is ordered to join the hunt for the renegade Englishman, a hunt that will take him deep into the enemy's territory where he will face temptations more subtle than he has ever dreamed of. And behind him, relentlessly stalking him, comes his worst enemy, the baleful, twitching Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill who is determined to break Sharpe once and for all.
The paths of treachery all lead to the small village of Assaye where Sir Arthur Wellesley, with a tiny British army, faces the Mahratta horde. Outnumbered and outgunned, Wellesley decides to fight, and Sergeant Richard Sharpe is plunged into the white heat of a battle that will make Wellesley's reputation. It will make Sharpe's name too, but only if he can survive the carnage and killing frenzy, for it is at Assaye that he at last realizes his ambition and has a chance to seize it.