|Fidelma of Cashel - religieuse and princess, sister of Colgú, King of Muman, one of the five kingdoms of …areann – settled more comfortably in the chair in which she had just found herself. She shivered. It had happened again! She had been plucked from her husband Eadulf’s side and hurled across time and space to this far-flung corner of Britain for the third time in as many years. She was angry – and scared. Even if Eadulf had been with her, he could not have quietened the anger, but he would have been a bulwark against her fear.|
Fidelma was not only a nun and a princess. She was also a dálaigh, an advocate of the ancient law courts of …areann, although she had the feeling that wasn’t going to be of much use to her here. Her green eyes glittered with a cold fire as they crossed swords with the dark, hooded eyes watching from across the table. Wisdom and cunning dwelt in equal measure in those fathomless depths. Merlin! Unchanged, unbowed, unknowable! The emerald fires burned brighter and he almost seemed to retreat for a moment at the incandescence of the gaze locked onto his. Then he shook his head, as though in answer to some question she hadn’t put, and shrugged his shoulders. Was he saying this was not his doing? Strange, for it had been his power the first two times this had happened.
Her eyes travelled to the person seated next to Merlin and widened in shock. No! The answer to her being in this place would not be found there. She shivered once more. This was more serious than she had suspected. Her eyes moved on again – to the middle-aged man with the gold circlet binding his now-greying hair close to his head. Arthur! King of the Britons – or at least ruler of this south-west corner of the kingdom of Britain - and leader of the knights seated round the large table in this cavernous, low-ceilinged room.
Was he the one who had pulled her here this time? Or demanded it be done? She stared across at him with a challenge in her eyes. She knew he had felt that challenge by the tensing of the muscles in his jaw, but he refused to turn his head and acknowledge her presence. His eyes never swerved from the person to whom he was talking, as though she were the only person who mattered in the whole room. Fidelma’s eyes moved back to that person, to the woman seated between Arthur and Merlin and seemingly enjoying every moment. The lady Helena!
Also conveyed through time and space – considerably more time, if not more space – and also not here for her first visit. Nell had been whisked here each time Fidelma had, and must remember what had happened on those visits, so why was she looking so happy? Her gown was a shifting mass of greens and blues which were never still for a moment in the flickering light of the hundreds of candles. Her white hair was unbound and seemed to be held in place by stars glimmering in the snowy waves. Her grey eyes, normally so cool and clear, were warm and alive as they twinkled at Arthur. Nell did enjoy the excitement – and the danger. And danger was sure to abound. Why else would they both be called here?
But wait! If Nell was here, then where was –
A cold hand settled on hers. “Fidelma?” The soft voice at her side answered her question. Fidelma turned her head and looked straight into the troubled, blue-grey eyes bent on her.
“My lady Hilda!” breathed Fidelma, her face breaking into a joyous smile, and the two women embraced with much affection.
“I won’t say it’s good to see you, my dear,” Hilda murmured, although it was a wonderful gift to meet once again this highly-intelligent and highly-educated young lady with the logical and analytical mind of one of the most skilled lawyers in her land. Not only all that, reflected Hilda, but she was also the proud possessor of an infectious sense of humour and a tongue icy enough to outdo Hilda’s own.
“Hilda, I don’t care,” Fidelma cried. “It is good to see you again, both of you, no matter the circumstances.”
Hilda’s eyes moved across the table, still with that troubled expression. “Ah, yes! The circumstances!” she agreed softly. “What is it they want of us this time? Why us, anyway? Three women from vastly different times and places – it never did make any sense.”
“Perhaps they hoped for a second holy Trinity,” teased Fidelma.
Hilda tossed her a scandalised look. “You surely jest, my dear!”
“Well, seeing as I’m involved in this, how about an unholy trinity?” Fidelma laughed uneasily as her gaze fell on Arthur and his companions. “My lady Nell doesn’t seem troubled by any of it.”
Hilda bit her lip. “No, Nell likes the excitement, the scent of danger, the whiff of the mysterious. I sometimes think our own age is too tame and predictable for her, even now when, back home, we’re waging outright war to protect our land and our way of life and to rid the world of a man who wants it all for himself.”
Fidelma searched Nell’s glowing face and knew what Hilda meant. Nell’s crisp, clear, pragmatic nature, her enthusiasm for the unexpected, her quick reactions to changing circumstances, would not sit easily with a lifestyle of patiently imparting knowledge and skills to young people. Fidelma sensed that, deep inside Nell, there was a hunger for constantly challenging and changing landscapes around her.
She turned back to Hilda. Here was a wise, perceptive spirit, the possessor of a quiet soul and a loving heart. Fidelma had known another Hilda once, and had told Nell and Hilda about it the first time they were brought here. They had been astonished to hear she had been at the great Synod of Whitby in AD 664, and had actually met the Abbess Hilda. When asked for the details she had related the great arguments between the Celtic and Roman adherents of the faith as to when to set the date of Easter, and how the Romans had won the day.
“The Abbess Hilda is a saint now,” Nell had said.
It had been Fidelma’s turn to be astonished. It had seemed strange to her that someone she knew, a very human someone, should have been elevated to sainthood. “She was an impressive woman, sharp but kind, and a very able administrator. She did much to avert the bloodshed that could have broken out between the two factions.”
“According to the venerable Bede, long after your time, Fidelma, ‘All who knew her called her Mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace’,” Hilda had added.
This Hilda beside her also possessed devotion and great grace, thought Fidelma now, as she searched the sensitive face. Nell also had an immensely loving heart, but hers was an impatient spirit, for the most part, and Fidelma wondered how two such disparate people could be such close and dear friends. But it was so. They were soul mates, what the Irish would call anam caras, in a way given to very few. She had seen at first hand the deep affection and understanding, the intuitive reading of each other’s minds, the instinctive urge of each to protect the other. She wasn’t sure she and Eadulf had yet developed the depth and strength of the unbreakable bonds linking these two.
“Fidelma?” asked the soft voice. “Where are you?”
Fidelma tossed Hilda a teasing glance. “Thinking about you and Nell, how different you are and yet how deeply in touch.”
“You’re lonely for Eadulf and little Alchú.” Hilda covered the younger woman’s hand where it lay on the table.
Fidelma nodded. “But still glad they’re safe at home and not here, where I would worry about them.” Hilda patted her hand and looked back across the table, with that same deeply-troubled look in her eyes.
“Deeply in touch, did you say?” she murmured. “Not when we’re here, Fidelma. She loves it. The rawness, the toughness of living, the immediacy of death, the buzz of adventure…. She’s so feisty, and is daunted by nothing and by no one. One could almost say she actively seeks to
come back here. Please God it wasn’t by her wish we’re here now. It all just terrifies me and makes me go weak at the knees.
It was Hilda’s turn to have her hand patted. “You? Weak at the knees? I don’t believe it! You’re every bit as feisty as Nell, but in a different way, a controlled and thoughtful way. You weigh up the odds calmly and make decisions based on logic…”
“Like you?” teased Hilda.
Fidelma nodded. “But of course! Am I not trained in logic? Nell’s feistiness may be more instinctive than yours, Hilda, but I would trust you to watch my back in any given situation. And I’ve yet to see you back down in front of anyone.”
“That’s all it is, I’m afraid, Fidelma. A front!” Hilda’s lips twisted grimly. There was one thing which would always give her pause. “Remember when Nell challenged Sir Bedivere to a horse race – and beat him?”
Fidelma chuckled. “He was not pleased to find himself beaten by anyone, least of all by a woman…. He prides himself on his horsemanship. Nell made him swallow that pride and he must still resent it. Nell is a brilliant horsewoman, almost as one with her horse.”
“Whereas my horse and I very quickly part company and become two separate entities,” Hilda remarked, her face impassive.
Fidelma surveyed her shrewdly. “You don’t like riding?”
Laughter glimmered in the blue-grey eyes, like sunlight on cool water. “My dear, it petrifies me! You said I wouldn’t give quarter to anyone. I would to a horse, believe me.”
“But you ride so well!”
“Oh, Nell lured me onto a horse years ago, but she never succeeded in convincing me I was in charge of it. And I never succeeded in convincing the horse, which is possibly why I always seem to end up black and blue after making contact with the ground. Nell can be very persuasive when she wants something… so she has made some sort of horsewoman out of me, just not a very happy one.”
Hilda’s voice was so dry that Fidelma giggled. “The pair of you never cease to amaze me…. but you’ve got that troubled look again.” She knew enough to be worried if the lady Hilda was worried, for the brown-haired woman never gave way to unreasoning panic.
Hilda moved restlessly. “Why is no one telling us anything? Why is Nell not demanding answers? She’s being unusually coy!”
Fidelma chewed her lip, watching Merlin and Arthur with cool eyes. “When I found myself whirling through that blackness again, I thought – “
“I thought I heard the word giants ringing all around me.”
The noise in the room stilled for a moment and the word seemed to resonate on the very air. Then the noise sprang up again, as though dismissing the idea. The two women stared at each other. They both knew they’d heard that split second of silence – and the echo....
“Fidelma, there are no such things as giants,” Hilda remarked, praying the young woman at her side couldn’t hear her heart thudding.
Red-gold eyebrows climbed Fidelma’s forehead. “There aren’t?”
Hilda shook her head. “Mere myth and fairy tale!”
“Mere myth and fairy tale? You will explain those words, my lady Hilda.”
Hilda’s eyes fastened on Merlin. “Tales made up to frighten little ones.”
“And wizards!” Hilda whispered, and saw Merlin’s eyes quiver. Was he lip-reading?
“But wizards exist. Merlin exists. You can see him, touch him, hear him. So why not giants?”
“Wizards don’t exist, Fidelma.” Hilda’s voice was hard. “Merlin’s magic relies on a clever sleight of hand, ingenious diversionary tactics and the gullibility of those he succeeds in tricking. His reputation goes before him, that’s all, and people see only what they want to see.” She placed an arm on Fidelma’s. “Let’s pretend we want to look out of the window at the sea. No one can work out what we’re saying if our backs are to the room.”
Fidelma stared at her, then turned and looked across at Merlin. She gasped at what she saw in his eyes. He was furiously angry that he couldn’t control the two women’s minds or actions. Without a word, she turned and signalled to the squires standing behind their chairs. The two young boys moved forward and pulled back the chairs for them to rise from the table.
Fidelma stopped to admire Hilda’s scarlet robe with its white fur edgings. “You look magnificent,” she breathed. “A real study in contrasts! Guinevere herself couldn’t look more regal than you do in that gown. ”
Hilda smiled. “While you’re all green and gold – and red,” she added, stroking the copper-coloured hair with a gentle touch.
“I wonder how they do it? Clothe us, I mean,” Fidelma asked, when they reached the window. “What happened to my very unexciting brown, woollen robe?”
“Now I’m far more interested in why Guinevere isn’t here.”
Fidelma glanced back at Arthur. Unlike Hilda, she hadn’t given a thought to the King’s wife and why she had not yet made an appearance. She frowned, but turned back to listen as Hilda added, “I’m also curious as to how we all manage to understand each other. You speak Irish – and Latin. Nell and I speak English, based on good old Anglo-Saxon with a few other languages thrown in, for good measure. We also understand Latin, thanks to our schooling. Arthur and the men here speak some form of the Celtish tongue, I suppose.” Hilda shrugged her shoulders. “It’s beyond me.”
They peered through the small opening in the thick stone wall, where the wooden shutters were thrown back. Nothing seemed to be moving out there, except the sea and the guards patrolling round the walls, and yet….
“Something is wrong,” Fidelma whispered.
Hilda moved closer. “I can feel it, too, but there appears to be no good reason for our fears. You said wizards exist, yet they don’t, in our time, any more than giants do.”
“Then why this uneasiness?”
Hilda bit her lip. “Merlin is up to something and that scares me. Oh, I know I denied he was a wizard, but he is still extremely clever and subtle. He is also untrustworthy. We both know that. His dark eyes hide far more than they reveal.”
“So do yours!” Fidelma replied, with a brief smile. “But, unlike you, what he speaks is not what he means - and what he does flies counter to what any situation needs. He is a paradox wrapped in a mystery and shrouded in shifting sea-mist.” Hilda shivered violently and Fidelma’s eyes slid her way. “He left you to die the last time we were here, even after he asked us to trust him. He took Nell and myself away with him – and left you alone and wounded. You could have died!”
Hilda stared out into the darkness, where the moonlight seemed to create unnerving shadows. What horrors were hiding out there? She sighed. “Yes, which is why I don’t trust him one inch, whatever he does or whatever he implies.”
“You are very wise. If it hadn’t been for my Lady Nell….”
“And Sir Gawaine – you would never have found your way back to your own time.”
Hilda shivered again, more violently. “Lost in the past!” she whispered. “That’s what I fear more than anything else, being left here to live out the rest of my days. We three must stick together, Fidelma, no matter what happens.”
A loud noise outside the window made her jump. The noise doubled and re-doubled, became a multiplicity of sound, echoing everywhere. Hilda peered out once more, then clutched Fidelma’s arm with such ferocity that the nun winced.
“I take back all I just said, Fidelma,” Hilda gasped. “There are giants! Outside....”
Fidelma joined her and peered out. Where there had been order and calm only moments before was now chaos and unbridled violence. Tall men on enormous horses and wearing leather armour and helmets were cantering around inside the wooden stockade, trampling into the ground any guard who tried to get in their way. Shouts and screams joined the general pandemonium. An alarm sounded, but the horsemen, moving in unison, simply picked up their pace and began to gallop round the outer stone walls of Arthur’s dwelling, waving their swords and filling the air with a cacophony of cries.
Their hearts hammering in their chests, the two women slammed closed the wooden shutters and turned to face the clamour now breaking out inside the hall. They saw Nell hurrying towards them and heard Arthur shouting orders to his men, even as his hand went to his sword. But there was no sword! The knights always left their weapons outside the door of the banqueting hall before entering, for it was meant to be a place of peace. Arthur glanced around desperately before beckoning to his knights and turning to the door. The three women clung together.
“If only I could get my hands on one of their swords,” muttered Nell, hands clenched at her side. Her body was tightly coiled, ready to spring into action. “I’d soon show them what’s what!”
Before the knights could reach the door, a booming sound assailed all ears. The huge wooden door splintered before their eyes and more tall men on magnificent horses cantered in, swords at the ready and shields held protectively before them. They never faltered but cantered round the large table, knocking aside any knight who was brave enough to attempt to stop them.
“Hilda, behind me!” Nell shrieked.
“I think not!” Hilda arrayed herself on one side of Nell, Fidelma took the other, and they stared in appalled dismay at the noisy, confused chaos before them. Surely they would wake up in their own beds and find they’d been dreaming!
“We should crawl under the table,” Fidelma cried. She made to move but a strong hand gripped her arm as the horsemen hurtled by, past their very noses.
“Stay put!” Nell warned, her grey eyes hot and angry.
She was to regret those words. The horsemen swept round the table yet again. Foot soldiers, smaller in stature than the others, poured through the door with swords in their hands. The horsemen reached the women and, in one swift move, three of them swept up the women in their strong arms. Nell could be heard screaming at her attacker as she fought him to no avail. Hilda was thrown roughly across a horse’s back in front of its rider. She groaned and nearly joined Nell in screeching out loud. Her worst nightmare had come to pass! She clung somehow to the horse’s mane and closed her eyes as the horse pounded on. This wasn’t happening!
The riders swept back out through the doors. They rode round the walls of the building again, shouting aloud to others still outside. The women clung on desperately. They could hear the clash of steel behind them as some of Arthur’s knights finally reached their swords, but it was far too late. The gates of the compound were wide open and the riders were heading straight for them. Without warning, and as though they had hit an invisible barrier, the horses stopped with such startling suddenness that Hilda almost let go and toppled to the ground. She clung on more tightly and felt the rider kicking his horse in an effort to get it to moving again.
“I wish we were home in the library,” she moaned into the horse’s mane.
Before she could take in the fact that someone had cuffed her, hard, across the face with a leather gauntlet, a whistling, roaring noise filled her ears….
Author's Chapter Notes:
This has just been posted on Lime Green Musings, so I thought I would post it here, as well, to have it archived with my other stuff. If anyone hasn't read it on there, enjoy!
As you will gather, it is set in Armishire, a few years into the war, but while Hilda is still sole Head...
As you will gather, it is set in Armishire, a few years into the war, but while Hilda is still sole Head...