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To their enormous relief, Sir Kay opened the door only moments later. They took deep breaths to steady themselves, clasped each other’s hands a moment and followed him out into the great rectangular hall. He led them to one end and waited beside them. They looked down the vast expanse to the other end, where no doubt the Saxon warriors would soon appear. Even with the round table in the centre, there was still plenty of empty space, space which had been put to spectacular use by the horses earlier.

The round table itself was empty, except for Arthur and Guinevere seated side by side, with Merlin close by, still fastened in his chair. His eyes were molten lava, threatening fire and brimstone as he looked their way. Guinevere tried to smile at her champions. Arthur’s eyes were sombre, but they widened when he saw the slings the women were wearing, and widened even further when he took in their shortened skirts. His lips twitched in amused appreciation.

He turned his head and nodded to Sir Ector, who opened the great double doors and led in the Saxons, who were all unarmed except for the three champions. Two older Saxons were directed to seats beside Arthur while the champions, their heavy swords clanking, were taken to the other end of the hall facing the women. The rest of the Saxons ranged themselves in a long line against the wall behind their leaders. Arthur’s knights likewise stood behind their king, their line reaching almost to the end wall near their own champions. The men’s faces were grim, their eyes fierce. It went against the grain to allow women to do their fighting for them. Some of them gave the three still figures an encouraging smile or a friendly nod.

“Nice to have friends close by,” Nell murmured, her hand slipping inside the sling to feel the gun and give herself courage as she eyed the long empty space in front of them. Plenty of room for fighting – or dying!

Beside her, Hilda was standing rooted to the spot, her arms held rigidly at her sides. She wasn’t sure she could do this, after all. An arm went round her and a voice whispered in her ear. “It’s the only way, dear girl. Don’t let fear get hold of you now. We need you.”

Nell’s words melted the fear, strengthening Hilda and filling her with renewed purpose. She turned her head to meet Nell’s concerned eyes and nodded. They both looked at Fidelma. No fear there! She was calmly weighing up the opposition, her eyes empty of anything but icy determination. She’d been in tight corners before now and escaped, they both knew, and they were glad to have such a spirited companion at arms.

Sir Bedivere left the row of knights and came to stand beside Sir Kay. “Is there anything else you need, my ladies?”

“A way out?” quipped Nell.

“A sword!” Fidelma decided. “Bedivere, may I borrow yours?”

Bedivere’s hand had flashed to his side before he remembered all swords were left outside the Hall. “I can get it, but.... no woman I know can use a sword. They’re too heavy.”

Fidelma’s lips were firm. “In my own time, in my own country, women hold equal status with men. My brother, who is now King, was taught both Latin and Greek. So was I! He was taught to use a sword and a bow and arrow. So was I!” She winked. “I could never have allowed him to be better at anything, poor man! So, yes, Bedivere, I can hold and use a sword. I don’t like to do so, since I’m now a religious and should bring only peace, but I think the circumstances are unusual, don’t you?”

He studied her a moment, then indicated the Saxons. “Their champions are big men, my lady, and their swords are longer and heavier than ours.”

“No matter! Your sword will serve.”

He looked at Hilda and Nell. “What about you, my ladies?”

“I’m afraid we’d probably end up doing more damage to ourselves than our opponents, Bedivere.” Nell gave a short laugh. “Swords are in very short supply in our own time.” The knight nodded and moved across the Hall to the double doors.

“Have you no fear, any of you?” asked Sir Kay in awe. “They must produce very hardy women in your time.”

“Don’t trust to outward appearances, Sir Kay,” Hilda replied softly. “It would be a very foolish person who wasn’t afraid at such a moment.”

“I salute you, my ladies.” Sir Kay bowed low. “There can be no courage where there is no fear. You are right to be afraid – but use your fear, channel it and it will make you cunning as the fox.”

Arthur rose to his feet and the little group, perforce, fell silent, as did the rest of the Hall. “Are you ready, my ladies?”

“We’re ready, Sire,” Nell replied somewhat huskily.

The Saxon champions mumbled something in reply to the same question and raised their swords aloft with a great cry. Nell gripped Hilda’s hand, smiling thinly at the instant response from her friend. This gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘togetherness’!

Bedivere re-appeared round the double doors and hastened behind Arthur to reach the women as his King began to speak. Fidelma took the sword he was holding out to her and swished it through the air a few times to gauge its weight. Hilda noticed Fidelma was only using one hand and wondered how many hands she herself would have needed just to hold the sword, never mind use it. Fidelma was truly a woman of valour! Like Nell!

“Know this!” Arthur said in a clear voice. “While the battle is going on, no one may interfere in any way, no matter what happens. Whichever side remains standing at the end will be the victor, and honour will be satisfied. It has been agreed that the fight does not need to be to the death. Disabling your opponent so he can no longer engage in battle will be en....”

Arthur’s voice faltered as it dawned on him that he had lost his audience. All eyes were turned to the three women. He looked the same way and found himself staring as hard as everyone else. Fidelma was striking matches one after the other, as taught to her by Hilda and Nell. She was still totally fascinated by the way the tiny sticks caught fire the instant they were struck. Eadulf, her husband, carried around a little box which contained a flint and tiny pieces of cloth and wood to make fire, but it could often take a good while to produce enough sparks to make a fire, so she knew how these sudden flares would seem to everyone in the Hall. What wondrous things they made in the future!

She allowed each match to burn right down before blowing it out and dropping it on the floor, and was delighted by the taut silence she was producing. Good! Let the Saxons be afraid! When Nell tapped her on the shoulder she struck another match and held it to the tip of the cigarette now in Nell’s mouth. Drawing on the cigarette until the tip was fiery red, Nell opened her lips and blew out the smoke that had so alarmed Fidelma earlier. They both heard the rumbles at the other end of the Hall. Fidelma looked across to read disquiet on the faces of the Saxons, one or two of the men pointing their way. She lit Hilda’s cigarette and had to laugh. The two friends were leaning against the wall and smoking peacefully, as though they had not a care in the world. She felt like clapping out loud at their ability to hide their fear so convincingly.

Nell glanced at Hilda after a few moments and winked. She drew deeply on her cigarette, waited a moment and opened her lips. Out trickled a smoke ring. Hilda imitated her. Cries of alarm instantly rang out from the Saxons. Nell blew another ring, and again Hilda copied her action, the four smoke rings rising into the air where they lingered awhile before dispersing. The cries at the other end of the hall grew sharper and more insistent, although Fidelma noticed Arthur’s knights were looking very proud of their champions and smiling broadly.

Arthur, who was still on his feet, had to suppress a smile of his own. The three women were certainly putting on an impressive show. He held up his hand for silence and finished his speech about the rules of engagement for the ensuing fight. He knew no one was paying him the slightest attention but he had to go through the motions. He waited for the nod of agreement from the Saxon leader before settling back to watch the events playing out in front of him.

While Hilda continued blowing smoke rings, Nell took another cigarette from the packet and lit it from the stub of the first one, which she then dropped to the floor. Still leaning in relaxed fashion against the wall, she held out the packet to her friend. Hilda promptly dropped her own stub and took another cigarette, which Fidelma lit for her. Gathering her breath, Hilda drew in deeply and blew out a larger smoke ring than before, which hovered delicately in mid-air. Nell blew a smaller one. Gasps came from all round as it drifted up and through the centre of Hilda’s. Even as the two rings spiralled upward, grew thinner and dispersed, Hilda and Nell were doing it all again, their attention focused solely on making the rings the right size, whereas Fidelma’s attention constantly switched backwards and forwards between her friends and the Saxons.

Her green eyes sparkled at the alarm they could see. The Saxon champions’ faces were filled with alarm at the seeming magic of the smoke rings. One of them had his hand on his sword, obviously debating whether to draw it or not. Meanwhile, excitement was rising visibly among Arthur’s knights. What a good show their champions were putting on! The enemy were running scared before the fight had even begun. Hopefully, it would hamper their performance when battle commenced in earnest!

Hilda and Nell ignored it all and continued with their double smoke rings. At a nod from Hilda, Nell sent up her biggest ring so far. Hilda waited a heartbeat before blowing a slightly smaller one which glided up and straight through it. Nell, with the gentlest of breaths, allowed a tiny ring to trickle from her lips. It drifted through the centre of the other two as though drawn by a magnet. The triple ring rose as one, slowly dispersing into thin air. In the awed silence that had fallen came a cry from one of the Saxon champions. He began to draw his sword, but a sharp command from his leader had him sheathing it at once.

Hilda looked at Nell with raised eyebrows. Could they do it again? Nell nodded – and do it again they did, in spectacular fashion. Another cry came from the same Saxon, but it was drowned by the loud cheers which erupted from the knights. Arthur snapped a command and all grew silent again.

Hilda knew they were pushing their enemies’ patience to its limit. She took a deep breath and delved into her sling, bringing out a small notebook. She handed it to Fidelma, who tore out a sheet and held it at arm’s length. Hilda touched the tip of her cigarette to one corner and the paper flared up at once. Fidelma held it a moment or two before relaxing her fingers. Light as a feather, the burning page wafted to the floor and lay there consumed by the flames until all that was left was a layer of black membranes, which Nell blew on and scattered.

Uproar ensued! Saxons shouted angrily to their leader and waved their fists in the air. Arthur bounced to his feet immediately. “Magic, you cry? There is no magic here. As you can see, Merlin is fastened in his chair, his staff broken by these same ladies you accuse of magic. Why did they bind him like that? They did it because they wanted no magic interference at all in this fair fight. They come from a place far away from here where they have developed such things as we know nothing about, but no magic is involved. Maybe they will teach us before they leave. To know how to produce instant fire would be of enormous help to us all.”

The Saxon leader murmured something. Arthur shook his head. “No, Cerdic, I’m sure they were not burning inside. If they were, they would surely be dead by now. But I know no more than you, so shall we ask them to explain?”

“It is easy, Sire.” Hilda’s mellow voice reached to the far corners of the Hall. She held up a fresh cigarette. “When we set these sticks on fire we simply breathe in the smoke, hold it inside for a moment and then blow it out again. The fire stays inside the cigarette, and burns each time we draw in the smoke, but it does not go into our bodies. Only the smoke does that.”

“But why?” asked Arthur, openly curious. “I mean, why do you do it?”

Hilda shrugged. “Life is sometimes very hard where we live, so when someone discovered how to do this, which we call smoking, it became popular because it helps us to relax – which you must admit is rather needful at this moment.” She winked and Arthur’s face broke into a broad smile. “When looked at in the cold light of day it does seem a rather silly exercise, and probably not much good for our health, either.”

Arthur burst out laughing at her wry tone of voice and turned to explain to the Saxon leaders. Nell took Hilda’s arm and was horrified to feel it trembling.

“You okay?” she whispered.

“I’ve been better. I wonder if we’ve cooked our goose by messing around like that....”

“We have to do something to unsettle them and there aren’t too many options open to us. You were wonderful just then... so keep your head held high, my girl. We can do this!”

“You think? Then why is Cerdic pointing to that piece of paper I burnt?”

Arthur turned his head towards Hilda. “He wants to know what you set on fire. It seemed to catch fire far too quickly to be cloth.”

Hilda bit her lip but Nell had no qualms. “Tell the truth, love. Anything else will catch us out.”

Fidelma passed the notebook over and Hilda held it up, praying her hand wouldn’t shake. “It’s not cloth, Arthur, but what we call paper. We use it to write messages.”

“Paper, you call it.... and you write on it....” He paused and frowned, clearly pondering these strange ideas. “It’s extremely thin, whatever it is. How on earth do you make it?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know that secret but it comes from a land called Egypt, a land much further east even than Rome. It was invented there thousands of years ago. The skill hasn’t reached here yet, nor indeed Rome or the land of the Saxons.”

Her rich voice betrayed not a tremor of fear and she prayed fervently that they wouldn’t class paper as magic. Such a very small thing to undo all their planning!

Arthur gazed at the notebook, as did the two Saxon leaders. The silence in the hall was intense. One wrong move by anyone and chaos would ensue, thought Nell, her eyes constantly moving from one group to another. Her hand slipped inside the sling, her fingers groped for the gun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Fidelma’s fingers were white where they gripped the sword hilt.

“Have you been to this place called Egypt, my lady?”

“Yes, Sire.” In my dreams and at the cinema, she added silently. Why was he asking these questions? Whose side was he really on?

“And how do you get there, if it is so far away?”

“By boat, Sire.”

She happened to glance at Merlin as she spoke and was astounded to see him nod so slightly that she nearly missed it. His eyes were no longer dark and malevolent. They seemed resplendent with light and rested on her like balm. What on earth was happening?

Cerdic grunted. “He asks will you show him how you write on this paper.”

Hilda’s breath caught in her throat. She glanced wildly at Nell, and turned to walk across the hall to the round table. Nell spoke clearly for all to hear.

“Fidelma and I have your back, Hilda. Go gently – and be very careful.”

******



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