|“Fidelma and I have your back, Hilda. Go gently – and be very careful.”|
Nell’s voice was loud and clear, wanting them all to know her intentions. Hilda was not alone. If she had to die, then Nell and Fidelma would die with her. She watched Hilda walk gracefully across the floor and knew her legs were trembling beneath her. But how brave she was, back straight, head held high! Nell’s hand tightened on the gun.
By the time she had walked halfway to the table, Hilda’s iron will had re-asserted itself. Her legs no longer trembled. Her heart was no longer thudding and threatening to leap out of her chest. She scrabbled in her sling for a pencil and caught Merlin’s eyes again. They now seemed to be warning her. Of what? And why? Was he for her – or against? Calm and determined, she continued to grope in the sling with both hands and found what she needed.
When she reached the table, she walked round until she stood between Arthur and the Saxon leader. She laid the notebook on the table and showed them her pencil. Cerdic picked up the notebook and flicked through the blank pages, before laying it down again and saying something to Arthur.
“Cerdic asks that you show him how you write.”
“But what should I write? I don’t speak Saxon, or indeed your own language, Arthur, despite the fact that you and I understand each other.” Her rich voice reached to all and betrayed not a flicker of fear. Merlin gave her another slight nod.
“I can write in the Saxon language, Arthur.”
“No need, Lady Fidelma. He is well-educated and speaks Latin, which I believe you three also do. He doesn’t speak our own language, but he understands it well enough.”
Without more ado, Hilda leaned over and wrote carefully in the notebook, rummaging in her mind for the requisite Latin. She laid the pencil down and moved the notebook nearer to Cerdic. He grew very still as he read the few words written there. His fists clenched tightly on the table in front of him. Then, in an explosive burst of movement, he sprang to his feet, wrapped one arm round Hilda’s waist, pulling her close, and held a wicked-looking knife to her throat with the other hand.
“Hilda!” cried Nell, springing forward.
Cerdic spoke harshly, pulling Hilda closer still.
“Stay still, Lady Helena, or he says he will cut her throat.” Arthur’s voice was terse.
Nell slid to a halt, her eyes never leaving Hilda’s ashen face and closed eyes. There was no way she could fire the gun without hitting her friend. Fidelma moved forward and slipped an arm round Nell’s trembling body. The sword was still held fast in her other hand.
Arthur rose slowly and very deliberately to his feet. He glared at the Saxon but controlled his shock and anger. “You are without honour, Cerdic. You gave your word that all weapons were to be left outside the Hall. What can you possibly hope to gain by this assault? It was supposed to be a fair fight.”
Cerdic spoke again, his voice loud and guttural. To emphasise his point, he pressed the knife deeper and nicked Hilda’s skin. Drops of blood welled up and trickled down her neck.
“No!” Fidelma’s voice rang out. She was beginning to make sense of the Saxon’s language, so different from her husband’s. “We won’t let you! Arthur, please....”
The king held up his hand. “Be at peace, my lady. There is no way I will allow him to take her from this Hall. My knights would die trying to prevent such a thing.”
Cerdic spat words at him with a harsh laugh.
“You ask where their weapons are, Cerdic.” Fidelma spoke quickly before Arthur could answer. “I ask you where your honour is. You agreed to come in peace, to lay aside your own weapons and abide by the result of the fight between we three women and your champions. Instead, you choose to carry a weapon into this Hall and make war on a defenceless woman. Just as you tried to kidnap Guinevere and take her away goodness knows where. Shame on you! Why should Arthur ever trust a Saxon again?”
Her icy voice was scathing, her flashing eyes fierce in her condemnation. He glared back and threw a short question in her direction.
Her eyes widened. “What do I know about honour when it comes to Saxons? Oh, I know a great deal more than you think, Cerdic, for I am married to a Saxon. Ah, I see that surprises you. It surprised me, too, at the time, but he is a man of real honour and great gentleness – unlike you! - and he would fight you to the death for what you have just done. He respects all women, no matter who they are, and would never harm them. Why don’t you do the same, show us what Saxon honour really is? Put your weapon down and let her go.”
He laughed again and more gruff words were hurled her way. He focused on her to the exclusion of all else as he tried to make his case. Hilda, almost overcome by the nauseating smell that came from his clothes, felt his hold on her loosen a fraction as he talked. She opened her eyes and looked straight into Merlin’s. There was an urgency there that galvanised her. Biting her lip and forcing herself to breathe calmly, she inched her right hand across her body towards her left arm. So terrified was she that it seemed to take forever, but she drew courage from Merlin’s intense gaze, and prayed Cerdic would not notice her slight movements.
Keep him talking, Fidelma, I beg you.
“Why do you laugh, Cerdic? Does it make you feel brave that you have a sharp weapon held against the neck of a woman who has done you no harm? I don’t call that bravery! You are a coward! No one will give her up without a fight, even if they have to meet your knife and your champions’ three swords with their bare fists. Many of them would probably die, just as a lot of your own men would die. Or does that not matter to you? If I were to be brutally honest, the lady Hilda herself would rather fight you and die, than be carried off to your lair. We women are not all meek and helpless, you know.”
Fidelma brandished her sword and he laughed in scorn. “Oh, I can use this, I assure you. I’m not a King’s daughter for noth.....”
Her words were cut off as an unearthly howl erupted from the big Saxon. His knife clattered to the floor. His right hand reached across Hilda to grasp his left. His eyes rolled in pain. Blood began to spurt over Hilda and she shuddered. Sir Gawaine pulled her away and she huddled in his arms. Sir Launcelot, meanwhile, swooped on the knife and held its sharp point to Cerdic’s throat, as the latter had done to Hilda.
“One move and you’re dead!” he growled.
He and everyone else stared in shock at the blood dripping down Cerdic’s clothes. A small pair of scissors had been plunged into the back of the hand he was cradling. The pain was so excruciating he was moaning. Hilda herself was shaking violently in Gawaine’s arms. Her face was like parchment, her eyes staring in horror at what she had done.
“Are you alright, my lady?” asked Arthur, his own face ashen. She nodded, unable to speak. “You are the bravest person I have ever known. But how..... where.....?” He indicated the moaning Cerdic with both hands.
Hilda swallowed convulsively and tried to relax her jaw, but had to make several attempts before she could speak. “When I walked over to you.... I felt in my sling.... for something.... with which to write.... and at the same time.... for some reason.... I slipped the scissors.... up my sleeve.... You and Fidelma... kept him talking, so..... I took my.... chance..... and......”
Her voice failed her and she swayed in Gawaine’s arms, the world spinning, darkness calling to her. The next moment she was engulfed in Nell’s arms. Tears were streaming down the latter’s face.
“Hilda, tell me you’re okay? You’re bleeding....”
“Not as much as he is...,” Hilda whispered, leaning heavily against Nell. Her eyes were glued to Cerdic’s tortured hand. He himself was standing motionless, Launcelot’s knife still held to his neck. His eyes darted everywhere, as though looking for an escape. “Perhaps we should.... remove... the scissors.... He must be in... agony....”
“Let him suffer!” Nell retorted.
Arthur gave a mirthless laugh. “I couldn’t agree more, my lady. You have a true warrior’s soul, like the lady Hilda. But there is something more important to do first.”
He turned to his knights. “Since Cerdic has proved so untrustworthy, I think we need to search his men.” He looked across at the champions. “Lay your swords down on the floor. If you resist my knights, Cerdic dies - immediately! Launcelot will make very sure of that.”
He himself turned to Wibert, the other leader, and searched his clothes and boots with care. His knights did the same with the other Saxons A fraught silence held the Hall in thrall. Fidelma moved to join the other two women, sword still held in a firm grip. She wrapped her free arm round Hilda and Nell, the latter still holding her friend close. Fidelma was sad to feel Hilda shaking, for she had shown outstanding courage. She must have known Cerdic would kill her if he became aware of her slight movements.
“You did what you had to do, Hilda,” she whispered, “so you mustn’t feel guilty. He’s a monster, and needed stopping. You did that!”
Hilda’s tried to smile her thanks, but it was a poor effort. Guinevere heard Fidelma’s words and turned to look at the three women. She had been still and silent so far, paralysed by shock and fear, but one glance at Hilda’s face had her rising to her feet.
“Please take my seat, Hilda. You look very unwell.... ”
Hilda clung hard to Nell. “Thank you, Guinevere, but I’m fine.... I’m sorry to be so shaky....”
“Sorry?” Arthur barked, looking round from his search. “I’m the one who’s sorry, my lady. You should never have been threatened in that way, so please do not apologise. I can only be grateful for your courage. If you hadn’t stabbed him, we would all still be standing here not knowing which way to turn. But.... you’re bleeding!!” he added, echoing Nell.
“Am I?” Hilda again tried to smile. “Better that than dead!”
Nell shuddered and held her even more tightly. Still quaking at Hilda’s brave action, Guinevere went to her room and returned moments later with damp cloths. Nell sat Hilda down, then took one of the cloths and proceeded to hold it gently against the cut on her neck.
“You’ll have a nice time explaining this when we get back home,” she muttered, in an attempt to remove the stunned expression from Hilda’s white face. The blue-grey eyes were haunted.
The four women watched the knights as they returned to the table, and were horrified at the goodly selection of wicked-looking knives and daggers that were poured onto the table. Lionel threw two short swords on top of them.
“Two of them had these stuffed up their sleeves.” His tone of disgust said it all.
“It would seem to be catching,” Nell murmured into Hilda’s ear. Her eyes were glowing with a fierce anger, now she was recovering from the shock of Hilda’s close brush with death.
With distaste, Sir Kay laid a highly-decorated long knife on the table. “That, Arthur, was hidden in the boot of one of their champions. Even if he had lost his sword, he could still have killed these ladies – or indeed any of us.”
Nell felt Hilda tremble in her arms. It might have gone very badly for them if that knife had not been discovered.
Arthur laid on the table another highly-decorated knife, one with a wicked-looking curved blade. “This was strapped to Wibert’s waist under his jacket. If leaders don’t keep their word, Sir Kay, why should their men? So many of them were secretly armed that not one of us would have stood a chance, whether we had won or lost the fight.” His voice was cold as ice and everyone’s nerves prickled. “So, Cerdic, your stupid action in holding a knife to my champion’s neck would seem to have saved us all. If the lady Hilda had not seen fit to act, you would have killed every person in this Hall. Just what sort of man are you?”
He asked the question as though unable to believe that anyone could be so treacherous, but Nell longed to shout out loud that he himself wasn’t a great deal better. Had he not planned to have the three of them kidnapped by these Saxons? Shivers ran up and down her spine. God only knows what would have happened to them if the plot had been successful.
“Keep the knife at his neck, Launcelot, since he has no answer for me,” Arthur added grimly. “It’s his turn to be searched now – unless, of course, he willingly gives up any weapons he has concealed about his person.”
Cerdic spat at him. Launcelot immediately pressed the point of the knife deeper and blood seeped down the warrior’s neck, in imitation of what he had done to Hilda. Arthur searched him from head to foot, even ordering him to remove his boots. By the time he had finished, he had discovered a short knife in one boot and a longer one up Cerdic’s sleeve to add to the one now being held to his own throat. Without a word, the King laid them on the table with the other weapons and eyed the blood still dripping from Cerdic’s torn hand.
“My lady Hilda, perhaps now might be the time to put him out of his misery. I confess to feeling tempted to leave him to suffer for his treachery, but it is up to you to decide, since you were the one he attacked.”
“Allow me, Arthur,” Nell said coldly. She approached the Saxon and grasped the small pair of scissors with both hands. Hilda had struck hard, for all she was held in a tight grip. The blades were buried deep. Unable to resist jiggling them as she began to draw them out, she felt not one iota of pity when he tried to pull his hand away.
“Not very brave now, are you?” Fidelma said in Saxon with scorn in her voice, Arthur translating for the other two. “Are you only brave when you have a knife at someone’s throat? Or when you make war on women?”
Nell drew out the scissors as slowly as she could, wanting to put him through some of the pain and fear he had inflicted on Hilda. She locked eyes with him as the steel points finally came free and saw there the same fierce rage she herself felt. But for the moment he was a trapped tiger, a knife held to his throat and a mass of weapons on the table for the knights to use if he so much as moved or even blinked.
Guinevere handed Nell another damp cloth and she cleaned the scissors carefully. She wanted to throw them away from her in disgust but they had already proved their worth, so better keep them for the coming battle with the Saxon champions – if it was still on, of course.
“What did Hilda write, Arthur?” asked Fidelma, as they all watched Nell in silence. “She’s too gentle and loving a person to say anything to produce such an explosion of hatred.”
Arthur read from the notebook. “Follow the things that make for peace.”
“Romans, chapter fourteen, verse nineteen,” Hilda murmured.
They stared at her, awed by her strength of mind. Cerdic growled, and Launcelot growled back.
“Were you looking for trouble, dear girl?” Nell’s voice contained nothing but curiosity, though Hilda caught a glint of appreciation in the grey eyes.
“Not really, but I’d been praying as I walked across the Hall, and when I was told to write something those words came to mind - so I wrote them. I hoped they might give him a jolt and make him think. Alas, it would seem I was the one who got the jolt!” Hilda’s voice was steadier now, although wry in the extreme, and her colour was returning.
“We all got a jolt,” admitted Arthur, “but your courage in writing those words saved all our lives. We would never have found these weapons or suspected their treachery, otherwise. Were they your own words or someone else’s?”
“It was written by a man of faith called Paul, a Roman, who lived several hundred years ago,” said Nell. “He was a follower of a man of great peace, a man of God.”
“If you don’t have peace, you have war, and war brings nothing but pain,” murmured Hilda. “Cicero acknowledged this when he wrote: Silent leges inter arma.”
Cerdic growled. Fidelma whistled silently. “During wars, laws are silent.”
Hilda glanced up at Nell, reflecting on what the Nazis were doing at that very moment. She tried to put her thoughts into words. “Cicero was right. Our own country has been through two world wars. We know more than we care to about man’s inhumanity towards his neighbour. Remove the barriers, and some human beings will lose all sense of right and wrong. If their country is in chaos why should they worry about the law, or indeed about what their own conscience tells them?”
Nell touched her lips to Hilda’s forehead. For all her friend’s compassion, she saw straight to the heart of things, and never lost sight of the truth, no matter how hurtful that truth.
Cerdic growled again, and Fidelma whirled round to glare at him. “Your kind are making war on this whole land, Cerdic, and killing people out of sheer blood lust. Not only men, but women and children, too - the weak are easy to murder, aren’t they? There’s no law now in this land to protect the Britons who once inhabited it. You’ve driven them out to the margins, divided them into small groups.” She spoke in Latin so they all understood her. “The lady Hilda wrote as she saw fit. Words shouldn’t hurt, yet you attacked her as though she had stabbed you through the heart.”
“You’re wrong, Fidelma,” Nell offered quietly. “Words are the most dangerous things there are. Ask Hilda! She’s a woman who uses words with the greatest care, for she knows just what they can do. Believe me, she knew the danger when she wrote Paul’s words on that piece of paper. But, being the person she is, she didn’t let that stop her!”
Author's Chapter Notes:
Thank you, shesings, Squirrel and Beecharmer.
Chapter End Notes:
The title of this chapter comes from Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card