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Hilda closed her eyes, tuned out the conversation and leaned her aching head against Nell’s strength. Her neck hurt and she felt icy cold inside. Disjointed questions tumbled into her mind. Why did they keep calling her brave? What had made her write those words? How had she dared to stab Cerdic? What were they doing here, anyway? Why couldn’t they just go home?

“You okay, sweetheart?” Nell’s voice was anxious. Hilda nodded, but stayed as she was, too drained to lift her head.

“Would she like to lie down for a while?” Guinevere asked.

Nell took a deep breath. “That’s not really the question we should be asking, is it? Tell me, Arthur, does this mean the battle is over? After all, these men have broken their word and betrayed your hospitality - and attacked one of your champions for no good reason!” she added bitterly.

Arthur’s face was grave as he studied Nell and took in her anger and her anxiety for Hilda. With a sigh, he turned to Cerdic and Wibert. “The lady Helena is right. You, Cerdic, are the leader of these warriors, and so must take the blame for encouraging them to betray the agreement we made together. You are not a man of honour, nor are you a good leader of men. I should lock you all in my cellars for bearing arms in here.”

Cerdic spoke briefly. His good hand was still cradling the injured one and Launcelot still held the knife to his throat. Arthur shook his head angrily.

“I don’t think you understand the point I am making. Not only did you bring in hidden weapons, you attacked one of my guests when you knew none of us had weapons to defend her. Fortunately for all of us, she is a brave and resourceful woman, and succeeded in giving you the shock of your life. I don’t think you liked being bested by a mere woman!” He paused and stared at Cerdic with brooding eyes. “I take it bringing in these secret weapons was in order to kill us all, even my champions, whether they won or lost. Was it still your intention to capture my queen, despite all your fine words?”

Cerdic and Wibert nodded proudly. There was no compunction in their faces about admitting their plot in all its horror. “I should simply lock you up and throw away the key, then cancel the fight since you’re still not to be trusted. But I am a man of honour, even if my opponent is not. The fight between our champions will still take place – if yours are brave enough to take on mine after what you’ve seen them do,” Arthur added tartly.

Wibert rose from his chair and went to stand beside his chief. They spoke in low voices.

“They will fight.” Fidelma translated for Hilda and Nell. “Arthur hasn’t really given them a choice but they still want to argue about it. They claim their champions are strong and brave and that we don’t stand a chance!”

“Hah! So strong and brave they have to secrete weapons about their bodies to fight three women?” Nell’s voice was vibrant with scorn.

“Enough!” Arthur’s voice rang out. “The decision is made! Sir Launcelot, allow Cerdic to sit down, but keep your knife on him. Sir Lionel, take Wibert to the other side of Guinevere, and see he doesn’t move an inch.” He picked up Wibert’s decorated knife from the table. “Use this, if you have to!”

Hilda raised her head and watched as the two men were seated far apart. Wibert changed places with bad grace, but Sir Lionel ignored his behaviour. Arthur spoke again. “Knights, go outside, retrieve your swords and escort the rest of these warriors down below. Keep them separate from the others we have down there. I’m sorry, Cerdic, but it’s your own fault. I would imprison you as well, but I want you here to watch the fight so there can be no complaints afterwards about trickery.”

All was done in a nerve-racking silence, for the Saxons saw the knife still held at their leader’s throat. Watching the last few men disappear through the door, Hilda gathered her remaining strength and rose to her feet. She took one of the damp cloths Guinevere had left on the table and moved slowly across to Cerdic.

“Hilda? What are you d....?”

Nell stopped when she saw exactly what Hilda was doing. She was now beside the Saxon leader and had taken his bad hand in hers. She set to work gently wiping the blood away. Cerdic bit his lip, and watched her with hooded eyes. She held the cloth against the wound for a few minutes but the blood still seeped through.

“Guinevere, may I have a dry cloth to staunch this blood? Nell, could I borrow my scissors back, please?” Hilda asked with the glimmer of a smile.

“Not thinking of attacking him again, are you, dear girl?” Nell handed over the scissors. She was relieved to see Hilda looking more like herself, though she could make a guess at her feelings.

Laying the dry cloth on the table, Hilda used the scissors to cut small strips in it at each end. Cerdic and the others were stunned when they saw how easy it was to cut things with this strange instrument.

“It’s not really for hurting people,” she murmured to Cerdic in Latin. “It’s a tool. But it was the only thing I had to hand to protect myself.” He grunted, then grunted again as she wound the clean cloth round the hand and tied the strips in a neat knot to keep it in place. “That should stop the blood.”

She glanced at Nell. “I could have used a couple of the safety pins on it but I was worried I’d cause apoplexy, after all I’ve already done to him!”

“You’ve done nothing, my girl, and don’t you forget it!” said Nell tartly. “He was the one who attacked you! Give him safety pins and he might learn how to use them against us. Anyway, how do we know he hasn’t still got another weapon secreted somewhere about him? I don’t trust him an inch.”

“You don’t have to trust him, my lady,” Launcelot interrupted. “I’m here to see he behaves himself.”

“It’s not that we don’t trust you, Launcelot.” Hilda winked at Nell, delved into her sling and pulled out the handcuffs. “Would these put your mind at rest, my lady?”

“And here was I thinking you’d gone soft!” Nell grabbed the cuffs and snapped one of the cuffs round the arm of Cerdic’s chair and held open the other one. “Want to put his good arm in here for me, Launcelot?”

Everyone gathered round as the knight forced Cerdic’s wrist into the cuff and Nell snapped it shut. Murmurs of astonishment rose as Cerdic tried in vain to pull his arm free. The cuffs were strong and held firm.

Arthur’s anxious face relaxed a little. “Is it possible to undo it later on?”

“Erm, you might need an axe!” Nell smirked. “There was a key but we seem to have lost it, only don’t tell him that, for goodness sake. I’ll be only too willing to wield the axe on it later to release him, if I’m still alive. I could get my own back for what he did to Hilda!”

“I think you did that when you removed the scissors from his hand!” Hilda reproved her gently. “Leave the man in peace. He’s in enough trouble.”

“Well, if you won’t allow Nell to use the axe, I’ll do it myself,” Fidelma threatened, eyeing the cuffs as though they were some new instrument of torture. “Are they hurting him?”

“Not at all,” Hilda replied.

“Pity!” Fidelma tossed her head in such evident disappointment that even Arthur was moved to laugh.

Still looking pale and weary, Hilda retrieved the scissors from the table and turned to Merlin. He had remained silent in his chair during the search for weapons, but she had seen the disquiet in his dark eyes as they rested on Arthur. She knew that everything he did, he did for his King, but this latest plan of his had gone disastrously wrong and now he felt helpless. However, his eyes were gentle when they turned her way, a look she had never seen mirrored there before. Could she trust this mood? Or was he plotting something new in that infinitely devious mind of his?

“Hilda?” Nell moved nearer, wondering what was going on.

Hilda ignored her friend and spoke softly to Merlin. “They all think I was the one who broke the deadlock, but without you I would never have had the nerve to stab Cerdic. I’m not in the habit of inflicting pain. You stiffened my resolve, so I can’t leave you trussed up like this. It wouldn’t be fair. Can I trust you, though?”

Nell held herself still, not wanting to intrude and upset whatever Hilda had in mind. The latter studied Merlin, tapping the scissors on her hand and biting her lip. Merlin returned her scrutiny without blinking. With a nod, as though to an unspoken question, she leaned over and began to snip away carefully at the elastic bands binding him to his chair.

“Are you sure about this, Hilda?” Nell’s voice was gentle, for she could see the strain in Hilda’s face.

“At the moment, Nell, I’m not sure about anything. If I could fly home and leave them all to sort out their own problems, I wouldn’t hesitate. Freeing Merlin, however.... yes, I’m almost a hundred per cent sure. Why?” Hilda carried on peacefully snipping.

Merlin’s eyes never left her face, even when Nell spoke. “Despite all appearances to the contrary, I know how soft-hearted you are, too much for your own good half the time, like now. Why, Hilda? You were the one who dreamed up the elastic bands for him. So what’s changed?”

Hilda paused in her snipping and glanced up at her friend. “Merlin was the one who helped me back there, so I can’t leave him tied up and helpless. I know now how that feels.”

“What do you mean he helped you? You did it all on your own. We watched!”

Hilda went back to her painstaking task. “No, I didn’t, Nell. When I was walking across the Hall, Merlin sent me a warning. I didn’t want to trust him. It could have been yet another of his tricks. But I was already anxious, so I took note and slipped the scissors up my sleeve when I was searching in my sling for the pencil. There was nothing else in there that might have helped me.”

“How on earth.....?”

Hilda shook her head, ceased her snipping and watched Merlin flex his freed hand. “I have no idea, Nell, but his eyes flashed me a clear signal to be very careful. I couldn’t just ignore that because of his previous behaviour.”

She laid down the scissors, took the gnarled hand and massaged it gently, even though her own hands were still shaking. Nell was shocked at this very visible sign of distress. It was rare for her Headmistress to reveal any inner turmoil. Nell did the only thing she could to show she understood. She clasped Hilda’s shoulder before picking up the scissors and snipping away at the elastic bands binding Merlin’s other arm.

“I was terrified when Cerdic seized me. With that knife at my throat I thought I was going to die.” Hilda’s matter-of-fact tone made Nell shudder. “My brain had ceased up, I couldn’t think at all. Then - something broke through my fear. I realised that if I died, you would be left here all alone. I couldn’t let that happen, could I?”

Nell stifled a sob and Hilda reached out to squeeze her hand. “I opened my eyes and saw Merlin watching me, as though waiting for me to act. A sense of urgency overtook me and I knew I had to act. I kept my eyes on him, and when Fidelma began to harangue Cerdic, Merlin nodded. Time to make my move! I knew I might die, but at least it would give the rest of you a fighting chance. Merlin encouraged my hand every inch of its journey across my body to those scissors. Trouble was, once I had them in my hand, I hesitated. I couldn’t bring myself to hurt him..... I thought I’d failed you all.”

“So what changed your mind?”

“Merlin did. He kept his eyes on me, encouraging me, and I recalled Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: ‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’ I’m not sure she had stabbing someone in mind when she said it, but...” Hilda shrugged, took a deep breath. “Without his encouragement, I would never have acted. But he didn’t do it just to save me, Nell. He did to save all of us, including you and Fidelma. So, I have to trust....”

Nell sighed. “And I have to trust your instincts. They’ve never let me down yet.”

Merlin’s other hand was free now. Hilda massaged it as she had the other. She looked down into his wise eyes. “Thank you. I know you did it mainly to save Arthur and Guinevere, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that....”

He shook his head at her and, without a word, took both her hands in his and held them steady to soothe the shaking. His eyes were glowing with that resplendent light she had seen earlier in her walk across the Hall. Where had the malevolence gone?

“I did it for you.” His deep voice was fathomless, the hall silenced by what Hilda had done and by Merlin’s reaction to it. “I wronged you in the past. The lady Helena was correct as to the why of it. You mind has always fought me, resisted me, as very few others have. I found you impossible to read.”

“And that annoyed you,” Hilda murmured.

He nodded. “I could never bend you to my will or make you angry.”

“Oh, you made me angry enough today! Tying you up was my idea, I’m afraid.”

His lips twitched. “I felt the anger, although you hid it well. But I had never before seen what you could do in the most appalling circumstances – any of you. I certainly didn’t know how you could fight, or would have the stomach to take a knife to someone so fiercely.”

Hilda bit her lops. “When we’ve been here before, you’ve wanted our help in other ways, less dangerous ways – to search for people, to look after them, as we did Guinevere’s old nurse, to give you ideas to implement your own.”

“And so I underestimated you, even when I admired that strong will of yours. You are the gentlest person I have ever met, as well the calmest and the bravest. I could have interfered when Cerdic held you, even though tied to this chair, but I knew you had the wit to grasp my warning and also the courage to defeat him.”

“But I froze. You just heard me tell Nell. It was you who...” Hilda was bewildered. “I’m none of those things you’ve mentioned.”

“No, it was you,” he asserted, his voice firm. “Something stiffened your resolve, as you described, and you did the only thing possible, something not easy for a woman to do.”

“Try me!” Nell barked.

Merlin’s eyes laughed at her. “I wonder would you have had the patience to wait for the right moment, my lady, or to move so slowly as not to be noticed when there was a knife held to your throat?”

Nell grimaced. “No, those are Hilda’s gifts. She has infinite patience and always knows the right moment to act, and the right thing to do at that moment.”

He nodded and turned back to Hilda, whose hands he was still holding. “It would seem your friends know you well. However, you’re still not sure whether to trust me, even though you appear to be able to read minds, along with all your other gifts.”

“It’s hard to trust,” she admitted. “You brought us here to have us kidnapped. What would have happened to us? Nothing pleasant, I shouldn’t think.”

“And he left you to die last time we were here,” Nell reminded her.

“That was one of my greatest mistakes and I apologise for it. I wish I could go back and undo the damage.” Merlin scrutinised Hilda’s white face. “I don’t think giving you my word would be good enough after that, would it? I’m quite sure it wouldn’t for the ladies Helena or Fidelma.”

Nell and Fidelma looked at each other and shook their heads, but Hilda and Merlin ignored them. Hilda clasped the hands which had held hers. “Whatever Nell and Fidelma decide, I’m willing to take a chance on it, after the way you guided and bolstered me. A well-known man once said, ‘Always be a little kinder than necessary.’ (JM Barrie)” The mellow voice had regained its richness and was warm with gratitude.

“It’s a good motto. I’ll try to live up to your trust in me, and to your own goodness.”

“I’m sorry we broke your staff.”

He shrugged. “Plenty more where that came from! I don’t think I’ll need one where you three are concerned. You have guile and courage – and those three men are more than a little afraid of you. Work on that fear, and success will be yours.”

“And Guinevere will be safe?”

“Oh, I think Cerdic has realised his mistake. He won’t lightly tread this way again. After all, he must assume you live here.”

“And the three who went home with us may just have had enough to terrify them for the rest of their lives. Once they tell the others, Arthur may be safe - for a while, anyway.” Hilda actually managed a smile when she recalled the men’s fear of her wireless.

She released Merlin’s hands and straightened up. Looking around, she realised that Arthur, Guinvere and the knights had all been listening to their quiet conversation. She met warm smiles wherever she looked and realised that freeing Merlin had pleased them all. She saw that the three Saxon champions were talking quietly with Cerdic and had taken no notice of what she and Merlin had said and done. That relieved her of some more of her anxiety.

“You okay now, Hilda?” Nell murmured. “Will Merlin keep his word, do you think?”

“I’m fine, Nell, still a bit shaken but as ready as I will ever be.” Hilda shivered. “I just hope I don’t have to draw more blood. Once was enough! As for Merlin, he will do what he wants to do, but for the moment I will trust him.”

“Sure you don’t want to rest first, Hilda?” asked Fidelma. “Because once we start there’ll be no time to rest, and you’ve had an almighty shock. Those three champions will be out to avenge the insult to Cerdic. What’s more, I have a feeling they may target you, in particular.”

Hilda regarded her gravely. “I did what I had to do, Fidelma. They were the ones at fault. If they feel insulted and target me, so be it.”

“We’ll have your back, Hilda.” Nell’s voice was firm. “And, so, I suspect so will Merlin,” she added softly.

“You’re changing your tune very quickly!” Hilda’s lips twitched. “Let’s hope you’re right. We might need him. As for resting, Fidelma, I don’t think I could bear to stop and think about all that’s happened today. It would paralyse me. No, the sooner we start, the sooner it will be over.”

She drew in her breath, grasped them both by the shoulder and turned them Arthur’s way. She raised her voice a little. “We’re ready, Sire.”


*****



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