|Hilda drew in her breath, grasped Nell and Fidelma by the shoulder and turned them Arthur’s way. She raised her voice a little. “We’re ready, Sire.” |
Arthur examined her pale face, her shadowed but undaunted eyes, and she knew that he knew she wasn’t really ready at all. She forced her stiff body to relax and winked at him. His lips tightened, but he nodded his understanding. She was a woman of resilience who had the courage to bear all that had happened to her and still find the strength to reassure others. His eyes examined the other two women, but they were less given to introspection – and possessed less of that innate gentle compassion in the lady Hilda’s make-up – so they were readier for the fray. In the lady Helena’s case, it was very simple. She intended to make them suffer for what had been done to her friend. The lady Fidelma just wanted to show her mettle, get it over with and go home to her family.
Nurtured as he had been by Merlin, Arthur could read all of their hopes and fears. He yearned to send them back to their own time without delay, as reward for all they had already done for him, but he knew he had to keep his word. A challenge had been sent out and accepted. One didn’t turn away from that because one side was treacherous and vengeful. The women also understood that. Even though he and Merlin had ill-used them, they were still prepared to fight, prepared to give the King and his wife and court a chance to survive.
He bowed to them. “Ladies, you are truly women of honour and valour. We thank you from our hearts and wish you well.”
Guinevere rose quickly from her chair and drew near to enfold each of them in her arms, as she had done the first time they had readied themselves to fight.
“You are everything I wish I was,” she murmured in Hilda’s ear as she held her close. “You would have made Arthur a wonderful wife.”
Hilda was stunned by this admission. She looked deep into the beautiful blue eyes. “But, Guinevere, he loves you deeply. Please don’t wish to be what you aren’t. Be what you are, and be it with all your heart and soul. It’s the only way to true contentment. Don’t cry for the moon.”
She held the queen a moment. This was not the moment to dwell on all that the legends of the Round Table had told her, of the treachery to come...
Arthur turned to Cerdic, who was still in conversation with his champions. “Are your men ready?” Cerdic nodded. “Gawaine, return their swords to them, please.”
Sir Gawaine came forward, and the three champions moved away from their leader after a swift hand clasp with him. They took their swords and stomped across to where they had been stationed earlier. Their faces appeared grim and uncompromising. They would offer no quarter to those who had injured their leader. Arthur, however, detected an underlying unease. Their three opponents had shown an unexpected wiliness and determination – and an ability to undermine their male pride with their unusual weapons and stratagems.
The three women watched their opponents for a moment or two, then bowed to the King and meandered over to their allotted positions, Fidelma swishing her sword back and forth a few times to get her blood flowing freely through her veins.
Merlin rose to his feet and took Hilda’s hand for a moment as she passed. She felt an immediate jolt of hope and renewed strength. Her fears dissolved, her physical weakness took flight, the shivers left her. She was whole again. She smiled at him, a true smile. Merlin had their backs, as Nell had said, so she would relax and do whatever it took to win this battle, given who her two companions were. She couldn’t ask for finer support. She only hoped she could offer them that same support!
Alas, before they had reached their positions, there came a loud war cry from the other end of the Hall. Startled, they spun round and saw the three men already striding towards them, swords held aloft. As though they had realised they couldn’t do this fairly and squarely, the men had stolen a march on their opponents and left them unprepared.
Fidelma laid down her sword and steadied herself. Hilda reached for her paperweight. Nell dipped her hand into her sling. The men tramped in perfect time with each other until they were halfway down the Hall – at which point one of them dropped to the floor with a suddenness that startled the watchers. His sword seemed to linger in mid-air a moment before falling with a loud clang to the ground. Hilda’s paperweight had made the first strike, catching him on the cheekbone and narrowly missing his eye. Two seconds later, Fidelma was throwing her own adversary behind her with practised ease. He almost fell on the sharp end of his sword as it dropped from his hand. His head connected with the wall and he lay still.
Nell, meanwhile, had seized the bottle of ink from her sling. She uncapped it and waited until her opponent was upon her before she threw the contents straight into his eyes. It was a perfect shot. Blinded, he dropped his sword with a frightened screech and desperately tried to rub away the blue liquid. Keeping an eye in him, Nell picked up his sword to move it away from reach, but staggered under the weight of it. She took it in both hands and slid it across the rushes on the floor to Sir Kay.
As the three men seemed hors de combat for the moment, Hilda took a chance and darted across to the man she had downed. His eyes were still closed so she snatched up her paperweight and began the walk back to the others.
“Hilda...” Nell shrieked in horror, her eyes staring wildly beyond her friend. Hilda swung round. A sword hung directly over her head, about to slice into it. The Saxon was not unconscious at all, but very much alive and kicking! Her breath caught in her throat and she stared into certain death. The next instant, the descending sword was parried by a second sword mere inches from Hilda’s face. Fidelma was breathing heavily as her smaller sword forced the Saxon’s away from Hilda.
“Run!” she yelled. The Saxon took hold of his sword more firmly, planted his feet solidly on the ground and swung his sword at her. The two swords met and the sound of clashing steel had Hilda moving swiftly away.
She had taken only a few steps, however, when she halted, eyes wide.
“Noooo!” she cried. “Nell! Look out!”
Too late! The Saxon who had been thrown into the wall by Fidelma had regained his senses. He had jumped to his feet and was looming over Nell. Even as Hilda cried out, he brought back his arm and slammed his fist hard into the side of Nell’s face. She dropped like a stone. Hilda never hesitated. The paperweight was already in her hand so she bowled it with some ferocity straight at the Saxon. It connected with his temple and he staggered, fell and lay senseless beside Nell.
Hilda wanted to run to Nell, but the warrior struggling with the ink in his eyes was standing between them. He shook his shaggy head, hair and blue ink flying every which way. Hilda crept up behind him as he bent to pick up his sword, the sword Fidelma had removed when he fell. He groped around on the floor, clearly still not able to see very well. Hilda’s cigarette lighter flickered. She applied the flame carefully to the bottom of his jacket. Wibert at once cried out in alarm, much to the knights’ annoyance. The man spun round, but Hilda had now lit one of the sparklers she had slipped in her bag at school.
She waved it round in a circle, leaving temporary imprints of light in the air. He was totally unnerved by the hissing sparks and seemed unable to move. She took another step towards and, with her other hand, thrust the flame of the cigarette lighter towards him. He stumbled backwards and threw up his arms to protect his blue-streaked face. She put the lighter away and lit another sparkler from the first. She made patterns in the air with the two of them as she moved ever nearer, one slow step after another. His hands still held out in front of him, his eyes haunted by fear, he retreated away from her.
Without warning, flames outlined his head. His jacket had caught fire, much to Hilda’s relief. His skin began to burn as the flames ate through jacket and shirt and attacked his leather trousers. With a shriek of sheer terror he scampered away from her, threw himself on the floor on his back and rolled from side to side, trying to put out the flames.
Hilda threw the sparklers on the floor, flew across to Nell and fell on her knees beside her. Nell’s face was a mess. One side was already swollen and bruised, with blood seeping from several cuts. Hilda was scared to touch it.
“Nell, speak to me.... Nell?” she cried frantically, but Nell never moved.
Tears dimming her eyes, Hilda looked round. The Saxon she had felled was lying nearby. The one on fire was rolling around on the floor and groaning out loud. The third was fighting Fidelma. Very carefully, Hilda lifted Nell’s head onto her lap and stroked the white hair with a gentle hand. Nell’s eyes remained closed, but Hilda could see she was breathing steadily.
Her eyes strayed back to the fighting. She was no expert, but it seemed to her that the Saxon was tiring. Fidelma would not stay still. She danced around him as she parried his moves, first one way and then the other, forcing the heavy man to move after her. He had to turn this way and that to keep up with her, and was grunting loudly. He was tall and heavy, which told against him for he was used to fighting with feet planted firmly to the spot, not chasing after his quarry. He had neither Fidelma’s fleetness of foot, nor her quick mind. His sword strokes grew weary, his reach was not quite as long as before. Hilda was staggered at Fidelma’s strength. It was a wonder the Saxon’s heavy blows didn’t knock the sword right out of her hand.
Come on, Fidelma! You’ve got him!
The end was so quick she nearly missed it, as she glanced down at Nell. The Saxon succeeded in pinning Fidelma against the wall through the sheer weight of his sword strokes. He raised his sword for the killer blow. Instantly, she ducked under his raised arm and thrust her blade deep into his side. For a moment, he stood motionless, staring at her with a puzzled frown. Then, with a loud, disbelieving groan, he dropped his sword and clutched his ribs, before keeling over to lie in an untidy heap on the ground. To Hilda, the sound of his fall was as vast as that of a tree falling in the silent forest.
Her breathing harsh, Fidelma bent and touched her hand to his neck. With a shake of her head she picked up his sword and sent it sliding across the Round Table towards Cerdic, who was staring grimly at his fallen warrior.
“He’s still alive,” she wheezed, “but I have no idea how badly he’s hurt.”
Cerdic struggled to move, but the handcuffs restrained him. His free hand clenched tightly at his helplessness. Werbit bellowed and made to stand, but Lionel held the point of the dagger against his neck. The warrior sank back but his eyes spoke volumes. If he had been free, there was no doubt he would have taken swift revenge!
Fidelma walked across to Hilda, dropping her blood-stained sword in the rushes nearby. “Has she come round?”
Hilda’s heart was breaking as she leaned over Nell. Tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped on the bruised face. “Come on, Nell, wake up! We need you.... I need you!”
Fidelma ran over to the table and took one of Guinevere’s cloths. She soaked it in cold water and dashed back to Hilda, who tenderly pressed it against the swollen face. How hard had the blow been? Had it done serious damage? The tears fell faster.
Fidelma clutched her arm. “Don’t give up! Look...”
Hilda looked. Nell’s eyes were fluttering. The next moment, they lifted and Nell stared blankly at her friend. Slowly, the mists cleared. She raised her hand to Hilda’s face.
“Tears, dear girl?” she whispered.
A sob escaped Hilda. “I thought he’d killed you!”
“Oh, I’ve a tougher skull than that.” Nell grimaced as she moved her head. “Ouch! Maybe I spoke too soon. Help me up, will you?”
“Maybe you should lie still a little longer...”
But Nell was already struggling to sit up in Hilda’s arms. For a moment or two, she leaned her aching head against her as the world wobbled around her. “Right, I’m okay now! There’ll be time to rest afterwards.”
They carefully drew her to her feet and, again, she leaned on Hilda for a few moments. However, in their concern for Nell, they had forgotten the two remaining warriors. Out of nowhere a calloused hand grabbed hold of Fidelma’s shoulder.
The Saxon felled by Hilda’s paperweight had regained consciousness and was looking murderous. Muttering fiercely to himself, he tried to drag Fidelma away from the other two. She was having none of it and turned and kicked him hard between the legs. Without blinking, he cuffed her across the face and proceeded to wrap his huge hands round her neck. He squeezed hard, applying tremendous pressure. Fidelma’s fingers tried in vain to pull the strong hands away. She tore at his skin with her nails but he simply squeezed the harder. Fidelma’s hands fell away, her eyes closed....
“Let go of me, dear girl.... do something!” Nell whispered, too dizzy to offer any help.
Author's Chapter Notes: