|“I wish we were home in the library,” Hilda 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….
The next thing she heard was a yelp from Nell. The ground reared up to hit them and Hilda groaned in pain. They rolled around helplessly for a moment, too winded to speak, and waited for the men to pick them up. But all was stillness and silence. They opened their eyes fearfully and gasped. They were home, just as Hilda had wished!
“Now look what you’ve done, silly woman,” Nell complained as she jumped up and hauled Hilda roughly to her feet.
Hilda rubbed her sore cheek. “Ouch! I think he broke my jaw! What do you mean, look what I’ve done? We’re home, aren’t we? What more do you want, for goodness sake?”
“Look around you!” Nell stood there, arms akimbo.
“I am looking, and mighty nice it is, too,” replied Hilda, as she gazed round the library at Plas Howells. Home! Safe! Then her eyes fell on Fidelma, whose emerald green eyes were gazing round her in awe-struck wonder.
“Ah!” Hilda said blankly.
“Ah is right. Fidelma’s not home, is she? But go on. Keep looking. There’s more.”
There was something in Nell's taunting voice that Hilda didn’t like. She soon saw why and sprang to Nell’s side, clutching her friend’s arm in fright. “Oh no! I hadn’t meant for them to come, as well.”
“But they have!” Nell replied, in freezing tones.
“At least they haven’t brought their horses.”
Nell gave her a dirty look and shrugged off Hilda’s hand. She folded her arms and glared with brooding intensity at the three giants in leather armour who were standing in front of the fireplace and glancing round them with something approaching fear. They were very bulky and seemed to take up an awful lot of space.
“Are they…. are they likely to attack us?”
“How the heck do I know?” Nell asked impatiently. “If they do, we’re going to end up like the kindling sticks in that basket over there.”
Hilda swallowed. “Should I – er – ring for the police?”
“And tell them what, exactly?” Nell gave Hilda a disbelieving stare. “I don’t think it would do much for our reputation, but you’re the Headmistress so it’s your decision.”
Hilda glanced wildly round the library, searching for inspiration, but somehow she didn’t think her beloved books were going to be of much use to her in this situation.
“Any ideas, Fidelma?” she squeaked.
“Oh, she’s well away – far too engrossed in all our so-called progress, especially your books, to care tuppence for us at the moment.” Nell’s eyes never swerved from the men, whose fear seemed to be fading fast.
“You know, I’ve never seen such tall men!” Hilda murmured. “They must be nearly six and a half feet. I called them giants just now to Fidelma, even though I don’t believe in such things, but they are!”
Nell frowned fiercely. “I think it’s their bulk makes them seem even taller than they really are! Someone must feed them well. And those horses were huge....
“Nell, they’re moving,” Hilda yelped.
“I’m not blind, woman! Stop bleating and watch them for me.”
Nell moved across to her own small desk and pulled out a drawer. The next moment Hilda heard a sound like a ratchet. She spun round.
“Where on earth did you get that?” she gasped, eyes wide as saucers.
“I told you to watch them,” Nell retorted, brandishing the pistol in her hand. “There is a war on, remember. I got it in case any Nazis should turn up here….”
Hilda gave her a stony stare before turning back to the men. “Personally, I think I’d rather have the Nazis than you with that gun.”
“Hmmm, it’s a moot point but I take your meaning.” Nell stiffened. “Watch out! That one’s moving. He’s finding his courage.”
A shot rang out, deafening them all. A bullet hit the mantelpiece beside the man, spraying him with splinters of wood. He dodged back to where he had been standing. At the same moment, the door burst open and Rosalie Dene hurtled into the room.
“What’s happened?” she shrieked. “What’s happened? Have they invaded?”
Nell muttered imprecations under her breath. Hilda crossed to Rosalie’s side and ushered her secretary back to the door. “Everything’s fine, Rosalie,” she said in a soothing voice.
“But I thought I heard a gun go off.”
“Just a car outside,” Hilda assured her. “Carry on with those letters and I’ll ring for tea when we’re ready. Oh, and if you hear any more strange noises, dear, don’t panic.”
She closed the door on her secretary and turned the key in the lock. Another bullet thudded into the mantelpiece.
“Ring for tea, will you?” Nell breathed heavily. “A fat lot of good that will do us! How about ringing for Merlin, while you’re about it?
Hilda shuddered. “I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you. Why not Herr Hitler – or Beelzebub himself - if you want the Devil Incarnate? Because that’s how I class Merlin.” She walked over to Nell. “How many bullets have you left?”
“Plenty of time to put on our thinking caps, then!”
Nell gave her another dirty look and blew on her gun.
“We have to find the way back there.” It was Fidelma’s voice.
Nell’s and Hilda’s heads swivelled as one to look at her, before Nell recalled her duty and turned back to the men, pistol at the ready. Fidelma, who had got over her first wonder, now gaped in shock at Hilda’s legs and turned to examine Nell. She pointed and spluttered. “Your dresses are torn! I can see your legs! You must change quickly, before anyone else sees you.”
Nell and Hilda glanced at each other. “Um, they’re not torn, dear,” Hilda said soothingly. “In our time, this is how we wear our skirts. It’s the fashion.”
“Fashion? What is a fashion?” Fidelma shook her head. “Whatever it is, it is most unseemly.”
Nell laughed out loud, relieving her tension a little. “Times have changed, I’m afraid. I’m not sure I can explain the word 'fashion' but no one wears their skirts long now.”
Hilda took up the tale as Nell’s eyes went back to the three men. “We did wear them that way for nearly thirteen centuries after your time, Fidelma, but in this century women decided they wanted to be the equal of men – as you are in your own time in Ireland – and so big changes began. They wanted freedom, and you can’t be free in gowns that sweep the floor. Certainly not when you’re carrying dying men away from the battlefield, as they did in the Great War nearly thirty years ago.”
“Your women did that?” Fidelma breathed in awe, then patted the long skirt of the homespun brown habit she now wore, which hid nothing of her tall and elegant slenderness. “I must say, my robes have never hindered me but I can see the attraction of your short ones. Don’t you get cold?” she asked in such a curious tone that the other two choked.
She shrugged and gave it up, turning instead to run a gentle hand over the rows of books beside her. “Are these real books, proper books?” She took one off the shelf, opened it and gasped again. “What an age you live in! Such tiny writing! So easy to carry! When I think of our huge and heavy books or the scrolls we use.... Oh, please may I have one of these to take back to Eadulf?”
“Of course,” Hilda said automatically, then started in shock. “What did you mean just now when you said we had to go back? I’m not going back there for all the tea in Chi….”
“We have no choice, Hilda,” Nell interrupted her. “How else is Fidelma to get home? And what do we do about these three beauties? Keep them as pets?”
Daunted, Hilda crossed over to the bookshelves and examined the books. “Latin, I think. No good giving you English, as it bears no relation to the Anglo-Saxon of centuries ago, and I don’t have any Irish ones.”
“Hild-a-a-a-a!” Nell warned in an exasperated tone, while Fidelma nodded with a blissful smile. This would make Eadulf sit up and take notice.
“Catullus?” Still in shock, Hilda dropped the book into the capacious pocket of Fidelma’s robe. “How about Seneca?”
“Hilda!” Nell’s voice sounded angry this time.
“I know Seneca,” Fidelma replied, tracing his name on the cover. “How do you make them so small? Look how many you have in here! I did have a small copy of the writings of Luke and Matthew made especially for me to take on my journeys, but most of our books are vast!”
“With printing machi….” Hilda clutched her forehead. “I’m going mad. Don’t ask, Fidelma! It would be too difficult to explain. Just accept that we don’t have to copy every book by hand these days. Here, take the Seneca, as well. Let’s hope that when you get home to Ireland you’ll be back in this habit again – and these will still be in the pocket. Anything is possible at the moment.”
As she dropped Seneca into the pocket of Fidelma’s robe, the gun went off once more and she yelped. Nell had not fired at the mantelpiece this time, but at the dagger which one of the men had pulled from his belt. The bullet sent the dagger spinning from his hand and into the fire. He sprang back and there was a loud rumble as he and his friends communicated.
“Three left,” Hilda remarked.
“I can count, thank you, Miss Annersley,” ground out Nell. “Next time, I might have to draw blood.”
Fidelma scurried over and examined the gun eagerly. “How does it work?”
Nell opened her mouth to explain but saw the utter futility. “Don’t ask,” she said, echoing Hilda. How on earth would you explain it to someone from the seventh century?
Fidelma’s eyes glimmered with laughter. “I see the difficulty. I promise I won’t ask again but ‘tis a great pity Eadulf couldn’t see it. It seems very powerful.”
“Too powerful, my girl! One doesn’t have to get up close and personal to kill someone, like one does with a dagger or a sword.” Nell’s eyes remained steady on the three men.
Fidelma’s cool, analytical nature came to the fore. “I would love to stay and examine your world, but alas, we need to find our way back, before these men stop being frightened and decide to eat us for their next meal.”
“But how?” Hilda was puzzled. “I mean, how do we get back, not how would they eat us! Are you saying we can make it happen?”
“There must be an entrance here somewhere.” Fidelma prowled the room, picking objects and examining them, one after the other.
“You can’t be serious!” Hilda flinched as another bullet was fired. “If I’d known that…”
“Two left!” Nell intoned. “That one drew blood, so it might buy us some time.”
Fidelma continued to examine everything with close attention. “Are you always standing close together when you disappear? Always in this room? Hmmm!”
Hilda’s attention was switching constantly between Fidelma and Nell. “What sort of thing might we be looking for?”
Fidelma shrugged. “It could be anything, I suppose, but possibly something round. I haven’t been able to work out yet what it is at home.” She picked up a glass paperweight from the low table. “This is pretty – and round and small - but I don’t get any sense of it being the entrance.” She placed it back down and moved to Hilda’s desk. “Or it could be this, whatever it is. ‘Tis even smaller, but round.”
Hilda saw what she was looking at. “That’s my watch. I forgot to put it on this morning.”
“What does it do? I can see it has numbers.”
“It tells the time,” replied Hilda, fastening the watch on her wrist.
Fidelma’s eyes became sparkling emeralds. “Really? Yet so small you can wear it! Such marvels! All we have are water clocks which need constant attendance. You must tell me how that works some time.” She made to move, but seemed struck by something and swung round to stare at Hilda. “Time, you said! Tells the time! We travelled through time. Perhaps….”
“But this is too small, surely,” Hilda objected.
“Are there any bigger ones?”
“Hilda!” Nell warned impatiently. “Get on with it.”
“We’re doing our best, Nell!” Hilda snapped. “There’s a big one over there in the corner – only we call that one a clock.”
She pointed to the huge old grandfather clock in the corner. Fidelma hurried over and looked up at the large, round, white face. She leaned her head against the casing. A look of alarm crossed her face and she held up a hand in warning. “I can hear loud noises.....”
“That will be the pendulum going backwards and forwards, counting the seconds,” said Hilda. She undid the catch and opened the little door in the front. Fidelma was mesmerised by the swinging pendulum inside, but shook her head. Hilda pointed across the room. “What about the smaller one on the fireplace? The bullets seem to have missed it – but, er, how do we get round the men?”
Nell saw what was needed and delved into one of the drawers in her desk. She brought out a torch and moved over to the men, where she indicated with the gun that they should move away from the fire. They stared impassively back at her, arms folded, so she switched on her torch and shone the bright light into their faces. Instantly, they threw up their hands in fear, mumbling the while, and did as they were asked.
“Oh, well done, Nell!” Hilda crowed.
“Nell! Watch out! You will burn your hand!” Fidelma’s eyes were like saucers. “Have you trapped fire inside it? Such magic!”
Nell shook her head, but noticed the men seemed distinctly upset by the light. Good, she thought. Hilda, meanwhile, scurried over behind the men, snatched up the clock and retreated back to her desk. Fidelma stared hard at the green outer casing and admired the hand-painted flowers on the clock’s face. She picked it up, shook it and held it to her ear,
“It’s called ticking,” said Hilda hastily. “Tick, tock, tick, tock.”
Fidelma shook her head. “No, I can hear that. It’s much like the big one over there. But there’s a humming… and I can feel it trying to pull me in.”
She placed it down again very gently. Hilda shivered, goosebumps breaking out all over.
“Hilda, if we get ever back here safely, we hammer that clock to smithereens and then burn it,” Nell cried. “I know it’s your mother’s, but life is dangerous enough without …. er, portals to other times and places. I won’t have it, d’you hear?”
“Yes, dear! Or should that be No, dear?
Fidelma flashed her an understanding grin, but her face soon sobered as she looked around with longing. “I think we must go soon, but oh, I did want to stay and examine everything so I can tell Eadulf and my son all about it. Such a missed opportunity!” she moaned. “Would you like me to take these three brutes back on my own?”
“No!” Hilda and Nell replied in unison, Hilda adding anxiously, ““How would we ever know you’d got home safely, dear?”
Nell cleared her throat. “Bear in mind, Hilda, that we have no idea if any of us will escape from their clutches, once they have us again.”
Hilda gulped at these ominous words. “And we still have no idea what Arthur wanted of us.” She stared at the floor in thought, and added slowly, “Although.... maybe I do have some inkling….”
“I can imagine what these three wanted of us, my girl. Probably still do, given half a chance!”
Nell’s grim words caused Hilda to shudder. “D…do you want to bring them over here?” she asked
“Not on my own, thank you very much. Here, one of you take my torch. I’ve had an idea.”