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Author's Chapter Notes:
Have just realised I made an awful mistake and didn't post the end of Hilda's and Nell's conversation before posting this. You must have wondered why Nell ran out of the room. I will try and get that conversation inserted. Grr!

Thank you both for your thoughts. Squirrel, it seems you saw more in that conversation than even the writer saw! *winks*

Nell turned away and almost ran from the room, so afraid was she of breaking down completely. She would be of no use to Werbit if she did that. Action was the thing....

When she re-entered the Hall, it seemed to her that time had stood still since she had left. No one had moved from their position, although Guinevere now stood in the circle of Arthur’s arms. Nell turned to Sir Gawaine, who was still near the door.

“Could you go back in there, Gawaine, just in case Merlin has need of anything? The lady Hilda is not doing very well....” Her voice broke.

He clasped her shoulder. “Take heart, my lady. Merlin will not let you down. I’ll do what I can for them both while you tend to that wound of Werbit’s.”

He slipped back into Guinevere’s quarters and Nell walked across to the table, where Fidelma was still keeping watch over Werbit. The bruises on Fidelma’s neck looked even darker than before and Nell dreaded to think how much they must hurt. Despite that, the younger woman’s face was more relaxed, her green eyes brighter. So! Merlin had done as Nell and Hilda asked, and done it to perfection, it would seem.

There was definite magic in that song of his! Please God it would also remove that sudden and terrible pain in Hilda’s back, as well as all her other aches and pains.

Fidelma saw the grey eyes darken. “Nell? How’s Hilda now?”

“That man hurt her so badly, Fidelma.... “Nell’s voice broke and she shook her head, but after a moment or two she regained her composure. “Hopefully, Merlin can help her injuries, bad as they seem. He seems to have done wonders for yours.”

Fidelma took Nell’s cold hands in hers. “He has enormous respect for Hilda now, Nell, so you have to trust that he will restore her. I’ve never heard anything like that song of his. You and I may not believe in magic, but he certainly has some power we know nothing about.”

“Thank God,” Nell replied fervently. She freed her hands and ran them over her face as though trying to rub away her fears for Hilda. “Right, let’s see if I can work some magic of my own on this shoulder of Werbit’s! That should take my mind off Hilda for at least a short while.”

She laid Hilda’s needlework case on the table, opened it and took out what she thought she might need. At that moment, Sir Kay returned to the Hall with an earthenware pot in his hand. He set it beside the little case and Nell saw the water in it was steaming nicely, as she had asked. She dropped in a couple of needles to join the penknife lying at the bottom of the pot.

“Sir Kay, could you bring another pot of hot water, so the lady Fidelma and I can wash our hands? As hot as you can make it, please.” He nodded and left the Hall once more. Nell turned to Arthur. “May I borrow the scissors back for the moment, Sire?”

Arthur handed them over and she dropped those into the water, as well. None of it was as sterile as she would have wished but it was better than nothing. She considered Cerdic’s scowling face for a moment, then took the little key from the case and held it up.

“I can use this to free you, Cerdic, but I will do so on one condition only. I need you to hold Werbit still with those strong hands of yours, because when I cut into his flesh, and stitch him up afterwards, he will be in a great deal of pain and will struggle against me.”

Cerdic glowered at Werbit. “Why should I help him?” he growled with contempt. “He did a very stupid thing and is no longer worthy to be my second-in-command. So what do I care if you hurt him?”

“He was only copying you - his leader!” blazed Fidelma, her eyes incandescent with fury. “You put a knife to the lady Hilda’s throat before the fight even started. She retaliated and hurt you, to save her own life. Yet who was the one who cared for your injury? The very lady you threatened. While you.... you refuse to help one of your very own. You are despicable!”

Fidelma’s whole body was shaking with her rage, fuelled as it was by her own feelings of guilt at having killed one of the Saxon champions. Cerdic looked uncomfortable at this level of anger directed at him, but merely shrugged and looked away.

Nell laid a gentle hand on Fidelma’s arm and drew her close. “He’s not worth your anger, Fidelma,” she said quietly, her grey eyes steady on Cerdic. “He cares for nothing and no one. He deals in death, so why would he bother about the life of an injured man, even one of his own? He’ll move on and leave Werbit behind to die.”

Cerdic strained to pull his arm free of the cuff. “I’m not a monster,” he hurled at her.

“No?” asked Nell, trying to keep her voice as gentle as she knew Hilda’s would have been. “All I ask is that you help one of your men, but you’re not a real leader, are you, not when things go wrong? A real leader would have helped without being asked.”

He stopped pulling against the cuffs and glared at her, his deep brown eyes murderous. “Who are you to tell me what I am or am not? You are nothing to me!”

“Even though I’m about to try and save Werbit’s life? Is he also nothing to you? Shall I let him die instead?” Nell’s voice remained quiet and reasonable, and it seemed to calm him down a little.

“He was a fool,” he ground out, “but I would have you save him, if you can. After all, you were the one who hurt him.” Nell’s mouth gaped open in shock at this injustice. “Just don’t expect me to help! I’m a leader. It is up to other people to help those who are hurt.”

“Is that so? Well, let me tell you something, Cerdic. The lady you threatened with a knife, the one who then tended your injury, is my leader - and she is a true leader. If one of her tribe does something stupid, she doesn’t turn her back on that person. She spends time with them, forgives them, tried to make them understand where they went wrong, so they won’t do such a thing again. If they are injured in any way, she is always the first to tend to them, even if it was by their own fault they were injured....”

Nell paused, for her quiet voice was beginning to wobble. Hilda might never be her leader again! She might die from her injuries. How would she, Nell, carry on alone?

She took a deep breath and forced herself to focus on Cerdic. “That’s how a true leader behaves, Cerdic. He ministers to his people, to both their minds and their bodies, and so they learn to do likewise. They see how it spreads harmony among the tribe. Can you say that about yourself and your people? Whoever we are, we take our example from our leader. Werbit took his example from you. After what you tried to do to my leader, he thought you would be pleased by his actions in trying to kill Guinevere and Merlin. He doesn’t deserve that you leave him to his fate and make no effort to help him, when he simply tried to do as you do.”

Nell’s usually crisp voice was soft and compelling, and Cerdic stared at her as though he’d fallen under a spell. Those grave grey eyes of hers commanded obedience. The others were silenced by the quiet power emanating from her stoic figure. Her face was swollen and bruised, she looked bone-weary, and yet she stood up with such spirit to this brutal man.

Cerdic’s eyes fell away and he bowed his head as though in thought. With a grunt he lifted it again. “Undo me!” he growled. “I will help. You are right. He’s a good man and I need him.”

Arthur seated Guinevere and came across to Nell. “The lady Hilda would be proud of you, my lady.”

“She’s the one I learned it all from, Arthur, and every word I said is true. She never puts herself first, but tends and mends us all. It is I who am the proud one – proud to work and live beside her and to count her a friend.” She handed him the little key. “Would you do the honours?”

He took it and moved over to Cerdic. Nell still had her arm round Fidelma and the latter now crumpled. “I’m sorry, Nell,” she whispered. “I’m too quick to anger, and find it hard to restrain my sarcasm. Eadulf is always telling me to stop and take heed before I speak or act, but I won’t be told.”

“You and me both, dear!” sighed Nell. “Sometimes I hurt my pupils with my own sarcastic tongue when my quick temper gets the better of me. But I’m learning, very slowly, from Hilda. She’s shown me that brow-beating people yields nothing. Softly, softly gets results for her every time.” She laughed wryly “Mind, she can outdo me in icy sarcasm when she sees the need, but she’s known for her mercy and her gentle touch. Sometimes it galls me and I call her too soft-hearted, but I know, deep down, that she has the right of it.”

She glanced anxiously towards the door to Guinevere’s rooms, but knew she could do nothing for Hilda, so shook herself hard. Come on, dry your eyes. I need your help.”


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