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Author's Chapter Notes:
Thanks for the comments, both.

Beecharmer, keep your eagle eye open!! *grins*

….There was a sharp intake of breath all around, and Nell gulped. Had she gone too far? To everyone’s astonishment, Cerdic laughed out loud and slapped his thigh.

“You are right, lady, though it was a brave thing to say in this company.” He winked at her. “I have learned from all three of you just what women are and I will never again take them for granted. Instead, I will try to honour what they do.” He tossed a glance at Fidelma, who was staring open-mouthed at this volte-face. “You have a fine temper, my lady, and could also take a lesson from your friend. You’re not afraid of anything or anyone, it seems to me.”

“In my land, a king’s daughter – or sister – is taught never to show fear, and to do all that a king’s son can do. But then, in my land, women are counted the equal of men and are respected by them. As to my temper, ingratitude and unfairness can always be guaranteed to stoke it, and you were ungrateful to the lady Helena and unfair to Werbit.”

Her smouldering eyes taunted him. She had no respect for this man, despite his sudden change of heart. She could only hope he spoke the truth when he said he had learned from them – and that he would look after his wounded men. The augurs did not seem good!

“What was the second thing you mentioned we have taught you?” asked Nell, stepping into the yawning breach.

Fidelma’s animosity was there for all to see, and Nell began to wonder how often Hilda had to step into the breach when her Senior Mistress’s temper was all fired up.

Cerdic’s dark eyes turned back her way. “Each of you, in your own way, accused me of not being a good leader. I would argue with you about that, but you are right that I never saw it as my duty to care for my men, whether they were killed, captured or wounded. Weeping for them, worrying about them, feeding them, tending their wounds.... all those I saw as women’s work.”

He looked down and considered the unconscious Werbit. When he looked up again, he met Nell’s steady grey eyes with some embarrassment. “But I will admit that if I had not threatened your leader in the way I did, then Werbit would not have been injured trying to kill Guinevere. We were both acting wrongly, lady, so I will think about all you have said and done. Will you be staying here for a while?”

“No, Cerdic,” answered a deep voice from the door to Guinevere’s rooms. “They will be going home very shortly.”

Nell whirled round and stared at Merlin, her heart thudding painfully. His eyes were glowing as they turned her way. He nodded, and Nell felt such a rush of relief that she had to hang on to the table as the world spun round her. They were going home and Hilda was well enough to go with them! A sob from Fidelma brought her back to earth. She saw her comrade’s weary face relax at the thought of going home to her husband and son Fidelma took a deep breath, her green eyes pools of repentance as they fastened on the Saxon leader.

“I apologise for my anger, Cerdic. You admitted you were in the wrong. I would like to do the same. My anger and resentment befit neither a king’s daughter nor a religious. I have learned much about myself in this battle. I have learned even more from my association with the ladies Helena and Hilda. They are true heroines, yet with gentle, peaceful spirits, something I need to cultivate. I hope you will remember us without too much bitterness, for we have cost you the lives of two men.”

Cerdic studied her and recognised her distress. “No bitterness, lady. You only did what any warrior would do. You and your companions outwitted my champions, when appearances would have given them the advantage. It was a fair fight.”

While they were talking, Guinevere appeared with more linen cloths. Nell rescued the scissors yet again and cut long strips from the cloth, which she then proceeded to wrap round Werbit's shoulder and across his body. She removed some of the safety pins from Hilda’s sewing case and fastened the strips securely with them. Cerdic and the knights craned forward to examine these small, silver objects and she explained their purpose.

She put the unused ones back in the case along with the scissors, thread and needles, and handed it all over to Guinevere. “These items may come in useful sometimes in the future, my lady. Don’t worry! Hilda won’t miss it as she can easily acquire another.”

Guinevere held it close with such reverence that Nell had a feeling that that little sewing kit would become one of the queen’s most treasured belongings.

A groan came from Werbit. His eyes opened and he peered around groggily. Cerdic leaned over to speak with him, and Arthur moved nearer. He was feeling rather overcome by all the events of the day. He wondered how on earth the lady Helena, worried as she was about her friend, had remained cool and collected enough to harangue the Saxon leader so calmly and then remove that strange object from Werbit’s shoulder. She and the other two women were surely stronger and braver than any of his knights. They were also women of great integrity and good humour.

“”We’ll let him rest over there with your wounded champion, Cerdic, and I’m sure Merlin will look after them both once he has seen to the ladies.”

He nodded to the knights standing round the table. Very gently, they lifted Werbit up and carried him over to the corner, where a bed was prepared for him beside the other Saxon. Cerdic saw his man was being well looked after, so turned to the King.

“I concede defeat, Arthur,” he said in that gravelly voice of his. “I give you my word that your Queen is safe from us from now on. I would be a fool to pit my men against such champions as you produced today. Are you willing to release my men? You would appear to have a goodly number. Some you imprisoned earlier in the day, and some you took from me just before the contest began. It would please me to have them all back.”

Arthur turned to Lionel and handed him two large iron keys. His eyes were stern as they turned back to the Saxon leader. “I will free them, Cerdic, but they must leave here without their weapons. You have given me no good reason to trust any of you. We will keep you, their leader, here until they have put several miles between themselves and my castle. Some of my knights will go with them part of the way. Once my knights return, you too will be released. You may take your two injured men with you, or you may leave them here to be tended.”

Cerdic pondered the question, but in the end shook his head. “We move further afield soon, so I should take them with me.”

“Don’t forget about those stitches,” Nell warned him.

“Then once my knights return,” added Arthur, “you may have horse and cart to transport your two men and your weapons. Are we agreed?”

Cerdic nodded and walked across to his men. Nell rounded on Merlin, who had drawn near.

“Tell me....” she breathed.

“Go and see for yourself.” His wise, deep-set eyes promised her nothing but good. She searched those eyes with a frown and he smiled his understanding. “When I told the lady Hilda of my admiration for you all, I spoke nothing but the truth. You may trust me when I say she is now out of pain and feeling much better.”

“I’m not sure I know how to thank you….” She held up a hand, went across to the chair where Cerdic had been imprisoned and retrieved both handcuffs and key. She returned to Merlin and handed him the key. “Keep that, and the handcuffs. You might find them very useful in the future. Call them a gift, in return for all your singing.”

Laughter rumbled in his chest and he tossed the key in his hand. “Pity we can’t get our blacksmiths to replicate them, along with the scissors.”

“Surely it’s not beyond the power of your magic,” she teased, light-headed with relief.

He winked and turned his gaze on Fidelma. “You seem very subdued, my lady. All that fire of yours has been dampened down.” Nell glanced at Fidelma and saw how true it was. She was drooping badly. “May I suggest you come and rest with the lady Hilda?”

On the instant, Nell readied herself to run towards Guinevere’s rooms – but was stopped in her tracks by Cerdic’s voice. He had crept up on her when she thought he was still with his men. He bowed to Arthur.

“I laughed to myself when I first saw your champions, Arthur. I thought my men would have an easy victory. I have never been so wrong in my life. Even stranger is the fact that those same champions of yours turned to healing us, once they had defeated us. What alchemy is this? You chose them well, my lord.”

“I didn’t choose them, Cerdic,” Arthur said, his face wearing a look of shame. “Merlin and I wronged these ladies. We brought them here under duress, as you know, and yet they were the ones who made the offer to fight. I’d like to think I could make up to them for our mistake, but I fear that would never be possible.”

Cerdic examined the two victorious champions, but they were impatient now, longing to see Hilda and go home. They had had enough! Cerdic, however, was to astonish them yet again.

“While I’m still held captive here, may I ask a favour?” They stared at him, non-plussed. “May I see your leader? I would learn from her. You two are uncommon women, so she, as your leader, must be even more uncommon and extraordinary - if I am to trust your words.”

Shocked as she was, Nell perked up, and her lips twitched. She wondered what Hilda would have made of those sentiments. She would certainly have denied the truth of them vehemently. This should prove very interesting, thought Nell, if Hilda was well enough. She glanced at Merlin, who inclined his head slightly.

“Be my guest, Cerdic!” There was a distinct twinkle in Nell’s eyes. “I have a feeling you and she will deal very well together. All I ask is that you be quiet and gentle, for she was much hurt by her fall.”


*****



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