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….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.”

Fidelma took the torch very gingerly, still not sure it wouldn’t burn her hand right off, and shone it straight into the men’s eyes. Nell held on to the gun with one hand. With her other, she opened the handbag lying on her desk and took out cigarettes and lighter. She tossed them across to Hilda.

“Here, catch! Get your own as well. It can’t hurt to take stuff with us which they know nothing about. I can think of several ways we can use these to keep the natives at bay, and that includes Arthur and his minions.”

Hilda caught the objects flying through the air, emptied her own bag out onto the desk and dropped into it both Nell’s and her own cigarettes and lighter.

Nell frowned. “What’s wrong with your pockets?”

“If you remember, I was wearing a fetching little number back there which revealed rather more than it hid,” Hilda reminded her. “Presumably I’ll be in that again when we get back there. Let’s hope I can hang on to this bag, or we’re sunk.”

“Good thinking, Batman!”

“And I hope I still have these wondrous books.” Fidelma patted her pockets.

Hilda scrabbled in a drawer of her desk, held up a box and shook it. “These might help, as well. Goodness knows why I kept them. Oh, and some matches as well as our lighters. Let me have yours, too. Then there’s my own torch, in case yours runs out. Have you got any batteries over there?”

Nell rootled in her own top drawer and tossed two across. She opened another drawer and took out a small box. “More bullets might be useful, methinks!”

Hilda gaped. “I thought you said you only had two left.”

Bang! A large splinter of wood flew off the wooden mantelpiece and lodged itself in the neck of one of the men, drawing blood. He gave a loud yell and clapped his hand over it. Fidelma shone the torch right in his eyes and he took a step back.

“Rosalie’s going to think we’ve been invaded, after all, when she sees blood and splintered fireplaces,” mused Hilda. “What on earth do I tell her?”

“You may not be here to tell her anything ever again, unless we can extricate ourselves from Merlin and his plotting.”

Looking almost bereft, Hilda stared hard at Nell before returning to cramming items in her bag. Concentrate on the job in hand, she told herself, and don’t borrow trouble.

“Only one left now!” Nell growled, refusing to panic. “Here, catch this lot! And this....”

“This bag’s getting rather heavy,” Hilda murmured, dropping in the box of bullets and the other small packet Nell had thrown over. She quickly snatched up scissors, pencils, notebook and sellotape, even her bottle of ink

“No idea what help these will be, but they’ll be new to them. Anything else you can think of?”

“Hand grenades? A cannon? A few soldiers with rifles? You’re taking this very calmly, almost like you’re planning a picnic.” Nell spoke in wonder.

Hilda shrugged. “Not much use in panicking, is there? We either come back or we don’t! Might as well use these last precious moments profitably before those three over there decide we’re no real threat to them and start agitating.”

“Spoken like a true headmistress,” Nell remarked. “You make them sound like our naughtiest pupils.”

“What is a headmistress?” Fidelma asked, looking Hilda up and down as though it were something attached to her and visible to the naked eye.

“What?” Nell asked absent-mindedly, her sharp eyes never leaving the men. “Oh, it’s the woman in charge of a school, the one who gives the orders.”

“Thought that was you, dear,” Hilda muttered under her breath. Nell snorted.

“You never used that word to describe your work when we met before.” Fidelma had been pondering Nell’s words. “You mean you’re like an Abbess directing things in a convent.”

Nell’s eyes lit up with glee. “Got it in one, Fidelma! The Abbess is Hilda’s nickname.”

“Nickname?”

“What the pupils call her behind her back. I can’t think why they chose it.”

Fidelma clear green eyes scrutinised Hilda once more. “Oh, I think I can, Nell. It fits her admirably. When I was studying law, one of my teachers was a Brehon or judge who we used to refer to as God, because he clearly thought he knew everything.”

Hilda bristled. Nell hooted. “I think you’ve just been demoted, dear!”

Hilda grimaced and looked down again. “Enough of this badinage! Knife,” she added and popped that in the bag.

“Here, have my penknife, too. No, on second thoughts, I think I’ll carry it in my other hand.”

They looked around, one last time, for anything that might frighten people of the fifth century and buy them some precious time. With a rather hysterical gurgle, Hilda popped in the flowery paperweight and her small handbag mirror.

“It’s getting a bit like Mary Poppins’ bag,” said Nell. “How about some elastic bands?”

“How about some handcuffs?” retorted Hilda, holding up said items.

Nell gaped at her. “Where on earth…?”

“I can’t think right now, but in they go.”

“Um, Hilda, is there a key?”

Hilda shook her head mournfully and their eyes met for a moment in complete understanding.

Fidelma laughed. “You two are beyond anything I’ve ever known. You calmly keep three wild men at bay, you go about preparing to go back into goodness knows what danger for my sake, and neither of you bothers to look the least bit frightened. Beneath your jokes is that steadfast love for each other, and somehow it keeps you going. I will be forever in your debt.”

“We have to get you out of there first, my dear Fidelma. As to not looking frightened, I can assure you I’m quaking at the knees.” Hilda shivered to prove her words.

“Make that two of us,” Nell admitted. “But it’s got to be done, so what’s the point of repining? Think we have enough in that bag, Hilda?”

Hilda picked it up. “It will have to do. Put any more in and the strap will break. Pity we can’t take some of Matey’s doses.”

“Or, indeed, Matey herself! She’d make short work of the natives, you must admit!”

Hilda hooted and swung the heavy bag over her shoulder, staggering under its weight. She marched purposefully round the desk to face the clock and waited, her foot tapping nervously. Nell indicated to the men to do the same but they folded their arms and stared straight back at her. She aimed carefully and pressed the trigger. Instantly, one of the men roared and clapped his hand to his ear. Blood trickled through his fingers. Hilda grimaced.

I can’t believe I’m standing here in my office and allowing Nell to shoot people. In fact, I don’t believe any of this is really happening.

“Let’s hope Rosalie thinks we’re just listening to a play on the wireless!” she said out loud. “She won’t believe a car backfiring a second time.”

Nell opened her drawer, grabbed some more bullets and re-loaded the pistol while Fidelma moved nearer to the men, shone the light in their eyes and indicated the desk. They still refused to move. Her own last words seemed to trigger an idea in Hilda’s mind. She ran across the room to the wireless and switched it on, turning up the volume as she did so. Loud voices instantly assaulted the air. Fidelma squawked in shock but the effect on the three men was electrifying. They straightened up and looked round with wide, terrified eyes. Seeing nothing and no one to account for the new voices, they dropped like stones to the floor and crouched there with their arms over their heads, moaning in terror.

Did they think Merlin’s long arm had reached this far and cast some sort of spell, wondered Hilda. Or were they frightened of unseen spirits wafting about the room? She turned the switch and silence fell, then switched it on again, at the same time as Fidelma tapped the men on the shoulders. They shrank away from her, but she leaned down and shone the torch right into their eyes, indicating that it was time to move. They were as frightened of the fire she apparently held in her hand as they were of the voices from non-existent people and they staggered to their feet and shambled across the room, their eyes darting hither and yon, their arms still over their heads. Nell followed with the gun trained on their backs.

Hilda turned off the wireless, patting it in thanksgiving, and returned to the desk, where she stared with regret at the pretty little clock. She had so little left of the mother she had loved so much and lost too early in life. Even her face was now only dimly recalled.

Nell clasped her hand. “It has to be done, Hilda, but I know how much it will hurt.”

Look after us, Mother. Since you seem to have dusted the clock with magic, maybe you can use that magic to bring each of us safely home.

“Are we ready, folks?” Nell breathed. “Then stand as close together as you can…”

She had scarcely finished speaking when a rushing wind scooped them up…..

*****



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