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“Why is he glowering at us like that?” murmured Nell, her lips scarcely moving.

“I have no idea, but he bears watching very carefully.” Hilda was afraid, but could not have said why.

Arthur straightened in his chair and turned his head their way. “I should thank you. You helped my knights overcome them. You have…. er, interesting weapons.”

Hilda unobtrusively dropped the paperweight and lighter back in her bag. Nell’s arm fell to her side, hiding the gun in the folds of her skirt.

Fidelma grounded the sword and waited, but her body was still coiled and ready for action. She shrugged when she heard Arthur’s words. “Publilius Syrus tells us that necessity can turn any weapon to advantage.”

“And you might call this a necessity,” added Nell. She frowned as she looked round. “But tell me, Arthur, where are the rest of the attackers? There are fewer here now than there were at first.”

Arthur remained silent, stroking his beard. Merlin’s deep voice reached across the room to them. “I suspect some of them turned and fled in fear when you disappeared so suddenly – you and your three captors. Perhaps you could explain to us what magic you employed to do that?” His voice purred with malice. “You have always claimed to know no magic.”

“Perhaps you could explain how you knew we had disappeared,” Nell replied tartly. “We were outside when that happened. You were somewhat engaged in here.”

The malice in Merlin’s dark eyes deepened. “Do not try to be clever with me, lady.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it, Merlin. I was merely asking a question, one you seem rather unwilling to answer.” Nell’s voice was taunting, and his lips compressed.

“You must admit you all re-appeared as if from nowhere in the middle of the Hall,” Arthur intervened, trying to smile but not really succeeding. “One moment you weren’t there. The next moment, there were six of you tumbling on my floor in a heap! So where did you take those men? And how did you take them, if you say you have no magic?”

“Why do you accuse us of taking them anywhere, Arthur?” Hilda took up the cudgels. “They were the ones who tried to run away with us, not the other way round. We did what we could to extricate ourselves from their clutches, but I can assure you there was no magic, so we have no idea how what happened did happen.”

“Perhaps it was your own magic turning against you.” Fidelma’s eyes and voice were glacial. “Or should I say, Merlin’s magic?” Merlin’s dark, smoky eyes glowered at her, but she ignored the implicit threat and added imperiously, “As she has just pointed out, the lady Nell asked a question of you. Instead of answering, you try to turn the tables and accuse us of something untoward. You also insinuate that some of those men ran away because they were frightened by our disappearance. That astonishes me. They are tall, strong men – taller than I personally have ever seen - with excellent weapons and horses, so why run away? They don’t seem like cowards.”

Merlin’s hand tightened on his staff. Arthur’s eyes were unreadable.

“Perhaps the men didn’t run away, Fidelma.” Hilda’s rich voice murmured. “Perhaps they ran towards something. Perhaps there was some reason why our disappearance would alarm them. Not frighten them, alarm them! There’s a world of difference. Perhaps they needed to warn someone of something.”

Merlin’s hand whitened on his staff. Arthur made to rise, but sank down again in his seat. “I don’t know to what you could be referring, my lady Hilda.”

“No? But you do know who the attackers are! And you also know why they appeared at exactly the same time as we did. Rather a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?” She let that thought linger a moment. “Are they Saxons?” she rapped out.

Arthur started. “How could you know this? You are not of our time.”

“No, we’re from a time far in the future, but we know the history of this land right back to a time even before your own.” Hilda’s voice was quiet and calm, reaching to the further corners of the Hall. “We know a great deal about all our kings and queens – and what happened to each and every one, including you.”

Arthur’s hand balled into a fist where it lay on the round table. He drew a deep breath and nodded towards the captives. “These men are the very best the Saxons have, unusually tall, very strong and ready to fight anyone. I have no idea how or where they found them. Since you seem to know so much, I will admit that the Saxons are driving us further and further from the lands we once held. We have fought against them for many years and I have lost good knights to them, but there are too many of them and they are too strong for us. So my knights and I have ended up here on this rocky coast in the land of Cornwall, while others have fled to the Wales or over to Ireland.” His eyes flickered towards Fidelma.

“I know who the Saxons are, Arthur, and what they have done.” Fidelma said sadly. “They would do their worst in my own land of Eareann, if they could. However, not everything is so black and white. There are good Saxons, just as there are evil Britons. My husband is a Saxon and he is a good and honest man. He is a Christian monk, a religieux, as I am, but he is just as brave and courtly as you or your knights.”

There was a good deal of muttering from the knights at her words but she stared at them haughtily, a princess to her core.

Hilda’s voice broke into the noise. “Are these some of Hengist’s army, Arthur? I know you defeated them in battle after they drove many of the Britons into Wales. Are they here for revenge?” Arthur’s silence answered her. His knights grew still. “And if that is true, which your silence assures me it is, why did those men make specifically for us and make off with us? Three women they did not know and who had not harmed them in any way, and who had only arrived here just before they appeared. Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”

The silence in the Hall grew heavier and stretched out tautly. She moved closer to the table and faced Arthur across its vast expanse, standing straight and tall and appearing invincible in spirit. Arthur shifted uncomfortably under that intense scrutiny. Merlin hissed and his eyes smouldered. If he could have harmed her, he would have done it without a second thought. Nell stepped forward to stand beside her friend. She sensed danger in the air and would protect Hilda with her dying breath, although her grey eyes expressed how puzzled she was.

Arthur and his wizard were mute, so Fidelma moved forward to stand on the other side of Hilda. “Since you refuse to answer those questions, Arthur, let’s try this one instead.” She spoke with quiet authority. “Why were you not fighting beside your men just now? You’re no coward! I can testify to that.”

The silence grew heavier. Even the prisoners seemed to wait on Arthur’s response. The King swallowed and seemed to glace at Merlin as though for help.

“Could it be that you wanted your men to lose, my Lord Arthur?” Fidelma’s incredulous voice cut the silence like a whip. “Were you hoping that, if these warriors overpowered your knights, they could then make off with us again, only more successfully this time?”

Everyone in that hall heard Nell gasp out loud at it dawned on her what was being suggested.

“Seneca tells us that the sun also shines on the wicked, Nell.” Fidelma was very fond of quoting aphorisms from Latin or Greek or the Bible. “And someone around here has been very wicked, it would seem.”

“Where’s Guinevere, Arthur?” Hilda’s mellow voice was soft as the finest silk, but her face was resolute. Arthur visibly started, and drew himself up to his full height. Another angry hiss escaped Merlin. “She was here the last two times you…. invited us, shall we say? She was extremely good to us. Where is she this time, Arthur?”

Hilda’s soft tones seemed to stab the king. He deflated before their eyes. Another and angrier hiss escaped Merlin. Nell stared at Hilda and Fidelma in some confusion. What on earth were they suggesting?

“What colour in Guinevere’s hair now, Arthur?” This voice was sharper and the startling green eyes were transformed into icy crystals.

Fidelma spoke as to an equal, as indeed she was, and Arthur’s eyes flickered uneasily from her to Hilda and Nell and back again. The three women, all tall and stately, all in their thirties, all used to command in spite of their comparative youth, traded him look for look. Merlin’s fingers writhed round his staff, giving clear evidence of his longing to fling it at their heads. He made do with some rather original curses instead.

“There is an ancient proverb that a thousand curses never tore a shirt, Merlin,” Fidelma warned the wizard bitingly. “We laugh at your curses.”

Hilda’s voice purred. “Are you afraid to convict yourself out of your own mouth, my Lord? The other times we were here, your Queen’s hair was a coppery colour, much like Fidelma’s, but time seems to have passed and you are visibly older, your hair and beard greying.” She smiled, the trap closed. “So Guinevere must also have aged. Is her hair white now like my lady Helena’s, by any chance?”

She looked at Nell as she spoke. The latter frowned at first, but comprehension soon dawned in that quick brain of hers. “Wha…a…a….t? Hilda, you can’t mean….?”

“Sh, Nell, let’s not pre-empt the man. He might be willing to admit the truth!”

Fidelma laughed scornfully. “Hah! He won’t do that while he has Merlin at his side to sort out his problems for him. It was your idea, wasn’t it, Merlin?”

“Your wits are addled,” spat Merlin.

Hilda’s eyes were polished pewter. “On the contrary, Merlin, our minds are clear as crystal. We know from bitter experience how you use people for your own ends – and leave them for dead when their usefulness is ended.”

Her soft voice sent icy shivers down Nell’s back and she gripped her gun hard, ready for instant action if need be. In this mood, Hilda was very dangerous.

Fidelma took up the tale, her voice as cold as the water in a mountain stream. “You had warning, somehow, that these Saxons wanted their pound of flesh. Taking captive your beloved Queen would be a fine revenge for their defeat at your hands. You would be helpless and at their mercy. You decided that could never happen, so you and Merlin concocted a fine plan between you. We’re expendable, as far as you’re concerned. Right, my lady Hilda?”

“Right, Fidelma! Send Guinevere away somewhere safe and bring us here in her place. The Saxons might only know she has copper-coloured hair or they might have been warned it’s now white, but that doesn’t really matter, if you’re going to provide them with several choices. Let them take all three and decide afterwards which one is the true queen.” Hilda’s voice sank to a whisper. “The fact that we’d all be killed meant nothing to either of you.”

“Shall I shoot them both for you, Hilda?” Nell’s voice was harsh with rage and shock.

“It’s an idea, Nell, but I’m afraid Arthur’s knights would never let us live, if you did that. You would run out of bullets and those who were left would still have their swords.” Hilda’s voice was dry and equable. Only Nell could hear the rare anger.

“You left the lady Hilda to die last time we were here, Merlin,” Fidelma declared. “Now you try it again. Do you have so much hate inside you? What has she ever done to deserve such a fate?”

“He can’t intimidate her, Fidelma, nor enrage her enough that she makes a mistake. He recognises a strong and stubborn spirit who will never yield to his malice. He’s afraid of her.”

The contempt in Nell’s crisp voice brought Merlin’s burning eyes round to focus on her. “But I’m not afraid of you, lady. Your anger is all too easy to arouse. I can read your face like an open book.”

He raised his staff and pointed it at her but, before he could do anything with it, a heavy object flew through the air and sent it flying from his hand. The staff clattered to the floor, while the paperweight fell to the table and rolled back to Hilda. Merlin stabbed a finger in her direction. Instantly, Nell and Fidelma stepped in front of her. Nell raised the gun and shot at the table where he stood. The bullet scored a groove in the wood and he took a hasty step back.

“If you hurt her in any way whatsoever, Merlin, I will kill you.” Nell’s grim voice spoke her truth. Her eyes glowed with passionate fury. “You can see what this weapon does to wood. What would it do to your tender skin if I fired? The lady Hilda has already pointed out that your knights would then cut us to ribbons, but it would be worth it, just to wipe your evil presence off the face of the earth.”

Merlin’s hand fell to his side, but his eyes glittered coldly.

“Let me through, Nell.” Hilda’s voice was still gentle. She stepped between the other two and looked across the round table. “Nell’s word is her bond, Merlin, so I suggest you listen to her very carefully.”

******



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