|“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.” Her steady eyes switched to the King. “Are we going to stand here and argue about this for ever, Arthur? Or are we going to concoct some kind of plan that will allow Guinevere to come back safely, so we three can return to our own times? We don’t, and never will, belong here. Your reputation for honour and chivalry lies in tatters before the fact that you would sacrifice the lives of three innocent women for your own selfish ends.”|
Hilda’s quiet voice was stinging by the time she finished speaking and Arthur writhed in his seat.
“Where is she, Arthur?” Fidelma’s voice stung as much as Hilda’s had. “Is she also a coward? Or does she not know about your evil scheme?”
Arthur shook off Merlin’s restraining hand and sprang to his feet, his face a mask of anger. “If anyone else had spoken to me as you did, lady, I would have had them killed. I am no coward, and neither is my queen.” His voice was harsh. “She does not know the real reason she has been banished, and nor do my brave knights, so please absolve them from blame.”
“But can we absolve you and Merlin?” There was no mercy in Fidelma’s glittering green eyes. “I speak the truth as I see it, no matter the consequences, Arthur. I called your scheme evil, and I meant it” She paused a moment before asking quietly, “Can you deny that you intended harm to the ladies Hilda and Helena – and to me? Or did you somehow convince yourself it was all honourable and necessary?”
The very air seemed to quiver before her accusations. Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again when he realised he had no answer. The knights seated at the table were still as statues. Did they wonder what sort of King they served, wondered Hilda.
“My Lord...,” hissed Merlin.
Arthur rounded on him. “Sit down, Merlin, and be quiet,” he spat. “You were the one who got us into this mess.”
“Why does that not surprise me?” muttered Nell.
Arthur’s anger faded. His voice was now trembling with hidden emotion. “You have justice on your side, lady, and you speak with great courage. Yes, our scheme was evil and we have ill-treated you – and intended a lot worse. My queen would be ashamed of me, and horrified that I did such a thing for her sake.”
The three women remained silent, refusing to give him absolution. What he and Merlin had intended had indeed been evil. Arthur waved a hand. “Please be seated, my ladies, and let us see if we can find that solution the lady Hilda mentioned.”
“The simple solution would be to let us go,” Nell replied, seating herself but remaining taut and ready, her gun still in her hand below the table. As far as she was concerned they were all villains and deserved punishment.
Hilda shook her head. “That would leave them no better off than before.”
“You’re very forgiving.” It was almost an accusation.
“I’m not, actually, Nell. Even I have my limits. Merlin went too far last time we were here and I nearly lost my life, but this... this was murder, pure and simple, and I won’t countenance such a thing, not when your life and Fidelma’s are in danger. I’d just like to find a solution to their predicament that would help everyone, ourselves included.”
“She’s right,” Fidelma added, before Nell could speak. “They got us here under false pretences, but let’s show them we’re better than they are and help them, as Hilda suggested. Isn’t that what true Christianity is all about?”
Nell slumped in her chair. “Great! One usually fights fire with fire, but I don’t see that Arthur or we have enough fire-power to stop the Saxons wreaking their revenge for Arthur’s victory. There are too many of them, even for Merlin’s magic to be of any use, and I’m sure more could be drafted in, if they felt it necessary.”
Hilda turned to Nell, her eyes alight. “Fire power! Magic!” she said slowly. “I believe I have the glimmerings of an idea! But first of all, Guinevere needs to be here.” She looked back at Arthur. “Where is she? Could you get her back here soon?”
“I can have her here before the day ends. She’s at....”
Hilda suddenly held up her hand, stopping him in his tracks. She glanced over at the Saxon captives. “This may seem a strange thing to ask at such a time, but bear with me. For some reason, while you and your court and Fidelma and we two can all understand each other, Nell and I don’t understand the Saxons at all. But I take it you can speak with them?”
Arthur frowned. “Over the years, we’ve learned to understand each other, yes.”
“What’s even stranger, Hilda, is that I learned some Saxon from Eadulf, yet I didn’t understand those three men at all.” Fidelma was fluent in Latin and Greek – even reading the Scriptures in their original Greek – and was also fluent on the language of the Britons.
“We’re two centuries earlier here, Fidelma, and language changes.” Hilda pointed out. “Also, maybe time travel affects things and that’s why you, Nell and I understand each other, and we all understand Arthur and his men.”
Fidelma giggled. “You speak as though you do it all the time.”
“I wish I’d never done it at all,” Hilda replied fervently. “I’m still not certain we’re not simply inhabiting each other’s dreams.”
“Oh, stop being fey, Hilda.” Nell was tapping her foot impatiently. “Come on, why did you interrupt Arthur and ask about languages?”
“I was thinking that maybe the captives should be moved out of here, if they can understand him. Why give secrets away to the enemy?”
They all stared at her as though she had suddenly sprouted wings. She raised one eyebrow, and Nell gave a short laugh. “Only you!”
Fidelma’s lips pursed in a soundless whistle. “I’m the lawyer, the one trained in logic for many years. So why didn’t I think of that? Well done, Hilda.”
Arthur gave the order for the captives to be taken to a secure place and guards to be set on watch. He gestured to the remaining knights to find their seats and turned back to Hilda.
“You are wise, my lady. Wiser than we deserve.” She inclined her head slightly. “Guinevere is in sanctuary at her cousin’s nunnery, but why would you wish me to bring her back into danger?”
“Well, I like that!” gasped Nell, fury in her face. “You didn’t worry about bringing us into danger, did you? So why not listen – and help us to help you?”
“You will treat the King with respect!” Merlin hissed, half rising from his seat.
“Why?” snapped Fidelma. “He’s treated us with no respect at all. We could have been his slaves, the way he dragged us here to use us as bait. The ladies Hilda and Helena have important status in their world and are worthy of the utmost respect. I am one of the chief lawyers in my land, as well as being a King’s daughter. Added to which, in their world, as in mine, women have equal rank with men.”
Merlin subsided. Nell grimaced. If only that last statement of Fidelma’s were as true of Britain in the 1940s as it was of Ireland in the seventh century!
Arthur grimaced. “You speak truly, lady. We offer our unreserved apologies.”
Nell barely acknowledged this further climb-down on the King’s part. Instead, she rounded on Hilda. “So what’s your plan? Why did my talk of fire-power inspire you?”
“I don’t really have a plan as yet, Nell, just an idea or two.” Hilda watched Arthur as she spoke. “But I think it might be safer if Guinevere were here rather than elsewhere.”
Arthur considered her for several seconds, as though trying to look into her mind for any duplicity. Finally, as though satisfied, with a nod to her he looked round. “Sir Launcelot, Sir Bedivere, take two guards with you and ride as swiftly as you can, but by the old route. Bring Guinevere back by that same route – and move carefully. My wife is very dear to me.”
The two knights rose to their feet, bowed and left the hall. Hilda’s face was sombre as she watched them leave, for she felt her vague ideas were foolhardy in the extreme. What on earth would Nell say when she heard them? Her eyes turned back to Arthur, who was watching her again with a frown.
Her lips twitched in a brief smile. “Thank you for trusting us with Guinevere’s life, my Lord.”
Her voice was warm. Despite her anger at his treachery, she understood his desperation, that same desperation she had experienced four years ago when Nell was running for her life from the Nazis. It was difficult to behave normally and be objective when one’s nearest and dearest were in danger.
“You I trust, lady Hilda, and maybe even the lady Fidelma, but I have doubts about the lady Helena. She would cut out our hearts, if she could.”
“Can you blame her, Arthur?” Hilda asked quietly, her hand gentling Nell, who was shaking with rage. “She loves me as a great friend, in the same way you love your knights, so your actions, and Merlin’s, gall her. She has no fear for herself, only for me – just as you fear for Guinevere.”
Nell’s cold hand clutched Hilda’s. Arthur’s intelligent blue eyes tried to read Hilda’s heart. She returned his scrutiny gravely, not giving an inch, and he relaxed. Those keen eyes of his moved to Nell’s gallant figure. “I apologise, my lady. I did you a grave injustice. Love makes us all do things against our very nature.”
Hilda started at how close his thoughts echoed her own, while Nell smiled grimly. “You can say that again, Arthur. I can assure you I don’t usually go around wanting to kill people. I’m a teacher, for goodness sake!”
Merlin hissed at her blunt words to the King, but the latter held up his hand. “Be still, Merlin. These are ladies of exceptional courage and should be treated with the greatest respect. After all, we are the ones who have put them in harm’s way. They are not the enemy!”
Fidelma’s voice rang out in annoyance. “Don’t forget, Merlin, that in my own land I have the right to sit in the presence of kings and even to address them without being invited to, not because I am a princess but because I am an advocate of the law to a very high degree. Your threats scare me not at all. Too many other people have tried it and failed.”
Merlin’s lips tightened, but the anger in his eyes subsided. Nell’s taut nerves relaxed a little. She glanced at Hilda and Fidelma and was shocked at how much at ease they seemed. Did they have no fear at all? If that was true, then they were idiots. But she knew Hilda was no idiot.
Fidelma caught her glance, read her mind and smiled comfortingly. “We’re trying to be logical, Nell. Does not Euripides tell us, ‘Logic can challenge and overthrow terror itself?’”
Nell stared at her, but Arthur surprised them with a bark of laughter. “Well quoted, my lady. Can you tell us where your logic is leading you?”
All eyes swivelled to Hilda. She sighed. “Despite my name, which means ‘battle maiden’, I am not happy with violence, Arthur. However, you live in a violent age, so I suppose we must fight fire with fire, as Nell said.” She fell silent, gathering her thoughts. “Will it take some time to bring Guinevere back? Then may I ask that you give us that same time to come up with a way out of your predicament – and our own?”
He stroked his beard, ignoring Merlin’s mutterings. “You have been nothing but gracious, my lady. I will give you that time. You would like some privacy, I take it. Well, through that door is my private chapel. It’s chilly but fairly comfortable.”
Hilda bowed her head. “Excellent! We will try not to waste your time or try your temper too much.”
The grin which Arthur flashed at her softened his face considerably, and Nell discerned the great humanity in him. Her anger dissipated. He was right! Fear for a loved one made everyone act in a way that was alien to their very nature.
Hilda smiled back at Arthur and hoisted her bag more firmly on her shoulder. It would never do to lose it!
Author's Chapter Notes:
Thank you for the comments, Beecharmer and Sqirrel, amd also those who are reading this second posting of Trinity.