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Hilda smiled back at Arthur and hoisted her bag more firmly on her shoulder. It would never do to lose it! Sr Ector led the way with a flaming brand, which he fixed in a bracket on the wall of the small, rather bare room. He left with a courtly bow and Nell snapped the door shut behind him. They heard an outburst of voices back in the Hall as they looked around and took in the small stone altar with its gold cross and the few hard benches scattered around. The room wasn’t too dark, for there was one small window, but the flames brightened the place considerably.

Feeling rather overwhelmed, they sank down onto the comfortless stools. Hilda shivered. The cell-like room was cold and dank and the flames of the torch offered little heat. She looked over at her friend with some suspicion. “Where did you learn to shoot so skilfully? To wound and not to kill?”

Nell cleared her throat. “Um, would you believe Colonel Black? After I purchased the thing, I asked him where I could get some tuition and he put me in touch with an old soldier from the Great War. He was a delightful man, but I kept it secret as I knew how you would worry.”

Nell’s eyes pleaded to be forgiven and Hilda smiled. “Would you really have killed Merlin?”

Nell shrugged, but her face was still grim. “At that moment in time? Oh yes, with the utmost pleasure. He was about to strike you down and possibly kill you. Would it have helped the situation?” Her laugh was dry and held no humour. “You both know the answer to that. But I’m no peace-maker.”

Hilda grasped Nell’s cold hand. “Silly girl! Of course you are! You wouldn’t be where you are today otherwise.”

Nell looked round. “Where? Here?”

“I was referring to your position as my deputy, you idiot! Come on, Nell! I need that quick brain of yours.”

“No, it’s your calm strength we need, and Fidelma’s logic – oh, and that very nifty trick of throwing men over her shoulder. Think what a useful skill that would be for our girls when their future boyfriends get out of hand.” She turned to Fidelma. “How do you do it? Could you teach us?”

Fidelma shook her head. “It would take too long and I rather think time is of the essence here. In my country, many centuries ago, there used to be learned men who journeyed far and wide to teach the ancient philosophies to our people, and they were often attacked by thieves and bandits. They believed it was wrong to carry arms, so developed a technique called troid-sciathaigid – battle through defence. As you saw, one uses the enemy’s own momentum to defeat him. I was taught it when I was young. Our missionaries also learn it, since they go to many dangerous places in their desire to teach about Jesus.”

“But you were so quick!” Nell said. “Even as they reached you they were being tossed over your shoulder.”

Fidelma smiled. “Not my shoulder but my hip, Nell! You do have to be quick, but the Druids practised the art of meditation. I have learned it as an invaluable aid to relaxing, despite our church leaders forbidding it. Applying it at the vital moment when I’m being attacked seems to slow time down and separate each moment, giving me room for manoeuvre. So I am at your disposal, should you wish to use me, Hilda.”

“Yes, what have you got brewing in that shrewd brain of yours?” Nell demanded.

Hilda bit her lip as she regarded their anxious faces. “I was trying to think of something that didn’t involve fighting the whole Saxon army out there - and the story of David and Goliath came to me.”

“We being David?” asked Nell in a dangerous voice. “Are you out of your tiny mind?”

“You just said it was shrewd!”

“At that point, I hadn’t heard what was in it. What do we use for pebbles, tell me, since that was all David had to help him?”

Hilda pursed her lips. “Well, there is that very adroit trick of Fidelma’s....”

“And there’s all those unimaginable things you put in your bag, Hilda,” Fidelma added excitedly. “Some of those would really give them a scare. They still scare me! It was a pity you couldn’t have brought that box which did all that talking without anyone being there.”

“Ye-e-e-s,” mused Nell, “but none of those is going to stop an army.”

Hilda’s face had never been more serious. “That’s why I mentioned the story. Goliath issued a challenge – single combat. But most of the Israelites were too terrified to respond.”

“Like I am! Oh, I can see where you’re taking us..... and I don’t like it one bit.”

“In my own time in Eirann, Nell, the use of champions in single combat, like Goliath, often settles our battles. It does save many lives.”

Nell laughed without humour. “But I doubt it will save ours, Fidelma.”

“Let me explain, Nell, and hopefully we can present Arthur with a plan.”

“In your dreams, my girl!” Nell glared at her friend.

“I don’t think so, Nell.” Fidelma felt she understood something of what was going on inside Hilda and she wanted Nell to understand it, too. “Why don’t we...?”

“We’re women, Fidelma,” Nell replied harshly. “We’re puny and weak compared to those giants out there, even if you do seem able to throw them over your shoulder. We were lucky to escape with our lives back at school, but Lady Luck has a mind of her own!”

“Haven’t you always said we’re the equal of any man?” Hilda asked softly.

“We are – just not of giants with swords and armour!”

“Women are the equal of men back in Eareann, and I defy you to say any different,” Fidelma taunted her.

Nell flushed. She hated to be the voice of reason, usually Hilda’s role, but what her friend was proposing was suicide.

“I’m no coward but this.... this just seems so hopeless,” she whispered.

“Aeschylus reminds us that excessive fear always makes men powerless to act,” Fidelma pointed out gravely.

“You mean the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?”

Hilda had been watching Nell’s face and knew exactly how her friend felt. “I’m not talking hand to hand fighting, Nell,” she murmured. “We use guile, all the guile we possess. And we use our modern knowledge to frighten them and give them pause... Think, Nell! Didn’t the Lord Himself tell His disciples to be as subtle as serpents?”

“So I can’t use the gun?”

“Doesn’t seem fair, does it?” Nell scowled. “But if things get too close for comfort and Fidelma or I are in danger, then yes..... shoot to kill!” Hilda’s voice was grim. “Their swords are deadly weapons, when all’s said and done, so we’re entitled to tip the odds a little in our favour.”

Nell’s grey eyes were dark. “It might be too late if I wait till you’re in danger. You could be dead before I squeezed the trigger.”

Hilda shivered again. “Better dead than left to live out our lives here, far from home.”

Nell’s heart clenched. She moved from her hard bench and knelt in front of Hilda. With a sigh, she chafed the cold hands. “I can’t argue with that, can I?”

“Death isn’t the end, Nell,” Fidelma affirmed. “We’re all Christians and know we would go to God. Though I would have liked to bid farewell to Eadulf and my son,” she added wistfully.

Nell shook herself and reached out so she was holding one of Fidelma’s hands, as well as one of Hilda’s. “We’re not going to die, though, are we? I’m sorry for sounding so defeatist. We’re doing this so we can all go back home – and they won’t release us to do that unless we help them, so I’m done with scoffing. And with fear! David had God on His side. Can we say we have any less? Hilda, I’m all ears! Fidelma and I are with you all the way.”

Hilda’s eyes were misty for she knew Nell was as scared as she was herself. She reached out with her free hand and took hold of Fidelma’s free hand to complete the circle, then looked down at her bag, which was on the floor between them.

“Our pebbles, my friends. May they serve us well.”

Chapter End Notes:
The paragraph about Fidelma's art of defence is taken from one of Peter Tremayne's Fidelma novels.

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