|Arthur looked from one face to another as the three women stood side by side across the table from him half an hour later. He admired their resolute courage. |
“You’ve come to a decision!”
“It may save you and Guinevere and your little kingdom here,” said Hilda. “On the other hand, all it may do is bring about our deaths. But you and Merlin have left us little choice in the matter, unless you’re prepared to send us back to our own time immediately.”
“Never!” hissed Merlin.
“I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means,” Nell ground out.
“You hope in vain, Nell,” Fidelma said crisply, her eyes steady on the wizard. “He would like nothing better than to see us die here.”
“That will not happen, my lady,” Arthur promised her. “Whatever happens, I will see you safe. You have my solemn oath.”
“I’d like to think you could keep your word, Arthur, but I’m afraid Merlin would gainsay you without a second thought.” Hilda’s steadfast voice never faltered, despite the malice in Merlin’s muttered curses. “Therefore, we intend to make sure he has no chance to interfere in what we propose.”
Without another word, the three women marched all the way round the table. Merlin saw how they kept their eyes on him and he rose to his feet, his staff clenched tightly in his hand. His eyes darted between them but he seemed unsure which one to attack first. Before he could make up his mind, Fidelma reached out and snatched the staff from him.
Hilda and Nell walked behind him, took him by the shoulders and forced him back down. Startled gasps came from the knights seated at the table, but they watched in fascination as Hilda grabbed one of his arms and Nell the other, holding them steady. With fierce concentration, they began to wind one elastic band after another round his hands and arms, binding them tightly to the arms of the chair.
“What magic is this?” whispered Sir Bedivere. “And how do they dare?”
“No magic,” panted Nell, “and if we don’t dare, then we die here. What would you do in those circumstances, Bedivere?” The knight shook his head.
The rubber bands would not give, so tightly stretched were they, even though Merlin struggled desperately and cursed Nell and Hilda as they worked . When they had finished they stepped back and dusted their hands over a job well done.
Nell looked into eyes black with hatred. “You do realise they could stop his blood flowing,” she said lightly to Hilda.
“What blood, Nell? I’m not sure he’s human, so I don’t really care.”
Hilda’s voice was like ice, and Nell realised she had really got her dander up. The wizard did not so much enrage her as render her almost as deadly as he himself. For Merlin, there would be no mercy from the most merciful woman Nell had ever known.
“You’ve only yourself to blame, Merlin,” Fidelma said, and calmly laid his staff over her knee and snapped it clean in two. He hissed like a snake and tried to lunge forward but the elastic bands held firm. “I’m not quite sure how Arthur has remained such a courtly, humane person with you as his guide all these years. God’s spirit must burn high in his soul.”
He opened his mouth to curse them again but Hilda opened her bag and brought out a rich blue silk scarf. For some reason, she had stuck it in the bag on top of all the other bits and pieces, and now waved it in his face.
“I will use this to gag you if all you can do is curse,” she said thinly. “It would help everyone, including your king, if you were to be a little more constructive.”
He eyed the scarf uneasily and clamped his lips together, but his eyes spoke his malevolence. Nell crossed her fingers behind her back that he wasn’t really a wizard, after all.
Arthur had been watching their actions with a grave face but made no move to stop what they were doing to Merlin. The latter turned in appeal at his king but Arthur shook his head. His eyes turned to Fidelma, who still had the two pieces of staff in her hand.
“He has guarded and guided me well all my life, lady, but I do agree that where you three are concerned he behaves in a very irrational way and I don’t understand that at all. I will allow you to leave him like this, so long as you promise that these strange bindings can be undone later.”
It was Nell who replied. “If it were up to me, I would never tell you how, but the lady Hilda is more merciful than I, far more merciful, which makes it your lucky day. So you’d better hope she remains alive, Merlin, otherwise you remain there – if I allow you to go on living.” Even Merlin quailed at the ferocity in her grey eyes.
“Come, Nell,” Hilda said calmly, and they walked back round to the other end of the table, Fidelma throwing the two pieces of staff through one of the narrow windows as she did so and dusting her hands as though to clean them. When Hilda faced Arthur again across the vast expanse, she caught a glimmer of mischief in his eyes and she winked.
“So, lady, you have a plan.”
Arthur spoke in a measured tone and Hilda responded in like manner. “Tell me, Arthur, can a message be conveyed to the Saxons?”
“There are ways,” he replied quietly.
Hilda took a deep breath. “Then tell them... we three women issue a challenge to three of their champions. Not to single, but triple, combat.”
Gasps and cries emanated from all round the table and her lips twitched slightly. It did sound rather preposterous, when one considered the size of some of those Saxons.
Arthur was aghast. “You are women! You have no real strength. How can you in any way defeat three of their champions? They will annihilate you.”
“So that’s the best plan you can devise?” Merlin muttered scornfully.
“What did you devise, Merlin?” Fidelma asked frostily. “These Saxons have got you on the run, so much so that all you could do was drag three strange women here from their own time and offer them to the Saxons as sacrificial offerings to save Guinevere’s life and your own. You sullied the honour and high courage of Arthur and his brave knights by your deception.”
“And a lot of good it did you!” snapped Nell. “So what have you got to lose by letting us have our way?”
No one replied. No one moved. Arthur’s face was a mixture of shame and fear. Merlin’s eyes were hooded, giving nothing away.
“Did I not defeat several sword-wielding Saxons?” asked Fidelma proudly.
“Did I not make them bleed from afar with my weapon?” Nell brandished her pistol.
“Did I not knock out several of them and even set one on fire?” Hilda’s rich voice eased the tension. “Our weapons are not your weapons. They may not even be classed as weapons in our own time, except for the lady Helena’s, but can you deny their effectiveness?”
Merlin looked down to avoid her eyes and strained against his bonds. Arthur smiled at her and indicated her bag. “No, lady, no one can deny their effectiveness. Have you more in that satchel of yours?” She nodded. “So, you want to be our champions and issue a challenge to the enemy. A fight to the death!”
Hilda shivered. The other two gulped. “Does it have to be to the death, Arthur?” asked Fidelma. “Could it not be.... only until they are vanquished and at our mercy? We don’t really want to kill anyone.”
“Can the challenge be that if we have them at our mercy, and they can do no more, then there shall be no more talk of revenge? Can you make the Saxons agree to leave Guinevere in peace if that happens? If not,” Hilda added softly, “we will do nothing. Why fight in vain?”
Arthur pondered them for a while, even as his wizard still struggled beside him. With a nod, he rose to his feet. “When the challenge is issued, it will be only that you defeat your enemy. Death is not necessary. You are brave women. I accept your plan and will issue your challenge. Whether they agree to stop their attacks if you win is up to them, alas! They certainly won’t be getting any of our captive back if they don’t.”
Hilda stepped forward. “If you intend returning the Saxon captives, may I make a request, my Lord? The three men who tried to capture us earlier.... they know too much about our methods. Could you keep them here until we have either won or lost? That way, they won’t be able to tell their companions what they know and give them some warning.”
“You make a good point, lady. It shall be done.”
“Another thing we ask, Arthur.” Fidelma was every inch the princess. “There must be observers from the Saxon camp, to ensure that nothing untoward is done. These observers must accept that we fight with our own weapons, and not with words, but that no magic of any sort is involved.”
Her eyes flickered towards Merlin, as did Arthur. His face was grim and determined. He would trust himself to these women. He would also trust his court and his queen to them.
“It shall be as you ask, in every detail. It is now nearly the noontide and Guinevere should be here shortly. I will have food brought to you. Shall we say towards the middle of the afternoon? That will give us time to issue the challenge and for them to find three champions. It will also give you time to prepare.”
Hilda inclined her head, her face a little less taut. “Thank you, my Lord, but may we have a larger and warmer room than your chapel? Frozen limbs do not work very well.”
He laughed out loud. “Sir Kay, lead these honourable ladies to Guinevere’s quarters and have food and drink brought to them there.”