|“How did we dare?” Hilda sank down into one of the chairs in Guinevere’s room. Her face was white with delayed shock, her jaw rigid.|
“Don’t, Hilda!” Fidelma grasped Hilda’s cold hands. “We have to keep him tethered somehow or he would do his best to destroy your plan. He is not a pleasant person.”
“But how will he eat?”
Nell snorted. “Put a spell on the food, no doubt, so it floats up to his mouth! May it choke him!” She sobered when she saw the anguish in the blue-grey eyes. “Is that really the worst of your worries, dear girl? Arthur won’t let him go hungry, I’m sure. Worry about us and our own predicament, instead.”
“But we humiliated him!”
“And what did he try to do us, tell me!” Nell had no sympathy whatsoever for the wizard. “Come on, let’s have a smoke, try to relax for a little while.”
“Relax?” Hilda gasped, but suddenly saw the funny side of it when Nell winked. She grovelled in her bag and brought out cigarettes and matches. “Better save the lighter fluid. That’s already come in useful once”
She took a cigarette and offered the pack to Nell. She tried to strike a match but her hands were trembling so much that Nell took the box off her and lit both cigarettes, before blowing out the match. With a cry, Fidelma snatched the match and examined it, then looked on in stunned astonishment as Hilda blew out smoke with a heavy sigh.
Fidelma looked down again at the match. “You have small sticks that light bigger sticks – and then you stick those in your mouth? Are you crazy? Your insides must be on fire….. look at the smoke!”
The other two stared at her. Nell began to giggle. Hilda looked at the cigarette in her hand. “I think you might be right about our being crazy, Fidelma, but no fire, honestly, only smoke!”
“But – why?”
“Now that’s the tricky bit, my dear,” Nell laughed. “It’s a habit one gets into and is supposed to calm one down – although it’s not working for me at the moment!”
“When did this very silly habit start?”
“Um….. Hilda?” Nell was all out of ideas.
Hilda was miles away. “Mmmm? Oh, in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, about eight or nine centuries after you, Fidelma, a poet and sailor called Walter Raleigh brought the ingredients back from America and introduced the idea to England. It spread pretty quickly throughout the rest of the world.”
“America? Where is that?”
“Think about the furthest point west in Ireland, so that all you see is sea – excuse that phrase, please, Hilda! – then sail west for thousands of miles and you will find America.”
Fidelma gawped at Nell. “There is land, so far away?”
Nell nodded and offered Fidelma her cigarette, despite Hilda’s cry of alarm. “Want to try? Close your mouth round it and draw in a deep breath…..”
The resultant coughs, splutters and gasps had Nell banging her on the back, while Hilda looked round wildly before dashing back into the hall, shouting, “Water! Now!”
“You have set something else on fire?” stuttered Arthur.
“Fidelma.... she’s choking!”
Sir Kay hurried to a side table, splashed water into a goblet and handed it to her. She dashed back in and handed it to a still-spluttering, green-faced Fidelma.
“My apologies, Fidelma,” laughed Nell. “I think we’ll keep these to ourselves. I’ve no desire to kill you. Here, have a sweet, instead!”
“Kill her?” whispered Hilda. “We won’t – but they might. What have I done?”
Nell turned to her friend but at that moment the door opened and the Queen walked in – her hair indeed almost as white as Nell’s.
“My ladies,” she cried, moving swiftly towards them. “It would have been such a delight to meet you again, if Arthur hadn’t told me just what he and Merlin have done. To think my lord could have….” She broke down in tears. Her eyes, her choked voice, her very visible distress, all told them she spoke nothing but the truth.
“We do not easily accept evil of those we love most, (Abelard)” Hilda offered with great sympathy as she reached out to take Guinevere’s outstretched hands. “I’m sorry you came home to such news, my lady. It is good to meet you again, in spite of all that has happened.”
Hilda held the queen close, her rich voice soothing. Both she and Fidelma were shocked by the white hair. The last time they were there, it had been a coppery colour, fairer than Fidelma’s red tresses but still striking when combined with the vivid blue eyes. She didn’t seem to have aged much, for all that. Nell, as always, was struck by how much Guinevere resembled Hilda, with her fine bone structure, firm, dimpled chin and self-contained air. How vulnerable her lips were!
Fidelma also held Guinevere close a moment, as did Nell, though the latter was grim-faced. The queen held her at arm’s length. “It would seem that you and I now look somewhat alike with our white hair, Helena. Yours was the only white head the last time we met, even though your face was, and still is, very young. Hilda and Fidelma have not changed at all.” She searched their faces with a troubled air, her blue eyes still beautiful. “Why have I grown old and my hair now white, and yet you have not altered? What alchemy is this? You told us you knew no magic.”
“Nor do we, Guinevere! I think that…..” Hilda paused and turned to Nell.
“What she’s trying to say is that in our time…. times…. not many months have passed since the last time we were cal…. brought here. For you, on the other hand, clearly many years have passed since then.”
“How can this be?”
“We don’t understand any more than you do,” said Fidelma. “For me, too, only a few months have gone by. Merlin has obviously had no need of us for long years.”
“I wish he had no need of us now,” muttered Nell. Hilda examined her face and sneaked an arm round her in comfort.
Guinevere bit her lip. “I wish the same, my lady. How could Merlin do this? Will you not re-consider? You are not warriors, merely women, so how can you fight three of their very best champions? Please tell Arthur you won’t do this. Ask him to send you home.”
“He won’t.” Fidelma was firm. “He can’t! Merlin won’t allow it.”
“But Arthur is King.” Guinevere was aghast.
“Arthur was caught in a cleft stick, my lady, and Merlin worked on his fears. He’s like a father to your husband. ” There was such compassion in Hilda’s rich voice that Nell glared at her angrily. “Think, Nell! The Saxons would destroy him in their search for revenge. We have no choice but to help, now that we’ve foiled his first plan – or rather Merlin’s!”
“But to fight three of their very best champions!” Guinevere whispered. “You will all be killed - and I’m not sure I could live with the guilt.”
“I hope not, my lady! We have our pebbles, after all.” Fdelma’s eyes glimmered with laughter at Guinevere’s puzzled look. “The lady Hilda’s idea, as you will see in a little while. She is an astute lady and might save all of us yet. She’s soft-hearted and generous, but she also has wisdom and guile a-plenty. I myself am no stranger to battle, or hand to hand fighting, and am ready for this fight, but these two ladies are from a time when they would not face such dangers, so to offer to do what they are doing shows great courage. They are true heroes, and should be applauded.”
“According to Will Rogers, being a hero is about the shortest-lived profession on earth.” Nell’s voice was very dry.
“Come, Nell, we’re not finished yet. Homer would remind you that: ‘Ill deeds do not prosper and the weak confound the strong.’” A mischievous grin lit up Fidelma’s face.
“The war we're fighting at home at the moment does not bear out Homer’s truth, I’m afraid,” Nell replied sadly. “Ill deeds are prospering nicely, thank you very much, and the weak are being overcome in their millions. Dying in their million, as well! All because of one totally insane man!”
“I’m so sorry, but we can only do our best, Nell, and our best, your best, may be more than enough.” Fidelma’s eyes glinted. “You could always offer each of the champions a fire stick. That should give them pause.”
Nell chuckled, despite herself. “Hilda and Fidelma are right, Guinevere. We have no choice. We made the offer and we’re sticking to it – always assuming the Saxons agree to it. We haven’t heard yet.”
The queen’s eyes were sad. “Since you’re so determined, I won’t say anything more, just wish you strength and skill.”
Hilda took the queen by the shoulders. “Arthur loves you, Guinevere, and you were in danger. He would do anything to save you. We all understand that. So we want you to go out there with a smile and look every inch the confident queen. We have no intention of of dying. I’ll add another quote to the mix: 'In His love He clothes us, enfolds us and embraces us, that tender love completely surrounds us, never to leave us.' (Julian of Norwich)”
Guinevere searched the steadfast eyes. “You are brave women, the bravest I have ever known. I shall ask you be held in His arms. Is there anything else you need before I leave you?”
Hilda had been thinking hard all the time the queen had been with them. Now she held her arms out wide, much to the surprise of Nell and Fidelma. “Would it be possible to acquire some long strips of material about so wide and so long?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Guinevere proffered her hand to Nell. “Don’t be too angry with my Lord. He is a good man.”
After some slight hesitation, Nell shrugged and stepped forward to take the slim hand. “I’ll reserve my anger for Merlin. That should concentrate my fighting arm, and my aim, wonderfully.”
Author's Chapter Notes:
Thank you for the kind comments, folks.