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Author's Chapter Notes:
Why, thank you! I didn't expect such a response. Beecharmer, thank you for TWO comments. Shesings, as always you're doing double time. Squirrel, bless you for the wise words you pour on my writing. And welcome, chanlaichun, lovely to meet you.

“Ask Cerdic has he had enough, Arthur.” Nell’s voice was strained. “How much more blood does he want spilling?”

Arthur spoke to Cerdic, who growled back and nodded. “He agrees that it was a fair fight and that Werbit is an idiot who deserves whatever you did to him.” Arthur’s face was concerned. “I’m sorry you had to injure another one to save Merlin and Guinevere, my lady. You have done more than enough for us today.”

“Better that than allow Guinevere to be killed, as well,” whispered Nell. She bowed her head and sank down again beside Hilda, slipping the gun back in her sling.

Merlin seated Guinevere back in her place, spoke quietly to Arthur, then hurried across to Nell and knelt beside her. He stroked Hilda’s hair with a tender hand, his keen eyes assessing her condition.

“I only spoke half the truth before, my lady.” He spoke gruffly and turned to face Nell. “You are as brave as the lady Hilda in every way. And quick, so very quick! You saved her life, at grave risk to your own spirit, and you then saved both the queen and myself from likely death. Please don’t weep. I know you’re worried about her, but you’re also in shock and very tired.”

Nell had eyes only for Hilda. Slow tears slipped down her cheeks. Merlin placed his hands on either side of her face so she had to look at him. She was transfixed. His dark, unreadable eyes grew resplendent, as though the sun shone through them. They beamed gentleness and healing. Her own weary eyes closed. He held her more gently, and began to sing in a low, soothing voice. The words held no meaning for her, but they healed her aching body and her wounded spirit. Her crushing horror at what she had done to the warrior faded. Her fears for Hilda were eased. Her head and the side of her face no longer hurt. Light poured into her darkness, hope and strength returned. She was made whole again.

She could have knelt there forever, his hands on her face, his mesmerising voice singing to her. It was the very essence of peace. But the song ended, his hands slipped down and took her by her shoulders. She opened her eyes. The radiance in Merlin’s eyes had dimmed, but kindliness remained alongside the keenness. How that expression reminded her of the one usually to be found in Hilda’s sunny eyes. She drew in a deep breath and let it out again slowly.

“Better?” His voice was now soft and mellow. She nodded, her face breaking into a genuine smile. “Good! Then shall we see what we can do for the lady Hilda?”

She caught one of his hands as it drifted away from her shoulder. “Why have you changed so much towards us?”

His other hand covered hers, giving comfort. “I’ve now seen her high courage several times over – and yours. I’ve seen her great compassion, even for those who have hurt her or hurt those she loves. She trusted me and untied me when there seemed no logical reason so to do. For that I will always revere her. She even had to fight you to do it, for you certainly didn’t trust me one iota.” She grimaced and he winked at her. “All three of you would have laid down your lives for us. Not willingly, I agree, for we gave you to understand that we could not let you go otherwise, but you all have warrior hearts, and so took on our burden. Alas, that meant that you and the lady Hilda had to hurt others physically, even kill them, and it has brought darkness to both your spirits. Her loving spirit will find it hard to forgive herself for setting that warrior on fire, and you yourself won’t soon forget having killed that champion.”

She sat staring into his eyes. Her own were dark with anguish. She looked down at Hilda.

“You’ve eased the horror, but it will stay with me forever. However, if her life was ever again in danger, I would do the same as I did just now, without a moment’s pause. No one... no one will ever harm her while there is still life in me.”

“I know this, and you are blessed to care so deeply for someone, and to have her care for you in the way she does.” He turned her face back to him. “Whatever I can do in recompense for all your actions today will never be enough for the horror you three have experienced, but I will do my very best.”

Her lips twitched. “Does that mean you’ll stop calling us here?”

He laughed gently. “Oh, I can’t promise you that. Arthur may be in need of your courage again one day. I’m afraid, for me, his needs take precedence over yours.”

She shrugged, and thought of a pretty little clock waiting at home to be smashed to smithereens.

“Will you at least help Hilda? I couldn’t bear to....” She shook her head, unable to voice the unthinkable.

“I hope so.” He still held her hand.

“What about Fidelma?” They both looked across at Fidelma. She was talking with Arthur and Guinevere, but her hand was clutching her bruised throat and she seemed to be finding it difficult to swallow. “She looks so ill. Her throat must hurt dreadfully, and yet she’s standing there, helping to sort things out. She’s so brave.”

“The lady Fidelma comes from a different time. She is more accustomed to danger and to fighting to save lives.” A soft bark of laughter escaped him. “She’s even accustomed to laying down the law to us all, since her brother is a king. She is no respecter of persons. This hasn’t been quite the same shock to her as it has to you and the lady Hilda, but I will see what I can do for her later.”

He patted her hand and leaned over Hilda. Nell’s eyes dwelt anxiously on the grey face as Merlin’s sensitive fingers gently examined her skull, the skull Nell feared was fractured. His hands moved slowly across each section, including her forehead, his eyes intense as though listening. He sat back on his heels. Nell gasped when she saw blood on his fingers.

He held up his hand. “Sh, my lady! Take heart! The blood is from a nasty lump on the side of her head. It is bleeding quite badly. She was thrown very hard and you must never feel guilty that you saved her life by taking someone else’s. She didn’t deserve to die in such a terrible way. Do you understand?”

“We don’t always get what we deserve, though, do we, Merlin? Many innocent people, even young children, are dying in terrible ways in our own time.” Tears stood in Nell’s eyes as she stroked Hilda’s face. “But thank you for trying to ease my conscience.”

“I’ll examine her for other injuries when we have her lying more comfortably.” He patted her hand again in silent comfort, before beckoning Gawaine over. “Would you carry the lady Hilda into the Queen’s chambers, please, Gawaine.”

Without more ado, and with an encouraging smile for Nell, the knight gathered Hilda gently in his arms as though she were a rare and priceless treasure. Nell rose to her feet and held Hilda’s head as they moved across the rush-strewn floor. Guinevere met them at the door and led them into the room where they had eaten – or tried to eat - before the fight. To Nell that seemed aeons ago! A couch covered in a rich-looking cloth stood underneath a window and Guinevere told Gawaine to lay Hilda there. He carefully deposited his burden and the queen covered Hilda with another rich cloth and inserted a pillow under the injured head.

Hilda lay as though one already dead. Only the slight rise and fall of her chest told them otherwise. Her heart filled with foreboding, Nell knelt beside her and silently pleaded with her to wake up. Where else was she injured, and how badly?

A warm hand grasped her shoulder. “Do you trust me, my lady?” Nell nodded. “Then why don’t you leave your friend to me for a while? I have a feeling Arthur and the lady Fidelma have more need of you right now.”

Her eyes flew to Merlin. She couldn’t leave Hilda like this!

“Yes, you can. What I did for you, I will now do for her. Guinevere and Gawaine are here if there are problems. Go to Arthur. If all is well out there, return here. The lady Hilda and I are going nowhere.”

His deep voice was melodious, his dark eyes reassuring. She searched his face but nothing gave her pause. She made her decision. She would trust him, as Hilda had. She rose to her feet after one more agonising glance at her unconscious headmistress.

“Look after her for me” she whispered, and fled from the room before she broke down.


*****



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