A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 1

One thousand candles lit the great hall of Middleham Castle for the King was in residence and shadows had no place in his court.

Servants stumbled over each other in their haste to bring heavy trays of food to the thick wood tables. Nobles from England, Wales, and even Scotland gathered ‘round those tables and they could not want for so much as a morsel of venison or a joint of goose. The wine flowed ceaselessly and the rich aroma of fresh-baked pies and thick stews competed with the smoke from the great fireplace and the sweat of men who had ridden hard hours to break bread with their sovereign.

At the head table, King Richard III's closest advisors and most powerful allies jested with each other and drank to his health.

Richard surveyed the assembly with pleasure. A well run court and a sumptuous feast would do much to assure those gathered that he held the throne securely; that no man, least of all some Welsh bastard who had been in exile for a decade, could challenge him. Still, would that he could be sure of support from the man sitting next to him. The smile on his face quickly faded and Richard turned to the man seated at his right, Edmund, Earl of Brackley.

"Know you not that I reward my supporters well?" the king asked, his voice tight. He sought the earl’s unqualified pledge of support should the Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor, try to take his throne.

Brackley laid down the bone upon which he had been gnawing, but did not bother to wipe the grease from his florid face or thick hands. Stout as well as heavily muscled, the earl’s dark, hooded eyes peered from a harshly sculpted face. The earl was once handsome, but cruelty was stamped in his features, leaving them coarse and unappealing. That and the mutton grease glowing wetly on his chin contrived to squelch any comeliness the earl might have had. "What need have you to reward me?"

Richard's right hand fumbled with the hilt of his jeweled dagger, sliding it halfway out of its sheath before shoving it back in its golden casing. Deliberately, he grasped his right hand with his left under the table to still its nervous movements. "That hell-spawned Richmond will surely try to invade England again and I would have your pledge of troops to crush him. It is but what you owe me as my vassal."

Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, Brackley leaned forward and grasped his goblet, taking a deep draught before turning back to Richard. "Of course it is. But my men wish to be home, working their fields. It will take much to pull them from their families. Should I manage to persuade them, how would I be compensated?"

Richard knew Brackley employed a force of mercenary troops who had never touched a plow, but he was not in a position to argue. He had received word just this day of another defection from one of his marsh lords to the west. He thought frantically for a title or property he could bequeath the earl, but his resources were heavily tapped, having given away many crown lands to ensure the cooperation of other powerful lords. He tugged on the high velvet collar of his fitted cotehardie and smoothed the fur lining of his cloak--for all outward appearances, a calm, powerful sovereign.

"Tis said you are seeking a young wealthy wife as your last was a sickly woman."

Brackley laughed heartily, holding his goblet out to be refilled by a passing serving maid. "Nay, she lasted barely two years and her fortune even less. But I've seen naught at this gathering to catch my eye. A wealthy wife is important, but that she be comely is just as important."

And strong, thought Richard, considering the rumors he'd heard of the earl's physical abuse of his two past wives, both of whom died a few short years after wedding the man.

Glancing back at the earl, Richard saw the man’s goblet pause halfway to his mouth as he stared across the great hall. Turning, Richard spotted Elena de Vignon, one of his ladies-in-waiting standing at the top of the staircase leading into the hall. She was a beautiful and amusing woman and Richard had decided to keep her with his retinue after his wife had died some months back. She had a sharp wit, which she cleverly hid behind her comely face and delightful figure. She now served his niece, the Princess Elizabeth, who was visiting Middleham.

"Now she might be enough to keep a man loyal to Satan himself," Brackley murmured.

Richard quickly calculated the benefits of offering Elena to Brackley. She was one of his favorite court ladies and he had been prepared this very night to betroth her to Lord Edgeford, a handsome young fop who would inherit a fortune as soon as his sickly father passed away. Richard knew that the girl had been eyeing the young nobleman for months, carefully enticing him. Richard was amused and slightly impressed with the determination and shrewdness with which she pursued the insipid lordling.

With a flick of his nervous fingers, the king batted away the young woman’s wishes. Clever favorite or no, the safety of his crown was of greater importance than the marital whims of one young woman. Richard turned back to Brackley with a careful smile, his fingers alternately ruffling and smoothing the fur at his cuffs.

"Yes, but would she keep you loyal to the King of England?" he asked in a low, harsh voice.

The earl glanced sharply at Richard and then slowly leaned back to consider Richard's hasty offer, his bulk causing the dried wood of the chair to creak in protest.

"She's got ties to the Lancasters, but she has a tidy dowry set aside which I would be willing to pad." Richard warned himself not to appear too desperate, but he was not a man to underestimate his enemies and he wanted to guarantee that the Earl of Richmond had a force to reckon with should he have the nerve to invade England.

Richmond was a distant relative of the Lancasters, the rival branch of Edward III's descendants who had been battling with the York household for England’s throne for generations. Richard stood confident in his claim to the throne, but Henry Tudor's popularity continued to grow, especially in that troublesome region of Wales. For the earl was Welsh and that infernal tribe clung to its own. No, he would not underestimate his enemy. Richard glanced to the young woman on the landing and then looked back to the earl.

Brackley watched the girl descend the staircase, and the king knew what he was thinking as if the earl had spoken the words aloud. What a rash fool you are, Richard, the king read. The earl no doubt realized that the girl had family who would be more than happy to have connections to an earl—he didn't need Richard's permission to wed her, not really. Richard bit the inside of his lip and prayed Brackley would overlook that fact. Richmond's claims were ludicrous and his chances of actually winning the crown from Richard were next to nil. The earl really had nothing to lose.

"I accept, Your Grace."

Richard ran his hand along his forehead, grimacing when he discovered the cold sweat there, but as he watched Brackley, relief filled him and his confidence returned. He would be victorious, regardless of the cost! Rising to seek out the other men whose loyalty—and troops—he would need to keep the throne should Richmond invade, Richard scanned the room. Spotting a man he had not expected to attend the hunting and feasting activities, he stepped off the dais and made his way to the fireplace.

***

Across the huge room, a man Richard did not count among the important and powerful, Sir Gareth ap Morgan, stared moodily into his mug. His grey eyes cloudy, he ignored the drunken laughter of his childhood friends, Cynan and Bryant. A scowl marred his forehead, but was partially covered by the dark brown hair that fell in an unruly wave across his brow. His full mouth pursed in a grimace and his strong, square jaw was hidden behind the hand in which it dejectedly sat.

What was he doing with his life? he thought disgustedly. Since he had become a knight nearly a year before, he had milled about Richard's court, hoping for a noble assignment which would put his courage and skill to the test. But the most important task he had as yet received was to deliver a missive to the dead Queen's cousin. Gareth rode to Bedford, carefully protecting the document thinking it to be a matter of state only to discover it contained an invitation to join the King here at Middleham to enjoy the hunting. Taking a deep pull from the strong ale, he did not pay attention to the jest Cynan made regarding his dark visage.

"He keeps scowling as such and 'twill soon be me fetching the maids to him instead of the other way around!"

Bryant, slight of build and fair of skin but with inky black hair, burst out laughing at the image his friend evoked: that of the craggy faced Cynan wooing young women. Though the same coloring as Gareth, Cynan's face showed the evidence of too many boyhood brawls. On more than one occasion in their youth, Gareth had wooed a serving wench with his good looks into a dark corner where Cynan had taken over with whispered flattery, the woman never the wiser.

"If that be the case, he'd best be joining the monastery at Dolwyddelan!" said Bryant with a laugh as he nudged Gareth.

Jostled out of his reverie, Gareth shook his head in mock reproach at the ale-sodden wits of his friends. The three had been close since they were but young striplings in the mountains of Gwynedd in northern Wales. Their fathers were herdsmen and both Cynan and Bryant had been content to follow in their fathers' footsteps. But Gareth had always thirsted for adventure and grew up convinced that his destiny lay elsewhere. After much badgering, his father agreed to call upon an old family friend with some influence among England’s nobility who had placed him in the service of a lord for knightly training.

"Don't you even think of chasing a skirt while you're here, Cynan, or I'll be telling Enid and you'll have no peace!" he said, forcing a teasing tone to his voice.

"It's not peace I'm worried about losing should my wife think I was straying," said Cynan with a comic glance at his lap.

Laughing hard, Bryant gasped out, "The folk would definitely have a hard time believing you're as stalwart as you boast if they saw you running from your wife with your tail between your legs!"

Gareth chuckled at the thought as he raised his mug to his lips, but his hand froze in mid-air as his eyes swept over the crowd to the top of the broad stone staircase. Cynan followed his line of sight and let out a low whistle. "Now there's a woman who might even change the mind of such a determined bachelor as you, Gareth."

Bryant craned his neck to see at who they were looking. "I could definitely change my mind about red hair on a woman."

"It's not red, you oaf,” Cynan argued. It's more to copper, or--"

"Chestnut," Gareth broke in.

"Exactly," Cynan said expansively as he filled his mug from a large pitcher on the table. "Chestnut. The exact color of the horse I wanted when I was ten years old. Do you remember that?"

Bryant made a joking remark but Gareth did not hear it. Never before had he been struck by a woman as he was by this one who looked around the room from her high vantage point. Perhaps the troubadours knew something after all when they sang of love at a glance. As the woman slowly made her way down the steps, Gareth took in her creamy complexion and slender figure, both of which were complemented by the dark green gown she wore. Velvet, he thought. She's a lady of great standing to wear velvet. With a sigh, he watched her make her graceful descent. No lady of great standing would give a second glance at a mere knight from Wales. Still, he would give much for the chance to at least talk to her. Perhaps she was interested in more than a title and a position in court.

***

From the top of the flight of stairs leading into the great hall, Elena de Vignon surveyed the noisy gathering, her cinnamon-brown eyes searching for Lord Edgeford, sparkling with determination when they alighted on his tall figure. Pinching her cheeks to make sure they were enchantingly pink (had not Lord Edgeford used those very words himself?), Elena slowly descended the staircase, grateful, as the pungent smell of the hall reached her nose, that she had elected to eat in the privacy of her room.

Carefully lifting the embroidered hem of her forest-green cotehardie from the soiled rushes that covered the floor, she joined the group of young women who sat at the table to the right of the king’s seat. Not once did she allow her gaze to stray again to the table where she knew Edgeford sat.

Selecting a seat where she was sure he would have a clear view of her, she carefully arranged her heavy velvet skirts before turning her attention to the conversation at the table.

"...the fact remains that marrying Anne brought him a great deal of wealth, Catherine, and the sooner you realize that is all your husband will care about--"

Catherine, short, slender, and incurably romantic turned and wailed, "Elena, please tell Margaret to stop her tiresome lectures. I came to court to escape such lectures from my mother and nurse!"

"Liar," Elena laughed. "You came to court to find a wealthy husband!"

"Is that not all you are here for?" asked Margaret scathingly.

Elena turned to face the dark-haired girl who, even seated, was tall. "I shall not settle for a husband who is merely wealthy."

"What other requisites must he possess," Margaret asked, her blue eyes narrowing with cynicism.

Elena stared across the table. "What matter is it to you? I thought you do not even wish to wed. Are you not planning on devoting you life to God?"

"'Tis the only occupation where a woman has any say in her future."

"As long as that future obeys the dictates of the pope and every bishop and priest from here to Rome,” Elena retorted.

"And I suppose Lord Edgeford will give you free reign to do whatever you desire."

Elena smiled. "Within reason, I am sure."

"And he probably will not even mind that your father is a Lancastrian earl or that your discretion where men are concerned is less than immaculate."

"I believe King Richard favors me well enough," Elena said tightly, abruptly turning her back on Margaret. Elena had always believed that sheer determination could make any dream a reality. Her father, upon realizing she was to be his only child, had lavished upon her the knowledge and schooling usually reserved for sons. She was determined to use both her intelligence and her wits to make Edgeford her husband. She had overcome her father’s ties to the Lancasters, now she had only to overcome the gossip that had plagued her for the past year.

Casually glancing in her lord's direction, she discovered him still seated in the middle of the great hall, but now his hair was tousled, his cheeks were flushed, and he seemed engrossed in a very private discussion with a shapely brunette, their heads nearly touching as they spoke. Something the woman said must have amused him because he threw back his head with laughter before grabbing the woman's hand and pressing a fervent kiss to her knuckles.

Elena scowled in anger. Men were so simple, she thought. Out of sight, out of mind, wasn't that what her cousin Sarah always said? Just this morning when Elena had walked with him in the orchard, he told her that hers was the most beautiful laugh he had ever heard and all other women's laughter would forever fall discordantly on his ears. Fortunately, she was not naive enough to believe everything men told her.

Upon first coming to court, she had quickly fallen in love with one of the king’s advisors, Lord Marchon. He was polished and worldly, handsome and dashing. They spent hours in the king’s private gardens, talking about books and kingdom politics, music and poetry. He sent her crystal bottles of perfume, posies of flowers, handkerchiefs of silk. Elena had believed his devotions of love and his promise for a beautiful life together. So fervently had she believed that she did not cry out when he woke her in her bed. The court was in York and Elena’s bed was but a hard pallet in a curtained alcove off the main hall. It scarcely offered privacy, but Marchon’s kisses were persuasive and if they could be married immediately, there would be no real harm in consummating their love, could there?

“Married?” he asked, a confused frown marring his handsome brow. “But I thought you understood, my sweet.” And in cold hard terms, he spelled out his idea for their “future together.” She would become his mistress and live in a rented house in London, available to him at his every whim, forbidden, unfortunately, from being seen with him in public, much less at court.

Elena was so angry, she shrieked and struck at him, raking his face with her nails. When she reared back to throw her fists at him again, she succeeded only in throwing herself out of the bed, out into the main hall where men were drinking, serving wenches on their laps. The uproar her arrival started only intensified when Lord Marchon stepped out of the alcove, adjusted his clothing, and left. For the rumors that flew through the court over the next fortnight, she may as well have given her virtue over. And just when she thought her shame could grow no heavier, Margaret told her about his wife.

“His wife?” Elena asked, her hopes crumbling about her hem. Margaret nodded sympathetically.

“She’s related to the Duke of York’s wife. She will be arriving in the next day or two.” Not only was she related to the Duke of York, she was beautiful and wealthy, and Elena was assigned to wait on her while she was at court. Humiliation had burned through Elena’s veins, pulsing her hurt and her anger through every fiber of her being.

Since that time, Elena had vowed she would not be fooled again. She perfected the art of flirtation, never taking seriously a word uttered by a courtier, making sure she would not appear the fool for any man. But the damage to her reputations was done. She was never sure if there was a knowing leer behind the flattering smiles of her fellow courtiers. Lord Edgeford was the first man who seemed to believe the best about her. Whether or not he’d heard the gossip, Elena felt sure he did not believe it. When they were married, she would finally be free of the malicious rumors--free to be the gracious, powerful noble lady she was born to be.

Lord Edgeford was different and her flirtations were no game: she meant to marry him. But she would not permit herself to care too deeply for him.

Elena realized that she was still staring at Edgeford and the dark-haired woman. Quickly turning her head, her gaze collided with the gray eyes of a man several tables over. Brushing a lock of thick brown hair out of his eyes, the man smiled and bowed his head at her. Elena was just about to glare her disapproval over such familiar behavior when the king's booming voice called to her.

"Lady Elena, my dear child. Come bid your sovereign good even!"

Smoothing her skirts, Elena approached the raised dais that held the king's table, and curtsied.

"No, no. Come around here and let me introduce you to someone."

Elena ascended the steps and approached the king, nodding to those lords who glanced at her and curtsying deeply to Richard.

"Your Grace," she murmured, hoping Lord Edgeford would see her up here and on such close terms with the king. Despite her assurances to Margaret, Elena was still not sure that the king of the York household would totally dismiss her father's distant relationship with the Lancastrians. Her grandfather had, after all, been granted his land in northern England from that formidable Lancaster, Henry V.

"Here is our fair child." Richard addressed an older man on his right. Elena pulled her attention to the man Richard was addressing and cringed inwardly as the heavy set man eyed her speculatively from beneath bushy black brows.

"Indeed, Your Grace," the man said in a gravelly voice.

Taking Elena's hand, Richard squeezed it reassuringly as he introduced her. "Edmund, this is Elena de Vignon, daughter of Jean Paul de Vignon who owns quite a sizable estate up near Doncaster. Elena, this is the Earl of Brackley, a true and loyal friend."

The earl pushed himself to his feet and Elena took a small step backwards; not only was the man of heavy build, he was well over six feet tall. The earl issued a curt bow and Elena could not help but wonder why the king was introducing her to Brackley. The earl immediately sat back down and took his knife to the meat on his trencher. As Richard turned to address his page, Elena curtsied to their backs and quickly descended the stairs. Still bewildered as to why the king had called her up in the first place, she looked about for Edgeford and saw him watching the group of dancers at the end of the great hall. As she approached the edge of the circle of onlookers, the dance ended and several young men began calling for the Gavotte—a scandalous dance involving kissing between partners. Elena sought out Edgeford, only to find him being dragged onto the dance floor by the brunette he had been laughing with earlier. In a fury, she stamped her foot on the hard stone floor and was silently cursing the woman when she felt someone touch her arm. Elena whirled around.

In front of her, a man straightened his jerkin and brushed his hair out of his eyes. "Would you care to dance?" he asked.

She surveyed her would-be partner. While a distant part of her brain registered the man's clear-cut features, warm gray eyes and well-developed shoulders, the practical part of her mind was offended by the man's worn woolen hose, his scuffed brown boots, and his plainly cut jerkin. She was about to refuse when she remembered that midway through the Gavotte, the dancers changed partners. Quickly counting off couples from Edgeford to determine where she should position herself to become his partner, she turned back to the man. "Very well. Shall we start over here?" she asked.

Her partner gingerly took her hand and led her to the line of dancers. As the steps progressed, Elena scarce paid him any attention, intent as she was on watching Edgeford. During a complicated step, she glanced briefly at her plainly dressed partner and knew he was irritated by her preoccupation. When it came time for him to kiss her, she artfully turned her head at the last moment so his lips merely grazed her cheek. By the time he had to relinquish her as his partner, he seemed very put out, but then the dark-haired woman was his partner and Elena wished them both good riddance.

Turning her attention to her new partner, Elena felt quite pleased her scheme had worked. As she and Lord Edgeford danced, she concentrated on smiling her prettiest and laughing her softest. Edgeford obligingly responded.

"Ah, at last I am given the honor of a dance with the fair maid Elena."

"Not such an honor, my lord, as I am nearly an old maid," Elena said, lowering her eyes modestly. Oh how she wished she could blush when she wanted as cousin Sarah was able to do!

The man laughed. "My dear Elena, not for one moment do I believe that you are worried about becoming an old maid. Nevertheless, I have it on the greatest authority that you will be betrothed before the night is out."

Elena smiled her most dazzling smile, fully aware of the catch in her partner's breath as he looked into her sparkling eyes. As the dance ended, a page touched Edgeford's arm.

"My lord, the King has instructed me to inform you that he has time now to hear your petition."

Turning back to Elena, Edgeford bowed low over her hand. "Pray forgive me for abandoning you, my lady. I only hope we will share many more such enjoyable dances in the future."

Elena watched the tall man as he made his way gracefully through the drunken revelers to meet with the King. She clasped her hands in front of her to keep from clapping in delight. She had only been hoping the earl would approach the king by month's end. Indeed, it now seemed she would be Lady Edgeford by that time. So absorbed was she in her thoughts, she did not notice the man standing at her side.

"My lady?"

Elena turned to find her original dance partner. She stared at him blankly.

The man cleared his throat. "I fear we were not partners long enough to discover each other's names." He bowed low over her hand. "I am Sir Gareth ap Morgan."

A Welshman, Elena thought, closing her eyes with a grimace. Why did every lowborn man in Christendom think she was eager to make his acquaintance? No doubt he had heard of her questionable virtue and sought to make the most of it. Opening her eyes, she saw the man staring at her expectantly.

"And you are..?" he urged.

"And I am on my way to becoming the lady of a wealthy estate, so please think not to woo me to bed with tales of your battlefield glories or proud stories of your herd of sheep back home."

The knight flushed to the roots of his hair, his brows drawing together sharply. He seemed at a complete loss for a response. The King’s herald calling everyone to attention saved Elena from having to speak further with him.

She turned expectantly, all thoughts of the Welshman at her side disappearing. The herald made several announcements concerning the next day's hunting activities before Richard himself stood and addressed the room.

"Tis been a long while since we have had the celebration of a wedding, has it not?" Cheers and bawdy comments answered the king. "Well 'twill be a long while still till we have another!" The king laughed at the response he received. "’Twill be a long while because this wedding must be done properly as the groom is a friend of Ours, and the lady a gentle maid. You must wait until Michaelmas to revel at the nuptial of this good couple." Elena smoothed her gown and smothered a knowing smile as Richard turned and gestured for her to join him. So pleased was she as she approached the king's dais that she didn't even hear Gareth's muttered curse as he walked away.

"The Lady Elena de Vignon has been a beautiful and graceful addition to Our retinue, would you not agree?" More cheers greeted this comment. "For that reason, I kept her with Us even after Our beloved Queen's death.

"Though We are loathe to part with her, My dear niece, Princess Elizabeth has convinced Us that to deny one of Our loyal subjects the joy of having such a woman to wed is unjust."

Elena surreptitiously looked around for Lord Edgeford.

"We have thought much on the subject of Lady Elena's husband and it is with great pleasure that We call forth the lucky man, Edmund, Earl of Brackley."

Elena looked around in confusion. Who? Then she remembered. As the earl stood and walked around the table to take her hand, Elena felt dizzy as the blood rushing from her head dimmed the noisy sounds of the great hall. This must be a terrible mistake, she thought. I'm supposed to marry Edgeford, not this old—the clammy hand of her fiancee as it grasped hers stopped her frantic train of thought. Across the room, she spotted Edgeford who raised his goblet to her in a silent toast. In a daze, she heard the king finish saluting their happiness and before she could stop him, the earl was pressing a hard, bruising kiss to her lips. She smelled the ale and sour wine on his breath and felt the stiff bristles of his beard as they scraped her skin. She jerked her head back, but the earl had already turned away to down the goblet of wine Richard had handed him. She stiffly accepted the embraces of the Elizabeth and the other ladies-in-waiting.

"Be of good cheer," Margaret said, not unkindly, upon seeing Elena's face. "He is, after all an earl. Would you not rather be a countess than a mere Lady?" At that, the confused look on Elena's face slowly disappeared to be replaced by the haughty expression Margaret was used to.

"I know not what you are talking about," Elena said in a voice that sounded tight and brittle to her own ears.

"Be not coy, Elena. We all know that you have been planning to marry Lord Edgeford.”

Elena ground her teeth. How dare these women speculate on her plans? "Perhaps you had best return to your tea leaves, Margaret. I care not a bit for Edgeford. We are merely acquaintances."

"Elena, few women are ever pleased by political marriages. They are almost always to doddering old men we know nothing about. Can you not admit you are frightened?" Margaret asked. "Think of Princess Elizabeth. Rumor says His Majesty is considering wedding her and he is her uncle! Think what worries she must be faced with being the most important political pawn in the country."

"She would be queen, how worrisome can that be? You are just trying to frighten me. ‘Tis just what you would like to see, is it not? Me sobbing into my cups over some man. Well, I shall not give you the satisfaction," Elena said sharply.

With a shake of her head, Margaret turned away and curtsied as Princess Elizabeth approached.

Elena cast a speculative glance at the king’s niece. If the rumor Margaret mentioned was true, the princess might be sympathetic to Elena’s wanting to avoid a distasteful marriage and could be persuaded to argue her case before the king. Smiling her warmest smile, Elena offered Elizabeth her seat and a glass of wine.