A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 10

As Elena entered the bailey from the dim hall she squinted. This could have been the bailey of Middleham just a month ago. People were milling about, loading supplies onto packhorses and bidding farewell to family members. The only difference was that she had not cared that she was leaving Middleham and she found she was dreadfully sorry to be leaving Eyri Keep. She had felt more at home and at ease here than any other place she could remember. Spotting Enid, she started to walk towards her until Cynan grabbed his wife and kissed her passionately in front of everyone. Elena turned away, embarrassed to witness such an intimate scene--a scene that was being looked on with understanding and amused glances from everyone else. Enid had announced the night before that she was with child.

"Your horse is over here with us, my lady," Bryant said as he touched her elbow. Turning, Elena saw him staring at Cynan and Enid. When he realized she had caught him staring, he flushed. She was just about to turn in the direction he had indicated when Enid called her name.

"Here, I've packed you a few little goodies to make your travel and stay at Dinas Mawddwy more comfortable."

"Thank you, Enid. That's very kind of you." Elena could not remember ever saying that to another woman before.

"Are we ready to go?" Gareth asked.

"We were just waiting for you, you slugabed," said Cynan.

"I'll have you know I was up before the dawn this morning taking care of all the things you didn't finish yesterday," Gareth exclaimed with mock indignation.

Enid pulled Elena close and whispered in her ear, "They always tease each other the worst right before a journey. Like little boys, they are."

Elena smiled but her eyes never left Gareth. She had not seen him since the night of Rhys and Bronwen's arrival and she refused to believe that she had missed him, told herself she was simply curious as to where he had kept himself through meals, games of charades, dancing, and picnics Elena had enjoyed with the others.

Gareth turned to help Elena mount her horse when a blond woman dressed in servant's garb threw herself into his arms.

"You didn't say goodbye when you left me this morning," the woman said huskily.

Gareth looked extremely uncomfortable. "Yes, well, goodbye Senena," he said as he patted her back, trying to avoid Elena's stare.

"Here's something to remember me by on your travels." Grabbing his jaw, Senena tilted Gareth's head and kissed him soundly.

Amazed by the woman's audacity, Elena turned to look at Cynan and Bryant's reactions. Cynan was laughing with Enid in between kisses of his own. Bryant took one look at Elena, blushed, and began intently studying the toe of his boot as it scuffed at the dirt of the bailey. Gareth struggled out of Senena's goodbye kiss as Rhys strode up and bowed low to Elena.

"It grieves me to be unable to escort you to your journey's end, my lady. I hope it will not be long ere you visit Wales again."

Gareth had turned to Elena and was gesturing impatiently for her to mount her horse. Pointedly ignoring him, Elena leaned up on tiptoe and said "Here is something for you to remember me by until we do meet again," and kissed him full on the mouth. When Rhys moved to embrace her further, she quickly turned and climbed upon her horse unaided, despite the fact that her hands were shaking and her knees felt wobbly. Never had she been so bold with a man. And in public, no less! But the greatest emotion she felt was disappointment. Though brief, Rhys's kiss had left her cold, left her wanting…

"Gareth!" Morgan shouted. "We will meet you at Aberystwyth in one week's time. Agreed?"

Gareth tore his eyes from Elena's flushed face and looked across the bailey to where his father was already mounted. "Agreed. Godspeed!"

"And to you, my son."

"Take care of this English jewel, Gareth. I would be sore disappointed if she came to harm," Rhys said.

Gareth bestowed a sour smile on his cousin's retreating back before mounting his own horse. Bryant quickly followed suit, but Cynan and Enid were laughing so hard they had to hold each other up.

"Perhaps you had best stay here, Cynan. You seem to have caught some disease which renders you incapable of controlling your mirth," Gareth said acidly. Cynan paid no attention to him but kissed his wife once more and sprang onto his own horse.

Enid approached Elena and wiping tears of mirth from her face said, "You are a jewel indeed, Elena. Please come and visit us again. I feel sure you could teach us a trick or two."

Elena forgot her mortification enough to smile at the Welshwoman. "I would enjoy that," she said, and meant it.

"Godspeed, my lady."

"Good bye Enid." Nudging her horse, Elena followed Bryant who sought to keep up with Gareth's galloping steed.

***

They kept up the grueling pace for three quarters of an hour until Cynan, his mirth long since dissipated, caught up to Gareth and yelled, "The horses cannot keep up this pace! We must let them rest!"

Gareth nodded grimly, angry with himself for not slowing earlier. They finally stopped near a stream and let the horses drink.

"Be there any demons chasing us Bryant and I don't know about?" Cynan asked Gareth who was standing upstream of the horses staring into the thick forest that surrounded them.

Turning to his friend with an apologetic smile Gareth said, "I'm just anxious to get this task over and done with so we can get to Aberystwyth quickly."

"Are you that committed to Henry Tudor's cause then?"

"You aren't?"

"I'm not speaking of my conviction. I've known for two years that I would support the Welshman's claim to the English throne over Richard of York's. You only decided two weeks ago to join us."

Gareth knew his friend was trying to help, but the last thing Gareth needed to be reminded of was that he was breaking his knightly vows less than a year after taking them.

"I'm committed to it. Two weeks or two years, Henry Tudor is the better man to wear the crown."

Cynan studied his friend and then looked over his shoulder to where Elena was seated with Bryant on a large rock. She was plaiting her hair, which the sun had turned to a glittering tumble of copper and Bryant was shyly watching her from beneath his lashes. Turning back to Gareth, he lowered his voice. "Perhaps you're not so anxious to give her up as you would have us think."

Gareth frowned. "What? Who--oh, her I don't know what you are talking about. I can't wait to get her out of our hair. She's a self-absorbed, whining--"

Cynan broke in. "Beautiful woman who--"

"Enough, Cynan. If this is what being married has done to you, turned you into a gossipy meddling old woman, then the day will come when I'll fall on my own sword before vowing 'I will.'"

Since they were children, Cynan had taken no greater joy than in teasing Gareth. But the true strength of their friendship rested in the fact that Cynan knew when to quit. Abruptly changing subjects, he said, "If this good weather holds, we should be able to reach Dinas Mawddwy in what? Four days?"

Gareth silently thanked his friend. "Yes," he said nodding.

"Perhaps we'd better get moving again before the horses drink so much they slosh when they walk!"

Gareth grinned at his friend, feeling much less tense than he had since Elena had kissed Rhys in the bailey. Tightening Isrid's girth strap, Gareth mounted and swung his horse back onto the road. They kept up a brisk pace until dusk when they stopped in an empty cottage.

"What is this place?" Elena asked as Bryant helped her down from her saddle.

"It's called a hafod. Herdsmen usually stay here during the summer while their sheep or cattle are grazing in the fields over that hill there," Bryant answered, gesturing west. "But this summer has been unusually dry and a few weeks ago a fire swept through the paddock. The men who were staying here barely got their cattle out in time and they've not been back since. It's rather crude," he said apologetically as he ushered Elena inside. "But at least you won't have to sleep on the ground tonight."

Gareth bought his saddlebags into the small shelter and glanced at the bed Bryant indicated. Thick ropes were laced back and forth across the rough frame which itself was only six or seven inches off the ground. Sitting on the low bed, Elena flopped back onto the ropes. It was surprisingly comfortable for being so crude, she thought as she stretched her arms above her head. With a chuckle, Bryant ducked out the door.

"The least you could do is help Bryant unload the horses," Gareth said curtly.

Elena turned her head until she could see Gareth standing in the doorway. When she remained silent, he said, "He's out there unloading the things from your horse. The least you could do is help him before you lounge about and wait for somebody to serve you."

"You have the sourest disposition of any man I've ever known," she said as she pushed herself up. Since Gareth was still standing in the doorway, she could not help but brush against him as she went outside.

"If that's so, it's because you are the most exasperating woman I've ever known," he replied wearily.

Elena turned back around. "Now how can you say that? I've been a model of uncomplaining sweetness for weeks now." She turned and disappeared into the hazy twilight. Gareth heard her laughing at something Bryant must have said. He rubbed the tense muscles in his neck and mentally cursed his quick temper with Elena; she truly had been a model traveling companion today. Simply because he had been unable to keep her and their one kiss out of his mind while she obviously felt nothing in return was no reason for him to treat her so unchivalrously. She clearly preferred men like his cousin Rhys.

Gareth flung his pack down and stomped outside. He clenched his teeth as he thought of Elena kissing his cousin. What had transpired between them during the past week? Rhys was nothing more than a flirt, could Elena not see that? Gareth turned to start a fire in front of the hut and paused. Perhaps Elena was full aware that his cousin had no serious intentions. Perhaps she was only seeking what respite she could before marriage to the cruel Brackley. If that was the case, Gareth could not blame her if she kissed every man from here to London. And yet, why was she so put off when he tried to kiss her a second time? That first kiss they had shared after escaping the mercenaries had literally stolen his breath with its intensity, its passion, its sheer rightness. Had Elena not felt the same? He shook his head in confusion. The day he understood Elena de Vignon would be the day he was made King of England.

***

The two day trip passed uneventfully, if too quickly for Elena. Though her muscles were already screaming for relief from the constant jarring of riding, her mind dreaded the conclusion of the trip. The abbey was one step closer to England, one step closer to the Earl of Brackley. Though she should be anxious to return to Richard’s court so she could perhaps talk him out of the betrothal, she felt only dread. As they rode into the walled-in yard surrounding the abbey at Dinas Mawddwy in the late afternoon of the third day from Eyri Keep, Elena reined in her horse to take one last look at the soaring peaks of the Cambrian mountains. Though she would see them again, it would be as an Englishwoman going to meet her fiancé, not as a temporary Welshwoman who danced to bawdy country tunes.

"Elena?" Gareth asked from inside the bailey.

With a sigh, Elena turned her mount and nudged hit toward the gate. As she passed under, the wall's imposing shadow fell across her and, Elena thought, across her future.

Gareth saw Elena shudder and asked, "What is it?"

They eyes she turned on him were wide with fear and Gareth's hand fell to his sword hilt as he stood in his stirrups to look behind her. There was nothing on the empty dirt road they had just traveled and Gareth sat back down. "Are you alright?" he asked with more gentleness than he had shown her for days.

Elena nodded and started to dismount. Gareth quickly jumped down from Isrid and hurried over to help her. She could feel the concern in his gaze and resisted the urge to turn her face into his shoulder and weep out her fears and confusion. His shoulders were well muscled and looked as though they could easily bear her concerns.

"My thanks," Elena was all she allowed herself to say.

"Had I known you would be so subdued around an abbey, I would have brought you by one weeks ago," Gareth responded with a laugh.

Reminded that he was eager to be rid of her, Elena forced her desire for him to a distant corner of her heart and took refuge in anger. "Has the sun addled your brain? I was merely enjoying the pleasant quietness of the evening until you began talking."

The smile on Gareth's face faded at her sharp tone of voice. "Pray forgive me," he said sarcastically. "I attributed your paleness to discomfort. I stupidly forgot that you have been a month without the rouging powders you Englishwomen are forced to resort to enhance the complexion."

Elena leveled her most withering glare at Gareth but he seemed immune to it as he turned and greeted the abbess who was making her way towards them.

"Your companions inform me that you have an Englishwoman seeking refuge?" The dour-faced woman said in Welsh.

"That is correct, Reverend Mother," Gareth said meekly. Elena would have laughed at his expression—that of a naughty lad trying to appear good—were she not still angry with him.

"From what is she seeking refuge?"

"She was separated from King Richard's retinue in an attack several weeks ago and she merely wishes to remain in your safe keeping until an escort can be arranged to return her to England."

"That could be months!" the abbess declared.

"Yes, Reverend Mother, I realize that. You see, it would be best if it took several months as Lady Elena is well aware of our plans to aid Henry Tudor gain the throne. If Richard found out what she knew, he may assume she was a willing conspirator."

"You seek the overthrow of our sovereign, then?"

Out of the corner of her eye, Elena watched Gareth and though he didn't show it, she felt sure he was panicked. She had heard his father assure him that this abbey was sympathetic to Henry's cause, but she was gaining the distinct impression that this abbess was as loyal to Richard as an English nun. "We seek only a Welsh ruler for Wales, madam."

The abbess stared at him through narrowed eyes before asking, "Does she have any luggage?" When Gareth shook his head, she continued, "She'll have to wear a habit. We cannot have her wandering about in unnecessary finery. Bring her in."

Elena stared at the woman's retreating back in amazement. Turning to Gareth, she raised her eyebrows.

"At least you'll be safe here," he said defensively. "And you can return to England as soon as she is able to arrange a safe escort."

"Yes, in several months! I can't stay in an abbey for months! Especially not with old Mother Doom."

"Elena, hush! There is no where else I can take you that can ensure any hope of seeing you home safely. Will you please try to behave?"

"I am not a child, Sir Gareth. I need not be told how to act," Elena said as coldly and regally as she could. But despite her carefully constructed haughty demeanor, she was loathe to have Gareth and his friends leave. Turning, she reluctantly followed the abbess into the dim stone building.

***

Within the hour, the men were ready to depart.

"I'm sure we can find lodging in the town if you require," the dour abbess said.

"That won't be necessary, Reverend Mother," said Gareth. "We would like to get a few more miles down the road before nightfall. We must reach Aberystwyth within three days and we dare not tarry."

The abbess pressed her lips into a thin line. "Very well."

Gareth waited for her blessing. When none was coming, he glanced at his friends and then cleared his throat. "May we have your blessing, Reverend Mother?"

The abbess hesitated a brief moment. "Go with God."

Gareth nodded at her. Turning his horse in a tight circle, he spurred it into a gallop, Cynan's and Bryant's mounts close behind.

"She's an old dragon," Cyan remarked several miles down the road when Gareth finally slowed his horse.

"Though I may burn in hell for saying so, I agree with you," Gareth said wryly.

Bryant looked worriedly over his shoulder. "Are you sure we should have left Lady Elena there? They seem none too friendly."

"The Lady Elena can well handle even the sternest of nuns. She has the tongue of an adder and a backbone of steel."

When Bryant looked unconvinced, Cynan said, "Perhaps after Aberystwyth we could come back by here and check on her."

Bryant's frown eased. "Mayhap we should take her back to Eyri Keep as well. Surely she's as safe there as in an abbey."

Though Gareth refused to name the emotion that made his blood boil at Bryant's suggestion, jealousy made him say, "Need I remind you, Bryant, that Lady Elena is engaged to be married?" He was about to say more, but the crimson flush that crept up Bryant's face made him bite his tongue. Thank God that woman was out of his hair! he thought. Perhaps now he could concentrate on the importance of Henry Tudor's cause instead of forever wondering at Elena's relationship with his friends and family.

As he urged his horse back into a gallop, he missed Cynan's comforting pat on Bryant's shoulder that accompanied his knowing grin.

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