A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 12

Gareth awoke to dim sunlight filtering through the downpour. He sat up abruptly, his muscles sore from their awkward position in the hard chair in which he had fallen asleep. Moving as fast as his cramped muscles would allow, he crossed the room and felt Elena's face. It was still hot, but she was now drenched in sweat, the covers bunched around her waist. "Damn!" Gareth said. "I should have covered you hours ago." Cursing his stupidity, he drew the blankets up to her chin, tucking them around her shoulders. He then sat down on the edge of the bed and smoothed her damp hair off her face.

Despite her illness, Gareth thought, she's still the most beautiful woman I've seen. Her normally chestnut hair, now wet with sweat, was a dark red, her lashes russet fans against her cheeks, her eyebrows arching softly above. Without thinking, Gareth raised his hand and traced the curve of her cheek, the line of her mouth.

At his touch, Elena's eyes opened and she whispered, "Water." Gareth was instantly on his feet, searching for a bucket or pitcher. "Where could it--Oh damn it all to hell!" Gareth bellowed as his foot kicked over the bucket of water near the foot of the bed. He quickly righted the bucket, but not before all the water drained out.

"I'll be right back," he told the dazed Elena, and jerking the door open, he bolted down the narrow staircase. Cynan and Bryant jumped up when he entered the main room.

"Where is fresh water?" he asked the startled innkeeper.

"I took a bucket up to your room last--"

"I spilled it. Where do I find more?" Gareth turned as the door opened, letting in a blast of rain and the innkeeper's wife who was lugging two buckets.

"Is that fresh water?" he demanded.

"Aye," said the woman as she handed him a bucket. "Is she worse?"

"I don't think so; her fever is starting to break." Without another word, he grabbed the handle and dashed back up the stairs. Cynan and Bryant stared after him in surprise for several seconds.

"An unlikelier nursemaid I've never seen," Cynan said sardonically.

Bryant glanced at their hosts before turning to Cynan and lowering his voice. "Do you think 'tis quite proper for Gareth to be in Lady Elena's room like that?"

Cynan looked at his friend with a suspicious smile tugging at his lips. "Since when are you so worried about propriety, especially with an English lass?"

Bryant flushed deeply and shrugged. "I just don't think Lady Elena will be pleased 'twas Gareth who spent the night with her."

"And who do you think she would have rather had with her last night?" Cynan asked, all pretense of a straight face vanishing as he laughed.

"That's not what I meant," Bryant denied hotly. "I meant I don't think Lady Elena would prefer to have any man tending her whilst she's ill."

"'Tis a common enough excuse, claiming to be ill," Cynan gibed. If there was one thing he enjoyed more than tormenting Gareth, it was making Bryant blush.

"Have you no decency, you clot? You'd best keep your mouth closed, lest I be tempted to repeat some of your remarks to dear Enid."

"Now you don't play fair, Bryant," Cynan said. "You go telling her such things and 'twill be she claiming illness every night for a month!" When Bryant looked unimpressed, Cynan relented. "All right, all right, I'll stop hounding you and our fair English visitor."

"She's Welsh," Bryant said.

"Who is? What are you talking about?"

"Lady Elena. She's not just English, she's Welsh, too. Her father's mother is from Glamorgan."

"And how do you know this? Gareth never made mention of it to me."

A smug look crossed Bryant's face. "She told me when we went for a walk a few weeks ago at Eyri Keep. Shortly after we arrived."

Cynan looked at his friend dubiously. Perhaps the Lady Elena would have preferred his company next to her sickbed instead of Gareth's after all.

***

The rain continued until midday when a dim sun broke through the clouds and began to coax steam from the sodden ground. The Abbess of Dinas Mawddwy had long since given up hope of finding her ward alive. The river Dovey was still a rushing torrent and the English captain and his men were encamped next to the flooded ford, unable to cross and bitterly cursing the abbess who had forced them from their dry quarters to march in the accursed bogs of Welsh roads.

***

Gareth stood and stretched, tightening and releasing his leg muscles, reaching his arms over his head. He walked over to the small window and pushed the shutter open. The cool evening air that wafted in was scented with the invigorating smell of wet pine needles and aromatic heather. Gareth breathed deeply before turning back to Elena. Her fever had broken but an hour ago and after a day of tossing about and mumbling, she was finally sleeping peacefully. He smoothed the tangle of curls that was spread across the lumpy pillow, wrapping the silken strands around his finger. In the tranquil silence of the evening, he wondered about the pulling emotions that had kept him tied to Elena's side since he had found her in the middle of the road. Since she had rudely insulted him at Middleham over a month before, they had been like cats and dogs, always at odds with one another. Now Gareth wondered how much of that was his wounded pride rebelling at her rejection. In all fairness, his pride demanded from the back of his mind, she had acted like a petulant child, complaining about every discomfort as if it were life threatening. Good lord he had never heard one person whine about the state of her clothes in all his life!

And yet, somewhere during the journey through Wales and the stay at Eyri Keep, she had matured. Or perhaps he had finally seen the real Elena. Gareth sighed and moved over to the hard chair he had inhabited when he hadn't been sitting on the edge of the bed tending his beautiful patient.

Whatever the cause behind it, she had managed to ingrain her very essence into his soul so that he could never fully forget her. Gareth thought of his father's serving girl he had spent an athletic night in bed with. Sweet Christ, he could not even remember her name. All he could remember was running his hands through hair that wasn't a coppery chestnut and kissing lips that weren't petal soft under the pressure of his kiss; a touch that did not stir his blood as Elena's did. Leaning back in the chair, he stretched his legs out, kicking over dishes from their supper. No matter how he turned or positioned himself, there was simply no comfortable position and his body rebelled at having to spend one more minute in the uncomfortable contraption. Abruptly standing, he surveyed the empty half of the bed. Elena was sleeping soundly and peacefully. Surely she would not even notice if he curled up in a small corner of the bed. Before his common sense could present any arguments, his weary body had collapsed on the straw pallet. Straw? he thought. It feels like feathers. He promptly closed his eyes.

But before he fell into a deep slumber, his heart inexplicably called to mind the intense emotion he had felt when he had found Elena in the road. Beneath the fear and worry had been another feeling: exhilaration. Exhilaration that he did not have to give her up so soon. That he would have a few more days, perhaps a week with her. Exhilaration and...love...

***

Elena frowned in her sleep.

They had just stumbled onto the band of mercenaries.

"Go Elena, run!" Gareth shouted, thrusting Isrid away. Elena whirled the horse around and kicked as hard as she could. Instantly, it seemed, she was on the far side of the clearing. Reining in as hard as she could, she turned to see a huge claymore begin its decent toward Gareth's unprotected head.

"Gareth!" she tried to scream, but no sound came out of her throat. She tried to make Isrid turn and go back toward his master but the animal would not budge. "Gareth," she whimpered as she pounded on the horse's shoulders. And suddenly Gareth was free. They had escaped and he held her in his warm embrace, chasing away her fears, running his hands comfortingly up and down her back. She nestled her face in the base of his throat, inhaling his warm masculine scent.

Elena opened her eyes. The languorous feeling her dream had wrapped her in stayed with her and she quickly closed her eyes, trying to recapture the feel of Gareth's lips on hers. It was no use. She opened her eyes again and stared at a stubbled chin. Trying to roll over she discovered a heavy arm pinning her against a firm chest. Following the chest to a broad shoulder, she was disturbingly pleased to discover Gareth asleep next to her, his face boyishly innocent in slumber, his breathing slow and even. Trying not to disturb him, not to awaken him, she inched closer to him, until her lips lightly pressed against his throat. Closing her eyes, she dozed.

***

Gareth buried his head deeper into the fragrant pillow. He couldn't remember the last time he had been this comfortable. Inhaling deeply, he flexed his arm muscles and felt them tighten around a soft form. He quickly opened his eyes and discovered Elena nestled against him, her chestnut hair spread underneath him like a silken blanket. Blessed Christ! What had he done? She would kill him if she thought he'd taken advantage of her in her weakened state. Gareth sat up as far as he was able. His right arm was pinned beneath Elena, his legs entangled with hers, the twisted blanket barely covering her from shoulder to thigh. How was he going to free himself without waking her?

Before he could so much as lift his free arm, Elena shifted, her head tilting up, her eyes slowly opening. Gareth's heart stopped. "My lady, I swear--" he began, but Elena silenced him with a warm and drowsy kiss. For several seconds, he froze, unable to believe that she was willingly kissing him. When she did not pull away and continued softly exploring his lips, he tentatively slid his left hand along her waist. Elena responded by pressing closer against him, a soft moan escaping her lips. At that, Gareth took control of the kiss, shaping her lips to his, tracing their soft outline with his tongue. Elena clutched at his shirt, twisting the fabric in her grasp as she pulled him even closer.

Gareth's only thoughts were to savor each moment. Feelings he had suppressed for weeks now surfaced and his heart thudded loudly in his chest as the kiss deepened. Without quite realizing what he was doing, Gareth eased Elena onto her back, covering half of her body with. He felt her hands as they tangled in his hair, pulling his lips back to hers when he would have broken the kiss. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, his blood racing hotly through his veins as he tried to reign in his passion. Elena had to be suffering effects of the fever, he thought. She simply wouldn't be accepting--no, responding to--his advances, were she in her right mind. Gareth lifted his head and propped himself up on his right elbow. The last time he had seen her at the abbey in Dinas Mawddwy, she had made it abundantly clear that she held him in utter contempt. He gazed down at her closed eyes as he felt her cheek and forehead. They were cool and dry. Perplexed, he watched as Elena's eyes opened slowly. Their slumberous depths were clear and rational and they told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted him to kiss her again. Gareth lowered his head but paused just shy of her lips to look into her eyes again, trying to assure himself that this was what she wanted. At his hesitation, Elena lifted her lips to his, continuing in the motion to push him onto his back so that she now lay sprawled across his chest. In their moving about, the blanket had become hopelessly entangled in their legs and when Gareth raised his hand to Elena's back, he found not rough wool but warm and silken skin beneath his fingertips which he traced upwards until his fingers encountered Elena's equally silken tangle of curls.

From there, as if they had a mind of their own. His hands slid back down her back and then around to her midriff. He felt the goose bumps rise on her skin when he lightly brushed the sides of her breasts, which were pressed to the rough fabric of his shirt. Elena's hands slid down his chest to tug at the hem of his shirt, pushing it up around his armpits before leaning on him again, never once breaking their kiss.

All of this proved too much for Gareth. He felt that at any moment he would go insane with wanting her. Amazed at himself that he had been content to let her do so much of the seducing, he smoothly rolled her onto her back and, tearing his mouth from hers, began trailing kisses down her throat, across her collarbone to her breasts. Elena's hands tangled in his hair again, running restlessly through his rumpled locks as her breathing came in quick and unsteady inhalations. She gasped and arched against him when he trailed his tongue along her navel. Gareth was just about to tug his breeches off when Cynan pounded on the door and shouted, "Gareth! Wake up! The rain has stopped and there's a rumor that a troop of English soldiers are headed this way and they've been asking after us!"

Gareth glanced up at Elena who looked disoriented and dazed as she propped herself up on her elbows, her hair a glorious riot of chestnut curls. "Damn!" he said under his breath as he rolled to the side of the bed and sat up. He leaned over, resting his elbows on his knees, his head cradled in his hands as he tried to slow his breathing. Finally lifting his head he turned to Elena. "I'm sorry, but we're going to have to leave right away. I know you've not recovered fully and I'd leave you here if I could, but if the English find you, they may wonder why you're here alone." Standing, Gareth arranged his crumpled clothing, being careful to keep his back turned until the evidence of his passion subsided. When he felt collected enough to turn back, he wished he hadn't. Elena was struggling into her chemise, pulling the bunched yards of ivory material over her head, her slender body creamy in the morning light. Gareth struggled and lifted his hands to help her. He stopped himself inches from touching her, his hands shaking, wondering if she would be insulted by his help. Of course, he thought to himself, considering what they had been doing--what they would have done had they not been interrupted--surely it would not be too forward to simply help her dress...

But Gareth had debated too long. Elena finally got the chemise in place and reached for her kirtle, carefully avoiding his questioning gaze. When she pulled this over her head and began struggling to tie the laces in back, Gareth finally forced his inhibitions down and said, "I will help you with that, my lady." She said nothing as he pulled the laces tight and tied them with shaking fingers. As soon as he was done, she looked around, leaning over to search under the bed.

"Where are my boots?"

Gareth racked his brain. What had they done with her boots when they'd undressed her?

"I--" he began.

"Oh, here they are," Elena said as she carefully edged around him without touching so much as a fold of his clothing and retrieved her worn boots from the hearth where they had dried stiff and misshapen. Gareth tried to speak and had to clear his throat instead.

"They'll soften up after you've worn them a bit. They were sopping wet when we took them off."

Elena finally looked at him, her eyes opening wide with shock. "We?" she squeaked.

Gareth realized she must have been thinking of Cynan and Bryant and hastily said, "Er, rather, the wife of the man who owns this inn. She was very kind and, uh, put you to bed when we brought you here. You were very ill. A fever." Gareth's tongue felt like it was tied in knots. "We weren't sure you were going to live."

Elena frowned. "I've never been ill before." She suddenly remembered Cynan's words. "Gareth! The abbess! She told the English captain that you were on your way to help Richmond. And the soldiers–I think they were the same ones we ran across on the way to your father’s house. If they catch you'll they'll surely execute you for betraying King Richard."

"Was that why you were on the road that night? Were you following us? Were you trying to warn us?"

Elena hesitated, clearly flustered. Gareth felt his focus on her intensify. If she cared enough to warn him, perhaps she—his thought was interrupted by the entrance of the innkeeper's wife.

"I thought your wife might want some breakfast before you go tearing off."

Elena looked at Gareth with raised eyebrows. He flushed visibly and turned to the woman. "We haven't time to lose. She can eat at the next town."

The woman smiled at Elena, shaking her head. "A man has yet to surprise me," she confided. "I just knew he'd say something like that. Although, considering how he hovered over you for the past few days, I had hoped he would prove to be more sensible than most." She shrugged eloquently. "Oh well, no matter. I've packed everything in this sack. You can eat on the way, for no doubt these men will not want to stop until long after nightfall."

Gareth stared at the woman, baffled.

Cynan suddenly stuck his head in the door and said impatiently, "Gareth we really must be leaving."

"We're coming right now," he said, gesturing for Elena to precede him.

"Now you stay dry and make sure they stop and let you rest whenever you feel tired. You've barely recovered from your illness and you've yet to recover your strength," the woman said kindly.

Elena nodded and taking the heavy sack of food, moved out the door and down the hall. Once outside, Bryant helped her onto Isrid's back.

As Gareth came out of the small inn, he saw Bryant grinning up at Elena. He looks like a lovesick fool, he thought with a twinge of jealousy. Quickly repressing that feeling he looked at Elena. How he wished she did not have to ride with him. It was going to be unbearable torture to ride the next two days with her pressed against him. But there was no way around it. He could not bear the thought of her riding pressed so against Cynan or Bryant. Gritting his teeth, he walked over to his horse and climbed on, trying unsuccessfully not to touch Elena. As he leaned over to adjust his stirrups, he heard Bryant talk from the other side of the horse.

"My lady," he began hesitantly. "I must apologize."

"For what?" Elena asked.

"It was my fault you took a dunk in the river the other night. That was no doubt what caused you to be sick so long."

Elena stared at Bryant. Gareth knew she had no idea what he was talking about.

"When we crossed the Dovey, I didn't have a tight enough rein on my horse and when he bolted, the safety line that was tied around us all pulled you into the river. A dousing like that would kill a healthy man and you have every right to be angry with me for my stupidity."

Reaching over, she surprised Gareth by patted Bryant’s hand and saying somewhat awkwardly, "There, there. I'm fine now and that's all that really matters, isn't it?"

Her consolation obviously did not sound as weak to Bryant's ears as it did to Gareth’s because the young man looked up at her in wonder and smiled sheepishly.

"We've got to move, we're already a day late reaching the meeting and we've probably got English soldiers behind us," said Gareth crossly. The lovesick look on Bryant’s face made him unaccountably angry. As soon as Cynan and Bryant were mounted, he nudged Isrid into a gallop.

Their rapid pace prevented conversation and even when they slowed to let the horses rest, Gareth was unsure how to talk to Elena. Clearly their relationship had taken a dramatic turn from the hostility of their first days on the road and even from their wary peace at Eyri Keep. But where exactly they stood as friends or lovers, he knew not.

He tried to see her face, even leaning sideways on the pretext of checking Isrid’s girth strap. She appeared lost in thought, her expression impossible to read.

Whatever path their relationship took, they were clearly stuck together. Gareth could not risk her safety—and theirs—by leaving her at another abbey. His father had been certain the abbess at Dinas Mawddwy supported Henry Tudor. They could not chance another mistaken loyalty.

Suddenly weary of trying to figure out his feelings, much less Elena’s he forced his mind to consider the upcoming meeting with Henry Tudor’s supporters. Though his path seemed to have been chosen for him, he did not begrudge it. He had decided to throw his lot in with Tudor and his kinsmen. Thoughts of battle plans and weaponry kept his thought off his beautiful companion for the next several hours.

Though his mind was otherwise occupied, his body was finely tuned to her every movement and Gareth looked down as Elena shuddered. Surely she could not be cold; the day was hot and muggy thanks to the days of rain. Still, she had just recovered from a fever...

"My lady? Are you cold?"

Elena started. "Wh-what?"

"You shivered. Are you cold?"

Elena glanced over her shoulder at him. Her clothes were sticking damply to her and her hair was plastered against her neck. He realized it was a foolish question.

"I'm not cold," she said peevishly.

Gareth frowned. Elena had never been anything but haughty and arrogant. He was a fool to think otherwise, a few kisses notwithstanding. But as the memory of that morning rose unbidden in his mind, he could not help but admit to himself that Elena had changed from their first meeting and that she was no doubt simply tired from their journey and her recent illness. She still had the ability to make him feel awkward and tongue-tied, but she had followed them, on foot apparently, to warn them of the English soldiers. And though she had been feverish at the time, he could not help but remember her whispered plea that he not leave her again. And then there was the matter of waking up with her in his arms and her sweetly passionate kisses. There had been nothing arrogant about the way she had twined her fingers in his hair and gasped when he had kissed her--

Gareth shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. They really were going to have to procure another horse. She simply could not ride in front of him across Wales and back. It was awkward, it was tiring, and...and it was going to prove downright embarrassing if her hips kept pressing against his every time Isrid climbed a hill.

When they stopped to let the horses drink at a stream in the late afternoon, Gareth splashed cold water over his head, trying to rid his mind of the picture of Elena's creamy skinned body against the rough sheets at the inn. When they were ready to continue, he shifted packs on the saddle around and mounted first, hauling Elena up to perch behind him. Now why didn't I think of this earlier? he asked himself as he prodded Isrid ahead of the other two horses, blissfully ignoring the questioning glances of Cynan and Bryant.

Two hours later, Gareth was wondering what could have made him do such a stupid thing. Elena had been forced to hold onto his waist as her new perch was more precarious than sitting in front of him had been. The feel of her arms around his waist was nearly as disturbing as was the feel of her backside pressed against him. What was worse was when she had fallen asleep, nearly an hour ago. With her head resting on his shoulder, he could clearly feel the imprint of her breasts against his back. Her grip around his waist had loosened in sleep and her hands lay loosely on his upper thighs, all but brushing his crotch. This was torture!

When they finally stopped to make camp, Elena was still soundly sleeping.

"Don't wake her," Bryant whispered. "She's still not fully recovered her strength."

"I wasn't going to wake her," Gareth said edgily. He pushed his friend's hands away when Bryant would have taken Elena in his arms, but soon realized that he had no way to get down without dumping her on the ground. He reluctantly handed Elena down to Bryant and scrambled out of the saddle. He turned to take Elena but Bryant was already carrying her to the blankets Cynan had laid on a bed of leaves. Stifling the insane spurt of jealousy at the protective air Bryant had assumed over Elena, Gareth unsaddled, fed, and watered the horses before returning to their makeshift camp in the middle of a thick copse of trees.

"Dare we start a fire?" Bryant asked. "Lady Elena surely needs to stay warm and it would make cooking a good deal easier."

Gareth stared hard at his friend who until a few weeks ago could not say "Good day" to a woman without turning beet red and falling over his feet. Now Bryant was efficiently tucking his own blanket around Elena, brushing the hair off her face before he turned for Gareth's answer.

"We'd better not risk it."

"But Gareth--"

"She'll be in a good deal more danger if the English soldiers come across us than she will eating cold food on a warm summer night."

Bryant started to argue when Elena spoke. "That woman this morning gave me a bag of food to eat for breakfast. Surely there's something in there that would not need a fire."

Bryant stared at Gareth indignantly. "Lady Elena is sick for three days and you did not even give her enough time to break her fast before we left?"

Gareth bristled at his tone. "If I recall, you were more than a little anxious to avoid being hung for a traitor yourself."

Bryant had the grace to look abashed. "It's just that Lady Elena--"

The lady in question interrupted their dispute. "Lady Elena would very much like to eat now and let you children finish your squabble somewhere else. Preferably on the edge of a tall cliff in a strong wind."

Cynan laughed as he brought over the heavy sack of food. "I like that. I'll have to remember it: a tall cliff in a strong wind." Laughing again, he turned the sack over and dumped its contents onto Elena's blanket. "I say, what was the name of that inn? We'll have to stop by there again. Look at this feast!"

Gareth and Bryant stopped glaring at each other long enough to look at the pile of food and quickly forgot their argument. Within minutes the four were happily stuffing themselves on cold chicken, cheese, and thick, crusty bread as the last bit of twilight faded from the sky.

As Elena stretched out on her blanket, Gareth surveyed their surroundings. "I'd have us keep watch tonight. I'd not like to be caught unawares."

"What Englishman could find his way through a Welsh forest during daylight, much less on a moonless night?" Cynan asked.

"The moon will be up later and an Englishman searching for a traitor will find his way through nearly anything."

"I'll take first watch," Bryant volunteered.

Gareth nodded. "Wake me in a few hours. I got plenty of sleep last night and should be fine to watch the rest of the night."

"Is that wise?" Bryant asked.

"I'll be fine."

Cynan laughed softly. "You'll hear no arguments from me, Gareth. Bedding down with Bryant in that tiny room was no treat, I can assure you. He kicks and snores. I haven't slept less since I was a newlywed!"

Gareth shook his head at his friend. "How Enid has stayed married to you will forever be a wonder to me," he said as he stretched out on the ground.

"It's only because he's gone so much that she's able to stand him," Bryant joked.

"Perhaps she's hoping he'll die young and leave her money to find herself a new man." Gareth proposed.

"Ha! You're both wrong." Effecting a poetic tone of voice, Cynan said, "Beneath this craggy face of mine is the heart of a lover and 'tis that alone which keeps her with me." He glanced at his friends a moment to see if they believed him and then added, "Well, that and my virile manhood."

Both Gareth and Bryant laughed, their early antagonism gone.

"You should have left it at 'the heart of a lover,'" gasped Bryant.

"'Twould have been more believable," added Gareth.

"A pox on the both of you!" Cynan said good-naturedly.