A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 24

Elena awoke late the next morning to a bright shaft of sunlight pouring in the dirty windowpane and a timid knock at the door. Groggy, she sat up and pulled the covers to her chin as she said, "Yes?"

A young girl with a pink-scrubbed face and her hair tied in a kerchief stuck her head in the room and said, "Excuse me, milady. Yer husband asked me to help ye get ready for your travels today.

Elena nodded and studiously ignored the flush of pleasure she felt at hearing Gareth referred to as her husband. It had been the most expedient way to secure their room the night before. "Very well. You may enter."

The young girl quickly entered the room, shutting the door behind her, and bobbed an awkward curtsey. Elena glanced around the room for her clothing. Spotting it hanging on the wall, she said, "You may bring me my chemise and gown."

The girl scurried to fetch them and in a few minutes, Elena was dressed. "I can also fix yer hair, lady. I've two older sisters who allow me to fix theirs all the time."

"Have you a comb and pins?"

"Aye, yer husband gave them to me," she replied, bringing them out of her apron pocket to display. "Bought new they were just this morn."

Elena smiled to herself and sat on the corner of the bed. The young girl, who introduced herself as Mary, went to work, combing the tangles out of Elena's long hair and jabbering about goings on in the city. "Do you know the king is in residence at his castle just outside the city?" she asked.

"Really?" Elena said.

"Oh yes. He's been there near a sennight and he's not once been to town."

"Is that unusual?" Elena asked, knowing that it was. Richard loved to make a display of his power, especially in the northern parts of England where he was more popular.

"Aye, he's been in his castle this whole time and soldiers from all over have been arriving."

"I wonder why."

"I do too, milady, though whenever I ask my father, he boxes my ears and calls me impertinent."

Elena, whose ears had never been boxed, turned in horror to look at Mary. "How horrid."

"Oh he don't mean it and I'm so fast that he usually never catches me. All the same, he never answers my questions."

The girl rattled on for another ten or fifteen minutes while she braided and twisted Elena's hair into three buns--one over each ear and another at her nape. When each section was secured with the new wooden hairpins, Mary handed her the comb. "There's a mirror downstairs you can look in, yer ladyship. I hope you like it."

Elena patted her hair, judging the style. "I'm sure I will. Thank you."

Mary grinned broadly. "Oh yer welcome, lady. Yer husband awaits ye out back when yer ready."

Elena left the small room and went downstairs. There was a smoky mirror hanging in the small dining area and she judged Mary's work to be quite acceptable. She smoothed her collar and shook out her full skirt before exiting the back door into the small stable area. Gareth was securing the last satchel on their packhorse when she approached him.

"Good morning Gareth."

Gareth whirled around and the appreciative look in his gaze warmed her cheeks. "Good morning. I thought we could stop at that pub and break our fast before continuing on to the castle."

Elena nodded, thinking that in a few hours, they would be separated--she to the quarters of the other ladies-in-waiting, he to join the other knights no doubt training for the imminent battle. Looking to the horse he had purchased in Aberstwyth, she thought of their entrance into the bailey of Nottingham castle. Though she had grown accustomed to riding in the saddle with Gareth, she knew they must not arrive pressed together on one horse. It would be difficult enough to convince everyone at court, especially those who envied and despised her, that she was not a fallen woman. Nodding to the horse, she said, "It would probably be best if I rode that horse today."

Gareth frowned and then, as if realizing what she meant, nodded and looked away. "Of course. I'm just used to--"

"I know," she interrupted, wishing she could explain that it would go harder for him if Richard discovered Gareth had taken the virtue of one of his attendants, especially one who’d been bestowed on a supporter; knowing that she could never explain the nuances of court life in a few words.

Gareth quickly rearranged the leather satchels so that Elena would be able to ride her horse. When he was finished, he helped her into her makeshift sidesaddle. Taking the reins of both horses, he led them out of the narrow alley and down the cobbled street to Henry Billingsley's pub. As he turned to help her down, he paused. With her hair intricately arranged, her back straight, and her new gown spread over her horse's back, she looked every inch the noblewoman. She looked nothing like the impudent lass he had made love to beneath the star-sprinkled velvet of the summer night's sky in Wales. Intimidated against his will, he carefully helped her down and stiffly escorted her into the pub.

Henry Billingsley remembered them from their previous meal and he bid them a hearty welcome, bringing mugs of ale and a plate of cold meats.

Elena ate the meat but avoided the ale. She had felt a definite change in Gareth's attitude toward her since she had bade him good morning and she was at a loss as to how to bring back the smiling, teasing Gareth of just a few days ago.

They ate in uncomfortable silence and left the pub as soon as the platter was cleared. Gareth lifted her into her saddle and paused, his hand on her knee. "My lady," he began.

"Yes Gareth?" she asked, hating that he had not called her by her name.

He looked up into her eyes. "I--you will be back in the comfort of His Majesty's court before dinner." Elena had the distinct impression that was not what Gareth had intended to say, but he quickly turned and mounted Isrid.

They made their way slowly out of the city, content to let the horses choose the easy pace. They exchanged comments about the weather and the scenery they passed as they made their way towards Nottingham castle, which loomed on the horizon.

Silently, Gareth chastised himself, hating that he hadn't taken advantage one of the hundreds of appropriate times to tell Elena that he loved her, to beg her to marry him. What was pride now, he thought? What matter if she had rejected his love from that first day? 'Twould have been better to suffer the temporary misery of wounded ego than to forever wonder if they might have made a life together if only he'd had the courage to speak.

His reverie ended as sentries on the parapets of the castle wall spotted them and called out for identification.

"Lady Elena de Vignon handmaiden to King Richard and Sir Gareth ap Morgan, knight of His Majesty's realm," Gareth yelled back to the sentries. "We are only now reunited with the king after becoming separated from His Majesty's entourage near Middleham." One of the soldiers left the parapet and within minutes, the great wooden castle gate was creaking open.

As they passed into the shadow of the castle, Elena shivered, though not from cold. The day was warm, with nary a cloud in the sky to keep the sun's warmth from the earth. Elena shivered because the shadow was like a seal to her fate. Who knew how long it would be until Richard married her to Brackley? Elena had been around castles enough to know that this one was preparing for war. As they passed through the thick stone walls on either side of the gate into the bailey, she saw knights training for battle: engaging in mock combat, preparing their horses for war, repairing worn armor. The full impact of the inevitable war with Henry Tudor struck Elena. She wondered what would happen to her…friends? Yes, friends back in Wales. Surely they did not have the weapons or the armor or the training that these knights had. She looked to Gareth and was greatly relieved that he had chosen the side that was most likely to win, most likely to keep him alive. As if feeling her gaze upon him, Gareth turned and smiled grimly back at her.

A foot soldier approached and saluted Gareth. "The king has been notified of your arrival, Sir Knight. Please continue on to the main hall," he said, gesturing to the large stone fortress that was the king's residence and meeting rooms.

As they drew nearer, Elena heard her name called from up above. "Elena!" cried Margaret. "You're alive!" Elena glanced up in time to see Margaret turn from the second story window and call down the hall, "Your Majesty, it's true! Lady Elena is alive and she is here!"

The sense of doom that had settled on Elena as she passed into the castle's shadow grew heavier. Behind them, the knights in war training began a melee of blows and shouts. Elena's heretofore calm horse suddenly grew nervous, jumping and sidling away from the noise as it pressed up against Isrid. "Gareth!" Elena called, frightened.

"Easy," Gareth said to the horse as he grabbed the reins and sawed back on them. The horse calmed somewhat though it continued to jerk at the reins. Elena's apprehension grew and she looked to Gareth for help as she held onto the edge of the saddle with both hands.

"Elena," he said in a low voice. "There is something I must tell you before we are surrounded by people and separated."

Distracted by the huge carved doors that were suddenly thrown back, Elena looked up to see Richard surrounded by people start down the stone steps into the bailey. The urgency in Gareth's voice called her back. "Elena! I must tell you! I have tried to say this for the past week, but I just--"

Richard and his entourage were drawing closer. "What Gareth? What is it?"

"I love you." Another burst of metal upon metal clattered behind them and Elena's horse tossed its head wildly, jerking the reins out of Gareth's hands. Several groomsmen rushed up to grab the horse and in the process, pulled it away from Isrid. Elena stared in amazement at Gareth, unable to respond, especially as they were drawn further and further apart in the crush of people.

"Elena, sweet girl," boomed Richard's voice. She dragged her eyes from her lover's face. "We had all but given up hope that you were alive. What a joy it is to see you well and unharmed." Suddenly fixing Gareth with a suspecting glare, he continued, "You are, I trust, unharmed?"

Still reeling from Gareth's admission, she had to force her mind to concentrate on the king's question. "I--yes, I am in excellent health. Sir Gareth saw to my every need and protected me with utmost chivalry, risking his very life to keep me safe."

"I would expect no less," Richard said, though he had yet to remove his gaze from Gareth's face.

As she looked at her king, Elena noticed that his face had an ashen color to it and deep circles marred the skin beneath his eyes. He fidgeted with the jeweled belt at his waist and her eyes were drawn to his hands, which trembled slightly. His nails were ragged, the cuticles torn. The matter of Henry Tudor must be weighing heavily on him, she thought.

"Come," he said, gesturing to the grooms to help her down. "I must hear everything about your adventures."

The groomsmen helped her off of the still-jittery horse but before she turned to follow the king, she gazed at Gareth who was now even further away. He was surrounded by his fellow knights who were plying him with questions, but he ignored them, his gaze locked on hers.

"My lady?" said the soldier who was waiting to escort her after Richard. Tearing her attention from Gareth with an effort that felt physical, she turned and allowed herself to be led away.

***

From across the bailey, Gareth watched Elena being led after the king. When she had disappeared into the great hall, he turned his attention to those knights gathered around him.

"What in God's creation happened to you?" asked one he recognized as Sir Jasper.

"Why did it take you so long to return?" asked another.

Gareth climbed off of Isrid and began leading him to the stables, explaining as he went.

"We were separated after the attack on the road from Middleham," he began. "I was sore injured and knocked unconscious. When I came to, it was dark. I set up camp and there Lady Elena found me. She had been taken by the attackers and then released." Gareth suddenly remembered that the story he and Elena had agreed upon was that she be seriously injured. "The good lady was in quite a bad state."

"Had she been raped?" asked an impudent young knight he did not know.

"No! Only sorely mishandled and dumped from her horse." Gareth wished to God that he and Elena had planned out more carefully what exactly they were going to say. On the trip here they had just seemed to have so many other things to talk about...Tearing his thoughts from that path, he continued with his careful fabrication. "She was bleeding and near unconscious herself. I was in fear that she would die were I not to seek help, but since I am not so familiar with that part of England, I knew not where I might find a safe place to take her for treatment so I escorted her to my father's home."

"In Wales?" Sir Jasper asked, disbelieving.

‘Tis not so very far," Gareth replied.

"But you could have returned to Middleham or continued on down the road to find us."

Gareth's mouth was going dry. He wasn't sure he was going to be able to carry this off and he wished with all his might that Elena were here. She was so much better at making up believable excuses. "I knew not what had become of His Majesty's party. As I said, I had been knocked unconscious. No doubt left for dead by the brigands who had attacked us. When I came to I was surrounded by bodies you had left behind. For all I knew, everyone had been killed or taken hostage."

The men nodded, recalling the frantic flight that day. Encouraged, Gareth continued. "For all I knew, Tudor had landed in England and was attacking. For myself, I would have sought him out and fought to my death, but I did not want Lady Elena to fall into our enemy's hands. Who knows what that bastard would have done to such a beautiful lady." He glanced around to see if he was going too far. "The safest thing I could figure would be to take her to a place I knew to be safe until she recovered and I found out what had happened."

"You did well," said Sir Jasper with approval. Gareth felt a twinge of guilt at the older knight's praise. He had always looked up to Jasper and felt him to have one of the levelest heads of all of Richard's spurs. That he was deceiving this man turned his stomach sour. He removed Isrid's saddle and rubbed the warhorse down. He remembered how as a squire he had dreamed that he would be the most honest, most chivalrous, most trustworthy knight of them all. What a farce his goal had become. He would be so glad when this whole mess was over. Either Henry Tudor would win and Gareth would be given a chance to live up to his youthful ideals under a new king, or he would die on the battlefield, wherever that may be. The thought of dying did nothing to ease his nausea.

He shook his head and took a cleansing breath. If death turned out to be his destiny, he decided philosophically, at least he would die having told Elena that he loved her.

The next day Gareth found himself in front of the king in the middle of a formal court. He had been summoned midmorning and had waited these past two hours at the back of the packed main hall, waiting for the royal high chancellor to call him forward. The messenger who had brought him word of Richard's summons had no explanation for it. Nor had the two-man armed escort who had made sure he arrived in the hall in plenty of time. Though he refused to allow himself to worry over the king's desire to see him, he couldn't help but wonder if he'd been found out. How inglorious, he thought, to be caught and executed without having accomplished one thing for Henry Tudor's cause.

Gareth shook his head to clear it of such dark thoughts. That Richard could have found him out was nonsense. Who here would possibly know of his involvement or his mission? Only Elena knew that he had even attended the meeting in Aberstwyth and--a cold shiver of doubt trickled down his spine. Suppose she had told Richard about Aberstwyth? No! he told himself. Though she had not returned his words of love yesterday, he was certain she would not reveal his meetings with the rebels. The doubt lingered. Gareth craned his neck, trying to spot Elena in the crowd of richly dressed nobles sitting in the first rows of the audience. He knew that if he could but lay eyes on her, all worry would leave his mind and he could focus on what he might say to the king to convince him of his loyalty. Though he stood on tiptoe and held onto the shoulder of the man in front of him for balance, he could not make her out and had to content himself with remembering their shared nights of passion, their companionable conversations along the way to Nottingham, and every other incident in the past weeks that had made him believe she must care for him, at least a bit. At least enough not to wish to see him hung as a traitor.

What then had prompted Richard to call him forth in court, and to send an armed escort to ensure that he arrived? He could only wonder and hope for the best.

The high chancellor called forth one of Richard's influential vassals from the south and announced the marriage of the man's daughter to the son of a northern lord. Gareth wondered if it were simply another attempt to bring the more rebellious regions of southern England in line with the north which favored Richard and from which he drew his greatest political support. The crowd shifted and between people's heads, Gareth could see the prospective bride, a young girl of perhaps no more than fifteen or sixteen, fair and blond and appearing none-too-eager to wed her fiancée. Gareth took a step sideways to better see the young man. He was young and good looking enough with broad shoulders and a noble brow. Gareth could not imagine why the girl should be so reluctant looking. It was not as if she were having to marry an ugly old ogre like Brackley.

Brackley. Gareth searched the hall for him, but the crush of people was too great to pick him out. Gareth ground his teeth. So consumed was he in his own worries since receiving his summons this morning that he had given no thought to the horrible fate Elena was facing. He prayed that Richard would not press for the wedding to be performed before Henry Tudor landed. He swore to himself that he would seek out the repulsive man on the battlefield and ensure his death that Elena might be free of the man for good.

As the royal high chancellor called him forth before the king, Gareth prayed that he would live to see the battlefield. He held his back straight, his head high and forced his eyes to remain on the man who wore the crown. When he had entered the king's presence, he presented a low and formal bow. "Your Majesty," he said clearly, bending to one knee where he waited with bowed head for Richard's permission to stand.

It did not come immediately. Instead, he remained on his knee while the hall quieted. Still Richard did not speak. Gareth felt a glimmer of sweat coat his brow. This did not bode well.

"Sir Gareth ap Morgan," the king boomed. "You have been absent my court for some time and in the presence of one of my ladies. I have heard report of your story but I would have you tell me in person, that I might judge the veracity of your tale."

Still in his bent position, Gareth said, "Of course, Your Majesty. I am confident you will judge it to be true as I have always been a true and loyal knight to yourself and to England."

"Do not coddle me, man!" Gareth wished he had not spoken. Richard was obviously in one of his paranoid rages. "You disappeared from my ranks at the same time we were attacked by brigands--brigands who may very well have been supporters of that bastard Tudor. Furthermore, you disappear with one of my ladies-in-waiting who is the fiancée of one of my closest allies, Earl Brackley. You admit to having traveled alone with her, having given no thought to acquiring an appropriate escort, even though you must have passed several manors and not less than three convents! You drag her to Wales and then return her here as you please when you are done with her with no regard for her station or her good name! What do you have to say for yourself?"

Gareth thought that such a vocal recitation of his report would surely do more harm to Elena’s name, but he said only, "Your Majesty--"

"Stand up man. Do not cower before me!"

Gareth flushed as he stood. He held his posture painfully erect and his voice was tight when he answered. "I know not if the brigands who attacked us on the road were supporters of Henry Tudor. I do know that I dispatched two of them to their maker before I myself was injured and lost consciousness. Surely someone amongst the group saw me battling to protect you and yours."

"Aye, my liege," came Sir Jasper's voice across the hall. "He fought well and nobly that day and killed by my count four opponents, not two."

Richard's gaze darted past Gareth's shoulder to the knight striding down the aisle. When Sir Jasper came to stand by Gareth's right side, the king studied him intently for several seconds before returning his glare to the younger knight. Gareth was torn between the feeling of relief that Sir Jasper was defending his case, and the ever-present guilt that was reminding him that he would no doubt be facing his present champion on a battlefield soon. With a strength of will born of the realization that his life depended on Richard believing his partial-truths, Gareth suppressed the guilt and instead concentrated on making his story as believable as possible.

Tilting his head towards Sir Jasper, he continued, "I killed four men that day and was wounded in return. I was knocked unconscious and, I can only presume, left for dead both by the brigands and my fellow knights--an understandable mistake." Gareth thought that a subtle shifting of the guilt might sway Richard in his favor. "When I came to, I had no idea what the outcome of the skirmish had been: whether Your Majesty had escaped or been seized along with the rest of your troops." Gareth's attention was drawn to Richard's hands. His left hand toyed with the royal signet ring on his right, twisting it, removing it, replacing it. Suddenly, as if the king realized his fidgeting had been caught, he quickly placed both hands on either arm of the throne, grasping them tightly until his knuckles whitened.

Gareth jerked his attention from their nervous movements and returned to his story. "It was not long after that I discovered Lady Elena who I believe had been taken hostage by the brigands to ensure their escape and then later released. She was as ignorant as I concerning Your Majesty's survival," Gareth suddenly remembered that Elena was supposed to have been injured and he quickly made up an injury that would require at least a fortnight recovery. "Furthermore, she was bleeding profusely from a cut on her scalp and could scarce remember her name or what had happened."

Richard's gaze shifted again and he addressed someone in the crowd. "And have you recovered sufficiently from your injury, Lady Elena?"

Gareth turned and felt his heart lurch. Seated on a bench in the front row of attendants to the court was Elena, dressed in a gown of deepest blue, heavily embroidered with silver thread. An expensive silver pendant graced her smooth neck and her hair was intricately braided and woven about her head. She looked as foreign to him as if she had only just arrived from the southernmost tip of Italy or the easternmost reaches of the Steppes. But when she turned her gaze to meet his, she was the woman he knew most intimately, the woman he loved. Still looking at him, she answered the king. "Aye, Your Majesty. I am well recovered, thanks to Sir Gareth and his family."

"Ah, yes," Richard boomed, "your family." Gareth turned back to face the king. "Tell me now, why you chose to take the Lady Elena--the wounded Lady Elena--through forests and over mountains to be attended by your family when there were manors and convents at every turn."

This would be his most difficult argument to convince, Gareth knew, and he tried to appear as guileless as possible as he said, "In all truth, Your Majesty, I did not come across a manor or convent. You see, I feared traveling the roads for Lady Elena's sake. I was worried that if we ran into these same brigands, she might not escape with just a wound to the head." Gareth paused, desperately trying to keep the charade up. "I was also worried that she would not survive the wound she had received. She faded in and out of consciousness as we traveled and I thought I might waste days looking for a manor while in that time I could easily get her to my father's keep where I knew she would be well taken care of." He paused and took a shaky breath as Richard stared at him. The king licked his lips and then chewed on his lower lip while he tapped his finger with the signet ring against the arm of the throne. The sharp clicking sound seemed even louder to Gareth's ears than the low rumble of conversation by those who had lost interest in the business of court.

Finally, the king spoke. "And when Lady Elena had recovered, you and she immediately returned to see if I had arrived at Nottingham."

Gareth thought frantically to determine if there was anything else he should add. He could think of nothing. "Yes. We traveled to Nottingham and learned in the city that you were in residence and in all health."

"And you swear this story to be true?"

"On my sword and on the good service I have provided you since first I came to your court." Gareth held his breath, waiting to see if he would be believed.

"Very well," Richard murmured. Raising his voice to its court-addressing level, he said, "We are thankful for your service in protecting Our life and for rescuing and protecting Our good Lady Elena. We charge you to remain with Us as We will no doubt require service of this caliber again." The king turned to his high chancellor and began discussing the next issue.

Gareth bowed, backed up several paces, and bowed again before turning and leaving, Sir Jasper at his elbow. When they had exited the main hall into the bright afternoon sunlight that filled the large bailey, Sir Jasper spoke. "Don't take his skepticism to heart, Gareth. The king is greatly occupied with Henry Tudor's threat and he sees a spy in every shadow."

Gareth kept his face an immobile mask. His attempt to thank Sir Jasper was waved away. Instead he asked the senior knight, "Were those brigands who attacked us Henry's men?"

"No. As it turns out, they were men hired by Elizabeth Woodville to capture her daughter out of Richard's grasp. Apparently, the woman has lost all reason and she feared Richard meant to force Elizabeth to marry him simply to cement his claim to the throne, as if he needs that."

Gareth thought that if what little he had gleaned from Elena about Richard's plans for Lady Elizabeth were true, the mother was uncannily shrewd rather than mad. The two men made their way to the far end of the bailey where a group of knights and men-at-arms whose presence was not required in court were practicing swordplay. Gareth and Sir Jasper paused on the edge of the practice field, watching the men.

"We've no idea exactly how many men Tudor will be able to gather once he lands. He has the assistance of several foreign crowns and, so our King's spies tell us, much support from Wales, for Welsh blood runs in his veins."

Gareth thought he should not appear too innocent so he said, "I had heard as much--he is French too, am I correct?"

"Yes, he is the grandson of Henry V's widow, Catherine, who was the daughter to the King of France. No doubt the French king is his most generous benefactor." Gareth knew Henry Tudor's lineage, but nodded his head as if learning it anew. "His only claim to King Richard's crown is through the bastard children of John Beaufort."

"I thought they were legitimized."

Sir Jasper scoffed. "Only on the condition that they never lay claim to the throne! Which just goes to show you what the deviousness of the Welsh will push through." He paused, his eyes widening as he looked at Gareth. "Oh, Gareth, forgive me. I did not mean to imply--"

Gareth raised his hand to stop the apology. "Please, Sir Jasper, think nothing of it. I'll be the first to admit that the Welsh can be calculating. What other reason could explain why there used to be so much fighting between the lords of Wales?" Sir Jasper nodded and the two men turned their attention back to the mock battles being waged.

Though Gareth pretended to be studying the men's form and style, he was reflecting on Sir Jasper's words. Aye, the Welsh could change their loyalty in a heartbeat, but usually they did so only when Wales was being trod upon. Had Richard not allowed English priests to replace the Welsh clergy, or English lords to rule Welsh lands, Wales would even now support him as King of England. But most importantly, had Richard not supported the laws which denied a Welshman the rights of citizenship merely because Welsh blood ran through his veins, he would not now be having to worry that Henry's army would be greatly comprised of Welshmen seeking the same rights every Englishman took for granted.

As Gareth stood there, surrounded by the noise of a productive, war-prepared castle, all of the arguments against Richard brought up at the Aberstwyth meeting came back to him. They coalesced into a solid determination to see a better king on the throne. Cymru, which could really only be translated as "Welshness," flowed through his veins and the weight of guilt and indecision which had bowed his shoulders since he had first heard of Henry Tudor suddenly slid off and broke into pieces about his feet, to be kicked away with the slightest shift of the spurs which adorned his worn boots.

He looked to Sir Jasper who was shouting instructions to a new knight on the field. He would no doubt be facing this noble man on the field, for Sir Jasper believed most firmly that Richard was God's choice as King of England. But suddenly, Gareth felt the same passionate response to Henry Tudor's claim. No doubt if he had been born and raised in northern England, and Sir Jasper had grown up in Wales, their loyalties would be reversed. But fate had decided they would soon fight for different kings and no amount of guilt on Gareth's part would change that. With an invigorating sense of freedom and relief, Gareth strode forward and picked up a wooden sword from the pile of practice weapons and joined the practicing men.