A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 27

A thousand candles lit the great hall of Nottingham castle as servants stumbled over each other in their haste to bring heavy trays of food to the thick wood tables. The wine flowed ceaselessly and the rich aroma of fresh-baked bread 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. As Gareth surveyed the bustling scene, he felt a strange sense of déjà vu. This could have easily been the last great feast at Middleham castle. The night he had first laid eyes on Elena. The rowdy men around him laughed as they recalled the foibles of the squires they were training. A comely serving girl leaned over his shoulder, setting a platter of roasted venison in the middle of the table. She pressed her breasts against his shoulder and lifted her eyebrows in invitation at him when he looked up. He smiled politely and turned back to his mug of ale, hoping the girl would not be flirting with him all night. Two of the king's dogs broke into a fight over a bone tossed on the ground and a page ran forward to separate them. At the head table, the king was in conversation with the Earl of Salisbury and several other nobles.

It is as if nothing has changed, he thought. Nothing except that I am in love with a woman who will no doubt be wed to another before the leaves fall from the trees. I am in love with her, he thought, and I will have to watch her pledge her life to another, will have to watch her exit the hall on his arm for her wedding night, knowing her more intimately than her husband ever could. Gareth set his mug on the table and rested his head in his hands. Somehow that was a worse feeling than any of the guilt he had felt over his appointed mission.

"Be you ill Gareth?" asked Henry, the taller man he had bested on the practice field earlier. Placid of countenance and disposition, his broad face was full of concern as Gareth lifted his head from his hands.

"No," Gareth said, forcing a smile, "too much ale, that's all."

Henry's face cleared and he grinned broadly. "Aye, that's an illness I'm well familiar with!" The man returned his attention to the wealth of food in front of him and Gareth relapsed into his thoughts of Elena. Instead of the brutal torture of thinking of her upcoming wedding night, he recalled every detail of her face when he had seen her on horseback earlier today. She had been wearing the dress he had purchased for her, though the accessories she had added had changed it into the gown of a lady of rank. A jeweled belt worked in gold adorned the high waist and the collar had been closed with an intricately wrought gold brooch. Her hair had been encased in gold wire baskets on either side of her head and a fine veil had covered the glory of its chestnut color. As he had watched her, he was sure he could have never touched that satiny skin. This was not the woman who had lain so passionately in his arms. She was an aloof stranger, she must be. But the look in her eyes and the way she had watched him had reassured him. Reassured him that he was an ass for having kept silent so long about his feelings for her.

He raked his fingers through his tangled hair. It could not now be undone. They must each answer their own destinies. Looking up for something to distract him, his eyes locked onto the sight of Elena entering the hall. As on that night when he had first seen her, she was alone, standing at the top of the three steps which led into the main hall. She was surveying the colorful scene before her and she was even wearing the same green velvet gown that she had that night. Gareth remembered thinking that night that any lady wealthy enough to wear such a gown would never see anything in a man such as himself. She made her way slowly to the ladies’ table and sat at the end farthest from the head table. As he watched, she smiled at the lady sitting next to her and did not look up again as she ate. Gareth frowned, worried. This was so unlike her, he thought. She should be sitting at the head of that table as Richard's favorite.

Scarcely touching the food on his own plate, Gareth watched as she picked at her food and then stood to leave. He rose also and moved to intercept her behind the huge central fireplace. There they would be out of sight of Richard and the other important guests. Gareth waited close to the fire, which was necessary even in the heat of summer to warm the cold stone of the castle. As Elena walked past him, he said as casually as possible, "Good evening, Lady Elena."

Startled, she turned towards him and when she saw who had spoken to her, her eyes widened. "Gareth!" she whispered. Glancing furtively around, she quickly joined him behind the fireplace. She extended her hands to him and he took them in his own, rubbing them briskly to bring warmth to them. For moments they stood, staring at each other, unable to speak.

Finally Gareth said, "How are you?"

Elena lifted her shoulders in a delicate shrug that seemed to belie her response, "I'm alright. How are you? Have you received any trouble for your absence."

"No, everyone seems to be accepting our story."

Elena nodded. "I'm glad." As if striving to find something safe to discuss she said, "And how is Isrid?"

"He is well, although I think he misses our constant traveling. He was unusually jumpy when last I rode him." Though he hated himself for asking, he could not stop his next question. "Has Richard informed you of when you will be wed?"

A shadow immediately crossed her eyes and she pulled her hands from his, clasping them in front of her. "The earl has not yet returned from Hastings. I imagine the king will inform me then what his plans are for me. And you? Are your plans going well?"

Gareth's heart skipped a beat. "What plans?"

"Your preparations for war. I saw you practicing today."

"Oh, yes, they are going well."

"Good."

Gareth gnawed his lower lip. This was not what he wanted to be saying. He did not want to be wasting precious seconds babbling about inane topics like his horse and battle practice. Trying to steer the conversation along a different route, he said, "You were wearing the dress I bought you today."

Elena's gaze dropped to her still-clasped hands. “Yes, it's...it's one of my favorites. I wear it quite often."

Hoping he was not wrong to find encouragement in her words, he took a deep breath. "Elena, about what I said the other day."

She raised her eyes to his. "Yes?" she breathed.

"I--"

"Lady Elena! I'm so glad I found you," a young page rushed up to her and bowed awkwardly before continuing. "The Countess of Salisbury is retiring and she requires your attendance. Will you come?"

Elena paused a long moment, staring into Gareth’s eyes before replying, "Of course."

The young man waited expectantly, no doubt planning to escort her to the countess. Elena turned and took two steps and then paused. "Run along then, I know the way to her chambers." The page looked apprehensive, but obeyed. As soon as he was gone, she turned and ran the few steps back to Gareth. Before he could utter a word, she pressed her lips to his, her body molding itself naturally to the curves of his own. His hands moved up to embrace her, but she was already pulling away, turning and running lightly out of the main hall.

Gareth leaned against the stone fireplace and touched his fingers to his lips. They still tingled from the soft pressure of her own and like a drop of wine to a thirsty man, only made him long for more. If only that blasted page had not appeared!

***

"Your Majesty," said Sir Jasper. When the king turned his attention to the knight, the man bowed respectfully.

"What is it Sir Jasper?"

"Your Majesty, these men who have recently joined us have begged for a moment of your time. They claim they have information you will find of the utmost importance."

Richard looked to the rough but slightly cleaner soldiers who waited several paces behind Sir Jasper. Turning back to his meal, he said, "We have already spoken to these men once today and heard all they know. We have accepted them as soldiers. See that they are well assigned and leave Us be."

Sir Jasper bowed his head in deference. "I am aware Your Majesty has already spoken with them, but they seem to be under the impression that they have discovered news of the rebel's meeting in Wales since this morning."

Richard looked up sharply. "What?" Standing, he strode to one of the smaller rooms that opened off of the main hall. The king stopped in the middle of the room and demanded of the men who had followed, "What news have you of the traitors in Wales?"

The same burly man who had spoken for the foursome earlier stepped forward at Sir Jasper's urging. "My liege, whilst we were in Wales flushing out rebels, we learned from the abbess of Dinas Mawddwy that a certain knight was on his way to Aberystwyth for the meeting of the rebels. This knight was a man who serves you even now in your hall."

Richard's eyes narrowed and his thin lips compressed until his mouth was a narrow line of anger. He gripped the fur edges of his mantle with knuckles that were white. "Who was it?"

"I believe I heard him referred to as Gareth. Gareth ap Morgan."

Sir Jasper gasped and Richard looked at him sharply. "Does this surprise you, Sir Knight?"

The older man cleared his throat. "Indeed it does, Your Majesty. Sir Gareth has proven himself to be nothing other than the most loyal and obedient of your knights. And if he were a rebel, why would he return here, to your service? Why would he not simply remain with the other rebels and await Henry Tudor's landing?"

"Perhaps he hopes to learn our battle plans, how many men we train, what our weaknesses are," the king bit out. "I will have his head for this."

"Your Majesty, I must protest. At least give Sir Gareth the chance to defend himself and his honor."

"Why should I?" In his impatience, Richard slipped out of the use of the royal "We," and his hand had moved to the decorative sword he wore on his belt.

Sir Jasper stepped forward and lowered his voice. "Because, sire, these men are former mercenaries, newly come to your service. What assurances have we that they speak the truth? Perhaps they only hope to gain your favor?"

Richard studied his knight for several seconds before nodding briefly. "Very well, let us return to the feast hall. We will get to the bottom of this now."

"Your Majesty?" Sir Jasper said.

"What is it now, man? You try Our patience with your constant interruptions!"

"I beg your forgiveness, but would it not be better to wait until the feast is over and the people have dispersed? Surely Sir Gareth's service has earned him that much respect before he is accused of treason."

Richard's voice was low and cutting when he answered. "Surely Our service as king has earned Us the respect of knowing immediately if one of Our knights has betrayed Us."

Sir Jasper bowed and said, "Of course, Your Majesty."

The knight and the four soldiers followed Richard back into the feast hall where fruit pies were just being served. Richard strode to the front of the raised dais on which the head table sat. Within seconds, all voices in the hall were silenced. "Where is Sir Gareth ap Morgan?" he boomed.

Behind the fireplace where he was thinking of Elena, Gareth started, recognizing the king's voice. Dashing around the great stone pillar, he called out, "Here, Your Majesty."

"Attend Us."

Gareth rushed to the front of the hall. There was no award the king would be bestowing, no honor he had earned. His pulse doubled its pace and he felt all his muscles tighten with tension when he spotted the four mercenaries he had twice before run into, the last time being in the streets of Aberstwyth. There could only be one reason the king was calling him forward now. Bowing low before the king, Gareth said as loudly and as confidently as he could, "Your Majesty?"

"Sir Knight, have you sworn fealty to Us?"

"Yes, my king."

"And will you swear it to Us again? Tonight? Now?"

Gareth paused for the briefest moment. "Of course, Your Majesty."

Richard held out the hand with his signet ring and Gareth knelt and took it in his own damp palms, reciting his vow of fealty to the king and to England. Before he could rise and back away, hoping that was all the king desired of him, Richard stopped him. "And now, Sir Gareth, We would ask another question of you."

Gareth waited, his nerves and muscles tightening in tandem. "Your Majesty?"

Richard looked down his nose at his knight. "Have you betrayed Us and your vows of fealty by attending a meeting of traitors in Wales?"

Gareth clenched his teeth tightly, trying to steady himself, desperately trying to think of something to say that would save his life. "I told Your Majesty that I was only at my father's keep in Northern Wales."

"We remember very clearly what you have told Us, Sir Gareth. But you see, these men here," Richard gestured to the four rough men who stood to the side, "claim they ran into you in Aberstwyth, several days travel from your father's keep, is it not? And, coincidentally, where We have recently discovered a meeting occurred to plan aid to the Tudor dog! What have you to respond?"

"I can only suppose they are mistaken in identifying me as that man."

"Gareth is of a common height and coloring for a Welshman, Your Majesty," interjected Sir Jasper. "It could easily happen."

"Were there only one man who had spotted him there, We might be inclined to believe this claim. But there were four! Four men who saw you in the intimate company of traitors!"

Gareth felt his stomach clench. Before he could speak, Sir Jasper spoke up again.

"Your Majesty, I beg you to consider the source of this story. Four men, yes, but four men who have not given you loyal service. Four men who only just arrived at Nottingham today, who may, in fact be spies themselves! Surely Sir Gareth's previous service must stand him in your favor now."

"Sir Jasper, your protestations of what We must or must not think do not endear you to Us. They do, in fact, lead Us to wonder if you are in league with this man." Sir Jasper opened his mouth to speak, but Richard stopped him. "We will hear no more. Guards! Take this man into custody. He is no longer one of Our knights." Turning, Richard walked around the table and resumed his seat. Gareth felt as if there were no blood, no strength in his limbs for he could not move them. Could not even feel them. When the two guards grabbed him by his arms--two guards he had helped train--he was unaware of their painful grasp or that Richard was stripping him of his knight's chain. Though all else was a blur, Gareth saw the pained look on Sir Jasper's face as he left the hall.

The two guards said not a word to him as they led him out of the main hall to a stone tower where the prisoners were normally kept. One of the guards addressed a captain who was just coming out. "Sir, His Majesty has another traitor for the tower."

"Well you'll have to take him to the cellars below. We've no room for the prisoners we've got. I sent a man to the cellars just this morning with two prisoners. He will still be on duty and can take this one from you." The captain sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I wish we could get these men tried and either hung or released. We've too many men spending time on guard duty instead of preparing for war. The king must be--" The man stopped as if suddenly realizing who he was talking to. "Go about your business now," he said brusquely.

Gareth's guards dragged him back to the main keep and hauled him down a flight of stairs that had not seen much maintenance. The stones were cracked and slippery with dampness. One of the guards cracked his head on a low hanging beam and cursed abruptly. When they reached the dank-smelling cellars, a feeble torch illuminated the guard's post where a beefy man dozed on a three-legged stool, his head leaning against the damp stone walls. His snores were interrupted when one of the guards kicked the man's stool.

"Wake up you lazy oaf! We've another prisoner. Stand up and open one of the cells."

The groggy man saluted and fumbled with the keys at his waist. "Here," he said, gesturing to the wooden door in front of him. "This one was emptied this morning when the king ordered the man's execution." He opened the door and stood aside while the other two guards pushed Gareth into the cramped cell. Gareth stumbled in the darkness, coming to land on a musty smelling pallet of straw. The door slammed shut behind him and he heard the bolt slide home.

The two king's guards berated the man for his appearance and demeanor before leaving. Gareth heard the beefy guard grumble about their treatment as he settled himself back on his stool. Within seconds, the snoring had resumed.

Gareth wedged himself in the corner of the small room, sitting on the old straw pallet. He forced himself to think of the one thing that would not drive him insane with worry over his imminent execution. He forced his mind to conjure Elena and the way she had rushed back to kiss him. He allowed no other thoughts to enter his mind but those of their passion-filled trip from Wales, the all too short nights they had spent in that tiny room in Samuel's house. He refused to think of the bugs he was now bedding down with and the way the axe would look as it whistled through the air on a collision course with his neck. He thought only of Elena.