A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 28

Elena awoke the next morning wondering if she could convince the Countess of Salisbury to ride through the bailey again so that she might catch another glimpse of Gareth. She had just finished dressing and was waiting for the young servant girl to finish with her hair when there was a knock at the door.

"Enter," Elena called, but Catherine, who was having her hair washed, called out angrily, "No, do not enter! Elena, if you do not mind, I am not prepared to receive anyone."

"For heaven's sake, Catherine, it's not likely to be the pope calling for confession. What matter if a page sees you with wet hair?"

"It is not seemly and I, if no one else in this room, am well aware of the importance of behaving in a seemly manner at all times."

Elena almost smiled at the crudely delivered insult. Catherine was referring to her weeks spent with Gareth. More than once had Catherine implied that Elena could not be a true lady after allowing herself to spend nights on the road alone with no chaperon. Elena had managed to grit her teeth and say nothing, knowing that was the only way to deal with someone like Catherine, but now she had remained silent long enough.

"You only behave in a 'seemly' manner when there is someone of import to impress. Were you to behave all the time, you would not be so catty to the very women who have made you who you are in this court today."

"Don't you dare try to tell me you are the reason His Majesty treasures me so!"

"Ladies, please!" interrupted Margaret. When Elena and Catherine continued to bicker, she yelled a little more loudly. "Will the two of you shut your mouths for one moment? I will answer the damned door myself."

Despite her anger at Catherine, Elena laughed. "Are you sure they allow language like that in the convent, Margaret?"

"They would if they had to deal with you two," Margaret said over her shoulder as she reached the door. She stepped outside and in a moment returned, looking apprehensively at Elena. "The summons is for you, Elena. The Earl of Brackley has returned and King Richard calls you to his meeting chambers."

"The earl is here?" Catherine said, sitting up, heedless of the water dripping from her hair.

"Yes, he is here," Margaret said, answering Catherine, but staring at Elena. "But the summons was for Elena and Elena alone."

"That's ridiculous. I am sure the earl will wish to see me as well." Catherine grabbed the linen towel from the serving maid and began vigorously drying her hair.

"Would you like me to call the messenger back? He was most specific in relaying the king's words. The earl is, after all, betrothed to Elena, not you."

Catherine glared at the other women, but Elena ignored her. "Did he say why?"

Margaret smiled sympathetically and shook her head no. Elena suspected Margaret alone knew of her secret dread of marrying the repugnant man and for the first time, Elena felt camaraderie with the other woman she had never before experienced. Returning the smile, Elena stood and left the room, forbidding her knees to shake as she walked down the stairs and into the large map strewn room in which Richard was sitting with the earl.

Richard was the first to notice her presence. "Ah, Edmund, here is Elena now." When she was but a few feet from the men, Elena curtsied gracefully and slowly rose. From beneath her lashes, she watched Brackley, dismayed to find him even crueler looking than she had remembered.

For several seconds, not a word was spoken. Elena could not imagine why the king had called her forth if not to tell her of her impending marriage. When the king finally spoke, however, it was not to her.

"Look on her well, Edmund and decide if you will have her though she be a fallen woman."

Elena looked up, stunned. "Your Majesty?"

"Do not play the naive chit with Us, lady. Lady Catherine has kept Us well enough informed and she is convinced, as are We, that you did not hold yourself as befits a member of Our entourage. Now it is up to the earl to decide if he will have you anyway. We have offered him wife of any of my other ladies, ladies whose virtue We can be certain of. Edmund?"

The earl leaned back in his seat, surveying Elena from head to toe. "I care not if she is pure. In fact, I rather think I will prefer bedding a new wife who is not a virgin. Perhaps your experiences," he put an ugly emphasis on the word 'experiences,' "in Wales will make my wedding night all the more enjoyable." Turning to the king, Brackley said, "I will still have her if her dowry is the same."

"Aye, I've padded it well enough. As for you, lady, be very thankful that the earl is as understanding and tolerant as he is. Were he not, and your indiscretions had cost Us his valuable friendship, We would not like to think of what might have happened to you."

Elena's breaths were short and shallow. She had to fight the overwhelming urge to flee. Simply turn and flee and stop only long enough to grab Gareth and beg him take her from this place. Oh why had she returned? Gareth had been right, Richard cared nothing for her, only how she could serve him! He cared for nothing except holding onto his crown.

Richard had turned back to Edmund and was discussing the transfer of her dowry. He had completely dismissed her from his thoughts, so it seemed, and he would never think of her again, now that she had served her purpose.

"Your Majesty," she said with a quavering voice. Taking herself firmly in hand she said louder and steadfastly, "Your Majesty!"

Richard looked at her sharply. "You should be attending your trousseau, lady. What is it?"

"I cannot marry the earl."

Richard's complexion became mottled with anger as he said, "You most certainly can. It has already been arranged. You will be wed come Sunday."

"No, Your Majesty, I cannot marry him."

"And why not?" the king bit out, digging his nails into the wooden arms of his chair.

She straightened her shoulders. "Because I love another and may carry his child." Elena braced herself to be physically beaten, or at least screamed at. Instead, the king laughed coldly.

"In love with who? The puny Welshman whom I've stripped of rank and thrown in the dungeon where he awaits his well-deserved execution for being a traitor? Tudor landed but a week ago and I vow your ‘love’ will not live to hear word of the usurper's journey." Elena felt as if she were about to faint. "'Twould be best if you forgot him. You will wed the gracious earl and We will hear no more argument from you. Furthermore, if you prove to be a reluctant wife in any aspect, We will charge you with treason and condemn you to death."

Elena closed her eyes and summoned every ounce of strength she had not to cry out at Gareth's imprisonment. Steeling herself to sound as innocent as possible, she said, "Nay, my king, I know nothing of this Welshman of whom you speak except that he escorted me to and from his father's keep in Wales. I am in love with the man whom my parents hoped I might marry since I was a child. When last he visited your court, I was overcome with such love that I forgot myself and gave him my virtue. Even now, his babe grows in my womb. Please, Your Majesty," Elena fell to her knees, hating Richard, but knowing she must play her part well if she were to escape with her life. "I beg you to release me from my engagement to this good earl who deserves a more suitable wife."

"Pregnant or no, you'll do as I say."

"Aye, but I won't marry her," Brackley broke in. "I'll not see my possessions passed on to another man's bastard."

Desperation evident in his voice, Richard said, "Then, good sir, take your pick of another of my ladies. There are many more beautiful than this fallen angel."

Brackley stood and said in a voice that was barely polite. "I am not certain I should do so--any one of them may already have given birth to a passel of brats. I will wait. In the meantime, I will return to my estate. I have been absent long enough on errands for Your Majesty and I am certain my affairs are lacking because of it." The earl left the room and in a flurry of motion, the king stood and grabbed Elena by the shoulders, pulling her upright and shaking her until her head snapped back.

"If you have cost me a battle for want of that man's soldiers, I will slit your smooth throat myself!"

"Your Majesty, I beg you!"

Richard pushed her from him and threw himself back in his chair. With an act of will that was physically evident, he regained control of his anger. "Pray forgive me, lady. The worries of the crown may push a man to actions he would not otherwise commit. I am even still learning to control my anger when people stand forcibly in my way."

Elena panted raggedly, praying that she would not hear her death sentence come from the king's lips.

After several seconds of silence, Richard turned back to her. "Do not look like a frightened rabbit, caught in a hunter's snare. You will live to see another dawn, though not in my presence."

"What does Your Majesty mean?" Elena whispered.

"You will pack your trunks and be ready to leave at first light. I am returning you to your parents. There you may marry your childhood sweetheart and bear him a passel of children. Frankly I care not what you do, as long as you are not in my sight. Thank your father and mother for your goodly service these past years and send them my wishes for a prosperous harvest time." When Elena remained where she was, shocked, he said, "Leave now, lady, lest I lose my temper again."

Curtsying quickly, she turned and fled. She ran through the main hall and out the large doors. She ran, heedless of those she brushed past or knocked over, and did not stop until she reached the small arbor where she flung herself on a wooden bench, tears streaming from her eyes. Oh what had she done? Surely, she was relieved that she would not have to marry the repugnant earl. In fact, she was even glad to have been relieved as a lady-in-waiting. But what of Gareth? What was to become of him? Her hands shaking, her breath coming in frantic gasps, Elena realized that she was becoming hysterical. Digging her nails into her palms until the pain calmed her, she stood and began pacing beneath the shady trees.

Alright, she thought. I am safe. I will not see the king again, and as soon as Catherine and Margaret leave the room, I will pack my trunk. Now, what of Gareth? Elena's stomach clenched with worry at the thought of him in a dank dungeon, his spurs hacked off, facing death for his moment of indecision as to which man he would support as king. Didn't the fact that Gareth was here, training with Richard's other soldiers prove his loyalty to his king? Had Richard lost all sense?

Gareth must be freed. That was all there was to it. She would free him and together they would escape. They could go to France for a few years, perhaps until Richard died, and then they could return to Eyri Keep. The fact that she was no longer a lady-in-waiting to the king, that she was no one of any great importance suddenly dawned on her, and rather than feeling dismayed, she found tremendous relief in the fact. No more would she have to worry about acting just so, or pretending to like people she detested. Now if that foul Brackley came her way, she could turn her nose up and walk away. The new sense of freedom further resolved her to helping Gareth escape. Together they would begin a new life.

Brushing the now-forgotten tears from her cheeks, Elena began to plan their escape. They would need money, but she had plenty of jewels, surely enough to buy safe passage to France. Since Richard didn't want to see her again before she left, once outside the castle gates it should surely be no problem for her to change her destination. Once she freed Gareth from the dungeon, he could meet up with her down the road and they would head for France. Once there...well, once there Gareth would have to make some plans.

Accustomed to getting her way, Elena saw no reason why things wouldn't go according to her plans. Smoothing her hair and shaking out her skirts, Elena headed back to the main building. Once inside, she raced up a smaller back staircase and entered the room she shared with Catherine and Margaret. She prayed that she would not have to face Catherine again. Though she had found herself relieved to no longer be a lady-in-waiting, she did not think she could stand to see Catherine smirk and preen over the news. Nay, if she had to endure one spiteful statement from the brat, Elena felt sure she would not be able to stop herself from ripping every hair from Catherine's head.

Opening the door to their chamber as quietly as possible, Elena was relieved to discover it empty. She quickly rushed inside and threw open her trunk. Packing as carefully as she could, she crammed her best gowns and half of her jewels into the trunk. The rest of the jewelry, she placed in an embroidered pouch. She fastened the pouch under her full skirts and moved about to see if it was evident. Satisfied that it was well hidden, she fetched her cloaks from the hooks on which they were hung. One of these she would have to sneak down to Gareth to help disguise him when he made his escape. Elena looked at both of them, trying to decide which would be the least conspicuous for Gareth to wear. With a sigh, she realized that neither of them would work. One was a rich red velvet with ermine lining and the other, though a simple dark blue wool, had gold couching covering every inch of it. With a sigh, Elena looked up. A thin grey cloak with a full hood hung on the farthest hook on the wall. It was the cloak Margaret wore when she visited the convent she soon hoped to join. It would be perfect, but--

The door creaked open and she started. When Margaret entered, she breathed a sigh of relief that it was not Catherine and took it as a sign that she should ask for the cloak. Before she had a chance to voice the question, Margaret spoke.

"Is it true you are to leave immediately? Tonight?"

"Is it tonight now? When last Richard spoke, it was merely before first light," she said dispassionately.

"It is true then?

"Aye, it's true."

"But why? You have long been one of Richard's favorites." Margaret walked closer and surveyed Elena's packed trunk.

"I have not been a favorite since I was in the company of a man not my husband or father for weeks. A man Richard now thinks is a traitor."

"That is ridiculous. It was all well explained! Surely he would not send you away on a mere suspicion!"

"On no, that is only why I am no longer his favorite. I am being sent away because I refused to marry the Earl of Brackley."

"You did? But why?" Margaret's face pinkened. "I mean, I know of his purported cruelty, but I thought you were pleased with the new rank it would give you."

"I told Richard I could not marry Edmund because I was in love with another man. I even said I was going to have his child."

"Are you?"

"No. At least, I don't think so." Elena expected to see condemnation in the pious Margaret's eyes, but instead she saw something that surprised her. She saw compassion and...respect? Before her "adventure," Elena and Margaret had always been at odds, Margaret making no effort to conceal her disapproval of Elena's methods to gain favor and attention, and Elena scorning Margaret's avowals that a life in the church was the only way a woman could gain any sort of freedom. Now, Elena thought, I too see the uselessness of life as a lady-in-waiting, and court life, for that matter, where we walk on eggshells hoping we don't annoy the king and we agree to marry ugly old men just to gain a title or the king's favor.

Deciding to risk at least part of her plan, Elena drew Margaret to sit down in the sunny window seat.

"Margaret, there is another who would leave this castle tonight, but may be detained if he is recognized. May I use your cloak? I'm afraid you may not get it back."

"Of course you may have it."

"Are you certain?"

"It is a small enough affair. I shall scarce miss it."

"Oh thank you, Margaret! Here," she said, standing and retrieving her own two cloaks. "You must take one of these in return."

"No, no. That's not necessary."

"Well of course it is. It's only fair we trade cloaks. Now which one do you like? I think the red would look divine with your dark hair."

Margaret shook her head.

"The blue then? It would set off your eyes."

"Really Elena, it's alright. They are both beautiful--"

"Take them both, then." Elena held them both out.

"They are a bit too fancy for my taste. Besides you will need warm cloaks at your parent's home. It is near the Scottish border, is it not?"

"I will only need one cloak and so will you come winter. You know how drafty these halls become when that winter wind is blowing."

"I hope to be a novice nun at St. Mary's convent by winter time this year. Such cloaks as these would be inappropriate to wear over my plain habit."

"Oh," Elena said, disappointed that her noble gesture was defeated. Brightening, she said, "Well imagine the altar vestibules this red velvet would make! And there must be enough fur lining to make warm slippers for all of the nuns. And imagine how virtuous the sisters will think you when you show up with this cloak and begin hacking it to bits."

Margaret laughed. "Elena, the convent is not like court. You don't have to make grand displays to gain attention and favor."

"Maybe not, but surely it will start you off on the right foot, won't it?"

The dark-haired girl laughed again. "Very well, Elena, I will take the cloak. Now, do you need further help?"

Elena paused. "Do you know where the dungeons are?"

"I've never been there, but I believe they are in the tower just north of the main hall. Royal hostages are kept in the upper rooms and common prisoners are kept below. Why do you need to know?" Margaret quickly shook her head. "No, never mind. Tell me not. I don't want to know. Just be careful, Elena. If you were to displease Richard again, especially with anything having to do with a prisoner, you would no doubt be executed. Richard has become easily agitated and very short tempered since the attack outside of Middleham. The king has recently learned that Elizabeth Woodville hired men to rescue her daughter so that Richard would not be able to marry her and gain a further stronghold on the throne."

“I know. Princess Elizabeth told me.”

“Do you also know that the king received word of Henry Tudor’s arrival this very morning?"

Elena started to ask Margaret what she thought of Henry Tudor, but they were suddenly interrupted by the entrance of Catherine.

"Oh my, you're still here? I would have thought you'd have slunk away by now."

Elena thought of half a dozen cutting responses to Catherine's gibe. The wickedest of them all was about to spill from her lips when she stopped herself. Deciding it would gall Catherine even more to simply ignore her, she turned back to Margaret as if there had been no break in their conversation and said, "When do you hope to join the abbey?"

Margaret answered her before responding to Catherine who was still standing in the middle of the room, looking indignant. "The letter bearing my father's permission should arrive within the month. I hope to become a novice by the end of September. Catherine, dear, did you need something?"

"I need to change to a more appropriate gown. His Majesty has asked me to be one of the few who will join he and Earl Brackley as they hunt. I believe the earl asked for my company specifically. It seems he has broken his previous betrothal."

This last was said as Elena stood to leave. She gathered up the grey woolen cloak and headed for the door. Before she reached it, however, she turned and faced Catherine's malevolence with a cat-who-ate-the-rat-smile. "Actually, it was I who decided I did not wish to marry someone so old and repugnant as the earl. It seems you are once again gathering my leftovers, Catherine." Elena opened the door and swept out the small room as regally as a queen. She marveled again at Catherine's obnoxious personality change, but in truth, Catherine's about-face occupied her mind for a few seconds at the most. She quickly set her thoughts to getting to Gareth and freeing him. She had a tentative plan formed but she wasn't sure it would work if there were more than one guard on duty when she reached the north tower. Well, she would simply have to improvise, she decided. She had always been able to think on her feet; she would simply trust in her instincts to take over.

Rushing quickly down the back stairs normally only used by servants, Elena made her way around the kitchen to the buttery where the vats of wine and ale were kept. The room was dimly lit but, thankfully, empty. Elena scooped up a pewter tankard and moved to the back of the room where the best wines were kept. Although she had long resented some of the lowly tasks of being a lady-in-waiting, such as keeping the inventory of the buttery, she was now glad of the experience because she was able to move confidently through the gloom and open one of the strongest wines Richard had purchased from France, filling the tankard to the brim. Draping the cloak over the heavy tankard, she quickly exited the buttery and made her way out the back kitchen door. Crossing the dirt bailey between the main hall and the north tower, she peered in the open door. Three men were sitting about a small table.

"Now what do I do?" she muttered. She was trying to figure out a way to get the men--or at least two of the men--out of the tower when she overheard Gareth's name being spoken.

"I can't believe Sir Gareth would betray the king," one of the men said. "He's always seemed like the most upstanding of all the knights."

A second voice spoke up. "The king sees ghosts in every shadow anymore. If Tudor doesn't invade soon, the king will have us all in prison for being traitors." There was a pause before the second man spoke again. "Do you know where they've put Sir Gareth?"

"Down in the old cellars. I wouldn't keep a dog there, but we've so many prisoners in here, he had to be put somewhere."

Elena sent an unformed prayer of thanks heavenward. Perhaps there wouldn't even be a guard! she thought hopefully. Shifting the heavy tankard and cloak to her other hand, she was about to sneak off when the third man spoke.

"Sir Gareth deserves to lose his head and he will by week's end. He's a traitor and a liar and you two will die with him if you don't stop slandering the king. Now get on with your duties. You've had more than enough rest."

Elena heard the scrape of stools against the stone floor and she turned and ran as quickly as she could with her heavy burden. The last thing she needed was to be caught eavesdropping on the prison guards. Making her way back into the main keep, she wound through the labyrinth of back halls trying to find the stairs that led into the cellars. She had only passed by it once before since coming to Nottingham, being content to send servants on any unsavory errands. With each corner she turned she grew more and more frantic. Suppose the king was angry enough to order Gareth's execution tonight? Suppose the executioner found the cellars before she could? With each step the tankard of wine seemed to grow heavier and her arm muscles trembled with the strain. She was on the verge of panic when she turned a corner and discovered the staircase. Taking a deep breath and trying to compose her face into a pleasant smile, she prepared to put all her skill at flirtation and flattery to work.

She descended the dark stairs, bracing her hand against the cold walls and ducking a low-hanging beam halfway down the steps. She finally emerged into the cramped cellars and wrinkled her nose at the unpleasant aroma that permeated the cold moist air. She glanced in the cell closest her and saw a sickly older man curled on the pallet, shivering and coughing in his sleep. A large grating sound behind her made her jump and she quickly whirled around, sloshing wine over her hand and onto the cloak. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she discovered the cause of the noise: a snoring guard propped against the wall.

God is with me this day, she thought. Perhaps I can free Gareth without this man even waking! Quickly setting the cloak and tankard down, she rushed from cell to cell, trying to find Gareth. She found him in the cell right in front of the sleeping guard. He was huddled in the corner of the cell, his legs pulled up against his chest, his arms wound round his knees and his head resting on his forearms.

"Gareth!" Elena hissed. "Gareth! Wake up!" Gareth didn't budge and fear seized Elena's heart. Glancing behind her to make sure the guard was still asleep, she turned back to the narrow window in the door and whispered louder, "Gareth! It's me, Elena!"

Gareth lifted his head suddenly, looking confused. When he realized who she was, he pushed himself to his feet and quickly crossed the few steps to the door. "Elena! What are you doing here? If you're caught--"

"Shh!" she hushed him. "I've come to free you. Gareth I..." she was about to tell him she loved him, but the unfamiliar words stuck in her throat. Swallowing, she chastised herself and drew to mind the picture of him being led to the executioner's block. That thought spurred her on and she said, "I--I love you, Gareth. I can't let you die." Slightly embarrassed, she took a step backwards, but Gareth's hand shot through the narrow window to grasp hers. He pulled her hand through the opening and pressed it to his lips, his gaze locked to hers, silently reaffirming his feelings for her.

The guard's loud snore was followed by several sharp snorts and Elena whirled around, staring at the man fearfully. He was waking up. "Damn!" she mouthed. She had hoped to free Gareth without even awaking this gross ruffian. The man opened his eyes and then stumbled to his feet when he saw Elena.

"Who--where did--" As he realized that Elena was no common serving wench he bowed awkwardly and said, "My lady, is there something I can do fer you?"

Swallowing her grimace of disgust, Elena drew on her most flattering smile.

"You can tell me your name."

"Osgood, lady," he said with another awkward bow.

Elena forced herself to remember her objective and blinked her eyes coyly. "Osgood is absolutely my favorite name! You must think me terribly forward, but I've noticed you about the castle and--"

"You've noticed me, my lady?"

"Well of course. What lady wouldn't notice a man as strong and as handsome as yourself? It has taken me days just to discover where you would be on duty alone so that I might approach you."

Osgood stared dumbly at Elena while her words slowly sank in. It was evident when they did because a broad, half-toothless grin split his face. "Well aren't you a clever little thing to chase me down here!"

"Yes and I've brought some wine that we might enjoy it while we get to know each other."

A frown creased Osgood's thick brow. "I ain't allowed to drink while on duty. Why don't you save it till after I get off. Say, after supper? We could meet in the stables."

Elena pouted prettily, her lower lip pushed out and quivering delicately. "Oh but I shan't be able to get away then. And who knows the next time we might meet? Won't you have just a little? You're so big and strong, surely a few swallows won't impair your watchfulness." At the appeal in Elena's eyes, Osgood melted like a piece of fat over a fire.

"Well, of course a sip won't hurt me. Besides, how can I refuse a pretty little lady like you?"

"You can't, of course." Elena rushed to retrieve the heavy tankard of potent wine.

"You didn't happen to bring some bread or meat with you, did you? I haven't eaten since sunup."

Good, Elena thought. "I'm so sorry, it was all I could do to get my nerve up to bring wine. Next time I'll bring a whole tray of delectables for you."

"Oh I don't want no delectables, just a meat pie or mayhap a fruit tart." Elena held her breath as Osgood took the wine and lifted it to his lips. He paused just before taking a swallow and said, "Next time, lady?" a disgustingly lurid smile on his lips.

Elena forced her nose not to wrinkle and instead smiled coyly. "Of course next time. How else are we going to get to know each other?"

"How else, indeed? And I'm hoping I'll get to know you real well!" He took a large swallow of the dark wine and smacked his lips. "I'll be damned if that ain't the best spirits I've tasted."

"Well take another swallow. I picked out the very best wine just for you."

"Maybe just one more. Then I better stop else I'll not stop and then won't we have fun?" His one more sip took him four swallows to down and when he lowered the pitcher, he blinked several times as if to clear his vision. "That's damn fine drink, lady. But how'd you come by it?"

"Oh, I work upstairs," she said vaguely.

Osgood took another swallow and then sat back down on the low stool that had recently served as his napping post. "Why don't ye set yourself down here with me and we'll get more friendly?" he said, patting his knee.

Before Elena could think of what to do, Gareth's voice behind her yelled, "NO!" She whirled around, surprised, but found Gareth was not looking at her. He was glaring at Osgood threateningly, which, she thought, was rather ridiculous considering he was unarmed and trapped behind a locked door. Furthermore, he was impeding her best efforts to free him. Before she could attract his attention and convince him that she knew what she was doing, Osgood stumbled past her and slammed a meaty fist against the door.

"Get back, ye dog. Ye're no knight, so I hear, and you'll not be frightening this lady who's come to see me!" Osgood swung around to face Elena and wavered on his feet. Grasping his head with one hand and the wall with the other, he paused for several moments. "Oh," he moaned, "I moved too quickly."

"Here," Elena said, grabbing his elbow and leading him towards the stool. As she moved the inebriated guard the few steps to his seat, she threw a meaningful glare over her shoulder to Gareth and mouthed the words, Be quiet!

She maneuvered Osgood onto his stool and then picked up the half-empty tankard. "Here, darling, take another sip. It will clear your head."

Osgood obediently gulped the wine and in a move amazingly fast for his increasing condition, scooped Elena onto his lap, his fingers digging firmly into her waist.

"Now, pretty lady, let's get to the 'knowing' part."

Striving to maintain her composure and prevent her revulsion from showing--the man smelled as if he slept in a sty with the hogs and what was left of his teeth were grey--Elena braced her hands against his chest so that he could not pull her closer.

"Why don't you have some more wine? I picked it out especially for you."

"I'm already half-way to drunk. Are ye trying to make me pass out?" His foul breath was hot in her face and Elena felt a draught of queasiness pass through her.

"Of course not, my dear one. It's just that I don't know when next I'll be able to bring you such a fine wine and I want you to enjoy every drop of this one."

"Well then," he said and belched, making no effort to divert the foul fumes from washing over Elena. "'Tis only fitting that you have some of this vintage. Here."

"No really, I--"

"Here," Osgood said more forcefully and Elena took the tankard, fearful what the drunken man would do if she protested further. Tipping the heavy vessel, she allowed the wine to touch her lips and then quickly lowered the tankard.

"You're right. This is delicious."

"Surely that's not all you're going to have," Osgood protested, shoving the tankard back to her. His clumsiness increasing, he sloshed wine over the edge of the pitcher and down the front of her dress.

"Oh!" Elena exclaimed. She longed to slap the man's face and then dump the contents of the tankard in his lap. Instead she said as sweetly as she could through clenched teeth, "I am not nearly as strong or large as you are and wine affects me dreadfully!"

"Good!" he leered. Then, as if suddenly struck by a thought, he leaned back and studied her face. "Ye know, here we are gettin' to know each other and I don't even know yer name."

Elena considered giving him her real name--after all, the man was no doubt too drunk to remember what she looked like, much less her name, but inspiration and caution struck and she said, "Catherine. Catherine is my name."

"And a beauty it is, too," Osgood toasted with another swig of wine. He lowered the tankard, peeked in it, and declared, "There's no point in leaving such a small amount, is there?" Elena shook her head, but she doubted if his question required a response since he was already tipping the tankard to drain the last drops of wine. Setting the pitcher on the floor, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and belched again. To Elena's great relief, this belch was mostly concealed behind his hand.

"Now, let's get down to knowin' each other," he said and wrapped his arms around her more tightly.

Elena panicked. He appeared nowhere near the verge of passing out and his behavior was rapidly getting beyond her control. Standing and twisting abruptly, she tried to disentangle herself from his grasp. His reaction, much slower than a few minutes before, was to grasp for her shoulder, but instead of grabbing the fabric of her gown, his fingers became entangled in the delicate necklace she wore. The fine chain snapped and slipped unheeded to the ground as she pulled back abruptly. She whirled around in time to see Osgood waver on his stool before landing on the ground with a grunt. The drunken man seemed surprised to find himself amongst the filthy straw on the cold stone floor, and unable to push himself up. Elena darted around him and snatched up the heavy pewter tankard. Inspired by fear and conscious that at any moment another guard might come to relieve Osgood, she swung around and brought the tankard down with a thud on his head. She gasped when nothing happened. Or rather, when something happened--Osgood slowly turned to look at his assailant. Elena wasn't sure she would have the temerity to bring the tankard down again. She breathed a prayer of relief when his eyes slowly rolled back and he sprawled further on the ground.

Taking a deep steadying breath, she tried to calm herself, only to yelp when a voice said, "Elena!" She was certain that she had been caught but quickly realized that it was Gareth who called her. She moved in a rush to the door of his cell but he stopped her. "The keys, Elena! The keys are on his belt!"

Elena leaned over the unconscious guard and groped for his keys. Her fingers finally felt the cold metal of a skeleton key and she pulled it free. There were three keys tied with a grimy strip of leather. The first key fit the lock in Gareth's cell door but refused to budge. The second opened the rusty bolt with a protesting screech. As soon as the lock clicked back, Gareth swung the door open and Elena ran into his arms. Their lips quickly met in a kiss filled with relief and passion.

Elena tore herself from their embrace to snatch up the grey woolen cloak. "Here. You must wear this so that we can get you out of the castle grounds."

Gareth needed no further prodding to hurry and he swung the cape around his shoulders as he followed Elena up the narrow stairs. When they reached the top, Elena gestured for him to wait while she peeked into the hallway to make sure no one was about. She heard men's voices and she quickly ducked back into the darkness, willing her heart not to pound so loudly. They were guardsmen! There was no doubt about it! She heard them complaining about their vigorous training schedule and, as their voices drew nearer, speculating if they would see any profit from the war with Henry Tudor. Elena turned to Gareth with questioning eyes. What would they do if they were caught here? Surely both their lives would be quickly forfeit.

The men passed by the dark staircase where she and Gareth were hiding and continued on down the hall, their voices growing fainter as they turned a corner. Hot relief flooded Elena's limbs. She felt Gareth push her forward and she quickly moved out into the empty passage. From the corner of her eye she saw him pull the hood up over his head as she led him through the maze of deserted halls until they reached the least used entrance to the main keep.

Once outside in the late afternoon sun, Gareth took the lead, pulling Elena after him as they darted to the stables. They paused behind the large stone and wood building.

"Gareth, what are you doing? You must get out of the castle grounds!"

"Not without Isrid. He's my only chance to reach Wales and Eyri Keep."

"No! You mustn't go there! That's the first place Richard will send men once he realizes you've escaped. This is what you must do." Elena quickly outlined her plan for him to meet up with her once she was outside Nottingham and escape to France. When she was done, she glanced around to make sure they had not been spotted. Turning back to Gareth, she was surprised and suddenly shy at the look on his face. "What?" she asked.

"Why do you want to go with me to France?"

Elena fidgeted. She was exceedingly uncomfortable with saying how she truly felt. Let her convince a man with flirting and coyness that she loved him--not like this, when she felt as if she were laying bare her very soul. Glancing around again only delayed the inevitable. She turned back to Gareth and forced herself to say it. "Because...because." She swallowed. "I love you," she blurted out.

Gareth's answer was to pull her as tightly to him as he could and crush her lips with a kiss that bespoke passion, acceptance, and longing. When the kiss finally ended, Elena was embarrassed and found herself unable to look Gareth squarely in the eye. Even when he tipped her chin up and softly called her name, she kept her eyes downcast. Only when he repeated the words he had first said two days ago did she look at him.

"I love you, Elena, and I would take you to the farthest ends of the known world if circumstances were different. But..." His voice was rough with emotion.

"But what?" Elena demanded. She was still a little unsettled at having spoken her true feelings.

"But I must return to Wales--"

"Why? That course is one of certain death!" she interrupted.

"No. I don't think Richard will waste the men it would take to follow me and I must reach Wales soon."

"Fine, then we will meet up and go together."

Gareth shook his head and traced the line of her cheek with a rough finger. "I can't take you, my love."

"Why not?" Elena demanded. This man made no sense at all. They finally declare their love for one another, she offers to give up a life of comfort and ease for him and he tells her no?

"I go to Wales to join Henry Tudor's troops as they gather."

Elena rolled her eyes and sighed. "Gareth! Not a fortnight ago you decided that the man had no claim to stand on and you wanted us to return to Richard immediately. Now you've changed your mind again?"

Gareth bowed his head and said contritely, "I must apologize to you, Elena."

"Why?" The day's events, combined with Gareth’s quixotic responses, were making her feel as if she were losing her mind.

"I never intended to fight with Richard. I only returned to learn what I could about his troop strength and his plans. I lied to you because I was afraid that you would betray our cause if you knew the truth."

Elena stared at him, her brow furrowing as what he said sank in. "In other words, you didn't trust me!"

"It wasn't a matter of trust--I just," Gareth pushed his hair out of his eyes and sighed. "You had no reason to care for Henry Tudor and I felt you would be safer if you simply didn't know what was going on, for there is every chance we will be defeated. I had to protect you and that was the only way I knew how."

"But if Richmond is victorious, I will be just another lady-in-waiting cast aside or if lucky, married off to appease some lord! Did that thought never cross your mind?" Elena's voice betrayed her rising hysteria and Gareth put his hands on her shoulders to calm her. Elena pushed his arms away and demanded a response.

"I did think of that possibility and I was hopeful that if I petitioned Henry, he would grant me your hand. For I do love you, Elena. I think I even loved you back when I hated you."

Elena refused to be appeased and was still furious for having been left out of Gareth's plans. "And what now? I am to travel this very night to my parent's manor, banished from Richard's court because I refused to marry Brackley."

Gareth stared at her, "Why did you do that?"

Elena stamped her foot and glared angrily at the sky. When she lowered her head to look at him, a tear spilled down her cheek, tracing a wet path. "I've already said it. Because of you! Because I love you!"

"Ah, sweet." Gareth quickly pressed his warm lips to her. "It is best you return to your parent's home. You will be safest there, I think."

"And what of you? You ride not to safety, but perhaps to your death? And all while I sit in the country and twiddle my thumbs! This is not the first time I've saved your life, Gareth ap Morgan. The least you owe me is the chance to remain with you, perhaps help you again."

"There is nothing I would like better, my love, but I must ride treacherous terrain for I dare not get within a league of any traveled road. Though you have become an excellent horsewoman, I fear you will slow me too much in which case we might both lose our lives."

Elena stamped her foot again. How could she love such a man? Surely her reason had long since left her!

"If I live through this, I promise to come for you, Elena. I promise."

Still angry, she refused to answer him or meet his eyes. She heard him sigh and felt his hands on her upper arms. "Goodbye my love." He kissed her softly and waited for her to say something. When she remained stonily silent, he turned to go.

In an instant, he had disappeared within the hazy darkness of the stables. Suddenly drained, Elena collapsed against the rough wooden wall. She allowed her mind to go pleasantly blank until she realized that it would be very close to the time Richard had ordered her departure. If she were not calmly gathered and ready to go when her escort came for her, it would look suspicious indeed. Oh curse Gareth! she thought. He would put her in just such a predicament.

Pushing herself away from the stable, she rushed back to the main keep and hurried up the back staircase to her room. To her great relief the room was empty and she quickly smoothed her hair and washed her face. She had only just closed the lid on her trunk when a loud pounding on the door startled her. Taking a deep breath and willing herself to remain calm, she crossed the room and slowly opened the door. "Yes?" she said to the three men standing in the hallway.

The one closest her spoke up. "We have come to escort you to your father's home on order from His Majesty, King Richard."

"Of course, " she said pleasantly and stepped back to allow the men room to enter. "That is my trunk there. Let my gather my cloak and I shall be ready."

"The King did not say we were to take your trunk, lady."

Elena laughed, hoping the men did not detect the nervous hysteria in the sound. "Don't be silly. Of course I shall take my trunk. It contains all my clothes--you wouldn't want me to go without my clothes now would you?"

The men looked at each other awkwardly and then two of them moved to retrieve the leather case. The third seemed to be suppressing a grin, but Elena paid him no notice as she quickly gathered her blue cloak and a cloth pouch in which she carried her small personal things. Without another glance back, she preceded the guards out of the room and down the main stairway. The few people she passed in the main hall fell silent and watched her as she made her way towards the huge door. Elena willed her warm cheeks to cool. She would not give these gossipmongers the satisfaction of seeing her depart in disgrace. She would make it appear as if she were all to happy to be leaving Richard's court, which in fact, she was. Smiling and nodding at the gawkers, she walked slowly and gracefully outside where the huge, mangy horse she had ridden from Wales awaited her. The guards carrying her trunk loaded it onto the packhorse and then climbed on their own mounts, paying no heed to Elena who was waiting for assistance. The third guard--the one who had seemed to find the way she had handled the other two men upstairs amusing--hastened to help her onto the sturdy beast. He was tall and lanky and his brown hair, though short, was also lanky. A thin mustache and beard covered his face but did not disguise his friendly smile. His shoulders were narrow and looked bony even through his rough tunic but he swung her up onto her horse with little effort. Though he looked nothing like Gareth, something about the man reminded her of him. When she was settled, she smiled prettily at him and then gathered the reins. The helpful guard quickly mounted his horse and led the way towards the main castle gates. They rode through the opening in the thick stone walls and Elena breathed a sigh of relief. She had not had to see Richard, Brackley, or even Catherine. Within two days, she would be home. Though she had not thought of her parents much in the last few months, she now looked forward to seeing them and spending time in the peaceful quiet of her father's substantial library or the neatly tended gardens where flowers, fruits, and vegetables grew in neat, even rows and beds. Yes, in two days she would be home and she could only be happier were Gareth with her. No, not Gareth. He was an evil cad who constantly toyed with her emotions and reason! Elena pursed her lips and refused to think of him further. He absolutely did not deserve the ache of worry lodged beneath her breastbone.