A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 32

Elena was going to drop out of the saddle if she rode one more league. Was it but a few hours ago that she had thought she'd never be able to sleep? She now felt as though she could fall asleep in the narrow culvert that ran next to the moonlit road. "How much longer to the inn?" she asked wearily.

The two soldiers who had ignored her thus far looked at each other and then returned their attention to the road. The ever-polite guard--did he have a slight accent? Elena was too tired to decide--urged his horse up next to hers and said, "We should arrive any moment, Lady. Do you think you can last a few more minutes?"

There was a definite lilt to the man's speech, Elena decided. Not bothering to answer his question (after all, she had to go on whether she thought she could hold out or not), she posed one of her own. "Are you Welsh? Your accent reminds me of my recent visit there."

One of the unfriendly soldiers turned in his saddle and stared at Elena and the third man. Disgusted with his ill manners and physically exhausted, she did not suppress the urge to stick her tongue out at him. The rude man turned back around and Elena returned her gaze to her companion just in time to see him hide his look of unease at her question behind a broad grin. "I am from all over England, lady. I've traveled so much that I don't remember where I'm originally from."

"Well, you sound Welsh," she replied. "Though your are a bit taller than most Welshmen."

"There you have it. For I am indeed tall. Perhaps I'm a Viking. I understand they are a tall breed."

"So I've read. But they are also a large people and you are rather scrawny to fit their mold."

"Scrawny? Lady, you wound me to the quick!" By the cool light of a nearly full moon, she saw him grab his chest and pretend to be injured.

Elena laughed and thought that, while he might have reminded her earlier of Gareth, he now seemed very much like Cynan. Suddenly realizing that she did not know his name, she requested it.

"My name is David, good lady, at your service." He executed a little bow and leaned toward her. In a conspiratorial whisper, he added, "And I am a good sight more fun than those two up there, as, I can tell, are you."

"Even though you escort a fallen favorite of the king's into exile?"

"The king's loss is my gain."

Elena laughed again and decided she would make it another league or so. Nonetheless, she was relieved when they came round a bend in the road and found the small inn perched beside the road. The windows were dark, but the brusque guards pounded on the wooden door until the innkeeper answered.

"We've need of rooms."

The old man in his nightshirt and cap rubbed his eyes and surveyed them.

"Now old man."

Elena wondered if Richard was aware that the training of his troops was greatly lacking in chivalry and patience. It occurred to her that lately, Richard himself was greatly lacking in chivalry and patience. The old innkeeper moved back to allow the men to enter and as David passed he said, "Many thanks, good father. Though my comrades are too exhausted to say it, we are very sorry to wake you from your well-deserved slumber."

Elena, spurred on by David's courtesy, smiled at the surprised old man and added, "Yes, we thank you for your service." Again she was amazed at the response that small phrase seemed to evoke in people. First Annie the seamstress, now this innkeeper.

With white nightshirt billowing, the old man deposited the two surly guards in a dank room at the back of the inn and then showed Elena to a room upstairs. David elected to stand watch outside her door.

"We shall need to be on the road shortly after sunrise, so if we could have breakfast waiting for us, you will be well rewarded," David told the man.

"Of course, Sir Knight."

"Sir Knight? Ho I like the sound of that. But not me, cousin."

Elena smiled wearily at the old man as he passed back by her room and then she shut the door and collapsed fully clothed on the bed. She was asleep before she could even think of undressing.

***

Moments later, a pounding on the door woke her. She lifted her head from the lumpy pillow and forced her eyes to part. They were momentarily blinded by the bright sunlight that poured in the small, thick window. The pounding came again and Elena pushed herself up and staggered to the door. David burst in and quickly closed the door behind him.

"Lady, did you help free Gareth ap Morgan."

Still sleep befuddled, Elena said, "What?!"

David shook his head. "It doesn't matter. Either you are innocent and I must help you or you did help him and it will be my honor to help you."

"What are you talking about?" Though she whispered, panic made her voice squeak.

"More of the king's guards have arrived. They are outside waiting for the innkeeper to rouse our fellow travelers. They are here to haul you back to Nottingham to stand trial for helping a traitor escape." Elena began shaking and her eyes opened so wide they hurt. "Don't worry, Lady. Even now the innkeeper's boy is saddling our horses. We will be away before they realize what has happened."

"Why...why are you helping me?"

"Because I am indeed Welsh, my lady, known more often as Dafydd rather than David and I would not see Richard execute another person to satisfy his paranoia over losing the throne. Come now, and step quietly."

Torn between confusion and terror, Elena allowed David--no, Dafydd--to lead her out of the room and down the stairs. At the foot of the staircase, he paused and peeked around the corner. Turning back to her, he said, "They are still outside waiting. We must sneak out that back door where we will find our horses. Are you ready?"

Elena barely managed a nod, but gathered up her skirts for the run. When Dafydd said, "Now," she bolted after him, ducking out the partially opened back door. A young boy closed it behind them and then gestured for them to follow him. They ran across the small patch of hard-packed dirt to the stables where their horses were ready and waiting. Dafydd quickly helped Elena into her saddle and then leapt onto his own horse. He swung his horse around, nearly trampling the young boy who was holding a sack.

"Here," he said. "Grampa put some food in here for you."

"Thank you lad," Dafydd said softly with a grin. He scooped up the sack and led the way into a tall field of wheat behind the inn.

Her heart pounding with fear, Elena kicked her mangy horse to follow Dafydd's. They tore down row after row, sometimes trampling the tall strands of wheat. They were soon out of the field and Dafydd led them up a narrow wagon trail, casting worried glances over his shoulder from time to time. Afraid she would lose her balance and tumble to the ground should she risk a look behind them, Elena clung to her horse and concentrated on following as closely behind Dafydd as she dared.

After what seemed like an eternity, Dafydd led them into a cove of trees that soon turned into an ever-thickening forest. The weak morning sun barely penetrated the dense span of trees overhead and the horses hooves made only a dull thud on the mossy ground. The palpable silence combined with the hazy light lent a sense of security and Elena slowed her horse. Dafydd also slowed his mount until the two horses were even.

"Is something wrong, Lady Elena?" he asked in a whisper.

"No. I just thought we were far enough away to be safe."

"Safe from immediate detection, yes. But there were easily six soldiers sent by Richard. Combined with our two amiable traveling companions, they have enough to spread out over a goodly distance and track our progress. If it would not overburden you, I think it would be advisable to continue as fast as we can until the horses tire."

"Of course," Elena agreed.

He grinned his approval and spurred his horse to a faster pace. Elena followed suit and wondered to herself, Now why couldn't Gareth have spoken so gallantly when he was dragging me through the Welsh mountains? Unbidden, his words of the day before popped into her mind. "I loved you even when I hated you." Why on earth should he have ever hated her? With commendable self-deprecation, she allowed that perhaps she had been a trifle difficult, but that had been before she had, well, grown up. Elena paused in thought to hold onto the lip of the saddle as she urged her horse over an enormous fallen tree. Safely over, she returned to her musing.

Elena wondered what would have happened between she and Gareth had they not clashed so much those first weeks. If he truly had loved her then, perhaps he would have confessed it sooner and she might even now be safely ensconced in Eyri Keep.

Well, she decided, there was nothing to be gained from might-have-beens. It was better to look to the future and wonder what it held for Gareth and her. Would he seek her out after the confrontation between Richard and Henry? Would he live to seek her out? No, she would not think of that possibility. Of course he would live--she willed it so and sweeter disposition or no, she was still as determined to have her will. Very well. If he did live, of course he would come for her and she would accept him only after making him grovel for forgiveness for abandoning her. There was only so much a lady could take, after all.

***

They rode through the seemingly endless forest for hours, the only indication of time passing was Elena's rumbling stomach for the forest grew no lighter than it had been in the morning, so dense was the foliage. When she thought she should faint with hunger, Dafydd finally stopped by a small spring and allowed the horses to drink and rest.

"Shall we see what the good innkeeper has provided for us to eat?" he asked as he helped her down from her horse and fetched the bag the young stableboy had given them.

"It could be dried beef and I would eat it, " Elena replied as she sank to the soft ground by the cheery, burbling stream.

Dafydd untied the leather thong that held the bag closed and peeked inside. "Looks like we have bread and cheese." Reaching into the burlap sack, he pulled forth a huge loaf of dark bread and a hunk of cheese protected in its cloth rind.

"I apologize for the lack of table linens, and tables, for that matter," Dafydd said as he presented the loaf to Elena with a flourish.

Elena laughed wearily while she tore off a piece of bread. Taking a bite, she reveled in the softness of the fresh loaf. "After the last month, linens and tables are the exception rather than the rule!"

"Traveled a bit, have you?"

Elena was surprised. Given that he had mentioned Gareth this morning, she had assumed Dafydd was well aware of their adventures. "Did Gareth not get a chance to tell you all that we accomplished in such a short span of time?"

"Actually, I don't even know Sir Gareth. Well, I know of him, but I've never been introduced, and until he was thrown into the dungeon, I didn't know if he was a supporter of Henry Tudor or not. In fact, I'm still not sure if his job there at Nottingham wasn't the same as mine: to learn what we could of Richard's intentions."

"But I thought--"

"That since we were on the same side, we knew of each other's existence? No, that would have put both of us in danger if one were captured and tortured."

"Then you were there to spy on Richard?"

"In a nutshell, yes. But was that not your position?"

"I didn't even know Gareth was spying on the king. He told me he had changed his mind and decided to support the king after all. Even after I had saved his life and offered my help," she said with a frown.

Dafydd cleared his throat and shifted his weight from foot to foot. He paid particular attention to slicing a wedge of cheese and handing it to her before speaking. "I'm sure it was for your own safety. War and spying are not lady's pastimes."

"Perhaps not, but it seems I have been in the middle of it since the Woodvilles attacked Richard's entourage."

"It was the Woodvilles, then?"

"Yes, they wanted to help Elizabeth escape."

"I don't blame them. So Richard has put you in the middle by hounding you for that information?"

Elena laughed. "If only it were that simple." In between bites of bread and cheese, she gave him a brief version of her travels through Wales, carefully leaving out those parts that had nothing to do with the conflict between the Lancasters and the Yorks.

"Had I a cap, I would take it off to you, Lady Elena. You have done more for Tudor's cause in a few weeks than I have seen since I left Wales last year."

"I've done nothing to help or hinder him. I've merely been dragged from one assignation to another."

"But you don't mean to tell me you support Richard?" he asked incredulously.

"Two days ago, I did not really care who was king. And since I have left Richard's court, I guess I still don't care whether he rules or a Lancaster rules. How much does it really affect the land? A few taxes here, some scant improvements there. I am more relieved that I will not have to fawn over the king and live with the cattiness of the other ladies-in-waiting."

Dafydd shook his head. "I suppose you are right in some respects, but does it not matter to you that--" He stopped himself and stared at a leaf on the ground for a moment. "Do you really see no injustices in England that should be corrected?"

"None that I know of," Elena said unsurely.

"In Wales, there are English priests in our churches, in our cathedrals. English lords dispense justice--their form of justice, not ours--and an Englishman is always given preference over a Welshman in any dispute. We have seen more Englishmen in Wales since Richard became king than I or my father can remember."

Uncomfortable, Elena shrugged and concentrated on eating. Trying to change the subject, she asked what their route would be.

"If we continue along this basic direction," he answered, gesturing with his chin to the barely discernable path they had been following, "we will exit the forest a few miles north of your father's manor. We can then backtrack on the main road and we should be safe from Richard's soldiers. It is my hope that they spent the morning searching for us and then gave up and returned to Nottingham. I assume your father will have the means to take you further on to safety?"

Elena nodded absently, but her thoughts were of the innkeeper and his wife in Wales. Her stomach clenching around her meager meal, she hoarsely whispered, "Do you think they will harm the innkeeper and his grandson?"

Dafydd was silent for a few seconds. "I--I don't think so. I told the man to act as though we had left in the middle of the night. The worst that will probably happen is that they won't pay their bill for their lodging and will no doubt demand ale and a hot meal for free since they are on 'king's business'."

"Perhaps I should have my father send money to the innkeeper to pay for our rooms."

"I paid him well before I woke you. I fancy he thought we were star-crossed lovers trying to escape your untimely marriage to a more worthy suitor."

Elena thought of Gareth and Brackley and wished that situation was the greatest of her problems. "How long do you think it will take to reach my father's estate?"

"Not more than a day longer than it would had we traveled the road. Through this forest, we travel as the crow flies, while the road tends to wind back and forth, traveling through each village. I expect we will arrive late afternoon tomorrow."

"Oh how nice," Elena said. "More sleeping on the ground."

Dafydd flushed. "I'm sorry, Lady Elena."

Elena was instantly sorry for her sarcasm. Was it truly better to be constantly worried about other people's feelings? A month ago, she would have browbeaten this poor man into finding her an inn--and a decent one at that. She sighed and said, "Oh no, you misunderstand. Beds, like supper tables, have become a novelty for me. I shall feel much more at home out here under the stars."

Dafydd gazed at her skeptically and then helped her to her feet. "Well I am very used to straw ticks and pillows. I shall be very much put out tonight!"

Elena laughed and allowed him to lift her onto her horse.

***

They passed the night under the branches of a giant oak tree. As Elena eased herself down onto her thin blanket, she decided that, used to it or not, she still preferred the comforts of a real bed complete with sheets, pillows, and blankets. The last time she had slept under the stars, she had Gareth to cushion the hardness of the ground. His chest had proved a most comforting pillow and his arms, though hard with muscle, were wonderfully satisfying to sleep in. She propped her head on her folded arm and squirmed about, trying unsuccessfully to find a position in which a twig or pine needle or stone did not poke into some part of her body. Through the last month of hard riding and strenuous exertions, her body had lost much of its soft roundness. Roundness that had, a month ago, provided some relief from the hard objects she was now lying on. Elena finally rolled onto her back and after some minor adjusting, found a fairly comfortable position in which she was neither poked nor jabbed. Her physical ailments temporarily abated, she allowed her mind to return to Gareth. She wondered where he was, if Richard's men were after him as well, and if he was thinking about her as much as she was of him. In the drowsy state before sleep, she had no energy for the anger of the day before when she had cursed the day she had lain eyes on him. Instead, she envisioned a few months into the future, when, the war between the roses settled and over, Gareth would ride to her father's manor. In her dream (was she dreaming now? it was hard to tell), his arm was in a sling and Isrid was coated with battle dust. But that endearing lock of hair was still in his grey eyes that were searching for her amongst the crowd of servants and family members who had gathered outside to welcome this brave warrior. Finally locating her, he swung off his horse and strode through the throng of onlookers (does he seem taller now? she wondered in some abstract part of her dream). Upon reaching her, he sank to his knees, and Elena decided he was going to beg her forgiveness for abandoning her and plead for her hand in marriage. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead of words of love, blood poured from his mouth. She screamed as Gareth pitched forward and she saw the feathered shaft of an arrow protruding from his back. She glanced up to see Cynan holding a bow. "Traitor!" he yelled. "She's a traitor to the Welsh and she serves Richard! Richard who--"

Elena awoke with a start, her eyes not seeing the predawn light of the horizon, but instead Cynan's angry face screaming at her. Unclenching her hands that were twisted in her skirts, she realized she was drenched in sweat. She wiped her brow with the cuff of her dress and took a shaky breath. She glanced over to Dafydd and saw him sleeping peacefully a few feet away. Willing herself to relax, she stretched out and forced her mind to act rationally. In the first place, Gareth and Cynan were close friends, raised together since they were babies. In the second place, she had never seen Cynan exhibit the least bit of temper, much less anger, so her mind must have conjured someone else's image and Cynan was just the first name she thought of. Was she a traitor to the Welsh? She had only recently begun to acknowledge the fact that Welsh blood ran in her veins, that her mother had been born and raised in Wales. Furthermore, she had only the day before learned the exact details of Richard's unjust treatment of the Welsh from Dafydd. Besides, what could she as a woman do? War was men's business. They were the one's who started them, let them be the one's who ended them. Elena's well-honed skill at rationalizing her way out of responsibility gave her cold comfort that morning. Though she was no longer shaken by her bad dream--and after what she'd been through lately, who could blame her from suffering nightmares?--she was unable to return to sleep and instead watched the horizon through a narrow break in the trees as the sun rose, bringing warmth and dispelling shadows.

Before long, Dafydd stirred and rose groggily to his feet. Not realizing she was awake, he stumbled past her into the trees, his eyes mere slits in his face. By the time he returned, Elena had folded her blanket and retrieved two slightly bruised apples from the bag the innkeeper had given them. She handed one to the still-befuddled Dafydd and he plopped down on the ground to eat it.

"I'm sorry," he said when he had devoured it. "I'm not very good at waking up in the mornings." Pushing himself to his feet, he began to saddle the horses. Elena collected his blanket and the food bag and stuffed them into one of the packs on his saddle. By the time they were ready to travel, the sun had taken the chill off the air and Elena's nightmare was but a scant memory in the back of her mind.

They rode at a brisk pace through the edges of the forest, stopping at midday to water the horses in a shallow pond and then continuing on. By late afternoon, Elena's stomach was loudly reminding her that a mere apple was not sufficient food for the pace they were forced to keep.

"Dafydd, we really must try to find something to eat. I am near faint with hunger. Surely we can venture to the road by now."

Dafydd turned in his saddle and gave her an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, Lady Elena. I'm afraid I've not proved a good escort in any respect have I? First I make you sleep on the ground without so much as a pallet, and now I starve you to death. Unfortunately, we would have not have had what little food we've eaten were it not for that good innkeeper. If you can make it a few more hours, we should be safe to leave the forest. There should be an inn or village where we might beg some food."

"Beg?" Elena asked, aghast. "Why beg?"

Dafydd looked even more sheepish. "I'm afraid I gave the last of my coin to the innkeeper for helping us escape."

Elena felt amongst her skirts and found her pouch that contained her few jewels and what small amount of coin she had elected to carry. "Find us food and I will take care of the bill," she said imperatively but with a small quirk of a smile.

Dafydd bowed awkwardly in the saddle, a crooked smile parting his lips. "As you command, so shall it be."

He spurred his horse to a faster pace and led them in a more westerly direction. Within the hour, they had emerged from the trees and made their way across rough fields until they located the road. This far north, the road was but a narrow path of dirt and rocks, but once on it, the horses did not have to pick their way through bramble and fallen logs and they were able to make much better time as they doubled back to the south and the small village just north of her parent's estate.