A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 33

They entered the small village of Swansonbury at dusk and Elena quickly led the way to the tiny inn which boasted only two rooms for let and three small tables in it's dining room. The smells wafting on the peaceful summer's eve air made Elena's mouth water and her stomach growl in eagerness for a good meal. She dismounted without help and as soon as she felt the circulation return to her legs, she strode to the wooden door and pushed it open. The room was narrow and long. The ceiling was low and the floor dirt, but the walls were whitewashed clean and the small tables were neatly arranged in the room. A sturdy wooden table was propped against one of the walls and upon it were several large pitchers of what Elena assumed to be ale.

Her reception by the innkeeper and his wife was polite if a bit awestruck. Elena ordered a huge meal and paid them handsomely for it. The innkeeper stammered at the amount in his calloused hand and insisted she must stay the night.

"It will be long dark by the time you arrive home. You are more than welcome to stay here as our honored guest and ride out in the morning."

Elena considered his offer. She was exhausted, more so now that she had a full stomach and to simply lie down and sleep for hours and hours sounded like heaven. But something, some worry niggled at the back of her mind. It spurred her on to continuing home.

"I thank you for your hospitality, but I've been absent too long. I wish to return home as quickly as possible. Besides, It won't be but another hour on horseback."

"Of course, Lady, of course. Safe travels!" he called out as she and Dafydd quickly climbed atop their horses and headed down the single narrow road of the town.

***

Though it had been nearly two years since she had last traveled the road from Swansonbury to her father's large wooden manor, there was not much chance or their becoming lost. The road forked about two miles south of the village: the eastern fork leading back to Nottingham and the western fork leading directly to her home. They were also graced with a full moon, which rose early to spill its cool, crisp light and allowed them to proceed at a rapid pace down the pocked road.

Though she had long scoffed at superstitions of any type, Elena could not quell the nagging worry that something was wrong. She jumped when an owl hooted to her right, and turned quickly, half-expecting to see Richard's men bearing down upon them. After several minutes, Dafydd seemed to pick up on her skittishness for he asked her quietly, "Lady Elena, is something amiss?"

She studied his face in the pale light. She felt foolish, all right, but the Welsh were a superstitious lot, weren't they? After all, Gareth had told her of his premonitions. Perhaps Dafydd would understand. "I…I don't know. I just have this very odd feeling that something is amiss. I'm sure I'm just being silly, but..." she trailed off and shrugged her shoulders, trying to make it appear as if she weren't really worried.

In response, Dafydd scrutinized their surroundings and nudged his mount closer to hers. "Silly feelings have saved my life more than once."

They continued down the road in silence and Elena was relieved to see the fork in the road up ahead. When Dafydd looked to her for direction, she gestured with her chin to the western road. Elena decided that her "feeling" had indeed been a simple case of overwrought nerves. And yet…she sniffed the air. Something didn’t smell like home…

"There is a hill in front of us so we won't be able to see the house until we crest it," she explained. Dafydd nodded in response and they urged their horses to a faster pace. The short climb up the hill, which normally seemed to pass in a few seconds, seemed interminably long tonight and Elena attributed it to her exhaustion and earlier worries.

When they finally did reach the top of the shallow hill, she smiled and prepared to sigh in relief. There just ahead was the manor--or what should have been the manor. Instead lay a pile of rubble, smoke still pouring from recently burnt beams, scorched timbers cracking as they continued to tumble to the ground. The breath she had taken to sigh was caught in her throat and her eyes widened until they ached. "Father!" she screamed, except it came out as a cracked whisper. She kicked her sturdy horse as hard as she could and set off down the hill.

"Lady Elena!" Dafydd called out after her. "No!" He quickly caught up with her and grabbed the reins from his hands. "This was no doubt the work of Richard's men and they may still be about." He glanced quickly around and then urged his mount into the small orchard just off the road, dragging the reins to Elena's horse behind him. He quickly leapt off his horse and reached up to drag Elena down. She fell off her horse and into his arms.

"Father, my parents...I have to find them," she said.

"We will," Dafydd assured her. "But first we must make sure that Richard's men are not still here awaiting your return."

Elena nodded and tried to gain hold of her panic. Dafydd wrapped both sets of reins around a tree branch and said, "Wait here. I will go see if anyone is about."

"No!"

"What?"

"I will go with you."

"But--"

"Dafydd, if Sir Gareth were here right now, he would recognize my tone of voice as one which means I will not be refused." Just mentioning Gareth made Elena feel better and she stared at Dafydd meaningfully.

"Very well, Lady. I imagine Gareth could tell me quite a bit about knowing you."

Under normal circumstances, she would have been mightily offended at his meaning, but now she simply said, "Aye, and I only hope we all live that he may know me further."

Dafydd offered her his hand and she took it as he led the way through the trees. Even in the midst of the orchard, the acrid smell of smoke overpowered the sweetness of the apples that covered each tree in abundance. Elena choked down the bile that rose at the thought of her home destroyed and forced her mind to wonder where her parents were. Surely they were not dead! Surely they had escaped. Finding no relief in thoughts of her parents as they stumbled over tree roots, Elena instead turned to the men responsible for destruction. That they belonged to Richard, she had no doubt. She had oft enough in the last year seen Richard become so enraged as to lose his grasp on logic and order something which he later regretted. He could have easily fined her parent's heavily for her actions; or better yet, stripped the estate and all titles from them. Instead he had no doubt ordered a troop of men to ride their horses into the ground to reach her father's home so quickly, had ordered them to raze it to the ground.

The more she thought of the whole scenario and the more she choked on the smoke from her family home, the angrier she became. No, she thought, angry wasn't the ride word. Though she'd had little experience with her present emotion, she knew it to be rage. Rage that grew and tinted her vision red as she and Dafydd continued to push through the thick orchard. Rage that gave strength to her exhausted muscles and pushed her forward until she was leading Dafydd. Rage that did what her newly discovered pride in being Welsh could not: it made her turn firmly and wholeheartedly against Richard of York. No longer was she ambivalent to whoever wore the crown of England. Though she was but a young woman with, now, little or no wealth, she would do all in her power to drag him from throne. And if she discovered that he had found and killed Gareth, she would not rest until she had--

They had reached the moonlit clearing before the house. Dafydd insisted she remain in the protective cover of the trees and Elena did not argue. She watched as he silently crept across the ground, blending in with the shadows. He climbed over the rubble that had been the sturdy walls and disappeared amongst the blackened ruins of her home.

Elena strained her eyes trying to see what had become of Dafydd, strained her ears trying to hear something other than the cracking of scorched timbers.

She whirled around at a rustling behind her but it was only Dafydd, returning through the woods.

“My parents. They are–“

”Come, my lady. Let us return to the village. I promised you would sleep in a bed tonight, did I not?”

“No! My–“

”They are dead, my lady,” Dafydd said as gently as he could.

Elena’s knees buckled and Dafydd caught her as she sank to the ground. “I am sorry, Elena,” he whispered.

Sometime later in the innkeeper’s cleanest room, her tears exhausted, Elena longed for Gareth, longed for his arms to comfort her, his shoulder to lean her weary head upon. Where was he tonight? Was he dead too? No! That she would not accept. She rolled onto her back and wiped the tears from her face. She did not know where Gareth was now, but she knew where he would be soon. He would be at the battle between Richard’s forces and Henry’s. Very well, then. So would she.