A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 34

On the outskirts of Lichfield, Elena and Dafydd stopped and made camp. They had traveled at a breakneck pace since hearing of Henry Tudor’s landing and subsequent march to the heart of England. They had spoken little during their journey, but had settled into a companionable kinship.

“Wait here until I determine who holds this town.”

Elena nodded but said nothing as he turned to leave. She unsaddled her horse and set about gathering firewood and lighting it. She stared into the small blaze and absently ran her hands through her cropped hair, mourning its loss only briefly. She felt as though she had aged a lifetime in the last week and the fact that she had needed to cut her beautiful hair to pass as a boy was of little consequence.

The idea had been hers. Dafydd had thought to deposit her in a convent for her own safety, for regardless of the outcome of the upcoming battle, the nuns would care for her. Elena decided not to tell him of the borderland abbess who’d quite calculatedly betrayed Gareth and his friends.

“No,” she said implacably. “I shall travel with you. You seek to join Henry Tudor’s army, do you not?”

“Yes, my lady, but that is no place—“

“Then I will accompany you.”

Seeking a different tack, he said, “But we will draw all manner of focus,” this with a gesture to her gown and jewels.

Elena fumbled at the clasp of her necklace, removing it and handing it to Dafydd. “Take this. Sell it and purchase me hose and a jerkin. A rough cloak.” Dafydd stared in horror at the necklace. “Oh, and food. Buy as much as the horses can carry.”

Looking a bit dazed, Dafydd finally took the necklace and made to leave the small room. “Dafydd,” she called out when he was at the door.

“Yes, my lady?” Trepidation filled his voice.

“Have you a dagger?”

He drew a blade from the sheath at his hip and handed it to her, hilt first.

“Thank you.”

It had taken Elena several tries, but she finally forced herself to saw through her thick chestnut-colored braid. She looked from it to the blade and saw that they were both shaking. Oh, she thought, it’s my hands. Carefully putting both down on the small table, she sat with clasped hands and awaited Dafydd’s return.

A brief rap heralded his entrance. He paused in the doorway, but said nothing. After a moment, he crossed the room and dropped a small bundle in her lap. “There’s a hood there as well. I thought it would hide…”

Her hair, she mentally finished, and smiled. Perhaps she should have thought more carefully before her rash act. And yet, she did not regret it. Cutting her hair—her pride, the envy of the other ladies at court, the object of many pretty compliments—was like severing herself from a past she no longer recognized.

They had travelled at a punishing pace, travelling in a roundabout path to stop at any town large enough to hear word of Henry Tudor’s landing, of King Richard’s movement. Always, their direction took them west, toward Wales. Elena was beyond tired. She had no idea what kept her in the saddle. She seemed to have discovered a hidden strength she’d never realized was a part of her. Or perhaps it was simply that her determination had settled on a different goal. Either way, they covered long stretches of England’s roads until finally they heard word at one busy pub of the upcoming battle.

Elena stirred the fire and brushed a short strand of hair out of her eyes.

Nearly an hour passed before the Welshman returned.

"Neither man holds Lichfield. They are gathering near Market Bosworth, halfway between here and Leicester. They will no doubt come to battle on the morrow.” Disappointment was evident in Dafydd’s voice. “There is no way we can arrive before the battle is over. The day is spent and they will surely fight come dawn's first rays."

“Then let us travel all night.”

Dafydd shook his head. “No. You are exhausted. My humble presence will not determine the course of the battle one way or the other. We will leave at first light.”

Elena ignored him and rose to saddle her horse. “We leave now.”

“My lady,” Dafydd said with a chuckle. “Sir Gareth is either the strongest-willed man alive or the most hen-pecked!”

“I’m sure he would say both,” Elena said with her first smile in days.

***

The dawn broke brilliant and clear over the horizon. Elena and her escort rode unmolested into the Tudor camp after one of the Welsh sentries recognized Dafydd. Dafydd left her with the pages and squires who were too young to fight.

“For your own safety, my lady, please stay here. I would not wish to face your Sir Gareth should aught happen to you.”

“Good luck, Dafydd. And…have a care,” Elena replied, though she had no intention of obeying him. She must find Gareth, must see him before he took the field in case this battle was–no, she would not consider his death.

Elena took off in the direction Dafydd had taken. Surely he sought the Welsh troops. She could just see his head bobbing as his loping gait carried him through the somber men who prepared for battle. Though the morn was clear and sweet, there was a heaviness in the air that prevented the usual morning banter and laughter. Men would die today, Elena thought. Perhaps these very men. Elena crossed herself. So long as it was not Gareth!

A troop of squires leading their knight’s warhorses crossed between her and Dafydd. She jumped to keep sight of his head, but all she saw were muscled withers and flanks, streaming manes and tails.

When the horses had passed, Elena ran to catch up with Dafydd, but he was nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, she tugged at her cropped hair. Where could he be?

“You there, boy!” A large hand grabbed her shoulder and swung her around. “Do you not heed your master’s call?” A slender blonde man scowled at her. He was long of chin and broad of brow, but handsome nonetheless. But for his helm he was fully armored.

“You are clearly too young to be fighting. You are not trying to sneak onto the field are you? Where is your knight?”

“Sire,” a man panted as he ran up to the blonde man. “Lord Stanley yet awaits with his troops. He did not heed your summons, but neither does he join Richard’s men.”

The blonde man’s mouth twisted wryly. “He no doubt waits to judge who will emerge victorious before committing himself. Send word to him that we will await his leisure amongst the bodies of Richard’s men.”

The messenger appeared confused, but obeyed. “Yes, Your Grace.”

As the blonde man turned back to Elena, she suddenly realized who he was and sank into a curtsey. Belatedly realizing that young boys did not curtsey, she continued down to the ground, affecting a faint.

“Hold, there,” Henry Tudor said as he bent to help her up. “Are you ill?”

“Nay, sire. Only...only hungry. ‘Tis been a while since I’ve eaten.”

Henry frowned. “You’ve not eaten and you wander unarmored through the ranks. I will have words for your knight. Who is master of your household, boy?”

Elena thought frantically. She was about to name Gareth’s father, but did not want to gain him trouble from the would-be king. “I belong to no household, sire. I only sought to...to help Your Grace in any way possible.”

Henry rumpled her hair and smiled indulgently. “‘Tis very brave of you, if foolhardy. You’ll do no good if you collapse from hunger.” He glanced up as his trumpeters called his men into formation. His squire waited at his elbow to hand him his helm. “You can help me most now by staying alive. Should I emerge victorious this day, I will need such devoted men as you. Join my pages with the baggage. You will be safe there.”

“Yes, your grace,” Elena said, bowing and backing away as quickly as possible. There was no way she would be able to find Gareth now, with thousands of men moving toward the battlefield. She began to make her way to the back of the lines but was swept forward by the rush of troops.

“Let me through!” she cried, but her plea was lost in the battle cry of thousands of men. She made small headway before being swept forward again. Without knowing how, she found herself at the crest of the hill. She glanced down and gasped.

The battle had begun. The archers were exchanging volley after volley of arrows, the Welsh easily discernible with their longbows, which wreaked havoc in the enemy’s line. The man beside her was struck in the throat by a stray, lucky shot. Elena screamed and redoubled her efforts to push her way through the line. “Let me through, I say. By order of his grace, Henry Tudor.”

That had some effect and Elena was roughly pushed to the back of the lines. Bruised and feeling as though she had fought a battle, she collapsed on the trampled ground to catch her breath.

She returned to the baggage line where the pages were pretending to be busy organize the packs, bundled tents, and spare weapons.

Several of the pages tried to get her to join them, but Elena refused, curling up on the ground beneath a cart. She prayed with a devotion she had never felt as the minutes slowly crept by.

To her surprise, she awoke some time later. Terrified that she had missed something, she scrambled out from her hiding place.

“I tell you, the battle is over!” said one of the pages.

“Our orders are to remain here,” argued another.

“And miss our share of the bounty? I think not!” the first boy said, and left with a small group for the ridge. Elena hurried to keep up with them and thus had her first view of the aftermath of the battle.

In a small field that would have barely held a flock of sheep, ten thousand men had met in fierce combat. There was not an inch of ground that had not been trampled, turned, or bloodied. The lush grass was flattened and torn to a matted pulp on which the dead and wounded cushioned their heads. Everywhere she looked, one gruesome sight or another met her eyes. Bodies were hacked beyond recognition, laying haphazardly where they fell, some on their backs where they gazed sightlessly at the bright blue sky overhead, others face down in the trampled dirt which a ceaseless flow of blood had turned to mud. Moans of tortuous pain reached her and she saw trembling hands lifted, voices begging for help. Oh the battle was definitely over, she thought a bit wildly as she choked down the bile that rose at the sights and smells assailing her. But who had won? She saw men held prisoner in small groups by soldiers with pikes and swords, but whose men were they?

A shout drew her attention across the small valley she saw a man pulling something from a cluster of bushes. Elena squinted and saw the light reflect off the objects shiny surface. The crown of England! she thought. Wide eyed, she watched as the man strode towards a small group of men in the center of the field. The man approached the group and bowed as a tall blond man stepped away from the crowd. The blond man took the crown and held it in the air so that all could see it before he set it firmly on his head. Elena exhaled with relief. That was not Richard, but Henry Tudor, now King of England. So intrigued was she with what was going on below her that she shrieked in fear when a man on horseback rode up to her.

"Sweet Mary, but you frightened me!"

The man laughed and gestured with his chin to the center of the field. "And you frightened our new king with that scream."

Elena turned and saw Henry shaking his head and laughing with the men around him. He gestured for her to join him.

“Well lad, it seems you did not obey my orders to stay with the baggage.”

Elena’s eyes widened. Had she truly crossed the king? “Forgive me, your grace, but I seek a friend.”

“Am I not your friend?” he joked with the intense joy of one who had gambled everything and won.

“Of–of course sire...” Elena did not know what to say.

“Go on then and seek your friend.” Elena turned to leave. “Boy!” Henry called and something in the way he said it made her realize he knew she was not a boy. She turned around, but Henry only winked at her.

She felt her face warm but her embarrassment was quickly forgotten as she resumed her search for Gareth. She had no idea how she would locate him and pushed down a surge of panic.

Destiny, fate, or pure blind luck came to her assistance. Twenty paces beyond the king, crouched on the ground were Gareth and Bryant. "Gareth!" she called as she pushed past a small group of men and began running towards him. Gareth lifted his head wearily, but when he saw her, he quickly pushed himself to his feet and lifted her off the ground as she flung herself at him. His arms crushed her body to him and she reveled in their strength. He was alive and unharmed! Her heart sang with the news and as soon as he lowered her to the ground, she grabbed his head and forced it to hers so that she might see his face. What she saw astounded her. Gone was the boyishness that had been present even in their most intimate and most dangerous times. That unruly lock of hair that was forever getting in his eyes was held off his forehead with clotted blood. Sweat and grime drew harsh lines around his eyes and mouth and his eyes looked weary beyond his years. Elena's heart constricted with grief and worry for him. As he turned and led her to where Bryant was still crouched on the ground, she realized the cause behind his inexplicable sorrow.

Lying in a pool of blood from the huge gash in his midriff, Cynan lay quietly. His head was cradled in Bryant's lap and his friend's tears had washed clean the craggy face. Bryant and Gareth had closed his eyes and smoothed the hair back from his brow and through her tears, Elena wondered that Cynan should look so peaceful in death. Choking back a sob, she pressed her knuckles to her lips and looked to Gareth. His own eyes were dry but filled with a grief so terrible it made her weep all the harder.

"Oh Cynan," she said, crossing the few feet between her and his still form. Heedless of the tears that flowed down her cheeks, she knelt beside him and with shaky hand, reached out to caress his forehead. She gasped to feel it was still warm and made her wonder if perhaps he yet lived. She raised hopeful eyes to Bryant's face but he only shook his head. Her voice thick with tears and sorrow, she whispered. "I shall miss you Cynan. Who will tease Gareth about his bad manners the next time he tells me I'm selfish? Who will make me laugh when I've just swallowed a bug from sleeping on the ground?" She inhaled sharply, trying unsuccessfully to stem her flow of tears. "Who will boil that dreadful dried meat for me and serve it as if it were roasted venison? Who will--" her voice broke again, "who will take care of Enid? Oh Cynan!" Unable to control her grief at her first loss of a friend, she hunched over, crying. She felt strong hands grasp her shoulders and lift her to her feet and when she lifted her face, she saw Gareth's moist eyes before he drew her to him in a crushing hug. She returned the embrace just as fiercely and begged God's forgiveness that she was thankful that Gareth had not been the one to die.

By the time Gareth released her, she had gained some control. She wiped the tears from her face and asked Gareth, "What will we do with him?"

"We will have to bury him here," Gareth said.

"No!" Bryant shouted. "We must take him back to Wales, to Enid!"

"How, Bryant? In this heat? And would you have Enid see him dead with a babe on the way?" No! Let her remember him as he was, alive and smiling. Let us remember him that way with her."

"But to bury him here, so far from home with these English!" Bryant cried.

Gareth knelt down and grasped his friend's shoulders and Elena could see the physical effort it took him to prevent the tears from spilling over his lids. "His body only will remain here. His spirit is already with Enid and their unborn babe in Wales. It flies to the top of the Eyri Mountains even while we bicker her over his remains."

"He will have a Christian burial befitting a hero of Wales."

Elena started at the voice behind her and turned to see the new king standing behind them.

"I hope this was not the friend you sought," Henry said, gesturing to Cynan.

Elena shook her head no.

Henry looked to Gareth who held her hand. “This man and all the others will be seen to with respect and gratitude for their ultimate gift to England.

"As for you, Sir Knight," he said, gesturing to Gareth, "I understand your spurs were hacked off by my predecessor." Without waiting for a response, the new king continued. "Clearly, you are a noble and chivalrous man, worthy of much more than the title of Knight, but since I have nothing else to offer you, I would at least reinstate you to that position."

"I thank you," Gareth said hoarsely.

His attention clearly moving on to the next subject, Henry Tudor said, "Tend to your comrade," as he turned to leave.

***

Though the evening was not chilly, Elena was glad for the warmth of the campfire around which sat the Welshmen. Watching the yellow flames lick hungrily into the dark night seemed to cleanse her mind of the horrors she had witnessed today. The soft blue of the fire that quickly ate the dry wood seemed to warm the chill of Cynan's death and Elena felt herself relax. Gareth sat beside her on the hard ground, his hip and shoulder touching her own. Heedless of the others or what they might think, Elena laid her head on his shoulder and sighed when he rested his head on top of her. She felt as though she could remain in this position forever, even through the discussion of the day's battle.

"When it looked as though Stanley was not joining us, I thought we were lost," Dafydd said.

"Aye," Gareth’s father agreed. "And I thought he had set us up in Aberstwyth with all those instructions."

"Why did he hesitate?" one of the archers asked.

Morgan shrugged but Gareth said, "Richard did hold his eldest son as hostage. Perhaps he only sought to wait until Richard would be unable to send the order for his death."

"I heard that when Richard threatened Stanley's son unless he joined supported him on the field, Stanley sent back word that he had other son's," Morgan said.

About the cozy circle of the fire, men smiled grimly at Stanley's bravado. Elena reflected that they were only smiling at the careless words because the young man had not been executed.

"Well, for all that he was a devious man in his life, I will go so far as to say that Richard at least died well, as a king should," said a Welshman Elena did not know.

The men nodded in agreement as Gareth added, "Many men in Richard's place would have allowed themselves to be taken hostage in the hopes that they would be allowed to live. Richard did at least have the dignity to go down in the fight."

"And took several excellent men with him," the Welshman said.

Elena tilted her head to look at Gareth but his gaze was lost in the fire. She watched the light and shadows play against the strong planes of his face, in the stubble that covered his square jaw, in the gray depths of his eyes. He must be thinking of Cynan, she thought. His father's voice pulled her attention back to the conversation.

"And now it is time to rebuild this country."

"Enid must rebuild her life," Bryant said bitterly.

There were several seconds of silence at his words but Morgan declared an end to the mourning when he said, "But for now we must rebuild this fire so that we may cook this enormous pig King Henry has sent." Three men behind Elena and Gareth came forward carrying great logs and they quickly stood and moved out of the way. Once they were beyond the circle of firelight, Gareth grabbed her hand and pulled her after him as he led the way to the other side of the tethered group of horses. Alone and out of sight, he pulled her tightly to him and buried his face in her shorn hair.

Elena grabbed fistfuls of his own hair and turned his face until she could kiss him. He returned her passionate kiss with equal fervor and in the heat of the embrace, the tension and heartache of the day dissolved. When the kiss finally ended, they were both shaky with its effects and neither spoke for several moments. Finally Gareth started to speak, stopped, cleared his throat, and started again. "Elena, I must make you understand why I left you at Nottingham when you helped me escape. I know you must think that I was thinking only of my own goal of reaching Wales and King Henry's army, but I swear to you that I was only concerned with your safety. I had put you in enough danger since the day I met you that--" Elena stopped his words with her fingertips and then replaced them with her mouth.

"I love you," she whispered against his lips.

She grew worried when he inhaled sharply and said nothing. In the pale light of a half moon, she could not judge what emotions were playing across his face and she wondered if he had only claimed he loved her weeks ago because she had helped him escape Nottingham's dungeon.

"Elena, I have nothing to offer you but a small keep that will one day be mine but which will always be hard work. I know there are things you want out of a husband, things that are important to you and--"

"Do you?"

"Of course, you have told me often enough what you desire and the security that wealth and power can provide should be yours."

Elena could tell, even in the dim light, that he was thrown off balance by her next question. "Gareth, are you the same person you were two months ago when Richard's entourage was attacked?"

"What? Of course I--"

"No, no," Elena interrupted, "think. Are you really the same or have you changed in any way?"

Gareth stared at her as he thought of her question and Elena had to suppress a giggle. At times, he really was so easy to maneuver and she loved him for it.

"I suppose I have changed in the way I think and act. Certainly in the way I feel about you. I used to hate you, you know."

"I know," Elena said ruefully. "Now don't you think I have changed in many ways as well?"

"I don't know, you still seem to demand--and get--your way continuously," he said wryly.

When Elena merely glared at him in response, he said, "Yes, you have changed considerably since first we met."

Placated, Elena continued with her strategy. "Yes, I have. And part of that change has been to realize just what is important in life. I've come to learn that love and happiness mean more than wealth or power. You've taught me those things." Elena began to think that Gareth was going to force her into saying exactly what she meant and she didn't know if she could be that humble. Thinking of how much she loved him, she decided she could, but before she could open her mouth, he spoke.

"Does that mean you could settle for a drafty Welsh keep with a beautiful view of the mountains?"

Elena laughed at his non-proposal but decided it was better than no proposal. "Do you come with it?"

"Of course."

"Then I can settle for a mud shack."

Gareth grabbed her into his arms once again and swung her off her feet. She stifled the urge to squeal in delight for fear that the men at the campfire would come running. When he finally put her back on the ground he kissed her firmly and Elena felt herself growing warmer with their shared passion.

"How is it that in just a few hours I could go from complete despair over Cynan to ecstatic joy?" she asked when their lips finally parted.

"Because Cynan would have preferred us to be joyful," Gareth replied solemnly. "He found joy in everything and it is only right that we celebrate that joy and remember him for it."

Elena nodded in agreement. As she hugged her fiancée tightly, she looked to the night sky and gasped.

"What is it?" Gareth asked.

"I just saw a shooting star. Do you think it is a bad omen?"

"No. I think it was Cynan."

"Gareth?"

"Yes?"

"I love you."

"I love you too."