A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 4

Several rows back, Gareth spat out the mouthful of grit he had inhaled as a small gray horse galloped past, stirring up clouds of dust. He reached up to pat Isrid's neck. "You can believe I never thought to see you as a pack horse either," he whispered to his steed. Because neither Cynan nor Bryant owned a horse, Gareth had loaded all of their belongings on Isrid and walked with his friends. He adjusted his thick leather hauberk as a rivulet of sweat ran down his back, and cursed as he felt a rock rolling around in his boot. Taking off his helm, he hung it on Isrid's saddle. I may only look like a man-at-arms now, he thought, but at least I will not pass out from the heat. "I will admit it to you if no one else," he confessed to the horse, "I have grown accustomed to riding. I do not think I am going to be able stand more than three or four miles of this torture."

"Are you whining again, Gareth?" Cynan asked good-naturedly.

"Just bemoaning your lack of foresight in not borrowing a horse when you came to visit. We could be riding this dusty road instead of eating it if you had but thought ahead!"

"I never thought I should live to see the day when Gareth ap Morgan would be too puny to walk a few miles on a beautiful summer day, did you Bryant?"

Visibly trying to keep from smiling, Bryant looked at Gareth in mock pity. "Well, Cynan, you must admit that broadsword does look awfully heavy. And those shiny silver spurs are none too light either!"

"But I wager that the heaviest thing our friend carries is the title of Sir Gareth, wouldn't you say?" Both men burst out laughing while Gareth leveled an exasperated glare at them. In truth, Gareth had missed their constant teasing. Now smiling at his friends, he thought how little they each had changed since they were youths. He had always loved the tales of chivalry and honor of King Arthur's court, thinking out elaborate games for the three of them to play: games in which he always got to save the fair maidens and vanquish the evil sorcerers. Cynan had played along willingly, but took even greater delight in teasing Gareth about his "lofty ideals." Bryant was the quiet follower, playing whatever games his friends dreamed up, content to let them be the heros.

The three followed the troops in front of them as they made their way through the dusty countryside. There had been no rainfall for a fortnight and the tall grass on either side of the road was coated in dust. The flowers hung their heads limply and even the thick copse of trees further back from the road seemed to be gasping from the dry heat.

Six hours later, even Cynan and Bryant were too tired to tease Gareth. The walk had not been particularly strenuous as the roads were good, but the sun had beat down unmercifully all day and the dust raised by thirty horses and twice as many men was chokingly thick. By the time they stopped at sunset to camp outside a small town, they were all exhausted.

"I do not know how you have lived without the cool mountains of Gwynedd, Gareth," said Cynan as he flopped down onto his blanket. "I could have sworn we were marching in the Holy Land to meet Saracens, it was so hot today."

"'Tis days like today that make me wish I was home again," Gareth agreed.

"Then why do you not come back?" Bryant asked, unfolding his small pack.

Cynan propped himself up on his elbows. "Yes, why not? It has been at least two years since you last visited your father and," Cynan glanced around to make sure no one was within hearing distance. "You could learn more about our plans to aid Henry Tudor."

Gareth stared at the flames of their small campfire as he stirred what he hoped would taste like stew. "Soon. I will come visit soon," he said answering Cynan's first proposal and ignoring mention of the exiled earl who had already attempted one landing in England to overthrow King Richard.

Cynan scoffed disgustedly. "Can you not see, man, nothing noble is going to happen to you while you are in the service of this butcher! If you remain in Richard’s service, you are going to find yourself fighting honest Welshmen--one of whom seeks the crown so he can rule Wales and England fairly."

"Enough, Cynan! I am bound in fealty to the crown, despite who wears it and I cannot abandon my post just because you like not who wears it."

Cynan started to argue but Bryant broke in. "That stew looks like ‘tis ready to eat, Gareth and if we're not careful, the aroma is going to attract a crowd." With a meaningful glance at the men scattered around, Cynan and Gareth nodded in understanding and turned their attention to eating.

Travel the third day proved no more comfortable than the first two. The late afternoon sun beat down on the entourage as it made its dusty way down the hard-packed road. The ladies drooped in their saddles, unmindful of their bedraggled state. One old man nearly tumbled off his horse as he dozed. The foot soldiers trudged wearily along, too hot and tired to even choke on the ever-present dust. Even the horses lagged, their heads bobbing wearily in time to their slow steps.

Gareth's first sense of danger was a cold prickling on his sweaty neck. Looking up sharply, he stared into the thick forest that began twenty or thirty paces off to the left. Glancing to the other side of the road, he saw no threat: the road fell away to the sharp bank of the river. Turning back to the forest he squinted his eyes, trying to see into the near-total darkness. Nothing. He looked at the soldiers around him. They plodded steadily along, but he noticed that the group had spread out in a long, broken chain. The nearest group of men, which included the king, was far ahead. The procession’s lead horses were so far ahead as to be completely out of sight. Turning to Bryant, he whispered, "Do you feel anything strange about this place?"

"What do you mean?"

"I know not. I just have this feeling that this is an ideal spot for an ambush."

"Who would ambush us?" Cynan broke in.

"Your friend Henry," Gareth replied.

Cynan looked as if he was about to say something and then paused. Slowly shaking his head he said, "No, I don't think the timing is right. Besides, we would have heard something first. Both Bryant and I have sworn to follow your father into battle."

"My father in battle? Sweet Christ!" Looking around, Gareth quickly lowered his voice again. "Since when has he cared about wars more than the ruttings of his flock?" Before either man could answer, he continued. "Never mind that now. How would you even know if these were Tudor's men? You two have been with me the past month. An entire war could have been planned and you two would know nothing about it."

"He's right, Cynan, we'd have no way of knowing if we should fight for or against them."

"Just a minute,” Cynan interrupted. “For or against who? We are working ourselves up over another of Gareth's 'eerie feelings,' are we not? Now here is the plan: if there are just ghosts in these woods, we'll fight 'em off. But if there are goblins too, I say we run for it." Before he could laugh at his own joke, a blood curdling war cry pierced the quiet air.

"By Saint Dafydd, Gareth was finally right!" Cynan gasped.

Confusion spread through the dazed ranks as men scrambled to position themselves in front of Richard and his retinue. When Gareth moved to mount Isrid, Cynan grabbed his arm. "You must wait, Gareth, until we can determine who is attacking."

"No,‘tis you who must wait. I have work to do." Gareth grabbed the reins, but paused to look at his friends before spurring Isrid on. Something he saw in their eyes made him grit his teeth and say, "Alright! You two try to take cover. See if you can retreat back down the road and duck into the forest. Who ever this is should not expect to find you there."

Cynan grinned at Gareth as Bryant tugged on his sleeve, urging him back down the dusty road.

His heart racing as adrenaline pulsed through his veins, Gareth swung Isrid towards the thick of the fighting, which was centered around the king and women. Richard cursed the attackers and tried to swing his sword at them, but was hampered by his own soldiers who sought to protect him. Gareth swore as he saw one lady's horse cut down; to his relief, she was quickly snatched up by the knight nearest her. Digging his spurs into Isrid, Gareth plunged into the fight. Henry Tudor's men or roadside bandits, no lady deserved to die in a man's battle.

As Gareth moved into the thick of the fighting, Richard pushed his great steed out from behind his men, trying to force his way up the road. Some of the attackers followed him and his knights, leaving the group of women. They're trying to draw the enemy away, to protect the women, Gareth thought. But not all of the attackers were following the king. Forcing his way through the brigands with his horse, Gareth drew his sword with his right hand as he fumbled for his helmet with his left.

When he could not undo the buckle that secured it to the saddle, he abandoned it and concentrated on attacking as many of the enemy as he could. Gareth had been in few actual battles in his short career as a knight, but that did not deter him from hacking his blade into sinew and bone at every opportunity. He took out his frustration with his life on the attackers, swinging his sword with such speed that it sang through the air like a Viking scald from days of old. When his sword handle grew slippery with sweat and blood, he only managed to slap one man across the face with the flat of his sword. Isrid, however, trained as a warhorse, quickly trampled the dazed man and moved forward. As his mount surged ahead, Gareth had a moment to look up and assess their position. There were just a few attackers to the number of Richard's men who remained in the road, but these were mostly squires and green knights like him.

Seeing Richard's squire, Gareth yelled as loudly as he could. "We're not but a few miles from Haddon Hall. Take the women and as many mounted men as you can and ride on." The young squire, pale with fear, nodded and yelled to the other squires. Within moments, nearly all of the women were fleeing. Gareth started after them to make sure none of the attackers would follow, but the men seemed intent on getting to Richard and were abandoning the women. Turning back, Gareth saw two women heading north, back up the road the company had just come down. "God’s wounds! They're going to get themselves killed!"

***

"Your Highness I really think we should have gone the other way with the rest of the women," Elena gasped as she clung to the mane of her horse. "We shall become lost or be set upon by more attackers!"

"Worry not Elena. Neither will happen," Princess Elizabeth called back.

"But--"

Slowing her horse until Elena's smaller palfrey caught up, Elizabeth said, "These are the men of my cousin, Charles Woodville. They are here to escort me home."

"But why are they attacking?"

"Do hurry Elena. We must get further down the road. Richard meant to marry me to solidify his hold on the throne. I cannot and will not marry him."

"Do they mean to kill the king?"

Elizabeth looked over her shoulder at the fight. "I do not think they would be too concerned if that happened."

"What?" Elena asked, unsure she heard Elizabeth aright over the noise of the battle behind them. "Your Highness, do you know what you are saying?"

Glancing sharply at Elena, Elizabeth said, "He killed my brothers, Elena. Furthermore, I will not enter into an incestuous marriage with my uncle."

"But Your Highness--"

"Elena, please be quiet and just ride. I swear no harm will come to you. You may even return to Richard's party once I am safely away."

Elena would have argued more, but the look in Elizabeth's eyes made her close her mouth.

***

Back at the battle, Gareth whirled his horse to follow the two stray women. Suddenly, three more well-armed men tried to pull him from his horse, one grasping his sword arm at the wrist, another trying to grab Isrid's reins, while the third picked a sword from a fallen comrade's grasp and approached Gareth from the opposite side. Isrid effectively dislodged the man trying to pull at his reins. When his head was free, the horse bit into the man's shoulder, sending blood pouring down his arm.

Meanwhile, a battle rage Gareth had never before felt seemed to seep into his eyes along with the sweat and blood from a cut on his brow. Possessed of strength he didn't think he had left, he pulled his sword arm free at the same time he swung Isrid around to confront the armed man. His opponent was momentarily frozen with surprise at the unexpected move but Gareth didn't pause as he brought his sword around to stab at his opponent. In a disconnected part of his brain, Gareth marveled at the feel of his sword in his hand--it felt as light as a feather, as supple as a whip. Wheeling Isrid around again, he did not even feel the blade that sliced along his leg, but instead used the injured limb to kick the blade's wielder in the face. Gareth's final opponent stood immobile, staring past Gareth's shoulder and Gareth thought he was going to have an easy kill when he heard a whirring sound and turned in time to see a large stone leave a leather sling. As if in a dream, Gareth saw the missile coming toward him, but--as in a dream--he felt he was moving through water. Suddenly, time sped up as the rock raced towards his face and cracked him soundly on the side of the head. All he saw after that was the hard-packed dirt of the road as it rushed up to meet him.

***

The last rays of sunlight were fading from the sky when Gareth slowly regained consciousness. When he was able to pry his eyes open, he saw the fuzzy features of Cynan and Bryant. Slowly sitting up, he rubbed the lump under the blood-clotted hair on the side of his head. He was still in the middle of the road and his mouth was coated with dust. Spitting vociferously he pushed himself to his feet, grabbing onto Bryant when he wobbled.

"Where's--" he spat another mouthful of dirt and his voice sounded like a bullfrog's to his own ears. "Where's Isrid."

"Somewhere in these accursed woods," said Cynan. "He stayed near you after you fell off in the fray--"

"I did not fall off!" he said too loudly. His head threatened to split like a frostbitten cabbage.

"--and only bolted when some bastard tried to mount him."

"I did not fall off. And if you had taken a blow like that one, you'd not be troubling me so."

Before Cynan could respond, they heard someone approaching through the forest. Trying to see in the rapidly fading light, the three men drew their swords.

"Thank God!" said Bryant when Gareth's horse stuck his nose out of the thick clump of trees.

Gareth stumbled over to Isrid and leaned heavily on his horse's neck. "Where is everyone else?"

"You mean those who lived? They are no doubt at Haddon Hall by now. Of course, a few men were not as lucky as you and they will not be rising from this God-forsaken road," said Cynan.

Gareth tried to scan the scene of the fight, but the moon had not risen and it was so dark he could barely discern the outlines of his friends much less the carnage in the road. "And the attackers?"

"They went up the road," Bryant said, gesturing in the direction Richard's troops had come from.

"We'd best be joining the living in Haddon Hall, then," Gareth said, still feeling as if he were about to lose his balance at any moment.

Neither Cynan or Bryant spoke for a moment. "We are not continuing with Richard's court," said Cynan.

"What? Why not?"

"We are returning to Wales," said Bryant. "We want you to come with us. We--"

Cynan interrupted, "Those men who attacked were Woodvilles."

"How do you know?"

"Because we were hiding in the woods, if you'll remember. We heard them talking after Richard got away."

"Meant they to kill the king?" Gareth asked incredulously. He had not thought Richard's sister-in-law, mother to Lady Elizabeth and the missing princes, would have dared try regicide.

"No," Bryant said before Cynan could speak. "They only sought to win Lady Elizabeth free. I would wager one of the women who fled north on this road was Elizabeth herself."

"But why? She was in no danger."

"Only in danger of being wed to Richard," Cynan said.

"That is ridiculous!" Gareth broke out. "That would be incestuous!" Although it was pitch black, in the silence following his cry, Gareth could easily picture each man's expression. Cynan's eyebrows were no doubt raised mockingly, arms crossed over his chest as he stared unblinking in Gareth's general direction. Bryant was most likely biting his lower lip and staring at his toe scuffing the ground. He hated when Cynan and Gareth argued, even though nothing had ever come between their friendship.

Gareth finally broke the silence. "King Richard would not do such a thing." But even to his own ears he did not sound very convinced.

"Did that bump on your head loosen you of all sense or does your 'knightly duty' prevent you from doing what is right?"

Before Gareth could respond to Cynan's taunt, Bryant said, "At least come back to Wales and see your father. He's been awfully lonely since you left."

Gareth took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. No doubt the crack in his head had allowed what common sense he had to leak onto the parched dirt of the road. "All right. I will go with you." He started to add that he wouldn't hear anymore arguments or accusations against Richard, but something stopped him. He was suddenly curious as to what his father would say about Henry Tudor.

Cynan and Bryant broke into relieved laughter. "What an adventure we shall have!" Cynan yelled as he picked his friend up in a bear hug which made Gareth's sore head pound.

"Put me down you oaf, or you will be carrying me over the Cambrian Mountains yourself!" When he had both feet on the ground he asked, "So where do we camp, oh fearless rebel?"

"'Tis too dark to travel far. Think you it will be safe if we just move into the forest?"

Gareth chewed his upper lip. "'Tis the best we can do, at least until the moon rises."

The three men made their way into the dense forest. By the time they reached a small clearing, the moon had risen, illuminating the landscape. Gareth allowed his friends to administer rudimentary medical care to his injured head and leg, gritting his teeth as their clumsy fingers cleaned and bandaged his wounds. Afterwards, they set about setting up a makeshift camp. They spread out their bedrolls and were about eat a meager supper of dried beef when they heard a woman's piercing scream. Grabbing up their weapons, they dashed back to the road. Bursting out of the thick copse of trees they stared in amazement. They had expected to find a woman beset by highway bandits or wolves. What they saw was a woman sitting on her horse in the middle of the empty road. Well, not quite empty, Gareth thought. Now that the moon was up, he could clearly see the ten or twelve dead bodies that were the result of the earlier melee.

"My lady, what ails you?" Gareth called as he approached her.

The woman turned, startled by the approach of three unknown men. She was about to scream again when Gareth held up his hand. "Fear not, my lady. I am Sir Gareth of King Richard's contingent. You are quite safe from harm."

"Where is the king? I am part of his retinue," she said in what Gareth thought was, despite its quaver, a surprisingly haughty tone of voice.

"We suspect he is in Haddon Hall, my lady."

"Then you must take me to him."

Gareth looked at Cynan and Bryant before turning back to the lady. "I am afraid that is not possible my lady. But we will get you to safety come first light. For now, we are encamped not far from here."

Approaching her horse, he offered her a hand down. She ignored it and asked, "Why can you not escort me to the king now?"

"Because it is too dark to travel and the roads are dangerous this time of night," Gareth said.

The woman considered his reply before allowing him to help her down. She was no doubt bone weary and frightened.

As Gareth lifted her down, he tried to determine if he knew her, but her veil covered most of her face. She hadn't indicated she knew him when he introduced himself, so he could only speculate at which lady-in-waiting the three of them would play nursemaid to until they were able to leave her at an abbey, or perhaps one of the border lord's keeps.

"How came you to be back here, my lady? Did you not escape with the other women?"

The woman hesitated and Gareth wondered if she, too, had been hit on the head. Finally she answered, “I was with the others, but my horse bolted and I became separated from the group." For some reason Gareth had the impression she was not telling the truth, but shrugged. What espionage could one lady-in-waiting engage in?

When they reached the clearing where the men had spread out their blankets, Elena said, "Where is the camp? Where are the others?"

"Others, my lady?" Bryant asked politely.

"Where are the tents? Where are the other ladies?"

"My lady, they are all with King Richard, as Sir Gareth told you."

Seemingly recovered from her earlier shock, she sputtered in fury. “After all I have been through today, you expect me to make do with no inn? No camp? Where, precisely, am I supposed to sleep?"

Bryant hurried over to his bedroll and picked it up. "You may gladly take my blanket, my lady."

"A blanket? Have you no cots, no tents? This is ridiculous! I cannot be expected to sleep rolled up in a blanket with three servants. I am Lady Elena de Vignon!" Gareth's head snapped up and he grimaced at the pain the sudden movement caused his tender skull. "I am part of the king's court. I cannot--"

"You are more than welcome to climb back on your horse and continue down the road if you do not like our accommodations," Gareth snapped. "But should you choose to stay, pray remember that we are not servants and will not be treated as such."

In the bleaching moonlight, Elena stared in mute outrage at him. Before she could respond, the three men silently stretched out on the ground. Elena slowly wrapped the rough blanket around her shoulders and carefully sat down.

"If you have any measure of sense, you'll unsaddle your horse before you sleep."

"Gareth, she's a gentle lady; they're not trained as a stable hand," Cynan argued.

"Then she shouldn't be riding."

"You are the rudest man I have ever had the displeasure to meet," said Elena as she sat up abruptly.

"Just ignore him my lady, I'll see to your horse for you," volunteered Bryant.

With a sigh of relief, Elena laid back down.

"You will at least have the courtesy to thank Bryant for tending your horse, lest I be provoked to call you the rudest woman I have ever had the displeasure to meet," said Gareth.

Though the moon’s light washed her face of color, Gareth could read her indignant thoughts easily for her outrage was laughably evident. She could not believe his gall, would tell the king of his arrogance as soon as she reached him. And yet, she realized—for Gareth saw the dawning realization lift her brows in surprise--she must first reach Richard and he and his friends were her only way there. "My thanks, Bryant, for both your blanket and your assistance," Elena said sweetly before cursing Bryant's companion under her breath.

"Know you this lady that you are so unchivalrous, Sir Knight?" Cynan asked quietly as he and Gareth settled down to sleep.

"Aye. She's a conceited lady of Richard's court who has no manners to those without a title."

"Do I know her?"

"I've no doubt you'll recognize her come morn," Gareth said and then turned his back on Cynan and went to sleep.

***

"You're right, Gareth, I do remember this beauty," said Cynan as he peeked at the still-sleeping Elena the next morning. "But I do not remember having any occasion to know whether she's conceited or not."

"Trust me, she is." Gareth flushed as he remembered her saying, "Do not think to woo me with proud stories of your herd back home." He rubbed his sword arm with his left hand. It was stiff and sore from its exertions of the day before and Gareth was reminded of his first month of training with a sword. Then, as now, he had scarce been able to lift his sword arm above his head, but that ache was nothing to the throb in his head and the soreness of his leg.

The men washed down their breakfast of dried meat with wine and rolled up their blankets, but still Elena slept. As Gareth and Cynan saddled the horses, Bryant walked over to Elena. "My lady?" he called softly. "My lady, 'tis morn and we must be going." Elena did not respond.

Gareth finished saddling Isrid and walked over to Bryant. Nudging Elena with the toe of his boot he said loudly, "If you mean to sleep all day, kindly return Bryant's blanket so we may continue our journey.”

Elena opened her eyes at the harsh voice. Her evident confusion gave her face a softly innocent look before she realized where she was and the haughty mask slipped back over her features. When she remained on the ground, Gareth said sharply, "Are you coming or not?"

With an exasperated sigh, Elena stood, her obviously stiff and cramped muscles slowing the effort. Bryant smiled shyly at her and bent to retrieve the blanket.

"Shall I help you onto your horse, my lady?" Cynan asked, trying hard to keep from laughing at Gareth. Never had he seen his friend treat a woman so. And never before had he met a woman quite as imperious as Elena.

"Not before breakfast, I think."

"You slept through breakfast," Gareth said. "Now get on your horse."

"How dare you address me in such a manner!"

Gareth ignored her as he climbed onto Isrid. Cynan helped Elena mount and then handed her some dried meat. "I'm afraid you will have to eat while we ride, my lady." Turning to Bryant he said, "You go ahead and ride the first leg. I'm so glad to be going home, I'll probably fly instead of walk."

Bryant laughed as he climbed up behind Gareth. "You will be flying until your feet hurt. Then you'll be hollering for me to give you your rightful seat."

"Where's that?"

"On the horse's ass, no doubt," Gareth broke in and the three men laughed good-naturedly.