A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 5

Elena stared at the men, appalled that they would use such vulgar language in front of her. She shifted her gaze to the hard brown thing in her hand. Was she supposed to eat this? She took a tentative bite, or rather, she tried to take a bite, but could not tear off so much as a morsel. Glancing up to make sure none of the men were looking in her direction, she tried again, pulling on the meat with both hands. She succeeded in tearing off a large chunk, which she proceeded to chew, or rather tried to chew. What am I to do now? she thought. This was like trying to gnaw on boot leather. Elena was wondering if she could discreetly spit out the meat when Bryant leaned over and held out a wineskin.

"If you take a swallow and let it sit in your mouth a bit, 'twill be easier to chew, my lady."

Elena took the skin and poured some wine in her mouth. As she sat there with her large mouthful, trying to ignore the wretched taste, she saw the amused look in the grey eyes of the man in front of Bryant. Tears of anger and humiliation pricked behind her eyes and she pointedly turned her head away from his mocking look. The insolent knave! Elena finally managed to chew the now-soft beef and took another swallow of wine.

They rode through the forest over what looked like no road or trail Elena had ever seen. She couldn't understand why they weren't traveling on the main road. Surely that would have been the fastest route to Haddon Hall.

"Is this not prettier to look at than some old dusty road?" was Cynan's response when Elena questioned him.

Elena glanced around the heavily wooded surroundings. The trees were lush and green, and pink flowering vines crept up many of the trunks. The sun scarcely made it's way through the thick leaves, and instead cast a soft green light over them as well as the forest floor. Beneath the horses' feet, the ground was soft with moss and years of accumulated mulch. Elena shrugged. "I would prefer to be back with King Richard's party than enjoy the scenery. Why can we not travel the road?"

The three men exchanged glances. Finally, Bryant spoke up. "My lady, we fear for your safety. The villains who attacked us yesterday may still be around. We would not jeopardize your safety."

Elena opened her mouth to tell them that the Woodvilles were by now long gone. She snapped it shut again when she realized she would be revealing more than she had claimed to know. As they rode, she tried to decide what, exactly, she would tell the king. If she told him of Elizabeth’s escape, he may thank her for the information. If he realized that Elena was aware of why the princess escaped, he may very well want to silence Elena, for were he to marry his niece, the public outcry would be immense. She could offer her silence in return for the groom of her choice. Elena smiled at the thought and did not notice the tree branch just ahead.

“Ooof!” she said as the hanging leaves whacked her in the face. She sputtered angrily and glared over her shoulder at the offending tree. A sudden thought replaced her annoyance with fear.

King Richard was not a man to endure her threat with good grace. Oh yes, he would silence her, but not by paying her price. Though she knew the king favored her, she also knew that the position of lady-in-waiting carried no weight in matters of state. It was entirely possible that the king would use other, more permanent means to silence her. The image of Richard’s two young nephews—long since silenced--floated before her eyes, causing her to smack into yet another branch.

“God’s nightgown!” she cursed.

“Need you help, my lady?” the shy man—Bryant, she thought—asked.

“No!” Elena said sharply and then more calmly, “No…thank you.”

Though the day was warm, Elena felt a sudden chill run down her spine. Trying to think of anything else, she turned her attention to what she would tell Margaret and Catherine.

“I am cursed!” she muttered as she realized that spending even one night away from the other women, in the company of three men, no less, would destroy her already fragile reputation. Frustrated that she had no answer to either of her plaguing questions, Elena distracted herself with complaining about the journey, delighting when the horrid man glared his displeasure at her.

Several hours later, Elena was too tired to complain anymore. She wearily dismounted with Bryant's help and made her way into the nearby bushes. When she returned minutes later, she found the men already mounted again and waiting to leave.

"You can not mean that is all the rest we get!"

"We have much distance to cover before nightfall. We can ill afford to waste the daylight while you idle the time away," said Gareth.

Elena glared at the man who had not said one polite word to her since she'd laid eyes on him. When they met up with Richard again...

"Perhaps we could at least let her stretch her legs, Gareth," Bryant ventured.

Gareth, Elena thought. She would remember that name to tell Richard.

"No. She's holding us up as it is. We continue until dusk."

Bryant looked at Elena apologetically as he helped her back on her horse, but Elena was too furious to notice. She clenched her teeth so hard her jaws began to hurt and she slapped the reins on her delicate palfrey.

***

"What be the reason the normally chivalrous Sir Gareth is treating the Lady Elena so?" Cynan asked Gareth as they made their way through the forest. “Is she not the one whose looks you were so taken with the other night in the great hall?"

"That was until she opened her mouth. That woman makes an adder seem a pleasant conversationalist."

"I don't know. She seems merely high spirited to me."

Gareth laughed harshly. Cynan studied the back of his friend's head while a thought began to take shape in his head.

"She'd make a winsome wife. But not for a blundering Englishman. She needs a Welshman to appreciate her spirit."

Gareth looked over his shoulder. "Lest my memory fails me, you already have a wife, Cynan. I'm sure Enid would not be particularly amused by such talk."

"I was not thinking for myself, you fool."

"I'd not have her if she were the last woman in all of Wales, England, or Scotland. Or Ireland, for that matter."

Cynan chomped down on his lower lip to keep from laughing. Baiting Gareth had always been his favorite pastime. "Aren't you the conceited ass today," he remarked. "I was not thinking of you, either. I think Bryant has taken a fancy to her."

Gareth glared at Bryant who was walking several paces ahead of them, leading Elena's horse. Cynan saw Gareth’s eyes narrow and his hands clench convulsively on the reins.

"Don't you dare put such thoughts into his head, Cynan. That woman would make his life miserable and I'd sooner see him dead than married to her."

Cynan shook his head and smiled. Enid would be proud of him, he thought. She was a master at reading people's hidden emotions and he looked forward to telling her of Gareth's reaction to the haughty English lady.

***

By the time they did stop in the shadow of a monolithic boulder, it was dusk and Elena was weaving in the saddle from exhaustion. As Cynan and Bryant immediately began gathering wood for a fire and pulled out food for dinner, Gareth helped Elena down from her horse. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she felt her knees buckle. Gareth caught her by the waist and held her until she steadied herself, trying to ignore the way her body felt pressed against him, concentrating instead on the texture of the fine linen of her dress under his fingers. He could not keep the fresh, sun-warmed scent of her hair out of his nose, however, nor could he ignore the way her breath tickled his left ear.

He could tell when her head stopped spinning, when she realized she was pressed against him, his hands on her waist, her head on his shoulder. She quickly raised her head and her weary eyes glared imperatively at him.

"Take your hands off of me," she said as she pushed him away. Gareth immediately let her go and she had to clutch at her horse's mane to keep from falling.

As he stalked to his horse and began unsaddling it, he was disgusted with himself for his body's reaction to Elena's nearness. His hands still tingled from holding her, his chest could still feel her soft form pressed against it. He pulled Isrid's saddle off and began rubbing the powerful horse down. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Elena still standing, clinging to her horse's mane.

More sharply than he intended, he said, "Unbuckle that saddle and groom your horse."

Elena jumped and opened her eyes. She glared at him before turning and fumbling with the straps which held the saddle on. Several minutes later, she had only managed to undo one buckle and was leaning wearily against her patient horse when Gareth approached.

"Watch carefully. Next time you do this yourself."

Elena clenched her teeth in anger, but said nothing, watching as he deftly undid the straps and slid the saddle off the horse. He walked back to his horse and picked up the rag he had used. Returning, he handed it to Elena. "Rub her down well so she'll not catch a chill."

When Elena just stared at the rag, he took her hand roughly and showed her what to do. She rubbed her horse until her arms ached and Gareth said, "Now wipe your saddle down and then you may go wash up at the stream. ‘Tis through those trees over there."

As Elena stumbled to the stream, Bryant and Cynan exchanged surprised glances. Never had Gareth treated a lady so. He took every part of his knight's oath seriously and chivalry towards the fairer sex he had, until this lady, meticulously obeyed.

When Elena returned, Gareth handed her a bowl of watery soup. Elena stared at the contents of the bowl and said, "Might it be to much to ask what this substance is floating in the gruel?"

"Say, there's nothing floating in mine," Cynan complained.

Ignoring Cynan's attempts to lighten the mood, Gareth started to answer Elena, but Bryant broke in, "'Tis the meat you ate earlier today, my lady. When we boil it up with some barley, it gets a little more palatable."

Elena took a sip. "There is nothing on this earth that could make this 'meat' taste better. Could not one of you hunt a rabbit or some venison? 'Tis not as if we hadn't been in the forest all day, and since it's clear I'll be sleeping on the ground again tonight, is it too much to ask for a decent meal?" she finished imperiously.

Taking one look at the wrathful expression on Gareth's face, Cynan and Bryant hastily swallowed the last of their soup and quickly escaped to the stream.

"You are lucky to have a blanket to lay on the ground. Is it too much to ask that you might be grateful to have anything to eat at all?"

"Perhaps the serving wenches you are used to are content with your miserable hospitality, but ladies of rank expect more consideration from those who serve them."

"Serve them? If you think we are your servants, you are sadly mistaken. Tell me, is it customary for future countesses to belittle everyone and everything. Would you be more gracious if you were wedding Edgeford rather than Brackley come Michaelmas? On second thought, I met Edgeford. He seemed entirely too pleasant to meet your demanding expectations. 'Tis just as well you're marrying Earl Brackley. However, I must warn you to watch your temper around him. I understand his treatment of his wives makes them grateful for the smallest scrap of warmth and comfort. Why--" Gareth stopped at the look of terror on Elena's face. She stared at him, her warm brown eyes open wide with fright, something Gareth never expected to see in the gaze of someone as dictatorial as Lady Elena. The bowl of soup tumbled from her grasp unnoticed.

Despite her earlier whining and complaining, Gareth was instantly contrite. No woman who knew of Brackley's treatment of his wives-and what woman in England did not?--could possibly look forward to marriage to him, despite his immense wealth and power.

"My lady, you must not pay attention to me when I get angry. I say foolish, meaningless things. I--"

"How did you know of Lord Edgeford?" she asked in a much-subdued voice.

Gareth was caught off guard by her question. "What?"

"None but a few of my friends knew I wished to wed Edgeford."

"We danced the night your betrothal was announced. I saw how you chose our places in line so that when we traded partners, you would be with him."

"We danced?"

"Aye, my lady. The Gavotte."

Elena nodded. She remembered the dance, but not her partner.

Rising, Gareth handed her his bowl of soup. "I am accustomed to not eating. You'd best take this. You will need your strength tomorrow as the woods will be thicker. There are no trails for horses and we may be walking most of the day."

Recognizing her expression as one of a battle-shocked novice soldier, Gareth knew that Elena did not even taste the bland broth, but she finished every drop and obediently curled up on her blanket when he said, "Get as much sleep as you can. We'll be leaving at sun up."

He watched her for a long while, long after Cynan and Bryant fell asleep. Although the summer evening was warm, he knew when Elena started shivering, knew its cause, and knew he could do nothing to alleviate it.

He couldn't help but feel sorry for her. No woman deserved the treatment she would receive at the hands of Brackley. His own cousin had suffered beatings for three years before her husband died of a fever. Gareth remembered at the man's funeral, when he found out about the beatings. Gwenllian had not shed a single tear for her husband and when Gareth called her to task for not mourning, she flew into a rage, describing the times he had hit her for no reason at all.

Gareth felt the anger growing inside him as he thought of his cousin's husband, but he now transferred that anger to Brackley. Though he was tired, he lay awake for several hours after Cynan and Bryant dozed off, planning a horrible and fitting death for the vicious earl.