A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 6

The hideous knight, Gareth, awoke late the next morning. Elena was up and trying to warm her cold muscles by hopping from foot to foot. He stretched before rising and gave her a smile. But if Gareth seemed friendlier to her after their talk of the night before, she was angrier. Mad at herself for letting this boor know that she was frightened of her impending marriage, she stared at him coldly and turned away. She attempted to smooth her hair into some semblance of order, though she didn't know why she should worry how she looked in front of these three, especially Sir Gareth.

Gareth's smile faded as he observed Elena's glare and she felt a moment of satisfaction as he rose and helped Cynan and Bryant pack up their few things. She would teach him to speculate on her personal life. For the next two days, she complained about the heat, the dust, the bugs, the quality of the food (still dried beef), the shortness of their breaks, and finally, Gareth's horse.

"Would you kindly get your horse out of my face?" she asked when they were stopped for lunch the next day beside a stream. Isrid had taken a fondness to Elena and was nuzzling her neck as she sat on a fallen log. Cynan who had been drinking water from the stream choked on what was either a laugh or a swallowed rock.

"Are you suddenly unable to walk?" Gareth asked.

When she stared, uncomprehending, he snapped, "If you like it not you can move."

Elena shot her meanest look at Gareth before leveling it on his horse. Isrid proved as oblivious to it as his master and began nibbling on her long braid. "Stop that!" she shouted.

"Here my lady, I'll get rid of him for you," said Bryant as he grabbed Isrid's halter. "Come on, you."

"My thanks," said Elena. She was not about to have Gareth lecture her again on manners.

Cynan leaned toward her. "You will be happy to know, my lady, that you shall sleep under a roof tonight. We'll be staying with distant kin of Bryant. Although," he leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, but spoke loudly enough for Bryant to hear him, "although I hear they're hoping he won't be too distant much longer. Seems they've a lass who has set her cap for Bryant. The fool just won't settle down."

Elena stared at Cynan. What did she care of the marrying tendencies of the Welsh? But glancing at Bryant, who was turning five shades of red, she forbore from saying so. Bryant had at least treated her with some measure of respect and consideration for her station.

"Are you married?" she asked Cynan, amazed that she was reduced to making small talk with a man-at-arms.

"Is he ever!" Bryant burst out, clearly thankful that Elena had nipped Cynan's gossiping in the bud. "I believe he's anxious to get me married so he won't be the only one who has to answer for his whereabouts."

"Enid worries a might too much," Cynan explained.

"Either that or she knows you well enough not to trust you!" Gareth said with a laugh. "How many skirts did you chase in your first year of marriage?"

"Leave it to you to forget that 'tis not the chasing, 'tis the catching and I haven't caught a single skirt since Enid and I were wed."

Elena was amazed at the men's crudity. Truly, few men she knew were bound by oaths of fidelity to their wives. In fact, the higher a man's rank, the more permissible it was for him to have mistresses. Still, Elena had never had to listen to discussions of such behavior.

Turning back to Elena, Cynan said, "Bryant and I have a wager as to when Gareth will wed. Bryant says 'twill be within two years, but I have high hopes that he'll hold out for at least ten." When Elena turned to glance at Gareth, Cynan asked, "Would you care to place a wager, Lady Elena?"

Elena sniffed. "I wager he never marries."

"The bachelor life for you, she's declaring, Gareth. Be he too handsome to stay with one women you think?"

"No, I simply don't think any woman would be able to put up with him for more than a fortnight."

Cynan and Bryant laughed and slapped their friend on the back.

"Seems she's just met you and she already knows you better than both of us," Cynan said.

"More like she's well versed in being difficult, herself," Gareth said, stung as he stalked off into the woods.

In spite of herself, Elena joined in Cynan and Bryant's laughter.

***

As they traveled that afternoon, Elena noticed that they were steadily climbing a gentle incline. The trees soared overhead, meeting in a canopy of pine needles overhead, filtering the light to a cool green. The layers of pine needles on the forest floor muffled the horses’ hooves and absorbed any quiet comments the men made. Elena found herself actively listening to the chatter of squirrels, and the song of birds for the first time in her life. She felt an odd sense of peace that had nothing to do with fine clothes or good food or hot, scented baths. The anger she had forced herself to maintain over the past two days slowly dissipated and Elena actually found herself enjoying her strange adventure.

They arrived at the small village that was their destination just as the sun dipped below the horizon in a brilliant splash of gold and orange. Although Elena was tired, the beauty of the sunset and the warm glow it cast over the small village only added to her sense of peace. She found herself looking forward to a real bed with an appreciation she had never before felt.

To call the village small was being generous. Elena glanced at the four stone houses that were gilded by the setting sun, becoming for a fleeting moment, as grand looking as a stone fortress or royal palace. Small children scampered in and out of the open doors, startling wandering chickens. Two women returned from the stream, carrying a heavy basket full of wet clothes between them.

Smoke drifted lazily up from two of the houses' chimneys, carrying the smell of roasting meat to the weary travelers. Elena's mouth watered at the scent and her stomach rumbled appreciatively. Taking a deep breath, she felt the peaceful quiet of the evening soak into her very bones.

"I never knew England could be so beautiful," she murmured, not intending for anyone to hear her.

"That's because you're not in England. You're in Wales," said Gareth who was walking, leading her horse.

"What? Wales? But I though you were going to take me back to King Richard?" she cried.

"I never said that. I said I would get you to safety. We did not come within a day's traveling distance of one of the border lord's keeps, so I will have to leave you at the first abbey we come across until word can be sent to Richard and he can send someone to fetch you."

"That is simply not acceptable! I can't just sit in some Welsh abbey braiding my hair while I wait for an escort to Nottingham."

"Then perhaps you should assist the sisters in their charitable works to make the time pass more quickly."

"Why can't you escort me to Nottingham?"

"Because I go to see my father in Gwynedd," Gareth said tightly.

"You mean you're deserting the king?"

"I have no set duties with Richard. My father I have not seen in two years."

They stopped in front of the farthest of the small houses. As Cynan and Bryant dismounted, the door burst open and a short burly man came out, quickly followed by what looked to Elena like at least a dozen children. The burly man gave Bryant a quick hug before releasing him to the children who climbed all over Bryant, laughing and shouting. While his arms were burdened with three toddlers, a dark-haired young woman who looked to be about sixteen took advantage of his position and bestowed a wet kiss on the corner of his mouth.

"The would-be fiancée," Cynan explained in Elena's ear as he helped her down from her horse.

"Ah," said Elena, trying unsuccessfully to smother a smile.

They were ushered inside by the man, who introduced himself as Gruffydd, and his wife Catrin, a short plump woman with crinkly laugh lines around her eyes and mouth. Upon Catrin's instruction, Bryant's love-struck cousin Marared took Elena into the other room of the small house where she was finally able to take off her travel-stained gown and bathe.

"I swear I never thought I'd live to appreciate warm water again," Elena said as she stepped into the bucket of water the girl brought in and bent down to splash water onto her bare arms and chest.

The girl grinned and held up a plain gown. "You can wear this this evening if you like so we can wash your chemise."

"It's over there on the chest," Elena gestured. "I suppose ‘tis too much to hope you might have some soft soap?" she asked with a grimace as she rubbed the rough lye soap over her legs.

"No. That is all we have. I did put some mint in your water though so you'd smell good. My mother says it’s alright to smell like a fresh mint tart as long as you don't act like one!" Laughing loudly, the girl did not notice the grimace on Elena's face.

"Lovely," Elena muttered. "I've always wanted to smell like a nauseating desert. By the way, how is it that your family speaks English? Aren't you Welsh?"

"Oh yes. But we live so close to the English and sell and buy things back and forth so often that one of us must speak the other's language and I can't imagine them English ever trying to learn Welsh." Belatedly realizing that Elena must be English, the young girl lowered her head in embarrassment and turned to straighten Elena's clothes.

The girl gasped when she picked up Elena's chemise. "I've never felt such fine cloth." Turning to the dark blue kirtle, she delicately traced the embroidered and beaded neckline. "Is this one of your court dresses?"

"No it's one of my older travel gowns." Despite her antagonism she had earlier felt over having to stay with Welsh peasants, the girl's admiration and naivete relaxed Elena's enmity and she surprised herself by saying, "You may try it on if you wish."

The girl looked at her in amazement but in a flash removed her rough gown and slipped the blue linen over her head. "I feel like a queen," she said, swishing the full skirt around the small room. Surveying the cloud of dust that followed the whirling hem, she said, "I'll wager we could brush the dust out of this till it looks like new." She ducked out of the room before Elena could say a word. She quickly returned with a horsehair brush and another bucket of water.

"I brought some fresh water if you'd like me to help you wash your hair."

If bathing had felt good, washing her hair in the cool mint-scented water was heavenly, Elena thought a few minutes later. Marared scrubbed her scalp and worked the tangles out of Elena's long hair.

"Such an unusual color your hair is," the girl said as she combed it out. "I usually hate combing my sisters' hair, but yours is so pretty to look at, I don't mind."

Elena looked over her shoulder in surprise. Another woman had never complimented her. Men had written poems about the color of her hair, but the women at court had only criticized it, commenting on its brassiness or the way it made her skin look sallow. Elena knew they were only being spiteful, but it still caused her to be surprised at Marared's honest compliment.

Once she was clean from head to toe, Elena dried herself with a small cloth as her self-appointed maid vigorously brushed the dusty gown.

"How's that?"

"It will do." Elena hesitated, then said, "Thank you." Marared beamed.

When Marared was finished, she took Elena's chemise to wash while Elena slipped on the borrowed gown. It was coarser than her own clothes, but loose fitting and considerably lighter and cooler. Plaiting her hair in a long braid over one shoulder, she dumped the rocks and dirt out of her boots and put them back on. She stepped into the larger room, surprised to find it empty. Marared was scrubbing her chemise in a pail on the large rough-hewn table.

"They're all outside," explained Marared. "It gets too hot in here with eleven people eating dinner. Fifteen would make it unbearable. There," she said as she rang the water out of the chemise. "I'll just hang it outside and 'twill be dry before you leave tomorrow."

Elena followed the girl outside and saw everyone gathered around a long table under a huge tree. There were two spots open on the benches that flanked the table. Marared scurried into the one next to Bryant, leaving Elena to sit next to Gareth.

As she sat, Gareth glanced at her and away and then turned back to her. She ignored him until he continued to stare. "Are you staring because I sprouted wings and a halo?" she asked sarcastically.

Gareth laughed and the sound blended with the noisy chatter and giggling of the children surrounding them. "No. I would die of shock if you did that. Now hooves and a forked tail would not surprise me..." Elena pointedly turned her attention to the wooden plate in front of her.

"We've the first berries of the season as a special treat this eve," said Catrin when they had devoured the simple meal of mutton, carrots, leeks, and barley.

"I'll fetch them, Mama," said Marared. "Elena can help me prepare them."

Elena stared at the girl in disbelief.

"Go on," said Gareth. "It won't kill you, I promise." Elena turned her stare to Gareth. She was about to utter a brusque retort when she was suddenly distracted by the color of his eyes. In the fading twilight, they were a smoky gray, full of warmth and a curious sparkle. His gaze roved over her face and to Elena, it felt like a caress, lightly touching her eyebrows, skimming along her cheekbones, and settling on her lips, light as a feather’s kiss. Her heart pounded within her breast. Her cheeks warmed and an unfamiliar warmth spread through the rest of her body as well. Without quite knowing why, she rose and without so much as a sarcastic comment, followed Marared into the cottage.

"If you'll take this bowl out, I'll clean up our mess," Marared said, indicating the pile of stems and inedible berries on the table when they were done.

Next they'll be having me empty their chamberpots, Elena thought. Except, of course, that they don't have any! As she approached the table outside, she noticed that the younger children had dispersed, but Gareth, Cynan, and Bryant were still talking with the village adults. They had lit several torches and Elena paused to study Gareth's face by the soft glow. She knew that she was invisible to them as she stood outside of the ring of light and she could observe her brusque escort unnoticed.

He was utterly handsome, she realized with a start. She had not noticed the squareness of his jaw before or the straightness of his nose, the full curve of his lips. Her gaze lingered on that full curve and she suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss those lips. He raked his dark hair off his forehead with a hand that was strong, but not coarse. Elena fancied that such a hand could grasp her tightly to him even as it gently caressed her hair and neck.

It was several moments before Elena realized that the people around the table were speaking in a strange mixture of English and Welsh. It had been years since she'd spoken Welsh, taught as she was by her Welsh grandmother. In Richard’s court, she’d hidden her Welsh background as it was even less desirable than her family’s Lancastrian ties. The garbled words slowly began to unfurl in her mind. As she concentrated, she was able to decipher many of the words.

"'Twill be before Michaelmas, I can assure you. He'll land in South Wales, but will travel north to gather soldiers. I would have us ready to greet him when he lands. Parod ac awyddus." Elena did not recognize the speaker's voice--it must be Gruffydd, she thought.

"Cymreig ar y gorsedd," said Bryant. A Cymreig is a Welsh person, Elena thought. Something about a Welshman on the throne?

"But what of his claim to the crown? Does it meet the laws of inheritance?" asked Gareth.

"Had he no ties to the royal family, I would support him over one who murders children."

"That cannot be used to justify what you plan. There has never been a shred of proof that Richard harmed his nephews in any way," Gareth argued.

"Crist trugaredd! I suppose they've just disappeared off the face of the earth, eh Gareth?" Elena had never heard Cynan speak so harshly. He had seemed a man who saw a joke in every situation. "Surely you don't believe--"

"Regardless of that," Gruffydd interrupted, "his right is as strong as Richard's. He's a descendant of John of Gaunt."

"Through his grandmother. That is not—“

"Digon!" exclaimed Cynan. "Is the fact that he's Welsh not enough to want him on the throne?"

In the silence following Cynan's outburst, Elena was sure they would hear her heart beating as it raced in her chest.

"As a matter of fact," said Gareth quietly after several moments, "it is."

Elena gasped. They were planning to help the Earl of Richmond overthrow the king! It was treason! Hearing Marared behind her, Elena quickly composed her features and carried the bowl of berries to the table, forcing her expression to careful neutrality.

Gareth studied her face as she sat down. She knew he was wondering how much she heard and whether she’d understood any of it. Elena absorbed herself in eating and did not pay attention to the noisy jests of Cynan as he teased Bryant and Marared. Scarcely tasting the ripe fruit, Elena wondered what she should do. That she must warn the king of the impending attack was obvious, although she knew he was preparing for its possibility. Perhaps if she could discover more of the Welsh plans, her information could thwart the rebellion. And a grateful Richard would no doubt be willing to reward her with the groom of her choice, would he not?

***

"Elena?" Marared whispered in the dark room. Elena was bedded down with girl and her youngest sister in the only bed in the house. Outside a fine mist of rain had started to fall and the breeze entering the small room was pungent with the smell of wet hay and wild flowers.

Elena sighed and rolled onto her back. "Hmm?"

"Do you think Bryant and I make a handsome pair?"

Silently, Elena thought that Marared would talk poor Bryant's ear off in a matter of days if they were wed, but she said, "I suppose so."

"I think so too. I dream all the time that he'll ask me to marry him before I turn seventeen. My cousin over in Newtown is already expecting her first babe and she is only ten days older." Marared was silent for several minutes and Elena was just about to drop off to sleep when the girl said, "You know what else I think?"

If I pretend I'm asleep, perhaps she'll leave me alone, Elena thought. "What?" she said.

"I think that you and Gareth make a handsome couple as well."

Elena's eyes flew open. "What?"

"You're both so attractive, you'd have beautiful children. And I think you'd look sweet with a wreath of flowers in your hair as a bride."

This is ridiculous, Elena thought. "I'm betrothed," she said flatly.

"To who?"

"To a very powerful earl."

"Oh."

Elena rolled back on her side. "What a pity," Marared continued. "From the way he looks at you, I'd say Gareth is quite taken with you." She then proceeded to fall asleep. Elena stared into the darkness for a long time, unable to sleep when minutes before she had been utterly exhausted.