A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 7

The rain-washed morning air was crisply cool. A light breeze helped dispel the pre-dawn mists and the ale-induced fog in Gareth’s head as he took deep, restorative breaths. Cynan and Bryant were mounted on a huge gray workhorse and Gareth moved to tighten the straps on Isrid's saddle. He glanced up when Elena came out of the small house and felt his loins tighten. Shrew though she may be, she was a beauty. Her cinnamon-colored hair glowed richly in the shafts of sunlight that pierced the dispersing clouds. She had plaited it in one long, fat braid that hung over her shoulder. Her creamy skin now had a healthy glow from her days spent in the saddle and thick lashes fringed her nutmeg-colored eyes. Gareth laughed under his breath. Cinnamon, cream and nutmeg? He was no doubt hungry for food, not a woman. Still…did she not have the tongue of an adder, the spice of her looks and intelligence would make her a woman to be treasured.

He watched her look around, and knew when she realized her small gray palfrey was nowhere to be found.

"Where is my horse?" she asked.

Gareth continued loading Isrid as he said, "It would never make it over the mountains we'll soon be crossing. Besides, we'll travel faster if we're all mounted."

"That still doesn't explain where my horse is."

"I traded her for this one," he jerked his chin toward the large horse on which Cynan and Bryant were mounted.

"How dare you! That animal was given to me by Queen Anne just before she died, you oaf. King Richard will hear of this, I can assure you!"

Gareth swung around. In an instant he had Elena by the arm. "I care not for the precious symbol of how prized you are by the King of England. 'Twill be a symbol of a meaningless reign before the year is out."

"Gareth!" Cynan said sharply.

Gareth glanced at his friend and flushed.

"You do mean to commit treason! You! A knight sworn to serve King Richard!"

"I am sworn to serve the crown which rules Wales and England, not the man who wears the crown."

"What is the difference?" Elena demanded.

Gareth paused. He had been struggling with the same question all night. Though he had no great fondness for Richard, and abhorred the thought of how he had obtained the crown, he had, in truth, done no harm to England. In fact, he had lifted many taxes and devised a fair and successful Council, which met once a quarter in York to keep the peace, disperse punishment, and settle disputes. Glancing from Elena's furious face to Cynan's and Bryant's wary ones, Gareth sighed. He hoped his father would be able to offer him advice on determining his loyalties.

Gareth ran his fingers through his hair and turned back to Elena. "Get on the horse. We can argue as we ride, but we are losing daylight."

"I am not going anywhere with a traitor."

"Fine. Stay here with Gruffydd and Catrin. I'm sure they'll be able to drop you at the abbey the next time they go to Llangollen for the yearly fair in six or eight months. In the meantime, I'm sure they could use you to tend the herds and help with the younger children."

Elena strode furiously to Isrid and waited to be lifted up.

"I'm so glad you decided to join us," Gareth said amiably as he took the reins and quickly mounted. When Elena continued to stare at him expectantly, Gareth leaned down and lifted her unto the saddle in front of him.

The three men waved goodbye to Gruffydd's family who had gathered around to hear the English woman argue with Gareth. With little urging, the horses broke into a spirited gallop.

"Where will you leave me?" Elena asked several minutes later.

"Despite what you may think," Gareth said, "Wales is not a Godless country. There are many abbeys and monasteries scattered throughout."

"So, where will you leave me?"

"Unfortunately," Gareth continued as if Elena had not interrupted, "Since none of us ever thought to take up the life of a holy man, we have little or no idea where the nearest abbey is."

"Couldn't you have thought to ask before we left?"

"Catrin says there is one about two days' ride south, but we cannot afford the time to ride there and back. You will simply have to enjoy our beautiful Welsh scenery until we come across one that will not delay us overlong."

"Heaven forbid you should be inconvenienced," Elena said caustically.

***

The next five days were duplicates of the one following their departure from Gruffydd and Catrin's home: they rode hard all day, stopping at night at a small village or hut where one of the men was invariably related to at least one of the occupants. As they ate, they would discuss Richard's downfalls and the merits of Richmond--the greatest of which seemed to be the former's lack of Welsh blood and the latter's abundance of it. Although Elena knew a good deal of Welsh, she did not tell Gareth and was content to let him ramble on. For some reason she could not fathom, he seemed to feel compelled to translate a carefully edited version of what they had spoken about before they went to sleep. Although she never let the three men see it, she was growing more and more disturbed by what she was learning of her sovereign.

Elena had long prided herself on her knowledge of the political games that were played at court. She knew details of Buckingham's rebellion she doubted Richard even knew, and she could recite the line of the Woodvilles--Edward IV's in-laws and a constant burr to Richard--back for two generations. But despite her time spent in court, she never knew that a majority of the churchmen who served on his governing Council were from Richard’s home in northern England and that these men had no knowledge of the workings of the rest of England. In truth, Richard placed such a greater value on the northern shires that he all but ignored the needs of the southern shires.

And, though Elena refused to mention it to Gareth or his friends, she knew that Richard had planned to marry his niece, King Edward IV's daughter, Lady Elizabeth. Elena remembered the frightened determination on Elizabeth's face that day less than a fortnight ago when Richard's entourage was attacked. A marriage between two so closely related would have been ruled incestuous by the Church, except that the clergy running the Church were undoubtedly Richard's men.

And no matter what evidence was lacking, there was always the question of Richard's two young nephews. They had not been seen since Richard's coronation and speculative rumors about their fates had been whispered even in Queen Anne's presence.

On the evening of the fifth day since leaving Gruffydd and Catrin's house a thick, wet fog set in, blanketing the forest in a swirling veil through which they could see no more than a few feet in front of them.

"Cynan!" Gareth called ahead. "Are you sure you can find the house in this fog?" he asked, referring to their day's destination.

Cynan reined his horse in until Isrid was even with it. "It can't be more than an hour away, even with this weather. I've no taste for sleeping in the fog and would have us push on."

Gareth grinned. "Still afraid Lucifer will sneak up on you?" When Cynan shot him a withering look, Gareth said, "Very well, continue, but let's hurry. I'm about to fall out of my saddle with exhaustion. It looks like Bryant's already out," gesturing at his sleeping friend whose head was resting on Cynan's back.

"Aye, he's been asleep for the past hour or so." Gareth looked down at Elena who, seated sideways in the saddle, was comfortably curled against his chest, asleep. The fog had spangled her hair with diamond droplets and Gareth resisted the temptation to touch them. Nudging Isrid on, he followed Cynan.

Cynan's estimate proved to be far short of true. Two hours later, Gareth's head kept nodding forward and he would jerk himself awake and urge the slowing Isrid on. Elena had not once awakened and even through his exhaustion, Gareth couldn't quell the tender feelings her form evoked as it pressed against him for warmth and comfort. Without realizing it, his head bent forward until it rested on the silky softness of her hair. Despite their days on the road, she still smelled fresh and clean. Like mint, he thought.

Gareth awoke with a start, realizing Isrid had finally slowed to a stop. Rubbing his eyes, he nudged his horse with his spurs. "Come on, boy. We've got to catch up to Cynan." He stared hard into the darkening fog, but could see no movement indicating Cynan was in front of him. "Cynan!" he yelled and his voice was muted and swallowed by the swirling fog.

Elena started at Gareth's shout and straightened. "Are we there yet?"

"Damn!" Gareth muttered. Glancing down at Elena he said, "No, we're not there yet."

"How much further, then?"

Gareth hesitated. "I'm not sure."

Elena turned to ask Cynan but saw only thick white mist in all directions. "Where is Cynan?"

Again, Gareth hesitated. "I'm not sure."

Elena turned back to look at him, acutely conscious despite her worry, of how close their lips were, inanely noticing the plush stubble that covered his face. "What do you mean you're not sure?"

Gareth cleared his throat. "I think I fell asleep and Isrid stopped. Cynan must have kept riding thinking I was still behind him."

"How could you do something as stupid as that?" Elena demanded.

"Perhaps I was exhausted as I've had to guide the horse for five days since you're too frightened to do it!" he shot back.

"And I suppose if I hadn't been here you would be any less exhausted?"

"No, but--" Gareth closed his mouth abruptly and quickly jumped down from the horse.

"Where are you going? Don't you dare leave me stranded on this horse alone!"

Pulling the reins over Isrid's head, Gareth glared at Elena. "Not another word do I want to hear out of you, do you understand? Not a complaint, not a whine, not even a loud breath. In fact, why don't you go back to sleep? 'Tis the only time I can be sure you won't be hollering about your comfort."

Elena silently ran through the litany of foul names she had assigned to Gareth over the past week. When Gareth pulled Isrid forward sharply, Elena quickly grabbed the horse's mane to keep from falling off. Realizing she would have an easier time riding the horse astride rather than sideways, she threw her right leg over Isrid's neck and rearranged her skirts.

Gareth led Isrid through the thick fog, trying to stay true to the direction he hoped would lead him to Cynan's uncle's small keep. In the eerie silence of the fog-shrouded woods, Elena lost all track of time. She was just about to doze off when Isrid came to an abrupt halt.

"What is it?" she whispered.

"Straight ahead, do you see it? A fire. Cynan must have realized we'd fallen behind and lit a fire hoping I'd see it. 'Tis a wonder he was able to find wood dry enough to burn."

"How can you be sure it's Cynan and Bryant?"

Gareth laughed. "How many other travelers do you think would be out on a night like this in the middle of Wales?"

Elena shrugged and held on tightly to the saddle, eagerly anticipating the warmth of a fire on her chilled fingers. In a few minutes, they entered the small clearing.

"Damn," Gareth muttered under his breath. It was not Cynan and Bryant they had stumbled upon, but four large, vile looking men sprawled around the fire. Mercenaries, Gareth thought as he spotted the motley array of armor and weapons piled haphazardly about. And drunk too, no doubt, judging from the empty wine skins lying about.

"Hoohoo, laddies! Did I not tell you, "Ask and ye shall receive?' Now we were just wishing we had a woman and here one comes to us. Led by a servant, no less."

The other three men pushed themselves us. "And a comely wench, she is."

"I've not had one that clean since I was a boy," said a third as he stood. "Come'ere, lass. Come and enjoy our hospitality."

Turning, Gareth pushed hard against Isrid. "Back! Get back!" Isrid backed a few paces but stopped when he ran into a tree. "Come on you--" A large hand on Gareth's shoulder spun him about.

"You wouldn't be meanin' to keep her all to yourself, now would you, whelp?"

Gareth looked over his shoulder at Elena. "Run!" he yelled as he swung with all his might at the man in front of him, landing a cracking blow to the man's nose. "Go on!" he yelled again as Elena stayed where she was.

Spurred to action by the urgency in his voice, Elena reached for the reins that were dangling in the mud. She screamed as one of the men grabbed them first. Twining her hands in Isrid's mane, she kicked the horse as hard as she could. Isrid reared up, nearly throwing her. Holding on to him with all the strength in her legs, Elena pulled on his head to turn him around, but a second man was grabbing for her from the right. She kicked as hard as she could, aiming at the drunken man's face and then swung Isrid back toward Gareth. He was battling the other two men, who, despite their drunkenness were moving swiftly. Though Gareth was smaller than either brute, he landed blow after blow on chin, nose, and stomach. Elena stifled a scream as the men finally organized enough to circle Gareth. One of them grabbed Gareth from behind and the other moved to deliver a crippling blow, but in a flash of movement, Gareth twisted from his captor's embrace and, as if from nowhere, a knife flashed in his hand. The meaty fist that had been aimed at Gareth now glanced off the other man's shoulder. Before the man had a chance to recover from throwing the punch, Gareth brought the knife down to land between his attacker's shoulder blades. The stabbed man fell onto his partner and the two landed on the ground. Spinning quickly, looking for other adversaries, his gaze met Elena's. Without urging, she moved Isrid around the fire. As the stunned mercenaries regained their senses and groped their way to their feet, Gareth swung up behind her. Applying his spurs harder than he ever had to Isrid's flanks, he sent the powerful horse into an immediate gallop. Elena squeezed her eyes shut as the horse easily cleared the fire and crashed through the brush on the other side.

Although he knew not which direction they were headed, Gareth kept Isrid at a full run until the horse began to tire. When he dismounted and began leading his horse, he realized that Isrid had been running up hill for the last half mile. Pausing to pat the gallant animal on the neck, Gareth looked around, noticing that the fog was almost gone at this higher elevation, replaced by bright moonlight. He continued leading Isrid, being careful to avoid rocky spots over which the tired horse might trip. Halfway up the mountain in front of them, Gareth spotted a huge cluster of rocks.

"You'll have to walk a bit," Gareth said quickly to Elena who, despite her weariness, could not close her eyes. "This mountain is very steep and I would have us get to those boulders lest your suitors decide to follow us."

Elena nodded and threw her leg over the saddle. Gareth grabbed her waist as she slid off the horse and held her up when her knees went out from under her. "I'm afraid we must hurry," he said apologetically. "Though they were drunk, those men were trained mercenaries and I fear they may still have wits enough for a chase. Do you have the strength?"

No, Elena almost said. But remembering the look on the man's face that had grabbed for her sent a burst of adrenaline coursing through her veins. "Let's go," she said.

They scrambled up the steep face of the mountain. Elena clenched her skirts above her knees with one hand as she sought for rocks to pull herself along with the other. The blood began to ring in her ears and she felt herself growing dizzy when Gareth finally stopped. He thrust Isrid into a shallow cave concealed behind several boulders and reached for Elena. In the pale moonlight that leaked through the rocks, they clung to one another, thankful to be alive, thankful to find some small comfort after their harrowing escape. After several long moments, Elena's breathing slowed, but her heart kept racing. As the fear of danger faded, she became more aware of Gareth's strong arms around her, his hard chest warm under her cheek. A shiver that was not from cold and which she had never before felt ran through her body and she slowly raised her head.

Gareth rested his cheek on Elena's wind-strewn hair. He clutched her tightly to him as harrowing thoughts of her near fate flashed through his mind. When he felt her stir, he instinctively bent his head lower and when she raised her face toward his, his lips tentatively claimed hers. Elena offered no protest, merely a soft sigh which Gareth quickly swallowed as his mouth pressed more firmly against hers.

Elena's lips parted, as if of their own accord, seeking more of Gareth's kiss. When his tongue softly traced the sensitive skin just inside her lip, Elena leaned closer to him, a low moan escaping her throat. Gareth's sensual exploration of Elena's mouth grew bolder at that sound and his arms tightened around her, pulling her closer still until their bodies were touching from head to toe.

When the kiss finally ended, Elena experienced an entirely new sensation: shyness. Gareth, too, seemed not to know how to act, and clumsily turned away and began unbuckling Isrid's saddle.

"We'd best get some rest," he said after several moments of strained silence.

"Yes," Elena said shakily. Clearing her throat, she said, "Do you have any idea where we are."

Gareth grinned ruefully. In the dim light, Elena could only see the flash of his white teeth and unwillingly hungered for another kiss. "To tell the truth, I haven't the faintest idea where we might be. I'll have to take a look tomorrow morning."

As Gareth shook out his blanket, he said, "I'm sorry, we'll have to share. Cynan and Bryant have your blanket."

Elena tried to keep her voice steady as she said, "That's alright." She did not know how she was going to sleep so close to Gareth. She silently said a prayer of thanks that it was too dark for him to see her shaking hands as she took an edge of the blanket and lowered herself onto the ground near him. As he drew close against her, trying to fit under the narrow strip of wool, all thoughts of comfort, of beautiful dresses, of his rudeness over the past weeks, of her anger at a lady of her station caught in such circumstances, all of those thoughts faded away as her lips tingled with remembrances of his kiss and recollections of his valiant fight to save her. Before she could follow those thoughts, Elena was asleep.

She awoke slowly the next morning, aware even before she opened her eyes of Gareth's arms around her, cushioning her from the hard ground and keeping her warm. When she did open her eyes, she found herself snuggled against him, her head nestled beneath his chin, her lips pressed against his skin. The musky smell of worn leather and warm skin clung to his neck and was oddly appealing. Gently lifting her head, she saw that he was still asleep, the lines of his face softened by slumber. Before she had a chance to study him, though, his eyes slowly opened and Elena stared, fascinated. She had never thought grey could be such a warm, interesting color.

"Good morning," he said, startling her out of her reverie. She quickly drew back and sat up.

"I don't suppose there's anything to eat but dried meat, again, is there?" she said, trying to sound annoyed.

Gareth smiled and rolled over to his saddlebag. "As a matter of fact, I was saving these just for such an occasion," he said as he pulled out a small package and handed it to Elena.

"What is it?"

"Open it and see."

Elena untied the string and gasped in delight. "Dried figs! " She quickly took a bite of one and closed her eyes in ecstasy. When she finished the fig and licked her fingers, she started laughing. Gareth looked at her askance as she fell back on the blanket laughing still harder. When Elena finally caught her breath, she wiped her eyes and said, "I don't even like figs!" Gareth shared her mirth for a moment until the urge to kiss her was too great. Leaning over, he silenced her laughter with a languid kiss.

She began to kiss him back, but in the light of day, she was suddenly reminded of her position, of the inappropriateness of how they had spent the night. "Don't!" she said as she pushed him away.

Embarrassed, Gareth rolled to his feet and stalked out of the small cave. What had he been thinking? he wondered as he looked into the sparse woods on the mountain, looking for any sign that they had been followed. She was still the same spoiled wretch who had tormented him for the past fortnight. Last night's kiss was simply born of relief to be alive and—

"I'll be damned," Gareth said, thoughts of Elena immediately evaporating as he looked around at the mountain range they were in. Quickly scurrying back to the cave, he said, "Gather everything up! We're not but a day's ride from my father's keep."

Elena finished her fig and slowly stood, smoothing the wrinkles from her gown. Although Gareth seemed to have forgotten what had transpired between them the night before and just moments ago, Elena could not help but remember and the memories made her feel embarrassed and awkward.

"Come on! Pack up the bag while I saddle Isrid."

Taking refuge from her embarrassment in haughtiness, Elena snapped, "I am not a stable hand and I refuse to be treated like one."

Gareth laughed. He was so glad he would be home by nightfall even Elena couldn't dampen his spirits. "Then pray, sit ye down, my lady whilst I, the noble and gallant Sir Gareth do attend your every need." With a cheerful, if tuneless, whistle, Gareth quickly packed their few belongings and saddled Isrid. Leading the horse outside he began to walk north, across the broad mountain. Elena followed several paces behind, scolding herself for being so flustered by a silly kiss. She'd been kissed before, had she not? And by far better men than lowly Sir Gareth ap-something or another. Of course, a small voice whispered in her head, not by a better kisser than Sir Gareth. The very skin behind her knees tingled when she remembered their passionate kiss of the night before. Elena watched Gareth's broad shoulders as he picked a careful path across the rocky mountainside. He was unlike any of the men she had ever been attracted to. Whereas Lord Edgeford was tall and slender, Gareth was just a few inches taller than her, and compactly built, his arms and chest bound in hard muscles. Edgeford had golden blond hair that fell in carefully placed waves: Gareth’s thick unruly dark brown hair forever seemed to be curling in the wrong direction. Edgeford's pale blue eyes gazed with tranquility on life while nothing escaped Gareth’s multi-faceted grey eyes, taking in every detail of the world around him, sparkling with curiosity. In truth Elena was not sure if she liked or scorned Gareth for those very differences.

***

By nightfall, Gareth and Elena were riding into the quiet bailey of a small stone and wood keep. Despite her weariness, Elena noticed how immaculate everything seemed, even for a keep of this size. Firewood was stacked in neat rows against one wall; the hard packed dirt around the keep was swept clean of any clutter or debris; a trim hedge encircled what looked to be a well kept garden and arbor; and the pale stone of the keep gleamed warmly in the pearly light of dusk. A guard approached them with a pine torch and cried, "Ho! Stand and be known!" Recognition dawned in his voice as he shouted over his shoulder, "'Tis Sir Gareth! He's home!" Within moments, the bailey was alive with activity. The door to the keep swung open with a loud creak and several men poured out, among them, Cynan and Bryant.

"Are we glad to see you!" said Cynan. "Did you take the scenic route?" he joked.

Helping Elena down, Bryant asked, "My lady, are you alright?"

"Yes, of course." Elena suddenly felt flustered and conspicuous with all of the people crowding around them.

"Gareth!" Gareth and Elena both turned at the booming voice behind them. An older version of Gareth was pushing his way through the small crowd. When he reached Gareth, he hugged him tightly and muttered what Elena could only guess was a Welsh prayer.

Gareth and his father spoke animatedly for several minutes before Gareth remembered Elena. Turning, he switched back to English and said, "Father, this is the Lady Elena de Vignon. I'm afraid she's our reluctant travel companion."

"Blessed St. Dafydd! You don't mean to tell me you've abducted her. I'll grant you, she's a beauty, but--"

Laughing at Elena's incredulous stare and his father's mistaken conclusions, Gareth interrupted. "You need not begin praying for my blackened soul, father. Lady Elena was traveling with King Richard when his party was attacked. She was separated from the group and we were going to escort her to an abbey or one of the border lords' keeps, but..."

"But you've forgotten every Welsh method of tracking and traveling you used to have to find them and here you are, where you least expected to be, eh?"

"In truth, this was my final destination, but I doubt the Lady Elena ever hoped to visit this far into Wales."

Turning to Elena, Gareth's father said, "Welcome, my lady, to Eyri Keep. I am Morgan ap Cyryth. I am honored to have such a fair lady in my humble home. Please come inside so you can bathe, rest and eat."

This was more like it Elena thought. She wondered why Gareth had no manners when his sire was so courtly, but she was not about to waste another moment on the son while thoughts of a bath and clean clothes were foremost on her mind. Placing her hand in Morgan's, she let him lead her into the main hall, a large room with polished wooden walls and freshly strewn rushes on the stone floors. The tables were grouped in a large U shape and each had a pitcher and several loaves of bread placed in the center. Large chairs, complete with embroidered cushions were gathered near the one large window that was open to the beauty of the summer day. The entire hall bespoke hospitality and comfort and Elena was immediately at ease. There was more grace and warmth to this hall than in Middleham, or Nottingham, or even her parents own manor.

"Enid!" Morgan yelled. A small round woman hurried across the hall.

"You needn't shout, I'm not deaf. Although if you keep yelling as such, I may soon be so," she nagged good-naturedly.

"Enid would you help dear Lady Elena be as comfortable as possible in this drafty place? Lady Elena, this is Enid, Cynan's most tolerant wife." Enid was shorter and older than Elena, but energy and efficiency radiated from her. Her black hair was pulled back from her head with a blue kerchief and fell in a lavish cascade down her back. Although she was not beautiful in the conventional sense of the word—her face being too round and her complexion too ruddy—her sparkling dark eyes and smiling mouth, along with the extravagance of her long hair combined to make her very attractive nonetheless.

Elena smiled at the woman and followed her up the staircase. "Is this your first time in Wales?" Enid asked.

"I used to visit Newport with my parents when I was younger."

"Och, south Wales is like a whole different country. I'm sure you'll like it much more up here! But tell me, how did you come to be traveling with the boys?"

Elena hesitated. Morgan had spoken to Enid familiarly, yet he had asked her to wait on Elena. Was she a servant or wasn't she? She certainly wasn't going to gossip with a serving woman, and yet she was Cynan's wife...The Welsh were a most disconcerting people, Elena thought. Without quite knowing why, Elena found herself telling Enid the entire story of their journey since leaving Middleham, even about Lady Elizabeth's flight. When the story was finished, the women chatted about English and Welsh beauty secrets as Elena bathed in a large wooden tub. Enid built a small fire for Elena to sit in front of while she dried and combed her long hair. When she was dressed in a clean kirtle, Enid made her sit while she wove her hair into an intricate knot. As Enid rambled on about everything from how she came to marry Cynan to Gareth's boyhood foibles, Elena wondered at the ease and enjoyment she felt at Enid's company. She never spoke so casually to the women in Richard's court--not even Catherine and Margaret. Remembering Marared, Bryant's cousin, Elena wondered what was so different about these Welsh women that made them so likable.

"That gown suits your coloring just so," said Enid when they were done. Elena rubbed her hands over the soft linen. It was a rich shade of cinnamon and as beautifully made as any she owned.

"My thanks for lending it to me," Elena said.

"Now, let's get you something to eat before you faint."

***

Gareth was sitting next to his father at the head table enjoying his second mug of honey mead when his eyes alighted on Elena as she descended the steps into the main hall. As she paused to glance around the crowded room, he was reminded of the first time he saw her, less than a month before. She'd been wearing velvet, he remembered, and he had been sure she wouldn't deign to speak to him. Taking a large gulp of mead, he mumbled to himself, "And she didn't!" In fact, she was rude and self absorbed. Well, she was still both of those, but perhaps tonight with no kings or earls about, she'd be more inclined to dance with him than she had that first night.

Enid guided Elena to a seat at the end of the head table, next to Bryant. Calling to one of the serving girls, she handed her Elena's empty plate and clapped her hands to make the girl hurry. Before long, Elena was stuffing herself on fish, lamb, and rough bread spread thick with butter and honey. As her hunger began to abate, Elena started listening to the conversation of the men at the table. Her command of the Welsh language was still a little rusty, but the words she did grasp told her that they were speaking of King Richard and Henry Tudor. Not again, she silently moaned. Although she and Gareth had argued heatedly over the politics of Lancaster and York--Gareth was the first man who had ever condescended to discuss politics with her-- she was heartily sick of the whole subject. Tonight she wanted to relax and enjoy the comforts of a lord's manor, even a small one such as this.

"Is something wrong, my lady?" Bryant asked politely.

"What?"

"You sighed rather mournfully. Is the food not to your liking?"

"It's quite good. Of course, sticks and mud would have tasted good after that horse hide you fed me this fortnight past," she said with a rueful smile. "Actually, I was hoping for some lighter entertainment than another discussion of political intrigue."

"Did I hear a call for lighter entertainment?" Cynan broke in. "Gareth! Show some manners for once and ask the Lady Elena to dance. She grows weary of this dull chatter." Turning to Morgan, he asked, "May I call for the musicians, sir?"

"Indeed," Morgan replied with an amused smile.

"Wake up you lazy beggars," he bellowed across the hall. "I've not seen my wife in months and I mean to dance with her right now."

Those who played instruments good-naturedly scurried to tune them while others broke down the trestle tables to make room for dancing. Cynan stalked down the reluctant Enid and dragged her to the newly created dance floor.

"A rousing tune, lads, with lots of spins and turns!"

As the musicians began playing, Gareth rose and approached Elena. "Would you care to dance, my lady?" he asked politely.

Elena glanced up in surprise; she'd been watching the dancers. Though she had seen that he had bathed and changed when she entered the hall for dinner, she only now noticed how handsome he looked. His face was freshly shaven and the ornery lock of hair temporarily smoothed out of his face. His green wool jerkin flattered the width of his shoulders and the narrowness of his waist. Elena did not allow herself to scrutinize too closely his snug woolen hose that clung to his muscular legs. "I'm rather tired. I think I'll sit this one out."

Gareth raised an eyebrow, his hand still extended to accept hers. "This is no king's court, my lady. There are no earls or earls to impress. In fact, I'm the only knight among the lot of us. Wouldn't you just like to dance and have fun for once?"

Elena thought for less than a second. "Yes, I believe I would."

Dancing had heretofore been a means of flirting to Elena. She had used it to show off her grace and poise: to allow her suitor his fill of gazing at her. Now as Gareth whirled her effortlessly about the room, she laughed with delight, enjoying the quickening music, the swirling skirts, her partner's firm grip on her hands and waist. When the dance ended and Gareth made to escort her back to her chair, she refused, making him dance again and again. When he finally begged off claiming his still-healing leg was sore, Elena forgot all manners of modesty and asked Bryant to dance. Bryant flushed beet red, but obligingly danced two more songs with her.

"Quite a spirited girl, there," Morgan noted to Gareth. "Are you sure you didn't bring her home for other reasons? There were, after all at least four abbeys between Nottingham and here."

"Would that I had known of them," Gareth said, his eyes never leaving Elena, who was with her fourth dance partner. "She was not so biddable on the road as she is on the dance floor."

Morgan glanced sideways at his son who was still watching the young woman. "And were you as biddable as you would have had her been?"

Gareth finally looked at his father. "Perhaps not," he said with a grin. Turning back to the dancers, he saw Elena making her way back to the table. Pouring her a goblet of wine, he handed it to her as she sat down.

"My thanks," she said breathlessly.

"I'm amazed you have energy enough for so much dancing after our long journey."

"But this is so much more fun than English court dancing! Bryant said they were country dances...."

Elena continued talking animatedly about the dancing, but Gareth was distracted by the high color in her cheeks and the tendrils of chestnut hair that had escaped her intricate coiffure. Her warm brown eyes and creamy complexion gave off a golden glow in the fire and torchlight. When Elena paused to take a draught of wine, the droplet left on her lip, which she dabbed away with her finger, mesmerized him. As he leaned closer to her, he caught the scent of cloves, his whole being caught in the web of her beauty and spirit.

"Don't you agree?" she asked, turning her wide eyes toward him.

"Of course," he murmured, suddenly catching himself and shaking his head to clear it of its delusions.

***

Elena sucked in a breath at the slumberous look in Gareth's eyes. She was well practiced at knowing when a man was staring at her and she knew Gareth had watched her dance the last quarter hour. She had been absurdly pleased by that fact. But now as she stared back at him, all thoughts of coquetry and flirtation, in which she was so well versed, evaporated and all she could remember was the way his lips felt as they had explored hers. When Gareth shook his head and leaned back, Elena felt as if someone had dumped a bucket of cold water on her head. Was he telling her that he would not deign to kiss her again? Telling her that, no, he did not find her as attractive as she seemed to find him? Angry with herself for romanticizing this crude Welshman and furious with him for stirring up these emotions, Elena stood and said coolly, "I believe I will retire now."

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