A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 8

Elena avoided Gareth as much as possible over the next few days and Elena passed much of her time with Cynan's wife, Enid, discussing everything from mundane matters to her dreaded fiancee. As she talked with Enid, she discovered that more and more of the Welsh she had learned as a child came back to her.

"I am amazed how quickly you've learned our language," Enid said ten days after Elena and Gareth had arrived at Eyri Keep.

Elena laughed and put down her embroidery. "I told you, I used to visit south Wales with my parents every summer when I was a child."

"I know, but 'twas a long time ago. Surely you could not remember all you learned. Most English--" Enid laughed--"and Normans and French, and everyone else, think that Welsh is a horribly complicated language to learn and complain most bitterly about it. They say they cannot keep straight our pronunciations or words."

"'Tis no different than keeping household lines straight, I think. For some reason I can keep straight the lineages of most royal families. I just see this neat order in my mind of who married whom and the children they had. 'Tis the same for me for languages. I just seem to see the language in my mind. It becomes quite easy after that."

"You can read, then, can you?"

"I can. As an only child I quickly found I could bend my father's will to nearly anything I wanted. I decided I wanted to learn to read when I was six and he was unable to refuse."

"'Tis amazing. I think Cynan would give me most anything I asked, but he would draw the line at teaching me things like reading or politics." Over Elena's shoulder, Enid saw Gareth enter the room.

"I suppose I am a bit spoiled as a result of my father's indulgence," Elena explained, unaware anyone but Enid was listening, "but what else have women to look forward to? I'll not accept being told what to do and where to go. If that makes me spoiled and spiteful, so be it," she finished with a shrug.

"Don't let Earl Brackley, hear you talking so," said Gareth with a laugh as he crossed the room and leaned against the empty fireplace. "He'll be calling off the wedding if he finds out you're not as sweet and biddable as you look. He'll--" Gareth froze at Elena’s expression. It had been days since she’d thought of the crude earl…her fiancée. Caught off guard as she was, she was unable to school her features into careful nonchalance and she felt her eyes widen, physically felt the blood drain from her cheeks. As she stared at Gareth, she saw him chew his upper lip, watched his brows draw together as he realized that his teasing comment had been a terrible reminder. He glanced to Enid for help, but she was glaring at him, undoubtedly cursing him for his stupidity. Despite the jolt his words had caused her, Elena felt a small smile curve her lips at Enid’s scowl and Gareth’s obvious worry. Clearly hoping to distract Elena from his faux pas, he said, "I've come to ask if you ladies would care to go for a ride. 'Tis a beautiful day and the mountains are full of wild flowers."

"I've got to finish this tunic before Morgan travels to Aberystwyth next week. But do take Elena. 'Tis not right that we work our guest so. Look at the beautiful stitching she has done on the cuffs."

Gareth complimented Elena's handiwork as he took her limp hand in his and pulled her to her feet. "You could definitely use some fresh air," he said.

Once they were outside on horses, Elena turned to Gareth and said, "I must get back to England as soon as possible. I cannot marry that man! I have to convince King Richard of that fact. But everyday I am away from court is one more day preparations will be made!"

"Perhaps you should stay away from Richard's court indefinitely. He's had no word from you since the attack on the journey to Nottingham. Perhaps he'll think you're dead and the fat earl will marry someone else."

"And what will I do instead? Live in an isolated Welsh keep wearing borrowed gowns? I think not."

"There are worse things that could happen," Gareth said tightly, refusing to meet her gaze.

"No, I must return to Richard's court."

"If there is a court to return to," Gareth said in Welsh.

"Why would there not be?" Elena asked, also in Welsh.

"Since when do you speak our language?"

"Since I was a child. Enid has been refreshing my memory."

“Did you not think it something you should mention before now?”

Gareth gnawed his upper lip and Elena knew he thought of all the conversations Elena had heard at dinner between he and his father concerning Henry Tudor.

“I only remembered a few words until Enid and I began talking. It didn’t seem important,” she lied, though she was not sure why.

Suddenly loathe to turn his thoughts to worrisome matters of state on such a beautiful day, she cast about for a topic that might distract him.

"What of your mother?" she asked.

"My mother?"

"Yes. Where is she?"

"She died giving birth to me."

Elena frowned. That news was given to expectant fathers near as much as "'Tis a healthy boy," or "You've a beautiful girl."

"I'm sorry," she said.

"'Twas quite a while ago. I've had as few years to get over it,” he joked lamely.

They did not speak for several minutes as their horses climbed to a peak overlooking the shallow valley in which Eyri Keep lay. Sheep dotted the green fields around the keep and the air was filled with the sweet smell of evergreen trees and sun-warmed grass. Though it was high summer, the tallest peaks to the north were still capped with snow as white as the clouds which dotted the crisp, brilliant blue sky. The valley below was lush with hundreds of shades of green from the palest yellow-green of the birch trees, to the blue-green of spruce and the deepest emerald of the mosses and ferns. At the mouth of the valley, rippling fields of wheat rippled in the balmy breeze that came off the foothills.

Elena felt Gareth’s gaze on her. She turned as he asked, "What are you thinking?"

"Wales is a strange place," she answered without thinking.

"What do you mean?" he asked his voice sharpening in defensiveness.

"It affects me strangely. I've never really cared about my surroundings but now I can't stand to be inside for more than a few hours. I have to come outside and just look. It's like..." Her voice faded and she shrugged. "I can't explain it."

"We call it Cymrectod."

Elena searched her mind for that word. "I don't know what that means."

"It is the intense feeling all Welsh have for this land. Are you sure you have no Welsh relatives? Perhaps you are Cymraes, after all."

"A Welshwoman? No. I am English."

"English by birth, perhaps, but Welsh by spirit."

"How you do talk in riddles," she said with edginess in her voice. She did in fact have a grandmother who was Welsh--the reason she and her family had visited south Wales for five summers as a child. But being Welsh was not something to boast of in Richard's court and Elena had carefully forgotten her Welsh grandmother. Nudging her horse, she led the way up the narrow path that zigzagged up the mountain. Nearly an hour later, they reached a wide plateau at the peak. Gareth dismounted and helped Elena down. He quickly removed the horses’ saddles and let them graze freely.

"Shouldn't you tether them?" Elena asked.

"Isrid will not go anywhere and the other horse is too timid to go anywhere alone. She will stay with Isrid."

Elena nodded as she raised her arms over her head and stretched. The sun was warm on her face, but a cool breeze kept it from becoming hot. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths of the invigorating air. This is heavenly, she thought. I wish I could just live on this mountain and sleep outside under the stars. Elena opened her eyes and dropped her arms abruptly. Where on earth had that thought come from, she wondered. What of her comfortable chamber at Eyri Keep? What of the glittering beauty of Richard's court with men and women alike bedecked in rich velvets and satins, jewels on every finger, entwined in ladies' hair. Music playing softly, candles glowing. Turning to watch Gareth as he climbed atop a huge boulder, she thought, perhaps my Welsh blood is awakening. The idea was vaguely disconcerting. She did not wish to examine the feeling too deeply.

Seeking to distract herself, she called him. "Gareth?"

Gareth smiled down at her from his perch on the boulder where he had been reveling in the peace of the day. She realized she had never called him by his given name, had, in fact, avoided calling him anything at all. "Hmm?"

"Why do you support the Earl of Richmond's claim to England?"

Gareth's smile faded. He jumped down from the rock and approached her.

"Have you ever heard of Llewelyn ab Iorweth or Owain Glyn Dwr?"

Elena frowned in concentration. "They were rebels, were they not?"

Gareth rolled his eyes and sighed. "That is the English version of history, I am sure. They were Welsh princes who both sought to free Wales from foreign rule. Llewelyn in the early thirteenth century, Owain in the fourteenth. Since the days of the Norman Conqueror, William the Bastard, there is scarce a Welshman alive who does not dream of a free Wales."

"What has this to do with Richmond? Surely you can't think he would give up Wales simply because you would help him gain the throne?"

"Of course not. I said we dream of a free Wales. But besides being dreamers, we Welsh are practical. We've not the arms or soldiers to fight off England again. But since we cannot be free of England, the next best thing is to have a Welsh king on the throne. Henry Tudor is Welsh and we would have him rule us rather than Richard of York."

Elena pictured the line of Edward III's descendants as she had described to Enid. Richmond was only distantly related to the Lancasters through a succession of marriages, his mother being great granddaughter to John of Gaunt, earl of Lancaster. “His claim to the throne is shaky."

"And Richard's is not?"

Elena ran through the English line again. "He can claim relation to Lionel, Edward III's second son, as well as the Yorks."

"Henry Tudor is still Welsh."

"And that's all that matters to you?"

"It is the most important quality of many. He is our mab darogan--our son of prophecy. And he has sent a letter to those who support him here in Wales assuring us that he will right the wrongs Richard has caused the Welsh. My father showed me this letter and it has decided me."

Elena opened her mouth to defend Richard, but quickly shut it again. There were too many arguments against King Richard, not the least of which was the suspicion of his part in his nephew's deaths. "Is that why you only refer to him by his Welsh last name instead of his English title, Earl of Richmond?"

"I suppose so," Gareth answered slowly. Changing the subject he said, "I wasn't aware that Richard had begun tutoring the ladies of his court. I have met few English women who were so interested in politics. How came you to be familiar with the affairs surrounding the crown of England?"

"I'm actually not the least bit interested in any of it. I simply have this annoying ability to remember in detail little bits of history I've picked up since I was a child. I guess my father thought it amusing that his six year old daughter could rattle off the dates of every King of England's reign."

"And you're not the least bit interested, eh?"

Elena smiled in spite of herself. "Well perhaps, just a little interested. But only because it's such a forbidden topic for women to discuss."

Gareth laughed. "And is the forbidden fruit that much sweeter?"

"Not really. As I've discovered, politics can be dreadfully boring. Now planning a new dress, that is interesting."

Gareth laughed again. Suddenly he leaned over and kissed her. For a brief moment she leaned into the kiss and her lips opened softly. The next instant she pulled back abruptly.

"I told you once not to do that to me," she said forcefully.

"Ah yes, I forgot,” he said, his voice brusque with anger. “A mere Welsh knight should not reach so above himself as to kiss the future wife of so threatening a man as the earl of Brackley. Heaven knows who he'd blame or what his punishment would be. Thank you for reminding me." Turning abruptly, he quickly gathered their horses. Elena remained rooted in the same spot, staring at an eagle as it circled the sky. After a few moments, he fetched their horses and lifted her to the saddle.

While the ride up had been accompanied by a comfortable, friendly silence, the trip back down the mountain might have been that of a condemned man's march to his execution.

Elena sat limply in the saddle, once again thinking of her fiancée, though in truth, her fear of her betrothed's fists occupied her thoughts for a short time only. The majority of the return trip, her mind was plagued with thoughts of Gareth. Though she'd pushed him away two times, her lips had burned for his kisses. But how could this be? she asked herself. He was the exact opposite of everything she looked for in a man. She doubted he had not a sheep to his name, much less property or a title. Years before when she had accompanied her mother to Edward IV's court, she had been amazed at the beauty of a formal court. The elegant men and women, the beautiful clothes, the courtly manners. In particular, she was taken with a beautiful woman with rich brown hair and sparkling jewels. Elena never learned who she was, but for two days, she watched as the woman enchanted every man in Edward's court. Elena saw her receive a ruby ring, a handkerchief of fine Venetian linen, a precious crystal bottle of cologne, and more attention than anyone else. Still a child, Elena had decided that she would someday lead that very life. She wanted the prestige, the glamour. An only child, she had never lacked for attention, but doting parents could hardly compare to gallant lords.

Now she was dreadfully confused. Gareth was none of these things, could give her none of these things. Why, then, did her mind constantly replay their kiss of the night they had escaped the mercenaries? Why did she wake up in the morning with her face pressed to a pillow, disappointed that it was not Gareth's warm throat, disappointed that the covers smelled like linen and not leather and sweat, disappointed that a rough blanket had kept her warm instead of his arms? Nothing could come of it. Nothing should come of it, she told herself sharply, but Elena could still not get him out of her mind.

When they returned, the small bailey of the keep was full of people. Women were chattering, children were running about screaming and laughing while a motley assortment of hounds chased them, and men were talking animatedly.

"What's going on?" Elena asked, breaking their strained silence for the first time since the mountaintop.

Gareth stood up in his stirrups to get a better view. "'Tis my kinsmen Owain and Rhys! They live on Anglesey. Seems they've come for a visit and brought three large deer with them. There will be fresh venison tonight," he said with a laugh. Quickly dismounting, he waded through the throng of people. Elena leaned sideways to see him heartily embracing his cousins. She was about to try to slide off her horse when she heard Gareth cry "Bronwen!" She sought him out, only to see him enthusiastically kissing a woman with the blackest hair Elena had ever seen. Seething jealousy poured unexpectedly through Elena's veins. Had he called for her so she could see this vulgar display? Twisting in the saddle, she lowered herself ungracefully to the ground and stalked toward the main door.

She had just reached the lower step when someone touched her elbow. Turning Elena looked up into deep blue eyes heavily fringed with thick black lashes that matched the shock of silky hair and trim beard of one of the handsomest men she had ever seen.

"Hello. What have we here, Gareth?" the man said in a deep voice tinged with humor.

Gareth’s good humor seemed to evaporate, as he stiffly obliged with introductions. "Rhys, may I present the Lady Elena de Vignon a visitor from England. Lady Elena, my cousin, Rhys Thomas, and his brother, Owain."

Elena smiled beguilingly when Rhys bent low over her hand and murmured, "I am enchanted, my lady. May I say how fortunate Wales is to have you in its borders." Rhys's older brother, Owain, simply nodded a brief greeting before turning back to his conversation with Morgan. Gareth was aware that Rhys had not relinquished her hand as he turned and pulled the dark-haired woman forward. "Lady Elena, this is my sister Bronwen."

The black hair and blue eyes that were so striking on Rhys were equally attractive on his sister who was looking at her brother with a look of mock disgust. Turning to Elena she smiled. "Please forgive my brother, Lady Elena, I fear the sun has been too much for him and his brain is a bit addled." Elena appeared to be translating the rapid Welsh in her head. As soon as she did, she realized that Bronwen was joking.

With a laugh, she said, "Would that more Englishmen were as addled!"

Everyone but Gareth laughed. Taking Bronwen's arm, he said, "You're not married yet, are you Bronwen? You've not forgotten you vowed to wed me should I remain single by my twenty-fifth year. As I recall, that should be coming up in a few months, is that not right, father?" Laughing, he and Bronwen entered the main hall behind Morgan.

***

The feast was a merry one, rivaling that of the night of Gareth's return. Musicians played rollicking dances, wine and ale flowed freely, and Elena was reveling in the attention paid by the handsome Rhys. In spite of herself, she also found she truly like Rhys's sister Bronwen. Though they had spent little time talking, Elena felt a kinship for the Welshwoman she had scarce felt for any of her friends in Richard's court.

As she waited for Rhys to bring her a goblet of spiced wine, Elena let her eyes roam around the crowded hall. When she spotted Gareth whispering in Bronwen's ear she frowned. The man was making a fool of himself, she thought. In their few minutes of conversation, Brownen had told her that she was hoping to wed a man from Beaumaris in Anglesey. Now Gareth was undoubtedly annoying the poor woman and acting, Elena felt, most unchivalrously toward a nearly betrothed woman. That she could think of nothing but the "unchivalrous" way he had acted towards her, a legally betrothed woman did not strike her as odd. When Rhys returned and presented the goblet with a flourish, Elena could not help but asking, "Should we rescue your sister? She looks to be tediously bored with Sir Gareth's attention." At Rhys's enigmatic smile, she hurriedly added, "Having been subjected to conversation with him, I can well sympathize."

"Then by all means," he said, and Elena could not but wonder if he weren't silently laughing at her, "let us go and save my dear sister. Although I must warn you, she may not wish to be saved. She's near an accomplished flirt as I am." Taking Elena's arm, he led her towards Gareth and Bronwen.

Elena immediately felt foolish. "Oh. Then perhaps we'd best leave them be. Shall we dance?"

"No, no. It will be most entertaining, I assure you, to further annoy Gareth."

Elena was prevented from arguing as they approached the couple and Rhys said, "You're not saying anything that would force me to defend my sister's honor, are you good cousin?"

Gareth's eyes strayed to Elena who quickly lowered her eyes and feigned absorption in pushing back the cuticle of her left thumb. "Not that you're half man enough to take me on," he said with a laugh, "but no, I'm merely trying to convince your sister she'd be miserable married to old Dylan ap Gruffydd. Don't you think she should stay here and marry me?"

"Now wait a moment," Bronwen protested in mock indignation. "Dylan is not old, he's mature. Perhaps if you weren't such a whelp yourself, I'd be inclined to consider your offer. As it is, I'm afraid you're just no match for Dylan." Bronwen shook her head and put on a sickeningly sweet dreamy face. Elena could not help joining in the men's laughter at Bronwen's theatrics.

When he caught his breath, Rhys said to Gareth, "Perhaps I'll have more luck convincing the same of Lady Elena." He cocked an eyebrow at Elena and said, "What say you, my lady? Care for a life of adventure?"

Elena laughed and was about to respond with an equally flirtations answer when Gareth cut her off.

"Sorry, Rhys, you've neither wealth nor a title to woo her with. The Lady Elena is already engaged to a rich English earl."

While Rhys pretended to be crushed, staggering about clutching his heart, Elena glared at Gareth and prayed more fervently than she ever had that he would drop dead on the spot. Gareth returned her scowl

Bronwen watched Elena and Gareth speculatively. "Rhys!" she called trying to distract him from his antics. "Why don't you console your breaking heart by dancing with Elena."

"Oh very well. If that is the most I can--" at the pointed look from his sister, he shut up and gently took Elena's arm.