A Dishonorable Knight
Author:Morrison, Michelle

Chapter 9

When they were gone, Bronwen stared at Gareth, awaiting an explanation. When none was forthcoming, she prodded, "Well, aren't you going to explain that little display of temper?"

Although he and Bronwen had been friends since they were children, the one trait Bronwen had that never ceased to annoy Gareth was her ability to sound like a nosy mother hen. She was doing that exact impression now.

"What display of temper?" Gareth asked, feigning ignorance.

"You're quite taken with her. It's written all over your face."

"What? Oh don't be ridiculous, Bronwen," Gareth started to turn away but Bronwen caught his shoulder.

"You are! You're in love with her, admit it."

Gareth ground his teeth in anger. Lowering his voice he said crudely, "The only thing I'm taken with is her body. I find it quite irresistible. But since I'm sure she would like to go to her marriage bed with her maidenhead intact, I guess I'll just have to--" Bronwen's slap prevented any further words.

Her blue eyes flashing with anger, Bronwen said, "I can still thrash you, Gareth ap Morgan. Don't think I can't. And after what you just said, you soundly deserve it." Bronwen took a deep breath and stared at Gareth's flushed face. "But since I also know that in your heart you didn't mean it, I'll pretend you didn't say it." She turned to leave but paused. "Just don't treat her so again, Gareth. It does you no honor."

Gareth watched Bronwen approach Elena and speak with her for a few moments. The two women then turned and went up the stairs. Gareth took a big swallow of ale.

Where had Bronwen come up with the insane notion that he was in love with Elena? He could barely tolerate her presence; she was always whining about her clothes, the quality of the food, the hardness of her saddle...Gareth paused. Now that he thought of it, he could not recall Elena complaining once since they reached Eyri Keep. And if he was truthful with himself, he had enjoyed her company today until he had tried to kiss her. Gareth cringed inwardly as he relived Elena's outraged rebuffs. Would he never learn? he thought. Taken by her angelic looks and occasional good humor, could he never remember that she was a spiteful, self-centered woman who considered him nothing more than a lackey? That she haunted his dreams nightly; that he could not get her scent out of his mind; that his lips were forever remembering the softness of hers simply meant that he had been too long without a woman--a situation he could and would easily rectify.

And when his father left for Aberystwyth the following week to meet with Henry's supporters, he would take a short detour to drop Elena at the abbey at Dinas Mawddwy and then rejoin his father at the meeting of Welsh lords. She would be safe there and he would be able to get her out of his mind once and for all!

As he reviewed his plan with a self-satisfied smirk, a small voice niggled the back of his brain. Though he tried to ignore it, he could not help but hear its cry that though Elena might not always act a lady, his own actions were not above reproach. Gareth shook his head in confusion as he remembered cruel taunts and boorish behavior. Never had he acted so towards a lady of rank. Toward any lady, for that matter. He had always extended his knightly vows of chivalry and courtesy to all women, servant and noble alike. Why now was he treating Elena so rudely? Could his cousin Bronwen be right? Was he in love with the Englishwoman? If so, how could that be?

“Now that is a face of a man with an empty ale pot!”

Gareth looked up and smiled as his father joined him at the table. Glancing in his mug, he realized it was indeed empty. Thankful for the excuse, he waggled the mug at his father. “Two years I’ve been gone and I can’t get another pint?”

“Well if we’re celebrating your being home, we shouldn’t drink this swill,” Morgan said, pushing his own mug away. Gesturing for a servant, he asked for something Gareth couldn’t quite hear before turning back to his son.

“What think you of the new fields we’ve plowed? I’m thinking the drainage will be better for the barley.”

Gareth grinned. There was nothing more important to his father than the land and even with a possible war on the horizon; his crops would always take precedence in Morgan’s life. “They look well thought out. I’d wager you can’t wait for colder weather to plant.”

Morgan chuckled. “All in good time, all in good time.”

The servant arrived with a bottle of golden liquid and two clean mugs.

“Don’t say you’re going to share your mead with me. You only ever save that important guests.”

“And who’s more important than my prodigal son, I say?” his father asked as he carefully peeled the wax from the cork and opened the bottle. The fragrant scent of honey reached Gareth’s nose as his father poured a generous mugful. He had only ever had his father’s rather famous mead twice before—and those on momentous occasions such as funerals or grand assemblies. He let the fumes fill his nose before taking a sip. The mead was smooth and rich, slipping past his tongue sensuously. The bite of liquor came after he swallowed, letting him know that if he drank more than a cup or two, he might find himself waking up under a table or in some maid’s bed. He took another sip and considered the second option would not be so bad, especially as it would help distract his mind from Elena.

His father spent several minutes inspecting the color of his wine, assessing it’s bouquet and rolling it about on his tongue before declaring, “Not a bad batch, if I do say so myself.”

Morgan went on to bring Gareth up to date on the changes he’d make to the breeding stock, the walls he’d had repaired around the fields and any number of other grounds keeping details he could remember (and he remembered them all). Gareth knew it was pointless to remind his father that he had chosen his path as a knight, not a land steward. Morgan believed that once Gareth had exorcised his obsession with “swordplay and jousts,” he would return to his birthright as a minor Welsh lord. In truth, Gareth knew he could not spend all of his days as another man’s knight—the body could only withstand so many years of that abuse. He just anticipated that his permanent return to Eyri Keep would be much further off than Morgan was counting on.

By the time Gareth reached the bottom of his mug, his head was pleasantly fuzzy and his father was just finishing his description of the last quarter’s Rent Day.

“How did you and Mother meet?” Gareth had no idea where the question had come from. The last sip of mead, he suspected.

Morgan stopped speaking abruptly, glancing at his son in surprise. “Where on God’s earth did that question come from?”

Gareth felt his neck warm. He affected a nonchalant shrug. “Just curious. I don’t think I ever heard you say.”

Morgan took a deep pull of his mead and stared off into the distance, a wry grin on his face. “We knew each other since we were young. She lived just the other side of yon hill,” he said with a jerk of his chin to the north.

Gareth nodded his head. Of course they’d known each other for years. Probably grew up loving each other and knowing what their future held.

“Hated me on first sight, she did.”

“What?” Gareth asked.

Morgan smiled and refilled both their mugs. “Oh yes. Found me insufferable, I don’t doubt. I was very full of myself, especially as I became a young man. I was convinced I was the best thing to happen to Eyri Keep and the lucky ladies of Wales. She, of course, would have nothing to do with such a conceited ass. At first, it didn’t bother me for there were so many other accommodating lasses about, you know?”

Gareth smiled and shook his head in mock reproach.

“But after a while, it irked me that she didn’t think I was as wonderful as I thought I was. I decided to change her mind.”

“Won her over, did you?”

“Tcha! No. She hated me even worse then. Told me she wouldn’t have aught to do with me was I the last man in Wales. Two years her abuse went on. Why, she even went and betrothed herself to another man!”

“Truly?” Gareth was amazed. He’d never heard the story and was a little ashamed that it never occurred to him to ask.

“As true as I’m sitting here. Of course by that time, I was head over heels for her. And it wasn’t just because she wouldn’t have me. She was a fine young woman. Beautiful, of course, but smart as a whip, too. She could manage people sweet as you please. She had the skills of a healer from her grandmother, and the cunning of a general. Why this one time—ah, but that’s a story for another time.”

Gareth was about to protest that he wanted to hear it, but curiosity at how his father turned his mother from enemy to ally was all consuming.

“So how did you sway her?”

“Humbled myself. Took a sack of grain and half a dozen sheep over the hill to her house. Told her they were an early wedding present. She thanked me but I could see suspicion in her eyes. So then I told her how I’d been a right stupid ass for most of my life and that she was no doubt smart to marry another man, but that I’d loved her for nigh on two years and suspected I would for another two hundred. I didn’t expect her to do anything about it. Well, perhaps I did, but I pretended I was noble, at least. I finished by telling her I wished only for her complete happiness in life and that if she ever had need of me, she only need send word and I would cross a continent to aid her.”

Gareth whistled low between his teeth. “And then what happened?”

Morgan’s smile turned wily and he drained his mug of mead before answering. “I heard the next week that she had ended her betrothal. When I ran into her a few months later at the Michaelmas feast, we talked as if we’d been best friends from the cradle. We were wed by St. Catherine’s Day.”

Gareth frowned. “So a sack of grain and some livestock changed her mind?”

Morgan slapped him on the back of his head. “A son of mine should be better able to hold his liquor. No, a few gifts did not buy your mother’s affection, ye fool. But hatred and passion are both strong emotions, you see. Two sides of the same coin, if you will. In fact, sometimes they can be confused for one another. And if that’s the case, it may only take one person to flip that coin, even just the once, for the passion to take over.”

Gareth shook his head when his father made to refill his mug. He wanted what wits he had left to mull over his father’s words.

Morgan, evidently unaffected by the potent wine, eyed his son closely. “So, be there a lass whose hatred need be flipped to passion?”

“What? No! Why would you even ask that?”

“Twenty-five years you’ve been my son and this is the first time you think to ask how your mother and I fell in love. Surely something has prompted such a question.”

“No!” Gareth repeated defensively. “I—that is, I’ve thought about it before, but I haven’t been home in a few years and before that…”

“Mmmmm,” Morgan said, and promptly buried his nose in his mug. “Well, if you convince yourself of that long enough, you may find yourself years down the road wondering if you passed a grand passion by for fear that it was just hostility.” With that, Gareth’s father stood and walked a perfectly straight line to the stairs.

Gareth rested his wobbly head in his hands and told himself that his situation was nothing like his father’s had been. He and Elena were from two different worlds; had completely different wants out of life. Why she—Gareth paused in mid-thought. An image of Elena, gazing at the mountains earlier today, a look of utter contentment on her face as she described how being in Wales made her feel filled his vision. He shook his head, reminding himself for the hundredth time of all the insults she had cast at him, the way she had care for only her own comfort, the plans she had for advancing herself at court.

A young serving woman walked by and smiled at him coyly. No, Gareth decided. There was a simple explanation for his malaise. And he was going to remedy the problem tonight. Setting down his mug of ale, he followed the swishing skirts of the serving woman.