KNIGHT'S HONORby Roberta Gellis
Roger of Hereford had left England under a cloud. He had barely escaped being accused of treason. When he returned to Engand–having spent his time abroad in the company of Henry of Anjou, the challenger for Stephen’s throne–Hereford came with the open purpose of committing treason ... and to take Elizabeth of Chester to wife. Elizabeth was well dowered and very beautiful; she was also the daughter of Roger’s most volatile ally and might serve to keep the earl of Chester steady to the purpose of winning the throne for Henry.
Roger thought it a perfect match; Elizabeth was not so sure.
When Hereford arrived home just before the light failed in the late afternoon, frozen, soaked, and panting almost as hard as his hunting dogs, the peace of his household had not yet been broken in spite of the fact that Elizabeth was there. The atmosphere, however, had all the aspects of a brewing thunderstorm rather than a quiet and settled calm. He kissed his betrothed's hand, which had been extended rather coldly, and then her lips, although she had not offered those, and escaped to the welcome and soothing ministrations of his squires and his sisters.
At the late supper, a full meal including potage, roasts, and pasties, as Hereford had eaten nothing since his breakfast at dawn, the clouds hung even lower and he could almost hear the thunder rumble. He was tired right into his bones by the chase—they had killed five does and three stags and the stags had fought hard—but he exerted himself to soothe Elizabeth, and failed. She was perfectly polite and proper, her manners left nothing to be desired in company at any time as a matter of fact, but she was cold as the weather outside.
"What is wrong, Elizabeth?" Hereford asked, drawing her out of the circle that was listening to a tale read aloud by the chaplain after the meal.
"Wrong? Nothing. You have a beautiful home and I see that every preparation for a magnificent wedding is being made."
"Come into my chamber where we can talk. There is a fire there and comfortable chairs."
"And display further my immodesty and impropriety? I am shocked that so gently nurtured a man as yourself should put forward such a suggestion."
The sarcasm in the voice made Hereford raise his brows but told him what he wanted to know. Apparently his mother had wasted no time in expressing, in the most deferential manner, her surprise at Elizabeth's acquiescence to this hurried marriage and her hints of why the bride was so agreeable. Hereford would not have put it beyond his mother to indicate, in the politest way, that. Elizabeth had seduced him. After all, her son could do no wrong.
"Do not be so silly. I have something important to say to you—something I would prefer the others not to hear." He allowed his irritation to show on his face. "Go in, Elizabeth dear, and make yourself comfortable." The softness of his tone, however, made it plain to Elizabeth that it was not she he was annoyed with. "I will follow in a moment. I have a few words to say to my mother."
Elizabeth's rigid expression softened. It was plain that she thought Roger was going to remonstrate with Lady Hereford for being rude to her, and Roger knew what she thought and held his peace although nothing was further from the truth. It was odd, he thought, how little women understood each other. Nothing could be more disastrous to him or to Elizabeth's and Lady Hereford's future relationship than for him to intervene in Elizabeth's favor. When he reached his mother and bent over her to whisper in her ear, nothing but the physical weariness he could not hide showed on his face.
"Mamma, will you do me a favor?"
Roger sighed. "Be kind to Lady Chester. Keep her occupied; talk to her. She frets Chester unbearably and then he comes to me with his troubles. I am too tired to deal with him, and it is important to me that he be in a good humor."
"Of course I will, love. You go to bed."
"I will, but I must have a few words with Elizabeth first."
This time there was no softness in Hereford's voice and his mother was also allowed to think that his interview with his betrothed was to be rather unpleasant. Again the woman was wrong. Hereford knew Lady Mary Chester only very slightly, but he knew that her personality and ideas would be exactly what his mother liked least. If such a woman complained about Elizabeth, as Lady Chester was bound to do since she hated her stepdaughter heartily and with a certain amount of justice, Lady Hereford would rise in Elizabeth's defense. Thus Hereford's work would be done for him without his speaking a word.
He went into his chamber and sat down opposite Elizabeth, allowing his body to sag into the chair. The posture was unusual for him and drew Elizabeth's attention. She looked at him closely, really seeing him. Even in the candlelight the mauve shadows under his eyes and the grayish hollows under his cheekbones were apparent.
"Perhaps we had better leave this talk until tomorrow, Roger." Elizabeth was moved in spite of herself. "You look tired to death."
"That is kind of you, for I am sure you are curious about what Gaunt had to say." He smiled. "I will not lie to you, my very bones cry out for my bed, but it is pointless to delay. Tomorrow I shall be only a day more weary. As soon as I lie down, Elizabeth, my mind whirls with plans and dreams and I cannot sleep. You will do me a great kindness by letting me talk. Mayhap if I talk the matter out with you I will be able to rest."
Elizabeth glowed with pleasure. This was what she wanted. With an impulse wholly unplanned she went to sit on the footstool at his feet and took his hands in hers.
"I will listen to anything you wish to tell me. Take your own time."
Hereford closed his eyes. She was leaning toward him, her breasts lightly pressing against his knees and he had to fight the desire to take her in his arms. He permitted himself no more than to turn his hands so that he now held hers and could press them lightly. She was warm now and alive, but was it only for the news?
He began to relate the decisions arrived at during his stay at Painscastle, giving her without hesitation details that could ruin his plans and destroy him if they came to the wrong ears. He had no doubts about Elizabeth's loyalty or her ability to hold her tongue, and she knew some of the people involved better than he did so that she could advise him as to whether his estimates of them were correct … only Hereford did not care about that just now. The question of paramount importance to him just then was a purely personal one. He wanted Elizabeth's estimate of her own affection for him, not of other men, and the question tugged at him until his voice faltered.
"What is the matter, Roger? Can I get you something?"
It was her first interruption. Until now she had listened to him silently, her eyes almost unnaturally bright, unconsciously pressing closer as her admiration for him increased. As he talked it had become less important that he was sharing his ideas with her, more important that the ideas were his. There was more to Roger of Hereford than she had guessed. He shook his head.
"You are a woman, Elizabeth, and you know Maud. She is the weakest link in my knowledge for if I cannot fool her, she can keep Stephen and Eustace both from acting as I know they would if left to themselves. Is my reasoning right? Will she think the way I expect?"
Elizabeth's hands stiffened under his and she dropped her lids as she drew her mind from the man before her to concentrate on her knowledge of the queen. "Not completely. The very fact of all the military activity will warn her that something more is going to happen, but you can do nothing else, and if you begin long enough before Henry comes she will be forced to let Stephen protect his vassals. Certainly Radnor and Arundel should be warned to take great heed lest her spies be in their entourage."
Hereford nodded. "Radnor is no problem. He can hold his tongue and so can that babe who is his wife, surprisingly. For a girl so seemingly innocent she has a mind that amazes me sometimes."
Suddenly Elizabeth's eyes were dancing with merriment. "Yes, Lady Leah is wily as the serpent. Did you ever find out, Roger, how you fell into that quarrel with—with Lady Gertrude just before you left London to go to France?"
"Lady Gertrude?" For a moment Hereford's eyes were blank and then he did remember. He had gone to stop the Earl of Pembroke from coming to court and had been drugged and fooled. On Pembroke's evidence he could have been imprisoned as a traitor, and, in a desperate attempt to make the evidence one man's word against another, he had been about to spread a tale that he had spent the time with a woman.
Matters had been taken out of his hands, however, by Lady Gertrude, who had been his mistress briefly. In front of Elizabeth and a whole crowd of loose-tongued court hangers-on, she had accused him of infidelity, raging and weeping and reviling. The tale had spread like wildfire and Hereford, embarrassed, chagrined, and unable to defend himself, had been believed to have been illicitly disporting himself in a manner that no efforts of his own could have brought about.
"Yes. That was Lady Leah's doing. She came to me and told me of your trouble. Even I could not think of how to help, but she bid me set Lady Gertrude on to you. How we laughed; I nearly choked to death trying to look outraged while that—that whore let you have the edge of her tongue. Not that you did not deserve it in general, even though that once you were innocent. Leah told me that Radnor nearly had a fit when she described the scene to him."
Hereford had to join her laughter although he was stung. "No, I never knew. I have a score to even with her then—and with you too. Could you not warn me of what was to happen?"
Shaking with remembered merriment, Elizabeth leaned her head against Roger's knees. "Oh, no. We counted on your shock and surprise to give veracity to your dumbness, and it did. Oh, Roger, Roger, never will I forget the look on your face." She sighed and sat up again, the laughter fading. "But this other affair is no laughing matter. If any definite hint of Henry's place or time of arrival comes to her or if she finds out that Arundel is involved in it, I would not put it beyond Maud to lead an army herself or risk military disaster in Norfolk or Gloucestershire to recall Eustace or Stephen. You know what taking Henry would mean to her."
"I do know. I wish I could meet him myself, but—"
"That would be worse. Once the fighting starts, not all your vigilance will be able to exclude her spies from the mass of men surrounding you and you will be watched closer than any other. If you move any force other than your own household guard, she will know. Another thing, be careful how much you drink at the coming celebrations so that your own tongue does not wag too freely."
"Do you think I need that warning, Elizabeth?" Hereford frowned and bit his lip to prevent himself from pointing out that if she slipped a word to her father or uncle they would be far more likely to be indiscreet sober than he would be drunk.
"Every man needs that warning. When the wine flows at table, men are all children together," she retorted dryly. "I think," she added, as if reading his mind, "that perhaps it would be as well to tell my father nothing more of Henry's coming. So long as you plan to take him to Scotland with you, his interests will be well served by that exhibition of his loyalty. You must tell him something, however, or he will look for trouble. It could do no harm to confide the plans for the fighting in Gloucestershire and Norfolk to him. He will be content to stay clear of it, I believe, if he knows he is to go to Scotland, and if he does talk it will not matter too much, because you want Stephen to know you are launching that attack."
The words barely made sense to Hereford because his desire was drowning his reason with the irresistible pressure of the incoming tide. With his last bit of resistance he asked steadily, "Will you tell him, or shall I?" But then, without waiting for her reply, he rose roughly and walked away.
"I cannot bear to be so near you, Elizabeth. I am no more than a man, after all. You want of me what I cannot give. I cannot love you without desiring you. If that must lower me in your eyes to the level of a beast, then a beast I am."
Elizabeth stood up too, frightened by the change of mood. He had hidden his feelings so well that she had no hint of what was coming. An impulse to run away touched her briefly, but she was not the kind who ran away, and even if she had been, he was back beside her too quickly to have allowed her to act on it.
"Let me kiss you, Elizabeth. Let me have you. It is only six days more until our wedding. We are already betrothed—"
"If you have such a need," she gasped, "there are other women."
His eyes were almost black and glistened with the tears of his aching desire. "I do not want another woman. I am only a man, and I love you. Let me but touch you. If you are not willing I will force you no further."
Elizabeth went livid with her fear. She was only a little afraid of the act itself, having heard much both good and bad about it and seen every variety of domestic animal mate. What terrified her into near paralysis was the fact that she was willing—at least her body was willing. Her mind cried out that once she showed that willingness she would be only one more body. She would be Elizabeth no longer, no longer the companion whom a man could ask about the thoughts and temper of the queen, only another breeder of young who warmed a man's bed. Worst of all, though, was the little whisper that ran under all the thoughts telling her that the struggle was useless for once she gave in she would like it better so.
While she was frozen immovable between her strong will and her stronger craving, she lost the time in which she could have acted. Hereford pulled her hard against him, her back to his chest so that he could hold her, caress her, and press himself against her all at once. It was, perhaps, not the usual way to hold a woman, but to Roger of Hereford love was a fine art and he was not content with the usual. As long as he held Elizabeth thus, every sensitive part of her body was open to his hands while against her buttocks rose the insistent demand of his manhood.
Her lips alone he could not reach, but her lips were given often to her father, her brothers, and even for courtesy to favored male guests. He had accessible areas that were most unlikely to have been touched by other mouths, her throat, her shoulders if he could open her tunic, her ears, and the little spot just under and behind the ear lobe that had brought shudders and sighs from more women than Hereford cared to remember.
He had won many reluctant females to his will, from terrified serfs to previously faithful wives, and he was familiar with the rigid resistance that melted into uncontrollable trembling or helpless weakness. He knew too just the stage at which the trembling or weakness would change to voluptuous moans of acquiescence, only it had all been a game to Hereford previously and now he was in earnest. If by some chance he brought a woman so far in the past and she still rejected him, he might have been a little piqued but he had always known that any other woman would do just as well. Now the contrary was true; there was no substitute in the world, for him, who could take Elizabeth's place, and his recognition of that fact made him clumsy. His hands were not quite as sure as usual—he himself was trembling—and when he had brought her almost to the point of yielding his urgency robbed him of his controlled gentleness and he hurt her.
For some time Elizabeth had been leaning back against him without resistance, and he was no longer making any attempt to restrain her. He was unprepared, therefore, for the sudden desperate effort that tore her loose from his arms when that tiny, unexpected pain woke her from her sensual trance. The thrust carried her some three feet away and she faced him; both were panting, both trembling. Roger raged inwardly at his own stupidity. It was too soon for pain; that would come later when every aspect of gentler pleasure had been often savored. He moved slowly, cautiously, to his left to block the path to the door.
"Roger, do not—" Elizabeth faltered, with a pathetic attempt to keep her voice from openly pleading, "you said you would not force me."
"If you were unwilling! You cannot lie to me. I care not what your mouth says, your eyes, your hands, everything, tells me different. Elizabeth …"
He came toward her, his gait a little stiff because he dared not move quickly for fear he would stampede her into flight. He could have rushed her; she would not run, now or ever, from him or anyone else.
"Perhaps you are right, Roger," she whispered, "but do not make me do this. Do not take my maidenhead from me before my wedding. Do not break my pride."
Pride, it was what he loved in her, what made her different from other women; he would not touch her pride. "Then tell me you are willing. Let me hear you say you love me and you want me and I will let you be. It is not easy for me to let you go—give me something."
What he asked of her was far more difficult, however, a greater blow to her pride than physical yielding. Unwittingly he had twisted a knife in a bleeding wound. Elizabeth's eyes were suddenly as alight as the golden flames leaping in the hearth.
"Yes, I am willing. Because I am sinful, because my will is not as strong as my lust, therefore I am willing. You will rule my body, I see it. No matter how I struggle, you always win because my lust answers yours. I cannot help it. Only remember that my soul is not willing, and when you have your desire of me the more eager I seem the more I will hate you, and myself, and the tie that binds us."
Hereford looked at her helplessly. "Elizabeth," he protested, "Elizabeth." But he was drained of strength and even of will, and he let her go, hurt more deeply than he realized himself.