Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 11 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

When Henry stopped, he twisted in his saddle, holding Danielle's hands as he did so. As he suspected, she had fallen asleep. He hated to wake her, but they had so much they needed to talk about and he wanted to do it before they returned to Hautefort where they would be closely observed.

He gently woke her up, "Danielle, wake up." She came awake and smiled sleepily at him. "Are you steady, my love? I'm going to dismount."

"Yes, I'm ready," she smiled.

He dismounted and turned around to help her. He lowered her gently to the ground, glorying in having her here with him.

"I thought Amboise was the perfect place for us to discuss all that has occurred since the last time we met here," Henry explained.

Henry took Danielle by the hand and led her into the ruins so they could have some privacy. "The last time we were here, you had something you wanted to tell me, but I was so excited about sharing what I wanted to say that I was too impatient to allow you to go first. Would you like to tell me now? Or, would you prefer me to tell you what I now know, and then you can tell me anything that I have missed?"

Relieved that he wasn't going to make her speak first she said, "You first, please."

Taking a deep breath he began, "Very well. The first time we were here," he motioned to the ruins, "I was so focused on trying to explain how I was feeling and how excited I was that you apparently lost your resolve to tell me what you had come here for. When I kissed you and you recoiled from my touch and ran away I was very hurt and confused. I should have followed you immediately, I realized later. You never act the way I expect," he chuckled. "After you left I went home to Hautefort. My mother told me that she had finally tracked down my elusive comtesse. The Baroness had told her that Comtesse Nicole de Lancret was her cousin. She said that you were engaged to a Belgian and sailing that afternoon. I thought that explained your distress, but I wanted to talk to you before you left. I didn't want to accept that you had chosen someone else over me. I went to the Baroness' house to find you that afternoon. She told me that you had already left, as soon as you had returned from your solitary walk to say farewell to 'France'."

"Oh, no, that isn't true," Danielle interrupted him.

Henry put a finger on her lips. "I know now that it wasn't true, but she convinced me that you had been engaged since you were children and were attached to each other. I had a ship ready to chase you, all the way to Belgium, if necessary. After speaking with the Baroness and seeing that 'your' room was empty I believed that you had chosen your Belgian fiancé over me." Danielle was shaking her head, but she didn't interrupt. "My emotions have been so off-balance. When you unexpectedly showed up at the masque I was ecstatic. I thought you must have changed your mind and come back to me... I know now that I should have listened to you when you said you needed to speak with me 'now, before another word is spoken.' I'm sorry, but I had no idea 'twas so important. When the Baroness unmasked you and you admitted you were 'what she says,' I felt so betrayed. You had lied to me and I was furious."

Danielle looked away, ashamed of what she had done, how she had hurt him.

"Your last words to me, 'I can explain, Henry, please' have tortured me for weeks, as I imagine mine to you did also. I knew you were not really 'just like them,' but it took until I had calmed down to realize it. Leonardo castigated me, telling me I didn't deserve you. He was right. I decided to follow you so that you could try to explain. It had started to rain and I realized that I was soaked through. I was also worrying about you running off without a cloak and presumably without a carriage. I told Laurent we were going after you and to get the horses ready. I went to change and grab two cloaks. On my way to meet Laurent, Jacqueline stopped me, telling me that you were her step-sister, and of the whipping and you being locked in the root cellar. I went in search of you. When we didn't come across you on the road we assumed you had arrived home before us. The servants told us you were not home, but after having been told that the day before I insisted on searching. We searched the house from attic to cellar and all of the outbuildings," at this point Danielle began crying softly. "What is it?"

"I didn't think you were looking for me," she said shakily.

He took her hands in his. "Yes, Danielle, I was. Within an hour of you leaving we were on the road looking for you. When we didn't find you, Laurent went back to gather a full search party and I went to see Gustave, who joined us in the search. We backtracked to Hautefort, checking places where you might have stopped for cover from the rain. By the next day I was going mad trying to figure out how you had simply vanished." He dropped her hands. Running his hands through his hair, he continued. "Believe it or not, this is where it gets worse. A few of the men reported to Laurent that they had heard reports of an angel flying or jumping off of the bridge the night of the masque. Laurent had the bridge searched for any clue that you might have been there. They found a scrap of fabric from your gown on the edge of the bridge. When Laurent showed me the scrap and told me of the reports, I refused to believe it was possible. You are such an optimistic person. I couldn't believe that I had destroyed in a few days what the Baroness hadn't been able to in ten years." Danielle looked confused. Henry paused to collect himself. Danielle went to him. He hugged her tight knowing she wouldn't like the rest of the tale. "The next day we started searching the river at first light. Around midday we found a larger section of your dress, with a mangled wing attached. It now seemed certain that you had gone into the river. Gustave was furious with me and with himself. He blames himself for telling me where to find you, you know; and me, for driving you to take your own life."

Danielle gasped in horror, "You thought I was dead?"

"Yes, everyone thinks you are dead," he said as gently as he could.

Danielle was worried about Gustave and the servants thinking she was dead. "We need to let them know that I am not!"

"I will let everyone who matters know, as soon as we return to Hautefort. I promise," he said. "We continued to search for you for another two weeks. It was assumed that your body had been swept away, out to sea." Henry walked over to the wall, leaning his hands against it. "I blamed myself, naturally."

"You are not to blame for any of this! It is all my fault," Danielle said.

Henry went over to her again, looking deeply into her eyes. Taking her hands in his he said huskily, "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. I love you, Danielle." He leaned in and kissed her gently.

"I love you, too," Danielle said softly.

Smiling, he leaned down and kissed her again. Even this gentlest, briefest of kisses sent a tingling sense of awareness through them both.

He took a deep breath and continued his story. "After I thought you were…dead," he had trouble getting the word out, "I didn't know how I was supposed to go on…without you." He leaned his forehead against hers. "I couldn't figure out why God had put you into my life, just to snatch you away. Then I thought of all you had taught me about being less arrogant and more aware of the needs and burdens on my people, I decided that I would spend my life trying to be the King you once thought I was capable of being."

Danielle was amazed at all he had done to try to find her, but she could sense he wasn't done, so she stayed quiet, listening.

Dropping her hands, he moved a few steps away, staring up through the trees. He closed his eyes, "About a week after we called off the search, the Spanish Ambassador returned with a new marriage contract." He heard Danielle suck in her breath. He turned to her, saying, "I agreed to the treaty. It was signed last week." He took her into his arms again. "I didn't see any reason to object, with you gone. Now that I have you back," he took her face in his hands, looking into her eyes, "I will break my betrothal to Princess Gabriella. I will convince my father that we belong together."

Danielle had never believed the King would allow Henry to marry her, but it hurt to hear he was betrothed to another, nonetheless. "Do you really believe the King would ever allow you to marry so far beneath your station?" she asked tearfully.

"He must, because I am not losing you again. I do not care about your station, Danielle." He hugged her tightly, as if he were afraid she might vanish again if he didn't. She wanted so desperately to believe he could convince his father.

In a minute he continued with his account. "Now, as to how I found out you might be still alive and at Le Pieu's. When the Spanish betrothal was announced it apparently sent your step-mother into a rant about you, lamenting that she hadn't sold you to Le Pieu sooner." Danielle shivered at the mention of Le Pieu. "Marguerite told my mother."

"Marguerite told you where I was?" Danielle was stunned.

"Yes, she and Jacqueline came to court asking to see the dress, to determine if it was really yours. When examining it, my mother realized that it hadn't been laced when it was torn, so you probably weren't wearing it. They ascertained Le Pieu had probably planted it, hoping to end the search, which worked. I rode to rescue you immediately. I'm sorry I didn't figure it out three weeks ago, Danielle. I should have realized you would rescue yourself before I got here," he smiled down at her tenderly. They stood there in each other's arms thinking over all that had happened in the last month.

"You don't have anything to apologize for. This is entirely my fault. I wish we could just stay right here, forever," Danielle finally said.

"I do too, but we must be heading back to Château d'Hautefort soon. Will you tell me anything I don't already know? I believe the last time we were here I interrupted you. You started to say, 'There is something I must tell you…' "

Danielle pulled away and tried to collect her thoughts.

"The first time we met was when I threw the apples at you. You gave me twenty gold Francs, which I decided to use to rescue Maurice. The Baroness had sold him to pay her taxes. I didn't think anyone would believe that a servant would have that much money legally, so I decided to dress as a courtier to free him. That is when we met in the courtyard. I wasn't there to see you. I was afraid that you might recognize me when you showed up. When you followed me, asking if we had met and for my name, I didn't know what to do. When you finally asked for 'a name, any name,' I decided to give you 'any name.' I didn't think I would ever see you again after I left. The meeting at the river was an accident."

"The first time I deliberately dressed up to see you was when you came to take me to the monastery," she admitted.

"How did you know I was coming?" he asked, confused.

"I was in the field with Gustave."

"You were? He didn't tell me that."

"Yes, I was the one flying the kite. I hid behind a haystack while you talked to Gustave. When he told you where to find me I was mad at him. You now were going to find out the truth. I knew I would be in trouble when you did. However, I couldn't resist the chance to see you again, so I ran home and changed. I didn't expect you to invite me to spend the whole day with you, but again, I just couldn't resist. I knew I was risking a lot, for myself. I was already half in love with you. I didn't expect that you could ever love someone like me, so I never considered that you would be hurt by my deception. I should have considered how you would feel and told you when you arrived. I'm sorry.

"The night we spent with the gypsies really was the happiest night of my life. I was now heels over head in love with you. I think I was pretending we might be able to have a future together. When you brought me home and called me 'Nicole' the bubble popped. I knew I had to confess the truth. I thought about telling you then, but then you asked me to meet you here. I knew I would have to tell you as soon as I arrived, before I lost courage or was charmed into your bubble again.

"Monday morning was horrible, as you know. I came determined to tell you the truth. I didn't realize, until you told me, that you felt as deeply as I did. I was expecting you to be angry when I told you the truth. When you told me you felt free I was remembering our first meeting, when you told the servant girl that all you wanted was to be free from your gilded cage," she gave him a small smile, remembering how he had given her the gold and his secret about the gilded cage instead of having her punished.

"When I realized you weren't going to be merely angry, but that you were going to be hurt as well, I just couldn't bear it. I feared seeing the love in your eyes turn to hate," Danielle was shaking with emotion.

"When you touched my back, I cried out in pain. My step-mother had whipped me earlier, because I had hit Marguerite. I wasn't thinking of how it might end, I just ran away.

"When I got home, she was waiting for me. She somehow knew I had been meeting you and calling myself Comtesse Nicole de Lancret. She locked me in the cellar overnight. After they left for the masque, Gustave and Sr. da Vinci let me out and convinced me to try confessing again at the masque. Sr. da Vinci made the wings for my mother's dress.

"I think you know everything about the masque. As I was heading home I heard a rider approaching. I stopped, hoping it was you. He threw a blanket over me, put me in a carriage and took me to a dungeon. I didn't realize until the next morning that it wasn't your dungeon. In the morning Le Pieu and my step-mother showed up and gave me my servant's dress."

Henry interrupted, "Your step-mother was there, at Le Pieu's?" If only he had had her followed, Henry thought in self-reproach.

"Yes, she took great delight in telling me that I wasn't her problem, anymore. She sold me!" she cried. "Sold me," she repeated, devastated. Henry took her in his arms to comfort her as she again faced the fact of her step-mother's malevolence.

"M. Le Pieu told me that he would prefer I come to him willingly. He had me sleep in the dungeon, but every evening he brought me to his room to serve him dinner. He always offered for me to stay and share his meal and warm his bed. I always refused and made my bed in the dungeon. After I escaped and was recaptured he had me put in irons. Around that time he told me the Baroness had told him I could read. He found that amusing at first. Then he had me read to him every night after dinner. I think you know the rest," she finished.

"I am so thankful he didn't hurt you, sweetheart, but I will never forgive myself for letting this happen."

"It isn't your fault."

"Don't you have something else to tell me? A name? Any name?" he smiled.

"My name is Danielle de Barbarac, and I am but a servant, Your Highness," she said tearfully, looking up at him.

"Henry," he corrected gently. "There now, that wasn't so hard," he teased, alluding to the first time she had given him a name. He kissed her gently.

"I'm sorry I deceived you. I never meant to make you fall in love with a lie. It just happened."

"I forgive you, Danielle. I know you didn't set out to deceive me, and I love you, the woman I took to the monastery and kissed by the campfire, not the lie, the name or the title."

They stood smiling at each other, holding hands.

"Now, Mlle. de Barbarac, we need to get you ready to go to court," he smiled playfully.

She looked down at her filthy, worn servant's dress. "I suppose you have a plan?"

"Indeed, I do, my lady," taking her hand he led her back towards the horses.

Capt. Laurent looked relieved to see the couple emerge holding hands and looking completely in charity with one another.

"Capt. Laurent, do you have the bag?"

"Yes, Your Highness, right here," he handed the Prince a bag from the back of his horse.

Henry accepted the bag and led Danielle back into the ruins. On his way, he instructed one of the other guards to get a bucket of water from the well and bring it inside.

He found Danielle a protected corner and began unpacking the bag. Danielle watched him closely, hardly believing this moment wasn't a dream. She saw him pull a dark green velvet riding skirt and matching jacket, trimmed in gold braid, from the bag, followed by the appropriate white undergarments, stockings and even a pair of boots. Danielle fingered the soft velvet carefully, and then stopped, noticing her dirty hands. Henry called the guard over with the water. After the guard had retreated Henry produced a bar of soap, a towel and a hairbrush."

"May I help you?" he asked, almost shyly.

Danielle blushed gorgeously at the idea of Henry helping her change. "No, thank you. I can manage."

Taking her hand and looking into her eyes Henry said softly, "I am afraid if I let you out of my sight you will disappear again."

Danielle touched his cheek, "I promise I will not disappear," she smiled at him.

"I will wait for you on the other side of this wall, then." He walked through a doorway into an adjoining room.

Danielle quickly brushed her hair and washed her face and hands. Taking off her old dress she quickly washed off all over, trying to get rid of any trace of Le Pieu's dungeon. She contemplated trying to wash her hair, but decided it wasn't feasible by herself and with only one bucket of water.

She donned the undergarments and a white blouse she found among them. Then she picked up the skirt and noticed that it was split into two sections, designed for riding. When standing or walking it looked as if it was a regular skirt, but it would make riding much easier. She then donned the matching jacket, which tied in the front, allowing the ruffle from the blouse to spill out. She pulled on the boots, which were a little too big. Everything else fit, by which she was amazed. Every detail was so thoughtful.

She picked up the brush again, wondering how she would make her hair passable without any pins.

Henry called anxiously from the other side of the wall, "Danielle? Does everything fit?" He wondered if she were pleased.

"I am dressed, you can come back."

Henry ran around the wall and stopped a few feet from her. The comtesse was back, he thought, entranced. She looked amazing, even though he knew her hair would attract unwanted attention if left that way. "You look lovely," he ran a hand through her long hair. "I forgot to give you these," he smiled as he pulled out a hair net and a chic little green velvet hat with a long, white feather.

Danielle looked at him in awe. "Do you always travel so well prepared?" she laughed.

"No, I didn't think beyond getting you away from Le Pieu," he admitted. "My mother sent all of this for you. She is going to love you, Danielle. Can I help you with your hair?" he held up the net.

Danielle shook her head, took the net and put up her hair. Henry put the hat on her head and handed her some pins to fasten it in place; watching in fascination as the long, curling feather brushed her cheek as she pinned the hat securely in place.

He kissed her one last time before taking her hand and leading her out to the horses. "Come," he said excitedly. "I want to introduce you to my parents." He wanted to show her off as the lady she had always been.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 11 of 35

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