Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 12 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

They rode towards Château d'Hautefort, both in anticipation of the upcoming meeting. Henry was preoccupied with how to convince his father to let him break the Spanish betrothal. Danielle was worrying what kind of reception that she, the counterfeit comtesse, would receive from the King and Queen. They each took comfort in just being together, healing from the heartache and grief of the last three weeks. They rode quietly; neither wanted to burden the other with the anxieties weighing upon their own hearts over the obstacles still to be overcome.

It was still full daylight as they approached Hautefort. Henry had sent one of his men ahead to alert his parents of their arrival. Danielle had been silent and relaxed against him. He had thought her asleep again, but he felt her tense as they approached. He turned slightly, saying, "Don't worry, Danielle. I promise all will be well."

She gave him a small smile and sat up straighter, no longer leaning on him. "I'm ready, milord."

"Good girl," he smiled back, feeling protective of her.

As they rode through the gate together they naturally attracted every eye in the courtyard. The Prince riding in with a beautiful girl riding pillion behind him was a sight never before seen. They were accompanied by the Prince's personal guards.

They approached the palace doors. Henry dismounted and turned to assist Danielle's dismount. He smiled into her eyes and his hands lingered at her waist slightly longer than was strictly proper. He offered his arm as they turned to go inside. The Queen came out to greet them.

"Mother, may I present Mlle. Danielle de Barbarac?" Henry said with a hint of a playful smile.

Danielle curtseyed to the Queen as they were introduced, quaking in her borrowed boots.

"It is lovely to see you again, Danielle," the Queen came forward, immediately accepting her with a heartfelt hug and a beaming smile. She then took Danielle's arm affectionately in hers and led her inside. They had been too far from the courtiers for most to hear any of this exchange, but the Queen's enthusiastic greeting spoke volumes.

Danielle was stunned by this warm welcome and stole a glance at Henry's beaming countenance before the Queen led them inside. As they walked through the great hall and up a grand staircase Danielle was captivated by the beauty surrounding her. At the landing of the staircase they turned right and continued upwards towards the Queen's private apartments. Danielle realized she hadn't been attending to the Queen's chatter as they walked. "I remember your dear father," she was saying. "What a dashing young man he was. I never met your poor mother. Do you remember ever meeting any of her family?" at this point they had reached the Queen's apartments. The three of them went inside and the guard closed the doors after them. Danielle braced herself, expecting the Queen's mask of goodwill to drop now that they were alone. She had seen it happen daily with the Baroness and prepared herself to be chastised and rebuffed. The Queen looked softly at Danielle with compassion in her eyes. She sat down on a padded bench and patted the seat next to her, "Come here, Danielle," she said gently.

Danielle stood rooted to the floor in shock. Surely the Queen did not intend to have her, a servant, sit next to her. No one sits in the presence of the Queen. Danielle knew that. Maybe this was a test, she decided. Danielle approached the Queen cautiously, deciding to lower herself into a deep curtsey instead. The Queen smiled that tender smile of hers again. Taking Danielle's hand she raised Danielle to her feet and guided her to the bench. "Sit down, Danielle. I want to get to know you. We can be informal here in my private apartments."

Danielle smiled and sat down. "Thank You, Your Majesty."

"Well, it seems that you two have worked out your ghastly misunderstanding from the masque?" she stated, looking at both of them.

"Yes, Mother, we stopped on the way home and had a tête-à-tête. We cleared up all misunderstandings."

"Did you inform Danielle of the complications, Henry?" the Queen squeezed Danielle's hand comfortingly. She knew the Queen was delicately alluding to Henry's Spanish betrothal and wondering if she knew.

"Yes, Mother, I told Danielle about the betrothal. I need to speak to Father about breaking it off."

The Queen looked troubled. "Well, we will deal with all of that later, children. Are you hungry? You have been gone nearly all day. I thought we could have a private meal here, instead of in the dining room." Danielle was mortified when her stomach made an audible sound, in anticipation. The Queen merely laughed, "Well, I guess that settles it," she said. "Ring the bell please, Henry."

While they waited for dinner to arrive the Queen asked Danielle to talk about her life. She seemed particularly interested in what Danielle could remember from when her father was alive. Danielle talked of many things, some she hadn't remembered in years.

The King entered while she was speaking. She didn't notice him at first, because her back was to the door. When Henry stood up and said "Father," Danielle paled. She stood up, turned to face him and curtseyed. Henry took her by the hand and led her over to introduce them. "Father, may I present Mlle. Danielle de Barbarac?"

Danielle curtseyed again, "Your Majesty."

The King took Danielle's hand in his, raising her to her feet. "My dear, it is so good to have you here with us, at long last. We have been very worried about you." He tucked Danielle's hand into the crook of his arm and led her over to the table which had been set for four. "Shall we dine?" he said. Danielle was shocked at the King's casual greeting, as if she were already part of the family. The last time she had heard his voice was when he was bellowing about 'the effrontery' of her using Henry's name at the masque.

Henry held out a chair for his mother and the King seated Danielle, to her surprise. She couldn't believe she was sitting down to an intimate dinner with the Royal Family. She didn't eat much or talk much during dinner. She was too overwhelmed. Too exhausted. The royals seemed happy to talk in generalities while the servants served them. The conversation swirled around her like waves in the ocean.

After dinner Danielle thought to herself, 'Surely, I am going to awake from this dream to find myself back in the dungeon.'

She hadn't realized she had spoken aloud until Henry reached for her hand, squeezing it. "It isn't a dream, Danielle. You are safe now."

At that point, Danielle lost control and started crying softly. Henry pulled her out of her chair and into his arms. They stood by the fireplace, Henry stroking her hair and whispering soothing words. How he wished he could absorb all of her pain and make her forget all of her bad memories.

The King, uncomfortable with crying women, retreated to the balcony.

"Henry, she is exhausted. Come in here," his mother called. She led the way into a bedchamber adjoining the Queen's own. "She can sleep in here tonight," indicating a beautiful bedchamber. "Go talk to your father while I help Danielle get ready for bed," she ushered Henry out of the room.

"Would you like to bathe before bed, or would you prefer to go straight to bed? You look exhausted, my dear," Marie was concerned with how pale she suddenly looked.

Danielle tried to think of what was the most appropriate answer. She didn't want to be a bother, asking for a bath, but she also didn't want to sleep in the beautiful bed with the filth of the dungeon upon her. She was shocked the Queen was giving her such a room. She couldn't think of what to answer.

The Queen seemed to understand her silence perfectly. "I think a bath would be nice and relaxing. Just sit here and wait. I will have a bath drawn for you," with that the Queen swept out of the room. Danielle sat while the Queen was gone. She didn't feel well at all; too much excitement, perhaps. When the Queen returned Danielle jumped to her feet. She was instantly overcome with a wave of dizziness. She fainted for the first time in her life, collapsing right at the feet of the Queen.

"HENRY! FRANCIS! COME QUICKLY!" the Queen yelled from her place on the floor, cradling Danielle's head.

Henry was through the door so quickly his mother thought he must have jumped over the furniture to get there. Henry had never heard his mother yell before -ever.

Seeing Danielle on the floor nearly paralyzed him in fear. "What happened Mother?" he asked as he knelt next to Danielle.

"She merely fainted. Help me move her to the bed, please."

Henry scooped Danielle up into his arms and carried her tenderly to the bed.

The Queen turned down the covers and sent one of her ladies to fetch the doctor. "She is likely just exhausted and overwhelmed, Henry, but I do think the doctor should examine her, just to be sure."

"Yes Mother, I agree. Thank you." Henry sat on the edge of the bed holding Danielle's hand. He prayed, "Dear God, please let her be all right. I will do anything if you just spare her one more time."

The Queen returned with two of her ladies-in-waiting. "Henry, you are going to have to leave while we change Danielle into a nightgown."

Henry got up, kissed Danielle on the forehead and said, "I'll be in the next room."

Henry paced around his mother's apartment while she and the ladies changed Danielle. He hovered in the doorway as the doctor greeted the Queen.

"Henry, you must wait outside while my doctor examines her, I insist. I will be with her and you may hear the doctor's report," with that she closed the door in Henry's face.

Francis watched his son pacing back and forth, feeling helpless. He wished that he could put Henry's love for Danielle ahead of the marriage treaty with Spain, but doing so would be irresponsible and selfish. Breaking it could lead to war, if the Spanish King chose to be offended. Francis was certain that the King of Spain would take any excuse to reopen the hostilities that plagued their two nations.

A short while later the doctor came out. "Your Majesty, Your Highness, the young lady is suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and possibly malnutrition. I will need to question her tomorrow when she is awake to see how much she was fed in the past few weeks. She was severely whipped some time in the past month or so, but it seems to be healing without incident." Clearing his throat he continued, "She does not appear to have suffered any injuries while she was captive, aside from a few scrapes and bruises. She is still virginal, as well, Your Highness," he finished uncomfortably.

"Thank you, doctor," Henry let out a sigh of relief that she was going to be all right. He had believed Danielle when she told him Le Pieu hadn't raped her, but to have her chastity confirmed, and in front of his father, was still a relief. "May I see her?"

"She is sleeping, do not wake her. If you wish to sit with her I see no problem with that. I am ordering bed rest for her for the next few days. I will come by in the morning to check on her." He bowed to the King, "Your Majesty," and to Henry, "Your Highness," as he left.

"Henry, we need to talk," said the King.

"Can it wait until tomorrow, Father?"

Sighing, "Yes, I suppose it can. I'm glad she is going to be all right Henry. She is a wonderful girl. Go; be with her if you must."

"Thank you Father."

Henry went into the bedchamber and sat on the edge of the bed. Just watching her sleep calmed him. Knowing she would be well was a huge relief. Henry sat there for hours just watching her. One of the Queen's ladies was in the room as a chaperone.

The Queen went to see Marguerite and Jacqueline, who were being confined to their rooms for the time being. Until things were sorted out the Queen didn't want any rumors circulating about Danielle's abduction or rescue. "Good evening, ladies."

"Your Majesty," the girls rose from their game of backgammon and curtseyed.

"I thought you would like to know that Danielle is here. The doctor has seen her and she will be completely recovered in a few days. She is only exhausted and dehydrated. Mercifully, she was not abused in any way."

Jacqueline wept in relief.

Marguerite felt relief that Danielle had been found, but doubted the story about a 100% recovery. Le Pieu had had her for three weeks, after all. She remembered the way Le Pieu had stared at Danielle. "Thank you, Your Majesty. That is a relief."

"Yes, it is. I want to thank you girls for your help. I know it was difficult for you. You will be remaining here for the time being, as my guests. You are not to speak of this to anyone, is that clear?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," they agreed.

"People saw Danielle ride into the courtyard on the back of Prince Henry's horse and after the scene at the masque there is bound to be speculation. If questioned, you are only to say that Danielle is your step-sister and that she has been visiting her mother's family. We will decide what, if anything, is to be done with your mother shortly. If you wish to leave your rooms, the guard outside will be happy to escort you about."

"Thank you. May we see Danielle?" asked Jacqueline.

"You may see her tomorrow. She is asleep now."

After attending to her other royal duties the Queen went back to her apartments. She found Henry still sitting on the bed watching Danielle sleep. "Really, Henry, 'tis getting late. You need to sleep, too. Lady Anne is here with her. She will be fine." Lady Anne had been Henry's governess and the Queen hoped Henry would feel comforted with her watching over Danielle for the night.

"No, Mother, I am staying. I have been praying for a miracle for a month—and here she is. I'm afraid if I go to sleep I will wake up and this will all be a dream."

Eventually, Henry lay down on top of the coverlet next to Danielle and put his arm gently around her. He drifted into the first truly peaceful sleep he had known since he had met 'Nicole' to go to the monastery. The Queen found them sleeping peacefully in the early morning. She looked over at Lady Anne; the chaperone had fallen asleep on the couch, as well. She stood and watched them for a few minutes. 'Well now, a most improper sight,' she smiled. Danielle had turned and snuggled into Henry at some point during the night. She knew she had to wake Henry and send him to his own apartments before the servants were about, but she hated to disturb them.

Shaking Henry's shoulder gently, Marie whispered, "Henry, wake up."

He woke up immediately, sitting up looking a little sheepish at having been caught.

"Henry, you must go to your own apartments, sleep in your bed for awhile and change your clothes before coming back to visit," she said softly. "The servants will be along to build up the fires anytime now. We do not need any unsavory gossip to attach to her because you are not behaving as you ought. You are lucky that I left Lady Anne here with you. Even if she noticed you sleeping, she would never say anything."

"Thank you Mother," he kissed his mother on the cheek and left for his own apartments. He messed up his bed, changed into his nightclothes and called for a bath. He felt as if he could conquer the world today.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 12 of 35

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