Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 28 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

That afternoon, Le Pieu and his men were searching the banks of the River Seine for signs of the mercenaries when Le Pieu spotted something. He rode closer to the river, jumping off his horse and running over to the body of a girl half in the river and half on the riverbank. He held his breath as he knelt down. She had a knife wound on the back of her shoulder. He rolled her over. "Danielle!" exclaimed softly, his unrequited love unquenched. He checked to see if she was breathing. She coughed up some water. He picked her up, calling for help. He took a bandage from his saddlebag, pressing it firmly against the wound. "Danielle, wake up!" he commanded. Her eyes fluttered open. "Are you Danielle or Nicole? I will take you to Prince Henry, do not worry," he added, suddenly realizing that Danielle wouldn't feel very safe being rescued by him.

"Danielle! The Baroness has her!" she cried.

"Where are they?"

"C-Castle," she whispered and passed out.

Le Pieu mounted his horse, holding her in front of him, making sure to keep the bandage firmly against the wound. He ordered several of his men to find the Prince and tell him they were headed for Roche-Guyon. The rest of the men were to comb the riverbanks for signs of the other girl. Le Pieu wasn't positive, but he thought the girl was Nicole, even though she had said 'Danielle' in response to his questions. She clearly hadn't recognized him.

Just as Le Pieu was riding into the courtyard, the Prince came galloping up from behind. Le Pieu had had to travel at a walk with the injured girl riding with him.

"Le Pieu, who do you have there?" Henry said anxiously. He couldn't see her face; it was pressed into Le Pieu's shoulder. "Is she injured?"

They had arrived at the door. Henry dismounted and reached for her. "Your Highness, she has a deep knife wound to the back of her shoulder. I think I have the bleeding stopped, but I dare not release the pressure until the surgeon is ready to tend her." His battlefield experience exuded a calm sense of implied command.

Frustrated, but realizing Le Pieu was correct, Henry called for a mounting block so that Le Pieu could dismount without jarring her.

"She awoke briefly. When I asked who she was she said 'Danielle- the Baroness has her,' so I think this is Lady Nicole, Your Highness. She didn't seem to recognize me."

Henry looked crushed upon finding out it was not Danielle. Soon they had her inside under the care of the surgeon. Henry took a close look at her face and agreed. It was Nicole. They left Nicole under the surgeon's care.

"Did she say anything else?" He felt guilty that he wished she were Danielle.

"Yes, she said 'castle.'"

They were interrupted by the Marquis de Limoges, "Your Highness?"

"Yes, Noël, what is it?"

"There is someone here I think you will want to speak with. How is she?"

"He stopped the bleeding, but 'tis too soon to tell. It is Lady Nicole. Who is here?" he asked, following the Marquis towards the Great Hall.

"There is a German nobleman here who says he has information about a band of mercenaries in the area: a Baron Georg von Frundsberg," the Marquis told Henry.

They went to meet the German nobleman to see what he had to say.

After the introductions were made, Baron von Frundsberg said he had talked to some German men staying at a castle north on the River Seine, the Château des Tourelles. He believed they were mercenaries.

Le Pieu, who was studying maps on a table nearby, said, "I know where it is: about fifteen miles north of here. It is a rundown old place, on the Seine. That could explain how Lady Nicole ended up in the river. I was checking the maps for châteaux on the river. There are only a couple of possibilities. 'Tis a likely hideout as I do not think 'tis occupied."

"Why would they let their location be known to anyone, even you, Baron? If they are holding the Princess captive there, they would need to be secretive," Le Pieu asked, skeptically.

"We should check it out, Le Pieu. Fortunately, it is summer and we will have the light long enough tonight to make it most of the way before the sun sets." Turning to the Baron, the Prince thanked him for his help, excited to have what seemed like a solid lead. "Thank you, Baron. Can we offer you a place to stay tonight?"

"No, thank you, Your Highness. I must be on my way. I hope you find the Princess and her sister well."

"Thank you. We have already found her sister, slightly injured, but alive. It was fortunate that we were here when you arrived. We were about to head back out to resume the search. Hopefully, thanks to your information, we will find my wife tonight."

The Baron looked stunned that they had found Nicole. "You found her alive? That is wonderful, Your Highness. I wish you luck tonight... You should bring a doctor, just in case. These mercenaries are most certainly not gentlemen," he bowed taking his leave. When he got outside, he rode hard to meet up with his men, who were waiting at a designated spot south of the town. "I thought you said the Lady Nicole was dead? They claimed to have found her alive in the river."

"Georg, the lady stabbed her in the back and we threw her into the moat. We just assumed she wouldn't survive."

"Well, luckily she wasn't around to identify me. They ride north to rescue the Princess tonight. Hopefully, they will make it in time. Since she wants the baby, she shouldn't hurt the Princess before the baby is born. We will travel south. Split up and we will meet in a month at the usual place."

Danielle sat in her cell, numb to all that had happened in the last few days. She hadn't been given anything to eat or drink in the two days her step-mother had had her, so she knew her step-mother planned to kill her soon. She kept picturing Henry being killed, reliving Nicole's death and imagining what Rodmilla had planned for her and her baby. She had been praying for God to take her away; to be reunited with Henry and Nicole in the ever after. She blocked out all of the horrific images by retreating into an imaginary world where Rodmilla couldn't hurt her anymore. She had often done it as a child to protect herself during the harshest punishments. She closed her eyes, pretending Henry was alive. She couldn't bear to think he wasn't.

Rodmilla came downstairs to taunt Danielle after she had eaten her dinner. She was in a particularly foul mood. Her mercenaries had abandoned her after she had killed Nicole, and she wasn't sure how much time she had before she was discovered here. She assumed she had several more days, at least. She had been very careful. She savored the anticipation of the emotional torture to come. She could be quite inventive.

"Well, Danielle, how does it feel to be an only child again?" she asked viciously. Her eyes narrowed at Danielle's lack of reaction. "Look at me!" she screamed. She unlocked the door and went inside. She yelled in Danielle's face, "Look at me, you little wretch!"

Danielle wouldn't react. She couldn't. It didn't matter anymore. She just wanted it to be over. She knew her step-mother well. She already knew her step-mother was going to kill her and the baby, just as she had already killed Henry and Nicole.

Rodmilla pulled Danielle to her feet, shaking her and finally resorted to giving her a shove. Danielle hit her head on the wall and slid to the ground, unconscious.

The Baroness smiled an evil smile, "Well, well, maybe I have won after all." Leaving Danielle on the cold, damp stone floor she locked the cell and went upstairs to bed, pleased. Yes, quite pleased.

It was nearly dawn when Prince Henry, the Marquis and Le Pieu spotted the château. Henry prayed this was the right place and they were in time. There were no guards posted and no lights visible from the château. "No guards? Can this be the right place? Surely mercenaries would post guards," Henry worried as they planned their assault.

It was a small, poorly maintained castle. They were able to make a quiet entry through the servants' quarters. They encountered only two old, female servants. They were terrified of the soldiers and immediately gave up the information that there was a prisoner in the dungeon and a lady in the master bedchamber. The guards had all left that afternoon, they reported.

Roles suddenly reversed as Henry took command. Henry turned towards Le Pieu, "I am going to look for Danielle, send someone upstairs to make sure Rodmilla doesn't get away. Limoges- clear the first floor- look for any remaining mercenaries."

Le Pieu gave rapid fire orders to his men and followed the Prince down to the dungeon. They were followed by several soldiers with torches. "Danielle! Are you down here?" Henry yelled, "Danielle!" He stopped short upon seeing her crumpled form on the floor, his blood turning to ice. "Danielle! Wake up! Someone find the keys to this door! Danielle!" He turned and yelled, "Get Chauvlin down here to pick this lock!" He knew all his men and all their talents.

Someone handed him the keys, "The keys, Your Highness."

Henry quickly unlocked the door and ran to Danielle's side. "Danielle, please wake up, sweetheart," he said with forced calm. She was very still and she was cold. He gently lifted her head and shoulders, cradling her. His hands were covered in blood from a wound on her head. He noticed as the soldier with the torch came into the cell that Danielle's dress and face were covered in dried blood. He put his ear down to her chest. He could hear her heart beating and she was breathing. Relieved, he hugged her to him, "Thank you, God," he said on a sigh.

Le Pieu was behind him, "She is alive, Your Highness?" clearly concerned.

"Yes, she is unconscious and covered in blood, but alive." He scooped her up gently and carried her upstairs. "Get the doctor!" They had brought a doctor with them, in case Danielle was injured.

Le Pieu headed upstairs.

The Marquis called for the doctor. "We have cleared the château. The mercenaries appear to be gone, Henry. Le Pieu's men have the Baroness upstairs."

Henry found an empty bedchamber and stripped Danielle out of her bloody riding gown to determine how bad her injuries were. "Don't worry Danielle; you are going to be fine. It is Henry, can you hear me?" he said gently.

The doctor joined the Prince and they examined Danielle for injuries. They found bruises and scratches, but aside from the head wound, nothing to explain all of the blood.

The doctor bandaged her head and Henry redressed her in the skirt and blouse from her gown. Leaning down, he kissed her tenderly, "I love you, Danielle. Everything is going to be all right. I'll be right back." He instructed the Marquis and two of his most trusted men to look after her while he went to find Rodmilla de Ghent. He would to kill her for what she had done to Danielle. By his own hand. He had never been more coldly enraged in his life.

Rodmilla awoke with a shriek as her room was invaded by twenty soldiers. She was hauled out of bed and told to get dressed. She recognized these as Le Pieu's men and had a flare of hope. Maybe she could talk her way out of this; she plotted as she got dressed.

She heard another set of boots approaching purposefully. The thought of an executioner's steady tread came unbidden to her mind. Filled with dread, she turned to see Le Pieu enter the bedchamber.

"M. Le Pieu, what are you doing here?" she ventured.

"I came with Prince Henry to rescue Princess Danielle."

"Oh, you did? I'm sure she will be thrilled to see you." She was trying to figure out how he had managed to recover from keeping Danielle captive to the point the Prince trusted him to help rescue her.

"You, madame, have hurt Danielle for the last time. I will personally ensure it," Le Pieu said coldly, death in his voice.

Rodmilla laughed hollowly, "You are her protector now?"

Something dangerous flared in his eyes. She stepped back as if slapped, "No! You are in love with her, too! What is it about that little bitch that every man falls in love with her?"

"Watch your language when speaking of Danielle. She was more of a lady when you were pretending she was a servant than you have ever been."

"So, the conceited little bitch made you fall in love with her and broke your heart? You weren't good enough for her?" she laughed derisively, seeking entry to his heart. His mind.

"If she had been the servant you told me she was, she would have been obtainable. You lied to me. She was always above my touch. I blame you for my disappointment." He unsheathed his sword and approached her menacingly. "Out," he ordered his men. They filed out, leaving him alone with Rodmilla.

"You wouldn't attack an unarmed lady?" she said nervously.

"Normally you would be right, but, in your case I am willing to make an exception. You will die. Either I will kill you, or possibly the Prince. If his rage is under control then you will be tried, convicted and executed. No leniency this time. The abduction and attempted murder of a member of the Royal Family is High Treason. After months of intense interrogation in the rat infested dungeon of the Bastille you will be praying for the end. The jailors there do not get many women as handsome as you to amuse themselves with. When they are done with you, you will be quartered, as your accomplice, the page, was," he said with passion born in battle. Vengence. He watched her fear grow at the mention of the most feared, gruesome, torturous execution known to men.

She looked around wildly for a route of escape. She lunged for the dagger she had used on Nicole. She waved it at Le Pieu. "Stay away from me or you will never find Nicole," she threatened.

He laughed, "What do I care about Nicole? This is all about what you have made Danielle suffer for the last eleven years. She is with her husband, now. She will be fine. As long as you are dead."

"The Prince will be angry if you kill me without first finding Nicole. She is the one he really loves."

"Oh, did I forget to mention? I found Nicole yesterday afternoon. She told me where to find you."

"No! You are lying! I killed her with this dagger, yesterday!" she screamed in rage and ran at him.

He didn't even blink, coolly cutting her down at his feet. He watched the pool of blood flowing out from her body with satisfaction.

The Prince walked into the room, "Well, Le Pieu, what was that all about?" He had listened with interest to Le Pieu taunting her until she snapped.

"I wanted to give Danielle the peace of a final solution to the Rodmilla problem. This will be easier for her than having to wait through weeks or months of a trial and an execution. I didn't want to take any chances and the Baroness, I mean Mme. de Ghent, played into my hands by rushing me with the dagger."

Henry looked down at Rodmilla's lifeless body. "It is hard to believe she is finally dead. I have been having nightmares about what she has been doing to Danielle. I would have felt duty bound to try and capture her and bring her to trial. It is good for Danielle that she gave you no choice, Le Pieu."

"How is your wife, Your Highness?"

"Still unconscious, but the blood on her dress and face was not hers. It will be full daylight, soon. We need to call the magistrate and I need to get Danielle somewhere safe."

"I will take care of the magistrate, Your Highness."

"Thank you. He may call on me at Roche-Guyon. I will take Danielle there by barge. It will be easier on her than riding." The Prince offered his hand to Le Pieu, "Thank you for your help. I don't know how much longer it would have taken me to find them without your help."

Le Pieu took the offered hand and shook it, "I am at your service, as always, Your Highness. Just go take care of your wife. She needs you. I will clean up here."

Healing and Reconnecting

Henry held Danielle cradled in his lap the entire ride to Roche-Guyon. He talked to her, willing her to wake up. They arrived at the château in the late afternoon and he soon had her tucked into a comfortable bed. He sent to Paris for the King's doctor. He went to see Nicole briefly to see how she was feeling and to tell her about Danielle.

He spent the afternoon and evening holding Danielle in bed and talking to her. He talked about his love for her and about how much he had missed her. He talked about places they would go and see someday; anything that wouldn't remind her of Rodmilla or what she had been through. When he ran out of ideas he started to read to her. And he prayed.

Danielle was dreaming about Henry. She could hear his voice and feel his arms around her. She didn't want to wake up to a world without him, a world without Nicole. A world controlled by Rodmilla. It was a deep, determined sleep.

Henry awoke in the morning and found Danielle awake, staring up at the canopy of the bed. He pushed up on one elbow and smiled down at her. "Good morning, Danielle," he said with a huge smile. She didn't move or react in any way. "Danielle?" he turned her head gently towards him. She had a distant gaze and didn't make eye contact with him. He shook her gently and spoke louder, alarmed, "Danielle!"

He was puzzled and a more than a little concerned. He summoned the doctor. After the doctor examined her he spoke to the Prince. "Your Highness, she seems to be in an intermediate stage of consciousness. It is impossible to determine if 'tis due to her head injury or in response to the trauma surrounding her abduction. We will just have to wait and see."

"How could the abduction affect her state of consciousness?" Henry was perplexed.

"Sometimes a person can be so traumatized, such as in battle, that they simply withdraw into themselves and shut out the world in order to survive. They cannot deal with the reality they are experiencing, so they block it out. I have seen it with soldiers, on occasion. A woman subjected to severe cruelties would be more likely to be traumatized, I think. They are more delicate in their feelings. We do not know what her step-mother did to her. How cruelly she was treated. Perhaps she has retreated to a safe place within her mind. That is just one possibility."

"How do we wake her up?"

"If it is due to the head injury, all we can do is wait for it to heal and try and get her to eat and drink to keep up her strength."

"And if 'tis not the injury?" Henry was afraid of what the doctor might say.

"All we can do is talk to her. Try to make her feel that the world is a safe place: safe for her and the baby. Reassure her that the danger is gone, Your Highness. She could come to herself at anytime." He didn't want to tell the Prince that it may be permanent. There was simply no way to tell.

Henry nodded his understanding and went to stand by the window. He thought over all that the doctor had said. Danielle was brave: a natural born fighter. A survivor. She would come back to him. She had to. If she had been frightened into this state, then he needed to reassure her, somehow. He decided to find out as much as possible from Nicole about what had happened to Danielle. He needed to know what she was frightened about. Surely, the fact that Rodmilla was dead and no longer a threat would be a big comfort.

He sat on Danielle's bed, holding her hand. She didn't appear to know he was there. "I'll help you find your way back to me." Kissing her gently, he left and went to speak to Nicole.

Henry went into Nicole's room, thankful to see she was awake. "Hello Nicole, How are you feeling this morning?"

"Good morning, Your Highness. My shoulder feels as if 'tis on fire, but other than that, I am fine. How is Danielle this morning? Is she awake?" she said, more concerned for Danielle than herself.

Henry was glad Nicole didn't seem to be showing any signs of fever. "I'm worried about her. She opened her eyes this morning, but she doesn't seem to be aware of her surroundings. She just gazes off into the distance. Do you mind talking about what happened to Danielle from the time the guards were attacked? The doctor thinks she may be reacting to some trauma. Something that happened to her or that she was threatened with."

"I'll try," Nicole said. She wanted to help, but talking about it was going to be hard. She sighed, trying to gather her thoughts. "We went out riding, found a pond and decided to go swimming. While we were swimming the guards were attacked. Danielle said that we should try to run in different directions, but they grabbed us as soon as we got out of the pond."

Henry remembered how Danielle had looked the day he met her at the river, walking out of the water with her chemise clinging to her body. These men had grabbed Danielle and Nicole in their wet chemises, he realized. He turned away from Nicole so she wouldn't see how upset he was. He took a deep breath, fearing the worst. Fearing what was common to women in such dire straits. He needed the whole story.

She plunged ahead, lost in her story, now, "They told us to get dressed. I was crying, Danielle was arguing and demanding we be released. They put me up on a horse, trying me to one of the men. The leader tried to take Danielle; she evaded him and said she had to have some privacy. That is when she took off her rings and left the note." She looked up at him, "Did you find them?"

"Yes, we found the rings and the note. She thought they were German, possibly. What did you think?"

"They were definitely German, Your Highness. They spoke freely in front of me. They didn't realize that I am fluent in German."

"You are? Did you learn anything?"

"I heard some of their first names: Rolfe, Kurt, Georg. They talked about their employer and how long they thought it would take to collect the ransom. I don't think they knew she intended to kill us."

"Are you sure she intended to kill Danielle? Did Danielle think so?"

"She didn't give us any food or water while I was there. More than two days. She told us she had killed you and she told Danielle she would kill her after the baby was born and she would keep the baby. Make him into her servant. Danielle was convinced she was going to kill us both soon, before the baby was born. Danielle was likely without food or water for three days, and I know we ate very little while we were travelling. I imagine Danielle had the same. She was so weak, Henry."

"Rodmilla said I was dead?" Henry said, surprised. "I'm sorry I interrupted. You discovered they were German. You were on the horse and Danielle left the note."

"Yes- right. The leader tried to put Danielle up on his horse again and she fought him... He threatened to hurt her if she didn't cooperate. She told him she couldn't ride astride because of the baby, so he agreed to let her ride aside. He pulled her up in front of him and we rode away. We split up and travelled separately. I didn't see Danielle for four days. The next time I did see her, he was carrying her into the dungeon. She looked terrible, and she was crying. I asked him why she was crying and he said she had had a hard ride."

Henry wondered what he had done to Danielle, had he forced himself upon her? He turned back to look at her, "Nicole, Did the men hurt you? Dishonour you?"

"No, the leader had told them to keep me tied up to a tree when we made camp and they did. Aside from some bruises from the ropes I was unhurt. I am an avid rider. I could have kept up the pace of riding for a few more days," she looked uncomfortable.

"Is there something else?" he probed.

"I…I think something happened to upset Danielle besides the riding, but she wouldn't tell me what. When he carried her into the dungeon he seemed upset about something, too. It was a very different attitude than when he took Danielle away four days before. He seemed…reluctant to leave her? He clearly didn't want to put her down."

Henry closed his eyes, again imagining the worst.

Nicole continued, "The Baroness was furious at Danielle. She threw one of your doublets into the cell. It was soaked with blood. She said that she had had you killed for loving Danielle over Marguerite. Danielle just… shattered. She cried for hours, holding your doublet. Then she just seemed to run out of emotion. She just sat there, staring at nothing. The Baroness threatened to kill everyone that Danielle loved: you, me and the baby.

"Later, when she threatened me with the dagger, Danielle attacked her. The guards pulled Danielle off, then the Baroness stabbed me in the back and the next thing I knew I was on the riverbank.

"I want to see Danielle, but the doctor won't let me out of bed, yet," she concluded tearfully.

"Your wound hasn't had enough time to begin healing yet, Nicole. If you get up too soon you are going to reopen it and start bleeding again. We don't want you to develop a fever. You lost too much blood, it will take time to get your strength back," he cautioned her. "I will bring Danielle to you if the doctor says 'tis all right."

"Your Highness, She talked to you after she thought you were dead; when she was in that dazed state. She said she didn't want to be here without you. She seemed to imagine you talking back. She said something about not being strong enough. She may hear you talking and not realize you are real."

"You think she believes she is imagining me?" he was stunned at the idea. "I need to go see her. Thank You Nicole."

Henry hurried back to Danielle. He had so much information and so many ideas floating about in his head. He needed to sort them out and figure out how to penetrate the wall Danielle had erected in self protection.

One of her ladies was spooning broth into her mouth when he returned. She was propped up in bed and swallowing the broth, he was happy to see.

Once her lady had left, Henry went over to Danielle and picked up her hand, "Danielle?" He got no response, so he scooped her up and carried her over to the couch by the fireplace. Sitting down with her across his lap he held her tightly.

"Danielle, I need you to listen to me," he began gently. "You are safe now. Your step-mother can never hurt you again. Rodmilla de Ghent is dead. She was killed when we rescued you. Now, pay attention," he reminded her, "I am alive, Danielle. I am sitting here, holding you and missing you. I need you to come back to me. She lied to you, Danielle. I am alive and here on earth waiting for you. I need you to fight your way back to me. Our baby needs you to be strong and fight for him, too." Henry took one of her hands in his and put it on the small swell of her abdomen. "Can you feel our child growing inside of you, yet? God has given us each other and this baby, but you need to fight for us. We need you.

"Remember our university and all of the wonderful things we were going to do for France? How will I ever do them without you by my side? Please Danielle! You promised me you would never run away again. You are my perfect match, my love, my Princess. I'm sorry I didn't protect you. I know you were trying to protect Nicole by taking these off," he pulled out her rings and slid them back into place. "We wed each other for better or worse, until death us depart. We are not dead, Danielle. You just need to reach out to me," he gathered her more tightly, burying his face in her hair, tears spilling from his eyes. Pulling back slightly, he took a deep breath, trying to think of what to say next. He saw a tear slide down Danielle's cheek. Had he reached her? Put a crack in her wall?

He kissed her gently. "I need you, Danielle, please come back to me," he whispered gently. He kissed her again. "I know you are frightened, but Rodmilla is dead; she can never hurt you again. You are safe. The baby is safe. We need to think of some names. I'll need your help or I am likely to make a mess of it, you know. Do you think we will have twins? It seems to run in your family. Should we name them Danielle and Nicole? Maybe that would be too confusing with three Danielle's running about the palace. Danielle, come back to me. I need you as I need the air I breathe. I am lost without you."

The tears started to stream down her face. He kissed her cheek, her eyelids. He kissed her lips, hungrily and she responded for the first time, moving her lips against his. He tried to focus on what more he could say to get through to her. "You were wonderfully brave standing up to those mercenaries and outsmarting them, leaving your clues behind. You protected Nicole again when the Baroness attacked her."

The flood came out with a huge, shuddering sob. She cried inconsolably in his arms for what seemed like hours, but it was better than the empty daze, he thought, holding her, comforting her. When she finally quieted, he thought she had cried herself to sleep. He bent over to look at her face, cradled on his chest. He saw her eyes were open. Nervously, he put two fingers under her chin and tilted it up. "Danielle?" he whispered, hoarse with emotion.

She looked into his eyes. "Henry?" she sobbed.

"Yes, Danielle, I am here." He kissed her softly. "You are safe, now."

"I don't feel safe," she whispered.

"I know. I'm sorry." It hurt to hear the pain in her voice.

She started crying again, "I couldn't save her," she sobbed.

"Who? Your Step-mother?" he was confused why she would be worried about her step-mother.

"Nicole," she whispered. "My step-mother killed her and I couldn't stop it!" she wailed.

"No Danielle! No! Nicole is alive! She is a fighter, just like you are."

"No! I saw the Baroness kill her!" She started hitting him on the chest, sobbing. "I wasn't fast enough. I couldn't get away. I couldn't save her!" she was screaming at him.

The doors burst open. The doctor rushed in with several of Danielle's ladies, stopping short at the sight of the Princess pummeling the Prince and screaming at him.

Henry stood up and carried Danielle over to the bed. To the doctor he said, "She doesn't believe me that Nicole is alive. Warn Lady Nicole that we are coming." He put her down on the bed, wrapping her securely in the coverlet and picked her up again. The ladies and doctor headed in haste to the Lady Nicole's room. Henry followed, cradling his sobbing wife in his arms, ignoring the dozens of curious courtiers standing around in the corridors, waiting for news on their conditions.

He walked into Nicole's room and carried Danielle over to the bed, but he didn't put her down.

Nicole was crying softly, "Danielle, I am here. I'm quite a good swimmer, you should know," she said, biting her lip.

Danielle stilled in Henry's arms. She was afraid to look, afraid to breathe. How could it be true? She saw her get stabbed in the back and go limp. Watched her death. Saw her thrown over, heard the splash.

"Danielle, I'll let Henry put you down on my bed if you promise to be careful. I'm not allowed to move around much. The doctor is afraid my wound may reopen. If you hadn't attacked the Baroness when you did, I don't think I would be here today."

Danielle looked at Nicole as if a ghost. "Nicole?" she reached a trembling hand towards Nicole.

Henry set Danielle down gently on the edge of the bed. She reached towards Nicole tentatively. She touched her cheek; Nicole's hand came up to cover Danielle's. "She stabbed you- threw you off the castle battlements," Danielle whispered.

"I'm an excellent swimmer, you know that. She hit me only in the shoulder. I'm so glad that Henry found you. I have been so worried about you," Nicole cried. She reached out with her uninjured arm to embrace Danielle.

Danielle started crying again as she carefully hugged Nicole. They cried, clinging to each other. Eventually, Danielle pulled back, smiling.

The doctor spoke up, "I hate to break this up, but I have to insist that my patients rest now. Lady Nicole, you must stay still to let your wound heal." Turning to Danielle he said, "Your Highness, You need to eat a full, healthy meal and rest yourself. You have a lot of recuperating to do."

"May I come back later?" Danielle asked.

"Yes, you may visit tomorrow if you are feeling up to it. I am ordering your dinner, Your Highness." To Henry he said, "Will you be bringing her back, Your Highness?"

"Yes, I'll carry her." Henry said.

"I can walk," Danielle said, standing up quickly and nearly swooning into Henry's arms.

"I will carry you," Henry repeated, catching her. She obviously had no idea how weak she was.

Soon, Danielle found herself tucked into bed and Henry feeding her an enormous meal. "I cannot possibly eat all of that, Henry," she smiled.

"Doctor's orders, you are eating for two, remember. I know you haven't had a decent meal in days." He was enjoying being with her and wouldn't let the ladies take over the feeding.

"The baby is so tiny, he cannot possibly need all of this," she insisted.

"All right, just a few more bites?" he smiled as he fed her a spoonful. He couldn't stop smiling, after the days of worrying and searching for her.

"Where are we?" she asked after she ate it.

"Château de la Roche-Guyon, it belongs to a local noble family, the Silly's. You will meet them before we leave. The doctor wants to wait at least a week before allowing you or Nicole to travel. Then we will travel to Fontainebleau by barge. It will be easier on you both than riding."

"May I see my step-mother before we leave?"

Henry was shocked. "Why would you want to see her? She is dead."

"To make sure she is dead, I suppose."

"I saw her. She is definitely dead, Danielle. I don't think it is a good idea," he said gently.

"How did she die?" Danielle asked tearfully.

Henry didn't understand how Danielle could cry for that woman, after all she had done. "She rushed one of the men with a dagger and he killed her with his sword."

"Why would she do that? It doesn't make any sense. A woman with a dagger is no match for a man with a sword."

Henry smiled at that, remembering that Danielle had taken Le Pieu's dagger from him and used it to affect her release. "I expect she preferred a quick death to being imprisoned, tried and executed."

"Well, why didn't he disarm her instead of killing her?" she wondered.

Henry was immensely pleased that Danielle seemed to be back to herself, but he didn't want to tell her that Le Pieu had goaded Rodmilla into attacking, just so he had an excuse to kill her. "These things sometimes happen fast. 'Tis easier to kill than to disarm. Soldiers are trained to kill."

"Who killed her, was it someone I know?" she thought maybe she might ask him about it. She feared it might have been Henry.

Henry rolled his eyes, Danielle had once again boxed him in, "It was Pierre Le Pieu."

"Pierre Le Pieu? What was he doing there? Was he involved in our abduction?" she was obviously upset.

"No, Danielle." He took her hands, "He was not involved. He was at a tournament nearby with his men and came to offer his aid for the search. I overheard them talking before she rushed him and he was furious at her for lying to him about you being a servant. He vowed he would make sure that she never hurt you again."

"Are you certain? I always prayed that someday she would come to love me as a daughter. It wasn't until she came to see me in his dungeon that I realized it would never happen. She didn't care that he was planning to force himself upon me," she shuddered violently at the memory. "I can't believe she is dead. He wasn't involved? I think I am too tired to think about all of this now." She put her hands on her temples. "Will there be a funeral for her? I have a horrible headache," she whispered tearfully, switching randomly between past, present and future.

Henry put aside the food tray and tucked her into bed. "You have been through a lot. Take a rest. We'll talk about it later."

"Will you hold me while I sleep? I need you to hold me."

"Of course I will, sweetheart," he removed his boots and climbed into bed, enfolding her into his arms.

Two weeks later, they arrived at the summer palace of Château Fontainebleau. It was close enough for easy access to Paris, but without the heat, smells and pestilence of a summer in the city. They took a barge most of the way and mounted horses for the last mile to the palace. They took a very slow ride through the town to the palace. Danielle road pillion with Henry and Nicole road with the Marquis de Limoges, as Henry wasn't convinced that either of them was up to riding by themselves, even over such a short distance. Danielle was still suffering from dizzy spells, and Nicole hadn't regained sufficient strength in her injured arm to control a horse. Danielle and Nicole were seen by many courtiers and townspeople, happy to see they both appeared well after their ordeal.

Danielle was excited to see Fontainebleau. She had heard much about it from the King. This huge palace, with its painted galleries and artwork, was a passion of the King's. When the palace came into view, Danielle's breath was taken away. "Oh, Henry, it is beautiful. Home at last?" she teased him.

"Home? You have never been here before, Princess," he laughed.

"'Tis one of your homes, so therefore 'tis mine, as well," she smiled, hugging him.

Henry smiled adoringly at his wife, happy to have her back and especially pleased that she had referred to the palace as her home, simply because it was one of his. He remembered how overwhelmed she had been the first few weeks at the Louvre Palace.

That night, just after they had gone to bed, Danielle said to Henry, "I have been so worried about the baby these last few weeks, Henry."

Henry gave her a hug. She hadn't talked about the baby much since her rescue. He knew that she had been forced to ride long hours on a horse and been mistreated by her step-mother and possibly by the mercenaries, as well. He hadn't asked her about that and she hadn't mentioned it. He was very thankful that she hadn't lost the baby as a result. "I know. He must be a fighter, like his mother."

She smiled at that thought. "I am still surprised that I didn't lose the baby after all of that riding, Henry. He must be a fighter. Earlier today, when we were riding into Fontainebleau, I felt him moving inside me. It was the strangest sensation."

He sat up, looking at her excitedly and touching her rounded belly, "You did? That is wonderful!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, it really made me realize that he is real. That he did survive. A real little person is growing inside of me," she laughed, covering Henry's hand with her own. "I think he must like riding as much as his father does."

"Ha-ha! He does, does he? At what age do you think we can get him a pony?"

Danielle was quiet for a bit. "I do wonder if I will be there. My mother died in childbed, my step-mother told me I probably would, too," she said quietly.

"Danielle, you are much stronger than your mother was. Your aunt said that she was seriously ill and nearly died a year earlier. As for anything your step-mother said: DO NOT BELIEVE IT. You have said yourself that she lied as easily as she breathed. She said that only to hurt you. Your aunt has had three healthy children and is fine herself. We have the best doctors and midwives in the country," Henry reminded her.

"Yes, all of that makes sense, but I still worry about it."

"Yes, I imagine most women worry about it; just don't let the fears rule you." Losing her was also his biggest fear; he couldn't bear to contemplate it. It was a risk best left unsaid.

"I won't, I promise. Will we be staying here or travelling to Paris for Christmas?"

"I thought you might like to spend a few weeks at Hautefort before we travel to Paris, if you are up to the travel, that is."

"Oh, could we? I would love that," she smiled.

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 28 of 35

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