Continuing Tales

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 9 of 35

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In Pursuit of Ever After

Three weeks after the masque, and one week after calling off the search, Henry agreed to the Spanish marriage treaty. What did it really matter who he married, now that Danielle was dead because of him? He would never be able to forgive himself for not listening to her. First on the steps to the ball when she had said she needed to speak with him, or a few minutes later when she had whispered to him "I can explain;" and then her plaintiff, tearful "Henry, please!" The last words he would ever hear her say. Those words and the look of hurt on her face as she turned and ran from his anger would haunt him forever. Every time he closed his eyes, she was there.

Henry had spent hours reading all of Danielle's journals. Only the first half of the first book had been in French. The last few French entries had been about her new step-family. She had looked forward to their arrival as if it were Christmas; full of hope and the expectation of a loving mother and sisters. She had switched to Latin after her father's death, a mere two weeks after the Baroness' arrival, knowing her step-mother's Latin was very poor, she said. Henry was physically ill reading some of the things she had been through. The Baroness had whipped to death a servant who had stood up for Danielle, right in front of her eight year old step-daughter. How had she survived growing up? He was amazed at how gracefully she had taken ten years of abuse from the Baroness and still managed to believe in the possibilities of tomorrow. Hope for the future was ever present in the journals. He had somehow managed to destroy that hope in a few days, causing her to take her own life.

He knew he would spend the rest of his life trying to live up to being the kind of man she had once believed him capable of being. He had read the last few entries in the journals so many times in the last week that he had them memorized. Her reflections on meeting him in the orchard and being terrified that he would punish her severely for pelting him with the apples to her thinking him an 'angel of mercy' for providing the money to free Maurice. Next, she had described her feelings in the courtyard when she had first enchanted him. She had been overjoyed that he came along and intervened, but was worried he might recognize her. At first, all she could think of was how to get away, until they began talking. She had been amused at his request for 'a name, any name,' so that gave her the idea to use her mother's name.

By far the hardest entry for him to read was the last. Recounting their day at the monastery, the encounter with the gypsies and revealing her intentions to confess all to him the next day at Amboise. She talked about knowing she was risking her own heart by agreeing to the trip, but being unable to resist the opportunity to spend more time with him. She talked of their magical first kiss and how it would live in her heart forever. She agonized over how to confess the truth to him. Her fears of possibly hurting him. Seeing the soft look in his eyes turn hard and angry.

'How well I lived up to that fear,' he thought again, disgusted with himself. 'If only I could go back to Amboise and insist she tell me why she was so upset, followed her immediately when she ran off…'

Marguerite's Dilemma

Rodmilla had been relieved that no one had questioned her too thoroughly after the debacle at the masque. It had been a stroke of genius to have Le Pieu's men go after her while she and Marguerite were still present at the masque. No one suspected she had a thing to do with the disappearance. She knew that a search had been made for Danielle and that she was presumed dead. She suspected that M. Le Pieu had arranged the evidence. A pity Danielle would never have been so helpful as to kill herself. Given that Le Pieu had gone to so much trouble to fake her death, he must be keeping her well hidden away.

The day the announcement of the betrothal between Prince Henry and Princess Gabriella of Spain was made the Baroness was beside herself. "If only that little wretch, Danielle, had not interfered I'm sure he would have chosen you, Marguerite! I should have sold her to Le Pieu years ago instead of waiting until after her spectacle at the masque," she fumed.

Rodmilla had never bothered to censor herself around Marguerite, believing they were cut from the same cloth and knowing that Marguerite wanted to be queen as much as her mother did. Marguerite had been raised as a selfish, spoiled child. She had never thought twice about Danielle's life or how unfair it was that she had been made a servant in her own father's house.

Something her mother said, this once, touched a deeper part of her. Marguerite had become accustomed to men looking at her appreciatively by the time she was twelve or thirteen, but M. Le Pieu had always looked at her in a way that made her skin crawl. To think that her mother had considered selling Danielle to him made her uncomfortable.

"Mother, why did M. Le Pieu return all of the items you had sold to him?" she asked.

"Why, in payment for Danielle, of course. Do not fret about it, dear. The Prince isn't married yet. He broke the Spanish engagement once. He can do it again if we give him enough inducement."

Marguerite went to her room and reflected upon all her mother had said. She had sold Danielle to the odious M. Le Pieu? He had returned all of the household items days after Danielle had disappeared. Was it possible her mother had really sold Danielle? Knowing how she felt when M. Le Pieu simply looked at her, Marguerite tried to put herself in Danielle's shoes for the first time in her life. Empathy was a novel experience for the self-centered Marguerite.

'Is Danielle really at Le Pieu's?' she wondered. 'If she truly fell into the river and drowned, then there really is no need to tell anyone.'

That night Marguerite's sleep was continually disturbed by vivid nightmares of Danielle being beaten and abused at Le Pieu's hands.

In the morning Marguerite decided to talk to Jacqueline about her dreams and what their mother had said. Jacqueline was horrified at what Marguerite told her and began to cry. "Jacqueline, get a hold of yourself! We must find out if 'tis possible that she is still alive. Do you think we could get anyone to let us see the dress? We would certainly know if it really was Danielle's dress."

Jacqueline immediately thought of Capt. Laurent. She hadn't seen him since the masque, but thought he might help. "I could try asking Capt. Laurent, Prince Henry's guard. He might be able to help."

"Get dressed, Jacqueline. We head to court right after breakfast."

As the girls arrived at court, they asked around for Capt. Laurent. The Queen happened to be nearby and heard them asking for Henry's guard. She assumed they were trying to affect a meeting with her son and decided to put a stop to the plan immediately. She knew Henry didn't need anyone around who would remind him of the disaster at the masque and she couldn't think of anyone worse than Marguerite and the Baroness. She still considered them both responsible for the girl's untimely death.

The Queen approached the girls, intending to send them home. "Good morning, ladies."

"Your Majesty," both girls curtseyed to the Queen.

"I heard you asking after Capt. Laurent. What is it you want with him?" the queen asked.

"Your Majesty, we have possible news about Danielle's disappearance and we-" the Queen took Marguerite by the arm as she was speaking and propelled her inside, with Jacqueline following. The Queen marched the girls to her apartments and closed the doors, leaving the three of them alone.

"My son is devastated over Danielle's death and you will not be speaking of it with him, is that clear?" she said firmly.

"Yes, Your Majesty," the girls said humbly together.

"Now, what is this 'news' you say you have?"

"My mother told me yesterday that she sold Danielle to M. Le Pieu after the masque," Marguerite said.

The Queen was shocked and sat down to digest this story. Marguerite was not a reliable source, but she could think of no reason Marguerite would invent such a story.

Jacqueline spoke up, "Your Majesty, we were hoping that Capt. Laurent would be able to show us the dress that was recovered, so we could determine if it is really Danielle's. We have both seen it before. It was her mother's wedding dress. We had no intention of seeing the Prince."

The Queen made up her mind that this merited looking into, but she didn't want to involve Henry and raise any false hopes. "Wait here," she directed the girls as she went to the door and spoke to a guard. "I have sent for Capt. Laurent and the King. We will see what they have to say about this." The Queen paced restlessly while waiting for the men to arrive. Capt. Laurent arrived first. She instructed him to go get the remains of Danielle's dress, without Henry knowing. Capt. Laurent threw Jacqueline a puzzled glance and left to retrieve the dress. He returned minutes later with the remnants of the dress. "Prince Henry wasn't in his room, so he doesn't know I borrowed these, Your Majesty."

"Thank you, Captain. Please bring it over here," she indicated a large writing desk by a bright window.

Capt. Laurent carefully unwrapped the dress fragments and laid them out. The Queen motioned for the girls to come over and examine the dress.

Jacqueline started crying softly and Marguerite confirmed, "Yes, that is Danielle's dress. Why would my mother say she sold her if it isn't true?" Marguerite wondered aloud.

The King had entered during this exchange.

Capt. Laurent exploded at Marguerite, "Sold her? What are you talking about?"

"What is this all about?" the King demanded.

The Queen, meanwhile, was examining the dress. "If Danielle was wearing this dress when it went into the river and was torn on the bushes, the laces would have been tied at the time. This back portion of the dress is clearly ripped, but there are no laces and no trauma where the laces would have been ripped out."

Everyone turned to the Queen, and then Capt. Laurent and the King examined the dress. "Are we saying that someone planted this dress to make us think Danielle was dead?" Capt. Laurent asked.

"Who? Danielle?" the King questioned. "Was she afraid we would hunt her down?"

"Your Majesty, I'm afraid my mother may have sold Danielle to Pierre Le Pieu, according to some things she said to me last night," Marguerite said.

"Danielle has been gone for three weeks," Jacqueline cried.

Capt. Laurent went around the table and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. To the King and Queen he said, "I think we need to inform Prince Henry, Your Majesties."

"Shouldn't we wait until we know for certain?" the Queen said.

"Inform me of what?" Henry asked as he crossed the room to the group at the table. He was shocked to see Marguerite in his mother's apartment and immediately mistrusted her motives. Henry had come to escort his mother to a formal meeting with the Spanish Ambassador to discuss the wedding arrangements.

Henry saw the remains of Danielle's dress on the table and asked his question again, more forcefully this time. "Inform me of what? Why is Danielle's dress in here?" He looked at his father.

The King began, "Now Henry, I don't want you to get your hopes up. Danielle has been gone for three weeks. It is possible that someone planted these pieces of her dress for us to find, hoping to make us believe she was dead."

"What makes you think that? We have reports of people seeing her jump." Henry refused to let the hope take hold. It would be too painful to lose her yet again.

"Examining the dress, it appears that it was not laced when it was torn. She couldn't have been wearing it when it went into the water." Henry picked up the tattered wing and torn dress fragment, examining it carefully. The King paused here to let it sink in before delivering the final bit of news. "Also, Marguerite tells us that the Baroness told her last night that she sold Danielle to Pierre Le Pieu after the masque."

Prince Henry turned and advanced menacingly on Marguerite. "Would you make up a story like this?" he demanded. "You certainly seemed to delight in tormenting Danielle," he was remembering stories from Danielle's journals. "Don't imagine I didn't notice your satisfied expression after your mother's scene at the masque," he accused.

Marguerite had backed away as the Prince approached, fear in her eyes. She stopped when she bumped into Capt. Laurent, who had moved behind her. "I am not making this up, Your Highness. My mother told me last night that she wished she had sold Danielle to M. Le Pieu years ago when he first asked instead of waiting until after the masque. My mother has been selling silver, furniture and artwork from the manor to M. Le Pieu for months. He returned a cartload of those items as payment for Danielle a few days after the masque. I didn't sleep well last night. I was distressed by nightmares of what could be happening to her. This morning Jacqueline and I decided we needed to see the dress to determine if it really was hers."

"You both heard the Baroness say that she sold Danielle to Le Pieu?" he demanded, his blood turning to ice. Henry knew Le Pieu had a well known reputation for abusing women unlucky enough to run afoul of him.

"No, Your Highness. She would never speak so freely in front of Jacqueline. She only did so in front of me because she was upset over your betrothal announcement. She was lamenting that she hadn't gotten rid of Danielle sooner, so you would never have met her," Marguerite continued.

This all crystallized into a very believable, horrifying possibility. Could Danielle really still be alive and at the mercy of Le Pieu? Had he failed her yet again? Left her at the mercy of a man like Le Pieu for three weeks? "We have to go to Château Beynac and look for her. The Spanish Ambassador will have to excuse me," he said, this looking at his father. He was terrified to even imagine what she had been enduring for three weeks, if this were true.

"Yes. Of course. Go after her. I don't know if you will meet any resistance, but Le Pieu is well armed and his château is formidable. He apparently went to a lot of trouble to take her and make us think she was dead. Ride with your normal personal guard, Henry, but bring an additional force riding behind in case you need help," the King advised.

"You two ladies will be remaining at Hautefort as the Queen's guests. We will send a note to your mother. No one is to speak of this matter, is that understood?" the King instructed.

Everyone agreed. The Prince and Capt. Laurent left to marshal a rescue party. The King and Queen left for their meeting with the Ambassador and the girls were escorted to a suite of rooms nearby.

Thirty minutes later, just as the King and Queen greeted the ambassador, Henry left the palace with over fifty soldiers. They rode hard for Château Beynac. When they were within a mile the large group slowed to a walk, while Henry and his guard continued at full speed. They didn't want to alert Le Pieu that a large force was approaching.

For Danielle the day started as had nearly every day of the last three weeks. A meager breakfast followed by several hours of chores. After polishing a group of swords, she was escorted to a room off of Beynac's great hall, where M. Le Pieu awaited her. Danielle carried the bundle of swords and placed them on a long, central table.

Getting up Le Pieu said, "Oh, I do hate to see you in irons. I'd remove them, if only you'd promise not to run away again."

"I have no reason to stay," she said.

"You belong to me, now," he waved the key to her irons in front of her.

"I belong to no one, least of all you," she said as she tried to walk away.

He came around the table, cutting her off. "Oh, I do wish you'd reconsider my offer."

"I would rather rot," she stated calmly.

He stepped closer, touching her hair. "I had a horse like you, once. Magnificent creature." Danielle turned her back to him. "Stubborn, just like you. Willful to a fault. It, too, just needed to be… broken," he advised her, as he picked up a lock of her hair and buried his face in it.

"You will maintain your distance, sir," she stated with conviction.

"Oh, you didn't say 'please,'" he taunted.

She reached back carefully, taking his dagger from his belt. Spinning around quickly she held it to his throat. "Please," she said.

"I could hang you for this," he said calmly.

"Not if you are dead," she said with determination.

A fire lit in his eyes. "I do love your spirit," he said as he slammed her hand holding the dagger aside. He grabbed at her, trying to kiss her, inflamed with impatient desire.

While he was trying to kiss her, Danielle pulled her hand free. She slashed at his face with the dagger, showing a skill and determination he couldn't credit to a young woman. He stumbled back in surprise, bleeding profusely. He hadn't believed she would dare to use the dagger so swiftly.

Danielle spun around and grabbed one of the swords from the table. She brandished it at him, forcing him back into a chair. "My father was an expert swordsman, monsieur. He taught me well. Now, hand me that key, or I swear on his grave: I will slit you… from navel to nose," she traced her intended path with the tip of the sword. Her voice and gestures were calm, steady, and determined, informed by ten years of restrained anger.

He looked at her, astonished. Respect dawned in his eyes. He held out the key to her irons. "Your freedom, My Lady."

In Pursuit of Ever After

A Ever After Story
by Funkypurplerhino

Part 9 of 35

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