HAPPILY

An Ever After story

by Rachel Smith Cobleigh

1

Hunched low over Féroce's neck, Henry thundered down the country lane, keeping a firm tension on the reins as the horse galloped towards the gloomy keep that rose above the late-morning mists. Henry threw a quick glance over his shoulder: Laurent and the rest of his guardsmen were close behind, their expressions grim, clods of dirt flying up under their horses' hooves. Satisfied, Henry squinted ahead and rose slightly above the saddle, tightening the reins a notch and urging Féroce to lengthen his stride. Every second mattered.

Henry galloped over the rise and Le Pieu's castle lay before him, a few thin peasants clothed in sagging browns and greys moving about their business near the gate. There were two burly, black-clothed guards leaning against the stonework, but they had only moments to push themselves up, shocked, as the royal guards came thundering through the archway. People scattered to either side of the entrance, and Henry pulled Féroce up, pausing to get his bearings. The entrance to the keep was on the far side of the upper courtyard. Henry quickly dismounted and gave the reins to Laurent, who hurried to accept them.

Where was she? Henry jogged up the incline looking for more guards, but none appeared.

Striding across the barren courtyard, his heart was in his throat and his hand was on his sword when he saw Danielle emerge from the keep. Acrid smoke drifted through the air between them, and he squinted as he took in her appearance. Her dress was soiled, her long hair unbound and dirty. She walked towards him with rounded shoulders, her gaze fixed on the ground and an odd sort of half-smile on her face, but when she lifted her eyes and saw him, her steps faltered, and she touched her hair before looking down again.

He drew closer, glancing around, but there was no sign of anyone else in the courtyard. He frowned. Wasn't she being kept against her will? Where were her captors? He stopped a few feet away from her.

"Hello," he said.

"Hello." She stared at him.

He looked more closely at her. She seemed so tired, so unlike the alert, passionate woman that he had known.

"What are you doing here?" Danielle asked, her tone a mix of confusion and disbelief.

Henry glanced towards the dark doorway where she'd appeared, but no one else had come out after her.

"I, um...came to rescue you," he answered, feeling a fool.

"Rescue me?" Her face contorted into confusion of a different sort. "A commoner?" Frowning in disbelief, she stepped to the side, continuing past him.

He sagged slightly as he turned. "Actually, I came to beg your forgiveness."

But Danielle only walked on, her weary pace unchanged. As he watched her back, bowed and dirty, he imagined the delicate faerie wings from her beautiful costume at the masque, one wing cruelly ripped off by the Baroness. Danielle's back had rounded then, too, when he had allowed that public abuse and had refused to defend her. Instead, he had taken a step back and watched her crumble, shamed and spurned as she fled the castle, weeping.

He winced and took a few tentative steps towards her. "I offered you the world and at the first test of honour, I betrayed your trust." When she still didn't pause, his gut twisted. "Please, Danielle!"

At this, she stopped and turned. "Say it again."

Henry's voice broke. "I'm sorry." It wasn't enough. It would never be enough.

"No," Danielle said, shaking her head. A tiny smile tugged at her lips. "The part where you said my name." She gave him a small, tired smile now and he grinned with still-uncertain relief.

"Danielle," he repeated, loving her all the more. Her forgiveness, the simplicity of her request—yes, this was the woman he loved.

As she laughed softly and closed her eyes with a happy sigh, he reached back and pulled the glass slipper out of his belt, its encrusted beadwork a mixture of smooth and rough textures against his palm. He didn't have a ring with him. All Henry had was this one piece of her, and he held it out reverently, his heart pounding.

"Perhaps you would be so kind as to help me find the owner of this..." He stepped up to her. "...rather remarkable shoe."

She stared at it, stunned, her face tightening as though she were about to cry. "Where did you find that?"

Henry leaned in, infusing each syllable with as much conviction as he could convey. "She is my match in every way," he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. He would beg, if he had to. "Please tell me I haven't lost her."

Danielle looked down, her eyes falling closed, and she shook her head as she turned away. "It belongs to a peasant, Your Highness, who only pretended to be a courtier to save a man's life." She sat down on the low stone wall behind her, sagging, her hands working restlessly in the folds of her stained skirt.

"Yes, well, I—I know. And the name's Henry, if you don't mind."

He held her gaze a moment as she gave him a wistful smile, but then she looked down at her hands and let them fall loose in her lap. Her head and shoulders hung, defeated. He frowned. She didn't believe him. Perhaps she thought him already married? What had Le Pieu told her?

Henry could see the weariness in her frame, the soot on her clothing, the layers of dirt worked into her face and hands. He stood before her dressed in his grandest finery, in the wedding-clothes of a prince, and realised how far away from her he must seem. And yet here he stood, and their appearances, their stations, mattered not a whit.

But after his betrayal, how could she believe him? What more could he do to win her trust? Words weren't enough. He so desperately wanted to reach out and gather her into his arms.

He looked down at the glass slipper for a long moment, and suddenly an idea came to him. Slowly, he sank down until he was crouched before her, one knee on the ground, his face now level with hers. When she looked at him, disbelief warring with hope in her eyes, he swallowed.

"I kneel before you not as a prince, but as a man in love," he said, begging her to understand. Her mouth fell open as she stared at him, and he reached down and lifted her ankle. "But I—" He grasped the heel of the scuffed, dirty brown shoe that encased her small foot. "—would feel like a king—" He heard her sob as he pressed on, tugging the shoe away. She wore thin grey stockings, and there were holes under her toes. "—if you, Danielle de Barbarac—" Now there was a laugh mixed up with the sobs. He laid the shoe aside and waited until she finally lifted her eyes to his. "—would be my wife."

With those words, he slid the beautiful glass slipper over the torn and dirty stocking, and her frame began to shake with soft laughter that quickly became tears. Her features pulled into tight lines as she sobbed, and she buried her face in her hands, shaking her head a little. Henry watched her, not breathing while her sobs tore at him, until she dropped her hands and began to laugh helplessly, her eyes still closed.

Giving a slightly hysterical laugh-sob, Danielle launched herself at him and flung her arms round his neck with a joyful little scream, giggling amidst her tears. He stood up to keep from losing his balance and wrapped his arms around her, soon meeting her every kiss and laughing breathlessly as he spun her in a circle. They could have been flying, exploding outward in every direction for all he knew; he was dizzy with elation and relief.

Actually, he really was getting dizzy. Still laughing, he stopped spinning and set her down, but one look at her glowing expression made him laugh and kiss her again. The light in her eyes! Oh how dearly he loved it, loved her broad, honest smile. She loved him! Despite all of his foolishness and blindness, this magnificent, thrilling creature loved him! The days stretched out before him, now filled with the promise of constant challenge, and humor, and understanding; life lived to the fullest. He marvelled at his wildly good fortune. She had forgiven him!

Sobering, he drew her close and cradled her head against his chest, closing his eyes as he rested his cheek on her hair. The unwashed strands smelled of roasted meat, of a tangy scent—her sweat?—and... Henry frowned and tightened his arms around her. Pipe smoke. Le Pieu.

Henry didn't know what she had endured in these last few days since the masque, and he bit the inside of his lip at the thought that her suffering had taken place because of his cowardice. She hadn't deserved any of this. She had never sought him out, never asked to be noticed, never initiated a single meeting. He had done it all, forcing her into assuming the role of a courtier for far longer than she had ever wanted. She had tried to avoid him, but her elusiveness had only increased his desire to pursue her. And when she had finally worked up the courage to tell him the truth at the masque, his actions had reduced her to these squalid circumstances. It stung him to realise that she must have known something of the sort would likely happen; of course she had avoided him and struggled to trust him with the truth sooner. He had invited her to the masque and had assumed she would come, without once asking her if she wished for such a public spectacle, and when she had put herself at his mercy before the whole court, he had shamed her in the worst way possible.

Dear God, he would spend the rest of his days making it up to her.

By now, Danielle's laughter had quieted as well and she sniffed, reaching up to wipe at her eyes and nose. Her hands were darkened with soot and smelled strongly of an armoury—metal polish?—and the motion left dark smudges on her face. Henry chuckled and fished in his pockets for a handkerchief.

She gave a soft laugh as she accepted it. "Thank you." When she finished wiping her hands and face, the handkerchief was more grey than white. "Oh—" she said, looking at it in dismay. "I'm sorry—"

"Never mind that," Henry said. He found a relatively clean corner and gently wiped around one of her eyes, then smiled and bent to kiss her still-smudged and now tear-streaked cheek. She gave a small moan and he sighed against her skin, something familiar stirring in him. Taking a deep breath, he straightened and looked around. Laurent stood at the edge of the courtyard, a placid smile on his face, holding his own horse's reins in one hand, and Féroce's reins in the other. "Come," Henry said, taking Danielle's hand.

She still appeared a little stunned, and her footsteps were reluctant. He paused to look at her.

"What's wrong?" he asked, then suddenly glanced up at the keep. "Did you leave your belongings behind?"

Danielle gave a short laugh and shook her head. "I have nothing here." With a tentative smile, she stepped forward, tugging his hand now. "I am just trying to convince myself that this isn't all a dream."

Henry laughed. "I assure you it is not. What must I do to prove it?"

"Pinch me."

He twisted to look at her with one eyebrow cocked, then smirked. "I have a better idea."

She started to frown, but he bent and scooped her up, grinning when she gave a tiny shriek and clutched at him reflexively. When he began walking, she finally relaxed and, after shooting a slightly embarrassed glance at Laurent and the waiting guardsmen, she rested her head against Henry's shoulder.

He sighed with contentment. He could have walked with her in his arms forever—except that she was rather heavy and he didn't have much practice carrying people about, and the horses were a goodly distance off. But he was not going to fail her. He tightened his grip, breathed as evenly as he could, and kept walking. Laurent's eyebrows had nearly disappeared up under his cap, but Henry studiously ignored him, measuring his steps and fighting the increasing burn in his arms.

Danielle tightened her grip around his neck and lifted her head to smile at him, and he crossed the final distance with renewed vigor, finally setting her down beside his horse with as smooth and confident a motion as he could. Laurent kept silent, although there was a fond amusement in his expression when Henry finally looked at him. Then Henry paused with a frown. They only had one horse per man; in the rush to mount a rescue party, he hadn't thought to command that an extra horse be brought along.

Laurent beckoned to a couple fellows behind them. "Saultier! Hollande! Bring the bedrolls."

Bedrolls? Henry was surprised that his guards even had them; they weren't intending to spend the night sleeping outdoors. But Laurent, as usual, had planned several steps ahead of him. Saultier and Hollande dismounted, untied the rolled-up blankets behind their saddles, and came over to Féroce, quieting him with reassuring murmurs as Hollande quickly folded his bedroll and laid it across the horse to make a pillion behind the saddle.

Henry nodded his thanks, saying to Danielle, "I'll ride behind." You look exhausted.

He turned to hoist her up, but she only set her mouth in a determined line, put one foot in the stirrup, took a handful of Féroce's mane, and pulled herself up onto his back, tugging up her skirts as she went. She swayed slightly, however, and Henry had to put a hand on her leg to steady her. She shot him a chagrined look and tried to sit up straighter, but he just smiled reassuringly up at her. He could see how she wanted to hide her weariness, but she didn't have to.

Then he swallowed at the sight of her shifting her hips, her long, grey-white pantaloons dangling out from under the dirty blue folds of her overdress, which was now bunched up around her thighs.

And of course Laurent had planned for this as well. Saultier stood nearby with his blanket unfurled, waiting for Henry to mount Féroce. With an amused shake of his head, Henry pulled himself up onto the pillion and settled down behind Danielle, twisting to accept the offered blanket. He made sure she was snugly wrapped in it—given the cool morning air, she was probably more comfortable now anyway—before accepting Féroce's reins from Laurent.

Henry swallowed. Danielle's derriere was firmly resting in the cradle of his legs, her thighs pressed against his. He leaned closer, tightened his legs, and slid one arm around her waist.

"All right?" he murmured beside her ear, and she turned her head slightly with a nod. She settled back against him and he smiled. His wife. She was going to be his wife!

Henry squeezed Féroce's sides and clucked, tugging on the reins. The great grey gelding obliged, turning his head towards home, and soon the rescue party was off, trotting down the road that led from the Le Pieu estate. Henry was relieved that neither the man nor any of his servants had attempted to mount a resistance, although he wasn't surprised. Pierre Le Pieu was a canny businessman and decent swordsman, but he wasn't an idiot. Except when it came to women, apparently. Henry's stomach turned over at the thought that women could be bought and sold in such a crass fashion. It was the sort of horror one would expect from savage foreigners, not red-blooded Frenchmen! He resolved to speak to his father about the matter. Le Pieu would be made to pay for his actions.

But Le Pieu had not been the only one involved in the terrible deed, for someone had sold Danielle. Her cousin, that awful du Ghent woman—but no, the Baroness du Ghent was not Danielle's cousin. She was the lady of the manor; Danielle was only her servant. What a terrible place that house must be to work in! He couldn't imagine his father ever selling the servants. The criminals, certainly, but not the hard-working, God-fearing servants. And Danielle was not the first one in the Baroness's household to be sold like chattel. Hadn't Danielle begun her charade as the elusive Comtesse Nicole de Lancret only to save the life of another servant who had been unjustly condemned? Because of her, Henry himself had been the one to command that the old fellow be released. If she hadn't intervened, and if Henry hadn't helped her, would an innocent man now be enslaved in the Americas, or worse, dead? Henry frowned.

The road from the Le Pieu estate soon joined the main road, and Henry turned Féroce towards home, slowing the horse to a walk. Laurent followed, hanging back a polite distance with the guardsmen, continuing to give Henry and Danielle a measure of privacy to speak freely, as long as they spoke in low tones.

"How are you?" Henry asked.

She gave a soft chuckle. "I am well."

"You must be tired."

"Yes," she said with a sigh, "but I am unhurt."

He closed his eyes briefly in gratitude.

"How did you escape Le Pieu?" he finally asked her, when they were perhaps a half-mile along the main road. "I had expected to find you locked in a tower room somewhere."

Danielle drew in a deep breath and let it out. When she turned her head slightly, he saw a smirk playing on her lips. "The first time, I just ran away. I made it nearly an hour before they caught me." She looked ahead again, her voice sobering. "They locked me up for three days after that, although it was in the root cellar, not in the upper floors of the keep. Then...he enjoyed toying with me, so they put my feet in manacles this morning—he said he'd had the smith make them especially for me—and I was hobbled. I could walk, but..." Her shoulders hunched inside the blanket.

A black fury burned in Henry's chest. If only Le Pieu had resisted! Henry would have relished running him through.

Danielle continued. "He had me doing petty tasks: unnecessary cleaning, tending the fires, waiting on him. Anything to mock me."

Henry nodded, although she couldn't see it. They rode in a silence for a short while, until he said thickly, "Did he...hurt you?"

Danielle lifted her head. "No, nothing beyond the usual."

The usual. Henry's chest tightened, his black thoughts now directed towards the Baroness. Then he frowned, closing his eyes briefly as he considered what his rush to make amends truly meant. Le Pieu might still be a threat, but now one of a different and far more complicated sort: after having Danielle in his power for this long, Le Pieu could make trouble for the succession...

Henry swallowed. "I'll not retract my offer, but tell me truly: did he...touch you?"

"No, he didn't...touch me," she answered quietly. "I didn't let him. Although—" She turned her head towards Henry. "—just before you arrived, he tried. I think he'd finally grown impatient with my refusals, but while he was distracted, I drew his dagger and threatened him with it. He tried to advance on me, but I cut his face." She gave a derisive snort. "The fool had me cleaning his swords. I just picked one up and held him at sword-point until he finally gave me the key to unlock my chain. I told him to go wait by the fire, and to keep his hands in the air. Then I unlocked the manacles, threw them away, and walked outside. That's when you arrived."

"But weren't you afraid he'd come after you?"

Danielle shook her head. "Le Pieu is a bully. Once you expose a man like him as the true coward he is—and you leave him with a bleeding face for all the world to see—" Henry chuckled. "—you've proven yourself too much trouble to bother with."

Henry's bitter humour faded into regret, and he curved around her protectively for a moment.

"I'm so sorry you had to endure that," he murmured. "I'll never let anything so terrible happen to you again."

The sideways smile she gave him was bittersweet. She rested her hand on his leg, giving him a caress, and he drew in a sharp breath. "Oh, my lord, don't make promises you might not be able to keep. Life is filled with pain, one way or another."

Henry frowned. This weary cynicism seemed so unlike the Danielle he knew—or was this the true Danielle? Was the young woman who had been filled with such passion for life just as false a front as the name 'Nicole' had been? His mind spun in a moment of panic—

No, surely not. No one could remain enthusiastic all the time, not even his Danielle. He sighed and relaxed slightly, but still frowned: she was right. Tomorrow was promised to no man. Even so, there was this moment, and it was lovely indeed.

"Life isn't filled with pain," he protested gently, angling his head forward to catch her eye, and she gave him a tight smile. His heart squeezed as he straightened up again. For her, it has been. And he had played a major part in its infliction.

That her light should burn so bright and true in such ugly circumstances filled him with awe, and he wanted to prove himself to her. A proposal was not enough. He must demonstrate his commitment and extend his protection forthwith. There must be no doubt in anyone's mind that she was a princess, and not to be trifled with. The Baroness must not be permitted to exercise any rights over her.

Henry frowned, pressing his lips together. Rushing a royal wedding was not the done thing, but he thought his parents might be willing to make an exception in this case, if they knew the danger Danielle was in, and how much she meant to him. He would convince them.

But only if Danielle herself were willing. A rush of this sort would deprive her of her due as a princess, with the full escort and all the pomp and pageantry of a royal affair. He wondered if they had still held the wedding breakfast banquet after he'd left; all the food had been prepared and there were all those guests to feed. He supposed that most of the nobility had either gone home by now or were making preparations to leave, although the Spanish court would probably remain for another few days, until the treaty negotiations were completed and they could arrange the trip back to Spain. He winced. A treaty that must now be negotiated without the leverage of a marriage to ensure mutual cooperation. His parents must be livid, and he could only imagine what the King and Queen of Spain were thinking right now.

"You're right," Danielle murmured softly, and Henry blinked.

"I'm right?"

"There is joy and beauty, too," she said.

He smiled. "There is now."

Danielle chuckled and twisted to glance at him, giving him a look of fond reprimand, but he only grinned, unrepentant, until her face broke into a wide smile and she elbowed him playfully through the blanket.

Smiling, he shifted the reins to his other hand and settled his free arm around her.

"So..." Danielle began, turning her head towards him. "Your wedding to Princess Gabriella of Spain didn't happen after all? Le Pieu said it was to take place this morning."

"No," Henry answered, giving a short laugh. "That poor woman. I thought I was miserable, but she was wailing so loudly that the whole cathedral echoed with her sobs."

"Oh, how terrible," Danielle murmured.

"It gets worse," he continued. "I was so nervous and relieved that I started laughing..."

Danielle twisted to glare at him. "You didn't!"

He closed his eyes and ran a hand down his face, nodding ruefully. "I did. Then I stood up and pulled her up with me, kissed her very wet cheek, and told her to go be with the man she loved." Henry chuckled. "He was in the Spanish court, attending the wedding. A round, balding little fellow, but they seemed very happy." Henry laughed softly and shook his head as Danielle put up a hand to cover her own giggle. "That's when I resolved to go find you and do the same."

Danielle sighed with contentment as she relaxed back against him. "How did you find me?"

"The Baroness's carriage driver told me you had been sold the morning after the masque, and Jacqueline du Ghent told me Le Pieu was the one who had bought you."

"Ah."

They rode in silence for a short while.

Clearing his throat, he said, "I've been thinking."

"I hear it's a side-effect of all those books," Danielle observed dryly, and he laughed, then sobered.

"No, listen, I'm trying to be serious."

Danielle quirked the edge of her mouth at him, but acquiesced.

"I don't want the Baroness to be able to put any claim on you." A sudden thought struck him. "What of your family? Can anyone protect you?"

Danielle stiffened slightly, then sagged. "No. My mother died shortly after my birth, and my father died ten years ago. The Baroness and her daughters are the only family I have left."

Henry frowned. "Family? But I thought you were only a servant in her household."

"She is my step-mother."

Blinking in confusion, Henry repeated, "Step-mother? But she called you a servant..."

"I have lived as a servant in her household since my father's death."

Henry glared at the road before them and tightened his fist on the reins, causing Féroce's head to jerk up from his placid stride. Henry murmured a quick noise of apology and relaxed his grip. Giving him a reprimanding snort, Féroce returned to walking, his great frame rocking gently with each step.

"Who was your father?" Henry asked, when he had control of his voice again. This changed things considerably. His parents would be relieved to learn that Danielle wasn't truly a peasant by birth.

"Auguste de Barbarac," Danielle replied.

"Not a nobleman?"

"No, only a wealthy merchant. He traded in silks and other fabrics. He was very popular with the courtiers and the nobles across the Continent, and he knew all the best tailors and weavers." Danielle's voice had taken on a wistful quality. "He loved to read, and was very well-educated. He knew German, English, Spanish and Latin, and even a bit of Romani. The gypsies, you see, are traders too, and they know the routes, and where the best of many trades are to be found."

"No wonder you weren't afraid of them," Henry muttered.

"What? Of course I was afraid of them," Danielle replied. "But he once told me how to behave if I ever found myself among them: be bold and clever."

"You are those things all the time."

Danielle gave a soft laugh. "Perhaps that is why he told me to just be myself."

Henry chuckled.

After a moment, she said quietly. "He would have liked you, once he got to know you."

Ahead of them, coming in the opposite direction, was a wagon piled high with hay. Danielle lifted her hand from Henry's thigh and tucked her blanket more securely around her legs. When the wagon neared them, Henry nudged Féroce to their side of the road, the horses behind them falling into single file until the wagon passed. The driver, recognising their livery, gave a small demi-bow, half-rising from his seat as Henry and Danielle passed. Henry nodded, but then the man's eyes flickered curiously over Danielle and Henry frowned, knowing that this would be only the first of many such looks. He was pulling her into his world, where her every action would be scrutinised, her choices both unfairly criticised and held up for undeserved praise. She would be surrounded by layers of pretence and manipulation, by people whose appearance of friendship would be masking the fact that they were seeking advantages that could only be gained from obtaining her favour.

She was such an open and honest soul, and he wondered if the burden the crown would bring would be too heavy for her. Was he being selfish, asking her to become a part of his world?

And yet, he couldn't think of a better way to ensure her safety, and he owed her that, at least.

"I know this might all seem a terrible rush," he began, "and I'll understand if you wish to say no, but..." He drew in a deep breath, exhaled. "Danielle, would you be willing to be wed this very night? I don't wish to force you into anything. This isn't a command, only a question, and I..." He trailed off, uncertain of what more he could say.

He watched her shoulders rise and fall, and then she twisted to look at him, a brilliant smile appearing on her face.

"I would like nothing more."

His heart rose up somewhere in the vicinity of his throat and he had to swallow hard before he could speak.

"Truly?"

She nodded, her gaze falling to his lips. He smiled and pressed a brief kiss to the corner of her mouth before she twisted to sit facing forward again. When he tightened his legs against hers, she obliged him with a provoking wriggle, and they both fell to giggling. He held her close, sighing when her hands pressed against his forearm in a fond caress.

"I must ask my father and mother, of course, and Cardinal de Retz must agree, but I think it should not be too hard to convince them. Mother already loves you."

"What? How? Her Majesty doesn't know me."

"She knows that you have captured my heart, and that I am a better man for it. She said that you are a strong woman to have resisted me for as long as you did. Mother is also a strong woman; she admires those who can stand with equal strength. Not many do."

Danielle chuckled. "No, I wouldn't expect so."

"She will love you."

"And the King?"

"He will, too. Once he gets to know you." Henry squeezed her. "To know you is to love you."

"You are too generous, Your Highness."

"On the contrary, I am quite paltry and selfish. And it's Henry."

"I must have a name for you when I am piqued."

Henry heaved a put-upon sigh, although he was smiling. "Very well. I have a host of names. You may pick one of them. Henry James Jerome Étier Alexandre Phillippe de Valois."

"No, no, that's no fun," Danielle protested. "I must choose something that will put your teeth on edge. You seem so opposed to 'Your Highness', it's difficult to resist."

"I don't mind it generally," Henry replied. "Just when you use it."

"And thus I must."

"Anything else."

Danielle chuckled. "I promise never to use it in public. Will that do?"

"So...you expect to be piqued with me in private?"

"Fully."

Henry made a face. "Well, this is a fine beginning."

"Yes," she said, turning slightly to smile. "It is."

Chuckling, Henry held her close against him as they continued down the road.