The huge castle was completely silent except for the muffled noise of the servants shuffling around in the room upstairs. Henry was pacing nervously back and forth in one of the long hallways while Gustave sat in the same hallway, trying vainly to paint a picture. Finally the young artist threw down his brush, splattering paint on the castle floor.
"What is going on?" he exclaimed. "I haven't heard a single sound for over half an hour!"
Henry continued to pace back and forth, not answering Gustave. He was, himself, wondering at this, but concluding that his wife was fighting back any noise that would show her pain so that he would not feel uneasy. He couldn't decide which he would hate more: hearing or not hearing her, knowing she was holding her pain back behind clenched teeth. But Danielle was strong. He knew she would survive having this child. Their child.
Gustave picked up his paint brush again but laid it aside. He was too anxious about his friend to paint anything.
Danielle clenched the sheet of the bed in her hand. It took all her strength to stay quiet but she didn't want to worry Henry or Gustave. This baby would come, she knew it.
"Henry," she muttered.
"What, my lady?" the servant asked.
"HENRY!" Danielle screamed, letting out some of the tension that seemed to threaten to explode her.
Henry and Gustave both jumped and began to run up the stairs to Danielle's room. Danielle called Henry's name again when he burst in the door and dropped to the floor next to her bed. Gustave stayed in the doorway for a moment and then left, but he remained in the hallway outside Danielle's room, nervously pacing and trying to listen with his hand in a fist against his mouth.
Henry took Danielle's hand and kissed it.
"I'm here, my love," he whispered. "I'm here, Danielle."
"Henry," Danielle muttered, "don't leave me."
"I won't, dearest."
"It hurts, Henry."
"I know, love, I know." The young king pushed a lock of hair away from Danielle's damp brow. "Just try not to think of it."
Danielle took a deep breath and tried to think of other things. She thought of her father and Gustave and Henry and she thought over the things that had happened during her life. It was then that she realized something.
"Papa, tell me a story!" young Danielle begged.
"But I've run out of stories to tell!" her father countered.
"No you haven't! You're just making it up! You must not love me anymore if you don't want to tell me a story." Danielle made such a pathetic face that her father could only laugh.
"All right, come here," he sighed, pulling her onto his lap. "Now, what story do you want to hear?"
Little Danielle looked so perplexed that anyone would have thought that the fate of the earth rested on her decision.
"You see!" her father exclaimed. "I have run out of stories!"
"Tell me about when I was born."
The request came so suddenly and was so unlike any of her usual requests that it was her father's turn to be perplexed.
"Tell me, papa!"
How could his little girl know what he felt when he remembered? How could he explain the extreme joy and sorrow remembering the happiest and saddest day of his life? It had been the day that he lost the most amazing woman in his life and gained the other. He would try.
"Well, we had been very busy all that week picking apples. There were many that year, and I hadn't gotten much rest. I was out in the orchard when one of the servants ran to me, saying that you were being born. I don't think I've ever run so fast in my life as I did then, still carrying a basket full of apples. I heard you crying and I ran into the room, but I tripped as I went in and I fell. All the apples went flying all over me. I looked up at your Mama and even though she was tired she laughed.
"She said: 'Come meet your daughter when you aren't too busy ruining our apples.' Seeing you lying there was one of the happiest moments of my life."
"Hold still, child!"
"Oh, Louise, how can I when it's apple picking day!?" Six year old Danielle began jumping up and down on her bed, still in her nightgown.
"You had better hold still or you shan't be able to pick any apples!"
This idea frightened the young girl into stillness long enough for Louise to help her into her dress. Then Danielle resumed her cheerfulness and ran downstairs.
"Papa! It's apple picking day!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, yes, I know! And we shall have the finest apples in all of France!" her father answered, catching on to his daughter's enthusiasm, and catching onto her, he swung her around in the air.
In not too long the entire household was outside looking for the ripest apples to pick. Danielle looked about her when finally her eyes rested on what she was sure was the biggest, juiciest, most wonderful apple in the entire world. However, it was also on the highest branch of what she thought must be the tallest tree in the world. But this wasn't an obstacle for Danielle; it was a challenge.
Defiantly she ripped a strand of fabric from the common dress she used for picking apples and used it to tie her hair into a messy knot at her neck. She then bundled her skirts up and began to climb the huge tree. She decided she would give the apple to her father as soon as she could.
She finally reached the top of the tree and found a makeshift seat next to the wonderful apple. She paused to catch her breath and looked down to see how far she had climbed. When she did look down she saw a boy about her own age looking into her basket of apples which she had left at the foot of the tree. The boy picked up one of the apples and looked around, which Danielle guessed was to see if anyone would notice him stealing.
"Those aren't yours!" Danielle yelled from the top of the tree.
The boy jumped and looked up to see who was yelling at him from the sky. Once he saw Danielle his face twisted in confusion.
"What're you doing up there?"
"What does it matter to you? Now give me back my apple!"
"You're the funniest looking boy I've ever seen!" The boy's eyes widened in shock. "And you're in a dress!"
"Once I get down there I'll whip you good!" Danielle exclaimed angrily. The boy took off running with the apple still in hand. Danielle nearly slid down the tree and the second her feet hit the ground she took off running towards him. Within a few minutes she overtook him and, wrapping her arms around him, sent the both of them flying to the ground and straight into a puddle.
"Give me back my apple!" Danielle screamed, shaking the wits out of the young boy. Needless to say, by this time the apple had fallen from the boys hand and was quite ruined.
"Danielle, what is going on?!" The strong arms of her father hoisted Danielle off of the boy and held up the struggling girl.
"Let me go, Papa, he is a thief!"
"A thief, is he? Is this true, boy?"
"N-no, sir," the nervous boy stammered. "I didn't know they were her apples."
"There, Danielle, you see?"
"He's lying, Papa!"
"Am not!" the boy cried indignantly.
"Stop it now, the both of you!" Danielle's father set his daughter gently down on the ground but firmly held her shoulder's to keep her from jumping on the boy again.
"I saw him, Papa! He picked up my apple and looked around to see if anyone was watching! He would have stolen it, too, if I hadn't stopped him!"
"What's your name, young man?" Danielle's father asked the boy.
"Gustave, sir. I picked up the apple and looked around to see who it belonged to, but I didn't see anyone."
"Did you have any intention of taking it?"
"A little but only if it didn't belong to anyone. I was looking for a good apple to try to paint a picture of."
"Now, Danielle, I don't want you tackling anyone else until you know their story. All right?"
"Good. Now, Gustave, would you like to help us pick apples? We'll even give you one to paint a picture of."
"Yes sir! I'll help!"
"Oh, and, where do you live?" Danielle's father asked before turning to leave.
"We just moved into the house down the road, sir," Gustave answered.
"So will we be seeing more of you?"
"I would like to see more of you if it's alright, sir."
"Perhaps you and Danielle will learn to get along. For now, you must learn how to pick apples together."
"PAPA!" Danielle cried, horrified at this idea. Her father simply laughed and walked away.
"So, your name is Danielle?" Gustave probed.
"Yes but it doesn't matter since we shall never see each other again," she answered sullenly, crossing her arms.
"Yes, what is it?" she answered more coldly than she intended.
"I'm sorry I was going to take your apple and I'm sorry I called you a funny looking boy, but you did look like a boy up there. I'm still sorry, though." This apology was so tender and heartfelt that Danielle had to give in.
"It's alright," she answered, warming up to Gustave. "Just know that whatever I am I can still whip you!"
"Ha!" he cried in defiance and took off running again. Of course Danielle took this as a challenge and took off after him.
Overall the two children got very few apples picked that day but no one really minded. Still, Danielle insisted on climbing up the tree and picking the glorious apple, but instead of giving it to her father she gave it to Gustave to paint, and from that day forward Danielle and Gustave were the fastest friends in all France.
Danielle slept peacefully on the cold stone floor in front of the fireplace. Utopia lay open in her hand as she had fallen asleep reading it the night before. As the rooster crowed she wearily lifted her head, not once thinking that this day would be one of the most important days of her young life. She sat up and looked out the window, with Utopia still in her hand. Gently she closed the precious book and laid it aside.
Once she was ready she went outside to begin the days' chores. She fed the pigs then went to gather apples. She smiled fondly as she remembered how she used to love gathering apples with her father and Gustave and all the servants. Life seemed so much simpler back then.
As she kneeled on the ground, choosing the best apples, a host of men on horses rode by suddenly. She wondered where they were going as she watched them but did not give much thought to it. When all the apples were gathered into her apron she took off for the house.
Suddenly the sound of a horse snorting and a man talking drew her attention.
"C'mon!" the man yelled at the horse as the animal jumped the hedge. With surprise Danielle realized that it was her father's horse the man was on.
"Oh no you don't!" she said determinedly as she ran back down the stairs she had just come up. The man urged the horse faster and faster. Danielle ran to where she could get a good aim at the thief as he road by. The apples she had worked so hard to gather began to fall out of her apron. Finally she simply let go, letting the rest of the apples fall to the ground; all but one.
She took the single apple and brought it back behind her, taking aim at the stranger. As he got closer she hurled the apple straight at the man. It did not miss its target.
With a cry the man toppled backwards off the horse, his purple cloak flying out behind him. He rolled on the ground, trying to get up again, becoming a tangled mess of cloak and straw.
"Thief!" Danielle accused angrily as she bent down to pick up another apple. "This will teach you to steal my father's horse!" She hurled the second apple hitting the stranger in the head which happened to be covered by his long cloak.
The stranger flipped his cloak back to where it belonged but kept his hood over his face. "Please, my own has slipped his shoe and I have no choice!" he explained hurriedly, trying to dodge the flying apples which Danielle kept throwing at him.
"And our choice is what? To let you?" Danielle responded angrily, never ceasing to throw more apples.
The man went behind the horse, trying to find shelter. "I was merely borrowing it!" he tried to explain from behind the animal.
"Get out!" Danielle exclaimed, skillfully hitting his foot from between the horse's legs. "Or I'll wake the house!"
Another apple to the head sent the man flying down to the ground again and onto his back. He got to his feet, flinging his cloak behind him and trying to regain his balance. His hood had fallen back and he faced Danielle squarely. She dropped to her hands and knees, terrified at realizing that she had been throwing apples at the prince of France.
"Forgive me, Your Highness, I did not see you," she said, only looking up for a moment.
"Your aim would suggest otherwise," he responded, rubbing his head.
"And for that I know I must die," she answered, still terrified.
As the prince took the horses reins he looked over at her, surprised at how far she was taking things and not exactly sure how to respond.
"Then, uh, speak of this to no one, and, uh, I shall be lenient," he responded, simply wanting to get away as soon as possible. With that he climbed into the saddle again.
"We have other horses, Highness," Danielle said. "Younger, if that is your wish." She did not want to see her father's horse taken away, as the animal was, besides Utopia, one of the only things she still had of her father's.
"I wish for nothing more than to be free of my gilded cage," the prince replied coldly. Danielle wondered if perhaps he was referring to the castle but by his tone she guessed that he was simply speaking of his entire life. He took a bag of gold and poured it out in front of Danielle. "For your silence," he explained. With that he galloped away.
Danielle supposed she would not see him again, never imagining how important he would become in her life or that she would one day marry him.
"Apples, Henry," Danielle muttered through clenched teeth.
"What about apples, dearest?" Henry asked, quite confused.
"Go get apples!" Danielle pleaded.
"What for, love?"
"Just get them!" she exclaimed. Henry gave the servants a questioning glance but they could only shrug their shoulders. Still confused Henry left the room. Gustave met him in the hallway.
"What is it, Henry?"
"Apples," Henry replied, shrugging his shoulders.
"Danielle told me to go get apples."
"Then we will go get her the very best apples we can!" Gustave said resolutely, not knowing why his friend wanted them but determined to go to the end of the earth if he had to to get her some. Henry smiled and followed Gustave out.
In fifteen minutes the two returned, each carrying as many apples as they could hold. They rushed into Danielle's room and dumped them into a basket. Gustave arranged them nicely while Henry returned to Danielle's bedside.
"We have the apples, dearest."
An hour later a baby's cry sounded through the castle.
"It's a boy, my lady," the servant said, beaming, as she laid the tiny, squirming bundle in Danielle's arms. The young queen looked down at her son and looked over at the apples. She reached over and took one of them, holding it in front of her son. Now she could say that when she met the four greatest men in her life, there were apples there.