Jacqueline climbed from the carriage, taking her time as Rodmilla and Marguerite hurried past to no doubt plan the next attempt at winning the prince. Jacqueline turned from the door, instead making her way to the garden. She knew that everyone would be preparing for supper. It was her chance to speak with Maurice alone.
Maurice moved around the house, walking toward the door to the kitchen. Jacqueline stood next to the door, her face set in a grim expression. As he approached she pulled him out of the way of any who would see. “Maurice, I must get word to Gustave. Tell him to meet me tomorrow, secretly. We will meet by the river, where Danielle picks flowers. Tell no one. And tell him to bring the package I send with you.”
Maurice nodded and waited while Jacqueline rushed to the barn. She returned moments later with a package of brown paper tied with string. She pushed it into Maurice's hands. “Take care of this package. No one must handle it but you and Gustave. Go, quickly.” Jacqueline breathed a sigh and went inside, her heart racing. Maurice would deliver her package. She just had to bide her time until she could meet with Gustave. A sudden thought struck her and Jacqueline rushed up to her room, thoughts of Danielle swirling through her head.
Night was falling. Jacqueline stretched and looked out the window. She was almost done with her task. A knock on the door startled Jacqueline and she shoved everything she had been holding under her bed. “I'm coming.” Looking around as she rushed to the door she took a breath to calm herself and opened it.
The Baroness stood in the doorway, a scowl on her face. “What are you doing? We need water for supper. Now go.”
“But, I was only-”
“Water, now. We don't have time for you to sit around.”
Jacqueline nodded silently and left, pulling her door behind her. She felt what she was sure Danielle had felt. And for the third time since she had begun her task she wondered about her step sister. She was sure that she was no better off now, but she could never imagine just how right she could be. Jacqueline shook her head, watching the water in the pot she had fetched. Such a simple task, boiling water, but the Baroness made it seem the most miserable of tasks.
Jacqueline waited in the kitchen, one of the few places she felt accepted since Danielle had left. Supper was almost finished. She wished the whole affair was over. She thought of the lengths of lace tossed under her bed. The lace she had put away to add to a nice dress for herself. It was now to be used for the wedding. Jacqueline smiled at the thought.
As far as she could tell the plan was going perfectly. Maurice had returned home, assuring her that the package had been delivered with the message. Though Gustave had been reluctant, Maurice had finally persuaded him to agree to the meeting. Jacqueline knew that Paulette and Louise were to go to market. She would meet Gustave, taking him into the market. There they would take the next step that would end Rodmilla's and Marguerite's dreams. Her part was done. It was up to Prince Henry now.
Danielle didn't have the luxuries of her life before, however few. She was treated little better than an animal. Her body ached and her wrists and ankles were often chafed. She lifted another small branch onto the already large bundle in her arms and grimaced. She was sure she would have cuts on her hands again.
The chains dragged, heavy and cumbersome, behind her as she made her way back inside. She took her time with the task, preferring to be alone as much as possible. She wasn't the only one put to work in the estate, she knew. But she seemed to be given the most work. She knew it was because she was so much more stubborn and proud than those who followed every order. She refused to give in to him. She would never bend to his will. And the chains reminded her daily of her determination.
She had tried to run away that first night. She was sure she could escape into the woods. Maybe go to the gypsies for help. Anything to get away from Pierre Le Pieu. But she had been caught, just outside the gate. She had fought, tried to escape. But she had been dragged back to her room. The irons had been put on, and she had been chained to the bed for the rest of the night.
Danielle moved through the halls, headed to the main dining room. She was sure she would see Pierre Le Pieu soon. She squared her shoulders and raised her chin, the air of defiance almost tangible, and walked into the room. It was empty. Danielle released her breath and moved to add wood to the fire. She had to hurry if she was going to gather enough wood to keep a fire in her room.
Danielle shivered at the thought of another night chained to the bed, cold and alone. She stood, looking at the fire and fought tears. The last week had been worse than the whole ten years she had spent a servant to the Baroness. Danielle turned from the fire, wiped her hands on her already dirty apron, and left the room. She longed for a hot bath, a luxury she didn't often get. Thoughts of the life she had lost filled her mind, and she bumped into the reason for her misery.
Pierre grinned, a cold, heartless smile. “Not planning another walk tonight are we?”
Danielle glared at the man with hatred. “No Sir. I am gathering wood. Let me pass.”
Pierre gave a mirthless laugh. “Such a proud little girl. You will learn. With time you will act as you should. I have work. You know your chores. Get to work. If you have not finished them you will get no supper tonight.”
Danielle stood defiantly till the man had passed her. She refused to cry in front of him, or any of the other servants. Gritting her teeth she moved outside, blinking back the tears that threatened at any moment. She set about gathering the eggs from the hen house and fetching the vegetables for the cook. She would have to wait to gather her wood. Again her thoughts trailed back to her home. She wished she was there now.
Danielle carried her load of food to the kitchen for the cook. The elderly woman gave her a small smile but said nothing. Danielle smiled back and left, learning early that though the woman was friendly enough, she would do nothing to help if it meant putting herself at risk. She only wanted to be left in peace in the kitchen. Though Danielle held no animosity for the woman she could not turn to her.
The air outside held a chill and Danielle shivered. She had one task left before supper. Grabbing a bucket she moved to the barrels of corn. She filled the bucket, hoping to make as few trips as possible to feed the livestock. With any luck she could finish her chores and gather the wood to keep the fires through the night.
Danielle had just finished feedings when she saw the wiry man that she had come to know was Pierre's messenger. She groaned when she saw him headed her way. She disliked the man and avoided him when she could. This was a time that she couldn't. Standing tall she stared at the man as he approached.
“You are to polish these. Then you are to go to your room.” The man pushed a bundle of swords into her arms.
Danielle didn't answer. Instead she turned on her heel and walked away, knowing he watched her still. She knew Pierre was only trying to discourage her. She moved to a quiet place to polish the bundle of swords. Her hands shook as she rubbed the polish over the metal. She felt exhaustion and hunger setting in. She couldn't stop now. But she didn't know how much longer she could work under the harsh conditions.
Taking the bundle inside she walked to the dining hall. Bracing herself she knocked on the door, aware that Pierre would be inside. She hated the man and the thought of being in the same room with him as she worked made her sick.
“Enter.” She heard his voice and cringed, opening the door with reluctance. She walked in, avoiding eye contact with the man sitting at the table.
“Oh I do so hate to see you in irons.” Pierre rose, walking around the table opposite Danielle. “I'd remove them, if only you'd promise not to run away again.”
Danielle set her bundle down on the table, refusing to look at the man. She knew he was only trying to force her submission to his will. “I have no reason to stay.”
“You belong to me now.”
“I belong to no one. Least of all you.”
“Oh I do wish you'd reconsider my offer.”
“I would rather rot.” Danielle moved along the table, wanting to put more distance between them.
Pierre walked around the end of the table, his hand dragging across Danielle's arm. “You know I had a horse like you once. Magnificent creature. Stubborn, just like you. Willful to a fault.”
Danielle turned away. She resisted the urge to slap the man behind her.
“It too just needed to be broken.” Pierre lifted a handful of hair off Danielle's shoulder.
“You will maintain your distance Sir.”
“Oh, you didn't say please.”
Danielle could feel her hair being twisted. Gritting her teeth she reached back, grabbing for the large blade always at his side. Pulling it free she turned, raising the tip under his chin. “Please.”
“I could hang you for this.”
Danielle met his gaze, her own hard. She knew he would not risk injury to himself. But she could not risk the chance that he may overpower her. “Not if you are dead.”
Pierre moved his hand forward, his eyes never leaving Danielle. “I do love your spirit.” He grabbed her, pulling her toward him.
Danielle pushed him back. She brought the blade down across his cheek, turning to grab a sword from the bundle on the table. She brought both blades up holding the longest at his chest. She thought about how quickly she could end the misery he caused. “My father was an excellent 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.”
Pierre watched as the blade raised to his face. Looking at the blade he slowly extended the key. “Your freedom, my Lady.”
Danielle released the smaller blade and grabbed the key. Keeping her eyes locked on the man sitting before her she unlocked the irons. Scowling at Pierre, Danielle backed away. Laying the sword on the table she turned and rushed out the door. Refusing to look back she quickly made her way outside.
The air was cool. Danielle smiled as she stepped into the fresh air. Turning she looked back at the looming building. The last time she would ever look at it. She turned away, her smile disappearing. She saw Henry running toward her.
“Hello.” Danielle stared at Henry, confusion crossing her features. “What are you doing here?”
“I, um, I came to rescue you.”
Danielle felt shocked. “Rescue me? A commoner?” She moved past him, fighting tears. She remembered too well the ball when she had tried to talk to him. She was sure she would only be sent away again.
“Actually I came to beg your forgiveness. I offered you the world and at the first test of honor I betrayed your trust. Please Danielle.”
Danielle turned, and Henry could see the small hint of a smile. He could also see the hurt and tears in her eyes. She stopped at a small wall, turning to stare at him. “Say it again.”
“No, the part where you said my name.”
She smiled then, a smile that made Henry smile. She let his words sink in, looking as though she might cry.
“Perhaps you would be so kind as to help me find the owner of this...rather remarkable shoe.”
Danielle gasped as Henry pulled a slipper out for her to see. “Where did you find that?”
“She is my match in every way. Please tell me I haven't lost her.”
Danielle turned away, moving to sit on the wall. “It belongs to a peasant, Your Highness, who only pretended to be a courtier to save a man's life.”
“Yes, I know. And the name's Henry, if you don't mind.” He looked at Danielle. She looked down, but not before he saw her tears. Henry dropped to one knee. “I kneel before you not as a prince, but as a man in love. But I would feel like a king, if you, Danielle De Barbarac, would be my wife.” As he spoke, Henry slid the slipper on Danielle's foot.
Danielle, no longer concerned with tears, began to cry. She looked up to see Henry, worry on his face. Smiling she threw her arms out, kissing him while he spun her around with joy.