Danielle sat securely in front of Henry. The motion of the horse beneath her lulled her as they rode. Her mind raced, still taking in everything that had happened. As quickly as her world had fallen apart it seemed to be mending. Danielle stared at the road before them. The same road that only a week before she had rode along in protest. The road that would this time lead her to the castle.
Thoughts of her last visit to the castle flooded her memory. She had been rejected, sent away. She had left, embarrassed and alone. Now she was going back. She wasn't sure how the king and queen would receive her. Would they accept her now? She couldn't be sure. But Henry had come for her, that must mean something.
A sudden thought made Danielle sit up straighter. “What of the Baroness?”
Henry shifted behind her. “What of her?”
“She exposed me for a fraud. She sold me. Why would she allow me to marry a prince if she can do anything to stop it?” Danielle shuddered, looking at the chafed skin of her wrists. Though the skin was raw it was nothing compared to her ankles. She had worn irons on her ankles for a week with no relief. She had been in agony for several days. She had grown accustomed to the pain quickly. But the memories would haunt her far longer than the pain ever could. And all to stop her from seeing the man behind her.
“She is none of your concern now. She has no say in the matter. And my mind is made up. Though I do know one woman who would like to see you in the castle.”
Danielle looked back at him, confusion in her eyes. “Who?”
Danielle was silent for a moment. She seemed at a loss for words. Finally she looked up, tears shining in her eyes. “She always was the sweeter of the two. More than any of the others she was a true friend. And maybe true family.”
Henry didn't comment but stared straight ahead. Danielle went quiet, lost in her own thoughts. Neither spoke of the ball, or how Henry had sent her away. But it still hung in the air. It was the reason she had been sold. It was the reason she had felt nothing but pain the last seven days. And it was the reason for Henry's admission to Jacqueline's feelings.
The ride had been a long one, one spent mostly lost in thought. Danielle shifted slightly, the discomfort she had felt before now a nagging ache. She longed to rest, to sleep and forget the pain that only seemed to intensify with each minute. She looked up at the sky, thinking that the last time she was on a horse at night had been with Henry. It had in fact been the only time.
Henry's arm tightened around her protectively. “Is something wrong? You seem restless.” His eyes, full of worry, searched her face anxiously.
“No.” Danielle looked down, staring at her hands. They were rough, cut and swollen from the work she had done. Everything from typical kitchen chores to caring for the animals of the stable and gathering wood. Some of the chores had been easy, some, such as chopping wood, had been harder. And some, such as working in the chandlery, had been near intolerable.
As if reading her thoughts Henry placed a hand over hers, gently covering them. “That life is behind you now. You will never be treated in such a manner again.” Henry smiled. “And I still think you are beautiful.”
Danielle smiled but said nothing. She still felt as though she would wake and watch the prince and her freedom vanish before her eyes. As she stared ahead she saw the gates of the castle come into view. She felt the quivers in her stomach, the same nervous feeling she had only a week before. Closing her eyes she quietly repeated the same word, breath, hoping to calm herself.
They moved through the gates and stopped in the same place she had once stood, dressed as nobility, and told the prince he was arrogant. Henry slipped down from the horse, and turned to help lower Danielle, while a stable hand held the horse. Danielle slipped down into Henry's arms, her gaze looking beyond his shoulder to the castle.
“It will be fine. I promise.”
Danielle looked at Henry, unable to stop the questions that had been bothering her. “How can it be fine? Last time I saw you I was dismissed. I was forgotten. I was sold and kept in irons. I was a slave. How can you be sure I will be welcomed now?”
“Because you have two people who can, and will, speak for you.”
Danielle looked at Henry, trying to figure out who he could mean. Who could possibly convince the king and queen of her worth. Henry only smiled and set her on her feet. Following Henry's lead she made her way to the castle. As she walked she was aware of how out of place she must look.
The door opened as they reached it. “Henry, your parents await you. Danielle, welcome home.” Da Vinci stood in the door, smiling.
“Leonardo, thank you.”
The man turned, leading them farther into the castle. Danielle followed Da Vinci, Henry next to her. Her heart raced the farther inside they went. Da Vinci stopped outside an ornate door. Looking back briefly he nodded then turned back to the door and opened it. He walked inside, followed by Henry and Danielle. King Francis and Queen Marie sat inside, talking quietly.
Da Vinci stopped before the king and queen. “Your majesties, Prince Henry and Danielle De Barbarac.”
Danielle bowed, resisting the urge to flinch at the sound of her name. Henry stared at his parents, a frown on his face. “I have found the woman I will marry. She may not be a noble, but she is far more noble than many of the ladies of the court that I have met.”
King Francis looked at Danielle. “Stand child. And explain yourself.”
Danielle rose from her bow, and looked up at the king and queen. She saw Marie gasp, and flinched. She knew how she looked. Dirty, tired, cuts and bruises along her body. She looked rough, beaten. Danielle raised her chin a fraction and took a deep breath. “I am afraid, Your Highness’s, that I have no explanation for myself. I am the servant of a Baroness who dressed as a noble woman to save the life of a man who was the only father I knew from the age of eight. Though my actions may have been wrong I do not regret them. Maurice is safe with his wife. And whatever my fate is to be for that end, so be it.”
Marie looked at Francis, her eyes soft with concern. “She is the servant of Rodmilla de Ghent. But I am told she is also her step daughter. But the Baroness once told me she was their cousin. A cousin called Cinderella.”
“I believe, Your Majesty, she was referring to the name Cindersoot. A name I earned by reading next to the fire.”
King Francis shook his head. “This is outrageous. The daughter of a Baroness treated as a slave, and the Queen lied to. I will not tolerate it.”
“I know what Danielle did was extreme. But she would not have gone so far had I not pursued it. I asked after her. I am the reason she had to carry on the act of a noble woman. She came to the ball to tell me. To be done with the whole charade. But I wouldn't listen. She should not be punished for the crimes of others.”
The queen looked at her son, a smile on her lips. “You are finally the prince that any kingdom could be proud of. Danielle will not be punished. She has suffered enough. You asked her hand, then you shall have it. That she came back with you is evidence enough of her acceptance. We will hold the wedding in secret. Tomorrow, once she has had time for rest.”
Henry nodded. “We only have a few to invite. They know where to meet me.”