Danielle always knew Ella was going to be different.
She knew from the time she was pregnant, when she had been the talk of the town. Everyone said that she was going to have a boy. She sashayed around the village, with her big belly sticking out before her, with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face and listened to everyone from the mayor to the stable boys assure her she would have a boy. Danielle had long, long light brown hair that reached to her hips, and delicate features – high cheeks bones, full lips, captivating blue eyes. She had always been the most beautiful girl in the village. She was still beautiful during her pregnancy, one of the farmer's wives told her, so that meant she must be having a boy.
For once, the entire village was in agreement. Her husband, Nicolas, said it; her mother, Elise, said it. And all the little old women, who sat in the town square all day and gossip and squawked like birds, they all said it too.
But Danielle said nothing because she knew she was carrying a girl.
On the day of Ella's birth, a hot day in the middle of July, the village waited anxiously. They were a small village, just outside of the bustling city of Orléans, separated by acres of green forest and several small streams that branched off of the Loire River.
Everyone knew everyone and they all knew each others business. Everyone knew little Danielle Piérpoint, had seen her grown up and had been at her wedding. Everyone knew her husband, known him since he was a little boy and could still remember the time he and his friends had accidentally burnt down Monsieur Dupont's barn and had to spend all summer rebuilding it.
So when the news came out that they had all been wrong, and Danielle and Nicolas had a girl, they were more then a little disgruntled. The old women in the market square were downright offended; but Nicolas and Danielle were overjoyed.
She was, from the start, an easy baby. She came out all wrinkled and red and rather ugly, but then again all babies do that, and within the first few days of life she had already become a baby of particular cuteness. All the village thought so (they had gotten over their indignation the first time they heard little Ella giggle) and the village was determined not to be wrong.
Ella was a happy baby and had a happy childhood. Two years after she was born, her mother gave birth to another baby, a boy this time (the village had been sure she was having a girl). Ella was enchanted with her new baby brother, and played with him endlessly, in the shadow of their father's inn. When Noél was old enough, they used to disappear into the woods for hours at a time, playing hide and seek and tag and all the wonderful games their little minds could think of.
It was about this time that Danielle began to worry. Just every so slightly, but it was enough. Ella had become extremely popular among the village children. For most parents this would be a cause for joy, and Danielle was happy for her daughter, but it seemed almost unnatural, the way the children – even older children – flocked to her daughter.
Ella was growing up to be a girl of exceptional, if conventional, prettiness. She had light brown hair and shining blue eyes, and a smattering of freckles across her face. She loved to laugh and to eat strawberries, and to go swimming in the little rivers around her home. She was, in everyway, a very normal child. At least, that's what Danielle kept telling herself.
It wasn't until Ella was six that Danielle finally had evidence to the contrary. Nicolas had fallen very ill, and Danielle was nursing him back to health, but she was very worried. One night, when Nicolas had taken a turn for the worse, Danielle left his side for a moment to tuck Ella and Noél into bed. She ran her cool lips over Ella's forehead for a kiss goodnight, her expression absentminded as she wondered anxiously when the doctor would arrive.
"Goodnight, ma chérie," Danielle said, her voice soft as she headed towards the door.
"Maman?" Ella called, her small face nestled amongst her pillows. Noél had already fallen asleep in the small bed next to her.
"Papa will be okay."
Daneille smiled softly through the darkness at her daughter. "I know, chérie."
"The doctor will be here soon."
Danielle paused at the door, her eyebrows raised slightly. "Yes, chérie. He will."
Later, Danielle didn't know what to make of that. How had Ella known she had been thinking about the doctor? Was it just a child's guess? Knowing her mother was upset about her father? It didn't take magic to figure that out. That must be it.
Two months later, Nicolas had recovered but Elise, Danielle's mother, was very, very ill. The day that she died, Danielle walked home, her footsteps echoing on the cobblestone streets, her long brown hair hanging listlessly down her back. The sun was setting, washing the village in an orangey light.
Ella met her at the front steps of the inn that they owned. Danielle hadn't told either of the children about her mother's sickness, fearing they would get too upset and wouldn't understand. But Ella took one look at her mother's face and her blue eyes welled with tears. She threw herself into her mothers arms.
Danielle reeled back. "Ella, chérie, what is the matter?"
Ella raised her tearstained face, her voice choked with tears. "Oh, maman…Grandmere is dead."
Danielle's heart missed a beat, and her already drawn face paled. She put her hands on Ella's shoulders, and looked her daughter straight in the eye. "Ella, how do you know that?"
Ella bit her lip, and looked down, the way she always did when she was lying. "Papa told me."
Danielle raised her brows. "Truly, Ella?"
Ella nodded, then turned and ran, ripping out of her mother's embrace.
Danielle just stared after her, as the little girl tore, crying, down the street.
Later, she asked Nicolas if he had told Ella. He swore he had not. Danielle was starting to put the pieces together.
She began to be more aware of it; sometimes, when they were at the dinner table, she would think how Ella needed to clean her room – and Ella would jump up from the table and rush to clean her room. She would be showing Ella had to make bread and cheese, all the while wondering where Noél was, and Ella would nonchalantly say that Noél and Phillip, the little boy down the street, had gone fishing.
"How did you know I was thinking about Noel?" Danielle would ask suspiciously, her eyes narrowed. Ella would smile at her, her pretty innocent little smile. "I didn't, maman."
But she did.
Time passed and the children grew up. Nicolas and Danielle's inn, the only one in the little village, became very popular; travelers on their way to Paris would stop and stay there, sometimes for several nights, always recommending it to their friends. "The owners have a charming little girl," they would tell their friends. "Always brings me an extra blanket when I'm cold, or serves me extra eggs when I'm hungry. Almost as if she knows!"
Danielle ignored these comments, because what else was she supposed to believe? That her daughter could read minds? Preposterous.
Ella grew up, and grew more beautiful. Her light brown hair darkened and turned thick and long and silky, like her mothers. Her features softened, her eyes always smiling, and while her frame always remained slight and skinny, while she wasn't exactly the prettiest girl in the village, she was very close.
She had a string of suitors. Danielle met several of them, but she was getting older now and preferred not to have to listen to endless accounts of how they met and the boy's talents. The few she did meet, however, all had the same thing to say. "Your daughter," they would tell her, with a twinkle in their eyes, "she always knows just what to say!"
Yes, Danielle would think. I'd imagine she does.
Noél and Ella still remained very close and as Danielle got older, they helped their father more with running the inn. Ella was in charge of serving breakfast; she kept an eye on the chickens and the cows, while Noél, who had turned out to have a mind for numbers, helped his father with the money.
Danielle spent most of her days in her room, staring out the window at the road that lead through the town, that lead to Orléans and eventually to Paris. She was the first to see any new customers, and on this particular day, the day that would change Ella's life, she was the first to see the carriage coming down the dusty road. It was large and ornate and black, and the coachman in the front had a black hat with a white feather in it. It was clear this coach was headed for Paris.
The two horses pulling it, also black, tossed their heads and snorted as the coachman pulled them to a stop in front of the swinging wooden sign that read 'L'auberge du petit fleuve'. The Inn of the little river. Not very creative, Danielle mused, as her eyes flickered over the sign now, carefully examing the delicately painted letters and crude drawing of a little twirling river. But it got the point across.
The carriage squeaked to a halt, and from her vantage point at the window, Danielle could see several people peeking out their own windows, examining the coach excitedly. Danielle smiled slightly. Some things never changed.
The coachman hopped off the carriage and opened the carriage door; a young gentleman stepped out, blinking in the fading sunshine. He was wearing all black – surprise, Danielle thought – but his clothes were elegant and expensive looking. She admired the width of his large black hat, noting that it hid his eyes, and her eyes slowly examined the fineness of his clothing, the breath of his shoulders and the strength in his stocking clad legs. This was a man headed for court.
Danielle heard Ella hurry down the stairs, and saw her hurry towards the man, curtsying to him. She could hear the words being spoken, but assumed the man wanted a room for the night. She saw Ella's smile, saw her modestly smooth down her beige cotton dress, and gesture the man inside. Her mother's quick eyes picked up the appraising smile the gentleman and coachman threw her daughter.
Danielle leaned back against her pillows, turning her face away from the window.
She was no mind reader, but even she could see that things were about to change.