When Aron entered the castle with his mother neither of them could have known what lay ahead. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time leads him to a royal encounter that will take him on a journey of discovery and adventure.
Can he keep his secret safe and do his royal duty?
How will his relationship with the Princess develop?
Will his life ever return to normal?
Thanks to Kirstyn Fox, Maggie Finson, and Arcee (not to be confused with Arecee) for their help and all my friends who encouraged me.
Categories:Characters: None Story Attributes: Caught With Consequences, Sweet and Sentimental Story Era: 1 - Pre-Victorian (Before 1837) Story Warnings: None Challenges: None Series: None Chapters: 15 Completed: No
Word count: 76262 Read: 142735
Published: 29 Mar 2011 Updated: 20 May 2014
Lady Ysabel saw no problem taking her son into the castle, it was summer and most of its occupants were away. While he plays innocently someone hears him in a place he is not supposed to be.
"Mother, someone comes, I heard his boots upon the stairs," he said. The fear etched on his cherubic face.
"Did he catch sight of you?" Ysabel replied.
"I do not believe so."
A voice boomed from the bottom of the stairs."Come out child, I know you are there."
"Aron, stay by my side," Lady Ysabel called after her son.
She was now starting to contemplate whether bringing a 10 year old boy with her to the castle had been such a good idea after all.
Normally he would have stayed with his cousins outside in the city but when his uncle had been killed his aunt had chosen to leave and return the family to their village.
Were it not for the fact that most of the castle's occupants were with the King's stag hunt she would not have contemplated letting him accompany her.
"Aron, please behave, you cannot be subject to Lord Barkstone's displeasure a second time."
That stopped the boy in his tracks, the memory of the chastisement he received after he accidentally strayed onto the training ground and caused half of the palace mounted guard to be unseated was still fresh in his mind.
"Through here," she said, struggling with the lock of the stout wooden door. "I have papers to sort, you may play on the terrace but remain unobserved or we shall both pay the price!"
It was more like a courtyard with rugged stone walls surrounding it. One side had a covered walkway but the rest was laid out like a garden, they even had a tree near the centre. It served as a refuge; a place of tranquillity for the royal family.
Aron found a spot that was not easily overlooked and started to fight an invisible opponent with his imaginary sword. It was a long intense encounter with some of the most intricate swordplay you could imagine but eventually he vanquished the intruder.
He was about to start another battle when he heard footfall on the stone steps leading into the royal apartments. He glanced around but there was nowhere to hide on the terrace, neither the support columns of the walkway nor the trunk of the tree were wide enough. The rest of the terrace was a mix of small paved areas and strips of lush green grass with a few small bushes. The only option left was to run to his mother.
She heard her son's approach and knew at once that something was wrong.
"Mother, someone comes, I heard his boots upon the stairs," he said. The fear etched on his cherubic face.
"Did he catch sight of you?" Ysabel replied.
"I do not believe so."
A voice boomed from the bottom of the stairs."Come out child, I know you are there."
Lady Ysabel allowed herself a single moment to think then reached behind her for a green garment which she dropped over his head. He instinctively put his ams in the sleeves which billowed around his wrists. It was a girl's dress in classic medieval style. She just managed to tuck his hair behind his ears and place a cap upon his head when the guard appeared at the door.
Aron hid behind his mother's skirts.
"Lady Ysabel, my apologies, I heard a child on the stones of the terrace, I knew not that you were here."
"Do not fret Robert, I came here to get this child properly attired for her first day here."
"So I now see, I am sorry if I scared you little'un but we have a duty to protect this part of the castle."
Aron peered out from behind his mother.
"What's your name sweetheart ?"
"Ar..abella," Lady Ysabel replied.
"Your sister's child, here to help you while everyone else is at the summer lodge?"
"Yes," she confirmed. An assumption like that saved a lot of time and effort on her part.
"May I assist you with anything?" he asked.
"No, we are just about done here, we must go and attend to the princess before she becomes restless."
"That you must. I shall accompany you, for it is the quickest way to rejoin the route of my patrol ."
Ysabel did not show any signs of the displeasure she was feeling. It had been her plan to just dismiss the guard and make her escape back to her quarters with her son, but that was not to be.
As they made their way up the stairs Aron discovered one of the complications of his dress, he almost ended up flat on his face. Following the prompts of his mother he held the skirt in his fingers and lifted the hem clear of his feet.
The guard made smalltalk with Ysabel throughout the walk into the heart of the royal apartments. Aron lagged behind wondering if this guard defended the castle with his sword or by talking to people until they surrendered. At least it was his mother and not him who was on the receiving end.
Robert finally left them when they got to the princess's door but not without ensuring that they were on the other side of it. Aron looked around; there were more tapestries than he had ever seen in his short life. On one side of the chamber stood a wooden canopy bed, opposite that by the window was an intricately carved table and in one corner lay a harp.
He didn't know it yet but he had just been made to leap out of the frying pan and into the fire.
In the center of the room a girl about the same size as him was being dressed, at least he assumed it was a girl from her clothing. An hour ago he would have been certain but now he was not so sure.
An older girl was putting the finishing touches to her blonde hair. She was facing away from them so all he could see was the back of her luxurious pink dress and the perfect plait that fell halfway down her back.
"Good morning your highness," his mother spoke. "I trust all is well."
"Lady Ysabel!" the girl said as she turned. "May I presume that the affairs of the palace are in order?"
Ysabel smiled to herself, she knew that the girl merely copied the actions of her mother, the queen. She was the only person to whom Ysabel was obliged to report yet she would always give the princess her answer.
"The affairs are, as always, in order your highness. The guard are all immaculately turned out and cook has promised to make you something special for dinner."
Aron stood transfixed, he had heard people say the princess was beautiful but he didn't really understand what that meant until now.
"Who is this and why are you staring at me?" Princess Helene said, snapping him back to reality.
“This is Ar..abella,” Lady Ysabel said before Aron could open his mouth.
"I'm s-sorry for staring, your highness."
The princess dismissed the girl who had finished attending to her, as soon as she left the room Helene approached the boy. He dropped his head to his chest expecting some kind of reprimand..
"Please don't do that," she said. "Hardly anybody looks me in the eye, just mother, father and lady Ysabel." The sadness in her voice was plain for all to see.
He reached out and took her hand in his.
"Arabella you must never touch the princess unless she requests it."
He pulled his hand away like it had been burned.
"Please hold my hand, I liked it, I long for a friend, a girl my age."
"Princess! A lady of your status should not be revealing her innermost thoughts, especially to someone she has only just met."
"I am sorry Lady Ysabel, you are correct."
If Helene had been her own child then Ysabel would have encouraged her to share her hopes and dreams. As a lady-in-waiting her priorities were governed by protocol and tradition.
Princess Helene held out her hand which Aron gently took in his once more.
"Thank you Arabella, will you be my friend?"
Recalling what his mother had taught him of royal protocol he knew what would be expected of him now. "I am your humble subject your highness."
The princess sighed.
Lady Ysabel realised her previous speech had been overly strict and intervened. "Sweetheart, the princess knows what you are expected to say, there is not a single subject in the kingdom who would say any different. The question she asks of you is much more."
He was on the verge of answering when she continued. "By my reckoning it is far to soon for either of you and I suggest you should become properly acquainted lest you regret the haste of your decision."
Both children replied in agreement at the same moment and that was just as well, for Aron forgot the cover that had been so carefully crafted earlier in the day and referred to Lady Ysabel as his mother.
Ysabel knew there was a fair chance of the children's thoughts returning to their relationship so she gave them something else to occupy their minds.
"Princess it is time for your studies, you need to learn more of the time when your great great grandfather ruled our lands."
"But he was boring, he didn't even slay any dragons or rescue any princesses."
"That is as maybe but he did bring great prosperity to our people." At that very moment an idea formed in her mind.
"Arabella knows not of his great deeds, were you to instruct her it would be to your credit as well as hers."
"I shall do it," the princess decided with a determined look upon her face.
Lady Ysabel left the children to their studies and went to check that all was still in order in the kitchens. It would seem logical that with the hunt occupying so many people from the castle her job would involve less toil. Yet this was far from the case, the majority of people to whom she would delegate tasks were also absent. It was down to her to undertake such things as checking the orders of provisions and the assignment of domestic duties whilst ensuring the welfare of the princess. At least she only had one child to oversee now that prince Gaspar had turned 12 and begun to join his parents on the deer hunt.
With her supervision complete she returned to the Princess's chambers.
At first she put her ear to the door, while it was possible to hear that someone was speaking the door was thick enough to mask what was being said.
When she decided to go through the door it was just as she had expected, Princess Helene was still teaching the boy about her ancestors and making a pretty good job of it.
As soon as the girl had finished Lady Ysabel spoke. "If it were not your duty to be a princess you would make a fine educator."
The princess blushed before responding "none so fine as your good self."
Ysabel was grateful for the complement but chose not to dwell upon it. Instead she chose to take both her charges to the terrace where they would be able to fill their lungs with warm summer air. Whenever they encountered a member of guard Aron hid behind his mother, it didn't take Princess Helene long to notice this.
"Why do you hide?"
"She had a brush with a guard on his duty and I fear it has left her apprehensive."
The Princess turned to Aron and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.. "Your fears are unfounded, the guard are here to protect us."
Aron knew that dressed as he was he would be someone to be protected but what if they knew his secret, would he then become someone to be protected from?
He found that descending the stairs in his dress was as much of a challenge as climbing them, not only did he have to avoid treading on the dress he had to make sure he didn't miss a step either. If he had there is no doubt he would have ended up at the bottom of the steps in a heap.
When they got to the terrace he saw the spot where he had been playing earlier and resumed his sword fight;
"What strange gestures you make Arabella."
"My sword will smite any who oppose us," Aron stated.
"I fear all would be lost if there were ever a time when our kingdom had to call upon girls to defend it," Princess replied.
Aron stopped what he was doing and returned to the side of his two female companions. He knew that he would take up arms in defence of the kingdom whether he was a boy or a girl although he suspected it would be a better proposition while unencumbered by long flowing skirts and broad sleeves.
When they had their fill of fresh air they returned to the princess's chambers. Lady Ysabel selected a text for them to practise their reading. Aron's proficiency was a surprise to Helene but not to his mother. She knew that being the owner of such skills would be to his credit in his later life and had taken every step to ensure he was well read.
Aron gazed out of the window, you could clearly see each layer of the city and its defensive walls then beyond across green fields to the distant hills. Oh to have a view such as this.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly and the arrival of a serving girl carrying the princess's meal caught them unawares.
"We must depart and leave the princess to consume her meal on her own," Lady Ysabel said once the meal was laid out on the table.
"I wish you to stay," the girl commanded. "It is my will to share my meal with Arabella."
"Princess, your intentions are honourable but you know that food is intended for you alone."
"I am mindful of that but I do not have an appetite to clear all of this wonderful food. A feast for one is a meal for three or more."
Ysabel could not disagree with that statement, there was always too much. That was the way of the kitchens; if a plate were to return empty from any of the royal family it might have indicated that they left the dining table with their appetite unfulfilled and that was simply unthinkable. Reluctantly she allowed her child to take a seat at the Princess's table and to partake in her meal.
Aron was smart enough to realise he should wait for the princess before tasting any of the wonderfully presented food in front of him. He also followed her lead and took smaller bites, much to the relief of his mother who had convinced herself he would eat like he feared a pack of dogs would take the food from him.
He tried things the likes of which he had never tasted before, some of them did not meet his approval but most were the finest, most delicious things he had ever eaten.
When both children were satisfied Lady Ysabel fetched water to allow them to clean themselves up. On any other day this would have been a job for one of the princess's attendants but the consequences of someone noticing another person washing the traces of the meal off their hands and face were dire indeed.
At her earliest opportunity she asked to be dismissed for the night.
"Very well," Helene said. "I trust that I shall see you both on the morrow."
Ysabel pretended not to hear her and left, she knew that ignoring the princess was a breach of protocol but she wished to avoid a far more serious breach.
Aron waited until they had left the royal apartments behind before asking the question that had been on his mind since they left the Princess. "Will we be going back tomorrow?"
"No my child, I have already put us both in danger with my small deception, the risk is too great. You shall spend the remaining days in my chamber."
Aron thought that even pretending to be a girl would be more enjoyable than spending the entire time confined to his mother's rooms. He knew better than to cross his mother when she sounded determined so he kept these thoughts to himself.
Throughout the meal Ysabel watched her son, he didn't notice at first but it didn't take him too long to realise.
"Mother is something wrong, am I in trouble."
"It is nothing, I am being foolish, pay no attention."
The next day Lady Ysabel left Aron in her apartments and locked the door behind her. She claimed it was for his safety and security and promised to return throughout the day to check upon him.
Anyone who came across her on her way to the princess would have found her in pensive mood. In protecting Aron from the wrath of the royal guard she had deceived the princess, compromised her position and caused her own child distress.
Arriving at the entrance to Helene's bedchamber she paused to compose herself before opening the door.
"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well." She indulged in the daily routine.
"Good morning Lady Ysabel, why is Arabella not with you?"
"I am sorry Princess, she could not be here today."
"She is not feeling herself today."
"Oh. I hope whatever ails her is not serious."
"I believe that something she ate may have disagreed with her."
"But she ate from my table and I am not sick, how could that be?"
"It is my opinion that the food was too rich for one with her constitution. She is accustomed to plainer fayre."
"Oh Lady Ysabel, please pass on my sympathy, it was not my wish to bring sickness upon her."
"Princess, the blame lies not with you, I could have stopped her at any time yet I chose not to. The fault is mine." Ysabel thought that was not the only thing for which the blame was hers.
Helene was slightly subdued throughout the morning but when Lady Ysabel returned to her in the afternoon she was back to her usual self. She spent her time practising her harp playing with the assistance and following the lead of the Lady who was an accomplished player of the instrument herself.
When it became time to depart Ysabel made her excuses and started to leave. Before she had walked to the door Princess Helene had flounced over to her and pressed a book in her hands.
Ysabel took a look, it triggered some long forgotten memory.
"This is my favourite book, given to me by my mother, if Arabella is confined to bed then she must have something to occupy her time."
"Thank you princess, I am sure she will appreciate your kindness."
As she returned to her apartments she briefly considered keeping the book from Aron but in the end there was no harm that she could see in it.
When she unlocked the door she had expected to find her son busying himself on the other side of it but there was no sign of any activity, in fact there was no sign of him whatsoever.
Could he have found some means to escape? The only window large enough for him to pass through remained closed. Perhaps then he was hiding, what kind of hiding place would he choose?
She started looking around as if she was a part of his game.
"I shall find you. Are you behind the tapestry?... No."
"What about behind the fire screen?... No."
"Then methinks you must be under the...."
She was about to say 'bed' but it was now obvious that he hadn't underneath the bed itself but he had managed to bury himself under the covers to the point where you had to be right beside it to notice.
"Wake up sleepyhead, tis not yet time for bed."
At first he showed no signs of responding so she rocked his body gently until he slowly began to respond.
He looked at her through tired eyes and said, "Is it morning already?"
She laughed. "Night has not yet fallen. Tell me, when did sleep overtake you."
He was slightly more alert now.
"I remember that you came to check on me. I also saw the sky become black as if a storm were due then I became so listless that I crawled into the bed."
"Then you have been in the arms of Morpheus for most of the afternoon."
Just at that moment there was a sound at the door. Lady Ysabel went and admitted the serving girl bringing their own meal which while not being as big and fanciful as the food on which the Princess dined was more than ample for a mother and child.
Aron waited until the girl had left before joining his mother at the table.
As they ate he asked about how the princess had been which made his mother smile because before he met her he had no real interest in royal matters.
"She is very well, she asked after you and even went so far as to giving you a loan of a book read to her by the queen herself ."
"I am honoured."
"Indeed you are. Would you like me to read it to you at bedtime?"
"Am I not old enough to read for myself?"
Ysabel understood his desire to do things for himself but secretly at that moment nothing would have pleased her more than to read to he son as if he were still a small child.
When bedtime came for real she left a candle by her son's side so he might read the princess's book.
Ysabel herself sat at the table with nothing but her own thoughts to keep her company. She still missed her husband greatly and if there was ever a time when she would have sought his guidance it was now. The future of their son was at stake.
The next day followed a similar pattern, Aron stayed home, Ysabel went to the castle keep and the princess asked after Arabella. It was plain that it would take more than a few days for Helene to forget the child even with just a single meeting.
When later that day the princess suggested sending a royal physician to tend to Arabella it was apparent to Ysabel that a decision would have to be made either to send her son to live with his aunt or for him to return as a girl.
It was with some anxiety that she said, "Your highness I feel that Arabella will be fit to return within the week."
She decided that the few days would give her long enough to see if her deception would pass the scrutiny her child would face were he to be disguised for a period of time. If he could not then she likely would not see him again until he had matured into adulthood. Even with her high standing within the castle she could not see the royal court excusing her of her duties of protocol to tend to her duties of parenthood.
Upon her return home she found Aron asleep oncemore but did not wake him immediately, instead she looked at his peaceful face and pondered both whether they could and whether they should even attempt this plan.
She gently shook him awake.
"Mother, I am sorry, I fell asleep again."
"Don't fret dear, rouse yourself and come and eat with me."
Throughout the meal Ysabel watched her son, he didn't notice at first but it didn't take him too long to realise.
"Mother is something wrong, am I in trouble."
"It is nothing, I am being foolish, pay no attention."
After their meal was complete Aron took the storybook to bed and read some more before settling down.
When he awoke the next morning his mother was next to the bed making sure he got up. He had expected to be locked in again but Lady Ysabel had a different plan, she had something white and floaty in her arms.
"These will be your undergarments, I cannot allow you to wear a shirt and breeches under your dress."
"Do you mean I am to return to the princess?"
"In time yes, we have plenty we must do first."
He put on the garments, the hem of the white shift reached to his ankle and the sleeve almost to his wrist. Then as before he raised his arms aloft so his mother was able to lower the same green dress onto his body. His first discovery was that the sleeves of his shirt were a lot easier to manage under a dress than the sleeve of his shift. It took some minor adjustments by his mother before she was satisfied with his appearance.
"What a good girl."
"I'm sorry but it is something you must become accustomed to for both our sakes."
Before she left to continue her duties there was something she needed him to do.
"While I am out I need you to gain an understanding of the virtues and limitations of your dress. You have but a day's experience and if this is to work I need you to become familiar with your clothes."
He started off by sitting on his bed, that seemed straight forward enough, then he began to fidget which made the dress ruck up. It didn't take much to smooth it back down again but it was something for him to consider.
Walking also proved to be a different experience with the material of his shift making the lightest of touches as it swished around his legs. He tried hurrying and soon realised that running would be almost impossible. The only way to stop his skirts tripping him up was to use his hands to lift them clear of his feet like he had done to climb the stairs and he knew that moving his arms helped him run fast.
He gave up working out how to bend down to pick things from the floor. There had to be a simple way to do it but he couldn't see what it was.
About the only thing he could find as a positive was anything he dropped while sitting at the table landed in his skirts and not on the floor.
When his mother returned he was eager to tell her what he had discovered and she was more than a little disappointed with his findings.
"Was that really the only virtue you found to wearing a dress?"
"It was, at least it means I won't have to pick much up for I have no clue how to achieve that in this dress."
"Well that is simple enough, just crouch down slowly like this."
She demonstrated and Aron could not believe he had missed something so obvious.
"Now, have you considered the virtues of dancing in your dress?"
"I have no experience of dancing to compare."
Ysabel thought that was something that might soon change but did not dare say so.
"And of skipping?"
"I know not what that is."
"Tis something I once did when I was young, like this."
She proceeded to skip around the table as if she were ten years old herself, much to the amusement of her son.
"I do not see why anyone would choose to move in such a way," he said with a big grin.
"As children it seemed most enjoyable, now I am unsure my bones will take it."
She sat down gingerly and tried to think of something else to suggest.
"Is twirling amongst the things you have tried? Do not claim it is something you have no knowledge of, for I remember a time when you often could be found in a spin."
At his mother's behest he began to spin around. At first he could not see what the attraction was, then as he twirled faster the hem of his dress lifted and his skirts spun around him in a circle.
Lady Ysabel made her way back to Princess Helene, the image of her son twirling in his dress was imprinted on her mind. She could tell he had enjoyed himself even if he would not admit it.
The girl was sat at her table awaiting the lady's return.
"Princess might I suggest that you continue in the study of your forefathers?"
"I wish you to suggest another, without Arabella I do not have the stomach for it."
"How can that be when it was just the one time you studied together."
"I do not claim to fathom it, all I know is before that one occasion the study was a sombre chore, with Arabella by my side it becomes a thing of pleasure."
Ysabel was glad that her child had found favour with the princess but slightly worried by the effect it was having on her studies.
"Lady Ysabel might I also enquire as to Arabella's wellness?"
"She is up and dressed for the first time in days, the herbs she has been taking have done their work."
"That is good news indeed."
Meanwhile back in his mother's apartments Aron had found himself twirling until he made himself so dizzy that he had collapsed onto his bed.
As he lay there he picked up the Princess's storybook and began to read the next tale, most of the stories so far had featured damsels in distress being rescued by gallant knights but this one was different. It was about a girl who lived in a village on the edge of a forest. One evening she was getting firewood when a troll captured her and took her to his home. She begged to be released but the heartless troll refused. Whenever she had a chance she tried to escape but the troll always caught her. It got tired of her running and chained her leg to a stone block. The girl waited until she was strong enough and when the troll was in his bed she dropped the block on his head. Her escape was made harder by the block but she dragged herself to the edge of her village where the ghost of the troll appeared in her path. She overcame her fears and walked through the ghost to make it home.
Aron felt a great respect for the girl who overcame every obstacle put in her path. He hoped that he would be able to do the same if he was in her position.
Now that he'd fully recovered from the twirling he decided to try some other activities like the skipping that his mother had showed him. He quickly gave up on skipping, it just didn't feel like his feet were doing what they were supposed to do. Looking down he couldn't even see them, just the folds of his dress. Bending at the knees to pick things up was so simple he couldn't believe he had overlooked it.
All this bending, stretching and twisting had one major side effect, he badly needed to go to the toilet.
Getting the pot from under the bed was one thing, figuring out how to use it while wearing a dress was something entirely different. He came up with a plan that seemed to work but resolved to ask his mother when she returned.
The sun was very low in the sky by the time she made it back and she was accompanied by a servant girl with their dinner.
Once their meal was done and everything had been cleared away he'd forgotten all of the things he had planned to ask his mother so he started to prepare for his bed.
Ysabel had a garment in her hands when she stopped him like she had done as his day began.
"This is your nightdress, you shall wear one like it every night from now on."
As she held it up he could see that it was unmistakeably a girl's garment. The shoulders were puffy and someone had gone to the trouble of embroidering flower shapes high on the chest.
He let his mother lower the dress onto him and tuck him into bed. Tonight she insisted that she read to him and as she did so the words that she spoke triggered a long forgotten memory.
Morning came and Aron stayed in his bed until his mother came back from her early morning duties.
"Time to get up sleepyhead."
He yawned and rubbed his eyes.
"Good morning mother."
"Has your slumber left you refreshed?"
"I feel so. What would you have me doing today?"
"Today your time is your own, tell me what would you normally do on a day such as this?"
"I might read a book or look out of our window, sometimes I pretend to be a knight."
Looking at him in his nightdress Ysabel found it hard to imagine him dressed in chain mail and a suit of armour.
"I do not think that is an appropriate thing to do in a dress, is there no one else you can pretend to be?"
He looked dumbly at her. She also tried to think of something more appropriate for his games but drew a blank, it would be too much of a stretch for him to want to be any of the things that were in her dreams when she was a girl.
With nothing else to say he changed out of his nightdress and into his dress and accessories.
Ysabel looked at his hair, it was barely long enough to pass for the hair of a girl, she would have to do something soon.
After his mother had left Aron thought about what he could do. Before she had mentioned it he would have thought nothing of re-enacting a sword battle while in his dress, now it just didn't seem right.
He sat down by the window and with his head resting on his arms he started to watch the world go by.
At some point the Palace Guard appeared in the big courtyard in front of the great hall to practise. When he finally registered that they were there he made an effort to watch them. The strangest thought passed across his mind, he was imagining them wearing dresses and deciding if anything they were doing looked fine in a dress. When he found that idea too troublesome he resorted to the princess's storybook.
Because of the book his mother entered without him noticing. She stood and looked on as he finished the story and would have sworn there was a tear in his eye.
"Mother I didn't hear you return."
"Of that I have no doubt, your mind was in the land of the book."
"How is princess Helene?"
"She is in good health and good spirits and she continues to ask after you. For that reason I am taking you to the terrace this afternoon."
The smile that appeared on his face left her in no doubt that she was doing a good thing.
On the way she noticed how he lifted his skirts to negotiate stairs and would stay near her instead of running on ahead.
Ysabel opened the door to let her Aron through to the terrace and almost immediately heard the cry "Arabella!" from the other side. By the time she went through herself the princess had almost reached her child.
"Oh Arabella I am glad you are returning to health, I'm sorry my food was too much for you, did Lady Ysabel tell you how I asked after you, did you like my storybook?"
Ysabel got the princess to calm down a little.
"I shall be fine Princess, do not fret about your meal, I was most honoured. I loved the storybook, it gave me something to pass the time while I was confined to my room."
"I knew you would like it, it was my mothers when she was a girl."
The two children walked around the garden chatting with Lady Ysabel following in their wake. They stayed on the terrace until the clouds darkened and rain threatened to fall.
All three of them walked back to the princess's apartments where they prepared to go their separate ways.
"Should I expect to see you in the morning?" asked Helene looking straight at Aron.
He looked to his mother for guidance.
"I am minded that Arabella is strong enough to return yet I will not commit her to that until the morn. Princess, do you promise to resume the study of your forefathers if she does?"
"Yes Lady Ysabel, I promise."
"Very well, I shall escort Arabella then return to you so that we might continue with your needlework."
"Farewell Arabella, I shall see you on the morrow."
"Farewell Princess Helene."
The heavens had opened and the weather was grim yet Aron's mood did not reflect that. It was as if he were on cloud nine. Was it possible that the Princess was having as much of an effect on his demeanour as he was having on hers?
The following morning Lady Ysabel woke at her usual early hour and started her daily routine. Usually Aron would have remained in bed until his mother's return but today he found himself awake before the normal hour she came back.
With nothing else to do he changed from his nightdress into his floaty white undergarments and washed his face.
Ysabel was astounded to see Aron up already, he was not naturally an early riser. She did some of her own things then helped him to put a fresh green dress on. After checking him over one last time she lead him out of the door and across to the Princess's apartments.
They let themselves in and were surprised to find Helene still in her undergarments, that didn't stop her from rushing over to them, much to the bemusement of her attendant.
"Arabella, you really are back."
Lady Ysabel got between them.
"Arabella avert your eyes. Princess, you should not go running about in a state of undress."
"My body is covered and I doubt I would reveal anything which was not already known to either of you."
Ysabel persuaded the Princess to return to her attendant and to finish being dressed. Aron could not truly see what all the fuss was about.
When the attendant had finished her work Princess Helene returned to them.
"What say you of my dress?"
"It is most agreeable on you Princess," Lady Ysabel replied.
"It is pleasing yet I find your pink dress more becoming."
"Arabella your opinion matches my own, my pink dress has my favour. I am glad you find it pleasing. Some day the opportunity may arise for you to wear it yourself."
Aron hadn't meant it that way yet to his surprise the thought of trying on the pink dress was not as repugnant as it would have been once upon a time.
His mother spared him any further blushes by suggesting that the princess keep up her end of their bargain and continue her studies. With Arabella by her side she readily agreed.
They studied the royal history for half of the morning before taking a break after which they practised their reading together. It was a little after midday when Aron questioned their plans for the afternoon.
"Tis time for archery practise on the terrace."
"It is not fitting for a lady to wield a sword however she may be allowed to use a bow. Some say that suitors find such skills desirable."
As they walked down Aron contemplated how to deal with this next challenge. This was his first chance to learn any of the skills of a warrior yet he had no plans to be courted.
"Good day to you Robert."
Aron felt like hiding, why did it have to be the same guard who almost caught him.
"There's no need to be fraid of old Robert, miss Arabella, I'm sorry I affected you so."
A target of red and off-white rings had been placed against one wall. Helene stepped towards Robert and allowed him to wrap a piece of leather around her forearm.
"Have you engaged in archery before, Miss Arabella?"
"I have not."
"Then I suggest you watch the Princess closely so when it is your turn you may do as she is doing."
He paid close attention as she drew back the bowstring and let her first arrow fly to the target landing in an outer ring at one o'clock, a further four followed in quick succession.
"That is a fair cluster your highness. Let us hope your next five show similar form"
The spread of her next five overlapped that of the first. Robert made two suggestions that Aron did not catch. As a result her remaining shots were marginally closer to the centre of the target.
Now it was Aron's turn, Robert wrapped the leather around the sleeve of the boy's dress and handed him the bow.
His heart was racing as he picked an arrow, raised the bow, drew the string back towards his chin and aimed for the centre. Breathing as slowly as he was able he loosed his first arrow.
It zipped through the air and landed in the outside ring at three o'clock. The second landed at ten o'clock and the third missed the target entirely. Four and five did hit the target but only just.
Aron was appalled by how badly he had done.
Robert could see the child's reaction and went to give some help.
"Youngster you are holding that bow like it is the only thing between you and death, ease your grip a little. Good. Now lift this arm higher, pull back a little more and release."
The arrow flew straight and true landing 12 o'clock high and three rings in from the edge.
This time the second shot landed close to the first, shot number three wasn't too far away either. Four was a different story, he lost concentration and it caught the top of the target. He pulled himself together and the last shot landed slightly above his first.
"Much improved, now pray tell if you saw how your fourth was distinct from the rest."
"I knew as soon as I loosed it that it was lacking."
"Very good. With instincts like those, more guidance and practise and we shall make a bowswoman out of you, young Arabella. On your next turn we shall move you back to where Princess Helene stands."
He took pride in his achievement but did not let it go to his head and shot a consistent last five.
They got better with each round until the strength left their arms, Helene being the first one affected.
"I shall have to raise my effort lest I risk being bested by you."
"Tis no more than beginners luck"
"Do not attempt to appease your Princess."
"I am not saying it to appease my princess I am saying it to appease my friend."
It looked like the stuffing had been knocked out of her. She put down the bow and turned to Aron.
"Forgive me Arabella, I have become accustomed to people's actions being shaped by my status as princess. It is apparent that I have much to learn."
He took both her hands in his.
"I have little knowledge of how to act around a princess and if it makes you unhappy I wish that to remain the case."
She tried to manoeuvre them into a hug but he refused to let go of her hands. The look in each other's eyes said more than words ever could.
When they went back to practising Robert could tell that the lack of strength was taking its toll on their accuracy so he finished off with a small demonstration, launching arrows while walking around the terrace. Every one landed in an area the size of his guards helmet.
Lady Ysabel arrived in time to see a part of his impressive display of skill.
"Why Robert I knew you were a proficient archer but I was unaware of just how talented you were."
"Tis a useful skill hiding inside a fancy trick, no more."
The children thanked him and left. On the way back inside Ysabel noticed that Helene was not her usual chatty self making her wonder if something had occurred between the two of them. In contrast her son was relaying most of the afternoon's happenings.
The moment they were back in the princess's apartments all that changed. There was something on her mind and nothing would divert her from it. She turned to Aron and took his hands in hers.
"I am minded that I know already yet I am compelled to ask, will you be my true dear friend?"
"I would hope my reply would be known to you, I wish us to be true friends for as long as we may be together."
l;">In an instant they went from holding hands to hugging. Ysabel wondered if they planned to stay like that until the sun went down. Finally they separated and walked over to a window still holding hands.
She could not predict what their future would hold especially once all the secrets were revealed but for now they were content together behaving like sisters.
Having returned to Helene's side what now lies in store for Arabella? If she is to continue her deception she will need a little help.
"Good morning mother, may I enquire after the smell?"
"Tis time for your bath, my child and all these unctions will ensure you smell as sweet as a girl of your standing has right to."
"But why is there a need for me to smell so?"
"I wish there were no need. Upon the return of the court I shall not be able to keep you hidden here, if you wish to remain then this is the only way."
Aron awoke early for a second morning and readied himself while he waited for his mother to come back from the kitchens.
When his aunt had stopped looking after him life had become boring, since meeting the princess things were looking up, he had a new friend and got to spend more time with his mother. It felt like every day was a new adventure.
Within five minutes of Lady Ysabel's return the two of them were out of the rooms and making their way to the princess.
To avoid a repeat of yesterday's incident Ysabel made sure that Helene was fully clothed before her child was allowed into the princess's bedchamber.
"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well."
Good morning Lady Ysabel, good morning Arabella. May I presume that the affairs of the palace are in order and the day finds you both well?"
Once the formalities were completed they began the day's studies with music.
Ysabel played a simple melody on the harp, when she was done Helene had her turn. She played slower and with one or two wrong notes but it was still recognizable as the same tune. She tried a second time and got all the notes right.
"Arabella would you like a turn?"
"I think not."
Helene was going to say something but Ysabel caught her attention and stopped her.
Lady Ysabel played some more and Helene did her best to copy. Once she felt confident enough she was encouraged to play the whole piece. In the middle of the princess's playing Ysabel could make out another sound, it was quite quiet, almost as if... It couldn't be could it? She double checked, yes Arabella's lips were moving, she was quietly singing along.
Again nothing was said but she made a mental note to have a talk with her child when they returned to their room.
By the time they finished music it was approaching midday, Princess Helene took Lady Ysabel to one side.
"It is my wish to allow Arabella to wear my dresses within the privacy of my bedchamber. She only has the same green dress to wear while I am fortunate to have enough for a clean dress everyday of the week. Might I be allowed to do this without causing strife to anyone?"
"Oh princess, you are pure of heart and your selflessness is a lesson to us all. You would honour Arabella greatly. I shall ensure you are not disturbed."
Helene went to where her friend was seated and took her hand.
"Come Arabella, I have something to show you."
She lead him into her bedchamber and from a chest produced her pink dress and held it up.
"Your favourite dress."
"Yes, it is my will to share it with you if you are similarly minded."
"But what would Lady Ysabel say?"
"I have already sought her counsel and she is agreeable."
He carefully removed his green dress and folded it before taking the princess's pink dress and allowing it to fall over his body and smoothing it down.
"Oh Arabella, you look every bit a young noblewoman. Lady Ysabel come see how your charge looks."
Ysabel came to see what the fuss was about and her jaw fell open.
"I am near wordless.”
Arabella was lifted by their complements and it was with some sadness that she returned to her green dress.
"We shall do this again another day," Helene said which raised his spirits somewhat.
Lady Ysabel provided an added distraction with her suggestion.
"Tis too pleasant a day to remain inside, what say you to a walk around the terrace?"
Both children agreed and walked beside her, chatting as they went.
Even with walls on all sides the terrace got a lot of sun in the summer months. They were encouraged to play there but warned not avoid the full sun as much as possible.
At one point the princess got her friend to pretend to be a dragon and chase her then switched around so she was the dragon. The irony of it elicited a smile from Ysabel while the children were completely unaware.
Before they became too tired they were escorted back to the princess's apartments where they were given texts to read quietly while Lady Ysabel checked on the kitchens.
"What think you of what you read?" Helene asked.
"Where I to choose what to read it would not be this. My choice would be within the pages of your storybook."
"Mine also, which would you choose?"
"It would be the girl who defeats the troll."
"Arabella it is as if you know me better than I do myself for that was my choice."
They both laughed and carried on reading their texts, their shared reasoningsomehow making the work easier to complete.
Lady Ysabel returned and immediately suggested that they leave the princess before her meal arrived.
"If you wish to stay and eat with me it would please me greatly."
"Princess, you remember what happened the last time Arabella ate with you? None of us wishes for a repeat of that."
"I am sorry, you are correct."
"Do not be sorry, twas not your fault," Arabella added.
"There may come a time when she becomes more used to food such as yours. When that day comes we will accept your most generous offer with the same grace with which it was made."
"I understand. In that case before you depart I have something I wish to give to you."
She disappeared into her bedchamber and was back within seconds.
"This is now yours."
She placed an object in his hand, it was cold, obviously metal. He looked down and saw a bracelet, a gold band embellished with braided gold and inset with four gemstones.
"It's, it's beautiful. I cannot accept, this is no trinket, it's value must be great and I am not worthy of it."
"Arabella your worth is far greater than a bracelet. Your wrist remains bare when it should be adorned with fine things."
The child looked to Lady Ysabel for support but she recognized the determination on the princess's face.
Helene helped Arabella to slide her hand through the golden band.
"I have never received a gift such as this before, might I hug you Princess."
"Arabella in the privacy of my apartments you need never ask."
She embraced the princess and a single happy tear rolled down her face.
Reluctantly the children parted.
"Might I see you tomorrow morning," the Princess enquired.
"Princess, in the morning you must prepare for the guard inspection, it would not be wise for Arabella to be present."
"You are correct Lady Ysabel. Then I shall expect you the next day."
On the way home the two of them discussed what was expected of the princess. She would inspect a full turn out of palace guard then watch them demonstrate their skills. The purpose was twofold, it allowed the guard a chance to rehearse before the King and Queen returned while simultaneously giving the Princess some experience of the duties she would be expected to do.
Once they made it home Arabella's thoughts returned to the bracelet.
"Mother, I need to find a way to repay Princess Helene for her kindness, yet there is naught I can do for her."
"Do not be so quick to diminish your talents. Tis true we have not the finance for a similar gift yet I have an idea which uses your time and effort in place of value to create your gift."
From the bottom of her chest she produced a circle of wood about the size of her child's hand with notches around the edge and a hole in the centre.
"With this loom and some yarn you may weave the princess a very personal gift if it is your will."
"I would like that."
Lady Ysabel decided that would give something to do the next day while the princess inspected the guard.
When morning came sweet smells assaulted the child's senses. Getting out of bed to investigate revealed pots over the fire.
A short time later mother entered their rooms.
"Good morning sweetheart."
"Good morning mother, may I enquire after the smell?"
"Tis time for your bath, my child and all these unctions will ensure you smell as sweet as a girl of your standing has right to."
"But why is there a need for me to smell so?"
"I wish there were no need. Upon the return of the court I shall not be able to keep you hidden here, if you wish to remain then this is the only way."
The reply did not come in words, instead he started to undress. Mother kissed him on the forehead then carefully lifted the largest pot down and emptied its contents into the large wooden tub that had sat, half-filled, to one side of the hearth.
He dipped a toe in the water, then a foot, both feet, and finally lowered the rest of his body gingerly into the scented water.
Not content with fragrancing her child's body Lady Ysabel also worked a liquid into the hair while laying in the tub. She added more hot water then left him to soak.
He lay back wondering if this was the way girls normally bathed. It was a lot more relaxing than the usual jumping into the tub, scrubbing all the dirt off then leaping out before the water got cold. Maybe the floral scent was something that could be coped with after all.
His body was wrinkled and the water had cooled down by the time his mother checked on him.
"I am afraid it is time for you to leave your watery refuge."
He stood reluctantly to be towelled dry and noticed that his mother was gentler now than she had been for a long time.
Once he was fully dressed his mother looked him over. She recalled how he the fit of the princess's pink dress had made him look, it was hard to think of him as a boy dressed like that. Maybe the royal seamstresses could be persuaded to make something more suitable for Arabella.
"It is time for me to go attend to the princess, let me instruct you how this loom is used first."
She showed her how easy it was and got her stated before rushing off to make her final preparations for Princess Helene.
Arabella's first attempt at a bracelet started off fine until one small mistake made it go wrong so she undid some of it and tried again.
She was just getting back into the swing of things when noises came into the room from the courtyard below. Rushing over to their small window she could see the royal guard marching out and forming into ranks. The urge to count them all was overwhelming but there were so many that she soon gave up.
Once everybody was out it quietened down and no one seemed to be moving so Arabella went back to her weaving.
All of a sudden she heard orders being barked out and went back to the window. At first there was no sign of anything going on, then she saw her princess accompanied by the captain of the guard moving along one of the ranks.
'Her princess'? Why was she thinking like that? It wasn't as if she knew any other princesses.
Helene worked her way along rank after rank of regular guards, pikemen and archers. Arabella was getting tired feet just watching all that walking.
When they were almost below the window Arabella was tempted to try and catch Helene's eye but she didn't want to cause any trouble to her princess.
There she went again, 'her princess'.
The inspection was completed and Helene returned to one side of the courtyard. The captain barked another order and the guard reformed and set to providing a demonstration of their skills.
Arabella was particularly inspired by the archers, she hoped that Robert would soon give her another chance to learn from his experience.
The shadows had stated to lengthen by the time the display was over. Helene disappeared from view and each group of men was dismissed until all that remained were the sentries who stood in front of the great hall at all times.
Arabella sighed and returned to her weaving. It was nowhere near complete and she had planned to present the princess with her bracelet in the morning, she would have to do better.
Some progress had been made by the time Lady Ysabel came home but she already knew why it wasn't complete.
"Did you take enjoyment from what you saw out the window."
"My presence there was known?"
"By me alone, least that is my belief."
"I found the archery of interest, all else took too long. How Princess Helene were able to endure it I know not."
"The princess knows what is expected of her and does her duty without complaint."
Arabella returned to her weaving, apart from a break to eat she kept weaving until it was time to go to bed.
With a full night's sleep behind her Arabella prepared for the day. Upon the table she found the woven bracelet completed and ready for her princess's wrist.
She could not contain herself, as soon as the princess's attendant had left she produced the bracelet.
"Princess, I offer you this woven bracelet from my own hands. I hope that what it lacks in value it exceeds in worth."
"You made it all yourself?"
"Well my m.. Lady Ysabel helped me."
Lady Ysabel was quick to respond, hoping to cover for his slip up.
"I merely secured the start and end, the weaving was all Arabella's work and a fine job she made of it."
"Oh Arabella, I accept this gift from your heart, it may not be made of gold but its worth to me is as great."
They hugged as if they had known each other years, not days.
In the afternoon Arabella's hopes were realised when they were escorted to the terrace for another archery lesson.
Her will to improve had replaced her earlier fear of her teacher and she spoke to Robert straight away.
"Oh Robert, I watched the display of skill your archers put on for Princess Helene. I wish to raise my skills close to theirs."
At first he laughed but a glance at her face showed she wasn't finding it at all humorous.
"Miss, you have ability, put your mind to the task. Little by little I shall step up the difficulty."
"Little by little be not enough."
"Miss Arabella there is good reason why you are the student and I am the teacher. We may try it your way until you see that for yourself."
While their conversation had been taking place Helene has shot her first 15 arrows in a nice consistent group.
Arabella wrapped the leather around her sleeve, picked up her bow and loosed her first five arrows in quick succession. Before taking her next five she took a stride backward. It affected her accuracy only slightly. Another backward stride was taken before her remaining five, all five hit the target but again with less accuracy.
Helene looked at her friend with confusion in her eyes, then stepped up to have her second attempt. Robert gave her one further instruction.
"Princess you should take a stride backwards."
"Like Arabella did?"
Unlike her friend Helene shot all fifteen arrows from the same point and with each group her accuracy increased. Robert hoped that might be enough to prove his point but suspected it might take more for Arabella to realise it.
His fears were realised when she continued to move backwards albeit a step at a time instead of a stride. Helene could not get her head around what her friend was doing.
"Why do you continue to move further away? You are barely hitting the target."
"I do not want to wait, I want to be a great archer now."
"Yet you ignore your teacher's advice and in so doing you have turned this into an afternoon to be endured. I do not care for this side to your character."
"I do not want to hear it, Robert please escort me back to my apartments. Arabella, remain here and I shall send Lady Ysabel."
With nothing else to do Arabella continued her practise and managed to increase her accuracy somewhat. Between each group she thought about what had happened.
Robert came back to take the equipment back to the barrack stores.
"Oh dear Miss Arabella."
"What did I do wrong?"
"Tis not my place to answer for you, just think on what you said this time compared to last."
"I do not know what I could have said to upset her, I talked most to you...... Oh!"
Lady Ysabel appeared at that moment.
"I need to take you home so that we might talk."
"The only person I should talk to is my princess."
"At this time she would not hear you."
Arabella walked home in silence and took herself off to bed early with the princess's storybook.
Once she had gone to bed Ysabel took a quill and a piece of parchment and began to write. From time to time she would refer to an old book and then commit something to the parchment. Whatever she was planning it kept her occupied late into the night.
She was asleep at the table when Arabella rose in the morning.
"Mother are you all right?"
"I shall be fine," she said stroking Arabella's cheek. "I just had many things to resolve last night."
Lady Ysabel rushed through her normal morning preparations.
"I need for you to run some errands for me."
"But Mother I should go and apologize to Princess Helene."
"Indeed you should, however for now that will not be possible. I have two messages to be delivered, this one with the royal seal should be handed to the tanners and this one to the house at the end of Drum Lane where they will give you further instructions. When they have done with you come straight back here and wait for me."
"But mother, what will Princess Helene think."
"I shall explain the situation to her."
The whole situation was too cryptic for Arabella to figure out what was going on, but her part in it seemed reasonably simple.
She found the tanner easily enough and despite the foul odour handed over the message. With a hand covering her mouth she watched as he read it, he seemed perplexed at first then smiled a knowing smile and said, "tell her ladyship that within three days my part shall be completed."
"Three days," she said to herself as she moved on.
Drum Lane proved to be an entirely different proposition. She knew it was off the road to the Northgate, it was just a matter of finding it. This part of the city was nothing like the city she had known with her aunt. There were no gaudily painted toothless women near the castle and the atmosphere was a lot more welcoming than where she was now.
She spotted the tavern that gave the lane its name but was unable to go down it because of a raucous circle of people. She crouched down to see if there was any way to squeeze through at ground level. It looked as if some kind of fight was happening inside it so there was no way through. There was no way to go around the sides either.
Maybe someone could tell her another way to get into the lane. She looked around for a benevolent face but could only see sneers and scowls.
From the circle there came a cheer and a thud then the people began to disperse. As the road cleared she could see a man lying in the road. No one paid him any attention.
She felt more vulnerable than she had ever felt before, yet was compelled to check on the man.
"Will you be alright?"
The man slurred his reply. "Just as soon as I get an ale inside me."
Arabella hurried on to the end of the lane, doing her best not to let her own skirts trip her. She rapped on the door and waited, please let this to be over as soon as possible.
A peep hole opened and someone looked out and then down at her.
"Whadoyouwant," came a voice from inside. Arabella couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman.
She was too worried to speak so held the second message up in front of the hole. A calloused hand pulled it through and shut behind it.
It felt like hours but it was probably only a minute before the door swung open and she was ushered inside.
"You are safer in here than out there."
This voice sounded different from the first and was definitely female. The woman who owned it shut the door behind him, making the front of the house as dark as the rest of it.
She glanced around, and in the shadows she could just make out a hunched up figure in one of the corners.
"Tell me girl, what brings you here?"
"My mother sent me on an errand."
"You are the child of Ysabel of Marston?"
In the poor light she could just see the woman's eyebrows raise before she spoke.
"Child I knew your mother and your grandmother, she was a fine woman indeed."
"Tell me of my grandmother, mother does not speak of her."
"Aye and with reason, believe me child by not knowing will you stay safe."
Part of her wanted to know more, yet a larger part accepted that her mother did not keep things from her without good cause.
"Now, of this list," the female voice said. "It will take us some time to get all that is upon it. I suggest you go to the stream and collect a bucket of mud. Make sure it has plenty of worms and leeches but be careful to get none upon yourself. Here, put this on, it will protect your fine clothes."
She handed Arabella the dress of a young peasant girl, at the very least she would be less conspicuous.
"Do I have to return that way?"
She looked toward the door with trepidation.
"You think that way lies danger?" The hunched figure in the corner spoke.
The girl nodded.
"You shall leave by the rear alley."
She was lead through the back, all along one wall were bottles and jars of various sizes, some were of glass and looked to contain dried leaves but many more were of stone and contained who knows what.
A low wooden door took them out into the alleyway, it seemed so cold and narrow that she doubted it ever saw sun. The woman walked briskly along, the only way she could keep up was to grab onto the woman's skirts. Their path twisted and turned between the backs of the tightly packed houses. One last corner and she turned and pointed.
"That way lies the gate, when you are done come back here, I shall be waiting."
She had no doubt in her mind that when she returned the woman would be there waiting.
The gate was in sight and the stream was just beyond. A few women were doing their laundry on the edge of the water so she went far enough upstream and found a perfect spot. It didn't take long to fill the bucket and she thought there were plenty of leeches and just a few worms in it.
The change of clothes was worth it, no one seemed to notice her on the way back which suited her perfectly. When she got back to where she believed the alleyway to be she couldn't see the woman and it didn't even look like a way through.
She was about to move on when someone grabbed her shoulder, it was her - the woman. She lead Arabella back to the house, this time by the hand. It was much softer and smoother than she would have expected, almost as soft as his mothers but not quite.
Back inside the old woman inspected the bucket.
"A fair few leeches in there, I think you've missed one though."
He wondered how she could tell until she took a pipe from her mouth and put it near her leg. The rogue leech dropped off, she picked it up and dropped it into a jar.
"Here are the goods your mother asked for along with a bottle of elderflower wine for good measure."
A wooden chest was handed over, it was just small enough to carry under one arm.
They must have picked up on his fears because they lead him towards the back door again.
"Here is your dress child and don't forget your mud."
"I thought the mud was for you."
"No, the leeches was for me, the mud was for thee."
She didn't want to think how the older woman had dealt with the leeches so quickly.
The younger woman lead her in the opposite direction this time although their path was no less convoluted than before. She got her to a main street, pointed the way to the castle and gave her a message of warmest regards for his mother and wished Arabella good luck then in a moment was gone.
From the end of the alley to the castle gate the way was short and safe for which she was most grateful.
She had a most interesting tale to tell her mother when she arrived. When she was done her mother was most concerned and held her child close.
"I am sorry Arabella, I should not have sent you, anything could have happened to you. I fooled myself into believing it was Aron I sent yet I fear you would have been in peril even dressed as a boy."
"Are we not one and the same?"
"You share the same body and have similar traits yet there are differences too. I do not believe you would have the favour of the princess as my son. I am minded that you have found more enjoyment while in skirts too."
"I would not deny that."
"If you were able to stop this deceit now would that be your choice?"
"Only if that would not prevent me from being with my Princess."
"I fear your princess would have no interest in Aron."
"Then for now this is how I wish to be."
She had given her child the chance to change her mind but the choice had been made clear. Lady Ysabel wondered if Arabella would still make the same choice if she knew what her future held. She would soon find out.
Can Arabella win the princess round after her actions when they were last together?
"Good morning Princess."
"You should address me as your highness."
Arabella's mouth fell open.
Arabella was eager to get back to her princess, especially after her last two days. If upsetting her best friend hadn't been bad enough there was her experience outside the safety of the castle.
She wished she could share that story with someone but even if she could get back in the princess's good books there were good reasons why she could not mention where she had been and what she had done.
It was with trepidation that she followed her mother into the princess's apartments.
"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well."
"Good morning Lady Ysabel. May I presume that the affairs of the palace are in order?"
"The affairs are, as always, in order your highness."
"Good morning Arabella."
"Good morning Princess."
"You should address me as your highness."
Arabella's mouth fell open.
"Please Princess, do not be this way, I made a mistake and hurt you and for that I am truly sorry but do not push me away, I could not bear it."
Tears were welling in her eyes.
The princess stared coldly at her then her expression broke into one of friendship.
"Oh Arabella I so wanted to retain my anger but I cannot. To hurt you is to hurt me."
"Then you forgive me?"
Helene gently took Arabella's hands in her own. A great weight was lifted from Arabella's heart by this one simple action.
Lady Ysabel smiled to herself, she could remember falling out with her best friend and making up on more than one occasion. But for now her thoughts returned to ensuring the princess had an education fit for a girl of royalty, what that said about her own child she wasn't entirely sure.
Over the following days the children put their strife behind them and continued in their studies and their games. With the encouragement of her mother Arabella had moved on from weaving bracelets to needlework. She had also started to learn to play her mother's harp.
Even her night time routine was different now. Before bedtime Lady Ysabel would take a few ingredients from the chest Arabella had been given in Drum Lane and add them to a poultice that she applied to the chest and hips.
In the beginning she had asked, "But why do I need such things mother?"
To which her mother had replied, "Tis an old recipe to help a girl who is a late bloomer, it adds a swell to her bosom and a little swing to her hips. In time will help you blend in."
It took a bit of reassuring that she would not end up as a buxom wench but she now accepted it as part of her life. She still dreamed that someday she would be a great warrior although her dreams were the only place where it seemed possible for this fantasy to exist.
Lady Ysabel felt like she had already asked too much of her child yet with the royal court due back any day there were more things for him to endure.
That morning she woke Arabella reluctantly mere minutes after she rose from her own bed.
"Is something wrong mother?"
Lady Ysabel sighed.
"In a manor of speaking it is."
"Pray, tell me what it is."
"I do not want to do this but I must, to protect the honour of the princess, the honour of our family, and most importantly you my child."
"Your words are making me fearful."
There was nothing she could say to reassure him so she merely emptied the contents of her cloth bag onto Arabella's bed. She looked quizzically at the pieces of leather reinforced with metal.
"I do not understand, what is this?"
"It is a device used to fend off the untoward advances of amorous males on serving girls and keep them chaste."
The look on Arabella's face showed she still could not see what purpose it would serve. Her young mind knew that boys and girls were different but the mechanics of sex was something she was not yet ready for.
"It fits around the girl's waist and protects between her legs."
Lady Ysabel tried to balance between telling the truth and protecting her child's innocence.
"And what is between my legs also needs protecting?"
"There lies your secret."
Arabella shuddered at the thought of being discovered.
"To avoid discovery I will wear it."
"My sweet Arabella, the way you handle yourself fills me with pride."
She held her child to her bosom.
"Let us fit this forthwith and proceed with our day."
Arabella lifted her nightgown and peeled off the strip of cloth that held the poultice to her hips while Lady Ysabel picked up the sections of the device. The inverted delta shaped piece of leather went in front, the metal part continued between her legs and hid her most unladylike appendage from view. The metal of the belt section joined the top of the delta.
Lady Ysabel made sure it was all secured by the flat locking device then attached the tiny gold key to the chain of the pendant she always wore.
Arabella got dressed in her normal daytime attire, she noticed that the device was not visible through her clothes but she wished she didn't have to feel it.
By the end of her day with the princess she felt the need to scratch places she didn't even know could itch. It seemed unlikely that Princess Helene could have missed the scratching yet she didn't mention it thankfully.
When they returned home Arabella had hoped the device could be removed but her hopes were dashed.
"Darling you must wear it day and night for it to serve its purpose. Bathing is the only time it will be removed."
"And what of when I need the toilet?"
"It will allow you to attend to such bodily functions."
Arabella went to bed with the storybook and finished reading the last tale. None of the stories mentioned anyone wearing anything like she was. It took her a little while to find a comfortable sleeping position and settle down for the night.
The following day everything seemed to be fine, the girls continued their studies in the morning and in the afternoon they worked on their archery. When Lady Ysabel came to collect them she wasn't her usual calm self.
"Lady Ysabel, you seem flustered."
"Princess, I have just received word, the royal hunting party are preparing to return. They shall be with us in time for a great feast tomorrow evening."
"Mother and Father will be home soon!"
"They will your highness and there is much still to do. We have to clean the great hall and make all the beds and get the kitchens ready."
Ysabel hurried them up to the Princess's apartments, ushered them inside and stood in the doorway.
"I must make sure all is done right, Arabella tonight you will dine with the princess and I shall return for you once darkness falls."
She closed the door behind her and went on her way. The two girls sat down and started to talk.
"I'm so happy that mother and father will be back, there is a part of me that has even missed Gaspar."
"I am glad you are lifted by their return. I have no knowledge of the prince, is he mean spirited towards you?"
"Tis not that, he is quite fair. His problem is that he is a boy which means he has no understanding of the ways of girls and never will."
Arabella could not stop a giggle from escaping her mouth.
"What amuses you?"
She thought hard before replying.
"What if I were to tell you that I am a boy, would you think it possible?"
It was the princess's turn to giggle.
"Arabella, that thought is simply absurd, there is nothing of the boy about you. Were I to be a hawk soaring through the air that would be more likely than for you to be a boy."
As much as she wanted to respond to that Arabella decided not to and thought 'maybe one day' to herself.
"The castle will feel alive when it is full again, we shall eat in the great hall and be entertained of an evening. Tis not the same place in late summer."
Arabella was not convinced that this change was for the better, she had become accustomed to the system and her role within it and it seemed like everything was about to change again.
"Will we still have lessons together and practise our archery?"
"Indeed we will."
She was glad that there were a few things that would remain constant.
They carried on talking until the princess's meal arrived. She was wary of letting Arabella share the food since the days it was used as the reason her friend had stayed at home.
"I do not want you to be ill at my expense, I need my friend by my side."
"This time I shall be more careful, my princess. I shall avoid the game bird and have some rabbit in its place."
They ate enough to quell their appetites then returned oncemore to their chat.
True to her word night had indeed fallen by the time Lady Ysabel came back to take Arabella home. Helene even suggested that she could stay with her but the lady would not hear of it.
"My dear princess, it would not be fitting for you to have someone in your room at night lest it were necessity and with sanction of your parents. Come Arabella, we must away to our beds."
The tired girl walked alongside her mother in silence. Lady Ysabel assumed it was just fatigue but in truth her thoughts, clouded in sleep, were of what her place would be when the castle was full.
By the time they got home she was needing her bed and she fell asleep almost as soon as her mother tucked her in.
Lady Ysabel wished that sleep would claim her as quickly. Not only did she have the worries of getting the castle ready for the homecoming of the King and Queen, she also had to pray that no one would see through her child's disguise.
Arabella was awakened by her mother, it didn't yet look light outside but the birds had started to sing so it must be.
She noticed pots on the fire.
"Is it bathtime again?"
"No my dear, just a very special treatment for your hair."
She proceeded to rinse Arabella's hair then took one of the pots and applied its contents to her head. Arabella thought that was the end to it.
"Ouch, that hurt."
"I'm sorry sweetheart, I shall be as gentle as I can but there will be times when it will pull."
"What is it you are doing?"
"You will see later, you will love it, of that I am sure."
Arabella could feel her hair being twisted and pulled, what she couldn't tell was that each section of hair was being twisted around something.
When Ysabel was finished she stood back to admire her handiwork.
Arabella wanted to see it too. They had no mirror but they did have a bright copper pot that was still shiny enough to see a distorted reflection.
"I cannot go to my princess when I look so."
"My dear, you will not see her until the great feast this evening. She has much to do herself before the arrival of the king and queen."
Her face fell.
"I shall return at midday, do not touch your hair until then."
Arabella wondered if this was a taste of things to come as she sat around the room trying to find ways to pass the time. She had started off playing a simple tune on her mother's harp but her heart wasn't in it. Next she tried reading the storybook but she found she knew every story off by heart. Finally she positioned herself at the window and watched as the guard and some of the servants prepared the courtyard to welcome the king and queen.
Lady Ysabel returned as promised, she had a freshly laundered dress for her child to wear and as soon as Arabella put it on she began working on her hair.
By the time she had finished her work Arabella could feel her hair in a way she never had before and was dying to see the result.
She used the shiny copper pot and although the image was not perfect she could see that her hair was full of cute little curls.
"What think you now my child?
"Oh mother, I hardly recognized myself. I love it."
"You are even more adorable now than before. But we have not the time to waste, we must assemble in the great hall."
She started to move towards the door then looked at her child for some seconds before leading her out of the door.
"We have one brief stop to make."
They returned to the room where Arabella's adventure in dresses had began. Lady Ysabel retrieved something white and carefully placed it on the girl's head.
"Tis appropriate for you to be dressed in a similar fashion to me on an occasion like this, hence you should be cowled as I am."
It seemed peculiar to Arabella that her mother should go to such troubles with her hair only to cover it up but she trusted her and said nothing.
As they entered the great hall a roar could be heard over the castle walls from the city.
"They are almost here," someone called from the doorway.
Lady Ysabel positioned Arabella next to a grand tapestry and instructed her not to leave the spot. She went outside to hand the running of the castle back to the Lord chamberlain.
Arabella looked around hoping to catch a glance of her princess but she was not to be found in the hall.
The noise level increased and Arabella became increasingly impatient but remained at her post.
People in the hall paid little attention to her as they attended to last minute duties, straightened tapestries, modified place settings and adjusted throne chairs.
A quartet of royal guard who were stood by the entrance came to attention and more people began to enter. She recognised the King and Queen from their faces more than their regal attire, alongside them were the prince and princess. Next came her mother and a man she assumed to be the chamberlain. Behind them came a full entourage of noblemen and women.
The royal family swept along to the top table with Lady Ysabel and the chamberlain still behind them. Everybody else filed around the other tables and waited for the king to be seated.
Arabella watched her princess, she was wearing the beautiful pink dress and had a small crown perched on her head. Occasionally she would tug n her father's robe and whisper something.
Right now Arabella felt completely superfluous, the princess had her family back, what need did she have for a girl who was actually a boy? She was on the verge of running out of the hall when one of the servant girls touched her on the wrist an gestured towards her mother.
Fighting her urge to run Arabella walked over towards her mother who encouraged the girl to her side.
The king sat and everyone at each table followed suit. Someone started to make a speech, she didn't recognize him and wasn't paying much attention to what he said. She was looking along the table to where the princess was, sandwiched between her father the king and the chamberlain.
At last all the speeches were over and the food started to arrive on the table. As always the royal taster checked everything before the king could tuck in and once he started to eat everyone else could too.
Lady Ysabel helped Arabella to fill her plate and rationed her to just a little wine. Not much talking went on between them, the hall was too noisy.
More courses arrived and were consumed just as quickly, as a boy Aron had been accused of eating too quickly but that was nothing compared to many of the people in front of her who were wolfing down pieces of venison and vegetables.
Once the stag had been dispatched there was a pause for entertainment with a variety of musicians playing songs of hunting prowess or success in battle.
Arabella watched as Princess Helene exchanged comments with her father and occasionally her mother. She had never felt so isolated before in her short life.
As if that wasn't bad enough she got a sense that someone was watching her. Looking around the room she saw the familiar face of Lord Barkstone staring intently at her.
She tugged on her mother's sleeve and whispered into her ear.
"Lord Barkstone stares at me, I fear he has seen through my disguise."
"Dear, do not fret, he may suspect but he cannot prove. You are a very different child from the one he admonished. Smile and enjoy the entertainment."
She managed to force a smile and did her best to concentrate on the performers but it was no easy task.
The celebrations went on into the evening, Arabella felt her eyelids begin to droop. Lady Ysabel had been expecting it and made her excuses so she could escort the child to her bed.
Once out of the hall they had some respite from the noise within but not from the attention of Lord Barkstone who appeared in front of them with a self satisfied smile which the candlelight made all the more menacing beneath his dark moustache.
"When I first laid eyes on you child I knew it was a face I recalled. Now I can place you, I said if I ever found you within the castle I would have you banished from the city yet here you are with the audacity to conceal yourself as a girl."
"Lord Barkstone, you are mistaken, this child bears only a passing resemblance to the boy you disciplined."
"Lady Ysabel, you are responsible for this monstrous deception, by the time I am done you will have lost your favour and will join your offspring outside the city walls."
"Barkstone, what is the meaning of this!"
The chamberlain had joined them in the corridor.
"Sir, this child is that wretched boy I dealt with months ago, the way he is dressed is a sleight upon the kingdom perpetuated by his disrespectful mother."
"Never have I heard a claim so far-fetched, you have gone too far this time."
"I shall prove my claim then we shall see."
He tried to remove Arabella's cowl but tired as she was there was no way she avoided his reach and Lady Ysabel stepped in front of him.
"Do not attempt to lay a hand on my charge. If this is your proof then I shall do what is necessary."
She unpinned Arabella's headdress and watched Barkstone's face as a headful of curls escaped its confines and settled around her face.
"Is that the proof you sought?"
The look of disbelief and then contrition on his face was a sight Lady Ysabel would not soon forget.
"Barkstone, make your apology now then go forth while my generosity remains intact."
He stood there open mouthed but finally made his apology and swiftly returned to the great hall.
"The man is a menace, were he not a good leader of men and a great tactician he would have no place in this castle. Now tell me who is this delightful child by your side?"
"This is Arabella, she has been a great help to me over the summer hunt."
"My gratitude to you Miss Arabella, I wish you the sweetest of dreams."
With that he also returned to the great hall and left Ysabel and Arabella to make their way to their room. She may have made it to the room unaided but the child needed her mother's help to get to her bed and was out like a light.
When morning came Lady Ysabel rose early and left to start her morning duties. Now that the whole royal family was in the castle her main responsibility was to Queen Isolda. The chamberlain returned to overall charge of the running of the castle.
Arabella did not wake at her usual hour, in fact Ysabel was surprised to find her still in bed when she returned.
"Wake up sleepyhead, tis time to get ready."
"Isn't it safer for me to remain here," she mumbled.
"Do not let the actions of that man send you into hiding, what would Princess Helene think?"
"I doubt she would notice my absence."
"After all you have been through, what makes you think that?"
"She has her family back now, they can give her more than I am able, what need does she have for my presence?"
"My dear, she is in need of you, she needs someone of her own age, her family can give her many things but a girl needs friends. You are also in need of her."
Arabella was not totally convinced but if there was a chance her princess still needed her then she was prepared to take it. She followed her mother out of the door and towards the Princess's apartments.
"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well."
"Good morning Lady Ysabel. May I presume that the affairs of the palace are in order?"
“With your father and mother back in charge everything is as it should be your highness.”
"Oh Arabella your hair is so becoming, those curls are a sight to behold. Whyever did you cover your hair and withhold such a thing from the royal court?
"That was a decision of my making, I felt it right for her head to be respectfully and humbly adorned in the presence of the King and Queen."
"I hope it always remains uncovered in my presence."
"Princess I shall bear that in mind; but for now I have other issues to attend to. Might I leave you to continue the study of your ancestors? Your mother the Queen has need of me this morning."
"Very well Lady Ysabel, we shall study while we await your return. Is that not so Arabella?"
"Tis true, so please hurry back."
Helene had every intention of doing just as she had promised; but first she had questions for her friend.
"What think you of yesterday's feast? Was it not fine indeed?
"I will admit I have never seen its like, nor have I ever seen as much food as was on every table."
"I hope its richness will not return you to your bed, I could not bear to be without you."
Arabella took reassurance from her princess's words.
"I took care with what passed my lips."
"Of that I am glad."
The princess paused for a mere moment then continued.
"Your presence on the top table will not have gone unnoticed, there will be many who wish to know of you as a result."
This revelation left Arabella feeling uncomfortable, she had no desire to be the subject of curiosity, especially if last night's experience was anything to go by.
With her anxiety plain to see the princess tried to reassure her oncemore.
"There is no need to fret, you are my friend and anyone who bears you ill will shall be dealt with."
"Thank you Helene."
Arabella held both of the princess's hands in hers as a physical confirmation of her gratitude and the bond between them. For her part Helene revelled in being addressed without title. While she had no qualms about using her status to protect her friend in all other ways she longed for them to be equals.
The two girls began their studies, Arabella was now quite familiar with the ancestry of her friend. It made her wonder if her own lineage would be as interesting if she would ever be allowed to find that out.
They were wondering when Lady Ysabel would return as they were finding it hard to concentrate on the same subjectfor so long.
The door did open but it was not Lady Ysabel who appeared.
"Lady Catherine, it is a pleasure. Mother!"
Helene rushed past the lady and into the arms of her mother.
"My child anyone would think I had not set eyes on you in days."
"Oh mother, any time away from you is too long."
Queen Isolda sighed in agreement.
"Come and meet Arabella."
As she moved away from the door Lady Ysabel was also able to enter the room.
"So I finally get to meet the girl who has lifted my daughter's spirits."
Arabella looked at the floor and attempted to curtsy.
"Your Majesty, I am honoured."
"Child, you do not need to look at the floor unless you see something that interests you."
Helene giggled, the Ladies smiled, Arabella just blushed and slowly raised her head.
She could see that Helene had her mother's looks, particularly her eyes, she could see the same kindness in them.
"That is better, a girl such as yourself should not hide away, especially not from your queen."
Isolda looked over the child stood before her.
"You look familiar to me, Lady Ysabel you say she is your niece?"
"That is so my queen."
"Then that would explain it. Your family was blessed with beauty."
"Oh no your Majesty, you and your daughter are more beautiful by far than I," Arabella replied, making Princess Helene blush.
"And blessed with modesty too. Lady Catherine you may leave us to attend to your other duties, I wish to spend some time with my daughter."
She left the room without a word.
The queen found a place to sit and took her daughter in her arms.
"So my dear, I trust you have studied well."
"I have mother, why, Arabella and I were studying our ancestors before you arrived, were we not Arabella?"
"You once struggled to grasp such things," the Queen stated.
"Tis true yet since Arabella's arrival it has become fun."
Queen Isolda looked to Lady Ysabel for confirmation.
"She speaks the truth my Queen, I cannot fathom it but it is so."
"Is there any other where your endeavour has improved as a result of your friend?"
"Oh yes, archery, already she is better than I"
"I see, perhaps you should accompany us when we ride out into the wood hunting for small game. Anything else?"
"She reads as well as I, I loaned her my storybook and she found it most enjoyable."
"Is there anything at which you are not proficient Arabella?"
"Music your majesty."
"That is a shame, in time I am certain you will improve, with your aunt as your tutor there is no doubt of that."
"Thank you your majesty."
"You are most welcome child."
Isolda spent a good amount of time with her daughter, Helene told of the things she had done while her mother was at the hunt then played her a simple melody on the harp. They tried to include Arabella but each reply was no longer than a few words.
All too soon it was time for her to return to her royal duties.
"I must leave you now, there is work to be done, fear not, we shall be reunited for tonight's meal. Arabella I hope the next time we meet you have found your tongue."
"Lady Ysabel escort me to Lady Catherine then return to the girls."
"Of course my Queen."
With the door closed behind them Arabella exhaled as if she had been holding her breath the entire time.
Helene looked at her friend.
"I cannot recall you being so quiet as that. Are you unwell?
"I was in the same room as our queen, what if I unknowingly said something to displease her?"
"She would not judge so quickly, especially when you have my favour."
"Of course you do."
"Thank you my princess."
"I would not want to see how you were around my father."
"I fear that in the presence of King Eadric I would be mute."
Princess Helene giggled.
The door creaked open and Lady Ysabel rejoined them.
"Well my dear Arabella, you made a favourable impression on the queen."
"I know not how."
"Twas not by your words, that is for certain."
They all laughed at that.
"I have been instructed to acquire you a new dress from the royal seamstresses, something that flatters."
"While rather plain, I did not consider my current dresses to be bad." Arabella did a little twirl to emphasize her point.
"Do you recall when you tried on the Princess dress how much better you looked? Your dresses are of a simple design that would suit girls of different shapes. This new dress would be tailored to your shape in a luxurious fabric and a fetching colour."
"Pink, the dress should be pink," Interrupted Helene. "And a good likeness for my own dress."
"You wish for Arabella's dress to be a reasonable facsimile of your own?"
"Oh yes, I would be thrilled were we to match."
"Princess, are you sure?"
"I could not be surer."
"Then it is settled, the dress shall be broadly similar, it cannot be the same, protocol would not allow it. I for one cannot wait to see the day when you are both wearing those dresses."
The two girls smiled and held hands. In the mind of Princess Helene her friend was deserving of such a reward and much more. In Arabella's mind she felt less deserving but if her dress was requested by the queen and approved by her princess then she would wear it with pride.
"The queen wishes that we all go out riding this afternoon."
Helene was all smiles.
"It was so long ago that I last rode with mother."
Arabella approached Lady Ysabel and began to whisper.
"Mother, I cannot ride the only time I have been atop a horse was when I played with the baker's children. We used to play with the pony that delivered the sacks of flour."
In the days that followed Arabella became a fixture on the top table. Usually next to Lady Ysabel but occasionally next to Princess Helene. If anyone else had been the only person between her and the king she would have been a nervous wreck but with her princess by her side she could cope.
Throughout the meal King Eadric would lean over to share something with his daughter. Arabella didn't hear everything but she heard enough to make her realize that the king was not just a strong leader but a kind father, maybe she might be able to manage very short sentences in his presence.
The King was not the only member of Helene's family that Arabella got to deal with.
At their next archery session she got something of a surprise. It was no longer just her and the princess, Prince Gaspar had joined them so he could continue to hone his own skills.
"Girls prepare for a demonstration of how a real archer performs."
"Why is Robert about to take a turn?" Helene asked with a smile on her face.
"Sister do not mock me, I am the best young archer in the castle."
"You are not even the best young archer on the terrace. The only place you cannot be bested is in your own mind."
"Strong words but can you back them up with deeds? I think not."
Arabella watched as the prince and princess exchanged blows. She was glad that they were only using words.
Gaspar was the first to loose his arrows. All of them landed towards the middle in a nice cluster.
He didn't gloat, he just gave his sister a patronising smile.
She did her best to show disdain as she took up her position. Her first five arrows landed close together but she could not keep it up and overall it was not as tight a grouping as her brother and slightly off-centre.
"Helene, you have been practising, I am impressed. Of course you are not as skilled as I but it was a fair attempt for a girl."
Helene, while glad he noticed the improvement, wanted her brother to be knocked down a peg or two.
Arabella replaced the princess, raised her bow, drew back the string and released. Her arrow landed almost dead centre. The next few were in the same area but she could not keep it up as her shoulder tensed up.
From behind her, little more than a whisper came Robert's voice.
"Relax. Take your time and release when YOU are ready."
She took a deep breath and set herself to fire her remaining arrows. One by one they found their target near the centre.
"Arabella wins," cried the Princess.
"But, she needed the help of another, that is unfair."
Robert looked across to Gaspar.
"When a young prince with years of practise chooses to cry foul because a girl younger than him with less that a month's experience needed some advice, then that is unfair."
The prince immediately saw the truth in that statement.
"Robert, you are correct. Arabella, I apologize. Your skills with the bow are equal to mine."
"Thank you your highness."
"But were we to engage in a sword fight victory would be mine," he said with a gleam in his eye.
"Only because I have never held a sword."
Gaspar laughed out loud.
"I can see why my sister regards you so highly. You are both determined and resourceful and you make no allowances for status."
Arabella smiled but chose not to say anything.
The three of them took turns firing until their arms ached and Robert was pleased by the improvement in each.
"If we are that good can we not learn to fight with swords so I might have the beating of Arabella."
"Do not push your luck Prince Gaspar."
He smiled and left the terrace while the girls waited there for Lady Ysabel.
"He did not seem too bad," Arabella stated.
"Deep down he is a good person, however you will never hear me say that in his presence. He has been teasing me since I began to walk and I have done the same."
They spent the remainder of the day learning about the lands that surrounded their own, if it had not been for Arabella's delight for maps it would have been a vey boring time indeed.
At the appointed hour they joined the king and queen for dinner and after the meal Lady Ysabel had a surprise for Arabella, her dress was ready.
Even though she was quite tired she couldn't resist the opportunity to try it on before she went to bed. She was not disappointed.
"Oh Arabella is this dress not everything we hoped for and more?"
By the way she was twirling it was clear she agreed.
"May I wear it in the morning and show Princess Helene?"
"Of course, and you should show the Queen, for without her you would not have it."
Arabella wasn't sure she wanted to parade in front of the queen just to show her the dress but she wasn't about to say that.
Reluctantly she removed the dress and prepared herself for bed.
The next morning Arabella got her wish, she put the pink dress on again and could barely wait to show her friend. The way she rushed off ahead of had reminded her mother how Aron used to behave but that was mostly boredom where Arabella was excited.
When they got to the princess's door Lady Ysabel tried to pretend that it was stuck, but Arabella was not easily fooled. She didn't even wait for the door to be fully opened and darted through the gap.
"Good morning my princess, look my new dress has arrived." She started to twirl.
"Oh Arabella, it is simply beautiful, I must wear my pink dress that we might match."
"I was right child, with a garment of the right fit you look much more ladylike."
Arabella turned to see Queen Isolda sitting off to the side.
"My apologies your majesty, I knew not of your presence."
"My dear Arabella, it does a Queen good to see such an exuberant reaction. Oft is the time that what I see is so clearly rehearsed, so fearful is the person that they might offend with an honest reaction."
Lady Ysabel who had been watching things unfold offered to help Helene change her dress but Queen Isolda would hear nothing of it.
"Tis not often a queen gets a chance to attend to her growing children, I shall take my opportunity, of which nothing shall be spoken outside these walls."
Helene was delighted to have the assistance of her mother and cherished the moment that they shared.
With both girls stood before them in matching pink dresses Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda admired the sight until the children became impatient.
"Would you have us study?"
"I would like to hear you both read, what say you Lady Ysabel."
"That is a good plan my queen, what do you wish them to read?"
"Lady Sondiah of the forest."
"From the book of legend? I had not thought of that as an option, it should provide them with a small challenge."
Both children took turns to read passages. Their progress pleased the Queen and Lady Ysabel greatly.
"If you continue in this manor I shall pass some of my duties on to you. Both of you are very capable orators."
Helene and Arabella were mortified at the very idea.
"Do not fret, I was only teasing. I hope that will not be thrust upon you until many years have passed."
Arabella hoped that the queen was just referring to the princess as she had no plans to speak in public at any point in her life.
Queen Isolda stayed and chatted with them a while longer but with so many royal duties it was not long before she had to leave.
They continued to read aloud for the rest of the morning, this time it was a text of Lady Ysabel's choosing, something more appropriate for young girls.
In the afternoon they left the apartments to go to the terrace. They had adjusted to the corridors being busier with the castle back in its prime but this was the first time they had turned heads.
"Why does everybody look at us so?" Arabella asked.
"I would say your clothing is the key my dear. In your normal clothes you have the look of an attendant, a member of the staff, someone of no real importance. Your pink dress makes a very different statement it is a garment worn by someone of status."
"What status do I have?"
"You have a princess as your closest friend," Helene added.
"And for that I am honoured. But why do their heads not turn whenever the princess walks through?"
"A few still do, but for the rest seeing their princess has become such an everyday thing that it grabs their attention no longer. They still show respect of course and they still love her."
A small part of Arabella wished she was still wearing a dress that would allow her to blend in. The larger part had decided it could cope with being noticed in exchange for being close to Princess Helene in her new dress.
They made it to the terrace and left everybody behind, no matter what else went on it was reserved for the royal family and one or two privileged people.
However the weather has no respect of rank or favour and shortly after they got there a rain shower began.
They sought refuge under the covered walkway and waited for it to pass.
"Can we not wear cloaks," Helene asked.
"Princess, I would not forgive myself if you caught a chill. We shall wait it out, I am sure the clouds will break."
The rain did ease but it did not stop completely. Their patience wore out and they returned to Helene's apartments.
To pass the time Lady Ysabel told them some riddles, some so simple that they were able to answer straight away and others that took time to solve. One she even used to slip away and perform some of her other duties knowing that it would still be unsolved when she returned.
Arabella had stopped racking her brains and rested her chin on the ledge as she looked out of the window.
It had stopped raining however, the skies were anything but clear. The distant clouds were dark and left Arabella feeling uneasy.
She could see Helene was still trying to work out the riddle so she didn't say anything to her. When Lady Ysabel returned she started to mention it to her but was cut short.
"There is much to be done before the meal will be ready. The chamberlain and I need to oversee everything so Princess you will accompany your mother to the great hall, Arabella you should follow on behind. Remember, you cannot enter the hall before your queen."
"Is there no way I can help you mother?"
Ysabel prayed the princess hadn't heard Arabella's words and as far as she could tell she had not.
"That is most kind child but for now it is my wish that you stay here."
Both children waited until Lady Catherine arrived with the queen and went with them. Helene walked alongside her mother, Arabella, mindful of Lady Ysabel's words, stayed slightly behind them.
Everything was in order when they got to the great hall, Arabella could make that out even with part of the royal entourage in her way.
Once in the hall she spotted Lady Ysabel off to one side and started to walk over to her but was signalled back and took the place next to Helene.
She looked across the hall, judging by the appearance of those in people in it the rain must have returned.
They made it through the first two courses before the first clap of thunder took everybody by surprise, especially Helene and Arabella.
There were a few rumblings after that but nothing serious enough to disturb the fine meal.
When the time came for them to go to bed Lady Ysabel put a hand on their shoulders to lead them away. They excused themselves and made their way back to Helene's apartments. Arabella could tell that something was wrong with her friend but had no clue what it was until the sound of the sky being split open filled the room.
Helene dived into a corner and crouched there, shivering. Arabella looked at her mother in astonishment.
"Thunderstorms are something she cannot bear."
Arabella joined her friend in the corner and wrapped her arms around her.
"There is nought to be afraid of."
"I know I shouldn't be scared but I cannot help it," Helene sobbed.
They slowly coaxed her out of the corner and towards her bedchamber. In between the bangs and flashes Lady Ysabel helped the princess to change into her nightclothes. Any other time she would have called for one of Helene's attendants but this was no time for either of them to leave.
Now in bed Helene pulled her bedclothes around her and Ysabel prepared to leave with Arabella.
"Please don't leave me on my own," Helene forlornly cried. "Arabella, stay with me."
"How late would you have me stay?"
"Until the thunder stops."
Arabella looked to her mother for a way out but her options were limited. There was no one around for them to summon and it would not be practical for Ysabel to stay behind.
Another clap of thunder sounded and Helene buried herself under the covers. Arabella knew what she had to do and sat down on the edge of the bed reassuring her friend.
"It is not easy through the covers."
"Then climb into bed with me."
Arabella had dreaded hearing those words, if she got into bed with the princess her secret wouldn't be secret for very long. She used hand signals to convey her concerns to her mother.
"You can get into bed with the princess," Lady Ysabel said as if she had answered a different question.
She started to help her child out of her dress.
Lady Ysabel put her finger to Arabella's lips.
"You have no reason to be shy in front of your princess."
Seeing how calmly her mother was handling things made Arabella wonder if she was overreacting. She stopped making a fuss and dressed only in the cotton shift she wore under her dresses she climbed into bed with the princess and wrapped her arms around her best friend.
The storm carried on into the night. Arabella talked with Helene to take her mind off the weather and even remembered seeing queen Isolda come in to see how her daughter was fairing but not much after that. She would not have seen the smile on the queen's face when she realised who was sharing her daughters bed and would known nothing of the long forgotten memory that lingered in her mind of being in a similar situation when she was a girl.
The skies were clear when Arabella awoke and stretched out her arms, brushing against something that shouldn't have been there. She turned her head and saw that the thing had a face. Slowly the fog of sleep lifted fom her brain and she remembered.
Luckily Helene slept sound enough that the exclamation didn't disturb her.
Carefully Arabella slipped out of bed and went in search of something to wear. She didn't share her mother's confidence and wanted to cover up her belt with something more substantial than the thin cotton shift she had used as a nightdress.
The pink dress was nowhere to be seen, it wasn't even in the one place where it might have been hidden, the chest where all of the princess's clothes were.
She continued to search until there was a sound at the door. She froze. It had to be the princess's attendant coming to prepare her clothes for the day.
The door creaked open but it was Lady Ysabel who entered, Arabella could breathe again.
"I have some fresh clothes for you, but we must be quick. I was only able to delay the attendant mere moments."
They didn't waste any time, Arabella lifted her arms and allowed the green dress to slide onto her body. Ysabel had just finished adjusting it when the attendant let herself in with the water for the Princess's washstand.
"Lady Ysabel, you got here before me. Is her highness awake yet."
"I think she may have begun to stir."
"Very well, you said she has no special duties to attend to today?"
"That is so, I think her blue dress would be fitting."
The girl moved into Helene's bedchamber leaving Arabella and Ysabel to talk.
"The princess does not choose her own attire?"
"Appropriate clothing is selected for her, if she wishes to wear something else that is her right."
"I see. Is it like that with the King and Queen also?"
"I cannot speak of the king but Queen Isolda is capable of choosing her own attire. On rare occasion she will court my opinion but the decision is hers."
"Mother I never knew you held such important roles."
"There are many things of which you are unaware however you must be mindful that such a role is important to the queen but of little regard to most who dwell within the walls of the city."
The look on Arabella's face showed she didn't understand.
"If any of the royal family goes outside the castle they will continue to receive the respect they deserve. If we go out alone we would be treated like any ordinary person."
Lady Ysabel then went into the bedchamber and Arabella followed.
Princess Helene was awake and was finishing dressing in her undergarments. Arabella recalled how the first time she had walked in on the princess in a state of undress her mother had ensured she did not glimpse anything, this time no one even gave it a second thought.
Helene finished dressing and waited for her attendant to leave. When she was sure the girl was in the corridor she approached Arabella and gave her the kind of hug that a princess would normally reserve for members of her own family.
"Thank you for last night Arabella."
"It was nothing princess."
"I beg to differ, you gave up your bed to provide comfort to me, that is of much worth."
Arabella smiled ruefully.
The girls began their studies together and Lady Ysabel left them to attend to her other duties. It did not seem like she had been away long before she returned with news.
"The queen wishes that we all go out riding this afternoon."
Helene was all smiles.
"It was so long ago that I last rode with mother."
Arabella approached Lady Ysabel and began to whisper.
"Mother, I cannot ride the only time I have been atop a horse was when I played with the baker's children. We used to play with the pony that delivered the sacks of flour."
"I explained you had no experience to the queen but she was insistent that we all ride out together."
Helene had been so happy she had only just realised that Lady Ysabel and Arabella were at one side of the room whispering.
"Is something amiss?"
"Not as such, Princess," Lady Ysabel replied. "Arabella is not accustomed to riding side saddle."
"But it is unseemly to ride astride!"
"I agree Princess, yet we will have no time to instruct her before we leave the stables."
Arabella could see herself being left behind.
"Then it is a riddle for which I have no answer."
"If there is a way I shall find it. Continue in your schooling and I shall return presently."
They tried to carry on with their studies but Helene found herself recalling times when she had accompanied her mother in the past. Arabella was not concentrating on her work or Helene. She was worrying about what would happen if they had to leave her behind. What would she do and would she be able to stay in her room or be out in the castle?
It was not long before Lady Ysabel returned. At first when she saw they had achieved almost nothing since her previous visit she was aggrieved. Then she heard the princess continuing with her stories and realised what had gone on.
"I have come to prepare you both to go out."
"Then I shall be riding with you?"
"In a way, yes."
As she followed her mother's instructions Arabella tried to decide which would be worse, making a fool of herself in front of her friend - the princess, her queen or everybody in the stables. Then she realised that she would probably get to do all three.
It was with some unease that she followed princess Helene out to the stables.
Queen Isolda was already there looking slightly overdressed for a simple ride. She was not yet on horseback but maybe half a dozen Royal Guard were and they looked a little restless.
Lady Ysabel caught up with the children, Helene rushed over to her horse leaving the Lady to speak to her 'niece'.
"So, what am I to do?" Arabella asked.
"Your mount is over there."
"A cart. You cannot ride so it is the only answer."
Arabella started to giggle.
One by one the queen, Helene and Lady Ysabel were helped onto their horses. Arabella watched them from the wooden seat inside the two-wheeled cart.
The guard took up their positions and the procession moved towards the gate that lead out of the castle and onto the city streets. When the citizens saw their queen they started cheering and parted to ease her passage. Arabella was impressed until she saw them closing in as soon as those on horseback had passed by, the cart was just seen as more traffic on the street.
With their way impeded it took some minutes to reach the East Gate where the rest of the party was waiting impatiently.
As they passed through the gateway Arabella stared upward and caught sight of the portcullis. 'I hope it doesn't drop now,' she thought.
Despite all of the rain from last night's storm the ground was still quite firm and away from the crowded city streets the cart found it much easier to keep up with those on horseback.
Arabella felt left out, all the people she knew and trusted were no more than 30 feet away from her but they were together while she was stuck riding in the cart.
She looked behind her and the main tower of the castle disappeared behind a thicket of trees. Apart from a few traders carrying their wares from town to town their travels were uneventful. Quite boring in fact. Arabella vowed that the next time they ventured this way she would be on horseback too.
It seemed like they had been on the move for hours when they stopped to give the horses a rest. Actually it was probably no more than an hour since they had left the city.
The stream that gurgled nearby gave the animals chance for a drink so two by two they refreshed themselves. Waiting her turn the princess came to the side of the cart.
"Isn't this wonderful, fresh air, scenery and nothing but birdsong to be heard."
Instead of replying immediately Arabella seemed to be listening.
"It is pleasant although I believe I would find it more agreeable were I able to ride with you."
"I agree it would be most enjoyable with you by my side. I do not doubt you could be taught how to ride so that your wish might be fulfilled."
"Princess, I look forward to it."
Helene moved off so that her horse could drink its fill, her place was taken by queen Isolda.
"Arabella, how are you enjoying your escape from the confines of the castle?"
"It is most fine your majesty, and I thank you for the opportunity."
Queen Isolda smiled.
"I believe it is important for girls like you and my daughter to see life on the outside. With any luck this will become a regular happening for you, would you like that?"
"Spending time with the princess in the fresh air would be a privilege indeed."
"Arabella your companionship with my daughter has made such a difference to her. I see the same love between you that existed between me and my best friend when I was your age."
"Thank you your highness."
"No, it is me who should be thanking you. I shall find a suitable way to reward you child. We shall talk more of this later."
Her horse wandered off to take its place at the stream. A couple of guards took the drinking skins out of the back of the cart and made their way to the stream so that it wouldn't just be the horses who would be refreshed.
Lady Ysabel now sidled up.
"What did the queen want with you?"
So Arabella spent five minutes recalling as much of the conversation as she could. When she was finished her mother had a broad smile on her face.
"Sweetheart since overcoming your nerves you have shown our queen a wisdom beyond your years, wherever your mother may be you make her proud."
At first Arabella was confused, then she realised that because they were in public her mother had to disguise her words.
There were many things she wanted to say but she was unsure whether it was a good time to say any of them. In the end the way she looked at her mother conveyed her emotions as well as words could have.
"Excuse me Lady Ysabel, Miss Arabella."
The guardsman's words bought them back to earth. He removed some poles from the back of the cart and handed them to one of the men on horseback.
Arabella could not fathom what was going on so watched as the horseman trotted out to the middle of the meadow and planted them firmly into the ground then trotted back to the cart.
She was about to ask what was happening when a second horse and rider broke into a canter then a gallop. It rushed headlong for the poles, circled behind them, and came back at speed.
He was halfway back before Arabella noticed he carried one of the poles in his hand.
Speaking to the driver of the cart for the first time she said, "Is this a test of some sort?"
"No Miss, this is training for the guard and exercise for the horses."
Each man rode out empty handed and came galloping back with a pole. Even though she had been concentrating Arabella did not clearly see the man take the pole, so slick was their collection.
She thought, 'Maybe one day I will get to try such things.' Then she looked at how she was dressed and how the royal party was riding and doubted anyone could ride fast like that when side saddle.
'If I had the choice of who I wanted to be should I end this and destroy the princess by trying to follow Aron's dream to become a knight or a soldier or should l stay with my Helene and live a straight forward life where the only danger is of being discovered.'
That thought troubled Arabella not only on the journey back to the castle but for some nights to come.
Arabella had overcome many of the challenges she had faced and life was settling into a routine. Then Helene's grandmother came to visit and shook things up.
The countess and Helene walked hand in hand, at the princess's behest Arabella followed behind her, as did the entourage carrying the countess's trunk which they deposited in her chamber before departing.
She stared at Arabella who was unsure of what she should do.
"I have dismissed everyone, please leave us and go about your business."
Helene giggled. "Arabella is not a servant, she is my best friend."
"Then she is fortunate to have you, dismiss her so that we might talk alone."
Despite her doubts Arabella carried on as normal spending most of each day at the princess's side supporting her.
There was one instance where their roles were reversed. Helene was experienced with horses, she had been riding them since she had been small so she wanted to help her friend learn as well and accompanied her to the stables.
To Arabella it had seemed like a simple proposition - find a horse, saddle it, ride slowly around the stable yard until she got used to the saddle. It turned out to be a lot more involved.
As she would be riding regularly she would need a horse of her own, one with the right temperament that was young enough to adapt to the different demands of side-saddle riding.
The liverymen had knowledge that went back generations; they presented five ponies and Ysabel walked along the line with Arabella in tow.
With all but two ruled out the final decision was Arabella's. She tried to look like she knew what she was doing by copying some of the things Lady Ysabel had already done. Finally she gave up and whispered, "On what should I base my decision?"
"Which do you like best?"
Arabella looked hard at the sandy coloured horse then shifted her attention to the grey before announcing her decision.
"I choose the silver one."
"I approve," said Helene who had tried to stay in the background until now.
"Does it have a name?"
"She's called Moonshadow," said one of the liverymen.
"That's pretty," the princess responded and Arabella agreed.
The next step was to find the right saddle and tack for the filly. Another of the men took one look at Arabella and selected everything that would be needed.
"How does he know what is right?" Arabella asked.
"We are a kingdom that relies upon its horses and their knowledge is second to none." Ysabel replied.
The liverymen continued to show their wealth of knowledge by showing Arabella how she should mount, stay in the saddle and dismount safely.
"Miss, a few more lessons and you shall be able to ride out with their highnesses."
A few more lessons? She wanted to be ready to ride with them today or tomorrow, not next week.
A rather frustrated Arabella returned with the princess to her apartments and set about practising the harp. Arabella playing had improved over the weeks but there was no sign of it today.
Her singing was somewhat better but it was clear to both Ysabel and Helene that her heart just wasn't in it.
Nothing was said until they were back in their rooms.
"Has some upset been caused to you, it is clear you were troubled by something."
"Oh mother, everything I see makes me more restless. The guards on horseback get to show their skills and it makes me wish I could do that, yet I know I cannot. So I content myself with being able to ride with my princess yet that is also denied me. Is there any activity I shall be allowed?"
"Sweetheart I can see your frustration, but you need to accept that not everything you wish for can happen when you wish it and be grateful for what you do have. Few children get the opportunity to become skilled with a bow or to ride with royalty."
"I understand that mother and the things I have done make me glad. What irks me is that I see things I would like to do, maybe if they had been kept from my eyes I would be content with what I have."
Ysabel moved closer to her child and took her in her arms.
"There are times when you act older than your years and there are times when you are my little girl. Tonight you are both."
She played with Arabella's hair before continuing.
"Let me worry about your activities, all you need concern yourself with is the princess."
Arabella took reassurance from her mother's words and settled down for a good night's sleep.
The next day was uneventful but Ysabel lived up to her word for the day after.
"Girls we shall go for another ride today."
"Will my mother be joining us?" Helene asked hopefully.
"I'm afraid not."
"With me following in the cart?"
"Not on this occasion."
When they got to the stables the guards were ready for them. Robert was a surprising addition to the regular riders.
Ysabel and Helene were helped onto their horses, Arabella still wasn't sure what was going on until two of the stable lads lifted her up and got her seated behind Robert.
"If you have need to hold on, do so by all means," he said as he followed the rest of the party out of the castle.
To begin with Arabella clung on, particularly through the streets of the city but the longer she stayed on the more confident she felt and by the time they had passed through the gate she was barely holding on.
Unlike her time in the cart Arabella found she was now a part of the conversation. They talked about the beautiful scenery, the birds and the creatures amongst other things.
Just like last time they stopped to give the horses a drink. From her vantage point she could see how clean and clear the stream was here.
"Look, over there, bubbles," Arabella said to the Princess and pointed.
"Tis merely fish, in the headwaters they are plentiful. I used to fish there as a boy," Robert said.
As Arabella she had nothing to do with fishing. Aron on the other hand had accompanied his uncle twice. Neither trip had been particularly successful, he had not been of an age to be patient.
Once Robert's horse had quenched its thirst it separated from the group.
"Where are we going?"
"You shall soon see miss."
Every twenty yards he would make a mark on a tree. Remembering what happened last time Arabella guessed it must be some kind of practice.
After marking the tenth he turned the horse around and looking over his shoulder, spoke to his passenger.
"Do you think you could hit those targets from a moving horse, Miss Arabella?"
"With bow and arrow I hope I could come close."
From his other side he produced a bow and quiver.
"I shall stand in the stirrups to give you the room to draw, remember to allow for the wind and the movement of the horse also."
Arabella had the target in her sights, she had compensated for the slight breeze and knew which part of the horse's stride to release the string. Her moment came, the shaft flew straight and missed not only the target mark but the whole tree.
"Now now miss, temper your language. You did not allow enough for the wind. Try once more with this next target."
Her second attempt did hit the tree at least but it was scant consolation. Even though these targets were nothing like those she was used to she had expected better.
When her third shot landed close to Robert's mark it was relief that she felt rather than any kind of satisfaction.
"It differs greatly from the courtyard, does it not?"
"That is so," she replied. "But I would not have expected my efforts to be so far from the mark."
"Do not be so hard upon yourself, the target is smaller, the wind greater, the situation unfamiliar. My first time was an ordeal."
"Indeed. If you see this as a test then you will surely be disappointed; instead see it as a challenge to hit any of the targets."
With her new outlook Arabella started to have fun. She viewed each near miss as something to build on and when she managed to hit one of the marked trees she took it as a small victory.
They returned to the group and Lady Ysabel's horse ambled up to them.
"How did you fare?"
"I barely hit a tree."
"I am sorry," said Ysabel.
"I shall improve the next time."
"What say you Robert?"
"Her potential is clear to see, she could go far," he replied.
By the time they had finished their conversation two of the guards had taken their turn at the archery challenge. Helene joined their little group and watched as the remainder of the guards disappeared along the trail Robert had set. She did not need to ask how Arabella had done, the look on her friend's face showed she'd had fun and that was all Helene needed to know.
They started their journey home, chatting as they went. Their path took them into a wooded area and as it closed in around them Arabella felt a sense of unease.
"Are you cold?" Robert asked, feeling her shiver.
"Tis not that. Something about this place feels wrong."
Hearing that she had picked up on that took him by surprise.
It was with great relief that they emerged out of the woods. Distant hills provided the backdrop and just off to the side the tower of the castle could be seen.
It seemed to take no time at all to reach the gate and return to the hustle and bustle of the city's streets. Arabella thought she could get inside the castle quicker on foot but knew she was safer where she was.
By the time the leaves had changed colour Arabella became good enough to ride alongside Princess Helene on Moonshadow. At least once a week they would venture outside the city and spend an afternoon in the saddle. Sometimes, when her commitments would allow it, Queen Isolda would join them and they would have the most wonderful conversations even though the guards were always alongside.
Lady Ysabel passed a the occasional duty concerning the princess on to Arabella which left her with more time to be the Queen's confidante. She was able to accompany her on the rare visits to other kingdoms just like she had before the prince and princess were born.
On those occasions Arabella would stay with Princess Helene and sleep in the antechamber. It was during one of these days that the question of family arose.
"Arabella, when did you last visit your village?"
"It has been so long that I do not recall."
"You must miss your family terribly," said Helene who laid her hands on top of her friend's.
"I get by. It helps that Lady Ysabel is close by and I know that they are better off for me being here."
That reply had been coached by Lady Ysabel who knew questions would come. She also made sure that the lion's share of Arabella's allowance was sent 'home'.
"What if we could make arrangements for you to return home?"
"Oh princess you are too kind, I wouldn't think to impose upon your goodwill in that way."
"It would be the least I could do."
Now that her plan of making it seem like it was too much trouble was failing Arabella hoped she could find another way. It was true she could not go on like this but appearing at her aunt's door while pretending to be her daughter would not be the way to go.
"Maybe an arrangement could be made for the spring?"
"Oh I'm sure we could arrange something before yule. I could not imagine going for such a time without my grandmother, she always visits then." Helene was deep in thought before she continued in a much more subdued voice. "Do you have any living grandparents?"
"I know not, my mother told me that on my father's side they were dead before I was born. Of my mother's side I cannot say, no one ever talks of them and if they were alive when I was born I do not recall it."
"But those grandparents would also be Lady Ysabel parents. We must ask her when she returns, I am sure she will know what befalls them."
"I hope that is true, I have learned so much about your ancestors it would be pleasing to discover about my own."
Helene put her arm around her friend, moments like these were priceless.
They stayed that way for some minutes, Arabella would have stayed where she was even longer but she did not wish to disappoint Lady Ysabel by failing to complete their studies.
As they read their texts Arabella found herself distracted by the thought of her grandmother, the woman from the house in Drum Lane seemed to know something, maybe she should pay another visit.
It took no more than two days for the Queen and Ysabel to return. Arabella had hoped that Helene would ask the question of Lady Ysabel but with her mother home it was no longer at the forefront of the princess's mind.
When they were safely back in their rooms she decided she could put it off no longer.
"Mother, do I have any living grandparents?"
"What prompted that?"
"Helene asked me, I know that father's parents are no longer with us but, what about yours. I have not head you talk of them."
"My dear that is because it is safer for things to remain unsaid. I do not exaggerate to say it would be dangerous for both of us to talk about them."
"But nothing, please respect my wishes."
There was a hint of sadness in Ysabel's voice when she replied.
The next time that they were alone together Arabella told Helene what had transpired. She found it most peculiar that Lady Ysabel had responded in that way and was almost as committed to finding the answers as Arabella.
"Maybe mother will know. I shall ask her when the chance presents itself."
The chance did not present itself that day so they continued their studies. In fact more than a week passed before Helene had a chance to talk to her mother without Ysabel being there also.
When she reported back to Arabella there were no answers, only more questions.
"Mother would not talk of what happened, she told me that your grandmother left the city shortly after Lady Ysabel had a child. Have you met your cousin?"
"I have not seen him since Lady Ysabel brought me to the castle."
"What is he like?"
"I am told he resembles his father but I never met the man so I cannot say."
There was nothing more Helene could do but the whole affair played greatly on Arabella's mind.
The next time Lady Ysabel accompanied the queen on a royal visit Arabella, confident in her trust, told her princess what she was doing and slipped away.
Walking through the city she felt as if every eye was on her, a most uncomfortable feeling. Perhaps if she could find the alleyway she would stop drawing everyone's attention.
Try as she might she couldn't find the end that was near the castle so she tagged along behind a cart that looked to be leaving the city. When it joined a queue to pass through the gate she thought she knew where she was and dived off to where she expected the alley to be.
Her memory of the place seemed at odds with what lay before her but Arabella was convinced she had not used one of the city's other gates so it had to be here somewhere.
She walked along the street but didn't see it, it was only when she came back the other way that she spotted the familiar opening to the dark passageway.
With relief she darted into it and began to follow its twists and turns. It was only then that she considered how poorly conceived her plan had been. It was hard enough finding the alleyway but could she remember what the rear of their house looked like?
She kept looking for any kind of sign, it took all of her attention. Then came a crunch and pain, she had trod on a piece of glass and it had pierced the bottom of her shoe.
Once the worst of the pain had subsided Arabella glanced down at the offending item, it was part of a bottle.
That was it! The house she was looking for had bottles in the back window.
Hobbling as best she could she worked along the alley until she found what she had been looking for and knocked as hard as she could on the door.
It was the younger woman who opened the door.
"I came to speak with you, I have questions."
"And why do you imagine I would answers, has someone sent you here as part of a game?"
"Do you not recognise me? I was here but a few weeks ago."
"I am sure I would remember."
From inside the house the voice of the older woman sounded out.
"Let the child pass."
"But she is a stranger."
"Age may have diminished my sight but it has yet to impair my hearing. That child is Lady Ysabel's child."
"It is true," Arabella blurted.
She tried to walk inside but was not able to put her full weight on her foot.
"Oh you poor thing, let me help you."
And with that the young woman assisted the child inside.
"Sit down and tell us what has happened while I prepare a dressing."
So Arabella told them how she came to be in her predicament in the castle which proved a great surprise to both women.
They applied ointment to her foot and wrapped a bandage around it.
"Now child, what is it you need to ask us."
"Tell me of my grandmother."
They looked at each other but remained silent.
"I do not understand, no one will tell me of her, what did she do that was so bad?"
"Child there will come a time when we may speak of what has passed but that time is yet to come."
"There must be something you can tell me of her, especially after the efforts I have made to get here."
"She was a great woman of standing and respect, many people went to her for help and she never turned anyone away."
"How did she help people?"
"With her wisdom and experience and her knowledge of plants and animals."
Arabella looked quizzically at them.
"Amongst other talents she was a healer," the younger woman whispered as if she might be overheard.
"So it was something she did?"
"We will say nothing more. There are many in this kingdom who regard her and anyone who knows her as a problem. She was a good woman who made an error in judgement and as much as you might wish to, you should tell no one, it will be to the detriment of you and whoever you tell."
"Not even the princess?"
"Especially not the princess. I know this is much to ask of one so young but it would be unfair of you to ask her to keep this secret."
"And what of my mother?"
"It is your decision whether you wish to incur her displeasure for defying her and for venturing out into the city without guidance. In your place I would not lie nor would I tell her without prompting."
"Now lets see how that foot is doing, can you bear weight upon it?"
She gingerly tried to stand up and found it was a lot easier now, there was still pain but she could walk almost normally.
Not only did the younger woman guide her to the end of the alleyway closest to the castle but she offered support and gave one last piece of advice.
"Keep off it as much as possible and rub some of this into it when you go to bed."
She handed over a tiny bowl no bigger than a duck egg.
"Take care of yourself and the princess."
She disappeared into the shadows just like before.
Arabella took a deep breath and walked to the castle gate as if there was nothing wrong with her foot. She relaxed a little as she made her way into the keep but did her best to hide her pain until she was back with the princess.
"Arabella, I thought you were lost, I was approaching the point of alerting someone to look for you."
"I am glad you did not, it would have made trouble for both of us."
"I know that but I could not bear it were anything to happen to you and there was a way I could help. So tell me, what did you find out?"
"No one speaks of her, I think no one really knows what became of her."
The lie did not sit well with her, Aron had been taught to always tell the truth, since becoming Arabella she had allowed people to be deceived by her appearance but this was the first time she had told an outright lie.
"I do not see what more we can do."
"It is sad yet I agree," Helene said, putting her arm around her friend.
Nothing more was said about her grandmother but what little Arabella had learned stayed with her as she went about her daily duties.
Over the weeks that followed she continued to improve in both her archery and her music and everything appeared to be well.
Helene began looking forward to the visit of her grandmother and talked about her in such a way that Arabella had a sense of anticipation too. However the arrival of the countess at the castle proved to be quite different to her expectations.
The palace guard, who were always well turned out had made an extra effort for the visiting dignitary.
Most of the royal family and staff were in the courtyard as her horse came to a halt. It was the chamberlain who was first to greet her.
"Countess, it is our pleasure to welcome you to the royal abode."
Queen Isolda stepped forward, "Mother I trust your journey was uneventful."
"It was long and rough and I wish to put from my mind; now where is that granddaughter of mine."
"I am here," Helene called as she appeared on the steps of the keep and flung herself at her grandmother.
"Steady child, that is no way for a lady to act, especially a princess."
"I know grandmother but it has been such a long time since I saw you last."
"I have missed you also. Would you accompany me to my chamber and help me to settle in?"
The countess and Helene walked hand in hand, at the princess's behest Arabella followed behind her, as did the entourage carrying the countess's trunk which they deposited in her chamber before departing.
She stared at Arabella who was unsure of what she should do.
"I have dismissed everyone, please leave us and go about your business."
Helene giggled. "Arabella is not a servant, she is my best friend."
"Then she is fortunate to have you, dismiss her so that we might talk alone."
Arabella did not wait to see what her princess might do, she removed herself from the chamber and made sure the door was firmly closed behind her before finding a quiet corner to wipe the tears from her eyes.
Doing her utmost not to be noticed she made her way back to the princess's apartments and waited.
She watched the sky darken and made her way towards the great hall as it had to be approaching meal time.
The corridors were full of people making their way to the feast. Lady Ysabel was in the door to the kitchen alongside the chamberlain making sure that everything was ready.
"There you are child, where is the princess?"
"When last I saw her she was with the countess."
Despite all that was going on around her Lady Ysabel was able to discern the things that Arabella had chosen not to say. She caressed her child's cheek and gave her a look that told her everything would be fine.
For the first time in weeks Arabella did not sit next to her princess, that place was filled by the countess, instead she sat next to Lady Ysabel. When the time came for the children to go to their beds she followed Helene out but she did not know what to say so she limited herself to "Goodnight Princess" as they went their separate ways.
It took an age for her to fall asleep and when she awoke she did not feel rested, regardless she prepared for her day as usual and accompanied Lady Ysabel to the princess's apartments where she almost expected to see the countess but was glad to be wrong.
"Good morning Princess."
"Good morning Arabella, what did you think of my grandmother, isn't she wonderful?
To Arabella it seemed like the Countess could dominate a room without even being present.
"It is difficult for me to say, I was dismissed before having chance to form an opinion," she said, looking at the floor.
"I am sorry about that, but what could I have done? She is my grandmother."
Arabella did well to hold her tongue.
The two of them spent the morning studying and in the afternoon started to practise their music. They were getting on quite well when the door flew open and in walked the countess.
"They told me I would find you in your apartments. Keep on playing, don't stop on my account."
The way she spoke it would have been hard for a minstrel to ignore and the children were nowhere near that dedicated so once again everything halted for the countess.
"Helene, you play wonderfully, you have a natural gift for music."
"Oh grandmother were it not for the teaching of Lady Ysabel my playing would be poor."
"You are still being taught by her. Surely there is someone better?"
"She is considered a most talented harpist."
"Well I suppose she has to be good at something."
Arabella wanted to scream at her. Luckily for her the princess intervened.
"Lady Ysabel has many talents, I am glad she is around, I could not have asked for a better teacher."
"You almost sound like your mother, I am sure with time you will lose your naivety."
Helene looked strangely at her grandmother who then carried on speaking as if everything was normal.
"Carry on playing, I wish to listen to you."
They tried their best to continue but neither could keep their mind on the task with the countess looking on.
As soon as they gave up the countess suggested that Helene accompany her for a walk. Helene wanted Arabella to come too but the countess insisted that she would have better things to do and strode off with the princess before either of them could protest.
Arabella stayed in the room until Lady Ysabel came to do her regular check.
"As the princess is not here with you would I be correct in thinking that she is with the countess?"
"It's alright sweetheart, I'll take you back to our room."
When she was sure no one else was anywhere near Arabella asked, "Mother why does the countess dislike you?"
"Has she been bad-mouthing me in front of the princess again."
"Yes, it was awful, she was mean. I was going to jump to your defence but Princess Helene did not like what she was saying either."
Lady Ysabel smiled at the thought of both children defending her.
"I have known Isolda before she became queen, we have been friends since childhood. A long time ago the countess thought I was a problem for her daughter and she tried to separate us, she failed. She has never seen eye to eye with me since."
"Do not be bitter towards her, soon she will leave and we will have our princess back while the countess will be many miles away."
"I do not envy her that."
"No. Let us spend no more of our thoughts on her. I have most of the afternoon to myself, would you like me to give your hair a little curl? It is looking rather flat."
The smile on Arabella's face told its own story and Lady Ysabel spent her spare hours treating her child as if she was a princess herself.
When it came time for the meal Arabella stayed in the room to let her hair dry.
"I shall give your excuses to the princess," Ysabel told her.
The next morning Arabella returned to the princess's side.
"I love your curls," Helene said. "I wonder if mother would allow me to have the same style."
"It is rather time consuming," Ysabel added.
"Oh I see. But the curls are fetching, I shall think on it some more."
They had just begun their studies when someone entered the room. It was not the countess but Queen Isolda, much to Arabella's relief.
"My mother has requested that we go on a ride."
Arabella's heart sank.
"It is my wish that the two of you ride with us and the stables have been instructed to prepare our horses. Please join me in the yard as soon as you are able."
"Thank you my queen," replied Ysabel.
Given that winter was approaching they needed some extra protection from the weather. On their way to the stable-yard an attendant appeared with grey woollen cloaks for each of them.
Being new to riding sidesaddle the cloak was something of a hindrance for Arabella and her adjustment to it delayed their departure, much to the annoyance of the countess.
They made their way through the cities streets with the usual escort of the palace guard and a couple of extras who could only be part of the countess's entourage.
Once they were free of the city Arabella took her place at the side of Helene with the countess on her other side. She was finally party to some of their conversations and realised that the countess was warm and occasionally funny, she just seemed to have no time for anyone outside her family.
Very occasionally Arabella joined the conversation, and her contributions were tolerated if not accepted.
While they stopped to allow the horses to take a drink the countess moved her horse alongside the queen's.
"The girl with Helene, something seems familiar about her, do I know the family?"
Isolda took a deep breath and for a brief moment thought about being obtuse or even deceptive.
"She is the niece of lady Ysabel," she said and waited for the reaction.
"Daughter, what were you thinking. You know how much trouble that family causes."
"They have never made trouble for me."
"Your memories are flawed," the countess said.
"No, my memories are clear and what is more they are unbiased," Isolda replied.
"The child is clearly unsuitable."
"So say you when you have not spent any time with her, she has been Helene's only true friend this past year, you do not know what Arabella has done for her and she has asked for nothing in return."
"I still say she is not suitable."
"Whatever you wish to say please refrain until we are back at the castle. I do not wish for this ride to be spoiled any more by conversations like this."
"This matter will not go away."
"Of this I have no doubt, I just wish to ride back in peace. Please respect my wish."
"Very well daughter."
Luckily neither of the children was in earshot of that conversation. The same could not be said of Ysabel who heard every last word. If she had not been a lady she might well have sought some form of retribution but she knew that was not the way. Throughout the ride back to the castle she stayed close to the children, she did not put it past the countess to try to poison their minds against each other.
On their arrival Ysabel did not wait for assistance, she dismounted in the stable yard and helped first the Princess then Arabella down and lead them both away. If either the queen or countess noticed her urgency neither of them voiced it.
The moment that they arrived back in the princess's apartments both girls were encouraged to clean up.
"The smell of the stables does not go well with food, especially in the presence of royalty," Lady Ysabel stated.
Helene got to use the water first then Ysabel and Arabella shared it while the princess made herself ready.
Ysabel studied her child and decided that the dress she was wearing just would not do. It was not just the few marks on it, neither was it the odour,she wanted her child to look her best.
"Princess might you consider letting Arabella wear one of your plainer dresses for the meal?"
"Of course, do you have in mind something special?"
"The dark green with the gold stitching would be most appropriate I feel."
"Let me fetch it, for I know its location."
It did not even cross Arabella's mind that by letting Helene find the dress she was being waited upon by a princess. Ysabel, on the other hand, was fully aware of that fact and prayed no one would find out.
The rich green fabric settled over Arabella's body, it looked almost as fine as her pink dress and she found herself longing for one of her own.
But it was not the time to be admiring herself so she followed princess Helene and her mother towards the Great Hall. They were able to follow the King and Queen in and take their seats at the top table.
Arabella gazed out across the hall, she noticed Lord Barkstone paying her more attention than she would have liked. There was little he could do to her at this time but that didn't give her much comfort.
They ate their first courses without fuss then King Eadric addressed all who were present.
"Children; they are a gift who grow up fast. It seems like only yesterday they were playing at my feet yet, now they are starting to undertake their royal duties. My daughter, your princess, Helene is becoming a fine young woman and the time has come for her to have a Lady-in-waiting of her own.
Arabella you have been a good friend to our princess but she needs something more. You are to be her first Lady-in-waiting, I know you will not flinch from your duty Lady Arabella."
At that moment Arabella was too shocked to flinch. She had thought that maybe the appointed lady would think differently about her relationship with Helene, she had never considered that she might be that Lady.
Helene took her hand and gave it a squeeze, Arabella came out of her trance and looked at the princess.
In a very subdued voice she said, "I pray I can be everything you need of me."
"I have not found you wanting yet," Helene replied.
Arabella did not pay attention to anything until it was time for her to retire to her bed. She wished a good night to her princess before following Lady Ysabel back to their rooms.
"The King's announcement was not received well by you was it?"
"I certainly did not expect it."
"To be honest neither did I, but if you had, what would you have done? To refuse would be unthinkable, a sleight on the King and Queen."
"How can I be a Lady-in-waiting when I am not a lady? How can I be a lady when I am not even a girl?"
"My dear you have already partaken in many of the duties that will be expected of you. As for your true gender, that is a conundrum I still cannot fathom, for now we must follow the path in front of us and look for our escape as we go."
“Do you honestly think I can do this?"
"When I was given my first appointment my doubts were many, if I were as unfit as I had feared I would not have remained. You are friends with your princess just like I was with my Lady, she will protect you as best she can from everything but the truth of your gender."
"I will do my best."
"That is all we can ask. Now rest your head for on the morrow there is much we must do, not least of which is to make the seamstresses aware so that they might add to the fine dresses for you."
"Can one of them be like this one?" she said, sweeping her hand across the green dress she had borrowed from her Princess.
"I am certain it can be arranged, now off to bed with you."
Across the castle a different conversation was going on about Arabella's suitability. Once the formality of the meal was over the countess followed her daughter back to the royal bedchamber.
"Daughter, what possessed you."
"I assume you are referring to the king's announcement."
"Do not treat me like a simpleton, you know to what I refer."
"The announcement has been planned for days, I saw no reason to postpone."
"Our conversation this afternoon did not make you reconsider?"
"To the contrary, it confirmed my thoughts. The last time you voiced this much opposition about anything it was Ysabel continuing in my service and that could not have gone better."
"That woman has done nothing."
"Ysabel has always been there for me. You were happy when we used to play together as girls, what changed?"
"I never saw her being more than just a friend, you could have done much better."
"Apparently our opinions on 'better' are worlds apart. When father died the only person I could turn to was Ysabel."
"My child, I had lost my soul-mate, my world had ended."
"To me it was as if I had lost both parents, one to illness and the other to grief. Then when you finally start talking to me the first thing you tell me is that you will be marrying again."
"If I had not then everything your father and I had worked for would have been worth nought."
"You know my feelings about that time. What is important is what Ysabel did for me then and later on when you and the Earl arranged my betrothal to Eadric. She did not have to come yet she chose to accompany me to an unfamiliar place where everyone else was a stranger."
"Surely you do not believe she did all that just for you?"
"In those days we talked at length, we needed each other. So it is with Helene and Arabella."
"You still think you have all the answers, what happens when Arabella's grandmother returns."
"She has not set foot in this city since the day you addressed Eadric's father. I do not know what you said but all in the castle had considered the matter dealt with before your arrival."
"I did what had to be done to protect your position."
"And is that what you were doing when you told Ysabel that she had to choose between her mother and me?"
"I believed she would do the honourable thing and leave and take that child of hers as far from the castle as was practical."
"All because of her mother's words?"
"Powerful words, you cannot make a prophecy about a child shaming a kingdom and just act as though all is well."
"Her words held little meaning, yet your intervention caused Ysabel to lose contact with her mother and for her husband to go off on some meaningless quest."
"A knight's quest for redemption is never meaningless."
"He died of his injuries leaving Ysabel with no husband and their son with no father."
The countess had no reply so Isolda continued to express what was on her mind.
"What never ceases to astound me is why Ysabel chose me over her mother. If our positions had been reversed I do not believe I would have made the same decision. It does not bear thinking about what might have happened had she not stayed."
"And what of her son?"
"He was five when he went to live in the city with his aunt, that was the last I saw of him. I tried to relieve Ysabel of her duties with Helene at that time as it seemed particularly cruel to send her child away and to make her care for mine but she would hear nothing of it. She would visit him often, of that I am glad."
Again the countess had no response.
"I tell you this mother, if Arabella can give Helene one tenth of what Ysabel gave me then it shall have been a worthy appointment."
"Helene is part of my line, should I not be able to contribute?"
"Your bloodline to Helene goes through me and that is the route you must take to make your contribution."
"In that case you must swear that if the child becomes a liability you will cut her out of Helene's life before any damage is done. I do not want to see your history repeat itself with my granddaughter."
"That is an easy promise to make but it comes with a price. If I find that you attempt to manipulate such a situation then you will no longer be welcome here and it would be you whose fate would be that which you would inflict on Arabella."
"I do not believe you would go through with that."
"I would not take pleasure in it but I would do it for the very reason you show concern - to protect my child."
"I see. In that case there is little more to be said."
Isolda sighed as the countess left the room, she didn't like confrontation at the best of times and it didn't get much worse than having a disagreement with her mother. If there was any consolation to be had it was that she had made her position clear and even if her mother didn't agree at least she might respect her will.
For the rest of the countess's visit nothing more was said of her opinions toward Ysabel and Arabella. She still took Helene away from whatever she happened to be doing but she showed less contempt while doing it and occasionally even let Arabella accompany the princess.
Helene was sad to bid farewell to her grandmother, Arabella was sad for her friend if not for herself. She knew her life would be easier without the scrutiny of the countess, especially as she came to terms with her new found status.
She did not feel as if she had changed since becoming a Lady-in-waiting but she knew it changed the way other people saw her.
Where once she had passed by the kitchens like a ghost now she would be addressed by the cooks or an attendant would bow their head when she entered the room.
The final straw came at their next archery session when Robert called her Lady Arabella.
"If you insist on using that name then I shall insist on calling you Sergeant Carter," she said.
"But it is your title now miss."
"There are not many people in this castle who have known me as long as you. I was not Lady Arabella then and it is my wish for you to treat me just the same now."
"But rules is rules."
"If Princess Helene were to tell you different would you heedthat request?"
"As you feel so strong about it I shall do as you ask whenever you are doing archery, but if we meet in a corridor do not expect the same."
Even though it was less than she would have liked Arabella was appreciative of the gesture.
As the weeks progressed winter took its icy grip on the city. The conditions removed both riding and archery from the girls' agenda and gave Arabella plenty of time to learn what was expected of her.
Lady Ysabel instructed her in most of what she needed to know and the other ladies in waiting assisted where they could.
Just like her mother had suggested most of her duties were merely extensions of things she was already doing. There were a few tasks that were considered to be beyond someone of her tender years so Lady Ysabel continued to oversee those.
Something Arabella hadn't been expecting was the jewellery that went with her new position.
"I always thought you wore that ring because it pleased you," she said to Lady Ysabel.
"It bears the queen's insignia and shows I have her trust. Yours will have the princess's and allow you to act on her behalf."
"There is still something about this that does not sit right with me."
"I understand my child, I too have my doubts but this is an important time for Helene and she will need a friend."
Spring is taking forever to arrive and both Arabella and Helene are finding their confinement within the castle hard to bear, but what can they do, there is no way for them to venture outside until the warmer weather arrives.
"What if we concealed our identity? What if we... dressed as servants on an errand who would pay us attention?" said Arabella.
"After what happened when you last left on your own I would rather we not risk it," said Helene.
"You would rather stay confined?"
"I would rather not incite a riot, either out in the city or when we are found out."
"What if we get consent?"
"You really have spent too long in the castle," Helene said, shaking her head in disbelief.
The year had been good on the kingdom, the harvest had been plentiful and the food stores within the castle and the city were near to capacity. This was just as well, for the winter was long.
For Helene and Arabella this meant they had spent far too long in the princess's apartments with only the rarest opportunity to venture as far as the courtyard.
"When will spring arrive?" Helene asked.
"The sooner the better," Arabella replied. "I cannot wait to resume archery or riding. Anything that will allow us outside."
"Something else where you speak for me," Helene said with a smile.
They were still adjusting to the formalising of Arabella's status and little jokes like that came from both of them.
"I did not realise there was so little to do in a castle in winter," Arabella said.
"There is plenty to do but after a time it all seems the same."
"Should we go and visit Lady Catherine and her bump?"
"Yes let's. It has been a while since she has been with us."
Lady Catherine was in her seventh month of pregnancy but she still undertook most of her daily duties. The one concession she made was to take a rest each afternoon.
They knocked on her door.
"Come in Princess, Arabella."
"How did you know it was us?" Helene enquired.
"I recognized you from your knock, most distinctive and regal," said Lady Catherine.
"If you wish it you may come and sit on the bed."
They joined her on the bed and admired the size of her bump.
"Does it hurt?" asked Arabella.
"I cannot deny I feel discomfort but I would not call it pain."
"Will your bump get any bigger?"
"There is some time to go before I will give birth, I will be even larger then but it will be worth it."
"May we touch it?"
Lady Catherine laughed. She took their hands and gently held them against her abdomen. Through her undergarment they could feel the firm bump.
All of a sudden Helene reeled away.
"What was that?" she said.
"I felt something too."
"You felt him kick, he does that occasionally."
The look of horror on Helene's face changed to one of delight and she placed her hand back.
"You said 'him', how do you know it is a boy?"
"I do not. I don't want to think of my baby as 'it' and when he is restless I think he must be a boy and when she is quiet then she has to be a girl."
"Which do you want?"
"I would slightly favour a girl whereas my husband longs for a son but as long as my baby draws breath I will be happy. When you are older and bear children yourselves you will understand."
Helene smiled, Arabella tried to hide what she was feeling.
When it was time for Lady Catherine to return to her duties the girls helped her prepare herself then followed her out. There was still some time until the meal so they went to the courtyard hoping to see some sign of spring. There was no encouraging sign, the courtyard was white; not from snow but from the morning's heavy frost. They sighed and went back inside making sure the wooden door was firmly latched behind them.
Slowly spring crept up on the city, anyone who left its walls saw it clearly. Those less fortunate souls who rarely left their homes would have to wait longer and for people who had not left the castle since the first real snows it seemed as far away as ever.
"I am beginning to feel like this castle is my prison," Arabella stated.
"I must confess this is the longest winter I recall and I am getting tired of the confinement too," Helene replied.
"Surely there is some way for us to venture forth; my bones can handle the cold air," Arabella said.
"The cold is not the issue, conditions underfoot would make it difficult for the horses, it would not be worth the risk."
"Then we could go out on foot," Arabella suggested.
"Have you taken leave of your senses? We would be recognized and it would take all of the guard to protect us."
"What if we concealed our identity? What if we... dressed as servants on an errand who would pay us attention?" said Arabella.
"After what happened when you last left on your own I would rather we not risk it," said Helene.
"You would rather stay confined?"
"I would rather not incite a riot, either out in the city or when we are found out."
"What if we get consent?"
"You really have spent too long in the castle," Helene said, shaking her head in disbelief.
But the next time Arabella had chance to speak to Lady Ysabel she mentioned it anyway.
"My dear I understand your frustration but your idea is radical. I shall see what Queen Isolda has to say about it."
"Must we involve the Queen?"
"Did you expect to go on my say so? No! This involves the princess in something that the queen must approve."
Arabella sighed, she would be stuck inside forever.
When Ysabel mentioned Arabella's idea to the queen she did not expect the reaction it got. Ysabel had used it as an example of how the girl was picking up her duties but still had some lesson to learn. The queen on the other hand thought it was a thing with merit.
"Oh Ysabel do you not recall the days when we would hide our faces and venture out?"
"That was almost a lifetime ago."
"Do you not think it would be good for Helene to see what life in a city is really about?" said Isolda.
"If we can do it without placing them in danger I suppose so. Are you sure it is wise?"
"It has been on my mind for some time, Arabella has just forced my hand a little."
On the chosen day Lady Ysabel brought dresses suitable for kitchen girls and watched as the children changed into them.
"This dress makes me itch in places I did not know it was possible," Helene said.
"It will not be for long," Ysabel replied.
She helped them to cover their hair and put on their cloaks then lead them swiftly though the castle in the hope that no one would notice.
When they got to the gate she squatted down to their level and said, "Remember you are kitchen interns on an errand to find food, stay by my side and keep your hands to yourselves."
"Yes Lady Ysabel," Arabella responded.
"Yes Lady Ysabel," Helene said after Arabella's elbow prompted her.
The moment she walked through the gate Arabella had second thoughts. She had a knot in her stomach; this didn't feel safe. Looking across she saw the panicked expression on the princess's face and grabbed her trembling hand.
They moved away from the castle and kept up with Lady Ysabel. There were less people around than when Arabella had last been in the city but it was still quite busy.
Helene got closer to her friend. "It is as if no one sees us."
"We have given them no reason to pay attention to us. We are not on horseback or in a carriage and our clothing does not set us apart."
Just to emphasize the point a fat merchant almost knocked them over as he hurried in the opposite direction. He glanced over his shoulder to see they were alright but he did not apologize.
"To him we are not worthy of an apology, he is a merchant and we are lowly servant girls."
"But if he knew who I was?"
"Then he would have taken more care and if he had knocked into you he would have helped you up."
As Helene was trying to rationalise what happened Lady Ysabel ushered them inside a house.
Once through the door they could see that someone ran some kind of business. The room was full of large earthenware vessels.
A fire burned but it didn't feel like it was providing much heat.
"Good day Lady Ysabel, I didn't think I'd be seeing you so soon, how may I be of assistance."
"Ah Sebastien, we need to restock some of our herbs and spices and we need them today. Here is a list."
"I shall see what I can do. Will you wait?"
"No, we have another errand to run, we shall collect them on our return."
All three of them returned to the street and carried on walking. Helene spotted a girl no more than two years younger than her on the opposite side. She watched her while continuing to walk.
Without warning the girl ran away, Helene wondered what scared her until the call rang out. "Stop, thief, stop that girl."
The girl disappeared down a narrow alleyway and it was only in the aftermath that Helene realised she must have stolen a loaf of bread from the ledge outside the baker's shop.
"Why did she steal that loaf?"
"She must have been very poor or maybe she lives on the street," Arabella replied.
"There are people without a roof over their head?"
"Yes. I learned of it from my family before they left the city. I would not choose it, particularly in winter."
The thought of that made Helene shiver more than before.
What is more she did not touch anything lest she be accused of theft herself.
From the inside of the next building they entered it was easy to tell what went on. Cloth was hung everywhere and to one side an apprentice sat, constructing some kind of tunic.
"Ah lady Ysabel," came a voice from the back. "You have come for the dress?"
"I have indeed."
"It has turned out better than I hoped, would you like to see it?"
"I have not the time I'm afraid."
"Very well, I shall wrap it for you."
Lady Ysabel passed the bundle of cloth she was given to Helene for her to carry. The girls wanted to ask questions but were cut short as she lead them back outside again.
They walked a little further and heard a familiar noise, like that of sword fighting but not quite the same. As they turned the corner they felt the heat and saw the light of the forge. A smithy and his apprentice rained hammer blows down on the red hot tip of a metal bar.
Lady Ysabel waited patiently for them to finish hammering and spoke to the smithy. What they spoke of was unknown to the girls; the conversation started off as a whisper and got quieter as they moved to the back of the forge.
The fire became the girls' focus, even though they were outside it was the warmest they had been since leaving their beds.
With nothing else to do the smithy's apprentice started to tidy up.
"What are you making?" Arabella asked.
"Excuse me, I just want to know what it is you are making."
"If the metal is strong enough, a sword. But likely it will be another door hinge."
"I see," she responded, though in truth she did not. She tried to think of something else to say but drew a blank and remained silent.
Lady Ysabel returned with a small sack which she held herself and a metal cooking pot which she handed to Arabella.
Reluctant as they were to leave the warmth of the fire they had no desire to be left behind and hurried after the departing Lady Ysabel.
Arabella's hands were hurting from carrying the pot but there was no way she could risk falling behind. She carried on as best she could until they got to the merchant of herbs and spices.
Back inside she put the pot on the edge of a table which gave her some respite.
Helene followed her lead and placed her package alongside it. Only then did she see the marks on her friend's hands and responded in the only way she could think of.
"Lady Ysabel, I shall carry this pot the rest of the way back."
Ysabel did not question Helene, she collected her goods, settled the account and lead the girls back to the castle.
At the first opportunity Helene did what Arabella had been unwilling to do. She rested the pot on the ground knowing that it was safe now they were back in the castle.
"Let me carry it the final yards to the kitchen while the two of you hurry back to your apartments."
"Very well Lady Ysabel, please make sure you find some ointment for Arabella's hands."
"What is wrong, show me."
Arabella held up her hands, the marks were less prominent, but still visible.
"Oh, my dear. Why did you remain silent and why did you not put the pot down."
"I did not think a servant would be expected to complain, and if I had rested I might have been left behind."
"I would not have let that happen. Go with Helene and I shall be with you forthwith."
She strode swiftly and with purpose towards the kitchen while the children retreated to the private chambers.
True to her word Lady Ysabel rejoined them mere minutes after they had arrived back in Helene's apartment.
"Oh Arabella, I am sorry."
She got down to Arabella's level and kissed the red weals on her hands. Helene thought it a little strange for an aunt but kept those thoughts to herself.
Ysabel was not done yet; she applied ointment to the child's palms and tied a clean white cloth strip around each hand.
It hampered her doing most things but it protected her hands and stopped whatever she touched getting greasy ointment upon it.
"There shall be neither harp nor archery practise for you in the coming days."
That was not such a big deal in the early months as it would have been in summer. Arabella prayed that she would be fit enough for when the weather would take a turn for the better.
There was one thought that had not crossed her mind, if winter in the castle was tedious imagine what it would be like with injured hands.
Between Lady Ysabel and Princess Helene she did not get many opportunities to lift a finger.
The final straw came when Queen Isolda came to see her daughter and would not let Arabella fetch the princess's books.
With all the dignity she could muster she made her protest.
"Your majesty, it is I and not you who should be doing the waiting, my wounds have not rendered me completely useless."
Isolda did not need to muster anything, she possessed grace and dignity along with empathy and humility.
"Dear child, are you not a subject of this kingdom?"
"Is it also true that you are in the service of this royal family?"
"Would you wish to be treated any differently than Lady Catherine who is with child, the chamberlain when he suffers with his gout or gardener when his wrists seize."
"I would not."
"As soon as you are fully fit all your duties will resume. Do not worry about boredom, when the weather allows you will be joining us on a visit to another kingdom."
"Yes, it will be a trip of great significance and I trust you to represent the kingdom."
"I shall not let you down."
"Of course not, we have faith in you."
With each day that passed the strength returned to Arabella's grip although the dressings stayed until Lady Ysabel was absolutely certain there would be no scarring.
The weather continued to improve, the children were allowed to return to the terrace and with a little persuasion archery practise came back as well.
Arabella was a little rusty but to everyone's relief her injury had not diminished her abilities with the bow.
It was nearing the time of the equinox when the long discussed visit became a reality. Her horse had been prepared for her but like the rest of the travellers she still checked everything, for it was her who would be in the saddle for most of the day.
She glanced across to Lady Ysabel next to her mount to make sure she had not forgotten anything.
With her final check she felt something dig into her arm and remembered the small dagger that rested in a scabbard against the inside of her forearm.
"Keep this with you at all times," Lady Ysabel had said as she gave it.
"You must only use it in defence of the Princess's life and if you are the only one between the danger and her then protecting your life is protecting her life."
On that day Arabella realised that their fates were tied together by more than the bonds of friendship. She knew that the journey out of her situation was longer than it had been. She knew that she had a say in whether her princess lived or perished. On that day a small piece of her innocence died.
The entourage that left the city was far larger than any Arabella had experienced, even though the King had made his journey the day before.
The party of travellers included Queen Isolda, Princess Helene, Lady Ysabel and Arabella along with the most trusted attendants riding in a cart with the luggage. They were accompanied by the most Palace Guard that Arabella had seen outside of the castle, all of which were in their best dress uniform.
Out in front were four riders checking the way ahead. Amongst everybody rode the escort party, twelve strong. Behind the cart rode a further four guards then two guards' carts and the remainder of the guards brought up the rear.
Arabella wondered how another kingdom could tell the difference between a royal procession and an invading force until the first changeovers took place.
"Of course," she said to herself. "The guards cannot remain vigilant for the whole day."
Apparently she spoke those words louder that she had intended because Helene replied.
"Yes, I had also wondered why we needed so many men the first time I went with my parents."
Gradually the familiar lowland scenery gave way to the foothills of the Citadel Mountains and before they knew it coniferous forest hemmed them in either side.
"We do not have to climb the mountains, do we?" asked Arabella.
"No, we do not climb much higher, and a good job too for the snow still lies there," Lady Ysabel replied. "Soon we will reach the high pastures and there we will take respite from our travels."
With nothing but trees around them the girls peered into the forest as they carried on riding. The ground sloped away from the track they were on and not much of the light that hit the top made it to the forest floor. They could make out some small boulders from their rocky silhouettes but not much else.
"Look!" Arabella said and pointed into the forest.
"I do not see anything," Helene responded.
"There, did you not see movement."
"All I see there is shadows."
"Indeed and one of the shadows moved."
Helene peered into the gloom as best she could while still moving along the path.
"I do not see it."
"There was something there, I did not imagine it."
"I am not doubting that you saw something, it may have been the wind or an animal, I do not know."
Arabella felt that she wasn't being taken seriously but, when one of the guards pulled alongside her and asked about what she had seen she knew they would not take that chance.
It was a relief when the tree cover lessened and then parted to reveal the pasture that Lady Ysabel had spoken of.
Partway across they halted for a short break, unlike their previous rides they were encouraged to dismount.
As soon as her feet touched the ground the princess started to stretch the stiffness out of her body and Arabella found the urge to join her irresistible.
She stretched out so far that she almost fell over.
The stop also served as a chance to eat but it was not the fine foods which were the Royal's usual fare. Lunch consisted of spiced meats, winter vegetables in pastry and dried fruits.
"I hope that one day we might be given normal food when we travel," Helene said.
"I have nought but good things to say," Arabella responded. "I do not recall cold food ever tasting so good."
"Arabella, have your taste buds failed you?"
"Oh daughter," Queen Isolda interjected. "I have tried not to spoil you and in many ways been successful but I fear your tastes have been influenced by too many feasts. Many of our people do not eat food this fine, hot or cold and that is something we would do well to remember."
"I am sorry mother, I shall try to remain mindful of that."
Everyone finished their meal and started to get back in the saddle. Arabella was about to join them when she glanced down and noticed a delicate white flower that so far had avoided being trampled underfoot. Lying in the middle of the track it had no chance of survival.
Carefully shielding what she was doing, Arabella used the dagger concealed in her sleeve to lift the plant from its root just like Aron had seen his aunt do before she returned to her village.
With no time to spare she found a place where she hoped it would be safe and remounted Moonshadow. She knew it had only a small chance of survival with her but it had none left on the hill track.
The entourage continued its journey, coming off the pasture and winding its way down the hillside.
It was easy for Arabella to know where their kingdom ended. Not because she had studied the maps and not because there were signs telling her so. An escort party of maybe twelve men on horseback was waiting for them and from the cut of their clothing she could tell they were from another land.
Their captain approached Queen Isolda but Arabella was not close enough to hear what he said.
Both girls had hoped this meet meant their journey was nearing its end but they were still in the saddle as the sun came lower in the sky.
Arabella could not have described any of the streets they passed through to get to the castle; she was totally focused on getting off her horse before she became fused to the saddle.
Helene was also agitated but for a different reason. Arabella did not spot anything until they got to the courtyard.
"Never have I been so glad to dismount as... Princess, are you alright?"
Very quietly she replied, "I think I might vomit."
"What is wrong, was it the food?"
Queen Isolda intervened," I think it is a touch of nerves, accompany my daughter to her temporary home and I shall be with you forthwith."
They were guided by a woman shrouded in ash coloured robes and a white linen cowl, she did not speak.
"Well that was rather strange," Arabella said once they were alone in the room.
"Yes, I hope not everyone is like that."
"So Princess can you tell me what has you so worried or should we wait for Queen Isolda?"
"I am nervous because what happens here will affect the rest of my life."
"I cannot believe that you do not know what is going on. I am here to meet the prince with a view to marriage."
"Marriage! But you are the same age as me, you are not old enough."
"No, we will be betrothed and we will see each other regularly until I am old enough and then we will be married, and on the back of our announcement a great union will be formed that will benefit both our kingdoms."
"I thought people were wed because they loved each other."
The response did not come from Helene but from Queen Isolda who had entered the room while the girls talked.
"Usually they are, but it is not that simple when kings and queens or princes and princesses are concerned. Sometimes the marriage that is arranged prevent wars, sometimes it links nations in trade."
She sat down on the bed which dominated the room and motioned for both girls to join her.
"When I first met Prince Eadric, as he was then, my heart did not melt, thunder did not sound and no great light lit up the sky. But I knew I could learn to love him and by the time I made my vows to him my heart was his."
"But what if this prince is an arrogant beast," Arabella asked.
"What if he finds something he dislikes about me," Helene added.
"There is nothing to dislike about you," Arabella replied.
"Do not feel helpless my child, if something is not right between you do not be afraid to say so. There is another kingdom where a match could be made."
"I know mother, but still I am nervous of the impression I will make."
"Your father and I will be close at hand and Arabella will be behind you. I must go, Lady Ysabel will prepare you for the feast."
The preparations were not quite what either of them expected. Arabella was handed a dark robe which covered her from neck to ankle and a Lady Ysabel fastened a cowl about her head. Just like their guide, only her face and hands remained uncovered.
Helene also had something to cover her head but hers was a wisp, as if someone had taken the morning mist and fashioned it into a piece of fabric.
It was not simply a matter of clothing either, Lady Ysabel explained that the protocol differed as well. Arabella could walk behind her Princess in public, alongside her in private but never in front. She would be seated behind her at the table and when the food arrived she would be expected to taste it but that would be the only thing she would be allowed all evening.
"When am I to eat?"
"First thing in the morning is when we are expected in the kitchen for our meal."
"Just one meal?"
"While we are more than servants this kingdom believes that we should be dedicated to our royal assignment throughout the day and eating interferes with that."
"What a strange place this is."
"It is not our place to judge, but if it were I would most definitely agree," Lady Ysabel said with a smile.
When it became time for the feast Arabella followed dutifully behind Helene. The cowl felt too tight around her face but she made no attempt to loosen it. There were things she wanted to say to her friend but she knew it was not the time.
They approached a stout door and even with the empty feeling in the pit of her stomach, Arabella's eyes were drawn to the intricate metalwork of the lock and hinges.
They stood behind the door with just a single guard for company, not that he was saying anything. As they stood both of them started to hear a murmur, the longer they stood the harder it became to ignore.
Even from her position Arabella could tell that all was not well with Helene. In this kingdom she knew better than to speak so she touched her on the arm.
As her friend turned Arabella saw an expression she had only seen on Helene's face during thunderstorms - terror.
Protocol be damned, Arabella decided, some things were more important than that. She took both of Helene's hand in hers and got her friend to look at her. In the quietest voice that she could manage she found the words to reassure her princess, if you were to ask her later what she said she could not answer, they were the right words for that time and place and that is all that matters.
When the wooden door swung open and the noise level rose Helene was still fearful, but it was a fear she could cope with, especially with her friend at her side or as near as protocol would allow.
As serenely as she could Helene walked into the great hall, the noise subsided somewhat. Knowing that every eye was on her and suppressing her need to be sick she moved to her place between her family and the royal family of this kingdom.
Her so-called suitor, Prince Hendrick sat to one side of her. She wished to take her first look at this person she might marry but it would not do to be seen casting more than a glance at him.
Arabella took her place behind her princess, in line with all the other ladies in waiting and equerries. Beside her, stood an older boy with a thin smile.
The food arrived before she had a chance for further judgement. With no experience of tasting to fall back on she took her cues from those around her - reach in from the left, take a morsel of food, smell it, taste it, then retreat.
Standing there waiting it felt as if someone's eyes were burning into her. The last time she'd felt this way it had been the unwanted attentions of Lord Barkstone and the fact she was in an unfamiliar situation with nothing else to do made this time far worse. How she longed for the meal to end but, it seemed to go on for an age and with every window, tapestry and roof truss counted and re-counted in her mind she wondered if she had gone mad.
From somewhere a trumpet sounded and one by one the people at the top table left with their attendant.
Arabella fought her urge to speak as she followed Helene to her room, once behind the closed door she felt released.
"I do not wish to go to any more meals like that, maybe it is wrong of me but there is something off about a meal where everybody but me gets to eat."
"Yes I can imagine. That is why I saved you something."
From her handkerchief she produced two small chunks of meat.
"It is not much but it is something."
"Oh princess, you did that for me? Words do not convey my feelings, thank you."
"You got me through my hysteria at the entrance to the great hall, I owe you so much, this is the least I could do."
The food at least helped to quell the pangs of hunger in Arabella but her fatigue was something she could not overcome. Helene was sleepy too and started to prepare herself for bed.
Arabella tried to find the place she was expected to sleep, there was no obvious place and after the way the meal had gone she wondered if sleep was something else she would not be allowed to do.
Behind them the door-handle turned and despite her tiredness Arabella was totally alert and ready to defend her princess.
To her relief it was queen Isolda with lady Ysabel right behind her.
"I see all is well in here," the queen said. "Daughter you handled yourself with poise and dignity."
"I may have held myself together during the meal but before it my nerves left me a gibbering wreck."
"Arabella, once again you prove your worth"
"But how did you know?"
"I know the both of you well enough to recognize your hand in this. If there is anything we can do for you do not hesitate to ask."
"For now I just wish to locate my bed," Arabella replied.
"It is over there, although I know why you would have missed it."
The only thing in the direction the queen was pointing was a large wooden trunk.
"People sleep in a box in this land?"
"That is not strictly so, you sleep in the top half and all your clothes and possessions are held in the compartment below."
"I was correct, there is nothing I am allowed to do in this place, not even sleep."
"You may join me in my bed," Princess Helene answered.
Isolda and Ysabel looked at each other.
"You may do so but only on one condition. As soon as we leave you are to block the door with a trunk and only remove it for either of us."
So that night, ignoring all protocol they shared their bed. It was just as well both got a good night's sleep for the day that was to come would prove as trying as the day that had been.
As Arabella sat in the kitchen eating her first real meal since she arrived she had the feeling that she was being spied on.
"Is someone observing us?" she said in a voice that only Ysabel would hear above the noise of people eating.
"I do not sense it but I shall check discreetly."
Being able to observe things without being noticed was a skill that Lady Ysabel had developed in her years of service and she put it to good use.
"It is the prince's aide, for some reason he keeps looking this way."
What was that sound in Arabella's dream? It seemed so familiar yet she was unable to place it. No wait it wasn't a dream.
Through heavy eyes she gazed around, the sound came again. It was a voice from outside the door. Without disturbing the princess she left their bed and pulled the trunk away as quietly as she was able.
"Mo.. I mean Lady Ysabel, is something wrong?"
"No child, but if you come with me we shall eat before we begin our work."
Arabella had forgotten her hunger from last night; her stomach growled a reminder.
Once dressed she followed Lady Ysabel past their guards and into the kitchens. Close to a dozen people were already sat down and tucking into bowls of meaty stew.
It tasted a lot better than it looked and she managed a second bowl although the whole time she had that feeling that she was being spied on.
"Is someone observing us?" she said in a voice that only Ysabel would hear above the noise of people eating.
"I do not sense it but I shall check discreetly."
Being able to observe things without being noticed was a skill that Lady Ysabel had developed in her years of service and she put it to good use.
"It is the prince's aide, for some reason he keeps looking this way."
Her report did not convey the complete picture, he could not take his eyes off Arabella and the lascivious look on his face was one that Lady Ysabel wished she could wipe from it, but there was no reason to concern Arabella even more. They finished their meal and left, without paying their watcher any attention.
Ysabel left Arabella at the door to Helene's room and went to prepare queen Isolda for the day ahead.
Arabella found the princess still peacefully sleeping, it seemed a shame to wake her yet she knew that she must. Softly she called her friend's name and gradually she woke.
While Helene dressed, Arabella told her about being watched in the kitchen.
"I do not understand why he pays me such interest," she said.
"I know why. He believes he will soon be courting you."
"And why would he think such a thing?"
"If I am to be betrothed to Hendrick then as my Lady in Waiting and my friend I would hope you would join me here. You would then be expected to form a union with someone from Hendrick's court."
"Form a union with someone?"
"Take a husband."
Arabella's legs gave way and she plopped down onto the bed.
"I could not do... that," she said, pausing as a wave of nausea hit her.
"You have gone pale, something ails you. No, you truly find him distasteful!"
Helene was surprised at the strength of her friend's reaction.
"I do not consider myself ready to think about wedding anyone. Even if I was, he would not figure in my choice," said Arabella, the colour slowly returning to her face.
"You have to give him a chance, as I give to Prince Hendrick, or do you not plan on accompanying me should we find that we are suited?"
"I would do anything for you Princess but, I would not wed someone who sends a chill up my spine."
"But to accompany me would mean wedding someone of status from this kingdom," said Helene.
"I would find another way."
"Do you plan to marry for love alone? It only works that way in fairy tales."
"Perhaps it would be better if more people followed their hearts."
"Oh Arabella, you are my best friend, you understand me better than anyone, yet at times like these I don't understand you."
Arabella knew there was nothing she could say to make the princess see her point of view.
Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda had joined the two children by the time the sun could be seen above the castle wall. It was time to prepare for something Helene had not been looking forward to, her audience with Hendrick and his parents.
Arabella looked on while Queen Isolda fussed over her daughter, she understood that Helene needed to look her best. It even made sense for her to have a new dress especially for the occasion. What did seem a little strange was the amount of attention being paid to little details.
Isolda was still seeing to something when King Eadric entered the room, he quickly took charge.
"Isolda stop fussing, our daughter is as near to perfection as I would wish her to be."
"But is that enough for the kingdom she may be joining?"
"If it is not then they do not deserve her," he said.
"I know you are correct but I cannot help myself. Is it possible that I am turning into my mother?"
Eadric smiled before answering. "You share her good intentions, beyond that I shall not say."
"Oh Eadric, you always did know how to lighten my mood. You are right, we are ready."
What had seemed like a large room when they arrived felt cramped now they had been joined by King Silas and Queen Jasmine.
They talked to Helene trying to put her at ease. Arabella could tell that it wasn't all that successful but for once was in no position to help.
The interview went on until noon and some of the questions made Arabella feel uncomfortable so she could only guess how they made Helene feel. Then to make matters worse they started to ask questions about her ladies in waiting, how many she had and what their talents were.
Arabella found it unsettling to be the focus of their discussion but excluded from it. Her frustration became apparent and Queen Jasmine told her to play something on the small harp in one corner of the room.
Instead of responding straight away she looked to Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda for guidance. Whilst it did nothing to endear her to her hosts she knew where her loyalties lay.
The queen sighed and nodded; obviously Arabella wasn't alone in thinking this wasn't going well. Regardless, she picked the harp up and started a simple tune, hoping that Helene might find some comfort in its familiar melody.
She continued to play until King Silas and Queen Jasmine excused themselves and left the room.
"Was that too much of an ordeal for you?" Isolda asked her daughter.
"Oh mother, I shall be fine just as soon as someone can tell me what half of those questions were about."
It was her father who answered. "They believe their position in this is stronger than ours. They know we need access to the sea if we are to prosper, they want to get just as much as they can in exchange for that."
"So you are trading your daughter for some fish?"
One of King Eadric's equerries moved to strike Arabella for her lack of respect.
"Stand your ground," the king ordered. "She is part of this, her reaction is justified. Lady Ysabel please explain the order of things to your niece."
"Very well Sire."
Ysabel lead Arabella into a corner of the room.
"I understand your misgivings but the situation is not as you see it, the king and queen know that Helene will someday marry and leave their side for her new home. They find suitors for her because many are the men who would court her not for love, but to improve their own situation."
"But why are such arrangements used to make deals?"
"Would you just let a princess go to a foreign land or would you expect something in return? In my view there is nothing equal in worth to Helene but if she is to go then we should receive everything another kingdom would offer. Do you understand?"
"It is not a situation I like but I can see there is some reason behind it."
"There are other matters that the king wishes I discuss with you but, they are best left to our private times back at the castle."
The code was simple enough for Arabella to decipher. Her true gender complicated the matters in question.
Ysabel returned to the Queen's side, Arabella stood before the king.
"Sire, I am sorry if I caused offence."
"Do not fret child, I would not expect someone of your tender years to know the ways of things. Please return to my daughter's side."
Eadric left them to conduct other business and as far as anybody knew only ladies remained.
"Was your ordeal as tough as it appeared?"
"It was more strange than it was tough. I still do not figure the purpose of their questions"
Queen Isolda added, "I do not doubt it, their intentions left me vexed on matters in which I am fully versed."
"Maybe confusion was their intention," said Arabella.
"You may well be closer to the truth than you realise," Isolda replied. "I have always found the customs of this kingdom to be somewhat unorthodox."
The rest of the day passed off uneventfully and unlike the previous day Helene had no problem keeping her nerves in check when it came to mealtime.The routine was familiar for Arabella too, although she still felt the eyes of the prince's aide boring into her while she sat behind the princess.
For the second time in as many nights the princess and her lady shared a bed. Just like before they barricaded the door and slept through till sun-up.
Their first duty saw them in the courtyard of the castle, waving goodbye to King Eadric.
Helene did not want to let go of her father but she knew that she could not go with him on this day and reluctantly she released her grasp.
She contained her emotions as best she could when he passed through the archway and disappeared out of sight.
Arabella clasped Helene's hand and guided her back into the castle where one last trial awaited.
Even though she was convinced that king Silas and queen Jasmine had found her wanting, she was still expected to get acquainted with the prince.
What was more of a surprise was the choice of someone to chaperon the princess and Arabella in the presence of the prince and his aide - Queen Isolda.
If her presence was a surprise to the girls it was a shock to the prince and his aide when they entered although the prince recovered quickly it was Bastian who was the first to speak.
"Queen Isolda, what a most welcome surprise!"
Arabella's instant thought was 'what a sycophant, how did someone like the prince have such a weasel for an aide?'
"Why thank you Bastian. Prince I hope you will take this opportunity to become acquainted with my daughter."
"That is my goal queen Isolda, our kingdoms will make a great alliance."
With all the empty posturing out of the way the prince and princess sat with Bastian and Arabella standing at their sides.
This was Helene's first opportunity to take a proper look at him. He was certainly older than she but only by a few years, verging on adulthood but no more. She would definitely say he was handsome and found comfort in hoping that he found her pleasing. She became lost in her thoughts and almost missed the first thing he asked.
"Are you an experienced rider, princess?"
"I would not like to say, I certainly do not consider myself to be a novice."
"With the reputation your kingdom has with horses I would have expected riding to be something at which you excel."
"I do not get to ride quite as often as I might like, I do not wish to burden the guard with extra protection duties."
"Girls are such fragile creatures, unable to even defend themselves."
Arabella looked across at the prince, for a brief moment she with toyed with the idea of using her wrist dagger to show him how defenceless girls were.
"So you ride alone?" Helene responded.
"It is myself and Bastian."
"Then I pray you never encounter a band of highwaymen, for they would easily outnumber you and hold you for ransom."
The prince flinched slightly; Arabella smiled.
"Girls such as us are capable of defending ourselves but, we prefer to avoid such confrontations."
"I doubt you could even lift a sword, let alone wield it."
"I could give you a good fight," Arabella said, unable to contain herself any longer.
"Your lady is spirited even if she doesn't know her place," the prince replied.
"I apologize for my outburst," she responded.
Helene reached for one of Arabella's hands.
"I am sure that I could take her in hand," Bastian added.
The look upon his face sent shivers down Arabella's spine. The hand Helene held was the one she would use for the dagger, if it had not been, Arabella knew the blade would be lodged in his chest and she would almost certainly have fallen to the prince's sword.
"Girls should be content to raise children and maintain a pleasing disposition and let the men deal with all other concerns."
"Is that so?" Queen Isolda said. "Does your mother Queen Jasmine do nothing more than that?"
The prince was silenced, and rightfully so, it gave Helene chance for a question of her own.
"What do the people do in your kingdom?"
It appeared as if he was reluctant to answer but, in truth he had not got his head around the question.
"The people who reside within this palace?"
"No, the people of your land. Our kingdom is known for its horses but you will also find livestock and crops being tended. Then there are the smithies who produce decorative items the like of which you cannot imagine."
"Oh you mean the commoners, people without title. We have fishermen and there is much trade of things from other lands but that happens among the stench of fish."
Helene could not understand his attitude, she had been taught that everybody had a part to play, even the lad who mucked out the horses or the farmer who spent all day with his pigs.
He continued, "I have taken to the sea but I much prefer the nobler pursuits of hunting or sword fighting. Tell me princess do you often go hunting?"
"I must wait until next year to be considered old enough..."
"Then you are still but a child. A girl whose only experience of life comes from her father and mother."
"That is untrue."
"I'll wager you have never left the confines of your abode without a full escort."
"You would lose, I have done just that."
"I find that hard to believe."
"You may believe what you like."
"Children, for that is how you both are behaving," Queen Isolda interrupted. "You sound like two chattering magpies. I do not see any worth in continuing if you cannot be at least civil to each other."
"In that case Queen Isolda we shall leave you and your daughter to your own thoughts. Bastian!"
"I shall tell the stables to prepare our mounts sire."
The two adolescents strode from the room leaving a stunned silence in their wake.
"That went well," said Queen Isolda which made Helene and Arabella giggle.
"I had originally considered him a nice person," Helene said.
"And then he opened his mouth," Arabella suggested.
"Quite," Isolda said. "I wish we could leave now but we would not get back before nightfall."
"We will have to endure another mealtime here?"
"I am afraid that is so Arabella, do not fret, it will be the last you have to suffer here and Helene and myself will ensure that you will not go to bed on an empty stomach."
"My Queen you do not have to take that upon yourself."
"I do not have to, I choose to. Are you telling me that I am wrong?"
"I would not presume to correct you but..."
"Then we are agreed. I shall see you at dinner."
They were alone again. Neither spoke for some time, it was as if they were engrossed in their own thoughts.
Helene broke the silence.
"I am glad we are leaving, after what has happened I do not want to be sitting next to the prince a moment longer than I must."
Their last meal in the kingdom was every bit as tense as they had expected. The prince tried to act as if Helene was not even there.
That would have been a dream for Arabella who still received the unwanted attentions of his aide. It made no sense to her why he continued to act in this way. When the reason finally came to her for the first time she was glad not to have eaten. He still thought he might get the chance to 'take her in hand'.
The entire entourage breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the meal. If there were to be any backlash from the events of the previous days it would be in private.
Once she was safely in Helene's room Arabella's first action was to drag the cowl from her head.
"I shall have no further need of that," she said while depositing it on the thing that was intended to be her sleeping place.
"Here is something to sustain you until morning," Helene said, passing over the morsels that she had successfully smuggled from the meal.
Arabella had barely started to eat when Queen Isolda entered the room.
"I am afraid I only managed to acquire one thing to add to your meal."
It was something akin to a chicken drumstick, only larger, maybe a goose or some other bird of a similar size.
"Your highness, it is too much, thank you."
"We cannot have you being weary with hunger on our journey home, can we. I wish to be on our way just as soon as it is light."
"I shall be glad to put this experience behind me," said Helene.
"And I will be in no hurry to return," Arabella added.
"Even a fool would have no difficulty to know of what you speak," Lady Ysabel said, arriving in the room unnoticed.
"Is there any wonder at it?" Queen Isolda replied.
"No, while your highnesses have been treated well in public and given a raw deal behind closed doors, the only place to give us any kind of welcome has been the kitchens."
"That is because you treat them with respect."
"Indeed, which is why I was given this."
In her hands was a bowl of the same stew they served each morning. She placed it in front of Arabella and drew up a chair for herself.
"With any luck this should sustain us for the journey home."
They tucked into the stew and the food liberated from the meal. The queen and princess moved to the opposite end of the room to give them a little privacy. Before they finished Arabella leaned into Lady Ysabel, she in turn put her arm around her child and they shared an intimate mother-daughter moment; something they had not had for some time.
To Isolda and Helene nothing was amiss, it was entirely appropriate for an aunt to hug her niece when such a demanding visit was nearly at an end.
For the last time on this trip the adults left the children to get some sleep taking the same precautions as they had on the last two nights.Everybody slept soundly knowing that in the morning they would be on their way.
Their departure passed with little ceremony, neither king nor queen nor prince was there to witness it.
The entourage passed through a city that was still mostly asleep and out into the countryside. The mountains looked completely different from this direction and in the light of the morning.
No one said much until they crossed the border and their escort left them to return to their home.
Helene took a long breath.
"I know this must sound odd but the air seems fresher here in our kingdom."
"I understand, I would say it is sweeter because you are free to breathe it as you wish with no one passing judgment," said Lady Ysabel.
"That must be it, thank you," Helene replied.
"Do you feel a sense of relief now Arabella?"
"Yes, a great weight has been lifted from me and its name is Bastian. I do not know why he found me so appealing, I found his interest quite disturbing."
"Oh you dear innocent girl," said Queen Isolda. "He saw you as a horseman sees a wild stallion, a challenge to be tamed and broken."
As much as she wished to respond there was nothing Arabella could find to say.
They continued their climb to the edge of the mountain range. The snow capping the peaks was less than it had been on their outward journey, hopefully that meant summer was well on its way. For now though everyone was thankful for the cloak they were wearing.
Arabella gazed around her, nothing looked the same from this direction, she was sure she would have seen something familiar by now.
When her curiosity got the better of her she turned to Lady Ysabel.
"Is this the way that we came? I do not find anything here familiar."
"No, we are on the gauntlet path, it is a shorter return than the meadow path."
"If that is so, why did we not use it before?"
"It climbs somewhat higher so we were unsure if the way would be clear of snow and ice."
"And now we are sure?"
"Of course, our guard would not have taken this route if they thought there was any danger."
As the path ascended the undulating hillside it narrowed, occasionally a single horse was all that could pass along but generally they could ride at least two abreast.
It had been a while since Helene had last spoken, Arabella could understand her wishing to concentrate on her riding where the route was at its narrowest, however it was of ample width now and still she remained silent.
Lady Ysabel had also noticed, drawing as close as she could to the princess she asked, "Is something troubling you?"
"Yes, but it is not something I wish to discuss in present company."
It took a moment for her words to sink in.
"If that is how you feel," Arabella responded and shook Moonshadow's reins. He picked up his pace and moved between two of the royal guard.
"I didn't mean..."
Helene's voice trailed off and she sighed.
"You didn't mean to suggest that she was unworthy of your trust but it is a matter you would rather not discuss on the side of a hill with so many people around you," Lady Ysabel said. "Unfortunately it didn't come out quite as you intended."
"No it didn't I shall catch up with her and set things right."
"Give her time to calm down. I will make sure that she is fine."
Ysabel moved her mount effortlessly between other riders and drew alongside Arabella who turned towards her, expecting a telling off.
Ysabel said nothing.
A breeze flapped the bottom of Arabella's cloak against her legs.
"I thought I had shown myself to be worthy."
"Your worth is without question, it was a matter she does not wish to discuss in public, you silly goose."
Arabella dropped her head.
"Why did I react as I did?"
"Because you are young and the Princess's words were clumsy. While you display a certain maturity you have many mistakes still to make, you both do."
Arabella knew what she wanted to do, she slowed her horse so that Helene could catch her up then took a deep breath and spoke.
"I am sorry for my misunderstanding."
"And I wish I had chosen my words better, I vow to do that from this point forward. Better yet, we should vow to have no further misunderstandings."
"At least until next time," Lady Ysabel said in a voice that only she could hear.
Their differences behind them, Helene and Arabella stayed close together as they moved through the landscape.
Rivulets of melt-water ran down the hillside and formed puddles in the rock before trickling across their path and continuing its journey.
Arabella hoped it would soon stop, the sight of it reminded her how thirsty she was and the sound made her notice an uncomfortable feeling in her bladder.
She could not have been the only one to feel this way as the procession stopped by a small pool. Water cascaded through small cuts in the rock, settled in the depression and overflowed into a channel that divided the path in two.
One of the men appeared beside them with an earthenware cup which he dipped into the water. He handed it to Queen Isolda, much to Arabella's horror.
"Should not you or I be testing the water?" she asked Lady Ysabel.
"There is no need, you can see how clear it is."
Arabella glanced down, it was true, she could see to the bottom and if she reached to it the water would surely have come to her elbow.
Once the queen had her fill the cup was refilled and passed around. Although it was cold enough to set her teeth on edge Arabella could not remember tasting water so good.
When all thirsts had been quenched the travelling party moved on. The horses crossed the stream and continued along the path picking their way between the rocky outcrops that now littered the hillside.
There was no mistaking the formation of stone in front of them, three fissures separated the four fingers with a gap wide enough for a man to pass through between the fingers and a slightly deformed thumb. From there it went straight back before flaring out at the wrist and joining the bottom of the rock face.
"I do not wish to meet the giant who dropped that," Arabella said.
"If he exists he does not dwell within a league of here," Ysabel replied.
"That is good as I am woeful with a slingshot," Arabella said with a huge grin."What man carved it so?"
"Although we cannot say for certain we do not believe any man is responsible. Many tails are told of it but the one that endures is that it was hewn by mother nature herself to provide shelter from the winds to travellers who get caught out up here."
"In that case let us carry on before we have need for it."
With that the entourage passed on by and started their descent. They had not proceeded far when another natural feature caught their attention, a bowl in the hillside had made a pool big enough to swim in.
"That must be wonderfully enticing in mid-summer," said Arabella.
"In mid-summer it would still chill you to the bone, all but the strongest would be in extreme peril."
"My swimming is not the strongest, I would most certainly need rescuing," Helene said.
"Oh princess, you do fine for someone of your status, it is not your fault that opportunities do not readily come," Lady Ysabel responded.
Arabella looked confused, surely everyone got to play in the river, then it dawned on her, if teaching a princess to swim without drawing attention were not tough enough most of the children of either gender swam with not a stitch on. She didn't want to say anymore as it was not like she could swim that way, not as Arabella anyway.
They rode on and rejoined the path they had used to make their way too the other kingdom, it was reassuring to know how close they were to home. As tempting as it was for any of them to canter the last few miles they showed restraint and kept at a sedate pace.
Before they knew it they had arrived at the city gate and were making their way through it's streets. There were less people to watch them but the entourage did not mind, they were glad to be home.
As soon as they had all dismounted Queen Isolda and Lady Ysabel hurried from the stables to their rooms, Princess Helene and Lady Arabella followed, washing off their journey and the other kingdom was something that could not wait a moment longer.
Once they finally felt clean, the girls' thoughts turned to the conversation that had been started atop the hillside.
"Princess, you said that something bothered you, would now be a time you would choose to discuss it?"
Helene sighed like the weight of the world was upon her.
"What if it is not the prince or the kingdom who is wrong, what if it is me who is wrong. Am I destined to be alone my whole life?"
Arabella sat beside her and held her hand.
"I do not think he was suitable for you, neither does Lady Ysabel and you know how your mother feels."
"I thank you for that but all three of you are somewhat partisan, I would be surprised if you didn't defend my position. Indeed is it possible that we are all wrong?"
"I do not believe so, for I trust Lady Ysabel and you should trust your mother. We are both young while they have experience and wisdom. One bad experience should not make you doubt."
"I know, but it is so hard to be sure. What if I were destined to become happy with prince Hendrick once I adjusted to life in his kingdom?"
"You could adjust to doing everything as he wishes, when he wishes and still not be sure of his approval," Arabella said.
"It would be an ordeal, that is certain. Could I achieve it? I would not know until I tried."
"Helene I am sure there is someone more suitable, there must be, I cannot imagine anyone less suitable than that prince."
"I suppose you are right, apart from Hendrick the only prince I have knowledge of is Gaspar and he counts for nought."
While she thought the comment a little harsh Arabella was not about to disagree. At least the princess had stopped dwelling on that arrogant prince. She had a suggestion to distract her further.
"Princess, should we visit Lady Catherine? It feels like we have not seen her in weeks."
"It does, yet it cannot be more than a few days, let us go."
Their search took longer than they expected, she was not in her bedchamber nor was she overseeing what was going on in the kitchens. It was on the way back to the princess's room that they discovered her in the corridor.
"Princess, Arabella, I had wondered when I would encounter you."
"We had come in search of you Lady Catherine, how are you faring?"
"Considering my condition I am well. I shall be glad when my child arrives for I am constantly tired. Come, let us find a place to rest and talk."
They retreated to the princess's chamber, Lady Catherine sat down gingerly and placed a hand upon her tummy.
"Shall we be hearing of a royal engagement," she asked with the enthusiasm of a lovesick maiden.
"Only if Gaspar has something he wishes to tell us," Helene replied.
"It did not go well?"
"No, it did not."
"If we were to be polite we would say it was a most enlightening experience," Arabella added.
Between them they gave Lady Catherine a full report of what had occurred during their visit. She was intrigued to hear of the bizarre customs practised in that kingdom and dumbfounded by their attitude towards Helene. Once the tale had been told she agreed totally with Arabella's thoughts.
"Princess you have been most fortunate. I would not have liked to think of you spending the rest of your life in that kingdom with that ungrateful prince."
Lady Catherine glanced outside, the sun was getting low, she had duties to perform and made her excuses while labouring to her feet.
Left alone once more, Helene and Arabella looked for something to occupy themselves.
"I wish we had archery arranged for today, I am certain I would have hit the centre every time by imagining Bastian's head in its place."
"Is that not harsh?" said Helene.
"He was a mutt, completely without honour. If we ever meet on my terms only one of us will survive."
"That is no way for a lady to talk."
"I am sorry but he brings out the worst in me."
"That was evident by your actions yesterday, I feared we might have brought you home in pieces."
Arabella remained silent, she wondered if she could persuade someone to instruct her in swordsmanship, maybe Prince Gaspar might.
That night in her own bed her thoughts returned to that whole scene in the foreign kingdom. As Aron he would not have received the unwanted attentions of Bastian, he would have been seen as a threat, not written off as a defenceless girl. Yes things would have been very different then.
Life at the castle fell into its normal spring routine. Apart for a couple of overnight thunderstorms nothing out of the ordinary happened. One night changed all that.
"Wake up sweetheart," Ysabel called as she gently shook her child awake.
"Is it morning already?"
"No child, it is still the middle of the night."
It took several moments for the words to sink in. Arabella forced herself to open her eyes.
"Lady Catherine has started to have her baby but something is not right. I need to go to her and I need you to accompany me."
Pulling the bowstring taut Arabella focused on the centre of the target. As she released she wondered if Helene knew what she was imagining there.
All of the shafts landed true in the centre.
"We are on form today Miss Arabella," Robert said, taking pride in the ability of one of his finest pupils.
As Helene moved to take her turn she gave Arabella a glance that suggested she knew what her friend had been focusing on.
Her first few arrows were spread across the target. Arabella walked to her and whispered in her ear.
"I think you know what I was seeing in the middle of my target, maybe you should try that yourself."
Helene gave her a look that she had seen her mother use. She made a little sigh and fired of five more arrows. Four of the five were in a tight group just off centre; the last was near an edge only because her accuracy had been a surprise.
"I said as much," Arabella stated.
Helene's last group were just as accurate so she wore a big smile.
"Princess! I cannot recall you ever displaying such consistency," Robert roared.
In a voice only Helene could hear Arabella said, "What if he knew your motivation?"
By the time they were done Helene's confidence was soaring, she knew that if she needed to she could consistently hit a small standing object. Maybe one day she would graduate, like Arabella had, onto more advanced things.
As it was so pleasant that day the girls did not leave the terrace straight away. In fact Arabella tried her luck with their teacher.
"Tell me, would it be possible for you to teach me swordsmanship?"
"No miss Arabella, I don't believe that it would. I am capable with a sword but I am no master. As it is I doubt you would be able to wield a standard blade."
To make his point he offered her his short sword.
"Now hold it ready to defend yourself... A little lower... that's it. Your attacker approaches, and now he lunges, parry and strike back, and again. Take the initiative now and thrust, parry, thrust again, slash, now rest."
Her arm dropped to her side.
"What feeling do you have?"
"I feel the need to put this sword down and rest."
"Imagine how you would feel after a longer encounter. I do not doubt your determination but you have not the strength."
He took his sword back and watched with some amusement as her arm lifted just as if someone had taken her hand and raised it into the air.
"What enchantment is this?"
"Do not fret, miss Arabella, we all experienced the rise the first time. We know it has something to do with the weight of a sword but we do not understand why."
"It is a most unnatural feeling. Perhaps with practise I will overcome it."
"Indeed you might, yet I feel you will not get that chance. No one would favour a lady with well built arms or with sword-fight scars."
To emphasize his point he raised one sleeve to display an old and very nasty scar.
The sight of it made Arabella reconsider her plan, she knew that a sword-fight might result in an injury but had given no thought to an accident while practising.
On the way back inside Helene turned to Arabella.
"You do not need to learn how to use a sword, we have the guard to defend us."
"They can defend us from thieves and gangs and even armies but against creeps like prince Hendrick and Bastian they are powerless."
"But that would mean forfeiting your life."
"That may be so but I can see many neighbouring lands rejoicing were it to happen."
"I would not be joining them. Please can we find something else to talk about?"
Arabella did not bring the subject up in front of the princess. If an opportunity were to arise she would take it, however she had to accept that it would take her returning to Aron for it to happen.
Life at the castle fell into its normal spring routine. Apart for a couple of overnight thunderstorms nothing out of the ordinary happened. One night changed all that.
"Wake up sweetheart," Ysabel called as she gently shook her child awake.
"Is it morning already?"
"No child, it is still the middle of the night."
It took several moments for the words to sink in. Arabella forced herself to open her eyes.
"Lady Catherine has started to have her baby but something is not right. I need to go to her and I need you to accompany me."
Ysabel collected a few things from around the room while Arabella fought the veil of sleep that clouded her mind.
With nothing more than a thin robe, a cloak and a candle to protect them from the night they left the room each carrying a mysterious bundle.
Ysabel did not knock upon their door, there was not time for that, she opened it and guided Arabella through.
The bedchamber was filled with concerned people milling about. One or two made suggestions of things Lady Catherine should drink or rituals to ease the baby's passage into the world.
Ysabel took charge immediately.
"Leave now, all of you."
There was a murmur and while some did file out others attempted to ignore her.
Lady Catherine cried out in pain.
Ysabel looked for her husband.
She put a hand on the worried man's shoulder.
"I will do my best for mother and child but it is not good for her to have all these people with her. When the time comes they will do nought but hinder."
He nodded and in a voice that was much stronger than he felt said, "Leave them in peace."
Only one person had to be manhandled, the rest left freely and Ysabel secured the door behind them.
Another muffled cry came from the bed.
"Child heat some water while I talk to Catherine."
After giving her a few reassuring words Ysabel took something from one of the bundles and placed it in a drinking vessel.
"When the water is hot enough fill the vessel and bring it to the bed. This should help ease her discomfort."
Arabella tried not to look at what her mother was doing while she fetched the jug of water from the bedside, instead she focused on the shadows cast by the flickering candles.
"Breathe Catherine, I know it is difficult but you must keep on."
The water seemed to take an age to heat.
"I am so tired."
Finally it seemed hot enough and Arabella filled the vessel and took it over to the bed.
"She needs to sip it."
Try as she might Arabella was unable to get any of the infusion into the Lady's mouth.
"No, not like that, I shall do it. You come down here, if you see any blood tell me at once."
"No mother, it is not right that I even be in this room, there for me to be at that end of the bed is unthinkable."
"My child you would be correct were these ideal times, however they are far from ideal. Please come here and look out for blood, as pale as she is this night she cannot afford to lose a drop."
Reluctantly she did as her mother asked. It still felt terribly wrong to be in a place that was a woman's domain but she had a duty to perform.
Lady Catherine became less anxious after a few sips of the liquid, a relative calm fell upon the room, punctuated every few minutes by muffled cries with each contraction.
"Can I go now?" Arabella asked, seeing an opportunity for escape.
"It may be quiet now but very soon I shall need all the help you can give."
In a quiet voice she said, "Will there be anything left of Aron, for months all I have done has been the actions of a girl. Archery has been something of a refuge for my male side yet, I am unsure whether it is the boy or the girl with the ability."
"He is safe and he will get the chance to return in time. I cannot say when that chance will arise but when it does we will grab it."
The accuracy of Ysabel's earlier statement was soon proven as Lady Catherine sounded as if she was in distress once more.
"Does she need another of those herbal drinks," Arabella asked.
"No, I think this time it is for real."
A quick check confirmed her theory.
"Go and tell them, without opening the door that the baby is on its way."
She did as asked and was surprised by how many people replied.
"Now I need you to hold a candle for me so I might see things progressing."
Try as she might to ignore it Arabella found herself drawn to watch. It was messy and painful but there was something wonderful about it too.
"One last push Catherine, you are almost there."
She did not look as if she had enough energy for anything yet from somewhere she managed to summon the effort.
With a little help from Ysabel the baby made its way into the world. There was a look of concern on her face, could something be wrong? To Arabella everything seemed perfect, it had ten little fingers and toes and a shock of sandy hair.
Ysabel moved closer, blocking the child from Arabella's view; she had no idea what was going on.
A silence had descended; even Lady Catherine was waiting for some kind of sign.
The noise, which erupted from Ysabel’s arms, filled the room. How could something so small make such a din?
"You have a fine son," Lady Ysabel proclaimed.
"A son! Elwynn will be pleased."
She passed him to his mother and the shriek became a whimper. Lady Catherine sighed contentedly as she gazed upon his face. She was clearly exhausted but not ready to give in to sleep just yet.
After a few minutes she turned to Arabella.
"Would you like to hold him?"
She slowly nodded.
Lady Catherine showed her where to put her hands to support him then passed him over. For the next few moments nothing else existed, just his face. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Arabella felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see her mother smiling.
"We must prepare him to meet his father."
Ysabel set about their task, wrapping the boy, in strips of cloth, showing Arabella how it was done. When she was finished she placed him carefully in Arabella's arms to take back to Lady Catherine while she went to the door to let the chamberlain in. She was smiling like she knew a secret when her son was returned to her.
The chamberlain spent some time with his wife and son but fell asleep in the chair by their bed.
Lady Ysabel made sure the cradle was within Catherine's reach then gently placed the baby in it. She moved close to the bed and whispered.
"You all need sleep, when he wakes you need to feed him from your breast."
"I know it is not the done thing for a lady, I also know that many sick infants have survived because of their mother's milk."
"Is he sick?"
"No, and we want him to stay healthy, do we not? We shall talk again in the light of the day."
Lady Catherine's eyes began to droop, Ysabel gathering their things together and lead Arabella out. Had it not been for a guard on patrol they would have thought they were the only people to be awake.
No words passed between them until they were safely back in their room.
"Oh my child, you were wonderful, I could not have asked anymore of you this night. Mother would have been so proud."
"Indeed she would, people for miles around turned to her for help delivering their babies. Some of her practices were unpopular but they worked. She passed her knowledge on to me and there are many mothers and children who would not be alive were it not for those skills. Tonight you took your first step along that path, even if it is your only step she would be pleased."
This was the most Arabella could recall her mother saying about her grandmother. She smiled, it turned into a yawn.
"Yes, we are both desperately in need of sleep."
She took off her cloak, Arabella followed. Ysabel wrapped her in a hug and climbed into bed without letting go. It had been a long time since they had cuddled like this. She fell asleep in her mother's arms.
The next morning she awoke and discovered that she was alone in the bed; in fact there was no sign of Ysabel in the room. Arabella got dressed and went to let some fresh air in. As she opened the shutters the light streamed in from far too high an angle.
"I must have overslept," she exclaimed.
With thoughts of what might happen to someone who fails in her duties to the royals she rushed out and over to her princess's apartments.
"I am sorry for my tardiness," she said upon entering, only to discover that there was no one to hear her.
Her mother and her best friend could be anywhere within the castle, should she go looking or wait for them to find her?
She waited for a short while but there was no way she could just sit there until somebody came. The first place she looked was the terrace, it too was empty. Her next thought was to look in the stables; if their horses were missing she would know they had gone riding.
On her way down she was passing the kitchens and decided they were worth a look.
"Has anyone seen Lady Ysabel or the princess this morning?" she asked.
"Not recently," answered the senior cook. "Ysabel did say we would likely find her with Lady Catherine if we needed her."
"Thank you," said Arabella and hurried off.
She got to the door and tapped on it, no one came. She rapped louder yet still no one came; could they be out?
After a third, louder try she let herself in and saw not only her mother but princess Helene and queen Isolda too.
"Your highness I apologize for failing in my duties, I overslept."
"My dear girl, after your exploits last night no one can blame you for sleeping in this morning," Queen Isolda replied.
"I do," Helene responded. "But only because I have had to wait to hear all of the details. I wish that I could have been with you to see it."
"Arabella thank you," said Lady Catherine. "You were so good to help, and the way you looked after my son I know that when your time comes you will make a wonderful mother."
Arabella was speechless. She glanced at her own mother whose cheeks had a flush of colour.
Lady Catherine gestured for her to take over and passed her son across. Arabella cautiously took him; her eyes were drawn to the peaceful look upon his face. He opened his eyes and stared up, Arabella had a strange feeling in her tummy and felt tears forming.
"You really are a natural," Helene said.
Arabella who had lost herself in the moment looked up to see all three ladies with broad smiles.
"Nothing," Queen Isolda stated.
They stayed with Lady Catherine a little longer to admire her son. Isolda and Ysabel were the first to leave; Helene and Arabella were all set to follow. Before they made it to the door Lady Catherine beckoned them over.
"You did me a great favour when you helped bring my son in to the world."
"Really, it was nothing, I just did as I was asked."
"That is not how I see it and I wish to repay your favour. If you would wish it I would like to plait your hair into a style more befitting of a lady of court, something similar to our princess's style."
Feeling unsure, Arabella sought the guidance of Helene. The pleading gaze of her friend was impossible to ignore.
"That would be nice."
"It is settled then. I cannot do it now, for my child needs to be fed. Come by later and it will be my pleasure to transform your hair."
The two children left the room and wandered through the castle talking. To begin with Helene wanted to know every detail of Arabella's involvement in the birth. When there was nothing more to be said about that she surprised her friend with talk of her own future.
"I would like two children at the very least. A boy to be the heir to the throne and a girl to be princess. You and I would raise them and school them, just like my mother and Lady Ysabel have done with Gaspar and I."
"You have given this some considerable thought," Arabella commented.
"But of course, such things are important. How many children would you have?"
"It is not something I have given thought to, maybe when I am older."
"Oh Arabella sometimes I wonder about you. So many things that are natural for me seem strange to you, yet when it comes to unconventional things like archery or birthing you show skills beyond your years."
There was no answer that Arabella could give so she shrugged. It was likely that some of the difference was down to her true gender but that was not something she could talk about with anyone apart from her mother.
They continued to walk around and some time later they found themselves back at Lady Catherine's door. Helene knocked softly and it was Catherine herself who answered and bade them to enter.
"He is sleeping now so your timing is good. Please sit over there in the light."
She brought a bowl of scented water and with just her hands she worked it into Arabella's hair. Helene looked on with interest as she had only felt this being done to her.
By the time Catherine was done with the water Arabella was so relaxed that she had closed her eyes. Helene knew exactly how that felt. The feeling got even better when she started brushing Arabella's hair; it may have lasted a few moments or it may have been hours, Arabella neither knew nor cared.
Lady Catherine had been plaiting the back of her hair for several moments before Arabella even realised.
"What do you think Princess?" she asked as she was close to finishing.
"Astounding, does it take as much work when you do my hair?"
"At least as much, your hair is a little longer and the style more complex, as befits royalty."
She became silent, as if she were deep in thought, and stayed that way for a short while.
"Princess, the next time I attend to your hair I shall employ a simpler style, something that Arabella should be able to produce and demonstrate it to her."
"But Lady Catherine, I have not the skill to replace you," said Arabella, fully alert again.
"That is true and it is not what I was suggesting. As the princess's lady you will be her travelling companion and being able to attend to her hair will be of importance."
"I could not do it justice."
"Do not fret, it will not be difficult. It will be something stylish and elegant that you can maintain on your journeys."
"I have faith in you," Helene said.
Arabella hoped her faith would not prove to be misplaced.
"Let us not forget the task in hand," said Lady Catherine.
While the discussion had gone on she had completed Arabella's first ever plait, tied it off and arranged the remaining loose hair.
"It is quite a transformation," Helene commented.
"May I see?" asked Arabella.
"Unfortunately there is no good way to show you the back of your own head. You will have to rely on the opinions of others," Lady Catherine replied.
"It looks perfect," Helene said. "Come, let us find Lady Ysabel and my mother and enquire of them."
Arabella gave her thanks for Lady Catherine's patience and effort. The two girls left her to her own devices and went off to find their mothers.
While out for a ride Arabella gets a chance to test her skills but someone in their party seems to have a problem with her.
In the few steps back to Helene's side she heard, "It is just as I thought." Something in the back of her mind knew that it was aimed at her.
"Someone needs to learn some respect," Helene said in a voice only Arabella could hear. "That man has been making disparaging remarks the whole time."
"Well it is not like I gave a good display."
"Trust me there was more to it than that."
Summer was fast approaching and there was a new cause of excitement for Helene.
"Truly, I may join the hunting party this year? I cannot wait!"
Arabella on the other hand was slightly less enthusiastic. It was not the thought of doing an unfamiliar activity that bothered her; it was spending such a time around strangers and people like Lord Barkstone.
It got worse when Lady Ysabel explained how things were at the place they used as their encampment. Many years ago it had been a fortification that was the envy of all around it but the advent of siege weapons and other advances had made it vulnerable. Serving as a summer palace was its only purpose and it was woefully short of fitting quarters. The king and queen would get the best of what was on offer, next would come visiting dignitaries. If they were lucky, lords and ladies would be given tent space within the stone walls, the remainder would have to take their chances on the land which surrounded the once grand castle.
"Where do you usually rest Lady Ysabel?" Arabella asked when, if she had stopped to think she already knew the answer.
"I have not been there since the year of Helene's birth; I do not believe there is a place set aside."
"What of the place Lady Catherine would occupy?"
"She may be staying here to tend to her son but the chamberlain does still have to attend."
Helene, sensing her friend's concern turned to Arabella.
"Wherever I rest there shall be a place for you."
"Thank you," Arabella replied, at the same time wondering if it was such a good idea for her to spend two whole weeks in such close contact to the princess.
Lady Ysabel roused her from her thoughts.
"Where we stay will be resolved in time, there are things for which our preparations must begin now. Come, there is someone who waits for us on the terrace."
They followed her down not knowing quite what to expect.
Waiting for them was a man with curly hair, and that was as much as either girl noticed about him for their eyes were drawn to the bird perched on his wrist. Its yellow eyes stared at them one by one and then its focus changed completely. They looked on with awe as the magnificent creature took to the sky and circled the open area then returned to the man's wrist and appeared to peck at its own foot.
"What is it doing?" Arabella asked.
"Didn't you see her take the meat from the lure?" Ysabel replied and pointed to a boy across the courtyard with a length of twine in his hands. Arabella shook her head.
"Perhaps we will be able to have another demonstration later. Come; let us meet with the falconer."
As they approached the bird would stare at them then pull another strip of meat off and eat it.
"Good day to you Hugo."
"Good day Lady Ysabel and to you, your highness. You must be Lady Arabella, I am Hugo, master falconer and I shall be teaching you how to handle hawks."
"Will we be allowed birds like that one?" Helene asked.
"No your highness, but Hora has the perfect temperament and we want you to be calm in the presence of a larger hawk."
"She is truly magnificent," said Arabella.
"She is one of my best. Which one will be the first to have her on their arm?"
They each had a turn to pull on the thick glove and have Hora sit on their wrist. Apart from her head which was constantly checking her surroundings she remained still.
It was as if both girls had been enchanted by the bird of prey for neither took their eyes off her, even as they listened to Hugo's advice.
When the end of their first lesson came Helene was wondering if she could master the skill before the hunt. Arabella was wondering whether Aron might be allowed to apprentice with Hugo because falconry looked to be a thoroughly worthwhile trade.
The rest of the day passed quietly by. Arabella completed her duties and made her way back to Lady Ysabel's quarters. She had prepared herself for bed by the time Ysabel appeared; there were things on her mind.
"Child, before you settle for the night there are details you must know of the upcoming hunt."
"Will we be in a tent outside the walls?"
Ysabel subdued a laugh.
"That may prove to be the least of your worries. I must tell you the primary reason for Helene's inclusion a year early is to meet another suitor. He will be accompanying his parents. While most people will be pursuing the stag, Princess Helene and Prince Dariun will be pursuing something entirely different."
"I see. What if he proves to be as loathsome as Hendrick?"
"Mercifully I do not think that is likely. If he and Helene do not get along we will feign illness or injury. Wherever she goes you will be by her side."
"I trust that you do."
Ysabel hugged Arabella and wished her sweet dreams as she tucked her into bed.
Helene and Arabella felt as if they had plenty of time to prepare but, before they knew it the first day was only a week away. They had learned the basics of how to hunt with kestrels and hoped it would be enough. They tried their best to get some extra riding in, but that was easier said than done when an escort was always required.
Gaspar took the opportunity to indulge in a little gentle teasing.
"What an impression you will make when you are introduced to the prince from the place you have fallen," he said.
"Do not joke Gaspar, I can see it coming true," Helene replied.
"You worry too much my dear sister. Whilst I would not suggest you become a knight you do well enough on horseback that you should have no concerns. Is that not so, Lady Arabella?"
"I must agree with Prince Gaspar, you are a fine rider, I am the one more likely to be an embarrassment," said Arabella.
Helene looked dumbfounded.
"That is nonsense," she said once she had regained her composure.
Arabella continued. "I am not a strong rider, I have limited hunting skills, I am the least experienced lady in the kingdom which has once lead me to question my king's wisdom and another time to offend a prince."
"You have yet to offend me," Gaspar added with a smile.
"I would not replace you," said Helene. "That you are not a fast rider or a skilled hunter means little. You have been by my side when I needed someone; that is what counts."
Helene took Arabella's hand then moved to hug her. Gaspar saw it as an opportunity to take his leave before they attempted to hug him too.
That afternoon they went to the stables to see if they might be able to ride with a detachment of the guard one last time before the preparations for the hunt moved into high gear.
To their surprise and Arabella's delight Robert appeared at the head of the group.
"Does this mean that you plan an archery practise this day?" she asked.
"Indeed it does, Lady Arabella and I have a bow you can use."
"That would be wonderful as my bowfingers itch terribly."
"I do miss our sessions but I am sure that when you both return from the hunt they will resume," he replied.
"I do hope so; while I do enjoy working with the birds I find archery has greater appeal."
Someone in the group of men gave a derisory snort. Arabella could not tell where the noise had come from but judging by Robert's reaction he knew exactly.
All of the guard climbed onto their horses while Helene and Arabella received assistance to get into the saddle. They knew how to board their mounts without help but were taught only to do it when there was no other way.
The trip out into the countryside was a brisk one, the girls requested they go no slower than a trot and the entire riding party was happy to oblige.
The city was some miles in the distance when they allowed the horses to rest and take a drink.
There was the noise of a bowstring release and everybody turned around. An arrow arced away from them and landed in at empty pasture.
"I thought we should start with some barrage archery," Robert advised. "Five arrows, as quick as you can, all landing upright beyond my marker."
As the first three lined up for their attempt Arabella sidled up to Robert.
"Might I be allowed to try this?"
"It is not something I would usually ask a lady to do but if it is your will to, go ahead. I would suggest only three arrows as you are not practised at this, watch the others and if you are sure you can join the last group."
Helene moved alongside as Arabella watched the first volley arc through the sky.
"Are you really going to try that?" she asked.
"I think I am."
"If there ever comes a time when my skill is needed to defend the castle I would like to know my limits."
Helene let Arabella's words sink in.
"Do you really think that time will come?" she asked.
"No, I cannot imagine anyone would be so bold," Arabella replied.
The second group moved into position.
Helene could not think of a response so she watched the archers in silence.
There were a few murmurs from the guard when Arabella joined the last group.
She raised her bow in unison with the others and loosed her first arrow. It sailed upward while she reached for her second and fell to earth as she was ready to release, it landed well short, she reacted by pulling back harder on the string and praying that would be enough. There was just one arrow left now, she grabbed it and got ready to send it skyward. Her second arrow had struggled to just beyond Robert's marker, she needed to try something different. She thought, 'If I lower my trajectory there is a good chance of getting the extra distance, I shall risk the arrow landing flat.' Carrying thought into deed she loosed her last arrow and tracked its flight. Sure enough it went the furthest of all her attempts, it was debatable whether it went in upright but it certainly didn't land flat like she had feared.
In the few strides back to Helene's side she heard, "It is just as I thought." Something in the back of her mind knew that it was aimed at her.
"Someone needs to learn some respect," Helene said in a voice only Arabella could hear. "That man has been making disparaging remarks the whole time."
"Well it is not like I gave a good display."
"Trust me there was more to it than that."
Robert drew their attention before they could comment any further.
"We are having a target race next, one rider up either side of the lane, locate and shoot the red sandbags. Each is the size of a turnip and may be anywhere from the ground up to shoulder level."
The first pair got into position, the rest of them stood behind working out when they would go.
"Princess, you should ride with me when I check the accuracy of the first riders, it will then fall to them to look out for you while I check the rest. Lady Arabella you will find this a much more worthwhile exercise."
"Very well," she said.
She joined the men getting ready for their turn and watched as the first two raced off with Robert and Helene following at a more reasonable pace.
Each pair went in turn and when the last but one had lined up Arabella approached the one she would be riding against.
"I shall take the left side," he said.
"So you do not see your age as a big enough advantage and wish to make me tie myself in knots to shoot when you can see I am already facing left, that is hardly fair."
"What is not fair is that you waste everyone's time maintaining that you are somewhat skilled with a bow. I shall defer the left to you if you agree to make a small wager. If you lose you will not pick up a bow again."
"And if you lose?"
"I shall be put on garderobe duty for a month."
"I accept, however I shall ride on the right, I do not want to be accused of unfairness."
They lined up to the start without taking their eyes off each other. Arabella hooked one leg over the pommel of her saddle.
"I am ready to put you in your place," she said.
"And what place is that?" he replied.
They both took off up the lane, Arabella concentrated on spotting the sandbags; her opponent kept glancing across.
There was one on a low tree branch, got it, and another in the hedgerow, got that, the next one should be on the ground, there, got it.
The horses ran side by side, the riders were together arrow for arrow too. Their race was almost over and they still could not be separated.
Arabella aimed at what must be the last target, released and... Missed! Should she slow down and take a second shot or try to finish front?
In a single moment she turned and fired back towards the elusive target, it was actually a better shot this way; her arrow pierced the centre of the bag. She turned back knowing she had forfeited her chance to make that man eat his words. It was no more than half a horses length between them but that was enough, just a nose was enough. Why had she agreed to his foolish wager? What a hot-headed thing to do, now her choice was to give up an activity she loved or show that her word meant nothing.
The man in question started celebrating before he had reached Robert and the others.
"I would not be rejoicing just yet Tomas, what if you have missed a target? You would not be the first person of the day to have a miss against your name," Robert warned.
Tomas was less jubilant but still had a smug look on his face.
Arabella wanted the whole matter over, as she waited for Robert to confirm her fears she went to seek comfort with Helene and tell of her stupidity.
"Whatever possessed you to make such a wager?"
"I let him goad me into it, first with a prince and now with a guard, I cannot even trust myself to remain calm."
"I shall tell Robert right now, you cannot be held to that wager."
"If you do that my word will mean nothing."
At that point Robert started to give his verdict.
"Tomas, you shot ten times, Arabella for you the count is eleven. You have ten hits, Tomas you have nine."
"You missed your final target," Robert stated.
"I do not believe it."
"Come, I will show you."
Robert took him over and pointed out the target then his arrow off to the side.
"I do not understand. I never miss."
"Everybody misses at some time, on this occasion that miss was somewhat created by the placement of the last target. Its position was such that you would have the dilemma of slowing down or finding another shot."
Tomas wasn't the only person in a state of shock; Arabella could not believe that she had escaped her fate.
On the ride back to the castle no one spoke. Arabella had no intention of voicing the thoughts flying round her head and it appeared that everyone else felt the same.
They arrived back at the stables where Arabella would have made a swift exit with Helene but Robert stopped her.
"Tomas should know better that to make that wager and you should never have thought about accepting. This time his competitive streak got the better of him. Next time you may not be so fortunate."
"How did you know?"
"I have not always had rank, there was a time when I was much like Tomas is now," Robert said.
"I find that hard to believe," said Helene.
"Thank you princess, but it is true. Now we all have other business to take care of so we shall say no more about the entire affair."
The last few days flew by for Arabella who had the princess's belongings to organize as well as her own, Lady Ysabel helped with some things but her time was limited also.
It almost came as a relief when the day to ride out arrived; anything that they did not have now would remain in the castle until they returned.
The Princess and Arabella followed as their travelling trunks were carried through the castle and loaded onto one of many carts.
It was not just carts that stood in the open area between the keep and the main gate, there were loaded pack animals, horses awaiting their riders and what looked like every guard in the castle was waiting too.
Arabella could not think of a time when it had been more chaotic than now. There must have been a method to it all but she could not see it, she was finding it hard enough to figure out a way to get to the stables.
A young man's voice came from just behind them.
"Princess Helene, Lady Arabella, I have your horses waiting, please follow me."
The stable lad lead them no more than a few paces to where Starfireand Moonshadow were saddled and ready, completely unfazed by the hustle and bustle going on around them.
With the lad's help they mounted their horses and were lead towards the gate.
"Are we leaving now?" asked Helene.
"No your highness but you need to be here and ready," he said.
Helene resisted the temptation to find out what they were supposed to be ready for.
When a small company of foot soldiers marched into position between them and the castle gate and then they were flanked by guards on horseback they guessed that they were about to find out.
Right on queue they heard a cry of 'make way for the King' and looked behind them to see king Eadric riding towards them, also flanked by guards on horseback. As he made his way over they watched people hurrying to move things and widen his path. Arabella wished she could be as confident as he always was.
"Good morning Helene, Arabella."
"Good morning father."
"Good morning sire."
"I trust we are ready for a day in the saddle," he said and grinned.
"Right then, let us get these people moving."
At once the foot soldiers began to march, a rank of horse guards followed, Eadric went next and Helene and Arabella slotted behind him.
Passing through the gate was like crossing into another world, unlike the previous time everyone had stopped what they were doing and many of them were cheering. Arabella wanted to ride back into the castle and hide but did not dare to even look back.
The ride through the city streets seemed to take forever and every eye was on her so she tried to stare ahead.
Helene leaned over to her.
"For heaven’s sake smile, with a face like that not only will you sour the milk, you will frighten the cows too."
Arabella could not keep a straight face.
"Do these crowds not affect you?" she asked Helene.
"A little, they are our people though, without them we are nothing."
As Arabella glanced around, trying not to stare into space, she caught sight of someone familiar standing on the street but when she looked back all she could see was the back of some robes disappearing into an alley.
Everyone was much happier once they passed through the gates and left the city behind. Arabella was no longer being observed, Helene was relishing the adventure she was beginning, the guards could relax a little with the confining city streets behind them and Eadric could spend some time with his daughter.
High above them an eagle called to its mate.
"It will be a good year," Eadric stated.
"How can you be so sure father," Helene responded.
"The weather has been perfect, the streams are healthy, the forests verdant, look at the hillsides."
"You don't sound convinced," he said.
"It is not that, this is my first hunt, what if I perform badly," said Helene.
"There will be plenty to go round. But that is not what concerns you, is it."
Helene remained silent so Eadric glanced at Arabella. The look on her face removed any doubt the king had that he was on the right track.
"Helene, you will do fine, everything is in your favour this time. There will be no strange customs or royal inquisitions, I will not allow it. You will ride with us and you will hunt with hawks and if there is time to spare you may talk to the prince. If you like each other then that is something we can work on, if you do not then we all go home."
"Oh daddy, what if there is no one who gets along with me?"
"Then my dear we find a friendly dragon and strike a bargain with him to keep you as his hostage until someone worthy comes along to rescue you."
Helene may not have seen the funny side but Arabella was struggling to contain her laughter.
"I am glad someone got the joke," Eadric said as he glanced at his pouting daughter.
"Sire that is the funniest thing I have heard all year," Arabella said while giggling. "You know that within days she would have captivated the dragon and sent it on errands for her."
Helene finally saw the humour and joined the giggling.
"So Arabella would I be correct in thinking that you do not share my daughter's misgivings?"
"She knows I do not think she has anything to worry about," Arabella replied.
Helene chimed in saying, "that is because she fears she will be the one making mistakes."
"Girls. I do not think I shall ever understand them," Eadric said to no one in particular. "At such times I am glad I only have one daughter."
Time passed quickly as they chatted and before they knew it a shadowy structure appeared on the horizon.
"There it is, our summer home," said King Eadric.
Arabella was underwhelmed and Princess Helene was not particularly impressed either.
It just looked like an old, dark, ruined castle and the closer they got the worse it looked. Part of one wall was missing, ivy was attacking the others and a tree appeared to be growing out of a large crack.
Some men were erecting tents outside the walls and the thought crossed Arabella's mind that being consigned to sleep in one might be preferable to staying inside the ruins, they looked like they would stay upright longer.
"Barkstone! I did not expect you to be here," the King called as they approached the gap in the wall.
Arabella saw her nemesis standing by a cluster of tents inside the walls, she did not take her eyes off him but he paid her no attention.
"Sire I came in the stead of the chamberlain, he wished to make sure his wife was coping before joining us. I have made the usual preparations."
"Good. Can you have someone tend to the horses while I perform my customary inspection?"
"Of course Sire."
The whole group dismounted and followed Eadric around the perimeter in silence. Helene and Arabella exchanged perplexed glances and gestures but stayed with everyone. It was not until they got to the area set aside for preparing the meals that the king pronounced, "All is in order."
There was a sigh of relief and the group dispersed leaving Helene and Arabella alone with King Eadric.
"Let us go inside," he said.
"Is it safe?" Helene asked, echoing Arabella's thoughts.
"Quite safe, it is only the side wall that is crumbling the rest of the castle is sound."
Reassured they went through a doorway and along a dark corridor.
"This is where your mother and I will sleep; you are down here with Gaspar in the next chamber."
"And what of Arabella?"
"She will be outside sharing a tent with Lady Ysabel."
Helene seemed troubled by the news but did not say anything. She made sure that her trunk had been placed in her room but she had no wish to spend much time in there during daylight because it only had two windows, not much bigger than defensive slits.
Back out in the sun they made it their quest to find out which tent Arabella would be using.
"I hope it is one of these," Helene said, pointing out the tents closest to her room.
"I will be glad if it is any within the walls," Arabella replied.
Lord Barkstone would know which tent was which but he was nowhere to be found. Something which Arabella was not particularly sorry about.
They asked a few of the people wandering between the tents if they knew, none of them did but two pointed to a man standing on the rubble where many years ago the wall had fallen.
From the ground near the pile Arabella called up.
"Sir, can you tell me which tent I am in?"
"No, I cannot, will you people stop bothering me, I have a job to... My apologies your highness, I did not see you there."
"That is quite alright. Can you tell my Lady in waiting where she is to stay or should we find someone else to bother?"
"I am sorry your highness and your ladyship, I do not have tent allocations, my role is to make sure that only those staying inside the walls may pass."
"Can you at least tell me which side of the walls I am to be?" Arabella asked.
"Let me see."
He pulled at a piece of vellum and ran his finger down it.
"I know you are not Lady Ysabel, are you Lady Arabella?"
"I am, does that mean I am on your list?"
"It does, that is good, I would have taken no pleasure in having you removed," he said.
Under her breath Helene said, “I would have liked to see you try."
Arabella put her hand to her mouth to cover the fit of giggles she was having. She managed to get a 'thank you' out but had to walk away. Helene had a gleam in her eye but was able to subdue her own laughter.
Instead of continuing their search both girls climbed up to the battlements and stood watching for the arrival of the group that Isolda and Ysabel were in.
A butterfly fluttered past and landed a few feet away, it was a welcome distraction for the short time it was with them. Eadric also joined them; he didn't say a word he just stood behind Helene with both hands on her shoulders. Maybe he was recalling some of the tender moments he had shared with his daughter in her younger days.
He kissed Helene on the top of her head and left them both to their thoughts.
They were gazing towards the mountains when they heard it, a faint whinny and the sound of hooves. Moments later the procession began to appear out of the trees: guards on foot, guards on horseback, the queen, the prince, Lady Ysabel, attendants, more guards and finally more carts and pack animals than either of them could imagine.
When her mother was close enough to see it Helene gave a little wave and in response Isolda held her hand aloft. Arabella also waved but Ysabel's reply was more guarded than her queen's had been.
The entourage was quite close now and Helene was in a rush to greet her mother properly. No one knew how she negotiated the steps down at the speed that she did; it was a feat Arabella had no plans to copy.
"Oh mother I thought you would never arrive," said Helene as she walked alongside.
"I am here now my child, give me a moment to dismount."
While Isolda and Helene went inside together Arabella waited for Lady Ysabel.
"Child, do you know which tent we are in?"
"I only know we are staying within the walls."
The chamberlain had just arrived and he overheard their conversation.
"We are in one of these tents so that if our royal family needs us we can attend to their need straight away."
Arabella gave him a peculiar look.
"He does not mean we are all in the same tent," Ysabel responded.
"Heavens no, I am a married man," said the Chamberlain.
Arabella looked relieved.
They founded their tent at the third attempt, Arabella's trunk was already inside and at the end of something the girl assumed was her bed. It seemed little more than a piece of sack between two strips of wood. She tested it with one hand and carefully sat down.
"You will get used to it," Ysabel said. "It is surprisingly comfortable once you do."
Arabella found that hard to believe but chose to reserve judgement until she'd spent a night in one. She went to check her trunk but was stopped.
"There will be time for that later, now we must attend to our charges and make sure that they are ready for this evening's feast."
"How can we feast when nothing has been caught yet?"
"How could anyone hunt on an empty stomach? There will be the usual food until something is caught and prepared. We should go."
Ysabel walked out of the tent and Arabella followed. When they got to the princess's door they heard talking, it sounded like queen Isolda was still with her. Ysabel rapped on the door, which like the rest of the castle had seen better days.
"It is ladies Ysabel and Arabella, your highness," she called.
"You may enter." Came the reply.
When Arabella walked in she noted the princess was looking shifty. Similarly Ysabel noticed a look of innocence on Isolda's face, it was something that she had last seen when they were growing up and meant she had something to hide.
She would have to confront her about it, but not now, the time for questioning would come, now was the time for feasting.
What will be in store for Helene and Arabella on their first full day at the hunt?
Bright sunlight crept over the castle like a cat stalking its prey. The thick material of Ysabel and Arabella's tent shielded them from most of the light but all it needed was a seam, a small opening of any kind and it could make its way in.
Arabella opened her eyes just long enough to register that it was time for her to get up, she stretched, opened them fully and saw a figure, sat across from her.
"Good morning mo.. Lady Ysabel."
It had taken her a few moments to realise where she was.
Ysabel moved from her bed and perched on the end of Arabella's."
In a whisper she said, "My child you must be more careful, it is not like the castle where solid walls separate us, here anybody could be walking by. Imagine if Lord Barkstone had heard!"
A look of fear on her face, her response was barely audible even to Ysabel. "I am sorry mother," she whispered.
"I know you are sweetheart," Ysabel replied in reassuring tones. "It is an unfamiliar situation, it will take time to adjust.”
She reached over and gave her a much needed hug.
"Let us get dressed and check on our royal charges."
When she entered the princess's room Arabella could tell that something was wrong. Helene could not keep still, which made it rather awkward for the attendant to finish dressing her.
"You can go now Sarah."
The girl seemed relieved. "Yes Lady Arabella, thank you Lady Arabella."
'I must remember to talk to her and persuade her to be less formal,' Arabella thought. She turned back to the matter in hand.
"What is the matter Princess, I cannot recall a time I have seen you act so."
"Prince Dariun will be arriving later and I am not prepared, I may not even be worthy. What if I say or do something ridiculous?" said Helene.
"Even more ridiculous than what you are doing now?" said Arabella.
"You do not seem to understand, this is important I must get it right for myself and the kingdom."
"I wonder what the sentence would be for slapping a hysterical princess," said Arabella.
Helene's jaw dropped, she stood and stared.
"You would strike me in my hour of need?"
"If you needed it I definitely would, there are many unpleasant things I would do to stop you causing harm to yourself."
Helene’s mouth moved like a goldfish as she tried and failed to find the right words.
Arabella continued. "Every time you think about meeting a prince, the real you locks herself away and sends a halfwit instead."
"Is that how you see me, as a halfwit?"
"No I see you as my dearest friend and I see you letting matters which you cannot control to weigh down upon you. I can understand you getting nervous when you meet a stranger but I cannot watch you torture yourself like this. I will have to ask to be relieved from my duties."
It wasn't just Helene who was shocked; Arabella had shocked herself with her last statement. Where that sentiment had come from she had no idea.
"You would really do that?" Helene said.
"I would consider it," she said with a heavy heart.
Helene turned away. Arabella hoped she had not angered her.
Arabella reached out for Helene's shoulder.
Helene turned back to face her, there were tears in her eyes.
"I do not want to lose you but, I do not know how to conquer my fears. Can you.. Will you help me?"
"I will do anything within my power," Arabella replied.
"If you do need to slap me back to sense I will allow it although I would prefer it only as a last resort."
Arabella giggled. "I promise that if I do it you will deserve it; however we should not dwell on that. I hope you are calm enough to finish dressing."
Helene nodded and Arabella made the adjustments so she looked more like a princess and less like a servant trying on the fine dress of her mistress.
They left the room holding hands and with an even stronger bond between them.
Outside Queen Isolda was lacking her usual calmness but with good reason.
"Where is that husband of mine, he said it would only be a short ride."
"You know he will be here in time for our visitor’s arrival," said Ysabel.
"Yes, he has that ability to arrive just in time, although it would be nice if he got here before they did, I have no wish to make excuses," said Isolda. "I do not begrudge him this opportunity; I know how seldom he has the chance to spend time with Gaspar."
Ysabel glanced across.
"I know the real reason you are concerned, you want things to go smoothly with King Oswald and Prince Dariun."
She dropped to a whisper and continued, "I can almost see where Helene gets her nerves from."
A frown crossed Isolda brows but disappeared as she looked at Ysabel and in a whisper of her own replied, "It is a good job I trust you not to repeat that."
Before they had a chance to continue, Helene and Arabella appeared next to them.
"Ah, here you are, with plenty of time to spare," Isolda said. "We must find you something to do until our visitors arrive. We cannot have them thinking the entire kingdom has been waiting for them."
"Should we go off for a short ride?" suggested Helene.
Lady Ysabel made a coughing noise as she suppressed her laughter.
"No, I don't think you need to go for a ride," said Isolda. "We shallget one of Hugh's boys to work with you and your kestrels."
"Very well mother," Helene said.
They left to get their gloves and find a suitable place around the castle to work with lures.
"Arabella was quiet," Isolda said.
"I believe the morning has been something of a challenge for her."
"I do not have all the details yet, just a feeling I got from one of the attendants. If there is anything important I will make sure that you know about it," Ysabel said.
"I know you would not keep anything from me without good cause," Isolda replied.
She had not expected any response from Ysabel so when she remained silent Isolda saw nothing suspicious in that.
Across the grounds of the old castle the two girls had struggled to find a suitable place; if the ground was not occupied with tents then it was piled high with barrels or crates.
There were spaces by some of the walls but neither the girls nor the falconer's apprentices wanted to risk one of the birds crashing into any stonework.
"Could we do it from atop the walls?" Helene suggested.
"I am afraid not, your highness, Prince Gaspar got us banned from the battlements," said one of the boys.
"My brother! How did he manage that?"
There was a gleam in Helene's eye.
"We were doing lure work when he decided to climb on the wall for extra height. The guards were in a quandary, there was a good chance he might fall, yet they dare not risk grabbing him. It took the intervention of the queen and by the time she arrived at least a dozen men were trying to get him down. So not only had he risked his own life but he had distracted half the guard from their duties."
In Arabella's mind that was not so different to the event that got her in trouble as Aron. She tried not to be bitter about the allowances made for the prince instead she focused on finding somewhere suitable to work their birds.
"There is an area near the gap in the wall," she said.
"Is there? There was none before," Helene replied.
"No; the scouting party that was saddling up have gone, so long as we move aside when anyone comes I do not foresee us creating any conflict."
While they did not cause problems for anyone else, the constant movements through the gap in the castle walls proved to be more tiresome than they had expected. At least there were some skills they could try that made it easier to bear; it was the best that they could manage under the circumstances.
The time passed quickly but it had not reached noon when they got an interruption that they could not ignore, in the midst of the small arriving party of guard were King Eadric and Prince Gaspar.
Once the entire group was within the walls Helene moved to her father's side. His smiling face looked down at her.
"My child I believe you are ready to go out with your bird."
"Do you really think so?" Helene responded, somewhat surprised considering the difficulties they’d had.
"Absolutely, we were watching you as we approached and what a sight it was."
Before any more could be said, queen Isolda appeared.
"At last, you have returned", she said, with a look of relief and exasperation.
"I am sorry my love, we followed some creature into a thicket and only when we emerged could we see how much time had passed, so we rode like the wind to get back," replied King Eadric.
"And not a moment too soon," said Isolda. "Our scout has seen their procession and they will be here forthwith."
"In the time it takes me to change from my riding clothes I shall be ready. Where is the chamberlain?"
He appeared out of nowhere.
"Walk with me. Are all of the final preparations in place?"
"All relief guards are putting on their ceremonial insignia to line the facing walls and approaches. All else is in hand."
"Oncemore your efficiency does you credit."
That was the last they heard as they watched the two of them heading towards the royal quarters.
Isolda turned to her son.
"Gaspar all you need is a clean tabard; someone is fetching it for you now."
She directed her attention to the girls.
"Helene, Arabella, you need to remove the feathers from your hair and give your gloves to the falconer's boys."
They looked at each other and grinned as they picked a few downy feathers from the tops of their heads.
Queen Isolda got a certain satisfaction knowing that for once the tables had been turned and the girls were ready whereas the boys still had to attend to their dress.
The entourage that approached the castle was an impressive sight; the sun reflected off the highly polished armour of the soldiers who were flanked by standard bearers holding vivid purple banners aloft. Behind them were some of the largest horses Arabella had ever seen.
"Magnificent animals," Arabella said.
"Don't let them fool you," Gaspar responded. "Underneath the silver nose guards they are little more than well cared-for farm horses. They possess neither the speed nor the agility of our best."
In a quiet voice Helene said, "He is right but, that does not make them any less of a sight to behold."
Arabella nodded and continued to watch. There was something different about the middle rider; he held himself with a certain poise and his armour seemed brighter and more elaborately decorated.
"Is that King Oswald," she whispered.
"It must be," Helene replied.
Another rank of horses came into view behind the first, they were of a more regular size and their riders were a woman in a luxurious blue dress, and an adolescent boy and girl who from their looks were brother and sister. If that was not the king and this was not his family then they were doing a remarkable job of impersonating them.
They passed inside the walls and dismounted one by one. King Eadric made the first approach and greeted his counterpart and then the formal introductions began.
As he moved along the line Arabella got a closer look at the king's armour, she could see it was even more intricately decorated than it had looked at first. She wondered how long it took to create such a detailed thing; it was indeed a worthy skill.
King Oswald spent a few moments in polite conversation with Helene, when he moved on to Arabella he merely acknowledged her presence. She had expected no less, there was no good reason for either the king or queen to talk to her. It took her completely by surprise when the queen made a point of saying a few words to her; unfortunately she was in shock and could not remember anything that had been said.
As the prince was introduced to Helene, Arabella eyed him discretely; he looked to be Gaspar's age and at first glance quite pleasant. An image of Bastian came into her head so she started searching the faces around Prince Dariun, trying to spot his second but, there was no other male his age in sight, could she be safe from more unwanted attention?
He moved past and her attention turned to the visiting princess; Orliana looked like she had stepped out of a storybook, everything about her was perfect. A small part of Arabella hoped the princess would notice her but she did not even acknowledge that she was there.
A few other important people filed past, none of them seemed to show any interest in the princess, let alone Arabella so she returned the favour and did her best to ignore them. With the introductions over, the visitors were lead off to their quarters; a group of rooms on the opposite side of the old keep.
Helene waited until she was sure they were out of earshot.
"I hope he is the one," she said, placing a hand on Arabella's arm.
"You have only just met him," Arabella pointed out.
"I know, I cannot explain it. I already feel as if there is a connection between us, something I never felt for Hendric," said Helene.
"Then we must hope he feels the same way," Arabella replied.
"I do not claim to understand it but for you it feels right, that is good enough. Lord knows you do not need my approval."
"I desire it regardless of whether I need it," said Helene.
Arabella smiled, it was a good feeling to be needed.
Just outside the castle an entirely different conversation was underway in the shadows. A hooded figure was in discussion with two of the hunt's regular patrons.
"Here is the bag of monies, just like we agreed."
"And all you ask of us is to obstruct and interfere?"
"That is all; make things difficult for her, just ensure I am not nearby."
"Of course, do you have anything particular in mind?"
"Be creative and whatever you do be subtle about it, she is popular and if anyone suspected anything I am likely to be one of the first people accused."
"Very well, it shall be done."
"We should not loiter, lest we be seen together. There will be no further contact between us."
"We have not seen you, we do not know you."
"With that attitude you may well find other business comes your way."
And without a single glance back the figure returned to the shadows.
Later that afternoon everyone came together to eat. Arabella sat on one side of Helene with the prince on the other; it was a totally different atmosphere than their encounter with Hendric. Even so, very little was said during the meal, Helene was managing to keep herself calm but she would still have preferred to be somewhere else.
Any answers came by virtue of Arabella’s elbow carefully placed in Helene's side, strangely even though she required prompting she was aware of what was being asked.
Even from his position Dariun seemed completely aware of what was going on and was not fazed by any of it.
Arabella found it hard to believe that any other princess could suffer as badly with nerves as Helene did, yet all she could think was that the prince had seen it before.
By the time the meal was over Helene was not totally reliant on Arabella for her prompts but she was still glad it was over with and the moment they were away from the table she sighed.
"Hopefully our second meeting will be an improvement on our first," she said.
"I do not doubt that," Arabella replied.
"Because it could not be any worse?" Helene asked.
"Because you will get past your nerves," Arabella said and changed the subject. "I did not see anyone with Prince Dariun; does that mean I will not have to worry about a pair of eyes boring into the back of my head?"
"Not on this occasion," Helene replied.
Arabella thought about that for a second.
"I know I shall probably regret asking this but what do you mean ‘on this occasion’?”
"He does have a second, his name is Tristram,” Helen said.
"I see," Arabella replied.
"He is not here because he was not well enough to travel, I’m told it was an accident involving his horse."
Arabella found it hard to suppress a smile as all kinds of strange ways of having an accident with a horse flashed through her mind. She managed to compose herself before she spoke.
"So if Prince Dariun is the one when will I get to meet his shadow?"
"You could at least wait until you actually meet him before you take a dislike to him," Helene said.
Arabella thought back to the conversation she’d had that morning about the princess’s nervousness.
"You are correct; I should give him a chance. Who can tell, there is a possibility that I might not want to see him come face to face with a herd of stampeding cattle," she said.
"Is that the fate you have planned for Bastian?"
"Arabella, sometimes you worry me."
"You thought Hendric was bad, believe me Princess, Bastian was far more of a loathsome creep, the day I can no longer remember his smug face will be a day to celebrate," Arabella stated.
Helene sighed and decided that it was her turn to change the subject.
"It is nearing the time we must prepare for bed; all the worrying I have been doing today has taken its toll on me."
Arabella looked at the princess to make sure she was not being serious, Helene smiled and continued.
"We also have a long day ahead of us tomorrow with it being the first actual day of stag hunting."
"Do we know what we shall be doing tomorrow while the others ride out?" Arabella asked.
"We shall also be out with them."
Arabella managed to disguise the sharp breath she took, although she knew it would happen eventually, she had secretly hoped she would not have to display her lack of riding skills to everybody for as long as possible.
Arabella is an inexperienced rider, how will she cope when she joins the hunt for the first time?
Ahead of her she could see someone jumping the stream, but they were not looking forward, far from it, their gaze was fixed downward.
In the couple of seconds it took to reach the stream curiosity took hold.
'I hope it is worth it,' she thought as her horse leaped and she looked down.
"Watch out," someone shouted.
It was just light when Arabella woke and even Lady Ysabel was still asleep; she listened to her mother breathing then quietly started to get herself ready. When Ysabel did wake it came as something of a surprise to find that Arabella was already dressed and prepared for the day ahead.
"Is something on your mind?" she asked.
"No," Arabella lied.
"You do not need to hide it from me, my child."
She sighed and said, "I am not sure that I am prepared for today's hunt, I have a feeling that something will happen and I will disgrace both myself and princess Helene."
"I cannot see how you would accomplish that," said Ysabel. "No one is expecting you to ride near the front, and if you were to fall you would not be the first nor would you be the last."
Somewhat reassured, Arabella went to prepare herself and Helene for a day in the saddle. The princess still had a few nerves to overcome but she was looking past those and anticipating the ride.
For only the second time in a week Arabella was to be part of an enormous group of riders. She had not realised quite how large until they walked outside and saw upwards of fifty people already mounted up and perhaps the same number again of horses awaiting their riders.
"I did not expect as many as this," she said to Helene. "Maybe it is enough that if I were to make a fool of myself it would go unnoticed."
"Regardless, you have nothing to worry about," Helene replied.
Before mounting their horses Helene and Arabella did all the checks that had become second nature to them. Neither of them had expected to find anything so it came as a surprise to find a particularly prickly seed under the back of Arabella's saddle.
"I do not understand how that got there," she said quietly to Helene.
"It must have been carried on the wind and worked its way out of sight," the princess replied.
"It is possible yet the breeze is so light that it does not seem likely."
"What other explanation is there?"
"Nought else I can think of," said Arabella, putting it out of her mind as they prepared to venture out.
To begin with the pace was quite sedate, it allowed everybody to settle into their riding and gave the trackers time to find suitable prey.
Arabella had started to enjoy her surroundings and had been chatting with Helene and Lady Ysabel when the call came back that the hunt was on.
The whole group sped up and in doing so became strung out across the heathland. Some of the riders behind them now rode past, among them was Lord Barkstone, he looked back at the girls, made eye contact, then returned his attention to joining the lead riders.
All this activity was quite frustrating for Helene who was perfectly capable of riding with anyone. She had wanted to see what happened at the front and actually catch sight of the beast they would pursue, not just follow other horses rumps. Unfortunately that was not to be.
"You shall ride with with your mother," the king had said.
"But father, you know I am a skilled rider, why can I not ride with you?" Helene had replied.
"It was only two summers ago that a man fell from his horse and was trampled underfoot. I will not risk that happening to you."
"Could that not happen to me wherever I ride?"
"Trust me when I say it is not safe. It troubles me enough that Gaspar is at risk, I will not endanger you as well."
So reluctantly she had agreed.
Moving across the heath there were not many obstructions to worry about; occasional thick patches of gorse, streams and ditches. This was just as well for Arabella who was used to riding along well worn paths and lanes but was still a novice when it came to cross country riding.
The group were approaching a ditch which had been created by the force of a stream in flood. In width it was no more than a couple of strides for a horse yet it would need to be jumped to avoid the thick mud that waited out of sight in the stream bed.
'Keep looking forward,' that was what she had been told.
Knowing what was to come she had slowed to give herself more time to adjust and was trailing behind; she urged Moonshadow on.
Ahead of her she could see someone jumping the stream, but they were not looking forward, far from it, their gaze was fixed downward.
In the couple of seconds it took to reach the stream curiosity took hold.
'I hope it is worth it,' she thought as her horse leaped and she looked down.
"Watch out," someone shouted.
Arabella tore her attention away from the ground, her vision was filled by a jet black mare. Even with the way she clung to her own horse's neck it was a miracle that she stayed in the saddle.
"Has no one had the good sense to teach you that you never look down while jumping?" said the rider of the black mare which was now riding alongside.
"I had not expected..."
"And I had not expected my horse to lose her footing in the disturbed ground, or to have someone ride into me."
She wanted to say something but she could tell that whatever her reply was, this man would have yet more to say. As much as it galled her she remained silent and watched the mare's back as made its way forward then concentrated on regaining her place.
The front runners now chased the animal towards the river, convinced that they had given it nowhere to run. Their reactions as it ran into the water were priceless; it was the first anyone knew of a crossing point there.
The horses thundered after it, their hooves kicked up so much water that you could have been forgiven for thinking that the river was under bombardment.
The first group were clear of the water when the rest of the riders got to the river's edge. They dashed straight in, not wanting to get left behind, Helene and Arabella were three quarters of the way across when the unthinkable happened. One of the horses from behind them came between and made Arabella veer off to the side.
"Hey," she called out and tried to get Moonshadow going the right way again.
To her horror he lost his footing and everything was moving is slow motion as she could see herself coming off and floating down the river. Out of nowhere a horse appeared alongside and steadied Moonshadow so he could regain his footing and make his own way out of the water.
Arabella, who had turned white as a sheet, got a chance to look at her rescuer, he was one of the palace guards assigned to look after the queen and the princess. She did not know his name but vowed to change that by the end of the day.
"Thank you," she said, somewhat shakily.
"Thank me later, for now we must ride to stay with our party."
Fortunately it had all happened so quickly that Helene and Isolda were not far in front; just out of the water. Ysabel, whose reactions had been aided by her maternal instincts, was a little closer.
The guard gee'd up his horse and tagged on to the back of the group, Arabella managed to stay right behind him even though she was still in shock.
They made some ground up and had got as far as Lady Ysabel but in the end it was the abandonment of the pursuit that allowed them to fully catch up.
"Why have we stopped?" asked a man ahead of the queen.
"The beast entered the forest," came the reply.
"And we cannot follow?"
"Not if you want to keep your head, the branches are low and the hazards are many."
Helene looked at Arabella, she was still pale.
"I am glad we have stopped," she said. "I need to know that you are unharmed."
"I bear no marks but it will take some time before I can put the event behind me. What was that rider doing?" said Arabella.
One of the guards moved forward.
"Please accept my apologies Lady Arabella, I watched the man start to move around us then he veered into the middle and out again, it was as if he lost control of his horse."
"And has he been questioned yet?" Ysabel asked.
"Do you suspect foul play?" the guard replied.
"Is it not natural to want answers? Especially when one of us almost went floating down the river."
A shiver ran down Arabella's spine.
The time it took for the trackers to regroup and find a new target gave both the horses and their riders some respite. Most took their mounts back to the river for a well earned drink; a few ventured into the water but Arabella was still quite wary and kept strictly to the water's edge. Helene was by her side.
"If you wished to return to the camp no one would hold it against you, not after what has happened. You would not be letting me down," she said.
"Thank you, but I feel as if I have already let you down," Arabella replied."If I were to leave now it would only make me feel worse and what is more, it would require a guard to escort me."
"Do not worry about that," Helene said.
"Thank you my princess but I shall stay."
While their horses finished drinking Arabella glanced around, she had the feeling that somebody was watching. If anyone was then they were being very careful to remain unnoticed. Instead the sight that caught her attention filled her with a whole new set of dread; it was the countess.
It seemed strange that she was in the hunting party but had yet to approach either Helene or the Queen. So once Moonshadow had finished taking his drink Arabella moved away from Helene and sought out her mother.
Quietly and with worry in her voice, she asked, "Did you know that the countess was here?"
"I had not seen her but honestly I would have thought that something was wrong if she was not here," Ysabel replied.
"Perhaps I should return to the camp and in the morning return to the castle," said Arabella.
"Do not fret, this is nothing like her visit you endured last year. At an event such as this she will be unable to have Princess Helene all to herself. There will be moments she will get to spend with Helene but they will be fleeting and you will remain near her."
"But she will simply dismiss me again," Arabella replied.
"As Helene's lady in waiting your duty is to her and to our King and Queen, they decide your fate, not her," said Ysabel.
"That is not a confrontation I would relish."
"Whatever she may think of our family she cannot ignore the will of the King and Queen," Ysabel stated.
"Why does she dislike our family so?" asked Arabella to Lady Ysabel's obvious discomfort.
"It is a complex issue," Ysabel reluctantly replied. She looked around. "The chase is about to resume, we should rejoin the queen and the princess."
Arabella did as she was asked but found herself wondering; Ysabel would not discuss the countess's grudge and she would not talk about her own mother, could the two be connected?
Oncemore they all rode out in pursuit of a wild beast. Every time they got near any water Arabella became restless. It was clear that events earlier in the day were playing on her mind but there was nothing anyone could do to help her.
When the day's hunting had come to an end there was a sense of relief all round. They made their way into the ruins carrying the three boar behind them; a modest showing considering the size and commitment of their party as a whole.
"Will you be alright," Helene asked Arabella who had dismounted gingerly.
"I am sore in places that I did not know I had," Arabella replied.
Deep down she knew the princess was asking about more than just her physical well being, but she was not ready to say anything about that for now.
"If it is allowed I wish to lie down for a short while to recover," Arabella added.
"You must use my chamber," Helene insisted. "It will be cooler and quieter than your tent."
Arabella looked towards the queen and Lady Ysabel, they nodded in agreement so she went with Helene to the old keep to rest.
"She saw the countess shortly after the trouble at the river," said Ysabel.
Isolda sighed. "After almost being swept away, my mother should have been the least of her worries."
"I did tell her that the countess could not dismiss her like she did last year back at the castle. I am unsure whether she has the confidence to oppose her though," Ysabel said.
Isolda thought for a second then voiced her plan.
"I think that tomorrow will be a day to hunt with hawks, it should keep Arabella's mind off riding incidents and off my mother. Once I speak to queen Aster it will also provide a chance for Helene and Dariun to become acquainted."
Ysabel chuckled. "I would say 'killing three birds with but a single stone' but perhaps that would not be the best outcome to aim for when using hawks."
Isolda went off to find her counterpart to arrange the next day's activities. Ysabel joined Helene in the corridors that lead from her bedchamber.
"Will Arabella be alright," the princess asked. "She sounded a little... frail and that is a word I never expected to say of her."
"She has looked into her own mortality, that is something that would affect all but the hardest of people. It may take a day or two but we should see the return of the old Arabella," Ysabel replied.
However she was not as sure of that outcome as her words suggested. Ysabel felt a chill run down her spine as the scene played out in her mind; she knew that childhood and adolescence were not a safe time but being swept away was something that had never entered her mind. Bringing her child to the castle had its advantages, the risk from disease was greatly reduced, but had it simply replaced that risk with less conventional dangers?
Ysabel pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind, she would have plenty of time to consider things once her royal duties had been completed.
A lot of the tension was gone from Arabella when Helene and Ysabel went to get her. Even though she was not quite back to her usual self it was a welcoming sight for them both as they prepared for the day's meal.
They joined their king and queen as well as the visiting royal family at the top table, in front of them was a boar roasting on an open fire.
"That is quick work," said Arabella.
"It isn't from today, I caught a glimpse of them preparing that one when they received the ones we pursued," Helene replied.
Arabella raised her eyebrows.
"So, how did we enjoy ourselves today?" said Dariun.
Even though the question appeared to be aimed at both of them Arabella knew that it was only Helene who was being asked.
"Aside from the incident with my lady in waiting it was a good day riding," said Helene.
"I heard talk of it, a strange set of circumstances."
He turned to Arabella. "I trust all is now well?"
Prince Dariun seemed convinced by her response, Helene was not so sure.
"I am told we shall be working together tomorrow," he said.
Arabella stiffened in her seat.
"Yes, we shall put our hawks through their paces on the edge of the woods," Helene replied.
Slightly reassured that neither water nor horses would be involved, Arabella relaxed a little.
Talk flowed more freely between Helene and Dariun than it had the first evening, she needed no prompting to reply. Isolda watched the proceedings as best she could without making her interest obvious. It was hard to separate all the emotions she was feeling; happiness was one, hope another, pride and worry were joining in too.
The last traces of light were in the sky when Arabella made her way from Helene's bedchamber to her own bed. She had spent the time since they left the meal listening to the princess chatter on about nothing but the prince so the relative quiet of the castle ruins at twilight were music to her ears.
Lady Ysabel was already in the tent and had been waiting for Arabella to appear. Once the flap was secure behind her she found herself swept off her feet.
"My child, I have waited all day for this, it has pained me that my duty came before you, my own flesh and blood," she said as she continued to hold her close.
"Oh mother, I wish to stay this way throughout the night," Arabella replied.
"If only the beds allowed it I would not release my grip until morning."
"I thought I was strong enough but I have relived that moment over and over," Arabella said.
"You are strong," Ysabel countered. "It may have felt like something trivial but what you went through would have had a profound effect on anyone."
As much as they both wished it they could not remain in their embrace until morning. They separated with some reluctance and prepared to sleep. Ysabel kissed her child on the forehead then settled down herself.
Unfortunately neither of them got the full night's sleep that they deserved, Arabella could not escape the memories even in her dreams. Ysabel crouched by her bedside offering gentle reassurance while she whimpered through the worst of her dream.
As the sun rose Ysabel let Arabella sleep; she checked on the queen and the princess but made sure that she got back to the tent to gently wake her 'niece'.
It took a short while for Arabella to be awake enough to realise that it was a later start than she was used to.
"Why did you let me sleep through my duties?" she asked.
"After the night you had it was my belief that you needed a little more time, both the queen and the princess accepted the wisdom of my decision," said Ysabel.
Arabella hurried to get dressed; Ysabel had to slow her down as she rushed to resume her duties. The princess that she joined was fully dressed and prepared for the day ahead.
"I am sorry that I was not here for you," she said.
"Lady Ysabel said you had an interrupted night so you have no need of an apology. I am glad you are here now though, I want to make certain that I look my best for the prince."
Arabella was convinced that the queen and lady Ysabel would have ensured that Helene was ready but she humoured her and went through the motions of checking her appearance.
"I am sure you are ready," she pronounced, thinking it could not be the first time someone had said such words that morning.
They planned to go in search of Hugh but it was he who was waiting for them, flanked by apprentices, both with a bird on their arm. Dariun was also there with a larger, more impressive bird on his.
Hugh supervised the transfer of the birds from his boys to Helene and Arabella then dismissed them and lead the small party outside the walls and on towards the woods.
"I thought this would make a good start for your highnesses," he said as they neared the edge of the woods.
"Are we far enough away from the tents?" asked Dariun.
The girls gave him questioning looks but it was Hugh who responded.
"It is true their noise will disturb some creatures but those that we seek today soon become accustomed to it. Now let us begin."
As they prepared Helene and Dariun started chatting.
"It seems you have done this before," she said.
"I would not call myself experienced but you are correct, this is not my first time," he replied.
"So what other activities do you partake in?"
"Riding through the forests, sometimes I take a small boat out, Tristram and I fight each other and make up heroic tales."
"Who is Tristram?" Helene asked.
"He is my second and my friend. He would be with us today were it not for the fall he had from his horse," Dariun replied.
"Is he going to make a full recovery?"
"There is a chance he will have something of a limp, aside from that he will be right."
That gave Arabella something to think about, 'So he does have a second after all, I wonder what he is like? Already he sounds nothing like Bastian.'
She turned her attention back to Hugh as he talked about the differences between their kestrels and Dariun's hawk. Both Arabella and Helene were gratified to discover that size wasn't everything. Yes Dariun's bird could take larger prey but the kestrel would seem to hang in the air then plummet to the ground to catch its prey unawares.
The time flew by as they worked their birds and talked at the same time. It was the prince and princess who did most of the talking, Arabella did say her piece now and then but the conversation was going well enough that she didn't feel the need to talk more.
It was the return of the day's hunting party that prompted them to move back inside the stone walls. King Eadric was already off his horse and watching his daughter as she handed her kestrel back and made her way towards her bedchamber to prepare.
"Well?" he said as she came over.
"Well what?" she replied.
He glanced over at Dariun who was deep in conversation with his own mother and father.
"Daughter do not be coy with me, you have spent most of the day with the young prince, what thoughts do you have?"
"He is pleasant and when I talk I feel that he is actually listening to me and not treating me like the kind of fool Hendrick did," she said.
The look on her face as she talked told Eadric almost as much as the words that she used.
"I am glad," he said. "Your mother is waiting for you, no doubt she will want to hear every last detail of your day, so do not disappoint her."
Arabella made to leave with Helene but King Eadric bade her to stay.
At first she wondered if she had unwittingly done something to earn the king's displeasure but he swiftly made his true intentions known.
"What is your opinion of the prince, Lady Arabella. Is he all that my daughter says?"
"He is like day following night when a comparison is made to the previous prince, but that is not difficult. Sire you know how her nerves may affect her yet there is little sign of it in his presence."
"Then there is hope indeed, thank you. Please return to her but say nothing of what we have discussed," he said.
"Very well, what would you have me tell her?" Arabella replied.
"Helene is bound to ask and I am unable to lie to her."
King Eadric thought for a mere moment.
"Say that I wanted you to be extra vigilant of the danger of the prince making untoward advances on her."
"Is that likely?" she asked.
"I expect it is the furthest thing from his mind but, as her father it is never too far away from mine. You would not yet understand, perhaps when you bear children."
The mention of children did not affect her the way that they once would have but she still felt uncomfortable at the king's words.
Eadric had one last thing on his mind.
"Am I correct in thinking that you do not find me as intimidating as was once the case?"
"Yes sire. Should I?"
"There is only one reason I can think of for you to fear me but I cannot see you ever hurting my daughter so I am glad of this change. Please go now and be with Helene."
Arabella made her way to the princess's room where she was almost finished reliving the events of the afternoon.
"Ah Arabella, we were wondering how much longer you would be," said Queen Isolda.
"Yes, what did father want with you?" Helene added.
Just like she had been told Arabella repeated the king's concerns about protecting the princess's honour, Helene found the idea to be hilarious, Queen Isolda did not see the funny side, in fact Arabella thought perhaps she knew what was really going on.
For the second evening talk flowed freely between prince and princess. Yesterday whilst recovering from her riding experiences Arabella had been glad of the chance to take a back seat. Today she was grateful that she did not have much to say because her chances to speak came even less often than they had earlier in the day when working with their hawks.
The meal itself was of it's usual high standard; Arabella kept picking at what was on her plate long after her appetite had been satisfied. She still had one ear on the conversation and with most of the mealtime over she found the need to grab Helene's attention.
With a gentle elbow in the princess's side she drew her away from Dariun's gaze.
"What is it?" Helene asked.
"You have begun to gibber," Arabella replied.
"No? Have I?"
"Can you recall what you just said about your brother? You said the exact same thing some moments before."
"I did?" She paused to think. "Yes, you are right I do remember it now, why would i do that?"
"Perhaps you are trying too hard to impress the prince, maybe you should think longer and speak less, at least for tonight lest you wish him to think that once you start talking you do not know when to stop."
Helene looked at her friend.
"You may be correct," she eventually said and did her best to control herself for what remained of the meal.
Later that evening, once the princess was safely in her bed, Arabella made it back to her tent where her mother was waiting for her.
After a quick hug Ysabel dealt with what was uppermost in her mind.
"When earlier you spoke to the king what did he ask you?"
There was a brief moment when Arabella wondered if she would be breaking the king's trust, but upon reflection Lady Ysabel would already know most of it.
"He wanted to hear my thoughts of the prince."
Ysabel interrupted."And you told him that Dariun was a vast improvement over Hendrick but that was not difficult."
"How did you know that?"
"It is a belief shared by many of us so it stands to reason you would say something of that nature"
"Can you deduce what else King Eadric said?" asked Arabella with a smile.
"You know I cannot."
"When I told him that his presence no longer scares me he said he was glad. He went on to say the only way for me to incur his wrath was to hurt his daughter, so what will he do when I leave her side? Will there be no place for me in this kingdom?" said Arabella.
"We will find a way, sometimes we cannot see the path we must take, not until the moment is right," Ysabel replied.
"So I am supposed to look for a way out while I do my duties for a princess who is obsessed with a prince she barely even knows."
"No my child, you are supposed to be you, I am the one who must find the unlikely path."
"I am glad of that as it is enough of a challenge stopping the princess making a fool of herself as she talks to the prince."
"Does Helene seem fine then suddenly talk nonsense?" asked Ysabel.
"Yes, how did know that, have you seen it too?"
"Not in many years."
Arabella frowned. "I do not understand."
The beginnings of a smile formed on Ysabel's face.
"Her mother did the same, it was one of the ways that you could tell. My dear I am afraid she will act in some peculiar ways, it may be hard on you but you need to try to prepare yourself for it."
"I still do not understand, prepare for what?" Arabella was finding this talk in riddles frustrating.
"It sounds as if our princess is falling for her prince."
First Arabella and Helene are part of a most peculiar meeting with the women from the other kingdom, and then less than a day later -
"... you will need all your wits about you today." "Why is that?" "Today we rejoin the hunt." The look on Arabella's face was definitely one of slight anxiety now. "Your second hunt will be much easier than your first," Ysabel said.
Morning broke over their encampment much the same as any other. Arabella joined Helene in her room wondering what would be expected of them on this fine summer's day. She felt that there was something different about her friend this morning but she could not put her finger on what it was.
If anyone would have spotted it she would have expected it to be Helene's own mother but Queen Isolda seemed to be oblivious.
"Today we shall confine ourselves inside the walls of our summer home," she said.
"Does danger lie beyond them?" asked Arabella. Helene was similarly perturbed.
"No, it is nothing like that, while the men go off and hunt the womenfolk shall spend the day in each others company."
"Where will this take place and who will it involve?" asked Helene.
"We shall be out in the place where we take our meals and it will be everyone here now and the same number again," the queen replied.
A part of Arabella wondered if the imagined danger would be preferable, she did not know who the other 'womenfolk' would be but she definitely did not like the sound of it.
As they moved outside Arabella managed to exchange a few words with Lady Ysabel.
"Is this where the countess gets to stir things up?"
"The countess? Whatever she is doing it is happening on the outside of the walls."
"Who are the other people then?"
"It is Queen Aster, Princess Orliana and their ladies."
It took Arabella a few moments to work it through in her head, these people would only have a passing interest in her, the event had to be for Helene's benefit. That made things a little less daunting than she had originally thought but it still left her with a feeling of unease as they entered the area they used for their meals.
She had expected them to head straight for the top table and to use the high-backed ceremonial chairs, but to her surprise Queen Isolda went around the nearest long table and sat on a bench with her back to it.
Helene sat down beside her mother, Ysabel took her place on the other side of the queen, Arabella recognized the signs and moved to be next to the princess.
Not a word passed between them as they waited, finally Helene, who could stand the silence no longer, spoke.
"How long must we wait?"
"Patience my child, they could join us at any moment. They have responsibilities of their own to take care of, we cannot expect them to march to the beat of our drum even when it is our kingdom that they are visiting," replied Isolda.
"Of course not, I am sorry."
"Today you are most definitely your father's daughter, he cannot abide a long wait either."
Helene would have liked to have heard more of the similarities between herself and her father but before she could ask she saw movement.
It was not the royal party they had been expecting but a single messenger wearing the crest of King Oswald .
"Their royal highnesses will be with you presently, they apologize for the inconvenience that this very necessary delay has caused."
The messenger departed and they all looked at each other.
"How peculiar," Lady Ysabel said.
"I am sure that there is a good explanation," Queen Isolda responded. Under her breath she added, "I wonder if we will ever discover what that explanation is."
They talked about trivial things for a brief while, when the self-same messenger reappeared. Arabella wondered if perhaps there was never meant to be a meeting and it was actually the prank of a disrespectful jester.
Much to everyone's relief, behind the messenger came Queen Aster, Princess Orliana and their ladies, all four of them.
Arabella felt outnumbered and wondered if Ysabel felt the same. Judging by the gap in their ages it seemed logical that the older two were ladies to the queen with the princess having companions close to her own age.
As they moved closer Arabella found herself unable to draw her eyes away from Orliana. The dress she wore was a wondrous garment, as she walked it seemed to flow like a peaceful river. The way the light caught the fabric gave it an almost ethereal quality and the fine embroidery shone like the thread was actual silver. Her ladies wore dresses that complemented hers while lacking the finer details.
Arabella paid little attention to them, her gaze was still fixed upon Orliana. She was looking even more beautiful than the day they had arrived.
'I wonder if she even notices me,' Arabella thought. 'I hope she does.'
She remained still while the royal women greeted each other, then they sat down across the aisle between the tables, a gap much narrower with them sat this way than it ever was at meal times.
The two queens struck up a conversation, Arabella remained focused on Princess Orliana who was doing her best to look regal yet aloof.
When her own princess joined the conversation Arabella's attention switched from Orliana's face to Helene's words.
"So far it has been most enjoyable," she said.
"Although from what I hear not everyone in your party has been quite so fortunate," Orliana added.
Arabella wondered if there was a corner of the kingdom that did not know of her riding misfortune.
Orliana's ladies tittered, to the obvious displeasure of Queen Aster who turned to give them, and her daughter a very stern look.
Gradually Helene took a more active role and fielded questions from the visiting queen with Orliana adding some helpful comments, ones that pleased her mother.
Arabella was little more than an observer as their discussions continued; no one was likely to ask her a question and it was certainly not her place to interrupt. Her thoughts turned to the last time she had felt helpless in this way; it was the day Helene had faced King Silas and Queen Jasmine.
Suddenly it made sense, this meeting was to allow Queen Aster to get to know Helene without subjecting the princess to something that might remind her of the ordeal she had faced before.
"What nature of activities do you like?" Aster asked Helene.
"You already know how much I enjoy riding, I also enjoy reading, I can play the harp thanks to the guidance of Lady Ysabel and I have just discovered how satisfying working with hawks can be," Helene replied.
"I see. Is there anything else?"
"Archery," Helene blurted.
Orliana made a disapproving noise.
"Is something the matter?" Isolda asked.
"For any princess to bear arms is both distasteful and demeaning; we would never be caught doing such things."
Her ladies nodded in agreement.
"You have not always felt that way, have you Orliana," her mother responded.
Several meaningful glances passed between them before Orliana sighed and then spoke.
"When I was your age I too was schooled to fire a bow, but I have grown to learn that it is not something a princess should be doing."
"What do you consider a suitable activity for a princess?" Helene asked.
"Riding and being proficient with a musical instrument are perfectly acceptable. Charitable work is to be encouraged, but most important is to do whatever your prince might ask of you."
Helene and Arabella stared open mouthed. Isolda and Ysabel were equally surprised, they simply possessed enough self-control to mask it.
By the end of their session the girls had a deeper respect of Queen Aster but no longer held Orliana in such high regard as was once the case. Arabella was particularly affected, she had placed the princess on a pedestal which she had not fallen from so much as leaped headfirst. The dilemma which had been in the child's head over whether she wanted to be with Orliana or just like her was over almost as soon as it began.
"Come, let us walk," Queen Isolda said once the others had left.
They made their way around the inside of the walls.
"I think someone had dipped the cup of confusion into the duckpond of danger and taken a sip," Ysabel said to lighten the mood.
It did its job as Helene and Arabella both got the giggles.
"Queen Aster told me Orliana was perfectly level-headed on the last occasion that she departed her home to visit her betrothed but when she returned something had changed," explained Isolda. "But let us not dwell on that.
She put her arm around Helene.
"My child, you gave a good account of yourself, whatever questions Queen Aster may have had she should now have her answer."
"This time was nothing like the experience I had before, Queen Aster did not try to tie me up with my own words, in fact I did not even grasp the meeting's purpose at first," said Helene.
Now that was dealt with Isolda turned to Arabella.
"Child you have not uttered a word since we started walking. Is anything wrong?"
"Princess Orliana, I thought she was a perfect princess, she has showed that she is not. What if the same change that happened to her were to happen to Helene?"
"I would not change like that," Helene replied.
"You would not want to, for all we know the same may have been true of Orliana," said Arabella.
Isolda stepped in.
"I can promise you that my daughter will not change against her will."
She glanced at the sun and continued.
"The hunting party should be on their way back, why don't the two of you go and make yourselves ready, Ysabel and I shall join you shortly."
With the girls out of earshot Ysabel faced the queen.
"You are not as confident as your assertion would imply, are you," she said.
"I would like to say that i am but how can i be. If Queen Aster was unable to stop something from turning her daughter's head what guarantee can I make for Helene?"
"Yes, I would like to be able to offer assurance but what Queen Aster described defies reason," Ysabel replied.
"With Arabella at her side I feel she stands a fighting chance with whatever comes her way but there is only so much you can ask of one who is so young herself," said Isolda.
Ysabel merely nodded, distracted by her own thoughts.
"You seem troubled," said Isolda.
"It is a matter of no consequence," Ysabel replied.
Isolda looked at her strangely.
"As your queen I accept that answer, as your lifelong friend I cannot.
"I seldom get anything past you," she said. "One of Aster's ladies felt obliged to ask me what was wrong with Arabella. I told her that all was well but she insisted that something ailed the girl, she could see it in her eyes."
"It will be fine," Isolda said. "We shall summon a healer."
"If she needs a healer then there is only one person it should be, my mother."
"Of course." Isolda replied Do you have any idea where she might be?"
"Only rumour, she is still one step ahead of me, yet I feel she always knows what is going on."
"That is something of which I have no doubt. We shall find her or let her find us."
Ysabel looked surprised.
"You say that like it is as simple as calling for a guard. She is no longer welcome, not in the city and not here either. Anyone who recognized her would be duty bound to report their sighting."
"She has found no difficulty in keeping to the shadows since my mother stirred up a hornet's nest," Isolda said.
"How do you know this?"
"I am told that some of the guards at the city gates are more observant than you might think."
"So she is moving within the city yet I hear nothing of it until now?" said Ysabel with a degree of frustration.
"It did not start until some time after she was expelled, your mother waited for the embers of the supposed scandal to grow cold. When I first heard of her presence I hoped that she had sought clandestine meetings with you. It became apparent that was not the case, even now she has chosen not to endanger you by being seen with you."
"That explains many things. I wish it were not the case but I can accept why it has to be this way. I wonder if perhaps she is in the area as we speak."
She looked around, knowing her mother would be nowhere in sight but seeking a shadowy figure to pin her hopes upon.
Isolda said, "I for one do not doubt that she is within the encampment; though it would not be wise to seek her out. Let us go and prepare for the feast, we can talk of this again another time."
As they walked back towards the old keep a lone woman outside the walls stopped gazing through the gap and went back to plaiting strips of leather.
That day's hunt had been particularly successful, acquiring a large stag and a number of wild boar.
"It was indeed a magnificent beast," Eadric proclaimed. "Let us drink to its honour."
There was a roar of appreciation from everyone who had been part of the pursuit, followed by the noise of drinking vessels clonking together.
Helene turned to Dariun.
"What was your part in the chase?"
"I was near the front for the whole ride," he replied.
"Really! It must have been exciting."
"Oh yes, it was a thrill."
"I wish that I could have joined you but as you know I was otherwise engaged," said Helene.
"Yes, and you still haven't told me what happened with my sister."
"It was your mother who spoke with me most, in truth I do not recall that much of what your sister said."
"So she did not tell you to be weak-minded and compliant?" he asked.
"I do not recall hearing those words."
"Princess your tact is a credit to you. My sister is not who she once was no matter how much I might wish it. She had her own opinions, now I feel she merely recites someone else's."
He looked Helene in the eye as he continued.
"Promise me you will keep your own opinion and not just defer to what you are told."
Helene kept her face straight as she replied.
"Whatever pleases you."
It took moments for her words to sink in. He opened his mouth to respond then spotted her beaming smile.
"Do you mock me?" he asked.
"Only a little," she replied.
"Good, I would not want it any other way."
Arabella could not stop herself from smiling as she looked on. It was another of the times when she got to see much but say very little. Helene's attention was firmly fixed on the prince.
When Arabella made it back to the tent that evening she had one thing on her mind. Unfortunately Ysabel was focused on something entirely different.
The moment Arabella was inside the tent Ysabel put her hand to her child's brow.
"You do not feel feverish and you certainly do not look it."
"I am fine, or at least I think I am. What is the matter?" Arabella asked.
"One of Queen Aster's ladies in waiting saw some sign of something ailing you. She said she saw it in your eyes."
"Do you see it?"
"By candlelight it is impossible to make such a judgment, that is something which will have to wait for the morrow."
Arabella sighed and got herself ready for bed.
Despite the happenings of the previous night Arabella slept soundly, not waking until Ysabel started calling her name.
It took a little longer than normal for Arabella to ready herself for the day ahead. Once Ysabel was sure her child was fully awake she got her to stand still so she could perform the check.
"Do you see anything," Arabella asked as her mother continued to gaze into her eyes.
"There is no milkiness, no spots, dots or marks that do not belong," she replied, more for herself than for Arabella.
She continued. "Perhaps it was tiredness or anxiety that she saw. Regardless, it is nothing for you to concern yourself with, you will need all your wits about you today."
"Why is that?"
"Today we rejoin the hunt."
The look on Arabella's face was definitely one of slight anxiety now.
"Your second hunt will be much easier than your first," Ysabel said.
"I expect you are right but I cannot fully ignore my nerves, no matter how hard I try."
Helene was already prepared for the day when Arabella entered. She seemed oblivious to her friend's woes.
"Is it not a wonderful day today," she said.
"The skies do look as if they will be clear all day," Arabella replied, doing her best to suppress her fears.
A short time later both girls ventured out to ensure their horses were ready for the off. At least today there were no spiked seeds hiding underneath the saddle. There did not appear to be quite as many riders today, so that was another consolation.
Arabella made sure she kept Moonshadow close to Helene while the hunting party headed onto the heath.
Most of the royal males from both kingdoms were in the leading group with the females again taking their place in the middle of the party. It made no sense to Helene and with slightly fewer participants she saw even less reason to be lagging behind.
It all came to a head when for the second consecutive chase they had a successful pursuit without Helene even knowing what they were pursuing. While they stopped to give their horses a rest Helene spoke her mind, but only to Arabella.
"I am feeling much frustration, there is little point I can figure to be in the hunt yet be so far back as to not even know what our prey was."
"I am content merely to ride at speed without a mishap," Arabella replied.
When riders started to move again Helene said,"I am going to be near the front for one chase, cover for me, please."
Arabella began to follow but quickly realised she would not be able to keep up with the front runners. They passed quickly and soon enough she was back with her mother and the queen.
"Where is the princess," asked Ysabel.
"She was by my side a moment ago," Arabella lied.
Ysabel looked in every direction.
"I do not see her anywhere."
She moved close enough to one of the guard to pass the message that the princess needed to be found. All he did was point to the very front of the riders.
The chase was now moving at pace so it would not be easy to get her back. At least there were guards at the front to try and keep her safe.
Once the pursuit came to an end they were able to catch up. Queen Isolda went to speak to her daughter who had a big smile on her face, it did not stay long as first her mother then also her father dealt with her. Meanwhile Ysabel took Arabella to one side to try and get an explanation out of her.
"You did not really think I would believe Helene would be by your side one moment and up at the front the next, did you?"
"What was I supposed to do?"
"Telling the truth would have been a good place to start."
"I am sorry."
"Perhaps you should address your apology to our queen; it is her you have let down."
Arabella hung her head.
If she felt bad then, what came next was like a bad dream.
Helene approached her scowling.
"I thought I could rely on you," she accused.
"You can," Arabella replied.
"I cannot. I asked that you cover for me."
"I tried, really I did."
"You did not try very hard. I see now that you are jealous; I have a prince and you have nobody."
"Princess!" Ysabel said.
She put her horse between Helene and Arabella. Queen Isolda came and lead her daughter away.
A short distance away the countess was getting a perverse pleasure from the events unfolding in front of her. If she had known things would happen that neatly she would not have bothered making Arabella's first ride so uncomfortable.
For the rest of the day's hunt Arabella was there physically but that was all. She thought back to that first time and wondered if maybe it would have been better if she had been swept away after all. She wondered if Helene could have been right and she was jealous.
It was true that she felt envious of the time that Helene wanted to spend with her prince, it was as if she was now second best, however there was no way she wished to change places.
As for having no one, she had her mother, although the princess did not and could not know that, and until now a best friend too.
Normally Arabella would have been glad to have got to the end of the day's riding, that could not be said of this day. Not a word had passed between her and Helene since their outburst but the hunt provided the perfect cover for it. Now they had to spend the time between the dismount and the meal in each other's company.
Performing her duties as efficiently as she could Arabella waited patiently off to the side while Helene talked to her prince.
Secretly Arabella had hoped that something might happen so she did not need to accompany the princess but nothing fell from the sky, the ground did not open up under her feet and she was not struck down by a mystery ailment.
When Helene and Dariun parted company Arabella took up a position behind the princess and followed dutifully. Nothing was said on the way back to the princess's chamber and once they were there things between them could only be described as courteous at best.
At the meal things became a little easier, but not because they were back speaking to each other. Helene could spend the entire time talking with her prince, Arabella just had to sit there and listen. For once she was unsure how much of a fool the princess would have to make of herself before she would intervene.
On one of the tables the countess could barely contain herself as she watched Arabella's increasing isolation. 'It will not be long now,' she thought.
When Arabella returned to the tent that night she felt a certain sadness. Ysabel pondered whether the lady in waiting who saw something in Arabella's eyes had the gift of second sight because tonight, even in the candlelight, she could see it too.
"It is my wish to leave," said Arabella. "Helene does not want me any longer, it is best for everybody if I go."
"She is making a mistake, she will come to her sense soon enough."
"I do not wish to wait, I think this is the way out we have been looking for."
Ysabel's demeanour changed at once.
"Perhaps you are correct, I shall speak to the queen first thing tomorrow morning. We shall arrange for you to visit your aunt, your mother as far as anyone knows. We can make all the arrangements from there."
That night was not a good one for Arabella, her mind was too active for sleep to come to her readily. Her friendship with Helene had been the best thing to happen to her and now it had been soured by that one incident on the hunt. It was only the previous day that Isolda had assured her that the princess would not change drastically and they had not even got to the second sunset before something drastic occurred.
After the promises they had made to each other, was this really where it ended?
Will Arabella convince the Queen that she should leave the side of the princess, and if she is sent to stay with her aunt what will become of her?
It felt as if hours passed with Arabella lying there thinking. She could not remember falling asleep, only being woken up.
"Come my child, if you are sure that this is what you want then we must do it now."
It took Arabella a few moments to recall the conversation she'd had with her mother. Was it really the right time to leave the princess? She had her doubts but she put them to one side, the memory of the wounds caused by Helene's words spurred her on.
Arabella got herself dressed and followed her mother out. In contrast to the last few days the sky was dull, was this an omen?
"Wait out here until I call for you," said Ysabel as they reached the door to the queen's chamber.
As quietly as she was able, Ysabel let herself in.
Arabella heard 'My queen it is I, Lady Ysabel' before the door closed and all speech became murmurs.
She was not sure how much time she spent waiting but after the second person walked by and gave her a strange look she decided it was too long.
Something inside her suggested she should knock on the door to remind them she was there, while her own common sense told her to be patient.
Her relief was unmistakable when the door was finally opened and she was beckoned inside.
Queen Isolda stood before her.
"I am told you have a request to make of me," she said.
"Yes your highness," Arabella replied.
She paused, hoping the horrible feeling in her stomach would go away.
"I wish to be released from my duties as a lady in waiting to the princess."
"I see," Isolda said calmly. "Can you tell me why you wish it?"
"Your daughter does not want me by her side any longer, she does not say it with words but her actions make it plain," Arabella replied.
"I shall have a talk with her."
"I fear it would only make things worse," said Arabella.
"I disagree but I do understand your concerns. What you must understand is that you are in the service of the king, leaving that service is a decision which should not be taken lightly. I shall not release you..."
"But I cannot.."
"Let me finish. You will continue in the service of the king but you will spend the next few days with your family. If at the end of that time you are still of the same opinion I shall talk to King Eadric."
"Thank you your highness."
"Lady Ysabel, if you speak to the stables and the guard now you should be able to leave discretely."
"Yes my queen."
Once Ysabel had left the room Isolda got close to Arabella.
Come, let us sit and talk in the few moments it takes to make the arrangements," she said.
Arabella sat down and looked at the floor.
"I am sorry my daughter has left you feeling so low, if I could click my fingers and make everything right I would, alas this is something that must be fixed between yourselves. You are the best thing to happen to her. She might not see that at this moment but she will need a good friend by her side in the coming years."
"I am sure she will find someone that she can trust," Arabella said without looking at Isolda.
"Stop that right now."
"You have nothing to reproach yourself for, it is Helene who is at fault. I know you are sad but you must lift your head, do not give anyone the satisfaction of seeing that you are hurting," Isolda said then added, "Especially not my mother."
That seemed to make a difference, she lifted her gaze from the floor.
"Thank you your highness."
"My dear child, you do not need to be so formal, especially in private."
"Thank you my queen."
"That is acceptable for now. Come, let us see what has become of your aunt."
They got no more than a few paces across the castle grounds before Lady Ysabel appeared.
"Everything has been arranged, all that is left is to gather some belongings", she said.
In no time they were putting the things Arabella would need on the backs of their horses and making their final preparations. Isolda was still by their side to see them off.
"Farewell Arabella, I hope you return to us refreshed. Is there a message you would like me to pass on to my daughter?"
Arabella looked at her queen. There were many things that she wanted to say but she did know the right words to use.
From the short silence that followed Isolda understood what was in Arabella's mind.
"I shall tell her what I judge to be right."
"Thank you," Arabella sighed.
As they made their way out of the castle Isolda looked on, it was only as they moved into the distance that she headed for her daughter's room.
Isolda's entry took Helene by surprise.
"Mother, I did not expect to see you yet. Where are Lady Ysabel and Arabella?"
"As we speak they are on their way to the village that their family is from," Queen Isolda replied.
"I did not know of this plan."
"No, it was a decision of the last moment."
"Oh, will they be back before twilight?" asked Helene.
"Lady Ysabel will return after noontime, Arabella will remain there for a few more days."
"I see, but... who will perform in her stead until she returns?"
"It shall be done by Lady Ysabel and myself, we shall increase Sarah's duties also."
"Did she say anything before she departed?"
"She expressed a desire to serve you better once it is all over."
From the look on Helene's face it seemed Isolda's words had struck home. A part of her had been wondering if her daughter was really oblivious to the way she had made Arabella feel, perhaps she understood now.
If Helene was thinking about Arabella then it was fitting that Arabella's mind was on her friend. Ysabel tried to distract her in conversation but each reply was never more than a few words.
'Is it possible that I have spent my last day in the company of the Princess?' she thought and wiped away a tear.
Skylarks twittered as the ladies and their escort passed across the countryside but Arabella barely even noticed.
"Nearly there," Ysabel said.
"Sorry, what?" Arabella replied.
"We are nearly home."
It took a few moments for Arabella to grasp the full significance. Here she was with her mother who everyone thought was her aunt, about to visit her aunt who everyone thought was her mother.
It wasn't long after that a cottage came into view, nestled into the woods. However they did not ride straight up, they halted and only Lady Ysabel moved.
"I must do this alone," she said. "Our party of travellers would bring fear to the heart of my sister."
Arabella watched her ride the remaining distance, she did not get the chance to dismount, a figure came out of the cottage and took Ysabel in an embrace that pulled her from her horse.
One of the guards was about to rush in but his colleague shouted out.
"Steady lad, it is nought to worry us, that is how folks long separated act when they have been brought back together."
They were holding hands now, the guards had relaxed and Arabella could tell that her mother and her aunt Abigail were talking, so the question that remained was how long would they have to wait to move closer. They had to be discussing her but still she did not want to stay out there all morning while they decided what to do.
It seemed to take an age but it could not have been much more than the time her mother would spend in the kitchens each morning until her aunt waved them over. They took up the reins of their horses and started to move closer to the cottage. Now in a complete reversal of her last thoughts the time seemed short. What if her aunt wouldn't play along with the deception?
"My child, how I've missed you," said Abigail as she covered the distance between the cottage and Arabella in mere moments. Once she was within arms length she was engulfed in a big hug.
As she slid from her horse she heard, "let us put on a good show."
"Oh mother it has been so hard without you but I have coped as best I can," said Arabella.
"Well you're home now and you will be staying a few days."
With that she put an arm around Arabella's shoulder and guided her inside. Ysabel showed the guard where to water the horses and then followed them in.
"Well that was a unique experience," said aunt Abigail.
"Wasn't it just," Ysabel replied.
At that moment three children swept in from the shadows saying "auntie bel, auntie bel."
The eldest, a girl, was close to Arabella's age and there was a definite family resemblance. The middle child, also a girl, had the same coloured eyes as her sister and the same shaped nose but her hair was as black as a raven's wing. The youngest was a boy who shared physical traits with both his sisters yet didn't look much like either of them.
When they first appeared the children only paid attention to their aunt, once they spotted Arabella all they did was stare at her. From the boy came a look of confusion, the girls on the other hand, were downright hostile.
Their mother took charge of the situation.
"Becca, take Nat outside to play."
The younger girl took her little brother out the back, the entire time the eldest girl kept Arabella in her sights.
"Who are you?" she said.
Arabella could not believe her own cousin did not recognize her and stood there open mouthed.
"It is a simple question."
Her mother spluttered.
"Christiana, if you only knew you would understand it is far from simple. This is your cousin."
"But I only have one cousin and he is not a girl."
Lady Ysabel smiled before replying.
"Until last summer I would have agreed with you but that was when everything began. This girl in front of you is your cousin, she goes by the name Arabella."
"And what of Aron?" said Christiana.
"I am as much Aron as I am Arabella," she responded. "Or at least I think I am."
Christiana came closer.
"I suppose it is you, I mean it could be you, you could be... Oh I don't know."
"My dear I quite understand your reaction. Trust me, the rest of our tale is just as strange. Come, sit while I try to explain it," said Ysabel.
The version Lady Ysabel told was highly abbreviated but said all that needed to be said. Some of the exploits seemed so far fetched that Christiana would not have believed it if anyone other than her aunt had been the storyteller.
And it was about to take another twist.
"Christiana there are two very important things I must ask of you," said Ysabel.
"Whatever I can do auntie Bel."
"You might not be so eager in a moment. First I must have your promise that you will not tell a single soul what is going on. Your sister and your brother are too young to make such a pledge, that is why they are playing outside but you are mature enough to cope."
"I understand auntie Bel, I shall tell no one."
"Thank you. The second thing will sound rather peculiar; in a short while I have to return to the hunt and I need you to pretend to be Aron and see me off."
She could not have looked more stunned if a donkey and cart had fallen from the sky and landed in front of her.
"W-why do you need me to be Aron when there is a perfectly good Aron sitting at this very table?"
"The palace guard are more observant than you think, if the child who sees me off looks like Arabella with short hair it is likely to be reported back and who knows what the consequences of that may be. No, I am afraid that I need you to forego your dress in favour of breeches and constrain your flowing hair beneath a cap; can you manage that?"
"I shall do that for you auntie Bel."
"Good girl, let us sort this at once."
Truth be told, Christiana did not make a very good boy but, that was never the intention. She did not have to pass close scrutiny, she just had to look the part for the farewell.
Ysabel and Abigail had found the perfect hat; there was no way to tell just how much hair was curled up beneath it. A simple shirt and dark breeches finished off the disguise.
"The time is nigh for me to return to the queen," said Ysabel with considerable sadness.
She pulled Arabella onto her lap and hugged her tightly. It was something they had not had in many weeks; not just a fleeting moment but something long and significant. Neither of them wanted to let go of the other but knew they would have to.
"Come on you two, it is merely days you will be apart," aunt Abigail said.
Ysabel tried to put a brave face on.
"Indeed, it is but a few short days, do your best to make them count my dear and before you know it we will be back together."
She rose to her feet, kissed Arabella on the top of her head and walked towards the door.
"Are we ready?" she said to Christiana.
Her disguised niece nodded and took her hand.
Arabella was quite disturbed to observe it all, even though she understood why it had to be done.
Ysabel and Christiana stepped outside to begin the second charade of the day. Arabella moved to the doorway and watched from the shadows.
"Do not fret my boy, you shall be able to join me in the fullness of time," Ysabel said.
"I know but I miss you and I do not want to wait any longer," Christiana replied.
"I am afraid you must," she said as she was aided into the saddle.
"I shall return in a few days," she continued. "Make the most of the time with your cousin."
A tear trickled down Arabella's cheek and she gave a half-hearted wave as her mother moved off with the guards. Ysabel twisted around and waved towards the cottage which lifted Arabella's spirits and she remained in the shadows until she could see the horses no longer.
His aunt put a hand on his shoulder.
"Come now Aron, you cannot stay here all day, let us go inside for a while and find you something to wear," she said.
It wasn't long before Christiana appeared, she was back in her dress and glad of it. She gave the boy clothes to her mother and went to find her sister and brother.
"Let us make a start with these garments," said aunt Abigail.
She handed over the clothes that Christiana had changed out of and Arabella took them to a corner where she could become Aron with a little privacy.
"There. I'll wager that feels better," said aunt Abigail once the real Aron made an appearance.
"It feels rather strange," Aron replied.
"That is only to be expected after so long in dresses, give it a day or so."
"What should I do with my hair auntie Gail," Aron asked.
"We dare not cut it yet, until I think of a more effective plan we should just put it up inside the cap like we did with Christiana."
Secretly Aron was glad no one would be cutting his hair, as Arabella he took pride in looking after it and he was in no hurry to lose any just yet.
Aunt Abigail twisted his hair around until it could be concealed by the cap. She secured it better than she had for her own daughter, after all it did have to last a few days rather than a few minutes.
Once the cap was in place he was sent outside to join his cousins.
Becca was the first to spot him.
"Aron, when did you appear?" she said.
He thought for a second and replied.
"I arrived shortly after my mother did."
"Did you see the strange girl that auntie Bel brought with her?" she asked.
Christiana and Aron exchanged a look.
"Yes I saw her, she did not look that strange to me. I thought she was rather pleasant."
"Boys!" said Becca sounding like someone with many years more life experience than she possessed.
Nat ran in, hugged Aron's thigh then ran off again.
"Do you not want to run after him?" said Christiana.
Aron gave chase; in the past he would have caught up straight away and grabbed Nat, instead he ran at three quarter speed to prolong the pursuit.
Nat was giggling, convinced he was finally able to outrun his cousin.
Aron kept it up as long as he could then swept Nat off his feet and started to tickle him. The small boy wriggled like an eel and when he got an arm free he flailed it.
"Oww!" Aron cried as an elbow caught him in the chest. He dropped Nat who landed on one foot and one knee.
There was no real force behind the blow yet Aron still felt it. He rubbed where he had been hit then wanted to made sure his cousin was alright.
"I didn't hurt you did I?"
Nat was perfectly fine, just a little bit surprised. He shook his head, got up and ran after a goose that had just waddled around the corner.
"He is fine, isn't he?" Aron asked.
"I doubt there is a mark upon him," Christiana said. "I am not so sure that the same can be said of you."
"There is nought wrong with me," Aron responded.
Christiana said nothing but she was determined her concerns would be dealt with before the day was over.
It was just as well she had not pushed the matter, for Nat came scooting around the corner closely followed by the goose he had been chasing and its partner. It took the efforts of both Christiana and Aron to persuade them to go away.
All four children spent most of the afternoon outside; making up games, watching the animals on the edge of the woods and occasionally running after each other.
The shadows were lengthening by the time they were called inside to prepare for their meal. Just as they had done in the city, everybody helped in some way. Nat got the spoons, Becca the bowls, Aron stirred the oats and vegetables in the cooking pot, Christiana cut chunks of bread and Aunt Abigail took the meat off a small bird.
From the way they all attacked their food it was apparent that everyone was hungry. It was a far cry from the food at the castle and Aron couldn't help but think of all the wondrous dishes that Arabella had experienced.
When the meal was done and everything was cleared away Christiana lingered and spoke in hushed tones to her mother.
"There is something wrong with Aron; Nat caught him in the chest and he reacted as I do when it happens to me. You told me that only happens to girls of a certain age, he may be a certain age but he is no girl."
"Thank you Christiana, I shall talk with him when it is bedtime," auntie Abigail responded.
Being the youngest Nat was the first to go to bed, he was already half asleep and went willingly, Becca however showed her obstinate side.
"I am not ready to go to sleep," she said. "I want to stay up until Christiana has to go to bed."
"My dear, you are not missing anything, she will be with you presently," her mother said.
"Actually mother I do feel a little tired, why don't I take Becca to bed," Christiana said.
"If you are certain that is what you want," replied her mother.
The two girls walked off to bed leaving Abigail and Aron alone together.
"Perhaps I should get ready for bed as well," Aron said.
"In that case I need to find something for you to wear to bed," Abigail replied.
"There is no need," he said. "I can wear the nightclothes from my pack."
He pointed to the rolled up bundle that had been on Moonshadow's back.
"Oh no, that will not do, I will go and find you something," said his aunt.
It took no time at all for Abigail to find a trunk and remove some kind of garment from it.
"I know this will fit."
She held up what must have been a man's shirt. It would easily fall as far as Aron's knees.
"Come on, change out of those things, there is no need to be shy, I am your aunt and I have seen it all before."
Apparently that wasn't entirely true, going by the expression on Abigail's face when he took his shirt off.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"Not wrong, just unexpected. Tell me, does your chest feel at all different?"
"Different? Well my clothing has rubbed a little more of late, is that what you mean?"
"Yes. I am sure it will be fine and the slight swelling will resolve itself in time. I shall speak to your mother about it; there is nothing for you to worry about."
Aron finished changing and Abigail lead him to bed. She would have gone to bed herself but she found the entire situation troubling.
He was a sweet boy, she could not see why anyone would want to change him. Getting caught out originally, she could see that; having to stay at the princess's side, she could just about handle that possibility but it was not going to lead anywhere.
He was a boy and he was supposed to grow to be man then take a wife and have children of his own. She would need to have words with that sister of hers when she returned; there was nothing more she could do that night, just sleep.
Back at the summer palace Helene was laying in her bed, longing for sleep to come. Her day had passed smoothly, starting with a morning ride with her mother. In the afternoon she had done more hawk work alongside prince Dariun but that whole time something was missing. Being in the presence of the prince was no less enjoyable than before, it was having no one to share knowing glances and private jokes that she missed badly.
Her attendant Sarah had done as best she could to fulfil certain duties of a lady in waiting, and to begin with she seemed to be the perfect stand-in. As the day wore on it dawned upon Helene that Sarah could not do everything and she should not expect any more from her.
Helene preferred to be given an honest opinion while Sarah had been taught to defer, consequently whenever she was asked a question she would reply 'whatever your highness wishes'. Exasperated after what felt like the 75th time Helene wondered if the girl would allow herself to be throttled if it was what the princess wished.
Another thought crossed her mind, what if Arabella behaved more like that upon her return? Surely that would not happen, they were friends, best friends.
She thought of everything they had been through together, each occasion where one of them had helped the other out of a difficult situation; all of the times they had laughed together and the few times they had cried.
She remembered the ride where she almost lost her friend and as she recalled their last ride a tear rolled down her cheek. At the time she had felt that Arabella had let her down, now with hindsight she could see her own actions had been selfish and the words she had thrown at her friend were totally unjustified.
Another tear fell, then another; she had treated her best friend like dung, no wonder Arabella left in such a hurry. For her to come back would be something of a feat, to repair their friendship would be closer to a miracle.
Hoping that her words would cross the miles between them Helene spoke.
"Arabella wherever you are I pray you have it in your heart to forgive me and that you want to return."
In a cottage on the edge of a wood, a child nearly twelve awoke. A strange mix of emotions washed over them; they tried to make sense of it but sleep claimed them once-more.
It took more effort than was usual to wake Aron from his slumber and even once he was up he seemed a bit muddled.
"This is most surprising," said Auntie Abigail. "I would not have thought your role allowed you to sleep late."
"It is rare for me, I do not recall waking yet I feel tired enough to sleep the day away," Aron replied.
"Once you are outside breathing the fresh morning air you will feel better," auntie Abigail said.
The air did help a little but there was still something at the back of his mind, a thought that remained beyond his grasp.
Their first chore was to collect the eggs and Becca had both hands full before the others made a start. That gave Aron time to think and he wondered what duties Arabella would have been doing.
The sun was not too high so Arabella and Helene would most likely have started running with the hunt, or perhaps today was a hawk day. Lost in his own thoughts he ceased to be aware of his surroundings until he felt a nudge in his side.
Christiana was next to him while Becca and Nat stood a few feet away.
"Welcome back," Christiana said. "Was the place you were dreaming of a nice place?"
"Yes. Or rather it was once," he replied.
Christiana gave her siblings the task of taking the eggs inside. The second they moved towards the door she spoke softly to Aron.
"I was told to avoid the subject but it must cross your mind often. If life at the palace was so sad why did you remain?"
"There was nothing sad about it, only recently has it become too hard to bear."
Christiana wanted to hear more but the two younger children returned and took away their chance to speak freely. It was much later in the day before another opportunity presented itself.
"Tell me, what is this thing that has happened which makes life so difficult for you."
"Something happened whilst we were on a hunt and from that moment she has acted like she has been forced to have me at her side."
"I do not envy you being in such a position. What could have caused her to feel that way?"
"She cannot ride at the front, the king will not allow it. She tried regardless and was found out, it is me she blames for not [covering] for her."
She spent some moments deep in thought.
"Who has replaced you?"
"For now I think my mother is doing some of my duties, I suppose a proper replacement can be sought once they are back in the castle."
"So you have made your decision, you are not going back?"
Her jaw dropped.
"I mean I have not yet made up my mind."
"You almost sound disappointed, if you had the chance would you replace me?"
"That was not at all in my mind but if I did have that chance I would be a fool to pass it up, every person in this land would feel the same way."
"Then let us try to make it happen."
"Of course. We shall speak to auntie Gail at bedtime."
"It is out of the question," auntie Gail stated.
"But why?" said Christiana.
"For one the situation is already strange without making it more confusing. Arabella is supposed to be Ysabel's niece which makes her my daughter; if we were to exchange someone masquerading as my eldest child for my real eldest child do you not think someone would notice?"
"I could become Arabella."
"No. It would not matter however long we had, you might be able to pass for a mealtime or even as much as a day, but a week, a month, a year, it is just not possible."
"And Helene would not be fooled for even a moment," said Aron. "Although she might be convinced to play along because the new Arabella would not have got her contempt the way I managed to."
"She will not get the chance to, this will not happen, I shall not endanger my daughter's life. Let us hear no more about this."
In the distance there was a rumble of thunder as if nature itself was agreeing with her.
They went to bed with the storm drawing ever closer.
Aron had no idea if anyone was able to sleep as the sky flashed and crashed around them; the noise might have bothered him if he had let it but there were other things on his mind. Despite everything that had gone between them he found himself worrying about how the princess was coping with the storm. He had visions of her cowering in her bedchamber and found himself wishing that Arabella could be by her side to hold her close and show her that everything was alright.
If Aron had realised just how closely reality was matching his vision he would have been distraught.
Lady Ysabel stayed with Helene as soon as it became apparent that the storm would be severe. At its height she was so distressed that it took Ysabel and the queen to keep her fears from sending her mad.
They hoped the thickness of the stone walls and the claps of thunder would quell her whimpers and shrieks from being heard by anyone else inside the old keep.
The storm took most of the night to pass, once the thunder moved into the distance Helene quickly calmed down and drifted off to sleep.
Queen Isolda yawned as she watched her daughter sleep, she seemed so peaceful now that it was hard to believe that just a short while ago she had been in the grip of hysteria.
"I do not see there being many early risers, so we may at least regain some of our lost sleep," she said.
"Of that I am very glad," Ysabel replied. "You should go to bed now, I will remain here a while longer before returning to my bed.
The next morning Isolda rose unaided, dressed herself and went to see how her daughter was feeling. It came as little surprise that she was still asleep and that Lady Ysabel lay across the bottom of the princess's bed, also sleeping.
She wished it were possible to leave them to wake naturally but with Arabella away any other absences would look suspicious.
She woke Ysabel first and gave her a chance to freshen up before waking her daughter.
"I am sorry that you found me this way," Ysabel said.
"Do not be," Isolda replied. "I am glad you had something more substantial than canvas to shelter you from that storm."
They got the Helene up, she was quite subdued, not at all her usual self. Isolda and Ysabel guided her outside where they caught the tail-end of a conversation between King Eadric and the chamberlain.
"A considerable number have chosen to leave today sire."
"Having seen the aftermath of the storm I would not stop anyone who wishes to return home."
"What is wrong," Queen Isolda asked.
"Last nights skies have wrought havoc upon our encampment. Lightning struck one of the tents causing a fire, the force of the bolt was felt by others, even one of the guard felt it as he kept watch atop the battlements."
"I do hope that no one was harmed," Isolda said.
"No lives were lost but I think it may have robbed some of their wits."
Isolda gave her husband a stern look then glanced at Helene, he understood immediately.
"So what will you ladies be doing today?" he asked, swiftly changing the subject.
"We were going to seek an audience with prince Dariun and queen Aster," replied Isolda.
"Without Lady Arabella present?" said Eadric.
"It cannot be helped,"
Helene sighed. "I wish she were here," she said.
Ysabel and Isolda exchanged glances; getting the princess to admit that was a big step.
Half a day's travel away Arabella awoke, she got out of bed and went to find a dress to put on.
No, something was wrong; she was not Arabella, she was Aron and he did not wear dresses.
He found the bundle of things he had arrived with, a green dress caught his eye and he ran his hand over the fabric. He dragged himself away and went in search of something less feminine, something less comfortable, something with legs.
Later that day, in one of the few quieter moments, Aron and Christiana talked once-more about the princess.
"It must be wonderful to be a princess and not have to worry about anything," said Christiana.
"While it is true that there will always be a roof over her head and food on her table she does still have worries of her own," Aron replied.
"Oh yes, a princess knows that when she is wed she will leave everyone she knows and all that is familiar to her and move to the land of her prince. It is all about duty, love has very little to do with it."
"Are you saying that princess Helene does not love prince Dariun?"
"She definitely has feelings for him but it is duty that brought them together, not love," Aron stated.
"I could not do that."
"Nor could I and I told them as much."
"It is something you no longer have to worry about," said Christiana.
Aron stayed silent.
"Surely you are not thinking of returning."
"For me to depart this way would leave much in the air. When we part I want it to be as friends, if that simply cannot be, it will not be through any lack of effort on my part."
Nat ran around them giggling the whole time then disappeared again.
"If you did not return, what would you miss the most?" Christiana asked.
"Before the happenings of recent days friendship would have been my answer, other than that I would probably say archery and then maybe riding."
"Archery and riding?"
"Yes, I am quite good with a bow, not so good with a horse but I am getting better," he said.
She looked at him strangely.
"Do you remember the day we were supposed to be helping mother wash the clothes but we wandered off and found that bow in the rushes? You could not hit a cow's backside from ten paces."
"I had forgot about that until now. The way I remember it you fared no better."
"That is true, but I am not claiming to be any good with a bow," she said.
"I promise you it is not some idle boast, if I had my bow then you would see, I did not think to bring it. On my honour it is no lie and one day I will show you."
"Please, I did not mean to upset you, you have no need to prove yourself to me."
"I am sorry I reacted in such a way, very few know I am a fair shot so when I can tell someone it is distressing when they doubt me."
Nat ran past again with Becca in close pursuit.
"Why must you keep it a secret?"
"While archery is considered an acceptable pastime for a lady she is not expected to excel as it may put off a suitor."
"But a suitor is the last thing you wish to attract."
"I know, yet I am bound to act as if I do," Aron said with a sigh.
"What is disturbing?"
"Having to subdue the unwanted advances of another male."
"I supposed it would," Aron said, trying his best to hide that he had already experienced the advances of Bastian, the creepy right hand man of prince Hendric.
"Let us go find the others," he said, desperately trying to change the subject.
Christiana saw his discomfort but had no idea of the things he had endured.
They listened for clues of what Nat and Becca were doing but all they could hear were an occasional grunt from the pigs or a soft quack. When it was this quiet it could only mean one thing, wherever they were they would be up to mischief.
Aron went cautiously around the cottage until he got to the stall where the things for the animals were kept. It was little more than a lean-to really with straw piled up at one end.
He beckoned to Christiana who had come around the other way and pointed. The straw was very lumpy and seemed to be moving.
"I am feeling tired, I think I shall use this straw as my bed," Christiana said.
"Yes it does look like you could flop right into it," Aron added.
There was a squeak and a voice pleading not to be crushed. Finally a small creature stood and shook the straw off until Becca was revealed.
Christiana brushed some bits out of her sister's hair and told her brother to come out too.
"He is not in here," said Becca. "I told him there wasn't enough room for both of us so I do not know where he is hiding."
They checked all his usual places; in with the pig, behind the gorse bushes, even inside the cottage but he wasn't in any of them.
"He cannot have gone far," said Aron.
"No, he must be around somewhere, yet we cannot find him," Christiana replied.
She went to her mother and explained that Nat had disappeared while they were talking. Abigail was not cross and didn't show that she was worried.
"Let us go outside and look for signs of where he has been," she said.
There was nothing close to the cottage so they started checking towards the stream. It was there that they spotted marks in the mud that could only have been made by Nat's feet.
"There are more tracks over here," said Christiana. "Let us follow them."
"Yes, you do that while Becca and I wait at the cottage in case he finds a different way home," said Abigail.
Christiana and Aron walked a few paces alongside the stream then looked back to see Becca protesting at being lead home.
They walked a little further then noticed a change in the tracks, they weren't normal paces anymore they were shorter and side by side.
"He found a frog and hopped along with it," said Aron.
"I hope it has not hopped far," said Christiana.
A short while later they heard the chatter of a small boy and called out to him.
"Nat where are you?"
"Over here," came the reply.
They hurried over and were surprised to find him with his hands clasped together and standing next to a strange man with a horse and cart.
"Who are you and what are you doing with my brother?" demanded Christiana.
"Don't you fret none. My name is Jasper and I was coming to give my horse Solomon a drink from this stream when I found the boy," he replied.
"Nat, why did you stray so far from home?"
"Look," he said, opening his hands slightly. "Froggy!"
They peered in and saw a small green and brown frog.
"Let it go, the poor thing is scared," said his sister.
"He's my froggy."
"No it's not, let it go."
At that point Jasper stepped in. He placed his hands over Nat's and made a squeaky sound with his mouth, when he pulled away he made the boy unclasp his own hands and to the surprise of everyone the frog just sat there.
"How did you do that?" asked Aron.
"I'm a trader, I travels a lot and I picks things up, never be afraid to ask says I."
Aron thought about all the things he, or rather Arabella had learned without asking and wondered how much trouble she would be in if they had done as Jasper suggested.
"There be something familiar about you," Jasper said, looking at Aron. "Might I have seen you in the city?"
"We did live there but we came back here last summer," Christiana said.
"Oh I thinks it is not that long ago, perhaps a relative?"
"Well we do have a cousin in the city," said Christiana.
The enquiries were getting uncomfortably close for Aron.
"We should be going back. Nat put the frog down and we shall be off," he said.
As they walked away Christiana whispered "what did you do that for?".
"His questions. He was about to ask who our cousin was and from there it would not take him long to work everything out," Aron replied.
"Do you really think so? I am sorry, the thought had not crossed my mind."
Aunt Abigail was glad to have all the children back together. She was more than a little concerned about the mysterious man but there was not much that she could do about it.
Aron woke the next morning not knowing it would be the last time he would spend at the cottage for a while. They heard the horses hooves before the small party appeared which gave them enough time to react.
Becca and Nat were sent out the back to play, with strict instructions to avoid frogs and strange men.
Christiana and Aron switched roles so by the time Ysabel reached the cottage they were ready to play the same game they had played when 'he' arrived.
"Am I to think that you wish to return?" Ysabel said as she watched her son, back in a dress for the first time since she left, getting everything together.
"Yes. If it is to end then I would prefer it to be on better terms than this."
"I am proud of you; while I expected nothing less you could not have been blamed if you had wished to stay away. I think you will find the princess has had a change of heart."
She turned to Abigail.
"Thank you dear sister for looking after that which is most precious to me."
"You are both welcome, but before you hurry off there is a matter I must discuss with you, in private."
Arabella and Christiana looked on in disbelief as their mothers conducted an animated conversation in tones to quiet for the children to hear.
"Do you know what is the matter?" Arabella asked.
"I am not sure," Christiana replied.
In truth she thought she knew what had triggered the debate but there was no way she was going to put herself in the middle.
It was not long after that when they were ready to leave. Christiana in boy clothes hugged Ysabel like she was her mother and Arabella did the same to aunt Abigail. What took her by surprise was Christiana grabbing her and holding her close.
"Don't you dare forget about Aron," she whispered.
When Christiana let go Arabella looked at her strangely; it made no sense... Or did it? Slowly a light of understanding flickered into life in her mind, she held both of Christiana's hands, looked into her eyes then without saying a word mounted her horse.
Ysabel lead Arabella to the guard escort she had left an arrow flight away from the cottage then they all moved off as one.
Arabella looked back towards the cottage and heard one of the younger guard say "someone has a boyfriend". He was quickly reprimanded but Arabella could not help smiling to herself; if he only knew.
Will Helene and Arabella be able to resolve their differences when Arabella returns, how will the rest of the hunt be for both of them. Will King Oswald and Queen Aster think Helene is a suitable match for their son and what will it mean for Arabella's future?
"Are they within sight yet," Helene asked.
"I am beginning to wish I had sent you on the hunt," Isolda replied.
Isolda's appeared to be calm but secretly she was almost as anxious as her daughter. Without Ysabel around it was as if she was missing a limb and if Arabella had not returned with her then she would have to deal with Helene's disappointment.
"Was Lady Ysabel not back by this time of day," Helene asked.
"Indeed she was but, they did leave earlier that day. I shall go outside and find something to do before your nervous energy gets the better of me."
It felt odd for Isolda to have nobody to accompany her. For those years where Ysabel had remained at the castle with Gaspar and then Helene she had found Lady Catherine to be a perfect stand-in yet here Isolda was, walking around on her own.
The only time when Ysabel had not been a major part of her life was when Isolda first became involved with Prince Eadric as he was then. The countess had done her best to make Isolda's life a series of social engagements, giving her few chances to spend time with her best friend. The day that Eadric stated that he would wed the count's stepdaughter was a day of delight and horror for the countess, delight in getting her matched to a future king and horror that Ysabel would be her first lady in waiting. Isolda was smiling as she thought back to that day.
She had been staring into the distance while she was lost in her memories, now as everything came back into focus she saw a small group approaching on horseback.
It was definitely the group that Ysabel had left with but they were still too far away to see who was there. Isolda's eyes remained fixed on the group as they got ever closer; part of her wanted to run to the ruined battlements for a better angle but she knew that was not how a queen should behave.
Was that a second rider next to Lady Ysabel? She could not be sure yet. Yes there was definitely someone alongside her, it had to be Arabella, didn't it?
When they were close enough for her to see that it was indeed Arabella, queen Isolda released a breath that she did not remember holding.
She knew it was not fitting for a queen to be seen waiting around for members of her household so she stayed well out of the way as Ysabel and Arabella rode into the castle ruin.
As they prepared to dismount Isolda could stand it no longer so she strolled over to them.
"How was the ride?" she said to Ysabel.
"It was a nice easy ride. Of course that does not stop me from being glad I am done riding for the day," Ysabel said with a grin.
"Arabella how was your time back at home?" Isolda asked.
"Very good, I missed my family greatly, especially my mother."
Luckily the glance that Arabella and Ysabel exchanged went unnoticed.
"Yes you are of an age where a girl has greatest need of her mother for guidance and support," Isolda said.
Arabella had no idea how to respond.
"At least you have the consolation of your aunt close at hand." Isolda gestured towards Ysabel.
Arabella simply nodded.
"Come, let us return your belongings to our tent," Ysabel said.
"Let someone else attend to that, I shall call a bearer."
Ysabel would hear nothing of it and lead Arabella to their temporary home. Once they started to put things away she saw why it had been so important to do it now. In amongst Arabella's clothes were letters, she could not tell who they were from but they had not been there when she made ready at the cottage. Her aunt must have put them there and informed her mother as they left.
"May we go and see the princess now?" Arabella said once they had finished unpacking.
"You seem a little anxious," said Ysabel.
"I just want to know if we can still be friends," Arabella replied.
Before any more could be said there came a voice from outside of the tent.
"Lady Ysabel, Lady Arabella, I have been sent to fetch you."
It was Sarah, the attendant to Helene.
"What is the matter girl?" Ysabel asked.
"King Oswald has requested that Helene stands before him this very afternoon."
In next to no time Arabella was standing in support of Helene as she faced King Oswald doing his best to look friendly.
For what little attention she was paying King Oswald could have said absolutely anything about Helene and Arabella would not have reacted. She was plagued with doubt, they had no chance to say anything before this meeting so she had no idea what Helene's feelings towards her were.
Perhaps her decision to return had not been the right one after all.
"...what say you Lady Arabella?"
She was brought back with a bump; she didn't have any idea what King Oswald had asked her.
"Please accept my apologies your highness, I could not stop my mind from wandering. I have spent most of this day in the saddle."
King Oswald laughed, no one else saw the joke.
"That just goes to prove my point."
Arabella wished that she knew what point she had helped to prove and paid enough attention to make sure that she wasn't caught out again.
Some of the questions he asked Helene seemed rather personal but she still did her best to answer them.
Finally it looked like he had nothing more to say and he would make his excuses and give Arabella the chance to talk to Helene. However, life was not that kind to her, a messenger appeared to remind everyone that tonight's feast was almost ready to begin.
Arabella was now drawn tighter that any bowstring.
She began to walk away when a hand slipped into hers, it was Helene's hand.
Arabella looked her in the eye and saw a look of fear, it was replaced with relief when Helene realised that Arabella had not snatched her hand away. Slowly a smile crept onto Helene's face and it was contagious because Arabella could not stop herself from smiling too. There were matters that they still needed to resolve but the worst was over.
They walked to the meal still holding hands; a fact not lost on Isolda and Ysabel who were smiling wider than their children.
Not everybody shared their happiness, the countess was struggling to hide her displeasure. It would have been quite rational for her to accept defeat for a second time but she was not quite ready to give up.
During the meal the prince was determined to find out what his father had asked. Helene did tell him some of the things that had gone on but she was not about to tell him everything. She also shared some thoughts with Arabella so that she did not feel left out.
When they left the meal Arabella accompanied Helene to her bedchamber. Most of the adults were still eating so the only people around were a few guards.
"I am so glad you came back," Helene said at least twice.
"I could not just leave," Arabella replied, once.
At first Helene was happy at Arabella's reply but as they got to her bedchamber chamber she considered the possibility that her friend might not be back for good.
"Please don't leave," said Helene.
At first Arabella assumed that Helene wanted her to stay in her room, then she worked out what she actually meant.
"The only reason for me to leave again would be that I was not wanted," Arabella said.
"You are wanted by me. I became caught up in my moment at the front of the hunt; I am sorry for the things that I said."
She was close to tears.
"Then I have no reason to leave," Arabella replied.
Helene flung her arms around Arabella and refused to let go.
"I shall show you just how sorry I am," she said.
"I would be grateful if you could start by letting me breathe," Arabella replied.
Helene released her grip and Arabella took a deep breath.
"I ought to get to my bed otherwise we shall still be talking as the sun is rising," she said.
Helene nodded and started to prepare herself for bed as they said goodnight.
For the remainder of their time at the hunt events happened without incident. They worked with their hawks, spent time with the prince and rode with the main hunt one last time then almost as quickly as it had begun it was over.
Arabella stood at Helene’s side as King Oswald and Queen Aster bade farewell to King Eadric and Queen Isolda, mounted their horses with all their ceremonial splendour and started the journey back to their own kingdom. Prince Dariun raised his hand to acknowledge Helene then turned and rode alongside his sister as the entourage continued on its way. The tent city that had sprawled outside of the walls was less than half the size it had once been and within the walls provisions were being gathered together and carts were being loaded.
They returned to Helene’s room to find all her belongings safely stowed and ready to go, it was just a matter of time before they started their own journey.
As they made their way back to the city Arabella and Helene reflected on what had occurred, both good and bad.
They had tried new experiences, met people from other kingdoms who were friendly and amicable where their previous encounters had been somewhat frosty. Arabella had discovered that a person who looks too good to be true usually is while Helene had discovered a potential suitor. While they did not wish to dwell upon the negative times they did not want to forget them entirely.
As life at the castle began to settle back into its normal routine Arabella found herself missing some of the freedom of being out in the countryside. The stone walls seemed higher, not as confining as they became in winter but enough for her to be eager to go for a ride.
They both enjoyed the time they spent on the terrace whether it was archery or working with their hawks.
There was one new thing that Arabella was not happy with; there was now a messenger who carried the thoughts and deeds between the two kingdoms.
Helene and Arabella were in the middle of practising their musical skills when one of the chamberlain's men announced himself and entered the room.
"Your highness, ladies, the king requests your immediate presence in the great hall."
Helene and Arabella looked to each other for clues.
"Lady Ysabel, do you know what this is about?" asked Helene.
"Only that it is a matter of some importance but that is hardly news. A blind fool would know that to be true," she replied.
They walked briskly to the great hall where they found the king, queen and chamberlain waiting for them.
"Daughter I am sorry for being so dramatic but I have received a message of some importance," said Eadric.
He then started to read the message aloud until Isolda interrupted him.
"Now is not the time for the entire thing, just tell her the part in which she is involved."
"The message is from King Oswald and Queen Aster. They are suggesting that we visit their kingdom if we wish this courtship to continue," he said.
"Oh," said Helene. "Ohhhh, does that mean they approve, am I to be betrothed to Dariun?"
"Is that your wish?" said Eadric.
"I believe so, everything I have seen of the prince has been good," she replied.
"I shall draft a response and make the necessary arrangements. Meanwhile I have a message for you from Dariun and another for Arabella from his aide."
Arabella was shocked to hear from a boy who she hadn't even met. She had hoped to be able to read it in private so she might deal with whatever it said without all of the important people of the castle looking on, but that was not to be.
First she had to listen to Helene talking about her message from Dariun.
"He says that he to has only just become used to being back in his kingdom after the hunt and he hopes that we can visit soon otherwise he might try to visit us. Oh and he says that his sister is becoming more peculiar by the day."
"His parents gave no hint of a visit here but I know we can cope," King Eadric commented.
Arabella was not convinced that she could cope with it, nor was she impressed by the looks she was getting from people who obviously expected her to disclose the contents of her message. She glanced to Helene for support and all she got was the same expectant look.
"Tristram says that he has asked Prince Dariun about me and he feels like he knows me already, I wonder what the prince said. He also talks of a visit and says he cannot wait to meet me and my princess."
His message did say more but Arabella could not see how him talking about his injury had anything to do with anyone else.
"Chamberlain, we shall work on the arrangements forthwith, Helene and Arabella I trust you are able to produce replies so we might despatch a rider on the morrow," said Eadric.
Helene and Arabella returned to their room but did not resume the music lesson. Instead they set their minds to writing the replies. Even though the hunt had not been very long ago Helene had exchanged enough messages with the prince that she knew what to say. Arabella was not so fortunate, she hadn't written anything for a while and she did not even know the person that she was addressing. With a little bit of help from her mother she decided to keep it brief.
Once the messages were on their way Arabella thought no more of them, she found herself worrying about other things like her archery skills, being measured for the new dress that Lady Ysabel said she required and doing well in her studies.
At night her mind wandered to the days she spent with her aunt and cousins as Aron and of the things she talked over with Christiana, particularly her last words as they parted 'don't you dare forget about Aron.'
Helene and Arabella were at their studies again when they were informed of the arrival of a messenger but this time there was no summons. Queen Isolda lead the way into the room followed by the message bearer.
"There is another message for you from Prince Dariun and we are in discussion with his parents about our visit to their kingdom," said Isolda.
Helene read her message and jumped for joy.
"It seems that Dariun cannot wait for our visit. He and Tristram will be upon us in a matter of days."
Arabella wished that she could share in Helene's delight but she still had issues with princes and even more with their attendants or seconds. This was not good.
Over the next few days the preparations were made to welcome the prince and his aide. For the first time Arabella got an idea of how much work it took and this was just for the two of them and their escort, nothing like the entourage that she had previously been a part of.
When the arrival day came there was a sense of anticipation around the castle but that didn't extend to Arabella.
"What is the matter with you?" asked Helene.
"It is not as if I have had the best of fortunes in the presence of princes," she replied.
"I suppose not," Helene said then quickly became sheepish as she realised that she had played her own part in Arabella's misfortune and that her friend was using remarkable tact to avoid specifically mentioning it.
"Dariun is nice and I am certain that his aide will be every bit as nice as he is," she said.
"We shall see," Arabella said, expecting that she would be proved right while hoping to be proved wrong.
It was late in the day when the commotion from the courtyard told them that a party was arriving. Lady Ysabel lead Helene and Arabella down to greet their guests.
Dariun strode towards them while just behind him another adolescent boy walked with a noticeable limp; as hard as she tried to dislike him Arabella could only feel sorry for him.
"Good afternoon your highnesses," Dariun said to the king and queen who were present but were letting their daughter take a leading role.
"Good afternoon princess," he continued. "I trust you are well."
"I am indeed, Prince Dariun and I trust that you and your companion had a pleasant journey," Helene replied.
"We did indeed and that is due in no small part to the people waiting to greet us at the end of our ride."
On the inside Arabella was cringing at the prince's attempt at flattery, somehow she found a way to conceal it from everyone around her.
"Princess may I introduce my equerry and friend Tristram," he went on.
"I am glad to meet you at last," said Helene.
"Princess Helene I am glad finally to make your acquaintance; Prince Dariun has told me so much about you," said Tristram.
Arabella was reassured by his comment which was worth no worse than a small cringe.
"And this is my Lady in waiting and friend Lady Arabella. No doubt you will have much in common."
Arabella gave him a cordial greeting. She didn't think it was possible that he was a girl masquerading as a boy so couldn't see them having much in common.
The boys were shown to their quarters, Helene and Arabella accompanied them. Dariun chatted with Helene which left Arabella and Tristram to talk to each other, which might have been fine if either of them had known what to say.
"You were awfully quiet back there," said Helene.
"What would you have said to him?" asked Arabella.
"I would have asked him about his journey here or whether his leg is feeling better or what he thinks of our fair city," Helene replied.
Arabella sighed, maybe she was being harsh.
"He is not Bastian," Helene added.
"That may be true but I am still on my guard, I do not wish to say anything that might be twisted to be used against me," said Arabella.
Helene remembered her feelings before she got to know Prince Dariun, she had no great advice to give so instead she suggested that they played some music to pass the time until the meal.
For the meal itself Arabella had expected to be seated next to Helene but she was placed at the opposite end of the table next to Tristram. She tried to remember the things that Helene had suggested but before she managed that Tristram started the conversation.
"Was that you I heard playing earlier?" he said.
"Playing? Oh you mean the harp, yes it was the princess and I. How did you hear us?"
"After a long ride my leg gets stiff so I went for a wander to loosen it up a little, that is when the notes came floating through the window," he said.
"My... Lady Ysabel teaches us, she is a more accomplished player than either myself or princess Helene," said Arabella.
"The lute is my instrument of choice, perhaps one day we could play together?" he suggested.
"Yes maybe we could," she said and discovered she wasn't trying to fob him off.
By the time Arabella and Tristram had finished eating they were talking almost as freely as Helene and Dariun which had not gone unnoticed by Queen Isolda who was looking on and smiling.
Helene was smiling too as Arabella escorted her back to her chamber.
"I see that you found something to talk about in the end," she said.
"Yes that is true," replied Arabella."He does not make my flesh creep but I still feel the need to be on my guard around him."
Helene wished she could help Arabella to trust her male counterparts but that would only happen with enough positive experiences to outweigh the negatives.
The next morning Arabella was in almost the same spot in Helene’s chambers wondering what the day would bring. She had hoped to go to the terrace for some archery practise but with the prince and his aide in the castle that would be almost impossible.
“You look ready to scale the walls,” Helene said.
“That might be preferable to waiting to find out what is expected of us today,” Arabella replied.
The girls were looking out over the main courtyard when Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda entered.
“The two young men will be joining us in a little while,” Isolda said.
“Must they?” asked Arabella.
“Yes, they must. It is important to understand each other a little if things are to proceed,” said Ysabel.
Arabella would have been quite happy for things to not proceed but she knew better than to express those feelings.
Helene put an arm around her friend.
“They are not so bad,” she said.
Arabella did not reply.
When Dariun and Tristram made their appearance Arabella was much more composed; she and Helene sat facing the boys.
“This is a fine castle indeed,” said Dariun and Tristram nodded his agreement.
“The foundations were laid four generations ago,” Helene replied, remembering a fact from her history lessons.
“Is that so?” said Dariun, feigning interest.
“I hope it will not be long before I am visiting your castle,” said Helene.
“And I hope you find it just as impressive,” said Dariun.
At that moment Arabella had no desire to visit another castle, the memories of what she endured the last time she entered a foreign castle came flooding back to her. The image of one person filled her head and began to mock her.
Ysabel saw the change in her expression but was unable to do anything in the midst of the , she also noticed signs of concern from another quarter - Tristram.
“So what do you do for sport in these walls?” asked Dariun who was focussed on the princess.
“Sport?” said Helene.
“To entertain yourself and to keep yourself stimulated.”
“We do the things you have seen at the hunt, also we play music, and we have archery,” said Helene.
“We must do that, I am an excellent archer,” Dariun replied.
Arabella wished that Helene had found anything apart from archery to tell the prince and she hoped there would not be a joint session. She enjoyed their time on the terrace and shooting with accuracy, if the boys were there she could not show them her hand, it would not do to beat a prince (unless it was Prince Gaspar, beating him was not only acceptable it was satisfying too).
“Archery is one of my favourite pastimes also,” Tristram said.
“Yes, although you have yet to best my efforts, regardless of how poorly I shoot,” said Dariun as if he suspected that his ‘second’ chose to let him be the better archer.
“It is a puzzle indeed,” Tristram replied.
“I shall see what I can arrange,” Lady Ysabel said.
Arabella gave a small sigh.
“You do not enjoy it?” Dariun said to Arabella.
“It is not that, I am a passable archer, I am just not fond of the competition,” she said.
Helene looked at her strangely.
“Do not worry, I will go easy on you,” Dariun replied.
Helene’s strange look switched to the prince, she did not expect that kind of comment from him. She also realised how a statement like that would light a fire under Arabella so tried her best to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“Dariun, how long have had Tristram in your service?”
“It has been long enough that it feels like he has always been there, what say you Tristram?” Dariun replied.
“It is certainly long enough that I do not know and would merely be plucking a figure out of the air,” Tristram added.
But Helene was not giving her full attention, she was making sure that Arabella was not about to have a fiery outburst.
For the rest of their meeting Dariun managed to avoid saying anything controversial which was a relief to everyone, especially Helene who until that point had not thought him capable of such arrogance. Once the boys had left the room she apologized to Arabella just for mentioning archery.
“There is nothing to apologize for,” she replied.
“I wish you could beat him,” Helene said.
“I too wish it were possible, alas it is not, I must pretend to be less than I really am for all our sakes.”
There was some time to go before mealtime so Helene and Arabella spent it in the seclusion of the terrace.
“The worst thing about archery with the boys would be having to share all this,” said Arabella.
“It is bound to happen eventually but I agree I do not want them here yet,” she said.
They picked a seat and sat there quietly watching the clouds drift by and the occasional bird swoop down, hop about then notice them and fly off again.
It was anyone’s guess how long they had been there when they heard footsteps and then saw Sarah appear.
“Your highness, your ladyship, I have been sent to bring you back to your chamber, your mother wishes you to wear your new dress for tonight’s meal.”
“Very well,” Helene replied.
Reluctantly they rose and followed her.
When Helene entered the great hall in her new dress all eyes were upon her; it had some of the ethereal qualities of the garment that Dariun’s sister had worn when she arrived at the hunt and made a big impression upon Arabella but it was by no means a copy.
The king was pleased by his daughter’s appearance but his reaction was nothing compared to Prince Dariun who was struck dumb.
“Should I assume from your slack jaw that you like my dress?” said Helene as she was seated next to the prince.
He remained impassive at first then gradually he started to smile.
“I did not think it possible to improve upon your yet here you are looking like a dream, I do not wish to touch you for fear I might wake up,” he said.
Helene took his hand.
“Is this real enough for you?” she said.
Along the table the topic of conversation was also the dress.
“That dress is spectacular, you should have something similar,” said Tristram.
“I do,” Arabella replied.
“Then why are you not wearing it now?”
“Because all eyes should be on the princess in her finery and none on someone in her entourage,” she explained.
“I disagree, you are not just someone in her entourage, you are her closest friend and her confidante, your worth to her is greater than mine to Dariun. When you wear the finest of clothes you are showing that you are respected and you are returning that respect to your princess, your king and queen,” Tristram said.
Arabella pondered what he had said.
“You make your point well,” she said. “I shall think upon this some more.”
“I am glad and I hope that before we leave I might see you dressed in such a style as your princess.”
She had not been the subject of such flattery before and did not know how to handle it, she hoped no one else could see her blushes at that moment.
Later in the privacy of their room Ysabel and Arabella talked about the day and the two boys’ comments.
“I wish it were possible for you to give the prince an archery lesson, his attitude is deserving of it,” Ysabel said.
“I know I cannot,” said Arabella.
“You must be content with being underestimated and knowing that when your time comes you can show your talent and shock him to his core.”
That was an idea that appealed very much.
“How are you coping with Tristram?” Ysabel asked.
“I am unsure, he is not at all what I was expecting, he seems friendly, polite and he can make me smile from time to time.”
“I wish I did,” Arabella said.
“We already know he is nothing like Bastian, he knows that with the planned betrothal you would be expected to accompany Helene to Dariun’s home and he wishes to ease that transition. I suspect that he was raised elsewhere and knows what it is like to live in a strange kingdom,” Ysabel said.
“So he does not wish to take me as his wife?”
“It is my belief that he wants you to be happy and if you are happy you might consider him acceptable to you,” Ysabel replied.
“How do you know these things,” Arabella asked.
“Some of what I have told you has taken place before my eyes and some of it I have lived myself,” Ysabel said.
Arabella wanted to know more but something told her that now was not the time so she changed the subject.
“Do you think we could do something to help him with his leg?”
“Yes I do, persuading him to accept my help could prove difficult though,” Ysabel replied.
“I think I can get his agreement,” Arabella said with a glint in her eye as she started to get ready for bed.
The day which followed was mostly unremarkable, Helene and Arabella had the whole morning to themselves and in the afternoon they had another meeting with the boys and this time nothing remotely controversial was said. They only parted to prepare themselves for another outstanding meal. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the subsequent days of the visit.
It was a lovely bright morning and Arabella was with Helene making sure that everything was ready for their ride.
“I am glad to be leaving the castle, I like having guests here but I have started to feel confined,” said Helene.
“I couldn’t agree more, it will be nice to see large expanses of green instead of blocks of grey,” Arabella replied then added. “This is definitely just a ride, not a hunt?”
“Yes, just a hunt although I am sure we could find something to chase if you wish it,” said Helene.
Arabella went to reply, saw the grin on her friend’s face and thought better of it.
When they reached the stables it was already a hive of activity; as well as their own horses they had to contend with Lady Ysabel’s, the guards who would accompany them, Dariun and Tristram and the prince’s own escort party.
“There is nothing like a small informal ride,” Helene said quietly to Arabella.
“And this is nothing like one,” Arabella laughed.
“Shall we ride off quickly and leave everyone else to it?”
“It is tempting but I think we would be wiser to ride with the guard,” Arabella replied.
“That would be the sensible thing to do,” said Lady Ysabel who had joined them unnoticed.
The guard captain made sure that everyone was ready then had them leave in two groups, much to the irritation of Helene and Arabella.
Dariun and his party departed first which meant that the girls were waiting impatiently in the stables.
“I understand why boys take the lead in many things but I am vexed to know why they should be first out on an occasion such as this,” said Helene.
It was Lady Ysabel who replied.
“Sometimes things occur because that is how it has always been, this may be one of those things.”
Once they were allowed to go their party made its way briskly through the city and out of the west gate, the prince’s party were a short distance ahead so they broke into a canter to catch them up and from there on travelled as a single unit.
Dariun and Helene rode together with Tristram and Arabella just behind, Ysabel followed all four to make sure that nothing untoward happened.
“There is a pleasant country atmosphere here, I hope you will find my home surroundings every bit as pleasing,” Dariun said to Helene.
“I look forward to finding out,” Helene replied.
Arabella and Tristram were engaged in a conversation of their own.
“Your leg troubles you I think,” Arabella said.
“It is mostly stiffness but on occasion I do feel a pain deep within my lower leg,” Tristram replied.
“Our family is said to be gifted with herbs and healing, would you let my.. aunt take a look?”
“And who exactly is your aunt?”
“Lady Ysabel is she.”
“All becomes clear,” said Tristram.
“It does?” said Arabella.
“I should have noticed the family resemblance before,” Tristram said.
“I suppose so, would you let us help you in this small way?” Arabella asked.
“It is a most unconventional offer,” he replied.
“I shall wear the dress this evening.”
“You will, you promise?”
“Yes, you have my word,” Arabella stated.
“Then we have an agreement,” he replied.
Arabella looked back at her mother who gave a nod of acknowledgement.
The entire party was on its way back to the castle when Tristram noticed the changes in the sky and pointed at the cloud formations.
“Look, thunderheads. I do love a good storm,” he said.
Helene became uneasy just at the thought of a good storm.
“What is there to love about strong winds and heavy rain?” asked Arabella.
“It is the flashes and bangs that I love to watch from within a good strong building, maybe we might get the chance to do that this evening,” he replied.
“I shall pass on that opportunity,” said Helene.
At first Tristram was perplexed, then he realised what the princess’ problem was, unfortunately Dariun was not as quick to catch on.
“I think it is a fine idea, we should watch the power of nature with awe.”
“I would rather not,” Helene stated.
“Oh come on there is nothing to worry about unless you are... umm... oh dear,” he said as his thoughts caught up.
“Unless I was what, Dariun?”
“You might as well finish what you have started, you were saying unless I was scared, weren’t you? Well I am sorry to disappoint you but thunder fills me with dread,” she said.
“I did not mean...” Dariun started to say then decided keeping quiet was a better choice.
The rest of the ride was conducted with no chatter at all, Helene was still , Dariun was keeping his head down and both Arabella and Tristram were following the leads of their .
Helene had calmed down a little by the time they got back to the stables but she was not ready to talk to Dariun and left as quickly as she could.
While they were getting prepared for the meal Arabella did her best to talk Helene round.
“He did not mean it in quite the way you took it,” she said.
“How was I supposed to take it,” Helene replied.
“I will grant you his words were clumsy but there was no malice, he simply did not know.”
“I suppose not, anyway it is not like I gain any pleasure from how I am during a storm,” Helene said.
“I know, I am usually with you,” said Arabella.
“Yes, if anyone else knows just how I am it is you, I am sorry.”
She took Arabella’s hands in hers and smiled.
“So what am I to wear this evening,” Helene asked.
“I think you should wear your new dress again,” Arabella replied.
“I am not so sure, Dariun might think that I had totally forgiven him.”
“I plan to wear mine,” said Arabella.
“Really!” Helene replied. “And what has made you decide that?”
“I just felt it was time. We both have new dresses why should we not wear them?” said Arabella.
Helene knew there was more to it than that so she pressed on.
“No other person has influenced your decision then, say a certain boy whose name begins with T?”
Arabella looked around the room trying to avoid her friend’s gaze but deep down she knew she would have to say something.
“I admit it is something we have discussed and he told me that wearing my finest clothes shows that I am respected and that I respect you and the King and Queen,” she said.
“He makes a good point, but that does not obscure the fact that you have been influenced by a boy, maybe you are coming around to his charms.”
When Arabella entered the great hall at Helene’s side she felt as if she was the one everybody was looking at, it was a most uncomfortable feeling. She was glad to make it to the table and take her place before her legs became more unstable.
“You look stunning,” said Tristram.
“Thank you.” was the only response she could think of and it took a while for her to engage in conversation.
Along the table Dariun was attempting to right his earlier wrongs with limited success.
“No Dariun, we are here to eat not to listen to your excuses,” Helene said.
“But we need to resolve our differences,” he replied.
“And we will, just not here and not now,” Helene said.
Dariun knew to cut his losses for the evening and find a different subject to discuss.
The first rumblings of the storm they had seen in the distant sky came at the end of the meal and by the time Helene was in her bedchamber the noises were much closer and she was on the verge of panic. Arabella knew it would be a long night for her.
Lady Ysabel made sure that the girls were not disturbed until mid-morning, she had checked on them as part of her early morning routine and knew with one look that they needed as much extra sleep as could be afforded.
It was Isolda who woke them, much to Arabella’s embarrassment.
“Your highness, I apologise that you find me in your daughter’s bedchamber in this state.”
“Arabella, this is another of those times where your apology is unnecessary, I know why you are here and once again you have my gratitude for being here when my daughter needed you,” replied Isolda.
“Thank you my queen,” said Arabella.
“That is more like it. I suggest that you take your time to get ready, we have nothing planned for this morning but after noon we have arranged for some archery,” said Isolda.
“On the terrace?” asked Helene.
“No, that will remain a private space for now, we will use the space in front of the keep,” said Isolda.
“Then I really have to shoot badly in such a public space,” said Arabella.
“It is true that you cannot be seen to outperform the prince but keeping your arrows just outside of his should prove a challenge worthy of your skills,” said Ysabel.
Arabella smiled, maybe she could enjoy it after all.
The afternoon was enjoyable, even though it was not quite what she had been expecting. Everything had been set up next to the keep and Robert was overseeing the final adjustments to two targets, the boys were already there, sitting on a bundle of straw.
Helene and Arabella went first which gave Arabella something extra to think about, she was expected to be less successful than Dariun without first knowing how well he could perform. Quietly she explained her dilemma to Helene.
“Let me go first to give you more time,” Helene said.
As she loosed her first arrow the solution became clear to Arabella and it was Helene who had provided it. If she followed Helene’s lead with the placement of her own arrows then she would give a good solid display that should be readily surpassed by anyone with the talent Dariun claimed to possess.
She did her best to give a similar performance to the princess but there were a couple of arrows closer to the centre than she had planned so Arabella hoped the prince was not exaggerating his talent.
By the end of everyone’s first turn Arabella knew that if she ever needed to shoot at her best she could outperform Dariun, but so far he was the most successful archer. Tristram came a close second but there was something about him that Arabella could not quite figure out.
They switched partners for their second turn and Arabella was shooting with Dariun which made it much easier for her to know where to place her arrows although she still had to be mindful to conceal her true talent. Helene and Tristram shot roughly the same and again there was something off.
For their third turn Arabella and Tristram were paired; she had hoped watching him closely would give her the chance to figure out what was bothering her. As they fired in turn it seemed all they did was get closer to the edge of the target, Arabella’s confusion was getting worse, not better. Suddenly inspiration came to her like a hawk diving on its prey, he was doing exactly the same thing as her, trying to underachieve.
“So that is how it is,” Arabella said to Tristram with a smile on her face.
“How what is?” he replied.
“Shall we start closer to the centre and go outwards again?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
When Arabella did what she had just talked about she watched Tristram’s arrows saying what his lips would not admit, she could predict roughly where each one would go. She waited until they had fired all their arrows then spoke quietly to Tristram.
“Now I understand why your prince always comes out on top.”
He knew she had seen through his charade and he admitted it in the only way that was respectful to the prince, himself and Arabella by refusing to deny it.
Dariun and Helene joined them.
“I see you had some lucky shots,” he said.
“Luck was less of a factor than you might think,” Arabella responded.
“If that is true we should have a one arrow shoot off, closest to the centre wins,”
“Don’t,” Tristram said to Dariun.
“Calm down,” Helene said to Arabella then turned to Dariun.
“Really, you would goad my lady into such a challenge, I expected better, if you win then you say you told her so and if you lose then you still say her shot was lucky, I want no part of this. I trust both of you to do what is right.”
She strode off and did not look back.
Arabella resisted the temptation to fire an arrow into the very centre of the target and hurried after her.
“Why do you push your luck,” Tristram said to the prince. “Helene is right so let us pray she does not hold a grudge for long.”
“Archery is so hotly contested within the family that sometimes I forget myself,” Dariun replied.
Inside the keep Arabella was following closely behind Helene who was walking briskly to make sure Dariun would not be likely to catch up if he decided to come after her..
“I am sorry I let that happen,” Arabella said.
“You did nothing wrong, it was the prince who was totally to blame, ” said Helene resolutely.
At the mealtime relations between Helene and Dariun had not thawed, even with him attempting another apology. Arabella and Tristram had no such issues and the queen was again pleased.
“Please thank your aunt for her help, this is the best my leg has felt since the accident,” Tristram said.
“I am glad,” Arabella replied.
“Does she have anything that might put aside the differences of the prince and princess?”
“It would be good if such a thing existed but I suspect it would be considered witchcraft.”
“Yes, you are probably correct, maybe if they were to be locked in a room together,” Tristram said.
“After making sure that nothing of value remains within,” said Arabella.
Tristram thought of Dariun ducking while Helene threw things at him.
“Indeed,” he said with a grin.
That evening in the princess’ bedchamber Arabella felt obliged to speak of the prince.
“Can you not find it within you to at least forgive Prince Dariun?”
“Does he deserve it?” said Helene.
“He made a mistake, something that we have done ourselves, I say he has earned the right,” said Arabella.
“Very well, I shall not forget though.”
Arabella breathed a sigh of relief.
“Goodnight princess,” she said and made for the door.
“Goodnight Arabella, what would I do without you,” Helene replied.
Arabella smiled and closed the door behind her, she walked back to the room she shared with her mother, unusually Lady Ysabel had not yet returned to it so she put herself to bed.
When Arabella awoke her mother was not in bed but there were signs it had been slept in so she thought no more about it and prepared herself for the day ahead.
The princess seemed in a better mood and the day looked like it would be a good one all round until Lady Ysabel let herself in.
“Princess, you are needed in the stables,” she said.
“What is the matter?” Arabella asked.
“Prince Dariun is preparing to leave.”
“That is very sudden,” said Helene.
“He feels he has upset you and to remain here would just prolong your upset,” Ysabel said.
“Then we must get to the stables forthwith,” Helene said.
Lady Ysabel swept through the castle with Helene and Arabella keeping pace alongside her, by the time they reached the stables Dariun was securing the last of his possessions to his horse.
“Princess, have you come to make sure that I am leaving?”
“No Prince Dariun, far from it, may we have a moment alone?”
They went off to a quieter spot leaving Ysabel, Arabella and Tristram in the midst of the prince’s riding party.
“I am glad you persuaded her to come down,” Tristram said to Arabella.
“There was no persuasion required,” Arabella replied. “The moment she heard you were preparing to leave the only thing on her mind was to come and talk.”
“So we may still get to play together after all.”
Arabella gazed at him blankly until it dawned on her he was talking about music.
“We might, but I wager your lute travels much easier than my harp,” she said.
Before he could reply their attention was drawn to the prince and princess who had finished talking and were coming back over to the horses.
“We are reconciled but I still believe it is time for us to depart,” he stated.
As Dariun was almost ready to mount his horse Helene stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.
“I do not suppose you will be following the lead of your princess,” Tristram said to Arabella, the look he received told him she would not. Taking the initiative he kissed her on the back of the hand the mounted his horse before she could do anything.
All Arabella managed to do was blush.
“Goodbye Princess,” said Dariun. “I trust we shall be seeing you soon.”
“Farewell Prince Dariun, it will not be long until we make our return visit, stay safe on your journey home,” said Helene.
“We shall, I will make sure of that,” said Tristram.
The girls stood and watched as Dariun, Tristram and their escort left the stables then they followed Lady Ysabel back inside the keep to start their day’s activities.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.