"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.