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 Starfire and 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.