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."