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?