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.