"Are they within sight yet," Helene asked.
"I am beginning to wish I had sent you on the hunt," Isolda replied.
Isolda's appeared to be calm but secretly she was almost as anxious as her daughter. Without Ysabel around it was as if she was missing a limb and if Arabella had not returned with her then she would have to deal with Helene's disappointment.
"Was Lady Ysabel not back by this time of day," Helene asked.
"Indeed she was but, they did leave earlier that day. I shall go outside and find something to do before your nervous energy gets the better of me."
It felt odd for Isolda to have nobody to accompany her. For those years where Ysabel had remained at the castle with Gaspar and then Helene she had found Lady Catherine to be a perfect stand-in yet here Isolda was, walking around on her own.
The only time when Ysabel had not been a major part of her life was when Isolda first became involved with Prince Eadric as he was then. The countess had done her best to make Isolda's life a series of social engagements, giving her few chances to spend time with her best friend. The day that Eadric stated that he would wed the count's stepdaughter was a day of delight and horror for the countess, delight in getting her matched to a future king and horror that Ysabel would be her first lady in waiting. Isolda was smiling as she thought back to that day.
She had been staring into the distance while she was lost in her memories, now as everything came back into focus she saw a small group approaching on horseback.
It was definitely the group that Ysabel had left with but they were still too far away to see who was there. Isolda's eyes remained fixed on the group as they got ever closer; part of her wanted to run to the ruined battlements for a better angle but she knew that was not how a queen should behave.
Was that a second rider next to Lady Ysabel? She could not be sure yet. Yes there was definitely someone alongside her, it had to be Arabella, didn't it?
When they were close enough for her to see that it was indeed Arabella, queen Isolda released a breath that she did not remember holding.
She knew it was not fitting for a queen to be seen waiting around for members of her household so she stayed well out of the way as Ysabel and Arabella rode into the castle ruin.
As they prepared to dismount Isolda could stand it no longer so she strolled over to them.
"How was the ride?" she said to Ysabel.
"It was a nice easy ride. Of course that does not stop me from being glad I am done riding for the day," Ysabel said with a grin.
"Arabella how was your time back at home?" Isolda asked.
"Very good, I missed my family greatly, especially my mother."
Luckily the glance that Arabella and Ysabel exchanged went unnoticed.
"Yes you are of an age where a girl has greatest need of her mother for guidance and support," Isolda said.
Arabella had no idea how to respond.
"At least you have the consolation of your aunt close at hand." Isolda gestured towards Ysabel.
Arabella simply nodded.
"Come, let us return your belongings to our tent," Ysabel said.
"Let someone else attend to that, I shall call a bearer."
Ysabel would hear nothing of it and lead Arabella to their temporary home. Once they started to put things away she saw why it had been so important to do it now. In amongst Arabella's clothes were letters, she could not tell who they were from but they had not been there when she made ready at the cottage. Her aunt must have put them there and informed her mother as they left.
"May we go and see the princess now?" Arabella said once they had finished unpacking.
"You seem a little anxious," said Ysabel.
"I just want to know if we can still be friends," Arabella replied.
Before any more could be said there came a voice from outside of the tent.
"Lady Ysabel, Lady Arabella, I have been sent to fetch you."
It was Sarah, the attendant to Helene.
"What is the matter girl?" Ysabel asked.
"King Oswald has requested that Helene stands before him this very afternoon."
In next to no time Arabella was standing in support of Helene as she faced King Oswald doing his best to look friendly.
For what little attention she was paying King Oswald could have said absolutely anything about Helene and Arabella would not have reacted. She was plagued with doubt, they had no chance to say anything before this meeting so she had no idea what Helene's feelings towards her were.
Perhaps her decision to return had not been the right one after all.
"...what say you Lady Arabella?"
She was brought back with a bump; she didn't have any idea what King Oswald had asked her.
"Please accept my apologies your highness, I could not stop my mind from wandering. I have spent most of this day in the saddle."
King Oswald laughed, no one else saw the joke.
"That just goes to prove my point."
Arabella wished that she knew what point she had helped to prove and paid enough attention to make sure that she wasn't caught out again.
Some of the questions he asked Helene seemed rather personal but she still did her best to answer them.
Finally it looked like he had nothing more to say and he would make his excuses and give Arabella the chance to talk to Helene. However, life was not that kind to her, a messenger appeared to remind everyone that tonight's feast was almost ready to begin.
Arabella was now drawn tighter that any bowstring.
She began to walk away when a hand slipped into hers, it was Helene's hand.
Arabella looked her in the eye and saw a look of fear, it was replaced with relief when Helene realised that Arabella had not snatched her hand away. Slowly a smile crept onto Helene's face and it was contagious because Arabella could not stop herself from smiling too. There were matters that they still needed to resolve but the worst was over.
They walked to the meal still holding hands; a fact not lost on Isolda and Ysabel who were smiling wider than their children.
Not everybody shared their happiness, the countess was struggling to hide her displeasure. It would have been quite rational for her to accept defeat for a second time but she was not quite ready to give up.
During the meal the prince was determined to find out what his father had asked. Helene did tell him some of the things that had gone on but she was not about to tell him everything. She also shared some thoughts with Arabella so that she did not feel left out.
When they left the meal Arabella accompanied Helene to her bedchamber. Most of the adults were still eating so the only people around were a few guards.
"I am so glad you came back," Helene said at least twice.
"I could not just leave," Arabella replied, once.
At first Helene was happy at Arabella's reply but as they got to her bedchamber chamber she considered the possibility that her friend might not be back for good.
"Please don't leave," said Helene.
At first Arabella assumed that Helene wanted her to stay in her room, then she worked out what she actually meant.
"The only reason for me to leave again would be that I was not wanted," Arabella said.
"You are wanted by me. I became caught up in my moment at the front of the hunt; I am sorry for the things that I said."
She was close to tears.
"Then I have no reason to leave," Arabella replied.
Helene flung her arms around Arabella and refused to let go.
"I shall show you just how sorry I am," she said.
"I would be grateful if you could start by letting me breathe," Arabella replied.
Helene released her grip and Arabella took a deep breath.
"I ought to get to my bed otherwise we shall still be talking as the sun is rising," she said.
Helene nodded and started to prepare herself for bed as they said goodnight.
For the remainder of their time at the hunt events happened without incident. They worked with their hawks, spent time with the prince and rode with the main hunt one last time then almost as quickly as it had begun it was over.
Arabella stood at Helene’s side as King Oswald and Queen Aster bade farewell to King Eadric and Queen Isolda, mounted their horses with all their ceremonial splendour and started the journey back to their own kingdom. Prince Dariun raised his hand to acknowledge Helene then turned and rode alongside his sister as the entourage continued on its way. The tent city that had sprawled outside of the walls was less than half the size it had once been and within the walls provisions were being gathered together and carts were being loaded.
They returned to Helene’s room to find all her belongings safely stowed and ready to go, it was just a matter of time before they started their own journey.
As they made their way back to the city Arabella and Helene reflected on what had occurred, both good and bad.
They had tried new experiences, met people from other kingdoms who were friendly and amicable where their previous encounters had been somewhat frosty. Arabella had discovered that a person who looks too good to be true usually is while Helene had discovered a potential suitor. While they did not wish to dwell upon the negative times they did not want to forget them entirely.
As life at the castle began to settle back into its normal routine Arabella found herself missing some of the freedom of being out in the countryside. The stone walls seemed higher, not as confining as they became in winter but enough for her to be eager to go for a ride.
They both enjoyed the time they spent on the terrace whether it was archery or working with their hawks.
There was one new thing that Arabella was not happy with; there was now a messenger who carried the thoughts and deeds between the two kingdoms.
Helene and Arabella were in the middle of practising their musical skills when one of the chamberlain's men announced himself and entered the room.
"Your highness, ladies, the king requests your immediate presence in the great hall."
Helene and Arabella looked to each other for clues.
"Lady Ysabel, do you know what this is about?" asked Helene.
"Only that it is a matter of some importance but that is hardly news. A blind fool would know that to be true," she replied.
They walked briskly to the great hall where they found the king, queen and chamberlain waiting for them.
"Daughter I am sorry for being so dramatic but I have received a message of some importance," said Eadric.
He then started to read the message aloud until Isolda interrupted him.
"Now is not the time for the entire thing, just tell her the part in which she is involved."
"The message is from King Oswald and Queen Aster. They are suggesting that we visit their kingdom if we wish this courtship to continue," he said.
"Oh," said Helene. "Ohhhh, does that mean they approve, am I to be betrothed to Dariun?"
"Is that your wish?" said Eadric.
"I believe so, everything I have seen of the prince has been good," she replied.
"I shall draft a response and make the necessary arrangements. Meanwhile I have a message for you from Dariun and another for Arabella from his aide."
Arabella was shocked to hear from a boy who she hadn't even met. She had hoped to be able to read it in private so she might deal with whatever it said without all of the important people of the castle looking on, but that was not to be.
First she had to listen to Helene talking about her message from Dariun.
"He says that he to has only just become used to being back in his kingdom after the hunt and he hopes that we can visit soon otherwise he might try to visit us. Oh and he says that his sister is becoming more peculiar by the day."
"His parents gave no hint of a visit here but I know we can cope," King Eadric commented.
Arabella was not convinced that she could cope with it, nor was she impressed by the looks she was getting from people who obviously expected her to disclose the contents of her message. She glanced to Helene for support and all she got was the same expectant look.
"Tristram says that he has asked Prince Dariun about me and he feels like he knows me already, I wonder what the prince said. He also talks of a visit and says he cannot wait to meet me and my princess."
His message did say more but Arabella could not see how him talking about his injury had anything to do with anyone else.
"Chamberlain, we shall work on the arrangements forthwith, Helene and Arabella I trust you are able to produce replies so we might despatch a rider on the morrow," said Eadric.
Helene and Arabella returned to their room but did not resume the music lesson. Instead they set their minds to writing the replies. Even though the hunt had not been very long ago Helene had exchanged enough messages with the prince that she knew what to say. Arabella was not so fortunate, she hadn't written anything for a while and she did not even know the person that she was addressing. With a little bit of help from her mother she decided to keep it brief.
Once the messages were on their way Arabella thought no more of them, she found herself worrying about other things like her archery skills, being measured for the new dress that Lady Ysabel said she required and doing well in her studies.
At night her mind wandered to the days she spent with her aunt and cousins as Aron and of the things she talked over with Christiana, particularly her last words as they parted 'don't you dare forget about Aron.'
Helene and Arabella were at their studies again when they were informed of the arrival of a messenger but this time there was no summons. Queen Isolda lead the way into the room followed by the message bearer.
"There is another message for you from Prince Dariun and we are in discussion with his parents about our visit to their kingdom," said Isolda.
Helene read her message and jumped for joy.
"It seems that Dariun cannot wait for our visit. He and Tristram will be upon us in a matter of days."
Arabella wished that she could share in Helene's delight but she still had issues with princes and even more with their attendants or seconds. This was not good.
Over the next few days the preparations were made to welcome the prince and his aide. For the first time Arabella got an idea of how much work it took and this was just for the two of them and their escort, nothing like the entourage that she had previously been a part of.
When the arrival day came there was a sense of anticipation around the castle but that didn't extend to Arabella.
"What is the matter with you?" asked Helene.
"It is not as if I have had the best of fortunes in the presence of princes," she replied.
"I suppose not," Helene said then quickly became sheepish as she realised that she had played her own part in Arabella's misfortune and that her friend was using remarkable tact to avoid specifically mentioning it.
"Dariun is nice and I am certain that his aide will be every bit as nice as he is," she said.
"We shall see," Arabella said, expecting that she would be proved right while hoping to be proved wrong.
It was late in the day when the commotion from the courtyard told them that a party was arriving. Lady Ysabel lead Helene and Arabella down to greet their guests.
Dariun strode towards them while just behind him another adolescent boy walked with a noticeable limp; as hard as she tried to dislike him Arabella could only feel sorry for him.
"Good afternoon your highnesses," Dariun said to the king and queen who were present but were letting their daughter take a leading role.
"Good afternoon princess," he continued. "I trust you are well."
"I am indeed, Prince Dariun and I trust that you and your companion had a pleasant journey," Helene replied.
"We did indeed and that is due in no small part to the people waiting to greet us at the end of our ride."
On the inside Arabella was cringing at the prince's attempt at flattery, somehow she found a way to conceal it from everyone around her.
"Princess may I introduce my equerry and friend Tristram," he went on.
"I am glad to meet you at last," said Helene.
"Princess Helene I am glad finally to make your acquaintance; Prince Dariun has told me so much about you," said Tristram.
Arabella was reassured by his comment which was worth no worse than a small cringe.
"And this is my Lady in waiting and friend Lady Arabella. No doubt you will have much in common."
Arabella gave him a cordial greeting. She didn't think it was possible that he was a girl masquerading as a boy so couldn't see them having much in common.
The boys were shown to their quarters, Helene and Arabella accompanied them. Dariun chatted with Helene which left Arabella and Tristram to talk to each other, which might have been fine if either of them had known what to say.
"You were awfully quiet back there," said Helene.
"What would you have said to him?" asked Arabella.
"I would have asked him about his journey here or whether his leg is feeling better or what he thinks of our fair city," Helene replied.
Arabella sighed, maybe she was being harsh.
"He is not Bastian," Helene added.
"That may be true but I am still on my guard, I do not wish to say anything that might be twisted to be used against me," said Arabella.
Helene remembered her feelings before she got to know Prince Dariun, she had no great advice to give so instead she suggested that they played some music to pass the time until the meal.
For the meal itself Arabella had expected to be seated next to Helene but she was placed at the opposite end of the table next to Tristram. She tried to remember the things that Helene had suggested but before she managed that Tristram started the conversation.
"Was that you I heard playing earlier?" he said.
"Playing? Oh you mean the harp, yes it was the princess and I. How did you hear us?"
"After a long ride my leg gets stiff so I went for a wander to loosen it up a little, that is when the notes came floating through the window," he said.
"My... Lady Ysabel teaches us, she is a more accomplished player than either myself or princess Helene," said Arabella.
"The lute is my instrument of choice, perhaps one day we could play together?" he suggested.
"Yes maybe we could," she said and discovered she wasn't trying to fob him off.
By the time Arabella and Tristram had finished eating they were talking almost as freely as Helene and Dariun which had not gone unnoticed by Queen Isolda who was looking on and smiling.
Helene was smiling too as Arabella escorted her back to her chamber.
"I see that you found something to talk about in the end," she said.
"Yes that is true," replied Arabella."He does not make my flesh creep but I still feel the need to be on my guard around him."
Helene wished she could help Arabella to trust her male counterparts but that would only happen with enough positive experiences to outweigh the negatives.
The next morning Arabella was in almost the same spot in Helene’s chambers wondering what the day would bring. She had hoped to go to the terrace for some archery practise but with the prince and his aide in the castle that would be almost impossible.
“You look ready to scale the walls,” Helene said.
“That might be preferable to waiting to find out what is expected of us today,” Arabella replied.
The girls were looking out over the main courtyard when Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda entered.
“The two young men will be joining us in a little while,” Isolda said.
“Must they?” asked Arabella.
“Yes, they must. It is important to understand each other a little if things are to proceed,” said Ysabel.
Arabella would have been quite happy for things to not proceed but she knew better than to express those feelings.
Helene put an arm around her friend.
“They are not so bad,” she said.
Arabella did not reply.
When Dariun and Tristram made their appearance Arabella was much more composed; she and Helene sat facing the boys.
“This is a fine castle indeed,” said Dariun and Tristram nodded his agreement.
“The foundations were laid four generations ago,” Helene replied, remembering a fact from her history lessons.
“Is that so?” said Dariun, feigning interest.
“I hope it will not be long before I am visiting your castle,” said Helene.
“And I hope you find it just as impressive,” said Dariun.
At that moment Arabella had no desire to visit another castle, the memories of what she endured the last time she entered a foreign castle came flooding back to her. The image of one person filled her head and began to mock her.
Ysabel saw the change in her expression but was unable to do anything in the midst of the , she also noticed signs of concern from another quarter - Tristram.
“So what do you do for sport in these walls?” asked Dariun who was focussed on the princess.
“Sport?” said Helene.
“To entertain yourself and to keep yourself stimulated.”
“We do the things you have seen at the hunt, also we play music, and we have archery,” said Helene.
“We must do that, I am an excellent archer,” Dariun replied.
Arabella wished that Helene had found anything apart from archery to tell the prince and she hoped there would not be a joint session. She enjoyed their time on the terrace and shooting with accuracy, if the boys were there she could not show them her hand, it would not do to beat a prince (unless it was Prince Gaspar, beating him was not only acceptable it was satisfying too).
“Archery is one of my favourite pastimes also,” Tristram said.
“Yes, although you have yet to best my efforts, regardless of how poorly I shoot,” said Dariun as if he suspected that his ‘second’ chose to let him be the better archer.
“It is a puzzle indeed,” Tristram replied.
“I shall see what I can arrange,” Lady Ysabel said.
Arabella gave a small sigh.
“You do not enjoy it?” Dariun said to Arabella.
“It is not that, I am a passable archer, I am just not fond of the competition,” she said.
Helene looked at her strangely.
“Do not worry, I will go easy on you,” Dariun replied.
Helene’s strange look switched to the prince, she did not expect that kind of comment from him. She also realised how a statement like that would light a fire under Arabella so tried her best to steer the conversation in a different direction.
“Dariun, how long have had Tristram in your service?”
“It has been long enough that it feels like he has always been there, what say you Tristram?” Dariun replied.
“It is certainly long enough that I do not know and would merely be plucking a figure out of the air,” Tristram added.
But Helene was not giving her full attention, she was making sure that Arabella was not about to have a fiery outburst.
For the rest of their meeting Dariun managed to avoid saying anything controversial which was a relief to everyone, especially Helene who until that point had not thought him capable of such arrogance. Once the boys had left the room she apologized to Arabella just for mentioning archery.
“There is nothing to apologize for,” she replied.
“I wish you could beat him,” Helene said.
“I too wish it were possible, alas it is not, I must pretend to be less than I really am for all our sakes.”
There was some time to go before mealtime so Helene and Arabella spent it in the seclusion of the terrace.
“The worst thing about archery with the boys would be having to share all this,” said Arabella.
“It is bound to happen eventually but I agree I do not want them here yet,” she said.
They picked a seat and sat there quietly watching the clouds drift by and the occasional bird swoop down, hop about then notice them and fly off again.
It was anyone’s guess how long they had been there when they heard footsteps and then saw Sarah appear.
“Your highness, your ladyship, I have been sent to bring you back to your chamber, your mother wishes you to wear your new dress for tonight’s meal.”
“Very well,” Helene replied.
Reluctantly they rose and followed her.
When Helene entered the great hall in her new dress all eyes were upon her; it had some of the ethereal qualities of the garment that Dariun’s sister had worn when she arrived at the hunt and made a big impression upon Arabella but it was by no means a copy.
The king was pleased by his daughter’s appearance but his reaction was nothing compared to Prince Dariun who was struck dumb.
“Should I assume from your slack jaw that you like my dress?” said Helene as she was seated next to the prince.
He remained impassive at first then gradually he started to smile.
“I did not think it possible to improve upon your yet here you are looking like a dream, I do not wish to touch you for fear I might wake up,” he said.
Helene took his hand.
“Is this real enough for you?” she said.
Along the table the topic of conversation was also the dress.
“That dress is spectacular, you should have something similar,” said Tristram.
“I do,” Arabella replied.
“Then why are you not wearing it now?”
“Because all eyes should be on the princess in her finery and none on someone in her entourage,” she explained.
“I disagree, you are not just someone in her entourage, you are her closest friend and her confidante, your worth to her is greater than mine to Dariun. When you wear the finest of clothes you are showing that you are respected and you are returning that respect to your princess, your king and queen,” Tristram said.
Arabella pondered what he had said.
“You make your point well,” she said. “I shall think upon this some more.”
“I am glad and I hope that before we leave I might see you dressed in such a style as your princess.”
She had not been the subject of such flattery before and did not know how to handle it, she hoped no one else could see her blushes at that moment.
Later in the privacy of their room Ysabel and Arabella talked about the day and the two boys’ comments.
“I wish it were possible for you to give the prince an archery lesson, his attitude is deserving of it,” Ysabel said.
“I know I cannot,” said Arabella.
“You must be content with being underestimated and knowing that when your time comes you can show your talent and shock him to his core.”
That was an idea that appealed very much.
“How are you coping with Tristram?” Ysabel asked.
“I am unsure, he is not at all what I was expecting, he seems friendly, polite and he can make me smile from time to time.”
“I wish I did,” Arabella said.
“We already know he is nothing like Bastian, he knows that with the planned betrothal you would be expected to accompany Helene to Dariun’s home and he wishes to ease that transition. I suspect that he was raised elsewhere and knows what it is like to live in a strange kingdom,” Ysabel said.
“So he does not wish to take me as his wife?”
“It is my belief that he wants you to be happy and if you are happy you might consider him acceptable to you,” Ysabel replied.
“How do you know these things,” Arabella asked.
“Some of what I have told you has taken place before my eyes and some of it I have lived myself,” Ysabel said.
Arabella wanted to know more but something told her that now was not the time so she changed the subject.
“Do you think we could do something to help him with his leg?”
“Yes I do, persuading him to accept my help could prove difficult though,” Ysabel replied.
“I think I can get his agreement,” Arabella said with a glint in her eye as she started to get ready for bed.
The day which followed was mostly unremarkable, Helene and Arabella had the whole morning to themselves and in the afternoon they had another meeting with the boys and this time nothing remotely controversial was said. They only parted to prepare themselves for another outstanding meal. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the subsequent days of the visit.
It was a lovely bright morning and Arabella was with Helene making sure that everything was ready for their ride.
“I am glad to be leaving the castle, I like having guests here but I have started to feel confined,” said Helene.
“I couldn’t agree more, it will be nice to see large expanses of green instead of blocks of grey,” Arabella replied then added. “This is definitely just a ride, not a hunt?”
“Yes, just a hunt although I am sure we could find something to chase if you wish it,” said Helene.
Arabella went to reply, saw the grin on her friend’s face and thought better of it.
When they reached the stables it was already a hive of activity; as well as their own horses they had to contend with Lady Ysabel’s, the guards who would accompany them, Dariun and Tristram and the prince’s own escort party.
“There is nothing like a small informal ride,” Helene said quietly to Arabella.
“And this is nothing like one,” Arabella laughed.
“Shall we ride off quickly and leave everyone else to it?”
“It is tempting but I think we would be wiser to ride with the guard,” Arabella replied.
“That would be the sensible thing to do,” said Lady Ysabel who had joined them unnoticed.
The guard captain made sure that everyone was ready then had them leave in two groups, much to the irritation of Helene and Arabella.
Dariun and his party departed first which meant that the girls were waiting impatiently in the stables.
“I understand why boys take the lead in many things but I am vexed to know why they should be first out on an occasion such as this,” said Helene.
It was Lady Ysabel who replied.
“Sometimes things occur because that is how it has always been, this may be one of those things.”
Once they were allowed to go their party made its way briskly through the city and out of the west gate, the prince’s party were a short distance ahead so they broke into a canter to catch them up and from there on travelled as a single unit.
Dariun and Helene rode together with Tristram and Arabella just behind, Ysabel followed all four to make sure that nothing untoward happened.
“There is a pleasant country atmosphere here, I hope you will find my home surroundings every bit as pleasing,” Dariun said to Helene.
“I look forward to finding out,” Helene replied.
Arabella and Tristram were engaged in a conversation of their own.
“Your leg troubles you I think,” Arabella said.
“It is mostly stiffness but on occasion I do feel a pain deep within my lower leg,” Tristram replied.
“Our family is said to be gifted with herbs and healing, would you let my.. aunt take a look?”
“And who exactly is your aunt?”
“Lady Ysabel is she.”
“All becomes clear,” said Tristram.
“It does?” said Arabella.
“I should have noticed the family resemblance before,” Tristram said.
“I suppose so, would you let us help you in this small way?” Arabella asked.
“It is a most unconventional offer,” he replied.
“I shall wear the dress this evening.”
“You will, you promise?”
“Yes, you have my word,” Arabella stated.
“Then we have an agreement,” he replied.
Arabella looked back at her mother who gave a nod of acknowledgement.
The entire party was on its way back to the castle when Tristram noticed the changes in the sky and pointed at the cloud formations.
“Look, thunderheads. I do love a good storm,” he said.
Helene became uneasy just at the thought of a good storm.
“What is there to love about strong winds and heavy rain?” asked Arabella.
“It is the flashes and bangs that I love to watch from within a good strong building, maybe we might get the chance to do that this evening,” he replied.
“I shall pass on that opportunity,” said Helene.
At first Tristram was perplexed, then he realised what the princess’ problem was, unfortunately Dariun was not as quick to catch on.
“I think it is a fine idea, we should watch the power of nature with awe.”
“I would rather not,” Helene stated.
“Oh come on there is nothing to worry about unless you are... umm... oh dear,” he said as his thoughts caught up.
“Unless I was what, Dariun?”
“You might as well finish what you have started, you were saying unless I was scared, weren’t you? Well I am sorry to disappoint you but thunder fills me with dread,” she said.
“I did not mean...” Dariun started to say then decided keeping quiet was a better choice.
The rest of the ride was conducted with no chatter at all, Helene was still , Dariun was keeping his head down and both Arabella and Tristram were following the leads of their .
Helene had calmed down a little by the time they got back to the stables but she was not ready to talk to Dariun and left as quickly as she could.
While they were getting prepared for the meal Arabella did her best to talk Helene round.
“He did not mean it in quite the way you took it,” she said.
“How was I supposed to take it,” Helene replied.
“I will grant you his words were clumsy but there was no malice, he simply did not know.”
“I suppose not, anyway it is not like I gain any pleasure from how I am during a storm,” Helene said.
“I know, I am usually with you,” said Arabella.
“Yes, if anyone else knows just how I am it is you, I am sorry.”
She took Arabella’s hands in hers and smiled.
“So what am I to wear this evening,” Helene asked.
“I think you should wear your new dress again,” Arabella replied.
“I am not so sure, Dariun might think that I had totally forgiven him.”
“I plan to wear mine,” said Arabella.
“Really!” Helene replied. “And what has made you decide that?”
“I just felt it was time. We both have new dresses why should we not wear them?” said Arabella.
Helene knew there was more to it than that so she pressed on.
“No other person has influenced your decision then, say a certain boy whose name begins with T?”
Arabella looked around the room trying to avoid her friend’s gaze but deep down she knew she would have to say something.
“I admit it is something we have discussed and he told me that wearing my finest clothes shows that I am respected and that I respect you and the King and Queen,” she said.
“He makes a good point, but that does not obscure the fact that you have been influenced by a boy, maybe you are coming around to his charms.”
When Arabella entered the great hall at Helene’s side she felt as if she was the one everybody was looking at, it was a most uncomfortable feeling. She was glad to make it to the table and take her place before her legs became more unstable.
“You look stunning,” said Tristram.
“Thank you.” was the only response she could think of and it took a while for her to engage in conversation.
Along the table Dariun was attempting to right his earlier wrongs with limited success.
“No Dariun, we are here to eat not to listen to your excuses,” Helene said.
“But we need to resolve our differences,” he replied.
“And we will, just not here and not now,” Helene said.
Dariun knew to cut his losses for the evening and find a different subject to discuss.
The first rumblings of the storm they had seen in the distant sky came at the end of the meal and by the time Helene was in her bedchamber the noises were much closer and she was on the verge of panic. Arabella knew it would be a long night for her.
Lady Ysabel made sure that the girls were not disturbed until mid-morning, she had checked on them as part of her early morning routine and knew with one look that they needed as much extra sleep as could be afforded.
It was Isolda who woke them, much to Arabella’s embarrassment.
“Your highness, I apologise that you find me in your daughter’s bedchamber in this state.”
“Arabella, this is another of those times where your apology is unnecessary, I know why you are here and once again you have my gratitude for being here when my daughter needed you,” replied Isolda.
“Thank you my queen,” said Arabella.
“That is more like it. I suggest that you take your time to get ready, we have nothing planned for this morning but after noon we have arranged for some archery,” said Isolda.
“On the terrace?” asked Helene.
“No, that will remain a private space for now, we will use the space in front of the keep,” said Isolda.
“Then I really have to shoot badly in such a public space,” said Arabella.
“It is true that you cannot be seen to outperform the prince but keeping your arrows just outside of his should prove a challenge worthy of your skills,” said Ysabel.
Arabella smiled, maybe she could enjoy it after all.
The afternoon was enjoyable, even though it was not quite what she had been expecting. Everything had been set up next to the keep and Robert was overseeing the final adjustments to two targets, the boys were already there, sitting on a bundle of straw.
Helene and Arabella went first which gave Arabella something extra to think about, she was expected to be less successful than Dariun without first knowing how well he could perform. Quietly she explained her dilemma to Helene.
“Let me go first to give you more time,” Helene said.
As she loosed her first arrow the solution became clear to Arabella and it was Helene who had provided it. If she followed Helene’s lead with the placement of her own arrows then she would give a good solid display that should be readily surpassed by anyone with the talent Dariun claimed to possess.
She did her best to give a similar performance to the princess but there were a couple of arrows closer to the centre than she had planned so Arabella hoped the prince was not exaggerating his talent.
By the end of everyone’s first turn Arabella knew that if she ever needed to shoot at her best she could outperform Dariun, but so far he was the most successful archer. Tristram came a close second but there was something about him that Arabella could not quite figure out.
They switched partners for their second turn and Arabella was shooting with Dariun which made it much easier for her to know where to place her arrows although she still had to be mindful to conceal her true talent. Helene and Tristram shot roughly the same and again there was something off.
For their third turn Arabella and Tristram were paired; she had hoped watching him closely would give her the chance to figure out what was bothering her. As they fired in turn it seemed all they did was get closer to the edge of the target, Arabella’s confusion was getting worse, not better. Suddenly inspiration came to her like a hawk diving on its prey, he was doing exactly the same thing as her, trying to underachieve.
“So that is how it is,” Arabella said to Tristram with a smile on her face.
“How what is?” he replied.
“Shall we start closer to the centre and go outwards again?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
When Arabella did what she had just talked about she watched Tristram’s arrows saying what his lips would not admit, she could predict roughly where each one would go. She waited until they had fired all their arrows then spoke quietly to Tristram.
“Now I understand why your prince always comes out on top.”
He knew she had seen through his charade and he admitted it in the only way that was respectful to the prince, himself and Arabella by refusing to deny it.
Dariun and Helene joined them.
“I see you had some lucky shots,” he said.
“Luck was less of a factor than you might think,” Arabella responded.
“If that is true we should have a one arrow shoot off, closest to the centre wins,”
“Don’t,” Tristram said to Dariun.
“Calm down,” Helene said to Arabella then turned to Dariun.
“Really, you would goad my lady into such a challenge, I expected better, if you win then you say you told her so and if you lose then you still say her shot was lucky, I want no part of this. I trust both of you to do what is right.”
She strode off and did not look back.
Arabella resisted the temptation to fire an arrow into the very centre of the target and hurried after her.
“Why do you push your luck,” Tristram said to the prince. “Helene is right so let us pray she does not hold a grudge for long.”
“Archery is so hotly contested within the family that sometimes I forget myself,” Dariun replied.
Inside the keep Arabella was following closely behind Helene who was walking briskly to make sure Dariun would not be likely to catch up if he decided to come after her..
“I am sorry I let that happen,” Arabella said.
“You did nothing wrong, it was the prince who was totally to blame, ” said Helene resolutely.
At the mealtime relations between Helene and Dariun had not thawed, even with him attempting another apology. Arabella and Tristram had no such issues and the queen was again pleased.
“Please thank your aunt for her help, this is the best my leg has felt since the accident,” Tristram said.
“I am glad,” Arabella replied.
“Does she have anything that might put aside the differences of the prince and princess?”
“It would be good if such a thing existed but I suspect it would be considered witchcraft.”
“Yes, you are probably correct, maybe if they were to be locked in a room together,” Tristram said.
“After making sure that nothing of value remains within,” said Arabella.
Tristram thought of Dariun ducking while Helene threw things at him.
“Indeed,” he said with a grin.
That evening in the princess’ bedchamber Arabella felt obliged to speak of the prince.
“Can you not find it within you to at least forgive Prince Dariun?”
“Does he deserve it?” said Helene.
“He made a mistake, something that we have done ourselves, I say he has earned the right,” said Arabella.
“Very well, I shall not forget though.”
Arabella breathed a sigh of relief.
“Goodnight princess,” she said and made for the door.
“Goodnight Arabella, what would I do without you,” Helene replied.
Arabella smiled and closed the door behind her, she walked back to the room she shared with her mother, unusually Lady Ysabel had not yet returned to it so she put herself to bed.
When Arabella awoke her mother was not in bed but there were signs it had been slept in so she thought no more about it and prepared herself for the day ahead.
The princess seemed in a better mood and the day looked like it would be a good one all round until Lady Ysabel let herself in.
“Princess, you are needed in the stables,” she said.
“What is the matter?” Arabella asked.
“Prince Dariun is preparing to leave.”
“That is very sudden,” said Helene.
“He feels he has upset you and to remain here would just prolong your upset,” Ysabel said.
“Then we must get to the stables forthwith,” Helene said.
Lady Ysabel swept through the castle with Helene and Arabella keeping pace alongside her, by the time they reached the stables Dariun was securing the last of his possessions to his horse.
“Princess, have you come to make sure that I am leaving?”
“No Prince Dariun, far from it, may we have a moment alone?”
They went off to a quieter spot leaving Ysabel, Arabella and Tristram in the midst of the prince’s riding party.
“I am glad you persuaded her to come down,” Tristram said to Arabella.
“There was no persuasion required,” Arabella replied. “The moment she heard you were preparing to leave the only thing on her mind was to come and talk.”
“So we may still get to play together after all.”
Arabella gazed at him blankly until it dawned on her he was talking about music.
“We might, but I wager your lute travels much easier than my harp,” she said.
Before he could reply their attention was drawn to the prince and princess who had finished talking and were coming back over to the horses.
“We are reconciled but I still believe it is time for us to depart,” he stated.
As Dariun was almost ready to mount his horse Helene stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.
“I do not suppose you will be following the lead of your princess,” Tristram said to Arabella, the look he received told him she would not. Taking the initiative he kissed her on the back of the hand the mounted his horse before she could do anything.
All Arabella managed to do was blush.
“Goodbye Princess,” said Dariun. “I trust we shall be seeing you soon.”
“Farewell Prince Dariun, it will not be long until we make our return visit, stay safe on your journey home,” said Helene.
“We shall, I will make sure of that,” said Tristram.
The girls stood and watched as Dariun, Tristram and their escort left the stables then they followed Lady Ysabel back inside the keep to start their day’s activities.