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Throughout the meal Ysabel watched her son, he didn't notice at first but it didn't take him too long to realise.


"Mother is something wrong, am I in trouble."


"It is nothing, I am being foolish, pay no attention."



The next day Lady Ysabel left Aron in her apartments and locked the door behind her. She claimed it was for his safety and security and promised to return throughout the day to check upon him.

Anyone who came across her on her way to the princess would have found her in pensive mood. In protecting Aron from the wrath of the royal guard she had deceived the princess, compromised her position and caused her own child distress.

Arriving at the entrance to Helene's bedchamber she paused to compose herself before opening the door.

"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well." She indulged in the daily routine.

"Good morning Lady Ysabel, why is Arabella not with you?"

"I am sorry Princess, she could not be here today."

"Please explain."

"She is not feeling herself today."

"Oh. I hope whatever ails her is not serious."

"I believe that something she ate may have disagreed with her."

"But she ate from my table and I am not sick, how could that be?"

"It is my opinion that the food was too rich for one with her constitution. She is accustomed to plainer fayre."

"Oh Lady Ysabel, please pass on my sympathy, it was not my wish to bring sickness upon her."

"Princess, the blame lies not with you, I could have stopped her at any time yet I chose not to. The fault is mine." Ysabel thought that was not the only thing for which the blame was hers.

Helene was slightly subdued throughout the morning but when Lady Ysabel returned to her in the afternoon she was back to her usual self. She spent her time practising her harp playing with the assistance and following the lead of the Lady who was an accomplished player of the instrument herself.

When it became time to depart Ysabel made her excuses and started to leave. Before she had walked to the door Princess Helene had flounced over to her and pressed a book in her hands.

Ysabel took a look, it triggered some long forgotten memory.

"This is my favourite book, given to me by my mother, if Arabella is confined to bed then she must have something to occupy her time."

"Thank you princess, I am sure she will appreciate your kindness."

As she returned to her apartments she briefly considered keeping the book from Aron but in the end there was no harm that she could see in it.

When she unlocked the door she had expected to find her son busying himself on the other side of it but there was no sign of any activity, in fact there was no sign of him whatsoever.

Could he have found some means to escape? The only window large enough for him to pass through remained closed. Perhaps then he was hiding, what kind of hiding place would he choose?

She started looking around as if she was a part of his game.

"I shall find you. Are you behind the tapestry?... No."

"What about behind the fire screen?... No."

"Then methinks you must be under the...."

She was about to say 'bed' but it was now obvious that he hadn't underneath the bed itself but he had managed to bury himself under the covers to the point where you had to be right beside it to notice.

"Wake up sleepyhead, tis not yet time for bed."

At first he showed no signs of responding so she rocked his body gently until he slowly began to respond.

He looked at her through tired eyes and said, "Is it morning already?"

She laughed. "Night has not yet fallen. Tell me, when did sleep overtake you."

He was slightly more alert now.

"I remember that you came to check on me. I also saw the sky become black as if a storm were due then I became so listless that I crawled into the bed."

"Then you have been in the arms of Morpheus for most of the afternoon."

Just at that moment there was a sound at the door. Lady Ysabel went and admitted the serving girl bringing their own meal which while not being as big and fanciful as the food on which the Princess dined was more than ample for a mother and child.

Aron waited until the girl had left before joining his mother at the table.

As they ate he asked about how the princess had been which made his mother smile because before he met her he had no real interest in royal matters.

"She is very well, she asked after you and even went so far as to giving you a loan of a book read to her by the queen herself ."

"I am honoured."

"Indeed you are. Would you like me to read it to you at bedtime?"

"Am I not old enough to read for myself?"

Ysabel understood his desire to do things for himself but secretly at that moment nothing would have pleased her more than to read to he son as if he were still a small child.

When bedtime came for real she left a candle by her son's side so he might read the princess's book.

Ysabel herself sat at the table with nothing but her own thoughts to keep her company. She still missed her husband greatly and if there was ever a time when she would have sought his guidance it was now. The future of their son was at stake.

The next day followed a similar pattern, Aron stayed home, Ysabel went to the castle keep and the princess asked after Arabella. It was plain that it would take more than a few days for Helene to forget the child even with just a single meeting.

When later that day the princess suggested sending a royal physician to tend to Arabella it was apparent to Ysabel that a decision would have to be made either to send her son to live with his aunt or for him to return as a girl.

It was with some anxiety that she said, "Your highness I feel that Arabella will be fit to return within the week."

She decided that the few days would give her long enough to see if her deception would pass the scrutiny her child would face were he to be disguised for a period of time. If he could not then she likely would not see him again until he had matured into adulthood. Even with her high standing within the castle she could not see the royal court excusing her of her duties of protocol to tend to her duties of parenthood.

Upon her return home she found Aron asleep oncemore but did not wake him immediately, instead she looked at his peaceful face and pondered both whether they could and whether they should even attempt this plan.

She gently shook him awake.

"Mother, I am sorry, I fell asleep again."

"Don't fret dear, rouse yourself and come and eat with me."

Throughout the meal Ysabel watched her son, he didn't notice at first but it didn't take him too long to realise.

"Mother is something wrong, am I in trouble."

"It is nothing, I am being foolish, pay no attention."

After their meal was complete Aron took the storybook to bed and read some more before settling down.

When he awoke the next morning his mother was next to the bed making sure he got up. He had expected to be locked in again but Lady Ysabel had a different plan, she had something white and floaty in her arms.

"These will be your undergarments, I cannot allow you to wear a shirt and breeches under your dress."

"Do you mean I am to return to the princess?"

"In time yes, we have plenty we must do first."

He put on the garments, the hem of the white shift reached to his ankle and the sleeve almost to his wrist. Then as before he raised his arms aloft so his mother was able to lower the same green dress onto his body. His first discovery was that the sleeves of his shirt were a lot easier to manage under a dress than the sleeve of his shift. It took some minor adjustments by his mother before she was satisfied with his appearance.

"What a good girl."

"Mother!"

"I'm sorry but it is something you must become accustomed to for both our sakes."

Before she left to continue her duties there was something she needed him to do.

"While I am out I need you to gain an understanding of the virtues and limitations of your dress. You have but a day's experience and if this is to work I need you to become familiar with your clothes."

He started off by sitting on his bed, that seemed straight forward enough, then he began to fidget which made the dress ruck up. It didn't take much to smooth it back down again but it was something for him to consider.

Walking also proved to be a different experience with the material of his shift making the lightest of touches as it swished around his legs. He tried hurrying and soon realised that running would be almost impossible. The only way to stop his skirts tripping him up was to use his hands to lift them clear of his feet like he had done to climb the stairs and he knew that moving his arms helped him run fast.

He gave up working out how to bend down to pick things from the floor. There had to be a simple way to do it but he couldn't see what it was.

About the only thing he could find as a positive was anything he dropped while sitting at the table landed in his skirts and not on the floor.

When his mother returned he was eager to tell her what he had discovered and she was more than a little disappointed with his findings.

"Was that really the only virtue you found to wearing a dress?"

"It was, at least it means I won't have to pick much up for I have no clue how to achieve that in this dress."

"Well that is simple enough, just crouch down slowly like this."

She demonstrated and Aron could not believe he had missed something so obvious.

"Now, have you considered the virtues of dancing in your dress?"

"I have no experience of dancing to compare."

Ysabel thought that was something that might soon change but did not dare say so.

"And of skipping?"

"I know not what that is."

"Tis something I once did when I was young, like this."

She proceeded to skip around the table as if she were ten years old herself, much to the amusement of her son.

"I do not see why anyone would choose to move in such a way," he said with a big grin.

"As children it seemed most enjoyable, now I am unsure my bones will take it."

She sat down gingerly and tried to think of something else to suggest.

"Is twirling amongst the things you have tried? Do not claim it is something you have no knowledge of, for I remember a time when you often could be found in a spin."

At his mother's behest he began to spin around. At first he could not see what the attraction was, then as he twirled faster the hem of his dress lifted and his skirts spun around him in a circle.

Lady Ysabel made her way back to Princess Helene, the image of her son twirling in his dress was imprinted on her mind. She could tell he had enjoyed himself even if he would not admit it.

The girl was sat at her table awaiting the lady's return.

"Princess might I suggest that you continue in the study of your forefathers?"

"I wish you to suggest another, without Arabella I do not have the stomach for it."

"How can that be when it was just the one time you studied together."

"I do not claim to fathom it, all I know is before that one occasion the study was a sombre chore, with Arabella by my side it becomes a thing of pleasure."

Ysabel was glad that her child had found favour with the princess but slightly worried by the effect it was having on her studies.

"Lady Ysabel might I also enquire as to Arabella's wellness?"

"She is up and dressed for the first time in days, the herbs she has been taking have done their work."

"That is good news indeed."

Meanwhile back in his mother's apartments Aron had found himself twirling until he made himself so dizzy that he had collapsed onto his bed.

As he lay there he picked up the Princess's storybook and began to read the next tale, most of the stories so far had featured damsels in distress being rescued by gallant knights but this one was different. It was about a girl who lived in a village on the edge of a forest. One evening she was getting firewood when a troll captured her and took her to his home. She begged to be released but the heartless troll refused. Whenever she had a chance she tried to escape but the troll always caught her. It got tired of her running and chained her leg to a stone block. The girl waited until she was strong enough and when the troll was in his bed she dropped the block on his head. Her escape was made harder by the block but she dragged herself to the edge of her village where the ghost of the troll appeared in her path. She overcame her fears and walked through the ghost to make it home.

Aron felt a great respect for the girl who overcame every obstacle put in her path. He hoped that he would be able to do the same if he was in her position.

Now that he'd fully recovered from the twirling he decided to try some other activities like the skipping that his mother had showed him. He quickly gave up on skipping, it just didn't feel like his feet were doing what they were supposed to do. Looking down he couldn't even see them, just the folds of his dress. Bending at the knees to pick things up was so simple he couldn't believe he had overlooked it.

All this bending, stretching and twisting had one major side effect, he badly needed to go to the toilet.

Getting the pot from under the bed was one thing, figuring out how to use it while wearing a dress was something entirely different. He came up with a plan that seemed to work but resolved to ask his mother when she returned.

The sun was very low in the sky by the time she made it back and she was accompanied by a servant girl with their dinner.

Once their meal was done and everything had been cleared away he'd forgotten all of the things he had planned to ask his mother so he started to prepare for his bed.

Ysabel had a garment in her hands when she stopped him like she had done as his day began.

"This is your nightdress, you shall wear one like it every night from now on."

As she held it up he could see that it was unmistakeably a girl's garment. The shoulders were puffy and someone had gone to the trouble of embroidering flower shapes high on the chest.

He let his mother lower the dress onto him and tuck him into bed. Tonight she insisted that she read to him and as she did so the words that she spoke triggered a long forgotten memory.

 

Morning came and Aron stayed in his bed until his mother came back from her early morning duties.

"Time to get up sleepyhead."

He yawned and rubbed his eyes.

"Good morning mother."

"Has your slumber left you refreshed?"

"I feel so. What would you have me doing today?"

"Today your time is your own, tell me what would you normally do on a day such as this?"

"I might read a book or look out of our window, sometimes I pretend to be a knight."

Looking at him in his nightdress Ysabel found it hard to imagine him dressed in chain mail and a suit of armour.

"I do not think that is an appropriate thing to do in a dress, is there no one else you can pretend to be?"

He looked dumbly at her. She also tried to think of something more appropriate for his games but drew a blank, it would be too much of a stretch for him to want to be any of the things that were in her dreams when she was a girl.

With nothing else to say he changed out of his nightdress and into his dress and accessories.

Ysabel looked at his hair, it was barely long enough to pass for the hair of a girl, she would have to do something soon.

After his mother had left Aron thought about what he could do. Before she had mentioned it he would have thought nothing of re-enacting a sword battle while in his dress, now it just didn't seem right.

He sat down by the window and with his head resting on his arms he started to watch the world go by.

At some point the Palace Guard appeared in the big courtyard in front of the great hall to practise. When he finally registered that they were there he made an effort to watch them. The strangest thought passed across his mind, he was imagining them wearing dresses and deciding if anything they were doing looked fine in a dress. When he found that idea too troublesome he resorted to the princess's storybook.

Because of the book his mother entered without him noticing. She stood and looked on as he finished the story and would have sworn there was a tear in his eye.

"Mother I didn't hear you return."

"Of that I have no doubt, your mind was in the land of the book."

"How is princess Helene?"

"She is in good health and good spirits and she continues to ask after you. For that reason I am taking you to the terrace this afternoon."

The smile that appeared on his face left her in no doubt that she was doing a good thing.

On the way she noticed how he lifted his skirts to negotiate stairs and would stay near her instead of running on ahead.

Ysabel opened the door to let her Aron through to the terrace and almost immediately heard the cry "Arabella!" from the other side. By the time she went through herself the princess had almost reached her child.

"Oh Arabella I am glad you are returning to health, I'm sorry my food was too much for you, did Lady Ysabel tell you how I asked after you, did you like my storybook?"

Ysabel got the princess to calm down a little.

"I shall be fine Princess, do not fret about your meal, I was most honoured. I loved the storybook, it gave me something to pass the time while I was confined to my room."

"I knew you would like it, it was my mothers when she was a girl."

The two children walked around the garden chatting with Lady Ysabel following in their wake. They stayed on the terrace until the clouds darkened and rain threatened to fall.

All three of them walked back to the princess's apartments where they prepared to go their separate ways.

"Should I expect to see you in the morning?" asked Helene looking straight at Aron.

He looked to his mother for guidance.

"I am minded that Arabella is strong enough to return yet I will not commit her to that until the morn. Princess, do you promise to resume the study of your forefathers if she does?"

"Yes Lady Ysabel, I promise."

"Very well, I shall escort Arabella then return to you so that we might continue with your needlework."

"Farewell Arabella, I shall see you on the morrow."

"Farewell Princess Helene."

The heavens had opened and the weather was grim yet Aron's mood did not reflect that. It was as if he were on cloud nine. Was it possible that the Princess was having as much of an effect on his demeanour as he was having on hers?

The following morning Lady Ysabel woke at her usual early hour and started her daily routine. Usually Aron would have remained in bed until his mother's return but today he found himself awake before the normal hour she came back.

With nothing else to do he changed from his nightdress into his floaty white undergarments and washed his face.

Ysabel was astounded to see Aron up already, he was not naturally an early riser. She did some of her own things then helped him to put a fresh green dress on. After checking him over one last time she lead him out of the door and across to the Princess's apartments.

They let themselves in and were surprised to find Helene still in her undergarments, that didn't stop her from rushing over to them, much to the bemusement of her attendant.

"Arabella, you really are back."

Lady Ysabel got between them.

"Arabella avert your eyes. Princess, you should not go running about in a state of undress."

"My body is covered and I doubt I would reveal anything which was not already known to either of you."

Ysabel persuaded the Princess to return to her attendant and to finish being dressed. Aron could not truly see what all the fuss was about.

When the attendant had finished her work Princess Helene returned to them.

"What say you of my dress?"

"It is most agreeable on you Princess," Lady Ysabel replied.

"It is pleasing yet I find your pink dress more becoming."

"Arabella your opinion matches my own, my pink dress has my favour. I am glad you find it pleasing. Some day the opportunity may arise for you to wear it yourself."

Aron hadn't meant it that way yet to his surprise the thought of trying on the pink dress was not as repugnant as it would have been once upon a time.

His mother spared him any further blushes by suggesting that the princess keep up her end of their bargain and continue her studies. With Arabella by her side she readily agreed.

They studied the royal history for half of the morning before taking a break after which they practised their reading together. It was a little after midday when Aron questioned their plans for the afternoon.

"Tis time for archery practise on the terrace."

"Archery?"

"It is not fitting for a lady to wield a sword however she may be allowed to use a bow. Some say that suitors find such skills desirable."

As they walked down Aron contemplated how to deal with this next challenge. This was his first chance to learn any of the skills of a warrior yet he had no plans to be courted.

"Good day to you Robert."

Aron felt like hiding, why did it have to be the same guard who almost caught him.

"There's no need to be fraid of old Robert, miss Arabella, I'm sorry I affected you so."

A target of red and off-white rings had been placed against one wall. Helene stepped towards Robert and allowed him to wrap a piece of leather around her forearm.

"Have you engaged in archery before, Miss Arabella?"

"I have not."

"Then I suggest you watch the Princess closely so when it is your turn you may do as she is doing."

He paid close attention as she drew back the bowstring and let her first arrow fly to the target landing in an outer ring at one o'clock, a further four followed in quick succession.

"That is a fair cluster your highness. Let us hope your next five show similar form"

The spread of her next five overlapped that of the first. Robert made two suggestions that Aron did not catch. As a result her remaining shots were marginally closer to the centre of the target.

Now it was Aron's turn, Robert wrapped the leather around the sleeve of the boy's dress and handed him the bow.

His heart was racing as he picked an arrow, raised the bow, drew the string back towards his chin and aimed for the centre. Breathing as slowly as he was able he loosed his first arrow.

It zipped through the air and landed in the outside ring at three o'clock. The second landed at ten o'clock and the third missed the target entirely. Four and five did hit the target but only just.

Aron was appalled by how badly he had done.

Robert could see the child's reaction and went to give some help.

"Youngster you are holding that bow like it is the only thing between you and death, ease your grip a little. Good. Now lift this arm higher, pull back a little more and release."

The arrow flew straight and true landing 12 o'clock high and three rings in from the edge.

This time the second shot landed close to the first, shot number three wasn't too far away either. Four was a different story, he lost concentration and it caught the top of the target. He pulled himself together and the last shot landed slightly above his first.

"Much improved, now pray tell if you saw how your fourth was distinct from the rest."

"I knew as soon as I loosed it that it was lacking."

"Very good. With instincts like those, more guidance and practise and we shall make a bowswoman out of you, young Arabella. On your next turn we shall move you back to where Princess Helene stands."

He took pride in his achievement but did not let it go to his head and shot a consistent last five.

They got better with each round until the strength left their arms, Helene being the first one affected.

"I shall have to raise my effort lest I risk being bested by you."

"Tis no more than beginners luck"

"Do not attempt to appease your Princess."

"I am not saying it to appease my princess I am saying it to appease my friend."

It looked like the stuffing had been knocked out of her. She put down the bow and turned to Aron.

"Forgive me Arabella, I have become accustomed to people's actions being shaped by my status as princess. It is apparent that I have much to learn."

He took both her hands in his.

"I have little knowledge of how to act around a princess and if it makes you unhappy I wish that to remain the case."

She tried to manoeuvre them into a hug but he refused to let go of her hands. The look in each other's eyes said more than words ever could.

When they went back to practising Robert could tell that the lack of strength was taking its toll on their accuracy so he finished off with a small demonstration, launching arrows while walking around the terrace. Every one landed in an area the size of his guards helmet.

Lady Ysabel arrived in time to see a part of his impressive display of skill.

"Why Robert I knew you were a proficient archer but I was unaware of just how talented you were."

"Tis a useful skill hiding inside a fancy trick, no more."

The children thanked him and left. On the way back inside Ysabel noticed that Helene was not her usual chatty self making her wonder if something had occurred between the two of them. In contrast her son was relaying most of the afternoon's happenings.

The moment they were back in the princess's apartments all that changed. There was something on her mind and nothing would divert her from it. She turned to Aron and took his hands in hers.

"I am minded that I know already yet I am compelled to ask, will you be my true dear friend?"

"I would hope my reply would be known to you, I wish us to be true friends for as long as we may be together."

l;">In an instant they went from holding hands to hugging. Ysabel wondered if they planned to stay like that until the sun went down. Finally they separated and walked over to a window still holding hands.

She could not predict what their future would hold especially once all the secrets were revealed but for now they were content together behaving like sisters.



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