Aron awoke early for a second morning and readied himself while he waited for his mother to come back from the kitchens.
When his aunt had stopped looking after him life had become boring, since meeting the princess things were looking up, he had a new friend and got to spend more time with his mother. It felt like every day was a new adventure.
Within five minutes of Lady Ysabel's return the two of them were out of the rooms and making their way to the princess.
To avoid a repeat of yesterday's incident Ysabel made sure that Helene was fully clothed before her child was allowed into the princess's bedchamber.
"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well."
Good morning Lady Ysabel, good morning Arabella. May I presume that the affairs of the palace are in order and the day finds you both well?"
Once the formalities were completed they began the day's studies with music.
Ysabel played a simple melody on the harp, when she was done Helene had her turn. She played slower and with one or two wrong notes but it was still recognizable as the same tune. She tried a second time and got all the notes right.
"Arabella would you like a turn?"
"I think not."
Helene was going to say something but Ysabel caught her attention and stopped her.
Lady Ysabel played some more and Helene did her best to copy. Once she felt confident enough she was encouraged to play the whole piece. In the middle of the princess's playing Ysabel could make out another sound, it was quite quiet, almost as if... It couldn't be could it? She double checked, yes Arabella's lips were moving, she was quietly singing along.
Again nothing was said but she made a mental note to have a talk with her child when they returned to their room.
By the time they finished music it was approaching midday, Princess Helene took Lady Ysabel to one side.
"It is my wish to allow Arabella to wear my dresses within the privacy of my bedchamber. She only has the same green dress to wear while I am fortunate to have enough for a clean dress everyday of the week. Might I be allowed to do this without causing strife to anyone?"
"Oh princess, you are pure of heart and your selflessness is a lesson to us all. You would honour Arabella greatly. I shall ensure you are not disturbed."
Helene went to where her friend was seated and took her hand.
"Come Arabella, I have something to show you."
She lead him into her bedchamber and from a chest produced her pink dress and held it up.
"Your favourite dress."
"Yes, it is my will to share it with you if you are similarly minded."
"But what would Lady Ysabel say?"
"I have already sought her counsel and she is agreeable."
He carefully removed his green dress and folded it before taking the princess's pink dress and allowing it to fall over his body and smoothing it down.
"Oh Arabella, you look every bit a young noblewoman. Lady Ysabel come see how your charge looks."
Ysabel came to see what the fuss was about and her jaw fell open.
"I am near wordless.”
Arabella was lifted by their complements and it was with some sadness that she returned to her green dress.
"We shall do this again another day," Helene said which raised his spirits somewhat.
Lady Ysabel provided an added distraction with her suggestion.
"Tis too pleasant a day to remain inside, what say you to a walk around the terrace?"
Both children agreed and walked beside her, chatting as they went.
Even with walls on all sides the terrace got a lot of sun in the summer months. They were encouraged to play there but warned not avoid the full sun as much as possible.
At one point the princess got her friend to pretend to be a dragon and chase her then switched around so she was the dragon. The irony of it elicited a smile from Ysabel while the children were completely unaware.
Before they became too tired they were escorted back to the princess's apartments where they were given texts to read quietly while Lady Ysabel checked on the kitchens.
"What think you of what you read?" Helene asked.
"Where I to choose what to read it would not be this. My choice would be within the pages of your storybook."
"Mine also, which would you choose?"
"It would be the girl who defeats the troll."
"Arabella it is as if you know me better than I do myself for that was my choice."
They both laughed and carried on reading their texts, their shared reasoning somehow making the work easier to complete.
Lady Ysabel returned and immediately suggested that they leave the princess before her meal arrived.
"If you wish to stay and eat with me it would please me greatly."
"Princess, you remember what happened the last time Arabella ate with you? None of us wishes for a repeat of that."
"I am sorry, you are correct."
"Do not be sorry, twas not your fault," Arabella added.
"There may come a time when she becomes more used to food such as yours. When that day comes we will accept your most generous offer with the same grace with which it was made."
"I understand. In that case before you depart I have something I wish to give to you."
She disappeared into her bedchamber and was back within seconds.
"This is now yours."
She placed an object in his hand, it was cold, obviously metal. He looked down and saw a bracelet, a gold band embellished with braided gold and inset with four gemstones.
"It's, it's beautiful. I cannot accept, this is no trinket, it's value must be great and I am not worthy of it."
"Arabella your worth is far greater than a bracelet. Your wrist remains bare when it should be adorned with fine things."
The child looked to Lady Ysabel for support but she recognized the determination on the princess's face.
Helene helped Arabella to slide her hand through the golden band.
"I have never received a gift such as this before, might I hug you Princess."
"Arabella in the privacy of my apartments you need never ask."
She embraced the princess and a single happy tear rolled down her face.
Reluctantly the children parted.
"Might I see you tomorrow morning," the Princess enquired.
"Princess, in the morning you must prepare for the guard inspection, it would not be wise for Arabella to be present."
"You are correct Lady Ysabel. Then I shall expect you the next day."
On the way home the two of them discussed what was expected of the princess. She would inspect a full turn out of palace guard then watch them demonstrate their skills. The purpose was twofold, it allowed the guard a chance to rehearse before the King and Queen returned while simultaneously giving the Princess some experience of the duties she would be expected to do.
Once they made it home Arabella's thoughts returned to the bracelet.
"Mother, I need to find a way to repay Princess Helene for her kindness, yet there is naught I can do for her."
"Do not be so quick to diminish your talents. Tis true we have not the finance for a similar gift yet I have an idea which uses your time and effort in place of value to create your gift."
From the bottom of her chest she produced a circle of wood about the size of her child's hand with notches around the edge and a hole in the centre.
"With this loom and some yarn you may weave the princess a very personal gift if it is your will."
"I would like that."
Lady Ysabel decided that would give something to do the next day while the princess inspected the guard.
When morning came sweet smells assaulted the child's senses. Getting out of bed to investigate revealed pots over the fire.
A short time later mother entered their rooms.
"Good morning sweetheart."
"Good morning mother, may I enquire after the smell?"
"Tis time for your bath, my child and all these unctions will ensure you smell as sweet as a girl of your standing has right to."
"But why is there a need for me to smell so?"
"I wish there were no need. Upon the return of the court I shall not be able to keep you hidden here, if you wish to remain then this is the only way."
The reply did not come in words, instead he started to undress. Mother kissed him on the forehead then carefully lifted the largest pot down and emptied its contents into the large wooden tub that had sat, half-filled, to one side of the hearth.
He dipped a toe in the water, then a foot, both feet, and finally lowered the rest of his body gingerly into the scented water.
Not content with fragrancing her child's body Lady Ysabel also worked a liquid into the hair while laying in the tub. She added more hot water then left him to soak.
He lay back wondering if this was the way girls normally bathed. It was a lot more relaxing than the usual jumping into the tub, scrubbing all the dirt off then leaping out before the water got cold. Maybe the floral scent was something that could be coped with after all.
His body was wrinkled and the water had cooled down by the time his mother checked on him.
"I am afraid it is time for you to leave your watery refuge."
He stood reluctantly to be towelled dry and noticed that his mother was gentler now than she had been for a long time.
Once he was fully dressed his mother looked him over. She recalled how he the fit of the princess's pink dress had made him look, it was hard to think of him as a boy dressed like that. Maybe the royal seamstresses could be persuaded to make something more suitable for Arabella.
"It is time for me to go attend to the princess, let me instruct you how this loom is used first."
She showed her how easy it was and got her stated before rushing off to make her final preparations for Princess Helene.
Arabella's first attempt at a bracelet started off fine until one small mistake made it go wrong so she undid some of it and tried again.
She was just getting back into the swing of things when noises came into the room from the courtyard below. Rushing over to their small window she could see the royal guard marching out and forming into ranks. The urge to count them all was overwhelming but there were so many that she soon gave up.
Once everybody was out it quietened down and no one seemed to be moving so Arabella went back to her weaving.
All of a sudden she heard orders being barked out and went back to the window. At first there was no sign of anything going on, then she saw her princess accompanied by the captain of the guard moving along one of the ranks.
'Her princess'? Why was she thinking like that? It wasn't as if she knew any other princesses.
Helene worked her way along rank after rank of regular guards, pikemen and archers. Arabella was getting tired feet just watching all that walking.
When they were almost below the window Arabella was tempted to try and catch Helene's eye but she didn't want to cause any trouble to her princess.
There she went again, 'her princess'.
The inspection was completed and Helene returned to one side of the courtyard. The captain barked another order and the guard reformed and set to providing a demonstration of their skills.
Arabella was particularly inspired by the archers, she hoped that Robert would soon give her another chance to learn from his experience.
The shadows had stated to lengthen by the time the display was over. Helene disappeared from view and each group of men was dismissed until all that remained were the sentries who stood in front of the great hall at all times.
Arabella sighed and returned to her weaving. It was nowhere near complete and she had planned to present the princess with her bracelet in the morning, she would have to do better.
Some progress had been made by the time Lady Ysabel came home but she already knew why it wasn't complete.
"Did you take enjoyment from what you saw out the window."
"My presence there was known?"
"By me alone, least that is my belief."
"I found the archery of interest, all else took too long. How Princess Helene were able to endure it I know not."
"The princess knows what is expected of her and does her duty without complaint."
Arabella returned to her weaving, apart from a break to eat she kept weaving until it was time to go to bed.
With a full night's sleep behind her Arabella prepared for the day. Upon the table she found the woven bracelet completed and ready for her princess's wrist.
She could not contain herself, as soon as the princess's attendant had left she produced the bracelet.
"Princess, I offer you this woven bracelet from my own hands. I hope that what it lacks in value it exceeds in worth."
"You made it all yourself?"
"Well my m.. Lady Ysabel helped me."
Lady Ysabel was quick to respond, hoping to cover for his slip up.
"I merely secured the start and end, the weaving was all Arabella's work and a fine job she made of it."
"Oh Arabella, I accept this gift from your heart, it may not be made of gold but its worth to me is as great."
They hugged as if they had known each other years, not days.
In the afternoon Arabella's hopes were realised when they were escorted to the terrace for another archery lesson.
Her will to improve had replaced her earlier fear of her teacher and she spoke to Robert straight away.
"Oh Robert, I watched the display of skill your archers put on for Princess Helene. I wish to raise my skills close to theirs."
At first he laughed but a glance at her face showed she wasn't finding it at all humorous.
"Miss, you have ability, put your mind to the task. Little by little I shall step up the difficulty."
"Little by little be not enough."
"Miss Arabella there is good reason why you are the student and I am the teacher. We may try it your way until you see that for yourself."
While their conversation had been taking place Helene has shot her first 15 arrows in a nice consistent group.
Arabella wrapped the leather around her sleeve, picked up her bow and loosed her first five arrows in quick succession. Before taking her next five she took a stride backward. It affected her accuracy only slightly. Another backward stride was taken before her remaining five, all five hit the target but again with less accuracy.
Helene looked at her friend with confusion in her eyes, then stepped up to have her second attempt. Robert gave her one further instruction.
"Princess you should take a stride backwards."
"Like Arabella did?"
Unlike her friend Helene shot all fifteen arrows from the same point and with each group her accuracy increased. Robert hoped that might be enough to prove his point but suspected it might take more for Arabella to realise it.
His fears were realised when she continued to move backwards albeit a step at a time instead of a stride. Helene could not get her head around what her friend was doing.
"Why do you continue to move further away? You are barely hitting the target."
"I do not want to wait, I want to be a great archer now."
"Yet you ignore your teacher's advice and in so doing you have turned this into an afternoon to be endured. I do not care for this side to your character."
"I do not want to hear it, Robert please escort me back to my apartments. Arabella, remain here and I shall send Lady Ysabel."
With nothing else to do Arabella continued her practise and managed to increase her accuracy somewhat. Between each group she thought about what had happened.
Robert came back to take the equipment back to the barrack stores.
"Oh dear Miss Arabella."
"What did I do wrong?"
"Tis not my place to answer for you, just think on what you said this time compared to last."
"I do not know what I could have said to upset her, I talked most to you...... Oh!"
Lady Ysabel appeared at that moment.
"I need to take you home so that we might talk."
"The only person I should talk to is my princess."
"At this time she would not hear you."
Arabella walked home in silence and took herself off to bed early with the princess's storybook.
Once she had gone to bed Ysabel took a quill and a piece of parchment and began to write. From time to time she would refer to an old book and then commit something to the parchment. Whatever she was planning it kept her occupied late into the night.
She was asleep at the table when Arabella rose in the morning.
"Mother are you all right?"
"I shall be fine," she said stroking Arabella's cheek. "I just had many things to resolve last night."
Lady Ysabel rushed through her normal morning preparations.
"I need for you to run some errands for me."
"But Mother I should go and apologize to Princess Helene."
"Indeed you should, however for now that will not be possible. I have two messages to be delivered, this one with the royal seal should be handed to the tanners and this one to the house at the end of Drum Lane where they will give you further instructions. When they have done with you come straight back here and wait for me."
"But mother, what will Princess Helene think."
"I shall explain the situation to her."
The whole situation was too cryptic for Arabella to figure out what was going on, but her part in it seemed reasonably simple.
She found the tanner easily enough and despite the foul odour handed over the message. With a hand covering her mouth she watched as he read it, he seemed perplexed at first then smiled a knowing smile and said, "tell her ladyship that within three days my part shall be completed."
"Three days," she said to herself as she moved on.
Drum Lane proved to be an entirely different proposition. She knew it was off the road to the Northgate, it was just a matter of finding it. This part of the city was nothing like the city she had known with her aunt. There were no gaudily painted toothless women near the castle and the atmosphere was a lot more welcoming than where she was now.
She spotted the tavern that gave the lane its name but was unable to go down it because of a raucous circle of people. She crouched down to see if there was any way to squeeze through at ground level. It looked as if some kind of fight was happening inside it so there was no way through. There was no way to go around the sides either.
Maybe someone could tell her another way to get into the lane. She looked around for a benevolent face but could only see sneers and scowls.
From the circle there came a cheer and a thud then the people began to disperse. As the road cleared she could see a man lying in the road. No one paid him any attention.
She felt more vulnerable than she had ever felt before, yet was compelled to check on the man.
"Will you be alright?"
The man slurred his reply. "Just as soon as I get an ale inside me."
Arabella hurried on to the end of the lane, doing her best not to let her own skirts trip her. She rapped on the door and waited, please let this to be over as soon as possible.
A peep hole opened and someone looked out and then down at her.
"Whadoyouwant," came a voice from inside. Arabella couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman.
She was too worried to speak so held the second message up in front of the hole. A calloused hand pulled it through and shut behind it.
It felt like hours but it was probably only a minute before the door swung open and she was ushered inside.
"You are safer in here than out there."
This voice sounded different from the first and was definitely female. The woman who owned it shut the door behind him, making the front of the house as dark as the rest of it.
She glanced around, and in the shadows she could just make out a hunched up figure in one of the corners.
"Tell me girl, what brings you here?"
"My mother sent me on an errand."
"You are the child of Ysabel of Marston?"
In the poor light she could just see the woman's eyebrows raise before she spoke.
"Child I knew your mother and your grandmother, she was a fine woman indeed."
"Tell me of my grandmother, mother does not speak of her."
"Aye and with reason, believe me child by not knowing will you stay safe."
Part of her wanted to know more, yet a larger part accepted that her mother did not keep things from her without good cause.
"Now, of this list," the female voice said. "It will take us some time to get all that is upon it. I suggest you go to the stream and collect a bucket of mud. Make sure it has plenty of worms and leeches but be careful to get none upon yourself. Here, put this on, it will protect your fine clothes."
She handed Arabella the dress of a young peasant girl, at the very least she would be less conspicuous.
"Do I have to return that way?"
She looked toward the door with trepidation.
"You think that way lies danger?" The hunched figure in the corner spoke.
The girl nodded.
"You shall leave by the rear alley."
She was lead through the back, all along one wall were bottles and jars of various sizes, some were of glass and looked to contain dried leaves but many more were of stone and contained who knows what.
A low wooden door took them out into the alleyway, it seemed so cold and narrow that she doubted it ever saw sun. The woman walked briskly along, the only way she could keep up was to grab onto the woman's skirts. Their path twisted and turned between the backs of the tightly packed houses. One last corner and she turned and pointed.
"That way lies the gate, when you are done come back here, I shall be waiting."
She had no doubt in her mind that when she returned the woman would be there waiting.
The gate was in sight and the stream was just beyond. A few women were doing their laundry on the edge of the water so she went far enough upstream and found a perfect spot. It didn't take long to fill the bucket and she thought there were plenty of leeches and just a few worms in it.
The change of clothes was worth it, no one seemed to notice her on the way back which suited her perfectly. When she got back to where she believed the alleyway to be she couldn't see the woman and it didn't even look like a way through.
She was about to move on when someone grabbed her shoulder, it was her - the woman. She lead Arabella back to the house, this time by the hand. It was much softer and smoother than she would have expected, almost as soft as his mothers but not quite.
Back inside the old woman inspected the bucket.
"A fair few leeches in there, I think you've missed one though."
He wondered how she could tell until she took a pipe from her mouth and put it near her leg. The rogue leech dropped off, she picked it up and dropped it into a jar.
"Here are the goods your mother asked for along with a bottle of elderflower wine for good measure."
A wooden chest was handed over, it was just small enough to carry under one arm.
They must have picked up on his fears because they lead him towards the back door again.
"Here is your dress child and don't forget your mud."
"I thought the mud was for you."
"No, the leeches was for me, the mud was for thee."
She didn't want to think how the older woman had dealt with the leeches so quickly.
The younger woman lead her in the opposite direction this time although their path was no less convoluted than before. She got her to a main street, pointed the way to the castle and gave her a message of warmest regards for his mother and wished Arabella good luck then in a moment was gone.
From the end of the alley to the castle gate the way was short and safe for which she was most grateful.
She had a most interesting tale to tell her mother when she arrived. When she was done her mother was most concerned and held her child close.
"I am sorry Arabella, I should not have sent you, anything could have happened to you. I fooled myself into believing it was Aron I sent yet I fear you would have been in peril even dressed as a boy."
"Are we not one and the same?"
"You share the same body and have similar traits yet there are differences too. I do not believe you would have the favour of the princess as my son. I am minded that you have found more enjoyment while in skirts too."
"I would not deny that."
"If you were able to stop this deceit now would that be your choice?"
"Only if that would not prevent me from being with my Princess."
"I fear your princess would have no interest in Aron."
"Then for now this is how I wish to be."
She had given her child the chance to change her mind but the choice had been made clear. Lady Ysabel wondered if Arabella would still make the same choice if she knew what her future held. She would soon find out.