Arabella was eager to get back to her princess, especially after her last two days. If upsetting her best friend hadn't been bad enough there was her experience outside the safety of the castle.
She wished she could share that story with someone but even if she could get back in the princess's good books there were good reasons why she could not mention where she had been and what she had done.
It was with trepidation that she followed her mother into the princess's apartments.
"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well."
"Good morning Lady Ysabel. May I presume that the affairs of the palace are in order?"
"The affairs are, as always, in order your highness."
"Good morning Arabella."
"Good morning Princess."
"You should address me as your highness."
Arabella's mouth fell open.
"Please Princess, do not be this way, I made a mistake and hurt you and for that I am truly sorry but do not push me away, I could not bear it."
Tears were welling in her eyes.
The princess stared coldly at her then her expression broke into one of friendship.
"Oh Arabella I so wanted to retain my anger but I cannot. To hurt you is to hurt me."
"Then you forgive me?"
Helene gently took Arabella's hands in her own. A great weight was lifted from Arabella's heart by this one simple action.
Lady Ysabel smiled to herself, she could remember falling out with her best friend and making up on more than one occasion. But for now her thoughts returned to ensuring the princess had an education fit for a girl of royalty, what that said about her own child she wasn't entirely sure.
Over the following days the children put their strife behind them and continued in their studies and their games. With the encouragement of her mother Arabella had moved on from weaving bracelets to needlework. She had also started to learn to play her mother's harp.
Even her night time routine was different now. Before bedtime Lady Ysabel would take a few ingredients from the chest Arabella had been given in Drum Lane and add them to a poultice that she applied to the chest and hips.
In the beginning she had asked, "But why do I need such things mother?"
To which her mother had replied, "Tis an old recipe to help a girl who is a late bloomer, it adds a swell to her bosom and a little swing to her hips. In time will help you blend in."
It took a bit of reassuring that she would not end up as a buxom wench but she now accepted it as part of her life. She still dreamed that someday she would be a great warrior although her dreams were the only place where it seemed possible for this fantasy to exist.
Lady Ysabel felt like she had already asked too much of her child yet with the royal court due back any day there were more things for him to endure.
That morning she woke Arabella reluctantly mere minutes after she rose from her own bed.
"Is something wrong mother?"
Lady Ysabel sighed.
"In a manor of speaking it is."
"Pray, tell me what it is."
"I do not want to do this but I must, to protect the honour of the princess, the honour of our family, and most importantly you my child."
"Your words are making me fearful."
There was nothing she could say to reassure him so she merely emptied the contents of her cloth bag onto Arabella's bed. She looked quizzically at the pieces of leather reinforced with metal.
"I do not understand, what is this?"
"It is a device used to fend off the untoward advances of amorous males on serving girls and keep them chaste."
The look on Arabella's face showed she still could not see what purpose it would serve. Her young mind knew that boys and girls were different but the mechanics of sex was something she was not yet ready for.
"It fits around the girl's waist and protects between her legs."
Lady Ysabel tried to balance between telling the truth and protecting her child's innocence.
"And what is between my legs also needs protecting?"
"There lies your secret."
Arabella shuddered at the thought of being discovered.
"To avoid discovery I will wear it."
"My sweet Arabella, the way you handle yourself fills me with pride."
She held her child to her bosom.
"Let us fit this forthwith and proceed with our day."
Arabella lifted her nightgown and peeled off the strip of cloth that held the poultice to her hips while Lady Ysabel picked up the sections of the device. The inverted delta shaped piece of leather went in front, the metal part continued between her legs and hid her most unladylike appendage from view. The metal of the belt section joined the top of the delta.
Lady Ysabel made sure it was all secured by the flat locking device then attached the tiny gold key to the chain of the pendant she always wore.
Arabella got dressed in her normal daytime attire, she noticed that the device was not visible through her clothes but she wished she didn't have to feel it.
By the end of her day with the princess she felt the need to scratch places she didn't even know could itch. It seemed unlikely that Princess Helene could have missed the scratching yet she didn't mention it thankfully.
When they returned home Arabella had hoped the device could be removed but her hopes were dashed.
"Darling you must wear it day and night for it to serve its purpose. Bathing is the only time it will be removed."
"And what of when I need the toilet?"
"It will allow you to attend to such bodily functions."
Arabella went to bed with the storybook and finished reading the last tale. None of the stories mentioned anyone wearing anything like she was. It took her a little while to find a comfortable sleeping position and settle down for the night.
The following day everything seemed to be fine, the girls continued their studies in the morning and in the afternoon they worked on their archery. When Lady Ysabel came to collect them she wasn't her usual calm self.
"Lady Ysabel, you seem flustered."
"Princess, I have just received word, the royal hunting party are preparing to return. They shall be with us in time for a great feast tomorrow evening."
"Mother and Father will be home soon!"
"They will your highness and there is much still to do. We have to clean the great hall and make all the beds and get the kitchens ready."
Ysabel hurried them up to the Princess's apartments, ushered them inside and stood in the doorway.
"I must make sure all is done right, Arabella tonight you will dine with the princess and I shall return for you once darkness falls."
She closed the door behind her and went on her way. The two girls sat down and started to talk.
"I'm so happy that mother and father will be back, there is a part of me that has even missed Gaspar."
"I am glad you are lifted by their return. I have no knowledge of the prince, is he mean spirited towards you?"
"Tis not that, he is quite fair. His problem is that he is a boy which means he has no understanding of the ways of girls and never will."
Arabella could not stop a giggle from escaping her mouth.
"What amuses you?"
She thought hard before replying.
"What if I were to tell you that I am a boy, would you think it possible?"
It was the princess's turn to giggle.
"Arabella, that thought is simply absurd, there is nothing of the boy about you. Were I to be a hawk soaring through the air that would be more likely than for you to be a boy."
As much as she wanted to respond to that Arabella decided not to and thought 'maybe one day' to herself.
"The castle will feel alive when it is full again, we shall eat in the great hall and be entertained of an evening. Tis not the same place in late summer."
Arabella was not convinced that this change was for the better, she had become accustomed to the system and her role within it and it seemed like everything was about to change again.
"Will we still have lessons together and practise our archery?"
"Indeed we will."
She was glad that there were a few things that would remain constant.
They carried on talking until the princess's meal arrived. She was wary of letting Arabella share the food since the days it was used as the reason her friend had stayed at home.
"I do not want you to be ill at my expense, I need my friend by my side."
"This time I shall be more careful, my princess. I shall avoid the game bird and have some rabbit in its place."
They ate enough to quell their appetites then returned oncemore to their chat.
True to her word night had indeed fallen by the time Lady Ysabel came back to take Arabella home. Helene even suggested that she could stay with her but the lady would not hear of it.
"My dear princess, it would not be fitting for you to have someone in your room at night lest it were necessity and with sanction of your parents. Come Arabella, we must away to our beds."
The tired girl walked alongside her mother in silence. Lady Ysabel assumed it was just fatigue but in truth her thoughts, clouded in sleep, were of what her place would be when the castle was full.
By the time they got home she was needing her bed and she fell asleep almost as soon as her mother tucked her in.
Lady Ysabel wished that sleep would claim her as quickly. Not only did she have the worries of getting the castle ready for the homecoming of the King and Queen, she also had to pray that no one would see through her child's disguise.
Arabella was awakened by her mother, it didn't yet look light outside but the birds had started to sing so it must be.
She noticed pots on the fire.
"Is it bathtime again?"
"No my dear, just a very special treatment for your hair."
She proceeded to rinse Arabella's hair then took one of the pots and applied its contents to her head. Arabella thought that was the end to it.
"Ouch, that hurt."
"I'm sorry sweetheart, I shall be as gentle as I can but there will be times when it will pull."
"What is it you are doing?"
"You will see later, you will love it, of that I am sure."
Arabella could feel her hair being twisted and pulled, what she couldn't tell was that each section of hair was being twisted around something.
When Ysabel was finished she stood back to admire her handiwork.
Arabella wanted to see it too. They had no mirror but they did have a bright copper pot that was still shiny enough to see a distorted reflection.
"I cannot go to my princess when I look so."
"My dear, you will not see her until the great feast this evening. She has much to do herself before the arrival of the king and queen."
Her face fell.
"I shall return at midday, do not touch your hair until then."
Arabella wondered if this was a taste of things to come as she sat around the room trying to find ways to pass the time. She had started off playing a simple tune on her mother's harp but her heart wasn't in it. Next she tried reading the storybook but she found she knew every story off by heart. Finally she positioned herself at the window and watched as the guard and some of the servants prepared the courtyard to welcome the king and queen.
Lady Ysabel returned as promised, she had a freshly laundered dress for her child to wear and as soon as Arabella put it on she began working on her hair.
By the time she had finished her work Arabella could feel her hair in a way she never had before and was dying to see the result.
She used the shiny copper pot and although the image was not perfect she could see that her hair was full of cute little curls.
"What think you now my child?
"Oh mother, I hardly recognized myself. I love it."
"You are even more adorable now than before. But we have not the time to waste, we must assemble in the great hall."
She started to move towards the door then looked at her child for some seconds before leading her out of the door.
"We have one brief stop to make."
They returned to the room where Arabella's adventure in dresses had began. Lady Ysabel retrieved something white and carefully placed it on the girl's head.
"Tis appropriate for you to be dressed in a similar fashion to me on an occasion like this, hence you should be cowled as I am."
It seemed peculiar to Arabella that her mother should go to such troubles with her hair only to cover it up but she trusted her and said nothing.
As they entered the great hall a roar could be heard over the castle walls from the city.
"They are almost here," someone called from the doorway.
Lady Ysabel positioned Arabella next to a grand tapestry and instructed her not to leave the spot. She went outside to hand the running of the castle back to the Lord chamberlain.
Arabella looked around hoping to catch a glance of her princess but she was not to be found in the hall.
The noise level increased and Arabella became increasingly impatient but remained at her post.
People in the hall paid little attention to her as they attended to last minute duties, straightened tapestries, modified place settings and adjusted throne chairs.
A quartet of royal guard who were stood by the entrance came to attention and more people began to enter. She recognised the King and Queen from their faces more than their regal attire, alongside them were the prince and princess. Next came her mother and a man she assumed to be the chamberlain. Behind them came a full entourage of noblemen and women.
The royal family swept along to the top table with Lady Ysabel and the chamberlain still behind them. Everybody else filed around the other tables and waited for the king to be seated.
Arabella watched her princess, she was wearing the beautiful pink dress and had a small crown perched on her head. Occasionally she would tug n her father's robe and whisper something.
Right now Arabella felt completely superfluous, the princess had her family back, what need did she have for a girl who was actually a boy? She was on the verge of running out of the hall when one of the servant girls touched her on the wrist an gestured towards her mother.
Fighting her urge to run Arabella walked over towards her mother who encouraged the girl to her side.
The king sat and everyone at each table followed suit. Someone started to make a speech, she didn't recognize him and wasn't paying much attention to what he said. She was looking along the table to where the princess was, sandwiched between her father the king and the chamberlain.
At last all the speeches were over and the food started to arrive on the table. As always the royal taster checked everything before the king could tuck in and once he started to eat everyone else could too.
Lady Ysabel helped Arabella to fill her plate and rationed her to just a little wine. Not much talking went on between them, the hall was too noisy.
More courses arrived and were consumed just as quickly, as a boy Aron had been accused of eating too quickly but that was nothing compared to many of the people in front of her who were wolfing down pieces of venison and vegetables.
Once the stag had been dispatched there was a pause for entertainment with a variety of musicians playing songs of hunting prowess or success in battle.
Arabella watched as Princess Helene exchanged comments with her father and occasionally her mother. She had never felt so isolated before in her short life.
As if that wasn't bad enough she got a sense that someone was watching her. Looking around the room she saw the familiar face of Lord Barkstone staring intently at her.
She tugged on her mother's sleeve and whispered into her ear.
"Lord Barkstone stares at me, I fear he has seen through my disguise."
"Dear, do not fret, he may suspect but he cannot prove. You are a very different child from the one he admonished. Smile and enjoy the entertainment."
She managed to force a smile and did her best to concentrate on the performers but it was no easy task.
The celebrations went on into the evening, Arabella felt her eyelids begin to droop. Lady Ysabel had been expecting it and made her excuses so she could escort the child to her bed.
Once out of the hall they had some respite from the noise within but not from the attention of Lord Barkstone who appeared in front of them with a self satisfied smile which the candlelight made all the more menacing beneath his dark moustache.
"When I first laid eyes on you child I knew it was a face I recalled. Now I can place you, I said if I ever found you within the castle I would have you banished from the city yet here you are with the audacity to conceal yourself as a girl."
"Lord Barkstone, you are mistaken, this child bears only a passing resemblance to the boy you disciplined."
"Lady Ysabel, you are responsible for this monstrous deception, by the time I am done you will have lost your favour and will join your offspring outside the city walls."
"Barkstone, what is the meaning of this!"
The chamberlain had joined them in the corridor.
"Sir, this child is that wretched boy I dealt with months ago, the way he is dressed is a sleight upon the kingdom perpetuated by his disrespectful mother."
"Never have I heard a claim so far-fetched, you have gone too far this time."
"I shall prove my claim then we shall see."
He tried to remove Arabella's cowl but tired as she was there was no way she avoided his reach and Lady Ysabel stepped in front of him.
"Do not attempt to lay a hand on my charge. If this is your proof then I shall do what is necessary."
She unpinned Arabella's headdress and watched Barkstone's face as a headful of curls escaped its confines and settled around her face.
"Is that the proof you sought?"
The look of disbelief and then contrition on his face was a sight Lady Ysabel would not soon forget.
"Barkstone, make your apology now then go forth while my generosity remains intact."
He stood there open mouthed but finally made his apology and swiftly returned to the great hall.
"The man is a menace, were he not a good leader of men and a great tactician he would have no place in this castle. Now tell me who is this delightful child by your side?"
"This is Arabella, she has been a great help to me over the summer hunt."
"My gratitude to you Miss Arabella, I wish you the sweetest of dreams."
With that he also returned to the great hall and left Ysabel and Arabella to make their way to their room. She may have made it to the room unaided but the child needed her mother's help to get to her bed and was out like a light.
When morning came Lady Ysabel rose early and left to start her morning duties. Now that the whole royal family was in the castle her main responsibility was to Queen Isolda. The chamberlain returned to overall charge of the running of the castle.
Arabella did not wake at her usual hour, in fact Ysabel was surprised to find her still in bed when she returned.
"Wake up sleepyhead, tis time to get ready."
"Isn't it safer for me to remain here," she mumbled.
"Do not let the actions of that man send you into hiding, what would Princess Helene think?"
"I doubt she would notice my absence."
"After all you have been through, what makes you think that?"
"She has her family back now, they can give her more than I am able, what need does she have for my presence?"
"My dear, she is in need of you, she needs someone of her own age, her family can give her many things but a girl needs friends. You are also in need of her."
Arabella was not totally convinced but if there was a chance her princess still needed her then she was prepared to take it. She followed her mother out of the door and towards the Princess's apartments.
"Good morning your highness, I trust all is well."
"Good morning Lady Ysabel. May I presume that the affairs of the palace are in order?"
“With your father and mother back in charge everything is as it should be your highness.”
"Oh Arabella your hair is so becoming, those curls are a sight to behold. Whyever did you cover your hair and withhold such a thing from the royal court?
"That was a decision of my making, I felt it right for her head to be respectfully and humbly adorned in the presence of the King and Queen."
"I hope it always remains uncovered in my presence."
"Princess I shall bear that in mind; but for now I have other issues to attend to. Might I leave you to continue the study of your ancestors? Your mother the Queen has need of me this morning."
"Very well Lady Ysabel, we shall study while we await your return. Is that not so Arabella?"
"Tis true, so please hurry back."
Helene had every intention of doing just as she had promised; but first she had questions for her friend.
"What think you of yesterday's feast? Was it not fine indeed?
"I will admit I have never seen its like, nor have I ever seen as much food as was on every table."
"I hope its richness will not return you to your bed, I could not bear to be without you."
Arabella took reassurance from her princess's words.
"I took care with what passed my lips."
"Of that I am glad."
The princess paused for a mere moment then continued.
"Your presence on the top table will not have gone unnoticed, there will be many who wish to know of you as a result."
This revelation left Arabella feeling uncomfortable, she had no desire to be the subject of curiosity, especially if last night's experience was anything to go by.
With her anxiety plain to see the princess tried to reassure her oncemore.
"There is no need to fret, you are my friend and anyone who bears you ill will shall be dealt with."
"Thank you Helene."
Arabella held both of the princess's hands in hers as a physical confirmation of her gratitude and the bond between them. For her part Helene revelled in being addressed without title. While she had no qualms about using her status to protect her friend in all other ways she longed for them to be equals.
The two girls began their studies, Arabella was now quite familiar with the ancestry of her friend. It made her wonder if her own lineage would be as interesting if she would ever be allowed to find that out.
They were wondering when Lady Ysabel would return as they were finding it hard to concentrate on the same subject for so long.
The door did open but it was not Lady Ysabel who appeared.
"Lady Catherine, it is a pleasure. Mother!"
Helene rushed past the lady and into the arms of her mother.
"My child anyone would think I had not set eyes on you in days."
"Oh mother, any time away from you is too long."
Queen Isolda sighed in agreement.
"Come and meet Arabella."
As she moved away from the door Lady Ysabel was also able to enter the room.
"So I finally get to meet the girl who has lifted my daughter's spirits."
Arabella looked at the floor and attempted to curtsy.
"Your Majesty, I am honoured."
"Child, you do not need to look at the floor unless you see something that interests you."
Helene giggled, the Ladies smiled, Arabella just blushed and slowly raised her head.
She could see that Helene had her mother's looks, particularly her eyes, she could see the same kindness in them.
"That is better, a girl such as yourself should not hide away, especially not from your queen."
Isolda looked over the child stood before her.
"You look familiar to me, Lady Ysabel you say she is your niece?"
"That is so my queen."
"Then that would explain it. Your family was blessed with beauty."
"Oh no your Majesty, you and your daughter are more beautiful by far than I," Arabella replied, making Princess Helene blush.
"And blessed with modesty too. Lady Catherine you may leave us to attend to your other duties, I wish to spend some time with my daughter."
She left the room without a word.
The queen found a place to sit and took her daughter in her arms.
"So my dear, I trust you have studied well."
"I have mother, why, Arabella and I were studying our ancestors before you arrived, were we not Arabella?"
"You once struggled to grasp such things," the Queen stated.
"Tis true yet since Arabella's arrival it has become fun."
Queen Isolda looked to Lady Ysabel for confirmation.
"She speaks the truth my Queen, I cannot fathom it but it is so."
"Is there any other where your endeavour has improved as a result of your friend?"
"Oh yes, archery, already she is better than I"
"I see, perhaps you should accompany us when we ride out into the wood hunting for small game. Anything else?"
"She reads as well as I, I loaned her my storybook and she found it most enjoyable."
"Is there anything at which you are not proficient Arabella?"
"Music your majesty."
"That is a shame, in time I am certain you will improve, with your aunt as your tutor there is no doubt of that."
"Thank you your majesty."
"You are most welcome child."
Isolda spent a good amount of time with her daughter, Helene told of the things she had done while her mother was at the hunt then played her a simple melody on the harp. They tried to include Arabella but each reply was no longer than a few words.
All too soon it was time for her to return to her royal duties.
"I must leave you now, there is work to be done, fear not, we shall be reunited for tonight's meal. Arabella I hope the next time we meet you have found your tongue."
"Lady Ysabel escort me to Lady Catherine then return to the girls."
"Of course my Queen."
With the door closed behind them Arabella exhaled as if she had been holding her breath the entire time.
Helene looked at her friend.
"I cannot recall you being so quiet as that. Are you unwell?
"I was in the same room as our queen, what if I unknowingly said something to displease her?"
"She would not judge so quickly, especially when you have my favour."
"Of course you do."
"Thank you my princess."
"I would not want to see how you were around my father."
"I fear that in the presence of King Eadric I would be mute."
Princess Helene giggled.
The door creaked open and Lady Ysabel rejoined them.
"Well my dear Arabella, you made a favourable impression on the queen."
"I know not how."
"Twas not by your words, that is for certain."
They all laughed at that.
"I have been instructed to acquire you a new dress from the royal seamstresses, something that flatters."
"While rather plain, I did not consider my current dresses to be bad." Arabella did a little twirl to emphasize her point.
"Do you recall when you tried on the Princess dress how much better you looked? Your dresses are of a simple design that would suit girls of different shapes. This new dress would be tailored to your shape in a luxurious fabric and a fetching colour."
"Pink, the dress should be pink," Interrupted Helene. "And a good likeness for my own dress."
"You wish for Arabella's dress to be a reasonable facsimile of your own?"
"Oh yes, I would be thrilled were we to match."
"Princess, are you sure?"
"I could not be surer."
"Then it is settled, the dress shall be broadly similar, it cannot be the same, protocol would not allow it. I for one cannot wait to see the day when you are both wearing those dresses."
The two girls smiled and held hands. In the mind of Princess Helene her friend was deserving of such a reward and much more. In Arabella's mind she felt less deserving but if her dress was requested by the queen and approved by her princess then she would wear it with pride.