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"The queen wishes that we all go out riding this afternoon."

Helene was all smiles.

"It was so long ago that I last rode with mother."

Arabella approached Lady Ysabel and began to whisper.

"Mother, I cannot ride the only time I have been atop a horse was when I played with the baker's children. We used to play with the pony that delivered the sacks of flour."

 

In the days that followed Arabella became a fixture on the top table. Usually next to Lady Ysabel but occasionally next to Princess Helene. If anyone else had been the only person between her and the king she would have been a nervous wreck but with her princess by her side she could cope.

Throughout the meal King Eadric would lean over to share something with his daughter. Arabella didn't hear everything but she heard enough to make her realize that the king was not just a strong leader but a kind father, maybe she might be able to manage very short sentences in his presence.

The King was not the only member of Helene's family that Arabella got to deal with.

At their next archery session she got something of a surprise. It was no longer just her and the princess, Prince Gaspar had joined them so he could continue to hone his own skills.

"Girls prepare for a demonstration of how a real archer performs."

"Why is Robert about to take a turn?" Helene asked with a smile on her face.

"Sister do not mock me, I am the best young archer in the castle."

"You are not even the best young archer on the terrace. The only place you cannot be bested is in your own mind."

"Strong words but can you back them up with deeds? I think not."

"Boys."

Arabella watched as the prince and princess exchanged blows. She was glad that they were only using words.

Gaspar was the first to loose his arrows. All of them landed towards the middle in a nice cluster.

He didn't gloat, he just gave his sister a patronising smile.

She did her best to show disdain as she took up her position. Her first five arrows landed close together but she could not keep it up and overall it was not as tight a grouping as her brother and slightly off-centre.

"Helene, you have been practising, I am impressed. Of course you are not as skilled as I but it was a fair attempt for a girl."

Helene, while glad he noticed the improvement, wanted her brother to be knocked down a peg or two.

Arabella replaced the princess, raised her bow, drew back the string and released. Her arrow landed almost dead centre. The next few were in the same area but she could not keep it up as her shoulder tensed up.

From behind her, little more than a whisper came Robert's voice.

"Relax. Take your time and release when YOU are ready."

She took a deep breath and set herself to fire her remaining arrows. One by one they found their target near the centre.

"Arabella wins," cried the Princess.

"But, she needed the help of another, that is unfair."

Robert looked across to Gaspar.

"When a young prince with years of practise chooses to cry foul because a girl younger than him with less that a month's experience needed some advice, then that is unfair."

The prince immediately saw the truth in that statement.

"Robert, you are correct. Arabella, I apologize. Your skills with the bow are equal to mine."

"Thank you your highness."

"But were we to engage in a sword fight victory would be mine," he said with a gleam in his eye.

"Only because I have never held a sword."

Gaspar laughed out loud.

"I can see why my sister regards you so highly. You are both determined and resourceful and you make no allowances for status."

Arabella smiled but chose not to say anything.

The three of them took turns firing until their arms ached and Robert was pleased by the improvement in each.

"If we are that good can we not learn to fight with swords so I might have the beating of Arabella."

"Do not push your luck Prince Gaspar."

He smiled and left the terrace while the girls waited there for Lady Ysabel.

"He did not seem too bad," Arabella stated.

"Deep down he is a good person, however you will never hear me say that in his presence. He has been teasing me since I began to walk and I have done the same."

They spent the remainder of the day learning about the lands that surrounded their own, if it had not been for Arabella's delight for maps it would have been a vey boring time indeed.

At the appointed hour they joined the king and queen for dinner and after the meal Lady Ysabel had a surprise for Arabella, her dress was ready.

Even though she was quite tired she couldn't resist the opportunity to try it on before she went to bed. She was not disappointed.

"Oh Arabella is this dress not everything we hoped for and more?"

By the way she was twirling it was clear she agreed.

"May I wear it in the morning and show Princess Helene?"

"Of course, and you should show the Queen, for without her you would not have it."

Arabella wasn't sure she wanted to parade in front of the queen just to show her the dress but she wasn't about to say that.

Reluctantly she removed the dress and prepared herself for bed.

The next morning Arabella got her wish, she put the pink dress on again and could barely wait to show her friend. The way she rushed off ahead of had reminded her mother how Aron used to behave but that was mostly boredom where Arabella was excited.

When they got to the princess's door Lady Ysabel tried to pretend that it was stuck, but Arabella was not easily fooled. She didn't even wait for the door to be fully opened and darted through the gap.

"Good morning my princess, look my new dress has arrived." She started to twirl.

"Oh Arabella, it is simply beautiful, I must wear my pink dress that we might match."

"I was right child, with a garment of the right fit you look much more ladylike."

Arabella turned to see Queen Isolda sitting off to the side.

"My apologies your majesty, I knew not of your presence."

"My dear Arabella, it does a Queen good to see such an exuberant reaction. Oft is the time that what I see is so clearly rehearsed, so fearful is the person that they might offend with an honest reaction."

Lady Ysabel who had been watching things unfold offered to help Helene change her dress but Queen Isolda would hear nothing of it.

"Tis not often a queen gets a chance to attend to her growing children, I shall take my opportunity, of which nothing shall be spoken outside these walls."

Helene was delighted to have the assistance of her mother and cherished the moment that they shared.

With both girls stood before them in matching pink dresses Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda admired the sight until the children became impatient.

"Would you have us study?"

"I would like to hear you both read, what say you Lady Ysabel."

"That is a good plan my queen, what do you wish them to read?"

"Lady Sondiah of the forest."

"From the book of legend? I had not thought of that as an option, it should provide them with a small challenge."

Both children took turns to read passages. Their progress pleased the Queen and Lady Ysabel greatly.

"If you continue in this manor I shall pass some of my duties on to you. Both of you are very capable orators."

"But mother."

"Your highness."

Helene and Arabella were mortified at the very idea.

"Do not fret, I was only teasing. I hope that will not be thrust upon you until many years have passed."

Arabella hoped that the queen was just referring to the princess as she had no plans to speak in public at any point in her life.

Queen Isolda stayed and chatted with them a while longer but with so many royal duties it was not long before she had to leave.

They continued to read aloud for the rest of the morning, this time it was a text of Lady Ysabel's choosing, something more appropriate for young girls.

In the afternoon they left the apartments to go to the terrace. They had adjusted to the corridors being busier with the castle back in its prime but this was the first time they had turned heads.

"Why does everybody look at us so?" Arabella asked.

"I would say your clothing is the key my dear. In your normal clothes you have the look of an attendant, a member of the staff, someone of no real importance. Your pink dress makes a very different statement it is a garment worn by someone of status."

"What status do I have?"

"You have a princess as your closest friend," Helene added.

"And for that I am honoured. But why do their heads not turn whenever the princess walks through?"

"A few still do, but for the rest seeing their princess has become such an everyday thing that it grabs their attention no longer. They still show respect of course and they still love her."

A small part of Arabella wished she was still wearing a dress that would allow her to blend in. The larger part had decided it could cope with being noticed in exchange for being close to Princess Helene in her new dress.

They made it to the terrace and left everybody behind, no matter what else went on it was reserved for the royal family and one or two privileged people.

However the weather has no respect of rank or favour and shortly after they got there a rain shower began.

They sought refuge under the covered walkway and waited for it to pass.

"Can we not wear cloaks," Helene asked.

"Princess, I would not forgive myself if you caught a chill. We shall wait it out, I am sure the clouds will break."

The rain did ease but it did not stop completely. Their patience wore out and they returned to Helene's apartments.

To pass the time Lady Ysabel told them some riddles, some so simple that they were able to answer straight away and others that took time to solve. One she even used to slip away and perform some of her other duties knowing that it would still be unsolved when she returned.

Arabella had stopped racking her brains and rested her chin on the ledge as she looked out of the window.

It had stopped raining however, the skies were anything but clear. The distant clouds were dark and left Arabella feeling uneasy.

She could see Helene was still trying to work out the riddle so she didn't say anything to her. When Lady Ysabel returned she started to mention it to her but was cut short.

"There is much to be done before the meal will be ready. The chamberlain and I need to oversee everything so Princess you will accompany your mother to the great hall, Arabella you should follow on behind. Remember, you cannot enter the hall before your queen."

"Is there no way I can help you mother?"

Ysabel prayed the princess hadn't heard Arabella's words and as far as she could tell she had not.

"That is most kind child but for now it is my wish that you stay here."

Both children waited until Lady Catherine arrived with the queen and went with them. Helene walked alongside her mother, Arabella, mindful of Lady Ysabel's words, stayed slightly behind them.

Everything was in order when they got to the great hall, Arabella could make that out even with part of the royal entourage in her way.

Once in the hall she spotted Lady Ysabel off to one side and started to walk over to her but was signalled back and took the place next to Helene.

She looked across the hall, judging by the appearance of those in people in it the rain must have returned.

They made it through the first two courses before the first clap of thunder took everybody by surprise, especially Helene and Arabella.

There were a few rumblings after that but nothing serious enough to disturb the fine meal.

When the time came for them to go to bed Lady Ysabel put a hand on their shoulders to lead them away. They excused themselves and made their way back to Helene's apartments. Arabella could tell that something was wrong with her friend but had no clue what it was until the sound of the sky being split open filled the room.

Helene dived into a corner and crouched there, shivering. Arabella looked at her mother in astonishment.

"Thunderstorms are something she cannot bear."

Arabella joined her friend in the corner and wrapped her arms around her.

"There is nought to be afraid of."

"I know I shouldn't be scared but I cannot help it," Helene sobbed.

They slowly coaxed her out of the corner and towards her bedchamber. In between the bangs and flashes Lady Ysabel helped the princess to change into her nightclothes. Any other time she would have called for one of Helene's attendants but this was no time for either of them to leave.

Now in bed Helene pulled her bedclothes around her and Ysabel prepared to leave with Arabella.

"Please don't leave me on my own," Helene forlornly cried. "Arabella, stay with me."

"How late would you have me stay?"

"Until the thunder stops."

Arabella looked to her mother for a way out but her options were limited. There was no one around for them to summon and it would not be practical for Ysabel to stay behind.

Another clap of thunder sounded and Helene buried herself under the covers. Arabella knew what she had to do and sat down on the edge of the bed reassuring her friend. 

"Hold me."

"It is not easy through the covers."

"Then climb into bed with me."

Arabella had dreaded hearing those words, if she got into bed with the princess her secret wouldn't be secret for very long. She used hand signals to convey her concerns to her mother.

"You can get into bed with the princess," Lady Ysabel said as if she had answered a different question.

She started to help her child out of her dress.

"But..."

Lady Ysabel put her finger to Arabella's lips.

"You have no reason to be shy in front of your princess."

Seeing how calmly her mother was handling things made Arabella wonder if she was overreacting. She stopped making a fuss and dressed only in the cotton shift she wore under her dresses she climbed into bed with the princess and wrapped her arms around her best friend.

The storm carried on into the night. Arabella talked with Helene to take her mind off the weather and even remembered seeing queen Isolda come in to see how her daughter was fairing but not much after that. She would not have seen the smile on the queen's face when she realised who was sharing her daughters bed and would known nothing of the long forgotten memory that lingered in her mind of being in a similar situation when she was a girl.

The skies were clear when Arabella awoke and stretched out her arms, brushing against something that shouldn't have been there. She turned her head and saw that the thing had a face. Slowly the fog of sleep lifted fom her brain and she remembered.

"Princess!"

Luckily Helene slept sound enough that the exclamation didn't disturb her.

Carefully Arabella slipped out of bed and went in search of something to wear. She didn't share her mother's confidence and wanted to cover up her belt with something more substantial than the thin cotton shift she had used as a nightdress.

The pink dress was nowhere to be seen, it wasn't even in the one place where it might have been hidden, the chest where all of the princess's clothes were.

She continued to search until there was a sound at the door. She froze. It had to be the princess's attendant coming to prepare her clothes for the day.

The door creaked open but it was Lady Ysabel who entered, Arabella could breathe again.

"I have some fresh clothes for you, but we must be quick. I was only able to delay the attendant mere moments."

They didn't waste any time, Arabella lifted her arms and allowed the green dress to slide onto her body. Ysabel had just finished adjusting it when the attendant let herself in with the water for the Princess's washstand.

"Lady Ysabel, you got here before me. Is her highness awake yet."

"I think she may have begun to stir."

"Very well, you said she has no special duties to attend to today?"

"That is so, I think her blue dress would be fitting."

The girl moved into Helene's bedchamber leaving Arabella and Ysabel to talk.

"The princess does not choose her own attire?"

"Appropriate clothing is selected for her, if she wishes to wear something else that is her right."

"I see. Is it like that with the King and Queen also?"

"I cannot speak of the king but Queen Isolda is capable of choosing her own attire. On rare occasion she will court my opinion but the decision is hers."

"Mother I never knew you held such important roles."

"There are many things of which you are unaware however you must be mindful that such a role is important to the queen but of little regard to most who dwell within the walls of the city."

The look on Arabella's face showed she didn't understand.

"If any of the royal family goes outside the castle they will continue to receive the respect they deserve. If we go out alone we would be treated like any ordinary person."

"I see."

Lady Ysabel then went into the bedchamber and Arabella followed.

Princess Helene was awake and was finishing dressing in her undergarments. Arabella recalled how the first time she had walked in on the princess in a state of undress her mother had ensured she did not glimpse anything, this time no one even gave it a second thought.

Helene finished dressing and waited for her attendant to leave. When she was sure the girl was in the corridor she approached Arabella and gave her the kind of hug that a princess would normally reserve for members of her own family.

"Thank you for last night Arabella."

"It was nothing princess."

"I beg to differ, you gave up your bed to provide comfort to me, that is of much worth."

Arabella smiled ruefully.

The girls began their studies together and Lady Ysabel left them to attend to her other duties. It did not seem like she had been away long before she returned with news.

"The queen wishes that we all go out riding this afternoon."

Helene was all smiles.

"It was so long ago that I last rode with mother."

Arabella approached Lady Ysabel and began to whisper.

"Mother, I cannot ride the only time I have been atop a horse was when I played with the baker's children. We used to play with the pony that delivered the sacks of flour."

"I explained you had no experience to the queen but she was insistent that we all ride out together."

Helene had been so happy she had only just realised that Lady Ysabel and Arabella were at one side of the room whispering.

"Is something amiss?"

"Not as such, Princess," Lady Ysabel replied. "Arabella is not accustomed to riding side saddle."

"But it is unseemly to ride astride!"

"I agree Princess, yet we will have no time to instruct her before we leave the stables."

Arabella could see herself being left behind.

"Then it is a riddle for which I have no answer."

"If there is a way I shall find it. Continue in your schooling and I shall return presently."

They tried to carry on with their studies but Helene found herself recalling times when she had accompanied her mother in the past. Arabella was not concentrating on her work or Helene. She was worrying about what would happen if they had to leave her behind. What would she do and would she be able to stay in her room or be out in the castle?

It was not long before Lady Ysabel returned. At first when she saw they had achieved almost nothing since her previous visit she was aggrieved. Then she heard the princess continuing with her stories and realised what had gone on.

"I have come to prepare you both to go out."

"Then I shall be riding with you?"

"In a way, yes."

As she followed her mother's instructions Arabella tried to decide which would be worse, making a fool of herself in front of her friend - the princess, her queen or everybody in the stables. Then she realised that she would probably get to do all three.

It was with some unease that she followed princess Helene out to the stables.

Queen Isolda was already there looking slightly overdressed for a simple ride. She was not yet on horseback but maybe half a dozen Royal Guard were and they looked a little restless.

Lady Ysabel caught up with the children, Helene rushed over to her horse leaving the Lady to speak to her 'niece'.

"So, what am I to do?" Arabella asked.

"Your mount is over there."

"A carthorse?"

"A cart. You cannot ride so it is the only answer."

Arabella started to giggle.

One by one the queen, Helene and Lady Ysabel were helped onto their horses. Arabella watched them from the wooden seat inside the two-wheeled cart.

The guard took up their positions and the procession moved towards the gate that lead out of the castle and onto the city streets. When the citizens saw their queen they started cheering and parted to ease her passage. Arabella was impressed until she saw them closing in as soon as those on horseback had passed by, the cart was just seen as more traffic on the street.

With their way impeded it took some minutes to reach the East Gate where the rest of the party was waiting impatiently.

As they passed through the gateway Arabella stared upward and caught sight of the portcullis. 'I  hope it doesn't drop now,' she thought.

Despite all of the rain from last night's storm the ground was still quite firm and away from the crowded city streets the cart found it much easier to keep up with those on horseback.  

Arabella felt left out, all the people she knew and trusted were no more than 30 feet away from her but they were together while she was stuck riding in the cart.

She looked behind her and the main tower of the castle disappeared behind a thicket of trees. Apart from a few traders carrying their wares from town to town their travels were uneventful. Quite boring in fact. Arabella vowed that the next time they ventured this way she would be on horseback too.

It seemed like they had been on the move for hours when they stopped to give the horses a rest. Actually it was probably no more than an hour since they had left the city.

The stream that gurgled nearby gave the animals chance for a drink so two by two they refreshed themselves. Waiting her turn the princess came to the side of the cart.

"Isn't this wonderful, fresh air, scenery and nothing but birdsong to be heard."

Instead of replying immediately Arabella seemed to be listening.

"It is pleasant although I believe I would find it more agreeable were I able to ride with you."

"I agree it would be most enjoyable with you by my side. I do not doubt you could be taught how to ride so that your wish might be fulfilled."

"Princess, I look forward to it."

Helene moved off so that her horse could drink its fill, her place was taken by queen Isolda.

"Your highness."

"Arabella, how are you enjoying your escape from the confines of the castle?"

"It is most fine your majesty, and I thank you for the opportunity."

Queen Isolda smiled.

"I believe it is important for girls like you and my daughter to see life on the outside. With any luck this will become a regular happening for you, would you like that?"

"Spending time with the princess in the fresh air would be a privilege indeed."

"Arabella your companionship with my daughter has made such a difference to her. I see the same love between you that existed between me and my best friend when I was your age."

"Thank you your highness."

"No, it is me who should be thanking you. I shall find a suitable way to reward you child. We shall talk more of this later."

Her horse wandered off to take its place at the stream. A couple of guards took the drinking skins out of the back of the cart and made their way to the stream so that it wouldn't just be the horses who would be refreshed.

Lady Ysabel now sidled up.

"What did the queen want with you?"

So Arabella spent five minutes recalling as much of the conversation as she could. When she was finished her mother had a broad smile on her face.

"Sweetheart since overcoming your nerves you have shown our queen a wisdom beyond your years, wherever your mother may be you make her proud."

At first Arabella was confused, then she realised that because they were in public her mother had to disguise her words.

There were many things she wanted to say but she was unsure whether it was a good time to say any of them. In the end the way she looked at her mother conveyed her emotions as well as words could have.

"Excuse me Lady Ysabel, Miss Arabella."

The guardsman's words bought them back to earth. He removed some poles from the back of the cart and handed them to one of the men on horseback.

Arabella could not fathom what was going on so watched as the horseman trotted out to the middle of the meadow and planted them firmly into the ground then trotted back to the cart.

She was about to ask what was happening when a second horse and rider broke into a canter then a gallop. It rushed headlong for the poles, circled behind them, and came back at speed.

He was halfway back before Arabella noticed he carried one of the poles in his hand.

Speaking to the driver of the cart for the first time she said, "Is this a test of some sort?"

"No Miss, this is training for the guard and exercise for the horses."

Each man rode out empty handed and came galloping back with a pole. Even though she had been concentrating Arabella did not clearly see the man take the pole, so slick was their collection.

She thought, 'Maybe one day I will get to try such things.' Then she looked at how she was dressed and how the royal party was riding and doubted anyone could ride fast like that when side saddle.

'If I had the choice of who I wanted to be should I end this and destroy the princess by trying to follow Aron's dream to become a knight or a soldier or should l stay with my Helene and live a straight forward life where the only danger is of being discovered.'

That thought troubled Arabella not only on the journey back to the castle but for some nights to come.



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