Despite her doubts Arabella carried on as normal spending most of each day at the princess's side supporting her.
There was one instance where their roles were reversed. Helene was experienced with horses, she had been riding them since she had been small so she wanted to help her friend learn as well and accompanied her to the stables.
To Arabella it had seemed like a simple proposition - find a horse, saddle it, ride slowly around the stable yard until she got used to the saddle. It turned out to be a lot more involved.
As she would be riding regularly she would need a horse of her own, one with the right temperament that was young enough to adapt to the different demands of side-saddle riding.
The liverymen had knowledge that went back generations; they presented five ponies and Ysabel walked along the line with Arabella in tow.
With all but two ruled out the final decision was Arabella's. She tried to look like she knew what she was doing by copying some of the things Lady Ysabel had already done. Finally she gave up and whispered, "On what should I base my decision?"
"Which do you like best?"
Arabella looked hard at the sandy coloured horse then shifted her attention to the grey before announcing her decision.
"I choose the silver one."
"I approve," said Helene who had tried to stay in the background until now.
"Does it have a name?"
"She's called Moonshadow," said one of the liverymen.
"That's pretty," the princess responded and Arabella agreed.
The next step was to find the right saddle and tack for the filly. Another of the men took one look at Arabella and selected everything that would be needed.
"How does he know what is right?" Arabella asked.
"We are a kingdom that relies upon its horses and their knowledge is second to none." Ysabel replied.
The liverymen continued to show their wealth of knowledge by showing Arabella how she should mount, stay in the saddle and dismount safely.
"Miss, a few more lessons and you shall be able to ride out with their highnesses."
A few more lessons? She wanted to be ready to ride with them today or tomorrow, not next week.
A rather frustrated Arabella returned with the princess to her apartments and set about practising the harp. Arabella playing had improved over the weeks but there was no sign of it today.
Her singing was somewhat better but it was clear to both Ysabel and Helene that her heart just wasn't in it.
Nothing was said until they were back in their rooms.
"Has some upset been caused to you, it is clear you were troubled by something."
"Oh mother, everything I see makes me more restless. The guards on horseback get to show their skills and it makes me wish I could do that, yet I know I cannot. So I content myself with being able to ride with my princess yet that is also denied me. Is there any activity I shall be allowed?"
"Sweetheart I can see your frustration, but you need to accept that not everything you wish for can happen when you wish it and be grateful for what you do have. Few children get the opportunity to become skilled with a bow or to ride with royalty."
"I understand that mother and the things I have done make me glad. What irks me is that I see things I would like to do, maybe if they had been kept from my eyes I would be content with what I have."
Ysabel moved closer to her child and took her in her arms.
"There are times when you act older than your years and there are times when you are my little girl. Tonight you are both."
She played with Arabella's hair before continuing.
"Let me worry about your activities, all you need concern yourself with is the princess."
Arabella took reassurance from her mother's words and settled down for a good night's sleep.
The next day was uneventful but Ysabel lived up to her word for the day after.
"Girls we shall go for another ride today."
"Will my mother be joining us?" Helene asked hopefully.
"I'm afraid not."
"With me following in the cart?"
"Not on this occasion."
When they got to the stables the guards were ready for them. Robert was a surprising addition to the regular riders.
Ysabel and Helene were helped onto their horses, Arabella still wasn't sure what was going on until two of the stable lads lifted her up and got her seated behind Robert.
"If you have need to hold on, do so by all means," he said as he followed the rest of the party out of the castle.
To begin with Arabella clung on, particularly through the streets of the city but the longer she stayed on the more confident she felt and by the time they had passed through the gate she was barely holding on.
Unlike her time in the cart Arabella found she was now a part of the conversation. They talked about the beautiful scenery, the birds and the creatures amongst other things.
Just like last time they stopped to give the horses a drink. From her vantage point she could see how clean and clear the stream was here.
"Look, over there, bubbles," Arabella said to the Princess and pointed.
"Tis merely fish, in the headwaters they are plentiful. I used to fish there as a boy," Robert said.
As Arabella she had nothing to do with fishing. Aron on the other hand had accompanied his uncle twice. Neither trip had been particularly successful, he had not been of an age to be patient.
Once Robert's horse had quenched its thirst it separated from the group.
"Where are we going?"
"You shall soon see miss."
Every twenty yards he would make a mark on a tree. Remembering what happened last time Arabella guessed it must be some kind of practice.
After marking the tenth he turned the horse around and looking over his shoulder, spoke to his passenger.
"Do you think you could hit those targets from a moving horse, Miss Arabella?"
"With bow and arrow I hope I could come close."
From his other side he produced a bow and quiver.
"I shall stand in the stirrups to give you the room to draw, remember to allow for the wind and the movement of the horse also."
Arabella had the target in her sights, she had compensated for the slight breeze and knew which part of the horse's stride to release the string. Her moment came, the shaft flew straight and missed not only the target mark but the whole tree.
"Now now miss, temper your language. You did not allow enough for the wind. Try once more with this next target."
Her second attempt did hit the tree at least but it was scant consolation. Even though these targets were nothing like those she was used to she had expected better.
When her third shot landed close to Robert's mark it was relief that she felt rather than any kind of satisfaction.
"It differs greatly from the courtyard, does it not?"
"That is so," she replied. "But I would not have expected my efforts to be so far from the mark."
"Do not be so hard upon yourself, the target is smaller, the wind greater, the situation unfamiliar. My first time was an ordeal."
"Indeed. If you see this as a test then you will surely be disappointed; instead see it as a challenge to hit any of the targets."
With her new outlook Arabella started to have fun. She viewed each near miss as something to build on and when she managed to hit one of the marked trees she took it as a small victory.
They returned to the group and Lady Ysabel's horse ambled up to them.
"How did you fare?"
"I barely hit a tree."
"I am sorry," said Ysabel.
"I shall improve the next time."
"What say you Robert?"
"Her potential is clear to see, she could go far," he replied.
By the time they had finished their conversation two of the guards had taken their turn at the archery challenge. Helene joined their little group and watched as the remainder of the guards disappeared along the trail Robert had set. She did not need to ask how Arabella had done, the look on her friend's face showed she'd had fun and that was all Helene needed to know.
They started their journey home, chatting as they went. Their path took them into a wooded area and as it closed in around them Arabella felt a sense of unease.
"Are you cold?" Robert asked, feeling her shiver.
"Tis not that. Something about this place feels wrong."
Hearing that she had picked up on that took him by surprise.
It was with great relief that they emerged out of the woods. Distant hills provided the backdrop and just off to the side the tower of the castle could be seen.
It seemed to take no time at all to reach the gate and return to the hustle and bustle of the city's streets. Arabella thought she could get inside the castle quicker on foot but knew she was safer where she was.
By the time the leaves had changed colour Arabella became good enough to ride alongside Princess Helene on Moonshadow. At least once a week they would venture outside the city and spend an afternoon in the saddle. Sometimes, when her commitments would allow it, Queen Isolda would join them and they would have the most wonderful conversations even though the guards were always alongside.
Lady Ysabel passed a the occasional duty concerning the princess on to Arabella which left her with more time to be the Queen's confidante. She was able to accompany her on the rare visits to other kingdoms just like she had before the prince and princess were born.
On those occasions Arabella would stay with Princess Helene and sleep in the antechamber. It was during one of these days that the question of family arose.
"Arabella, when did you last visit your village?"
"It has been so long that I do not recall."
"You must miss your family terribly," said Helene who laid her hands on top of her friend's.
"I get by. It helps that Lady Ysabel is close by and I know that they are better off for me being here."
That reply had been coached by Lady Ysabel who knew questions would come. She also made sure that the lion's share of Arabella's allowance was sent 'home'.
"What if we could make arrangements for you to return home?"
"Oh princess you are too kind, I wouldn't think to impose upon your goodwill in that way."
"It would be the least I could do."
Now that her plan of making it seem like it was too much trouble was failing Arabella hoped she could find another way. It was true she could not go on like this but appearing at her aunt's door while pretending to be her daughter would not be the way to go.
"Maybe an arrangement could be made for the spring?"
"Oh I'm sure we could arrange something before yule. I could not imagine going for such a time without my grandmother, she always visits then." Helene was deep in thought before she continued in a much more subdued voice. "Do you have any living grandparents?"
"I know not, my mother told me that on my father's side they were dead before I was born. Of my mother's side I cannot say, no one ever talks of them and if they were alive when I was born I do not recall it."
"But those grandparents would also be Lady Ysabel parents. We must ask her when she returns, I am sure she will know what befalls them."
"I hope that is true, I have learned so much about your ancestors it would be pleasing to discover about my own."
Helene put her arm around her friend, moments like these were priceless.
They stayed that way for some minutes, Arabella would have stayed where she was even longer but she did not wish to disappoint Lady Ysabel by failing to complete their studies.
As they read their texts Arabella found herself distracted by the thought of her grandmother, the woman from the house in Drum Lane seemed to know something, maybe she should pay another visit.
It took no more than two days for the Queen and Ysabel to return. Arabella had hoped that Helene would ask the question of Lady Ysabel but with her mother home it was no longer at the forefront of the princess's mind.
When they were safely back in their rooms she decided she could put it off no longer.
"Mother, do I have any living grandparents?"
"What prompted that?"
"Helene asked me, I know that father's parents are no longer with us but, what about yours. I have not head you talk of them."
"My dear that is because it is safer for things to remain unsaid. I do not exaggerate to say it would be dangerous for both of us to talk about them."
"But nothing, please respect my wishes."
There was a hint of sadness in Ysabel's voice when she replied.
The next time that they were alone together Arabella told Helene what had transpired. She found it most peculiar that Lady Ysabel had responded in that way and was almost as committed to finding the answers as Arabella.
"Maybe mother will know. I shall ask her when the chance presents itself."
The chance did not present itself that day so they continued their studies. In fact more than a week passed before Helene had a chance to talk to her mother without Ysabel being there also.
When she reported back to Arabella there were no answers, only more questions.
"Mother would not talk of what happened, she told me that your grandmother left the city shortly after Lady Ysabel had a child. Have you met your cousin?"
"I have not seen him since Lady Ysabel brought me to the castle."
"What is he like?"
"I am told he resembles his father but I never met the man so I cannot say."
There was nothing more Helene could do but the whole affair played greatly on Arabella's mind.
The next time Lady Ysabel accompanied the queen on a royal visit Arabella, confident in her trust, told her princess what she was doing and slipped away.
Walking through the city she felt as if every eye was on her, a most uncomfortable feeling. Perhaps if she could find the alleyway she would stop drawing everyone's attention.
Try as she might she couldn't find the end that was near the castle so she tagged along behind a cart that looked to be leaving the city. When it joined a queue to pass through the gate she thought she knew where she was and dived off to where she expected the alley to be.
Her memory of the place seemed at odds with what lay before her but Arabella was convinced she had not used one of the city's other gates so it had to be here somewhere.
She walked along the street but didn't see it, it was only when she came back the other way that she spotted the familiar opening to the dark passageway.
With relief she darted into it and began to follow its twists and turns. It was only then that she considered how poorly conceived her plan had been. It was hard enough finding the alleyway but could she remember what the rear of their house looked like?
She kept looking for any kind of sign, it took all of her attention. Then came a crunch and pain, she had trod on a piece of glass and it had pierced the bottom of her shoe.
Once the worst of the pain had subsided Arabella glanced down at the offending item, it was part of a bottle.
That was it! The house she was looking for had bottles in the back window.
Hobbling as best she could she worked along the alley until she found what she had been looking for and knocked as hard as she could on the door.
It was the younger woman who opened the door.
"I came to speak with you, I have questions."
"And why do you imagine I would answers, has someone sent you here as part of a game?"
"Do you not recognise me? I was here but a few weeks ago."
"I am sure I would remember."
From inside the house the voice of the older woman sounded out.
"Let the child pass."
"But she is a stranger."
"Age may have diminished my sight but it has yet to impair my hearing. That child is Lady Ysabel's child."
"It is true," Arabella blurted.
She tried to walk inside but was not able to put her full weight on her foot.
"Oh you poor thing, let me help you."
And with that the young woman assisted the child inside.
"Sit down and tell us what has happened while I prepare a dressing."
So Arabella told them how she came to be in her predicament in the castle which proved a great surprise to both women.
They applied ointment to her foot and wrapped a bandage around it.
"Now child, what is it you need to ask us."
"Tell me of my grandmother."
They looked at each other but remained silent.
"I do not understand, no one will tell me of her, what did she do that was so bad?"
"Child there will come a time when we may speak of what has passed but that time is yet to come."
"There must be something you can tell me of her, especially after the efforts I have made to get here."
"She was a great woman of standing and respect, many people went to her for help and she never turned anyone away."
"How did she help people?"
"With her wisdom and experience and her knowledge of plants and animals."
Arabella looked quizzically at them.
"Amongst other talents she was a healer," the younger woman whispered as if she might be overheard.
"So it was something she did?"
"We will say nothing more. There are many in this kingdom who regard her and anyone who knows her as a problem. She was a good woman who made an error in judgement and as much as you might wish to, you should tell no one, it will be to the detriment of you and whoever you tell."
"Not even the princess?"
"Especially not the princess. I know this is much to ask of one so young but it would be unfair of you to ask her to keep this secret."
"And what of my mother?"
"It is your decision whether you wish to incur her displeasure for defying her and for venturing out into the city without guidance. In your place I would not lie nor would I tell her without prompting."
"Now lets see how that foot is doing, can you bear weight upon it?"
She gingerly tried to stand up and found it was a lot easier now, there was still pain but she could walk almost normally.
Not only did the younger woman guide her to the end of the alleyway closest to the castle but she offered support and gave one last piece of advice.
"Keep off it as much as possible and rub some of this into it when you go to bed."
She handed over a tiny bowl no bigger than a duck egg.
"Take care of yourself and the princess."
She disappeared into the shadows just like before.
Arabella took a deep breath and walked to the castle gate as if there was nothing wrong with her foot. She relaxed a little as she made her way into the keep but did her best to hide her pain until she was back with the princess.
"Arabella, I thought you were lost, I was approaching the point of alerting someone to look for you."
"I am glad you did not, it would have made trouble for both of us."
"I know that but I could not bear it were anything to happen to you and there was a way I could help. So tell me, what did you find out?"
"No one speaks of her, I think no one really knows what became of her."
The lie did not sit well with her, Aron had been taught to always tell the truth, since becoming Arabella she had allowed people to be deceived by her appearance but this was the first time she had told an outright lie.
"I do not see what more we can do."
"It is sad yet I agree," Helene said, putting her arm around her friend.
Nothing more was said about her grandmother but what little Arabella had learned stayed with her as she went about her daily duties.
Over the weeks that followed she continued to improve in both her archery and her music and everything appeared to be well.
Helene began looking forward to the visit of her grandmother and talked about her in such a way that Arabella had a sense of anticipation too. However the arrival of the countess at the castle proved to be quite different to her expectations.
The palace guard, who were always well turned out had made an extra effort for the visiting dignitary.
Most of the royal family and staff were in the courtyard as her horse came to a halt. It was the chamberlain who was first to greet her.
"Countess, it is our pleasure to welcome you to the royal abode."
Queen Isolda stepped forward, "Mother I trust your journey was uneventful."
"It was long and rough and I wish to put from my mind; now where is that granddaughter of mine."
"I am here," Helene called as she appeared on the steps of the keep and flung herself at her grandmother.
"Steady child, that is no way for a lady to act, especially a princess."
"I know grandmother but it has been such a long time since I saw you last."
"I have missed you also. Would you accompany me to my chamber and help me to settle in?"
The countess and Helene walked hand in hand, at the princess's behest Arabella followed behind her, as did the entourage carrying the countess's trunk which they deposited in her chamber before departing.
She stared at Arabella who was unsure of what she should do.
"I have dismissed everyone, please leave us and go about your business."
Helene giggled. "Arabella is not a servant, she is my best friend."
"Then she is fortunate to have you, dismiss her so that we might talk alone."
Arabella did not wait to see what her princess might do, she removed herself from the chamber and made sure the door was firmly closed behind her before finding a quiet corner to wipe the tears from her eyes.
Doing her utmost not to be noticed she made her way back to the princess's apartments and waited.
She watched the sky darken and made her way towards the great hall as it had to be approaching meal time.
The corridors were full of people making their way to the feast. Lady Ysabel was in the door to the kitchen alongside the chamberlain making sure that everything was ready.
"There you are child, where is the princess?"
"When last I saw her she was with the countess."
Despite all that was going on around her Lady Ysabel was able to discern the things that Arabella had chosen not to say. She caressed her child's cheek and gave her a look that told her everything would be fine.
For the first time in weeks Arabella did not sit next to her princess, that place was filled by the countess, instead she sat next to Lady Ysabel. When the time came for the children to go to their beds she followed Helene out but she did not know what to say so she limited herself to "Goodnight Princess" as they went their separate ways.
It took an age for her to fall asleep and when she awoke she did not feel rested, regardless she prepared for her day as usual and accompanied Lady Ysabel to the princess's apartments where she almost expected to see the countess but was glad to be wrong.
"Good morning Princess."
"Good morning Arabella, what did you think of my grandmother, isn't she wonderful?
To Arabella it seemed like the Countess could dominate a room without even being present.
"It is difficult for me to say, I was dismissed before having chance to form an opinion," she said, looking at the floor.
"I am sorry about that, but what could I have done? She is my grandmother."
Arabella did well to hold her tongue.
The two of them spent the morning studying and in the afternoon started to practise their music. They were getting on quite well when the door flew open and in walked the countess.
"They told me I would find you in your apartments. Keep on playing, don't stop on my account."
The way she spoke it would have been hard for a minstrel to ignore and the children were nowhere near that dedicated so once again everything halted for the countess.
"Helene, you play wonderfully, you have a natural gift for music."
"Oh grandmother were it not for the teaching of Lady Ysabel my playing would be poor."
"You are still being taught by her. Surely there is someone better?"
"She is considered a most talented harpist."
"Well I suppose she has to be good at something."
Arabella wanted to scream at her. Luckily for her the princess intervened.
"Lady Ysabel has many talents, I am glad she is around, I could not have asked for a better teacher."
"You almost sound like your mother, I am sure with time you will lose your naivety."
Helene looked strangely at her grandmother who then carried on speaking as if everything was normal.
"Carry on playing, I wish to listen to you."
They tried their best to continue but neither could keep their mind on the task with the countess looking on.
As soon as they gave up the countess suggested that Helene accompany her for a walk. Helene wanted Arabella to come too but the countess insisted that she would have better things to do and strode off with the princess before either of them could protest.
Arabella stayed in the room until Lady Ysabel came to do her regular check.
"As the princess is not here with you would I be correct in thinking that she is with the countess?"
"It's alright sweetheart, I'll take you back to our room."
When she was sure no one else was anywhere near Arabella asked, "Mother why does the countess dislike you?"
"Has she been bad-mouthing me in front of the princess again."
"Yes, it was awful, she was mean. I was going to jump to your defence but Princess Helene did not like what she was saying either."
Lady Ysabel smiled at the thought of both children defending her.
"I have known Isolda before she became queen, we have been friends since childhood. A long time ago the countess thought I was a problem for her daughter and she tried to separate us, she failed. She has never seen eye to eye with me since."
"Do not be bitter towards her, soon she will leave and we will have our princess back while the countess will be many miles away."
"I do not envy her that."
"No. Let us spend no more of our thoughts on her. I have most of the afternoon to myself, would you like me to give your hair a little curl? It is looking rather flat."
The smile on Arabella's face told its own story and Lady Ysabel spent her spare hours treating her child as if she was a princess herself.
When it came time for the meal Arabella stayed in the room to let her hair dry.
"I shall give your excuses to the princess," Ysabel told her.
The next morning Arabella returned to the princess's side.
"I love your curls," Helene said. "I wonder if mother would allow me to have the same style."
"It is rather time consuming," Ysabel added.
"Oh I see. But the curls are fetching, I shall think on it some more."
They had just begun their studies when someone entered the room. It was not the countess but Queen Isolda, much to Arabella's relief.
"My mother has requested that we go on a ride."
Arabella's heart sank.
"It is my wish that the two of you ride with us and the stables have been instructed to prepare our horses. Please join me in the yard as soon as you are able."
"Thank you my queen," replied Ysabel.
Given that winter was approaching they needed some extra protection from the weather. On their way to the stable-yard an attendant appeared with grey woollen cloaks for each of them.
Being new to riding sidesaddle the cloak was something of a hindrance for Arabella and her adjustment to it delayed their departure, much to the annoyance of the countess.
They made their way through the cities streets with the usual escort of the palace guard and a couple of extras who could only be part of the countess's entourage.
Once they were free of the city Arabella took her place at the side of Helene with the countess on her other side. She was finally party to some of their conversations and realised that the countess was warm and occasionally funny, she just seemed to have no time for anyone outside her family.
Very occasionally Arabella joined the conversation, and her contributions were tolerated if not accepted.
While they stopped to allow the horses to take a drink the countess moved her horse alongside the queen's.
"The girl with Helene, something seems familiar about her, do I know the family?"
Isolda took a deep breath and for a brief moment thought about being obtuse or even deceptive.
"She is the niece of lady Ysabel," she said and waited for the reaction.
"Daughter, what were you thinking. You know how much trouble that family causes."
"They have never made trouble for me."
"Your memories are flawed," the countess said.
"No, my memories are clear and what is more they are unbiased," Isolda replied.
"The child is clearly unsuitable."
"So say you when you have not spent any time with her, she has been Helene's only true friend this past year, you do not know what Arabella has done for her and she has asked for nothing in return."
"I still say she is not suitable."
"Whatever you wish to say please refrain until we are back at the castle. I do not wish for this ride to be spoiled any more by conversations like this."
"This matter will not go away."
"Of this I have no doubt, I just wish to ride back in peace. Please respect my wish."
"Very well daughter."
Luckily neither of the children was in earshot of that conversation. The same could not be said of Ysabel who heard every last word. If she had not been a lady she might well have sought some form of retribution but she knew that was not the way. Throughout the ride back to the castle she stayed close to the children, she did not put it past the countess to try to poison their minds against each other.
On their arrival Ysabel did not wait for assistance, she dismounted in the stable yard and helped first the Princess then Arabella down and lead them both away. If either the queen or countess noticed her urgency neither of them voiced it.
The moment that they arrived back in the princess's apartments both girls were encouraged to clean up.
"The smell of the stables does not go well with food, especially in the presence of royalty," Lady Ysabel stated.
Helene got to use the water first then Ysabel and Arabella shared it while the princess made herself ready.
Ysabel studied her child and decided that the dress she was wearing just would not do. It was not just the few marks on it, neither was it the odour,she wanted her child to look her best.
"Princess might you consider letting Arabella wear one of your plainer dresses for the meal?"
"Of course, do you have in mind something special?"
"The dark green with the gold stitching would be most appropriate I feel."
"Let me fetch it, for I know its location."
It did not even cross Arabella's mind that by letting Helene find the dress she was being waited upon by a princess. Ysabel, on the other hand, was fully aware of that fact and prayed no one would find out.
The rich green fabric settled over Arabella's body, it looked almost as fine as her pink dress and she found herself longing for one of her own.
But it was not the time to be admiring herself so she followed princess Helene and her mother towards the Great Hall. They were able to follow the King and Queen in and take their seats at the top table.
Arabella gazed out across the hall, she noticed Lord Barkstone paying her more attention than she would have liked. There was little he could do to her at this time but that didn't give her much comfort.
They ate their first courses without fuss then King Eadric addressed all who were present.
"Children; they are a gift who grow up fast. It seems like only yesterday they were playing at my feet yet, now they are starting to undertake their royal duties. My daughter, your princess, Helene is becoming a fine young woman and the time has come for her to have a Lady-in-waiting of her own.
Arabella you have been a good friend to our princess but she needs something more. You are to be her first Lady-in-waiting, I know you will not flinch from your duty Lady Arabella."
At that moment Arabella was too shocked to flinch. She had thought that maybe the appointed lady would think differently about her relationship with Helene, she had never considered that she might be that Lady.
Helene took her hand and gave it a squeeze, Arabella came out of her trance and looked at the princess.
In a very subdued voice she said, "I pray I can be everything you need of me."
"I have not found you wanting yet," Helene replied.
Arabella did not pay attention to anything until it was time for her to retire to her bed. She wished a good night to her princess before following Lady Ysabel back to their rooms.
"The King's announcement was not received well by you was it?"
"I certainly did not expect it."
"To be honest neither did I, but if you had, what would you have done? To refuse would be unthinkable, a sleight on the King and Queen."
"How can I be a Lady-in-waiting when I am not a lady? How can I be a lady when I am not even a girl?"
"My dear you have already partaken in many of the duties that will be expected of you. As for your true gender, that is a conundrum I still cannot fathom, for now we must follow the path in front of us and look for our escape as we go."
“Do you honestly think I can do this?"
"When I was given my first appointment my doubts were many, if I were as unfit as I had feared I would not have remained. You are friends with your princess just like I was with my Lady, she will protect you as best she can from everything but the truth of your gender."
"I will do my best."
"That is all we can ask. Now rest your head for on the morrow there is much we must do, not least of which is to make the seamstresses aware so that they might add to the fine dresses for you."
"Can one of them be like this one?" she said, sweeping her hand across the green dress she had borrowed from her Princess.
"I am certain it can be arranged, now off to bed with you."
Across the castle a different conversation was going on about Arabella's suitability. Once the formality of the meal was over the countess followed her daughter back to the royal bedchamber.
"Daughter, what possessed you."
"I assume you are referring to the king's announcement."
"Do not treat me like a simpleton, you know to what I refer."
"The announcement has been planned for days, I saw no reason to postpone."
"Our conversation this afternoon did not make you reconsider?"
"To the contrary, it confirmed my thoughts. The last time you voiced this much opposition about anything it was Ysabel continuing in my service and that could not have gone better."
"That woman has done nothing."
"Ysabel has always been there for me. You were happy when we used to play together as girls, what changed?"
"I never saw her being more than just a friend, you could have done much better."
"Apparently our opinions on 'better' are worlds apart. When father died the only person I could turn to was Ysabel."
"My child, I had lost my soul-mate, my world had ended."
"To me it was as if I had lost both parents, one to illness and the other to grief. Then when you finally start talking to me the first thing you tell me is that you will be marrying again."
"If I had not then everything your father and I had worked for would have been worth nought."
"You know my feelings about that time. What is important is what Ysabel did for me then and later on when you and the Earl arranged my betrothal to Eadric. She did not have to come yet she chose to accompany me to an unfamiliar place where everyone else was a stranger."
"Surely you do not believe she did all that just for you?"
"In those days we talked at length, we needed each other. So it is with Helene and Arabella."
"You still think you have all the answers, what happens when Arabella's grandmother returns."
"She has not set foot in this city since the day you addressed Eadric's father. I do not know what you said but all in the castle had considered the matter dealt with before your arrival."
"I did what had to be done to protect your position."
"And is that what you were doing when you told Ysabel that she had to choose between her mother and me?"
"I believed she would do the honourable thing and leave and take that child of hers as far from the castle as was practical."
"All because of her mother's words?"
"Powerful words, you cannot make a prophecy about a child shaming a kingdom and just act as though all is well."
"Her words held little meaning, yet your intervention caused Ysabel to lose contact with her mother and for her husband to go off on some meaningless quest."
"A knight's quest for redemption is never meaningless."
"He died of his injuries leaving Ysabel with no husband and their son with no father."
The countess had no reply so Isolda continued to express what was on her mind.
"What never ceases to astound me is why Ysabel chose me over her mother. If our positions had been reversed I do not believe I would have made the same decision. It does not bear thinking about what might have happened had she not stayed."
"And what of her son?"
"He was five when he went to live in the city with his aunt, that was the last I saw of him. I tried to relieve Ysabel of her duties with Helene at that time as it seemed particularly cruel to send her child away and to make her care for mine but she would hear nothing of it. She would visit him often, of that I am glad."
Again the countess had no response.
"I tell you this mother, if Arabella can give Helene one tenth of what Ysabel gave me then it shall have been a worthy appointment."
"Helene is part of my line, should I not be able to contribute?"
"Your bloodline to Helene goes through me and that is the route you must take to make your contribution."
"In that case you must swear that if the child becomes a liability you will cut her out of Helene's life before any damage is done. I do not want to see your history repeat itself with my granddaughter."
"That is an easy promise to make but it comes with a price. If I find that you attempt to manipulate such a situation then you will no longer be welcome here and it would be you whose fate would be that which you would inflict on Arabella."
"I do not believe you would go through with that."
"I would not take pleasure in it but I would do it for the very reason you show concern - to protect my child."
"I see. In that case there is little more to be said."
Isolda sighed as the countess left the room, she didn't like confrontation at the best of times and it didn't get much worse than having a disagreement with her mother. If there was any consolation to be had it was that she had made her position clear and even if her mother didn't agree at least she might respect her will.
For the rest of the countess's visit nothing more was said of her opinions toward Ysabel and Arabella. She still took Helene away from whatever she happened to be doing but she showed less contempt while doing it and occasionally even let Arabella accompany the princess.
Helene was sad to bid farewell to her grandmother, Arabella was sad for her friend if not for herself. She knew her life would be easier without the scrutiny of the countess, especially as she came to terms with her new found status.
She did not feel as if she had changed since becoming a Lady-in-waiting but she knew it changed the way other people saw her.
Where once she had passed by the kitchens like a ghost now she would be addressed by the cooks or an attendant would bow their head when she entered the room.
The final straw came at their next archery session when Robert called her Lady Arabella.
"If you insist on using that name then I shall insist on calling you Sergeant Carter," she said.
"But it is your title now miss."
"There are not many people in this castle who have known me as long as you. I was not Lady Arabella then and it is my wish for you to treat me just the same now."
"But rules is rules."
"If Princess Helene were to tell you different would you heedthat request?"
"As you feel so strong about it I shall do as you ask whenever you are doing archery, but if we meet in a corridor do not expect the same."
Even though it was less than she would have liked Arabella was appreciative of the gesture.
As the weeks progressed winter took its icy grip on the city. The conditions removed both riding and archery from the girls' agenda and gave Arabella plenty of time to learn what was expected of her.
Lady Ysabel instructed her in most of what she needed to know and the other ladies in waiting assisted where they could.
Just like her mother had suggested most of her duties were merely extensions of things she was already doing. There were a few tasks that were considered to be beyond someone of her tender years so Lady Ysabel continued to oversee those.
Something Arabella hadn't been expecting was the jewellery that went with her new position.
"I always thought you wore that ring because it pleased you," she said to Lady Ysabel.
"It bears the queen's insignia and shows I have her trust. Yours will have the princess's and allow you to act on her behalf."
"There is still something about this that does not sit right with me."
"I understand my child, I too have my doubts but this is an important time for Helene and she will need a friend."
"What do you mean?"
"All will become clear in time."