The year had been good on the kingdom, the harvest had been plentiful and the food stores within the castle and the city were near to capacity. This was just as well, for the winter was long.
For Helene and Arabella this meant they had spent far too long in the princess's apartments with only the rarest opportunity to venture as far as the courtyard.
"When will spring arrive?" Helene asked.
"The sooner the better," Arabella replied. "I cannot wait to resume archery or riding. Anything that will allow us outside."
"Something else where you speak for me," Helene said with a smile.
They were still adjusting to the formalising of Arabella's status and little jokes like that came from both of them.
"I did not realise there was so little to do in a castle in winter," Arabella said.
"There is plenty to do but after a time it all seems the same."
"Should we go and visit Lady Catherine and her bump?"
"Yes let's. It has been a while since she has been with us."
Lady Catherine was in her seventh month of pregnancy but she still undertook most of her daily duties. The one concession she made was to take a rest each afternoon.
They knocked on her door.
"Come in Princess, Arabella."
"How did you know it was us?" Helene enquired.
"I recognized you from your knock, most distinctive and regal," said Lady Catherine.
"If you wish it you may come and sit on the bed."
They joined her on the bed and admired the size of her bump.
"Does it hurt?" asked Arabella.
"I cannot deny I feel discomfort but I would not call it pain."
"Will your bump get any bigger?"
"There is some time to go before I will give birth, I will be even larger then but it will be worth it."
"May we touch it?"
Lady Catherine laughed. She took their hands and gently held them against her abdomen. Through her undergarment they could feel the firm bump.
All of a sudden Helene reeled away.
"What was that?" she said.
"I felt something too."
"You felt him kick, he does that occasionally."
The look of horror on Helene's face changed to one of delight and she placed her hand back.
"You said 'him', how do you know it is a boy?"
"I do not. I don't want to think of my baby as 'it' and when he is restless I think he must be a boy and when she is quiet then she has to be a girl."
"Which do you want?"
"I would slightly favour a girl whereas my husband longs for a son but as long as my baby draws breath I will be happy. When you are older and bear children yourselves you will understand."
Helene smiled, Arabella tried to hide what she was feeling.
When it was time for Lady Catherine to return to her duties the girls helped her prepare herself then followed her out. There was still some time until the meal so they went to the courtyard hoping to see some sign of spring. There was no encouraging sign, the courtyard was white; not from snow but from the morning's heavy frost. They sighed and went back inside making sure the wooden door was firmly latched behind them.
Slowly spring crept up on the city, anyone who left its walls saw it clearly. Those less fortunate souls who rarely left their homes would have to wait longer and for people who had not left the castle since the first real snows it seemed as far away as ever.
"I am beginning to feel like this castle is my prison," Arabella stated.
"I must confess this is the longest winter I recall and I am getting tired of the confinement too," Helene replied.
"Surely there is some way for us to venture forth; my bones can handle the cold air," Arabella said.
"The cold is not the issue, conditions underfoot would make it difficult for the horses, it would not be worth the risk."
"Then we could go out on foot," Arabella suggested.
"Have you taken leave of your senses? We would be recognized and it would take all of the guard to protect us."
"What if we concealed our identity? What if we... dressed as servants on an errand who would pay us attention?" said Arabella.
"After what happened when you last left on your own I would rather we not risk it," said Helene.
"You would rather stay confined?"
"I would rather not incite a riot, either out in the city or when we are found out."
"What if we get consent?"
"You really have spent too long in the castle," Helene said, shaking her head in disbelief.
But the next time Arabella had chance to speak to Lady Ysabel she mentioned it anyway.
"My dear I understand your frustration but your idea is radical. I shall see what Queen Isolda has to say about it."
"Must we involve the Queen?"
"Did you expect to go on my say so? No! This involves the princess in something that the queen must approve."
Arabella sighed, she would be stuck inside forever.
When Ysabel mentioned Arabella's idea to the queen she did not expect the reaction it got. Ysabel had used it as an example of how the girl was picking up her duties but still had some lesson to learn. The queen on the other hand thought it was a thing with merit.
"Oh Ysabel do you not recall the days when we would hide our faces and venture out?"
"That was almost a lifetime ago."
"Do you not think it would be good for Helene to see what life in a city is really about?" said Isolda.
"If we can do it without placing them in danger I suppose so. Are you sure it is wise?"
"It has been on my mind for some time, Arabella has just forced my hand a little."
On the chosen day Lady Ysabel brought dresses suitable for kitchen girls and watched as the children changed into them.
"This dress makes me itch in places I did not know it was possible," Helene said.
"It will not be for long," Ysabel replied.
She helped them to cover their hair and put on their cloaks then lead them swiftly though the castle in the hope that no one would notice.
When they got to the gate she squatted down to their level and said, "Remember you are kitchen interns on an errand to find food, stay by my side and keep your hands to yourselves."
"Yes Lady Ysabel," Arabella responded.
"Yes Lady Ysabel," Helene said after Arabella's elbow prompted her.
The moment she walked through the gate Arabella had second thoughts. She had a knot in her stomach; this didn't feel safe. Looking across she saw the panicked expression on the princess's face and grabbed her trembling hand.
They moved away from the castle and kept up with Lady Ysabel. There were less people around than when Arabella had last been in the city but it was still quite busy.
Helene got closer to her friend. "It is as if no one sees us."
"We have given them no reason to pay attention to us. We are not on horseback or in a carriage and our clothing does not set us apart."
Just to emphasize the point a fat merchant almost knocked them over as he hurried in the opposite direction. He glanced over his shoulder to see they were alright but he did not apologize.
"To him we are not worthy of an apology, he is a merchant and we are lowly servant girls."
"But if he knew who I was?"
"Then he would have taken more care and if he had knocked into you he would have helped you up."
As Helene was trying to rationalise what happened Lady Ysabel ushered them inside a house.
Once through the door they could see that someone ran some kind of business. The room was full of large earthenware vessels.
A fire burned but it didn't feel like it was providing much heat.
"Good day Lady Ysabel, I didn't think I'd be seeing you so soon, how may I be of assistance."
"Ah Sebastien, we need to restock some of our herbs and spices and we need them today. Here is a list."
"I shall see what I can do. Will you wait?"
"No, we have another errand to run, we shall collect them on our return."
All three of them returned to the street and carried on walking. Helene spotted a girl no more than two years younger than her on the opposite side. She watched her while continuing to walk.
Without warning the girl ran away, Helene wondered what scared her until the call rang out. "Stop, thief, stop that girl."
The girl disappeared down a narrow alleyway and it was only in the aftermath that Helene realised she must have stolen a loaf of bread from the ledge outside the baker's shop.
"Why did she steal that loaf?"
"She must have been very poor or maybe she lives on the street," Arabella replied.
"There are people without a roof over their head?"
"Yes. I learned of it from my family before they left the city. I would not choose it, particularly in winter."
The thought of that made Helene shiver more than before.
What is more she did not touch anything lest she be accused of theft herself.
From the inside of the next building they entered it was easy to tell what went on. Cloth was hung everywhere and to one side an apprentice sat, constructing some kind of tunic.
"Ah lady Ysabel," came a voice from the back. "You have come for the dress?"
"I have indeed."
"It has turned out better than I hoped, would you like to see it?"
"I have not the time I'm afraid."
"Very well, I shall wrap it for you."
Lady Ysabel passed the bundle of cloth she was given to Helene for her to carry. The girls wanted to ask questions but were cut short as she lead them back outside again.
They walked a little further and heard a familiar noise, like that of sword fighting but not quite the same. As they turned the corner they felt the heat and saw the light of the forge. A smithy and his apprentice rained hammer blows down on the red hot tip of a metal bar.
Lady Ysabel waited patiently for them to finish hammering and spoke to the smithy. What they spoke of was unknown to the girls; the conversation started off as a whisper and got quieter as they moved to the back of the forge.
The fire became the girls' focus, even though they were outside it was the warmest they had been since leaving their beds.
With nothing else to do the smithy's apprentice started to tidy up.
"What are you making?" Arabella asked.
"Excuse me, I just want to know what it is you are making."
"If the metal is strong enough, a sword. But likely it will be another door hinge."
"I see," she responded, though in truth she did not. She tried to think of something else to say but drew a blank and remained silent.
Lady Ysabel returned with a small sack which she held herself and a metal cooking pot which she handed to Arabella.
Reluctant as they were to leave the warmth of the fire they had no desire to be left behind and hurried after the departing Lady Ysabel.
Arabella's hands were hurting from carrying the pot but there was no way she could risk falling behind. She carried on as best she could until they got to the merchant of herbs and spices.
Back inside she put the pot on the edge of a table which gave her some respite.
Helene followed her lead and placed her package alongside it. Only then did she see the marks on her friend's hands and responded in the only way she could think of.
"Lady Ysabel, I shall carry this pot the rest of the way back."
Ysabel did not question Helene, she collected her goods, settled the account and lead the girls back to the castle.
At the first opportunity Helene did what Arabella had been unwilling to do. She rested the pot on the ground knowing that it was safe now they were back in the castle.
"Let me carry it the final yards to the kitchen while the two of you hurry back to your apartments."
"Very well Lady Ysabel, please make sure you find some ointment for Arabella's hands."
"What is wrong, show me."
Arabella held up her hands, the marks were less prominent, but still visible.
"Oh, my dear. Why did you remain silent and why did you not put the pot down."
"I did not think a servant would be expected to complain, and if I had rested I might have been left behind."
"I would not have let that happen. Go with Helene and I shall be with you forthwith."
She strode swiftly and with purpose towards the kitchen while the children retreated to the private chambers.
True to her word Lady Ysabel rejoined them mere minutes after they had arrived back in Helene's apartment.
"Oh Arabella, I am sorry."
She got down to Arabella's level and kissed the red weals on her hands. Helene thought it a little strange for an aunt but kept those thoughts to herself.
Ysabel was not done yet; she applied ointment to the child's palms and tied a clean white cloth strip around each hand.
It hampered her doing most things but it protected her hands and stopped whatever she touched getting greasy ointment upon it.
"There shall be neither harp nor archery practise for you in the coming days."
That was not such a big deal in the early months as it would have been in summer. Arabella prayed that she would be fit enough for when the weather would take a turn for the better.
There was one thought that had not crossed her mind, if winter in the castle was tedious imagine what it would be like with injured hands.
Between Lady Ysabel and Princess Helene she did not get many opportunities to lift a finger.
The final straw came when Queen Isolda came to see her daughter and would not let Arabella fetch the princess's books.
With all the dignity she could muster she made her protest.
"Your majesty, it is I and not you who should be doing the waiting, my wounds have not rendered me completely useless."
Isolda did not need to muster anything, she possessed grace and dignity along with empathy and humility.
"Dear child, are you not a subject of this kingdom?"
"Is it also true that you are in the service of this royal family?"
"Would you wish to be treated any differently than Lady Catherine who is with child, the chamberlain when he suffers with his gout or gardener when his wrists seize."
"I would not."
"As soon as you are fully fit all your duties will resume. Do not worry about boredom, when the weather allows you will be joining us on a visit to another kingdom."
"Yes, it will be a trip of great significance and I trust you to represent the kingdom."
"I shall not let you down."
"Of course not, we have faith in you."
With each day that passed the strength returned to Arabella's grip although the dressings stayed until Lady Ysabel was absolutely certain there would be no scarring.
The weather continued to improve, the children were allowed to return to the terrace and with a little persuasion archery practise came back as well.
Arabella was a little rusty but to everyone's relief her injury had not diminished her abilities with the bow.
It was nearing the time of the equinox when the long discussed visit became a reality. Her horse had been prepared for her but like the rest of the travellers she still checked everything, for it was her who would be in the saddle for most of the day.
She glanced across to Lady Ysabel next to her mount to make sure she had not forgotten anything.
With her final check she felt something dig into her arm and remembered the small dagger that rested in a scabbard against the inside of her forearm.
"Keep this with you at all times," Lady Ysabel had said as she gave it.
"You must only use it in defence of the Princess's life and if you are the only one between the danger and her then protecting your life is protecting her life."
On that day Arabella realised that their fates were tied together by more than the bonds of friendship. She knew that the journey out of her situation was longer than it had been. She knew that she had a say in whether her princess lived or perished. On that day a small piece of her innocence died.
The entourage that left the city was far larger than any Arabella had experienced, even though the King had made his journey the day before.
The party of travellers included Queen Isolda, Princess Helene, Lady Ysabel and Arabella along with the most trusted attendants riding in a cart with the luggage. They were accompanied by the most Palace Guard that Arabella had seen outside of the castle, all of which were in their best dress uniform.
Out in front were four riders checking the way ahead. Amongst everybody rode the escort party, twelve strong. Behind the cart rode a further four guards then two guards' carts and the remainder of the guards brought up the rear.
Arabella wondered how another kingdom could tell the difference between a royal procession and an invading force until the first changeovers took place.
"Of course," she said to herself. "The guards cannot remain vigilant for the whole day."
Apparently she spoke those words louder that she had intended because Helene replied.
"Yes, I had also wondered why we needed so many men the first time I went with my parents."
Gradually the familiar lowland scenery gave way to the foothills of the Citadel Mountains and before they knew it coniferous forest hemmed them in either side.
"We do not have to climb the mountains, do we?" asked Arabella.
"No, we do not climb much higher, and a good job too for the snow still lies there," Lady Ysabel replied. "Soon we will reach the high pastures and there we will take respite from our travels."
With nothing but trees around them the girls peered into the forest as they carried on riding. The ground sloped away from the track they were on and not much of the light that hit the top made it to the forest floor. They could make out some small boulders from their rocky silhouettes but not much else.
"Look!" Arabella said and pointed into the forest.
"I do not see anything," Helene responded.
"There, did you not see movement."
"All I see there is shadows."
"Indeed and one of the shadows moved."
Helene peered into the gloom as best she could while still moving along the path.
"I do not see it."
"There was something there, I did not imagine it."
"I am not doubting that you saw something, it may have been the wind or an animal, I do not know."
Arabella felt that she wasn't being taken seriously but, when one of the guards pulled alongside her and asked about what she had seen she knew they would not take that chance.
It was a relief when the tree cover lessened and then parted to reveal the pasture that Lady Ysabel had spoken of.
Partway across they halted for a short break, unlike their previous rides they were encouraged to dismount.
As soon as her feet touched the ground the princess started to stretch the stiffness out of her body and Arabella found the urge to join her irresistible.
She stretched out so far that she almost fell over.
The stop also served as a chance to eat but it was not the fine foods which were the Royal's usual fare. Lunch consisted of spiced meats, winter vegetables in pastry and dried fruits.
"I hope that one day we might be given normal food when we travel," Helene said.
"I have nought but good things to say," Arabella responded. "I do not recall cold food ever tasting so good."
"Arabella, have your taste buds failed you?"
"Oh daughter," Queen Isolda interjected. "I have tried not to spoil you and in many ways been successful but I fear your tastes have been influenced by too many feasts. Many of our people do not eat food this fine, hot or cold and that is something we would do well to remember."
"I am sorry mother, I shall try to remain mindful of that."
Everyone finished their meal and started to get back in the saddle. Arabella was about to join them when she glanced down and noticed a delicate white flower that so far had avoided being trampled underfoot. Lying in the middle of the track it had no chance of survival.
Carefully shielding what she was doing, Arabella used the dagger concealed in her sleeve to lift the plant from its root just like Aron had seen his aunt do before she returned to her village.
With no time to spare she found a place where she hoped it would be safe and remounted Moonshadow. She knew it had only a small chance of survival with her but it had none left on the hill track.
The entourage continued its journey, coming off the pasture and winding its way down the hillside.
It was easy for Arabella to know where their kingdom ended. Not because she had studied the maps and not because there were signs telling her so. An escort party of maybe twelve men on horseback was waiting for them and from the cut of their clothing she could tell they were from another land.
Their captain approached Queen Isolda but Arabella was not close enough to hear what he said.
Both girls had hoped this meet meant their journey was nearing its end but they were still in the saddle as the sun came lower in the sky.
Arabella could not have described any of the streets they passed through to get to the castle; she was totally focused on getting off her horse before she became fused to the saddle.
Helene was also agitated but for a different reason. Arabella did not spot anything until they got to the courtyard.
"Never have I been so glad to dismount as... Princess, are you alright?"
Very quietly she replied, "I think I might vomit."
"What is wrong, was it the food?"
Queen Isolda intervened," I think it is a touch of nerves, accompany my daughter to her temporary home and I shall be with you forthwith."
They were guided by a woman shrouded in ash coloured robes and a white linen cowl, she did not speak.
"Well that was rather strange," Arabella said once they were alone in the room.
"Yes, I hope not everyone is like that."
"So Princess can you tell me what has you so worried or should we wait for Queen Isolda?"
"I am nervous because what happens here will affect the rest of my life."
"I cannot believe that you do not know what is going on. I am here to meet the prince with a view to marriage."
"Marriage! But you are the same age as me, you are not old enough."
"No, we will be betrothed and we will see each other regularly until I am old enough and then we will be married, and on the back of our announcement a great union will be formed that will benefit both our kingdoms."
"I thought people were wed because they loved each other."
The response did not come from Helene but from Queen Isolda who had entered the room while the girls talked.
"Usually they are, but it is not that simple when kings and queens or princes and princesses are concerned. Sometimes the marriage that is arranged prevent wars, sometimes it links nations in trade."
She sat down on the bed which dominated the room and motioned for both girls to join her.
"When I first met Prince Eadric, as he was then, my heart did not melt, thunder did not sound and no great light lit up the sky. But I knew I could learn to love him and by the time I made my vows to him my heart was his."
"But what if this prince is an arrogant beast," Arabella asked.
"What if he finds something he dislikes about me," Helene added.
"There is nothing to dislike about you," Arabella replied.
"Do not feel helpless my child, if something is not right between you do not be afraid to say so. There is another kingdom where a match could be made."
"I know mother, but still I am nervous of the impression I will make."
"Your father and I will be close at hand and Arabella will be behind you. I must go, Lady Ysabel will prepare you for the feast."
The preparations were not quite what either of them expected. Arabella was handed a dark robe which covered her from neck to ankle and a Lady Ysabel fastened a cowl about her head. Just like their guide, only her face and hands remained uncovered.
Helene also had something to cover her head but hers was a wisp, as if someone had taken the morning mist and fashioned it into a piece of fabric.
It was not simply a matter of clothing either, Lady Ysabel explained that the protocol differed as well. Arabella could walk behind her Princess in public, alongside her in private but never in front. She would be seated behind her at the table and when the food arrived she would be expected to taste it but that would be the only thing she would be allowed all evening.
"When am I to eat?"
"First thing in the morning is when we are expected in the kitchen for our meal."
"Just one meal?"
"While we are more than servants this kingdom believes that we should be dedicated to our royal assignment throughout the day and eating interferes with that."
"What a strange place this is."
"It is not our place to judge, but if it were I would most definitely agree," Lady Ysabel said with a smile.
When it became time for the feast Arabella followed dutifully behind Helene. The cowl felt too tight around her face but she made no attempt to loosen it. There were things she wanted to say to her friend but she knew it was not the time.
They approached a stout door and even with the empty feeling in the pit of her stomach, Arabella's eyes were drawn to the intricate metalwork of the lock and hinges.
They stood behind the door with just a single guard for company, not that he was saying anything. As they stood both of them started to hear a murmur, the longer they stood the harder it became to ignore.
Even from her position Arabella could tell that all was not well with Helene. In this kingdom she knew better than to speak so she touched her on the arm.
As her friend turned Arabella saw an expression she had only seen on Helene's face during thunderstorms - terror.
Protocol be damned, Arabella decided, some things were more important than that. She took both of Helene's hand in hers and got her friend to look at her. In the quietest voice that she could manage she found the words to reassure her princess, if you were to ask her later what she said she could not answer, they were the right words for that time and place and that is all that matters.
When the wooden door swung open and the noise level rose Helene was still fearful, but it was a fear she could cope with, especially with her friend at her side or as near as protocol would allow.
As serenely as she could Helene walked into the great hall, the noise subsided somewhat. Knowing that every eye was on her and suppressing her need to be sick she moved to her place between her family and the royal family of this kingdom.
Her so-called suitor, Prince Hendrick sat to one side of her. She wished to take her first look at this person she might marry but it would not do to be seen casting more than a glance at him.
Arabella took her place behind her princess, in line with all the other ladies in waiting and equerries. Beside her, stood an older boy with a thin smile.
The food arrived before she had a chance for further judgement. With no experience of tasting to fall back on she took her cues from those around her - reach in from the left, take a morsel of food, smell it, taste it, then retreat.
Standing there waiting it felt as if someone's eyes were burning into her. The last time she'd felt this way it had been the unwanted attentions of Lord Barkstone and the fact she was in an unfamiliar situation with nothing else to do made this time far worse. How she longed for the meal to end but, it seemed to go on for an age and with every window, tapestry and roof truss counted and re-counted in her mind she wondered if she had gone mad.
From somewhere a trumpet sounded and one by one the people at the top table left with their attendant.
Arabella fought her urge to speak as she followed Helene to her room, once behind the closed door she felt released.
"I do not wish to go to any more meals like that, maybe it is wrong of me but there is something off about a meal where everybody but me gets to eat."
"Yes I can imagine. That is why I saved you something."
From her handkerchief she produced two small chunks of meat.
"It is not much but it is something."
"Oh princess, you did that for me? Words do not convey my feelings, thank you."
"You got me through my hysteria at the entrance to the great hall, I owe you so much, this is the least I could do."
The food at least helped to quell the pangs of hunger in Arabella but her fatigue was something she could not overcome. Helene was sleepy too and started to prepare herself for bed.
Arabella tried to find the place she was expected to sleep, there was no obvious place and after the way the meal had gone she wondered if sleep was something else she would not be allowed to do.
Behind them the door-handle turned and despite her tiredness Arabella was totally alert and ready to defend her princess.
To her relief it was queen Isolda with lady Ysabel right behind her.
"I see all is well in here," the queen said. "Daughter you handled yourself with poise and dignity."
"I may have held myself together during the meal but before it my nerves left me a gibbering wreck."
"Arabella, once again you prove your worth"
"But how did you know?"
"I know the both of you well enough to recognize your hand in this. If there is anything we can do for you do not hesitate to ask."
"For now I just wish to locate my bed," Arabella replied.
"It is over there, although I know why you would have missed it."
The only thing in the direction the queen was pointing was a large wooden trunk.
"People sleep in a box in this land?"
"That is not strictly so, you sleep in the top half and all your clothes and possessions are held in the compartment below."
"I was correct, there is nothing I am allowed to do in this place, not even sleep."
"You may join me in my bed," Princess Helene answered.
Isolda and Ysabel looked at each other.
"You may do so but only on one condition. As soon as we leave you are to block the door with a trunk and only remove it for either of us."
So that night, ignoring all protocol they shared their bed. It was just as well both got a good night's sleep for the day that was to come would prove as trying as the day that had been.