What was that sound in Arabella's dream? It seemed so familiar yet she was unable to place it. No wait it wasn't a dream.
Through heavy eyes she gazed around, the sound came again. It was a voice from outside the door. Without disturbing the princess she left their bed and pulled the trunk away as quietly as she was able.
"Mo.. I mean Lady Ysabel, is something wrong?"
"No child, but if you come with me we shall eat before we begin our work."
Arabella had forgotten her hunger from last night; her stomach growled a reminder.
Once dressed she followed Lady Ysabel past their guards and into the kitchens. Close to a dozen people were already sat down and tucking into bowls of meaty stew.
It tasted a lot better than it looked and she managed a second bowl although the whole time she had that feeling that she was being spied on.
"Is someone observing us?" she said in a voice that only Ysabel would hear above the noise of people eating.
"I do not sense it but I shall check discreetly."
Being able to observe things without being noticed was a skill that Lady Ysabel had developed in her years of service and she put it to good use.
"It is the prince's aide, for some reason he keeps looking this way."
Her report did not convey the complete picture, he could not take his eyes off Arabella and the lascivious look on his face was one that Lady Ysabel wished she could wipe from it, but there was no reason to concern Arabella even more. They finished their meal and left, without paying their watcher any attention.
Ysabel left Arabella at the door to Helene's room and went to prepare queen Isolda for the day ahead.
Arabella found the princess still peacefully sleeping, it seemed a shame to wake her yet she knew that she must. Softly she called her friend's name and gradually she woke.
While Helene dressed, Arabella told her about being watched in the kitchen.
"I do not understand why he pays me such interest," she said.
"I know why. He believes he will soon be courting you."
"And why would he think such a thing?"
"If I am to be betrothed to Hendrick then as my Lady in Waiting and my friend I would hope you would join me here. You would then be expected to form a union with someone from Hendrick's court."
"Form a union with someone?"
"Take a husband."
Arabella's legs gave way and she plopped down onto the bed.
"I could not do... that," she said, pausing as a wave of nausea hit her.
"You have gone pale, something ails you. No, you truly find him distasteful!"
Helene was surprised at the strength of her friend's reaction.
"I do not consider myself ready to think about wedding anyone. Even if I was, he would not figure in my choice," said Arabella, the colour slowly returning to her face.
"You have to give him a chance, as I give to Prince Hendrick, or do you not plan on accompanying me should we find that we are suited?"
"I would do anything for you Princess but, I would not wed someone who sends a chill up my spine."
"But to accompany me would mean wedding someone of status from this kingdom," said Helene.
"I would find another way."
"Do you plan to marry for love alone? It only works that way in fairy tales."
"Perhaps it would be better if more people followed their hearts."
"Oh Arabella, you are my best friend, you understand me better than anyone, yet at times like these I don't understand you."
Arabella knew there was nothing she could say to make the princess see her point of view.
Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda had joined the two children by the time the sun could be seen above the castle wall. It was time to prepare for something Helene had not been looking forward to, her audience with Hendrick and his parents.
Arabella looked on while Queen Isolda fussed over her daughter, she understood that Helene needed to look her best. It even made sense for her to have a new dress especially for the occasion. What did seem a little strange was the amount of attention being paid to little details.
Isolda was still seeing to something when King Eadric entered the room, he quickly took charge.
"Isolda stop fussing, our daughter is as near to perfection as I would wish her to be."
"But is that enough for the kingdom she may be joining?"
"If it is not then they do not deserve her," he said.
"I know you are correct but I cannot help myself. Is it possible that I am turning into my mother?"
Eadric smiled before answering. "You share her good intentions, beyond that I shall not say."
"Oh Eadric, you always did know how to lighten my mood. You are right, we are ready."
What had seemed like a large room when they arrived felt cramped now they had been joined by King Silas and Queen Jasmine.
They talked to Helene trying to put her at ease. Arabella could tell that it wasn't all that successful but for once was in no position to help.
The interview went on until noon and some of the questions made Arabella feel uncomfortable so she could only guess how they made Helene feel. Then to make matters worse they started to ask questions about her ladies in waiting, how many she had and what their talents were.
Arabella found it unsettling to be the focus of their discussion but excluded from it. Her frustration became apparent and Queen Jasmine told her to play something on the small harp in one corner of the room.
Instead of responding straight away she looked to Lady Ysabel and Queen Isolda for guidance. Whilst it did nothing to endear her to her hosts she knew where her loyalties lay.
The queen sighed and nodded; obviously Arabella wasn't alone in thinking this wasn't going well. Regardless, she picked the harp up and started a simple tune, hoping that Helene might find some comfort in its familiar melody.
She continued to play until King Silas and Queen Jasmine excused themselves and left the room.
"Was that too much of an ordeal for you?" Isolda asked her daughter.
"Oh mother, I shall be fine just as soon as someone can tell me what half of those questions were about."
It was her father who answered. "They believe their position in this is stronger than ours. They know we need access to the sea if we are to prosper, they want to get just as much as they can in exchange for that."
"So you are trading your daughter for some fish?"
One of King Eadric's equerries moved to strike Arabella for her lack of respect.
"Stand your ground," the king ordered. "She is part of this, her reaction is justified. Lady Ysabel please explain the order of things to your niece."
"Very well Sire."
Ysabel lead Arabella into a corner of the room.
"I understand your misgivings but the situation is not as you see it, the king and queen know that Helene will someday marry and leave their side for her new home. They find suitors for her because many are the men who would court her not for love, but to improve their own situation."
"But why are such arrangements used to make deals?"
"Would you just let a princess go to a foreign land or would you expect something in return? In my view there is nothing equal in worth to Helene but if she is to go then we should receive everything another kingdom would offer. Do you understand?"
"It is not a situation I like but I can see there is some reason behind it."
"There are other matters that the king wishes I discuss with you but, they are best left to our private times back at the castle."
The code was simple enough for Arabella to decipher. Her true gender complicated the matters in question.
Ysabel returned to the Queen's side, Arabella stood before the king.
"Sire, I am sorry if I caused offence."
"Do not fret child, I would not expect someone of your tender years to know the ways of things. Please return to my daughter's side."
Eadric left them to conduct other business and as far as anybody knew only ladies remained.
"Was your ordeal as tough as it appeared?"
"It was more strange than it was tough. I still do not figure the purpose of their questions"
Queen Isolda added, "I do not doubt it, their intentions left me vexed on matters in which I am fully versed."
"Maybe confusion was their intention," said Arabella.
"You may well be closer to the truth than you realise," Isolda replied. "I have always found the customs of this kingdom to be somewhat unorthodox."
The rest of the day passed off uneventfully and unlike the previous day Helene had no problem keeping her nerves in check when it came to mealtime.The routine was familiar for Arabella too, although she still felt the eyes of the prince's aide boring into her while she sat behind the princess.
For the second time in as many nights the princess and her lady shared a bed. Just like before they barricaded the door and slept through till sun-up.
Their first duty saw them in the courtyard of the castle, waving goodbye to King Eadric.
Helene did not want to let go of her father but she knew that she could not go with him on this day and reluctantly she released her grasp.
She contained her emotions as best she could when he passed through the archway and disappeared out of sight.
Arabella clasped Helene's hand and guided her back into the castle where one last trial awaited.
Even though she was convinced that king Silas and queen Jasmine had found her wanting, she was still expected to get acquainted with the prince.
What was more of a surprise was the choice of someone to chaperon the princess and Arabella in the presence of the prince and his aide - Queen Isolda.
If her presence was a surprise to the girls it was a shock to the prince and his aide when they entered although the prince recovered quickly it was Bastian who was the first to speak.
"Queen Isolda, what a most welcome surprise!"
Arabella's instant thought was 'what a sycophant, how did someone like the prince have such a weasel for an aide?'
"Why thank you Bastian. Prince I hope you will take this opportunity to become acquainted with my daughter."
"That is my goal queen Isolda, our kingdoms will make a great alliance."
With all the empty posturing out of the way the prince and princess sat with Bastian and Arabella standing at their sides.
This was Helene's first opportunity to take a proper look at him. He was certainly older than she but only by a few years, verging on adulthood but no more. She would definitely say he was handsome and found comfort in hoping that he found her pleasing. She became lost in her thoughts and almost missed the first thing he asked.
"Are you an experienced rider, princess?"
"I would not like to say, I certainly do not consider myself to be a novice."
"With the reputation your kingdom has with horses I would have expected riding to be something at which you excel."
"I do not get to ride quite as often as I might like, I do not wish to burden the guard with extra protection duties."
"Girls are such fragile creatures, unable to even defend themselves."
Arabella looked across at the prince, for a brief moment she with toyed with the idea of using her wrist dagger to show him how defenceless girls were.
"So you ride alone?" Helene responded.
"It is myself and Bastian."
"Then I pray you never encounter a band of highwaymen, for they would easily outnumber you and hold you for ransom."
The prince flinched slightly; Arabella smiled.
"Girls such as us are capable of defending ourselves but, we prefer to avoid such confrontations."
"I doubt you could even lift a sword, let alone wield it."
"I could give you a good fight," Arabella said, unable to contain herself any longer.
"Your lady is spirited even if she doesn't know her place," the prince replied.
"I apologize for my outburst," she responded.
Helene reached for one of Arabella's hands.
"I am sure that I could take her in hand," Bastian added.
The look upon his face sent shivers down Arabella's spine. The hand Helene held was the one she would use for the dagger, if it had not been, Arabella knew the blade would be lodged in his chest and she would almost certainly have fallen to the prince's sword.
"Girls should be content to raise children and maintain a pleasing disposition and let the men deal with all other concerns."
"Is that so?" Queen Isolda said. "Does your mother Queen Jasmine do nothing more than that?"
The prince was silenced, and rightfully so, it gave Helene chance for a question of her own.
"What do the people do in your kingdom?"
It appeared as if he was reluctant to answer but, in truth he had not got his head around the question.
"The people who reside within this palace?"
"No, the people of your land. Our kingdom is known for its horses but you will also find livestock and crops being tended. Then there are the smithies who produce decorative items the like of which you cannot imagine."
"Oh you mean the commoners, people without title. We have fishermen and there is much trade of things from other lands but that happens among the stench of fish."
Helene could not understand his attitude, she had been taught that everybody had a part to play, even the lad who mucked out the horses or the farmer who spent all day with his pigs.
He continued, "I have taken to the sea but I much prefer the nobler pursuits of hunting or sword fighting. Tell me princess do you often go hunting?"
"I must wait until next year to be considered old enough..."
"Then you are still but a child. A girl whose only experience of life comes from her father and mother."
"That is untrue."
"I'll wager you have never left the confines of your abode without a full escort."
"You would lose, I have done just that."
"I find that hard to believe."
"You may believe what you like."
"Children, for that is how you both are behaving," Queen Isolda interrupted. "You sound like two chattering magpies. I do not see any worth in continuing if you cannot be at least civil to each other."
"In that case Queen Isolda we shall leave you and your daughter to your own thoughts. Bastian!"
"I shall tell the stables to prepare our mounts sire."
The two adolescents strode from the room leaving a stunned silence in their wake.
"That went well," said Queen Isolda which made Helene and Arabella giggle.
"I had originally considered him a nice person," Helene said.
"And then he opened his mouth," Arabella suggested.
"Quite," Isolda said. "I wish we could leave now but we would not get back before nightfall."
"We will have to endure another mealtime here?"
"I am afraid that is so Arabella, do not fret, it will be the last you have to suffer here and Helene and myself will ensure that you will not go to bed on an empty stomach."
"My Queen you do not have to take that upon yourself."
"I do not have to, I choose to. Are you telling me that I am wrong?"
"I would not presume to correct you but..."
"Then we are agreed. I shall see you at dinner."
They were alone again. Neither spoke for some time, it was as if they were engrossed in their own thoughts.
Helene broke the silence.
"I am glad we are leaving, after what has happened I do not want to be sitting next to the prince a moment longer than I must."
Their last meal in the kingdom was every bit as tense as they had expected. The prince tried to act as if Helene was not even there.
That would have been a dream for Arabella who still received the unwanted attentions of his aide. It made no sense to her why he continued to act in this way. When the reason finally came to her for the first time she was glad not to have eaten. He still thought he might get the chance to 'take her in hand'.
The entire entourage breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the meal. If there were to be any backlash from the events of the previous days it would be in private.
Once she was safely in Helene's room Arabella's first action was to drag the cowl from her head.
"I shall have no further need of that," she said while depositing it on the thing that was intended to be her sleeping place.
"Here is something to sustain you until morning," Helene said, passing over the morsels that she had successfully smuggled from the meal.
Arabella had barely started to eat when Queen Isolda entered the room.
"I am afraid I only managed to acquire one thing to add to your meal."
It was something akin to a chicken drumstick, only larger, maybe a goose or some other bird of a similar size.
"Your highness, it is too much, thank you."
"We cannot have you being weary with hunger on our journey home, can we. I wish to be on our way just as soon as it is light."
"I shall be glad to put this experience behind me," said Helene.
"And I will be in no hurry to return," Arabella added.
"Even a fool would have no difficulty to know of what you speak," Lady Ysabel said, arriving in the room unnoticed.
"Is there any wonder at it?" Queen Isolda replied.
"No, while your highnesses have been treated well in public and given a raw deal behind closed doors, the only place to give us any kind of welcome has been the kitchens."
"That is because you treat them with respect."
"Indeed, which is why I was given this."
In her hands was a bowl of the same stew they served each morning. She placed it in front of Arabella and drew up a chair for herself.
"With any luck this should sustain us for the journey home."
They tucked into the stew and the food liberated from the meal. The queen and princess moved to the opposite end of the room to give them a little privacy. Before they finished Arabella leaned into Lady Ysabel, she in turn put her arm around her child and they shared an intimate mother-daughter moment; something they had not had for some time.
To Isolda and Helene nothing was amiss, it was entirely appropriate for an aunt to hug her niece when such a demanding visit was nearly at an end.
For the last time on this trip the adults left the children to get some sleep taking the same precautions as they had on the last two nights. Everybody slept soundly knowing that in the morning they would be on their way.
Their departure passed with little ceremony, neither king nor queen nor prince was there to witness it.
The entourage passed through a city that was still mostly asleep and out into the countryside. The mountains looked completely different from this direction and in the light of the morning.
No one said much until they crossed the border and their escort left them to return to their home.
Helene took a long breath.
"I know this must sound odd but the air seems fresher here in our kingdom."
"I understand, I would say it is sweeter because you are free to breathe it as you wish with no one passing judgment," said Lady Ysabel.
"That must be it, thank you," Helene replied.
"Do you feel a sense of relief now Arabella?"
"Yes, a great weight has been lifted from me and its name is Bastian. I do not know why he found me so appealing, I found his interest quite disturbing."
"Oh you dear innocent girl," said Queen Isolda. "He saw you as a horseman sees a wild stallion, a challenge to be tamed and broken."
As much as she wished to respond there was nothing Arabella could find to say.
They continued their climb to the edge of the mountain range. The snow capping the peaks was less than it had been on their outward journey, hopefully that meant summer was well on its way. For now though everyone was thankful for the cloak they were wearing.
Arabella gazed around her, nothing looked the same from this direction, she was sure she would have seen something familiar by now.
When her curiosity got the better of her she turned to Lady Ysabel.
"Is this the way that we came? I do not find anything here familiar."
"No, we are on the gauntlet path, it is a shorter return than the meadow path."
"If that is so, why did we not use it before?"
"It climbs somewhat higher so we were unsure if the way would be clear of snow and ice."
"And now we are sure?"
"Of course, our guard would not have taken this route if they thought there was any danger."
As the path ascended the undulating hillside it narrowed, occasionally a single horse was all that could pass along but generally they could ride at least two abreast.
It had been a while since Helene had last spoken, Arabella could understand her wishing to concentrate on her riding where the route was at its narrowest, however it was of ample width now and still she remained silent.
Lady Ysabel had also noticed, drawing as close as she could to the princess she asked, "Is something troubling you?"
"Yes, but it is not something I wish to discuss in present company."
It took a moment for her words to sink in.
"If that is how you feel," Arabella responded and shook Moonshadow's reins. He picked up his pace and moved between two of the royal guard.
"I didn't mean..."
Helene's voice trailed off and she sighed.
"You didn't mean to suggest that she was unworthy of your trust but it is a matter you would rather not discuss on the side of a hill with so many people around you," Lady Ysabel said. "Unfortunately it didn't come out quite as you intended."
"No it didn't I shall catch up with her and set things right."
"Give her time to calm down. I will make sure that she is fine."
Ysabel moved her mount effortlessly between other riders and drew alongside Arabella who turned towards her, expecting a telling off.
Ysabel said nothing.
A breeze flapped the bottom of Arabella's cloak against her legs.
"I thought I had shown myself to be worthy."
"Your worth is without question, it was a matter she does not wish to discuss in public, you silly goose."
Arabella dropped her head.
"Why did I react as I did?"
"Because you are young and the Princess's words were clumsy. While you display a certain maturity you have many mistakes still to make, you both do."
Arabella knew what she wanted to do, she slowed her horse so that Helene could catch her up then took a deep breath and spoke.
"I am sorry for my misunderstanding."
"And I wish I had chosen my words better, I vow to do that from this point forward. Better yet, we should vow to have no further misunderstandings."
"At least until next time," Lady Ysabel said in a voice that only she could hear.
Their differences behind them, Helene and Arabella stayed close together as they moved through the landscape.
Rivulets of melt-water ran down the hillside and formed puddles in the rock before trickling across their path and continuing its journey.
Arabella hoped it would soon stop, the sight of it reminded her how thirsty she was and the sound made her notice an uncomfortable feeling in her bladder.
She could not have been the only one to feel this way as the procession stopped by a small pool. Water cascaded through small cuts in the rock, settled in the depression and overflowed into a channel that divided the path in two.
One of the men appeared beside them with an earthenware cup which he dipped into the water. He handed it to Queen Isolda, much to Arabella's horror.
"Should not you or I be testing the water?" she asked Lady Ysabel.
"There is no need, you can see how clear it is."
Arabella glanced down, it was true, she could see to the bottom and if she reached to it the water would surely have come to her elbow.
Once the queen had her fill the cup was refilled and passed around. Although it was cold enough to set her teeth on edge Arabella could not remember tasting water so good.
When all thirsts had been quenched the travelling party moved on. The horses crossed the stream and continued along the path picking their way between the rocky outcrops that now littered the hillside.
There was no mistaking the formation of stone in front of them, three fissures separated the four fingers with a gap wide enough for a man to pass through between the fingers and a slightly deformed thumb. From there it went straight back before flaring out at the wrist and joining the bottom of the rock face.
"I do not wish to meet the giant who dropped that," Arabella said.
"If he exists he does not dwell within a league of here," Ysabel replied.
"That is good as I am woeful with a slingshot," Arabella said with a huge grin. "What man carved it so?"
"Although we cannot say for certain we do not believe any man is responsible. Many tails are told of it but the one that endures is that it was hewn by mother nature herself to provide shelter from the winds to travellers who get caught out up here."
"In that case let us carry on before we have need for it."
With that the entourage passed on by and started their descent. They had not proceeded far when another natural feature caught their attention, a bowl in the hillside had made a pool big enough to swim in.
"That must be wonderfully enticing in mid-summer," said Arabella.
"In mid-summer it would still chill you to the bone, all but the strongest would be in extreme peril."
"My swimming is not the strongest, I would most certainly need rescuing," Helene said.
"Oh princess, you do fine for someone of your status, it is not your fault that opportunities do not readily come," Lady Ysabel responded.
Arabella looked confused, surely everyone got to play in the river, then it dawned on her, if teaching a princess to swim without drawing attention were not tough enough most of the children of either gender swam with not a stitch on. She didn't want to say anymore as it was not like she could swim that way, not as Arabella anyway.
They rode on and rejoined the path they had used to make their way too the other kingdom, it was reassuring to know how close they were to home. As tempting as it was for any of them to canter the last few miles they showed restraint and kept at a sedate pace.
Before they knew it they had arrived at the city gate and were making their way through it's streets. There were less people to watch them but the entourage did not mind, they were glad to be home.
As soon as they had all dismounted Queen Isolda and Lady Ysabel hurried from the stables to their rooms, Princess Helene and Lady Arabella followed, washing off their journey and the other kingdom was something that could not wait a moment longer.
Once they finally felt clean, the girls' thoughts turned to the conversation that had been started atop the hillside.
"Princess, you said that something bothered you, would now be a time you would choose to discuss it?"
Helene sighed like the weight of the world was upon her.
"What if it is not the prince or the kingdom who is wrong, what if it is me who is wrong. Am I destined to be alone my whole life?"
Arabella sat beside her and held her hand.
"I do not think he was suitable for you, neither does Lady Ysabel and you know how your mother feels."
"I thank you for that but all three of you are somewhat partisan, I would be surprised if you didn't defend my position. Indeed is it possible that we are all wrong?"
"I do not believe so, for I trust Lady Ysabel and you should trust your mother. We are both young while they have experience and wisdom. One bad experience should not make you doubt."
"I know, but it is so hard to be sure. What if I were destined to become happy with prince Hendrick once I adjusted to life in his kingdom?"
"You could adjust to doing everything as he wishes, when he wishes and still not be sure of his approval," Arabella said.
"It would be an ordeal, that is certain. Could I achieve it? I would not know until I tried."
"Helene I am sure there is someone more suitable, there must be, I cannot imagine anyone less suitable than that prince."
"I suppose you are right, apart from Hendrick the only prince I have knowledge of is Gaspar and he counts for nought."
While she thought the comment a little harsh Arabella was not about to disagree. At least the princess had stopped dwelling on that arrogant prince. She had a suggestion to distract her further.
"Princess, should we visit Lady Catherine? It feels like we have not seen her in weeks."
"It does, yet it cannot be more than a few days, let us go."
Their search took longer than they expected, she was not in her bedchamber nor was she overseeing what was going on in the kitchens. It was on the way back to the princess's room that they discovered her in the corridor.
"Princess, Arabella, I had wondered when I would encounter you."
"We had come in search of you Lady Catherine, how are you faring?"
"Considering my condition I am well. I shall be glad when my child arrives for I am constantly tired. Come, let us find a place to rest and talk."
They retreated to the princess's chamber, Lady Catherine sat down gingerly and placed a hand upon her tummy.
"Shall we be hearing of a royal engagement," she asked with the enthusiasm of a lovesick maiden.
"Only if Gaspar has something he wishes to tell us," Helene replied.
"It did not go well?"
"No, it did not."
"If we were to be polite we would say it was a most enlightening experience," Arabella added.
Between them they gave Lady Catherine a full report of what had occurred during their visit. She was intrigued to hear of the bizarre customs practised in that kingdom and dumbfounded by their attitude towards Helene. Once the tale had been told she agreed totally with Arabella's thoughts.
"Princess you have been most fortunate. I would not have liked to think of you spending the rest of your life in that kingdom with that ungrateful prince."
Lady Catherine glanced outside, the sun was getting low, she had duties to perform and made her excuses while labouring to her feet.
Left alone once more, Helene and Arabella looked for something to occupy themselves.
"I wish we had archery arranged for today, I am certain I would have hit the centre every time by imagining Bastian's head in its place."
"Is that not harsh?" said Helene.
"He was a mutt, completely without honour. If we ever meet on my terms only one of us will survive."
"That is no way for a lady to talk."
"I am sorry but he brings out the worst in me."
"That was evident by your actions yesterday, I feared we might have brought you home in pieces."
Arabella remained silent, she wondered if she could persuade someone to instruct her in swordsmanship, maybe Prince Gaspar might.
That night in her own bed her thoughts returned to that whole scene in the foreign kingdom. As Aron he would not have received the unwanted attentions of Bastian, he would have been seen as a threat, not written off as a defenceless girl. Yes things would have been very different then.