Pulling the bowstring taut Arabella focused on the centre of the target. As she released she wondered if Helene knew what she was imagining there.
All of the shafts landed true in the centre.
"We are on form today Miss Arabella," Robert said, taking pride in the ability of one of his finest pupils.
As Helene moved to take her turn she gave Arabella a glance that suggested she knew what her friend had been focusing on.
Her first few arrows were spread across the target. Arabella walked to her and whispered in her ear.
"I think you know what I was seeing in the middle of my target, maybe you should try that yourself."
Helene gave her a look that she had seen her mother use. She made a little sigh and fired of five more arrows. Four of the five were in a tight group just off centre; the last was near an edge only because her accuracy had been a surprise.
"I said as much," Arabella stated.
Helene's last group were just as accurate so she wore a big smile.
"Princess! I cannot recall you ever displaying such consistency," Robert roared.
In a voice only Helene could hear Arabella said, "What if he knew your motivation?"
By the time they were done Helene's confidence was soaring, she knew that if she needed to she could consistently hit a small standing object. Maybe one day she would graduate, like Arabella had, onto more advanced things.
As it was so pleasant that day the girls did not leave the terrace straight away. In fact Arabella tried her luck with their teacher.
"Tell me, would it be possible for you to teach me swordsmanship?"
"No miss Arabella, I don't believe that it would. I am capable with a sword but I am no master. As it is I doubt you would be able to wield a standard blade."
To make his point he offered her his short sword.
"Now hold it ready to defend yourself... A little lower... that's it. Your attacker approaches, and now he lunges, parry and strike back, and again. Take the initiative now and thrust, parry, thrust again, slash, now rest."
Her arm dropped to her side.
"What feeling do you have?"
"I feel the need to put this sword down and rest."
"Imagine how you would feel after a longer encounter. I do not doubt your determination but you have not the strength."
He took his sword back and watched with some amusement as her arm lifted just as if someone had taken her hand and raised it into the air.
"What enchantment is this?"
"Do not fret, miss Arabella, we all experienced the rise the first time. We know it has something to do with the weight of a sword but we do not understand why."
"It is a most unnatural feeling. Perhaps with practise I will overcome it."
"Indeed you might, yet I feel you will not get that chance. No one would favour a lady with well built arms or with sword-fight scars."
To emphasize his point he raised one sleeve to display an old and very nasty scar.
The sight of it made Arabella reconsider her plan, she knew that a sword-fight might result in an injury but had given no thought to an accident while practising.
On the way back inside Helene turned to Arabella.
"You do not need to learn how to use a sword, we have the guard to defend us."
"They can defend us from thieves and gangs and even armies but against creeps like prince Hendrick and Bastian they are powerless."
"But that would mean forfeiting your life."
"That may be so but I can see many neighbouring lands rejoicing were it to happen."
"I would not be joining them. Please can we find something else to talk about?"
Arabella did not bring the subject up in front of the princess. If an opportunity were to arise she would take it, however she had to accept that it would take her returning to Aron for it to happen.
Life at the castle fell into its normal spring routine. Apart for a couple of overnight thunderstorms nothing out of the ordinary happened. One night changed all that.
"Wake up sweetheart," Ysabel called as she gently shook her child awake.
"Is it morning already?"
"No child, it is still the middle of the night."
It took several moments for the words to sink in. Arabella forced herself to open her eyes.
"Lady Catherine has started to have her baby but something is not right. I need to go to her and I need you to accompany me."
Ysabel collected a few things from around the room while Arabella fought the veil of sleep that clouded her mind.
With nothing more than a thin robe, a cloak and a candle to protect them from the night they left the room each carrying a mysterious bundle.
Ysabel did not knock upon their door, there was not time for that, she opened it and guided Arabella through.
The bedchamber was filled with concerned people milling about. One or two made suggestions of things Lady Catherine should drink or rituals to ease the baby's passage into the world.
Ysabel took charge immediately.
"Leave now, all of you."
There was a murmur and while some did file out others attempted to ignore her.
Lady Catherine cried out in pain.
Ysabel looked for her husband.
She put a hand on the worried man's shoulder.
"I will do my best for mother and child but it is not good for her to have all these people with her. When the time comes they will do nought but hinder."
He nodded and in a voice that was much stronger than he felt said, "Leave them in peace."
Only one person had to be manhandled, the rest left freely and Ysabel secured the door behind them.
Another muffled cry came from the bed.
"Child heat some water while I talk to Catherine."
After giving her a few reassuring words Ysabel took something from one of the bundles and placed it in a drinking vessel.
"When the water is hot enough fill the vessel and bring it to the bed. This should help ease her discomfort."
Arabella tried not to look at what her mother was doing while she fetched the jug of water from the bedside, instead she focused on the shadows cast by the flickering candles.
"Breathe Catherine, I know it is difficult but you must keep on."
The water seemed to take an age to heat.
"I am so tired."
Finally it seemed hot enough and Arabella filled the vessel and took it over to the bed.
"She needs to sip it."
Try as she might Arabella was unable to get any of the infusion into the Lady's mouth.
"No, not like that, I shall do it. You come down here, if you see any blood tell me at once."
"No mother, it is not right that I even be in this room, there for me to be at that end of the bed is unthinkable."
"My child you would be correct were these ideal times, however they are far from ideal. Please come here and look out for blood, as pale as she is this night she cannot afford to lose a drop."
Reluctantly she did as her mother asked. It still felt terribly wrong to be in a place that was a woman's domain but she had a duty to perform.
Lady Catherine became less anxious after a few sips of the liquid, a relative calm fell upon the room, punctuated every few minutes by muffled cries with each contraction.
"Can I go now?" Arabella asked, seeing an opportunity for escape.
"It may be quiet now but very soon I shall need all the help you can give."
In a quiet voice she said, "Will there be anything left of Aron, for months all I have done has been the actions of a girl. Archery has been something of a refuge for my male side yet, I am unsure whether it is the boy or the girl with the ability."
"He is safe and he will get the chance to return in time. I cannot say when that chance will arise but when it does we will grab it."
The accuracy of Ysabel's earlier statement was soon proven as Lady Catherine sounded as if she was in distress once more.
"Does she need another of those herbal drinks," Arabella asked.
"No, I think this time it is for real."
A quick check confirmed her theory.
"Go and tell them, without opening the door that the baby is on its way."
She did as asked and was surprised by how many people replied.
"Now I need you to hold a candle for me so I might see things progressing."
Try as she might to ignore it Arabella found herself drawn to watch. It was messy and painful but there was something wonderful about it too.
"One last push Catherine, you are almost there."
She did not look as if she had enough energy for anything yet from somewhere she managed to summon the effort.
With a little help from Ysabel the baby made its way into the world. There was a look of concern on her face, could something be wrong? To Arabella everything seemed perfect, it had ten little fingers and toes and a shock of sandy hair.
Ysabel moved closer, blocking the child from Arabella's view; she had no idea what was going on.
A silence had descended; even Lady Catherine was waiting for some kind of sign.
The noise, which erupted from Ysabel’s arms, filled the room. How could something so small make such a din?
"You have a fine son," Lady Ysabel proclaimed.
"A son! Elwynn will be pleased."
She passed him to his mother and the shriek became a whimper. Lady Catherine sighed contentedly as she gazed upon his face. She was clearly exhausted but not ready to give in to sleep just yet.
After a few minutes she turned to Arabella.
"Would you like to hold him?"
She slowly nodded.
Lady Catherine showed her where to put her hands to support him then passed him over. For the next few moments nothing else existed, just his face. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Arabella felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see her mother smiling.
"We must prepare him to meet his father."
Ysabel set about their task, wrapping the boy, in strips of cloth, showing Arabella how it was done. When she was finished she placed him carefully in Arabella's arms to take back to Lady Catherine while she went to the door to let the chamberlain in. She was smiling like she knew a secret when her son was returned to her.
The chamberlain spent some time with his wife and son but fell asleep in the chair by their bed.
Lady Ysabel made sure the cradle was within Catherine's reach then gently placed the baby in it. She moved close to the bed and whispered.
"You all need sleep, when he wakes you need to feed him from your breast."
"I know it is not the done thing for a lady, I also know that many sick infants have survived because of their mother's milk."
"Is he sick?"
"No, and we want him to stay healthy, do we not? We shall talk again in the light of the day."
Lady Catherine's eyes began to droop, Ysabel gathering their things together and lead Arabella out. Had it not been for a guard on patrol they would have thought they were the only people to be awake.
No words passed between them until they were safely back in their room.
"Oh my child, you were wonderful, I could not have asked anymore of you this night. Mother would have been so proud."
"Indeed she would, people for miles around turned to her for help delivering their babies. Some of her practices were unpopular but they worked. She passed her knowledge on to me and there are many mothers and children who would not be alive were it not for those skills. Tonight you took your first step along that path, even if it is your only step she would be pleased."
This was the most Arabella could recall her mother saying about her grandmother. She smiled, it turned into a yawn.
"Yes, we are both desperately in need of sleep."
She took off her cloak, Arabella followed. Ysabel wrapped her in a hug and climbed into bed without letting go. It had been a long time since they had cuddled like this. She fell asleep in her mother's arms.
The next morning she awoke and discovered that she was alone in the bed; in fact there was no sign of Ysabel in the room. Arabella got dressed and went to let some fresh air in. As she opened the shutters the light streamed in from far too high an angle.
"I must have overslept," she exclaimed.
With thoughts of what might happen to someone who fails in her duties to the royals she rushed out and over to her princess's apartments.
"I am sorry for my tardiness," she said upon entering, only to discover that there was no one to hear her.
Her mother and her best friend could be anywhere within the castle, should she go looking or wait for them to find her?
She waited for a short while but there was no way she could just sit there until somebody came. The first place she looked was the terrace, it too was empty. Her next thought was to look in the stables; if their horses were missing she would know they had gone riding.
On her way down she was passing the kitchens and decided they were worth a look.
"Has anyone seen Lady Ysabel or the princess this morning?" she asked.
"Not recently," answered the senior cook. "Ysabel did say we would likely find her with Lady Catherine if we needed her."
"Thank you," said Arabella and hurried off.
She got to the door and tapped on it, no one came. She rapped louder yet still no one came; could they be out?
After a third, louder try she let herself in and saw not only her mother but princess Helene and queen Isolda too.
"Your highness I apologize for failing in my duties, I overslept."
"My dear girl, after your exploits last night no one can blame you for sleeping in this morning," Queen Isolda replied.
"I do," Helene responded. "But only because I have had to wait to hear all of the details. I wish that I could have been with you to see it."
"Arabella thank you," said Lady Catherine. "You were so good to help, and the way you looked after my son I know that when your time comes you will make a wonderful mother."
Arabella was speechless. She glanced at her own mother whose cheeks had a flush of colour.
Lady Catherine gestured for her to take over and passed her son across. Arabella cautiously took him; her eyes were drawn to the peaceful look upon his face. He opened his eyes and stared up, Arabella had a strange feeling in her tummy and felt tears forming.
"You really are a natural," Helene said.
Arabella who had lost herself in the moment looked up to see all three ladies with broad smiles.
"Nothing," Queen Isolda stated.
They stayed with Lady Catherine a little longer to admire her son. Isolda and Ysabel were the first to leave; Helene and Arabella were all set to follow. Before they made it to the door Lady Catherine beckoned them over.
"You did me a great favour when you helped bring my son in to the world."
"Really, it was nothing, I just did as I was asked."
"That is not how I see it and I wish to repay your favour. If you would wish it I would like to plait your hair into a style more befitting of a lady of court, something similar to our princess's style."
Feeling unsure, Arabella sought the guidance of Helene. The pleading gaze of her friend was impossible to ignore.
"That would be nice."
"It is settled then. I cannot do it now, for my child needs to be fed. Come by later and it will be my pleasure to transform your hair."
The two children left the room and wandered through the castle talking. To begin with Helene wanted to know every detail of Arabella's involvement in the birth. When there was nothing more to be said about that she surprised her friend with talk of her own future.
"I would like two children at the very least. A boy to be the heir to the throne and a girl to be princess. You and I would raise them and school them, just like my mother and Lady Ysabel have done with Gaspar and I."
"You have given this some considerable thought," Arabella commented.
"But of course, such things are important. How many children would you have?"
"It is not something I have given thought to, maybe when I am older."
"Oh Arabella sometimes I wonder about you. So many things that are natural for me seem strange to you, yet when it comes to unconventional things like archery or birthing you show skills beyond your years."
There was no answer that Arabella could give so she shrugged. It was likely that some of the difference was down to her true gender but that was not something she could talk about with anyone apart from her mother.
They continued to walk around and some time later they found themselves back at Lady Catherine's door. Helene knocked softly and it was Catherine herself who answered and bade them to enter.
"He is sleeping now so your timing is good. Please sit over there in the light."
She brought a bowl of scented water and with just her hands she worked it into Arabella's hair. Helene looked on with interest as she had only felt this being done to her.
By the time Catherine was done with the water Arabella was so relaxed that she had closed her eyes. Helene knew exactly how that felt. The feeling got even better when she started brushing Arabella's hair; it may have lasted a few moments or it may have been hours, Arabella neither knew nor cared.
Lady Catherine had been plaiting the back of her hair for several moments before Arabella even realised.
"What do you think Princess?" she asked as she was close to finishing.
"Astounding, does it take as much work when you do my hair?"
"At least as much, your hair is a little longer and the style more complex, as befits royalty."
She became silent, as if she were deep in thought, and stayed that way for a short while.
"Princess, the next time I attend to your hair I shall employ a simpler style, something that Arabella should be able to produce and demonstrate it to her."
"But Lady Catherine, I have not the skill to replace you," said Arabella, fully alert again.
"That is true and it is not what I was suggesting. As the princess's lady you will be her travelling companion and being able to attend to her hair will be of importance."
"I could not do it justice."
"Do not fret, it will not be difficult. It will be something stylish and elegant that you can maintain on your journeys."
"I have faith in you," Helene said.
Arabella hoped her faith would not prove to be misplaced.
"Let us not forget the task in hand," said Lady Catherine.
While the discussion had gone on she had completed Arabella's first ever plait, tied it off and arranged the remaining loose hair.
"It is quite a transformation," Helene commented.
"May I see?" asked Arabella.
"Unfortunately there is no good way to show you the back of your own head. You will have to rely on the opinions of others," Lady Catherine replied.
"It looks perfect," Helene said. "Come, let us find Lady Ysabel and my mother and enquire of them."
Arabella gave her thanks for Lady Catherine's patience and effort. The two girls left her to her own devices and went off to find their mothers.