What will be in store for Helene and Arabella on their first full day at the hunt?
Bright sunlight crept over the castle like a cat stalking its prey. The thick material of Ysabel and Arabella's tent shielded them from most of the light but all it needed was a seam, a small opening of any kind and it could make its way in.
Arabella opened her eyes just long enough to register that it was time for her to get up, she stretched, opened them fully and saw a figure, sat across from her.
"Good morning mo.. Lady Ysabel."
It had taken her a few moments to realise where she was.
Ysabel moved from her bed and perched on the end of Arabella's."
In a whisper she said, "My child you must be more careful, it is not like the castle where solid walls separate us, here anybody could be walking by. Imagine if Lord Barkstone had heard!"
A look of fear on her face, her response was barely audible even to Ysabel. "I am sorry mother," she whispered.
"I know you are sweetheart," Ysabel replied in reassuring tones. "It is an unfamiliar situation, it will take time to adjust.”
She reached over and gave her a much needed hug.
"Let us get dressed and check on our royal charges."
When she entered the princess's room Arabella could tell that something was wrong. Helene could not keep still, which made it rather awkward for the attendant to finish dressing her.
"You can go now Sarah."
The girl seemed relieved. "Yes Lady Arabella, thank you Lady Arabella."
'I must remember to talk to her and persuade her to be less formal,' Arabella thought. She turned back to the matter in hand.
"What is the matter Princess, I cannot recall a time I have seen you act so."
"Prince Dariun will be arriving later and I am not prepared, I may not even be worthy. What if I say or do something ridiculous?" said Helene.
"Even more ridiculous than what you are doing now?" said Arabella.
"You do not seem to understand, this is important I must get it right for myself and the kingdom."
"I wonder what the sentence would be for slapping a hysterical princess," said Arabella.
Helene's jaw dropped, she stood and stared.
"You would strike me in my hour of need?"
"If you needed it I definitely would, there are many unpleasant things I would do to stop you causing harm to yourself."
Helene’s mouth moved like a goldfish as she tried and failed to find the right words.
Arabella continued. "Every time you think about meeting a prince, the real you locks herself away and sends a halfwit instead."
"Is that how you see me, as a halfwit?"
"No I see you as my dearest friend and I see you letting matters which you cannot control to weigh down upon you. I can understand you getting nervous when you meet a stranger but I cannot watch you torture yourself like this. I will have to ask to be relieved from my duties."
It wasn't just Helene who was shocked; Arabella had shocked herself with her last statement. Where that sentiment had come from she had no idea.
"You would really do that?" Helene said.
"I would consider it," she said with a heavy heart.
Helene turned away. Arabella hoped she had not angered her.
Arabella reached out for Helene's shoulder.
Helene turned back to face her, there were tears in her eyes.
"I do not want to lose you but, I do not know how to conquer my fears. Can you.. Will you help me?"
"I will do anything within my power," Arabella replied.
"If you do need to slap me back to sense I will allow it although I would prefer it only as a last resort."
Arabella giggled. "I promise that if I do it you will deserve it; however we should not dwell on that. I hope you are calm enough to finish dressing."
Helene nodded and Arabella made the adjustments so she looked more like a princess and less like a servant trying on the fine dress of her mistress.
They left the room holding hands and with an even stronger bond between them.
Outside Queen Isolda was lacking her usual calmness but with good reason.
"Where is that husband of mine, he said it would only be a short ride."
"You know he will be here in time for our visitor’s arrival," said Ysabel.
"Yes, he has that ability to arrive just in time, although it would be nice if he got here before they did, I have no wish to make excuses," said Isolda. "I do not begrudge him this opportunity; I know how seldom he has the chance to spend time with Gaspar."
Ysabel glanced across.
"I know the real reason you are concerned, you want things to go smoothly with King Oswald and Prince Dariun."
She dropped to a whisper and continued, "I can almost see where Helene gets her nerves from."
A frown crossed Isolda brows but disappeared as she looked at Ysabel and in a whisper of her own replied, "It is a good job I trust you not to repeat that."
Before they had a chance to continue, Helene and Arabella appeared next to them.
"Ah, here you are, with plenty of time to spare," Isolda said. "We must find you something to do until our visitors arrive. We cannot have them thinking the entire kingdom has been waiting for them."
"Should we go off for a short ride?" suggested Helene.
Lady Ysabel made a coughing noise as she suppressed her laughter.
"No, I don't think you need to go for a ride," said Isolda. "We shall get one of Hugh's boys to work with you and your kestrels."
"Very well mother," Helene said.
They left to get their gloves and find a suitable place around the castle to work with lures.
"Arabella was quiet," Isolda said.
"I believe the morning has been something of a challenge for her."
"I do not have all the details yet, just a feeling I got from one of the attendants. If there is anything important I will make sure that you know about it," Ysabel said.
"I know you would not keep anything from me without good cause," Isolda replied.
She had not expected any response from Ysabel so when she remained silent Isolda saw nothing suspicious in that.
Across the grounds of the old castle the two girls had struggled to find a suitable place; if the ground was not occupied with tents then it was piled high with barrels or crates.
There were spaces by some of the walls but neither the girls nor the falconer's apprentices wanted to risk one of the birds crashing into any stonework.
"Could we do it from atop the walls?" Helene suggested.
"I am afraid not, your highness, Prince Gaspar got us banned from the battlements," said one of the boys.
"My brother! How did he manage that?"
There was a gleam in Helene's eye.
"We were doing lure work when he decided to climb on the wall for extra height. The guards were in a quandary, there was a good chance he might fall, yet they dare not risk grabbing him. It took the intervention of the queen and by the time she arrived at least a dozen men were trying to get him down. So not only had he risked his own life but he had distracted half the guard from their duties."
In Arabella's mind that was not so different to the event that got her in trouble as Aron. She tried not to be bitter about the allowances made for the prince instead she focused on finding somewhere suitable to work their birds.
"There is an area near the gap in the wall," she said.
"Is there? There was none before," Helene replied.
"No; the scouting party that was saddling up have gone, so long as we move aside when anyone comes I do not foresee us creating any conflict."
While they did not cause problems for anyone else, the constant movements through the gap in the castle walls proved to be more tiresome than they had expected. At least there were some skills they could try that made it easier to bear; it was the best that they could manage under the circumstances.
The time passed quickly but it had not reached noon when they got an interruption that they could not ignore, in the midst of the small arriving party of guard were King Eadric and Prince Gaspar.
Once the entire group was within the walls Helene moved to her father's side. His smiling face looked down at her.
"My child I believe you are ready to go out with your bird."
"Do you really think so?" Helene responded, somewhat surprised considering the difficulties they’d had.
"Absolutely, we were watching you as we approached and what a sight it was."
Before any more could be said, queen Isolda appeared.
"At last, you have returned", she said, with a look of relief and exasperation.
"I am sorry my love, we followed some creature into a thicket and only when we emerged could we see how much time had passed, so we rode like the wind to get back," replied King Eadric.
"And not a moment too soon," said Isolda. "Our scout has seen their procession and they will be here forthwith."
"In the time it takes me to change from my riding clothes I shall be ready. Where is the chamberlain?"
He appeared out of nowhere.
"Walk with me. Are all of the final preparations in place?"
"All relief guards are putting on their ceremonial insignia to line the facing walls and approaches. All else is in hand."
"Oncemore your efficiency does you credit."
That was the last they heard as they watched the two of them heading towards the royal quarters.
Isolda turned to her son.
"Gaspar all you need is a clean tabard; someone is fetching it for you now."
She directed her attention to the girls.
"Helene, Arabella, you need to remove the feathers from your hair and give your gloves to the falconer's boys."
They looked at each other and grinned as they picked a few downy feathers from the tops of their heads.
Queen Isolda got a certain satisfaction knowing that for once the tables had been turned and the girls were ready whereas the boys still had to attend to their dress.
The entourage that approached the castle was an impressive sight; the sun reflected off the highly polished armour of the soldiers who were flanked by standard bearers holding vivid purple banners aloft. Behind them were some of the largest horses Arabella had ever seen.
"Magnificent animals," Arabella said.
"Don't let them fool you," Gaspar responded. "Underneath the silver nose guards they are little more than well cared-for farm horses. They possess neither the speed nor the agility of our best."
In a quiet voice Helene said, "He is right but, that does not make them any less of a sight to behold."
Arabella nodded and continued to watch. There was something different about the middle rider; he held himself with a certain poise and his armour seemed brighter and more elaborately decorated.
"Is that King Oswald," she whispered.
"It must be," Helene replied.
Another rank of horses came into view behind the first, they were of a more regular size and their riders were a woman in a luxurious blue dress, and an adolescent boy and girl who from their looks were brother and sister. If that was not the king and this was not his family then they were doing a remarkable job of impersonating them.
They passed inside the walls and dismounted one by one. King Eadric made the first approach and greeted his counterpart and then the formal introductions began.
As he moved along the line Arabella got a closer look at the king's armour, she could see it was even more intricately decorated than it had looked at first. She wondered how long it took to create such a detailed thing; it was indeed a worthy skill.
King Oswald spent a few moments in polite conversation with Helene, when he moved on to Arabella he merely acknowledged her presence. She had expected no less, there was no good reason for either the king or queen to talk to her. It took her completely by surprise when the queen made a point of saying a few words to her; unfortunately she was in shock and could not remember anything that had been said.
As the prince was introduced to Helene, Arabella eyed him discretely; he looked to be Gaspar's age and at first glance quite pleasant. An image of Bastian came into her head so she started searching the faces around Prince Dariun, trying to spot his second but, there was no other male his age in sight, could she be safe from more unwanted attention?
He moved past and her attention turned to the visiting princess; Orliana looked like she had stepped out of a storybook, everything about her was perfect. A small part of Arabella hoped the princess would notice her but she did not even acknowledge that she was there.
A few other important people filed past, none of them seemed to show any interest in the princess, let alone Arabella so she returned the favour and did her best to ignore them. With the introductions over, the visitors were lead off to their quarters; a group of rooms on the opposite side of the old keep.
Helene waited until she was sure they were out of earshot.
"I hope he is the one," she said, placing a hand on Arabella's arm.
"You have only just met him," Arabella pointed out.
"I know, I cannot explain it. I already feel as if there is a connection between us, something I never felt for Hendric," said Helene.
"Then we must hope he feels the same way," Arabella replied.
"I do not claim to understand it but for you it feels right, that is good enough. Lord knows you do not need my approval."
"I desire it regardless of whether I need it," said Helene.
Arabella smiled, it was a good feeling to be needed.
Just outside the castle an entirely different conversation was underway in the shadows. A hooded figure was in discussion with two of the hunt's regular patrons.
"Here is the bag of monies, just like we agreed."
"And all you ask of us is to obstruct and interfere?"
"That is all; make things difficult for her, just ensure I am not nearby."
"Of course, do you have anything particular in mind?"
"Be creative and whatever you do be subtle about it, she is popular and if anyone suspected anything I am likely to be one of the first people accused."
"Very well, it shall be done."
"We should not loiter, lest we be seen together. There will be no further contact between us."
"We have not seen you, we do not know you."
"With that attitude you may well find other business comes your way."
And without a single glance back the figure returned to the shadows.
Later that afternoon everyone came together to eat. Arabella sat on one side of Helene with the prince on the other; it was a totally different atmosphere than their encounter with Hendric. Even so, very little was said during the meal, Helene was managing to keep herself calm but she would still have preferred to be somewhere else.
Any answers came by virtue of Arabella’s elbow carefully placed in Helene's side, strangely even though she required prompting she was aware of what was being asked.
Even from his position Dariun seemed completely aware of what was going on and was not fazed by any of it.
Arabella found it hard to believe that any other princess could suffer as badly with nerves as Helene did, yet all she could think was that the prince had seen it before.
By the time the meal was over Helene was not totally reliant on Arabella for her prompts but she was still glad it was over with and the moment they were away from the table she sighed.
"Hopefully our second meeting will be an improvement on our first," she said.
"I do not doubt that," Arabella replied.
"Because it could not be any worse?" Helene asked.
"Because you will get past your nerves," Arabella said and changed the subject. "I did not see anyone with Prince Dariun; does that mean I will not have to worry about a pair of eyes boring into the back of my head?"
"Not on this occasion," Helene replied.
Arabella thought about that for a second.
"I know I shall probably regret asking this but what do you mean ‘on this occasion’?”
"He does have a second, his name is Tristram,” Helen said.
"I see," Arabella replied.
"He is not here because he was not well enough to travel, I’m told it was an accident involving his horse."
Arabella found it hard to suppress a smile as all kinds of strange ways of having an accident with a horse flashed through her mind. She managed to compose herself before she spoke.
"So if Prince Dariun is the one when will I get to meet his shadow?"
"You could at least wait until you actually meet him before you take a dislike to him," Helene said.
Arabella thought back to the conversation she’d had that morning about the princess’s nervousness.
"You are correct; I should give him a chance. Who can tell, there is a possibility that I might not want to see him come face to face with a herd of stampeding cattle," she said.
"Is that the fate you have planned for Bastian?"
"Arabella, sometimes you worry me."
"You thought Hendric was bad, believe me Princess, Bastian was far more of a loathsome creep, the day I can no longer remember his smug face will be a day to celebrate," Arabella stated.
Helene sighed and decided that it was her turn to change the subject.
"It is nearing the time we must prepare for bed; all the worrying I have been doing today has taken its toll on me."
Arabella looked at the princess to make sure she was not being serious, Helene smiled and continued.
"We also have a long day ahead of us tomorrow with it being the first actual day of stag hunting."
"Do we know what we shall be doing tomorrow while the others ride out?" Arabella asked.
"We shall also be out with them."
Arabella managed to disguise the sharp breath she took, although she knew it would happen eventually, she had secretly hoped she would not have to display her lack of riding skills to everybody for as long as possible.
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