Love

XX

A day had passed since Arnold and Helga went into the forest, and Gerald was already missing his best friend.

Still, things weren't all that bad – the clod harvest was now completely over. Gerald waved goodbye to Brainy as he left with the last ox cart full of dirt clods, heading in the direction of the castle. That boy's day never ended, Gerald thought. Carting people like Arnold, Helga, Lady Rhonda, and Lord Thaddeus back and forth, being put on clod collection detail – Brainy's days were almost as busy as Gerald's.

Then again, now that all the clods were out of Hill's Wood and the fields lay empty and smooth, Gerald would be getting a bit of a break, at least for a few days. He wondered where the clods went and what the heck people did with them. It would always be a mystery, he supposed. Something far too complex for a peasant like himself to understand.

A number of villagers were cleaning up in the barn and returning to their houses, and Gerald knew that later there would be another celebration around a bonfire where he would be called upon to tell chilling tales of the Pigeon Man, the troll that guarded the castle sewers, and maybe even the headless carriage driver. He thought about inviting Brainy to stay the night at the village sometime – he would probably get a kick out of that last story.

"Hey guys, what's up?" asked Gerald as he sat on a log seat in the village square beside Stinky and Lila. The two of them were sharing a drink of water as they took a well-deserved rest from their labor.

"Just thinkin' about all the fun that Arnold feller must be having while he's off gallivantin' around Lord knows where," said Stinky. "It was purty funny how them guards came screaming back through the village the other day on account of bein' attacked by pigeons. At least, so they claimed."

"That was a strange sight," agreed Lila. "I wonder how some silly birds could have spooked them so much? But I suppose it's good news, since it means Arnold and Helga weren't caught. I did think that Arnold riding off into the forest with Helga was just ever so romantic. Didn't you, Gerald?"

"Hmm. I dunno about romance. I'm just thinking about what we gotta take care of now that the clod harvest is over."

In the days following the harvest, Gerald and his fellow villagers would do some foraging in the forest and prepare for winter. After a number of long nights spent huddling in their dim little shacks, spring would emerge again, crops would be planted to provide a little food and – more importantly – prepare the soil for the later dirt clod harvest, and life would begin a new. The same as it always did.

And yet, maybe it would not be the same.

Gerald thought of the gold coins that Arnold had left him, stowed away in his shack. He thought it was hidden well enough, but then Tailor Kokoshka seemed to have a knack for sniffing out anything he wanted, regardless of whether it was his or not. Gerald would soon talk to the village, particularly to the wise Friar Simmons, and figure out how to best use the money. He wished Arnold had been able to stay a little while longer and tell him more about what had happened during his return visit to the castle, because clearly a lot had gone down.

Gerald had talked to Brainy a little when he came to cart some of the clods back to the castle stores, and according to him, Arnold had gotten a plot of land somewhere beyond the forest at the edge of Hill's Wood. Apparently the Shortman family had far more illustrious origins than a simple peasant's village. A part of Gerald worried that Arnold had been swept away by the sudden changes in his life, that Arnold had just gotten on a horse and ridden away forever. But Gerald knew his friend too well. He probably was swept up in a sense of adventure right now, but Arnold would return. Hill's Wood, after all, was still his home.

"Hello Gerald."

The timid greeting caused Gerald and his two peasant friends to look up from their seats. He squinted against the bright sun and noticed Phoebe dismounting from her horse and tying it securely to a gatepost of a fence surrounding a nearby hut. Phoebe walked up to the group of peasants and nodded to Gerald before sitting down beside him.

"Hey Phoebe, how's it going?"

"Oh, I just came by to tell you that Helga left town. I don't really know where she's going, but I was wondering if she stopped by and said anything to Arnold before she left."

Gerald nodded. "Yep, she sure did. They both rode off into the forest yesterday."

Phoebe was surprised to hear it. "Really? That's wonderful!"

"What, you knew she liked him too?"

"Well of course, Gerald. I am Helga's best friend."

Gerald blushed a little at the predictable answer. Normally he was totally smooth with the ladies, but Phoebe had a certain way of making him feel a little awkward sometimes. He just hoped that Stinky and Lila didn't notice. Gerald had an image to maintain, after all.

"I guess there's another reason I came," admitted Phoebe. "Um, I suppose I was kind of inspired by Helga's courage, the way she does what she wants, and talks to who she wants, and goes where she wants..."

Phoebe fell silent for a moment, trying to fight back the urge to jump up and run away screaming. This was a bit harder than she thought.

"I guess I always admired how Helga always put herself out there."

"That's one way to put it," said Gerald.

"With that in mind, I want to start emulating Helga's independent streak a little more myself. For instance, I know I usually only come to Hill's Wood when I'm tagging along with Helga, but even if she's gone now, do you guys mind if I come here more often?"

Stinky and Lila both nodded, Stinky a bit noncommittally and Lila enthusiastically. Stinky didn't know why merchant's daughters wanted to hang out in Hill's Wood in the first place, but Phoebe was more pleasant than Helga, that was for sure. Lila was getting a more distinct impression of what Phoebe was leading into. She leaned forward in anticipation, all thoughts of eavesdropping overwhelmed by the excitement of even more heart-thumping romance on the horizon.

"Good," said Phoebe. "I'm glad. And you don't mind, Gerald?"

"Nah, of course not," he said. "You don't bug people like Helga does. I mean, I suppose Helga must not be that bad, if Arnold was willing to go riding off into the forest with her with no warning. But you're cool."

Phoebe blushed and screwed up her courage for the final leap.

"And there's another festival coming up in about a week. It's not in the castle itself, but it's held every year in my town. Ye Olde Cheyse Festivale – have you heard of it?"

Gerald shook his head, but the thought of an entire festival dedicated to cheese set his mouth watering.

"Well, I was sort of wondering if – um - maybe you wanted to come with me?"

Lila's heart fluttered as she vicariously enjoyed the soaring heights of romance. The question was obvious enough that even Stinky froze. His held held a piece of bread he was snacking on, suspended in midair halfway to his mouth

Gerald nodded excitedly at Phoebe's question. His thoughts were consumed not by romance so much as by the joys of dairy.

"Would I ever! That sounds awesome!"

Phoebe clapped her hands together victoriously before blushing deeply at the stares she received in response.

"Well, that's excellent," she said. "I have to go now!"

She got up from her seat on the log and mounted her horse quickly, riding off before she could do anything embarrassing to ruin her good luck.

Gerald watched her leave for a moment as he thought about his good luck. Maybe Arnold wasn't the only lucky one in the village. A cheese festival wasn't exactly as high society as something held by Lady Rhonda and Lord Thaddeus in the castle, but Gerald couldn't think of anything that could be more exciting. And he always enjoyed spending time with Phoebe. Seeing her arriving at the village always took the edge off of Helga's arrival, after all. Cheese and Phoebe put together, well, that was -

Gerald froze.

"Hey, wait."

Stinky and Lila looked at him as the wheels of his mind churned slowly in circles.

"Did she just ask me out on a date?"

The two of them nodded in affirmation.

"Whoah."

Gerald got up from his seat as the two of them watched in amusement. He stood for a moment, staring at nothing in particular, and then began to leave the village square, walking towards his house in a sort of daze.

"Well, uh, I gotta get ready or something. I'll see you guys."

Lila found the sight too amusing to remind Gerald that the festival wasn't for a week.

As Gerald left, she grabbed the remainder of Stinky's bread and took a bite with a sigh. Romance was definitely in the air around the village of Hill's Wood. For everyone but her, at least. She could have accepted Arnold's advances, it was true, but while Arnold was a delightful boy, he just didn't have that oh so special something. And so, Lila supposed that she would have to wait for romance to fall into her lap.

Arnold and Gerald had both taken their first steps to love, but it would be too much of a coincidence for Lila to be that lucky anytime soon. It would be too convenient. Too cliché. Like a part of some silly fantasy that -

"Whoops, sorry there Lila."

Lila looked down at the water that Stinky had accidentally spilled into her lap. She brushed the droplets off and gave him a teasing frown, but she didn't mind.

"By the way, how's about that ol' cheese party in Phoebe's town, huh? That sure sounds like a fun time."

"Oh, I'm just ever so certain it would be."

"So, uh, I was just thinkin' about, y'see – maybe you wanna go with me?"

Stinky had barely gotten his question out before he found himself bowled over by Lila's embrace and blinded in a whirl of red pigtails.

"Yes, Stinky, oh yes, of course! I thought you'd never ask!"

XX

It was a slow business day at Portly Bob's Breeches. Portly Bob wouldn't admit it to anyone, but most days were slow – people just didn't appreciate the high quality of his breeches. Nowadays, people would put anything on their legs, he liked to tell himself.

Portly Bob was in a particularly bad mood, not only because business was slow, but because he had been thinking about both of his daughters all day. Abbess Slovak had stopped by to inform him that Helga had run away from the monastery, and considering she had not reappeared at home, Bob and Miriam could only guess that she had left town. Bob's first reaction had been anger – running away was yet another in a long line of incomprehensible, impudent things that his daughter did, seemingly just to give him headaches.

As he waited in his shop for customers all day, however, Bob's heated anger had cooled down and condensed into a tight ball of nervousness, even fear, which sat at the bottom of his stomach. Helga had left town. Bob had no idea where she was, whether she was safe, where she was planning to go, or even if she would ever be back. And Miriam had not spoken to him all day. The lack of customers left Bob to his own thoughts, which turned increasingly to the future. A future without either of his daughters.

Bob grunted with displeasure as he noticed the afternoon was wearing down. There had barely even been any point in opening the shop today. He decided to go for a little walk and closed the door behind him as he left the shop. Miriam was inside their living quarters in back of the shop, but he doubted she would want to go on a walk with him. He struck out towards the center of town to get some fresh air.

A number of people began to pass him by as he walked towards the center of town, and when he got there, he saw that some kind of event was going on. The square was packed with people, and a gaudy caravan was parked beside the old statue of the Lloyds that stood in the center of the square. Several entertainers were in front of the caravan, dressed in strange furry costumes as they leaped and traded sing-song lines with each other. The entertainers were surrounded by a crowd of townspeople. Bob noticed a sign on the caravan, which read: 'Rats, a musicale tale of vermine, performed by the visiting Troupe of the Broad Waye!'

Bob shook his head in disgust. What were a bunch of show folk doing in town? No wonder people didn't have time to visit his shop and buy some breeches – they were all transfixed by the crass performance going on before them. Bob found himself looking down at his side before he even realized what he was doing, expecting to share a harsh laugh with Helga – she always found these events as ridiculous as he did. But she was not there.

Maybe the walk had been a bad idea.

"Portly Bob Pataki," said a man standing beside him at the edge of the crowd. "Nice to see you."

Bob recognized the man as Lord Thaddeus, although he seemed to be dressed in plainer clothing than usual. "Good afternoon, Lord Thaddeus," he said.

"I just thought I'd sneak out of the castle and check out this performance."

Bob looked at the entertainers singing and dancing. He caught a few references to sewers and cheese, but the spectacle was hard for Bob to concentrate on. He was surprised to hear that Lord Thaddeus would be interested in such a thing. Then again, on the few occasions Bob had talked to him, he did seem stranger than Lady Rhonda. And he had invited Helga to the festival.

"I was actually hoping to see you as well," said Lord Thaddeus.

"Oh yeah? You need a new pair of breaches? I just closed the store down, but I can open it again for you, no problem."

"No, the last pair you sold me are fine. I was hoping to talk to you about your daughter, Helga."

Something about the way Lord Thaddeus brought up the subject set off a nervous twinge in Bob's eye.

"What about Helga?"

"How is she doing in the monastery?"

Bob tried to look casual as he half-watched the musical performance in front of him, but he knew there was no way to answer the question without revealing his embarrassing family situation. "She's not in the monastery anymore," he said reluctantly. "She ran away. We don't really know where."

Lord Thaddeus shook his head sympathetically. "That's unfortunate to hear. You know, I had heard that you put her in a monastery, and while I may not be very close to your daughter, it didn't seem like a good fit for her at all. Did you ask her what she wanted?"

Bob felt his embarrassment turn to annoyance as he listened to Lord Thaddeus's line of questioning. Okay, so Lord Thaddeus owned a castle, but he wasn't even older than Portly Bob. What made this bowl-haired little weirdo know more about how to raise his daughter than he did? Bob felt the urge to give Lord Thaddeus a piece of his mind, but he knew he had to restrain himself.

"I'm not the wealthiest of merchants," Bob had to admit, the words grating his ears as they left his lips. "It wasn't up to Helga – I needed to do something with her, and she wasn't marrying anyone rich like Olga did with Duke Doug. She didn't find a husband at the festival, so I had to put her in the monastery."

Lord Thaddeus had to admit that he had not considered Bob's financial situation, never having to worry about such things himself.

"I suppose I can understand why you wanted Helga to marry someone, but it's fairly short notice. And I'm sure Helga can contribute to the family in some way – helping with your business, perhaps." Lord Thaddeus noticed Bob rolling his eyes, but ignored it as he continued. "Helga seems like a smart girl. I think you're not giving her enough credit. Perhaps you should have talked to her about things and tried to come to a decision with her instead of forcing her to do something that would make her unhappy."

Bob grunted noncommittally.

"Do you know when she might be coming back to town?"

"No. She left without any warning."

"I see," said Lord Thaddeus as he watched the rat-costumed performers entertain the townspeople. They were quite good. Especially the gray one. Maybe he would invite them to perform at the castle the next time they traveled through his lands.

"Portly Bob," he said, "whenever Helga does come back, and I'm sure she will eventually, feel free to ask me for help if you need any. And make sure to keep her interests in mind – I hate to see her estranged from her father and mother. After all, if we drive away the ones we love, what else do we have left?"

Bob supposed the question was rhetorical, but he couldn't tell if Lord Thaddeus was giving him advice or telling him what to do. Not that Bob was really in a position to argue much if it was the latter.

"And do not put her in a monastery again."

Lord Thaddeus phrased his statement like a request, but there was a tiny note of menace laced into it. Bob gulped and nodded.

"Yes sir. I think I'll be going home now – are you sure you aren't interested in any Breeches?"

Lord Thaddeus shook his head, and Bob bade him farewell as he retreated from the town square on his way back home. As Bob passed under the monastery on his way back, he got the distinct impression that it was somehow admonishing him with a stern gaze. For failing to keep Helga there, for sending Helga there in the first place, he wasn't sure – he was just happy to escape from under its shadow.

His home came into sight, along with the home of his neighbors, the Heyerdahl merchants. Portly Bob had never been fond of them. There was something haughty about them, as if they wanted to be nobles and didn't know their place in life, always talking about some new book they had acquired on a trading trip when they happened to see Bob. He was always annoyed by how constantly his daughter visited their house, although he had to admit that Phoebe was quiet and restrained, at least. Apparently it didn't rub off on Helga.

He wondered how the Heyerdahls handled their daughter, if it was different than it was for him. He certainly wouldn't ask them, since he did not particularly enjoy their company, and he was too proud to ask for advice in the first place, but Lord Thaddeus's lecture had unsettled him. Helga's absence was beginning to unsettle him as well. Olga had always been his favorite, of course. She always knew her place, knew how to behave perfectly, and managed to get a perfect husband even if it was a little late. But Olga's letters had been fewer and farther between lately, and now Helga was gone as well.

Bob arrived at his house. He came in through the back door since he had already closed the shop, and found his wife sitting at the table waiting for him.

"Hey Miriam. Just wanted to go out for a walk."

"Bob, we need to talk."

"Maybe tomorrow, I'm feeling kinda bushed and I-"

"Sit down."

Bob caught the edge in his wife's voice, an edge he hadn't heard in years, and wondered what was going on. Was this pick on Portly Bob day? He sniffed the air – not a trace of mead to be found. Not that he had seen Miriam going to the tavern today, but it was still a little surprising. Miriam waited patiently for him to sit down, and he decided to indulge her.

"I've been doing a lot of thinking since you sent Helga to that monastery," said Miriam, "and I realized that I was sitting back and letting you screw everything up."

Bob's mouth hung open, and although he had not formed any words with which he could object to Miriam's accusation, she held up a finger to silence him.

"Ever since Olga left, things have been going downhill in this family. I know she was our pride and joy, Bob, but she's got her own life now, and instead of focusing more on Helga we've been too wrapped up in ourselves to do the right thing. And now she's gone too, and who knows if we'll ever hear from her again!"

"Hey, we had to do something, Miriam!"

"Maybe we did, but I've had enough of going to the tavern every day while you make all the decisions without asking anyone else for their opinion. Helga's gone because of the way you tried to force her into the little mold you had set up for her, and I've watched you run your business into the ground with your poor decision-"

"Hey hey hey hey! What's going on here? Portly Bob's Breeches runs like clockwork!"

"It runs like a horse with three legs, Bob. I mean, breeches? Just breeches? How many people do you think are in this town, Bob? How often do their pants rip, other than Portly Roland's? Why do you think business is so slow? We need to diversify! Why not some tunics, some red dresses to get Lady Rhonda out here once in a while? That woman looks like a big spender to me."

"Miriam, come on, this is cute and everything, but you're a woman."

Miriam slammed her fist down on the table and narrowed her eyes at her husband. Portly Bob couldn't remember the last time he had seen that expression on her face. Maybe never. He fell silent and decided it would be prudent to allow her to continue with her thoughts.

"From now on, we're making some changes," Miriam announced.

Her anger soon dissipated as she looked vaguely off into the air, thinking about business strategies and clothing sales. Had Miriam been living in some fantastical society a number of centuries into the future, buzzwords like 'synergy' and 'proactive' might have buzzed through her head. Nevertheless, she was becoming more excited with each passing moment. Helga's absence had sparked something in her, a realization of years of apathy that had been lost to her. She wanted to nurse the flame of passion that she hadn't felt in years. Things would change from now on, no doubt about it.

"And if Helga comes back, which you'd better hope she will," said Miriam, "we will be paying more attention to her, taking her opinions into consideration, and we will not be sending her to a monastery. Is that understood?"

Bob nodded faintly.

"Yes ma'am."

XX

Past the fields that stretched beyond the castle, almost completely obscured by the dimming tree line in the distance, Curly could make out Hill's Wood. A few wisps of smoke curled into the air, a few vague outlines of huts stood out against the forest behind them, and although it was miles away, Curly wondered if he could see the occasional villager going about their business.

He didn't know for sure, but Curly believed that Arnold and Helga were somewhere in the forest beyond Hill's Wood. He had been doing some thinking ever since the guards had burst into the throne room with news of Cecile trying to steal from the treasury, and now that he had visited Portly Bob in town, he felt his suspicions were confirmed. It was just too much of a coincidence for an uninvited noble guest to come back to the castle with thievery in mind after having shown up to the castle festival, uninvited and out of nowhere. Curly hadn't invited Cecile, and Rhonda certainly hadn't. The fact that Helga had failed to appear, the fact that Cecile just happened to be a cousin who looked very much like her – Curly was somewhat amazed that Rhonda hadn't noticed.

And now Helga had fled from the monastery almost at the same time that Cecile had been chased by guards past Hill's Wood and into the forest. Yes, it was obvious. The only question was what Arnold was doing, and from conversing with the former peasant earlier, Curly had gotten the impression that he wanted to travel in search of his long lost parents. Curly had no proof that he and Helga were traveling together, but he had seen the way Arnold and Cecile had hung on each other's words at the festival, run off laughing hand in hand in the hallways. Curly was a romantic, and it was too tempting to connect the dots.

"Uh, welcome back, Lord Thaddeus," wheezed Brainy as Curly passed through the gates.

"Thank you Brainy."

Curly entered the Great Hall and made his way to the throne room. His wife was sitting in her throne, looking bored, as Nadine stood by her side and Eugene the Jester juggled some apples a few feet away.

"How did things go with Portly Bob?" asked Rhonda.

"I think they went well. I managed to convince him to let Helga go free from the monastery," said Curly. "They might send her to live with that older sister of hers. Olga, I think?"

"No idea," shrugged Rhonda. "Helga can do what she wants."

Curly didn't really want to lie to his wife, but he knew that she did not care for Helga nearly as much as he did. If she found out it was Helga who had attempted to steal from the treasury, things might be harder for her if she ever returned to her home. At least for now, Curly would keep some of his revelations to himself.

Rhonda let out a loud yawn as she idly watched Eugene smack himself in the face with an apple. Curly took the throne adjacent to his wife and watched Eugene's entertainment with her. For a court jester, he was about the worst juggler Curly had even seen. But then again, he found Eugene's incompetence more entertaining than he would have found a better juggler.

"I think I'm getting a lot better!" said Eugene with bubbly enthusiasm. "I've been thinking about experimenting a little - would you guys like to see me try it with some kitchen knives?"

Curly shook his head emphatically.

"No, don't do that! Keep away from the kitchen, Eugene."

"Well, alright. If you say so."

Eugene began juggling his apples again, since he was able to talk and juggle at the same time, and actually impressed Curly with some kind of fancy switchover trick before the apples went flying across the throne room. Two rolled away on the floor, while one bounced off of Rhonda's head before following its companions.

"Lady Rhonda! I'm so sorry, are you alright?"

Rhonda sighed. "Yes, Eugene, I'm fantastic."

She watched her court jester scrambling to pick up the apples. She had been in the mood for a little entertainment for the night, but she was feeling bored. Actually, she had been waiting for her husband to get back from town.

"Eugene, Nadine, you two can go do what you want. I want a little time alone. And I know how you like to go out in the evening when those infuriating bugs are out, Nadine." Rhonda racked her brain for the name. "Crickets, were they?"

"That's right, Lady Rhonda."

"Well, feel free to go out and search for your crickets. Maybe Brainy can help you."

"Thank you, milady!"

Nadine and Eugene took their leave with a curtsy and a bow respectively, and Rhonda and Curly were left alone in the throne room.

Rhonda looked over at her husband. Dealing with that peasant Arnold and righting past family wrongs was an unpleasant business, and Rhonda was thankful that Curly had been able to smooth things over and guide her in the right direction.

"Curly?"

"Yes, my pretty princess?"

"I just wanted to say, uh – well, thanks."

Curly flashed a silent smile at his wife. He knew what she was thanking him for. Curly was also wondering what the two of them would do for the night, and thinking about Helga and Arnold's situation had put him in a romantic mood. He got up from his throne, took Rhonda by the hand, and before she would say anything, surprised her by leading her up from her seat and plunging into a passionate kiss.

"What was that for?"

"Oh, nothing," sighed Curly as they finally parted. "You know, Rhonda, I was wondering if you wanted to take a little walk through the castle. I know this wonderful spot on the top of one of the towers where we could go and enjoy a fabulous view of the stars once the sun goes down. I think we'd have some privacy up there, too."

Rhonda liked the idea, and her husband's romantic mood was contagious.

"Oh Curly, you're so bad."

"Yes," he agreed, "I am. But don't try to tell me it doesn't thrill you!"

Their laughter echoed through the castle as they ran through the hallways, hands entwined.

XX

Arnold and Helga had spent two nights at the cabin of Sheena's uncle Earl on Elk Island. They had intended on leaving after their first night, but Earl had asked Arnold to help with some repairs to his cabin on the island, and it was not in Arnold's nature to turn him down. Not to mention that the man had done them a big favor by letting them stay there in relative safety. After that, Earl had insisted they try a little fishing and drinking with him, and another day had passed before they knew it.

Now, their second night had passed peacefully. It turned out that Earl had a larger barge that he used to ferry his occasional customers across the river when he wasn't fishing, and they had gotten their horses from the bank the previous day and brought them onto the island. Now, Earl was taking them across to the bank on the far side of the river, where Arnold and Helga would begin their travels.

"Thanks for everything," repeated Arnold for the umpteenth time.

"Arr, say nothin' of it," said Earl. "Good luck to the both of ye!"

Arnold reached down from his mount to shake Earl's hand. "We might need it," he said. "Hopefully those guards won't be coming back to bother us again."

"Lady Rhonda and Lord Thaddeus's guards? Let me tell ye, boy, I never seen such lazy layabouts in all my years! Why, the things I've stolen from that there castle..." Earl coughed nervously. "Er, beside the point though. This here land ain't in the realm of Lady Rhonda and Lord Thaddeus, so the way I figure it, they won't be botherin' ye no more."

"Who does this land belong to?"

Earl scratched his head, reminiscing on old times.

"The people what owned it been gone for a long time. The Shortman family, I do believe."

Helga raised an eyebrow at her companion as the two of them took their leave of Earl and pressed on into the forest.

The trees thinned above their heads, and before long, they reached a break in the woods. The ground sloped down beneath them, and Arnold looked out over an open valley. He was surprised at how clear of trees the valley appeared. The ground undulated gently through the valley, smooth and sun-dappled, and in its center stood an abandoned castle. It was much smaller than Lady Rhonda and Lord Thaddeus's castle, but it was definitely a castle. It did not take long for Arnold to realize that it must have been where his grandparents had lived. It was as if the castle and plain were waiting for him.

"Is that what I think it is?" asked Helga.

"I think so."

The two of them enjoyed the view for a moment, sitting silently atop their horses. It was morning, and they had the rest of their lives ahead of them.

"What do you want to do next?"

Arnold pointed at the castle. "Go exploring."

"And then?"

Arnold smiled. "I should be asking you that," he pointed out. "I'm the one who agreed to follow you on your little unplanned adventure."

"I was thinking we could visit my sister. I know vaguely where she and Duke Doug are supposed to live, even though I didn't bring any maps along."

It sounded like a good idea to Arnold. He had never met Olga, and although Helga did nothing but complain about her, he got the feeling that maybe sibling rivalry made the descriptions of Olga a little more terrible than reality.

"Well then," said Helga as she sent her horse galloping down the sloping hill into the valley, "last one to your castle is a rotten egg!"

"No fair!" Arnold laughed. "You can't start without a warning, that's cheating!"

His own horse trailed along behind Helga's, but while Arnold had gotten comfortable enough to ride without feeling like he was going to fall off, he had no chance of catching up to her. Fortunately, by the time she got to the castle, she was happy to wait for him.

Helga may not have brought a map along, but Arnold happened to have one of his own. It was a big reason why he had agreed to come along with Helga. The thought of finding out what had happened to his parents was too tempting for Arnold to resist, even if a part of him worried that he might not like what he would find. Hopefully, though, he and Helga could both reunite with family members during their adventure.

As he looked over at his pink-clad traveling companion, her yellow pigtails rustling a little in the breeze – whether they were even pigtails, Arnold wasn't entirely sure – he knew that he had made the right choice in coming with her. Arnold had never left Hill's Wood when he was growing up; the thought of all the things they could do and see together excited him. But he noticed that what was really exciting was the thought of doing and seeing those things together. Together with Helga G. Pataki.

Stranger things had happened, Arnold supposed.

As they began to ride down into the sunny valley, towards his family's long lost home, Arnold looked forward to getting to know Helga better. Good moods, bad moods, and all.

XX

Arnold found many amazing things in the old abandoned castle. Later, Helga did reunite with her sister, and Duke Doug had not in fact been up front about the vast personal fortunes he had described to Olga's parents. Many more adventures followed. Arnold grew closer to Helga over the course of many months. She waited patiently for Arnold to feel the same feelings for her as she did for him – she had waited patiently for years, so a little more time was not too much to ask.

You may wonder, dear reader, whether Arnold found his parents. That is a tale for another time. And you may wonder if they faced danger in their travels, even if the Pigeon Man turned out to be pretty cool after all. What about the headless carriage driver, for instance? Or the fabled Monkey Man? And did they return to Hill's Wood and use Arnold's newfound land and noble name to improve the lives of peasants for generations to come? Again, tales for another time.

There is one thing, however, that can be said for sure:

Arnold and Helga, together, lived happily ever after.

XX


Notes - That's it! Hope you guys enjoyed it, let me know what you thought! I will be taking a writing break for a little while (technically I've already been doing that, other than tweaking and editing chapters of this). Until then, if you haven't checked them out already, my other Hey Arnold stories are:

Helga, the Artiste - More popular overall than this story was. It's humor-based with a little angst and drama thrown in, and I tried to match the tone of an episode and have it fit closely to canon.

The Tale of the Bat Man - A Halloween one-shot I wrote recently. Again, closer to the show itself in tone, but it actually has a short part in which Gerald tells a story that is reminiscent of the medieval / fantasy setting in this story.

What's in a Name? - A very short humor-based one-shot.

I also have a number of Kim Possible stories, so if you're a fan of that show, I'd enjoy hearing what you think of those too. In terms of what I will be doing whenever I get back to writing, I have another KP story in mind, and I might be writing a Buffy the Vampire Slayer story seeing I've been re-watching that recently and it's perhaps my favorite show. But I'm sure I'll write more Hey Arnold stories in the future as well.