So, this is my entry into the monthly writing challenge at Xana's Lair. It's supposed to be all old school, with lovely Princesses and challenging tasks and lessons learned and talking animals. Please let me know what you think, and feel free to join us at Xana's Lair for the challenge next month!

Dedicated to Yules (xl's Kelly) for all the rambly fun and convincing me to write that one story that got my author-juices flowing again.

Once Upon a Time…

There was a kingdom hidden deep within an enchanted wood. The kingdom was ruled by a wise and gentle King, loved by all his subjects. To this great King had been blessed only one child, a fair and lovely girl with eyes the green of newborn leaf buds and hair pink as he evening clouds. She brought happiness to any place she went, and from the moment she was born her kingdom loved her with all its heart. Every year the kingdom showed its love with festive celebration, holding festivals that lasted for ten days. The festivities would culminate on the eve of the anniversary of the Princesses' birth, when all that could fit between the castle's walls filled the palace for the balls and feasts that would last well into the night.

Until one night, on the eve of the Princesses' fifteenth year, an unexpected visitor would come to the palace bringing, not cheer and celebration, but misery and hate. The man entered the palace without invite or welcome, riding his horse all the way into the center of the dining call. He rode atop a massive obsidian mount, larger than any creature ever seen in the kingdom, and wore a full suite of coal black armor. Claiming the be a disciple of one of the King's long defeated foes, this strange man, his face hidden beneath the cowl of his inky traveling cloak, the mysterious black knight demanded that the King face him in mortal combat, to atone for the death of the knight's Master.

The King tried to reason with the knight, unwilling to permit a man his grudge match on the day that marked his daughter's fifteenth year. He offered the knight treasures, rare weapons, a position in his court—anything to persuade the knight away from his violent demands.

But the black knight would not be swayed. To all in the palace it seemed as if the only option left to the King if he wanted to protect his people from this wild knight would be to accept him in battle—

When the Princess rose from her seat, addressing the knight.

'I am fifteen years of age this night, and as such of age to take on my father, the King's, legacy. That includes his feuds. Good knight,' she said, 'Please allow me to take my father's place in this feud. I have no prowess with the sword, but it is said I am far wise beyond my years and endowed with a skill for puzzles. I do not doubt you are cunning enough to think of a contest suited to my abilities.'

The King tried to argue against his daughter's words, but what the Princess claimed was true. At fifteen she was as entitled as any adult in the court to the business of Royal Family. Despite her father's protests she would not back down and, after considerable thought, the knight responded to her request.

'It is true that you are no warrior, my fair Princess,' the knight said, 'But I do believed I have a contest befitting a lady such as yourself. Deep within the unexplored depths of the Enchanted Wood it is said there is a place where you are offered your greatest dreams. You may always chose to accept them, but some offers come with a price. If you are truly willing to take on your father's fight then go to this place and, once each year, on the anniversary of your birth, you will have an offer made to you. Choose wisely three times, and you may return home, along with any riches you receive by your choices.'

Despite the King's protests the Princess accepted the knight's challenge, and the next morning the Princess, carrying only a scant few of her most precious belongings, began her journey into the woods to face the knight's dark challenge…

Soft sunlight filled the small clearing, dappling the thatched roof of the small home that sat there. Outside the home a lovely, pink haired girl stood with a small bag in her hands. She was staring at the trees that stretched out before her home, their trunks dark and twisted, branches seaming to reach for her as if hoping to drag her into the forest's depths and never let her go.

"It's been a year today," the girl whispered to herself. "I am now one year older and, if what the knight said was true, then I will face my first of three choices today." Taking a deep breath, the Princess squared her shoulders, preparing to travel into the dark unknown. "I hope I choose wisely."

Clinging to those words, Aelita stepped into the shadows.

She was expecting twisted, mangled trees and thorny, scraggly shrubs and darkness all around, so Aelita was very surprised to find she wasn't going to have to find her way through this awful wood alone—

A path lay before her, wide and well cleared of forest debris, winding its way into the depths of the woods.

"Looks like this is it," she whispered to herself. She allowed herself a single look back, and was again surprised—the time because nothing but trees filled her vision, her small clearing and its tiny, tidy home already hidden from sight. Sighing a shaky breath, Aelita turned back around and started her journey into the darkness.

"I haven't seen you in these woods before."

The voice, coming from Aelita's right, caused her to jump. She'd been walking for what felt like hours and hadn't seen so much as a squirrel, let alone another human. Turning to confront her unexpected guest, Aelita was shocked to find there was no one there.

"Uh, a little further down, if you would," the voice said and Aelita looked down only to jump back, a surprised 'oh' on her lips.

"Umm, hello," she said.

"Hello," the purple cat said in return. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Odd."

"You certainly are," Aelita said. As shocking as the talking purple cat had been at first, Aelita was quickly adjusting to this strangeness. After all, she'd heard tales of much stranger things from her father's knights.

"No, I don't mean that I'm odd," the cat said, rolling its golden eyes, "I mean my name's Odd."

"Oh! Pardon my confusion," Aelita said, kneeling down to greet the cat properly. "It's very nice to meet you, Odd. My name is Aelita."

"You must be our visiting Princess," Odd said. Aelita's eyes widened.

"How did you know?" she asked. The purple cat winked.

"News travels fast in enchanted forests. But I'm not here for idle chat," he continued abruptly. "You're almost where you need to be, so I thought I'd give you a bit of advice."

"I'm close?" Aelita asked. "How close? Do you know what it is I'm supposed to face?"

"Whoa, whoa," Odd said, pulling back. "Advice, I said, not directions. Now listen close, I'm only going to say this once: Appearances are often deceiving."

"Appearances are often…Odd, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Good luck to you," Odd said, ignoring her question. As he spoke another sound picked up from somewhere in the distance. It sounded look hoof beats. And then Aelita heard someone calling her name.

"That's me!" she gasped, jumping up.

"And that's my cue," Odd said, and when Aelita looked back it was to see his purple tail vanishing into the trees.

"Please don't go," Aelita called, but the cat was already gone.

"Aelita?" Spinning at the sound of her name, Aelita turned just in time to see a blonde head emerging from the trees. Eyes widening, she hurried over to the familiar figure.

"Prince Jeremy!" she gasped, wrapping her arms around the armor clad prince's neck.

"Aelita, you've no idea how long I've looked for you," Jeremy said, hugging her back. "As soon as you left for the woods your father gathered knights from all the kingdoms to find Xana and defeat him so that you could be brought home."

"Does that mean…?" Aelita pulled back, looking up into Jeremy's blue eyes. He nodded.

"Xana's been defeated. You can come home with me."

Aelita felt light headed with relief, and clung to the prince to keep her legs from falling out from under her. She was so surprised by Jeremy's arrival that it was a moment before she caught on to what exactly it was he'd said.

"Home with you?" she asked.

"Yes," Jeremy said. "After Xana's unexpected appearance your father wanted to do something to strengthen the kingdoms. Your king and mine have decided we should be married, to unite the kingdoms and make then even stronger."

"Oh," Aelita whispered, because it was all she could think to say. Since childhood she and Jeremy had played together, always pretending they were becoming united as the future King and Queen of their kingdoms. But it had always seemed so farfetched a dream, she'd long since stopped believing it could ever be. But now…

"Oh, Jeremy, that's wonderful," she said.

"I know," Jeremy said, smiling down on her. "Now come with me, and we can go."

"Okay," Aelita said, and holding Jeremy's hand in hers she started to follow him into the trees.

As they moved she caught a glimpse of something in the trees, a flash of purple and gold, and suddenly Odd's words were floating through her head once more.

Appearances are often deceiving.

She was in this wood because she was supposed to be offered a choice. She'd assumed it would be obvious, that Xana would be here and he'd ask her to pick between two things.

Maybe she'd assumed wrong.

"Jeremy?" she held back, keeping her feet planted on the path.

"What's wrong?" Jeremy asked, looking surprised. "Don't you want to get out of this wood?"

"I do, of course I do," Aelita said, "But I just…I had a question."

"What is it?" Jeremy asked. Aelita took a deep breath. She didn't want to ask the question, didn't want to prove that maybe this wasn't she wanted it to be, but she was doing this to protect her father and she didn't have the luxury of being wrong.

"You said my father sent you," she said. Jeremy nodded and she continued, "He knows this is the only way to resolve an old feud and protect our kingdom once and for all. I have trouble believing he would make so rash a decision as to abandon all that, even if it is for my safe return."

"The king missed you," Jeremy said, "He tried to wait for you to return, but he simply couldn't handle being gone from you for so long."

"You said he sent out knights the moment I left for the woods," Aelita said, pulling away. "That's not a very long wait."

"Aelita," Jeremy said, reaching for her. But she noticed he stayed off the path, and when she took another step back he didn't follow.

"I think I'd like to wait here," she said. "I'll face these challenges and then return home, like I promised."

Something flashed across Jeremy's eyes, so quickly Aelita almost missed it.

"Is that your choice?" he asked. Aelita nodded.

"I choose to stay."

"So be it."

And then Jeremy turned to smoke, thick and back, that quickly swirled and spread in tendrils, wrapping themselves around and Aelita and covering her, smothering her, until she could see nothing but the darkness.

And then it cleared, as suddenly as it came, and she was back in the clearing where she'd started from.

Her knees felt weak, and she lowered herself to the ground, eyes trained on the dark woods.

She'd faced her first choice.

And, as far as she could tell, she'd passed.

She spent the next year feeling even lonelier than she had the first—before she'd gone into things knowing she'd been alone. Now, thanks to the forest's test, she knew what she could have and yet never would, not while she was trapped in Xana's little game. Even the purple cat, the first companion she'd met since coming into the woods who didn't seem to be a part of the forest's tests, hadn't been seen again.

And that's how Aelita lived, working through each day as she counted down to her chance to once again face the forest's tests and escape from the enchanted wood.

When the day of her seventeenth birthday rolled around Aelita didn't bother to take anything with her—she knew the test wouldn't be long—simply pulled on her boots and headed into the woods. As with before, a wide walking path lead her through the dense foliage.

And, as with before, a voice on her right greeted her.

"Back again Princess?" the purple cat said, appearing on the path.

"I'm here to face my second choice," Aelita said.

"Second?" Odd asked. "Out of three, I presume."

"Yes, but how did you know?"

"This forest isn't as mysterious as it seems," Odd answered mischievously. "Or, it isn't when one knows what to look for."

"What does that mean?" Aelita had been pleased to see Odd again, after so long without companionship, but she'd forgotten how strange of a conversationalist he could be.

"Don't forget Princess, an old trick may be played once too often."

"Odd, I don't understand," Aelita sighed. The purple cat winked at her, golden orbs flashing with the knowledge of things greater than them both.

"You will, Princess," he said. And then he turned and bolted off down the path, vanishing around a shadowed bend.

"Odd, don't leave me!" Aelita cried, hurrying after the cat. But when she rounded the bend Odd was nowhere to be seen. "Now what am I supposed to do?" Aelita whispered.

She found her own question answered when, while looking off down the dark path, she spotted an unexpected glow not too far up ahead.

"Odd?" she called softly, slowly making her way towards the glow. It gets brighter, more orange, and she can smell the faint smell of smoke. The light's coming from just off the path so she leans forward, staying on the path, and parts the leaves to see the cause of the light.

A warm fire looks back at her, the flames dancing and bright. And beside them is a man in armor. For a moment Aelita thinks it's Jeremy again, and wonders if all the forest's tests will be the same. But then she sees brown hair and dark eyes, and suddenly the knight is on his feet and hurrying to her.

"Princess Aelita," he says, "I can't believe I've finally found you."

"Hello, Sir Ulrich," Aelita said coolly, taking a step back onto the path. "Are you my next test, then?"

"Test—? No, Aelita, I'm here to take you home."

"Of course you are," Aelita told him. "Just like Jeremy was."

"Jeremy was here?" Ulrich asked, and then he shook his head, waving away the thought. "No, Aelita, your father sent me to come and collect you."

Does the forest think she's this stupid, Aelita wondered. Why would it use the same test twice?

"Why would you come and collect me?" Aelita asked. "My father knows I have to stay here for three years."

"You did," Ulrich said, "When Xana was alive."

"But now he's not?" Aelita said. "Allow me to guess—my father's knights hunted him down and killed him?"

"Of course not," Ulrich said, looking confused. "That wouldn't only create more strife—your father knows that. The knight Xana was found dead, likely killed by others who had been wronged by his Master before him. That nullifies the oath he's holding you to. You can come home."

That certainly seemed more plausible to Aelita, but still the forest had tried this trick before. And yet, she had doubt—would it really use the same trick twice?

As if sensing her thoughts somehow, Ulrich's eyes widened.

"Test, Princess, today is your birthday isn't it?" Aelita nodded, and her father's knight sighed deeply. "I didn't even think—I'm so sorry Princess, I understand now why this must seem so confusing. But luckily it looks like I was able to find you before the forest tried its second trick."

"It would seem that way," Aelita said. While she still had her doubts, they were beginning to fade. The forest was supposed to offer her something, wasn't it? Before it was a life at Jeremy's side, but all that Sir Ulrich offered was a ride home, back to the same castle she'd known when she left. That didn't count as riches beyond what she already had, did it?

"Come, Princess," Ulrich said, smiling warmly. "Let's get you home to your father shall we?"

"Okay," Aelita said, nodding slowly. He held out his arm for her and she reached for it, and as she did she thought briefly of the one friend she'd made while in this awful contract. It would be nice if she could bring him along.

At the thought, Odd's voice shot through her thoughts, loud and clear:

An old trick may be played once too often.

An old trick.

A man coming to rescue her in armor, promising family. It was exactly the same as the last time, even if the offer had changed.

"On second thought, I think I'll stay," Aelita said, pulling away. Like Jeremy, Ulrich didn't follow when she retreated to the path.

"Aelita, we have to go quickly," Ulrich said, reaching for her even as she moved away. "There's no telling when the second test could come along."

"I'll wait for it here," Aelita assured him. "I passed the first one, so I'd like to see if I could pass the second."

"Is that really your choice?" Ulrich asked. Aelita nodded.

"That's my choice."

"So be it."

As had Jeremy, this knight burst suddenly into smoke. Aelita closed her eyes as it wrapped around her, waiting a long time to open them again.

When she did she was back in her clearing, just like before. She sighed softly.

She'd passed her second test.

The next year passed much like the first, though Aelita was able to endure her solitude with renewed strength—one year left, and she would be reunited with her father once again.

Finally, finally, the day of her eighteenth birthday dawned, and with the sun Aelita rose from her bed and began her journey into the woods.

The sunlight was soon lost to her through the dark branches overhead, but Aelita didn't need it to find her way along the now familiar path. A familiar path that seemed to be oddly longer than she'd remembered it being. Aelita followed its winding twists and turns with growing unease. It seemed to her like she'd been in the wood for hours now—usually she met with one of its enchanted tests long before now.

Eventually she'd walked for so long that her legs burned and her stomach growled and her head ached with the exhaustion of it all. Something warm gathered at the back of her eyes and suddenly Aelita didn't have the energy to continue on. She dropped where she stood, curling her legs to her chest and burying her face in her knees.

"Maybe I've gone too far," she whispered. "Maybe I've missed the test, and now I'll be trapped in these woods forever and my father will have to fight Xana after all." She sniffed, trying to blink back tears that fell anyway. "All I wanted to do was protect him, but I haven't protected anyone. Not even myself."

A soft sob slipped from the girl's lips and she pressed herself tighter together, as if she could squeeze all the sadness back inside.

"What's wrong Princess?"

"I've ruined everything," Aelita whispered, looking up to see the golden eyed purple cat sitting in front of her. "I failed the enchanted forest's tests."

"Of course you haven't," Odd said, flicking an ear. "How could you have failed when you haven't even faced them all yet?"

"I missed the last one," Aelita said. "I went too far into the forest."

"Nonsense," Odd said. "This forest is much smarter than that. Its tests can't be so easily missed."

"Are you sure?" Aelita asked. Odd nodded.

"I wouldn't be here if they could."

"What does that mean?" Aelita asked.

"Beware the promises of a desperate man," Odd responded. Aelita's brow furrowed.

"That makes even less sense," she said. And then, "Wait, where are you going?"

"Good luck, Princess!" Odd called, leaping up and bounding back into the woods.

"Don't leave me!" Aelita cried, climbing to her feet and fully prepared to follow the cat into the forest—

When an unexpected voice from behind surprised her.

"You've done well," Xana said, as Aelita whirled to face him. "You passed all of the forest's tests."

"I—I have?" Aelita asked. She quickly brushed the tear trails from her cheeks. "But I thought I hadn't reached the third one yet."

"This was the third one," Xana said. "The third test was that you didn't give up. You chose hope, and you chose correctly. Now you my return home, bringing hope with you."

"Really?" Aelita asked, less than convinced. Xana hadn't exactly proven to be the most trustworthy character, after all.

"Really," Xana said. "In fact, you've done so well, I'd like to offer your family a gift, something to repay the hassle I've caused you."

"What kind of gift?" Aelita asked.

"As you may know, I'm one with this forest," Xana said, spreading his arms to indicate the trees all around. "I share in its magic, and can bend it with my will to work magic of my own. For the time of togetherness I've stolen from your family, I would like to give togetherness in return."

"How would you do that?" Aelita asked. "Everything I've read says magic can't turn back time."

"It can't," Xana agreed. "But it can return that which time has stolen from us."

"Like what?" Aelita asked. She couldn't possibly imagine what Xana could give here that would replace the time she'd lost with her father.

"A better question would be 'like who?'"

And then, with the snap of his fingers, a fog swirled in the space beside Xana, condensing and shifting, taking the shape of something vaguely human. And then, with a flourish, it dispersed, and someone very human was left standing where it had been.

"Mother!" Aelita gasped, staring at the pink haired woman now standing before her. The woman smiled, opening her arms to welcome Aelita. The Princess made to return the embrace but Xana snapped again, and the woman faded into mist.

"That was but a projection," Xana said, "But I can make it real. All you have to do is come with me." Xana offered her his hand and took a step backwards, moving down along the path and further into the woods.

"Really?" Aelita asked, and this time her tone was hopeful, almost pleading, begging Xana's words to be truth.

"I promise."

Beware the promises of a desperate man.

Aelita recoiled the hand she'd been about to give to Xana. She took a step back, eyes narrowing and she reexamined the man's offer. She'd studied magic and she knew the kinds of energy it took, especially to do what Xana offered. And based on what she'd learned, something like he claimed he could do was considered impossible anyway.

Why would Xana offer something like this to her? She eyed the path he'd been about to lead her down, one winding deeper into the woods, and a thought struck her—

This whole challenge had been his idea in the first place, a contest to reaffirm his Master's legacy after his defeat at the hands of Aelita's king and father. For Aelita to emerge victorious would leave Xana well and truly defeated. Aelita took another step back from the knight.

"Your offer is a truly tempting on," she admitted, and her words weren't lie. "But my father and I have come to terms with the death of my mother. We loved her deeply, and we would love nothing more than to see her one more time, but I think to replace her with a copy would never truly be enough. Thank you, but I think I'll have to decline."

"What do you mean, decline?" Xana hissed. He took a step forward and Aelita, startled, stumbled back.

"I choose not to go with you," she said. Xana jerked to a stop, looking almost pained as he asked his next question.

"Is that really your choice?"

"That's my choice," Aelita said.

"So be it."

And then Xana turned to smoke, just like all those had before him. But this smoke seemed different, deadlier somehow.

"Princess, run!" Aelita glanced to the purple cat briefly, and then she turned and ran, retracing her steps along the winding path. She could feel the black smoke closing in on her and hear the sounds of paws at her side.

"Odd, what do I do?" she cried.

"Keep running," the cat said, "I'll do what I can to hold him back!"

The purple cat skidded to a stop, turning back to face the black smoke. With a feral shout the cat lunged, and suddenly Aelita had the impression the smoke was falling back.

But now darkness was closing in on both sides, seeping out from the trees, and Aelita tried to run faster.

But she couldn't outrun the shadows, and they swirled around her, closing in until only darkness remained.

The Princess would emerge from the shadows to find herself standing at the edge of her kingdom. In short order she would be met by a friendly young knight, his hair dashed with purple and his eyes a brilliant golden brown. He was on his way to the castle to see if he could join the King's arms, and would welcome Aelita to travel with him.

The King would be overjoyed by the sight of his only child, and embrace her long and tight. Feasts would be held in honor of her return, and soon bands of minstrels and performers were spreading the Princess's story through-out the kingdom—the story of how she faced down the even knight and his three tasks.

The king would then declare the day—the Princess's birthday, a date lost to sadness since her departure—one of celebration once more. From that moment on happiness reigned in the kingdom once again, evil never again knocking on the door of the King and his beloved Princess, so that they might live Happily Ever After…

The End