Hey guys! It's all finished, at last. Thanks to everyone who's reviewed so far. It's been a really fun process working with all of you. You're the best!

-SamoaPhoenix

1: Cleo

Once there was a good King and Queen of a prosperous land who had no children. All they longed for was one child to inherit their throne, but the years went by and no child was born. At last, in despair, the Queen asked her fairy godmother for advice. The godmother sighed. She was very old, and had had more godchildren than she could count, but she was very wise.

"My dear, I would prefer you didn't ask this of me."

The Queen was puzzled by this answer and begged her godmother to elaborate. At first the old fairy was reluctant, but at last she said;

"I have a potion that will give you the child you long for, but there are great risks."

"What risks?" asked the Queen. When the godmother hesitated, she pressed, "It is in the interest of the kingdom that I ask this of you, for we have no children at all, and with no heir we fear there may be a war after our deaths."

At this, the godmother was swayed. "Very well, my child. The potion is very powerful, and with its potency there comes the risk. For this potion not only guarantees that a child will be born as well as keeping mother and child alive and healthy during carrying and birth, it also makes it highly likely that multiple children will be born. Then, instead of having no children to inherit the throne, you will have too many."

The Queen was much distressed, and gave the matter heavy thought, but said finally: "I accept the risks. What must I do?"

"Take this bottle," said the godmother, "and put all of its contents in your wine tonight. Do not tell anyone what it is for, or the magic will not work." With that, she gave the Queen a tiny crystal bottle of clear liquid. The Queen was much excited, but had the presence of mind to act as if nothing unusual was happening. That evening, she poured the whole of the bottle into her wine and drank it straight down. To her surprise, nothing seemed to happen, but the Queen trusted the power of her fairy godmother's potion.

By the end of the next month, the news was out: the Queen was with child for the first time. Both King and Queen were overjoyed, and the King spent many hours planning the grand tournament to celebrate his heir's birth. But as the months went by, and the Queen could hardly stir from her bed, the court began to speculate. What was wrong? Had the Queen lost the child?

On the night of the child's birth, great comings and goings were observed in the Royal chambers. At last, a herald came out and announced to the gathered crowd of courtiers that the Queen had given birth not to one child, but to nine. Nine daughters. The court was appalled almost beyond belief. It was a common principle in those days that a woman could not hold a throne by herself, and with nine daughters all born at the same time, how could they ever choose one to inherit the throne when the King died?

The Queen and King, however, were both delighted with their daughters, and the tournament held in honor of their birth was one of the grandest the kingdom had ever seen. The old fairy was godmother to them all, and loved them equally. As the girls grew older, it soon became apparent that none of the princesses were identical in any way. They all looked very different from each other, and their personalities were so dissimilar that no one would have believed that they all had the same parents, let alone been born at the same time. Princess Eleanor (her sisters called her Elena) had long golden hair and blue-grey eyes. Princess Jane also had blonde hair, but hers was wavy and her eyes were deep brown. Princess Elizabeth (Lizzie to her family) had curly red hair and dark grey eyes. Princess Mary also had red hair, but hers was straight, and she had light blue eyes. Princess Marie had ash blond hair and blue eyes. Princess Victoria (Vikki) had ash blond hair too, but her eyes were brown. Princess Anastasia (Ana) had wavy chestnut hair and brown eyes. Princess Catherine (Kat) had curly, nut-brown hair and green eyes. All of these were thin, pale, delicate, between tall and middle height, and, as far as Cleo was concerned, perfect. Princess Cleopatra was not very tall, of a complexion inclined to tan, and built along much stockier lines than her willowy sisters. In her own words, she was short, dark, and plump. Her hair was so dark it was nearly black, and her eyes were also dark brown. She was also what the King liked to call "peppery"-meaning she did not hesitate to speak her mind-which was not a quality considered desirable in a gently-born princess. Cleo certainly did not consider herself as beautiful as her sisters, and to make matters worse (in her own opinion) they were all perfectly nice about it. It was impossible to hate them for their luck, because they were each as good-natured as they were beautiful, in their own way.

"Perhaps you'll grow later on, Cleo," said Jane, the next shortest. She was at least a head taller than Cleo, and the slimmest of the sisters. "After all, none of us are identical," she added. The nine princesses were in their private garden on a hot July afternoon. It was two days after their seventeenth birthday. They had been discussing the upcoming visit of state from the Prince of Laridia, the next kingdom over, and which of them he might choose as a bride, so Cleo had been rather surprised at the change of subject.

"And perhaps I'll go on being the shortest my whole life, and the swarthiest and the plumpest, too." Cleo replied irritably. She was tired of thinking about her own marriage prospects, which were slim to none. Any prince in his right mind would just look at any one of her sisters and fall madly in love, never even glancing at the short, plain girl at the end of the line (their parents liked to have them greet official visitors in a row arranged by height).

"If only you wouldn't spend so much time in the sun," Vikki commented from under her silken umbrella. Cleo loved to ride horses and train dogs to hunt, which rather puzzled her sisters. No one seemed to understand that they were her way of letting out her frustrations about lady-lessons, which she loathed. Each of the sisters had a "twin" within the group, another with whom to confide, except Cleo. Lizzie and Vikki, Kat and Elena, Mary and Marie, Anna and Jane, all seemed to live life in twos. When the princesses were not all together, you could usually find eight in pairs scattered around the palace and Cleo out hunting in the woods beyond the palace.

"I can't help it, Vikki," said Cleo, "The things I love to do can only be done in the sun."

"Besides, Godmother approves," added Marie helpfully. Marie loved to garden and consequently had a liberal spattering of freckles. She felt she understood Cleo's motives a little better than the others. "I mean," she went on hastily as her sisters looked at her, "she says that it's good for a princess to be well-rounded, so that she can be a good ruler or co-ruler someday." Since none of the princesses argued with the wisdom of their fairy godmother, that ended the discussion, and talk turned to the latest news of the court. Because this only included marriages and fashions, two subjects that Cleo thoroughly detested, she slipped away to the kennels, giving Marie a small grin of thanks for her defense. One of the best female hunting dogs had recently given birth to seven puppies, and Cleo decided it was time for another check. It was fortunate that she did, because one of the pups had gone into a crisis and Cleo spent the next few hours assisting the Royal Master of the Hounds. By the time they had finally saved the pup, Cleo had missed dinner. She went to her rooms to change into more courtly attire before joining her family for dessert in the parlor.

"Ah, here's my Spice Drop." The King stood to greet her and kiss her forehead as Cleo slipped into the room. "Cleo, we missed you at dinner." He had an affectionate candy-related nickname for each of his daughters, claiming it helped his old brain tell them apart.

"We received the Assistant Huntsman's message, dear. Thank you for sending someone to tell us where you were," said the Queen with a smile. Cleo had skipped formal meals so many times that the Royal family was no longer surprised by her sudden absences, but it was a standing joke among them that the first time Cleo had gone 'missing' the King and Queen had sent footmen all over the palace to find her. Two hours later they had finally located her, asleep in the stables with one arm around a newborn colt's neck. They had made her promise to always send a messenger to tell them where she was, and she always did, but they still liked to remind her about the first time.

"What was it this time?" asked Lizzie from a nearby chair.

"One of Ivory's pups stopped breathing, but we got it going again. That's the second time that one's had a problem. I hope it will make it." Cleo had learned early on that sometimes, despite all efforts, a pup or foal just couldn't survive on its own.

Just as Cleo had taken a seat, a footman knocked on the door.

"Excuse me, Your Majesty, but a…a message has just arrived from the Laridians. The messengers wish to speak with Your Majesty immediately," the footman said apologetically.

"Why, send them in at once," the King replied, rising from his chair. The Queen and all nine princesses followed his example just as a young pageboy, muddy and dirty, tottered into the room, gasping for breath. Behind him stumbled another lad, a squire, about eighteen and just as filthy. He quickly supported the younger boy, though he too looked about to fall over. The King frowned and the Queen gestured to one of the servingmen in the room. The man disappeared and came back seconds later with a mug of water, which he handed to the younger boy. The lad took a few gulps and passed it to his companion before gasping, "Yer Majesty! Me master 'as been capt'ured! Ye must 'elp him!" His voice was thick with the accent of the common Laridians. Apparently he realized what he had done, because he bit his lip and looked down.

"You master is the prince of Laridia?" inquired the King gently, plainly ignoring the boy's lapse of protocol.

The older boy said softly, "Yes, Your Majesty." The younger pageboy glanced at his companion, who nodded and took over, puffing in much more formal tones, "We were riding through the forest that forms the border between our kingdom and yours when we were waylaid by a group of highwaymen. They took the prince and all our goods, and then started to kill everyone in the escort. We managed to escape, but only just."

"What did these bandits look like?" asked Cleo. Everyone turned to look at her.

"What should they look like, milady, ot'er 'n a band o' dirty thieves?" asked the page through gritted teeth. She could almost hear him thinking, What would a princess know about bandits? The squire was also watching her, chest still heaving, with an expression on his face she could not quite read. It was something akin to surprise, although there was interest, too.

"I mean, did they all have something in common? A colored kerchief around the head, perhaps, or a tattoo on the arm?" Cleo replied, tearing her gaze away from the older boy.

"Why, yes, now that ye mention it. They all had a lil' blue star tattoo on the left cheek," answered the page, puzzled.

"Oh, no." Cleo closed her eyes in horror, and then opened them to find everyone staring at her. She sighed. "I know the bandit gangs who live in the forest. I often run into them when I hunt. Most of them are actually not bandits, but bands of men who simply roam the forest, hunting animals and plants only to feed themselves. But there are a few camps of bandits who rob and kill travelers in the forest. Most won't harm me, since I'm never dressed like someone wealthy and they mistake me for a peasant out hunting game. But they will attack caravans and groups of the rich, and the most ruthless of all is the Blue Star Gang. If they've kidnapped the prince, his life is in grave danger."

"Then we must send a squadron of soldiers out at once to rescue him," the King roared, making some of the princesses wince.

"The Blue Star gang has its own mage; a man specialized in the arts of hiding large groups. If you send a squadron, they'll most likely walk right into an ambush laid by the bandits. No, I'll go myself," declared Cleo. The reaction to this pronouncement was immediate and uproarious. Everyone tried to talk at once. Cleo waited for the noise to die down, and then said, "Why not?"

"No! Cleo, you can't!" cried the Queen.

"Mother, I know the forest trails better than anyone in the country. Most of the bands in the forest know me, so they won't hold me up as they would if you sent someone else. They might even help me find the Blue Star Gang."

"Cleopatra, you're a princess. Princesses don't…princesses just don't do things like this," begged the King. If he was using that threat, Cleo knew that he must truly be desperate.

"Who's to know I'm a princess? If I'm dressed as a peasant, nobody will guess. Princesses are supposed to be beautiful and delicate and damsels in distress. I can ride, I can shoot a bow, and I know herbs and plants that I can eat. I'm no delicate damsel. Besides, you know that the King of Laridia will hold us responsible for his son's disappearance, since he was traveling to our kingdom. If I can rescue the Prince, and quickly, it may spare us all...a great deal of pain in the future."

The King stared at her, resigned. He had guessed the meaning she hinted at: a vanished Prince might cause a war. "Very well, Cleopatra." The Queen reached out and gave her daughter a hug. Cleo felt tears drip into her hair.

"Don't worry, Mother," she whispered, and without looking back she turned and left the room setting her jaws to keep from crying herself.

She had hardly gone three steps when the doors opened and the older messenger, the squire, came out. He looked at her out of startlingly blue eyes for a moment, then remarked, "Are you sure you know what you're doing? These bandits didn't look like they could be beaten by an army, let alone a little princess like you."

"Thank you very much for your confidence," snapped Cleo, her normally short patience running thin, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lot to do and not much time to do it." And she turned her back on him and stalked off to her rooms. She did not see the squire staring thoughtfully after her.

Once in her room, Cleo went straight to the chest where she kept her collection of hunting clothes. From it she took a rough, sleeveless brown tunic, wool leggings, loose brown pants, a cream colored long-sleeved shirt, a plain brown hooded cloak, and a pair of soft-soled leather boots that reached partway up her calves. These she donned, and put an extra of everything except the boots into a saddle bag. From a cupboard she took her longbow and her quiver filled with razor-sharp arrows, and finally, after a moment's thought, tucked a small dagger into a special sheath in her boot. Then she quietly left her room, closing the door behind her.

Cleo next went down to the kitchens and packed another saddlebag with bread, cheese, jerked meat, and apples, to the surprise of the cook. The young princess left it up to her parents to explain to the household where she had gone and went to the stables to ready her bay mare, Tulip. Tulip was not used to being saddled in the middle of the night, but she was willing enough. The horse looked placid, but she could run like the wind, and Cleo had trained her to fight like a knight's warhorse. Cleo mounted once they were out of the stable, and they jogged over to the kennel, where the dogs slept. She gave one short whistle and two long ones. After a moment the handle turned, and out bounded two dogs; one a black-and-white border collie named Jester, the other a sleek red-fawn greyhound named Strawberry. They were Cleo's hunting team, and they would not have forgiven her if she'd left them there. Besides, they would be useful in tracking and hunting for food. Cleo nudged Tulip with her heels, and the little group silently paced towards the castle gate.

The guards at the castle and city gates said she was crazy to go hunting at this time of night, but they let her through, closing both gates firmly behind her. Cleo paused after the city gate closed; looking out over the moonlit forest that stretched for a week before her and a two to either side. Then she spurred Tulip into a trot towards the waiting forest, with Jester and Strawberry close behind. Soon they were immersed in the dark trees and pacing down the wide main road that led through the forest. Cleo paused at a bridge to let her animals drink, and took a quick sip herself. She paused in midgulp as a thought came to her. She would reach the Blue Star Gang's territory a lot quicker if she followed the stream rather than the road, but following the stream would take her through the Forbidding Woods. That was the part of the forest that no one ever went in, and the few who did rarely came out alive. There were tales of strange people and even stranger creatures who lurked among the trees, waiting to ensnare any outsiders foolish enough to enter their domain. Cleo had never actually dared to venture into the Forbidding Woods before, though she had been in the outskirts a few times. She had noticed even then an almost tangible presence of power, like a heavy blanket of magic. She frowned, biting her lip. Going through the Wood would save her three days' travel, if she survived. Three days might mean the difference of life and death for the prince, especially in the hands of the Blue Star Gang.