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In the tallest tower of a castle surrounded by dark forest lived Princess. Princess was not an actual princess, but her parents had done their best to treat her like one, and after extensive research had discovered that, based on the statistics of fairytales, the best way to do that would be to lock her in a tower so tall its only view was a carpet of inky black clouds, which they did.
Princess wanted to see the world. She didn’t know much about it – she no books or newspapers, but she felt sure there was more than what she could see. For one thing, she reasoned, her castle had to be sitting on something solid, so there had to be something under the clouds.
There was only one way out of the tower: down the spiral staircase behind the locked door. That door was unlocked once a month, when a guard – a different one each time, to dissuade alliances and escape attempts – climbed up the thousand steps to check Princess was alive. It would have been useless for Princess to pick the complicated locks on her door, because if anyone stepped onto the stairs when the key wasn’t in the door, the steps would dissolve into nothing, and the escapist would fall the thousand feet to their unattractive death. Princess knew she couldn’t escape, but she waited, and planned.
Her opportunity came one October, when she was twelve. That month, it was the turn of a young guard called Curtis. Curtis had just graduated from guard school, and he was rather nervous. In his training he’d never been very good at dealing with hostages, and he’d flunked tower-entrapment studies in his first term. Still, he was eager to do his first job brilliantly, so he huffed and puffed his way up Princess’s tower, and shakily unlocked the door.
When he opened the door, he saw no Princess. Also, the window had been forced open. Curtis hesitated. He’d been told not to go into the room, but he’d also been told that Princess would be inside, and she wasn’t. Curtis advanced into the room, leaving the key in the lock. He leaned out of the window, looking all around for a girl scaling the tower, but there was no-one. Curtis frowned. Then, he felt a sharp, quick shove on his back, and then he was falling, clawing the air and screaming, until he was swallowed up into the clouds.
Back in the tower, Princess replaced the floorboards she’d been hiding under. The key was in the lock, as she’d expected, and the door was open, ready for her to leave. Princess had nothing to pack. She didn’t even have shoes. Princess glanced back once at her room then stood tentatively onto the first step, then the next. The stairs remained solid, so Princess walked the long way down to the forest floor.
The forest held its breath. There was no wind to move the branches, but shadows still slithered along the ground. The shadows swallowed up the ladybirds and squirrels, and all the creatures foolish enough to crawl on the ground at night, but Princess wasn’t foolish. She snapped off strong branches and bit off thick vines and made herself stilts, and she walked five feet above the ground where the shadow creatures couldn’t touch her.
Soon she got hungry. When she got hungry in the tower she’d open the window and catch a bird, then cook it in the fireplace. There were birds in the forest, but they looked sickly, with crooked feathers and raspy chirps. Princess didn’t touch them.
After hours of walking, Princess found some huge, fat mushrooms. They were bulbous and ashy grey. They moved slightly, like they were breathing, and they oozed grey, gelatinous mucus that stank of something Princess didn’t recognise, but which she was definitely wasn’t edible. She was quite hungry, but more cautious, so she sat, and watched the mushrooms.
Eventually, one of the scrawny birds came along. Princess watched it settle on the cluster of mushrooms, and peck at them. Then she watched it make one last, wheezy chirp, and flop sideways, completely dead.
Princess stepped, on her stilts, over the poisoned mushrooms, and went on her way.
Now, in the forest lived a frog. He spent his days squatting under cover of trees, waiting for travellers to eat. When he was born he’d been a fairly normal sized frog, but thanks to the forest magic he’d grown huge and bloated, twice the size of a human. The frog had eaten most of the creatures in his part of the forest already, including the other frogs (frogs have been known to be cannibals, especially the giant, hungry sort) and sometimes the frog got lonely. When Princess came tottering down his path on her stilts, the frog’s spirits lifted and he said “Hallo! How are you today?”
Princess hadn’t had much experience of talking to people, let alone giant cannibal frogs, so she said “Dismal. This morning I pushed a spotty teenage guard to his death and now you’re probably going to eat me before I see the world.”
The frog nodded apologetically. “Well, I’ve already eaten everything else around here.”
Princess knew she couldn’t outrun the frog, especially since she was weak from hunger. She had an idea. She clutched her stomach and groaned.
“Oh dear, what’s the matter?” said the frog.
“Oh, nothing.” said Princess, “only I ate some strange looking mushrooms back there, and I think they might have been poisoned.”
The frog sighed. “Were they pale and bulbous and oozing grey goo?”
The frog shook his head regretfully. “Well, it looks like I can’t eat you now, since you’re poisoned. I hope you have a good day.”
Princess was about to leave, but she knew she wouldn’t survive much longer in the forest, so she decided to play a trick on the frog. “You know what? I’ll make you a deal. Outside this forest there are people who have antidotes to poisons. You seem like a strong frog. If you carry me out of the forest before I die of poisoning, I’ll buy an antidote to the poison, and then you can eat me, because I won’t be poisonous.”
The frog considered. “That seems like a fair deal. Hop on my back.”
“Remember,” said Princess, “I could die at any moment, so you have to hurry. That means you can’t stop for anything.”
“Okay,” the frog leapt fifty feet into the air, carrying Princess with him.
Princess slept on the frog’s back and soon regained her strength, but the frog got hungry. At midday he woke Princess. “There’s a family of owls sleeping down there. Can I quickly stop and eat them?”
“No,” said Princess. If you stop even for a minute I’ll die before I can get the antidote.”
“Oh, alright.” said the frog, and hopped on.
Along the way, the frog saw more animals he wanted to eat, but Princess said they must keep going, or she’d die before she got the antidote, and then the frog wouldn’t be able to eat her. Princess lounged on the frog’s back, and felt her strength and energy return, but, the frog got weaker with every leap into the air.
The frog grew thinner. At first he was lean and light and sprung to even higher, but then he started to shrink until he was the same size as Princess. When they finally reached the town on the edge of the forest the frog was weak, and tired, and barely a foot tall.
Princess woke up and yawned and stretched. “Thanks for the lift. I had a relaxing nap.”
“Don’t forget our deal”, the frog wheezed. “We have to find the antidote before you die of poisoning.”
Princess, who had almost forgotten she was pretending to die, clutched her stomach hurriedly. “Yeah, alright.”
The frog was so exhausted and small that he lay on Princess’s head as she walked around the town. Eventually they came to a tent, where a travelling medicine man was selling cures to various illnesses. Princess, with the frog balancing limply on her head, walked in.
“Hello, there.” said the medicine man, “Can I sell you a cure today?”
The frog wheezed and smiled. Soon he’d have a full stomach again. “Yes, we’d like a...” Then he fainted, and fell to the floor with a wet squish.
“Actually,” said Princess, “I came to sell you this frog.” She picked the frog off the ground by a stringy leg, and tossed him to the medicine man.
“He’s very pale,” said the man dubiously. “I suppose I could chop him up and put him in a flu potion.” He handed Princess two shiny, silver coins.
“That’ll do,” said Princess. Then she left the frog, still breathing lightly, in the tent, and walked into town, where she bought a huge dinner with the first silver coin, and a pair of shoes with the second.