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The Princess Newt

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Image of foggy mountains text says The Princess Newt

There once was a tiny village, on the edge of the kingdom, high in the mountains, where scraggy trees clung to cliff faces and the only sounds to be heard were the howls of coyotes and the screaming of the wind and the occasional bleat of the mountain goats that roamed the crags.

Within this village lived a family, a father and mother, a little girl and her littler brother. By day, they made their simple living from the small herd of goats they kept and the meager plot of land they scraped from the mountain's rocky earth.

The children grew tan in the summer months, their skins darkened and dried by the baking heat of the sun, while the winters were spent curled with the goats penned in the large hearthroom of the house, curled in darkness around the fire while the bitter cold whipped angrily at the cracks in the walls.

For all they lacked in luxury they made up for in love and curiosity. Their father called them by grandiose nicknames, Princess and Milord, while their mother quirked her wry smile and called them Newt and Mouse, for their quickness and ease in climbing. The father burned precious tallow late into the night, reciting stories and legends he'd memorized from every passing minstrel while spinning goat hair for market. The stories were often legends and histories of the land, and these the girl listened to with avid attention, but she and her brother most loved the more fanciful tales of monsters and heroes.

"I heard tell," was how these stories always began. "I heard tell that the king's magician was jealous and dissatisfied, so he put a spell on the king's great-uncle, him who was then first in line for the throne, a strange sort of spell indeed. I heard tell from a passing ranger that the prince didn't go on quest after dragons or golems never to be heard from again as they say, no. He's been hidden away in the highest rooms of the castle for half an age."

It was always when her eyes were widest that her father would lean back, puffing at his cheroot, and nod sagely, dragging out the moment. "They say only the breath of true love will wake him, but I think that's just a tale. What I heard tell is, only true danger to the kingdom, the deadliest of monsters whose teeth once seen are sure to snap, who delight in the terror of little children, only when the rivers run black with blood and the screams of the people clamor through the walls of the keep will he wake and defend us."

"Tsk," their mother would always say to these stories. "The world is dark enough without going and making it darker." And here she would take each of her children by the chin and look them solemnly in the eyes. "There's never such thing as monsters, my loves. Only animals and people."

The mother delighted in training the girl and boy in the practical arts of herbs and woodcraft, simple medicine, and sighting by the stars. In the coldest part of winter, she fashioned dolls from wattle and daub and other oddments and scraps for the children to play with.

In the spring after first thaw, the family set out exploring for the season's best pastures, packing up tents and supplies for days or more moving the herds across the sharp ridges of their mountain home. The children often ranged, gathering nuts and early greens, sometimes sighting and trapping fish or game near the mountain streams. The boy had inherited their father's rash curiosity, diving into danger headlong while the girl was shrewd, tailing her brother into caverns and through crannies with a practical boot knife and hank of rope, always with an escape route in place.

The girl never forgot the morning her brother's heel caught and he tumbled into a blind crevice. She never forgot the desperation in her father's labored pants as he ran to his son's rescue, nor her mother's shaking fingers as she knotted lengths of rope to lower her husband into the cave.

When they finally emerged from the crevice, the girl and her mother were so relieved to see them both breathing that they failed to note the strange stiffness of their limbs, the blackness of their eyes, nor the dark-scaled tentacles draped across their necks. They spoke not a word all the way back to the night's tent and the restless herd.

She woke to a vise grip clamped over her mouth. The predawn light was barely enough to reveal her mother's terrified face, her mouth gaping like a fish flipped onto land, and her eyes swimming in otherworldly blackness. Her lips were black and pulled taught away from her teeth as though her skin had shrunk against her face.

"Newt," she croaked, forcing air through a throat that was caught by something black and glistening, twisting horribly, and the girl screamed against her mother's palm at the first menacing hiss that came from the shadows of the tent. "Newt, run."

She ran.