Then the old cobra rearranged himself on the stage, settling in for the telling. A restful silence now settled on the large hall.
Then he began.
“Hanuman’s oldest son was blessed with an outstanding memory. This is the story he told, and for which he in turned thanked the blessings of those many memories that had gone before him:
“Vishnu was bored.
“The sun and moon and stars and their many planets, one rounder than the next, spun their soft silent songs in perfect rhythm, all according to perfect plan and perfect wish.
“The light which emanated from the center of Vishnu, who is light and who will always be light, spread throughout the universe until it reached the end, and when it reached the end, by shining it pushed the end out before it, chasing it as it fled into farther and farther away, and into larger and larger, and some say that this light still chases the far end of the universe into the ever larger.
“The planets spun like spinning tops that in turn spun around suns like wheels, pacing the years in quick succession, one or ten to a breath. The galaxies rolled and sailed in waves so majestic, only one whose time is endless notices their motion.
“This was Vishnu’s playground: vast, organized, brilliant, moving, and ever expanding.
“And, yet, for all this beauty, for all this symmetry, for all this wonderful cosmic dance, Vishnu was bored.
“Maybe he had seen it all before. Maybe this was not the first universe he had built. Maybe this was the last in an endless line of universes, one more complex, one more dancing than the next, what do we know? But after so many cosmic years of watching and tweaking and watching and adjusting and watching and shifting and watching again he had grown bored.
“The tale does not tell whether he only chose this world, or whether this world is one of countless worlds that he chose. It is enough that we should tell ourselves and believe that this is the only world he did choose, for that would make us important.
“Vishnu then—out of love say some, but out of boredom says Hanuman’s oldest son and the many memories that went before him—begot the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air.
“Earth he made by crumbling with his many tendril fingers the surface of the smooth silver ball that was the world before Vishnu grew bored.
“Water he made by scooping large valleys in the newly earthy surface and filling them with his breath.
“Fire he made from the drops of stars.
“And air he made from the hum of constant motion.
“And in the earth he sowed fire, made it root and sprout and rise, and so color was born. Greens and reds and blues and yellows rose up to sing for him.
“And in the oceans he sowed fire, where it sprouted fins and gills and swam and soon knew hunger.
“And in the air he sowed fire, where it sprouted wings and lungs and flew and soon knew hunger.
“And on the surface of the earth, among the growing colors, he spread the fire which grew legs and lungs and heart and walked and soon knew hunger.
“Some of the colors of plants and trees loved the ocean more than others and found in it a new home and covered first its shallow waters, then the deeps, with color, mainly green.
“Then the hunger worsened and grew so painful that some fishes could not endure it and they wondered whether color was edible, and they found it so, and they ate of the watery plants. Other, less patient fish, wondered whether the smaller plant-eating fish were edible, and they found them so, and so they ate them.
“Some birds picked at fruits and berries with their beaks to still the hunger, and larger birds picked at the smaller birds with talons and beaks to still their hunger.
“Some beasts ate the fruits and grains and berries of plants to still their hunger and other beasts, larger and less patient, tore the smaller beasts apart and ate their hearts and livers and muscles and drank their warm blood to still their hunger.
“Only plants and trees were spared the hunger for their roots embraced the earth in constant feeding and their leaves embraced the sky in constant breathing and so they never knew the hunger of not eating.
“That is why the plants and the trees were the happiest creatures on Earth, and many think they still are.
“This strange dance, fierce and intricate, driven by hunger, held Vishnu’s interest for a time, maybe for countless years, maybe for an afternoon, it does not matter, for then he once again grew bored.
“Vishnu then—out of love say some, but out of boredom says Hanuman’s oldest son and the many memories that went before him—spread new fire upon the surface of the earth, grew it to a large beast, which he stood up and walked.
“Vishnu gave it large, dark eyes and hairy ears, a large mouth with many teeth, and a naked tail with a tuft of hair at its end, and called it troll, which means daemon in the old tongue, which means divine power and guiding spirit in a tongue older still, which means Vishnu in the oldest of tongues.
“Then he made a mate for himself, and then he forgot all about Vishnu.
“The first troll called himself Rama. He called his wife Rameya. They mated and had one child, and Vishnu has not been bored since.
“Rama reached the age of many stars, as did Rameya. Their children reached the age of many stars, as did their children.
“One morning, some of the smaller beasts climbed up into the trees, and then, maybe a thousand years later, maybe the same morning, climbed down again onto the ground, and then stood up on their hind legs and made weapons.
“With their clubs and arrows they killed other beasts, and with their knives they cut out their hearts and ate them, and soon they built cities of stone with walls of stone surrounding them to protect these weapon-beasts against the night, which they feared, knowing they owed many a life to many a beast, and knowing well those beasts had a right to come and collect on this debt, and knowing well they would choose the cover of darkness to do so.
“But what they feared above all else was the troll.
“Although the trolls were few—their race had yet to number a full hundred, for they each lived many thousands of years and some never mated, and those who did never had more than one child—man feared their size and strength and freedom, knowing they were of the gods, above both beast and man, above fish and bird and tree. Above earth and water and fire and air.
“Silent and strong, tall and proud and wise, but sometimes also curious, the trolls would on occasion come to the outskirts of the stone cities and gaze in wonder at the hustle and bustle of the weapon-carrying ant life within.
“When this happened, the men inside sounded sirens and alarms and shut the gates and locked their doors, for they owed an ever-increasing debt of life to the many beasts of the world, which they thought the trolls might have come to collect for them; and they locked their hearts, for they all had secrets they did not want the trolls to learn.
“For it was well known by this time that if a troll’s eye fell on you, your sins—and no one was entirely free of them—would burst into flame and consume you.
“One day, a clever little man called Vasupati—who had more to hide than most, and who had more to lose than most by bursting into flame from a troll glance (for he had swindled and stolen and cheated his way to owning most of the little town)—suggested that they make their town safer by, once and for all, ridding the world of the troll menace.
“Jigyasa was a young troll-girl, named for her curiosity. She had good ears and a clean heart, and she had learned all that Rama and Rameya had told trolls about the world.
“She had good eyes and had learned the way of the fishes and the way of the birds and the beasts and she understood their hungers. She had tender fingers and deep lungs and had learned the way of the trees and the flowers and loved them the best. But she did not understand man; the beast who carried weapons to kill other beasts and who locked his doors and locked his heart with such industry as soon as she sat down (on a hill a little distance from their town) to watch them, as she was wont to do from time to time.
“One morning, the clever little Vasupati told every man in the town to come to the town hall right away, for he had grave news. Grave news, he told them. And every man came, and to a man brought his wife too, for it was mostly the women of the town who decided what was to be done in the house and in the town, no matter what the men thought, and if the women decided to come—which they did—there was no man smart enough (or brave enough) to stop them.
“But, what no one knew was that Vasupati had no grave news to tell, none at all—other than what news he himself had concocted to forward his own purpose. And if something served this purpose, then it was both worthy and ethical, according to the creed of Vasupati.
“‘Men,’ he said, and, after surveying the gathering, added, ‘and women of Hara, the city of the sun, I thank you for coming.’
“The many men and their wives shifted restlessly, impatient to hear what grave news Vasupati had come by. ‘Know, that today I have heard, from a trusted friend, that the trolls are planning to drive us out, and take over our fair city.’
“Many men gasped and many women shrieked and a great commotion arose as most everyone started talking and yelling and asking questions both of Vasupati and of each other, and all at the same time. Vasupati was waving his hands in the air, asking for silence, but this went on for quite a little while (he was not very tall) before everyone finally noticed him waving.
“When the hall was quiet once again, Vasupati, who was quite pleased to have caused such excitement, clasped his chubby little fingers over his chubby little belly and then fingered his many gold rings, now so deeply embedded in his flesh as to seem a part of the skin, and looked out over the men and women for a long time with his puffy little eyes.
“Then he said, ‘I have heard from a trusted friend that the trolls are tired of their mountain caves, are tired of cold nights and hot days and leaky roofs and hard beds. I’ve heard that they have grown tired of their ways, and that they envy us our city.’
“‘That is why,’ he said, ‘they come and look at us. It is to spy on us and so to plan how best to drive us out, or to kill us all, and so steal our city.’
“Meanwhile, at that very moment, Jigyasa was sitting on her little hillock outside the town walls wondering why everybody had gone into the large white building and locked the doors. She had heard the commotion inside and found it strange. She watched and knew that understanding this breed of creature would take some time.
“‘The only course of action open to us,’ continued Vasupati, louder now, his chubby little voice rising and falling with peevish energy, ‘is to kill them all before they kill us.’
“‘How are we to kill them when just by looking at us they burst us into flame?’ asked a large woman at the front of the gathering.
“Vasupati had anticipated (had in fact hoped for) this question, and was pleased that it had been asked so soon. He had to wait, however, until the commotion had once again settled, for everybody agreed, and loudly, that this was a good question that needed a good answer, or there would be no troll-killing.
“‘Mirror shields,’ he said with a smug little smile. ‘Shields polished to the shine of mirrors. They will deflect their gaze and protect us.’
“‘Mirror shields,’ they repeated to themselves and among themselves and they discussed and argued and finally saw that mirrors would indeed be a good idea, for it was Vasupati’s idea and his ideas were on the whole good, and profitable. Just look at all the gold rings on his fingers, he always gets his way, and who’s to say that he won’t get his way with the trolls too.
“‘Yes,’ said Vasupati once the silence had resettled. ‘Mirror shields. They will protect you.’ Then he hesitated as he surveyed the lay of the land and saw that although he had no intention whatever of participating in actual combat—you could get hurt that way, and that formed no part of his plan—he was expected to lead their charge on the trolls. ‘They will protect us,’ he said as smoothly as cream, and none seemed the wiser. ‘They will allow us to surround them as they come to spy on us, and kill them with our spears.’
“‘Can they die?’ asked a young mother, holding her baby to her breast and eyeing Vasupati with suspicion.
“‘Why, of course,’ said Vasupati. ‘My trusted friend tells me that if you pierce their eyes with spears they die instantly.’
“‘How are we to reach their eyes with our spears?’ asked a tall man, knowing full well that a troll’s eyes could not be reached even by three of him standing one on top of the other, even with a spear.
“‘We bring them down,’ said Vasupati. ‘Once on the ground, we can gouge their eyes.’
“That was a good answer, and the tall man fell silent.
“‘How are we to bring them down?’ asked his wife.
“Vasupati was ready for this, too, for as he was a clever man he had thought things out well. ‘We will cast the sun in their eyes with our mirror shields and then, when they are confused, we toss our fishing nets over them.
“‘How many of them are there?’ asked the tall man’s wife.
“‘My trusted friend tells me,’ said Vasupati, ‘that there are no more than perhaps a hundred of them.’
“‘How could we defeat a hundred of them at the same time?’ asked the wife.
“‘One by one,’ said the clever Vasupati. ‘Not at the same time. One by one.’
“‘What if we succeed in killing one, and they all come together to take revenge?’ asked the wife, who by now was upsetting Vasupati, for she was too clever by far, and probably realized, as Vasupati had, that it would cost many hundreds of men to rid the world of trolls.
“‘Would you rather do nothing?’ he said, and pointed his ringed and chubby finger at her, embarrassing her husband. ‘Would you rather do nothing and let the trolls kill us all and take over our city? Perhaps you suggest that we open the city gates for them, to help them enter and make our slaughter all the quicker?’ all the while stabbing the air in her direction with his finger. This stabbing was hard work, and it was soon quite evident that he was sweating from this fingery exertion.
“At this finger-stabbing the tall man’s wife fell silent, for it bred many threatening murmurs and movements around her, as in their minds she was already assuming the color of a traitor.
“Vasupati saw that his little outburst had had the intended effect and that the gathering was firmly on his side. He wiped his face with a fine white cloth made for that very purpose. Then he said, ‘Next troll that comes our way, we will kill.’ He sounded very confident.
“‘There is one sitting on the south hill,’ said a man at the back dressed in a soldier’s uniform.
“‘There is?’ shrieked Vasupati. ‘Why did no one sound the alarm?’
“‘You told everyone to be here,’ said the man, which drew some laughter.
“‘We are not ready yet,’ said Vasupati. We need to make our mirror shields.’
“This was of course true, and everyone agreed. They would make their mirror shields, and the next troll that showed up after they were ready, would be as good as dead.
“‘Who is the trusted friend,’ asked the tall man’s wife of her husband, ‘that has told Vasupati all these things?’
“But her husband pretended not to hear, for to question Vasupati at this meeting would now be a dangerous thing.
“‘Who is the trusted friend,’ asked the wife again. Louder this time.
“‘Be quiet, woman,’ said the man. ‘Do you want to see us killed?’
“The woman looked around and caught the many suspicious glances cast in her direction and she knew that her husband was right. She asked no further questions.
“Since she was the only troll sufficiently interested in the doings of men to come to the little town regularly and wonder at their strangeness, the next troll to show up, once the many man-shields were all polished and ready, was of course Jigyasa.
“During the polishing, which took several weeks, Vasupati had succeeded in making others suggest that it was probably best that Vasupati direct and organize their attack from atop the wall, where he could have a clear view of the battle—and from where, he knew, he could easily escape down into his cellar should anything go wrong.
“And so their shields were all polished to a mirror gleam when Jigyasa came out of the forest this time and sat down on the little hill and watched with fascination how, instead of closing and locking the gate, a stream of them came out to meet her, all carrying polished shields and spears.
“As they came closer she could see the brown and gray miasma of hostility rippling among them and she knew that they were not well-intended. Still, she was curious, and curiosity won out over caution.
“As they reached the foot of the hill where she sat, the first few men moved their mirror shields so as to catch the sun and throw it into her eyes. As they succeeded, Jigyasa was stabbed again and again by one little blindness after the other, which she did not like and could not understand why they men would do this. No, she did not like that at all and no longer wished to stay. And so she stood up and walked away, leaving the confused men, and their shields, behind.
“Vasupati, from the safety of the wall, saw this and realized that he had misjudged the evil troll. He had counted on its dark and wicked nature to attack the men rather than flee.
“‘Next time,’ he said at the following meeting, ‘We must prevent the cowardly troll from escaping by surrounding it before we use our mirror shields.’
“This was generally held as a good idea, but one that they did not have the opportunity to put into practice for another three months.
“It was a clear fall day, when Jigyasa’s curiosity got the better of her and she again came to the south hill and sat down to watch the goings-on of the little town.
“Sirens went off, alarms jangled throughout the town, and Vasupati directed his army as planned: many of them slipped out through the back gates and streamed out into the land to approach the evil and cowardly troll from behind and from the sides. A smaller group approached her from the main gate as before.
“Again Jigyasa saw the men with their polished shields and spears, but she did not leave. Again she saw the miasma of ill will and wondered at it. Why did they dislike her so? Yes, this was what she had actually returned to observe. There had been much discussion with her parents and other trolls about the miasma. They said she must have been mistaken, the men could have meant her no harm—the trolls had done nothing to harm the humans—and in the end she was not so sure herself. So she had decided to return for another look.
“She found that she had been correct: as happened the first time, the men approached her in a mist of ill will that she could not comprehend.
“Once the first men reached the bottom of the hill, they again caught the sun in their shields and threw it into her eyes. Again, this disturbed Jigyasa and she rose to go, only to find that many more men had appeared behind her and around her, each with a polished shield and spear and of none of them wishing her well.
“They all worked their shields to catch the sun and throw it in her eyes, but for one thing, the angle was all wrong this late in the season, and for another, the sun went into a cloud and then there was no sun to throw.
“That is where the men panicked and began to throw their spears at her eyes.
“None were good enough to find the mark, but a few spears found her arms and legs and some even her feet, and they stung her badly.
“Jigyasa screamed the pain and then boiled into sudden fury. Charging the now scattering men, she mangled and trampled and crushed the entire little army to many bleeding heaps of dead and dying beasts and then, with no one left to chase and mangle, she pulled the stingy spears out of her muscle and hide and left for the forest.
“The trolls did not take too kindly to the attack on Jigyasa, and the next day they left their keeps and descended upon the town.
“Trolls are nothing if not thorough. It took them the better part of the day, but when they were done, there was no town left, nor a single living human to tell the tale. With saddened hearts they returned to their forest keep to think about this.”
Here, Esh fell silent then looked up with cloudy eyes as from a reverie.
“Do you want more refreshments?” he asked. “Some more tea perhaps?”
At first I didn’t realize that we had temporarily left the story, and I had trouble making sense of the trolls taking tea while their saddened hearts contemplated the town of men. Then I stirred and made the connection.
I looked at my tray, and saw that I had finished the meal, as well as the tea. This came as a mild surprise to me. And yes, I was thirsty.
“I would like some,” I answered.
Madhuri nodded as well, but Harriet—regarding the floor before her, though seeing none of it, I’m sure—made no answer.
“Princess?” said Esh, with such precision that Harriet looked up, startled.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Would you like some refreshments?” asked Esh again, as if the question had never been asked before.
She, too, looked at the tray before her, but finding it untouched, said, “No, I think I’m fine. Thank you.”
The servant monkeys disappeared and reappeared with tea for me and Madhuri. One of them replaced Harriet’s cold, untouched tea with a new pot, fresh and steaming.
Harriet smiled and thanked him.
Outside, above us, the afternoon had veered toward evening, for the thousands of points of light had turned a darker blue and made the ceiling look more like a beautiful blanket than a milky way.
“But men returned, of course,” said Esh, and soft noises I had not taken in ceased into a silence that I did notice. “And each town, each city, seemed to sprout their own Vasupatis, each one cleverer than the next, and by the time Jigyasa, curiosity still unquenched, one day returned from their forest keep to watch the rebuilding of Hara, the man now in charge was called Dharmadev, the lord of law.
“Dharmadev, however, was not seen to rule, nor did he want to be. Ruling he left to his captain, a large, not too intelligent but fearless man named Heramba, who liked to paint himself as yet larger and more fearless, and who would brook no disobedience. To Heramba, the law was everything, while Dharmadev, for his part, was the law.
“Heramba in turn commanded many officers, some with swords and spears, some cloaked in everyday clothing to move unnoticed among the citizens and slaves of Hara, the secret eyes and ears of rule.
“Dharmadev himself lived in humble quarters, in a little clearing just outside the rising city. There he kept his books, and his plans, and his dreams. And his many plans, once finalized down to the finest detail (and Dharmadev was nothing if not clever, and very precise) were then explained to Heramba as law, and for Heramba to implement and enforce. His dreams, however, he explained to no one.
“His foremost dream was to become immortal.
“And the best way, he reasoned, to become immortal was to become a god. And the best way to become a god was to slay one. For the slayer of gods must himself be a god, for only gods can slay a god. And the only gods he knew of were the trolls.
“Dharmadev knew of Jigyasa, of course. Heramba had reported her presence the moment she first appeared on her hill many months before, and Dharmadev had given orders that a constant watch be posted to keep an eye out for trolls.
“By this time the trolls were much feared, for the legend of Hara, the destruction of the original city, had fallen into lore and was whispered mother to child among all men of the Earth. Not many had seen one, but they all feared them.
“And the trolls were gods, dangerous gods, thirsty for blood.
“And as the walls were not yet built to protect Hara, and as no gate was yet in place, there was no defense against the visiting troll, save the vigilance and bravery of Heramba and his soldiers.
“In truth, Jigyasa was wary of this new anthill, but her curiosity still reigned. These days, she would come every day, to her hillock, from where she had a good view of the entire Hara valley, its river, its fields, and of its new city rising. Thousands of men, sleeping in tents and huts, some in chains, some not, working from dawn till night to build it.
“She tried to understand what drove them, what made them toil in the midday sun, and what made them die, many of them, under heavy burdens. What made others, with long, steel-tipped whips, treat their brothers like beasts and draw long streaks of blood on naked backs if they did not move fast enough or bow deeply enough before the soldiers.
“She tried to understand how fear could build something quite as beautiful as what she, from day to day, saw rising in the valley of Hara.
“Back in her own mountain, the others frowned on her visits, and urged caution. She remembered and agreed, she would be careful. Men were not well-meaning. On this all trolls were now agreed.
“Then came the day when not everybody would run to hide when she approached her vantage point.
“Then came the day when fewer still would run to hide when she approached her vantage point.
“Then came the day when no one at all ran to hide when she approached.
“‘It only sits there,’ reported Heramba to Dharmadev. ‘It comes, it sits down, and it watches. Nothing else. They see this, and they are no longer afraid of it.’
“Dharmadev dismissed Heramba. He had to think about this. The following day he summoned Heramba again and explained his new law to him.
“That night Heramba’s officers secretly killed and mutilated twenty of the weakest slaves and spread their remains around the city.
“The following day Heramba’s eyes and ears spread the word that the troll had attacked in the night.
“This was repeated two more nights, and after that the mortal fear of trolls had been properly restored.
“Jigyasa tried to understand, but could not. Men who only a week earlier would hardly look up from their toil as she sat down, now dropped their tools, and again fled for places to hide.
“Dharmadev explained another new law to Heramba, and soon everyone knew that the trolls were planning an attack upon their city, and who they were coming for were the children, who they would steal and bring back to their mountain, some as slaves, though most as food.
“Soon everyone also knew that their children were boiled alive, and that the trolls enjoyed their screams as they turned pink then red from the boiling water and then died as the daggers of pain burned deeper and deeper to finally reach the heart to extinguish it.
“Some trolls, so they were told, so enjoyed the screaming that they packed ice around the children’s hearts to keep them alive longer, the longer to hear them scream. For these trolls, the children’s agony was food: the tender flesh they left for other, baser tastes.
“And soon the trolls were no longer fearsome gods to the citizens and slaves of Hara, but devils. Incomprehensibly evil, and their mortal enemy.
“And before long, everyone also knew that the only way to save their children was to capture and kill the troll spy, who came to watch their building from the hill just south of their city, whom they had all seen, and who had already killed sixty or so of their slaves. Only this would teach the trolls a lesson, and make them leave the city alone.
“Dharmadev was a designer of fear, and he knew his craft very well.
“On the morning of the attack, some saw Heramba’s men carrying large bags dripping with blood, but none dared speak about it.
“This was the morning that Dharmadev had received early word that the troll was approaching. This was the morning he handed down new orders to Heramba.
“And these new orders said that once the troll reached the hill, Heramba’s soldiers would suddenly discover the killed and half-eaten children by the foot of the southern hill, which they did; and the word spread like flame.
“Jigyasa saw the slain children at the foot of her hill and did not understand. Nor did she understand the fearful commotion that rippled through the city. Perhaps she was too absorbed by not understanding to act sooner, we do not know, but before she had a clear notion of her predicament she was surrounded by not a handful of soldiers, or a hundred men, but by thousands of men and women furious with fear and hate for the child-eaters. All steeped in the foul miasma of ill will.
“Once Jigyasa realized the danger, she fought for her life. She killed hundreds, but for each man she crushed, three swarmed in to reach her. Spears and arrows flew from the soldiers to her left and right, and after some time she grew weak from the many leaks.
“Finally she stumbled, fell, and was covered by hate.
“But they did not kill her then, that was not in Dharmadev’s plan. Instead, she was dragged to the little clearing by his house.
“Heramba entered to tell him they had brought the troll, and Dharmadev stepped out, for the first time in plain view, as the ruler of men, as the giver of laws, as the killer of trolls.
“He ordered Heramba to tie the troll’s arms and legs to the ground, and to nail its large ears to the earth with wooden spears. Then he ordered its eyelids pried and held open while he took his finest sword out of its sheath, held it to the sun and kissed it twice, once for each eye.
“Standing by Jigyasa’s large head, which reached to his waist, Dharmadev then stabbed his sword into each eye, all the way to the hilt, drawing a small fountain of clear liquid from each.
“Then, holding his sword again to the sun, and kissing it once, for the heart, he killed her.
“As he lifted his sword one final time, pointing to the sun, Heramba and his soldiers broke out into cheers, and the thousands who had witnessed the killing soon took it up too. Many fell to the ground and mumbled his name, Dharmadev, Dharmadev, and he was well on his way to becoming immortal.
“But Vishnu felt no pain. He had risen from Jigyasa’s body once she had been fettered to the ground, and from above, looked on in curious disgust. Once Dharmadev pointed to the sun and all men bowed to him, Vishnu returned to the mountains and grew another troll.
“They returned the following morning and slew every man, woman, and child, except for Dharmadev—who had known this might happen—and Heramba and twenty of his most loyal soldiers, who had fled with Dharmadev in the night.
“The trolls left nothing of the city but crumbs and splinters.
“Dharmadev, the troll slayer, traveled the world from one end to the other, and with the help of Heramba and his soldiers, who now numbered in the thousands again, spread the fear of trolls, and the light of his own deed.
“He would set them free. He would save them. He would lead the way.
“And when he was done, when he had become immortal, for surely every man, and woman, and child for all time to come would know of him, and think of him, and thank him, he led an army of many thousands of well-armed men toward the mountains south of the valley of Hara, to seek out the trolls and avenge mankind.
“Many trolls died in that battle, for Vishnu did not want to flee. But by the time the trolls numbered only a handful, he had no choice. He led them through the deeper caves through the mountain and away to the north.
“Thousands of men died in that battle, but many more lived to tell the tale that the trolls had not been armed, had no hordes of human children in their caves, had books and flutes and art in their halls, and some even said, had been reluctant to fight.
“That is how Dharmadev finally achieved immortality: as a slayer of men, not as a slayer of trolls. Of course, he himself did not partake in the battle: he directed it from a safe distance, and after it was over he withdrew from the world.
“The remaining trolls traveled north, beyond the reach of men, and found a home at the top of the world, where they—distrustful now of men—still live their long, long lives that have seen roads and cars and trains, and have seen airplanes cross the earth, and satellites pierce the sky, all in a futile rush for a material immortality, which like Dharmadev’s will never truly be found.
“And their hearts are saddened by the folly of men, and they are rarely, if ever, seen.”
Here, Esh again fell silent. He had finished his tale, and now there was only the sound of still air softly entering and exiting lungs, and this only if you really listened.
This silence went on for so long that it might have been the new way of the world. Then Harriet spoke. “They touched my skin,” she said.
“Yes,” answered Esh, softly. “You, princess, and you, Nachiketa, are blessed.”