The Top

A legend about small red things that live in boxes.

The top is red.

It spins.

It is covered in the blood of the knight who’d had it last.

It is in a cave and there are great long-limbed trolls with their claws and their teeth hunched around it.

When the top slows down they spin it again.

The top is hungry. It isn’t an ordinary top. It’s a virtue-eating top. It’s a top that takes the virtue in its spinner and eats it.

That’s where evil people come from.

They spin too many tops.

But this top is hungry. The trolls have no virtue to eat—not much, at least. Scraps. Bloody little scraps of virtue.

It could starve to death here. That’s something it never imagined. It never dreamed that it would spend time in the world, spinning but unfed. It never imagined that there’d be people anywhere devoid of virtue.

Yet here it is.

The top wishes that it could flee. It wishes that they’d stop spinning it at least, break the addicition that it imposes on its owners and abandon it, so that it could wait in the darkness for a virtuous person.

But they do not.

They should be able to. The addiction should be weak. They don’t have enough virtue to feed it, so the pull of the top should be minuscule at best.

But they have pride.

They are grunting to themselves, as they spin the top, about how virtuous and noble they are.

They know what the top is doing to them.

They must know, it realizes.

And still they spin.

They are as hungry to have virtue to feed it as the top is hungry to eat.

3GTE

The first goat crosses the bridge from east to west. It traipses on the wood, tap tap tap.

The troll stands there, looking surly, staring off into the distance.

Mr. Eugene Barrett II stands stiffly on the eastern side. He is dressed in a pinstripe suit. It is neatly pressed. He looks profoundly uncomfortable.

“There will be a second goat, you know,” says the troll.

“Er, yes,” says Eugene. “I suppose there must be.”

“I will roar, and brandish my claws, like so,” says the troll, roaring and brandishing his claws. “And I will say, ‘You must be the second billygoat, larger and tastier than the first. I have prepared a mole sauce for you!'”

Eugene is silent. The troll is silent. Finally, Eugene says, “Those are difficult. I mean, I heard that they were hard to make.”

“Extraordinarily!” roars the troll. He brandishes his claws. “Particularly with these things for hands.”

“I say.”

The troll snorts. He waits. He watches. The second billygoat traipses up. The goat eyes Eugene warily. Then the troll roars and brandishes his claws.

“You must be the second billygoat, larger and tastier than the first! I have prepared a mole sauce for you!”

“I am not a mole,” notes the goat.

The troll blinks three times.

Eugene ventures, “I believe he means the Mexican sauce based on—”

The goat looks dangerously at Eugene, who is suddenly aware that the second goat is much bigger than the first.

“Perhaps you could let me go,” says the goat.

“No!” roars the troll. He brandishes a claw. He counts off on his fingers. “First, I am hungry. Second, I have already prepared the sauce. Third, I am ruthless. Fourth, I am educating this banker! I must set a good example.”

The goat laughs. “Perhaps he should leap on me with his great terrible fingernails and rend me to shreds. It would be active learning!”

“Er,” says Eugene. “I really don’t think—”

The troll makes a gesture to silence him.

“Very well,” says the billygoat. “I suppose I am doomed, then. But … but it occurs to me …”

“Yes?” asks the troll.

“I do have another brother, larger and tastier than myself.”

“You don’t say!”

“I do,” says the goat. “I do indeed. And we might be too much of a meal, you understand, taken together.”

“I might run out of sauce,” ruminates the troll.

“Verily.”

The troll’s nostrils flare. “Then go,” he says. “Go across the bridge.”

“I could go with him,” says Eugene. “To show him the way.”

“No,” says the troll.

“I was really supposed to ride across on the first goat,” says Eugene. “To rescue some sort of princess—”

The troll’s gaze is flat and level. “Is that so?”

The second goat crosses the bridge from east to west. It traipses on the wood, clank clank clank.

Eugene sighs.

They wait.

“Do—” Eugene pauses. He gulps. He speaks again. “Do trolls have treasure hoards? I mean, like dragons?”

“No!” roars the troll. He brandishes his claws. Eugene shrinks in on himself. The troll thinks about it for a moment. “Maybe. Perhaps. I suppose. Some.”

“Some treasure hoards?”

“A few,” says the troll dismissively. “They are small and unworthy of mention.”

Eugene says, “Ah.”

“Why do you ask?” says the troll.

Eugene shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. “I like money,” he says.

The third goat approaches.

The troll looks thoughtfully at Eugene. He asks, “Why are you even here?”

“The guys,” Eugene says. “You know. The guys. They thought that I should have a marvelous fantasy adventure. You know. To loosen up. To learn—you know. Claw brandishing, goat riding, princess-saving. And such.”

The troll looks Eugene up and down. Then he looks up at the goat.

The goat’s hot breath comes down on the troll’s head.

“I hate trolls,” rumbles the third billygoat.

It looks at Eugene.

“Also,” it adds, “bankers.”

“These people,” the troll says to Eugene. “These ‘guys’.”

“Yes?” Eugene asks.

The troll shakes his head. “They are not your friends.”

Sevens

“Did you fetch the morning eggs, Danielle?”

Danielle holds her hands over the breakfast table. They are cupped together. She separates them. Rubies fall. Sapphires too, and emeralds. Seven gems, and an egg.

“I see.” Her wicked stepmother narrows her eyes. “The hens have not lain eggs properly in several days.”

“I feed them the normal feed, mother.”

Danielle’s wicked stepmother is named Glory. She clicks her sharp fingernails on the table.

“Danielle,” Glory says, “these gems are very fine, but what may I eat for breakfast?”

“Perhaps they are edible,” says Danielle. She taps a ruby. It rings, lightly, like a bell.

“I should have the wealthiest chamberpot in the world,” Glory says, “and not be full from it.”

“Mother?”

Glory shakes her head. “It is no matter. I shall have bread and cheese. Clean the cinders, Danielle. They are a disgrace.”

Danielle curtsies. She goes to the closet. She takes out a broom and a pan. She holds the broom at her left side like a sword. She leaves the room and goes to the fireplace. The room is full of cinders and ash. They are being fanned onto every surface and every wall by seven cinder pixies. In the center of the room stands the cinder troll.

“I’ve been sent to clean this up,” she says.

The troll looks her up and down. He snorts. “You’re not much,” he says.

Her right hand crosses her body and takes the broom’s hilt. In a long circular motion, she brings the broom up and around until its bristles face the troll. Her left hand joins her right at the broom’s base. The broom is heavy, held in this fashion, but her arms do not tremble. “I am whom my mother sent.”

The cinder pixies go still. The troll looks her up and down.

“It’s my right,” says the troll, “as a cinder troll, to push the cinders out into the room.”

“And mine, to sweep them back.”

The troll hesitates. “Perhaps,” he says, “one quarter of the room in soot, and three parts clean.”

Danielle closes her eyes. She thinks. Then she opens them. “They say that every one of us lives seven lives,” she says.

“Aye.”

“And that we should be kind to those we meet. For anyone may have been one’s mother, in another life, or one’s father, or one’s child. One’s lover, or one’s friend.”

“That’s wise,” says the cinder troll.

“In another life,” says Danielle, “I believe that we were friends. For there is a light in your eyes that my soul knows. But in this life, I have a duty, and I must drive you back.”

She steps forward. The troll steps back.

She steps forward. The troll is still. Then he reaches behind him to the fireplace and draws forth a poker, and takes it in his great strong hands.

They duel.

“I had not thought,” says the troll, “that Glory would have a loyal servant.” He is breathing lightly though Danielle’s lungs burn. Each clash of poker and broom makes her arms ache.

“She is my mother,” Danielle says.

“That,” says the troll, “cannot be so.”

Cinders in the air swirl into Danielle’s mouth, and she chokes. Her eyes water. The troll strikes, the poker winging her shoulder, and her left arm goes numb. She falls backwards. The troll does not advance. After a moment, he holds out his hand to help her up. She takes it. She backs away. She reassumes her stance.

“She has taken me in,” Danielle admits. “The mother of my birth is gone.”

“Ah, so.”

“My true mother went adventuring,” Danielle says. “To find a lost prince, they sent out seven maidens; to find each lost maiden, they sent out seven princes; and for seven princes lost, seven maidens each; and so in progression were all the heroes lost, and my mother among them. And I was left behind.”

The troll feints, then brings the poker around hard. The broom cracks, though it does not break. The poker lunges for Danielle’s face, and she steps back.

“And why have you not gone?” asks the troll.

She looks at him. She does not answer, for she does not know. Slowly, she brings the broom back to her side. She sets her feet. Her eyes burn.

“Are you surrendering?” the troll asks.

Danielle shakes her head.

“Then we will end this now,” says the troll.

“May we be friends again,” says Danielle, “when next we meet.”

The troll steps forward. There is tension in the great muscles of his arm.

Danielle’s shout splits the air and makes the cinder pixies flutter. She strikes. There is a crack like the breaking of the world. She is past the troll in a single motion, stumbling to a stop, kneeling in the ashes, and her broom is nothing but splinters.

The troll falls, and the room is clean.