In the land of mirrors, there lived a troll. His cave was damp and narrow just like every troll cave. It was as cluttered as other caves, smelled of the creatures the troll had dragged there for his meals and was marked by the trails of crusted blood smeared by rains that led up to the opening and into his lair.
The cave mouth was plugged by a boulder, smoothed by the rolling it had done at the hands of its owner. The troll had pushed it out of the way to squeeze by when he went on hunts, then eased it back again as he left so other creatures would not mistake it for their cave and set up housekeeping while he was out strangling bears and skewering dragons. The whole boulder rolling thing would have been tiresome to most creatures but not to trolls. It was just what was done with caves and boulders and legs and shoulders. They even had a song about rolling boulders. The words were much like the grunts and flatulence that composed most of their sounds, so no one else knew when they were grunting or singing.
The elder trolls told stories of how the ancient giants had walked along the earth, smashing mud together to make ranges of hills and mountains, then poking their fingers four at a time to make caves. The elder trolls did not know why but the elder giants said their ancestors were creating places for the giant birds to nest and raise their young. The birds and the ancient giants felt a sense of kinship to each other. The birds brought them back fresh gifts from distant fields and seas. The giants made them nests so the gifts would continue. The huge birds were gone now, and the giants were less fearsome than they had once been. The birds’ nests were troll homes and they hunted with the giants for their meals.
The land had become the land of mirrors when the lightning had come and turned swathes of desert into glass and then into silvery surfaces that gleamed back up at the sun. These made the days all the brighter and the nights glow with an eerie, omnipresent light that made them more frightening than the blackness had ever been before. Creatures that once could see better at night, had counted on that time for foraging, were blinded and needed to be careful whenever they left their holes. Creatures attracted by the reflective surfaces and the glow that emanated from them were eaten in scores by the beasts who had seen them gather around the ominous light the mirrors cast back at the moon.
In no time, gremlins had seen an opportunity in the silvery surfaces. They had created a market for these other-worldly objects. Working carefully, they had created hundreds, then thousands of mirrors from the sands in which they had been formed, making them tall for the giants, medium sized for the trolls and ogres, and a series of short sizes that met the needs of dwarves, elves, gremlins, and fairies. They carved them out of the hardened sands with shark tooth saws and polished them with the gritty flesh of bottom feeders—oysters, clams, abalones, and snails. They had placed them on their goat carts, lashing them on with the dried tendons of mammoths, and trundled their stacks of mirrors around to caves, to burrows, to under-mountain places, and to the forests that lay between ranges. Everyone they visited was spellbound by the radiant surfaces and had to have at least one, either through barter for whatever the gremlins could coerce or through promissory notes that would come due when a newborn was spawned. For a bit more recompense, they could purchase a custom frame for the sparkling pool of light, returning within a fortnight with the composite that held the mirrors so perfectly they enhanced what had already been the most beautiful thing any of them had ever seen.
Within a few years, all the homes in the world held a mirror. The mirrors held the faces of the world’s creatures, who stared into them endlessly, thinking they saw something they had never seen in the selves they saw staring back, something they never knew before the mirrors came. Some saw laughter they had not heard. Some saw sadness they had not felt. Some saw family members from the past and future appear, then run beyond the edges of the frame. Some saw the beginning of time (or the illusion of it) while some saw their fears or their end of time.
The troll who lived in his own cave just like the others had a bright silver mirror like every other beast in the world around him. He was a young troll, barely a couple hundred years old, and had inherited the mirror from his birth trolls who had long since been picked off during their hunts by something larger and fiercer than they were. He had not felt the same way about the mirror that they had felt and had stuffed it away in one corner behind some dusty animal skins and well-gnawed bones. Every so often as he rolled his boulder to the side, he saw a twinkle of light knife out from the forgotten thing. This would make him think about it for an instant, but he then forgot just as quickly. That is the way with trolls and their memories.
One day, he left his cave before dawn. He had heard from the slow grumbles of other trolls that it might be good to go to where the remaining sands held those silver lights, carved up by the gremlins to be sure but still there and still entrancing night creatures to gather around and stare, fixated by the mirror glowing. He had loped out with a herd of his neighbors and come back with several rare treats he would devour once they had dried hanging in the sun outside his hole. He finished hanging them and the sun came up just as he rolled the boulder aside and slipped in.
The mirror winked at him from behind the skins and bones, back in the tight grasp of the finger-long burrow he called his home. He remembered that it had done this before and stood wondering why it winked.
One by one, he grabbed a skin from a dragon covered in the rare metal scales used for plates and swords, grabbed a skin from the hairy mammoth his fellows had helped him kill a couple of years before, grabbed a pile of feathers from some long-forgotten bird. He grabbed the thigh bones from a sloth he had found in a tree and the arms from an ape that had run from him as he galloped in its direction. He grabbed skulls he could not recall from creatures that had no name. All were tossed aside, and the mirror shone as if it had never been lost in the depths, hidden behind trophies of hunts that had kept him fed. He peered into its luminescent pool and saw himself as he had never imagined a troll could appear. He saw a troll that was like no other troll on his mountain, like none in the caves as far as his deep voice could bellow.
The troll that stared back at him was not the angry, raw, red-skinned creature he had thought he was… to the extent he thought about such things at all. The troll he saw had no jutting jaw, sharp teeth, clawed fingers, sharpened toes, sinewed arms, tree-trunk legs, barrel chest, hunched back, and matted hair. The troll he saw stood upright, had a patch of hair on the top of his head and was a healthy pink color from face to foot. The troll he saw smiled back at him. His mouth showed white teeth that were evenly spaced and all the same size, a jaw that closed with his upper jaw, a nose that was like a tiny pink plum in the middle of his face, not a gaping set of bleeding nostrils with no discernible shape. His eyes were blue, not a distant black, and his ears were like two flowers rather than the flimsy flaps he saw on all the other trolls. He began to weep at his own beauty, moved in a way nothing had ever moved him over his couple hundred young years in a world of eating and sleeping and rolling the boulder back and forth.
As he wept, the mirror glowed more, as if the tears revived it from a long, silvery sleep. As he cried, the mirror captured his weeping face, pink and well-proportioned, smiling through the tears (for they were happy tears) and cast it out across the world to all the other mirrors in other caves and burrows, branch and root, grass hut and hideaway. The transformed troll appeared in all his newfound beauty in every mirror in the world, and the other creatures marveled at this thing they had never seen in all their days and nights of staring.
For days, gathering and hunting were not performed. Creatures were safe, clustering around the moonlit surfaces in the desert where the gremlins had not carved every silvery surface for their own gain. Other trolls and all the dwarves, ogres, giants, gremlins, fairies, and elves looked upon this new, pink visage staring out at them. What was this odd thing standing upright in their mirrors with its tuft of hair on top, confident smile, toothy grin? Where did it come from and what did it mean? Quiet murmurs filled their air as they traded their pointless queries, answering with slow shakes of their heads and a renewed silent staring at their precious silver mirrors, radiant with the light of moons. They had fallen under some powerful spell, far stronger than those ever conjured for anyone they knew, against anyone they resented. And it was a peaceful spell all the same, not one that called for the blood of enemies or a full harvest.
Finally, the grip loosened and families shook themselves free of the enchantment. They headed out to find food, water, nectar, and fruit (for the elves and fairies did not hunt). They were all as hungry as if they had never eaten in their lives. The creatures who had gathered so meekly at the desert, who were just beginning to relish what they might be possible if they were not going to be a meal for the ravenous predators that stalked them day and night, were grabbed where they were cuddling and cooing with their other creature friends.
The troll broke away from the mirror as well and joined his companions in one of the most devastating hunts ever engaged in their troll cave community. Flesh was ripped, bones were gnawed, and pelts peeled from carcasses all around the desert with its shiny pools of reflected light, beacons beckoning them to the prey, spotlights illuminating them for the ease of their predators. But they all eventually tired of filling themselves and fell asleep, bellies bloated with bubbling gasses, heads filled with what they had seen in the days under entrancement of their mirrors.
When they all woke, they stumbled back to their caves, huts, branches, tangles, hideaways, and burrows. Their elders knew that there must be a discussion of what had happened in the mirrors. Two elders from each tribe of trolls, giants, gremlins, ogres, and dwarves came to the valley to meet the elves and fairies.
What had they seen in their mirrors? Did everyone see the same thing and did it have the same transfixing effect on everyone? As the conversations went on into the night and the next day, as everyone was given a chance to speak, it emerged that, yes, everyone had experienced the same effect and, no, never had anything similar happened to them recently or in any story from the ancients.
After more talk—and a bit of refreshment, for all of them looked forward to the fermented nectar prepared in the valleys (and kept secret from their tribes)—they decided that the figure in the mirror must be an emperor who had come to rule them all. But why had he only appeared in the mirror? And what was this pink thing standing upright with the big, toothy smile? Never had they seen such a thing! The smile was a beautiful thing. They all agreed it was a friendly look for a stranger’s face, even if they did not know what kind of creature it was.
Each elder decided that they should all send scouts out from their regions to find the new Emperor and bid him return to speak to the council in the valley. And with that, they returned to their homes and chose representatives with the keenest sight, fastest feet, and greatest strength to go in all directions, within and beyond their regions, looking for the creature who had appeared in the mirrors.
When the elders returned home, they discovered that their families—indeed all relatives of all kinds in all the regions—were transfixed by the mirrors once again. The pink creature with the tuft of hair on his head and the charming smile was looking back out at them, and they were all feeling at peace with themselves and with each other. While the elders grumbled a half-hearted protest, they all were soon drawn into the mirrors’ clutch and could not break free.
The troll, of course, was doing the same but there was no one else in his cave but himself. His boulder was drawn across the entrance, and he was alone with the pink reflection smiling back at him. He vaguely heard some pounding at the boulder and was compelled to ignore it. They would think (to the extent they thought at all) that he was out hunting and leave soon enough.
When the scouts returned from their worldwide search, they reported that no such living thing had been found. The elders gathered to consider this news—and fill their bellies with nectar. Could there be an Emperor who had not presented himself for their consideration? There had never been an Emperor. None of them knew whether this was the usual state of things for Emperors as there were no stories that spoke of such a being. After a day and night of talking too much, drinking too deeply, and snoring that scared all animals in the valley with its scraping sound, they woke and decided.
The pink thing was Emperor, and that was that. He had appeared to through the magic of the mirrors. He smiled, stood upright, was pink, mostly hairless, and different in appearance from all the beasts they already knew (although the fairies were the pinkest of the beings they had known so far). He was given the power to gather meetings among all the elders and to settle disputes when they came up (which was, in truth, rarely).
As they had no idea where the Emperor lived or how to contact him, life went on very much as it had… with one crucial difference. If an elder failed at achieving a goal for his tribe, he would blame the Emperor for not guiding his hand to a wiser decision or a more satisfactory outcome. He would tell his people—and the other elders—that it must not have been what the Emperor wished it to be.
Soon, all the elders were blaming the Emperor for everything that went wrong, although they all agreed they were all simply fantastic at achieving their goals whenever they completed them.
And all the while, between hunts and forages out from his cave, the troll spent his days staring blindly into his extraordinary mirror, thus transfixing the population of the world with his upright pink self, a tuft of hair on his head and the big smile. What he did not appreciate was the effect he was having. No one knew it was only him and his mirror.
He had become Emperor, ruler of all and the reason for misfortunes.