Skyrim Diaries, Day 10: Fifty Shades of Grey

Day 10:

The trek to the monks took more wisdom than force. I suppose that’s a pilgrim’s metaphor. A Khajiit on the road warned me of a snow troll among the steps, so I clambered amid the boulders, along the steepest part of the slope I could muster. After a while, I saw the brute, facing the valley as if—with all three of his eyes—he enjoyed the view. Well. Pourquoi pas? Whoever made Mundus also made the trolls. I crept past. We can both have another day.

As I’d promised a man at the foot of the mountain, I deposited some supplies for the Grey Beards at the donation chest I’d found near the mountain’s summit. He had told me the monks enjoyed dried fish, but I didn’t realize that they would demand so much of it.  I know now that there are only five of them—four little, withered men and one I never met. And yet I deposited pounds of fish. On a diet of this sort, their shouts must be positively putrid. 

I scratched at their door, but no one came. I decided to give a delicate pounding, but to no avail. Finally, I pushed open the door, and stood in a foyer of stone and shadow. In a far room, four men jumped up. And perhaps they broke wind in startlement, because some crockery went flying.

They taught me for a day. That’s all I’ll mention. I learned of blood, and time, and Akatosh. I learned of deadly rhetoric, and of how I was not the only one so able to debate. I confess it dazed me—the realities and the threats.The monks would’t let me descend the mountain until my hands stopped shaking.  They set me in the back, amid their little cubiculos and an encroachment of tomes. I suppose I was meant to read myself calm, but all I could wonder was what god would speak to me from which book.

Before I left, later that day, they invited me to partake of their onion soup, which they imbibed with dainty slurping. Not one of the fish appeared. 

I started for Ivarstead in the late afternoon. I wanted the familiarity of the snowberries, or even the predictable ineloquence of the troll. I had time to get to base of the mountain—I should have had plenty. But on that path, from what at first I thought was shadow, the sun went out without setting. The light simply stopped. I stopped. It was as if the night had a locale, and that I’d wandered into it. I backed up, but this kingdom had spread. And what’s more is that nothing within it moved. Nothing but myself and my tumbling thoughts. Then something tall and many-armed stood before me. I thought—or my hope thought—that it was a tree, that somehow I’d come upon it instead of it approaching me. It rose from the ground. It brought stillness to the wind. Then it keened. It threw an arc of blue fire that climbed up the mountainside and down. A goat fell at my feet. I crouched. I prayed to any and all. I loosed a light bolt that moved so slowly that I thought it would never reach its target. It moved at such a drawl that I could see that the tree was a woman with a crown of shadows, that each of her arms ended in a hook. The bolt staggered her. But from her cloak she released little beasts—shadowed things that crawled as eggs from a sac. I clambered back. The woman straightened. Her fire and her beasts washed ahead of her—and I flew backward, over the edge, and down toward the valley that the troll liked to watch.

Skyrim Diaries, Day 9: Company

Day 9:

The inn was warm and not entirely vacant. A female orc eyed my shield as I came in. I’d bought it in Whiterun—a kite of a thing with the yellow of the hold. Now I returned to the tavern door, opened it, and brushed the shield of snow. 

I asked the innkeep for a room, and he said I smelled of lavender and ozone. 

“Well,” I said. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“Nah,” he said, “I like dragons tongue and brimstone myself. Felix!” He slammed a tankard onto the bar. “Cut that out.”

On the stool behind the tankard, sat the smallest man I’d ever seen. He wasn’t a dwarf, but perhaps an unlucky Imperial, who rested his chin on his hands (which bore pugilist hand wraps). He leered at my chest.

“O-zone!” the innkeep said. 

Felix blinked. “I got me a scroll of banish living,” he said. “Found it up the arse of a bandit I kilt.”

“Then it’s too bad,” said the innkeep, “that you can’t read.”

The little man scooted off the stool, and made a show of wiping his feet on the inn’s bearskin rug.

“We think his father was a reikling,” said the innkeep. “He won’t bother you more.” 

“I don’t imagine I’m his type,” I said, “if he fancies a rummage in a bandit’s arse.”

The innkeep uncorked me a bottle of Honningbrew.  He said the guard had been keeping close eye on the man, that a woman with a dim brother had gone missing, just after she’d lambasted the Imperial for making fun of the boy. “Maybe I shouldn’t have warned him about your talents,” he said.

I still hadn’t  killed a person since the Khajiit. “I thank you for warning me of him.”

The innkeep—his name was Wilhelm—peered at my shield as it leaned against the bar. “I knew a wizard once. Carried a shield just so he could cast ice on the ground, and sled the slopes.”

“Beats buying a horse,” I said. He watched me for more–but as an innkeep, he knew when to let up. I wasn’t quite ready to tell anyone that bandits—men—were the enemies I feared most. The animals, the undead, even the dragons gave me the luxury of fighting with anything at hand. But for people, I had to spare their lives as well as mine. And Stendarr knows that it takes more expertise to save a man than to kill him.

I sat by the fire, and waited for its warmth to soak into the soles of my feet. The orc—the one who eyed my shield—she was so drunk that she snored while awake. She leaned to me now, and squinted. “I never met a mage—“

“Yes,” I said, “with a shield. It’s rare.”

“I mean a mage who needs to trim her nose hairs.”

I drew myself up.

“I mean, I just thought you people made your finger sort of hot, and then,” she mimed shoving her finger up. “‘’Course, if you say the wrong word, I guess that’s a good way of blowing your head off.”

I wiped my nose—I couldn’t help it. “I think you’ve had enough to drink.”

“Prob’ly so,” said the orc. “But can I ask you something personal?”

“Who? You?”

“Have you ever liked to kiss?”

I stood. “All right.”

“You mean you like it all right?”

“I mean I’m going to my bedroom—and locking the door.”

“I hear that humans like to do it, but that orcs can’t ever try, on account of the tusks.” She sat back, limp. “I just thought if an orc kissed a human, there would be half as many tusks to get in the way.”

“Really.” I watched her press her head to her forehead. “You know, you really should work on your pickup lines.”

She shrugged. “People come to the inn looking for work, I just thought I might hire—“

“You mean you’re offering to pay me for sex.”

“Sex? No. I doubt you’d survive it.”

I hoisted my shield to my back. “I have monks to see.”

***

I slept poorly. The room was too hot. And I confess that in the brass of the candleholder, I gave my nose a thorough going over. 

I left early in the morning, when the dragonflies still dipped on the river. Across the way, a young man with a misshapen head sat by the banks with his chin in his hands. 

Surely this was the boy with the missing sister. I would come back this way, after the Grey Beards. I’d see if I could find the woman—or at least the body to lay to rest. 

I walked for another hour. To the north of the road, now, a horse screamed.

I stopped. From the same direction, a man cried. I dashed toward the sound, through the bramble and a creak.

A bandit thrust a spear at a short man on his steed. The man tried to read from a scroll. I hollered. The bandit stabbed the man. The horse knocked over the bandit, and stood on his head. The scroll fluttered to the ground. 

The horse stomped. The bandit lay in his own brains.  The man—the inn’s Imperial—gasped from the spear. It had run him through. His eyes bugged, and he died. Quick as a breath. 

I gave them both last rites. The horse nickered. If nothing else, I could tell the guard that at least one scoundrel was dead. I nudged the scroll with my foot, and then rolled it open with a stick. Banish Life is an evil spell, and I half expected that reading it would provoke the same conversation as Namira’s book. The scroll was an incantation for Mage Light.

I sighed. I put the scroll in the horse’s saddlebags. I led her by the reins. I didn’t want a mount. I’d seen enough of them dead on the side of mountains, to prefer a long walk to the heartbreak of it all. Besides all that, it’s hard to sneak with a horse. 

The road lead shortly to Sarethi Farm—a plot hoed by Dark Elves and their little clutch of guar. They were busy enough with their potatoes that they didn’t see my tie the horse to their fence post. Maybe she’d live her life convinced that she was another two-legged lizard. I left the scroll. It was the least I could do. Farmers in these parts frequently harvest after dark.

A Pillar of the Earth

I’m startled at how hard I’m taking the fire at Notre Dame. Maybe it’s because I have French family and friends. Maybe it’s because, as a high school French teacher, my mother took busloads of adolescent Americans to Notre Dame to witness the light and the weight of their first Gothic cathedral. Maybe it’s because this building, with its history, and its relics, and its literature, and its weddings, and its 0 km marker, is one of the hearts of Paris. Maybe it’s because I’m watching a loved one die in real time, during the equally-real melancholy of Holy Week. Whatever it is, I don’t think I’d weep as much for the demise of Mt. Rushmore, or the Space Needle, or even the St. Louis arch. 

Maybe all of this is so horrible because it can also symbolize an age of endings. I’m not Catholic, and I do not believe that the true relics of Christ have become imperiled by flame. But the symbolism of this burning church, plus the symbolism in the recent burning of American southern churches, resonate with what I perceive as threats to Christianity as a whole. The world’s nationalism, extremism, hypocrisy, and hate—it’s all so shameless, and righteous, and commonplace that I can’t even watch the news anymore. That said, I realize that Notre Dame is over 800 years old. It’s seen, encouraged, and discouraged the rise of extremism, over and over again. It even housed the post-mortum retrial of Joan of Arc in 1455. But through all that, the cathedral has persisted as a witness, or a record, or even a relic in itself. As a “pillar of the earth,” it was a library of history. And in its destruction, we have lost an emblem of devotion, inspiration, error, ambition, hope, celebration and condemnation. In this article, I’ve stacked all these words to itemize what’s perished, because I’m not sure what all is gone–except that it feels both cultural and significant. We’ve lost a symbol of Christianity’s shameful and beautiful attempts to talk with God. And speaking so symbolically, I’m not quite sure what is rising to take its place. Is it the fearful tackitude of the megachurch? Trumpism and its anti-Christianity? The alternate history that springs from the alternate facts of the alternate right?

Notre Dame is a building—I know that, just as I know that its relics of Christ have more cultural worth than true, divine power. But on holy week, of this year, in this age, it all went up in flames. And this likely wasn’t a terrorist job—it wasn’t the much-touted malice of our enemies. The parable, if I may, is in how the destruction arrived simply through our own negligence.

Skyrim Diaries, Day 8: Gods and Monsters

Day 8:

The dragon came to Whiterun, as Balgruuf feared it would. The dragon came, and I went with the guard, and they killed it while I shot lightning from a watchtower. As the creature breathed its last, it spoke to me, as I feared it would. Everything speaks to me. And then from their mountaintop, the Grey Beards spoke to me. And I have really very little to say about any of this, except that yesterday’s priest of Arkay may have spoke more prophetically than he had let on. I will have no choice but to listen to this world.

But here I face a quandary. (“Oh?” you say. “Just one?”) And this quandary is a growing reluctance—perhaps even a sense of taboo—about putting into words the great acts that have already transpired regarding Akatosh, the dragons, myself, and the Voice. I will mention them briefly, because I owe history that much. But I am also aware that if this journal were to fall into the wrong hands, I would owe the world far more. That, and at the risk of sounding like Pettrik, one comes to a natural pause when she considers putting cosmic events to the pen—doubly so when such events are still in process. And furthermore, I find that such circumspection is exquisitely primal. I have heard of children, from all faiths, who hesitate before they agree to drawing a picture of their god. And why shouldn’t they? An image is an attempt at ownership, knowledge, replication, summons. Who wants a god waiting for her on parchment? No. If I am indeed embroiled in the task of speaking for the world, through both word and voice, I feel compelled to utmost caution here. I will mention the hind-parts of these events, where it is practical to do so, but I will not endeavor to present them in their full glory.

I will say that the Grey Beards summoned me to High Hrothgar, to learn the language of dragons. I will also say, that at first, I retired to the library in Dragon’s Reach, where the court wizard plied me with such questions that I wondered if it would be best to anger him so that he would turn me into an urn or some-such. (No luck there, I’m sure. He’d just write his questions on little papers, and stuff me with them.)  I will finally note—apropos of our previous subject—that I opened a book on Namira. And that with pages that carried the stench of a charnel house, she herself greeted me by name, and bid me slay innocents for her gain. I slammed shut the tome, and took it to the temple. One must be careful, dear reader, of what we let live in books.

The next day I set forth to Ivarstead, where I could climb the 7000 steps to the Grey Beards. On the way, a haggard woman hobbled along the roadside, and pleaded for me not to visit “the Master” in the Blue Palace. A herd of goats followed her, sometimes blinking in and out of sight, so I was never sure how many she had. I passed her quickly enough—although I admit I checked to see if she too could teleport. 

With sufficient space between us, I stopped to rest by the mouth of a grotto—where an arm splayed from under a lavender bush. A Nord lay dead at the other end of it. Judging by the nearby draught of Red Water skooma, I could guess why. But then my conscience spoke, with the certainty of instinct—and I knew just then that I could give the man last rites.  So I knelt, by instinct, and I prayed, by the same. And I saw the man’s soul rise in golden particles, where in the place of his body, only his belongings remained. I knelt a while longer; that felt fitting. Then the stench of rot—such as I’d found in that book—wafted from the grotto. What bore it, at first, appeared as a zombie. I mean the headless sort that lumbers so slowly that it seems the earth itself is trying to pull it back into the ground. But this zombie moved fast as a man—or orc, for that matter, for such is what he was. He had nothing on but his drawers. He walked without moving his feet. He bore straight for me, shouting insults about sweet rolls. I raised my shield. I tried to end him with holy fire, but it faded to nothing. I tried to end him with lightning—and it passed through, and splintered an ash tree.  He hollered how he’d kill me. His underwear flapped. Finally, I led him on a chase to a hairpin turn, and shouted him off a cliff.

He smacked a boulder, and lay in a heap. I backed away from the ledge. I shoved off a thought of Namira. Still, I knew it would do no good to give that mangled and re-mangled corpse its last rites. My feeling is that its soul had departed a long time ago.

The breeze blew cool from the valley. I hoisted my shield to my back. And there, at the start of the next turn, stood the inn at Ivarstead.

Of Wenches and Wyrmslayers

This post is about video games and women. I’ve played fantasy computer games since my dad brought home The Bard’s Tale II for the Apple IIGS. Computer roleplaying games have influenced my fiction in ways that range from my proclivity for epic scope to my use of strangeness and suspense. I am an educated woman who’s about to turn 44, and I give a lot of respect to video games. For the most part, in turn, I’ve enjoyed their growing respect for me. We’ve come a long way since the only woman in the video game was the princess whom Mario had to save. I could write a treatise here that touches on everyone from Samus to Lara Croft to Captain Shepherd. But I will settle it all on the fact that I play Bethesda’s Skyrim with a female protagonist, and that she slays dragons, and wins civil wars, and talks with gods, and is basically a badass whose fan-fiction journals have also generated more traffic on my blog than anything else I have ever written.

That said, I must confess that the fans of video games—the players like me—have a long way to go when it comes to women. I’m speaking broadly here. More and more gamers actually *are* women. (And granting the fact that women can make the worst misogynists of all, I’ll accept this as a net win.) But you don’t have to go far on gaming websites to find commentators who say that X female character is too athletic for their tastes, or that Y studio’s games have suffered now that they’ve brought in same-sex romance options. And then, Lord, there is the modding community. A mod, dearies, is a modification to a video game. It usually comes from the player base, where freelance programmers write little scripts that do everything from putting more clutter around a game’s town, to making whole worlds for others to play in. Mods are usually free; they have served as programming portfolios for many coders who have sought to break into the business; and in terms of games such as Minecraft and Skyrim they can proliferate to the tens of thousands, while achieving millions of downloads. When I write my little blog about Skyrim, I talk about my experience with mods. Yesterday, for instance, I found an orc, drunk and sobbing in a burned-out shack. He wondered if I could help him find his lost coin—which we eventually located in his pocket.

So I go hunting for these mods all the time. Some of them are as professional and thoughtful as any studio offering of interactive fiction. But it’s also here, on their download pages, that I want to get drunk and start sobbing too. This is what I found yesterday: Mod 1. Hairstyles! Hundreds of women’s styles to choose from. Dozens of styles for men. Mod. 2 Naughty Girls of Tamriel. Mod 3. High Heels for Vampires. Mod 4. Immersive Wenches. Mod 5. Harem. Mod 6. Spells to change bystanders’ hair. Mod 7. Spells to make people undress.

And this, dearies, is to say nothing of the body mods. I don’t think I would see as many breasts if I pursued a plastic surgeon’s job portfolio. I downloaded one very good body mod—something that made everybody in the game look more photorealistic. I used it to create the on-screen avatar of my female character. She had a stick neck and spindly arms. I upped the weight slider to give her some meat on her bones, and for the most part, the only thing that changed were her boobies. I picked something that looked mostly plausible. I logged into the game, and the women in the town had chests that ranged from noticeable, to opulent, to aggressive, to urban myth. This game takes place along some very steep mountains, and I don’t know how these ladies don’t daily tumble to their deaths.

I ripped out the mod. I found something else. And in my search, I did come across the Practical Female Armors mod, which replaces the bikini-style breastplate/platter with something that actually protects. And I also found a mod that allows women hips, and shoulders, and even a pot belly. (I tried to find the name for you, but my search results came back with Real Girls of Skyrim—and that was not, not what I was looking for.)

My point is that although sensible body mods are out there, they are literally hard to find. And although there exist tons of professional content from thoughtful artists, much of the fantasy about females is still very troubling. I understand that fantasy is the stock and trade of these games; it’s no accident that I partake of a hobby where I can depose an evil ruler, root out slavers, and stop an orc from crying. But I am also aware that in real life, I will not come across any situation where I’ll even have the option to shoot lightning from my fingertips, or play a manticore to sleep with my flute. And call me old fashioned, but I do worry about the fantasies that allow someone to force an impossibly buxom woman to take off her clothes.