Life in the City of Literature

This is what a walk is like in Iowa City: You have to climb a hill along the river. It’s not the steepest hill, but if you aren’t conditioned for it, you’ll cuss and puff. At the top of the hill lives some bibliophile I have never seen. But she sets up a sheltered cork board by her mailbox, and regularly posts a poem. Today, for instance, you can catch your breath, while you read a translation of Polish verse about maps.

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.