Cobblestones and Mud, Part I

I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party…

“You know, if they’d only thought things through…”

Max couldn’t decide whether to be amused or embarrassed. Sitting on the floor across from him, Cari dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Behind her, on the couch, their Aunt Teri did the same. It was like this at their house every year, Uncle Adrian said. Ever since Cari was little, she and Aunt Teri would sit down and watch the Jot and Miki teleplay when it was broadcast in the middle of Sun’s Dusk, as kind of an opening to the holiday season. And every year, they’d cry at the ending. Even after Aunt Teri married Uncle Adrian, they’d kept the tradition up, and Uncle Adrian had sense enough to remain silent as his wife and her niece watched and sniffled. Why such a sad teleplay would start the run-up to the Old Life and New Life celebrations at the end of the year was beyond Max, but it had always been like that, as long as he could remember.

Max turned to roll his eyes at Uncle Adrian, behind him on the easy chair, but Uncle Adrian was busy playing with baby Gigi, who was a little over a year old, and tended to demand the full attention of whoever was holding her. It wasn’t such a bad teleplay, Max had to admit. It was the original Jot and Miki film, the one with Lita Hanyu as Miki, who enchanted everyone when she was a young performer. She certainly enchanted Max. But even so, there were parts of it that just didn’t make sense, and Max was foolish enough to open his mouth.

“You know, if they’d just thought things through, maybe Miki would have lived,” Max opined.

“What do you mean, thought things through?” said Cari. She sounded a little annoyed, as if Max were deliberately trying to spoil the party. Deep down, Max knew that was exactly what he was trying to do.

“Well, look at it,” Max said. “Did they really have to make that journey on foot? Couldn’t they have borrowed a horse? Hired a carriage? Brought more food? Something?”

“Don’t you think they would have if they could have?” answered Cari indignantly. “They did what they had to do.”

“But did they really have to? Couldn’t they just have –“

“Just be quiet already,” snapped Cari. “You’re completely missing the point! Miki was fulfilling a promise she made, no matter what the cost. That’s what the teleplay’s about.”

“But –“

“Shhh! Go think about football or something!” Cari put a finger to her lips and resumed watching the screen. So did Max, just for a moment, until he looked back at Cari’s profile, dark, almost bluish skin with the jet-black hair of her Dunmer ancestors. She is kind of cute, he thought, and she’s really smart. Max was amazed when Cari, two years previously, had located the remains of the legendary Näktergal, a young bard who had died in Solitude a thousand years ago during the Dragonborn era. She was the talk of the town back then; she’d even had her picture in the paper! Max had no idea how she did it, but Cari refused to discuss the matter, as if it were beyond Max’s ability to grasp. If only she wasn’t so snooty, Max thought. Maybe I’m only a ballplayer, but I’m not that stupid.

“Shhh! Go think about football or something!”

Max’s reverie, along with his gaze, was broken when Aunt Teri caught his eye. Her grin confirmed it – she’d caught him looking! But by then the teleplay was over, and it was time to leave. Uncle Adrian got up to drive Max home. As Max was putting on his coat, baby Gigi waddled up and grabbed his legs, shouting “Macmacmacmacmac!” Max picked her up and pretended to bite her nose, making Gigi giggle.

After handing his cousin to Aunt Teri, Max found himself facing Cari. “You’ve got sweets for tomorrow, right?” she said. “It’s Bucket Battalion, you know.” Bucket Battalion was an annual observance, thought to be deeply rooted in antiquity, although nobody seemed to know exactly how it came about. Supposedly in ages past, orphans, waifs, and other of Solitude’s young outcasts would march around town with pails, begging for food. In modern times, it involved young costumed children parading around with buckets while onlookers showered them with sweets. The youngest pupils at Max and Cari’s schools would be marching the next day, and the older students were expected to hand out the treats.

“Of course,” said Max. “I picked up a bag last week. I assume you bought some as well, or did you boil some authentic honey nut treats yourself?”

Momentarily defeated, Cari wrinkled her nose at him. Then she changed the subject. “Have you read the book yet, Genius?” She meant the copy of Voices of the Dragonborn Era she’d given him for his Blessed Fourteenth birthday a couple months previously.*

“Well,” Max stammered, “You know, with school and all…”

“You haven’t, have you?” Cari gave him a well-rehearsed hurt look.

“All right! I promise I’ll get started on it,” said Max desperately. “I’ll even make a report.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Cari said as Max left with his uncle.

Cari, who was spending the night, turned back to her aunt, who was holding Gigi. “I never could stand his smart mouth,” she complained. “Does he think of nothing besides football and annoying me?”

Aunt Teri smiled. “You know football’s really important to him, don’t you? Just like your school is important to you. And just like you, he works hard at it, and he’s really good.”

“What do you mean, ‘really good?’” said Cari.

“I mean, professional scouts are starting to notice him. He might wind up on one of those developmental teams before too long.”

“Really?” said Cari. “I had no idea.” And if he does, Cari thought, he might have to move away. That wouldn’t do. Not at all.

Why Is She Such a Snoot?

Max, having left with Uncle Adrian moments earlier, missed Cari’s complaining, but had plenty of his own. “Why in Oblivion does she have to be such a snoot?” Uncle Adrian was driving; Max sat next to him.

“Watch your language,” chided Uncle Adrian.

“Sorry. But why does she think she’s so much smarter than everyone else?”

“Because in most cases, she probably is,” said Uncle Adrian. “She’s trying for a place at university, and believe me, she could probably go anywhere in the country and not pay a schilling for it.”

Really, thought Max. Anywhere in the country. Far away, maybe. Winterhold? The capitol? Max admired people who pushed their abilities for all they were worth, but Cari moving so far away? He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. “I get that,” said Max. “And I really admire her for it. But she still treats me like I’m just a brainless footballer. I’m not that stupid.”

“Well, maybe she doesn’t understand your world,” said Uncle Adrian. “Maybe it’s time you opened it up to her a little. She did that much for you, didn’t she?”

“What do you mean?”

“The book, Max. The one you haven’t read yet, and probably weren’t going to? Books like that are an important part of Cari’s world, and she wanted you to understand that.”

Max hadn’t thought of it that way. “Okay, I’ll read the thing. But what am I supposed to do to make Cari understand me?”

“You’ve got that big banquet coming up in a couple of weeks, haven’t you?”

“You mean the Metro Solitude Amateur Sports Ball? My parents will be out of town that weekend, so I wasn’t planning on going.”

“Aunt Teri and I can get you there and back,” said Uncle Adrian. “Maybe you can ask Cari to come with you.”

Max considered for a moment. “Are you sure it’s not a problem?”

“I’ll check with your Aunt Teri, but I’m sure it will be fine. I’ll send you a wireless later tonight.”

Uncle Adrian’s wireless message arrived about an hour after Max returned home. No problem at all, it read. Aunt Teri was looking forward to it. Well, I’d better go ahead and ask her, thought Max. He was nearly ready to crawl into bed when he noticed the book on his desk. Voices of the Dragonborn Era, pristine in its clear plastic wrapper. Max felt vaguely guilty. He really hadn’t meant to read it; books like that didn’t interest him much. But Uncle Adrian had a point. As far as Max could tell, Cari had presented the book to him in good faith, so reading at least part of it was the least he could do to appreciate her gesture. Further, Uncle Adrian’s chiding made Max realize that in Cari’s family, a fourteenth birthday was a pretty big deal, making the book doubly important. Finally, it occurred to Max that while he and Cari were about the same age, he couldn’t quite remember Cari’s birthday. Soon, he thought, but made a mental note to ask.

With his thumbnail, he sliced through the book’s plastic wrapping and opened the volume. What a lot to get through! Where to start? Looking at the table of contents, Max noticed a section on Solitude – that was as good a place as any. Maybe he’d recognize some of the things the book talked about. As he browsed through the topics, the essay on Näktergal caught his eye. So that’s who she was, thought Max. What a horrible fate, and somehow, a thousand years later, Cari found her bones. He’d have to remember to tell Cari what he’d read if he saw her tomorrow. At least it might give him a way to bring up the Metro Solitude Amateur Sports Ball. He had no idea how to ask her, but he knew he needed to have a plan by lunch time, when her school and his would be throwing sweets at the younger children and they stood a good chance of seeing each other. I’m a footballer after all, thought Max. I’ll just have to think on my feet. With a small sense of accomplishment, and a small idea of how tomorrow would go, Max finally went to bed.


A note about the illustrations: The pictures of Cari and the other characters are screenshots taken while playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  The shots were then manipulated using, and occasionally grafted into photos from my personal collection. The following user mods were used for this story: