Den of Wolves
They had walked for the better part of a day now. The Nord woman led Cato through Skyrim's wilderness, mostly avoiding roads and only crossing them when necessary. The trip was uneventful, which was fortunate given the reason of their travel. First, they had passed a large stretch of plains though they did not enter the open terrain for fear of being spotted. Instead, they had stuck by the rocks at its very edge, which provided cover should the need to hide arise. Cato had darted behind one of them when he heard a thunderous noise like a thousand footsteps marching as one, an ignorant reaction in retrospect and one that the Nord had laughed at. She went on to explain that it was only giants and their livestock, equally massive creatures known as mammoths. When dawn broke and sunlight had illuminated the land, she pointed out the distant group to him and told him that they were not aggressive unless disturbed.
The Nord woman did not speak much to him. She provided information when it was necessary or asked for, but long periods of their journey passed in complete silence. Cato had made such journeys before and with a variety of people; some would never cease to talk while others, much like her, barely spoke in their times together. He did not mind either, and in both cases he found himself learning quite a bit about his travelling companions. This woman was not a hunter as he had initially thought. She certainly possessed the skills of one, but she was so much more. She moved through the landscape with the grace of an elk, prowled with the stealth of a wolf, and from what he had seen of her in the cave, fought with the ferocity of a bear. It was like the wilderness was her home, and she knew the course of every river and and every road as well as Cato knew the streets of the Imperial City.
Though he had more than he could ever want of silence in his new life of exile, Cato found the quiet companionship of the woman rather suited to the beautiful but harsh environment of the north. Not only was she an excellent guide, but she gave valuable insight when she did speak, and when she did not it allowed him time to take in the serene landscapes that they traversed. Shortly after dawn however, their surroundings transformed from the lush plains to a snowy forest. The palette gradually changed from grey and green to white and brown, which held a different beauty. It made Cato reminisce of Bruma and the nearby Cloud Ruler Temple, former headquarters of the Blades, now in ruins after the Thalmor attack. He felt a sense of comfort here as it was an environment he was familiar with, but at the same time, also a pang of sadness for the former life to which he could never return. Perhaps he would live out his life in hiding in this part of Skyrim; it was more remote, and it was a bit like home.
His Nord guide explained to him that they were crossing over to the Pale, one of the nine Holds of Skyrim. A hold was essentially a province, governed by a leader called a Jarl who answered to the High King. The Imperial Legion had far less of a presence here than Cyrodiil, and the Holds largely kept the peace with the use of local guards loyal to their Jarl. As a result of this, crimes were tracked independently in each Hold, and a criminal in one may go unnoticed at least for a little while in another Hold. Whiterun was by far the closest city to the cave where they slew the elves, and it was most likely that the survivor had fled there. The majority of the Pale's guards protected its capital Dawnstar, which was a long distance away from Whiterun. If the Thalmor recruited the assistance of Skyrim's local forces, it would be quite some time before news would spread here.
While Cato knew where they were, the Nord woman had still not yet told him any specifics of their destination, and growing more curious by the minute, he decided to ask, "Where are we headed? We're already fairly deep into the Pale, are we not?"
"We are, but where we're going is a little further," she replied. "You need a rest? Maybe you should lose that shield."
"No," he had, with great discomfort, shed his armour to avoid recognition, but he was not giving up any more of who he was. "I'm fine. We keep moving. I just wanted to know if-"
"If I'm leading you astray?" the woman gave a small chuckle. "What do you think I am, a mercenary charging by the hour?"
"Certainly not. I don't mean to imply anything."
"Trust me. I haven't fed you to any wolves yet, have I?"
She was right; her knowledge of the land had served them well and she gave no reason for him to doubt her sincerity. Having little other choice either way, Cato continued to follow the Nord. They continued through the forest; he was sure the woman chose this densely wooded route purposefully to better hide their passage. After a few more minutes of travelling, Cato began to make out what looked like stone walls beyond the pine foliage. They were initially difficult to distinguish from the rocky formations around them, but it grew clearer the closer they got. As they finally turned onto a road, it became obvious that this was their destination.
"A fortress?" Cato asked the woman with a hint of uncertainty. "I was under the impression that we were going to some remote cave."
"We were, until you told me the elves have taken over and are imposing their laws on Skyrim," she explained.
"They haven't exactly taken over. It was a treaty, a forced one, but agreed to by-"
She interrupted him abruptly as they began to approach a side gate, "Just stay behind me, and let me do the talking."
Two men ran across the top of a wooden palisade just outside the fort. Their bows already in hand, they drew arrows as they moved and notched them upon reaching the gate, aiming down at the Nord woman and the Imperial following behind her. She halted and emptied her hands by dropping her package of supplies in front of her, making no move for her weapons but looking rather undaunted by the aggressive welcome. Cato, on the other hand, slipped a hand behind his back and grasped his shield, not holding it out in front of him just yet, but ready to do so at a moment's notice should the arrows fly.
"What is this, bandits?" he cast a suspicious gaze at the two men, then back to the woman. "Were you leading me into an ambush all along?"
"Bandits!" a resonating laugh suddenly sounded from the other side of the palisade, and a large figure stepped into view. "You wound me. We live, we fight, we die! Is that not the way of the Nords?"
The voice belonged to a muscular Orsimer, even more heavily-built than Cato, though that was to be expected from a warrior race. Orcs were generally seen as barbaric by the other inhabitants of Tamriel, an image likely painted by their tribal societal structure and immense physical strength. Many Orcs have since played into this role, serving as fighters the Imperial army, sellswords or, as with this individual, bandits.
"The Nords have a sense of honour. They don't just kill and plunder," Cato responded, but it seemed that the Orc ignored him, instead turning his attention to his travelling companion.
"Asa! What did you bring with you this time, apart from this self-righteous dimwit?" he clasped a hand on her shoulder.
Asa. That must have been her name. It suddenly occurred to Cato he did not even know the woman's name, let alone her true allegiances. The sudden, dramatic shift of his life and solitude of his wandering must have caused him to let his guard down. He did not take her for a brigand, but it would not have been the first time that he had been subject to deception. Could he have been tricked by her; saved her only to be lured into a trap?
"Deer hide, top quality, almost entirely undamaged," she said to the Orc, her voice much louder than it had been in the wild, almost as if she is trying to match that of the person she was conversing with.
Yanking the hide from underneath the woman's bedroll, the Orsimer held it in front of him fully unfurled, examining it before giving a grunt of approval, "Name your price."
"Shelter. For me and the Imperial."
So she was sincere after all. Cato disliked bandits, they were dishonourable people with ill intentions. However, he could not deny that the woman's reasoning had a certain sense to it. No one could better help them evade capture than outlaws, and they were in trouble with the law. Though it was only an act of self-defense, or defense of an innocent in Cato's case, people were going to come after them nonetheless. Hiding away in a remote location was an option, but the possibility of being found was still there. The Nord woman, Asa, appeared to be familiar with these bandits, likely having traded with them before. Seeking their protection may be a wise choice, as they offered more than a hideout- if enforcers of the law did find them, many of the outlaws would put up a fight for their own sake, giving them a chance.
"No," the Orc shook his head after a moment of consideration. "Not enough."
"What about this?" Asa reached into her clothes, taking out a coin purse that she had stored somewhere within her garments. "Is this enough, Drub?"
Cato did not see the purse clearly as it flew towards the Orc, but the colour and general patterning of it told him enough. It was no simple bag of coins, but reminiscent of the design of Thalmor robes. She must have taken it from the body of one of the elves sometime when he was not looking. Whether that was done intentionally to keep him in the dark, Cato could not be sure. From the way the coin purse arched in the air and the audible jingling it made as the Orc caught it, there was a certainly a good amount of gold inside it.
The Orc knew this as well and he gave the woman a wide grin, "Welcome to Fort Dunstad."