Battle of Fort Dunstad (Part I)
The Pale grew dark, a combination of the onset of night and the overcast above. The first flakes of snow began to drift down, effortlessly swaying back and forth- a gentle reminder of the storm that was to follow. A few found their way onto Cato's exposed face and arms, but he gave them no heed; he was too deep in thought as he made his way from the fort. Over the week he stayed with the deserters he had planned his next moves, but it was not where to hide that was on his mind. Rather, it was what he would become. While he could use his training as a Blades agent to blend in to various places, living undercover was a different matter from living on the run. When he was undercover he could remind himself that he worked for a greater purpose, even if that was not apparent every single day. On the run however, he worked only to preserve his own life. Whatever kind of man Cato was, whatever he had to become, he could never be someone who watched the world go by.
He was snapped out of his thoughts by a noise- in fact, a series of clapping noises. Cato instantly sprinted off the road and dove behind a tree, a hand hovering above the handle of his katana. He crouched down to lower his profile, not quite kneeling to the ground so he could easily jump into action if need be. The sound of soft neighing that followed all but confirmed that he was hearing horses. Examining his surroundings, he could just manage to make out large shadows moving through the snow in the distance. A few seconds later, and he heard a slower rhythm coming from the road. This was no band of travelers, it was a sizable force. The Empire had no choice but to let the Thalmor in their territory due to the terms of the White-Gold Concordat, but these were always small groups of agents. They would never allow a Dominion army to march on Imperial lands, and Cato doubted the city guard forces would have so many men to spare either.
It had to be the Imperial Legion. Whether they came specifically for him or for the deserters in Fort Dunstad, he could not be sure. He knew one thing though- they were close and all around him. Perhaps if he knew the land well enough and with a stroke of luck he might slip away, but his only information on the Pale came from Asa pointing out a few locations on a map, and he had not been particularly fortunate of late. His best hope was to go back the way he came; as much as he despised the bandits, he stood more of a chance with them and their knowledge of the land.
Cato's training and experiences allowed him to make this choice in a fraction of a second, and he quickly turned and began running back for the fort before the Legion caught up. Judging by the rhythm coming from the road, the soldiers there were either on foot or going at a casual trot, which meant that he could outrun them there. Cato first sprinted through the snow by the roadside just to be cautious as the cover of the nearby trees could shield him from being spotted. When he was out of range of the footsteps he rejoined with the road.
As the eastern gate of Fort Dunstad came into view, he spied a figure making its way out- they must not know about the coming attack yet. He waited until he was closer before shouting to them about the incoming Legion forces. The figure froze instead of making their way back into the fort to warn the others as he expected. Cato's surprise faded once he approached the gate as he recognized the individual that stood there.
"Asa!" he exclaimed. "I thought you left already."
"I did," the Nord woman replied. "I came here to tell you about the Imperial soldiers, but Drub said that you just headed out."
"She actually wanted to go out there and look for you," the booming voice of the Orc sounded as his name was mentioned. "Good to have you back, Blade. Now get in here you idiot, we need every sword we got. And shut the gate behind you!"
Cato did as instructed, taking one side of the wooden gate while Asa took the other. They bolted it after it was closed, then turned towards Drubgurz and the others. The Orc had gathered a handful of the bandits and appeared to be giving instructions. Asa must have arrived not long before Cato, for the full strength of the fort was not here, only those who happened to be in the tavern and the vicinity of the entrance area.
"When did you get here?" Cato asked her.
"Only a minute ago," Asa confirmed. "I-"
She was interrupted as the loud Orsimer voice addressed her, "Asa, you're handy with a bow. Go through the prison area, rally everyone there and take position at the very top."
"I'm not one of your bandits, Drub," she replied, "I'll warn them, but I won't take up arms against soldiers of the Empire."
"Yeah, why are we taking orders from you?" one of the other Nords spoke out as well. "You might've led your own small group to leave the Legion, but you're not the boss here."
"Blade, how close are the legionnaires?" Drubgurz asked Cato, ignoring the defiance for now.
"Not far behind me," he responded.
The Orc turned back to the Nord man, taking a step towards him with a glowering expression on his already fearsome face, "You hear that? I've already sent Brucard to inform the boss and everybody else inside the fort. If you wanna go running back to the old man then go ahead. But you got your armour and weapons right here, and the enemy is probably just outside. Now if the gates are busted open and they have all the exits surrounded, then you'll be slaughtered like lambs. You wanna stand and fight, or you wanna die with ten Imperials jumping on you?"
"Why are we so bent on fighting?" Asa spoke again. "I've seen the soldiers, there's quite a number of them. They have cavalry, plate armoured warriors, archers; even with your supply of weapons and equipment you're not guaranteed to win. We have two gates here, let's leave this one bolted and get out through the other one."
All the pieces suddenly fell into place for Cato. The Legion's riders were traveling through the woods instead of the main road because the road passed through the fort. They must be familiar with the fort's layout and knew of its two entrances. The infantry force would lie in wait outside the eastern gate while the cavalry circled around to the west to strike, ensuring that no one would escape. It was a classic hammer and anvil maneuver.
He shared his realization with everyone else, "Actually, we can't. I saw horses veering off the road. They're moving to attack the other gate."
"Damn it!" Drubgurz cursed. "Grengar, bolt the western gate! Now!"
The Nord man who complained earlier obeyed without a word as he rushed towards the other side of the fort, but it was too little too late. The gate burst wide open before the man could reach it. He stepped back as the wooden doors swung inwards, turning to run when he saw the first horseman rush through. The bandit knew he would not outrun a horse and did the only thing he could think of. As the rider prepared to strike with his spear, the Nord raised his shield in a desperate attempt to parry the blow.
The horseman's spear did not pierce the iron shield, but the force of the impact knocked the man to the ground and likely fractured one or both bones in his arm. Proving more fatal however was his fall which knocked the wind out of him and he could neither move nor scream. His death was a silent one as the second horse passed by and its rider jabbed her spear into the Nord man's throat.
"Get off the road!" Cato yelled as he saw the others around him begin to panic, some of them freezing in place. "Horses aren't meant for combat in such closed spaces! Don't let them run you down and we can take them!"
They continued to charge forward but the next target, a Redguard woman, managed to dive out of the way in time. The first horseman continued onward while the second tried to take out the bandit who had evaded, but turning slowed the steed down, allowing another Nord with a massive greatsword to cleave the beast's leg. The horse reared back in pain and its rider rolled off. She didn't even have time to react before the greatsword came down on her armour, the weight of the weapon and strength of its wielder crushing her ribs despite the protection of her plate armour.
Before he could turn to face the third attacker though, the greatsword wielding Nord found himself impaled on a spear. By then, the archers had taken position and unleashed a volley of arrows that brought down most of the other horses in the fort. All this time, the first legionnaire to enter was still charging towards the far gate. While his steed's leather armour protected it from one arrow, two others pierced its hide and the horse began to run wild. The Imperial soldier leapt off, rolling to break his fall before continuing his dash for the gate despite having lost his spear.
"He's trying to open the eastern gate for the infantry!" Drubgurz shouted over the fighting.
Cato had seen the man's intentions as well. He did not want to harm soldiers of the Empire; not only did he see them still as on the same side, but he also understood that they were just following orders that their superiors had given them. Some of them might not even want to do what they were doing, but they had no choice. Cato found himself in a similar situation. He looked around and he saw Drubgurz fighting another dismounted horseman near the tavern while Asa had joined up with the archers on the walls above, some of whom had turned around to fire out the eastern side. The infantry was here, and if the other gate was opened, they would very quickly be overwhelmed.
He was the closest one to the eastern gate now, and he made a rush for the soldier there. The other Imperial spotted Cato and spun around while drawing his sword, doing his best to act quickly. The ex-Blade was much faster and slammed his shield with all his might into the man's head before he had his weapon ready. The blow sent his helmet flying off and the soldier crumpled to the ground, limp. He would not be waking up during this battle, if he ever woke again.
Cato stared at the fallen Imperial soldier solemnly before he turned his gaze to the rest of the fort. Other legionnaries lay in similar states across the snow, and deep inside the doors to the fort's interior had swung open and many more of the bandits, Nord and ex-Legion alike streamed into the courtyard. The surviving horsemen were routed and made a run for the open western gate. Drubgurz made no effort to pursue, immediately refocusing on the eastern front as he walked up to Cato.
"The infantry force is here?" the Orc asked the archers on the walls.
One of the bandit archers yelled something back, but neither Drubgurz nor Cato could make it out. The Orc called for clarification.
"Mages!" another archer repeated the message at the top of her lungs. "They've got battlemages!"
"Malacath's-" Drubgurz's curse was cut short by a thunderous noise from the gate, then a bright flash of orange. The next thing they knew, tendrils of flame engulfed the palisade, slowly eating through the timbers.
"We can't stay here!" Cato advised. He looked to the western gate, but the horsemen who had fallen back earlier had regrouped with heavy armoured infantry reinforcements and blocked off that path of escape. A Nord woman clad in iron wielding a warhammer led several others in an attempt to break through, but it was clear that they would not succeed.
"Fall back to the inside of the fort!" commanded Drubgurz.
"Then what?" the ex-Blade inquired. "Like you said, we'll be holed in with no escape route."
"I have an idea. Come on, we don't have time to argue. If you make a stand here you're going to die anyways!"
Cato could not deny his logic and followed the Orc towards the inner layer of the fort, the part that was surrounded by stone walls instead of palisades. He heard the gate come crashing down and the sound of many armoured boots as the infantry advanced into the fort, likely from both gates now. As Drubgurz and the others proceeded inside the fort's interior, Cato took a quick look around and noticed that the archers had seemingly missed or misinterpreted the order. Asa and the others upon the walls were headed inside the prison tower, which was separate from the rest of the fort. They would not be able to join Drubgurz's plan, whatever that may be, and they stood little chance against the incoming Imperial forces as bows would lose much of their advantage inside a building.
Asa had come back to warn him even though she had already gotten away from Fort Dunstad and did not need to get caught in this battle. Cato couldn't just leave her to fend for herself. He changed his heading and made for the prison tower instead.
As expected, Drubgurz shouted after him, "This way, Blade! What are you- don't go in there! If they're in the prison they're as good as dead! There's no point sacrificing yourself with them!"
Again, the Orc made a good point. It was very likely that Cato would be trapped inside the tower and be killed alongside Asa. Their odds of survival were low anyways, but this was almost suicide. Cato didn't care. His order was gone, everything and everyone he had once lived for was gone. All he had was himself- not his life, but who he was. He was a knight of the Blades. He was a man of honour. And he would not stand by while the Empire that was a shadow of its former self claimed more lives in its vain efforts to survive.