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January 14th, 2013 (2:30 AM).
Attn: This telling of the backstory for Aventus Cato, one of my original characters from my other fanfiction "The Divine Champion". If you haven't read TDC yet, I suggest reading it before this fic. That way you'll have a lot more perspective on the character. You can read it without having read TDC, but it's a different (and a bit better) experience if you have read it.
The following story takes place starting at the 22nd of Second Seed, 4E 195. Six years before the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the host fic, "The Divine Champion".
Love is a distant aroma at best,
a withering smile that's stuck deep within your vest.
The night air it wraps its fingers around.
Your body it shakes from the now distant sound.
Oh, the sound of her voice - a sweet symphony,
played over and over until you are free.
-"Honor for All", Daniel Licht, Dishonored
The Taller They Stand…
The moons hung low over the horizon as Aventus rode beneath their light. His horse was slick with sweat, its sides heaving from carrying the weight of the fully armored Imperial all the way from Bravil, with barely any stops along the way. The ivory spire that was the White-Gold Tower loomed in the distance, watching him. The only sound he could hear was the pounding of his heart in time with the sound of his steed's frenzied hoof beats on the stone path beneath them. "Come on," he yelled at his steed, "faster damn you!"
He had been riding through the night, and much of the day before. The only thought of his mind was home, and then getting as far away from the Empire as he could. Treason, he reminded himself, they will charge me with treason. He needed to get to his home before the news of what had happened reached the ears of the Empire proper. Treason meant certain death.
The walls of the Imperial City stood on his right. Aventus took an immediate left, avoiding the main bridge and instead taking one of the many side roads that would eventually lead him to his home; to his wife and baby. But his heart skipped a beat when he saw the black smoke curling above the tree line. He kicked his horse, and the poor beast sjirachied in discontent, unable to increase its already frantic pace. The smell of burning wood permeated the air around him. Gods no, gods no, gods no!
The horse tripped, tumbling forward. With a screech it twisted as it hit the ground, a cringing crunch as its leg broke beneath it. Aventus landed with a grunt, his left leg still beneath his horse. The poor beast was screaming in pain. Aventus pushed against its back with both hands. He cried aloud as he finally freed himself. Stumbling to his feet, he started down the path on his own, leaving the horse to the wolves. His leg was burning more and more with each step he took in his run down the path. But the pain was nothing.
But he stopped dead in his tracks when he reached his home… and found it in ruin. The framework had somehow survived, leaving only the skeleton of the house he had built. Curious enough the door was still standing in its frame. His breath caught in his chest when he saw a chain on the door. Something… someone had been locked inside while the house had burned.
His fears were confirmed.
This had been no accident.
"Gods no," he breathed, not wanting to believe it. The small two room house that he had built with his own hands stood burnt and black before him, it barely stood at all. "ELAINA!" he called for his wife, running to the house with new fervor. He called her name again and again, room to room.
"Please, gods, no, please," he repeated, before calling her name once more as he finally reached the last room, his son's.
And that's where he found her.
Aventus fell to his knees, tears pouring from him. She was burnt black, her features unrecognizable, but he knew it was her, he knew it in his heart. Her skin was burnt off her body, her once beautiful light brown hair burned away. She sat cowering in the corner, frozen in her death. Aventus was unable to think. He cried out in anguish before finally crawling on hands and knees to her. He reached out to touch her cheek, only to have a piece of flesh chip away at his touch, surprising him and forcing him to fall backwards, the surreal reality sinking in.
He knew he should look away, but he couldn't.
But it was only now that he noticed the strange angle she was sitting in. Her arms wrapped tight around her chest, as if protecting something. He punched the ground. Darius. She was protecting their son. Instead of finding a way out, she had gone to their son.
His entire life, everything he had ever worked for, everything he had loved, was gone, gone in one instant. The one instant that he defied and order, the instant he became a traitor.
His life was over. He was broken.
He didn't know how long he had been there, sitting in the room with his dead wife and baby. And he couldn't tell when the memories began.
The sun bathed her face in its warm light. She smiled, radiant and white. Aventus went to her and she fell into his arms where she fit perfectly. Her hair smelled like lavender, her lips tasted like honey, and her skin was as soft as silk. She broke away from his embrace to look into his eyes. He smiled back at her.
"Do you know what today is?" she asked him.
"Hmm," he said, trying not to laugh. "I'm not sure."
She leaned in close, and spoke in his ear, her breath hot on his neck. "Today's the day I tell you I love you."
He chuckled lightly. "What a coincidence," he said, his lips lightly brushing hers, "I love you too."
A ghost of a smile remained on his face. "Legate?" a voice said, pulling him away from his old memories. Aventus could barely hear them. "Legate?" they said again. Suddenly a pair of hands grabbed Aventus' shoulders and shook him.
The world returned into focus. Aventus was shocked to find he was no longer in the ruined house, but outside. He recognized the man that had awoken him. Aldrich had been their neighbor for a time, running the inn just a small ways down the road. "Ald-" he was shocked to hear how hoarse his voice was, "Aldrich?"
"By the Eight, Legate!" the old man said, his hand still on Aventus' shoulder. "I thought we lost you too."
Aventus laughed darkly. "Not yet, it seems."
The old Imperial shook his head. "Come on, now," he sadly said with a soft sigh, "we need to get you out of here." He reached forward, trying to help Aventus stand.
"No," Aventus refused, pushing the old man away.
"Stendaar's mercy," he cursed, reaching for him again. "Sir, you sure as Oblivion can't stay here."
"Leave me be, old man," Aventus growled, pushing the man away again. "Leave me to die in peace."
Aldrich sighed. "I'm afraid I can't let you do that." He pulled on Aventus' arm and lifted it around his head. Aventus didn't have the will to resist, and found himself standing beside the old man.
"We can't just leave her," he argued.
"I'll take care of it, Legate," Aldrich offered, his voice soft. "Right now, sadly, it will have to wait."
"We can't let them know you were here," the old Imperial explained as they started back down the path. "As it is we've wasted too much time."
Aventus stopped. "Who did this?"
"A conversation for another time," Aldrich said, avoiding the question. "For now, let's get you to the inn, say? You need to rest. You look like you ain't slept in a fortnight."
Aventus wasn't going to argue, he didn't have the will to. The man led them deep into the forest before stopping in the thickest part of the wood. "Here should do," he told himself. He turned to Aventus. "Off with the armor," he ordered. "They'll see you straightaway if you're seen wearing that."
"I got clothes here for you, Legate," the old man said, reaching into his pack and pulling out a spare set of clothes, a simple white tunic and a pair of pants. "I planned ahead, I did." He looked at Aventus again. "Sadly, I forgot boots, but you should be fine as long as you don't bring attention to your feet before we get to the Pig's Eye." He shoved the clothes into Aventus' arms. Aventus stared at them. "You can dress yourself can't you?" the old man scoffed.
"Of course I-"
"Then don't let me hold 'ya back," Aldrich finished. "I'm doing to start digging; we'll bury the armor and cover it up. No one'll find it."
Aventus shook his head, but heeded the old man's instructions. The old man nodded once Aventus started taking off his bracers, and then he began digging a hole beneath a nearby tree. Aventus should have cared. He worked hard to earn this armor, his life's work, but honestly he felt like he wasn't even there. Aventus Cato was still in Elsweyr. It was like a stranger was taking control of his actions, and he was just watching from above, not really here nor there.
When Aventus finished dressing he tossed his helmet on top of the armor pile, making a loud clanking sound as the metal hit metal. Aldrich took the pile and tossed it into the newly dug hole, then proceeded to cover it back up and toss a few branches over it for good measure. "That's done then," he said, looking over his work. "Come on to the Pig's Eye, we can talk a bit there."
Words not forming correctly, Aventus simply nodded.
Aldrich glanced at him. "Can you walk on your own now?" Aventus nodded again. Aldrich sighed. "Right then." Aldrich turned and started walking through the wood, Aventus stumbling at his heels. The old man avoided the main road with the ease of an expert hunter, and soon they found themselves at the simple inn that the old man called home.
The Pig's Eye wasn't a luxury inn. It was simple. Two levels, a tavern on the main, as well as Aldrich's living quarters, and rooms for rent on the second floor. The tavern was well kept, but empty. Already a fire was burning in the hearth, keeping the slight chill of early spring away. Aventus winced at the sight of it; he wasn't too fond of fire at the moment.
Aldrich pointed to an empty table. "Take a seat, boy," he said. Without a word Aventus collapsed at the table, running his hands through his cropped black hair. Aldrich patted his shoulder in sympathy. "Maggs!" he called back, making Aventus jump a little. With a last pat, Aldrich made his way to the counter, pounding on the bar. "Maggs!" he called again.
"I'm comin' you piss sour old dog," said an old woman shuffling out from the back room. She scowled at Aldrich. "You might be my brother Aldie, but that don't mean I can't kick your sorry ass out if you keep treating me like your maid."
Aldrich returned her scowl. "We have a guest," he said simply.
"Oh," the old woman said, slightly surprised. She glanced over at Aventus.
"He got gold to pay?"
"Special case," Aldrich said, glowering at his sister.
Aldrich leaned over and whispered in her ear. Her eyes went wide. She stared at the broken man with sympathy. "Nine," she whispered.
"Watch what you say woman!" Aldrich scolded.
"Piss on that," she scolded back. "I won't let some knife-eared bastards tell me who to pray to." She poked her brother's chest with fervor. "Pa was a Nord," she reminded him, "a man o' the north. You might have forgotten that but I haven't. Damned Imperials can be neutered by those Aldmeri if they want, but a true Nord never forgets!" Her eyes halted at their Imperial guest. "No offense boy."
Aldrich shook his head. "Believe what you want, you old hag, but keep your mouth shut about it."
Maggs clenched her mouth shut, but it was obvious she had more to say on the matter. Aldrich looked to Aventus. "Let's get you some food," he offered. Aventus shook his head. The mere thought of food made his stomach turn. "Sleep then," he counter offered. He took Aventus' arm and helped him stand. "There's plenty of rooms upstairs. Take your pick."
Aventus was certain that he was losing his mind. He had checked and double checked his Imperial armor, and soon he did a triple check; just to be safe. If anything he was more than ready for today's war council. But no matter how many times he assured himself he still felt nervous. What if he did something wrong? What if he forgot the names of the other councilors? What if he stumbled, or didn't know how to answer a question?
He had just strapped on his sword belt when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned, seeing his wife behind him. He smiled. They had been married a year, yet every time he saw her he still swooned like he had the first time he'd met her. She was beautiful. Her light brown hair was braided down her back. Her warm smile greeted him like sunshine. She held his polished plumed officer's helmet in one hand and their three month old son, Darius, in the other. Aventus ignored the helmet and bent down, kissing her softly on the cheek and reaching for his son. He held him gently in his arms.
This was what he fought for, he realized. This little bundle was his world. It was something he'd protect with his life. He kissed his son gently on the head before exchanging him for his helmet. "I want a few words with the man who decided that we are to wear full armor for a meeting," he chuckled.
Elaina reached up and rested her hand on his newly shaven cheek. "You'll do fine, Aventus. The General will be there with you."
"Thanks for reminding me," Aventus said, rolling his eyes. He thrust his helm atop his head, adjusting it so it aligned correctly with his face. "One week," he said softly, "and I'll be home."
"Of course," she said with a chuckle as she followed him out the door.
"I'm just going to be in the city," he continued, "so if you need anything just write and I'll rush home."
Now it was her turn to roll her eyes. "Yes, Legate. Now go, or you'll be late."
He turned, facing her. He took a moment to stare into her deep brown eyes. "I love you," he smiled as Darius started stirring in his mother's arms, "both of you."
She stared back into his. "They why did you do it?"
Aventus looked at her blankly. "What?"
The room was becoming uncomfortably hot. "Why did you kill us?"
Aventus stepped back, his hands up in confusion. "I didn't!" he pleaded.
"Don't lie to me!" she screamed. The baby woke and was now screaming with her. "You killed us!"
"I didn't do anything!"
"Exactly!" she screamed. The room was searing hot now. "Where were you my husband? Where were you?"
"I tried!" he pleaded once more. "I tried!"
"Not hard enough!"
Flames were rising around them. He choked on black smoke that now surrounded them. "We need to get out of here!" he argued, reaching for her hand. As soon as he touched her her skin turned black and hard. He looked up and saw her, a withered and burnt husk.
"You condemned us to death!"
"No!," he cried falling to his knees. "I didn't mean for this to happen!"
"We died knowing that you did this," she said with malice.
"No," he gasped, leaning forward on his hands and knees. "I- I didn't… I… no, gods please, I love you! I tried! I tried! I was too late." Tears crept down his cheeks as he sobbed, evaporating on the floor. "I was too late, too late," he cried.
She reached forward and grabbed his shoulder. "Too late," she mimicked him.
The world returned to him in a flash. He found Aldrich standing above him. The old man placed a wash basin on the bedside table. Aventus felt a cool air on his cheeks. He reached for his face to find he'd been crying in his sleep. Aldrich looked at him with sad eyes. "I brought you something to wash up," he said, pointing to the basin.
"Thank you," Aventus murmured as he sat up and threw his legs over the side, wincing slightly as the movement pulled his injured leg.
Aldrich watched him. "You've been out for almost a whole day," he explained. "While you were out we checked out that leg of yours, should be okay." He paused. "What happened to it?"
"Horse fell on it," Aventus grunted, reaching for the wash cloth in the basin and washing his face with the warm water.
"Oh," the old man said simply. "There are fresh clothes on the chair there." He pointed to the chair. "And Maggs and I will be downstairs." He gazed at Aventus. "I know you had some questions."
"Yes," Aventus said, rubbing his neck. "I will join you when I am ready."
The old man nodded and shut the door behind him. Aventus sighed. Had this really happened? Maybe he was dreaming. Maybe he was having some prophetic dream warning him against actions that hadn't been made yet. Maybe he would wake up in his tent tomorrow and a courier would deliver to him a letter from home.
He choked when he realized there was no home to get letters from anymore.
He shook his head as he ran his hands through his hair. It was time to return to the real world. His wife and son were dead. They were burned alive in their own home, terrified and alone while he was in another country. It was his fault they were dead. It was his fault.
Nearly lethargic, Aventus washed and dressed in the borrowed clothes, lumbering down the stairs to find Aldrich and Maggs waiting for him at a table. A meal was set out for him. It was obvious that they had eaten already, and by the low light he could tell it was night. Aventus sat in front of the plate offered; bread, a meat stew, and a mug of ale. Aventus picked at the bread. "Baked fresh this morning," Maggs offered, breaking the silence.
"Thank you," he said, giving her a wary smile. "I have no coin…"
"No coin needed, child," she said, waving him off. Aventus bit into the bread, it was still soft. He nodded in thanks. They watched him eat in silence. Aventus welcomed it. He was hungrier than he thought. And the meal was good, if simple. He finished and Maggs took the plate away, leaving Aventus to sip at his ale.
Aldrich's hands tightened around the bottle of mead before him. "So, I suppose you have a lot of questions."
Aventus nodded sadly. "What happened?" He was torn. A part of him wanted to know, needed to know, but another part of him was terrified to learn their fate. Logic had won out in the end.
"They came about two days before you came back," he started.
"Who?" Aventus interrupted. Two days? He'd only been two days late? Sadness threatened to overwhelm him again, but he managed to push it down with another sip of ale.
"Imperial Legion soldiers and Thalmor agents," Aldrich hissed. "We heard the commotion and found them outside right as they were chaining the door." Aldrich sighed sadly. "They were inside… they threatened to arrest anyone who tried to…"
Aventus didn't need him to finish.
Aldrich looked at him. "They said you were a traitor."
Aventus stared at his mug. "I am." Aventus could feel Aldrich's eyes on him. "My company and I were sent to Elsweyr to quell an upstarting rebellion there, a head Thalmor agent and his Justiciars came as well. We were to maintain a presence," he explained. "We managed to root out the leader, and we went to his home to arrest him while his son, a warrior, was distracted, a plan of deceit made by blackmailing the son’s lady friend." He sipped at his ale. "The leader was to be arrested and tried," he reiterated. "Instead the Thalmor killed him right there, just as the son came back, and right in front of him. No trial."
"Gods," Aldrich said, shaking his head, "that's not justice, that's murder."
"I know," Aventus said darkly, "that's why I killed him."
Aldrich stared at him wildly. "You killed a Thalmor?!"
Aventus nodded. "My men let me pass out of respect. I fled the country and tried to make it back to Cyrodiil before word of what happened reached the rest of the Thalmor's ears." He paused, realizing something. "What news of my father?"
Aldrich was slow to answer. "Commander Cato, was…" He paused. Aventus could see him trying to bring the words together. "Commander Cato was discharged. They say he resigned. "Aldrich scowled. "Any person worth their weight in **** knows that's probably not true." Him too? Aventus thought sadly. He wasn't close to his father in any way. He was only a bastard, and his father only claimed him for the sake of 'duty'. But to see that his actions affected even the Commander of the Legion…
They were silent for a time. Aldrich was the one to break the silence, "You can't stay in Cyrodiil. You need to keep moving. Find somewhere to hide, assume a new name, a new life."
Aventus felt the mark of the Legion on his arm. "I'm marked," he said simply, referring to the Legion tattoo that all Legionnaires are given upon acceptance.
Aldrich waved it away. "That will be easy to hide."
Aventus shook his head. "Where would I go?"
Maggs returned with another loaf of bread. "Skyrim."
Aventus was confused. "Skyrim is part of the Empire."
Maggs laughed lightly. "Or so they think," she explained. "Skyrim is Skyrim,
Nords follow their own." She paused. "And after what happened in the Reach, I've been hearing talk of a civil war. If any country could break free, it'd be Skyrim. It'd be the Nords."
Aldrich nodded. "She speaks sense."
"Skyrim," Aventus trailed.
"You'll make it," Aldrich said, giving him a gentle smile. "The old lady is a bit off in the head, but she is probably right in this. We can give you some things to get you there."
“Thank you, I-“Aventus was cut off as the sound of horses could be heard outside.
Aldrich stood and quickly made his way to the window, peeking out. “Oblivion! Legion!”
Aventus’ heart was in his throat. Again, everything was his fault, he’d led
them here, and now this poor old family would suffer for the deeds he had done. Maggs grabbed his wrist with strength that did not beget and woman of her age. “You need to hide,” she said in a harsh whisper. “Now!”
“Where?” he started as Aventus pushed him away toward the wall beside the bar, while Maggs cleared their plates, leaving no hint that anyone was ever there. Aldrich pushed on the wall, revealing a moving panel that slide to the side. He pushed Aventus inside, and then slid the panel back. Aventus stood straight. Every breath felt louder than it should. Shadows played with the lights inside the hiding place. He held his breath and listened as he heard footsteps near where he remembered the front door was.
Multiple sets of armored footsteps made their way to the counter. He was grateful for once that Imperial Soldiers clanked like kitchens with every movement. The strangest list of things ran through his head. Had he made the bed? Did he leave anything in the room? Did he smell like smoke? He heard the sound of a broom sweeping. He was surprised; these two seemed pretty good at this.
The footfalls stopped at the counter. He heard a slight clank that could only be the soldier putting his hands on the bar. Heavy armor then, an officer? “Welcome to the Pig’s Eye,” he heard Maggs say in the strangely sweet voice. “Are you looking for a room?”
“No,” said a female voice, a very familiar female voice. Aventus cursed silently. “We’re looking for a fugitive. He’s an ex-legionnaire, former Legate Aventus Cato.” Aventus heard a paper being moved. “Have you seen this man? He lived nearby.”
He could almost imagine Maggs shaking her head. “Can’t say I have,” she said lightly. “Aldie,” she called, “have you seen this boy?”
More footsteps could be heard and the passing of a paper. “Doesn’t look familiar,” the old man said. “He’s wanted you say?”
There was a pause as the sound of the door opening could be heard. Lighter sounding footsteps made their way inside, followed by a voice. “Is the fugitive here?” said a snobbish voice. Thalmor, Aventus concluded.
“They say he’s not,” the soldier said, obviously not happy. “My men and I have yet to search the property.”
The Thalmor closed in. “This fugitive is wanted by the Empire for the crime of high treason. If you have seen this man, now is the time to tell us,” he said with a hint of malice.
“There ain’t no one here me and my sister,” Aldrich said. Aventus could sense a hint of fear in the old man’s voice.
“You do know the punishment for harboring a fugitive?”
Aldrich scoffed, “I got a feelin’ you’re gonna tell me.”
“Death,” the Thalmor said simply.
“He’s not here.”
Aventus could almost hear the Altmer’s sneer. “Rikke, search the property.”
“Of course,” the soldier said simply. She must have given a signal because more footfalls fell around him. They were searching for him.
Aldrich was arguing with the Altmer. There was a loud crash followed by Maggs cursing. “That’s an antique!” she cried.
Aventus listened to the footsteps with bated breath. Someone was close. He could see the gleam of steel through the thin cracks in the wall, Rikke then. Aventus’ held his breath as the soldier stopped right in front of the panel. Aventus was sure he was found. He was still holding his breath when she turned and started back toward the bar.
One by one the soldiers were clearing the building.
“Main floor clear!”
“Nothing in the cellar, M’am.”
“Guest rooms are empty.”
“Living quarters searched!”
The soldier sighed and called to her men, “There’s nothing here, we’re moving on.”
Aventus listened as the Altmer’s light feet left, pausing in the door. “We will be back,” the High Elf promised.
Aventus heard the door close behind the soldiers. Aldrich cursed. The inn was silent as the last of the hoof beats were fading off into the distance.
“The bastards are gone,” Maggs confirmed.
Aventus breathed in relief.
Aventus would only stay for the evening. Despite their many offers to let him stay, he knew that that would not be the last time the Legion would come looking for him. And that next time they would not be so kind. Instead, after a silent meal he returned to his room and began packing whatever items he could find, including a dark grey wool cloak that hung by the door. As soon as the inn was quiet Aventus slinked out into the night. His footsteps were light; he did not want to wake the others.
With light hands Aventus closed the door gently behind him. His heart sunk. This was it, he was truly leaving his home, and, this time, there was no going back. He would take their advice and head north to Skyrim. Aventus had just made it down the front steps when he heard a voice behind him, “Leaving already?”
Aventus turned to Aldrich, standing on the porch. He lowered his hood. “They will keep hunting me,” he said sadly. “I can’t endanger you anymore.”
Aldrich nodded slowly. “I just wish you would have said goodbye before going off like this.”
Aventus frowned. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” the old man said with a sigh. He reached on the porch behind him and offered Aventus a bag. "Food and supplies for the journey," he offered. "It's not much, but it's better than nothing. And this," he said. He was holding an Imperial sword. It was old and used, but well taken care of. "Was mine during the Great War," the old man explained. "I figured I'm too old to use it, and the road ain't safe."
Aventus took it gingerly, drawing it and inspecting it. "It's generous of you," he said, sheathing the blade. "Thank you." He took the supplies bag and draped it over his back, and holstered the sword at his hip.
“You'll make it Legate, I wish you the best."
Aventus shook his head. "I'm not a Legate anymore."
Aldrich smiled. "All righ' then. You'll make it, Aventus."
Aventus started down the stair, stopping to look back. "Just Cato," he said, turning from the Pig’s Eye and moving into the night.
Aldrich nodded. "Good luck, Cato."