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"You must be joking!"

"I'm afraid not," the caravaner says. "The strider for Balmora leaves twice a day on Sundas. You'll have to wait until dusk."

Garyn sighs. "And there's nothing I can do to convince you to leave sooner?"

"No can do, I'm afraid," he says.

Garyn kicks the dirt beneath him and grumbles an obscenity. He has no great desire to meet Cosades in Balmora, but he's grown light on coin over the last day. He has the money for the silt strider fare and almost nothing else. He probably won't be able to afford a complete meal today - not a good situation for someone about to travel 40 miles right now, much less half a day from now. But he can't change when the strider runs.

"Fine," he says. "I'll see you at dusk."

Garyn descends the staircase of the strider platform. It's situated on a hill around a hundred feet outside the village proper. From there he can see all of Seyda Neen laid out before him, what little there is of it. On the other side of town there is a small rocky peninsula jutting out into the sea. He can just about make out a few mudcrabs basking in the sun. If all else fails, he could kill and cook one of those. If that fails, too, he'd still rather starve than accept Hrisskar's offer.

But something far closer catches Garyn's eye - a worn wooden door, built into a cliff face not 15 yards from the strider dock. He walks toward it to get himself a closer look. He can make out a crude inscription engraved above it. "Addamasartus," it reads. He can make out footprints in the marshy ground in front of it.

This must be a dwelling, Garyn surmises. He's seen people live in stranger places on the outskirts of town, after all.

He hesitates for a moment. But since there is nothing to indicate that the dwelling is off limits, he forces the door open and enters the cavern behind it.

The cave is small and dark, lit only by a few dim torches and a small fire. At the other side of the chamber, Garyn can see a crude wooden gate which covers a passageway. The entrance stands on a rocky ledge a couple of feet above the ground.

On the floor below, next to an overturned boat, a Dunmer woman in a wicker hat sits by the fire. Next to her is an opened crate of skooma vials.

Garyn blinks. "...Oh."

The woman gives no warning. There are no threats, no rebukes, no demands for Garyn to mind his own business if he knows what's good for him. She leaps to her feet, draws her dagger, and charges. "N'wah!"

Perhaps this smuggler thinks that Garyn is unarmed, or that she can bring her dagger to bear before he can draw his weapon. But if eighteen months of inaction have weakened his muscles, they haven't dulled his reflexes.

There is no hesitation - Garyn draws his sword and parries the woman's strike before making a counterstroke of his own. The dagger falls from her hand as he cuts deeply into her arm. He slashes again across her chest before kicking her off the ledge into the chamber below. Her head strikes a jutting rock with a sickening crack as her skull splits open.

Garyn jumps down from the ledge and runs toward the gate and the steps beneath it. Footsteps and alarmed voices echo through the cavern. He presses himself against a hollow by the back wall and waits for them to arrive.

The first to arrive is a robed Dunmer mage. Garyn doesn't wait for the other one to enter - they will see him if he hesitates. And without the element of surprise, the weakened and unarmored Garyn doesn't stand a chance. As the wizard emerges from the doorway in aid of his comrade, Garyn lunges forward, plunging the blade into his abdomen. The sorcerer's bowels protrude from his stomach as the blade leaves him. He falls to his knees and writhes in conscious agony.

Then something sharp grazes Garyn's shoulder. He wheels around to face the mage's accomplice. It's another Dunmer woman, this one wielding throwing stars. Garyn bellows and charges at her with his sword extended to close the distance. The markswoman can't backpedal down the stairs as fast as Garyn can barrel down them. She stumbles over her own feet and slams against the back railing. She can't get up before Garyn runs her through.

The cave falls silent. For a moment, Garyn says and does nothing - not even tend to the wound on his shoulder. Calmly he doubles back to deliver the coup de grĂ¢ce to the suffering hedge wizard. Then, when he is sure the danger has passed, Garyn slumps against a cave wall and gives a long, ragged sigh.

He should be dead. He should be dead three or four times over. One unarmored and unprepared swordsman shouldn't stand a chance against three defenders. But they had fought him one at a time instead of all at once. Any smugglers' den this close to a settlement shouldn't be caught by surprise when someone stumbles upon them.

Which raises the question - why had they been allowed to operate so close to town in the first place? And next to the caravan route, no less! Either the town guard is legendarily incompetent, or someone is choosing to deliberately look the other way. Given the quarantine, Garyn strongly suspects the latter. Whoever it was wouldn't have the chance to profit from it anymore.

But Garyn might, now that there's nobody left to claim their goods. He'll leave the skooma, obviously - he has no intention of going back to prison - but anything else is fair game if it means he can eat and get himself some armor. He snatches a key hanging from the waist of the markswoman and heads deeper into the cave. The passage leads to a T-junction; Garyn takes the right-hand path.

After gathering a sizable sackful of coins and other valuables, he makes for the other path when he hears a stifled cough coming from the end of the passage. His sword comes out again. Slowly he crosses the narrow passage and emerges into a chamber containing a large wooden cage. Inside that cage are two Argonians and a Khajiit. They are all painfully underfed, and the Khajiit's fur is filthy and matted. They stare silently at Garyn with bleary, tired eyes.

Garyn stares back at them for a moment, wondering what three petty drug smugglers would need to keep prisoners for.

Finally the Khajiit speaks.

"They are dead?" he croaks, in Senchal-accented Ta'agra. "We are free?"

Gods. Now Garyn understands - they're slaves. He is in Morrowind, after all. He had taken enough jobs hunting down slavers in and around the Topal Sea to know what goes on off the coast of Elsweyr and Argonia. They had been kidnapped from their homes.

"Yes," Garyn says. "I killed them. You're free to go."

He turns to one of the Argonians. "How far can you walk?" he says.

Garyn's grasp of Jel is not as strong as his Ta'agra. But it's far stronger than that of most other men and mer who have attempted it. Growing up in Leyawiin does have its advantages.

"As far as we need to go, once you let us out."

"Give me a moment."

Garyn reaches for the key at his waist and tries it on the gate. This isn't a hard decision for him - these people were seized illegally, enslaved illegally, and brought to Vvardenfell illegally, so he won't be sent back to prison for doing the right thing. These beastfolk were born free - none had any right to take them. If that's not the law, then the law be damned.

And if they had been born into slavery? What would you have done then, convict? Leave them to rot here, like a coward?

Garyn shakes his head and banishes the thought as the key slides smoothly into the lock. It fits the locks of their bracers just as well. Soon they are all free.

"Thank you, stranger," the Khajiit says. "You will forever be a friend to Baadargo."

One of the Argonians crosses his arms. "We owe you more thanks than we can number," she says. "But we do not know how to return home. We don't even know where we are."

Garyn winces. "It will be difficult," he says. "The island's been...cut off. You need...pardon me. Do you speak Tamrielic? It would be easier for me."

"I do," she says. "But Okaw's grasp of the man-language is poor."

"We both speak Ta'agra," the other one adds.

"Fair enough," Garyn answers. "You'll have to either appeal to the authorities or have yourself smuggled back. Either way I wouldn't do that anywhere near where we are right now. The people who run this town were probably on the take from these smugglers."

"My cousin is an abolitionist in Dres country on the border," says Okaw. "I've heard him talk about an Argonian Mission in a city called Ebonheart. Do you know where that is?"

"Couldn't tell you," Garyn says. "I'm an outlander. But I do have a map."

Garyn pulls out the map. After translating again for Baadargo's benefit, he, Banalz, and Okaw (these are the Argonians' names) lay out a plan. They will take a silt strider to Vivec. From there it's a short boat ride to Ebonheart. Garyn will pay their fares, while Baadargo will conceal enough moon sugar on his person to bribe passage off Vvardenfell if there are no legal channels for doing so.

They go their separate ways and Garyn heads back toward the tradehouse. After paying to have his wound treated and shirt repaired, he has money for either a cheap netch leather cuirass or a full meal, but not both.

He takes the armor and goes off to look for mudcrabs.


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Garyn Balvadares

January 2017

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