Peace creeps into the Continent and falls upon the armies of elves and humans. The song of swords fades from the battlefields, and grass grows in the boot prints there. Rivers once red with blood now run clear, what crops not burned are reaped. The armistice takes hold, and in the Tornell Empire and Eleven Commonwealth both, wounded kingdoms bury their dead while sharpening their swords. There is no rejoice in peace; the trumpets play only dirges.
No kingdom mapped was untouched by the war, but not all lands are drawn on such maps. Neither elf nor human wore crowns in the white-bone forests and salt-deserts of Pathless County. Thus the Tornells, in their infinite wisdom and unlimited malice, built their Warren.
The Warren was a prison, far from civilization. More prisoners arrived every day, but one cell in particular held three men:
Jin was a thief, but no ordinary burglar was he – hidden away in one of his safehouses was the fabled sword of Dunish Kings, proof he was the greatest thief in Dunish. That was before his confidante snitched on him, pinning the theft of the King’s crown and lute on him, sending Jin to Warren.
The Confidence Man chose whatever name suited his schemes, and it pleased him to be known as Ron Grits. No one knows how many fortunes he has swindled, hearts he has broken, wars he has started. How could anyone trace them to a man who lies as easily as he breathes? That is, unless you had the misfortune of trying to swindle the same man twice, as he did to the Baron of Trapis.
And Nakk. A man of low birth and lower ambition – keep his family happy was all he wanted. He fought in the boxing arenas of the Dunish underworld and many fortunes were won on the skin of his knuckles. But the crime lord Krev the Unclean had other uses for Nakk – enforcer, intimidator, murderer. To all these Nakk bowed, save when Krev told him to lose his final bout. For Nakk’s disobedience, Krev destroyed his family. Nakk was in prison for the murder of forty-three of Krev’s guards on that fateful day.
Save for the Con Man, they did not count the days. No one had ever escaped from Warren.
Enter Kunail of Eloreth, elf of the wastes, officer of the Commonwealth forces. Kunail wasn't just a criminal, he was a war criminal. Tales of his bloody deeds were still told to frighten green recruits on both sides of the war. That he had deserted and committed himself to repenting his crimes mattered not: The wardens stripped him of uniform and commission, cursed his name and deeds.
High Warden Share visited their cell himself, reminding Kunail of the Surrender of Rivenwood: One hundred humans killed for pleasure by the elves under Kunail's command. High Warden Share promised Kunail that his stay would not be pleasant.
However, Kunail had entered through a backdoor heretofore unknown to Jin and The Con Man. And so an elaborate plan came together. It was the stuff of stories: Chickenbone lockpicks and spying on the High Warden's letters. Smuggling flint and lamp oil out from the salt mines beneath the prison. Spotting the brass key around Share's neck during Kunail's daily beatings. Keeping tabs on the watch schedule, noting the lazy Wardens. Knocking out the snitches in the prison yard with a single punch.
Other strange happenings: The discovery of a dark abyssal cavern, home to something with long and leathery talons. The dark-skinned gang leader who took Jin aside to tell him of Kara. And a visit for Ron Grits: a woman with a dark veil gifting him with a plain gold engagement ring.
Everything was ready and they set the plan in motion. Two guards died right off the bat, one blue faced in Nakk's choke-hold and the other's throat slit by Kunail’s quick hand. Jin quickly let them all out the cell, and they went to reclaim their possessions while Nakk and The Con Man went to start a fire in the lumber room to distract the Wardens.
They found all their gear and opened the door to face High Warden Share.
He had fought in more battles that all of them put together. In the end, Share was only one man. He fell, hamstrung and life’s blood leaking, but not before striking out one last blow and burying his sword deep into Kunail’s ribs. Kunail's felt his breath fleeing, darkness falling, and fell into the sleep of the sword. Death called his name.
Nakk returned to find The Con Man and Jin carrying Kunail, bloody and barely standing. Blood dripped from his chin and painted the skin around his mouth. Something had happened, but there was no time to explain.
They ran deep into the woods, fighting off their pursuers. Fooling some, killing others. The shriek of giant bats echoed across the forest. White trees with their bark peeling stood stripped of leaves, branches like fingerbones pointing to heaven. They were fleeing. They were starving. They were bleeding.
They were free.