Thick As Thieves

The prison's defenses do not end at the gate.

The prisoners escaped, and thunder rolled across the Pathless County.  The sharp arms of a bone-white forest stood raised, empty of leaves, cradling the dark sky, and begging for rain.  The sweet pungent zing of ozone filled the air.  Far off in the distance, dogs barked.

Enough of the scenery.  We follow the prisoners.

High above them, the owl Athanö' drank in the night and searched for the horses and supplies that belonged to Warren inmate Stalk. The gang leader had revealed his own plans to escape Warren to Jin, and now the prisoners would steal them.  The great white owl swooped from star to star until it returned to whisper in Kunail's ear.  Ahead, Athanö whispered.  Under the tall tree.  This side of the river.  Death.

As the sound of hunting dogs grew closer Kunail Murai led them into the brackish river, covering their scent.  Though the surface stirred, whatever eldritch thing dwelt under its surface ate nothing that night save arrowhead.  The Confidence Man breathed a sign of relief.

Soon the barking of dogs grew faint, then silent.  But to cross the river again, back to Stalk's supply point, they would have to submerge themselves in its opaque black waters.  Enter Nakk.  By strength of arm, sweat of brow and force of will, the Dunish-man splintered a tall tree, felling it to lay a gentle crossing to the other side.

They were close.  They could see the tall tree, hear the horses.  But when Jin the Shade approached the tree, he smelt blood.  Lightning struck, and they saw:  heads swinging from the branches, faces twisted in shock and fear. 

Seeing the area was clear of danger, Kunail jumped from his perch in another tree and breathed into a horse's ear. "Who killed these men, Brego?" The elf listened closely to the horse's reply.  "Six legged creatures," Kunail reported.  "They killed them, cut off their heads and took all the swords."

"Gorons," the Confidence Man said, and they all understood.  The Gorons were the four-armed natives that called the Pathless County their home, and had taken insult at the arrival of men.  Everyone agreed to bandage their wounds quickly and make camp far from this dark place.

Nakk studied the bloody visages the Gorons had left swinging in the wind.  He had spent fifteen years in Warren, but he recognized them from his time in Dunish.  Jin confirmed his suspicion – some of these heads belonged to well known hired men from the Dunish underworld. 

Under their gory necks sat a chest full of bandages, rations and poultices for treating wounds, and Jin set quickly to remove any dangerous traps.  Kunail bandaged the ragged wound High Warden Share had carved into his side.

When they finally made camp a couple of hours away from the supply point, they drew up a plan:  Follow the river until Trapis town.  But Kunail had other concerns… the Hunger rose in him, like a the wind howling through his heart.  The Confidence Man bound Kunail into his debt that night by offering the elf a few drops of his mortal blood. 

The sun rose, but Kunail did not die.  He drank the watered blood from the Confidence Man from his wineskin, but still he grew weak from hunger, sick from thirst.  No food nor drink would sate him.  On the third day, Nakk found an arrow-pierced deer, fresh dead and escaped from its hunter.  Kunail walked into the dark of the forest, found that hunter, and drank deeply from his gory throat.  It was only after his Hunger subsided that he realized the hunter was an elf.

Through the wild Pathless Forest they walked, days on end.  Jin kept his knives sharp.  Nakk kept his misery unabated.  Kunail kept his Hunger at bay.  The Confidence Man pondered his next name.  Then they fell into the arms of Mayor Anne Franco and her faithful deputy, Virtue.

Franco and Virtue were looking for warriors that could free them from the yoke of Count Ephraim Hart.  She offered every piece of coin her town had to buy the services of the prisoners.  Not only that, she could get them past the blockade that the Wardens had set-up near Trapis. 

The Confidence Man plied his trade lovingly, promising nothing, taking everything.  As the prisoners rode in the back of horse wagon, Jerart Butner sat up front with Anne Franco.  Widowed this year past, her husband had been shot in the street by Count Ephraim’s men, pierced with a dozen arrows for no crime save speaking up against tyranny.  As she fell asleep, her head lolled onto Jerard’s shoulder and he whispered, “I will have your fortune.”

In the back, Virtue’s eyes could not leave Nakk’s scarred face.  Virtue was Franco’s money man, famed for his honesty, this all in trapis knew.  What they did not know was Virtue came about his tight-fisted miser’s soul through losing his fortunes and nearly his life to gambling in the fighting pits of Dunish.  From there, he recognized Nakk – legendary fighter.  It was almost enough to keep Virtue from shaking with fear and adrenaline as their subterfuge at the blockade passed.

The Wardens at the blockade were no match for the guile of Jerart Butner.  With coin in greasy palm and teeth in brittle smile, the Confidence Man opened the way without the discovery of his fellow ex-inmates.

They parked their wagon at a cottage at the edge of town and set their dusty feet down on the streets of Trapis.  A black-burnt church roared anguish against the rising sun.   Sharpshooters stood leering from the rooftops of the town hall, and men with swords walked brazenly in the streets.  The wind blew and shuttered windows rattled. 

What else can people do, when the lawmen are lawless?

There were many people that claimed to witness the fight that day.  If tales are to be believed, the whole town was watching.  They say a swarm of arrows shattered the shutters, nailing the wall behind Kunail in rapid succession.  That the elf returned fire. They said that for Kunail, this battle started with an arrow, but it began long before that in a place very far away.  The day that Kunail walked the blood soaked streets of Galarai, the City of Silenced Song. 

Children cowered, told that the Lawman pulled the arrow out his cheek, crimson flowing like tears, white teeth grimacing through where skin should be. 

Men argued over whether Jin climbed spider-swift to the roof of town hall, slashing the throat of one sharpshooter or if he caught the bow in midair.  They fought over the details of whether he let loose a flurry of arrows, raining barbed steel and feather on the platoon below, or shot down the mercenaries with one arrow each, pointedly and with grim menace.

The drunkards and the slatterns laughed and blushed over the stories of Jerart Butner flailing one way and then the other, confusing the mercenaries that were charging the preacher’s house, just before they were filled with arrows or dropped, necks broken.

Only two witnesses were truly there:  Anne Franco, and Virtue, and Virtue only ever told one story: There were twenty mercenaries.  Four prisoners.  The odds were far out of favor… but the odds had never fallen towards Nakk, and fortunes had been won on the skin of his knuckles.  The accountant’s eyes would gleam as he described how from behind the preacher’s cottage, the seven horses of Franco’s wagon reared and whinnied like the horsemen of world’s end.  How Nakk gripped the reins in both hands and came charging towards the crowd of mercenaries. 

Whether any of it is true, the facts remain.  Eighteen bodies were buried in the graveyard the next day, and none of them belonged to Trapis.  The wounds were various – trampled, gutshot, becks broken, throats slashed. 

And the sun rose on Trapistown.

"For crimes against humanity, I curse your name!"

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.


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