"The Artistry of Theft"
by Ben Hodges
It was the day before the big job and everything was set. A map of the mansion had been bought from one of the servants, who’d arranged to be off visiting a ‘sick relative’ tonight, my personal armoury was stocked, and the mists were blowing in from the western moors, perfect cover.
I stood before my full-length mirror, an extravagance to some but not to me. The gold it had cost me was more than made up for by the times it had saved me from heading out to a job with a piece of metal shining off my shoulder or a leather strap catching the light. I began to arm myself, carefully memorising where each item was kept so I wouldn’t have to fumble around in an emergency. The job tonight should be routine but I’m not one to take risks.
Firstly the harness, fitting snugly over my upper body and made of roughened leather it held a multitude of pockets, each sewn into the material and held shut by toggles, buckles being too likely to clink or shine.
Next, the tools of the trade.
Lockpicks went in the right belt pocket, simple to reach and easy to find. My blackjack, the second most useful tool a thief can have, went in its sheath by my left side, slotting neatly under my arm. A single vial of healing potion was slotted into the metal lined pouch on my chest, having lost one vial before now due to falling onto it when entering a house via the chimney I took no chances, the concoction was far too expensive to waste. The gas and fire mines had the same precaution, though in this case due to a wish to avoid an embarrassing suicide.
Hooking my baldric over my shoulder I slotted the flash bombs into place. In my view one of the more useful of the items the hammers created. The flash will leave a guard, or a foolish thief, effectively blind and unable to defend against, for example, a blackjack to the skull, for quite a time. Despite the cost I never went on a job without several, just in case.
I checked my quiver, making sure all the arrows were in their compartments. Broadheads in the largest section by my back, water arrows just beyond them for ease of use, fire, moss, gas and rope arrows all placed into their sealed compartments around the sides. I wouldn’t have been the first thief to blow himself up with a clumsily packed fire arrow, or to knock himself out mid-heist with a shattered gas crystal, but I definitely did not wish to add my name to the list of those who had done so.
My crossbow was slung from its hooks at my side, fixed so there was no risk of it dropping or clinking against another piece of equipment. I had, ‘adjusted’ shall we say, the bow from its standard weaponry of bolts to fire a little creation of my own devising. Small lead balls, no larger than your little fingertip, wrapped with two layers of rawhide to prevent unnecessary noise upon contact with metal. I had experimented with the more traditional slingshot but it required plenty of room to swing as well as being fairly loud and visible, none of which were traits I felt would come in handy. A catapult had been more useful, but it proved impossible to aim for long enough to get a shot and soon lost power with distance. Finally I had altered a hand crossbow, fitting a small leather pouch at the middle of the string to hold the ball and fire it without deviation. I could render a guard unconscious without them ever having suspected I was there. Of course, helmets could be a problem, but generally a solution presented itself soon enough.
My long bow, unstrung until I was officially on the job, was placed in its compartment in my quiver, the string, and several spares, were carefully stored in the harness, top left pocket.
Next to last I picked up my close combat weapon. Most thieves would have you believe a sword was the best choice, as it was more ‘elegant’ and simpler to use, but I disagreed. A sword was a killing weapon, designed to cut and hack through flesh, whereas I have an aversion to death, having seen it too often already. My weapon of choice was a hammer, not as light and easy to wield as a sword but just as effective for my purposes.
I remember how I came into possession of this weapon. I was heading through the ruined section of the city, in dire straits obviously, as there is no other reason for entering such an accursed place. Cutting swiftly through some houses I came upon an odd scene, a Hammerite warrior, equipped not only with the hammer of their order but also with a suit of plate armour inscribed with prayers. I crept over the rooftops, following this strange figure, and wondering what was going on before I realised his path was leading to the lost cathedral in the centre of the ruined zone. Zombie after zombie attacked him, but his hammer swung to crush their skulls or chests. They fell before him, never to rise again, there was something about his weapon that dissipated their unholy energies, leaving them finally at peace.
Finally, just before he reached the church, he was set upon by a pair of haunts, undead Hammerites swinging swords made of a dark metal. They attacked him from both sides, the sword of one smashing through his armour and embedding itself in his chest before his hammer swung in a great circle, crushing their skulls even as he fell. I slunk down from the roof, fixing a rope to a beam and watchfully descending. I noticed his hand was fumbling at his belt for something, but his gauntlets and wounds prevented him getting it. I reached down and picked the vial of holy water from his belt, and put it to his lips so he could drink, and avoid the fate that had befallen his haunted brethren.
He breathed the words ‘may the Builder bless…’ then slumped back, dead but at peace. I searched his corpse, finding no money or valuables, but I did find a scroll detailing his mission. He was to search out the lost cathedral and see if it could be retaken by the Hammerites, he had as much protection as they could possibly give him, a blessed suit of armour, proof against undead or so they thought. A hammer, forged and blessed by their high priest, and quenched in holy water upon its removal from the mould. He also had a very detailed map of the old city, well worth keeping for my own purposes. I cut loose his belt and looped it around myself, slinging the hammer into its loops before removing his armour and hauling him onto my shoulder. I managed to get back to the rooftops, and escape the walled off area, dropping his body in front of the hammer temple to be buried with all ceremony.
The hammer had come in useful to me many times since then, on my trips back into the dead zone to see what loot was left. Its energies destroyed any undead I came across, and seemed almost to move by itself when they were nearby, warning me of their presence.
It was also more effective in combat to my mind, capable of knocking out an enemy, even if aware of my presence and wearing a helmet and, of course, it was much less likely to result in a death than a sword.
The final touch was a black backpack, silk for lightness and strength. Double stitched to hold the entire contents of a mansion and with a stiff piece of leather to protect my back from sharp corners.
I had trained for many hours with weights and unevenly balanced loads until the weight of my equipment was unnoticeable. I didn’t much fancy the idea of falling off a beam into the midst of a pack of guards after emptying their employer’s house, or of collapsing from the sheer weight of items halfway through a job.
Finally darkness fell and the mists covered the city as thoroughly as a blanket. The street lights were less than useless, making the mist opaque and removing any night vision the people down there might have. Perfect.
I slipped out of my window, swarming up the drainpipe, bolted firmly to the wall by myself one night just to be sure, and onto the rooftops. I headed east, towards the noble area of the city, and my target, the mansion of Lord Estabar, one of the richest men around, now that Bafford, Ramirez and the Hammerites had been stripped by an ‘unknown’ thief. As if anyone in the city didn’t know the name of Garret. But enough of that.
My informant had told me that there was a back way into the mansion, a servants entrance to the grounds that was virtually unguarded due to its location. Handy for my purposes if somewhat difficult to reach. I slipped through the shadows in the street, before I came to a sewer grate. Entering the system brought me into pitch blackness before I drew a fire arrow, its glow casting enough light for me to navigate by. Following the compass I continued along, heading towards the sewer grate just around the corner from the entrance. A couple of times I could have sworn I heard a burrick calling, but hopefully it was merely an echo from the stabled ones within the city as wild ones could well prove a problem. No such problems presented themselves as I trudged through the sewers, silently thanking the cobblers for their wonderful, waterproof boots, and making a mental note to return and pay for them someday.
I slowed as I approached the area, and stopped at a chalk mark I had placed under the grate the other day. Lifting it carefully I peered out, then raised it fully and exited the somewhat noisome highway. I crept to the corner just ahead of me and leant around it, making sure to keep in full shadow. A guard was stood about twenty feet beyond, guarding a small postern gate and, gods be praised, carrying an unhooded lantern with him. While he could see perfectly within the six feet of light it cast, his night vision was going to be virtually nonexistant beyond that range. Crouching I felt around my feet for a pebble or small stick then straightened once I’d found one. I slowly moved towards the guard, drawing my blackjack silently and preparing to throw the pebble. Stopping just outside the circle of light I tossed the pebble over the guard’s head then watched his reaction as it landed with a clatter just outside the lanterns range. He acted just as I had hoped, raising the lantern to eye level and peering into the darkness. Sweeping forward I acted myself, inside the light and behind him with two steps and already bringing my blackjack into contact with his skull. He collapsed without so much as a grunt, and I had to move swiftly to prevent his lantern smashing on the ground and setting fire to the area. Catching it just before it hit the ground I blew out the flame and dragged the unconscious body to lean within the shadow of the gate.
I sheathed the blackjack and drew my lockpicks, picking the lock within seconds. The gate itself was covered with studs and set firmly enough in the wall to withstand the assault of a battering ram, unfortunately I couldn’t say the same about the lock they had recently fitted. A cheap mass production one of the sort produced by the hammers, and this new order, the mechanists, probably installed because they lost the keys to the old one.
Easing it open I swiftly checked around for movement, but there didn’t seem to be any interior guards. Hoisting the body over my shoulder I carried it through and placed him safely by the side of the gate, where he would be found easily enough in the morning, although being virtually invisible in the current darkness.
Checking the map briefly I headed parallel to the gravel path, towards the rear of the house, making towards the archer stationed there. I could see him, silhouetted against the lit windows as he leaned against a tree, obviously not expecting anyone to be there. I palmed my crossbow and quietly cocked it, dropping a ball in as I did so. I lined up the shot, getting as near as I dared, and fired. A clean hit, the shot connected neatly with his temple with a barely audible crack, sending him to the ground and to sleep. I propped his body up against the tree again, in case anyone looked out of the window and expected to see him, hooking his quiver over a branch to hold him in place.
Rewinding the crossbow as I looked the mansion over I noted three guards patrolling the rooftops, all armed with bows no doubt and equally certainly, all capable of using them to prevent any intruders they saw. Watching with interest I figured that I had about two minutes to get from my current position to the wall where the overhanging eaves would block their view. Creeping nearer and trying to stay behind the rose bushes in the garden I waited for the nearest guard to turn away, then I ran. Keeping one eye on him as I sped through the darkened flower beds I almost tripped before clearing the border in a leap and diving forwards, barely avoiding ending up in the pond as it turned out. I managed to turn aside just before I landed and avoided the water, as leaving a trail of wet footprints and drips was hardly likely to be missed by the most obtuse of guards, though came down hard upon my shoulder, bruising it heavily. I scrambled to my feet and limped to the shadows by the wall, cursing under my breath as I did so. I removed the bottle of healing potion from my harness and, slowly taking the cork out, licked off the drop of potion hanging from the bottom of it. After a second I felt my shoulder ease and put the cork back in, unwilling to waste any more of the expensive elixir than was absolutely necessary. Moving it in unwilling circles I smiled slightly, the ill effects of the landing were almost gone now and I was ready to make my entrance.
I checked the wall I was flattened against, spotting a door about twenty feet from me, well-lit and only approachable via a gravel path, or a window almost completely obscured by ivy that I was flattened against. Carefully slipping my knife through the gap in the windows I lifted the latch, and grabbed frantically at them as the wind almost blew them open. Gently slipping inside, while retaining a good grip upon the panes, I made my entrance. Latching the window behind me I found myself behind a heavy velvet curtain, and leaned around the edge to see where I found myself.
A large room with several sofas and chairs, ah, and several musical instruments. Checking my map I soon found the music room on the eastern side of the ground floor, unfortunately right next to the guards sleeping quarters.
I quietly moved past the sideboard, almost absentmindedly slipping several expensive bottles of wine into my pack as I did do, and made my way over to the instruments. Casting a critical eye over them I pried a some semi-precious stones from the horn, cut the silver wire strings from the harp and put the gold flute into my quiver. If the rest of the mansion was like this then I’d have enough to retire on, well, for a couple of months at least.
Opening the cupboards revealed nothing but sheet music and some gilt-plated stands. I moved on to the door, carefully oiling the hinges before I eased it open. Listening for a minute revealed a guard patrolling the area, waiting for them to turn and head away from me I leaned out and quickly cased the area.
Several torches in the area, one at each end of the corridor and one on the far wall about halfway down. A reasonable amount for normal activities, and a perfect amount of light for a thief. Quickly ducking back into the cover of the doorway I waited for the guard to walk towards me again and, as soon as the footsteps slowed to turn, I drew my blackjack and, slinking towards the patroller, swiftly brought my weapon down on their head. Grabbing hold of the body, a woman I noticed and armed with one of the mechanists new crossbows, I dragged her back into the music room, shutting the door behind me. Checking over the body I found a key, sadly unmarked but presumably some kind of master key for the guards, and a pouch containing a slip of paper and several gold coins.
Shifting closer to the single lamp I checked the note out, some kind of code. Just the numbers 4582, no other words, obviously they knew what it meant without any help, not a great deal of use to me but I stuck it in a pouch just in case.
Easing the door open again I decided to check out the opposition, putting out the torch with a water arrow I made my way to the guards’ door. Cracking it open and putting an eye to the gap revealed no movement, although there were several snores. Seems like the relief were getting their rest in where they could. Sneaking in I stuck to the edge of the room, trying to avoid the light, although not quite avoiding the loose floorboard. It squeaked loudly under my foot, causing me to swear under my breath and freeze for almost four minutes until I was certain no one had been woken up. I moved to the bunks, coshing the inhabitants before they awoke, which stopped the snoring at least. Sighing in relief that none of the sleeping beauties had regained their senses I rifled their pockets, and the trunks at the ends of the beds. Several pouches of gold coins, a few spare water arrows and a duplicate key later I was ready to head out now that I was sure I wouldn’t have too many problems to face, or sneak past.
Creeping down the hall lead me to the kitchens, though there wasn’t much inside except a few very nice bottles of wine and set of rather expensive golden goblets on the shelves beside the door. There was a figure leaning against the mantlepiece stirring a cooking pot occasionally. I moved over quietly and brought my blackjack down on their head, catching the cook before they landed and dragging their body over to a dark corner. I collected the bottles and goblets then put out the fire with a water arrow to avoid the pot boiling over and attracting any attention. As I checked the area to make sure everything was normal to a casual observer I spotted a glint of metal in the chimney and decided to see what it was, probably just a pot hook but it might be valuable. Looking closer I discovered a ladder, probably to aid the sweeps in their job, and looking further up, a spot of light from an upstairs fireplace.
I hooked my blackjack’s leather strap around my wrist and headed up, reckoning it was probably the master bedroom, that is, if the map was accurate. I tested every rung as I climbed, trying to avoid the walls and the layers of soot coating them. Even the world’s densest guard would realise an intruder was about if they saw a set of black footprints leading down the hallway. I picked a water arrow from my quiver as I approached the fire above me and gently tossed it up and over the stone rim. It burst almost silently, sending a small wave washing across the wood as the spell was activated by the broken crystal. The fire sputtered and quickly went out, leaving me free to scurry up the ladder and take up position just above the opening. I grasped my cosh firmly as I hung from the rungs with one hand, hearing the inhabitant of the room mutter irritably about the winds and start to head over to the fire. The man knelt down and noticed the damp wood, though thankfully missed the arrow, then peered up the chimney to see if it was raining. To an observer it would have looked like a large lump of soot had fallen and knocked him out, from my point of view it was as though I’d let go my grip and dropped onto his chest, sending his head cracking painfully into the fireplace. I rolled out of the opening, using his body to protect me from the soot and came to my feet with the blackjack in one hand and a flash bomb in the other.
I looked around the room noticing a four poster bed, wall to wall tapestries and a very shocked looking woman with the sheets pulled up around her. Instinctively I flung the flash bomb before she could react, my arm continuing its arc to cover my eyes from the sudden glare. I was already heading over to the bed by the time I moved my arm, sending her into unconsciousness before she could blink the sunbursts away from her vision, or realise that there was a stranger in the room. I grabbed the back of the man’s shirt and hauled him over to the bed too, attempting to minimise the soot trail left on the floor by dragging him face up. I heaved him into bed and covered most of them with the sheets before standing back and admiring the still life I had created. I tossed the purse I’d found on the man as I was ‘helping’ him into bed, estimating its contents at about forty gold coins. Grinning to myself I examined the room, rummaging through the wardrobe to collect more coins from the pockets, several necklaces and pendants from the dresser and, not entirely unexpected, another bottle of wine and two goblets from a table by the fireplace. My informant had said something about a safe here, so I checked the tapestries carefully, tapping on each one gently with my blackjack to see if anything was hidden behind then, pushing back the one that rang softly to reveal a wall safe. Sheathing my blackjack I drew my lockpicks, already recognising the type of lock and beginning to work. It turned out to be quite complicated, and required the swapping of lockpicks several times as I kept glancing towards the door, hoping that the knowledge of the Sir’s nocturnal plans would prevent any guard investigating the faint noise I was producing. Finally the safe swung open, revealing a pile of jewellery boxes which I emptied into my pack and an intricate golden key without a label on it.
Making my way over to the door I hid in a patch of shade and gently pushed the handle down. Hearing no footsteps I headed into the corridor, closing the door behind me and heading for the armoury which should be just along the corridor according to the map.
Thankfully, due to the fact that the owner spent more time around his bedroom than he did around the kitchen, the floor was carpeted allowing me to get up to a jog without any risk of being overheard. This also meant I failed to hear the guard I almost ran into around the next corner, the speed I’d built up barely enough to allow me to dive for the doorway in front of me before I was spotted. I drew my blackjack and tried to control my breathing enough to remain undetected.
They had heard the swish as I leapt through the air, and the thud when I caught the frame with my side and came around the corner slowly, their sword held to the side and their head craning forward to watch for any movement. Sadly they failed to notice the swift and short movement of my club as it came down upon the back of their neck. The guard let out a short grunt as he collapsed, the blow paralysing him for long enough for me to lift his helmet off and give him a firm tap to the top of the head. I quickly opened the door behind me and carried him inside to avoid detection, only then realising I was inside an unexamined room which could possibly be a guard post.
As it turned out my guess was actually fairly close although the guards inside it were concentrating more on their game of cards than on looking up to see who’d entered the room.
“The Sir still busy then, Tom?” asked one of them, rearranging the cards in his hand without checking my identity. Who else would it be after all? No one could possibly have made it through the cordon of guardsmen and their companion should have been returning for the next hand about now.
I should imagine that they suddenly found the unconscious body of their comrade-in-arms being flung onto the table to be quite a surprise, although not quite as much of a surprise as the flash bomb that followed him, or even the blows that left them sprawled unconscious in their chairs. I walked up to the table and collapsed in a chair, grabbing a bottle from the floor and taking a long drink of wine to calm my shattered nerves. I’d always said the most important thing a thief could have was luck, and mine hadn’t deserted me tonight.
The guard’s body had dragged the eyes of his friends to the centre of the table where the flash had blinded them, leaving them waving their arms in the air aimlessly for just enough time for me to send them to sleep.
My breathing finally came under control again as the shock left me and I took the liberty of allowing myself to swear loudly and profusely at my behaviour.
I checked the bodies once my hands had stopped shaking, finding another two duplicate keys for the house doors, and some more coins. I must have at least six hundred golds-worth now, not bad for an evening’s work but there was still more around.
I walked down the corridors again, fairly certain that all the guards were now out of the way, only four chairs at the table after all and four bodies now in them, but still being cautious after my fright earlier. I checked every door as I passed them, most revealed only bedrooms or bathrooms without any contents, until I found the master bathroom. Solid gold taps and handles were soon wrenched loose, a tapestry cut down and wrapped around them before I knocked them off with a clean blow of my hammer. I laughed quietly as a thought struck me, everything including the kitchen sink was being taken tonight.
The next door I passed led into a stairwell, possibly to the roof but worth checking out anyway. I crept up it, trying to avoid a repeat of earlier, and shooting a water arrow to put out the torch at the top. I seemed to have avoided using too much equipment so far, always a little disappointing when I didn’t get to use a good number of whizbangs, but much easier on the purse.
I made my way to the landing, but it wasn’t the simple wooden door I was expecting, instead I was faced by a thick steel door without even a keyhole to pick. I lit a flare, muttering about hindsight, and relit the torch, noticing the way the holder wobbled as I did do. I took the torch out and gave the sconce a yank, watching with interest as it glided downwards on well greased tracks revealing a keypad. The large red buttons had numbers printed on them, and a set of tumblers above. I brought out the piece of paper and punched the numbers in with one hand, holding the torch by the pad as I tried to make out the scrawled code. The door creaked loudly, enough to alert anyone nearby that it was being opened, and slowly opened wide.
I slotted the torch back in the holder and pushed it back into place before drawing my blackjack and entering. I halted as I entered the doorway, pulling a broadhead from my pack and jamming it into the hinges. The metal arrowhead preventing the door from moving as I didn’t really want to be trapped in this room after all this effort to enter it.
The glint of gold caught my attention immediately upon entering the room, the collection I’d been looking for. Masks stared down at me from every possible place, all labelled neatly and arranged by age.
Some were mere wood, of value only to a collector and therefore worthless to me, but some were solid gold or silver, encrusted with jewels. I was reaching for the first one when I suddenly noticed a fine wire leading from it to the roof and decided to investigate. Knocking a plank loose with my hammer I levered it out and hauled myself up to see what was above. A network of wires covered the walls above here, all leading to the same place, a mechanical alarm of the type favoured by the hammers. Obviously an old one but still in working order, I ducked down before it could see me and reached down to grab my crossbow, loading it and, at the same time, snapping a fire crystal from an arrow and putting it in the notch. I lifted myself up swiftly, aiming and firing the bow in one motion, the explosion knocking me back and singing my hair slightly. The problem was now that the guards on the roof might have been alerted by the explosion and would definitely be listening for any follow up noises. I dodged back down the stairs and planted gas mines in the darkness, ready for the nosiest of the employees.
Back in the vault I was busy lifting masks from the walls and placing them carefully in my pack when I heard the sound of a mine being tripped. Soon after came the sound of someone falling over, with a startled noise as their legs suddenly stopped working and they found the stairs rushing towards their face. The first of the new arrivals was obviously down and, judging by the second grunt of surprise, had taken someone else with them as they tripped over their body.
I waited for the second mine to go, and wasn’t disappointed as someone more careful spotted the first two bodies and started threatening me as they charged upwards. Sadly for them they charged straight into the second mine and ended their rather fascinating description of what was in store for me with a dying moan. Fastening my pack again I headed down the stairs, picking up the pouches from the guards as I went. I checked up on the one who’d tripped up, noticing some sounds of consciousness emanating from him so I removed his helmet which was digging into his neck, and bounced his head sharply off the step, which quietened him down quite nicely.
Grinning to myself again I slipped back to the master bedroom, deciding to ignore the ground floor and its cohorts of alerted guards in favour of a clean escape. I did however leave them one last gift, a flash mine buried in the embers of the fire before I went down the ladder. Slipping back down the chimney and to the music room was no bother, I only had to make my way out of the window and it was done.
Jogging across the lawn I had no bother, all the guards were already inside, preventing me from escaping, or so they thought. I sat on a rooftop counting my haul in full view of the main bedroom window as I waited. As I expected, they soon relit the fire to aid visibility, and I could clearly see the guards outlined by the bright flash. Laughing loudly I slid down a drainpipe and headed home again, ready for a well deserved rest.