Dark? You didn't know what darkness was until you were on the inside of a chimney.
The space crushing your body, the ash and soot filling your lungs - the sky above a speck in a far distance. And all the time hoping, hoping to reach that speck - like a moth hoping to reach a distant moon.
Darkness in mind and in body, in sight and sound.
That darkness can twist your soul - and forge it into a thing blackened and broken.
He had known children to die in those chimneys. They would get stuck and they'd scream and cry and howl and whimper, and scream and cry and howl and whimper all over again - but no-one would hear them. And then? They would die. And then? Nothing.
Foliage for the next poor, spindly little chimney-sweep to clear out.
But him? He was one of the lucky ones.
He turned dark quickly.
Left 'honest' work for dead men and dying children, and became something else.
Something not quite right, not quite good.
His name was Benjamin Robertson. Not that it meant anything to him. The only thing that meant anything to Ben was price. You could put a price on everything. Jewels, reputation, secrets. Even trust, to a certain extent. The man did have but one weakness, however - one we've all heard of far too many times.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves...
Ben worked furiously on the lock, knowing that the Watch would appear soon if someone caught sight of him. He tried his best to pick it and were it not for the panic of his annoying peer - pacing about the floor and muttering and muttering over and over again as to how they would all get caught and hanged for it - he would have succeeded.
“Are you done yet?” he snapped in a low voice.
Ben sighed frustratedly through his teeth and turned one final time.
Success at last.
He turned the knob and opened the door.
His friend rushed in first, saying, “About bloody time!”
Ben rolled his eyes and followed, closing the door behind him. It could have been a cleaner job. He could have opened the lock without completely destroying it. But a thief's impatience could easily trump his finesse.
The room was still and cold - as if the locked door had kept out London's bad weather and Thames's bad smell. It was all brick and stone - none of that fancy wallpaper or paint covering the walls - and a few wooden pillars held the ceiling up, the beams on top masterfully placed stopped the ceiling from falling in. The place was a store-room, scattered with wooden boxes and crates and barrels. Ben and his mates could live in here for a year or so if whoever owned this placed left it be.
“Are you sure it's here, Jim?” Ben said, walking up to his fellow thief and crouching by a stack of wooden boxes.
Jim pressed a finger to his lips, “Shh!” he said angrily, “Stop talking, you'll get us both crapped or boated!”
Ben gave him a look but held back a retort. Jim was new to the mob. It was only natural that he'd be this way. It didn't make him any less insufferable, though.
“Look there,” Jim whispered.
A batch opened above and two men came down a set of stone steps into the room, chattering amongst each other. Between them, they carried a large, heavy wooden chest, and they placed it carefully on the ground.
While they spoke and looked idly through the other crates and barrels, Ben gazed the chest greedily. All the valuables within... It almost made his mouth water and his stomach rumble. He laughed silently at the thought. Since turning to theft, his chin was clean from wishful dribble and his stomach barely made a sound. But then he frowned, observing the two armed men.
“I see metal,” he murmured to Jim, “Thieves and swords do not get on well.”
“Should we leave?” Jim said, barely audible out of fear, lines of worry appearing in his forehead, “Should we stay? We could wait. Or maybe we should go. Get some of the others. But if we leave-”
“Clamp your muzzle, man!” Ben snapped through his teeth, “And pull yourself together! They'll hear us.”
Jim paled, “What do we do?”
Ben took another look at the guards and then at the stack of boxes, “I'll lead 'em away, distract them. When they go, you get that chest open, grab what you can carry and get out. We'll split the loot later. Meet me by the Shoe, will you?”
Jim nodded - looking relieved that he wouldn't be playing bait - and watched as Ben pulled up the black scarf around his neck over his nose so that his fiendishly handsome face was hidden. Ben bent down, shuffling away from Jim, his well-trained feet covered by thin leathers making no sound as he moved. Ben watched the guards with intent, took in snatches of their meaningless conversation, and slipped a small club out of his belt.
Ben didn't like hurting people. But it wasn't beneath him if it meant escaping the gallows.
He whistled - just to give fair warning.
The guards froze and stiffened, looking around them. Then Ben used his shoulder to tip over a stack of boxes and darted for the exit without looking back.
“Thief!” one guard cried.
“After him!” yelled the other.
Ben ran through the streets, weaving through the pack of bodies as he did so. He heard the draw of steel and the click of triggers - and the chaos and panic of people all around him as he rushed passed them. The drizzle of rain pitter-pattered on his face and dampened his hair - sending a strange shiver of pleasure through him as he fled from his pursuers.
He smiled beneath his veil.
Chaos was a friend to the fleeing.
The guards got caught by the panicking mass of people and slip-slided on the rain-soaked floor.
Ben ducked under a vacant stall and pushed passed an assault of old clothes hanging on lines blindly and rushed though the back-streets of a squalid Victorian London. He came at a crossroad, looked left and right only briefly, before knowing exactly where to go. He sped that way and opened a door. The naked woman inside screamed, using whatever she could find to cover herself, but Ben ignored her and rushed to the window - prising it open, climbing out and up the wall. Guns fired and bullets zipped passed him.
It wasn't a big deal.
Besides, any bullets that hit him now would just be lucky shots. The aim on those guns were greatly off.
He got on top of the roof and looked out below, seeing the heavy-clad guards scowling up at him - the climb far too arduous and physically exerting for them.
What he did next wasn't a thing of malice but a thing of self-pride: he split open his pants and pissed on them.
Then he ran and leapt - laughing at the shouts and curses they howled in his direction - and ran across the rooftops: until the gunshots were scarce and far-off, and no-one cried 'Thief!'
He looked back on his trail, pulling down his scarf and squatting down on a rooftop.
The Thieves' Highway. It had earned its name.
He smiled to himself. Ben looked up at the sky, heavy with clouds of the deepest grey, the rain falling harder now. Ben knew that if he ever lost his way, he would only have to follow the clouds to find home again. He panted and relished the feel of the heavenly water splashing on his face.
Jolly old London.
Ben rested a while longer before pulling up his scarf around his chin and clambering down to meet Jim at the Flying Shoe.