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Theives in The Seven Realms

Black and White sketch of Han AllisterOne of the viewpoint characters in my Seven Realms series is 16-year-old Han “Cuffs” Alister, streetlord of the Raggers—a gang of thieves and divers (pickpockets) in the Ragmarket and Southbridge slums of the mountain city of Fellsmarch. Han takes his street name from the silver cuffs around his wrists. He’s worn them as long as he can remember—they don’t come off. So the astute reader knows from the start that there’s something magical going on.

Though Han is a successful thief, widely feared and respected, he’s smart enough to know that streetlords don’t live to see twenty. As The Demon King opens, he has decided to go straight. But he finds out that isn’t easy.

I have an affinity for thieves—the literary kind. Bandits, tricksters, pirates and hucksters abound in fiction—as they do in real life, I guess. What’s interesting is that they are so often the heroes in stories and songs.

The first Robin Hood ballads and tales were recorded in 14th century England. France birthed the famous poet-thief Francois Villon in the 15th century. Captain James Hind, a 17th century British thief, was styled as the “royalist highwayman” in popular pamphlets of the day. Supposedly, he targeted Parliamentarians, while leaving the poor alone.

Neither did I ever wrong any poor man of the worth of a penny: but I must confess, I have (when I have been necessitated thereto) made bold with a rich Bompkin, or a lying Lawyer, whose full-fed fees from the rich Farmer, doth too too much impoverish the poor cottage-keeper…

17th century family exiting a coachAfter the Restoration, French-born highwayman Claude Duval worked the roads in and out of London. He was born into a royal family whose lands and titles were confiscated. Polite and well-spoken, fashionably-dressed, he was quite the ladies’ man. One tale has it that he returned a victim’s purse when his wife agreed to dance with him along the wayside. His memorial inscription reads:

Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc has he made of both; for all
Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall.


The Child ballad, “Henry Martin,” is based on the life of Andrew Barton, a privateer. The fact that he had a letter of marque from the Scottish crown didn’t save him when he was captured by the British. He was beheaded for a pirate.

Man with a pistol on a horseVictorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth romanticized 18th Century highwayman, Dick Turpin, who frequented York in Britain and was hanged at Tyburn for a horse thief.

The traditional Irish ballad, “The Newry Highwayman” is a typical in its treatment of thieves:

I've never robbed any poor man yet
Nor any tradesman caused I to fret
But I robbed Lords and their Ladies fine
And I carried their gold home to my heart's delight



Outlaws of the American west are often portrayed as romantic figures—as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid. During the last century, many Americans seemed to be rooting for bank robbers like John Dillinger, Bonny and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd.

Most of these real-life thieves look better from a distance. In real life, thieves often steal from those who can least afford it, because they have ready access to the poor.

So what are some common tropes of literary thieves and their stories?

  1. The ruler/government/nobility/police are corrupt, brutal, dishonest themselves. Many thieves of legend turn to thievery when they’ve been pushed beyond their limits by despicable officialdom.
  2. They have noble blood. All evidence says that the historical Robin Hood (if there was one) was likely a yeoman. And yet, legend gives him a royal heritage and a role in supporting the rightful king (Richard.)
  3. They steal from the rich and undeserving.
  4. They give to the poor (possibly including themselves.)
  5. They are well-dressed, courteous, and well-spoken.
  6. They follow a code of honor of sorts.
  7. They are handsome (men) or beautiful (women).
  8. They are smart, strategic, bold, charismatic—and very good at what they do.
  9. They often dance on the legal borderline—and they often have powerful friends in need of their skills.

Why do we love thieves? Thieves appeal to the rogue in all of us, because they live by their wits, often making fools of their more powerful adversaries. Through thieves, we can vicariously stick it to “the man.”

Thieves can get into forbidden places, ferret out secrets, and take risks that we wouldn’t take ourselves. Perhaps we all have a streak of larceny in us. We’re all rule-breakers at heart.

The Seven Realms series is a transformation story—Han Alister the wizard thief is transformed into someone who can interact with and outwit bluebloods. It turns out that the skills he learned on the mean streets of Ragmarket serve him well as he navigates the treacherous Gray Wolf Court.

Cover of "A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries"Thieves Slang

Much of the slang used by Cuffs Alister, Cat Tyburn, and their crew is drawn from several dictionaries of thieves’ cant from Regency and 18th century Britain. Especially useful was Pascal Bonefant’s online source:
and Julie Campbell’s History of Slang and Cant Dictionaries.

Here is my own dictionary of thieves’ slang used in the Seven Realms.




Ragmarket/Southbridge Thieves' Cant (click for pdf file)



Meaning in Common Speech

Ace of spades DK Widow
Bang-up Cove GWT Remarkably elegant
Bawler DK Loud preacher
Bingo GWT brandy
Blue ruin GWT Potent drink of a blue color; gin
Bluejacket DK Member of the Queen’s Guard
Bravo DK Mercenary killer; killer for hire
Bully Ruffins GWT highwaymen
Clanks GWT Tankards
Cove DK man
Cracksman DK House-breaker
Crew DK Gang
Darbies GWT Handcuffs or manacles
Dawb DK Bribe
Deadly Nevergreen DK gallows
Diver DK Pick-pocket
Draw-latch DK House-breaker
Flash the hash GWT Vomit
Footpads GWT Spies, tails
Fustiluggs GWT Beastly, nasty woman
Gamon DK To fool, con
Hempen widow DK Widow of someone hanged
Hush DK Kill
Iron CC Money
Kiddeys GWT Young thieves
Knight of the Post CC One who gives testimony for money
Mad Tom GWT Crazy, insane
Mark DK Target of a gamon or ruse
Mill, miller DK Kill, killer
Mumper GWT beggar
Nazy-nab GWT Drunken dandy
Nick-ninny DK Easy mark
Nick-ninny mark DK Easy mark
Nickum sharp DK Card sharping
Pudding-Sleeve GWT Sanctimonious parson
Put it on the black and white CC Swear an affidavit, give signed testimony
Raggers DK Dominant gang in Ragmarket, led by Cat Tyburn
Resurrection Men GWT Grave robbers, body stealers
Rum DK Good, skilled
Rum Diver GWT Skilled pick-pocket
Rum Togs GWT Fine clothes
Rusher DK Mugger, strong-arm man
Scummer GWT Refuse, excrement, filth
Second-story man DK House-breaker, burglar
Shoulder-Clapper DK Bailiff or sergeant
Shoulder-tap DK Stab
Slide-hand DK Pick-pocketing, thievery by deception
Snub-devil GWT parson
Soaker GWT Drunkard
Southies DK Dominant gang in Southbridge, led by Shiv Connor
Stingo GWT Potent drink
Strum GWT Have sex with
Sword-dangler GWT Soldier, military
Wacker-mouthed GWT crazy
Whacks GWT Shares, as thieves gang shares