# How would an independent, illegal and secret group of assassins accept assignments?

In my story I would have a completely independent and elusive group of assassins. They would not be sanctioned by either a king, wealthy merchant, nobleman or by the church. Because of that, if it turns out that the group actually exists, members would be hunted down in an attempt to shut down the organization because it would be a threat to those in power.

Assume that this is a medieval world without magic and that the group has managed to remain completely hidden. What is missing in my story so far: How does the group accept assignments without getting noticed or found out?

I have a few options, but I'm not sure if they're feasible and what other options there are:

• The group uses traveling story tellers: medieval style tv/radio commercials.
• Inn-keepers or socialites who know the protocol required to contact the group.

Either way these intermediates would otherwise have a normal occupation, would be compensated for their efforts and have no direct contact with the group so they couldn't betray an individual.

Edit 1: Thanks for pointing out the incorrect use of 'guild'. Now I'll have to come up with an alternative way for the group to legitimize themselves. :-)

Edit 2: What I like about some of the answers is that giving an assignment to the group poses a risk to the client as well. I'll see how I can integrate that into the story.

• "Illegal guild" is an oxymoron. Such a thing cannot exist. The basic idea of a guild is that it has a legal monopoly on some service or trade in a specific territory. You may have an illegal syndicate, an illegal society, an illegal cartel etc. Apr 18, 2017 at 20:14
• @AlexP if they don't recognise any authority but their own leaders then they can call it a guild within it's own limits I would think. Probably not a great idea to complain to a group of trained steely eyed killers about their name choice anyway. Apr 18, 2017 at 21:16
• @Kilisi: They can call it the honorable and ancient order of terminators, if they so please. After all, there is a well-known group of sanguinary iniquitous outlaws in the sands east of the Mediterranean who call themselves a state. But I would think that the legally constituted legitimate guilds would be quite vocal in insisting that the authorities don't besmirch the word guild by associating it with a mob of felonious murderers. Apr 18, 2017 at 21:22
• @AlexP I think Thieves guild is a well known trope even if they technically cannot be called guild. Apr 18, 2017 at 23:11
• @MaciejPiechotka: Well, in Ankh Morpork it is a guild, officially. Apr 19, 2017 at 12:57

"Don't call us, we'll call you."

Your assassins are actually primarily spies. They spend most of their time digging into the secrets of the rich and powerful: those mostly likely to have both the motive and the means to spend large amounts of money to have someone killed. This would be through intermediaries a lot of the time; with networks of informants who don't know that the buyers of their information are the assassins guild (I'm assuming plenty of regular intrigue here, with numbers of nobles and merchants wanting to keep tabs on each other anyway, so a few more bribes and break-ins could go unnoticed against that backdrop).

The assassin's guild does not advertise any means for would-be-clients to contact them. Instead an agent of the guild approaches (in secret) a potential client when they already have reason to believe the client would be willing to pay for their services (possibly as simple as hearing about the potential client's attempts to figure out how to contact assassins).

The continual espionage also provides them with plenty of blackmail material, which can both help keep them hidden and provide a layer of insurance against a misjudged client (the other layer being obvious).

Of course there will always be rumours of the assassin's activity; no sizable group operating for an extended period of time could remain completely undetected, especially when people are disappearing often enough for the guild to be making an income.

• Possibly they would initiate contact indirectly, by leaving a message of some sort. They can then secretly observe the subject's reaction to this message as a way to gauge whether they misjudged the situation; if the individual turns out to be more law-abiding than they expected, there's no way to trace it back to them - they never even saw a face, heard a voice, or anything. This message could take the form of a black handprint and the words "We know", but that's down to personal style. Apr 19, 2017 at 10:43
• @anaximander "Medieval". Do you really want to bet on your fact they can read? Apr 20, 2017 at 12:47
• I'd guess that the likelyhood of misjudging is smaller than the convenience of alerting the potential customer as to the assassins' availability — allowing the customer to prepare their payment and such prior to properly commissioning the assassination — er, “unfortunate accident”. Apr 21, 2017 at 3:17
• This happens to me all the time. I keep getting spam messages from assassin orgs offering to take out my various rivals. Really hard to unsubscribe. Apr 22, 2017 at 18:30
• @WeckarE. Although writing and reading were not common among the masses in medieval times (almost non-existent), the rich were almost always educated. After-all, being educated gives enormous power and influence over the uneducated. That is often how the rich and powerful stayed rich and powerful (and how they still do to an extent). I think that you could reasonably count on a person with enough money to pay an assassin having the ability to read. At the very least they could pay a scholar to read for them. Apr 25, 2017 at 19:54

I like a lot of the answers here, particularly the ones regarding having people that are already in "Secretive Professions" do the client management portion. However, there's one thing that The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim did well, and that's the Dark Brotherhood.

At the point the player meets the guild, they operate by showing up to a location by request. This request is signaled by doing an elaborate ritual involving bones, blood and other items. Since none of the guild members posessed a way to know when others performed that ritual, what they'd do was that they would simply pay very close attention to rumours of people trying to perform the ritual. They'd also notice people carrying the exact items needed for said ritual.

By doing that they ensured that people thought they were (still) calling upon a magical entity, while doing all of the labour without any special power.

• I like this idea, but isn't that a bit unreliable? Apr 19, 2017 at 6:44
• @xLeitix That was actually a minor background event in Skyrim; you can steal a note from somebody complaining about how she performed the ritual when nobody was looking. Nobody else knew about it, so the Brotherhood didn't know she wanted their services. Apr 19, 2017 at 10:48
• In previous Elder Scrolls games (and <spoilers>later in Skyrim</spoilers>), an undead being called the Night Mother listens for people doing the ritual, and informs the Dark Brotherhood to go speak to them. The non-magical way is unreliable, but given OP's requirement of non-magic, it isn't too bad of a system Apr 19, 2017 at 18:15
• The ritual could possible include some part that can only be found or done in a single location. Perhaps a special herb they have to purchase that is only grown in one place or an ancient altar that they need to perform the ritual at. Then you only need to watch a single location. If the group operates in a large area, different rituals would probably be needed in different areas. Apr 20, 2017 at 3:46
• @Brian If that part of the ritual is general knowledge, then the assassins wouldn't be the only people monitoring these locations, because anyone spotted there would be suspect of conspiracy to commit murder. Apr 20, 2017 at 12:51

I would probably go with a religious order. Leave a sufficient offering at the temple of <insert vengeful deity here> and your enemy simply disappears into the night.

The people don't really need to know how it happens, just that it happens.

The silent, chaste, and otherwise unassuming monks either are or are the contact point of the assassin's guild.

In the event of a monotheistic world they could be the order of St. Swithen's, the patron saint of lost causes. Who's been known to help a person out from time to time... If you know what I mean...

Being a religious order carries a certain respectablity that would help an assassin's guild maintain a "beyond reproach" place in the community.

What I'm trying to say is... On a long enough timeline, no matter how many intermediaries you have, those people will be tortured into giving up the goods, you need a mechanism to prevent it from coming to that point.

• Exactly the answer I had in mind. If the guild is meant to be so secretive, why even let on that they are a guild of assassins? Let people think that the targeted deaths are the result of some divine intervention instead! Apr 19, 2017 at 1:24
• @Xenocacia it gets worse: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/78545/7351 Apr 19, 2017 at 1:32
• Maybe more cliche now as make of thrones does this Apr 19, 2017 at 21:53
• That's Game of Thrones' Faceless Men indeed. Valar Morghulis! Apr 19, 2017 at 23:26
• @Mat'sMug I was thinking about traditional Catholic monks. Drab robes, bald patches, ya know... Game Of Thrones will soon be the new 'Simpsons did it' Apr 20, 2017 at 0:11

They stay hidden by not existing (anymore)

As you noted, rulers would never let this kind of group exist. The first thing any newly-minted despot would do is start trying to root out this organization so they can never be used against him. After all, what good is a government if it does not have a monopoly on violence? Maybe such an Assassins Guild could exist for a generation or two (with great effort and luck), but ultimately they won't be able to maintain that for long, and some emperor will eventually find them and (functionally) wipe them out - he has his own armies, spies, and assassins after all, why contract when you've already got employees for this kind of thing?

But, the populace love boogeymen. They need to blame their problems on some anthropomorphic evil entity or organization. When someone influential is murdered in the unique style of the Assassins Guild, Joe Farmer can rant about how those heathen killers are ruining the country. Similarly, Joe Farmer knows well enough not to poke into their affairs, because he and his family could be next.

So let's suppose such a group used to exist, and an emperor wiped them out after a generation or two. But he realizes it is in his interest to pretend that they're still around. So he teaches his spies and killers how to copy the style of the Assassins Guild. Whenever he has a rival threatening his rule, he can just have them killed in the style of the Assassins. Whenever he discovers a servant of his was disloyal, he can have them killed in the style of the Assassins - perhaps without revealing the disloyalty, so that it appears like the Assassins are still accepting contracts that hurt him.

He can even set up "sting" operations so that when someone tries to contract a killing the emperor doesn't approve of through the Assassins, that person is instead "taken care of" (maybe killed, maybe the emperor's spy network can "leak" damning information and ruin the guy's life).

Even better, the powerful merchants of the nation can still use the Assassin's services - which cost large sums of money. Unbeknownst to the merchants, they're actually paying the emperor directly.

The emperor can even boost his population's morale from time to time claiming to have found a safe-house of the Assassins, burned it down, and captured/killed one of its members - perhaps the member responsible for an unpopular assassination!

• Unfortunately I can't accept two answers. This would be an awesome twist of events, where the protagonist would maybe find this out eventually.
– user37130
Apr 20, 2017 at 9:08

And now for something completely different...

Use harlots, concubines, prostitutes. The lowest class in many societies, but they (as an organization at least) have enough dirt on enough people to keep things under wraps.

They're the guild, or the contact point.

Anyone who acknowledges contacting them would be an immediate pariah. So polite people don't, or at least they don't talk about it.

What I'm trying to say is... On a long enough timeline, no matter how many intermediaries you have, those people will be tortured into giving up the goods, you need a mechanism to prevent it from coming to that point.

• Good idea. It also gives the group a leverage on the client giving the assignment. If the client spills the beans, the group can plant that information about the contacts of the client.
– user37130
Apr 19, 2017 at 9:47
• I really like the idea that the guild is made up of members of a group which exists publicly in plain sight, is not particularly respected, and is not recognized for what it truly is. That's just cool. That said, if their identity is ever compromised, that could be the end of the organization - at least in that form, and it would be difficult for any significant amount of people to transition to another form, or appear from out of nowhere without arousing suspicion - and so they would need solid backup plans to keep things secretive. Apr 19, 2017 at 15:10
• @Bemisawa That's why prostitutes have an upper hand. They can blackmail people to keep things quiet. Apr 19, 2017 at 17:54
• Prostitutes in medieval times would probably not be that good for this sort of thing. Pillow talk, yes, but the use of prostitutes were quite common, and nothing to be ashamed of. Better perhaps to use servants? Apr 19, 2017 at 18:04
• @junkfoodjunkie depends on who's been seeing what sort of prostitute, and what sort of activities they engaged in. If the local Bishop was seeing a dominatrix to get his diaper changed, he'd probably want to keep it secret, and would likely be willing to turn a blind eye when needed. Apr 19, 2017 at 18:12

The skilled undercover agents watch while the rank amateur bumbles around trying to make contact, then makes clandestine contact himself.

This is portrayed humorously in the movie Mystery Men (deleted scenes/director’s cut) where the characters think that the way to contact The Sphynx is to order a specific combination of dishes at a certain Mexican restaurant. They make a spectacle of themselves ordering various combinations in an effort to guess the code. Meanwhile, a worker at the restaurant, later revealed to be the civilian identity of The Sphynx, is watching their antics with great mirth.

• For a non-humorous example, this is precisely how The Jackal made contact with the OAS. Apr 19, 2017 at 1:57
• It was probably a send-up of the serious movie, then. Apr 19, 2017 at 5:04
• This is the kind of information that could be spread in a superstitious way by story tellers or drunkards, for example.
– user37130
Apr 19, 2017 at 9:49

They would not be sanctioned by either a king, wealthy merchant, nobleman or by the church.

Which leaves organised crime and outlaw groups, pretty much the same way it is thought to happen today.

Your assassins shouldn't be contactable at all by Joe Bloggs or Prime Minister X or General Y. It should all be done by intermediaries who then subcontract the actual dirty deed to the guild.

Spread the method through stories and legends. Say you have your traveling bards go through and tell stories of the powerful and shadowy assassins. Part of the story is the method to hire an assassin, and the price for different hits.

"And so the merchant went to the graveyard at midnight and left a note on the grave of the assassin with the name of a wealthy merchant on it. The next day, under the guise of visiting the grave of a relative, he walked past the grave of the assassin, and saw written in chalk the number 1000..."

The next part of the story would tell where to drop the payment. Some stories would tell of the penalties for not following the instructions to the letter (mostly painful death) or double crossing (painful death for your entire bloodline, forward and back).

The assassins would have the locations staked out by members, and informants in every level of government to let them know if anyone is trying to be clever and locate them.

Maybe use superstition.

There's a long history of superstition, luck-offerings, and other attempted bargains with the supernatural. None of these were sanctioned by the wealthy and powerful (especially not if there's a church who would not like competing with these superstitions), but they persisted even in the face of concerted opposition.

Most such offerings are small - a bowl of milk for the fae, salt over the shoulder to ward off bad luck, ribbons tied to a tree, sweet herbs offered to a fire, coins in wishing wells. The point is, though, the offerings would already be in the culture, a jumping-off point for the assassins to spread a...certain story. After all, given the idea of small offerings for luck, why not big offerings for assisted luck - especially if or when words gets around that this offering, this story, seems to work.

So, now to make it work.

Someone might, if they were looking for a little extra luck, give an offering to a wishing-well (or cursing-pond, who wants to dive into a well) and speak their wish aloud. The "water spirit" won't take a direct hand unless the coins one is offering are gold, though.

Or

One heard that there's a little old shrine in the woods, there. If a person had an obstacle in their path, one would go to the flat topped stone, bury an offering of coins there and lay a token closely representing their target on the flat stone, and the obstacle will meet an unfortunate end.

Or

There's a wishing tree down that trail, old and gnarled, and folk will tie offerings on the branches with their written request, and coins, tucked inside the pouch. If one offers a generous handful of silver, the tree sprites may offer the very worst luck to one's foes.

Or, well, any small tale like that.

The assassins would keep a watch - maybe even use it as a training exercise, or punishment, since it might be boring - and so they would see who is offering, and who they want removed, and can immediately grab the offering and make sure it's enough. Additionally, if there's some confusion about what was requested for some reason, there's the fact they will likely know the local gossip, and therefore can figure out who they are being asked to target, or else the use of a written request (rich enough to hire an assassin can mans can leave a name in a note) or a token absolutely identifying the target. And if all else fails, or if the payment isn't enough, or anything else, they can slip a person in to negotiate with the one asking personally. After all, they know this person is interested already, don't they?

The story will need to be carefully written, when first started, so they don't get too many requests for, um, services not offered. Maybe make it known it's a cursing-place instead of a wishing-one or the spirits involved are dark and deadly, to keep the requests to death and mayhem instead of healing or other miracles. Also, they should have an idea of what to do if someone does offer a payment for something they can't or won't do, in mistaking the process for a genuine spirit offering - maybe returning it, unseen, to the one asking would be both an impressive proof that someone was listening, and underlining that not all bargains will be accepted.

But after a while, it will become a set routine. People will know what they're asking for, and what they're getting, and what the price is. Customers found by other methods can be told this is how to get in touch for repeat business. There will be plenty of people attesting that this offering really works.

Maybe people will realize it's just a contact point, a dead drop, or maybe they will genuinely believe it's a spirit-thing - but either way this guild has got a contact point that does not lead back to them (since they can watch any potential customers and approach at their leisure).

I've avoided that specific concern by presuming that people of influence (i.e. those who could afford to hire an assassin) would have a pre-existing relationship with the guild. A member of the palace has his assassins on retainer, because if there is a guild then there is likely to be a constant need for them. This in turn offers a picture of an unpoliced, vigilante-driven environment.

You could also consider a different angle - if the guild needed business, how would they reach out to potential clients? Usually through existing mutual contacts, mandarins and professional service-providers (lawyers, etc).

Homing pigeons and a public-key encryption algorithm. Such an algorithm would not require computers, it could be accomplished with math and a pencil and paper.

Each assassin would personally train their pigeons. The birds would hang around the village of interest to the assassin. The hiring party would first encrypt their instructions using a key contained in the pigeons message pouch. This would be the public key and would have been generated by the assassin. The hiring party would put the encrypted message in the pigeons case along with their own public key. They would assign themselves a meaningless set of characters in place of their name and include this name in the message.

The pigeon would be trained to fly in a misdirecting path before traveling on to the assassin. Any attempt to follow the bird would be futile as they would fly way too high and fast to keep up with. Trying to get a general fix on location by watching the direction the pigeon started off in would also be futile as the bird would never start off in the ultimate direction it needed to travel to find the assassin.

Upon receiving the orders, the assassin would decrypt with their private key, then reply with a simple yes/no, and a fake name to identify themselves, a banks name, a bank password and a price. A complex price would be ideal, not a round number, just as an extra layer of precaution. This return message would be encrypted with the hiring party's public key. They would then send the bird back to the village. The bird would return to the village and look for the hiring party. Birds have excellent facial recognition so they would excel at this. The bird would contact the hiring party discreetly, and the hiring party would decrypt the message with their private key.

Any attempt to intercept the bird would be pointless as the message would have been encrypted and can only be encrypted by the holder of the private key, which would either be the hiring party or the assassin, depending on which direction the message was going.

Upon receiving the terms of the deed, if the hiring party agrees, they would deposit money in a new account under the fake name. As a courtesy they could send back an encrypted yes/no and date to the assassin so the assassin doesn't waste a trip to the bank and doesn't go too early.

The assassin would check the agreed-upon bank for a deposit of the exact amount under the fake name and retrieve the money using the password they provided the hiring party.

In this scenario, the only one who knows anything interesting is the pigeon. Good luck getting that pigeon to talk. Pigeons don't rat.

• I thought of one flaw in my scheme. It's just with the delivery of money, which I'm sure could be worked around. If law enforcement orders a fake hit, they could corroborate with the bank (or strong arm the bank if the bank wasn't playing along) and tell the bank to alert them when someone came to make a withdrawal from the designated bank account name. I need another way to deliver the money, besides that, this is bullet proof. Apr 21, 2017 at 12:41

How does the guild accept assignments without getting noticed or found out?

An idea that I don't think was presented yet would be that the guild is proactive rather than reactive.

For example, they work as spies out in the kingdom and hear that Bobby Jim wants Timmy Rim to die. After careful study from afar to determine sincerity, monetary resources, willingness to betray to the watch, etc- Bobby is approached at night when he's alone by guild members who tell him he can pay right then and there for the job he wishes. The approach could be on his own turf or perhaps they can just kidnap him and interrogate him elsewhere.

Obviously the guild will be 'noticed' by whoever contracts them but I don't see a way to avoid that. If you want someone dead and they suddenly die- you're going to notice it happened- especially if you somehow pay the price for it. However, the only way they'll be 'found out' would be if something like a sting operation occurs, hence the studying period.

• FYI, this answer recommends the assassins have spies, whereas the other answer recommended the assassins disguise themselves as spies and informants. That's probably the reason this earlier answer wasn't accepted or so severely upvoted. This answer does do better at describing the procedure of contact, though: simple, brief, and a single meeting, with no mussing or fussing. Apr 21, 2017 at 18:48
• I mean, I didn't say the assassins weren't the spies, merely that they do have spies. I hadn't intended two separate groups of people but so long as it helped in some way I consider it a success. I suppose I can edit it to be more clear. Apr 21, 2017 at 18:52
• The confusion was mine, by saying “have spies” I didn't mean that the assassins employed spies who weren't also assassins! Anyways, I just thought I would be helpful in explaining — for posterity — one possible cause as to why two very similar answers received such a difference in upvotes. (For the record, I liked this answer better.) Apr 21, 2017 at 19:04
• Well he also wrote a lot more, since it's only like my second or maybe third answer, I'm operating on 'brief and helpful' until I get a better feel for what answers should be comprised of. Apr 21, 2017 at 19:25

Your idea is right and need one more step

## Chain of intermediators

Inn-keepers are so fickle. When the guard use an indisputable argument like Spanish boot then they stay so gabby. But nobody could tell what it don't know. So inn-keepers know someone, story tellers know another and they are different people which know awared. And only these awared know it's not a single assassin but guildy.

## Different social layers

Inn-keeper talks with travelers, merchants and servants. They are useful... but don't have a lot of money. More famous, powerful target then more famous, hard and therefore expansive assassination will be.

Of course, a prince could talk with his doctor, he with own wife, she through 3 people with knowing story-teller. But more often, nobel man have 2-hope link with the right person. For example, his bodyguard knows inn-keeper or "inn-keeper" himself.

Prosperous guildy should also have insiders between barbers, comediants, lawyers and many others

• While this is good for keeping the guild secret, it's not very useful for the customers. So I want my annoying competing merchant (who is also flirting with my daughter) to dissapear? I hear there are some people that can fix such things for a reasonable sum. Maybe I should whisper something to my local inn-keeper? But, how do I know that he in fact is... connected? How do I know he doesn't tip off my rival instead? Apr 19, 2017 at 6:50
• @Guran Since it's secret there are no public ways to say I'll take orders for killing. Mostly you go to your friend and complain about problems. And he could say Wait a minute I know who could solve the problem!. That's why the network of intermediators have to spread wide enough. Also remember about six degrees. Since its your friend you trust that he don't cheat you.
Apr 21, 2017 at 5:11

Establish a literal Assassination Market.

Have betting happen on the exact place and mode of death of someone. Whoever assumes/is in control of these factors can profit from a risky bet without being provably involved.

• What would be done with regards to the visibility of the market and those placing bets? Apr 21, 2017 at 3:53
• Make it a closest-wins pool... still plausibly deniable ;) Apr 21, 2017 at 7:32

The Dark Brotherhood is a great example present in fiction

Historically, the Dark Brotherhood required the Black Sacrament; a gorey ritual and prayer. The Night Mother hears the prayer, and reports it to the Listenter, who dispatches the assassins to tend to the contract.

However in Skyrim the Night Mother was lost, and the organization relied on spies to track down suspected performers of the ritual. They must have had a relatively extensive network, as people of all walks of life were capable of being heard.

The in-universe explanation I can fathom for their continued success of tracking down users involves

• An iconinc ritual, which grants your organization an air of mystery
• A unique and extensive shopping list for this ritual
• Bribed merchants who watch their townspeople for purchase of some of these unique items. Merchants could be compensated via commission for the kill.

Incorporate these elements for your league of assassins, and you will have murderers summoned in such a way as to strike fear into any government.

How about they don't sell their services on the open market, but only work in conspiracy with other criminal or dark organizations, whom they "trust" (or at least trust to not be the authorities). Occasionally a powerful or rich client might be able to contact them through underworld contacts, but primarily they service other criminal gangs.

As you can imagine, if a bumbling drunkard - who wants to knock off his wife who just left him - can contact them, then any reasonably competent authority can as well.