By Michael T. Noe

 

With a painful grunt, Chula shifted position, trying to get comfortable on the pile of damp and stinking straw that had served him as a bed these past two nights. The seemingly minor axe gash he’d taken during the ill-advised fight with the band of dwarven mercenaries three days before had festered - just another incident in a life-long string of bad luck. He rolled onto his  side, examining the crude and oozing bandages with a critical eye. The axe blade had barely hit him, slashing along his rib-cage. No bones were broken, and the damned dwarf had been taken down by the last of his men, before they all had pulled a hasty retreat. Just his luck that it had gone septic on him - the gods had surely cursed him at birth…

 

Taking a long, slow pull from the wine flask at his side, he thought back on his ill-starred life. Chula had been born some thirty odd years before, the son of a Tulusian street walker and an un-named customer. Life on the streets had been hard - his mother had barely spared a thought for him before succumbing to the effects of a life-long lotus addiction when Chula was barely thirteen. Shop-lifting and petty theft had given way to back-alley muggings by his 15th year. After his birth, that was the first time the gods had cursed him - leaving the fat merchant alive despite repeated blows to the head. Chula had been captured, and consigned to the Tulusian salt mines. When the slave caravan was ambushed by outlaws, Chula’s size and natural savage disposition had spared him from the auction block. He had been recruited by the brigands to help replenish their depleted ranks.

 

Given his general lack of scruples and tendency towards sudden violence, the life of a brigand seemed to be a perfect fate. Chula had quickly risen through the ranks of the outlaw band, reaching the position of lieutenant by his 25th year and, with the death of the bands leader, captain and commander by his 27th. A perfect fate indeed, had not the gods continued to curse him at every turn. Raids constantly went sour, big scores turning out to be meager pickings. Small defenseless villages just happened to be hosting travelling bands of heroes on the evenings of his raids. Fantastic treasures that he captured seemed to always hold demonic curses. Only the rapidly dwindling ranks of his brigand band kept his men from open revolt - any time a potential rival for leadership arose, he was captured and hanged, or else died in battle.

 

When the Chaos Wars had begun, Chula had thought than maybe, just maybe, his time had come. Unable to muster enough troops of any skill to join any of the war bands mustering for the wars, Chula nevertheless thought that the chaos of war would bring new opportunities; at least for easy looting after battles, if not for any sort of real glory. Chula had set what remained of his band to follow in the wake of whichever side seemed to be winning, thinking to swoop in like carrion crows after the fighting to reap whatever spoils remained.

 

A good plan it seemed- but still the gods cursed him. Battlefields that should have been empty save for the dead seemed always to fill with hungry ghouls whenever his band approached. Helpless peasants turned to desperate fighting men when his forces entered their villages. And just days before, the group of dwarven mercenaries that  by all rights should have moved on returned to the burial site of their fallen comrades, and took mighty offense at Chula and his men’s harmless bit of grave robbing. 

 

By the time they managed to outrun the dwarves, only Chula and two men remained. The three battered outlaws had taken refuge on the outskirts of a half wrecked town, it’s buildings and population ravaged by the back and forth battles that seemed the pattern for the Chaos Wars. The long abandoned leaky barn on the town’s southern edge afforded at least some protection from the icy winds and wet rains of early winter.

 

Chula had been one of two patients the first night in the barn, along with the grizzled old Serellii warrior Hundren, who had taken a dwarven crossbow bolt to the belly in the fight. His other companion was a young Tuluvian scout called Gorvan. Gorvan had escaped the battle with the dwarves unharmed and was, it seemed to Chula, far too eager to start calling the shots for his injured leader - daring to discuss his plans for the future instead of looking to his duties to his superior. Sure, Gorvan had gotten them into the barn, found enough old straw to build the two wounded men makeshift beds, and hunted up the flea infested but at least semi-dry horse blankets to help fend off the chill. But still he seemed far too independent of mind for Chula, was giving far too many of their meager rations to Hundren, who was unlikely to make it anyway, and, Chula was certain, had been casting far too many glances at the battered leather pouch by Chula’s bedside that held the last of the bands meager treasure.

 

On the second night, when Gorvan had left to “reconnoiter the town” Chula had done what he had to do,  had made the hard call that only a true leader would have the courage to make. The badly wounded Hundren had hardly fought back when Chula used his large hands and a rolled piece of horse blanket to cover the man’s nose and mouth, cutting off his air. A few moments feeble struggle and done. One less invalid mouth to feed, leaving the band, with Chula as leader, far better off - of that fact he was sure. The death looked natural, and Gorvan hadn’t the brains to be suspicious, instead wasting valuable time giving the Serelli a “proper burial”, when he should have been finding food and drink for his leader.

 

The air had been growing steadily colder in the days since the fight - just another in the endless stream of insults from the gods. The wine helped, but now that too was running low. Gorvan’s prowls thru town at night had brought in little in the way of provisions, and less in wine. It seemed that the east and south ends of the town were mostly abandoned ruins, but a fair population still held on in the north and west, where the terrain rose into a series of low, wooded hills. Gorvan had left to reconnoiter that area tonight, looking for “better shelter for two wanted men to weather the cold in until Chula was in shape to travel.” More likely he was off feeding himself, with no thought for his wounded captain - a clear dereliction of duty that Chula fully intended to punish as soon as he was back on his feet. Moving painfully to the side as another stream of icy rain water found its way through the rotten barn roof to drip on his head, Chula cursed the gods, the wars, Gorvan, and anyone or anything he could think of.

 

By the time the squeak of the rusty hinges on the barn door announced Gorvan’s return just past midnight, Chula had exhausted both the last of the wine and his never excessive at the best of times patience. “About cursed time lout” he greeted his remaining bandit. “Did ye find me some wine?”

 

“No wine, captain” replied Gorvan, with that ever so irritating smile on his face. “Though I did manage to steal a bit of bread that was cooling on a window ledge, as well as fetchin’ some clean well water for ye. And I found us a better hidey hole then this place, over to the western outskirts of the town. An old farmstead, by the look of it, close to the western road and the occupied parts of town, where I can scrounge us food, yet far enough away that we should be safe for a few days while ye finish healing up.”

 

While Chula ravenously ate the bread, Gorvan described the potential new hide-out - lay-out, occupants, approaches and cover for their assault; everything and more that you could ask from a scout. “Easy pickings captain, just the two o them” Finished with his report, the young man wistfully eyed the last of the bread as it disappeared in Chula’s mouth. ‘”What are ye looking at idiot” growled the bandit chief. “Help me gather my gear, and let’s get me to this dryer shelter. And it better be as easy as ye say, or else…” Painfully getting to his feet, Chula gathered his sword and the leather bag. Let Gorvan carry the rest of their meager gear - he was wounded after all, and besides a captain of brigands deserved far more respect than the young Tuluvian was showing him.

 

Moving slowly through the dark, wet woods, the two brigands worked their way south and west, avoiding approaching too near any lighted areas of the town. Several times Chula stumbled, at which Gorvan would rush to “help”, always getting too near the leather bag slung under the bandit leaders arm. Three long, wet hours passed, during which Chula’s mood became blacker and blacker.

 

Finally, after far too round-about a route, his idiot of a scout moved up behind some low bushes and pointed down the valley, towards a low bedraggled structure that lay ahead at the bottom of the hill, set back from the western road into the war ravaged town. “That be it captain. From the look of the entrance, I’d say they not be home. Should be easy to take them when they get back” Gorvan started surefootedly down the wet slope towards the building, with Chula hesitantly following.

 

Halfway down the slope, Chula’s feet slipped on the muddy rutted track they were following, sending the bandit leader sprawling on his back and sliding down the hill, crashing into Gorvan on the way. The two men half rolled, half slid the rest of the way down the hill, landing with a splash in a muddy creek at the bottom. Chula took the worst of it, banging his injured side painfully into a pile of half-submerged pieces of driftwood, sending his sword and leather bag flying.

 

“What gods cursed path do you take me on, you misbegotten lout” snarled the bandit captain. “I ought to…”

 

“Shush captain” the scout whispered frantically, clamping a hand over Chula’s mouth. Gorvan crouched, eyes scanning the area, ears listening for any sounds. After a brief pause, he relaxed; removing his hand from Chula’s mouth and helping his leader get up to his knees, not noticing the fury blazing in Chula’s eyes. “That was a close one captain, but I don’t think we were heard. Here, let me get your gear…”

 

The young man turned and bent down, picking up Chula’s bag from the muddy water. “Noooo” snarled the bandit leader, rising from the muddy creek, a long heavy piece of driftwood held club-like in his huge hands. “That bag be mine, and ye’ll not steal it from me!”

 

Gorvan turned, just as Chula swung the log with murderous force, crashing it into the side of the young scout’s head. Gorvan fell back, landing on his back in the muddy stream. Chula lunged after him, fury giving speed to his tired limbs. Once, twice, three times the log rose and fell, before the blind rage subsided. Chula straightened, breathing heavily, the club dropping from his fingers to splash by the body of the scout. Fury spent, the bandit’s instinct for self-preservation returned. Chula stood still watching and listening just as Gorvan had moments before. No sound but the rain and creek noise, and no-one in sight…

 

Satisfied that he was alone and undiscovered, Chula dragged Gorvan’s body to the hill side of the creek, then retrieved his leather bag. The sword was missing, either lost in the tangle of driftwood or under the muddy water. Finding it would have to wait for morning. Likewise for Gorvan’s bow, which would have done Chula little good in any case, archery never being one of his strong points. Little matter, he had his dagger, and the long heavy bladed knife that he pulled from Gorvan’s belt; plenty of weapons for the rest of this nights work.

 

Silently cursing the wet, the mud, the cold, Gorvan’s spirit, and the gods, Chula made his way as quietly as he could across the creek and up the bank on the other side, moving up thru the scrub-brush towards the dark farm house. Reaching the edge of the overgrown fence that bordered the old farmstead; he crouched in the shadows and waited, watching the road from town. Soon, his overworked patience was rewarded, as he listened to the sounds of quiet footsteps moving up the road, though the ruined gate, and heading towards the house. Barely moving, Chula cocked his head and glanced around the stunted tree he was hidden behind. “The damned fool scout was right after all” he thought… “Just the two of ‘em, soft and ripe for the picking” The bandit watched, an evil smile on his face, as his would-be prey moved aside the debris concealing the cellar entrance to the old farm house and went  inside, both carrying bulging sacks, neither one seeming to know to watch out for the danger lurking on their doorstep.

 

Not wanting to give his victims a change to bar the entrance, the bandit moved in a quiet rush across the yard and towards the door, the leather pouch clutched under his left arm, Gorvan’s heavy knife in his big right hand. His side hurt like blazes, but this would be quick work; just two to take down, a young boy and an even smaller girl - him scrawny and her frail and sickly looking. With a snarl, Chula knocked aside the covering and kicked open the door, grinning as he moved down into the dark cellar. This would be easy pickings indeed…