Lord Rinos and Ulk the Unwashed in Baron Balinzius's Gold

Michael Panush

Lord Rinos Vinzian knew that Baron Balinzius was possessed wealth and cruelty in equal measure, but he was not aware on how keenly aware the baron's mind was, until it was too late. Lord Rinos had traveled far across the eastern desert to the borderlands of the Silverine Empire, where the nobles dwelled villas of silk and splendor, and ruled their conquered lands with iron fists. The most notorious of these nobles was the Baron Balinzius, and tales of his savagery towards any who denied his total rule were spoken in hushed whispers in the taverns and inns that stood near the dusty roads of the empire.

When Rinos had heard the name, he hastened to Balinzius's massive estate, and had rested little until he had achieved an audience with the baron. It had been a difficult task, for Balinzius was paranoid of assassins, and rightly so, but Lord Rinos Vinzian was nothing if not able to negotiate the maze of bureaucrats, lesser nobles and guards that made up the decadent Silverine society.

So now Lord Rinos sat on a wicker chair near a wide table of polished oak, resting in the center of the well kept gardens of Balinzius's villa. Tropical birds fluttered amidst the flowering trees, and a fountain trickled merrily away like the ever present laughter. But the beautiful surroundings could not hide the burnished armor of the guards which stood at every doorway, nor the barbed ends of their long pikes.

Rinos nodded to the nearest guard and ran a thin fingered hand through his wavy blonde hair. He was a slight man, lithe and spindly, and the pale robes of a lesser noble sat uneasily on his thin frame. A long bronze dagger rested in a jeweled hilt at his crimson sash, but he had little use for it. Lord Rinos's real weapon rested within the long sleeve of his robes – a thin glass vial filled with the crushed powder of the bloodroot flower. It was tasteless, odorless and utterly lethal and it was with this that Lord Rinos intended to kill Baron Balinzius.

Behind Lord Rinos, looking like he had stepped from another world into the peaceful garden, stood the Silverine aristocrat's bodyguard and dearest friend – the brutal barbarian Mountain Clansman known as Ulk the Unwashed. Ulk held the haft of his long bladed axe and shuffled uneasily in his boots.

"Bah!" he muttered darkly. "I do not like this, Rinos! The baron is no fool and he'll have your head on a pike and mine beside it!" Ulk stroked his thick beard, wild, dark and still rank with the blood and filth of his latest meals and battles. Ulk's smell lived up to his name.

"Oh, a death by the executioner's axe would make us lucky men in Baron Balinzius's grasp," Rinos explained to his friend. "Do you not recall that Balinzius feeds his captured foes to tamed raptors and watches the grisly spectacle in his arena?"

Lord Rinos was perhaps the only man alive who did not mind Ulk's harsh odor, for Rinos's nose was gone. Assassins slew his family years ago, and, as it was Silverine custom that a nobleman's face must be perfect, they had hacked off Rinos's nose as well. Now it was a golden prosthetic, attached by several wires that curled around Rinos's thin ears.

Ulk nodded. "Aye," he said. "And by Lor, I'd sooner storm this palace and slay all with my own axe, then leave our victory up to chance."

"Not chance," Rinos said, patting his sleeve. "But skill. And comfort yourself, Ulk, that his cruelty is matched by the vast amounts of gold in his storeroom, awaiting only his death to be ripe for the plundering." He looked up from the table and saw the Baron approaching. "Silence now, old friend," Rinos reminded Ulk. "Remember, you are some wooden brained mercenary from the mountains, and the power of speech is quite beyond you."

"Bah!" Ulk hissed, but then fell quiet. He folded his arms over his mammoth-fur coat and waited.

Baron Balinzius marched at the head of a large retinue of guards and wore the silver diadem of command upon his brow. His nose was hooked, his head bald, and his body turned slow and wide from years of lounging on silken cushions while serving girls in diaphanous gowns dripped grapes and other succulents into his waiting mouth. He sat down opposite Lord Rinos and smiled.

"Prince Vinos!" he cried, for that was the false name Rinos had given the servants. "Heir to the House of Falcons in the City of Spires! Tell me, how goes the empire, young prince?" A false smile appeared on the baron's face, as easily applied as a performer's mask.

"Very well, my lord baron," Rinos said, a similarly subtle smile appearing on his own face. "And I greatly look forward to discussing them with you. But the journey from the City of Spires has been long, my camel was slow, and the road was dusty. Legends of the great vineyards of the borderlands have traveled to the capitol, and I would feel myself the greatest fool in existence if I missed a chance to caress my tongue and throat with those fine wines."

Balinzius's fat head wobbled up and down in an agreeable nod. "But of course." He clapped his hand. "Wine!" he shouted. "And two goblets!" He looked up at Ulk and then back to Rinos. "And who is your hirsute companion, Prince Vinos?"

"Ulk, my lord baron. A rather simple-minded mercenary. He guards me, and has done a fine job as I still live, do I not?" Rinos laughed at his own jest and the baron smiled. Ulk let out a simple grunt. "You have bodyguards do you not, my lord baron?" Rinos asked as servants brought the dark bottle of wine and a pair of jewel-encrusted goblets.

"An army of them, my boy." Baron Balinzius waved a fat arm to the palace around him. "My own private legion. And I have done much more than that to safeguard my precious life." He took the bottle, unplugged the stopper and poured the goblets.

Rinos waved his hand over his own goblet, letting the poison fall silently into the wine. "For instance, I always switch goblets with the man I am drinking with," Balinzius said. "For security reasons." He reached out and took Rinos's goblet, then handed his to Rinos, just as the young noble had planned. "You understand, of course?"

"Of course, my lord baron," Rinos agreed. "May I propose a toast? To your long life, I think."

"An excellent toast." Balinzius raised his goblet and drunk heartily while Rinos emptied his own cup. He set the goblet town on the table and stared at Balinzius. He waited, expecting the baron's cheeks to redden, his vision to blur and his body spasm, before swift death claimed him. But nothing happened. Balinzius smiled at Rinos. "Good wine?" he asked.


"I thought so. Though I believe I tasted a little something extra in my own glass." The Baron held the goblet to the nearest servant. "Drink it," he ordered.

The servant looked down at the wine, red as blood, and muttered a protest. "P-please, my lord baron," the servant pleaded. "I h-have c-children who—"

"And I will see each of them dead on the rack if you do not drink," the baron ordered. Rinos felt his heart beat slower as the servant took the goblet in shaking hands and then tipped it back and gulped down the rest of the wine. Lord Rinos's hand fell to his dagger and Ulk the Unwashed growled lowly behind him.

Baron Balinzius smiled at them both. "You see, my prince, I have spent the latter half of my life making sure that my assassination is an impossibility. I have terrorized the natives so that none will make an attempt against me, lest they feed my pet raptors. And I have, through much consumption, built up immunity to all known poisons."

The unfortunate servant gasped and fell to his knees. He grabbed his throat as he eyes rolled back, and a tremor ran through his body like he had been struck by lighting. As his mouth frothed, he toppled backwards and his shaking, along with all other movement, abruptly ceased.

"Including Bloodroot powder." Balinzius took another sip of wine as his guards drew their long swords. Their plumes ruffled in the light wind as they raced to surround Ulk the Unwashed and Lord Rinos. The young Silverine nobleman came to his feet, but Balinzius grabbed his arm. He reached for his dagger, but a sword was already at his throat.

Ulk the Unwashed responded with a roar, swinging his axe in a mighty arc. The great pole arm's blade cut through the air, cleaving a guard's face from cheek to cheek, and burying itself in the chest of another. Ulk pulled forth the bloodstained blade out and faced the guards. "Silverine swine!" he bellowed. "Come forth and face me, and you will meet your deaths!"

"Such spirit!" the baron laughed. "Look behind you, Ulk, and you'll see that I do not battle barbarous savages on their own terms."

With a derisive snort, Ulk looked over his shaggy, pelt-clad shoulder. A dozen of Balinzius's guards stood on the wide veranda of the villa, aiming down at him with loaded crossbows. The bowstrings were taut and the arrows loaded. Ulk snarled lowly and tossed his axe to the ground.

"Save that weapon," Balinizius ordered. "We'll give it back to him once he's in the pit with the raptors and then there will be such a few moments of blissful entertainment!" Balinzius looked back at Rinos. "As for you, my young prince, something within me wants to ask 'why,' but I can't bring myself to listen to it. I do not care what grudge you have against me, as you will die either way."

Lord Rinos sighed and raised his hands. The guards pulled out his bronze dagger and set it on the table, then pulled the vial of poison from the sleeve of his robe. "It is a good reason, my lord baron," he said. "I will tell you that."

"Your treasure, you fat monkey!" Ulk snarled. "We wanted your gold and silver!"

"Greed, yes," Baron Balinzius said. "The oldest reason there is." He turned back to Lord Rinos as the guards hauled him out his chair and bound his arms. They did the same with Ulk. "Well, consider me singularly unimpressed. You'll go the dungeons now, Rinos, and feed the raptors at a later time." The guards hauled him off, goading him on with slaps from the flats of their blade. Rinos kept his head low and said nothing.

With a sigh of pleasure, Balinzius turned back to Ulk. "But you, my mountain dwelling friend, you will give me much more entertainment, I'm sure." He picked up the large axe and ran his hand over the white ivory blade. "I starve my raptors. Keep them separated, and drive them mad. They are such intelligent beasts, you know. In fact, I think they and mankind alone can cause conscious cruelty." He looked away from Ulk. "And I do wonder how long you will last?"

"Bah!" Ulk shouted as the guards dragged him away. "I'll have my hands around your fat throat and rip the life from you! I have slain mammoths bare handed! I have battled armies and lived to tell of it, and the mountains call me master! By Lor's bloody blades, I will see you die!"

But the baron had already returned to his seat and seemed more interesting in the flitting of his tropical birds then in Ulk's oaths.

The next few moments passed in a blur for Ulk. He was dragged through the villa and led to a large mud brick structure outside. It was circular and glowed softly gold in the sun of the borderlands. The guards led Ulk inside and he walked along a large hallway towards the center of the arena, a dirt floor surrounded by high seats. The baron and his servants were the only spectators, Balzinius reclining on a cushioned throne while girls from his harem sat around him and slowly fed him grapes.

The guards pushed Ulk into the center of the arena and left him there. Ulk lay on his knees in the dirt, the heat, the short battle and Balzinus's damnable attitude all raising his temper to a fiery boil. Ulk looked up and saw one of the guards toss down his great axe. It landed with a clatter on the dusty ground.

Ulk sprang up and grabbed the axe. He held it like a javelin, about to hurl it forth and impale the baron, but the creak of metal distracted him. Ulk saw the gate before him open, and clawed feet padded silently over the sand. The raptors had arrived.

They moved forward slowly, dozens of them and still more appearing in the mouth of the tunnel. Their ribs stood out and their eyes darted about wildly. Low growls and hisses escaped their lips like steam escaping a boiling cauldron. Ulk the Unwashed snorted back and raised his axe.

"Oh, this will be a brilliant bit of entertainment!" Balinzius clapped his hands. "Fight on, Ulk, and may your mountain gods watch over you!"

Ulk considered hurling the axe, killing the baron and then battling the voracious raptors with bare hands. But that would lead to the end of his own life, and the baron was not worth it. Instead, Ulk held his axe and waited for the raptors to move. He did not have to wait long.

The first raptor lunged for him, leaping into the air and bringing up both of its feet to land a pair of killing blows on his chest. With a roar of his own, Ulk met it, swinging his axe into the midsection of the reptile, and pushing until the blade hit blood, bone and beyond. He pulled the axe back as another raptor came for him, this one darting in from the side in a deadly flanking maneuver. It leapt at Ulk, its mouth open and its clawed feet slashing down.

Ulk spun to face it, bringing his axe around as well. Claws tore into his side, cutting his waist and legs, but he swung the axe forward, into the open mouth of the raptor. Ulk grunted as the axe's momentum carried it forward, sheering off the top half of the raptor's head. The beast fell to the ground, blood spraying into the dark sand.

With a snort, Ulk looked back at the raptors. He was wounded, and there were still so many of the beasts. "Come on, then!" Ulk shouted, pulling his great axe back again. "Who will die next at the hands of Ulk the Unwashed?"

He only received the hisses and snarls of the raptors and the mocking laughter of Baron Balinzius.

Lord Rinos Vinzian was taken below the villa, where the splendor and opulence and of the Silverine nobility gave way to the dark gray stones, iron bars and cold dungeon cells of the world they ruled. The guards chose a cell near the stairwell that led back to the villa and pushed Lord Rinos inside. Rinos went to the rear of the cell and leaned against the cold stone wall.

He looked at the two guards and saw they were staring at him -- and at his golden nose. Rinos folded his arms. "Your people are not of the Silverine legions?" he asked. He spoke their tongue, and spoke it fluently.

The guard scratched his broad nose. "Yes, sir," he said. Accustomed as he was to bowing before the Silverine conquerors, he addressed even the prisoners as his master. "Balzinius hired us from the river village and we have served him since."

"And is he a good master?" Rinos asked. "Does he share his bulging coffers with you, for instance? Are you well paid?"

"No…" The second guard sighed deeply. He then pointed his pike at Lord Rinos. "But enough of your talk! The Baron will be angry if he finds we are talking with you, and then we will be punished."

"My friends, do not think of me as a threat." Rinos reached into his golden nose. His thin fingers pulled two objects from inside the golden nostrils. One was a tiny piece of parchment, carefully rolled up in a miniscule scroll. The other was a skeleton key. Rinos walked to the bars and placed the key inside the lock. He worked at it for a few seconds and then the gate swung open.

Both guards now pointed their pikes at the Silverine aristocrat. Rinos raised his hands. "I mean no harm," he said, speaking slowly and carefully. He held up the rolled up scroll and carefully unraveled it. The two guards saw a tiny map etched on the parchment in charcoal. "Look here," Lord Rinos explained. "Here are the dungeons, and here the arena, and here, just a few footsteps from where we are, are the gold stores of Baron Balinzius. More gold than in all of the border lands, sitting there in his vault, ripe for the taking."

The first guard shook his head. "It is guarded!" he cried, and his partner's plume helmet waved as he nodded his agreement.

"But who guards it?" Rinos asked.

"Hired men. Men like us…." The second guard smiled as he realized Rinos's purpouse.

Lord Rinos returned the grin. "Then let us go there," he said. "And see if they will take Balinzius's gold as our payment."

The three of them walked down the dungeon hall, Rinos pausing by the wall to reclaim his bronze dagger. He strode ahead of the other two guards, one eye looking at the sketched map. It had taken much drink and coin to bribe servants and guards into getting the full layout of the villa, but every bit of effort was worth it.

They turned the corner and reached the vault, where two more guards stood with crossbows poised. Rinos held up his hand and beckoned for his former jailers to talk with their fellows. He listened to their conversation, waiting patiently though he knew the outcome was inevitable.

Before he knew it, the vault guards had produced keys and opened the heavy stone doors. Lord Rinos looked inside. "Gods of my fathers…" he whispered, staring at the piles of coins that reached to the surface of the massive chamber. He looked back at the four guards. "Take as much as you want," he said. "And bring much with us. There are many others in this villa who will need convincing to join our side."

He stood back and watched at the four guards grabbed sacks from the wall and filled them with gold coins. The piles shrank, one after the other, and Lord Rinos realized that the profit of this mission was shrinking as well. He couldn't bring himself to care.

Six raptors lay dead in the center of the arena, and Ulk the Unwashed felt like he would soon join them. He was bleeding from a dozen wounds, each one of which might have killed a lesser man. And still the raptors capered and leapt about him, dancing just out of the long reach of his axe, and then flying in to rake his skin with their claws or deliver a quick bite from their curved fangs.

They were weakening him, wearing him out, and waiting for him to drop. The raptors were smart, knowing that numbers and time were on their side. Ulk felt his vision blur and once more looked up at Baron Balinzius, safe and happy upon his throne.

"Dropping so soon, mountain son?" Balinzius asked merrily. "Come now, Ulk. You disappoint me!"

A raptor came charging for Ulk, breaking free from the pack to finish him. It leapt upon him, and Ulk was too slow, to wounded to bring his axe up in time. Clawed feet crashed into ground, and Ulk felt something inside of him bend and threaten to break as he fell backwards into the dirt. The raptor leaned forward, opening its mouth to feast on Ulk's face.

"Wretched lizard!" Ulk snarled, striking up with his fist and crashing it against the raptor's chin. The beast's head flew back and Ulk rolled away from it, diving for his fallen axe. Another raptor came springing at him, knowing that the time for the kill was now. The whole pack would soon follow.

Ulk threw himself forward. He rolled across the dusty ground and grabbed the axe. The next seconds were a blur of motion. The brown of dirt, the green of the raptor's scale and the flashing white of their claws, then the great torrents of red blood filled Ulk's vision. When it finally ended, Ulk stood alone, and four of the raptors lay dying at his feet. Ulk swayed on his feet, and Balinzius leaned forward.

"Yes!" the baron cried. "Finish him, my pets! Finish him now!"

Another raptor ran forward. It leapt into the air, and Ulk knew he could never bring his axe up quick enough to stop it. But the raptor twisted in midair, and fell dead to the dust, a crossbow bolt projecting from its chest. Ulk spun around. He saw Lord Rinos holding the crossbow, surrounded by the villa's guards.

In a roar of rage, Baron Balinzius came to his feet. "You betray me?" he asked his guards. "I will see you die! I will wring pain from your bodies and break your spirits before I hear your death rattles!" He turned to his own guards. "Take them!" he cried. "Take them all alive, and we will make of their last moments a symphony of purest pain!"

"Empty threats, my lord baron." Rinos turned around and grabbed several pouches, each heavy with gold. He turned to the baron's bodyguards. "These are from his treasury, which now lies open. Take these and go there, get as much gold as you can, and leave his service forever." Lord Rinos tossed the rings forward, and they fell at the feet of the guards.

As the guards stared at the riches, Lord Rinos walked the edge of the arena and grabbed a rope. He let the cord dangle over the edge and Ulk scrambled for it. As Baron Balinzius watched in horror, Ulk the Unwashed pulled himself out of the arena, and his bodyguards reached down for the gold, then dropped their weapons and ran for his villa and his vault.

The baron now stood alone, facing Lord Rinos and Ulk the Unwashed. His serving girls ran next, screaming loudly and spilling grapes and goblets of wine behind them. Rinos picked up a fallen goblet and held it up. "I think the time has come for you to die, baron," he said.

"W-what?" Balinzius asked. "Y-you can't—"

"Is it to be poison?" The glass vial lay resting on one of the cushions and Lord Rinos picked it up. "But no," he said. "You built up an immunity. You must seek another means of suicide." He pulled his dagger from his sheathe and tossed it on the ground. "Well, my lord baron?"

Balinzius grabbed the dagger. "No!" he cried. "I will kill you, Rinos, though it may be with my last breath!" He ran forward.

Ulk stepped forward. With one hand, Ulk grabbed Balinzius's wrist and squeezed. The dagger fell to the ground. Ulk then grabbed the baron's throat and held him over the ground. He looked at the edge of the arena and the raptors waiting below. "You gave me a weapon, and a chance," Ulk told Balinzius. "I will give you neither." He tossed the baron into the pit, and Lord Rinos and Ulk watched the raptors dive forward. Not until Balinzius's screams and gurgles faded did they looked away.

Ulk the Unwashed grinned as he picked up his axe. "So, how much gold will this grant us?"

"A handful of coins, perhaps," Lord Rinos said, shaking his head sadly. "For most of the storeroom's wealth went to bribing the guards. I doubt there is any left."

"In Lor's name!" Ulk cursed. "This was all for nothing?"

Lord Rinos shook his head. "Not all for nothing. I have done much research into who sent the masked assassins after my family. The ones who killed my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and took my nose. The good baron was among their number."

"So it is vengeance our prize?" Ulk laughed. "Well, that is worth more than a thousand vaults of gold." He looked back down at the pit and grinned. "And what vengeance it was! But we must away now, Lord Rinos. The Silverine legionaries will be here soon enough, and they will not like what we have done here."

Rinos nodded silently and the two men left the arena and the estate, without the gold of Baron Balinzius.

-The End-