FANTASY QUEST PUBLICATIONS

Featuring novels of fast-paced adventure, fantasy and romance by Raymond Conrad.


Welcome to Jonda

A world of romance and fantasy.

D'LYON AND THE AVLON

BOOK ONE:  WARLORDS OF THE FIRE MOUNTAINS

 

CHAPTER THREE

          Passing silently through shallow pools, D'Lyon moved to the maiden’s  side.  She did not look up.  Grasping the abundance of hair at the nape of her neck, he eased her head back.  Large, violet eyes dazed with shock and exhaustion met briefly with his before blinking slowly shut.  They had been blank, unseeing.

D'Lyon's heart gave a small thud then beat erratically for several moments as he gazed upon the elegant features of the maiden's face.  A rivulet of tears wove down her mud-streaked cheeks, following the path made by those before it.  Despite her bedraggled condition and obvious need of a wash, she seemed to exude a sweet fragrance, like that of wild blossoms in spring—or else his mind was playing fanciful tricks on him.  Indeed, it had been some time since he had taken a woman.

D'Lyon filled his lungs with the heady scent of her then slowly let out his breath.  Violet eyes ... never had he seen the likes of them.  He admired her delicate skin, her slight build, the fully mature breasts thrust provocatively before him.  Approval shone on his face.  She was a rare one indeed!

With careful strokes of his sword he cut away her bonds.  Cleaned up, she would no doubt bring a good price.  Maybe he would sell her in Por Telka at the season's end or return her from whence she had come for a generous bounty.  His eyes lingered on the sensuous curves of her lips before dropping to the soft peaks of her breasts.  Then again, maybe he would keep her for himself.  A prize fairly won in battle, he could do with her as he pleased.  That was the law of the land.

But what else had he gained?  What hidden plunder had caused the Hawthics to ride with such haste?  Releasing the girl, D'Lyon went back to his campsite.  In an open space beside a spring-fed pool a cooking area had been set up.  There was a circle of stones, a spit, some dry moss tinder, a bit of firewood nearby.  Above the moss and fur bedding where he had slept hung his few personal belongings:  a cured skin to chase the chill away, a bag of smoked voss meat and dried fruit, a couple of water bags and some tools for curing the panther hides.

He had no amenities, for all his gear had to be carried in and out with the addition of the furs harvested.  A tykko panther hide taken on the eve of the previous day was stretched over a frame, drying.  The dark purple hue of its spots contrasted well against the sleek black fur and brought to D'Lyon's mind the alluring image of the maiden's violet eyes.  The panther furs, along with their red-tinted claws and scented gland oils, had been one purpose for his venture into Talston Marsh, as he could ask a high price for them in Por Telka.  But mainly he had come for the hunt, the solitude, and old memories.

He probed the camp and surrounding aspers with his senses, seeking the ru who was his tracker.  Perceiving it directly overhead, he whispered, “Irt?”

The moss shook above him.  A pale, teardrop head peered out, upside down.  The lone eye in the center of its face blinked curiously.  “Fight over?” the ru asked with a screech before dropping, feet first, to the ground.  A thin-bodied creature less than two feet tall, it had a small, bulbous stomach and damp, gray flesh.  The long, pointed ears that curved alongside its seemingly big head quivered slightly.  “No danger?”

“The fight's over,” D'Lyon replied.  “There's no immediate danger.  Help me search the saddlebags; we should find much of value.”

“Search trinkets!” exclaimed Irt, nodding his head emphatically.  With a funny, hopping gait the ru moved to the edge of a pool then swam easily away with the use of its webbed hands and feet.  Climbing onto the body of a roge, it began rifling through the belongings stored in the saddlebags.  It raised each item to its eye, rotating it between fingers and thumb.  With soft cooing sounds it allowed some to sink beneath the dark water; others, it pushed inside a skin bag which had held the Hawthic's dried meat.  Completing that search, it moved to the body of the warrior.

Like Irt, one could hire most any ru as a tracker for a few brightly colored beads.  Although everything they needed for survival was plentiful in the swamp, certain social and mating customs led them to hoard whatever interesting baubles they could earn.  Some rus gathered rare swamp herbs to trade with the caravans that skirted the borders of the marsh.  Using the herbs for barter, they often amassed great quantities of cheap jewelry, colorful stones, brooches, bracelets, and other decorative bric-a-brac.

Although little was known of ru tradition, it was said that the larger their stash, the greater their status amongst their own kind.  Supposedly, they held seasonal gatherings in the deepest parts of the swamp, and there each male ru would display his treasure in an effort to lure a mate or, in some cases, simply to affirm or reaffirm social standing.  Bulk, however, would often rank second to beauty, especially when viewed by a female.

Water lapped at D'Lyon's legs as he waded toward the roge Terra was devouring.  The avlon looked up from its kill, saliva hanging from blood-wet jaws.  The brilliant red, blue, and gold patterns across its shoulders and back shifted slowly about, dimming slightly then becoming more intense as raw energy pulsed through the animal.  Crouching beside the roge, D'Lyon opened the saddlebags and sifted through its contents.

He could see nothing of value.

Lines of thought wrinkled his brow as he checked the body of the Hawthic.  Again he found nothing of worth.

Irt, having sorted through the possessions of several Hawthics, swam to where D'Lyon completed his search.  He hobbled up next to the warrior, dragging his sack behind him.  “Mighty warrior,” said the ru. “Bad creatures, Hawthics.”

“Find anything?” D'Lyon asked him.

Irt cooed in response and offered up his pouch.

Returning to their camp, D'Lyon spread a skin and scattered their meager findings over it.  Some semiprecious gems glinted in the filtered sun rays, but he estimated their combined worth to be nominal.

One of them, set in a ring, was of a violet hue, but the jewel was so large that D'Lyon assumed it must be a false stone.  He studied it for a while, casting an occasional glance at the maiden.  Could it have belonged to her? he wondered.  With a shrug, he threw it back in the pile.  Irt, he thought, could win any female ru in Talston with that one. 

Staring at the pile, D'Lyon gave a bored sniff.  There was a stone for sharpening blades, some knives, a few other trinkets of interest only to the ru.  Together they sat assessing the take, Irt with a happy gleam in his eye, D'Lyon with a look of perplexity and budding suspicion.  “Not much for a heavily armed war party riding in haste,” he muttered at length, “unless the real prize got away with those who had not the stomach to fight.”

“Beasties run away,” the ru whispered.  “Might come back.  Hawthics bad!  Kill kill kill everything.”

D'Lyon's thoughts went back to the girl.  A pensive look crossed his face, then faded.  “Well,” he shrugged, “there’s little to nothing here to show for my efforts.”

“Little to nothing,” chirped Irt.  “Cheap Hawthics.”  The ru grabbed at a fat, slow-flying carrion beetle that buzzed in front of its face.  He caught it in one swipe and stuffed it casually into his mouth.

D'Lyon's interest sparked as he drew a small, silver medallion from the pile.  He recognized the handiwork of the illustrious silversmiths of Tren and wondered if the Hawthics had raided the mountainous city or if they had plundered the medallion from the stores of some other hapless folk.

War was on the wind.  Its foreboding signs often blurred the horizons with smoke, and men spoke of its presence in every tavern from Aandor to Armel.  Much of the trade had been severed with the southern seaports.  Merchant vessels no longer sailed the Turyn or Subar, and the rak caravans which traversed the lands in more hospitable times were jammed in Por Telka, Lock, and Ankaar Port, refusing to make the journey north so long as the black hordes threatened the trade routes.  Only a few seeking higher profits accepted the risk, and prices had soared on everything from rare spices to simple grains.

D'Lyon's brow furrowed.  Hawthics of different clans would usually attack each other on sight.  Now they were massing, something they had not done since the Age of Darkness when the evil forces of Jaarn had nearly conquered all of Jonda, according to writings in The Black Passage.  And these here had the insignia of the Black Lacotta upon their shields.

Keeping the silver medallion, D'Lyon turned his back on the rest.  “Take what you will,” he told Irt, who scrambled closer, excitement bringing soft, high-pitched sounds bubbling from his throat.  Gathering up all that remained, the ru hopped out amongst the aspers to examine his treasure in private.

D'Lyon stared through the trees at the girl huddled there.

The field maiden.

There had been nothing else.

She looked to be no older than seventeen or eighteen cycles, her body in the full bloom of womanhood.  Her arms were smooth and slender, not those of a hardworking field maiden.  Indeed, save for the grime which sullied her, she appeared as if she had not labored a day in her life.  Could she be the offspring of a rich landowner who need not put his progeny to work?  Or a Calon whore, maybe, working the outer provinces?

He walked quietly to her side so as not to frighten her further.  She was staring with horror at the avlon, from whose fanged mouth hung the half-eaten body of a Hawthic.  The daze had not yet cleared from her eyes.  D'Lyon reached down with both hands, clasped her by the waist, and drew her gently to her feet.  She struggled, jerked free of his hold, and took several shaky steps back, terror animating her face.

“Come here,” D'Lyon spoke softly.  “I'm not going to harm you.”

She continued to back away, her small tongue playing nervously over the fullness of her lips.

“You've nothing to fear,” D'Lyon said as he followed her.

She turned to run, tripped on an asper root, and would have fallen but for D'Lyon's encircling arms.  Frantically she fought, striking out, kicking.  “Easy now,” he tried to soothe her.  “I'm just going to wash some of this grime from you.”  But his assurances did no good; she continued to strike blindly at him.

Heedless of her tiny blows, D'Lyon gathered her up into his arms and carried her into the spring-fed pool next to his campsite.  “Settle down, you little tykko!” he spoke more sternly, surprised by her sudden show of vigor.  Wading deeper into the pool, he submerged the girl to her shoulders, allowing the cool water to rinse away some of the swamp grime.

Her struggles soon diminished to erratic, panting breaths. She glanced about at the water, the swamp; then her eyes fixed upon the broad, male chest in front of her.  Her breathing checked.  She stared for some time, water dripping off her chin, then her gaze crept warily up the warrior's chest, past his jaw and the firm contours of his mouth, until it met with the liquid ebony of his eyes.

Their gazes locked as with a resounding clang.

The maiden's eyes widened, and her lips parted on a small, indrawn breath.  For tense moments they just stared at one another, neither of them hearing the cruel laughter of the gods, but both of them feeling the silent, tingling echoes in their minds and hearts.  Then D'Lyon reached out and rubbed at a streak of mud on the girl’s cheek, and the spell was shattered.  The awe and fear which had filled her eyes transformed to indignation.

“Unhand me, savage!” she demanded with a look that shot sparks at him.

D'Lyon raised an eyebrow, amusement glittering in his dark pupils.  “Why don't you relax?” he spoke softly.  “You've obviously been through an ordeal, but you're safe for the moment.  When I've finished washing you, I'll find you a wrap.”  Gripping her more tightly, he again tried to wash her, but she twisted angrily and kicked repeatedly at the water, splashing them both.

“Blessed Sed, woman!  Will you be still?”  He tightened his grip.  “I will not harm you.”

“Barbarian!” she seethed.  “Release me at once or the scorn of all Calon shall bear upon you.”  Burying her face into his shoulder, she bit hard at the flesh there.

“Aaah!” D'Lyon bellowed.  “You little Calon whore!”  He immersed the girl, holding her beneath the water for a short time before lifting her up to allow her air.  She coughed and sputtered and spit out a mouthful of water then tried again to sink her teeth into his shoulder.

“Oh no you don't,” D'Lyon laughed.  Grabbing her more firmly, he bent her backwards over his knee like a supple sprig until her breasts were thrust fully to his gaze.  The soft rosettes of her nipples hardened before him as she fought to free herself.  She cried out and struggled anew, but D'Lyon kept her pinned until what fragments of strength remained to her were spent.  Slowly, her turbulent gasps subsided.  Her hands, no longer striking, clutched at the arms which held her.  “Please,” she whispered in a shaky voice.  “I'll … do as you say.”  Her gaze sought his.  All the fierceness had vanished from her eyes.  Deep glades of violet mist, they now beseeched him for mercy.

In answer to her plea, D'Lyon eased his grip, allowing her more freedom of movement.  Immediately her hands crossed over the hardened peaks of her breasts to hide them from his view.  When her eyes shifted back to his, they simmered with quiet defiance, defiance held in check only by the stronger emotion of fear.

“What an ungrateful wench you are,” D'Lyon scolded.  “I save you from the Hawthics, and this is your thanks?  You should be showering me with sweet kisses.”

“I am not a wench!” she bit out.  “I'm Princess Taala of Calon!  And I'd sooner kiss a mud lizard!”

D'Lyon chuckled.  “Yes, of course you are.  And I'm a spice trader from Saavari.  Pleased to meet you.  And how do you know you'd rather kiss a mud lizard?  Do you kiss them often?”

“Listen, savage:  It's true.  I am Taala.”

“Mm-hm.  A Calon whore, more likely.”  D'Lyon splashed water over the maiden's shoulders and rubbed at the dirt there.  “Enough of your stories now …  unless you wish to be gagged.”  The maiden opened her mouth to voice a retort then checked herself.  Their gazes clashed for long moments before a brilliant fear appeared in her eyes.  She clamped her mouth shut.

“Wise decision,” said D'Lyon and resumed washing her.  He took his time over the task, enjoying the soft, silken feel of her skin while ignoring the indignant little noises she obviously felt compelled to utter from time to time.  Glancing at the girdle which bound her hips, his eyes focused on the metallic reflections scintillating from the garment.

Gold?

Well, she was no field maiden; that was certain.  Must be one of those upperclass concubines that sold their affections for jewels and social sustenance.  Calon was full of them.  No doubt it could be a profitable enterprise if one had the necessary assets—and she certainly had those.

“Are you quite finished?” she muttered tightly.  “Or is it necessary that you see your reflection off my skin?”  D'Lyon's gaze slid back to hers, impaling her.  Her lower lip trembled with the contact, and she swallowed nervously.  “N-never mind, barbarian,” she whispered.  “Take your time.”

“Quite all right.  I'm done now.”  D'Lyon saw relief wash over the maiden's face.  Cradling her in his arms, he carried her from the water and set her gently on her feet by the edge of the pool then stood back to examine her fully.  A filtered sunbeam illuminated her face and caused her eyes to glow with a soft, violet fire.

Surveying her lithe, shivering form, D'Lyon felt a bolt of pure desire shoot through him.  It was more than just the invitation of her naturally pouting lips:  Her beautiful eyes entranced even as they defied; her firm breasts and pronounced curves challenged as they enticed.  D'Lyon took a deep breath, feeling his fascination for her consume him like flames in a dry forest.  He knew then that he would not—could not!—sell her.  Such a prize, he would keep for himself.

In the distance he heard the shrill bark of a night dragon, an eerie, laughing sound that seemed directed at him.  It was a bad omen, he knew, to hear its call by day, and although he shrugged it off, some inexplicable anxiety began to dance along his nerve endings.  Still, he did not change his mind.

By Sed, he would keep her!

With her arms crossed over her torso, the maiden continued to cover her breasts with hands too small for the task.  “I hate you,” she murmured, a few tears suddenly falling from her luminous eyes.  “Do you think me a voss beast to be examined at your leisure?  It's true what I say.  I am—”

”Stand quietly,” D'Lyon ordered.  Again he smelled the fragrance of wild blossoms, as if the maiden were standing in a lush field of them.  Although she held the rest of her words in check, resentment smoldered anew in her watery eyes.  Walking around her, D'Lyon continued to assess her attributes.  His attention focused on the golden girdle.  He crouched beside her, which caused her muscles to stiffen.  Reaching out, he touched the shiny metallic strands.  The girdle was wrought of a very fine gold mesh and inset with dainty jewels that precisely matched the maiden's eyes in shade.  Tattered bits of silk, also violet in color, still hung from her waistband, mere remnants of the elegant cloth which once must have swirled about her shapely legs.

“If—you—please!” she bit out furiously.

“Quiet,” D'Lyon growled back at her.  “Or I may feed you to a brood of mud lizards … seeing as how you fancy their kisses so much.”  He ignored her swift inhalation of breath and the rage he could feel pulsating from her.  Fingering the softness of the fabric, his hand touched a bit of roughness high on her outer left thigh.  He brushed aside the fragment of silk and stared in stunned silence at the elegant design illuminated there.  It was an illustration of a fierce cuma dragon chemically burned into her flesh:  A caste brand.  Its colors were vivid, the lines distinct—the work of a grandmaster artisan.

The violet eyes of the cuma dragon glared viciously back at him, its fangs glimmering white.  It, too, seemed to impart a silent warning, and D'Lyon felt his breath slowly escape him.  Rarely had he entered the industrious slave markets of Por Telka where they bought and sold slaves of all nations and where one could see caste brands and slave brands of every sort, but this brand, he was certain, had no match for beauty.

The maiden's hands curled into tight little fists over her breasts, and her jaw was rigid from clenching her teeth.

D'Lyon stood slowly, his eyes narrowing as he pondered the brand.  A cuma dragon.  He'd never seen such a mark before, but he'd heard of it … somewhere.  His gaze drifted to the perfect face of the maiden where mounting anger still vied with fear.  The force of her beauty was palpable, as if she possessed some subtle power which could drug the senses.  She raised her chin defiantly at him.  A tear escaped from the corner of her eye and trickled down her cheek.  Catching a bit of sunlight, it glistened brightly.  D'Lyon reached out a finger and wiped the tear from her cheek then held it up to the light.

“Gracious gods,” he muttered.  The drop of moisture on his fingertip was  lavender in shade with infinitely tiny specks of silver, each scintillating in the delicate sunlight.

Detecting a sweet fragrance, he brought his finger to his nose.

Perfume?

Then he understood:  It was her tears which smelled of wild blossoms!  Confusion flashed across D'Lyon's face.  Teardrops of lavender and sparkling silver—with the scent of wild blossoms?  His eyes questioned her sharply.

She regarded him with a poignant mixture of grief, fear, and scorn.  “A gift from the cumas,” she spoke tersely, “given to me at birth.”

“Magic?”

She gave a curt nod, tears of suppressed fury still pooling in her beautiful eyes.

D'Lyon inhaled the intoxicating fragrance on the tip of his finger, then, out of some curious whim, touched the teardrop to his tongue.  He was not surprised to find it as sweet as concentrated nectar.

The maiden's gaze bathed him in acid, as if he had just violated the sanctity of her body.  “You … dare!  The violence of her emotion caused tiny tremors to invade her limbs.

D'Lyon smiled at her barely restrained rage as he pondered the sweetness of her teardrops and the elegant brand on her thigh which, even now, glared viciously back at him.  A cuma dragon ….  He tried to jog his memory.

With the force of a grassfire caught by the wind, realization struck him.  The caste brand of Calon royalty!  “Mighty Sed,” he muttered, eyeing her with disbelief.  “It is true what you say then—you are the First Maid of Calon!”

She looked at him rebelliously, her full lips caught between a pout and a sneer.  “Yes, barbarian, I'm Princess Taala of Calon.  And I'll see to it that the palace walls sport your head for all of Calon to jeer.  Indeed, at this moment your life isn't worth a wooden dragon's tooth.”

All expression on D'Lyon's face smoothed to a small, mirthless half-grin as disbelief washed back and forth through his mind like cleansing waves against a shore.  Yes, he remembered the story now, something about a Calon princess with the looks of a goddess, who, when sad, cried tears the scent and color of the vaala flowers which dotted the landscapes in early spring.  It was said that suitors came from all over Jonda to try for her hand, but that none had she taken.

“Daughter of Saalan, Overlord of Calon, here, in Talston Marsh?  It must have been some raid.”

“It was a reprehensible act, barbarian, and a violation of sovereign law.  I was grabbed right from the palace balcony then spirited away on some horrible, winged monster!”

“Probably a drake.”

“Whatever!  When they landed, they ripped my clothes from my body and tied me to one of those wretched, foul-smelling creatures.”  She stared with blatant loathing at one of the slain roges.

“Mmm.  Rough.”

“Yes.  Yes, it was.  But they will all be brought to justice for what they have done.  Including you, barbarian.”  The maiden took on a brazen, arrogant look, her eyes reflecting the authority and power of the greatest sovereignty on Jonda.

“It's no wonder the Hawthics rode with such haste,” D'Lyon spoke softly.  “Failure to bring such a prize as you to their chieftain's pleasure tent will likely bring them a more painful death than the swiftness of my arrows.  No doubt they'll soon be back to reclaim you.”

A dark shadow passed before the maiden's eyes, as if she only now realized her true whereabouts, that she was not strolling idly through her father's courtyard at odds with some pandering suitor, but alone and helpless in an alien environment, subject to the whim of a very large and very frightful stranger.  Her gaze flicked anxiously about the swamp, taking in the slain bodies and the avlon feeding only a short way off.  Swallowing hard, she turned back to the warrior in front of her.  “To … to what sovereignty do you owe your allegiance?” she asked in a much more hospitable tone.

“I was born 'neath the smoke and flames of the Fire Mountains, Your Highness.  My allegiance is to Ahaun.”

Taala's face registered her dismay.  “You're … SSSS-Sillion then?” she stammered, unable to conceal the dread in her voice.

“Sillion,” D'Lyon replied.

Taala fought to keep from trembling.  “Is it true what they say of you?  Sillion warriors, I mean?”

D'Lyon turned from the girl, not answering.  He began rolling up his fur bedding, binding it for travel.  Judging from the haste of her abductors, any number of Calon patrols could be in the vicinity.  And the Hawthics … they would surely be back!

“They say,” Taala persisted, “where there is a Sillion warrior, death will soon follow.”  She eyed him tensely, taking in the black, silver, and red of his trappings.

D'Lyon did not stop to look at her.  His fingers worked with precision, unloosening the leather straps that held the panther hide on the drying frame.  “There are those who seek us out only to test their skills,” he replied.  “So they die.  Our crime, as I've heard it called, is one of self-defense … and, of course, honor.”  Their gazes met briefly, clashing like crossed sabers.

“Yes … of course,” she agreed, a small shiver racing through her.  “Who could blame you for … defending yourselves?  Certainly, not I.  As for myself, I've always lll-liked … Sillions,” she emphasized the word, but had almost choked on it.

D'Lyon cast her a sideways glance.  “Is that so?”

“Oh, yes!”

“That's very heartening.  I trust, then, that we shall get on well together.”

Taala realized that she had failed to convince him.  “Really, it's true.  I … I spoke to one once and … well, he was quite … n-nice.”

“You mean, in Calon?”

“Yes … in Calon.”

“That's strange.  Sillions would have no inclination to go to Calon.”

“They wouldn't?”  She seemed genuinely puzzled.  “But why not?”

“Seems we make the locals nervous.  They call the authorities to have us arrested; people get killed.  That sort of thing.”

“Oh.  Well … maybe it was elsewhere.  This terrible ordeal has affected my memory, you understand.”  She moved to his side.  Lowering her voice, she asked, “What will you do with me, Sillion?  My father would pay handsomely for my return.  I … I could make you very rich!”  Water ran in rivulets down the soft curves of her body as she awaited his answer with anxious eyes.

Looking up, D'Lyon regarded her with a perfectly steady gaze that reached to the deepest depths of her soul.  “Your warmth in my bed and your willing submission are the only riches I seek, Princess.”

Taala's eyes widened, and her lips parted on a silent gasp.  She took a step back.  “You're mad!”

“Am I?”  He glared wickedly at her then slowly nodded.  “Yes.  Maybe I am.  But hear me now,” his black gaze imprisoned her, “I will own you, Princess of Calon—body, heart, and soul.”

So adamant were his words that, for some time, Taala just stared at him, her mouth open in shock.  She felt a strange tingling in her hands and chest, a weakness in her legs.  Never in her life had anyone spoken to her so … so insolently!

She struggled to get a grasp of the situation.  There was just a misunderstanding here.  That's all it was.  She would simply have to clarify things.  “Is that what this is all about,” she asked with a nervous little chuckle, “a maiden to warm the straw bed of your cave or … or grass hut?”  She seemed to genuinely relax then and sighed with obvious relief.  “Sillion,” she shook her head and gave a small, halfhearted laugh, “I will buy you a thousand maidens:  A thousand beautiful virgins of your choosing.”

D'Lyon regarded her with amusement.  “Only a thousand?”

She smiled patiently.  “Not enough?  Very well.  Two thousand!  Three thousand!  I will bury you in maidens if that is what you desire.”

D'Lyon sniffed.  “I'm honored at your estimation of my virility, Princess.  However, I've never had much trouble securing the attentions of the maidens on my own merit, and without the added burden of feeding them, clothing them, and providing them with shelter.  What do you think you are offering me that I cannot obtain with less inconvenience on my own?”

Taala appeared incredulous over his inability to perceive the obvious.  “I'm talking about Calon maidens, barbarian.”  She pronounced her words slowly and clearly so that his limited intellect could comprehend them.  “Virgins!  Not filthy, nipcrawler-infested peasant sluts!  Do you understand what I'm saying?” she raised her voice slightly as if he might have a hearing problem.

D'Lyon's brow furrowed into a small scowl, and his eyes hardened to cutting black slits.  “You'll do fine,” he muttered and turned back to his furs.

Taala blinked her surprise.  She had been certain that he would accept her offer of virgin maidens.  Obviously, she just hadn't found his price.  “Very well then,” she sounded breathless and annoyed.  “I'll … I'll happily pay for their upkeep and shelter, and I'll even make you fabulously rich besides.”

D'Lyon shook his head.  “It is you I want in my bed, Taala, not bought women nor Calon jewels.”

She stared blankly.  “B-But … that's quite out of the question.  I … you simply don't understand.  You see, I am ... that is, I’m what people refer to as royalty—I’m sure you’ve heard of the word—and you … well ... errrr … you're no more than—”  She stopped, at a loss for words.  “That simply cannot be what you have in mind, savage.  Please, do let's be reasonable.  You need but name your price.  I will make you an underlord or … or even a lord!  You could wear decent clothes, learn manners, come to court, and—”

“Enough!”  D'Lyon's black gaze raked her.  “I have nothing against filling my bags with Hawthic treasure nor Calonite jewels, but it was for you that I fought, to save you from a fate much worse than death.  And I have since decided to keep you for myself—as is my right.  Face it, you were battle won, Princess of Calon, and tonight you will share my furs.”  He knotted the leather tie about his panther fur with a decisive jerk that seemed to seal the fate of the Calon Princess.

Taala gaped at him, as hot color flooded her cheeks.

Picking out a soft cloak from his belongings, D'Lyon held it up.  “Here,” he offered, “you'd better put this on or I may not wait until nightfall to take you.”  He threw it at her.

Taala clutched at the garment like a beggar at a coin and swiftly wrapped it about her.  It was long and supple, nearly touching the ground.  Permeating the leather, the warrior's masculine scent enveloped her, adding a frightful note of reality to his claim of ownership.  “Sillion,” she spoke urgently.  “You … you are just bluffing me, aren't you?  Please say you are bluffing.”

D'Lyon exhaled heavily, as if she were becoming a mild irritant to him.  “You are still a virgin, are you not?”

Taala blinked.  Her lips parted, and her flush deepened.  “I—  What?!

“Hmm.  Just as I thought.  Tonight I will make you a woman.  Tomorrow we can speak of bluffs.”  Panic blazed on Taala's face.  “In time,” he spoke softly, genuinely trying to console her, “you will adjust.”

Taala drew in a wounded breath.  His words, so final, so absolute, had ended the discussion.  She closed her eyes and bit savagely at her lower lip to prevent her grief from spilling out into sobs, but despite her valiant efforts, a single tear leaked from between her lashes, and she was unable to suppress a string of tiny sniffles.

“Shhh.  Hush now,” D'Lyon soothed.  “It won't be near as bad as you've imagined.  Who knows, you may even come to like me.”

“I'd … rather die,” she gasped.

“Mmm.  We shall see.  You may feel differently after tonight.”

A thrashing sound reverberated overhead.

Terra looked up from his kill and emitted a deafening roar.  D'Lyon followed the avlon's gaze to the tattered canopy high above them.  Swooping through openings in the canopy, Calon archers flew in on small brythok dragons.  The white dragons glistened in the filtered sunlight, their horns jutting like curved daggers from their diamond-shaped heads, their teeth snapping at the air as the mounted archers commanded their descent.  Some landed upon barren branches; others hovered in midair.  Already, bows were leveled at D'Lyon through the hang moss, which offered little obstruction.

The Princess of Calon stepped away from the warrior and waved both arms frantically.  “Haavar!” she screamed.  “I'm down here!  Help me!”  She could hardly believe it!  Her fears were swept away.  Finally, she would be rescued from this nightmare!

From numerous bows arrows sped toward the Sillion and his beast.  Slapping two projectiles from their lethal paths, D'Lyon dove to one side to escape a flurry.  Terra, struck by a score of arrows, roared wildly.

“No!  Stop!” Taala cried.  “Take him alive!”  But her words went unheard above the tumult of squealing dragons.  More archers arrived upon the scene.  They were closing in now, bent on exacting payment for the capture of their Princess.

An arrow whizzed toward D'Lyon's head.  Quicker than sight he snatched it from its path.  Whirling about, he leapt to the maiden's side and pulled her with him to the ground.  For a moment she struggled, but his enormous strength quickly subdued her.  Only when he held the arrow's sharp point to the maiden's throat did the Calon archers comprehend his message.  A cry rose from the commander, he, whom the Princess had called Haavar.  While a few archers still held their bows on D'Lyon, most joined the assault upon the frenzied avlon.

A grimace twisted D'Lyon's face as he watched a spray of arrows sink deeply into Terra's hide.  More archers hovered above the raging beast, beyond the sweep of its talons, preparing to shoot again.

D'Lyon appraised their situation.  They were pinned.  Terra, held by loyalty to his side, was in mortal danger.  While his hide was tough, continued injury might weaken him beyond escape.  D'Lyon hollered a command, directing his beast to take flight.  Terra hesitated, not wanting to leave his master at such odds.

“Flee!  Fly!  Go now!” D'Lyon repeated telepathically.

Extending its enormous wings, the avlon cast D'Lyon a long, backward glance.  More arrows pierced the beast's neck and breast.

“Go!” D'Lyon hollered.

With a thunderous roar Terra leapt into the air.  Violent whirlwinds tore at the swamp, causing leaves, dirt and twigs to take flight.  As the avlon ascended, it clawed at vines and branches, ripping through the swamp's ceiling with thrashing talons, dislodging moss from aspers with each sweep of its wings.

The turbulent air currents generated by its flight buffeted the dragons about and spilled their riders to the ground or into the blackwater pools below.  Trees brittle from age splintered against the avlon's abounding strength as it forced its way up from beneath the marsh's canopy.  The reverberation of its roar, the gusty noises of its wings in flight, the screams of falling archers and the terrified squeals of their winged mounts all echoed through the swamp.  Voices called out direction.  Shrieks of fright and pain surfaced in pieces, a word here, a high note there.  Many archers lost their nerve, and their winged mounts, gripped by an inherent fear of the giant predators, went wild.

Pulling free, Terra flew upward with all speed, leaving the Calon archers below where dust had not yet settled.  For a moment D'Lyon watched his beast, then, assured of its escape, took advantage of the rampant confusion.  Throwing the Princess over his shoulder to discourage any archers, he made off with his prize, weaving in and out amongst the aspers.   Irt, who had hidden throughout the attack, followed close behind, his bag of trinkets clasped firmly in hand.