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 TWO:  WARRIOR DRAGONS OF JAARN

 

CHAPTER ONE

      For the moment, Taala felt content just to be held within D’Lyon’s arms as she watched the steady, methodical progress of the Sillion army from her vantage point atop the avlon's back.  In Calon she had observed many armies leaving the city amongst the grandeur of blaring trumpets and cheering crowds, their uniforms shining brightly of silver, white, and blue.  The visual impact, the fervor and pageantry, had left her with a lasting impression, but it was nothing to compare with this legion of Sillion warriors.  Their menacing colors of black and red, lustrous silver castings scintillating in the sunlight, imparted a chilling sensation of power and foreboding.

There were no trumpets blaring here, no crowds cheering, no pomp, just a quiet, unflaunted force which left a tautness in its wake so intense that it nearly took her breath away.  Here was a discipline which she had not sensed in the Calon soldiers.  Here was the difference between warriors who lived by the sword from their earliest childhood and young Calon conscripts simply putting in their provincial due—farm boys, merchant's sons, and the like.

Cooks, laundresses, smithies and such followed behind the main legion, happily filling their roles as servants to the warrior gods, who rode imposingly, five abreast, in what seemed an endless column.  Although she could sense their underlying savagery, she had been wrong, she now realized, to think of Sillions as barbarians.

Taala took an anxious breath, quelling the tremor of anticipation in her heart.  One thing was certain:  Luxuriating in the protection of D'Lyon's arms, surrounded by all these strange and magnificent warriors, she felt completely safe.

D'Lyon's arms ....  A smile lent a gentle curve to her lips and illuminated the depths of her violet eyes.

From Calon Princess to Sillion slave.  Her entire world had been turned upside down.  She should feel horrified, she knew; indeed, a small part of her was horrified, riding upon the monstrous avlon beast, slave to the Sillion who commanded this host of terrible, yet awe-inspiring warriors.  Still, her heart would flutter with excitement each time D'Lyon's hand smoothed over her stomach or clutched her more closely against his chest, and there was no use denying the joy that kept bubbling up inside her, or the small, furtive smiles that kept sneaking their way to her lips.

As if to further clarify her new status, D'Lyon had secured her hands in front of her with a slender pair of iron manacles.  Slipped through the front of her cape, his right hand rested against her belly, his fingers fumbling absently with the gold slave band he had fastened there.

Taala gave a little sigh.  So this was love.

If only she had recognized it sooner then D'Lyon would not now hate her.  Nevertheless, he had killed Ugslaat and had claimed her for his own.  That had to mean something.  And the way he was holding her now made her feel more precious than all the jewels in Calon.

She shifted about so that her head lay within the crook of his right arm while she gazed up at him with loving eyes.  He had a fierce and rugged beauty, she decided, a beauty surrounded by a tangible aura of power.  Whatever else he was, she was sure that he must be the strongest man in the whole world.

He was watching his army pensively and did not seem to notice her regard.  Dark clouds had begun to form in the sky, mirroring those in the depths of his eyes.  A cool wind was blowing from the east, becoming stronger by the moment.  She sensed that with each breath D'Lyon was analyzing scents, reading signs and messages too minute for her own senses to discern.  What a strange and magnificent being he was, she thought.

He looked down at her suddenly, capturing her gently with his gaze.  She felt his muscles tighten as an inner conflict began to vie within him.  Not wanting to feed the fires of his wrath, she averted her eyes.

“May I ... speak with you?” she asked in a small voice.

For a long time he said nothing.  Taala's eyes flicked back to his, silently questioning.

“Only when you're spoken to,” was his whispered decree.

“But why?  Oh, D'Lyon, please, I've just got to tell you—”

“Because you're a compulsive, habitual, and quite insufferable little liar,” he calmly stated.

Taala moistened her lips.  “Yes ... I ... suppose I am.  But I must—”

“And I refuse to hear any more of your deceptions, much less believe them.”

“But—please!”  Taala felt exasperated.  “If you'd just give me a chance to explain!”

D'Lyon's hand went casually to her throat.  With light strokes, his fingers caressed her neck and chin.  “Quiet, my pet.”

Taala's eyes glimmered with irritation.  “Yes, Master,” she quipped.

D'Lyon raised his brow and smiled.  “A simple 'D'Lyon' will suffice.”

Taala couldn't suppress her annoyance.  “Yes, Master D'Lyon.”  Her violet eyes warred with him beneath their shrouds of silky lash.

D'Lyon nodded thoughtfully, an amused quirk indenting one corner of his mouth.  “You're right.  It does have a rather pleasant ring to it.  Of course, 'D'Lyon' is fine with me, but I think I could get used to 'Master' if it pleases you.”

“You take great pleasure at mocking me.”

“True.”

“Beast.”

D'Lyon frowned, his eyes never losing that amused, yet dangerous glint.  “My ...” he whispered, “from master to beast in the span of a breath?  That was a quick demotion.”

“I ... I merely wanted to—  Oh demons!  Just forget it!”

D'Lyon's eyes roamed over her face, caressing each feature leisurely before again meeting her gaze.  “What must you say to me that's so important?”

Taala's anger instantly vanished.  With desperation in her eyes she whispered, “D'Lyon ... don't you know that I love you?  Don't you know that I'm sorry for all the things—”

D'Lyon's hand tightened spontaneously about her throat, effectively cutting off the rest of her words.  The clouds hovering in his black eyes burst forth a torrent of warning daggers.  “Why, I ought to slap the lies right out of you.”

“Please,” Taala gasped, “you're ... you're choking me.”  Her small fingers pried futilely at the powerful hand clasping her neck.

D'Lyon gazed with sudden awareness at the helpless beauty in his grasp.  Cursing beneath his breath, he moved his hand from her throat to smooth the flowing curls of her hair and wipe away the fragrant teardrops which had begun to fall from her eyes.  With a fingertip he gently traced the fullness of her lips, which trembled slightly beneath his touch.  Then he leaned over, and his mouth claimed hers in a kiss as violent as the storm raging inside him—not a kiss of love, nor even lust, but of domination:  master to slave, meant to conquer and subdue.

To D'Lyon's surprise, Taala did not contest his claim, but surrendered willingly.  Their kiss grew deeper, almost savage.  D'Lyon lost himself in the warm taste of her mouth and the sweetness of her breath.  She was like an enchantress, weaving wondrous little spells with the magic of her lips and the sultry fire of her tongue.

D'Lyon felt drugged by the power of her femininity.  It was not an insignificant power, he knew, nor one to be scoffed at.  He could feel it subduing his mind, twisting his thoughts, instilling in him the desire to protect her, love her, cater to her every whim.  History was full of instances where “helpless” slaves ruled entire provinces through the “powerful” men they had come to control.

The realization struck him like a bath of ice water in winter and rekindled the fires of his wrath.  So, she had learned how to lie with her body as well as with words and pleading expressions.

He forced himself to pull away from her, but it took all his will to do so.  Their gazes clashed like swords on a field of battle.  Their breathing came in gasps.  Taala's eyes burned with an intense passion, an equal mixture of desire and defiance.  Her lips, moist and swollen from their ardent kiss, seemed to plead for more even as her eyes challenged him to take her.

D'Lyon damned her silently, allowing his bitterness to wash over him like a salve.  “What game are you playing at, Taala?” he whispered tightly.

She raised innocent brows.  “The game of a loving slave trying to soothe her master's ire,” she replied.

“Well, it won't work.”

She looked away, shrugged.  “Then you shan't mind me trying.”

“Sed, woman!  Where did you learn to kiss like that?”

She looked back at him.  Her lips curved into a smile.  “I learned it during one night of unrivaled passion ... or don't you remember?”  She regarded him.  “No.  I suppose you wouldn't.”

“Just forget about that night.”

“Forget about it?”  Taala gave a feeble laugh.  “Don't you think I've tried?  God, Durun, how I've tried!  I tried 'til I was near crazy with trying.  I couldn't forget.  And now ... well, now I no longer want to.”

“Right,” D'Lyon said cynically.  “Well, suit yourself.”

No, he thought, he would not succumb to her treacherous wiles.  He could not!  There would be no room for weakness with what lay ahead of him.  He might be dead in a fortnight, but what he did between now and then could determine life on Jonda for endless generations to come.  He would have to steel himself against this beauty of beauties and stay well away from the alluring softness of her lips and those ... he glanced down ... those misty, violet eyes, which even now seemed to beckon him to take her.

With considerable effort D'Lyon pulled his gaze from her face and scanned the skies.  The Sillion army had been traveling nonstop in an effort to reach Calon before the main body of Jaarn's host arrived.  Sometime tomorrow they would encounter the entire left flank of Jaarn's invasion forces, some two hundred and fifty thousand Hawthics and about forty thousand plus Slaaws sent northward to intercept them, according to Aarlan and recent reconnaissance reports:  Almost three hundred thousand warriors against his twenty-five thousand and about twelve thousand Garian drakeriders.

It would prove most challenging. 

Tonight the Sillion army would rest.  If tomorrow found them victorious, they would have a clear field to Calon.  If they got bogged down, they would never reach Calon in time—if at all.

“I'm hungry,” Taala whispered.

D'Lyon felt a tug at his heart.  Reluctantly he allowed his gaze to fall back into the violet pools of her eyes.  What a seductress, he thought.  If he allowed himself to weaken, he might do anything to please her.

But I will not weaken, he told himself.  I will not.

He smiled down at her.  “If you open your mouth again, my sweet, I promise I'll gag you.  Is that quite clear?”

Taala's eyes widened slightly.  She swallowed, nodded.

“Good.  This isn't Calon.  You've no servants here.  Indeed, you're nothing more than a burden.  I keep you around simply to avenge myself at my leisure.  Is that also clear?”

Taala nodded impotently, consumed by her love for him.

“And quit looking at me with those adoring eyes.  I don't believe them for a moment.”

“I ... I can't help it,” she sighed, but she looked away, obeying his wishes.

D'Lyon swore silently to himself then commanded his avlon forward.  Taala was hungry.  He supposed now was as good a time as any to eat.

The avlon stretched and clawed at the dirt beneath his paws then sauntered down the slope toward the Sillion column.  As usual, Taala became the object of many stares and approving grins.

“Who's the maiden?” many of the warriors asked D'Lyon.  “Just a slave,” he would answer.  “Is it true she's the Princess of Calon?” more than one asked in response to escalating rumors.  “Was,” D'Lyon would reply.

Was.  The word stuck in Taala's mind.  She was the Princess of Calon.  Now she was just a slave.  So D'Lyon is getting his revenge, she thought.  He had reduced her to nothing, a mere possession, and had rejected her love for him all at the same time.  So why didn't she feel outraged?  She thought about that for only a moment; the answer was too obvious.  She had convinced herself that Grandoryn had killed D’Lyon.  To not only find him alive, but to find herself in his arms ... Durun had truly answered her prayers.

She could not help but feel a vague sense of pride at belonging to him.  He was like a great god of war whose very presence caused lesser men to tremble.  He certainly seemed revered amongst his own people, she had noticed.  Riding with him on the fearsome avlon beast, held within the circle of his arms, she felt more a princess than ever.

Life in Calon had never been this exciting.  There her life had seemed hollow, void of meaning and purpose, a life strung together by an endless procession of parties and celebrations thrown for no more occasion than the acquisition of a new brythok, or the arrival of spring, or mid-spring, or some influential aristocrat's birthday whom she could not have cared less about.  Her title, possessions and wealth were all empty and meaningless next to this glorious feeling in her heart, and she was certain that in time she could make D'Lyon love her in return.

After issuing a string of orders to C'ak regarding the night's encampment, troop deployment, and reconnaissance maneuvers, D'Lyon stopped a supply wagon to procure provisions then made off for a copse of valley thaaos.  He landed beside the majestic trees and threw the provisions bag to the ground. 

Undoing one of Taala's wrist manacles, he brought her hands behind her back and refastened them.  “For security reasons,” he responded to her questioning glance.  “I don’t want you scratching me or hitting me over the head when my back is turned.  He chuckled, and Taala rolled her eyes.  Lifting her easily over his shoulder like a featherweight sack of grain, he climbed down the steel-net armor draped over the avlon’s shoulders and set her on her feet.  With soft commands and a wave of his hand, he sent the avlon off to do some hunting on its own.  Taala felt more at ease after the beast’s departure.  Although she was no longer terrified of the avlon, it still made her extremely uneasy, particularly when it brought its face close to sniff at her.

D'Lyon spread a fur beneath the shading boughs of a large valley thaao.  Grabbing the provisions bag, he took out a chunk of roasted voss, some cheese, sweetbread and a skin flask.  “Still hungry?” he asked, giving her a taunting smile.

Taala pretended not to notice his mockery.  “Yes.  I'm starving.”

When she knelt beside him on the fur, the movement caused her cloak to part in front, revealing a vertical slash of creamy breast and thigh.  Taala hesitated as she studied the problem then shifted in an effort to close the gap.  To her dismay, the movement produced the opposite effect, and with her hands manacled behind her, she could do nothing to remedy the situation.

“Nice,” D'Lyon commented, admiring the gold slave band which rested below her navel.

Taala's face reddened.  “You might lend me a hand, or free mine so that I may cover myself.”

“That's not necessary; I like what I see.”  D'Lyon cut off a bite-sized chunk of voss roast and held it up to Taala's face on the tip of his knife.  “Open your mouth,” he instructed.

Taala's eyes sparked with insult then narrowed defiantly.  “Am I to be fed like a pet knarve?  I was raised in luxury, D'Lyon, as royalty, and deserve the respect worthy of a princess.  You will at least allow me the dignity of using my hands.”

“I know how you were raised, Taala,” D'Lyon spoke harshly.  “But for a while, at least, you'll get to see how us heathens survive.”

Taala's face remained flushed as she considered the raw force poised so threateningly before her.  No bars separated them now; no soldiers awaited her beck and call.  She was his slave, alone and powerless.  He, her master.  He truly owned her, just as he had always owned her from the moment he had laid claim to her in Talston Marsh.  Only now it was official.  She would have to adjust her thoughts accordingly.

“All right,” she whispered miserably, “I'll ... I'll eat as you wish.”

“You'll eat as I wish or you'll not eat at all.”

Taala's jaw tightened, and she glared at him.  For a short time their wills clashed, then Taala, realizing that she was fighting a losing battle, looked away and tried desperately to blink the defiance from her eyes.  “Yes,” she said, “I guess that's how it is now.” 

“That's exactly how it is.  Now let's try it again.”  He brought the food to her lips.  This time Taala opened her mouth and took the chunk of roasted voss between her teeth.

“It's not the Calon cuisine you're used to,” he softened, “but it's better than the shellfish we shared in Talston, wouldn't you say?”

Taala chewed, swallowed.  “Really, I've ... no complaints.”

D'Lyon regarded her, a spark of derision in his black eyes.  “I'm so relieved.”  He alternated bites with her, occasionally tipping the skin flask to her lips to wash down the provender with lollybob nectar.   Slicing off a glob of creamy, white cheese, he held that up to her mouth then watched as she struggled to remove it from the blade with her lips and teeth.  It was not an easy task, but when at last the knife was cleaned, Taala straightened and met his gaze, her face burning with humiliation.  “Are you satisfied?” she fumed.  “Sufficiently amused?”

“Yes.  Very entertaining.  More nectar?”

She stared at him for long moments, fighting to control her anger.

D'Lyon tipped the flask over his mouth and took a hearty drink.  “Mmmm.”  He smacked his lips.  “Good stuff.  You want some more or not?”

“Yes.”

With a complacent sniff, D'Lyon leaned closer to her.  Placing the flask's spout between her lips, he tipped it up, allowing her a long draught, but before she was finished drinking, he pulled the flask from her mouth, causing a stream of nectar to splash off her chin and dribble down between her breasts onto her stomach and thighs.

Taala's body went rigid, and her eyes threw violet spears at him.  “You ... you did that on purpose!”

D'Lyon smiled.  He dropped his gaze to admire the soft flesh her parted cloak revealed to him.  “Then I guess I had better clean it up,” he whispered.  “Here, let's get that cloak off you.”

Taala's eyes widened. 

Reaching out with a casual hand, D'Lyon pushed the cloak back from her shoulders, baring her breasts fully to his view.  Taala made a small, gasping sound as she sought to contain her emotions.  Her eyes met briefly with his then fell away.  Her quickened breath caused her breasts to rise and fall before him.  She knelt there, helpless, drowning in her own anger and humiliation.  “D'Lyon ... please,” she muttered.

The silence stretched.

Taala felt his strong fingers wipe the nectar from her chin, then slide down over her breasts to brush away the droplets there.  He took his time at it, slowly encircling her nipples with a finger.

Taala lowered her head and sank her teeth into her bottom lip.  The sudden fire that swept through her caused her anger to flee, her breath to escape in restrained gasps.  As his fingers smoothed down past her stomach to probe between her thighs, her head rolled back and she sighed with pleasure.  He explored her gently, causing flames of ecstasy to ignite in her womb.  She closed her eyes.  “Oh, D'Lyon,” she moaned as he eased her back onto the fur.  Lost in the exquisite sensations of his touch, Taala opened herself fully to him.  Clearly, D'Lyon intended to make love to her, and right now she wanted him more than anything else in the world.  She bit down hard on her lip to stifle an utterance of need, then, at last, freed the words that were held in her heart:  “Yes, D'Lyon, you may make love to me.”

Abruptly, the hand which caressed her was gone, and the cloak closed tightly about her.

Taala opened her eyes in a daze and saw the look of quiet triumph on D'Lyon's face.  She blinked rapidly in an effort to free herself from the pleasurable trance he had induced.  Her thoughts spun in confusion.  “I ... don't understand,” she choked out.  “Don't you want—  I mean, aren't you going to ... make love to me?”

“Are you asking me to make love to you?”

Taala shifted her gaze, breaking eye contact with him, and stared up at the clouds drifting overhead.  “I—  No.  I ... I just ... that is ... I wasn’t going to fight you.”

“Really?  Such generosity!  Coming from a slave, no less.  Do you really think you have any choice in the matter?”

Taala lowered her lashes.  Her face slowly flushed.  “No.  I realize perfectly well that you can do with me as you choose.  I just—”

“Then stop trying to give me that which is already mine.” 

Taala remained silent. 

“Did you hear me?” 

“Yes, I heard you.  I’m yours for the taking, and you don’t require my consent.” 

“Exactly.” 

Taala took slow, even breaths to calm her racing heart.  “So why then do you not take me?  Why do you make me breathless with desire and then ...” her eyes flicked back to his, “and then just stop?”

D'Lyon thought for a moment, shrugged.  “Revenge, I think.  And to prove to myself that I can resist you.”

Taala sighed.  “You've already enslaved me, D'Lyon,” she spoke quietly, still burning with the fire he had struck in her.  “Isn't that enough?  You've won.  I'm completely at your mercy.”

“Yes.  As I was once at yours.”  Leaning forward, he slipped his hand through the front of her cloak and brushed his fingers along the curve of a breast.  “But my revenge is nowhere near complete.”  Delicately he stroked her nipples, causing Taala's breath to catch sharply in her throat.  “I like seeing the power I have over you, Taala.  I like watching you melt when I touch you.”

“I’m not melting,” said Taala. 

“You’re melting,” he replied. 

Taala refused to look at him.  So this was what it meant to be a slave, she thought:  unable to resist her master's touch, unable to suppress her response, to be and do whatever he wished of her.  “I only melt because I love you,” she whispered huskily.

D'Lyon's eyes flashed with hostility, and he quickly withdrew his hand.  “Oh, yes, of course you do!”

Their gazes met.  “It's true!” she said. 

D'Lyon reached down, grabbed the front of Taala's cloak and jerked her up hard to a sitting position.  “Do you think me a fool?” he suddenly raged.  “A complete idiot?”

Taala's lower lip trembled.  “N-no,” she gasped.  “Of course not.”

“Then don't you dare talk to me about love!”

Taala stared helplessly at him, her hands twisting futilely in her manacles.

D'Lyon released her abruptly and stared off at the horizon and the dark clouds gathered there.  The wind blew gently against his face and hair.  After a time, his breathing evened out and he looked back at Taala.  “Sorry,” he muttered.  “I didn't mean to frighten you.  Would you like some bread?”

Taala's eyes were filled with chaos.  “Y-yes,” she nodded dizzily, “thank you.”

Ripping off a chunk of bread, D'Lyon held it out to her.  Taala leaned forward, lowered her head and ate the bread from his hand, all the while sneaking glances at him beneath her long, sweeping lashes.  She loved him, Durun help her; she really did.  But the fact that he could inspire such adoration while openly humiliating her was beyond her comprehension.  How, she wondered, had this warrior gained such absolute power over her mind and heart when no other man on Jonda had so much as turned her head?

When she had swallowed the last of the bread, she leaned back and shook the hair from her face.  She could not look him in the eyes.  His domination of her was having a strange effect:  Her whole body felt hot, as if it were being slowly consumed by flames.  She refused to think of it as lust; yet she could not deny the desire that was flushing her face and setting her blood on fire.

“Is something wrong?” he asked gently.

“Nnn-no.”  She shook her head.

“Your breathing appears ... strained.”

Taala moistened her lips, tried to cool the fire that burned inside her.  “I’m all right,” she whispered. 

“Look at me,” he said.  “What is it?”

Reluctantly, Taala lifted her face, knowing that her eyes would reveal her inner need.  “You're ... deliberately torturing me,” she said.

D'Lyon raised a brow.

“Don't bother denying it.”

He shrugged.  “Well, maybe a little.”

“I feel like I'm on fire.”

He seemed to contemplate her words.  “I believe it'll pass.”

Taala closed her eyes and made a small groan of misery.  She wanted him to finish what he had started.  She wanted him to make love to her.  How could he leave her like this?  “D'Lyon ... what ... will you do with me?”

He frowned.  “Why, nothing for the moment.”

“And later?” she asked, her eyes beseeching him.  “I mean ... tonight?”

“Are you asking me to make love to you, Taala?”

Once again, Taala lowered her lashes, and her face flushed red.  She wouldn’t do that.  She wouldn’t ask him outright.  All she had left was her pride, and while it had been severely bruised, it was still intact.  “No,” she whispered, “I am not asking you for anything.”

“Mm.  I didn’t think so.  Well, let me see then ... I suppose I could lock you up in Ahaun.  Terra could make the flight in little time, and I think we may have a dungeon or two there ... although I'm not sure I could find one deep and dank enough to suit your tastes.”

Taala swallowed.  “I'm sorry about ... putting you in that terrible place,” she said.

“Yes, I'm sure you are—since the very moment I enslaved you.”

“Since long before that,” she replied stubbornly.

D'Lyon gave her a cynical smile.  “Then again, I could always feed you to Terra.  Would you like that?”

Taala's eyes narrowed at his sarcasm, and a hint of a smile tugged at one corner of her mouth.  “No, I would not.”

“Just as well.  You'd be little more than a piece of candy and bad for his fangs.  Plus, it might spoil him:  After that, all he'd want to eat would be Calon princesses.”

Taala smiled weakly, passion still simmering in her eyes.  “D'Lyon, please be serious.”

“Really, Taala, our meeting was purely by chance.  Or should I say fortune.  Regardless, you're here.  You're mine to do with as I please, and that includes mild torture.  Let's call it retribution for the time I spent starving in your dungeon.”

 “I see,” Taala nodded thoughtfully.  “So, I should expect more retribution then?” 

“Absolutely ... but not today.  I think you've been tortured enough for one day.  I wouldn't want to be mistaken for a Calonite.”  D'Lyon could not hide the derision in his voice.

Taala's levity vanished.  “I really am sorry.  I—”

“Never mind.”  D'Lyon stood, turned his back to her and stared out across a rolling sea of grass, which was dotted here and there with tree clusters.  He remained silent for a time, and when he looked back at Taala, his expression was grave.  “Tonight we must rest.  Early tomorrow we will engage the enemy.”

Taala's face showed mild surprise.

“What did you think, that we were taking a leisurely ride across the Ruaathian Basin for our health?  Tomorrow will most likely find us in a desperate battle.  If we survive that, then things will only get worse—much worse.  My scouts report that the main body of Jaarn’s forces, over five-hundred thousand strong, are within a few days march of Calon.  Indeed, their vanguard is already laying siege to your precious city.  I've only slightly more than twenty-five thousand warriors, Taala.”

“Twenty-five ...” her voice trailed off.

“Is the situation clear enough for you?”

“Against five-hundred thousand?”  She looked incredulous. 

“No no no, that's just their main body.  There's almost three hundred thousand deployed south of here to stop our advance.  That’s their left flank.  Another three hundred thousand making up their right flank is deployed west of Arion.  They’ve got a couple of hundred thousand more held in reserve to protect their rear and guard their supply lines just west of the Subar.  Their advance guard, a mere hundred thousand or so, is at Calon's outer wall right now.  All totaled, that comes to about a million and a half.  He gave her a bleak smile.  Looks pretty grim, wouldn't you say?”

“Yes,” Taala nodded.  “I remember that in the Hawthic camp you said we were surrounded by over fourteen-hundred thousand enemy.  And somehow you’ve kept track of their movements, numbers and positions.  Your scouts are very thorough.”

D'Lyon thought of Aarlan.  “Yes, very thorough indeed.” 

“So what can twenty-five thousand men do against so many?  I don't understand.”

“Men?”  D'Lyon shook his head and laughed.  “These aren't just men, Taala.  They're Sillion warriors.  True barbarians!” he hissed the words at her.  “So, you see, you were right all along:  We are merely savages.  But then, it takes more than a man to fight a Hawthic.”  He shrugged his broad shoulders.  “Who knows, we may scatter them to the wind.”

Taala looked skeptical.

Again he laughed.  “Actually, there is some hope.  Por Telka has almost a hundred and fifty thousand men south of the Cassian River.  They're not exactly accepting orders from me right now.  Not yet.  But if we can give them a bit of hope ... well, we'll see.  The Gar have assembled over a hundred thousand men.  We are, you might say, in close liaison with Toll.  They have been more or less apprised of my strategy, and some of their regiments may even participate in tomorrow's fun.  If my plans come off as hoped, we may be attacking the Hawthic forces at Calon very soon.  And Arion has what, about two hundred thousand men?  Plus, there are still remnants from Calon's forces which could be gathered up ... and those still in the city.  With a little leadership they might even be worth something.  I doubt it, but one never knows.”

Taala didn't miss the slight, but she chose to ignore it.  “I ... still don't understand what you can do, but I trust you, D'Lyon.”

The words slipped out.  She regretted them instantly.

He gazed at her coolly, nodded.  “Trust.  Now there's a good word, eh?  I didn't realize they taught words like 'trust' to Calon princesses.”

Taala's eyes traveled up D'Lyon's body from his muscular legs and thighs to his broad chest, stopping at his handsome face and the mane of coppery red hair tied in a tight knot behind his head.  Her lashes fluttered.  “You're right,” she whispered.  “They never taught me the word.  I only learned it recently from you.”

D'Lyon gave her a long, soul-searching look.  He wanted to believe her; Taala could see that.  But then he shook his head in disgust and glanced away.  “You haven't begun to learn the meaning of the word,” he muttered, dismissing her sincerity as guile.

Glancing upward to the darkening sky, D'Lyon placed his fingers at his temples and closed his eyes in deep concentration.  Before long, the winged shape of Terra appeared over the ridge.

D'Lyon turned to Taala.  “Time to go, love,” he said with a bitter smile.  He helped her up and eased her to one side so he could gather up the fur and remaining provisions.  When Terra sauntered close, D'Lyon lifted Taala up over his shoulder and carefully climbed the steel netting draped over avlon's shoulders.