The foxling soldati, p.10
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       The Foxling Soldati, p.10

         Part #2 of Soldati Hearts series by Charlie Cochet
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  "How did your brother know of my affections for Toka?" Rayner asked, still attempting to take in everything Verity had just revealed.

  "Merlo confessed to me your love for Toka. As the potion affected your senses, you thought it was Toka who had come to your side. Merlo exploited your confusion, making you believe he was Toka. It was how he discovered your love."

  Khalon's voice was low and dangerous as he pulled his hand from Verity's hold. "You not only knew of this deceit but you played along? When I asked you if your brothers spoke the truth, you confirmed it."

  "Please, I had no choice."

  Verity backed away as Rayner rounded on her. "How could you? You allowed him to get away with this farce, to take Toka from me and subject him to the cruelty of that monster!"

  "He has my love!"

  Rayner stilled. "What?"

  Verity sank into one of the wingback chairs, her expression stricken. "Aurelio, my love, is an Orso soldier, but he is not like the others. He is gentle and kind. When my brother's spies discovered us together, they informed my brother. He was outraged I would give myself to a creature who was beneath me, even if Aurelio was a noble warrior and an Orso. My brother imprisoned Aurelio, using him to keep me at his side to do his bidding. He threatened to kill my love if I didn't agree to his plan. He despises you." She shut her eyes tight. "He has such terrible plans for Toka. He is going to do his worst, then return Toka to you when there's nothing left of the foxling you so cherish. He wishes to make you suffer."

  "I will rip the bastard's throat out!" Rayner spun and headed for the door, but Khalon ran to stop him.

  "Rayner, wait!" Khalon placed his hands on Rayner's shoulders. "We will do this together. We will bring Toka back."

  Rayner nodded.

  Khalon patted his arm. "Notify the others and fetch your armor. We leave for Dell'Orso immediately."

  Chapter Eight

  "YOUR TIME is up, foxling."

  Toka slowly retreated as Pavoni edged closer, stalking him, hunting him with fire and lust in his eyes. Despite his strength having returned a day ago, Toka had given his best performance, managing to delay Pavoni's intentions for a whole day until Pavoni had lost his patience. He was intent on taking what he wanted, whether Toka was well enough or not.

  "I will have you." Pavoni's brown eyes were almost black, and he licked his bottom lip as he adjusted himself.

  Toka growled deep in his throat as he moved away. He had no intention of being taken without a fight.

  Pavoni's lewd gaze raked over Toka. "The more you struggle, the sweeter my conquest of you will be."

  "I will never stop fighting," Toka spat out. "I will fight you until my last breath."

  "Which may come sooner than you think if you don't get your ass over here right now!"

  Toka sneered at him. "In the words of my beloved Soldati prince, fuck you."

  Pavoni released a roar as he advanced, and Toka shifted, all but the collar around his neck falling off his limbs. Unless he used his paws, he wouldn't be able to get the blasted thing past his ears. He shifted back, ignoring the annoying little bell around his neck as it rang while he ran, ducked, and avoided Pavoni's attempts to capture him. Pavoni might be stronger, but his larger, bulkier frame did little for swift chases, at least in his human form. Toka was smaller, quicker, and lighter on his feet. He leaped over and ducked under furniture.

  "Get over here, you little pest!"

  Toka snatched hold of a heavy gilded candlestick and launched it at Pavoni. It struck him on the side of the head. The man roared and lunged for him. Toka dropped and rolled, then scrambled to his feet and ran behind the chaise lounge.

  "You're going to regret that," Pavoni bellowed. "I'm going to make you bleed!"

  The door to the room burst open, but Pavoni didn't take his gaze off Toka as he tried to gauge which direction Toka would go.

  "Your Majesty!"

  "Goddess above, can I not get a moment's peace around here? What is it?"

  The guard looked stricken. "Khalon King and his Soldati army are outside the gates, Your Majesty."

  "What?" Pavoni stiffened, turning to gape at the terrified guard.

  Toka's heart swelled in his chest, his happiness overflowing at the thought of Rayner. "He's come for me."

  Pavoni spun to face him, lips curled back against sharp fangs. "I would sooner see you dead than in his arms again!"

  Toka swiftly shifted and sped toward the panel Verity had used to enter the room several times. He threw his weight against it and wedged it open just enough to fit through. He had no idea where it led, but as he heard the feral roar from Pavoni's room, he knew it was better than where he'd been. He had to find a way out to Rayner.

  RAYNER STOOD beside his king, his sword in hand as Pavoni's Orso warriors flooded out from every crevice of the mountainside like insects. A low growl rose from Rayner's chest, and Khalon addressed him quietly.

  "Steady, my friend."

  Patience. Rayner had never struggled with it until this very moment. Knowing Toka was somewhere in that monstrosity of rock and steel, at the mercy of Pavoni, caused Rayner's blood to boil and his skin to itch. He didn't wish to kill any Orso warrior, but if they dared stand between him and Toka, he would send every last soul to Thalna, goddess of the dead.

  Khalon stepped forward, his booming voice carrying across the narrow expanse of greenery to the Orso who took position before the castle gates. "I wish to speak to General Segreti."

  A huge Orso warrior stepped forward. His armor appeared as if carved from gray stone, his helmet in the shape of a bear's head. He had many scars on his face, one going through his left brow and disappearing behind a brown leather patch to appear once again on his cheek. The breadth of his shoulders was impressive, even without the armor. Rayner had heard stories of General Segreti. The man was a legend and until Pavoni's reign, had been full of vigor and mirth. The years had not been good to Segreti. Or perhaps it was Pavoni. Segreti looked weary.

  "Your Majesty," Segreti replied, his deep baritone capturing everyone's attention. He placed a fist to his heart and bowed his head. It was good to see Segreti had not lost his civility. The fact he had not commanded his army to attack the moment the Soldati arrived held great promise. Segreti had once feasted with the Soldati, been honored by Khalon's father. "May I inquire as to the presence of your army in our kingdom?"

  "I fear we have been left with little choice. The actions of your king have brought disgrace to the Orso. King Pavoni used trickery and deceit to bring false punishment upon my second and ensnare my prince's courtier. I will not allow this injustice."

  Segreti nodded. "May I approach, Your Majesty?"

  "You may."

  Segreti marched over and stopped in front of Khalon. He nodded a greeting to Rayner, then Adira, but paused when he reached Ezra. "Why is he here?"

  Rayner felt Ezra stiffen beside him before Ezra spoke up. "He is here to assist his king."

  Well, now, that was new. Rayner held back a smile. Ezra was the gentlest soul anyone could ever know. The man rarely bristled. Serenity was like breathing to him. Apparently, serenity made itself scarce when faced with Segreti.

  Segreti narrowed his near-black eye. "You don't belong on the field of battle."

  "How dare you?" Ezra replied through his teeth, blue eyes ablaze. "You know nothing of my character or skills."

  "I know enough," Segreti muttered, turning his attention back to Khalon. "Your Majesty, may I speak boldly?"

  Khalon motioned for them to step away from the rest of the Soldati warriors. "Rayner, join us."

  Rayner did as asked, standing beside Khalon as Segreti spoke quietly.

  "I do not condone the actions of my king, but he is my king. As much as I have come to regret being under his command, I have sworn my fealty and sword to him." Segreti's smile was wistful. "I am no longer the young spritely Orso I once was. My body has endured much, and I fear my heart is weary of the fight, but make no mistake, I will fight until my d
ying breath."

  Rayner was confused. "Why have you not passed your helmet on?" A warrior as renowned as Segreti should have passed his mantle on centuries ago. Segreti was only a few centuries older than Khalon, but he had seen much more battle, and, rumor was, had even been captured and tortured, escaping through sheer will and determination alone. Since Pavoni was crowned, it seemed the Orso were always at war with someone.

  Segreti's heavy sigh revealed a bone-weariness Rayner felt down to his soul. The man had given more than any warrior should be asked. He deserved peace.

  "Pavoni will not release me from my pledge. He says I am to lead his army until my demise, either at the hands of my enemy, or my own."

  "That insufferable bastard." Rayner shook his head in disbelief. Did the man's disgrace know no bounds?

  Khalon put his hand on Segreti's shoulder plate. "If only your king were as noble and honorable as you, my old friend. I do not wish to bring you or your men any harm, but I cannot leave here without Toka."

  "The foxling." Segreti moved his gaze to Rayner. As if realizing, he cursed under his breath. "The foxling is yours. That explains his obsession."

  "Pavoni is not walking out of this alive," Rayner said. "I will make him pay for what he's done to my beloved. All I ask is that you see for yourself the devastation your king intends to bring upon us all."

  Far and wide Ezra was known not only for his healing abilities but also for the power he wielded as the voice for the all-seeing Eye. Khalon motioned for Ezra to approach.

  Ezra bowed. "Your Majesty."

  Khalon turned to Ezra. "Show him."

  Ezra pressed his lips together. "Khalon, I do not--" At Khalon's pointed look, Ezra sighed. "Yes, Your Majesty." He stepped up to Segreti, who frowned down at him. Ezra was a Soldati, smaller than Rayner yet bigger and taller than most humans, but Segreti was an Orso, a huge wall of muscle as hard as the mountain behind him. In his armor, he eclipsed Ezra's much slighter frame. Ezra reached up, and Segreti had to hunch over so Ezra could reach him. "This will be quite painful."

  "I'm well versed in pain, cub."

  Ezra glared at Segreti. "I am not a cub."

  "Ezra," Khalon warned, and received a huff in response from their gentle companion.

  Closing his eyes, Ezra summoned the power of the Eye. Rayner had seen him do it many times, but very rarely did someone get to see what Ezra saw. The power of the Eye flowed through Ezra, evident by the way he stiffened, a gasp escaping his lips. He opened his eyes, his irises and pupils disappearing into a glowing bluish white light. Segreti gritted his teeth, and Rayner knew he was beginning to feel the pain of their fate. Through Ezra's touch, his vision could be shared, but so would whatever pain the victims in his vision suffered. In this instance, the whole of humanity.

  "Should you and your men wage war with the Soldati," Ezra forewarned, his voice echoing as if there were another being speaking through him, "millions upon millions of innocent humans will perish, all for the sake of your king's ego. Feel their pain as they lose their loved ones. As they watch their world fall to ash."

  Segreti's eyes filled with tears, and he clutched Ezra's shoulders as a pained cry tore from his lips. Ezra released Segreti, and the man dropped to one knee, head hung, hands fisted around the hem of Ezra's tunic.

  "I can't...." Segreti's voice was a hoarse whisper. "Please. No more."

  Rayner couldn't stay here any longer. He couldn't wait for Segreti to make up his mind. Toka needed him. He was about to say so, when Ezra placed his fingers gently beneath Segreti's chin and lifted his face. He smiled warmly at Segreti and brushed his thumb over Segreti's cheek, wiping away a tear.

  "Please, General. Do not damn your beautiful soul for a man so undeserving of you."

  Segreti swallowed hard. He searched Ezra's gaze. Rayner could not hope to know what Segreti was looking for, but a heartbeat later, he seemed to find it. He stood, squared his shoulders, and met Rayner's gaze.

  "Go find your foxling."

  THE SECRET passage was small, which meant Pavoni would never fit, thankfully, as it only went in one direction. At the end of the narrow passage, it split into two paths. Toka sniffed the air, catching a faint whiff of some flowery scent coming from the left. He headed in that direction, and found himself out in the hall.

  At the end of the long corridor, Pavoni thundered out of his bedchamber, a colossal brown bear with slobbering jaws. His black gaze landed on Toka, and he released a terrifying roar that shook the rafters. Toka darted off, running as fast as his paws would take him, dodging the guards who dove for him. He pounced on their heads, his barks shrill and alarmed as Pavoni released another thunderous roar behind him. The floor shook with the beast's pounding steps as he loped after Toka. He couldn't let Pavoni strike him. One swipe of Pavoni's claws, and Toka would be slammed into a stone wall. His slighter frame wouldn't survive the impact.

  "Rayner, please help me." If Rayner wasn't in his tiger form, he wouldn't hear Toka's thoughts, but Toka had to try regardless.

  Using his brush to help his balance and his claws to help his grip on the flooring, he dashed from place to place, scurrying under furniture and hopping over anything that crossed his path. Foxlings were skilled at bounding and jumping. The Orso guards who didn't rush out to meet the Soldati remained to give chase. The castle was so big, and Toka didn't know where he was going. Through the windows, he heard the roar of Orso warriors. It was odd and not the sounds he expected to hear when two fierce armies faced each other. It was more like arguing, the voices of several furious Orso reaching Toka's ears even with the annoying little bell jingling around his neck and giving away his position. Toka barked, hoping his cries reached Rayner.

  Toka spotted the front gates and headed for them, but his path was blocked by half a dozen Orso. He took a sharp turn. There was only one place left for Toka to go. He darted up one of the wide winding staircases. It was a great risk, and he might have just sealed his fate, but there was nowhere left for him to run. He sped up, careful not to trip on any of the steps or he would lose the distance he'd managed to put between himself and Pavoni. At the very top, Toka saw an archway leading out into the light. Darting through, he found himself on one of the parapets between two towers. At the far end, two guards slowly approached, and behind him, Pavoni emerged from the doorway.

  Toka barked, his foxling cries echoing in the air. He had nowhere to go. As Pavoni loped toward him, Toka arched his back, his fur bristling and his brush lashing back and forth. He bared his teeth, his ears pressed back against his head, his angry gekkering aimed at Pavoni. The guards behind him let out a series of strangled sounds, but Toka would not take his gaze off the giant bear looming over him. Pavoni rose onto his hind legs, massive paws up in the air ready to strike Toka dead, but the fierce roar of a tiger drowned out his bellow.

  A shadow soared over Toka's head, and he scurried back as Rayner plowed into Pavoni, sending him stumbling back. Rayner snapped his jaws, sharp fangs plunging into Pavoni's neck. He tore at Pavoni's flesh as the giant bear flailed and swiped its paws at Rayner, catching him on the flank. Rayner roared at the pain, and Toka darted in, snapping at Pavoni's ankles and feet, tearing into the flesh and shaking his head fiercely to cause as much damage as possible. Toka might not have the deadly fangs of a tiger, but he could easily tear through flesh.

  Pavoni screamed and roared, batting at Rayner and Toka, who did their best to stay away from his claws. Pavoni faltered, and Rayner reared on his hind legs, slashing at Pavoni with his razor-sharp claws. Rayner's body was sleek and powerful, his ears flattened against his large furry head, and his heavy tail thumping against the stone floor. Parts of his white fur were sprayed with Pavoni's blood. Toka rushed in again, twisted himself between Pavoni's back paws, and tripped Pavoni. The huge bear fell back toward the ledge of the parapet. Toka watched, stunned, as Rayner soared through the air and struck Pavoni with all four paws. He used Pavoni's body as a springboard, pushing off and twisting in midair to land on his paws as
Pavoni tumbled over the stone edge.

  Toka shifted and ran to the ledge in time to see Pavoni hit the stone bridge outside the gates. He gasped in horror and was pulled into a strong, warm embrace. Toka turned and buried his head against Rayner's jerkin. It was over. Pavoni was dead.

  "Are you all right?" Rayner pulled back enough to inspect Toka. He ran his hands over Toka's head, neck, and shoulders. "Tell me you're all right."

  "I am, now that you're here." Toka threw his arms around Rayner and hugged him.

  "Thank the goddess," Rayner said, breathless, holding Toka so tight he could barely breathe. Toka didn't care. He was in Rayner's arms, and Pavoni would never hurt them again. After what seemed like an eternity, Rayner pulled back. He looked frightened. "Did he...?"

  Toka shook his head, the bell tinkling around his neck. Rayner seemed to notice it for the first time, and rage flashed through his eyes. He reached behind Toka's neck. Carefully, but with force, he snapped the collar's clasp. He pulled it off Toka, and with a sneer of disgust, he snapped it in two before tossing it over the side of the parapet. His expression filled with concern once again, and Toka took Rayner's hand in his.

  "Princess Verity gave me a potion that made me ill for a day, and I faked the rest until today. I had no intention of letting him have me. I'm yours, Rayner. Only yours."

  Rayner kissed him, and Toka relished the taste of him, his scent, the joy that overflowed from his heart. He could barely believe it. Rayner had come for him. His king had come for him, along with an army. They had risked everything... for him. Toka looked up at Rayner, his fingers needing to touch his lover's face, afraid this was all a sweet dream.

  "How did you get Khalon to change his mind?"

  Rayner took Toka's hand in his and brought it to his lips for a kiss. "Come. I will tell you everything."

  A roar resounded, and Toka smiled. "Princess Verity has surrendered."

  "She feared for her people, and with General Segreti refusing to shed the blood of his men for Pavoni, surrender was imminent."

  Toka stared at him. "Pavoni's general surrendered?"

  "General Segreti is an honorable man and an old friend of Khalon's father. I believe he's been at war with his own heart over his allegiance to Pavoni for some time. It took a little gentle persuasion, but Segreti knew as well as we did that Pavoni's arrogance would have led to countless deaths." Rayner led Toka through the archway and down the steps to the front gates. There the Orso kneeled before the Soldati in surrender.

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