AUTHOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Part Five of the Snowbird Saga. A word of warning: there's no 'Mech battles in this chapter. There is a lot of fighting, however!

Again, this story isn't per se Battletech canon. There was no offensive on Planting in December 3050; this is literary license. However, to those of you familiar with Michael Stackpole's Blood of Kerensky saga, some of the events in this chapter will seem very familiar. Chronologically speaking, this entire short story takes place between Chapters 43 and 44 of Lethal Heritage.

Edwin Amis of the Eridani Light Horse, Scott Bradley of the Kell Hounds, and Dmja Sneuth of Wolf's Dragoons are all "real" Battletech characters; all others are my own invention. Likewise, don't go looking for the 133rd Falcon Fusiliers on any Clan Jade Falcon order of battle; they too are my own invention. After all, every good heroine needs a foil…

THE FALCON AND THE SNOWBIRD

Part V of the Snowbird Saga

WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE: It is December 3050. The Planting campaign rages on, even as Jaime Wolf calls the leaders of the Inner Sphere–both new and old–to Outreach. Elsewhere, the war has entered a lull, as the Clans consolidate their gains. Even now, no one in the Inner Sphere quite knows what they are. On Planting, Calla's invasion across Blackett Strait has been a success, cutting the Jade Falcons in half, trapping one Cluster between the Kell Hounds and the 20th Arcturan Guards on the Tel Akbir Peninsula, and putting two Clusters between the Sentinels to the east and the Eridani Light Horse to the west. The offensive has ground to a halt, however, as the worst winter to hit Planting in 20 years forces both sides to hunker down in freezing weather, high winds, and giant snowdrifts.

As for the Snowbirds, Sheila Arla-Vlata has somewhat come to terms with her near-death at Fort Pilum, and plans to marry Maximillian Canis as soon as Planting's capital, Second Try, falls. However, the weather is clearing, and with it, Sheila's life will change forever...

Sentinel Headquarters Planting, Lexington Green

Planting, Tamar March, Federated Commonwealth

5 December 3050

Calla Bighorn-Vlata turned to face his battalion and company commanders. "And that's pretty much the situation, people." He pointed to the holomap. "The Jade Falcons hold Second Try with what appears to be two Clusters, reinforced by a second-line battalion of foot infantry. We've tentatively identified the Clusters as the 4th Falcon Velites and the 133rd Falcon Fusiliers, reinforced by something called the Peregrine Galaxy Keshik. I'm still waiting on information to confirm that." Calla could not resist a quick scan of the room. Dammit, where is she...

He concentrated on the briefing. "This group holds Second Try and the Hillbork Forest, which gives them a secure line of supply through the DropPort by keeping us out of artillery range. We can't spare the aerospace fighters to try and bring down one of their DropShips, so they can resupply at will."

He touched a button on the holotank, and the map zoomed in on Second Try. "As everyone knows, the city is the largest on Planting, spanning both sides of the Hyannis River. It's an old city, built around the cathedral and the old district capital complex. The city fathers designed it to resemble Cologne back on old Terra, and they succeeded. Narrow streets, a lot of stone and concrete housing, densely wooded parklands. Basically, it's every MechWarrior's worst nightmare."

"It's no fun for tankers either," Richard Cannon chimed in from the back. He was the commander of the Sentinels' Tank Battalion.

"True enough, Dick." Calla looked to his left. "Colonel Amis, I'll let you handle the city defenses."

Colonel Edwin Amis of the Eridani Light Horse's 21st Striker Regiment nodded and stood. He had arrived a week ago to reinforce the 50th Heavy Cavalry Battalion, which had been on Planting from the start. "Thanks, Commander." He typed in commands on the holotank's keyboard, and suspected Clan positions were outlined in red. "It appears that our opposite number, whoever he or she may be, has planned to really turn this into a bloodbath. It's bad enough that the best approaches to the city are covered by the Hillbork Forest, which in itself is a perfect defense position–a lot of trees and broken ground, but not enough to impede 'Mechs. At least, not those in defensive positions.

"The ground to the west and east of Second Try consists of rolling hills with very little cover, gradually sloping down to Blackett Strait. We've seen a lot of work being done on the outskirts of the city–civilians being evacuated in a hurry, that sort of thing. It appears that the Jade Falcons have demolished all but the most well-built houses, clearing fields of fire, but leaving the rubble in place to form roadblocks. My guess is that they're going to chop us up at range if we come over those rolling hills, while we're floundering around in the snowdrifts. Once we reach the city, they'll use their infantry and their battleamor to slow us down in the suburbs. Apparently, they've gathered one of the Clusters in the center of the city to react to any breakthrough, and to counterattack."

A hand went up, and Calla saw that it was Gnea Carabinera, one of his most experienced company commanders. Once Amis nodded, she stood. "If the Cluster's in the center of the city, why don't we just run a couple of airstrikes over it? We flatten the city center."

"You're talking about a lot of civilian casualties," Amis said.

Carabinera shrugged. "War is hell and peacetime is even worse, Colonel. We're going to kill a lot of them if it degenerates into a city fight. The sooner we get it over with, the less people die." There were nods around the room; Carabinera was the Sentinels' resident city-fighting expert. "And with all the rubble we leave in the center of the city, it'll delay what reinforcements they can bring up."

"The AFFC has a prohibition against undue civilian damage, Major." This came from Alexander van Thorn, the Sentinels' AFFC liasion.

"They can court-martial me," Carabinera replied. "I'll do my time on Justice if it means less of my boys and girls get killed."

Elizabeth Dowlings stood up next, the blonde-haired commander of the Sentinels Aerowing. "Aye, Major, I agree wi' ye. The problem is, it's a moot point. I'm lucky if I c'n maintain air superiority o'er our own lines. The Jade Falcon aeropilots are good. I might noot be able to do all o' this damage ye refer to, 'cause I'll be too busy dodgin' Clan lead aimed at me arse." Chuckles followed her as she sat. "And that's assumin' the bloody weather clears."

"Well, that's the good news," Calla said. "We've got a high front blowing in from the north. It should warm up to about ten degrees Centigrade by the day after tomorrow, maybe even melt some of the snow. Anyway, we'll have clear skies."

Amis crossed his arms over his chest. "We don't have a set plan on how to crack this yet...that's what this meeting is for. So–any ideas?"

Todd Canis stood and walked up to the holotank. "The way I see it, the one advantage we do have is numbers. We can afford to hit them from both sides. I say we throw out a battalion at the Hillbork Forest as a diversion to pin down the Falcon units there–maybe the 50th. Then we throw two battalions at them from either side, and leave one battalion in reserve to reinforce whoever has the most success."

"Those attacking battalions are going to take heavy casualties," Amis cautioned.

"I know, Colonel, I know. We just have to grin and bear it. High-speed run across the hills–the two battalions should get enough 'Mechs through to get into the suburbs. Then we pass the reserve battalion through the other two battalions and take the city center. If we can get some airstrikes and artillery prep on the Clan defenses, we might be able to keep their heads down. And if the leading edge has jumpjets, the snow won't slow them down hardly at all."

More nods and murmurs from the crowd. Jumpjets were one thing the Clans seemed to be short of on their 'Mechs, and vertical envelopments–which was military parlance for jumping behind someone–was not a tactic the Clans often used.

Calla stood up, getting ready to add his own comments, when the back door opened, letting in a blast of frigid air. Someone shouted at the perpetrator to shut the pneumonia hole, and the door closed. Calla smiled; his daughter had finally arrived.

"Sorry I'm late," Sheila Arla-Vlata announced, pulling her hood and woolen cap off her head, exposing her night-black hair. "We have a guest." She stepped aside; her six-foot height had hidden the much smaller woman behind her. "This is Major Dmja Sneuth, of the Wolf's Dragoons' Seventh Kommando Unit."

Sneuth came to ramrod attention and saluted, palm-down in the Davion fashion. She was short, with red hair cut in a pageboy, and rather attractive. The mention of the Seventh Kommando, however, sent an electric shock through the room. The unit was the elite special forces group of Wolf's Dragoons, already considered the best unit in the Inner Sphere. It also meant that this little woman was most likely capable of killing half the people in the room quickly and silently, before the other half could react.

Calla returned the salute. "Glad to see you, Major. We can certainly use the Dragoons' help."

Sneuth gave him a wan smile. "Sorry to disappoint you, sir. I'm alone."

"Great. A JAFO," Carabinera smirked.

"A what?" Sneuth asked, confused.

"Just Another Fucking Observer," Catherine Houndlikov explained, with a be-silent glance at Carabinera.

She ignored it. "You've got five regiments of supposedly the best unit in the Inner Sphere," Carabinera continued. "And you're sitting on your duff on Outreach. What are you waiting for, Christmas?"

Sneuth spread her hands. "I'm sorry, Major Carabinera. I'm just a messenger." She patted the oversized pockets of her winter coat. "I have a message in here for Commander Bighorn-Vlata and Colonel Scott Bradley."

"Scott's over at Tel Akbir," Calla said. "We're all friends here, Major."

"I have my orders, sir. Whether you choose to tell everyone later is your concern, but I'm supposed to brief you, and your battalion commanders, alone." She leaned against the wall. "I'm sorry to have interrupted the meeting."

Carabinera bit back a scathing reply when Calla raised a hand. It was obvious that Sneuth was not going to be moved. "Very well." He turned to Sheila. "Commander, were you successful? I mean your patrol, not in escorting Major Sneuth here."

Sheila nodded. "Yes, sir." She looked at Todd. "There's a snag on your plan, Commander Canis. The Clans have got vibromine fields out there. One of my guys triggered it when he slipped and fell in a snowdrift. His Atlas set off a whole bunch of them, which means they were probably set for considerably lighter weight."

"Shit," Amis said.

"Yeah," Todd agreed. "There goes our jump plan. They'll jump right into the field, and there's no way we'll see them in the snow."

"Any idea as to who exactly we're facing?" Calla asked.

"Yes, sir," Sheila replied. "We were able to decode some of their radio chatter. It's like we thought–it's the 4th Velites and the 133rd Fusiliers. The 2nd Jaegers are the one giving the Hounds fits up at Tel Akbir. Apparently the commander of that unit is someone named Marthe Pryde, and she is a tiger."

"No shit," Calla sighed. "What about that Peregrine Keshik thing?"

"We know they're organized as Clusters, their equivalent to a regiment. Well, they have Galaxies, which are like divisions or brigades, I suppose. A Keshik is the command unit for a Galaxy." She paused. "This one's commanded by our old friend Cavell Malthus. He's a saKhan, which Major Sneuth tells me is the second in command of a Clan."

"Great, we're going up against the varsity now," Todd groaned. "This gets better and better."

"How the hell did you know that?" Carabinera demanded, looking daggers at Sneuth.

The Dragoon shifted uncomfortably. "Just because the Dragoons are sitting on our ass, as you say, doesn't mean Wolfnet is," she said at length. Wolfnet was Jaime Wolf's private intelligence service, which no one knew much about, other than it existed and was usually accurate.

"Anything else you care to share?" Calla growled.

Sneuth shook her head. "No, sir. I remember reading a report on that just before I left Outreach, that's all."

Amis turned to Calla. "You know this Malthus guy?"

"Yeah. We ran into him on Persistence. After the battle at Steinbeck Repair Facility, he and I met. He was offering us something he called hegira–honorable retreat, or so he said. We got to leave without further trouble, he got the planet."

"Sounds like a reasonable fellow."

Calla grinned. "Could be. He might also be pissed at us. We blew up the repair facility as we left, and I think he really wanted it intact. If the Clanners really are as hung up on honor as the Kuritans are, then we sort of screwed him over." Calla looked around. "Well, let's put our heads together and try and work up something. Major Sneuth, since you came all this way through the freezing season outside, then I suppose I owe you a hearing. I want Colonel Amis to hear what you have to say, though."

Sneuth knew how far she could push. "Sir."

Todd Canis looked up from the holotank. "Tell me later, Calla. Unless the Dragoons are doing a combat drop in the next 48 hours, it can wait." He ignored Sneuth's angry look.

"Okay. Cathy, Sheila?" Calla motioned the two women over.

"Me?" Sheila blurted.

"Last I recall, you were still a battalion commander," Calla grinned. "I haven't busted you yet."

"Right." Sheila blushed, feeling stupid. She was still getting used to commanding the Snowbirds. Lately, they had been operating away from the rest of the regiment, running patrols and the occasional foray into Clan lines. Marion Rhialla referred to it as "cattle raiding," which Sheila liked.

Calla led the three women and Amis to an alcove of the wine cellar that was the Sentinels' temporary headquarters. "Okay, Major, this is as secure as it's going to get." He leaned against a large wine barrel.

"Yes, sir." She pulled out an envelope and handed it to Calla. It was stamped with the distinctive snarling wolf's head of the Dragoons. Calla broke the seal and looked over the letter. Sheila saw the sheen of a hologram at the bottom, where Jaime Wolf's signature was. It was verigraphed, which was impossible to forge. It meant that whatever was in the letter, it was important. Calla read it, looked up at Sneuth, then read it again. "All right, Major. Why the hell does Jaime want me on Outreach by 15 January? He is aware that we're sort of at war."

"Yes, Commander." Sneuth's smile returned. "He said that you would probably have this wrapped up by then. He thinks that the Jade Falcons are fighting a delaying action. If they can't win at Second Try, they'll probably pull back."

Calla looked down at the letter again. "Jaime usually knows what he's talking about. I just hope he's right."

"I hope we have something left to hold Planting with," Amis said. "This attack is going to be a cast-iron bitch."

Sneuth opened her mouth to say something, but then seemed to have second thoughts, and said nothing. Before Calla or Sheila could ask why, Houndlikov spoke up. "So what's it say, Calla?"

He handed her the letter. "In so many words, he's inviting me and whoever I want to bring to Outreach for a strategy meeting on the Clan War. And it looks like everyone is going to be there."

"Everyone?" Sheila asked.

"He's not joking," Houndlikov supplied. "According to this, representatives from all the Houses and bigger merc units will be there." She glanced at Amis. "I would imagine a letter is going to Ariana Winston, Ed." She referred to the commander of the Eridani Light Horse. "And the Kell Puppies, Evelina Haskell's Centauri Lancers, the GDL...maybe Big Mac and the Urakhai, too." Sneuth nodded.

"Why us?" Calla asked. "The other units have been around awhile, or have a pedigree a mile long. "We've only been a regiment since 3040, and we're about as mongrel as they come. Sure, I was with Jaime on Crossing, but..."

"And Colonel Wolf remembers that, Commander," Sneuth replied. "The Sentinels did the Dragoons a service."

Calla shrugged. "All we did was loan Zeta Battalion a couple of DropShips..."

"And hit the 15th Galedon from behind," Houndlikov added. "Don't shortchange us, Calla. Sure, we were only a demi-battalion, but we still scared hell out of the Snakes." She winked at Sneuth. "Not that the Dragoons needed our help."

"There's also the matter that the Sentinels are one of the most experienced units on the Clan front," Sneuth said.

"Commander Arla-Vlata here has been in five campaigns, including this one–Persistence, Rasalhague, Blackjack, Twycross, and here. I know of very few others who can claim that distinction."

"Sheila just can't get enough of it." Houndlikov sniffed a laugh. "She's been rustling Malthus' cattle, I hear." Sheila didn't know what to say to that, so she just looked at the floor. "Nothing to be ashamed of, child. But Outreach would be a great place for a honeymoon."

"Commander!" Sheila exclaimed. "So much for secrecy."

"Oh, the regiment knows all about it. I imagine Wolfnet does too, but then Major Sneuth here probably knows what color panties I'm wearing today."

"You made your point, Cathy." Calla knew that Houndlikov was merely needling Sneuth, trying to get the woman to lose her temper. "Well, Major Sneuth, tell Jaime that, assuming I don't get killed in the next month or ball this up and get my regiment wiped out, I'll be there. And that I would consider it a great favor if my daughter and her husband-to-be have the honeymoon suite at the Harlech Hilton reserved. Assuming Romano Liao isn't using it for a seance or something."

Sneuth smiled at the joke. "Yes, sir, I'll arrange it."

"Romano's going to be there? God, don't tell Rhialla. She's liable to go on a killing spree." Houndlikov had to get in the last word. "Major, tell that old bitch Natasha Kerensky that I'm still ahead two falls out of three when it comes to tequila shooters, and if she wants to collect, she knows where to find me."

Sneuth hesitantly nodded. Calla asked Sheila to find Sneuth a billet, but as Sheila was leading the Dragoon away, Sneuth suddenly turned back. "Commander, Colonel, I may have something you can use for Second Try."

"Well, by all means, let's hear it," Amis answered.

She looked around furtively, then lowered her voice. "You might be able to take Second Try without a big battle."

Calla put his hands on his hips and leaned forward. "Mind telling us how?"

"I shouldn't be telling you this," Sneuth said, her face turning red with embarassment now. "But I've...I've heard from some of the other Dragoons that the Clans have this thing called a Trial of Possession. It's like a trial by combat or something. Basically, one side offers to duel the other, and whoever wins possesses the prize, hence the name. It allows two units to keep their honor and win a victory without destroying each other."

"That makes sense," Sheila said. "They always ask us what we want to bid before a battle."

"Their asking bit before the campaign begins," Amis nodded.

"Well, that too," Sheila answered, "but the 'Mech commander I fought at Fort Pilum asked me what I was bidding to fight him. He may have been offering me a Trial of Possession, but I didn't know it." She looked at Sneuth. "One of his MechWarriors jumped out in front and offered to duel someone, anyone. Marion Rhialla shot him, and the fight was on."

Calla held up a hand. "So let me get this straight, Major. I meet Cavell Malthus under a flag of truce and offer to do a Trial of Possession for Second Try. If he accepts, and he'd be crazy to, and we win, he just ups and leaves?"

"As far as I know, yes. If you win a fair fight, he's honor-bound to."

"And I thought the Snakes were dumb," Houndlikov put in. "You're supposed to leave honor at home in your locker with your dress uniform."

"What kind of fight?" Sheila asked. "'Mech fight?"

"As far as I know, anything you like, as long as both sides agree to it."

"Snowball fight," Houndlikov grinned.

"Cathy, dammit, this is serious." Calla was not smiling.

"Come on, Calla, you said it yourself. He'd be a fool to do this."

"Not necessarily," Sheila said, earning herself a withering look from Houndlikov. "Just about every Clanner I've met so far has been pretty arrogant–or at least very sure of themselves. Why not? They usually pound us into the pavement, unless we manage to get the drop on them, or just dogpile them with numbers. We come forward offering to duel him on his terms, on his turf, he's going to think he can beat us."

"He might be right," Calla replied. "Man for man, their MechWarriors are better than ours."

"Then again, they might be so overconfident that we win," Amis said. "And if we make the offer and he turns us down, his buddies are going to be asking why. And we can ask him why he's afraid to fight us." He grinned at Houndlikov. "I'm sure we can find someone who's very effective at that."

Houndlikov's grin widened. "Damn straight."

"Do you know how we go about it?" Calla asked Sneuth.

"No."

"You don't know, or you won't tell?"

"I don't know," Sneuth almost pleaded. "Please, Commander, when Colonel Wolf finds out I've told you this much, I'm in for it as it is!"

"Okay, okay. Fair enough. Sheila, take Major Sneuth to her quarters. I may drop by later."

Sheila didn't like the idea of being left out of the decision, but she saluted in any case and led Sneuth off.

"She may not know," Houndlikov told Calla, "but it's damn sure that Jaime Wolf is holding a few cards back. How the hell does he know all this? He knows who the Clans are, Calla. I'd stake my diamonds on it."

"Doesn't matter," Calla replied. "If we can pull off this Trial of Possession thing, and spare us having to go through those snowdrifts and those vibrobombs, then I'll kiss his ass on top of the Chieftain and give him an hour and a half to draw a crowd."