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Best Served Cold (Chapter Cover Art)

Chapter 16 - Best Served Cold[]

Nykvarn, Smoke Jaguar Occupation Zone
November 5th, 3051

Phelan Wolf marched his Wolfhound out of the DropShip and formed up with Natasha Kerensky's Dire Wolf. Locking in on the nav signal, they made best speed to where the Smoke Jaguar garrison Binary was being cut to ribbons by the Wolverines.

Since being dispatched on this mission, Natasha had been oddly tense and very quiet.  Phelan knew why, but he admitted to himself he didn't really understand it.  The accounts he'd read of The Not-Named Clan and why they had been wiped from the rolls of Clan history were brutal and horrific, but didn't stir in him the gut-churning reaction that, say, stories of the Amaris Coup or First Succession War did.  It was the difference, he reflected, of hearing the story as a youth, told in cautionary and horrific style, and reading it as an adult and approaching it as an intelligence briefing and item of historical interest.

Natasha had grown up with the terror of The Not-Named Clan and the Trial of Annihilation lurking like a monster under the bed.  Phelan had not.

"What is our plan here?" Phelan asked.

Natasha did not respond.

"My Khan?  Star Colonel?  Natasha, are you there?" he called again

"Sorry, Phelan.  I'm. . . distracted." Natasha responded finally

Phelan swallowed nervously.  The Wolverines had carved up Smoke Jaguar front- and second-line units on a dozen worlds, and now Phelan and Natasha were going against them alone, just the two of them, and the Black Widow had to pick now to get as skittish as a Nagelring underclassman at her first Snow Ball.

"But you have a plan, quiaff?"

"I have orders from Ulric.” Natasha replied evasively.

Phelan ground his teeth.  This situation was confusing and nerve-racking enough, and Ulric and Natasha keeping everything so secret was making it worse.  Phelan knew Natasha had spent a great deal of time on their journey poring over the personal journals of Nicholas Kerensky, available to her now as a Wolf Clan Khan.  But what was in those journals, or how they related to the Wolverines, Phelan did not know.

By the time they crested a rise and came into view of the battlefield, the Jaguar 'Mechs had been obliterated, and the victorious Wolverines were collecting their spoils.  The Wolfhound and Dire Wolf came into view, and the Star of Wolverine 'Mechs turned as one, the half-Star of vehicles reoriented their turrets.  Eleven TAG laser beams — one from each 'Mech and vehicle, two from the Rhino — snapped on, five painting Phelan's Wolfhound, six Natasha's Dire Wolf.

"Orders, Star Colonel?" Phelan asked.

"It's them.  My God, it really is them."

"Natasha?" Phelan asked with more urgency.

"Weapons safe, Phelan.” Natasha ordered.  Her next transmission was in the clear.  "This is Khan Natasha Kerensky of Clan Wolf to unknown forces, identify yourself and state your intentions."

Silence for far too many heartbeats.

"This is Star Colonel Lilly McEvedy of Clan Wolverine.  You state your intentions."

"We come under orders of ilKhan Ulric Kerensky to parlay."  Phelan gaped at Natasha's statement.  "Dismount your 'Mechs so we can discuss this face-to-face."

"You dismount your 'Mechs, Khan Natasha Kerensky of Clan Wolf."  Star Colonel Lilly McEvedy's voice was dripping with hateful venom.

"You heard the lady.” Natasha said, back on their private frequency.  To his astonishment, Phelan saw Natasha's Dire Wolf OmniMech power down, the armored canopy open.  Sighing in resigned frustration, Phelan likewise powered down and exited his Wolfhound.

They were sixty meters from their 'Mechs, Phelan's skin crawling at the thought of all the firepower pointed their direction and what it would do to their fragile human flesh, when the Wolverine 'Mechs powered down, the warriors dismounting.  The vehicles were still crewed, and Phelan saw armored infantry -- their suits lighter and smaller than Elemental armor, but still appearing formidable -- but at least now the enemy commander and four of her warriors were in the line of fire, too.

Phelan surveyed the enemy MechWarriors as they approached.  All five wore cooling suits not unlike the ones he and Natasha wore.  Nameplates on the right breast showed first and last names.  The emblem of Clan Wolverine adorned the left shoulder; on the right an insignia formed of the old North American state of Minnesota, the number 331, and an overarching banner reading "Remembrance."  All five wore laser pistols strapped to their hips, which brought a tight smile to Phelan's lips.  Nice to know I'm not the only MechWarrior who rides armed.

The seven warriors stopped ten meters apart.  "Speak your piece.” Star Colonel McEvedy said curtly.

For possibly the first time in her life, Natasha was taken aback.  These were, without doubt, Wolverines, far better equipped, trained, and numerous than Clan history insisted they had any right to be.  Of course, Natasha now knew the official story was quite different from the truth, but even Nicholas' journals contained no hint the Wolverines could have survived in sufficient number to rebuild so effectively, two hundred years notwithstanding.

But what really shocked her was the sheer hatred pulsing off these warriors, especially their leader.  Natasha was no stranger to people hating her guts and wanting her to die screaming, but she'd usually met them at least once beforehand.  Star Colonel McEvedy's hate was a palpable thing, and seemed only to grow as she surveyed the patches and insignias on Natasha's cooling suit.

Natasha cleared her throat.  "Are you, truly, the survivors of The N— of Clan. . . Clan Wolverine?" she asked.

"We are.” Lilly answered.


"Your history is lies.” Lilly answered spitefully. "The Annihilation failed, though your Clans, especially Wolf, gave it their all.  Many escaped the murder parties after the final battle was done, scouting task forces and stragglers were missed along the Exodus Road, and Sarah McEvedy was not killed in battle, but marooned at the battle site, after being given a full account of the supposed death of her Clan by Nicholas Kerensky."  Lilly spat the name out as though it were foul-tasting poison.

Natasha nodded.  Much of that lined up with the information in the journals, though much did not.  Natasha supposed that even Nicholas Kerensky hadn't known everything, despite the tendency of some in the Clans to treat him like a prophet and messiah.

"Why have you returned now, after all this time?  What do you want?"

Lilly shrugged.  "Why, after all this time, have the Clans returned to the Inner Sphere?  What do you want?"

"The Crusaders want to conquer the Inner Sphere and restore the Star League.  The Wardens believe it is the duty of the Clans to protect the Inner Sphere from external threats, even the Clans themselves, should we become one."

Lilly smiled sardonically.  "And let me guess:  you count yourselves as these 'Wardens,' query affirmative?"

Natasha blinked at the archaic turn of phrase.  "Aff."

"So this is how you defend the Inner Sphere, by penetrating it harder and faster than any other?  This is how you protect it, by being its most successful conquerors?"

"There's more to it than that.” Natasha snapped, growing irritated.  "The Wolves were forced to take part in the invasion, but by beating the Crusaders at their own game, we've got openings to--"

Lilly held up her hand.  "I really don't care."

"Fine.” Natasha snarled.  "But you haven't answered my question.  What do you want?"

"What we want — what I want — is to force your people to remember us.  I want to take the truth of Clan Wolverine and shove it down your throats until you choke. I want you to look the lies and treachery your perfect society is built on in the eye, I want you to see your 'glorious founder' for the unbridled monster he really was."

Phelan felt his face flush red with rage.  He looked to Natasha, expecting to see her in a similar fury, and stopped, staring.  Natasha's face had drained of color, her jaw slack, her body reeling back as though the words had been physical blows.  "You can't be serious."

"I am, Natasha Kerensky."

Natasha cleared her throat.  "Very well.  I'll take your. . . message back to the ilKhan.  I. . . I'm sure he'll be interested in meeting with you to discuss the matter further.”

Lilly said nothing, just watched the Wolf warriors like a predator, the unsettling gleam of pure hatred simmering in her eyes.

"Then, if there's nothing else, we'll be on our way.” Natasha said, breaking the tense silence.

"There is one more thing.” Lilly said. "You are the same Natasha Kerensky who is the Black Widow of the Wolf's Dragoons, query affirmative?"

"Aff, I am."

Lilly let her gaze roam again over Natasha's cooling suit.  "You proudly display an abundance of spider iconography.  Does this indicate a tie to Clan Widowmaker?"

Natasha nodded.  "Clan Widowmaker was Absorbed by Clan Wolf not long after — well, what happened to your Clan.  There is no shame in acknowledging my descent from them; their Absorption strengthens Clan Wolf."

"Oh, but there is shame.” Lilly replied, her voice seething coldly.  "Clan Wolf may have pulled the trigger, but Clan Widowmaker aimed the gun, and Nicholas Kerensky, whose heritage you also claim, gave the order to fire.  Three times over, you represent that which caused untold suffering to my people.  Natasha Kerensky, Khan of Clan Wolf and descendant of Clan Widowmaker, I, Star Colonel Lilly McEvedy of Clan Wolverine, challenge you to a Trial of Grievance."

Natasha immediately recognized the older, informal version of the Trial was at play, one since technically outlawed but still practiced frequently for minor disputes.  She could refuse.  A matter this important, involving a warrior of her position, was a matter for Grand Council, not a brawl between two warriors.  And Clan Wolverine had no legal standing under Clan law anyway.  But Natasha also realized this Lilly McEvedy had no intention of just letting Natasha walk away. . . not without venting some of her considerable (and not wholly unjustified) rage.

"I accept.” Natasha said.  "As challenger, how shall we fight?"

Lilly grinned wickedly.  "Hand to hand.” she said, unfastening her gunbelt and handing it to the woman next to her, who wore the pins of a Star Captain.

Natasha nodded.  "Very well.  As challenged, I declare we shall fight here and now.  Bring out your warriors to form a Circle of Equals.  Phelan, you play Loremaster."

The Star Captain — Robina MacLeish, according to her nameplate — murmured into her radio, and the vehicle crews dismounted and surrounded the soon-to-be combatants.  Phelan felt a shiver run up his spine at the cold, quiet hatred of dozens of Wolverines directed at the pair of Wolves.

As they stripped off their cooling suits, revealing the tank tops and shorts that were standard MechWarrior undergarments, Natasha sized up her opponent.  She was young, mid to late twenties at a guess.  Lithe and lean, well-muscled but supple as a whipcord, speaking to a training and exercise regimen befitting any Clan warrior.  An ornate tattoo spread across her breast- and collarbones, a curved, sweeping tribal design that framed the crest of Clan Wolverine.  Other tattoos decorated her arms and legs, no doubt meaningful to Lilly McEvedy, nothing but an eyesore to Natasha Kerensky.

It was neither her years nor her fitness that gave Natasha cause for concern.  It was the icy rage burning in her sharp blue eyes.  Natasha liked it when her opponents were enraged, rage made you stupid.  But this woman was in an entirely different state altogether.  She was possessed of a cold, hard fury that made her more dangerous, not less.

Phelan started the fight, and Lilly attacked in a feral frenzy with lethal cunning.  Natasha had long since lost count of the number of brawls she'd been in, but this woman pressed her to her limit.  She had youth, speed, strength, exceptional training, and an unyielding desire to pulp Natasha Kerensky with her bare hands.  Natasha had age and experience.

She spotted the faintest of openings in Lilly's furious assault, struck hard and fast.  All but impervious to pain in her wrath, Lilly kept up her attack, but Natasha's strike had the desired effect.  She'd injured Lilly's right side, her attacks from there were weaker, her guards to there slower.  Fractionally, but it was something, a foundation to build upon.  Natasha kept on the defensive, conserving her strength, letting Lilly wear out her fury.

Lilly recognized the tactic, however, and slowed her attack, refusing to let Natasha exhaust her into defeat.

This whelp is good, Natasha mused.

Natasha began to pant in only mostly-feigned fatigue, goading Lilly into thinking Natasha's strategy had backfired, that she'd worn out herself instead of her opponent.  Sensing victory, Lilly lunged forward to end it.  Natasha met her head-on, seized and twisted—

And Lilly tumbled to the ground outside the Circle, her warriors giving way as their commander landed on her rump in the dirt.

Natasha stood over Lilly.  "It's over."  She extended her hand to the vanquished Wolverine.

Lilly's eyes flashed like PPCs, as if she could fire pure rage and hate at Natasha Kerensky, burn her to a cinder through sheer force of will.  Finally, grudgingly, Lilly accepted the hand, and Natasha hauled the young warrior to her feet.

"Now that's settled, may we depart to deliver your message?"

"Get out of here.” Lilly snarled.  "And don't forget what I've said."

"I won't."

Back in their 'Mechs on their way to the DropShip, Natasha asked Phelan for his read.

"They hate us.  I think Romano Liao has warmer feelings for Justin Allard." Phelan told her

"Sounds about right."

"Is what she said true?  Is the Clan history all lies?" he asked her

Natasha was silent for a time.  "Not for me to say.  We'll see what Ulric wants to do."

"I will bet you all the beer on Tharkad he already has three ways to turn this to his advantage."

Natasha laughed.  "That's a sucker's bet, kid.  What about their leader, what did you make of her?"

"Scary.  Like ‘I’d-rather-go-after-an-Atlas-with-a-slingshot’ scary.  But I like her.  She kind of reminds me of you."

"Bite your tongue, whelp."  But Phelan's jest caused something to click into place, something that had been bothering Natasha since she first laid eyes on Star Colonel Lilly McEvedy.

She was a lot like Natasha had been in her youth. . . and still was, if she was being honest with herself.  And if Natasha put herself in McEvedy's place, thought about what she'd do, what she'd be prepared to do, if Clan Wolf had suffered the fate of Clan Wolverine. . .

Natasha shuddered. The official story of The Not-Named Clan had frightened her back in the sibko.  The reality, and what it had grown into now, was terrifying.

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