[This story is a sequel to “Shadow Thief” but can be read on its own. The minor inconsistencies between the two works result from slightly revising Gwennis’s backstory to convey it more efficiently through dialogue in “Raider in the Snow.”]

Raider in the Snow
By Leslie Roy Carter and Margaret L. Carter

A summons from Legate Rystov ensured that David’s day would not be a pleasant one. A visit to the head office usually meant there was a strong chance of trouble brewing between the Terrans and the Darkovans—and David would have to fix it. Whatever it was, David had no clue. He had no reports of any kind from any source of trouble, which left political intrigue a definite possibility—the Legate’s favorite activity of late. David hated acting as a spy. Rystov’s receptionist waved him through to the Legate’s door.

“There you are, Captain. Just the man who I know can solve our little problem.”

Stopping right in front of Rystov’s impressive desk, David came to attention. “Reporting as ordered.”

“Take a seat. I just got a call from the manager of our ski lodge in the Nevarsin mountains. It seems someone, or something, has been harassing his guests. Thefts of food mostly, which led him to believe it was wild animals, but now the thieves have been stealing valuables from the cabins. The thefts always occur at night. One of the guests surprised the intruder and was mauled. The manager says that incident has unnerved his guests, and they are threatening to pack up and go off world.”

The unhappiness in Rystov’s voice let David know that the real problem was the loss of business in Terra’s only significant import to Cottman IV. Tourism was about the only business the Terrans had managed to establish on the resource-poor planet. The Darkovans were unwilling to import machinery to help modernize their industries, few that they had, and they had banned high-tech weapons.

“Sir, one of the stipulations in the agreement signed by the prior Legate and the Hastur which allowed our off-base presence in the Nevarsins—the establishment of the ski resort—is that the security of the facility will be handled by Darkovan personnel. Specifically, we weren’t allowed a Security Force detachment there to provide protection.”

“That’s correct, Captain. The Guardsman from Lord McAran, whose Domain the lodge resides in, provides the security—only they don’t seem to have a handle on the problem. And to further exacerbate the issue, McAran is dragging his feet because he wants a greater share of the rent we pay the Hastur.”

David looked at his boss with a slow nod. “So you want me to work my relationship with Captain Mikhail Leynier on the Thendara Guard to solve McAran’s Guard’s possible wildlife problem – which could in actuality be the work of McAran’s men.”

Beaming, Rystov said, “See, I told you that you were the man for the job.”

#
Eddard held open the door and bowed his superior officer through. The tavern was a favorite hangout for the Thendara City Guard older cadre. Only a few turned to watch the pair of them enter. The guardsmen lost interest on recognizing David and Eddard, since the two made regular visits. David made his way to their table in the corner near the fireplace, while Eddard walked to the bar and negotiated for their usual fare. Captain Mikhail Leynier stood to greet David.

“You’re not smiling, David. Is something wrong?”

“Scout Eddard thinks we might have an issue to discuss. I don’t suppose he has mentioned anything to you about the thefts at the Nevarsin Ski Lodge?”

Mikhail glanced toward the young scout, who approached balancing three drinks, and he shifted into the corner to clear room for Eddard, pulling David into a seat next to him against the back wall. “No, my cousin has not been speaking to me lately since you have captured his every hour of late. We haven’t seen each other since last month when you brought him here for our cultural rehabilitation session.”

David rescued a tottering, full mug from his assistant and sat down. He grinned at Mikhail, waving the mug at Eddard, and said, “We aren’t making much progress turning him away from your back-country way of thinking, but you are making some inroads with mine. Every time I come here, I learn something.”

“As do I, David. And yes, we have a problem at Nevarsin.”

#
David shifted in his seat. Eddard stared down at the table and frowned. “Our party will consist of myself, Scout Eddard, and Scout Gwennis.”

Glancing at his cousin, Mikhail asked David. “Who is this? Have you brought another Darkovan on board?”

“It’s been cleared by the Hastur.”

“Really? Special case?”

“We caught her stealing on base. She’s working off her debt under my supervision. We noticed she has six fingers like Eddard and red hair. Could she be a distant relative of yours?”

Mikhail snorted. “Six fingers are not prevalent in a lot of comyn families. You know I don’t have six fingers. What is her background?”

“She’s an orphan. Her mother made a meager living as a hedge witch here in Thendara. Gwennis never knew who her father was because her mother would not speak of him. Most likely she is a nedestra offspring of some minor lord. We’ll probably never know. A couple of years ago the mother passed, but not before she trained her daughter, gave Gwennis her starstone.”

Mikhail looked startled and asked Eddard in casta, “She possesses laran?”

The young scout glanced at his senior and replied in the same language. “She knows some tricks, Cousin. She is harmless. After examining her, the tower turned her out. Her ‘starstone’ was a fragment, normally used as a triggering mechanism in a tower-produced lock. It had no real power.”

“And you obviously don’t like her very much.”

David, listening, pretended to study his near-empty mug. Mikhail asked, “Why not?”

“I don’t trust her. She hates the comyn with a passion. She is a guttersnipe and a thief. The Terrans like her because she moves silently and hides exceedingly well. She is intensely loyal to Captain David.”

David allowed himself a hint of a smile. Mikhail switched to Terran. “This mission is going to be hard enough with Lord McAran’s Guard resenting my presence and the two of you bickering. We’ve got to present a united front. Isn’t that right, Captain Fairechild?”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself. I gathered you were discussing Eddard’s discomfiture with Gwennis. This is mostly your show. We are just ‘interested parties.’”

#
Standing just in front of the ski lodge, David concentrated on Mikhail’s animated argument with McAran’s head Guardsman, Captain Reidel. Eddard struggled to translate their conversation. David’s casta was only catching familiar phrases. Gwennis divided her attention between her superior’s actions and Eddard’s words. She apparently knew no casta. David would have to call a briefing among the members of their party to ensure all would have the same intelligence about what was occurring here.

The head Guardsman finally made a gesture of surrender and stalked off. Mikhail turned back toward them, stomping through the shin-high snow. He gestured to the ski lodge’s main hall, which they had just come from when called out to meet McAran’s Captain of the Guard—who refused to parley in front of off-worlders.

Once inside, David led them to a corner fireplace, away from the few curious skiers who had been watching the confrontation from the lodge’s front windows. He waved away the young female Darkovan attendant who had hurried over to see if they needed anything.

David asked Mikhail, “Did we learn anything useful besides that our presence on the mountain was not necessary?”

“Yours or mine? Reidel came prepared to smooth-talk his way around you by saying everything was perfectly normal. That the problem would resolve itself quickly when they had caught the thief, and they did not need any help from outsiders doing so.”

David consulted the palm reader he held low in his lap. “I got the impression that they had more information about the thieves than they were letting on. He kept referring to the Ishcarra, which does not translate in my reader.”

The young scouts exchanged glances, and Gwennis started to speak, but was cut off by Eddard. “Let Captain Mikhail explain that one.”

David stopped Mikhail with a raised hand. “Scout Eddard, let Gwennis have her say. She is a member of our team

“Sir…” Gwennis hesitantly said, ”… that term means …Oh! What is the Terran word – boogey person. Yep, a scary night thing. Adults used Ishcarra to scare their kids and keep them in their beds at night.”

Eddard groaned and held his head. Mikhail chuckled. “She is not wrong, Eddard. You have to admit that is the origin of the word.”

Gwennis smiled, slugging Eddard lightly on the arm.

“But it doesn’t tell our Captain what it means. The thieves are catmen, Captain! They are real!”

David lowered his hand. “Catmen? Really? Our files on your histories speak of them, but we have no evidence that they really exist. No pictures, bones, or preserved bodies. Nothing but legends, folklore. Our scans of your planet show human, Ya-men, kyrri, and bush men—no other humanoids. Other than your people, none of the other bipeds are of Terran descent, so they are most likely native to this planet. If that is so, either you have driven them into extinction, or they are very reclusive creatures—who up till now have managed to avoid all human contact. This leads me to wonder if you are blaming the problem on a member of another species to account for the crimes committed by one of your own.”

Shaking his head, Mikhail said, “I know it could look that way, David, but all you have named do exist. Unfortunately, the catmen have made themselves an enemy to my people, and we have waged unceasing warfare against them. Have we hunted them to extinction? Not deliberately. We value all life, but they have shown no such respect. We have taught them that if they leave us alone, we will leave them alone. Every people have deviants who refuse to follow the rules. We could be dealing with one such creature.”

Glancing around the room, David checked for anyone who might be showing too much interest in their conversation. Other than the servant girl waiting alertly for a signal, no one was watching them. He waved the girl over and ordered a round of jaco.

“So Reidel thinks he has the situation in hand and doesn’t need our help dealing with a person, or persons, who pose a source of trouble for your people. I would say that is reasonable and within treaty limits. The problem still remains—he is not getting anywhere. Did he offer any explanation for his lack of progress?”

“He said …” Mikhail stopped and waited for the servant girl to deliver the drinks to their table. Stirring his jaco, he continued, “… the thief is very elusive. There have been no sightings. He leaves very few tracks and makes no noise. Posting guards around all cabins will require more manpower than Reidel has on hand, and the patrols he is sending out are not finding anything.”

“And how is he going to fix this?”

“He has sent for help, David. They will be here in a ten-day if the weather holds.”

The Terran almost choked on his drink and slowly lowered the cup to the table. “A ten-day? That is unacceptable! Injuries have already occurred, and if this thief ends up killing one of the guests, I will have no good excuse to offer the Legate for wasting time like this.”

Mikhail shrugged an apology.

“And what do you mean, help? He just told us he doesn’t need any help from us or you!” The frustration in David’s voice was turning heads in the lodge.

“Sir …” Eddard cut in, “… Captain Reidel has asked his lord for a Renunciate expert tracker.”

“A tracker? Reidel says the catman doesn’t leave tracks. How is she going to help?” David frowned at Mikhail. “This is getting ridiculous, Captain. We have sensors that I could have brought that would solve this problem yesterday.”

“And your bringing in Terran technology would give the Council an excuse for breaking your lease. Look, David, I know your methods. Until the tracker arrives, we can pull the outlying guests into the main lodge and post the available guards around it. Then your team and I can pursue the thief without fear of Terrans being hurt.”

Swallowing the contents of his mug, David slowly nodded and smiled in agreement. Eddard met his gaze with a worried-looking frown. He must have guessed that was not all of the plan the Scout captain had agreed to.

#
The mountainsides blazed with lights that the manager insisted be kept on despite the total absence of skiers on the slopes. The bright lights exposed much of the snow-covered ski trails and open slopes, but they created more shadows to hide in than the spaces they lit up. No manner of argument David tried would convince the manager that the illumination hampered their search efforts.

Looking around him as they trudged up the trail to the last known position of the thief, David was discouraged by how much traffic had been allowed through the crime scene. He mentioned the fact to Mikhail. “Not much we’ll find here, I suspect.”

“The Guard responded en masse to the screams of the victim. I believe you call it ‘a knee-jerking response.’ They reacted before they thought how best to approach the scene. Afterwards their own tracks pretty much covered any traces that they could have hoped to find.”

David grimaced. “I saw most of that mad rush on the video cameras. It wasn’t pretty.”

Mikhail stopped and shook his head. “I thought the agreement limited your technology. We were not told of these security cameras. I know you have them all around your base, but this site is supposed to be ‘primitive.’”

David chuckled. “This site really is primitive compared to what off-worlders normally expect. Terrans seem to like wandering around experiencing nature in its rawness؅—but they want a record of their adventures. The cameras are much the same as these blasted lights—they make the skiers feel safe.”

“Is that all that you have here to make your people feel safer?”

David sighed. “Yes, Captain, it is. I would have insisted on a full spectrum of security sensors, including infrared. You remember what infrared means—the way those awful banshees hunt their prey. But we don’t have them here.”

“Banshees? Of course, there are banshees present in these mountains, David.”

“No, excuse me, I mean we don’t have infrared sensors here.”

Eddard pulled a device out of his pack. “That’s not quite true, sir.” The instrument was making a beeping noise.

Taking the viewer from his assistant, David instructed him. “This is a communication device, Scout Eddard. It has no IR sensory capability.” David glanced at Mikhail. “You’ve seen me use this several times. It’s what we used to make topo-maps when we searched for Eddard that time at Nevarsin.”

Mikhail nodded.

The screen flickered on, and David studied it for a few moments, frowning. He held it out for his two assistants to see. Gwennis glanced at it and said, “It’s a map, Captain. We’ve already got lots of those.”

With an impatient wave at the screen, Eddard said, “It’s more than a map, Scout Gwennis. This is an actual picture of us standing here. Those white globs are us.” He demonstrated by waving a free arm. One of the globs stuck an appendage out, following suit.

Gazing up at the night sky, Mikhail murmured, “Clever use of your space sensors, David. Nothing that violates the agreement—except the spirit of it.”

Taking the viewer from Eddard, Gwennis walked in an ever-widening circle around their party. She oriented her body toward several of the darkened cabins with the device close to her face and grumbled. “It doesn’t act like a camera, does it? It’s like looking down into a valley from the hills above.”

“You are,” Eddard said smugly. “That picture comes from thousands of feet up. It uses infrared—heat light.”

Glowering, Gwennis shoved the viewer into Eddard’s hand. “I know what heat light is, smart ass. In fact, I know a lot more about than you do.” Apparently realizing what she had just said, Gwennis ducked her head in David’s direction. “Ah, you already taught that stuff to us—both of us. I, um, know how it is used from my mother’s magic.”

David cast her a questioning look, then took the viewer from Eddard. The picture on the screen froze on the last image. “The low orbit satellite’s next pass overhead will come in twenty minutes. I don’t have enough pull to get Sensor Command to position a sensor in stationary orbit. That means we will not have constant surveillance. Still, it’s better than nothing. We need to get to the last crime scene, and I’ll review this data while you all look around and prep the area. Scout Eddard knows where I want the trap set.”

#
The predicted snowfall begin midway through the night. Heavy enough to cut visibility to a hundred paces, it reduced the trail lighting to muted white globes hovering twenty feet above the ground. The hunter’s tracks that they had been examining quickly filled up. The team retreated to the shelter of the nearby cabin.

“There doesn’t seem to be much wildlife in this valley,” David said. “The IR traces from the Guards outside show they’re located where Reidel placed them, but I don’t get any other traces showing up. I would say this valley and the surrounding mountains have been hunted clean. I don’t think there are even any of my friends the banshees.”

Mikhail accepted a cup of jaco from Gwennis. She was pouring the hot drinks from a metal jug she carried in her pack. “Lord McAran has not authorized any hunting by off-worlders on the land surrounding this lodge,” he said. “I am as surprised as you about the lack of game. Maybe that explains why our thieves initially took only food.”

Nodding agreement, David put his cup down to answer the bleep from the viewer. “Another pass coming in.” Studying the glowing screen, he pushed a series of buttons that caused the screen to shift a pattern of red images up above the white blobs. “No movement at all. Nothing has changed.”

“That’s good, isn’t it, sir?” Gwennis chirped.

An anguished scream from outside answered her. The team bolted to the door, led by the drawn swords of Mikhail and Eddard, followed close behind by stunner batons held by David and Gwennis.

They bunny-hopped through the thickening snow toward the high-pitched sound coming from the back of the cabin. Snow was spraying up from the ground in gusts as if something was shoveling it away. The screaming stopped, and Mikhail got hit by a face full of snow. He swung wildly in response. Eddard barely avoided the swing, moving quickly to flank the Guard officer and confront Mikhail’s opponent, and found nothing.

David pulled up on the other side of Mikhail from Eddard with his baton at the ready. He barely had time to look up when the snow on the roof of the cabin billowed out and covered them in a cloud of white.

“Where is it?” Mikhail yelled.

David pointed up. “It’s on the roof—or was!”

The three men scanned the encounter area quickly, but no one spotted the creature. Gwennis stood staring off to the right, her left hand clutching at her chest. With her right hand, she pointed in the direction she was looking toward. “He’s there, there! Crap, he’s fast. Oh wait! He’s gotten away.”

David pulled out the viewer and increased the screen range to show the area within a mile of their location. “Nothing can move that fast, Scout! I don’t see anything moving out there, except…” Looking over his shoulder, he pointed toward the main lodge through the falling snow at the advancing glow of torches. “… for our reaction force.”

Eddard stalked over to the disturbed place in the snow where he had left the bait. He looked over at his Captain and scout-signed that the jewelry was gone. David put away the viewer and asked Gwennis, “Where was he when you last saw him? Maybe he left some tracks this time.”

#
Back in the bar’s only private dining area, the Terran Scout Captain held council with his team. Several pitchers of beer sat upon the table.

Eddard put his mug down with a shake of his head. “Sir, that brooch had a stun trap attached which would take down the biggest trooper in our detachment, and I mean down and out! It didn’t seem to do anything to that creature but provoke it—or should I say, him. If we are to believe Gwennis, who was the only one to see him, or it.”

“I saw a catman, who was obviously male. He looked kinda like you, in a way—same equipment. Same size.” Gwennis giggled, taking a swig of her beer.

Eddard started to retort when David cut him off. “All right, enough of that. Assuming the trap actually went off, we are dealing with an exceptional creature. It may have a different nervous system from ours, since they probably are native to Cottman IV, but our stun weapons work on most of the species we’ve encountered. It may be exceptionally strong. Look at the leaps it made to get away. And it is fast. What worries me most is we now know IR won’t track it, and it appears to be invisible—to almost everyone.” David glanced at Gwennis, who took the moment to hide behind her raised mug. “And they are impossible to track, at least by us. I doubt if the Renunciate tracker we’re waiting for is going to do any good.”

Mikhail slowly pushed his mug around in a circle. He grimaced. “What has our plan to date done for us? There are a few questions we must ask ourselves. Our trap didn’t work, and now the catman has been wounded and angered—at least the scream we heard would indicate that. Maybe it will scare the catman away for good. Or maybe it will make the creature seek help from its tribe and wreak revenge on your ski lodge. Or maybe it could raise all the catmen in this domain and start a war with Lord McAran. Or maybe the Council will cite this as interference in our world and demand the Terrans leave. Where do we go from here?”

“What has our plan done for us? If the creature is truly scared off, the immediate problem is solved. We go home. Is he really scared off, or is he biding time to take any or all the options you listed as ‘maybes’? Terrans have a saying, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’” David signaled for another round. “Ifs or maybes are all the same. We have started something here, but we can’t wait to see if there are consequences. We must find the catman and capture, or kill, him.”

Mikhail nodded, and they both looked at Gwennis reaching for her newly arrived beer. David spoke. “Tell your fellow Darkovans—Captain Mikhail and his cousin Eddard—what you told me when I asked you to join the Scouts.”

Taking a quick drink from her mug, Gwennis glanced fearfully at the Guard captain. “I told him that was not sorry I had stolen from the outworlders because I was starving and needed to survive. I was sorry that I got caught because I let my guard down. Otherwise he would have never got me. This proved that he needed my special skills.”

Glaring at her, Eddard cut in. “You lied to him! You told him you had laran.”

“I do, you comyn snob. Just because you don’t, doesn’t mean I can’t have it.”

“The Keeper of Thendara tower says you’re latent only. There was little to develop in you. Nothing to train. You, you …”

David grabbed Eddard’s raised arm. “Just show them, Gwennis.”

The scowling girl rested her hand on the valley between her breasts and took several deep, calming breaths—then disappeared.

Visibly shaken, Mikhail whispered, “Aldones, how did she do that?”

Eddard stretched out a hand to where Gwennis had been a moment before and received a slap, painfully knocking it aside. The chair she had been sitting in scraped back, and they felt the breeze of someone’s passage.

David smiled at Mikhail. “I caught her stealing from our base exchange a year ago. Used the same trap we tried today, except it worked on her. I thought she was just a stealthy kid good at hiding. Maybe she had psionics and used mind control to make people not see what they were actually seeing. Didn’t know, thought it might be your laran. I turned her over to a rep from Thendara tower, who told us what Eddard just reported. They sent her back. Gwennis apparently fooled their examiner.”

“They don’t have open minds,” Gwennis said, appearing behind Mikhail. “Captain David tells us you have to think out of the box sometimes- they don’t. I do. Simple.”

Mikhail rubbed his face wearily. “I may be guilty of close-mindedness as well, but I won’t try to deny what just happened. How do your ‘special skills’ apply to the catman?”

Gwennis eased around into her chair and picked up her mug, grinning slyly at Eddard. “He’s hiding himself like I do. If I look at him—sorta not focus—I can see him. Can’t do it for long. I get real tired and my mind gets all foggy like if I don’t draw from my stone.”

Eddard guffawed. “That chip! You don’t have a real starstone.”

“Didn’t when you first saw me. Do now. Lot of stones lying around in that tower. I borrowed one.”

Sputtering, Eddard looked at Mikhail. “That’s impossible, sir. You can’t just run off with a starstone…” The Guard captain raised a hand to quiet his comyn cousin. “I know, I know. I should let her talk.”

Gwennis glanced over at David, apparently to see if she had his approval to continue. He nodded. “I’m guessing that the catman gets as tired of holding invisibility without help as I do. So I think he must have a camp someplace where he has a stone he can draw on.” Gwennis looked back and forth at their faces, obviously checking whether her teammates agreed with her thinking.

“I agree.” Mikhail nodded toward David. “It is just as likely that he could be shielded by a shaman if the catman is from a tribe. That might explain why your ‘viewer’ doesn’t pickup his movement in this valley.”

David glanced at Gwennis. “Can you find the catman’s camp? It sounds like an awful lot of work for your ‘foggy brain’ to handle.”

“I can only try, sir!”

#
Using his compass, David sighted along the trail in the snow that they had made earlier to the thief’s last position the night before. He entered the reading into his viewer and extended a line on the map from their present position to the edge of the valley. He recalled the last pass of the satellite and studied the display data. There no strong IR traces along the line. Since the IR scanner didn’t seem to pick up the catman, he had not expected any, but he hoped that if there was a camp ahead, there could be a heat source.

“Nothing.” He showed the viewer to Mikhail.

The Guard captain nodded and said,” If the catman still believes we can’t see him, it is reasonable that he would have fled straight to the safety of his camp. Let’s hope our squinting Gwennis finds something.”

David glanced at his scout. She was indeed staring along the invisible trail with her face scrunched up in concentration. He waved Eddard to a position on her right flank and assumed one on her left. Mikhail trailed behind, turning his head to listen and check their rear. The one thing they were now sure of was that the cartman’s shield did not stop noise. “All right, Scout Gwennis, let’s move out.”

They had slow going in the woods, mainly due to knee-high, unbroken snow impeding them. Last night’s snow had not added much to the accumulated layer, and the accompanying winds had blown much of it off the slopes, where they made better time. It took several hours before they started up a hill rising to a ridge. When Gwennis complained of breathlessness, they paused to rest. David checked the viewer. Still nothing.

“You all right, Gwennis?”

“Yes, sir. Being a townie, I am not as hardy as a country girl.”

Eddard snickered, “You always have an excuse for avoiding field exercises. The only sweating I’ve seen you do is during required PT sessions.”

Gwennis sniffed. “I was hired to be a scout, not a trooper. I’ll leave the combat to you strong male types. I much prefer to observe from the aircar, which by the way, would have made all this effort a lot easier. I… what was that?”

Gwennis cast a sharp glance at the ridge line towering above them. David scanned the area quickly, not expecting to see anything but hoping his ears might pick up something. “Report, scout!”

Gwennis clapped her hands to her head and covered her ears, which seemed irrational, because hearing was the only reliable sense they all possessed. She moaned. David pulled her hands down and shook the girl. Her eyes, unfocused, stared wide-eyed at nothing. “Gwennis, snap out of it!” David shook her again.

The scout’s eyes swiveled to meet David’s gaze and narrowed. “It’s all right, sir. I’m back. Something up there ‘shouted’ and tried to blind me. It knows we’re out here but can’t see us. Sir, I think we’re in big trouble.”

David let go of the frightened woman and sat on a nearby boulder. He checked the viewer, recalled the last minute of data, and grunted at what he saw there. Pointing to the fading glob of light of the screen, David said to Mikhail, “We’ve just been jammed by the catman. I know, you don’t know what that means, but I’ll try to explain. To defeat an enemy you have to apply whatever force you have available to where he is and damage his capability to respond in kind. If he can’t hurt you back, his best option is normally to surrender before you hit him again. Most of the real work in a battle consists of knowing where he is. If he can prevent you from finding him, he’s won his side of the battle.”

Eddard sighed. “I know from reading about radar that there are ways of fooling the sensor and make its reading wrong. If you can’t do that, you can send so much energy back at the radar that its receiver is blinded. That is what you mean by jamming, isn’t it, sir?”

“Correct. The catman is jamming Gwennis, but in doing so he is blinding himself as well. It takes a lot of power to broadcast like he did. Since he stopped, maybe he drained himself.” David stood up and pulled his stunner, allowed only because it was non-lethal, from its holster. “These are not much stronger than the trap’s charge, so at most I can distract him. This is going to be a fight between sword and claw. Gwennis, you stand a good chance of him jamming you and taking you out of fight—as he just demonstrated.”

Mikhail stood also and shifted his sword belt into fighting position. “We don’t have to kill the catman to win this battle, David. He could surrender.”

“Yes, that is true. Remember I said that is usually his best option—if he can’t hurt you back. This one will be more than capable of doing so.”

#
Gwennis clutched the warm stone between her breasts and followed ten feet behind the three men in formation ahead. Captain David had ordered her to go invisible when they entered the gully that led to the opening in the ridge ahead. The team was slowly maneuvering up the path to the mouth of the cave. Through her slightly blurred vision she followed their crouching approach. Heads on the swivel, none of them watching in any one direction simultaneously, weapons at the ready. Mikhail held the center position. Eddard stalked on his cousin’s left flank, careful to stay at least four feet away and at least a foot behind the Guard captain’s advance. David mirrored his scout’s position on the right of Mikhail.

No wind blew on the ridge, and the snow dampened almost all the echoes their movement stirred. David hand-signaled his intent to approach the right side of the entrance and told Eddard to go to the left. Mikhail signed he was ready to enter the six-foot hole. At that signal, David switched on the battle lantern he carried aloft in his left hand, and the three rapidly advanced. Gwennis ran forward to position herself immediately behind David.

The narrow mouth of the cave allowed only one person to enter easily, but it shortly opened into a space at least twenty feet wide and fifty high. The light from David’s lantern seemed soaked up by the black depths of the cave, but some reflected off an assortment of crude furnishings—a stone table and several fur-covered beds. In the rear of the room an opening led farther into the mountain.

Movement on one of the beds drew her eyes. She glimpsed a shape under the fur, centered around a glow she recognized. Before she could shout a warning, her intaken breath caught in panic when a catman stepped from the rear opening. Reacting instinctually, with her mind she reached out for the claw-shaped dagger in the belt around the catman’s middle and willed it to her hand. It flew across the room, leaving a very startled boy gaping at her. Then her mind blanked, and she went blind again.

#
David heard a scream and turned to see Gwennis drop to the ground, clasping a wicked-looking knife to her chest. A flicker out of the corner of his right eye diverted his attention to a catman standing in the opening ahead of him, his arms outstretched as if he had cast something. David started to rush forward when Mikhail, who was still ahead of him, leaped at the catman, swinging his sword. The weapon hit the catman’s head with a solid crunch, and the assailant collapsed to one side.

Eddard lunged forward to finish the catman, but his cousin stopped him. “Enough, Eddard! He’s unarmed.”

“He’s killed Gwennis. I demand revenge!”

“Stand down, scout. He’s done no such thing,” David ordered, holding up the claw-shaped dagger he had just taken from the dazed woman slowly sitting up by his side.

Eddard turned and rushed to help Gwennis to her feet. “But you screamed,” he said.

Pushing his supporting arms away, Gwennis stepped back and pointed at the figure on the bed. “That person ‘jammed’ me again. You’d better check them out before they do it another time! I’m getting awfully tired of that.”

Mikhail glanced up from shackling the unconscious catman and nodded at the bed. “Cousin, I’m rather busy. Please check under the covers.”

Eddard hurried to the bed and yanked back the furs. A white-furred old man stared up at him.

“We surrender,” the old catman whispered in Terran.

#
The three captains watched the aircar’s flight until it disappeared across the valley’s surrounding mountain ridge.

Radiating barely suppressed anger, Captain Reidel said in cahuenga, “Lord McAran is not happy with you taking away his prisoners.”

Speaking in Terran, David turned to Mikhail. “Please explain to the good captain that their crimes were perpetrated on Terran subjects. By an agreement we have signed with the Darkovan Council, we have the right to prosecute Darkovan subjects who commit crimes against our people on our base. Lord McAran has leased this ski lodge to us under that said agreement.” David watched Reidel’s face turn redder as Mikhail translated.

Sputtering in gutter Terran, Reidel faced David. “They are not ‘subjects’ of our lord. They are animals. No rights!”

Replying in casta, David shrugged and said, “We have hunting rights for game taken at the ski lodge. The catmen are ours as trophies, then. Either way, it is a matter for the Council to decide. We have received your complaint.”

Reidel wheeled around and stomped away. Mikhail watched him awhile, then turned to David. “I hope that is the guidance your Legate communicated to you. This does not bode well.”

David put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “This whole problem was caused by McAran. He knew this valley was catman land. He didn’t explain to us what leasing this valley would do to what he considered a bunch of animals. The local tribe lost their food source and, faced with slow starvation, they chose to move. That ancient shaman was too stubborn and ornery to leave his valley, and his grandson refused to leave him when the rest of the tribe migrated. Now I know we are as much at fault as McAran. We accept that and will take care of the old man and his grandson. We’ll get them healthy again, and when they are recovered, my people will relocate them with whoever you choose.”

#
Eddard looked out the window of the ski lodge’s tavern and toyed with his jaco. He saw the captains break up and head back to the ski lodge. Turning, he said to Gwennis, “You really came through for us out there. Those skills of yours probably saved our lives. The way you disarmed that catman was really exceptional. Not a bad day for a lowly guttersnipe.”

Gwennis blushed. “Nah, I coulda got us killed cause I got knocked out. You and your cousin saved the day.” She punched him on the arm. “Not a bad day for a comyn snob.”