The Iron Dragon. Written in association with Kingdom of Candanadium.
#1
The clack of the wheels against the track was oddly reassuring to Hans. It was the only constant in the life of a guard for the Onyx Line, one of the two immense railway lines that ran across Great and Lesser Kaltachia, the other being the famed Intercontinental Line, running from Klettastrond to Fujing and every city in-between. Of course, when you operate a train from one end of Great Kaltachia to the other, from New Konigstadt to Brukallhide, running through the wild stateless lands, you couldn’t get by without some armed protection. The trains of the Onyx Line only had five passenger cars, all with bulletproof glass and thick steel walls, ten weaponized cars that had two machine guns each, and thirty freight wagons, carrying non-perishable goods and natural resources to the isolated Kaltach of the high north. All fresh produce and perishable goods were shipped by air, which made them a luxury good in Jökullheim, but the Onyx Line wasn’t much cheaper. Life in Jökullheim was expensive, period. 


The journey from New Konigstadt to Brukallhide took seven days and six nights, which meant that only one train would run every week. The train would depart New Konigstadt on Mondays, pick up additional shipments of oil and coal at Freigrad in Caskhomir, the last stop before entering stateless territory, and arrive at Burkallhide on Sunday evening, where the locomotive would turn straight around with the passenger cars and Jökullheime goods for export, leaving the station on the following Monday morning. Most of the goods would be unloaded in Old Konigstadt, while the passengers continued on to New Konigstadt. The Onyx Line had a reputation for being on schedule and maintaining protocol, as is the way in Kaltach culture. Ordnung muss sein, one would say in Kanadiaans. Order must be.


The Onyx Line had a reputation to maintain. If that reputation were to be tarnished in any way, then companies would stop investing in the line and using it as the preferred method of shipping goods to Jökullheim. The Onyx Line had never been successfully robbed by raiders, thanks in part to its excellent security team, which recruited from the Candanadian Rangers and the most decorated and renowned regiments of the Defence Forces. The former is where Hans Florian Leifsson hailed from. A Cape Trefjalli from Polaris, deep in the frozen cape, he had never performed well at school, and when it came time for him to do his four years’ national service, he knew that he wouldn’t be leaving because he had found his true calling. After his four years in the regular force was up, instead of filing for discharge he requested a transfer to ranger school in Freigrad, where he had passed with flying colours. He had spent ten years in the stateless lands, bringing the King’s law to hamlets of corrugated iron shacks and makeshift lean-tos and keeping the roads clear of raiders and wildlife, often out in the field for months on end with nothing more than his slouch hat and C70A1. To him, the life of a ranger was perfect, but after ten years in the field, he began considering a more financially lucrative career, which was when he joined the security team for the Onyx Line. Though he was still nominally a member of the CDF, his wages were now being paid by the Onyx Line KGmbH, or Kronegesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung. In Candanadium, the Onyx Line was a crown corporation, nominally owned by the federal government, but the majority of stakeholders were private firms, including some of the biggest names in Candanadian industry. Thus, unsurprisingly, it paid a hell of a lot better than the Defence Forces.


Hans was two days out of Brukallhide on a routine service to New Konigstadt, the thirty-six passenger, freight, and mail cars drawn by a fearsome Jökullheime locomotive, the Iron Dragon, emblazoned with the diamond flag of Jökullheim and the crowned tri-maple of Candanadium between the blue eagle of the Kaltach Union, and its signature ornamental snowplow, shaped like a beast from Jökullheime legend, inspired awe in all who beheld it. The passenger cars were equally luxurious, three double-decker cars of sleeper compartments and another for the crew and security team, with a dedicated dining car as well. At the tail end of the train was a carriage of the Royal Candanadian Post, with an open balcony for a guard to keep watch, which is where Hans found himself today on his break, his old C70A1 slung over his shoulder and a woollen hat covering his head, with his Ranger slouch hat with the maple and sword badge over it. It was early in the evening now, and the sun setting on the horizon across the fields of Great Kaltachia, filling the sky with clouds of gold, purple, and red as the train thundered past dark pine forests, further and further west. 


Hans took out a pack of cigarettes and attempted to light one, but the flame of his lighter sputtered and died in the sharp winds. He cursed, and mentally kicked himself for not remembering to buy a better lighter in Brukallhide before they had left. Then again, it wasn’t like he had much downtime anyway, as he only had Sunday evening to himself before having to set off again on Monday morning. He worked two weeks on, two weeks off, so that the Onyx Line would not have to fly him from his home in New Konigstadt to the other end of the line at the end of his weeks off and so that there would always be fresh guards on the train. Now that the Iron Dragon was pointed west again, he was looking forward to some time away from the cold and the boredom of the patrols. It was an important job, but walking down a train full of mundane cargo got old real fast.


“You need light cousin?” Hans was startled by his Jökullhieme colleague, whose birth name was long and guttural, so everyone called him Klaus because he bore resemblance to a Jökullheime saint of that name. Unlike that saint, he did not bring gifts to well-behaved children but instead brought regret to would-be raiders. He spoke to Hans in Kanadiaans, which he was trying to learn, though Hans could fully understand the Jökullheime dialect of Trefjalli, being from the Northern Cape. Both accents were equally incomprehensible for someone from Fort Trefton or Berganes, however.


Danke, Klaus.” Hans leaned in with his hands cupped around his cigarette. There were fifteen guards on the Onyx Line at all times, and they took breaks three at a time. The third man, a quiet Caskhomirian named Lodewyk, or Lood for short, was probably back at his berth. He never interacted much with the rest of the crew except at mealtimes and occasionally joined them for a game of cards.


“No problem cousin.” Klaus used his lighter to light Hans’ cigarette and then his own. He took a long drag and blew a ring of white smoke into the great wasteland that stretched for miles. “You know, once this was all Jökullheim, before the Fall, the death of Aljax.” 


“Before you northerners got too bold.” Hans produced a smoke ring of his own. Although they might not look the part, Jökullheimers were notoriously romantic about their past, as martial and chaotic as it was. Klaus’s face became sour. “Come now, there are other things to talk about. You know what they’re putting in these carriages?” Hans gestured to the train with his thumb.


“What, canned peas, flour, and hrútspungar?”


“No shit, but did you see what else they were loading up? Bunch of crates with ‘FRAGILE’ and ‘DIPLOMATIC BAGGAGE’ stencilled all over them.” Hans had seen these crates loaded at the station in Brukallhide. They were the last ones on the train and were tagged to be unloaded as soon as they entered Candanadian territory. “You ever seen anything like that?”


“No cousin, I have not. What is the big deal? Diplomats wants Jökullheime produce, perhaps.” Klaus had made a mistake with his conjugation, but Hans didn’t bother correcting it.


“Nothing, just thought it was weird.” Hans took one last drag of his cigarette and flung it onto the tracks. “I’m freezing my balls off here. I’m heading back inside.” But as he turned to open the door to the mail car, Klaus grabbed him by the shoulder.


“Do you see that?” Klaus pointed at a dark patch about five hundred meters away. He had his rifle slung across his chest and was bringing it up to look through the scope. The rifle Klaus carried was of a Jökullheime make, a semiautomatic chambered for the ridiculously large .338 Jökullheim Magnum round, all wood and metal, nothing like Hans’s C70A1 that he had bought from the Forces after his discharge, which was mostly polymer and was chambered in the Kaltach Union standard of 5.56x45. Hans had joked that Klaus was compensating for something until he had seen the man dump an entire mag from the rifle without even flinching. Klaus was a hard and serious man, rarely messing around, so Hans immediately turned and fumbled for his binoculars. Sure enough, a trio of snowmobiles emerged from the woods, speeding along the tracks. Three men were perched upon each one, some with axes, some with long knives, and some with rifles. The snowmobiles were gaining on them, and Hans dropped the binoculars.


Scheiße! Raiders! Sound the alarm!” Hans had switched back to Trefjalli. There was no time to be learning about the genitive case or Kanadiaans word order when their lives were on the line. He yelled into his radio on his shoulder. “Hafthor! Well equipped raiders about half a klick out!” Hafthor was the lead guard on this train, a Trefjalli who had served with the Oseanian Mountain Divisions.


“I hear you. Hans, Klaus, get to car 20 at once. Hold your ground until I give the all-clear. Under no circumstances must any items from car 20 be lost.” The reply came much quicker than he anticipated.


Jawohl. We’ll do it.” Hans slung his rifle across his chest as well as Klaus took aim with his, snapping off a few rounds as Hans made his retreat. Known colloquially as the “Icebreaker”, Klaus’s IK23 was developed during the Second Crisis for use by the Flammenkorps and had a sixteen round magazine, making it a monster of a gun that was a sight to behold. Klaus had customized it during his time in the FK with a metal bar shaped to guard his hand and a modified stock with a heavy pommel at the end, for when things got too close for comfort. That pommel wasn’t just to look nice either, Hans knew, as he had seen Klaus drop many a brigand with a meaty whack. Klaus had also engraved a name on the shell ejection slot, in High Kaltach runes: Brunhilde


“Klaus, how many gods are there in Jökullheim?” Hans yelled as he sprinted down the narrow gangways running alongside the oil-carrying tanks of cars 35 to 25, Klaus keeping pace behind.


“Just the two, why?” Klaus shouted back over the wind, the sound of the train, and the revving of the snowmobile engines.


“Do they often listen?” 


“Yes?”


“Do you mind giving me a letter of recommendation if I don’t make it through this?” 


“Will not be necessary, but okay.”


Danke, Klaus.” They came to the car that held ammunition and supplies for the crew, car 24, and Klaus grabbed an ammo box labeled in Trefjalli: Fyrir Brunhilde. They raced past the three remaining oil tanks, coming to car twenty. The cargo wagons all had a walkway running through them for easy access for the crew, and the goods were stacked on the two sides. Hans took up a position at one end of the car, at the small platform between car twenty and nineteen, while Klaus took the other side.


“On your left!” Klaus yelled as he squeezed off a couple of rounds and ducked back in to reload. Hans peeked out of his cover and peered down the iron sights of his rifle. He took aim at the engine of the snowmobile and popped off three rounds in rapid succession. The driver veered his snowmobile closer to the train in response, close enough that the two men on the back were able to grab on to the side and haul themselves up the side.


“Halt!” Hans cried out, shooting one of them in the arm. The man yelped in pain and swung wildly at Hans with his axe, forcing him to back up. The other man had hauled himself up, shotgun in hand, which Hans now found himself staring down the barrel of.


“That’s enough now.” The man’s accent was even more guttural than Klaus’s. He was dressed in a faded camouflage jacket, patched with a motley of scraps on the arms and down the sides. Hans looked up at the man and realized that his jacket wasn’t just patched with regular scraps of cloth. Instead, it was patched with unit patches and decorations from various armies and countries. The trident of the Oseanians, the double-headed Alaykan eagle, the tree of Trefjall, even the crowned moon-and-star of the old Dominion of Edofasia. Hans kept his rifle at his side, waiting for an opportune moment to strike.


“This train and its contents are property of the King of Candanadium. By boarding it and attacking its crew, you have declared yourself a direct enemy of His Majesty the King and I am authorized to use lethal force should you continue your assault upon-” Hans was cut off by the man spitting out his chewing tobacco right in his face. Rage burned inside him, but he forced himself to maintain his composure.


The man let out a sharp laugh. “Nice hat, soldier boy. Maybe I’ll take it for myself.” He snatched Hans’s slouch hat off of his head and held it up to inspect it. Hans gritted his teeth and brought up his rifle, smashing the man square in the face with the stock. The man let out a surprised yelp and dropped his shotgun in shock, as Hans grabbed his knife from his belt and stabbed the man in the shoulder, which brought the man to his knees. Hans snatched his slouch hat from the man’s other hand.


“This is for the Forces.” Hans held his knife to the man’s throat and was about to jerk his arm back before the man reached for his own knife, smashing Hans to the ground and pinning him there. He had a good fifty pounds on Hans, and his knife was now inches away from Hans’s face. His teeth were bared in a snarl, his face a mask of fury and unbridled rage. Hans was staring death in the face, and he fought with every ounce of his strength to try and shift the man, to no avail.


“I would put down that knife, árásarmaður.” A large mass suddenly appeared in front of them, his pistol pointed at the man’s head. The man looked up and got off of Hans, raising his hands but not dropping the knife.


“Can I li-” Klaus cut him off with a .45 hollow point round right above his right eyebrow. The man’s body went limp and he crumpled over on the ground next to a supply crate, staining the crate with his blood. Klaus picked the body up and leaned it against another crate as Hans regathered his slouch hat and placed it once more on his head, adjusting the strap, and re-engaged the safety on his C70A1. Somehow, during the fight, the big man had pulled his scarf over his mouth and his traditional Jökullheime snow goggles over his eyes. They were made out of whalebone and left a slit for the wearer to see through, limiting their field of view but effectively preventing snow blindness. The combined effect was terrifying, which was intentional. The two items were issued to most soldiers in the Jökullheime forces, especially the Flammenkorps, for the intimidation factor. The Jökullheime took psychological warfare very seriously, and in blood-spattered dark uniform, Klaus looked like an avatar of death itself, cold and formidable.


“You okay cousin?” Klaus put his hand out to help Hans up. He had knelt down to inspect the dead raider’s body. In the stateless settlements, he often had to play the role of sheriff, judge, and undertaker simultaneously, and he was trying to piece together a backstory from the patches the man had sewn onto his jacket and the items he had on him, like he had many times before. The man had been carrying a small money pouch (which Hans slipped into one of his own pockets), another knife (presumably a last-ditch weapon),  a silver bracelet, and a small wooden carving of a wolf. Another silver bracelet was coiled around his right arm. He’d come back later, Hans decided, and do a more thorough search when his heart stopped racing.


“I’m fine, Klaus, just a little rattled.” Hans brushed some stray grey matter from his jacket. He paused. “What happened to the raiders from the other snowmobile?”


“If you want to sleep tonight, don’t go to that side of the car.” Klaus shrugged. “Got too close, had to use the axe.”


Du Hurensohn, Klaus. You mad son of a bitch.” Hans shook his head. “I’m not helping you clean it up. You can keep what you find on them.” The crew usually divvied up among them whatever meagre loot there was to be found on failed raiders, even though the practice was not officially condoned by the Onyx Line. Who would stop them, out in the wild lands? 


“You might want to wash your face before you head back to barracks.” Klaus gestured to his own face. Hans felt his cheek, and his fingers came away stained with red. He groaned in disgust. Klaus handed him a handkerchief that he had in his pocket, and Hans used it to wipe off some of the blood on his face. He’d have to wash it off later, but there were more pressing matters to deal with right now. They heard a groan that reminded them of the fourth and final member of the boarding party, the man that Hans had shot in the arm. It seemed that Hans’ round had deflected off the man’s bracer and into his stomach. Even so, he hadn’t lost his grip on the train, and, at some point, had flopped himself onto the small platform at the end of the car, where he remained, still alive but wriggling and groaning on the floor. As Hans and Klaus neared him, they heard him mumbling something in Trefjalli.


“Wasn’t paid enough for this shit. Was only supposed to be people guarding this train, not an eldpúki and a fucking Candanadian Ranger.” He spat the word out like it was a curse. 


“Paid?” Hans recognized the other word as a derogatory term for the Flammenkorps, but ignored the insult to both himself and Klaus. “Tell us and we’ll see to it that you receive asylum in Candanadium.” That was a blatant lie, but Hans knew that they could probably stabilize the man’s condition and ease his passing somewhat. Hafthor the mountaineer had served as a medic’s assistant in the Forces and knew a thing or two about battlefield injuries.


“Just put one between my eyes and be done with it.” The man coughed up some bloody spittle.


“That’s not how we do things in the Rangers.” Hans knelt down and took out a field dressing from his duty belt, but the man swatted his hand away.


“You know better than to fuck with a dying man.” He coughed out between throaty laughs. “Asylum isn’t worth anything to a corpse”.


“You’re right. You called my bluff.” Hans backtracked. “You’re going to die no matter what. The thing is, though, I could give you enough morphine for you to die on the most exuberant high you’ve ever felt, or I could have my friend here make it last as long as possible. The choice is yours.” Hans gestured to Klaus, who cracked his knuckles.


“I know about you maple men, and all your rules. Your code of honour says you can’t do that.” He said the word in a mocking tone with a blood-stained full-toothed grin.


“You’re right again. My friend, however, doesn’t follow that code.” And Klaus tapped the phoenix emblem on his jacket. “One more time. Tell us who paid you, and we can avoid all these unpleasantries.”


“Some guy… he was wearing a great big coat, with a strange cross. He paid us to go steal from car twenty.” the man coughed up more blood, then continued. “He said that security would be lax, nothing to worry about.”


“Well evidently, he’s a better liar than I am.” Hans said as he got up. “How much did he pay you?”


“Five grams of gold for each of us, when we got the job done.” Five grams! That was only 150 gold marks, or less than 270 thalers. These men were risking their lives for maybe three hours’ worth of Hans’s wages.


“There had to have been some kind of advance payment.”


“In my left boot.” The man made a weak attempt to gesture to it. “Gold’s no good to a dead man, it’s yours once you give me the morphine.”


“Do you have any more information on the man who paid you?”


“Had a funny accent. Not like yours, even stranger. Hid his face.” The man’s speech was becoming slurred. “What about that morphine?” He managed, weakly.
 
“Don’t have any.” Klaus stepped forward.


“What?!” The man mustered a weak cry.

“I said that I don’t have any, did that round hit your ear?”


“Well at least give me mercy!”


“Mercy is only for those that give it.” Klaus stuck out his leg and was about to kick the man off the train, but Hans held out his hand and stopped him.


“Enough, Klaus.” He reached into the small medkit on his duty belt again and drew out his only syrette of morphine, which he plunged into the man’s upper thigh. The man threw his head back and sighed in pleasure as the drug numbed his senses. “In the name of His Majesty, Richard-” Klaus nudged him.


“Herman now.”


“-Herman von Magnar, third of his name, by the Grace of Eostre and the Gods of Oseania, King of Candanadium and her dependencies and Chief of Jokullheim, I, Ranger-Sergeant Hans Florian Leifsson of the Candanadian Army Rangers, with this man as my witness-" he gestured to Klaus, "-sentence you to death for armed robbery of a vehicle and attacking soldiers of the crown. If you have any final words, now is the time.” He recited the words without emotion. Most rangers, when operating in the stateless lands, didn’t bother to go through the proper protocols to carry out the King’s justice. Hans was not like most rangers. He took the safety off of his rifle.


“I’ll see you in hell.” The man’s words were barely audible over the howling wind.


“May Eostre have mercy.” He pulled the trigger. Klaus cursed under his breath.


“Waste of morphine.” Klaus moved to pull off the raider’s left boot, shook it, and out dropped a small brown paper package. He handed it to Hans, who tore open the brown paper and spilled the contents into his palm. There was one small nugget of gold, and three worn, folded paper bills. He unfolded them and counted them in his hand.


“Ten gold marks, twenty gold marks, ten ravens.” He handed the gold nugget to Klaus, and tucked the bills away into his own pocket. “Let’s head back to barracks before Hafthor comes looking for-” Klaus interrupted him.


“Speak of the devil.” Hans turned around and saw the Trefjalli man come thundering down the train, rifle in hand. He used the older C53, the piece that he had been issued in the forces.


“You’re alive, how about that.” He shouldered his rifle. “Sitrep?”


“Had visual on three raiding parties mounted on snowmobiles, only two boarded successfully. All four hostiles dispatched with minimal resistance.” 


“Witnesses and survivors?” Hafthor had pulled out his pocket notepad.


“The drivers got away, plus the three on the third snowmobile. Unsure if they saw the fight.”


“Motivation?” Hafthor flipped to another page. 


“Hired guns, mercs. They were desperate. According to this one here, they were only paid five grams apiece. They were specifically told to target car 20 though.” Klaus kicked the body of the recently deceased raider. He was much more eloquent in Trefjalli to the extent that he sounded like a different man. 


“So who hired them?” Hafthor looked up at them, his brows furrowed. 


“We couldn’t get a concrete answer, only that he was not a native.” 


“He described him as wearing a coat with some sort of cross device, and that he hid his face.” Hans added. “Not much to go on, I know, but disturbing nonetheless.”


“Disturbing is the word for it.” Hafthor scribbled furiously. “Five grams? These people are risking their lives for five grams?” He shook his head again.


“You almost feel bad for them.” Hans shot Klaus a glare. Sometimes the big man surprised him. He’d never met someone with such a lust for battle and violence, to the extent that he would probably be turned away by the CDF on mental grounds if he were ever to enlist. The Code of Honour for the CDF required soldiers to respect a fallen foe and to fight with valour, bravery, and professionalism, not lust and passion. People like Klaus were part of the reason why Candanadium lost the Second Crisis. Diehards, psychopaths, and fanatics had no part in the modern Candanadian military.


“What’s done is done, I suppose. Klaus, you’re on cleanup duty. Hans, go clean yourself up.” Hafthor scribbled some more, and closed his notepad. “I don’t want to see any loot being passed around. You know the company doesn’t like that shit.”


“Thanks, vinur.” Hans slapped the Trefjalli man on the back and turned back round to Klaus. He didn’t address Hafthor as his cousin, like Klaus might have done, as the expression was outdated at best and belittling at worst in the western part of Kaltachia. In Jökullheim, though, it was a term of endearment and respect, and though it still sounded strange to Hans, he had gotten used to it coming from Klaus.


The big man was collecting his rifle from where he had placed it against the train. He had switched to his hatchet when the raiders had gotten too close. As Klaus shouldered the rifle, Hans spied the runes engraved on the ejection slot again, which suddenly piqued his curiosity.  “Klaus, how do you know High Kaltach? Do they teach it in school in Jökullheim?” In Candanadium, High Kaltach was taught as part of the Kaltach classics. Students also had to learn the other official language of the federation, the one that they didn’t speak, or, if they were bilingual, another language of their choosing.


“No, only nobles are taught the tongue of the ancients.” Klaus paused. “Nobles like me.” 


Ach.” Hans was about to turn around to go, but he suddenly realized what Klaus had just said. “Wait, what? You’re nobility?”


“Yes?” Klaus was unusually meek.


“How come you’ve never brought it up before? What are you then? An earl? A Fürst? A Herzog?” In the Candanadian dialect of Trefjalli, the titles of nobility were the same as they were in Kanadiaans. Hans had no clue if that was the case in Jökullheim, but those were the only words he knew for them.


“A chiefsson, heir to a seat on the Council.” 


Mein Gott, and they let you do this?” Hans gestured wildly to the items around them and the corpses on the ground.


“I am also a bastard. I have to prove myself before I can take my father’s place.”


“They let bastards inherit titles in Jökullheim?” That was unthinkable in Candanadium. There was a conspiracy theory surrounding King William IV’s heritage. Grandfather of King Herman, he was rumoured to be his uncle’s bastard child, his uncle being the famous Prince Henry, the Peacemaker, who brought Belkhomir fully under the crown. That would have disqualified him and his descendants from donning the crown, but even after he released his DNA test results, the rumours never fully went away.


“If they’re the only male heir, yes.” 


“Who is your father, if you don’t mind me asking?” Hans was genuinely curious.


“Erik.” 


“What-” It took Hans a second to realize the importance of that name. “The Erik? The late Oberjall?”


Ja.” The big man’s one-word answers startled Hans. This was not like him at all.


“So you’re Chief Klaus Eriksson. Fuck me.” He shook his head in disbelief. “But now that he’s dead, why aren’t you taking your seat on the Council?”


“Have to prove myself. And I do not wish to have an intimate relationship with you cousin.”


“Yeah, well neither do I. So this is your proving ground, eh?” Hans was suddenly taken aback. “Wait, was that a joke? From you, of all people?”


Ja” Klaus smiled.


Gruß den Teufel. This day just gets better and better. I swear, if I see a flying pig, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Hans couldn’t help but shake his head again. “But that still doesn’t explain who Brunhilde is.”


“My mother, who raised me in a small town about 100 kilometres from Burkallhide.” Klaus paused once more. “She is the one who urged me to join the FK.”


"I'm assuming she's with the Lord now." Hans could tell from the pause that the memory was heavy for Klaus.


“She was a fighter, but in the end she was killed by disease.”  


"Must have been a remarkable woman." Hans turned to go again, but remembered something else. "Does anyone else in the crew know about this?"


Klaus’ eyes narrowed. “No, and it will stay that way.”


“Of course.” Hans turned away again and tipped his slouch hat. "You know where the cleaning supplies are, so I shall be going now. Pray excuse me, mein Herr von Jökullheim." 


“Hans, say that again, and I will throw you off this train.” 


“Is that another joke?”


“No.” 


Zum Befehl, mein Herr." And Hans bolted down the cars of the train in the most un-ranger like fashion as the big man roared in anger. Perhaps it was the residual adrenaline from the fight, or he was just going stark raving mad. Either way, Hans knew that he was alive, and that he was damn glad it was that way.
Brukallhide
Several months later


Hans inspected himself in the hotel mirror. He hadn't had the need to wear his dress uniform since attending the funeral of one of his fellow Rangers, and putting it on again, he was suddenly reminded of how treacherous and dangerous the life he led was. He was wearing the Rangers' tie, of black and blue stripes, the opposite of the Army colours of white and red. His medals were pinned to his dark green jacket, with his ceremonial sergeant's red sash over his right shoulder. The slouch hat was a must, but this one was of a higher quality, made of felt and in the same dark green shade as the jacket, and a sash of a lighter green. Even the ranger badge was of polished brass instead of the matte black metal of the one worn in the field. His duty boots were replaced with high brown leather riding boots, as shined as they could ever be. The sabre was another component unique to the dress uniform. His was plain, but it still carried with it a certain prestige, as non-commissioned officers were not usually issued sabres. That was reserved for commissioned officers, and regular Ranger simply carried a ceremonial bayonet, engraved with the royal cypher. His sabre was awarded for 15 years of service, which had passed during his last time back home in New Konigstadt. The Crown Commissioner for Caskhomir had presented it to him, as the representative of the Rangers' honourary colonel, the Governor General of Caskhomir, given their roots in Caskhomirian tradition. On his lapel was the most recent addition to his honours, the Black Diamond sigil of the Onyx Line, crowned by a silver wreath, marking him as a distinguished guard of the Line. That had come shortly after his latest escapades with Klaus. 


On the subject of Klaus, today was the day that the big man would be formally addressed as a chief. Hans had received a formal letter of invitation in the mail some time before, while on leave in New Konigstadt. The Government of Jökullheim had paid for him to fly all the way out to Brukallhide from New Konigstadt, in business class too, to attend Klaus’s formal installment ceremony. Klaus had written the letter of invitation himself, in a hand that was much neater than Hans expected. He was living the high life in Burkallhide, showered with luxuries at the expense of the Jökullheime taxpayer. The hotel room and its minibar was complementary, as was the chauffeur from the airport and a personal butler and valet. Klaus had invited him to spend both weeks of his break here, and it was hard to turn down the offer. Hans hadn’t experienced such luxury in, well, ever. He’d never spent more than one night in the city, and that was spent either in the crowded Onyx Line crew dormitory at the train station or at a cheap bed-and-breakfast down the street. He never knew what he was missing out on until now.


Hans adjusted his slouch hat one more time, donned his greatcoat, and strapped on his sabre over it. He glanced down at his watch. Half past eight. Perfect timing. He checked himself once more in the mirror and made sure his kit was properly fitted, and made for the door. The hotel was not a large one, with only three floors, but each one was as lavishly furnished as the next. Hans descended the great staircase near the lobby, and tipped his hat at the receptionist as he walked through the heavy double doors into the cold of Brukallhide. Fortunately, he would not have to endure the weather for long, as a white-gloved valet was waiting in front of a luxury sedan with a sign that read Ranger-Sergeant Leifsson. He nodded to the valet, who opened the door for him. He climbed aboard and the door was shut behind him. He had lost the habit of opening and closing doors, since it seemed that he had no need to do so while a guest of the Chiefs of Jökullheim. The sedan took off into the streets of Brukallhide, narrow and still paved with ancient cobblestones, reminiscent of the old town of Trefshire or one of the western Candanadian cities. Indeed, in many aspects, Jökullheim was still years behind the rest of Kaltachia. In other parts, however, change was evident. Buildings of concrete were replacing the wooden longhouses, and a new meeting house for the Chiefs was being constructed out of black marble, its dome rising above the unassuming skyline. Power lines spiderwebbed between the buildings, sometimes even haphazardly so, as naked lightbulbs replaced tall tallow candles and paraffin oil lamps. The city was on the path of progress, advancing steadily, and Hans was seriously considering buying property here, especially when it was so cheap. At this rate, it was bound to be a good long-term investment.


The car arrived at the black marble capitol, and he stepped out into the brisk winter air. He walked in the oaken doors, a marvel in itself, as Jökullhime was essentially barren of all plant life. An usher showed him to his seat, with another neat placard with his name inscribed upon it. He was right next to the main aisle, and to his right was a man wearing a double-breasted jacket laden with medals and a pickelhaube. Hans scanned the man’s medals, then realized that he was another man of Candanadium, and of the CDF too. The man’s uniform indicated that he was a marine, not a soldier, sailor, or airman, and a lieutenant. Still, he outranked Hans, and so he clicked his heels and saluted.


“Ranger-Sergeant Hans Florian Leifsson of the Candanadian Army, sir.” Hans switched to Kanadiaans. The man rose to his feet as well and returned the salute, then held out his hand.


“At ease, sergeant.” Hans shook the lieutenant’s hand. “Are you also here as part of His Majesty’s foreign service?”


“No, sir. I was invited by our new Chief. I had the honour of serving with him on the Onyx Line.”


“Ah yes. I had heard of a ranger serving on the line. Your escapades have been the talk of the embassy for the past few weeks.” The lieutenant laughed.


“The embassy? Are you serving with the protection department, sir?” Every Candanadian diplomatic mission had a military attache of some kind, and a small squadron of Candanadian troops to serve as security.


“Not exactly. I happen to have the honour of being His Majesty’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Chiefdom of Jökullheim and to the Council of the Chiefs of Jökullheim.” Hans’s mind suddenly went blank again, like when Klaus had revealed his true identity to him.


“Wha-Your highness. Pardon me, I didn’t realize.” He bowed slightly. His initial orders to serve on the Onyx Line were signed by the ambassador, whom he recalled as Prince Gerhardt von Magnar. His service passport had also accredited him to the embassy in Brukallhide, issued by Prince Gerhardt as well. 


“No harm done, sergeant.” The Prince gestured for Hans to sit. “It seems the ceremony is about to begin.” Hans removed the paper placard and placed it under his seat, then sat down just as a masked priest walked down the main aisle, carrying a copy of the Book of Flame. Hans spied Klaus sitting at the high table, sticking out like a sore thumb in his military kit among the chiefs clad in the traditional white furs. In front of them was a lectern with the diamond of Jökullheim on the front, which the priest was now standing behind, with the Book of Flame open before him. 


“My Chiefs, my lords, and gathered guests. We are gathered today to welcome to the Council of Chiefs a member most formidable and renowned, of great lineage. Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson, known to some of you as Klaus Eriksson, is the son of our late Oberjall. He comes before you, and the Lord, today to prove his worth as a Chief of Jökullheim. Let all present bear witness.” The priest flipped open his copy of the Book of Flame. “For the Lord once said unto Wilhelmus, ‘let none claim dominion over my lands, except for those who, in my sight, have proven their worth.’” The chiefs banged their fists against the table in approval as the priest gathered his book and bowed to a chief who had now risen, with an oaken poleaxe in hand.


“Who comes forth to the Chiefs of Jökullheim?” His voice boomed throughout the hall as he banged his poleaxe against the ground thrice. He spoke in High Kaltach, though with a thick Jökullheime accent.


“I, Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson, have come to claim my seat on the Council.” Klaus’s reply was equally deafening. He was on his feet now as well, facing the big chief.


“Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson. By what rights do you claim a stake in this Council?”


“I have come to fill the place of my sire, Erik Frostbjorn, Oberjall. I have done a great deed in his name, and I call upon this man as my witness.” Klaus drew his axe and pointed it at Hans. The chiefs clamoured in approval.


“Who comes to prove the worth of Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson?”


“Hans Florian Leifsson, son of Candanadium in the west. I come to prove the honour of Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson.” Hans had rehearsed Klaus’s full Trefjalli name for days beforehand. There was a good reason he called him Klaus normally, because it was a mouthful, even for him.


“Hans Florian Kándalandsson. What say you?” A chill ran down Hans’s spine. It was one thing to pronounce a man a murderer in a shantytown out in the Caskhomirian desert, another to deliver a speech in High Kaltach in front of the Jökullheime nobility.


“Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson. Stalwart guardian of the Line, scourge of the wastes, bandit’s end, and a man I am proud to name my brother has defeated a man twice his size in single combat. He has saved the lives of many of his Kaltach brethren, and served Kaltachia well. He is formidable and fearless in battle, a lordly man, and a man worthy of the great Council of the Chiefs.” Hans drew his sabre and held it in front of his face. “This I swear, once in the name of our Lord of Flame, twice on my honour as a Candanadian Ranger, and thrice in the name of the King of Candanadium.” A thrice-sworn oath was the most sacred oath one could swear in the Candanadian custom, three being Eostre’s number, and was reserved only for weddings and other significant occasions. The chief with the poleaxe banged it three times again.


“The Lord shall judge whether you speak true, Kándalandsson Hans. My Chiefs. Has Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson proved himself in the name of our fallen brother Erik Oberjall?” He turned to address the chiefs robed in white at the table.


“Aye!” Came the resounding cry as the hall broke into applause. Hans could see the big man beaming, even from where he was sitting. 


“The Chiefs have spoken. Let it be done.” The man with the poleaxe decreed. Another chief approached Klaus and bade him to kneel, and draped a white cape over his shoulders.
   
“Rise, Konrickalsnalordaernöjsok Eriksson, Chief of Jökullheim.” The crowd rose to their feet as Klaus bowed before the gathered chiefs, then to the crowd.


“And now for the secondary ceremony.” One of the chiefs stood.


“Ranger-Sergeant Leifsson, you have, by following your code of conduct, Proven your worth to be an honorary Jökullheimsson and bear the black furs of Kommandant of the recently formed Outlander division, those who make the path, who tame the wastes. Do you accept?” The man thundered. 


“I thank you, noble Chiefs, but I am a servant of the Candanadian Crown. I cannot bear this honour. Perhaps it will go to one more worthy.” This came as a shock to him. Klaus had mentioned that the chiefs were planning on bestowing some kind of honour upon him, but he hadn’t expected that they would consider him worthy of such a high honour. 
  
“All is forgiven, Ranger-Sergeant.” The man produced an oaken box. “We have one more relic to offer you. Take this, and bear it with honor, Brother.” He opened the box, and within lay a Jökullhime Axe, simple yet elegant. “It is weighted so it will fly true, and made so that it will always keep its edge.” Another chief stood, and wrapped a sheath around Hans’ waist. The first chief secured the axe to the sheath, and both chiefs stood. A third chief draped a grey fur cloak over his shoulders, then retired to his seat.


“What say ye, chiefs? Is this Ranger worthy of kinship?” The first chief roared.


“AYE!” Was the resounding cry. Hans felt an immense feeling of pride swelling inside of him, as he clicked his heels and saluted the chiefs, who rose and saluted in return. The Jökullheime did not bestow their axes upon outsiders lightly.


“I thank you, brothers. It is my honour to be tied to this land, and I am grateful that you have decided to honour me this way.” Hans managed to muster.


“The Line is a challenge for any man of the north, let alone a Kándalandsson. Your honourable service has earned you kinship among us. Wear your axe well, brother, and bring tidings of the north back west.” Klaus stood and addressed him for the first time since his installment as a chief.


“It will be done, my chief.” And there were no objections from Klaus, because Hans meant the words this time.


----- END -----
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