The port city of Friesia in the nation of Nordland, Europa, 1935. Five days before the Gallian invasion.
Friesia was the southernmost city in all of Nordland, a peninsular nation which protruded from the north coast in the west of Empire controlled Europa. The nation then hooked west through the sea, coming back on itself and ending due north of Namur. This tip was further south than her land based border and it was here that the capitol of Friesia lay. It was a cold and windswept place, but vital to the nation. Not just because it was the capitol but it was also one of the very few ports this nation possessed that did not freeze in the winter, though it came dangerously close. Ships would often put in here on their way to trade with the Empire and it controlled access to the huge natural bay, the size of a small sea that was created by the peninsular. As such it had become a bustling trading town the noise of the people, the constant coming and going, the fine yet warm clothes and similar buildings were all at odds with the hard conditions and harder land.
But this wealth was skin deep, Nordland was a nation with problems and the strategic location of Friesia was about the only thing this icy country had in its favour. Its land made for poor farming and had to be worked exceedingly hard for anything approaching a viable crop, animal life was sparse and wide spread as they also struggled to find food, but perhaps worst of all was the ragnite. Or more accurately the lack of it. In this day and age the lack of ragnite put a huge hamper on industry and military power. But thankfully the finest resource of this nation came to the rescue, her people. Faced with constant adversity the people of Nordland had become both hardy and clever. Ingenuity was what had allowed them to survive thus far and this modern era would be no different. This nation's insignificant ragnite stock had been wisely invested in fuelling small scale, high tech industry. This created enough interest and business to start turning a reliable profit on the balance of trade, allowing the affordable import of ragnite. But even then, their supply was small compared to the Empire, Federation or even Gallia. Her industrial output was still comparatively minor and they would never obtain the necessary ragnite to field the huge panzer armies of the Federation or the Empire. Even Gallian armour readily outnumbered them.
But once again, the stalwart people of this nation would be her saviour. A lack of tanks, even a shortage of horses in days past, had spawned a storied tradition of excellent infantry. Nordland foot soldiers had often been the envy of other nations and across the centuries these brave soldiers had been the primary guarantor of Nordland's continued independence. Nordland infantry had fought various wars of self-defence, and even occasional expansion, across the eons and her foot soldiers had fought off threats from the Federation, the Empire and their predecessor nations. More recently Nordland has been sucked into EWI, pre-emptively attacked by the Empire to stop a suspected Federation assault on the peninsular in an effort to secure the northern seas. The Empire had planned to take the land swiftly, forever denying the Federation the vital port of Friesia. Unfortunately for them Nordland infantry managed to slow the Imperial advance so much, and cause so many men to be committed to the Nordland front that other elements of the war suffered for the Empire. What was worse was that the once neutral Nordland had been forced to side with the Federation, and so Federation shipping was freely allowed to use the one port the Empire had been so desperately trying to deny them. To this very day the Empire associates the Nordland front in EWI with a long and bitter struggle, followed by an icy and lonely grave. Nordland however, remembers it as one of her finest moments of glory. Though they also remember that the glory came at a cost.
Furthermore, Norldand's geography has made it very defensible, though she lacks any real capacity to attack other nations. In more recent times, when even the best soldiers would struggle to fend off modern tanks, her independence owed more to not being worth conquering than anything else. With no ragnite to speak of she simply was not worth the effort and though she would almost certainly have fallen her soldiers would have exacted a high price in blood for every worthless meter.
That was until very, very recently. Nordland had learnt lessons from the brutal conflict of EWI. It had learned valuable tactical lessons by observing the blunders and successes of both itself and her neighbours but it had also noted the birth of three new and exciting technologies. It could not afford to invest in the tanks which had become such a key part of all the other armies of Europa, and whilst it invested in machine guns so did everyone else. But what Nordland chose to favour, was the aeroplane. Nordland may not have invented the concept but it had become its master and her highly efficient ragnite supplemented engines allowed for an effective air force of a reasonable size. These engines lacked the combination of power and durability to drive a battle tank, but a light weight plane, now that it could move.
Almost overnight Nordland had gone from an insignificant northern backwater with only one city worth mentioning, to a notable local player. She was still insignificant compared to the Federation or the Empire. But she was no longer the triviality she had been. None the less, she still had deep problems. Ragnite was still an issue. Though her industry and air force were ragnite efficient they still needed to import the substance. This dependence on ragnite imports was extremely high risk and with a continent as politically unstable as Europa war had long threatened to cut off the supply. Nordland need not even be a belligerent, with Gallia and the Federation being the chief exporters of ragnite all it would take was one big war involving them and that would be it. The exports would stop and Nordland would collapse with it. To guard against this Norldand had been importing far more ragnite than it needed, building up a stock pile but driving up prices with it. Every economist knew this was an unsustainable model and so a daring new secret policy was implemented. Nordland would take any opportunity presented to acquire permanent control of a small base of ragnite mines. This was the only way the nation could survive and now, with EWII under way and a build-up of Imperial forces near the Gallian border, the issue had been forced.
Nordland had long regarded the Empire as its natural enemy. Their shared border made Nordland an obvious target, they had been enemies in EWI and aggressive Imperial expansionism had long threated to swallow Nordland whole. What was more, the majority of Nordland's previous wars had been against the Empire and her predecessors. Nordland's drill, defences and tactics had all been made with an Imperial foe in mind. On the other hand, it had regarded Gallia as a natural friend. They shared a dogged adherence to the concept of neutrality and the two small nations seemed to share an odd bond which had been created by their size. Perhaps more importantly Gallia had long been the chief importer of Nordland's goods and an exporter of ragnite to the semi frozen nation. So an outside observer would have been excused for being surprised when Nordland's government quietly aligned itself with the Empire. This was not a decision made out of ideological sympathy or genuine sentiments, but rather cold, hard calculation. Nordland knew that EWII was their best, and perhaps last, chance to secure a supply of ragnite. Continued neutrality was unsustainable and waging a war as a third party was suicide. It had to choose a side and the Empire offered the best option. The Federation put no real value on Nordland and would certainly be unwilling to give up any currently held ragnite mines on her northern coast to Nordland. Furthermore, her defensive footing made any promises of a share of the Empire's land sound hollow and empty. The Empire however, did not suffer from this problem. Her offer of ragnite mines on the northern coast, either in Gallia itself or further north near Namur, might just come true. The Empire's attack on Gallia was inevitable, and the consensus among the generals was that Gallia would fall quickly. When that happened Nordland would lose her last remaining source of Ragnite, as the Federation had devoted all her ragnite to the war effort long ago. If Nordland did not take this opportunity, it would likely never get another one. Add to this the fact that the Empire was already winning the war against the Federation and she now made for a far more attractive proposition.
Some men may have questioned the wisdom of striking this deal with Nordland's old enemy. One such man was Lieutenant Colonel Jukka Heikki Ylioja, a battalion commander in a comparatively new formation that combined the infantry traditions of Nordland with her pioneering aviation technology. He was part of a new breed of soldiers, a new breed that had been dubbed paratroopers. These units, made of the best men Nordland had to offer, formed a key part of her military strategy and worked in close cooperation with the rest of the airforce. So much so that they were technically part of the airforce, rather than the army. They had become a living symbol of the nation, an embodiment of her spirit, her durability, her ingenuity and her resolve. But as resolute as Jukka was determined to be in the conduct of this war he could not help but doubt the rational. Once the Empire had victory, what was to stop it turning on Nordland and swallowing her whole? Nothing so far as he could see! Had it been another nation he may have relied on honour, but not when it came to the Empire. Doubtless his nation's leaders had thought of this, and yet here they were. Did they know something he did not? Or was the situation truly that desperate?
Well, the dye was cast now and regardless of his personal reservations Jukka would serve his comrades, his nation and his home. There course was his course and he loved his home far too much to abandon it now. Though he may have been standing over a rough wood table, upon which battle plans were laid, his mind was elsewhere. He had spent much of his life in various barracks and camps across Nordland, he was a full time professional soldier and it would not have been an exaggeration to say the unit was his home. But, there was somewhere else he called home as well. Some way north of the capitol, a little way into the woods amongst some gently rolling hills, he had a single room log cabin that he called his own. He could have afforded something more modern, larger, even in a town. He kept telling himself that he was saving the money for when he settled down and started a family. But really he knew it was because he loved that cabin. He knew it's every board and plank. He knew the simple yet luscious beauty of the woods in the summer, it's every stream and grove. And he knew the cold enteral grace of the hauntingly white winters. Life could be hard there, sometimes no amount of blankets and bright fires could keep out the cold. Sometimes the hunting could be bad and a man would go hungry and if he was injured no one would have any idea he was in trouble. But though life was hard, life was good. Out there, the tiny cabin and the vast wilderness were his sanctum. There, life was fulfilling, his mind was somehow clear and his heart felt lighter. He had built that cabin with his own hands and had been raised in a similar homestead. It was as much his home as anywhere else and now he quietly wished he could be there again.
He was interrupted from his ruminations by a smart knock at the door. Jukka already knew who it was. Pausing only to draw out his straight billiard style pipe Jukka casually invited his guest in, whilst simultaneously filling his pipe with tobacco and patting his pockets for a match. The man who walked in through the door was clearly part of the same unit as Jukka. They both wore the same dark blue grey uniforms, which seemed quite standard and unremarkable in their design. The uniforms of Nordland soldiers had never been built for show but they were always smart, they believed the dress code was a key part of discipline. You could see that beneath their jackets, which were slightly open at the neck with lapels in a style similar to a suit or a formal winter coat, that they wore lighter shade of blue grey shirts and plain dark blue ties. Their boots, immaculately polished, were built for function and durability as were their black leather belts. Neither man was currently wearing their hat, hence why there were no salutes or other formalities. The only visible difference between their uniforms was that the Jukka seemed to have slightly more impressive rank badges on his shoulders and lapels and a few more medal ribbons on his chest.
"Good afternoon Erling." Judging by Jukka's casual and familiar tones these two men were quite familiar with one another. "How are the men?" Finding a match Jukka lit up his pipe whilst Erling replied.
"All supplies are loaded, most of the men are aboard. We are scheduled to put to sea in three hours." Erling spoke a little more curtly and sharply than Jukka, but that was just his way. Erling was every inch your stereotype of a strong Nordlander. He was well over six feet tall, muscular, with a chiselled jaw, noble blonde hair and icy blue eyes that seemed as deep as a lake and as sharp as a knife. He was the type of man artists made statues of when they wanted to contemplate the perfect physical beauty of humanity. Had it not been for the uniforms a man would have been forgiven for thinking Erling was the senior officer. Jukka, by comparison, seemed almost disappointingly ordinary. Certainly he was not the fine specimen people thought of when they envisaged a Nordlander. He was far from short, standing at six feet himself, but placed next to the imposing Erling he looked small and scrawny. Certainly he was not so well built. His dark hair, though not the blue black of a Darcsen, was also far from the stereotype and it was only accentuated by his slightly pale skin. A thin, sharp face and a hooked nose which looked as though it had been broken at least once, seemed to complete the look of Lieutenant Colonel Jukka. That was until you saw his eyes. His murky blue eyes were unimpressive at first. But look at them for more than a few moments and you might notice some strange presence beneath, like the rumbling of a furnace. Some say that when Jukka seemed to come alive then his eyes would appear to dance and burn beneath the surface, staring out with the crazed cunning and energy of an arctic fox, the determination and force of a bear. Jukka never put much stock in those stories, and certainly any fire in his eyes now seemed to be little more than embers.
Erling had carefully managed to avoid the question that Jukka was really asking, but Jukka was not about to allow his trusted chief of staff to get away with such evasion.
"Their morale, their spirits, their belief in the mission?" You could tell by his tone that he was not expecting a positive answer. Unlike the last war this was not a simple struggle for national survival against an aggressive foe. This war was not as clear cut. The last war was something everyone could believe in but this fight was morally murky at best and what was worse was the fact Nordland had allied itself with its old enemy. The press and the politicians had been doing their best to invigorate the nation but Jukka was not alone in his uncertainty. Erling's answer therefore surprised the sceptical Lieutenant Colonel.
"Their morale is high sir. They believe that victory will be swift and near certain, in the main they also believe Nordland will be stronger for it. Stories of Gallian and Federation transgressions also seem to be gaining some traction, whether true or not. No one is happy about working so closely with the Empire, but that seems to be viewed as a minor issue by the younger troops." He was largely matter of fact in the way he went about describing things, but you could tell he seemed to be slightly disappointed at the attitude of these younger soldiers. Many of them had been but mere babes during the last war, they did not remember the cruelty of the front and brutality of the fray with the Empire. But then, perhaps that was for the best.
"And the older ones?" Jukka seemed slightly concerned, largely because he was worried about the impact on the spirits of the men. A few grumbling sergeants could tear the heart out of the unit and the best equipment and training in the world could not compensate for a lack of resolve.
"They are smart enough not to talk about it." Jukka gave a quiet little nod of approval to this reply. The older men, many of whom were veterans, seemed to know that the war was unavoidable and had taken it upon themselves to try and keep morale up. There was no point grumbling about working with Imperials, it was a simple matter of fact now. Why risk breeding resentment in the ranks or angering their new allies by digging up the wounds of the past? Still, those wounds were there and ignoring them was, at best, a temporary solution. You could tell from the subdued tones and tired and contemplative expressions of both men that neither one of them quite believed in this new alliance. But outside of select company these doubts and reservations would not be shown. To the world they would be firm, full of determination and conviction, they had to be.
The two men seemed to fall into a moment of silence again, Jukka gently puffing away at his pipe whilst he went over the battle plans once again, Erling staring off into the middle distance with a frown. The silence, though brief, said all that needed to be said. It was broken by Erling, who at last moved onto the very reason why he had come here.
"Colonel, we need to go aboard now. Our transport will be departing shortly. May I?" Erling gestured to the plans and Jukka just nodded, stepping back to allow his chief of staff to gather up the documents and put them in a satchel, ready for transit. Pipe still lodged firmly in his mouth Jukka took his uniform blue overcoat, similarly adorned with rank badges, and his officers visor cap, down from the pegs on which they hung and put them on. Erling however, once the plans were gathered, opened up the door to the office and gestured in two privates who, after saluting the Lieutenant Colonel, began gathering up other bits and bobs for their commander. One was carrying Erling's own coat and hat, which he promptly dressed the man in before gathering up a decryption machine for the journey.
Soon the two officers were away, out of the barracks and proceeding down the streets of Friesia towards the dock. It was not winter, but a chill and ominous wind was blowing. It seemed to get under the men's coats and go straight to their bones. Superstitious men may have regarded this as a bad omen. But on the whole the men of Norldand were rational and practical men, concerned with the real world. To them this was just a chill breeze and nothing more. As they walked along occasional passers-by would stop in the street and wish them well, hope that these men would come home quickly and safe. Jukka always shook the hands of these kindly strangers, with a nod of thanks and a slightly forced smile. But no war was ever quick enough and he had seen far too many men never come home before now. But again, he could not let on that this was how he was thinking and he could hear the privates behind him thanking the well-wishers enthusiastically, and promising to come back soon, their voices full of hope and optimism.
After a few minutes of walking down the cobbled streets Jukka looked over to Erling, with a slight smile and a wistful look in his eye.
"Where's Gunnar? Last I saw of him I think he was seriously considering sleeping in his cockpit." Jukka let out a little chuckle at the thought but, if you knew Gunnar, that was not too much of a stretch. Erling chuckled a little at the idea as well.
"I saw him at the airfield a few days ago, arguing with an engineer about the sensitivity of the controls in his tail rudder. I swear he won't be happy until they build him his fantasy plane from scratch." Again Jukka chuckled along with Erling at the idea, he could see it in his mind's eye now. Gunnar was always picking fights with his ground crew, the man could be difficult to get along with sometimes and the truly annoying thing was that Gunnar was almost always right.
"You mean to tell me Gunnar was at Friesia airbase and you didn't let me know he was in town!" Jukka layered his tones with obvious mock offense but he was slightly annoyed at the missed opportunity. The three men had history but Gunnar was often posted away from the paratroopers, they got to see one another far too little. Erling however, kept smiling and said in slightly amused yet calming tones.
"You will see him soon enough Colonel. He's been posted to the same air base we'll be operating out of. Our engineers finished construction just a few days ago." Jukka just gave a satisfied little sigh and a nod of the head.
"Hopefully he will fly our support missions." Commented the Lieutenant Colonel. "If he does we might just win this one." Both of the officers gave another little laugh, their moods and spirits visibly lifted.
Jukka was still smiling as he arrived at the transport ship and climbed the boarding ramp. The naval crew who saluted him as he came aboard were keen to show him to his quarters and get under way.
"Colonel." Said the young crewman, who then turned to Erling and added. "Major. Allow me to show you to your quarters. The Captain would then like to get under way." It didn't take long for Jukka to be shown to his tiny quarters and to place his bags unceremoniously in the corner. As one of the more senior officers aboard ship he had been granted the luxury of a cabin to himself and though may would have complained about the glorified broom closet he had been put in he appreciated the gesture.
Soon the rumble of engines and a slight shudder of the ship signalled that the vessel was putting to sea. Moving with some speed Juka swiftly made it to a port side walkway, already crammed with paratroopers and sailors alike. He could hear the scene before he got there, cheering, screaming, even the faint sound of a few musical instruments largely drowned out by the noise. As the ship began to move the dock was crammed with civilians, waving, jumping, shouting out either to the soldiers in general or to specific loved ones aboard. The soldiers and sailors, shouting back and waving just as enthusiastically. There was no one in the crowd for Jukka, but he wanted to take the opportunity to take a last lingering look at Nordland, his home. The beautiful city of Friesia and the more beautiful country beyond. Slowly a little smile, simultaneously happy and sorrowful, spread across his face. Taking a moment he looked about him, watching his fellow paratroopers, committing their faces and expressions to memory. This was a moment he would not let himself forget, even should old age eventually befall him. This was a moment he wanted etched in his mind, not because it would necessarily be a happy memory. But because it was his duty to remember. He would stay out on deck for hours, lingering there long after the ship was at sea and his men had returned below decks. Instead he stayed there, ignoring the cold sea winds and the choppy waves. His focus was on one thing, the slowly receding coast of Nordland. He stayed there, unable to look away, unable to tear his mind from the uncertain fate of his homeland. It took Erling, appearing silently at his shoulder, to wrestle Jukka's attention away from the view.
"Sir, dinner is being served." Erling was quiet, and gentle in his interruption. He knew what Jukka was thinking about and he knew how heavily it weighed on Jukka's mind. There was no need for them to speak of it further. With a little forced, but also genuinely grateful, smile Jukka nodded his head and went inside for his meal. But even then he could not quite shake his invisible concerns. He was deeply worried for Nordland.