The morning sun beat through the open window with enough intensity to have Kolben inching into the shadows, beads of sweat growing on his forehead. He’d never fully adjust to this climate, he was sure. Once Stahlborn, always Stahlborn; he was suited to snow, sleet and hail, to winters that chilled the bone and springs littered with icicles.
Perhaps he was just home sick, he considered forlornly. He’d been in Ether for almost four months now, dealing with the intricacies of legal immunity.
In a life that seemed an age away now, Kolben Eisen had been a legion commander for Heike Stahldritten, even under her uprising. His legion had manned the Luft Gate when she had driven her forces through their home-realm’s gate and slaughtered hundreds of Highguard mages. He’d been responsible for executing any deserters that tried to escape under the threat of their attack.
He’d disobeyed her orders, technically. He and his sister Finte had both accepted surrender from any highguard who had fled through it gate, rather than execute them as Heike’s orders had specified. His prosecutor had used his military disobedience against him in an attempt to revoke his immunity – unsuccessfully.
Kolben had been appointed to second commander of three thousand men in the United Forces upon the Stahl Army’s annexation to the Ether force. His fellow legion commander in the Stahl Army, Croga Einwanderer, had been recruited as his lieutenant upon his acquittal. The man was an easy-going individual, and a valuable source of companionship in battle, Kolben had found. He valued his company greatly, and his resourceful mind; Croga was renowned for his ability to strategize quickly and effectively – his playful exterior masked a tactical mind that was always at work.
Kolben had seen the man’s demeanour switch like the Stahl Realm’s weather, snapping between sunshine to a blizzard in an instant. He had an aura about him, a means by which he could command the respect and compliance of others in an instant.
The Eisen was grateful for his presence on terse mornings like this one.
They were stationed outside the doors to the High Council’s chambers, awaiting summons to the meeting being conducted within. Kolben’s legion had been tasked with scouring the Six Realms for the whereabouts or any information on the Iron Faithful; so far, all they had turned up was evidence of two kidnappings and two attacked but discarded councilmembers.
Soldiers from Fiacla Einwanderer’s contingent had responded to the distress of Flugel Luftzweiten and Behende Flusswelle, two councilmembers journeyed back from a diplomatic meeting with Latya Stahldritten. They’d found the High Council representatives inconsolable in the Klinge household, where they’d explained that they’re been attacked on the Stahl road during a blizzard by masked vigilantes, and that Emmerich Totersieg had been captured in the confrontation.
The name had set ice in Kolben’s chest, and a sickness to his stomach that had only been reaffirmed with the projected broadcast that had plagued all of their chambers last night.
The Iron Faithful had Emmerich Totersieg, a member of the High Council, and were using him as leverage to force the High Council’s hand in condemning both their own colleagues and the Stahldritten family.
Kolben’s concern for Emmerich had only been overridden by his concern for Bitva, a Stahldritten by birth and right, his newly appointed lieutenant in the United Forces, and one of the two loves in his life. He wouldn’t allow anyone to harm her – not to say she couldn’t handle herself. But the mere thought of her being trialled for her execution, let alone the execution itself…
It made him nauseous.
Kolben breathed deep and straightened at his post, aware of the eyes of Croga, which fixed on him before sliding away. “Is that Macht?” the Devonian asked.
The eldest Eisen closed his eyes with a quiet sigh. “I was hoping he wouldn’t come,” he murmured softly, before crossing the foyer before the High Council chambers to meet him halfway. He stopped him with a steadying and compassionate hand on his chest, drawing the Eisen commander to an abrupt halt.
Macht’s silver gaze met his, harsh and unrelenting, but Kolben could see the desperation in his eyes, the fear and the dread that drove him. “Move, Kolben,” he ordered evenly.
“Macht, don’t do this,” Kolben insisted.
“Let go,” Macht commanded flatly, pushing Kolben’s concerned hand away. The elder Eisen stepped into his path, unflinching and unwavering.
“You need to think this through.”
“I have,” Macht growled, finding his path again blocked by his older brother. “Move!”
“You need to talk to me about this, Macht.”
“No, I need to speak with the High Council. Get out of my way.”
“I need to know what you’re going to do.”
“Why do you need to know anything?” Macht demanded, his volume rising in his irritation.
“Because this affects me too,” Kolben responded, trying for an even and calm tone. It barely masked the anxious note that underlined all of his words lately.
“My fiancé is currently being held captive by the Iron Faithful,” Macht retorted, his tone both indignant and dubiously snide, “who will execute him within the week if the High Council doesn’t begin to start executing Stahldrittens. I don’t have time to debate this with you.”
Kolben seized his upper arm in a gentle but firm grip. “And what about Bitva? I have loved ones to protect here too, Macht. I won’t let the High Council execute her on a vigilante’s false justice.”
“And what about Becken?” Macht jerked his arm out of Kolben’s grip, gaze roiling with anger as he stepped back. Croga’s gaze shifted between the two of them, wary of conflict. “Have you spoken to him about your involvement? Has Bitva spoken to him? Does he agree with pulling back searches for his little brother?”
“He doesn’t want to see Bitva murdered either,” Kolben retorted bluntly, frightening himself with the black fury in his tone. “I have a duty to the Stahldrittens and the Stahl Realm, Macht. I must protect them from the Iron Faithful, even if it threatens the people I love.”
“You’re a United Forces commander,” Macht contradicted. “You owe no service to the Stahl Realm or the Stahldrittens anymore. We should comply with the Iron Faithful’s orders–”
“I owe a duty to every Stahldritten,” Kolben bellowed. It was so out of character for him that even Macht recoiled. Croga placed a steadying hand on his shoulder, which Kolben politely brushed off, coming back to his senses. “I owe a duty to protect Krov Stahldritten under the Stahldritten-Eisen law. I owe my life to his protection; I’m bound to do all in my power to prevent his death, through whatever means. I can’t allow the High Council to comply with the Iron Faithful’s demands. I can’t allow them to execute him.”
“W-wait, what’s the Stahldritten-Eisen Law?” Croga interjected hesitantly.
Macht replied without turning to face him, his eyes locked with Kolben’s steely glare. “It’s a law that binds the life of the eldest Eisen to that of the youngest Stahldritten. In 176, Ahne Eisen murdered Schone Stahldritten for killing her love, Faden. With her partner Drehen, they were held accountable for the youngest Stahldritten’s murder; Drehen was remanded to Rechtzelle as a Rechtlos, and Ahne was executed for her lapse in service to the highborn family. Knechten – Schone’s eldest sister – was so furious that she created the Stahldritten-Eisen law, which decreed that should the youngest Stahldritten pass before the eldest Eisen, the Eisens were considered to have failed in their service to the Stahldritten family, so the eldest was to be executed.”
“Our uncle, Ahnen, was executed at twenty-one years old for the death of Kuhl Stahldritten,” Kolben explained softly, “notwithstanding that his death had been accidental.”
“Kolben, as the eldest Eisen of our generation, is responsible for ensuring that the life of Krov Stahldritten is protected,” Macht continued, “which means he has to oppose the Iron Faithful’s demands to execute all of the Stahldritten siblings.”
“Macht, don’t force my hand,” Kolben implored. “Please.”
“I won’t let Emmerich die,” Macht countered evenly. “Not for the lives of every Stahldritten.”
Kolben drew his sword from its holster, baring it as Macht leered back, drawing his own in defence. “Macht! Stand down.”
“I’m going to the High Council!” Macht insisted furiously. “They need to comply with the Iron Faithful’s demands, and they need to withdraw their searches.”
Kolben adjusted his grip, taking his weapon into both hands as he widened his stance.
“Kolben,” Croga beseeched, smiling nervously. “Macht, come on. You don’t need to fight about this; talk it over like rational men.”
“I’m bound by my duty,” Kolben said softly, sternly. “And I will protect Bitva to my last breath. I can’t let you convince the High Council to obey the demands of the Iron Faithful.”
Macht bared teeth, bolting forwards. The brothers’ swords clashed, and the foyer echoed with the sound of metal jaws locking.
Croga leapt out of the fray, glaring at the pair of them as they squared off. “You’re commanders!” he bellowed. “Show some decency!”
“Come now, boys, listen to the man,” a familiar voice drawled.
Both commanders turned at the sound, summing up the sight of Kuren Rotehre in the foyer.
“Sage,” Kolben apologised, sheathing his blade immediately. Macht lowered his own sword, his glare still levelled at Kolben.
“What could be so important that it causes a fight between commanders and brothers?” Kuren inquired. “You even disturbed the High Council meeting…”
“My apologies, sage,” Kolben insisted, bowing his head in respect. Macht didn’t offer him the same courtesy.
“I need to speak with the High Council immediately,” he stated.
“The meeting’s over,” Kuren said blankly, a brow arching. “The next assembly will be tomorrow at daybreak; you can speak th–”
“No,” Macht responded flatly. “I need to speak with them now.”
“Macht,” Kolben warned sternly.
“It’s about Emmerich.”
“Do you know his whereabouts?” Kuren asked, taking Macht by surprise.
“Then what can you offer the Council?”
“I came to implore them to consider the Iron Faithful’s demands,” Macht explained, but Kuren cut him off.
“The High Council has already come to the decision to increase searches,” Kuren stated, his burning eyes aloof. Macht’s face fell. “Your legion is to join Kolben’s in seeking out the whereabouts of the Iron Faithful.”
Kuren waved Kolben away as the brother stepped forwards to apprehend the distraught Macht. “It’s alright, commander; go back to your duties. I’ll hear his concerns. Walk with me, Eisen.”
Macht fell into step beside him with a reluctant glance at Kolben, following the High Councilmember as he made his way through the hallways and corridors of the Ether palace, bathed in sunlight.
“So you’re concerned for Emmerich?” Kuren inquired.
“Yes,” Macht responded immediately, without hesitation.
“You want to protect him, yes? Through whatever means necessary?”
“I have a proposition for you,” Kuren said with a coy smile, pausing in a square of sunlight that filtered through the open window, turning to face the Eisen commander. “You and your legion will be ordered by the High Council to assist Kolben in the searches; but I have a friend who is keen on tracking down the Iron Faithful himself.”
Macht nodded silently, entranced by his words.
“It’s your best opportunity for finding Emmerich now. I’ll put you in touch with him, and he’ll provide you with a contingent of men to help you follow a lead I have on the Iron Faithful’s whereabouts.”
Macht’s steel gaze narrowed, catching of his words. “You know where they are?”
Kuren laughed. “Oh, no, absolutely not. I just have a hunch – I didn’t think it worth bothering the High Council about, but you may be able to see it through for me.”
“If it could lead me to Emmerich, absolutely,” Macht insisted dutifully.
“I’ll put you in touch with my friend then,” Kuren promised.
“Who, if I may ask, sage?”
Kuren offered him a conspiratorial smile. “Aurel Feuervierte.”