The crunch of frozen earth echoed through the woods. It was not quite winter, but in Saldaea the chill had already set in. It had been some years since Fuujin came home to Mehar, but little about the Romee estates had changed. Trees, frozen and bare, enarched the path leading to the main house. Leaning into her horse, Black Betty, Fuujin whispered “You’re not used to this cold, are you? I’m not as used to it either.” She hugged her horse for warmth.
The sound of an approaching rider crackled down the path, stirring Fuujin. Peering down the road, the outline of the Master of Arms of House Romee was unmistakable. Tall and thin, with a ponytail that bobbed around his head as he rode, Jolen Dav had long earned his reputation as a cunning warrior and unforgiving teacher, a reputation beaten into Fuujin’s flesh. Still, there were few people she would rather see first than the teacher that helped shape her into who she was.
“Lady Fuujin, it is a pleasure to see you after all this time. I would have thought all your years in the Southlands would have made you too soft to come up and visit again.”
“Master Dav,” she replied, inclining her head “I am surprised to see you’re still alive. Time certainly hasn’t been kind to you.”
“Aye, but it hasn’t been so unkind that I can’t still whoop you.” He offered a bow from his horse and rose with a wide smile on his face. “It is truly a pleasure to see you again. Your mother would not stop talking about your return ever since she received your letter.”
“How has she been?” A knot started to form in her stomach as she already began to regret this trip.
“The Lady Oaks is as she has always been, for better or for worse. But I’ve rarely seen her in as much a good mood as she has been lately. It’s been a welcome change, I must thank you.”
Fuujin smiled, “Don’t thank me yet. There’s still plenty of time for that to change.” The two continued down the path together and arrived at the gates to the main house. Two stablemen approached and took care of the horses as Fuujin looked towards the manor.
“It’s a little too late to back out now, Lady Fuujin. It won’t be that bad.”
“I think I’d rather be fighting a fade right now.”
Jolen’s laugh surprised Fuujin, “I understand how you feel, but that’s just why you have to march forward. Let’s not tarry, there are many people here eager for your return.”
The double doors opened as the two approached and a familiar looking man bearing the livery of House Romee greeted the two, “Ah Master Dav and Lady Fuujin, I presume?” He offered a bow and she smiled in response. “I am Bennan Tar, my grandfather was Almen Tar. I have taken over his duties since his passing.”
The old butler was a mainstay of daily life at the Romee estates and Fuujin remembered him fondly. He often cared for her when she was black and blue from her training with Master Dav. “Light bless him, he was as good a man as I’ve ever known. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“We must all return to Mother Earth and his loss was as much mine as yours. Now if you’ll follow me, your arrival is much anticipated.” The knot in Fuujin’s stomach grew more unbearable as she followed Bennan through the foyer. Little about the spartan design of her old home had changed. Her mother had long valued function over form and the Romee estates was designed to be as much a fort as it was a home. Trollocs did occasionally come through these parts and the manor could easily repel an attack. Weapons hung on the walls between draperies depicting old battles her family had participated in, but decorations were otherwise sparse. Fuujin couldn’t help but be reminded of the Stone of Tear, whose design was similarly pragmatic.
As soon the doors to the ball room opened, they were met with the incoherent din of dozens of conversations and the even louder sound of a herald trumpeting their arrival. Silence immediately befell the room as Bennan proclaimed, “Now arriving, Master Jolen Dav and the Lady Fuujin Oaks d’Romee.” Voices rushed to fill the room once again and Fuujin could feel the crowd of people shifting, as several people made to approach her.
Jolen clapped her on the back, “Good luck. You’re going to need it.” He quickly left her as several men and women surrounded her.
“Light above, it really is you, Lady Fuujin. Never thought I’d see the day.” A grizzled looking old man with a broad smiled bowed, “You may not remember me. I served as your mother’s bodyguard for many years.”
“How could I forget you, Dareth. My mother’s letters say you’re no longer just a body guard, but in charge of the defense of the whole estate. I couldn’t think of a man more deserving.”
“You honor me, and I thank you.”
Fuujin turned her attention to the blonde woman who also approached her, “And Zalain, you haven’t aged a day since I last saw you.” Fuujin could never forget the face of the girl who she spent many years envious of. The golden-haired beauty was day to Fuujin’s night, the epitome of lady-like behavior, all grace and poise.
“Ah, Fufu, it warms my heart you still remember me. And Light, I could say the same about you. Though you’ve tanned, you’ve barely changed at all!” Zalain embraced her warmly. A sharp look from her sent the others scattering back to the party as Zalain drew Fuujin away from the entrance.
“It truly is good to see you, Fufu. I was pleasantly surprised when your mother said you would be visiting. I had thought you would let your duties in Tear keep you from ever returning.”
Fuujin chuckled, “I am kept quite busy in the Defenders. Serving on the Council and as Ambassador of Tear leaves little leisure time, but when I was made a Lady of Tear I was ordered to take a vacation. Even so, I would have returned home eventually less I bring down my mother’s wrath on the Stone itself. I’m not so sure it’d still be standing if she came looking for me.”
Zalain’s laugh rung like bell chimes, “Come now, she is not as fearsome as you make her out to be. Now tell me, because I hate being the last to know, what happened there?” She gestured at the golden patch Fuujin wore over her left eye.
Every inch of Fuujin’s body was wracked with pain. Mud and blood obscured her vision as she as she pulled herself across the swampland with her one good arm, not knowing which was way which, but desperate to survive. The ambush caught her whole squad by surprise…
“I made a mistake. This was but a small price to pay to live through it.”
“Ooh, so grim, so fierce! You always wanted to be a warrior and you look the part as much as any man here. Light, I imagine you could even take on Master Dav now.”
Fuujin laughed, “I have learned a lot over the years, but I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to think that.”
“I hope I’m not interrupting,” interjected a stern voice. The knot in Fuujin’s stomach grew into a boulder. “It’s been so long since my daughter was last here, I thought perhaps she had forgotten I existed. Maybe that’s why I had to come track you down like this?”
“Please forgive her, Lady Oaks, it is my fault. I had hoped to steal a few moments from Fuujin before you took them all.”
Fuujin took after her father in build, but the woman’s raven hair streaked with gray and sharp nose clearly marked the Lady Ellone Oaks d’Romee as Fuujin’s mother. “I apologize mother, I was…”
Ellone waved her hand dismissively, “Come now, there’s no need for that. I’ve missed you too much to let anything ruin this moment.” She was a full head shorter than Fuujin and waiflike, but she had a strength to her that earned her the nickname “The Mountain”. That strength was evident in the embrace she gave her daughter. Hugging her back, the tension that had been building up inside Fuujin melted away.
“I’ve missed you, Mother.”
“Well you have a right funny way of showing it!” Ellone replied. “You run off knowing bloody well I’d never have let you leave to join some Southlander army, you hardly write, and you wait how many years to visit?! Why if it wasn’t for Master Dav and Dareth, I’d have come down there and dragged your scrawny behind out of the Stone, I don’t care if they say it’s impenetrable! I’d like to have seen them try and stop me…” her mother’s tirade continued.
“Mother certainly hasn’t changed a bit,” Fuujin thought to herself. The ballroom doors burst open and several footmen bearing the colors of the various Houses present made their way into the crowd. One approached Fuujin’s mother.
“Lady Oaks, there seems to be trouble down the south road.”
“Trollocs?” her mother asked.
“No, my Lady. Several riders are quickly approaching…”
“I meant to mention that my retainers should be arriving shortly with my things.”
“My Lady, that’s not all. We heard an explosion and a fiery flash of light was seen.”
“There’s no sense playing the question game here. Let’s go meet these riders. Maybe it is just your retainers, Fuu.”
Jolen and Dareth joined the ladies Oaks as they left the ballroom and headed towards the entrance of the manor. Dareth leaned into Ellone and whispered. “No, I don’t we need to alarm our guests just yet, Dareth. But have the messengers saddle their horses nonetheless.” Nodding, Dareth left the group.
The remaining trio stepped into the bitter Saldaean air. Looking towards the gates Fuujin saw several horses rapidly approaching, but only one of them appeared to have a rider. Not waiting for her mother or Jolen, Fuujin ran to meet them.
She arrived at the gate moments after the rider and several House Romee retainers did. “And I’m telling you, I serve the Lady Fuujin Oaks and I must speak to her immediately. Are you blind? My men are injured here!”
“Brock? What happened?” The Romee retainers stepped aside to let Fuujin approach.
“My lady,” Brock dismounted, “we were approached by a man I thought to be a bandit. We tried to dissuade him from engaging with us, but he threw balls of fire from his hands and the ground erupted from beneath our feet!”
“A male channeler?”
“I cannot think of another explanation, my lady.”
The retainers began to chat wildly between themselves as Ellone and Jolen arrived. Fuujin let them know what was going on and her mother issued orders without skipping a beat, “Have the messengers head to the nearest estates and ask for aid. Have a pigeon sent to Maradon, with any luck we can have an Aes Sedai here in no time. Jolen, rouse the guardhouse. Have them prepared for ranged combat, we do not want to have to face this channeler up close. Fuujin, see to your retainers. Our Wisdom is probably already aware of what’s going on. I’ll see to our guests.”
Everyone obeyed Ellone quickly. Fuujin looked to her men as Brock remounted his horse. There was only three of them where she had brought eight, and the two laying against their horses looked a breath away from death. She beckoned Brock to follow her as she made for the Wisdom’s house, adjacent to the manor, and Brock guided the other horses.
Looking back, Fuujin saw her mother standing in the gates, staring down the south road, fists on her hips. She looked as every bit imposing as her nickname let on but worry filled Fuujin’s stomach. Brushing the negative feelings away, she picked up her pace.
To be continued...