"He is not going to welcome you, you know."
The woman kept her eyes on the river as she spoke, steering the boat with sure, quick strokes of rudder and stake. Despite the current, she kept the small vessel surehandedly in the middle of the stream, sparing her passenger any vexing movements.
Her passenger did not indicate that she had heard her save by the slightest nod. She sat erect on the only bench, quietly watching the stream.
"Mylady." The woman leaned out of the boat to push away a barrel that was steering dangerously close. "At least let me talk to him. I am family."
She smiled wryly. "Save yourself the..."
"My dear friend." The passenger lifted her head, revealing a bright elven face beneath her hood. "I believe you now as I believed you when we began this journey. But I cannot."
She smiled. "I gave my word."
In a fluid motion she stood up, shifting the bundle that had been lying on her knees to her back. "We are approaching the edge of the marshes. Should we not see the lake soon?"
The woman nodded, pointing ahead. "Just beyond these rocks up ahead the river makes its final bend. Laketown is hidden behind them. Another half-hour I believe, Lady Nimlith."
The elf looked in the direction indicated and smiled again. "It must be tiring work, rowing in all this armour. Come, let me take the rudder for a while and rest."
"Absolutely not." The Dalish woman grinned at her passenger. "I was your guest in the forest. But today, you are my guest."
Despite the river speeding up their journey, night was already falling before they reached Dale.
"The Lord's mansion is on a hill outside the city," the woman explained. "We can reach it tonight if you wish."
"Wish you rather to rest, to be with your family in the morrow?"
The woman hesitated. "He is not likely to give you any more courtesy in the morning. At least this way he shall have to welcome us as guests for the night. I would not mind a bed tonight."
The elf nodded. "Then lead the way."
Leading their horses up the hill-road, they were hailed at last by a guard. "Who goes there?"
The woman raised her voice before the Elf could speak. "Tell the Lord Oakheart that his cousin-daughter Acca, accompanying one of the fair folk, is requesting shelter for the night and an audience for her guest!"
The guard, obviously startled by this announcement, moved his lantern closer, illuminating the travellers' faces. "Lady Acca, indeed. It has been a long time, you must forgive me. And your companion?"
The elf stepped forward, casting down her hood. "I am Nimlith of Greenwood. I have come to return a sword to the Lord."
Seeing the elf's face, the guard took a few steps backwards, startled. "Yes... Mylady. I am sorry, but evil men walk the roads these days. I shall tell the Lord at once."
He led them to a small building along the road, evidently set there for the guards of the mansion, and bid them sit down. After a few minutes, he reappeared, accompanied by a servant of the house.
"The Lord will see you at once. Mylady Acca, the guest rooms are being prepared for you and your guest. Shall you be joining the Lord for dinner later?"
Acca nodded at the servant. "Tell the Lord my thanks." She got up, following the servant towards the mansion.
They were ushered into an antechamber as the servant vanished in the depths of the mansion once again. Acca smiled apologetically at the lady, once again trying to fathom what she was thinking. The Lord was not known for his courtesy and now had again proven not to care for the two travellers that had just taken a long journey on his behalf. Courtesy would have asked for him to let them rest and refresh themselves first, but instead he seemed to want this over with as quick as possible. She bit her lip, wondering if the elf was aware of it.
But the elf seemed as calm and composed as if she had just gone out for an evening stroll. She smiled at the woman.
"What is it, my friend?"
Acca cleared her throat, putting away her thoughts.
"Mylady Nimlith, wish you my presence at the audience?"
"If you wish it." The elf paused a moment before speaking on. "He was your cousin as well."
Acca nodded. "Perhaps I should better accompany you."
"Of course, my friend."
As she spoke, the servant reappeared. "The Lord will see you now."
Lord Oakheart was waiting for them in the house's Greatroom, a dining room for perhaps a hundred men, with a raised semicircular alcove at the end. It was empty save for a few servants preparing dinner at one end, and the Lord himself. In the alcove, a throne of sorts was sat beside a small table, where the Lord of the surrounding fields used to keep audience for the small matters concerning his fiefdom.
The elf approached it without hesitation, looking at the man.
The lord, a portly man greying with age, looked at her with barely hidden annoyance. He snorted as his gaze fell on her grey, travelworn robes. "And who might you be, coming as a beggar in the night, requesting - requesting! - that I shall give some of my time to you?"
The elf held his gaze calmly, betraying no emotion.
"I am Nimlith of Greenwood. I come on behalf of a promise given to your son."
Again, the lord snorted an evil laugh. "I have no son."
She looked at him with pity in her eyes. "I speak of Matheric Oakheart, who died before the first storms of winter last year, as you will know."
This time there was the barest hint of a hesitation in the Lord's demeanour as he spoke. "Got himself killed, you mean. And for some peasant as well, I was told. Speak."
"I spoke to him before he rode out to his death. I saw his fate, and so did he, but neither of us could stay its hand. He made me promise to return his belongings to his family, and his sword."
The elf loosened the band from the bundle on her back, holding it flat in her arms. As she spoke, she peeled back the layers of soft white elven-cloth, revealing the greatsword that had been Matheric's once. It shone quietly in the torchlight, the Dwarven runes on it glittering darkly.
"Too strong were the winter-storms for even an elf to cross the mountains to your lands. Only now that spring has finally come to the North-passes has the hour come for me to bring it to you."
At this, the lord got up and took a step forward, his hand outstretched.
"Then give it and be done with it. The laws of hospitality demand that I give shelter for you tonight on behalf of my no-good son who went and got himself killed in what was no business of his." He frowned. "But that is all I shall give. I thank you for the message, though it was not asked for. What good is a sword without one to wield it? May it lie and rust where it will, in my cellar or some thief's. It will not do any better here."
The merest flicker of a frown passed the elf's eyes as she took the sword by its handle, weighing it in one hand as its blade reflected the torchlight into her face.
"Your son died protecting the weak, as is a lord's duty." She spoke silently as if to herself, but her voice filled the room as a hush had fallen over it at the old lord's words. "And soon, the blade's services may be needed again, for shadow is falling over the world - a shadow neither you nor I have the power to fight. Yet it may still be your duty to do what you can do, and aid those who you have sworn to protect."
She lay down the sword on the cloth again and wrapped it, knotting the band over it crosswise.
"Perhaps, when that time comes, you will remember your son with kinder thoughts."
The lord whinced as he received the sword, feeling the weight of the heavy greatsword in his arms. His eyes widened, looking at the elf who had so lightly held it just before.
The elf bowed and left the hall without another word.
"Lady Nimlith, you are leaving?" Acca looked at her friend with worry. "I apologise for my kinsman, but..."
Nimlith smiled. "It is no fault of yours, friend. But no, I have another duty to do to our friend before I shall leave this place. You should rest for tonight, my friend, and visit your family."
The woman frowned. "Are you sure?"
"Quite sure, my friend. It is quite safe here."
"Then..." She faltered.
"We shall see each other again, when it is time to depart or afterwards. If I am not here, look for me in the Greenwood."
"Yes, my lady."
The elf climbed the hill in the darkness, her bare feet feeling the way without stumbling or hesitation. Only when she had reached the top she straightened herself and looked around.
Below her, the city of Dale slept in the cover of smoke from its chimneys. A few cooking-lights blinked sleepily from windows and guards carried torches on the walls.
The lord's halls were on the hill across from her, almost hidden by foliage and the hill's curve. All around, the Dale-lands lay like a bowl, watched over by the Lonely Mountain in the North and spilling out into the lake to the South.
Smiling, she nodded to herself and set to work. With her bare hands she dug, making a hole in the soft ground.
When she was finished, she hesitated. Quickly she collected some stones from the surroundings and made a small wall on the side facing the wind. Then she stood back and looked at her work.
"The last promise is done, friend," she murmured. "May you rest in peace now, wherever your kind rests."
Her gaze went up to the stars, and if tears glittered in her eyes in the starlight, only the stars saw them.
But on the hill, long after the elf had left again, the oak sapling stretched its leaves towards the morning sky, awaiting the first of many summers to come.