"Eeh? But you're not a knight!" Olivia gasped.
"That's right, I'm not" Willis agreed, nodding.
"Then that means you lied to this Valkyrie-woman!" exclaimed the shocked Dahlia, a Werebat holding a sleeping daughter in her arms as she listened to the story.
"That's right" Willis agreed again.
"Liar, liar pants on fire!" Olivia said, yanking his ears.
"Don't even think about it dearie, you couldn't reach my pants from up there"
There was a loud clanking noise when the rail their lift was on reached the end and the lift switched on to a new rail. They had now descended down through the mountain, with a staircase and an underwater river beneath them. Now the rail was going to transport their lift along a horizontal line, all the way to the gate at the bottom of the mountain.
It would still be a little while though, and since it was rather dark in here and even if it hadn't been, there would have been nothing to see, Willis thought it better to keep yapping on. The darkness wasn't absolute, not with all the lights installed for the workers who were constantly improving on the structures and expanding the place - there were two lifts that ran parallel to one another, and from what Willis understood, the plan was to have five of them built within... two years? That seemed like a stretch.
"In any case, that's how I ended up meeting with the Fallen Grace mercenaries" he said, picking up where he'd left.
"Mistress Rhea had spoken of them sometimes when she came here" Dahlia said, cradling her stirring child gently. "Awful things"
"Mercenary work isn't dancing on roses" he said.
"Wouldn't dancing on roses hurt?" Olivia asked. "They've got thorns!"
"Tsihihi!" she giggled, hugging her father's head.
Dahlia licked her lips.
"I'm not quite certain I want to hear any more about those things, Master Willis" she admitted.
"That's fine then" Willis shrugged.
"And I don't think the Young Lady should hear about them either" she added.
"Eeehh? But I wanna!" Olivia protested.
"It's fine dear, I'll tell you when we don't have sensitive damsels to worry about"
"Ah! Auntie Dahlia is a damsel!" Olivia pointed an accusatory finger at the meek but shapely mother bat.
"I suppose..." she said awkwardly, and as she stiffened, her child opened her eyes and yawned, revealing those fangs that Willis had always thought so fearsome when he'd first seen them. Well, some of them anyway. This one didn't have a full set at the time.
"Mama, awe we down yet?" she asked.
"No Henrietta, not quite" cooed the mother, but the child climbed up on her shoulders and stretched out her winged arms.
"Hey Ollie, wanna have a cawalwy battle?" she asked, seeing they were both in position.
"Can we Daddy?"
"Not here" Willis said, looking down below the lift, where the river ran underneath a wooden walkway. This was no place for horseplay.
"Aww!" Olivia protested.
"Hey Ollie! We could fly out fwom hewe!" Henrietta pointed out when the light at the end of the tunnel became more visible.
"We could, huh!" the little Dragon was getting excited.
"Please no dearies, we're still a little too far for your little wings..." Dahlia tried, but it was too late. Olivia and Henrietta both spread their wings, stood up and jumped off, flapping away like no tomorrow to keep themselves up long enough to get some momentum going on, and so they began to glide toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Oh dear" Dahlia, said, chewing on her nails, but not taking flight after them when she saw that Willis took no action and showed no concern.
"Don't mind that too much, we'll catch up to them" he said. This wasn't the first time this had happened, after all, and he knew what to expect.
In short order things happened as Willis had expected. The airborne tykes were steadily losing velocity and altitude, and the ever moving lift caught up with them. Once back inside the lift's airspace, the two tried their hardest to flap their wings and keep moving, but as the lift kept moving and they got tired, they had no other choice than to accept the outreached arms of their parents and be caught.
"That wasn't very smart now was it, Ollie?" Willis asked after his daughter was back where she belonged, on his shoulders.
"I could have made it!"
"No you couldn't"
"Well Henri could have!"
"No she couldn't"
"I could too!"
"Hush now dear, we're almost there"
The lift emerged from the tunnel and into the station. Built outdoors, this station-slash-gate was an impressive construct, with several storeys of stone and such inside towers that looked like they were meant for defence, when the whole thing was just really a cover for the machinery and countless gears that made the lift work. Willis didn't understand it, and he didn't particularly care.
At the very centre of it was a tank of water, filled up from both rainwater from the rooftops and the river running through the mountain, with small trenches leading out from the complex further down into the valley. Two dirt roads led away from the gatehouse, or station, or whatever, nobody had given it an official name. One road led to the pristine lake that took up a fifth of the entire valley and stretched all the way to the other end, reaching the mountain range on that end. This was where they got all of their fish, crab and clam from. The other road led through a small stretch of forest into the farmlands, and it was there that Willis was headed for now.
Basking in sunlight he looked from one end of the valley to the other, soaking in the familiar sight and thinking back on how different it had been when he first laid eyes on it. There had been no roads, or that windmill on the high hill, or the farm fields, or the houses. But the lake, the forests, the meadows, the mountains, the mountaintops, all of it was the same as it ever was.
"Daddy! You're dozing off!" Olivia protested, yanking on his ears again.
"Henri! Let's race again!" Olivia shouted.
Both girls got up again, spread their wings, and jumped off their parents, easily gliding over the edge of the station's roof. They flapped their wings to earn tiny bits of altitude every now and again, and kept on going further and further, but their descent was inevitable. These two were too young to have learned to properly fly yet, so they had no hope of reaching as far as they pleased. To Olivia's dismay, it turned out that the smaller frame and lesser weight of her bat-friend allowed her to reach farther, and Henrietta remained airborne a good couple meters after Olivia landed flat on her belly.
"They sure are excited" Dahlia said, looking at the two children with fondness and pride.
"So would I be if I was learning to fly on my own" Willis pointed out.
"But you've flown with Mistress Rhea before"
"Yeah. That wasn't fun, I tell you"
"Nevermind that. I need to climb down the stairs now" he lamented.
"You could fly down with me" Dahlia offered.
"Afraid of heights, Master Willis?"
"Not of heights. The fall"
"Then I shall walk with you"
"That's nice. What was it you wanted from Hannah again?"
The sudden question caught the Werebat off-guard.
"Oh. Uhh, just some... you know..."
"Aphrodisiacs for when your husband comes back?"
"Yes sir. Mrs. Girtroot makes such delightful things, they calm the nerves and relax the muscles without having adverse effects on libido. The things Lady Elizabeth makes are always one or the other, even if they're more... potent"
"And you, if you don't mind my asking? A little something for Mistress Rhea when she returns?"
He smiled at her.
"I just had a craving for strawberries"
"AAAAGHHH!" Olivia screamed in terror, staring at the man who had just stabbed a knife into his leg without flinching.
"DAAAD! DAAAAAAAAAAD!" she creamed, flapping her wings anxiously and running to her father. Henrietta covered her face with her hands and slowly backed away.
"What's the matter dear?" Willis asked, picking up his sobbing daughter.
"U-uncle Storbjörn! H-he..."
"Oh don't be such a baby, it's not his real leg..."
Olivia wiped her tears and looked back at the man who had just finished whittling something before stabbing his thigh. The man was a mountain of meat, covered in scars, with greyed hair reaching down to his shoulders, a forked beard on his chin and eyes of a pale blue.
He smiled awkwardly and straightened the leg he had stabbed by lifting up his trouser leg, then fiddled around and pulled the thing off to show the young'uns that he was, in fact, not injured.
"Ooh. So it's a protractor!" Olivia said, her face alight with joy again, as she jumped down from her father's arms and ran to hug her "uncle".
"A prosthetic dear, a prosthetic" Willis corrected her.
But she was no longer listening, rather, she had been hoisted up and was now riding on the shoulders of the man called Storbjörn, who re-attached his leg and got up with a groan.
"Lass is getting heavy" he mumbled.
"Oh my, Henrietta, please calm down! He's fine, see? Just fine!" Dahlia tried to get her tyke to snap out of it and look for herself, but the little bat refused to do so. Oh well.
Willis and Storbjörn walked up to each other, and once again he was reminded of how he only reached up to the old man's chin. He was a big guy. Especially so with the Dragonette adding to his height.
"Wow daddy, you're tiny from up here!"
"Mmh. So what're you whittling there old timer?"
"Pictures of Hathor. They say you can wish for something if you make a thousand" he replied.
"Oh? Never knew you were a hathorite. How many have you made?"
"Haven't finished a one, them titties are harder to get right than you'd think. You screw up and think you can just whittle them down some, and then they get too small. I'll be a hundred and three before I get my wish"
"And what would that wish be?"
Storbjörn rubbed his chin and looked up to the sky, tilting his head back in wonder so much Olivia had to wrap her legs and tail around his neck to not fall, giggling all the while at this new, fun activity. Hearing her giggles got Henrietta to finally open her eyes, even if she did refuse to climb down from her mother's embrace.
"My wish, huh? At a hundred and three I'd probably want to go a round with that there cow goddess, but the missus wouldn't approve of that, no sirree... hmm. Maybe some proper mead then?" he said, perfectly serious.
"Uncle Storbjörn, what's proper mead?" Olivia asked, still upside down.
"Mead like they made in my old country. Oh, they knew what they were doing. The missus just can't get it right, not to save her life..."
"Uhh, that reminds, sir, if Mrs. Girtroot is at home right now?" Dahlia asked.
"Nah, not in the house, she's off frolicking or some such. If'n you happen to run into her, I'd be much obliged if you told her to come home and get the stew going, all this whittling is hard work, makes a man hungry"
"C-certainly!" Dahlia replied with a curtsy. As the old warrior turned around, Henrietta stuck out her tongue. The upside-down Olivia thought it was meant for her, and stuck hers out in response. The two girls then made faces for a bit, and Henrietta, following her batty instincts, turned upside down herself.
Willis shook his head at this and left the yard of the house, dug into the hillside, with the roof doubling as a fenced herb garden, and turned to the meadows, where flowers grew in abundance. There were plenty of figures frolicking there, actually, little boys being chased by little girls, Elves mostly. An idyllic sight once again, under the warm rays of the Sun. Seeing scenes like this made him feel a sense of fulfilment, or accomplishment. All this was possible thanks to his efforts. Well, not entirely, but without him none of it would be. Heh.
"Ooh, it's such a wide open space..." Dahlia complained.
"That a problem?"
"Not in the air..."
Willis slapped her buttocks, eliciting a surprised yelp.
"You're such babies, both of you" he rebuked the two bats.
"Are too, and that's final. Let's just go to..." Willis scanned the landscape, looking for the familiar figure of the Troll, "...there, to that big, meaty behind!" he said, having found the voluptuous for he sought.
"I can't see it at all!" Dahlia said.
"And I couldn't see her if it was dark. Just follow my lead"
The Troll they approached had spent a great deal of time in the outdoors, and had managed a tan most uncharacteristic of her kind. Not only that, but hard work had left her arms quite muscular - naturally, they were left bare by her dress - and thus her soft curves looked almost like they belonged on another person. Willis had seen her naked though, and knew that it all fit together seamlessly, Hannah Girtroot was not one of Liz' creations.
"Ahoy there!" Willis shouted to the Troll who was facing away from them. It was only after this he realized he would've had the perfect opportunity to yank her tail. Oh well, always next time.
"Oh my, what a surprise this is!" the Troll said excitedly, brushing some of her sweaty curls behind her ear.
"Master Willis, and if it isn't Dahlia and Henrietta? What brings you all down here?"
Before answering, Willis found himself wondering if there wasn't something wrong with that statement.
"Wait, where's Olivia?" he asked with a start upon realizing who was missing.
"Oh? The young lady is here as well?"
"No, no she isn't! But she should be!"
Willis whirled around in place like a top, trying to spy his daughter. Maybe she was in one of the frolicking groups?
"M-master Willis, please calm down! It's not like there's anything dangerous down here!" Dahlia said, but her tone made it clear that the panic was contagious.
Willis' hand closed and opened, his arms atremble. Surely not. Surely she was not... no, she couldn't have. Not her. No way.
"To the house..." he mumbled, rushing off back to the Girtroot household.
"M-master Willis?" Dahlia shouted, but he took no heed. He had to hurry. There was hardly any doubt in his mind, although he had tried to deny it, had refused to accept it. But that had been at first, when he'd been emotional. Reason dictated the truth to him. It was obvious. Olivia was her mother's daughter, after all. He had no time to lose.
"Hhhhh.... hhhh... hhhh..."
Shortness of breath already, and his side was stinging. Of course it was, his heart was in no condition for athleticism. But this was a matter most grave. He had to...
"Hm? You're in a rush, eh?" mumbled Storbjörn as Willis hurried past him into the house. But despite his rush, he was too late. The damage was done.
"Daddy?" Olivia asked, surprised. She'd thought she had sneaked away with perfect timing, with enough spare time to sneak back before anyone noticed she'd ever been gone. Then she realized she was still holding the last strawberry. The big one. The one she'd been saving for last, just like Mommy had taught her, save the best for last and it'll be even better.
"Hhh... yo.... youuhhhh..."
Uh-oh. Daddy was mad. Well duh, he loved strawberries. Everybody in the family did. Auntie Liz said raspberries were better, but Ollie didn't agree.
"Here!" she said, holding out the big one to Daddy, putting on a serious expression. "I saved you this one, to convoy my feelings to you!"
Staring at the last, juicy strawberry, Willis felt a rage and despair build inside him. That all died the moment he heard his daughter's silly excuse. But there was no letting this go!
He crossed his arms and tried to look stern.
"And why should I accept your convoy?" he asked.
"Did I say that wrong?"
"I don't have all day, Ollie"
"Hmph. Fine! To contort my feelings to you!"
"You were closer at first. Off by one letter. Tsk, tsk. Now give me my berry!"
Ollie handed it over, and Willis grabbed it without a word, threw it into his mouth and chewed and swallowed quicker than he could enjoy it. Just to spite his daughter.
"You've earned yourself some extra lessons for tomorrow" he said.
"Aww!" she said with a look of disappointment so profound, Willis' heart melted.
"Hmph. Tonight we'll go swimming though. And to the sauna, too" he said, trying to comfort her somehow, without going back on his decision.
"Really?" she asked, her eyes aglow with excitement.
"Really, really? This isn't like the pony, right?"
"Hey, that was your mother's fault, not mine"
"Nuh-huh, you're the one who promised me one!"
"But your mother is the one who didn't get one, so there!" he defended himself, and the two left the Girtroot house bickering.
Dahlia, Henrietta and Hannah had reached the house by then.
"What was the trouble?" Hannah asked as her husband picked her up by the waist and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
"Nevermind that, we're off to the lake now. You all have a good one" he said with a wave of his hand.
"Aww, Henri can't come?" Olivia asked, now hanging from her father's hand.
"I don't feel like babysitting, and Dahlia's got to stay here awhile, eh?"
"That's true, I do... sorry Olivia" the Bat apologized. Henrietta had somehow managed to fall asleep again at this point.
"Hmm, so Willis and the little lady came here for strawberries?" Hannah asked, now holding up her husband by the waist and giving him a kiss on the cheek in turn.
"Yup! They were delicious!" Ollie said, making a clumsy curtsy.
"I'm glad to hear it" Hannah said with a smile, now again in the air as Storbjörn was lifting her. "I'll be sure to have fresh pickings the day after tomorrow, if a certain someone was left unsatisfied..."
"Hmph" grunted Willis, who kept walking toward the lake with determined steps.
Father and daughter made way to the lake, where they appropriated a rowboat without asking anyone. Willis rowed them to the only island in the lake, a little thing barely big enough to support a forest consisting of a couple dozen birches. On this island lived a compact family of four, a father, a mother and twin daughters. Willis couldn't tell the little ones apart, but they didn't take offence to that.
The log cabin they lived in was at the centre of the island, and was not really any different from the ones the people on the mainland lived in, but this family had one very distinct advantage over the others, and that was their smoke sauna. The northerners, having grown up with saunas, had built several in the valley, and the engineering department had even set one up in the Lair, but none of them really compared to the experience provided by this chimneyless wonder. And it was this particular experience that had made Olivia and Rhea so often visit this island. Willis himself was not all that into the whole thing. A sauna was one thing, but the smoke sauna made his eyes hurt and he couldn't really tell any difference between the... the "löyly" as they called it. He couldn't even pronounce that without feeling like an idiot. Apparently it was an entirely different language from the word "öl", which was what the other northerners called beer. Eugh. Couldn't they all speak the common tongue, spoken in every nation that traced its origins in the Old Empire? Liz said that never existed though. Enough about that, though, Willis thought to himself as their boat reached the shore and they were greeted by one of the twins.
"Sommoro" she said with a wave of her webbed claw. Sahuagins had some resemblance to Dragons, Willis thought when his daughter hugged her friend.
It didn't take long after their arrival for the host family to get to work on heating up the sauna, and while that was going on, the little ones went swimming, as that was what Sahuagins did, and that was what Willis had promised Ollie. The three splashed around after wading into the shallows at first, and then went deeper to chase after fish. The Sahuagin twins, Tiia and Piia, had some moderate success at this, being amphibian hunters and all. They caught many a bass, showed their catch off to an increasingly irritated Ollie, and then released. The mighty Black Dragonette was not an experienced or talented hunter when it came to underwater prey, and she failed to put up any competition. She also failed to give up.
"Takes up after her mother, that one" Willis mumbled as he watched them from the shore.
"Just the one?" asked Kamilla, the mother of the twins, a Sahuagin woman of full maturity, a soft, curvy body, and a massive tail. Willis knew that Sahuagins used their tails in the same way that beavers did, to make extremely loud noises by slamming them on the water, as a way of marking territory or something. This entire lake was all theirs, of course, so there was no need to bother people with such noise.
"No, I meant mine. She's stubborn as a mule, same as her momma. I'd have given up on the fish long ago"
Kamilla was obviously only keeping him company to be polite. She wanted to get in the water too, but there's no way she'd admit it, being all mature and reserved... if they'd been at the end of a pier, Willis would've showed her down.
"Ooh! Daddy, daddy, look! Look what Tiia caught!"
"Huh? Yeah, whatever, look, look daddy! It's huge! It's a spike!"
"Whatever! Look at daddy!"
"It ran away" the twin who had not been holding on to the fish pointed out. She was Tiia, then.
"THEN GO CATCH IT!" Olivia ordered.
"Can't" said the one who had caught it, Piia.
"Well why not? You lazy?"
"It's awake now. I only caught it because it was asleep. I can't swim fast enough"
"Then can you?" Olivia asked, turning to the other sister.
"Can your mom?"
"HEY! AUNTIE KAMILLA! COME CATCH THAT PIKE FOR ME! I WANT IT FOR LUNCH!"
Kamilla turned to look at Willis when she heard this order.
"Do you have any pike in the larder?"
"Then you better go get some"
Kamilla nonchalantly undressed without a hint of embarrassment or shyness and waded into the water, her ass swinging from side to side with her wagging tail. At least one part of her body was honest about how much she was enjoying herself, Willis thought. He lied down on his side for a bit to observe as the fully grown amphibian disappeared below the lake's surface. His stomach growled a little. He hadn't eaten anything but the one strawberry since his late breakfast, and it hadn't been all that long, but somehow he had an enormous appetite now. That meant Rhea was hungry right now. Wonder what time of day it was where she was... he hadn't really asked her about WHERE she spent her time raiding. It couldn't have been very close, all the people living near these mountains were either too poor have anything worth robbing or paid protection money. Or Dragontax, as it was called. That was actually a much better source of income than raiding, but Rhea and her friends had urges. Hmm. Now what was SHE going to stuff herself with today? Probably meat. Lots and lots of meat. He'd eat meat too. Olivia could keep the pike. Willis had his mind set on some of that delicious sausage that Tapani made. How he managed to make it different from what everyone else did, he'd never know, because he didn't care. What mattered was that it was good. And maybe some mead to go with it...
The surface of the water broke and Kamilla's head popped up, the pike, over a meter in length, was flapping in the unbreakable grip of her jaws.
"AH! Don't eat my fish auntie!"
She didn't eat the fish. The ladies of the lake emerged, all butt-naked, and Kamilla got to work on preparing the pike.
"I'll start the fire!" Olivia said with gusto, and put some twigs into a pile, inhaled until her lungs were about to burst, and then used her firebreath. It would be some years before she could learn to handle fire and acid properly, but the puff of hot air, smoke and sparks was enough to get the thing going. The kids all sat around the fire and then split the pike between the themselves, while Kamilla, still butt-naked, went to inform Tapani that the grown-ups needed a meal as well. She was not the cook of the family, being more inclined toward raw fish and clams and crabs.
What a strange name, Tapani. He'd said it was his language's version of Stephen, but that made no sense to Willis. It didn't really matter what the man's name was. What mattered was that he made damn fine sausage. And the sauna. That was getting ready, too... ahh, the stinging and teary eyes were almost worth it. Almost.
"Hey papa?" Olivia asked after the host family had left the sauna for a swim.
"Whaaaat~?" Willis asked, his eyes tightly shut, concentrating heavily on the pleasure produced by the heat, while concentrating equally heavily on ignoring the stinging the smoke caused his. Don't rub them, don't rub them, he kept reminding himself.
"When will you finish your story?"
"The one about you and mommy"
"I dunno. Now? Where was I?"
"You'd lied to the Valkyrie that you were a knight"
"Ah yes, so I did"
"Did it work?"
"Did she believe you? For realsies?"