A Sellsword in the Bath House
by N.C. Weber
Aeslinn wrapped the ties from her apron around her waist twice before tying them securely behind her. The morning air was heavy with moisture. Though any mist had failed to form, dew hung from everything. Not a good day for the bath house. People tended not to think about taking a hot bath on a day like this. It was going to be a slow day, which meant that the proprietor, a dried up old woman with the disposition of a jackal, was going to be in an especially sour mood.
Aeslinn sighed. She really could use the slow day, but knew that she and the other women who serviced customers in the bath house would most likely be doing cleanup and repair of the different rooms. Squaring her shoulders, Aeslinn stepped out into the common room where customers normally entered and requested baths. The proprietor sat behind the counter fanning herself furiously. Aeslinn shook her head. She and the others had told the old woman many times that fanning herself like that would only make her feel even more heated in weather like this, but she never listened.
Aeslinn was about to turn around and head into one of the bathing rooms when the door chimes sounded. In walked the tallest, most muscular woman that she had ever seen. Aeslinn what impressed in spite of herself. Though covered in sweat and road dust, the woman held herself with a noble's bearing. She wore a leather jerkin over a linen shirt and leather trousers. Her boots were heavy and lined with fur. Her leather gauntlets had plates of steel stitched along the back of the wrist. Her mouse brown hair was cut short save for a braid that ran a hand's span down the back of her neck. Her skin was tanned like new leather. She carried a massive canvas duffel bag over her shoulder. Aeslinn could easily imagine that the woman's entire life resided within that bag. Hung at her back, however, was her livelihood. A heavy, unadorned bastard sword marked her as a blade for hire.
They had served such folk before, but they were always men. This was the first time Aeslinn had ever seen a woman who was a warrior. Most times hired blades were stoic, dour people, or they ran toward the angry violent persuasion. This woman, though not emotive, was calm and serene.
“I'd like a bath, please,” she said in a soft voice. The warrior place a gold coin of foreign make on the counter. Aeslinn could see from her position that the old proprietor was fixing her mouth to give a refusal. The last sellsword who came through the bath house damaged one of the baths and injured one of the girls. Luckily, the constable had come by for a visit and was able to stop him before he did any severe damage. However, the gold coin shining on the counter brought the old woman up short. The cost of a full bath with attendants and a massage was a couple silver sovereigns. A straight bath only cost a copper penny. Many of the local farm workers and laborers would come by for the penny bath to clean up before they headed home.
The old proprietor picked up the coin and eyed it suspiciously. It was money from another country, and one that Aeslinn had not come across before. This woman had obviously traveled much farther than the bordering nation states. The old woman's eyes roamed the common room until they spied Aeslinn. “You, girl. Take care of this customer.”
“I do not require an attendant,” protested the warrior.
“You paid gold,” snapped the old woman. “I can't allow anything less than a full bath for that kind of money. I can also have food sent for, if you wish.”
The warrior opened her mouth to protest, but apparently thought better of it and simply replied, “As you say.”
Aeslinn stepped up to the warrior. “Please, come with me, my lady.”
The warrior bark out a short laugh. “I am no lady, little one.”
Aeslinn couldn't help but smile. “May I carry your bag.”
The warrior looked doubtfully at Aeslinn. “It's very heavy. Are you sure you can carry it?”
“Of course,” assured Aeslinn. “I carry customers' bags all the time.” She reached out for the canvas duffel bag. The warrior carefully lifted the strap from her shoulder and handed it to Aeslinn, but wouldn't release it until Aeslinn had a solid grip. The sudden weight on Aeslinn's arms took her by surprise. With a grunt of effort she shouldered the bag and continued to lead the warrior into the large bathing room.
“Are you sure you're okay carrying that,” asked the warrior. Aeslinn could see out the corner of her eye that a smile was trying to pull at the warrior's lips.
“Fear not, my lady,” assured Aeslinn. “I have things well in hand.”
In the large bathing room the great oaken tub had been filled with fresh, hot water. Since it was still early in the morning, the water hadn't had a chance to cool down. Aeslinn walked over to a heavy bench and slowly, carefully lowered the bag onto it. She wanted very much to blow out a sigh of relief, but managed to maintain her composure with a bit of effort. Aeslinn pointed to a wooden screen on the far side of the room. “You can undress there. I can have your clothes cleaned and pressed by the time you finish your soak.”
“I'm not sure all that is necessary,” said the warrior hesitantly.
“Please, my lady,” said Aeslinn with faux affront, “this bath house has a reputation to maintain. You did pay in gold, after all.” Aeslinn was pleased to see the woman attempt smother a very unwarrior-like giggle with her hand.
“All right then,” said the warrior, “but allow me to remove my safeguards.”
“Safeguards?” asked Aeslinn puzzled. She was astonished when the warrior woman began to pull various blades from hidden places all about her person. By the time she was done, there were ten steel blades of varying size and shape laid out on a shelf near the dressing screen. “Wow,” breathed Aeslinn. “Where were you hiding them all?”
The warrior smiled. “Well, a large sword isn't always a convenient weapon to carry in most places. It's mostly for field battle, so I often need other weapons should I find trouble in hallways or other small spaces.” At the mention of her sword, the warrior had hefted it from her back and laid it on another bench. Once again, Aeslinn marveled at it's plain appearance. There were no marking either on the hilt or the blade, and no jewels or other adornments on the pommel or guards. Then, the warrior sat down on the bench to remove her boots.
“Allow me, my lady,” cried Aeslinn as she rushed forward to take hold of the warrior's boot.
The warrior laughed. “I know you're required to be polite to please your customers, but really, I am no lady.”
Aeslinn studied the warrior's face. “Then, what should I call you?”
“I am called Markaina,” said the warrior. Aeslinn managed to pull the first boot free and began tugging on the second. The odor that wafted from the footwear was nearly overpowering. Aeslinn ignored the stench and noted that Markaina was wearing woolen socks. “Lady Markaina…,” she began.
“Ah-ah, just Markaina, please,” replied the warrior.
Aeslinn nodded. “Why are you wearing wool socks in such hot weather?” She proceeded to pull the garments off Markaina's feet
“Ah,” responded Markaina, “I have only just come down from the mountains west of here. It's very cold up near the summit. Have you noticed the snow that caps them?” Aeslinn nodded. “I needed the wool socks and fur lined boots while I was there. I hadn't had a chance to change out of my cold weather gear until now. I assure you, I have much more appropriate clothing in my bag.”
“Well, if you'll remove your clothes, I can have them sent out to be cleaned,” piped up Aeslinn. “Your leather will be conditioned and oiled. I know a fine leather worker in town who's very good.”
“I don't suppose there's anyway I could talk you out of going through so much trouble,” asked Markaina.
“Not when you pay in gold coin,” replied Aeslinn.
“I shall have to remember that,” mused Markaina. “And what do I call you.”
“You may call me Aeslinn,” said Aeslinn with a smile.
Markaina nodded and stepped behind the screen. The jerkin and trousers were the first to be thrown over the screen. Next came the linen shirt. Lastly, a breast band and loin cloth. Aeslinn set the clothes aside to be taken out later. A naked Markaina stepped out from the screen, and Aeslinn couldn't help but stare. She, fortunately, had the presence of mind not to gasp in shock, but it was a very near thing. On Markaina's arms and legs were very old scars criss-crossing her thighs and forearms. When Markaina climbed into the tub, Aeslinn saw even more scars striping her back.
“You seem to lead a hard life, Markaina,” breathed Aeslinn.
“Not as much as I used to,” sighed Markaina as she settled into the hot bath water up to her neck.
With a shake of her head, Aeslinn came back to her senses and reached wash cloth and soap to Markaina. When the warrior reached for the cloth, it was then that Aeslinn saw the tattoo on the underside of Markaina's left wrist. It was unmistakable. A diamond shape with four bent lines protruding from each side. The whole effect looked like an overview of a four-legged spider. “You're a slave,” whispered Aeslinn.
“Well, I was a slave, yes,” Markaina said in casual tones. “But, I have left that life behind me.”
“Markaina,” exclaimed Aeslinn, “when you're made a slave, you are a slave for life.”
“I have a bastard sword and body count that says otherwise,” remarked Markaina calmly. She regarded Aeslinn for a moment. “This is mostly why I didn't want an attendant.”
Aeslinn was torn. She was duty bound as a citizen to report an escaped slave. Yet, at the same time, it was apparent that there have been others who had attempted to do the same. It did not bear thinking what happened to them.
As if she were able to hear her thoughts, Markaina spoke. “I understand if you want to notify the constable. I'd probably do the same in your position. You needn't worry about me hurting anyone in this place.”
Aeslinn's heart was racing. What should she do? Markaina took her ease in the tub as she lathered the wash cloth and began to scrub. “Can I ask how you escaped?” queried the girl.
“There's not much to tell,” said Markaina. “I had always been a terrible slave. Too willful. Too stubborn. They tried to break me. I broke them instead. After that, I knew I had to run. They would kill me for what I did. I had always been good with a blade, though the only bladed instruments I had used up to that point was a sickle and a skinning knife. I managed to hire on to a caravan and traveled to many places where slavery is not allowed. As I traveled, I learned about many kinds of fighting arts. I've always been big for a woman, so I built up my strength. Studied sword, and axe, and bow. Learned weaponless fighting.”
“Weaponless?” asked Aeslinn enthralled. “Like brawling?”
Markaina chuckled. “Not quite. There is a style of fighting in the far north where you train your focus and strength into a small point on your body. Usually a hand or a foot. It's like dancing somewhat, but it quite deadly.” She was struggling to reach behind her with the wash cloth. Immediately, Aeslinn took the cloth from her hand and began to scrub her back, taking care around the old whip weals. “You needn't be so gentle,” remarked Markaina. “Those scars are over a decade old.”
“If you've been traveling in so many far away places,” asked Aeslinn, “why have you come back here where you'll be hunted and enslaved again?”
Markaina paused. “I'm not sure I should tell you. It would probably upset you.”
“Stand up, please,” ordered Aeslinn. Markaina smiled and did as she was told. Aeslinn began to scrub Markaina's legs and buttocks. “Why would it upset me?”
“I plan to end slavery in our country,” said Markaina. She spoke as if she were planning a small party for close friends. Markaina felt the cloth stop mid-thigh. It was many moments before the scrubbing started again.
“You plan on starting a slave revolt?” asked Aeslinn. “Sit, so I can scrub your feet.”
Markaina sat back into the tub and lifted one of her legs out of the water. “What makes you think I'm suicidal? You can't wrest entrenched power through force of arms.” Aeslinn began scrubbing the top of Markaina's foot, then moved to the sole. “You have to use persuasion to try and get people to-” There was a splash, and a rather unceremonious snort. Aeslinn looked up and notice that Markaina had covered her mouth with both hands. Her eyes were squinted and her cheeks were flush.
“Are you okay?” asked Aeslinn. Markaina nodded. Aeslinn continued to scrub the sole of Markaina's foot, producing more snorts and other strange noises from behind the warriors hands. “Are you sure you're okay?”
“I'm fine,” she managed from behind her hands. “It's just, I'm ticklish on the soles of my feet.”
Aeslinn blinked. “But, they're calloused!”
Markaina shrugged. “They're still ticklish.”
“Think you can survive the other one?” asked Aeslinn.
“Only one way to find out,” remarked Markaina. Dipping the now clean foot back into the tub and pulling out the second, Markina presented her other foot for scrubbing. Aeslinn began on the instep as she had done before.
“Try closing your eyes,” offered Aeslinn. “If you're not watching me, maybe it won't tickle as much.” Once Markaina's eyes were closed, Aeslinn continued to scrub her instep. Then, smoothly slipped around the side of the foot to the sole. Markaina let out a snort, but seemed to be handing things a little better this time. Aeslinn worked quickly to get the job finished sooner. “All done!” she said as she lowered the foot into the tub. She then moved to the other end of the tub. “Now, I want to wash your hair.”
“Goodness,” remarked Markaina, “you're serious about this cleanliness thing, aren't you?”
“Everyone should have a good clean at least once a week,” said Aeslinn. “More if you work outdoors.” She undid the tie holding Markaina's braid and began to unwind the strands. With a small bowl, Aeslinn scooped up water and poured it over Markaina's head. “Besides,” she continued, “if you're going to try persuading people, then you need to smell pleasant.”
“Are you suggesting that after a long trudge through the summer heat in winter garb, I would smell anything less than a field of roses?” said Markaina dryly.
“Only if that field lies next to a sty,” replied Aeslinn with a huff. This remark produced a laugh from Markaina. Taking the soap, Aeslinn began to lather Markaina's hair. “I won't insult a warrior by offering you the latest hair balm, but I would like to condition your hair with a little palm oil before braiding it.”
“I think at this point, I have learned to go along with whatever you recommend,” chuckled Markaina.
Aeslinn proceeded to scrub Markaina's scalp, rinse out the soap, lather her hair a second time, followed by another scrub and rinse. Lastly, she used a heavy cotton towel to dry the hair as much as she could before applying the oil and rebraiding. “Now,” said Aeslinn with satisfaction, “you relax, and I'll see about your clothes.” Aeslinn had grabbed the discarded clothes and exited before Markaina could respond.
It was a little more than an hour before Aeslinn returned with the leather jerkin, trousers and boots. “Your shirt, socks and undergarments will take a bit more time to dry.”
Markaina looked up. “No constable?”
Aeslinn smiled sheepishly. “No constable.”
Markaina settled back in the tub. “I thank you.”
“I think it's time for you to get out,” said Aeslinn thoughtfully. “Unless you want to look like dried fruit.”
Markaina carefully stepped out of the tub and into the waiting towel that Aeslinn held for her. It was large enough for even a woman of her stature to wrap up in completely.
“So, do you think anyone will listen to you once they discover that you are a slave?” asked Aeslinn.
“I don't know if anyone will listen to me if they don't discover that I am a former slave,” replied Markaina, carefully stressing the word former.
Aeslinn bit her lip. “I may...know someone who would be willing to help.”
Markaina raised a brow. “Oh?”
“He's a nobleman from a nearby estate who has been trying to abolish slavery,” explained Aeslinn. “He has been trying to convince other nobles to denounce the practice, but he hasn't had much luck.”
“Perhaps, he is the kind of contact I require,” said Markaina. She began to rummage through her duffel bag, pulling out fresh undergarments and clothes for warmer weather. She laid out another linen shirt and a cotton tunic. She also pulled out hose and leather shoes. “Can you arrange a meeting with him for me?”
“I believe so,” said Aeslinn. “He often visits the tavern across town.”
“Well, that's convenient,” said Markaina. “I'm going to need a room to stay in for a while.”
“It's the slow season,” remarked Aeslinn. “People tend not to travel in humid weather like this. You should be able to get a rather good room there. Shall I freshly press your clothes before you put them on? It'll be quick. I have an iron already heated in back.”
Markaina chuckled. “Sure, why not?”
Aeslinn dipped a quick curtsy, which made Markaina grin, snatched up the summer clothes and bustled out of the room. True to her word, Aeslinn had returned before a quarter hour had passed with the shirt, tunic, and hose free of wrinkles. “Goodness! You are quick,” commented Markaina. “I would have taken forever for the shirt alone. Probably would have burned it, too.”
“It does take a bit of practice,” replied Aeslinn conversationally. “I suppose a sellsword like yourself doesn't get a chance to do much housework.”
Markaina shook her head as she picked up the undergarments, and began to put them on. “Not exactly the kind of chores I'm called upon to do very often,” she admitted. “On the other hand, if you need a cord of wood cut, I'm your woman. I can cook a pretty good road stew, though I suppose that isn't appropriate for polite company.”