Sparring and a bath.

Hans noticed that the area outside the hall was a sizable community of mostly wattle and daub buildings. Elf women abounded, many stopping in their tasks to look at him. He glanced the direction of the sound of metal on metal to see a well muscled, and bare breasted, blacksmith at work. She looked back at him for a moment, before she casually crossed an arm across her chest and reached for a cloth. Turning her back to him, she tied it into a halter top, then returned to work.

Tiek’s job was made difficult as a throng began gathering between them and their destination. There wasn’t a elf in the bunch that topped his chin. Some of the bolder ones reached out to touch him as they passed.

A voice rang out, “Hold, Lord Madison.”

It sounded like Gná. Hans turned, in time catch a wooden sword from the air. The throng evaporated.

“I am Za, captain of My Lady’s guard. I would see what kind of warrior you are.”

The warrior confronting him, Za, wore much the same armor he had noted before. In getting a closer look, and in better light, Hans could see that the linked, overlapping plates of the skirt were attached to a slightly oversize felt layer. This armor would be whisper quiet. She had no helm with her, but her blond hair was cut short so that none would extend beyond a helm if she had one on.

“I don’t understand.”

She smiled broadly, teeth bare. A feral grin if Hans had ever seen one.

“Surely you appreciate a bath all the more after some exercise. Would you like a shield?”

Hans made a few practice swings before gripping the sword in both hands. He set his feet wide and brought the tip up in challenge. “No, this will do.”

Za nodded in satisfaction, or at least her grin became less toothy. “Let us begin, then.”

Za stepped into range and swung her sword at his side. Hans easily deflected it. As she was off balance, he made a swing from his right. It glanced off her shield. She tried another blow, but Hans was again able to easily block it.

Elves gathered about and cheered. Several ravens, led by one as big as the one back home, even seemed taken in by the spectacle.

Za seemed a little shaken. Hans was easily the more powerful of the two of them. Using both hands, he was able to move his weapon faster and strike harder as well. But he didn’t have a shield, so he had to watch out for an attack coming at the same time that she was also blocking.

Figuring she wouldn’t be used to an attack from the left, Hans struck from that side. She blocked it and set him back with a shield blow.

Za sounded impressed. “Very good. You have an interesting fighting style. It is not one I am familiar with.”

Hans straightened and shrugged. “It’s called Kendo. It’s really more of a sport. You should meet my friend, Jin, er, Hasaki. I’m lucky to score a point on him, but he can beat me like a punching bag.”

Hans caught a flash of displeasure. “Is that all this is to you then? Sport?”

Hans replied, somberly and shrugging his shoulders, “I can’t answer that. I’ve never been in a real fight until I found myself face to face with Fenrir. That sure wasn’t sport. If it weren’t for Hasaki’s constant training, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

Za came at him again. Hans sidestepped, sending Za off balance. He smacked the wooden blade against the back of her armor. It was Za’s turn to straighten.

She gave Hans a wry, half smile. “I shall hope to meet your Friend Hasaki someday. To thank him for sending us such a champion, as well as to see who becomes who’s ‘punching bag.’ Defend yourself!”

Za renewed her attack with added ferocity. Her sword kept coming from her right, but if he paid too much attention to it, the shield would come from the left. The legs seemed fair game, but by unspoken agreement neither went for the face. Hans ducked a high blow and tried to sweep her legs with his sword. She sprang out of the way. Her next blow came down and he barely got his blade up in time to block it. As he rose, he cut low, to get under her shield, but she whirled out of the way. Before he even finished his swing, he found the tip of Za’s weapon against his chest.

The elves cheered. The raven flew off crowing as if in disgust.

“I can’t win ’em all, bird,” Hans muttered in its direction.

That seemed to be the end of the match. Someone collected the wooden swords and Tiek took him by the hand, heading for one of the larger buildings.

* * *

Hans and Za, led by Tiek stepped into the bathhouse. Its occupants all looked up. Hans noticed that they were all women, elf women, naked elf women.

“Eek. I’m sorry.” Hans turned to leave, quickly, but Za caught his shoulder.

“Is there a problem, Lord Madison?” she asked.

“I didn’t mean to walk into the Ladies Bathhouse.”

Za shook her head. “There is only one bathhouse, Lord Madison. And trust me, you do need a bath. In addition to smelling of meat and sweat . . .” Za pulled Hans back to her and whispered in his ear. “You practically reek of sex. And that is most unfair to the rest of us.”

She turned Hans back into the bathhouse.

“You should know that it is an insult to refuse to bathe with someone.”

“But they’re all women. I, I might, um, notice.”

Za laughed. “Not noticing can be taken as an insult as well. If you undress quickly maybe everyone will pretend to not notice your noticing.”

Hans decided to go with that fiction. Jinsoku had once told him the etiquette of public baths. He would do his best to be polite and not stare.

“Um, OK,” was all he could say.

Without looking up Hans removed his robe and armor. The last piece to go was the tartan, which he practically dropped, planning to hit the tub right off. He was intercepted and guided, by many hands, to a low bench. Someone handed him a soapy cloth. Other soapy cloths were being worked on his back.

Za sat next to him, and as her back was scrubbed, she washed her front and legs with her own cloth. Hans own soapy cloth had gone missing, and as he reflected on this, tried not to think about the soft touches on his back that were definitely neither cloth, nor hand.

Hans tried to think of something that would take his mind off of . . . everything. He looked toward Za, only out of the corner of his eye. She was washing her neck, her chin held high, her back arched slightly, as soap ran down . . . This was getting uncomfortable.

“Captain Za?” He somehow managed a conversational tone.

“Yes, Lord Madison?”

“Can you tell me about your armor? What it’s made of?”

Apparently Za did not think that an odd topic for bath conversation. But then she was Captain of the Guard. Arms and armor could well be one of her favorite subjects.

“It is a simple segmented armor patterned after the kind worn by Roman soldiers. We make it from several layers of woven spider silk bonded with a lacquer into shaped segments. We used to have single piece breastplates, but damaged segments are easier to replace than a whole plate, and spider silk cloth is rather difficult to produce.”

“You have a blacksmith. Why not use steel? Is it because elves can’t touch iron?”

Za made one of her half smiles. “So it was her craft you were so interested in. No, Lord Madison, iron is not a problem for us. I think you confuse us with Fae in that respect. Steel is simply hard to produce and work in this realm, so it is saved for use in weapons. Also we find our version almost as strong, as well as quieter and lighter, and no doubt more comfortable on a summer day. I am sure you have also noted that we paint it. It always helps to blend in with surroundings.”

Gná picked up a bucket in front of her and rinsed herself off. Another bucketful was applied to her from behind.

“Wow. Spider silk. Now that I think of it, I guess it would be tough. You could make a mint if you were to export it to Earth.”

Hans doused himself with a bucket, and felt his back get two or three bucketfuls as well. He was then guided to the oversize tub, thankfully noting that a certain effect had, at least for the moment, subsided. Several seemingly disappointed elves got out to make room for him and Za.

Za entered the tub across from Hans. “We need every scrap we make, Lord Madison. In truth, the real reason we paint the armor is to hide repairs, lest an enemy spy a weak point.”

Hans heard a lecture in her voice. “Ogres may not have the power of speech as you and I know it, but they communicate well enough amongst themselves and are witty opponents.”

Hans had tried not to look but noticed that Za had scars as well. In particular there were three parallel scars from beneath her left breast going down across her torso. Familiar looking scars. The upper scar actually started just beneath the nipple and . . .

Hans realized he was staring.

Oblivious to his gaze, or perhaps unconcerned, Za sighed loudly. “Ahhh. Mankind may have invented the wheel, and maybe even as they say, invented the gods themselves, but in my opinion, the hot bath is the greatest gift your race has bestowed upon all the realms.”

Hans relaxed some by looking to the ceiling, he only caught the occasional view up a naked body that way. “This is nice. Is that really true, about hot baths?”

A particularly nice bottom drifted in and out of view. He almost succeeded in not checking out the owner. He decided to simply face Za. It wasn’t like he could make out anything below water. He thought he caught a momentary smirk on her face.

Having his attention, she answered. “So they say. It is even said that Mankind discovered fire and metalworking first, though no dwarf will ever admit to that. Your race has ever been the hardiest and craftiest of all that The Earth-mother has spawned. But the things you have done with your gifts . . .”

Za shivered in spite of the steaming hot water. A woman stepped behind Za and tipped her head back before pouring water over her hair and starting a lather. Since Za seemed to have expected that, Hans wasn’t surprised when his ponytail was undone and his head was soaked down as well. It was remarkably pleasant. At least he had an excuse for keeping his eyes shut.

“They want to know if you wish to be shaved.”

Hans’ head jerked up. He saw Tiek, well, probably Tiek, she was naked as a jaybird too, bent down to Za’s ear looking at him intently. Hans recalled his similar perspective of Seidr, just that morning.

“Shaved?”

“You obviously follow the practice of removing your facial hair. Do you want to shave yourself or have it done for you?”

An object resembling a straight razor was offered to Hans.

“I’ve always used an electric razor. I’d probably slit my own throat if I tried using that.”

With the increasingly familiar tittering about him Hans found his head pulled back again, chin tilted up and a lather quickly applied to his chin.

He could almost hear Za grinning broadly, “It would appear, then, Lord Madison, that you are today’s entertainment.”

Next: CHAPTER 9–DECEIT

http://www.tmi-comic.com/web-novels/aelfheim/
Copyright AndyOH! (Andrew F. Odendhal)
Not for redistribution. All rights reserved. 
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to persons living or dead is coincidental.