“A woman like you shouldn’t be alone in a place like this.” He blew the words through his bristles like spitting seeds, carrying the stink of rotting teeth with them.

Even if his eyes weren’t fuzzy with drink, he couldn’t have seen the set of her jaw through the smears of color she had painted on for this rare night out, nor the striations of her sleek muscles through the silken pink ruffles of finery that covered her torso and cascaded down her back, over the spot where human turned to horse, over her four rigid legs with their hooves planted firmly, steadily on the ground.

She grinned. “I suppose you will protect me?”

“Ask any man at this mangy inn and he will tell you there is no greater warrior in the land.” He gestured grandly toward the drunken, disinterested patrons. “I’ve been battling since birth.”

As a filly, she had followed her mother and father into battle. This was their life, and the life of the generations that had preceded them. It would be hers as well. They taught her to swing a sword, always for results, never for show. At great cost, they demonstrated the mistakes not to make, leaving pieces of themselves on the battlefield in the process, until one day, when there was no more of them left to walk away and she stood on the battlefield alone, a mare now, head held high, her muscles painted with the blood of her enemy.

The man slapped his formidable bicep with his opposite hand to emphasize the pink lines that crisscrossed it. “My scars tell all that need be told.”

“I see.”

To her, scars were nothing to brag about, a symbol of one’s inability to defend oneself. Her skin remained pristine, untouched by blade. No cudgel had damaged her fur. She had no marks save for those on her hocks from charging too quickly into battle over jagged rocks or through bramble. They had only recently healed from her last fight, when she had nearly broken all four of her legs by hurling herself off a cliff to position herself in the middle of the fray. She had landed awkwardly on rough terrain, but recovered confidently with sword drawn, much to her enemy’s slit-throat surprise.

“I have fought in many battles in my time,” he said, tugging at his beard with gnarled fingers. “Hundreds of battles.”

“Oh!” she said. The bartender slid a goblet of brown muck in front of her and she finished it in a single sip.

She had fought in fourteen battles. Granted, she was younger than this man, but she was certain those fourteen were all that had occurred in her lifetime within the radius her hooves could carry her. She had also been in thirty-three skirmishes, forty-nine one–on–ones and had once been ambushed by a sorceress with a trained bear. That one had been dicey, as she had never dealt with magic before and a whispered spell turned her horse body to stone temporarily. Thankfully, the bear had much greater allegiance to the half of a roasted pig the centauress carried in her sack than to the sorceress.

“I’ve broken blades over the skulls of marauders,” the man continued, sipping carefully from his own mug for fear of spilling into the thickets of his beard.

She had left a sword behind only once, after slicing it deep into the craggy cheek of a festering cave troll, who took offense at the gesture and attempted to mash her underfoot. She had easily dodged his stomps. In his anger, he had neglected the cliff she guided him toward, and he stumbled over the edge, taking her blade with him. She had loved that sword. She still mourned for that sword.

“If anyone here so much as looks at you in an untoward manner…” He trailed off, tapping a forefinger on the pommel of the battleaxe he dragged alongside him.

She gazed at the man’s fingers as they grasped the axe handle. They were thick, with sprouts of black hair twisting from gashes and spots of dry skin, not weak by any means. Sometimes, for fleeting moments, on the darkest of nights, she forgot her strength and longed to feel safe, to feel protected. If only that was something as easy to find as a macho man with a battleaxe. But then the sun would rise, and she would stretch her arms to the sky and dig her hooves in deep beside a battlefield red with her enemy’s blood, feeling ashamed for wanting anything more than her own strength to see her through.

“I like you, woman of few words.”

The man bought more rounds and told more tales. The two of them tapped their goblets together ‘til dawn, when he finally crumpled drunk to the floor, squeezing his battleaxe against his chest like a toy.

The centauress drained her last drink, stepped over him with her powerful horse legs and walked out into the waiting, ever–warring world she called home.