Annie sat at her customary table in the back of the tavern. Marion had been kind enough to have a wide bench seat for her installed against the wall. It was a slow night, not too crowded, mostly regulars from the village and a couple of travelers who seemed to have taken notice of her. She avoided looking at them not wanting to encourage them but after a while, they walked over to her table.
“Hello sir–” one began but she cut him off without looking up.
“I’m not a sir.” She scratched the stubble on her neck. It was time to get another potion from the healer in the next village over. Slight softening of her features, halting her beard growth, and the small breasts that were almost unnoticeable on her hugely muscled chest. The effects mostly did not stop people who did not know her from calling her sir but they made her feel better.
“Ah, I’m sorry… ma’am?” he said unsure, “I– We were wondering if you had served in the military?”
She considered whether to answer or not. She didn’t like thinking about those days but he hadn’t fought her over being a woman. Despite being seven feet tall and hugely muscled a lot of people still argued with her. She decided to answer, “Yes.”
His friend grinned and burst out, “I knew it! You don’t get as big as him–,” the first guy slapped him in the shoulder and hissed ‘her’, “Right her. You don’t that big without military grade potions.”
“Can we join you?” the first guy said indicating the empty chairs across from her. No one ever sat at with her and she had forgotten the chairs were even there.
She thought about it. They were polite, which went a long way in her book, but they probably wanted to know about her service time, which she didn’t want to talk about. “Why?” she asked.
“We’re planning on signing up,” the second guy said.
She looked at them. Young fit men with no obvious ailments. Like she had been. They would be scooped up and used up within five years if they lived that long. Like she had been. “Sit,” she commanded.
“Thank you, I’m Greg and this is Frank,” the first guy, Greg, said.
“I’m Annie,” she said.
“So, how long have you been out of the service?” Frank asked. Greg shot him a look.
“Ten years,” she said.
“That long? And the enchantments last that long?” Frank asked.
“It’s a permanent physical change.”
“What division were you in?” Greg asked.
“Ogre Defense Battalion.”
“Is that how you lost your arm? Fighting ogres?” Frank asked.
“No,” she took in a deep breath as she began to unpack memories she had tried to forget, “Do you know how you fight an ogre?”
“With a spear.” “A big sword?”
“Ogres aren’t too smart but they know how to use weapons. A weapon big enough to fight an ogre is big enough to be used by an ogre. You drop your spear and now the ogre has it and has killed two of your squad-mates. Too risky. So, we fought them hand to hand,” she raised her left hand in a fist the size of Frank’s head. “During training, they give everyone temporary enchantments of size, strength, and durability. The best fighters get the best permanent enchantments.”
“But what happened to your arm?” Frank asked.
“Even changed, like I am, I’m not a real match for an ogre. I’d need a weapon but it’s risky to take weapons to an ogre fight. So, they gave us weapons we couldn’t drop. After training those of us selected as front line fighters were taken to the field hospital. This was before they gave us our permanent enchantments. They strapped us down to a steel frame, even with the temporary enchantments we would have torn a wooden one apart.
“Then they chopped off one of our arms,” she made a chopping motion with her hand by her missing arm, “The permanent enchantment includes a healing draught so they don’t even try to patch up the wound. They just let the potion take care of it. And then they fit you for a metal or stone arm to fight with.” She felt drained of energy from remembering. The room felt too small and the air thick in her lungs.
“Does it hurt?” Frank asked
“Does what hurt?”
“When they cut off your arm? Did it hurt?” Frank asked.
“Yes.” It had been the worst pain she had ever felt but she was too tired to truly describe it now.
“Does it hurt now?”
She considered this. Her shoulder had been magically healed fifteen years ago, the wound perfectly knitted together like she had never even had an arm, but some days her elbow itched and there was no relief from that. “No,” she said.
They sat in silence for several minutes until Frank spoke. “How many ogres did you kill?”
“One hundred and fifty-three,” she rattled off the number that she had not thought of in years but would never forget.
“Is that a lot?”
“The record is one hundred and seventy-six held by my friend Johnathon until the one hundred and seventy-seventh killed him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Greg said. Annie could hear actual remorse in his voice.
“It was a long time ago. You should get comfortable with the idea.”
She gathered her thoughts. “Most ogreslayers don’t retire. Most die. Only one out of ten makes it to the end of the five-year service contract. Most of those return to service because they can not find a normal life outside of military service.”
“Why not?” Greg asked.
“Look at me. I may be strong and tough and big but I only have one arm. There are many things I can’t do even with all my strength because they require two hands.”
“Couldn’t you get a new arm?” Greg asked.
“From where and with what money? At the end of your contract, you have enough to live off for a few months but it runs out faster than you think. I’ve been lucky to find work with people who would work around my limitations. Like I said most don’t and they return to service and die. It’s the same with many other divisions. You can go now. I’ve said all I want to.” She looked down at her drink to dismiss them.
They stood and gathered their bags. Frank stopped and said, “Thank you,” he hesitated but then clearly said, “Ma’am.” Annie smiled and watched them as they walked away.
Author’s note: Dragon’s Hoard is the overarching name for this story series about older, retired, and/or disabled adventurers in a fantasy setting who are brought together for a special job. This is the second of a few character pieces before they are brought together for the main story.