Not Without a Fight
by Martin Bolton
Since the age of sixteen, Sparrow Brokenspear had been better known as Shortstraw. That’s to say, since he was attacked by a bear, which was not his first piece of evil luck.
No one knew how he survived the mauling he took. The bear swiped its massive paw across his front, near disembowelling him. Damn thing should have killed him, but folk said life wasn’t finished knocking him about yet, and maybe they were right. Instead of giving up the ghost like any sensible man might, he hovered somewhere painful between life and death for more than a year.
He wasn’t the same after that. Some would say indifferent. Some said he was touched by death. Some even said he was a walking ghost, a dead man who was just too pig ignorant to do the done thing and lie down. Shortstraw would have said life ain’t fair, but it’s all he’s got and he ain’t giving it up without a fight. And no one ever hung on to anything more stubbornly than Shortstraw hung on to life.
News of Shortstraw’s awakening was not greeted with what you might call enthusiasm by the people of his small village. Most took it to be a bad omen. He’d been a quivering, unconscious wreckage for so long he was considered dead already, so when he eventually strode from his mother’s hut, all anyone saw was a walking corpse, and a big one at that.
People said he was touched by death, that he was bad luck, that the gods would forsake them if they harboured such a demon. Some even said that he was death himself, decided to climb into the body of a dead boy and take it for a stroll.
Every piece of ill fortune that befell Shortstraw’s village was blamed on him. Sickness, bad weather, failing crops, still births. People would spit and mutter as he passed by.
“Go back to the pit where you belong.”
“Just go back to the earth, dead man.”
But it all slid right off Shortstraw’s broad back like boiling fat off a spitted pig. He’d walked with death. He’d had his arse scorched by the searing fires of hell and his eyeballs scored by the blinding light of the celestial sphere, and for some reason neither wanted him.
Death’s normally welcoming arms had pushed him away, and nothing on the physical plane held any fear for him. He was impervious to their sharp tongues and their hatred, and woe betide any man who took it upon himself to remove him physically. There were a few challengers. Men who wanted names. Men who wanted reputations. Shortstraw buried the lot, and barely broke a sweat doing it. He didn’t fear death, but if a bear couldn’t send him there, he was damned if any man would.
Such was his approach to every situation. He treated killing a man the same way he treated cooking an egg. Just another thing that needed doing. A thing he had got quite good at.
There was one other reason he wanted to live: to protect his long suffering mother from the folk who thought she had committed some dark rites to revive her shattered son. Without him there she’d be strung up for sure, or burned or flayed. Who knows what punishment they would dream up for the mother of a demon.
When she got the crying fever and breathed her last, he had no reason to stay. So he did the obvious thing and went to find an army to join.
It wasn’t long before his talents were noted and he found himself leading men. He wasn’t a man of words, not one for a stirring speech, but Shortstraw’s reputation spoke for him. And men listened. Word spread of Shortstraw Brokenspear, the quiet reaper, the striding ghost.
Reputation meant nothing to Shortstraw, it seemed to him those who wanted it died trying to get it. Those who didn’t found themselves with names and stories and men behind them and no idea how it happened.
Some would say he’d drawn his lucky number, that he had all a man could want. He’d asked for none of it, and wasn’t sure he wanted it. But that was the way of life and death, and he’d seen plenty of both.
So here he was leading men into battle, men who followed him for the same reasons his own people rejected him. It was a funny old world, but who was he to argue?
He hefted his axe and awaited death with indifference. He knew it would come, it always did, but it always seemed to be for someone else. Surely one day it would return for him, and when it did he’d give it one hell of a fight.
He pursed his lips thoughtfully as he gazed at the shrieking warrior charging at him. He could see the fear in the man’s eyes and in the way his sweaty, white-knuckled fist gripped his scimitar too tight.
“You die!” the warrior roared as he leapt forward and swung the great, shimmering scimitar.
But Shortstraw had other ideas, and so did his axe. He swayed to his left and let the singing sword pass a hair’s breadth from his ear, then buried his axe in the man’s head.
“Yeah,” Shortstraw muttered as he jerked the blade free, “but not without a fight.”