The Captain’s Ballad
Somewhere beyond the edges of the chart
in lands debatable by Serb and Turk
her father died. Inheriting his work
she also had his stern unbending heart
A sniper got her father. Up the hill
she rode, not caring that she might be shot
and rode the marksman down. Her blood was hot.
The man took twelve hard sabre blows to kill.
She wore her father’s greatcoat, rich with smell
of sweat and powder. She would breath it in
and feel him say above the battle’s din
‘charge that way, and you’ll lead your men to Hell.
Charge that way – take their right wing from the rear
then grab their baggage train, and all its loot.’
She never wasted time on the pursuit.
Once troops had fled, she put them from her mind.
Had not her father’s temper, had cold blood,
would kill but never did it in a rage.
She’d win the fight, then sigh, and turn the page.
And wipe her boots clean of the shit and blood.
Her men had known her since she had been a child.
And pity made them follow her at first.
She made them fight her. When they would not, cursed
their mothers who had brought them up so mild.
Then laid two flat with sharp blows to the throat.
Said ‘If you follow me, I’ll make you rich.
My father was the Wolf. And I’m the bitch.’
They cheered her and she won without a vote.
When other soldiers mocked them, they were proud
they followed her and not some useless fop.
One called her whore. He bled out, every drop.
After which none insulted her aloud.
In winter quarters, she would make them train
at sword-play, stratagems and cyphers too.
And got each man to tell her what he knew
that she could work with on their next campaign.
She would stand by while each of them got laid
make sure no whore gave one of them the pox.
Swore her own chastity was sealed with locks,
knew they would follow while she was a maid.
But lust would tear their loyalty to shreds.
She’d rather lead than lie upon her back
delighted more in battle, victory, sack
than any exercise she’d find in beds.
Some of her soldiers died, and some grew old,
maimed, sick or mad. She missed them, but found more
men who would follow her torn flag to war.
Youths whom she’d have to whip or curse or scold
Before they’d learn to do all things her way.
She’d take no contract that would waste the lives
of her trained band. The company survives
long enough that her hair starts to go gray
She sees in mirrors harsh lines on her face
lines cut by all the duties of command
She tries to smooth them with her callused hand
then laughs aloud when each deep wrinkle stays.
It was a cannon shot that took her leg
took it off clean, inches below the knee.
Her surgeon cleaned it up quite handily
while she sat stoic, on a brandy keg
and took a glass or two, and joked a while
and sent out orders. ‘Men, fight on. I’m fine.
Wounded or not, I’ll lead. I’ll not resign
command while life is in me. Will still smile
at your brave deeds, although I cannot stand
to lead you in the charge or take the breach.
You give your blood to swords, I to a leech.
At least my wound can not leave me unmanned.’
At the fight’s end, she slept. When she awoke,
her men had taken all her arms away.
All captains die or fail. This was her day.
They stood, saluted her. She thought she’d choke
with rage at their betrayal, pity too.
Kindness would kill her, Gently, without force.
They placed her side-saddle upon her horse
and led her from the field. Brought her one shoe
for her remaining foot. Brought her a dress
who’d lived in britches. One youth brushed her hair
free of its elflocks, did it with such care
she wept. And knew the worst of this distress
was that her men had seen it, seen her cry
and would no longer follow her to fights.
She might no longer be alone at nights.
That would not comfort her. She’d rather die.
But did not. Made a life though it was hard.
She’d sent her gold away for years by stealth.
Now doubled it and tripled it. The wealth
of battles past now turned upon a card
on a roulette wheel or a throw of dice.
She had her nerve still, had three limbs beside.
Laughed, was embarrassed at the time she’d cried.
Had lived for victories once. Would do it twice.