Triptych: Three Views of the Capture of the City of Bisanthe
by Samantha Henderson


 

City of the gilded towers

Proud Bisanthe rears her head

Now the mongrel, startled, cowers

City of the gilded towers

In the ruins, yarrow flowers

Over new and ancient dead

City of the gilded towers

Proud Bisanthe rears her head.

 

 

I.

Drowndeep

(Seducer of Rivers)

 

They waited, impatient, and I let them stew

more than was necessary, because

they pay (in part) for the suspense, the show;

I will not stint my clients.

 

I bent, listening to the water,

letting it tell me what it was willing;

what I could compel:

 

            Some I make rise beyond their borders, drowndeep the city,

            wash the floodplain clean, submerge,

            the gilded towers.

 

            Some will churn, lay wrack the docks, the fleet,

            destroy all hope of escape by water.

 

            Some (and even I balk, sometimes, at this

            and must be comforted with gold),

            some I can poison, deep within themselves.  And though they guard the source,

            think themselves safe, they don't suspect they're drinking death

            until it is too late.

 

            On my game, I can commend

            a ripple to snatch a child

            picking cress at the riverbank,

            and leave not a splash behind.

 

I whispered my commands,

sent the waves to destroy their boats,

and know that one day,

 

the waters will have their revenge.

 

 

II.

Throatslit

(Apothecary)

           

 

Ginger, saffron, horehound, salt

 

She stocked it well, this place,

the woman that lies, throatslit,

dripping on her well-scrubbed floor.

 

(soldier'll get a blade through the hand for that, if not worse,

Commander don't like waste

 

and since old Magra caught the flux,

I'm all there is, raw girl that I am)

 

Yarrow

Woundwort

Parsley

Witchweed

 

I feel their eyes on my back as I count the neatly rolled packages and bottles, and

 

Bloodraw

Irontea

Clean mud for packing breaks

Maid's purge

 

Yes, we'll need plenty of that in a few months time, judging from the noises outside: plenty here, dried and potent, its roots a tangle of desiccated babiesí limbs, and

 

Bluebow

Anise

Sheepear

Yew

 

I hear the shift of something heavy, and see Hulda's taken her by the leg

 

                        "Drop that," I say.

                        "Give me a sheet,

                        and get out."

 

                                    Face him down now,

                                    or else I never will

                                    (got a special little blade

                                    in the back of my belt

                                    for that one, if he tries anything).

 

                                                Abiah takes his shoulder,

                                                grins at me and pulls him away.

                                                "Be ready soon," he calls to me, leaving.

                                                "Soon the men will tire of plunder

                                                and remember their wounds."

 

I cover her face,

and turn back to my inventory.

 

The men come with their breaks and bruises,

fractures and lacerations, some stinking

of the remains of that river, that rose so unnaturally,

at the bidding of that woman with the hungry eyes,

so I know I'll see infection soon.  I could not say all goes well,

but not bad, neither, and when Commander visits,

he gives me a tired nod.

 

Later, left at peace for the nonce,

in my new lair, I lay her out:

Magra told me what I must do

(though I couldn't for her,

her great bulk wasted, left behind,

in an armyís frantic clatter).

 

Wash and bind that dreadful gash,

comb her hair so sheís not ashamed.

 

Three candles at her feet

for the three guiding angels, one, wax-fixed,

in the palm of her left hand, so she sees

the midnight path, a coin beneath her tongue,

to buy back her sins and a sprig

of rosemary in her right hand,

to show her trade, and let her in

to Purgatoryís door.

 

(Did Magna wander, lost, unremembering,

with the unnamed children,

because I failed her? A horror if itís true,

and worse if not, because then we are truly

lumps of torn flesh with a little life for a little time,

and then nothing.

 

Itís not my trade to wonder.

 

Ginger, saffron, horehound, salt

 

She stocked it well,

this place.

 

 

III.

Brokeback

(Old Warriors)

 

Odd that I die of thirst

when Bisantheís half-drowned, but there it is;

they drove the Third Guards back

to the dry hills Ė divide and purge:

a good strategy I canít fault.

 

Perhaps if they were less cheerful,

they would have killed me, not shattered my knees

and left me here in the sand.  Canít complain,

Iíve done worse, to make a point.

 

The sun beats, I feel my eyes

glaze open, dry, and watch

the air mock liquid, wavering.

 

The priests say that one of three

will come to me now:

 

The Maiden, whose whips,

enliven her lovers.

 

Omec, of the ever-flowing flagon, the never-ending hunt,

until the hunters become their prey.

 

And the sisters, who with three heads, seven eyes, and one desiccated body,

giggle as they pick apart the sinews of the cowardly.

 

But no-one comes, and I would laugh had I a drop of moisture in my throat:

it was all a lie, a joke, a play of Gods and Consequences.

and then I see it, wavering in the heat-haze,

the distant figure of a crippled dog.  I remember,

my first billet: an upstart town

that would not pay Bisanthe her taxes,

that must be made Example Ė

through the rubble of a small villa

crawled a mongrel, brokeback,

begging death of me.  I held my hand

(ashamed of seeming weak before my fellows),

did not give it,

and now must pay full measure.

 

 

About the Author:

Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California with mysteriously increasing numbers of corgis and rabbits. Her work can be seen online at Strange Horizons, The Fortean Bureau, Ideomancer, Abyss and Apex, Neverary, Would That It Were, Bloodlust-UK, and the archives of Lone Star Stories.  You can learn more of Samantha by visiting her website. 

 


Poem © 2006 Samantha Henderson.