The old man sits by the sea on the hard shingle, drinking tea from a thermos and chewing on dried fruit and nuts from a paper bag. He has been here since dawn, as he is on any day his arthritis and the weather allow, with the city at his back. The sun is climbing, warming him by inches, and there’s still time before the incoming tide makes him move. He watches the boats speed away from shore—heavy troop carriers and spry gunships, and new battle craft whose names he doesn’t know. His hearing is poor, and he misses the approach of the children, only seeing them when they are standing almost on top of him, staring down. They have the same eyes, are probably brother and sister. If the old man cares to look, he knows he will see a parent somewhere in the distance, left behind by the children’s unstoppable vitality.
He peers again out to sea. “Ba Mooncha is coming,” he tells them, “racing over the ocean on her battle barge, the Dark Dread. When she passes, vast herds of migrating whistle whales stare up from the churning waters and trill in uncomprehending unison. The kelp forest parts for her, like courtiers in a palace. When the Dark Dread is spotted, cities all along the Grantalmar Coast dig in for battle. But even as they make fast their gates and load their mighty cannons, they feel little hope—no army has ever defeated the witch of the waves.”
The children squat, silent, their eyes wide as the old man warms to his narrative.
“Ba Mooncha’s barge is a massive set of seventy-five marble steps, wide as a kroneball field. It is a one-sided pyramid, a deadly wedge which flies three metres above the ocean’s surface on its gravisonic field. On each step stand her ranked soldiers, her gunners, her ruthless shock squadrons with their snarling drogs. And at the top of the steps, at the apex of this deadly wedge, sits Ba Mooncha herself on her ancestral throne. The imposing chair of black hardwood is encrusted in crimson jewels and crowned with a line of human skulls, set unevenly like teeth in a broken smile. Her back is straight, her mouth a hard line. Her eyes, shadowed beneath the feathered war helmet, burn with fell purpose.”
The younger child, the boy, reaches out a hand for that of his big sister, an instinct for safety as old as life.
The old man’s voice is weaker than it was, but still clear and expressive, and it has been too long since he had such a rapt audience. “So brazen is Ba Mooncha to sit thus exposed! Most battle plans target her directly; defenders from one city after another charge the steps with patriotic slogans on their lips, only to be cut down by the lady’s loyal Gardaboyarda fighters.” The older child gasps at this image of blood and heroism.
“No one knows how old she is—some say sixty, some six hundred—but she is the scourge of gracious Grantalmar, the tyrant who has crushed city after city for generations untold. Ba Mooncha will not quit and will not die till all of the coast bows before Scarlight, her screaming, purple sword.”
The sound of high desperation pierces the fog of his coming deafness, the cry of a mother who fears the loss of her greatest treasures.
“We have to go,” says the older child and she and her brother run up the beach to the woman who hustles them back toward the city gate.
The old man watches their retreat and then looks up at shining Darda, ancient jewel of Frandera Province. The city is built into the cliff above the cove. It is a storied metropolis and the only home he has ever known. The markets teem with the finest fish, the sweetest fruit, the juiciest gossip. Travellers from the far corners of the world come to bathe in the mineral waters of the Dardan Caves, said to cure all ailments of the blood. Darda’s monastery is a renowned seat of pious learning, its library thick with the accumulated knowledge of the ages. Today, all that might be lost. If Ba Mooncha is allowed to enter the harbour, the city’s spires will fall to her concussion bombs; centuries of wisdom and beauty will slide into the pitiless amnesia of the ocean deep.
The old man knows he, too, must go. The tide is rising, already lapping at his sandals, and soon the gates will be locked against the invader. But the temptation to stay is overwhelming. How easy it would be to keep his place, to let the incoming tide take him, at last, out of the churn of history.
Riding her wave-skimmer across the churning sea, Slik has long since left the Dardan fleet behind. It is the nimblest of crafts when piloted by one as skilful as she, a loyal and decorated soldier of Darda. Slik has ridden ninety minutes straight out from the shore to engage the enemy. The Dark Dread is a hazy grey shape speeding towards her, and though it is still a kilometre away, its guns have already targeted her small craft. The distance between barge and wave-skimmer closes quickly. The Dark Dread rises up in front of Slik as it approaches, higher and higher. Turn! her every instinct screams, but Slik holds her course.
Everything depends on the young monk behind her. He hangs onto her waist for dear life and presses his face into the small of her back as explosions geyser the sea around them. The monk does not belong here in the crucible of battle. It has been mere days since he found mention of the crystal in a minor footnote of an obscure text buried deep in the monastery’s library. The crystal is called “the single key” in the forgotten tongue. Its discovery represents the first hope of stopping Ba Mooncha in generations.
Over the scream of the wave-skimmer and the roar of the Dark Dread’s gravisonic field, Slik shouts, “Hold tight!” as the massive barge overtakes them. She and the monk duck low and plunge into the shadow beneath its ponderous mass. This is the hardest part of the mission, Slik knows. With ocean below and a ceiling of stone above, she must turn the skimmer to match the barge’s course and its terrifying speed. The engines of the small craft shriek. There are maybe thirty seconds left before they burn out completely.
“Where is it?” she shouts and feels the monk shaking, too frightened to respond. “No! you may not lose your nerve. Find me the door!”
“There!” he calls back, and his pointing finger appears in her peripheral vision. “Those sigils, like a goat’s head!” She sees it and manoeuvres her anguished craft until the door is overhead. It is a perfect square, barely as wide as her shoulders and hardly visible against the barge’s stone belly. It has no handle and no lock. Slik feels heat on her back. The monk has taken the crystal from his robes and into it, through it, he murmurs the obscure incantation gleaned from the ancient text. The heat increases until she feels she will combust.
The monk screams the final words of the spell, and the square of stone shatters and falls around them, disappearing in their wake.
Slik shouts, “Put your arms around my neck!” and the monk reaches up desperately, half-choking her. Squeezing her knees to keep the wave-skimmer steady beneath them, Slik grabs the lowest rung of the ladder inside the open door. With one great heave, she jumps from her mount and pulls the two of them up into the hole. Trailing smoke, her beloved wave-skimmer spins out and is lost, the first casualty of the battle.
The monk is no help as she pulls them up, hand over hand, into the Dark Dread. When her feet are safely on the lowest rung of the ladder, she makes him let go and climb on his own. The only light in the narrow shaft comes from the open door below them, a square of rushing spume in the blackness.
“Put the crystal away in your belt,” she tells the monk.
“The crystal is destroyed, consumed by its centuries-old purpose. It was carved to open the door but once, and now both door and crystal are no more.”
“Good,” Slik says. “One less thing to carry.” She has reached the top of the shaft and swings the trap door upwards on its hinges, wishing they wouldn’t squeak so. They emerge into an empty corridor, hacked neatly out of the stone of the ship and lit by copper sconces. The walls throb with the relentless drone of the engines.
“For the first time in a generation,” Slik tells the little monk over the din, “we have a chance. Because of you.”
He hugs himself and lowers his gaze. “God led me to the sacred text. I am but a vessel for his wisdom.”
“And I am but a soldier.” Slik is still young for one with so many victories to her credit, but this holy man is barely out of childhood. The pale legs that stick out beneath his soaked tunic are two hairless twigs.
A tall man in green steps suddenly from an unseen door to their left. Slik draws her arc-sword from its sheath and thumbs the switch. The weapon crackles to life, peppering the air with ozone. In one movement, so practiced she barely has to think, she strikes the man down. He, too plays his part without thought, the transaction of death as routine as buying dried peas in a market. Red soaks into green.
“Just an engineer,” Slik murmurs. The sword, as if now awake and hungry, hums in her hand.
The little monk’s face is white. “Did he need to die?”
“He would have alerted the guards. Everyone we encounter from now on is our enemy.”
“I am responsible for his death.”
“Don’t think like that,” she tells him. “It is Ba Mooncha who brings the slaughter. Now, I must go and kill her. Find yourself a place to hide until this is all over.”
“No! Don’t leave me.”
“Where I go, there will only be more blood.”
“So be it.”
The arc-sword casts sinister shadows on the wall as Slik leads them down the corridor. She peeks around the corner into a larger hallway that ends in a curving ramp, leading upwards. At the sound of an approaching rumble, she spins and raises her sword high.
The figure screams, and Slik hesitates. It is a rotund, middle-aged woman pushing a wheeled cart. She wears the blue and cream uniform of a chef.
“Don’t,” she shouts, bending and throwing her arms over the tray atop her cart. “I must get these marinated livers to the ovens now or they will not be ready for Ba Mooncha’s battle repast!”
A tall man in blue and cream, as thin as she is wide, comes running around the corner. “What happened? Are the livers okay?”
Flashing her arc-sword over her head in warning, Slik shouts: “Halt! We come to destroy your mistress and save our city. Do not advance, or I will be forced to slay you.”
The tubby chef stands up straight, spreading her arms wide. “It is our duty to deliver the liver. If we fail, honour will compel us to commit suicide. How we die makes little difference.” She pushes the cart past them and up the ramp, the thin chef scurrying after. Slik is frozen with outrage; her hand flexes and releases on the hilt of her sword.
The young monk says, “Leave them. Their fates and ours do not coincide.”
Slik and the monk ascend the ramp into the kitchens—high ceilings, stone walls, a permanent haze of steam and scented smoke hanging in the air. A dozen more chefs and under-chefs are preparing a host of dishes. They push fragrant roasts into ovens, decorate a 10-layered cake with hundreds of iridescent li flowers. As each dish is brought to completion, they cheer, they weep.
Arc-sword drawn and crackling, Slik moves down the middle of the wide room all but unnoticed. She tries to ignore the ardent chaos unfolding around her and focus on her mission, but scent and colour and the dedication of the chefs force her thoughts to wander into the future. What will life be like when Ba Mooncha is dead, she wonders. Will the people sleep better? Sing songs in a major key? Will Slik be hailed as saviour of Darda? No! She slaps her thigh to wake herself from daydreams. These are not her concerns. She must be like the chefs, performing duty for duty’s sake. There is no place here, in the stronghold of the enemy, for idle distractions.
“Stop!” a voice calls, and she whirls around, sword raised. Within striking distance stand a trio in blue and cream. The middle one holds out an elegant, silver spoon in her direction, like he is challenging her to a duel.
“Please,” says the chef. “We are in disagreement. Does the sauce need more salt?”
Bewildered, Slik lowers her sword and bends to sip the hot, golden liquid. Her mouth becomes a temple where her senses have come to rejoice. After fourteen years of grey army rations, it is like waking into a world of colour.
“The salt,” she grunts, red with embarrassment, “is fine.” Without a word, the three turn on their heels and hurry to their separate cooking stations.
Slik motions to the monk, and they climb a ladder through a hole in the ceiling to the next level. They find themselves in a low, wide room with polished hardwood flooring. One wall is lined with windows, and daylight pours in. The opposite wall is all mirrors, in front of which nine dancers practice a routine. They are from some land unknown to Slik, with narrow, dramatic faces and elaborate hairstyles sculpted from their long, black braids. Seven musicians in one corner of the room accompany them on string and woodwind. The sound they make is rich and delicate, and the dancers as light on their feet as Promodory deer.
A woman in black hurries down a spiral staircase from the floor above, making notations in her leather notebook. She marches to the centre of the room and says, “Land is sighted! Everyone into costume. Once the fighting begins, Ba Mooncha may descend from the battle deck at any time to watch the performance.”
The dancers run to dress and apply their makeup. Their every movement is graceful and efficient, not so different from a practiced warrior. Slik crosses to the window and, sure enough, she can see the Grantalmar coast, spot the darker area that marks the entrance to Darda’s harbour. She should hurry, but she is frozen, watching the coloured cliffs and green forests of her homeland growing sharp as they near. She feels a pang of love for the city. A flash of light and puff of smoke appear on the shore, and after a few seconds, a missile hits the water nearby. Falling short of its mark, it sends up a plume of spray.
“Come!” she calls to the monk, who is talking to a beautiful dancer, running his delicate fingers shyly over the feathered headdress hanging on the back of her chair. He blushes and whispers something into the dancer’s ear before following Slik up the spiral stairway. A second blast from Darda’s guns hits closer to its mark, and the barge rocks. Slik looks back down at the dancers and musicians, who pause in fear for just a second before returning to their preparations.
The battle is joined. The defenders on the shore fire wild, inaccurate shots at the barge, and Ba Mooncha’s crew return fire, each strike neatly taking out its target on the shore. The barge shakes with the thundering recoil of its cannons. Slik knows Darda’s defence plans, knows that their battle-boats have been launched. The fastest is barely half the speed of the Dark Dread.
At the top of the spiral stair, she and the monk arrive in a beautifully appointed dining room. Because of the tapered shape of the vessel, each deck has been smaller than the one below, and some of this room’s charm comes from its intimacy. The curtains pulled back from the broad windows are a deep cobalt. The colour is picked up in the accents of the thick cream carpet and the upholstery of the chairs standing in a line along one wall. There is a single broad oval table with four fine chairs, though the chair at its head is decorated with a crown of red jewels. Table staff in elegant tailored suits are laying out silver service.
Across from the dining table, a low stage is being swept and prepped by a small team dressed in black. Technicians test the lights. Musicians emerge from the deck below to take their places beside the stage.
The older and more seasoned of the servants do not respond as the explosions mount around them, while the younger cannot prevent their small flinches and upward glances. There are a dozen soldiers here too, guarding a ramp which rises wide and straight up to the battle deck. The soldiers and their sharp-dressed officer stare at Slik, but none make a move in her direction. The barge suddenly lists to starboard, and the young monk grabs Slik’s upper arm for support.
“Go sit down,” she tells him, indicating the seats along the wall. She moves to the window, putting her back to the soldiers in a show of disdain. The barge is in a wide turn that will take it into Darda’s harbour. Slik watches Darda’s ships manoeuvring beneath her and feels a sad pride for their daring feints and brave sacrifices. Through the open hatch to the battle deck come shouts and cries, the clash of metal, the firing of guns. Dardan soldiers, she knows, have landed on the barge’s lower steps and are attempting to carve a path through Ba Mooncha’s guard to the sea witch herself. They will fail. Slik knows she alone can change the course of history today.
The officer comes to stand beside her. “A place has been prepared for you at the dining table. The dinner includes a rare roast of Herdan Pork and forest ferns from the Neelon Vale. The dancers have travelled a year from far Zenphala-Laxti to honour the Queen of the Sea with their grace and talent.”
Slik fights the impulse to turn and look at him, to find the mockery in his eyes. She asks, “How did Ba Mooncha know I was coming?”
“Our great Queen told us the time is now. Our latest grief, our greatest victory.”
Slik spins around with a cry and raises her sword in all its crackling, electrical ferocity, just to see how he will react. The officer merely steps aside, leaving her a clear path to the wide ramp. The armoured soldiers who guard the approach to the deck are not so casual. They draw their swords, their guns, their spears and electrified nets, and position themselves in a grid formation on the ramp. Slik spins and thrusts, and the air fills with ribbons of blood as she dispatches each opponent. Climbing the ramp, soldier by vanquished soldier, she waxes with an intractable fury that only grows as she ascends the ramp.
The young monk, hiding between two of the elegant cobalt chairs, thinks, Her name is Strbl-zer, an ancient name like a benediction. I hope I get to see her dance. I think she liked me. When this is over, she is going home to Zenphala-Laxti and I will never see her again. Unless I follow her. We could have a life together on a farm. And by the campfire in the evening, with our children around us, she would dance as she did in her youth, and I would sing the hymns I still remember. We would know peace.
Slik emerges on the battle deck into blinding sunshine which glimmers on armour and shines on the crests of the waves. Her arc-sword hums; she licks the blood off the back of her hand. Slik grins a lopsided grin and pushes the hair from her eyes, not caring a breath for the ring of Gardaboyarda warriors who circle her, spears poised to strike. Slik is one with death now; she knows she could kill them all, or at least die trying. It makes little difference.
Ignoring them, she turns to the woman of legend on her great, black throne. “Ba Mooncha, witch of the sea! I have come to kill you and end your reign of tyranny.”
“I welcome you,” says Ba Mooncha, her voice as thick and marbled as a fine, smoked ham. “You have succeeded where others have failed.” She gestures out at the waves, at the battle which is now all but finished.
Slik turns and sees her slaughtered comrades lying below her on the barge’s seventy-five marble steps. The burning sea is littered with broken ships and grey corpses. She turns again to face the tyrant. Ba Mooncha is small. The war helmet must sit heavy on her thin shoulders. Slik imagines her handing it to an officer before going down to enjoy her battle repast and the performance of the dancers. Is her hair still dark under there, or white as a ghost’s?
“Rise and fight,” Slik tells Ba Mooncha, whose eyes shine green and electric. “Or I shall strike you dead upon your throne.”
“Do you know why,” Ba Mooncha asks, “I dine in splendour in the heat of battle?”
Slik grits her teeth, unusually aware of the maddening drone of her blade. She hears herself hiss, “Why?”
“Because, child of Darda, to fight is to be alive. From my throne, I am honoured to crush kingdoms. I have the privilege to strike down the most ardent of foes, warriors who live for the day they can attack my mythic person. And in between the thrusts of my sword, I drink the finest wine, sink my teeth into juicy flesh, and watch the greatest artists of the age perform. Like the brave soldiers who fight for and against me, my chefs and artisans know what it means to live on the knife edge of excellence.
“Tell me,” Ba Mooncha continues. “When you have struck down the most famous foe in history, who will lead the victory parade? Who will kneel before your sovereign to receive land and title? We both know. It is men born of wealth and noble lineage who will be called to the palace, wearing rich new uniforms of rare silk with room left in the waistband for their coming years of sloth and excess. You, meanwhile, will return to your barracks, tucking yet another medal into the kit beneath your bunk before you drink yourself insensible on gutter ale.”
Slik’s arc-sword has drifted ever lower during this speech until sparks dance on the deck at her feet. “I am a soldier,” she shouts, louder than she needs to. “Hearing your clever words, do you expect me turn and leave?”
“No,” Ba Mooncha says. “I expect you to kill me.” From her robes, the witch of the sea pulls Scarlight, her twisted blade, and raises it high. It screams purple behind Slik’s eyes, like the raging dead of a thousand conquered lands. Slik sets her sword’s charge to high and lifts it crackling into the sun-hot day. She lunges and strikes. Ba Mooncha meets her blade with casual grace. The two weapons spark and shriek. But Slik’s first pass is but a ploy. Instantly she spins and coils her body to strike again.
Ba Mooncha understands. She smiles and turns her gaze to the sky where a gull wheels against the blue. It was just such a day as this—the smell of sea, the tang of gunpowder and blood. My heart raced in my chest, like it could carry me across the world in a single sprint. I remember the fire of youth in my limbs, the weight and warmth of my guns. And I remember the woman who sat on this throne, tall and stern, her face a map of wrinkles beneath the war helmet. I wondered, How can one person be at once so terrible and so beautiful?
“Die, tyrant!” Slik cries, and her blade flashes across her opponent’s throat and chest. Ba Mooncha staggers back, dropping her ancient blade. Slik waits for her to fall, but Ba Mooncha steadies herself on the arm of her throne. She stays upright for a long moment, smiling at Slik until the spark in her eye fades to ash, and she tumbles forward onto the deck. Her helmet rolls free to reveal silver hair in a long plait.
Slik brings down her blade to separate Ba Mooncha’s head from her shoulders. She takes the heavy, dripping object in two hands and lifts it onto an empty spike among the skulls atop the throne.
The officer climbs up the ramp from the deck below, stepping carefully over his fallen men. He retrieves Ba Mooncha’s helmet and holds it out to Slik. She takes the helmet and places it on her head. A deep weariness overtakes her and she sits heavily on the throne.
The officer gestures toward the ramp and says, “Great Ba Mooncha, will you come down and dine while the final assault on Darda commences?” She recalls the taste of the sauce, the grace of the dancers. But before she can answer, the young monk staggers up the ramp, holding an improvised weapon—a large silver carving knife meant for the roast pig.
“Traitor!” he cries and rushes forward, tears in his eyes and teeth bared. The Gardaboyarda move as one, and the monk falls facedown on the deck beside the dead tyrant. Slik feels a wave of sadness, for all of them and their unalterable fates.
“And now what?” she says to the officer.
“Before the sun sets, the humbled populace of Darda will stand amid the rubble of their city.”
“No. I want the city taken, but its buildings and people left unharmed. Darda will be my new capital. From its golden harbour, we will launch our campaigns and finally capture all of the Grantalmar coast. I will rule land and sea with a firm and righteous hand, and all the people will know peace at last.
“As Ba Mooncha commands,” the officer says with a nod.
“And now we dine,” the witch of the sea tells him, rising from her throne. “A great hunger has come upon me.”
When she has gone below, the officer climbs the steps of the throne and calls to the soldiers, to the dead at their feet, to the world, “Fire your weapons in salute or defiance—Ba Mooncha is coming!”
J. Marshall Freeman is a two-time winner of the Saints+Sinners Fiction Contest, (2017 and 2019). His queer YA fantasy novel, The Dubious Gift of Dragon Blood, was published in 2020 by Bold Strokes Books. Upcoming work includes a novella in the collection Three Left Turns to Nowhere (Bold Strokes Books, Feb. 15, 2022) and the YA adventure novel, Barnabas Bopwright Saves the City, scheduled for release in Spring, 2022. He lives in Toronto, Canada with his husband and dog.