Ages of Aenya: Book 2 Chapter 12, “The Prince of Serpents”
Xandr was in a dark place. It was not the cage he had been placed into or the walls beyond, but the dungeon of the self, the light of reason, faith, and hope having gone from him. Such darkness could not be abated, even by the noonday sun. It was the place he came to in the deep valleys of sleep, where he would question the Mother Goddess and doubt his purpose, when he feared his existence, all existence, possessed no grand design, but was little more than a succession of happenstance, misery and fortune two sides of the same coin. After wandering through labyrinths of doubt, Xandr often found escape in the ghostly memory of QuasiI, or by the guiding hand of the Mother Goddess, or in Thelana’s loving eyes. Where were they now? Was the Mother Goddess too remote in this bleak fragment of history to hear him? Only one thing was certain. He was alone.
The grinding of chains lifting him into the open sky roused him from his stupor. He did not have the will to wrestle with the cage, though he could now, in the light, make out its crude construction, the rust flaking from the bars. He sat there for a moment, squinting under the intense blaze of sun, powerless, and then the sound of human voices brought strength back into his limbs. He tore the cage from its hinges and crawled into a standing position. Light percolated through a grated wall, casting hexagonal shadows across his face and body. The grate was on one side, adjacent to three walls streaked with blood, and the ceiling was low, barely enough to accommodate his height. Eldin was there, looking more animated than usual, as were two other men. They were far younger than Eldin, with skin like deep copper and stomachs hollowed for want of food. But like his ancestor whose body he occupied, they were corded with muscle throughout, their limbs like entwined ropes. And like him, they were both naked, and seemed commonly so, but he could only guess whether clothing was denied them or if, being in the distant past, man had yet to adopt a concept of shame. Either way, hope arose in his heart, however small, for under inhuman rule all humanity was as one brotherhood, and he rushed to Eldin’s side, stopping short of an embrace.
“Batal,” the old man addressed him, “. . . it is good you are here; I wished to document this most historic of days to complete my book, that is, of course, if I survive to write about it.”
“No,” said Xandr solemnly, “I have already failed you. I was within reach of the pharaoh, but could not lay a hand on him.”
Eldin’s face bunched into a ball of hair and wrinkles. “And what makes you think killing the pharaoh would have made any difference?”
“Wouldn’t it?” The other two men were watching, and Xandr could see the surrender in their eyes and on their haggard faces. He wondered if he looked as awful.
“No,” Eldin replied, “of course not! Kings are deposed throughout history, quite frequently I might add, and never has a nation fallen because of it. Nations are made by its people, not its rulers. Our fight is with the Septhera.”
“Enough of your lessons!” Xandr cried, taking the old man by the throat. “Tell me what I’m supposed to do!”
“And why not?”
“Because . . .” he gasped, “I don’t know!”
Xandr released him and he fell against the wall, clutching his throat. “How could you not know? I thought you were a historian. I thought you knew these events.”
“History is a mosaic, Xandr, which historians are always assembling and rearranging. We make conjectures. We make guesses on what the mosaic might look like if completed, but we never have all the pieces! We have hundreds, when there are perhaps tens of thousands of pieces.”
“Then how do you know I will do anything at all today?”
“Because your name is Batal, and your descendents would not have immortalized the name through generations of song, if you did not do great things. Shortly after this day, the revolution will begin to end Septheran domination over this planet, to bring the snake men to extinction! . . . But alas, I’ve said too much!”
“No, tell me more. Tell me everything you know.”
The larger of the two prisoners turned from Xandr to Eldin, saying, “Yes, tell us more about this revolution, if you are a prophet, as I have come to understand, for we are in need of good tidings.”
“No, No, No!” Eldin exclaimed, “Me and my big mouth! I fear I am not well suited to be a time traveling historian. My presence here, meeting you, which may or may not be part of the original time-line, might change things, might prevent you from acting the way you would have. It is already disconcerting that you have taken the place of your ancestor. Will you be as driven as he, without his experiences, without his loss to strengthen your resolve to fight?”
“I have my own loss,” Xandr said quietly. “The Septhera have done enough to warrant my hate.”
“How could anyone not hate them?” the more robust of the two prisoners replied. “There are many, it is true, who have come to accept their fate—who believe abject obedience is the wiser course, that it is better to live a slave than to die a free man . . . There are even those who ally themselves with the snakes, who worship the pharaoh as a god, and preach submission to them is a guarantee of security. But I say such men are traitors. Any man who does not lift his hand against a snake is no better than they.”
Xandr looked at him with renewed interest. He had spoken with a dignity that came unexpectedly given his appearance. “Who are you and how did you get here?”
“I am known as Tellhus. Before the serpents came to our village in Ilithia, I was a proud father and mason. They forced my people into the mines to look for metals, murdered those too weak for labor . . . and they, they ate my wife and children,” he added, devoid of feeling. “I rallied men to fight them; our pickaxes and our shovels broke their slimy scales—”
“But you did not succeed,” Xandr affirmed.
“We did not know it at the time, but our battle was withslavers, a lesser caste. After killing a good number of them, they sent for their warriors . . .,” his voice grew frail, exacting, as though reading the words from a scroll with difficulty. “We were fifty strong, strong with hate and anger and vengeance, and they were three, only three, cold and calculating and . . . fast . . . and we were slaughtered like swine. I alone survived, prepared to meet god with my pick in my hand, but they ensnared me, sent me to rot in their prison.”
“But we are no longer in the pits. Where are we now?”
“This is the arena,” Tellhus answered. “We are here, I suppose, because of our willingness to fight.”
“They make sport of suffering!” the lesser man chimed in, his voice full of dust and sorrow.
Tellhus silenced him with a stare. “We make things more entertaining for them. Since snake men do not work, and can spend cycles digesting, they bore easily. They like to watch things die, pitting beast against beast, saurian against saurian, man against man. And rarely, man against one of their own. But no single human can stand up to them and live. More than seventy went up against their slavers, the weakest of their race, and we killed . . . I dunno . . . four, maybe five . . . before we lost twenty to the Taker. Against three from the warrior caste, the fifty that remained stood no chance. Snakes are superior to man, far superior. To fight them is to die.”
“That’s not true.” It was the other prisoner again. “I was in the pits and I heard the talk, that the Batal alone killed two of them! Warriors as well, with his bare hands . . .”
“Impossible,” said Tellhus. “Tell him the truth, if you are the one called Batal.”
“He speaks truly,” said Xandr. “But I only started out bare-handed; I later acquired a chain and then a sword. They are not unbeatable, they . . .” By the Mother Goddess, is this it? Is this why I am here? To inspire hope?
Eldin smiled as understanding dawned on Xandr’s face. And though Tellhus appeared doubtful, the other prisoner looked on, unblinking.
“You may have been fortunate, if what you say is true, Batal—and some of us may break loose from time to time like an aurochs trampling over a herdsman, but humans will never be free of the yoke. When they came to Ilithia, our greatest hunters resisted them, but quickly we understood that they were the hunters, and we, the prey. Their first commandment was to forbid us our weapons—for without them we are powerless. Even in their digestive slumber, they are protected, by the scales they are born with. Truth be told, man is the most pathetic of creatures. Should we fall upon rock, we bruise; we bleed. Long ago, man thought himself first among predators, because of his reason. But we quickly learned our folly. Against those who think like men but fight like animals, we are no match.”
Xandr thought long on these words, knowing it was his duty to convince him otherwise. “What you say is not all true. If the snake men can think, then we must outthink them. If they have weapons, we must make superior ones; if they have scales, we must do better, with armor of bronze.”
“Armor? Bronze?” Tellhus echoed. “These words are meaningless to me.”
“Wait, you don’t have—” Xandr started, but cut himself short, considering how it might impact the future; he looked to Eldin, who nodded approval, and so he went on, “armor is used to protect the body, like clothing—”
“Clothing?” Tellhus remarked. “We have nothing like that in Ilithia. Is it customary in your village?”
By Alashiya! Xandr fell speechless with the realization, that in this forgotten past his people’s customs were not taboo, that as an Ilmar he was no stranger; and the words of his mentor came back to him, Since time immemorial when men became men, before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, we were all Ilmar. For hundreds of millennia, humanity knew nothing of want or possessions . . . or clothing.
His heart swelled at the notion. Before the Septhera, all of Aenya could be called Ilmarinen. But even after the revolution, when the snake men were forced to extinction, mankind—the world itself—was irrevocably changed. Subjugation and war must have taught man to fear, and fear breeds desire for power to overcome those fears . . . Somehow, through the millennia, Ilmarinen remained the last bastion of a simpler age, of an innocent humanity. Perhaps, even now, hidden in the river valleys between the Mountains of Ukko, the Ilmar were living free and prosperous, oblivious to the plight of the rest of mankind. But there was more to the story, he knew—for the world in which he was born was a ruined one, was divided into two hemispheres, where life could scarcely hope to thrive. Such questions had tormented him since childhood, and now the only man who might have the answers was standing before him. But time did not favor his curiosity, for already he could see the serpentine shapes casting long shadows across their cell. The mechanism holding the gate in place was undone and the five men, led by Xandr, wandered out into the haze. The earth was coarse, with sharp red-orange rocks uninviting to human soles. Through a distant arch in the surrounding wall, the sun glared, giving form and color to the tapestry of men and snake men seated along the perimeter. Most were slaves, but many thousands were snake-headed, their elongated faces trained on the five men.
There are so many humans, and yet, no one dares to challenge them.
Somewhere a snare drum rattled and a portcullis began lifting. The squeal of a winch and chain sounded for eternity. And then, an eerie chant of throaty S’s and rolling R’s swept through the masses, a long strain of repeated syllables impossible for the human tongue to approximate.
“What are they saying?” Xandr asked Eldin.
“It is the prince,” Tellhus interjected; “they chant his name. When we sing our woes in Ilithia, he is called Purple Death Adder, or simply, the Adder. I am surprised that your people know not of him. The name alone inspires dread. Workers show greater fear of his mention than of the lash. Our masters must think quite highly of us, or of you, if we are to face him. For some it is considered an honor.”
“Can he be killed?” Xandr asked.
“He is a pure-blood,” Tellhus explained, “of the royal caste. Pray we die quickly. Avoid the bite. Avoid the purple death.”
“What is the purple death?”
“The venom of the pure bloods,” he said. “Death comes quickly, but is exceedingly painful. For some less fortunate . . . I have heard . . . the venom can linger for days, even cycles, during which time the victim lives out dreams of unspeakable terror, as vivid as life itself.”
Xandr’s skin crawled with the possibility. Could he be dreaming, he wondered, lying in the cold grip of the Taker all this time, dying slowly as Thelana watched and waited? It certainly made more sense than any of Eldin’s explanations.
“Dreams?” the lesser man murmured. “Did you say dreams?” But the question was drowned out by the rising cacophony of hissing and rattling as a pair of hoofed saurians emerged from the open portcullis in a cloud of orange.
Tellhus did not shrink at the sight, but the other man shook with fear. Xandr put a hand on his shoulder to calm him. “Tell me your name?”
“My name, most regrettably, is Soog.”
“And how is that regrettable?”
“How can it not be, as it is a man with my name that must die a terrible and untimely death? Surely, yours cannot be a more fortunate name, as you stand here with me.”
“Courage, Soog! Don’t let them see your fear. Stand behind me and believe.”
“Believe?” he repeated, the word sounding strangely from his tongue. “What is there to believe in? Nothing but death awaits us. But I don’t want to die. I am afraid! I’ll admit it; I’m no hunter . . . I was but a simple fisherman before this . . .” And he continued to sob and tremble, despite his efforts to restrain himself.
“Sometimes,” Xandr replied, “belief is all we have. I’ll not deceive you, Soog; it is unlikely you will see another dawn, but all men must face the Taker. It is only how one faces him that matters. And we shall not be killed to amuse these monsters. Our deaths will have a nobler meaning.”
“Such heroic words!” Eldin exclaimed. “If only I remember them! Historians rarely have the opportunity to observe first hand so great events!”
Xandr scowled. “Fool! What do your writings matter at a time like this? Do you not stand here with us? Will you not share our fate?”
“Perhaps,” he said, “but perhaps not. You see, Xandr, I also was not born into this body. I found myself here the same way you did. I followed the wormhole made by the Serpent’s Eye. They are very tiny, you see, these wormholes, so tiny, in fact, that even light cannot fit through it. But something that does not possess matter, a soul, perhaps, consciousness—”
“Still your rambling tongue,” Xandr replied, “the prince is here.”
Having circled the arena, the saurian pair came to a stop, the dust still billowing, like orange smoke, from their hooves, and a cloaked figure made itself known, closing the distance between them with unnatural movements. Shining blades appeared from the hem of its sleeves and a snake’s tail drew hypnotic patterns in the air. As the cloak slipped from its scaly body, Soog let out a shriek, but his objections quickly went unnoticed amid the cheers, not from the Septheran’s throats, to Xandr’s confusion and dismay, but from the human onlookers in the rafters.
“Wait, Xandr!” Eldin cried, his eyes turning white, “hear me out! If you manage to find your way back to your time, you must seek out the book, the one written by my hand, in the original language of the Zo. By then, I will have pieced together the complete history of Aenya and you will be prepared to learn the truth.”
“What truth?” he asked.
“The truth you have been seeking, about the Great Cataclysm, about the Dark Age, and what has been kept secret from you since birth, the thing you’ve been raised to face as the Batal of your age!”
“How can you know all this?” Xandr exclaimed.
“I have seen it. Your future is my past and my past your future! I’ve lived events you have not yet reached, like on the mountain top, yes . . .” he added with a maniacal grin, “I will see you again on the mountain, but I won’t remember you!”
“Even in the face of the Taker, your madness knows no bounds!” Xandr admitted.
“Just remember the book, damn you; it will be difficult, but I will try to place it somewhere so that it ends up in your hands.”
Wind blasted the ground, etching away the hard-edged shapes at their feet. Swords and axes appeared as if molded from the earth. Stepping forward, Tellhus lifted a sickle-like sword to his face. There was no blood on its cutting edge, even after he ran his thumb hard against it.
“Khopesh,” he said, “a guard’s sword, albeit an old one. At least they offer weapons.”
“What good are these!” cried Soog, considering the small ax. “They’re rusted beyond use! We might as well go bare-handed.”
“It is all for show,” Tellhus replied. “But if I can get in one good blow—just one—if I could but cripple the bastard, aye, I’d meet death with contentment.”
Standing over the weapons, Xandr counted one for each, but did not choose. “Your heart is full of hate, vengeance, but that will do us no good, Tellhus.”
“And what would you suggest, Batal?”
“Let me handle this prince of serpents . . .,” Xandr answered him, “I believe that I can best him, and that it may inspire others to rise against their masters. Think only of the men and women who are watching us. Our fight is for their eyes, not for the Septhera.”
“Mankind is doomed, Batal. Nothing will change after this day,” he added, dashing off suddenly, shouting with fury, “but my honor, when I twist this blade into that monster’s bowels!”
“No, Tellhus!” Xandr howled after him, “let’s face him together; don’t throw your life away!”
Sunlight reflected from the Septheran’s body, tinting him purple, but where the sun did not touch directly, his scales were as black and shiny as volcanic glass. Like his brother, the Pharaoh, the creature named Purple Death Adder possessed a fleshy membrane connecting the top of his head to his shoulders like the hood of a cobra. With his approach, his awfulness became more apparent, more intimidating; he was much taller than any human, with sinewy arms that reached to his knees and talon-like claws that snatched at the air and in each hand was a long dagger in the shape of a crescent moon. Tellhus charged with a lame leg and a desperate cry, his khopesh thrust at its gut, but the prince of serpents did not stir. Whether staring down his attacker or sleeping, the creature’s eyes showed no sign. But as the sun moved across his pointed face, his pinpoint eyes flickered from black to white and his head pivoted like a predator before a kill. In the instant of impact, the Adder became a torrent of motion, slashing at Tellhus’ sword arm. Blood gushed from the limb, cleanly cut from the elbow, but Tellhus simply stared where that part of him had been, the pain having yet to reach his senses. Retracting the scarlet blade, the Septheran crawled, lizard like, along the man’s body, biting deep into the shoulder. As the venom took hold, he became rigid, and even from a distance Xandr could see the discoloration—the subtle purple tint in the veins beneath the skin. Tellhus fell, shriveled to the bone, like a preserved corpse dead a dozen or more years.
A wretched sound circled the arena, filling the ears with dread, hisses and snare drums and human cheer. It wasn’t a battle they had been anticipating, but a slaughter. And they approved, Xandr realized with disgust. Even the human slaves accompanying their masters were too cowed, too complacent in their misery, to think otherwise.
As the spectators grew silent again, Purple Death Adder turned his attention to the three remaining humans. At this, Soog keeled over, his vomit pooling between his knees.
“Up!” Xandr commanded him. “Do not show them any weakness!”
“But we are weak!” Soog admitted. “Haven’t you figured that out yet? Tellhus is dead! Dead! And we’ll soon be with him!”
“We’ll all be dead someday,” Xandr replied softly, “but few men die with purpose.”
“Few men die with purpose!” Eldin repeated excitedly. “It’s a popular saying of yours, you know.” Xandr gave him an annoyed look, but he went on, “Come to think of it, I mustlive through this day, either me or Soog, or who else will have recorded it? You don’t happen to be a bard or historian, are you, Soog?”
“No . . .” Soog replied timidly, “but I could start . . .”
“You’re mistaken,” Xandr said to him, “I learned the saying from my mentor.”
“Precisely,” Eldin agreed, “but it was passed down from you, from the Batal, which means—by the gods!—you were meant to embody your ancestor!”
Ever so gradually, the Septheran prince was making his way toward them, to prolong the kill for the crowds, and to torment his victims with impending death. In his periphery, Xandr could see Eldin retreat behind him. “If you’re so certain about all this, why do you tremble?”
“I—um—am only human,” he admitted, “and my calculations may be off . . .”
“The two of you stay here,” Xandr said finally, taking the least beaten sword from the ground and the small ax from Soog’s bumbling fingers.
Compared to the weight of his two-hander, carrying the khopesh was like going into battle empty-handed. The sickle-like blade twirled in Xandr’s palm as he rummaged through his memory for the techniques his mentor taught him for small swords. It was too dull to chop, that much he knew, but the Septheran’s armor-like hide made that a moot point. Any sword could do the deed if one were to simply push. The ax was a distraction, so he tossed it, marking the divide between him and the prince.
Purple Death Adder’s crescent blades silvered in the noonday sun. His neck stretched, accordion like, making him a head taller. His eyes rolled over Xandr’s body, studying his build, his demeanor. This was a different human specimen, the Septheran could tell; caution showed in the snake man’s coiled posture.
<<You do not fear me.>>
The voice was thick and venomous, rattling his brain, but Xandr resisted the instinct to step away from it. “No.”
Even while standing, the prince was all motion, every limb writhing, its head bobbing, its tail curling and snapping and recoiling. <<Why?>> he asked simply.
“Because my loved ones have already gone to the Taker,” Xandr answered, “and you cannot harm them.”
<<And what of you? You do not value your own life?>>
“I do,” he said, digging his fingers into the khopesh’ rusty hilt. “But I value the lives of others more.”
<<That is folly,>> the snake man communicated telepathically, his head agitated from side to side, <<Compassion is for the weak!>> All the while, the chatter from the wall intensified, the masses having never witnessed such an exchange between a man and a Septheran.
“You cannot understand because you are cold blooded,” Xandr said, his heart quickening, watching for any sign of attack, though the snake man’s posture and constant motion was utterly alien, mesmerizing. “Your cruelty is your weakness. No species can thrive on the suffering of another. The day will come when humankind shall triumph over you.”
<<That day is not today!>>
Xandr’s head screamed, the voice in it shaking him to his knees, as the prince’ scales quivered from hood to three-pronged foot, his mouth gaping wide enough to swallow a man whole, his fangs, nine inches and milky white, dripping with ichor. Anticipating the attack, Xandr bent at the ankle, but he was already too late, the moon blades crossing his throat, grazing the stubble of his chin. He had never seen anything, beast or man, move so swiftly. In retreating, Xandr made a slashing shield with the dull edge of his sword, but the tail came out of nowhere, cutting his brow like a whip. None of the Septheran’s movements were like those that would be made, or could be made, by a human opponent. The snake man was less limited by tendons, moving more fluidly than any man could, attacking from the side as readily as from the front. Xandr was outmatched and he knew it. Without thinking, his hand went to his breast, clutching his heart as if it might jump out—but the familiar scar crossing his torso was not there—and he remembered that he was not himself; he was Batal, and somehow—somehow the Batal had managed to make history. If he were to die at the hands of this monster, before so many witnesses, what difference could he make?
I must not lose. I must move faster.
But the Septheran was everywhere at once. Chrome clashed with dull iron, pelting him with rust. Attacks came so suddenly and in such succession that Xandr could not hope to use his khopesh but to defend, and he realized with some horror that he was fighting only to survive. The tail, though it could not kill him, flayed his skin to ribbons, cut slices from his body piece-by-piece. The mouth lunged, flashing fangs, but they came too quickly for Xandr to contemplate; only some primal terror distanced him from their venom.
The crescent moons crossed again, the black-purple maw snapping between flashes of silver. As the first blade whizzed past his nose, the rusted sickle caught against the second. But Xandr’s weapon was wearing thin, each deflected blow adding a notch to the blade. Soon, the khopesh would crumble in his palm, leaving him only with the hilt.
As hopeless as things seemed to him, from the tiered walls above, the spectators witnessed a different battle unfolding. They saw the defiance, courage, and strength of a human slave, a sight never before seen in that arena, eliciting feelings buried with their grandfathers, from when the first of the Septhera came to Aenya and men took up arms against them. To Xandr, their faces were stony abstracts, too distant to distinguish, yet he could see the turmoil on their brows, in the sunken ridges of their eyes, the hope battling anxiety. And despite their masters’ angry lashing tongues, one-by-one, from the lowest to the highest tier, slaves began to rise from their seats.
But none of them could see Xandr’s waning strength. The onslaught was unrelenting. And the day was sweltering hot, sapping the fight from him. Blinking the sweat from his eyes, he did not see the blade until it was too late, until he felt it tear across his liver. He watched his blood speckle the orange rock, the curved edge turn red as if dipped in paint. The arena was spinning, Eldin and Soog and Tellhus, and shadowy faces far and wide dashed with hopelessness, all spinning. Without any sense of falling, he was on the ground; there was no pain, only cold and numbness.
Where is my sword?
It was gone. Knocked somewhere out of his hand. He tried to regain control of his feet but they would not obey.
I’ve done all I could do . . . all a man can do. What more is left?
The roar of thousands hushed to a whisper, and Xandr wondered why Purple Death Adder had not yet killed him. His only desire, his only regret in that instant, was that he would not see Thelana again. It was a selfish impulse and he knew it.
Out of the orange haze, a female shape was walking toward him, her hair like the tributaries in the valleys of Ilmarinen, and at first it was Thelana, but somehow she was more, was Alashiya also, for he remembered that the Goddess was in him, and all things of Aenya, and her skin glowed gold like the sun, became the sun.
You are not alone. Xandr. Her voice was a song, a mothers’ coo.
When Alashiya reached down to him, and her hand was clasped in his, he was no longer in a place of darkness. Xandr stood to face Purple Death Adder again, sword at his side. The Septheran was taken aback. The human spectators began shouting with religious fervor; they witnessed a miracle and no one could doubt it. Looking around him, at every hopeful face, he understood what he had to do. The fight was not his to win; it was theirs, and the Batal would not fail them.
“You wish to cow them?” Xandr cried, waving his sword over the masses, “then show them what they most fear . . . BITE ME . . . I welcome the purple death!”
The prince was quick to the bait, leaving his moon blades in the dust. <<You do not know for what you ask . . . it is no good death . . . it will avail your species nothing!>>
Purple Death Adder leapt, his pink glossy gums agape. But Xandr drew him in with a delayed counter, the tactic taught to him by his mentor, giving the attacker what he thought he wanted. Rather than bite throat and shoulder, as the Adder intended, Xandr offered up his forearm. The fang cut deep, through to the other side, and as Xandr tore himself free the venom started to fill, coursing through his veins like searing needles. His hand was a bloody pulp. His forearm dangled from the elbow in meaty tatters. But the prince of serpents staggered back, the elongated neck stretched to its breaking point. With frantic strokes, it clawed at its mouth, desperate to remove the sliver of iron from its throat. Xandr moved slowly, weakly, despite his urgency and the short time he had in which to live. With his one remaining hand, he retrieved the ax, bringing it down upon the serpent prince, in a wedge though its slender face and head. Purple Death Adder flailed backward without so much as a hiss, now groping blindly at the ax handle jutting from its face, and hit the ground writhing.
Cheers sounded above panicked hisses. He had defeated the Septheran champion at the cost of his own life, but would it be enough to inspire men’s hearts to revolution? The poison was setting in. Each heartbeat was agonizing, like a dagger twisting in his chest. But they would not be wasted. Raising the ax overhead, wet with blood of the fallen champion, Xandr turned toward the stepped walls, to man and snake man alike; “I am a man . . . and I have beaten you!” Even as he spoke, the venom continued to cripple him, his fingers growing icy, his legs giving way.
“Men of Aenya!” he gasped, “You lose no freedom . . . when you are free to fight!” Those were his last words before he dropped to his knees, toppling forward to join Tellhus.
It would have to do, he decided, confident that the name would live on to inspire hope, to become part of folksongs, to pass through history and be recalled by generations, in cities by the sea, and by the simple people of the Goddess, those untouched by civilization . . . One name.