“The Many-Named” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

After a hundred years—after more and after less—she wakes. Her hands are women’s hands, but these hips have never held a child. Her thighs remember dragons, her feet foreign oceans. She does not know her name. She knows too many. Each bone sings the telling of a different war.

For some time, she cannot move.

At last, when the shouting mountains settle, when the oceans quell their roar and the dragon-fires dim on her tongue, the many-named comes aware of another in the room. This woman wears wool and rabbit, as simple and clean as the rough-hewn hall around them. She walks with the quick-quiet step of midwives, from hearth to table and back again—brewing and cutting, the many-named sees, watching from her low bed of furs.

She recognizes this woman’s brewing from the baskets and pockets of her girlhood. In the same moment, she knows these plants never grew on her home shores.

Hvönn, she names, stune and stiðe, worm-bitten and frost-got, browning beneath cellar twine.

Still, the woman cuts, and cutting, sings—a breath of winds and runes over the back of an owl’s skull—and frost-shadows green with each beckoned word, leaves rising, whole and unhurt, twining for the knife.

The many-named watches, sore and strange, feeling kinship with battered green.

At last, the woman brings her a thin broth, seared leek and bear, strong as granite.

“For strength,” she says. She folds their hands together around the bowl until, after a time, the many-named can lift her arms again.

When the bowl empties, the woman asks, “What is your name?”

Roots and bears waking in her belly, the many-named answers in a voice of centuries, “I am Eldr. I am Rán. I am Fjall.”

* * *

Soon, others of the village arrive. They stoop through the woman’s low doorway, knocking snow from their shoulders, arms laden with gifts.

They give her pelts to see her through the ice winds, well-used and precious. They give her boots of salmon-skin to keep the water out, pack her feet in elk and rabbit to guard against the cold. They decorate her arms with oaths, fill her hands and belts with blades.

“The wolves have caught the sun,” they tell her, and each gift marks a child lost, a larder barren. “Until they are killed, this winter will not end.”

At the end of an hour, her strength returned and eyes sharp, they point her to a distant mountaintop.

Silent as the snowdrifts, the many-named chooses her way.

* * *

Once outside the unfamiliar village, memories tangle and overlap. Where her neighbors built their homes, the many-named climbs hills. She crosses a field remembering trees, and passes between snow-laden branches where once grass lapped like water in the wind.

Still, she knows this place. She recalls the names of familiar knolls, of fields and long-armed trees. She finds her way like a crow coming home, walks a row of heavy spruce—slender-limbed in her long-ago memory—and descends into her barrow.

The many-named slips like a ghost between the bones of strangers and ancestors, her torchlight dancing in their watchful eyes.

She remembers these chambers, remembers carrying her grandmother into the stone, carrying her mother. She walks the path through which her daughters carried her, stands in the place where her sons broke her quartz knife over her breast, and regards what remains of her body on the bier.

She is Eldr, daughter of Vald, warrior of Hronn. She wore leashed dragons on her arms, wrote her story there in woad, in gold. She hammered this knife herself, wrested free a forest’s gilded tooth and wrapped the root in silvered bronze.

Yet, she is Rán, daughter of no woman, swum from a long-distant shore. This knife and these bones mean nothing to her. She knows the shape of a seal skin and the taste of sea. She visited the serpent of the world in his den beneath the waves and recognized her father’s smile on his scaly face.

She is Fjall, son of mountains, a king woken in the breast of rock. Even now, she hears the murmuring earth, spinning a tale of decades in its slow, heavy speech. Words of obsidian and shale rest heavy on her tongue, gneiss and limestone weight her cheeks.

The many-named knows her own legends, has sat before fires as a child, reciting old battles, learning names to call dead dragons.

And yet, and yet—

The many-named trails her finger through the abandoned bowl of her hips where her children once slept. She palms the marbled bones of her ankles, worn by mountains and weathered by oceans. She remembers other bones, other mountains, other oceans. Three old warriors crowd in her borrowed skin, teeth bared and aching.

The many-named tastes the remnants of her gravesong on the air of her barrow—sweet as sirens—and wants nothing more than to lay this body down. But though she longs for earth, these strangers summoned her with purpose and bound her with their need. She can no more rest now than she can return her bones to every pilfered grave.

So instead, she lifts the two halves of her knife from each abandoned hand, binds the blade to shaft with the slender edge of an oath-band. And so armed, Eldr-Rán-Fjall climbs from her barrow, shoulders taut, moon-silvered, hunting sun.

* * *

She sheds the blessing-gifts of the people as she walks, scattering rings and arm-locks to glitter golden among the fallen needles of spruce and pine. She dresses her childhood trees in borrowed pelts, returns bear skins to bear dens. Even her boots she leaves neatly stacked and waiting against the base of a mossed runestone, to feel the shadow-dappled snow and ice-packed mud pressing at her toes.

Like a mother coming home from war, she folds her face in this too-long winter, and the storm bows from her path.

She was born from mountains once, kinged and crowned in ice.

She walks on.

* * *

At the peak of the mountain, she finds fenriswolves circling like an unfamiliar sky. Crooked jawed, star-toothed and grinning, their barrow-black lips drip with rivers. Eldr-Rán-Fjall walks between them, unhindered, the pack parting and joining like water, rivulets of salivated ice crunching beneath her bare feet.

She follows their current to the largest wolf, seated on an outcropping of sturdy rock. Faint fingers of light creep over the rise behind him, flashing in his fur.

The sun, she thinks, trapped and dying in the valley between peaks.

The many-named bows her head in respect. “Skoll,” she says, recalling old wars and the scars ringing his lips.

At his name, the beast smiles, shards of sunblood glistening in his maw. “Greetings,” he growls. And then, “Are you hungry, cousin?”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall frowns. Standing before wolves, she rakes her history, combing the spotted backs of three centuries to make sense of such a title. “Cousin?” she asks at last.

The wolf turns his head, a jagged, ill-matched curl of lips.

“We know you a little,” he says. “We are all old monsters here.”

The many-named considers this. She had not considered herself monstrous, but then, she must be—three warriors and three centuries buttered between her bones. The thought does not disturb her. She has ridden dragons, slayed and tamed and worn a hundred beasts. To be named monster—well, there is power in monstrosity.

So Eldr-Rán-Fjall smiles. She roots herself in fires and seas and mountains, holds her history like a talisman in two waiting fists, and says, “I come to free the sun.”

Growling, the wolves coil closer, teeth catching moon-light. Skoll shakes his head. “No. It is ours by rights. We were denied our feast.”

“They offer us nothing, but bid the sun to rise,” a she-wolf snarls, advancing but wary. “How can we give up this chase when our pups howl with hungry bellies?”

“Winter cannot end without blood,” another rumbles, teeth shining, close enough to feel her breath. “There must be blood. There must be meat!”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall nods. She thinks of the village at the mountain’s feet, their need-fetter tight around her throat. She understands. Charred leek and bear weigh bitter in her stomach.

“Then I will bring you both,” she says, and returns the way she came.

* * *

Eldr-Rán-Fjall finds a hart flickering between the trees, chewing bark and kicking roots. Loping silent through the forest behind it, she brings it down with a whispered knife between the oath-band loops of its spine. Its body balanced on her shoulders, Eldr-Rán-Fjall climbs the mountain again.

She stops at the edge of the pack’s den and guts the hart, separating viscera and entrails into tidy piles, sweet and steaming, all within reach of her knife. Soon, the wolves circle, stomachs rumbling on sunlight. But Eldr-Rán-Fjall smiles with the teeth of wolves and black-bright eyes of foxes; they dare not come too close.

She is monstrous. She is kin. They will not risk her claws.

At last, a shadow prowls close enough to ask, “Your price?”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall nods to the sun sparks limping over the mountain’s rim.

The wolves look to each other. In a moment, they agree.

“There is blood,” they say. “There is meat.”

So she trades them the hart—lean though it is—for the slow-gleam sun, simmering in the valley between their silver-toothed mountains. Like a thief, it slinks into the sky at her back as Eldr-Rán-Fjall descends the mountain. The need-fetter slips from her throat as she walks, and though she swallows freely, her strength fails with the growing light, each step a small new exhaustion.

Before long, Skoll walks at her side, his shoulder warm and heavy against her hip, his lips as yet unstained with living blood.

“Hunt with us,” he says, gentle. “Live. Eat. We will teach you to hold the sun in your teeth.”

The many-named smiles. She shakes her head. Beads of ice ring in her hair, even as dawn heats her back.

“No, cousin,” she says, though for him she holds a quiet gratitude. “I have hunted enough.”

And crossing the border between mountain and trees, Eldr-Rán-Fjall walks into the forest to die.

* * *

When the many-named wakes again, she wakes slowly, dozing in heat, sharp summer sunlight piercing her comforting chill. Thick water licks her fingers and anoints her eyes, smelling of old amulets, of stune and stiðe and something new.

When at last her eyes open, this time, the many-named wakes alone.

She finds her body clean and nude in the flickering light of a near fire, her bones the same, but her flesh different. Now, she is again as dark as her earliest life—dark as fire-keepers, ocean bellies, mountain deeps—and though life itches like poison weed, the many-named finds it a small comfort to look down at her hands and see a shade she remembers.

This time, it takes little to relearn the strange flow of her new body, the bones rattling their history like coins between teeth. The many-named stands, strong and sturdy on her old-new legs. Barefoot, bare fleshed, she ignores the carefully sewn linens left folded by her makeshift bed and crosses to the longhouse door.

Outside, a man and a woman stand ankle-deep in snow, identical in face and hair. Even the dark circles beneath their eyes match—the slim line of crimson beneath the moons of their fingernails. They lean on each other, barely grown, sharing a single space. Eldr-Rán-Fjall reads the shadow-marks of ruin on their faces, too pale beneath the memory of paint.

“You’re awake,” the woman breathes, a hope in her voice thin as dog-chewed hide.

Her brother holds tightly to her hand. “Welcome to the world again, Eldrrán Fjall,” he says.

Like weaving sense from ash roots, Eldr-Rán-Fjall untangles their accent, pieces their words together around the strange new cadence of her name. She smiles. She knows the way of legends, names and places weather-warped by many tellings.

Years have buried her again, she thinks, and does not speak to correct these almost-children, swimming in magic and their own white cloaks. Hopefully, given enough time, the years will bury her completely.

Palming sleep and earth from her eyes, Eldr-Rán-Fjall says, “So you have need of me?”

* * *

“Monsters sleep in outside bay,” the halves tell her, their language like wind-fish, bubbling and new. “They run every one aground. Until they are killed, our ships cannot return home.”

They feed her— salmon for speed, crow for cunning—and by afternoon, Eldr-Rán-Fjall finds her feet and finds her way.

* * *

The many-named takes nothing from them, and so, when she reaches water’s edge, she has no skin to shed. Instead, she wraps herself in the memory of a lost pelt, smooth and fatted, and slips into the sea.

The weighted tides suck at her body, gnawing her new flesh with flat ice teeth. But once, the serpent beneath the world taught her which waves to breathe, and though these legs are new and different, they kick as heavy as her once-ago tail.

She was born from oceans once, cut her teeth with monsters singing men beneath the waves.

She swims on.

* * *

At the throat of the inlet—in the heart through which all ships must pass—two women-serpents watch her approach, coiled tails winking Höðr’s eyes in the frozen night-water.

“And now they send the many-named,” one hisses, clenching claws.

“Why do you come?” demands the other. “To kill or to capture?”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall sinks to the water’s bottom, pebbled with smooth-worked bones and the mossed remains of ships. Sand stirs up lost oaths beneath her toes, gold rings still vital in the living dark. And here and there, an empty-eyed warrior watches from beneath corroded shields—a lost merchant stares between the still-sealed jars of his trade.

She holds no weapons, history or otherwise. She wears her knife—her only treasure—bound up in her hair.

“I come to bring the ships home,” she says.

The serpent-women flash teeth red as their eyes. Minnows scatter from the seethe of their hair.

“No,” the first snarls. “We are grieving for our sister! Why may they return home—they who stole her—when she cannot?”

The second coils. Bone beads run the length of her tail, chattering like teeth. “Should drown you. Even seal-born cannot hold their breath forever.”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall turns her head, watches these two sisters, boiling like salmon in the current. And walking the belly of frozen water, facing another war, the many-named expects exhaustion. She feels the cold like a song, like a promise—and true, she could sleep. She could close her eyes in the waves, escape to an eternity without witch women and twin halves.

And yet.

Here, beneath the world and waves, Eldr-Rán-Fjall remembers a hundred roads—unmarked, unnamed. She feels the edge of her need-fetter, strained by weight and water, not nearly so strong as the binding before, and she thinks, perhaps, she will walk again.

“Where is your sister?” she asks.

“She is dead,” the serpent-women say.

And empty handed, facing monsters, Eldr-Rán-Fjall smiles. “So am I.”

* * *

She steps carefully through wreckages and into a high cave, twining between ragged sail ends and shattered chests until she finds the pieces of the serpent-woman, lolling like lost bottles on the ocean floor. Dead. Dead and done, but twice awake now and Eldr-Rán-Fjall has learned a little.

Pulling the knife from her hair, she unwraps the gold band that holds her handle to her blade. With a word of warming, she stretches it thin as thread, sharp and fine. She sings into the waves the songs that woke her, threads the wound with her history. Delicate as embroidery, she returns the serpent’s head to her neck, breathes life into her—sharing her own—and does not feel its loss. The many-named burns like old fire, even among the ice of broken swords and ships.

The serpent-woman wakes smiling. Her smile is familiar, pockmarked and scaled as old mischief. Kin, Eldr-Rán-Fjall thinks, though from which branch of which tree, she could not say.

Immediately, the serpent-woman’s sisters crowd to her, laughing and sobbing, tattooed arms twined around her new-scarred neck.

“Thank you,” they say, and, “Stay, stay. You are weak and wounded from your helping.”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall smiles, but declines. She could climb mountains. She could reclaim the skies.

“I thank you, but I will go,” she says, and at this, the scarred serpent-woman pulls from the others. She faces Eldr-Rán-Fjall with grim-dark eyes, her face set in valleys.

“They will foul you in nets,” she says, voice like aching gravel. “They will bind you, claim you. You are a powerful prize. You will be owned and lost.”

“I will be careful.”

Still, the serpent-woman speaks. “They will cut off your head to helm their ships. They will take your arms to decorate their mead-hall doors. They will wear your hide for armor. You will not survive it. Stay.”

And though it sounds like a promise, like the mountain-belly words of a seer, Eldr-Rán-Fjall shakes her head. She has been too long gone from the world to fear the fates and faces of man.

“No, sisters,” she says, voice soft as shores. “I carry too much fire. I would like to walk again.”

And slipping from the night-drenched cave, Eldr-Rán-Fjall swims for sunlight.

* * *

She returns first to the halves, though their need-fetter no longer holds her. A courtesy, she calls only to give them rest—to offer a peace of mind she often missed in her three lives. Hearing the deed finished, the halves dip cups into the cauldron of mead bubbling over their fireplace, spiced and sweet.

“For your success!” they say, and they are joyous, eyes bright.

It would be rude not to drink.

Eldr-Rán-Fjall accepts the cup, presses its heat against her blue-tipped fingers, thinking of roads and fires and flight.

Smiling, together, they drink.

A mouthful, a taste, and her vision blurs. The fire dies abruptly—steals light, steals warmth. Blind in the dark, Eldr-Rán-Fjall hears her cup shatter, slipped from her hand.

And no more.

* * *

When she wakes again, it is to anger, to bog water, to blood filling her mouth and the stink of peat in every chamber of her heart. She wakes to a tight coil of sinew lodged in the hollow of her throat, to an unfamiliar prayer and dragon-scream in the far distance, though long ago, she watched the last dragon die.

Eldr-Rán-Fjall rises. She breaks the sinew from her neck and sees at the edge of the bog a bearded man in white robes, standing over another on his knees, hand clenching her quartz knife, dripping red.

And Eldr-Rán-Fjall is not tired.

Past the blood and the peat she smells spell-work, sees the blue coils writhing above his hands. The bleeding body sinks into the shadowed water, eyes closed, neck gaping.

“Wake, Eldrán, son of Fjall,” the man commands, reaching a hand for her. “Take up your sword again. The witch Hamhleypa has raised a dragon!”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall stands, alone. She wears her skin differently dark—earthen, now—growing peat over granite bones, mossed breasts, and mountain flank. She gifts the man a moment—a single crystalized instant of fear—before she strikes him down, a single, heavy blow to his temple. Soon, he slides beneath the peat as well. The many-named watches him fall, her knife trapped in the cage of his hand, and lets them both go.

Quietly, she kneels in muck and lifts the first body, carries the boy to higher, harder ground.

With earth-mooned fingers, she traces the gash her knife made along a throat too young yet for barbs or beard, and quietly, with whispers from the rocks and sea, she closes the wound. With words learned lifetimes ago, she sings the words to sink him in his skin again.

Eldr-Rán-Fjall vomits bog. Her bones burn. Old daggers score her ribs, her new-won heart hammers fierce, defiant. Though she sings the owl song, though she howls with wolf-tongue the words to free a sun, though she tears at her bones and soul, she cannot return her stolen light. The boy remains dead, bloodied and peat-foul in her arms, and Eldr-Rán-Fjall understands that this death has happened before. It will happen again.

He, like her, is made for this.

Gently, the many-named wipes the muck from his eyes and shuts them against the bitter-bronze daylight.

When she dies, he will rise again—new body, new blood. Perhaps there is a sort of honor in it—that when her arms decorate mead hall doors, he will take up swords. That when she lies rotten, he will live.

Until then, she lets the bog hold him.

Again, elsewhere, the dragon screams. Eldr-Rán-Fjall turns, muddied to her hips, and her eyes fall on a distant mountain, the shadow-marks of wings.

Despite her blood and hurt, Eldr-Rán-Fjall smiles.

None stand to stop her—not with cups or swords.

Eldr-Rán-Fjall lifts herself from the bog and walks. She sheds nothing as she goes, wearing proudly her bones and earth, carrying her mossy flesh like armor, like battle. With a few short words to bend the rocks her way, Eldr-Rán-Fjall sinks her moss into crevices and scales the mountainside.

The wind blows a torrent around her, but the many-named steals it for a cloak. She has known fiercer winds and she cannot be cowed.

She was born from fire once, forged in dragons’ flame.

She climbs on.

* * *

At the peak of the mountain, she finds a beast like no other she has known before—a furred and weighty dragon, a slow crest of sea erne feathers studding her brilliant jaw. Yet, Eldr-Rán-Fjall knows her. Though she carries the blood of bears, wears the pelts of several horses, she cannot change her bones.

They remember the same winds, the same wars. Eldr-Rán-Fjall knows the heft of her wings as familiar as breathing. She knows the weight of that broad head, her heavy tail. She has borrowed these bones in battle. She once laid them to their rest. She neither knows nor cares who has assembled her again, only that she is assembled, only that she is here.

Lowering her massive, furred head, the dragon eyes her. “Once, your people would sacrifice warrior women to me—for their crops and cows, their health.”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall taught her children to ride this back. They learned the webbing in these old wings before words. They drank her fire in their mother’s milk.

“And once, your kin sacrificed dragons to me,” she says, sewing old dragon speech together, tasting every spark. “Hearts for fine hunting, fire for gold.”

The dragon cocks her head. “You are not quite woman.”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall nods. She steps closer. “And you are not quite dragon.”

Slow as sunlit cats, the beast blinks, settles her chin on the flat edge of her tail. “Then we are much the same,” she says. Red eyes bright, she asks, “Do you remember me?”

In her voice, Eldr-Rán-Fjall hears slow-passed centuries. She hears the breath of history shared between them. She hears hope like worms’ teeth gnawing ancient bones.

She hears family. She hears kin.

She has always been monstrous, whenever she lived.

“I know the answers to your old riddles,” she says, gently, stepping forward. “I know the places you itch. I know the names of your brood.”

Fire curls at the dragon’s lips. “And the place to sink a sword.”

“Yes,” Eldr-Rán-Fjall agrees. “We are old friends.”

The dragon laughs. She blows old sword smoke over the many-named’s earthen skin, sly tongue curled in humor. “We were carnelian queens, once—gold and ruby kings. We could be again.”

Eldr-Rán-Fjall remembers flying on leather wings. She remembers their daughters. She remembers songs and fire.

She remembers the scent of battlefields after a rain.

Lips pockmarked and imperfect, she looks out over the mountaintops and smiles. “Yes.”

Crystal Lynn Hilbert lives in the forgotten backwaters of Western Pennsylvania, subsisting mostly on old trade paperbacks and tea. Her previous works have appeared in Kaleidotrope, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Apex Magazine.

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