From the author: Names are powerful. Sometimes more powerful than you think...
Name of the Demoness
Jessie D. Eaker
“Push once more!” said the midwife.
Exhausted and sweaty from her labor, Freya firmly gripped the arms of her friends kneeling beside her, and leaned up from the pallet—taking a deep breath, groaning with effort—she pushed with the remainder of her strength. Expectantly, the other women held their breath; all eyes focused on the laboring woman. The room grew quiet except for the sounds of her exertion. The world seemed to pause, waiting for the result....
Freya fell back, and the midwife held up the infant. It began to cry.
The midwife briefly inspected the baby and laid it on Freya's stomach, where it squirmed and wiggled. The women began to excitedly whisper among themselves. It was a girl-child.
Freya leaned up to watch her infant. So this is the little creature that changed my life, she thought. She couldn't help but smile.
Despite her exhaustion, Freya anxiously waited for her turn to hold the child. But first came the blessing: thanks to the Goddess Mother for a successful birth—and a female. The midwife cut the cord and handed the babe to the waiting Priestess Lyris. But the priestess frowned. She took the child over to the window and threw open its shutter, allowing in the last of the day's sun. A light breeze ruffled the priestess's robes as she studied the infant's face. The room suddenly became silent.
“What is it?” Freya demanded. “What is wrong?”
Lyris shook her head. “I'm sorry, my child.” She gave the baby back to the mother and pointed to a black mark on the child's forehead. “It is the mark of the Demoness Gilou. Before tomorrow's sunrise, she will come to collect what she has claimed.”
The other women had left. Only the priestess remained to council the new mother—and console her to her fate.
“I am a warrior!” Freya shouted. “I will not give up my babe without a fight!”
“You can't fight the demoness,” stated Priestess Lyris. “You risk your own life if you try to stop her.”
“I swear by the Goddess Mother I will not give up my baby without a fight! Be they human or demon, my sword will just as easily cleave their head from their body.”
“You don't understand!” said the exasperated priestess. “Your steel is useless against the demoness. And if you anger her by your feeble efforts, she will take you, too!” The priestess shook her head. “It is best you set the child aside, don't even suckle her, and let the demoness take her.”
“Curse you! If you won't help me, I'll prepare to meet her as best I can! Alone!”
The priestess shook her head in resignation. “You are a stubborn woman, warrior. I will do what I can, but it is very little I offer.” She paused a moment in thought. “I will put you in the highest tower of the temple, which will slow the demoness, but not stop her. This will force her to wait until just before dawn, when the life force is at its lowest ebb. At best, it will buy you a few hours.”
Given the help she needed, Freya's anger subsided. Doubt replaced it. If the sword she had depended on for so long was useless, what was she to do? How could she defeat a demoness whose very name makes mothers weep and babies cry? No doubt the priestess was right—to interfere was death. But this child had been hard won, and for her, there would be no more. She had no choice but to fight. “Is there no weapon I can use against the demoness? Some way I can kill her?”
The priestess laughed. “Can you kill a mountain? Can you destroy the sea? No, my child. You cannot kill a demoness.”
Freya shook her head. “Surely there is something. All things have their limits. Even demons must get their power from somewhere!”
“True,” acknowledged the priestess. “A demon gets its power from its names: the more names it has, the more powerful it is. Demoness Gilou has three: Gilou her familiar name and Abyzu her second. But she has a third—a secret name, her name of power. If it were known, you could write it on a stone or amulet and place it on the child. Then if the demoness touched the child, she would be destroyed. But only Gilou herself and her mistress know that secret name. And I doubt Gilou will volunteer the information.” The priestess stood to begin the preparations. “I wish there were more I could do. I'll pray that the Goddess Mother is with you. But what you can accomplish, other than increase your misery, I do not know.”
Freya awaited death's approach.
She lay upon a low couch in the uppermost tower of the temple, resting, saving her strength for the battle to come. The chamber she occupied was round and bare except for her couch and small lamp. She had positioned the couch across from the room's only entry—a door on the room's north wall, bolted shut from the inside. Tall windows, with wide window ledges no higher than her knee, occupied the west and east walls. The priestesses used them for prayer at sunrise and sunset.
A chill pre-morning breeze blew through the open windows. Freya shivered and pulled her cloak tighter about her and the baby. She had spent half the night standing at the east window, looking out over the sleeping city, watching the stars dancing to their unhurried rhythm, and praying the sunrise would hurry.
Absent-mindedly she fingered the amulet around her neck. The priestess had placed it there before leaving her in the tower. She had whispered it was an amulet of the Goddess Mother and would help protect her from the demoness. Then the priestess had kissed her good-bye.
In the time since then she had developed a plan. It was her only hope. She touched the dagger concealed at her waist. Dipped in her own blood, she had used it for a stylus. If her ruse failed, she would use it on herself.
The baby slept in the crook of her arm. She had suckled a little. Although she took the breast eagerly, she was too young to really drink well. Freya had been pleased when the child grasped her finger and blinked up at her with unseeing eyes. These were good signs that the child would be strong.
The warrior occupied her mind with choosing a name for the babe. If they survived, the child could be named at the next dawn, as was custom. But Freya could wait for three more days if she wanted. Just as long as the naming was done at dawn.
She leaned her head back and sighed. Her whole body ached from her labors, and she was tired. Her body cried out for rest, but she could allow it none. The time was near.
A scraping noise from the door made her sit up. Despite having been barred, it now stood open, swinging gently in the breeze. Before it a figure stood, outside the circle of light the small lamp projected. Freya tensed. Waiting.
“I have come for what is mine,” announced a rasping voice.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Freya responded, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
Stepping forward into the light was the demoness: nude, with a woman's breasts and hips, she had the head of a dog, the feet of a hawk, and arms like snakes—the digits of her fingers waving of their own accord. The dog head grinned.
“Gilou,” the word escaped Freya's lips. The warrior stood, clutching the baby to her chest. She darted her eyes to the east—the horizon was beginning to lighten.
“Fear me, mortal. I am the bringer of death. Give me the child. The reward my mistress has promised awaits my return.”
“I have lambs to offer you instead. Or calves if you prefer. I will make a great sacrifice to you.”
The demoness laughed. “You pitiful mortal. I must have the babe. It has been foretold that the child will one day destroy me as well as my mistress. My mistress I care nothing for, but as for myself, I have some care. I give no quarter. I take no chances.” The demoness reached for the infant. “Give her to me!”
“No! Wait! She's protected. Look at the names written on her forehead.”
The demoness took a fearful step back. Freya held her breath hoping the ruse worked.
The demoness cocked her head from side to side as she studied the child. She suddenly laughed and Freya's blood ran cold. “Foolish mortal. Yes, there are three names there, but only two of them are mine. The third is gibberish. Now stop delaying and give me the child! The sun is rising. I have no time for games.”
Freya drew the knife concealed at her waist. “You'll have to take her monster. A Guardswoman does not surrender!”
The demoness hissed. “Fool! Your steel is nothing to me.” Faster than lightning, the demoness reached out and seized the knife by its blade. She jerked it from Freya's grasp and flung it out the window. “Pay for your insolence woman!” One of the demon's snake arms, reached for the warrior's throat. But the amulet Freya wore flashed brilliant white. The demoness jerked back as if stung.
“What!” she roared. “More delays. Woman, killing you will bring me great pleasure.” The demoness raised her arms and chanted. “I am the demoness Gilou, also called Abyzu. I destroy this treachery by the power of my own secret name—Neola!”
At the mention of the name, the amulet flared and blackened. It fell from around Freya's throat and shattered on the stone floor.
The demoness grinned. Again lightning fast, she reached for the warrior and wrapped one of her snake arms around Freya's throat, cutting off her air. With the other, the demoness ripped the child from her grasp and clutched the infant to its chest.
In one smooth motion, the demoness threw the warrior against the wall. She hit hard, landing on her face and knocking the wind out of her. Blood oozed from her nose and lips. She fell to the floor.
As the demoness approached, Freya unsteadily regained her feet and using the wall for support, slid away from the monster. Freya's mind raced. She knew the demoness's name, but she no longer had the child or her stylus. What could she do?
Gilou lunged and Freya dodged. But not fast enough. Catching her by the arm, the demoness threw her through the air to land on the window sill—half in, half out the window. Freya teetered on the brink of falling. She barely managed to catch herself.
The demoness came up behind her and placed a clawed foot in her back, preventing her from rising. “I wish I had more time to enjoy your death, but the sun is about to rise...”
Freya raised her head. Maybe there was a way.
Gilou continued, “...Fortunately for you, yours will be a quick death. Now die!”
The demoness started to push her out the window. Freya raised her head and yelled at the sun just peeking over the horizon. “In the name of the Goddess Mother I give my child the name of the demoness—Neola!”
Instantly from behind her came a blood-curdling scream, and the pressure on her back released. Freya turned to see her child glowing where she was clutched to the demoness' side. With her other snake arm, the demoness tried to pull the babe away from her, but the limb stuck fast to the child. It screamed again, shaking the tower in its agony. Gradually the glow from the child spread to cover the demoness, and she began to shrink away. Smaller and smaller she became, until nothing was left but a fine black powder on the floor of the tower—and her child.
The babe had slept through the whole ordeal, only to be awakened by the scream. Freya picked up the child and tried to comfort her.
Just then, Priestess Lyris burst into the room followed by two guards. “What happened? We heard the scream.” The priestess drew up short. “You still have the baby,” she cried in astonishment.
Freya smiled. “And a fine daughter she'll be too. Barely a day old, and she's already killed a demoness.”
This story originally appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress 6.