"Nana Athene?" I ask, sticking my head into the elderly Strigine's room. She's not really my nan, of course. If she were, then I'd have an owl-like beak, snowy white feathers, and wickedly sharp talons rather than my dull human features. But she raised me and feels more like family than my parents or actual grandparents did when they were alive.
She looks up from the string in her talons. Its wrapped in a simple net like when humans play Cat's Cradle, but it's not a game. Her patterns weave spells. She doesn't say anything, of course, not being capable of human speech. Neither does she sign as that would involve dropping her spell partway through.
"Why are you casting?" I ask, feeling that's probably a more important question than my original desire to ask why she wasn't downstairs celebrating the naming of my infant daughter.
Her eyes slant up and she clicks her tongue.
I wave my hand. "Yes, I know, you can't tell me now. Sorry."
Silently, I wait as she wiggles her talons. When I was little, I would sit for hours watching as she created simple spells for simple things. A spell to summon a breeze, a spell to evoke the scent of fresh rain, or a spell to make the leaves whisper my name. So many little things. Or occasionally a not-so-simple spell for a not-so-simple thing, like when she sat up all night weaving the night my brother was born, helping my mother through the pain of labor just as she helped me mere days ago when Atessa was born.
As her talons dance, the string begins to glow. She hums, adding a vocal element to her spell. That makes me nervous. She only hums for the not-so-simple spells. Naming Days, like all ceremonies, can attract unwanted attention from being we'd rather not be seen by. Did something latch onto Atessa?
Downstairs, my daughter howls.
Instinct takes over and I sprint down the stairs. "Atessa!" I shove past the concerned faces of my fellow parishioners to find my husband holding the child as she does her best to scream him deaf. Lark presses her against his chest, hand patting her back as he jostles her and makes soothing sounds. He's new to this fatherhood business, but not so new that he has no experience calming her.
I halt in the doorway of the room, which is more crowded that I find comfortable. "What's wrong?"
"It's that feathered witch," a neighbor asserts. He folds his arms and glares at me. "Everyone knows her type is no good."
"Now, Hielm," his wife Vora says as she places her hand on his bicep. I've always liked Vora enough to put up with her asinine spouse, but I'm starting to second guess that. "I'm sure the Ashertons wouldn't keep anyone who would hurt their little girl."
I narrow my eyes at the man. "Athene has been with my family since my mother was a child. I have no fears that she's a threat to my daughter." And I know I should leave things at that, but I go on anyway. "Something I cannot say about you."
"Me?" he sputters. "What do you think I'm going to do?"
"You brought hate into my house. Demons feed on hate."
Hielm rolls his eyes. "Are you accusing me of summoning demons? Priestess Jeslyn! You should come hear this. The woman is harboring a hooter, yet she accuses me of inviting demons!"
Just as I'm about to start screaming about the use of racial slurs in front of my daughter, my husband swoops in to hand Atessa over to me. As I take the shrieking bundle, grateful that I can bury my face against her and avoid looking at my neighbors, he tries to defuse things. "I think everyone here has had a long day and tempers may be running a bit short."
"Yes," Vora agrees quickly. "And it's very nearly supper time. I think Hielm and I should be getting home. The staff will have our meal ready soon."
Lark says something along the lines of being thankful they came and hoping to see them again soon. My beloved is much better than I am at socially polite untruths.
As Lark ushers our neighbors away, the priestess approaches. "Sweetie," she says to me, "let's go to a more quiet room."
Although it's my house, I allow the priestess to lead me down the hallway and into our little library. As soon as we went the room, Atessa stops crying and snuggles against me like she's exhausted. Which she probably is. It must take a lot of energy to yell loud enough to crash the heavens.
There are only two seats in the library. Normally, I'd invite my company to sit first, but I'm too tired for niceties. Besides, I've known Jeslyn since we were in school together. She watches me sit and takes the other chair.. "That man..." She shakes her head. "I guess he wasn't listening last sabbath when I went on for a full hour about respecting all intelligent creatures because the gods love us all. Somehow, the people who need sermons tend to be the least likely to hear them."
I smile wanly. "I think he may have heard but not understood."
"Perhaps next time I should use more sports metaphors." She leans back in her seat and closes her eyes. "What is Nana up to tonight?"
Shifting to make my hold on my daughter more comfortable, I refrain from shrugging. "I don't know. She'd already started, so she couldn't tell me."
"Maybe Hielm really did summon a demon."
I chuckle. "I doubt he's smart enough to figure out how."
"As your priestess, I should tell you that the gods don't like for us to be mean to each other." Jeslyn smiles. "But I think you may be right."
A comfortable quiet settles over us. Atessa drifts into sleep, and I'm about to follow her when Jeslyn suddenly gasps.
My eyes snap open and my gaze goes to my friend and priestess. "Jez?"
She's pale as she holds a hand up and signs for my not be be worried. "A vision," she says with her fingers.
I lean forward but don't say anything. There's probably a reason she's signing rather than speaking, and I don't think it's concern about waking the baby.
Her fingers continue to wave and my blood chills. "Something is outside," she signs. "Take the baby upstairs."
Careful to be quiet, I do as I'm told and hustle my daughter up to the nursery. Nana Athene still sits by the window, her talons flying with speed as she weaves her spell. Behind me, Jeslyn enters the room. She puts a hand on my shoulder and gestures to the corner before going to stand by Nana.
The old Strigine nods without breaking her concentration and Jeslyn begins to pray to the Guardian in the ancient language of the gods. I don't speak enough to know what she's saying, so I follow the cadence as I pour my energy into boosting the prayer's power. Nana's talons change their pace until they are moving in time with Jeslyn's rhythm.
A clap of thunder sounds from just outside and the entire house trembles in response. Atessa begins to scream again. Should I take her somewhere else?
Lark rushes into the room. He pauses long enough to take in the scene, then comes to put his arm around me. He brushes his fingers against Atessa's little head and she calms a little.
The prayer picks up speed, Nana's talons doing likewise. My heart races as I struggle to stay calm for my daughter.
A mighty wind batters against the house. A shutter rips off, smacking against the siding as it goes.
And then quiet. The prayer halts. The wind ceases. There's nothing but a gentle wisp of sound from the string gliding along Nana's talons.
I clench my daughter tight against my chest as a shadowy form takes shape in front of me. It's large and shaped a bit like a bear, but when it moves, I realize it has eight legs. It rears back like it's going to strike at me.
Lark jumps in front of me, his arms spread protectively as he yells for me to run.
"No!" Jeslyn counters. "It will chase you! Stand still."
Whimpering, I huddle around my child and try to think what to do.
Nana's chair creaks and we all turn to look at her, even the the shadow creature. She rises to her feet, her talons still working furiously. Her beak opens wide and she shrieks.
The creature roars back, its voice deep and awful.
Atessa wails, but Nana and the creature are so loud that even while holding her, I can scarcely hear my child scream.
Nana stops shrieking and throws her string. It wraps around the creature, growing tighter as he thrashes. He begins to shrink, still screaming.
The air in the room pops from released pressure and the shadow creature vanishes completely. Atessa falls silent and I look down to check that she's alright. She blinks at me and falls asleep. Weak and silly with relief, I smile down at my little girl.
Nana's chair creaks again as she sits down. By the time I get my gaze to her, she's closed her eyes and slumps to the side. It takes me a moment to realize she didn't fall asleep too. "She's not breathing," I whisper. But from their expressions, my companions already knew.
Lark wraps me in his arms, letting me sob as Jeslyn prays for the Strigine's soul to peace with the gods.
"Lark?" I ask with a sniffle after I've calmed some.
"Yes, my love?" He looks down at me with so much adoration I nearly start crying again.
"I know we just named her, but..."
Understanding shines on his face as he nods. "Jeslyn. We'd like the gods to meet Atessa-Athene."
The priestess gives me a watery smile. "I can arrange that."
And so we have a second naming ceremony, right there in the nursery where my lifelong caretaker gave her life for my daughter. I'm not certain, but I think Nana's spirit stays around long enough to see it. And.... I don't know, but maybe Nana's not going anywhere. Maybe she'll always be here to watch over Atessa-Athene. That's what I'm going to tell the girl anyway, when she's old enough to hear the story behind her name.
The above image is The Old Owl Woman by Hillary Luetkemeyer, who is on Deviant Art as hibbary. It was offered as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.