Thorns had been placed around the place where The Gift was given to discourage friends and family from getting too close, lest they have a change of heart. The air felt cooler than when she’d set out that morning, and Eise shuddered against the cold and the taunting of the crows that swept through the sky overhead, and wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders.
“Why’d ye have to be so stupid, ye fool,” she sighed, hand over her mouth to keep from sobbing outright. “Ye didn’t have to give up all we could’ve had for something ye cannot e’en see.”
Bran believed, though, likely more than some of the eldest in the village. Times were changing, but he still believed that something sacred lived in this tree, and it deserved to be appeased so that . . . What? The villagers didn’t starve? Invaders didn’t come for them in the night? Sickness just ceased to exist at their borders?
What bothered Eise most of all was that she couldn’t prove him wrong. They were a lucky community, more so than most. Their farms were good, storehouses full, children lovely.
But now, she’d never bear children of her own, and Bran wouldn’t even get a burial, choosing instead to be picked apart and taken into the tree and the ground and the horrible animals as tribute.
“What good has some fabled spirit ever done for me?” she hissed and spat at the thorns. The air felt colder still, but she stood tall, defiant, tears streaking her cheeks. His head hung at an odd angle, and the rope that bound him to the branches creaked in the slight breeze. The Gifts had to be appropriately prepared and presented. Appearances mattered, for the nameless thing they appeased was vain.
She could not deny that Bran looked beautiful, even in death, his slender body wrapped with the ceremonial incantations, his skin bathed so it shone in the dawn light, and his flaxen hair blowing against the grey-streaked sky. He had been happy—one of the most successful, joyous men in the village—and he was supposed to belong to her, not an anonymous, dead god that she couldn’t see or give a rightful name to. Giving The Gift was something their village had always done simply because it had always been done.
“I want him back.” The wind whipped through Eise’s hair, stealing her grief-filled, traitorous words to someplace secret. The tears on her cheeks felt like ice, but her heart felt colder.
“I want him back!” she screamed at the tree. At that moment, she hated it with a blind fury, hated the village that allowed this, hated whatever story had led them to fear and worship it. Deeper still, part of her yearned. She longed for the life she’d never have, for the touch of the man she loved, for the little bundle she’d never carry in her womb or cradle on her hip.
The yearning and the hatred churned together with her love into something desperate, unreasonable, poisonous. She bent and clutched the thorn branches with both hands and dragged them away, not caring that her palms tore and were streaked with red. “I want him back!” she screamed and placed her bloodied hands on her intended’s legs, the incantations, the tree he was lashed to. Lost in her madness, she leaned into Bran’s legs and sobbed, not heeding how the rich crimson fluid seeped into the bark.
The crows laughed at her, but she heard a voice in their chortles. “What would ye give for him?”
“I’m not giving ye or anyone else anything more!” she snarled into the cold flesh of her betrothed. She twined her arms around his legs and yanked, but nothing fell save a single apple that had been caught in the top branches. “’Tis time someone takes from ye for once!” she growled, so angry that it seemed natural to hear voices, natural to feel the very air change around her.
She plucked up the apple and bit into it with all the spite she could muster, ground her teeth into the crisp, sweet meat of the fruit, and swallowed it as viciously as she could before spitting the seeds and hurling the core straight at the tree.
“Ye don’t even exist! Ye have no right to take from us, and I’ll spend my days taking every bit I can from ye for this!” The words didn’t quite make sense, and she felt woozy, drained from weeping. Her head ached, and her throat felt raw, her knees so weak they dropped her onto the ground, a keening mess.
“Would ye now? Are all of your sort as strong and quick to anger as ye? Is that why no one comes to greet me anymore after giving me my gifts?”
Eise’s shoulders tensed—she had to be imagining it. It sounded so much like him, but it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.
“Come now, ye don’t like it when ye can’t see me, but this isn’t good enough for ye, either?”
Eise made herself lift her head and stared into the eyes of her beloved. His head jerked, and with a stomach-turning crunch, his broken neck snapped back into place. The sacred incantations unwound from his body like a retreating serpent, the ropes gave way, and he lighted on the ground in front of her, easy as could be.
She cursed words that her parents would box her ears for saying and scrambled backwards, tearing more of herself open on the bracken.
“Come now, Eise, ye wanted to know where your gifts were going. Being safe and happy isn’t enough for ye? Then here ye are, your man returned. In a fashion.”
It was Bran’s body but . . . wrong. There was a strange cast to his eyes, as if he didn’t fully know her, as if he were intrigued by her more than he loved her. His voice did not sound quite right—the cadence off, the warmth chilled.
“Who—what are ye?”
“I’m the one who watches over things. The one ye have an agreement with. The one ye wish to take from,” he countered, stalking forward so his large calves brushed her feet. She jerked her limbs away, couldn’t bear to have him touch her. It wasn’t right. He was dead. He’d been dead. That close, she felt too aware of how far she was from home, how unnatural this was, how naked he was, how alone she was. Yet her fury still pulsed with her fear.
“Ye would play with me now,” she said through clenched teeth, “after all else ye’ve done?”
“All else? Ye’ve grown fine and well, unlike many maids in nearby villages.” He tilted his head and it fell a bit too far. He pushed it back into place. “I’ve given ye all I have. All I ask is a little compensation here an’ there. D’ye know why all stay away after a sacrifice?”
The word made Eise’s belly ache and she winced to hear The Gift called for what it was.
She would not cower. She wouldn’t. She would be afraid, but she would not prostrate herself to this strange, unnatural thing, even if it wore the body of her Bran.
“To fulfill the other part of the compact,” the spirit replied. “Tis been a long time since I’ve walked the village. Perhaps tis time to walk it again.” He eyed her with a hungry gleam, and she felt sick.
“Ye would harm us for my rightful angry words?” Of course he would, she reasoned; he’s not of this world. He could do whatever he wanted.
“Nay, I would relearn the ways of ye. Tis been a while.”
Eise fought the tears, lifted her face, and forced herself to look him firm in the eye, though it tore her soul apart to do so. “Why would ye torment me more?”
“I shan’t torment ye, lass, but I have to care for what’s mine.”
“I’m Bran’s and only Bran’s,” she snarled.
Bran’s smile stretched wide and not altogether pleasantly on his face. “It will be a new miracle for the village to see. I can still protect them while I walk with ye. Ye said I took from ye, well I can also give. Ye’ve given to me, after all.”
“I’ve given ye nothing, nor intend to give ye anything!” Eise hissed, jumping when he took her arm and pulled her to her feet. His touch felt wrong, felt more of the ancient thing lurking underneath the skin and not of Bran himself.
“Ye gave me living blood, lass. And I haven’t had that in such a long time. A special reward is necessary. We are bound, intent or not, my little priestess.” His grin was a touch vicious as he considered her.
Eise couldn’t outrun Bran when he was alive, and she doubted she could now. Still, she’d longed for him, yearned relentlessly, even though the elders and her own mam told her this was the way of the world. She’d never spoken the words aloud, but had promised herself that if she could find any way to regain what she’d lost, she’d surely do it. Some deep, horrid part of her reasoned that this was the best she could get.
At least he’ll be with me in some way, she thought. I’ll have time to figure out how whatever’s living in him can be dealt with.
The thing wearing Bran smirked and snaked an arm around her shoulders. She nearly cried again, but allowed him to steer her toward the village. She forced herself to walk on, to not break down.
“This way ye can have him with ye for a time.”
“How long?” she whispered, though it felt like she was asking how long a prison sentence would last.
“Until that which was taken is given back,” he said cryptically. She paused, and he applied just a bit of force on her neck, enough to make her realize down to her toes that he could crush her on a whim.
She walked, face stone, mind desperate, heart undone.
“I will take ye to the village if ye will spare it from my foolishness. I will abide with ye, will house ye and will be devoted as I’d planned with my Bran,” she whispered. She knew he took quiet glee in how slowly and thoroughly she’d be undone by being forced to live with her error. “He is the one I worshipped, after all, and I will not break a promise to be true to him. But—” She made herself look him in the eye. “I will not lay with ye.”
He laughed, and the sound was Bran enough that the rejection devastated her. Hot shame turned her skin pink, even in the cold air. “Little lass, I may walk among the village, but I have no desire to be that close to those who live and die in a blink of an eye. Besides, there’s no need for that, as I already said.”
Her stomach twisted, and she gasped, stumbled a bit. He caught her, more careful this time in his touch, and pushed her on. “I don’t know what ye ken,” she admitted.
“I’ll be with ye til that what was taken is given back. Ye’ve been the first in ages to eat the fruit from my tree, little lass. Do the elders not speak of what happens when such is done anymore?”
Eise tried to recall the old myths, but she couldn’t remember ever having heard anything about the fruit of the tree. “No,” she said.
The thing wearing Bran smirked at her, and the ache in her belly intensified. Eise suddenly realized the strange sensation wasn’t actually coming from her belly. “No!” she scremed, pulling away from him. Her mind blanked into bright hysteria. “I didn’t mean to! I never meant to! It won’t be Bran’s! I don’t want it!”
The spirit shrugged with Bran’s body. “Ye took it freely. Ye gave me blood and freed me. Tis what happens. I’ll abide with ye until the child comes, and we can go from there, depending on how this body does.”
Eise imagined having to watch Bran’s corpse slowly fade away to rot as she carried this thing’s child to term, all because of dead legends she’d never been told.
The thing in Bran gave an easy smile, almost perfectly mimicking the man Eise had loved. “The best of it will be made. Perhaps ye will even learn to enjoy me there in this fashion, looking as I do. Isn’t this what ye wanted?” he taunted, his step becoming more jovial, more like Bran the closer they got to the village.
Determination flooded her. Tis only for a time, she thought. I can make it work. Tis close enough to what I wanted. Even if I never kiss Bran’s mouth again, never have him hold me, he’s with me in a way. I shan’t forget how he was, and I’ll raise the child to be like him, fate willing. In the meantime, perhaps I can coax the thing that wears him to show his weakness, village luck or no.
The sheer scheming spite of it made her lips curl in a trembling, small smile, the only one she could manage. She clung to that hope as she tried to match his large stride, tried not to break down at the cruel joke of it all.
She wondered if he’d tell the villagers who he really was. She wondered if she could last, if she’d be made to last, if she’d be allowed to live afterwards, if he’d take his leave or extend her torment. She wondered if she could deceive herself into believing it was Bran, the child was theirs, that all would be well, if only for a time.
Eise did not have to wonder to know that the crows, the trees, the wind, and the thing in Bran were all laughing at her.