11. Pack Animal
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Iseut was grinning from ear to ear when she left Hamon’s workshop. He was such a patient teacher, knew how to crack a joke, and she always felt at ease working with him. Hunting was often tense and fast. Working with the needle was more cerebral, like a puzzle.

She wasn’t good yet, but she was getting better. A week had passed since she and Aldith confronted Hann, and now that Iseut was officially Hamon’s apprentice, she spent most of her days working alongside him. But every other day she left early to return to Aldith’s hut and continue her magical training as well.

“Good, you’re here,” Stace said, letting her into the hut. Aldith was gone, probably to attend to some medical matter within the village proper. “Today we’re learning more about the moon phases and what kind of spells are appropriate for each. Then we’ll practice herb identification and animal correspondence.”

“Nice to see you too, Stace,” Iseut replied, sitting down at the wooden table in a wicker chair.

“Always a pleasure to have you here,” Stace told her, pulling a heavy book off of a dusty shelf.

Stace had been taking a lot of responsibility the past week, helping teach Iseut the basics of witchcraft while Aldith worked on her own projects. Aldith had insisted that it was important for Stace’s own education. Iseut was just grateful to have more time together.

“Last time, we went over the names of the full moons,” Stace said, dropping the book on the table with a thud, “What do you remember?”

Iseut struggled to recall the names of the moons. After the first six or seven, Stace opened the book up to the correct page and pointed to the list of moons and their names. Iseut blushed and buried her nose in the book to read them again.

Days with Stace always passed slowly. By the time they were halfway through herb identification, Stace stepped away to start the fire and start preparing dinner. They weren’t even close to done and it was almost time to eat.

“I’m never going to get this,” Iseut whined.

“You will,” Stace insisted, not looking up from the meat she was tenderizing, “I know that hunters don’t have to use their brains, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have one.”

“You’re mean,” Iseut told her.

“You’re just not quick-witted enough to keep up with us yet,” Stace retorted, grinning.

“I will be one day, and then you’ll be sorry.”

Stace chuckled, and Iseut smiled softly.

She turned the page and continued, “I’m glad you’re helping me with this.”

Stace started dropping ingredients into the pot, then turned to Iseut and said, “Truth be told, I’ve always kind of felt like a bit of an outcast. I know that people talk about me, the witch’s apprentice, behind my back. It means a lot to me that you’re here.”

Iseut felt her heart melt a little.

“Yeah,” she said, “I… have heard people gossiping about you. And myself, too. They aren’t as subtle about it as they think they are. It really makes me appreciate having someone who accepts me unconditionally.”

Stace locked eyes with Iseut and smiled.

“Why don’t you take a break and help me get dinner ready?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” Iseut replied, “I only hunt the meat. I don’t know how to prepare it.”

Stace snickered and retorted, “Useless hunter.”

“Is that a challenge?” Iseut asked, standing up.

There was a gleam in Stace’s eye, and she gestured at the pot. Iseut grinned and walked over.

“What do I have to do?” she asked.

Stace walked her through the process. Iseut found amazing new ways to mess it up and Stace had to constantly step in and ix her mistakes. The two were laughing tremendously at Iseut’s attempt by the time Aldith finally stepped through the door.

“Did you finish your training for the day?” she asked knowingly.

Iseut and Stace exchanged a glance, then burst out into laughter. Dinner was served on time despite Iseut’s attempts to mess it up, and it tasted just fine. Aldith gave them both an earful for not focusing on Iseut’s studies, but let them enjoy themselves nonetheless.

Iseut felt good. The past week she’d felt kind of lost after her fight with Morris. But it was clear that she had a new best friend, and when she went to bed that night it was with a warm stomach and warm heart.

In the morning, Iseut got dressed in a colorful blue skirt and loose-fitting wool shirt. After nearly a week of facing the wall to get dressed out of discomfort, her new bunkmates had convinced her that it would be okay if she just dressed openly with the rest of them. She still kept her head down for the most part, but she didn’t blush as much as she used to.

“Are you ready?” Wilmot asked.

“Absolutely,” Iseut replied, “Let’s go.”

She followed Eda, Wilmot, and Jocosa out of the bunkhouse and down the road. It felt weird to be part of a group of girls again. Iseut hadn’t had any female friends since before she started hunting. It was weird how normal it all felt even after all this time.

Iseut felt better. She didn’t feel like a hawk anymore. She was a pretty little bluebird now, and it had brought so much color into her life.

“Can you get me an outfit like that?” Wilmot asked her.

“I can try,” Iseut replied.

“How is Stace?” Eda asked, “You see her most days, right?”

“She’s doing well. Her studying takes up a lot of time.”

Jocosa said, “We really need you to get your hair cut, Iseut. It looks like you’ve never had it done properly.”

Iseut hummed in reply.

The tavern didn’t open this early to get a drink, but Meggy liked to get up early some days to welcome her friends in. Iseut was apparently a part of that group now. It made her heart swell up a little.

By the time they arrived, there were already three guys sitting at a table. As soon as Eda saw her boyfriend Amis, she ran up to him and he stood up to grab her in a hug. Firmin and Noll stayed sitting, holding each other’s hands on the table.

“There you girls are,” Noll said, “We were waiting.”

The smell of breakfast wafted in from the kitchen as Meggy opened the door to check on them. She smiled and waved at the girls, and Iseut waved back as she took a seat between Eda and Jocosa.

“I missed you,” Amis told Eda.

The conversation settled into a familiar routine. Iseut occasionally got a word in here or there, mostly when someone asked her a question, but for the most part she was content just to nod along.

“Do you have a significant other?” Firmin asked her.

“No,” Iseut replied, fidgeting a little, “Since the transformation, I haven’t really talked to a lot of people except for you guys and my teachers.”

Jocosa asked, “Did you really not have one before you changed?”

She shook her head, admitting, “There was one person, but I didn’t have the courage to ask them. And it… wouldn’t work now.”

Nobody pressed her for more information, which she was glad about. Talking about what had happened to her had become easier after learning more about her new friends. Jocosa and Wilmot were together, Noll and Firmin were together, and Amis was in a relationship with both Eda and Stace. She could be the woman who used to look like a guy. In some way it made her feel more at home than if she was just normal by comparison.

Meggy returned from the kitchen with a large platter of bread and plates of stew. Iseut’s stomach growled in anticipation as Meggy placed the bowls down in front of them. Setting the platter aside, she stopped to kiss Amis on the cheek and ruffle his hair before sitting down beside him.

“Love you,” she muttered, before turning to Eda and asking, “How are things going with that sheep you were telling us about? The one that was ill?”

The conversation continued. Iseut ate her breakfast slowly, trying her hardest to cherish the time she had with her new friends. These mornings were always over too soon, but she was looking forward to many more of them to come.

“By the way, Iseut,” Meggy said, “I love that outfit you’re wearing. Who made it for you?”

“I made it with help from Hamon, actually,” Iseut admitted.

“Do you think I could get a special order done? I want to look nice for my guests and I think my regular outfits are wearing thin.”

“I’ll ask,” Iseut promised.

It was good to have friends again. The connections she was making felt different from the relationships she used to have with the guys she knew. This was… more authentic. Maybe it was just that she was more of herself now. She couldn’t be sure.

“It’s getting late,” Firmin finally said, pulling himself away from Amis, “I need to get back to the tannery.”

“I think we all need to go,” Wilmot admitted, standing up.

“Until next time,” Iseut said, following their lead.

Hamon was already working by the time Iseut arrived, as she expected of him by now. He greeted her warmly and invited her inside. Iseut was ready and eager to get started. Hamon already had a dress on a mannequin that he was working on.

“Why don’t you finish this?” he asked, “All that’s left is the sleeves. You can do that.”

“Yeah, I think so,” Iseut said, her stomach in knots.

It was like a puzzle. If she stayed calm and moved methodically, Iseut would be done in no time without any mistakes. She could feel Hamon’s gaze on her occasionally as she worked, but for the most part it looked like he was going to trust her to do it right.

“The tavern owner,” she said suddenly, “asked me if we could make her some new outfits to replace the ones she has now. Do you think we’ll have time to do that?”

“If we work together,” Hamon replied, “Are you already taking orders?”

Iseut chuckled.

“I guess I’m good at this,” she suggested.

Hamon leaned over to inspect her work.

“I am impressed,” he said, “You’ve come a long way in a short amount of time.”

Iseut smiled softly. A warm feeling welled up inside of her. If she could make Hamon proud of her, it would mean a lot. Occasionally Hamon would give Iseut notes but for the most part he allowed her to take the lead. She worked diligently, moving her hands as fast as she could without making a mistake, and cursing the few that she managed to make anyway.

Then came a knock at the door and Iseut stepped away to let in the visitor. She expected someone coming to pick up an order. Instead it was Hamon’s older son Wybert, whom Iseut had met when she stayed for dinner the week prior. As soon as she saw him smile, Iseut felt her face turn a little red.

“Hello, Wybert,” she mumbled, stepping aside to let him in, “I didn’t expect to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Iseut,” he said, nodding politely.

He turned to his father to continue talking, but Iseut wasn’t paying attention. Iseut could barely focus on him without getting all flustered. She felt stupid for getting this worked up over a guy she didn’t even know.

“How are you doing, Iseut?” Wybert asked, snapping her back to attention.

“I’m fine,” she said, walking over to the mannequin she was working on, “I’m still learning, but your father has been a lot of help.”

“He’s not working you too hard, is he?” Wybert asked, flashing her his charming smile.

“Not at all,” she managed to stammer out, looking away and biting her lip.

She definitely had a crush on Wybert. And the bastard didn’t even seem to notice the effect he had on her. And what would Hamon think if she were to ask him out? It would feel like a betrayal of his trust.

Wybert said, “I have to go. But it was nice talking to you. We should hang out more often.”

“What day are you free?” Iseut asked, heart thumping in her chest.

She could feel Hamon’s eyes on them.

“Oh? Well, I’ve got the evening off in a couple of days. Do you want to get a drink?”

“I’d love to,” Iseut cooed.

“I’ll see you then,” Wybert said, smiling softly and turning a light shade of red, “I’m looking forward to it.”

He bid her and his father goodbye. Once she was gone, Iseut returned to her work, but kept her eyes down so she wouldn’t have to look at Hamon. He was going to be upset with her. She knew it.

“You know, he’s been talking about you at home,” Hamon told her, “Keeps asking how you’re doing. I think he was hoping you’d be here.”

“Don’t tease me,” Iseut pleaded.

“I’m telling you the truth,” Hamon insisted.

Iseut felt her face burn even harder and she bit her lip. Hamon didn’t say any more after that, clearly aware of how flustered she was. She appreciated that he hadn’t bitten her head off.

Still, Iseut had to sigh. She’d spent so many years pining after Morris, and then he turned on her so easily. It was time to admit that he was never going to reciprocate her feelings. This was a great chance to move on and meet someone new, as much as it hurt her to do so.

“Maybe Wybert and I will have the same spark,” she thought to herself, “I just hope that he recognizes it if we do.”

That evening, Iseut had to leave Hamon early. She would have loved to stay until the last possible minute, but there was a prior arrangement that needed her attention. She had to get back to her bunkhouse and change into her nicest outfit, the original blue dress that Hamon had made for her.

By the time Iseut found herself standing outside the Grand Hall, her hands were sweaty and her stomach was in knots. With a gulp, she opened the door and stepped inside. Her father was waiting in his private dining room, already sitting.

“Please sit down,” Hann said quietly, gesturing to a seat beside him.

Iseut nodded and walked over. She took the seat, but refused to look Hann directly in the eye. Being this close to her father made Iseut tense. It was going to take some time for her to relax.

“I’m glad you decided to come,” Hann told her, but Iseut hadn’t felt like she could actually turn down the offer.

“Of course,” she mumbled.

“Speak up,” he told her.

“Is it just the two of us?” she asked, more loudly.

Hann nodded, explaining, “I wanted us to have the opportunity to talk. Except for the chef, it’s just the two of us.”

“Is the food almost ready?” Iseut asked.

She was squirming in her seat. Iseut would rather eat than talk. Maybe if she could keep her mouth full and nod in response to everything her father said, she’d be able to get out of there without bursting into tears.

“Yes… it shouldn’t be much longer.”

Hann looked uncomfortable too. Iseut chanced a glance upward, and he wasn’t looking directly at her. He took a deep breath and sighed.

“How are you getting along?”

“Pretty well,” she admitted, “Everyone has been a big help, and I have new friends. I’m working again.”

“That’s good. You need to contribute to the town.”

Iseut added, “I’m happier now, too.”

Hann grunted in reply. Iseut scowled.

At that moment, though, the chef entered with a large wooden tray with two plates and a pitcher of wine. Iseut thanked the spirits under her breath for intervening. Maybe she could get through this night without too much difficulty.

Hann’s chef was the best in the town. Rohesia had been pretty good, but this lamb was some of the best Iseut had ever had. Growing up, she had always had access to mouthwatering food at a moment’s notice. It was the only thing from her childhood that she regretted losing.

“It’s a shame that you can’t go back to the person you used to be,” Hann said.

Iseut frowned through her mouth full of lamb, and she focused on her plate.

“But it is what it is,” Hann continued, “As long as you’re able to live as normal, we’ll just make do with the situation.”

“Thank you,” Iseut replied tersely.

The wine helped to calm her down and ease Iseut’s shaking hands. She could breathe easier now. The things her father said didn’t seem to bother her as much after two or three cups.

“My new friends are great,” she said, “They’re all very loving people. I’m lucky to have them.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Hann said, “I… was worried you wouldn’t have anyone to support you.”

Iseut could have sneered, but kept her expression steady.

She continued, “Hamon has been very helpful teaching me how to be a tailor. I would have never thought I’d be good at anything except hunting, but he’s been incredibly patient with me and it’s been a lot of help. I really believe that I have a future with that profession.”

“It’s good to have aspirations,” Hann said, “I thought that I wouldn’t have a meaningful future when I was working the fishery. But when my aunt took me under her wing and taught me how to run the village, I knew that I had found something for me.”

“You never told me about that,” Iseut said.

“You never seemed particularly interested in my life,” her father replied.

After a moment, Iseut mumbled, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, girl,” Hann insisted, “You have your own life to lead.”

Iseut nodded slowly. She focused on her meal for a bit, and the only sound between them was the scraping of forks on metal plates. When he was done, Hann stood up.

“It’s getting late. You should return home now.”

“Of course,” Iseut said, “But… if you want to do this again…”

“I’ll send for you,” Hann said, nodding before leaving the room.

Iseut finished her plate alone, then stood up and headed outside. It was getting dark. The evening hadn’t gone nearly as bad as she feared. Maybe one day she could even look her father in the eye without a twinge of anxiety.