12. The Snake
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I'm giving this chapter to you early, Nicole!

“Thanks, Meg,” Iseut said, taking the tankard from the bartender.

The tavern was mostly full and bustling with activity, but Iseut was alone this evening. That was fine. She needed at least a little bit of time to herself once in a while.

Iseut took a moment to breathe. Her meeting with Wybert was in just a few days. She couldn’t keep her mind off of it. Her insides were turning in anticipation. What was she going to say? They’d never had a long and proper conversation before.

“Randel, there you are.”

Her heart sank.

“What do you want, Morris?” she asked, not turning around to look at him.

“We need to talk.”

“I told you already, if you won’t use my name I won’t talk to you.”

Morris growled, “I’m not giving up on you, Randel.”

Iseut sighed and glanced down at her half-finished drink, then up at the bartender. Meggy gave her a firm nod, then walked out from behind the bar. Iseut stood up and started to walk past Morris without looking at him.

“Randel—”

Morris reached out with a hand, but Meggy grabbed him by the arm and asked, “What do you think you’re doing, big guy?”

Morris resisted, but Iseut got out of there quickly. Once outside, she stopped and took a deep breath, folding her arms and trying not to cry. Now he wouldn’t leave her alone?

“Randel!”

Iseut swore and turned around.

“What do you want?!” she cried, “You made it clear you won’t accept me!”

“I just want to talk.”

“Well talk, then!” she told him, scowling.

Morris seemed to deflate. He told her, “I know that you can’t go back to being a guy. Maybe… maybe you really were a woman all along and I just didn’t realize. But that doesn’t mean you have to throw your old life away.”

“I’m not—”

“Please let me finish.”

“Don’t talk over me!” Iseut cried, curling her hands into fists.

“You can still be a hunter,” Morris said, “We can talk to Rohesia. You don’t have to sew clothes and spend time with witches and be a different person if you don’t want to.”

“I do want to,” Iseut replied, “This is what I want. Why don’t you understand that?”

“Because it’s not you!” Morris cried, “None of this is you!”

“It is now!”

Her fists were clenched so tightly that she could feel her nails biting into her skin.

“Don’t throw your old life away, Randel!”

Iseut stepped forward and swung. Morris dodged easily, and Iseut stumbled, just barely catching herself before falling to the ground. She started wiping the tears from her eyes.

After a moment, Iseut could feel Morris place a hand on her shoulder. She bat him away and stood up, turning away.

“Randel—”

“This is my life, Morris,” she spat, “I get to make my own choices. Not you.”

Morris pleaded, “That’s what I’m trying to get you to see! You can still choose to be yourself, even after all this. You don’t have to be a woman, and we can still be friends without having a relationship.”

Iseut sighed and took a few steps away, rubbing her arms for warmth.

“Morris,” she said slowly, “I want you to leave me alone. Don’t talk to me any more. Don’t seek me out. If you do, I’m going to my father and he’ll find a way to stop you from harassing me.”

When she glanced over, Morris was standing with his arms hanging limply. Iseut had never seen him look so defeated. He swallowed and nodded.

“Fine,” he said, “I guess I’ve lost you for good, then.”

“I gave you the chance to accept me for who I am,” she replied, turning away.

Morris didn’t respond. She heard his footsteps as he started walking away, and stood still until they faded below the sound of revelry coming from inside the tavern. Then Iseut sighed and headed for the door.

She needed the rest of her drink.

Iseut’s mood was ruined for the rest of the evening. She wasn’t feeling any better the next morning, either. Being out at the hunting cabin with Ro made her incredibly nervous, as if Morris were going to walk out and confront her at any moment.

“You’re getting better,” Rohesia said, “Take a few steps back, come at it from an angle.”

Iseut obeyed, walking back and to the side so she was no longer directly facing the target. She nocked an arrow, took a deep breath, and let the arrow fly. Her precision was off, but she did hit the target.

“Very good. Keep going.”

Rohesia pushed Iseut for a little while longer, until her arms were sore. Iseut wanted to complain—she had to work with Hamon later—but knew better than to moan to Rohesia. When she was done, Iseut sat her bow down and started massaging her arms. Iseut took a seat on the steps of the hunting cabin, and Rohesia sat down next to her.

“Something is bothering you,” Rohesia said.

“I had a big fight with Morris,” Iseut admitted, “I told him to stay away, but I can’t get him out of my mind.”

“If I need to confront him, I will.”

Iseut shook her head. “That will probably just make him bolder. He already thinks everyone else is controlling me. I just need to be firm with him.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I am,” Iseut insisted.

Rohesia nodded, then laced her fingers together and started shaking her leg. She looked down, avoiding Iseut’s gaze.

She told Iseut, “You have to admit, though, you’ve changed a lot in such a short amount of time.”

“I guess. But it’s still my decision.”

“I know.”

“I’m happier this way,” Iseut reminded Rohesia, “I tried to pretend I could stay the same person. But you saw how miserable I was.”

“I know,” Rohesia said again, “But Iseut, I’ve known you for most of your life, and I struggled with accepting this. It’s going to be difficult for people to adjust to you being a new person.”

Iseut stood up and clenched her hands into fists.

“So what?” she asked, “Am I just supposed to put up with everyone telling me I’m wrong for the rest of my life?”

“You’re not wrong,” Rohesia insisted, standing up and placing her hands on Iseut’s shoulders, “But people are going to be slow to accept. It’s… no, never mind.”

“What?” Iseut demanded, clenching her bow tighter.

Rohesia sighed.

“You underwent a massive change,” she said, “For some people… it feels like the person they knew is de— um… gone forever, and you’re just taking his place.”

Iseut’s jaw tightened and she pulled away from Rohesia.

“That’s not fair!” she cried, “I’m the same person! Everyone else is allowed to change except me?!”

“I know it’s not fair,” Rohesia replied, “But that’s how people feel.”

“No!”

Iseut started walking away. After a moment, she heard Rohesia’s footsteps.

“Don’t you have to wait for the other hunters to get here?” Iseut snapped.

“No hunting today,” Rohesia replied, “I just came out here for you.”

“Well… thanks.”

Iseut stopped walking and bowed her head.

“It’s not fair,” she mumbled, tears welling up in her eyes, “I just want to be myself.”

“I know, honey,” Rohesia replied, walking up and grabbing Iseut in a weak hug.

“I’m crying,” Iseut mumbled.

“It’s okay,” Rohesia said, rubbing her on the back, “Go ahead and cry.”

“But there’s no crying on the archery range.”

“That was a stupid rule. It doesn’t apply here.”

Iseut sniffled.

“I should be allowed to live my life how I want,” she managed to choke out, “Why won’t people accept me?”

“They will. With time. I promise.”

Iseut felt her knees buckle, and she collapsed into Rohesia’s arms.

“Will I be okay?” she asked.

“You will,” Rohesia cooed, “You have me.”

Iseut nodded. She had Ro. She had her father, and Aldith too. Plus Stace and all her friends. She returned the hug, perhaps a little tighter than she needed to.

“I’m a mess,” she mumbled.

“You’re just struggling with something difficult. But you will be okay, Iseut.”

“I know. Thank you.”

Once Iseut had composed herself again, Rohesia let go of her. Iseut wiped the tears from her eyes and took a deep breath. She felt a little silly now.

“I’d better get going,” she said.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Rohesia replied.

Iseut felt more composed by the time she arrived at Aldith’s hut. Hopefully the witch wouldn’t be able to tell that anything was wrong. She took a long, final breath before knocking on the door, and Aldith invited her inside.

“We’re going into the woods today,” Aldith told Iseut, grabbing a small bag of supplies, “You need some practice connecting with nature.”

Iseut nodded and followed her into the forest. It was alive with the sound of bird calls and bustling underbrush. Already, Iseut was soaking up the vibrant energy of the woods in a way that she never used to. It was such a different experience than walking through the woods as a hunter.

“We’ll stop here,” Aldith said, breaking into a small clearing, “Take a seat in the middle.”

Iseut obeyed, sitting down and crossing her legs. She let the warm sunlight cascade over her. Briefly, Iseut tied her hair back with her ribbon so it would stay out of her eyes.

Following Aldith’s instructions, Iseut opened up her mind and slid into a meditative state. Her daily meditation practice had made it so easy for her to do.

“Today I’m going to teach you how to interact with animals,” she heard Aldith say, “Focus on reaching out as far as you can and brushing up against the living things in the forest.”

She could feel it, like a tingle at the edge of her consciousness. Small animals, scurrying about, barely aware of her. Faraway, Aldith’s voice continued.

“You need to reach out and call one to you,” she said, “Summon it forth to your hand.”

Iseut started probing at some of the entities in her mind. Some of them pulled away form her. One didn’t. She pulled at it gently, and the image of a small bird came into focus in her mind’s eye. Without opening her eyes, Iseut held out her hand and felt the bird land in her palm.

“Very good,” Aldith said flatly, “Now tell it to retrieve something for you.”

Iseut took a deep breath and nodded. The bird was starting to fidget in her hand. She couldn’t lose control of this. Holding on to the bird with her conscious mind, she tried to bring up an image of an acorn. Gently, she pushed the image of the acorn onto the bird. It paused, then flew off from her hand.

“Did it work?” she asked, opening her eyes.

“Give it a moment to search,” Aldith said, “Focus on your meditation.”

Iseut nodded and closed her eyes again. She focused on her breathing and kept her mind open, waiting for the bird to return. Her legs and back were tense from her sitting still.

Then she felt it return. The same bird tugged at the edge of her consciousness and she called it forward silently, raising her hand. It landed softly and dropped something into her palm. Iseut opened her eyes. It was an acorn.

“Yes!” Iseut cried, sending the bird flying away in fear.

But Aldith was shaking her head.

“You broke your concentration,” she said.

“Right, sorry, but I did it!” Iseut cried, standing up and holding out the acorn for Aldith so see.

“Yes, you did. Now close your eyes and do it again.”

“Again?”

“It’s like a muscle, girl. You need to train it before you get good.”

Iseut nodded, then sat back down. She continued the practice, having birds and chipmunks and squirrels bringing her small leaves and rocks and stones. In her meditative state, there was no telling how much time had passed, and eventually Aldith had to draw her back to reality.

“You’re making good progress,” Aldith told Iseut as they started the walk back, “considering that you’re practicing less than would be ideal.”

“I must have a talent for this,” Iseut suggested.

“We’ll see,” Aldith replied.

“Aldith?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re not upset with me, are you?”

Aldith stopped, confusion plastered on her face.

“Why would you think that?” she asked.

Iseut gulped, then responded, “It’s just that, more recently, you’ve been a little… terse? Not as kindly as before.”

“You’re my student, that’s all,” Aldith said, “I have to be stern. This is a serious subject to study and you need a firm hand to guide you.”

“Ah. I understand.”

They continued walking, and Iseut added, “I was just worried that you were upset with me because I asked you to lie to my father. I know you swore an oath to the village.”

“I did,” Aldith admitted, “But I promised you that your well-being would come first.”

“Thank you,” Iseut said.

“Of course.” Aldith got a faraway look in her eyes. “If I’m being entirely honest, I’ve always seen myself as a bit of a godmother to Stace since she came to study under me. And I see no reason why I shouldn’t feel the same way toward you.”

“That’s—”

Iseut paused. She spun around and caught sight of something on the ground. The tail of a snake quickly vanished into the underbrush.

“Are you okay?” Aldith asked.

“Yeah… must have been nothing.”

Aldith raised an eyebrow, though.

“Let’s get out of these woods,” she said, picking up her pace.

Aldith invited Iseut to stay for dinner that night. Iseut felt obliged to stay, and helped Stace prepare the meal. The hut felt comfortably warm that evening.

Iseut returned to her bunkhouse that night, but in the morning was awoken by a loud banging at the door.

“What is that?” Jocosa asked, struggling to keep her eyes open.

Eda got out of bed and opened the door to reveal a man none of them recognized.

“The village chief is requesting the presence of Iseut at the Grand Hall. Immediately.”

Everyone gave Iseut a curious look while her heart sank. If her father was demanding her presence, it couldn’t be for anything good. But she couldn’t very well ignore him, either. Quickly, she dressed in something comfortable for the day and shoved her feet into her boots.

“I’ll be back in time for breakfast, hopefully,” she told the others still in bed.

The sun wasn’t fully up yet, and it made the walk through the empty town somewhat eerie. Iseut couldn’t help but shiver and had to rub her arms for warmth. It was almost a relief to finally arrive at the Great Hall.

To Iseut’s surprise, though, there were quite a few people in the Grand Hall. Hann was there, sitting in his big chair and scowling at Aldith, who was standing firm. Standing by Hann’s side was Morris, trying not to look too smug. Several other village elders and leaders were gathered around, all of them looking a little confused at what was going on.

“This is bad,” Iseut thought to herself, coming to stand next to Aldith. She cast a questioning glance to the older woman, who responded with a glare that said to stay quiet.

“Good,” Hann said, “You’re both here. Now you can explain something to me.”

He leaned back in his chair and gestured for Morris to speak.

Morris nodded and began, “Yesterday, I was out hunting on my own. While I was, I came across two people wandering in the woods. Curious, I got closer and discovered these two”—he pointed at Aldith and Iseut—“talking about how they had deceived the village chief together.”

“You little—!” Iseut cried, before Aldith brought up a hand to stop her.

“Girl,” Hann said darkly, leaning forward in his chair, “Did you lie to me?”

“No!” she cried, “There’s no way to lure the unicorn back!”

“So that’s what you’re lying about?”

Iseut’s voice died in her throat. Beside her, Aldith sighed. Hann stood up.

“Aldith, I invoke your oath to me and to this village. Speak the truth. Is there a way to lure the unicorn back to the village so we can kill it?”

Aldith took a deep breath and spoke clearly, “There is a spell.”

“Can you cast it?”

“Yes, I can.”

Iseut stared at Aldith. Her expression was pained, and she refused to look at Iseut. Iseut’s own heart was breaking. Aldith had sworn to help her. Her vision went blurry.

This was it. Her life was over. Everything she’d fought for was going to be taken away from her. Iseut had to do something.

Stepping forward, she declared, “Father, I asked her to—”

“Enough!” Hann bellowed. Pointing a finger at the two of them, he cried, “You two have been lying to me. My own child disrespected me in my home. Neither of you have anything more to say.”

He started walking around the table. Iseut felt her knees go weak and took a step back, but her father was swift and grabbed onto her arm tight enough for her to cry out. She sent a pleading look at the other assembled villagers, but while they were shuffling uncomfortably nobody said anything.

“Let go of me!” she cried.

Iseut glanced at Aldith, who had her head down and eyes closed.

“You’re coming with me,” Hann declared, dragging her across the room.

Iseut struggled, but his grip was strong. She twisted her arm and pulled, digging her feet into the ground, but her father dragged her with ease. He brought her to a door and unlocked the latch, swinging the door open, and then with a heave threw Iseut through the door.

She landed hard on her arms and knees and rolled over. The door slammed closed before she could look up, and she heard the latch lock in place. Iseut sprang to her feet and started banging on the door.

“Let me out! Let me out, you monster!”

She banged on the wood until her hands hurt and she was openly sobbing. Then Iseut collapsed against the door and slid down. She pulled her legs to her chest and cried.

After a while, she was reduced to sniffling. She was stuck in a pitch black room with only the faintest sliver of candlelight coming from under the door. Reaching out, Iseut managed to find a large wood box and leaned up against it.

Finally, she heard the latch open and sprang to her feet. The door started to swing open she rushed for the doorway, intent on shoving her way out. But Iseut ran right into her father, who knocked her back with a shove and sent her toppling to the floor again.

“Ow!”

“This is for your own safety, Randel,” Hann said, while she rubbed the spot she’d landed on, “You’re not thinking straight. You’re safer in here while we take care of this.”

“Take care of what?” she demanded.

“I’m going out with a group of hunters to lure the unicorn back and kill it, so that you can go back to being the man you were supposed to be.”

“I’m not supposed to be a man,” Iseut cried, tears streaming down her face, “I’m happier like this!”

“You only think you are,” her father replied sternly, “But you’re not like that other child. You’re my son and I know what’s best for you and for this village. One we’re rid of the unicorn’s magic, everything will be back to normal.”

He pulled the door shut before she could respond, leaving Iseut laying sprawled out on the floor with her mouth agape. She clenched her jaw tight, trying to hold back tears. Then Iseut started to sob again.

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