Iseut lay crumpled on the floor, curled up as small as possible and weeping openly. She gave long, heaving sobs in between her sniffles. Her eyes stung. How long had Iseut been there? She wasn’t sure, but her tears weren’t stopping.
“I’ll never be happy again,” she thought, “It’s not fair! How could they do this to me?!”
She was going to lose her body. It had taken Iseut weeks to learn to love and embrace herself like this. And it was going to be taken away from her. By the end of the day, she’d be a man again and there was no way to stop it from happening.
Then Iseut heard the sound of the latch moving and her breath caught in her throat. She scrambled away from the door, knocking against some wooden crates in the dark. Iseut curled up and shrank down.
The door opened to reveal Stace, sweating and out of breath.
“Iseut!” she cried, running forward and kneeling down, “I’m here! Are you okay?”
Iseut shook her head.
“They’re going to do it. They’re going to kill the unicorn, Stace. My life is over.”
“Not yet,” another voice said.
Iseut looked up to see Rohesia standing in the doorway. One of her large bows was strung across her back with a quiver of arrows and Iseut’s own bow was in her hands. She also held a quiver for Iseut to use.
Stace said, “They stopped by the hut and Aldith warned me what was going on. She also told me to give you this.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small talisman hanging from a leather cord.
“For speed and good luck,” Stace said, “She wants us to follow them. We can do this, Iseut. We can still stop them.”
Iseut sniffed again, then took the talisman from Stace and tried to smile. Rohesia stepped forward and offered a hand for Iseut to take. She heaved Iseut to her feet and held out her bow.
“Thank you,” Iseut said, taking her bow and holding it limply, “Why do I need this?”
“I’m worried that the hunters won’t give up just because we ask nicely,” Rohesia admitted, “We might need to get a little aggressive. Are you okay with that?”
“I… I… it’s too late…”
“Iseut,” Stace said, grabbing her by the shoulders, “We’ve got to chase them down and stop them. I’ve seen you grow so happy over these past few weeks. You nee to show them that you’re not going to let anyone make this decision for you.”
“And we’re going with you,” Rohesia added, “You’re not doing this alone.”
Iseut sniffed one more time and nodded.
“Thank you both,” she said again, tightening her grip on her bow. She took the spare quiver from Rohesia and slung it across her back. “I’m going to stop them. Did Aldith say where they were going?”
“No, unfortunately,” Stace admitted, frowning, “I haven no idea where to start.”
“But they were moving in a group,” Rohesia said, “They shouldn’t be too hard for the two of us to track down.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Iseut asked, wiping her tears off on her sleeve, “Let’s go already.”
Iseut had lost quite a bit of muscle after her transformation. She couldn’t run like she used to. But she knew that she had to pace herself. They weren’t even out of town yet and she was breathing a little hard. But Stace was trailing a little behind her, and Rohesia kept pace with them instead of leaving the two behind. Aldith’s talisman bounced up and down as Iseut ran, constantly reminding her of Aldith’s presence.
People stopped in the streets to stare at the three running through, but they made it to the gate without being stopped. Rohesia paused briefly at the edge of the woods and glanced down. Once she found tracks, she gestured for the other two to follow at a quick pace.
“Where would Aldith lead them?” she asked Stace.
“I don’t know!” Stace replied, “She said they’d find a clearing near the town, but that could be in any direction.”
“We’ll find them,” Rohesia said, then glanced back at Iseut, “I promise.”
Iseut held her bow tight enough for her knuckles to turn white, but her hands were still shaking. She couldn’t trust herself to speak without throwing up. What was she going to do if they even got there in time? There was no way Iseut would be able to stand up to her father. Not after what he did to her.
The group stopped for a few moments while Rohesia scanned the ground and nearby shrubbery. She was muttering to herself hastily and scanning around. Since they were paused, Stace stepped forward and placed a warm hand on Iseut’s shoulder, squeezing gently.
“What is it?” Iseut asked, her heart sinking.
“I can’t find the trail,” she admitted, “It’s too faint. I’m not sure where they went.”
“Then it’s over,” Iseut muttered, hanging her head and beginning to cry.
“No, it’s not.”
Rohesia took Iseut by the shoulders and locked eyes with her.
“Iseut, you were the best student I ever had. I need your help.”
“Listen to me. You’re not the same person you used to be. But your past? It’s still a part of you. You haven’t lost the ability to track, and right now I need you to tap into that skill and help us save your new life. Can you do it?”
Iseut took a deep breath and blinked away her tears.
“I can,” she decided, nodding.
Rohesia grinned and let go of her.
Iseut shook her head and started scanning the ground. Crumpled grass, faint footsteps, trampled underbrush…. Anything at all would be a useful clue. But there wasn’t anything. Not even the slightest trace.
“How many of them were there?” she asked suddenly.
“Hm?” Stace asked.
“How many people were going with Aldith and my father?” she clarified.
“Like… six or seven?”
“Then they can’t have disappeared without a trace.”
Iseut started backtracking a few meters, paying close attention to where the faint footsteps led. Her stomach was turning. With a quivering hand, she grabbed the talisman hanging from her neck and gave it a little squeeze.
She took a deep breath, then let it go as she slid into her hunter mindset. Her vision and hearing heightened and became clearer. Her mind was sharper as a result. Iseut started picking up on trace details that she had missed before.
“Here we go,” she said, pointing at an upset part in the underbrush, “They veered off this way. Let’s go.”
Iseut took the lead, keeping her head held high. Her movement was smooth and swift. There was a twitch in her hand where instinct told her to draw an arrow from her quiver.
“Stay silent and keep your ears open,” she told the others, “Don’t move too fast.”
Rohesia didn’t seem to need the warning, but Iseut could hear Stace slow down a little. It was hard to focus over the sound of Stace thrashing around, even if it wasn’t her fault. Every sound felt magnified.
“I think I hear something,” Rohesia whispered.
“I hear it too,” Iseut replied.
“Sh!” Iseut interrupted Stace, “It sounds like quite a few people. Can you hear a horse?”
“Not yet,” Rohesia replied quietly.
Iseut’s stomach was turning. Were they too late? She felt fine, but how long would it take for the magic to start to wear off?
Then she heard it: a strained whiny. Iseut’s heart skipped a beat and she picked up her pace. She wasn’t paying attention to the trail anymore. She knew where she was going.
Iseut could hear thrashing behind her as Stace picked up her pace to match Iseut’s. Her father would hear them coming, but it didn’t matter now. They were close. The sounds were getting louder.
Then they broke out into a clearing. One one side was Hann and a random assortment of hunters with their bows drawn. Iseut recognized Morris immediately standing next to Hann.
In the middle of the clearing was Aldith, sitting on her knees and staring at the unicorn at the other end. The poor creature was thrashing as if against invisible bindings. Once it saw Iseut enter the clearing, it immediately seemed to calm.
“Boy!” Hann cried, finally noticing Iseut.
Thinking fast, Iseut took off at a run, stopping right in front of the unicorn and planting her fee. She stared down the line of archers poised to attack. The look on her father’s face was one of uncertainty and fear.
“Hold your fire!” he told the archers, before taking a step forward and shouting, “Boy! Randel! Step aside.”
Instead, Iseut took a deep breath and grabbed an arrow from her quiver. She drew the bow and pointed it at the line, careful to keep her aim at the empty space between the hunters. Then she shook her head.
Blood was pounding in her ears. Every hunter was still aiming at her, sunlight glinting off the metal arrowheads. If even one of them slipped…
“Iseut…” she heard Stace cry softly.
Iseut glanced over. Rohesia looked like she was gently holding Stace back from running out to the middle of the clearing. Then she glanced at Aldith, who hadn’t gotten up but was watching Iseut carefully. Very softly, Aldith nodded at Iseut.
“I’ll fire!” Iseut lied, “Tell them to put their weapons on the ground or I’ll end their hunting careers!”
She knew most of these hunters, if only barely. And now she was threatening them. The hair on the back of Iseut’s neck stood up. What was she doing?!
Hann didn’t say anything, but one of the hunters removed their arrow and knelt down to drop their bow. Several others watched, then one by one lowered their weapons and dropped them on the ground. All except for one.
“Morris, don’t do this,” Iseut pleaded, “You were my best friend. Just lower your weapon.”
“Never!” Morris replied, “You’re my best friend, Randel, and I’m not going to lose you no matter what. Step out of the way.”
“I will shoot!”
Morris didn’t respond.
Iseut’s heart was beating in her ears. She couldn’t release an arrow on her best friend. But if they knew she wouldn’t follow through with her threat, the hunters would just move her by force and kill the unicorn anyway.
She heart a snort behind her from the unicorn. Aldith was watching Iseut intently. Judd leaned in and whispered something to Morris, who muttered something back. Hann raised his hand, seemingly to stop Morris, but hesitated. He too wanted to see if Iseut would follow through with her threat.
Iseut took a deep breath.
Then she aimed her bow right at Morris’s ear. She wasn’t a good enough shot to pull this off without accidentally hitting him.
Hann took a step forward.
Iseut released the arrow. It flew right at Morris, then missed him by a hair.
It was over in the time it took everyone’s breath to catch in their throat.
For a moment, everything was still. Then Morris’s expression fell and he lowered his bow with shaking hands. He finally seemed to understand that his friendship with Iseut was over.
The tension had been broken. Iseut took a deep, shaky breath. Laying her bow down, she turned around to face the unicorn.
Immediately, she heard shuffling behind her.
“Stop moving!” Rohesia barked.
Iseut turned back around. Rohesia had drawn her bow and was walking toward the middle of the clearing where Aldith was still sitting. The hunters, who had begun to move in to grab Iseut, stopped in their tracks at the sight of her gargantuan bow. Stace was walking up behind her.
Rohesia and Stace came to a stop in the middle of the clearing, then Rohesia craned her neck back to look at Iseut.
“Go on,” she told Iseut, “We’ll keep you safe.”
Iseut nodded and faced the unicorn again. It was staring right at her without any visible emotion. She reached out and placed her hands on the side of its head, and it didn’t resist. Iseut closed her eyes and tried to push herself into a trance state.
The clearing was busy. She could feel a lot of creatures at the edge of her consciousness. But she focused on the one in front of her. It was stuck in place by magical bindings like ropes all across its body. She prodded at the bindings with her mind and they slid off, as if Aldith had been waiting for her to give the signal before releasing it.
The unicorn shuffled now that it was free but did not pull away from Iseut. Rather, it pushed back with its own consciousness, and Iseut felt a sense of gratitude. For a moment, it was just the two of them in the entire world.
“You have to go,” Iseut muttered, trying to push the idea into the creature’s mind. “Leave and never come back. For your own safety.”
She felt the unicorn push back, and she got the impression that it understood. Iseut opened her eyes and locked gazes with the magnificent creature. Then it whinnied and pulled away from Iseut. It took one long last glance at Iseut, then bound away into the woods without hesitation.
“Goodbye,” Iseut said, as a profound sense of loss fell over her.
Then she turned to face everyone else. Aldith had stood up and was leaning on Stace for support. Rohesia had lowered her bow and was grinning widely at Iseut. Hann stood with his arms folded.
Iseut picked up her bow, then walked up to her friends and faced her father. These were her woods. He was on her turf now. She would look him in the eye and stand her ground this time.
“It’s over,” she said, “The creature isn’t coming back. You’re stuck with me now.”
“Do not call me boy!” she shouted, curling her hands into fists, “My name is Iseut! Either I can be Iseut here, in the village that has been my home for my entire life, or I can be Iseut somewhere else in the world, but I am staying a woman and nothing will ever be able to change that!”
She felt someone’s hand on her shoulder, and she reached up with her own to clasp it.
“Well?!” she demanded.
Hann looked away and sighed deeply. Iseut chanced a glance at Morris, who also wasn’t looking at her, and at Judd, who was at least watching her but looked frightened. She grit her teeth. Whatever happened, she needed to stand her ground on this.
Then Hann mumbled something.
“I didn’t hear that,” Iseut told him.
“You’d really speak to your father this way, girl?” he asked, glaring darkly at her.
“If you won’t treat me with any respect, I’ll respond in kind,” she declared.
Hann was quiet for a moment, then took a few steps forward and replied, “Very well. You won’t have to leave. I’ll accept that you’re living as a woman now, if that’s what you really want.”
Iseut nodded. Then she turned away from her father to face Aldith. Aldith looked down to see the talisman hanging from Iseut’s neck, and she smiled sadly. Iseut took a step forward and grabbed Aldith in a hug. After a moment, Aldith returned the gesture.
“Let’s go home,” she told her friends.