“They told you lies. There are other ways to prove yourself and become strong.”
“Shut up,” he shouted. “I’ll have none of your tales.” And with that, he charged.
The ice gave way, huge jagged shards raking skyward as we fell, sinking into the deep black. The lake swallowed the boy’s dark form. I waited for my mind to go, for the endless cold to steal my breath, for death to take me one last time.
It did not come.
What happened is that hands like claws, bony and hard, gripped my legs and dragged me up and up until my head plowed through wet sand that clogged my nose. When I could breathe again and my body stopped shivering, I scrubbed my eyes. I lay on the floor of a cave. Somewhere nearby, waves crashed against rocks.
“You’ve got about fifteen minutes.” The voice sounded like gravel on sandpaper, sharp and full of acid. Familiar.
I pushed myself upright and stared into the ancient and ruined face of the old woman.
“Fifteen minutes for what?” I asked.
“To decide if you want to live or not.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t be stupid, child.”
You cannot trust her , whispered a voice that might have been inside my head or come from the walls of the cave. You told her your story. You told her the truth and she betrayed you.
“I will not kill myself no matter what you say.”
“Is that what you thought?” She chuckled with cool amusement. “I gave you a weapon, girl.”
“I was a child. What did you expect me to do with it?”
“I expected you to grow and bide your time and learn the strategy of patience.”
I stared at her in the shadows, the mass of frizzy white hair blown wild by the wind and her small, reddened eyes. “What are you?”
She grinned a wolfish smile and her teeth were like sharpened bits of yellowed ivory. “I am the girl who ran.”
I shook my head and backed away from her, a low moan escaping my lips.
She advanced toward me. “I became the woman who went after those who hurt me. I became a hunter. I am the girl who lived.”
“I am the girl who fought back. Always.”
She is death , whispered the voice in the cave. She will kill you with the very knife she gave you long ago.
I stood there unable to move, trapped as surely as a rabbit in the hunter’s snare. She is the old woman who betrayed me. She is the woman I might become, a bringer of horror as surely as those who took me into the woods.
“I gave you a knife, a worthy blade, but you became a girl who felt pity for that odious boy who fancied himself a hunter. You might have saved him, pulled him from the water and then where would we be?” Her mouth twisted into a sneer. “You are weak, and I cannot have that.”
I said, “I am not weak. I survived.”
“Because of me. I saved you.”
“And what of it?” I asked. “If we are the same, aren’t you saving yourself?”
“You know nothing of the way the world works,” she said. “The way it slices things and puts them back together in different ways. Choose strength and I’ll let you live and teach you to become a hunter.”
“If I make another choice?”
She smiled, a goofy thing that made me shiver. “Why would you do such a thing? If I wanted you to die, I could have left you in the icy water with the boy.”
The boy. I had forgotten about him.
She’s afraid of the boy , whispered the voice in my mind. She is afraid you might make a different choice than she did.
She rushed toward me then, holding the thick, heavy stick in her hands like an axe, and she came at me. Again, my hand found the blade, but instead of striking her, I let it fall and turned and ran. Her screams followed me into the tide that swept me back into icy waters…
…where the boy’s dead white face floated in the darkness.
With all the fight and fury of the girl who never gave up, I grabbed him, kicked my way to the surface and dragged his leaden body onto the gravel-strewn beach where he gagged and vomited.
There was no sign of