The woman at the top of the mountain had wrinkles pressed so deeply into her face she resembled the crevasses surrounding them. The icy wind whipped her sagging cheeks, but she didn’t move.
“Hey,” Juliet hissed, her chattering teeth turning the word into a clattering mess. “Ma’am.”
“Oh God,” Maria said. “Oh, God, please don’t let her be dead. We’re already all the way up here. Lady, don’t be dead.”
Juliet hoisted her backpack higher on her shoulders. It hadn’t exactly taken ages to get up there – Mount McKinley was only a couple hours’ drive from their college – but time wasted was time wasted. “No. She’s not dead. She can’t be dead. This will work, and I will find out the answer to my question, and everything will be awesome.” She rounded on the old lady. “Everything will be. Super. Awesome.”
Maria reached out and prodded her.
The old lady’s claw of a hand flashed up and grabbed Maria’s wrist, her blind eyes darting open. Juliet let out a cry and staggered back; Maria screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
“Shut up,” the old lady croaked.
Maria shut up.
“Help me stand up,” said the lady. Maria hoisted the limp old body to her feet. The woman was bones draped in loose skin and layer upon layer of fur, unhindered by the bitter cold. And she turned her scarred clouded eyes upon Juliet and said, “You have come this far to ask me a question whose answer has been prophesied.”
The old woman’s hand let go Maria’s wrist, and Juliet hurried forward, her throat choking in anticipation. This sounded real, and for now, that was enough to convince her it was true. Juliet’s cynical side – admittedly diminutive at best – had hidden itself deep in a place that didn’t believe in fortunes and fates and soothsayers, and all that was left was blind hope.
“Prophesied?” she said. “What’s been prophesied?”
“Juliet Elizabeth Turner –” twin gasps from the two girls – “you have many truths to face.”
“Firstly, you must accept that fault is not always two-sided.”
Juliet stared, slack-jawed. “I … okay.”
“Secondly, if you require my assistance, you must accept that ancient law rules over all.”
Maria cocked one dark eyebrow. “Uh. Ancient law?”
“Don’t interrupt, foolish one,” snapped the old woman.
Juliet stifled a snigger. “Okay, go on.”
“Thirdly, you must accept responsibility for your actions to come.”
“Actions to come?”
“You will understand when the time comes, Juliet Elizabeth Turner.” And with that, the woman drew a bone, long and disturbingly human, from inside her furs. She held it out.
The woman’s half-smile dug a crag into her cheek. “That’s right, girl. Think carefully.”
From behind the old woman, Maria made an is-she-sane? gesture. Juliet shrugged, but felt uneasy making any motion. The blind lady seemed to have such a good grasp of the events around her. It unnerved at best, disturbed at worst.
“Remember … when you make your choice, it will all be over.”
Juliet took a step forward, lowering her hand. “What will all be over? Will I be able to forget? And what am I going to have to –”
The old woman’s grip on the bone started to shake. “Your time dwindles, Juliet Elizabeth Turner.”
“But I need to know if he –”
“Your time dwindles.”
One breathless second later, Juliet grasped the other end of the femur.
Dark clouds billowed and rolled across the sky. Maria, quivering, sat down in the snow and closed her eyes. Juliet could only stare, but then lightning flashed.
She blinked. And as quick as the flutter of her eyelids, both old lady and storm had vanished.
She stood holding a human bone at the top of a mountain.
The walk back down was long, confused, and filled with stilted conversation. Juliet held the heavy object in her gloved hand. Though it should have grown cold, it never did.
When they reached the ground, Juliet wondered if the old lady meant what she thought she did, giving her this object. Surely this couldn’t be the answer to the problem – surely it would only exacerbate her feelings of guilt about the whole ordeal.
It came to her that night. Fault is not always two-sided.
It was not her fault.
She was free.
Juliet took the bone in her hands and shattered it against the floor. It broke as if made of brittle blown glass.
Elsewhere on campus, her rapist woke up screaming, as he would the rest of his life.
Juliet slept in bliss.