I tapped a pebble with my toe, watching as it tumbled down the cliff-face and disappeared into the fog. I imagined myself in the pebble’s place— falling down down down to the forest floor far below. A little shiver ran down my spine and I took a deep breath, rocking back on my heels.
Damn. I turned to face Madoc. He must have followed me up here. I smirked at the way he stood, bent over with his hands resting on his knees. His armor glinted dully in the cloudy daylight as he caught his breath. “Had a difficult climb, old man?”
To be fair, Madoc wasn’t really all that old, as far as I knew anyway. We’d never discussed his age, and his hair only began graying about five years ago.
His face was stern as he straightened up. “Don’t try to change the subject, Lorelei. What are you doing up here?”
I crossed my arms. “You know exactly what I’m doing. You’re not going to stop me.”
He reached a hand toward me. “Come with me, please. Artem is waiting for you.”
I sighed, stepping toward him. A relieved smile curled his lips.
About a foot away from Madoc, I stopped. His expression wavered. “Lorelei,” he warned.
“Sorry,” I responded simply. Then I turned and ran back toward the edge of the cliff.
My descent to the rocky ground was much quicker than I expected, giving me little time to think and forcing all the air from my lungs. Adrenaline pumped through every tingling muscle in my body, and my mind screamed one thought over and over the entire way down: “I’m going to die.”
I slammed into the ground at full speed.
“Ow,” I breathed. Huh, that hurt a lot more than I expected. Cool.
I stared up at the cloudy sky with my arms spread, not ready to move yet. I could get up at any point, it’s not like I had broken a bone or anything. To be honest I didn’t even think breaking a bone was possible for me.
Some amount of time later, my view was blocked by Madoc staring down at me with the “disappointed parent” look he loved to wear. “Are you done being an idiot?”
“For now,” I answered with a smile. I reached up to him and he took my arm to help me to my feet.
“Artem won’t be pleased with how late we’re getting back. She wanted you an hour ago.”
“You’re not going to tell her about this, are you?” I asked, brushing dirt from my pants.
“And put my neck on the line for not keeping an eye on you? I think not.” He started off through the forest in the direction of the cabin.
I smiled again and jogged to reach his side. “Thanks.”
He grunted. “I will never understand your acute desire to endanger yourself.”
“Oh please, like I’m actually ever in any danger? Even my hair is invincible.” I swished my waist length braid for emphasis.
“You’re not invincible, Lorelei, just sturdy.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sturdy huh, well I’ve yet to find something that actually hurts me. I’ve jumped off cliffs, out of trees, hell I’ve even tried to stab myself with one of the kitchen knives—” Woops. I caught myself too late, Madoc wasn’t going to like that.
“You what?” he stopped mid-stride and grabbed my arm, turning me to face him. His expression was a mixture of terror and rage.
“Obviously it didn’t work. The knife broke without even going into my skin.” I lifted my dirty shirt to reveal my stomach. “See? Not even a scratch.”
Madoc didn’t say anything, and his face looked only mildly calmer.
I sighed. “I wasn’t doing it with the intent of actually dying, if that’s what you’re worried about. I was just curious.”
That disappointed dad look was back. “You’re not invincible, Lorelei,” he repeated. “There’s a limit to your durability somewhere, and it’s in everyone’s best interest that you don’t find it.”
He started walking again before he could see the way my own expression fell. Of course he wasn’t worried about me for my own sake, I should have known. The plan comes first. Always.
“Where is your dress?” Madoc asked once we were almost back to the cabin. “You weren’t wearing pants when we went to the market this morning.”
“I was. Under the dress, naturally.”
“Yes, ‘naturally.’ Every young lady wears trousers under their gown, it’s the height of fashion,” Madoc mocked.
“Every young lady should. Fashionable or not, it’s practical.”
“Lorelei, your dress,” Madoc repeated. “You know Artem will ask questions if you show up looking like this.”
I sighed. “It’s in my bag, hanging on a tree up this way.”
Madoc nodded. “I’ll go ahead to the cabin. I have things to discuss with Artem. You change and catch up soon. Do not go running off again, I won’t cover for you.”
“I’m not that moronic,” I called over my shoulder as I left the path to find the tree I’d hung my bag on.
Though Madoc had said to make it quick, I was in no rush to return to the cabin and hear whatever lecture Artem had for me today. But then again, the longer I waited the angrier she would get. She wasn’t even pleasant in a good mood.
I pulled the dress over my head and tied it shut— front-lacing dresses were a godsend— then I stuffed the pants into my bag and slung it over my shoulder. As I walked back toward the path to the cabin I undid my braid and shook my hair loose. Though I liked to wear it tied back and out of my face, Artem always insisted I wear it down.
I cursed her name under my breath as a gust of wind blew an unfortunate amount of hair into my mouth.
When I reached the cabin, Madoc and Artem seemed to be arguing about something. Good, maybe I would be able to slip past them to my room without being noticed.
Luck wasn’t on my side, because as soon as I opened the door they both immediately fell silent and turned to me with almost identical expressions of exasperation.
When I was younger, I had always assumed they were siblings, given how similar they looked. They both had coppery tanned skin and black hair, though Artem’s eyes were a cold shade of blue and Madoc’s were a friendlier warm brown.
Artem was a tall, imposing woman, made more intimidating by the heavy armor she liked to wear. I could count on one hand the number of times in my life I’d seen her wear normal clothing, and remembered only one time I had ever seen her in a dress. And yet she had a cow when I wore pants?
“What on earth have you been doing?” Artem snarled at me.
“I— um— village?” I stammered, glancing to Madoc for help.
He shook his head and mouthed “your face.”
Oh crap. I turned to look at my reflection in the mirror that hung by the door. I had changed and taken my hair out of the braid, but I never even considered cleaning my face up. my cheeks were smudged with dirt.
“Explain,” Artem ordered. “Quickly and accurately, I don’t have time for whatever ridiculous excuse you’re thinking up right now.”
“I slipped away from Madoc while we were in the village and jumped off a cliff,” I answered hurriedly. “I don’t have a single scratch on me, as you can see, so your plan isn’t ruined and now we know I can survive a fall from about three-hundred feet.”
I tried my best to stand up straighter even though making prolonged eye contact with Artem terrified me. “You’re welcome,” I added.
“That was your last chance, Siren. I’m not letting you into the village again.”
“So you’re just going to keep me locked up here?” I cried, not even caring about the fact that she’d once again referred to me by that stupid code name instead of my actual name.
Artem waved a hand to dismiss me. “We have less than three months until we finally put an end to this, I think you’ll be fine.”
I opened my mouth to complain further, but Madoc shook his head. I closed my mouth firmly. “Fine,” I ground out.
“Go to your room, Elowyn is preparing dinner.” Artem turned away from me, effectively ending the conversation.
“Now, back to what we were discussing, Maestro,” Madoc started. I didn’t stick around to hear what they were discussing, even though it was most likely about me. Most things were, especially given how close Project Dirge was.
Less than three months.
I had less than three months left to live.