Louise caught a glimpse of women emerging from the great hall, armed, and starting to move purposefully toward them in a way she’d never seen before. Louise shoved a handful at her companion and pelted toward the great outdoors. She didn’t see where Deniece went.
She almost immediately regretted her decision to leave the castle, but the opportunity to return expired as something like two dozen women spilled out the doors after her, brandishing spears, bows, and swords in glittering fury. An arrow thunked into the ground nearby, reminding her that she needed to get into cover: these women had had a lot more practice with this particular videogame than she had.
The wind helpfully blew the flower petals in the orchard into a storm behind her, and the next arrow whizzed past a few feet away. She put several tree trunks between her and the pursuing mob, and then went over the low stone wall into the garden.
Already short of breath despite her apparent youth, Louise skidded in underneath the low-hanging boughs of a massive weeping beech tree, and got up onto the marble plinth of a statue set on the wall beyond. She looked down and found a disturbingly shallow pool a good ten feet beneath her.
I am so not built for this, she thought, panting as quietly as she could. Never was.
A group ran past on the gravel path. What was most disturbing, she thought, was that they were running without speaking, shouting, or making any of the other noises she was accustomed to hearing from them before a fight. It reminded her of the kind of no-nonsense silent hunting that her mother’s terrier had engaged in when it had sighted its prey.
A woman walked alone down the path. Louise could see the shape moving through the branches, and froze, hoping to pass for a shadow or another statue outline.
The woman stopped and looked around, and then inexorably made her way to the tree. Louise slowly extracted one of the pens from her pocket and found by touch that they had inexplicably transformed into small spraybottles. At least, she thought, I can find the damned nozzle.
Concepción swept the branches out of the way with her free hand, and advanced cautiously with her short sword before her. Louise was relieved that the massive tree trunk was partially between them, hiding her for just a few seconds longer.
In a moment of reckless abandon, Louise leapt onto the lowest branch of the tree, caught the branch above, and swung forward. Concepción, not as surprised as hoped, brought her sword up and bared her teeth in something that was not at all like a smile.
Fortunately, the spray did hit her face and it stopped her in her tracks.
Louise didn’t stick around to find out if it worked on her as well as it had on Deniece. She bounced past Concepción, and was back out on the path and running for the castle in a few seconds.
It sounded like the mob was off near the folly. Louise pounded up the stone steps and slid through the doors that were standing ajar, back into the castle. She wasn’t entirely sure why she was heading that way, though she had an obscure thought about closer quarters making it easier for her to vaccinate more women.
She turned a corner of the main corridor and nearly tripped over Deniece, who was lying in a pool of blood.
Louise knelt immediately, saying, “Deniece, don’t you dare be dead.”
Deniece’s eyes opened and she smiled feebly. “Damn, girl, I’d’a hated to have you for a doctor. No damn bedside manner.”
“That’s why I had a desk job,” Louise said. “What happened?”
Deniece almost said something else, then said, “Behind you!“
Louise ducked and half-leaped, half-rolled over and beyond Deniece. Metal screeched against stone above and behind her. She scrambled to her feet to find Sheila, giant axe in one hand, shaking out the other.
“That must’ve hurt like a bitch,” Louise said, glancing from the axe to the giant scrape in the stone wall.
“I knew you were a troublemaker,” Sheila said, gingerly taking a grip on her axe again.
“Then why attack Deniece?” Louise said, edging away from the wall so she’d have more room to… do whatever she needed to. Mostly she kept moving because that’s what people having fights in the movies always seemed to do if they didn’t have guns.
“Because she wasn’t acting right,” Sheila said, stepping away from the wall herself and advancing on Louise. “I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but I’m going to stop it right now.”
Louise started backing down the hall. She looked past Sheila and could see Deniece’s virtual shape flickering. “Deniece!” she shouted. “Wake UP!”
“Too late,” Sheila said, hefting the axe more confidently.
Louise looked at Sheila, then back at the bleeding shape on the floor. “I’m serious, woman, wake the hell UP!”
Deniece raised her head and looked at Louise, then at Sheila’s back, and she started to pull herself up the wall, glaring at Sheila murderously.
Louise shook her head. “Oh, no no no no.”
Sheila kept advancing, and she allowed herself a brief twitch of the mouth. Louise wasn’t sure whether it was a smile or something else. Then Deniece shoved herself away from the wall, reaching toward Sheila with her one good arm.
“Deniece, goddamn you, I need you ALIVE,” Louise bellowed. “WAKE. UP.“
Both Deniece and Sheila looked entirely startled. Sheila spun, bringing her axe up. Deniece grinned at Louise, and said, “All right, girl. You’re the boss,” and dissolved away in an orderly fashion, just before Sheila’s axe came down on her.