Louise came to alertness with the sound of the bell/gong thing and immediately slid down the ladder from the roof into the top floor of the castle. She pelted down the steps and skidded into the great hall on the first floor just behind Mick, who turned and gave her a surprised smile.
“Didn’t think you’d come along on this one,” Mick said, giving her a quick squeeze and a peck.
“I’ve just been thinking that maybe you’re right about the Road Runner thing,” Louise said, only half-lying. She thought her life might have been much easier if she’d always subscribed to Mick’s Road Runner philosophy.
She glanced around at the other women, nodded and smiled at Concepción, exchanged winks with Deniece, and nodded to a few other women who she knew by face. It was another group of thirty or so.
“It’s coming in from the forest again,” said Sheila, tossing her long, straight brown hair back and looking for all the world like an iconic Summer of Love hippie chick, complete with clacking beads and bangles and t-shirt and jeans. She pointed at the apparently hand-drawn map hanging on the wall.
This time, Louise could not only pick out mountains and forests and rivers and streams and lakes, but she could see the glowing red lines spidering over the surface of the map as brightly as anything else. And she could read those lines in order to estimate distance from the big red You Are Here square to the halogen-white spot burning in the forest to the southwest. She could almost mouth along with Sheila, “It’s a strong Category 3, 5.2 kilometers to the southwest, traveling at 5 kilometers per hour.”
She had no idea where this information was coming from.
She worked hard not to showed how much this frightened her, but she could feel her face and shoulders grow cold with it.
Louise picked up a heavy stick from the armory. She was able to hang back and watch, letting herself admire Mick’s enjoyment of a shining helmet and bits and pieces of armor, of brandishing a sword and thumping her chest. Mick’s wild grin was infectious, and several of the other women followed her lead, letting out whoops and howls and ululations. They charged out the front door of the castle in a mob. Louise followed with the more sedate members of the castle’s brigade. She noticed that Sheila stood in the room, watching them go.
Despite the supposed distance to the target, Louise was interested to notice that it didn’t take nearly as long as she expected to meet it. And it was yet another snake made of blue flowers. She could see clearly this time that the flowers were pansies. The snake itself was an arrow-headed creature with visible stripes (of different shades of blue) on the face that reminded her of the boa constrictor she kept in grad school, Mrs. Seacole.
This snake, upon being assaulted by Mick’s wild women, promptly vomited up a flood of smaller versions of itself and then tried to swallow Mick and the women nearest her. Louise surprised herself by wading into the flood of snakes, plying her heavy stick as dexterously as any young woman motivated by a horde of potentially dangerous reptiles. Unfortunately, this meant that she missed the transformation sequence of the chosen women.
There was a brilliant sheet of coruscating light, and the large snake silently blew apart into a blinding storm of blue flower petals — annoying, but infinitely preferable to the meaty chunks of the last snake. But it did make hitting the little snakes much more difficult.
After several long seconds of frenzied flailing, Louise was knocked forward onto hands and knees by a heavy blow, and felt a sharp pain in her left shoulder. “What the hell?” she shouted.
“Sorry!” her anonymous attacker said, a woman’s voice she didn’t recognize, but no help was forthcoming.
Louise scrambled to her feet with the aid of her stick, afraid that some other eager beaver would mistake her for a snakelet. She pushed her way through the ridiculously ongoing storm of flowers, past the group of women to the open air.
She was breathing heavily and sweating, so she leaned against a tree. She tried to mop her brow with her left hand and yelped at the pain. That was when she noticed the sensation of spreading warmth and, worse, trickling.
“Fuck me, that bitch was using a fucking sword,” she hissed. She looked around for a familiar face. “Deniece!” she shouted at the woman, who was at the edge of the crowd, gleefully stamping on tiny snakes.
Deniece looked over, still grinning, and then the grin faded. “Girl, you hurt?” she shouted as she ran to Louise.
“Someone stabbed me in the back,” Louise said, gritting her teeth against the wave of nausea that was hitting her.
“Fuck,” Deniece said, catching her as she stumbled. “You’re bleeding. Right across your shoulder blade.”
Louise’s vision was narrowing and she bit her lip. “Help me sit down. Dammit, I never used to black out when I got hurt, what happened to me?” she added, as Deniece lowered her gently to the ground.
“You got old,” Deniece said, her voice warm and concerned. “Happened to all of us.”
There was a small hubbub around Louise as Deniece yelled for Mick and some others.
“Who hit you?” Mick said grimly into her face at some point.
“Fuck if I know,” Louise said. “Look for the one with blood on her sword.”
Louise wanted to tell them what they should do. She was, after all, a doctor. She could imagine the injury: a long cut from taking the blade in a hacking motion rather than a stabbing motion, starting in the meat of her shoulder and running down to the shoulder blade. She tried to put together in her mind the best way of bandaging it while managing her shock, and so on, but nothing would go together and nothing would come out of her mouth.
She was cold and everything was unreal.
Finally, Concepción gripped her chin and stared into her face. With an intensity and urgency Louise hadn’t known was in the woman, Concepción said, “Louise, you must wake up right now.”
Louise blinked, probably stupidly, she thought. “What?”
“Wake UP!” Concepción snapped.