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Steel rang against steel. Her excitement rising, Hayley pressed her opponent back, her sword rising and falling, beating against her foe's blade and driving the weapon from one side to the other, until it was time to take the exhausted woman's life. Her sword punched forward, seeming to shriek in ecstasy as it sheared through plate and into flesh, ripping into the enemy Knight's belly. The woman doubled over with a long, agonised groan, her face contorted, her mouth shaping into an 'O' as Hayley slowly withdrew her steel. She dropped to the cold flagstones, writhing and kicking, gripping the split in her armour where blood pulsed free. Standing over her victim, Hayley quivered in excitement, her breath coming short, fire raging in her loins.

Then time slowed as something clattered and bounced over the stones, and Hayley's eyes widened as she stared at the helmet that spun to a halt before her. A head spilled free of the armour, framed with red hair. Fran's face stared up at her sightlessly.

'No,' Hayley moaned as she sank to her knees, her gauntlets clutching her friend's decapitated head, raising it off the floor. Blood drooled from the ripped throat, and spilled from Fran's slackened lips. 'Not again,' Hayley whimpered, then gasped as Fran's eyes suddenly focussed on her own, and the redhead's lips curled into a bloody sneer.

'You fucking bitch,' Fran spat through thick blood that spilled over her chin, 'This is all your fault.'

Hayley shivered in the morning cool. Her body was greasy with sweat, and she pulled her blankets back over her body. She'd been restless all night, the dreams returning again and again, and each time she had awoken her covers had been snarled and twisted around her.

This time she heard activity in the corridor outside her room, and peered bleary-eyed at the clock beside her bed. Someone knocked on her door, making her jump, and a muffled voice sounded from outside.

'Hayley? Get out of bloody bed. We're going to be late.'

Padding barefoot to the door, Hayley let Suzanne in. The blonde Knight eyed the tiny brunette and shook her head. 'You've got about twenty minutes to get ready.'

Hayley groaned, quickly shutting the door behind Suzanne and vanishing into the shower. Suzanne tutted to herself with a slight smile, which dropped as she saw the state of Hayley's room. Aside from the bed, crumpled and sweat-stained, the tiny room was sad and wan. Few Knights had much in the way of knick-knacks or memories of the outside world, but Hayley's room was painfully barren. There were no photographs on the dresser, or mementoes hanging on her mirror. Her drawers were half-open and spilling over with jumbled clothing, which seemed to have been thrown there carelessly. Suzanne braved the mess, swiftly making the bed before laying out Hayley's dress armour.

She knew how the young Knight felt. She had lost close friends in the battle too. She recalled finding Fran, her head sliced from her body by an enemy sword. Fran had been more than her friend; the amiable redhead had been her lover for several months, but Suzanne had been at Erran long enough to know that a quick, violent death could always be just around the corner. She didn't blame Hayley for Fran's death, in fact she was secretly impressed by the newly appointed Knight's bravery, but clearly Hayley blamed herself. As she heard the hiss of the shower cease from tiny bathroom, Suzanne resolved to take Hayley under her wing, to make sure the young Knight would recover from her grief. If she didn't, she probably wouldn't live much longer.

On a hillside to the North of Castle Erran, the remaining Amazon Knights attended the burial of their fallen comrades, three days after the battle that had left eighty-seven Knights dead. Each of the graves was marked with a simple white cross, upon which the Knight's name was stencilled in solemn black calligraphy.

Lady Elizabeth read from the bible, the tome resting on her saddle as her injured arm was strapped uselessly across her chest. Mounted in the line of Knights here to honour those who had fallen Hayley wondered, not for the first time, how a woman with such obviously devout religious beliefs as Elizabeth could justify the slaughter she had helped plan and execute, that had left four score of her women dead on the battlefield.

Closing the bible, Elizabeth faced the lines of graves that had in one day swelled the number of dead that had ever fallen at Castle Erran. Then, in a clear voice that carried across the surrounding hillside, she began to recount the names of the fallen, not needing to refer to any list or register. Her warriors had been her friends, her surrogate children, and she had known and loved them all.

'Francesca Addison.'

Hayley was shaken from her reverie by Fran's name, blinking back prickling tears as she thought again of her friend's death, and how her lifeless yet accusing eyes had fallen on Hayley as her decapitated head skittered across the cold flagstones of the keep's gatehouse. She risked glancing to one side, where Lady Suzanne watched the service beside her with stoical calm. Fran had been her lover, and Hayley knew too well the pain of her loss.

'Kiri Brannan.'

Brave Kiri had fought like a devil until slaughtered by a disgraced enemy Knight. Knocked from her horse, she had been restrained by dishonourable infantry while the victorious Knight had planted her battleaxe's head in her breast. The Knight, Lady Dolores of Dunan, had survived the battle only to be stripped of her Knighthood by Lady Marina, who had professed to being shamed by the conduct of her Knights. The infantry who had held Kiri down had all been killed in the ensuing melee in the keep grounds.

'Zoe Butler.'

A new Knight, dubbed only two days before the battle that had claimed her life, she too left a grieving lover, and Hayley wondered how Lady Natalie would feel, having been unable to attend her friend's burial due to her own near-fatal wound. She and Zoe had been impaled together, skewered by the same blade.

Elizabeth continued reciting the names of the fallen. Amongst them were three more of the nine Knights dubbed two days prior to the battle: Annette, Yukari and Sinead. Of those who had survived, Natalie and Christa had been wounded, while Lady Karen had fought for all she was worth, killing more of the enemy than any other Knight whilst not even bearing a scratch during the frantic battle. Her skill and ferocity had earned her nine confirmed kills, enough to receive a commendation from Elizabeth.

The commendations would be presented in three days time, and Hayley herself would receive one for her own eight confirmed kills. She had yet to feel any excitement at the thought of the ceremony, for the battle had left her with no other feeling than grief, a grief that could not be alleviated by a golden medal or an honorary title.

'Charlotte McCandless.'

Hayley closed her eyes, willing herself to remain dignified before her fellow Knights during the solemnity of the service. Eighty-six other women from Erran had died, three more remained on the verge of death, yet another thirty-four wounded and in care. The twenty-six remaining warriors formed a line before the ranks of graves, mounted on their horses and weighed down with full show armour to honour the dead. Hayley would not disgrace their memory with her tears.

A respectful distance behind the mounted Knights stood other Knights, those who had missed the battle due to ill health, injury or sheer bad luck. Amongst their number, Lady Julia towered over her peers, her long red hair tumbling in the stiff breeze. They were accompanied by Handmaidens who had lost their mistresses in the battle, and these girls stood in ashen faced shock or tearful reflection, all knowing that the deaths of their mistresses would now give them the chance they had waited for; the chance for their own trial of Knighthood.

After the service, the Knights let Handmaids take their horses when they dismounted in the castle's forecourt. Lady Helena cursed as she tested her weight on her injured leg.

'You should be resting that,' Lady Suzanne pointed out, and received a black look from the senior Knight.

'We're supposed to have the best surgeons in the country working here, and still they tell me I'll not be fighting for six whole weeks!' she spat in disgust.

Suzanne chuckled. 'Fighting who? We'll be lying low for a while, training replacement Knights.'

Standing nearby, Hayley stared at Suzanne, unable to believe she was being so flippant. She talked as if the recently buried Knights were nothing but a commodity, when her own lover had been one of the fallen. Suzanne realised she was being watched, and turned to catch Hayley's eye.

'Come on, Hayley. Looks like we'll have to give the old timer here a lift back to her room.' She made to grab for Helena's arm, but the wounded Knight beat her off with a plate-clad fist, grinning ruefully at the heckling. Several other nearby Knights chuckled at the exchange, seemingly glad of a little light-heartedness after the last three days of grim mourning. As Helena hobbled away, Suzanne moved to stand beside Hayley.

'I'm not a monster, Hayley, and I'm going to miss Fran terribly,' she said quietly, 'But this is the way of things here, and you should know that by now. You should have known that before you took your trial.' Hayley didn't reply, and Suzanne sighed as she watched the other Knights dismount. 'I know Elizabeth is going to give anyone who wants to leave the option, with no bad feeling. It's what she did after the last mass battle.' Suzanne looked away again, and Hayley imagined the blonde girl looked pained at the memory of what was now the second largest fight in the history of Elizabeth and Marina's estates.

'I'm sorry, Suzanne,' she told the blonde girl, 'I . . . I wasn't judging. It's just I'm finding it hard to come to grips with. Charlotte dead, and we . . . we didn't even get to fight together! Fran. Katherine . . .'

Suzanne looked at her for a second, then clapped her on the shoulder. 'I know,' she told Hayley simply, then grinned. 'Let's get drunk, and raise a glass to departed friends. It may not sound like it'll help, but if we raise enough glasses, I assure you it will.'

After three days, it was time for the presentation of medals and rank. A new feature of life in Castle Erran, the idea of rank had been put forward by Lady Helena, who suggested it might motivate Knights still further in combat. Elizabeth had agreed, and a structure had been arranged. Under Elizabeth, who was now dubbed Grand Knight, three of the most senior Knights had been named Knight Marshals. Aside from Lady Helena, Ladies Diane and Madeline had been afforded this honour. Many Knights of long standing awaited the ceremony eagerly, certain that they would be granted a position of respect within the castle community.

Most of the Knights fit to walk filed into the chambers behind Elizabeth's throne room, where more pews had been prepared than normal to accommodate the number present. Handmaids, who had never been allowed into these chambers before now, gaped at the intricate tapestries and gold-adorned plinth at the foot of the chamber, where Elizabeth sat with her Marshals. The women were garbed in dress armour, which sparkled beneath the guttering light of many firelit braziers and torches.

As the chamber filled, Lady Helena stood and called for attention. Talk and muttering quieted instantly, and all eyes turned to Elizabeth as the Grand Knight stood painfully, looking tired and even a little wan under the gloomy lighting.

'Our community grows and thrives,' Elizabeth began, her strong voice belying her looks. 'Many died six days ago, but there are many more eager to take their place. Few left Erran after the battle . . .' here she paused as she thought of the half dozen Handmaids and two Knights who had decided to leave, 'and their honesty proves their courage. Tomorrow more girls arrive from outside, eager to learn our ways and forget their old lives. They will join us as we enter a new chapter in our lives, as we four,' she swept her good arm at her Marshals, 'have agreed Erran needs rank and reward to grow and flourish. Rank will be earned over time and with patience and skill, while reward will be earned through combat and courage.'

A buzz grew amongst the crowd, as those gathered speculated on the nature of these rewards. Elizabeth gestured Helena back as the dark haired Knight stepped forward to shout down the hubbub, instead waiting for the noise to die down naturally before continuing.

'Myself, my Marshals, and those of high ranking will henceforth comprise the Council of Erran, and all matters relating to life within our land will be our business. If there are quarrels, they may be settled before the Council; likewise if you have suggestions or problems, they may be addressed at our meetings.' She reached down for a sheath of parchments that Diane passed up to her. 'The following Knights are invested the title of Knight Commander, and take their place on the Council with immediate effect: Lady Emma Harrison, Lady Lea Mahai, Lady Suzanne Stokeley, and Lady Katherine Wagner.'

Only Suzanne and Lea were present. As they marched to the dais to receive their parchments, the other Knights and Handmaids broke into applause, stamping their feet in approval as the promotion of popular colleagues. Lea was a beautiful Asian woman; a Knight of long standing whose consistent skill and reliability had been noticed by Elizabeth and her Marshals. Her dark eyes were wide as she glanced at the Knights on each side who cheered and clapped her and the diminutive Suzanne, who passed a hand through her cropped hair nervously as she approached the dais. The two women knelt before Elizabeth, who smiled as she placed heavy chains around their necks, weighted down by star shaped pendants emblazoned with Erran's calligraphed sigil. Then, the two women were led by Helena to vacant seats on the dais to take their place in the newly formed Council.

Elizabeth continued by appointing four captains, one of whom was Isobel, a Knight who had been knocked unconscious during the first seconds of the battle. As such, she looked more surprised than any of her colleagues as she approached the dais to receive her commendation. As these Knights retreated, Elizabeth continued by appointing six Knights as lieutenants, and another half dozen as sergeants.

'Finally,' Elizabeth said, 'Eight Knights now hold the title of corporal. They are: Lady Hayley Carrington, Lady Karen Carter . . .'

Hayley blinked at her name, then blushed and grinned ruefully as those around her clapped her on the back, pushed and prodded her to stand and move forward to accept her commendation. She took her place with Karen and six other Knights before the dais, and sank to one knee as Elizabeth addressed them in turn whilst presenting them each with a pendant adorned with the stylised 'E' of her estate.

'You fight well, Lady Hayley,' the Grand Knight told her as she carefully looped the chain around Hayley's neck. 'I saw you during the battle. I know you lost many friends that day,' her fingers brushed over Hayley's chin and lifted the young Knight's head so she could look into her eyes, 'but always remember that, behind the bravado and laughter and petty rivalries, every Knight here knows it will end that way.' Unsure of what to say, Hayley just nodded, and Elizabeth smiled as she moved on to Karen. 'I'm glad you decided to stay, Hayley,' she whispered as she went.

Confused, Hayley stood with her newly appointed colleagues to receive further applause, guilt gnawing within her as she thought on the reason she had decided to stay. It wasn't for Elizabeth, or even for the memory of Charlotte. She knew that the only thing left in her life of importance, her closest friend, was coming to Erran, and when she was here there was truly nothing left for her outside Elizabeth's estate.

Michelle grabbed her kit bag from above her seat, then moved with the other passengers to the front of the coach, disembarking into bright sunlight. She blinked in the harsh light, squinting and shielding her eyes as, from beyond the tall chain-link fence that stretched as far as the eye could see to either side, the rumble of hooves announced that their reception committee approached.

Six armoured Knights reined in, controlling their snorting mounts expertly as they perused the newcomers through the slits in their helms. One rider dismounted, drawing a heavy key from her belt to unlock the gates and swing them wide open. She stepped back, taking off her helm to reveal burnished ringlets of auburn hair. Michelle recognised her as Helena, Elizabeth's second in command. Helena's dark eyes swept across the fourteen girls, then stepped aside to gesture for them to enter.

'Welcome to the estate of Lady Elizabeth, and Castle Erran,' she told them, and the girls broke into excited chatter as they were herded into the large pre-fab barracks just inside the fence. As they entered, Michelle took a last look at the coach as it pulled away, thinking it strange that she was stepping away from one life and into another, where there would no longer be the smell of exhaust fumes, traffic jams, workplace stress or any of the other hardships of modern living. She, like the other girls, had given everything up for the dream of coming to this place, and even the possibility of violent death could not convince her she was making a mistake. Everything she had ever wanted was here.

'I have little time for your whining, Miss Carrington,' Dr McManus flopped open files and folders as she snapped at Hayley, collecting charts and sheaths of papers into a leather briefcase before clipping it shut and finally facing the girl that stood before her. 'I've told you, I cannot discuss Miss Wagner's condition with you, and she does not wish to see you.'

'But . . .' Hayley was forced to trot after the Doctor as she ushered the girl out of her office and made off down the hallway, 'Can't you at least tell me when she'll be up and about? Or moved into one of the wards?'

Jane McManus was a tall, slim woman in her mid-thirties. Her long brown hair was tied back into a single pony tail, and her large rimmed glasses added to her resemblance of a bookish librarian. She was the head of the castle's medical centre, the only wing of the castle that did not adhere to the medieval look of the rest of the estate. Indeed, the medical centre was home to some of the most sophisticated equipment in Britain, a fact for which wounded Knights were eternally grateful. Hayley had always known that her hip injury during her trial would have left her crippled had she been taken to a civilian hospital, and it was only thanks to the pioneering medical work of McManus and her team of doctors that she was able to walk and run with almost no pain or discomfort. Still, it sometimes seemed that McManus had little time for the Knights under her care, and Hayley suspected that there was more to the medical centre than met the eye. The Doctor sighed as she stopped suddenly and turned to face Hayley, who had to skid to a halt to avoid cannoning into the taller woman's back.

McManus stared down at Hayley witheringly. 'I'm not telling you a damn thing, and if you don't get out of my ward right now, there'll be hell to pay.' Turning on her heel, McManus made off down the hallway, leaving Hayley gritting her teeth in chagrin.

'Lady Hayley?'

Looking to one side, Hayley saw Lady Emma sitting up in her bed. Emma had been placed in a quiet side room where she could rest away from the frantic bustle and activity of the rest of the hospital, and she lay watching a glass tank that stood a short distance from her bed. The tank was filled with some form of liquid in which her dismembered arm was floating eerily, its upper portion encased in a metallic hood that was in turn connected to sophisticated looking medical equipment beside Emma's bed. A similar hood had been affixed over her stumped right arm, connected via wires to the same equipment.

'Lady Hayley, look at this!' Emma greeted her in wonder, then gestured with her remaining arm to the tank, where her severed limb waggled its fingers in greeting. 'I'm doing that!' Emma said in wonder. 'Isn't that the damnedest thing you've ever seen?'

Hayley agreed as she stepped into the room. 'Shouldn't you be resting, Lady Emma?'

'Resting?' Emma roared. 'How the hell can I rest when my own arm is floating about ten feet away from my body!'

'I take your point,' Hayley flopped down into the chair next to Emma's bed. The wounded Knight eyed her shrewdly.

'What did you bring me?'

'What? Oh.' Hayley blushed. 'Sorry, Lady Emma, but . . .'

'I know, you were here trying to see Katherine. I heard you and McManus from down the hall.' Emma unfurled a rare grin. 'That bitch pisses me off. It's fun to annoy her.'

Hayley eyed the bed-ridden warrior speculatively. 'I don't suppose . . .'

'No, I'm not going to tell you what's wrong with Katherine.' Emma glanced at Hayley, then sighed and looked away. 'Look, chances are she's not going to be leaving the clinic alive. When McManus gives up on her, then she'll be allowed visitors.'

Hayley's blood ran cold. 'She's going to die?'

'Aren't we all?'

'Oh God,' Hayley whispered, unable to imagine life in the castle without her mentor and friend.

Emma shook her head and sighed. 'I'm sorry, Lady Hayley, but it's just one of those things.'

'She . . . she seemed so angry during the battle. When I saved her.'

Emma nodded. 'She knew the end was near, and wanted to die in battle. I guess you kind of ruined her plans.' Hearing this didn't seem to make Hayley feel any better, as her head drooped into her hands. Emma watched her for a second before speaking. 'There'll be time for reconciliation, Hayley. I've known Katherine for years, and she can't hold a grudge against friends for long.' Touched by her fellow Knight's sorrow, Emma reached out to grip her shoulder, and her right arm clunked against the glass of its tank. Surprised, Emma looked down at the stump she had started to extend towards Hayley. 'Christ al-bloody-mighty,' she muttered, settling back in her bed and trying once more to forget about the limb floating beside her bed.

Later that day, Hayley forced herself to take exercise, then took a walk around the training grounds, where she expected to see the new recruits being introduced to rigorous exercise. She wasn't disappointed. Fourteen girls sweated and strained, forcing their bodies to endure press-ups, sit-ups, chin lifts, forced runs and all manner of other abuse. Three Knights stood over the newcomers, offering a liberal dose of abuse and threats to those who looked to be flagging. Seeing Suzanne overseeing the training, Hayley joined the blonde Knight.

'Good morning, Commander,' she addressed Suzanne, who peered at her with suspicion.

'If I thought you were taking the piss, Hayley, I'd have you up on a charge.'

Hayley laughed, then glanced at the other girl in surprise. 'Could you do that?'

'Damn right,' Suzanne told her smugly, then frowned. 'Mind you, I have to watch my step too. If I behave in what is deemed to be unknightly fashion before junior Knights or even these trainees, I could be on a charge myself. And suffer wage cuts.'

Wages were new in Erran. Money had not been a factor up till now, as Knights were fed and watered as they required. Now, rank and title earned a monthly wage, which could be spent on more abundant fare, or more alcohol. In truth, few suspected the new order would change things much, as senior Knights were encouraged to spread their wealth around during feasts and gatherings, but the promise of money and the honour of title would make junior Knights crave for higher things, perhaps boosting their morale and their willingness to fight.

Suzanne was telling Hayley the rules she was now obliged to follow, but Hayley's attention was elsewhere. A tousle-haired figure had caught her eye, a short brunette straining with press-ups on the training ground. Grinning, Hayley excused herself, approaching the groaning Handmaid as quietly as she could.

Michelle swore under her breath as her shaking arms slowly straightened, then gasped as she tried to imagine abusing her body with five more press-ups. She became aware of a shadow beside her.

'You're not trying, Handmaid. Give me twenty more, NOW!'

Blanching, Michelle's hazel eyes turned up in disbelief, then she shrieked with pleasure and wobbled to her feet, throwing herself forward to embrace Hayley tightly. Laughing as she hugged her old friend in return, Hayley only broke the embrace as she noticed her tunic was soaked.

'Ewww! You're a mess!'

Michelle laughed as she looked down on her sweat sheathed body, clad only in tunic and sandals. 'Thought I was in shape. I used to be in shape. Better shape than you. Look at you now!' She gripped Hayley's forearm, marvelling at the taut muscles.

Nearby, Lady Lea cocked an eyebrow at Hayley. 'Are you interrupting my girl's training, Lady Hayley?' she asked archly. Hayley waved in response.

'For just one moment, if I may!' She turned back to Michelle. 'We'll talk later, Michelle. It's so good to see you!' she hugged her again, then stepped away. 'I just wish you'd listened to me, that's all.'

Michelle watched her friend walk away, wiping sweaty strands of brown hair from her freckled face. Hayley had sent her an impassioned plea not to come to Castle Erran, but Michelle had not known how to respond. Finally she hadn't answered the letter at all, determined to find out what had caused her friend's change of heart for herself. As she resignedly dropped to the ground to continue her training, Michelle couldn't shake the feeling that, if Hayley wasn't happy here, her own life at Castle Erran might not be as carefree as she had imagined.

Two weeks later, Castle Erran began the long business of refilling the quarters left vacant by those lost in what was now referred to as the Battle of Erran. Hayley dressed quickly at the window of her room, watching the activity below as Handmaidens readied horses and carried armour and weapons to where their luckier comrades prepared to fight. She tried to see if Michelle was among their number, but could not spot her friend's tousled head amongst the white clad Handmaids. Michelle had, Hayley gathered, thrown herself enthusiastically into the day to day work and life of the castle, and was showing promise in her training. Hayley had elected not to have much contact with her old friend during the first few months of her training, as undue contact between Handmaids and Knights was frowned upon. Still, she would keep an eye on Michelle's progress. Perhaps she would see her friend more when she herself was allocated a Handmaid. Suzanne had intimated that the time was right for Hayley to take on a squire, as Handmaids outnumbered Knights by an increasing number and they all needed a firm hand during training. Hayley half looked forward to training a Handmaid, but worried that she would not be up to the task.

The day was cripplingly hot. A humid heat had fallen over the land during the night, and even in the early morning sunlight the Handmaid's perspired as they worked. Hayley felt sorry for the girls who would be fighting this day.

The last two weeks had been hard, but she had filled her time training harder than she had ever trained before. Once again her lack of stamina had nearly let her down, and even though she had received a medal of commendation after her promotion to corporal, due to her impressive number of kills at the battle, she knew that she had been lucky not to have engaged in any further fights. Her next opponent would have easily taken her life.

After breakfast, Hayley put in the time before the trial with an eight mile run over the sunny countryside around Erran, then showered hurriedly and dressed in a light tunic, aware that the halls outside were now bustling with Knights and Handmaids making their way to the trial field. She left her room, locking the door behind her, but as she turned to head down the hall she gasped in surprise as she nearly ran into someone blocking her path.

Lady Karen grinned at her fellow Knight's reaction. 'Morning, Hayley. I've managed to snag a couple of decent seats. Care for the other?'

'Oh. Sure.' Smiling her thanks, Hayley accompanied the equally tiny Knight through the castle towards the training ground, where the trial would take place.

'A fair bit of action today, I think,' Karen noted. 'Ten jousts, then one on one fights to the death. Light arms and armour only for that one.'

'Oh?' Hayley wondered how Karen knew such things, and her suspicion was heightened further by Karen's next comment.

'I gather you've been trying to see Katherine?' she asked casually.

'How do you know?' Hayley bit her lip as she said the words, but Karen took no offence.

'I was visiting the hospital while you were arguing with Dr McManus.'

Hayley sighed. 'Katherine still doesn't want to see me, even after a fortnight. I've tried talking to Lady Helena and Emma, and I know they've been able to see her, but they won't even pass on a message.'

Karen shrugged. 'Our senior Knights are thick as thieves.' They walked in silence for a while, before Karen spoke again. 'Katherine's very sick, you know.'

Hayley nodded hesitantly. 'Even before the battle.'

'Long before.'

'Are you going to tell me what's wrong with her?' Hayley asked sullenly.

Karen shook her head. 'Not my place to do that. Wait a while longer, Katherine will be talking to you, I'm sure.'

For some reason, the infliction in Karen's words sent a shiver down Hayley's spine. She wanted to ask Karen how she knew more about Katherine's condition that she did, but Karen changed the subject and they were soon taking their seats in the stand, where even Hayley found her excitement begin to build at the sights and sounds, and the thought of the battle that would soon be raging on the green grass before her.

Lady Elizabeth had pulled the stops out to make this day as special as possible for her beleaguered Knights. After an impressive display of equestrian skills by a team of accomplished horsewomen, Handmaidens ran onto the field to form a list with wooden barriers, and erect the tilt for the jousting tourney. The twenty women who would take part paraded the field, attired in colourful livery over their plate armour. There would be ten fights, but whether or not they would be to the death was unknown.

The women retreated back into the stable area to await their individual calling, giving way to a solitary Knight who charged onto the field to guide her mount skilfully to the front of the stalls, rearing the beast up to paw the air with its hooves before flipping open her visor and waving to the massed crowd.

'Emma!' Hayley exclaimed.

'A showy entrance,' Karen said drily, but grinned as the Amazon Knight before her raised her reattached right arm, fist clenched in triumph. The crowd cheered ecstatically, stamping their feet or rising to give the Knight a standing ovation. Karen turned to peer at Lady Elizabeth where she sat in her royal box, and noted the Lady's small smile. 'Our Lady is trying to buoy the troops, I think,' she told Hayley. 'Give them a hero to worship.'

'I thought you were the hero of the Battle of Erran,' Hayley teased, but Karen shook her head.

'So I killed one more of the enemy than her, so what? I saw her fall, and couldn't believe she could have survived such wounds.'

'She told me the blow to the head she took after losing her arm probably inflicted shock, and that's why she didn't bleed to death.'

'Still, she's the hero of the hour. Look at her. She's immortal!' Karen sounded awed; her eyes gleamed as she watched Emma.

'And you're not?' Hayley smiled sadly, her thoughts unconsciously turning to Charlotte and Fran.

Karen gave her a strange look. 'I'm mortal all right. I can be killed. I'd just get right back up again.' She laughed, a high pitched titter that chilled Hayley. Unbidden, Fran's words came back to the tiny Knight, spoken when they were sat watching Karen kill during her trial: "She's a psycho, Hayley. Best not to have anything to do with her". Frowning, Hayley turned her attention back to the field, where Emma was now retreating and the first two combatants were entering the arena.

From the royal box, Lady Helena boomed introductions, making nearby Knights wince. Few could understand how such a small woman could possess such a powerful voice.

'First to battle for the honour of our Lady; Christabel and Sharleen!'

A fanfare sounded as the Knights brought their horses to a halt and bowed in their saddles before Lady Elizabeth. Acknowledging them with a gesture, Elizabeth smiled as they turned and drew their swords to salute each other before making their way to their individual end of the tilt, where a Handmaid stood with lance prepared. The weapons were lethal, steel tipped and razor sharp, easily able to sink through plate armour.

Both girls wore tournament armour, heavy cuirasses reinforced on the left side and with lance brackets on the right where the hilt of the lance would be placed. They each wore a frog-mouthed helm with high eye slits, useful only when their wearers adopted the jousting position. Large manifer gauntlets sheathed their left arms, while besagews and poldermittens provided armour for their exposed right arms. Kite shields hung from leather straps around the warriors' necks, allowing them to choose whether or not to use the arm straps on their shield's reverse.

Their horses wore plate shaffrons to protect their heads, and padded stechsacks which covered their necks and chests. Their saddles lacked the high cantles usually used during mounted combat, which would make being unhorsed somewhat easier.

'Looks like it's to the kill,' Hayley murmured, and Karen grunted her indecision. Trying to recall the two women who would be fighting, Hayley seemed to remember Christabel as a harsh voiced Irish girl, slim and tall with gorgeous black hair that fell to her waist. This mane of hair was tied in a ponytail that fell beneath the rear of her helm to gently bounce against the criss-crossed leather straps on her back. Sharleen was a Scottish girl with short dark hair and a rather prominent nose. Hayley remembered vaguely talking to her during the feast after her commendation, when she had introduced herself and claimed that she would be unbeatable during the trial. Whether this was bravado or confidence borne of skill Hayley could not tell, but the truth of it would soon be evident to all those gathered watching, as the two would-be Knights faced each other down the length of the tilt, readying their lances for the charge and ducking their heads so they could see their opponent through their high eye slits.

As if knowing the effect they had on the watching crowd, who were clapping and cheering in a deafening cacophony, the two warriors held their positions for long seconds, perhaps trying to unnerve the other into instigating the charge. Then Sharleen lifted her visor, and clumsily fiddled under her breastplate rim with chain clad fingers before plucking free a white handkerchief. She flourished the scrap of fabric, then rather theatrically blew her nose, and the crowds, whose commotion had ebbed during her curious behaviour, erupted again in laughter and riotous approval. Hayley noted Elizabeth's smile was cool, as if she disliked the frivolity of Sharleen's display, but then the Scottish girl cast the handkerchief aside.

It fluttered to the ground, and as it crumpled against the green grass, Sharleen snapped down her visor and spurred her caparisoned steed forward into a gallop. Christabel, whose opinion on her opponent's display could not be determined, kicked her own horse into a charge, and the creatures whinnied in fear and confusion as they hurtled down each side of the tilt towards the inevitable.

Sharleen couched her lance late, dropping the heavy weapon to ram its hilt into the bracket on her cuirass. Christabel had already couched her lance, and the Irish girl was shifting her shield, trying to second guess where her foe would strike. Beneath her helm, Sharleen grinned and angled her lancehead abruptly at the last moment, trusting her own shield and armour to do its job as Christabel's own lancehead loomed.

The crash of impact was deafening, and both girls gasped as the shock sent a jolt through their armoured bodies. Sharleen felt moisture around her crotch, and grunted in pain as her body was twisted sideways by the impact of Christabel's lance. The tip had struck her shield almost at its centre, skittering off to the left to catch her arm before screeching free. Her own lance had struck low, glancing off Christabel's shield as the Irish girl whacked the lancetip aside. The crowd roared its approval, but Sharleen scowled as she realised she had come off the loser in that exchange. Her arm flared in pain, and she worriedly made sure her opponent's lancetip had not pierced her armour as her horse took her to the end of the tilt. The armour was dented but intact, and Sharleen spun her steed around, ignoring the handmaiden who stood nearby proffering a replacement lance.

Christabel took her time turning her steed, accepting her second lance as her first was blunted by its contact with Sharleen's shield and armour. Sharleen's horse paced as its rider waited for her foe to ready herself for another pass in agitation, but Christabel took her time deliberately, her attempts to unnerve her foe more successful than Sharleen's cheeky nose blowing had been. Finally, the Irish girl took her place by the tilt, and instantly began her charge. Gritting her teeth, Sharleen spurred her own mount forward, promising herself she would do better this time.

Both girls couched their lances simultaneously, and this time Sharleen shifted her aim higher as she thundered towards Christabel, hoping to distract the Irish girl from aiming her own lancehead. Her ruse worked, as Christabel's lance drooped slightly as she nudged her shield into a slightly better position. Sharleen readied herself for the impact, noticing that her panties were now sodden with her excitement.

Christabel's lance slammed against her shield again, buckling the weakened metal but causing it to flip aside, sending the lancehead scraping harmlessly away. Sharleen had the luck this time, and shouted in triumph as her lancetip skidded off the right side of Christabel's shield to slam into her ribsection, sinking easily through the armour and lifting the screaming Irish girl instantly from her saddle. Impaled through her lower torso, Christabel squirmed atop the lance for a second, before Sharleen's weapon drooped and she fell from the tip with a cry of pain, to roll brokenly over the lush green grass.

Unable to see her fallen foe, Sharleen brought her horse to a halt and flipped up her visor, eagerly turning to Elizabeth's box and awaiting the Lady's decision with bated breath. After a second, Elizabeth nodded once, and Sharleen's heart soared as she spurred her mount to guide him to the end of the tilt, where she passed her bloodied lance down to her appointed handmaid and claimed her mace. She dismounted quickly, slid her left arm into the straps on the rear of her shield, then unlatched the shoulder strap and cast it aside. Ready for combat, she strode around the tilt to face Christabel, who had flipped up her visor and was standing weakly, supported by her own handmaid. She clutched a long handled axe, but as she staggered towards Sharleen, she grabbed at a freely bleeding rent in her lower breastplate, panting as she stared at her opponent wide-eyed.

Dancing forward, Sharleen raised her mace and brought it swooping down with skill and precision. Somehow Christabel managed to bring her shield up in time to catch the blow, but in her wounded condition the impact sent her crashing to the grass, moaning and writhing at the fresh pain in her arm. Her shield was buckled at its centre, and her forearm was most likely broken under the strength of Sharleen's assault. Feeling her moment was near, Sharleen stepped forward to place one spurred foot on Christabel's groin, holding the squirming woman down while she raised her hands to the crowds for support. Warming to Sharleen's showy style, the crowd reciprocated with a loud cheer, and Sharleen laughed in delight as she raised her mace high before sending it swooping down at her fallen opponent's head.

She glimpsed Christabel's eyes bulging in their sockets at the sight of the falling macehead, then the weapon crunched into the helm's faceplate with all Sharleen's considerable strength behind it. The helm buckled, and gore immediately belched from where the plate sundered and split at the sides. Christabel's upper body bucked, her arms flapping wildly as she died almost instantly, and Sharleen shuddered in ecstasy as she took her first life, doubling over as she quivered and came with a guttural shout. Dropping forward onto her foe's twitching body, Sharleen fumbled at the dead girl's helm straps, determined to see the damage she had wrought on the once pretty girl. As she lifted aside the remains of the buckled helm, her head swam at the sight beneath.

Crushed and cracked in equal measure, Christabel's head came apart when the helm was lifted clear. What used to be her face was a gooey mass of red flesh and bone, shattered teeth and ruptured eyeballs. Chunks of grey matter dribbled from the helm as Sharleen cast it aside, and more of this viscous substance poured from the top of Christabel's skull, along with shattered segments of her brains. Without warning, Sharleen pitched forward and vomited explosively, cursing and spitting as the semi-digested remains of her breakfast spattered onto the already gore-strewn ground. This caused the watching crowd great hilarity, and Sharleen's cheeks flared with shame. Determined to salvage some degree of respect from her peers, she grabbed Christabel's shoulder and partly lifted the dead girl's body, grabbing at her ponytail and tugging it free. The long coil of fine black hair came free still attached to a grisly lump of scalp. Raising the trophy high, Sharleen waved to the crowd and bowed to Elizabeth, then wondered if she could make it back to the changing rooms without passing out.

The trials were not all to the death. Mindful of the skill of some of the participants, and obviously unwilling to waste future talent, Elizabeth let some fallen participants live. They would not be Knighted, but they would at least have another chance some other day. Still, the watching crowds were kept entertained, especially by the penultimate joust, when a slim Handmaid was impaled through the belly, her opponent's lancehead completely severing her spinal cord. As her bottom hit the ground and she screamed in agony, somehow the impact caused her body to split in two, casting her upper torso one way and the lower another. The crowd watched with boggling eyes as the lower half's legs kicked frantically, sending it rolling and shifting across the bloody ground grotesquely. Entrails and gore spilled from the ruptured flesh, while the dying Knight, hideously still alive for long seconds after the incident, was able to prop herself up and watch her lower body as it thrashed, her eyes bugging and her face deathly white. She keened shrilly as realisation set in, and as the rest of her intestines suddenly spilled free with a horrid squelch, she vomited noisily and collapsed back, twitching and dying, eyes rolling and mouth moving in fearful prayer.

'Jesus!' Hayley's eyes widened at the sight, and she forced her hand away from her aching groin as she realised she had started to stroke herself through her tunic and panties. Cheeks aflame, she peeked to one side to see if Karen had noticed her motions, and felt dizzy when she met the other girl's eyes. Without speaking, Karen reached over into Hayley's lap and slid her hand up under the hem of her tunic, her fingers flicking over the moist, flimsy panties and making Hayley shudder with pleasure.

'No!' Hayley yelped, grabbing Karen's forearm and forcing it back, unable to look the other girl in the eye.

Karen's eyes darkened as her brow furrowed. Then, she sat back in her seat nonchalantly. 'Suit yourself,' she said, turning her attention back to the activities on the field.

The jousts continued, but Hayley could no longer concentrate. Confused by her violent desire, and the feel of Karen's fingers, she excused herself and left the stands, aware of Karen's large dark eyes following her as she left.

In the sweltering changing area, those who would soon fight for their lives and their Knighthood fretted and prayed, limbered up or meditated, each doing whatever they could to prepare for battle. Many had chosen to have a handmaid assist them, an extra pair of hands to tighten armour or handle weaponry.

One warrior had requested the assistance of a handmaid for a completely different matter.

The blushing Handmaid scooped up another handful of oil, pausing for a second before applying the liquid to Alexus's chest and breasts. The warrior sat in silent contemplation of her upcoming battle, but a sly smile slid across her face as she sensed the girl's embarrassment.

The Handmaid's eyes lingered on Alexus's pert breasts as her hands smoothed the warmed oil into lightly tanned skin. She marvelled at the firm flesh, unconsciously pressing the fabulous breasts together as she massaged, her breath quickening at the sight of Alexus's proudly erect nipples.

Enjoying the ministrations, Alexus sighed in contentment as the Handmaid reluctantly removed her hands before applying more oil to the warrior's muscled abdomen. Then, as if aware of being observed, she looked to one side to see Lisa watching her with fascination.

Clad in a light chain and leather hauberk, about the heaviest armour anyone could stand on such a fiercely hot day, Lisa raised one shapely leg to pull on her boot, blushing and looking away as she realised Alexus had caught her staring.

'You're wondering if I'm going to fight dressed like this?' Alexus asked, her husky voice amused. She stood as her appointed Handmaid finished oiling her thighs, allowing the girl to move to her back and smear the sweet smelling liquid onto her mostly exposed buttocks. Stretching her arms over her head to loosen her muscles, not unaware that the motion caused her her high breasts to jut out still further, Alexus shook her head to clear errant strands of tousled blonde hair from her face and grinned at the girl she would soon be fighting. 'We were given free reign to fight in whatever armour we prefer. I prefer not to bother with armour.'

She sighed as the Handmaids hands smoothed over her sides, over the ridges of her ribs and up under her shoulders, then peered at Lisa with interest, as if she had never seen the girl before. She saw a slim young woman with dark, shoulder length hair framing a pretty face. Her bare legs were tanned and firm, and her arms were subtly muscled, testament to her long hours of training. She laced her boots without looking at Alexus, but glanced at her almost naked opponent as she picked up her leather gloves and pulled them on.

'Don't talk much, do you?' Alexus asked the other girl.

She received a shrug for response. 'There's not much to say.'

Alexus nodded, her eyes not leaving Lisa's as she held out her hand. Her Handmaid handed her the weapon she would use in the upcoming fight; a cutlass, it's slim blade slightly curved and brightly honed above the crossguard. Lisa, who had not wanted a Handmaid to help her prepare, hefted her short sword and round shield, then raised an enquiring eyebrow at her flamboyant opponent. Alexus stood with legs apart, her left hand resting lazily on her hip and her cutlass's blade carelessly tickling her leg. Her full lips were pouted as she regarded Lisa, her eyes speculative as she considered how the battle would go. She wore only black leather calf boots and a matching thong, leaving the rest of her body gleaming with the freshly applied oil. She looked spectacular, and Lisa felt almost dowdy in her more traditional fighting garb. Aside from her hauberk, which was draped over a white tunic and belted at the waist, she wore soft leather boots and gloves, an open faced helm and stiffened leather greaves. She would be hot, but felt confident the armour would hold her in good stead.

The two warriors faced each other, knowing that within minutes they would be embroiled in a bitter, desperate fight for life. There would be no mercy shown to the loser, and the victor would not lose any sleep over taking the life of the other. This was a trial to become an Amazon Knight, to join the ranks of those that would be watching the fight and baying for blood. They were sure not to be disappointed.

'Let's do it,' Alexus said quietly, and as a Handmaid opened the doors that led to the battlefield outside, the muted sounds of cheering swelled deafeningly. Already beginning to sweat in the extreme heat, the two warriors emerged into dazzling sunlight, and the cheers grew louder still.


At Lady Helena's command, the crowd stilled and quieted, turning to where the senior Knight stood beside Lady Elizabeth, who was sat as always in her prominent stand. Helena gestured to the two warriors waiting beneath the main stand. 'Ten pairs of warriors will now fight, the victors reward to be investiture into the Order of Amazon Knights.' The crowd cheered again, and somehow Helena managed to raise her voice over the din. 'These fights will be to the death! Weapons and armour have been chosen at the warriors' own discretion. . .' she eyeballed Alexus humourlessly, '. . .although discretion would seem to be a difficult concept for some.'

The crowd chuckled, and Alexus scowled. 'Everyone's a critic,' she muttered. Despite the fear knotting in her belly, Lisa couldn't help but grin.

Lady Helena continued: 'Fight with honour! Die with dignity!' She paused for a single second, then brought her armoured fist swooping down to slam against the barrier before her. 'Fight!'

The order given, the battle commenced. Alexus's cutlass swished up, catching the bright sunlight on its polished blade. Lisa's shortsword also flashed, and she hefted her small shield, crouching slightly as she waited for Alexus to attack.

Grinning savagely, the taller warrior lunged forward, her long blonde hair flying. Lisa scampered back from the approaching woman, flicking her shield out to bash aside Alexus's exploratory slash but not bothering to jab in response. The two warriors circled each other, heads lowered and eyes hooded against the glare of the sun. Alexus danced forward again, lashing out towards Lisa's head, and the dark haired girl brought her blade up to parry the strike, keeping her shield low to prevent Alexus from following up with a strike at her legs or groin. This time Lisa swept her blade around in response, forcing Alexus to step back to avoid the flashing sword.

Breaking again, the two women recommenced circling each other, until Alexus grew bored with such manoeuvring and leapt forward with a feral growl, intent on sheathing her blade in Lisa's flesh. The move was well telegraphed, and Lisa easily blocked Alexus's thrust and whipped her swordtip at her opponent's naked breast. Alexus spun away, her firm tits undamaged. The watching crowds marvelled at her magnificent breasts, astonished by how they refrained from bouncing or flailing unduly as the blonde haired beauty danced forward again to land a withering sequence of blows against Lisa's shield.

Sweat dribbling into her eyes, Lisa blinked and gritted her teeth as she parried Alexus's violent assault. The cutlass's curved blade took extra vigilance to guard against, but she kept the weapon's tip away from her flesh with consummate skill. When Alexus finally swept away to get her breath back, Lisa wiped a palm across her forehead to clear her vision, then dragged off her helm and threw it aside, grateful for the release of built-up heat under the heavy armour. Her dark hair was plastered to her forehead and cheeks, and her face glowed with perspiration. Her shieldarm was numb from Alexus's battering, and she hoped her strength would not fail her under the withering heat. Beneath her heavy hauberk, she could feel her body sheathed in sweat, an uncomfortable and distracting feeling.

Seeing her foe distracted, Alexus swooped in to attack, hoping surprise would be on her side. Lisa gasped and quickly raised her guard, striking out with her own sword on reflex as Alexus's blade swept in. Alexus grunted as she felt Lisa's blade open a cut on her upper left arm, but hissed in pleasure as her cutlass slipped under her foe's shield to open a deep gash on Lisa's left leg.

Lisa yelped and staggered back as blood spilled over her lower leg and boot. The wound was thankfully not deep, and she was lucky the blade had not sheared right through her thigh, but the injury sapped her quickly dwindling strength still further. Forcing herself to stay calm, she readied herself for Alexus's next move.

The tall blonde was not even looking at her, instead waving her bloodstained cutlass at the crowds and laughing as they cheered in response. Then she turned to face Lisa again, her grin widening as she swept one finger across her throat in an all too obvious message to the wounded girl.

Lisa would not be drawn. Her tactics were sound, and she would wait until it was the right moment to strike with all her strength. Alexus dived forward, her blade sweeping in a wide arc. It was a spectacular attack, and would have cleaved Lisa's head in two had the smaller girl not parried with equal skill. The crowd roared its approval at the swordswomanship as the two women clashed, sensing that the wound would bring out the best in Lisa.

Determined to prove them right, Lisa suddenly lunged forward, and Alexus gasped as her own blade arched downwards, unable to parry the approaching bladetip. The shortsword sliced open the skin on her upper left leg, and Alexus gasped in relief as the blade slid past her thigh, knowing she had almost been seriously wounded. Cursing, Lisa bashed at Alexus's sword with her shield, but the cutlass had all Alexus's strength behind it, and Lisa staggered at the impact. The weapon's tip skidded off the shield and whisked downwards, ripping open a gash of Lisa's right thigh armour. The armour did its job well enough, but Lisa didn't need another wound, no matter how shallow. She reeled back from Alexus, but the blonde warrior saw victory in sight and surged forward with grim intent.

She thrust forward with a loud battlecry, but she was too eager for the kill and Lisa saw a chance to turn the tables. She swept her sword up to catch the cutlass's flashing blade, and Alexus gasped as the weapon was ripped from her hand. The crowd roared excitedly as the cutlass flew, and Alexus yelped in dismay and staggered back from Lisa, who dove forward - leg wound forgotten - to follow up

Seeing the swordtip swoop towards her, Alexus sucked in her taut tummy and twisted her body. The shortsword slid past her navel, slicing open a painful cut just above her belly button. Clutching at the scratch, Alexus reeled back away from Lisa but stumbled and fell back, legs splayed before her as she gasped in shocked dismay.

Lisa paused for a second to regard the fallen woman, admiring how her breasts still jutted defiantly skyward, her excitement building at the sight of the streams of blood that had dribbled over her navel from her belly wound to stain the black leather of her thong. Her stomach rose and fell as she panted, staring up at Lisa as the dark haired girl considered how she would finish off her downed opponent.

But Alexus was not ready to give in yet. One hand strayed down to her left boot, from which she plucked a slim-bladed dagger. Lisa had time to gasp before the deadly weapon was flicked at her with precise skill. She raised her shield, feeling the weapon slam into the armour and drop to her feet. She lowered her shield to see Alexus on her feet and diving forward, another dagger in her right hand held low. Lisa raised her sword over her head and chopped down, timing the blow precisely. Only Alexus's quick reflexes saved her, as she twisted to avoid the cleaving blade. Her dagger jabbed for Lisa's groin, but the dark haired girl whisked her shield around to slam it into Alexus's arm.

Alexus staggered, almost losing her weapon again at the impact. She made for where her cutlass lay nearby, and Lisa quickly dove forward to attack, determined not to let her opponent rearm. Alexus ducked and rolled under Lisa's sweeping attack, claiming her cutlass and coming to her feet with a shout of joy.

Disappointed, Lisa backed away, knowing that she was at the disadvantage again. Her leg wound hurt, blood now sheathing her lower leg and boot completely. She was panting more than Alexus, and the heat was making her vision swim. Still, she braced herself as Alexus, now recovered from her scare, danced forward with sword and dagger ready.

The girls clashed blades, and as they heaved and perspired under the baking sun, sweat sprayed from their flailing limbs and showers of sparks flew as steel shrieked against steel.

Then Lisa cried out as she swept Alexus's cutlass aside, and the blonde girl's dagger came flashing forward past her defences. The dagger was aimed for her groin, but as she futilely twisted it plunged up to the hilt in her left hip. Shrieking in pain, Lisa staggered and fell back, the weapon still lodged in her leg as Alexus yelled in victory.

Her cutlass raised high, she dove forward to finish Lisa, swinging her sword down towards the stricken warrior's face. Grunting in pain, Lisa heaved her shield up into the cutlass' path, yelping as the weapon chopped through the armour amidst a shower of sparks. Lisa's eyes bugged as she saw the cutlass' tip an inch in front of her face, then wrenched the shield aside to knock Alexus off balance.

Alexus stumbled away, quickly turning but then ducking as Lisa heaved her shield towards her. The shield had been badly damaged, and throwing it had earned Lisa the second she needed to scramble to her feet, biting into her lip at the pain in her leg. The dagger hilt jutted out from where it had been rammed through chain links into her hip. Knowing she could no longer rely on dodging Alexus's attacks, Lisa gripped her shortsword tightly, determined that she could still change the odds and defeat her scantily-clad nemesis.

But Alexus saw victory was within reach, and danced forward into the fray with a savage grin. As her cutlass whisked through the air towards Lisa, the dark haired girl rammed her own blade forward, taking a lethal chance and hoping that her blade bit home before Alexus's. She watched in dismay as her blade sliced into Alexus's arm, drawing blood but causing little more damage than a bad scratch, then screamed in fresh agony as Alexus's weapon chopped down into her right shoulder. The curved blade sliced through chain and leather, split flesh wetly and crunched through bones. Lisa gasped and looked down to where the sword was buried six inches deep into her shoulder, then shuddered as Alexus slowly pulled the weapon free. Blood sprayed and Lisa's vision swam. She reeled back, desperate to get away from Alexus but knowing the blonde haired amazon would be right behind her.

She was. As Lisa staggered, Alexus reared back and thrust her cutlass forward, laughing in glee as the sword's tip sank deep into the back of Lisa's neck. Lisa's back arched and she threw her head back, gurgling as blood sprayed from her mouth. The cutlass's tip ripped from her neck, sheathed in crimson and heralding a spray of blood that sprinkled onto the grass fully ten feet in front of her. Her eyes bugged as she heard her lifeblood squirting from her body, and as Alexus yanked her blade back, all Lisa could do was drop her sword and clutch at her hosing throat with both hands, struggling to take a breath and drooling bloody saliva as she dropped to her knees, then collapsed forward to lie sprawled and writhing.

The crowds cheers ringing in her ears, Alexus stared down at the dying woman in awe. She had taken her first life, and it was unlike any feeling she had known before. She gripped her leather clad groin as she came with a shuddering cry, and staggered forward with her bloody blade uplifted to finish Lisa off.

Lisa's eyes were wide and rolling, her face discoloured as she fought for breath. Bloody vomit sprayed from her mouth and oozed from the tear in her throat, but her agonised thrashing was ceased as Alexus chopped down, slicing off her head and the hands clutching at her throat. Lisa's legs kicked spasmodically, her hips jerked her lower body off the ground twice in quick succession, then her limbs sagged loosely and the shocking spray of blood from her stump of a neck slowed to little more than a trickle.

Alexus picked up Lisa's decapitated head, staring into her victim's lifeless eyes before raising the grisly trophy over her head to receive the adulation of the crowd. Blood spattered over her naked, oiled breasts and arms, but Alexus didn't care. In fact, she relished the warm shower as she laughed and sobbed for joy, her painful cuts forgotten in the thrill of victory. Victory was hers. She was now an Amazon Knight.

Karen caught up with Hayley as she scurried around the rear of the stand, opposite the fluttering sides of the pavilion that would host the banquet after the tournament. The area was deserted, although the sound of busy handmaids in the pavilion could be heard when the crowds in the stands above hushed after the bloody battle was done. Karen grabbed Hayley's arm and thrust the diminutive Knight up against one of the stands' thick wooden supports, leaning close so her face was only inches from Hayley's. Her dark eyes flitted over Hayley's face almost hungrily, and her breasts swelled as she breathed heavily with desire.

'I've wanted you since the first time I saw you,' she said huskily, grabbing Hayley's chin as the other girl tried to squirm away. 'You want it too, don't you?

'No . . .' Hayley twisted, gasping at Karen's strength. Her protestations were stifled as Karen's mouth clamped against her own, and the Knight's left hand dropped to clutch the firm flesh of her buttocks. She pulled Hayley's hips against her own, her thigh riding up between the struggling girl's legs to grind against her moist crotch. Letting out a low cry into Karen's mouth, Hayley couldn't help her feeling of rising excitement. The thrill of watching other Knights kill made her dizzy, and her heart pounded as she opened her mouth to Karen, letting the other girl's warm tongue coil around her own. Karen's right hand slid up to her breast, kneading the flesh painfully, but the pain only excited Hayley more. At Karen's touch, memories of her nights of passion with Charlotte flared, and her head swam with images of her lover, sweat-slicked and panting as they writhed and moaned, joined at the hip in animal lust, beating back the shadows of mortal fear time and again until no strength remained for fear, leaving only the warm embrace of love and trust.

Stepping onto the green grass of the battleground, Lonia Ravensdottier heard the roar of the crowd and roared right back, swaggering across the blood-splattered turf with her huge sword held high. She knew she was favoured in the upcoming fight, for her devotion to training and her ferocity in sparring had brought her to the attention of several senior Knights. A tall and powerfully built woman, her tanned muscles flexed as she swept her blade around her head, attracting cheers from the massed crowd.

Lonia liked attention, but knew her opponent was receiving a fair percentage of the appreciative applause due to her somewhat outlandish appearance. Lady Elizabeth had expressed her wish that the warriors in this battle should fight with the weapons and armour of their own choice, and although Peri wore a simple chain cuirass over her white tunic, her helm and shield glittered under the bright sunlight, causing those in the crowd to squint as they regarded the shorter warrior.

A dusky skinned beauty, Peri wore her black hair long and unchecked, where it tumbled from beneath her distinctive helm. At only five feet seven inches, she was almost half a foot shorter than her muscular foe, but did not seem even slightly intimidated as she walked alongside the big blonde to stop before Elizabeth's stand.

Lady Elizabeth regarded the woman with interest, struck by her beauty and fascinated by her equipment. Aside from a fine open faced helm inlaid with jewels and delicate filigree, Peri's only armour beside her cuirass consisted of a plated buckler that was honed to a single, flawless surface. It's mirrored surface reflected the green grass as Peri bowed to her Lady, all the while smiling. Her legs were bare except for sandals with leather straps that twined around her slim calves, and her arms were bare below the high, loose sleeves of her tunic. She wore at her belt a scimitar, secured by a bolt of sash. The short, single-edged blade was slightly curved, wider at its tip than at its base. Castle Erran's arsenal held few of these weapons, and this, like the helm and shield, were obviously personal items Peri had brought with her. Its hilt was wrapped with gold wire, and the pommel shone with inlaid rubies and other stones. A slim-bladed dagger was scabbarded at her belt, and even this was ornamented spectacularly. Elizabeth finally tore her eyes from the girl before her as, by her side, Helena spoke.

'Always got a smile on her face, that one,' Helena said, stood to attention as she waited to announce the warriors.

'But is it nerves or arrogance, Helena?' Elizabeth queried with amusement, 'I cannot tell.'

Helena shrugged. 'If she's not scared now, she soon will be.'

Elizabeth turned her gaze on Lonia, and knew what her second meant. Every inch of Lonia's tall frame spoke of her skill and strength. She was a blonde valkyrie, a true amazon, firmly muscled and large chested. Her chiselled features were framed with a tangled mane of blonde hair, and she thrust her large sword into the ground at her feet to tie the sun-tinted strands into a single ponytail that fell to her middle back. She wore leather under the blistering heat, toughened hide that sheathed her breasts and ribsection. The doe coloured armour was studded, laced at the sides and back. Matching forearm bracers played host to weightier studs that could be used offensively at a pinch, but a long, slim dagger was sheathed at her belt as a second weapon. This belt held a short leather skirt in place, a garment as tight as the bustiered chestpiece, similarly laced at each hip. Tanned flesh peeked tantalisingly through the laces, and long, muscled legs stretched to the ground from beneath the skirt's hem, hidden again only from the calves down by her soft doeskin boots.

Finished with her preparations, Lonia reclaimed her sword, holding it aloft once more and turning to grin savagely at the crowds, psyching herself for the upcoming battle. As she completed her circle, she lowered her bladetip to point it unwaveringly at Peri.

'You twinkle like a Christmas ornament, girl,' she yelled, 'And I'll see you shatter just as easily!'

Peri did not respond to Lonia's aggressive posturing. She turned her luminous eyes on her opponent, blinking in confusion but her smile not slipping.

'I'll cut you another smile in your soft belly,' Lonia snarled, 'and make a necklace of those pearly teeth!'

Still Peri did not respond, and turned back to face Elizabeth, waiting patiently for the signal to start the fight. Somewhat abashed, Lonia growled and also faced forward, letting her hate build within her. This was how she liked to fight, knowing that nothing else mattered but the death of her foe. During months of training she had swallowed the urge to kill, knowing that right would only be earned on a day such as this. Still, she longed to plunge her sword into Peri's yielding guts, to spill the grinning simpleton's innards before the watching crowd. Chuckling at the thought, she gripped the hilt of her sword and waited for the command.

'The second fight!' Helena bellowed from the stand, and after the crowds roar swelled in response, she continued. 'Lonia fights Peri for the honour of serving our Lady!' She glanced down at Elizabeth, and seeing her Lady's slight nod, turned to face the warriors once again with grim relish. 'Fight!'

Peri's scimitar seemed to unfurl from it's sash, and the Turkish beauty, a smile still firmly fixed on her delicate features, watched her foe swoop in to attack with a fierce battlecry. Not wishing to waste any time and effort on the shorter girl, Lonia had decided on a simple strategy for this battle: keep chopping until her foe was dead!

Peri twirled and twisted, seemingly unwilling to engage in a stand-up fight, content to let her agility keep her out of trouble until an opportunity presented itself. But for all her size Lonia was no slouch, and however Peri manoeuvred, the tall blonde was right there with her huge blade cleaving downwards, her face split with a savage grin. Finally Lonia's blade swooped too close for the shorter girl to dodge, and she was forced to batter the sword aside with her bright shield, gasping and staggering at the force of the impact against the armour strapped to her forearm. The strength behind Lonia's attacks numbed the dark haired girl's arm, and as she scurried away from her tall opponent, Peri hoped she could find a way to counter the others girl's superior strength.

Lonia didn't seem to be short of breath after her exertions. Letting the shorter girl back away, she struck a fighting pose for the benefit of the watching crowd, who yelled and stamped their feet as the tall blonde flexed and spun, then dove straight back into the attack.

Peri ducked and spun herself as the large sword swished towards her, but a small cry of pain broke from her lips as Lonia's perfect attack ripped a gash on her bare upper right arm. For a second Peri couldn't feel anything from her vital swordarm, and thought her fight and her life were already over, but as Lonia struck out again with speed almost unbelievable for one her size, somehow the shorter girl managed to sweep her scimitar up to bash the other's blade aside. Leaping back to give herself room to think, Peri risked a glance to where the wound on her arm bled freely, and hoped her fighting ability was not impaired.

Keeping the pressure on, but her confidence rising at the sight of her opponent's blood, Lonia swooped in again, her sword raised high, but Peri saw her chance for a retaliatory strike and took it, lunging forward with her curved blade whistling through the air. Grunting, Lonia wrenched her sword to the side, deflecting the scimitar's wide tip before it could plunge into her flesh. It was a fine parry, and Peri backed away once more, beginning to wonder how she could defeat this towering opponent.

Lonia jumped forward to bring her sword down in an overhead chop, and Peri reeled away from the strike, again moving too slow to avoid the cleaving blade. She screamed in pain as the flashing weapon ripped open another gash, this time on her left thigh.

Watching her opponent stagger, whimpering in pain, Lonia's heart pounded as she sensed she would soon take the shorter girl's life. She gripped her sword and advanced, noting that Peri's ever present smile now seemed more like a grimace of mortal fear. Seeing Peri's swordarm droop as if from fatigue, Lonia roared a battlecry and surged forward again, but Peri raised her shield high, and the sunlight gleaming off the polished steel blinded Lonia with a dazzling flash.

Yelling in chagrin, Lonia staggered back, her left arm raised to block the searing light. Knowing her luck was fast running out, and that this would be her only chance to turn the tables on her foe, Peri lunged forward, her scimitar poised to strike.

Her eyes streaming, Lonia could see a shadow ducking in for the kill, and thrust her blade out with a desperate shout that matched Peri's own. The two warriors' blades whisked past each other, each hungry for the other's blood.

Lonia hissed as she felt Peri's scimitar rip open the skin on her lower left arm, but her own low thrust punched through Peri's tunic, slicing between her thighs to open a painful cut on her groin. Peri squealed and leapt back, thankful that she had received only a painful cut but disappointed that her own blade had missed its mark. However, Lonia was still staggering blinded, and the dark skinned beauty determinedly launched herself forward once more.

Again seeing nothing more than a blur coming for her, Lonia brought her blade around in a sweeping motion to parry the blow she knew was coming., but Peri was striking low in retaliation for her humiliating cut, and Lonia screamed shrilly as the wide tip of the scimitar buried itself in her crotch.

Gasping in delight, her wounds for the moment forgotten, Peri saw blood spurt from where her sword's tip sank through Lonia's leather skirt. The tall blonde staggered back off the blade, releasing another squirt of crimson before her left hand clamped onto the wound, and Peri realised that the wound was not deep enough to disable her foe. Disappointed, she scurried forward to quickly follow up the attack while Lonia was still distracted by her fresh pain.

But Lonia was more angry than distracted. A growl rose from deep in her throat, and as she blinked her eyes rapidly to clear her vision, she saw Peri approaching and hefted her blade, eager for revenge. She brought her weapon up to strike, but Peri launched a flurry of attacks that forced the blonde to parry desperately, grunting as she heaved her heavy weapon to deflect each well aimed assault. Somehow she managed to prevent the scimitar from breaking through her defence, and as Peri staggered panting after her deluge of blows, Lonia brought her sword up to chop down with all her strength.

Peri gasped and fell back as the sword's tip whistled down towards her, and groaned in pain as the tip sliced open yet another cut, again on her left leg. She hit the ground hard and rolled on instinct, coming to her feet with her scimitar held ready. How could she beat Lonia? The blonde seemed to have an answer for every thrust and slice. She hefted her shield again, but Lonia was wise to this trick and circled, keeping the sun over Peri's right shoulder. The dark haired girl looked in vain for signs that Lonia was suffering under the extreme heat, but although she was sweating, Lonia was obviously as comfortable as herself in such a temperature. Feeling the first flutters of despairing fear in her belly, Peri could only ready herself bravely as Lonia rushed in to attack again.

Her groin throbbing with pain, Lonia found she wasn't quite so nimble as she closed on Peri. Still, she saw the other girl's cuts and gashes were beginning to tell. Peri was tiring, and a maniacal grin split Lonia's face again as she brought her sword around in a wide arc, intending to chop the other girl in two. Peri saw her chance as Lonia's body offered itself for a fraction of a second, and dove forward with a desperate shout, her scimitar lancing out in hope.

The wide blade crunched into Lonia's left thigh, ripping through muscle of flesh to split wetly from under the blonde girl's buttock. Her leg impaled, Lonia yelled in agony, but her blade was still sweeping towards Peri, and she watched the tip arc through the air towards her foe's body.

But Peri dropped to the ground, ripping her blade free as she fell, and feeling the sword's edge glance against her ornate helm as she wrenched her head to one side to avoid what would have been a killing blow. Unable to believe she had struck her opponent such a telling blow, Peri scrambled to her feet as Lonia staggered and fell to her left knee, grimacing at the pain and clutching at where the gaping wound bled freely. While she was distracted, Peri lunged, her scimitar whistling through the air towards Lonia's head.

At the last fraction of a second, Lonia raised her eyes to see the dark haired girl's frantic attack, and gasped as she threw herself back in a vain effort to avoid the cleaving scimitar. She almost succeeded, but yelled once more in agonised pain as the tip of the scimitar sliced open a gash on her bare belly before striking her belt buckle, which stopped the blade dead before it could rip deeper into her navel. Peri made to ram the blade forward and finish the fight, but Lonia swept her long sword up, and Peri prudently staggered back out of harms way, disappointed that the chance had gone but knowing that she had finally turned the tables on what had looked like an insurmountable battle.

The crowd were apoplectic with bloodlust and ecstasy. Both warriors had suffered minor cuts and deep wounds, yet as Lonia struggled to her feet they knew the fight was still undecided. Both Lonia and Peri were tired and sore, their swordarms aching and their heads swimming from the heat and loss of blood. They faced each other for long seconds, panting for breath as their eyes remained locked. Then, Peri's smile slowly returned, and as Lonia raised her sword in salute of a worthy adversary, the two warriors stumbled forward to engage again, both knowing the next few seconds would decide the battle one way or the other.

The crowd held its collective breath as the two swords rose and fell, bashing against Peri's shield or swept aside by Lonia's skilfully wielded sword. Yet as the two warriors valiantly fought, it became clear who would be the final victor. For all her courage and determination, Peri's strength had been sapped by her wounds, while Lonia still struck blow after ringing blow, each one staggering the shorter girl, causing her knees to tremble and her wan smile to falter still further. Finally Peri jabbed with all her remaining strength, and as Lonia swept the weak lunge aside, the big blonde knew she had finally overcome her diminutive foe.

As Peri sought to reclaim her balance, leaving her body open for the second Lonia needed, the taller girl reared back and stabbed, grunting with satisfaction as the heavy blade sheared through chain links and popped the flesh of Peri's belly, sinking deep into her soft innards to scrape against her spine. Peri shuddered and doubled over, then fell heavily onto her bottom, legs splayed before her as she stared down at where the long sword protruded from her abdomen. With a long groan, she collapsed onto her back to lie writhing in agony, and Lonia regarded her downed enemy as she squirmed and moaned for long seconds before wrenching her blade up and out.

The blade's tip ripped free with the sound of tearing flesh, dragging with it clotted flesh and coiled intestines that steamed and slithered over Peri's sides. Her sword forgotten, Peri raised her head to gasp at her spilled guts, fumbling with both hands to pile the entrails back into her ruptured belly cavity. She looked up at Lonia beseechingly, either for help or a quicker death, than coughed a gobbet of blood before her head fell back weakly, dislodging her jewel encrusted helm and freeing her long, black hair.

Her head swimming with her victory, Lonia gaped down at the dying girl, then knew she had to still Peri's agonised thrashing and writhing. Discarding her sword, she plucked her dagger from its sheath and straddled Peri's body, lowering herself down until she was sat on the dying girl's breast. The crowds roar was nothing compared to the roaring of blood in her head as she slashed open Peri's slender throat, gasping as a hot spray of blood leapt up to spatter against her face and breasts. She felt Peri buck beneath her, then the dark skinned girl's struggles ceased, and her dark eyes faded into oblivion.

Lonia rose and staggered back from where the butchered corpse lay spread-eagled in a growing bloody mire, steam still rising from where her belly had been opened up, then reclaimed her sword before turning to face the crowd. Her savage grin returned, and she yelled in delighted triumph as she held her bloody blades aloft, the pain in her leg and groin forgotten in the ecstasy of victory.

Heaving and sweating against each other, two Knights fumbled and moaned behind the stands, their bodies and lips locked together. Handmaids scurried past, eyes boggling or sniggering girlishly. The Knights cared little that they risked punishment for such a display.

Hayley's tongue flicked across her lover's teeth, her hands gripped firm buttocks and kneaded muscular flesh hungrily. Yet as she breathed in the smell of the woman whose body was pressed against hers, her brow knotted and her eyes snapped open, blinking in surprise. She moaned in dismay, pushing Karen back with all her strength.

'What . . .' Karen gasped, her voice husky, her eyelids hooded with desire.

'I . . . can't!' Hayley tried to break free, but Karen grabbed her shoulder and slammed her against the support angrily.

'What do you mean you can't?'

Unable to meet her gaze, Hayley twisted in her grasp, tears beginning to spill down her cheeks. 'Charlotte . . .' she whimpered, and Karen could only look at her in amazement.

'Charlotte?' She gripped Hayley's chin, forcing the other Knight to look at her. 'Charlotte is dead, Hayley!' she said harshly, 'You need to get over her. This is what you need!'

Hayley struggled again, and Karen's patience snapped. Growling, she slapped Hayley hard across the face, sending the grieving Knight slamming back once more against the steel support. She moved forward to embrace her again, but then a blinding pain exploded between her legs as Hayley's knee shot up. Karen gasped, the strength spilling from her limbs and sending her crashing to her knees. Hayley made to run past her and she grabbed at the girl's bare legs, but a small fist smashed into her face and her head snapped back. She tumbled to the ground, rage escaping in a frenzied shout as she struggled to get to her feet, blood spilling from her nose. Hayley bolted sobbing, not knowing where she was going but desperate to get away from Karen.

As Lady Helena gave the order for the fight to begin, Shathirana released her pent up breath with a sibilant hiss, turning to dive instantly at Stephanie. Astonished by her opponent's immediate ferocity, Stephanie backed away from the slashing daggerblade that swished the air before her face, unwilling to swing her heavy macehead in fear of unbalancing herself, giving Shathirana a chance for an early kill.

During the preparation for the fight, and their walk to the battlefield, the girls had not spoken once. Shathirana had been impassive, her beautiful face a mask that showed not a sign of fear. Stephanie had enjoyed observing her foe as she had dressed, for the slender, dark haired girl had elected to fight only in a tight leather skirt that barely covered her hips, leaving her toned body and ample breasts bare to the heat. Her long legs looked powerful but not unduly muscular, smooth and tapering down to her bare feet. She wore belted at her waist only a slim bladed dagger, a wickedly sharp weapon with a twelve inch blade.

Stephanie reeled away from Shathirana's blade, then danced back nimbly to avoid another thrust. Shathirana seemed to be testing her defences, probing her skills and weaknesses. She would show none. Suddenly calm after the frantic defending and manoeuvring, Stephanie's sea-blue eyes narrowed and her face hardened to form a visage of icy calm. Already preparing for another onslaught, Shathirana instead paused to consider this change in her opponent.

She too had watched her foe prepare for the battle in the changing room, admiring the tall blonde's long tanned legs and marvellous breasts, somewhat disappointed when the latter were hidden by a stiffened leather cuirass. Aside from this armour, Stephanie had chosen a chain skirt and a light cuirbouilli helm, but kept her limbs bare except for soft leather calf boots and studded bracers on her forearms. She had looked nervous as she dressed, casting Shathirana anxious glances even though most who had expressed an opinion favoured the blonde girl's prowess over her opponents. Shathirana had liked to see that fear, but now Stephanie was a picture of confidence as she waited for Shathirana's next attack, slightly stooped and holding her mace two handed. The weapon was a lighter mace, capable of being wielded one handed, but devastating if delivering a double-handed blow. Knowing she would need luck to overcome Stephanie, Shathirana steeled herself before diving into the fray, determined she would be the one to walk from the gore splattered battlefield.

Her dagger swished out towards Stephanie's arm, perhaps in hope of crippling the blonde girl. Ducking aside, Stephanie swung her mace with a grunt, and as Shathirana staggered past her nimble foe, she knew the weapon was swooping towards her unprotected back. Gasping in alarm, she threw herself to the ground, feeling the studded macehead 'whoosh' across her back, barely missing her flesh. She rolled, coming to her feet quickly to spin and face the blonde, all too aware that the fight had nearly been over before it had properly begun.

The watching crowds cheered in appreciation of Stephanie's attack, and at how Shathirana's breasts jiggled and bounced as she rolled and spun. Unaware of their eyes on her naked flesh, Shathirana crouched as Stephanie surged forward to follow up on her spectacular attack, swinging her mace down in another exceptionally skilled strike. Shathirana twisted with a grunt, her breasts flailing as she wrenched herself to one side, gritting her teeth as her opponent's weapon swished past her left shoulder. Had the blow landed, Shathirana had no doubt her shoulder would have been instantly shattered.

She rammed her dagger at Stephanie's belly, feeling that her luck was fast running out and desperate to turn the tables. Somehow, Stephanie sensed the blade angling towards her flesh and spun, avoiding the dagger nimbly and lancing out her left hand to grip Shathirana's forearm. Shathirana gasped as Stephanie twisted the arm, hoping to force the dark haired girl to drop her vital weapon.

Stephanie was not the strongest of warriors, but Shathirana's muscles were underdeveloped, and she let out a small cry as her arm was twisted violently. She pushed herself away from Stephanie, but her dagger had fallen from her numbed grasp and now she stood defenceless, her impassive features twitching as she couldn't help but let her desperation show. Rubbing her aching forearm, Shathirana crouched to prepare for Stephanie's inevitable follow up, and the crowd's roar swelled at the pluck of the unarmoured girl.

Feeling that the fight was over, Stephanie raised her mace and swooped in to finish the job, swinging down on her helpless opponent with grim satisfaction. Then, as her mace slammed into the ground, she could only gasp in wonder at Shathirana's speed. Spinning quickly, she saw the dark haired girl roll to her feet a short distance away, having performed a spectacular dive out of harms way. She made for her dagger, and Stephanie leapt to intercept, her mace once more swishing through the hot air. She aimed low, hoping to bury the macehead in Shathirana's groin, but the semi-naked warrior leapt again as the weapon swept in, this time diving over the mace as it sought her flesh, landing with another roll to spring to her feet once more and close the gap on her precious dagger.

In awe of her opponent's speed and acrobatic skill, Stephanie turned and tried once more to swat the other girl, taking the time to judge how her foe would manoeuvre to reclaim her dagger. She feigned a swing and Shathirana dropped to the ground to roll to her right, but Stephanie twisted, spinning to sweep her mace in a wide arc that ended with the studded head swooping towards the gaping Shathirana. Diving aside, Shathirana felt the mace's head scrape against her skirt, the studs shredding the armour to raise a gash on her hip. She laughed in relief as she scrabbled on all fours to where her dagger lay, reclaiming the weapon and bouncing to her feet.

If Stephanie was frustrated by her lost opportunity, she did not let it show as she swept forward to engage in battle once more. She knew she still had the upper hand.

Shathirana's heart pounded as she watched the blonde girl approach, knowing that she had exhausted all the luck she could expect in such a mismatched fight. Her opponent was more skilled, considerably stronger, and as quick as Shathirana herself. How could she hope to defeat such a foe?

Stephanie whipped her mace down in what was, for her, a clumsy and mistimed blow. Shathirana ducked in close, jabbing her dagger low, but Stephanie reeled aside, and the needle-sharp weapon slid by her armoured torso harmlessly. She brought her mace around for another pass, and Shathirana rammed her dagger forward, intent on sheathing the blade in Stephanie's flesh before the mace could crush her.

She cried out in victory as the dagger's blade crunched into Stephanie's right shoulder, causing the blonde to scream in pain, then grunted and flew backwards as her opponent's mace slammed into her chest, cracking ribs and knocking the breath from her wheezing lungs. She landed hard, thankfully still holding her dagger but writhing from the pain in her breast. She clambered slowly to her feet, aware that Stephanie was still standing.

Stephanie stared down at her pumping wound in dismay, already feeling her arm begin to numb. Her weapon arm! Still, she hefted the weapon with a grimace of pain, trying to ignore the blood sheathing the leather cuirass and the inside of her arm. She refused to believe that Shathirana could beat her, and that belief sent her diving forward, ready to thrust her macehead into her dark haired opponent's belly.

Shathirana crouched ready, wincing at the stabbing pains in her chest and hoping that her exertions would not cause splintered bones to sink into vital organs. There was, however, no alternative but to twist out of the way of Stephanie's incoming mace. She jabbed her dagger at the blonde's face, but Stephanie snapped her head back and backstepped, giving herself room for an overhead swing.

The mace swooped down, but a biting pain made Stephanie gasp, and her weapon fell wide as she shuddered with agony, not even seeing Shathirana step in to slash open her upper right arm. Stephanie's scream of dismay echoed across the battlefield, as her arm dangled uselessly and she staggered away from Shathirana, her mace claimed by her left hand but her confidence truly shaken.

Shathirana could not believe she had finally turned the tables. Her opponent was hurting and wrong-handed, although she could still use the light mace to deadly effect. Seizing the initiative, Shathirana dived in on Stephanie's wounded right side, her blood-slicked blade thirsty for more.

She was too eager, and Stephanie was not as wounded as she had thought. Grunting with exertion, Stephanie ducked and thrust out her macehead straight-armed as Shathirana moved in, and the dark haired girl doubled over with a yelp as the studded weapon slammed into her groin. Protected by her leather armour, her delicate crotch still ached at the impact, and Shathirana retreated in pain, allowing Stephanie to get her breath back.

The heat was now getting to both warriors. Shathirana's body was streaked with sweat, which dribbled down her sides and dripped from her erect nipples as she stooped to glare at her opponent. Stephanie's body was also sheathed in perspiration, making the leather armour uncomfortable. Still, her endurance training held her in good stead as she girded herself for action, hefted her mace in her left hand and dove forward to get revenge on her opponent.

Shathirana leapt forward to meet her, her dagger lashing out even as her foe's macehead swooped toward her. Stephanie grunted as Shathirana's blade jabbed into her chainmail skirt, digging through the armour and into the flesh of her hip, but not deep enough to cause concern. Her own weapon glanced off Shathirana's head as the dark haired girl tried to leap back in time to avoid the blade. Stunned, Shathirana staggered, blinking as a trickle of blood immediately spilled from her temple into her left eye.

Seeing a chance, Stephanie jumped in with mace raised, not caring about the pain in her shoulder but intent on killing her tenacious foe. Her vision clearing in time to see the blonde loom before her, Shathirana dropped to the ground as the mace whisked over her head, stabbing for dagger forward with all her inconsiderable strength. The weapon's sharp tip once more bit into chainmail, but this time the blade sank into the soft flesh beneath. Stephanie's eyes bugged as she felt the cold steel slide into her groin, squealing at the pain in such a sensitive area. She tried to swing her mace in retaliation, but the strength had flooded from her limbs as she could only tumble back, aware of the spurt of blood that erupted from under the hem of her chain skirt.

Shathirana struggled to her feet, intending to straddle her downed foe's body and stab down into her face. As she reached Stephanie, however, the panting blonde swept out one tanned leg, taking Shathirana's own from under her. Yelling as she crashed against the ground once more, Shathirana heard her opponent's macehead whistling through the air and rolled instinctively. Having lashed out with the weapon while still on the ground, Stephanie had hoped to land a blow on the dark haired girl while she was stunned from her fall, but was again impressed by the others speed. She rolled the other way, and both girls clambered painfully to their feet, knowing that they were tiring but ready for more.

The watching crowd were cheering excitedly, their loyalty swinging between the two warriors as the advantage swung back and forth. Shathirana ducked under a swooping macehead to ram her dagger at Stephanie's bloody groin, but Stephanie brought the shaft of the weapon down to parry the lunge, ramming the head forward towards the others face. Diving aside to avoid the blow, Shathirana came to her feet ready, jumping in to deliver a skilful stab aimed at Stephanie's breast. The blonde twisted aside, but Shathirana pulled the dagger back with lightening speed to lance it forward again, screaming in delight as she saw her chance for victory present itself.

Stephanie groaned as the dagger's tip plunged through leather to skewer her left breast. Transfixed by pain and horror, she gaped down to where only the hilt of Shathirana's weapon could be seen, feeling the twelve inch blade deep in her chest. Her body shuddered, but then Shathirana wrenched the weapon down and out, ripping the breast half off and causing a sudden torrent of blood to spill over Stephanie's belly. Her hips thrust out, Stephanie dropped her mace to claw at her ripped bosom with her good hand. Fatty flesh oozed from the split in her armour, and Stephanie sank slowly to her knees, offering Shathirana a choice of target for the terminal blow.

Her dagger drove forward, splitting Stephanie's lip and cracking teeth as it ploughed into her mouth, ripping her tongue in two before punching out the back of her throat. Her eyes wide, Stephanie gurgled in horror and struggled for breath, hot blood flooding her throat and making her gag. Letting go of her dagger's hilt, Shathirana watched in amazement as the woman she had just killed toppled back to lie spreadeagled, chest bucking and arms flailing spasmodically. Then, she became aware of the crowds roar, and the elation of victory swept over her.

She raised a fist into the sky, the pain of her wounds all but forgotten, but her eyes never leaving the sprawled body of Stephanie as she watched the blonde slowly choke to death on her own blood. The dagger still sheathed in her mouth, Stephanie's blue eyes widened in mortal fear, then rolled up in her head as she finally died with a horrible gurgling sigh. Shathirana straddled her opponent's lifeless body, gripped the hilt of her weapon and tugged it free, and blood sprayed over her bare legs as Stephanie's head fell back against the gory grass, her split tongue lolling from her distended mouth. Her body quivered and one leg kicked spasmodically, then she lay still.

Shathirana staggered back and collapsed to her knees, tired beyond belief but her heart pounding with excitement and pleasure. Her luck had held, beating the odds and enabling her to take her place as an Amazon Knight.

Hayley found herself in the stables in Erran's western wing. The horses housed here looked up in surprise at her wild entrance, but as she pressed her back against the warm wood of the gates and her breathing gradually slowing to something close to normal, the patient beasts went back to chewing their feed, only glancing at the intruder again when she slid to the floor, sobbing and clutching her bruised face.

As the gate crashed open again Hayley shrieked in dismay, then sagged with a moan as she saw the newcomer was Natalie.

The brunette blinked as she regarded Hayley's bedraggled form. 'Lady Hayley? What's happened? I saw you run in here . . .'

'Shut the door!' Hayley begged her. 'Don't . . . don't let her find me.'

'Who?' Natalie glanced out of the door to make sure there was no-one around, then closed it securely and sank to her knees beside Hayley. 'Your face! Who did this?'

'Karen,' Hayley whispered. 'It's like she's gone mad. She tried to . . . tried to . . .'

She sobbed again, and Natalie reached forward to embrace her, stroking her hair as the distraught Knight soaked her tunics shoulder with free-flowing tears. She could scarcely believe that this vulnerable figure was the same girl she had watched so intently from the tower two weeks previously; the Amazon Knight who had launched herself into battle so completely she had even bent the rules to find more enemies to fight and kill.

'Quiet, Hayley,' she whispered into the other girl's ear. 'Let's get you back to your room.'

Preparing herself mentally for the fight ahead, M'Banta brushed ham-like hands over her shaven head, flexed her considerable muscles and squared her already wedge-like jaw before pulling her weight off the bench and turning to grab her light leather armour.

Watching boggle-eyed from across the changing area, Kimiko slapped Chrysegon's shoulder, rousing the blonde from her pre-fight meditation.

'What is it, Kimi?' she sighed, wishing now that she had not accepted her erstwhile but excitable bunkmate's offer of assistance in preparing for the battle.

'Holy shitballs, Chrissie. Look at the size of that bitch!'

Easily hearing the Japanese girl, M'Banta turned to leer at her opponent, brilliant white teeth flashing in the gloom of the dressing room. Chrysegon missed the look, busy tying her shoulder length blonde hair back with a square-meshed leather filet.

'I know how big she is, Kimi. I've seen her before, remember?'

'I remember, Chrissie. You only came up to her titties, yes?'

It was true, Chrysegon was a full foot shorter than her opponent. She finally looked at M'Banta, seeing the muscular warrior pulling on her halter. Her armour consisted mostly of straps and strips of leather, but Chrysegon suspected her bronzed hide would be armour enough. She herself had to trust in more conventional protection, and Kimiko now tested the straps on her plate greaves, then shifted her attention to Chrysegon's head, where she pulled on a cotton hood followed by a Norman style conical light helm. Chrysegon was hot. She wore light segmented plate armour over a cotton tunic, but knew that she could stand the heat long enough for the fight to run its course. She did not believe it would be a long fight. Either her speed would give her the edge, or M'Banta's devastating mace would pound her to jelly.

M'Banta lifted this weapon now, obviously ready for the fight to begin. Standing at 6'4", her muscular upper body seemed to taper down to almost mannish hips, although her copious bosom, barely constrained by creaking, swollen slabs of leather, attested to her womanhood. She wore a leather skirt and strapped sandals, and wore leather straps around her slab-like hands to assist in gripping the shaft of her massive weapon.

In truth her weapon was more akin to a war-maul, it's shaft over a metre long and tipped by a flanged weight. Chrysegon gazed at the weapon silently, shuddering to think of the dull metal crushing her bones, popping her open like an overripe fruit. Brushing aside such thoughts, she flexed her muscles and began to limber up, looking to Kimiko for support.

'How do I look?'

'Kick ass,' Kimi grinned, grabbing Chrysegon's axes and passing them to her friend haft first.

Chrysegon tested the weapons' weight, an unnecessary gesture as she had fought with these favourite weapons many times before. The axes were 3' in length, single bitted but with a vicious barbed spike atop each shaft.

'Yeah,' she said quietly, confident that her skill with these weapons would grant her victory.

She noticed Kimiko was fretting around her back, tightening straps and muttering in her native tongue. 'Don't worry, Kimi,' she soothed, 'She won't get to see my back.' In order to keep herself cool, Chrysegon had elected to wear front pieces of armour only, keeping her back bare except for her tunic and the straps of her frontpieces.

'Well, what about your feet?' Kimiko asked worriedly, pointing down to Chrysegon's bare toes.

'I want to keep nimble,' Chrysegon shrugged, 'You know I'm more comfortable like this.'

Kimiko looked at her glumly. 'OK then,' she sighed, knowing that her friend's time had come. She patted the twin swells of Chrysegon's breastplate quickly. 'Keep these safe, OK?'

Chrysegon laughed. 'Don't worry. I'm very attached to them, and I'm pretty damn sure I want things to stay that way.'

She looked up as M'Banta approached, her mace slung over one meaty shoulder.

'Hey,' the muscular woman's voice was long and languid, accompanied by a lazy, lop-sided grin. 'We go fight now, yes?'

'Yes M'Banta,' Chrysegon answered, 'We're going to fight now.'

M'Banta chuckled, 'I like you,' she told the shorter girl, 'I kill you quick. No pain.'

Kimiko muttered something, but kept behind Chrysegon's back. The blonde only grinned in return, sensing that the amiable giant was being sincere. 'Damn nice of you, M'Banta. Ditto!'

Lady Elizabeth looked down on the two warriors, her expression quizzical. 'What do we expect to see here, Helena?' she asked her second. The long pause she received as an answer spoke volumes, and her lip twitched in a slight smile, knowing Helena prided herself on estimating the prowess of the combatants.

'A short fight,' Helena eventually allowed herself, knowing that the answer would not satisfy her Lady.

'And the winner?'

Helena scowled down at the two women, and even M'Banta shifted uneasily under the senior Knight's stare. 'Speed versus strength,' she said finally, 'Although Chrysegon is no weakling.' She studied the blonde's athletic body appreciatively, enjoying her lithe curves and lissom limbs, then turned her attention to M'Banta, who fidgeted with the haft of her mace, eager for battle. 'Very well, if I must choose a favourite, I say that the winner will be . . .'

Chrysegon and M'Banta each sighed with relief as Helena stood and raised her hands for quiet. The crowd, whose clamour had lessened as it became clear their Lady and her second were in discussion, roared again, but the din abated as Helena announced the battle.

'The fourth battle will be between Chrysegon and M'Banta,' she bellowed, 'As always, only one may enter the ranks of the Amazon Knights!' She turned her steely gaze on the warriors as her gauntletted hand swept down. 'Fight!'

M'Banta hefted her mace with a happy grin, striding towards Chrysegon without preamble. As the towering warrior bore down on her, Chrysegon did what few watching expected; she dashed forward with her axes held wide and ready, eager to topple her outsized foe.

If M'Banta was surprised, it did not show on her angular features. She grunted as she used the helve of her weapon to catch the first of Chrysegon's axes as it swooped towards her chest, then angled the weapon's head to knock aside the second as it whipped from the side towards her legs. Chrysegon dodged back, impressed by her opponent's skill and speed with the heavy weapon, then ducked as M'Banta brought the heavy mace around in a wide sweep. The steel head of the mace whistled above her head, and Chrysegon thanked her agility for getting her out of harms way, as the mace would have taken her head clean off had it connected.

M'Banta moved in again, but slowly enough for Chrysegon to plan and execute a dazzling attack, spinning forward with axes glinting under the sunlight. One razor-edged weapon sliced down towards M'Banta's face, but the big woman brought up her macehead almost carelessly to catch the weapon's haft. Grunting, M'Banta yanked her weapon to one side, and Chrysegon gasped as the axe was wrenched from her grip easily, whipping end over end across the battlefield.

The other axe was already swooping, and M'Banta once again used the lower shaft of her weapon to batter the axe aside. Cursing at her opponent's skill, Chrysegon spun and dropped to one knee, the axe sweeping around at knee height. A momentary look of fear flitted across M'Banta's face, but she somehow managed to heave her bulk skyward and jump over the low swing.

'Lucky, M'Banta,' Chrysegon muttered as she backed away, lamenting the loss of her axe but knowing she could not risk trying to reclaim the weapon. She moved the axe to her right hand and reached down to her thigh to pluck a 12" dagger from its sheath, glad she thought to encumber herself with spare weapons.

M'Banta stumped forward again, mace raised and face creased in intense concentration. Wiping away sweat that already was beginning to stream down her face from under the rim of her helm, Chrysegon readied herself and moved in, knowing she had to get close to do proper damage to her outsized foe.

She skipped barefoot around M'Banta, swinging her axe in a deliberately orchestrated attack, knowing her ungainly foe would have to parry rather than dodge. Again the mace's head swung up to skilfully block the strike, but already Chrysegon was spinning, her dagger jabbing low towards M'Banta's rippled belly, eager for the taste of blood. M'Banta's eyes widened in alarm, and she sucked in her gut, somehow managing to prevent being sliced open. Still, the daggerblade traced a crimson line over her ebony skin, and blood instantly trickled from the cut.

Delighted by being the first to draw blood, Chrysegon grinned as she finished her spin, ending up facing M'Banta. She expected to see her foe nursing the gash, or at least to see her lumbering in for another sedate attack, but instead was faced with a looming mass of muscle and leather, as the huge woman leapt forward with the mace raised, to bring the massive weapon swooping down towards her head!

Chrysegon tried to dodge. Part of her knew that trying to parry the mace was a joke. She wrenched herself to one side, desperately hoping her speed would serve her well. But luck was not on her side this day, and a scream of agonised denial broke from her lips as the macehead crunched into her left shoulder, ripping flesh and shattering bone, tearing the limb clean off.

She staggered drunkenly, dimly aware of a crimson spray fountaining from the stump of her shoulder but unable to tear her gaze from where her disembodied arm quivered and twitched on the bloody ground nearby. Shock numbed her body almost instantly, but she didn't even have time to sink to her knees before M'Banta stepped forward to finish the job, bringing the mace overarm to bury its gory head in Chrysegon's skull.

Her helm was next to useless against such a blow, and Chrysegon died instantly as the flanged head of the mace crunched through helmet and skull alike, bursting her head open and forcing a gout of blood to spurt from under the invading steel. M'Banta blinked in astonishment as gore splattered against her body. Chunks of metal and bone bounced against her arms and torso, and a sticky eyeball struck her chest before rolling down into her huge cleavage. She blinked, unable to believe the fight was over so soon, and as she stood with weapon still outstretched, Chrysegon's body slumped to the ground, the remains of her head ripping free with a horrid sound of tearing muscle. The headless body lay curled and quivering, and M'Banta gazed at the unrecognisable mass of flesh and bone that clotted her weapon's head for long seconds, her eyes widening as she realised the long, coiling mass of flesh that dangled from the ruin of Chrysegon's jaw was actually the blonde girl's tongue.

She threw the mace down, turning to the stands to finally acknowledge the deafening cheers of the crowd by lifting both muscular arms over her head. She let out a cry of victory in a language none recognised, then turned to stomp towards the changing area, not giving Chrysegon's twitching corpse another glance.

'Wrong, Helena! Wrong!' Elizabeth crowed delightedly, knowing how the words would rankle her second.

'Difficult fight to speculate on,' Helena snapped truculently, 'Could have gone either way.'

'But it went with brawn, not speed,' Elizabeth teased, knowing her second had more sympathy with Chrysegon's size and manner of fighting. 'Would you have won that fight, Helena?'

Startled by the question, Helena glanced at her Lady, but Elizabeth was intently watching Chrysegon's corpse being rolled onto a board for removal from the battlefield. Unlucky handmaids piled as much offal as could be shovelled onto the board, then dragged the body away, their faces white and their eyes wide at what they had just experienced.

'Now,' Elizabeth smiled in contentment, 'Who's next?'

Natalie helped Hayley through the deserted halls of Castle Erran. A strange malaise had fallen over Hayley, and Natalie worried whether she should take the girl to the infirmary rather than to her room. Eventually deciding that she needed rest more than anything else, Natalie headed for the wing of the castle reserved for the Knights' rooms.

'She'll . . . be waiting for me,' Hayley fretted, and Natalie felt her own anxiety rise at the thought.

Karen scared her. She fought like a devil, her skill and strength was devastating, but there was something . . . wrong. Natalie had watched her fight from the top of the tower a fortnight earlier, and Karen's methodical callousness had chilled her. It seemed as if she relished killing almost too much.

'So what if she is?' she asked the other girl as confidently as she was able. 'What can she do?' She smiled down at Hayley fondly. 'Anyway, don't you think I'd be able to protect you, Lady Hayley?'

Hayley's hazel eyes, liquid and vulnerable with her tears, turned to meet Natalie's own. 'Be careful of her, Natalie,' Hayley whispered, 'Don't try to get in her way.'

Natalie had no intention of getting in Karen's way. Recently discharged from Erran's hospital wing, she was deemed to be ready to fight again, but needed to build up her strength again. She was relieved when they reached Hayley's room, and as she helped the stricken Knight inside, she glanced up and down the hall before shutting the door. From around the junction at the end of the hall, Karen stepped into view, staring at the door expressionlessly as its lock clicked securely.

Lady Emma watched the battles from behind a barrier near the preparation rooms and the stables. She liked to watch from here, close to the smells of the horses. Her right hand clenched and unclenched as she watched Handmaids fight and die, and she wished she had been fit enough to partake in the days tourney. Her arm had been reattached successfully enough, but she would be out of action for another six weeks, a painfully long time at Castle Erran.

Handmaids tugged Chrysegon's remains from the field, and Emma's grey eyes followed the corpse's progress to a nearby gap in the barrier, where the bodies of the dead were temporarily stored in a pavilion beside the changing rooms. She noticed a slight figure run to the body and be held back by a pair of Handmaids, who ushered the distraught woman away before continuing into the pavilion. As the girl began to sob and dropped to her knees beside the barrier, Emma hurried to her side, recognising the girl as a Handmaid who had only been at Erran for three months.

'Kimiko, isn't it?' Emma asked the weeping girl, who looked up at the Knight with tear-blurred eyes.

'Oh! Lady Emma! Chr . . . Chrissie . . .'

Emma squatted to grip the girl's shoulder, grimacing as she reflected that she was spending much of her time consoling young girls these days. Perhaps her maternal instincts were kicking in. Perhaps she was getting soft in her old age. 'Happens to us all, Kimiko.'

'Not to you,' Kimiko blurted, then glared at M'Banta as the big woman, having received her applause and Elizabeth's blessing, walked from the field back towards the changing area. 'And not to that big . . . big sow. Not . . . quick enough, anyways.' She snuffled, then launched into a fresh bout of bawling. 'Please . . . Lady Emma, will you teach me how to fight well enough to . . . to beat her?'

Emma grinned as she thought of the tiny Japanese girl in battle with the giant M'Banta, but her grin slipped as she remembered her last Handmaid Kiri, who had just passed her trial before being killed in the recent battle.

'Sure I'll teach you, Kimiko. She's not so tough. You know what they say? The bigger they come . . .'

'Yeah,' Kimiko wiped her nose and smiled wanly at Emma, 'The bigger they come, the harder they hit.'

Emma laughed, helping Kimiko up. Another pair of warriors marched onto the field, but Emma led her new charge away. 'Enough fighting for today, my little friend. Let's get a drink. It's too damn hot to even watch people fight.'

More women fought and died. Blood sprayed over warm grass, steaming and drying into dark puddles on the churned turf. Those who watched roared and cheered and sweated in equal measure, but within the preparation rooms, the heat was taking another toll.

Alyssa slammed back against the wall, gripping her bruised cheek but still curling her lip in a mocking grin as armed Knights dragged her attacker back.

'Enough, Sarah!' Lady Suzanne warned the dark-skinned woman who twisted and struggled in her firm grip. 'Save the fighting for the field. It'll be your turn soon enough.'

'Alright, alright,' Sarah relented grudgingly as she realised she didn't stand a chance of getting to Alyssa past the two Knights who had been assigned to keep the two warriors apart. Their dislike for each other was well known, and Helena had wisely instructed Suzanne to keep order. The Knights had intended to keep out of the Handmaids' way as much as possible to let them prepare for the fight in peace, but somehow this furore had broken out.

'Bitch has my necklace,' Sarah growled, staring indignantly at the blonde girl opposite. 'It was a gift. A gift from my mother!'

Suzanne sighed. 'Give her the necklace, Alyssa.'

'What, this old thing?' Alyssa held a simple necklace up and tangled it tantalisingly before Sarah, then deliberately tugged the trinket asunder, allowing the burnished wooden pearls to scatter across the floor at her feet. 'Oopsie!' she pressed a hand to her mouth in mock dismay and peered at Sarah with wide eyes.

'You FUCKING BITCH!' Sarah leapt forward, elbowing Suzanne aside thoughtlessly as she lunged at Alyssa, gripping the grinning woman by the throat and slamming her against the wall again. Suzanne cursed as she staggered, cracking her temple against a wooden beam and gritting her teeth at the sudden pain. Her own rage boiled over in an instant.

'Alright, I've had enough of this shit!' She surged forward, grabbing Sarah's black hair and pulling her off Alyssa roughly. Alyssa gasped for breath, then balled a fist and swung with a growl of anger, her fist hammering against Sarah's cheek and snapping her head aside. Suzanne's other hand shot out to grab Alyssa's blonde hair, and she smashed both the girls' faces against the wall before twisting knots of their hair painfully, forcing the moaning girls to face her. 'Do I have to start breaking heads!' she yelled at the Handmaids. 'You're about to fight to the death. You can wait five more damn minutes, can't you?'

The two girls nodded painfully, and Suzanne threw Sarah aside, then shoved Alyssa the other way, punctuating the motion with a swift kick to the blonde girl's buttocks. 'Jesus Christ,' she muttered.

Moving back to stand against Lady Christa, who had obviously decided that the tourney was a fine time to reveal her new, shockingly pink hairstyle, Suzanne coloured as she realised she had lost control for a second. Under the new codes of conduct she could be fined for such a lapse, showing unknightly behaviour before Handmaids and junior Knights. She smoothed her jerkin and ran a hand through her cropped blonde hair.

'You didn't see that, Lady Christa,' she said with more than a little menace. Christa smiled vapidly.

'Sure I did, Suzie. You slammed them against the wall, threw them across the place and kicked that one up the ass.'

Suzanne glared at the junior Knight. 'No, Lady Christa, I said you didn't . . . see . . . that. Understood?'

Christa blinked. 'Oh. Alright then.'

Suzanne held her eye for a long second, then turned back to where the two women were sheepishly dressing. Christa fished into a pouch at her belt as she muttered under her breath, loud enough for Suzanne to hear. 'I did, though.' As the Knight Commander turned to face her, she held out a leather gloved hand, her face a mask of girlish innocence. 'Butter fudge? Made fresh today.'

'Keep it,' Suzanne spat, turning away from her companion in disgust. 'And don't call me Suzie!'

Sarah pulled on her high leather boots, sheathing her long, muscular legs in toughened hide to finish her preparations. She wore a light chain skirt over a minuscule thong, the flimsy garment visible through the loops of the armour, and a chain bra, padded with cotton lining to prevent chafing. The cool of the steel hoops felt good on this hot day, and she sighed as she gripped her maces with her leather gloved hands. Her ebony skin was already slicked with sweat. She glanced at Alyssa, trying not to let her rage boil over again.

She and Alyssa had hated each other from their first meeting, even on the coach on the way to the estate! They had quibbled over bunks when they found they were in the same dorm, and argued over seating arrangements in the mess hall. Amazon Knights had taken special care to keep them apart during training, as letting them be close while armed proved to be dangerous. They had nearly killed each other on a number of occasions. Now they were here, ready to fight. Sarah wondered whether their being drawn as opponents had been deliberate, although the draw had seemed impartial. Regardless, today would mark the end of their year long hostility.

Alyssa was a tall blonde, two inches taller than Sarah's five feet and nine inches. She was tanned and muscular, and looked fabulous in her leather halter and thong, and soft leather calf boots. She carried a long-bladed axe, and tucked a curve-bladed dagger in her belt as she turned to face Sarah, sneering and flipping her the finger.

'You're gonna get yours,' Sarah told her.

'I'm going to enjoy gutting you, bitch,' Alyssa replied with a vicious grin. Suzanne stepped forward between them again.

'Quiet! Prepare yourselves.'

A Handmaid pulled open the doors at the far end of the room, letting in light and more heat, and the roar of the crowd, swollen still further by the knowledge that this was the last fight of the day. It was then it truly came home to Sarah that this would be the deciding moment, where she would either kill an enemy and claim her place as an Amazon Knight, or fall to the bloody ground with Alyssa's mocking words the last thing she would hear. She vowed to herself that she would be the victor.

'The last fight of the day!' Helena boomed, and the crowd of spectators responded with cheers and boos in equal measure. 'Sarah will fight Alyssa! Only one may take her place as an Amazon Knight!'

Many in the crowd knew there was no love lost between the two warriors, and the cheers rose to a deafening pitch as Elizabeth gave the signal and Helena yelled for the fight to begin.

'Time to die, bitch!' Alyssa swooped in without preamble, her axe swooshing over her head as she brought its head down towards Sarah, who hastily scrambled back out of harms way. Alyssa twisted to keep her balance, bringing her heavy axe around in a wide arc. Sarah ducked under the weapons wide blade, spinning away before bashing the steel shafts of her short maces together as she prepared for her riposte.

'Yyaaahhhhhh!' she screamed as she surged forward, arms pinwheeling and studded maceheads gleaming under the blazing sun. Alyssa stumbled back as her opponent came at her, still yelling at the top of her voice.

But Alyssa knew "Screaming" Sarah's tactics, and was not intimidated by the shouting. She hefted her axe and stepped forward, lashing its head towards Sarah's face. One of the maces clashed against the heavier weapon, and Sarah staggered, her arm numbed by the impact. The mace fell from her hand, but she flicked her arm quickly, and the leather strap attached to the weapon's hilt snapped taut and sent the mace's shaft back up into her gloved hand. She stooped and scuttled forwards, intending to make short work of Alyssa, and darted to one side as the blonde girl swung her axe overhead again, equally trying to make the fight a short one.

The axehead slammed into the ground, and Alyssa gasped as she realised she was open to attack. Sarah did not disappoint, stepping in behind Alyssa to bring one macehead down to crunch into the back of her thigh. Alyssa screamed shrilly, stumbling forward and nearly losing her axe. She quickly realised that her leg had not been broken, and her face coloured with rage as she realised Sarah intended to play with her.

'Mistake,' she muttered as she turned to face the black girl, 'You should have taken advantage of that mistake, Sarah. You won't get another chance.'

She lunged, reversing her swing as the axeblade fell and whipping the weapon's shaft towards Sarah's face. Her mace raised to deflect the incoming axehead, Sarah didn't expect the wooden shaft swooping in from the other side of her head, which snapped back as the weapon smashed into her face. She stepped back, ducking quickly with a gasp as Alyssa's axe swept over her head with a whooshing sound, barely missing the back of her skull. She thrust out with one mace, but Alyssa kicked with a booted foot, catching the black girl in the pit of her belly. Doubling over with a groan, Sarah was dimly aware that Alyssa was raising her axe, ready to bury the weapon in her exposed back. Knowing she could not stand and fight, Sarah threw herself forward to cannon into Alyssa, and the blonde girl cried out as she fell back, her opponent bearing her to the ground. Her axe fell from her grip and she cursed, but her hand fell instantly to her belt and the dagger sheathed there.

Sarah grunted as she shifted atop Alyssa, trying to find the room to bring her arm back to swing with her mace. Realising what her opponent was planning, Alyssa thrust her hips up with a guttural shout, pitching the smaller girl over her head. Sarah screamed as she landed awkwardly, her ankle wrenched and her hip flaring in pain at the impact with the sun baked earth. She scrabbled against the ground to rise quickly, knowing that she could not let Alyssa have the time to reclaim her axe.

On her feet again, Sarah surged forward once more, letting out another battle scream as she swooped at Alyssa. The blonde girl had not even tried to claim her axe, but stood ready with her curved dagger, her face twisted in fury as her nemesis closed in. Sarah's maces whistled through the air, but her eagerness was her undoing, and Alyssa easily dodged the first clumsy swing, then nimbly grabbed Sarah's forearm as the other mace swooshed by. Sarah yelled in pain as Alyssa twisted her arm, the mace falling from her grip to dangle on its leather strap. Alyssa released the arm to grip the maces shaft, then brought up her other hand to swiftly slice through the strap, stepping back with a cry of victory as she claimed one of her opponent's weapons.

Sarah cursed, her rage growing as she heard the crowd cheer Alyssa. She had let her anger rule her fight, and knew that she would die if she were to continue in the same vein. Dropping into a fighting stance, she forced herself to relax, fully aware that she could only defeat Alyssa with a clear head. Alyssa's grin slipped as she saw the change come over her foe, and she moved in to attack before Sarah could gather her senses too much, determined to finish the fight quickly.

Her newly claimed mace swooped, and Sarah ducked back out of harms way, then jumped aside as Alyssa's dagger stabbed out towards her belly. The warriors circled each other, their eyes hooded and calculating.

'Heeyahhhhhh!' Sarah moved, leaping forward suddenly to deliver a deluge of blows with her remaining mace. Alyssa struggled to bash the attacks aside, her grip slick on the mace's hilt as sweat sheathed her arm and poured down her face. Her dagger lanced out, but Sarah saw the motion and took the second necessary to bring her mace down hard, crushing the blonde girl's hand and sending the dagger flying.

'Aieee!' Alyssa staggered with a shriek, staring aghast at her ruined hand, and Sarah saw her chance. She dropped to her knees, twisting as she did so to bring her mace around in a wide arc. The macehead whistled as it whipped round to crunch into Alyssa's left knee, and the blonde girl shrieked again as her leg was snapped and twisted into an unnatural angle.

She dropped, her mace falling from her grasp as she clutched at her wounded hand, moaning at the pain of her wounds. Slowly, through the haze of pain, she became aware that Sarah had knelt by her side.

'How . . . how about a . . . quick death? For . . . old times sake?' she moaned hopefully, but Sarah just grinned maliciously.

'Think again!' She brought her mace up, then sent it crashing down into Alyssa's unwounded leg, shattering her thigh and causing her body to buck in fresh, unbearable pain.

'AAARGHHHHH! You . . . you fucking BITCH!'

Sarah tutted as she lifted her mace again. 'Sticks and stones will break my bones . . .' The weapon swooped again, this time impacting in Alyssa's bare belly, rupturing her flesh and causing blood and guts to spurt from around the intruding macehead. Alyssa gurgled as she writhed in pain, her eyes wide and her mouth opening and shutting like a beached fish. '. . . and maces make a good job of breaking yours, you sow!'

Alyssa floundered in mortal pain, her bones shattered and her entrails spilling from her sundered abdomen. Sarah enjoyed the spectacle for a while, but as it looked like Alyssa was ready to pass out, she lifted her crimson-headed mace for the final blow. 'Go to hell, bitch!' she yelled as she brought the mace down into Alyssa's face.

Her skull gave way, and Sarah grimaced as her body was showered with gore, fluid and lumps of skull and brains. Alyssa's broken legs shuddered, her arms flapped spasmodically, and her upper body bucked massively before her corpse slapped against the sodden grass and moved no more.

Soaked with blood and spattered with gore, Sarah slowly stood as realisation filtered into her brain. She had won. She had fought and killed the woman who had made her life a living hell for the last year. And, best of all, she could take her place as an Amazon Knight! She raised her mace to receive the crowds ovation, and filled her lungs for an ear-splitting scream of victory.

The halls of Erran roared with the sound of song and revelry long into the night. Knights drank themselves unconscious, sang themselves hoarse, fought good-natured fist fights and arm-wrestled valiantly. As day began to dawn, the tepid light filtered over the devastation and shock that normally followed a trial feast.

Hayley woke, her head muzzy and her cheek still throbbing from Karen's slap. She shifted her legs, and beside her, someone let out a low moan and turned over. Hayley blinked in confusion. She remembered Natalie bringing her back to her room, but then what had happened?

She looked at the girl next to her, and was surprised again to see Michelle's face.

Michelle was blinking sleepily, but as she roused herself, she smiled at Hayley and sat up, letting Hayley see that she was wearing her dress tunic.

'Don't worry, H. I didn't take advantage of you.' She grinned as Hayley blushed.

'How did you get in? I thought Natalie locked the door?'

'She did, to protect you from big bad Lady Karen,' Michelle teased, then frowned as she ran her fingers over her friend's bruised cheek. 'Glad I came here, Hayley. Looks like someone needs to keep you out of trouble.' Seeing Hayley was still looking confused, Michelle uncoiled off the bed, stretching before heading for the sink to fetch a glass of water. 'I was at the trial,' she explained, 'and saw you run off; Karen close behind. You looked upset, so I followed. I saw you and her behind the stands,' She looked at her friend, her expression strange. 'I didn't spy or anything, but as I was heading back to my seat, I heard you scream. You were running, and Karen looked angry. I tried to follow you, but you lost me as well as Karen. By the time I came here to see if you were OK, you had cried yourself to sleep. Natalie let me in, and left when I said I'd stay with you.'

'Oh,' Hayley twisted to sit on the side of her bed, accepting the glass of water gratefully. She looked up at Michelle for a moment, but couldn't hold her gaze. 'Things have been a little . . . confusing here lately,' she tried to explain hopelessly.

'Hmm,' Michelle ruffled her friend's hair, thinking that Hayley hadn't changed as much as she first thought. Despite her muscles and scars and her fast developing skills as a warrior, she was still the fragile, vulnerable girl she had been in her life before Erran. 'It's time we had a little talk, Hayley,' she said firmly, 'But not now. If I'm not at morning training in five minutes, Lady Lea will have me doing press-ups 'til sundown.'

Hayley smiled up at her, and Michelle turned and made for the door, hesitating as she noticed the sheath of ornate paper that had been slipped under the door during the night.

'What's . . .' she stooped to pick up the parchment, noting its formally handwritten text and Elizabeth's signature at the bottom, then turning to Hayley as her friend gasped in shock.

'A challenge.' Hayley felt the colour drain from her face as she recognised the parchment.

'You mean like a fight to the death? Jeez.' Michelle glanced down at the text, her eyes wide. Hayley drew a shuddering breath.

'A fight to the death, in the pit beneath Elizabeth's throne room!' Hayley said. 'God, I knew Karen was angry, but I never thought . . .' She looked up at her friend. 'If a Knight feels she has been wronged by another, she can petition to Elizabeth, or probably the Council now. Permission will only be granted if there is valid reason. I guess spurning Karen's advances qualifies.' She stopped talking as she saw Michelle's grim face, and stood to join her friend. 'What's wrong? What . . .'

She took the parchment as Michelle held it out, her eyes whisking over the pompous words quickly. Then, she stared unbelievingly at the name of the Knight who had put forth the challenge, and Michelle grabbed her shoulder as she rocked in stunned shock.

'Katherine . . .' she whispered. 'It's from Katherine.'


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