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The early morning weapons training had been especially hard, but Hayley’s heart lifted as she entered the dorm to find a ribbon-bound sheet of vellum resting neatly at the foot of her bunk.

Hardly able to stop her hands shaking, she removed her chain gauntlets and ripped away the royal blue ribbon, unrolling the parchment which had been meticulously written in stylish calligraphy. Her eyes skimmed the pompous words to soak up the gist of the message. She had been selected! Whooping in triumph, she jumped for joy - difficult to do in full armour - and turned to her bunk-mate Charlotte, whose grin spoke of her own success.

'We made it!' Hayley leapt to embrace her friend, not caring that their neatly polished breastplates clashed with a shriek of steel. The noise made others in the dorm cringe, especially those who had not found parchments for themselves and now slumped disconsolately, watching their celebrating colleagues. Still giggling, Hayley grabbed Charlotte’s parchment and quickly scanned it. Her heart lifted again and she breathed a sigh of relief. 'We're on the same team!' She had been secretly dreading that - should she and Charlotte both make the grade - they would be pitched against each other on different teams. The thought of engaging her friend in mortal combat was not a pleasant one, although if that was what it would have taken to become an Amazon Knight, she would have done it gladly. She knew Charlotte well enough to guess that her friend would have thought the same.

'Three days,' Charlotte breathed excitedly, 'Thank God they're not going to keep us waiting too long.'

'We've been waiting over a year already! All that training. All those hours on horseback and days spent learning to fight and ride and kill. Finally we do it for real.' Hayley embraced her friend again, kissing her soundly full on the lips. Charlotte returned the kiss eagerly, her hot tongue snaking into the smaller girl’s mouth to lick her teeth and coil around her tongue, then drew back quickly. There would be time for celebration of this sort later.

The girls laughed and joked as they helped each other remove their plate armour. Both wore padded bodysuits under the chafing metal, modern outfits especially designed to ensure comfort and mobility. When they became Amazon Knights they would wear only traditional garb; leather and chain, heavy cotton padding and leather straps. They would ride into battle like real Knights of old, to fight and die with honour and courage. Peeling the bodysuits from sweat-slicked flesh, the two girls pulled on light tunics, leather belted at the waist, and slipped sandals on their feet. They were eager to get to the mess hall for breakfast, to find out who else was in their team, and - more importantly - which of their colleagues they would be pitched against at the trials. But first, there was the matter of their bunkmates.

Of the twelve women in their dorm, only four had been selected, and both the other girls would be on the opposing team. Directly opposite Hayley, a young girl named Rachel grinned and waved, her smile not even slipping when she learned that soon they would be mortal enemies.

'That's the way it goes,' she shrugged pragmatically.

The other girl was Maria, a big boned, dusky beauty who would be a formidable opponent. She grinned maliciously at Hayley and Charlotte, and the two friends looked at each other, for the first time feeling a small jolt of fear. They both knew they deserved to be in the trials, but there were several other Handmaids who could be considered better warriors. Maria was one of these.

Hurrying from the dorm, past their disappointed bunkmates, Hayley and Charlotte ran through the wide, imposing halls of Castle Erran towards the mess hall. On the way they stopped at one of the tall, arched windows to look out on the training ground, a football pitch sized field at the rear of the castle grounds, flanked by stands where Knights and other Handmaidens would watch their trial, and stables where horses were housed and prepared for mounted combat events. This trial would be such an event, as forty women - two teams of twenty - would thunder at each other with lances ready. After this opener, they would resort to single combat with swords and axes. The survivors on the winning team would be invested into the Knightly order and made honorary Amazon Knights. This was the dream of every woman who arrived at Castle Erran, flushed with excitement at the thought of leaving their dreary lives behind to take their place in one woman’s fantasy.

That woman was Lady Elizabeth, the owner of the castle and its lands, and a good proportion of the surrounding countryside. She had built this estate from the ground up, styled on a medieval castle and the ancient codes of the Knights of yore.

Her neighbour was Lady Marina, a long-time friend. The Ladies had discovered their shared dream years earlier, when they had both worked for the same company. Even then they had been competitive, and as the idea sparked good-natured rivalry between the two, each vowed to be the first to build her own estate in rural England. Twenty years later, the two had built their castles, agreed the boundaries and rules, and proceeded to go to war regularly and brutally.

When all this began, it attracted a great deal of criticism from the press and the common people. Even though the two estates attracted warriors who came of their own accord, few could understand why the Government allowed such brutality to go unpunished. The answer was shrouded in secrecy, but many knew that the two Ladies were amongst the richest landowners in Europe, and held a great deal of stock in many multinational companies. Some speculated that the Ladies threatened to invest their money elsewhere, and because of this the Government took a lenient view on their activities, stating to all that the Ladies owned their land and could do whatever they wanted on it. When this ruling was passed, Lady Elizabeth and Lady Marina shook hands and congratulated themselves, treated their armies to a four day feast, then mounted a huge battle that left seventy women - at that time nearly half their combined armies number - dead on the bloody battlefield.

When news of this leaked out, England was shocked. Even though the Government kept their distance, the Ladies were concerned that no other woman would come forward to join their armies. How wrong they were. Applications poured in, and not just from Europe. Women the world over read of the Amazon Knights and their noble battles, and yearned to share the experience. Soon the Ladies’ armies had been replenished, and they were snowed under with applications. Their castles grew to hold larger armies, until the two Ladies met to discuss how they could manage their burgeoning number of Knights.

They agreed that a limit of two hundred be set on the number of Knights currently active in each of their armies. Each Knight would be appointed a Handmaiden, who would be a 'Knight in training', able to step in to take the place of a fallen Knight after a tourney or mass battle. Depending on the number of applications received during the year, events would be planned accordingly. The larger the number of applications, the larger and more lethal the tourneys and battles.

Trials for Knighthood frequently took the form of one-on-one battles or jousting tourneys, but for the current trial Lady Elizabeth had decided to try something different.

The next three days passed quickly, and the Handmaidens were exposed to some of the most hectic training schedules they had yet experienced. As Hayley was sat on her bunk on the evening before the battle, rubbing an aching calf, she failed to notice a tall woman who entered the dorm and leant against the doorframe, watching her with amusement, but also a little sadness.

Lady Katherine watched her squire grimace as she picked at a weeping scab on her naked leg, and wondered whether the young warrior would still be alive this time tomorrow.

'Haven't seen you in a couple of days, Hayley. Planning on leaving me to polish my own armour?'

'Katherine!' Hayley leapt up to embrace her friend. Although she was supposed to be deferential towards her mistress, and indeed was when the occasion demanded, Hayley knew Katherine preferred to be treated as a colleague rather than a superior. The tall Knight laughed and held her Handmaiden at arms length.

'Look at you! You're so excited you can hardly speak.' Her eyes narrowed. 'Watch that excitement doesn't get you killed tomorrow. You'll be fighting for your life this time.'

'I know.' Hayley composed herself, stepping back to adjust the skewed breastplate she had yet to remove. As she did so, Katherine examined her Handmaiden shrewdly, seeing an eager eighteen year old brunette who seemed determined to become a Knight like herself. Katherine had her own reasons for giving up her life to move here, but she could only wonder at what drove other women to adopt such a violent lifestyle, especially one as young as Hayley.

'I have something for you,' she told the smaller girl, reaching to her side and unbuckling her belt. She handed the belt and scabbard to Hayley, who looked at the gift with astonishment. 'That's your sword now,' Katherine told her. 'God knows, you're the one who's spent hours polishing and honing the damn thing.'

'But . . .'

'Don't say anything. It's a fine blade, but I have others.' Katherine watched as Hayley grinned and drew the sword, admiring the its tapered length and the subtle engraving on either side of the fuller. The sword had long, gently tapering quillons, and a sturdy leather grip that was wrapped around with gold wire. The pommel was spherical, burnished and gleaming due to Hayley’s long hours of care.

Katherine had been here for over four years, having in that time trained three Handmaidens. One had left the estate before becoming a Knight, while the second had been killed during the selections. Katherine did not want to lose this pretty Handmaiden. Before she was aware what she was doing, she stepped forward to embrace Hayley fiercely.

'Go to sleep. Rest. Tomorrow, you'll kill for the first time, and we'll celebrate your joining the order with a feast that'll last the whole weekend.'

Astonished by her mistress’ gesture of affection, Hayley nodded mutely, and Katherine turned and left hurriedly without looking back. Blinking, Hayley looked back down at the blade in her hand, and knew that tomorrow she would be invincible.

Bugles sounded as Lady Elizabeth appeared on the central stand, glancing around her assembled Knights before taking her seat. Although she was in her mid-fifties, Elizabeth was still a striking woman, even when she wasn't decked out in her full battle armour. Her hair, still beautifully blonde, spilled over her shoulders, and her grey eyes roved over her Knights, picking out those that were here to anxiously watch their Handmaidens. Those Knights had prime seats on this central stand, sitting together on the front row. They knew that soon they would be seeing girls who had been almost constant companions for the last year fight and die. They had been through it themselves, except for the ones who had been here from the beginning. Elizabeth’s eyes alighted on Katherine, one of only twenty or so Knights who remained from the initial fifty who had helped her set up the estate.

The massed Knights cheered as the procession of warriors spilled from the archway that led to the stable area. The first team wore black plumes on their helmets, and their shields and breastplates were adorned with a spade sigil. They rode horses bedecked with heavy armour, spiked chanfrons protecting the beasts’ heads and giving them the appearance of unicorns, and polished peytrals and cruppers covering their chests and hind quarters. Plate flanchards hung from saddles to protect the horses flanks, and mail crinets were fitted securely to cover their necks.

Hayley’s beast tossed his head and stamped a little, and the diminutive warrior used her spurred heel to bring the armoured creature back under her control. She and the other warriors were similarly armoured, and ten minutes ago the twenty Handmaidens had helped each other into the cumbersome suits of plate mail. Hayley had helped Charlotte don her own suit, then allowed her friend to help her prepare.

Standing shivering in bra and panties, Hayley had first pulled on an arming doublet, and Charlotte had pulled the laces tight at the sides. The doublet had mail patches sewn onto the elbow and armpits, areas that the plate mail armour protected the least. She then pulled on a pair of mail drawers, cotton padded on the inside to prevent her shapely legs from being chafed by the cold metal. She slipped her feet into soft leather shoes as Charlotte secured a padded chain scarf around her neck. Then had come the armour itself, starting with plate shoes equipped with long-necked rowel spurs. Greaves were laced tightly onto Hayley’s lower legs, and the thigh pieces were similarly secured and tied to a thick leather waist belt. Knee pieces were strapped on next, before Charlotte hefted the heavy cuirass, hinged and open to allow the heavy armour to be placed around Hayley’s body. She lifted her arms as Charlotte clamped the armour around her torso, then strapped it securely on the right hand side. Comprised of a breast and back plate, the cuirass was subtly shaped to show the swell of its occupants breasts. Although not historically accurate, both Lady Elizabeth and Marina seemed to attach importance to their Knights obvious femininity. Hanging from the cuirass were strips of plate that acted as a skirt to protect her groin and hips. Charlotte next tied plate vambraces to Hayley’s arms, with elbow pieces laced on to protect this vulnerable area. Pauldrons were strapped onto her shoulders, and after donning a padded mail coif, Hayley lifted her heavy-visored bascinet and dropped it over her head.

Ready for battle, she had breathed heavily and looked at Charlotte, who had grinned and passed her mitten gauntlets, which were joined by a thong so that she could carry them hooked over the hilt of her sword until she was ready for them. Katherine’s sword was scabbarded at her belt, and Hayley fingered its hilt as she pondered on what other weapons she would choose for the battle. The sword was used for both cutting and thrusting, and Hayley had spent some time last evening blunting the blade near its base, which would allow her to hold the sword in a way that would give her swings more force. Deciding not to bother with a heavier weapon, Hayley selected a narrow-bladed estoc to be mounted on her saddle. The blade had no cutting edge, and was designed to be thrust through plate armour. She also selected a long, thin-bladed dagger and scabbarded that at her belt also. Grabbing the saddle, Hayley approached her patient mount, tended by another Handmaiden, and swung herself up easily after the girl had secured the saddle. The Handmaiden passed up her kite shield, which had arm straps but also a longer strap that Hayley now used to loop over her neck. She would need her left hand to control her horse, and would only slip her hand through the arm straps when she discarded her lance to fight hand to hand.

The lance was the last piece of equipment to be handed up to her, and she inspected the long, steel-tipped weapon, which had a vamplate to protect her hand. The hilt of the weapon would rest against an L-shaped rest on her breastplate, just to the right of her breast. Breathing another shaky sigh, Hayley coaxed her mount into place for the procession, at that moment becoming uncomfortably aware that her nipples were straining against the padded inside of her doublet. She was experiencing an almost sexual excitement at the thought of riding into battle, and she fervently hoped it would not effect her abilities. Her crotch felt like it was on fire as the archway before her opened and the formation of twenty hopeful Handmaidens made its way out into the bright sunlight, and the cheers of the crowd.

They traversed the edge of the battlefield, lances held high in salute to Lady Elizabeth as they passed her podium. With their visors still up, Elizabeth could see the faces of these girls as they passed by, and smiled with encouragement as she applauded them. They all looked magnificent, and Elizabeth felt her own excitement build at the thought of the upcoming spectacle. ‘The girls look fine, Helena,’ she said to her second, who was sat by her side as always. ‘Once again they are a credit to you.’ Lady Helena was a dark-haired beauty, a long-standing Knight who was Elizabeth’s most trusted Knight. She pursed her lips as she regarded the warriors passing by beneath her. ‘They’ll do,’ she allowed herself, ‘But there were many others who had a hand in their training.’ ‘I know,’ Elizabeth said fondly, amused as always by Helena’s modesty. She returned her gaze to the Handmaidens as they continued past.

Katherine saluted Hayley as she passed by, and the Handmaiden grinned down at her tutor and friend. Beside Hayley, Charlotte rode in silence. Her own mistress had died during the last tourney, impaled through the breast by a lance. Perhaps the blonde girl was wondering whether the same fate awaited her.

When they were halfway around the field, the second team trotted into view and were greeted with a similarly enthusiastic cheer. Equally armed and armoured, these girls wore a red plume, and their shields and breastplates were decorated with a red diamond. They also lapped the field, until the two teams had moved into position, facing each other across the field of close-cropped grass. Silence fell in the stalls, as the Knights and Handmaidens watching knew that the battle was seconds away from commencing.

Lady Helena stood, drawing her sword and holding it high. The brave girls on both teams readied their lances, watching Lady Elizabeth intently while their hearts pounded and their breathing quickened. Hayley donned her mittens and lowered her visor, and her breath sounded loud in the encased metal as she peered through the eye slits towards the other team.

Then, Elizabeth nodded, almost imperceptibly. Helena dropped her arm, and as the sunlight glanced off the swishing blade, a Handmaiden at the foot of the podium raised her hammer and swung with all her might at a huge gong. A mighty chime rang out over the field, and the watching women screamed with excitement as the two teams urged their horses forward into a death or glory charge.

Hayley dug her spurs in deep under her mount’s armour, and the horse whinnied and launched itself forward. The noise was astounding, as forty heavy beasts thundered towards each other. Sunlight glanced off sheets of plate armour, shields, and the tips of the lances as - seemingly en masse - all forty girls couched the long weapons, holding them underarm and secure against the rests beside their right breasts. Each rider rode hell for leather at her opposite number, and Hayley stared at the faceless woman that now approached her at a frightening rate. This girl could have been a friend or a rival, a fresh-faced teen or a world-weary thirty-something. Nothing mattered now except that she was a fellow warrior, an opposite, and she would have to fall so that Hayley could become an Amazon Knight. Gritting her teeth in determination, Hayley aimed her lance-head at the woman’s breast, nudging her own shield into better position barely a second before the two lances struck with an ear-splitting shriek of metal on metal.

Hayley gasped at the shock that reverberated throughout her entire body, displaced via the bracket on her armour. Her opponent’s lance struck her shield left of centre, and the sheet of metal flipped sideways, sending the lance-head skidding off. It shrieked across Hayley’s left pauldron and then was clear, but Hayley did not even notice her luck, as her attention was solely on the result of her own strike. Her lance-head had also struck her opponent’s shield, but her aim had been better and the steel tip had hit dead centre. Pressed back against the warrior’s body, the shield buckled easily under the lance’s tip, which split through the metal and the breastplate behind.

The mounted woman shrieked in mortal pain as the lance ripped through armour and impaled her between the breasts, splitting from her back amidst a spray of crimson. Her back-plate was ripped away from her body and fell to the ground, and the woman was lifted bodily from her saddle as Hayley’s horse thundered on. Hayley gaped at the sight of the woman she now held aloft for what seemed like an age. The dying girl’s limbs flailed, blood squirted from the slits in her visor and spilled from under the helmet over her chain scarf and down her polished breastplate. Her shield was pinned to her body, buckled and bloody as gore spilled freely from around the punctured steel. Hayley reined in her horse, and as the creature dug in its heels and skidded to a halt its rider leant back in her saddle, her lance angling upwards, still secured in its bracket.

With a splintering crack, the lance split at the centre, and Hayley’s victim crashed into the ground to lie spread-eagled, firmly pinned to the grass by the foot long length of lance that protruded from her back. One leg kicked spasmodically, but judging by the amount of blood that had spilled from under the woman’s helmet, she must have been killed almost instantly. Hayley looked down at the dead woman as she threw the stump of her lance aside, and her body shuddered as her excitement overcame her. She wanted to jump down off her horse and peel this woman’s armour from her cooling body, to see the damage she had wrought. She wanted to look into the woman’s lifeless eyes, to know who she had killed. And she wanted to place her spurred foot on the woman’s butchered breast and proclaim to all who watched that she, Lady Hayley, Amazon Knight of the House of Elizabeth, had been victorious.

But she knew she was not yet a Knight, and such pleasures had to be earned. With one last look at the first woman she had ever killed, Hayley wheeled her horse around to take stock of the battle even as she unsheathed Katherine’s sword. She could not tell which side had got the better of the charge, as the bodies that rolled and sprawled across the blood-splattered ground were identical apart from the coloured plumes and sigils. She guessed that there were twelve Handmaidens sprawled dead or dying, and another four women were staggering, unhorsed but alive. They drew their blades and cast about in desperation as horses turned and riders thundered back towards each other. Those who still had lances hurtled together once more, but some had drawn swords, or prepared long handled axes or hammers that were secured on their horses flanks. Hayley saw a red-plumed warrior readying an axe and spurred her horse forwards into battle again, screaming a battlecry at the woman although it would have been impossible for her to hear. The woman spotted Hayley’s approach, however, and spurred her own horse into motion.

As she rode, Hayley noticed an unhorsed warrior with a diamond-etched breastplate staggering to her feet nearby. The woman ripped her helmet off with her left hand, and gaped down at her right arm. The arm had been ripped off; presumably her opponent’s lance had caught under the pauldron and ripped the limb clean off. Short jets of blood spurted from the stump, but shock had set in and the woman simply stood amazed, staring at her detached limb, which twitched in a distinctly unsettling way. Knowing that the woman would not live long, Hayley angled her horse to one side and galloped straight for the wounded woman, noticing as she got closer that it was Rachel, a girl from her own dorm.

The black-haired girl raised her eyes to gape at Hayley as the mounted Handmaiden raised her blade and chopped down with one sure stroke as she passed by. The wickedly sharp blade split through Rachel’s unarmoured scalp, chopping her head in half right down the centre. Gore and lumps of grey matter sprayed skywards, and Hayley ripped the blade free as she continued towards her new foe, unable to look behind to see the unfortunate warrior crumple lifeless and twitching, the neatly spliced halves of her skull falling to each side and her brains spilling free onto the green grass.

Buoyed by her success so far, Hayley looped her left arm through the straps on her shield, and angled her horse so it would pass the opposing warrior on the right side. The red-plumed figure stood high in her stirrups, her long-handled axe held high to get a powerful swing. Hayley felt true fear for the first time, as she knew that such a weapon could easily rip through her armour. She raised her shield and made ready to deflect the powerful blow. She could hear her opponent’s battlecry as the faceless woman swung the heavy-bladed weapon with precision and skill, and gasped as she shifted her shield to block the blow. The impact nearly threw her from her horse, and the axe-head sheared the metal of her shield easily, splitting through to scrape along her left vambrace, ripping free her elbow guard but thankfully not biting into flesh. She chopped with her sword, but the blow was weak and clanged off the woman’s pauldron. Then the two warriors were past each other, and Hayley took stock briefly as she wheeled her horse around again. Her arm was numbed but uninjured, but the straps on her shield had ripped and the now useless hunk of metal had been cast onto the ground. Losing the shield did not disturb Hayley, but she wondered how she could defeat her opponent’s ferocious weapon. She quickly sheathed her sword and pulled the razor-tipped estoc from its scabbard on her horse’s flank, spurring the panting beast forward again as her foe came galloping back towards her, standing high again and readying her axe for another chop.

Screaming her defiance, Hayley made straight for her opponent, but noticed as she closed in that the woman was holding her axe differently from before. With a surge of hope, Hayley readied her weapon and sat high in her saddle, right up until the other woman began her swing. Gripping the reins as tight as she could with her left hand, Hayley slid right in her saddle, hanging off the side of her horse and hoping the beast would keep its balance. As she had suspected, the axe-wielding woman had opted to chop sideways this time, obviously hoping to lop Hayley’s head clean off. As it turned out, she gasped in astonishment as her axe sliced through empty air, and although she tried to change the angle of the blow in mid-air, she could not hope to hit Hayley with it. Still stood high on her stirrups, she could only wail in dismay as Hayley thrust the long, thin estoc up under her plate skirt, ramming the weapon through chain links and deep into her groin. The wickedly sharp weapon sheared through flesh and bone, shattering the hapless warrior’s pelvis before emerging with a shriek of tortured metal though her lower back plate.

Hayley cried out as the weapon was ripped from her grasp, and her horse tumbled to the ground, baying in terror. The creature had been struck by the errant axe blow, and although its head armour had done its job well, the horse was stunned and dropped. Hayley desperately tried to wrench her feet from the stirrups, gasping in relief as she rolled free a fraction of a second before the creature would have landed on her leg, likely shattering it and her hopes together.

Scrambling to her feet, Hayley wrenched Katherine’s sword from its scabbard again, trying to ignore the blood and viscous matter that still clung to the blade. She made for the stricken axe-woman, who had fallen from her own horse to lie screaming again and again in immense pain. Her steel mittens grasped the weapon lodged deep between her legs, and she tugged with her failing strength. The blade moved about an inch, releasing a fresh gout of blood that sprayed high into the air before spattering down on the woman’s tortured body. Hayley straddled the warrior’s body and held her sword in both hands, preparing to ram the blade into the woman’s chest to cease her pain. Then, she paused for a second.

Between her spurred feet the woman writhed, her legs spread wide before her and her head rolling from side to side. She still screamed with the unrelenting pain, seemingly oblivious to Hayley’s presence. Hayley had not had time to think about her second kill, but this would be her third and she was determined to relish the experience fully. Stooping, she reached down and flipped open the woman’s visor, revealing a beautiful face framed by ringlets of blonde hair. The woman’s eyes were squeezed shut, her teeth alternately grinding together and snapping wide as she issued piercing screams of agony. Then, her blue eyes opened and she looked up at Hayley, first with fear, then with hope. One mittened hand rose up to grasp Hayley’s leg, spilling blood over the shiny metal. The woman’s lips moved, but she took several seconds to form the words.

'Kill me . . . please . . . kill . . . me.'

Hayley nodded, unable to speak, her heart pounding as she readied her blade. Her nipples ached as they swelled again in anticipation of the kill, and as her sword rammed down directly into the woman’s breast, shearing through metal and flesh with one clean stroke, the dying warrior screamed a last time, her hips jerking her lower body up in response to the sword’s invasion. The hilt of the estoc caught the back of Hayley’s leg and the blade shifted in the blonde woman’s body, releasing a fresh jet of hot blood that sprayed up Hayley’s skirt and spattered over her thighs. As the heat seeped through her chain drawers, and the woman beneath her coughed and vomited blood, Hayley felt her body shudder in excitement. She sagged on her sword, breathing heavily and gazing down at the face of the woman she had just killed.

Her features were slackened in death, and blood ran freely from her mouth and nostrils. A trickle of crimson ran from where Hayley’s sword was still wedged deep in her breast, and as reality slowly seeped back into Hayley’s brain, she knew her work this day was not yet over.

Glancing around, she saw that other girls were in the middle of similarly intimate moments with the women they had just killed. One red-plumed warrior cradled the head of the woman she had just mortally injured. The woman clutched a gash in the side of her breastplate, coughing up blood as her killer gently stroked her hair. Another warrior, on her knees and with colourful intestines oozing from under her breastplate, ripped off her red-plumed helmet to expose her slender throat to her killer. The victorious girl obligingly drew back her arm and chopped cleanly through the suffering woman’s neck, sending her head flying, red hair scattering before rolling to a halt in a mire of bloody mud.

Hayley guessed there were fewer than twenty women still standing on the battlefield, and she was delighted to see that most seemed to be from her team. Close by, two black-plumed warriors were toying with a particularly large woman, and Hayley knew that had to be Maria, her ferocious dorm mate. Resolutely, Hayley gripped the hilt of her sword and heaved, then gasped in dismay as her sword didn't even move an inch. The dead woman’s body seemed to arch as her upper torso was lifted off the ground, but the sword was stuck fast. Grimacing, Hayley planted a steel-shod foot on the woman’s unfeeling breast and prepared to lever her weapon free, but then a shout of challenge sounded from behind her. Turning, she saw a bloody warrior approaching, her breastplate showing her to be from the red team. She still had her shield, and a broad-bladed sword dripped gore in her other hand.

Stooping, Hayley stooped to grab her victim’s axe and held it ready. She had trained mostly with swords, but she knew how to handle such weapons. The axe had a broad blade on one side of its head, and a cruel spike on the other. Holding the long handle at the middle of its length, Hayley hoped she would be able to manoeuvre the weapon quick enough to parry her opponent’s sword. Roaring in defiance, she launched herself at the newcomer, axe held high and ready to swing down into the woman’s head. The woman raised her shield and bashed the axehead aside as it swooped towards her helm, and her sword lashed out to clang against Hayley’s right leg. The blade skidded across her thigh but failed to cut through armour or rip into her hip or knee, and Hayley stepped back as she rammed the head of her axe’s shaft forward into her opponent’s face. The move was designed to put the woman off her attack, and it worked. In mid lunge, the woman tried to fling up her shield to defend her face, and ended up stumbling back as Hayley’s prodding weapon almost unbalanced her.

Hayley reversed her grip on the axe, and swung around in a complete circle, aiming a devastating blow at her foe’s body. The woman gasped and raised her shield, but the vicious spike ripped through the metal and skewered her forearm. Yelling in pain, the woman staggered, and as Hayley wrenched her weapon free a bright ribbon of blood sprayed from the puncture on the woman’s arm. Hayley followed up by raising the axe high and slamming the spike down again, this time on the top of the stunned woman’s helmet. The spike disappeared through the helm with a shriek of steel on steel, and the woman’s head seemed to be punched down between her shoulders by the heavy blow. Blood squirted in thick gouts from every orifice in the helmet’s visor, and the woman shuddered before sitting down heavily, her legs spread before her and blood spilling over her chest. Hayley released the axe’s shaft and staggered back a step or two. The handle dropped to dig into the soil, effectively holding the woman’s body up as she sagged lifeless, legs twitching.

Hayley gasped, her body quickly beginning to tire. She looked down to see where the woman’s sword had gone, and was confused for a second when she couldn't see it anywhere. Then the pain began and she looked lower still, and numb fear gripped her when she saw the sword was buried deep in her left hip. Collapsing to her knees, Hayley whimpered as she gripped the weapon’s hilt. Pain flared and she groaned, reaching behind her to feel the foot of swordblade that protruded from under her left buttock. Warm blood spilled over her thigh and groin, and she wondered how long it would be before one of the opposing team would happen along to finish her off. She looked around at the remaining warriors, and hoped surged in her heart. Only nine women still stood, and seven of those were her team mates.

Three of the women were engaged in finishing off their foes, while two more were toying with a wounded woman who was giving a spirited defence. Close by, two of her colleagues were alternately attacking the woman that Hayley suspected was Maria. Swinging her axe, Maria succeeded in clipping one of her tormentors on the side of the head, buckling the girl’s helmet and sending her sprawling. The other black-plumed warrior spared her stricken companion a glance, a fateful mistake as Maria quickly drew back and launched a ferocious overhead chop that sent her axe-head slamming down into the woman’s left pauldron. The shoulder armour split easily, and the unfortunate warrior screamed shrilly as the axe split open her chest and left breast, finally coming to a halt halfway down her ribcage. With a roar, Maria wrenched the weapon upwards and the dying woman was lifted with it two feet into the air before her butchered body dropped off the axe-head to lie slumped and lifeless, gore belching over the ground from the hideous wound.

The stunned warrior staggered to her feet, ripping her damaged helmet free and casting it aside. Hayley gasped in delight to see it was Charlotte. Her friend had survived this far! Her delight faded as she realised Maria was still fit and well, and now Charlotte’s head was all too vulnerable. Knowing she had to help her friend, Hayley gritted her teeth and grabbed the hilt of the sword that had been thrust through her. She yelled in defiance as she tugged with all her might on the weapon, and as it ripped free with a squeal of tortured metal she fell back, groaning as blood spurted from the deep wound. Gripping her hip, Hayley rolled on her side to see how Charlotte was faring.

Her friend had opted to launch a fierce assault on Maria, either hoping to score a blow past Maria’s cumbersome axe parries, or in thoughtless retaliation for her companion’s recent demise. Either way, she was forcing Maria back step by step, and Hayley’s hope grew even as she started to crawl towards the fighting women.

But Charlotte was tiring. Her attacks, although skilful, were all being rebuffed by her indefatigable opponent, and Maria was obviously waiting for the right moment to counter-attack. That moment came when Charlotte telegraphed her move too early, and Maria simply side-stepped the other girl’s desperate lunge. As her sword slashed empty air, Charlotte moaned in dismay, anticipating the bite of Maria’s axe. Maria hefted the weapon as she stepped to Charlotte’s side, then swung the weighty weapon at Charlotte’s sword arm. The axe-head sheared through plate and flesh, and Charlotte screamed in pain as her upper arm was splintered under the heavy blow. She fell to the ground, her sword lost as she rolled in the crimson mud and gaped up at Maria.

Triumphant, the muscular warrior stepped up to the fallen woman, and placed a spurred foot on Charlotte’s armoured groin. Moaning, Charlotte kicked her legs and tried to get away, but she was held fast. Maria pressed down, and cold mud seeped through Charlotte’s armour as her bottom was pressed deep into the yielding mud. Maria was breathing heavily through her visored helmet, but whether it was from exertion or excitement Charlotte could not tell. All she knew was that Maria was raising her axe again to deliver what would be a terminal blow.

Maria gripped the lower end of the axe shaft with both hands, raising the weapon over her head. It was her intention to swing the heavy weapon as hard as she could, burying the entire axe-head in Charlotte’s breastplate. She grinned inside her sweaty helmet at the look of defeat on Charlotte’s face, as the wounded woman ceased her struggles and her head fell back into the mud. Yelling her battle-cry once more, Maria started her swing.

At that moment, Hayley launched herself at Maria with a battle-cry of her own. Knowing she could not fight the woman in her weakened condition, she leapt for the axe-head, grabbing the shaft just above the weapon’s head and pulling with all her weight. Although she weighed considerably less than Maria, she had the element of surprise on her side, and Maria yelled in dismay as she lost her balance and fell back, losing her grip on her axe as she did so. Hayley had a second to gasp in horror before the huge woman landed on her, mashing her into the squelching mud. She screamed in agony as pain flared in her hip, but knew she had to take advantage of her position now that Maria was on the ground. She clawed at the long-bladed dagger still sheathed at her belt, while her other hand grabbed at Maria’s helmeted head, pulling the bascinet back to blind her floundering foe.

Maria writhed atop the smaller girl as she tried to lever herself up. Her axe was lost, but she too had a dagger at her belt, and she gripped the small weapon’s hilt, yanking it from its scabbard. She could feel Hayley beneath her, and shifted sideways before ramming the dagger down by her side. The weapon’s tip scraped against Hayley’s right vambrace, but skidded off harmlessly. Hayley moaned in dismay as she realised she didn't have the strength to hold the woman on top of her, but then Maria shifted again on top of her, and she saw Charlotte standing over them, her sword held high in her left hand. Above her, Maria yelled in dismay, struggling to get to her feet. Desperately, Hayley stabbed at Maria’s right side, hoping that she could get her dagger’s blade into the laced join of her armour. The blade shrieked across the metal, then seemed to sink an inch or so into the laced ridge.

With all her failing strength, Hayley shoved the dagger in as far as she could. Maria squirmed and shrieked as she felt the dagger’s tip sink between her ribs. Her body arched, and her own dagger dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers. Above her, Charlotte staggered forward to straddle the two struggling women, her sword held ready. Blinded, Maria could not see the girl, but somehow knew she was there. It was as if she could feel the wounded girl staring at her, sizing her up for slaughter, and rage overtook her.

'God damn the pair of you,' she spat aloud. 'Do it, then. Get it over with.'

Charlotte obliged. Knowing she could not risk impaling Maria and wounding her friend, she drew her arm back and thrust her sword up under Maria’s chin. The blade sheared through the woman’s chain scarf, spliced through her jaw and sank through bone and tissue to emerge with a squelch from the top of her skull. Maria shuddered and - still trapped beneath her - Hayley felt the woman’s death throes reverberating through her own body. As the tip of Charlotte’s blade clanged against the inside of Maria’s helmet, the bascinet fell back off the dying woman’s head, letting her long dark curls spill free. Her mouth was stretched wide in a silent scream, the sword visible where it had spliced her tongue on its journey through her head. Blood spurted from her nostrils and spilled over the sides of her mouth, and her eyes were bugged in their sockets, threatening to pop free. Pink fluid spilled from around the edge of the sword’s tip where it emerged from her skull, and as Maria shuddered once more and died, her protuberant eyes rolled back in her mutilated skull. Her last breath bubbled on her lips as she let out one last, gurgling sigh.

Charlotte staggered to one side of the dead woman and dropped to her knees, pushing the armoured corpse as she worriedly called to her friend. To her relief, Hayley’s hand appeared around Maria’s torso to help push the dead weight off her. As Maria’s slaughtered body rolled aside, Charlotte hurriedly fumbled with Hayley’s skewed helmet, wrenching the bascinet free to expose her friend’s sweat-streaked face. Her skin was pallid and her eyes looked unfocused, but there was a broad smile on her pretty face as she gazed up at her friend.

'The others?' she panted, and Charlotte quickly looked around the bloody battlefield. Her own face split in a grin despite the pain in her arm.

'It's over,' she said simply.

As she let her friend help her out of the mud, Hayley felt a twinge of regret that the battle was over. Bodies lay strewn across the once pristine grass, and the fine plate mail covering them was slicked with blood and offal. Dismembered limbs and decapitated heads were evidence of the brutality of the battle, and more than one unfortunate warrior lay curled up around a steaming pile of spilled intestines. Only now, as Charlotte helped her stand and the two wounded women staggered to where their colleagues - and only five more still stood - screamed and waved in triumph, could she hear the roar of the massed crowds.

They were cheering her, and Charlotte, and the five other women who had fought with courage and spirit. They would be enlisted in the Order of Amazon Knights, and there would be a feast laid on in their honour. They would have Handmaidens of their own, eager newcomers who hoped one day to be just like them. This was all Hayley had wanted since her arrival at the estate, but as she stood under the onslaught of cheers and applause, she could only think of one thing. She staggered from Charlotte’s side, gritting her teeth as she made her way painfully across the battlefield, past sprawled corpses and fallen weapons, until she reached the side of the woman she had killed with Katherine’s sword. The blade was still wedged in the woman’s unfeeling flesh, and Hayley grabbed the hilt, using the firmly fixed weapon as a crutch as she carefully planted her right foot on the woman’s breast beside the sword’s blade. She flexed her hands, secured her grip, then grit her teeth and let out a guttural exhalation as she yanked at the precious weapon with all her remaining strength. There was a shriek of tortured steel, and the corpse seemed to buck as the crimson blade finally slid free. Hayley staggered back, pain exploding in her hip once more.

But she did not fall. Shouting in triumph, she raised the blade above her head, not caring that blood ran down her arm and splattered over her face and shoulders. She was Lady Hayley, and she was an Amazon Knight. That was all that mattered.

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