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Charlotte reined her horse around, checking her grip on her lance after the jarring blow of the first pass had threatened to knock it from her hand. At the opposite end of the field, Jolie also turned, spurring her mount back towards her blonde-haired opponent. Charlotte’s long hair spilled from under her full-face helm, making recognition by the spade sigil on her shield and breastplate unnecessary. Jolie, a wiry French girl as recently knighted as herself, kept her own hair in a short black bob that fitted neatly under her helm. As she began to thunder back down the field, her lance couched and ready, Charlotte gritted her teeth and began her own charge, vowing to herself that the heart sigil on the other girls shield would be a fitting target.

Closer and closer the two mounted knights charged, their beasts churning immaculately maintained grass under their threshing hooves. The horses were unarmoured, leaving all protection to their heavy riders, who were clad in full plate. Charlotte’s left pauldron was buckled, and the bones beneath throbbed in memory of the shuddering impact only seconds earlier. Fortunately the lance had scraped off the armour, otherwise she could easily had lost her arm. Jolie had managed to bash the lance angling at her chest aside, and Charlotte hoped that her foe would be overconfident as she rode back for a second try.

A second before impact, Charlotte let the tip of her lance drop, at the same time nudging her shield into better position as she judged the angle of her foe’s weapon. Jolie stooped in her saddle as she saw the movement, her own lance-head shifting involuntarily as she did so. Charlotte bashed at the looming lance-tip with her shield, but her eyes stayed on her own spear, a delighted squeal sounding unbidden as she saw the lance slam into the lower part of Jolie’s shield. The shield flipped, allowing the lance-head to slam into the black-haired girl’s midriff. There it wedged between her breastplate and skirt, lifting the shrieking knight from the saddle. Jolie’s limbs flailed and her lance dropped, and Charlotte gasped at the shock of impact that jolted her entire body. The lance split after a fraction of a second, dropping Jolie to the grass to roll moaning. clutching her belly.

Charlotte reined her horse in and turned, dropping her splintered lance and preparing the long-handled mace that had been secured to the side of her saddle. She looked to the stand, where Lady Elizabeth and Lady Marina sat side by side. Elizabeth gestured to her friend, and with a smile Marina waved the fight on. Charlotte felt a wave of excitement rush upon her. This fight would be to the death!

So far today, there had been six tourneys and one mock battle, and the only fatality had been accidental. But the two Ladies knew that their Amazon Knights lived not just to fight, but to feel the unspeakable exuberance of the kill. Girding herself to take Jolie’s life, Charlotte took just a second to look for Hayley, knowing her friend would be in the crowded stalls to watch her fight. She sat beside Lady Katherine, shouting encouragement and holding a fist high. She would be standing as Katherine was, but her hip was still healing. Placing all thoughts of her friend’s grievous injury to the back of her mind, Charlotte raised her mace and spurred her horse towards Jolie, noticing that the French girl had recovered her feet and was waiting with sword drawn. She did not appear to be as badly injured as Charlotte had expected.

No matter, for the longer the fight, the better the thrill at the end. Charlotte yelled a battle-cry as she loomed at her unhorsed foe, swinging the mace around her head and preparing to bring it down into Jolie’s skull. To her surprise, the black-haired girl leapt at her before she could commence the swing, her sword scything in an arc towards Charlotte’s upper torso. The swooping mace intercepted the sword, but as the blade scraped along the shaft of the mace, it wedged under the studded metal head, and Charlotte gasped as she was yanked from her saddle. Jolie yelled a battle-cry of her own, and as she slammed against the grass and the wind was knocked from her body, Charlotte realised with alarm that the French girl had planned her attack perfectly. Her own overconfidence would be her undoing.

Cursing, she rolled aside as Jolie’s sword slashed down, feeling the blade strike the plate armour over her shoulder-blade. Sparks flew but the blade just skidded over the armour without penetrating. Charlotte struggled to get to her feet, but a plate shoe rammed into her chest and she was sent crashing back, her body aching from the fall and from Jolie’s heavy kick. She just managed to raise her mace - shaft gripped between two mailed hands - to block Jolie’s next chop, thanking God that the sword only bit through half of the wooden shaft of her weapon. Jolie struggled to yank her blade free, and Charlotte twisted her weapon viciously, sending her opponent stumbling, her sword reclaimed but her balance lost.

By the time Jolie turned to face Charlotte again, the blonde girl was back on her feet and lunging, her mace above her head and swooping down. Jolie side-stepped, chopping into Charlotte’s side with too little force to penetrate her armour. The blade clanged off Charlotte’s right vambrace, and she rammed her elbow into Jolie’s helm, knocking the other girl back with a grunt. Her vision temporarily hampered, Jolie quickly lifted her visor to be able to see Charlotte beginning her next swing. Dodging back nimbly, Jolie waited for the vicious mace-head to swing past her midriff before jumping forward to thrust at Charlotte’s throat. The sword split chain links on Charlotte’s scarf, but the garment was thick, and she tipped her head to allow the blade to rip free amidst a spray of tinkling links. She thrust her mace-head forward into Jolie’s midriff, knowing that the French girl must still be tender from when the lance hit barely a minute ago. Jolie groaned and dropped, clutching her belly with her left hand while desperately searching for the strength to thrust her sword. Charlotte swung the mace, and the sword was ripped from her foe’s hand to spin through the air, landing blade first several yards away.

The fight was over, but Jolie knew there would be no mercy. She looked up at Charlotte, who lifted her own visor to better see her victim’s eyes. 'A good fight, my friend,' Jolie gasped, 'Do me the honour of a quick death.'

Charlotte nodded, unable to speak as she raised her mace high and swung down with all her might at Jolie’s head. She could see the French girl’s eyes lift to meet the swooping mace, and the flicker of fear that betrayed her calm exterior, then the head of the mace crunched into the unfortunate Knight’s helm. The blow was hard enough to buckle the helm, and bright ribbons of blood sprayed from around the edge of the mace as it forced Jolie’s head down between her shoulders, breaking her neck and cracking her skull with a grotesque sound of crunching bone. Gouts of gore spurted from Jolie’s nostrils and mouth, and teeth sprayed from the latter, followed by her lolling tongue. Both eyeballs sprang from their sockets as the mace sank deeper into her skull, followed by bursts of clear fluid and viscous grey matter.

Gaping at the damage she had wrought, Charlotte simply stared at the mutilated head of her once beautiful foe, as Jolie’s body quivered and died, a long gurgling sigh bubbling on her lips. Then, the lifeless body sagged and flopped sideways, and Charlotte was left staring at her mace’s head, clotted with gore and brains. Jolie’s sprawled body still twitched, fluid and disgusting lumps of matter oozing from her butchered skull.

For long seconds Charlotte stood over the dead woman, unaware of the crowd cheering her victory. She felt numbed, unable to accept she had taken another’s life. It hadn't been like this three weeks ago when she had fought to become an Amazon Knight. She had relished the thrill of killing, knew deep inside her soul that this was the reason she was born in the first place. Now she looked down at Jolie's body, and felt nothing but disgust. At herself, and at the crowd baying at the sight of gore. Tears welled in her eyes, and she felt herself drop the mace and turn to run as best she could for the entry arch and the changing area beyond.

Lady Elizabeth knew it would be Katherine when she called for whoever had knocked on her chamber door to enter. Even without her armour and helm, Elizabeth was striking as she sat before a huge dressing mirror, brushing her long, blonde hair carefully. She was in her mid-fifties, but her unconventional lifestyle had kept her fit and trim, and she was confident she could still turn a man’s head; not that men were allowed within the walls of her estate.

Katherine entered and waited patiently for her Lady’s attention, but Elizabeth spoke without turning.

'That girl embarrassed me in front of Marina. Do you come here to apologise on her behalf? Is she not even woman enough to do this simple task by herself?'

Katherine sighed. 'Actually she is packing, and intends to leave tomorrow.'

Elizabeth frowned. 'She signed a waiver preventing her from leaving. That was a legal document. Only Handmaids may leave. Once you are an Amazon Knight, you reside within the walls of this estate for the rest of your life. Or the rest of my life, depending upon which ends first.'

Katherine grinned despite herself. 'She had a lapse, my Lady. I recall I had one myself shortly after arriving here. The taking of another’s life can be . . . intense. Her nerve has not failed, simply wavered.'

Lady Elizabeth mulled on the matter for a moment. 'Your squire: Hayley? She rides again for the first time tomorrow, does she not?'

'She does. A border patrol.'

'Charlotte will accompany her. Tell her she must, or her life outside the estate will not be worth living. She has little enough money, and a law suit will soon leave her desperate and wishing she had not left my care.'

Katherine was shocked. 'You wouldn't . . .'

'Of course I wouldn't,' Elizabeth scoffed, turning to laugh at her loyal Knight and friend. 'But she does not know that.' She turned back to the mirror and resumed brushing. 'Tell her after this border patrol she may leave if she wishes. That will be all, Katherine.'

Katherine hesitated, wondering what her Lady planned. Did she think that Hayley would convince her friend to stay? Perhaps that would be the case, but Charlotte had seemed sure of her decision to leave the estate, and Katherine knew her to be somewhat stubborn. Still, her Lady was not to be argued with. She turned and left quietly, not seeing Elizabeth watching her in the mirror, and smiling a knowing smile.

Hayley heaved herself up into the saddle, grunting at the pain flaring in her hip. After three weeks in bed, with only limited periods during which she was allowed to train and exercise, it felt good to be back in action. Were she living in the outside world, she would probably never have walked again without a limp, but here Lady Elizabeth had pioneering surgeons on-site, lured to work within the estate with the promise of generous funding. Hayley had undergone surgery that fused the splintered bones in her hip, and although she could not pretend to understand most of what the surgeon had told her, she knew her recovery had probably cost Elizabeth tens of thousands of pounds. Still, Elizabeth knew the value of her Knights, and would not leave any wounded and useless. Although she limped at present, and her limbs had lost their trim tone, Hayley knew she would soon be back on form, and would do her Lady proud.

Her first task seemed to be to convince her friend to stay at the estate, for Charlotte seemed determined to leave after her crisis of faith at the exhibition yesterday. She sat on a horse next to Hayley, staring broodily across the fields, seemingly in a world of her own.

'Thinking about giving all this up for city life?' Hayley asked lightly, and Charlotte turned to glare at her.

'Don't even bother, H. I've made my mind up.'

Hayley’s face dropped. 'I'll leave too, then,' she threatened.

'That's your choice.'

Despairing, Hayley looked at Lady Emma, a Knight of long standing who would be leading the patrol of six Knights around the border of Elizabeth’s land. Emma, a gorgeous brunette with piercing grey eyes and startlingly arched eyebrows, simply shrugged and ordered the girls to prepare for the off. Sighing, Hayley adjusted her armour and weapons. While the other Knights wore full plate armour, she wore a chain jerkin and leather trews, boots and gauntlets. This lighter garb would not hamper her recovery, but succeeded in making her feel naked and vulnerable. Glumly she pulled on her open-faced helm, which her colleagues also wore. This was a scouting mission, and clear visibility would be necessary while on the lookout for invading troops from Marina’s estate. The two Ladies were fond of the occasional borderline skirmish to keep their girls on their toes.

Besides herself, Charlotte and Emma, they were accompanied by Fran, Marisa and Lynne, three novice Knights like herself. Fran was a loud-spoken girl of gangly height, with coppery hair tied into a ponytail that fell from below the lip of her helm. Marisa was a dusky Italian girl with huge dark eyes and long ringlets of hair, and a voluptuous body that swelled and tapered in the proportions of a supermodel. Lynne by comparison was somewhat dumpy, but a cheerful girl with dimples and shoulder length blonde hair. She hailed from London, and spoke with a heavy cockney accent that even Hayley and Charlotte, British girls themselves, could scarcely understand.

Emma glanced around at her girls before leading the patrol out of the stables and over the hills. Around the castle walls, Knights and squires sparred and trained, or learned the skills of blacksmithery or horsewomanship. Several waved as the scouts passed, and Hayley waved back, then moved closer to her friend as they left the cultivated castle ground behind and moved off into the hills.

'What will you do?' she asked Charlotte carefully.

'Get a job. Work for a living. I used to do that before, and now I know I shouldn't have given it up.' She looked at Hayley sternly. 'You know me, H. You know that when my mind is made up I won't back down. Let's just get this over with.' Her tone softened as she saw her friend wince under her words. 'I'll write. That's allowed. I know this is what you always wanted and . . . I'm not saying the life doesn't still appeal. It's just that when I saw Jolie lying there in front of me, her face unrecognisable, her life beaten from her body for nothing but sport; I knew . . . I couldn't do something like that again.'

The two rode in silence for some time, as Emma led them towards the border.

'Alright, I'll say no more,' Hayley agreed glumly. 'But you WILL write, every week. And if you ever change your mind, you know Lady Elizabeth would welcome you back.'

Charlotte was not so sure, but held her tongue, instead enjoying the cool wind that played across her face and cooled the inside of her stuffy helmet. The six Knights clanked and rattled their way over the hills and fields, travelling two miles before sighting the border flags that ranged across a rolling, marshy plain between the two Ladies’ lands.

'Keep your eyes open,' Emma warned unnecessarily, but after ten minutes, Marisa called an alarm.

'Riders to the west!' she called to Emma, and the scout leader pulled her horse around to peer into enemy territory. A line of horses was snaking down from a copse of trees a short distance within Marina’s land, and they looked intent on crossing the border.

'How many do you make?' Emma asked Fran, who was known to be blessed with exceptionally sharp eyes. The tall redhead drew herself up on her saddle and peered towards the enemy.

'Ten,' she reported, 'And fully armoured. That's not just a scouting party.'

'Ten?' Lynne exclaimed. 'Bloody 'ell!' She looked at Emma. 'No way we can face that lot. Let's get outta’ here.'

Emma shot the blonde girl an irritated look. 'Hold your tongue!'

Charlotte’s horse paced as his rider shifted. 'She's right. We have to fall back.'

At that moment, the decision was made for them, as the approaching enemy began to charge the six scouts, yelling battle-cries and waving swords, axes and maces in the air. Hayley felt her heart pound in anticipation of battle. She had missed the feeling.

'No time for flight,' Emma said grimly, sliding her sword from its scabbard with a silky rasp. 'Take it to them; strike fast and true. Their number will make them overconfident.'

'With good reason,' Lynne muttered, but readied her morning star. Beside her, Fran drew a longsword, and Marisa hefted a double bladed battleaxe, while Charlotte and Hayley drew their swords. Charlotte hesitated, her face pale as she watched the approaching warriors, and Hayley moved her mount close and gripped her friend’s steel-shod shoulder.

'We need you, Charlotte. I know you've lost the will to fight for yourself, but please don't fail me.'

Charlotte looked at her friend, startled. Then, her gaze shifted to meet the eyes of the other four scouts. She knew that Hayley was right, and their only chance of survival was to fight together. 'Damnit,' she muttered. 'All right. I'm with you.'

'Glad to hear it,' Emma said grimly, then kicked her horse into a charge, yelling a battle-cry and waving her sword high. The other girls spurred their own mounts, and the armoured Knights thundered towards each other, their horses hooves churning thin mud and swampy grass. For all apart from Emma, this would be their first battle against Marina’s Knights, and they all felt fear knot their hearts. As they closed with the enemy, four of Marina’s Knights seemed to hang back, leaving an equal number to charge Elizabeth’s girls.

'Sporting of them,' Fran called.

Emma grunted. 'They know they have the upper hand, and wish to use us as sport. Make sure to teach them the error of their ways!'

For many, this could have been a hollow threat, but Emma was an accomplished warrior, one of Elizabeth’s best, and her presence went a long way towards evening the score. Gratefully, Hayley realised she genuinely felt confident, and whooped a war cry as she angled towards her chosen foe, a short rider wielding a battleaxe.

The woman raised the axe as her horse brought her closer to Hayley, who knew that her lighter armour placed her in danger. Still, her weapon could strike faster than the clumsy axe, and as she goaded her own horse faster, she wrapped her index finger around the quillon of Katherine’s blade, all the better to thrust the weapon through plate armour. She saw her opponent’s snarling face, sensed that the axe had begun its downward arc, and thrust forward with all her might, aiming for the other girl’s breast. The long blade scraped over the Knight’s breastplate for a fraction of a second, then thankfully found purchase and sank through the steel with an achingly loud squeal of tortured metal. The razor sharp sword sank between the woman’s breasts, splitting through skin, flesh, bone and internal organs before ripping from between her shoulder-blades. Impaled thoroughly, the woman shrieked loudly, and Hayley gritted her teeth in her effort to hang onto the sword as her horse carried her past her stricken foe.

Marina’s Knight fell back from her mount's saddle, falling off Hayley’s sword with another tortured squeal of metal to crash against the sodden grass, spraying water and blood in equal measure. Blood sprayed from her mouth, and her gauntlet-clad hands scrabbled at her steel-encased breasts, as if trying to seal the rent in her armour and the flesh beneath. Sickening sounds of mortal pain sounded from between her slackened lips, but Hayley had no time to enjoy her enemy's death throes, her attention fixed on how her colleagues fared.

Beside her, Charlotte clashed blades with another Knight, also armed with a longsword. The blonde girl bashed at her opponent’s blade, looking for an opening, but not knowing whether she could strike if one presented itself. She felt sure that her opponent, a wiry brunette with a crooked nose and green eyes, would not have the same qualms.

Emma hung back in her saddle as she angled her mount towards a Knight wielding a long-handled mace. The enemy Knight swung the weapon around her head as she rode towards Emma, and as the swing took the weapon away from her, Emma lunged forward, her blade angling towards the other girl’s exposed face. She had time to notice that Marina’s Knight was young, perhaps only sixteen or seventeen, and felt a pang of conscience that was quickly quashed. However young, the girl had known the risks when she entered Marina’s estate, and should have expected she could meet her death on this or any other day.

The girl seemed to see her death coming, as her eyes widened a fraction of a second before Emma’s sword slammed into her mouth, shattering teeth and skewering her tongue before punching from the back of her throat. Blood belched from her mouth and nostrils, and her eyes rolled back in her head as she gurgled and shuddered, her back arched and her mace falling from suddenly nerveless fingers. Emma wrenched her sword sideways, ripping the girl's jaw off with a disgusting sound of tearing flesh and crunching bone. The jawbone bounced off her leg before dropping with a splash in the marshy water, and the hapless Knight fell back off her saddle, her butchered face spraying crimson as her body landed heavily to lie splayed and twitching, dead almost instantly.

Marisa was not so lucky, as she faced the enemy Knight Commander, a woman who had been in Marina’s army for many years. The woman, a sturdy German girl with bleached, cropped hair, waited for the dusky beauty to swing her clumsy axe, then simply bashed the weapon aside with her mace and brought her mount in close to retaliate. Marisa had time to gasp before the business end of the mace slammed into her breast, buckling her plate armour over her right breast and bursting the flesh beneath. Pain exploded through her chest and she clutched at the buckled dent in her armour, letting out a guttural shout as blood and fat sprayed freely from the rents in the moulded plate. The enemy Commander, whose name was Claudia, hefted her mace again as her horse took her past Marina, then swung with all her might at the suffering girl’s back. The weapon slammed into Marisa’s shoulder-blade, cracking bones and splitting metal and flesh alike. Marisa grunted and pitched forward over her mount, her axe slipping from her fingers as she continued to clutch at her mutilated breast.

Claudia turned her horse and spurred it back towards her retreating victim, relishing the juddering impacts her mace made when they connected with the enemy Knight’s body.. Somehow Marisa remained in the saddle, desperately trying to get away from her foe, but Claudia had no intention of letting one of her colleagues steal this first kill. She closed on Marisa quickly, standing in her saddle to whip the bloody mace around her head before slamming it into the back of Marisa’s skull. Gore exploded from the dark-skinned girl’s mouth, ears and nostrils as her eyeballs burst from their sockets and her head lolled sickeningly onto her shoulder, her neck broken and the lower part of her skull crushed. Dead instantly, she slid from the saddle to fall loose-limbed into marshy water, where her blood and brains drained from her savaged body while Claudia gazed down impassively.

Fran was holding her own against her opponent, a slight girl with a long blonde ponytail. The girls clashed swords, each desperately trying to manoeuvre their mounts into position to strike a telling blow. Their fight seemed evenly matched, but next to them Lynne was making short work of her opponent, a ginger-haired woman with blue eyes and freckles.

The Knight, who cursed in Gaelic Irish, stabbed and chopped with fury but little skill, and Lynne whipped her morning star to parry the clumsy attacks, or leant back in her saddle to avoid ill-aimed blows. An opportunity offered itself sooner than the cockney girl could have hoped, as her foe over-reached and left her flank open. Shouting in victory, Lynne lashed her weapon down, and the studded head of the morning star crunched into the other Knight’s shoulder, shattering bone and ripping metal and flesh. Screaming in distraught pain, the freckled girl dropped her sword to clutch at the wound, her eyes squeezed shut and her teeth gritted in agony. She didn't even see Lynne’s weapon swooping towards her face, and didn't make a sound when the spiked ball slammed into her temple, cracking her skull into several parts. Gore sprayed from around the sides of her open-faced helm, and her legs spasmed, kicking her off her terrified horse. Lynne gaped at her victim’s savaged visage as she toppled off her horse to splash and roll through the wet grass, ending up spread-eagled and lifeless, her head nothing more than a ruptured sack of bone and flesh and brains, held together by her helmet.

Marina’s other Knights, enraged by their colleagues deaths, spurred their horses into the attack, and Emma glanced around to see that, while Charlotte and Fran still battled with their opponents, Hayley and Lynne had quickly dispatched their enemies and were moving forward to engage the newcomers. To one side, the Knight Commander Claudia looked up from Marisa’s butchered corpse to lock eyes with Emma, and the long-time Knight knew that this woman was her responsibility. Yelling a challenge, she lifted her bloody blade and spurred her mount towards the German girl, intent on avenging Marisa.

Hayley realised she was going up against two opponents with only light chain armour, but the sense of euphoria she felt was overwhelming. This is what her life was now about. The joy of battle, the orgasmic thrill at taking another Knight’s life, the complete sense of satisfaction when looking down at your victim’s lifeless body. She pledged to herself that she would notch up three kills today, and yelled encouragement to Lynne as they closed with Marina’s remaining four Knights.

Fran bashed her opponent’s sword aside once more, slashing back at the girl’s body and landing a telling blow on her chest. Plate mail buckled, but the blonde girl merely grunted and stabbed at Fran’s belly, forcing the redhead to parry and move her horse back. Then, disaster struck as the beast’s rear hoof sank into deeper water, and it reared with a frightened whinny, sending Fran wailing from its back to splash into the marshy water. Cursing, she struggled to stand, aware of the water seeping through the joints in her armour. The water was only a few inches deep, and as she rose up, dripping and swearing, she saw her blonde opponent’s horse bearing down on her.

The rules of engagement forbade striking an opponent’s mount, so Fran ducked to one side, slashing at the woman’s leg as she passed. To her delight, her blade struck the girls knee, slicing under the upper leg armour to rip through chain links and tear flesh and bone. The horse whinnied in pain as Fran’s blade bit into its side, and although the wound was only superficial, it reared up to send its rider wailing off its back and smashing against the ground.

The blonde girl cursed colourfully, scrabbling to reclaim her blade before trying to struggle to her feet. Fran stood nearby, watching the girl with interest. After several seconds, Marina’s Knight frowned as she found she could not stand. She looked to her feet, and her eyes widened in disbelief as she stared at the stump that had once been her right leg. Sliced clean off at the knee, her lower leg - still clad in armour - twitched nearby. There was surprisingly little blood, except for a thin rhythmic squirt that jetted from the stump. Her disbelieving gaze shifted to Fran as the redhead stepped forward, her feet splashing the water as she moved to stand beside her stricken foe. Lying disabled, partially submerged and in shock, the blonde girl simply looked up at Fran wordlessly as the Knight lifted her sword and thrust down into her chest. Steel split as Fran’s blade punched through her breastplate, and the girl gasped as cold metal ripped through chain links to slide into the flesh of her left breast, slicing her nipple in two before sinking through fat, cracking ribs and skewering her heart, stilling the pounding organ instantly. The blonde Knight coughed a gobbet of bright red blood onto her chest, looked down at the sword impaling her, then her head dropped back and her left leg kicked involuntarily.

Fran breathed a shaky sigh of relief as she surveyed the body beneath her. Blood oozed from around the edge of her sword where it split the girl’s breast, and a trickle of crimson ran from over her slackened lips. Her arms were spread wide, mostly submerged, and her beautiful long ponytail was looped over her shoulder to lie across her breastplate. Fran would have loved to strip the breastplate from the girl’s lifeless body to see the damage she had inflicted to bare flesh, but knew that the fight was nowhere near over. She had to help her colleagues! She placed one spurred plate shoe on her victim’s groin and yanked her sword free from the body, loosing a spray of blood from the wound and causing the body to buck. Then, she turned to see who else she could fight.

Hayley leaned back in her saddle to avoid the mace-head that whooshed past her harmlessly, then jabbed into the face of the Knight who had swung the weapon. The recently appointed Knight, a cute brunette called Laura, twisted her head away with a gasp, feeling the tip of Hayley’s sword scrape over the side of her helmet. Breathing a sigh of relief, she moved past Hayley’s reach and turned her horse, as her colleague chopped at the poorly armoured Knight with a heavy battleaxe. The Knight with the axe was a black girl named Meena, a statuesque woman with long braided hair and piercing dark eyes. She wielded her axe expertly, and Hayley grunted as she slammed her sword under the axe’s head to wrench it aside before it could smash into her body. Breathing heavily, Hayley tried to find space to move, knowing that she was in trouble against two warriors as skilled as she. She barely had time to parry their combined attacks, and certainly could not hope to launch an offensive of her own. She cast about desperately, to see if any of her colleagues were free to come to her aid.

Nearby, Lynne was suffering against her own two opponents, a pair of blonde girls that looked so alike they could have been sisters. They were not, but Jenny and Erin had been friends for many years. They had joined Marina’s army after travelling from California, and had quickly proved to be capable warriors. Both girls were gorgeous and had well toned bodies with large breasts and slender waists, perfect legs and long blonde hair. Naturally, their perfection was literally shielded by their plate armour. Jenny screamed a defiant cry as she jabbed her longsword at Lynne’s face, and the cockney girl cursed as she just managed to parry the blow. Her morning star seemed too slow as it sailed through the air towards Jenny’s head, and the Knight had plenty of time to duck away, allowing her colleague to attack Lynne from the other side. A long-handled axe swished through the air, thudding into Lynne’s left pauldron and splitting the metal asunder. Lynne grunted as steel bit into flesh, but the wound was not deep. Her shoulder armour fell apart, leaving blood stained chain visible as she turned to whip her morning star at her other tormentor. Erin swung her axe and intercepted the weapon, and Lynne wailed in dismay as the chain of her flail wrapped around the shaft of Erin’s axe, allowing the statuesque blonde to yank her weapon away.

Unarmed, Lynne scrabbled for the estoc sheathed at her belt. The short weapon had no cutting edge, but its tip could thrust easily through plate mail. Ripping the weapon free, Lynne turned to face Jenny, who looked intent on sheathing her longsword in the outnumbered Knight’s breast. The longsword lanced out, and Lynne swung her left arm to deflect the blade, not caring that the sword sheared the armour open and split her forearm badly. Jenny gaped at the audacious defence, realising too late that her body was open to Lynne’s thrusting blade. The estoc rammed into her belt, shearing through leather and chain mail to sink deep into the blonde girl’s yielding navel. Her body bucked and she shrieked in pain, and Lynne wrenched her weapon to one side, shredding Jenny’s guts and rupturing her vital organs. Jenny felt warm urine fill her drawers, and as Lynne ripped her offal-caked weapon free, a thick spray of gore belched from the wound. Clutching the spurting tear in her soft body, Jenny folded over her horse’s neck, her sword dropping to the ground.

Erin yelled in fury, and her axe swooped towards Lynne’s back, slamming into her upper body. The axe-head sank through plate and bit into flesh, and Lynne’s back arched as pain flared through her. She reeled in the saddle, one hand reaching behind to claw at the weapon wedged in her flesh, but Erin yanked the axe free and Lynne fell from her saddle, unbalanced and wailing in agony. She landed hard and rolled, losing her estoc and grimacing in pain. In a second Erin had also dismounted, and her bloodied axe was already slicing through the air. Lynne screamed in dismay as the axe-head thudded into her skirt, splitting plate to sink deep into her groin and lower belly. Her body bucked and blood sprayed from around the edge of the vicious weapon, and thick gouts of dark gore exploded from the wound as Erin wrenched her axe free, her face still twisted in rage. Lynne clutched at the rent in her armour, gasping in shock as she felt her guts spill free to loop in a colourful heap between her quivering thighs. Lifting her head to peer down at the mess with shocked eyes, Lynne scrabbled at her escaping innards, trying frantically and pointlessly to pile them back into her sundered abdomen. Erin watched impassively, blood and shreds of flesh dripping from her crimson axe blade.

Still fighting valiantly nearby, Hayley caught a glimpse of Lynne lying mortally wounded and gasped in shock, distracted for a fraction of a second. That was all it took for Laura to pounce, urging her horse in to swing at Hayley with her mace. Cursing her own stupidity, Hayley brought her sword up to parry the blow, but the mace clanged against the blade and wrenched it from her hand, then slammed into her chest. Luckily the full force of the blow had been met by her sword, but the impact still knocked the wind from her and she fell back with a yelp, feeling the world spin sickeningly as she toppled from her mount to crash into the soft ground, splashing water and mud. She rolled, hoping fervently that her hip had not been damaged by the fall, but knowing she had no time to examine her old wound. Two Knights would be bearing down on her any second, and now she was unhorsed, her situation was bleaker than ever.

Meena held back, acknowledging Laura’s claim to the kill. The dark-haired Knight turned her horse and spurred it forward, thinking to trample Hayley into the mud before finishing her off. Hayley cursed as she cast about for her sword, out of sight beneath the marshy grass, but quickly realised she had no time to reclaim her precious blade. She stood as Laura’s horse bore down on her, timing her dodge to perfection and leaping to the beast’s left. Atop the horse, Laura grunted in annoyance as her target dodged, but swung her mace down to her left towards Hayley, who surprised her by leaping up at her to grab her forearm even as the mace swooshed through the air. Slowing the weapons descent, Hayley still groaned as its head bashed her left shoulder, numbing it instantly but hopefully not breaking any bones. All that mattered was that she had grabbed her opponent’s weapon arm, and now she fell back on her full weight, pulling the screaming Laura from her horse. The two girls crashed into the ground, spraying water, but Laura had fallen further and landed poorly. She rolled in pain, moaning and clutching at her head. Her neck had been badly twisted, and she couldn't seem to move it without hot needles of pain jabbing into her back.

Hayley staggered to her feet, forgetting about Meena as she saw a foe lying helpless by her side. A long-bladed dagger slid from its scabbard at her belt, and she staggered forward with the blade raised, intent on burying it in Laura’s eye. She had a second’s warning as hooves trampled behind her, and she shot a startled glance over her shoulder just in time to see Meena’s horse bearing down on her. She tried to dodge, but she was tiring and moved too slowly. She yelled in pain as the horse slammed into her, one hoof cracking against her lower leg. Tossed aside, she landed heavily beyond Laura, rolling in the mud to lie sprawled and stunned, arms and legs moving sluggishly as she tried to clear her vision and clamber to her feet before Meena trampled her to death.

Lady Emma slashed at Claudia’s face, but the big German bashed the weapon aside with the head of her mace and jabbed at Emma’s midriff. Knowing the blow would not penetrate her armour, Emma allowed the mace to clang against her plate, chopping at Claudia’s arm before the other woman could draw her weapon away. The longsword split plate, and Claudia cursed as she wheeled her mount away to check the wound. Instead of following up, Emma risked glancing around to see how her comrades fared. Her heart sank as she saw Lynne suffering in the mud, and Hayley down and seemingly unconscious. Charlotte simply parried against her foe, and seemed to have taken a couple of light wounds. Fran was moving to help Hayley, but Emma feared that the redhead would not make it in time as Meena seemed intent on finishing off the poorly armoured Knight.

Five of Marina’s Knights still fought against her and two of her number, and Emma knew there would be no shame in losing this battle against such superior odds. But she had not started out on this patrol to die in a muddy field, and she set her jaw in determination as she turned to face Claudia again, knowing that she would take as many enemy Knights down as she possibly could to honour Lady Elizabeth.

Fran yelled a challenge to Meena as she floundered through the watery mud to help Hayley. Just as the black girl was about to guide her mount over the stricken Hayley, she noticed Fran and changed direction, seeing an unhorsed Knight that would be easy prey. Her heart pounding, Fran prepared her sword and yelled abuse at the approaching Knight. This was improper etiquette but she didn't give a damn. Staring at Meena’s face as the Knight urged her mount forward, Fran waited for the right moment to dodge, then threw herself aside with a grunt. She managed to escape being tramped by the horse’s hooves, but Meena had stood high in her saddle and whipped her axe around her head, timing the swing to bring it down on Fran’s head whichever way she dodged. As the redhead ducked to the horses left, Meena let her weapon fall, and Fran saw the axe-head swoop towards her face. She screamed in fear, but the scream was cut off as the axe smashed into the side of the helmet, ripping the steel apart and biting into her head. Blood spurted and Fran reeled before dropping to lie writhing and moaning, a gauntleted hand clasped to her wound.

Charlotte gasped in pain as her green-eyed opponent, a Swedish girl called Monica, stabbed into her thigh. Her right greave yielded under the vicious thrust, and Charlotte felt the sword sink into her flesh yet again. Now three wounds ached on her limbs, and she knew she was weakening. The only time her skilled foe had let her guard drop for a second, Charlotte had hesitated, unable to think of her own blade ripping the life from another woman. She stabbed at Monica now, but the Swede had already urged her horse away, turning the beast to prepare for another strike. Charlotte cast about her desperately, hoping to see one of her colleagues coming to her aid, but she gasped again as she saw her friends strewn about the ground; dead, dying, or grievously wounded. Her eyes fell on Hayley, who was moving weakly where she lay, mostly submerged in muddy water. Nearby, an enemy Knight was struggling to her feet, pulling a dagger from her belt and staggering towards her wounded friend. Charlotte’s blood ran cold. She could not bear to see Hayley killed in such a manner! She was an Amazon Knight, and her friends only wish for death would be to die fighting. To be gutted like a pig while floundering in filth was no death for a Knight.

It was at that moment it struck Charlotte, and she knew this was her truth also. She had been fooling herself thinking she could return to the outside world. All the hopes and dreams she ever had in her life were here. Jolie’s death had been hideously violent, but it had been part of the life she had chosen. Like Charlotte herself, Jolie had come to Elizabeth knowing the life she was going to lead, and the death she would someday have to face.

Dizzy for a second as she realised what she had been preparing to throw away, Charlotte felt strength flooding into her limbs as her rage grew. Rage at herself for her foolishness, which now saw her friends dead and dying in the mud while she fought like a girl. It was time to make amends. It was time to fight like an Amazon Knight.

Monica raised her sword as she came in to attack Charlotte again. The Swedish girl was enjoying the fight, as her opponent was weak and seemed unwilling to even attack her. She had been playing with the blonde girl, but now it was time to finish the fun and help her colleagues. As she approached Charlotte, she had time to see the blonde Knight’s flushed face and gritted teeth, and knew that a change had come over her opponent. She felt a surge of fear that she quashed instantly, cursing herself as she yelled a battle-cry and lashed out with her sword.

Charlotte answered that cry with one of her own, chopping down with her own blade to knock Monica’s sword from numbed fingers before raising the blade again and lashing it in a wide arc. Monica saw the blade slashing through the air towards her and gasped, then felt suddenly dizzy. Her vision upended and whirled, and for a brief second she wondered at the strange experience. Then she saw her own headless body teeter in its saddle as her decapitated head fell past to splash against the ground, bouncing once before sinking into the muddy water.

Not even watching the body slump from the saddle to fall loosely to the ground, a fountain of gore belching from its ragged neck, Charlotte was charging towards her friend, yelling a warning at the top of her voice. Close by, Meena was peering down at Fran, watching the redhead suffer. Frowning, the black girl looked to where Charlotte charged, seeing Laura preparing to take Hayley’s life. Spurring her horse forward over Fran’s body, Meena aimed to meet Charlottes charge from the side, taking the girls head from her body before she even knew she was there. Under her horses hooves, Fran screamed in pain as she was trampled into the mud.

Hayley’s vision swam, but she thought she heard Charlotte call her name, and that was enough to bring her around. Groaning in pain, she moved her limbs weakly, dimly noting that everything still seemed to be working. Then, she saw a figure staggering towards her, and blinked to clear her vision, seeing Laura’s twisted features as she closed on her sprawled enemy. Blood dribbled from Laura’s nose and mouth, from when she had landed head first in her fall from her horse. Her eyes were wide and vacant, and Hayley suspected she was in some degree of shock. One hand clasped her neck, but judging by the dagger she had gripped in her other hand, she was still obviously intent on getting her revenge. Hayley reached for her belt, remembering as she did so that both her sword and dagger were lost somewhere under the mud. She reached out to her sides with both hands, hoping that the dagger had fallen nearby. Seeing her enemy moving, Laura grunted in rage and lunged, her dagger outstretched.

As the girl loomed above her, Hayley suddenly felt the hilt of a weapon with her right hand. Gasping in relief, she gripped the hilt and tore the weapon from the mud. To her delighted surprise, what rose into view was Katherine’s sword. Bellowing a battle-cry to bolster her strength, Hayley launched herself up from the mud, her sword swooping in one fluid motion. Laura gaped as the weapon came at her, throwing her arm up for defence, then screaming in shock as, with a squeal of metal and a shower of sparks, Hayley’s sword chopped clean through her forearm. Blood spurted from the stump as her severed limb and dagger fell to the ground, and Laura could only gape at her arm, staggering back and falling loosely, her legs splayed and quivering. Hayley dropped to her knees, her burst of strength exhausted. Before her, Laura moaned and shuddered, gore still fountaining from her bloody stump. Raising her blade again, Hayley gathered her failing strength to thrust forward, and she grunted as the tip of the weapon slid up under Laura’s plate skirt, slicing through chain and into the soft, yielding flesh of her crotch. Laura squealed and arched her back as the intruding blade impaled her, sinking deeper and deeper into her body until barely a foot of the blade remained exposed. Hayley sagged between Laura’s thighs, not caring that dark gore splattered over her face and breastplate from the woman’s spasming body.

Charlotte heard Meena’s approach a second before the black girl’s axe began its downward arc. Gasping, Charlotte yanked on her reins, dragging her horse to a sudden halt. Meena cursed as her axe sliced nothing more than air, but readied the weapon again as she turned to face her new foe. Charlotte spurred her horse, chopping at Meena’s head and forcing the woman to parry with the shaft of her axe. Bringing her mount in close to prevent her enemy from using her long-handled weapon effectively, Charlotte stabbed at the girl’s face, forcing her to turn her head and flail with her arm to knock the blade aside. Steel scraped against steel, but Meena was uninjured, and thrust her axe-head at Charlotte’s own face in retaliation. Then she could only gasp as Charlotte’s left hand shot out to grab the shaft of the axe just below the weapon’s head. Roaring in rage, Charlotte wrenched the axe aside to expose Meena’s chest, and thrust with all her strength at the black girl’s heart.

The tip of her sword skittered across Meena’s breastplate, but wedged where the metal swelled to form her right breast. Steel gave under pressure and the sword sank into Meena’s tender flesh, impaling her breast before ripping from the side of her breastplate. Shouting in agony, Meena grabbed at her breast as Charlotte quickly wrenched her weapon free. Gaping down at her ruptured mammary, Meena didn't see Charlotte readying for her next thrust, but felt the sword pierce her flesh under her left pauldron. Shuddering, Meena vomited dark gore as Charlotte’s blade angled into her heart, skewering the vital organ. Her eyes rolled up in her head and her limbs flailed, then twin streams of crimson jetted from her nostrils as she sagged in her saddle, lifeless and twitching.

Dragging her offal-smeared blade free, Charlotte turned her attention back to Hayley, relieved as she saw her friend had managed to get the better of Laura. Three of the enemy remained, but Emma seemed to be holding her own against Claudia, and one of the other girl’s was doubled over in her saddle, obviously badly wounded. The last woman stood beside Lynne’s weakly moving body, still watching the blonde cockney die a slow an painful death. As Charlotte watched, however, she saw Jenny raise her axe above her head and slam it down into Lynne’s chest, finally ceasing the dying girl’s pain. A growl rose in Charlotte’s throat, and she angled her horse towards this sadistic enemy Knight, intent on avenging Lynne.

Jenny heard hooves thundering towards her, and looked up in dismay as Charlotte bore down on her. The blonde Knight’s sword was raised high, thick blood clotting its length, and as it swooped down towards her, Jenny knew her death was assured. The sword split open her helm easily, shearing through metal, bone and brains. It ripped through Jenny’s head, dividing it neatly down the middle, between her eyes and through her nose. Teeth sprayed from her agape mouth as the sword cracked through her jaw, and it didn't stop there. The sword was ripped from Charlotte’s hand as she thundered past Jenny, and she looked back at the blonde Knight to see the weapon had split Jenny open down to her breast. The two neatly severed halves of her head fell apart as she dropped to her knees, and gore and matter spilled down her chest as she collapsed back, killed instantly. The hilt of Charlotte’s blade remained thrust upwards as Jenny’s body twitched in the mud, her breastplate slicked with blood, chunks of brain and skull fragments.

Close by, Erin yelled in loss as her friend died. Herself wracked with pain from her grievous belly wound, she spurred her horse into a charge against Charlotte, ripping her dagger from its scabbard as she did so. Purple loops of intestine began to ooze from the split in her belly as she charged, dribbling from under her breastplate, but all she cared about was avenging Jenny. Charlotte heard her approach and turned, unsheathing her own dagger as this new enemy closed the distance between them. Knowing she only had one chance to strike, Erin lunged at Charlotte’s face, but the blonde girl simply ducked under the thrust and jabbed with her own weapon. The dagger sank into Erin’s left eye, popping the eyeball and crunching into the hapless Knight’s brain. She shuddered for long seconds, gurgling and drooling as her limbs quivered. Then, as she slumped back against her saddle, her belly split wider still, loosing a torrent of dark gore and innards that spilled down her horse’s flanks to splatter against the wet ground. Frightened by the hot rush of fluid spilling over its sides, the horse bolted, and Erin fell from the beast’s back to splatter messily against the ground, guts and gore spraying from her ruptured body.

Charlotte glanced around to confirm that none of the enemy bar Claudia remained, well aware she was now unarmed. Breathing a shuddering sigh of relief, she moved her horse close to where Hayley had collapsed to her knees at Laura’s side.

Emma and Claudia remained locked in battle, but Emma was grinning maliciously at her foe. She had managed to catch glimpses of Charlotte’s charge, and now knew that her Knights had triumphed. Claudia was also aware she was now alone, and her face was twisted in fear as she frantically tried to stave off her opponent’s attacks. Her mace moved sluggishly, as her arm was tired with hefting the heavy weapon, and her limb felt like it was made of lead. Emma chopped sideways, and as Claudia parried the attack, Emma pulled her swordarm back and rammed her longsword forward, intent on sheathing it in her foes chest.

Claudia gasped and leant back in her saddle, but Emma’s sword skittered over her breastplate and ripped into her chain scarf, shredding links and splitting through the soft skin of her throat. Her eyes bugged as a ribbon of bright blood sprayed from her neck, and she clutched desperately at the spurting wound, not caring that Emma could now strike again at her leisure. Emma grunted as she swung her blade, and Claudia issued a gurgling scream as her swordarm was ripped from her body at the shoulder. Blood bubbled on her lips and sprayed from the ragged stump over Emma’s body, but the Amazon Knight reared back and lunged one last time, plunging her blade deep into the exposed flesh and bone of Claudia’s shoulder. Claudia’s body jerked and writhed in the saddle as the long blade sank deep into her chest to skewer her heart. Vomiting blood, she sagged lifeless, her eyes rolled back in her head and her bloody tongue lolling. Emma pulled her blade free with a grating sound of steel on bone, then watched Claudia drop loosely from her horse to land crumpled on the muddy ground.

Abruptly, the sounds of combat were ceased. Their ears ringing with the screams of dying women and the clashing of blades against armour, the three remaining Knights breathed heavily, sweat drying on their bodies under heavy armour as they recovered their strength. Emma trotted over to dismount next to Hayley and Charlotte, but the three Knights did not speak, instead simply took in the bloody tableau before them. Thirteen armoured bodies lay sprawled or crumpled, in spreading pools of crimson or fetid mounds of innards. Bodies twitched, lifeless fingers spasmed in their chain gauntlets, and a grisly death rattle sounded from one of the fallen warriors, although from which it was hard to tell.

Then, one of the bloody forms moved, groaning weakly, and Hayley gasped in astonishment. 'Fran? She's still alive!'

Weakly, Hayley staggered towards where her comrades’ body was half submerged in soaking, bloody grass. Her armour was dented and twisted from the hooves of Meena’s horse, and the side of her head was a gory mess. A portion of her helm had been sheared clean off, along with a generous portion of scalp underneath.

Hayley dropped to her knees and reached for the redhead’s helmet, but Emma clutched her shoulder to stop her. 'Best not. For all we know, that could be keeping her head together. Lets get her on a horse and back to the castle.'

Hayley nodded, and the three Knights began to manhandle the sorely injured Knight onto the saddle of Emma’s patient steed. Once she was secure, Emma nodded towards the ground next to Charlotte’s feet. 'Grab that. Maybe the ear can be saved.'

Charlotte looked down in surprise, then stooped to pick up a matted clump of skin and hair, noticing with horror that amidst the curls of red hair, Fran’s ear was still intact.

'Saddle up,' Emma instructed her two remaining scouts. 'We'll send people back to claim our dead, the enemy will do the same. Of course, they'll have to send more people than we will.'

Typical of Emma, the comment was delivered dead-pan, but Hayley grinned at her friend, and Charlotte couldn't help but smile in return. The two Knights claimed their horses, and managed to grab those of their dead companions, and the blood-spattered and battle weary party began their journey home.

Lady Elizabeth watched the scouting party return from the wide window of her meeting room, on an upper floor of the castle. She noted with satisfaction - but little surprise - that Emma had survived the encounter she and Marina had planned the previous day, and was pleased to see Charlotte looked to have survived the battle intact.

A ragged cough sounded from behind her, and she turned to see Katherine enter the room, wiping her lips with a handkerchief before approaching her mistress. 'You should be resting, Katherine,' she scolded gently.

'I've rested enough.' Katherine snapped, moving to stand beside Elizabeth and look down at the scout party, who were being met by a worried gaggle of Handmaids who had been training outside the castle walls. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw Hayley was one of the survivors.

'I had no doubt your squire would make it,' Elizabeth said, 'But this girl Charlotte has surprised me. I genuinely thought she had lost her nerve.'

Katherine looked at her with surprise. ' I thought . . . You mean you expected her to be killed?'

'Or run away from the fight,' Elizabeth shrugged. 'However, it looks like she deserves a second chance.'

The two women watched medics run to take care of Fran, who was lifted carefully from her saddle.

'She does deserve a second chance,' Katherine agreed finally. 'I'll have a word with her; make sure she knows how close she came.'

'Remind her she made me look a fool in front of Marina,' Elizabeth scowled, but her face softened as she turned to look at Katherine, one of her first Knights and an old friend. 'And then, you see Doctor McManus. You're not looking well.'

Katherine nodded grimly. 'You're right. I'll need to be fit for what's coming, right?'

She didn't expect Elizabeth to answer, and true to form, her mistress gave her just a long, slow smile.

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