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A glorious sunrise sent a wave of colour sweeping across the moors that surrounded Castle Erran. Shadows melted under the spreading orange warmth, and scattered clouds seemed luminescent as they skudded across the lightening sky. This beauty, however, passed almost unnoticed by the armoured riders that cantered through the Castle gates. The score of riders galloped with obvious intent over the countryside, heading North to where the boundaries of their capsulated realm lay.

At their head, Lady Katherine and Lady Hayley rode together. Having fully healed from her hip wound, Hayley now wore full plate armour, and show armour at that. Not only polished immaculately, the breastplate and ornamental shield were emblazoned with gilded patterns, surrounding an intricate caligraphed 'E' that formed their mistress's insignia.

From the hallway outside her room, Charlotte watched the riders gallop out of sight, then turned as she heard footsteps approaching. Lady Emma joined her at the window to enjoy the rising sun.

'A fine day for a tourney,' she commented, and Charlotte nodded her agreement.

'Another trial so soon! This will be the third in as many months.' She glanced sidelong at Emma, knowing that the senior Knight often held court with Lady Elizabeth. 'There's something big in the offing, right?'

Emma shrugged, irritatingly noncommittal. 'That's for Lady Elizabeth to decide. We just follow orders. Understand?'

'Right,' Charlotte said, abashed.

Emma glanced at her for a second before speaking. 'The girls will be getting ready soon. Let's see how they match up.'

Surprised, Charlotte turned to follow Emma, who was already striding through the Castle hallway with a purpose. Almost having to jog to keep up with the tall Knight, Charlotte followed Emma down the main stairwell and towards the rear of the Castle, where a collection of young handmaidens were already beginning to assemble before the training ground, overseen by Lady Helena. Helena was a short brunette, oval faced and pretty, with naturally pouting lips and fierce, dark eyebrows. Her eyes were dark too, their piercing intensity softened by her button nose and smooth skin. Her hair hung in burnished ringlets just past her shoulders, where it splayed over her pauldrons. She was dressed in full armour, minus helm, as she watched the handmaidens assemble. She nodded to Emma and Charlotte as her fellow Knights approached.

Even without her armour, Emma still looked magnificent beside Helena. Taller by a head than her armoured comrade, Emma watched the assembling Knights with arched detachment, her startling eyebrows crooked. Her long dark hair was braided to fall in a single ponytail over her shoulder and down by her side. Although clad in a simple tunic, she stood in a manner that let all know she was a senior Amazon Knight. Her legs were bare below her tunic's hem, aside from her sandals, and her tightly muscled arms were adorned only by studded wristlets. Standing beside these magnificent women, Charlotte could only hope she looked half as confident as these two. She settled for regarding the assembling handmaidens carefully, trying to recall the ones Emma had warned her would warrant watching in the upcoming tournament.

Unarmoured, the girls shivered in tunics and sandals, as they paced and chatted in the early morning cool. Some looked as nervous as they obviously felt, while others hid their fear behind masks of bravado or humour. There were twenty handmaidens in all, and half that number would be dead before the day was out. Unlike the trial in which Charlotte and Hayley participated three months earlier, this would feature ten one-on-one fights to the finish. Ten girls would become Amazon Knights, bolstering the total number to an all time high.

Nearby, Charlotte could see Philippa and Karen, two handmaidens Emma had told her about. Both were dark haired, although Philippa was taller, her hair tied back in a ponytail. She had a homely face and usually wore something of a clueless grin, although this morning she looked unusually sombre. She clasped her arms over her abundant breast, failing to hide the swelling of nipples engorged by either the morning cool or her excitement. Beside her, the shorter girl Karen bore even larger breasts, and Charlotte was impressed the tiny girl could stand with such weight before her. Karen had large, dark eyes and shoulder length hair, a button nose and a small bow mouth. Cursed to be deemed cute for the rest of her youth, she still somehow gave the impression she would handle herself well in the upcoming fight.

Behind Philippa and Karen, two more friends stood together. Zoe was a short girl with cropped blonde hair. Her slight form obviously belied her abilities, as Emma had assured Charlotte she would be one to watch during the battle. Charlotte was surprised to find that the girl was old enough to even be here, as she looked no more than sixteen. She had blue eyes and freckles, and grinned shyly as her friend Natalie spoke to her.

Natalie was also young, only slightly taller than Zoe, but dark haired and breathtakingly beautiful. She was blessed with huge, liquid eyes and perfect skin, smooth and creamy and the envy of all women. Her auburn hair fell slightly past her shoulders, and she occasionally flicked strands from her face as if by nervous habit.

Besides these four, Charlotte noted three other girls whom Emma had marked for interest. Sara was a stocky blonde, a little mannish in appearance irrespective of her copious bosom. She spoke loudly and humorously to a comrade, seemingly to be genuinely confident of the upcoming fight. Jillian was a tall, willowy girl with dark ginger hair and green eyes. Standing at nearly six feet, she dwarfed a good number of the other girls, except for Julia, a startlingly attractive girl with long red hair and the body of an athlete. At six foot two she was the tallest girl in the castle, and towered over all the other handmaidens. Without a hint of self-consciousness, she stood with hands on hips, observing the other girls and the watching Knights with obvious interest.

Charlotte was drawn from her inspection of the girls when, beside her, Helena called for attention.

'The draw begins. Lady Emma and Lady Charlotte will do the honours.'

Wielding a leather bag, Helena turned to her comrade and held it open. Emma eyed the expectant handmaidens for a second, then plunged her hand deep into the bag, drawing out a smooth, flat stone upon which was written the name of one of the handmaidens. She waited until Helena had offered the bag to Charlotte, who was still startled at her inclusion in this process. Recovering herself before the stares of the handmaidens, she thrust her hand deep into the bag and grabbed at stone of her own.

'Karen!' Emma called, and the cute brunette blinked at the mention of her name.

'Cassie!' Charlotte called, and already Emma had reached in for another stone.

'Karen will fight Cassie!' Helena barked confirmation of the draw.

'Zoe!' Emma shouted the name of the next girl, and Charlotte responded: 'Deborah!'

So it went, and the girls were paired. Philippa would be fighting a girl named Kiri, and Sara would face Christa. The tall redhead Julia would fight Nicole, while Jillian would fight Natalie. Charlotte noted with some disappointment that only this last pairing matched two of the girls known to be favourites.

As the handmaidens mulled on the draw, Emma turned to Charlotte and took her by the arm, leading her away back towards the castle.

'They will have their choice of arms for the fight. Help me prepare the racks.'

'What armour will they use?' Charlotte wondered.

'Leather for the most part, Elizabeth has made it plain she does not want full battle armour used. They will be relying more on shields.'

Charlotte nodded, taking a last look back at the score of women who now mingled, muttering with friends and even their upcoming opponents, muted in the realisation they would soon be fighting for their lives.

Hayley found herself staring at the coach that pulled away from the opposite side of the tall link fence that marked the boundary of Elizabeth's estate. It had been a year and a half since she had seen a motor vehicle, probably this same coach - the one that had brought her here.

Filtering through the gate came twenty-three girls, wide eyed as they stared at the score of gleaming Knights before them. Katherine had dismounted, and ushered the girls into a nearby pre-fab barracks, where they would exchange their clothes for a simple tunic and sandals. Excited squeals and chattering soon came from within, and Hayley dismounted easily to stand beside her friend.

'God, it seems like an age ago,' she wondered, and Katherine glanced at her.

'What, since you arrived? Time passes slower here, Hayley. You experience life fuller, through risking it regularly.'

Hayley nodded, watching the first of the newcomers leaving the barracks, now clad in more fitting garb for their arrival at the castle. Then she gasped.

'Michelle!'

She made to move forward, but Katherine frowned and grabbed her arm.

'You know one of these girls?'

'Know her? She’s my best friend! What on earth is she doing here?'

Katherine followed her friends gaze to where a short brunette, similar in looks to Hayley herself, stood chatting with one of the still mounted Knights.

'You'll be reunited later,' she said sternly, 'But for the moment you're giving these girls their first impression of life here. Control yourself a little better.'

Hayley blinked. 'Sorry,' she muttered, but grinned as she looked back towards her old friend. Beside her, Katherine sighed, knowing full well the danger of rekindling old friendships at Castle Erran.

Katherine dismissed Hayley when they returned to the castle, and, somewhat grumpy at not being able to meet her old friend, the diminutive Knight took exercise in one of the castle’s training halls until it was nearly time for the events of the day to begin. The prospective handmaidens would witness a jousting tournament, equestrian events and examples of archery, although the last was only a recreational pursuit to the Amazon Knights. All battles fought within the confines of the estate were with melee weapons, due to Elizabeth and Marina’s chivalric code, and to the number of non-combatants that could easily be caught in the crossfire during the use of such weapons.

After a quick shower, Hayley dressed in light armour; chain hauberk with leather trews, and belted Katherine's sword at her hip. All Knights - even those not competing in the events - would look the part while the visitors were here. The hallways were busy as Knights and handmaidens made their way to the castle grounds, and Hayley hurried to catch up with a familiar figure ahead.

'Fran! Wait up.'

The ginger haired Knight turned to watch Hayley approach, giving the shorter girl a good view of her hideous wound. Elizabeth's surgeons had managed to save her ear, which had been successfully grafted back in place, but Fran was still bald on this side, with nothing to hide the scarring where her flesh had been ripped from her skull. To compensate, Fran had shaved the other side of her head, and seemed to like the effect of the red scalplock that remained. She had only recently returned to normal castle life, after many weeks of painful grafts and surgery. Hayley had visited her regularly, and the two girls friendship had blossomed. Hayley was all too aware that Fran had saved her life during the skirmish on the border, at great cost.

'Hurry up, Hayley,' Fran scolded, 'We don't want to be stuck at the back!'

Hayley grinned. 'We have good seats today! Katherine and Helena are taking part in the jousting, and I managed to get their seats.'

'That's my girl!' Grabbing her fellow Knight around the shoulders, Fran led the two of them through the throng, her face alive at the prospect of what was to come.

Try as she might, Hayley could not see Michelle from where she was sitting. After several minutes of straining and peering, she yelped in pain as Fran dug fingers in her ribs.

'Stop fidgeting, you're supposed to be making a good impression. Besides, Katherine and Helena are on next.'

Hayley turned to watch her mentor ride onto the field. Katherine looked magnificent in full plate armour, riding a heavy horse similarly fully armoured. Steel glinted under the mid-morning sun, and glanced off Katherine's shield as she moved to salute Elizabeth and the watching crowds. She raised her lance, which was tipped with an iron coronel for todays non-lethal tourney, and turned to watch Lady Helena ride onto the field. The smaller Knight looked equally impressive, and her black mount whinnied and paced as she brought him in line with Katherine. The cheering crowd hushed in preparation for the joust, and at Elizabeth's signal the two Knights turned and rode to opposite ends of the tilt, where they took their positions and prepared for the charge.

Seconds hung in the air as the two brave women stared across the distance between them. Hayley held her breath as she waited for the charge to begin, then frowned as a ragged cough echoed across the field. In her saddle, Katherine's body shuddered as she seemed to retch uncontrollably, and Helena glanced uncertainly at Lady Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was frowning, seemingly worried for her long time Knight and friend, but even as she seemed to raise her hand to gesture for the joust to be cancelled, Katherine brought herself upright and kicked her heels against her mount's flanks, spurring the whinnying beast into a charge. On reflex, Helena also spurred her mount, and the two riders began a thundering headlong plunge towards each other.

'What's up with Katherine?' Fran wondered, but Hayley didn't answer, instead rising to her feet to watch worriedly as the two riders closed. In her saddle, Katherine seemed to sway, and as her lance drooped, she nearly pitched forward over the neck of her mount. Helena also couched her lance, a scant second before the two Knights passed each other with a deafening ring of steel on steel.

Helena easily bashed Katherine's lance to one side with her shield, but her own weapon struck true under Katherine's ribs, sending the senior Knight tumbling loosely from her saddle. She hit the ground hard, rolling over and over before ending up sprawled and motionless on the soft grass. Leaping from her saddle, Helena wrenched her sword free from its scabbard, knowing a successful joust did not always mean the fight was won. She approached Katherine, but quickly realised something was wrong. Casting her sword aside, she knelt at her friend’s side, then gestured to medics on the field edge.

As muted muttering rippled through the crowd, Hayley turned to leave the stand and go to her friend, but Fran grabbed her arm.

'The medics know what they're doing. You'll just get in the way. She's just had the wind knocked out of her, that's all.'

Hayley slowly sank back into her seat, watching as Katherine was stretchered from the field. More Knights hurried onto the field to dazzle the watching crowd with a superb display of horsewomanship, but Hayley could not enjoy the spectacle. Knowing her friends agonised concern, Fran gripped her shoulder and squeezed.

'She'll be fine, Hayley. Mark my words, she'll outlive us both.'

It was time for the trial, and in the dressing rooms, the twenty handmaidens heaved shaky sighs and stood, clutching their weapons and shields and following Lady Helena out onto the tourney field. They were met with a rapturous applause by the massed Knights, handmaidens and newcomers, as they strode in two ordered lines to the centre of the field, turning to stand facing their chosen enemy.

Throughout their months of training they had been taught to fight in plate mail, or chain, or leather or even unarmoured. They had confidence borne of long hours sparring. Yet now, clad only in leather and light chainmail, they knew true fear. Such armour could do little against a thrusting blade or a swooping macehead, and yet amidst the fear they knew an excitement hitherto unknown. Soon they would have to kill to survive, and even more importantly, to be Knighted by Lady Elizabeth. Each warrior eyed her counterpart, each fantasising about taking the others life viciously and without mercy. Each knew that, within seconds, their fantasies would become reality, or they themselves would die screaming in pain, their hopes and lives ripped asunder by the others blade.

Lady Elizabeth stood to begin the fight, holding a white handkerchief high until the crowd hushed in anticipation. Then, she released the scrap of delicate fabric, which fluttered to the ground silently. As it brushed against the immaculately maintained grass, a gong sounded, and the would-be Knights went to battle.

Two girls called Sinead and Mandy clashed first, their axes locking as they swung with all their might. Struggling with the snagged weapons, they reeled against a girl named Bethany, who cursed as she was knocked towards her own opponent. Oola swung her axe to take advantage of Bethany's loss of balance, but her foe raised her shield to deflect the blow.

Regaining her balance, Bethany backed away, glancing at her buckled shield and flexing the fingers on her left hand to help restore the circulation to her arm. A tall brunette, she faced Oola, an equally tall black girl who was highly muscled and very quick. She danced forward with her axe, chopping sideways at Bethany's left side. Ducking back out of range, Bethany waited until the axe had swished past before lunging, her sword angled at the black girl's heart. Somehow Oola managed to bring her shield around to knock the weapon’s tip aside, and Bethany gasped as she staggered back, careful not to lose her footing.

Beside them, Sinead and Mandy battled on. Sinead was a soft spoken Irish girl with cropped black hair. Mandy gave the appearance of a dizzy blonde, but her swordswomanship was excellent. She was skilled with all weapons, and as she performed a short lunge and stab with the spike of her axe, Sinead took care to parry the blow without letting her guard slip. One mistake and the axe would find a home in her skull. She chopped with her own axe, forcing Mandy to step back and bash the weapon aside with her shield. Mandy was panting heavily, her face flushed, and Sinead suspected her excitement was getting the better of her. Testing her, she deliberately dropped her shield low and stepped in to attack, and Mandy immediately swung with an overhead chop, not seeming to care where Sinead's axe was aimed. Sinead raised her shield, grunting as her opponent’s axe buckled it and numbed her arm, but chopping her axe spike towards Mandy's leg. Seeming to realise her situation, Mandy gasped and made to step back, but it was too late.

She squealed as Sinead's axe spike ripped into her thigh, between the front and rear pieces of her stiffened leather greaves. Flesh split and bone cracked, and Mandy's shapely leg buckled inwards at a hideously unnatural angle, causing her to drop screaming to the ground. Her axe skittered from nerveless fingers, but she kept her shield raised, gaping up at Sinead as pain flared through her wounded leg. The Irish girl looked down at her, her face unreadable as she hefted her axe and contemplated taking Mandy's life. Like all the other girls she had dreamed of this moment, and now it was here she would be sure to savour every second.

Mandy was crawling towards her axe, her shield still raised determinedly. Sinead stepped forward, her axe raised high above her head, then swung the weapon down towards the wounded woman’s chest. Mandy cried out and lifted her shield to block the blow, but Sinead was chopping at an angle and the wide edge of the weapon bit below the rim of the shield, splicing through Mandy's elbow before sinking deep into her breast. Mandy groaned, staring down in dismay as her severed lower arm and shield slid off her body, revealing Sinead's axe jutting from her leather clad left breast. The soft flesh was split in two, and blood freely belched over her chest, as well as spraying from the waving stump of her arm. Her body bucked as Sinead wrenched the axe free and stepped back again to watch Mandy's throes. Hideously wounded and bleeding to death, Mandy bucked and writhed, clutching the stump of her left arm with her right hand. She gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that Sinead would deliver the terminal blow without leaving her to suffer. Sinead was groaning also, mouth open and eyes wide as her body shuddered in involuntary orgasm. She nearly sagged to her knees, weak with excitement, but composed herself with a shaky breath as she stepped forward to place one booted foot between Mandy's thrusting hips, pushing the dying girl’s buttocks into the soft ground as she raised her gory axe a final time.

Mandy didn't even hear the axe as it swung down to split her pretty face asunder, shearing her skull into two parts and scattering her brains over the grass. Her body flopped loosely for long seconds, gore spraying from her spliced head. Gaping, Sinead looked down at the mess she had made of this beautiful woman, then raised her brain-spattered axe for the cheers of the crowd, never looking away from Mandy's butchered body.

Bethany and Oola battled on, trading blows and grunting with exertion. As the crowd cheered the first fatality, Oola risked a sideways look at the slaughter, and Bethany took her chance. She lunged forward to lance her sword at Oola's belly, and although the black girl gasped and swung her shield, it only deflected the blade slightly, sending it deep into her lower side. Oola threw her head back and howled as the blade impaled her, splitting through the belt above her right buttock and spraying blood. Bethany twisted the blade cruelly, and Oola's eyes widened at the exquisite pain. She looked at her foe, who was staring at her weapon where it entered Oola's belly. She could imagine the rage of emotion within the victors mind, and groaned in dismay that she would not know it herself.

With her failing strength she brought her axe up and swung it at Bethany's face, and was astonished when the axe spike split easily through the side of Bethany's helm to crunch into her skull, killing her instantly. Bethany's left eye exploded from its socket to hang loosely on her cheek, and her jaw lolled, allowing drool to spill from her slackened lips. Her body shuddered, the action causing the sword wedged in Oola's belly to quiver painfully. Clear fluid and spurts of blood jetted from her eye socket, and she collapsed backwards onto the ground, legs splayed before her, the left limb kicking spasmodically. Oola staggered, gasping. She gazed down at the woman who, seconds before, had looked to be her killer. Now she was the victor. She raised her clenched fist in defiance, then collapsed to her knees as her strength left her.

Groaning, she clutched at the hilt of Bethany's sword, her body shuddering as pain lanced through her. She whimpered, unable to accept that the wound was fatal, but already her vision was dimming. She raised her head and let loose a ragged scream of frustration that ended in nothing more than a rattling gurgle as she pitched forward onto Bethany's body, the motion wrenching the sword impaling her up through her torso and into her ribsection. Bright blood gushed from her mouth and her wide eyes rolled up in their sockets as the warrior woman died, her innards spooling free over Bethany's unfeeling corpse.

Nearby, and unaware of the tragic drama that had just befell their fellow handmaidens, Philippa and Kiri were locked in combat. Philippa gritted her teeth and swung her axe, denting Kiri's hastily raised shield once again as the other woman defended desperately. A tall blonde, with piercing grey eyes and full, pouting lips, Kiri jabbed with the spiked tip of her mace, but Philippa angled her own shield to deflect the lacklustre attack, chopping overhead and forcing her foe to raise her shield high in defence. This left her lower body vulnerable, and Philippa's booted foot lanced out to slam painfully into Kiri's groin. Her chain skirt offered little protection against such an impact, and Kiri grunted as she doubled over, her shield dropping to the ground as she fumbled at her bruised crotch. Philippa's axe swooped again, and Kiri staggered back out of range of the vicious weapon, clutching her mace with both hands and cursing the loss of her precious shield.

Thinking the battle over, Philippa grinned and lunged forward, her weapon raised. Kiri braced herself for the assault, and as the axeblade fell, dodged nimbly to one side, wincing at the throbbing pain in her groin. Philippa gasped in dismay as her weapon missed its target, knowing the Kiri would certainly take advantage of her suddenly vulnerable position. The blonde girl didn't hesitate for a second, swinging her mace two handed into Philippa's lower back. Bones cracked and Philippa's body arched, her head falling back open mouthed as she yelled in pain. Her own shield dropped as she scrabbled at her back, but already Kiri was swinging again, spinning in a full circle to land a violent blow against Philippa's chest, gasping as the crushing impact caused her entire body to shudder. Hardened leather could not protect Philippa against such an attack, and she screamed in agony as her right breast literally exploded under the macehead’s impact. Blood and fat belched from around the weapon’s partially buried head, spattering against Kiri's breastplate and face. She groaned in disgust as matter dribbled down her cheek, but then Philippa's face turned, her wide eyes staring at the girl who had just delivered such hideous damage onto her body.

Excitement flared in Kiri's bruised loins, and she wrenched her mace free of Philippa's butchered breast, grinning at the sound of cracking ribs and the gore splattering free against the grass at her feet. Philippa staggered drunkenly, her axe falling as her gauntletted hand closed over her breast. She shuddered and sagged to her knees, gazing up uncertainly at Kiri as the blonde girl moved to stand before her victim. She took in the pathetic sight before her. Philippa had been one of the favourites, known for her viciousness in combat, and skill with practically any weapon. Now she swayed before Kiri, a trickle of blood dribbling from the side of her mouth. Her eyes were unfocussed, but Kiri suspected she knew what fate had in store, as her left hand reached out as if to block the killing blow. Without waiting any longer, Kiri hefted her gory mace to deliver that very blow, swinging the heavy weapon overhead like a woodsman's axe, screaming in bloodlust as her loins exploded in sudden, shuddering excitement.

Philippa's head cracked in two as the mace smashed into the top of her skull, crushing bone and mashing brains and matter as it ripped her open down to her neck. The shattered shards of her helmet flew, along with hair, clotted by blood and fluid. What remained of her head flopped to either side onto her pauldrons, and a geyser of blood and vomit squirted high into the air. Kiri gasped as chunks of brain and splintered teeth spattered against her body, and a wet eyeball slapped into her left thigh, the grisly trophy rolling down her leg to wedge in the knee joist of her armour. She stared at the ruined body before her, bile rising as Philippa's impossibly long tongue seemed to flick left and right where it hung over the ruin of her lower jaw. Then, the body fell back loosely, disgorging thick gouts of blood over the sodden grass. Grunting as she came again, Kiri dropped to her knees before Philippa's butchered corpse, not even hearing the crowds cheers at this fresh kill. When her senses finally returned, all she could do was sit in a spreading mess of warm blood and watch four more girls battle nearby.

Cassie was a tall brunette, blue-eyed and tanned. She came from Sweden, and now wished she could return there. Her opponent was Karen, the short brunette Emma had selected as a favourite. Whipping her sword forward in devastatingly skilled lunges, Karen looked to be completely in control as she kept Cassie gasping and parrying with all her skill, not even allowing the taller girl to launch an attack of her own.

Neither Poala nor Yukari were considered favourites, yet these two handmaidens sparred with such skill and determination, many of the watching Knights were cheering them on. A dusky skinned beauty with shoulder length, raven black hair, Poala gritted her teeth as she hefted her mace, swishing the heavy weapon at Yukari's head. Yukari ducked under the sweeping weapon easily, lancing her sword at Poala's groin. Thrusting her hips back and twisting to avoid the strike, Poala grunted and slammed her weapon’s hilt into Yukari's face, knocking the Asian girl back stunned.

Her helm buckled, Yukari took a second to wrench it from her head, revealing straight black hair that fell to her shoulders. Her lips creased in a mocking sneer as she readied herself once more and lunged forward for a fresh assault. Poala swung her weapon again, but Yukari dropped to the ground and rolled, tumbling past the weapon’s swooping head to right herself just behind Poala. The dark skinned girl had time to gasp in astonishment before Yukari reversed her grip on her blade and thrust it back under her left armpit. Leather split as the sword ripped into Poala's side, and the wounded girl staggered forward off the blade with a guttural shout, turning to glare at her foe as she felt her own warm blood spill over her left buttock.

Nearby, Cassie was gasping for breath, her sword clutched tightly in numbed fingers as Karen advanced yet again. The tiny brunette was toying with her, it seemed, nipping in to jab or slash, almost always getting past her defences to score another painful cut. Her body ached from a dozen small wounds, and her vision began to fog as her blood dribbled from the splits and gashes. Sensing her opponent had nothing left to give, Karen gripped her own sword two-handed, rearing back before thrusting the vicious weapon forward with a loud grunt.

Cassie gaped as the big blade swooped towards her, then doubled over with a groan as the weapon split through leather to bury itself in her belly. She shuddered as the length of steel ripped through her innards, tearing from her back to gleam redly in the morning sun. Impaled to the hilt, Cassie's eyes bugged as she stared at Karen's face. The snub-nosed brunette peered back into her victim's eyes with nothing more than casual interest, the look similar to that of a small child who had just pulled the legs off an insect and now watched the hapless creature struggle. Whimpering, Cassie fell back off the blade, clutching at the hosing tear in her torso with both gauntleted hands. A crimson tide washed over her armour, and she began to gasp as it became even harder to breathe. Karen moved beside her, placing one booted foot on the downed woman’s breast and raising her blade. The crowd cheered the latest victrix, and the roar swelled as Karen lifted her stained blade high, then lanced it down to chop Cassie's head clean off.

The decapitated head rolled free, eyes wide and staring, before Karen stooped to claim the grisly trophy, holding it aloft by the hair to receive the accolade of the crowd. She didn't seem to care that the blood hosing from the ragged stump of Cassie's neck splattered over her own body.

'Dangerous,' Fran muttered, and Hayley managed to tear her eyes from the slaughter before her to glance at her colleague.

'What did you say?'

'Her first kill,' Fran said, 'Yet she is totally calm. Either she's some kind of psycho, or she's killed before.' Fran thought about what she had just said for a second. 'Which would also make her some kind of psycho.' She glanced at Hayley before looking back to the battlefield. 'Either way, she's a psycho. Best not to have anything to do with her.'

Hayley turned her own gaze back to the field, in time to witness the climax of the fight between two more of the handmaidens. Dark haired Annette thrust her sword low into Carmen's stomach, and as the redhead shrieked and collapsed to her knees, the victrix yanked her blade free to plunge it repeatedly into the dying girl’s guts. Annette's face was flushed with excitement, but she was shaking so much Hayley could see it easily. Fran was right, there was something odd with the way Karen took her opponent’s death so calmly.

Yukari was pressing her advantage on a wounded Poala, who groaned every time she had to parry one of Yukari's forceful blows. As the Japanese girl swung overhead and landed a particularly vicious strike on Poala's upraised, buckled shield, the dark skinned girl collapsed to her knees, sobbing and pleading for mercy. Her strength sapped by the battle, she now dropped her shield and mace to clasp her hands together and raise them towards her impassive opponent.

'Please! This is madness! I don't want to die!' Poala peered up at the other girl through tears of frustration and fear, but as the watching crowds began to boo and clap slowly in derision of her cowardice, Poala's body shivered in mortal fear. Looking down on her, Yukari's eyes were devoid of pity. Her sword moved back, and as the coward before her screamed for mercy one final time, the weapon lanced forward to punch through the girl’s open mouth, ripping from the back of her throat amidst a welter of bright gore.

Poala's wide eyes popped even further, and blood frothed at the corners of her mouth as she gurgled in pain and fear. Yukari sneered in derision, then flexed her muscles and wrenched her blade upwards. For a second Poala's mouth stretched impossibly wide as her skull was lifted away from her lower jaw, and her arms flapped spasmodically as frantic squealing caused more blood to spill from her lips. Then, those lips ripped wider open with a horrid tearing sound, and as the upper half of her skull left the lower, dangling shreds of flesh and muscle, her body flopped back loosely, twitching and bucking, gore fountaining from above her flailing jawbone.

Yukari threw her shield to one side and grabbed the decapitated head by the hair, yanking it off her blade’s greasy length to hold it high with a shout of triumph. As the crowd cheered her, she sheathed her sword in Poala's unfeeling groin as a last show of contempt for the spineless handmaiden.

Four couples battled on, only these fights seemed more evenly matched. True to their form, the fresh faced brunette Natalie sparred against an equally skilled Jillian as if there were nothing to separate them. This would be as much a test of endurance as skill, and Jillian, taller and fuller bodied than her younger opponent, would be the obvious choice to go the distance. Still, as she watched the battle unfold from the stands, Hayley knew better than to discount any of the handmaidens fighting here today. Philippa had already learned that lesson in the most terminal of ways.

The diminutive blonde Zoe fought in a most distinctive way, her crouched posture making her seem an even smaller target to her opponent, a stocky blonde named Deborah. Grunting, Deborah chopped her longsword down at her nimble foe, cursing as Zoe dodged and ducked in to swing her mace at the taller girl's thigh. The weapon glanced off armour, but the assault succeeded in numbing Deborah's leg and she staggered, desperate to keep her distance from Zoe.

Close by, the tall redhead Julia looked to be in control against her shorter blonde opponent, Nicole. Stabbing repeatedly with her sword, Julia kept her foe moving back, parrying and ducking attack after skilled attack. It seemed only a matter of time before the blonde girl would make a mistake, and the determined look on Julia's features were enough to convince all who watched that she would not waste such an opportunity.

The final pair were the brash, blonde Sara and a frizz haired girl named Christa. Taller than Sara, Christa had distinctively orange highlights running through her hair. Opinion was divided as to how she managed this feat when no modern chemicals save for deodorant and medical supplies were allowed in Castle Erran. Hayley hoped that the comical looking girl would survive long enough for someone to discover her secret. Alas it looked unlikely, as Sara took her business very seriously, chopping away Christa's defences with an axe swung by powerfully honed muscles.

A shrill scream alerted those watching to the climax of another battle, as Zoe's mace slammed into Deborah's weapon hand, crushing her fingers into pulp and causing her weapon to fall. Deborah staggered groaning, her left hand scrabbling to the dagger at her belt. But Zoe was not prepared to allow her victim to re-arm. Letting loose a high pitched ululation, Zoe jumped forward with her mace above her head, bringing the weapons steel spiked tip down towards her wounded opponent. Deborah tried desperately to lean back out of range, but the mace head ripped through her leather armour to split the flesh between her breasts, tearing down to open her up right down to her groin. Aghast, Deborah yelled in frantic pain, her ruined right hand trying to clamp her split belly together even as colourful innards seethed at the gash. With a sickening squelch, her guts emptied from her abdomen seemingly in one fetid mass, spilling over the dying girl’s crotch and thighs to spatter steaming between her feet. Zoe gasped in awe as, gurgling and drooling, Deborah sank to the ground, her buttocks mashing her own innards into the sodden grass as she sat heavily, her knees splayed before her. She looked down at the mess Zoe had made of her body, whimpering as she realised her life was literally spilling out of her. As her head rose to look into the eyes of her killer, Zoe reared back and swung with all her might one last time, crushing Deborah's skull and ceasing her suffering. The butchered body before her jerked once and flopped to one side, and Zoe stared open mouthed, her face and armour spattered with her lifeless foe's gore and brains.

'Geez,' Fran muttered beside Hayley, and the Knight could only nod dumbly in reply.

Nearby, Christa collapsed to one knee with a grunt of alarm, knocked off balance by a particularly strong blow from Sara. Seeing her chance, Sara swung her heavy axe overhead with a hearty battlecry, and Christa simply leant forward to ram her longsword into her over enthusiastic opponent’s groin. Sara's eyes popped wide as the blade sank deep, unable to comprehend that she had made such a mistake. She staggered forward as Christa rolled out of her path, then collapsed to her knees, screaming as the blade still wedged in her body was driven through her flesh to split from her middle back amidst a spray of crimson. Impaled thoroughly, her back arched as she screamed in mortal agony, and as she flopped onto her back, her legs thrashed as the sword twisted in her body. Gagging for breath, she stared up at Christa as the frizz haired girl straddled her stricken body. Now hefting a long bladed dagger, Christa gazed down at her victim for long seconds, her body quivering with excitement at the thought of what she had just done. Between her legs, Sara jerked and writhed, and one bloody hand reached up to grab at Christa's leather skirt, as if beseeching the victrix to put her out of her misery.

Christa obliged, striking out firmly and burying her dagger in Sara's throat. Blood belched from Sara's mouth and her body bucked once more, before her eyes rolled back in her head and a long, gurgling breath signalled her agonised demise. Drenched with her victim’s blood, Christa staggered back away from her body, her gory dagger held high to receive the applause of the crowd, but her gaze never shifting from the lifeless eyes of her foe. Her body spasmed in orgasm, and she collapsed to her knees with a moan of pleasure as she revelled in her victory.

Fran chuckled. 'Wouldn't like to have the groundskeepers job today!'

Hayley nodded mutely, her throat dry and her groin on fire. Mostly she had seen and participated in fights where full plate armour was used, which had the effect of hiding most of the worst damage inflicted on the victims body. Clad in leather and chain, nothing prevented gore and innards from spilling unchecked.

Now only four women still fought, and all attention was riveted on Natalie and Jillian, where in looked like the latter was in serious trouble. Breathing heavily, Jillian staggered back as Natalie grinned and lunged in again, her mace raised. Jillian stabbed with her longsword, but Natalie battered the weapon aside as her own swooped in towards Jillian's head. Gasping, the ginger girl ducked, but the studded mace still crunched into her right shoulder, shattering bones and causing the unfortunate woman to squeal in sudden pain. Her longsword dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers, and she fell onto her back with a whimper, helplessly raising her shield as Natalie loomed above her.

Instead of striking the terminal blow, Natalie stepped back and gestured to Jillian's sword. Gasping in pain, and the knowledge that her life had just been spared, Jillian threw her shield to one side and painfully got to her feet, swaying for a second before her head cleared. She stooped to reclaim her sword, holding it firmly but without conviction in her left hand.

Grinning at the thought of continuing the fight, Natalie let out a whooping shout as she dove forward again, and Jillian clenched her teeth as she prepared to meet the attack, determined she would not end up dead this day.

Nearby, Julia staggered with a gasp as Nicole landed a glancing blow against the side of her head. Her helm knocked away, Julia's long red tresses tumbled into view, and she glared at her blonde opponent in rage. Seconds ago she had been in control of this battle, but Nicole had tapped a hidden strength, and now she surged forwards, her eyes glinting as her blade rose and fell in strike after devastating strike. Julia parried each attack with skill, her shield battered and buckled, then found a gap in Nicole's defence and struck swiftly.

Nicole grunted as she threw herself back and twisted her body, feeling her opponents blade rip through her leather armour. Staggering, she took a second to glance down, relieved to see that, although her leather hauberk was split over her belly, her flesh had not been ripped. Feeling sure she was fated to triumph this day, she screamed in defiance and lunged again, and Julia dodged backwards, slipping in Deborah's spilled guts and falling heavily on the dead woman’s body. She writhed in the steaming pile of entrails, shouting in dismay as she knew Nicole would be standing above her. She wasn't wrong. Grinning down at her stricken foe, Nicole gripped her swords hilt with both hands, preparing to thrust down into Julia's guts to finish a battle that had looked to be against her from the start.

Behind her, Jillian chopped and hacked with her sword, unused to fighting left handed. Her lips trembled as she now realised Natalie had done her no favours in sparing her life. The tiny brunette was toying with her, letting her attack and punishing her with numbing blows to the legs and belly. Anger overtook her, and with her remaining strength she raised her sword high and yelled a battlecry.

Laughing, Natalie jumped forward, throwing her shield aside and grabbing Jillian's left arm before she could begin her downward swing. Standing nose to nose with her astonished opponent, Natalie let the shaft of her mace slip through her fingers until her grip was just below the head of the weapon, then brought her arm back to slam the studded head into Jillian's groin. Her breath whooshed from her body and Jillian buckled, her sword falling from her hand and all hope fading from her eyes. She staggered back as Natalie released her, bending double to clutch her bruised crotch, groaning in agony.

Natalie gripped her mace two handed, holding it like a bat as she regarded her beaten foe for a second before launching a massive underhand swing. Jillian didn't see the mace coming, and as it smashed her face and skull into a crushed pulp, her body flew backwards, legs kicking and arms flailing.

Blinded by Deborah's blood, Julia could feel rather than see Nicole hovering above her. She raised her sword in a vain attempt to hold the woman off, but Nicole just laughed and drew back her blade to prepare for the kill. At that moment Jillian's lifeless body cannoned into her, and Nicole pitched forward with a shrill shriek, right onto Julia's raised blade. The tip of Julia's sword split straight into her bare belly button, and as Julia's arm smashed against the ground, Nicole was impaled, the blade’s tip ripping from between her buttocks to impale Jillian's unfeeling corpse also. Julia had time to yelp before the two bodies smashed down on top of her, driving her into offal sodden mud and splattering gore everywhere.

Natalie regarded the sight before her. Jillian's corpse lay splayed over the feebly shifting Nicole, the tip of Julia's sword sticking up proudly from her belly, smeared with thick blood and gobbets of flesh. Hefting her mace one last time, Natalie swung the weapon to strike the protruding blade and force it up through Jillian's and Nicole's bodies, splitting the two girls wide open and freeing a torrent of colourful intestines that steamed and slithered their way over all three girls. Faint protests sounded from under the bodies, and Natalie kicked Jillian and Nicole aside to see Julia lying sprawled, plastered with blood and guts. She scowled up at her fellow victrix.

'Thanks a lot,' she muttered as she levered herself out of the morass, but as Natalie burst out laughing and stretched out a hand to help her up, Julia's own face split in an irrepressible grin. The two girls raised their fists to receive the applause of the crowd, looking around to see they were the last to finish their battles. The victorious handmaidens embraced and shouted in triumph, or stood simply staring at the bodies of the women they had killed. Of the twenty brave girls who ventured onto the field, only nine still lived, but none considered the price too high. They were going to be counted amongst Lady Elizabeth's Amazon Knights, and that was all they had wanted since they arrived at Castle Erran many months ago.

Fran stood with the rest of the Knights to shout and applaud, her face flushed at the spectacle she had just seen. The field was red with spilled gore, strewn with body parts and severed limbs, steaming offal and intestines.

'Jesus, that was some show!'

She turned to get Hayley's verdict, but the tiny Knight was gone. Twisting to frown through the thronged Knights, Fran shook her head disconsolently.

'Leave her in peace, Hayley,' she muttered. 'She won't thank you for poking your nose in.'

As she made her way towards the first aid pavilion beside the stables, Hayley was distracted by an excited shout.

'Hayley! My God, is it you?'

Turning, Hayley saw Michelle break from the crowd of visitors to run forward with arms outstretched. Laughing in delight, she caught her old friend in a crushing hug. They embraced for long seconds, until Michelle broke free to kiss her fondly on the cheek, then stepped back to look her up and down.

'You look amazing,' she ogled Hayley's armour and belted sword with a gleam in her eye, one Hayley knew all too well.

'You look good too,' she told her old friend fondly. 'But why are you here? You were one of the ones who tried to convince me not to come!'

Michelle shrugged. 'Because you were here, I looked into it in more detail. Pretty soon I began to see the fascination, then I began to have the sleepless nights. I'd toss and turn, thinking of you. Not knowing if you were alive or dead. Finally I knew I'd have to come and see for myself.' Her eyes flashed with excitement. 'And now I've seen it, I want it like nothing I've ever wanted in my life before. I want to be an Amazon Knight like you. Will you teach me?'

Hayley laughed in surprise. 'I've not been a Knight long enough to teach handmaidens! That's the job of senior Knights, those that have been here years. But maybe you'll be trained by Lady Katherine. I was her handmaiden and she taught me well.'

Michelle blinked. 'The Knight who fell earlier? How is she?'

Hayley shook her head. 'I don't know. I was just . . .' She gestured towards the pavilion, and Michelle nodded in understanding.

'Go to her. Give her my best. I'll see you soon, Hayley. We'll have a great time together, wait and see.'

Laughing, Michelle hugged her friend ecstatically before heading back to her group, who were being herded towards the centre stand to hear an address by Lady Elizabeth.

Hayley watched her leave, unable to work out how she felt about her friend coming to Castle Erran. Finally, she turned to enter the first aid pavilion, nearly running into Emma, who gripped her shoulder to stop her entering.

'She's resting,' Emma told her sternly. 'Leave her in peace.'

'But . . . what happened? Is she sick? I want to see her.' Resolutely, Hayley tried to push past Emma, but the senior Knight gripped her more firmly and heaved her away forcefully.

'Tomorrow,' she hissed. 'Now go. That's an order.'

Emma's flinty expression brooked no further argument. Hurt, Hayley stepped away from the taller girl and turned to leave.

'Alright, I'll go. Tell her I was asking after her.'

Emma didn't answer, but watched the diminutive Knight as she disappeared around the stables to look for Charlotte.

Hayley found her friend by the changing rooms, watching the victorious handmaidens as they were paraded around the bloody field on the shoulders of their bunkmates and fellow handmaidens. Some of the girls looked stunned, a couple wept openly, and some laughed in joy at being alive. Charlotte watched the display with a slight smile on her lips.

'Hey,' she greeted Hayley as her friend appeared by her side.

'Hey you,' Hayley replied.

'How's Katherine?'

Hayley sighed. 'I wasn't allowed to see her. She's sick, I think.' She peered across the field for a second. 'I'll see her tomorrow.'

Charlotte nodded. 'She'll be fine, I'm sure.'

They watched the celebrations for a while, until the gore spattered victors were paraded back into the changing rooms by their friends and colleagues. The two Knights smiled as they remembered their own victory shower, an effusive experience that led to a night of unbridled lovemaking.

'New recruits,' Charlotte said. 'The most Knights we've ever had.'

Hayley nodded, then looked at her friend sidelong. 'Did Emma tell you anything before?'

Charlotte snorted. 'Get information out of that lump of rock? Dream on.' She peered into the distance wistfully. 'But I think this is it, H. The big one. And we're right here in the middle of it.' She looked down at Hayley, her eyes flashing in excitement. 'No matter what, our lives won't ever be the same.'

Hayley nodded, but as she and Charlotte walked off towards the great hall for the celebratory feast, she couldn't help but wonder if she would be alive to greet Michelle when she arrived at Castle Erran.

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