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'You have to dress me?'

Karen frowned at Hayley and Charlotte, her button nose wrinkled and her dark eyes disbelieving. Remembering the short girl's vicious fight two days ago, Hayley almost grinned as she relished Karen's seeming bashfulness. However, they were here to follow Lady Elizabeth's strict code of initiation for Knighthood, and she kept her lips in check.

'It is not your place to question,' Charlotte snapped at the handmaiden, and Karen's incredulity was replaced by annoyance. Nonetheless, she managed to keep her temper under control as Charlotte continued. 'You are to be presented to our Lady in ceremonial dress, and you must be dressed by fellow Knights.' Charlotte cast her armful of clothing down on Karen's bunk. 'Now strip!'

Glowering, her cheeks flaming in shame, Karen stripped down to her underwear, casting the two Knights venomous glances. Amused, Hayley and Charlotte scrutinised the semi-naked girl before them as she shivered in the early morning cool. It was an ungodly hour, and the previous two days had been spent in a veritable orgy of drink and good food, a celebration honouring the new recruits. The partying would continue after the dubbing ceremony, but this was the serious part and Elizabeth would not tolerate the ceremony being treated lightly. Hayley remembered Lady Helena and another senior Knight practically bullying her on the morning of her own dubbing less than fondly, and made a pledge to herself she would never be that way with any of her own handmaidens.

Karen wavered before them, her eyes bloodshot through lack of sleep and a serious hangover. She was obviously irritated and confused by what was happening, as none of the handmaidens knew what the initiation consisted of. The ritual dressing was only the first stage. Hayley took up a white robe and stepped close to Karen, who raised her arms as Hayley dropped the garment over her head.

'This robe is white, to represent your cleanliness of body,' she told Karen, who stared at her in amazement. Hayley turned away before she had to laugh, trusting Charlotte to distract the befuddled handmaiden.

Charlotte looped a fine red cloak over Karen's shoulders. 'This cloak is the red of your blood, and symbolises your readiness to shed it for our Lady.'

Hayley turned back to Karen, handing her a pair of brown stockings and gesturing that she put them on. Shaking her head in disbelief, Karen obliged. 'These stockings are brown, like the earth to which you will return upon your death,' Hayley intoned.

'Charming,' Karen muttered, but already Charlotte had taken up the last item, a white belt which she now held out towards Karen. The brunette eyed it with suspicion. 'And what's that supposed to symbolise?'

Charlotte paused, looking Karen straight in the eye.

'Your virginity,' she said, her voice wavering as her lips twitched.

Karen blinked. 'Now you're taking the piss,' she told them.

Unable to contain herself any longer, Hayley burst out laughing, and Charlotte couldn't help but join in. A rueful grin appeared on Karen's face, and within seconds she too was laughing. Hayley stepped forward to grab her shoulder.

'Oh God! Please don't squeal on us, Karen. This is the first time we've ever done this, and we're supposed to be scaring the shit out of you.'

Karen looked down at herself and sighed melodramatically. 'I look ridiculous!' she complained, then chuckled. 'But don't worry, I'll look suitably chastened as I enter the most holy inner sanctum.' She looked at the two Knights, her uncertainty returning. 'What exactly is going to happen in there? I don't remember . . . hearing anything about ceremonies like these when I joined up.'

Charlotte took her other shoulder, and she and Hayley steered Karen towards the door. 'Oh, Lady Elizabeth only started doing this about six months ago. Don't worry, it's nothing too bad. Just remember that Elizabeth and the senior Knights take this way too seriously.'

'Don't forget your belt of purity,' Hayley reminded Karen, and the three girls burst out into raucous laughter once more as they spilled into the hallway.

The dubbing ceremony took place in the chamber behind Elizabeth's throne room. Dark and sombrely lit, the chamber contained rows of aisles where established Knights sat to watch their new colleagues initiation. Intricate tapestries draped the walls, and sombre choral music was piped in from hidden speakers. Hayley and Charlotte slid into seats beside Fran and her partner Suzanne, a short blond girl with close cropped hair and an upper class English accent. They smiled greetings, as the chamber was shrouded in silence, except for the clanking of armour and scabbards as Knights made themselves comfortable. All were dressed in light show armour. The nine handmaidens stood outside the chamber, waiting to be summoned, shifting and fidgeting in their symbolic attire.

Fran leant over to Hayley's ear. 'I was bricking myself at this point.'

'Me too,' Hayley whispered back. The two girls grinned at each other, then winced as someone grabbed their heads from behind and knocked them together painfully. Surprised, they turned to see Lady Emma sat behind them, glowering in displeasure. Abashed, the two Knights faced front, not moving or speaking for the rest of the ceremony.

Lady Elizabeth appeared on the dais at the front of the chamber, flanked by her most senior Knights. Helena stood at her left side, but on the right, where Katherine usually stood, Lady Diane took her place. Diane was a sultry brunette, possessing the most voluptuously pouting lips Hayley had ever seen. Tall and imposing, she and the other senior Knights were clad in full show armour, visors raised, and stood to attention as Elizabeth, also in full plate but without a helm, signalled that the first handmaiden be summoned.

Light spilled into the gloomy chamber as the doors were opened, and two Knights escorted a short, slight blond girl into view. Blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dark, Zoe glanced at the massed Knights on either side with wide-eyed trepidation as she was escorted towards the dais. Her hands were clasped before her, keeping in place the long-bladed sword that was looped with a leather thong around her neck. The blade hung over her breast, its length reaching down to her hips, where her hands gently held it flat. She walked slowly, keeping pace with the Knights at her side until they approached the dais upon which Elizabeth stood, staring down at the diminutive blond girl. The two Knights escorting Zoe retreated as she stepped forward hesitantly up to the dais. Elizabeth bent forward to slowly remove the sword from around Zoe's neck, and the blond girl sank to one knee. Hayley recalled Zoe's fight in the trial, and how she had nimbly evaded her foe's attacks before launching a crushing response with her mace. Like herself, Zoe was tiny compared to most of the Knights, and Hayley wondered how she could cope in a prolonged battle. This was a fear that preyed on her own mind, as the relatively short fights she had been involved in had exhausted her beyond measure. Shaking such feelings of trepidation away, Hayley returned her attention to Zoe's dubbing.

Holding the sword before her, its point rested against the floor, Elizabeth studied the girl below her impassively before speaking.

'For what purpose do you wish to enter Knighthood?' she asked the prostrate handmaiden in a clear voice that rang around the chamber.

Zoe responded instantly as she looked up at Lady Elizabeth. 'To honour my Lady and serve her. To honour my fellow Knights. To live to the tenets and laws of Castle Erran,' she intoned clearly.

After a slight pause, Elizabeth hefted the sword and placed its flat edge against Zoe's upturned neck three times. A slight smile played across Zoe's face at the touch of the sword, and as Elizabeth withdrew the weapon, the smile split further. Then, she yelped in pain as Elizabeth struck her across the face with a forceful slap, knocking her sprawling onto her side. Alarmed, the blond girl gawked up at Elizabeth, who smiled down at her as she stooped to offer her hand.

'So you will never forget your dubbing,' she whispered conspiratorially as she heaved Zoe upright, then stepped back and raised her voice. 'Arise, Lady Zoe!' she bellowed, 'I welcome you to the ranks of the Amazon Knights. May you fight with honour and courage, and face battle without fear. Be thou a good Knight.'

'S . . . so shall I be, with God's help,' Zoe answered, licking a tiny trickle of blood from her split lip.

As Zoe stood, senior Knights moved forward in turn to present her with gifts. As she received each, Elizabeth told the newly Knighted girl their meaning.

Zoe's cloak was removed and she was helped on with a heavy chainmail byrnie. 'This armour shields you from vice and fault,' Elizabeth told her seriously.

Greaves were strapped to her legs: 'To prevent you from straying too far from your Lady.'

A fine open-faced helm was placed on her head: 'To symbolise your dread of shame.'

Finally, Zoe stood fully armoured before her Lady, who now stepped in close once more. 'Your spurs,' she held out her hand, into which Zoe placed her silver spurs. Elizabeth replaced them with a golden pair, which only true Amazon Knights could wear. At this, the assembled Knights applauded their new colleague, clapping and stamping their feet until the entire chamber reverberated to the deafening cacophony. Zoe turned to face the Amazon Knights, her smile returning and stretching wider still as she held her sword high in triumph.

'She hit me!' Julia rubbed her cheek in disbelief, although any pain from Elizabeth's stinging slap had long since faded.

'She hit all of us,' Christa grinned, running a hand through her dyed hair before reaching for a freshly filled tankard of beer. Hayley pressed another tankard into Julia's willing hand, reaching up to give Castle Erran's tallest Knight a slap on the back.

'Well done, Julia,' she told the new Knight warmly, 'I haven't had a chance to speak to you since the trial.'

'A messy experience,' Julia wrinkled her nose. 'I was picking guts out of the damnedest places for hours afterwards.'

The girls laughed, although Hayley knew inside Julia would be troubled by the hideous deaths of girls who had once been sparring partners and colleagues. This was the nature of life in the castle, and all the Amazon Knights knew it. Those who were deemed unable to accept the psychological scars of killing were weeded out when they were handmaidens, until those that remained were able to fulfil their duties and quash such feelings of remorse. Hayley thought back to the day of her own trial, when her second kill had been a bunkmate called Rachel, a girl she had known and talked to for months previously. Even now she lay awake in her room some nights, reliving that kill and others like it, her feelings churning within her.

That is, whenever Charlotte wasn't with her. More and more the two girls were spending their nights together, healing each other through tender yet desperate lovemaking. Such relationships were not disallowed in Castle Erran, but neither were they encouraged, as the death of a partner could well debilitate the other.

Leaving Julia and Christa talking together, Hayley turned to peer across the castle's main hall, crammed with Knights and handmaidens celebrating the Knighting of nine new warriors. Tables around the edge of the hall were loaded with food and drink, and a group of armoured girls clustered around the huge fireplace against the north wall sung bawdy songs of battle and bravely, toasting each other exuberantly and spilling most of their beer without a thought. Charlotte was engaged in conversation with Zoe and Natalie, and Hayley noted how close these two stood with a knowing smile. She turned as the main door opened a short way behind her, and her smile spread wider as she saw Katherine enter, dressed in light armour but looking pale. Still, the senior Knight grinned with genuine pleasure as Hayley barged through the crowded hall towards her.

'Hello Hayley,' she returned the shorter Knight's hug fondly, then held her at arms length to look her former handmaid in the eyes.

'I was so worried about you!' Hayley cried, 'And nobody would let me see you.'

Katherine laughed throatily at Hayley's cross expression. 'I had a bout of flu, nothing to worry about,' she told her. 'I think the nurses were only trying to stop it spreading. Forget it! I'm back now, and thirsty!'

Hayley blinked as she regarded her mentor, knowing that Katherine had always been a poor liar. As much as it hurt, however, she realised that Katherine wanted to keep her problems to herself. Promising herself to push the matter to the back of her mind, Hayley grabbed Katherine around the shoulders and steered her towards a beer barrel.

Lady Emma sat sprawled against the wall beside the barrel, her normally grim face split in a beer-addled grin. She was flanked by Kiri and Annette, two more of the newly Knighted girls. Hayley recalled Kiri had been Emma's last handmaid, and remembered her battle against Philippa in the trial. Philippa had been a favourite, but Kiri had shown skill and speed to shift the odds and triumph. She nodded down to the new Knight in respect, and Kiri raised her tankard in salute.

'Katherine!' Emma slurred. 'It's nearly time, you know.'

Katherine grinned as she squatted beside her friend. 'I know, Emma. But how about shutting up?'

'Time for what?' Hayley asked curiously. She was beginning to get annoyed by the senior Knights' cryptic hints that "big things" were coming.

'Never you mind,' Katherine told her firmly, standing with a wince and clutching her side. Hayley noticed her discomfort.

'Are you OK?'

'Never better,' Katherine told her. 'Grab me a beer, alright?'

Annoyed, Hayley moved to the barrel, where Fran had just finished pouring herself a pint of frothy beer.

'Take this one,' Fran pushed the tankard into Hayley's hand, grabbing another for herself. 'Biggest feast we've had yet,' she noted as she poured.

'The most Knights we've ever had,' Hayley replied, looking again around the bustling hall. 'What is it now, two hundred and seventeen?'

Fran nodded, then turned in surprise as, at the top end of the hall, someone slammed a tankard down hard on the centre table to gain the attention of the massed Knights. Slowly a hush descended on the room as Lady Elizabeth moved to stand behind the table, her face serious as her eyes swept her celebrating warriors.

'Silence!' Lady Helena roared by her side, and all noise ceased as hundreds of pairs of eyes locked onto Lady Elizabeth.

'I have grim news,' Elizabeth spoke without preamble. 'As you know, Lady Marina's warriors have been aggressively pressing forward into our land, and today Marina sent a messenger to claim that her borders have been increased by five hundred metres. I have sent a message in return, that we will defend our land against any encroachment with force. I expect the response to be swift and violent.' Elizabeth looked at the faces of her astonished Knights. 'Enjoy this night, but tomorrow we must prepare to fight for our land against a Godless invader. Do not fail me.'

So saying, Elizabeth turned and walked from the hall, Helena close behind. Slowly, muttering around the hall became clamouring excitement, as Knights and handmaidens discussed the implications of the statement.

'That was a tad melodramatic,' Fran noted with a grimace, then whistled. 'A mass battle? God, we haven't seen one of those since shortly after we started our squirehood. Remember?'

'I do,' Hayley agreed. 'Forty of our Knights died. Marina lost more! Is this battle to be even bigger?'

Fran shook her head. 'Dunno, but it almost sounded like Elizabeth intended throwing everyone into this one.'

The two Knights peered at each other mutely, each imagining a massed battle of over four hundred Knights.

Lady Helena stood on the dais in the castle's main hall, overlooking practically every Amazon Knight who had come forward to be counted for the upcoming battle. Word had spread that participation would be voluntary, and that only those Knights in fine health need come forward. Still, one hundred and eighty-seven women lined the hall, all peering anxiously up at Helena. The Knight looked tired, although that was probably due to an excess of drinking like all the others. Her fine brown curls spilled over her pauldrons, framing the fine marble of her oval face and accentuating her beautiful dark eyes. Many handmaidens and younger Knights were enamoured of Helena's almost angelic beauty, but she was a ferocious warrior and probably Elizabeth's most trusted Knight. Like Katherine, she had helped Elizabeth set up the estate, and was one of the dwindling number of senior Knights who had lived in the castle since it was built.

'Our Lady has asked me to hold this meeting,' Helena began, 'to answer any questions you may have after the rules of engagement have been laid down.' She paused as she looked around the hall. 'One hundred and fifty Knights are required only.'

Muttering rippled around the hall, and Helena frowned deeply until it died away. 'Those who are still wounded from battle, or deemed ill, cannot participate. Lots will be drawn to decide who of the remainder will sit this one out. You have been issued with your numbers already. The following may leave now.'

Helena began to read out a list of numbers, and exclamations of despair and anger sounded from around the hall as Knights learned that they would have no part in the upcoming battle. Close by Hayley, Lady Julia roared in frustration as her number came up. Turning, the tall Knight shouldered her way from the room, her face flushed and her lips twisted in anger.

'I'd keep away from her for a while,' Fran whispered to Hayley, sighing in relief as Helena finished reading out the numbers. 'Looks like we're in.'

Charlotte appeared beside Hayley. 'Me too.' She looked down at her friend. 'And Katherine.'

'What?' Hayley couldn't believe it. 'She's still ill! Weak, certainly. So much for those too ill to fight not being included!'

Charlotte shrugged, but shushed her friend as Helena began to outline where the battle would take place.

'The enemy will assault the East wing of the castle,' Helena referred to a plan of the castle hung at the front of the hall, and gestured to the fortified area that jutted out from the eastern wall of the castle proper. A simple square, ringed by a twenty foot high wall, two thirds the height of the main castle walls, the fort consisted of a round tower within the walled enclosure. The only way into the fort was through a portcullused main gate, or through an access door into the castle grounds. 'They will be storming the fortified area only,' Helena continued, 'And their aim will be to reach Lady Elizabeth, who will be at the top of the tower. If our Lady is forced to yield, the battle will be over.' Helena's expression let all present know that such an event should not be considered an option.

'Sounds like Elizabeth herself is going to fight,' Charlotte whispered in astonishment.

Helena continued, her voice rising to quash the muttering of the Knights before her. 'Our Knights will be divided between defenders and lancers. Defenders will be allocated a wall, or positioned in the fort grounds, or in the tower as Elizabeth's personal guard. Defenders on the wall will not descend to the fort grounds once the battle has begun, unless the portcullis is compromised and the enemy have entered the grounds. Those in the grounds cannot mount the wall, or enter the tower. Those in the tower cannot leave.' Helena gestured to the map as she spoke, but turned back the Knights again to continue. 'As much as is possible, I would prefer your positions to be your choice. The lot numbers you were allocated designate the order of choice.'

Hayley's heart sank as she looked down at her slip of paper. She was number 173, and as such would probably end up stuck somewhere with little action. Still, as she looked at the map and considered what Helena was saying, she found it difficult to imagine the enemy's strategy. Helena continued.

'Our lancers will leave to engage the enemy as they approach. The enemy will be fifty stronger than us, and will have allocated their force between lancers and infantry in a similar way. The aim of our lancers will be to defeat the enemy lancers and inflict as much damage on the infantry as possible. Once the enemy ground force has reached the walls, they may no longer be attacked, and our lancers will return to the fort to join the defenders in the fort grounds proper. If the enemy succeed in taking the east wall, they will be raising the portcullis to allow their horsewomen in. That must not be allowed to happen!' Helena slammed her gauntletted fist down on the table to accentuate her point, and nearby Knights flinched in surprise.

'Damn lot of rules in this fight,' Fran noted with some disappointment.

'Enemy medical staff will accompany their soldiers,' Helena recovered her composure, 'And obviously they must not be attacked or interfered with. The castle's usual rules involving the wounded will be followed to the letter. Our medical staff will be inside the fort grounds, and will be assisting wounded on both sides as necessary.'

The castle rules allowed Knights to finish off an enemy in whatever manner she saw fit. However, if a Knight turned away from a felled opponent, usually to attack another enemy, no-one else could claim that kill and strike a mortal blow.

Helena continued reeling out rules and strategies, but the assembled Knights lacked concentration. Their faces glowed in anticipation of the battle, and they desperately pondered on where they would prefer to be stationed. Finally, the briefing over, Helena ordered the Knights to line up in lot order to claim their stations. Hayley looked down enviously at Charlotte's ticket: number 29.

'You've got a free choice, I reckon,' she told her friend. 'What do you think?'

'I'm best on horseback,' Charlotte answered without hesitation.

Hayley's heart sank again, knowing that only fifty of the hundred and fifty defenders would take to horse. She would not be fighting beside her friend this time.

The excited babble of girls shuffled into order, then made their selection before a table manned by two senior Knights. Hayley watched as her friends, all before her, walked away with their hand-written orders clutched excitedly. By the time she reached the table, there were only positions left on the north wall and in the tower itself. She hesitated for a second before marking her name down for the north wall. It was possible the tower would not be breached at all, and she couldn't face not seeing some action.

Charlotte was clustered with other Knights who would be lancers. Hayley counted Ladies Emma, Karen and Kiri amongst that number somewhat enviously, before Fran tugged her arm. 'North wall,' she waved her parchment under Hayley's nose. 'Looks like it's thee and me, gal.'

'Me too.' Christa, the orange haired new recruit, grinned at the other two Knights with excitement. 'This is going to be great! Do you think we'll bear the brunt of the attack?'

Hayley shook her head. 'They'll be going for the east probably, straight for the gatehouse to open the portcullis.'

'Not necessarily,' Fran told her. 'The walls are joined, so they might easily try to throw us off by attacking either the North or the South. Our wall is the least defended, and that might make it the prime target.'

'Cool!' Christa was almost bouncing up and down with excitement, and raced off to see who else would be on the North wall. Hayley watched her leave doubtfully.

'She's only got one kill under her belt,' she reminded Fran. 'I hope she doesn't fold under the pressure.'

Fran snorted. 'She'll be fine. We all will. There's no way we're letting any of Marina's bitches mount our wall. Right?'

Hayley nodded firmly. 'Right!'

The sunrise poured tepid light over a cool morning, drenched in dew and almost windless. The sense of expectation was palpable, seeming to cling to everything and everyone within the castle walls. Hayley watched squires preparing the lancers horses from her bedroom window for a while, then slipped back into bed to curl against Charlotte's pale back. The blond girl muttered and shifted in her sleep, and Hayley brushed stray strands of hair away from her neck before kissing her tenderly awake.

Stretching her long legs beneath the bedsheets, Charlotte moaned in pleasure at the touch of Hayley's lips, and sighed as cool fingers slipped across her chest to cup her left breast and gently tweak her nipple. She turned her head to find Hayley's mouth with her own, her own hand reaching back to brush over the dark haired girl's hip before delving down between her thighs into yielding warmth. Hayley whimpered in pleasure as Charlotte turned, kissing her harder as her fingers stroked and kneaded sensitive flesh. Melting into her lover's warm mouth, Hayley was vaguely aware of footsteps passing in the hall outside their room, and reluctantly pulled back from Charlotte.

'We need to get ready,' she whispered, but Charlotte stopped her mouth with another kiss.

'There's time,' she whispered back, nibbling on Hayley's ear for a second before moving her head down. Hayley felt her body tense as Charlotte's mouth lingered over her small breasts, her blond hair tumbling over the dark haired girl's chest and tickling her. Charlotte took a nipple between her lips, flicking at the swollen bud with her tongue and making Hayley gasp in pleasure before moving down her body, kissing and licking white skin. She kissed the pink tissue of Hayley's hip scar, then her head sank between the shorter girl's thighs. Spreading her knees, Hayley opened wide for her lover, and Charlotte flicked delicate flesh with her tongue before delving deep, straining to give her partner maximum pleasure. Hayley arched her back and gasped for breath, gnawing on her lower lip as she gripped the sides of the mattress with her tiny fists. Pleasure flared in her loins, but she rose up to take Charlotte's head between her hands. She noticed glistening fluid on Charlotte's chin as she covered the blond girl's mouth with her own hungrily, snaking her tongue into Charlotte's hot mouth to coil around her own.

Their saliva mingled as they kissed, forming a heady wine that made Hayley dizzy with desire and pleasure. Her hands groped Charlotte's breasts as the blond girl straddled her right thigh, rubbing herself against her friend's flesh and moaning softly into her mouth. Hayley felt sticky warmth on her leg as Charlotte thrust herself back and forward, stroking Hayley's swollen clitoris before plunging three fingers deep within her. Throwing her head back to gasp with pleasure, Hayley crushed her chest against Charlotte's large breasts, grinding their flesh together as her hands slipped down the blond girl's sweat-slicked back to clutch at her buttocks with a painful grip. Charlotte began to grunt with each thrust, her head lolling, mouth open, as she quickly approached orgasm. Her fingers kneaded Hayley's sex, and the dark haired girl gasped as her own excitement approached its peak.

Charlotte pounded faster, her free hand snaking around Hayley's back to clutch her lover's right buttock, lifting her forward to meet her thrusts. Her back arched and she let out a cry of pleasure as her groin flared and she came with a shudder, at the same time slipping her middle finger into Hayley's anus. Hayley screamed as she orgasmed suddenly, feeling a spurt of fluid spill from between her legs over Charlotte's probing fingers. Her body slapped against her partner's, and her grunts of pleasure turned to a sigh of contentment as she held Charlotte close. They stayed locked to each other for long minutes, until their bodies began to dry and they shivered in the morning cool.

They showered together, taking time they didn't really have to cleanse each other thoroughly. Having left themselves no time for breakfast in the communal hall, the two girls readied their armour and weapons and dressed each other in silence. Hayley let Charlotte drop a cool white gambeson over her head. The tunic would prevent her armour from chafing, and would assist in protecting her against blunt trauma due to its quilting and fur lining. She pulled on cotton stockings, then pulled on her mail hosen and braced the armour up to a heavy leather belt.

Her mail hauberk was next. The heavy, thigh length tunic was long sleeved and attached to a mail hood that covered a quilted cap that Hayley now donned. The hood fitted snugly over her head, leaving only her face exposed. Already feeling hot, Hayley grinned at Charlotte as she took her turn to dress her partner.

Next for Hayley was her breastplate, a solid Kastenbrust that sloped out and down from the breast to cut in at the waist, where it attached to a fauld, armour to protect her abdomen. Charlotte helped her with her greaves, and the important poleyns that would protect her knees. The plate armour was strapped securely before Charlotte turned her attention to Hayley's arms, and the heavy bracers that comprised vambraces and rerebraces for the lower and upper arms, couters for the elbows and wide spaudlers for her shoulders, which were emblazoned with Elizabeth's crest. Now fully armoured, apart from her gauntlets and aventailed bascinet helmet, Hayley sweated and grunted as she helped Charlotte with her own armour. After a while, the two Knights looked each other up and down with approval. They were ready for battle.

They donned their scabbards and personal weapons; swords and daggers. Hayley hefted her fine sword, a gift from Katherine, admiring the honed blade with its intricate engraving that lined the fuller. Knowing that the weapon would once again serve her well, she slid it into the oiled leather of her scabbard, checking her long-bladed dagger was secure on her belt before breathing a shaky sigh and looking around her room one final time before leaving.

'Thinking you're forgetting something?' Charlotte asked her.

'We haven't made the bed,' Hayley observed with a small smile.

Charlotte took her by the shoulder and turned her towards the door. 'What's the point? When we get back in a few hours, it'll just get messed up again.'

'Ooh, promises promises.'

Castle Erran's defenders cheered their lancers at the tops of their voices as the riders filed out through the fort's raised portcullis in two ordered lines. From her position on the centre of the north wall, Hayley strained to make out Charlotte amongst the armoured women, but all looked the same and she settled for waving madly and cheering so loud her lungs hurt. At her side, Fran slapped her shoulder reassuringly.

'They're gonna kick ass,' she shouted into Hayley's ear, in a rather unknightly fashion.

They lost sight of the riders as they turned to gallop south, towards where the mass of enemy soldiers and horsewomen could just be seen approaching over a distant hillside. Even in the weak morning light, the files of armoured women formed an imposing spectacle, but confidence was high amongst the defenders. Even though they were outnumbered, they felt sure they had the upper hand. From her position atop the tower at the centre of the fort's grounds, Elizabeth saluted her lancers one last time before they were away, spreading out into a line as they thundered towards their enemy. All Hayley and the rest of the defenders would be able to do was hope and pray that the enemy would divert most of its force into infantry.

Lady Elizabeth leaned against the tower's waist high wall as she peered at the distant enemy. 'More riders than I anticipated,' she murmured to herself, but close by Zoe and Natalie exchanged an uneasy glance. The two newly Knighted warriors had been close together in the draw, and had decided to be together in the tower. Although there was a chance the enemy would not even get inside the grounds, never mind the tower itself, they had known that should they get a chance to fight this is where they would be able to fight as close to each other as possible. They moved closer now as they watched Lady Emma lead the lancers into the first stage of the battle, and prayed that they would see their brave friends again.

On the east wall, Katherine sagged against a cold stone merlon, her visor raised and one gauntletted hand to her mouth as she coughed raggedly. Sinead, the newly Knighted Irish girl, moved to offer Katherine assistance, but the senior Knight cast her away with a snarl, then stared at the specks of blood on the back of her gauntlet. 'Damn,' she muttered quietly.

From her position in the fort grounds, Lady Helena stood with head raised to observe Katherine with a frown, then turned to face the fourteen girls squared behind her. They looked confident and ready for action, all except Yukari. The novice Knight stared at nothing, her face emotionless. Helena approached her with a scowl.

'Is this all boring you, Lady Yukari?' she snapped, and the Japanese girl turned her hollow eyes to bear on the senior Knight.

'I am making peace with myself,' she said quietly, 'As I feel I will not live through this day.'

Helena's face tightened. 'Keep that attitude, and after this is over I'll kill you myself. For now, think of your colleagues, those who will be relying on your bravery and devotion.'

She turned away from the Japanese girl in disgust, but doubt had already been gnawing in her gut, and Yukari's words did nothing to alleviate her fears.

Lady Emma spurred her horse faster as the galloping lancers closed on the enemy. She glanced over her right shoulder to see a score of armoured Knights ready for battle, knowing that the girl closest to her was Lady Karen. Then, she twisted the other way to glance at the Knights to her left, nodding to Charlotte, who was at her side. She returned her gaze forward, where now the enemy riders broke from the infantry to close for engagement. She estimated Marina had chosen to place seventy of her two hundred women on horseback.

Emma knew she should feel fear, or at least a little dismay that the enemy outnumbered them badly. During their preparations, Castle Erran's senior Knights and Elizabeth had concluded that Marina would keep most of her force on foot, and attempt to breach the walls using sheer force of numbers. They knew they had been little more than guessing, and they had been wrong, but somehow Emma still felt that her lancers would triumph. She recalled the border skirmish weeks before, when she and five other Knights had triumphed over ten of the enemy. Laughing defiantly, Emma raised her lance high and shouted to her Knights.

'For Elizabeth! And Castle Erran! Make them wish they'd stayed at home!'

Forty-nine Knights cheered in response, lowering their visors and preparing to couch their lances as the enemy fast approached.

Charlotte's heart pounded, threatening to burst from her chest. In her time at Castle Erran she had fought and killed her share of enemies, but this was different. Today, three hundred and fifty women would clash, and she was here in the front line, where the killing would start and the blood would stain the lush green grass beneath her horse's hooves. Yelling in defiance, she sighted the enemy Knight who would be her first opponent, and dropped her lance, ramming its hilt into the cantle on her saddle.

Time seemed to slow as she closed on her foe, and the din of hooves and battlecries faded until all she could hear was her own heavy breathing within her helm, her horse snorting, the impact of its hooves against the ground, and the measured pounding of her strong heart. She saw her enemy's lance droop to point at her chest and unconsciously nudged her shield into better position, at the same time moving the sluggish tip of her own weapon towards the other Knight's lower body. She watched as the other Knight leant to one side as if to avoid the lancehead, and gasped in shocked pleasure as the tip struck the woman beneath the right breast. The impact made her whole body shudder, and she felt her loins stir in thrilled excitement and the pleasure of battle. The woman opposite twisted in her saddle, but Charlotte gasped as a second shocking impact rammed her chest, bending her back over the rear cantle of her saddle. The breath whooshed from her body, and she felt the bones in her lower back crunch and grind. Her vision flipped, and she saw nothing but blue sky through the slits in her visor until her body rocked forward and she screamed in sudden agony. She blinked as splinters of wood sprayed against her visor, her head swimming, and looked down to her chest where the splintered stump of her opponent's lance protruded from her left breast.

Surprised, she felt her own lance drop from her fingers, and gripped at the splintered end of the skewering shaft in confusion, amazed at how her shield had ended up slung back uselessly over her shoulder. She wondered vaguely if the lance had impaled her, and she was riding along with its bloody tip poking from her back. She grabbed at the lance with her other hand, and felt light-headed again as she immediately fell back to tumble from her saddle. Everything was still moving too slowly, and she seemed to fall for an age before slamming against the ground to lie sprawled and panting. The breath within her visor sounded laboured. It hurt when she breathed. Her chest and back were afire with pain, her vision swam and the sounds of battle from all around her were strangely muted, but she realised with vague, distracted relief that she could still hear her own pounding heartbeat. It sounded as strong as ever.

Lady Karen yelled in triumph as her lance impaled her screaming opponent through the ribs, splintering instantly as her stricken foe fell sideways off her mount to land hard and roll brokenly, gore spurting from where the lance entered and left her armoured torso. With no time to savour the kill, Karen threw the useless remains of her lance aside, drawing her longsword quickly. With the balance so much in the enemy's favour, she knew another foe would be upon her in an instant. Screams of pain and fury echoed around her, as Knights from both sides were tossed from their saddles, plucked off their mounts by impaling lancetips or simply knocked aside by glancing blows. Armoured figures tumbled before her horse's hooves, but she could not tell who was friend or enemy, and took care to avoid the sprawling bodies as she raised her blade and shouted a challenge to any Knight who cared to fight her.

As if in response, an enemy Knight couched her lance and thundered towards Karen, who swore as she nudged her shield into place with her shoulder, reins and sword gripped tightly as she waited for the numbing impact. The steel-tipped lance wavered before her, angling towards her head as the enemy Knight sought a spectacular kill. Her undoing was to assume Karen was afraid of clashing with a better armed opponent. Screaming a battlecry, Karen ducked sideways in her saddle, nimbly avoiding the vicious lancehead and lashing out with her sword. The enemy Knight yelled in pain as the sword bit into her right arm, the glancing blow inflicting little damage but causing her to drop her lance. She wheeled her mount around as she quickly glanced at her arm. Karen's blade had split the plate, but the cut beneath did not seem to be deep, and would not hinder her in combat. Growling as she planned her revenge, the Knight plucked a long-bladed axe from her saddle, dropping the weapon's length through her chain-mittened hands until she gripped the shaft near its lower end.

As Karen spurred her horse towards the woman again, she saw that the enemy Knight was swinging the axe in a wide arc, timing the swings so that she would chop with maximum strength towards her diminutive opponent. Knowing her shield would never be able to counter such a blow, Karen dug her spurs in deep and her mount whinnied in pain, bolting forward to close the gap between the riders faster than the enemy Knight had anticipated. Her axe in mid-swing, the Knight could do nothing but swear and lean away from Karen as far as possible, almost dropping her axe as she tried to halt the weapon mid-swing. Karen tugged her reins and stabbed with all her might as her horse's flanks slammed into those of her enemy's mount. Their greaves clashed with a screech of steel on steel, and Karen felt her leg wrenched backwards, but her sword was driving towards her enemy's breast and she gasped in pleasure as the shining blade slid through plate mail seemingly without resistance. The enemy Knight convulsed as she screamed in pain, her axe tumbling from nerveless fingers. Her left hand released the reins to grab at the sword where it entered her body, and as Karen's momentum dragged the dying Knight from her horse she fell limply, the sword ripped from her body with a shriek of tortured steel and a hissing fountain of blood.

Gore slicked Karen's blade, and she turned her horse so she could see her dying foe writhe on the hoof churned grass, clutching the buckled split in her breastplate where a trickle of blood spilled over her polished armour. Spurring her horse again, Karen wrenched on the reins to guide her mount over her fallen opponent. Bones snapped and splintered under buckling steel as the armoured beast ground the screaming woman into the ground, and as Karen rode away to seek another foe, a stream of bright blood gushed from the slits in the dead Knight's visor, as her body quivered spasmodically on the crimson grass.

Emma hacked at her foe with strength borne of desperation. Her shield was gone, and her ribs ached from the shuddering impact of an enemy lance. She had plucked one enemy from her saddle, but another had been directly behind the first and had caught her unawares. She faced this woman now, who had abandoned her broken lance for a wicked looking flail. Emma's sword flashed in the watery sunlight, but she knew her shield would have served her well against such a weapon. She drove her horse in close, not giving her foe a chance to use the weapon to its full effect. Studded balls skittered across Emma's breastplate, but without the space to swing her weapon properly, the enemy Knight knew she was in trouble.

Emma chopped again and again, lacerating the steel of the other woman's shield, until one particularly fine strike knocked the shield aside, revealing the enemy's torso. Yelling in triumph, Emma raised her sword once more and lashed down, and as the other Knight leant aside in a vain attempt to dodge the blow, she only succeeded in altering the point of impact from her head to her shoulder. Sparks flew as Emma's blade sheared steel and bone alike, hewing the Knight's arm from her body. The limb dropped to the ground to lie twitching, the buckled shield still strapped to the forearm. Blood hosed from the ragged stump that now jutted from the enemy Knight's torso, and scream after ragged scream could be heard from beneath the woman's visor. Emma wheeled her horse around in a full circle, taking in the carnage around her and estimating her losses. It was hard to tell, but with such a melee victory could only go with numbers. Reality began to dawn as she realised her lancers would not have the chance to slaughter any infantry today. Cursing, she whipped her steed around once more, swinging her blade in a wide arc to decapitate her still screaming victim. Blood belched from the woman's neck as her helmet flew, blond tresses spilling unchecked, before bouncing on the soft green grass.

Two more enemy Knights rounded on Emma, who roared a challenge as she whipped her blade around her head and charged towards these fresh opponents. Her sword clanged off the shield of the first woman, who stabbed in response with her own blade before Emma's horse whisked her past. The blade screeched over her lower back, fortunately not penetrating Emma's plate armour, and she rounded on the second enemy Knight, chopping overhead and forcing the woman to parry with the head of her battleaxe. Yanking the weapon aside with her own, Emma fumbled at her belt with her left hand as she clenched her thighs to stay atop her horse. Whisking a long-bladed dagger from her belt, Emma leant across towards her foe, wrenching her sword to one side. The enemy Knight grunted as her axe shifted, but before she could gather her strength to compete against Emma's, she saw her opponent's dagger lashing out towards her helmet. She gasped as she threw her head aside to avoid the weapon, but Emma stabbed at her face until the narrow blade slid neatly into the slit on her visor. The woman squealed with unimaginable pain as the dagger's tip lanced her eyeball, loosing a spurt of clear fluid. Emma cursed as the dagger was wrenched from her hand, and recovered her grip on her reins as the blinded Knight's mount carried her out of immediate danger.

The first enemy Knight had turned to gallop towards Emma once again, but now the fight was one on one, and the grey-eyed Amazon Knight knew she could not be beaten. With renewed strength she battled, hacking and chopping at the other woman's sword and shield, not giving her enemy a chance to respond. A glancing blow buckled the Knight's right pauldron, and her sword drooped as her arm was numbed. Swiftly taking advantage of the woman's distraction, Emma whirled her blade overhead to chop down with all her might, cleaving the Knight's head in two with one sure stroke. The Knight was killed instantly, her sheared helm falling apart to reveal a tangle of raven hair around a pale, oval face split asunder by Emma's blade. Blood belched from the hideous wound, and as the two halves of her skull fell apart onto her shoulders the woman's brains spilled over her chest. Her spasming legs kicked her clear off her horse to land spread-eagled and lifeless, chunks of grey matter spilling from the neatly severed halves of her skull.

Staring down at the woman she had just killed, Emma screamed in sudden agony as cold metal abruptly slammed into her lower back. Twisting her mount around, she saw the half blinded Knight she had thought out of the fight, leaning back in her saddle to chop again with her bloodied battleaxe. Gasping in shocked pain, Emma still had the sense to lean back in her saddle and yank hard on her reins. The axehead whipped in front of her eyes, missing her but sinking deep into her saddle. Her horse whinnied in pain and bolted, and Emma clutched her reins with all her strength to avoid being pitched off. Gritting her teeth against the pain in her back, the Amazon Knight plunged headlong through a mass of battling Knight, until her mount suddenly burst from the melee to gallop uncontrollably towards the gleaming lines of infantry that were circumventing the mounted Knights' battle.

Yelling at her mount and yanking on her reins, Emma slowly regained control of the beast, but noticed as she did so that a dozen infantry had detached from their marching lines to charge towards her, weapons raised and yelling battlecries. At the same time, Emma twisted in her saddle to see two enemy Knights had followed her from the melee, both obviously intent in taking her life.

'Shit,' she muttered, but then a grin split her face as she flexed her aching swordarm and prepared to fight again. 'Come on!' she yelled at the approaching warriors, and laughed in glorious abandon as she wheeled her horse towards the mounted women and charged, her freely flowing wound forgotten in the ecstasy of battle.

'They're losing,' Hayley fretted as she craned her neck to see as much of the battle as she could.

'They'll be OK,' Fran tried to reassure her companion, but knew her voice betrayed her own uncertainty. 'But look, not all the enemy riders have engaged.'

Four mounted enemy Knights were approaching the fort, their saddles borne down with large stacks of what looked like straw. Two dropped their loads a short distance from the west wall, while the other two continued around to the north wall, yelling obscenities to the Knights atop the walls as they cast their own stacks down Leaning low in their saddles, the enemy Knight ignited tapers which they then dropped onto the straw. Immediately dense black smoke began to belch from the stacks, drifting on the light breeze in dark clouds towards the walls of the fort.

'Cunning bitches,' Fran muttered, 'We won't be able to see a damn thing until they're right on top of us.'

'Still, I don't see what use it'll do them,' Hayley pondered. She was more concerned that she would not be able to see if their lancers could turn their battle around to score what would now be an miraculous triumph. She could only hope that Charlotte was still alive and fighting.

Karen yanked her blade from the visor of another Knight, watching dispassionately as the dying woman pitched with a scream from her horse to roll brokenly on the bloody, hoof shredded ground. She glanced around, noting that the press of mounted warriors was considerably thinner than it had been minutes earlier. Although the melee had spread over the plain, many had fallen on both sides, and now the battlefield comprised dozens of sprawled, bloody bodies of women and horses. A number of horses galloped riderless through the remaining warriors, most of whom seemed to be Lady Marina's Knights. Karen scowled as she flexed her aching swordarm. She was tiring, and the sensible move would be to retreat back to the fort with whomever remained alive of Elizabeth's lancers. Close by, two enemy Knights combined against a sole Amazon Knight, who fought bravely against the odds. Karen spurred her horse forward to assist her comrade, her bloody sword held aloft as she screamed a challenge.

One of the Knight's turned to face the newcomer, hefting a heavy mace clotted with gore. She swung the weapon around as she and Karen closed the gap between them, then cast the weapon in an overhead arc in hope of crushing the diminutive Knight's skull. Tired though she was, Karen had not lost her senses, and dragged the reins of her horse to veer the creature out of harms way. As the enemy Knight cursed as her mace swished past Karen's leg harmlessly, the Amazon Knight chopped with all her might, driving her sword into the other woman's left shoulder. Plate mail split, and the enemy Knight shrieked as she was ripped open down to the breast. Her shoulder and the upper part of her torso sagged away from the rest of her body. She gurgled in pain and was dragged from her saddle as Karen struggled to keep her weapon, yanking the bloody blade free amidst a crimson spray that spattered against her leg and the flank of her horse. At the same moment, the other enemy Knight died gurgling as her opponent slashed open her chain aventail, slicing open her throat. Clutching at the ribbon of blood that spurted from the ragged tear, the stricken Knight tumbled from her horse to land hard, then writhe on the bloody ground as her life slipped away in a torrent of viscous vomit that spilled from the slits in her visor.

The Amazon Knight saluted Karen, flipping open her visor for a second. 'Thanks,' she called.

'Kiri?' Karen called back, 'It's Karen! We're losing!'

'I know.' Emma's former handmaiden cast a sour look at the scattered riders, then frowned at the thick pall of black smoke that wafted across the battlefield. 'What the hell is that?'

'Cover,' Karen nodded towards the line of infantry giving the mounted Knights a wide berth. 'Looks like Marina had been planning this attack for a while.'

Kiri followed Karen's gaze, her eyes widening as she saw what her colleague had seen. 'Shit,' she muttered. 'What should we do? Retreat to Erran?'

Karen nodded, readying her blade as two more enemy Knights cantered towards them. 'A fighting withdrawal, I think it's called.'

Emma's first opponent had been far too confident, and paid the price with her life. As she gurgled blood and pitched from her saddle, Emma's blade sliding with a rasp from her heart, the second Knight took care to treat Emma with the respect she obviously deserved. Armed with sword and shield, Marina's Knight probed Emma's defences, circling around her foe to test the wounded woman's strength. Emma felt herself begin to pant as her wound took its toll, and sagged in the saddle after parrying a thrust from her opponent. Marina's Knight was no fool, however, and knew an act when she saw one. Although her wound bled freely, Emma was still dangerous, and the Knight guided her horse back a few steps, knowing she had the advantage and could wait for the right moment to strike.

Half the dozen infantry who had detached from Marinas main force had returned to their positions after seeing their two Knights approach to engage Emma, and the other six kept their distance, awaiting the outcome of the carefully waged battle.

Knowing the odds were against her, Emma decided to risk offering herself as a more tempting target. As her opponent skilfully manoeuvred her mount around Emma's flank, the wounded Knight appeared to lose control of her steed, and her back was turned towards her enemy. Marina's Knight hesitated, knowing that this could be a trick but tempted to sheath her sword in Emma's slim back. The temptation was too much to resist, and the Knight spurred her horse forward, her arm drawn back ready to deliver the killing stab.

She gaped as Emma's horse spun around as she commenced her lunge, and the cunning Amazon Knight whipped her blade in a wide arc to sweep the thrusting weapon aside. Her balance lost, the enemy Knight gripped her reins tightly, vainly trying to control her blade to parry Emma's answering thrust. She was out of luck, and screamed in pain as Emma's blood slicked weapon sliced through her breastplate to sink deep between her ribs, splintering bone and slicing internal organs. Her body shuddered, and her back arched as Emma wrenched her sword free, its length shining with fresh gore. Emma followed up by lashing her sword in a wide arc, chopping into the woman's neck and ripping the blade away with a flourish. Her head only half severed, the woman gargled blood as gore sprayed from the widening gash under her ear. Cries of alarm arose from the foot soldiers nearby, and Emma turned on them with a roar, not even bothering to watch her dying foe crumple from her saddle, her head finally ripping free from her body as she smashed against the ground.

Marina's foot soldiers were lighter armoured than their mounted comrades. Their garb consisted of chainmail, overlaid with a breastplate, greaves and bracers. Their helmets were open faced, allowing them a clearer range of vision when they scaled the walls of the fort. These unprotected faces were Emma's prime target. A Knight spun screaming, clutching her split features as Emma's sword lashed down. Her eyeball lacerated, the Knight crumpled to squirm in pain, blood and fluid spilling over the ground. A second Knight stared open mouthed at the blood spattered Knight, seemingly awed at Emma's invincibility, and the mounted Amazon thrust down into the woman's gaping mouth, stabbing through the back of her throat and yanking her blade aside to rip the woman's head half off. Clutching at the geyser of gore that spurted from her neck, the woman gurgled and collapsed.

Emma laughed as the other four Knights turned to flee, unwilling to confront her. Her laugh turned to a wince of pain as her wound flared, and she clutched at her reins to stop herself falling from her saddle. Her vision swam, but she blinked her confusion away, determined that she would see the battle through to the bitter end. Turning her attention back to the mounted melee, she swore as she saw Marina's Knights had won, many now turning to ride towards the fort, leaving just eight of their number to finish off the four Amazon Knights that remained fighting. Spurring her tired horse forward, Emma flexed her own complaining muscles, eager to rip the life from more enemy soldiers.

Consciousness returned to Charlotte as a high pitched scream sounded nearby. An armoured figure struck the ground hard a little way to her left, and Charlotte stared bleary eyed through her visor's slits as an enemy Knight vainly tried to stand, clutching at greasy blood spurting from the ragged stump of her forearm. A horse whinnied, and another Knight guided the beast into view, dismounting easily to stand above the stricken Knight. Straddling the woman's groaning body, the short Knight gripped her sword two handed and raised it above her head before stabbing down into the defeated woman's breast. The woman gurgled as the sword invaded her chest, and her body spasmed in its death throes as the victrix yanked her blade free and lifted her visor to watch her enemy die with grim satisfaction.

'Karen,' Charlotte mouthed the name, unsure as to whether the tiny Knight would hear, but Karen's head turned towards her, blinking in surprise. She glanced around to make sure there were no more enemies nearby, then stepped close to Charlotte and knelt by her side, lifting the wounded girl's visor. Charlotte gasped at the fresh air, then coughed, aware that she sprayed blood from her mouth with the ragged exhalation.

'Charlotte,' Karen said softly, her eyes moving down to where the jagged lance impaled her fellow Knight.

'Take the . . . helm off . . . please,' Charlotte whispered. 'I . . . can't breath.'

Karen's gauntletted hands fumbled at the straps securing Charlotte's helmet, her face grim as she realised the Knight who prepared her for initiation would probably not survive this day. As she gently manoeuvred the helm off Charlotte's head, the blond girl sighed in relief, her long hair golden as it lay spread around her head. 'Thanks,' she whispered to Karen, then opened her eyes to look up at the dark-haired girl. 'Better . . . get back to the . . . battle. I'll be . . . OK.' She coughed again, and Karen used her thumb to wipe away the blood on Charlotte's lip.

'Yeah, we've got our work cut out for us alright.' Karen glanced around in alarm as hooves approached, but saw only Kiri and Emma approach, their weapons wet with the blood of the remaining enemy Knights. 'Medics will be here soon,' she smiled down at Charlotte as she got to her feet, 'They'll get you fixed up. You might miss the celebratory meal tonight, though.'

Charlotte's lip curled as she looked up at Karen wanly, but her eyes were filled with fear and Karen realised her fellow Knight knew she might soon be dead. Unable to say anything more, Karen turned and heaved herself back into her saddle, wheeling her horse away as Emma moved her own steed closer. The senior Knight raised her visor to look Charlotte in the eye, then raised her blade in a simple salute before moving off, not saying a word.

Of the fifty Knights who rode into battle from Castle Erran, only three rode back. At their head, Lady Emma grimly watched the enemy infantry as they were swallowed by the black smoke they were using to cover their approach. Fifteen mounted enemy lancers remained, although these could do little until the portcullis was opened.

'They're fragmenting,' Emma called back, 'Content to hang back and watch the infantry do the hard work. We could take them in small groups.'

'Us three against fifteen?' Kiri queried incredulously, and Emma turned to glare at her former handmaiden.

'The odds are unimportant. We'll fight until we die, or they die. Preferably the latter.'

Karen rode silently, her attention diverted by the twisted and broken bodies that remained from the clashing of the mounted armies. Women rolled and groaned in agony, clutching at gashes or severed limbs. Many would be saved with prompt attention, and even now Marina's medics were approaching swiftly. Karen wondered for a second whether they would be able to save Charlotte. It seemed unlikely, but Elizabeth and Marina both employed ground-breaking technology to heal their Knights. There was always a chance.

The enemy yelled with excitement and fear as they approached the walls of the fort, and those atop the walls dealt with their own fear also, gripping their weapons tightly and straining to see through the waves of dense black smoke that obscured their view.

Beside Hayley, Fran snapped up her visor to squint through the smoke. 'What the hell is that?' she yelled as a wooden structure emerged into view, pulled by a team of horses and pushed by straining infantry.

'A beffroy,' Hayley exclaimed, 'Are they allowed to use those?'

'I don't think they care,' a Knight to one side muttered, watching grimly as the tall frame neared the walls of the fort.

'We're going to be in the thick of it after all,' Christa exclaimed excitedly, but Hayley turned as she heard shouts of consternation on the East wall, seeing the tops of two more beffroys close in on either side of the wheelhouse.

'They're going to be all over us in seconds,' she muttered, fear knotting her chest for the first time.

'Take them!' Katherine screamed as the first enemy Knights loomed over the fort's merlons, swords and axes held clumsily as they pulled themselves over the grey stone. She raised her own sword and chopped down into the face of the first Knight, who fell back with a cry as she saw the weapon slash towards her. Behind her, her colleagues pushed her forward, and she yelled in pain as Katherine's sword slammed into her shoulder, splitting her flesh and casting her to one side, where she crumpled against the walkway at Katherine's feet. Unable to take the time to finish her, Katherine raised her blade again, but the next enemy Knight launched herself forward to cannon into Katherine, who cursed as she reeled back against a colleague, her enemy pressing her back to allow more of her own comrades to gain a foothold on the fort wall. Swords scraped against armour in close proximity, their owners unable to find the space to chop with sufficient force to sunder armour. Within seconds the walls were crammed with Knights from both sides, yelling and spitting in pain and fury as they fought for their lives.

Sinead lost sight of Katherine as she frantically tried to push an enemy Knight back over the wall onto her beffroy. She became aware of ladders scraping against the wall to either side of the siege tower, and began to panic at the thought of more enemy Knights able to outflank the defenders and slaughter them with ease. With one final heave she cast her screaming opponent away, then turned to where another enemy was just about to heave herself over the fort wall. The woman's exposed face was contorted with exertion as she heaved her heavy body over the wall, but her features slackened into surprised pain as Sinead plunged her sword through plate armour into her breast. She disappeared back over the wall to fall screaming, and Sinead gazed at the blood slicking her blade in excited awe.

Further south on her wall, other Amazon Knights were keeping the walls clear of invading troops, but the problem lay with the beffroys, and Sinead turned her attention back to where more enemy Knights were clambering onto the wall, closing with the defenders to give their colleagues more room. An Amazon Knight screamed and pitched back off the wall into the fort grounds, falling loose-limbed to land with a crash on the flagstones below. Another Knight followed her, clutching at a hosing arm stump and keening shrilly as she tumbled headfirst towards certain death. As the wall became more crowded, many more would fall to their deaths, and Sinead pledged to herself that would not be her fate.

Before her, a fellow Knight grappled with an enemy, until an axe wielded by another enemy Knight chopped down into her skull to end her brave battle. Soundlessly the woman slumped to the ground, her brains splattering to steam on the cold stone, and Sinead found herself facing a fresh foe. The woman screamed a battlecry and lunged forward with sword extended, and Sinead frantically bashed the weapon aside. The enemy Knight slammed into her, and her breath whooshed out as she staggered back against the cold stone merlons of the fort wall. She gripped her opponent's arm as the enemy Knight made to draw back her sword to strike again, and tried to manoeuvre her own blade so she could stab between the Knight's armour and bury her sword in yielding flesh. Sweat blinded her as she struggled, and her opponent's exposed face twisted as she flexed her own muscles, pitching them against Sinead's sinewy strength.

Sinead gasped as she felt movement at her back, and screamed in frustration as someone grabbed her from behind, yanking her head back and grabbing her swordarm. Another enemy Knight had clambered up a ladder to grab at the battling Amazon Knight, holding her firm while the Knight before her freed her blade and reared back for an unhindered strike. Sinead could only yell a pointless denial as the sword rammed forward, splitting through her armour to slice between her ribs. Cold pain exploded in her body and she bucked, her knees instantly quivering as razor sharp steel sliced through her insides. The victorious Knight yanked the blade free, only to ram it forward again into Sinead's belly, and the Irish girl wept as she felt mortal pain, knowing her time had come. A dagger blade stabbed into her lower back as the Knight who held her claimed her own blood and, unable to move, Sinead sagged against the cold stone of the fort as steel slid again and again into her dying flesh. She only wished she could have experienced the rush of killing a couple more times before her number had come up.

Hayley yanked her sword free of quivering flesh, kicking a dying Knight's body off the wall before turning to find a new foe. Her breath came heavy already, even though the battle was little more than a minute old. Several of her colleagues had already fallen, although Fran still fought a short distance away, yelling abuse at her opponent as she rained blows down on the stricken Knight's axeblade. The enemy Knight stumbled under the assault, and Fran excitedly struck her killing blow, sweeping her sword wide to hack into her foe's side. The sword sheared armour to slice deep through the woman's belly, and as she gasped and crumpled against the parapet, clutching at where intestines had begun to spill from the ragged gash in her body and armour. The guts piled up between her knees and slithered over her thighs, steaming in the morning cool. The Knight whimpered, clutching at her innards, her clumsy gauntlets mashing the delicate organs and stringy intestines.

'Shit!' Fran gaped at the dying woman, then reared back to chop again at the side of the Knight's head. The blow killed the woman instantly, but as her body pitched sideways, her wound opened wider still, causing what remained of her innards to spill steaming over the cool flagstones.

Knights screamed as they fell back over the wall to plummet towards the ground far below, or crumpled against wide merlons to clutch at spurting wounds or grip severed limb stumps. An Amazon Knight yelled in pain as her face was split open, her visor hanging off as she spun before Hayley, hands clawed around her slashed visage. Hayley pushed the wounded Knight aside and stepped forward to clash blades with the unfortunate woman's attacker, a tall enemy Knight armed with a wide-bladed axe. Jostled from both sides, the two Knights reeled back and forth before crashing against the wall, where Hayley's foe yelled in fear as she nearly fell between two merlons. Grunting, Hayley dropped her sword and brought her mailed hand up between the woman's legs, gripping her securely and heaving her up and over the wall with all her strength. The woman disappeared with a yelp, and Hayley sagged against the wall, fancying she heard the woman's scream as she fell to her death.

A helm flashed past her face, and Hayley caught a glimpse of orange hair as, nearby, Christa crumpled to her knees, clutching the side of her head where blood flowed freely. An enemy Knight stood over her, axe ready to finish the Amazon Knight. Cursing, Hayley scooped up her sword and staggered forward, pushing past two more battling Knights on the cramped wall-top to close in on the Knight before she could start her swing. The enemy Knight saw the diminutive Amazon Knight approach, and settled for slamming a foot into Christa's chest to send her sprawling. Hefting her axe, the Knight yelled a challenge to Hayley and swung overarm, intending to chop down into Hayley's skull. Unable to stop her lunge, Hayley put her head down and dived, the breath leaving her body as she slammed into her foe's larger form, sending the woman staggering. The two Knights jostled, their armoured forms crashing off other Knights as they fought, too close to inflict any damage on the other. A sword blade slashed by Hayley's side, and she gasped as she realised other Knights were lunging blindly in the hope of scoring a kill. Amazon Knights at her own back responded in kind, and within seconds Hayley could hardly breath in the sweating, groaning press of bodies. Women screamed in pain as swords punched through armour and flesh, and more than one blade scraped against Hayley's own armour, fortunately not getting past her shielding platemail.

Then, a great weight surged forwards towards her, and Hayley groaned as she felt herself toppling back to crash against the flagstones, the weight of her opponent crushing her as Knights from both sides fell into a mass of twisted, dented armour and mangled limbs. Raising a knee, Hayley thrust the woman atop her to one side, and was somewhat surprised when the woman disappeared screaming, tumbling from the wall to fall into the keep grounds and land with a bone crunching impact. Realising how close she was to the parapet's edge herself, Hayley pushed herself back, taking a second to snap open her visor to drink in some welcome fresh air.

'Hayley!' A helmet appeared before her face, its lower edged ringed with ginger curls. Fran yanked her friend back from the mass melee, and Hayley struggled to her feet to sag against a merlon and take stock. 'We're winning,' Fran told her excitedly. 'Most of the enemy are attacking the east wall, this just seems to be a half hearted attempt to take a flank. The south wall isn't being attacked at all!'

Glancing to the south, Hayley could see the Amazon Knights there yelling encouragement to their fellows, obviously disappointed they could not join the fight. She looked to the east wall, where chaos reigned. The walls were packed with fighting women, in such close quarters that the use of weapons looked almost impossible.

'How's Christa?' Hayley panted, and Fran gestured to the wall close by, where the orange haired Knight was slumped against a merlon, cradling her bleeding head but not looking in too bad a condition.

'Out of it, but she'll be OK. Let's help finish the job here, OK?'

Hayley gathered her strength again, gripping her sword as she slammed down her visor and turned to where the remnants of the enemy were still fighting atop her wall. Outnumbered, their numbers were dwindling fast, but nearby an Amazon Knight was falling, and Hayley lunged towards the woman's killer, who was grunting in exertion as she dragged her weapon free of her victim's body. Instantly forced to defend against the Amazon Knight who came at her screaming a battlecry, the enemy Knight staggered, her weapon flailing. Taking advantage of her opponent's confusion, Hayley rammed her sword deep into her enemy's belly. The woman groaned and doubled over, gripping Hayley's arm and shuddering as the steel blade sank deeper into her body before splitting from her lower back, wet with gore.

Dizzy with the ecstasy of battle, Hayley held the woman for a moment as she took in the carnage around her. Women lay sprawled or huddled, dead or dying. The fort's wall was strewn with fallen weapons, hewn limbs and spattered innards. She had fought and killed, her blade ripping the life from other women, and it was her choice now whether the woman in her arms would live or die. This thought ignited the fire that had been kindling in her loins. She gasped in pleasure as she reared back, her sword ripping from her victim's body. The enemy Knight groaned and staggered back, but as her rump slammed into a merlon, Hayley's blade was already swooping in, chopping open her breastplate and sinking deep into her breast. The enemy Knight expelled a throaty groan, sinking to the flagstones, her eyes looking up at Hayley pleadingly. A gasp caught in Hayley's throat as she tensed and came, her body quivering in pleasure as she dragged her bloodstained weapon free of her dying opponent. The enemy Knight's head fell to one side as she died, bloody saliva spilling over her slack lips and her eyes rolling back in her head.

Katherine gritted her teeth against the pain as she chopped her blade again and again into the press of enemy Knights in front of her. Sparks flew as the blade struck armour, but her blows were weak and none penetrated. A swordtip glanced against her hip as an enemy Knight tried to find the space to thrust through her own armour, and Katherine slammed an elbow into the woman's helm, blinding her as her visorless armour shifted to cover her eyes.

The Amazon Knights were in trouble on this stretch of the wall, and had almost been pressed back to the gatehouse, where a rear guard valiantly protected the portcullis winch. Once the enemy took the gatehouse, nothing would stop them opening the way into the keep grounds. In fact, several of the enemy had already descended the wall steps and were clashing with the Amazon Knights stationed in the main keep area. Unable to determine exactly how many enemy remained, Katherine tried to concentrate on the battle in hand, to keep the onslaught of enemy Knights back as long as possible. But she tasted blood in her mouth, and knew that her strength was failing. Cursing, Katherine lanced a foot out in anger, kicking an enemy Knight away and surprising herself as she cleared enough room to launch a powerful overhead swing at the floundering woman. The Knight screamed as steel sliced through her breastplate and ripped open her chest, falling back loosely before being swallowed up by more of her colleagues.

'That's it girls! Give 'em hell!'

Katherine recognised Lady Diane's voice. The large brunette was stood in the open doorway to the gatehouse, and she presented a fearsome barrier to the encroaching enemy. She stood in a battle stance, as if daring the enemy to approach. An enemy Knight broke through the Amazon Knights' ragged line to swing at the senior Knight, and Diane swept the blade aside with derision before lashing her sword forward deep into the other woman's belly. The Knight stumbled back squealing as her abdomen was ruptured, but more of her fellows poured forward to engage Diane, and Katherine knew the gatehouse would not hold for much longer. A Knight barrelled into her, pressing her back against the wall in an attempt to wrestle her to the ground. Grunting in exertion, Katherine despaired as she felt her strength leave her body, and sagged towards the cold flagstones.

Mounted Knights watched their infantry comrades scale the walls of the keep, shouting in support and waving their swords in the air. From here the battle looked to be going well, and although many huddled bodies lined the outer wall of the keep, they were sure their Knights would prevail. Soon the gate would be opened, allowing the remaining lancers entry to what would amount to a killing ground packed with ground borne troops.

The three watching Knights became aware of hooves from behind, and turned to see who approached. They cursed as they saw enemy riders bearing down on them, armed with lances claimed from the battleground a distance away. They swung their mounts around, desperately trying to make some room to manoeuvre, but it was already too late. Lanceheads slammed into their armour, ripping through steel to rupture soft bodies, scattering blood and lumps of flesh as the razor sharp weapons emerged from muscular backs. Their bodies slammed against the ground, rolling amidst welters of gore to end up spreadeagled and dying. The victorious Amazon Knights did not celebrate their victory, instead casting their useless lances aside and flipping open their visors to watch the grim battle above.

'This doesn't look good,' Emma muttered. 'They've nearly taken the gatehouse.' She looked to the north, where the main gate could just be seen through the pall of greasy smoke that still hung over the fort. 'The rest of the riders are congregating before the gate,' she noted, 'If they get in, things will be bad for Helena and her girls.'

'When the gate opens, we hit them as hard as we can,' Kiri suggested, and Emma smiled at her former handmaiden, happy to see her courage returning. Twelve enemy Knight remained on horseback, and although surprise was on the Amazon Knights' side, they were only three and could not hope to win against such odds. Still, all three accepted wordlessly that they would die trying.

'Looks like a final push,' Karen noted, as the enemy Knights on the wall above surged forwards against the struggling defenders. The three mounted Knights watched the battle silently, hating the fact that they could not assist their fellows.

Hayley dragged her sword from another enemy body, staggering wearily as her bones ached. The woman before her died noisily, vomiting thick gore and flinging her arms around as blood spurted from the ragged tear between her breasts. She expired with a gurgle, and Hayley glanced around to see that no enemy Knights remained standing. Nearby, Fran leant against a merlon, panting for breath and nursing a dented vambrace, but gave Hayley a thumbs up. Of the twenty Amazon Knights who were stationed on the north wall, only seven remained standing.

'We're about to lose the gate,' Fran warned Hayley, gesturing to the east, where the press of enemy Knights threatened to overwhelm the remaining defenders.

'Katherine!' Hayley gasped as she strained to see her old friend. 'We've got to help, Fran.'

'We can't!' Fran told her, 'We're not allowed to leave the wall until the gate is open, remember?'

Hayley cursed under her breath as she watched the battle on the East wall, then snapped open her visor as she had an idea. 'Wait! We're not allowed to move onto the east wall or descend into the keep grounds, but the rules say nothing about going outside the keep itself, do they?'

Fran blinked at her friend for a second, then followed Hayley's gaze to the nearby beffroy. 'You're joking, right?'

Hayley sheathed her sword and moved to the wall, heaving herself over onto the solid wood of the siege tower. Enemy Knights groaned and shifted on the bloodstained platform, and Hayley had to shake off a clutching hand as she moved towards the ladder that descended to the centre platform and the ground below. Hearing movement above her, she glanced up and was relieved to see Fran following her.

'This is a really bad idea,' the ginger haired Knight complained, but Hayley didn't bother to answer. There was little time to waste if they were going to help Katherine and the other Knights on the Eastern wall. Reaching the ground, Hayley readied her sword and glanced around, expecting to be challenged by enemies. Aside from sprawled bodies and groaning wounded, no enemy Knights remained on this side of the keep. Hayley knew the situation would be different on the east side.

'Listen,' she shouted to Fran, 'The enemy have taken the southern edge of the east wall, but it looked like the north side was relatively clear. We head for the beffroy there, and we should be able to fight our way up to the wall and help our girls in the gatehouse. That's probably where Katherine is!'

Fran didn't bother mentioning the possibility that Katherine might already be dead. 'This could easily get us killed, you know?' she shouted back at her friend. Hayley only grinned.

'You want to live forever?'

'Well, a little while longer might be nice,' Fran grumbled, but snapped her visor down and followed her friend as Hayley made off around the edge of the keep towards the east side. Rounding the edge, Hayley hesitated to peer through the thinning smoke to where a score of enemy Knights massed outside the portcullused gate, obviously waiting for their colleagues on the wall above to take the gatehouse. Beyond them, further to the south, Hayley could still see activity on the furthest beffroy, where enemy Knights pulled their wounded down to waiting medics or clambered onto the keep wall. The closest beffroy was deserted, apart from the sprawled bodies of fallen Knights. Relieved that no enemy stood close by, Hayley thrust her sword back in its scabbard and ran for the siege tower, hearing Fran's heavy armour clanking behind her. Somewhere close she could hear hooves, and the ringing of steel on steel as mounted Knights clashed. Hope surged in her heart as she realised some of Elizabeth's lancers were still fighting. Then, she pushed all thought of Charlotte from her mind as she grabbed at the wooden ladder of the beffroy. As the two Amazon Knights reached the tower an enemy Knight at the gate spotted them, slapping a colleague on the shoulder and gesturing at the two Knights in alarm.

'Shit!' Fran shouted as the two enemy Knights approached, weapons ready.

'Get up, quickly!' Hayley pushed her colleague towards the ladder, urging her upwards and leaping up behind her. Fran clambered onto the first platform with a groan, turning to grab for Hayley's arm and help her climb. An enemy Knight swung her axe, just missing Hayley's foot as the tiny Knight threw herself up onto the platform, rolling over Fran to lie sprawled and panting. Fran clambered to her feet and yanked her blade from its scabbard, then moved to the ladder to swipe at one of the Knights below who had started to climb the ladder. The Knight prudently dropped back down to the ground as Fran's sword swished close to her head.

'Come on, you bitches!' Fran yelled, then laughed as she turned to Hayley. 'These two won't be too keen in trying to get up here. You get up on the wall and find Katherine.'

'OK,' Hayley clapped her friend on the shoulder, then turned to face the next ladder, steeling her aching limbs for more climbing. She forced herself up to the next platform, then up to the final level that was on a par with the keep's wall. The wooden planking was massed with bodies, as a score of enemy Knights had died trying to breach this side of the wall. Hayley pulled herself onto the keep wall with a grunt, peering at the bodies slumped and stacked against the merlons with dismay. So many were her colleagues, but she had no time to help the wounded and dying, as sounds of frantic battle issued from the nearby gatehouse.

'Who the hell is that?' yelled a voice behind Hayley, and she spun around to face a bloody Amazon Knight who was staggering to her feet, visor open to reveal pale features. Hayley recognised the woman as a long serving Knight, but could not remember her name.

'Hayley,' she lifted her visor to show her face, 'What happened here?'

'We kept them back,' the other Knight winced as she sagged against a merlon, and Hayley realised she was badly wounded. 'The cost was high, but we kept them back. Then they retreated back down the beffroy to bolster the attack to the south side. We didn't have many girls left to assist over there, but those that could still fight went to strengthen the gatehouse. I . . . I stayed here just in case some of those bitches doubled back.' The Knight frowned and peered over the wall as sounds of ringing steel sounded from below. Hayley hoped Fran could hold off the enemy Knights on the lower platform, but turned her attention to the gatehouse.

'Take care,' she shouted over her shoulder, 'The next Knight over this wall could be a friend.'

'Understood,' the wounded Knight wheezed and coughed, but held her blade resolutely as she braced herself against the keep wall.

Bodies were clustered around the northern doorway of the gatehouse, and within the cramped chamber, Amazon Knights pressed at the southern doorway to keep the enemy out. Hayley's heart sank as she saw only four Amazon Knights comprised the defence, and enemy Knights were massed outside, waiting their turn to move in. Lady Diane was sprawled by the portcullis winch, gasping for breath and clutching a bloody rent in her armour. Her helmet had been removed and she seemed to look at Hayley as the tiny Knight entered the gatehouse, but Hayley moved past the stricken woman to where her colleagues laboured at the other door.

An Amazon Knight spun around and staggered against the nearside wall, slumping to the floor and wrenching her visor up to gasp for breath. Her face was pale and blood speckled her lips, but Hayley's heart soared as she saw her friend's face. 'Katherine!' She dropped to her knees beside her mentor, who looked at her in surprise.

'Hayley? What the hell are you . . . doing here? You're . . . supposed to be on the . . .' Katherine broke off into a ragged fit of coughing, but Hayley didn't have time to help her friend, as the enemy outside made a final push, bursting past the last defenders to spill into the gatehouse with a massed cry of triumph. Cursing, Hayley stood and readied her blade, then dove forward with swordtip extended to impale one of the first enemy Knights to enter. The woman's cry of victory turned to a scream of pain, and Hayley pushed the dying woman off her sword back against the press of Knights, desperate to make some room for her three remaining colleagues.

An enemy Knight barrelled against her and she stumbled back into the room. Ignoring the woman's sword clanking against her abdomen, Hayley wrenched her blade in front of her and rammed the tip up under the woman's chin, impaling her head thoroughly. The Knight screamed as her eyeballs burst from their sockets, and blood erupted from her lolling mouth. The gore splattered over Hayley's helm and breastplate, momentarily blinding her. She staggered back, clawing at her visor but unable to raise it. Cursing, she ripped at the leather straps that held her helm in place, discarding the vital armour just so she could see and breathe. The gatehouse seemed impossibly clogged with Knights, fighting in such close proximity that most weapons were rendered useless. Two enemy Knights were already heaving at the portcullis winch, but then Fran appeared in the north door, yelling a battlecry as she charged the enemy with bloody sword raised. Forcing her tortured muscles into action, Hayley gritted her teeth and staggered back into the fray, determined to fight until the end.

Karen bashed a battleaxe aside, then ducked with a curse as a longsword blade swooped in towards her throat. Wheeling her mount around, she quickly glanced to where Emma and Kiri battled on against overwhelming odds. Blood slicked Kiri's left arm from a fresh rent in her shoulder, and Karen knew the three Knights' luck had nearly run out. They had been spotted by the mounted enemy, and all twelve women had left the gate to deal with the remaining mounted Amazon Knights. Two lay moaning on the bloody grass, swiped from their saddles by Elizabeth's finest warriors, but the odds were too high.

Emma still shouted at her foes as she swung her sword, but her cries lacked power and conviction, and her blows were weak. Blood matted her saddle and the flanks of her mount, and three enemy Knights swarmed around her like vultures, waiting for the moment to strike down the Amazon Knight who had killed many of their comrades. One moved in for the kill, axe raised for glory, but once more Emma's strength seemed to surge as she whipped her steed around and raised her blade to sweep the chopping axe aside. The enemy Knight had time to scream in dismay before Emma's sword swept back, ripping through the chainmail swathing her neck to send links tinkling through the air, swiftly followed by a greasy torrent of blood. Her horse carried her away gurgling, as she clutched at her torn throat and Emma screamed in victory. Angered by their colleague's demise, the two other enemy Knights closed in, their swords lashing down at Emma, who now sagged in her saddle, seemingly without the strength to even raise her blade over her head.

One Knight laughed in victory as her blade ripped through steel and bone, sending Emma's right arm spinning free from her torso. Blood squirted, and the brave Amazon Knight rolled in her saddle with a guttural exhalation, until her second opponent's blade angled in to smash into the side of her helmet, slicing open the steel plate and the flesh beneath. Her head snapping sideways, her groan silenced instantly, Emma wavered in her saddle a second longer before her body slowly toppled back off her mount to crash into the blood sodden grass. Her battered form rolled, her remaining arm flopping and legs kicking spasmodically, then she lay still and spreadeagled, gore still pumping from her shoulder and from the rent in her helm.

Cold rage gripped at Karen, and she clashed blades with another enemy Knight helplessly as she heard Kiri's shout of pain from nearby. Lifted from her saddle by an enemy axe, Emma's former handmaiden slammed against the ground near to the gate, where Marina's infantry clustered. A number of these Knights surged forwards, grabbing Kiri's arms and legs and holding her down as the Knight who had unhorsed her leapt from her saddle to stand before her immobilised form. The enemy Knight removed her helm, revealing startling, cropped white hair. Her face was twisted in an evil leer as she regarded the Amazon Knight spread before her, and she slowly and deliberately raised her axe high over her head. As Karen bashed her opponent's blade aside, she saw the axe swoop down towards Kiri's helpless body.

'Noooo!' she yelled in anger, but nothing could stop the axeblade from biting through armour and deep into Kiri's breast. The Amazon Knight convulsed as her ribs were shattered. splintered shards erupting from her flesh and bloody vomit spraying from the slits in her helmet. Her pinioned limbs shuddered, and her back lifted from the ground to arch for long seconds before slumping back into the mud, lifeless and twitching.

Numbed by the deaths of her colleagues, Karen could only stare at Kiri's body, until she slowly became aware that the last nine enemy Knights were clustered in a circle around her. Then, an unbidden laugh broke from her lips, an insane chuckle that caused the enemy Knights to shiver.

'What are you waiting for? Nine of you. One of me. Those odds not good enough for you, eh?' Karen fumbled at the straps of her helmet, then cast the armour aside, allowing the enemy to see her face. 'I am Lady Karen of Erran, and I cannot be killed,' she told them, but then suddenly shouted in rage, 'Come on, you bitches! Who's first?'

At that moment, with a loud groan, the keep portcullis began to move ponderously upwards. The score of Knights clustered at the gates roared in triumph, ducking under the rising gate to swarm into the keep grounds. The remaining mounted Knights turned their horses away from Karen, yelling in excitement as they made for the widening portal, eager to get amongst the last enemy Knights stationed within. Karen watched them go in disbelief. Not a one stayed to fight her.

Within the gatehouse, enemy Knights cheered as the portcullis winch was locked in place. Instantly, most of those still present turned to leave the gatehouse, heading for the steps leading down into the keep grounds, or the southern wall where the Amazon Knights stationed there could now move in for the attack.

Hayley's foe was fatally distracted by the cheering of her comrades, and the tiny Amazon Knight punished her by sheathing her sword deep into the woman's guts. The Knight shuddered as steel invaded her belly, then collapsed writhing and moaning as Hayley ripped the blade free, clotted with glistening lumps of flesh and wrapped around with strings of intestine. Panting in exertion, Hayley braced herself for another foe, but most of the enemy Knights had already left. Half glad that the portcullis had been raised, and half dismayed by their failure, Hayley cast her gaze around the gatehouse, to see that Fran and Katherine were still locked in combat against an enemy Knight apiece. Fran bashed at her opponent with seeming vigour, still spitting curses and insults, while Katherine staggered and slumped against the rear walls, just barely keeping her opponent at bay. Hayley willed herself forward to help her former mistress, but as she closed the distance, something skittered across the floor between her feet, leaving a trail of sticky gore. A helmet clattered across the flagstones, and as it bounced off the near wall, the head within burst free, rolling to lie face up before Hayley.

Her blood froze. Fran's eyes looked up at her sightlessly, her red mane of hair draped across the bloody stones. Her mouth lolled open in death, and a trickle of blood spilled over her lips to dribble down one pale cheek. Hayley's vision swam, and she braced herself as she felt her body sway. When she could wrench her eyes from her friend's decapitated head to turn and face her killer, all she saw was the Knight's armoured back as she left the gatehouse by the northern door, where a half dozen of her colleagues had left seconds previously. A roar of anger broke from Hayley's lips, but as she turned to follow Fran's killer, desperate to revenge her friend, a shout of pain from Katherine stopped her in her tracks.

Katherine gripped the sword where it sank deep into her side. She sank to her knees, her back scraping against the wall of the gatehouse as she came to rest with legs spread before her. Her opponent yanked her blade from Katherine's body, causing a spurt of blood to burst from the rent in her armour. Katherine groaned at the fresh pain, then fumbled at her helmet straps to rip the armour off and cast it aside. Her opponent looked down at the face of a senior Knight, who seemed to be smiling in grim satisfaction. Then, Katherine leant her head back against the cold stone behind her, exposing her pale throat to her enemy.

'Do me a favour, eh?' she said weakly.

The enemy Knight nodded mutely, raising her blade to place its tip against Katherine's neck. Then, she staggered with a gasp as Hayley barrelled into her. Katherine blinked in surprise as she felt the swordtip scrape her skin, then stared in disbelief as Hayley heaved the enemy Knight away, then brought up her blade to stand ready to fight.

'Hayley, no!' Katherine roared in rage, and the tiny Amazon Knight glanced at her in amazement. The enemy Knight saw her chance and lunged, but her armour scraped the wall and Hayley turned her attention back with a curse, raising her own sword to knock the woman's blade aside. The enemy Knight staggered past Hayley, who whipped around, using her momentum to send her blade ripping through the woman's throat to decapitate her with one fluid movement. As her head bounced against the flagstones, the woman's body continued an almost comical knock-kneed run until she slammed into the far wall and fell back splayed, blood pumping from the ragged flesh of her throat.

Hayley's knees buckled and she collapsed to the floor, panting in exhaustion. Her gaze turned to Katherine, and she couldn't understand why her friend was staring at her with naked hatred. 'K . . . Katherine? Are you . . .'

'Damn you to hell.' Katherine's voice cut into Hayley sharper than any blade could. She blinked, her mouth shaping questions she couldn't put into words, but Katherine deliberately turned her head away, her face pale and twisted with fury.

Lady Helena yelled orders to her Knights, but there was little that could be done against the tide of enemy Knights that spilled through the gate and descended from the east wall. The remaining Amazon Knights from the north wall, and the fresh troops from the south, who thus far had not seen any action at all, eagerly closed with the enemy, but nine mounted Knights clattered into the keep's grounds, and Helena could only curse and ready her blade.

Lady Yukari swung her sword high as an enemy lancer angled towards her. She clashed blades with the mounted Knight, then the horse swept past her, its rump slamming into her and sending her staggering. Stunned by the impact, Yukari flipped open her visor to enable her to see what was going on around her, and gasped in dismay as she saw another armoured horse coming right for her. She had time gather breath for a scream before the beast struck her, and she fell beneath its churning hooves. One razor sharp hoof descended towards her face, and Yukari's eyes widened in fear a fraction of a second before it crunched through her skull, popping her head open within the confines of her helmet. Her battered, broken body twisted and jerked as the horse trampled her, and blood and brains showered from the face of her helm as the horse thundered onwards, leaving Yukari twitching in its wake.

Helena grunted as she chopped at a mounted enemy, and shouted in victory as the woman tumbled from her saddle to crunch against the flagstones. She risked a glance to where she had positioned six Amazon Knights before the doorway to the tower, the last hurdle the enemy had to cross before victory was theirs, then turned her attention to three enemy Knights that ran at her screaming battlecries.

Lady Suzanne led her southern wall Knights into battle. They were twenty-five strong, fresh and eager for battle. They had watched friends die and had been unable to do anything about it for too long. Now it was time for a little payback. Descending the steps from the south wall, Suzanne spotted a mounted enemy nearby, wheeling her mount around to look for an opponent. Without thinking, the blond girl threw herself from the steps to crash against the mounted Knight, grabbing the woman and dragging her screaming from her horse. The two Knights crashed against the flagstones, but Suzanne leapt to her feet first, her sword raised high. Yelling in fury, she brought the blade down into her opponent's visor, splitting open steel and the skull beneath. The Knight's body bucked wildly as she died, and Suzanne's blade was studded with lumps of flesh and gristle as she yanked it free of the woman's head. 'Come on!' she yelled to her comrades, 'They're making for the tower.'

The enemy Knights were indeed making for the tower door, and already the six Knights stationed there were fighting for their lives. Two mounted Knights led the enemy assault, and the Amazon Knights screamed as they were pressed against the tower's wall by the horses armoured bodies. The enemy Knights stabbed down into helmets and shoulders, and the brave defenders collapsed shuddering and twitching, unable to even raise their blades against their mounted foes. More Knights began to rain blows against the stout wood of the tower door, while their comrades kept Suzanne's Knights busy.

Axes made short work of the door, but as a jubilant Knight ripped her axe free of the splintering wood, a sword lanced out to sink deep in her throat. Her shout of victory turned to a gurgling death rattle, she spun away, spraying her comrades with sticky blood before collapsing lifeless, one leg kicking spasmodically. From within the tower, Lady Annette shouted incoherently and waved her sword, fear knotting her stomach while excitement quivered in her groin. Enemy Knights surged, and Annette stabbed out again, but this time the enemy were ready and she screamed as her forearm was grabbed and she was pulled clear of the tower. She crumpled to the ground, struggling to get to her feet amidst a sea of armoured legs. Then, the cold steel of three swords sank into her back, pinning her to the ground and causing her body to writhe uncontrollably. She vomited explosively, and the thick, bloody fluid began to choke her as it found no escape from the narrow slits in her visor. Gagging and drowning, Annette prayed for a swifter death as more and more swords sank into her legs and body, stabbing again and again until her writhings ceased.

Helena cried out in pain as she was slammed against the inner wall of the keep. Taking her foe completely by surprise, she rebounded off the wall instantly, using her impetus to deliver an overhead chop that lopped the enemy Knight's swordarm off just above the elbow. Screaming shrilly, the woman reeled, but two more Knights took her place, and Helena despaired as she saw more of the enemy entering the tower. It was possible for just a couple of Knights to hold a tower against a hundred enemy Knights, but here at Erran such combat was rare, and those within the tower had little experience of the tactics of such a defence. Knowing that she could not help matters within the tower, Helena turned her attention to her own life, parrying a clumsy blow and lunging in response with a ferocious battlecry.

Charlotte remembered a picturesque glen she used to visit, close to her home when she was a child. As the sun shone through the leaves of the big old trees that surrounded the pool at the foot of glen, she used to swim with her friends in the cool water, and play in the spray of the waterfall that cascaded down the mossy cliff face that lined the pool's edge. She remembered visiting the glen with her first love, and the special time they had their one cool autumn evening. They were good memories. They made her smile.

'Come on, Jackie, don't waste your time with that one.'

Jackie looked down into Charlotte's face, noting her dilated pupils, and the small smile that played on her lips. She grabbed her medical kit and stood, as Paula moved to stand beside her.

'Stuck like a pig,' Paula tutted. 'Poor bitch.' She glanced at her colleague. 'What were you doing?'

'Gave her a real big shot of morphine,' Jackie told her. 'She was suffering. At least this way she'll just drift off.'

Paula nodded, and the two medics looked down at the impaled woman's body for a few seconds longer, until they heard their colleagues calling.

'We'd better go,' Paula said, 'There'll be plenty more like this in the castle grounds. We'd better do our bit.'

'Yeah.' Jackie tore her eyes from Charlotte's peaceful face to follow her friend, wondering again what made these women do what they did.

Lady Elizabeth turned to face the stairwell as the sound of clashing weapons seemed to get closer. Ten Knights manned the tower, eight of whom had moved to fight on the curved stairwell. The narrow stairs enabled the defenders to chop down at the invaders freely with their right arms, while the invaders were hampered by the proximity of the nearside wall. The theory was sound, but when swarms of enemy Knights forced their way upwards, not seeming to care for their own safety, only the most strong willed defenders could hold against such an attack. The Amazon Knights holding the stairwell were shaken and scared, unable to comprehend that their colleagues had failed to keep the enemy force at bay. Bodies clogged the narrow steps, and as the enemy clambered over the dead and dying, the defenders struck out blindly with little skill, leaving themselves open to fatal counter attacks.

'Be ready, girls,' Elizabeth warned the two Knights she had picked as her personal guard. Lady Zoe and Lady Natalie nodded mutely, their throats too dry to make a response. They moved to the centre of the tower's roof, where they saw the last Amazon Knight defender a short way down the stairwell, her sword rising and falling rhythmically as she sought to keep the enemy at bay.

Karen came at two mounted Knights with rage etched on her features. Her auburn ringlets tossed free as she rode, her head totally unprotected as she moved into combat with the two startled Knights. The first stabbed at her face without conviction, and squealed in pain as her swordhand parted company from the rest of her arm. She pitched sideways from her saddle, leaving her friend quaking in fear as Karen came at her. She turned as if to retreat back to where more of her mounted colleagues could give her support, but Karen lunged at her exposed back, and the Knight yelled in pain as she was impaled, the bloody tip of Karen's blade sprouting from between her breasts. She coughed blood and sagged in her saddle, and Karen yanked on her sword to free it from her body. It was stuck fast, and Karen let it fall with the body as she grabbed at the dying woman's axe. Turning her mount to the thronged Knights that battled within the fort grounds, Karen stared in dismay at the enemy Knights that surged through the splintered tower door. Readying her claimed weapon, she kicked her horse's flanks and dove into the melee, her only thought to save as many as her colleagues as possible.

Helena gasped for breath, relishing a second of peace before yet another enemy Knight surged forward to engage her. Four women already lay dead or dying around her, and still there seemed to be no end of them. As she locked blades with her new foe, she risked a glance to where Lady Suzanne was closing on the tower. There was little she could do. Already more than a dozen enemy Knights had swarmed through the splintered doorway, and were probably already near the top.

She bashed her opponent away, chopping at the woman's head as she stumbled aside but missing. Another Knight lunged at her, and before she could bring up her blade to parry the lunge, the sword had buried itself in her thigh. Grimacing at the pain, Helena staggered until her back hit the keep wall. The enemy Knight before her was grinning in victory, and Helena shook her head as she brought her sword up. Too late the Knight tried to yank her weapon free, but Helena's sword was already sinking into her right eye socket, slicing deep into her brains and killing her instantly. Her body spasmed and dropped, and Helena remained slumped against the wall, the woman's sword still impaling her through the upper leg. Yet more Knights came at her, and she gripped the impaling sword with her left hand, wrenching it free and gritting her teeth against the pain. Blood spurted as the weapon came free, and Helena stood ready for battle with two swords. The enemy Knights coming at her skidded to a halt, unwilling to face such a foe, but Helena removed their luxury of choice as she yelled a challenge and leapt forward with both weapons upraised.

The last Amazon Knight protecting the stairwell fell back with a gurgling sigh, her breast punctured by a stabbing blade. Enemy Knights clambered over her writhing body, and Zoe and Natalie prepared for battle. 'Do me proud, girls!' Elizabeth cried encouragement as the novice Knights moved in to the fight.

Slight and nimble, Zoe ducked aside as a tired enemy Knight chopped her without conviction. She closed in, placing her blade under the rim of the Knight's breastplate to ram her sword through chain and into the woman's guts. Groaning in pain, the Knight stumbled, dropping her sword to clutch at her wound. Already another Knight was ready to fight Zoe, and the blond girl lunged forward to batter at her new foe's blade, forcing the woman back towards the stairwell.

Nearby, Natalie ducked under a flailing blade before ripping open her opponent's throat. With blood hosing from her torn neck the Knight reeled gurgling into her companions, and Natalie pressed forward, eager to keep her advantage.

'That's it, that's it,' Elizabeth muttered as she watched her Knights proudly, 'Don't give them an inch, and never, ever give up hope.' Taking another glance over the wall at the slaughter below, Elizabeth sighed as she knew her own hope was nothing more than a memory.

Hayley staggered from the gatehouse, keeping to one side as medics swarmed past her to see to those within. Shocked by Fran's death, and confused by Katherine's fury, she didn't even think to descend to where the battle still raged down below. Instead, she sank to the flagstones, waving aside a medic who stooped beside her, and numbly watched the fighting and dying through dull and red rimmed eyes.

Below, Karen's horse trampled a screaming Knight beneath its razor sharp hooves, and her axe chopped down into a yielding skull. Casting about her, Karen was relieved to see the press of bodies seemed to be thinning, and the enemy were now clustered together in defence against the remaining Amazon Knights. Still, the damage was done, and the tower was breached.

Zoe grunted as she was forced back by a larger and stronger opponent. She was tired, her burst of energy spent against such an onslaught of enemy Knights. Two lay dead by her hand, a similar number claimed by Natalie, but still Knights poured from the stairwell to charge screaming at the brave defenders. Breath whooshed from Zoe's tiny body as she slammed into another Knight's back, and the woman before her stepped back before ramming her sword forward with a victorious grin. Zoe grimaced as the weapon shrieked through her breastplate and impaled her, splitting from her back to sink into the body of the woman behind her. Sagging to her knees, Zoe gritted her teeth, then gasped as she recognised the moan of pain from the Knight she had been pinned to.

'Natalie?' she whispered, then gagged as blood spilled over her lips to dribble down her chin. The Knight who had impaled the two girls released her blade, stepping back to watch them slump twitching to the bloody flagstones. The tip of her blade just emerged from under Natalie's right breast, and the dark haired girl moaned again before her helmeted head slumped forward onto her chest. Zoe felt tears begin to flow from her eyes, even as her vision dimmed and her life slipped away.

The victorious enemy Knight placed her plate shod foot on Zoe's breastplate, then stooped to grip her sword and yank it free with a grunt of exertion. Zoe and Natalie rolled apart, blood instantly spilling from the ragged tears in their armour. The Knight grinned at her colleagues at the fine double kill, then all turned towards Elizabeth.

Unable to watch her young defenders die, Elizabeth had turned to watch the carnage below. Her eyes roamed the melee, picking out Knights that still lived and fought. Helena chopped with two blades, her skill not deserting her in the fury of battle. A Knight that had to be Suzanne closed on the tower door with grim determination, spearheading most of the surviving Amazon Knights in a push to retake the tower before it was too late. Elizabeth smiled sadly; it was already too late.

Her gaze fell on a solitary figure on the east wall, slumped against a merlon and obviously exhausted. Her helmet was gone, and her armour was sheened with bright blood. Lady Hayley watched her colleagues fight, and Elizabeth felt a pang of disappointment. The girl had seemed so promising, but looked to have lost her nerve.

Then, as she watched, Hayley seemed to gird herself once more. She pulled herself to her feet, flexed her swordarm, gripped her blade firmly and staggered for the steps leading to the inner keep. Relieved, Elizabeth watched her enter the fray, then turned to face her waiting opponents, sliding a fine longsword from its scabbard as she did so.

'Who's first,' she asked the waiting Knights.

They numbered eight, but still they paused, glancing at each other as if unsure what to do. Then, one stepped forward, a mace raised ready for combat.

Elizabeth fought without a helm, her golden hair whipping around her head as she dodged the other woman's clumsy swing and punished her with a chop to the arm. Blood splattered wetly over her razor edged blade, and Elizabeth's heart leapt for joy at the sight. It had been too long since she last raised her sword against an enemy. She had devoted too much of her time to the needs of her Knights, and not enough to her own. This was why she had worked so hard for so many years, she and Marina. She felt sorry for her friend, who was probably watching the battle from a nearby hilltop, wishing she herself was in the thick of it.

As her injured opponent staggered aside, another Knight came at her with a bloody sword swinging low. Elizabeth knocked the blade aside, sweeping her own sword back across the woman's body. The blade skittered across steel but did not penetrate, and Elizabeth threw herself back as the enemy Knight stabbed towards her belly.

But she was pulling her blows, and Elizabeth frowned as she surged forward, sweeping the Knight's sword aside once more and chopping into her neck with a roar of anger. The Knight spun gurgling, clamouring at the gore spurting from her throat, and Elizabeth sneered at the remaining Knights.

'Fight, damn your eyes! Fight!'

Another Knight stepped forward to oblige, her clean blade swooping towards Elizabeth's unprotected head. This one wore a visored helm, and obviously had no qualms about taking her life. Elizabeth's grin returned as she parried the blow and began to clash blades with the woman. She was skilful and fast, and Elizabeth grunted as she just managed to parry a fine lunge that had threatened to end up in her belly. She kicked out, and her foe groaned in pain as her right leg was knocked from under her and she clattered to the ground. Elizabeth raised her sword over her head and chopped down, but the woman beneath her rolled aside and the sword raised sparks as it skittered over stone.

A different Knight closed in from one side, and Elizabeth recognised the Knight who had killed Zoe and Natalie. Grimly, she ducked and lunged, and the enemy Knight gasped and back-pedalled away, just managing to swing her blade in time to parry Elizabeth's assault.

The skilled Knight returned to deliver a fine overhead chop, and Elizabeth dodged the attack nimbly, flicking her blade at her foe's visor to keep her back. The woman spun, her blade slicing through the air towards Elizabeth's hip, and the Amazon Knight stepped back and swung her blade down to deflect the weapon away. She rained blows on the enemy Knight, forcing the woman back step after step. Then, the woman locked blades with Elizabeth and heaved her weight forward to engage in a test of strength.

Elizabeth grunted as she heaved against the other woman's weight, and cursed as her foe began to bear her down. She looped one foot around the enemy Knight's lower leg and pushed her back, sending the woman sprawling.

Zoe's killer dove in to attack again, and this time Elizabeth promised herself the woman would die. She swiped the bloody sword aside, then spun in a full circle to deliver a ferocious blow with all her strength. The enemy Knight somehow managed to raise her sword to try and deflect the lethal chop, but Elizabeth's sword sheared through her blade with a shower of sparks, striking the side of the woman's helm and sending her staggering, stunned and moaning. Regaining her balance, Elizabeth thrust forward with a grunt of victory, and the enemy Knight doubled over screaming, Elizabeth's blade wedged deep in her groin. She sagged to her knees, and Elizabeth ripped her sword free of the wounded woman's crotch before ramming it forward once more into her face. Her nose exploded in a welter of gore, and the Knight shuddered as the longsword split through her skull, angling up into her brain. Her eyeballs popped free, and viscous vomit spilled from her slackened lips. Her limbs spasmed, then she collapsed back off Elizabeth's sword to lie sprawled and lifeless, blood still hosing from between her trembling thighs.

The visored Knight returned, and Elizabeth took a deep breath before clashing again with this skilful foe. The two women seemed to dance as they took turns beating each other back and forth across the tower's roof. Every time Elizabeth seemed to gain the upper hand, the enemy Knight would escape from certain death with an audacious counterattack that left Elizabeth reeling. Equally, every time the Knight's sword swooped for a telling blow, Elizabeth would spin or duck, skipping out of danger to launch a ferocious attack of her own.

But she was tiring, and knew that she had to defeat this dangerous foe quickly. As the woman lunged with blade extended, Elizabeth knocked the sword aside and spun again, seeking to use all her strength for a fatal chop. Her opponent seemed to expect the move, swiftly moving closer to Elizabeth to avoid the swooping blade. Still, Elizabeth's armoured forearm smashed against her helm, and she staggered against the wall of the tower moaning. Elizabeth would have loved to finish her off, but already she could hear other Knights moving to engage her, and spun around to hack at the first, sending the girl staggering aside as her mace was ripped from her hand.

Yet another Knight stepped forward to fight Elizabeth, who stabbed and chopped until the woman fell back with a scream of fear, frantically kicking herself back across the bloody flagstones to let another of her colleagues step in. Now they came at Elizabeth en masse, three weapons chopping and stabbing, seeking victory in numbers. Elizabeth parried a swordblade, knocked a mace aside, then stabbed through chainmail and into a Knight's belly. She was rewarded with a grunt of pain, but at the same time yelled in agony as another macehead slammed into her right shoulder. She staggered back, her blade lost with the feeling in her arm. The limb hung loosely by her side, but she clutched at the dagger on her belt with her left hand.

Before she could draw the weapon, the skilled Knight who had fought her so well stepped forward to lower her blade and place it against Elizabeth's exposed neck.

'Yield!' the Knight bellowed, and Elizabeth sank to her knees as fresh pain exploded in her shoulder and the strength left her body. Grimacing with the pain and the knowledge that she had lost this day, she nodded her head once.

'I yield,' she spat bitterly.

The Knights before her burst into joyous cheers, and within seconds a loud gong was chiming from the walls of Castle Erran, where those that watched the battle quickly signalled for an end to the fighting. In the keep grounds, those that still fought reluctantly moved apart, or grabbed at colleagues whose bloodlust had deafened their senses and who still fought.

Elizabeth sighed as she slumped to the flagstones, gritting her teeth against the pain in her arm and looking up at the Knight above her.

'This is against the rules, Marina, you weren't supposed to put yourself in any danger.'

The enemy Knight pulled her helmet off, revealing the features of Elizabeth's opposite number, ruler of Castle Dunan on the neighbouring estate.

'Couldn't miss this, could I?' she asked as she lowered herself beside her old friend with an exhausted groan. 'We're too old for this really, aren't we?' she asked Elizabeth sorrowfully.

Elizabeth shook her head. 'Actually, I was thinking that these girls that fight for us are all too young.'

Her gaze fell on the slumped bodies of Zoe and Natalie, and she shook her head again as she recalled their eager faces looking up at her during their dubbing. Then, she frowned as one of the bodies moved slowly, and a low groan issued from the enclosing visor.

'Get medics up here,' she snapped at the celebrating Knights nearby, who jumped at her orders and instantly made for the stairwell. Elizabeth moved to the wounded Knight's side, raising the girl's visor to help her breathe and smiling down at her brave warrior. 'You did well, child. Rest easy.'

Hayley collapsed onto the east wall steps, not caring that she slumped onto a river of blood and lumps of raw flesh. She watched the enemy celebrate and her colleagues moan in despair, and the increasing numbers of medics that suddenly appeared as if from nowhere to try and save the wounded and dying. The air was rancid with the stench of offal and gore, but it was exhaustion that made her double over and vomit noisily onto the flagstones.

'That's the way, Lady Hayley. Get it all out.'

Lady Helena stumped wearily to Hayley's side, groaning as she lowered herself to sit beside the tiny Knight. She peered at the bloody blades in her hands, then discarded the one that wasn't hers.

'You fought well?' she asked.

Hayley wiped her mouth and coughed, grimacing at the bitter taste in her mouth. 'I did my bit,' she said weakly.

Helena nodded, then peered up at the eastern wall with a frown. 'Weren't you on the north wall?' she asked.

Hayley nodded. 'It got a little boring over there,' she said, then realised that her rash action had ultimately cost Fran her life. Despairing, her head bowed onto her chest. She was weaker than she would ever have believed possible, and Helena's next words were a meaningless jumble. She only looked up when a chain clad hand shook her shoulder gently. Lady Karen stood before her, face sombre and streaked with sweat.

'Charlotte?' Hayley whispered.

'I'll take you to her.'

The two Amazon Knights stepped through the carnage of the keep's grounds, avoiding scuttling handmaidens and medics that now frantically tried to save the lives of brave Knights from both sides. Amongst the moaning wounded and dying, lifeless husks sprawled and huddled, their armour slicked with crimson, mailed gauntlets clutching ragged tears in plate and chain. Lumps of cooling flesh, arms and legs and heads and more besides, lay in pools of sticky gore, beside fallen bodies, bloodied blades and innumerable links of scattered chainmail. Lady Marina's dead stared sightlessly from within their open faced helms, while the faces of Elizabeth's fallen were shielded by their slitted visors. Sickened and wearied by what she saw, Hayley staggered against Karen, who helped her to where her horse stood waiting near the main gate.

Knowing Hayley would not be able to make it as far as the battleground outside the keeps walls, Karen helped her onto the weary steed, and led the horse through the open gate to where Lady Kiri still lay, her supine body partially submerged in a crimson morass of mud and gore. Karen did not look at her fallen comrade, but blinked in surprise as she saw three medics working frantically beside Emma's sprawled form. Unable to imagine the senior Knight could still be alive after her hideous wounds, Karen led Hayley past the few corpses that littered the ground near the keep's gate, and across the fields to where Charlotte still lay.

Hayley slid from Karen's horse to kneel beside her friend, her grimy face unreadable. Charlotte's eyes were closed, and her mouth was frozen in a small smile. Even though she lay in hoof churned grass, turned to mud by her own spilled blood, her golden hair shifted gently under the light breeze, blowing strands over her face. As Hayley brushed the errant strands away, a single tear fell from her cheek onto Charlotte's own.

Karen moved her steed away, giving Hayley a little privacy. A solitary figure sat nearby, helmet discarded, her head in her hands. Karen recognised the woman as Lady Isobel, an Amazon Knight of long standing. Isobel looked up as Karen approached, giving the smaller Knight a chance to see the purple bruise that covered most of the left side of her face.

'Got knocked off my horse in the first second of the fight,' she said miserably. 'Just woke up five minutes ago with one of Marina's medics slapping my face.' She looked up at Karen with interest. 'Are you hurt, Lady Karen?'

'Not a scratch,' Karen replied.

'Hmm.' Isobel glanced to where Hayley knelt beside her fallen lover, then faced the castle again, watching as scores of handmaidens carried wounded Knights towards the castle itself and its subterranean medical centre. 'Was it a good fight, Lady Karen?' she asked, unable to mask her bitterness at having missed it all.

Karen sighed, not answering for long seconds. 'Oh, it was indeed a fine fight, Lady Isobel. Those of us who survived will be singing songs about it for years to come, God willing.'

Isobel grunted. 'And have we lost many friends today?'

Karen heard Hayley weeping over Charlotte's body a short distance behind her. She didn't turn, but her lips hardened into a thin line, and she kept her gaze on the activity in the distance as she answered Isobel.

'I have no friends here, Lady Isobel. And if you take my advice, you'll make sure you don't have any either.'

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