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MAIN MENU  /  HAYLEY'S MENU

Natalie held her blade low, trying to second guess which way her opponent would strike. She guessed right. As Sarah dove in from the left, Natalie twisted and lashed out with her sword, and Sarah reeled with a colourful curse her own sword was knocked aside and her flank was exposed. Instantly, Natalie's swordblade bashed against her side, and she staggered with a hiss of pain.

'Damn it!'

Natalie struck a pose with a flourish. 'You're too tense, Sarah. You want to win too badly.'

'How can you want to win too badly?' Sarah scoffed, readying her sword for another assault.

The weapons had blunted blades, but they still hurt when they connected with armoured flesh. The two girls, alone in the training hall as most Knights and Handmaids were starting the second night of celebrations, were dressed in light mail trews and jerkins over form-fitting body armour. The latter was only used for practice, as the modern kevlar bodysuits were deemed inappropriate attire for official combat.

Natalie shrugged her partner's question away, dancing forward to land a set of stinging blows against Sarah's blade. Gritting her teeth, the dark-skinned girl backed away. 'Being eager is fine, but it makes you . . . clumsy!' Sarah had lunged suddenly, hoping her opponent was distracted, but Natalie ducked aside, bringing her sword down on Sarah's and kicking her legs from under her in one fluid motion. Sarah sprawled gracelessly over the mats, but laughed ruefully as she levered herself to her feet.

'Damn, you're good at this! I don't know how, you haven't been a Knight much longer than me.'

Natalie gave her a small smile, self-consciously pressing one slim hand to her breast. 'When you've had a sword stuck through you, a sword that travelled through your best friend's body before entering your own, you learn to get good real quick. It's not something I want to experience again.'

'Yeah, I guess you do.' Sarah clapped her sparring partner on the shoulder, wondering at the pain Natalie felt, both physical and otherwise. 'Listen, thanks for this, Nat. But I've got to go get drunk. All that singing and dancing? That's for me, that is.'

'Just for you?'

'Who else matters? You coming?'

'In a few minutes. You've got me all riled up.' She swung her blade at a wooden training post, and Sarah chuckled as she headed for the showers.

Natalie lost track of time as she practised, working out muscles that had wasted during her time in care. The sword that had killed Zoe and impaled her between the ribs had miraculously not seriously damaged any of her internal organs, and Doctor McManus had soon announced she was ready to fight again.

She looked up and wiped sweat from her face as a shadow passed over her, and jumped as she saw Karen was stood beside her, watching her with interest.

'Did I startle you, Lady Natalie?' Karen asked, and Natalie wondered if she imagined the shorter Knight's sneer.

'No, Lady Karen, not at all. I just thought I was the only one here.'

Karen made a show of looking around. 'It would seem you're right.' She glanced at the training post Natalie had been battering. 'That doesn't look like it would give you much of a fight. Would you not prefer a real opponent?'

Natalie felt the first twinge of unease. 'Actually, I was just about to . . .' She stopped as Karen unsheathed her sword with a silky rasp, examining her razor sharp blade admiringly.

'Oh, you have time for a little one on one,' Karen chided her. The Knight's dark eyes turned on Natalie, and she stepped closer to the other girl, swishing the blade beside her leg casually. She was dressed in a belted, short tunic, unarmoured but moving with her usual, dangerous grace.

Natalie backed away slowly, trying to make out Karen's intentions. She looked cheerful, as if she genuinely wanted to engage in a practice sparring session, but the rules of the training hall forbade all but blunt weapons for such sessions. Karen saw Natalie's expression, and seemed to guess what she was thinking.

'I don't like those blunt blades. That's not the way to practice. You put your all into it when you know the sword coming towards you is real.' She gestured at Natalie's own sword. 'Don't worry, I'll be careful.'

Dropping into a fighting stance, Karen began to approach Natalie cautiously, and the other girl had no choice but to adopt a defensive position. She couldn't help but think of yesterday, and how Karen had scared Hayley witless with her ferocity. Did Karen know she had helped Hayley escape from her?

When Karen struck it was with shocking suddenness. She flitted forward with a hiss, her blade slashing, and Natalie reeled back to avoid the weapon with a gasp, her own sword rising automatically to block the blow. The clashing impact convinced her that Karen's full strength was behind the attack, and she began to panic, knowing the other girl was the better warrior.

'Karen, listen . . .' she beseeched the woman facing her, but Karen did not wait to hear what she had to say, instead launching herself forward to swing an overhead chop Natalie's way. The slender Knight swept up her sword to deflect the attack but was knocked sideways by the force of the blow, and Karen pressed her advantage quickly. Her sword swooped in from the right, and Natalie twisted to avoid its tip, feeling the weapon swish past her belly with only an inch to spare. She retreated behind a training post, hoping that the cover would deter her attacker, but Karen was too canny a warrior to let such a minor obstacle get in her way. She swished her sword to the left of the post, and as Natalie dodged the other way she ran into Karen's boot as the Knight lanced out a powerful kick. The breath ripped from her, Natalie sagged, but dived forward as she heard Karen's sword swoosh through the air again.

The razor sharp blade swept over her head to chop into the post, and she twisted on the floor, her own leg kicking out in an attempt to knock Karen off her feet. Karen stepped back out of harms way, but the motion gave Natalie the chance she needed to get to her feet, still holding her sword defensively

'Nobody gets in my way,' Karen muttered, her eyes hooded with murderous intent as she dove forward into the fight again. Natalie parried each skilled attack, but knew her strength was failing. Each powerful blow seemed to sap more from her limbs, and she felt her arms quiver with fatigue. Without body armour, she knew Karen would fall if she struck true with her blunted sword, but there was no way she could find a way through the shorter Knight's fierce deluge of attacks. She back-pedalled away from Karen, her hope failing as her opponent seemed to surge forward stronger with every blow, seeing she was suffering under the vicious onslaught.

Then, Natalie fell with a cry as her foot slipped on the edge of a training mat, and she sprawled helpless, her sword skittering away from her clutching fingers. She looked up at Karen as the dark haired warrior straddled her with satisfaction, bringing her sword up over her head in preparation for the final blow.

'No,' Natalie gasped, 'Don't do it!' She screamed as the sword began its descent, flinging an arm up in a vain effort to protect her face. She heard the sound of steel upon steel, and moved her arm to stare up in disbelief, unable to accept her life had been spared.

Karen's sword had been checked by another, and as the dark haired girl's head turned to see who had intervened, a bare fist slammed into her cheek, sending her sprawling. Lady Suzanne shook her bruised hand, glaring down at Karen as she sheathed her sword and reached out her other hand to help Natalie to her feet.

'You fight well, Karen,' she told the fallen warrior, who was sitting up rubbing her cheek, her look of surprise quickly turning to rage, 'But you didn't know there was someone behind you. I could have sheathed my sword up your arse and there wouldn't have been a damn thing you could have done about it.' She turned her attention to Natalie. 'Are you alright, Lady Natalie?' As Natalie nodded, Suzanne looked again at Karen, who was getting to her feet, her sword still gripped in her hand. She tutted theatrically. 'No body armour, Karen? And using a real blade too! I could have you up on a charge for such recklessness.' She made a show of looking around. 'But there's no-one else around, so who cares? I think you're done here, Lady Natalie. Take a shower.'

Suzanne's tone brooked no argument, and Natalie scuttled thankfully away, casting Karen a final look. The dark haired warrior looked furious, but her attention was on Suzanne, who waited until the door had closed behind Natalie before speaking again.

'I dislike these artificial weapons myself,' she told Karen amicably, 'But these days I'm expected to obey the rules a bit more. It's an awful nuisance.' She spread her arms. 'Unless you'd like to continue your little practice, Karen? I'm a bit rusty.'

Karen's lips twisted in a sneer. 'Whatever you say. . . Commander.' She readied her sword, unflinching as Suzanne drew her equally sharpened blade. 'Do we fight to first blood?'

'That's boring,' Suzanne scoffed. 'How about we fight until one of us can fight no longer?'

'Sounds good!' Karen roared as she lunged, her blade slashing out towards Suzanne's throat. Suzanne beat the weapon aside, her left hand snaking out to grab Karen's tunic, dragging the dark haired girl forward into a perfectly placed headbutt. Karen's head snapped back and her eyes glassed over, and she staggered several steps before sprawling once more on the mats, shaking her head to clear her vision.

'You're nothing special after all,' Suzanne laughed, and Karen scrambled to her feet with a string of curses, eager to wipe the grin off the blonde girl's face. Her sword swept in, and Suzanne parried expertly, backing off prudently as her vicious foe kept up the pressure of powerful attacks.

'I'm special alright,' she screamed at Suzanne, 'You don't know a damn thing, you snooty bitch!' Karen spun, keeping her sword low as she attempted to shear Suzanne's legs off above the knees. Suzanne stepped back out of harms way, surging forward again as her opponent's sword swished by. Karen gasped as she realised Suzanne had the drop on her, but the blonde girl didn't use her blade, instead gripping Karen's forearm and twisting it roughly, tripping her at the same time to once more send her to the floor with a crash.

'I know more than you think,' Suzanne spat, 'It comes with the rank.' She readied herself as Karen jumped to her feet, coming at her again with seemingly boundless energy. The brunette's sword hacked and stabbed, and for a second Suzanne was under pressure as she was forced to dedicate all her attention to avoiding the other girl's lethal blade. She felt her foot slip as she backed up to the edge of the mats, and Karen leapt forward with a snarl, ready to end the fight with a final thrust.

Suzanne regained her balance almost instantly, holding her ground as Karen's sword swept towards her. Her own sword rose to stop the blade, and the two girls glared into each other eyes as their weapons locked together. Karen heaved, and Suzanne flexed her own muscles to push back. Neither wanted to lose this battle of strength, but Suzanne soon realised Karen was by far the stronger. 'I know what you are, Karen;' she hissed between gritted teeth, 'and I don't like you. The sooner you're . . . dead and buried . . . the better!'

'It'll take a better . . . warrior than you to kill me,' Karen growled in return, her confidence growing as her strength began to tell. 'I'll have you life, and your rank. Then . . . one day I'll claim Erran . . . as my own!'

Suzanne blanched at Karen's words, unable to believe what she was hearing. Taking advantage of the blonde girl's distraction, Karen heaved with all her might, and Suzanne flew back with a yelp, landing on her back with her legs high in the air. Karen leapt forward to finish her, but Suzanne turned her fall into a backward roll, springing to her feet ready to fight. Karen's sword lanced out, but once again Suzanne's caught its length fast, and this time the blonde girl was ready. One leg swished up and slammed into Karen's forearm, and the brunette fell sideways with a cry, her sword falling from her nerveless fingers as she tumbled to the floor.

'No!' she screamed, 'I can't lose!'

'Of course you can,' Suzanne told her, then lashed out with her blade as Karen dove for her sword. Her fingers wrapped around the hilt but as Suzanne's blade rang against the leather-sheathed handle she rolled away with a strangled cry, clutching at her hand where the stumps of three fingers pumped blood. Karen stared aghast at her wounded hand, but then her head hit the floor with a bump as Suzanne placed her sandalled foot on the brunette's copious left breast and pressed her down, asserting her dominance over the dark haired Knight.

'I win,' she said quietly

The celebratory feasts that occurred after the trial of Knighthood were usually spread over three nights, and the current feasting was no exception. Those that crawled from their beds after midday were soon ready for more drinking and eating, and Elizabeth made sure there was plenty of fare on offer. The top table where the Grand Knight sat was elevated, with three rows of long tables stretching down the wide hall to its far end. The upper tables were stocked with food and drink, steaming roasts and platters of meat on discretely modern hotplates, kegs of ale and wine and any other fare that would keep humour high and tempers quick.

As evening approached, the atmosphere in the feast hall was already bawdy, where many Knights were carousing and celebrating. The hall was decked with garlands and lit with flaming braziers, and Handmaids hurried to deliver steaming plates of meat to tables already packed with plates, cutlery, bottles and barrels. Some warriors had already let the drink go to their heads, and were engaged in arm wrestling contests or drinking yards of ale. At the head of the hall on the main table, Elizabeth overlooked the proceedings, her Marshals by her side. Closest to her, as always, sat Lady Helena.

Elizabeth hefted a heavy goblet of wine, wincing at the pain she still felt in her arm. Her shoulder wound had healed well under the ministrations of the castle medics, but her body was beginning to feel its age, and her mood was sour as she drank. Helena knew her mistress well enough to know how she was thinking, and prudently sat quietly, watching the other Knights enjoy themselves.

'What's on your mind, Helena?' Elizabeth surprised the dark haired marshal by her question, and she took a moment to answer.

'Katherine's challenge,' she answered eventually, 'It surprises me you're letting it happen.'

Elizabeth nodded into her wine. 'You've known her nearly as long as I have. After all we've been through, you'd see her waste away? Her mind gone in a haze of morphine?'

'So you sanction her suicide by using a Knight who used to be her friend?' Helena felt her anger rise, but struggled to keep it in check. Elizabeth glared at her.

'Katherine wanted this fight for herself. She has no intention of baring her throat for Hayley. She'll fight like she always fights, with all her strength and cunning.'

'And if she wins? What then?'

'If all else fails, I'll kill her myself.'

Elizabeth's words shocked Helena, and she shook her head in disbelief. For a while the two Knights drank in silence, Elizabeth's thoughts unknown but Helena's centred on Katherine's past exploits at Erran. 'Things are changing around here,' she said finally, 'and I'm not sure I like how they're going.'

This time it was Elizabeth's turn to be surprised. She glanced at her second, in an instant realising how much she had grown used to Helena's unquestioning loyalty and practical advice. 'You know as well as I that Erran could not exist without the Chrysalis project. If there are sacrifices that we need to make, I'm not afraid to make them. I thought you felt the same.'

An uneasy silence fell between the two old friends, which was only broken by a furore on one of the lower tables. Elizabeth craned her neck to see what was occurring, her interest growing as she saw two recently Knighted women engaged in a bitter argument. She reached out a hand to stop Helena rising, knowing that the dark haired Marshal had no tolerance for horseplay.

'Let them fight, Helena. It's why they're here,' she said quietly, and Helena slumped back in her seat, shaking her head once again as she saw the rapt expression on Elizabeth's face.

Alexus landed a stinging slap on Natasha's face, sending the other girl slamming back into her chair. Rubbing her cheek in surprise, Natasha's face darkened as she looked across the table at Alexus. Knowing that she had crossed a line, Alexus shrugged under the weight of stares aimed at her from around the table. 'Bitch insulted me,' she explained loudly, 'And I don't respond well to insults.' She glared at Natasha, who slowly got to her feet to lean across the table again.

'I merely suggested they were implants, and she blows her stack,' she said with equal volume. 'Sounds to me like I got a little bit too close to the truth.'

Alexus stared into Natasha's eyes. The girl opposite her was newly Knighted such as she but, aside from their blonde hair, that was where their resemblance ended. Where Alexus was muscled and tanned, the French girl opposite was slim and almost petite, her skin pale and unblemished. A red welt was rising on her left cheek, and Alexus's eyes narrowed as she quickly drew back her hand to try and match it on the right. Before she could start the swing however, Natasha whipped up a goblet of red wine to splash into the other girl's face, and Alexus fell back gasping and choking, the liquid sloshing up her nose and spilling over her tunic. She slumped back in her chair, and Knights to either side laughed uproariously at the sight, their humour fuelled by their own drink. The sound was mocking to Alexus's ears, and her face flashed red as she leapt to her feet, launching herself over the table towards her smugly grinning opposite. Goblets, plates and cutlery crashed and flew, and Natasha had time to gasp before Alexus slammed into her, sending her crashing back into her chair and spilling it over. Her legs flailed, and she tumbled off her chair gracelessly as it hit the floor, her tunic rising up over her hips to show the assembly she wore nothing underneath.

The watching Knights cheered and applauded, stamping their feet in approval as Natasha sprang to her feet, her face flushed with embarrassment. Alexus was perched on the table, brushing lumps of chicken from her wine-stained tunic and grinning from ear to ear. Natasha cursed in her native tongue, but ended in English. 'At least what I flash is real, bitch!'

In an instant Alexus was off the table, her face darkening as she gripped the neck of her tunic and ripped in apart, baring her impressive breasts for all to see. 'You think these aren't real?' she cried over the fresh round of cheers, in a strange way warming to the spectacle she and Natasha were putting on for the assembly.

'She's at it again.' Sitting nearby, Lady Christa admired Alexus's assets even as she shook her head in mock disgust. 'Can't keep those things tucked away, can she?'

Beside her, Lady Shathirana agreed. 'Mind you, if I had a set like that I'd be showing them off too.'

'You were showing them off,' Christa reminded her pointedly.

The two Knights broke into a cheer along with their fellows as Alexus and Natasha clashed again, pouncing forward together to claw and hiss and rip at each others clothing.

'Are they fighting or getting it on?' Christa wondered, but her question was answered when Alexus gripped Natasha firmly around the throat and twisted her around, following up by kneeing her low in the back. Screeching in pain, the French girl staggered forward, spilling over a table and forcing the Knights dining there to scurry aside.

'Slut!' Natasha cried as she whisked around, throwing a plate piled high with meat and vegetables at Alexus, who was moving in again to finish the French girl. Most of the food scattered before the plate hit, but Alexus still yelled in dismay as the plate shattered against her upraised arm, spraying her face with shards and lumps of potato. Before she could regain her composure, Natasha was on her, swinging a small fist up in a fine uppercut that sent Alexus flying. Behind the staggering warrior, Christa had a second to gasp before the topless blonde cannoned into her, sending her sprawling over the table and knocking the chair from under her. She fell atop Alexus's downed body, a sight which elicited more merriment from the Knights who were now gathered round to watch the fight.

'Get off me!' Alexus roared, pushing Christa's sprawled body off and staggering to her feet.

'Copped a feel!' Christa cried with glee. 'I'll vouch they're real!' Laughter died as those watching saw Alexus now held a dagger, its tip held threateningly low as the blonde narrowed her eyes and glared at her foe with rage. Christa frowned and groped at her belt. 'Hey, that's mine!'

An excited buzz built up around the feast hall, and those that could drag their eyes from Alexus turned them to Elizabeth, who was straining forward to see what was happening. Alexus herself flicked a glance to the head table, but there was no sign of Elizabeth stopping the fight. She waggled the dagger blade at Natasha.

'Arm yourself, you gallic whore, unless you don't have the guts. If you kiss my feet I'll forget your insults.'

Natasha's eyes had been uncertain, but now they clouded with rage. She reached behind her to gesture for a weapon, and half a dozen daggers instantly skittered their way across the tabletop. Gripping the hilt of one, Alexus let out a hiss as she scuttled forward, holding herself as low as her opponent.

'You're going to let this happen?' Helena whispered to Elizabeth, but the Grand Knight shushed her.

Alexus made the first move, dancing forward to lash out at Natasha's face, her graceful movements only spoiled by her appearance. Her tunic ripped to expose her chest, and plastered with sticky wine, gravy and lumps of food, she did not look quite the noble warrior as she had during her trial. Her opponent looked almost as bad, but her tunic still covered her in a more modest fashion. Natasha twisted her head away from Alexus's lunge, slashing her own blade low and causing her foe to jump back out of harms way. They circled, their anger held in check as both knew the fight had moved on from a catfight to something more final. Elizabeth had not stopped them, and now this would be a fight to the death.

As Alexus struck out again, Natasha stepped back, sweeping up her foot in what would have been a disarming kick. Alexus whisked her arm back, slashing out again and just missing Natasha's shapely leg. As the kick had once again established Natasha liked to feel natural under her tunic, excited cheers and catcalls began to sound again from those watching, and as the two Knights circled the tumult rose to a cacophony, as the audience stamped their feet and slammed their tankards on the tabletops, baying for a fight and eager for blood.

Natasha jumped in low, her blade swooping, and Alexus stepped into the attack, her left hand dropping to clutch at the French girl's forearm. Her attack halted, Natasha gasped as Alexus's own dagger stabbed towards her face, and she brought up her arm to knock her foe's aside, sweeping the limb down to trap Alexus's upper arm. The two women seemed to embrace as they spilled back once more against the table behind Natasha, and the Knights still sat there prudently vacated their seats as the grunting bodies staggered and rolled along the table edge. Alexus found her superior strength an asset, but she could not free her own arm from under Natasha's shoulder. She twisted the other girl's weapon arm painfully, and as Natasha gritted her teeth against the pain, the blonde Knight brought her head forward to butt Natasha's temple, stunning her in an instant.

Natasha's eyes flickered, but somehow she still kept Alexus's right arm trapped, shaking her head to clear her vision, thankful that she still held her dagger. She let herself sag, hoping to fool Alexus, and as the blonde shifted her position to try and free her weapon arm, an opportunity presented itself. Natasha brought her knee up between her opponent's legs with all her strength, and this time it was Alexus's turn to gasp in shock, her own eyes glazing over as a bomb went off between her legs. She slumped in Natasha's arms, and the French girl felt the other's grip on her arm weaken. She ripped her arm free, bringing her dagger instantly down into Alexus's shoulder.

Alexus screamed in agony as the blade bit, but the blow was weak and penetrated only an inch before it grated to a halt against the blonde girl's shoulder bones. Her strength surging with the pain, Alexus heaved Natasha away, and the wailing Knight was sent sprawling over the tabletop, the pale flesh of her buttocks flashing as her legs rode up over her head before slamming down against the wood. The dagger's blade had been ripped from the wound, which now bled freely. Enraged at her opponent drawing first blood, Alexus leapt up onto the table to straddle Natasha's groaning body, bringing back her own dagger and drawing a bead on the French girl's heaving belly. The dagger slashed down, but Natasha gasped as her eyes flicked open and she saw her death approaching. Her left arm moved on instinct, once more knocking the dagger aside. It's tip slammed into the tabletop beside Natasha's shoulder, and as Alexus grunted in surprised dismay, Natasha planted one foot in her foe's navel and heaved. Alexus wailed as she was sent flying again, this time landing painfully further down the table, near to where a full roast pig was still waiting to be carved. Her body slammed against the tabletop, sending food and dishes flying. She rolled in agony, having landed on a wine pitcher and a number of tankards, the steel containers ripping her flesh and cracking ribs.

Seeing the end of the fight in sight, Natasha staggered to her feet, kicking through the mess of the tabletop to stand over Alexus, noting that the girl's dagger had fallen from her grasp to skitter onto the floor. She rammed her own dagger into her belt. Alexus was dazed, her teeth clenched together in pain, her eyes squeezed shut. Her breasts, the source of this dispute, quivered with her shuddering breaths, splattered with wine and sweat and gravy.

Natasha sat down astride her opponent's hips, conscious of how her now sodden crotch was pressed against Alexus's own, and grinned wearily as she clutched at the muscular blonde's tits with both hands. Alexus moaned at the fresh pain as Natasha pulled, and forced her back off the table to alleviate the pain. As her head was dragged up, it connected with Natasha's own as the French girl jerked hers forward to deliver a stinging headbutt. Fresh pain exploded in Alexus's breasts as they were torn free of Natasha's grip, and as her head slammed against the tabletop again, her wild eyes stared into the sockets of the spit-roasted pig that adorned the table behind her. She whimpered as she knew she would soon be like the swine, slaughtered to satisfy the appetites of the Amazon Knights. She wailed as she was dragged up by the tits again, and once more Natasha's head jerked forward, this time smashing her nose. Her head slammed against the table once more, blood spraying from her nostrils and from her mouth, where she had just bitten her tongue. Her arms flung out uselessly behind her, seeming to reach for the roasted swine, and Natasha watched the pathetic gesture with amusement.

Alexus's breasts were torn by fingernails and bruised by the mauling the French girl had given them. The Knights surrounding her were yelling for Natasha to finish the job, and she expected nothing but the bite of the dagger through her heart, or her throat to be ripped wide open. But other voices were shouting for her death to be prolonged, and as she felt Natasha's hands grab at her breasts again, Alexus let out a cry of hope as she was dragged upright a final time.

Natasha saw the flash of a blade lancing towards her; gasped and tried to lean back out of harms way. The carving knife that Alexus had yanked from the pig's hide sliced down, splitting Natasha's left breast neatly in two. She screamed in sudden, unexpected agony, her hands clasping her bosom, the white of her tunic already stained red with her spurting blood. Pink fat oozed from between her tightly gripping fingers, and she staggered to her feet, gaping at the hideous wound, the bedraggled figure beneath her forgotten in an instant.

With the last of her strength, Alexus stabbed her knife up into Natasha's navel, and the French girl squealed as the blade stuck her up to the handle, causing a torrent of crimson to belch over Alexus's arm. With a shout of victory, Alexus ripped the knife up and out, grimacing and closing her eyes as her face was instantly spattered by blood and entrails. Natasha's eyes popped wide, her head thrown back and a gargling rattle coming from her throat. Her sodden hands dropped to this fresh wound, pressing the folds of flesh together to stop her guts spilling free. Her eyes turned to the top of the table, where Elizabeth watched this bloody climax enthralled, and Natasha held out her hand beseechingly, stumbling over Alexus's squirming body in her effort to reach the Grand Knight. She didn't get far. Overcome by pain, she staggered and fell, her bucking body straddling the roasted pig as her innards spilled over the hot meat, coiling and steaming.

Silence fell over the hall as the Knight died noisily, choking and gagging, her limbs twitching. Amazon Knights watched dumbstruck as Alexus picked herself painfully to her feet, her face and body a bloody mess. The carving knife in her hand was clogged with offal, and dripping thick gore that spread up her arm almost to the elbow. The victorious Knight turned to watch her foe suffer, then stepped forward unsteadily to straddle the bodies. Beneath her, Natasha's writhing was causing the animal under her to move as if alive, and the gurgles and gasps that issued from the dying girl could have been those of a freshly butchered beast.

Suddenly disgusted at the spectacle, Alexus leant down to grab a handful of Natasha's blonde hair, and as she pulled the head back, nearby Knights backed away as they knew what was coming. Natasha's eyes were still wide and focused, she was experiencing to the full every second of her hideous death, but those eyes rolled up and she let out one final, wheezing gurgle as Alexus whipped her knife down to slice open the dying girl's throat with one quick flick. Bright blood sprayed, splattering over the table and discarded plates heaped high with food, splashing into wine goblets and tankards of ale, pouring off the table in rivers of crimson. Finally, thankfully, Natasha died. Alexus let go of her hair, and her head thumped into the blood-drenched carcass beneath her.

In the perfect silence that followed the kill, Elizabeth slowly got to her feet, clapping her hands twice to signal Handmaids. The girls appeared swiftly, armed with mops, buckets and even a shovel with which to clear away the mess. As they dragged away the section of table plastered with Natasha's remains, Elizabeth turned with a frown, only now noticing that Helena had slipped away during the battle.

Alexus sagged to her knees, nodding gratefully to Christa as the pink haired Knight stepped forward to help her down off the table. 'Pretty rough stuff,' Christa noted, and Alexus nodded before drooping into a dead faint. Christa peered around the surrounding Knights. 'Has anyone seen my dagger?' she asked plaintively.

'I know what you're thinking,' Katherine told Helena, who cocked an eyebrow questioningly.

'Oh?'

'You're seeing that I've hardly touched my meal,' Katherine gestured to the table on the other side of her bed, 'and that tissue has blood on it. You're seeing that someone you've known for years looks like death warmed up, and she's cooling down rapidly.' Katherine glanced up at Helena, who shrugged in response.

'You've looked better. You don't look like you're ready to pick a fight.'

Katherine chuckled, breaking into a ragged cough that made Helena wince. 'Oh, it's my decision, Helena. Did you think someone was forcing me to fight Hayley?'

'I had wondered. The way things are around here these days . . .'

Katherine nodded. 'Different from the early days, alright.' She wiped her lips with a fresh tissue, glancing at it to see if the coughing had left any blood. The tissue was clean. 'I was thinking about the last battle we were in together, Helena. On the moors. Remember?'

Helena snorted. 'What, do you think I could forget? That was the time you saved my life.'

'You remember the promise you made me?'

'Of course.' Helena frowned. 'I don't see the connection.'

Katherine looked away, out the window her bed had been placed near to afford her a view of the castle grounds. 'I've been lying here thinking about the times I've been in battle. Close to death.' She smiled. 'It's ironic, isn't it? When I came here it was because I only had months to live. I've spent five years living on borrowed time.' She looked back at Helena. 'Pretty early on, I decided how I would finish things if it came to this, lying in bed coughing up blood rather than on a battlefield. I'd ask a good friend to smuggle me in a dagger . . .'

'Forget it.'

Katherine paused, closing her eyes for a second before fixing her gaze on Helena. 'Those thought didn't last long. Soon I knew that it would have to be death in battle. McManus had always hinted there were procedures she could use, drugs she could try that could pull me back from the brink, just long enough for someone to do me this favour. I'd always thought it would be you I'd choose.' She reached out a hand and took Helena's. 'But I couldn't do it, Helena. We've been friends for too long, and I know you're not as hard as you seem.' She blinked as tears began to prickle behind her eyelids. 'Hayley is a friend too, but when it came to making a choice . . .' She broke off as her voice cracked, and Helena leant forward to clutch her shoulders.

'No more, Katherine. You know me too well, and you're right, I couldn't have done it. But . . . why Hayley? Why not Diane or Emma or Suzanne? Karen, even?'

'Because, aside from you, she's the only one I can trust,' Katherine whispered.

Helena bent forward to kiss Katherine's brow, feeling her own tears begin to flow at her former lover's words. As she leant back, she saw Katherine's eyes were heavy, and that she was struggling to keep awake. She sat back in her seat, reluctant to leave her friend's side, remembering how they had met during a lavish meal held by Elizabeth and Marina, when the two ladies had gathered women who had expressed an interest in their plans. She remembered the early months, when the castle had been built and the rules arranged, the wrangling with the authorities and the ultimate solution. She remembered vividly the months of training, the trickle of new arrivals that became a flood. And she remembered her first battle, the name of the first woman she had killed, and the times she had been wounded in battle. Of these battles, the encounter on the moors was the most memorable.

Beside her, Katherine muttered in her sleep, perhaps reliving her own prior glories. Helena let her thoughts wander, thinking back sixteen months to when one hundred Amazon Knights of Erran had readied themselves for the fight . . .

Elizabeth's army gathered on the upper slope of a gentle hill that led down toward the boundary of the Lady's realm. Beyond lay Marina's land and the opposing army, equal in number and determination to Castle Erran's warriors.

Lady Katherine eyed the opposing army speculatively, although she knew there was little to choose between the enemy and her colleagues. Elizabeth and Marina were both accomplished warriors, and both ensured their Knights were well trained and thirsty for battle. She soothed her horse as the creature shifted, unsettled by the clanking armour and weapons of nearby Knights.

'Easy boy,' she murmured, 'You're safe enough.' It was against the rules of engagement to strike a foe's mount, although accidents could always happen. Swords and axes and lances would be aimed at the soft but shielded flesh of the riders, or those thrown from their mounts. Katherine felt her heartbeat quicken as she thought of what was to come. Only once before had the two armies clashed, a battle that had left almost half the Ladies' combined armies dead on the bloody fields. This time a hundred warriors from each side had gathered on either side of the border to fight for one hundred metres of land, and Elizabeth had made it known she would not accept failure from her Knights.

A cool wind blew in from the east, where the sun was beginning to rise behind the gentle swells of distant hills. The battle would soon begin, and Katherine turned to face her Handmaid, who stood patiently by her side, eyes wide as she watched the distant army.

'Hayley?'

The girl blinked at her name, then quickly fumbled at her feet before handing Katherine her sword, freshly oiled and scabbarded. Katherine enjoyed the smell of the weapon, but made a show of examining the blade critically as she unsheathed it and held it up to the gathering light.

It was a fine longsword; a gift from Elizabeth, although Katherine had never told anyone this. Its long, tapering hilt was sheathed in soft leather, wrapped round with gold wire, The pommel was a steel orb that gleamed brightly, and above its gracefully curving quillons its long blade also shone, accentuating the filigreed pattern that lined the blades fuller all the way to its narrowing tip. The sword was, as usual, polished and honed with exquisite care, and Katherine smiled slightly as she imagined her Handmaid staying up until the early hours, determined to do her mistress proud.

'You look after me well, Hayley,' she told the blushing girl fondly, sliding the weapon back into its scabbard and positioning the leather sheath comfortably against her hip. Hayley grinned in delight as she passed her mistress the rest of her weapons and armour: a kite shield which the Knight looped around her neck to shield the left side of her torso, a visored helm which she now donned, keeping the visor open as she reached down to claim her lance.

A pain knotted her stomach, and she nearly grunted as she hunched slightly in her saddle. Covering the motion by reaching forward to fondle her horses ears, Katherine gritted her teeth and cursed silently, praying that the drugs would kick in before the fight began. Once before she had fought in constant pain, and had no wish to repeat the experience.

'Are you scared, Lady Katherine?' Hayley asked her, and she turned to look down on her Handmaid in surprise.

'Do I look scared?'

'No!' Hayley blushed again, 'You . . . you look fantastic. I just . . . I just wondered . . .' she looked away to where the opposing army prepared itself on the adjacent hillside.

'You just wondered what it was like to ride into battle? Wondered how it felt to know that you could die screaming, skewered by a steel-tipped lance or slashed by an enemy's blade?' Katherine leaned down out of her saddle to whisper conspiratorially to her Handmaid, 'It feels wonderful, Hayley. Train hard and well, and you'll know the feeling yourself soon enough.'

Hayley grinned, then turned as, nearby, Lady Helena shouted for the Knights of Erran to form for the charge. 'Be careful, Lady Katherine,' she gazed up at her mistress with such sincerity that Katherine was touched, and had to lower her visor to hide her colouring face.

'Don't worry, Hayley,' she said lightly, 'I'll be wanting this sword sharpened and polished again tonight.'

Hayley joined the rest of Erran's Handmaids as they retreated to safety, and the mounted Knights prepared for their charge. Katherine brought her horse in line between Ladies Emma and Diane, nodding to her companions in arms as she hefted her lance and rested its butt upon her saddle. 'Nice day for it,' she observed glibly, knowing such comments rankled Emma enormously. Emma took her fighting very seriously, seldom joining in the pre-fight banter, although Katherine had noted the grey-eyed warrior had softened a little of late. She had arrived at Erran shortly after Elizabeth had established her estate, and had quickly gained the respect of the other Knights.

'Last nights rain will have made things a little mucky down there,' Diane noted, her visor still open to reveal her dark eyes and sultry lips, and an errant coil of raven hair that spilled from her brow.

'All the softer to land on, should the worst come to the worst,' Katherine suggested.

From beyond Emma, Lady Suzanne spoke up, her plummy voice ringing out clear in the morning stillness. 'I'd think falling off your horse is the least of your problems. It's having a steel lancehead thrust through your tit you should be watching out for.'

Katherine grinned. Many had disliked Suzanne when she had first arrived at Erran two years ago, but once they accepted her upper class mannerisms most agreed she was principally a friendly and cheerful companion, blessed with a dry and subtle wit that many suffered from unknowingly. Beyond Suzanne sat Helena, effectively the leader of this warband in Elizabeth's absence. The dark haired beauty smiled tolerantly at her comrades words, but nudged her horse forward as she saw Marina's army was beginning to advance.

'Time to move, ladies,' she shouted along the line of Knights. Immediately came the sound of one hundred visors slamming shut, and one hundred lances swooped skyward as the Knights of Erran spurred their mounts into battle. Hooves tore up clods of earth and grass as the frightened beasts were launched down the hillside towards the plain below, a place of unsullied serenity that would soon be rent by the sounds of fighting and dying.

Katherine's heart pounded in her chest, but the rush of adrenaline cleared the last twinges of her pain, and she let out a cry of excited expectation as she rode into battle once more, determined to take more lives before her inevitable fall. She was weakening, seemingly every time she donned her armour or lifted her sword, but what scared her most was the thought that she would die in a hospital bed, drugged to a stupor and pissing through a tube. No, she would die in battle, or she wouldn't die at all. She yelled another battlecry as the line of enemy Knights loomed, and couched her lance as she selected the woman who would be her first victim.

Paired off exactly, two hundred Knights met with a roar of steel clashing against steel that echoed through the surrounding land, almost causing the ground to tremble with its shocking impact. Katherine's lancehead skittered off her opponent's shield, wedging under the girl's pauldron and ripping her arm free amidst a spray of bright blood. The horrible sound of tearing flesh and the juddering impact made Katherine quiver with ecstasy, but the girl's keening body was swept past and Katherine flicked her lance, sending the armoured limb flying. Her chest ached at the impact of her foes lancetip, but she had been lucky, and the weapon's business end had not sank through her armour, instead flicked away as Katherine twisted in her saddle.

There was no time to look for her wounded opponent, as many Knights were falling on both sides, to crunch and roll on the muddy ground, shrieking in pain or gurgling their blood frothed, terminal breaths. Katherine swung her horse around, taking in the scene before her with relish. The smell of hot blood assailed her nostrils instantly, and she realised the side of her breastplate was sheathed with crimson. She had no time to confirm that the blood was not hers, as enemy Knights had also turned, and many also held unbroken lances, still sharp enough to take a life. Katherine sighted one such foe and kicked her horse into another charge, noticing that her previous opponent was unhorsed and writhing in her path. She gripped her reins and guided her mount skilfully, and the grounded enemy shrieked as she saw her death bearing down on her. Steel shod hooves crushed the unfortunate warrior, and her body twisted and rolled, beaten and broken with gore hosing from the joints of her buckled armour.

Katherine's sights were set on a second foe, who spurred her mount to meet her charge, her own lancetip swooping down as the two Knights closed. Katherine nudged her shield into position, her senses alerting her that this woman was no amateur. At the last second, Marina's Knight shifted her position, her lancetip shifting higher. Katherine ducked to her left, her own lance rising high, and cursed as the enemy's weapon slammed into her arm, skittering off the armour but causing her to twist in her saddle and drop her lance. Gritting her teeth, Katherine wheeled her mount again, dragging her sword free of its scabbard with a silky rasp. Her skilled opponent had plunged deeper into the fray, not bothering to face the warrior she had bested, and Katherine's anger grew as she knew she had lost that encounter.

Still, there were more of the enemy to fight, and nearby a fellow Knight was battling one of Marina's girls, unaware that a second enemy was behind her, axe raised ready to strike. Yelling a challenge, Katherine plunged forward, and the Knight turned to face this new foe, checking her swing just in time. She charged with a battlecry of her own, but Katherine knew this woman was no warrior, perhaps a freshly Knighted Handmaid. She waited for the girl to close in, her axe swooping down in a skilled but obvious motion. Katherine whipped her shield aside, bashing the axe away easily and chopping her blade down into the unfortunate girl's shoulder. The Knight screamed in pain as Katherine's razor sharp blade sheared through plate and bone, splitting her open down to her breast. Her body bucked in the saddle, and Katherine grunted as she wrenched the weapon free, her excitement rising again at the sight of the gout of blood that launched itself from the Knight's sundered body. The dying Knight tumbled from her saddle, her mount whinnying in fear as hot blood sprayed over its flank, and Katherine's eyes flicked around looking for a more skilful foe.

Nearby, a fellow Amazon Knight battled valiantly against one of Marina's women, whose skill with her flanged mace was obvious. The weapon swooped under her opponent's hastily raised shield, slamming into the girl's right thigh and shattering the bones beneath. The injured Knight shrieked, dropping her guard fatally and allowing her foe to swing again. This time the mace slammed into the stricken Knight's back and she gracelessly tumbled off her mount, crunching against the moist ground and splattering mud as she rolled in agony. Katherine kicked her horse forward, eager to engage Marina's Knight, who instantly replied to this silent challenge, readying her mace once more as she prepared for Katherine's attack.

The two warriors commanded their mounts with skill, each manoeuvring their beast to their best advantage. The enemy Knight's mace swooped out, but Katherine dug in her spur and her horse shied out of harms way. She turned, flicking a glance to where her foe's last opponent writhed, her helmet tumbling free to expose cropped blonde hair. It was Suzanne, and Katherine knew that it was unlikely that her colleague would survive the battle. Even if her wounds would not claim her life, she could be tramped underfoot at any second. Determined to avenge her downed comrade, Katherine launched herself at her opponent.

The mace wielding Knight had swung around swiftly, and now approached with her heavy weapon held high. Katherine knew her shield would not aid her in this fight, but her sword gave her the advantage of speed. She kept low in her saddle, until she was nearly alongside the other Knight and the mace began its downward swing. Once again Katherine dug in her spur, and as the beast between her thighs obediently shifted to the left, Katherine lashed out with her sword, striking the mace's shaft just below its studded head and sending the weapon astray. The enemy Knight shouted her dismay, obviously aware that Katherine was in a position to counter attack, and the Amazon Knight let out a roar of triumph as she rammed her blade forward, trusting that its honed tip would shear through her enemy's armour.

A shriek of metal on metal mixed with the death cry of Marina's warrior, and Katherine tugged her weapon from where it was lodged deep in the woman's left breast. Bright blood squirted from the tear in her armour and she sagged in her saddle, her mace dropping from lifeless fingers. Her horse bolted, disappearing into the mass of mounted warriors that shouted and screamed and battered at each other with crazed ferocity. Katherine's thrill of victory faded almost instantly into the dull ache of knowing that time was running out to find a foe that could defeat her. She glanced to where Suzanne still floundered in bloody mud, seeing the fear of death in the young woman's eyes and wondering if she would know that fear when her time came.

Not far away, Helena was still leading by example, her sword lost but an dying enemy's axe claimed in its place. Her armour was splashed with blood, there was a vast dent in her right pauldron, but she fought like a demon, screaming encouragement to her warriors although she knew they could not hear. The axe fell, splitting open the faceplate of an enemy Knight, who bucked in her saddle, gore and a flaccid eyeball bursting from the rent in her helmet to spatter against Helena's breast. Wrenching the axeblade free, not even bothering to watch her lifeless victim tumble from her saddle, Helena took a second to wipe the quivering trophy from her breastplate before casting about to see how her girls fared.

Nearby, Lady Diane hewed at a foe with a blood-smeared longsword, sending her enemy's right arm spinning free. The woman keened shrilly, until the sword swooped around a second time, taking her head from her shoulders with one sure swipe. The body jerked, gore hosing from the stumps of her neck and shoulder before she fell back off her horse as the creature panicked and fled. Helena pulled her mount up beside Diane's, recognising her comrade's motions and posture as much as her horse. Another Knight cantered up beyond Diane, obviously Katherine, and the three veteran Amazon Knights found themselves surrounded by battling warriors, with not a single enemy free to be engaged. Taking the opportunity of a moments peace, Helena whisked open her faceplate.

'How are we doing?' she yelled to her friends.

'Same as always,' Diane shouted back, flipping open her own visor to grin savagely at Helena. 'They fall before us like flies!'

'We seem to be winning!' Katherine suggested as she took in the surrounding violence. Bodies hit the churned ground, ribbons of gore sprouting from rents and tears in shining armour. Dying warriors screamed in dismay as they were trampled underfoot, or as they frantically clawed at limb stumps or coils of loosened intestines. The stench of death hung like a pall over the battle, and the three warriors' hearts beat faster as they drank in the heady aroma. For a second they were silent amidst the slaughter, but then Helena drew her mount closer to her comrades, her voice ringing clear even over the din of battle.

'We were once four, and lost a good friend. Let us make a pact right now. We look out for each other; watch each others backs. If one of us is in trouble, the others will help, no matter what the danger. Agreed?' She extended her hand, and Diane's own closed on it immediately. The two Knights looked to Katherine.

Hesitating for a second, Katherine wondered what Helena was thinking. Both she and Diane knew the truth about her cancer, and both would also know her fear of dying bed-ridden and useless. Katherine's eyes searched Helena's. They had known each other for four years. They had shared good times and bad and, until recently, had shared each others beds also. The thought occurred to Katherine that this was Helena's way of warning her never to enter a battle harbouring thoughts of suicide; that if she did she would be marking the death of three Knights, not just one. For a second impotent rage built within her, but it quickly vanished, replaced with affection and love for her two remaining closest friends. What they suggested was offered with sincerity, and Katherine found she could not refuse.

'Agreed!' she closed her mailed fist over those of her comrades, marking a moment none of them would ever forget.

An Amazon Knight screamed and crashed to the ground, gore streaming from her ruptured chest, and as her horse shied back, enemy riders pushed forward in a wedge, their blades wet with the gore of Erran's warriors. The three Knights split, hefting their weapons to once more enter the fray.

Diane's longsword scythed through the air, ringing against the upraised axe of a desperate enemy. Wheeling her mount around, Diane chopped at waist height, skilfully missing her opponent's horse but burying the blade deep in the screaming woman's side. Marina's Knight pitched sideways off her saddle, clawing at the tear in her armour, and Diane was swept into the battle, bellowing a challenge and raising her dripping blade high.

Helena's axe parried an incoming sword, but another slashed in from her left and she could only lean in her saddle, hoping that her armour would hold. The blade bit into steel, and she grunted at a sudden pain, relief flooding through her as she realised she had only been nicked by the weapon's edge. Her axe swooped down and the enemy Knight reared her horse back, narrowly avoiding being eviscerated by the weapon. Taking the moment she had, Helena turned her attention back to her first opponent, who was moving in again with her sword swooping low. Wrenching on her reins, Helena forced her steed back, kicking it into a lunge as the enemy Knight's blade swept harmlessly past her thigh.

Her axe chopped true, shearing off the woman's weapon hand. Rearing back in her saddle, the woman screeched and held the spurting stump up before her visor, her unbelieving eyes wide through the slits in the faceplate as she watched her lifeblood pumping thick and red. She didn't see the axe sweep in a second time, this time caving in the back of her helmet. Her head came apart, flesh and blood splattering against the inside of her faceplate before her dying body jerked hugely and she toppled forward onto her horse's wide neck. Unchecked, the beast bolted, and Helena brought her own steed around to face her other foe.

Katherine threw herself at any enemy that dared to face her. Her longsword slaked its thirst in the belly of one Knight, slipping free of the woman's hunched form as she tumbled from her saddle, dragging free a clotted coil of intestine that she flicked clear before engaging another foe. Her new opponent had also recently killed, and as their blades met, fresh blood sprayed from the scraping steel, along with blinding sparks. The hot flecks of blood speckled Katherine's faceplate, and she blinked as several landed in her eye. Her foe saw her flinch and stabbed low, but Katherine anticipated the move and brought her sword down, knocking the weapon aside. She stabbed even as her opponent's blade sank deep into her horse's shoulder, and the beast's scream mingled with that of the enemy Knight as they both felt the pain of invading steel.

Katherine yelped as her mount reared in panic, fumbling for her reins but tumbling off her saddle with a wail of dismay. Her sword scraped free of the enemy Knight's armour, and the dying woman was whisked away by her own steed. Katherine hit the ground hard, the breath knocked from her instantly and the cracking of several ribs clearly audible. Cursing her luck she rolled, trying desperately to get to her feet. An enemy Knight tried to run her down and she staggered to one side, bouncing off the beast's shoulder and knocked off her feet again.

She landed on a pile of armoured bodies, a twitching mass of limbs and bloody steel. A big enough obstacle for most horses to avoid, the body pile afforded Katherine precious seconds of peace to gather her breath and shift her body experimentally to see what damage had been done. Ribs had indeed been cracked, but aside from that she had escaped injury, although the pain in her gut had returned to gnaw at her. She forced herself to stand, but a bloody fist gripped her arm, and the plea of a fellow Knight rasped through quivering lips beneath her.

'K . . . kill me . . . please . . .'

Katherine saw the Knight was one of Elizabeth's, a fair haired young woman whose left leg had been sheared off over the knee, and whose breastplate was ripped open over her chest. She was dying, but slowly, and Katherine felt no guilt as she rammed her swordtip down through the woman's aventail into her throat. Blood erupted from the woman's mouth and her remaining limbs twitched before she finally succumbed with a rattling sigh. Yanking her sword free, Katherine turned to view the battle surrounding her, noting that many Knights had died and the throng of armoured horses was now considerably thinner. Mounted Knights still fought valiantly, but the ground was thick with sprawled or feebly shifting bodies, polished armour buckled and ripped and sheened with bright gore.

She stepped away from the body pile, her sword up as she sought an opponent. A mounted Knight of Dunan yanked her axe from the chest of an Amazon Knight nearby, but the enemy rider only glanced at the groundborne Katherine and wheeled her horse to look for equal prey. Katherine cursed the woman's integrity, but her eyes then found an enemy Knight who staggered between wheeling steeds to come at her with a mace held high. Dropping to a fighting stance, trying to ignore the aches and pains her body suffered, Katherine prepared to fight.

Helena's foe screamed in pained dismay as she saw the sword slide free of her abdomen. She clutched at the hole that suddenly sprayed blood, moaning as she fell sideways off her saddle. Helena twisted on her reins, panting heavily as she looked for yet another opponent. A Knight was already charging her, a heavy double-bladed axe raised and ready. The weapon took two hands to master but the Knight rode expertly, seeming to control her mount with her legs alone. Intent on taking this new foe down quickly, Helena spurred her own beast into battle, keeping low and watching the vicious axe carefully.

As it swung down, Helena kicked her horse's side, and the beast shimmied instantly to the left. The axe swished through empty air, but the enemy Knight caused her steed to turn, and Helena had nothing to attack except the rump of the horse as it spun around. She readied her swordarm, intending to lash out when the enemy came into range, but the woman was turning with her axe already swinging, and Helena gasped as she saw the weapon's heavy head swooping towards her chest. She threw herself sideways in her saddle, screaming as she felt the axe split into her shoulder, almost ripping her right arm free from its socket. She hung off her saddle for a second, gritting her teeth against the pain, then dropped, screaming in fresh pain as her leg buckled under her mount's rear hooves, and her left shoulder cracked against the ground. She rolled, her body instantly writhing in agony.

The enemy Knight turned, seeing her foe sprawled and helpless. Helena's helm had loosened itself and rolled free, and the Amazon Knight's delicate features were twisted, her eyes squeezed shut as she rolled moaning, her lustrous hair instantly matted with thick mud. Recognising Castle Erran's senior Knight, the enemy warrior brought her horse in close, dismounting nimbly to stand over Helena, one spurred foot stepping down onto the wounded woman's breast to hold her in place as she readied her axe.

Katherine swiped her opponent's mace away from her face, immediately thrusting forward into the woman's stomach. The enemy Knight twisted to avoid the blade, her mace swooping up over her head to start its downward swing. Having anticipated the move, Katherine was ready, and her blade swiped out expertly to hack through the other girl's right shoulder. Arm and weapon flew free, and the enemy Knight screamed shrilly as she stared in disbelief at her hosing stump. Katherine staggered as her latest victim sagged to her knees, but then stepped in to chop down into the woman's skull, splitting open her helm and face with one ringing strike. Her body heaved as blood and brains spewed from the rent in her helm, and as the two neatly spliced halves of her skull splayed apart with a sickening squelch, the woman's body fell back, legs kicking and twitching. Katherine had no time to enjoy her enemy's death, as Helena's scream cut through the din of battle, and she cast about to spy her friend's stricken body, and the figure of the axewoman who stood over her.

Helena was badly wounded, perhaps even dying. Her arm looked to be hanging more off than on, and one leg was buckled and broken, almost bent double under her. Blood slicked her chin and her lips, although whether this was from internal injuries or a bitten tongue was unclear. Katherine hesitated, unsure of what she should do. Only moments ago she had sworn to defend her friends with all her strength, but the thought of saving Helena only to condemn her to the life of a cripple was abhorrent to her.

But she was in battle, and in battle all decisions are made in the blink of an eye. In a second she was storming towards her wounded friend, shouting a challenge to the Knight who stood over her. A Knight that instantly heeded the call and turned to face this new foe eagerly, hefting her bloody axe high.

The fight was long and bloody. Katherine's sword hacked at the enemy warrior's armour, splitting through plate but never seeming to inflict damage on the muscular woman underneath. In response, Marina's Knight chopped sideways, her axeblade biting into Katherine's side and sending the Amazon Knight staggering. Wounded but still able to fight, Katherine lunged back into the fray, her blade stabbing low into the other woman's groin. The enemy Knight screamed in pain, pushing Katherine back and staring aghast to where a stream of bright blood pissed through the chainmail between her thighs. Roaring in anger she came forward with weapon raised high, but this time Katherine neatly side-stepped the axe as it swished down to slam into the earth, nearly knocking her off her feet with the impact.

For a second Marina's Knight was vulnerable, and Katherine flexed her tired arm and rammed her blunted blade under the woman's armpit, burying the sword deep into her chest. The Knight quivered and grunted, instantly dropping to one knee as her strength fled. Katherine gripped her sword two handed to yank it free, releasing a fount of gore from the ragged wound, and the enemy Knight pitched sideways to crash into the mud, moaning and shifting as she fumbled at her wounds. Katherine stumbled forward to straddle the Knight's body, her sword held high before her until she brought it stabbing down to sheath its length between the dying woman's breasts. More blood belched skyward, spattering Katherine's thighs and belly as she twisted the sword and wrenched it free, not giving the jerking corpse a second glance as she staggered to her friend's side.

'What kept you?' Helena asked weakly as Katherine stooped over her, anxiously assessing her wounds.

''Been busy,' she answered, then looked around to see how the battle progressed. With mixed feelings she saw the fighting was nearly done. Barely two dozen Knights still fought, many unhorsed like herself and Helena. Women shared intimate moments of life and death, as wide-eyed victrixes prolonged the agonies of their defeated enemies before stabbing swords into yielding flesh, or shattering chests with heavy maces or axes. Strangled screams cut through the ringing of weapons, and Katherine yearned to stand and wade into another fight, perhaps to find her own honourable death at the hand of one of Marina's remaining Knights. But most of the Knights that still stood were from Erran, and although her Lady would be counted with a victory this day, Katherine still felt cheated once again.

Helena gripped her arm. 'I'm glad your alright, Katherine,' she said weakly, and Katherine smiled down at her.

'Thank you Helena. You'll be fine too.' She began to unstrap Helena's split pauldron to do what she could to stem the bleeding before the medics arrived. As she worked, she looked her old friend in the eye. 'I made you a promise before, Helena. Now I want you to make me one.'

'What is it?' Helena's voice was slurred, but her dark eyes focused on Katherine's clearly.

'If our situation is ever reversed,' Katherine said, 'If I'm ever lying wounded, with an enemy standing over me, ready to finish me, don't interfere.'

'We made a pact . . .'

'I release you from your side of it.' Katherine eyed Helena's wound, gripping the split flesh tight to try and staunch the flow of blood. 'I count myself lucky to have a friend like you, Helena. Don't let me down.'

A short distance away, Lady Diane stood over a screaming foe, revelling in the pain of her victim before she stabbed down through armour into the woman's ribcage, cracking bone and splitting flesh. The dying Knight gurgled as splintered ribs shredded her heart, and Diane came with a shudder as hot gore sprayed up over her groin and thighs. For a while she stood dripping and panting over the ruptured corpse, her eyes drifting over the scene of death and blood that surrounded her, and then she picked out Katherine kneeling beside Helena, holding the fallen woman's head in her lap and shouting for the approaching medics to hurry.

She grunted to herself. 'Same old Katherine,' she muttered, 'As good as her word.' Returning her attention to the corpse beneath her, Diane grinned savagely as she tore her sword free, relishing how the dead woman bucked as the weapon slipped from her body.

Helena awoke with a start, staring around the room in confusion as she wondered where she was. A short distance away, Dr McManus was working beside Katherine's bed. The bed had been moved to the far side of the room, where it was now half covered by some form of protective shield.

Standing and stretching, Helena nodded to McManus, who turned back to her patient dismissively. 'While you're here, Miss Wycome, and the nurse who should be here isn't, perhaps you'd be so good as to help me for a moment?'

'Of course,' Helena moved to stand beside McManus, staring nonplussed at the range of medical equipment the doctor was utilising. Katherine was unconscious, lying supine on her bed with her head turned to one side. The lower half of her skull had been shaved, the rest of her brown hair pulled back and tailed by a band to keep it out of the way.

'The monitor please,' McManus ordered, and Helena trundled a trolley-mounted VDU closer to the doctor, who was aligning minuscule cameras on a frame over Katherine's bed. McManus flicked a switch on the monitor and the screen blazed into life, showing the side of Katherine's head. The picture was duplicated larger on a screen over the shield beside Katherine's bed, and Helena stared dumbstruck at the image. On the screen, Katherine's head was superimposed with lurid 3D graphics, obviously an image of her skull.

'What are we looking at?' Helena whispered

McManus grunted. 'This green mass,' she gestured to the screen, glancing at Helena quickly before turning away. 'This is what is killing Miss Wagner at the present moment.'

Helena felt her skin crawl as she gazed at the sponge-like lump the equipment displayed. 'Her cancer? I thought it was in her stomach?'

'It's spread,' McManus said, regarding printouts with a squint as she spoke. 'To her bowel, into her bloodstream. In fact, I've been gathering MRI images of her for the past few months and this doesn't surprise me much.'

Helena kept her temper in check as she stared at McManus's back, hating the clinical way the woman spoke. 'What doesn't surprise you? That your own work has caused her cancer to spread?'

McManus glanced at her again. 'Yes,' she said simply. 'As well you know, most of the work I do here is experimental.' Pausing, she looked back at Helena, confirming that the Knight's anger was showing on her face. She sighed, placing her papers down on a nearby table. 'Make no mistake, Miss Wycome, I have tried everything in my power to save Miss Wagner's life. Conventional treatment failed, that she suffered with before she came here. I've tried many methods of removing or treating her cancer, some beneficial and others not, and many of these methods are only now filtering out into the outside world . . .'

'You mean you're using us as your guinea pigs,' Helena spat.

'Yes,' McManus agreed again, 'and already hundreds of lives have already been saved by what I have learned here. Thousands more are reaping the benefits of the restorative procedures pioneered here. Please try to understand . . .'

'Spare me,' Helena sighed, knowing she could not hope to argue with the doctor. For a start, she was right, and Helena had seen many friends yanked back from the brink of death by McManus and her doctors. Many others, including herself and most recently Emma, had been restored to full health after suffering injuries that, in the outside world, would have left them crippled. Still, imagining what Katherine had been put through over the last four years filled her with horror. 'Just tell me how bad it is.'

'I'll show you,' McManus pulled a keyboard from beneath the monitor, clicking keys. Within seconds, the image on the screen changed to show Katherine's body, and Helena's eyes widened as they tracked the green glow that now seemed to infect every part of her body. 'I've been trying to regenerate Miss Wagner's cells as the cancer tries to destroy them,' McManus spoke again, this time sounding almost apologetic, 'but its growth is accelerating, and there's nothing I can do now to stop it. I am sorry, Miss Wycome.'

McManus's heartbeat of humanity slipped away as, behind her, a door opened to reveal the slight form of a young nurse. 'Late, Miss Kinvig,' the doctor snapped, 'Far too late.'

'I'm sorry, Dr McManus,' the nurse stuttered, stepping into the room uncertainly and staring at Helena. 'But a Knight outside insisted on speaking to me. She told me I had to bring this here.'

Helena turned to see what the nurse had brought, and saw that she was carrying a scabbarded sword, freshly oiled in its leather sheath. She stepped forward to take the blade as McManus tutted.

'How many times do I have to tell these wretched women to keep their toys out of my clinic? And you should know better that to bring them in here, Miss Kinvig.'

'It's alright, doctor, I'll take care of it.' Helena slid the blade out of its scabbard, admiring its decoratively engraved blade and burnished pommel. 'It's Katherine's sword. A message from the woman she'll be fighting in a few days time.'

McManus snorted. 'Are you out of your mind? Have you not been listening to what I've been saying? This woman is on the brink of death, she most certainly won't be challenging anyone to a fight.'

'The challenge has already been extended,' Helena raised the sword in her hand, 'and now it has been accepted. Do whatever is in your power to get Katherine on her feet doctor. I'm sure there are a few tricks even you have been reluctant to try.'

With a last glance to where her old friend lay, Helena turned and left, and the doctor stared after her for a while before speaking.

'Arrange a meeting for me with Elizabeth,' she told her nurse brusquely. 'Miss Wycome is right, there are things I can do, but if the need is great the cost will be greater. Only Elizabeth can pay this price.'

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