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'Come on girls, put some life into it!'

Lady Diane strolled around the edge of the training ground, watching the Handmaids sweating and gasping as they were put through yet more endurance training. This was the first test for the new girls, the first move to weed out those who didn't have what it took to become an Amazon Knight. Of the twenty-four girls who had recently arrived, half would probably leave the estate before they were deemed good enough to be granted a squirehood.

Summer was creeping to a close, but it was another blisteringly hot day; too hot for such training. Two girls had already succumbed to the heat, and more looked ready to drop as Lady Lea ordered the girls out of the castle grounds on what would be an eight mile run. Diane's dark eyes followed Michelle, a new recruit who was already making a name for herself with her determination and willingness to learn and fight. Her ruddy face gleamed with sweat, but the dark haired girl fell in with her colleagues without complaint, her face expressionless as if to hide the physical pain she obviously felt.

As the Handmaids jogged out of view, Diane turned her attention to the rest of the training grounds, where a number of Knights were sparring or loosening up prior to a training session. Nearby, Lady Lonia crouched in a battle stance, her eyes holding those of her opponent, Lady Keeley. Keeley, a slim brunette whose hair was tied back in a short ponytail, already looked exhausted as she backed away from her tall, blonde opponent. Both girls wore only light tunics and sandals. Their exposed limbs gleamed with perspiration, the white fabric of their opaque garments clinging to the damp flesh of their muscled bodies. Diane watched Lonia with interest. The blonde warrior had only recently been Knighted, and was showing great promise.

Lonia attacked openly, confident of her skill as she swung her blunted sword overarm and dove forward to engage Keeley. The brunette brought her own sword up to parry the blow, grunting as the blades clashed and she was forced back two steps under the impact. Her left leg lanced out, hoping to take Lonia's own from under her and send her crashing to the ground, but Lonia twisted, her own tanned limb snaking around Keeley's and knocking her off-balance. Keeley cursed as she fell, but rolled and regained her feet quickly, her eyes not leaving those of her opponent.

The two warriors should have been wearing armoured bodysuits for such training, but had obviously decided the heat was too great for such garb. Perhaps a gentle sparring session had turned into something a little more dangerous. Diane's interest grew as she stepped closer, noting that Keeley's eyes flashed with suppressed anger. She had been a Knight for almost a year now, and here was a newly dubbed opponent getting the best of her. For a second Diane contemplated stopping the fight, but elected instead to lean against a training post and see how the battle turned out.

Keeley gritted her teeth and bit back her anger, knowing that weakness such as this would lose her the fight. Lonia was a fine warrior and a quick learner. She had the strong will to make a name for herself for Erran, and she obviously did not mind who she upset to achieve that goal. The two had trained before, and Keeley had overheard the blonde amazon discussing her form with colleagues in the showers afterwards. Her face burned as she remembered Lonia's words, barbed and insulting. Keeley cared little if they were spoken in camaraderie or in true spite, but she disliked being made a fool, and had promised herself Lonia would pay. As this sparring session had gathered pace, an opportunity had presented itself.

Lonia grinned savagely as she regarded her foe, aware that she was probably already a better warrior that the brunette. It was clear Keeley had been mocked by her defeat in training a few days before, especially as Lonia had still been recovering from the wounds she had suffered during her trial. Her thigh wound had healed quickly in the castle's clinic, but the delicate flesh between her legs had required much work, and even now she could not bring herself to orgasm as she lay moaning in frustration in her bed at night. Only when she fought did her excitement rise, and her last moment of pleasure had been after her trial, a shuddering climax that had wracked her body even as medics administered to her wounded crotch.

As she fought Keeley now she felt moisture between her thighs. She heard her opponent's guttural grunts as she parried and thrust, saw the sweat run down the pretty girl's face and body, and knew that she could only experience true pleasure again at the taking of another's life.

But this was neither the time nor the place, and Lonia struggled to keep control, concentrating on winning this fight against a longer established Knight. She parried an incoming swing, noting that Keeley's attacks were becoming easier to anticipate. Her own blade stabbed low, and Keeley leapt back to avoid the vicious attack, then ducked as Lonia followed up with a wide swipe that was aimed at her opponent's chest.

Keeley swiftly counterattacked, and Lonia grinned as her opponent lunged, obviously thinking the brunette was becoming rash. The grin was wiped from her face as she struggled to wrench her sword from left to right, just managing to parry the superb stabs and slashes Keeley launched at her. Then her blade deflected Keeley's final swing, an overhead chop that looked to be aimed at the blonde's skull, and the blunted blade slashed her upper arm, opening a small but painful cut that instantly began to bleed freely.

Vengeance was hers! Keeley stepped back, a smile creeping across her face, but the smile died away as she saw Lonia glance at her wound, then instantly drop back into a fighting stance.

'First blood, Lonia,' she warned the blonde warrior. 'I win.'

'We were to fight until one of us was wounded, Lady Keeley,' Lonia mocked her, 'This is just a scratch. Would you crawl off crying for aid with such a petty injury?' Her eyes narrowed. 'You insult me!'

For a second Diane thought Keeley would sheath her sword and turn away, but the dark haired girl held Lonia's eye for long seconds, then slowly settled into a fighting stance of her own. The two women circled each other, neither trying to hide their hatred of the other now. This was the time to step in and stop them, but Diane found she could not move or speak. Her chest tightened and her breath quickened, and she felt the excitement growing in her loins as the two women before her closed in to battle, neither noticing their audience.

Her breath coming quicker, Lonia tried to ignore her throbbing between her legs, a distraction that could easily cost her life. She yearned to bury her blade in Keeley's soft belly, to wrench the life from the ponytailed girl and yank her glistening innards into the baking sunlight. Her panties were drenched, her clitoris swollen and raw at the thought of killing Keeley, and she let out a low moan as she swooped in to attack.

Lonia's sword swung left and right, and Keeley grunted as she parried the first swing, then ducked under the sword as it swung back at neck height. She spun and lanced out her own blade, but Lonia dodged to her right, bringing her sword down towards the brunette's shoulder. Keeley fell forward into a roll, coming to her feet and spinning again to face Lonia, instantly lunging towards the blonde girl's belly. Lonia swept the blade aside, and as Keeley gasped and stumbled she planted a firm kick in the girl's side. Keeley grunted and staggered, her face twisted in rage and pain.

What would it take to win over this blonde bitch? They had been fighting to first blood; she had won, and yet Lonia's goading had awoken an animal hatred in her that threatened to overcome her months of training. She concentrated on clearing her mind, as she did so becoming more and more aware that she had the chance of ridding herself of Lonia for good. Practice sessions frequently left sparring Knights with hideous wounds, and accidental deaths were not unknown. She turned to face the blonde warrior, focused and ready to fight again.

Eager not to give her foe a chance to recover, Lonia surged forward with her sword held low, swinging from the right towards Keeley's slim legs. But the brunette wasn't as winded as Lonia had hoped, and jumped up as the blade swished, clearing its gleaming length and landing ready to counterstrike. Lonia tried to recover her balance, but could only grunt in pain as Keeley brought her sword round in an arc to smash its blunted edge into her right thigh.

Lonia reeled back, thankful that the blade had not split her flesh but aware that the weapon's impact had numbed her leg. She felt rather than heard Keeley move in on her blind side, and lashed her sword out to keep her foe at bay. Keeley checked her approach as the weapon slashed towards her, then stepped in to strike, her blade angling towards Lonia's breast. Her intention was just to wound her opponent, but Lonia obviously suspected that a killing blow was heading her way. She cried out, and with that cry her arm whipped round with astonishing speed, her sword parrying Keeley's strike and knocking the brunette away.

Her balance lost, Keeley stepped back to steady herself, her weapon arm knocked aside and her chest exposed. Lonia's swing whipped over her head, and she brought her weapon down with all her strength, her training automatically making her attack when the opportunity exposed itself. Her eyes widened as her sword smashed into Keeley's shoulder.

Keeley screamed, the shrill sound causing others training to stop and turn and gasp as they saw what had occurred. Keeley looked down to where Lonia's sword had split through her shoulder, opening her up down to the upper swell of her left breast. Blood drenched her tunic, and her arm hung useless, slicked with crimson, its fingers twitching as nerves died. Keeley sank to her knees, looking up at Lonia with confusion and dismay, and the blonde girl stared back into her eyes, her own wide and disbelieving. Then, as blood began to bubble on Keeley's lip, Lonia closed her eyes and shuddered, wet heat spilling down her thighs as her excitement finally peaked.

'Medic!' Diane shouted across the stunned training ground, but already white-coated figures were approaching. She stepped forward as Lonia dragged her sword back, and Keeley's body shuddered and pitched back to lie sprawled and writhing, her blood spreading around her upper body. Tiny gasps and groans came from her open mouth, and her eyes were dulled with shock. As Lonia held the tip of her bloody blade over the stricken warrior's breasts, as if ready to plunge the weapon in and end her suffering, Diane reached out to grip the blonde victrix's shoulder.

'What are you doing, Lady Lonia?'

Lonia didn't even look at her. She was panting, her eyes unfocused and wild as they played over the dying woman at her feet. 'The wound is fatal. Better she die like a warrior than in a hospital bed.'

Diane hesitated for a second, but the medics were close and she had little time. 'Do it,' she told Lonia, stepping back as the blonde rammed her blade down between Keeley's breasts.

Keeley's chest was soaked with blood and sweat, the fabric of her tunic moulded against her skin. Her nipples and aureoles were clearly visible through the sodden garment, and her breasts swelled as Lonia rammed her sword down, its point sinking deep into her body and causing her back to arch. Her body shuddered as the weapon's length slid through her, cracking bone and skewering her heart before splitting from her back to release a torrent of bright blood. Those standing nearby gasped, and the approaching medics slowed and stopped, knowing they were no longer required.

Lonia grunted and threw her head back as she came again, Keeley's hot blood spattering her belly and thighs . She held her sword straight, and Keeley's lifeless body slid down the blade to crumple against the bloody ground, her head falling to one side and a trickle of crimson spilling from her slackened lips. The corpse bucked once as Lonia withdrew the sword, then she and Diane stood gazing down at the body for long seconds.

'Am I in trouble, Lady Diane?' Lonia asked finally, as her senses returned and the knowledge of what she had done sank in.

'Accidents happen, Lady Lonia,' Diane said quietly, 'I'll see what I can do.' She clapped one hand on the victrix's shoulder. 'Besides, I think the time may come when I might have use for you.'

Sally Kinvig watched Katherine through the glass of the observation unit, unable to believe she was seeing the same woman who had been so close to death just three days earlier.

Katherine was on a climber, her limbs pumping and sheened with sweat as she fought to regain muscle slackened by weeks in bed. Her skin was pallid and her face puffy, but she moved and sweated and panted like a woman possessed, her eyes open but unfocussed as she pumped her legs and arms up and down.

Doctor McManus stood by her side, monitoring equipment the dying warrior was hooked up to. She nodded her head primly as the results satisfied her. As Sally opened the door and entered the unit, she looked around disapprovingly.

'I asked for that ten minutes ago, Miss Kinvig. What kept you?'

'Sorry Doctor,' Sally said meekly, walking across the unit's gleaming white floor to give the rack of syringes she held to the taller woman. McManus snatched the rack, holding it up to see the contents of the syringes against the light. 'I was checking your requirements again. They seemed so . . .'

'I know,' McManus interrupted as she glanced at Katherine. 'The effects can only be estimated. This could kill her quicker than if we'd left her in bed.' She spoke up. 'That's enough, Miss Wagner. Time for your injections.'

Katherine slowed and stopped, dismounting the climber carefully as Sally made sure the wires strapped to her arms remained in place. 'I feel good, Doc,' the warrior told McManus, 'Better than I've felt for a long time. Is this stuff new?' she gestured to the syringe the doctor was checking.

'Yes, Miss Wagner, new and improved.' McManus humoured Katherine as she administered the first shot. Katherine shuddered as the liquid flooded her veins, her eyes rolling back and her fists opening and closing unconsciously.

'I'm ready to fight, Doc. When . . . when can I fight?'

McManus frowned, aware that Katherine's memory seemed to be suffering. 'You fight tomorrow, Miss Wagner. Remember? You were very insistent a couple of days ago.'

'Right.' Katherine seemed to relax as the drug took hold. 'Who am I fighting, Doc?'

Sally stared at the sallow-eyed woman before her. 'You're fighting a girl called Hayley, Miss Wagner. She used to be your Handmaid?'

'Oh. Right.' Katherine's eyes were glazed as she spoke, and McManus took Sally's arm and led the nurse away from the warrior.

'I feared this would happen,' she whispered, 'but Elizabeth was most insistent. She seems determined to see this woman die in battle.' She shook her head in disbelief. 'I knew these women were insane when I came here, but this borders on suicide.'

'What was in that shot?' Sally asked.

'Just a few things to increase her strength, and morphine to dull the pain,' McManus told her vaguely. She glanced to where Katherine was slumped on her bed, muttering to herself, eyelashes fluttering. 'Pain is her life right now. It's the only thing that lets her know she's alive. When we take even that away, what will remain?'

The doctor turned her attention back to Katherine. 'That's all we can do for her today. It looks like the shots are working well. If she makes it through the night she can fight all she likes tomorrow. She told me she wanted to spend tonight in her own room, and I don't see why she shouldn't. Take care of it, will you?'

Sally nodded as the doctor turned and left. She continued to watch Katherine as the Knight tossed and turned, and a shudder ran down her spine as she wondered what manner of drug the doctor had created to allow this woman to stand and fight once more.

'Fight like this tomorrow and Katherine will kill you in a heartbeat.' Annoyed at her colleague's miserable performance, Natalie flicked her sword up, sending Hayley's own flying. Collapsing with a grunt, Hayley eyed her sparring partner with open hostility.

'Maybe I should let her! Enough people seem to agree that saving a friend's life was sacrilege.' She scrambled to her feet, not hurrying to reclaim her blade. Then she gasped as Natalie grabbed the scruff of her tunic and practically threw her towards where the sword had landed. Falling heavily on one of the training hall's mats, Hayley shot the other girl a look of incredulous surprise. 'What the hell was that for?'

'For being so fucking defeatist! Christ, ever since that fight you've been a misery. It's a shame the way things have worked out between you and Katherine, but she's the one who's dying! I know you don't want to hear this, but one of you is going to be dead by noon tomorrow, and I don't want it to be you.'

Still sat on the floor, Hayley regarded the other girl with interest. 'Jeez, Natalie, I didn't know you cared!'

Natalie blushed furiously, moving forward to help the other girl up.

'I'm sorry . . .'

'Don't be,' Hayley brushed her tunic down, smiling ruefully at the other girl. 'You're right. It's just hard to take in. I don't know what Lady Sonia meant to you, but Katherine wasn't just my tutor. She was a mentor, and a really good friend, you know?'

Natalie shook her head. 'No, I don't. Sonia was a cranky bitch, and I was half glad when she died during that battle.' She grinned at her friend's shocked expression.

'You're full of surprises today,' Hayley exclaimed, 'People think butter wouldn't melt in your mouth!' She placed a hand on Natalie's arm, noticing that the gesture made the other girl flinch slightly, then turned to walk a few steps away to where she could prepare for their next bout. 'I'll fight the best I can tomorrow,' she promised, 'and Katherine will do the same. She has no intention of falling on my blade, I can assure you of that.'

Natalie readied her weapon for the next bout, but her thoughts were troubled. She hadn't really known Hayley for that long, but already she felt herself falling for the diminutive Knight opposite her. She didn't want her to die. Shaking off such a morbid thought, and the guilt she also felt whenever she remembered Zoe's still recent demise, Natalie threw herself into sparring, eager to ensure Hayley would be on top form for the battle tomorrow.

Lady Suzanne was waiting for the Handmaidens as they panted through Erran's rear gates into the training ground. Three more girls had wilted during the run, which had been overseen by Lady Lea.

'Very good,' Lea told them all as they collapsed or sat heavily, thankful to be able to rest their aching limbs. 'Lady Suzanne will take over now,' the Asian woman smiled sweetly at the Handmaid's as they stared at her in disbelief, their hearts sinking as Suzanne moved to stand before them.

'Weapons training!' Suzanne barked, tossing a blunted sword at the feet of one girl, then turning towards a rack of weapons to collect another.

'You're joking, right? We've just run eight miles. Give us a break!' the girl groaned, and Suzanne was on her in an instant, her booted foot ramming the girl's shoulder and sending her sprawling.

'Backchat? If you have the strength for backchat, you have the strength to raise a blade.' She glared down at the blonde haired girl, unable to think of her name for a second. 'Just for that, you'll be on bathroom duty again tonight, Handmaid.'

Alison, Suzanne thought as she turned back to the rack. That was the girl's name. She was showing promise, but her temper needed to be checked. Even as she thought this, Suzanne heard a growl of rage and the gasps of the other Handmaids, and turned just in time to catch Alison's fist against her cheek. She staggered with a grunt, crashing against the rack and tumbling sideways, pain flaring in her side. She hit the ground hard, then gasped as Alison's sandalled foot slammed into the soft flesh of her belly. She rolled with the blow, planning to come to her feet to face her attacker, but Alison came after her again, her rage giving her strength. Her foot lanced out again, luckily catching Suzanne under the chin. Her head snapped back, and Suzanne gasped as she sprawled on her back, her vision flashing and her limbs turned to lead.

For a second she saw Alison loom over her, a blunted training sword held high. Unarmoured and defenceless, Suzanne saw her death approaching, and experienced a strange calm as the blade began to fall. Then, Alison seemed to vanish, disappearing from her view with a scream as a small figure cannoned into her.

Painfully rolling to her feet, Suzanne saw Alison and Michelle wrestling on the ground beside her. The brunette, having saved her life, was trying to grapple the sword away from Alison, but as Suzanne staggered to her feet she saw other Handmaid's close in to assist their colleague, and held up her arm to signal them to stop.

'No! Leave them be.' She turned her attention back to the wrestling girls, her eyes narrowing. 'Let's see how this ends.'

Michelle was more tired than she thought was possible. Her limbs felt like they weighed a ton apiece, and she struggled to drag air into her straining lungs. She grunted as she wrenched on Alison's arm, but the blonde girl's madness had given her strength and she was able to push the smaller girl away, far enough to bring up one foot and place it against Michelle's belly. She pushed up with a grunt of exertion, and Michelle flew back with a small cry, landing hard. Alison staggered to her feet, her gaze casting around the women that watched her. For a second she looked confused, as if wondering why no-one was trying to stop her, but then Michelle painfully regained her feet, and the blonde girl jumped forward with her sword raised, intent on using the weapon to kill.

'She's gone mad,' one of the Handmaid's cried, 'We have to stop her!'

Michelle reeled back from Alison, avoiding the blade that swished back and forth dangerously close to her flesh. As Alison lunged forward clumsily, Michelle was able to step aside and lance her leg out straight, kicking the blonde in the side. Alison cried out and dropped to one knee, and Michelle jumped forward to slam against her, knocking her against the ground again. They rolled, struggling for the sword, their hair wild and their tunics ripped and stained by the grass. Then, Alison wriggled an arm free and drew it back, sending her fist slamming into Michelle's face. Dazed, Michelle fell back, and Alison struggled to her feet, ready to surge forward again and finish her attacker.

Michelle rolled to her feet, shaking her head to clear her vision in time to see Alison start her lunge. She made to dodge back out of harms way, but a cry from one side alerted her to a sword that someone threw towards her. Without thinking she grabbed for the blade, catching it perfectly and spinning to lash out at Alison as the blonde leapt in.

Alison gasped and somehow managed to spin out of danger, staring at Michelle as the dark haired girl doubtfully glanced aside to Suzanne, who had thrown the sword. Then, her rage overcame her again, and the blonde dove in with her blade held high, eager to kill the girl who had dared attack her.

Grunting as she parried the crazed Handmaid's attacks, Michelle began to panic as she realised she was in a fight for her life. Already she had sparred with many women, and had learned tactics and manoeuvres essential for such combat, but she was not ready for a fight to the death! Her trial, should she prove to be good enough, was still many months away. Alison's sword swung in again, and Michelle pushed her doubts to the back of her mind. Her opponent cared little for such things, and if she was going to survive this battle, she would have to rely on her skill and training.

She fought, allowing her blade to meet Alison's as the blonde attacked, and stab or slash in response when the opportunity arose. These chances were rare, as Alison fought like a madwoman, but the blonde was not even trying to parry, and soon Michelle had landed several stinging chops onto the girl's exposed limbs. The last broke skin, and Alison staggered away from Michelle with a moan of pain, her anger finally evaporating as she began to feel fear. She glanced to Suzanne, but one look at the commander's face convinced her that the fight would not be stopped, and now it was Michelle who was panting with excitement, her eyes wide as she swooped in to follow up her skilful attacks.

Never before had Michelle known such a feeling. As Alison staggered, hurt and moaning, she had gasped as her belly fluttered and her loins flared. She had heard Amazon Knights talk about such feelings, the ecstasy of battle and the ultimate thrill of taking another's life. She had craved these feelings, eager to share what Hayley obviously felt when she fought. Now she had the opportunity to relish such an experience, and she no longer cared whether it was right or wrong.

Her blade swept down, clanging against Alison's upraised weapon and sending the blonde reeling. Exhausted and panting, Alison stared aghast at the girl who was trying to kill her, desperately trying to find a way out of the fatal situation her anger had placed her in. There was none, except to fight and win, to kill Michelle before Michelle killed her. She gritted her teeth and flexed her tired muscles, bringing her sword up high and chopping it down towards her foe's unarmoured skull. Michelle ducked back and slashed her blade from the left, nearly taking the sword from Alison's hand and making her stagger again. Yelling in frustration, Alison swung about, putting her weight behind an attack that would be her last chance for survival, and Michelle yelled in return as her sword lanced out.

She had meant to parry the incoming blow, but Alison was not fighting using her training, she was simply trying to kill her opponent. Her eyes widened as she realised she was lunging directly towards Michelle's upraised sword, but it was too late to do anything except let out a gasp of shocked disbelief. The sword crunched through bone and split from between her shoulderblades, impaling her up to the hilt as she crashed into Michelle and brought the brunette to the ground.

Michelle moaned at the weight that shuddered and writhed on top of her, but Alison's hips were grinding against her groin and the feeling was too much for her to take. Her back arched and she screamed as her body was wracked with an orgasm. Hot blood spilled over her body, and Alison's wide eyes stared into her own as her excitement faded. The dying girl's breaths were coming fast, but each seemed weaker than the last. Pushing the dying woman to one side, Michelle scrabbled to her feet to watch Alison's death throes.

Her face drained of colour, Michelle's head swam as she saw Alison's life slipping away before her eyes. Lying on her side, clutching the hilt of the blade wedged between her breasts, Alison groaned and twitched, blood spewing from her mouth and spreading in a crimson pool around her chest. Then, with a final whimper, she ceased to move, her eyes half open and staring in death.

Dropping to her knees, Michelle's face paled as she thought of what she had done. Because of her, a fellow Handmaid had died. Then, as suddenly as it had hit her, the guilt slipped away to be replaced by pride and excitement. She had survived a fight to the death! She was a victrix, and her enemy lay cooling and butchered before her. She reached out her hands to touch Alison's face, brushing strands of hair away from her features, opening the girl's slackened jaw to allow drooling strings of bloody saliva to dribble free. Unable to contain her ecstasy, Michelle giggled at the sight, clenching her thighs together and savouring the sticky warmth between her legs. Around her, her comrades muttered in shock, until Suzanne pushed them aside to stand beside Michelle, offering the brunette her hand and pulling her upright.

'Good job, Michelle,' Suzanne said sourly, obviously brooding over how easily Alison had managed to take her by surprise. 'Don't worry about this little incident. I'll take care of it.' She moved to Alison's body, nudging the corpse with one booted foot and nodding her head in satisfaction. She glanced at Michelle, a scowl crossing her face as she realised something else needed to be said, something she had never said to anyone before. 'Thank you, Michelle. You . . . you saved my life.'

She turned to address the pair of medics who had been approaching the scene, but stopped and looked around as Michelle cleared her throat noisily. The dark haired Handmaid was blushing furiously, but she held her head high as she addressed the Knight Commander. 'I was wondering, Lady Suzanne, if my actions have proved my worth as a squire?'

The surrounding Handmaids muttered, astounded that Michelle had the nerve to suggest such a thing. Suzanne stared at her, and Michelle berated herself silently for opening her mouth. She had only been here a handful of weeks, it would be months before she would be considered eligible to become a squire. Then, she blinked in astonishment as Suzanne laughed and turned away, waving a hand over her shoulder. 'We'll see, Michelle. We'll see.'

Exhausted, Hayley tugged her tunic over her head and let the sweat stained garment drop at the foot of her bed. She stepped into her bathroom and leaned on the sink, staring at her sallow-faced reflection grimly before splashing her skin with tepid water. When she rubbed her face with a towel, the rough flannel dried water and fresh tears alike.

She jumped as someone knocked on her door. 'It's open!' she called tiredly, expecting Natalie. Instead, Michelle stuck her tousled head around the door, peering around the room before seeing Hayley as she stepped out of the bathroom.

'Oh,' Hayley covered her chest with the towel, then blushed with embarrassment at the gesture. Still, she didn't drop the towel as she greeted the girl who had been her best friend before coming to Erran.

'I wondered if we could have our little chat now?' Michelle asked, although her tone sounded more like a demand.

'I'm really tired,' Hayley told her, 'Maybe we could do this . . .'

'Tomorrow?' Michelle finished for her, 'Don't you think that might be too late?'

Hayley's face crumpled. 'Thanks a lot,' she muttered, turning away from Michelle to pull a fresh tunic on over her bra and panties. Michelle stared at her tightly muscled back, marked with pink skin, the remnants of cuts and gashes gathered through training and battle. Once again she could not believe how much her friend had changed over the last two years.

They had met four years ago, when they had both been working in a tiny, smelly office in central London. Hayley had been quiet, a pilgrim to the city from her obviously grim life in Leeds, her birthplace. She had never really told Michelle why she was estranged from her family and friends, and Michelle had never asked, content in the knowledge that the shy, pretty girl she shared an office with was a friendly and honest workmate and, eventually, a close friend.

Things had only changed when Michelle had gotten engaged, shortly thereafter noting that Hayley had become even more withdrawn. Worried about her friend, Michelle had convinced Hayley to share her feelings, but had not been prepared for what the sniffing, sobbing girl had told her.

She had known Hayley had something of a crush on her, perhaps she'd even encouraged her in some way, but when presented with the truth, Michelle had been shocked, and unable to mollify her friend. Somewhat taken aback by learning of Hayley's feelings for her, Michelle had stepped back for a while, spending more time with her fiancee and taking extended leave to plan her wedding.

Ashamed at the memory, Michelle couldn't look Hayley in the eye when the diminutive Knight turned to face her. 'I. . . I mean . . .'

'Forget it. You can't rationalise it. Nobody can. I've been listening to Natalie try and make it all sound so simple all day, but all she was doing was jabbering like an idiot.' She flopped down on her bed, glancing at the bedside clock. It was two hours before midnight. In another ten hours she'd be facing Katherine.

'Things get complicated pretty quick,' Michelle murmured, and Hayley stared at her.

'What were you wanting to say, Michelle?'

Uninvited, Michelle sat down on the bed beside Hayley, taking her friends hand and squeezing it as she spoke. 'Do you remember that night when you said . . . when you told me how you felt about me?'

Hayley smiled sadly. 'Of course.'

'I've never forgiven myself for what I did. You opened your heart and I . . . got scared. I couldn't handle it. You kind of took me by surprise. I shouldn't have backed away like that, left you . . .'

'You're straight. You couldn't help it,' Hayley said lightly. She was smiling, but her eyes showed the truth and Michelle took a deep breath and hurried on.

'I did a terrible thing to you, Hayley. I knew you didn't have any other friends in the city, anyone else to turn to . . .' Her eyes lowered to Hayley's hand as she turned it over, seeing once again the faint pink scar that ran up her friend's wrist. 'I'm responsible for this,' she whispered.

Hayley sat up quickly, taking Michelle's chin in her other hand and lifting her head so their eyes met. 'Of course you're not,' she said firmly. 'I was a fool. A stupid little girl.'

'When you were in the hospital, and later, in the . . . home, I did a lot of thinking. You were sending me letters. You probably don't even remember writing most of them. My replies were clumsy, I didn't know what to say to you . . .'

It was Hayley's turn to take Michelle's hand. 'Just say what you want to say,' she told the other girl, her heart sounding loud in her chest as she took a deep breath, unable to believe where this was all going.

Michelle shook her head as she looked into Hayley's eyes. 'Don't be as dense as I was, Hayley,' she whispered, 'There's only one reason I would have come here.'

Numbed by Michelle's words, Hayley stared at the other girl, unsure of what to do or say. Michelle leaned forward slightly, then hesitated, but Hayley finished the movement, leaning in to embrace the girl she had loved unrequitedly for so long. Now it seemed Michelle shared her feelings, she could not believe it.

Michelle was tense, but her body softened as Hayley brushed her lips gently over her neck. Her hands clasping Hayley's back tightly, Michelle sank into their embrace, and a small moan escaped her as their lips connected. Hayley ran a hand through Michelle's hair, feeling the other girl's breath hot against her cheek as their lips parted and they gazed at each other as if for the first time.

It wasn't the time for words. Their real worlds retreated and all that mattered was the other's warm mouth and soft, smooth skin. Their kisses became more frantic; Hayley mashed her mouth so hard against Michelle's their teeth clashed. Her tongue delved deep, entwining around Michelle's as their fingers plucked and pulled at each others garments.

Michelle broke off the kiss first, panting as she leant back and yanked her tunic over her head. Her eyes were wild and unfocussed with lust, and she fumbled at her bra before tearing the delicate fabric away to reveal her small breasts and the rose hued, swollen buds of her nipples. Hayley watched her friend strip, still unable to believe what was happening. She began to remove her own tunic and Michelle sat forward to help, pulling the garment over her head roughly. She gasped as it caught under her chin and forced her head back, and they laughed girlishly as they embraced again, rolling across the bed to end up entwined in a jumble of sheets and limbs.

Still sensing hesitance from Michelle, Hayley took control, straddling the other girl and lowering her head to kiss and worry at her left nipple with her mouth and tongue. Michelle writhed gasping, biting her lower lip at the intoxicating feel of Hayley's mouth. She arched her back as Hayley brushed cool fingertips over her other nipple, and clutched at her lover's hair to keep her head in place, wanting the feeling to go on forever.

Hayley giggled as she untangled her dark hair from the other's grip, then her head ducked again as she traced a line from Michelle's breasts down to her belly with her warm, wet tongue. Michelle shuddered in fresh ecstasy, then moaned as Hayley's tongue sank into her belly button and her hands reached round to clutch at her buttocks. Michelle's senses flared as Hayley dipped lower, her probing tongue working its way with agonising slowness towards her waiting, sopping sex. Then, as she felt Hayley's warmth enter her, her body arched again as she succumbed to her lover's ministrations, allowing her own moans and whimpers to slowly, methodically grow unchecked into frenzied, guttural cries of pleasure and release.

Katherine had slept fitfully in her own bed for the first time in several weeks. As dawn broke, she was sat at her window, watching the pale light filter across Erran. She knew this would probably be the last time she would see the sun rise, but did not feel sorrow. She had cheated death long enough, and was tired. Tired of the constant pain and bitterness. She felt a twinge of conscience as she thought of what Hayley must be feeling, but then thrust such thoughts from her mind. It was time to think of herself for a change.

She looked around as the woman in her bed shifted and moaned, and her heart filled with affection for Helena as she saw her friend's tangle of auburn hair cast over her pillow. Last night had been like old times. She and Helena had made love for hours, inexhaustible in their frantic, grappling passion. Maybe Helena had been trying to kill her early, hoping that her battered, diseased body would finally succumb with pleasure rather than pain. She smiled at the thought. McManus had suggested that her heart might not be able to take the strain of the new drugs that would give her the strength to fight today. The drugs had certainly given her strength last night.

Standing, Katherine leisurely prepared her clothes and armour, selecting what she would wear for the fight two hours from now. Arms and armour had been at the women's discretion, and Katherine had decided upon light mail and leather. She glanced to where her old sword lay sheathed and sharpened, Hayley's acceptance of her challenge, but also a clear message to Katherine. The sword had been given to her for friendship, and now that friendship seemed to be over.

The thought gave Katherine another pang of guilt. She had been angry when Hayley had saved her, certainly, as she had seen a glorious death finally catch up with her, only to have it snatched away in a second. Marina's Knight had stood over her, having yanked her sword from Katherine's side and sent the Amazon Knight sprawling against the wall of the guardhouse. She had asked the victorious Knight for a swift death, and the woman had been on the verge of complying when Hayley had barrelled into her, leaving Katherine with the pain she had been living with for so very long.

Her reverie was broken by Helena stirring on the bed behind her. She glanced around to see the dark haired beauty stretching languidly with a sigh, her perfect breasts rising high at the motion. She rubbed her face with one hand, looking delightfully mussed and sleepy to Katherine's eyes as she blearily squinted at her.

'Need some help with that?' she asked, and Katherine smiled as she stood and let Helena, naked and shivering in the morning cool, begin to dress her.

Michelle lifted Hayley's arms, then yanked on the straps that would hold her friend's toughened leather armour in place. As if knowing Katherine's preference for the upcoming fight, Hayley had elected to wear a similar suit of light mail with leather. She held her hood and helm, picking up her sword as she breathed a shaky sigh and turned to face Michelle.

'Wish I could be there,' Michelle muttered, and Hayley stepped in to embrace her friend.

'I'll be fine,' she told her. 'Katherine was one of the first Knights in Erran, and Elizabeth doesn't want to make a spectacle out of this.'

In truth, Hayley herself was puzzled as to why the battle would only be witnessed by the Council, but was quite glad regardless. Trying to kill Katherine would be hard enough, but doing it beneath the eyes of dozens or even hundreds of fellow Knights did not appeal.

It was time to go. Hayley turned from Michelle and walked to the door, pulling it open just as Natalie was preparing to knock on the other side.

'Oh!' Natalie jumped and laughed nervously, then saw Michelle. Her face fell. 'Oh.'

'Come to walk me to the battle?' Hayley smiled at the other girl, who recovered herself quickly.

'Yes. And to wish you luck. Not that you'll need it.'

The three girls walked through the halls of Erran, Hayley frequently slapped on the shoulder or bid good luck from other Knights who were up and about. As they arrived at the huge double doors that led into the inner chambers, Michelle reluctantly halted.

'This is as far as I go,' she said. As a Handmaid, there were areas of Erran that were off-limits to her.

As Natalie watched, her face unreadable, Hayley embraced Michelle again. 'I'll see you in a bit,' she whispered.

'Be strong,' Michelle told her, backing away as Hayley broke the embrace and moved into the inner chambers swiftly, not looking back. Natalie almost had to jog to keep up with her.

Two Knights were posted outside the entranceway to Elizabeth's throne room, and Hayley recognised Ladies Julia and M'Banta. The two women, the tallest Knights in Erran, nodded to Hayley as she approached.

'Go straight in, Lady Hayley,' Julia told her formally. 'Sorry, Nat.'

'Council members only, Nat'lie,' M'Banta grinned hugely.

Natalie turned to face Hayley, patting the armoured warrior's shoulder in awkward encouragement. 'Good luck,' she said, feeling stupid at the inadequateness of those words. She blinked in surprise as Hayley hugged her.

'Thanks, Natalie. For the training, and for kicking some sense into me.' She turned to walk through the wide doors into the throne room, glancing behind as Julia and M'Banta pulled the heavy doors closed. 'I'll see you soon,' she said before the doors slammed shut.

Hayley was led down a wide staircase that was lined with guttering torches. The steps took her and the Knights that flanked her deep under Erran, to where a large cavern had been created, its domed ceiling held aloft by decorative pillars. Nearly missing her footing as she stared at the spectacle, Hayley staggered before recovering her balance, concentrating on the steps before her.

The private arena was a small, walled pit filled with clean white sand, flanked by stalls shielded by a high, white stone wall. The arena stalls looked to seat a hundred or more, although there were barely a dozen people present to witness this fight. The cavern was bathed in what was obviously artificial light, although its source could not be determined. As Hayley wondered what had possessed Elizabeth to have such a curious place built, she saw the Grand Knight herself across the cavern, sat in a shielded portion of the stand, her Marshals sat beside her.

'Good morning, Lady Hayley.' For once, the Grand Knight spoke for herself without relying on Helena, who, from where she sat beside Elizabeth, stared at Hayley expressionlessly. 'I trust you are rested?'

'Well enough, my Lady,' Hayley replied, a blush colouring her cheeks. Elizabeth's lips twisted in a small smile, as if she knew how Hayley had spent her night.

'Katherine is late,' Elizabeth told her, 'Take the time to prepare yourself.'

Ladies Suzanne and Lea, who had escorted Hayley down from the throne room, touched her arm and guided her to the foot of the stalls, where a section of the wall was open to allow access to the small pit. Hayley stepped down into the walled arena, feeling her heart pound as she stared across the sandy pit, wondering who would fall and who would live.

'Are you alright?' Suzanne muttered in her ear, and she nodded mutely. 'I like you, Hayley,' Suzanne continued in hushed tones, 'A lot of us do. We think you have a great future here. But today you've got an important job to do, and we want you to do it clean and well. Do you understand me?'

Again Hayley just nodded, but this seemed to be good enough for Suzanne. 'Good luck, then,' she said, stepping back to take her place as all present waited for Katherine to arrive. Hayley's heart lurched as footsteps sounded from the stairs, but she turned with a frown as she realised that the newcomer was running, taking the steps two at a time.

Lady Julia came to a halt, her hands resting on the wall of the pit. She stared around the cavern with surprise, but then her eyes fell on Elizabeth, who was glaring at her with unconcealed hostility.

'How dare you . . .' she shouted, but Julia actually interrupted her.

'I'm sorry, my Lady. It's Katherine.'

Elizabeth's face changed, and she sagged back into her seat, her face paling. 'She . . . she didn't survive the night?'

Julia blinked. 'Oh, sure! She's in the best form I've ever seen her. She took a horse from the stable and made off through the main gate. A couple of Handmaids tried to stop her. One has a broken arm, another has . . .'

All eyes turned to Elizabeth, but to the surprise of those present, the Grand Knight was grinning. She settled back into her seat. 'Looks like you won't be fighting today, Lady Hayley,' she addressed the astonished Knight. 'I just hope Marina has some worthy opponents for her,' she added.

Elizabeth frowned as Hayley turned and climbed from the pit. 'Where do you think you're going, Lady Hayley?' she demanded.

Hayley turned. 'Sorry, my Lady, but I just realised something. I've never fought beside Katherine before, and if today will be the only chance I'll get, I'm not going to miss it.' Before the Grand Knight could argue, the tiny Knight ran from the arena, taking the stairs two at a time as Julia had just moments before.

The red haired Knight peered at Hayley as she passed, looking to Elizabeth questioningly. 'Should I stop her?' she asked.

From behind Elizabeth's chair, Doctor McManus moved from the shadows to whisper in the Grand Knight's ear, too quietly for anyone else to hear. Elizabeth's face paled, and her jaw seemed to set rigid as she listened to the Doctor's words, but when she spoke it was with her usual authority.

'Let her go, Julia. Make sure no-one gets in her way.'

Thinking the work would earn her favour with a senior Knight, an enterprising Handmaid had saddled another horse in case anyone was ordered to pursue Katherine. Hayley grabbed the creature's reins as she swung up onto its broad back, and the Handmaid shouted in annoyance.

Without giving the girl a thought, Hayley spurred the horse into motion, thundering out of the stables and sending more Handmaids scattering. She glimpsed one of the guards above the main gate saluting her before she broke free of the castle grounds, and wondered grimly what her punishment would be for following Katherine. She swiftly decided she didn't care.

Katherine spotted the half dozen riders approaching with some surprise. She was still half a mile from Dunan, hidden from the castle by a swell of land and a patchy copse of trees. She had expected to have to parade against the skyline with sword drawn, a clear signal to those within the castle that an Amazon Knight wished to battle. She drew her mount to a halt, eyeing the Knights of Dunan as they readied their weapons and came at her in a line.

The lead Knight had her visor raised, and Katherine recognised Collette, Marina's second in command. 'I'm honoured,' Katherine called to the enemy Knight, 'Do I have the pleasure of facing Dunan's finest?'

'Pretty much,' Collette grinned in return. Blonde and stocky, Collette was an admired warrior, respected by the Knights of her own estate as Helena was in Erran. 'But the honour is ours, Lady Katherine. We'll give you a good seeing off.'

The inference was unmistakable, but Katherine felt only excitement make her heart pound faster. Gripping her blade, she waited impatiently for the enemy Knights to attack, certain that she would finally find the release of death she had been seeking for so long.

Some distance away, a mounted figure watched the battle ensue. Dunan's Knights circled Katherine, taking turns to move in and engage, clashing swords with the Amazon Knight before retreating to allow a sister her turn. The figure shifted in her saddle, the very sight of battle stirring her loins and making her heart beat faster, but as she heard thundering hooves she turned to see who approached.

Hayley drew to a halt a short distance before the Knight, staring to where Katherine battled before turning her gaze on the other girl.

'Six on one? That seems hardly fair!' Then she gasped as she recognised the woman she faced. 'Lady Dolores? What are you doing here?' She glanced at the woman's armour, noting Dolores wore no livery of Dunan. The white haired Knight had been banished from Dunan after her conduct at the Battle of Erran, where she had fought in an unchivalrous manner and brought dishonour to her Lady's estate.

'What am I doing here, Lady Hayley?' Dolores grinned evilly, drawing her sword, 'I'm waiting for you.' Without another word she kicked her mount forward, and Hayley gaped in alarm as she reared back, scrabbling for her own sword as the enemy Knight swung for her.

She threw herself back in her saddle, and the sword swished through the air where her face was a second before. On instinct her left leg shot out, and Dolores grunted as Hayley's booted foot slammed into her thigh. Bringing her sword back, Dolores rammed it low, splitting open Hayley's own thigh and making her scream. Her horse panicked and reared, but Hayley dragged its reins to bring it under control, aware that Dolores was already lunging again.

Finally recovering from the sudden attack, Hayley parried the other Knight's blows, but each impact made her grunt with exertion. Dolores was incredibly strong, and her skill was formidable. She hacked Hayley's sword aside, then thrust under her guard to stab into her midriff. The light chainmail and leather she wore absorbed the measure of the blow, but the weapon's tip sank into flesh, and blood instantly soaked her armour. Dolores shouted in excitement as she yanked her sword back, and Hayley twisted in her saddle, aghast at the ease with which Dolores was wounding her.

But her training had not deserted her so quickly. While Dolores was distracted by her easy success, Hayley spurred her beast forward, her sword chopping down at the Irish girl's skull. Dolores's sword swung up to catch the blow, but Hayley was already wheeling her mount around, swinging her sword in an arc that swooped towards her foe's neck. Dolores gasped and ducked, knowing that she would not be able to parry such an attack. She felt the blade whoosh over her head, and gritted her teeth in rage at the thought of such a young Knight nearly getting the drop on her.

'You're quick, Hayley, I can see why McManus wants you,' she spat as she brought her sword down, angling its tip towards Hayley's chest. Knocking the attack aside, Hayley flicked her sword into Dolores face, astonishment plain on her own.

'What do you mean?' She drew her arm back as Dolores's blade threshed the air, parrying the white haired warrior's blows only barely.

'You'll find out soon enough!' Dolores stabbed, feinted, then thrust again as Hayley took the bait. Hayley's eyes widened as she saw the blade swoop in, unable to prevent the razor sharp steel from slashing open her swordarm before sinking into her chest. She cried out and fell back, the world whipping upside down for a stomach-churning second. She thought she heard Katherine shouting before she hit the ground hard.

The breath knocked from her body, Hayley shifted feebly on the grass, coughing at the pain in her chest and the flaring agony in her hip. Her swordarm quivered as she made a fist, testing her hand and thankful that she could still grip her sword. She groaned as she lunged for the weapon where it lay nearby, but as her gloved hand closed around the hilt, Dolores's steel-shod foot slammed down onto her forearm, pinning her hand to the ground. She gaped up at the Irish Knight as Dolores stood over her, sword held ready and seemingly intent upon thrusting down into the fallen Knight's chest.

'Coward!' Hayley spat, hoping the blood in her mouth was from a bitten tongue. 'I know you have no honour, Dolores, but let me up and I'll give you a decent fight yet.'

Dolores threw her head back to laugh. 'A coward, am I? I love to kill, Lady Hayley, be sure of that, and I would love to sheath this blade between your tits right now. But you're right, I've the time to enjoy a little fun.' She looked to where Katherine still fought. 'Besides, I think I'd like you to see the moment Katherine falls.' She stepped back, allowing Hayley to roll to her feet shakily. Grinning as she lowered herself into a fighting stance, Dolores waited for the Amazon Knight to bring the fight to her.

Katherine felt more alive than ever before. Her sword swept over her head and down towards her enemies, driving them back under the force of her blows. A Knight of Dunan was already wounded, hanging back clutching a deep arm wound, and the others were now more cautious.

As they hung back, Katherine took a second to glance to where two other Knights had joined in battle a short distance away. She realised that her first instinct had been correct; Hayley had followed her. She cursed under her breath, wondering what had possessed her Handmaid to follow her, although her irritation was swiftly replaced by pride and affection.

But Hayley was not doing well against her foe, and as Katherine watched she fell from her horse, blood spilling from a deep wound in her arm.

'No!' Katherine yelled, spurring her mount to ride to her friend's side, but Collette brought her steed in to intercept the Amazon Knight. Her sword chopped down and Katherine almost casually knocked the weapon aside, but another Knight of Dunan blocked her path, and with a snarl Katherine hacked at the woman in anger.

The Knight's eyes widened as she parried the inhumanly strong blows Katherine rained down upon her. Her sword was bashed aside, and she squealed in alarm as the Amazon Knight's weapon swooped back to crunch deep into her shoulder, shattering bones and spraying blood as it ripped through muscle and sinew before ending up at the base of her throat. Blood spurted from the dying Knight's mouth as she flopped sideways in her saddle, and as Katherine wrenched her sword back, clotted with gore and meat, the lifeless body tumbled from its horse to crumple shapelessly under the panicked creature's hooves.

Collette cried in dismay at the sight of her warrior's demise, but Katherine was free and set to charge. Shouting a warning to the Amazon Knight, Collette stabbed her sword forward, shame striking her like a blow as her blade sank into Katherine's lower back.

Arching her body against the pain, Katherine twisted in her saddle, bringing her mount around to face Collette. She chopped her blade down, yelling her fury at the Knight of Dunan and forcing the blonde woman to fall back under the strength of the assault, but the other Knights were closing in again and Katherine could not even spare a second to glance to where her friend had fallen. Gritting her teeth, trying to avoid the waves of exhaustion that now swept over her as McManus's drugs began to fade, Katherine set into her enemies with all her strength. If she had to kill them all to help her friend, it would be done.

Hayley's sword stopped Dolores's in the nick of time, but as she stared wide-eyed at the blood-slicked blade an inch before her face, Dolores kicked her between the legs and she fell back with a groan. Her body seemed aflame with numerous cuts and gashes, and she had not even opened a scratch on Dolores. The Irish Knight let her wheezing opponent stand, then moved in again, her face set in grim determination.

'You fight well, Lady Hayley,' Dolores told her amiably, 'But not well enough. I think it's time you met your destiny.'

Gaping with fear, Hayley backed away from the white haired warrior. Behind her she heard Katherine's shouts of fury as she battled her own foes, and her heart was heavy as she feared she would be dead before she could fight by her mentor's side. For whatever reason, Dolores was intent upon killing her, and the enemy Knight's skill was vastly superior to her own. Grimly she gripped her sword, her arm aching but her determination undiminished. If she was to die, she'd die like an Amazon Knight.

Dolores surged forward, sword sweeping down in what would be a fatal blow, but suddenly a snorting, steaming steed filled the air between the two warriors, and Hayley shrieked in alarm as she felt herself fly into the air. With a mighty roar Katherine had lifted her bodily off the ground and practically threw her on the wide back of her horse. Dolores staggered back from the beast's stamping hooves, shouting in rage as her kill was literally snatched away from her.

As Hayley clung to Katherine's back, the Amazon Knight flailed her sword to keep the stunned Knights of Dunan at bay. 'What the hell are you doing here, Hayley!' she yelled, 'I'm the one with the deathwish, remember?'

'I'm sorry, Katherine,' Hayley sagged against her friend's broad shoulders, 'I just needed to see you again, to let you know how sorry I am about what happened at the battle.' Her vision swimming, she sank into semi-consciousness, weakened by blood loss and exhaustion.

'You're forgiven,' Katherine told her, glaring at the Knights that circled her horse. She directed her voice to Collette. 'Let Hayley take my horse and get out of here. There's no reason she has to die.'

Collette hesitated, but shot a glance to where Dolores stood. Katherine's eyes moved to the Irish girl, her brows rising in surprise as she recognised the disgraced Knight. 'Dolores? I imagine Emma would be delighted to know you're still alive. I believe she has a hankering to kill you herself.'

'Let her try,' Dolores spat. 'In the meantime, the pair of you must die.'

'Wait!' Katherine cried desperately as the Knights began to press forward, 'I've come here voluntarily, Hayley just followed me here out of loyalty.' She cursed as a Knight swept an axe towards her, knocking the weapon aside and kicking her mount into action. 'Doesn't look like they're going to listen to reason,' she shouted back to Hayley as she thundered her way between the line of Knights, sending Dolores sprawling in the mud as she did so, 'Maybe I'll see this day through after all!'

'Get after her!' Dolores yelled as she scrambled to her feet. A wounded Knight of Dunan pulled up beside her, and with a growl the Irish Knight yanked the unfortunate woman from her steed and flipped up onto the creature's saddle, spurring it into motion and following her colleagues as they took up the chase.

Katherine's horse was already tired, and carrying two Knights it could not possibly outrun Dunan's warriors. Thundering down a tree-lined gully, snatching glances over her shoulder to where the five pursuing Knights were closing, Katherine grimly wondered how she could save Hayley, but as the first of her attackers galloped up to her side she was forced to ready her weapon to fight again.

An axe swooped, and the black haired attacker let out a cry of alarm as Katherine swept her blade up to knock the weapon aside. She stabbed, her sword sinking through chain into the woman's breast, bursting flesh and causing blood to squirt from around the intruding steel. The wounded Knight dropped her axe to clutch at her breast, her eyes wide at the pain and a shrill scream on her lips. Katherine ripped the blade out sideways, tearing the Knight's breast in two. She arched in her saddle, allowing Katherine to slash her throat open and send her sailing off the back of her horse, scrabbling at the sheet of crimson that leapt from the ragged tear in her neck. She fell under the hooves of Dolores's horse, but the Irish Knight did not even glance down to see the fate of her colleague.

Katherine grimaced in pain as a sword slashed on her right side, cutting into her ribsection through her leather and chain. The sword sank deep, but Katherine twisted in her saddle to chop at neck height, forcing her attacker to peel off or lose her head.

'K . . . Katherine?' Hayley cried weakly from where she clung on behind the Amazon Knight.

'I'm OK,' Katherine told her, 'but listen. I'm going to ditch as we leave the gully, and for you it'll be plain sailing back to Erran. Just kick the hell out of this damn thing and he'll get you back in one piece.'

'I'm not going to leave you!'

'You don't have a choice.' She twisted her head to see Hayley's face, aware that her Handmaid looked terrified and in shock. 'Thank you for coming to see me fight, Hayley,' she told her, 'Take care of yourself.' She felt a lump rise in her throat, realisation striking her that she wouldn't see any of her friends again. She kicked her steed faster, yelling it on up a muddy slope that led from the gully up onto the plains that stretched all the way back to Erran. At the mouth of the gully she swung a leg over the horse's neck and jumped, Hayley's wail of loss ringing in her ears. Hitting the ground hard, she dropped and rolled, hearing shouts of consternation from the pursuing Knights of Dunan. Scrambling to her feet, she swept her sword up and around, forcing the horses that came at her to shy away.

Then she saw Dolores, the Irish Knight intent on continuing the chase after Hayley. Diving for the white haired Knight, Katherine yelled as she gripped at the woman's leg, dragging her from her mount with the remainder of her strength. Dolores cursed colourfully as she hit the ground, her sword skittering from her fingers but her hand instantly dropping to the dagger at her belt.

'No you don't!' Katherine landed on top of her, crushing the breath from her body. Her own dagger was already in her hand, and it plunged down into Dolores's chest, sinking up to the hilt just above her right breast. Dolores yelled in agony, her hips bucking to send Katherine sprawling to one side.

Staggering to her feet, Katherine cast about for her sword, reclaiming her prized weapon gladly as Collette drew her horse up alongside Dolores.

'Follow her!' Dunan's second Knight ordered the three remaining Knight's to continue after Hayley, but she herself dismounted, drawing her sword as she approached Katherine. 'You're leading us a merry chase,' she told the Amazon Knight conversationally, 'but it's time we put the matter to rest.'

Katherine watched the three Knights gallop after Hayley in despair. 'Why are you doing this?' she yelled to Collette, but the blonde Knight only shrugged her shoulders.

'I have my orders, Katherine.' She stepped in to the attack without another word, her sword angling down in a skilled blow that would have sliced a lesser foe in two. Katherine danced back, somehow finding the strength to bring up her sword to block the blow, then ram her weapon forward in a good retaliatory strike. Collette ducked under the assault, her sword slashing low, and Katherine backed away nimbly, keen to stay attached to her knees.

Dolores was on her feet, Katherine's dagger still wedged in her chest. Her face red with rage, she rushed the Amazon Knight with sword raised high, and within seconds Katherine was blocking blows raining down on her from both Knights. She groaned as Dolores's blade deflected off her own sword to slam against her shoulder, and at the distraction Collette's weapon stabbed low, punching through her belly and sinking in deep. She staggered and collapsed to her knees, feeling her wounds sapping her strength by the second. Watching in disbelief, she saw Dolores grip the hilt of her dagger and tear it free from her chest with little more than a grimace. Blood pumped from the wound, but the Irish Knight hardly seemed to notice. She stepped up to Katherine, gesturing to Collette that she stay back.

'So I'll have to content myself with just killing you today, then,' she hissed, backhanding Katherine across the face and sending her slumping to the ground. Her helm tumbled free, letting her brown hair spill across the mud, and Dolores straddled her body and took a handful of hair in her left hand, dragging Katherine's head back while the right dropped lower, still clutching the bloody knife that had been buried deep in her own body seconds before.

'You're pathetic, Katherine,' she mocked the fallen warrior. 'You can't win. You can't even fight!' She laughed, but the sound abruptly turned into a shriek of pain.

Katherine still gripped her sword, and as Dolores held her she rammed its tip into the Irish girl's kneecap, skewering her leg before twisting the blade with all her might. Dolores's leg buckled, splinters of bone ripping wetly from her flesh as he lower leg twisted to an inhuman angle. 'At least . . . I can walk in a straight line!' she grunted as she raised a booted foot and kicked Dolores away.

The white haired knight crashed to the ground to roll in agony, but already Collette was stepping in with her sword raised. Katherine swore and dragged her weapon arm around to parry the blow that swooped towards her. Her sword checked the attack, but Collette's sword scraped off her own before chopping down into her shoulder. Gasping at the pain, her head lolled as she lost the feeling in her weapon arm.

Her sword lay by her side, but she couldn't even pick it up. She let her head drop back into the mud as Collette stood over her. Dunan's Knight regarded the warrior beneath her, panting for breath as she realised the time had come to end a fellow Knight's life.

'Nice sword,' she said, and Katherine nodded.

'Do . . . do me a favour, Collette, if you have any decency? Make sure that gets . . . back to Erran? It belongs to Hayley.'

Collette nodded. 'Very well, Lady Katherine.' She moved her sword's tip over Katherine's heaving breast. 'You gave a good account of yourself today, Commander. Take the peace I know you've longed for.'

Katherine met her eye for a split second, and her lip seemed to curl into the semblance of a smile. Then, Collette's sword punched into her chest, cracking bones to split her heart and kill her instantly. Katherine shuddered, then her head dropped back and her limbs spasmed.

Collette stared down at the body, aware of the bond the longest serving Knights seemed to share. Then, she glanced aside as Dolores staggered to her side, her sword held high.

'You fucking bitch!' the Irish girl shrieked at Katherine, 'My fucking leg!' She made to chop down into Katherine's unfeeling body, but Collette grabbed her swordarm and spun her round, punching her in the face and sending her sprawling into the mud.

'Enough, Dolores,' she snapped. 'You'll not sully the corpse of another sister who has died with honour.'

Astounded, Dolores spat blood and struggled to rise, but her head swam with Collette's blow and she slumped back in the mud, too exhausted to move.

Painfully glancing over her shoulder, Hayley felt her despair deepen. Katherine was almost certainly dead, and three Knights were on her tail, seemingly determined to kill her for some unknown reason. The closest Knight swung a mace towards her skull, and some instinct served her well as she ducked under the attack and sent her sword slashing out in response. The Knight of Dunan wailed as her weapon arm flew, and gore spurted from a ragged shoulder stump. She fell from her mount, and for a second Hayley saw a chance for victory, but then the two remaining Knights were on her.

Attacking from both sides, they chopped and stabbed with their swords, and Hayley screamed in pain as the weapons split her flesh and stabbed deep into her body. She flailed with her sword, but the enemy Knight ducked back, then brought her blade down to split open Hayley's arm. Her sword falling, Hayley wavered in her saddle, but then the other Knight chopped into her breast, and as the weapon bit deep she fell back with an agonised cry, falling once more from her mount but inky blackness mercifully overcoming her before her body crunched against the hard ground.

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