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Five horses thundered through the shallow, tree-lined gorge, their sleek hides slicked by sweat and rain, the latter pounding ceaselessly onto beasts and riders alike. Soaked and panicked, the first three riders were fleeing for their lives, risking frantic glances behind to where their pursuers were inexorably closing the gap between them.
They had been at the end of a scouting patrol when they had been attacked. The weather had closed in, and they had somehow strayed onto enemy land. The leader of the five scouts had only been Knighted herself six months previously, and the other women were all rookies; this had been their first patrol since they had passed their trial. Excitement and anticipation had changed to trepidation as they had realised their dilemma, and when the two enemy Knights had come out of nowhere to attack, seeming to fell their leader and one of their comrades within seconds, blind panic had set in. They had turned and fled, finding their way back onto their home territory more through luck than judgement.
But the enemy Knights had pursued, and now, within a mile of the castle, the two warriors were almost within striking distance. Danni swept a glance over her shoulder again, panicking as she saw her pursuer directly behind, the horse's nostrils fluming steam into the evening rain. She kicked her own horse to spur it faster, and the creature whinnied in pain and fear, breaking off towards the side of the gorge to where a steep climb led to open fields and the welcome sight of the castle. The enemy rider broke away from her colleague, intent on running Danni down, and the two remaining Knights passed each other a glance, each wondering the same thing. Now only one enemy Knight pursued them, and that tipped the balance more in their favour.
They had panicked, but in the flight away from danger their pride had been bruised, and now their thoughts turned to revenge for their fallen comrades. Ladies Kirsty and Tasmin glanced over their shoulders to where their pursuer closed in, and of a single mind drew their weapons and tugged on their reins. The horses spun, hooves spraying freshly fallen rain from the long grass, and the enemy Knight reined in her own steed, a long sword sliding free from its scabbard, its length sheened with the remains of her last victim's blood. That sword had sank deep into the guts of a good friend, but the two Knights thrust such thoughts from their minds as they angled aside to manoeuvre into position, sparing a thought for Danni and her wild flight already some distance away.
The two Knights were lightly armoured, chain hauberks under their winter cloaks, steel sheathing their limbs and open faced helms shielding their skulls. Their opponent was similarly armoured, except that her legs were covered by greaves and a pair of knee length leather boots, and her helm was enclosed by a slitted faceplate. Unsettled by not being able to see their opponent's face, Kirsty and Tasmin still knew they had the upper hand as they spurred their mounts into the attack, weapons raised and battlecries on their lips.
Kirsty swept in first, her longsword slashing through the rain towards the enemy Knight's skull. A blade flashed up to parry the attack, seeming to loop in the air to lash out towards Kirsty's thigh. Her horse shied away out of danger, more through its own initiative then Kirsty's handling, and the enemy Knight wheeled her mount around to face Tasmin as the black girl commenced her attack.
She wielded a double bitted axe with skill, its wide edge slashing down towards her foe's body, but the faceless Knight lashed out her blade again, its edge ringing against the axe's shaft and stopping its descent instantly. Tasmin gripped her teeth and yanked on her weapon, but as she tugged the enemy Knight's sword inadvertently towards her, the swordswoman moved closer to thrust, and Tasmin gasped as the deadly blade whisked towards her face. She tried to duck but it was too late, and Kirsty could only watch in horror as her friend died.
The swordblade was sheathed in Tasmin's right eye socket, causing blood and fluid to spray from around its intruding tip. Tasmin shuddered as the blade sank deeper, its edge grating into her skull and its tip cracking bone before slicing through her brains. She was dead instantly, but her legs and arms kicked spastically and her mouth lolled open to allow long strings of drool to pour over her chin. The victrix held the pose for a second, obviously relishing Tasmin's twitching demise, then yanked her blade free, not even bothering to watch the dead girl fall from her saddle. She landed with a splash in the swampy grass, legs still kicking, and her horse bolted with a whinny of fear, leaving Kirsty alone with a Knight who now turned to face her, crimson sheathed blade held high.
Fear knotted her stomach, but Kirsty was instantly shamed by the feeling. She was a Knight proved in battle, and this is what she had trained for, for sixteen long months. She raised her blade and spurred her mount into the attack, her fear giving way to exultation as the adrenaline rush hit hard.
Some distance away, Danni's mount had managed to clear the rim of the gorge before she realised her foe had outsmarted her. The enemy Knight had lathered her mount up the slope fifty metres before Danni, and was now charging in at an angle, a vicious looking flail swooping around her head. Gasping with exhaustion and fear, Danni yanked her longsword free of its scabbard, her heart pounding as she prepared for combat. She already knew the woman she faced was a better warrior than her, as everything about the faceless Knight spoke of her skill. She rode expertly, handling her weapon easily as if it were an extension of her hand, and there was no sign of hesitation or fear as she charged.
Determined to prove her own skill, Danni kicked her steed into a charge of its own, her sword swooping as the enemy Knight loomed. Her opponent stooped in her saddle, the simple motion all it took to dodge Danni's attack, but she had no time to feel disappointment before pain exploded in her shoulder.
Aghast, she stared at her shattered pauldron as it fell apart, and at the studded ball that was now lodged deep in her shoulder. The enemy Knight whisked past, yanking the weapon free, and as the ball was dragged from her body a ragged spurt of crimson sprang free of the hideous wound. Danni screamed in pain, still staring at her shattered shoulder, unable to believe that the white shards jutting from minced flesh were broken remnants of her useless limb. Her sword was lost, fallen from lifeless fingers, and she could do nothing but stare at her killer as the enemy Knight turned and charged again, the studded ball of her flail this time swooping towards her skull.
The impact of the weapon caused Danni's head to crunch down between her shoulder-blades, breaking her neck and killing her instantly. Her helm cracked, gore squirting from where the steel was sundered, but the studded ball continued deeper into the stricken Knight's skull, driving a section of thin bone through her brains and causing her head to collapse like a punctured football. Cartilage ripped from her nostrils, her jaw thrust out, ripping her lip asunder, and both eyeballs burst, spraying clear fluid from under the rim of her buckled helm. Danni's corpse jerked, the motion kicking her off her horse. The flail's head ripped free with a horrid squelch, plastered with sticky strands of bloody hair and lumps of grey matter. The victorious Knight watched impassively as the body thumped against the ground, her brains spilling free as she bounced and slid over the edge of the gorge.
Drawing her mount closer to the gorge's rim, the Knight watched Danni's body slide and bounce down the steep incline, leaving a trail of gore in its wake. Then, when the body had finally come to a stop, the Knight flipped up her visor to watch her comrade battle in the distance, her dark eyes peering intently to where two armoured figures continued their own mortal combat.
Kirsty stabbed low, but the Knight she faced was skilful, and spurred her horse away from the attack, following up with a chop that threatened to take Kirsty's arm off. Jerking her limb out of danger, Kirsty tried to manoeuvre her steed away, but the enemy Knight closed in to keep up the pressure, and Kirsty was forced to raise her aching arm once more to parry another perfect attack.
This time, the enemy Knight's sword bounced off Kirsty's blade to slam into her breast, and although the blow did not shear through her chainmail, Kirsty gasped at the impact against her flesh, shuddering with an inexplicable mixture of pain and excitement at the throbbing pain in her tit. Her nipples ached against the enclosing doublet and chainmail, and her head clouded as the thumping rhythm of her heartbeat threatened to overcome her.
Distracted, she didn't even raise her sword as the enemy Knight thrust again, and her back arched as she wailed in agony, her enemy's blade wedged deep between her ribs. Blood poured over chain, and Kirsty sagged in the saddle as the Knight yanked her sword free. Her foot slipped free of its stirrup and Kirsty pitched sideways on her steed, clinging on desperately for a second before the creature bolted and she fell to the ground, her body twisting as she bounced and rolled.
She ended up lying on her back, one leg folded unnaturally aside and the other kicking at the sodden grass beneath her. A hand clasped the wound under her right breast, but the other dropped towards her belt to where her dagger was sheathed. Maybe there was still a chance she could take the enemy Knight's life when she stood over her to gloat? She heard the woman dismount, and the jangling of her spurs as she moved to stand over her, staring down through the slits in her helm to where Kirsty writhed in pain.
'Sh . . . show me your face,' Kirsty groaned, desperately hoping to prolong her life. 'I want to know . . . who has defeated me.'
The Knight standing over her paused for a second, then lifted her visor to reveal her face. She was young, no more than twenty, her features petite and slightly squashed looking. Her eyes were large and dark under expressionful brows, and her lips were a cupid's bow as she smiled down at the felled Knight.
'I am Lady Hayley of Erran,' she told Kirsty, and as she spoke her sword stabbed down into the wounded Knight's crotch, splitting through chain to sink into delicate flesh.
Kirsty screamed shrilly, her hips bucking at the exquisite pain in her loins. As her back arched and her lower torso heaved skyward, Hayley dropped to one knee, the motion causing her swordtip to angle up into Kirsty's body, and she thrust forward with a grunt, her face splitting into a delighted grin as her sword sheathed itself in Kirsty's innards. Her dagger forgotten, Kirsty threw her head back and yelled in mortal agony, feeling her killer's sword slice its way through her insides, scything through her intestines and cracking ribs before skewering her pounding heart. Her body froze, a last gasping breath rattling free from her slackened lips. Her buttocks slammed against the ground, and blood belched from around Hayley's sword where it was rammed up to the hilt in Kirsty's groin. Hayley closed her eyes as the crimson shower splattered over her armour and face, drenching her swordarm up to the elbow in sticky gore. Her other hand had been under the skirt of her hauberk, rubbing her swollen clitoris through her doublet, but now she came with an aching shudder, her hips thrusting.
'A good kill, Lady Hayley.'
Hayley turned to see Karen dismounting a short distance away. The Knight's dark eyes flickered over Kirsty's skewered corpse, and her lips pursed in approval. 'Violent. Bloody. Unnecessarily vindictive. I couldn't have done it better myself.'
Hayley didn't speak, instead wrapping her blood slicked gauntlet around the sticky hilt of her sword as she prepared to tug it free.
'Leave it,' Karen ordered, and Hayley turned to see the other Knight throwing her helm aside, then pulling her hauberk over her head before casting that into the sodden grass also. The rain instantly plastered her hair down, soaking her doublet through to her skin. She plucked a dagger free of its scabbard on her thigh, running the weapon's tip up her body between her breasts to the garment's neckline. She cut, the skintight doublet separating easily to expose the pale flesh of her chest and the swells of her copious breasts. Her eyes gave the order to Hayley as she moved to stand over the kneeling Knight, and gauntlet clad hands reached up to grip the torn edges of the doublet, ripping apart violently to expose Karen's bosom to the elements.
Instantly soaked by the driving rain, Karen's breasts heaved as her back arched. Hayley ripped open the doublet to the navel, then her hands moved back as she began to unbuckle the clumsy gauntlets.
'Keep them on,' Karen ordered, and Hayley's hands instantly reached out again to enfold the other girl's massive tits, making Karen gasp as the cold steel pressed hard against her sensitive flesh. Her nipples, already engorged by the cold rain, hardened painfully as she sank to her knees and leant back onto the steel of Kirsty's armour. She writhed atop the steel-clad corpse, not caring that Hayley's gore drenched gauntlets stained her marbled flesh, causing rivulets of pink water to cascade over her quivering breasts onto her belly and over her sides.
Then, the cool steel was removed from her body as Hayley tugged at the remains of the doublet, opening it further down to where Karen's moist panties clung to her flesh. The flimsy, sodden fabric was stained dark over Karen's pubic mound, and the semi-naked Knight moaned in ecstasy as Hayley gripped the panties and tugged, ripping them asunder with one swift motion. The cold steel returned to her breasts, pressing them together painfully, the sensation starkly contrasting to the warmth of Hayley's tongue flicking between her thighs. Karen's head rolled, her mouth wide and her breath gasping as the girl atop her pleasured her expertly. She spread her legs to open wide for her lover, quivering as Hayley stretched deep inside of her, her tongue moving in a languid circle. The smell of steel and blood overcame her, and as Hayley tweaked her nipples painfully with her armoured fingers, Karen's body bucked in orgasm, sending a small spurt of hot, salty fluid into Hayley's gaping mouth.
'Yessss,' Karen hissed, her hands clamping onto the body beneath her as she jerked and quivered, her tensed body slowly relaxing onto the cold steel of Kirsty's armour. As her heartbeat slowed she lifted her head to watch Hayley sit back, gasping for breath and wiping sticky fluid from her chin.
'Dunan is close,' Karen told her throatily, 'The horses will already have returned. We'd best be away before more of Marina's whores show up.'
Hayley nodded obediently, clambering to her feet before collecting Karen's discarded armour and weapons, aware that the tiny Knight's dark eyes followed her every movement. As the hauberk was dropped over Karen's shoulders, Hayley finally looked into the other girl's eyes as Karen reached out to take her chin in her hand, forcing her head up to meet her eyes.
'I knew you'd be mine someday, Hayley,' Karen whispered, her lips curling into a smile. 'Mine and mine alone. There's no-one else for you either, is there.'
'No, Karen,' Hayley told her meekly.
'Good.' Satisfied by Hayley's answer, Karen strode to where her horse stood patiently nearby. She swung up onto the saddle, savouring the sticky warmth between her legs as she settled in her saddle and watched Hayley tug her sword from Kirsty's unfeeling corpse, cleaning the blade before mounting her own steed. 'Back to Erran, then,' she ordered, 'There'll be trouble, but you were under my orders.'
Hayley nodded, spurring her beast into motion with a final glance to where Kirsty lay partially hidden in the long, wet grass, slaughtered and cooling under the persistent rain.
Watchers on the castle's newly finished outer walls signalled the two Knights' return, and the heavy gate swung open as Karen and Hayley approached. By the time they brought their panting beasts to a halt outside the stables, where Handmaids scuttled in preparation, Ladies Emma and Suzanne were waiting. Suzanne in particular did not look pleased.
'Just what the hell were you doing?' she yelled at Karen as the Knight unhorsed, but the warrior ignored the outburst as she handed her beast's reins to a Handmaid, only turning to face the Knight Commander when she was ready.
'Five Knights of Dunan were on our land and obviously spying. We pursued and killed them.' Karen did not need to emphasise the number of enemy warriors, but Suzanne did not seem to care.
'You know how things are between Elizabeth and Marina. This is not going to help.'
Emma spoke up. 'Elizabeth will not be pleased, Karen. Perhaps you had better clean yourself up before you're summoned.'
Karen glanced at the grey eyed Knight dismissively, but nodded and turned towards the castle, gesturing to Hayley that she follow. Suzanne shook her head in disgust as Hayley fell in obediently behind Karen as she made her way purposefully towards the main castle doors.
'She's going to get us all killed,' she muttered, and Emma agreed with a curt nod.
'I'd like to know what she's done to that girl,' the grey-eyed Knight growled, referring to Hayley, 'We owe it to Katherine to straighten her out.'
Karen entered Elizabeth's chambers alone, having dismissed Hayley for the night. Sat behind her wide desk, Elizabeth glared at the Knight as she approached.
'You act without authority, Karen, and that I won't allow,' Elizabeth began without preamble. 'My senior Knights have recommended that you be punished, and I concur.'
Karen's lips twitched. 'Which senior Knights are you referring to, Elizabeth?'
'Hold your tongue!' Elizabeth slammed a fist down on her desk as she stood, recovering her composure instantly but regretting her moment of weakness. 'You forget yourself, Karen. You made an oath to me . . .'
'Twice,' Karen corrected, and Elizabeth bristled at the interruption. She continued grimly.
'You made an oath, that you would live by the tenets and laws of Erran. Laws laid down by ME.'
'I have not questioned your authority, my Lady,' Karen said humbly, but Elizabeth knew the words were hollow. 'I acted, as always, with the best interests of Erran at heart.'
'I'm sure you did,' Elizabeth said coldly, 'but the fact remains you were seen to disregard a direct order given by myself; that scout patrols from Dunan be warned away from our land, and no more.' She sat again, her eyes despairing. 'Five dead,' she muttered, 'Have you any idea what damage you have done?' She sat back as Karen didn't answer, but the small smile on the Knight's lips spoke volumes. 'Where is Lady Hayley,' Elizabeth demanded, 'I summoned her also.'
'I accept full blame for what has occurred,' Karen told the Grand Knight magnanimously. 'What is to be my punishment?'
Elizabeth stared at the other woman, helpless in the face of Karen's steadfast gaze. The Grand Knight knew Karen would take whatever punishment was dished out in her stride. It was time for something she had never tried before. 'Twenty lashes,' she said resolutely. 'You'll take the whip before a full assembly, when you will admit your error and beg for forgiveness. If you do not, you will leave Erran and never return.'
Karen blinked, and for a moment Elizabeth was gratified she had surprised the errant Knight. Then, the dark haired girl nodded in acquiescence before turning to leave. As she left the chamber, Helena stepped out from behind a shadowed curtain to take her place beside Elizabeth.
'A flogging?' she queried, 'Is that wise?'
'Probably not,' Elizabeth sighed, 'But let's look on the bright side, maybe she'll decide to leave of her own accord.'
Stripped to the waist, Karen took her place by the wooden cross, her dark eyes noting the handholds in the frame that she would grip fiercely as she was flogged. A full assembly of Knights and Handmaids had filled the training ground to witness the punishment. Close by, Elizabeth and her marshals sat watching, while Lady Lea approached, readying the long whip that would be used on Karen's naked flesh. Before she could reach Karen, another figure moved to intercept her, reaching for the whip as she looked to Elizabeth for permission.
Elizabeth nodded, and Lea gratefully handed the rope to Suzanne, who ran the knotted length between her fingers as she took her place behind Karen.
'Enjoy this while you can, slut,' Karen hissed. 'I'll piss on your corpse someday, you upper class whore.'
'It helps to bite down on something during the flogging,' Suzanne whispered back. 'May I suggest your tongue?'
Helena glanced to Elizabeth uneasily. It troubled her that things had come to this, although she had reluctantly agreed that Karen needed to brought back into line.
Karen had begun to sweat as Suzanne uncoiled the whip, it's length snaking across the concrete as the Knight prepared to begin the punishment.
'In your own time, Lady Suzanne,' Helena called, remaining standing to shout out the strokes that the blonde Commander would deliver. Karen glared at her, knowing this would prolong her suffering. As she expected, Suzanne began to pace back and forth, letting the whip's tip audibly skitter across the concrete as she pretended to select the best position to begin.
'Get on with it, bitch,' Karen growled, but Suzanne would not be hurried.
'How's the hand, Karen?' she asked icily. 'Do your fingers hurt on cold mornings?'
'They'll hurt more when they're gripping your worthless throat,' Karen threatened the blonde Knight, who chuckled quietly and stopped pacing, letting the whip's length cast across the ground before she broke into a flurry of motion, sending the tip of the weapon whistling through the air.
Pain exploded across Karen's back, and she arched her body in agony, grunting through clenched teeth. Her limbs twisted and her heavy, naked breasts flailed, and the massed assembly watched soundlessly as she sagged when the pain passed its worst.
'One!' Helena yelled, bringing home to the Knight how much more pain was to follow.
Suzanne reared back, grunting with exertion as she whipped again, as hard as she could. Fresh pain lanced through Karen, and a choking sound issued from between her clenching teeth. She would not scream, no matter what the pain.
Karen's world soon faded into sharp pain and unbearable throbbing agony. Her face was sheened with sweat, her eyes pressed tightly shut and her teeth clamped together so hard her gums began to bleed. Hot fire raged across her back, but still she refused to scream or beg.
Panting with her exertions, Suzanne continued to lash the errant Knight, her own face set in grim determination, eager to hear Karen yell for mercy. At eighteen strokes the dark haired Knight had still not uttered a sound other than her grunts and gasps and shaky, phlegm-drenched breaths. Suzanne let the whip skitter back across the concrete, then grunted as she lashed with all her strength, the tip of her weapon instantly adding another crimson welt on Karen's latticed flesh.
'Nineteen!' Helena shouted, and Suzanne paused, knowing that she only had one more chance. She stepped back, gathering her strength and her breath, her eyes regarding Karen's form as it sagged on the cross. 'Is something wrong, Lady Suzanne?' Helena asked her, and she glanced over to the Marshal quickly.
Helena was impassive, sat next to an equally stoical Elizabeth. Suzanne knew neither Helena nor the Grand Knight would enjoy issuing corporal punishment to their Knights, and Helena especially seemed distasteful of the whole spectacle. Prompted by the Marshal's words, Suzanne reared back, flicking the whip forward for what would be the last time.
The cracking sound the weapon's tip made as it sliced through Karen's flesh made many of the watching crowd flinch. Blood instantly poured over the split in Karen's back as she heaved and writhed in her restraints. Suzanne stood helpless, in disbelief that even this pain did not force a scream from Karen's lungs.
The punishment over, Helena gestured to waiting Handmaids that Karen be taken off the cross. A team of medics were waiting nearby, overseen by Doctor MacManus, who had watched the flogging with detached disdain. As they approached Karen, the sagging, panting Knight forced her head around to leer at Suzanne.
'Is . . . is that it, Suzanne? Is that . . . all you've got?'
'That's enough fun for one day,' Suzanne told her sourly, her colour rising as Karen chuckled throatily.
'You're weak, Suzanne. You didn't even . . . make me scream . . . for mercy.'
'I'll hear you scream someday Karen, preferably with my sword in your belly.'
The bloody whip in Suzanne's hand still skittered back and forth over the concrete, and the approaching medics hesitated, not liking the look on the Commander's face.
'You sound scared of me, Suzanne,' Karen goaded the other girl, 'You know what would happen if you faced me . . . one to one.'
'I know what happened the last time,' Suzanne growled.
'Things have changed,' Karen's eyes narrowed as she stared at the blonde Knight. 'Maybe I'll let you live when I'm Grand Knight. I'll need my own personal bitch. Would you like that Suzanne? Would you like to be my bitch?'
'Enough!' Suzanne roared, stepping forward with her whip raised threateningly. Lady Helena moved forward with her arm outstretched.
'Suzanne . . .' she started to warn the blonde girl, but Suzanne wasn't listening. All she could hear was Karen's mocking words.
'Remember Fran, Suzanne? She was my bitch one night. The night before the battle; when she lost her head. So sad.' Karen hawked and spat, then laughed over her shoulder into Suzanne's shocked face. 'Brings new meaning to the expression "giving good head", doesn't it Suzanne? She gave me good head, that night. Christ, she was the best lay I'd had in ages. I loved the way she squealed when she came. . .'
Suzanne had heard enough. With a roar she reared back and let the whip fly, not hearing Helena's warning shout, wanting only to hear Karen scream.
The return of sudden, blinding pain over her back made Karen's body buck, but she grinned in victory as she sagged in her restraints, knowing she had won. Then she arched her back again as Suzanne continued to lash out in impotent rage, and this time she couldn't keep the screams bottled up.
Hearing Karen's ragged shout of agony, Suzanne lashed out again and again, enjoying the shackled girl's screams and moans, until strong arms gripped her and dragged her back. She shouted in rage, the bloody whip dropping from her fingers as three Knights restrained her, pulling her across the training ground away from Karen's battered form.
Helena signalled to the medics to take care of Karen, who was now sagging from the cross, semi-conscious and drooling. She turned towards Elizabeth. The Grand Knight was standing, her eyes worried as she scanned the ranks of muttering Knights and Handmaids that had witnessed Suzanne's frenzy.
'Shouldn't have let her take the whip,' Elizabeth muttered to her second. 'Stupid of me.'
Helena felt like agreeing, but her attention was diverted to where Karen stirred, staggering to her feet and shaking off the medics hands. She moved unsteadily to stand before Elizabeth, and collected her breath before speaking in a voice loud enough for all to hear.
'I have taken the punishment . . . that I deserved for . . . disobeying your orders, my Lady,' she panted, 'But now I have been wronged. With . . . your permission I . . . I would challenge the Knight who has wronged me to . . . trial by combat!'
The watching crowds erupted into an excited buzz, and Elizabeth stared at Karen helplessly as the beaten Knight waited for an answer.
'The Council will think of the matter, Lady Karen,' she said loudly, hoping her voice did not betray her despair. She signalled that the medics take Karen away, and the dark haired Knight sagged into the women's waiting arms, her lip twisted into what could have been a contented smile.
The Council had much to discuss. Arrangements were being made for a tourney between Erran and Dunan; the biggest ever. Over three days the assembled estates would conduct trials for aspiring Handmaids and settle a number of grudges between Knights of both sides. There would be jousts and archery, a mounted race between the two estates, and a considerable amount of food and drink. The assembly would also be useful in going some way to settle matters of dispute that had arisen between the two estates.
Elizabeth blamed herself for the recent bad feeling between Erran and Dunan. She had agreed with Marina, last time they had met, that their relationship be deliberately cooled so that the Knights of their realms could begin to feel some realistic degree of animosity. She had not expected things to get so out of hand. Aside from the previous night's unpleasantness, when five of Marina's Knights had been slaughtered - albeit skilfully - by two of Erran's finest warriors, there had been a number of borderline encounters between scouting bands of Knights that had ended in bloodshed. As both Ladies were eager to build up their resources after the Battle of Erran, such encounters were wasteful and unnecessary. Elizabeth had agreed with Marina to combine their upcoming trials in a neutral area on their border.
The area that had been selected was in a wide and shallow glen, and the Ladies had committed Handmaids in construction of a natural arena, in which the Handmaids selected for trial would fight. The glen would also be the scene for a new event the Ladies had been discussing for some time, a mounted and armed race on horseback between Knights from both estates.
The plans for the tourney had progressed well, but Elizabeth's mood soured as the meeting turned to Karen's request for a challenge. She shot Suzanne a sour look, and the Knight Commander shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
'It's best the matter is forgotten,' Helena ventured. 'Karen will complain, but the decision will be that of the council.'
'And everyone will know we have made the decision against the rules of Erran,' Diane argued. 'If a Knight is wronged, she has the right to issue a challenge. In this instance I cannot see how we could refuse her.'
'I'm more than prepared to take the challenge,' Suzanne announced, then withered under the weight of stares from Elizabeth and her Marshal's.
'I expect you are, Lady Suzanne,' Elizabeth snapped acidly, 'You don't seem to be able to keep your temper or your weapon hand in check. We are discussing the wider issue here: simple discipline. Discipline which seems to be something of a curious notion for some.'
'Well, I don't blame Suzanne for what she did,' Lady Lea spoke up in defence of the blonde girl. 'She was goaded, and she reacted. We all know what Karen's like . . .'
'That's no excuse,' Elizabeth said, settling back in her chair wearily. 'Karen has made a name for herself over the last eight months, since the battle. I never expected to have to promote her so quickly. These rules we were so fond of are becoming something of a bind.'
'Karen is an animal,' Suzanne told the council, 'This challenge may be our opportunity to get rid of her for good.'
The room quieted, as all present knew Suzanne had put into words what they were thinking. It was Helena that broke the silence.
'Suzanne, you know what she is. Her skills have increased exponentially over the last eight months. She's probably the best warrior in Erran, present company included.' Some of the senior Knights bristled indignantly and Helena hurried on. 'Yes, this would be a chance to be rid of her; but if you lost, what then? We'd be forced to promote her in your place. She'd be a Knight Commander, and there are many Knights that would follow her.'
'Knights that know no better,' Suzanne muttered.
Elizabeth sighed. 'At the heart of it, Diane is right. I laid down the rules and they must be followed. I fear Karen will have her wish.' She looked to Suzanne. 'Make sure you fight your best, Lady Suzanne. For all that you made a mistake yesterday, I wouldn't like to lose you.'
Suzanne grinned. 'Don't worry about me. I've been waiting for a chance like this for some time.'
Without Karen, who had been admitted to the clinic while her wounds healed, Hayley wandered the castle grounds at a loss. Light drizzle spat from low grey clouds that massed over Erran, dampening her tunic and adding to her misery. She joined a group of Knights practising their archery, but bored of that quickly. Not feeling like a run, she made for the training grounds to watch other Knights and Handmaids train.
Lady Emma was busy with her squire, Kimiko. The Japanese girl had trained hard over the last eight months, eager to please the senior Knight who had deigned to be her tutor. For all she was grateful Emma had taken her as an apprentice, however, her aching joints and bruised body were testament to Emma's rigorous training schedule.
Emma lunged at her now with a sabre extended, jabbing the short bladed weapon under her guard and almost skewering her in the belly. The longsword she wielded moved swiftly to intercept the smaller blade, but Emma's weapon was light and was stabbing again quickly, almost not giving Kimiko the time to heave her sword into a parry.
Then she swept her blade aside, perfectly anticipating Emma's next thrust and knocking the senior Knight's blade aside. Her sword was perfectly placed for a thrust that would, had the fight been real, have stabbed deep into Emma's ribsection. The Knight Commander's body armour would have taken the blow, albeit bruising the flesh beneath, but Kimiko hesitated for a split second, still unwilling to strike her tutor. Emma punished her hesitation by stepping in and bringing her arm down behind Kimiko's neck, kicking her legs out from under her as she did so and sending the Asian girl crashing to the ground with a squeal.
'Why did you hesitate?' Emma asked crossly as her tousled squire rubbed her grazed cheek, 'You could have had me there. And not for the first time today.'
'I . . . I don't know,' Kimiko said miserably, and Emma sighed deeply as she dragged the tiny Handmaid to her feet.
'Kimiko, you're a decent warrior, and I believe you're ready for your trial, BUT . . .' she raised a warning hand as Kimi yelped in delight and clapped her hands, 'I don't believe the instinct to kill in you is as it should be. You pause when you should be delivering the final blow, and such hesitations could cost you your life.'
'I won't hesitate again,' Kimiko vowed solemnly, but couldn't keep her grin in check as Emma picked up her towel, their sparring session over. 'So I'm ready for the trial?' she asked, as if she didn't believe the senior Knight.
'Uh-huh, with a few misgivings,' Emma agreed as she wiped the sweat from her face.
'Am I as good as Kiri was?'
The wind taken from her sails a little, Kimiko visibly sagged. 'Oh. How about Rebecca? Am I as good as Rebecca was?'
Emma trudged past Hayley as she left the training ground, rolling her eyes as Kimiko followed her like an excitable puppy, chattering incessantly. Hayley watched them go with amusement, then wandered around the ground to see who else was training. She stopped as she saw Michelle and Natalie.
The two girls had grown close over the last few months, and Hayley felt a pang of loss as she watched them enjoy their sparring. She missed Michelle, and could not begin to imagine how she had let their relationship drift apart. She knew people thought she and Karen were unnaturally close, but over the last few months Karen had revealed herself to be a good friend and even a tutor.
The two months after her fall had been a haze of painkillers and operations, most of which she could not even remember but the scars of which were only now starting to fade. Left for dead by Dunan's warriors, she had luckily been found by the party of Knights which had been despatched to bring back Katherine's body.
When she had finally been released from McManus' clinic, Hayley had found it difficult to readjust to castle life. She sulked through the corridors and caused trouble in the mess hall, and was frequently punished for her over-zealous combat during training and her recklessness during scout patrols. Confused and alone, her only friend seemed to be Karen, who visited her often and patiently listened to her troubles, whatever they happened to be at the time.
Somehow their friendship had turned into something more, something Hayley knew she could not explain and even had difficulty with herself sometimes. All she knew was that Karen was the closest thing she had to a proper friend in Erran right now, and that thought lay heavily on her as she turned and left the training ground before Michelle could see her.
Natalie watched Hayley leave as Michelle rubbed her sweaty face with a towel. As the Handmaid stood, Natalie drew her attention back to her friend, but Michelle had seen the other girl's pensive glance and turned just in time to see Hayley's slim back disappear around a corner into the castle grounds.
'She runs when she sees me,' Michelle said dejectedly, 'and I still don't know why. What the hell happened to her in clinic, Natalie? I've never seen anyone change so much.'
'She went through a lot,' Natalie said hesitantly. 'We don't truly know what surgery she had to endure. And . . .' she hesitated, but Michelle looked at her sharply and she continued with colour rising in her cheeks, 'and you've told me what happened when you knew her in London. Maybe she's a little . . .' Natalie could not bring herself to finish her sentence.
'Crazy?' Michelle finished it for her. 'Aren't we all? I came to this place because of her, ending up dressed in bloody armour and risking my life! That's crazy.' She turned away from Natalie, picking up her towel and heading off towards the showers. 'I just want to know that she's not crazy because of me, that's all.'
Natalie watched her friend leave, then turned toward the castle. Exterior torches were being primed for the coming night, and those who worked or trained were already making ready to move indoors to continue their work or relax in the mess hall. Natalie breathed a shaky sigh as she herself headed for the castle. She hated seeing Michelle so sad. She would find out Hayley's secret tonight.
The clinic was shrouded in darkness, only the occupied wards dimly lit by night lights. A nurse bustled between rooms checking marks on her clipboard, too distracted to notice Natalie where she was pressed into the shadows. Hissing in relief as the girl passed by, Natalie padded towards McManus' office, hoping the Doctor did not keep her records locked away.
She eyed the keypad outside the office door dejectedly. Her search for the truth was over before it had even begun. She tried the door anyway but it didn't budge, then squatted by the keypad, squinting at the device in the gloom as if its facade might give her some clue. She cocked her head to peer at the underside of the protruding pad, and was astonished to see a sticker placed there with a four digit number scrawled upon it. Unable to believe her luck, Natalie tapped in the numbers, cringing at the beeps each button made. By contrast, the door clicked open almost silently, and Natalie slipped inside.
After ten fruitless minutes searching the Doctor's filing cabinets, unearthing nothing more juicy than some deeply personal medical problems from which her comrades were suffering, Natalie came to the conclusion the computer on McManus' desk could hold some clues. She glanced out into the corridor to make sure she was not likely to be discovered before slipping into the chair before the softly whirring computer and tapping the space bar experimentally. The screen came to life, and Natalie took a second to digest the complicated menu she was presented with. Before she could do anything a box popped up on the screen asking for her password. Shaking her head in dismay, Natalie peered around the room for inspiration.
A soft beep announced a message appearing on the monitor before her. Natalie blinked as she read its contents: "Don't look, but there's a camera in the corner over your left shoulder". Natalie felt her skin break out in a cold sweat. She had not even thought McManus might have surveillance equipment installed in her office. The message on the screen quickly vanished, to be replaced by: "Get out quick". Natalie didn't hesitate.
Keeping her face away from the unseen camera, Natalie rushed for the door and exited into the corridor, not even checking that anyone was coming before shutting the door hurriedly behind her. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she berated herself silently as she skulked out of the clinic, wondering how she could have been so foolish as to try and break into obviously restricted data, and who had warned her to flee.
McManus peered at the security camera footage with a scowl, failing to recognise the intruder who was rifling through her filing cabinets. She turned to the woman who stood behind her and shook her head. 'It's too dark to see her properly. Do you recognise her?'
The Amazon Knight leaned forward to observe the picture, her eyes narrowing as she took in the intruder's slight form and the way she moved. Then, a smile slid across her lips as recognition dawned. She nodded slowly.
'Yes, I know who it is. We don't know what she's seen, but we can't afford to take any chances at this stage. Leave it to me, Doctor.'
McManus did not like the woman's tone of voice, but nodded reluctantly. As the Knight turned and left her office, McManus observed the dim figure on the security disk once more, almost feeling sorry for unfortunate intruder.
Michelle handed Suzanne her sword, searching her mistress' face for signs of worry. In sharp contrast to her frenzy with the whip a week before, however, Suzanne was cool and calm, examining the blade critically before nodding in grudging satisfaction. She sheathed the weapon, adjusting her armour for comfort before donning her open faced helm.
Her fight with Karen had been eagerly awaited by most of the Knights, and under the circumstances Elizabeth had decided that this grudge fight would take place in the newly constructed amphitheatre a half mile North of Erran. The layered stadium could comfortably sit a thousand women, enough for the Knights and Handmaids of both estates. Although the upcoming trial day was a week away, Elizabeth had arranged for some show fights to get those who had gathered in the mood, and the crowds cheered as a dozen mounted women rode into the arena, ready for battle.
The changing areas were under the terraced seats, with access to the wide passage that led onto the arena floor. There was no way to see what was happening from here, but Suzanne glanced at her Handmaid and told her to go watch the battle. Michelle refused.
'To be honest, Michelle, I wouldn't mind a few minutes alone,' Suzanne told her.
'Are you OK?' Suzanne wasn't normally the type to ponder over her upcoming battles.
'Sure. Just need to psyche myself up a bit. Go ahead and watch. Just be here five minutes before I'm due up there, OK?'
Not wishing to leave Suzanne, but unable to argue with such a steadfast dismissal, Michelle wandered into the terraces to see what was happening within the arena. Like most of the Knights this was the first time she had seen the amphitheatre, and she was impressed. Knowing that the construction would be modestly sized due to the number of spectators it would be required to seat, Elizabeth had decided that opulence would be the order of the day. The decor within the amphitheatre was Greco-Roman, columns and statues sprouting impressively from practically everywhere. Almost stumbling as she gazed at the surroundings, Michelle quickly sat as a fanfare sounded and warriors began to pour into the arena floor.
The show fight would be a mounted scrap between two teams, each armoured up and wielding non-lethal maces and hammers. Medics waited attentively at the arena's edge, ready for broken bones and bashed skulls. The teams had ten women apiece, making the sandy floor somewhat crowded, but the crowd were quickly in the mood as the twenty women swiftly got the fight underway.
'At 'em!' Lady Sharleen grinned savagely as she kicked her mount into battle, mace waving around her helmeted head. She wore a diamond sigil on her breastplate, and on the shield slung across her left arm. Angling towards an enemy, who was adorned with a spade symbol, Sharleen brought her mace down, bashing the other girl's shield before raising her weapon and sending it swooping down again swiftly. Not anticipating the speed of Sharleen's attacks, the Knight screamed as her shoulder crunched, and Sharleen shouted in victory as she swung a final time into the woman's armoured back, sending her flying onto the arena floor.
Ladies Julia and M'Banta clashed, the former swinging her shield around to bash aside her massive opponent's hammer before jabbing her macehead forward into M'Banta's chest. The giant leered at Julia from beneath her helm, knowing that her weight gave her the advantage. She had been lucky to find a horse big and strong enough to hold her. Her smile dropped as she realised Julia had not been trying to knock her off the beast. Aware that there was no way she would be able to topple M'Banta by trying to knock her from the saddle, Julia had deliberately snagged her opponent's shield strap with the head of her mace, and as she kicked her horse into motion, M'Banta wailed as she realised she was unbalanced. She fell, seeming to shake the whole amphitheatre as she struck the floor of the sandy arena.
Lady Isobel yelled encouragement to her spade team as she struck at the shield of a foe, knocking the girl senseless as she followed up with a quick bash over the head. She kicked out and sent her dazed opponent tumbling, crying out in victory even as she looked for another Knight to fight.
Shathirana grunted in exertion as, opposite her, Lonia got to work with her mace, landing blow after blow on her shield and arm. Unable to counteract the deluge of impacts, Shathirana slipped in her saddle, and Lonia barked a victory shout as she reached over to grip the slumped girl's hair where it spilled free from under her helm and drag her off her horse. Shathirana fell with a shriek, tumbling across the sand and rolling into a ball as hooves pounded all around her.
Armoured bodies yelled in pain as they fell to the arena floor, and soon the sand was strewn with crumpled or writhing bodies. Riderless horses were dragged from the arena by Handmaids, allowing medics to grab wounded warriors and pull them to the edges before seeing to their wounds.
Isobel cursed as she realised most of her team had fallen, but girded herself for battle as Lady Sharleen came at her grinning, mace already swooping down at the senior Knight. Isobel knew the warrior she faced was skilled, but far too impetuous. She yanked her mount back, waiting for her opponent to make a mistake.
She didn't have to wait long. Having sent two of the enemy team tumbling, Sharleen was overconfident and flailed with her mace without precision. Isobel set to work grimly as an errant swing sailed past her armoured shoulder and Sharleen exposed her chest. Her hammer swept down and bashed at Sharleen's left breast, denting the metal and causing the Scottish girl to arch with pain in her saddle. Suddenly aware that she faced a superior warrior, Sharleen frantically tried to recover and shift the balance of the fight, but it was already too late. Isobel's hammer swung again, and Sharleen pitched forwards as the weapon slammed into the back of her helmet, knocking her senseless. For a second she hung in her saddle, but then she pitched slowly sideways to tumble to the sand.
Now the only member of the spade team remaining, Isobel faced her remaining opponents: Julia and Lonia.
'Mine!' Lonia cried as she spurred her mount forward, and while her ferocity matched Sharleen's, she had the skill to back it up. Isobel parried the incoming blows well, grateful that Julia was sportingly holding back. Had the two warriors attacked she would have fallen already. Lonia's mace slammed into her upper arm and she gritted her teeth against sudden pain, but her hammer swung close to Lonia's skull and the blonde amazon prudently shied her horse away.
Acting on this prompt, Julia moved in to have her turn, and Lonia reluctantly held back in respect for her colleague. In truth the non-lethal combat did not stir her as she had hoped it would. She yearned to engage in mortal combat once again, to relieve the itch that could only be scratched by plunging her blade into yielding flesh.
Julia ducked under Isobel's swinging hammer, ramming her mace into the senior Knight's midriff and making her double over. Quickly recovering, Isobel swept her hammer around towards Julia's shoulder, but the redhead had wheeled her mount around and caught the blow on her shield, grunting at the impact but lashing out her mace swiftly. Isobel jerked her head back with a cry of alarm, but the mace slammed into the side of her helmet and she was tossed off her horse with a shrill scream, slamming against the sand and rolling with pain and anger, ashamed to have been beaten by such recently Knighted opponents.
Julia and Lonia raised their weapons to receive their applause, Julia in particular enjoying the thrill of victory. Having missed the Battle of Erran she had been eager for a fight, even a sporting event such as this. She hoped the skill she had revealed would bring her to the attention of the Council for the next planned battle.
Michelle applauded loudly, having enjoyed the fast and furious battle. Three combatants were carried from the arena unmoving, but the others who had fallen were able to make their own way out, some waving good-spiritedly to the crowd. Michelle smiled as Natalie appeared beside her and squashed up against her.
'Hey, Natalie. Enjoy that?'
'Sure.' Natalie feigned interest, but Michelle could instantly tell the other girl was nervous. Natalie caught her look. 'Suzanne will be up soon,' she said hesitantly, 'I hope she can beat Karen as easy as the last time.'
Michelle nodded. 'She'll be fine,' she said, her voice betraying her uncertainty. It seemed Natalie did not want to share whatever troubled her, and Michelle decided not to ask. She had found Natalie to be a shy and intense young woman who revealed her emotions quicker than perhaps she should. Whatever her problem was, she would ask for help if she needed it.
The two girls watched a couple of jousts, non-lethal encounters that sent the losers sprawling onto the soft sand. All too soon it was near time for Suzanne to fight. Heaving a shaky sigh, Michelle glanced at Natalie as she stood. Natalie looked up at her sincerely.
'Wish Suzanne luck from me,' she said, 'You're right, of course. Karen won't stand a chance against her.'
Michelle smiled thinly. 'I hope so,' she said, squeezing Natalie's shoulder before making her way through the crowds towards the changing area.
Michelle watched Suzanne as she made the final adjustments to her armour, then followed the Knight Commander as she left the changing room, entering into the short hall that led into the arena proper. As Handmaid, Michelle would hold Suzanne's sword until she was ready to fight, and Hayley would be doing the same for Karen, supposedly as a friend. The two would retreat together to watch from the sidings, a situation which Michelle was not looking forward to.
Whatever her discomfort at being so close to Hayley, Michelle knew that she should put all thoughts of personal problems behind her this day. Suzanne needed her strength and support, and she intended to give it in spades.
Over the past eight months, she and Suzanne had become close as their relationship blossomed. They were not lovers, but comrades bonded with trust and respect. Michelle wondered if, somehow, Hayley had fashioned the same attachment to Karen. It was the only logical explanation to her recent bizarre behaviour.
After she had followed Katherine into battle eight months ago, those who saw her return had been convinced she had been killed. Medics had met the returning scouts and hurried the bloody warrior into the clinic under Erran, where she had remained for the best part of six weeks. Not permitted to visit Hayley during her long convalescence, Michelle had happily helped her friend back to her room after her release, and had promised that she would help the wounded Knight in her regimented route back to full health.
But Hayley was different somehow, she had noticed that straight away. She was surly and distant, shrugging off Michelle's offers of help and snapping responses at her old friend. Hurt, Michelle had backed away, wondering whether Hayley's near-death experience had left her brain damaged in some way. Over the next few weeks, as she trained and exercised to recover her wasted muscles and flagging skills, Hayley's humour had improved, but when Michelle called on her one evening, Hayley had answered the door naked and unashamed, and Michelle had turned away as she saw Karen occupied her friend's bed.
From then on the two had been inseparable, and their union was a strange one. In public, Karen gave the orders and Hayley obeyed, seemingly cowed by the other Knight's presence. On the rare occasion she was seen without Karen, Hayley seemed miserable and distant.
Michelle felt almost physical pain at how their relationship, new and exciting before Hayley's fight alongside Katherine, had so suddenly fallen apart. She and Natalie had grown closer, and Michelle somehow suspected that the other girl had feelings for Hayley also.
Emerging into the sunlight, Michelle squinted until her vision cleared, her heart quickening with excitement at the roar of the eager crowd seated all around. She followed Suzanne to the centre of the pit, where Karen also approached from the opposite side, Hayley bringing up her rear like a cowed dog.
Suzanne regarded Karen squarely, noting that the other girl was wearing what had become something of a uniform for her. A black leather cuirass - studded and shining with oil - sheathed her torso down to where a wide belt held up a short leather skirt. Boots clung to her shapely legs up past her knees, leaving her tanned thighs bare. Her arms were almost bare, protected only by elbow length chain gauntlets. Her helm was of Roman styling, protecting only the top and sides of her head and leaving her neck bare, apart from her tumble of raven hair.
The armour was light, almost mocking, but Suzanne was glad she had chosen armour to match her opponent's. Karen looked to be fighting with a light axe, single bitted but with a vicious spike opposite the wide blade. For a second Suzanne imagined the weapon tearing into her flesh, but quickly pushed such thoughts to the back of her mind. For all Karen was a fine warrior, as Helena had said perhaps the best in Erran, Suzanne knew her temper to be her weakness. She had taken advantage of that during her scuffle with the Knight in the training hall some months ago, when Karen had looked to be out to kill Natalie. The same tactics would hopefully work today.
The crowd were buzzing excitedly, but hushed as Helena stood, raising her arm for quiet. 'The laws of Erran are clear; that a Knight who disobeys a direct order should be punished.' Her eyes fell on Suzanne. 'Lady Suzanne has accepted Lady Karen's challenge in lieu of punishment. Their fight will be to the death.'
The crowds buzz rose again, and Helena nodded to the two warriors, indicating they should prepare for combat. Suzanne unsheathed her sword, passing the scabbard back to Michelle.
'Good luck,' Michelle whispered as she stepped back.
Karen hefted her axe, her dark eyes boring into Suzanne, and the blonde warrior felt a stirring of fear as she noted the way her foe stared at her. There was no hatred in the look, more like detached boredom. Karen obviously thought this fight would be a short one.
Elizabeth nodded to Helena, and the Marshal brought her arm sweeping down. 'Fight!' she yelled, then sat to watch the ensuing battle raptly, hoping fervently she would not lose another good friend this day.
Karen moved in swiftly, her axe swinging. Suzanne acted with more caution, stepping back until she could time the axe's swing and lunge forward with her sword swishing, sending the blade towards Karen's unprotected side.
The brunette twisted, the axe dropping to clang against Suzanne's sword and send the blade astray. Continuing her fluid manoeuvre, Karen swept around, her shining axehead chopping towards Suzanne's skull. The blonde Commander cursed under her breath at her opponent's speed with such a heavy weapon, but ducked under the blade and jabbed, forcing Karen to leap back to avoid being skewered.
Suzanne watched the other girl for signs of anger, but Karen simply hefted her axe and moved in again, her face an expressionless mask.
From where she stood at the arena's edge, Michelle gripped the siding before her and watched in agitation. She jumped as a hand was placed on her shoulder, spinning to see Hayley standing beside her.
'Hello Michelle,' Hayley looked into the other girl's eyes, but Michelle could not return the look, once more turning her attention to the fight.
'Here to watch you mistress kill?' she spat in disgust. 'You might be in for a surprise.'
'Karen is not my mistress,' Hayley snapped back, instantly angered by Michelle's jibe.
'She might as well be, the way you fawn and scrape after her.' Michelle knew her voice was bitter, but was saved from Hayley's reply by the gasps of the crowd. Catching her breath, she stared to where Suzanne stood over Karen, having knocked the shorter girl down with a superlative parry followed by a kick to the side.
Karen rolled, her legs kicking out as she jumped back to her feet nimbly. Her axe swished out, and Suzanne, who was stepping in to follow up her assault, was forced to stagger back with a desperate parry, the disappointment of a lost chance plain on her features.
Not giving the blonde girl a second to recover, Karen stepped in again, hacking from left to right, drawing bright sparks from Suzanne's parrying blade. Suzanne's leg lanced out again, but this time Karen twisted to catch the blow on her hip, then stepped in close to barge Suzanne with her shoulder. Suzanne reeled back, and Karen swung with a battlecry, her face finally splitting in a grin as her axeblade ripped open Suzanne's leather cuirass over her shoulderblades, opening a shallow but painful cut that made the blonde shout out and arch her body.
First blood had gone to Karen, but instead of following up the attack, the brunette backed away, and Suzanne knew the motion to be a taunt. Karen intended to play with her kill. Vowing that the dark haired girl would regret her ploy, Suzanne took a grateful second to compose herself, pushing the cries of the crowd from her mind and forcing herself to focus. She was ready by the time Karen moved in again.
The warrior in black came in low, her axeblade swishing, but Suzanne swung her sword underarm as she reeled aside, knocking the axe away and carrying her swing through. Karen grunted as the swordblade slashed into her left thigh, above the rim of her leather boots. She kicked out at Suzanne, but the blonde was skipping back to clear room for another attack, diving in quickly as Karen's axe sailed harmlessly wide, the tip of her sword angling for the brunette's copious breast.
Karen cried out as the blade bit, sinking into her soft flesh and bursting her leather cuirass with a pop. She staggered off the blade, her axe flailing to force Suzanne back before the blonde could thrust her blade deeper still.
Excitement made Suzanne's heart pound, but she forced herself not to move rashly and give Karen an opportunity for revenge. Instead, she kept her distance to see how the black clad Knight would react to her wounds.
Karen's face had darkened in anger, her calm features giving way to a more normal snarl of anger and hatred. She clutched at her wounded breast, but as she straightened and looked Suzanne in the eye, her lip curled until she faced the blonde with a vicious sneer. Swinging her axe in preparation of her next assault, Karen crouched as she began to move in once more.
Suzanne stepped in to meet the challenge, her confidence boosted as Karen finally let her temper show. Her sword lashing out, Suzanne sought to dominate the battle, keeping her sword swinging and battering the dark haired girl back until she was close to the edge of the arena floor.
Beside Michelle, Hayley was silent, her hazel eyes watching the fight unfold. Michelle watched the battle with bated breath, hardly daring to hope that Suzanne was actually winning.
Forced back again and again, Karen growled in rage as Suzanne's superlative swordswomanship made itself known. Her axe swung expertly to parry each jab and chop, but there was no space through which to respond in kind. She staggered as her booted feet slid in the mass of sand that thickened near the arena's edge, and she fell on her behind with a shout of fear.
Suzanne stabbed down with a gasp of victory, a grin splitting her features as her sword slid easily through Karen's armour and into her belly. Karen groaned, clutching at her stomach and writhing as Suzanne yanked her blade free and staggered back, exhausted by the battle but delighted by the roar of the crowd. Certainly there were few here who wished Karen victory.
Michelle shouted excitedly, sparing a glance to Hayley, then turning back to the dark haired Knight as she noticed her smile. Hayley was watching Karen, and Michelle turned her own eyes to the wounded Knight, unable to believe what she was seeing.
Karen rose easily, hunched over but slowly straightening and taking her hand from her wound. She stood with axe held ready, and as Suzanne saw her opponent stand again her jaw dropped in disbelief.
'That's impossible,' Michelle whispered, and beside her Hayley giggled.
Karen moved forward, blood dribbling upon the sand between her feet, grinning at the look on her opponent's face. 'What's the matter, Suzanne? Losing your touch? That little prick won't keep me down.'
Suzanne lowered herself into a fighting posture, knowing full well her sword had sank a good six inches into Karen's guts. 'You freak,' she muttered in return. 'If I need to, I'll chop you up into little pieces.'
'Think you'll get the chance?' Karen mocked her. 'You only get the one, and you blew it!'
So saying, the dark haired Knight moved in with axe raised, chopping again and again to force Suzanne to frantically parry. Staggering back under the force of the blows, Suzanne gritted her teeth as her arms became numb. As Karen reared back for another chop, she dove forward to cannon into the shorter girl, sending them both crashing to the ground.
'Want to tussle?' Karen chuckled, her hand snaking out to clutch Suzanne around the throat before the blonde could dominate the woman beneath her. 'You're not my type!' She brought back her mailed fist and slammed it into Suzanne's face, breaking her nose and loosening teeth, sending her flailing back to crash against the sand with blood hosing from her nostrils.
Suzanne struggled to get to her feet, but Karen had already flipped upright, acting as if she had only been scratched rather than seriously wounded. 'I want to string this out,' Karen cried as she brought back a booted foot and kicked Suzanne painfully in the ribs. ''I've been waiting for this for a long time!' She kicked again, her foot slamming into Suzanne's groin. Rolling into a ball, the breath robbed from her lungs, Suzanne tried to move under a sudden rain of violent kicks, but her bruised body refused to move. All she could do was take the mauling Karen was handing her, useless as she felt her strength sapped with every shocking impact.
Michelle gripped the siding with impotent despair, aware that Karen could deliver the death blow at any second. Her booted foot swept back and forth, and the dark haired warrior grunted at the force she put into each kick. Suzanne was finally flipped over by an especially brutal kick in the side, and she writhed in pain, her face battered and bruised, spattered with blood and creased in a grimace. Panting, Karen hefted her axe and stepped in to finish the fight.
The axe rose high, and the watching crowd roared, although the sound was more of denial than delight. Then, their screams changed pitch as Suzanne suddenly found a new well of strength.
Gasping and sore, the blonde girl squinted through swollen eyes at the girl who stood over her, weapon raised and ready to strike. She forced herself to move, a growl escaping from her throat as aching muscles grudgingly shifted. Her leg shot out, its heel slamming powerfully into Karen's right knee. Something cracked, and Karen shrieked at the fresh pain, reeling back to crumple to the sandy floor. Suzanne rolled with a groan, a shaking hand clutching her fallen sword. She levered herself to her feet, her vision swimming but her intent clear. Where she rolled in pain, Karen shot the blonde girl a look of wide-eyed disbelief.
'Here it comes, Karen,' Suzanne growled, spitting blood as she staggered forward with her sword raised. 'This is . . . gonna feel so good!'
The sword fell, its length catching the light blindingly as it began its journey down towards Karen's vulnerable body. But once again the crowd were cheated, as Karen rolled onto her back, her axe swooping up to catch the sword in mid flight. The weapon's single bit clashed with the swordblade, and Karen twisted her grip, catching her opponent's blade before yanking with all her strength. In her weakened state Suzanne could not match Karen's strength, and she fell forward with a yelp of dismay, aware at the final second that Karen held something long and shining between her legs.
Suzanne's body slammed down on top of Karen's, and she arched her back at the stabbing pain that lanced through her groin. Karen shivered and came instantly with a sharp cry, the hilt of her dagger pressing hard against her own crotch. Suzanne's face was only inches away, and the blonde stared at her with bulging eyes, her mouth open, her breath hot against Karen's face.
'How does that feel, Suzanne?' Karen whispered as if to a lover. 'Does it feel good? It feels good to me.'
Suzanne could not answer. She gasped for breath, unable to believe the agony of having cold steel thrust up her sex. Then, she let out a ragged scream as Karen flexed her arm and wrenched the dagger up into her belly. Raising her thighs to grip Suzanne's hips tight, Karen rolled and moaned in pleasure as Suzanne's guts spilled over her groin. She tensed and came again, her panties sodden and plastered against her swollen clitoris as she ground her body against Suzanne's pelvis.
The crowds were watching the spectacle with stunned disbelief. Michelle gasped, unable to believe her mentor's hideous death. Suzanne's face, pale and blood slicked, rose to face her, her expression one of mortal fear. As Michelle watched, unable to tear her eyes away, Suzanne's head fell forward, and her body relaxed in death.
For a while Karen simply lay panting, enjoying the heat of the dead body's innards oozing over her abdomen. Then, she thrust the corpse away, and as Suzanne flopped onto her back, exposing her sundered navel and glistening entrails, the victrix got to her feet and raised her gore-clogged dagger to receive the crowd's applause. If it sounded muted to her ears she did not care. Grinning down into Suzanne's lifeless eyes, Karen nudged the unfeeling body with her foot, finally placing a boot with a squelch on Suzanne's ruptured crotch as she relished her victory.
Michelle turned away, sickened by the sight of her mentor lying defeated and by Karen's gloating. By her side, Hayley reached out a hand to take her shoulder.
'I'm sorry, Michelle,' she said awkwardly, but Michelle grabbed her hand and forced it away, her face red with grief and anger as she turned on the other girl.
'Keep away from me, Hayley. You're as much of a monster as she is.' Unable to face Hayley any longer, she turned and hurried from the arena, leaving the girl who used to be her friend staring at her departing form.
After five days in the clinic, Karen emerged with her wound almost completely healed. She soon noticed other Knights avoided her gaze as they passed her, and very few congratulated her on her victory. She smiled. She liked that they were afraid of her.
She arrived at Hayley's door, holding her temper in check as she recalled that the young Knight had not bothered to visit her while she was healing. She considered barging in, but finally decided to knock. It was a while before an answer came.
'Who is it?'
'Open the door.'
There was a fraction of a second's hesitation, but that was too long for Karen. She put her weight against the door and barged it open, breaking the lock easily. Behind the door, Hayley staggered back, partially dressed and hollow eyed. Karen took in the girl's condition with surprise.
'What the hell is up with you? Why didn't you come and see me in the clinic?' She moved to Hayley's unmade bed, noting the bottle of liquor three-quarters empty on the bedside table.
Hayley was staring at her, and Karen turned to face her angrily, unused to hesitation when she asked a question.
'What has McManus done to me?' Hayley blurted out as Karen took a step towards her. 'What . . . what am I? People steer clear of me, like they're scared. I . . . I know that I'm acting different, but I can't help it. I have these . . . desires. Terrible thoughts that I can't get rid of.' A tear rolled down her cheek, and she felt herself stumble forward, a hand raised to push past Karen. Somehow she found herself in the other girl's arms, and after a few sobs had wracked her body, she slowly and incredulously became aware that Karen was stroking her hair, and shushing her gently like a patient mother.
'I think it's time you knew the truth,' she told Hayley softly. 'Tomorrow morning, I'll answer all your questions.'
Somehow Michelle had managed to get to sleep. She awoke with a start, wondering for a second what had torn her from sleep before the hammering at her door recommenced. Groaning, she slid from her bed and padded to the door, not surprised to see Natalie as she eased it open a crack and scowled out.
'The sun isn't even up, Natalie,' she said wearily.
'But you've got so much to do,' Natalie wheedled as she pushed her way inside. Her arms were laden with pieces of armour. 'You still haven't decided what you're going to wear.'
'I know what I'm going to wear. Light chain and leather, same as all the rest.'
'Yes, but look!' Natalie held up a studded leather bodice and matching skirt. 'This'll suit you. Very sexy. Or this!' She threw the armour down onto the bed before snatching up a revealing halter comprising chain coated breast cups and precious little else. Michelle's mind boggled as she held the garment against herself.
'What the hell do you think I am? Barbarian Barbie?'
'Oh shush, this is important. You've got to look cool when you win your trial. Try not to get too much blood on this stuff, OK?'
Michelle watched her fussing with the armour for a second, finally aware what her young friend was doing. She took Natalie's shoulder, feeling her flinch but keeping hold as she turned the wide-eyed girl to face her.
'This is very sweet, Natalie, but I'm going to win today no matter what. You don't get rid of me so easily.' She watched emotions spilling over Natalie's innocent face, touched with her concern, but painfully recalling why the young Knight would feel this way. She had lost her lover at the Battle of Erran, a girl she had known since childhood. She and Zoe had come to Erran together to realise their shared dream of Knighthood, yet Zoe had fallen, albeit bravely, in her first fight after winning her trial.
Although her loss was not so great, as Hayley still lived while Zoe was dead and buried, Michelle still knew what her friend must be feeling. She pulled Natalie close into a tight embrace, smiling fondly as the young Knight tensed against her before seeming to sink into her shoulder. Then, before either of them realised it, their lips were together.
Michelle slid her hands over Natalie's slim back, her world melting away into the other girl's warm mouth and flower-fresh scent. Natalie received her kiss hungrily, her hand in Michelle's hair, her body pressing close and her heart beating faster. She let Michelle lower her gently onto the bed, and at the cool touch of chainmail and metal studs on the armour beneath her, she gasped in pleasure and grabbed at Michelle's nightdress. The flimsy garment was tied in front, and Natalie's trembling fingers quickly undid the knot to expose Michelle's body as the nightdress spilled apart to reveal pale skin, tantalisingly shadowed in the early morning light. Their bodies sank together, fingers probing, tongues exploring each others warm mouths. For now, none of their troubles would bother them. They could wait.
'I'm supposed to be riding in the race,' Hayley fretted as she followed Karen into the clinic wing of Erran. Karen waved her hand dismissively.
'They'll find someone else. This is more important.' She moved through the clinic halls, out of sight of the wounded and sick Knights that were currently being treated, eventually coming to a halt near a section of interior wall covered with thick red drape. This was the area behind McManus' office, and Hayley glanced around to see if they were going to be discovered as Karen swept the drapes apart noisily.
Behind the concealing fabric was an elevator door which Karen yanked open, jerking her head to indicate Hayley should enter then following the young Knight inside. She closed the door and pressed the lower of the two buttons to one side. Soundlessly the elevator shuddered into life.
'Where are we going?' Hayley wondered aloud.
'McManus is conducting a great deal of research here at Erran, but not in the castle itself,' Karen told her. 'She's responsible for an underground laboratory five miles from here, where all the serious work takes place. Patching up the Knights of Erran and Dunan is little more than an inconvenience to her.'
'Five miles?' Hayley exclaimed. 'Then why are we going down?'
The elevator ground to a halt and Karen pushed the door open, preceding Hayley into a wide underground chamber clogged with neatly ordered boxes. Two white coated technicians were here, checking manifests beside a small monorail train that appeared to lead off into a cylindrical tunnel. As Hayley gaped at the device, Karen approached the technicians.
'We're taking this to the lab,' she told them threateningly, and the two women stared at her with a mixture of annoyance and fear.
'Who's she?' one of them gestured to Hayley, but Karen crippled her with a sour look.
'She's with me, and therefore none of your concern. Come on,' she snapped to Hayley, who scurried to her side and clambered aboard the compact train, which looked to seat no more than six but had a trailer to accommodate crates or other baggage. Karen bashed a lever on the dash, and the train hummed into life, quickly gathering pace as it swept into the narrow tunnel. As soon as they were out of sight, one of the technicians picked a phone from her coat and hurriedly dialled in a number.
'Doctor? Karen is on her way to you, and she has a . . . guest.'
'Who had all this built?' Hayley found it hard to believe Elizabeth would have sanctioned such a device beneath her castle.
Karen glanced at her before replying. 'When Elizabeth and Marina built their estates, they knew they would have trouble from the authorities and made plans to prevent their taking action. Do you know what they did before they set up the castles?'
Hayley shook her head slowly. 'I've heard they were businesswomen . . .'
'Not quite. They were shrewd businesswomen and made their money fair and square, but they were principally CEO's in a biomedical research facility; government funded. Their facility was credited with some fine advances in next generation surgery and medicines, but frequently came across problems. Although they held the answer to many of medical science's mysteries within their grasp, there were those who sought to scupper their research in any way possible. Religious groups and rival companies, and even governments elsewhere in the world, did not want to see Britain spearhead the dawn of the next age of humankind.'
'The next age . . .'
'The solution presented itself when the Ladies bought this land and began to build. They met with their employers and briefed them in great detail, telling them what they intended to do here and how they wanted to be left to their own devices. The Ministry who had been their employer were astonished by the Ladies' plans, but were quickly swayed by what they had to say next. Elizabeth and Marina suggested that the principal work of their facility be located beneath their land, and the work they had started could be continued there.'
'They're still working for the facility?'
'No,' Karen shook her head. 'They wanted out. They genuinely wanted to live their dream, and this was just a means to an end. A bargaining chip, and quite a tempting one. The Ministry agreed, and work began on the underground facility you'll be seeing in a minute.'
Hayley's mind reeled. 'So who's McManus?'
'An old work colleague of the Ladies, whose passion made her a prime candidate for being the head of the Chrysalis Project.'
Hayley began to get annoyed. Karen was being deliberately vague. 'The Chrysalis Project?'
'The holy grail of medical science,' Karen said quietly. 'Imagine a life with no disease, deformity or decay. An end to HIV. No more cancer.' She shot the girl next to her a knowing look.
Hayley took the hint. 'Elizabeth knew Katherine before she came here?'
'Long before. Katherine also worked at the facility, and confided in Elizabeth when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The research was going well, but it was just too late to help Katherine. Elizabeth convinced her to come, and eventually Katherine agreed, but only, I think, to be close to Elizabeth. I don't think she ever believed she could be cured.'
'And what about you,' Hayley asked pointedly. 'You speak of these matters like someone who was there at the time.'
'I was.' Karen smiled at Hayley's expression. 'I was with the first batch of women to arrive at Erran, and helped to build it alongside Katherine and Helena and all the others. We had a fine time.' Karen's smile became reflective, and for a minute she stared ahead to where the maintenance lights in the tunnel flashed towards the speeding train at blinding speed.
'So why did you take your trial again?' Hayley blurted, confused, and Karen's mood visibly soured.
'I took a little break,' she snapped, then jerked her head as the train began to slow down and a platform loomed in a cavern up ahead. 'We're here.'
As the train pulled in, Hayley took in her new surroundings. This cavern was low but expansive, containing a pre-fab laboratory building that covered one whole side while, beyond that, a closed off area was shielded by an ominous looking door with flashing security lights and a computer access panel. There was a great deal of activity in the open area of the cavern, where technicians in white jumpsuits were handling boxes that were being lowered by winch through a silo door in the cavern's roof. Wind raged through the open doorway, partly a bracing sea breeze but most from the rotors of an idling helicopter that could easily be heard above. Gawping at what was going on, Hayley had to be dragged from the train by Karen as the vehicle came to a halt.
'Shit,' Karen muttered, and Hayley looked around to see Doctor McManus stalking towards them, her normally severe face twisted into apoplectic rage.
'What are you doing here, Karen? And why have you brought Miss Carrington?'
'She knows, Doctor, I've told her everything. She wanted to see for herself.'
McManus stared at Karen, her face reddening still further. Karen swiftly grabbed Hayley's arm and dragged her past the Doctor before she could calm down enough to form words. 'Keep quiet,' Karen hissed to Hayley, and the confused Knight nodded dumbly as she was led towards the heavy doorway on the cavern's far side. When they reached the computer terminal beside the door, Karen turned to McManus expectantly.
For a second the Doctor stared at her, but then seemed to sag in resignation. 'You had no right to do this Karen. It's too early.' Placing her left hand on a palm scanner beside the terminal, McManus flicked at the keyboard until a tone sounded from the door and the light above flashed green. Slowly it slid open, and as Karen took her arm again, Hayley stared wide eyed at the scene that met her eyes beyond.
'Where the hell is Hayley?'
Lady Emma stalked alongside her team, clearly not happy by a no-show. Nineteen Knights were beside or already on their mounts, checking their armour and hefting their weapons as they prepared for combat. Erran and Dunan both had twenty riders in the race, a new event for the biggest trials ever.
Lady Diane was stood beside her horse, and as Emma passed she jerked her head towards the crowd of watching Knights nearby. 'Michelle and Natalie may have seen her. They're right over there.' Stroking her horses mane, Diane's dark eyes followed the Marshall as she took her advice and advanced on the two young Knights.
The excitement that infected all the Knights from both estates was palpable. Today had been the first time many of them had seen the glen which had been hollowed out to hold the new trial arena. A well posted track had also been laid out around the glen, twisting in a figure eight that meant that those watching from the stands would see as much of the race as possible.
'You two,' Emma snapped, and Michelle and Natalie stopped their giggling and snapped to attention as Emma's imposing figure loomed over them. 'Have you seen Lady Hayley? She's due to ride in five minutes time.'
'Sorry, Lady Emma,' Michelle told her, 'We haven't seen her.'
'But if she doesn't turn up, I'm to take her place.' Natalie told the Marshall eagerly. Emma thought for a second, then nodded.
'I'll bear that in mind. Give me a minute, I'll have one last look for that ungrateful little bitch. She whined long enough to take part in this, and then she doesn't ever bother turning up! Off somewhere licking Karen's ass, no doubt.' She moved off, and Michelle turned to her friend worriedly.
'Natalie, what are you doing?'
'Now who's scared?' Natalie teased her, but stopped as she saw Michelle's genuine concern. 'I'm a good rider, Michelle. I'll enjoy it. Lady Diane collared me before and gave me first refusal in case anyone dropped out.'
'But you're not ready! You need to get yourself prepared for these things.'
'You concentrate on getting ready for your trial. Only an hour to go!' She giggled excitedly. 'You'll watch me in action, then I'll watch you earn your right to be an Amazon Knight. It'll be perfect.'
'Oh, I suppose,' Michelle fretted, then gripped Natalie in a tight embrace before pushing her away towards the pavilion where Knights were being outfitted for battle. 'Go then. Get in costume, and when Emma returns I'll let her know you'll be ready.' Michelle watched the young Knight scurry excitedly away, hoping that the girl's courage and skill would get her through this unexpected battle without injury.
Lady Diane rode up her line of warriors, satisfied they were ready for combat. She eyed Natalie long and hard, as if checking to see if the young Knight was ready, but Natalie returned the gaze evenly, her face set in determination and her eyes shining. Nodding abruptly, Diane swept her eyes over the other eighteen Knights.
Lady Christa's freshly dyed pink hair - clipped shorter than normal - was concealed under her helm, and she grinned hugely at the Marshall as Diane rode past. Ignoring the flippant Knight, Diane paused before Lady Lonia, seeing that the blonde warrior was her normal implacable self. She nodded slightly as she walked her horse on, noting that Lady Madeline seemed nervous. She flicked a glance to where Lady Isobel stood watching on the sidelines, and inwardly sneered at how so many Knights lost their concentration when they started mooning hopelessly over their lovers.
Not that Diane had abstained herself over the years. She had experienced a number of passionate trysts with fellow Knights, but all were abandoned in the face of battle. Nothing could stand before her and the fight. As a Knight Commander, Madeline should think no different. Promising to have a word with the Commander after the race, Diane moved on, staring witheringly at Alexus as she passed the semi-naked Knight. Seemingly on a mission to have her bones shattered, Alexus had elected to wear plate armour only on her limbs, leaving her tanned body exposed apart from skimpy chain and leather. 'You'll catch your death,' Diane snarled at her, 'and not from the cold.' Alexus sneered at the older woman's back as she moved off, finally bringing her mount around to spearhead her riders.
The race was to begin in a wide clearing beyond the trial pit, where those in the stands could see the start and finish. The two teams would be kept apart by a barricade for the first hundred metres, when their path would cross and all hell would break loose. Although this was technically a race, few doubted there would be a fair number of one-on-one fights during its five mile length.
Atop the barricade, Lady Isobel raised the flag that would start the race, peering towards the box where Elizabeth and Marina sat with their seconds. Getting a nod from Elizabeth, Isobel raised the flag, holding it aloft for agonising seconds. Horses paced and snorted, their riders gripping their reins tightly in anticipation. All eyes were on the flag, waiting for it's inexorable fall.
Isobel's arm snapped down sharply, and the Knight had to struggle to keep her balance as forty horses were immediately spurred into motion, shaking the ground like an earthquake as they thundered past her on both sides. The watching crowds cheered, and those lining the barricades waved their castles' flags as the riders stormed past, craning their necks to see down the course to where the two armies would clash.
Lonia determinedly forced her mount to the inner edge, where she would be able to do the most damage. Most Knights kept their weapons secured to their saddles, but already Lonia's mace was in her hand, her eyes glinting as the barricade between the two teams narrowed and ended, and she threw her mount towards Dunan's riders.
A wide-eyes Knight watched her coming with alarm, scrabbling at her own mace but taken by surprise by the Amazon Knight's eagerness to fight. Before she could clear her weapon from its strap, Lonia's mace was swooping down, slamming into the side of her head and buckling her helm as if it were tin foil. Blood spewed from the Knight's nostrils and mouth, and she pitched aside to tumble instantly from her horse. Lonia twisted her head to look back, eager to see if the blow had killed the young woman, but she was already bucking and jerking as her colleagues unavoidably trampled her rolling body.
Disappointed, Lonia yelled a challenge to Dunan's riders, but a shout from her own team attracted her attention. Lady Diane rode alongside her, and she did not look best pleased.
'Control yourself, Lonia!' the Marshall yelled. 'You're not here to pick fights, you've got a job to do!' Cursing, Lonia spurred her mount and reluctantly concentrated on closing the gap that had already opened at the front of the field.
Natalie rode hard, gladly letting rowdier Knights take the gap between the two teams as they hammered towards the path out of the clearing. She was close to the front, but the race was led by three diminutive Knights of Dunan, seemingly selected for their size. As Natalie concentrated on closing the gap, she glanced to one side as movement caught her eye, seeing Lady Madeline coming alongside.
'Keep them off my back!' the Commander cried, and Natalie glanced back, her eyes widening in surprise as she saw the lead the frontrunners had already cleared from the rest of the pack. Two Knights of Dunan were slowly gaining, intent on closing up with their fellows in the lead. Natalie's throat dried as she realised she and Madeline were the only Knights of Erran at the head of the race.
Madeline rode a strong steed, bred for speed and stamina. She spurred the beast ahead, and one of the three leaders glanced over her shoulder and reached for the hammer secured on her saddle, getting ready to keep the Amazon Knight from the lead.
Natalie freed her own weapon as she let the first Knight of Dunan sidle up on her left. Her ball and chain whipped into the air, studless but still capable of delivering a killing blow, and the enemy rider kept her distance as the weapon swooshed through the air near her shoulder. She readied her mace and moved closer, intent on felling the young Amazon Knight but her confidence exceeding her skill. As she swung, Natalie dug her spur deep into her mount's flank, making the creature shy to the right. The macehead swept down beside her thigh, and Natalie grunted as she brought her ball swinging down into the back of the other girl's skull.
The steel of her helm dented, the Knight lolled back in her saddle, blood spraying from her mouth from a bitten tongue or ruptured gums. Natalie swung her weapon again, bashing the Knight's breastplate and sending her toppling from her saddle to crash against the ground and bounce into the shrubs that lined the forest path. Natalie glanced back for a second, wondering how the woman had fared. This race was light-hearted, but her blows or the fall could easily have mortally wounded the fallen warrior. Unable to spare more time for her defeated enemy, Natalie twisted in her saddle to see where the other pursuing Knight had gone, relieved to see another Amazon Knight had closed some distance to engage the warrior.
Turning back to face the front of the race, Natalie spurred her steed once more, determined to make up the distance and be amongst the winners. They were in the glen now, out of sight of the watching crowds and thundering through a narrow trail, flanked both sides by trees and shrubs. Natalie longed to look back, to see how her companions fared behind her, but concentrated on riding hard. She wanted to win this for Michelle's sake. With something to prove, her knew Michelle would sail through her trial. That was what she was like.
Diane and Lonia managed to pull their way up a few places, but before them were two Knight's of Dunan blocking the way ahead. Aware that their girls were leading, these two seemed determined to slow the rest of the field down. An Amazon Knight was trying to get around them on the left, but she was forced to ride off the path and her horse suddenly whinnied and dropped, sending the rider flying with a shriek to smash into a tree stump. Diane watched the Knight's body as it was tossed into the air to come down hard on the forest floor. She turned to Lonia with a scowl. 'Be ready!' she yelled, then put her head down and spurred her mount faster still.
'Ready for what?' Lonia shouted back, astonished as Diane suddenly peeled off into the thick trees, her horse seeming to bolt at an unnatural speed through the thick vegetation. Quickly losing sight of the Marshall, Lonia concentrated on closing the gap between her and the Knights of Dunan. After what seemed like only seconds, Diane burst through the trees in front of the two astonished Knights, her mace whistling around her head. She dropped back, and as the rear end of her horse loomed, the two riders panicked and yanked on their reins.
One of the horses stumbled as its hooves tangled in shrubs, pitching forward with a whinny and sending its rider flying. The rider spun in the air, her scream piercing as the small of her back slammed against the trunk of a tree. Her body snapped, bent at an unnatural angle around the trunk before tumbling to the long grass.
Lonia closed the gap on the second rider, not giving the girl a chance to defend herself as she swung her mace into the back of the enemy Knight's skull with all her strength. The woman pitched forward in her saddle as Lonia swept past, but the blood bursting from her mouth spattered the Amazon Knight, and Lonia grinned savagely as she saw a flaccid eyeball splatter against her thigh guard. She secured her weapon, then brought her gauntletted hand down on the quivering eye. It popped horribly, its fluids bursting over Lonia's armour. Lonia felt a familiar tension build in her loins. Once again she had the chance to satiate her bloody passion. She would prefer stand face to face with her foes as she ripped the life from them, but if this was the only option she would take whatever pleasure she could from it.
Diane was thundering ahead, to where Lady Natalie rode in Madeline's wake. Now four Knights of Erran pursued the two frontrunners. As the horses cleared the last of the trees onto open ground, the two leaders risked a look back to see how they fared. What they saw made them kick their tiring mounts all the harder.
Karen eased Hayley forward into the chamber beyond the security door, and the young Knight stared wide eyed at what she saw. The chamber was flanked by cells, barred but also layered with thick glass or something similar. Within each cell a naked woman lay strapped on an angled table, wires and tubes leading from their arms and temples to a bewildering range of computer terminals, monitors and drips. Beyond the cells, upright cylinders shrouded in shadow stretched into the distance. As Karen led Hayley towards them, lights flickered into life to illuminate the grey, slablike containers, each of which had a terminal mounted on its front edge.
'What is this place?' Hayley whispered, not knowing if she would like the answer.
Karen didn't answer, instead leading her to the leftmost bank of cylinders. She tapped at keys on the first cylinder's terminal. Hayley gazed at the container nervously, noticing a plaque beside the keyboard Karen was using. Like the cylinder itself, the plaque was dripping with condensation, and Hayley swept her hand across its cold surface to reveal what was written there. A name. Her lips quivered.
'What does this mean?' she asked Karen, her voice shrill, but even as she spoke the front of the cylinder split apart with a hiss of cold air, an icy blast that made Hayley stagger against Karen and grip the other girl in fear. As the protective shields moved aside, the glass funnel within was lit from behind, revealing a naked, hairless body suspended in gelatinous fluid.
Hayley gaped as the figure moved, its eyes open but sightless, seeming to react to the uncommon light. And although the body was distorted by the fluid, and the pallid skin was bald and lifeless, Hayley shuddered in sudden recognition.
Natalie cursed and glanced to her rear, where riders were getting closer and closer. Her horse had stumbled on a root and now was losing ground, and the pursuing Knights from both teams were gaining inexorably.
The race had circled the outer rim of the glen and had plunged back into the trees. More than half over, the race had already claimed more than a dozen riders, either by bad luck or in violent clashes with rival riders. They now thundered down a picturesque trail between thick copses of trees, their path marked by flags. Thankfully Natalie saw that the Knight gaining on her was Lady Lonia.
Lonia was grinning as she brought her steed alongside Natalie's and slowed her pace to match the smaller girl. 'Having trouble?' she yelled, 'I thought I wouldn't be able to catch you!'
'It's that pair you should be trying to catch!' Natalie gestured ahead, although the frontrunners were no longer in sight.
'No, Lady Natalie!' Lonia grinned savagely as she hefted her mace. 'I've got my prey in my sights!' So saying, she swung her weapon with blinding speed, and Natalie gasped and wrenched on her reins. Her horse whinnied and bolted to the left, between the trees and off the course. Natalie gasped in relief as she realised she had not been hit, but a glance over her shoulder told her Lonia was in pursuit. Fear gripped her. Why was Lonia doing this?
She spurred her mount, but the beast was in pain and tiring. She could hear Lonia shout her own steed on, swiftly coming up alongside the dark haired Knight. Natalie readied her ball and chain, now convinced she would have to fight Lonia for her life.
Her horse whinnied and pitched forward suddenly, and Natalie screamed as she was thrown from the saddle. For a second she was weightless, the forest swirling before her eyes, then she crashed into undergrowth and hit the ground rolling, ending up sprawled and panting.
Lonia dismounted, approaching the felled Knight sombrely with her blood-caked mace held by her side. Natalie struggled to rise, her eyes wide with fear as Lonia stepped over her. 'Wh . . . why are you doing this?' she panted.
'Orders, Natalie. And, to be perfectly honest, because I like to kill!' Lonia raised her mace, but before she could send the weapon swinging down to end Natalie's life, the tiny Knight had launched herself up with a scream of fear. Lonia lost her balance as the dark haired warrior slammed into her chest, crashing back into thorny bushes and cursing as Natalie bore her down. Her ball and chain had been lost, but Natalie scrabbled at her belt for her dagger, yanking the weapon free and ramming it deep into Lonia's side.
Yelling in pain, Lonia slammed her forearm into Natalie's face. The tiny Knight fell back glassy-eyed, staggering before slamming against a tree trunk. She tried to clear her head, her dagger dropping from numbed fingers and blood pouring from her nostrils, but Lonia was already up and lunging with an animal growl, her mace swinging.
Natalie's head popped as the weapon hit, splattering the tree-trunk with her brains and fragments of skull. Her body stayed leaning against the wood for a second, then slid to the ground leaving a greasy trail against the bark. Lonia blinked, her mace dropping from her own fingers as she gripped the wound in her side. She surveyed Natalie's body, unable to believe the battle was over so quickly. She did not feel the excitement she longed for in her loins; there had been no time to anticipate the taking of another woman's life.
But that was not the reason she was not aroused, for as a blinding pain stabbed in her guts she doubled over and slumped to her knees, knowing she felt fear at the extent of her injury. She raised her head as a horse approached, gasping in relief as she saw a fellow Amazon Knight rein in and dismount easily.
'Thank Christ,' she said, 'I . . . I did what you asked, but the bitch stuck me with a . . . a fucking dagger. I . . . I think I'm dying.'
As she said the words, Lonia felt her moisture seep down her thighs and a welcome tingle in her groin. For a moment she thought it strange that only two things could now arouse her; the killing of another, and the prospect of her own death.
'Yes, Lonia, I think you're right.'
Lonia looked up in surprise, in time to see Natalie's ball and chain swinging high, the weapon whooshing down towards her upturned face. She opened her mouth to scream, but before she could loose a sound her face had imploded with a wet squelch, and her legs kicked out spasmodically to send her sprawling. Her hips twitched and heaved, marking her final seconds with a shattering climax that stained the ground between her quivering thighs, then Lonia lay still.
Her killer regarded the gruesome corpse for a second, then turned to Natalie's body, dropping the bloody weapon onto the young girl's unfeeling lap. ' A final kill to your credit, Natalie,' the Knight whispered as she heaved herself back onto her horse and kicked it into motion.
'Fran?' Hayley whispered, pressed against the cold glass of the chamber as she gazed at her old friend. 'How can this be?'
McManus turned on Karen. 'You told me she knew! What the hell are you playing at, Karen?'
'It's your game, Doctor. You're the one who's playing.' Karen's dark eyes never left Hayley as she watched the young girl sag against the chamber's frosted glass, her tousled head shaking in disbelief and tears streaming down her cheeks. 'The next age of humankind, Hayley,' Karen spoke up, and Hayley rounded on her with her eyes flashing with fury.
'What? You sick freaks! You dishonour the fallen with . . . with these . . . ghoulish experiments?'
Karen shook her head. 'That's not Fran, Hayley. It's a duplicate. A clone. Modified to remove all the impurities. She's a made to measure warrior, like all the others here.'
Realisation dawned on Hayley, and she stared at Karen with a shudder. 'Like you,' she whispered. 'How many others, Karen? How many like you?'
Karen smiled slowly, and Hayley found the strength to push herself away from the glass chamber to stagger down the rows of cylinders, her eyes frantically seeking out the name plates mounted upon each one. McManus made to move after the Knight, but Karen gripped her lapels.
'Let it happen, Doctor,' she told the indignant woman, who could only stare helplessly to where the young warrior dropped to her knees before one of the containers with a choked sob.
With shaking fingers Hayley mashed at buttons on the cylinder's keypad, and as the protective shields unfolded elegantly and she was swathed in a rush of cool air, she collapsed sobbing against the cold glass.
Against the empty chamber marked with her own name.
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