Mary of the house of Rose stumbled a little as she emerged from the shadows of the Rochester ruins. Her badly damaged armor made a clanking sound as the dented plates rubbed against one another.
She stopped to lean against one of the decrepit stone walls and catch her breath. The bright, sunny day that enveloped the remnants of the ancient castle was in stark contrast to the dark and bloody hell she had just come from.
A sharp pain from her side caused her to wince. A wound from her battle with the dark ones. The horrors she had just experienced were sure to haunt her thoughts for the foreseeable future.
The sound of approaching horses convinced her to wipe the tears from her eyes and stand up as straight as she was able.
Five men in similar armor to her own brought their mounts to a stop in front of her. The lead knight dismounted and approached.
"Mary of the Rose, is it done?" he asked.
She nodded and tried to look unharmed. "It is, my lord Draxxus."
The older man looked her up and down. "The battle appears to have taken a toll. How do you fair?"
Mary took a deep breath to reply. The wound in her side betrayed her however, and she doubled over in pain.
"She is wounded," Lord Draxxus murmured. He turned to the other knights. "You men, see to her. Bring her horse."
A white horse with a red and gold saddle was found and brought out of the dense forest surrounding them. Several of the knights helped their female counterpart mount her steed. She quietly thanked them – a gesture befitting the first female knight of Farwest kingdom.
The road was still soft from the morning's light rainfall. The thick woodland that surrounded them would guard against the sunlight and keep the ground soft for a long while. The long trip home would be slow.
One of the younger knights, closer to Mary's age, studied her as he rode alongside.
"Did you really defeat her?" he asked.
Mary managed a smile and nodded.
"How is it that you were able to, while all of the other of our fellows failed and were lost?" he pressed.
She thought to herself for a moment. The only reason King Reinhold had relented and made her a member of the house of knights was for that very reason. Every man that had gone up against the Dark Queen of the ruins had been overcome. Rumors of how they were unable to even look upon her without knowing defeat had circulated far and wide and seeded the idea of a female warrior being needed.
Mary looked upon her companion with an heir of pride. "It is because I am not a man. I am not prone to the same base appetites and lusts."
A cloud came over the other knight's face. "So it is true then? Her beauty was too much for a man to bare? And that was their downfall?" He faced away from her, no longer able to hold his head high as befitting his station.
Mary smiled to herself. For once, she felt as though she was the envy of those around her. She remembered how the men had scoffed and spat upon the ground when she had been selected for the task. How she endured harsh words and unwanted advances during training. How she had put a stop to the idea that she belonged in a kitchen when she broke a broomstick over the man's head that suggested it.
She had earned the nickname 'Bloody Mary' during that time. She pretended to loath it, but secretly, she was proud to have made her mark on the world of men.
She turned to the knight beside her again. "What was your name, good sir knight?"
Still unable to fully look at her, he replied, "Albert. My name is Albert, Lady Mary."
"You knew some of the knights that were lost to the dark queen?"
He nodded. "Three were dear to me. We trained together as brothers."
They rode together in silence for several minutes.
"Thank you," Albert said quietly. "Thank you for giving them vengeance upon their destroyer."
Mary held the wound in her side and give him a smile. She remembered stepping over the armored corpses of fallen knights as she ventured deeper and deeper into the caverns beneath the once mighty structure. Brave men sent on a fool's errand. Her sword had known many victories in the darkness. Monstrous beings seeking her doom had stepped from the shadows all around her. One by one they had fallen to the gleaming weapon sheathed at her side.
"How was it done?" Albert pressed a little further. "How did you end her?"
Again, Mary's mind flashed back to the darkness. She remembered how she cut down wave after wave of minions until finally, the Dark Queen herself had made an appearance. Even in the darkness, her flawless pale skin and perfect smile had had an effect on her. She understood the distraction that a woman of that nature would have been to a man.
"Why did you not take her head as trophy?" he asked again.
Mary griped her side a little tighter. "I was wounded as we fought. She was armored and brandished a sword as I did. Our battle felt as though we passed through an eternity. Our contest came to a stalemate and I fell unconscious with fatigue. When I awoke, I found my sword pierced through the back armor of my foe. How I accomplished this, I cannot tell."
Albert took her words in with a frown. "But without trophy, how will we demonstrate your victory to the king?"
"He will accept my assurance as a member of the house of knights," she answered in a firm tone.
He relented and nodded again. "As you say, Lady Mary."
The company of knights were silent as they continued their slow trek through the dense forest. Finally, Lord Draxxus held up one of his armored gauntlets to signal a stop. "The Sun sets, lads. We will make camp here. Darrius, Jackson… find us a doe or the like for supper. The rest of you, make ready with shelter.
Mary slid off of her horse with a noticeable wince.
Darrius and Jackson stopped threading their bows for a moment and considered coming to her aid. It is Lord Draxxus, however, that placed a hand on her shoulder. "Come, Lady Mary," he said softly, "let me tend to your wound."
He glanced around at the other knights who were busy chopping tree branches to make a shelter before he led her by the hand into a darkened patch of forest.
A feeling of uneasiness came over Mary as the lead knight assisted her from behind.
"I am so honored to have a woman in my knights company," he said. Something about the way he said it made her skin crawl, however. "You are very fair to look upon," he continued, his hands ran over her chest piece before they began pulling at the leather straps holding the metal plating in place.
"Perhaps I do not require any aid in this task, good Lord Draxxus. I am well enough to remove my own armor," she said and stepped away from him.
"Non-sense," he said and spun her around to face him. "I am always happy to assist and serve those who are in my charge." He expertly loosed the leather straps under Mary's arms and her chest guard fell between them.
"You are very beautiful…" he whispered as his eyes gazed upon the light underclothing covering her body, which left little to the imagination.
Forgetting her wound, she crossed her arms in front of her and turned from him. "This is inappropriate," she hissed.
The smile on Lord Draxxus' face faded as he looks her up and down. He grabbed her by the arm and spun her around again. "What fantasy is this that you engaged in battle?" he demanded. "There is not a mark on you!"
Mary looked down at her wounded side only to discover that no wound was visible. Bending over, she retrieved her chest piece. "But I was in battle, my lord. See how my armor bears witness to that fact."
Lord Draxxus examined the crumpled metal plates. They certainly looked as though they had been struck many times by a melee weapon of some sort.
Another sharp pain caused Mary to grip her side. "The pain is real. Perhaps the wound is internal?" she offered.
He spat on the ground. "There would be bruising at the very least. Leave it to a woman to complain of phantom pains!"
Before Mary could protest the accusation, one of the other knights entered the thicket. "Camp is made ready, my lord. Lord Jackson returns with a pair of rabbits for supper."
"Good," Lord Draxxus declared with a scowl. "Lady Mary will cook for us."
A feeling of disgrace wrapped itself around her while she stirred a large pot hung over the fire. Her armor confiscated, she was forced to cook in her underclothes. She felt their judgements as they watched her from the shelters. She heard their whispers of doubt regarding her victory over the Dark Queen.
She was made to chop branches for her own shelter as the men ate their fill. She shivered as she scraped the bottom of the caldron looking for any scraps the men might have left her. A light drizzle fell from the sky as the campfire was doused. Darkness now prevailed.
She continued to shiver as she pushed herself into her tiny lean-to. Feelings of shame continued to penetrate her mind. Why did she not show any signs of battle? She had fought hard and won victory. Her armor attested to that. Why would none of the men believed her now?
Soft footsteps approached her shelter and she readied herself for an unwanted advance.
"Lady Mary?" a voice whispered. "It is I, Albert. Are you well enough? Could I share your company this evening?"
Mary paused. Lord Albert had been the only one to not join in the jeering that she had just endured, and she was still shivering with cold. Perhaps his company could make the night bearable.
"Do you mean to impregnate me, Lord Albert?" she whispered back.
"Not without a contract of marriage. I am an honorable man," came his reply. "You have my word."
She let out a little sigh. An honorable man's company did sound good. "Very well, Lord Albert. Please enter and warm my shelter with your kindness."
A few moments later, his damp body lay beside her. True to his word, he did not attempt to take her virtue.
"I believe all the things you told me earlier," he whispered in the darkness. "Tell me why you do not bear any signs of battle and I will believe you still."
Mary pulled her sleeping role tighter around her shoulders. "I cannot say. Even the pain in my side has subsided. I swear to you, I have not misrepresented the situation. I did slay the dark ones and their queen is dead. I saw her armored form lying on her face with my sword in her back."
"I believe you, my lady," came his reply.
She reached over and began gently stroking his hair. He sounded so tired. "Thank you. Sleep now, good sir knight," she whispered.
Sleep visited her shortly thereafter, but there was no peace to be found. Violent images of the creatures of the night assaulted her. Her sword flashed in the darkness. Screams filled the air. Again and again the images came. Again and again she struck them down. Finally, the Dark Queen once again appeared. Mary thrust her sword into the other woman's bosom, but the evil magistrate only laughed. Over and over she tore at the other woman's flesh, but to no avail. Finally the Dark Queen caught her sword and wrenched it from Mary's hand. Mary watched as the other woman flung into the darkness. With her other hand, the Dark Queen gripped her by the throat and pulled her in close. She felt the other woman's hot breath on her cheek as she whispered something in her ear.
Mary awoke with a start and frightened the man beside her.
"Lady Mary, are you alright?" Lord Albert asked with concerned look on his face.
Morning light penetrated the makeshift shelter as she glanced all around her. "I am, thank you, Lord Albert. It was concerning dream, nothing more."
He lay his head back on the role of cloth he used as a pillow and smiled. "Then good morning to you, my Lady."
She managed to return the smile. He had been a gentleman, true to his promise. "And good morning to you, good sir knight. Will you take your leave so that I might have some privacy to make ready for the day?"
She continued to smile as she watched him pull himself out of the shelter. A moment later however, the lovely morning would be ruined.
"Lady Mary!" Albert shouted. "We are cursed! We are cursed!"
Her heart began to pound in her chest as Albert helped her out of the shelter. A feeling of terror gripped her mind as she looked upon the gory scene around them.
The other four knights lay naked and bloodied around the campfire – their throats having been torn out.
Mary collapsed in Albert's arms. "Oh no! No! It's too horrible! I can't look upon this! It's too horrible!"
He pressed her face to his chest and gently stroked her hair. She felt his heart pounding. He was terrified. She hoped he would hold her a little longer regardless.
The day wore on as the surviving pair went about the grizzly task of burying the dead.
The sun was low on the horizon as Alberta placed the final rock on the last grave mound. Mary finished stirring another pot of rabbit stew as he crumpled to the ground beside her.
"It is finished," he panted.
She reached over and ran her fingers through his hair again. "You honored them with this burial."
He took her hand in his own and gently squeezed. "I greatly fear that whatever came for them last night will come for us on this night. I propose we ride for Farwest castle as soon as we are finished supper."
Mary furrowed her brow a little. Apparently he hadn't noticed yet.
"On what mount, good sir knight?" she asked.
Albert looked around and new panic entered his eyes. "The horses! They're gone as well? Gods be with us!"
Mary nodded and squeezed his hand back. "We will walk. You will keep me safe, won't you Lord Albert?"
The confidence expressed in him shook him out of his panic and he took a deep breath. "On my honor as a member of the house of knights, I will keep you safe."
She smiled at him. "I knew you would. Now eat and be well."
The stew was perfect. Mary had actually tried to make this batch taste good, unlike the meal she had been forced to prepare the day before.
With supper finished and the sun setting, Albert helped Mary to her feet. "We will leave our armor here. Gather only what you can carry."
A few minutes later, the lone survivors walked hand-in-hand into the darkness of the forest. Albert led with a torch, while Mary came behind and brandished a dagger.
"Do you know the way in the darkness?" she whispered.
"I do. I spent time in these woods as a boy," he whispered back.
He paused, then looked back at his lovely companion. "Why do you think we were spared?"
Mary clutched his hand a little tighter. "Perhaps we could speak of this when we're in the safety of Farwest castle?"
Albert studied her for a moment, before continuing forward. "Of course."
Torchlight illuminated the dense foliage all round them, but Mary couldn't shake a feeling of dread.
"My Lord, Albert, do you feel as though we are being watched from the shadows?" she asked in a low tone.
"I cannot tell," he replied.
Mary's eyes darted from one shadow to the next. Was it her imagination, or had she seen movement all around them?
"I feel as though we are surrounded!" she screeched. Her voice had betrayed her feelings and for a moment she felt as though she were a damsel in distress. A poor representation for a member of the house of knights to be sure.
"Be of good cheer, Lady Mary," Albert replied, his voice sounding stern and in control. "We will yet penetrate this darkness and find victory."
Something about his confidence made her heart skip a beat. She remembered his kindness and honor from the previous night. Perhaps some small measure of joy could come from this whole hellish experience.
The sound of heavy footsteps in the undergrowth all around them suddenly brought her back into sharp focus.
Albert turned to her, the look of confidence now replaced with fear. "We run now!"
He tossed the torch into the grass beside them and pulled her into the darkness. Screeches and hisses filled the air behind them as boots and boney feet began stomping out the small resulting bush fire.
"We run! We run!" Albert kept repeating as he pulled Mary further and further into the forest. Dim moonlight lit the way in front of them as the pair desperately dodged and lept over the obstacles in their path.
Albert suddenly pulled her into a small alcove behind a mass of tangled briar bushes. He placed a hand over her mouth as the sound of boots and claws thumped past them in the dark.
"I would hide here as a child to escape my minders," he whispered. "We'll be alright now."
She clung to him and he felt her tremble a little. Again, he began to gently stroke her hair.
"We'll be alright now," he repeated.
They sank into the small alcove together. Despite the cold and the darkness all around them, Mary felt safe in his arms.
She traced his cheek with her nose until she found his lips. She sealed her mouth to his and thanked him for taking such good care of her. Their limbs entangled as they held each other close. A stillness descended on the area and soon sleep overtook them.
Violent images of the Dark Queen filled Mary's mind once more. As before, they battled in her dream. Again, she thrust her sword into the other woman's bosom, but to no avail. To her surprise, the queen also thrust her sword into Mary's bosom, but like her own attack, it had no effect.
Over and over they attacked one another. Chopping. Striking. Clawing. Biting. But neither woman could affect the other in any way.
The Dark Queen seemed amused by this and laughed each time her flesh was pierced by Mary's blade. Mary decided to mask her frustration by laughing back when it was her flesh being lacerated.
Finally the evil monarch grabbed Mary by the face and pulled her in close. "Long have I waited for one that was worthy. You'll do nicely, my dear."
With that, the queen laughed again and turned her back to her foe. Mary took the opening and thrust her sword into the other woman's back armor. She watched as the queen fell on her face.
Mary awoke with a start. Catching her breath, she looked all around her, but Albert was nowhere to be seen.
Wiping the sleep from her eyes, she stood. The morning sun had already begun blazing away the dew on the leaves around her.
"My Lord, Albert? Are you there? Where are you?" she called out.
She stumbled a little as she pressed through the briar bush. "Lord Albert? Good morning. Are you wel—"
She trailed off as a look of horror plastered itself across her face.
Albert hovered dead in the air above her, his four limbs being tied to the trees on either side of him. His dead, crusty eyes looked down on the female form that crumbled to the dust in front of him.
"No! NOOOOO!" Mary screamed. She pounded the earth with her fists several times. The resulting pain did nothing to calm the hurricane of pain and panic bursting through her mind.
Rivers of tears ran down her cheeks and she screamed until her voice gave out.
Finally gathering herself to the point that she could stand again, she looked upon the brave Lord Albert one last time, then hurried into the forest toward Farwest castle.
Tears continued to flow for the next few hours until she finally emerged from the woodland canopy. Several peasants from a nearby settlement quickly hurried to her aid. They took the dirty, dehydrated female knight into their home and tended to her.
Wrapped in a blanket, the eldest son took her by wagon to Farwest castle. She thanked him generously and promised that his family would be rewarded for their kindness.
Despite her trauma, she was able to wash herself and stand before King Reinhold a few hours later. He listened as she told the horrifying tale of her battle with the dark ones, her victory over the Dark Queen, and how five of the kingdom's knights had mysteriously died.
To her dismay, the king's advisors spoke against her and demanded proof of her tale. She replied that the account given was done so as a member of the house of knights, and that that should be enough.
Many disparaging remarks about how a woman should never have been allowed to join the house of knights were given. Despite her protests, she was ordered under house arrest and locked in the north tower until such time that a decision about the situation could be made.
Now no longer able to contain her emotions, Mary sunk to her knees in the darkness of her stone prison. For hours she cried and listened to the sounds of her wailing echo all around the chamber. The night guard issued a complaint that the noise could be heard all the way out on the battlements, but they were denied any solace.
Finally spent from the trauma of her emotional release, Mary crawled onto the simple bed in the corner of the room and fell sleep.
A familiar female voice awoke her shortly thereafter.
"Mary of the Rose. You are chosen."
Mary sat up and looked about the small circular room. "Who speaks? Show yourself!"
"Rise, my champion. Claim the mantel which is now yours."
Mary's heart began to pound as she slipped from her covers and began to search for the unseen speaker. "I commanded you to show yourself, coward!" she hissed.
"Come closer," the female voice whispered.
A large mirror hung on the far wall. Mary felt an overwhelming urge to approach it.
"Closer," the voice whispered again.
Mary's eyes grew wide as she approached the female form shown in the silvery reflective surface. The woman staring back at her wasn't her reflection – it was the Dark Queen in all her flawless beauty.
"This… this can't be," Mary whimpered as she continued to approach.
"Oh, but it is, my love," the Dark Queen purred as she reached through the glass and cupped the other woman's cheek in her hand. "You have performed your task very well. You've made your queen very happy."
Tears began to stream down Mary's face once again as her vision began to blur a little. Her heart felt as though it would burst through her chest and she could feel it pounding in her ears.
"You're not my queen…" she hissed at the other woman and bared her teeth. She reached into the mirror and pulled the Dark Queen into the room by her neck.
The other woman bared her own teeth and once again the ladies found themselves tearing into each other. This time without armor, their nails pierce each other's skin with ease, and unlike their previous encounters, neither woman instantly healed.
They claw and bite one another as two feral animals locked in a duel to the death. The floor becomes slick with blood as first one combatant, then the other gained the advantage.
Finally, Mary managed to bite into the Dark Queen's neck. Exerting herself, the flesh between her teeth gave way and the other woman went limp in her arms. With an animalistic howl, she stood in victory over her foe.
All at once, she was alone in the room again – no signs of the bloody battle evident anywhere.
Approaching the mirror again, she noticed a flap of lose skin hanging at her side. Tugging at it, the thin layer of skin began to pull away, revealing flawless, pale flesh beneath. She dug her nails into the skin on her arm and proceeded to shred the outer layer. Then on her legs and chest.
Mary smiled at her reflection as she pulled the old skin from her face, revealing a pale, flawless beauty. She admired her body reflected in the moonlight.
A crow quietly flapped into the room from the barred window above. It studied the pale woman and cocked its head to the side.
Mary reached for the bird, and it perched on her finger. She gently kissed its feathered head and whispered, "The Dark Queen has risen, and this kingdom will be mine. Tell our allies that we attack tonight. It's time we had a new home."