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“I’m not chasing you anymore,” Fearghus said while dragging Gwenvael up those hard stone stairs. When Gwenvael began to kick and try to yank himself away from Fearghus’s grasp there was second-oldest Briec grabbing his legs and assisting Fearghus.

“You betraying bastard!”

“What are we doing with him?” Briec asked eagerly. “Are we throwing him out a window? Let’s throw him out a window! Or off the roof!”

“We’re going to take him to Annwyl.”

“Won’t our mother notice if he no longer has his head?”

“She’ll notice,” Fearghus answered, ignoring Gwenvael’s struggles. “The question becomes ‘will she care?’ ”

Now in front of the queen’s bedchamber, Fearghus kicked the door open and, together with Briec, tossed poor Gwenvael into the room. The door slammed shut, and Gwenvael realized that his brothers had left him to the tender mercies of the Queen of Dark Plains. Also referred to as the Blood Queen of Dark Plains, the Taker of Heads, the Mad Bitch of Garbhán Isle, and the much pithier Annwyl the Bloody. For some reason the human queen was known to have a wee bit of a temper.

Steeling himself, Gwenvael looked up at fair Queen Annwyl and said, “My lovely and sweet Annwyl. My soul aches for you. My heart pines for you. Tell me you’ll forgive me for my hasty, foolish words and that our love will never diminish.”

She stared at him a long moment and then, to Gwenvael’s ultimate horror, burst into more tears.

He knew then he’d never forgive his brothers for this.

They called her The Beast of Reinholdt. Or The Beast, for short.

She didn’t appreciate it, especially since her name was actually Dagmar, but she tolerated it. In her world there were worse things than being given a name she didn’t think she deserved.

All right … perhaps she deserved the name a little.

Closing her book, Dagmar sighed. She knew she couldn’t spend all day in her room hiding, no matter how much she wanted to. She knew she had to face her father and tell him what she’d done. The fact that she’d done it for the good of her father’s territory and his people would mean little to The Reinholdt, the mightiest warlord in the Northlands. But she’d learned to ignore her father’s “moments,” as she liked to call them, early on in life if the end result meant getting what she wanted.

Placing the book aside, she stood and donned one of her grey wool dresses. She tugged it into place and then wrapped a plain leather girdle around her hips. She slid the small dagger she used for menial cutting into the girdle and then tied a grey kerchief around her head, her long braid reaching down her back.

Before giving herself a cursory glance in the full-length mirror beside her bed, Dagmar carefully placed her spectacles on her nose. She didn’t need them to read, but she needed them for everything else. All those years ago, it had been the monk, dear Brother Ragnar, who gave Dagmar her first pair of spectacles when he noticed how often she squinted any time she looked more than a few inches past her nose. He made the pair himself and she’d been wearing them ever since.

One quick look in the mirror proved nothing truly horrible with her ensemble, so she stepped from her room and allowed her dog to race out in front of her. Dagmar locked her door and double-checked to make sure it was securely locked, before proceeding down the stone halls of her father’s fortress. She’d been born here and had never gone farther than into the closest town. She knew she would die behind these walls one day, unless she could convince her father to give her a small house in the surrounding woods outside the gates. Tragically, she’d have to wait at least another ten years before she was firmly in the “spinster” category.

In the Northlands, females didn’t stray far from their kinsmen until they were handed off to their husbands. After three failed attempts at marriage, she doubted any man foolish enough would come along willing to risk his neck among the Reinholdt Clan just to get into her bed. Which, when she was honest with herself—and when wasn’t she?—she found very much a relief.

Some things came naturally to those of her sex. Being accommodating, loving, charming, and endearing—she knew many women who naturally possessed these gifts. Dagmar, however, possessed none of these traits—although she could pretend she had them for short periods of time. If pretending got her what she wanted, then why not?

Because Dagmar knew there were worse things in this world than pretending to be a caring, demure woman. For instance, actually being a caring, demure woman. The Northlands were a rough, hard land and not for the meek of heart or weak of spirit. To actually care, or to actually be as weak as the Northmen expected their women to be was an excellent way to die young.

Dagmar’s intention was to live to be a hundred. At least.

Intently studying the papers in her hands allowed Dagmar to ignore everything that went on around her. The violent fights, the drunken kinsmen littering the floor, the writhing bodies in dark shadows.

Another early morning in the Reinholdt Fortress.

She’d taught herself a long time ago to simply block out all of the extraneous activity that did nothing but distract her from what was important.

An easy enough skill with her dog, Canute, walking boldly beside her, keeping watch and protecting her. She’d raised him from birth and now he was her loyal companion. He was one of the many battle dogs she’d bred and trained for her father since she was nine winters old, but Canute was hers and no other’s. For the last three years, he’d protected her like Canute’s father had protected her. Viciously. So viciously, no one else could get near her. She adored it.

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