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Dagmar was well aware it was strange for a woman to be responsible for the dogs that a warlord like her father would use during battle, but he’d been unable to ignore the way she had with canines. But most especially, he couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d trained every battle dog within his province to respond only to her voice, her command. She’d only been a month shy of her tenth birthday when she’d plotted, planned, and executed her first victory. She clearly remembered standing in front of her father, every vicious, uncontrollable battle dog standing in front, beside, or behind her at attention and waiting for orders. Squinting up at her father, for even then her long-distance sight had been failing, Dagmar softly explained, “I am sorry your trainer lost his arm, Father. Perhaps you need someone who can handle these animals a bit better, with kindness rather than brutality.”

“You’re just a girl,” he’d snarled back, gesturing at her with that trainer’s torn and blood-drenched arm. “What do you know of war and battle?”

“I know nothing,” she very nearly whispered, her eyes downcast. “But I do know dogs.”

“Show me then. Show me what you know.”

Lifting her gaze to meet her father’s, she’d pointed at one dog, then motioned to one of the guards. Only one of the eighteen dogs charged over and tore into the guard that had once referred to her as “that ugly girl.”

Her father watched the dog do what he’d been trained to do, not at all concerned with the guard screaming for help.

“Very good,” he’d finally said, but she’d known the test wasn’t over.

“Thank you.”

“Now call him back.”

They both knew this to be the true challenge because the Reinholdt battle dogs could often be uncontrollable once the bloodlust got them. Many of them were often put down by their own handlers at the end of battle.

So, still keeping her father’s gaze, Dagmar again raised her fingers, gave a short whistle, and motioned with her hand. The dog had dropped his screaming, crying, and bleeding prey immediately, trotting back to her side and sitting in the spot he’d left. His tongue hanging out, blood on his muzzle, he’d stared at Dagmar, waiting for her next command.

At the time, her father had only grunted, walking off with the trainer’s arm still in tow as it left a bloody trail behind him. Yet by the time her sixteenth winter passed, Dagmar had complete control of the kennels and any dog—working or pet—on her father’s lands.

Stopping abruptly when Canute did, Dagmar waited until a chalice flew past her head and into the wall beside her. Another fight between one of her brothers and his wife.

Not even bothering to look, she stepped over the rolling and dented chalice on the floor and headed to the Main Hall. Her father sat at the main dining table; several of her brothers sat near or across from him as did their wives, but the chair next to him was vacant because it was Dagmar’s chair. Something she knew annoyed her sister-in-law Kikka, who sat glaring at her from across the table.

As she walked in and took her seat, her father shoveled food into his mouth as if afraid the thick porridge would try and make a run for it. As always, she ignored the sight of her father feeding.

In her world, there were worse things than bad table manners.

“Father.”

Her father grunted. He’d never been a talkative man, but he especially had little to say to his only daughter. After twelve sturdy sons from three different wives—two had run away and Dagmar’s mother had passed away during childbirth—he never expected a daughter. And he never expected a daughter like her. When drunk, he often bemoaned the fact that she hadn’t been born a man. He could do more with her if she was useful, rather than something he simply had to protect.

It should hurt her that after all this time her father still didn’t recognize what she did for his fiefdom. How much she contributed, including the defenses she’d designed, the dogs she’d trained to save the lives of his men during battle, or the important truces she’d help to arrange. But why waste time being hurt? It wouldn’t change anything and would only take precious time out of her day.

Dagmar reached for a loaf of bread and tore it apart. “The new batch of puppies looks very promising, Father. Very strong. Powerful.” She tore the half of bread in her hands once more and gave Canute a portion.

Her father grunted again, but instead of waiting for an answer she didn’t expect, Dagmar dug into the hot porridge one of the servants placed before her. Their mornings together, when he wasn’t off defending his lands, were often like this. In fact, she’d become so very used to the silence or occasional grunt that when her father suddenly did speak to her, Dagmar nearly choked on her food.

“Pardon?” she said, once she’d swallowed.

“I said what message did you send out a few days ago with my seal on it?”

Dammit. “You allow me to use your seal and sign your name to almost all correspondence. So you’ll have to be more specific, Fa—”

“Cut to it,” he snarled.

So she would. “I sent a message to Annwyl of the Dark Plains.”

He stared at her for so long, she knew he had no idea who she meant. “All right.”

Without another word, he stood and picked up his favorite battle ax. Mornings were for battle training in the Northlands, when the two suns were in the sky but the air was still at its coldest. As her father walked out of the Main Hall, Kikka put down her spoon and loudly asked, “Isn’t Annwyl of Dark Plains also called the Mad Bitch of Garbhán Isle?”

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