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What a Dragon Should Know
By G.A. AIKEN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 G.A. Aiken
All rights reserved.
It wasn't the first time he'd run for his life. And it most likely would not be the last. In the past few decades, though, he'd mostly run from angry fathers who'd found him where they felt he should not be. Or he'd run from town guards — sent by angry fathers who'd found him where they felt he should not be.
But this day, Gwenvael ran from his own kin. Not that this was in any way new to him either, but it had been a while since he'd been forced to.
Also true was that he should have kept his mouth shut. Yet it had been a legitimate question. As always, though, his kin blew everything out of proportion and took out their misplaced rage on him.
Why did they just not admit they were jealous? For he was Gwenvael the Handsome. Third-born son and fourth-born offspring of the Dragon Queen, Former Captain of the Dragon Queen's Northern Armies, and most-loved male throughout the Dark Plain regions, Gwenvael was always magnificent, magnanimous, and loving.
And his kin hated him because of that.
Besides, who knew that a queen would be so sensitive? Even a human one.
All he did was ask a simple question — "Are you supposed to be that large at only seven months with child?" A simple question that led to tears, unattractive snorting noises, and thrown weaponry. It seemed the human queen may have lost her ability to run quickly, but her throwing arm was still true. Nearly took my damn ear off.
Now the queen's consort — also known as Gwenvael's eldest brother and future Dragon King of the Southlands, Fearghus — felt the need to chase him down like a rabbit.
That's why Gwenvael ran. Because if Fearghus the Destroyer destroyed Gwenvael's beautiful face, the big bastard would never face retribution for it. Because, as always, he'd be forgiven his violent transgressions while Gwenvael was never forgiven his more sensual ones.
Found naked with a few of his grandfather's kitchen maids? His father's claw right to the back of the head. Suggest that when his mother was in human form she may want to stay away from things that brought out the largeness of her ass? His father's claw right to the back of the head. Set up a small eightieth birthday party for his youngest brother Éibhear that involved a few of the local brothel girls? His mother's claw right to the back of the head.
Fearghus, however, had hacked off the tip of Gwenvael's poor tail more than a century ago and still he had not been punished. While the spiked tip most dragons used as a weapon floated in a river somewhere, Gwenvael dragged around a stump.
Thankfully, he'd found other uses for his tragically lame, disfigured tail. Uses most females appreciated quite a lot.
Gwenvael dashed around a corner, heading toward the stables and out the back entrance. It was then he saw sweet Izzy, daughter of the delicious Talaith and Gwenvael's idiot brother Briec.
Izzy was not Gwenvael's niece by blood, her true father a Southland human who'd died many years ago in battle before Talaith and Briec had ever met or mated. But Izzy was still family and he adored her as she adored him. Or, at least that was what he thought until she slammed into him as he charged by, sending Gwenvael flying into one of the stable doors. He kept forgetting exactly how strong his human niece was. Her mother may be a small dainty witch trained to kill on command, but Izzy was a bit of a bruiser — and enjoyed that about herself immensely.
Izzy stood over him and yelled out, "Got him!"
"Iseabail!" he cried, devastated. "My love! My adoring niece! How could you?"
"You shouldn't have hurt her feelings! It was mean." She shook her finger at him. "Don't be mean!"
Izzy. Sweet, beautiful, but eternally strange Izzy. Her loyalty to the queen was never to be questioned. Even now she trained with the troops daily, hoping to be sent off to war so she could prove her loyalty with blood. Why anyone felt the need to do that was beyond Gwenvael. He didn't like to bleed or be harmed in any way. He liked all his bits and pieces exactly where they were and in the correct working order. As he was forced to tell his father more than once, "I said I'd fight for my mother's throne. I never said I'd die for it." Then he'd add, simply to annoy the old bastard into one of his frothy temper tantrums, "Don't you think I'm too pretty to die?"
"I thought you loved me!" Gwenvael yelled at Izzy.
"Not when you're mean!" Her goodness was so sincere that the thought of fireballing her from his existence for this betrayal only went through his mind once ... maybe twice.
Big, abusive hands grabbed Gwenvael by the hair and proceeded to drag him away from the stables.
"Let me go, you big bastard!"
"You're going back in there, you son of a bitch," Fearghus growled out. "You're going back in there and you're going to apologize if it's the last thing you ever do."
"I have nothing to apologize for."
To prove he disagreed on that point, Fearghus stopped long enough so that he could stomp his big foot against Gwenvael's stomach.
"You made her cry. No one makes her cry."
They were going through the Great Hall of the Garbhán Isle castle now. At one time this had been a place of horror, the seat of power for Lorcan the Butcher. Now it belonged to the woman who was Lorcan's bastard sister and the one who'd taken his head.
"I can walk on my own," he told Fearghus when he realized the whiny lizard had no intention of stopping any time soon. And although Gwenvael could shift to his natural — and exquisite — dragon form in his bid to get away, he'd only unnecessarily harm the humans who lived here. Something he was loath to do. He liked humans. ... Well, he liked female humans. The males he could do with or without.
"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.
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.
"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.
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."
Excerpted from What a Dragon Should Know by G.A. AIKEN. Copyright © 2009 G.A. Aiken. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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