The Pagan's Prize, page 1
“Miriam Minger is a master storyteller who illustrates the full gamut of emotions felt by her characters. Emotions so strong that you are pulled into the pages and into their lives.” – Inside Romance
“Another fine example of Ms. Minger’s amazing talent. I thoroughly enjoyed it!” – New York Times bestselling author Johanna Lindsey
THE PAGAN’S PRIZE
Copyright © 1993 by Miriam Minger. All rights reserved. With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the author.
Originally published by Jove Books, January 1993
Cover Copyright © 2010 by Hot Damn Designs
This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Other Electronic Books by Miriam Minger
Regency Era Romances:
Secrets of Midnight
My Runaway Heart
A Hint of Rapture
Table of Contents
Author's Note: In the eleventh century, the country known today as Russia was called "Rus" by its inhabitants, and so they referred to themselves. The Rus called the Norsemen who came as mercenaries and traders to their land "Varangians," meaning "pledge men," for these fierce warriors obeyed an inviolable oath to defend their sworn leader to the death. The word "viking," a name given to the Norsemen in later centuries, described a favorite activity of these bold and fearsome Varangians . . . "adventuring in search of wealth."
For now brother said to brother: "This is mine, and that is mine also," and the princes began to say of little things, "Lo! this is a great matter," and to forge discord against themselves.
"The Lay of the Host of Igor"
(S. Cross's Translation)
Novgorod, Rus Land,
April, A.D. 1024
"No, you cannot go! You stay with Semirah!"
Rurik Sigurdson smiled lazily at the pouting, sable-haired woman straddling his hips, her wet warmth sheathing that part of him that only moments before had throbbed in thunderous climax.
Of his six concubines, he favored this tempestuous Khazarian slave with her long white limbs, lilac-stained nipples, and flashing agate eyes. But he would never allow her to know his mind, or permit his attraction for her to grow beyond lust. He had learned long ago to put no faith in women, seeking only the carnal pleasure they could provide him.
"You have no say in the matter," he said huskily, caressing Semirah's slender thighs. Her pale skin, a startling contrast to his deeply bronzed hue, was as soft as swan's down beneath his large, callused hands. "I leave at dawn."
The woman's chin jutted, her expression growing determined in the glow of an oil lamp placed near the richly carved bed. She touched her fingers to her breast as she leaned over him, her silky hair enveloping them like a gossamer ebony cloud. She laid her hand over his heart. "I go with you."
Chuckling at the absurdity of her statement, Rurik drew her against his chest and rolled with her to one side, her lithe, coltish body molded to his powerful frame.
"Greedy wench." He nuzzled her throat, her spicy citrus scent of bergamot and cedar exciting his senses. "Isn't it enough that I summoned you to share this last night with me rather than one of the others?"
"Those women are cows," came her petulant reply. "How could you not choose Semirah?" Draping a smooth leg over his thigh, she softened her voice, almost purring. "Take me with you, Lord Rurik. I want to please you, yet how can I if you go so far away?"
"Enough," Rurik said firmly, his patience ended. He raised his head to look into her face. As his newest concubine, this exotic desert woman with her thick, honeyed accent had apparently not yet discerned what his other women already knew and accepted. He treated his concubines equally, granting none special favors. "Fetch us more wine, Semirah, and plague me no more with your demands. You will remain here like the others and wait patiently for my return."
Despite the disappointment shining in her eyes, the slave woman said no more. Extricating herself from his embrace, she rose with athletic ease from the bed and sauntered across the room, her body gleaming white as alabaster, her trim bottom swaying with provocative exaggeration as if she wanted to emphasize what he would soon be missing.
By Thor, she was impertinent. Rurik smiled and felt his good humor return. Yet it was tempered by the memory of his meeting that morning with Grand Prince Yaroslav, his sworn lord, at the kreml, the citadel overlooking the city of Novgorod. Without the distraction of a warm, willing woman in his arms, his thoughts turned easily to the gravity of the times and the secretive mission to which he had been entrusted.
"Not only has my brother Mstislav laid claim to my throne and invaded my realm with his warriors," Yaroslav had blustered, the short, barrel-chested ruler pacing restlessly in front of Rurik, "he has now conquered Chernigov, one of my most prosperous trading cities, and established there what he calls his temporary throne! His arrogance knows no bounds! Does he truly believe that he can defeat me, the grand prince of all Rus Land?"
"Perhaps so," Rurik had commented dryly. "It is rumored that Mstislav boasts of victory before the winter brings ice again to the rivers."
"Never! He was nothing but a boy and a weakling when our father Vladimir sent him as viceroy to Tmutorokan. I always thought that southern city founded upon stinking swampland a fitting place for him to rule!"
"A weakling no longer, my prince, but a bold and calculating warrior who lusts for more than a swamp. While you fought your brother Sviatopolk for the Rus throne after your father's death, Mstislav made no move but harbored his forces during those four long years of battle."
"Yes, the coward! And while Sviatopolk, may his putrid corpse writhe in hell, murdered three of our brothers, Mstislav hid behind his palace walls among his women—"
"Shrewdly waiting," Rurik interrupted, knowing that in his position of friend and trusted adviser, Yaroslav would not take offense. "He planned his strategy during these last five years of peace since your victory to strike against you now.
"And so he has." Yaroslav faced Rurik, who towered almost a foot above him. "You must go to Chernigov under a merchant's guise and discover the strength of Mstislav's forces. I've already sent a message to my northern allies, your King Olaf of Norway and to my wife's father, the king of Sweden, asking them to send more Va
"I will leave at first light tomorrow," Rurik assured him, eager to serve again the Rus prince to whom he had sworn a sacred oath of allegiance eight years ago.
"Excellent. My steward will see that you have everything you need." The energetic man resumed his agitated pacing. "What goods will you sell, Rurik?"
"Furs," he replied. "The perfect ruse. Easy to transport both by river and on land. Anything else would only hinder my pace. I want to inspect the entire region and return to Novgorod by June."
"Such a journey will take at least that long." The grand prince stopped to stare at Rurik thoughtfully. "I chose you because you know a merchant's life well. I am only grateful you returned in time from your latest trading ventures to fight for my cause."
As if this reminded him of his brother's foul ambitions, Yaroslav cursed vehemently. "Go now, Rurik Sigurdson, and make your preparations. And take a few of your men with you as fellow merchants. I will sleep better knowing you travel with friends to guard your back. I do not want to lose the most famed warrior in my senior druzhina to those vermin dung-eaters. May Christ protect you!"
"And Odin," Rurik said grimly to himself, his baptism into the new faith shortly before he entered Yaroslav's service unable to wash away pagan beliefs engrained in him from birth . . .
"Are you thinking of Semirah, my lord?"
As Rurik focused upon the beautiful woman who stood beside the bed holding two silver goblets, her lilac nipples hardened temptingly from the early spring chill pervading the room, his reverie faded into sharp reality. The days ahead would bring many dangers, but for now he wanted only to enjoy this night.
"Now I am," he said thickly, paying no heed to the wine sloshing upon him and the soft furs as he grabbed her and sat her astride him, Semirah squealing with delight. Taking both goblets, he slowly poured what wine remained down the front of her body. His desire flared like molten heat as the scarlet liquid slicked her small pert breasts, her belly, then caught and glistened in the lush sable pelt between her legs.
"Rurik Beast-Slayer, will you drink now?" she taunted, using the name he had earned during a hunt by saving the grand prince from a charging bear.
"Lie back, woman, and let me slake my thirst."
The wine was sweet upon his tongue as he first suckled at her breasts, Semirah's throaty moans fanning his lust like the hottest wind. Then pushing her down upon the furs, he cupped her taut bottom and lifted her to taste the intoxicating nectar he craved.
No one should trust the words of a girl or what a married woman says. Their hearts have been shaped on a turning wheel, and inconstancy dwells in their breasts.
Poetic Edda, Havamal
The Sayings of Odin, the High One
May, A.D. 1024
Zora swept from her tent and brushed past the tall, pallid-faced chief eunuch, wrinkling her nose in distaste at his pungent scent of myrrh.
"But, Princess, will you not ride in the litter my mistress has sent for you?"
"I prefer to walk, Phineas." She drew her cloak tighter against the damp chill that hung like a mist in the air. "It's hard enough being confined upon a riverboat much of the day without having to be carried here and there once we make camp. I long for any chance to use my legs."
"You will surely soil your slippers and the hem of your gown, fair one," warned the eunuch, his voice effeminately high and nasal. He signaled for the four bearers supporting the drapery-shrouded litter to follow as he hastened to catch up with her. "It grows dark and the ground is muddy from recent rains . . . you could slip and fall, perhaps injure yourself. Certainly you would not wish that to happen only a fortnight from your wedding day."
"Since when have you or your mistress ever been concerned about my welfare?" Zora muttered, pretending not to hear him. And why the sudden invitation to join Hermione in her tent? Zora could count on one hand the number of times she and her half sister had exchanged words since they left Tmutorokan weeks ago, which was no different than the icy distance they had maintained in the terem, the women's quarters of their father Prince Mstislav's palace.
Skirting murky puddles and quagmires of mud, Zora proceeded undaunted through the torchlit maze of striped tents toward the largest one erected at the very heart of camp.
Her own tent was always pitched on the edge, another not so subtle jab on Hermione's part to ensure that Zora never forgot her place as a bastard daughter. But Zora didn't mind. She liked being apart from the hubbub created by countless slaves, eunuchs, and guards who made up the bulk of this ponderous caravan. The number of retainers required by two Rus princesses, several concubines, and the wives and children of Prince Mstislav's highest officials was astonishing.
Yet she did mind abandoning the deliciously fragrant supper of spit-roasted pheasant her cook had prepared for her. Zora's stomach was growling irritably.
She had been tempted to refuse the unexpected invitation, but why incite Hermione's anger? Soon they would be separated. In a little less than a week they would arrive at Chernigov, their father's new capital city, and within another week Zora would marry and become the mistress of her own household. No longer would she have to endure Hermione's imperious slights and petty jealousies, for they would rarely see each other except for court functions. That arrangement would suit Zora perfectly.
"Allow me to announce your arrival, beauteous one," Phineas insisted, overtaking her just as she reached the guarded entrance to Hermione's tent.
Noting his labored breathing and mud-splattered tunic, Zora felt a small ripple of satisfaction. She had always disliked this eunuch's smooth and haughty ways, which so mirrored those of his mistress. It pleased her to have upset his composure, even a little.
"If you wish."
As the guards pulled aside the flaps, Zora followed Phineas through a small antechamber and then into the sumptuous interior, which was flooded with golden light from shining copper lanterns and wax candles as thick as a man's arm.
"My mistress, Princess Zora has come."
"Thank you, Phineas. You may leave us."
The eunuch bowed deeply and retired from the tent, leaving Zora standing alone just inside the entrance. Her gaze settled upon the lovely young woman ensconced upon a cushioned divan, dressed in amber silk, her smooth dark hair pulled back and coiled on either side of her head in the Byzantine fashion, the tight spirals interlaced with shimmering strands of pearls. Zora's own thick hair had never accepted such a style and she fingered a long, unruly strand as she waited.
"How gracious of you to accept my invitation, dear sister," said Hermione in a silky yet cordial tone. She gracefully waved a marble white hand at another divan placed opposite from her own. "Please. Come and sit."
Lifting her chin, Zora coolly approached. Her life would have been truly miserable at the hands of this intimidating half-Greek princess if their father had not accepted Zora into his family. Bastards without paternal acknowledgment counted for little in Rus. But Prince Mstislav's enduring favor and fatherly affection had given her courage, and instead of growing into womanhood cowed and meek, she carried herself with pride and met any insult with determined defiance.
"Have you eaten?" Hermione inquired as Zora took the seat offered to her.
"I have supper waiting for me at my tent," she replied, giving her half sister a pointed hint that she did not intend to linger.
"Oh, but you must be hungry." Hermione clapped her hands before Zora could object, and a moment later female slaves appeared from a side entrance bearing trays laden with food and drink. "I haven't eaten either," she said as the ivory-inlaid table between them was quickly set with plates of chased silver, savory dishes were uncovered, and enameled goblets filled with vermilion wine. "Join me."
Annoyed by her
"Umm, it's wonderful." Hermione pushed the bowl of stew toward her. "You must try some."
"I'd rather wait, thank you," Zora said firmly, although her mouth watered at the wonderful aroma of fresh-baked honey and poppy seed bread. "Perhaps if you told me why you invited me here, I could return to my tent. It's been a long day and we have to rise early tomorrow."
Sighing resignedly, Hermione set down her spoon and regarded Zora with stunning cobalt-blue eyes, their only shared feature other than their like age of seventeen years.
"I suppose I'm to blame for your hostility toward me, my sister, but I hope that after tonight we'll begin to find more pleasure in each other's company. I invited you because I never congratulated you upon your betrothal to Lord Ivan. I would like to make amends for that oversight . . . and my callous mistreatment of you in the past, and present you with a gift."
Zora blinked, incredulous.
"I know this comes as a surprise, but I've been thinking that since you and I will be separated soon by your marriage, it doesn't seem right that we should part as enemies. We're starting new lives in Chernigov. Father wouldn't have summoned us to his new court if he wasn't certain of his ability to wrest the Rus throne from Grand Prince Yaroslav. So in honor of Father's approaching victory, I think we should reconcile our, shall we say, differences, and start afresh."