Excerpt: The Pagan’s Prize

Excerpt: The Pagan’s Prize

Book Three: Captive Brides

“You’re a spy, aren’t you?” Zora accused, not surprised when Rurik briefly met her eyes. “For Yaroslav, my uncle.”

He did not answer, but she knew from the way he clenched his jaw that she had guessed the truth.

“And I?” she demanded. “What have I become, Lord Rurik?”

“A pawn.”

His blunt reply was horribly final, and Zora was seized by sudden desperation. “Please…” she begged, though it galled her that she even found it within herself to do so. “Please let me go. What use can I be to Grand Prince Yaroslav? He must know that I am a—”

“Enough!” Rurik cut in harshly. “It is not my authority to release you. The grand prince alone can decide your fate. I only escort you to him.”

Zora held her reckless tongue then. She must keep calm; use her head. It was a good thing that he had interrupted her before she had given away her baseborn status. A very good thing.

If she had revealed to him that she was a bastard daughter, Rurik might think her less valuable and decide that he could still take liberties with her. It was possible. He had assaulted her when he thought her a mere concubine, hadn’t he? Usually, bastards counted as no more than slaves in Rus, and even though her father had offered an incredible reward for her, Rurik might hold the more common view.

Suddenly an idea came to her, filling her with nervous excitement and almost bringing a smile to her lips.

Why not make this journey as difficult for him as possible? Since he must protect her until they reached Novgorod, he would be loath to touch her or punish her no matter what she did to frustrate him. And frustrate him she would! This pagan would wish a thousand times that he had left her in Chernigov!

Now Zora did smile. If she escaped somewhere along the route to Novgorod, so much the better. How humiliating it would be for him to return to her uncle’s kreml with the news that he had captured her, but she had eluded him! If Rurik was a lord indeed, as his title suggested, her escape would discredit him. A proud Varangian warrior bested by a mere woman! He would be dishonored forever.

Zora glanced furtively at Rurik to find that he was paying her no heed, his expression grim and his gaze narrowed as if searching the forest for signs of danger.  Why not begin? It would make a fine test and maybe, if she was lucky, she would bring some of her father’s troops down upon them. They might still be close enough to Chernigov that someone might hear her.

Inhaling deeply, Zora let out such a piercing scream that a flock of blackbirds perched high in the branches above them took to the sky, screeching and cawing in protest. Rurik was so startled that she managed to scream once more, this time right in his ear, before he could clap his hand over her mouth.

“By Odin, woman, what are you trying to do?” he shouted, his face flushed dark with anger. Yanking the gag back into her mouth, he called to his warriors. “The wench might have given away our position. Ride hard, men, as if the black hounds of Hel were upon us! They might be now!”

Zora gasped as Rurik jerked her hard against his chest and kicked his mount into a faster canter, his tone menacing as he added, “And if they find us, wench, I swear—”

“I hope they do find us!” she retorted in spite of her gag, and to enrage him further, she started to laugh.

“Minx! Do you think this a game? Thor’s blood, royal princess or no, you’ll soon discover that you’ve more than met your match!”

“So will you, you cloddish pagan,” Zora replied under her breath, grinning just for his benefit. “So will you.”