Authors: Catherine Coulter
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Electronic edition: May, 2002
To Elizabeth Steffens Youmans
The niece with the beautiful smile,
the dancing knees,
and love of robots
er name was Zarabeth. She was the stepdaughter of the Dane Olav the Vain, a rich fur merchant of Jorvik, or York, as the local Anglo-Saxons called it. She wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. His slave, Cyra, was more enticing, more magnificently endowed, than this woman. Unlike most men and women from his homeland, indeed, unlike many people here in the Danelaw, she didn't have hair so blond it was almost white in the noonday sun. No, her hair was blazing red, a stark vivid red, a red dark as blood when there was no sun to lighten it. She wore it tumbling down her back in loose waves and curls or, when the day grew hot, in two thick braids wound together atop her head. That hair, he thought, had to be the result of a mother from that western island called Ireland. He'd visited the garrison in Dublin several years earlier to buy slaves and trade sea ivory, furs, antlers, and soapstone bowls and ornaments. He'd been told that the Irish bred like dogs, and this bold, rich coloring was many times the result. Her eyes were also an odd color, a strange green, a hue he hadn't noticed in Ireland, a green that reminded him of wet moss. He had but to look at himself in a polished silver plate to know that his eyes, like those of most of his countrymen, were a sky blue
when his mood was even, a blue as deep as the Oslo Fjord when he was angry. His mother, Helgi, had told him, much to his embarrassment, that the blue of his eyes was soft and warm as a robin's egg.
Zarabeth was tall, perhaps too tall for a woman, but he was a big man and he still had half a foot above the top of her head, so he didn't care a bit. His first wife, Dalla, had been small, the top of her head reaching only his shoulder, and he'd felt many times holding her that she was a child, not a woman, not a wife.
He had managed to come close to Zarabeth for a few moments, and had seen that her flesh was white and unblemished as a patch of fresh mountain snow, save for those two dimples that deepened in her cheeks when she smiled, a smile that drew him the moment he saw it. Aye, he thought, not at all dissuaded, she wasn't from his Viking stock, and he didn't care a bit.
No, she wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, but he wanted her more than he'd ever before wanted a woman. He thought of bedding her, of coming deep into her woman's body and coming to his release, but he also thought of talking to her and sharing his dreams and plans with her. He thought of sailing with her to Hedeby, that southern trading port that lay on an inlet of the river Schlei and gave directly onto the Baltic. And beyond Hedeby, through the small islands, lay the rough bottom toe of Sweden, but two days' sailing away. He thought of sailing through the Great Sound that opened south into the Baltic Sea, and turning inland into the penetrating River Dvina that led to the Upper Dnieper and Kiev. Perhaps he could even take her beyond Kiev to that golden city on the Black Sea known to the Vikings as Miklagard, and to the others as Constantinople. And then, just as suddenly, with just as much clarity, he thought of children with her, of girls with bright red
hair and boys with his own thick blond hair. Odd, but he envisioned a boy with eyes as green as wet moss.
He, Magnus Haraldsson, was a twenty-five-year-old karl, the second son of Earl Harald. He held a farmstead called Malek, passed on to him by his grandfather. The soil was rich, unlike much of the craggy unarable land in southern Norway, and yielded good crops of barley, wheat, and rye. Magnus was also a trader, occasionally a sharp-witted one, his father told him fondly, and he owned his own vessel, the
He also owned a dozen slaves as of his last trip, and many jarls now worked for him in return for small parcels of land to raise food for their families. Many of these jarls were his friends, and they not only sailed with him to trading centers but brought their goods to sell as well.
Magnus had been married at the age of seventeen, a marriage arranged by his parents, and he had a son, Egill, who was now nearly eight years old. His wife, Dalla, scarcely more than a child herself, had died two years after the boy's birth. He had mourned her as he might have a lost playmate, and over the years, as he had grown older and taken his pleasure with many different women, decided that he had no need of another wife or of more children. He had come to look upon married men as weak-willed and hearth-bound, even if they were off raiding four months of the year. Now, suddenly, he was beginning to think quite differently. He realized that he was no longer interested in his current mistress, Cyra, though she was even-tempered, at least around him, and could make his body clench with pleasure.
He told himself as he looked at Zarabeth that he had a son who now needed a mother. He was honest enough to admit to himself that considerations for Egill didn't come first in his mind.
Oh, aye, he wanted her and he would have her.
Magnus raised his eyes to her face when he heard her sudden burst of laughter. Sweet and deep, her laugh, and free. He saw the smile, the dimples, the white teeth, and was charmed. Her breasts moved with her laughter. It warmed him, that laugh of hers; it made him hard as a stone, that movement of her breasts; it made him want to haul her over his shoulder and take her deep into the woods and mount her beneath the drooping branches of the thick fir trees.
Since her stepfather, Olav the Vain, was rich, Magnus knew her brideprice would doubtless be high, higher than most men could afford to pay. But he'd pay it, even though he despised Olav the Vain, known to many Viking traders as Olav the Cheat. He made grandiose gestures, dazzling those around him with sudden bursts of generosity, then turned about with no rhyme or reason to cheat those same people on small things. He was difficult, his behavior annoying; he was arrogant yet petty, wide-armed yet mean. Magnus wondered how he treated his stepdaughter.
First, Magnus thought, he had to meet this girl named Zarabeth, a name that was difficult for him to say aloud, a name that was foreign-sounding and exciting and mysterious too, just as she was. He had acted unlike himself since he had first seen her two days before, hanging back, watching her like an infatuated wolf cub, not taking control as was his wont. It surprised and angered him, this sudden fear, this sudden lack of confidence. After all, she was but a woman and would respond to a man's authority, accept a man's commands to keep her on the right path, but he hadn't yet put himself in the middle of that path. The myriad feelings she evoked in him were unnerving. But there was something about her that aroused protectiveness in him, that called forth tenderness. Then, just as quickly, he would see a gleam in her green eyes that made him want to smile, for she was
thinking wicked thoughts and he wanted to know what they were. He also knew, deep down, that those thoughts of hers would please him and make him laugh. She confounded him and he was pleased.
And he would tell himself again that she was but a woman and his will would prevail and she would soon belong to him. Her laughter would be only for him. That free movement of her breasts would fill only him with lust. He was Magnus Haraldsson, master of his own farmstead, a trader, owner of a sound trading vessel and twelve slaves. He pictured her at his farmstead, in charge of his household. She would find Malek beautiful, the Gravak Valley beyond compare. She would not feel isolated, for his parents and older brother were nearby and they were only a day's sail from Kaupang, a trading town on the western coast of Norway, just inland from the Oslo Fjord.
He saw that she was leaving and he quickly straightened from the door frame where he'd been standing. He saw her take the hand of a small girl who had been standing silently beside her, lean over to speak quietly to her, using strange hand gestures as she spoke. She straightened, said smiling good-byes to the people she'd been speaking with, and left the local square that held the town well. He watched her walk gracefully about mud puddles and piles of refuse, swat away insects that buzzed about the refuse, that glorious red hair of hers glinting like fire beneath the early-afternoon sun. She was slender, but he knew that beneath that soft wool gown of hers, her buttocks would be soft and white and firm, and his fingers tingled at the thought of kneading her flesh.
Then he frowned. She wasn't a young girl. No, she was at least eighteen years old, older than most females who were already wedded and suckling their own babes at their breasts. But not her, not Zarabeth, stepdaughter of Olav the Vain. Was her stepfather
holding out for too high a brideprice for her? Why was she still unwedded? Was she a shrew? Had he completely misjudged her?
Many times a woman was allowed to refuse a suitor. Perhaps Olav the Vain had granted her this right and she simply hadn't yet seen a man she wanted for a husband.
He smiled then. She would want him; he had no doubt about it. He would see to it.
Magnus watched her stop and speak to a local jeweler in Coppergate, the Street of the Woodworkers, a man whose father and grandfather before him had fashioned beautiful arm bracelets and rings of amber from the Baltic and jet from Whitby, intricately set in the finest silver and gold. Again she took her leave, walking more quickly now, and he knew she was going to her own home, a comfortable house with walls of thick oak planking and a roof of finely layered wooden shingles slightly further down Coppergate. All the houses here in York were set close together, the alleys between them malodorous, dark, and often dangerous. Olav's house was larger than most, but still there was darkness in the narrow alleys on either side of it.
Magnus paused a moment, pulling his wolfskin cloak more securely around his shoulders. He unconsciously fingered the carved gold brooch that held the cloak together at his shoulder, a brooch he'd traded three otter skins for in Birka the previous year. It was early April, yet York held a sharp wind today and he was thankful for the wolfskin cloak. The sun, covered by gray clouds, denied its warmth. It wasn't really cold, it was just that he knew uncertainty, a feeling that made him start with surprise and feel shame, for he was, after all, not only a rich farmer and trader but the son of an earl, a leader, a karl trained to control and command.
He'd been brought to uncertainty by a woman with
a strange name, strange coloring, laughter that made him feel warm inside, and breasts that made him feel lusty as a young wolf. He flung off his fur cloak, disgusted with himself, and returned to his ship, the