Monday, June 6, 2011     17:19

QUEST FOR A MAID

Available in hardback.

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Meg, a Viking's daughter, with her friends, struggles in love and kindliness to save tiny, frail Princess Margaret from the ambition of Lady de Brus - who wants to set her son on the throne of Scotland - and from the magic of Meg's witch sister.

PAPER EDITION
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A hand gripped my shoulder, swung me round, and my face was slapped so hard I fell back and thumped my head on a rolling bucket. 'How dare you!' a sharp voice squawked past the ringing in my ears. 'Is this the way the Scots use their queen? A servant, carrying buckets?' Fru Ingibiorg's voice rose screeching like the popinjay's. Scolding, poking, she knocked the rope handle out of the Maid's suddenly nerveless hands, and dragged her off aft.
'She-she's to go down to the ca-cabin,' I stammered, shaking my head to clear it. She didn't turn. My head still buzzing, I staggered back to my feet, and followed the pair of them, through the crew's black looks and muttered curses.
With a sigh of relief, I saw Master Spens stepping in front them as they reached the stern-castle. 'Damn you, mistress, I'll not tell you again! Take yourself back down below decks, and get out o' my way!' She ignored him, pushing the Maid past him towards the shelter. Losing his patience, he grabbed her arm. Suddenly she was screeching and fighting, eyes staring, arms waving, the lords rushing out to help her, or him, all the work halted, every man's attention fully on them both for a fatal minute.
For then a woman screamed and pointed. We looked round. Bearing down on the ship was a mountain of a wave. The greatest wave in the world. Everything stopped, silent, helpless, as death raced towards us. Nothing seemed to move except that terrifying hill of water. It towered far, far above the mast. The foam at its crest curled silver-white like Inge's hair. Its depths, the grey-blue and black of her eyes, swirled smoothly up and up over the ship. We rose and rose for a year, faster than a gull flying, tilting helplessly, all other sound lost in the tremendous roar that we heard in our bones, while all our hearts froze and we waited numbly for disaster.
And as we reached the peak, the sea reached out and gently, inexorably, plucked off the stern-castle and the folk under and round it, and scattered them adrift on the surface of the water like a lass throwing flowers before a bride. All the gilded and painted spars split, tossed and jostled, and the spaces between them filled bright with bodies.
I knew some of them. There was old Father Constant, face down; and Sir Michael; and the boatswain; and Master Spens. I heard in my mind Inge's voice; 'You'll not make old bones.' Oh, Inge! Fru Ingibiorg was screaming faintly above the din. I couldn't see the Maid. I clung to a stay, my hands rigid.
How had I got here? It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Master Spens was dead. I'd lost the Maid. We were all going to drown. It didn't matter.
Suddenly I saw her, a tiny fair head and a hand glinting not ten feet away from me, on the lee side of the ship, crying silently for help. No, I couldn't - it was too far from any land, and I was afraid! And then under me the ship lurched, and I let go - or did I jump? Anyway, I was in the water heading for her. Dear God, I thought, if it's not one o' them it's the flaming other. It's a right bad habit to get into.
Then for a while I'd no time for thinking. I grabbed her hair, wound a plait round my left hand and struggled to stay afloat... Oddly, it seemed to me as if I was floating above myself, looking down at these two poor lasses bobbing in the mottled green waves; I felt vaguely sorry for them, it was a pity they were drowning, nothing could be done.