The Queen of Sinister

Book Description
A new Dark Age has falled across Britain; gods and monsters walk the land. In this new time, myth and legend has become realtity; nothing is quite as it seems.The plague came without warning. Nothing could stop its progress: not medicines, not prayer. The first sign of the disease is black spots at the base of the fingers; an agonising death quickly follows. But this is no ordinary disease.
Caitlin Shepherd, a lowly GP, is allowed to cross the veil into the mystical Celtic Otherworld in search of a cure; her search takes her on a quest to the end of a land of dreams and nightmares to petition the gods. Caitlin is humanity’s last hope, but she carries a terrible burden: a consciousness shattered into five distinct personalities…and one of them may not be human.
Published by Gollancz (2004) & Pyr (2010)

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THE new world came up at them in a flash of white, and they hit it hard, crashing to their knees and sucking in a huge gulp of air as if they had fallen from a high place. A fleeting memory of somewhere wonderful and blue slipped from their thoughts the moment they tried to catch it. Yet the sensations came too thick and fast to reflect on the transition. Snow lay thickly all around, and a blizzard roared with such force they had to hunch against it like old men, yelling so their disbelief and amazement could be heard. Within seconds they were shaking with the bitter cold.

Despite their situation, Caitlin’s eyes sparkled with wonder. “I can’t believe it! We’re… we’re…”

“In Fairyland,” Crowther said wryly. Good humour transformed his face. “For those who have studied the Kaballah, this is Yesod, land of dreams, first staging post for the dead. We all go here in our sleep some times.” He looked around, scarcely believing it himself.

“This is… just… amazing.” Even though he was buffeted by the blizzard, Matt stretched out his arms so he could fill his lungs. “The crossing was so… wild.” He struggled to find words to describe the experience. “I felt like I was filled with energy… like my thoughts were electric… like they were spinning around the universe. And here… it’s… magic.”

They all knew what he meant. The very essence of reality was heightened, as if they had walked through the screen into a movie. Colours brighter, textures more vibrant, aromas unbelievably heady, sounds so vibrant they had to stop and listen in amazement at music the wind made. Suddenly there was no such thing as mundanity and boredom. Magic burned in even the smallest thing and anything was possible. The sheer wonder of it made their heads spin.

“It’s like a drug,” Caitlin said. “But not like the mushrooms…I don’t even feel them anymore. You could lose yourself in it.” She thought for a moment and then added, “Who’d want to go back after experiencing something like this?”

“Who indeed?” Crowther said.

The cold was too much for them to wallow in the experience. “We have to find shelter before we freeze to death,” Matt yelled. He took in their position in a second. At their backs were the loftiest mountains any of them had ever seen, the peaks snow-capped and filled with the dreams of childhood, solid against a sky of threatening slate-grey cloud. Protecting his eyes from the stinging snow, he motioned down the slope.

The snow was knee-deep and it was hard-going as they trudged downwards, but at least the gale was at their backs. Soon Matt spotted a gully filled with boulders as large and misshapen as mythological beasts. He led them directly into it, relishing the protection it gave them from the wind and the worst of the snow.

Once in the shelter, they relaxed a little, but after the initial exhilaration worries surfaced. Mahalia checked back up the slopes, the haunting images of the Whisperers still echoing through her mind. “Can they follow us?” she said.

“I don’t know,” Crowther replied. “But I have no intention of waiting to find out.”

Caitlin was still dazed by the crossing. More than all of them, the lure of the blue world they passed through so quickly remained strong. “What did they do to that poor man?” she said. “It was like they’d tried to turn him into one of them.”

“It was like he was some kind of zombie,” Mahalia said.

“Maybe that’s what they do – take people over.” Matt was checking his arm.

“What is it?” Crowther asked.

“The hermit guy wounded me. Pretty badly.” Matt held up his arm to show them. “But it’s healed.”

“A quality of the Blue Fire,” Crowther said. “It has strong healing properties—”

“That blue, blue world…” Caitlin said dreamily.

Carlton started suddenly, his eyes wide.

“What is it, mate?” Mahalia hurried to his side and followed his gaze, but there was only the thick snow running along the edge of the gully and the grey sky beyond. The boy shook his head, unsure.

“He’s probably disoriented,” Crowther said. “Understandable. We’ve done something remarkable here… travelled between worlds… to a place that has influenced our dreams for millennia—”

“Oh, stop being so pompous. Carlton’s probably dealing with it better than you,” Mahalia said. “Don’t forget—”

“I know,” Crowther said, adding in a childishly mocking voice, “he’s special.”

Mahalia shook her head in disgust at the Professor’s immature manner before leading Carlton gently away. “Don’t worry, mate,” she said gently, “we’ll keep a good look-out.”

They continued to pick their way down the gully, their teeth chattering. The gully ridge and the boulders obscured any view of their exact location, although it was clear they were on the lower slopes of the monolithic range.

As they edged their way round a rock as big as a house, Matt threw an arm across Crowther’s chest to stop him, and pointed to the thick snow at the gully ridge. Two red spots blazed like hot coals. They disappeared, came back again, and then there was a flurry of snow and they were gone.

“Eyes,” Crowther said in shock.

“Something’s tracking us.” Mahalia remained cool as she easily withdrew one of the knives from beneath her jacket. Carlton huddled close to her. “Don’t worry, mate, I’ll look after you,” she whispered comfortingly. She eyed Caitlin coldly, fending off Caitlin’s attempt to move in to comfort Carlton herself.

“Come on, Prof,” Matt said quietly. “You’re the expert here. What kind of predators should we be looking out for?”

Crowther’s laugh was not comforting. “Think of your worst nightmare, then expect something ten times more hideous. This is the land where anything is possible, good or bad. If we thought we were slipping down the food chain on our world, here—”

“I get the idea, Prof. Thanks for putting my mind at ease.” Matt continued to lead the way, but his eyes never stopped searching the surroundings.

Eventually the gully gave way to a small, exposed plateau where the snow lay thickly. But beyond it, the land fell away gradually and the snow soon gave way to a mass of the enormous boulders. “Looks like we’re nearly in the foothills,” Matt said. “Should be easier going if we can get across this bit.” He didn’t need to give voice to his fear that this would be the place where whatever was tracking them would attack; there was no cover, no place to run. At least they would be able to see it coming.

The snow was calf-high as they lurched into it, crunching underfoot like gravel. But they hadn’t gone far when the two red eyes appeared suddenly on the ground six feet ahead of Matt. He half-turned, ready to urge the others to sprint back to the gully.

Something rose up from the ground, as white as the snow that had concealed it. At first glance it resembled an enormous jellyfish with a crab-shell head from beneath which the two eyes glowed. But then they saw that beneath the strange-shaped skull it had a human form and what they had taken for the jellyfish-like, drifting appendages were glistening, white clothes, hanging from its shoulders in tattered rags.

“I search for the Cailleach Bheur,” the thing said in a voice that sounded like glass breaking. “She may release the Fimbulwinter.”

Everyone in the group was struck dumb by the terrifyingly strange apparition that loomed before them. It swayed from side-to-side in a manner that suggested it was uncomfortable and they realised it couldn’t quite understand the effect it was having on them.

“We… we can’t help you,” Crowther replied eventually, his mouth dry. “I’m sorry.”

“What are you?” Caitlin said in the frightened voice of Amy.

The thing moved forward as if it were blown by the wind until it stood in front of Caitlin and those frightening red eyes burned into her face. “I see ice in you?” it said, puzzled. Then, as if realising it had acted impolitely, it stepped back and held out arms swathed in the white tatters. “I am Moyaanisqi, known as the White Walker. I roam across all worlds. My home is the great wilderness, the frozen plains, the chill peaks. But what,” it added curiously, “are you?”

“We’re… humans,” Crowther replied awkwardly.

“Humans?” The White Walker thought for a moment. Then: “Fragile Creatures! I have seen your kind from afar in the times I have wandered the great mountain ranges of the Fixed Lands in search of the Cailleach Bheur, but never so close. Fragile Creatures!” There was wonder in its voice as if they were the fantastical beings.

“You’ve been to our world?” Caitlin asked.

“Many times, though my long quest has made me solitary and wary of contact with others. I roved the high places and the white wastes for a time, leaving only the prints of my feet behind, finding nothing. And so I moved on, here, to the Far Lands. Perhaps my journey will take me farther afield again.”

“Then you have seen many things.” There was a gleam in Crowther’s eye.

“Many things.”

“We are searching for a place called the House of Pain, though I suppose it may have another name. Could you direct us to it?”

The White Walker thought long and hard, then shook its strange, crab-head slowly. “It may lie in the burning places where I cannot pass. But if that is so, then you may encounter the Djazeem who abide in the great sand-deserts. There is a word of power I know that will make them do your bidding. Whisper it to them and they will be empowered to take you to your destination.” It looked into all their faces and then returned to Caitlin. “You. For in you there is not only ice, but also the fire that does not burn. You will carry the word of power.”

Caitlin shied away, but the White Walker moved rapidly to whisper into her ear. Whatever it said, it affected Caitlin profoundly, for she fell to her knees, dazed.

“You will not recall the word until you need it, but it is there. That is my gift to you.” It stared at them, shaking his head in amazement. “Fragile Creatures!” Then it drew itself up and turned to go. “Now, I must continue my search, for the Cailleach Bheur never rests and the Worlds must not come to an end.”

Crowther called out one more question: “Who should we ask for guidance?”

The White Walker waved his tatters towards the lowlands. “Follow this path to another gully and then to the plain. I have heard tell there is a place nearby where live many who were once Golden Ones, but are no longer. They may know more. Farewell.”

Before they could answer, it was gone, perfectly lost against the snowy background.

“What,” Matt said in a state of extreme awe, “was that?”

“In the Dyak dialect on Borneo, there is a word,” Crowther mused. “ngarong. It means a secret helper who appears in a dream. And, my friend, you will soon learn that this is very much a dream.”

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