In Praise of Yule and the Winter Warlock

Winter Light

Winter Light


Merry Yule!

I confess, Christmas didn’t mean much to me as a kid. Family issues, religion and commercialism left me disillusioned. Ironically, my sensitive tendencies made me an accomplished shapeshifter when the need arose, allowing me to wear a happy kid face on the surface of a shadowy river of sadness. It wasn’t all bad, of course. I liked the music and the lights. But something was missing.

This was before the internet and the mainstream resurgence of things like Wicca, the old gods, and honoring one’s ancestry. I don’t think anyone ever explained the winter solstice to me, let alone its meaning in a spiritual context. I grew up in Houston, it was hot, and every day looked a lot like the next. A spark flickered in my heart when I touched the pagan roots of this season, even if it was only a Christmas classic about places that had snow, reindeer and spruce trees. I loved those stop motion animation specials like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, with the snowy mountains, elves, little friendly helpful animals, the Winter Warlock, the monster trees, the Burgermeister Meisterburger and the 1960s swirly stoner graphics. I wanted all the stories about love and light to be true, even as I buckled under the stress that came with the very thing.

So I left home first chance I got and came north. Over the years I continued my emotional salvage operation, even after I had abandoned religion, turned to the natural world and amassed a library of books about things that kept the spark alive and helped me grow into my nature like a rooting tree. But I soon discovered that many “pagan” systems, while engaging, were missing something too.

Dark Mountains

Everyone wants to be a witch until it’s time to do witch shit. I’m not talking about setting up altars, growing herbs, gathering magical tools and praying to the old gods. That’s all cool, it creates a space, an atmosphere, a place to focus one’s intentions, much like going to church is to others. It has a purpose. But I still felt empty. I wanted connection. I wanted to be the thing and lo! oh dear if that desire didn’t put me right into the shadowy river of sadness. It was still there, sapping my light, even as I gazed into a candle on Yule to honor the return of the sun.

Then I learned something. It began with the idea that everything is connected, a popular idea now. But it’s easy to blur an idea like that into something nebulous, even impracticable, because it has such far-reaching implications. I came into December this year on a leaky raft of depression and doom that no holiday cheer could lighten; wave after wave of it, as if something had tuned my radio dial into all the sorrows of the world and the seeming hopelessness of another long winter. I cried a lot. I wanted to die. The darkness was crushing me. Until, at some point, remembering myself, I stopped and said, Where is this coming from?

Then I realized I was riding a wave that had its roots in my blood, in the bark of spruce trees, snowflakes, bears, wolves and love too, binding it all together even as it drew me into the void along with every sad and toxic pattern in my heart, my body, the projects I’m too afraid to start, some heartbreak or another, a belief in worthlessness, the white hair in the shower drain. All flowing down into the darkness of the longest night, one of the countless, elegant ways nature releases the old to the new. The rebirth of the sun. It’s one thing to celebrate that as the beautiful thing it is; it’s another when the shift is happening in the self, inexorably, in sync, as if beckoned. Everything is connected.

Witch shit happens.

Wishing you and yours all the love and light of the season in whatever way you keep it. Blessed Be!

 
 
© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

My demons are clever…because I help them.

I can turn anything into a story. I wander around here muttering to myself, spinning past, present and future events into stories like an old spider in a web. I make them beautiful, awe inspiring, and terrible. Some of it wanders into books I’m brooding on. Some of it I torment myself with. And some is just debris rushing down a swollen tidal bore. It’s creative, and it’s therapy. Stories reveal the essence of a thing, frame it in such a way or that, and help us to cope or understand.

I love my therapist. She has wild, white curly hair, an ornery laugh, and a dark side worthy of a crone in a fairy tale. Whenever I present one of my well-crafted descriptions of some personal demon or other, she grins and says, “That’s quite a story you’ve got there.” And we laugh, because I’ve given my demons an identity, a kingdom, power of attorney, and then carved my story in stone like a gargoyle on a cathedral roof. I’d be better off going in there with a finger up my nose. Because as any writer will tell you, no story is cast in stone.

So what’s real? If neuroscientists and quantum physicists would have their say, it’s not what you think. My therapist recently told me that when we experience something, the details of that experience begin to shift and fade in our memory after 20 minutes. Then our imaginations step in to fill in the gaps. Think about that. Twenty minutes. Now slap on a decade or three. What’s real now? Not that old memory, I don’t think. But the emotion around it convinces us that the story is real. Well. Yes and no.

Painting illustrates this nicely. Years ago, I was out in the woods and saw a trout lily blooming near the path. A beautiful thing. So I took a picture for something to paint. When I started the painting, I didn’t bother with the photo, I just went with how the experience felt. The result has nothing to do with that photo; it contains infinite impressions from somewhere else. The same is true of my memory of totaling my truck on a creepy wooded road in upstate NY, drunk and stoned out of my fucking mind. Or that argument I had with my mother about her meatloaf recipe. Just stories. I’ve long since lost the photos.

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

We live in an infinite sea of stories, alive and breathing, independent of time and space. It’s an open system, always in motion, always seeking balance. I read fantasy novels as a kid that changed the trajectory of my life and saved me from becoming a teenage suicide statistic. Were those stories “real?” Depends on who you ask. To me, they were. Not only that, those stories mean something different to every person who reads them — and they are just as real.

Middle Earth

Map of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien

Point is, if you can write a story, you can change it. And if you listen, the story will often rewrite itself…and then healing happens. I’ll end with one of those.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Rosemary Plant

Once upon a time, in the spring, when my heart yearns to grow things, I spotted a pack of rosemary seeds in a nursery. Lovely. I brought the seeds home and planted them.

Rosemary BloomsWell, for some reason, the rosemary seeds did not start easily; it took time and effort to get them to sprout. But they did, and one of them got strong and began to grow. It’s cold here, and my gardens are no place for a rosemary plant, so I brought it inside for the winter and put it in a sunny window. In late spring, I took my new baby back outside to bask in the warm, fresh air for the summer.

So it was for many years, and the rosemary got big, with long gnarled limbs and bark like a tree. It bloomed a few times. In summer, it lived on the back porch where it was greeted each morning by the rising sun. In winter, it took up the whole bottom half of the window. It had a soul, my rosemary plant, like sun, wind, river stones and healing mysteries. When I talked to it, it talked back. Sitting outside in the morning, we discussed all kinds of things. Beautiful things.

Last summer’s end, when the shadows grew long and the wind whispered of darker things, my rosemary plant grew silent. Puzzled, I brought it inside as usual, and placed it in the window. But something was wrong. As fall descended in the mountains, my rosemary fell too.

There was no discernible reason for this, as far as I knew. But I knew nothing, and never had that been so evident. I fretted, puttered, and despaired as the rosemary leaves, once grayish green, thick and fragrant, began to shrivel and turn brown. I combed the internet for everything I could learn from those who did know, and when that didn’t help, I prayed to the Soul of Rosemary flourishing in the halls of the Great Earth Mother. A comforting image with no shadow, that. It was like trying to stop the setting sun. Nothing had changed, and yet everything changed, until at last, without a word, my friend left me.

Baby RosemaryI did remember that life is infinite and her cycles never-ending, though grief doesn’t tend to care about such platitudes. Even so, I had managed to get some cuttings, which I put into water to root. In time — a long time — some of them did. Heartened, I let the pale, tender roots get strong, and then I planted the sprouts in a pot and gave them a sunny place by my desk where I can look after them. The plant still feels fragile, with strong places and weak ones, as if it’s not yet certain it wants to be here.

I know the feeling. But as rosemary taught me, some things must stay in the dark for a long time before they’re ready to come into the light.

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Chronicles of Ealiron Omnibus

Omnibus Cover

An ancient hierarchy of wizards. Votaries of the old powers. Warlords, fiends and shadows. Introducing the Omnibus Edition of the Chronicles of Ealiron, where the otherworld is alive, nature is sovereign and balance is kept by the sword.

These tales are driven by an assassin named Lorth of Ostarin, a complex character with a bent towards bringing things to their darkest ends. Following his redoubtable exploits, each book stands alone, happening in the same world with Lorth and some of the other characters appearing throughout.

The Omnibus Edition includes Books 1-4, maps and glossaries.

“The main character Lorth is a masterpiece.” – Customer review, Amazon

1060 pages
Maps of Ealiron

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iTunes
Kobo

Book One: The Hunter’s Rede. A swords-and-sorcery tale of one warrior’s transformation by the forces of war, wizardry, betrayal and love. In this tale, Lorth discovers his destiny when his homeland is occupied by a cruel warlord with no respect for the deeper powers of the world.

Book Two: The Gray Isles. Some fish stories should be taken seriously. Very seriously. In this story, Lorth sets off on a routine mission and is drawn into the cataclysmic fate of an Otherworld being that rules the sea.

Book Three: The Winged Hunter. An immortal hunter, a gardener, and some very naughty wizards. In this story Lorth must use his darker abilities to help two powerful wizards protect a maiden from a diabolical immortal predator bent on fulfilling a curse.

Book Four: The Riven God. His greatest challenge yet, Lorth falls afoul of a backwater monarchy stained by evil, a wayward princess, and a dark order of warlocks wreaking ruin. When the wizards declare war, the northern seas churn with unrest and a war god keeps his secrets.

The individual books in The Chronicles of Ealiron are also available in paperback and on Kindle Unlimited.

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

A Bookish Thank You!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am thankful for many things…a purring cat, the thriving rosemary cuttings on the windowsill, the handwritten, wax sealed letter I got from my best geek buddy. Oh, and the big wood pile on the porch (it’s -1F out). When I think about it, I can make a long list. But today, in celebration of Thanksgiving, I would like to thank everyone who has supported me in any way–following, tweeting, sharing, shouting, viewing, promoting, reading, reviewing–by offering the entire Chronicles of Ealiron for $0.99 each. First time ever.

This is epic fantasy old school: swords and sorcery, wizards, immortal creatures, gods, and a complex magical system of correspondences between trees, birds, color, sound, geometric patterns and energies deep in the earth. Votaries of the old powers work the forces of nature inherent in the cycles of life, death and transformation.

These stories are driven by an assassin named Lorth of Ostarin, a complex character with a bent towards bringing things to their darkest ends. These books stand alone as individual stories that happen in the same world with Lorth and some of the other characters appearing throughout. The ebooks include links to high resolution maps and a glossary.

The Chronicles of Ealiron is also on Kindle Unlimited.

The Hunter’s Rede
The Gray Isles
The Winged Hunter
The Riven God
Water Dark

“The main character Lorth is a masterpiece.”

“Reminiscent of Michael Moorcock in his Elric saga.”

“Without a doubt one of the best books I’ve ever read.”

“Lorth is a great character, reminiscent of such pulp heroes as Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd.”

“Wow. Gorgeous. Highly recommended.”

“Set in a world that is one of the most detailed I’ve seen in quite some time.”

“The Chronicles of Ealiron is my absolute favorite series.”

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Thank you again. And again. You guys rock.

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Weighing In: LGBTQ Characters in Fantasy

I grew up in the 70s in Houston, Texas, in a relatively old neighborhood near Rice University. Across the street lived a couple named Bob and John. My mother once told me they were married. Looking back, I’ve realized that couldn’t have been true in a legal sense, but at the time I didn’t question it. Bob was a radiologist and John was an animal trainer. Their house was decorated in rich colors and full of antiques and interesting artifacts. They had an old cat, a pair of ferrets and a cockatiel, and their tiny backyard was a jungle of exotic plants. When they went on vacation, I had the honor of taking care of their plants and critters; and when we went away, Bob and John returned the favor. They were awesome and I loved them.

I ate, drank and slept fantasy novels as a kid. It was sanity; it was identity. My first experience of LGBTQ in the genre was Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor. Many of the characters were LGBTQ, and I liked how it was presented, as a matter of fact. Like Bob and John. A big deal wasn’t made of it one way or the other.

Eaglin of Ostarin

Eaglin of Ostarin

When I started writing fantasy, I unthinkingly followed suit. I wasn’t purposefully drafting LGBTQ characters or anything. When it comes to writing, I’m one of those whack jobs who needs to take every step in darkness and see where it leads. And as any author will tell you, characters have a life of their own. They are who they are, straight, queer or whatever. I suspect trying to assign or remove identity would no more work than it would on a flesh and blood person.

When characters with LGBTQ inclinations do appear to me, however subtle, casual or intense–mortals, immortals, elves, warriors, prostitutes, spies, whoever–they do so without taboos or religions trying to shut them down. They might be good or evil or somewhere in between, but their sexual preferences aren’t singled out, marginalized or labeled, let alone persecuted. This isn’t to say horrible things don’t happen to them, or that some jerk won’t take a shot there for lack of something better, but that sort of intolerance is not part of the culture. Frankly? There’s enough of that bullshit in this world, and I’m not about to map it into mine beyond the throes of love, lust and heartache that everyone deals with. So you’re a man and you prefer to fuck men? Huzzah for you. Grab a sword, we have incoming.

Anyway, a protagonist will step up now and then. Here are a few mentions.

Water Dark Cover Art“Love knows all paths, where even gods and cats are blind.” – from Water Dark

My first LGTBQ character, so dear to my heart, is named Urien. He belongs to the highest order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchical order of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. Among other things, Urien can shapeshift into flora, fauna, earth, or fog, and he can cast an apparition or merge with the minds of gods. For years, he has haunted the fringe after having loved and lost a powerful male wizard on the verge of ascension. But such secrets do not hide well. When he delves into the darker powers at the bidding of a shady priestess with a hidden agenda, Urien finds himself facing the loss of everything he loves.

Fortunately, his erstwhile lover has a secret, too.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“On soft white pads, he slipped unseen into the trees to the singing of blades and the shudder of the earth drinking blood.” – From “Deathseer”

Liros is the protagonist in “Deathseer,” a short story included in the collection Wizards, Woods and Gods. The commander of an occupying force in a foreign land ruled by the presence of a mysterious alien observatory, Liros has the ability to see the hand of Death, a secret he hides for the sake of sanity, as his commanders would stop at nothing to use it to their own ends.

When a terrible dream drives Liros to check on an outpost, his lords send his lover Thorn, an assassin, to accompany him. Liros knows him well enough keep him close. As Liros’s gift betrays him and exposes a devastating breach of honor by his men, he and Thorn must choose between duty and love, both choices involving bloody consequences.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Arcmael handed the charm to the sorcerer. Leofwine studied it intently, his face drawn. After a moment he said, ‘This is old magic. Very old.'” – From Outpost

Leofwine Klemet is seneschal to the High Constable of the King’s Rangers. Knowing that the quiet, watchful man’s duties to their lord involve something more intimate than those of a seneschal, the rangers suspect Leofwine is a spy belonging to a dark and ancient sorcerers’ brotherhood. So does the suspicious, vengeful high constable. After fleeing for his life on the eve of war, Leofwine becomes a friend and ally to a ranger who also gets on the wrong side of the high constable after discovering a plot behind a curtain of sorcery. Here, Leofwine’s arcane knowledge comes in handy–for he is a sorcerer, of course. And a spy. But no one needs to know about that.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Leofwine breathed a foul string of words, the blood on his body and the void of his lover’s death giving them form, the culmination of spit, roots, hate and tears, eyes that never closed, hunger that was never sated. A sudden gale rose up from the north and whipped the trees into a frenzy.” – From The Wolf Lords

In The Wolf Lords, Leofwine’s full potential is revealed, complete with a host of demons, torments and nasty enemies. An adept sorcerer of the Fenrir Brotherhood, Leofwine has given up espionage and now serves a hall in a remote forest as a protector of their interests. It is a thankless job but for his lover, a prince, and shelter from his enemies, both mortal and immortal.

Fenrir sorcerers tend to have long shadows, and Leofwine is no exception. When his enemies catch up to him (which enemies always do) and reveal a devastating secret involving someone he holds dearer than life, Leofwine goes berserk and summons a demon capable of destroying the entire realm in a maelstrom of blood. This redoubtable act gains Leofwine not only the condemnation of his order but also the title of Wolf Lord, a wry designation used by otherworldly beings such as demonic warlords and sea witches to refer to the servants of Loki.

And this is only the beginning of his troubles.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Chronicles of Ealiron
The Fylking
Wizards, Woods and Gods

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Swords, Sorcery and the Summer Solstice


Midsummer Greetings!

Where I live, the winters are long and dark. Summer is fleeting, like a dream in which you can’t recall the bitter cold, muck and gloom of the last seven or eight months. Summer has an almost fairytale quality here, it is so clear, fresh, green and fragrant. No doubt the fact that it flies by so swiftly makes it poignant, like a swan song, and on no day is this so evident as on the solstice, the longest day. After its spectacular sigh, we descend into shorter days again and the curve is so steep, it’s noticeable. By August the shadows start to feel weird.

Cosmic Garden

Cosmic Garden, by F.T. McKinstry

What better day for swords, sorcery, demons and wicked warlords? Na, I can’t think of one either. So for the next month, both books in The Fylking series, Outpost and The Wolf Lords, will be on sale for $1.99. Yep, for the price of a potted geranium you can venture into a Norse-inspired world where the veil is thin, the gods walk and the sword is the order of the day.

What could possibly go wrong? Hah!

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Fylking, a high fantasy series woven with Norse mythology, swords and sorcery.

In the worlds of their dominion they are called the Fylking, lovers of strife, song and steel, an immortal race of warriors akin to the Otherworld. Their empires span the heavens; their deities, ruled by the elusive Raven God, embody the forces of war, wisdom, passion and nature.

This series tells the exploits of the Fylking and their mortal observers — warriors, royals, seers, lovers, warlocks and mercenaries — generations upon generations coexisting in uneasy peace with the Gods of War.

Both books contain a glossary and a link to a high resolution map.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

“The tone is excellent, reminiscent of some of the earliest examples of grim Norse fantasy.” – G.R. Matthews, Fantasy Faction
Finalist, SPFBO 2016

Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Wolf Lords Cover ArtThe Wolf Lords, Book Two in The Fylking.

A wounded immortal warlock bent on reprisal.
An ancient order of sorcerers hungry for power.
Warriors beset by armies of demons and immortals.
And a lonely hedge witch whose dark secrets could change everything–
If only they could find her.

“Awesome book. Loved the first book also. I hope there will be more in the series.” – Customer Review on Amazon

Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.

My Wild Wood Elf

Hemlock, by F.T. McKinstry

“Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” – Oscar Wilde

Eleven years ago I adopted a rescue kitty I named Hemlock, after a beautiful pattern in her fur that looked like the bark of a hemlock tree. As a kitten, she had been abandoned and left in the woods to die. Metaphorically speaking, the same thing happened to me and I’ve spent my life dealing with it in much the same way she did: half wild, a bit fey, hard to get close to. In time, with love and patience, Hemlock came to trust me. She was a familiar of sorts. She taught me things, and we understood each other.

Yesterday, I sank to my knees and gave Hemlock to the gods, along with a part of my soul.

Sickness and death have a singular power to drive us into the shimmering web that holds the Universe together. It doesn’t matter what you believe, what platitudes you invoke to comfort yourself, what gods you pray to or not. Death plays no favorites, and in its wake we are alone, staring into the void. In whatever shape it takes, death transforms everything it touches. A window to the Source, inherently creative, death alters the very fabric of time and space and reminds us of what we are.

Grief

Of the vast, infinitely complex array of human emotion, grief wears the crown. It is subject to more denial, tricks and traps than any other emotion and nothing is immune from its clutches. Being imaginative and naturally resistant to change, we have elaborate ways of dealing with grief. We have developed a system for recognizing its stages, all the ways we maneuver, hide and contort ourselves to elude the inexorable. Because it fucking sucks.

Case in point, I shouldn’t be writing this now. I’m as raw as an open wound, between the worlds, a ghost haunting Hemmy’s grave out there collecting snow beneath the trees. I can’t get my head around the fact that she is gone. My house has become a dreary landscape of empty spaces where she used to sleep, play and warm herself. I still feel her frail, dying body in my arms. My eyes are swollen and my head’s stuffed up and grief is surging through me in thorny, spiky waves, tearing me to pieces.

There’s a panel of dispassionate psychiatrists and neuroscientists in my head patiently explaining that my sensations of Hemmy’s presence, seeing her ghost in the shadows of the house, or the image of light surrounding me as the pain ravages my heart are all just mental constructs, delusions, fancies I’ve created as part of the stages of grief. That I’m just manufacturing meaning so I can cope with the loss. Bullshit. If losing Hemmy were meaningless I wouldn’t feel this way. I’m rallying to Quantum Theory, which has begun to sidle up to the fey and frown at the tenets of materialism.

This is a good thing.

Hemlock

Rest in peace, Hemmy, my wild, wood elf girl. You will shine in my heart always.

© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.