Shades of Instinct

In the wilds of Ostarin, folks have a saying: “Only wizards and hunters know the true meaning of darkness.” But one can sense a truth and not be able to explain it. Some things exist beyond the scope of linear thought, a deep, dark river of visceral knowledge flowing through all life, giving it vitality or, more often than not, unease.

In Ostarin, hunter is the common term for an assassin. There are other terms; many people blur the line between assassin and warlock, two shady occupations that often conspire. But hunter, being universally understood, is used to describe the stream of impressions that connect an assassin to the deep dark river. This is called the Hunter’s Rede, and its impressions are called Shades.

No one knows where the Hunter’s Rede originated. It’s not written down anywhere. A wizard might say the Shades arose from the muddy waters of primitive instinct, truths an assassin does well to heed in the practice of his art. But hunters don’t question this. The Rede defies such objective scrutiny.

Lorth of Ostarin

For Lorth of Ostarin, an accomplished assassin with the rough skills of a wizard, the Hunter’s Rede is as natural as his own heartbeat. It whispers in his mind; sometimes quietly, other times sharply, wearing a stern countenance, or with patient insistence. During Lorth’s search for the meaning of darkness, the Shades become suspect, as knowledge often does in the throes of change. It is only when his heart breaks and he abandons the Rede that he discovers its true nature.

This is how it goes….

Shade of Unknown: I have no name.
Shade of Belonging: I have no place.
Shade of Attention: I am unseen.
Shade of Wings: The owl flies near.
Shade of Silence: Life departs unknown.
Shade of Solitude: I am alone.
Shade of Balance: The Old One knows.
Shade of Age: I am not innocent.
Shade of Night: I sleep awake.
Shade of Kind: The laws of the lawless are certain.
Shade of Need: I love in the shadows.
Shade of Fault: Confidence escapes notice.
Shade of Fate: I owe nothing.
Shade of One: I am the Destroyer.
Shade of Forsaken: The Void loves nothing.
Shade of Harrow: I am swift.
Shade of Alarm: No chance to fear.
Shade of Low: The earth keeps secrets.
Shade of Attachment: No death is mine.
Shade of Illusion: The sun casts shadows.
Shade of Blood: Death is life.
Shade of Instinct: I act from knowing.
Shade of Surrender: All is cyclic.
Shade of Moon: The tide brings light.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Hunter's Rede CoverThe Hunter’s Rede, Book One in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

A swords-and-sorcery tale of one warrior’s transformation by the forces of war, betrayal, wizardry and love.

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

Of Mice and Swordsmen

Dormouse
I live in the woods. Mice are a way of life, and while I’ve always had ferocious hunting cats, mice are very resourceful, especially in the fall when they’re looking for winter shelter. Who can blame them? Winter is nasty, here.

You could make an interesting psychological study some 3AM, wide awake staring at the ceiling, listening to a mouse chewing on something, who knows what, insulation, wiring, rafters; it’s stockpiling caches, building nests, making baby mice–the sucker is at least a foot long, has to be–yes, you could be the Great Shaman of all Wildlife Lovers but after imagining the horrible results of nocturnal mouse business you’ll be capable of anything.

Pattern Sense Cover ArtA while back, I wrote a little story called Pattern Sense, about a knitter who discovers the strengths and pitfalls of an ancient power through the love of a swordsman. I wasn’t being tormented by mice at the time (past trauma maybe), but in a vivid description of the aforementioned scenario, I came up with the perfect impetus for my protagonist to discover the extent of her skill.

If a mouse in the middle of the night can’t bring out a woman’s hidden powers, nothing can.

Pattern Sense made it to the second round finals with Daily Science Fiction, and then I published it in Tales of the Talisman. And then, something magical happened. This story, it seemed, was a glimpse of a full blown novel. This began to unfold and eventually became Outpost, Book One in The Fylking. In that story, there is more to our knitter’s power than mere hedge witchery; and the love between her and the swordsman goes to dark places indeed, a subplot driven by sorcery, treachery, war, and even the gods themselves.

Who knew? Mice have a good place in my life after all. Besides, they are cute.

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.

© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

On the Windswept Tree

Odin's Sacrifice

Hung was I     on the windswept tree;
Nine full nights I hung,
Pierced by a spear,     a pledge to the god,
To Odin, myself to myself,
On that tree which none     can know the source
From whence its root has run.

None gave me bread,     none brought a horn.
Then low to earth I looked.
I caught up the runes,     roaring, I took them,
And fainting, back I fell.

Nine mighty lays     I learned from the son
Of Bolthorn, Bestla’s father,
And a draught I had     of the holy mead
Poured out of Odrerir.

Then fruitful I grew,     and greatly to thrive,
In wisdom began to wax.
A single word     to a second word led,
A single poem     a second found.

Runes will you find,     and fateful staves,
Very potent staves,     very powerful staves,
Staves the great gods made,     stained by the mighty sage,
And graven by the speaker of gods.

The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanzas 138-142

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

In Norse mythology, the story of Odin’s sacrifice stands out as a classic metaphor for shamanic initiation. Odin goes to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, tethers his horse Sleipnir and then hangs himself facing down into the bottomless void beneath the roots. He suffers there in agony for nine days and nights until he sees the runes in the depths. Then he picks them up and is transformed.

Among his diverse and seemingly conflicting aspects, Odin is a poet. He hungers for knowledge. One thing that strikes me about this beautiful verse is its similarity to the writing process. As it often happens, I hang there, staring into the darkness of my mind, a blank screen, longing for a story and seeing only the void—and then, after fighting, clawing and whining my fill at the dispassionate silence, I relax, let go, and suddenly the words come.

Writing is hard work. Most days it sucks. But when this happens, when I touch the Mystery, it’s all worth it.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The Gray Isles

The Gray Isles Cover Art

The Gray Isles is the second book in the Chronicles of Ealiron, a heroic fantasy series that revolves around an assassin called Lorth of Ostarin.

In a remote northern archipelago called the Gray Isles, old magic is rooted deep, hidden from the sweeping gaze of the Eye, powerful wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. When the Masters of the Eye discover an island witch working spells of a twisted and malevolent kind, they send an assassin named Eadred, deadly, a bit fey, with a deep reverence for the Old One, a primordial goddess of creation. But the roots of old magic are entwined in the hands of the goddess herself. And when Eadred’s mark curses him, his mind breaks, his reverence turns to dread and he becomes obsessed with the sea.

For Eadred has learned a secret involving an orphaned fisherman’s son named Hemlock. When their paths collide, a prophecy is set into motion that the heavens watch with dread; for the legends tell, it heralds the birth of an immortal and the death of the realm.

Lorth of Ostarin is a formidable wizard with a turbulent past. An elite assassin and servant of the Old One, he is sent by his masters to question Eadred after he is banished for breaking the codes of his order. Lorth arrives in a fog of eerie impressions to find both Eadred and Hemlock missing, a mystery that swiftly deteriorates into a manhunt that plunges Lorth into a tricky world of visions, legends, loss, and the hearsay of island politics.

In his quest to lift the curse responsible for his fall and subsequent exile, Eadred has gathered great knowledge of Hemlock’s origins. Through him, Lorth reaches the sobering conclusion that Hemlock is not what he seems, but something powerful enough to destroy the realm with a thought. Unfortunately, Lorth is not the only one who has discovered Hemlock’s secret. Racing time, he must bare his sword against an army, violate discretion and risk his own stature in order to free Hemlock from an otherworldly fate before the forces of earth and sea are unleashed upon the mortal world.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Novel, 292 pages
Third Edition
Edited by E.G. Stone
Can be read as a standalone story.
Ebook includes a Glossary and a link to Maps.
Glossary
Map of Ealiron: Sourcesee and East
Map of Ealiron: The Gray Isles

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“Wow. Gorgeous. Highly recommended.” – Amazon Customer Review (See Entire Review)

“F.T. McKinstry has a lyrical voice that suits the ancient magic she describes. The majesty of the gods and mystical forces of the novel entranced me…” – David Lee Summers, Editor of Tales of the Talisman and author of Owl Dance

“The Gray Isles is a very tight and compelling tale of suspense on rocky shores and the high seas.” – Alex Willging, Mr. Rhapsodist

“The strength of this novel lies in its descriptions of Hemlock’s psychological states as he undergoes his psychic changes. It also abounds in excellent descriptions of emotions and sensations.” – Michael D. Smith, author of the Jack Commer Series

“The Gray Isles is an incredible mystery set in an incredible mythical land. Its story captivated and enthralled me from beginning to end.” – Amazon Customer Review

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

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© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The Rites of Hawthorn

Blooming Hawthorn Tree

A lovely hawthorn tree grows by my house, in the woods near a small pond. For most of the year it blends with the surroundings, a tangle of shadows and light. But when it blooms, it takes on an otherworldly presence.

A Druid sacred tree, the hawthorn is traditionally associated with the realm of Faery. With its thorns and red berries it has a fearsome reputation for giving power to the spoken words of Druids and witches. Its berries, leaves and flowers were used to treat heart conditions. It is said that where a lone hawthorn grows on a hill in proximity to a spring or a well, a doorway to Faery is near; and where it grows with oak and ash one may see faeries. A blooming hawthorn tree marks the official beginning of summer, the festival of Beltaine or May Day. As such the tree and its blooms are associated with fertility, weddings and maidenhood.

A warrior becomes strong by the scars on his body; a wizard becomes strong by the scars on his heart. The story of The Winged Hunter delves into the heart of a powerful wizard named Eaglin of Ostarin. Among other things he is a priest who serves a primordial goddess of birth, death and transformation. He is trained in the Rites of Hawthorn, through which he initiates maidens into the sexual mysteries. When one such initiation goes horribly wrong, he bears the scar for years. As it often goes with wizards, it takes a bloodthirsty immortal predator called a sioros to trick him into facing his dark side and healing the wound.

Shadows enveloped the palace of Eusiron as Eaglin stumbled from the trees to the lower gate. In the wavering light of a cresset, his mother stood, tall and dressed in black. Slowly, he dropped to his knees and stared through a shroud of tears at her hands holding a damp scrap of finery, pale as a maiden and stitched with flower-laden hawthorn boughs. “We found her in the river,” she said softly.

“But I did not—” he blurted, shattered by the news.

“You did not understand that you cast the shadow of a god.”

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Winged Hunter, Cover ArtThe Winged Hunter, Book Three in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

Tansel is a gardener with a healer’s hand. Fey, they call her.
Her aunt, a dabbler in hedge witchery, calls her cursed.
To the most powerful wizards in the land, she is an enigma.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Kali the Ribbon Snake

I once kept a ribbon snake named Kali. She ate live goldfish. She would hover over the water bowl for some time as the fish swam around in there and then she would dive in a flurry of writhing, splashing and mayhem. And that would be the end of that.

Baby SnakeI didn’t know Kali was female when I got her. The name just fit. But now I can confidently refer to her as “she” and not fall back on having named her after a romantic assumption. One morning, I came out to say hello and noticed a little head peeking out of the shadows of the greenery. Kali had given birth to seven babies. Once this might have been considered an auspicious omen. In any case, I was impressed.

Snakes are beautiful and fascinating. In traditional animal lore, the snake is a symbol of transformation and rebirth. They live underground, in dark places, and as they grow they shed their skins and are renewed. It’s like an initiation rite. During this time their eyes cloud over and they get aggressive, as they feel vulnerable in the in-between state. Now and then I’ll find a snakeskin in a woodpile or a stone wall. I like to keep them as a reminder that dark or restricting times herald the forces of change and that the sun is still shining up there somewhere.

Photography Prints

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The War God Sleeps

The Temple of Math

Loneliness and a quest for knowledge will drive a person to many things. Combine this with the vision of a shaman, and an age of ignorance ends on the edge of a sword.

Excerpt

Loneliness remained one mystery that defied Sethren’s mind, despite his understanding of structure and formlessness. The space between the lines had become a wellspring of loneliness, an opaque impression only water seemed to penetrate. He often wondered if his father, a hermit whom the folk in the villages thought mad, living as he did on the wild edges of their simple existences, felt lonely. But then, his father lived half of his conscious life elsewhere. Perhaps the ones he spoke to there, the ones who told him things, kept him company.

According to him, loneliness had driven the War God to abandon the world. An entity who caused death by reaching through the lines into the darkness that created them knew the solitude of the Mother; and after so many turns of a world from life to death to life, so many spirals in so many eons, he could no longer bear it. So the War God grew sad and went to sleep.

The hermit spoke of a temple in the north, at the base of Math’s Eye, the mountain range that protected the realm. He said the War God slept there, beneath five points, five lines and a raven’s eye. So said the old tales. So said the mad. No one else spoke of such things.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“The War God Sleeps” is included in Wizards, Woods and Gods, a collection of twelve dark fantasy tales exploring the mysteries of the Otherworld through tree and animal lore, magic, cosmos, love, war and mysticism.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Water, Earth, and Shamanism

The process of writing a story has a way of revealing one’s knowledge or fascination in terms that extend beyond conscious understanding. A powerful lens into the nature of experience, metaphor conveys information that literal explanations can only attempt. Somewhere inside, our hearts make the connections.

Generally speaking, the ancient practice of shamanism involves learning to perceive those connections via a journey into the Otherworld, the realm of essence and the source of exteriorized reality. This typically happens during some years-long cataclysmic life event such as illness or loss whereby the shaman endures the dissolution of personal boundaries, limitations, and false perceptions, and thereby emerges from the Otherworld not only expanded but also connected to the source. It is essentially a mystical experience.

Mistress of the Sea, by F.T. McKinstry

Mistress of the Sea

When I began writing The Gray Isles, I didn’t sit down and think, “How about a story about shamanic initiation?” It started as a story about a young fisherman’s son named Hemlock who has big dreams that contrast miserably with his lot in life. Through him, I embarked upon a sailing trip over the shining waters of an attractive cliché and was promptly accosted by a sea monster with its own ideas. My story grew into a novel complete with tempests, swords, and teeth.

The shamanic initiation often heralds a crushing landslide of doubts and questions about the nature of reality. It’s hard to ignore the forces of the Otherworld when one’s life falls apart at the hands of one’s deepest dreams and desires. At the same time, everything one once imagined possible becomes an illusion in the face of actual experience. It’s a paradox. Transformation inherently implies death: one can’t change unless something is released. For the shaman, this is everything that blocks connection to the Otherworld and understanding of his or her place in the overall scheme of things.

Hemlock of Mimir, by F.T. McKinstry

Hemlock of Mimir

Hemlock’s journey begins with a classic refusal of the call. His perception of reality is shaky as it is, even by the estimation of the wizards he serves, ironically. But he has a deep, visceral connection to the sea. When it shows itself, he naturally assumes it’s just another fantasy. When he gets the idea of trying to prove otherwise—to defend his sanity, of course—he crashes headlong into the implacable clutches of initiation.

This takes Hemlock down, rends him asunder and spits him out on the other side. Now a lost soul, his roots to the earth begin to disintegrate beyond his control. But, cruel as they are, the forces of the cosmos are on his side in the guise of wizards and assassins—and the sea itself, a literal metaphor in this case. A bridge between earth and water, Hemlock is transformed quite nearly to the destruction of everything around him. So it goes. Who would possibly sign up for such a thing if they knew what it would mean?

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Cover Art, The Gray IslesThe Gray Isles, Book Two in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

The legends of sailors and wizards collide in an epic tale of witchery, secrets, curses, and the birth of an immortal.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

An Archetypal Bestiary

To me, the most mysterious and beautiful thing about writing is the process itself. This is an exploration into the Otherworld; like a hapless warrior in a medieval tale, I venture in with my sword and cloak not knowing what will appear from the shadows. I like to be startled.

The Otherworld loves a good laugh. It’s full of tricksters, beautiful beings and demons, a virtual parade of mirrors in which I see myself in the form of fantastic places, characters and events. While this is easy to romanticize, it’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve often regretted getting what I asked for, or been bewildered by the obvious to the extent that it spins my life around—suddenly, it’s not about the story anymore. I’ve written things that took me years to understand and synthesize. But that’s where the mystery comes in.

I love supernatural archetypes…but then again, I’m friends with most of them. Here are some of my favorites in action.

Odin

Odin, by F.T. McKinstryIn Norse mythology, Odin is the one-eyed, all-seeing god of war, magic and wisdom. He is a complex figure, associated with poetry and inspiration, madness and battle fury. He is also a shapeshifter and considered fickle, not to be trusted. He brings to mind the old Celtic stories of poets and magicians who, in their search for truth and pattern, end up going mad and wandering bewildered through the wilds. A patron of writers, if ever there was one.

“The Eye of Odin” is a science fiction story woven into the myth of Odin. It’s about the daughter of a warrior clan who made her fortune as a fighter for a military contractor who harnessed the powers of the higher mind. When she is targeted for discovering a secret beneath their dominion, she must learn the nature of a much greater power: love.

Master of magic, god of war, Odin wanders alone. – From “The Eye of Odin”

Shapeshifter

The Old One, by F.T. McKinstryThe Otherworld itself has the nature of a shapeshifter. You think you are looking at one thing, but it’s something else; the psyche wears garments that mimic the forces of nature in symbolic ways. The shapeshifter reveals things through deception. What better thing to leap out while writing a story of a wizard-assassin about to fall to his own machinations? She appears from the Otherworld with a message he won’t understand until he knows what she is.

He drew one more arrow from the shadows of wind and snow and leveled the black, shiny tip through the trees, drifting along in a track as the lord rode down. Then the small man called out—in a woman’s voice. She stopped and turned, slowly pushed back her hood to reveal the face of a wolf, gray with a white muzzle, her eyes flashing moon pale as they leapt over the surroundings.  – From The Hunter’s Rede, Book One in The Chronicles of Ealiron.

Loerfalos

Mistress of the Sea, by F.T. McKinstryThe unconscious mind has often been compared to the sea. An awesome force, vast, mysterious and mostly unseen, the sea is a metaphor par excellence for the forces of the Feminine, the primeval void from which all things come. The loerfalos, which in the wizards’ tongue means “serpent of green darkness,” is an enormous immortal sea serpent. A creature of the Otherworld, she moves between dimensions, making her elusive and difficult to believe in. Her appearance heralds transformation on a large scale…usually unpleasant. When I began writing The Gray Isles, she was waiting for me. And she had quite a lot to say.

Voices rippled the surface above like the wings of a mayfly, an irritating vibration caught in the rays of the rising sun filtering into the surrounding darkness. One voice she knew; the other, she knew as the blood of an offering cast into the infinite flow of her creatures. Untold shades, hunter and hunted, the souls of drowned sailors, thousands of pearly eggs for every one that breathed, they whispered of chaos in balance.  – From The Gray Isles, Book Two in The Chronicles of Ealiron.

Sioros

Winged Hunter, by F.T. McKinstryThis beastie showed up in my consciousness with a roundhouse kick. He is the driving force in my novel Crowharrow, which is the folk name for him. In the wizard’s tongue, sioros means “destroyer in the air.” A rare creature with the body of a man and the wings of a raven, he is immortal, as are all properly integrated archetypes. Predatory and tricky, he is a powerful seducer of women. Like the loerfalos, the sioros is of the Otherworld, and moves between. While not inherently evil, he can seem so. A supernatural force, he burns with the fire of gods and confronting him—or worse, falling in love—is exceedingly foolish.

She leaned down and plucked a crimson columbine and some meadowsweet. She paused, and then straightened her back as the forest eaves stirred on the edge of the field. Something pale moved there, with a darker shadow surrounding it. A chill rippled over her heart as it came into focus, a magnificent man with the wings of a raven twice his height. Clad in the forest, he moved with the grace of dreams, his feathers settling in whispers as he turned and gazed at her from eyes the color of stars.  – From Crowharrow, Book Three in The Chronicles of Ealiron.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.