The Fifth Verse

Shade Falls

Born of stars and witness to the rise and fall of civilizations, an immortal entity takes for granted the vastness of her knowledge—until she falls in love with an ordinary mortal warrior. But the price she pays for this indiscretion involves knowledge of something much greater and more powerful than war, wizards or even the gods themselves.

Excerpt

The wizard lived north in the foothills of the Spectral Mountains, in the ancient castle of Altaeros. A god of that name had built it; he lived in the sinews of the castle through a towering opal spire that focused his mind in the world. But the Shade cared nothing for that. As a terrible storm, she raced over the sky wailing in a legion of shadows, a maiden’s grief, a mother’s wrath. She struck the towering moss-cloaked stones of Altaeros, shattering panes of crystals and glass, uprooting generations of herbs and flowers and shaking the earth beneath the foundation stones. She rained and split the sky with thunder, she howled like wolves and screamed like owls, and blew the trees and brush into tangled, cracking hands until at last, when she had become too heavy and empty to rage anymore, she fell.

The castle shuddered when she hit the floor.

Time slowed, spun around for a moment, and stopped. An overcast sky gazed down dispassionately as the immortal rolled over in her woman’s form, pale as a broken shell.

“Are you finished?” said a voice above her.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“The Fifth Verse” originally appeared in Tales of the Talisman, V5-4.

This story 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.

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.

Marked

The Hunter's Lair

The mother of a fey child learns the pitfalls of mingling with immortals when her boy is taken by a ferocious winged monster at the request of the god who fathered him.

Excerpt

The constellation of Sioros, the Winged Hunter, sparkled on the twilit sky to the north. The towering cluster gazed down from a large star called the Hunter’s Eye, which shone with steady, soothing light that Lorelei felt before she opened her eyes with a violent shudder. A fisherman’s wife from Othurin, she had a simple mind. But in the light of the Hunter’s Eye, her mind became a tapestry, silvery and glinting in divine patterns of arcs, lines and colors from which her thoughts fell most strangely.

She knew the name of the star, for one thing. Alberon. Yes, that was his name.

This elusive memory brought up another, crushingly accessible one. A mother’s grief drew her up from the dead-cold ground. “My baby,” she gasped, rustling in the breeze between day and night as a raging river flooding over a millwheel, splintering it. She staggered across the bloody path before the cottage, its hearth cold and windows dark.

Away in the distance, a woman screamed.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Marked” 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.

This story tales place in the world of Ealiron, and contains a cameo appearance of Lorth of Ostarin, the protagonist of The Hunter’s Rede, Book One in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

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

The Origin

The Singing Girl

Things aren’t always what they seem. Perception creates reality. But there are rules, such as the linear progression of seasons or the natural and unquestioned confidence one has in the solidity of things. One woodsman falls in love…and the rules change.

Excerpt

He had built this path to the top of the hill where he had first seen her. She had appeared over the grass like a sunrise, walking slowly, her eyes as dark as the night with a tawny star in the depths, her skin the color of the earth and her hair a tangle of moss and roots, reddish and wild, like her. Together they had planted a grove, when the meadow rippled in the wind and birds fluttered and chirruped among the brush and flowers. They had dug the holes for the trees with their bare hands and gently placed the seedlings in. They had smoothed the path by walking to the stream with a fat clay jug, returning to the grove and watering each tree with a jugful, one at a time.

She sang to the trees, the dark-skinned girl. He remembered her voice, rich and full of subtleties, as she stood in the sun with her brown breasts bared and her arms and fingers splayed like the branches of an ash, her voice spiraling into the sky. Underneath the warm green moss, silence loves the water, she would sing. High above the cool blue wind, sunlight loves the air.

He had lain with her, and made her a woman.

He did not yet understand what she had made of him.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“The Origin” originally appeared in Aoife’s Kiss, Issue 21.

This story 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.

Deathseer

The Glass

Keeping a personal secret in the darkness of war is perilous, as secrets know the path to the light. Under the influence of a mysterious observatory, a high commander with the ability to see the hand of Death keeps his secret under the cloak of dreams and visions until he realizes, at great cost, that Death doesn’t take sides.

Excerpt

Liros awoke in the clutches of a recurring nightmare. As a white wolf, he saw through the eyes of a child. Drop the candle and run, run on bare feet, so quietly. The dream hovered in his body, his visceral identity and sense of self, an experience as vivid as waking life. Not quietly enough.

Surrounded. Warm tears fall into the open arms of the eternal Void.

As his consciousness returned, the feeling in his heart stood in anguished contrast to the well-built outpost where he lay, in the pre-dawn, surrounded by the watchful eyes of warriors. They called it Fentalon, named after a war god of the North with the head of a wolf. To Liros it felt like a prison.

A candle flickers out against the cold, damp earth.

He closed his eyes and exhaled as the miasma of his circumstance gathered around him. His fading dream darkened it like a bright light casting the long shadow of a crag.

The roar of the river hides the cries, the truth, even as it weeps.

He made a decision.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“DeathSeer” 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.

The Trouble with Tansy

Tansel's Garden

Gardens keep secrets…especially old gardens. Orphaned and wary of magic, a young woman knows little of her ancestral garden’s mysteries until she discovers her own power in the darkness of winter, the words of a witch, and the loss of her innocence.

Excerpt

In a huge willow tree, perched the shadowy form of a cat, oddly cloaked and sitting with one leg hanging down. It shifted like rolling water into a mink, a salamander, a frog.

Tansel lowered herself into a clumsy curtsy. “Aunt,” she said carefully, “I need your help.”

“What will you pay for it?”

Tansel hung her head. “I have nothing.” It was true. Nothing but tansy.

“You are still innocent. You must give me that.”

Tansel blinked. What did that mean? She recalled what the crone had told her years ago, about knowing the darkness. But it did not matter now. She nodded quickly.

The watery thing in the willow tree swirled down around the trunk like a snake and coiled on the ground, where it became a hovering shadow. In a voice like wind over a grave, it chanted:

“These things three, your garden needs
“To make the dark and light the same.
“Slis, a frog,
“Gea, the spring and
“Retch, the oldest wizard’s name.”

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“The Trouble with Tansy” originally appeared in Tales of the Talisman, V5-1.

This story 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.

“The Trouble with Tansy” was also the original inspiration for The Winged Hunter, Book Three in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

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

Eating Crow

Sioros

It is never a good idea to anger a wizard. One witch causes enough strife to provoke a powerful mage to summon an immortal hunter after her. But when she plumbs the utter reaches of her skills as a shapeshifter to elude the hunter, she discovers the value of her own humanity.

Excerpt

Shapeshifting was Oona’s life, a fluid existence she preferred to humanity. As a human, she would have avoided anything to do with the Master of Straif. A wizard of the deep flowing waters, the hollows of the earth and the implacable forces of blood and transformation, he had one black boot in the shadows.

And he loved his crow.

Oona, on the other hand, found the raucous creature too tempting. Tawny, lithe and driven by the lust of spring, she slipped around the eastern wall of the castle and climbed the spiky old hawthorn tree that grew there.

Most humans knew better than to cross a wizard. A cat did not care.

She landed with a soft thump in a bed of periwinkle. The crow called to the dawn. Nice of him to give her something to head for, though she would have smelled him easily enough without the noise. She crept on her belly through the shadows of lupine spires, tulips and daffodils until she spotted the bird on his perch above the crabapple tree. Fluid as sound, she changed.

She landed with a graceful flutter in the tree, a beautiful female crow with glistening black wings and a song for the male on his perch. He knew enough to be wary of her instant appearance in his domain, but curiosity distracted him. In that instant of miscalculation, Oona drew close and returned to her wildcat shape to finish her wicked deed. It ended quickly.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Eating Crow” 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.

This story inspired one of the scenes in The Winged Hunter, Book Three in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

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

The Bridge

The Bridge

Gods appear to wizards as one thing; to warriors, another. A priestess in search of love in the Otherworld has spent her life preparing for a planetary alignment that will materialize a beautiful nature spirit only she can perceive. But the path to her birthright plunges her into her blackest fears when she is abandoned to a war for which she is indirectly responsible.

Excerpt

The autumn sun cast long beams across the mauve, green and gold tapestry of the brushy field. A woman emerged from the shadows, breathing deeply as a cool breeze drew her cloak around her bare thighs and stirred the rose-violet oil on her skin. She spoke an ancient word from the pit of her womb and passed through the towering gate of Sol Keep, poised like a forbidding hand on the edge of the plain.

The High Master would know she had gone. But he would not know where. Or why.

A chill swept over her flesh as the naidrin’s voice caressed her mind in a whisper of branches, leaves and flowing water. Efae, he said in his gentle way. Where do you fly?

“You should know that,” Efae said aloud, addressing the tree line in the distance. “You told me in a dream last night. Now is the time. Tonight I will cross the Bridge, and we shall be together.”

The naidrin said nothing.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“The Bridge” 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.

Nature as Muse: Root and Stone

Natural landscapes are an integral part of any good tale, a multidimensional backdrop that gives life to the imagination. Like music, natural settings fall in patterns, creating moods, thoughts, and impressions by virtue of what they are.

Inspired by mountains, forests and all things that grow, the world of Ealiron is richly illustrated with root and leaf, both literally and through ancient traditions of magic honoring the correspondences between plants, trees, animals, color, and sound. Here we will journey through old forests, wise trees, enchanted gardens, fragile flowers, and mountains.

Forests

It was the forest’s fault. Those two handsome woodcutters. An evil place, the forest, everyone knew it, full of temptations and imps… ~ Tanith Lee

Hobbit Woods, by F.T. McKinstryForests get a bad rap in fairy tales. When they are portrayed at their most beautiful, that is when we’d best beware. While a deep, dark wood is an excellent metaphor for the shadowy realms of the mind, there is no denying that forests have a soul. The presence of trees creates a feeling of awe and stimulates the imagination.

The following excerpt describes an ancient forest called Eusiron’s Haunt, so called because a god of that name is consciously aware as the soul of the wood. Some say he protects the palace above. Others say it amuses him. To a wizard named Lorth, the Haunt is particularly uncanny.

In this forest, he could have seen a ghost, a wolf or a dragon. He could have seen something as fearsome as a sioros, an immortal man-shaped predator with tall black wings, fangs and no tolerance whatsoever for anything intruding on its territory. He had heard stories of things like that. Efar had told him that whatever one saw here depended on who that person was and with what purpose. Had his intentions been different—hostile, for example—the forest might have changed not only in appearance, but also in what lived here. It would not change in a linear sense, as if monsters or armies suddenly flooded from the trees. Time-space itself would change. From one moment to the next, a forest slightly unnerving would become, from the beginning of time, a forest patrolled by sioros, dragons and Maern knew what else. The ancient oak tree that moved from one side of the path to the other would become a monster with its own history, intentions and no one to stop it, as most likely no palace would tower above the tops of the trees, with an army inside to come to the rescue. ~ The Hunter’s Rede

Trees

“Listen to the trees talking in their sleep,” she whispered, as he lifted her to the ground. “What nice dreams they must have!” ~ L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

The Om Tree, by F.T. McKinstryThere are forests, and then there are trees. After all, you can miss one for the other. Every kind of tree has its own personality: the texture of its bark, how it roots, the shape of its leaves, or the sound wind makes when it blows through the boughs. The spirits of trees are traditionally associated with qualities such as elemental forces, seasons, colors and life cycles. In Ealiron, different trees correspond with the twelve orders of the Keepers of the Eye, wizards and craftspeople who maintain balance in the world’s energies.

There exists a very rare tree in Ealiron called an Om tree. Its seeds are planted by gods, and it lives for many centuries. An Om tree grows in the palace of Eusiron, and is greatly loved by the Mistress of the realm.

The Mistress approached the tree and placed her hands upon it. “Hai love,” she said softly. A bough rustled, lowered down and brushed against the small of her back like a caress. Lorth had once heard about this, though he had disregarded it as a tale warriors tell over fire and drink in the wee hours. They called it the Om tree. Seeded by the stars, the tree rooted deeply into the iomor beneath the palace. It was said the tree knew things, could tell truth from lies, and saw through its bark and limbs to the very heart of the Old One herself. ~ The Hunter’s Rede

Gardens

Gardens are not made by singing “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade. ~ Rudyard Kipling, Complete Verse

The Cosmic Garden, by F.T. McKinstryA garden is a lively place. Plants reach into the soil and up to the sun with chaotic abandon, and yet there is balance; things emerge only in their time, and when the shadows of summer grow long, the garden bows out gracefully. I find joy in participating in this. For my part, I arrange things in nice patterns and keep order while at the same time nurturing the chaos.

Tansel of Loralin is born of three generations of wisewomen. Gardening is in her blood…but she has yet to learn the most profound secret her garden is keeping.

Tansel loved her garden with all her heart. It surrounded the cottage and spread out beneath the edges of the forest like a wild thing, singing. She grew things for eating, seasoning and healing; things that smelled pretty, attracted butterflies, birds, bees, and cats; she grew things for the shapes of their leaves, the way the sun and moon shone upon a petal or a stalk, or the way one thing grew beside another, tangling high and low in arches, tendrils and delicate patterns. Some plants loved the high, bright sun; others preferred the shadows beneath evergreen trees, or water caressing their roots. Tansel grew things she simply liked the names of. Things no one knew the names of.

Few could have said exactly what grew in Tansel’s garden. Not even she knew, from season to season. The garden had a rhythm of its own, a balance that took care of itself. ~ The Winged Hunter

Flowers

With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy? ~ Oscar Wilde

Echinacea, by F.T. McKinstryFlowers are spectacular creations. Brilliant, intense, fragile, and fleeting, flowers capture the essence of sensitive and yet enduring things. When a flower blooms, we know something important is happening.

In this excerpt, an immortal being is having a crisis for which simple things in nature, including flowers, offer some perspective.

The swamp kept singing, falling in harmony to her tears. Life abounded here; it could not grow fast enough. Snakes curled in the trees, muskrats ambled through the cattails to loam hollows, colorful birds fluttered about and bugs crept over rotting logs. A red hind drank from a pool. Rain tapped softly on emerald leaves and touched the flowers, causing them to bob around as if laughing. ~ “The Fifth Verse,” Wizards, Woods and Gods

Mountains

The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change. ~ Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

Mountains, by F.T. McKinstryAn interesting thing about mountains is how they vary in character from one range to the next. There are old mountains, worn down by time and dark in their knowing; young, spectacular mountains crowned by unmelting snow; lush green jungle mountains; and rugged, arid ones. The creatures that live in the mountains know them.

For those living in the valleys, the surrounding mountains exude mystery, as in this excerpt:

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. ~ “The War God Sleeps,” Wizards, Woods and Gods

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Nature as Muse: Warm and Furry
Nature as Muse: Creepy and Crawly
Nature as Muse: Water and Sky

© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Nature as Muse: Creepy and Crawly

An interesting thing about nature is that its humbler critters are every bit as awesome as high profile creatures such as wolves or cats. Watch things up close and the web of interconnection becomes enormous and beautifully complex. For this reason, I am captivated by the creepy crawly side of life. I would not kill a snake or knock down a hornet’s nest. I warn the frogs in the pond to avoid the cats if they know what’s good for them. I don’t mind the big spider in the kitchen window; she looks after things. And the earthworms in my compost pile are magnificent.

As all these things have their place in the woods, they also creep into my stories as actual creatures, similes or metaphors. I enjoy painting them, too. In this post we’ll visit the wise frog, conscientious spider, sneaky snake, elegant fish and crafty raven.

Frog

‘Tis not where water is a frog will be, but where a frog is water will be. ~ Traditional

Frog Medicine, by F.T. McKinstryFrogs are a staple of fairy tales. Witches tend to traffic with them; a handy, unattractive shape for a handsome prince or worse, an ingredient in a simmering cauldron. Of themselves, frogs have an otherworldly air, dwelling on the borders of earth and water, calling for rain.

Far be it for me to create a witch and not mention a frog. The following verse is uttered by a girl in trouble, and it summons a very special frog (hint: it’s not a prince).

These things three, your garden needs
To make the dark and light the same.
Slis, a frog,
Gea, the spring and
Retch, the oldest wizard’s name. – “The Trouble with Tansy,” Wizards, Woods and Gods

Spider

“If anyone wanted ter find out some stuff, all they’d have ter do would be ter follow the spiders. That’d lead ‘em right! That’s all I’m sayin’.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Spider Web, by F.T. McKinstryI have a great deal of respect for spiders. They are good at what they do and they are elegant about it. A common human phobia is named after them as a result. It’s a primordial thing. I wouldn’t harm a spider out of hand, but if one got on me I would scream like the girl I am and not be ashamed.

A well-placed spider will demand one’s immediate attention. Lorth of Ostarin, a protagonist in The Chronicles of Ealiron, bears a scar from a spider bite that nearly killed him. Being an assassin, he appreciates hunters and creatures of the dark side. Perhaps this is why a wisewoman dragged him out of the swamp and saved his life.

He had not known the face of his own death before that, though he knew death in every part of his nature, being the hand that so often dealt it. Now, the spider bite lived in his body as a presence just below the surface of thought. It sensed the nature of events around him, and intensified when anything came along to which he needed to attend.The Hunter’s Rede

Snake

I’m a tiger when I want love, but I’m a snake if we disagree. ~ Jethro Tull

Ribbon Snake, by F.T. McKinstryI once kept a ribbon snake named Kali. I knew she was female because she gave birth shortly after I acquired her. Extraordinary creature; smooth as silk, silent, patient, and breathtakingly fast when she wanted to be. She ate live goldfish.

In myths and legends the snake is an ambivalent being, portrayed as both wicked and wise. It is associated with the Otherworld, as it can vanish into hidden places and replace its skin, a symbol of rebirth. In the following excerpt, the snake provides a visual for a dark place that serves as the Otherworld for a time.

Water rose, echoing in a hollow space. Black and slick as the gullet of a snake, the jaws of the cavern enveloped a small light, a candle in the vastness of mortal despair. A soul flowed out as the sea flowed in, driven by the unnatural wrath of the storm.The Gray Isles

Fish

Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.
~ William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Fish Kingdom, by F.T. McKinstryI’m an aquarium geek. If you ever want to discover firsthand how smart nature is, try setting up a tank with fishes and live plants and keep them thriving. In the natural world, there is a balance between them, a symbiotic relationship that depends on countless variables difficult to replicate. I don’t look at my pond in quite the same way anymore. I am in awe of it.

Fishes make lovely impressions. A sensitive, calm, and sinuous creature reflecting the qualities of water itself, a fish is hidden beneath the surface, ruling the depths. In the following excerpt, one of my characters is transforming into a creature of the sea—and becoming personally familiar with the nature of fishes.

Like a fish startled by a vibration in the water, his nocturnal senses flitted into edged focus, sidelong, obscure, and hunted.The Gray Isles

Raven

I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech. ~ Taliesin

Winter Moon Raven, by F.T. McKinstryA raven is not exactly creepy or crawly, unless you consider that birds evolved from reptiles. But like the snake or the spider, the raven gets points for being emotionally controversial. Mythology and literature abound with raven lore, associating these birds with wolves, death and trickery. Dark, mysterious and incredibly intelligent, the raven is also linked with healing and initiation, processes that tend to usher mortals into the void.

The raven holds a special place in my universe: the symbol for the highest Order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchy of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. The following excerpt involves a mysterious wizard of this order. Folks say he can turn back time, talk to apple trees and change himself into a wolf or a snowstorm.

Tansel’s home faded quickly behind as she hurried after the Raven of Muin. He had said something to Mushroom in a weird tongue that somehow convinced the cat to stay close. Tansel had a harder time keeping up. With remarkable agility for one so old, the wizard moved through the forest like something wild, graceful, and alert to the presence of predators. He took no path or common road. His presence had all the physical immediacy of a dream, reminding Tansel that he had appeared from thin air in the center of her garden.The Winged Hunter

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Nature as Muse: Warm and Furry
Nature as Muse: Root and Stone
Nature as Muse: Water and Sky

© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.