Puss in Books

Puss in Boots

Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots) ~ Gustave Doré

“When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction.’ ~ Mark Twain

Hello, my name is Faith and I’m one dead mouse away from being a crazy cat lady.

It’s been said that cats lend themselves particularly well to writers. There’s something comforting about the presence of a cat, a divine connoisseur of languor and solitude. Cats are a soft touch in the void.

And writers of fantasy? Now we’re talking Muse. Cats are mysterious and reputed to prowl the boundaries of the Otherworld. Here cats can talk, do magical things or act as gods. They serve witches, wizards, even warriors. They provide beautiful metaphors for grace and implacability—just watch a cat stalk and kill some hapless creature. Exemplary.

Stalking Hemlock

Hemlock

As I can no more pass up this tempting morsel than a cat could ignore a little bird hopping on the windowsill, following are some cats that appear in my books and stories….

Sele is kept by the sailors of a merchant vessel called The Slippery Elm. They consider her good luck at sea. When a brooding assassin named Lorth secures passage, the sailors are counting on Sele to protect them. But cats have their own agendas. She forms a bond with Lorth, who likes animals, and keeps him company over his journey.

Radu

Radu

Scrat is inspired by a cat I once had named Radu. In classic style, Scrat belongs to a wizard. He does not employ her as a familiar or an Otherworld guide, but as a mouser and a friend. Scrat is later adopted by Lorth and comforts the assassin as no human can.

Mushroom rules the garden of a young woman named Tansel, who lives alone in the mountain forest of Loralin. When she and the cat are taken in by a powerful old wizard with some dark secrets, Mushroom has his work cut out for him. While prowling after a female in heat, Mushroom attracts the attention of a winged immortal predator set on Tansel’s heart. The cat flees like a ghost when things get ugly, of course.

Oona

Oona

Rosemary does more than catch mice, cause trouble or warm a wizard’s lap. She can sing to the stars, draw down the light and heal things. She can make caterpillars drop from a plant, knit the leg of a lame horse or bring a warrior from the brink of death. In one story, she helps a witch reclaim her humanity.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Sele and Scrat appear in The Hunter’s Rede, a story of one warrior’s transformation by the forces of war, betrayal, wizardry and love.

Mushroom appears in The Winged Hunter, a story of the perils of innocence, an immortal hunter’s curse and the long shadows of powerful wizards.

Rosemary appears in “Eating Crow,” a short story in the collection Wizard, Woods and Gods.

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

Old Mother Void

I found a little snakeskin in my woodpile yesterday. Well, what was left of it, anyway. A woodpile is a rough place—which, of course, is why the snake went there to perform its sacred ritual. Like a wild-eyed crone in a fairy tale, I gingerly gathered up the papery skin and put it in a safe place. You know, in case I need it some day.

The timing of this discovery is worth noting. In traditional animal lore, the snake is revered as a creature of transformation and rebirth, symbolized by the periodic shedding of its skin. A passage through the Dark Night, the Void, this process is part of all life, from the tiniest seed to the universe itself. In the wheel of the seasons it is honored as All Hallows Eve, when the veils to the Otherworld are thin and the living mingle with the dead. This is a time to acknowledge Old Mother Void and to make friends with creatures that tread the ‘tween paths without fear.

River Prowling, by F.T. McKinstry

The Old Mother has a tendency to cast a chill on the hearts of mortals. Hers is the prickle on one’s spine when wind whispers in the chimney; the cold, crushing tide of grief; the chasm a writer stares into while waiting for the words; or the visceral knowledge that it’s time to release something that no longer serves. And yet, while implacable, the Old Mother does have one’s best interests at heart. After all, the snake doesn’t fear as it slithers into a dark woodpile to shed its skin.

So I’ll keep my creepy little snakeskin, thank you, to remind me of that. Heh.

Ribbon Snake, by F.T. McKinstry

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

Eaglin of Ostarin

Eaglin of Ostarin

In the world of Ealiron, gods walk among mortals, though they are rarely seen and do not tend to concern themselves with mortal affairs beyond knowing themselves through their creations. One exception is Eaglin, the mortal son of Ealiron himself, a god who made love to Eaglin’s mother as a dream. Trained from birth by both gods and wizards in the arts of magic, war, and the old powers, Eaglin belongs to the Order of Raven, the highest order of wizards in the land. He also serves as a high priest to the Old One, the divine feminine force of cycles, birth and death.

Although Eaglin lives among mortals and knows the seasoned wisdom of animals, forests, stars and lovers, he is a solitary creature whose heart belongs to no one. By his stature, he bears the temperament of the sea: vast, powerful and unpredictable.

Eaglin is a master of shapeshifting. In the following excerpt from The Winged Hunter, he has been asked to track down a witch named Aradia, who has been hiding in animal forms for years to elude an immortal predator bent on destroying her. Finding her is one thing; returning her to human shape, another.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Excerpt

Eaglin lowered his head and stepped back, pulling his airy cloak around his body like a wing. He knelt and spoke a word in Aenspeak to invoke the spirit of a mountain cat. A swift, agile hunter, the cat knew the paths to the Otherworld. His mind flowed into the boundaries of the hall, held in Caelfar’s spell. A wild rush of impressions spread before him, a torrent of sadness, color and song, each person, creature, tree and plant alive and suspended in a sea of light. He studied the glimmering patterns until his mind stilled on an anomaly, a pattern of one thing beneath another in an unnatural combination of energies.

He changed. His consciousness erupted into a fluid expanse of sight, scent and sound. In a single bound, he leapt to the top of the courtyard wall, padded on supple paws over the top to the far eastern side and dropped without a sound. Then he trotted towards the skittered pattern of Aradia’s altered form. A short time later, he slipped into an empty corridor outside of the antechamber of the Waeltower, his thick haunches flowing.

A rat scuttled along the edge of the passage. When it saw him, it stopped with a squeak–and disappeared.

Eaglin did not focus on Aradia’s form but on the pattern of something shapeshifted. He did not need words and he did not need to follow her through a succession of changes; he only needed to catch her once. He entered a circular courtyard open to the sky and ringed with elm trees. With a graceful thrust of feline power, he leapt into the air with a twist and caught a bluebird in his claws. It screeched and vanished. Eaglin landed on his feet as a man, cloaked and hooded. In cupped, closed hands, he held a hornet. He clenched his jaw as it stung him.

Moridrun fore sarumn,” he said in Aenspeak, as if to wish the morning well, and then he threw open his hands and stepped back. Aradia tumbled to the floor.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Eaglin appears in The Hunter’s Rede, in which he encounters a roguish assassin (Lorth of Ostarin) and a cruel warlord who drives his homeland into war.

In The Winged Hunter, Eaglin faces his shadow in the form of a diabolical immortal being that he is called upon to banish.

In The Riven God, Eaglin joins an exiled princess, a war god and the wizards of Ealiron in a war against a devious entity threatening to plunge the world into desolation.

In Water Dark, he is caught in a love triangle that causes him to question his destiny as the child of a god.
 
© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Hemlock and Editing

Hemlock, by F.T. McKinstry

Hemlock

I recently came upon a series of amazing photos of animals camouflaged in their natural environments. They are very good at this. True to form, my cat Hemlock can vanish like a ghost when she’s of a mind.

So I just finished editing my latest novel. By “finished” I mean for the time being, because well, my publisher was waiting and I can only tinker with it for so long. Stephen King says it nicely: “To write is human, to edit is divine.” Yes, and I’m burnt. But while basking in the warm glow of having handed the beastie over to my editor, I had an interesting thought.

Mistakes hide in manuscripts in much the same way creatures camouflage themselves in the wilds. A missing or a wrong word is not as beautiful as Hemlock, of course. But I have to acknowledge how clever words are at hiding in seemingly harmless passages. It’s a testament to the power of the imagination that one can look at that egregious grammatical blunder sixty five times and not see it. Then suddenly, like magic, there it is sitting in the garden under the bushes.

They shapeshift too, you know. But that’s another story.

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

The Wizard’s Library

A library is a beautiful thing. It is a sanctuary of the mind, silent, looking within itself. Sometimes I figure everything we know must be in a library somewhere. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is always another book to place on the shelf.

A Wizard's Tower, by F.T. McKinstryThe idea of a wizard’s library is ridiculously romantic, conjuring up images of dark wood, labyrinthine passages, an old chair covered with cat hair and tables full of creepy things like crystal spheres, a skull, dried-up roots or a stuffed crow. Books, scrolls and pages fill every space, stacked into the vaults of a stone tower, a keep or a woodland cottage. In these books is all manner of arcane information, much of it long forgotten except to the wise.

Urien of Eyeroth, the protagonist of Water Dark, is a wizard of the Order of Raven, the highest order in the Keepers of the Eye. One must read a great many things to become a Raven. So the story begins, with Urien sitting high in the Keepers’ Archive reading a tome that explores the intricacies of creation. The passage goes like this:

Desire gives formless identity structure in the form of conscious boundaries. These boundaries are subject to the forces of the Old One, who destroys old structures to create anew. ~ The Theory of Structure and Formlessness

Old BooksThere is nothing romantic about this. The heart has a way of disturbing the dust that settles on one’s beliefs. No matter how much a wizard knows, there are always dark places in his mind. All his books conspire against him. Said another way:

The Old One has a dark side that lurks in the hearts of those with power, scattering clear thought, blinding them to wisdom. Artfully, she lays the thorny paths of growth, leading souls into her realms to be stripped of old patterns. Thus, wisdom is ofttimes gained through folly, and light through darkness. ~ On the Nature of Water

After crossing a wicked priestess, Urien trips into an emotional, dangerous river of experiences involving an ex-lover and a beautiful apprentice. But wizards don’t tend to get away with things; they are too close to the source. Throughout the story, passages from books in the Keepers’ Archive whisper in Urien’s mind, reminding him of the things he knows—and doesn’t know yet.

There’s more to being a wizard than just reading books, unfortunately.

In the calm, deep waters of the mind, the wolf waits. ~ The Theory of Structure and Formlessness

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Cover Art for Water DarkWater Dark, a tale of desire and deception told on a fairy-tale landscape of arcane texts, herbal lore, visions and disasters at the hands of the powerful.

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

For the Birds

Every season of the year has its distinguishing qualities. One of my favorite things about spring is the return of birds. In the north, where I live, winter is long and somewhat daunting; still and silent but for crows, blue jays and chickadees. But in the spring, suddenly I hear birds, lots of birds that I haven’t heard in a good while. The woods come alive with them.

My cats are interested in this too, of course. They do what they do—yeah ok, they hunt. Ferocious predators, cats. I’ve rescued quite a few birds from their clutches. I have this Radagast the Brown thing going on. I explain to the birds that they need to be careful around here. The phoebes get a special talk: “Oh dear no, you can’t build your nest on the shed door because that black cat there will eat you and yours and not even belch afterwards.” And don’t even get me started on the hummingbirds. Despite this, the birds kindly hang around all summer even after I take the feeders down to deter the bears, raccoons and skunks. Nature knows her own dark side, as do all balanced things.

In honor of our feathered friends, I would like to share some paintings I’ve done over the years…in the spring, usually.


When I began building the world of Ealiron, birds like raptors and swans became symbols for hierarchies of wizards. Ealiron: The Keepers of the Eye contains a series of pen and ink drawings depicting these.

Happy birding!

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2013. 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.