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.

Yoga Crasher

Oona, by F.T. McKinstry
Her real name is Oona, named after a scrappy character in one of my stories, a shapeshifter who gets herself into trouble for crossing a wizard. It fits, trust me.

Oona looks a bit like the white cat in the Henri, le Chat Noir videos. Henri calls his companion an idiot. But Oona is no idiot.

She is a master.

Many say cats are psychic and I’ll attest to this. Oona has powers of teleportation, too. When I spread my yoga mat on the floor and put on some airy music, she appears from nowhere to participate in the ancient and venerable art of yoga. She begins her personal practice by waiting patiently for me to get into an asana, a Sanskrit word for “posture.” Preferably something that requires balance. Then she chooses from a creative repertoire of tricks designed to test my focus, including but not limited to the following:

1. Rub against me, making sure to curl tail into a ticklish place.
2. Put wet nose on me.
3. Drag raspy tongue on me.
4. Wait for empty spot on mat and spread out in it before I can.
5. Drag tail across my face.
6. Chew on hair clip.
7. Sit next to me so I have to move or pet her, depending on how cute she looks.
8. Yowl rather loudly.
9. Pick a fight with one of the other cats in the room.
10. Get up some place high and knock something off (plants work well).
11. Chase something (sparkle balls, moths, dust, shadows, etc.).
12. Scratch on furniture.

Sometimes, Yoga Crasher will take a pragmatic approach (or heed the death threats, however you want to look at it) and jump in my chair for a nice nap. She has ulterior motives for this, of course. As long as I’m on the mat, she gets the chair.

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

Gods and Cats

Love is whole. Love cannot be divided from itself. Love knows all paths, where even gods and cats are blind. – From The Old One’s Domain

The greater a wizard’s power, the bigger his problems—and the higher the price he pays for not attending to them.

Order of Raven, by F.T. McKinstry

Standard for the Order of Raven

Urien of Eyeroth belongs to the highest order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchical order of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. He has the ability to shapeshift into flora, fauna, earth, or fog. He can cast an apparition or merge with the minds of gods. He knows the Dark Tongue, a primeval language spoken by the votaries of the Old One.

He also has a broken heart. And it has driven him to make some lousy decisions.

Excerpt

Raven at Night, by F.T. McKinstryUrien of Eyeroth, a Master of the Eye of the Order of Raven, hurried along the winding forest path beneath a sky shrouded in midnight. Restless wind stirred the trees, and the air smelled of rain and moldering leaves. The light from his torch painted the barren forest in shades of his own reflection, black-haired, gray-eyed and pale for want of a touch. He pulled his cloak close, unable to determine which made him more uncomfortable: the dreary woods or the new moon settling onto his heart like a cloud of moths.

Earlier, he had been ensconced in a comfortable chamber high in the citadel of Eyrie, home of the Keepers of the Eye, reading a text on the principles of structure and formlessness. He had not wanted to leave when the sun descended into the mists, and dusk cloaked the land in damp, unpleasant cold. But he had agreed, under the hollow gaze of the high priestess Wilima, to look into the Void.

He had to ignore his unease that something bad would happen if he did not.

Water 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.

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.

Nature as Muse: Warm and Furry

It’s been said that one doesn’t know how complex a tree is until one tries to paint it. The same can be said of writing. Some days, conveying the essence of something using words is about as easy as shapeshifting into a dragonfly. For this reason, writing stories has given me an awareness of nature that surpasses objectivity.

Nature lives in the confluence of knowledge and imagination. In a story, nature can serve as a setting, a threat, a friend, a symbol or a metaphor. Animals, trees, landscapes or seasons can convey moods, meaning or visuals to characters and situations. The natural world is an infinite palette of impressions. The wizards in my worlds attain their powers in hierarchies defined by the correspondences between trees, birds, colors and geometric symbols. My protagonists have animal friends, can speak to animals or pools using ancient languages, shapeshift into wild creatures, trees or mist, and interact with imaginary beings that are born of stars or reflect the essence of earth, sea or sky. At a deeper level, the manner of a cat or the sound of wind in a tree can describe a face, a mood or the way someone moves. It can describe a personal cataclysm.

Words and nature belong together.

This series of posts will feature some of my favorite flora and fauna, landscapes and luminaries, including illustrations and excerpts from my books and stories. We’ll start with some mammals: the ubiquitous cat, powerful wolf, sensitive hare, clever fox, and graceful fawn.

Cat

Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons. ~ Robertson Davies

Oona Creeping, by F.T. McKinstryCats run my life and I only half joke about it. With characteristic poise, they pad into my work and influence things, elegant, elusive, predatory, fey, cavalier. Aside from inspiring similes and metaphors, cats also star as characters in their own right. In the following excerpt, an assassin named Lorth talks to a feline friend. Formidable though he is, Lorth likes animals.

Smiling, he turned as a small orange cat leapt from the edge of the pier and trotted to his feet, her tail raised and curling at the tip. Lorth had learned a long time ago that energy shields did not fool animals; they saw right through them. He knelt and moved his hand over her fur as she rubbed her body against him, purring loudly. “Graemalkin,” he said, using the Aenspeak word for a cat. “I explained this, ay? Where I go, you cannot follow.”The Hunter’s Rede

Wolf

All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel. ~ Margaret Atwood

Gray Wolf, by F.T. McKinstryTo honor this noble creature, I gave it a special place by associating it with the most powerful and mysterious deity in the world of Ealiron: the Old One, the primordial, feminine force of cycles, birth and death and the Mother of all things. On those rare occasions that she appears, it is usually in the form of a wolf.

A long winter in the wilds would give one chilling respect for wolves. When a human being expresses wolf-like traits, a similar thing happens, though whether it comes from awe or fear depends on the perceiver.

Lorth spoke a word and came into focus, though he had learned from experience that his features, the ghost-pale skin of a Northman with the gold-green eyes of a wolf, were almost as unnerving to a Tarthian as the shadowy form of a cloaking spell.The Hunter’s Rede

Hare

Drumming is not the way to catch a hare. ~ English Proverb

Snowshoe Hare, by F.T. McKinstryThe hare is nocturnal, elusive and careful, as many things hunt them. It is also associated with the otherworld, the between realms, which gives it an eldritch air. The hare is a creature of the Old One. In this excerpt, a master shapeshiftress is in the form of a hare when she discerns the presence of something sinister in the forest.

In a warm burrow sheltered by blackberries and grass lay a snowshoe hare. She had returned with the dawn, her belly full of fiddleheads and clover, and slept. She awoke with a start, warm, alert, her heart thumping like a birch leaf shimmering in the breeze. Darkness moved in the forest. It flew by like the wind, unseen but felt. She twitched. Positioned in her resting place for escape in the event that a predator came upon her, she sprang out and came to rest in a soft bed of ferns.The Winged Hunter

Fox

The fox will catch you with cunning, and the wolf with courage. ~ Albanian Proverb

Red Fox, by F.T. McKinstryAside from its well-known cleverness and adaptability, the fox is another creature of the shadowy borderlands between known and unknown. A fox has an uncanny ability to blend with its surroundings like a shapeshifter. In the following excerpt, a woman calls upon this skill by changing into a fox herself.

Tree frogs sang to a new moon rising as Oona limped from the underbrush on slender paws, with blood-caked fur and thoughts a fox should not have. She slowed and crouched, panting in the shadows of a snakeroot hedge in sight of the castle. She put her snout to the air, hoping for the scent of Rosemary. But first, she had to find a way over the wall.Wizards, Woods and Gods

Fawn

Twilight, a timid, fawn, went glimmering by, and Night, the dark-blue hunter, followed fast. ~ George William Russell

Fawn, by F.T. McKinstryUnbelievably beautiful, a fawn is the essence of grace and innocence. Hard to pass up the vision of a fawn while in the mind of a man—especially a hunter—as he admires the woman he loves.

The priestess unfolded her legs, stood up and unfastened her dress. It slid over her hips and kissed the floor in a silken rustle. She stood there as an animal strengthened by seasons, fell from hunting, hiding and stealth, and replenished each day by wind, rain and cool sunshine. With the grace of a fawn, she lowered herself into the pool.The Hunter’s Rede

In Part Two, “Creepy and Crawly,” we’ll look at some cold-blooded critters…and one extraordinary bird. Until then, keep an eye on the borders of woods and streams.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Nature as Muse: Creepy and Crawly
Nature as Muse: Root and Stone
Nature as Muse: Water and Sky

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

Of Wolves and Paint

I’ve had it in mind for months to do the cover art for an upcoming story in my publisher’s queue. Months of patient and yet diffident motivation. I know nothing. But the part of me driving this doesn’t care about my insecurities. A force of nature, it annihilates the quiet village of my everyday consciousness with all the sensitivity of a plague.

When it’s time, small things become precious. A bag of chocolate chips, a pot of coffee. The yowl of a cat by the half-filled bowl. The birds outside, their feeder getting a little low. That funny chipmunk photo on Facebook. Vacuuming the floor. A nap. Emptying the dishwasher. How engaging and poignant it all is next to the darkness, as if setting that canvas on the easel marks the end of my life.

The darkness is seductive. I put on a playlist entitled “Swords and Sorcery,” a collection of bleak, angry, sublime music that encourages me to pull out my post-apocalyptic paint box and sit here with my head in my hands. All my music sucks under this. All the caps on my paints are cross threaded and gummed up. I have some 30-year old pliers I use to open them. The pliers have a green handle, making them easy to find. I still can’t find them but I enjoy searching because well, I’m not painting yet. Finally, I start squirting paint onto the palette to the clamor of heavy metal and think, “You guys need to shut the hell up so I can concentrate.” But I leave it on.

The sun is trying to come out. It’ll be dark soon. This house is like the inside of a tomb, in winter. Plants crowd the windows with silent desperation, dreaming of spring. Maybe I should turn off this self-obsessed music and think nice thoughts. Go clean the fishtank and water the plants with the green-brown tasty water. That would cheer them up. The bag of chocolate chips is still on the table between me and the fishes. Forget it. Sun’s out now. Plants are fine, fishes are fine, and nice thoughts are meaningless.

My painting is still waiting. Cats come in, cats go out. There are too many shadows and the lights aren’t dispelling them. Cats see into the Otherworld; one might think they’d step up and help me out a little. But it doesn’t bother them. Me, I can no longer tell the difference between the real shadows and the ones in my mind. There isn’t one.

This is worse than writing, it really is. Ok, no it’s not. Yes, it is, this is a lot worse.

No it’s not. But I’m doing this now. Sort of. It’s so easily romanticized, that crossbow tension between yearning and ennui. Since when did suffering become romantic? I suppose it’s better than some manufactured New Age metaphor of smearing oil paint onto an empty surface. I don’t need to be pressured to see this in a lofty way. I’d rather be annihilated.

Probable Cover Art, by F.T. McKinstryOk. Enough abstractions. Pick up the brush. No, not that brush, the other one, the one I haven’t trashed yet. Paint the wolf first, he’s the hardest. Let darkness fall, the wind blow and the rain splatter against the house. It hurts, it’s bleeding. I’m going to die. I can’t do this. Put the paint on the canvas. It looks horrible. Keep painting. It’ll come together, it always does. This wants to happen. It’s ok.

It’s all ok.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2012. All Rights Reserved.