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.

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.

Pattern Sense

Dormouse

The heart is a powerful force, more powerful than the earth’s own magic. In this short story, a knitter discovers the strengths and pitfalls of an ancient power through the love of a warrior.

Excerpt

It all started with a mouse.

Persistent creatures, mice, driven as all things are by the turn of winter’s gaze, but with the added cunning of the nocturnal. In early autumn, they found a crack in the eaves of Melisande’s cottage on the wooded outskirts of Ull. The swordsman had repaired the crack before returning to the towers and yards of Osprey on Sea, the great hall over the snow-draped Thorgrim Mountains, where he served. What a swordsman knew of carpentry, well, that was open to question. But he knew other things. Nice things.

As the moon waxed, the mice kept Melisande up at night, their tiny feet pattering in the rafters, claws scraping, teeth gnawing. How such a small creature could make such a racket eluded her almost as much as her lover’s carpentry skills. The cat, being wise in the ways of the season, knew all, for he did not sleep at night, not when the moon was bright and certainly not when leaves spiraled down to carpet the frosty earth. No, he hunted. But the mice knew that.

It was the eve of the Hunter’s Moon when Melisande first noticed something odd in her latest knitting project, a thick winter tunic for the young goatherd who lived at the bottom of the hill. The wool, deep brown as the smoke-stained rafters of the cottage ceiling, formed gaps where the sleeve joined the yoke, much like the cracks between a wall and a roof. Deep in her mind, the observation awoke a visceral awareness of interconnection, the wisdom of the natural world, a tapestry of patterns, lines, curves and counts as perfectly cast as a well-stitched swatch.

Pattern sense, her mother once called it; at least Melisande thought it might have been her, though it could have been her grandmother, or one of the old women in the village. Come to think of it, her mother had turned a dark eye on such things. Being of a wilder mind, Melisande picked up her needles, hummed softly and wove a neat kitchener stitch over the gaps in the armpit of her work.

She did not hear the mice that night, the night after, or the night after that. Melisande wondered if the cat’s vigilance had finally paid off. Clever hunters, cats. So she told herself as her pattern sense curled quietly as a snake in an ivy patch, to rest with both eyes open.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Originally published in Tales of the Talisman Volume 10, Issue 1.

“Pattern Sense” 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 originally inspired Outpost, Book One in The Fylking. When the gods declare war, the mortals of an ancient realm are plunged into a swords-and-sorcery storm of bloodshed, deception, betrayal and the powers of the earth.

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

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.

The Warlock’s Spell

The Warlock's Spell, by F.T. McKinstry
Stars shine in the dark as the moon looks away.
Away, disinterested.
A sword will cut the fair
And call it love.
Love, forsaken.
Come to my hand as a shell washed upon the sand.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

From The Riven God, Book Four in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

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

Earth Blood

Earth Blood inkitt

The earth keeps secrets. In this short story, a warrior discovers ancient power in his veins when he’s plunged into the political corruption of a war devised to hide the truth of his mother’s death.

Excerpt

The forest nodded beneath the subtle insistence of autumn’s touch as a rider thundered through. Boughs, brush, ferns and fallen leaves rippled in his wake, seeking quiescence. Another winter, a long one this year, if the geese and caterpillars knew anything.

Cloaked in the fragrance of blood, the Captain of the North Thorn Guard leaned forward in his saddle, breathing heavily beneath a turbid river of pain strewn with the corpses of his slashed and broken company, their fair eyes staring at nothing.

Harald, he heard his mother say. Fear not the earth.

In one moon’s cycle, he would bow his head to the keening of women, swaying and clutching root knives at the Feast of Shadows. Women for whose blood his men had died at the hands of outlanders, hired cutthroats ravaging the Realm of Five Hawthorns for nothing but stories.

Fifteen suns past, the same women had stood before their mossy altars in silence after finding his mother in a meadow surrounded by a late summer tapestry of goldenrod, purple aster and bramble, her head crushed by a stone. So it was told. Just into manhood, his black hair hanging in strands dripping cold rain, Harald had not been allowed to see her. Instead, his father gave him a sword.

Trust not the earth, he had advised.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“Earth Blood” 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.