Story Illustrations: Wizards, Woods and Gods

Wizards, Woods and Gods is a collection of twelve dark fantasy tales exploring the mysteries of the Otherworld through tree and animal lore, magic, cosmos, love, war and mysticism.

I did a series of pen and ink illustrations inspired by some of these stories. Click on the images to zoom and get information about each story.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. 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.

The Eye of Odin

Eye of Odin, Cover Art

Three hundred years have passed since half of Earth froze, and the human race has settled other planets under the supervision and control of a military contractor that harnessed the powers of the higher mind. But when the daughter of a warrior clan who made her fortune in the contractor’s service discovers a dark secret beneath their dominion, she must learn to fight like the old gods.

This short story is woven into the Norse myth of Odin, 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.

No one knows whose side he’s on.

Excerpt

Violet Scott took a deep, uneasy breath as the gray-green orb of Asgard, the home of Odin Systems, appeared in the sentient darkness of space like a gaze. To calm herself, she mentally recited a tale that her grandfather, a professor of ancient Earth religions, had taught her as a child, about a Norse god who had sacrificed an eye to gain the wisdom of ages.

He is warrior, he is poet, he is mad. He is Odin, the Wanderer.

The lavender light behind her eyes turned incandescent white as she entered orbit. A gray shadow crossed it, a raven moving over a twilit cliff face. She brushed it off with a chill on her heart that crept down into her womb like a spider.

The center of the hexagram in her mind shimmered as a clairaudient voice filled the space around her. “Odin Systems Ministry, calling Fenrir One. Identify.”

“Valkyrie Scott,” she responded, carving her thought with a focused knife. “Warden of the Nightshade Outpost. Requesting permission to land.”

She held her mind in a state of receptivity, a controlled opening surrounded by a steely network of supposition. Sprays of stars arced over her ship, a Fenrir fighter, glistening and fell in the emptiness between worlds. The soft, warm interior of the hull surrounded her body like the guts of a wolf that had consumed her.

A long silence caused her to realize she had just unthinkingly given them the title of Valkyrie, which was no longer hers.

“Request authorized,” came the response finally, devoid of emotion. “Report to the Hall of Gladsheim.”

Violet eased back in her seat, spinning complex webs of geometry, the equations of a landing. She closed her eyes as the forces of entry gripped the hull and streamed over her mind in streaks of red, orange and nonlinear questions. A prickle raced up the right side of her spine.

He rules over his great Council of Twelve, in his Hall of Gladsheim.

Gladsheim. Not Valhalla, the hall in the east where the warriors were housed and trained; not Valaskjalf, the hall in the west that coldly ensconced the Systems Controls Tower. Not a good sign.

She focused on the Light with an iron hand. Light fueled her ship; Light from every sun, color and tree; Light, the foundation of the cosmos. She gazed through the center of the star, spiraling in as darkness closed a fist around her.

But she would not look into the Void. Not here, in sight of the Judges.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Short Story, 20 pages
Originally published in Aoife’s Kiss, Issue 35, December 2010

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© F.T. McKinstry 2016. 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.

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 Perils of Shapeshifting

Kalein, by F.T. McKinstry

Kalein

Red Fox, by F.T. McKinstryOnce upon a time there lived a wizard named Kalein who mastered the art of shapeshifting. With the grace of an immortal, she could become any creature, plant, tree or element in the forest. By this she reveled in the beauty and complexity of life.

The wise warn that spending too much time in other forms weakens the fibers of one’s humanity. The lore of wizards is rich with such tales; in time, these become folk legends of animals or trees that were once human and forgot themselves. But it is also said that the love of another will keep a shapeshifter on the ground in human feet.

 
 
Crowharrow, by F.T. McKinstryA powerful mage named Caelfar loved Kalein with all this heart. She gave her love to him, but the pull of the wilds was stronger. One day, while picking flowers in a high meadow, she spied a crowharrow, a rare immortal hunter with the flawless body of a male god and the wings of a crow. He gave her no more mind than a cat passing through a garden, and vanished into the Otherworld, taking Kalein’s heart with him.

 
 
Water, by F.T. McKinstryFrom that moment, Kalein forgot the warnings of the wise. She became the wilds, her human nature a mere reed in the rushing river of her life, a dream out of focus. She never saw the beautiful immortal again, as such beings elude the dimensions of mortal perception. One day, Kalein shifted into a sleek, silvery fish with an air of the strange that caught the crowharrow’s eye. He reached through the veil, caught her in his claws, sank his fangs into her tender flesh and ended her longing.

Caelfar, shattered and cursed by having used his powers to win Kalein back from the crowharrow’s thrall, erected a statue of his lover in the center of his magnificent garden, to remember her always. Standing in a pool, she has swirling fins in place of feet.

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.

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.