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.

Raven of the West, 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: 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.

Monsters and Gardening

I love monster movies. I’ll watch just about anything if it features an alien, a magical beast, a monster or a supernatural being, creatures that both frighten and attract by virtue of their strange and terrifying natures. I tend to root for them, which can be frustrating because the writers usually kill them off with some heroic bluster bent on saving the world or something. If only my personal demons were so easily vanquished! In a mere two hours, at that.

I see fantasy beings in stories as real in their own right, metaphors for the forces of the psyche, personal or collective. The attraction comes by seeing some part of myself in living color that I thought was safely banished to the hinterlands of my darker side. But it’s never a good idea to banish a shadow. Such a lonely thing. So I write; it’s the ultimate way to lure out the monsters and talk to them.

Cosmic Garden, by F.T. McKinstry

Book Three in the Chronicles of Ealiron began as a story about gardening. Well, not just any gardening, but wild, magical gardening, the sort of thing a wizard or a priestess would know about. But like all natural things, gardens have a dark side, and this one holds a spooky secret bound up in a young woman’s innocence. Born of wizards and yet sheltered from them, Tansel of Loralin reaches womanhood with little more conscious awareness than a flowering rose. Her instincts know more, however, and when a mysterious old wizard takes her away from her isolated existence to live in his castle and tend his garden, the cracks begin to show.

Sioros, by F.T. McKinstry

Enter the beastie. The locals call him crowharrow; and wizards call him sioros, one of their odd, multidimensional words for things like him. Immortal, utterly beautiful and fell, he is an expression of the Destroyer, the darkest aspect of the primordial Feminine. He does not appreciate mortal sentiments. He cannot be dismissed or bargained with—and Mother help any woman who falls in love with him. He is pure male in its darkest form: the edge of a sword, the devastation of fire, the blood of maidens. His appearance is never random or arbitrary, but has its roots in the shadows cast by gods.

Conveniently, Tansel believes the crowharrow is just a legend. But innocence crafts its own demise. A mortal cannot remain in that state. In the powerful, such as a child of wizards, innocence is perilous. When the crowharrow awakens her, Tansel floats like a butterfly under his thrall, instinctively knowing what he wants from her but not really understanding it. The wizards do. So do the ghosts of her ancestors.

This is not a monster that can be killed. He is more akin to treacherous seas: either you learn his nature through becoming aware of your own, or you die. He exists beyond the mortal will to control. He does not care. The beauty of such forces is that they affect everything they touch at the deepest levels. Drawn in by his power are not only Tansel but also those who would protect her: a powerful wizard with a wound involving the sexual initiation of a maiden; the old, broken wizard who attempts to shelter Tansel from a curse he laid on his own bloodline for want of a woman’s love; and a master shapeshiftress steeped in bitterness over what she cannot change. The crowharrow has his fangs in every pie, stripping off scabs and exposing each character’s ugly secrets to the light of day. Through interacting with him, these mortals are systematically dashed upon the rocks of their lost powers in a spiraling crescendo of lust, heartbreak, desperation and mishap that rocks the roots of the mountains. Only then can the immortal predator return appeased to the Otherworld, leaving renewal and healing in his wake.

Monsters create heroes. What dies is not always the beast, but those things that hold us from our greatest potential. Still, best to keep an eye on the trees….

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 2012. All Rights Reserved.

An Archetypal Bestiary

To me, the most mysterious and beautiful thing about writing is the process itself. This is an exploration into the Otherworld; like a hapless warrior in a medieval tale, I venture in with my sword and cloak not knowing what will appear from the shadows. I like to be startled.

The Otherworld loves a good laugh. It’s full of tricksters, beautiful beings and demons, a virtual parade of mirrors in which I see myself in the form of fantastic places, characters and events. While this is easy to romanticize, it’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve often regretted getting what I asked for, or been bewildered by the obvious to the extent that it spins my life around—suddenly, it’s not about the story anymore. I’ve written things that took me years to understand and synthesize. But that’s where the mystery comes in.

I love supernatural archetypes…but then again, I’m friends with most of them. Here are some of my favorites in action.

Odin

Odin, by F.T. McKinstryIn Norse mythology, Odin is 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. He brings to mind the old Celtic stories of poets and magicians who, in their search for truth and pattern, end up going mad and wandering bewildered through the wilds. A patron of writers, if ever there was one.

“The Eye of Odin” is a science fiction story woven into the myth of Odin. It’s about the daughter of a warrior clan who made her fortune as a fighter for a military contractor who harnessed the powers of the higher mind. When she is targeted for discovering a secret beneath their dominion, she must learn the nature of a much greater power: love.

Master of magic, god of war, Odin wanders alone. – From “The Eye of Odin”

Shapeshifter

The Old One, by F.T. McKinstryThe Otherworld itself has the nature of a shapeshifter. You think you are looking at one thing, but it’s something else; the psyche wears garments that mimic the forces of nature in symbolic ways. The shapeshifter reveals things through deception. What better thing to leap out while writing a story of a wizard-assassin about to fall to his own machinations? She appears from the Otherworld with a message he won’t understand until he knows what she is.

He drew one more arrow from the shadows of wind and snow and leveled the black, shiny tip through the trees, drifting along in a track as the lord rode down. Then the small man called out—in a woman’s voice. She stopped and turned, slowly pushed back her hood to reveal the face of a wolf, gray with a white muzzle, her eyes flashing moon pale as they leapt over the surroundings.  – From The Hunter’s Rede, Book One in The Chronicles of Ealiron.

Loerfalos

Mistress of the Sea, by F.T. McKinstryThe unconscious mind has often been compared to the sea. An awesome force, vast, mysterious and mostly unseen, the sea is a metaphor par excellence for the forces of the Feminine, the primeval void from which all things come. The loerfalos, which in the wizards’ tongue means “serpent of green darkness,” is an enormous immortal sea serpent. A creature of the Otherworld, she moves between dimensions, making her elusive and difficult to believe in. Her appearance heralds transformation on a large scale…usually unpleasant. When I began writing The Gray Isles, she was waiting for me. And she had quite a lot to say.

Voices rippled the surface above like the wings of a mayfly, an irritating vibration caught in the rays of the rising sun filtering into the surrounding darkness. One voice she knew; the other, she knew as the blood of an offering cast into the infinite flow of her creatures. Untold shades, hunter and hunted, the souls of drowned sailors, thousands of pearly eggs for every one that breathed, they whispered of chaos in balance.  – From The Gray Isles, Book Two in The Chronicles of Ealiron.

Sioros

Winged Hunter, by F.T. McKinstryThis beastie showed up in my consciousness with a roundhouse kick. He is the driving force in my novel Crowharrow, which is the folk name for him. In the wizard’s tongue, sioros means “destroyer in the air.” A rare creature with the body of a man and the wings of a raven, he is immortal, as are all properly integrated archetypes. Predatory and tricky, he is a powerful seducer of women. Like the loerfalos, the sioros is of the Otherworld, and moves between. While not inherently evil, he can seem so. A supernatural force, he burns with the fire of gods and confronting him—or worse, falling in love—is exceedingly foolish.

She leaned down and plucked a crimson columbine and some meadowsweet. She paused, and then straightened her back as the forest eaves stirred on the edge of the field. Something pale moved there, with a darker shadow surrounding it. A chill rippled over her heart as it came into focus, a magnificent man with the wings of a raven twice his height. Clad in the forest, he moved with the grace of dreams, his feathers settling in whispers as he turned and gazed at her from eyes the color of stars.  – From Crowharrow, Book Three in The Chronicles of Ealiron.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Where Veils are Thin

The physical world, some believe, is held and permeated by the Otherworld, an invisible realm most often perceived in dreams, visions, and fairy tales. At certain points in time, such as twilight or All Hallows Eve, the natural boundaries between the physical and the unseen become thin. In certain places, this happens by virtue of location or meaning; such as bridges, caves or the edge of a forest. People who are sensitive to the Otherworld are said to possess second sight.

Lorth of Ostarin, an assassin and the protagonist of The Hunter’s Rede, is such a one. Trained by a wizard, he has more faculties than the average seer and does not shiver at the appearance of the strange. When the dark-cloaked figure of a woman with a wolf’s face begins to haunt his dreams and visions, he puts it down to exhaustion and the stress of having a price on his head. But when a flesh-and-blood woman leads an armed company into the woods to hunt him, Lorth pales with confusion as, in clear sight of the men accompanying her, she draws back her hood to reveal what has, until now, remained safely in the dark.

The Old One, by F.T. McKinstry
She emerged into the light, cloaked in black and moving with the sinuous, primeval grace of all women.  She reached up with a pale hand, touched the edge of her hood and turned, drifting like fog without a sound across the earth.  A wolf gazed over the fire with pale gold eyes staring deeply, completely, until she turned away and vanished into the shadows.

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.