This the fourth installment in our Heroes series, written by our own Robert Rhodes. The art is courtesy of Allen Douglas.

fantasy and science fiction book reviews

On a brisk autumn day, Mad Batson went a-wandering.

He closed behind him the door of the forgotten shrine that was his home in Fair Forest and, clicking his tongue, finger-painted the lintel with a rune of sulfur and bean curd. Satisfied that any intruder would be whisked onto the pleasure barge of the Archduchess of Milph and bloated with nose-wrinkling gases, he brushed off his hands and departed.

Red-golden leaves crackled under his leathery feet. He stretched his bony legs into loping strides, letting the air swirl refreshingly underneath his woolen robes. In an oak grove, he interrupted three faeries arguing the virtues of peaseblossoms, declaring, with a stomp of his foot, the day too fine. A vixen challenged him to a staring contest — an immersion in fierce amber flame — which ceased with a nodded truce. He plucked scarlet camellias, wove them into a wreath, and silently clasped it beneath an ancient ash as a murder of crows cawed farewell to their dead historian.

By mid-afternoon he crested a ridge on the forest’s southern edge and peered down through the slanting light. The River Milph curved through the field-checkered valley like a highway of blue steel, crowded with the horseless carts of merchant vessels and — he stroked his bristling beard — the ludicrous gypsy wagon of the Archduchess’s pleasure barge.

He hiked up his robes and descended into the valley, guided at last by the scent of charcoal and the hum of bees. He found the graying hedge-witch in the garden behind her cottage, engulfed like a goddess in a haze of sunlight as she wafted smoke from an iron brazier into one of her hives. Her mouth opened at his approach, and she set down the brazier before folding her arms across her peasant’s blouse and queenly bosom.

He performed a double obeisance and, after clearing his throat, proffered the wreath of camellias. “Your servant, madam.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Welladay! Dip me in gravy and make me a werewolf’s bride. What brings the old ghoul of Fair Forest into the open?”

“Sweet Rose,” he said, twirling the wreath around one finger, “ghoul is a trifle harsh, methinks.”

With a pass of her hand, she waved away both smoke and his reply. “Fool, then, or tool. Whichever pleases. But my question—” She caught her breath and turned toward her cottage and the sun-drenched pasture before it.

A remarkably large black hare burst from the grasses. Mad Batson licked his lips and prepared to conjure a net, until it sat before Rose’s billowing green skirt. She stared at it, its ears and nose twitching fitfully, then unleashed a growl of contempt.

“Is this a bloody hostel now?” she asked the world, pointing at her cottage and then the saffron-colored sash around her waist. “Must I grow a paunch and answer to ‘innkeeper’?”

Mad Batson took two tentative steps forward, squinting at the pasture. “What is it?” he whispered. “Commandants of the Royal Legion? Tax collectors?”

Fortune seekers,” Rose snapped. “And Blackguard says they’ll be here soon.” She snatched the wreath from him. “Come and make yourself useful — servant.”

*  *  *

Mad Batson forced them to knock twice before he opened the cottage door. There were three. Two men — a brute swordsman and a ferromancer — and a female sneak-thief. They were young, lean, and cocksure, with tousled hair and tattooed hands, and were redolent of horses and oiled metal. He suspected they shared a blanket. And like others who, once or twice each year, would bother the hedge-witch, they sought information about the Bloodstone Mage’s crypt in the nearby hills.

“Now see here,” he said, “I could simply pretend to be this fine lady’s mute servant while she murmurs over tea leaves and advises you to abandon your quest. However, the Bloodstone Mage happened to be my colleague at the Royal Arcanum West, before I absconded and he fell twelve hounds short of a fox hunt. Ergo, I have, so to speak, ‘the goods.’ Mind you, they are not free.”

In the end, after the three had handed over twelve coins, an ivory-handled razor and shaving brush, a flask of cherry cordial, and a lock of hair from each — this last, to inspire them never to return — Mad Batson whispered a word in the ferromancer’s studded ear and slammed the door.

“Are you utterly daft?” the hedge-witch asked as she pulled the stopper from the flask. She passed it under her nose and nodded approvingly — not at him. “A silly question, I know. Even so — they’ll be blasted into three heaps of lovely-smelling dust.”

“Tsk, tsk, tut, tut,” he answered, waggling his eyebrows. “A mirror, fair Rose?” She frowned but pointed to one hanging on the wall above the foot of her cot, its weathered cherry frame carved with vines, birds, and kittens. He touched it with his thumb and called, “Rupert? Rupert the Bloodstone Mage? Batson here. Do you have a moment?”

The glass swirled and clouded with chill blue light. In seconds it cleared to reveal a dank stone crypt, illuminated only by the glow of the scowling specter who glided into view. “Batson, you lush,” it rasped. “I have a moment. And a few rotting eons! The price of bollixing up the longevity rites — buggered ethereal fluxes! So… what do you want?”

“Some young fortune seekers will visit you in the next few days. If they speak the word nostab, kindly refrain from destroying them.”

The specter pulsed as if lightning-lit. “Why should I? No, I’ll tell you why! First, you’ll explain why you quit the Arcanum. We’d such hopes for you! Was it that to-do with the Archduchess?”

“Hardly,” Mad Batson sighed. “I was tired of seeking power. I wished to live.”

“How very wise.” The undead mage sneered. In a moment, his gaze turned to Rose. “And second, I want to see her wares.”

“Now see here, Rupert! This is—” He froze at the hedge-witch’s sudden grip on his arm.

“It’s all right,” she said, glaring at the mirror. “It’s for the children. Turn around.”

Soon, with the mirror darkened and the hedge-witch smoothing her blouse, Mad Batson went to the door. “Madam, I bid you a lovely and less eventful evening.”

Her mouth quirked, and she lifted the bottle of cherry cordial. “But who’ll help me drink this tonight?” she asked, her girlish grin more than overcome by the unmistakable huskiness of her voice. Then she shrugged. “It’s been over ten years since anyone brought flowers. Or anything at all.”

He took a moment to shut his jaw and lifted his hand from the knob. He pursed his lips and nodded. “I didn’t intend to bother you, you see. I had the wreath… just because. Then I heard your bees and felt like the oldest and loneliest of fools. All the magic in the world, my lady, but without someone to share…”

They looked at one another until he began to chuckle. And, in a heartbeat, he blessed leaves and faeries, eyes like amber flames, and the lamentation of crows. He blessed sunlight and smoke, the living and dead, young and old, and the magical world that changed with, and because of, every last one.

Mad Batson never again went a-wandering.

Mad Batson © Robert Rhodes, 2010. All rights reserved.
art used with permission: “An Air of Wizardry” by Allen Douglas


  • Rob Rhodes

    ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.