The Mercy of the Osmomancer

Simon Whitechapel

Or, quick effluvia darting thro’ the brain,
Die of a rose in aromatic pain?
     Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1732), lnn 199-200

He reined back his horse on the lip of the descent and sat, mailed hand grasping the pommel of his saddle, gazing down over the domain he meant to conquer. ¡How tranquil it lay beneath the leonine sun!, ¡how green and well-watered, with its lazily snaking rivers and bosky plains!, yet ¡how foreboding the tales its quondam inhabitants told of what lurked thereby and thereon! He grunted, lifted his hand from the pommel to the hilt of his sword, loosened it chimingly in its scabbard, and spurred his horse on and down the slope.

Gradually the haze of white dust that had companioned him for a day past faded on the air, for his horse’s hooves struck no longer against dead earth but against flower-starred mead, crushing up a dozen scents of leaf or rootstock in as many paces, which he breathed appreciatively but cautiously, alert for any sudden increase in their strength. A flight of flung paper scraps, gold-dyed and green, whirled up from a bank of blue-petaled flowers he could not name, spiraling the dinted steel of his breast-plate and casque before streaming away, and he grunted again, for they had left a lingering spice in his nostrils and he knew they were the lilitha of which the exiles spoke, the dust-winged insects whose beauty rivaled that of the flowers on which they fed.

And now, chuckling out of the earth as though summoned by hoofbeats of his arrival, a stream ran and sparkled beneath the swinging spur of his right sabaton, its waters combing out lengths of water-weed green and lithe as naiads’ hair, and gemmed, as theirs might have been with river-pearl and electrum, with a myriad minute flowers of white and gold. He reined up and dismounted, stooping to fill his casque from the stream before offering it to the patient lips of his horse. It drank greedily and his own thirst sharpened at the sight and sound, but he stooped and re-filled the casque for it when it was done, letting it drink again before filling it a third time for himself.

The water was cold, numbing his tongue and lips and making his teeth ache, but it was delicious to his drouth and he drank deeply, then flung the remaining water back into the stream like smashed diamonds. As he remounted, feeling the steel brim of his casque cool against his forehead, and spurred his horse on again a trill of song struck his desert-hollowed ears with excessive sweetness and shrilth and there, bobbing on a sun-warmed stone on the far bank of the stream a little ahead of him, was some impossibly dwarvish cousin of the vulture and kite that were all his previous acquaintance with the avine genus. It bobbed a final time and dove neatly into the water as he passed, and when he turned his head at the reiterated trill of its song, the curve of the slope had carried it from sight.

Yet it was proof, as the lilitha, the flower-flies, had not been, that the realm was no longer molested by the invisible spirits of the osmomancer, brewed in his lichened keep and sent forth to slay all vertebrate creation of the realm, even that of its waters. As though in response to the thought (in reality to the weakening slope he descended), the stream splashed and chuckled hereat into a small pool, and the knight paused his horse a space to gaze therein. Along its margins some fleshy-leafed aquatic herb raised flowers whose blue seemed to mirror that of the sky, but among their submerged stems and in deeper water a myriad tiny slivers of silver flashed and darted. The knight nodded, mouthing the unfamiliar syllables of didána, or “fish”. Then he spurred his mount and rode on, his mailed hand relaxing on the hilt of his sword. The osmomancer had relented or died, he would soon know which, and his realm lay open for the return of its former folk.

Soon after the pool he reached level ground and the stream entered a fern-shaded cleft, its previously companionate chuckle and rush hollowed and eeried between the stony walls; and he turned aside from it, fearing lest the weight of his passage collapsed some subterranean chamber. Limestone underlay much of the osmomancer’s realm, he knew, and in the labyrinth of caves carved therein by its streams a final resistance had been fought, till one by one the nests of rebellion were smothered. He shivered a little even in the hot sun, imagining the horror of suffocation in the black, icy depths, and his hand tightened again on the hilt of his sword. Yet herewith his horse pricked its ears and from a grove of tall trees to the east, as though to reassure him of the realm’s renewed life, a wild black stallion and his hareem trotted.

The stallion neighed a challenge, but the knight patted the neck of his mount and it remained silent, nor did the stallion venture closer, uncertain, perhaps, what manner of creature this might be, which looked and smelt of horse yet sprouted an iron man from its back. They passed, and when the knight twisted his head to look again he saw that the stallion had returned to the shade of the grove. He rode on another hour, passing the moss-softened, tree-toppled ruins of two towns, and traveling for a time atop a half-obliterated stone road, till he came to the steep mound whereon the keep of the osmomancer was reared. The slope of the mound was thick with flowers of scarlet and gold nodding and rustling in breezes whose passage could be marked by the silvery shimmer of the leaves they disturbed; and the knight began to sweat a little as he circled the mound, seeing no stairway of entrance but noting a certain sentience to the movements of the breezes, which quartered and re-quartered the slope after the fashion of soldiers warding some great treasure against cunning thieves.

Here were osmodaemones, he believed, scent-spirits still patrolling their master’s immediate demesne against intrusion after a century or more. But he must risk them, and perhaps could evade them, if he chose the right path amid their blind quarterings. He reined in his horse and dismounted, leaving hobbled it to crop the rich grass at the foot of the mound as he climbed, hand again tight on the hilt of his ensorcelled sword. His hopes of evading the scent-spirits were proved vain after he had climbed barely a dozen steps, for though they lacked all apparent organs of senses, being built of empty air, his presence was nevertheless revealed to them by some other means, and three converged on him, rushing over the flowers with a rustling and silver flickering rendered sinister by their purpose. He swung his sword free of its scabbard with a hiss, ready to swing for his life but unsure that he could defeat three making a simultaneous attack; yet so soon as the attack was joined he grunted with relief.

The osmodaemones were enfeebled by their long warding of the keep, circling the flowers of the mound beneath sun and stars for weary decades, and must barely muster strength in his nostrils to force a sneeze. He lowered and re-sheathed his sword, touched by their devotion to service and not caring to end their præternatural life, sneezed again, and tramped on up the slope of the mound. From behind, from left and right, from ahead of him, more osmodaemones swept to the attack, wafting his nose with the sweetness or pungency with which they had been endowed by their creator, but all were feeble as the initial three, like ghosts of perfume or mummification in a millennia-sealed tomb. Aye, the flowers that he crushed beneath his iron soles released scents stronger by far than those of the spirits, and one by one the latter were fading to oblivion, as though released from their service by their willingness to assault this final intruder. When he reached the gate of the keep the slope of the mound lay quiet beneath the sun, its massed ranks of flowers unmarred save for the track he had trampled in his ascent.

He lifted his mailed fist to rap on an oaken panel of the gate, but on an impulse opened his hand and set palm to it instead. He pushed and it swung smoothly inward on a subtle hinge; and the keep lay open before him. Its inner walls were thick with climbing roses of white, pink and red, filling the bee-murmured air with their fragrance, and there was a green-swarded, flower-constellated orchard where fruit-burthened, hive-hung trees stood and water chuckled into a six-sided basin from the mouth of a stylized dolphin; and also a tower climbed by a iron-railed spiral stair to a six-sided iron platform. The rail ended below in a flower-head of six closed petals that would spring open, he had been told, when the platform was levin-struck, releasing a fragrance indescribable but unforgettable in its power and sweetness. He walked to and drank from the basin, then slowly removed his sword and armor and washed his body before climbing the spiral stair to the platform. As he ascended, his nose was tickled again by ghostly odors, and he guessed he was again under osmodaemonic assault.

But it was not so: the odors came too fast and fleetingly, as though whirled past his nostrils on an imperceptible gale, and there seemed no hostility in their presence. When he reached the platform, sneezing again as the strength of the odors waxed to its greatest, then faded to nothing, he found an six-sided iron table before which a chair waited and atop which a six-sided iron box sat stamped with glyphs in a lingua franca of that quarter of the world, reading To him who is to come. He tried the lid of the box and swung up for him, revealing a cluster of hexagonal, glyph-capped vials around a scroll that, sure enough, proved to be wrapped around a hexagonal ivory rod when he lifted it forth. The scroll began To him who is to come, then offered instruction in the language of odors employed by the vanished osmomancer, whereby the foreseen adventurer might decipher the message left for him on the very air of the keep.

He dwelt two months thereafter in the keep with his horse, studying the scroll and sampling the odors in the vials, till he was able to take full meaning from the odors that fluttered in his nostrils on the stair. ’Twas the envoi of the osmomancer, telling of how he came to learn the secret of brewing his osmodaemones and loosing them on the despised folk of his realm, while he searched for greater wisdom still, whereby his osmodaemones might cross the desert surrounding his realm and slay the entire world. What softened his heart or deflected his purpose he would not tell, saying only that though he discovered the secret he sought, he chose not to employ it, instead smashing and burying his alembics, aludels, vermes, and other apparatus of osmomancy. The message went on to tell of the osmomancer’s end, but whether by deliberate intent or the passage of years, the odorous syllables and phrases telling thereof were smarred and confused, and the knight could decipher them not.

Indeed, the whole message had faded a fraction with each successive climbing of the stair to the table whereat he studied, and plainly none but he would ever read it. High summer approached and he set aside his study of the language of odors for ever, toiling to lift wood and dried grass to the platform, where he piled them in wait for the levin-strokes of the first thunderstorm. They would take fire and burn even under pelting rain, he knew, and when the storm passed a column of smoke would climb into the blue vaults of heaven to be spied from afar by exiles of the osmomancer’s deserted realm. Then they would return, paying him his mercenary’s fee from their retrieved wealth, before waving him on his expected way. But he would surprise them, asking leave to marry and dwell among them, for he had found a twist of seeds with the vials and scroll of the iron box, and was anxious to smell the poems and tales that would flow from the flowers grown therefrom, implanted by the osmomancer’s irretrievable wisdom.

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