Flowery, citrusy, sweet, tangy: the scent of fruit filled the air, surrounding our small vessel with an embrace of welcome. She was standing on the shore, just a step or two off the pearl-white dock. The gentle zephyr that carried the scents of unseen orchards ruffled her pale blue dress and played with her sable hair.
“Welcome, travelers. You have journeyed far in the search of knowledge. Here, you will be allowed to search for those answers.”
She turned, and my brothers and I followed her up to a path where we could walk two or three abreast. Smooth pebbles clicked beneath our boots. As we summited the sandy bank we caught our first glimpse of the Library, it was surrounded by the orchards we had smelled from our ship. Hundreds of trees grew up all over the island, bearing a variety of different fruits. I recognized some, others were unfamiliar to me.
“It shouldn’t be possible,” I heard Avaleun mutter under his breath from where he walked just to my right.
“What?” I whispered.
“These orchards. Some of the trees are blossoming and bearing fruit at the same time. I haven’t seen two trees yet of the same kind. It… it shouldn’t be possible.”
“Maybe what they say about the island is true?”
Palte, to my left, snorted quietly. “There’s no such thing as magic, Dalmir.”
“Just because you’ve never seen it or measured it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” I whispered back.
“Shhhh,” Mulemo hissed from just behind me.
The lady had paused and we halted, forming a half-circle facing her. “The island will sustain you during your search of the Library; you are welcome to stay as long as you wish. The gardens are here for your enjoyment and sustenance. You may pick the fruit and drink from the spring as you please.” As she spoke, I became aware of the sound of running water nearby. “However, there is a small garden behind the Library where sits a golden tree and a silver pool. The only rule we have here is that you eat not from the golden tree nor drink from the silver pool. In fact,” she paused, “it is generally best not to set foot in that private garden at all, although it is not forbidden.” Her eyes met mine and I felt suddenly guilty, as if I had been caught doing something wrong.
I noticed the expression on Uun’s face and I sighed inwardly. Uun never did well with restrictions. Words like “impossible” or “forbidden” rang in his ears as a challenge to prove them otherwise. Telsume, tallest of my brothers and standing in front of me, turned his head slightly, giving Uun a warning look. Tel caught me watching and gave a small grimace, I knew what it meant: we would have to keep an eye on our headstrong brother.
As she finished, we reached the doors to the Library. She paused, gesturing forward at the vast interior of the building. “Every bit of this knowledge is free to you to read and study.” She began walking again, and we followed her inside. The walls rose up on either side of us, lined with bookshelves that soared all the way to the high ceiling. “There are tables and chairs throughout the Library where you can bring reading materials you find interesting, all the tables have drawers filled with blank parchment, quills, and bottles of ink if you need to take notes on anything. You are allowed to take books outside, but please be careful with them and make sure you do not leave them outside.” She pointed as we passed a massive spiral staircase. “The top floor of the building is the dormitory.” There was silence for a while as we continued to walk deeper and deeper into the Library. As we continued on, I realized the inside of the building must be far larger than the outside. I grinned, I would have fun watching Palte try to explain that away later. Finally we came to a large, round desk. From the desk we could see that the Library contained three more wings stretching away to the South, East, and West. The woman rested her hand on the desk and smiled at us once more. “If you need anything you have but to ask. You can almost always find me here.”
“Where should we start?” Uun, ever the man of action asked, rubbing his hands together and staring at the shelves of books like they were something to conquer.
“How can we even begin?” I asked, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of our task. “This could take forever.” I looked around at the massive shelves and wondered how many billions of books they contained.
“Dalmir, we are seven,” Palte, ever the optimist, grinned. “We’ll each start in a different section, it won’t take us more than a week to find the answer father sent us for.”
“Besides,” Mulemo said, pushing his glasses up his thin nose for the hundredth time that day, “we need not read every word, nor every scroll. We only need to look at those that pertain to our quest. Stories from the past will be helpful to us. Stories that deal with the mind of man will be as well, even some science may get us closer to the answer we seek, but some subjects…”
“Gardening,” Uun snorted, “we can skip any books about gardening.”
Avaleun stiffened at the veiled insult, but said nothing, although I did notice him mouthing the word “botany,” a look of hurt defiance in his eyes.
I cast a glance at the two brothers who had remained silent: Telsume and Edoran. They were the most like me in temperment, and though they were the furthest removed from me in age, they being the two eldest and myself the youngest of seven, they were strangely the ones I most understood and got along with. Uun and I never saw eye-to-eye on anything, and the other three were so wrapped up in their own affairs that I had never felt they cared one way or another whether I was around. Perhaps if we had more time to get to know one another… but that was a wish I never pondered until it was too late.
“Alright,” Edoran took charge. “We’ll split up. If you can’t find books or scrolls in the subjects we’re looking for, ask the Librarian.” He walked over to a large table near the middle of the vast room. “Bring anything that looks useful here, and we’ll go over it together later, maybe with dinner.”
And so the search began. Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks. It soon became apparent that my guess was correct: the interior of the Library was far larger than its exterior. When I pointed this out to Palte, he blinked, pushed his glasses up his nose, and shrugged. I enjoyed seeing my pragmatic brother at a loss for words.
We asked the Librarian for help and she did her best to point us in the right direction, but every book, every scroll, every page seemed even more useless than the last. Even Palte began to look and sound discouraged, although perhaps it was simply that he was having to keep his mischievous nature in check. Either way, the effort of keeping focused on our quest began to wear upon us all.
Ours is a small kingdom, hidden in the valleys between two mountain ranges. Our main wealth is silver. Our mines are the envy of all the surrounding kingdoms. Without the silver or the defensible nature of our position our kingdom would be quickly defeated by any of our larger, more populated neighbors. What troubled our father most was that Ardai and Felair, two of our neighboring kingdoms, had recently formed an alliance. The rumor was that the Ardisians had created a new technology that allowed them to travel safely over snow – making the passes that protected us much less of a sure defense. Our father desired a peaceful solution to the impending invasion, but he was willing to fight if he had to. He had sent us to seek out answers to the threat leveled at us by Ardai and Felair.
Head aching from all the information we were sifting through I began to spend less time in the library, and more time wandering around the orchards, or just lying on the grass and gazing up at the sky through the emerald-covered branches. I did not give up, I often brought a promising book or scroll with me, finding it easier to read and ponder in the serenity of the outdoors.
On one sunny afternoon, I wandered outside again with a book under one arm. I reached up for a piece of fruit I did not recognize and bit into it. Juice dripped down my chin and sweetness exploded within my mouth. I grinned and continued on my way, wandering aimlessly, until suddenly I happened upon an iron gate. I stopped, never having been to this part of the island before, and frowned. The enclosure was not tall, I could have leapt it easily, and seemed more for decoration than as an obstacle. There were tall flowering bushes on the other side of the fence, barring my view of what lay inside. I walked along it for a while, until I reached the entrance; this was more forbidding, a solid oak door rising up in a great arch with a sign engraved in gold upon its face in a language I could neither read nor identify.
“Dalmir? Is everything alright?”
Edoran’s voice broke through my curiosity even as I realized this must be the garden the Librarian had warned us to stay away from on our first day. I tore my eyes away from the gate and looked at my oldest brother.
“I don’t know. I feel… what if we never find the answer we are looking for? Or worse, what if we do find it but return to discover we are too late?”
“Father is counting on us. Not just to solve the problem of defending ourselves against the Ardai/Felairian alliance, either. With the warlords rising up in the East, and the rebellion begun in the West, the information we seek is vital to the future of our kingdom.”
“Yes, I know. The weight of our task must be heaviest on you, as the oldest. Don’t worry about me, brother, I was just starting to feel cooped up indoors. I am still helping,” I held up the book in my hands as evidence.
Edoran smiled kindly. “You are not the only one of us who grows restless.”
“Yes, some of his ideas of late have been…”
“What is he suggesting now?”
“He wants to break the rules,” Edoran looked meaningfully at the gate next to us. I remembered the rest of the Librarian’s warning about the golden tree and the silver pond.
“Why am I not surprised?” I groaned.
Edoran grinned. “Just… help me keep an eye on him, ok? The others are so wrapped up in their research, Uun could set their hair on fire and they wouldn’t notice.”
“They’d notice if the fire spread to the books,” I joked.
Edoran laughed and we walked back to the Library, content and optimistic.
The days continued to roll by, and we started to have a modicum of success. A line in one book, a phrase in another scroll, a paragraph on a yellowing document: glimpses of the answer we sought began to come together like a half-remembered dream on the tips of our brains. Strangely, the closer we got, the higher the tension rose. Nerves began to fray and curl like the edges of some of the oldest documents we examined. Our tongues grew sharper, and emotions were raw. Even I began to feel a restlessness rising up within me.
“We’re almost there,” Avaleun said one night at dinner. “I feel as though the answer is here, like the green tip of a plant breaking through the soil, but we must wait a while to discover what sort of flower it is.”
“Or if it’s just a weed,” Uun grumbled.
I had never seen Avaleun so angry. Uun had tweaked him before, they were so dissimilar in their interests, and Uun regarded anything other than strength of arms beneath his status as a prince. But my gentle brother always just took it, or, if he got truly angry he might make some subtly barbed comment. This time, instead, he simply lunged.
None of us expected it. We were so used to these arguments that Avaleun had his hands around Uun’s throat before anyone could stop him. Uun was so surprised he had no time to react, and he was losing consciousness before he could think to strike back. It took Edoran, Telsume, and myself to pull Avaleun away. Uun sat on the floor, gasping for breath. Avaleun glowered at him and then stormed off.
It took them days to forgive each other, and the tension between them was so thick that I rarely saw them in the same room after that. Uun’s impatience with the whole situation began to take its toll, and now it was he who could rarely be found inside. Unlike myself, he did not take books with him, and whenever I saw him I noticed a thoughtful expression on his face. Once, he caught me watching him and his eyes met mine for a moment. He dropped his gaze guiltily and walked jauntily away, leaving me wondering what he was up to.
One day I went on another walk. I had it in my head to peek inside the garden at the back of the Library. I had avoided it since Edoran’s and my conversation about Uun, but surely it could not hurt to just look inside. I tried the handle and the door opened easily.
On the other side of the door was a garden of jeweled flowers. Emerald stalks burst out of the rich, black soil and bloomed with petals of ruby and sapphire, amythest and topaz and others of color I had never seen. I knelt down to touch one, expecting the petals to be hard like gems, and was surprised to find them softer than a puppy’s ear. I stood in wonder, and then I walked down the sandy path before me. Roses climbed an arched trellis and twined above my head. Lilies with opal petals peeked out at me from between golden daffodills and turquoise forget-me-nots. When I emerged from the covered path, I was met by a still pond filled with water so clear and blue that when I leaned over and looked down I could not see my reflection, just the rock formations at the bottom of what seemed to be a very deep pool. To my left was a plain wooden bench which sat beneath the shade of a tree with branches made of what looked like gold. Fruit of many kinds hung from the golden branches and I walked over to it and stared.
“You see why I tell everyone it is best to avoid this garden.”
The voice startled me out of my thoughts and I whirled around to find the Librarian looking at me, a pitying sadness in her eyes. I opened my mouth to speak in my defense, but no words formed.
“I know, you have broken no rules,” she reassured me. “But it might be best if you leave now, before temptation gets the best of you.”
I nodded. “Will you walk with me a bit?” I held up a scroll for her to examine. “There’s text here I cannot translate, and diagrams… can you help me decipher it?”
Together, we left the garden and walked back to the Library where she helped me translate the passage. It contained the outline of a centuries-old peace treaty created by a kingdom in a similar situation as ours. The diagrams were for winged machines that could be used for defense. We had nothing like them in our kingdom, but what had been created once could be built again. Hope rose in my heart, this was exactly what we needed.
At dusk I rejoined my brothers for dinner. The scene is engraved upon my memory. Uun was pouring water into four goblets. Our plates were set about with slices of fruit upon them. A loaf of bread sat in the center of the table, and a crystal dish held butter.
“Hullo, Dalmir,” Tel greeted me with a smile.
We all sat. I was thinking excitedly about the passage the Librarian had helped me with. If we could get Ardai to sign such a treaty, if we could build airships…
“Dalmir? Are you all right?” Mulemo asked.
“What? I’m fine. I think I might have found the answer we’ve been looking for.”
“Which tree did you get this fruit from, Uun?” I heard Avaleun ask.
Uun shrugged. “You’re the expert, they all look the same to me.”
Suddenly a burst of flavor broke through my excitement and I felt horror pulse through me. I looked up at Uun, my eyes wide with disbelief.
“Uun, tell me you didn’t.”
My brother looked at me, his eyes dark and unreadable. “Didn’t what?”
I peered at my plate, and in grief I recognized the fruit on my plate. I pushed my chair back angrily and stood up. “You got this fruit from the golden tree in the garden behind the Library. Don’t try to deny it, I recognize it.”
“Dalmir?” Edoran stood. “You went into the garden? The one we were told to avoid?”
“Yes. The Librarian found me there, she wasn’t angry, just warned me I should leave. I came back with her to the Library to get her help translating a scroll… that was when you went in, isn’t it?” Horror at the part I had unwittingly played in Uun’s betrayal of the Librarian’s trust snaked through me.
“So what?” Uun asked. “The door was unlocked, the garden was unguarded. The answer to our troubles doesn’t lie in books, it lies in what power we can obtain. Power is the only thing our enemies understand. That garden holds magic.” Uun held up his hand to forestall Palte’s objections. “You wouldn’t argue if you’d been in the garden. There’s magic there. I figured if we ate the fruit and drank the water, perhaps we would be granted some of that magic. With magic, we won’t need what’s in the books. We can defeat our enemies without worrying about peace.”
Even as he spoke, the Library began to shake. Books fell from the shelves around us, and I was forced to grab my chair to keep from falling. A moment later the shaking stopped and the Librarian stood before us. She was the same, and yet she was changed. Her dark hair was streaked with white, and her face was lined and sorrowful.
“You have broken the rule, the only rule, of the Library. This is not just an island, and it is not truly part of your world; it comes from another world, a deeper world, tenuously connected to your own by the roots of the golden tree. By plucking and eating the fruit of that tree you have tainted its connection to this world and it must be returned back to the place from whence it came. You came on a quest for peace. You leave with a much greater quest: you have stolen the Library from the people of your world, it is now up to you to restore it to them. You carry the knowledge of the Library now. This is your doom, this is your destiny.
“Two gifts… or perhaps curses… may I grant you before I and the Library are pulled back to our home. First, I give you abilities beyond those of mortal men. Second, I give you life everlasting, that you may have time enough to complete your task. That is all the help I may give you. And now, I would recommend you run for your ship, the island cannot remain here.”
What happened next is a blur in my mind of running as the earth heaved and quaked beneath our feet. Water cascaded over the shore and poured into our boots as we raced down the dock. We barely made it to our ship. The dock where our ship was tied was already under water that came up to our knees. We hacked at the ropes tying our ship to the island, unfurled the sails, and plunged our oars into the dark water. Behind us, huge waves that came out of nowhere splashed up higher and higher onto the once sparkling shores of the island. Then the island itself began to sink. We watched as the water covered first the rolling hills, then the orchard trees, and finally the highest peak of the Library itself was submerged. It all took less than ten minutes, and the island was gone.
Late that night, Edoran found me at the rail of the ship. “I feel… different,” he said.
I nodded. I could feel it too, we had been changed.
“We haven’t failed, you know,” Edoran said.
I looked at him questioningly.
“Can’t you feel it? ‘The knowledge of the Library’ she said, we carry it. The answer is here,” he pointed at his head, and at mine, “we take the Library with us. We can save our kingdom, we have the answers now.”
How could I explain it to him? How could I share with him what all that was in my heart? As the oldest, his focus was still on our father, our kingdom, his own destiny to rule over Ondeou when father passed away some day in the distant future. But all that had changed, too, he just didn’t realize it yet. The Library was gone, and with it had perished the future we might once have had… and now… now all that remains is our task, our quest, our fate.