Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2303588-The-Forbidden-Library
Rated: ASR · Short Story · Fantasy · #2303588
A young scholar searches for ancient knowledge.
When Gerhard set out to find the Great Library of Buchwald, the whole village of Holzdorf turned out to see him off. Gerhard hitched up his pack, brushed his rust-colored locks out of his eyes and waved. The villagers waved back, most smirking, some outright laughing.

“Off to the land of dusty books and even dustier dispositions, eh Gerd?” said Ilsa, frowning as she always did. Gerhard had never seen another expression on the stout baker’s face.

“He’s going to get lost in the Wald and starve to death!” cried a voice from the back of the crowd.

“He can eat the books!” said another.

More mirthful babbles reached Gerhard’s ears, and he grinned through it all. If nothing else, ridicule was his existence.

“I will bring back the knowledge of the ancient Sonnenberg Empire!” he said.

“How about a recipe for a better ale?” called another voice. “We’re all tired of Friedel’s pisswater!”

“Ah, shut it!” said Friedel. “You like it well enough to drink yourself into a stupor every night at my inn!”

Still frowning, Ilsa stepped toward Gerhard, her brown eyes earnestly searching his.

“If you must do this, so be it. Be quick about it.”

“I didn’t know you cared,” said Gerhard.

“I wouldn’t want to lose my best assistant,” said Ilsa.

“I’m your only assistant.”

Gerhard looked into Ilsa’s eyes and saw the lines on her face give way to a rare tenderness.

“I will come back with treasures like you couldn’t even imagine!”

“Come back or I’ll be throwing out your books. They are blocking my passageway.”

She turned away quickly, blinking as if something was in her eye, and away she went, the closest thing Gerhard ever had to a mother.

More catcalls came from the crowd, and Gerhard waved before hitching his pack up one last time and stepping onto the forest path.

Gerhard was in high spirits as he walked. The birds chirped a melody of mornings and dewy flowers. The sun peeked between the branches where it could. He hummed a tune from his childhood, the origin which he could not remember. He knew the way as well as the way to the privy from the bakery from years of studying the treasure trove of books he found in the bakery’s cellar, to old scrolls and letters he bought from travelling merchants. In his mind the path to the ancient ruins of the old Sonnenberg Empire was a bright shining line, and his feet found it true.

Away Gerhard went, travelling many miles to the North. When the sun dipped behind the distant mountains, he would make camp and sleep under the stars with the night sounds in his ears and the night scents in his nostrils. He would eat figs from his pack, and a babbling brook travelled with him, providing fresh water.

For three days Gerhard travelled, and as he went his anticipation grew like fruit ready to burst in ripening. Dreams of being the hero who brought the knowledge of the Ancients back to his town danced in his head. This is probably why he didn’t notice the man sitting on a stump next to the path until he was nearly on top of him.

Gerhard’s heart leapt in surprise, and he shuddered to a stop, for he hadn’t seen another person since Holzdorf. The man was dressed in a scarlet tunic and breeches, with a wide hat of the same color that sprouted what looked like feathers from every kind of bird. He was slight and slender. Inky black locks struggled from beneath the hat and the man fingered a mustache of the same color, all while grinning at Gerhard. Gerhard couldn’t tell what color his eyes were.

“I’m sorry, sir!” said Gerhard. “You gave me quite a start!”

“Don’t be silly!” said the man. “The offense is all on my part, and I do apologize, Fire-kissed.”

He stood up and sauntered over to Gerhard the feathers in his hat waving like a grotesque hand.

“Max von Teufel is my name,” said the man, who doffed his hat and made a deep bow. “And I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Gerhard Adelberg.”

It didn’t occur to Gerhard to wonder how Max knew his name.

“And good morrow to you, sir. Ah… I am on my way north, to the Buchwald.”

“The Buchwald you say! Strange things happen there, I hear. Strange things happen on the road to Buchwald.”

Gerhard hitched up his pack and flicked his hair from his eyes.

“What kind of things, sir?”

“Why the strangest thing of all! The truth comes to you, riding a white horse! Knowledge from the knowledgeable! Wisdom of the wise! Gossip from the garrulous! Uh… er…”

“Wonderful!” said Gerhard. “It is as I have read. And now I shall-“

“Read in what, may I ask?” said Max, pursing his lips, his eyes glinting.

“Well, I have ‘Rise and Fall of the Sonnenberg Empire’ by-“

“Theodore Wussel!” cried Max. “I know this book. Knew Theodore myself, in fact.”

Gerhard recalled the book had been written nearly two hundred years ago.

“I like to think I contributed in some way to this epic tome of knowledge,” Max continued. “But alas, I could only be the mascot to his indomitable intellect. May I see the book?”

Gerhard pulled the heavy volume from his pack and handed it to Max, who thumbed through the pages. Max’s eyes glowed, almost literally so when he alighted on a particular passage.

“’The ancient words will upon utterance release the fire,’” recited Max. “Fair words indeed! What do you make of them?”

“I think they refer to the fire of forbidden knowledge given to man by the gods so long ago. I hope to find more at the Great Library of Buchwald.”

“A forbidden place for forbidden knowledge!” crowed Max. “Do you think yourself worthy to gain entrance?”

“I-I… those are old stories!” stammered Gerhard. “Tales to keep out the faint of heart.”

“Undoubtedly! You do seem worthy. I’ve no doubt the gods will bless you with the wisdom of the ages. But you have a long way to go yet!”

Max handed the book back to Gerhard, to whom it suddenly felt a lot heavier. Then he hopped off the path and was swallowed by the woods.

“Wait!” called Gerhard. “Would you tell me more?”

Max’s voice seemed to come from all directions.

“There are still dangers to be confronted! Beware, Fire-kissed!”

Gerhard paused, thinking on what Max had said, then decided that the strange man was pulling a prank upon him. He hitched up his pack and continued.

Many more miles did Gerhard march. The noonday sun became hot and oppressive, and the nights darker and spookier. There was little Gerhard could do but trudge on toward his goal, his nerves fraying. The sounds of the birds had died long ago, and the words of Max von Teufel about the dangers of the forest. The words proved to be prophetic, for just when Gerhard thought he was nearing his destination, bandits descended upon him from the trees, blades in their hands, and eyes blazing from behind masks. The bandits took his pack and tore into its contents, scattering them across the path. Gerhard begged them not to harm his books, but they laughed and tore the pages out, tossing them into the wind which had sprung up in their wake. When they had finished with Gerhard, they turned to leave with his pack.

“Have you no mercy?” said Gerhard. “Will you leave me to starve?”

The bandit turned and regarded Gerhard with eyes deeper than wells. Then he reached into the pack and pulled out a fig. He tossed it to Gerhard and then vanished into the forest.

Gerhard walked on, his burden lighter, but his spirits lower. The fig in his hand was now the only thing he had in the world, that and the determination to see the great library of Sonnenberg. His eyes dried out in the wind and his lips cracked. Max’s words echoed all around him, taunting him. Yet he continued on.

The sun was settling toward the treetops when he nearly stumbled upon the library. It resembled a hillock, overgrown by bushes and ivy as it was, but the sun angled just right to catch a beam upon a sliver of window. The decorative sill almost blended with the vegetation.

Gerhard’s breath caught in his throat, and all his aches, pains and fears vanished with the wind. He began circling the structure.

“And do you think yourself worthy to gain entrance?”

Gerhard shook off Max’s words and spied the door, all but hidden behind climbing vines. He tore at them, freeing the door which loomed above him, a magnificent thing of carved mahogany. With a groan, the door opened on its own, and sunlight leaked out, tinged in green. Gerhard entered the library.

Despite coming in from the gloom of the forest, Gerhard needed a moment for his eyes to adjust. The cavernous interior of the imperial library stretched above him. Windows on the far wall let a few shafts of sunlight through green leaves. Gerhard blinked as he realized that the vines were inside the library. They were everywhere, snaking along the bannisters, climbing up the bookshelves. And as if protecting them, Gerhard could see the leaves spread over stacks and stacks of ancient books.

“So much knowledge here, fire-kissed! What will you do with it?”

Gerhard didn’t even bother to look around, for the voice seeped from the very sunlight itself. He ran to the nearest shelves and reached for the tomes. The vines resisted his grasping fingers. Grunting in frustration, Gerhard ran to another shelf and was rewarded with the same resistance. He yanked at the vines, but they were as strong as steel cables, and did not give an inch.

“Are you not worthy?”

“Why?” he cried out. “I have looked for this place for most of my life!”

There was no answer.

Gerhard ran up to the balconies, trying every shelf he could reach, but none of the stubborn vines would yield its treasure. He sat upon the stairs and wanted to weep, but there were no tears in him.

“So strange that I have come so far,” he said, “faced so much danger, only to be undone by vines? Would the gods be so cruel?”

“The Sonnenberg Empire fell, and its secrets remain. Would you have those secrets for yourself?”

“I would!” cried Gerhard. “I would know everything! Why should I not?”

“And if the seeds of the empire’s fall are in these books?”

Gerhard thought for a moment. Would he carry such knowledge back to Holzdorf? What could happen if the knowledge in these books had brought down the empire?

Gerhard pulled his fig out, but it had begun to rot. Then a noise intruded, a slithering sound. He looked around and saw the vines pulling back. The leaves folded themselves aside and revealed the books, all pristine as if bound yesterday. Gerhard stood before a shelf and began reaching for a book.

The fig fell from his hand. He abruptly turned away and left the Great Library.


Many days later, the townsfolk of Holzdorf saw Gerhard emerge empty-handed from the forest. They laughed at him but greeted him warmly, nonetheless. Gerhard had lost his things, but his eyes were bright and somehow wiser.

He marched straight to the bakery and saw Ilsa carrying a large sack of flour to the kitchen.

“So, you are back from your fool’s errand?” she said dourly.

“Not so foolish as when it started,” said Gerhard.

Ilsa snorted.

“Then grab a sack and bring it in. We’ve work to do.”

Grinning, Gerhard took a sack of flour from the pile on the porch and brought it in.

“About your kitchen,” he said as he strained under the sack. “I have some new ideas for making your oven more efficient…”

Word count: 1996
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