A Knights Tale:
One Prospective College Student’s Frustration Over Having to Choose a Major
Written by Norah Boulden
Based on True Story
The sun had not yet crested the horizon when the knight reached the base of the mountain range. His horse, strong and loyal as she was, veered consistently towards a little stream running parallel the gravel path. Every time, the knight kindly and firmly pulled her back to the straight and narrow.
By the time the sun had painted blue over the pale pink morning, and Dawn had given her seat to bright Day, the knight had left his horse in a quiet mountain pasture to continue alone. He had worried long over the armor he’d left behind, how useful it might have been in long run against a gryphon or a tiger, but now he was thankful he hadn’t worn it. His tunic was soaked through with sweat, clinging to his shoulders and chafing beneath his sword belt. All while he toiled up the steep path, puffing and groaning, the sun shone merrily on from its perch beside Day’s throne, entirely unconcerned with how bothersome it was being.
His only comfort in the slog was the line of towering trees in the distance. Beneath them would be shade, moss, and, hopefully, a hidden door to the place he had sought for so long.
His master had left him with few instructions, as he tended to. Follow the path, make no insults to anyone you find. Enter the doors that prove themselves to you. Listen well and make careful choices. Cryptic and confusing, as his master’s wisdom usually was, but at the moment, the knight would have taken a map and a glass of cold water over every vague guideline his master had ever given.
Finally reaching the tree line, the knight slumped over, exhausted, on the nearest mossy rock. For a moment, all he could hear was his own breathing. Then the breeze hit his face, and his ears cleared a bit, and the sounds of the forest came into focus. Every tree held court about its trunk, sheltering younger trees beneath a tangle of roofbeams melding into the thrushone ceiling. The saplings clustered in lighter patches; little skylights that seemed almost designed to accommodate them.
There wasn’t a single bird, that was the first thing he noticed. Nor could he hear the insistent buzz of insects that always held the back of one’s mind in the height of summer. He meandered along the patchwork path, picking his way past empty spans of leaves to find the few sections of beaten ground. The earth rose and fell around him in gentle waves, keeping him forever guessing as to what would come around the next corner. As he walked, he brushed his hand against the bark of a tree, smiling as tiny flakes peeled off and stuck to his skin.
He stopped, his soles digging into the turf. He could hear breathing. He had been hearing it, without realizing. How long had the sound been there? It didn’t seem to be the breath of a creature, or a man. It felt more like the trees themselves.
A loud hiss, like a torch being doused in a barrel of water, broke his train of thought. He spun to face a steep incline that the path had been swinging around, only to find a stony wall that had not been there previously. In it were set three arches, encrusted with gemstones and glimmering in the beams filtering through the branches. The arches almost seemed to be one great doorway, leading into an open foyer and, as the knight could clearly see, a great open hall covered wall-to-wall in books.
The knight nearly laughed for joy. His goal, finally! After years of wandering and training, he had found the Great Library. And all he had to do to enter was pass the three-headed hydra snarling at him from an alcove above the archways.
…. Oh. Right. The hydra, snarling at him from the alcove above the archways.
The knight drew his sword from his sheath and raised it in challenge. “Who are you, noble Hydra, to attack me so?” He spoke grandly, in the odd manner of pronunciation his master used when speaking to royalty. It would be wise, of course, to be polite to the vicious creature before he slayed it.
“Weee…. Are the guardiansss…. Of the librarrry…” The heads spoke as one. “Whooo…. Are you?”
The knight slammed his sword back into its scabbard and knelt. “I apologize, great Guardians. I did not know you had authority in this place. I am merely a knight, humble as a human can be, one who has traveled far and lost much to learn at this Great Library.” He crossed his fingers behind his back. Hopefully, the hydra would not take offence at his brashness.
“It isss no matterrr…” The heads swept down on sinuous necks, and a great tail snaked from the alcove to catch the knight beneath the ribs and raise him to his feet. He coughed as the tail knocked his breath from him, but he managed to catch himself and bow.
“Whichhh door…. Do you wishhh to chossse?...” The heads pulled back a bit, one hovering above each of the archways.
He paused for a moment. “What do you mean by this test?”
“The one you chose… will decccide which of us… you speak to, and what you learn…” The heads smiled askance at one another, and immediately, the knight was on his guard. Perhaps two of the choices led to quick deaths, or a useless portal to a faraway land, devoid of a single book. He steadied himself.
“Well, that seems like an important question. What, may I ask, are you ladies’ names? I must know, before I decide.”
The heads all made a humming, crooning sound in the pouches beneath their throats, the spiky scales above their eyes flaring with their excitement. They seemed to be laughing.
“I am Thhhalia.” Said the left head, whose deep blue eyes matched the sapphires that encrusted the archway beneath her. It was the first time any of the heads had spoken alone. “I am writing.”
“I am Cllleo.” Said the middle head. “I am historic literature.” Her horns were brighter red than the knight’s own standard, perfectly matching the rubies that framed her arch.
“I am Helllen.” Said the third head, her emerald scales glittering. “I am language.”
The knight smiled broadly, his shoulders lifting. Of all the Hydra he could have met, these were the most fortunate. From birth, he had loved writing, reading the stories his mother read from an ancient tome, and learning the languages those stories had once been written in. “Well, I am so glad I have met you.” His caution returned at the last instant, only barely preventing him from giving his own name. A most unwise thing to give anywhere, at any time, most certainly so when your conversation partner is unhuman. “I am… the knight. What would happen if I chose one of your doors?”
“That will decide which of us you speak to.” Said Thalia.
“That will decide what you learn.” Said Cleo.
“That will decide which of us will help guide you when you leave the library.” Said Helen.
The knight laughed, still a bit on edge, but beginning to relax. “I see. Well, I suppose it’s an important decision then. A bit risky though. I’m making a judgement on which one of you ladies seem most fun to talk to.” He chuckled, and the heads made their odd rumbling hum.
“We will take no offenccce. Which of our disciplines seems most interesting to you?” Thalia asked.
The knight considered. All the late nights, begging his mother for another story. All the long afternoons, hidden within the depths of his father’s private library, learning story after story by heart. “Well… I suppose historic literature.” He mused. “Though of course, that doesn’t mean I think the rest of you aren’t fascinating to-… um.” He blinked in confusion.
The left and right heads had drawn back into the alcove above the archways, leaving only Cleo behind, who acted as if nothing had happened. There was a long silence, which Cleo broke with a cheery. “Ssso, you wish to learn about the ancient booksss?”
The knight blinked again. Having lived for years in the quiet solitude of books and wall mice, he wasn’t inclined to be very obtrusive. “Well… yes.” He shook himself. “Yes! I would love to. I’ve always loved the classics.”
Cleo seemed fairly bursting with excitement. They spoke for a few minutes, reminiscing on the wonderful stories of the ancient world, but the knight found himself wondering at a few comments the hydra passed. It started when Cleo asked his favorite story.
“The Iliad, without question. I’d hoped to find an older copy here, in the library” He smiled, leaning back against the tree he’d plopped beside. Cleo’s snout wrinkled, and her scales flared.
“Well, I don’t particularly like thhhat one.” She said flippantly. “It’sss not one of my books at leassst.”
The knight considered this for a moment. There were many reasons she might have disliked the story, the least of which not being that it was rather violent, and she seemed a dainty soul. Perhaps she was a pacifist hydra. “Well… do you like the Odyssey? Or the Aeneid? Any of the ancient tragedies, or comedies?”
Cleo shook her head wildly. “Oh, no. My books are mossstly Arthhhurian. One of my oldest is Beowulf, thhhough.” She smiled proudly. “That’sss originally in old Englishhh, you know, though those copies aren’t mine eithhher. I just have the translations.”
The knight nodded politely, absolutely baffled. “Well… I’ve always loved those old stories anyways, though I suppose that’s personal preference. I was actually planning on learning Greek, so I might read them as they were written.”
“OH!” Cleo exclaimed, making the knight jump. “You like languagesss?” She asked, tilting her head to one side. The knight nodded, smiling.
In an instant, Cleo was gone, withdrawing back into the alcove above. The forest was silent, not even the breathing of the trees to fill the void. In another instant, Helen had descended from the alcove and hovered before the knight, grinning broadly. A Hydra grinning broadly is almost never a pleasant sight, so the knight did his best to not squeak in terror.
“What languagesss are you interesssted in?” She exclaimed.
The knight took an instant to compose himself. “Well, I’ve studied Latin for many years, and I’ve wished to learn Greek for some time now.” Helen nodded, a quizzical expression crumpling her snout, so the knight continued. “I’m also interested in Old English. A wonderful author I admire, Tolkien, he knew that language well.”
Helen smiled politely. “Well, thossse are lovely. I don’t believe any of my books contain those. Are you familiar with Ssspanish?”
The knight leaned forward. “What do you mean by ‘your books’?”
Helen swayed her head from side to side. “The booksss you read if you chossse to enter my door, of course.”
The knight considered for a moment. Regardless of which archway he entered, he would end up in the same room. The same books would be accessible from any of the doors, wouldn’t they? “Well, the reason I’d like to learn some of those older languages, is that I’d love to learn to write in them. A good friend of mine and I have been creating a fictional world, with languages and a history, much like Tolkien did, and I came to learn a better craft than I could find on my own.”
“Ssso, you are a writer then?” Helen seemed excited, joyful even. Finally, the knight was getting somewhere. He nodded graciously, a bit embarrassed, as he’d never found his own work very skillful.
An instant later, Helen was gone. The knight blinked in shock as Thalia snaked from the alcove above, smiling widely.
“You are a writer, thhhen?!” She asked, her neck frills shivering, and the knight felt his temper rise.
“Well, I say!” He stood, folding his arms. “I would think I could hold a conversation with all three of my interests at once without being rudely tossed from one to the other. Especially if all three of you ladies are heads on the same Hydra.”
Thalia blinked at him slowly. “… I am Thhhalia. I am creative writing.”
“Well… yes,” the knight bowed his head, unsure of whether he was overreacting. Perhaps he had misunderstood. “But you’re one of three heads on the same Hydra. You’re very close to your sister heads, so I don’t see why I can’t speak with all of you at once.”
“But I am Thhhalia,” The head said, as if he hadn’t understood. “They are Cllleo and Helllen, they are not me.”
“But you share the same body.” It took every chivalrous code in the knight’s body, and the memory of his mentor’s warning against insult, to keep from rolling his eyes. “You are individuals, and lovely ones at that, but one can wish to speak to more than one of you at a time.”
Thalia narrowed her eyes. “I don’t underssstand. They are them; I am me. We are entirely difffferent.”
The knight sighed. “I adore writing. I have spent many years writing poems and stories, at first only for myself, but later for my friends and my noble mother. But I also wish to read ancient stories, ones that are challenging and-“
He cut off in utter disbelief. Thalia had pulled back into her alcove, and Cleo had returned.
“… You like ancccient stories?” She smiled, and the knight threw up his hands in defeat.
“That is enough.” He cried, brushing past Cleo. “I’m just going to enter the library. I don’t wish to continue with this.”
He chose the center arch, which was encrusted with sapphires. He couldn’t remember which of the heads it belonged to, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He could see the great expanse of the library before him, a central hall reaching all the way to the top of the mountain, plunging deep into the depths of the earth, concentric rings of balconies looking out over the air and the occasional bridge threading the gap. The sun poured in from what might have been miles above, streaming through glass sculptures and panes set everywhere to catch the light. It was beautiful, all chiseled stone and carved wood, and the knight refused to be kept from it by a tedious conversation.
As he stepped through, his eyes felt as if they’d had water thrown in them, and he hissed in surprise, blinking wildly. When his vision cleared, books and shelves scattered about the level he was on had been tinted a glowing blue. The rest were slightly grey, and everything seemed just a tad duller. He frowned, but he couldn’t be bothered to care that much. Years of searching had brought him to his goal, and he would not be put off.
“The ancccient storiesss are mostly to the leffft.” Cleo said helpfully, poking her head through the center archway to smile at the knight.
He looked in the direction she indicated and found several blue-tinted shelves. He could see several volumes of Beowulf front and center. He then looked to the right and caught sight of a massive leather-bound tome. The word ‘Iliad’ was drawn across the spine in gold filigree. It didn’t have a hint of blue about it, and the knight didn’t give two rats. He pulled it off the shelf, waving away the cloud of dust that came with it.
A chorus of hissing came from the arches behind him, and the knight spun on his heel to see the three hydra heads snaking through their respective archways, absolutely livid. Taking an instant to carefully place the book on a side table, he drew his sword and charged.
The heads roared and snapped at his legs, but the knight was skilled, and with a slice, Thalia and Helen fell with twin thunks to the floor. Cleo screeched in rage, and the two headless necks pulled back and began to bubble. The knight took a quiet moment to curse, and then another one to chide himself for using foul language. He’d forgotten about the ‘hydra’ thing.
The necks split lengthwise, heads blooming from the ends like flower buds. The knight crept backwards, watching Cleo closely, glancing about for a torch he might use to keep the heads from multiplying.
“Sisssters.” Cleo nudged each of the four new heads. She shot a side glance at the knight, who tried to keep himself from feeling guilty. Perhaps… he might have overreacted a tad.
“Why did you attack me?” He snapped.
“You were taking booksss that were not yoursss.” Cleo hissed. The knight felt his temper flare but tamped it down.
“Well, who are your new sisters?” He asked, lowering his sword. “Surely, I must now be allowed to take different books, considering there are more of you?”
The two heads that had split from Helen moved forward. “I am modern languages.” Said one. “I am dead languages.” Said the other. The two from Thalia introduced themselves as “Fiction writing.” And “Non-fiction writing” respectively. They hadn’t grown but cut themselves into even smaller pieces. Great.
The knight sighed. There wasn’t a fire source in sight. He couldn’t afford to fight off an increasingly specific hoard of hydra heads every time he picked up a book tinted grey. He bowed, sheathed his sword, and took a deep breath.
“Great hydra, esteemed ladies, I apologize for what I have done in defense of my own wellbeing. I had not yet realized the rules of this library. In penance, I will of course leave, and return only when I feel I can make this up to you.”
The five heads took a long moment to consider, then nodded as one and withdrew.
The knight gasped in relief. He glanced for a moment at the copy of the Iliad, but he knew he couldn’t afford to take the risk.
He wasted no time in leaving. The path led onward around the mountain that the library was carved into. Perhaps if he walked far enough, he could find a place where the walls of the library showed through the stone, and he could carve a passage though. Maybe there was a secret entrance, or another door, one that didn’t have a guardian.
As he followed the path, one side gradually dropped away and the other rose, until he was picking his way along a narrow mountain path. The quiet breathing of the trees had returned, filling the air the moment he’d left the hydra’s presence.
“Psst!” The knight stopped, glancing around wildly. All he could see was bramble and briar on his left and a steep drop on his right.
“Pssst! You there, knight.” The voice was coming from the bushes beside the path. The knight leaned closer, scanning the leaves, and nearly had a heart attack when a tiny dragon head popped up from the twigs before his face. The knight shouted and flailed backwards, landing against a tree that had grown from the side of the cliff.
“Hello!” Smoke puffed from its nostrils in excitement. “I saw you left the hydra’s doors a little while ago. Are you alright?”
The knight nodded, still pale from the shock and nauseous at how close he had come to toppling off the edge of the cliff.
“Well, I also saw that the lady has a few more heads now. Did you have something to do with that?”
The knight nodded again. The dragon pushed his way out of the bramble, puffing profusely. His scales were worn and wrinkled, and he had the largest pair of glasses the knight had ever seen perched precariously at the end of his snout. Those were what had frightened him so; they were nearly an inch thick, and they magnified his eyes to a comical size.
“I hope I didn’t frighten you too much, but I couldn’t let the ladies see me, you know.” The knight found himself being briskly bustled along the path, his swordhand sleeve caught tight in the wrinkled paw of the little fellow. The knight wasn’t sure if he ought to laugh or draw his sword or refuse to walk on, so he didn’t do anything of the sort, and let the tiny dragon guide him.
“They don’t like me much, but I simply had to get your attention. If you’ve been through one of their doors, they can keep an eye on you while inside the library, you know. That is, if you don’t break the spell.”
The knight gulped. He hadn’t even considered that the archway spell might be binding. “Well… thank you for telling me. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a spell-breaker?”
The dragon chuckled, his few pieces of intricate copper armor rattling as smoke puffed from his nose in even larger clouds. “I am one myself! And I have an automatic one on my door too, so if you come in for tea, we can consider the matter settled.” He stopped yanking the knight along just then and grabbed a large swathe of briar, heaving it aside to reveal a worn little door in the side of the rock.
“Does this lead into the library?” The knight asked, poking suspiciously at the rusted hinges. The domed door was carved of worn oak, the splintered grain running up and down. A metal frame held the wood to the stone, glistening like oil in the stray sunbeams. There weren’t any gemstones across the top of the frame, which the knight took as a good sign. The dragon paused in his picking through a stuffed keyring.
“Oh, yes… yes it does.” His enlarged eyes were distant, almost sad. “And it used to be so much bigger, too. Doors here grow when they’re used, you know, and everyone used to come in by this way. I had so much company… but no matter!” He snapped to upon finding the key he needed, and swung the door open with a loud screech. “Welcome to the library, young man.”
The knight frowned. The hall was inviting enough, though he couldn’t see the library from the entrance. The passage sloped gently downward, it’s rounded walls broken at regular intervals by quaint little doors, leading eventually to a bend in the tunnel. “If I enter here, will I have to avoid any books?”
The dragon blinked at him, uncomprehending. The effect of the blink was enlarged by the glasses, and the knight barely fought off the urge to snort. “I mean when I entered through their archways…. Will it put a spell on me? What kind of dragon are you? What’s your name?”
“Oh, that’s what you mean!” the dragon’s smile was back, full force, revealing a large gold tooth. “Well, I’m an arts dragon. Liberal arts, things nearly as old and crusty as I am. And my name’s Septimus.” He bustled past the knight into the passage, and the knight poked his head in afterwards. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to enter yet, but he didn’t want to be impolite. The moment his head entered the shade of the door, however, his eyesight blurred. That must be the counterspell, he thought, blinking.
“Well, are there any books I can’t read, if I go in this way?” He asked after the dragon. It stopped halfway down the wood-paneled hall, giving him an odd look.
“Not at all. That would be ridiculous. I’ve read every book in the place, though it’s taken me quite a while. You can come right on in, read whatever you’d like, and we can have a chat about it over coffee. And if anything gives you a whirl, physics or astronomy or the more confusing philosophers, then you feel free to ask me, and I’ll help you set it right. Sound good?”
The knight grinned, crouching to fit into the doorway. “That sounds amazing.”
As he stepped through, the ceiling of the hall rose, stretching to accommodate him. He still had to stoop, but he could walk instead of crawling. The dragon peered around, filling the newly expanded hall with joyful puffs of smoke. “Well, look at that! It’s already looking a little more lived in. What’s your name, young man?”
The knight ducked past a lantern hung at his eye level. “My name’s Ben.”