The Underground Library: Chapter 6

The continuation of the story of Daren, the Bookworm, and the librarians

Skylar Deegan, Staff Writer

Chapter 6

Daren’s last few days in the mountain were a blur. He played with the young dragons, helped Toby in the kitchen, and read the history book Sonya had given him. He didn’t see Shaia almost ever. The words of their argument kept ringing through his mind.

“There are ten of us. They thought we were being eaten or enslaved by dragons, but did they ever launch a full-scale assault to save us? But then you come along, a single knight, and they bring out half the knights in Battlenear! Is your life so much more valuable than ours? Is the life of one knight worth more than that of ten librarians?”

“They thought you were all dead,” Daren had told her patiently.

“They never came to find out. You could easily have been dead as well, but they still came for you.”

“If I was dead, there would’ve been no one to stop the knights from killing all of you.”

She’d stared at him. “Is that really what you think? That we’re helpless and incapable of defending ourselves without your help?” Her nostrils flared. “Well, we have lived in this mountain for twenty years, and not once when we’ve been in need have we called for the knights like stupid little damsels in distress. We are just fine on our own.”

“Are you? I was under the impression that you all need me for something. Is that not ‘calling for the knights like stupid little damsels in distress’? Or is it only stupid if it’s someone else and not you?”

Her eyes had been fiery. “We don’t need you for anything. It would’ve been just fine with me if we’d sent you back to your pampered life as a knight without ever meeting you, just like we did with all the others. If you weren’t here, none of this would’ve happened in the first place! My life wouldn’t have been turned upside down, the knights wouldn’t have tried to invade our home, Sala wouldn’t have almost died! Everything would be better.”

Daren had stiffened, searching in vain for something in her eyes to say that she didn’t mean that. He found nothing but anger and a profound something that he didn’t understand. She was already walking out, but he hadn’t wanted to let her have the last word. “You know what, yes. I do think you’re helpless,” he’d hissed after her. “You’re so vulnerable that you had to rely on your worst enemy to protect you. So weak and useless that you were cast out of a society that can find a use for everyone because they couldn’t find a place in it for you.” He’d paused then, boring a hole in her back with his eyes. “At least I’ll always be welcomed home.”

The look she’d given him then was one of pure loathing. Every time he closed his eyes, it was that look that he saw. He wasn’t sorry. She’d been the one to start it, and he couldn’t be blamed for the fact that she had instigated. What they’d said to each other couldn’t be taken back. Daren was fairly certain that they would never talk again. He wasn’t sure what she thought about it now; he hadn’t seen her since that morning. Daren didn’t think he wanted to.

On his last day in the mountain, the Bookwyrm pulled Daren aside. He seemed anxious—or as anxious as a giant dragon can seem. He brought Daren into a large chamber; half of the room was one giant indentation filled with blankets and pillows and feathers, and the ceilings were high and curved up to a skylight way up above them. The stacks of books by the crater in the ground and the scales scattered all throughout led Daren to believe that this was the Bookwyrm’s bedroom. It was a lot more barren than he’d imagined.

“I know you’re leaving tomorrow,” the Bookwyrm began, “and that’s okay. I’m not trying to pressure you to stay. I just want to tell you why we’ve treated you so differently from your brethren.”

Daren studied the dragon’s huge, multifaceted eyes. Each one was larger than his head. “I’ll admit that I’ve been wondering about that.”

The dragon cleared his throat. “I had a vision of—well, it would be easier if I showed you.”

Daren opened his mouth to ask what in Herman’s name that meant, but he was too late. The Bookwyrm placed a claw on the center of the knight’s forehead, and the world fell away.

 

He was standing in the middle of Battlenear. He saw himself as a child, two, maybe three years old. He was grinning widely, his curly hair messy and sticking up in the back. Kylah, his mother, stood next to him.

As he watched, his younger self grew older, aging before his eyes; his shoulders broadened, his hair lengthened, he grew taller. He filled out, growing more muscular by the year. His face hardened and lengthened, his jaw chiseling and crows’ feet forming around his eyes.

While he grew, someone was speaking. The words were indistinct at first, a sort of haunting chant in the background that gave the whole scene an eerie undertone. Then they sharpened into focus.

    “When all hope seems lost,

    Reconciliations shattered,

    In spite of the cost,

    You must fix what truly matters.

    In the midst of this plight,

    One will come to save you;

    Part librarian and part knight,

    He is the one that joins the two.”

The voice was that of an aged female, like Sonya. Or older. Daren watched himself grow old, watched children appear around him that must be his in the future. Then, when he was so old and shriveled that Daren couldn’t see how his vision-self could grow any older, the other him turned and met his gaze. His lively brown eyes were still recognizably his own despite the age of the body they were in. Daren shivered, lost in the depths of the eyes that were his but weren’t. Then the vision dissolved.

 

Daren stared at the Bookwyrm, unsure what to say.

“What—what just happened?” he rasped, his throat suddenly dry.

“That’s what I saw three weeks ago,” replied the Bookwyrm, his voice startlingly deep and loud compared to the eerie woman in the vision. “Right before you came and practically knocked on our door. I could tell it was you even with—” He cut himself off as if he’d been about to give away something private. “After much discussion with the other dragons and librarians, we think it means that you’re going to end the dissension between knights and librarians—either by bringing us together”—Daren scoffed at that, thinking of how bloodthirsty the Knights of Brainless Brawn had been when his father had told them to storm the mountain. Unity didn’t seem like something they would consider at this point—“or by taking one of us out of the equation.”

He sobered, pondering this. He didn’t want either of them to be gone for good. Then he remembered something.

“In the prophecy, the creepy old woman said something about me being part librarian and part knight. What’s that all about? My parents are both born of knights.”

“Your father is,” the Bookwyrm agreed, “but your mother is only part knight. Your mother’s mother—”

“My grandma is dead,” Daren stated flatly.

“Her mother isn’t.”

Daren stared at him. “Are you saying—”

“Daren Swiftblade, your great-grandmother is alive and well and very happy to see you again.” The great dragon paused, and Daren felt like shaking him. He got it that the dragon had a flair for the dramatic, but couldn’t he just tell him the name of his long-lost relative?

“Your great-grandmother,” continued the dragon, “is Sonya.”

Daren’s jaw dropped.

“She’s missed you these twenty years,” said the Bookwyrm quietly. “She would love to be able to live near you again. We all would. All you have to do is stay. Fulfill the prophecy. We could all live in harmony once again.”

With great effort, Daren closed his mouth. “I can’t do this,” he said resignedly. “I’d love to stay here, I’d love to be your savior, but it’s just not possible. I’m sorry,” he added, and he meant it.

The Bookwyrm dipped his head in acknowledgment. “We won’t keep you here, and we aren’t going to kidnap you again. Thank you for giving us a chance.”

Daren felt a profound sense of sadness as he left that room, but he wasn’t even sure what he was sad about.  

 

When the time came for him to leave, he did so quietly. He said goodbye to Toby and Sala and Sonya, gathered his things, and walked out. They’d sent his horse back to Battlenear, so he was stuck on foot. Several of the dragons had offered to give him a ride, but he politely declined. He didn’t think a knight arriving in Battlenear on dragonback would get good reception with the armed guards. That was alright, though. He needed some time to think.

Just a few days ago, he’d wanted to stay in Dragon Mountain forever. He hadn’t been able to imagine going back to life as it had been, but nowhere he was. Really, he still wanted to stay in the mountain; he just wanted to stay in it as it was before Shaia was mad at him. Before he was supposed to save everyone. He wanted to go back to the time when he was just a big, bumbling, clumsy knight and everyone was still trying to share the magic of books with him when Shaia was just his friend and his biggest problem was missing his mother’s meat pies. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to go back to Dragon Mountain now, though. He couldn’t imagine living there with Shaia’s animosity—or worse, living there and not seeing her at all. He had come to enjoy her company before everything happened. Before the knights attacked and Shaia got mad at him.

But now he was mad, too, and he figured it was better that they were apart.

Daren sighed and did his best to put these things out of his mind. He had bigger problems to worry about, after all. The knights of Battlenear very well might kill him the moment he set foot in the city, or have him burned alive sometime in the next week; he had no way of knowing. The penalty for going against your commander in the heat of battle—especially if you get between a squadron and its goal—was not forgiving. They had every right to kill him.

Daren shuddered. He wasn’t ready to die. He almost turned back around, but something held him back. Even after having his whole worldview shifted around, he was still a knight. Well, almost. And knights didn’t shy away from their fate like sissy little bookworms.

Daren frowned at that thought. It was so easy to fall back into old ways of thinking.

He walked for three days before he came to the outskirts of Battlenear. By this time he was tired and footsore and really just ready to go home, to books with the consequences. While he waited at the outermost moat for the drawbridge to be let down, Daren took in the full glory of his home kingdom. It really was beautiful. Nearly every house was a castle in some way, with towers and arched windows and shady arbors grown of grape and berry vines. The roads were straight and regular; there were no meandering cowpaths within kingdom limits. There were several moats as one went further into the city, each one adding another layer of defense as the people got more important. The Brawny One’s castle lay behind the final moat at the heart of the city.

Then the drawbridge was let down with a clang, and Daren walked in on his own two feet to meet his fate.

He walked to his house, ignoring the curious and confused stares of his countrymen. They obviously hadn’t expected to see him back so soon. He imagined he was somewhat famous, what with his disappearing for so long, but the thought didn’t bring him the pleasure he thought it would. How he wished life could go back to being simple again. There used to be a defined line between enemies and allies, and those who weren’t allies were always enemies. Now it seemed like everyone was holding a sharp stick, debating whether or not it was worth it to get on his bad side. And here he was with only his stench to protect him.

Outside of his parents’ house, Daren paused. He didn’t know if he should knock, yell, or just walk in, and he didn’t want to get a bad reception.

His mother made the decision for him. She appeared in the doorway with a bucket of wet laundry, obviously on her way to hang it up on the line.

Daren stood off to the side, just out of her line of vision, so she didn’t see him at first. He took a small step forward. “Hi, Mom,” he said hesitantly, not sure how she was going to receive him.

Her warm brown eyes lit up with surprise and delight. She dropped her basket.

“Daren!” she cried, rushing across the porch to him. “Hon,” she called over her shoulder, “Ren’s home!”

Daren was immediately assaulted with a hug. His mother had never been shy with affection, which was a bit countercultural but she didn’t mind. She’d always been an odd duck. Knowing she was part librarian made that make so much more sense.

For the first time in his grown life, instead of just humoring her or shying away, Daren hugged his mom back. He’d missed her a lot while he was staying in the mountain, for more than just her food.

She smiled at him when she finally pulled away, her eyes misting. “I’m glad you’re home, Ren,” she told him softly. “We’ve been anxious to see you safe and sound.”

Soren, Daren’s dad, appeared in the doorway, his face like a stone. He didn’t look anxious for anything, except possibly his son’s head on a platter. Daren’s stomach dropped.

He took a deep, calming breath, trying not to falter under the weight of his nerves. “Hey, Dad,” he said, speaking with as much confidence as he could muster. “It’s good to see you.” He held out his hand.

Since hugs were, if not forbidden, then frowned upon, a handshake was the generally accepted way to publicly communicate affection. Daren knew his father wasn’t happy with him, so he wasn’t going to try for anything more than that. However, he was hoping for a sign that his father cared that he was back.

Soren stared at his outstretched hand for a long time, his expression unchanged. Finally, he clasped Daren with his own. His grip was hard and punishing, but it was still there. Daren was relieved.

Kylah broke the awkward silence that followed. “What were they feeding you, Ren?” she asked, aghast, pinching his arms and poking him in his not-so-knightly stomach. “You’re just skin and bones!” She bustled him into the kitchen, ignoring his protests that he needed to take a bath first so he didn’t dirty up the house. “Nonsense. I have just the thing for you.” She plunked him down at the dining room table and hurried into the adjoining kitchen.

Daren smiled to himself. She’d missed taking care of him.

When she came back, she was holding something behind her back. Whatever it was was making the room smell heavenly. She smiled a secret smile.

“I made it just how you like it,” she said. “Chicken, bacon, beef, carrots, potatoes, onions, peppers, and a big scoop of gravy.” She set a whole pie in front of him, beaming as his face lit up. “Enjoy!” She handed him a spoon. The big wooden cooking spoon, not the tiny one she usually made him eat with.

Daren grinned and dug in. He’d missed his mom’s meat pies almost as much as he’d missed her. They were so good… He polished it off in record time, scraping the dish clean.

“Thanks, Mom!” he called to her. He had to yell to be heard over the noise of dogs barking. He wondered what that was all about. They hadn’t had a dog when he left, though he’d desperately wanted one. Many of his friends had dogs that followed them around. It was considered advantageous to have a dog as a battle-buddy because dogs would do almost anything for their owners—that is, if they were good dogs and if they liked their owners. It was pretty hit-or-miss.

He got up and put the pie dish in the sink, then set off to find the dog. Even if it belonged to someone else, he could at least give it a good scratch behind the ears. Daren loved dogs.

He followed the barking outside and, after getting quite turned around, found himself in his own backyard. There was a giant, scruffy dog chained near a giant, scruffy doghouse that hadn’t been there two weeks before. He wondered at it.

The dog sat up when it saw him, a long tongue lolling out of its mouth. It panted happily, looking like it hadn’t a care in the world. Daren walked slowly and calmly over to it, hoping to communicate that he wasn’t a threat. He needn’t have worried. The dog rolled over on its back as soon as he got close, obviously asking for a belly rub. It—or she, he could see—smiled at him as only a dog can. Daren couldn’t help but smile back.

He got down on his knees in the dirt and scratched her vigorously. Her fur was long and soft, enjoyable to pet despite its filth. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she made small yipping, snuffling sounds. When he stopped petting her, she jumped up and started licking his face all over. He shoved her away, laughing.

“You’re too cute for your own good,” he told her. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t respond; she only smiled wider. Her tail whipped through the air, shaking her whole skinny body.

His mother came out the back door, drying a dish on her apron. She smiled when she saw Daren.

“I see you’ve met our newest member of the family,” Kylah said, scratching the dog’s head.

Daren nodded. “She’s wonderful.” He grinned up at his mother. He was still sitting on the ground. “What’s her name?”

“Darla. Your father got her for you.”

“For me?” Daren was surprised. His father rarely seemed to think of what Daren wanted. “Why?”

Kylah’s happy expression faltered. “Well… you were gone for quite a while, Ren. Your father and I—we were starting to give up hope that you’d come back.”

Daren stood slowly. His eyes were riveted to his mother’s face. He hadn’t realized he was causing his family that kind of pain; he never should’ve stayed at the mountain. He moved towards Kylah warily, as one would approach a cornered animal.

“Soren knew you wanted a dog,” she said, blinking quickly, “so he went and got one from the traveling merchants who come through these parts every so often. We only hoped you would be here to see her—” Her voice broke, ending the words with a tortured sob. “We thought—we thought you were dead,” she said brokenly, “I thought I—I wasn’t going to s-see you again.”

Daren’s heart broke for her. He enfolded his mother in his arms. “I’m here now,” he said. “I’ll never leave you again.”

She cried against his shoulder, and he cried with her. Her tears were for him, and the emotion of thinking he was gone only to have him come back; his tears were for the pain he’d caused her, for the lie she’d believed, and for the life he was forced to leave behind at Dragon Mountain. He knew for quite certain then that he was never going back. Not even if they killed him.