THE UNDERGROUND LIBRARY: CHAPTER 1

A story about dragons, knights, and… librarians?

Skylar Deegan, Staff Writer

Chapter 1

 

The Road was long, winding, and barren of life. It was the most dangerous territory in the mighty kingdom of Battlenear, and any self-respecting traveler would go a long, long way around to avoid it. On a normal day, no one used it at all.       

However, today was not a normal day. Today, a lone man was leisurely making his way down the Road. He was riding a truly enormous warhorse, and he looked oddly bored for someone who was so obviously off to do something heroic. He wore chainmail armor and a dark red cloak, and there was a sword on his back and a lance and shield on his saddle.       

The man was young-looking—he couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. The wavy brown locks that usually framed his face so handsomely were plastered to his forehead from the blistering August heat and the long ride, and his fair skin was red and peeling from the sun. He shaded his eyes with his hand and looked out at the Road ahead of him. Still quite a long way to go. He nudged the horse to a slightly greater speed, praying that he could arrive at the mountain, kill the dragon, and rescue the poor, defenseless librarians in time to get home and eat some of his mother’s meat pies while they were still warm. His mother was a phenomenal cook, so he tried to never be late for dinner. Her pies could bring a grown man to his knees. 

Many, many years ago, all the kingdom’s librarians had been kidnapped by a ferocious dragon—the only dragon that the Knights of Brainless Brawn, of which our man on the Road is a part, had failed to get rid of. No one had missed the librarians particularly; they had never fit well in the kingdom. They were quiet and bookish and pacifistic, and in a society where volume and muscle were the most valued traits, they stuck out like a sore thumb. Being a librarian was a legacy title, similar to being a knight, but librarians never got any honor or merited attention from the louder, stronger people in their community. They’d practically formed their own separate community by the time the dragon took them, staying well away from those who looked down on and ridiculed them.       

How one dragon managed to carry off nine librarians, no one knows. It must have been enormously massive. No one saw it save for one little girl, only two or three years of age, who ran away soon after. Her mother was a librarian, so many thought the girl had run off to save her and been eaten by the dragon. No one ever saw her again.       

The man on the Road—whose name was Daren—didn’t see why he should save people who’d never contributed anything to society. They didn’t yell to show that they were happy or excited; they just smiled. They didn’t rely on their muscles to get them out of difficult situations; they used cleverness and trickery. They never saw violence as a solution; they said it just aggravated the problem. They never stayed up late drinking and partying and hanging out with friends; they found little nooks in their libraries and houses where they lazed about and read books. Sometimes they did this in groups, but almost no words were spoken. They liked to listen to calm, boring music, not the loud, exciting epics that the troubadours performed in the evenings.       

Daren had only been five years old when the librarians disappeared, so he had few memories of them. They’d been nice enough, but his parents always scolded him if he talked to them, so he’d mostly kept his distance. Now, a young knight tried his hand at rescuing the librarians as a rite of passage. No one had ever been successful at it, but that wasn’t the point. If a man was brave enough to go against a dragon—even if he failed—he was brave enough to be a knight.       

So here he was, on his way down the Road to the dragon’s mountain. Daren’s heart wasn’t really in his task; if the librarians weren’t strong enough to save themselves, why should he have to risk his hide for them? But an order was an order, especially when it’s given by the Brawny One, their king.       

Daren slowed to a stop just as the sun touched the horizon, about a mile from the dragon’s mountain. He was going to have to do without fresh meat pies, unfortunately, but he’d packed himself some food just in case.       

He hobbled his horse, Stormchaser, by a stream and proceeded to make camp on a hill nearby. He soon had a cheerful fire going, over which he made himself a rabbit stew with herbs and vegetables he’d brought from home. It was delicious, but he wished for meat pies.      

Soon after eating, he unpacked his handmade bedroll, which smelled of pine, his mother, and a hundred nights under the stars, and fell asleep while the light of the fire slowly died away.

 

Meanwhile, in a cavern deep inside the mountain, the librarians, who were completely unharmed and had been living in peaceful harmony with the dragons for nearly twenty years, were holding council around a large soup cauldron, which they occasionally approached to refill their bowls. They were surrounded by a plethora of dragons—big and small, old and young, red, yellow, green, and every other color you could think of—and they were all taking part in the impromptu council meeting as well. An enormous green dragon was reclining around them.  

“Another knight?” one of the librarians, a middle-aged man named Toby, was saying. “I guess we can add his sword to the collection.”               

“Who gets the honor of displacing him this time?” asked a tiny red dragon eagerly. “Can I do it? I’m strong enough to lift three books now!”       

A larger red dragon—likely her mother—cuffed her lightly on the head. “No, Tara. It’s Jordan’s turn, remember?”       

Jordan, a bright blue teenage dragon, puffed out his chest in pride at the praise.       

All of the other knights—who came back sporting battle scars and a story about how they’d almost killed the dragon and narrowly escaped dying themselves—had, in fact, been knocked on the head by a dragon they never saw and flown halfway back down the Road. The only injuries they suffered were from being knocked unconscious and unceremoniously dropped on the Road.       

“No,” said the enormous green dragon, whom Toby had been addressing. “We are not going to give him the same treatment as the others. This one is different.”         

Salem, a small, plump woman, looked intrigued.        

“How could he be?” asked Shaia, who was by far the youngest librarian in the room, in exasperation. “He’s a knight. They’re all the same. Always fighting and burning and ruining books.”       

“I agree with Shaia,” said Nolan, brushing his dark hair out of his eyes. “We’ve given them a chance—many chances, in fact—and they’ve blown every one.”       

The green dragon—or the Bookwyrm, as he was known by the librarians—shrugged his massive shoulders. “I have a feeling that he will give us aid in a time of need.”       

Nolan scowled darkly. “They’ve been naught but trouble in the past. Why should this one be any different?”       

“Remember the Code, Nolan,” admonished Sonya gently. She was far and away the eldest librarian in the room, and it was obvious from the way the much younger man ducked his head ashamedly that she was well respected.       

“‘Never judge a person by the small part of their story that you know,’” quoted Thalia and Dahlia in unison. They were twins and often spoke like this. “But I thought that didn’t apply to knights,” said Dahlia.

“It applies to everyone,” Bert, a wizened old man just a little younger than Sonya, told them sternly. “The whole Code does.”

Marc nodded in tacit approval, his long white hair flopping on his forehead. 

Myra looked thoughtful. “We’ve never found a helpful knight, much as we’ve looked, but the Bookwyrm is the only one here who possesses the gift of Sight.” She looked around at the gathered librarians, taking the time to meet the eyes of each one. “I think we should give him a chance.

“Okay, but I’m still gonna knock him on the head before I bring him in here,” said Jordan. “Just in case. That way we can get him tied up before he causes any trouble.”

        

Daren groaned as he slowly awoke. He’d had the weirdest dream about a flying meat pie hitting him in the head. He shifted, trying to get more comfortable on the rocky ground.

Wait. Rocky?

Immediately, he was wide awake. He’d set up his bedroll on the soft sand next to the Road, not on rocks. And where were his blankets? He couldn’t feel them under him. All he felt were the rocks and—and scratchy ropes. Ropes around his wrists and ankles that kept him from moving more than a few inches.

Daren cautiously opened his eyes, knowing he wasn’t going to like what he saw.

He was lying on his side at one end of a large cavern, staring at a large rock wall. Behind him, he could hear what sounded like a heated discussion between an unusually quiet person and a chorus of breathy, hissing voices.

“—have him now,” one of the hissing voices was saying, “but what are we supposed to do with him when he wakes up?”

“I still think we should’ve displaced him like we did all the others,” sulked a squeaky voice petulantly.

“Hush, Tara,” admonished a lower, maternal rumble. “The Bookwyrm told us not to, and he has rarely been wrong before.”

“He might be this time,” muttered a distinctly human voice. A man, from the sound of it.

Daren struggled to roll over onto his other side. He heard the voices go silent as they noticed him moving. After an undignified struggle, he managed to flop over on his face. Holding his head up off the ground made his neck ache, so he jerked his shoulders around until he managed to get up on his side, this time facing the odd crowd.

“Where am I?” he asked, spitting dirt and small rocks out of his mouth. “Who are you?”

He saw now who had been speaking. At the far end of the roughly hewn cave, a group of dragons was clustered around a slight young man. Daren’s eyes stretched wide when he saw them. He’d never seen a dragon before. He felt that he should be scared, but upon looking closer at them, he found he wasn’t.

Storytellers who told of dragons always spoke of their flaming maws, sharp talons, and eyes that burned with anger and malice, but these dragons had their mouths closed, talons neatly filed down, and eyes alight with intelligence and curiosity—and a little fear.    

Daren barely had time to wonder what they were afraid of before the man snapped out of his thoughts and came over to him.

“Good, you’re awake,” He said. His voice was soft and musical, so unlike the loud, raucous men Daren was used to. “Can you stand?”

Daren stared up at him, dumbfounded. “Of course, I can’t stand. You tied my ankles together!”

He immediately realized the problems with this approach. Daren closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Calm down, he told himself. It won’t do you any good to offend the crazy person—and dragons—when they’ve already tied you up and thrown you into the back of their cave. 

“Yes, I can stand if you untie the ropes on my legs,” he told the dark-haired man a little more calmly.

“Excellent,” he—Nolan—said as he knelt next to Daren, ignoring his outburst. “There are many people here who would like to meet you.”

The words were harmless enough, but the way he said them combined with the fact that Daren was at his mercy gave the young knight a sense of disquietude. He pushed his fear aside. He was a knight. He knew that, no matter what lay in store for him, he would face it bravely and with dignity.

That being said, there was one thing that still worried him.

“What about the, um—the dragons? Do they want to meet me, too?” He asked quietly, unable to keep a tremor of fear out of his voice.

Nolan arched an eyebrow. “Dragons are people too, Daren.”

Daren didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t. He groaned as the loosening ropes sent the blood rushing back to his feet. At the other end of the cave, the dragons whispered and hissed among themselves, occasionally gesturing at him with their blunt talons. He was surprised by how human their interactions appeared.

“Where am I?” he asked after a short pause.

Nolan smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You’re in the caves under Dragon Mountain.” He finished untying the ropes and helped Daren to his feet with his hands still bound. “We’ve been expecting you for some time.”

A shiver ran down Daren’s spine. He already knew he wouldn’t like the answer, but he asked the question anyway.

“What are you going to do to me?”

Nolan met his eyes, and Daren was startled by the apathy he saw there. “I don’t think anyone knows yet,” he said carelessly, but Daren could tell Nolan was gauging his reaction to the callous words. “No one, that is, except the Bookwyrm.”

Despite his growing sense of foreboding, Daren had to struggle to hold in his laughter. “The Bookwyrm? What kind of a name is that?”

Nolan gave him a withering look and said nothing; he only grabbed a rope trailing from Daren’s bound hands and began dragging him toward the cave entrance behind the dragons. Daren followed without another word, but his mind was racing. What did they want from him? Why had they captured him? No other knight who went on this quest had spoken of circumstances anything like his own, so why were things different for him? How he wished for a home-cooked meal…

As if in response to that thought, his stomach rumbled loudly. Unsurprisingly, Nolan ignored him.    

They walked past the dragons, who were watching Daren closely. He didn’t sense any malice in their colorful gazes, but it made him uncomfortable all the same.

Behind the scaly crowd, the rough, uneven surfaces of the cave abruptly became smooth and straight and geometric. The hallway they entered was tastefully decorated with carpets and tapestries, and torches hung in elaborate sconces on the walls.

Daren didn’t notice much of his surroundings, though. He was too busy worrying about what lay in store for him. He couldn’t see it being something good.  

There were many rooms and turns in the hallway, but Nolan ignored them all. After walking for several minutes, they came to a dead end and a door. It was not a particularly remarkable door, though it was certainly solid. It was crafted of fine mahogany that seemed to glow in the light of the torches.

Nolan gave him one last searching look—as if waiting to see Daren’s fear—before knocking on the door.

“Enter,” came a voice from inside.

Nolan opened the door and gestured for Daren to go inside.